The bird perched on the tree for only a moment before flapping colorful wings, and once more taking to flight. Clara watched until it disappeared from sight, catching a leaf falling from the tree branch as her gaze slid back down to the backyard. She followed the leaf’s progress until it, too, was out of sight.
She brought up a hand, brushing her bangs out of her eyes. The day beyond the window was bright, the sun high in the sky. She rested her head against the cool glass as she studied the clouds. She followed the lines of the witch’s profile she saw, her nose pointy, complete with a wart at the tip.
A knock sounded at her closed bedroom door, which Clara gave no notice to.
“Clara? Come on. You have to eat something,” Kerri’s muffled voice said. “Please?”
Clara said nothing, instead continuing to study the clouds. Eventually she heard her sister give a frustrated sigh, then walk away.
“I don’t want food, Kerri,” Clara whispered.
She turned away from the window, lying on her bed, legs stretched out and her hands tucked behind her head. She glanced over at her desk and the cork board mounted above it. Pinned dead center was a picture of her and Jason, big, goofy smile on their unsuspecting faces, an arm draped over the other’s shoulder. She looked at his young, handsome face, meeting his twinkling eyes. The picture had been snapped a few months back while Max had been fooling around with a Polaroid camera.
Clara climbed off her bed, walking to the desk and plucking the picture from its moorings. She realized that Jason hadn’t even known about what had happened between her parents. She hadn’t had a chance to tell him.
“Now you’ll never know,” she said, tracing a finger across the image that was her best friend. “Either that or you’re sitting up there watching. A good show, I’m sure.”
Max’s brow creased as he tried to figure out why the burner wasn’t heating up. “What the hell,” he murmured, passing a hand back and forth over it as he adjusted the turn dial. There was a brief ticking noise, then the unmistakable stench of natural gas. “Shit!” He turned the dial to the “off” position. He stepped back, studying the stove, then decided to use the microwave instead.
The apartment he’d been able to rent was small – two tiny bedrooms, (in case the girls wanted to ever spend the night) a tiny bathroom, decent sized living room, and a hallway kitchen. The furnishings were sparse, as he hadn’t wanted to take anything from the house. He’d managed to buy an old couch off a buddy from work, as well as a horribly scarred kitchen table with three matching chairs. The fourth, apparently, had been thrown out years ago.
Boxes were still stacked everywhere, Max not having the energy or enthusiasm to unpack. Instead, he used a can opener to wrench open a can of Spaghetti-O’s. He dumped the noodles and sauce into a bowl and shoved into the microwave he’d picked up at Wal-Mart for twenty nine ninety-five.
As his lunch heated up, Max walked into the living room, picking up the remote to turn on the TV. He hadn’t just sat and watched TV on a Saturday in years. Typically, they headed out as a family and did something. Or just him and Clara.
Max sighed as he leaned against the counter, his thoughts going to his youngest. He thought back to the day he’d left, and the way his heart had broken when he’d had to leave her. He hadn’t asked either of the girls if they wanted to go with him, not wanting to do that to Stephanie. But, deep in his heart, he had hoped that Clara would speak up and ask to go. If he were honest with himself, he’d looked for a two-bedroom with the expectation that she’d be with him.
The microwave beeped, alerting that his lunch was ready. He pushed off the counter, and was about to grab the handle of the appliance when the phone rang. Only Stephanie and the girls had his number at the moment, so he ran towards the phone in the living room, hurdling a stack of boxes in his haste.
“Hello?” he said, nearly out of breath.
“Hi, sweetie.” Max’s brow drew in concern. “What’s wrong, Kerri?”
The sun was setting. Clara rolled onto her side, her pillow tucked up against her chest as she got settled. She’d been asleep for the majority of the day, not bothering to come out of her bedroom except to use the restroom. Even then, it was only when she saw the coast was clear. She didn’t want to see anyone. Didn’t want to talk to anyone. She didn’t … want.
Her eyes blinked open when she heard some noise from downstairs, though couldn’t tell what it was. Soon after, footfalls fell upon the hallway carpet, leading up to her closed bedroom door. There was muffled voices outside, then a soft, but firm knock.
“Hey, you in there, sweetpea?”
Her eyes shot open, glancing at the barrier that kept her father from view. She longed to run to him, but allowed her stubbornness to speak for her. “Go away!” There was more muffled talking, then the door clicked open. Damn. Why didn’t I lock it? “I said, go away!” she called out again, her father’s head peeking around the opened door. He smiled at her, though it was a sad smile. Clara’s heart leapt at the sight of him.
“Hey, you.” He closed the door gently behind him, trying not to step on anything in the darkened room, knowing his daughter’s propensity for leaving things wherever they fall.
“I don’t wanna see you.”
“Yeah, well, that’s too bad. I wanna see you.” Max sat on the edge of Clara’s bed, a smile on his lips. Despite her words, her recognized Clara’s tone. That was her: I’m-angry-at-you-but-don’t-want-you-to-leave tone. So be it.
Clara felt her stomach clench with building emotion, and she tried to fight it down. She honestly didn’t think she was capable of anymore tears, but apparently she was wrong. Her eyes stung, her head hurt from the abundance of emotion shed over the past two days. She just couldn’t seem to stop, except for when she was asleep.
Max place a hand on her shoulder, gently rolling her to her back. He studied her pale, tear-streaked face, and it made his heart break. “How are you?” he asked softly.
“Had better days.”
“I bet. Kerri says you haven’t been out of this room in two days. Haven’t eaten. Nothing.” Max waited for a response, but continued when there was none. “You can’t do this to yourself, Clara. Jason wouldn’t want this for you.”
At the mention of her best friend’s name, Clara burst into near hysterical tears. Max was taken aback, but recovered quickly, gathering her up and pulling until she curled up in his lap, just like when she was a little girl.
“It’s okay, sweetpea,” he whispered, rocking her as she cried. “I’m here now. I’m here.”
For the first time in two days, Clara felt as though she were really, finally able to let it go. She’d done her fair share of crying, but never felt very satisfied from it. But now, in the arms of her father, she really let go. She was comforted by the soft words he murmured, most of which she couldn’t understand, nor did it matter what they were. He was there, and that’s what mattered.
Max was relieved when Clara’s tears began to slow then subside altogether. Kerri and Stephanie had filled him in on what had happened to Jason, as well as how hard Clara had taken it. Kerri had mentioned that Clara had had a bad dream about it, and had been worried. Max said nothing, but his jaw had clenched, and the way his wife refused to meet his eyes, he knew they would need to have a talk later. But for now, Clara needed him. He smoothed back the girl’s hair from her face, wiping her tears away.
Clara pulled away slightly, just enough to grab a tissue from the box on her bed, and blew her nose and wiped her face and neck. “Did you hear what happened?” she asked at length.
Max nodded. “Kerri and your mom told me.”
She looked up at him with big, tearful eyes. “Was he wearing his seatbelt?” she asked. “Kerri didn’t tell me any details.”
Max sighed, then shook his head. “No, he wasn’t. He was thrown out when the car rolled.”
Clara squeezed her eyes shut, trying to block out images that she realized had now been a vision, not a nightmare. “And his dad?”
“He’s in serious condition in the hospital. He’s alive.”
Clara was silent for such a long time, Max thought she’d drifted off to sleep. “Dad?” she finally said.
“Yeah, honey?” he murmured, leaning down to kiss the top of her head.
“I saw it happen. I knew it was going to.”
Max had dreaded this, but knew it was coming. He tried to swallow down his anger for Clara’s sake. “Tell me about it.”
Clara took a long moment before she recounted the dream to him. “I knew it, Dad,” she whispered, staring off into the memory of her vision. “I knew it. I knew that if I could just warn him. Warn his dad to check their tires…”
Max felt cold inside, as he knew that likely the boy’s life could have been saved with one phone call. “Why didn’t you?” he asked. “Call, I mean.”
