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
'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.
I yelled, 'you shouldn't be playing on that gate. You'll break it.'
He grinned and
'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
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
'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
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
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
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
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.
'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
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
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?'
'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
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
'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
'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
'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
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
'Oh, Timmy said some mamas don't miss their children when they're
'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.'
'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
'Where does he live?' I let go of the swing and Justin pushed
'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?'
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
'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
'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
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
'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
'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
'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
'Yes, the same summer ten of Daddy's cows died,' Mrs. Thomas
'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,
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
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.
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.'
'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
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.