A young boy steals the diary of a weird dead girl...
|Jacob Winters was nine and going on ten when Kelly McNeil died. At his age, Kelly was weird enough for him to categorize her as weird, possibly the weirdest of the weird, and this opinion was shared along his neighborhood street. With her odd mixture of clothing, down to mismatching socks and sometimes shoes, with her talking and sometimes shouting at no one as if the air were full of her personal demons. She was just an odd one. Kelly’s horribly violent death didn’t change this fact for anyone. Not for Jacob now at the ripened age of eleven.
Mr. McNeil, a man who was known for his alcoholic appetites and domineering marital skills had slid his family sideways and into a full cement mixer heading the other way. Some say it was a tree, some an eighteen-wheeler hauling manure, but Jacob knew better. He had that proverbial inside scoop which he called Dad.
A simple man, perhaps too simple, his Dad drove for Tip-n-Tow from noon till night, well past the street lights coming on. His dad wasn’t the first on the scene, more like the last, but the county sheriff called for a tow, and Dad answered. It was from his father that Jacob got the story, with more gory details than a boy of nine going on ten should hear. Such things were how his dad manned him up, or so his dad declared often. So man up Jacob did.
The neighbors, though unwilling to let go of the classification of ‘weird’ seemed sincere in their obligated shock at a child’s death because her dad couldn’t lay off the booze. The most popular rumor held that the night the family died was Kelly’s birthday, though Jacob doubted anyone knew this as fact. The McNeil family was ostracized in the neighborhood to a point of cruelty. How would anyone know it was the girl’s birthday? Jacob decided the birthday slant made the story more tragic and so more fun to share.
At eleven, Jacob had already concluded people sucked, and sucked hard.
What no one expected when the McNeil family took that big-crunch one way trip to places other was the lack of family. That night so long ago had ended the McNeil family tree. This, by Jacob’s eleventh birthday, had created a bonafide horror attraction in his neighborhood. The haunted house on Black Stone street drew more than the neighborhood’s fair share of trick-or-treaters each year. Kids originating from blocks away would come and dare each other to go inside and see if any ghost were in there, or to go in and stay for ten minutes without running. The older kids, those in the top educational hierarchy called high school would dare each other to spend the night in the haunted abode of the tragically slain.
Jacob didn’t know if anyone had ever spent the night, but by the looks of the window at least someone had entered the place. Most were smashed out long ago by rocks that were thrown by the paper-brave who lived blocks over, but one pane—or lack thereof—was different. It had been entirely removed, edge to edge, side to side. No splintered shards remained like the other windows, and Jacob reasoned the difference was to allow someone to pass through unsliced.
“You ain’t got the balls,” Brian chided, throwing in a shoulder bump to accentuate his statement.
This was an argument they had before, Jacob and Brian. Though Brian was his best friend, the budding masculinity was reinforced by challenges as prepubescent males were wont to do. It was normally a stupid challenge promising some form of injury or criminal record. The worst of them guaranteed either school yard notoriety or school-wide shame, something either boy was unwilling to risk. They had time to earn notoriety, but not live down the embarrassment of some failure the other would be proud to tell the school the following day.
That was why Brian’s challenge was so damned serious.
“Chicken shit…” Brian scoffed and began the clumsy turn-walk of the bicycle he’d not dismounted.
“I didn’t say no,” Jacob said.
Brian chuckled, “Right, come on Jacko, this is boring.”
That comment was just enough to decide for him, “Fine, one thing from her room, right?”
Brian turned back, twisting his torso over his bike, “Yeah, but I have to see you in the window.”
“And the twenty is mine?” Jacob asked more to stall than to confirm the deal.
“Sure, but you won't do it.”
Jacob stared up at the second-floor window. The house was older than the others on the street, by about fifty years, and it showed. The years of lost maintenance also showed but it was the old crab apple tree in the front yard that gave the house a truly haunted appearance. Its limbs were twisted and gnarled, its leave nearly all on the ground in and among the rotting apples. The tree personified torture and death and made Jacob think of the little girl beneath a dump truck. The twisted limbs and rotting stench, characteristics he was sure Kelly shared.