“I tried. Mom wouldn’t let me.” Clara felt Max tense beneath her, and she held up a hand to forestall his anger. “Wait, before you get upset. It was four in the morning. She thought it could wait until morning.”
Max said nothing, instead pulling his daughter back to him, placing a kiss on the top of her head. He didn’t want her to see the anger building in him. His eyes were sharp, his jaw clenching and unclenching.
“Will you go to the funeral with me?”
“Of course, sweetpea. Of course.”
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Max fired, getting dangerously close to invading Stephanie’s personal space. He was having a hell of a time keeping his rage in check.
“How was I supposed to know it was a vision she had, Max?” she raged back. “It was four in the morning! Was I supposed to just let her call and wake up Jason’s dad because of a bad dream? Be realistic.”
Max lowered his voice as he took a step closer to Stephanie. “You know damn well that Clara isn’t a regular kid, Stephanie. You also know damn well that when she is that passionate about something, there’s usually a reason. She’s a sensible kid. She doesn’t just go off on a lark on a regular basis.” He turned away from her, running a hand through his hair. “You should have listened to her.”
Stephanie was near tears. Since Kerri had run out and told her and Clara what had happened two days ago, she had been riddled with guilt and shame. “I didn’t know,” she whispered. “I really didn’t know. I never would have wished anything bad to happen to that boy, Max. You have to know that.”
“I do know that, Steph, but I also know that you refuse to see what Clara is capable of. You had a bad experience when you were a kid. You were haunted by a fucking spirit.” He whirled on her. “Does that mean you have to deny Clara her own gifts, which from what I hear, likely came from you!”
Stephanie bristled at the reminder of her terrifying childhood. “That’s not fair, and you know it. I’m not an oracle. I don’t know what to belief as pure fact, and what to believe is simply a bad dream. We all have them! How was I supposed to know!” Her grief and anger at herself came out in a room-shattering yell, which startled Max.
“Well, now maybe you know.” Max tried to reign in his temper, able to fully see how badly Stephanie was suffering. Though he was terribly angry at her, he knew she would feel guilty about it for the rest of her life. He sighed, once again running a hand through his hair, making it stand up on end. “This is part of the problem with us, Stephanie. You see what you want to see. Not what’s right in front of you. When it was mainly just with me, fine. I’m an adult, I can handle it. But Clara is a fourteen year old girl. A child! She needs to know that she can go to you. She can confide in you and feel safe that you won’t turn her away, or ignore her, or pretend her abilities don’t exist. ‘Cause I got news for you, Stephanie, she does. Clara is special, and nothing you say or do will ever change that. Get used to it.”
The sky was a curious shade of gray. Clara had never seen anything quite like it. Clouds were indeed moving in, but they didn’t look threatening. There wasn’t the smell of rain in the air. It was just a gray sky. She heard a bird squawk somewhere off in the distance, which brought her numbly back to the reason of being out in the gray day.
The crowd at the cemetery wasn’t nearly as large as it had been at the church, but it was still huge, mourners trampling over graves, trying not to run into headstones and monuments as they gathered as closely to the green tent covering Jason’s place of rest, as they could.
Jason’s father had not been able to attend, as he was still in a hospital in the mid-west. Jason’s mother, whom Clara had never met, sat in the first row. Her quiet sobs could be heard above the minister’s words. Clara didn’t care what the minister had to say, as it was all flowery sentiment, anyway. She knew it had no bearing on where Jason had gone, or how quickly he get there. What was done was already done.
Max stood behind his daughter, his hands on her shoulders. He had been keeping a careful eye on her all day, somewhat concerned with her extreme calm. Stephanie and Kerri had joined them, though Stephanie had kept her distance somewhat from Clara. She knew Clara was deeply, profoundly touched by what had happened, and felt that she had no place at the moment to offer condolences or comfort. She just hoped that in time her daughter could forgive her.
Clara glanced beyond the gathered mourners, looking out into the rest of the beautifully maintained cemetery. She noticed a woman sitting on one of the many stone benches scattered throughout the grounds. At first she thought the woman was visiting a grave when she realized she recognized the woman. She recognized her dark hair, the bangs pinned back away from her face. She sat quietly, one leg crossed over the other, her gaze fixed on Clara. The woman smiled, and Clara wasn’t’ sure what to think.
The girl looked away, turning her attention back to the situation at hand when again, she felt her eye pulled away from Jason’s services, and back toward the stone bench. The woman was still sitting there. Clara knew it was the same woman who she’d seen standing just in front of the backyard gate the night she took the trash out.
I’ll come to you when you’re ready.
Clara heard the words as clear as day in her mind, yet knew they weren’t her thoughts. She watched as the woman raised her hand in a quick wave, then stood from the bench, walking off into the cemetery, fading out of sight as she got further away.
“Everything okay?” Max asked, glancing over to where Clara seemed to be visually riveted.
Clara nodded. “Fine.”
Max squeezed her shoulders and the minister continued on.
After the services, everyone reconvened in the church basement for a dinner held in Jason’s honor. The space was a big, open room where foldable tables and chairs had been set up. A buffet-style lunch was being served at the front of the room, people talking to each other as they stood in line, waiting for their turn, many with plastic Dixie plate in hand.
Clara and her family had taken a table about halfway down the rows. Stephanie had disappeared to find the restroom while Kerri had found a couple of her friends who had come in support. Max sat across from his youngest, holding her hands in his. He studied her face – a poker face. Completely expressionless. He was very worried about her. At least when she was crying he knew what she was feeling. But this…
“Hey, guys. Mind if my friend, Abby joins us?”
Max and Clara looked up to see Kerry standing at the head of the table, her blonde soccer teammate in tow. Clara felt her breath catch, and nervous butterflies take flight.
“No, hon, that’s fine. You girls have a seat,” Max said unaware of the state of turmoil Clara’s emotions had suddenly become. To make things worse, Abby sat in the chair to Clara’s left.
Clara looked straight ahead, unable to meet the older girl’s intense, green gaze, which she could feel on her.
“Listen, Clara, um,” Abby said, her voice soft. “I wanted to say I’m really sorry about your friend. It’s terrible what happened to him.” She paused, sipping from the plastic Dixie cup filled with iced tea. “I also thought you should know that you were right. About my grandma.”
That got Clara’s attention. She looked over at the girl, taking a huge gulp of air first to settle her nerves. It didn’t work. “Thank you – for Jason. And, she’s okay?”
Abby nodded enthusiastically. “Not only is she okay, but after the surgery we had to put her in one of those homes. She met Jed there.”
“Her new boyfriend. See, my grandfather died back in the 1970s, and she’s been alone. They’re very happy.”
Clara’s grin was small, but genuine. “I’m so glad. Thanks for telling me.”
“Come on, Abby. The line has gone down. Let’s get some food.”
Clara watched as Abby joined her friend, and they pushed through the waves of people and to the food line.
“You hungry? Want to get some food?” Max asked, nodding toward the laden tables.
“Not really,” Clara muttered.
“Honey, you’ve barely eaten since all this happened. You really need to eat.” He met her gaze with a steady one of his own. “Okay?”
“Here we go,” Stephanie said, suddenly materializing, seemingly from nowhere. She had a heaped plate balanced on either palm, setting one down in front of Max, and a second in front of Clara.
“This is a ton of food, Mom,” the girl complained, noting the pasta, salad, roll with butter, small piece of carrot cake, and a huge meatball. She quickly glanced up to see if she could catch another glimpse of Abby in the food line, but her mother inadvertently sat in the exact spot that would block her view. Clara turned her attention back to her food.
“I know it is, but I wasn’t sure what you’d want. Just eat what you want.” Stephanie, not all that hungry herself, picked a carrot of her daughter’s plate, and took a roll she’d put on Max’s plate for herself.
