Allen hurriedly gulped down the last of his milk when he heard the doorbell ring.
“Mom! Chad and Mike are here, I’m leaving for school,” he shouted at the ceiling of the kitchen. He grabbed his backpack off the counter and headed for the door.
“Wait!” His mother rushed down the stairs, half stumbling in the process, stopping him just as he grabbed the door handle. She looked haggard and a worry line creased her brow. Red rimmed eyes gave testament to the fact that she had been crying for some time. His mother absentmindedly adjusted Allen’s scarf with a nervous, shaky hand. “Remember to hurry straight home today, okay?”
“I know, Mom. Mary’s coming today.” At the mention of Mary, a choked sob escaped his mother’s throat. Not wanting to see her so distraught Allen tried to cheer her. “Look, why don’t I just stay home today?” he ventured.
“You can’t, honey. You know the rules,” she managed to squeeze out, fighting to quell even more tears. “Now hurry and go.” With that she gave Allen a quick hug, and opened the front door with a sharp jerk, much like yanking off a Band-Aid so as not to prolong the pain. With a forced smile she ushered Allen out into the cold. As she shut the door behind him her sobs returned unbidden. She collapsed against the door, unable to support her own weight. She slid slowly to the floor, the whole time murmuring through her tears, pleading, “Please don’t forget…please don’t forget…”
* * * * * *
The brisk fall air sent an immediate shock to Allen’s system. He pulled his coat tighter around him, watching his breath curl away in wispy tendrils before turning his eyes to his fellow 3rd grade buddies.
Mike was wearing his usual cocky grin and the ever present glint of mischief was in his eyes. He was the trouble maker in the trio, and as such he was always up for an adventure. By rights of being younger (“Only by a month!” as he was always quick to point out) he was the defacto second in command behind Allen.
Then there was Chad. The kids at school had many names for Chad. They ranged in creativity from “Stupid-head” to “Chard the Tard”, but they all expressed the same point. Chad was slow. Allen’s mother had once told him the technical term for it. To the best of Allen’s recollection it was “high function-something idiot something”. The kids at school chose to focus on the idiot part. What mattered the most to Allen and Mike was that of all the people in Willow Falls, Chad was the most sincere, the most innocent. They took care of him like a younger brother.
“Chad…your shoes are untied again, man!” Allen cast an exasperated look towards Mike. “Why didn’t you help him out?”
Mike, looking hurt and indignant at the same time, responded, “I tried, but you know he only lets you do it.”
Allen let loose a sigh that clearly stated how heavy the burden of the world weighed on his shoulders and bent to tie Chad’s shoes.
“Loop once, loop twice, and it all looks nice!” Chad sang his shoe tying song as Allen went about the work. “Friends to the end,” he rhymed again once Allen had finished. Most people found Chad’s chosen manner of communication irritating, but to Allen and Mike it is was one of his more endearing qualities.
“Chad buddy, you really need to learn to do that on your own. I might not be around to help next time.” Allen’s gentle admonishment was met with a warm smile and enthusiastic nod of Chad’s head. “Alright, Triumphant Trio, off to school!”
“I’m not a fool, I go to school!” chimed Chad as he fell in with the others.
Together the three youngsters made their way down Birch Lane heading for Willow Falls Grade School. Willow Falls was a quaint little town, no more than 100 families, and thus the walk from Allen’s house to school was relatively short. The boys made good time, all the while chatting about whatever it is that interested boys of their age. Chad would chip in with a well-timed rhyme causing all three to laugh. Considering what day it was, the boys were in rather high spirits.
“…and that’s when I pulled her hair!” Mike was in full story telling mode as he regaled his two friends with his latest misadventure involving his neighbor Sally. Arms swung and hands gestured to emphasize every point by pantomiming his actions. Despite the cold, he was working up a nice flush in his eagerness to relate the tale. Allen listened intently, nodding sagaciously. Chad, not fully grasping all the nuances of the story, took his cues from Allen. “Then she got this weird look in her eyes and started leaning tor-,” Mike stopped talking abruptly.
Allen looked up to see what had made his friend pause. He saw it immediately. They were coming up on the gate. The malice emanating forth from the gate was so evident that even Chad was able to recognize it.
“Chad hate bad gate,” he stated in a choked whisper. Both Allen and Mike nodded their agreement to Chad’s simple assessment, but words failed the other two boys. This was The-Gate-That-No-One Opened. Standing 8’ tall, the gate loomed over any who passed by it. The truly intricate details that went into the ironwork were only visible upon close inspection. Most however, never got that close. Even Mike, the brave one, would not come within more than a few feet of it. The hinges on the gate had long since rusted, and the gate had looked ready to topple over for years. But it had not. Instead it maintained its constant vigil, forever standing sentinel to that which was behind it.
