My sixteenth birthday was the usual family fiasco—smiles and chirpy voices covering tension and despair. Dad was (Mom didn’t know for sure, only suspected) having an affair with a business associate and Mom (Dad hadn’t a clue) was deep into one with her yoga instructor. Having no social life and nothing much else to do, I noticed things. A man sneaking in the back door and certain noises from the bedroom when Dad was away. Catching Dad sipping a drink in a bar with a preppie blonde who’d once come to the house for a cookout.
I’d ducked inside to avoid two football jocks who enjoyed beating my head in. The Blonde and my sire were stroking hands in a dark corner and didn’t see me. The way Dad was gawking at her, he wouldn’t have noticed an alien takeover.
My parents drank too much and for me to say that, it had to have been a lot. At the time, I was seriously endangering my own brain cells with what booze I could get my hands on, from whoever I could sucker into getting it for me.
Not that I had many friends to sucker. Or do anything else to or with.
I was born with a hair lip and severe cleft palate. According to my mother, they fixed it best they could. The lip wasn’t hideous—I’d planned to cover it with a mustache as soon as I escaped from Hell School, but the cleft palate left me with a speech defect. Not extreme, but enough, when added to my other physical characteristics, to make me a target for the school sadists.
I was sunken chested and pale skinned and no matter how much I ate, never gained weight. Someone else might have carried this off as the cool, heroin-addict-rock-star look, but not me. I was lucky if I could walk into a room without banging a shoulder into the door jamb or catching a shoe lace on a chair leg. Basically, everything I did or said ended up a mess. A “good” day at school was one in which I got away without being tortured. Days like that were few and far between.
After a sophomore, Karl Saunders, hung himself at Halloween, I’d been toying with the idea of doing the same. Only not hanging, but shooting. There was the matter of obtaining a gun, of course. As far as I knew, Dad didn’t have one.
This was 1995, before Columbine, universal home computers and the popular reference to bullied kids. Loser kids freaking out weren’t in the front of national consciousness. People pretended they didn’t see tortured kids even more than they do today, but I have to say for my parents, if at the time I couldn’t say much else, they noticed I was miserable. In the midst of their own wretchedness, they noticed that one thing. Of course I did slink around in the manner of a long unfed vampire.
“I’ve been thinking, David,” said my mother, as she was mixing up her second predinner martini. “It’s either one: you stay here this summer and see a shrink big time or two: you go stay with Uncle Myron and Aunt Luce.”
After my uncle sold all but one of his auto parts chain stores, he was semiretired and lived full time in their mountain vacation house, which used to be part of a farm. There was a small town nearby, but the house was pretty isolated. We’d been there a couple of times.
“Might do you good to be near nature and all,” my mother went on. “There’s the pond to swim in and you can walk in the woods, clear out your mind. Maybe write some teen angst songs.” She paused. “Or the shrink, your choice.”
Karl Saunders had done the shrink and a lot of good it did him. Not that I cared. My first thought was hey, where better to do the job than an isolated mountain house? That would leave a mess for poor Myron and Luce, but he probably hunted deer and was used to blood. And if I did it in the woods, less mess, right? Maybe a bear would gobble up the remains.
“I’ll take the mountains,” I said.
She took a long sip of her martini, eyes slitted at me. “Good move.”
Good move for her, I thought. Probably they both wanted to get rid of me so they could split up the material goods. It didn’t take a rocket scientist.
I was packed by the last day of Hell School. All had been arranged with Myron and Luce, and Mom gave me an alcohol fumey kiss before I climbed into the car with Dad. As we took off, she cut off her wave and was already heading to the house for either some hot sweaty business or something cold and mind blearing.
“Be nice to your aunt and uncle,” Dad admonished. As if I had already embarrassed him somehow. “Try not to wear black all the time; it won’t kill you.”
“Mmmmm,” I mumbled. Then I said, “Uncle Myron hunts, right?”
“Yeah, I think so. He fishes. Why, are you interesting in hunting?”
“I don’t know, maybe,” I lied.
“Well, there isn’t any hunting in the summer,” said Dad, like he was enjoying spoiling my “fun.”
