Levi stroked through the water with his heavy arms and fatigued legs. Running in terror most of the night had taken its toll but the desperation to find Victoria pushed him. He had an overwhelming urge to save her even though she was dead and in no real danger. The sight of her standing on the darkening beach, alone and crying, hurt him and he felt the need to somehow save her. When the water became too shallow to swim, he stood and waded the remaining way and then staggered along the shore in his sopping wet clothes.
She had at least a ten minute head start on him and he had no way of finding her other than to call out her name which he felt reluctance in doing. He did not want to bring undesired attention to his presence from less hospitable spirits. He wandered through the dark on the path which wasn’t a path at all but mostly a familiar and easy way to get to and from the beach. It changed in appearance each time he tread upon it as time advanced forward.
“Victoria,” he whispered in the dark. He heard nothing. “Victoria,” he tried a little louder. No sound but the light, annoying buzz of mosquitoes in his ear. He trotted a few steps to avoid them and heard the sudden burst of footsteps running from him through the woods.
“Victoria?” he called a little louder but when she didn’t stop or answer, he ran after her. He could not see her well, but heard her frantic rustling in the dark. His pursuit must terrify her, he thought and as he continued to chase her, he considered stopping. Clearly she ran from him and he did not wish to scare her further but he couldn’t leave the woods without consoling her misery. She existed like the rest; trapped, alone and terrified.
He struggled in his run and within minutes he had to stop and rest. The swim across the creek and his wet clothes proved to be an exhausting adversary. He leaned against a tree to catch his breath and heard the rustling of her feet diminish. He physically couldn’t maintain her pace in his weakened state, so he decided to walk the remaing way and hoped to find her once more. Perhaps she returned to her house; the last place with any good memories she remembered.
He trudged through the woods not possessing much energy or patience to tip-toe from tree to tree. For the first time that evening, self-preservation did not propel him more than a grim eagerness to help the little girl.
He stopped periodically to catch his breath and listen for sounds of her running, but he heard nothing. The woods stood still….for now.
He removed his shirt and twisted it to remove the excess water. He would have done the same with his pants but he felt as though something always watched and he didn’t want to get caught in a predicament where he had to suddenly run through the woods in only his underwear.
He chose a long stick, not for defense as it offered little protection against musket balls and sabers, but to knock down unseen spider webs standing in his path.
He wished he had brought along a granola bar or a bottle of water. His stomach growled and his mouth felt like a paper towel had been crammed into it. His wet pants chafed the inside of his legs. His feet squished out water through his shoes with each step. He may have considered himself to be in a miserable state if he had time to think it over but finding Victoria preoccupied him.
The clearing to her house came into view. He paused on the fringe of the woods before entering, listened and searched for her but saw none. Next to the edge grew a small patch of daffodils which normally bloomed in the spring but the high degree of heat and strong presence of mosquitoes suggested that spring had ended months earlier. The daffodils should no longer grow and he speculated whether they remained alive just for Victoria.
He stepped into the open and listened. At first he heard nothing but as his ears grew more adjusted to the quiet as one’s eyes do with the dark, he heard her faint whimpering. He walked to the front of the house and heard her cries grow louder. He tip-toed to the corner and peered into the yard. Victoria knelt in front of the house, holding a withered daffodil and wept. She appeared as a lost child in a crowded mall who had lost her parents; fearful and all alone. Her long hair covered her face and scraped the ground.
Levi contemplated how to approach her. If he simply sauntered up to her she might run screaming and the last thing he wished was to scare her further. He turned and jogged to the woods to where the daffodils grew. He picked the two healthiest flowers for her then trotted back to the house. He poked his head around the corner again. She still cried.
Lacking a subtle way to approach he stepped out from the corner into the front yard and held out the flowers before him. She did not see him at first so he cleared his throat to gain her attention. She jumped to her feet and turned to run but when she caught a glimpse of the flowers she faltered. “Charley?” she asked.
“No, my name is Levi but I knew Charley. He would want you to have these flowers.”
She didn’t answer and stared cautiously at Levi while he eased towards her. Feeling like a predator stalking his prey, Levi stopped advancing and knelt to appear less intimidating. He held the flowers out for her to receive.
“I just picked them from behind the house. Please have them if they will cheer you up. I am a friend, a good guy,” Levi explained. “I don’t want to scare you. I want to help you if I can.”
