He’s gone as if he was a magician presenting his last trick, disappearing in a cloud of smoke. He’s gone. Gone in the snap of a finger, leaving nothing behind, no marks, no evidence. He’s gone and what is left is the book.
At first, Shawn’s mother keeps the book. She keeps other things, too: the clothes, the few personal items her brother still had. But it’s the book she clings to, pressing it against her chest, as if they could become one: the book and her flesh, her thin and long fingers, her nails almost burying in the leather cover, refusing to let go while she’s told what happened—and, later, while she gives her statement to the police.. It’s only when they’re back in the car that she puts the book inside a box and then refrains from further looking at it. She changes suddenly: she breathes as if her chest is at last unburdened, self-possessed with a strange rigidness that Shawn can’t help but notice while he drives her back home.
“I didn’t know Uncle Huck still had that book,” Shawn says.
His mother answers after a while, “Oh, yes.” Not a proper answer, more of a commentary, her eyebrows raised in attention, even though she isn’t looking at Shawn. When they reach her home, Shawn carries the box inside. The box feels heavy because the book itself is heavy; his uncle’s other belongings seem almost of no consequence, too few and too impersonal. But the notebook is something else: bound in thick leather, fat with yellowed pages and notes sticking out, all held together by loose strings that barely keep it shut.
“Leave it over there,” Shawn’s mother says, but she doesn’t point at any particular place. Shawn places the box over the kitchen counter.
“Let’s go for a drink.” His mother is not asking. She needs alcohol badly, Shawn understands, and so they go out and eat and drink at a favorite bistro, while his mother smokes one cigarette after another and hides her pink-rimmed eyes behind her sunglasses. The way she apparently stares at everything, the movement, the waiter, even the food, makes Shawn think she’s having another horrible headache.
“He can’t just disappear,” Shawn says. “Isn’t the hospice accountable?”
“I’ll let the police deal with that,” his mother says, in the same even tone she used with the hospice director, with the orderlies. It’s a tone that makes her sound distant, a voice that comes from a sort of underground of the thoughts.
Shawn’s phone rings from inside his jacket pocket. He grabs it and there’s Keith’s name. Keith wants to know how everything is. Shawn texts and says things are fine (in a way). He says he should be back soon enough; he says he’s providing emotional support for his mother, although in truth he’s not sure of what he’s doing there or what kind of support his mother needs. Her eyes look like she’d been crying, but Shawn didn’t see a single tear since his arrival. When they are alone, she won’t mention Huck, won’t mention what happened. She just needed a driver. She just needed Shawn to be there, standing by her side, waiting to catch her if she might fall; waiting to bear witness to that event unfolding.
Last night, his last normal night, his mother called him to tell the news. “Huck is gone.” And Shawn took gone to mean that Uncle Huck was dead, after almost twenty years in the care of the hospice. “Mom, I’m so sorry,” he’d began saying. But gone wasn’t that sort of gone. Gone meant Huck’d disappeared.
“So . . . my uncle ran away,” Shawn remembered telling Keith—feeling like an idiot for even beginning the story with a sentence like that.
“What?” Keith lowered the book he’d been reading, startled as he watched Shawn getting dressed. Jeans, a t-shirt; practical things. He had to get to his mother as quickly as possible. “Your sick uncle?” Keith asked. “How old is he?”
“Go, uncle. Fuck the system and all.”
“Huck is dangerous,” Shawn said. “Dangerous to himself. Not to, like, other people.”
“Okay. Got it,” Keith said. “I hope they find him. I mean, how could he even get away?”
“That’s the whole mystery,” Shawn said. But he’d done it. Huck had escaped, inexplicably. An orderly had stopped for a midnight check and found Huck’s room empty as he opened the door. The room had a little barred window and no other way out. Shawn had seen it by himself—the room, his mother touching the empty bed for a second, as if trying to hold to anything left of her brother. An idea of him, a sensation. But there was nothing there. A magician puts his hand inside a top hat, but the hand comes up empty; there’s no rabbit to be shown. As the audience sits in stunned silence, only one person applauds. That person, that crazy person, is Huck.
