Little Boy Lost
by Shirley Damsgaard

One more mile, just one more mile was my mantra. The gravel crunched under my feet while I walked down the road. Hot sunshine beat on my back. My arms moved in rhythm with my heart. Sweat ran down my back in tiny rivulets and made of my shirt stick. Clouds of tiny gnats swarmed above my head, but I ignored them. Work off the stress, just keep moving. Don't think about Justin, don't think about the school, and donít think about psychologists. Almost past the cemetery, I heard a voice calling me.

'Hey, lady, c'mere.'

I looked that way. A small boy about Justin's age hung on the gate of the cemetery, swinging back and forth.

'Hey,' I yelled, 'you shouldn't be playing on that gate. You'll break it.'

He grinned and shrugged. 'So?'

'And why aren't you in school?' I said, walking closer.

His impish grin changed, and crossing his eyes, he stuck out his tongue.

My anger spurted. That's it - I'd had enough of cheeky little boys recently. I veered off the road and ran toward the gate.

When he saw me coming, he scrambled off the gate and ran. He was getting away. I ran harder. Almost to the gate, I heard his laughter drift through the air and he disappeared among the pine trees and into the cemetery. At the gate, my tired legs gave out. Gasping, unsteady after my short burst of speed, I grabbed it. The only sound left now was my wheezing and the wind whispering in the pines.

I stood, trying to catch my breath, when I noticed something lying in the grass at my feet. An old wooden ball, worn and dirty. The wood had been rubbed clean of its red paint, leaving bare spots. Probably belonged to the boy.

I thought about the boy while I rolled the ball around in my hands. So disrespectful, he really did deserve to lose it. Maybe it would teach him a lesson - maybe next time, he wouldn't stick his tongue out at strangers. I slipped the ball in my pocket and headed for home.

When I walked in the door, the light on the answering machine was winking. I shuddered and hit play.

'Mrs. Reed, this is Mrs. Fairchild, the school principal. We've had another problem with Justin. I need you to come to the office as soon as possible.'

Oh God, what had he done now? Scratching? Hitting? Or stealing again?

The school's halls were filled with children, happy children. My son was not one of them. He sat in the office, his eyes downcast.

'Justin, what happened?'

'Mom, I didn't do it, I swear. They don't like me and they just want to get me in trouble.'

'That's what you said last time.'

I looked up to see Mrs. Fairchild, towering over us.

'Would you step in my office, Mrs. Reed? Justin.'

We followed Mrs. Fairchild and assumed the now familiar positions. She sat behind her desk and Justin and me in chairs facing her. The room was silent except for the ticking of the old schoolhouse clock behind her desk. I waited; dreading what Mrs. Fairchild was about to tell me.

'Mrs. Reed, I'll get right to the point. A paperweight belonging to Justin's teacher disappeared from her desk. It was found in Justin's locker. Given his past history, his locker was the first place we looked.'

Her words fell like stones in the quiet room. No one said anything, while the sound of the clock counted off the seconds. Justin sat with his head down and his fingers plucked at his shirt. His hair had fallen across his forehead, but I resisted the urge to brush it back. Tick-tock, tick-tock.

'Justin, why did you take it?' I asked. I watched while tears seeped from beneath his downcast lashes. 'Justin, I want an explanation.'

Without warning, Justin's face scrunched with anger. He jumped to his feet and turned toward me. 'I already told you, I didn't do it.' His voice drowned out the sound of the clock. 'I told you they hate me. I want to go home. I hate this school.'

'That's enough Justin. We do not tolerate that kind of behavior in this office.'

Mrs. Fairchildís words acted like a bucket of cold water. Justin slumped back into his chair and stared at the floor.

'If you didn't do it, who did?' Mrs. Fairchild asked.

'The boy did it.' Justinís face was a sullen mask.

'What boy?'

'I don't know his name.'

'I'm sorry Justin, but that's not good enough. I know it's been difficult for you, adjusting to a new school, making new friends. However, that's not an excuse for bad behavior. You leave me no choice but to give you an in-school suspension.'

Justin's head came up with a jerk. His eyes narrowed, and he glared at Mrs. Fairchild. Another tirade was building. But Mrs. Fairchild's gaze never wavered. Justin's stare dropped to his lap and fingers plucked his shirt again. While I watched Justin, my failure as a mother hung on my shoulders like a mantle. I forgot about the boy in the cemetery.

'You never believe me,' Justin said, slinging his backpack to the kitchen floor.

My stomach tightened. Stay calm. Remember what Dr. Martin said. I'm the mother. I'm in charge. Don't play into Justin's anger.

