The woods were frightening only once. Not because I was with someone I didn’t know, but rather because I was with someone I did.
It was early March during my third grade year. Patches of freckled snow still dotted the ground. It had been a gloomy winter. When I envisioned it, it was always dark. The fog seemed to choke us. It was like a great big void, like a black hole, pulling us in. I don’t remember exactly what it felt like then, but it felt wrong somehow.
In late January, Thursday afternoon tea had been postponed indefinitely. Dave had stopped showing up. The first time, Lynnie said he was out on a walk. He started taking a lot of walks, especially for in the middle of winter, when we’d deemed it too cold to play outside. When he wasn’t walking, he seemed confined to his office with the door shut. Lynnie asked us to fetch him at meal times, but he rarely came. When we peeked inside, he would be at his desk, surrounded by piles of papers, staring at a blank sheet in front of him. When we asked if he would like to join us at the table, he would peel his eyes away at though in a trance and shake his head. Romaine would tug on my shirtsleeve and shut the door quietly behind us. She never said anything about it.
In February, he didn’t get out of bed most mornings. He brought most of his papers and books upstairs, but he likely spent most of his time watching the small TV that was off-limits to everyone else. The volume was turned up so high we could hear it all the way downstairs. When we asked Lynnie to see him, she said he was too tired or that he was on a walk even when the front door was bolted shut and the faint strains of a newscaster’s voice could be heard. I asked if he was sick. Lynnie said that he was just exhausted and needed more rest. She said it was nothing to worry about. She worried though. We could tell by the way she hurried around the house doing chores meant for two. She was late to pick us up from school, a cardinal sin in the Enson-Morton household. The bags under her eyes darkened and deepened. She spoke in French on the phone a lot. We pretended not to notice.
By March, Dave had emerged once again, sometimes appearing for an afternoon snack. Lynnie treaded nervously, hovering over his shoulder as he ate. He was growing a beard. He said he was making good progress on his work and we all nodded as if we understood what that meant.
On the second Friday of March, Lynnie picked us up from school in the car. If it wasn’t too frigid, we walked back to the house, even in winter, for some exercise. But on that day, Lynnie had run errands all morning and needed the car. Groceries were piled in the trunk and several shopping bags littered the backseat.
“Is it all right if we get a treat at home today, girls?” She asked as we climbed in. On Fridays, we usually went into town for a cookie or brownie as a reward for getting through the week.
“Oh good. I left Boo and Dave at home for a long while, so I want to check up on them.”
We buckled our seatbelts and sped off in the direction of the house. It only took us a few minutes to get there. Romaine and I showed Ara our art projects. We’d been working on still lifes. Mine had a feather and an apple. Romaine’s had a vase and a pear.
When we arrived at the house, we unloaded quickly and Lynnie went straight to the door, key in hand, leaving the groceries in the trunk.
“Hello?” Lynnie called as she unlocked the door and we entered the house.
There was no answer.
“Hello?” She yelled again a little louder, when we reached the landing of the stairs. The house was quiet. She set the keys on the kitchen counter, next to the mail, which Dave must have brought in. She called for Dave and Boo a couple more times, but no one responded.
“Girls, can you see if they’re on the second floor? I’ll check the attic.” Lynnie instructed. She walked briskly toward the stairs, trying to hide her concern.
“Maybe they went on a walk,” Romaine suggested.
“We’ll check the house first.” Lynnie replied. She bounded up the stairs, two at a time. We followed her.
The three of us split up to check the rooms faster. We called for them. We opened every door. It seemed like a big game of hide and seek. We would have enjoyed it, but Lynnie seemed too nervous. They weren’t on the second floor. We ran back down to the first floor to meet Lynnie, still upstairs.
As we walked toward the kitchen, Romaine glanced at the back door.
We could hear Lynnie running down the stairs.
“No?” She asked as if she expected it.
“Mama, the door’s unlocked.” Ara told her.
“They must have gone for a walk,” Romaine tried again, sounding optimistic. Dave took a lot of walks, even Lynnie said so.
