The Lantern Girl

I heard some scratching and clomping like one of the goats had wandered onto the front porch again. Setting down my knitting, I came outside ready to scold some lazy farm hand, but instead, I found a balled-up little girl, no more than eight, on the settee, pretending she was asleep. I hoped no neighbor had driven past and seen such filth at my door.

She wore a strange shirtwaist: white with blue sleeves attached. I said to her, I said, “You get on now, miss. I know how your kind work. I feed you and the next thing I know twenty of your kin come to my door a-begging. Us proper folk have rough times, too.”

The peculiar girl swept her fine hair from her face, and that’s when I noticed her skin. Right ugly, she was. Her face as blue as the china in my curio and shining bright, too, as if she’d swallowed a dozen torches. After glancing at me, she tucked her head back under her arm.

I stood over her a might longer, and when it was clear she was staying put, I trudged back through the house to fetch a broom. The girl was gone when I came back, though. A skein of green yarn lay where I’d found her. How’d she know I knit?

I searched the house, attic to cellar. I had Cal, the farmhand, rake through the hay in the barn. No sign of her. The rest of my day was spent looking out windows, searching for flashes of blue.

The next morning the girl was back on the porch. Seeing her there was like seeing a ghost.

I said to her, I said, “Thank you for the yarn, young’un,” and she nodded. Then she pointed to the flower bed next to the stoop. The soil showed dark against the rich greens and purples of the azaleas. Not a weed in sight. She held her hands out to me so I could see her chipped fingernails and scratched up fingers. She smiled something fierce and rubbed her belly.

“Well, come in, then,” I mumbled. What else could I have done? The little wretch was thin as a picket.

In the washroom, I poured water into a basin. The girl stared at it. “Go on,” I urged, and when she didn’t move, I said, “are you mute, girl?”

I washed and dried my own hands, then pointed at her. She mimicked my movements, giggling. It was good to hear the sound of a child in the house again. She giggled all the way to the kitchen, where I laid out some cornpone and a tomato. Its red contrasted the blue of her hand.

When we heard footsteps coming up the back stairs, the girl stopped laughing and her eyes widened.

I said to her, I said, “That’s just my farmhand bringing the corn I asked for. You know how to shuck?”

The girl growled and ran to a corner of the room. I could see her tangle of hair peeking above the counter of the hutch. The idea of fleas struck me.

The back door swung open and lanky Cal stood holding a basket.

“Morning, Widow McCrae. Found some right fine ears for you.”

“Thank you, Cal. Put them there.” I looked to the hutch. “Don’t be rude, little miss; say hello to Cal.”

Cal scanned the empty room, while I stepped closer to the hutch. The girl was gone. In her place lay clods of dirt and three of my good knives.

“Where’d she go?” I said, more to myself than to Cal.

“Who?”

“A little girl. Blue. Her skin is blue. I just fed her for doing work.”

Cal gave me a look you’d give a horse that crowed like a rooster. “I’ll check the yard,” he said, scratching his forehead.

Alone in the house again, I noticed the shadows in the room, hiding under the icebox, crouched in the pantry. How did that girl keep jumping in and out without so much as a squeak? I thought as I washed the knives she’d stole and put them back in their drawer. Crumbs still dotted the table, but I had eaten some myself before I found her. My silverware, my china, the envelope of money Louis left me in his will, nothing else was missing, but when I stepped onto the porch a message greeted me.

Green yarn spelled out WILL RETURN in cursive letters across the rug.

Early draft. Constructive criticism welcome.

Underground Monsters

Darren dared me to do it. We were sitting on the porch—Mom didn’t want us to go out into the yard until we knew what had happened—eating apples and talking about the holes.

We’d just gotten up and walked outside to put our bikes away like our Mom had asked when we noticed. Overnight, every single tree had been replaced by a hole in the ground. A perfect pile of leaves circled each hole. Not just in our yard but as far as we could see. The day before, there had been a forest—like a real one with a name—that blocked our view. But we could see everything now. The town, the lake, the school. Not to mention the blinking walls of our neighbors’ houses. I imagined them blushing from the sudden exposure.

“You think it was a machine?” I asked him.

He scanned the horizon. “An army of ’em.”

“No. Couldn’t be. We’d have woke up. Well, you and Mom would have for sure.”

“Maybe the government has developed stealth tractors.”

Shivers jangled my spine. I’d never thought of stealth tractors before. What else was the government doing that I’d never thought of?

“Naw.” I shrugged off my fear. “It was a monster. A picky one who doesn’t like roughage. And they’re going to find it and ask it to spit the trees back out.” I didn’t know who “they” were. I hoped Darren wouldn’t notice.

“That makes no sense, Arnold. We’d have heard breathing or crunching or footsteps or something”

“Makes as much sense as an army of tractors.”

Darren stuck his tongue out at that. He finished his apple and spit the seeds at me. I ran from him and sat on the stairs. A few minutes later, Darren sat next to me. First, we watched the stick figures of neighbors come out of their houses and survey what had happened. Then we watched the birds, frantically gathering on the ground or flying from the eaves of one house to another. I got scared again thinking about what was all missing.

“Gotta be a monster. It ate up all the squirrels and chipmunks, too,” I told Darren.

“All right, smartie. If it’s a monster, it’ll be hungry again, won’t it?”

“Not for a while, I think.”

“Well, but it will, and we’re gonna need to feed it or it will eat our houses, too.”

“Never thought of that.”

“So you gotta distract it by moving these chairs out into the yard.” He pointed to the four Adirondacks sitting back up on the porch. “I dare you.”

We eyed each other for a moment before I took the dare. I was thinking Mom usually wants us in the yard instead of playing video games so she couldn’t get too mad at me. While I was pushing the second chair down the stairs, Darren went inside to watch the news. It didn’t take long for me to move them, heavy as they were. When I was done, I joined Darren on the couch. Trees were gone everywhere. The newscasters were interviewing scientists who all had their theories, some blaming corporations, others blaming environmentalists, but it was clear it was all filler. They knew as much as we did. Our phone rang constantly: neighbors calling to compare notes.

The chairs stayed in the yard, untouched. I’d check them through the front windows every hour or so. I couldn’t rescue them because Mom grounded me for putting them out there in the first place. She still wouldn’t let us out of the house; everyone was afraid the ground was diseased. And Darren wouldn’t rescue them because he said they proved he was the smarter brother.

On the morning of the fourth day, I saw that the chairs had been stacked on top of each other, that the legs of one were growing into the armrests of another. Branches bushy with leaves had sprouted from the planks. Seedlings in their casings shaped like music notes dangled in the breeze. We ran inside to tell Mom. Darren made a point to tell her that moving the chairs was his idea. But she didn’t ground him.

By the end of the day, chairs, dressers, desks, and ottomans decorated every front yard in town. People had even pre-stacked them, though Mom told them we hadn’t done it that way and it had still worked.

Photo by Mikes Photos from Pexels

Early draft.