“Yeah,” I said. But he’d still have the guns.
When we arrived, Dad claimed he had to get back for a meeting at work and didn’t even stay for a cup of coffee. That was fine with me.
“This’ll be your room,” said Aunt Luce, sweeping her arm to include one half of the attic.
My half was partitioned off with a curtain hung from a clothes’ line.
“We thought you’d appreciate some privacy. Gotta come down for the toilet though,” she apologized. “There’s one at the end of the hall on the second floor.”
“Unless you wanna pee out the window!” guffawed Uncle Myron. “Just try to miss the rose bush.”
I actually blushed.
“You’re humiliating the boy,” said Luce, smiling.
These two were nothing like my parents. They weren’t fancy and probably ate American cheese and iceberg lettuce, things my mother wouldn’t allow in the house.
“You unpack and rest up and we’ll eat lunch in about an hour.”
They disappeared down the steps, leaving me to my “quarters.” I always liked when they said that in old novels.
First priority was to find the guns; unpacking could wait. I whipped the curtain aside to examine the other side of the attic.
A soldier’s helmet caught my eye. It was weirdly sitting on top of a pile of quilts. It looked like what you saw in old World War II movies. I touched it and left a mark in the dust. Everything was musty and old. I saw trunks trimmed in cracked leather, piles of books, broken floor lamps, boots, electric fans, an ancient typewriter. No guns. More likely, they were downstairs in a cabinet or out in the barn.
After lunch, Myron took me around the grounds and into the woods to show me a stream, which he explained was the boundary on that end of the property.
“When it gets hot, give it a couple of weeks,” he said, “you’ll wanna take a dip in there.”
He indicated a point in the stream where a pool formed. It looked deep and cold.
As if reading my mind, he said, “It’s only about five feet deep, but it has a current in the spring thaw or when it rains hard. But in July and August, it’s a God send. Of course Luce and I do most of our swimming in the pond. More convenient. Fishing too, if you’re interested. Got a rowboat and a motorized raft, take your pick.”
Later the two of them rode into town. They offered to take me along, but I said I had a call to make. What a crock. My only friend (if you could call him that—mostly we stuck together because nobody else could stand us), Stewart, was off at computer camp. This was before everyone was a computer freak and I wasn’t. Maybe that was part of my problem. In addition to being a social pariah, I had no intense interests. I seemed to be nothing in every sense of the word.
“You like to fish?” asked Myron later that afternoon. “I’m taking a spin around the pond; wanna come?”
The thought of being stuck in a row boat batting at gnats and flies for hours did not appeal. He caught the look on my face.
“No biggie if you don’t want to; I know you’re a city guy. I’m just learning to be country myself.” He laughed.
“Aren’t you a hunter?” I said, hard on the trail of those guns.
“Sometimes,” he said. “You against that?”
“No!” I said quickly. “Not at all. In fact, I was wondering if you’d show me stuff about that.”
He looked at me. “You mean how to shoot?” I couldn’t read his expression. He was a short, red faced man who looked like he should be quick tempered, even slightly crazy, but in fact was even-keeled.
“Um, yeah, that would be cool,” I said.
“Your mother wouldn’t like it.”
“Why, did she say something?”
“Well, I would say that ‘please don’t force any of your right-wing gun shit on my son’ probably means—”
I cut him off. “That sounds like her.”
“I’m not even right-wing.”
“She doesn’t have to know,” I said.
He hesitated. Even at sixteen, I could tell when someone was having a little war inside. “In the country, you need a gun,” he said firmly. “Things come up, like rabid animals, different kinds of dangers. Not that you go about shooting bears, but they’ve been known to break into houses at night. One woman on the news had one in her kitchen. City people don’t understand these things.”
“So can I learn to shoot then?”
He sighed. “I’ll give you some lessons. But one time you don’t follow my rules, the lessons are over, you hear?”
That was how I learned to shoot and clean a gun. In a week with a lot of practice, while I was far from expert, I wasn’t a bad shot.
“We’ll just forget to mention this to your mother,” Myron warned again.
“Forget about what?” I said.
He stored the guns in a locked cabinet in the dining room. The key was with his others on a chain in his pocket.