But Lynnie was out the door before Romaine finished the sentence. Finally sensing that something was wrong, we ran after her.
Ara pressed her face to the windows of the playhouse. Following Lynnie, Romaine and I sprinted across the backyard. There was no place to hide there.
Behind the backyard was a patch of wooded area we rarely explored. Occasionally, Lynnie and Dave set up scavenger hunts, like the Easter egg hunt the year before, that encroached into the area, but it was off-limits for most of our normal games. Roots protruded from the ground; the dense treetops let in little light.
As we approached the boundary, we could hear muffled voices. They were coming from a fair way into the woods. I was glad we hadn’t taken our shoes off inside since small patches of snow were still visible in the dirt.
“Girls, wait,” Lynnie said as we reached the border. She hesitated.
We took off anyway, jumping over roots and weaving in and out of trees, following the voices. Lynnie, slightly behind, eventually surpassed us.
“Stay with me.” She yelled. Her voice rose. She ran faster.
The voices stopped at the sound of another. This time, we did as we were told. We tiptoed as the voices resumed. When Lynnie stopped, she threw her arms out in front of us. We stepped backward, our vision blocked.
“What the hell are you doing?” She screamed. She lowered her arms.
In a small gap between the trees were Dave and Boo.
Boo wailed. He sat on the cold ground, dressed in a thin, long-sleeved t-shirt and shorts; his feet were bare. Dave was hardly dressed more appropriately, though he had thought to put on flip flops. In his hand he held a large stick, which he used to write in the dirt and snow. On the ground were dozens of numbers and mathematical symbols. When Lynnie spoke, his head jerked up, startled and he flung his hand with the stick out, almost hitting her.
“Mama,” Boo shrieked.
Lynnie went straight to him and gathered him in her arms. She bounced him on her hip and ran her hands along his legs in an attempt to warm him.
“We’ve got at least one dull kid.” His voice sounded strangely calm. “Look at this.” He pointed to the jumble of numbers on the ground. “He doesn’t get it. Doesn’t have a head for numbers.”
Boo continued to cry.
“He’s three.” Lynnie replied.
“Either you’ve got a head for,” Dave continued, but we couldn’t hear him over Lynnie’s instructions to us.
“Romaine, take Boo,” she handed him to her. “The four of you go back to the house. Don’t stop.”
We started back quickly to the house as Dave threw a ball of snow and ice at her back. Ara shook. When I looked over, she was crying. I took her hand. Romaine adjusted Boo on her hip, turning her head quickly back. She bit her lip.
“You listen to me!” He screamed.
We ran. Lynnie screamed back.
We didn’t stop until we reached the house. Once we were safely inside, we went upstairs to find warmer clothes for Boo. We dressed him in his big coat, pants, socks, and shoes and tucked him between the covers of his bed. He cried for Lynnie. Romaine, Ara, and I huddled around his bed, trying to soothe him, trying to calm ourselves. Ara wouldn’t stop crying. Romaine concentrated all her attention on Boo. I said nothing.
“Kids!” Lynnie called from downstairs.
“Upstairs!” I yelled. I ran to the stairwell, and by the time I reached it, Lynnie had arrived. She didn’t stop on her way to Boo’s room.
She pulled his blankets over him. Her hands shook.
“Emma, I’m going to call your mother and see if she can watch the four of you for the afternoon.”
Five minutes later, the doorbell rang. My mother’s voice carried through the house.
“I’m so sorry to hear Dave is sick. Do you have a good doctor? Dr. Martin is a fabulous family doctor if you need a referral.” She said.
I carried Boo, still dressed as if he were outside, downstairs alongside Romaine and Ara.
“Thank you.” Lynnie told her.
On the way to the shop just across the street, my mother asked Romaine and Ara what was wrong with Dave.
“The flu.” They said simultaneously.
“A cold and the flu.” Romaine offered.
“Too bad. I hope he feels better soon.”
None of us said anything.
Every few minutes, I would peek out the back door and look back at the house. The car never left the driveway, the groceries likely still in the trunk.