By way of a leaf-strewn country path, I accompanied Fall home. At least, we had begun as companions traveling the same way. But now he sagged against me and I hauled him along as best I could. Golden days had turned sharp and brittle, crunchy leaves growing damp and moldy underfoot. Low gray clouds raced overhead.
“I waited too long,” he muttered, again and again. His glorious crown of golden leaves, sheaves of wheat, rosy apples, orange gourds, and brittle twigs lay somewhere far behind. Discarded when the weight grew too heavy. His cheeks sunken. His gaze hollow, distant.
We arrived at a house nestled on a rise between trees whose leaves only just clung to their branches. Frost glittered along window sills and bloomed in bursts over glass panes. At the foot of the stairs, Fall waved me off and straightened up, taking the stone stairs one labored step at a time.
A shuffle happened just within the doorway as he collapsed inside and a woman exited. She paused on the front step, breathing in a huge breath, the frost abandoning the house to cling to her lashes and her fingertips. The door swung shut with a blast of frigid air.
I wrapped my arms around myself at the sudden chill. When she caught sight of me, Winter smiled in a hungry way, revealing gleaming, sharp teeth.
As she descended the steps, I backed away to let her pass. She headed back the way I had come, a blanket of frost spreading over the ground at her feet. In her absence, on the window sills of the house, pink blossoms began to bloom, readying for the emergence of spring.
Pulling my coat from my pack with shivering hands, I decided not to accompany Winter home when the time came.
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As I trekked down a back alley, the memory of rained dripped from the sky in the wake of a thunderstorm, plopping into big puddles filling up numerous potholes. I splashed through these, heedless of the water soaking my socks, as I had no way to avoid the many of them.
Yet I pulled up short as a pair of shoes walked out in front of me. Patterned with flames and lacking a wearer. They stopped in the puddle just before me. When the water calmed, the reflection of a boy wearing a yellow jacket appeared, feet matching the soles of the empty shoes.
His voice came through watery, as if he spoke through a mouthful of liquid. “Watch out for this puddle,” he said. “It’ll take you.”
Peering down at his murky shape, I said, “Did it take you?”
The boy’s reflection nodded. I couldn’t make out his shadowy expression. “I watch over it now. So no one falls in, like me.”
Frowning, I glanced around. Not much foot traffic through this back way, but a warning should be set up here. “You can’t get back?”
A shrug. “Haven’t figured out how. But…” he glanced off into some unseen distance. “I have time. I’m not aging here.”
I wondered if he would ever get the chance to age, but I kept that to myself. “What do you need?”
“Well…” He turned his chin into his shoulder in thought. “If I didn’t have to guard this puddle, I could search for another one to bring me back.”
I straightened. “Say no more.”
A local sign shop received a peculiar commission from me. An A-frame sign to be set out next to a specific puddle on rainy days and to read:
I had the rain to thank for my recent growth. Days and days of cool moisture, seeping through the roof and the walls. Water stains spreading outward the way I spread my fuzzy gray-green tendrils along the ceiling corner I called home.
Not ready to send my spores spiraling throughout the house. My children to seek new homes in bathrooms, in closets, in the attic where raindrops echoed. Not yet. But soon.
I was born in the load of damp laundry left in the washing machine. Left for so long that I and my siblings dried out into dusty spores, ready to explode into the air the second the lid opened. The old man coughed his usual, rattling cough when he shook out his forgotten pants, shook us loose, breathed in my siblings. Restarted the wash when he smelled the must. Forgot his laundry again.
I myself drifted to my corner of the ceiling. One little spore latched onto crumbling plaster, farthest from the windows. Farthest from sunlight. Closest to a single leaky shingle.
After the rain stopped, I grew flaky. Dusty. My spores drifted downward in twos and threes, gentle and graceful. Below, the old man sat at a peeling dining table, coffee mug within reach. A handful of my children landed in his drink. He took a sip. Sighed.
Soon after, the old man died. No one found him for a long time, and when they took him away, his body carried a few of us as passengers. Expatriates to a new country. Colonists.
No longer oppressed with cleaning solutions — not that we were much to begin with — we spread. Grew. Overtook every damp corner and dark crevice. Made the leaky house our own. I remained near the ceiling, bloated, oversized. Satisfied with my place and position.
