Are you this broken body?
Are you these sloughing bones?
Will you stay forever
So far, so far from home?
No, I think you are the sunlight
And the gentle morning dew
I think you’re the break in my voice when
I find myself calling for you
Charlotte was an explorer and a menace. She proclaimed herself to be the first; her parents complained to their friends that she was the second. Charlotte, though, didn’t see it. She thought herself to be quite a delight.
In fact, at the moment, she was gracing the forest with her presence, hopping onto logs and trying as hard as she could to mimic the birds above her, though it ended up sounding more like yodeling. In fact, maybe she was just yodeling. Charlotte enjoyed yodeling, though, so it wasn’t a problem.
What was a problem was that she’d lost it. It had been so, so beautiful, and she had let it slip right through her fingers. A tiny light, barely visible through the still-rising sun’s yawning rays, had bid her a good-morning, but the moment she’d reached her hands out for it, it had fled. Perhaps it was a peculiar firefly, or a star who had wandered a little too far from home. Perhaps it was something else entirely.
Whatever the case, Charlotte had to find it. She yodeled and leapt over the stream, possibly hoping to charm the light from wherever it hid. Lights like yodeling, surely... Probably not. Now that she thought about it, she’d never heard a light yodel. Then again, she’d never seen a light like this.
It had been dim, but lovely. It had been glowing slightly, casting ghastly shadows about the ferns that curled above its head as if hugging it, hiding it. Charlotte had wished she could curl beneath the ferns and feel them hug her, too, but she couldn’t, so, naturally, the next course of action was to catch it.
And she saw it again, flashing before her eyes as if it had sought her out. It settled gently on her nose, and she laughed as its pulsing beams brushed her brow. “Hello,” she said gently, stretching a finger out for it to perch on. It did, and she felt her heart melt inside her chest. Of course it had run from her; it was so delicate, so beautiful, and it overflowed with hushed secrets of the kind Charlotte had always wanted to know and had never had the chance to. It was the quiet of hushed whispers and breath spiraling from lips on a cold winter day. It was funeral fog and the sunlight greeting the gloomy dew. It was everything that was grief and everything that was lovely enough to be grieved when it was gone. This wasn’t some creature to catch, but a miracle of the world to be marveled at and treated as such. “You’re really very pretty,” she told it. “I’m sorry for chasing you.”
The light hummed agreeably and settled on her head. Charlotte laughed a beaming laugh that shone more brightly than the morning sun, and the light faced her as an equal. It hummed more insistently, beeping and ebbing and flowing and singing and crying before suddenly poofing from her hair. It was gone, Charlotte thought, and this time it wouldn’t wait up for her. She didn’t worry about it: she knew it had more important things to do than speak to her. She just hoped she would see it again someday.
Charlotte spent the rest of the day in the forest, plunging through the mud and climbing trees and hooting and hollering and humming loudly in the hopes that the universe would impart other secrets like the light to her. It didn’t, and she figured she had seen enough for the day as it was.
She didn’t tell her parents about it. She was always telling them this or that, but they never seemed to believe her. She didn’t think there would be a harm in it, but she also knew that the forest had shown her the light, not anyone else, and she would keep its secret for it.
She climbed into bed. The street lights stretched through her window and patted across her cheeks, shadows fluttering through its ghostly light and mixing with the moon’s gentle glow. She felt an ache in her chest, an ache she thought she must be too young to know. It was the same ache that kept artists at their canvases and poets at their pages and warriors at the whetstone, ever sharpening their swords. It was an ache that all had felt and all had striven to express. It was an ache that none could describe.
She knew the light had gifted her something, but she didn’t know what. She couldn’t begin to understand all the mysteries of the world, so instead, she chose to sleep.
Charlotte loved to explore. Her old neighborhood had so many hidden cracks and crevices and secret passages that she never seemed to get bored: it seemed, in fact, that the world around her spun to keep her entertained.