Huck never had a magician’s top hat. He had an Eagles cap, the mascot Swoop against a deep green, and he’d wear it sometimes; but mostly his head was bare and shaved. He had LPs stashed in his living room, he had books that defied any logic of organization, and he had a La-Z-Boy (aesthetically unforgivable, Shawn’s mother would say). He had a dusty Persian rug by the living room and he had a ginger cat named Bowie. “He treats me nicer than any girlfriend I ever had,” Shawn heard Huck say to his mother, once.
Visiting Huck was always nice. Huck would cook for them, and then Shawn would sit down on the rug and play with Bowie while his uncle and his mother would talk and smoke and drink; they’d even talk about him, the boy Shawn was back then, as if he wasn’t really there.
“You were always so mean to me. It’s a wonder you raised such a fine kid,” Huck had said.
“Didn’t have much of a choice. I couldn’t let him be raised by wolves. Or by Eric.” Eric was Shawn’s father. Also known as Husband Number One, also known as The Unmentionable, whenever Shawn’s mother felt like it—which she usually did.
“Like we were?” Huck asked. They shared a brief laugh, a laugh tinted with something bad, Shawn would always think. A bad memory, but rooted so deep in a distant past you could observe from afar and find it funny; the hurt of it was already gone, buried under a million other facts of life that unraveled after it.
“You could always marry again. Have more children.”
“One child is more than enough,” said Shawn’s mother. That was before Husband Number Two, rich and emotionally unavailable George; before Husband Number Three, reliable Lars. None of those marriages last for long. “Now, think of that: at least Shawn won’t have anyone to torment.”
“Or be tormented by,” said Huck, the closest thing Shawn ever had to a dad.
“Tormentee, tormentor,” Shawn’s mother said, tipping her head, a smile hiding some sort of cruel pleasure.
Shawn remembered the morning everything changed. He’d barely waken up and his mother was pacing through the kitchen, phone clutched in her hands, trying to get hold of Huck. Lars, Husband Number Three, was begging her to calm down. “He’s not like this,” Shawn’s mother kept repeating, until she got tired and scared enough—scared of the sound that came from the other side of the line, that infinite ringing, until the call was lost. She grabbed Shawn’s hand—Shawn was eleven—told him to go put on a coat.
“Why are you taking him? He’s a child,” Lars protested. Whatever Shawn’s mother said to Lars, she did so in a hissing—and that made Lars shut up, made him back off, go back to his open notebook—where he liked to read the morning news. Shawn’s mother put him inside the car, driving all the way to Huck’s condo. An unsuspecting building, grey, with small balconies. Shawn’s mother climbed the stairs, her hand still pulling her son forward, and stopped by Huck’s door. She banged on that door with a ferocity that almost made Shawn jump. “I know you’re there!” But nobody answered. Shawn took a step back. He was afraid of what would be revealed to them once Huck opened the door.
“Huck?” Shawn’s mother raised her voice. A nearby door opened, a neighbor put her head outside, shooting a serious look at the two of them. “Fine. Okay,” Shawn’s mother said—to herself, it seemed, and not to the neighbor.
“Mom, I think we should go.” Shawn tugged on his mother’s coat, but she ignored him. She produced a key from her own purse. Of course she had the key to Huck’s place; there wasn’t a single part of Huck that was a secret to his sister, they had always shared everything, barely twins as they were, only one year separating Huck’s birth to Shawn’s mother.
She put the key in the lock and opened the door. The stench that hit them was so strong Shawn covered his mouth and nose with the long blue sleeves of his coat.
“Huck! Huck!” his mother was screaming. Huck was slumped on his brown-colored La-Z-Boy. Pale, skinny like a corpse. His skin looked like wax. His fingers, closed like talons, held the leather notebook. As Shawn’s mother tried to shook him—shook him awake, though Huck’s eyes were open—Shawn noticed the stains on his uncle’s clothes, his soiled pants, that strong stink of urine and god knows what else.