On the other side of the gate, a worn cobblestone path ran straight for 15 feet or so before rounding a bend and disappearing behind the giant hedges. No one knew exactly where the path lead, for on the other side of The-Gate-That-No-One-Opened was The-Park-That-No-One-Entered. Located in the geographical center of Willow Falls, the true name of the park was lost in the annals of the town’s history. In the middle of the massive park, rising above the hedges and sitting on the crest of a hill, stood the willow tree. Some quirk in the lay of the land made the willow visible from anywhere in town while the rest of the park lay shrouded in secret behind the surrounding hedges. The town founders had likely seen the tree and named the town after it. That was just speculation of course, just as it was the general consensus that the path behind the gate most likely led to the willow tree.
With an unspoken agreement, the boys hastened their steps, eager to escape the unnatural silence and icy dread that overcame all who crossed the gate’s path.
“Maybe we should just go back home today.” This from Mike, the brave one.
“No, we have to go to school,” answered Allen. “You know the rules. We all do.”
“Yeah, but…” he let his protestation trail off and instead turned his attention to stepping on every dead leaf that came within reach of his feet.
“School’s the rule,” Chad intoned with his head hanging and hands in his pockets, the walking picture of dejection. The boys continued down Birch Lane.
* * * * * *
It had been another typical day at WFGS. At recess, some of the other third-grade boys had devised a new game. They thought it would be funny to stuff a sock down Chad’s pants and try to get him to chase his “tail”. Chad, always hoping to please, had gleefully complied. Misunderstanding their teasing laughter for encouragement had caused him to try all the more enthusiastically. If there was one talent Chad did have, it was his ability to completely focus on one task to the exclusion of all else. This only lent fuel to the laughter as he doggedly spun in circles, determined to catch the sock. Mike and Allen were quick to intervene. One of the boys was sporting a growing black eye where Allen had punched him. Mike, fresh from the principal’s office (“My second homeroom,” as he liked to call it), already had his name on the board.
“At least it wasn’t Pin the Card on the Tard again.”
“Yeah,” agreed Allen. “Hey don’t look now, but they’re at it again!”
Ignoring Allen’s advice, Mike whipped his head around just in time to catch Sally and her group of friends peeking his way. They quickly ducked their heads back together and returned to hushed whispers laced with intermittent giggles.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with Sally,” Mike said with a look of consternation on his face. “Ever since yesterday she’s been acting weird and looking at me funny. Maybe I-“
Mike was cut short as the 3 chimes of the P.A. system declared an upcoming message from Principal Ladsen. Ms. Shoemaker, with her stern hair bun and horn-rimmed glasses immediately set to shushing everyone. Due to what day it was, quiet and attention were quick in coming. The eyes and ears of the twenty-three nine-year-olds in her class were focused on the loudspeaker in the corner. The same was true for every classroom throughout WFGS.
Some slight feedback was followed by a hiss and a pop, trailed by Principal Ladsen clearing his throat. Finally, he began to speak.
“Alright everyone, listen up,” he commenced rather unnecessarily. “We all know what day it is, so I need you all to go straight home. Don’t dally in front of the school, or stop on the playground. As soon as the bell rings, in about five minutes or so, you children get right back to your houses. That’s all.” Three chimes indicated the message was over.
The principal’s proclamation had set a noticeably somber mood through the halls of the school. In the back of the class, a small, timid hand raised slowly in the air.
“Yes, Stewart?” Ms. Shoemaker was slightly taken aback to actually have some form of interaction from the normally withdrawn Stewart. “What is it?”
“Ma’am, um… if it’s so important we go home right away…I mean…um…why can’t our parents just come pick us up?” His voice quavered quite a bit.
“Because,” she said around a sad, understanding sigh. “It’s not allowed. You all know what the Town Charter says. You know the rules, straight home.” As if to help punctuate her answer, the bell chose that moment to ring. She had to raise her voice to be heard over all the scooting chairs. “Now remember, children! Straight home!” Her voice had become shrill as it chased the children out the door, “Don’t forget!”
* * * * * *
The halls of WFGS were eerily quiet. The chattering and general hubbub of an entire school’s worth of youngsters were replaced by grim looks and muttered whispers quickly hushed. The clatter of hundreds of shoes was supplanted by hesitant, slow steps, heading for the exits. Allen and the other members of his threesome followed along swept up in the silent, inexorable tide. Even Chad seemed to pick up and reciprocate the mood.
No one stopped at the playground. The usual groups did not gather at their usual spots. The hopscotch area was forsaken, children walking past it without a second glance. The words of the principal were heeded. The children had been trained well. They were prepared for this day. Within 5 minutes the schoolyard was completely deserted. The only sound came from a squeaky swing as the wind slowly pushed it back and forth.
