Two little boys stood together just outside the gates to the schoolyard. Both wore hooded sweatshirts with the hoods pulled up and plain denim jeans, just slightly faded. The younger of the pair kept his eyes on the ground but the older looked out into the yard at the other children who laughed and played.
“We could join them. Learn. Improve.”
His voice was toneless, his sentences smooth with no imperfections for childish haste. The younger boy shook his head.
“They would know. We are not like them and they would know.”
“Learning would help us to better feed.”
For a long moment, they stood in silence. Then they both turned and walked towards the teacher monitoring the yard.
“Excuse me. Can we play too??”
The teacher looked down at the two children and started to say something, started to back away. Then the little boy looked up at her with his jet black, soulless eyes.
“Please, may we play?”
Rachel was playing in the attic like she did on a lot of rainy days. The things up here were interesting and exciting to a girl who had been raised in a world where everything seemed to need batteries or wifi. Up here was a whole different time and place. She climbed over the trunk in the corner to grab an old, careworn bear off a shelf and then wondered, not for the first time, about the chest. It was Mommy’s, she knew that much. And locked. She’d tried over and over again to find a way to open it, but never managed it. Pulling the bear to her, she moved to start shimmying backward back to the floor and found herself pitching forward instead. Grabbing wildly, Rachel dropped the bear and grabbed the shelf with both hands, pulling it off the wall in her fight to keep upright. Much to her surprise, it wasn’t just the shelf that fell. There was a small, black leather pouch that fell too, landing with a soft metallic noise beside her. Bumps and bruises forgotten, Rachel grabbed for it and immediately opened it, wondering excitedly if this might be the missing jacks set her mother had promised her was up here somewhere. It wasn’t. At first, she wasn’t sure what she was looking at, but then far more than the missing word came unbidden into her mind. She worked her way around to the front of the chest and knelt, touching the lock with her small fingers. Yes, she could open it now. Pulling the torsion wrench and one of the picks out of the small kit, she went to work on the old lock, never once questioning how she knew how to do this.
It took a few minutes to get the lid open, big as it was, but Rachel grinned as she looked down into the chest. Mostly it seemed to be books, papers, and pictures but there were a few other things. A set of throwing knives, a pistol, a long slim blade, an odd set of gloves with claws on the palms. They’re for climbing. Rachel wasn’t sure how she knew. She just did. With a shrug, she turned, grabbing the bear she’d dropped and pocketing the lock picks set. It sounded like the rain and stopped and that meant that she could go play outside again.
The little boy ran down the street, bare feet slapping loudly on the dirt road. He was laughing and smiling, with a wooden toy sword clutched tightly in one hand. There was to be a Triumph today for the returning legionnaires. He was especially excited because the armored man Mama couldn’t see had said that his father had brought home a surprise for them. The armored man was following after him, passing through the crowd without hesitation.
“Cato, slow. You don’t want to run into someone.”
The boy slowed with a sigh and waited for the man to catch up.
“But I want to see. I heard there were elephants and everything.”
“You’ll see soon enough.”
Cato smiled brightly up at the armored man as they walked through the crowd and began to notice. No one else could see the man he spoke to, no one but one of the legionnaires returning home from far Germania. Marcellus smiled when he saw the family Lare standing with his son and his eyes widened when he realized that young Cato could see the spirit as well. If it was coming on him this young, then perhaps, just perhaps, there was a bright future ahead for Cato in the service of the gods. They hadn’t caught it young enough for Marcellus, but they had for Cato, and he would have all the chances he needed to succeed.
