The First Message
Logan Greenway October received the first message on a Wednesday in early autumn. She was asleep in the enormous cherry wood bed that had belonged to her parents, lime green coverlet pulled over her head, arms and legs splayed so it looked like a gingerbread man had recently died and was waiting to be devoured in the traditional gingerbread funeral ceremony. Heat ticked like a broken clock from the baseboards. Outside, the wind tried unsuccessfully to open the farmhouse windows and whined, frustrated with her lack of opposable thumbs
The message began in the form of a dream. In the dream she was sitting up in bed, instead of impersonating dead cookies, and looking at a small boy who stood halfway between her bed and the door. It was Jamie Attarman, a boy she knew. She also knew his family. They grew roses like their family tree was actually a thorny vine. Their property was awash in them during the summer, some in popcorn colors, some absolutely saturated, roses capering and demurring, roses hanging from the gutters and congregating on the lawn, roses upon roses shouting their scented names at anything with a nose She had a bottle of Attarman’s Rose Oil in her bathroom. Fantastic stuff.
Logan was thinking about these things when the dream Jamie moved forward to stand right at the foot of her bed.
Normally a sunny five-year-old who Logan would swear actually smelled like roses, Jamie now wore a look of low, feral craftiness and exuded an odor that made her think of what a deer might smell like right before the wolves bring it down. He smelled like acid and mildew. She wanted to dive forward, snatch him up and wipe that somehow obscene look off his face with her hands, but she couldn’t move. She could feel her muscles trying to respond like men trapped in a sinking submarine, sending up flares from the deep. The signals were lost in the black and blue.
For a terrifying moment she thought Jamie was going to crawl up onto the bed. He leaned over the footboard and placed his hands, which were stained with dirt and sweat, on the coverlet. His nails were bitten ragged. Then he raised his bright green eyes and Logan saw such pain and madness there that she felt as if she’d been struck across the face with a piece of cold iron.
“Jamie?” she said in the dream.
When he opened his mouth to answer, a silver line of saliva dripped from the center of his lower lip. She heard it fall on the coverlet, the sound magnified by the ear trumpet fear was holding to her head like a gun. And then, his voice poured forth and it was rotted and oozing, as if it had been lying at the bottom of a tar pit for thousands of years, lunching on blackness and the bones of long dead things. It gurgled out of him, splattering her offended senses.
“She knows about you,” it said.
Logan lurched awake and lay, heart dancing against her ribs, breath tight. She waited for the memory of Jamie’s insane little face to fade into the sanity of her warm and comfortable bed, but it just hung there, dominating her mind’s eye like an ugly painting in a white room. There was simply nowhere else to look.
It had been no ordinary dream, that much was certain. Logan’s nightly visits to the subconscious cinema usually involved walking through endless hallways in search of something; a particular room or her bag or, in her favorite variation, something delicious to eat. The hallways belonged to many different places, some she knew, some she did not. She had once dreamed of looking for her elementary school locker, circling eternally through miles of bright yellow corridor, always thinking she’d finally gotten her bearings only to discover that the next turn did not lead where she thought it would. She’d gone up and down flights of stairs, passed enough crayon renderings of families and small animals to fill the fronts of refrigerators in three counties, but she’d never found her locker. In fact, it was rare that she ever found what she was looking for.
In this dream, of course, something had found her and she was certain that she should take it seriously. She should visit the Attarmans first thing in the morning and speak to Jamie. There was a reason the message had taken his form in her mind and understanding that reason was the best way to start demystifying the message itself.
Her fear was dissipating, its firework sparkles winking out, leaving a cloud of sleepy white smoke in her brain. Her limbs were heavy, like children who fell asleep before the show was over and had to be carried home. She began to let go of the waking world and drift like an errant balloon through the dark doorway of three in the morning.
Then she heard the sound. Something liquid pattered to the floor. She wrestled with the notion that she was dreaming again, but the absolute life of the faint long drip, short drip tattoo made it a very short bout. She was awake.
Carefully, she squirmed into a sitting position so she could reach the lamp on her bedside table. Her hand hesitated on the little brass knob then hovered like a moth when she saw the small, dark shape at the foot of her bed. It stood out only a bit from the frozen troll shadows of furniture, the idiot gape of the open closet, the silver squares of moonlit window. But it was rocking slowly, side to side, and the motion caught her attention. Her nerves jangled and she silenced them. Whatever was going to happen would happen and she would be part of it. She turned on the light.
There he was at the foot of her bed, little Jamie Attarman, shifting deliberately from foot to foot, eyes dull and unfocused. He was drooling, but it was not the mad slavering of the ghoul in her dream. His face was blank. He looked like a slack marionette who had to go to the bathroom. Logan’s heart broke at the sight of him and she filed that away for later, too. She could help Jamie, help bring him home, safe and sound, to his fellow wild roses, but she had to be calm and open. She could not be afraid as she had been in the dream.
With some effort, she turned her eyes to the bedside table and retrieved her glasses from the small tangle of personal items: a red hair band, a wooden hairbrush, a glass of water, a crumpled white handkerchief, and the small, cloth-bound notebook she carried everywhere. She put on her glasses, picked up the notebook and opened it to the first blank page, which was marked with a faded blue ribbon. There was a pen wedged into a narrow pocket on the spine and she used it to write neatly at the top of the page, “Jamie Attarman.” The act steadied her instantly. She closed the book, replaced the pen and looked again at the little blond boy swaying like a hanged man in her shadow haunted bedroom.