Clara felt horrible, knowing that her mother was doing all that she could to make it up to her. During the past couple days, having Max back in her life, Clara had made a decision, and she knew it would break her mother’s heart. It was a much easier decision to make when she was angry with Stephanie. She wanted to live with her dad.
Clara kept her attention on her packing, neatly folding a t-shirt before settling it inside the suitcase with the others. Her mother stood on the other side of her bed, doing the same. Things had been tense in the Greenwold house for the past week, since the night of Jason’s funeral when Clara had made her intensions known. Just as she’d feared, her mother had been deeply hurt, and Kerri hadn’t spoken to her all week.
“Is it something I did, Clara?” Stephanie asked, suddenly breaking the silence.
Clara glanced up at her mother, who refused to meet her daughter’s gaze. “No,” she said, her voice quiet.
“Then why, Clara?” Stephanie asked, slamming down the pair of shorts she had been folding. “Why are you breaking up your family?”
“Mom, I can’t talk to you about this,” Clara said, feeling defensive.
“Why?” Stephanie’s anger and hurt was full-blown, now. “Why can’t you talk to me? Why won’t you talk to me? Am I that bad?”
Clara felt her heart pounding, but let her own anger get her through. “Because you’ll judge me!” she cried, glaring. “You judge everything I do. You don’t accept me for me, and I can’t stand it! You didn’t listen to me, and now Jason is dead because of it. Dad listens! He understands, or at least tries to!’ Clara was trembling as years of rage and hurt came out in one huge burst.
A pregnant silence filled the room as both looked away, unable to meet the other’s gaze for their own reasons. Finally Stephanie headed towards the door. “You’d better hurry. Your dad will be here soon.” With that, she left, slamming the door behind her.
Clara collapsed on the bed, feeling bad, but knowing that she had to be honest. She had to finally say what had been bothering her for years. Unexpectedly, she felt a short, but intense wave of emotion engulf her, and then silent tears sprang from her eyes. She was utterly baffled as she tried to wipe them away. She felt fine – other than really angry – and had no need to cry. As soon as she’d wipe a tear away, two more came to take its place. It was almost as though she were someone else for a moment, and the tears were from them, not from Clara.
Finally the emotion subsided, and Clara shook herself. “That was weird,” she whispered.”
Parting certainly was sweet sorrow - as Clara had read in a Shakespeare play – as she left her mother’s house, and the home she’d grown up in. All of her family memories were in that house, basically. All of her belongings had been loaded into her father’s truck, and now she stood at the front door, Max behind her, looking at an obviously angry Kerri, and her mother, who could barely hold her gaze.
“If you need anything, you call me. Okay?” Stephanie said quietly, doing her best to hold in her tears. Her youngest nodded, and Stephanie took the girl in for a tight hug.
Clara couldn’t help but feel like a traitor of some sort. Especially with the way Kerry was shooting her daggers. She hugged her mother, then stepped away, glancing over at Kerri, who promptly turned and left the room. Well, guess that’s that.
“I love you, Clara,” Stephanie whispered.
“I love you, too.” With that, Clara turned and followed her father out the door, unable to be in the house for a moment longer.
Clara chewed on her bottom lip, shrugging her backpack higher onto her shoulder. She took a deep breath, her gaze scanning over the much larger campus than the high school that was close to her mom’s house. The one where Kerri was a Senior. Now, Clara would start her high school career as a Freshman at John Freed High School.
At one time she had so looked forward to high school. At least she had Jason to start the new phase in their lives. She sighed, sad. Now, she was completely alone. Not only in a new school level, but a new side of town! She had very few friends back in middle school, but at least knew her peers. Not so much, now. Yes, she’d done it to herself, by moving in with her dad. But still…
She was dressed in brand new clothes, a new backpack carrying her new school supplies – pens, (she hated pencils) notebooks, a calculator and folders – and a new haircut. She’d always worn her brown hair long, mostly because Kerri did, but she decided she needed a change. When Clara had first looked in the mirror at the hair salon, she’d nearly swallowed her tongue. It was now short, though not boyish. It was cut in lots of layers so it looked messy and daring. Completely opposite of what Clara really was.
Max had driven her to the school over the weekend so she could see how to get there, and how to get home. The school was less than a mile from her dad’s apartment, so she opted to walk. That is, until he bought her a car the following year. He flat said no, but she intended to work on him over the next year.
The school itself looked like any other high school: long halls with cinderblocks painted obnoxious colors of pastel, and highly-polished linoleum floors. The lockers were painted in alternating green and gold, the school colors, a huge hornet painted on one wall of the gymnasium. Who the hell had a bug as their school mascot, Clara wondered more than once.
Students plowed down the halls in groups and singles, most yelling out to each other after-summer greetings. Clara couldn’t help but feel very alone and small in a sea of people who all seemed to know each other, even though she knew there was no way that was true. It sure felt that way, though.
Her locker was found easily enough. It was one that was painted green, as opposed to the gold on either side. The lock was set firmly in place, and she had to dig out the piece of paper that had been mailed to her, the six-digit locker combination written on it. She tried it a couple of times, her hands trembling from nerves, making her miss the correct number several times before the lock clicked, the heavy padlock falling away from the metal ring that held it in place.
Clara pulled open the metal door, taking in the shelf towards the top, giving a smaller space to put books, the long, lower part for hanging jackets, thus spoke the brass hooks affixed to the side wall of the locker. She let her backpack slide off her shoulder, squatting to unzip it and pull everything out. She only kept one notebook, two pens and a folder in the backpack, stowing the extras on the top nook. She had no jacket, so left the rest of the locker empty.
She felt somewhat safe, almost able to hide behind the opened door of the locker, able to shut out the rest of the activity around her. A glance at her watch told her that she had to be in first period – Italian – in six minutes. With a final sigh, she re-shouldered her now-lighter backpack, and slammed the locker shut, sliding the lock into place, and snapping it home.
The one part of her day that Clara had always hated the most was lunch time. It had always been a lonely, isolated part of her day. Well, since middle school, anyway. There school had been a large one, and had to divide the students into two different lunch periods. All three years – sixth, seventh and eighth grades – she and Jason had opposite lunches. She’d had a few casual friends or acquaintances who had taken pity on her from time to time, but over all, she’d always eaten alone. Just as she was now.
The lunch room was large, much larger than what she was used to from the middle school. Much larger than the high school Kerri went to, too. Her father had given her money to buy a lunch, but she had instead used the five dollars to buy a Coke and a bag of chips from the small cantina. She had very little appetite, and didn’t want to have to stand in line with all the strangers.
The cafeteria was in an open area, near banks of lockers. Tables were set up at the center of the large room, a padded bench running in a semi-circle around the area. On the outside of the benches was more space for people to gather and talk, as well as trashcans, and the cantina. Clara found herself a spot on the outskirts, her back resting against the cold metal of a locker. She watched all the activity, absently sipping her drink, the chips opened but untouched.
She noticed a couple standing over by the bathrooms, obviously in some sort of lover’s quarrel. The girl looked as though she were ready to bolt, the boy looking as though he were trying desperately to explain something. Perhaps some bad behavior, Clara reasoned. As she watched the pair, an image came into mind:
The boy held a beer in his hand, his eyes unsteady and bloodshot. He was sitting in the driver’s seat of a pickup truck. He was amorous. His face was flushed with arousal or anger, but whichever, it was strong and leading his thoughts.
The girl sat in the passenger seat, her hand on the door handle, about to push the door open. She looked angry, her hair mussed, lipstick smeared. Some heavy kissing and petting had happened.
