The acrid smell of the smoldering fire spread like a cancer through the town. There is nothing quite like it. It is the smell of power and destruction. It is the smell of death, as all is devoured that encounters it. It repulses, yet attracts with morbid curiosity. Fire is beautiful as the flames leap and jump from structures, colouring the sky with multiple hues, but it strikes terror in all who venture too close.
The faces of the crowd showed their respect and fear. They gawked as the body was pulled from the remains of the apartment. They shuddered, repulsed while they simultaneously pushed forward to see the carnage more clearly. The fire had won. There was not much left to see of the structure or the victim. An unearthly hush swam across the crowd. Shock at the tragedy finally set it. This kind of thing wasn’t supposed to happen in their neighbourhood, and certainly not to anyone they knew.
A shrill, eerie cry sprang from the ashes. People jumped. They recognized the sound of agony. It was a sound born of pain so horrible that words alone cannot capture. It echoed loudly and seemed to carry for an eternity through the still night. Then, it broke. Relief flashed across the faces of the crowd and they breathed. All eyes were trained on the door of the once majestic building. A shadow emerged as if from a fog, it was blackened and wheezing. As the smoke dissipated, a fire fighter emerged holding a slumped child in his arms. All looked on in deathly silence, none wanting to meet his eyes.
The sooty man cried impatiently, “Get the paramedics!” It took all the energy he possessed.
As if on cue, the child wriggled, trying to free himself from the iron grip of the man who pulled him from the engulfing flames.
“Where’s my Mom?” the terrorized child screamed.
This sound was almost as chilling as the bone chilling cry he’d emitted.
“Where’s my Mom?” he screeched. His voice raised a full octave in this plea.
Everyone stood as statues, shocked. The body they’d just seen dragged out of the ashes flashed before their eyes. No one wanted to say it. No one dared approach this motherless boy. No one wanted to venture that close to the tragedy. The silence became oppressive. The boy’s eyes searched wildly, scanning the faces for his mother. He punched and clawed at the fire fighter, trying to escape. The crowd stood motionless, it was as if time had stopped for everyone except the boy and his rescuer. A surreal fog settled on the scene. It was all was wrong.
Finally, a woman boldly strode forth, her dark eyes flashing with pity and love for the child. Her physical beauty was matched only by that of her soul. Her long dark hair flew in the breeze and her tall, slim frame strode boldly forth as the crowd split to make way. She wore her concern and her love like an cloak so that the boy would not be afraid. He noticed. He reached his tiny, blackened arms out to meet hers and hugged her with desperation. She was not his mother but to him she was his saviour.
The boy laid his tiny head on her shoulders and her winning smile broke through as sunshine after a rain shower. Her eyes closed, and she wrapped her arms around his tiny waist, keeping him warm and safe. It lasted for an eternal moment. Surreal silence floated around them.
Suddenly, as if a shock shot through the small boy, he jumped. He tried to fling himself out of her arms.
“You’re not my Mother!” Flailing and screaming in that horrible otherworldly shrieking voice he screamed repeatedly.
He looked shocked as if he hadn’t recognized this fact until she held him. He grabbed at her throat with a strength that should be reserved for a body much larger than his.
The Good Samaritan struggled to breathe; a blue tinged colour appeared on her lips as horror painted her face. The boy was more determined to hurt her as he saw her fear. A cold, icy glare came from his eyes. It sliced her soul.
A tall, blonde man broke the mass reverie and jumped to the woman’s defense. With careful strength he grasped the child and yanked him away from her. The boy turned vicious. With every appendage that he could free he swung and kicked at the man. He finally broke the man’s grip and ran, screaming while the crowd stared as if they were petrified stone.
Finally, the woman, recovering her senses yelled, “Follow him!”
The crowd stared blankly as if she were speaking in a foreign tongue. She shook her head at their stupor and started to run. The child was only a scared little boy that had no one; they couldn’t just let him run off alone. The only other one who followed her lead was the blonde man who had pulled the boy away from her neck before she suffocated.
“Nancy!” he shouted, his muscular frame quickly gaining on her. “Let me get him.” His blue eyes were awash with concern for her. He had a fighting chance with the child, but with her slight build, she would lose to the superhuman strength born of the child’s hysteria.
Nancy kept running, even after the blonde man had passed her. They kept the child in sight, but the boy was sprinting as if his very life depended on it.
