October 20, 2000
Molly packed a black silk bag that could be worn as a hood, because she did not want her eyes to open again until she was back in Galesburg.
The bag was soft and lovely but it was also thick and dark, a stronger shield than the burlap sack or simple white pillowcase that she’d considered. And a kinder shield than the black garbage bag.
She put the silk bag inside her purse beside the spools of heavy saltwater fishing line and the long stainless steel hooks. The iron chains and padlock were already hidden on the bluff above the lake.
The sight of the hooks quickened her pulse, but she didn’t pause, simply folded the silk bag on top of them and closed the purse. She was a stoic woman and took pride in it. Unflappable, her father had called her once when she was a girl, and she’d taken pride in that, too. That was back when the town was emptying out, fewer families left each day, and each night her father took to his chair on the front porch and sat with his shotgun across his lap, prepared for the looters. He was wary of them but not enraged by them. He insisted the real looters had come from the state, and that the dam across Cresap Creek was the real theft.
The rest of this, he said, all rippled out from that first crime. Condemn a town and what did you expect to happen? Sin would flow downhill then, and the town would be left lawless and ungoverned after the ribbon-cutting was held.
She didn’t know if he slept at all those nights. In the mornings, he kept the gun in hand while he walked Molly to school. They would pass the ancient one-room wooden structure where he’d been educated, and he would nod at it or gesture with the barrel of the 12-gauge and tell her how much better it had been back then. Less greed, he always said. Less greed and more principles. Back then, Galesburg was a community rather than a place.
Then he would walk her to the top of the concrete steps in front of the new but already condemned brick school, watch her open the door, and give her a smile and wave, the shotgun held in his free hand.
She would smile back, refusing to show fear, not even in the final days when she was the only pupil in the school, when she sat alone at her desk in the two-story brick building with all of its strange sounds. Or, stranger still, its absence of sounds.
She was Molly Mathers, and she was unflappable. Stoic.
Decades had passed since then, but her temperament hadn’t changed. When she left her bedroom, she was tempted to pause and look in the mirror, to stare at her own image as if it were another person and offer that woman a farewell. That was overly dramatic, though. Unnecessary. She passed by the mirror, knowing that the only face she needed to see today was her granddaughter’s. Of course, that meant a stop by the school. Molly dreaded setting foot in the school, but it had to be done.
She walked out of the bedroom, shut the door behind her, and went down the narrow hall with its antiquated floral wallpaper and then down the creaking stairs to the foyer. To her left was the dining room and, to her right, the library. A formal, stuffy room, a heightened version of the rest of the house, more museum than home. She’d always liked the walls lined with bookshelves, though.
She passed through it now, crossing to the far wall, where a weathered wooden sign read THE GALESBURG SCHOOL. Her father had pried it off the original one-room schoolhouse before the building burned.
Molly hooked her fingers under the molding of the shelf below the sign and pulled. The wall swung inward on oiled hinges, the only door in the house that was always silent. She could smell the smoke and dampness on the other side before she could see the room.
She paused to let her eyes adjust to the darkness before stepping inside. It was too dark in here despite the numerous lanterns that hung from hooks embedded in the center beam. In all directions of the room, in every corner, the walls were lined with old photographs. Mostly photographs, at least. Some of the oldest were sketches. She was aware of each photo or sketch, knew precisely where and when it had been taken. It had been years since she’d allowed herself to study them closely, and she still knew them by heart.
She saw her granddaughter beneath the lantern light. Gillian sat at the desk, facing the chalkboard. Once it had been Molly’s desk.
Gillian didn’t notice her. She was immersed in a book. Brunette head down, blue eyes flicking left to right, nibbled fingernails—her one unbreakable bad habit—drumming off the empty inkwell at the front edge of the desk. Its emptiness was a tribute to Molly, symbolic of one of the few battles she had won with her own mother. Molly had promised she would attend to the lessons of the Galesburg School, but she’d also insisted that her knowledge of the contemporary world wouldn’t be denied. Respect the past but don’t live in it. The Pentel gel pen that rested near Gillian’s hand was a monument to Molly’s victory, relegating the old school desk’s inkwell to pointless status.
