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Smoke Girl

By MonicaSteff All Rights Reserved ©

Other / Horror

Chapter 1

The black cloth hangs from my fingers as I realize what it is.

A pointed hood. With two eye holes cut in a silky mask.

I recoil in disgust. The hood slithers from my grasp and back into the chest, landing on its matching robe. It can’t hide the yellowed newspaper peeking out from under it.

The attic grows stifling hot. Five generations of my family’s story closes in on me. Ancient stacks of newspapers. A box of wooden Christmas decorations. Tiny pink and blue shirts from my childhood, hanging over a chair and collecting dust.

I can’t breathe.

A robe. A pointed hood. With a mask and eye holes. This isn’t in my attic. I should close the chest and dig somewhere else for my family tree project.

But I snatch the wrinkled plastic bag of yellow newsprint from inside the chest, straightening it out to see it clearer. I can’t resist. My skin blanches around my green painted fingernails. The robe’s not what I think it is. It could be something from a college fraternity. A graduation. A Halloween costume. Anything but—

“Shit.”

A fiery cross looms over a circle of white-robed figures. In front of it stands the black-robed leader like an executioner in silk. He’s wearing the same robe that’s sitting in the chest, the same one I just touched. Sickness grabs as my insides as the headline emerges. 250 Initiated at Klan Gathering. September 30, 1924.

Below it, in smaller print: Grand Dragon Alvin Gaffrey Presides.

The world stops. I can’t move. I can’t drop the paper and close the chest and bury it. The horrible headlines take up everything. My eyes burn and my vision blurs.

Because Gaffrey is my last name.

I turn my gaze down at the family tree worksheet Mom helped me fill out today, the one for History class. The worksheet has a dirty footprint on it from my stepping on it by mistake. But I can still read the name under great-grandfather, in bold, permanent marker.

Alvin Gaffrey.

I throw the bag of newspapers across the room. “Shit!”

The plastic bag lands on the old tricycle my grandfather must have rode as a kid. It flops to the floor, face-up. I stand there, swatting invisible bugs off my skin. A shudder steals over me even in the heat. This isn’t happening. We didn’t have Jim Crow in my state. We never had any lynching in my town. There was nothing like that.

But there it lies on the floor, the Klan gathering on the front page of the Darnell News.

My town. My family…

“You all right up there, Jae?” My younger sister Renee’s voice floats up through the attic door, oblivious and happy and innocent. “I heard you say some bad words.”

I retrieve the newspaper clippings from the floor. Oh godgodgodgod— “Yeah.” I throw it back in the chest with the robe and slam the lid. “I just banged my elbow.” I turn to pick up my worksheet, my dirty tree. Oh god, I’m related to—“It still stings. I’ll be down in a bit.”

My heart thuds harder in my chest as I struggle for more words, something that will make this disappear.

None come.

“Find anything cool?” she asks. The ladder rattles. She’s coming up. “I want to see. Maybe there’s something we can get tons of money for, like on that pawn shop show that Mom watches.”

Renee’s never been up here before. Neither one of us have been allowed to come up the ladder until now. She’ll want open the chest first.

My sister is twelve.

“No. No.” Dust swirls through a nearby sunbeam. I cough on it and gasp for air. “Just some old junk that’s all moldy. Plus some spiders.” She hates those. “I told you. I’m coming down.”

Renee makes a sound between yuck and blech, a sound that’s screaming through me.“Fine. Never mind.” There’s disappointment. The ladder creaks again, and her footsteps fade as she makes her way down the hall. A door closes. She’s in her room, safe.

I let out my breath and make for the ladder, stumbling on a huge pile of Reader’s Digest magazines. I’m out of here. Freedom. Then I can close the door and leave all this behind me, never to see the light of day again.

I kneel to climb down and a chill washes over me like someone’s opened a freezer in my face.

“Jae,” a voice whispers.

My heart leaps into my throat. I imagine the chest opening and the black robe rising into the air, its two dark eye holes fixed on me.

I scramble down the ladder so fast that I trip and thump onto the floor. I don’t waste any time closing up the attic. I slide the ladder back up, snap the lock back onto the door and tuck the key back in my pocket.

Some secrets are better left locked away.

2.

I stare at the wall and force myself to take slow, steady breaths. The voice lingers in my mind. I’m hearing things. Maybe I held my breath too long waiting for Renee to go back to her room.