The coffee table was covered with litter, with flies, with old delivery food. And, in a corner of the living room, there laid what made Shawn tremble.
Bowie the cat.
Rather, Bowie’s starved corpse, flies buzzing around his open little mouth, the sharp fangs showing.
Shawn’s mother was talking to him. He hadn’t realized. As he stared at Bowie, sounds reached him as if he were under water. He was swimming in the memories of Huck, of that apartment, of stroking Bowie’s fur while Bowie gave him a judgmental stare through his beautiful slanted eyes. Bowie was warm, and soft and . . . alive. But now . . .
“Shawn, call 9-11! Now!” And, trembling, Shawn reached for Huck’s landline.
When the paramedics arrived, they removed Huck from his chair. There was something oozy right there, where Huck once sat, and the stink was unbearable. Shawn waited outside, pressed against a wall, ignoring the neighbors that now had shown up to see what the drama was all about. “Shawn. S, H, A, W, N. he’s forty-two, he’s a smoker . . . ” Shawn’s mother was giving the paramedics Huck’s information—everything she could compress in a few lines. That’s right, Shawn thought to himself, as if stabbed by a memory—he and Huck shared the same name. He was Shawn because Huck was Shawn first, even though Shawn’s mother had always called her older brother Huck; something from their childhood, which Huck incorporated into his adult life. He used Huck as his professional name. Whenever he was freelancing, there would be Huck, and then his surname, at the end or the beginning of every piece of reporting he wrote.
“Is that because of Huck Finn?” Shawn once asked.
“I don’t know.” Huck merely shrugged. “Ask your mom. She never called me Shawn, it was always—Huck! Huck! Huck!” And Huck tried to make a impression of a little girl’s voice. Now that little girl, all grown up, was calling for her brother again. Trying to get a response, while the paramedics strapped Huck to a stretcher and wheeled him out of the apartment, to the surprise of the gathering neighbors. Shawn’s mother had Huck’s book with her, her eyes watery and lost as she watched her brother being taken to the ambulance. At the hospital, they ran the tests. “Did he have a stroke?” Shawn’s mother wanted to know. But Huck hadn’t had a stroke. He was simply . . . unresponsive. Catatonic. He wouldn’t talk nor eat; he wouldn’t get up to use the bathroom and would instead soil his pants and his bed. Nurses would connect the veins of his thin arms to sharp needles and would let ice gently melt on his cracked lips.
“There’s no physical explanation for what’s happening to him,” a doctor said to Shawn’s mother, with such a finality that both Shawn and his mother simply sighed at this; at this final sentence, at this conclusion. And that’s how Huck ended up in hospice care.
“I remember you had this.” Shawn taps the leather notebook, sitting on the kitchen counter.
“Yes.” His mother fills two glasses with a bit of whiskey; she handles a glass to Shawn and discreetly moves her head in the direction of the living room. It’s late, it isn’t time for whiskey—not after she’s had her many sidecars—but they’re both wide awake. Shawn’s mother wears an expensive robe, her make-up barely whipped from her face; whiskey is demanded for the occasion.
“Yes, I had that book,” she confirms again, resting against the couch’s cushions. “Until he asked for it.”
“It was late.” And his mother makes a gesture with her hand, as if to indicate: as late as today, as late as this night. Late—a long time ago. “The phone was ringing. I woke up and they had news. Huck was talking—imagine my shock. And he wanted the notebook.”
“I don’t remember this.”
“You were sleeping. I didn’t have it in me to wake you up, not after . . . ” She doesn’t finish. “Lars was right, you were a kid, and I had no idea of what I was going to find in the hospital. So I drove there, with the notebook. Expecting I’d bring Huck home, or at least take him into rehab, but the doctors were . . . concerned. He had been exhibiting violent behavior. He’d ask for the book and get mad when no one could figure out what the damn book was. Until they called me. They let me see Huck. I put the notebook on his hands, and he looked at me, and I thought—he’s recognized me. He knows who I am.” She pauses, her eyes big, almost in the verge of tears. The moment is gone in the next second. “He grabbed the notebook and didn’t speak another word. Didn’t even look at me.”
