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Again, one word in the message.
Four messages, four words. And now, strung together, the words created a command.
Julia don’t forget me
Julia had the sickening, sudden sense of being watched. She looked around frantically, but saw nothing. Her breath came in rapid bursts, and her chest flushed with panicky heat.
She looked at the photo again. There was something else, wasn’t there? Something a little off, aside from the fact all of this was very much off. Something different about the doll in this latest photo.
She scrolled though the previous photos in the series of messages. The first photo only captured the eyes and the nose, but the next three photos showed all of the doll’s face. And there was . . .
In the second and third photos, the girl’s mouth was closed. Tight, puffy, little lips, pursed shut.
But in the fourth photo, the mouth was open. Just a little, just enough to see a crack of dark between the lips. As if the doll was trying to talk.
Julia don’t forget me
This wasn’t a joke. Julia knew it as much as she had ever known anything. These messages weren’t coming from someone trying to have a little fun with her. They were coming from someone else, or something else, entirely.
Her thumbs hovered over the glowing screen, her palms moist with sweat. Then she did something she hadn’t done with the previous three messages. She replied.
Who are you?
There was no answer for at least a minute as Julia stared deeply into the screen, her heartbeat racing. When the message finally did come and the phone buzzed in her hand, she jumped.
By the barn on the rail tracks. Red balloon.
Oh my God oh my God oh my God . . .
What does that mean? she typed.
This time, there was no response.
After a few minutes she turned her attention away from her phone and closed her eyes, taking deep, long, meditative breaths, counting every exhale. When she got to forty-three, she felt her heartbeat finally slow back down, close to normal. Then she went downstairs.
She found her father sipping coffee, reading a book. This was what her parents always did together on Saturday mornings. Now, her father continued the ritual on his own, but Julia knew the true pleasure of Saturday mornings was gone for him, having fallen away, as all things eventually do.
She felt an overwhelming pull to tell him about the messages, but she knew where that would lead. He would take her phone away, telling her this exact thing was the reason he didn’t want her having a phone in the first place. He’d rant about all the predators in the world, and Julia would be phoneless again.
He looked up from his book.
I never sleep okay, Julia thought.
“You have a lot of homework this weekend?”
She shrugged. “Not bad, I guess.”
She dangled her phone in her hand, and it felt warm again, hot even, as if the secrets contained on it were slowly smoldering. Secrecy was becoming a part of who she was, and she hated it. Hated that she was too young to be an adult to her father, and too old to be his little girl anymore. And she longed for something—anything—different than the script of usual four- or five-word sentences they exchanged.
How was your day?
You have much homework?
What do you want for dinner?
She craved anything other than the small talk that grew smaller the older she became. She wanted to tell him how a boy in her science class had spread a rumor that she and him were dating, and for all of last month she dreaded 8:40 a.m. to 9:25 a.m., when she had to see him. She wanted to tell her dad about the vision of her mother in the stuffy little room at the funeral home and ask him if he had visions too. She wanted to ask him if he thought he’d ever date again, or if he planned to go on forever, reading a book by himself on Saturday mornings, a permanently empty chair by his side.
But she wouldn’t because her dad was her dad, and Julia was Julia, and together, this is how they were.
“Do we have plans today?” she asked him. This was another question from their script.
“I have to do some work,” he said. “You have something in mind?”
“Syree wanted to hang out,” she said. Which wasn’t exactly true, since she hadn’t yet asked Syree this.
“That’s fine,” he said. “Just be home by four, okay?”
Julia looked at the screen on her phone. That gave her a little more than six hours.
“Okay.” Julia started to walk away as her father nosed back into his book, but she turned and said, “Thanks again for my phone, Dad.”
“Mmmmm-hmmmm. You’re welcome.”
“I love you, Dad.”
His gaze never rose from the pages. “Love you too, hon.”
She made herself breakfast and messaged Syree while she was eating.
Need to show you something. Can you hang out?
I’ll come over, Julia wrote back. 30 min.
She got dressed and grabbed her bike and rode the two miles to Syree’s house. The outside air swept over her cheeks, and there was the slightest touch of coolness to it, the first hint that the sweltering summer was finally dying and would soon be replaced by the crispness of fall. She pedaled hard and fast, and her tires gave off a rhythmic, satisfying hum as she whisked along the pavement.
It wasn’t long before she coasted into the driveway of Syree’s house, where she found her friend waiting on the front porch, both hands wrapped around her own phone, thumbs tapping the screen with the speed of a woodpecker’s beak jackhammering a tree. She barely noticed Julia approaching.
“Anything interesting?” Julia asked.
“No,” Syree said. “I got added to this group chat with, like, fifteen people, and it’s all stupid stuff. I mean, they are literally saying nothing.”
“So why are you replying?”
Syree looked up at her with an expression suggesting Julia surely must have lost her mind.
“Because, I told you, I’m on the group chat.”
“Put that down,” Julia said. “There’s something I need to show you.”
“Hang on,” Syree said.