Heat envelops me once I’m at the end of the hall. I warm as I head down the stairs. I breathe normal now, but prickles still race up and down my back. Calm down, I think. It’s not like there’s an ax murderer after you.

My mother’s cutting carrots in the kitchen. A pot of potatoes churns nearby, blowing steam in my face. It’s a welcome change from the cold snap in the attic. Dad will be home any moment, to sit at the table and talk about his boring job if he still has one. His office lays more people off every day.

“Find enough stuff for your project?” Mom asks without turning. Her sweater jiggles around her arm as she works. It’s like she’s asking me if I’ve watered the plants or taken out the trash. The chest. How can she not know what’s in it?

“Yes.” It’s automatic. “What’s for dinner?”

I’m stalling over what I really want to say. The pot boils higher. The bubbles climb, trying to escape.

Mom points to the pot, all no-nonsense. “If you investigate a little further, you might find out.”

I glance down the hall to make sure Renee’s not in earshot. I can’t burden her with this knowledge, this ugly secret. But I have to know more about my find without going back up to the attic and facing it again. Sweat sneaks in between my fingers. The ball that was once my History homework grows soggy in my hand. I’ve forgotten about it until now.

“Mom,” I choke out, staring at a wrinkle in the back of her sweater. “I found something up in the attic that, well…” My throat locks up. I can’t say it. So I finish with, “What’s a Grand Dragon?”

Mom drops the knife from her meaty hand. Clunk. She stares hard at the cactus on the windowsill like its needles are ready to pop and deflate her. “Oh, no. I told your father to get rid of that stuff. I thought he threw it out two years ago. I didn’t realize it was still up there.” She holds the counter. Caught.

“What?” I ask. “So is that why you never let us go up in the attic when we were younger?” Renee and I used to beg to go treasure hunting up there, to open it up for hide and seek. Mom would always divert us with a trip to the store, a tent fort in our rooms or cookies.

“Okay. Yes. It is.” Mom’s still staring at the cactus like she can’t face me. “I’ll talk to your father about it this weekend. I want that stuff out of the house.” There’s an apology in her voice, one she can’t quite turn into words.

I do another Renee check. All clear. “Thanks. But you didn’t answer my other question. What’s a Gr—“

“We don’t talk about it, Jae. End of discussion. Why don’t you go finish your homework before dinner?” The soft feather of her voice has turned to a razor.

“But—“

She sighs and murders another carrot with that knife. “I shouldn’t have to argue with my seventeen-year-old daughter.”

I reach into my pocket. “Here’s the attic key.” I slap it onto the counter and stalk back through the hallway. The water heater starts humming. Why can’t she just tell me?

Being in the Klan is bad enough. But being a Grand Dragon, too…

That sounds terrible.

I go upstairs to my room. The stairs creak at me again, trying to tell me obscene jokes and dirty secrets.

Alvin Gaffrey once climbed us, too.

I push the thought from my mind as I check to make sure the attic door is shut tight. It is, but another chill—and another shudder—races over me as I pass. I don’t get where it could be coming from. The attic collects all the heat in the house this time of year. There’s no way it can even think of getting cold.

“Jae.”

The whisper’s right next to my ear.

I rush into my room and slam the door, tossing my homework onto my desk. My ruined curiosity falls down between a Chia head and my Literature book.

I’m still hearing things. It’s nerves. I plant my gaze on my old glow-in-the-dark solar system on the wall and take a deep breath. I’ll be fine. I can forget soon enough. But first, I have something to take care of.

I can’t leave Alvin Gaffrey’s name on my homework. Mr. Landwick, the local history buff, might recognize him.

We don’t talk about it, Jae.

That’s the solution.

I fish out my bottle of whiteout and smooth out the pink paper as much as I can. I erase his name with a few brush strokes. Alvin Gaffrey’s covered up. Gone.

Not in my family.

3.

I put my finished genealogy poster down on Mr. Landwick’s desk and watch others stack theirs on top of it. Marcee Stanton puts her pretty family tree over mine. It’s got a nice purple lace border around it. Josh actually has pictures of all his relatives taped on a leather frame with a cool typed biography under each one.

Mine’s just a piece of poster board with penciled in names. My great-grandfather is now Lawrence Gaffrey. His biography’s empty and there’s no picture. It is, hands down, the ugliest project in the class. I’m glad it’s on the bottom of the pile. Mr. Landwick can’t look at it until later.