Today, she was kicking a can down the old, cracked road that had forever been crumbling. Charlotte wondered if that was what bones did when they didn’t have skin anymore. The Old Bone Road, she thought, delighted. Maybe the road beneath her feet was the spine of an old dusted giant. Maybe the deep green grass beneath her feet were little swords of tiny knights, and the moss was the beard of a slumbering troll. Maybe the trees had eyes and the stones feet, and maybe everything was awake. Maybe everything was alive, and everything was magic, and she was just one little girl surrounded by friends that she didn’t know were friends. She took care to tread lightly on the road and wondered how it felt to have a can kicked up one’s own spine. She shivered, not knowing if she would wish to be a road or not. Perhaps she wanted her bones to rest. Charlotte hopped into the grass and trod lightly for the tiny soldiers.
She skipped next to the road until it began to dissolve into the grass and crumble into nothing. At the end of the street was a house, tall and teetering and peeling with paint. The windows were cracked, but only slightly, and the shutters drooped heavily by their wards. Charlotte didn’t think anyone lived there but the torn wallpaper and the dusty fireplace that must’ve been connected to the overly tall and spindly chimney stretching from the roof. But, perhaps she was mistaken. She’d never approached this house before, after all. She had always had something else to explore.
She knocked on the door. Once, twice, thrice. No one answered. She swung it open and crept inside. No one seemed to be home; the only lights that were on were the golden ones drifting on the slight breeze that crept through the windows and the crack under the door.
Dust gently adorned the old Victorian furniture sitting crowded and askew on the floors as if someone had dropped a pile of chairs and tables and sofas like a hot potato. The shelves on the walls were cluttered with trinkets, and the walls themselves cluttered with paintings. Charlotte almost knew there was some secret hidden behind at least one of them. She began to check behind a couple of them before rushing up a set of stairs in the corner, which led to another floor and yet more stairs, which led to another floor and yet more stairs, and so on. She was beginning to grow bored of this when the stairs finally ended, leaving her in an old, crickety room with a mirror and piles of boxes. At the opposite end of where she stood (which wasn’t very far at all, as it was a very small room) was a door that was locked. Faint light beamed through the keyhole, but when Charlotte put her eye to it, all she could see was shadow.
Charlotte turned from the door, disappointed, and started when a figure caught her eye. Sat before her and the door was a boy around her age. He was deathly pale, though the bruises beneath his eyes were pronounced. His brilliant white hair stood in stark contrast to his otherwise faded form.
“Who are you?” Charlotte demanded.
The boy’s eyes widened in surprise, as if he hadn’t been expecting her to notice him. “Who are you?”
“I asked first.”
“You’re the one in my house.” He shifted again, never seeming to stay still for more than a moment.
A sullen silence stretched before she answered. She didn’t want to concede, but he’d made a good point. “...Charlotte.”
“Ah. I’m Hugo. Why are you in my house?”
“I didn’t know it was your house!”
“Do you go around breaking and entering into every house you see?”
She huffed. “Obviously not. It’s not my fault your house looks abandoned. You should take better care of it. Plus, I knocked.”
“Fine. I guess. What do you want with my house?”
“Just to look around,” she shrugged. “It’s got the feel of something mysterious.”
“So does space, but I don’t see you launching yourself past the atmosphere.”
Charlotte had always wanted to explore space, but at far as she knew, she didn’t have a way to get up there that wouldn’t result in her body splattered like a paintball. Plus, space was a vacuum, and she’d shrivel and die without a space suit. Her garage was riddled with scraps of tin foil and plastic wrap in her attempts to make one (though her parents never liked the mess). All of this to say: she would if she could.
She said as much, and Hugo snorted disdainfully. Charlotte liked to think he was jealous of her initiative, refusing to consider that he merely found her obnoxious or overly ambitious. “You’re telling me you don’t want to go to space?”
“Of course I want to go to space! I’m just being realistic. And there are lots of stars you can see from here.”
“Don’t you want to be part of it, though?”
Hugo shrugged. “I’m content to look.”
Charlotte hummed and sat next to him, peering at the door. “Then why are you looking at the door?”
“You can’t see what’s in it if it’s closed.”
This was true. Charlotte felt Hugo beside her, his form twitching and fidgeting with the rushing motion of thoughts in his brain that boiled down to, I want to see inside. She couldn’t read minds, but she knew what his said, printed over and over on every curve and bend in his head. It was evident in the way his eyes looked lovingly, hatefully at the door, and in the way his fingers fidgeted and stretched for its handle, and in the way he resisted this urge with the knowledge that he’d tried it and tried it and tried it before. He wanted to know.