The boy spoke, his mouth moving, yet no words escaping. The girl shook her head, glaring at him. She pulled on the door handle, the door about to open when the boy suddenly reached across the truck cab, closing and locking the door. The girl pushed him away, speaking in that strange, soundless talk. He grabbed her, cupping the back of her head, and trying to force her face down into his crotch.
The girl fought him, finally getting away from him and leaving him with a hard slap before letting herself out of the truck. She slammed the door, yelled something at him, then stomped away.
Clara blinked several times, trying to clear her head and get the images out of her head. She focused once more on the couple, able to tell now that he was trying to apologize. The girl looked as though she might cave, but Clara wasn’t sure.
“So, do you want to get your ass out of my way today, or should I wait for tomorrow?”
Clara’s attention was ripped from the fighting couple, and to a girl standing a few feet away, her arms crossed over her chest, a foot tapping. She made her way from black combat boots up baggy, torn black pants to a fitted black tee. Finally, Clara looked into the owner’s face. Her long hair was down, hanging in her pale face. Her dark eye makeup made her look dangerous, completely creepy and unforgiving.
“Do I know you?” Clara asked, a memory sparking somewhere. The girl rolled dark eyes.
“I don’t give a shit. Move!” She yanked on the lock attached to the locker Clara sat against, indicating it was her locker.
Clara scrambled out of the way, barely grabbing her bag of Doritos before a combat boot would have smashed them into powder. She gathered up her backpack and stood, holding the chips protectively to her chest. “Jesus,” she muttered, stunned at the girl’s nonchalance as she casually got into her locker. “You’re rude.”
The girl smirked, never taking her eyes off the tiny magnetic mirror mounted to the inside of her door. She was applying more blood-red lipstick. “Been called worse.” She puckered, then closed the cap on the lipstick, sliding it into her backpack and slamming her locker shut. Without another glance at Clara, she closed the locker, locked it and walked away.
“I hate it!” Clara exclaimed, slamming two plates onto the table, the already-placed forks jumping at the action.
“Oh yeah?” Max asked, eyeing his daughter as he put the finishing touches into the Hamburger Helper he’d prepared. “Why’s that?”
“The kids there are mean. The school is friggin’ huge, and I got lost four times. My lock only opens half the time, and I didn’t make a single friend.” She collapsed into her chair, feeling quite sorry for herself. “I think I want to go to South High.”
“Oh, no, Clara,” Max said, taking his seat to Clara’s left. “We’re not going to play this game.” He popped open the can of his Pepsi. “You are not going to play this back and forth stuff. I love you, sweetpea, but it was too hard on your mom the first time. I won’t allow you to put her through that again, unless you plan to stay there until you’re married.”
“But, can’t I just get a ride there? Live here and go to South?” Clara asked, her hopes not totally dashed.
“And who’s gonna drive you? I have to be at work by crack-of-dawn a.m., and your mom is working now, too. You know damn well Kerri won’t do it, and she shouldn’t have to. No,” he shook his head, taking a sip from his drink. “You made your choice.”
Clara looked at him, stunned. “But, Dad!” she whined.
“But, what?” he whined back, dishing out Hamburger Helper to her and himself. He was determined to keep the tone light on what he knew could potentially be a very heavy subject. “Clara, you’ve given it one day. One,” he held up a finger to emphasize his point. “Nobody can make up their mind on one day, I promise you.”
Clara sat back in her chair, arms crossed stubbornly over her chest. She watched him out of the corner of her eye, both irritated and amused as she realized he wasn’t going to give in to her pout. They both knew each other all too well. “Fine,” she sighed – for the sake of dramatics, of course – and began to eat her dinner.
Though she wasn’t thrilled about it, Clara decided to give John Freed High School one more try. After all, she had to admit, even if begrudgingly so, it had been only one day. Starting any type new situation wasn’t easy for her. She was shy and quiet by nature: more of an observer than a participant. Though that would help her later in life, as a teenager it was hell. She never quite felt she fit in anywhere, or with any group of people.
Clara walked through the halls, headed to lunch, and looked around at her peers. She looked at them all, really looked at them, and saw, to her amazement, some miserable faces in the crowd. Though she felt bad for those kids who, like herself, were singled out, it somehow made her feel a little better to know they were there. Though none of them knew each other or hung out per se, they were bonded together in some sort of strange glue of exceptionism.
That was somewhat fascinating to her, in some weird, warped way. Was it with humans like it was in nature? Survival of the strongest, the weak found out then mauled by the mighty lion? As she looked around, she had to smirk to herself. Despite appearances, it was quite obvious to her who the actual “strong” and “weak” were. The popular, desired kids hung around in packs – safety in numbers, whereas the supposed weaker of the specimen were alone, strong enough to be themselves, without the support of the masses.
Philosophizing done for the day, Clara headed to her math class.
A month into Clara’s stay at John Freed High School, she sat outside, enjoying the last of the warm weather before autumn began to rear its head. She sat with her back against the three-story brick building, her lunch bag sitting between her spread feet, a half-eaten apple in her hand. She sat at the back of the building where an area had been set up for outdoor lunchers. Stone tables and benches dotted the area, as well as trashcans. Out beyond the lunch area was fenced off, separating those eating with those who had gym class. The sports field was circled with a track for runners.
Clara watched the current class that stood around in small groups on the sports field. Their teacher, Coach Raybrush, was talking to a couple students, leaving the others to mill around or talk, all looking bored. Something caught Clara’s eye, making her turn to her left. She saw a man walking away from the parking lot that ran along the back of the stadium seating that was on either of the long sides of the track. He was walking toward the side of the building, something carried in his hand.
She dropped her apple in the brown paper bag, leaving it with her backpack as she got to her feet. The man was dressed in brown, baggy pants, nearly covering the tops of the brown, leather shoes he wore. His white button up shirt was smudged, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. The outfit was topped off by a worn, wool flat cap.
Clara felt a strange wave rush through her insides as she began to follow. His pace was brisk, seemingly unaware of anyone or anything around him. As Clara rounded the side of the building, she caught a glimpse of him, walking right toward the brick wall. She realized that what he carried in his hand was a giant wrench, nearly three-foot in length. It looked lethal. She gasped softly as she watched him walk right through the wall.
Trying to calculate what lay on the other side of that wall, Clara hurried into the school, making her way down a long, quiet hall. She could hear the murmurings of teachers behind the closed doors that lined the corridor. In a distant hall, she heard laughter from a girl, joined by that of a second.
Trying to stay unnoticed, Clara got her mental bearings, closing her eyes as she mapped out the layout of the school, compared to where she’d seen the man outside. She hurried down an adjacent hall to where she was, finding herself at a dead end, with stairs going up, and stairs going down. At a crossroads, she looked in either direction, chewing on her bottom lip as she tried to decide where to go.
Clara was startled at the voice in her head, but decided to follow it. Glancing around to make sure no one was watching, she scurried down the stairs. The short staircase led to a landing, then anther set, leading her into the bowels of the building. She had never been there, and immediately felt a sense of unease. The corridor wasn’t extremely well lit, the bulbs overhead flickering in some cases, and completely burnt out in others. She knew the building was old, but had been added to over the years. It seemed the basement was part of the original structure.
Closed doors lined the hall, each with a labeling plaque: STORAGE, MAINTENANCE, ELECTRICAL, BOILER, and finally, OFF LIMITS! She looked at each door in turn, trying to decide where to go. She felt drawn to the door marked boiler.
“Damn,” she murmured, noting the deadbolt lock – shiny and new against the backdrop of old wood, and an old, brass knob. Her logic told her that the guy was probably long gone, and she should just go finish her lunch, and get out of there. Then she reasoned, in an illogical situation, logic isn’t the best tool to use. In her mind, this was anything but a logical situation, so tried the knob. To her surprise, not only did it turn, but the door pushed open.