Around me, everyone talks about grandfathers in World War Two, grandmothers from England, great-great somethings in the Civil War. Josh tells his friends about an uncle who shook hands with the President.

I’m silent in the corner. I have nothing to add.

Nothing at all.

“Okay. I know this is all interesting and all, but it’s time we get started,” Mr. Landwick announces. Everyone makes their way to their seats and Marcee sits next to me.

“Hey,” she says. Her eyes smile. “Glad that project’s over, huh?”

“Glad.” Marcee and I talk in class quite a bit. We have ever since working on the play together last year. “Now we just have that test next week. Craptastic.”

“I like that word. I’ll have to adopt it.” She pulls out her hardcover journal and cracks it open to her Adopted Words page, writing craptastic under goofnut and asscrumpet. “There. I’ve just expanded my vocabulary.”

“You’re always stealing my words.” I'm glad to be talking about something light and funny.

“Not all of those are yours. Only a guy would come up with ‘asscrumpet.’ I heard that one in the hall.”

“But goofnut’s mine.”

“Fair enough.” Marcee puts away her journal. “Find anything cool in your attic? You said you were finally going to search it.”

I tense. “No.” It comes out a little too quickly.

“You’d think there would be interesting stuff in a house as old as yours.” Marcee’s squinting at me. “Oh, I see. You didn’t do it.”

“Mom still won’t let us up into the attic,” I lie. “I fudged most of my project.”

It’s a good enough explanation. Marcee has no time to answer. Mr. Landwick starts taking attendance and slides everyone’s family tree posters to the side of his desk to be forgotten for now. The corner of mine sticks out from the bottom.

He waddles out from behind his desk and starts a lecture about politics after the Revolutionary War. We open our books, silent. I focus on the text in front of me and the picture of guys in powdered wigs. It’s better than other things. I’ll leave what I found in the attic behind me. It’s in the past. Nobody has to know. I won’t let it bother me. Why should I have to feel bad about something I had nothing to do with? That's what everyone else would say. I'm not a racist. Heck, I don't even hate the groups of people it's trendy to hate on today. My friends are proof of that.

I glance out the window while Mr. Landwick continues waving his arms and telling us about the first elections. A jogger passes on the street. A butterfly flutters past the window, a pretty yellow one with stripes.

Grand Dragon.

A mean little voice whispers in the back of my mind, teasing me, taunting me.

Shut up. It’s not important.

I focus more on Mr. Landwick, watching his lips move, but my gaze creeps down to my History book.

No. I should forget about it. If Mom won't talk about it, there must be a good reason.

But I have to know.

I tilt the book up so no one can see what I’m reading. Turn my desk a little so it’s out of Marcee’s view. She’s busy taking notes in another notebook, her purple sparkly one.

My fingers leave smudges on the sides of the shiny pages as I turn them, searching. My palms tingle with nerves. I’ll probably be better off not knowing. But it’s too late now.

A page falls away and an old photo takes up the top corner. Three robed Klansmen stare up at me with eye holes like pits. I can’t help but cringe. One holds a baby. It’s dressed in a miniature robe and it's grimacing.

A family.

I feel grubby, like I need a shower.

But I start to skim the words, keeping my gaze away from the picture. Mr. Landwick’s voice drones in the background and fades away.

There were three Klans. It first appeared in the South after the Civil War and lasted about ten years, striking terror into its victims. The second KKK reared up in the twenties and thirties, and the third, during the Civil Rights Era to today. I remember the date from the paper. 1924. So Alvin Gaffrey belonged to the second incarnation.

I skim on. The second Klan appeared all over the country, selling memberships and raking in cash. They marched through small towns, showed up in parades and even held family picnics. They influenced elections. They even had ads printed in the papers.

And by the mid twenties, they had five million members, many of them in the northern states.

Five million. Why?

But I move on and another paragraph halfway down the page catches my attention.

The Klan was divided into a hierarchy of officers and officials. The Imperial Wizard held national leadership; the Grand Dragons, the state leadership.

Slam.

I don’t mean to, but I shut my book so loud the entire class faces me. Mr. Landwick goes silent. Marcee looks at me, eyebrows rising.

I’ve made a fool of myself in front of everyone, too.

“Jae, are you all right? You look pale,” he says.

“I…” My mouth’s dry. “I think I need to go get a drink. I have a sore throat. Sorry. I was about to cough.” It's an excuse but it works. Marcee looks back down at her notebook. Josh and his friends turn their heads away.