The bleakness of the night passed over them as if it were a fogbank chasing them down the streets. No matter where they went, the moonlight remained hidden behind the gloom. Shadows were their only companions. They kept running. At the point where Nancy felt that her heart was about to burst from her rib cage, the boy stopped. He looked at the house in front of him, mesmerised, and a palpable chill settled on them. The man stopped dead in his tracks, as mesmerized as the child and completely unable to move.
“Kevin”, Nancy screamed in frustration, “Go get him.”
Kevin shot a bewildered glance at her, as she was a complete stranger. He looked at her with the same trancelike demeanor as crowd at the fire had. She stopped, dread seeped into her. It became icy fear as she approached the boy.
The child glared and made a sound that seemed to come from the bowels of his soul. It resembled a growl, but was deeper, richer and resonant. It was the ugliest thing her ears had ever been subjected to. The boy’s eyes had become demonic. The orbs glowed green as a cat’s and were overly bright, as if a candle were burning behind them. The boy gave her a warning glance that projected, “stay back”!
“He’s just a boy!” she heard her voice falter and crack. She felt icy fingers clutch at her chest, she knew she had to keep trying. Nancy had a sense that he was familiar, but she simultaneously knew she’d never seen him before. He gave her a feeling of déjà vu, but one that was formed of dread. He was dangerous; yet, he was just an innocent little orphan. Nancy felt that he must be in shock and this was causing him to appear evil. Perhaps she was the one in shock, Nancy reasoned.
Kevin glanced back helplessly and started tiptoeing gingerly toward the strange child. The man looked like a figure in a dream, moving as if through an invisible ocean. As he inched closer, the boy bolted into the house. Nancy ran after him while Kevin was still stuck in slow motion.
As Nancy entered the strange home, the temperature seemed to drop once more. She shivered uncontrollably. Her teeth chattered audibly and then, as suddenly as it had started, it stopped.
The building was filled with inky darness. The small window in the door might have let in a sliver of moonlight, if it hadn’t been obscured by the preternatural gloom. She couldn’t see the boy anywhere. In fact, she couldn’t perceive her hand in front of her face. A sharp click behind her thundered through the silence, it sent her a foot straight up in the air. Kevin had finally broken out of his spell. He wrapped his arms warmly around her from behind using some kind of supernatural power to see her.
“What is going on?” she begged him to answer.
He shrugged helplessly. His mouth opened, but words stuck in his windpipe. It didn’t matter, he had no clue what was happening.. Kevin felt like a marionette whose strings were being pulled by persons unknown. Even if he could have made a sound, he didn’t want her to know.
A bolt of light from behind them pierced them and blinded their unsuspecting eyes. When their vision adapted, a shocking sight appeared. A mountain of a woman clad in a shockingly bright kimono filled the doorway. The pinks and purples of her dress swirling before them were dizzying, but her black hair with its shocking white streaks and her flashing brown eyes gave her a supernatural aura.
“You are the most pitiful looking burglars I have ever laid eyes on!” She thundered. “How dare you invade my home?”
She was understandably furious.
Kevin stammered a few words, unsuccessfully, but was overwhelmed by the woman and her surroundings. Her front room was as unique and as loud as she. Tapestries covered every wall in brilliant colours and patterns. All of these pieces depicted scenes of magic and sorcery. The curtains covering all the windows were black and drawn. The carpets were a rich midnight blue. Every piece of furniture was in a brilliant red that was almost luminescent. And, the centrepeice of the room was a cherry wood table with a huge crystal ball balanced atop a large, gold pedestal.
Nancy knew immediately where they were. It was the home of the local gypsy. She called herself Wanda, without a surname though it was widely rumoured that she had been christened Janet Adams.
“I-I’m sorry. There was a child pulled from the fire at Fourth and Long. He ran right in the house. We are terribly worried about him, he is hysterical and orphaned and we just followed him in without thinking…” Nancy threw a hopeless look at the imposing woman. It sounded impossible.
Wanda looked down at them quizzically, weighing Nancy’s words. The chill returned in an icy blast. Frost emitted from each person’s mouth as they breathed.
Wanda’s demeanor instantly changed. She looked around urgently. “Where is the child now?”
“I don’t know.” Nancy admitted.
Kevin was unable to make a sound.