Looking at the desk now, though, Molly wasn’t so sure she’d won. Yes, the inkwell had been rendered pointless, but still it was present. The past was always present. It lived in antiques and memories, war stories and warnings, but it was never gone.
And never passive.
Molly left the bookshelf door ajar, casting a thin beam of gray light into the schoolhouse, and walked to her granddaughter’s side. As she walked, she glanced at the ceiling uneasily. The worn poplar planks above were always dark with char marks. Back when Molly sat beneath them as a student, they’d dripped as they slowly dried out, the water coming down in fat, chilled drops. She remembered when her own mother had first hauled them up from beneath the lake, working in a johnboat and using a grappling hook. Molly had been sure the terrible old planks would dry out eventually. They never seemed to, though. Even now, after the driest summer and early autumn in years.
Gillian turned a page in the book and read on. She still hadn’t looked up. She was through the portal now, transported to a fictional world. Molly loved to watch her when she was like this. Loved to know that she’d been carried away so completely.
“Do you like this story?” Molly whispered.
Gillian nodded without speaking. “Gill-ian, Gill like the ones on a fish,” her granddaughter would say indignantly when anyone softened the G and called her Jillian. Her right hand crept toward her mouth, a fingernail aiming for the edge of her teeth, that nail-biting habit that she couldn’t seem to outgrow. As if anticipating Molly’s correction, she stilled her hand and used it to turn the page instead.
The book was a battered paperback from Molly’s own childhood, The House with the Clock in Its Walls by John Bellairs, a lovely story that her mother had proclaimed an endorsement of witchcraft. That statement was made shortly before the family took the old homemade tincture to ward off flu season. What was the tincture if not witchcraft? Molly asked.
Tradition, her mother had said. Tradition and common sense. The world will forget them both until the world is reminded. Now take your medicine.
Now the book rested in her granddaughter’s hands, beside the empty inkwell.
The past was never passive.
Beneath the book were the worksheets that Gillian was supposed to be focused on. Molly could see some of the questions—Galesburg history, with multiple choice options, filled with old names and dates, people and places long forgotten to the world outside of this room. Then there were the math and science assignments. The formulas were advanced for a student of Gillian’s age, asking a lot of her, yes, but Galesburg had unique demands.
F = P x A
Beneath the formula, Gillian had sketched a picture of water pressing up against a wall. Beside the sketch, she’d written force on the dam = pressure of the water (x) area.
Molly tapped the worksheet with her index finger.
“Remember to think of this one as if you’re swimming underwater,” she said. “You know how your ears feel like they’re going to pop the deeper you go? That’s pressure. It’s the weight of the water above you.”
“Okay,” Gillian said, her attention still on the book.
“Which means,” Molly said patiently, determined to refresh this last lesson, “that the pressure increases when… Gillian? When does the pressure increase?”
Gillian finally looked up from the book. “When the depth increases.”
“Excellent,” Molly said, and leaned down and kissed the top of her granddaughter’s head. She wanted to linger, wanted to hold the touch, but knew she could not. She had rehearsed for this moment, had cried behind closed doors for years simply imagining this moment, and thanks to the pain of that preparation her eyes were dry now, and they would remain dry.
So long the planning, and so difficult the action.
“I’ll be gone for a while,” she whispered, giving Gillian’s left shoulder a squeeze.
“The store?” Gillian asked without looking up. Who could blame her for not looking up? As far as she knew, Molly was running nothing more than a mundane errand on a mundane day, and meanwhile Gillian had a great story in front of her, albeit an imaginary one.
Oh, how Molly wished her granddaughter might live forever in those imaginary stories. The real world waited, and the real world had sharp teeth. Each day apart from it was a treasure.
But the past wasn’t passive, and the past wasn’t patient.
Yes, the store, Molly thought, but in the end she could not lie.
“The lake,” she said.
Gillian looked up then. Turned up her earnest nine-year-old’s face, which had the dark complexion of her black father but the blue eyes of her mother’s Dutch roots, and looked into Molly’s eyes with the first of the questions rising, raindrops ahead of the flood, and only then did Molly succeed in recovering the focus of her long-rehearsed mission.
“I need to take a walk,” she said, managing a smile. “I need to take a walk by the lake.”
And so her last words to her granddaughter were honest ones.