Until two women entered the house.
One looked a little like the old man, just younger. Scraggly hair. Short. Clean. To the other woman, she pointed out my siblings, my children, their homes. Me.
The second woman wore a white jumpsuit that covered her from head to toe. Blue latex gloves on her hands. An industrial mask dangling around her neck. To the first woman she said, “It’ll be several days before anyone can come in here. I’ll let you know when I’m done.”
The scraggly-haired woman dismissed, jumpsuit woman donned her mask, large filter disc on the front, straps gripping her head. She hefted a heavy, blue plastic jug from the floor. In her other hand, she wielded a long metal rod at the end of a rubber hose attached to the jug. A squeeze of the trigger and harsh chemicals sprayed across my family clustered beneath the ancient dishwasher. Their screams curled my edges.
The monster murdered most of my family living in the kitchen and dining room before she reached me.
As she stretched the rod to reach me, the dark nozzle tip filled up my vision. I shrank back, quivering. This was it, only… I stretched as well, peeling myself from the ceiling and the walls in one swift motion. Leaping downward, I wrapped my fuzzy, misshapen tendrils around the nozzle, squirming past the end just as the spray released.
A muffled noise of surprise sounded behind the mask. The rod swing and shook beneath me as I scrambled down its length, bringing myself within jumping distance of her face. She dropped the rod just as I launched myself.
A scream to match those of my family tore from the woman. I had my feathery tendrils dug into her filter, but this held me at bay. She wrapped both hands around me, rubbery latex scraping at my mass, as I snagged the edge of her mask. Pushing against the soft skin of her cheek, I wriggled behind her defenses. Her fingertips clawed away a chunk of me just as I vanished from sight.
More muffled screaming. Rolling around on the dining room carpet. The woman tore off her mask, gasping for air, but by then I had already crawled into her mouth. Down her throat. She got up onto hands and knees, hacking and coughing, clutching her neck where I writhed around inside. Getting comfortable.
With a long, unraveling rip, the carpet beneath her split open. My family living beneath stretched for the woman above. She slumped over, gasping. Unresistant. Spongy clumps of mold hooked into her jumpsuit, dragging her down. Beneath the carpet. Into the damp wooden floor. Below even that to the rotting foundation.
The disturbed carpet flopped back into place. Beside the inexplicable gash lay the dropped chemical container. No other trace of the woman remained.
Now no one enters the house. Abandoned to the vagaries of nature, it belongs to us and we flourish here. I nestle in the throat of a corpse, pleased with my new location in this deep, damp darkness. Ready to grow.
Old boards creaked beneath my boots as I meandered across a rotting footbridge. In the entrenchment it crossed lay the mere memory of running water in the layer of mud at the bottom. Leaf loam littered the ground beneath wide-spaced trees. I had my gaze upward, regarding the rustling branches above, when a hand grasped my ankle and yanked.
Pain shot through my hip as I slammed into the damp wood. My full length slithered over the edge, beneath the handrail that I couldn’t reach, despite my outstretched hands. Flung forward, the muddy creek bottom rose up to meet me. I landed with a squelch, muck packing into my nose and mouth and eyes as I flew backward.
I vanished beneath the dark overhang.
At my first attempt to sit up, I smacked my head against the spongy underside of the bridge. Feeling around revealed brittle twigs, damp leaves, goopy ground. A bumpy hand holding my ankle.
I sucked in a sharp breath.
At the same time, a voice full of gravel said, “You must pay the price to cross.”
My eyes adjusting to the darkness revealed the outline of a hulking figure. Hair sticking out everywhere. Knobby ears. Stooped posture. Lengthy arms.
My voice shook. “With what?”
A creaking, as of stretching skin. Rancid meat smell wafted over me. “One skill. The ability to forage.”
My jaw clenched. I carried little food with me, surviving on edible plants. So if I gave up this skill now, I could starve.
The grip on my ankle tightened. “That, or I eat you.”
When later I scrambled from beneath the bridge, I found every plant looked the same. While the bridge troll safely chowed down on berries, I would have to pick up a foraging guidebook to relearn all over again.