He shook those thoughts loose and approached the glassless window. Beyond, glass fragments sparkled and swirled with sunlight scribbled by the old crab tree’s limbs. A couch and love seat sat rotting, both torn into by some animal nesting somewhere. Pictures staggered across the wall or had given up long ago and lay broken on the stained hardwood floor. To one side sat a grumpy wide-mouthed fireplace, and on the other an uninviting sweep of steps to the second floor.
“Come on, Jacko, get ‘er done,” Brian shouted from the safety of the road.
Jacob didn’t bother looking back. Brian was in the undeclared safe zone of the street, where a kid could get a running start or get his bike up to speed should a monster come growling from the house. What he did do was grip the sill of the empty window and jerk himself over. He caught one side of the window and let a small three-legged table break his fall. The table split first with a crack, then disintegrated in ruin beneath him.
He was in. After all these years of daring and challenging, he was inside the house. Brian hadn’t come this far, not yet. In the contest of adolescent masculine bravery, Jacob was in the lead. Now to widen that lead.
The McNeil family didn’t have much in the way of interior decorating talent. Every wall he could see had failing wallpaper, hanging in droops of faded colors and ancient patterns. The mantel over the dark fireplace held plates on tiny stands. Why would someone use their dinnerware as decoration? Mostly, the faded color scheme promised colorblindness shared by all family members. Jacob was sure if any of the McNeil family could see a color, they would have said something to someone before it had gotten this bad.
In the adjoining room, through a wide-bellied archway there stood a small dining room table with chairs, and beyond the stairs, another room held a couple of chairs and a piano that was once black but now turning into more of a crackled color scheme, veins of white and beige shot through the once shiny black. This room was displayed through the swirling motes of unending particles suspended in the dead air of the place.
A feeling of unease began to grow in him, adding to the fear he had coming into the house. The faded colors, the failing wallpaper, the stench of dry and wet rot both at once made him think the house itself was evil. Jacob didn’t like this one bit, but returning with the proof, without Brian seeing him in Kelly’s window would somehow be worse.
He approached the stairs, bare wood with the rag remains of some kind of runner and a decrepit banister. Kelly’s room was at the top of these stairs and to the right. Some sixteen steps later he would be in her room and could give Brian a short wave and grab… whatever and get out of the fetid place. So, he mounted the stairs, climbing slowly and stepping gently. He tested each step before trusting it with his weight and forewent the banister and its peeling paint. Each progression let escape wooden moans or groans, grinding and even cracking, each louder and more ominous as he went.
At the top, there was more natural light. All the doors were open, and in each room, the windows were bare or broken letting in the wholesome outside light. Four doorways stood agape in the hall, but only one to the right and toward the front of the house. Kelly’s room. He took the two strides to reach the doorway and hesitated.
Two windows, both shattered, faced the front of the house. One still held a white curtain with red strawberry designs, the other bare but through which he could see Brian. His friend was off his bike and sitting on the sidewalk, playing with his new cell phone. The jerk didn’t even have the empathy to be watching the window for Jacob to appear. This gave a tweak to Jacob’s courage and he entered the room to yell at Brian.
To the left waited a simple bed, still made up as if Kelly were to return home any time now. A small nightstand sat thin and frail-looking with a dark lamp and a book of some kind. Posters had hung on some of the walls, but most had fallen to the floor. The one that remained was of a unicorn bursting forth over a fantasy hill beneath a sky full of stars and a single bold rainbow. Girl crap.
“Hey,” Brian shouted, and Jacob looked out the window to find him waving. The instant he knew Brian had seen him Jacob was rushed with the urgent need to get out. He turned toward the door and remembered he had to bring something out. It did not dawn on him Brian could not refute Jacob had been in Kelly’s room now, so he simply leaned to one side and grabbed the book from the nightstand as he all but ran from the room and down the stairs.
He scrambled over the edge of the empty window, his foot slipping once on the shards of glass before falling into the brown shrubs.
“She’s behind you, run” Brian shouted.
Jacob didn’t look back. He had to get to the safe place, the street. He got his feet beneath him and ran for all he was worth.
As he passed Brian, the kid broke out laughing. “See? You are a chicken shit,” Brian accused.
“You’re an asshole,” Jacob shot at him while walking away, panting.
“Hey,” Brian called, “What’d you get?”