Immediately Clara was hit in the face with the smell of old, stale air. A deep, throbbing hum could be heard deep inside the room. She pushed the door open just enough to slip inside, once again, making sure she hadn’t been spotted. The door closed behind her, Clara looked around the room she’d just entered. Too late, she realized she had no flashlight, matching, nothing. There were lights on in the large, dank room, but they were naked bulbs, and only a handful at best. They gave off a dim, buttery light that set Clara’s nerves on end.
She stopped to look around and get her bearings. The floor of the room was poured cement only for the first ten feet or so from the door, then ended in packed dirt. It looked as though the outer skirts of the room was the walkway, the center filled with huge machinery, they’re oiled parts moving and purring with a rumble that Clara could feel in the pit of her stomach.
Looking left then right, she settled on heading right, careful to keep away from anything that could potentially catch her clothing, her hurt her. She understood mechanics about as much as she understood how to jump off a cliff and fly to Tahiti with only the flapping of her bare arms.
As she made her way around, she saw something in a dim corner. It looked as though something – some sort of paper - had been taped to the brick wall. She walked over to it, and realized it was in fact a newspaper. A very old newspaper. Not wanting to destroy the paper, she peered closely at it, trying to discern what the picture was, and the words that accompanied it.
The faded image on the severely yellowed paper was of a brick structure, a third the size of the current one. Clara wasn’t sure where it was until she noted a familiar-looking patch of trees. The article was dated June 10, 1896.
“Wow,” Clara whispered, her eyes roving over the somewhat fuzzy picture. A group of people stood in front of it, smiling proudly. Most looked to be officious types, dressed in fine clothing: ladies in larger than life gowns of gorgeous fabrics and styles, their men in top hats and gloves.
Dead center of the posing crowd was an older man, distinguished and very wealthy-looking. On his arm was a lovely young woman, at least twenty years younger than the man, a partial smile on her lips. Clara’s gaze was drawn to a figure standing off away from the others. His features were far too blurry to be able to discern, but he was dressed in a button up shirt, the sleeves rolled to the elbows, and a flat cap on his head. He seemed to be looking at the pretty woman standing with the gentleman center of the photograph.
“Oh, that’s cool,” she murmured, grinning.. She felt in her gut that the man was the same she’d seen earlier, and was chasing. Her head whipped around when she heard a bang – metal on metal. She peered into the dimness, trying to make her eyes focus. The bang came again, this time clearly coming from the back of the room.
Clara turned away from the newspaper article, trying to be as quiet as she could, in case it was a maintenance guy working. She was pretty sure she’d be in trouble if she got caught in the boiler room of her high school. She inched closer, listening and trying to keen all her senses. She heard the banging again, a hollow ping, ping, ping. She could see a dark corner, but the shadows were complete, and she could see just enough to know there was no one there, though the sound seemed to originate from there.
What the… ?
There was a slight pause in the banging, Clara’s heart pounding in her ears as she held her breath, waiting to see what would happen next. Her entire body was in a state of alert, her nervous system primed and ready for anything. So she thought.
As the pounding continued, the figure of the man slowly faded into view. He was swearing as he used the wrench in his hand to bang on something that was no longer there. He stopped, squatting as though examining something, not paying a bit of attention to his audience of one. He stood, about to start his pounding again when he stopped, looking to his left, which was right where Clara was standing. She was about to run, but then realized he wasn’t seeing her at all.
His face spread into a grin, and Clara nearly gasped when suddenly a young woman was standing next to him, out of breath as though she’d just run a great distance. Clara’s entire body felt as though it had just been shocked by electricity, her hear pounding, every hair standing on end.
When she looked closer, Clara realized it was the same woman from the newspaper article, in her Sunday best. Their figures seemed solid in the dim light, though Clara had the feeling if lights were turned on, they would fade into the brightness.
The couple embraced, then – with heads lowered together – seemed to engage in a serious conversation, though no sound could be heard. Clara’s heart continued to pound, and for a moment she felt as though she were witnessing something she shouldn’t, as though she were intruding.
She began to feel incredibly uneasy as the temperature around her began to drop significantly. The entire atmosphere of the boiler room changed, and Clara felt a strong need to run, never to look back. Foreboding, and dread prickled along her arms. A huge bolt of energy rushed through her, making her take several steps back. Hand to her chest, she saw two men seem to burst from the shadows of where she’d just been standing moments before, their intent obvious as they grabbed the young man. His flat cap fell to the floor as the three began to fight, the woman knocked down, her hand held to her mouth in terror as she watched.
Clara’s eyes grew huge as she saw the man in the brown pants use all his strength, managing to push one of the assailants off of him, hen taking his wrench in both hands and swinging with all his might. He hit one of his attackers in the stomach, doubling him over, while the other went at him again. The man swung the wrench one more time, again aiming at his attackers, when the man jumped out of the way of the heavy, lethal tool.
Clara gasped in horror as she saw the metal slam into the fallen woman’s head. As if choreographed in some play, the two attackers disappeared, the man falling to his knees. The next thing Clara saw, the wrench had seemingly disappeared, as well, leaving the man in brown sitting on the ground, holding the woman in his arms. Her eyes were closed, a bloody gash at her temple. Clara figured she was probably dead. The man holding her was crying, his entire body shaking with the force of his sobs.
Reaching a hand up, Clara wiped away her own tears, unknowingly leaving a smudge mark on her cheek, her hands dirty from trying to feel her way along the time-dirtied walls. Her heart felt heavy as she saw the man raise his face to the Heavens, eyes squeezed shut, mouth opened as an anguished cry slipped out, filling the small space, and completely startling Clara. As the echoes died away, so did the figures.
She shook herself out of it when she realized that his flat cap still lay where it had fallen. Wiping at her tears again, she walked over to it. As she was about to reach for it, it slowly faded away, leaving only hard, packed earth, littered with greasy stains.
Clara made her way back up to the main floor of the school, glad that the halls were quiet. They must not have passed for lunch, yet, which meant she could sneak back outside, grab her backpack and hurry to her locker before she had to head to her next class.
She beat her fingertips against the sides of her thighs in an absent beat as she thought back over what she’d just witnessed. She’d heard of that kind of thing before, and knew it was referred to as a “residual haunting,” which meant it was – in theory, anyway – the residual energy from a traumatic event that kept it happening again and again. The spirits aren’t even really there, but the memory of them was.
What a horrible thing to happen! She wondered what the story was, and decided she wanted to do some research on the school: the history of the building, the history of the people associated with it. She imagined the library downtown might have something on that. Or, maybe even the school library. If she had time after school, maybe she’d duck inside and see what there was to be found.
“You are in some pretty big trouble, my friend.”
Clara jumped at the unexpected voice, and the unexpected presence of her someone suddenly walking beside her. She glanced over to see Mr. Estrata, her English teacher.
That’s odd, she thought, I don’t have his class until last period.
“Why?” she asked, about to take a turn at the end of the hall, which would lead to the doors headed outside. She just wanted to grab her backpack and get back to her day.
“Nope. Come with me.” He guided her to follow him to the main hall where the office was. To her shock, two uniformed policemen were standing just outside the office, one speaking with Max.
“What the… “ A sense of dread fell over Clara. “Oh my god! Is everything okay?” she asked, bursting into a run to get to her father. She was stunned cold in her tracks when he looked up at her. Max’s face went from shock to relief to rage.
“Where the hell have you been?!” he demanded, hurrying over to her. “Do you have any idea how worried everyone has been? Any idea at all?”
It was then that Clara realized one of the policemen was holding her backpack, his hands covered in latex gloves.
“No. I didn’t know. What’s going on?”
“You’ve turned this school upside down, that’s what’s going on!” Max was trembling, his face red, the vein at the center of his forehead popping. “I get a call at work from your principal asking me if I know where the hell you’re at. That’s what’s going on. No one had seen you since lunch, you missed all your classes, and then someone found your bag outside, half the stuff inside spilled out on the ground.”