She still said nothing but she did not run either which Levi felt encouraging.
A few of her home’s windows had holes or missing panes. The front porch lacked a board leading to the door and the weather had disintegrated most of the paint. Levi contemplated if seeing her home in such a ruinous state caused her sadness.
“Do you want to go inside?” he asked
She nodded and wiped away a few tears.
“But you are afraid to?” he guessed.
She nodded again and shook as though she might once more come undone.
“I will go in with you if you want. I will look inside to make sure it is okay. Don’t cry. Everything will be all right. Is there something inside you need?”
She nodded again without a word.
“What do you need?” Levi asked seizing on the opportunity to gain her trust. “Maybe I can find it for you.”
“I need my mommy,” she replied gently.
Levi’s shoulders sagged. He felt so badly for the child. Her mother clearly no longer lived in the house. Perhaps her child’s death broke her heart. He remembered the many nights he cried beneath his covers because he did not get to see his mother. He now felt an even greater connection to Victoria as he knew how lost and terrified she must feel without her mom.
He didn’t know how to help her. How should he explain to this sweet, lonely little child her mother had left?
“I don’t think your mommy is here anymore, honey. I don’t think anyone lives here. Do you know why no one lives here?” He spoke with a sympathetic pain in his voice.
The little girl shook her head and covered her face as she began to cry again.
Levi wanted to rush and hold her but considered how she might react to his embrace so he restrained himself. He didn’t know how to console the child with words only as he always consoled his wife with an embrace. She cried and cried in anguish so finally he concocted a story.
“Your mommy sent me to get you,” he assured her.
She uncovered her eyes, brushed the tear soaked hair from her face, and inhaled a gulp of sniffly air through her nose.
“That’s how I knew where to find you. She said you would be here waiting for me.”
“Where is she?” Her voice trembled.
“Your mommy had to go to heaven to be with God but she wants you to be there with her.”
She took her brown shirt sleeve and wiped it across her eyes. “Is that where my daddy is and Charley?”
“I’m not sure honey. I haven’t talked to your daddy but I don’t think Charley is there right now.”
“I saw you and Charley in the water. I saw him get hurt.”
Levi nodded and guessed Charley’s death caused her to cry earlier when he saw her across the creek.
“I’m sorry you had to see that. I wanted to help Charley like I want to help you.” He held out the flowers. “Charley did tell me you liked flowers so I picked these for you.”
She took a small step toward him.
“I promise I will take care of you. I will keep you safe.”
She ran over and grabbed the flowers and pulled them to her nose. Levi beamed and tried to look her over but she unexpectedly jumped to him and wrapped her little arms around his neck. Her hug stunned him but he embraced her with equal enthusiasm as though she belonged to him and he didn’t let go. She laid her head on his shoulder like an infant and he lifted her into the air and rocked her the way his mother once did for him. He pressed his head to hers and smelled her soiled hair. Though a ghost, she smelled and felt alive. She also experienced all the fears and terrors a normal seven-year-old would if left behind in the woods alone amongst terrible and treacherous villains. She had experienced two centuries of frightfulness. How many times as a ghost did she cry as she watched Charley die on the beach? How abandoned did she feel when all that remained were the ominous lights of greedy men as they dug for their treasure and the terrifying wail of the storm woman? Did Victoria wander her house even after her mother departed? Levi offered to her the first real comfort and protection in over two hundred years. For the first time in a long while, she felt able take a break from worrying about herself and allow another to worry about her as most children are allowed.
“My name is Levi,” he reminded her with a whisper.
“I’m Victoria,” she whispered.
“Are you okay now?”
“Okay,” he smiled and carried her over to the porch and sat with her in his lap. She laid her head on his chest and they continued to rock for a long time under the moon. Levi feared other ghosts might arrive but refused to let his impatience get the better of him. He put Victoria first and so they remained there while he comforted her.
“Do you like the flowers?” he asked.
“You know I have two boys around your age. How old are you?”
“Seven?” he asked pretending to be astounded. “Well you are mighty brave for a seven year old! I think you might be braver than I am.”
“Did you ever lose your mom?”
Levi nodded. “Yes, but I got her back.”
“Do you think I will get my mommy back?”