Charlotte supposed she did, too.
Charlotte was a playful, adventurous soul. She wanted to know things, she wanted to experience them, she wanted to be them. She loved to marvel at the silly, lovely mushrooms and the frogs that sat so peacefully upon them, but it pained her that she could not be that frog, she could not be that mushroom. She loved to giggle at the bubbles as they floated away in the breeze, but she knew she could not float and pop at the whim of the world like them. She wanted to be a streetlight and an airplane and a dandelion and a tree. She wanted to be oh so many things, and her soul ached that she could only be this: a person.
When she looked at that door in that old house with the solitary boy with odd white hair, she felt her heart throb in her chest. How odd it was, how curious. Where did the light under the door and in the keyhole come from, if she could only see the dark when she put her eye to it? Why were the twists and swirls and knots in the wood so intriguing? How was the handle so rusted and old when it shined so bright? And why was the boy with such realistic dreams so enthralled by it?
She didn’t know. There were many things she did not know, but she liked to think that she could find them out if she wished to. This puzzle she could not solve. She simply did not know.
Neither did Hugo, and he’d been here much longer than she had. When she asked him how long, he’d only shrugged. He was another puzzle she was trying to piece together.
“Why do you live alone?”
“My parents left. They’re dead, I think.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
Hugo’s face was cold, but in the sort of way that let Charlotte know that it wasn’t really. His brow raised and lips relaxed in a way all too purposeful to be genuine. “It’s fine,” he said, but she knew it wasn’t. She regretted asking.
Currently, the two of them were sitting at the counter (which was coated with dust, by the way; did Hugo ever clean?) and eating from the yogurt tins Hugo had managed to gather. Charlotte didn’t know where he got his food, and she decided it would be better not to ask. Most questions she had about Hugo were better not to ask.
“Don’t be. You couldn’t have known.”
Charlotte shrugged and let her eyes wander, peering distractedly at the odd assortment of rusted trinkets around the room and on the shelves. Old tires, springs, nuts and bolts, scraps of paper with spidery sketches nailed to the walls.
“It must be nice to have the house to yourself, though.”
“It was,” Hugo snorted, “until you came along.”
A silence stretched between the two and filled the cluttered room. It bounced between each dusty chair and up the sooted fireplace, puffing up and out the chimney like smoke, thick enough to clog Charlotte’s lungs and make her cough to ease the silence.
What was it about Hugo? Why was he so strange, and why did she feel so cold next to him? Was he a ghoul, a monster? Was he a prince of frost and snow? No, he could not be something so magical. He looked it, but his mind was of earth and human rationalism.
She did not know what he was. She just knew he was odd.
It was clear from the way Hugo’s feet tread so hesitantly that he hadn’t been in the forest often. He fit it, though, oddly. When obscured by leaves and when ferns stretched over his feet and up his ankles, he almost resembled the odd light she’d chased a few days before.
“Have you ever… been here before? Like, in a forest?”
Hugo rolled his eyes. “Duh. I’m just taking my time. The trees are lovely this time of year.”
“Okay, blame the trees, dweeb.” Charlotte leapt from the log she had stood astride to bop Hugo on the head. “Bet you wish you were taller.”
Hugo lifted his chin. “I think I’m a perfectly adequate height.”
“And my mom thinks spinach casserole tastes good. Perception is often wrong.”
“Are you calling me short?” he asked, offended.
“What else would I be calling you?”
Hugo snorted, a delicate balance of bemused and disdainful. He crouched to inspect a mushroom.
“Ah!” Charlotte declared. “I see you have good taste. That’s a very good-looking fungus.”
“It is. I wonder if I’d die eating it.” He inspected the mushroom, gently patting it with his forefinger.
“You’d deserve it if you did.”
“What?” he asked, startled. “Why?”
“Because that mushroom is so lovely, there’s no way a spirit doesn’t live in it. You would be eating their house.”
“Oh.” He stood back up and kept walking.