Sometimes weird stuff happened during the night. Nothing I’d mention to my uncle or aunt. How could I say to either of them that I felt someone sit on my bed when there wasn’t anyone there? I’d be falling asleep or waking up and I’d feel the edge of the bed compress, exactly as if someone sat down. It scared the crap out of me. I’d jerk awake and feel around, even wave my hand in the air as if I could hit someone, but no one was there.
The third time it happened, my heart didn’t stop pounding for an hour after. Because this time, there was actually an indentation in the sheets. I entirely lost my cool and mumbled something to Aunt Luce.
“Is there, like, a ghost in this house or something?”
She looked genuinely interested, but innocent. “I don’t have any knowledge of any, no. But this is the kind of place that might have one. I think the house was built in the early eighteen hundreds, the front part that is. The kitchen and our bedroom were added on later. Why?”
“Just wondered,” I said lamely. I didn’t tell her anything. For some reason unknown to me, it felt like what had happened was private. Not private to me, but to someone else. And thinking that made me feel even weirder than usual.
It was hard for me to look in a mirror. Every year I grew more disgusting. If only I were good at some sport or anything at all, I could at least concentrate on that, become an expert, like Stewart was with the computer thing. Like my asinine neighbor back home with the cars he always tore apart in his driveway or the jocks at school with their sports and talking girls into sex. But for me, there was nothing.
I did like to read though and made a dusty search through those books in the attic, all of which were published between 1925 and 1942. Someone had put a personal sticker inside the front cover of some of them, a printed drawing of a girl lounging on her stomach with one foot waving in the air and the legend, “This book belongs to V. L. Page. If you borrow it, please return it.”
I wondered what she was like, this V. L. Page.
The books included Rebecca, The Yearling, How To Win Friends and Influence People, Northwest Passage, The Grapes of Wrath, The Nazarene, Mein Kampf by Adolph Hitler, and more. Naturally, I chose How to Win Friends and Influence People and went to bed early to read. I wasn’t missing anything downstairs. My aunt and uncle didn’t do much other than watch TV or sit outside to look for UFOs. I hadn’t seen any kids my age anywhere, but what difference would that make, they wouldn’t like me anyway.
Luce and Myron got invited to dinner by some people from town. “Come with us,” they said, but I couldn’t imagine anything more boring than sitting around with a bunch of adult strangers discussing what rabid raccoons they just shot or how many bears had gotten into their bird feeders, so I said, “No thanks, I’ll just stay home and read.”
Adults love nothing better than a kid who reads, so they didn’t object. Beside, I could see they still felt strange with me, like they weren’t sure they had full parental rights to boss me around.
“There’s ham salad in the fridge, leftover meat loaf, and a big container of cole slaw,” said Luce. “Ice cream in the freezer.”
“Got it,” I said, smiling fakily.
As soon as they were gone, I searched Myron’s drawers for another key to the gun cabinet. For a minute there, I thought I had it, but while the key looked like the one I’d seen him use, it didn’t fit. I was pissed, but figured the day would come when either he left his key ring lying around or I’d get to go shooting in the woods by myself.
Around ten, they called to say they were all going to some dance at the VFW and did I mind? Was I all right there alone? Yeah, I was fine, I said. They might not be home till 1:00, so lock up the house if I felt nervous. I locked the doors and went up to my room with a bag of chips.
Must have been around midnight when I dozed off, the book on my chest and crumbs all over me. Suddenly, I jerked awake, feeling that someone was in the room. Now I understood what people meant by a “cold sweat.”
Moonlight shown in the small attic window and illuminated the end of my bed. Someone stood there in the silvery light, a girl in a red dress. Her light brown hair was shoulder length and in one of those styles you see in old movies, the Big Band era when they jitterbugged or whatever you call that dance where they hop around a lot and wiggle one finger in the air. She was pretty and sad looking, and reached up and touched her lips with a white, long fingered hand.
I closed my eyes and opened them again, but she was still there, looking right at me. My breathing went all funny; I was panting, only slowly, like it was all out of my control. My body felt heavy and sunk into the mattress. She dropped the hand to her side, turned her face away and vanished into thin air.