Jacob wasn’t very inclined to answer, but curiosity took over. He lifted the stupid book to see what he had pilfered. ‘Diary’ was the only thing written on the cover with some curly underlines and decorative treatments, all in gold on faded green fabric. His pace stumbled a moment and he stopped. “Her Diary,” he said in a flat tone.
Being in someone else's house without permission was one thing, but to be holding a girl's diary was another. Jacob’s older sister, Caroline, kept a diary. To read it or any other was entirely taboo. In his home, it was a stoning offense.
“Let me see it,” Brian said, having caught up with Jacob.
Jacob held it up making it obvious he wasn’t going to give it to him.
“Let me read it,” Brian said and reached for the book.
Jacob jerked it out of reach, “No, no way.”
“Come on, Jacko, I’m sorry I scared you. Did you wet yourself? I want to read weirdo’s diary.”
Jacob tucked the book tightly under his arm, snug against his ribs, “No. Not going to happen.”
“Why?” Brian asked.
“It’s wrong and you know it.”
“Don't be a jerk, Jacko, let's have it,” Brian said, more demanding than pleading.
Jacob started to walk again, aiming toward his house. There had been too much fun today, and the rather recent adrenaline dump had exhausted him. It was at that moment the street lights came on sparing Jacob any further negotiations.
“Fine, Jerko,” Brian said and turned his bike toward home.
Jacob flipped the bird at his friend’s back and walked on home. His mother called to him that dinner was almost ready as he speed-stomped his way up the steps and into his own room. He looked at the diary again, the old, weathered tome, and wondered what a weirdo girl might write in a diary. If she was so strange on the outside, how mixed up was the inside? Curiosity itched his bones, and it took all his effort to toss the book to his bed and rush off to wash up for dinner.
* * *
Upon return to his room with strict instructions to finish that page of math homework served up by his teacher last Friday and then straight to bed. This didn’t bother him too much but for the alien-like way daylight still hung in the sky. He always disliked going to be when it was still daylight. Maybe he could stretch out the math page long enough for it to go dark before he climbed beneath the covers.
As he looked for his dropped backpack of school books he caught sight of the diary, sitting patiently on his bed and opened to some page near the center. Jacob’s breath caught for a moment, considered accusing his sister of reading the thing but then remembered she was at the dinner table. It had to have come open when he tossed it on the bed, but what should he do now?
What was a weirdo like inside?
He conspiratorially glanced over his shoulder, then lifted the open book. A spidery, delicate script greeted him with an eerie elegance and beauty.
Of course. Weirdo.
‘Today, Dallas threw up in class, and it was so gross. Poor Gabby, she was sitting in front of him when he erupted, and you know what Diary? She had chewed up pop-tarts and orange juice all over her back and in her hair and even in her purse. It was so gross. Worse though was it was a new blouse, a designer one that cost a fortune. I don’t remember the designer’s name, but the top cost like $50.00. That’s what Gabby was telling everyone at least.
Miss Montgomery was terribly upset. It was obvious she’d not learned what to do when a kid tosses cookies in her class at teacher school. Gabby was crying, Dallas was dry retching, and the stink was horrible. Then Lenny tossed his cookies, and someone screamed, and I…’
Jacob closed the book. He didn’t remember that ever happening in class. But wait—Kelly was a grade above him. How would Dallas be in class with her when he was in class with him? Same with Gabby-Gabby. This cookie-toss never happened, and it never happened in a class Kelly was in, or he for that matter.
All of his eleven-year-old morals collapsed and he opened the book again, and again it opened to the same spot. He tried to turn the page to see what happened next, but the paper was stuck together as if glued that way. He tried going to prior pages but found the same thing. It seemed Kelly’s diary would only reveal this one secret page to any interloper. It had rotted the paper together or something over the years, he reasoned.
He read the page again, convinced he hadn’t missed anything until he noticed the date on the top right dog-eared section, ‘11/19’. That was tomorrow’s date. Monday, November nineteenth, the day his math page was to be handed in. The whole thing was, well, weird, like Kelly. Jacob closed the book and said aloud, “She’s been dead for over a year now. This had to be a year ago,” and put the diary on his desk. A year ago, and in a classroom that had never existed.
* * *
Sleep had come, but it was fitful and lonely. His conscience had played most of the night, and he did feel remorse for breaking into that house and taking something that wasn’t his. Each time he woke in the night, it was the thought hanging in the forefront of his mind. It was still there when they sat down to breakfast.