“What’s in there anyway?” Shawn asks.
“Research. For a book he never finished. He wanted to write about evacuated children. From the war.”
Huck had been to England a month or so before Shawn and his mother found him catatonic in that apartment. He’d brought a little Union Jack flag for Shawn, but Shawn had no idea where it had ended up after so many years.
“Can I take a look? At the notebook?”
His mother hesitates. She gulps down the whiskey.
“Sure. Just don’t . . . ”
“Make a mess out of it?”
“Who knows? He might want it back again.” As if Huck would ring the doorbell, remove his Eagles cap, and apologize for the time he’d been gone.
“OK,” Shawn says. He finishes his whiskey. He contemplates that empty glasses—how, if you look right through it, the whole world will seem distorted. “Going to bed now, if that’s OK. I’ll let Keith know we’re fine.”
“Keith. My boyfriend.”
“Oh.” But his mother’s eyes are not focused on Shawn. She stares at the window, one of the windows in that big living room of hers, as if she expected to see something out there, in the dark.. “OK, baby. You go and get some rest.”
Already in bed—the bed in that guest room that had the scent of lavender everywhere—Shawn opens Huck’s notebook; carefully, so no loose note falls over his legs. And there are many loose notes and papers. Pressed against the first page, the picture of a boy and a girl: Huck and Shawn’s mother, as they had been as children; smiling proudly, Huck almost a head taller than his sister, both with that deep red hair that Shawn inherited. “A family curse,” Shawn’s mother would say when he was a child, in her absentminded way, as she stroked his hair.
Huck’s notebook is a travelogue of sorts. Paragraphs like brick walls scribbled in Huck’s almost indecipherable handwriting, the letters sharp as knifes. Numbers and names; a list of them. Directions, timetables concerning trains, hotels’ locations, everything Huck would need to survive his trip. Right there, in the few first pages, smudges of ink, crossed words, aborted paragraphs, liquid stains—water? Something else? Maybe tea? But definitely not coffee—a glimpse inside Huck’s mind. All the mess, all the thoughts he’d probably worry about putting in some kind of order later on. In the following pages, Huck starts to tell a cohesive story. He made annotations about the subjects he intended on interviewing and created separated sections, chapters, for each of them. One: A lone orphan, who had lost three brothers during a bombing raid. Another: a rich heiress, whose parents sheltered evacuees during the war—a heiress wandering through previously very empty and silent halls and finding out they were now filled with laughs and the crying of strangers. Stories: some of them sad, some of them hopeful. What was Huck looking for?
“Every story needs a twist, kiddo,” he’d say to Shawn. “Even a little note should have a twist. ‘Honey, went out for eggs, milk, some snickers. Please be mindful of the demon locked inside our basement.’ ”
Halfway through the notebook, Shawn finds the photos of the girls. Black and white, girls in dresses with Peter Pan collars—girls much like Wednesday Addams, Shawn thinks, with hair parted and braided in two, over their shoulders. But they’re no girls, Shawn realizes, with a shock—these are old women, with hair greying and thinning, and they smile with crooked teeth.
Henderson Sisters: that’s what’s written behind the photo, in Huck’s handwriting.
Shawn searches through the notebook until he finds their name again. The Henderson Sisters, Lillian and Regina. Twins. Evacuated to Sussex for two years. Claim to have found a portal in the great estate house they were staying in. And then Huck lists the numbers of the tapes corresponding to their case. Many tapes, much more than the other subjects earned. There are more pictures of Lillian and Regina Henderson stuck among the pages of the notebook. In one of them, they’re actually little girls—and still dressed the same, hair braided and dresses, long winter coats covering their bodies as they hold hands and smile. And old picture, but an original one. Parts of it are fading, but the twins are unmistakably the same.
They claimed to have found a little door, one day, in the makeshift dormitory they were sleeping in. A little door in the wall, small enough for a young child to crawl in and go through.
Huck’s scribbles: child fantasy? Benevolent mother, ready to embrace them?
