He watched her from the safety of a window inside as Gracelyn poked at the worn strip of earth below the swing with the tip of a shoe. She slowly swayed in the cool air of the playground, oblivious. Her thoughts were listless, yet on fire. She gazed into the emptiness around her and then bit into a hard apple she had plucked from a tree near the schoolyard. It tasted too sour in her mouth, and she threw it.
Astron Puffin turned away from the window and went to stand before the corkboard in the art classroom where he admired Gracelyn’s crayon drawing of her pastoral life. His eyes slowly scanned every sloppy detail — the clear-blue sky that was too blue, the camel hump green hills that lacked realistic detail, the crooked house in the middle of a field, the lake that was unnaturally circular, the red lighthouse she left structurally unsound.
He smiled and laughed to himself. Then he reached out, tugged the drawing away from its place beneath the pin, folded it, and stuffed it into his pants pocket before going outside.
He walked boldly to the playground, her back turned to him as she floated in the air atop the swing. He said nothing when his hands grabbed the chains and drew her back like an arrow on a bow. She screamed when the hands released her, and she shot forward. When she swung back, the hands pushed against her lower back, and she swung forward again. She struggled to twist around to see who it was. Then again, the hands pushed against her back with more force than before.
“Stop!” she cried out. And again, the hands pushed against her when she swung back, but this time, Gracelyn jumped off before going too high.
“What are you doing!?” she screamed out, tangled up in a cloud of dust on the ground.
Astron Puffin was startled by her reaction. “I was just giving you a push. You looked sad. I thought that you might like to go high on the swing.”
“You scared me half to death!”
“You shouldn’t sneak up on somebody like that… It’s unsettling.”
“I’m sorry,” Astron repeated. “I didn’t mean to unsettle you. I thought we could be friends… It’s such a lonely place, don’t you think?”
Gracelyn huffed in frustration as she got up and brushed the dirt away. “Why are you still here?” she wanted to know, stern in her tone. “Why do you keep following me? Can’t you just leave me alone!?”
Astron froze for a moment. He didn’t answer her. He couldn’t answer her — no thought that made sense came to his mind quick enough.
“Well!?” Gracelyn demanded.
He turned away from her and ran off.
“Wait!” Gracelyn called after him. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.” Then she watched him get smaller on the horizon until his body completely vanished beyond the edge of the dark woods.
Gracelyn meandered as she rode her bike back home from school. She looked up at the sky. The sunlight was dying earlier every day now. Summer was over for good, and the Earth was moving toward autumn. “At least in this part of what’s left of the world,” Gracelyn reminded herself. She slowly shook her head. “I’m getting very bad at talking to myself. I should find myself a doctor of the mind.” She laughed at the absurdity of that thought.
When she got back to the big white farmhouse she called home, she lazily dropped her bike in the yard, scrambled up the steps and went inside. She immediately locked the door behind her and went around the house lighting a cathedral’s worth of candles. Moses came out of his hiding place, twisted around her legs, and demanded to be fed by means of loud, repetitive meows.
“All right, all right. At least let me catch my breath and get situated,” she said to him. Then something caught the attention of her mind, like an invisible tapping on the shoulder, and she slowly walked around the house to investigate the feeling. Gracelyn carried an LED lantern that swung on hooks attached to a handle to light her way. She didn’t like the lantern as much as she did the candles. The light of the lantern was too harsh, too bright, too cold, but it was the best way to crawl through the darkness that fell upon the house in the deep of night.
She poked her head in all the rooms on the first floor — the living room with the old furniture, musty drapes, and cabinet TV; the front parlor with its large bay windows; the study with its shelves full of books now dismantled by technology — before going up the stairs to where the bedrooms and a bathroom were. She stood in a long hallway and held the lantern out in front of her. All the doors to the rooms were closed despite the fact she always left them open. She went to the door of her bedroom and pressed the side of her head against it and listened. Once she was satisfied there were no sounds inside, she reached for the doorknob, turned it, and went in.
Gracelyn was startled to see that the doors to her closet had been thrown open and now all the clothes she had inside it were piled on her bed. “Robbers searching for something,” she breathed. “Or lunatics.” The air in her room felt cold and she looked and saw that her bedroom window was open. She went to the sill and peered out, but the gathering darkness provided no clues as to who or what had entered the house. “Someone is trying to trick me,” she said to herself. “Or at least scare me.”
She sighed, uneasy. Gracelyn reached up and pulled the window down tight and locked it.
When she returned to the kitchen, she cranked a can opener around the top of a can of cat food and plopped the factory churned seafood delight into a bowl. Moses didn’t wait for her to set the bowl on the floor but instead jumped up on the counter and ate right there. Gracelyn stroked his fur as he gobbled up the food.
She let Moses be and went out the back door that was off the kitchen and walked into the backyard. A screen door with a spring that croaked like a frog when it was stretched slammed behind her. Tall trees fenced in the yard on three sides. An opening to the left led to an old barn and the fields and wilds beyond. Gracelyn went to the firepit she had constructed out of stones, added a few new sticks and small logs, then lit some crumpled-up paper beneath the wood with a Bic lighter until it caught and spread. Once she had a lively fire going, she stood there for a moment, mesmerized by the orange light and the soft crackling of sticks and the sizzle of sap.
Dusk was retreating and full night was coming on and with it the first few lights in the heavens flickered to life. She looked up, hoping to find something she could wish upon. But she gave up quickly because the heaviness of the world came upon her again like it so frequently did. She looked back at the house and the gently shaking soft orange glows of the candles in the windows. She saw a silhouette of Moses, licking a paw and washing his face just beyond the screen door. She tried to smile but found it hard. The thought that someone had possibly been inside the house frightened her. Then she realized she had forgotten to look in the basement. It was too dark for that now, she decided.
She looked up again at space. “I can’t stay here forever,” she said to the sheet of stars unfurled across the night. “I need to find a way to get out. I’m afraid.”
TO BE CONTINUED