Alexander Estrata could see that things might get out of hand, so stepped in. “Mr. Greenwold,” he said quietly, partially stepping in front of the irate man. He knew Clara’s dad was far less likely to try anything with him than with the girl. “Let’s everyone calm down.”
Max wanted to rip the man’s face off, but realized he was right, and grounding Clara for the rest of her life wouldn’t change how afraid he’d been. He took a deep breath, and a step away from the man with the dress pants, blue button up shirt and blue and gray stripped tie.
“I’m sorry, Dad,” Clara said, her voice quiet. A glance at the office clock told her it was nearly four-thirty. Where had the time gone? How was it possible she’d been in the boiler room for four hours? She felt terrible, and had never seen her father so upset before. Certainly not at her!
“My name is Alex Estrata,” the English teacher said. “I teach one of Clara’s classes.” He turned to his student. “Clara, what happened? Are you okay?” His brows drew when he noticed a smudge on her cheek, and what appeared to be tear tracks through it.
Max noticed at the same time. “Oh my god! Clara!” He grabbed both shoulders in large hands, leaning in to get a closer look. “Are you okay? What happened? Who did this to you?”
Completely baffled, Clara could only stare at her frantic father. “What? Hurt me? No one did.” She shook her head to emphasize her claim. “I…” Her voice trailed off as she realized she wasn’t entirely sure what to tell them, especially when she had five pairs of expectant eyes on her, now that Mr. Swan, the John Freed High School principal, had joined them. Suddenly she felt as though the weight of the world was on her shoulders.
“Clara?” Max asked. He knew his daughter well enough to know that she had been doing something she maybe shouldn’t have. He could tell she was fine and unharmed, and though it was a great relief, it almost made his anger return full force. That, however, could wait.
“I fell asleep,” she said, knowing it sounded as lame as it felt.
“You fell asleep,” Mr. Swan repeated, arms crossed over his chest. It was obvious he didn’t believe her. “Where?”
“Listen, Mr. Swan,” Max interjected, “it’s been a long day. Why don’t you let me get her home and cleaned up, then I can talk to her. I know you fellas probably want to get home.”
The principal and English teacher glanced at their watches. “You will talk to her?” Mr. Swan asked, eyeing Max with a raised brow.
Max nodded. “You bet your butt I will.” He looked at Clara with a stern gaze. “As soon as we get home.”
Feeling somewhat nullified, the principal nodded, then turned to the officers, thanking them for their time, then headed into the office. Alex Estrada was amused, though very curious. He liked the quiet girl, and felt there was a lot more to her than most people thought or saw.
“See you tomorrow, kid,” he said, squeezing Clara’s shoulder, then heading back to his classroom to pack up for the night.
Left with her father, Clara looked up at him with big, sheepish eyes. “Let’s go.”
Clara took her backpack, which one of the officers had handed him, and dutifully followed him out to his car.”
Clara could feel Max’s eyes on her as she poked at her baked chicken. Feeling bad, she’d made an attempt at making her father’s favorite dish, using her mother’s recipe. She assumed it must have tasted good, as her father had gotten a second helping, but she was barely able to get through her first.
“So?” Max asked after a long silence. “Are you going to tell me what happened?”
“What if I said you wouldn’t believe me if I told you?” Clara countered, pushing her peas into the scalloped potatoes, watching the gooey mixture.
“What if I said you’re just as grounded either way, so you might as well tell me.”
Clara had to stop herself from smirking at that. Grounded. It wasn’t like there was anything to ground her from. She didn’t do anything to be grounded from. Finally she sighed, setting her fork down to stop the pretense that she was going to actually eat anything. Finally she met her father’s curious gaze.
“You have to promise not to laugh.”
“Okay.” Max continued to eat, knowing what he was about to hear would be good. He was just glad he hadn’t called Stephanie yet when Clara showed up. The girl’s mother would have needed counseling to get over the trauma.
“I was sitting at lunch, outside, when I saw a guy walk through the wall of the building.”
Max stopped eating, stared at his daughter.
“You said you wouldn’t laugh!” Clara complained, feeling insecure.
“I hardly think I’m laughing,” he said quietly.
She gave a dramatic sigh. “Anyway, I was curious, so I ran inside the building, trying to figure out where he’d walked into. I ended up in the basement, in the boiler room, where I saw him.” Clara paused, unsure how to continue her story. Should she tell him everything she saw? Should she just glaze over it, keeping the details to herself?
Max could see the indecision on his daughter’s face, and knew she had seen something that had either bothered her, or had somehow touched her in some way. “What did you see, Clara?” he asked, setting his own fork aside. He had the feeling she needed his whole, undivided attention.
“I… I think something really terrible happened in that basement, Dad. I think a woman was killed.”
“A woman? You just said you saw a man.”
“I did. But there was a woman, too. She was accidentally hit in the head.” Clara told her father the entire story, not passing over one detail. She could see it fresh in her mind again as she told the tale, and it made her hunger that much stronger to find out what had actually happened there.
“So,” Max said, after he’d heard the entire incredible story. “You’re telling me that you saw an event that happened almost a hundred years ago?” At his daughter’s nod, he took a drink from his Pepsi, taking the moment to gather his thoughts. Letting out a loud belch, he continued. “How is that possible?”
Clara shrugged. “I’m not sure. I do have a theory, though. I think it’s something that was so traumatic that happened in that boiler room that the energy was somehow… I don’t know… trapped, I guess. Doomed to replay the events over and over again.”
“That sounds a little far fetched, sweetpea. Even for you.” Max crushed the empty soda can, doing an overhead toss for the can to clang into the open trash can near the back door.
“I know it’s crazy, but I swear every word is true.”
“So then explain why you were away for four hours. Where did you go?”
“I was down there the entire time. I truly thought I’d only been down there for maybe thirty minutes. Forty-five, tops.”
Max looked at her, boring his unbelieving gaze into her until it burned. “Clara, don’t lie.”
“I’m not!” She was hurt he didn’t believe her. She knew her story was crazy, and even sounded like she’d made the entire thing up, but surely he knew she’d never lie to him about something like that.
“Okay, okay. I surrender,” Max said, holding his hands up. He sighed, sitting back in his chair. “So, what are you going to tell that principal of yours tomorrow?”
“Can I be sick tomorrow?” Clara muttered, looking down at her plate, which had become a lot more appetizing now that she had gotten everything, and knew her father believed her.
Max laughed. “Hardly. But you need to come up with something. Somehow I don’t think the truth in this case is the wisest course of action.”
Clara grinned. “Why, Dad, are you telling me to lie?”
Max’s grin matched that f his daughter. “Yep. Pretty much.”
The microfiche rolled by, Clara watching intently, pen held between her teeth. She scanned the articles, looking for anything dealing with the building that had once stood at 2500 E. Parker Street, but then had been expanded to John Freed High School.
She’d been at the downtown library for over an hour, her focus on only one thing. It had been a week since her boiler room adventure, and it was the first day that her father had allowed her out of the house, other than for school purposes, or to see her mom. Kerri had swung by earlier that Saturday morning to spend some time with Max, and volunteered to drop Clara off at the library on her way to work. Her mother would be picking her up when she got off work, and mother and daughter would head to dinner, and then Clara would be spending the weekend. The whole “parents separated” thing kind of sucked, in Clara’s humble opinion.
“Here are those articles you requested, Miss.”
Clara looked up to see the elderly librarian standing next to her, a folder in her outstretched hand.
“Oh! Thank you.” She took the folder, and immediately began to finger through them. They were photo copies made of old, bound newspapers that the public had no access to, for fear of their delicate pages being destroyed through handling and misuse.