“We got in here, but it was dark. I didn’t see where he went.” Nancy’s head dropped, she was suddenly ashamed that she had lost him.
Nancy looked at Kevin, concerned at his confusion and utter inability to function. He stood in trancelike stillness, he looked catatonic. Nancy thought that looked dead, but since he was standing upright she dismissed the thought. Tears of frustration fear and concern froze in the corners of her eyes.
Wanda sized her up and realized that as odd as this all seemed, she was telling her the truth.
“Don’t worry about him, he’ll be all right.” Wanda assured her, “This just needs to be between us women.”
Wanda motioned her over towards her.
Nancy held down her terror. Wanda changed before her eyes. She shrank, and took on a warmer, friendlier look. Her voice became deeper and richer, and her gait was even and controlled. Nancy stood by her side.
Both women jumped as they heard a scraping sound.
The boy came jumped from a connecting door, appearing out of thin air. The violence and hostility had disappeared. He was a terrified little boy searching for his mother.
“Mommy?” he pleaded in a voice that only a child could muster.
Nancy’s heart physically ached hearing the desperation in his tone.
“Mommy?” he asked again.
It sounded like it was coming from within Nancy’s head and floating on waves of wind. He repeated this same line until Nancy felt as though her head would explode. She opened her mouth to scream. The sound resounded through her brain and bounced back in a terrible echo. The boy was suddenly silent, and so did she. It was a short reprieve, as soon as she was silent, he began again..
“I’m here.” The words resounded in her mind, through thick, dense waves.
These words blocked the boy’s cries and deafened her.. It was a broken sound, the sound of dreams. It was a voice desperate to be heard, but it couldn’t break through the dream barrier.
“I’m here!” It was stronger and more urgent yet still stuck in Nancy’s head.
Nancy flashed a pleading glance at Wanda; she immediately knew that Wanda’s head was filled with the voice as well. Nancy tried to speak but was silenced by a stern head shake from Wanda. Wanda’s glare bored deep into Nancy. It was hot and painful. When their eyes met they locked on to Nancy’s. It was if she were speaking directly to her soul.
Wanda wasn’t sure what was happening yet, but it was something that must not be disturbed. She was pleased when Nancy stayed silent despite the terror she was telegraphing through her eyes.
“Come here with us.” Wanda’s voice sang in a melodious tone. It filled the room and bounced off the walls.
“I’m here.” This time it came from Nancy’s mind and she swore it echoed through the room.
The boy looked at her expectantly. He could hear it, he knew his mother’s voice.
Nancy succumbed to the chill a third time. She shuddered and shivered violently. It was more that she could withstand. She fell to the floor; she clamped her eyes closed trying to will the cold away. A deep ache began in her chest that built into a searing pain. Nancy was sure that her body was being torn to pieces. She heard herself cry a horrible, eerie sound.
The boy emulated it. He sent up a bloodcurdling, unearthly wail set Nancy’s teeth on edge and drove her soul to desperate prayer.
Suddenly, it stopped. The pain and the cries dissolved into thin air.
Carefully, she dared to open her eyes. Wanda stood before her, her eyes like saucers. Nancy followed her gaze and her heart stopped.
Two filmy figures stood in an embrace. A woman who looked so much like Nancy that she could have been her sister had her arms wrapped around and a small boy she had never laid eyes on before. They were both softly crying.
“I missed you,” the woman hugged the child closer to her chest.
“Me too Mommy” he replied.
The woman was connected to Nancy by a ghostlike cord and the hazy child was linked to the boy from the fire in the same way.
Nancy gaped at Wanda. She could see by her face that the large woman shocked as well.
As the two ghost figures clung together the umbilical cords dissipated and the humans were freed.
The gazes as boy she had chased out of the ashes changed as the bond vanished. His face took on a familiar shape. The spirits melted into mist before their eyes and blew away gently on a cool breeze.
The clock in the living room struck midnight solemnly. The first stoke startled Nancy into a squeal. It seemed to free the women from the spell they’d been under.
The boy, a different boy, was sitting on the floor across the room. He was crying, silently from fear and confusion.
Nancy crawled to him. She suddenly realized how knew him.
“Jeremy”, she crooned, “Are you all right?”
He nodded and crawled into her arms, drinking in the affection. He nestled in comfortably and threw his arms around her neck..