* * * * * *
The Triumphant Trio turned onto Birch Lane. Few words passed between them. Heads ducked, a few furtive glances exchanged. Every now and then a chilly fall breeze would whip around them, carrying a few leaves across the sidewalk. Other than that, the boys walked in silence.
Almost as if they could sense its presence, and all of the same mind, the boys crossed the street in order to skirt the gate. Despite his better judgment, Allen risked a glance. In the distance, on the hill, the willow tree danced in the wind. Its massive low hanging branches skipped across the ground. Allen imagined that he could hear the branches clacking together, even over this great distance, and to his young ears the noise sounded like macabre laughter. It gave Allen the impression that the tree was eager, full of glee for the upcoming events.
A shiver ran itself along the length of Allen’s spine, and he quickly jerked his gaze back down, staring at the pavement as he placed one foot in front of the other. He wished he hadn’t looked.
Soon, not as soon as they would have liked, the trio were outside Allen’s house. The air had already grown noticeably colder, and the light was starting to wane, fading faster than usual. Shadows of streetlamps and trees began stretching across the pavement, long skinny fingers searching, searching.
Mike, the brave one, barely looked at his friends as he gave them a perfunctory wave. He quickly turned on his heels and high-tailed it to his house across from Allen’s. Allen couldn’t blame him; he felt the urge to run home himself. He turned his attention to Chad.
“Alright, buddy. Remember, head straight home, okay?”
“I won’t be late for my dinner plate!” Allen couldn’t help but smile despite the situation.
“Straight home, Chad.” Chad gave Allen his usual grin and enthusiastic nod before turning and heading home. His house was at the end of Birch Lane, on the other side of the curve, just out of view. For a while, Allen stood and watched, torn between walking his dear friend home and heading home himself. He had just made up his mind to escort Chad when his attention was drawn by a frantic banging.
He turned and looked at his house to see his mother pounding hectically away on the window. When she saw she had his attention she began forcefully gesturing, and the look in her eyes left no doubt about her intentions. Allen regretfully put all thoughts of chasing Chad from his mind and bounded up the stairs to his porch and into the safety of his home.
If Allen’s mother hadn’t gotten his attention in that instant, if he had just kept watching Chad as he rounded the curve, if he had looked a moment longer, he might have seen his best friend trip.
* * * * * *
Chad had skinned his hands in the fall. It was okay, though, he fell often. He was used to it. His shoelaces had come undone again. They were the culprits behind his loss of balance! He looked around expectantly, waiting for Allen to tie his shoe for him. Then he remembered what Allen had said this morning. Allen wasn’t here to help him.
A fierce light of determination began to glow in Chad’s eyes. An idea began to formulate in his slow mind. He would tie his shoes himself and make Allen proud. With his giant grin on his face Chad eagerly set to work.
“Loop once, loop twice…”
* * * * * *
Allen’s mother reached through the gap in the door and pulled her son into the house. She hugged him tightly. After she had satisfied herself that he was indeed real and home safely she pushed him out to arm’s length and glared at him.
“What in the world were you thinking?!” she demanded. “I told you to come straight home!”
“I was just going to make sure Chad got home and then I was going to run right back!” he protested.
“No Allen! No! You know the rules!”
“Okay, I’m sorry! I got it. Mary’s coming.”
* * * * * *
Throughout the town of Willow Falls, all the preparations for the night were the same. Doors were locked, curtains were drawn, and parents gathered up their children. They huddled together in whatever room they felt the most secure, hoping the events of the night would pass quickly. It was no different in Allen’s home.
He and his mother sat in the living room, lights dimmed. She hadn’t let him out of her sight since he’d gotten home. Every few seconds she looked his way, verifying he hadn’t disappeared.
* * * * * *
Sometime between the late afternoon and dusk, Willow Falls changed. The cold deepened even more. Darkness seemed to envelop the town, bringing with it an unnatural silence. The wind slowed, and then eventually petered out altogether. No birds chirped, no squirrels squeaked. It was as if the town was a void, no sound, no movement, and at the epicenter of this lifeless black hole stood the willow tree.
In that dead, deafening silence, the town waited. In that silence, the heavy, oppressive silence, Time itself held its breath. And into that silence came a squeal. The cry of tortured metal reverberated throughout the town as centuries-old rusted hinges were forced to grind against each other. On and on the sound came, setting nerves on edge and jaws to clenching. After an unbearable amount of time, the squealing thankfully stopped. The gate was open.
For half a heartbeat all was deathly still again. Then the whistling began. A slow haunting tune that carried on without end. A horribly unnatural sound that never paused for breath. It came under the doors, through the walls, found its way under pillows and through fingers, found its way in despite all efforts to keep it out. A ceaseless barrage of a nightmarish melody that searched out every soul, eroding strength and engendering despair. The whistling was the herald. Mary had come.