I sighed. 'Come on. What am I supposed to believe? They found it in your locker.' My hands gripped the chair, turning my knuckles white.

'You're my mother; you're supposed to stick up for me. Dad would.'

The old 'Dad-treats-me-better-than-you card.' Justin's favorite ploy to manipulate me.

'Your dad isn't here and that isn't the point. Stealing is wrong and you have to face the consequences.'

Justin's face turned red, and the veins in his neck stood out. 'How many times do I have to tell you, I didn't do it.' His voice ricocheted off the kitchen walls.

I winced and tried to keep my voice calm against the rising tide of Justin's rage. 'Honey, Dr. Martin talked to you about this --'

'I hate Dr. Martin. I hate you. I wish I were dead.'

My hand had almost reached his face before I stopped. Oh, God, I'd come close to slapping him. I let my shaking hand fall to my side. Justin stood glaring at me. His face was white and his thin little body trembled. A scared, lost little boy. Weariness washed over me. How were we going to get through this? How did he ever become so lost?

'Justin, listen -- '

'Leave me alone.' He turned and ran from the room, his feet pounding up the stairs. A few seconds later the door to his room slammed shut.

The storm had passed. Quiet, so quiet now. I heard the clock on the stove hum and the click-click of the second hand while I stood in the center of the kitchen and cried for my poor, lost, little boy.

__________________________________


'Mom, I'm really sorry about yesterday.'

I turned to see Justin standing in the kitchen doorway. His hair tousled and his pajamas buttoned crooked, but his face was smooth - no anger. I could see the spattering of freckles across his nose. My heart felt as if it would burst - I loved that child so much.

'Hey, you. Come here.' I pulled him close to me. 'I love you. You know that, don't you?'

He nodded.

'I know all of this has been very hard for you. The divorce, moving to a new town, a adjusting to a new school, making new friends. It'll be okay, I promise. But you can't keep taking things that don't belong to you.'

His body stiffened, and he pulled away from me. 'Mom, I didn't do it.'

'We'll talk about this when we see Dr. Martin, okay?'

He nodded once more, his eyes not meeting mine.

'Look, it's Saturday. Why don't we do something fun today? Just you and me.'

'Can you put the swing up in that big tree, like you promised? We can go get the stuff and I'll help,' Justin said, grinning.

I groaned. The big maple that grew in the backyard had to be fifty feet high, perfect for a rope swing. Justin loved playing there.

'All right, but if I fall off the ladder, you have to catch me.' I grabbed him and tickled until he squirmed and giggled. My sprits lightened at the sound.

Two hours later, I perched near the top of a twelve-foot ladder, tying the heavy rope around the thick limb. Justin stood at the bottom, supervising.

'Is this going to be long enough?' I asked.

'Yeah. This is great, Mom.'

I looked down at him. His face wore a big smile while he shifted from one foot to the other and back.

'Well, you be careful on it. No funny stuff.' I gave the rope a firm tug to tighten it.

'I won't. Timmy said we would have lots of fun playing on it. He had a swing just like this.'

'Who's Timmy? A boy from your class?' I asked, climbing down the ladder.

'No, he's just a friend. He told me I should be nicer to you.'

Well, good for Timmy. I needed all the help I could get.

'Do you want to ask Timmy over to play?'

'Naw. He shows up when he wants to.' Justin sat in the swing and gave himself a big push with his feet. 'Mama, would you miss me if I were gone?'

I smiled. 'Why? You plan to take a trip?'

Justin giggled from the swing when it whizzed by me. 'No.'

'Why did you ask me that, then?' I watched while he pumped the swing harder.

'Oh, Timmy said some mamas don't miss their children when they're gone.'

'Timmy's wrong. All mothers miss their children when they're gone,' I said, shading my eyes while I watched the swing carry him back. With each pass, he went a little higher.

'Timmy's mama doesn't miss him. She left him.'

Poor kid.

'Have I met this Timmy?'

'Yeah.' His legs pumped hard, pushing the swing higher and higher. 'He said you took his ball. He wants it back, too.'

I grabbed the swing and stopped him. 'Wait a second - he's the boy I saw at the cemetery?'

Justin looked up at me. 'Yeah.'

'Where does he live?' I let go of the swing and Justin pushed off again.

'I dunno. Somewhere around here, I guess. I wasn't supposed to tell, but he was the one who took the paperweight.'

'What? Justin, stop swinging.'

His feet scuffed the ground and the swing skidded to a stop.

'You told Mrs. Fairchild you didn't know Timmy's name. Why did you lie to her?'