This was always a rushed affair, more scramble than family time. God bless her, Mom always made a valiant effort that always ended with waisted eggs or pancakes. Didn’t matter what Mom had worked so hard at, there were meetings to get to and school buses to catch. Jacob found it curious that the woman never complained about this and knew she would try again tomorrow.
The bus came and took him to school like some mass-manufactured part in a factory that built societies. He made it to homeroom without trouble, and the day started as plain and bland as the days and weeks before. Until the third period that was. Until math class with Miss Montgomery and with Gabby and her new designer blouse. Jacob hovered at the door, unsure if he should enter the classroom or not. It was just a silly shirt, after all. It was nice, sure, but with nearly nothing to fill it out, it was no prettier than the same shirt on a smooth log.
“Move, dick,” Brian said and pushed him aside.
Jacob stumbled into the room and took the first seat available. Dallas hadn’t arrived yet, so there was that. What stole his concentration was the fact his math page wasn’t in his math book. He could see it in his memory, on his desk next to the small lava lamp he got for his birthday. How could he have forgotten that? He was too distracted with his math page to notice Dallas come in and sit behind Gabby like the brooding jock he was. What did bring him around was a retching sound. He looked up just in time to see Gabby turn away from Dallas, and for Dallas to toss breakfast all over the girl. In one glorious contiguous wave of orange juice, Gabby’s new top was ready for the trash.
Someone behind Jacob screamed, he could not recall later if it were a girl or a boy who had let go of the chirping exclamation.
“Everyone, settle down,” Miss Montgomery said as she waddled toward Dallas with a swishing sound of rubbing nylon.
Jacob felt as though he were dislocated from reality, a forgotten fragment in time, and left behind.
As Miss Montgomery passed Lenny, he let go of his own breakfast. He at least had the decency to hit the floor instead of another kid.
Jacobs's head swam with the diary and the stench of vomit and his skin developed a fresh crop of goosebumps.
* * *
Without knowing it, Jacob had entered a staring contest with the diary. It sat benevolently on the nightstand, promising to retell the story it had told yesterday… …and had come true. Should he tell his mother? What was this thing? What was Kelly the weirdo to have such a book?
A clear decision snapped in his head and he lifted the book, opening it to the only page it would allow. This time it was different. This time the date was 11/20. This time it told the terrible story of a class trip and a train wreck. Some sixty kindergartners, fresh from the Zoo, with their balloons and face paint and their chaperons burned in the wreckage of a pair of passenger cars.
A chill ran through him as he tried to turn the page back to 11/19. That day was not so bad now. But the book refused. He tried to force the page, and a small length of paper tore free. It simply would not change. How could he tell anyone about the book's prediction if he couldn’t turn the page back?
His hands felt cold and damp, and the air in his room drove a shiver along his spine. What could a kid do? No one would believe him if he told. They certainly wouldn’t cancel a class trip a bunch of kindergarten babies looked forward to just because some weirdo kid called up and…
Shit, he was the weirdo now. Like Kelly, but with more fashion sense. At least his mom’s fashion sense.
At the dinner table, during a conversation about cheer routines, Jacob couldn’t hold it anymore. He blurted, “There’s going to be a train wreck tomorrow.”
The conversation died an instant death. Dad looked at Mom, and Mom at Dad, then Dad said, “What makes you say that?”
Jacob wasn’t ready for this, “I just… I don’t know. I just know, alright? People are going to be hurt, and some will die. A lot…”
“That’s enough,” Mom said, cutting through his stream of consciousness.
It felt as though there was a spotlight on him, and everyone was staring at him. Not just those at the table, but everyone everywhere was staring at him. He felt useless and ineffective. “Sorry,” he muttered and left the table.
His dad called after him, but he made no reply. He wanted to be alone, to go to bed. It was what he expected when he told them. It was what he would expect of anyone he told. He’d never felt this miserable in his life.
When he came home from school the next day and his Mom told him about the train wreck: sixty children dead, five adults, 42 wounded, and most critically, it did not make him feel any different. His mother didn’t see it in the same light.
“How did you know, Jacob?”
“I can’t say, Mom.”
“Mom, if I could I would. Can’t though, alright?”