And then: Hend. Twins actually went missing for a whole day. And an exclamation point between two parentheses, as if this was important information.
Huck went on with his brief biography of the Henderson twins. They had a young brother, Jimmy Henderson, who was evacuated with them as well, but Jimmy knew of no door. Huck gathered this information per the word of India Henderson, Jimmy’s daughter, who Shawn understood to be her aunts’ caretaker.
“Mom?” Shawn knocks on his mother’s bedroom door. “Huck’s stuff. Did you keep any? I mean, tapes—his notebook mentions tapes . . . ”
Shawn’s mother is awake, though she doesn’t move. She’s lying on the bed, her back to the door, to Shawn, staring directly at the walls. “Mom?”
“Yes,” she says, and lifts her head slowly, drying what Shawn believes to be tears. “They must be down in the basement. I think. I kept everything I could. Why? What did you find?”
“Nothing. I think. I’m just curious.” Not a lie, Shawn thinks.
He finds the boxes in the basement, as instructed. He has to take them down from the shelves and fight old spiderwebs in the process; then he puts those sagging boxes on the floor, and the old duct tape is useless. The cardboard boxes basically undo themselves when Shawn applies small pressure to rip them open. Inside, Huck’s treasures: small tapes obsessively catalogued from his travels, from the many things he ever wrote or thought of writing, and a black cassette recorder. Shawn takes the boxes to the kitchen, a mug of tea warming one of his hands as he picks and discards the tapes until he finds the ones concerning the Henderson twins. There are many of them. Huck certainly found the women an interesting subject, and it’s sheer luck the tapes haven’t been eaten by mold during that whole time. Shawn chooses the first tape, according to the numbering order designed by Huck, and presses the recorder’s play button. The kitchen fills with a sort of static, and then a voice cracks—a man starts speaking—and Shawn almost jumps from the chair he’s sitting on. It’s Huck’s voice. He had forgotten Huck’s voice, and the shocking of hearing it again makes Shawn close his eyes for a moment.
“I have here with me, Miss Lillian and Miss Regina Henderson. And Miss India, of course.”
“Hello. Hello.” Two voices—barely audible. They sound like children, but then Shawn remembers the photos—with a chill—and realizes those voices must belong to the twins. India Henderson, for whatever the reason, says nothing that is registered by the recording.
“Now, Lillian and Regina. If we could go back to your story—about the door . . . ” This is Huck speaking.
“Oh, yes.” A voice too sweet. Docile. Which one of the twins? “The door.” There’s a giddiness to that voice which can’t be quite contained. And so the twins tell their story. About how, during one night, sleeping in campaign beds, in a big room filled with other children, temporary orphans of the war, they came awake to find a tiny door waiting for them.
“Right there, on the wall. It was the perfect size for a child. You see, any adult would have to crawl, but all we needed to do was to bend a little . . . ” Bend and crawl. And, once reaching the other side, find themselves welcomed by the warmth of the sun.
“And we found the house. We found her, we found Mama. Mama took us to the house and gave us water, and fed us, and told us we’d be fine, and loved.”
“That’s actually very creepy,” Keith says, after Shawn tells him the story. “The whole thing. Two old ladies dressing like dolls.”
“They said the house was a shoe,” Shawn replies.
“The house. The house they found on the other side of the door was a shoe. You know, like in that old rhyme. There was an old woman who lived in a shoe. She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do . . . ”
“Oh,” Keith says, after a few seconds of silence. “They were having the trip of a lifetime.”
A big shoe, a beautiful shoe, the Henderson twins had recounted: inside, there was no ending to the house, and they were given big beds, with soft pillows filled with feathers. They weren’t alone. Other children were there, but they were happy, happy to be in that house, with Mama, who hovered over them like a giantess, a benevolent goddess, with hair of a warm chestnut reaching the floor. Gone was the darkness, the thirst, the fear. Now they had food, and much to drink.
“More like Hansel and Gretel than the shoe lady,” Keith adds.
India Henderson had also been interviewed, though Shawn wasn’t sure her brief conversation with Huck could be called an interview.