Justin twisted the swing, making it spin him around. 'I told you, I wasn't supposed to tell and I'm not going to rat on my friends. He didn't mean anything by it. Timmy just likes to play tricks on people, that's all.'

'He's not a very good friend if he gets you in trouble.'

'He said he was sorry.'

'I don't care. Friends don't do that to each other. And stop spinning. You could get tangled up in the rope and get hurt,' I said, crossing my arms. 'I don't want you hanging out with him anymore. I'm sorry if his mother isn't around, but he's not a good influence if he steals things and let's you take the blame.'

Justin groaned. 'Mom, he's my friend, my only friend. The other kids are mean to me.'

'No, they're not. I mean it. I don't want you to be friends with him. I think you should tell Mrs. Fairchild about Timmy.'

'Can't -- she wouldn't understand.' He twisted the swing again.

'Justin, I said not to do that.'

He stopped and looked up at me.

'Okay, you don't have to tell Mrs. Fairchild, but I want you to make new friends.' I bent over and picked up the ladder. When I straightened up, I noticed a toy soldier lying in the grass at the base of the tree. I picked it up.

'Justin, is this yours?' I asked, holding up the soldier.

'No, thatís Timmy's. He must have left it here,' he said as he swung past me.

'When was Timmy here?'

'Last night, after you went to bed.'

Shocked, I stopped the swing. 'Justin, you let someone in the house after I went to bed?'

'He heard me crying, so he came. He does that a lot.'

My heart sank. I was afraid to ask the next question.

'Justin, is Timmy pretend?'

'Nope. He's real.'

'Did you let him in?'

'No. I don't know how he gets in, but he does.'

Great. A strange kid coming in our house without my knowledge. Just what I needed. 'If he ever shows up again, you are to tell me immediately. I'm talking to his father about this.'

The next morning, while we were standing in the produce aisle, I turned to my sister. 'I swear, Nell, I don't know what to do next.'

She held up a cantaloupe. 'Does this look fresh to you?'

'Did you hear what I said?'

'Yes.'

'Well?'

Nell carefully placed it back on top of the others. 'I don't know what to tell you, Meg. Justin's a sweet kid, but the temper tantrums and the stealing have to stop. What does Dan have to say about it?'

I snorted. 'Dan? He doesn't want to accept Justin might have problems. Whenever I try to discuss it with him, he somehow turns it around, and I wind up feeling it's all my fault, that I'm failing as a mother.'

'Figures,' Nell said while she pushed her cart farther down the aisle. 'Dan never was any good at accepting responsibility. Didn't he try and convince you it was your fault he cheated?'

'Something like that.'

Nell's eyebrows knit together. 'I don't know why his attitude surprises me. He was a jerk when you married him, he was a jerk while you were married to him. So it only stands to reason, he'd still be a jerk.'

'What happened between Dan and me isn't important now. Justin's problems are what matter now.'

'What does Dr. Martin say?'

'He still thinks it's attention deficit disorder. But I don't think the medication is helping. He's still throwing tantrums, still stealing.' I shook my head.

'Does Justin ever talk about the divorce?'

'Only when he's mad, then he tells me it's my fault his dad left us.'

Nell leaned over and gave me a hug. 'Poor Meg, everyone wants to blame you for something, don't they?' She stepped back and smiled. 'You're doing the best you can, you know.'

I looked away, so she wouldn't see the sudden tears in my eyes.

Glancing around the dingy little store, it reminded me of the corner grocery in our old neighborhood. It had the same industrial green paint and the same cracked linoleum. Once a week, Nell and I had walked up the block to the store to buy a bottle of pop. And once a week, Nell had to save me from the big German shepherd that lived between our house and the store. He barked and strained at his chain, while I cowered behind Nell, clinging to her arm. She pulled me along, past the dog, while she yelled at him.

I smiled at the memory. It must have been quite a show for the neighborhood. I wish I could cower behind her now, like I had when I was a child. Let her save me - save Justin.

Lost in my thoughts, it seemed I heard the clock in the back of the store ticking. I glanced at Nell. Did she hear it, too? No, she was busy reading the back of a cereal box.

'Nell -- '

Nell looked up. 'Oh oh. Gossip alert. Incoming at twelve o'clock.' She jerked her head toward two women approaching us.

Two elderly ladies pushed their carts directly at us, effectively blocking the aisle and any chance of escape. Their faces wore wide smiles and their eyes glinted.

'Good morning, Nell. How are you?'

'Fine, Mrs. Carter. Mrs. Thomas.' Nell nodded. 'And you?'

'We're in pretty good shape for the shape we're in,' Mrs. Thomas said.

Mrs. Carter cackled at her friend's humor, then turned and stared at me.