Charlotte breathed in surprise. She’d expected Hugo to quickly dismiss her explanation and call her silly, but he'd accepted it without a thought. Perhaps he had a little more magic in his mind than she’d assumed. Then she wondered if Hugo breathed, too. She couldn’t tell from looking at him.
“I don’t think mushrooms die if they aren’t killed,” said Hugo. “I’ve never seen a dead mushroom, besides the ones I’ve eaten.”
“I bet it’s because of their spirits.” She cast her gaze at another funny fungus along their unwritten trail. It was red at the top, not like blood, but like the glow that the chairs and faces around a fire were lit by. It was softer than blood, and less angry.
Charlotte thought mushrooms were an awful lot like fire: eating what they’re given, allowing dead things to pass on. She felt a swelling in her chest, love for all the lovely things of the earth. She thanked Prometheus for the fire and wherever fungus came from for the fungus.
A squirrel skittered by. A frog croaked its tune, and birds chimed in with harmonies. So many creatures in the forest, all together, working towards one goal: to live under the sun.
A deer appeared. It was slow, methodical, graceful as it slid like a ghost into view. It was beautiful, as beautiful as the mushrooms and the squirrels and the fire, and its eyes were big and soulful. It gave them a glance, startled, and slowly adjusted before leaning down to eat the green forest carpet.
Charlotte took a step towards it, and it backed away. Hugo took a step towards it, and it stood still.
He approached it, slowly, hesitantly, much like he’d been working through the thorns earlier, much like he’d been trying very hard to not trot on all of nature’s little joys. He set a gentle hand on its back, and the deer stood and did not move. He gazed at it, transfixed, before it resumed eating, and he drew back his hand.
Charlotte was mystified. Perhaps this was why Hugo was strange. Perhaps he was part deer, and that’s why he was so cautious and why he startled so easily.
But no, that was not it at all. He was a boy, he was a boy, he was a human boy, was he not?
“I think I’m a ghost,” Hugo said.
Her mind was drifting, and she had to reel it back in before what he’d said made sense in her mind. “You…what?”
“I think I’m a ghost.” His face was nervous, but Charlotte felt that she’d already known this, or that she should’ve figured it out. All the pieces seemed to fit perfectly. His hands were twitching more than ever, twisting in his hair and tapping his temples.
“Oh,” Charlotte said. “That makes sense.”
Hugo started, looking up from the forest floor. “You aren’t, like… shocked, or scared?”
She shrugged. “I knew something was off about you. Just didn’t know what.”
“Anytime,” she said. “Do you know where you’re buried?”
“Probably next to my parents’ grave. I haven’t visited since the funeral.”
He looked at her slowly, and his eyes betrayed such sadness and denial that she looked away without getting an answer. An awkward silence stretched between them, though the forest did not quiet itself to match it.
“I was surprised, at first, when you acknowledged me. No one else has seen me, or can see me. I thought I was invisible,” Hugo said.
“Oh.” Charlotte smiled a small smile at him, sadly, and patted his shoulder. Her hand didn’t go through. “Do you think I’m a ghost, too?”
“I don’t think so. You look like a human, and the deer saw you.”
“Oh,” she said again, relieved, though she wouldn’t tell Hugo this. “Thanks for trusting me.”
“Yeah.” He smiled. “Thank you, too.”
It was dark when they returned to the old house. Charlotte bid him farewell at the door and made her own way home. She thanked the streetlights for keeping her safe and the stars for watching over her. She arrived at home, crawled in bed, and soon, sleep overcame her. She was thankful that it could.
Funeral fog sat low on the graying grass and hid in the trees above them, though no one was being buried today. The memories of mourners stood about them, weeping. The streetlights, which always began to glow too early in the day, were obscured by the fog and the flickering recollections of dark and mournful days, but despite the pervasive sorrow hanging in the air, dandelions and baby’s breath grew about the gravestones and the trees that loomed atop their heads.
Hugo said it was exactly like the day of the funeral, except that he wasn’t alone this time.
He stood over his parents’ grave, his mother’s name on one side and his father’s on the other. The headstone itself was old, and moss was growing up the sides. He scraped off the moss that obscured the engravings from the stone and then let his hands drop. For once, they ceased to fidget.