“I hope so honey. I’ll do what I can.” Levi frowned as he rocked her. He had no way of delivering on his promise and he would eventually have to leave Victoria as had her loved ones. He couldn’t take her with him because she couldn’t leave the woods. Nothing inside crossed to the other side.
“Are you going to go in?”
“I can if you want me to. Do you want to go with me?”
“Do you want to see if your mommy is in there?”
“She isn’t,” she whimpered with certainty. “I remember seeing her leave.”
“You saw your mom leave?” he asked trying not to sound too surprised.
“Yes, my daddy and her left in a wagon. I remember my mommy being very sad when they left. She couldn’t see me at all before then. She cried when they drove off. I ran after her and screamed but she didn’t hear me and I couldn’t catch them. She turned around but they didn’t stop. I wanted them to return but they didn’t. Then someone else came to the house and lived here and I knew I wouldn’t see my mommy again. The new people left too.”
Levi frowned at the loss and abandonment one so young shouldn’t experience. He pictured her sitting at the woods’ edge in her brown dress crying as her parents rode out of sight.
“Do you know why your mommy cried?” Levi asked.
“She didn’t want to leave this house.”
“Yes, I’m sure she didn’t,” Levi answered warmly, “but also she did not want to leave you and the memories of you in this house. Her memories are how she kept you close to her heart and when she left, she felt like she left the memory of you behind. This made her sad. Your mother loved you very much and when she left I don’t think she knew you stayed.”
“Where did she think I was?” the little girl asked confused.
“Well do you remember the day Charley started fighting with the other soldier and Charley shot him?”
“Yes, I remember. Mr. Wilcox pointed his gun at me and told my mom she had to go into the woods or he would kill me.”
So that is what happened! What kind of man pointed a gun at a child?
“Charley became angry at this didn’t he?”
“Yes. He pointed his gun at Mr. Wilcox and the two started yelling at each other. Mr. Wilcox said, ‘I’m going to kill you too, Charley’ and I started to cry. I tried to run and when I did Mr. Wilcox tried to grab me but Charley shot him.”
Levi sighed with sympathy for the horrors the little girl witnessed. “I’m sorry. You shouldn’t have to see such things.”
“I ran out of the house and into the woods.”
“Do you remember what happened after?”
“No. I didn’t run far because Charley always told me to stay out of the woods because bad things lived inside. I stopped and and turned around to go back but then I heard more guns. I don’t remember anything else.”
Levi pursed his lips thinking of how best to explain a young, dead child’s situation to her. “Well sometimes things happen to people; bad things that make people cry. Remember when you saw Charley get hurt on the beach? Charley had a bad thing happen to him.”
Puddles formed in her eyes as she listened.
“When you ran into the woods, your mom thought something bad happened to you the same way something bad happened to Charley, and I think she thought you went to heaven too. When you came back she couldn’t see you anymore.”
“Why not?” Her voice still trembled at the thought of losing her mother two hundred years after it happened.
“Because when the bad thing occurred honey, part of you, the part your mom can see, stayed here and the part of you your mom can’t see, the part meant for heaven, also stayed here. The part she could see was hurt badly and your mommy realized you had probably gone to see God. But the part of you your mommy thought went to Heaven stayed here, only your mommy can’t see that part of you. Most people can’t.”
“Why didn’t I go to heaven?” she asked like a child not invited to her best friend’s party.
“I’m not sure honey. Maybe God wanted you to watch over your mom.”
“But she left ages ago?”
“I know she did honey. I’m sorry I don’t have a better answer for you but now I think maybe God wants me to watch over you,” he replied with a comforting smile.
“Why aren’t you in heaven?”
“It’s not my time to go yet,” he replied with a smile. “I still have a wife at home who needs me and I think God has a few things for me to do before I go home to him.”
“Do I need to go with you?” she asked with a brightening face.
She had the same hopeful smile Charlie had when he too thought he might leave the woods. Levi would take her if possible but nothing crossed the road.
“I think I need to stay here with you until we get you to your mommy!” he answered with a pounding doubt in his heart. He had no confidence in his success and the more time he spent with Victoria the more he struggled with the thought of leaving her.
“Have you been inside since your mom and dad left?”
“A few times. The other people who lived here had a little boy and sometimes I snuck into his room at night and played with his things. I cried when they left too. After they left no one came to live. I think the woods scared them. I didn’t go into the house anymore because I’m afraid of the dark.”