Clara put aside several of the articles until one caught her eye. She was face to face with the same newspaper page she’d seen in the boiler room. She studied the faces of the players once more: the man in the brown pants and flat cap, and the beautiful young woman who had been so brutally – and accidentally – murdered. Looking at her face, Clara was once again able to see her lifeless body held in the young man’s arms, the blood trickling down the side of her face from the horrible head gash. Flipping to the page behind the one with the picture on it, she read the article.
June 10, 1896: In a lavish ceremony this morning, Senator John Freed and his new bride, Josie, led the excitement of the opening of John Freed Conservatory.
Clara read on, learning that John Freed – aged 53 at the time of the opening of his building, had been a steel barren from Pittsburgh, and after the death of his wife Mildred the previous spring, he’d married 19 year old Josie Rasputin, the daughter of a successful local merchant. Nowhere could Clara find out who the young man was.
She put the article aside, and soon had an answer to her question. The front page of the June 11, 1896 edition of the Daily Record, boasted a haunting photo of the young man being led toward a building, the word JAIL bolding shown above the door. He was flanked by uniformed officers, their Billy clubs in hand. He was looking down, refusing to look into the lens of the camera, nor the crowd that had gathered outside the jail.
She read the accompanying article, shocked to find out that the man – William Compton, aged 23 – was actually John Freed’s nephew, who he was trying to help, and had recently moved into the Freed estate. William and Josie had apparently fallen in love, and had plans to run away together. Though the article mentioned nothing of it, Clara knew instinctively that Freed had hired the two thugs to either kill William, or beat some sense into him. According to the article, William had gotten angry when Josie refused to go through with the plan, instead choosing her love for her husband. William became angry, and in a violent rage, murdered the young woman in cold blood.
Clara gasped when she looked at the next page, which was an article from three days later, and the a newspaper man’s sketch of events. William had been found guilty of the crime of murder, and hanged. His lifeless body was seen hanging from the gallows, the crowd drawn in as cheering and throwing bits of food at the corpse.
“God, that’s horrible,” she said, a hand covering her mouth.
Clara whipped around, surprised to see Stephanie setting her purse down on the table next to the microfiche machine Clara had been using. She sat in a chair next to her daughter. Stephanie looked tired, her hair slightly disheveled from a long day. She was putting in long hours at her new job, a bakery in town.
Stunned into silence by the sudden arrival of her mother, Clara could only stare. “Hi,” she finally managed.
“Hey, sweetie.” Stephanie was so happy to see her youngest. She felt a bit self-conscious, as she knew she stunk from a day in front of a hot oven, but she reached over and gave Clara a tight hug, anyway. Once they parted, she indicated all the pages in Clara’s lap, as well as the old newspaper article on the microfiche reader screen. “What’s all this?”
“Oh, um,” Clara chewed on her bottom lip for a moment, trying to think quickly. “I have a research paper to do for school. I’m doing it on the history of the John Freed High School building.”
“Very cool. Well, are you ready, honey? I’m tired.”
“Yeah. Let me get this stuff cleaned up and returned.”
Clara had agreed to help her mother make dinner at Stephanie’s house, rather than go out somewhere. Though Max was helping financially, money was tight, and Stephanie was exhausted working so many extra hours. The night had gone well, thus far, both mother and daughter talking freely as they prepared Clara’s favorite meatloaf together.
Clara was filled with completely mixed emotions, standing hip to hip with the woman she’d seen every day of her life up to a month and a half ago. She still was ravaged with guilt for moving in with her father, though she still knew in her heart was the best thing for her. Was it the best thing for Stephanie, though? She knew her mom was also filled with conflicting emotions: she felt her own guilt over Jason, and couldn’t help but wonder if she’d pushed her daughter away because of that. She felt betrayed, mostly, however. Max had screwed up. He’d been the one fucking some nameless woman, and then he’d been the one who’d left. Yet, Clara had chosen to go live with him instead of staying at home and supporting her mother.
“Do you still like living with your dad?” Stephanie asked quietly.
Clara sighed softly, knowing that the conversation would come up eventually. “Yeah, Mom, I do. Besides,” the girl grinned, trying to add a bit of levity to the situation, “I think you’ve ruined him for life. If I weren’t there, I’m not sure he’d know which was his head and which was a hole in the ground.”
“Not spoiled enough to not fuck around though, huh?” Stephanie snapped, regretting the comment the moment it was out of her mouth. She couldn’t stand to see the stung expression on Clara’s face. “I’m sorry, sweetie. I promised you I wouldn’t talk about it, and I won’t.” She gave the girl a brave smile. “Subject closed.”
Clara was relieved, and just hoped that her mother would abide by it. She wanted very much to spend time with the older woman, but couldn’t do it if it was going to be a slam-her-father marathon. “How are things at the bakery? Kerri said they’re already talking about training you to be an assistant manager.”
Stephanie’s smile lit up her entire face. Stephanie Greenwold was a naturally beautiful woman, with blonde hair and brown eyes. Her skin was like peaches and cream, and she had a wonderful smile. It wasn’t hard to see what Max had seen in her twenty years before. “That they are.” The pride was evident in her voice, which made Clara automatically proud, too.
“Mom, that’s great!” She reached over and gave her mother a one-armed hug. “I’m so happy for you!”
“Thanks.” Stephanie stuck her tongue out between her teeth in a mischievous grin. “Someday I’ll own that place.”
“Oh, I have no doubts, whatsoever.”
They continued on in silence until Stephanie spoke again. “So, any cute guys at your new school?” She glanced over at her daughter, who she thought looked decidedly uncomfortable.
Clara was uncomfortable. She had to bite the inside of her cheek when Abby Jensen popped into her mind’s eye at the question. Behave. “Well, you know, Mom,” she stuttered, “new school and all. I think I want to get my bearings before I worry about that stuff.”
Stephanie studied her daughter for a moment, but then turned back to the salad she’d begun to toss. She thought back for a moment, and realized that she’d never heard Clara talk about any boys. Except… She gasped, a hand covering her mouth. “Clara,” she whispered. “Were you and Jason…, you know.”
Clara looked at her mother, stunned, and then she saw the grief and realization on Stephanie’s face. Her mind whirled, trying to decide what she should say. It was certainly get her off the hook as far as the boy topic went. Forgive me, Jason. “Well, kind of,” she muttered.
“Oh, honey!” Stephanie grabbed her daughter in a tight hug, holding her close. She’d never fully been able to get over her guilt over what had happened to the boy and his father. She would forever feel that somehow she was responsible. If only she’d let Clara call…
“It’s okay, Mom,” Clara murmured, allowing herself to get lost in the hug. Every girl needed a good hug from their mom, and she didn’t get those all that often anymore. She gave her mother one final squeeze, then let her go with a smile. “Come on. Let’s eat.”
Clara walked into the living room, Stephanie insisting on doing the dishes while the girl got herself comfortable. She walked around the room she knew as well as the back of her own hand. Fourteen years spent in a house, all gone. Down the drain. There were times when she wanted to go to her father and grab him by the ears, shake him until he got some sense back in him. Though part of her did understand why he left, a bigger part didn’t, and hated it. Standing in her childhood home, she realized that she wanted nothing more than for her family to be put back together again.
She noted that the house wasn’t as clean as it used to be. She knew Stephanie wasn’t home as much anymore, and Kerri had a full schedule – soccer, school, (senior year, no less) and a new boyfriend. There were unread magazines scattered across the living room table, as though thrown there when they’d come in with the mail. A small stack of old newspapers sat on one of the chairs, and a thin layer of dust covered the top of the TV.
Clara’s eye was caught by a framed picture which had sat on the mantle as long as she could remember. Walking over to it, she reached out, brushing her fingertips across the smooth glass. Ironically, it seemed as though the wood frame was dust free, as was the glass. The picture inside was old, yellowed with age. In it a young woman, maybe in her mid-twenties, sat, three young children grouped around her – two girls and a boy – and a fourth child on her lap, a toddler.