Charlotte put a hand on Hugo’s head, patting it gently before wandering off to see if she could find his grave. They were scattered, with no particular order to them. She cast her gaze around the headstones, each harboring bouquets of flowers and toy cars and handmade trinkets and rubix cubes and every other small thing one could imagine.
One headstone stood out, in that it was not buried in treasures from loved ones at all. The stone stood cold and slightly overgrown, and the only gift it had been given was a small, hastily-picked bouquet of baby’s breath, as if someone had only decided to give him flowers once they arrived. Perhaps someone had noticed a bare grave and wanted to pay their penance to the dead boy lying beneath the dirt.
The stone read,
“I am in the birds that sing,
I am in each lovely thing.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there. I do not die.”
- Mary Elizabeth Frye
The quote was oddly fitting, Charlotte thought. Hugo truly wasn’t in his grave; though, at the moment, he was only a few headstones away from it. She also found it odd that an excerpt from this particular poem was chosen, as opposed to another, more heart-warming one. Perhaps it was some sort of cruel irony.
She turned and walked back over to Hugo, who was sitting in the same position, though his hands seemed to have gained a bit more fervor in their fidgeting since they’d arrived.
“Hey.” She spoke softly, unwilling to break his solace if he was not present enough to hear. “I found your grave.”
He looked up, apparently having snapped out of the trance of passed time. “Show me.”
She did just that. He looked at it not with sadness, but with some emotion Charlotte was unable to name. She thought it was likely the same one she’d felt that night a few days before, a few days which felt like weeks which felt like months. The one of aching humanity, or, in the case of Hugo, that of humanity lost.
She patted his shoulder as he gazed at the poem and smiled softly at the small bouquet. He kneeled to touch it, to touch his name and his birth date and his death date.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve died, huh?”
Charlotte nodded. “Yeah. You’re eleven?”
“Not now. But I was, when I died.”
“Ah. I’m eleven now.” She paused. “I like the poem. It’s unique.”
Hugo smiled at her. “Me too. It was my favourite when I was alive, I think.” She didn’t say it, so he said it for her. “A little ironic now, huh?”
She laughed softly and sat before the headstone. She was sure Hugo would want to stay, but he just touched her shoulder and said, “It’s time to go now. I’m ready to leave.”
Charlotte thought this had less to do with the cemetery itself and more to do with his post-death existence. She didn’t want him to leave, wanted to keep him here so they could keep exploring the forest and talking about subjects most eleven-year-olds wouldn’t know to think about. She wanted him to be happy, though. She told herself, promised herself she would help him as much as she could. “Okay.”
Charlotte knew she was a mystery. She knew all humans were merely enigmas wrapped in flesh and bone and stuffed into a world they tried desperately to understand, unaware that the same mysteries that lay in each mountain and forest and deep ocean trench were in each of them. She knew the world was sometimes lovely and sometimes not, and therefore people were, too.
She didn’t think the new neighbors were very lovely at all.
They moved into the old house at the end of the lane, the one with chipped windows and clutter on the counters and dust on every surface and the odd ghost boy with odd white hair and an odd fixation on an odd door in the attic.
Said ghost boy was angry and devastated.
“This is my house,” he’d said. “It’s been my house. There are people in my house.”
“I’m a person in your house,” Charlotte had reminded him, but she didn’t know why she was defending them. She hadn’t stolen Hugo’s house; they had.
Now, she was grumbling angrily as she laced up her shoes and shrugged a jacket over her dress. Her parents had been invited to a dinner party the new neighbors were hosting, and they had insisted she come along. She must dress appropriately, of course; who could eat while looking like a slob? The very food itself would disdain a shoddily-dressed guest.
Charlotte thought they looked silly to the Old Bone Road. Its old and creaky figure watched them as they strode down it, dressed to the nines in clothes that she assumed were similar to those worn by the bourgeoisie. She looked down at the cracked concrete and whispered to it, “I didn’t choose these clothes.”
This visit to the old house would be much different from all of her others, Charlotte thought. This time, she wouldn’t be the only living thing in the house. This time, she would be wearing a too-fancy dress and too-fancy shoes with her curls all down and fixed too neatly. This time, she didn’t know what Hugo would do, or how he would be.
