Nelly’s mother was hunting her.
The child escaped through the back door, having twisted away from her mother’s iron grip. She hopped down the steps and onto the lawn, racing down the steep slope behind their house and into the night. Her feet ripped through a layer of fallen leaves, stirring up their moldy autumn smell.
Her mother’s voice was shrill with forced playfulness; it took Nelly’s breath away, like she’d been splashed with ice-cold water. She ran faster, and the wind picked up, scattering pieces of her Halloween costume: the wig and stuffed raven on her shoulder. This year, she was Edgar Allen Poe.
“Where are you going?” Gillian called sweetly. “Mommy just wants to talk!”
As she neared the bottom of the hill, Nelly yelled back over her shoulder: “You’re not my mommy!”
Nelly’s spindly legs seemed to outrun her body, and she stumbled, falling onto her elbows at the lawn’s border with the woods. Sprawled on a bed of brittle leaves, she glanced upward at the trees. Their naked branches scraped the night sky, and a brisk wind whipped through Nelly’s dark, sweaty hair, slapping strands into her face.
She didn’t want to go into the woods at night, though she knew the landscape like the curves of her own face. Nelly had many hiding places among the trees; it was her safe haven away from her grand yet suffocating house. But tonight the woods were different. Nelly peered into the blackness that shrouded the familiar. An owl hooted, startling her. The sudden fear was a painful stab to the stomach.
“Nelly!” her mother called again.
Nelly jumped to her feet and peeked behind her. The sharp roofs, tower, and chimney of her house stretched over the lip of the hill. Slowly, her mother’s slender figure emerged from the sloped ground, silhouetted by the white cone of the outside light. Nelly’s legs turned to jelly. Her mother paused at the summit, and Nelly spied the outline of something long and pointed hanging from her hand. Then, in a voice sharp as glass, Gillian shrieked: “Get back here, you little devil!”
Every muscle in Nelly’s body tensed. The wind squealed, and in the distance, thunder rolled across the sky. Her mother’s shape perched at the top of the hill, black against the white light, then her figure vanished below its hulking shadow.
Nelly forced her muscles to wake up and desperately sucked in a mouthful of frigid air. She backed up quietly, taking large steps with her eyes fixed forward to pick out any sign of movement. She tried not to think of the cold woods behind her and what might be hiding there. But in that moment, Nelly would rather have been eaten by a wolf than stay at home with her mother—or this monster parading as her mother.
The forest canopy stretched overhead, tree branches reaching for Nelly’s body to pull her into the woods’ black embrace. The darkness deepened and the air chilled.
“Get—back—here!” Gillian screamed, her voice closer than it had been mere seconds before.
Nelly spun around and tiptoed into the woods so her mother wouldn’t hear her frantic footsteps. She picked up speed, weaving between tree trunks, plotting her path by memory and not by sight. The road was ten minutes from her house, and she wasn’t allowed to go that far. But tonight was different, and although that road would lead to her despicable Aunt Emma’s, it was safer than home.
Nelly tried not to think about how the wind whistling through the branches sounded like screams. Or how a stitch cramped her side and fallen twigs and low brush scratched at her legs. She tried not to worry when a peal of thunder boomed and the sky tore open to pour a cold rain across the earth. And she especially tried to ignore her mother’s hateful curses chasing after her, each one closer than the last. She thought only of reaching the safety of her aunt’s house, praying that the monster would never catch her.
Nelly ran until her legs and lungs burned and the crowded trees snuffed out all light except hot slashes of forked lightning. She ran for what felt like hours before she burst from the woods onto the black ribbon of road shimmering under the yellow headlights of passing cars.
Hyla Frontenac and her sister, Lizeth, waited for their food in a booth at the Downhill Grill. The wary eyes of the locals watched their every move.
Whatever this town was called, it was the first they’d seen in thirty miles after exiting the interstate. Hyla had yet to see a stop light and imagined the entire population was currently in this diner. She was also certain they’d stolen someone’s regular spot during the Sunday lunch rush.