She looked nervous and Jacob thought she was close to believing anything he might say, but he couldn’t. Her eyes were glassy and wet, and he felt a surge of love and sympathy for the woman. It was bad enough being a weirdo to himself, more or less others, more or less his own mother.
She took his lower arm and squeezed, “If you feel like something else is going to happen, you’ll tell me, right?”
This he could do. This didn’t force him to tell her anything about some weirdo book. “Sure, mom.”
“Homework, mister,” she said through a worried smile and nudged him towards the steps.
* * *
The diary continued its odd behavior of showing one page, but that page changed each day. It was always in that same spidery but elegant script, but for a long while, it was entirely benign. No tragedies, no one died or threw up, in fact, nothing in the book related to his life in any way. There was mention that Kelly had liked Todd one street over, but Jacob didn’t even know that kid. It was a rather boring read, given the circumstances.
On this night, his reading of the diary was an act of fate. The ceremony of opening it before bed had worn thin, and this night it had slipped his mind entirely. If he hadn’t jumped crazy-legged into his bed which then bumped his nightstand that then tossed the book to the floor, he would not have read it.
Jacob rolled over to collect what had fallen and a terrible story was laid before him. In a short entry dated 12/16, Kelly described in her diary a massive fire on the block. This fire involved three houses but did not claim whos’ though the passage ended with ‘that weirdo Jacob’s mother….’ He sat staring at the script, reading it again and again, trying to discern what might happen to his mother if this were to come true.
“Lights out, kid,” his father said and flipped the light switch at the door. Jacob was at once thrust into darkness, alone with his swamping dread.
* * *
The next morning, Jacob found he had not slept at all. Mom had asked that he tell her, but he had no actual thing to warn her of other than the fire. Was she going to die today? He was head-numb and felt again that complete helplessness and indecision. He moved through his morning mechanically, and without realizing it he was in homeroom.
He had to tell Brian. That was all there was to it. He would believe. He had to believe. Jacob was desperate for someone to believe him, but Brian didn’t make his normal insulting appearance. His head was filled with humming cotton, and without noticing he found himself in math, and still no Brian. He had to tell someone but who?
Two periods later, Mr. Kramer interrupted his earth science class requesting Jacob to report to his office. Jacob's gut dropped into his shoes. His mother, she had to be dead now, all because he couldn’t say anything. The damn diary had come true again. He collected his things slowly as he tried to reason a way out for his mother. The more he thought about it, the more desperate he became.
The class had continued its discussion of plate tectonics as he stepped into the hall. Soon he found himself in a sprint for the principal’s office. He burst into the front office, rushed through the principal’s office door, letting his backpack fall to the floor behind him.
Mr. Kramer looked somewhat annoyed, but it passed quickly as Jacob saw his father there, already seated, waiting on him.
“Hey kiddo,” Dad said, his voice a soothing murmur.
“What? What happened to Mom?”
Dad looked at Mr. Kramer, who winced visibly and looked back at Jacob.
The principal cleared his throat, “Your mom, Jacob—”
“She’s fine,” Dad cut in and Jacob felt his legs go weak.
“Jacob,” Mr. Kramer said, obviously not comfortable with someone taking control of the conversation in his office, “there was a fire. A large fire. Your home was destroyed, son.”
Jacob looked at him, his eyes burning, “But my mom?”
“You should be proud of your ole’ mother, Jacob,” Dad said, “She risked her life to save the Cunningham’s damn cat, of all things.”
Jacob barked a laugh, “a cat?”
“Yes, Jacob—”, Mr. Kramer began.
Dad held his hand up, “Please. Let me talk to my son.” Dad paused to allow any objection, but Mr. Kramer leaned back in his seat and lofted a single eyebrow.
“The sad news…” Dad began, and then seemed to catch for a moment. “The house, Jacob. It’s a total loss. We’ve lost everything.”
At this, Jacob did sit, right there on the floor.
“Jacob?” Dad asked.
“My books, they’re gone?”
“Yeah, kiddo. Everything is gone.”
“Are you sure, Dad?”
Jacob couldn’t tell if he wanted to cry or to laugh or to anything. At eleven, he had built no great collection of anything, and Christmas was in a few days, except they had lost everything. What would he wear tomorrow?
“I’m taking you home. We're starting Christmas vacation early. Come on, we got to go get your sister."