“You’re excused.” He shuffles behind his desk to write me a pass.

My skin tingles under the gaze of my classmates. I take the pink slip and exile myself to the hallway.

The halls are empty. Barren. I swallow and make for the water fountain, pretending that what I’ve read doesn’t bother me. The water soothes my throat going down. I shake my head. I need to get it together and get over it now. It’s not like I expected the news to be good.

Another snap of cold air rushes over me. In an airtight building. In mid September.

The cold grows deeper, creeping over my skin. An army of goose bumps rises on my arms. Am I getting sick? I can’t be freaking out this much. This isn't that big of a deal. Alvin Gaffrey doesn’t matter. He’s dead. He’s history.

Footsteps grow closer behind me. Something swishes and they stop.

I whirl around.

An indistinct shadow rushes away and around the corner like a filmy curtain, taking the swishing noise with it.

My heart stops. I let my hand fall to the fountain and splash myself by mistake.

“Jae,” I whisper to myself, gripping the metal tight. “Get it together.”

There’s nothing there. It was just a shadow of something moving past the windows. And the footsteps were just echoes from another part of the school.

That’s all.

4.

“When are your parents home today?” my friend Ruba asks, holding the rim of my front door. Her backpack dangles in her hand and she struggles to hold it up.

“Mom’s at four thirty. She has to drive the elementary bus this afternoon,” I say, checking the empty kitchen and the messy counters. “We have---gasp—almost two hours to hang out today. Dad won’t be back until five-thirty at the earliest.” I don’t tell her about the possibility of him getting laid off. But if that happens and he gets through the door early, the last thing he’s going to care about is me having a friend over when I’m not supposed to.

Ruba drops her backpack next to the counter, moves the attic key to the top of Mom’s gardening magazines and sets her Literature book down. She swings her arm, glad to be free of the weight. “You know, your parents are very strict, Jae. When are they going to trust you not to destroy the house when they leave?” Her faint accent makes the question sound funny, but in a good way.

I laugh. “I don’t know.” I drop my own backpack near our box of DVD’s and eye the television. “Well, they’ve never just plain told me not to have company. But I don’t think they’d give me an easy time about having friends over when I’m supposed to be doing homework. You know how parents are. What do you want to watch?”

Ruba goes through the fridge and pulls out a Coke. She fingers the opener for a bit. “You said Wreck-It Ralph was pretty good, right?”

“It is.” I busy myself looking for the DVD. We’re suckers for anything computer animated.

I make some popcorn and we settle on the couch. Renee comes through the door while I'm going through the DVD menu. She always gets home about ten minutes after I do, since Ruba always drives me home and she’s stuck with the bus until she’s out of junior high.

“Hey, sis,” I call. “Want to come watch this movie with us? You really shouldn’t have missed it in the theater. It doesn’t look like much, but it’s amazing.”

Renee sets her own backpack down in the kitchen and opens the fridge. Something shuffles. “Maybe later,” she says. “I have a math test I have to study for. If I get a bad grade, Mom will probably take my tablet away.”

“You just got home,” I say. “There’s lots of time when Mom and Dad are here. I’ll help you study later. Come to the dark side. We have cookies.”

“Popcorn,” Ruba corrects. She grabs a handful and bites down. A piece of kernel lands in her long, curly black hair.

“Really. I’m okay,” Renee says, going up the stairs. They creak and squeal after her and we’re left with the opening credits. The movie starts and I settle into the couch, immersing myself in the virtual arcade that fills the screen. The past twenty-four hours fade into the background and everything’s okay.

After a couple of minutes, Ruba says, “I thought your sister was always good at math?”

“She is,” I say, shaking my head. “Maybe they’re starting to get into the pre-algebra crap. I hated that.”

“That isn’t until seventh grade. Next year.”

“Lucky her,” I say. “I need to get something to drink. Popcorn always makes me crave milk for some reason.”

Ruba pauses the movie and I head back to the kitchen, dodging Renee’s backpack and going for the fridge. I slide Mom’s magazines aside and fill my glass.

I stop.

The attic key is missing.

I’m thundering up the stairs two seconds later, leaving Ruba on the couch.

How could Mom have forgotten to put it away…how could I have forgotten…

I reach the top of the stairs. “Renee! Don’t think about it.”

The attic door’s open and the ladder’s down. Something thumps above me.