'Oh, I'm sorry. You haven't met my sister, have you? Meg, I'd like you to meet Mrs. Carter and Mrs. Thomas,' Nell said.

'Nice to meet you,' they said together.

'How do you like it here, Meg?' Mrs. Carter asked.

'Very well, thank you. It's great to be close to Nell again.'

Smiling, they nodded in unison.

'Finding everything you need?' Mrs. Thomas asked.

'Yes, everyone has been very helpful.'

They nodded again, smiles still firmly in place. They were beginning to remind me of those plastic dogs people put in the rear window of their cars - the ones with the heads that bob up and down continuously.

'Aren't you renting the old McAlister place?' Mrs. Carter's smile widened and her eyes brightened.

'Yes, I am.'

Again with the nodding.

'Do you like it?'

'Yes, I do. In fact, Mr. McAlister has offered to sell it to me.' Nell's foot made contact with my right ankle. I turned and glared at her. When I turned to the ladies, their smiles had vanished and their nodding had stopped.

'Oh, dear.' Mrs. Carter looked at Mrs. Thomas, who shook her head as if to say no.

'Is there something wrong with the house?' I asked, puzzled at the sudden change in them.

Neither one would look at me. Their eyes were locked on each other, and silent communication seemed to pass between them.

Mrs. Thomas turned her head and stared at the shelves behind me. 'No, no, not really wrong, but --'

'It was nice to meet you, Meg, but we have to go. We both have hair appointments. Come on, Blanche.' Mrs. Carter made a move to push past us with her cart.

Nell moved her cart slightly, blocking their escape. 'Wait a second. What's going on? What aren't you telling us about the McAlister place?'

Mrs. Carter turned to Mrs. Thomas, who gave a slight nod. 'There are stories about the house.'

'What kind of stories? I've never heard any,' Nell said.

'You wouldn't, dear. It's been a long time since the last one happened. It was, what, the summer of 1930?' Mrs. Carter turned to her sister.

'Yes, the same summer ten of Daddy's cows died,' Mrs. Thomas replied.

'So, what happened?' Nell asked.

'One of the children who lived in the house committed suicide. He hung himself in the attic. There had always been stories about his family, how his father mistreated the children, but no one expected one of them to kill himself. It caused a big scandal,' Mrs. Carter said.

'That's tragic, but it happened, what 70 years ago? Why would it matter now?' Nell asked.

Mrs. Carter shifted from one foot to the other. Mrs. Thomas stared at the cracked linoleum. Both women refused to look at Nell.

Finally, Mrs. Thomas looked at Nell. 'Because he wasn't the first. Five children have died in that house over the years, and all by hanging. Either accidentally or by their own hand.'

They looked at each other. Mrs. Carter gripped the handle of her shopping cart with her gnarled hands and gave it a hard push, knocking Nell's out of the way.

'We really must go,' Mrs. Thomas said over her shoulder, following Mrs. Carter.

They hurried off, their heads together, whispering. Nell and I stood in the aisle, speechless.

The house was quiet, too quiet. The only sound was the ticking of the grandfather clock in the hallway. It had just chimed eleven. I sat alone at the kitchen table - thinking. Was this house cursed? Nell had scoffed at the old ladies' superstitions. She said probably neither one of them had ever been out of the county. Their lives were dull, so what did I expect? The idea of a cursed house gave them some excitement, something to talk about. But I wondered. Why had five children died there?

I pushed away from the table and paced the room, hugging myself tightly. The kitchen became too small and the ticking of the clock grew louder. It seemed to tick faster and faster. I suddenly felt like I was running out of time. My panic rose and I couldn't breathe. I ran out the door and onto the porch.

While I stood there, trying to catch my breath, I saw the harvest moon shining down. Clouds raced across its face and dimmed its brightness. From a distance, I heard a sound - not the tick, tick of the clock, but creak, creak. The sound Justin made when he swung back and forth on the swing. Was it the wind or was it Justin? I rushed up the stairs to his room.

The door bounced against the wall when I pushed it open. Justin's sheets lay in a tangled wad at the foot of his bed - his empty bed. He was on that damn swing again, and at this time of night.

I rushed to the window. In the light of the moon, I saw two silhouettes by the maple tree. Two little boys and one was Justin. The light shone on his blond hair, giving him away. The other boy must be that Timmy, I thought. What kind of father lets his eight-year-old wander around the neighborhood this time of night? I intended to find out.

When I reached the tree, they were gone. Where were those little devils? Creak, creak. The swing drifted back and forth in the wind. The same wind tugged at me while I scanned the road. There, down the driveway, the glimmer of Justin's blond hair. I took off after them, and in my head, I thought I could hear the ticking of a clock.