There are a few different classifications of dead people, and that’s the problem. Most of them, thank whatever, move on. I don’t know where they go. That’s not my job. My job is the other kinds. The never-were, the lost, the malefactors, and the desperate. That’s what I call them. The never-were are the ones I hate to meet the most. They’re a mixed bag of child spirits, some of them died young and some were just wanted so badly that they couldn’t leave. The lost at least don’t know what they are. They keep going about their lives with no idea that anything’s changed. It can get unnerving with the old ones. They don’t know how the newer buildings work and they end up going through them. The malefactors are pretty much what it says on the tin. They’re bad. If it tries to crawl into someone, kill someone, take over and destroy things, then it’s a malefactor. The scariest though, are the desperate. Malefactors do it because they have to, because evil and destruction is their nature. The desperate want to. They’re trying to find a way to cling to life in any way they can. They ride in other people’s bodies and try to reclaim who they were, they refuse to give up their past. All in all, it’s a bad time. Sometimes, though, it’s hard to tell what kind you’re dealing with. The lines blur and that’s when things get dangerous. That was probably how I ended up backed into a corner with four children smiling up at me. Their eyes weren’t black when I let them in. I know they weren’t. I know the rules. But today, it looked like the rules were being broken.
“Don’t worry. Our parents are on the way.”
I could hear the front door opening and my pulse hammered in my ears, blotting out the rest of what they said. Slow, deliberate footsteps made their way up my stairs and I turned towards the sound, dreading what I might see. My blood ran cold as I stared into my own eyes. The other me smiled slowly and walked forward, placing a hand on the shoulder of the tallest of the children.
“Now don’t worry, dear, there will be more than enough for all of us to feast.”
“Mommy, I found a dinosaur.”
That was the phrase that greeted me when I walked into the backyard. And there was my little girl, hands outstretched cradling the little blue egg. We took it inside and made a nice warm nest, while I tried to decide how to break the news that the little creature inside was no such thing. Well, certainly birds were the far-flung descendants of dinosaurs, so it wasn’t a complete lie. It would have to do for now. Maybe this could be a chance to teach about evolution. Weeks passed and every day the little egg was tended to with care until one day I heard a giggle and a honking noise. There she was, up on a stool to look into the nest-box and there was a small four-legged scaly creature with a large neck frill and three horns. It honked up at me and I stared back in shock.
“I told you I found a dinosaur.”
They had known about the fire. They had even known the stories the neighborhood kids all seemed to tell about how some night you could still smell the smoke and still see figures at the windows, even when no one lived in the old house. But the Mason family didn’t have a choice. It was what they could afford. The house had been rebuilt, of course. There were all sorts of safety features built in now. Everything was as safe as they could possibly make it. But that did nothing to stop the sounds in the night. Tanya Mason, five years old and exuberantly excited to have her own room for the first time ever, had carefully set her horses out on the new desk that sat in her room as a promise of starting school at the end of the summer. Now, she lay on her bed in the dim light of her night-light and listened. There were the scratches in the walls. Everyone knew about those. Her Daddy said it was probably mice and had laid traps. There were the bangs from the basement. Daddy had called the oil man and he’d said the furnace was just fine. But here was the part that only Tanya knew about: the voices
Another late night spent in the library meant another night alone as far as Kathy was concerned. The patrons had long since left and she had set up the old radio to add some music to the air while she worked on some clean-up and repairs in the children’s room. Running the vacuum over the floor, she sang along to the music and tried to ignore the overwhelming feeling like she was being followed. Then she noticed the toys cleaning themselves up. All but the one shabby doll that hung in the air as though carried. Kathy took a deep breath and flicked the vacuum off. Walking over towards the toy corner, she spoke softly, almost not believing herself.
It was as if the boy’s name was a spell. There were the messy red curls over the freckled cheeks and bright blue eyes. There were the half fastened over-alls and stained, striped shirt.
“I was helpin’, Miss Kathy. On account Mama a’ways says it’s good to clean up toys when you play with ‘em.”
Her hands were shaking but she managed to get them under control. So, the library really was haunted…by an old woman who checked in books and a little boy who put his toys away. Well, it could have been worse.
“When we’re all done cleaning, would you like me to read you a story?”
“Oh golly, Miss Kathy, that’d be real nice.” He hugged the little doll tight and smiled up at her. “Can you read the one ‘bout the pokey little puppy?”