The whistling of the tea kettle brought me back to my senses. I shook my head, stopped looking out the window at the blue house next door, and turned the gas off. Then I poured the steaming water into my mug, and dropped a pouch of mint tea in it. I tied the string around the handle of the mug, as is my habit, and let it sit and steep on the countertop.
I hadn’t realized just how much of my childhood I had forgotten, how much had slipped through the cracks, and never resurfaced. How could I have gone through the rest of my entire childhood and adult life with that just stewing in the back of my mind, unaddressed and unnoticed?
I picked up my mug, and took a sip. The tea was still too hot, and burnt my lip, but I swallowed it down anyway. It was good, refreshing, and it warmed me up from the inside, as it settled in my belly.
I never did see Ms. Cleary again, I realized, standing there with my tea. The last that I saw of her she was walking into that house, and closing the large, sliding glass door. She must have moved out, though, because I remember having other neighbors, many, in fact, in that old blue house next door. None of them ever stayed more than a year, either, and most moved out after several weeks, or months. My parents would say that it was because they didn’t like the location, or got a new job, or were short on money and couldn’t afford the mortgage, but I always thought that it was haunted, and that there was some ghost or ghoul living inside of it, that drove everyone out.
It occurred to me then that that was how I had transformed, and distorted my memories of the house. I came to believe that it was haunted, and even then, remembered pouring salt around my house in a circle, so that I could keep any ghosts from coming in to get me. But all along it had been the opposite. The details were all there, they were just mismatched and scrambled. It made me wonder as to exactly how many of my memories were in this skewed state. Were these the only ones, or was I still not remembering more, even now?
I stared out the window again at Ms. Cleary’s old house and yard. What had ever happened to her? Where did she go to? I remembered the days after with astonishingly sharp detail in the moment, but as I riffled through them, like flipping pages in a photo album, I did not see any picture of her leaving, or moving out. She had just been gone. I’m sure that if she wanted to, she could have flown away, in the middle of the night, and left with no one being the wiser. But maybe that wasn’t it. Maybe she hadn’t made Owd Hob disappear, but just thrown him into her home, and then gone inside to grapple with him again, a battle that perhaps had ended with the destruction of the both of them. Maybe she had been pulled inside of that house, and been lost from this world forever. The only thing I was certain of, was that I would never know, and could never be sure of what exactly happened to Ms. Cleary, or the one she had called Owd Hob.
Or could I?
After a long drink from my mug I set it down on the counter, and went to grab a jacket and shoes. I was still in my pajama pants, and an old t-shirt, but it didn’t matter. It wasn’t that cold out, and I wouldn’t be gone for long. I made sure to shut off the porch light before leaving.
I slipped out the door, closed it quietly, and crept over to the hedge, and moved along it to the end of the yard, turned back around, and came back up the yard next door. The night was cooler than it had been earlier, and the air humid, from the rain. I didn’t know who still lived on the street, and did not want to be recognized or seen, sneaking around the neighborhood. Up above me the moon shone light down, peaking its glowing white face from behind a thin layer of cloud.
There was no car in the drive of Ms. Cleary’s old place, and a ‘for sale’ sign staked at the edge of the lawn, so I assumed no one was at home, and that the house had still never changed from what I remembered it to be. I passed the tree where I had first seen Clara sitting, up in one of the taller branches, wearing her overalls and smacking gum. That was how I would always remember her. When I reached the wooden gate, it was unlocked. I pushed it open, and the hinges creaked, and groaned in protest. They had probably not been oiled in years, if ever. I stepped into the garden, and it was nothing like the way I remembered it just moments before.
The whole thing was like a barren wasteland, and there was more dirt in the yard than grass. It looked like a vacant lot, the kind kids would play baseball and soccer in, and kick up dust as they ran around. A few weeds rose above the flat land, and were especially clustered around the cement porch, poking through the cracks that had developed over time. They were the only life in the entire yard, and even they were wrinkled, and dehydrated, although it had only just rained. It was as if there was something underneath the ground; something with an unending thirst, that sucked up every last drop, and left no water for anything else to live off of.
I walked into the middle of the yard. the ground was damp from the rain, but already drying faster than it should have been. My sneakers left tracks in the ground behind me, and I stopped in the very center, where I remember setting down my dead uncle, and watching as he came back to life in front of my very eyes.
It all seemed so surreal and impossible now, as an adult. I had lived my whole life up until now, not believing in magic or monsters, or ghosts, or anything out of the ordinary. By the time I reached a certain age I had stopped believing in all that nonsense, and grown up. It was only for stories and daydreaming, and only existed in our heads. I began to start convincing myself then that what I had remembered in one long flash of recall, had been some sort of delusion, or hallucination. Maybe I was still grieving over my dead mother, and my mind had not yet moved on. It seemed by far more likely than the possibility that all of those impossible things that had happened to me were in fact real.
I knelt down, and wiped my hand along the wet ground. It felt like damp sand, drying out in a hot sun. I stood back up, and made to leave. I didn’t know what I had expected to find there. Not a thing had changed since I left for college, and I had not come back in all that time in between now and then.
And then I heard something, and it was very faint. So faint, that I almost did not hear it at all. It was a wandering, wavering humming tune, low and distant, and muted. It sounded as if someone were standing just on the other side of that glass door. I turned toward the noise, and walked up to the glass door quickly. The humming did not get louder or softer, but rather stayed where it was, at that annoying, just out of reach level, where I could hear it, but not all of it, and some notes were still lost in the wind, or the scuffling of my feet.
I was up at the sliding door, with my face pressed against it, and my hands cupped around my eyes, trying to see in at who was humming. But there was nobody there. The place was completely empty, and it did not look a thing like I remembered Ms. Cleary’s kitchen looking like. There was a counter built into the wall, and a refrigerator, along with an open space where a table could go. But there was no wood-burning stove, no jars along the walls, and no Ms. Cleary sitting there humming, and waiting for her apple crisp to warm, as I’d thought, and secretly hoped. But the humming was still there, only it actually was growing fainter now, as if whoever had been doing the humming had walked away, into another room of the house, and was walking down the hall.
I backed away from the house, and shook my head, turned back around, and walked away. There hadn’t been anyone humming, I decided. It had only been the wind, or some combination of other sounds, along with my own deep desire to actually hear something, and confirm the wonderful but impossible things that could never have happened.
I went through the squeaky gate again, and back around the hedge that separated the two yards. I went inside, turned the porch light back on, and returned to my mug of tea. I had not been gone long, and it was at the perfect temperature. Not too hot, but still far from lukewarm. I brought the tea with me into the living room, with all of my still packed boxes, and sat down in the middle of them, opened the one closest to me.
I reached my hand in blindly, and grasped around for something to pull out. My hand brushed something cold and metallic, and I grabbed hold of it, and brought it out.
I didn’t remember packing it, but there it was, solid, real, and unchanged by the years: the rusted iron key that Clara had given to me as a child.