“You don’t believe them?” Huck asked her, right when another tape started. They seemed to have been alone, Huck and India.
“No,” India said—almost fighting a chuckle, as if the answer to that question was all too obvious. “Of course I don’t. But they are sick. They’ve been sick for a long time.” A pause. She breathed deeply. Maybe she was smoking? “They’re mostly harmless,” she went on. And Shawn lingered to that word—mostly.
“But they did disappear—when they were in the country. Here, it says . . . ”
“I know what it says,” India raised her voice slightly. “They got lost. They found them in the woods. Big stately manor. It happens. When you’re a child and when you’re scared . . . ” Another pause. “They had a bad childhood, the twins and my Pa. They found a place inside their mind where they could be. And that’s it.”
“I understand a thing or two about bad childhoods,” Huck said.
“Really,” said India, but her voice didn’t invite the sharing of any particular story. She sounded annoyed, tired of Huck’s questions, tired of her aunts. Leafing through the notebooks, Huck’s writing eventually disappears. What it gives space to are drawings: drawings about little doors of comically, cartoonish proportions; and so on, for the rest of the pages Huck managed to fill; the rest is blank paper, paper that has nothing to offer but the smell of dust. His magician’s hat remains empty.
He cleans most of what he can—of Huck’s notebook, of his tapes. If his uncle is never to return, then at least Shawn feels like he owes him that much; to preserve those last things that were important to Huck. Husband Number Three phones Shawn’s mother; when they speak, they do so in a monotone way. “Oh, you know,” Shawn mother says, every time she answers the phone. “Nothing’s changed.” Shawn imagines Lars wants to know if there’s any development to Huck’s mystery already—but there’s none. One morning, coming down the stairs, Shawn catches a glimpse of his own face in a window pane. He arranges his hair with one hand, but the image holds him there, as if he’s glued to the carpet that runs over the stair steps. He’s trying to find Huck in his own face, he realizes. Something Husband Number Two said comes to his mind: “They’re awfully close, aren’t they? Your mama and your uncle?” There was malice in Husband Number Two’s voice, something Shawn, even as a child, managed to notice.
Huck and his mother were close; of course they were. Shawn remembers his mother telling him about the details of their childhood; never that many, but enough that Shawn could understand where she and Huck came from and stop asking questions. She’d confide to him—sometimes laughing—some of the beatings, and a few times her father, Shawn’s grandfather, had drunkenly kicked Huck out of his house, while Huck screamed and said he wouldn’t leave his sister behind. “He was all I had,” Shawn’s mother would say. She bore a scar on one of her wrists. Shawn had asked about it so many times that one day his mother gave up, and told him the scar was from a knife cut, made by her own father a lifetime ago, now healed, turned into a pale mark that she often hid under bracelets.
“I understand a thing or two about bad childhoods,” Huck had said.
“I’m going to grab some lunch, OK, mom?” Shawn says. His mother merely replies, “OK.” She’s putting the flowers Keith recently had delivered to them inside a vase. Keith fancies himself good at giving gifts, but the flowers, although beautiful, seem to Shawn lugubrious; the flowers you might gift a widow with; flowers that bring a finality to Huck’s case.
Driving through town, he finds himself murmuring that nursery rhyme: There was an old woman who lived in a shoe. She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do. He stops when he realizes he’s almost laughing as he sings.
For his mother, Shawn buys a salad—that’s all she eats nowadays—but he indulges himself with a juicy burger, already half-eaten by the time he gets back. He finds his mother in the couch, hand covering her face; and although she makes no sound, her whole body trembles.
“Mom. Mom.” Shawn sets the food on the center table. He holds her hands, trying to pry her face free, and finds her eyes marred with tears. She’s staring at her phone. Her phone, carefully laid on the table, facing down, as if that piece of technology bears more than she can take. “Mom,” Shawn says, but his mother shakes her head. “Mom, what’s wrong?