She kissed Gillian once on the forehead. It could be only once, because Molly feared that any lingering show of affection would attract Gillian’s attention and then more questions.
When Molly stepped back, though, Gillian merely nodded and turned her face to the book once more.
Molly left the schoolhouse then, walking beneath the lanterns and the charred and water-stained ceiling. You could smell the water. It wasn’t a cellar odor, damp and musty, but the scent of a wild brook or spring, fresh and clean.
Fresh, at least. Hardly clean, though. Hardly that.
She made it out of the house before she began to cry, and even then it wasn’t bad. She let the tears fall but there were not many of them. Stoic.
She walked northeast through the woods, shunning the road and following the ridgeline, shortening the trip to the lake. The ground was blanketed in fallen leaves, so dry from weeks of drought that they crackled beneath her feet like kindling in a fire. The day was dull and gray but the leaves were a brilliant assortment of orange, yellow, and red. A long, lovely summer with its throat cut.
She came out of the trees on a high bluff overlooking the lake’s tailwaters, just below the dam. At the edge of the bluff a fist of bluestone jutted out of the earth. She sat on the stone, took her cell phone out of her purse, and made the call she had to make.
The dispatcher with the Torrance County Sheriff’s Department was both confused and concerned when Molly made her request for a welfare check and provided the address of her home.
“Why do you think something is wrong, ma’am?”
“It’s not what I think,” Molly said. “It’s what I know. Please send someone to that house right away. But I wouldn’t use the lights and sirens if you can help it. The little girl in there doesn’t need to be scared any worse than she will be already.”
The dispatcher pressed with more questions, but Molly disconnected. She made her second call then, and no one answered this one, which was not a surprise. Gillian’s father would be somewhere deep underground at this hour, somewhere beneath the sidewalks of New York City. He would understand the message she left for him, though. Molly didn’t know much about the man, but she knew that he would understand the message.
She knew that he would come quickly.
When she was through with her calls, she tossed the cell phone into the water below, then emptied her purse onto the rocks and threw the purse in after the phone. The purse stayed on the surface for a moment, and she watched as it was swept downstream, pulled hurriedly, hungrily, by the current before it sank.
She wrapped the fifty-pound-test monofilament fishing line around her belt, tied off the large hooks to the free ends, and let them dangle. They were probably unnecessary, but she was a thorough woman. There were plenty of timber snags in the water below, and between those and the weight of the chains there was little risk of being swept too far downstream, but she had to be sure. Go too far, too fast, and it might all be for naught.
Who really knew, though? There was no ritual for this moment. She’d created one because she wanted rules to support the promise. All she really had was the promise. The one made to her as a child. Galesburg waited for her.
Galesburg needed her.
When the hooks and lines were tied, she leaned forward, scraped leaves away from stone, and found the chains where she had hidden them. She wrapped these around her ankles, moving swiftly now, her breath beginning to tighten, her pulse accelerating. When the padlock snapped closed she felt her lungs loosen, as if this last step had been the relief of a burden. She felt better now. Not fearless, but not fearful, either. Just brave enough. That was all she had to be.
She stayed seated on the rock while she slipped the black silk bag over her head. The fabric was soft and smooth against her cheek. She secured it with a cinch and twist of the twine, a fast motion because she did not want to feel the trapped warmth of her own breaths while she could still rip the hood away. Her eyes were closed now, although it would not have mattered either way once the hood was on. She could feel the silk against her eyelashes like dust, something that could be blinked away.
Four steps to the edge of the bluff. The chains would keep her from taking full strides, of course, so she expected it would require eight steps, shuffling forward. Ten at the most.
She sat perfectly still for one long moment, feeling the cool hardness of the rock beneath her and listening to the rippling water below, and she reminded herself that she’d been grateful for each day of grace in this world and steadfast against each horror.
That was the job of living.
Molly Mathers had worked hard at it.
When she moved, it was in a single, fluid motion, rising and taking the first shuffling step forward. She counted the steps, curious about this final question: How many were ahead of her?
The answer was seven.
Then she was falling, the weight of the chains spinning her as she tumbled, a whirling pirouette of motion, like a leaf blown free.
The water was a savage shock, but it didn’t rip the black silk bag from her head.