She could see the slightly shiny edge of his soul limning his pale left cheek like one stroke from a paintbrush dipped in gold. Were she willing to touch him she could perhaps coax it out into the realm of her other senses, but it was too early for that. She contented herself with the knowledge that his soul was still there and not wandering, bodiless, evicted into the cold, open air. She began to look for signs of another soul and found none. Maybe, as in the dream, it preferred direct communication.
“Jamie,” she called softly.
The rocking stopped at once. Jamie stood for a moment and then his mouth dropped open and a low moan, much too low for a child’s voice, issued from it. The moan intensified into something tarry and grotesque while at the same time Jamie’s little rosebud mouth twisted into a black hole grin. His eyes lit up like fireflies. Here was the ghoul again.
Logan noticed for the first time that his skin was not just pale. It looked as if it had been dusted with a fine, blue-white powder. In fact, she was not sure it had looked that way before she said his name. She made a mental note and braced herself to meet his gaze.
In the dream, his eyes had been mad. Now they were horribly present and aware and it was his grin which carried all the madness. Logan thought she could see Jamie locked in those eyes, a terrified boy staring mute and helpless, but she could also see the other soul with him. They sat there together like lovers on a couch of glass.
“Jamie,” she said, more firmly this time.
The moan, which was becoming more like a grating gurgle, ceased abruptly and Jamie’s mouth snapped shut in an almost comical fashion. Then he leaned forward and put his hands on the coverlet, just as he had in the dream.
“She knows about you,” he said, and that bottomless, decaying croak, like the voice of a drowned demon, shook Logan’s resolve. Dream or reality, this part was pretty creepy.
Nevertheless, she had to ask. “Wh-who … knows about me?” It came out whispery, sonic tissue paper.
Slowly, Jamie shook his head no and then went right on shaking it. His grin became frozen and bug-eyed, floating back and forth like a conjurer’s glove. A strangled sobbing leaked out between his teeth. He drew back, pulling his hands limply over the footboard and Logan saw something strange about them. They were not dirty and claw-like as they had been in the dream, but they were swollen around the knuckles and somehow blurry, as though she were seeing them through a spot on her glasses. This effect continued as he turned away, hands dropping to his sides.
Logan considered this new development only briefly before slipping out of bed. Notebook in hand, gray eyes fixed on Jamie’s progress toward the bedroom door, she half-skated in her bed socks across the chilly wood floor to the closet. She ducked inside and threw on a shift the color and texture of raspberry sorbet, glasses contorting uncomfortably in the process. Then she flicked her auburn hair out from under the collar of the dress and returned to the dim golden pool of her bedroom. Jamie was just leaving it, his pajamas becoming white and spectral in the gloom of the upstairs hall. He looked slack again, his walk more of a shuffle.
Logan crept forward. She wanted to see where he was going, but she did not want to disturb him. She adjusted her glasses and watched as he reached the stairs, turned and began to plunk down them His feet were bare and she thought about how cold they must be. He had walked from his house to hers in nothing but his pajamas on a night when autumn was stretching her legs for the cold sprint to winter. Jamie’s progress down the stairs was slow enough for Logan to zip back into the closet and grab her extra quilt, a pink and orange monstrosity that only made its way onto her bed when there was snow on the ground. She would try to wrap him in it as soon as she could. She held it tightly in her arms as she left the bedroom and approached the stairs. Jamie was just stepping into the foyer.
Quietly, she descended to the small landing halfway down the stairs and crouched. The foyer was dark except for the dim, plum-colored oval of beveled glass in the front door. During the day, this window looked like a luminous purple egg, pregnant and mystical, talismanic, keeping bad magic out and good magic in. Now, with the tiny zombie standing before it, the window looked like a great, flat eye, lit from within by the ghost of the moon. It was the nauseous purple-red of old blood. For a moment, Logan almost expected Jamie to prostrate himself. He was shifting his weight back and forth again and had paused as if undecided. His head turned slowly, first left, then right.
Logan found herself hoping fervently that he would just leave right now through the front door. She had never had such a disturbing encounter in her own home. She wanted to continue it outside, where it belonged, where she was used to it. She held her breath. Jamie reached out, grabbed the door’s handle and pulled it open. Logan saw him silhouetted briefly as he crossed the front porch and then bobbed down the short flight of stairs to the front lawn. He had left the door open.
Logan darted from the landing to the foyer. She flicked on the light, stepped directly into a pair of muddy rubber boots, which stood like sentries guarding the umbrella stand, and retrieved her long hemp coat from its hook on the wall. As she adjusted herself for outdoor travel, shrugging the coat into place and tucking her notebook into an inside pocket, she stood in the doorway and watched Jamie make his way down the front walk to Riverline Road. She wasn’t sure, but she thought he was moving more quickly now. No time for a flashlight. She should get after him.
Clutching the pink and orange quilt once again, Logan stepped outside, shut the door behind her, and trotted cautiously after her haunted little friend.