A cleaning lady found the patch of mold growing on the wall. She brought it to the staff’s attention, that black bruise of mold growing on Huck’s old bedroom, which was being prepared for another patient. Two days later, that patch had grown and turned into a dark square, much like a door, that dripped dirty water and stunk in a way none of them, well-acquainted with the smell of bodily fluids, of rot, of the decaying of a human being, could breathe without feeling the need to gag. A plumber had been called in. They figured some leaking was causing the anomaly, and then the plumber broke into the wall, wearing a cheap mask, Vick VapoRub smeared under his nose. When he noticed what was there, what lay beside the paint and the brick, he recoiled in a panic. “Sweet Jesus, you need to bring the police,” he had mustered enough of a voice to say.
What they did find: limbs tangled in the old mortar—tangled in an impossible angle, and belonging to the same body: Huck’s body. Huck’s face, contorted in pain, his mouth open as if in a frozen scream, was only half visible—the other part was, somehow, fused with the brick and the mortar, as if that wall had been built with him inside.
Shawn holds his mother in his arms. He helps her to the bathroom, where she pukes and washes her face in repetition, during that whole night. Shawn himself isn’t sure of how he feels. His body is cold, and that deeper part of him, the part that he mused that might hold his soul, is colder still. A magician puts his hand inside his top hat. What he brings up is a mess of body parts.
He dreams of the house. He dreams of a boy that sits at a long table, among many children, being served a warm meal. The boy in these dreams has red hair and pale face darkened with freckles. It could be Shawn, Shawn as a child, but it’s not him. He knows who that boy is.
And the boy that looks so much like Shawn smiles. “Where is she?” he asks. “Where’s Lisa?”
“Huck,” Shawn says, surprised to discover that he has a voice; that he has a presence in that dream, and that he’s not a mere observer.
He hears heavy footsteps somewhere, and Huck, the boy, brings a finger to his own lips, shushing Shawn. Huck looks alarmed, and bends his head over the table—same as the other children do, as if they’re ready to pray. Don’t look, Shawn thinks, copying those kids, aware that there’s something terrifying coming for them, something lean and monstrous, something that casts a long shadow over the table, and he mustn’t look, he can’t look, and the boy Huck is praying, is in tears . . . “Lisa. Lisa,” is what he says. “I’m alone. I’m so alone.”
Shawn wakes ups. By his side, Keith goes on sleeping. Keith is here now. He took a flight the day after they found Huck’s body; he’s come to help with the arrangements for the funeral, with the finding of a casket that can hold Huck’s mangled remains. He didn’t bring flowers.
Shawn hasn’t told him yet that he searched for the Henderson twins online, only to discover they had passed a few months after Huck hadd been found in his catatonic state. He also searched for India Henderson, and once he called a number he believed to be hers, but the woman on the other side of the line, an ocean away, hung up as soon as Shawn introduced himself.
He’s always dreaming about the house, these days. He’ll wake up in the dead of the night and, finding himself unable to sleep again, he’ll reread Huck’s notebook. He doesn’t know what he’s searching for, as the notebook always comes to an end, the blank pages have nothing else to share, and yet he reads it compulsively. He knows he’s damaging something inside of him, nurturing the same obsession Huck did, but he can’t bring an end to it. During these sleepless nights, when the book is not enough, he sometimes keeps silent companion to his mother, who can’t avoid her own nightmares. As if connected by a psychic bond, Shawn knows when she’s awake; he’ll come down and find her in the garden, and they’ll sit and speak of nothing. She’ll weep; Shawn will let her. He’ll bring her closer, hugging her as the stars above observe cast a pale and indifferent shine over them. But that night, she’s not in the garden. Shawn finds her in her bedroom, sitting on the edge of her bed and looking, again, at the empty wall—always the wall. She is crying, and Shawn goes to her, sits with her, and waits. His mother’s hair, dyed blonde, is now showing its roots, a mix of red and grey. The wrinkles on her face, in the semi-darkness of the room, look like deep cuts against skin.
Shawn puts an arm over her shoulders.
“Can you see it?” she asks.
He looks at the wall. There’s nothing there.
“Can you see it?” his mother asks again. “Can you hear him?”
“Yes,” Shawn whispers. “Yes.”