“Damn it!” I scramble up the ladder, mind racing. She’s going to open that chest. Spring the trap. Find Alvin Gaffrey staring back at her.

Renee’s standing right by the chest when I pop my head up into the attic. She jumps, turning to look down at me. The Reader’s Digest stack gives way and topples over, sending up a choking cloud of dust.

I cough. “What are you doing up here?”

“Since when did you turn into Mom?” she asks. She’s got her hand on the latch of the chest, ready to pop it open. “Come on, Jae. We have the chance to look around up here while Mom isn’t home. I don’t know where she usually keeps the key. When she gets home today, she’ll remember to put it away and then we’ll never find it again.”

“I don’t know why she didn’t put it back yesterday,” I say, standing. For a second, I’m angry at Mom. “Come on down. I already looked in that chest. There’s nothing in there but a bunch of moldy newspaper. It's gross in there."

The stairs creak again. Ruba’s coming up. I’ve got to settle this fast. Like me, Ruba’s always wondered what’s in the forbidden attic. She’ll be up this ladder right after me if I don’t get Renee down.

“If you don’t come down,” I say, eyeing my sister's freckled hand, “I’m going to have to tell Mom you came up here. Sorry.”

“What?” Renee’s all disbelief. “You wouldn’t.”

“I will.” I hold my hand out. “Give me the key.”

I’m only making Renee more suspicious. She narrows her eyes at me and faces the chest. “There’s something cool in here, isn’t there?” she asks. “You want to keep it for yourself.”

“What’s going on?” Ruba asks from the foot of the ladder.

“There’s nothing cool in there,” I say. I grip the edge of the entrance harder. “Come down, Renee. I mean it.”

Her eyes harden. “If there was nothing in this chest, you wouldn’t be all freaking out about it,” she says.

And clicks open the latch.

I rush her. Renee backs away, leaning back over the chest and dropping the attic key to the floor. I grab her arm and pull her away.

She grits her teeth and slugs me in the arm with her free hand. “Jae! What’s your problem?”

“What’s yours?” I point to the ladder, ignoring the throbbing in my shoulder. I’m ticked, so it’s not hard to yell. “Get back down. I’m not going to get in trouble for letting you look around up here. You’ve gotten me busted for enough stuff, like the time you decided to sneak up the tree out front when Mom and Dad told me to keep you away from it. I’m the one who got grounded for that. That’s what happens when you’re the oldest. You get punished for crap your younger siblings do.”

“Fine!” She breaks away and heads to the ladder, storming her way down. I stand there until I hear it stop creaking. Then before Ruba can come up, I hurry down, lock the attic back up, and put the key in my pocket.

This time, it’s staying there.

5.

The attic key stays in my pocket even after Wreck-It Ralph wraps up and Ruba heads out. I watch her car pull out of the driveway and make it safely down the road. Renee hasn’t come down from her room for the past hour and a half, but that’s fine with me. She plays her music loud. It's something dubstep that would make Dad groan and cover his ears.

As long as she doesn’t open that chest, I’m fine with it. It’s not like we’ve never been mad at each other before. And it won’t last long. It never does.

I move my backpack away from the counter and check for the key in my pocket again. Still there. I’ve done nothing but make Renee obsess over that chest. I’ve only made her want to open it more by pulling her away from it. It’s like the time I hid my stash of pennies in my closet years ago. Renee wouldn’t stop looking for them, trying to add them to her own collection.

Now the chest is that stash of pennies. It’s war.

I dump my milk down the sink and toss the stale popcorn. Renee’s going to look for the attic key even after Mom hides it again. I’m not sure if I can stop that, because I won’t know where Mom puts it, either. And I can’t trust Dad to clean out that chest. He’s got too many other things on his mind.

Mom’s home a few minutes later, sighing and rubbing the bags under her eyes.

“Rough day?” I ask. I can’t help but eye the space on the counter where the key should be. If she asks for it, I’ll have no choice but to cough it up. I’ll say that I wanted to make extra sure Renee didn’t go up there. That, she’ll understand.

Mom shakes her head. “Some of those kids, Jae, I swear they’re animals. It must be a full moon. They decided to have a paper wad party today.”

“Fun.”

“About as fun as death and taxes,” she says, watering the cactus. “I should have finished my business classes back in college. But oh, no. I had to quit because I thought they were boring.”

“You can always go back.” So far, so good. She’s staying off the topic of the attic key.

“When your father’s job is uncertain?” she asks. “We might need my income in order to eat. Even that might not be enough.”