Julia took the phone from Syree’s clutch, feeling, for a moment, like a parent.
“Listen to me,” Julia said. “This is serious. I haven’t told anyone about this.”
“God, what is it?”
Julia unlocked her own phone, brought up the string of messages from 666, and then handed it to Syree.
“Start from the beginning,” Julia said.
An hour later, after they had time to agree on a plan and find the courage to execute it, the girls rode together, their pace slowing as they edged their bikes along the outskirts of their small town toward the section of County Road 17 where it turned from hard asphalt to packed dirt. Right at the seam in the road, Syree stopped altogether, and Julia did the same.
They were on a small rise a few miles from Julia’s house, and in this quiet section of expansive scrubby fields that had so far escaped the development of new, cookie-cutter neighborhoods, the breeze cuffed them slightly about their necks. A hawk wafted in looping circles overhead, like dandelion fluff drifting on a child’s breath.
“There it is,” Syree said.
The barn was in the distance, perhaps a quarter mile away, a solitary structure that had been there ever since Julia started holding memories. It stood abandoned and alone, its red paint flecked and sunbaked, the color of old, dried blood. A section of the roof had caved in by weather and time; upheaved planks of rotten wood, splintering to the sky like matchsticks. Weed-covered railroad tracks passed just in front of the barn, though Julia had neve
r seen a train use them. She thought of this part of town as a time capsule, holding remnants of what once was for those who ever cared to go back and reminisce. Most people, though, were too busy looking at whatever was right in front of them.
“I see it,” Julia said. She’d told Syree everything after showing her all the messages. Syree had dismissed it as a gag, but was excited for an adventure. But here, now, on this quiet dirt road in a section of the town from an abandoned time, Syree looked anything but adventurous.
Julia pushed the bike forward using her feet. “Let’s go.”
“I don’t know,” Syree replied. “This doesn’t feel right.”
“We’ve come this far.”
“You know this is crazy, right? Some freak wanted to lure you out here, and now here we are. Julia, I can’t even get a signal out here.”
Julia reached for her own phone and confirmed this. No service.
“It’s okay,” she said.
“Let’s go back.”
“No. Let’s go closer.”
“Julia, come on.”
“It’s okay, Syree. You can leave. I’m going on.”
“It’s not like I’m going to leave you here.”
“Then come on,” Julia said, and with that she began pedaling again, her pace slow.
Syree called after her, “God, you can be so stubborn.”
Small pebbles crackled under her tires, some kicking up from the road, pinging against the metal spokes. Julia led and Syree followed at a distance, and as Julia rounded a slight bend in the road, she saw it.
A red balloon, helium-filled, tied around a lower branch of a thick and ancient oak tree. Its string was just long enough to keep it from hitting the branch above, and the balloon danced back and forth in the wind, straining against its tether.
The branch was at least ten feet off the ground. Someone needed a ladder to tie it there, Julia thought. And it was a regular rubber balloon, not one of those Mylar kinds. The regular ones didn’t hold helium long, Julia knew, and this one looked plump and taut, as if it had just been filled.
She stopped short of the tree, her tires shimmying along the loose dirt. Syree pulled up next to her, breathing hard. Julia felt it too, a pounding inside her chest, a shortness of breath. Tingling in the fingertips. All the telltale signs of nerves.
“Julia, this is too much, let’s get out of here.”
Julia dismounted her bike, lowered the kickstand, and leaned it into the dirt. Then she began walking the last several feet to the tree. To her left the low afternoon sun stretched long and deep in the sky, creeping the shadow of the nearby barn closer to Julia’s feet with each passing moment.
Syree called out desperately from behind. “Julia, you’re freaking me out. Come back here!”
Julia just held up a hand and kept on walking. She was close to the tree now, could smell its musty bark. Could hear the rustling of its leaves, a few of which fell in the breeze, scattering near her feet. As she reached the base, she looked up again, saw the balloon, which bobbed in the wind faster than before, as if excited to see her.
Then Julia walked around the base of the massive tree, and that’s when she looked down and saw the doll.
Julia stopped breathing.
It was the one from the photos, though the mouth was open even a little wider than before, and the ghost eyes weren’t staring dead in the distance, but instead looked directly at Julia. And the bottom half of the doll wasn’t missing at all, as it had appeared in the final photo. Rather, the bottom half was buried in dirt at the base of the tree.
“Julia, what is it?”
Julia didn’t reply. Instead, she leaned over, wrapped her shaking hands around the chest of the doll, and gently pulled. The doll resisted at first, then slowly emerged from its little grave, revealing intact legs and lower dress, all stained by the earth. There was a small paper tag on the doll’s left ankle, secured with a faded red ribbon. Julia brought the doll up to her face and read the tag.
Happy birthday, Julia. I love you.
And then she remembered. It was such a clear memory it seemed impossible that Julia had ever forgotten, and the suddenness with which it came back nearly buckled her knees.