And oddly—I could never explain this—I fell immediately into a deep sleep.
The next morning, I woke up unsure if that had really happened. Was it a dream? I was nervous, but not totally freaked. I kept telling myself it had to be a dream. I’d been reading one of V. L. Page’s books and wondering about her some, so maybe I’d conjured her up? In my sleep, I mean.
“Aunt Luce,” I said at breakfast after Myron had gone to the spare room he used for his office, “um, who owned this house before you guys?”
She gave me a piercing look with her sharp, almost black eyes. “Second time you asked that. Something going on?”
Again I had that weird feeling that I needed to protect someone. “No. I was just looking at the stuff in the attic and reading some of the books and wondered about who owned that stuff.”
She poured herself another cup of coffee and joined me at the table. “Well, far as I know, it was a family of farmers. According to snippets I heard here and there, it was a big family and they lived here for decades, grandfathers passing it on farmer sons. One of the sons always stayed and ran the farm.”
“Was their name Page?” I asked, reaching for two more strips of bacon.
She looked surprised. “Yeah, I believe it was. How did you know?”
“Name in a book up there,” I said, mouth full. The bacon was delicious. My mother never served such a thing.
“When we bought the place, I was annoyed that they left all that stuff up there. I just haven’t gotten around to cleaning it out yet.”
My father called that evening. “Um,” he said. Several “ums” before letting me in on the totally predictable fact that he and my mother were “taking a breather.” I cut through the crap. “You’re moving out?”
“Well, for a while anyway.” Translation: drawn out, nasty property settlement.
“Uh huh,” I said. “Where are you moving to?”
“I got an apartment in Doylestown.” Translation: I’m moving in with my girlfriend.
“Doylestown? That’s pretty far from Levittown.”
“Much more convenient for work.”
“But your office is in Langhorne.”
“Well, the county seat and all.” He was a civil lawyer, so sometimes had work at the county courthouse.
“Where am I going to live?”
“With your mother, of course. But I’ll see you every weekend if you want.”
I wanted to stick it to him a little. “Will she be there?”
“Nothing, Dad. I gotta go, okay? I think Luce needs the phone.”
A half hour later. Mom called. Same story, only at least she wasn’t moving. “It’s for the best, David,” she said. I could hear her stirring her glass, could almost taste the olive. I didn’t have the nerve to ask if the yoga instructor was moving in. At least I could keep my room.
Myron arrived with the mail, which he’d picked up at the post office. “Sorry, forgot to bring it in earlier. Letter for you,” he said.
It was from Stewart, still at computer camp. He was having a “bangin’ cool” time and now had a girlfriend. “She’s brilliant and has huge boobs too,” he wrote. He’d even kissed her.
I wanted to shoot myself even more.
That night, I lay on my bed thinking about that, how it would feel. Would it hurt a few minutes or be instantaneous? Would my soul, assuming I had one, detach from my body and be sucked down a tunnel like described on TV? Or was that a bunch of comforting crap and I’d just disappear, as if I’d never existed?
Then I thought about the night before and my blood turned to ice water. If that was not a dream, then it was a GHOST. And if it was a ghost, apparently you didn’t just stop when you died. But why hadn’t this ghost, or any ghost for that matter, been sucked down the tunnel? That worried me some.
And then, as every hair stood up, I realized that if I’d seen her once, I’d see her again.
Myron took me into the woods with a .22 rifle. “Wanna try a hand at shooting birds?”
Was he nuts? “Why would you want to shoot a bird?” I said. “I mean unless it’s some kind of giant raptor trying to eat you.”
“I don’t have anything against birds, but figured you might want to try a moving target, in case you want to go hunting sometime.”
“Well, you don’t eat birds, do you?” I said sarcastically.
“Squirrels then?” he suggested.
I shook my head in disgust.
But I realized that unless I agreed to small animal killing, what reason would I have to ask to take the gun into the woods alone. “Maybe squirrels,” I muttered. I’d make sure to miss.
So we spent the afternoon with me demonstrating I was the worst shot in Pennsylvania and the squirrel population, while probably now all nervous wrecks, were left to go on with their lives.