At the end of the street was a house, tall and teetering and smelling of fresh paint. The windows were newly replaced, and the shutters were sturdy and industrial by their wards. The yard was mown and spray-painted green. It didn’t look like the old house at the end of the road any longer. This new and modernized version saddened Charlotte, because it also didn’t look like Hugo anymore.
They knocked on the door, and a smiling couple greeted them. The woman was slim and brunette, the classic image of a suburban mother in her short, flowered dress and chunky heels. The man was shorter than her own father, with a blue polo shirt and khakis. They did not look evil, but they also didn’t look like the magic that this house held in its walls. They did not belong here.
Charlotte greeted them hesitantly, and, as soon as she could manage, she ran around the corner. Her parents’ protests were blocked by her quick, “I’m going to the bathroom!” They conceded.
She did not, in fact, go to the bathroom. Instead, she snuck up several sets of stairs to the attic, which remained old and dusty. Hugo sat in front of the locked door, eyes swirling like the wood they beheld, and Charlotte tapped him on the shoulder. “Hi.”
He did not startle at her sudden presence, but his perception of the room’s state expanded to fit her in it. “Hello.”
“Hgoooooooooooooffffffgnhj,” she declared, slumping next to him. “The neighbors are weird. I don’t like them.”
“Me neither.” Charlotte had noticed a pattern of silence before Hugo’s eventually bursting out of his feelings. She braced herself.
It was more quiet than she had expected. Though, Hugo was a quiet person. Or ghost. Or whatever. “I want to leave,” he said.
“It’s too loud here. This house used to be quiet, and it’s not anymore.”
“I’m not very quiet, either.”
“Yes, but you respect silence when it requires it. These people don’t. Their children yell and cry all day, and they talk loudly about stock markets and job opportunities and how much they hate to work, despite the fact that it seems to be the only thing they know how to talk about. Money, money, money,” he mocked, but his face was solemn. “I want to leave this place.”
Charlotte just looked at him, sadly. She didn’t know how to help, but she could give him her silence.
“I feel my soul decaying,” he said. “It’s paused in time but it’s not meant to be. I should have moved on. I don’t know why I haven’t.”
But she broke it. Perhaps she would fail him, but perhaps, too, this help would be better. “How much did you think about the door when you were alive?”
He looked up, surprised at her sudden change in conversation, maybe a little annoyed that she’d brushed by his words so easily. She wanted to tell him that she’d heard him, but she didn’t. “Hmm. Constantly. Why?”
“You never opened it,” she said. “Maybe the mystery of what’s behind it is keeping you here.”
“So to leave, I need to open it?”
He sighed and leaned back, splaying his hands across the floor behind him. “I haven’t found the key in all my time here. I don’t know if I’ll ever find it.”
“I’ll find some way. I'll help you.”
Hugo paused and looked at her, sadly, jokingly. “Are you that eager to be rid of me?”
“No, I’m that eager for you to be content.”
A pause. “Oh.”
They both turned back to the door, new determination striping their bones and coursing through their veins. Charlotte knew she had to get him out of here. She was sad to lose an adventure and even sadder to lose a friend, but she felt that the journey they shared was soon coming to an end.
“Charlotte!” A voice echoed from the stairwell, loud and slightly angry. “Dinner!”
Charlotte shifted and stood, giving Hugo a quick wave before pounding down the several flights of stairs and skidding to a stop before her mother. She didn’t offer an explanation, unwilling to lie, and her mother shook her head. “I know you spent a lot of time in this house when it was empty, but it’s not anymore. You can’t just invite yourself into someone else’s home and go prying through their stuff.” She gave her a small smile, though, and patted her shoulder. “I’m sure you’ll find some other magical place to explore. You always do.”
Charlotte just hummed and followed her mother out the stairwell and into the dining room, where adults were lined up and down each side. The only other children were two quiet, well-dressed and well-mannered boys sat side-by-side. Charlotte hadn’t seen them before, and she figured they were the neighbors’ kids. She took a seat next to them, silent, though her mind was screaming, scheming, trying to think of some way to find the key.
“Will you eat?” asked the boy next to her. She cast her gaze down to see the untouched plate before her. She shrugged, and the boy reached over to steal a roll. She grabbed it out of his hand and took a bite, casting a venomous glance at him. He turned back to his own plate, exchanging a glance with his brother.