* * * * * *
Allen and his mother clung to one another. Eyes were squeezed tightly shut against the terrible, incessant whistling. The tune blotted out all else, muted all thought, leaving only the desire to cower in fear.
When the first footstep was heard on their porch they both held their breath. Slow, even paces took the steps one at a time, not in the least of a hurry. One by one the heavy steps came closer to the door and stopped.
The knock came, causing his mother to jerk and let out a little scream. She squeezed Allen to her all the tighter, rocking back and forth, whispering “No no no…” to herself over and over again as if it were her mantra of protection.
Another knock, not at all ungentle, almost shy.
“Please…” came the voice, a little girl’s. “Please…let me in. It’s so cold, and I’m hungry.” It was a pitiful plea that tore at the heart.
A third knock.
His mother was in tears now as she pressed his head to her chest. “Just go away, Mary.” She quietly pleaded.
“Please, it’s so cold. I’m hungry.” A fourth knock. “Please…”
“Leave us alone!” his mother shouted, fear lending power to her voice. On the other side of the door came an infinitely disappointed sigh. The weighty footsteps turned and slowly receded back to the road, leaving them to their isolation. Allen and his mother shared a look that communicated much. They were relieved that their trial was passed, but they knew they were not the first, nor would they be the last.
The ritual was repeated again and again throughout Willow Falls. Always the timid knock, followed by a heart-wrenchingly pathetic plea for shelter from the cold. And always hungry, always so hungry. The whistling continued on.
* * * * * *
Success! He had finally wrestled the tricky laces into a knot. Chad was extremely proud of himself, and he couldn’t wait to tell Allen. Chad stood with a rare smile of self-satisfaction. Few and far between were the moments when he accomplished something on his own.
It was then that he noticed the whistling. He had forgotten! His mother, the principal, Allen, they had all told him to go straight home, but he had tripped. He had been so focused on tying his shoes that he had lost track of time. His house was only two doors down. He could see his mother in the window screaming through the glass, willing him to get his feet moving. He could still make it home, he still had time.
He took a step. Too late.
“Please…” the voice came from behind him. He could see the despair in his mother’s face, hands clutched to her chest. She was sobbing. He knew he should run. He knew it, but he couldn’t make his body work. Fear paralyzed him. “Please look at me.”
“N-no…” he stammered. His heart raced in his chest. Tears flowed freely from his eyes, matching his mother’s.
“Look at me please!” the voice beseeched.
“I’m not supposed to. I should have gone home.” No rhyming now, he was too terrified. His eyes watched his mother through the window. Her face drained of all blood, her eyes rolled back, and she fell out of view. “Allen told me to go home. My momma is w-waiting.” By now his whole body was trembling.
“Look at me.” Not a plea anymore.
“Allen told me…” His slow mind, dimmed further by terror, barely registered the warm stain spreading down his pant leg.
“Look at me!” The final command sapped the last of his meager resistances. His body was no longer his own. He managed a few whimpers as he was forced to turn and look at Mary.
* * * * * *
The whistling was different now. Still haunting, yet a subtle undertone was different. Something had changed.
Allen’s mother noticed it just as he had. She scooted to the window and pulled back the curtain just enough to peek out. She gasped, covering her mouth with her hand.
“Oh, poor Martha!”
Martha? That was Chad’s mother! Panic filled Allen’s heart. Before his mother could react he yanked back the curtains so forcefully that they fell from the rods. There! Mary was just out of his field of vision, but he could clearly see the small inert form that was being dragged behind.
“Chad!” Allen beat his fists against the glass. “Chad!” Logic and reason were forgotten in worry for his best friend. He raced for the door, prepared to charge out into the cold. His mother was faster and tackled him from behind.
“No! Stop, Allen! You can’t help him, baby!” For a moment they wrestled around, but she used her superior weight to keep him pinned to the floor.
“I told him to go home! How did he forget?” Guilt and shame drained Allen of any energy he had left to fight his mother. “I should have walked him home! How did he forget?”
* * * * * *
Somewhere in the middle of The-Park-That-No-One-Entered an innocent, simple-minded boy began to scream. It was a scream of anguish, a scream of terror, a scream of pain. The scream carried on until it was drowned out by another scream. This was the scream of tortured metal as the gate once again began its harsh journey. The whistling stopped. The gate closed, not to open for another year.
The wind began to blow, leaves began to skitter. Birds chirped and squirrels squeaked. It was as if Time began to breathe again and life returned to the dead void.
Somewhere another boy sat, lost within himself, lost to his grief. His eyes wide open, staring at all, seeing nothing.
“How could he forget?”
Loop once, loop twice…
Someone always forgets.
Credit: The Fox God
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