A week passed since the ghost. I was growing complacent, if that term could apply to someone dark and suicidal. Plowing my way through the dusty book piles, I almost looked forward to going to bed early. My waste basket was full of empty chip and cookie bags, but I still hadn’t gained a pound.
I stayed up reading and had finally arrived in California with the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath when I caught a flicker out of the corner of my eye. The action was taking place a few feet from the end of my bed, out of the range of the headboard lamp.
My heart almost leapt out of my scrawny chest.
Lowering the book, I watched her take form, like special effects in a movie. First her hand appeared, then part of her side, followed by her head and shoulders, on and on until she was all there. I got a good, long look. She was pretty, not in a modern way, but…well, I don’t know if I can explain it. She had a look all her own, and she didn’t seem as harsh or in-your-face as girls do today, yet not a pushover either. She had…presence. That was the word.
I didn’t feel as scared now; my heart slowed down some. She was looking right at me, into my eyes. I understood that she was seeing me as well as I was seeing her. But where was she seeing me from? Was she stuck in like, some other dimension?
“What’s your name?” I whispered.
I didn’t expect an answer, but to my amazement, I heard her speak right in the center of my head. She said, “Viola.”
Then, as before, she dissolved into nothing.
I was pulled in two directions—wanting to tell Luce about this (risking derision from various sources) and research the house’s history, while simultaneously preferring to keep the ghost to myself and see if I could communicate with her. I was terrified, but…scientifically curious. Would I be able to sleep after this? I didn’t know. Did Viola watch me sleep? Did she see me get undressed? How about that other thing I sometimes did in bed? I was not only scared out of my wits, but burning hot embarrassed.
But a person can get used to anything, even a ghost in his bedroom.
“You wanna do some shooting?” Myron asked. Since he was working on his jeep, I wasn’t sure what he meant.
“You mean by myself?”
“Well, yeah, since I’m busy here.”
“How do I get the gun?”
He dug the keys out of his pocket and handed them to me. “Put ‘em on the kitchen counter when you’re done. The ammo’s in the drawer under the cabinet doors.”
So this was it. He was handing me my ticket out. But I’d have to give back the key and how would I get it later? It dawned on me, if I wanted to do it, it would have to be now. But not necessarily—if he trusted me now, he undoubtedly would again.
I knew I might be procrastinating, although the thought of another year at school with assholes tormenting me renewed my resolve. I just wasn’t going to do it that day. Besides, I wanted to see Viola again; I wanted more.
After reaching the property line, I fired off a few rounds so Myron would hear. Then I noticed the pool in the stream. It was much hotter now and I saw what my uncle had meant about wanting to take a dip. So I stripped down and slipped in. The water was ice cold and the smooth rocks underneath slippery, but after I got used to it, it felt great. The sun coming through the branches overhead made glittering designs on the water that sort of hypnotized me. Suddenly Viola was there. I didn’t see her, but her presence was as strong as any living person’s. And with her, came great sadness.
“What’s the matter with you?” asked Myron when I got back. “Look like you saw a ghost.” He was wiping his hands off with an already dirty rag, whatever he’d been doing to the jeep apparently done. “And you’re wet,” he added. “Went swimming?”
“Put the gun back,” he told me.
I went up to my bed and sprawled on it. “Why were you out there?” I asked the air.
There was no answer, not that I expected one.
“Why was it so sad out there?”
But though Viola did nothing, I suddenly understood.
“I really need to go to town,” I told Luce the next morning. “Gotta go to the library.”
What adult can turn down a kid wanting the library? “I’ll take you in the morning, I’m going in anyway,” she said. “I can drop you off. I’ve got errands to run.”
The librarian was old, at least fifty, which was good. The last thing I wanted was some sexy young one giving me a what’s-this-weirdo-up-to stare. “I’m Mrs. Dillon,” she said.
“Um, I’m looking for, like, information on who lived in our house before us.” I said.
“What house is that?” asked the librarian.
I explained best I could.
“Oh, the Page house. I know that place. I went to school with Janice and Richie Page. Janice and I knew each other pretty well. She moved out West somewhere and Richie died last year.”