She couldn’t think of anywhere to look, but she had an inkling of an idea, a glimpse of hope that had a semblance of working. Perhaps this glimpse would be enough.
The next morning, Charlotte rose with the sun. She crept out the front door, throwing a jacket around her shoulders and walking briskly through the leaves as if she had a direction (she did not). She wandered aimlessly, purposefully, through the moss and bid hello to the mushrooms, as she did. She was looking for something that never seemed to stay in the same place, something she'd chased just a couple of weeks ago. After it had touched her, she’d met Hugo; she hoped, this time, it would show her the key.
And there it was, the light, drawn by whatever it was about Charlotte that seemed to captivate it. Perhaps it was merely her own captivation of it that the light loved. Either way, it settled before her eyes, seeming to ask, Why?
“I need something,” she told it. “Not for me, but for a friend. A key to a door at the top of the old building at the end of the road. Can you help?”
The light shifted, alighting on her head, and she thought without thinking, Yes. Go to the house.
A glow in her heart, a mirror of the light, lifting it to her throat. Perhaps this was it; perhaps Hugo could move on. The glow at the edge of her vision faded, and when she brought her hand to her head, she felt nothing but her own hair.
Charlotte leapt up and ran as fast as she could to the house, out the woods and down the Old Bone Road. She couldn’t be courteous this time. She hoped it understood.
As it always seemed to be these days, the house wasn’t empty. The family was there, sleeping, but she couldn’t bring herself to care enough to do anything more than tip-toe through the main room until she reached the stairs. Thundering up them, she caught herself on the top stair and stopped.
Hugo sat before the door, as he did, as he always did. His white hair was still bright, and his skin was gaunt and pale, almost translucent. His clothes were loose and baggy, soft and comfortable. One thing was different, though: he held something in his hand. He looked up at her, and his eyes were wide and disbelieving. There was a glint of metal, old and faded and beautiful. A key.
Charlotte couldn’t bring her voice above a whisper. “...where did you find it?”
“I just… woke up, and it was here. In my hand,” he said. “I don’t know how.” He was not smiling, or frowning, or making any other face she could understand. She supposed he was too overwhelmed to feel much of anything. “Was it you?”
She shook her head. “A friend.”
There was a silence, deep and weighty and loud, oh so loud. Charlotte wouldn’t have thought silence was capable of making that much noise, but it screamed in her ears and echoed down her throat and through her arms and stomach and heart. He would leave, and she would be the only child in the neighborhood again. There were those new children, she supposed, but they weren’t like her or Hugo. Not magical, or full of adventure. They weren’t the kind of people one could sit on a rooftop with and speak with of things bigger than oneself. They were just children.
She would miss him, she decided. But she would let him go, and she would help him.
“Let’s try it out, then,” she said, and grabbed his hand to pull him up. He stuck the key in the door, and just like that—it turned. He opened it. She glanced inside.
Or, tried to. Each time she brought her eyes to the door, they slid off it again. From the corner of her eye, she saw something like TV static, shifting and changing and hurting her head.
“It’s beautiful,” Hugo said, and he reached out, fingers splayed and ready to grasp whatever lay beyond. She turned to watch him as he stepped forward and was consumed by static. His hands, first, outstretched, followed by his arms, his feet, his nose, and the static overtook him.
She stepped forward, too, but—she couldn’t. She felt the place behind the door, pliable, willing to accept her, but something in her mind wouldn’t let her. It was the same feeling she got when her hand seized up next to a fire, unwilling to let her burn.
The fire burned anyway. It exploded inside her and she fell back from the door as it swung shut. The floor accepted her—it always had—and she embraced it, sitting empty. He was gone, and she was alone again. Maybe he would come back. Maybe.
And so she waited. And she waited, and waited, and waited. No one came.
When the neighbors woke up approximately an hour and a half later, they found muddy tracks skidded across their sitting room and up the stairwell. In the old attic they hadn’t so much as peeked in since they’d moved in sat a girl, their neighbors’ crazy daughter, sitting before the old locked door they hadn’t been able to find the key for.
What an odd girl she was, that Charlotte.