“We’ve been found out.” Hyla caught her sister’s eye across the Formica table. “Two of these things are not like the others…”
Lizeth chuckled and shook her head. The pair had grabbed the last booth by the window, which was lucky, because Lizeth wouldn’t eat anywhere else. She studied the view outside, of a wet, gray sky, the highway, and a sign fashioned in the shape of a lobster. Hyla tried to follow the chaos inside: waitresses whizzing between tables with no apparent direction, clinking utensils, a distant radio playing Boston’s “Amanda.” Across the aisle from their booth, she caught one old man gaping at her black pixie cut and leather jacket.
Hyla raised her mug of coffee at him and took a sip. “That one’s looking at me like I’m a display in a human zoo.”
Lizeth glanced over her shoulder, then smiled placidly. “He’s just curious and too old to bother being subtle.”
As the old man spooned scrambled eggs into his wrinkled mouth, Hyla wished she shared Lizeth’s patience. “I wish people wouldn’t do that.”
“Act like there’s something wrong with being different.”
“You can’t expect people to accept things that make them uncomfortable.” Lizeth toyed with the string of her tea bag, draped over the edge of her porcelain mug. “It’s human nature to be comforted by the familiar. Difference is chaos.”
Nonetheless, Hyla shot the old man a dirty look. She was surlier than normal. She’d received a letter the day before that had brought up long-buried memories and bitterness, reminding her that people never failed to be selfish and hateful. Including herself. She tried to push away these old feelings and listened to the low growl of a dozen mumbled conversations flavored with the thick accent of Downeast Maine, but the mania of the diner only heightened her own anxiety.
To that old codger, disorder was epitomized in Hyla’s manly hairstyle. To the other patrons, it was the unexpected outsiders intruding on their Sunday routine, but for that Hyla could hardly blame them—she would also be angered by that small injustice. But chaos was a different animal in the sisters’ world—the world of the unexplained and real-life horror stories. It was a literal monster crouched in the dark.
Or the deranged mother chasing her daughter through the woods.
Hyla absently drummed her fingers on the cold table as wind shook the window in its frame, splattering the glass with raindrops. She adjusted her jacket, repositioned herself. Lizeth watched her fidget, and Hyla was mildly irritated. Having a sister who so accurately understood your every gesture, word, and expression was a blessing, but it also meant she had nowhere to hide when she was upset. There was obviously more on her mind this morning than the little girl who’d e-mailed them two days before. Lizeth sensed this, but Hyla didn’t want to talk about it, so she focused on their latest client.
She grabbed the case folder and a notebook she’d placed on the seat next to her, plopped it on the table, and opened it to reveal a printout of the e-mail. She found a fresh page in her notebook and wrote out a heading—Huggett, 11/3, Initial Questions. She felt her sister’s eyes on her.
“Do you need to ta—”
“Nelly Huggett, ten years old. Claims her mother turned into a monster on Halloween night and chased her through the woods, wielding an unknown weapon. Also says her whole family vanished.”
Lizeth’s pale freckled forehead furrowed with scowl lines. “I can’t make sense of those two allegations. Did she turn into a monster, or did she vanish?”
“Don’t know.” Hyla wrote out a list of questions to clarify the timeline, what the girl meant by “vanished,” and how her mother changed.
Lizeth pointed at one line in the e-mail. “I keep imagining that bit: her mother charging after her in the dark, carrying a weapon. How frightened Nelly must’ve been.” She frowned. “Are you sure this isn’t a case for social services?”
Hyla wrote down What kind of weapon? and sat back in her seat. “If this little girl was smart enough to find us online, she’s smart enough to call social services. There must be a reason she contacted us instead of them.”