Wow, I’d hit the jackpot. “What I want is probably before that.” I hoped I didn’t say anything stupid that insulted her age and then she’d be too pissed to help me. “Like who was there around 1940?”
“Oh, it was still the Pages. They owned that place for way over a century.”
“How can I find out about someone named Viola Page? Around 1940?”
“Viola? You could try the Court House for old records.” She paused. “Wait!” An interesting expression crossed her face. She walked out from behind the counter. “I remember something Janice’s mother told us one time I stayed over there. Seems that Janice’s aunt committed suicide after her fiancé got killed in the war.”
“You know, we have old newspapers on microfilm. It’s not that busy in here today, so I can leave the desk to Sandy and maybe we can find the news we’re looking for.”
She set the younger librarian to work and took me to a tiny room off the back corner of the main one where the microfilm readers were.
“Have a seat,” said Mrs. Dillon. “I’ll be right back.”
She returned with two rolls of microfilm, one of which she hooked into the machine. “I’ve got you the Montbleu Tribune from 1941-1942. It happened after we got into the war, obviously and not too far into it, if I remember right. This was a small weekly paper that came out on Wednesdays, and you can flip through the front pages. From Janice’s mother’s description, I believe it happened in cold weather, so just look at, say, Oct.- March issues.” She left me to it.
After a while, Aunt Luce knocked on the door of the little room. I was reluctant to explain what I was doing. “Do you mind if I take some more time?” I asked.
She disappeared to do more shopping.
Another half hour and I found it. December 2, 1942:
“The body of Miss Viola Page, age 20, was discovered in a “swimming hole” back of the Page property off Clayburn Road, Montbleu Township at 1:15 PM, November 30 after the woman had been reported missing by her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Donald Page. Police surmised that she accidentally slipped on rocks and fell in, to be swept under. Funeral arrangements have been made for December 4, 10:30 AM at First Methodist Church in Montbleu, followed by interment at Spring Valley Cemetery, Peabody Rd., Montbleu.”
There was a photograph, probably her school senior picture. Same long smoothly curled under hair, the steady look to her eye and soft mouth, only in the picture she was smiling. When she appeared in my room, she was anything but.
A paragraph down, it read: “Miss Page’s fiancé, Private First Class Richard Smiley, 23, died October 6, 1942 at Guadalcanal.”
“You didn’t find what you were looking for?” asked Luce when she saw my empty hands.
“Uh, I just wanted to look up some stuff,” I mumbled.
“About the house?”
“You still think it’s haunted? See something?” Aunt Luce was trying to look amused, but not quite achieving it.
In spite of my other inadequacies, I wasn’t usually a liar. Lying seemed sort of beneath me. But that protective feeling came back. If she hadn’t shown herself to anyone else, then maybe she didn’t want them to know about her. Unless she only visited people in the attic, but that wasn’t true—she’d also been at the swimming hole.
The swimming hole. I felt a lump in my stomach. That was where…that was why…
“Cat got your tongue?” said Luce.
“No. I mean, I haven’t seen anything.” I hadn’t actually—not lately.
She gave me a skeptical look, but dropped it. We went out for lunch.
I could now take the gun out when I pleased. Although it was always when Myron was home because he never left the key there when he wasn’t. It was mid July and Dad had completed his move to Doylestown. A few times when I called Mom, the yoga guy was there; one time he even answered the phone. Tried to be friendly. “Yo, Dave, s’up?”
So incredibly lame, I was at a loss for words.
Then Stewart wrote to tell me he’d gotten laid. She was a year older too, so not entirely inexperienced. All my depression came flooding back. The mere thought of the year ahead with my father shacking up, my house invaded and now this—my only friend crossed over into manhood while I remained in GeekBoy land was too much to envision.
Did I have the nerve to actually step out of this scene? Would anyone really care if I did? Luce and Myron? Myron was usually off in his own world and not one I wanted to join. Luce was on-the-surface cheerful, but also private and busy. They had no kids and I was sort of out of their spectrum. Nice people, but I didn’t get any feeling they especially cared about me. There didn’t seem to be anyone who’d give a crap if I continued on this planet or not.