“Good point.”

I hug her. Mom sighs out stress and hugs me back. She’s so fragile, so stretched right now. I feel like I’m holding her up. The attic key pokes into my leg. I ignore it and let my gaze fall on the side yard.

And on our fire pit.

It stands on the side of our house, its wire cage blackened with countless barbecues. Even in the embrace of despair, my heart does a happy dance.

Renee will open that chest eventually.

But when she does, there will be nothing there.

6.

Today is Friday.

Mom never asked for the attic key back yesterday. She’s forgotten. Renee hasn’t spoken to me in almost twenty-four hours. That’s fine.

And Friday is the night Mom and Dad do their date. It never fails, even through they’ve been married long enough to stop caring. Ever since I was little, they’d hire a sitter and go out once a week. Now that I’m in high school, I’m the sitter when Renee’s also home.

But Renee’s going to be gone tonight, too, having a sleepover at Ella’s house down the street. I have an opportunity I need to keep.

Ruba pulls up to my house with the crunch of gravel. “Are you sure you don’t want to go to the theater tonight?”

“Sure.” I rub my temple. “I have a nasty headache. It sucks when it happens on a Friday. And besides, I think Mom and Dad are headed there.” I feel awful for lying to my best friend, but I can’t tell her the secret.

The secret will be gone by morning, anyway.

“I hope you feel better.”

“Thanks.”

I’m out of the car, squinting in the sun for extra effect. Ruba pulls away. The driveway’s empty. Mom’s still getting paper wads thrown at her. Dad’s still slaving away in a cubicle. Renee’s getting off the bus right at her friend’s house today. I don’t have a car yet, so I can’t drive her there.

The house is quiet inside except for the grandfather clock. It watches me with its cyclopean eye as I creep up the stairs with a garbage bag. A chime floats through the house. It’s three. I don’t have long to do this.

The bag crinkles as I climb back into the attic, into forbidden territory. The air is thick, hot. I push my way through mountains of boxes and old furniture. The chest is still cleared off from yesterday. Renee’s handprints are still there in the dust, curious and determined.

I should just ask Dad to do this.

But nervous butterflies rise in me at the thought. What if he doesn't? In time, that is?

My palms sweat. I don’t want to see this again.

But I want Renee to see it even less.

I crack the chest open and force myself to look. The plastic bag of newspaper clippings still sits there on Alvin Gaffrey’s robe, face-up. The hood sits next to it like a deflated witch’s hat. I can’t help but let a shudder run down my spine.

I open up the garbage bag and hold it in one hand. I pick up the hood by its tip. My hand tingles just touching it, as if there's some pent-up energy inside.

I drop it into the bag.

The robe has a patch on the front that I missed before. A white Celtic cross stands out against a red background. There's a drop of blood sewn in the middle. It looks like a huge, angry eye looking at me.

I avert my gaze and seize the robe, holding it over the bag. The tingling gets even worse. It slips across my fingers like slime. The fabric’s in perfect shape after ninety something years. New, almost. Even the moths haven’t wanted to touch it.

It falls into the bag, defeated. I rub my hands on my jeans to get the gross feeling off.

There’s even more on the bottom of the chest.

The bag of newspaper clippings now rests next to an old, leather photo album. It’s got a G in gold leaf on the cover.

G for Gaffrey?

It gets worse. Loose patches like the one on the robe litter the velvet bottom. A pocketknife decorated with a hooded figure on horseback tries to hide in the corner. Old pamphlets with pencil-drawn fiery crosses and bold text scream at me. I toss it all away into the trash. I’m not going to read any of it.

Dad should have thrown this out the second he found out about it. Maybe he doesn’t want to come up here and face it.

At last, the chest is empty. Only ancient red velvet stares back at me. I let out a breath and pile some old magazines into the chest. It’s best that Renee doesn’t think I lied to her when she finally gets up here again.

I tie the garbage bag into a double knot and slam the lid. It makes a hollow sound like a coffin lid closing. The bag bulges like it’s going to explode any second. I should have used a bigger one. That thought’s enough to make me gag.

I haul the stuff downstairs, lock up the attic, and shove the bag in the back of my closet. It'll have to stay there until my parents to leave after dinner.

Then it’s going up in flames.

My parents return. I almost forget about Alvin Gaffrey as we eat. Dad goes outside and grills us some burgers. I think about giving the attic key back, but neither of them say a word about it. I don’t want to surrender it too quickly. I'll at least wait until tomorrow.