Taking hold of the frame, Clara brought it off the mantle and closer, her eyes raking over the children, intentionally avoiding the woman for the moment. She easily found her mother, all blonde hair and frilly dress. She was standing next to the oldest child, her older sister, Carol Ann, who was also killed in the car accident, which would happen little more than a year from the time the photo had been taken. The only boy, James – named after his father - knelt in front of his mother, a cute boy with a slightly perplexed look on his face. He was, after all, only around three years old.
Clara’s gaze reluctantly traveled to the woman, her grandmother. She was beautiful, her hair in the typical style of the 1950s, her dress just so. Clara brought the picture closer, looking into her grandmother’s eyes. She felt a chill run down her spine, as though those eyes were looking right into her soul, and not out of a simple piece of photo paper.
She shivered, looking away with great effort. Clara tried to swallow the lump that had formed in her throat, her stomach roiling with a strange nervousness. It was the same every time she dared look at that photograph, and had been since she was a small child. She took several deep breaths, pushing a strange sense of grief away, and setting the frame back in its place. She looked at it once more, then turned away.
It had been a good night. The smile on Clara’s face was certainly indicative of that. She lay in her old bed, the familiar shadows all around her, as well as her posters and glow-in-the-dark stars. She stared up at those, reacquainting herself with them, just as she did every time she spent the night at her mom’s. And, to make things even better, Kerri had spent the night with a friend, so Clara and her mom had the place to themselves.
Clara did have to admit that things between her and her sister had gotten better once she moved out, though. Her and Kerri just weren’t meant to live together. Living in separate households, Kerri wasn’t able to boss Clara around, and actually seemed somewhat happy to see her younger sister when they saw each other. Perhaps there was hope for them yet. Maybe Kerri wasn’t such a pain in the ass after all.
“Nah,” Clara said, conviction in her voice. “She still is.” There was a soft knock at the closed bedroom door. “Come in.”
The door opened and Stephanie stepped inside the dark room. “Hey. Were you asleep?” She walked over to Clara’s bed, looking down at her.
Clara shook her head. “No. Just contemplating what level of a pain Kerri still is.”
Stephanie looked confused for a moment, but shrugged it off. “Okay. Well, I hope you came to some sort of conclusion.” She sat down on the edge of the bed.
“Yeah. I concluded that she is still a pain, but it’s easier to handle not living with her.”
Stephanie tried not to smile, knowing that her girls had never fully gotten along. She knew they loved each other, but two people couldn’t possibly be any more different than Clara and Kerri. She knew from her own troubled relationship with her younger sister that siblings weren’t always the easiest.
“What’s up?” Clara asked, knocking Stephanie from her train of thought.
“I wanted to talk to you about something. Something I should have told you a long time ago.” Stephanie sighed, looking out the moonlight-filled window. “I just hope you’re not mad at me when I’ve finished.”
“Is it bad?” Clara asked, scooting over a bit further in her bed to make more room for her mother.
Stephanie shook her head. “Not exactly. But you might call me quite the hypocrite.”
“Oh! Something to hold over your head!’
Stephanie chuckled. “Maybe.” She cleared her throat and her thoughts. “As you know, I’ve always been uncomfortable with your abilities.”
Clara was stunned by the topic of conversation, but remained quiet, very curious to hear what her mother had to say.
“I knew when you were very young that you had a gift, Clara. Several gifts, I’d wager.” She continued to look out the window, unable to look her daughter in the eye. “There’s a reason it makes me uncomfortable.” She finally did look at Clara, barely able to see her face in the dark bedroom. Maybe that was for the best. “When I was a little girl, living with Aunt Bess and Uncle George, I always used to see a man standing in the closet of the room I shared with my cousin Gail.” She grew silent, shooting back in time to the bedroom of a terrified young girl. “He’d always stare at me,” she whispered, lost in memory. “I was so afraid of him.”
Clara was stunned, not only by what she was hearing, but by the fear she could hear in her mother’s voice. She reached out and took a trembling hand in hers. Stephanie didn’t even notice, so lost was she in events long past.
“He started moving things in the house. Hiding things. Making noises – bangs, crashes, footsteps.” Her voice trailed off.
Clara studied her mother’s face, well illuminated by the moonlight, able to see not only fear, but also angry bitterness. “They blamed you, didn’t they?”
Stephanie was pulled back to the present by Clara’s perceptiveness. She nodded. “Yeah, they did. Life with them was hard enough after our parents were killed, but then to add that on top of it, too. I don’t know,” she shrugged. “Aunt Bess made me feel like I was crazy and dirty when I’d tell her about the man. I’d try and defend my brother and sister, but she never believed me on that, either. Said I was wicked, and it was all my fault.”
“I’m so sorry, Mom. What do you think the man was?”
Stephanie looked at Clara for a long moment, trying to think of a way to answer that. What indeed? She’d never been asked that question before, and wasn’t sure how to answer it. “I guess I think he was a mean spirit. He enjoyed taunting us, especially me, because he knew I could see him.”
Clara allowed what she’d been told to process, mentally filling in spaces that had been left blank by many years of confusion. “So, after the way you were treated, why did you keep yourself in denial about me?”
Stephanie shook her head. “I wasn’t in denial, Clara. I was hoping that if I didn’t encourage it, maybe you would grow out of it, or block it out. Something. It’s not an easy road to take, and I didn’t want to see you get hurt. I don’t want to see you afraid of a boogie man in the closet of your own.”
“Actually,” Clara said gently, “she stays in the corner over there.”
Stephanie followed where her daughter pointed, seeing nothing but empty space. She turned back to Clara. “Is she there now?”
Clara shook her head. “No. I haven’t seen anyone here all evening. Maybe I left them back at dad’s.” They both chuckled at that.
“Well, I hope so. I don’t need anything moved around in this house. I have a hard enough time keeping everything straight – including my head – as it is.”
“I’m really glad you told me, Mom. I wish you would have before now, but I’m glad you did. I needed to know that.” She chewed on her lower lip for a moment, unsure whether to continue.
“What, honey? Tell me.” Stephanie raised their joined hands and kissed her daughter’s knuckles. “I don’t want anymore secrets between us. This was bad enough.”
“Okay.” Clara was filled with a mixture of uncertainty and relief. She hoped her mom was telling her the truth, that she was in fact, willing to finally listen. “I see stuff a lot, now. When I was younger, it was sporadic, or I’d just see vague shadows. Something to catch out of the corner of my eye, that kind of thing. Now,” she began to whisper, “I see dead people.”
Stephanie broke into laughter, Clara grinning at the wonderful sound. It had been awhile since she’d heard a full out guffaw from her mother. “Well, I’d love to hear all about it, but not tonight.” She gave Clara’s hand one final squeeze then let go of it as she stood. “I’m exhausted. Guess confessing can do that to a person.” She stretched and yawned.
“Yeah, either that or working fifty hour weeks, one or the other,” Clara said dryly.
“You can say that again. Okay,” Stephanie sighed, dead on her feet. She turned toward the bedroom door. “Good night, sweetie. I love you.”
“I love you, too, Mom.” Stephanie was halfway out into the hallway when Clara had the urge to blurt, “Your mom misses and loves you.”
Stephanie stopped in her tracks, a slight chill running down her spine. She turned back to look at her daughter, who was now sitting up in bed. “What?”
Clara looked as though she were a deer caught in headlights. She had no idea why she’d said that, or where it had come from. “Uh, I imagine she would. Don’t you think?” she said weakly, hoping to cover up for her blunder.
“Yeah. I suppose so,” Stephanie said softly, a gentle smile curving her lips. “I love and miss her, too.” And with that, she quietly closed Clara’s bedroom door, and headed off to bed.