“There was a fire” he sobbed, “My Mommy was asleep and I couldn’t wake her up.”
It broke her heart. She saw Sarah Parkins dragged out of the ashes, dead. Sarah had been Nancy’s neighbour until a year after Jeremy was born. Jeremy had spent many lazy Saturday afternoons often at Nancy’s apartment, especially when she made cookies. How could she not have recognized him?
Nancy rocked the boy until he cried himself into an exhausted sleep. Wanda let her put him in her guest bedroom. It was a small room with beige walls and dark brown carpets. Nancy must have shown her surprise at the sedate décor.
“The flamboyant stuff is just for business.” She shrugged.
They returned to the front room to find that Kevin had regained himself. He was eager to accept the coffee that Wanda offered.
“Do you know what happened to us?” Nancy questioned. If anyone could help her understand, she thought that this mystic would be the one with the answers.
“I think so.” Wanda looked at Kevin cautiously and decided to continue.
“That boy upstairs was the host for the small boy you saw here tonight. You my dear,” she nodded toward Nancy, “were the host for a spirit that has been here for longer than I’ve owned this house. She has spoken to me and through me before, but I had never actually seen her until tonight.”
Wanda paused and chewed thoughtfully on a cookie. She picked up the plate and offered to Nancy and Kevin. They just shook their heads.
“She was in turmoil because her son had died in a fire many years ago and she hadn’t saved him. It drove her mad. Her sister owned this house and took her in. For years she wandered through the house searching for her son. When she died thirty years later, she was still searching for him.”
Wanda took a sip of coffee. Nancy stared at her, unsure if she wanted to know the rest. Wanda took a deep breath and continued.
“You may remember that the block that burned tonight also burned forty-three years ago, that’s where her son died. I think that’s why the boy upstairs was taken over by the spirit who was trapped in that building. Because he was pulled out before the last of his soul died, was animated by James. Janet, that was his mother, always talked about her boy James. Janet must have seen you, looking very like she did when she was young, and took you as her host. I don’t know how she did it. Normally the soul has to be dying to be reanimated by a spirit. I guess you were willing to help or she would not have been able to get inside you.”
“I wanted to help the child so much that it hurt.” Nancy admitted.
Wanda nodded. “She must have sensed that, and used you.”
“I can’t believe that I didn’t I recognize Jeremy before we got here though…”
“He didn’t look like this kid he was pulled out of the building” Kevin agreed.
“No, you’re right. At the time that James took over, their looks merged. The child you saw was the combination of the two of them. The most dominant trait was taken from each child, so the one that was pulled from the fire looked like neither, and both.”
Nancy nodded, telling them of the déjà vu sensation she experienced. She could almost see Jeremy through the merged souls and physiques.
Kevin looked skeptical.
Wanda stiffened, suddenly. “Upstairs, now!”. It seemed painful for her to speak.
Kevin sensed her urgency and bolted. Nancy was close behind.
As they entered the room, they saw Sarah in full form put out her hand to Jeremy. He arose from his supine body took it.. A huge smile filled his face. He waved happily at Nancy and Kevin and skipped off holding his mother’s hand. They floated out the window and into the black, moonless night.
Nancy screamed as she saw his lifeless body on the bed. Hers eyes filled with blinding tears and she sobbed. Kevin put his arms around her gently. He too, was shaken.
Wanda left them alone in each other’s arms for a few moments. She returned quickly
“I called an ambulance.” Her eyes were shiny with unshed tears. She took Nancy’s hand, gently. “It needed to be. James couldn’t prevent what was meant to be. Jeremy was dying. HE got a short reprieve now they can all be at rest. I’m so sorry.”
Nancy nodded, not really comprehending.
Wanda sighed loudly. She was exhausted. “You both need to go, now.”
Wanda saw the confusion in their eyes.
“Please! I don’t want to have to explain what you two were doing here; it’ll be hard enough just explaining the boy.” She put her hand gently on Nancy’s shoulder.
The couple wandered from the house, the moon full in the sky. The streets seemed to glow. A peaceful, soft breeze blew. The fire was out and the ashes floating on the breeze.
“Ashes to ashes” Nancy thought. “That’s all we are destined to be.” Then from in her head, she was sure she heard the sound of a child laugh.
She smiled an uncertain smile. Or maybe there’s more.