“Are you ready to go in now?”
“Can I hold your hand?”
He stood her on the porch then took her warm little hand and walked inside. The spooky house smelled like the top of his father’s barn. He saw no furniture but an old iron wood stove remained. A few of the floor boards wobbled and creaked as they walked over them. They stood in what was likely a living room now blanketed in dust. In the rear of the room he noticed the small window through which he peered when he first came upon the house in the snow. To the left he saw a small dining room and kitchen. In the right rear corner of the living room a set of steep steps led to the second floor and to the right he saw a closed door, perhaps to a bedroom. The paint on spread outward like cracked glass.
“What did your dad do?” Levi asked.
“He had a store in town and then he joined the miltia?”
“The militia?” Levi asked clarifying her statement.
“Yes, that’s what I mean.”
Levi wondered if he ran with the group who forced the British from this house and accidentally killed little Victoria. If so, where had he been for all those months the British lived in his home?
He held her hand as they investigated the room.
“Charley shot Mr. Wilcox here.”
“Yes, but he faced that way.”
Levi turned and half expected to see a blood stain on the floor, but those boards were undoubtedly replaced a century ago at least.
“Is there anything you want to see?” he asked changing the subject.
“I want to go upstairs.”
Levi walked to the bottom of the stairs and flipped the light switch on the wall but as he suspected, it did not work.
“It’s pretty dark up there,” he said.
“Are you scared?”
“No, but it is going to be pretty hard to see. I don’t want you to be scared.”
“I won’t be if you don’t let go of my hand.”
He held her hand as they climbed the steep, wooden stairs into the small room above. The ceiling left only enough room for a young teen to stand and the sides sloped with the roof. Windows sat on the north side and on the east side facing the woods.
“Did you sleep in here?” he whispered.
“Yes, but this is where the soldiers slept when they stayed with us. They all slept on the floor here.”
“Even Mr. Wilcox?” He didn’t believe an officer slept on the floor with his subordinates.
“No, he slept in my mommy’s room.”
Levi frowned, postulating that Mr. Wilcox had taken advantage of too much. “Where did you sleep then if the soldiers slept here?”
“Usually downstairs by the fire.”
Levi peered through the window. In the distance he thought he saw a light but it disappeared.
“Before the soldiers came, I sat here and watched all sorts of lights in the woods.”
“You saw lights? Were you ever scared?”
“At first, but daddy told me the Lord protected us.”
“How long have you seen the lights?”
She thought about it for a moment. “I guess ever since I’ve lived here. I don’t go near the lights. I hide behind trees.”
“Why do you go into the woods Victoria?”
“I don’t know. I was lonely. I guess I wanted to find someone like you.”
Levi smiled. “I understand.” He peered through the window again for a sign of the light but saw none. “Do you want to go down to your mother’s room?”
“Yes please,” she took his hand with a smile.
He led her down the steep stairs and held the railing with his left hand and her with his right.
Levi turned the doorknob and peeked in. The room appeared as dark and empty as the second floor. He gave the door a gentle nudge and it creaked open on its own.
“My mommy and daddy’s bed used to be right there,” she said pointing into the darkness. “Sometimes I climbed into bed with them on really cold nights.”
Levi thought about doing the same thing when scared or did not feel well but when his father woke he made him sleep on the floor.
He knelt next to her. “Victoria, I’m going to do whatever I can so you can see them again. I’m just not sure where to begin. I thought maybe I would find a clue in this house but…”
“It’s okay. I’m just happy you are here.”
Levi smiled. She had at least taken a little of the pressure off him. “You are a remarkable little girl!”
“You know when I lost something my daddy told me to start at the beginning. I never knew what he meant but maybe it will help you.”
Levi considered the trees and sighed. He knew the beginning existed within the woods but the thought of re-entering sickened him. If he had not seen Victoria and felt the need to help her, he would now be speeding in his car, half-way home but presently he’d rather be nowhere than at this little girl’s side. “Well I guess it is worth a shot. You will have to come with me though. I don’t want to leave you behind here.”
She nodded her head vigorously, “I want to come with you! I don’t want to be here alone.”
“Good!” he took her hand and wrapped his around it. Let’s go find the beginning.”