She knew this doll. This was her doll, a gift given to her by her mother on Julia’s fourth birthday. But the doll had disappeared a day later, and by the time anyone realized it, it was too late. Her parents had likely thrown it out by mistake with all the wrapping paper and boxes of Julia’s gifts, and the garbage had already been collected. The doll was forever gone, wallowing in a landfill somewhere, and Julia had cried hard and long when her parents told her the news.
That was the same birthday her mother filled the living room with red balloons, all of which lived for a day or two before falling one by one back down to Earth.
Now, as Julia clutched the doll, she instinctively looked to her left—to the barn, to the small, cracked window by the open barn doors.
Someone was there, watching.
It was almost imperceptible, with the sun in her eyes and the amount of dirt streaked on the window, but it was definitely a person. A woman. Long hair, kinked and brown, just like her mother’s. Julia could just make out a smile on the woman’s face.
Julia felt herself pulled toward the specter and took a step closer to the barn.
And then whatever was there suddenly vanished into the otherworldly darkness from which it’d come. Or perhaps it had never been there at all.
As much as Julia wanted it to be her mom—her actual living and breathing mom—she knew it was something else. A phantom, an imagination, a ghost, an angel. Right then, Julia decided she would not go into the barn. Chasing ghosts wouldn’t help her any more than reliving the same vision every night. And she suspected whatever any of this meant, whatever any of it was, it came from a world that didn’t overlap with her own.
The universe is sending me a message, Julia thought. And I have an answer.
“I won’t ever forget you,” she said.
She squeezed the doll in her hand just as she felt the first few tears roll down her cheek.
She walked back to Syree, who seemed poised to ask a question but didn’t. Like a true best friend, she seemed to know when not to say anything at all.
They rode home back along the dirt road in silence, the sun brilliant and red like the color of the faded ribbon around her doll’s ankle.
That night Julia propped the doll up on a shelf in her room. She hadn’t cleaned the dirt from its lower half, thinking the doll had been on some kind of journey and deserved to proudly wear the marks from it.
She didn’t know what she was going to tell her father about the doll when he eventually saw it, but maybe she would simply tell him the truth. Maybe they would have a real conversation, full of long questions and deep, searching answers, about all sorts of things, big and little, happy and sad. Things not in the script.
Her phone buzzed, announcing a message. Julia flinched, just a little, and swiped open her screen. The message was from Syree.
Julia answered as honestly as she could.
I think so.
She didn’t wait for Syree’s next message. Julia turned the phone completely off and put it on the shelf next to the doll. As she looked at the doll, and the doll looked at her, Julia knew she would never hear from 666 again. No more communication was necessary.
She turned off her bedroom light, got into bed, and pulled the heavy covers up over her. Julia closed her eyes and waited for the vision to come. Waited to be back in the small and stuffy funeral home, waited to see a version of her mother who was scared and alone. And screaming.
For the first time in three years, Julia didn’t see that vision. She no longer needed to, she realized. She had her closure, and even if she didn’t quite understand it, what happened today was beautiful, strange, and necessary.
As she gradually fell as
leep, Julia only saw her mother’s face, looking at her through the dirt-streaked barn window. Smiling, happy, and, more than anything else, not forgotten.
The Trouble with Squirrels
by Doug Levin
“AHHGGH!” THAT WAS ME SCREAMING, but I quickly lowered the volume to “Ewww.”
There, right in the crosswalk, was a squashed, pulpy squirrel. I had been looking at my phone and nearly stepped on it. Except for the bushy tail, the creature was stretched out flat, nearly a squirrel pancake. Even its head was squished into the asphalt. The crows had already eaten the eyes, and they’d been tugging at the innards, too. I felt a little queasy as I hurried the rest of the way across the street.
I’m big for my age (twelve)—and tough when I want to be—but I have a secretly gentle heart. It’s embarrassing, but sometimes in a dark movie theater during the sappy part, I can feel my eyes sting, like I might cry. But I don’t look away. You’re tough, too, Duncan, I’d tell myself. Remember it!
But worst of all, I can’t stand to see animals hurt. Two years ago my mom went vegetarian, and for a month, we only ate tofu, beans, and spaghetti without meat sauce. She said she wanted to be “healthier, happier, and more humane,” but I really think it was because my steak-loving dad had just moved out.
When my mom gave up her vegetarian diet, she and my sister, Katie, celebrated by going for burgers, but I decided to stick with it. Weird, I know, but I just didn’t want to be eating a slab of Elsie the cow or Wilbur the pig.
So that squished squirrel . . . it was gross but sad, too. It wasn’t the first dead one I’d seen—not by a long shot—but it was the first one I’d almost stepped on. In fact, this spring I’d seen more squirrels than ever. The cute little critters skittered across roads, tightrope walked power lines, played in trees, and scampered across roofs. One morning, three of the little guys nearly ran over my feet—all gleefully carrying peanuts, strangely enough.
Unfortunately, the squirrels were making trouble, too. Down the street, a pair had nested in the attic of my friend Nathan Benton’s house. He said his parents had to pay two thousand dollars to have the squirrels removed and the eaves repaired. But that wasn’t the worst of it.