It was a blazing hot Saturday when I asked Myron to use the .22. I’d been up all night, agitated as hell. Did I have the balls to pull it off?
I was thinking that since Viola apparently survived offing herself, I would too. At the moment, it didn’t occur to me to wonder why she looked so sad. Or why she was still hanging out here, in the same pissy world.
“Want me to come with you?” Myron asked, Murphy’s Law in full force.
“No,” I said, too sharply because he gave me a funny look.
“Well, excuse me,” he retorted. But he smiled.
“Sorry,” I said. “I kind of like walking around in the woods alone.”
“I getcha,” he said. “Me too.”
I headed straight for the stream, figuring as I went, batting at bugs, that if I did it there, I could fall into the swimming hole and not make too much of a mess. Luce and Myron were decent to me, so why give them a lot of trouble?
I felt like I was walking in a dream. I thought of my mother, tried to remember her before she always had a glass in her hand, but couldn’t seem to find her. I tried to remember my dad before he got so busy all the time, but couldn’t come up with much.
When I tried to remember anything at all good about school, the only think I could think of was back in fourth grade when I stayed overnight with Micky Jennings who moved away soon after. That one night had been fun.
By the time I got to the stream, it seemed that all my energy was gone and I wondered if I had enough left to lift the gun.
I sat on a rock and stared at the water. Maybe Karl had the right idea to hang himself after all. What if I screwed it up? Some guy in the news had botched the job and shot off his face, so there he was, blind with no nose or mouth and helpless inside a dark hell. What if I ended up like that? But I knew enough to aim for the roof of my mouth and there wouldn’t be enough kick with a .22 to jerk me off balance, would there?
I moved a rock to brace my foot against and put the barrel of the gun in my mouth. I tasted the metal and something else, dirt maybe. Spit ran down the barrel.
Just as I was about to press on the trigger, something cold touched the back of my neck. It startled me so badly, I flinched and dropped the rifle. It had felt just like a finger —one finger touching my skin.
I whirled around and there she was, standing in soft darkness under a hemlock.
She was solid, like a real person. If you didn’t look at her feet, you wouldn’t have known she wasn’t alive. She was surrounded by faint gray light and her feet faded into nothingness.
“What do you want?” I said, my voice a pathetic squeak. The hairs stood up on my arms.
“I shouldn’t have.” The words popped into the center of my head, clear and concise. “There would have been more.”
“More?” I said.
“More life, more love. Didn’t let it happen.”
I got it and was angry. “Yeah, for you, maybe,” I said bitterly. “But my life sucks. Nothing more for me.”
Though her lips did not move, I heard the so human inflection of her young, girly voice. “So much to come, don’t be stupid.”
“What’s to come?” I demanded. “You can see the future or something?”
She faded into nothing, just a tiny sparkle here and there, dust motes in the air.
I was shaking all over.
“BITCH!” I yelled at the top of my lungs.
I sank to my knees and blubbered with rage. Snot and tears smeared my face and stones dug into my shins. Falling over in a fetal position, I rocked back and forth.
I was full of guilt, for being so mean to her when she’d made such an effort, for using my aunt and uncle to achieve my sordid ends, for giving up, for being a coward, for everything I’d ever done. And then, for once in my life, I felt compassion for someone other than myself, and I sat up and listened.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered, “I’m sorry, Viola Thank you.”
I looked around. There was nothing. “Viola?”
I stood up. “Viola?”
She was gone forever. How did I know that? Would she be all right? Was she going to hell? I wasn’t sure I believed in hell. But being stuck here for over fifty years, wouldn’t that be hell?
I whispered into empty space, “Go home, Viola, go home.”
Then I wiped my face as best as I could, picked up the gun and walked back to the house.
I look out my office window onto the leafy, summer campus and remember that soft hearted girl who ended her life too soon, and as I have done a thousand times since, wish her soul well, wherever it may be.
She was right. Her living presence in my life implanted in me an obsession with World War II, which entertained me the rest of horrible high school and influenced my choice of college major, American History. I am an associate professor of twentieth century U.S. History, married to a wonderful woman and father of the most astounding baby girl on the planet. Her name is Viola.