The Butler House stood on decades of history. So much so that the peeling roofs seemed less like the telltale signs of dereliction and more the sloughing of scales of a serpent. Merely habitual. Temporary. The building defied death, and when I looked at it, I knew its soul was wondering the same thing about mine.
When I was a child I thought that, one day, a crew would emerge from the coughing smoke of an east train passing through High Peak. And like charcoal dust, they would swirl up the spindly towers and sagging terraces of Miss Butler’s home and, in another gust of dark wind, they’d disappear—leaving behind fresh coats of paint, varnished furniture and silent hinges.
A new skin.
I’ve since found my assumptions to be as unfounded as tooth fairies and miracles. But unlike tooth fairies and miracles, for some odd reason, I still expect it to happen.
“You know we can’t keep giving away amaryllis to Ms. Butler in the spring, Athie.”
“Flowers grow back,” I told my mother, taking the half dozen. “Affection, not so much. You should see her face when I bring them around.”
“So bring her some of the candytuft blossoms. They’ll bloom until late summer. We have noble customers, you know. Noble customers whose families aren’t, well …” She scoffed. “I can hardly believe I almost just said that. It’s a good thing, what you’re doing after what she’s been through. Go on. We can talk more about the expense over dinner.”
Only singed by the beginnings of an admittedly reasonable lecture, I left, flowers in hand.
Dusk quickly melted my shadow into the thin roads running through the tall grasses of High Peak. The violet amaryllis bobbed and dusted my hands with pollen as I went off the paved stones and into the backroads, where dust trails followed every step of my heels.
Then I was stumbling on the gravelly shore of Goremire Lake. I was on my backside soon after, knuckles smashed into the sharp pebbles so as to spare the amaryllis from the same punishment.
I was on the ground because I had heard my name. It pierced through my unguarded thoughts and seemed to hook me backwards.
By now the twilight skies mirrored the lake’s undulating darkness. A hand brushed against my shoulder.
“Vivie!” I exclaimed in relief while the child barrelled into my arms. “You startled me. What on earth are you doing out here? Won’t Ms. Butler have something to say about your bedtime?”
“Ms. Butler doesn’t know that I am here,” she replied.
I parted the mess of dirty gold hair from Vivie’s face, revealing a pair of grey eyes which had a wisdom I forgot. Twigs and leaves made quiet smacks on the gravel as I liberated them from the entanglement that was her head.
“All the more reason to get you back. It’s getting dark.”
“I don’t want the headless man to get me,” she said, crawling into my arms—a quiet command for me to carry her. I hoisted the child up and continued walking towards Butler House, the spidery tops of its eroded towers just now coming into view over the hill.
“Headless man? Are the boys telling you stories to frighten you again?”
“No. He’s right behind you, Athie.”
My teeth clicked together as my jaw clenched. Vivie’s eyes were boring into mine. Was she looking for a reaction?
“Let’s just get you home, all right?” I said again without turning. “Haven’t you scared me enough for one day?” Who was I trying to prove my fearlessness to? Her or me? “The trees in the forest look like anything in the darkness.”
“I’m not lying. The singing nun told me you would try to bring me home.”
“We don’t have … nuns in High Peak, Vivie.”
I tramped through the forest between the lake and House Butler. Between the trunks I could imagine silhouettes. The hanging mouths of hollow bodies howling into the night. “Let’s talk about something else,” I urged. “Has Ms. Butler been helping you with the alphabet?”
“You love her. That’s why you bring her flowers.”
“Ms. Butler?” I scoffed. “She’s too old for me.”
“She didn’t expect it,” Vivie mumbled.
“Didn’t expect what?”
Vivie didn’t reply.
Though Vivie was still drooping over my shoulder, my chest felt lighter as we arrived at the top of the hill overlooking Goremire. The darkened sky shed more light here. I could breathe easy, not thinking about the headless man or the singing nun. At the very least, having more space to run should I ever spot them. Not that they seemed to bother Vivie.
I set her down. “You’re a brave girl. Braver than me. But don’t leave Ms. Butler after dark, all right? It’s not safe. And she needs you to protect her from the headless man.”
Without indicating that she cared or heard this, she whipped herself around, which I suppose was a kind of disconfirmation, and took off. She cleared the unkempt fields by the house, displacing tall graces and grain. Just before she was around the corner of House Butler, she planted herself in the ground and pointed at me.
Even at this distance I knew she wasn’t pointing at me, but behind me. Her tiny hand shook as if this was the last chance to warn me.
But even after she’d tucked herself behind the orphanage, I didn’t turn to check for the headless man.
I arrived at the front door, once again surprised that my foot hadn’t fallen through the porch or the steps leading to the doorway. Then I raised my hand to the iron goat knocker and took hold of its extended, curved tongue to rap on the door. After the conjoined shouts of at least nine children rang through the three stories, the dilapidated door gave in, and a woman of short height with black hair streaked with grey appeared in its frame.
Something more than exhaustion weighed in her hazel eyes, I could already see.
“Oh, Atherton. It’s only you,” Ms. Butler greeted with a forced grin. By now an expected ritual, I offered the amaryllis to her. But before I could get a word in she stopped me. “I am afraid this isn’t a good time.