Question marks surrounded me. Big, pale, spray painted on every trunk as far as I could see. Glowing in the gloom beneath the spreading branches of enormous pines. All facing me, like the disapproving gaze of a fussy uncle.
Just a moment ago, the forest had appeared as any other cluster of trees. Embarrassment overtook me as I realized I had just stepped uninvited into someone’s home. No direction looked like a safe retreat, so I huddled in on myself. A single crow squawked overhead.
Nothing happened. Except, every time I blinked, the question-marked trees jumped closer. Soon, they crowded around me, no space between their trunks, bark creaking against bark. Looming over me. Punctuation marks demanding answers. Yet I had none, for I knew not the question.
“Um,” I said at last. “I sense you don’t want me here. How can I leave?”
The base of every single trunk bowed sideways. Each curved in the same direction. Each question mark now flipped upside down.
By my feet, a carpet of yellowed pine needles rustled. A matted layer of them rose up into the shape of a mouth. Pine cones lined the lips like nubby teeth.
Smug as inexorable, tunneling roots, a voice drawled, “How indeed?”
At that, the forest swallowed me up in one gulp.
Sometime later, it spat me out again. I clawed my way past twisting roots and through a smelly layer of rotten loam. When my fingers broke free, I dug myself out, spitting up pine needles and dead leaves.
Once upright, I pawed muck from my eyes. A quick turn revealed the forest had dumped me at its edge, on the side from which I had entered. As I coughed up the last granules of dirt, I determined to take the long way back around.
In a disintegrating room stood a girl in a white dress. She had her back to me, hem trailing among broken bricks.
She was about to begin.
“What’s that sound?” She turned toward the wrecked wall, then she stumbled backward and fell over. Her form drifted apart like fingers raked through mist.
After a moment, she reappeared with her back to me.
This was my fourth viewing. Tourists come to see the ghost girl replay her last moments had all left. I blew out a soft breath.
“What’s that sound?” the girl said again, turning.
“Shhh…” I said. This time, I heard a dry, slithering rustle.
Now the girl turned wide eyes upon me. “It’s coming,” she whispered. Voices trickled in from another room.
“Just stay quiet,” I replied. Back then, I had stepped away to inform her parents of the danger and missed the next part.
The girl crept up to a spectral, boarded up window. Peeked through a gap in the planks. I moved closer to see what she saw.
A single eyeball, looking back at her.
The girl screamed and fell backward. A gasped breath. Then the entire wall blew inward, several bricks slamming into her. She lay stunned with a monster towering over her. Long, scaly body coiled up, feathered wings fluttering, single eye roving.
Her parents and I raced in. We all had screamed, “No!” But now our mouths moved soundlessly. For us, I said, “No.”
Snapping the girl up in its sharp metal beak, the creature flapped away into the night.
The girl reappeared with her back to me, but she turned around. “Will you come back?” she asked.
My heart sank. No matter how many times I returned to bear witness, she continued to make this request.
A face loomed in the darkness outside our stopped subway train. Outlined in glowing white lines. Xs for eyes. A hand-drawn, rictus grin. A mask. It bobbed along up and down the cars, pressing against the windows, fingertips tapping the glass. Giggling echoed down the tunnel, accompanying a high-pitched voice asking, “Who smiled? Whooo smiiiiled?”
Within, some of us glanced around at each other, wondering who had broken the taboo. At all stations, ancient signs declared, “Do not smile at strangers.” Relics of a time of scams and con artists. Now the tunnels were too dangerous for casual opportunists. Suggestion had become rule.
The voice of the conductor buzzed over the intercom. “Who pulled the emergency brake? What’s going on?”
In front of me, the face had paused, tilted, as if curious. A bare finger rubbed against the glass. Over and over. “Was it youuuu?”
Behind me, a woman stuttered a reply to the conductor. “No one,” she explained. “S-someone smiled at a stranger.”
A curse word sounded through the intercom before the conductor remembered to close the channel. Without the presence of an authority figure, the entire car held its collective breath.
The face watched us like fish in a bowl.
As the engine revved, the train lurched forward. Before me, beside the mask, the white outline of a hand bloomed, fingers outspread. They waved cheerfully at me. As the face receded, the voice sang out, “Byeeeeee.”