She stared at the words she’d written until the letters blurred into a wash of ink, and she remembered another little girl, a lifetime ago, with nowhere to turn. Hyla had to admire a child who, at ten years old, had the gumption to contact them. The Frontenac Sisters: Supernatural Sleuths & Monster Hunters. But had Nelly Huggett run from a real monster on Halloween night or one that lived only in her imagination? Had she tried to make sense of the turmoil in her life—an abusive mother, perhaps—by inventing a story? But if she was lying, why would she call them?
Hyla shook her head. “But no, I’m not sure at all.”
She wrote down more questions as the frizzy-haired waitress returned and slid plates before each sister: a turkey club for Hyla and white toast and cornflakes for Lizeth. Hyla looked up from her notebook to check her sister’s breakfast and groaned; they’d messed up her order.
“You two must be twins,” the waitress said.
Lizeth smiled. “No, just sisters.”
It was a common mistake. Only subtle differences separated the Frontenac sisters: Lizeth’s blue eyes were light and crystalline, her Roman nose and square chin clefted, her straight black hair kept long. Hyla’s eyes were sapphire, her chin wasn’t clefted, and she kept her hair short. She eyed the waitress as she placed maple syrup and a basket of jam on the table.
“I don’t know,” she said. “You might want to check your birth certificates—”
Hyla pointed at Lizeth’s toast. “This is wron—”
“It’s okay.” Lizeth shook her head and smiled at the waitress.
“No, it’s not. My sister asked for her toast to be almost burnt and the butter melted. And this looks like at least two-percent milk, and she wanted skim—”
Regardless, Hyla scooped up the offending toast and milk and handed it to the waitress.
“I’m very sorry,” she said and swept away.
Lizeth was scowling, but the corner of her mouth flicked in a smile; she only ate a handful of foods and would go hungry before venturing off-menu.
“You need to eat, sissy,” Hyla pressed.
Lizeth narrowed her eyes. “What’s up with you this morning? You’re testier than normal.”
But Hyla wasn’t listening. “Speaking of food, I need to eat a lobster roll before we head home. And we should go on a whale-watching tour, if the weather allows it. Did you look at the brochures I picked up yet?”
Hyla avoided her sister’s empathic stare and took a bite of her club. “What?” she asked with a mouthful of bread.
“Just tell me, Hyla.”
Hyla swallowed and set down her sandwich, knowing she’d now have to talk about the thing she wanted to avoid. “It’s this case. It reminds me of… you know.”
“Of course.” Lizeth breathed deeply. “Theresa. I’m sorry.”
“I’m not the one who needs an apology.”
Hyla had read Theresa’s letter five times in twenty-four hours, poring over the details of her friend’s life since they’d parted: a cycle of rehab and relapse, a failed marriage, miscarriages, estrangement from her family, jail…
“Don’t do that to yourself,” Lizeth said. “You did what you could.”
“She was my best friend, and I abandoned her, Lizeth. Plain and simple.”
“Nothing’s ever plain and simple. You gave her everything you had.”
“And I made no difference.” She took another bite of her sandwich.
Theresa had turned her life around without Hyla’s help, and she’d spent years trying. Her advice and promises, her unwavering support, and the thousands of times she’d held Theresa while she cried through a panic attack had been fruitless, because in the end Hyla had given up. A nervous sense of unease and unrest pricked her stomach, a sense of things needing to be set right and her unable to fix them.
The waitress returned with the correct toast and milk for Lizeth. Hyla swiftly stood.
“I’m gonna call this aunt of Nelly’s again, warn her we’ll be there soon.”
Lizeth nodded, and Hyla marched through the diner and out the door with the ring of a little bell. A brisk, wet wind met her outside, and she smelled salt on the air, though she couldn’t see the North Atlantic yet. She leaned against the side of the building under the eaves to protect herself from the drizzle and studied the view on the other side of the road: the lobster sign and a handful of indistinct little buildings, a rocky hill rising behind them to dark conifers licked by fog. The tiny town seemed insignificant and vulnerable amid such a dark and expansive wilderness.
Hyla dialed the number and listened to the distant ring, dreading the conversation. She’d already butted heads with Emma Huggett twice. After the fourth ring, the woman’s brusque voice answered.