They saw me and, instead of waiting, ran down the road. Ha, they knew they were in trouble and I could hardly wait to get my hands on them. They were going to be two sorry little boys.

I chased them down the road, running to the rhythm of the clock inside my head, but they were fast. They stayed in front of me, all the way to the cemetery. They ducked through the gate and I lost sight of them in the pine trees.

Clutching the gate, I stopped to catch my breath. I'd already lost that kid once in the cemetery, and I wasn't going to do it again. The clock ticked faster. I pushed away from the gate and jogged down the lane.

On either side of it, the headstones stood like silent sentinels, guarding the dead. The full moon illuminated the smooth stone faces and cast eerie shadows behind them. Over the sound of wind in the pines, I could hear the faint voices of the two boys. I ran toward the voices.

In the older part of the cemetery, the boys sat in front of a headstone, talking quietly, but their voices reached me.

'It won't hurt, I promise,' the boy, Timmy, said.

Justin picked at the dead leaves by the headstone. 'I'm scared. Besides, Mom said she would too miss me.'

'Ha, that's what my mama always said too, but she left me anyway. You told me your mama didn't like you.'

'I said that when I was mad at her. Maybe I was wrong.'

'You're a chicken.'

'Am not.'

'Then do it. We'll have lots of fun. We can play tricks on everybody - that ol' Mrs. Fairchild, Dr. Martin - everybody that's been mean to you. And they'll never catch us.'

'I don't know.'

Timmy jumped to his feet and kicked at the headstone. 'You said you were my friend, but you're just like the others. Even if you did have guts enough to do it, you'd probably leave me, too. Just like they did. And I helped them. Their mama and daddy hurt them. They were better off with me.'

Justin stood. 'I wouldn't leave you.'

Timmy took a step closer to Justin. 'Then do it - it's easy. You just wrap the rope around your neck and jump. I did it and I didn't even mean to. The rope just kinda tangled around my neck.'

A cloud suddenly blew across the moon, casting the cemetery and Justin in darkness, but not Timmy. He seemed to glow with an unnatural light. A rope lay at his feet. I froze - I couldn't move.

Oh my God! Oh my God! Justin was going to die. And the clock, ticking in my brain, stopped. A scream from deep in my soul fought its way out.

'No!' I fell to my knees.

The moon reappeared from behind the cloud and I saw both boys looking at me.

'Justin, baby, come here. Get away from him.' I held out my arms to him. 'Please. Please. Don't leave me. I love you.'

Timmy looked at me, then Justin. He jerked his head toward me. 'Look at her bawlin' and cryin'. Oh, go on - I guess she does love you. You're not the right one after all.'

Justin ran to me, fell to the ground, and wrapped his arms around my neck. 'Mom, he wanted me to come with him, but I didn't want to leave you. I'm sorry, Mom. I'll be good, honest I will. I'm sorry Dad left because of me. Don't cry, please.'

While I held Justin tightly in my arms, I raised my head and looked over to where Timmy stood. Tears trickled down each side of his face and the light around him seemed to pulse with sadness.

'Thank you for not taking him.'

'Timmy,' a soft voice whispered on the wind.

Timmy wiped his nose with his ragged sleeve. 'Mama?'

'It's time to come home now.'

'Mama, I didn't leave because of you, but then you left me. I've been looking and looking for you. I've been so lonely.' Timmy moved away from the headstone and walked to the pine trees.

'Shh, it's all over now. We'll be together forever and ever,' the voice sighed.

The light around Timmy grew dim, dimmer, until it faded away completely. And along with it, the boy named Timmy. Peace seemed to float on the wind.

I hugged my son tighter and stroked his head. 'Come on, let's go home.'

We stood and walked hand in hand, past the headstones. I turned and looked while the moonlight shone like a spotlight on one of the stones.

It was carved to look like a tree whose top had been broken off. In the hollow of the tree, a carved bird nested. One limb jutted out from the broken trunk and around the limb was carved a rope, like a rope swing. The rope wound around the trunk, and carved into the trunk's base, was a wooden seat. On the seat was carved - Our Beloved Son, Timmy, 1880-1888.


Shirley Damsgaard lives in Iowa and is the author of the popular Ophelia & Abby paranormal mystery series. Find more information about Shirley and her books at ShirleyDamsgaard.com.

See also at BookLoons' ThrillerChiller Theater: Martina Bexte's Things Are Different in the Country; Mario Acevedo's Wedding Night Feast; The Replacement by Anne Frasier!

Note: The author, Shirley Damsgaard, retains all rights to this story.