After dinner, Mom gathers her purse and smiles at me. “Don’t wreck the house while we’re gone, Jae. No wild parties.” She’s happy, going off to her weekly escape from life. I’m glad for her. She needs it.

“I won’t,” I say, trying not to look at the cabinet where I know they keep their lighter fluid. “Have fun at the theater.”

Mom and Dad leave. The car pulls out of the driveway and I’m alone.

I wait a few minutes to make sure they don’t come back because they forgot something. Pace around the house for a bit.

All clear. It’s time to move. It’s getting dark out.

The clock ticks behind me. I close the living room curtains. I’m not even sure why. Nobody’s going to see what I’m doing. It’s not like any of our neighbors live closer than a half mile away and besides, the movie should last two hours. By then, everything I throw in the fire pit will be ashes in the wind. I’ll just tell Mom and Dad I wanted to roast myself some hot dogs when they spot the pit smoldering in the morning. I’ve done it before, lots of times.

And if Dad ever opens that chest again, he’ll figure it out.

I grab the lighter fluid, set it on the counter, and head back upstairs to my room. The trash bag’s waiting behind the door, bulging with crap. The photo album pokes into a corner, threatening to make the whole thing rip open.

I untie the garbage bag and take the album out. I haven’t even looked at it. I don’t even know if it’s bad or if all the pictures inside deserve to get thrown away. There might be some in there worth keeping that I can peel out later, some that aren’t shameful and ugly and awful. And if it is all bad, next Friday’s not too far away. And there’s also garbage day. No big deal.

I tuck the album away in a box of old yearbooks and school work that Renee will never look through and close my closet door.

I haul the trash bag downstairs and outside. It drags along the cool grass of the backyard, whispering, begging me to spare it. The wire enclosure of the fire pit looks like a well leading to an underworld of ashes. I can’t help but shudder.

I glance back at the house. The closed curtains make a glowing green rectangle on the side.

The bottle of lighter fluid sags in my pocket. I untie the bag and dump the contents into the pit. The black robe lands in a heap like some defeated specter. Then the patches. The knife. That won’t burn, but it’ll erase what’s on it. I toss the bag of newspaper articles aside on the ground along with the pamphlets. I might need the paper to get the fire going more if the robe doesn’t catch right away.

“Jae.”

I jump, panic exploding in me. I whirl around, backing into the wire cage and getting it stuck on my jeans. No one. I scan the trees and the field behind our house. Only a black expanse greets me, stretching away into the sky and the stars. A lone firefly blinks in the night, probably the last one of the summer.

I’m standing right in the game Slender with no flashlight. The house is safe. I should run there and lock the door behind me. But I have to get all of Alvin Gaffrey’s stuff back in the garbage bag first. That’ll take time and poking around the fire pit. If there’s someone out here with me…

I let out a breath. “Calm down, Jae. Get over this.” I’m out here. This has to be done. I’ll quit freaking out once the fire’s going and I can see better.

I splash the lighter fluid on Alvin Gaffrey’s memory. Strike the match. Toss it into the pit.

And watch it burn.

Flames whoosh up from the well to the underworld. The robe’s catching better than I thought. Heat blasts into my face and the fire climbs, hungry.

I back away into the coolness of the night. A breeze washes over me. I feel clean.

Fire curls around the black robe. It's history. It all billows up in the smoke and drifts across the field.

The fire burns higher. And higher. The air blurs and ripples around it.

And with a roar, it explodes.

I leap back. A mushroom cloud of fire erupts from the pit, blasting heat across my skin.

My heart hammers. I scramble for the hose near the deck. The fire might spread.

The fire whooshes behind me. The hose slips from my grasp as I fumble with the knob. Water bursts out, soaking my shoes and pooling in the dirt. The fire reflects off of it, creating a hellish pool at my feet.

Darkness crushes the fire. The water shuts off. A dribble plops to the ground and disappears. I search for a kink in the hose. There isn’t one. I know I didn't turn the water off...

All is silent. No crickets. No squeaking of bats. No wind.

No life.

“Jae. Thank you.”

I stiffen. That voice again. It’s louder this time. Clearer.

I drop the hose. Thump.

Turn around.

The fire is still out. And someone’s standing in the middle of the pit like they’ve risen on an elevator from the underworld.

Someone shrouded in black and wearing a conical hood.


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