“Turn right back around and head home, Ms. Frontenac. This matter is none of your business.”
“Your niece made it my business, I’m afraid.”
“My niece is ten years old,” Emma snapped.
“And she has made some disturbing accusations.”
“They are stories, utter lies.” Emma’s voice rose an octave. “This is what she does.”
“Nonetheless, we expect to arrive in a half hour.”
“Don’t you dare—”
Hyla hung up the phone and squeezed it until her fingers hurt. Adults always disregarded children and their stories; Hyla had witnessed Theresa suffer the same fate twenty-five years ago, with a very different monster. And though her friend’s story had ended well, she’d suffered a tough road to get there. What would happen to this girl?
The door chimed, and Lizeth slipped out of the diner, the case folder in one hand and Hyla’s purse in the other. “We all set to go?”
Hyla nodded absently, leading Lizeth back to their van, a 1972 Ford Econoline, with a question tugging at the back of her mind. Both times she spoke to Emma, the woman hadn’t denied that something had taken place. This matter was none of her business, she’d said. What was it? Her troubled niece? An abusive mother? Or something, as Nelly claimed and Hyla suspected, more sinister?
And why was Emma Huggett trying to keep them away?
“Her house should be up here on the right,” Lizeth said.
She glanced between her cell phone screen and the real, live street before them; Hyla eased on the brake, and their cumbersome van sputtered to a crawl.
“Fancy neighborhood…” Hyla gazed jealously at the neat, tree-lined street shining black with recent rain, lined with picturesque homes and trimmed lawns. All were decorated tastefully for the season with corn stalks and jewel-toned mums.
Hyla had driven for forty-five minutes with her stomach in knots. She hated this part of an investigation, when all the facts were hidden, the questions unanswered, and the mystery like smoke. She couldn’t see or hold on to anything. The first interview usually settled her nerves, as it revealed the first details, shaping the case to come.
She eased the van into a cul-de-sac ringed in quaint cottages and bare northern red oak and sycamore, the Ford’s brown girth clashing violently with the affluent surroundings.
“Here.” Lizeth pointed to the right.
Emma’s house stood out for two reasons. First, its baby-blue paint popped among the muted grays and browns of its neighbors. Then there was the blonde woman sitting grumpily on the porch, arms crossed like a child in the middle of a fight with her mom. She stood abruptly as Hyla parked and flicked off the engine.
“This woman is going to piss me off, and I’m going to say something inappropriate.”
“Try to control yourself,” Lizeth warned.
“I promise nothing.”
They exited the van, and Hyla slid a reporter’s notebook, pen tucked in the spiral, into her back pocket. Emma was already marching down her yard and met them at the gate of her picket fence; her bony hand clutched the latch. She was a fashionable woman in her midforties, taller than the petite Hyla by three inches. She was wearing a designer track suit, though Hyla doubted she jogged—her makeup was perfect.
Emma Huggett sneered at their ugly brown van. “First of all, you’re late, which is rude. And secondly, I told you people not to come.”
“You sound a bit confused about what you want, Ms. Huggett.” Hyla arched an eyebrow. “But your feelings aren’t my concern. Nelly asked us to come, and she is our client, not you. But we’d like to ask you some questions, if you’re willing to answer them.”
“I most certainly am not.”
“And why’s that?”
“There’s nothing to investigate.” Emma rolled her eyes and laughed. “You’ve been hoodwinked, girls. My niece is a little liar with an overactive imagination. You’ve driven all this way for nothing. I’m not even sure what you’re here for.”
A voice, echoing from Hyla’s childhood, pushed to the front of her brain. She’s a pathological liar. The only thing that’ll fix her is some time in the psych ward.
Hyla grabbed the gate and shook it. Emma flinched, and Lizeth placed a calming hand on Hyla’s shoulder.
“Children aren’t always liars,” Hyla said through her teeth.
“This one is,” Emma said, her voice trembling. “Get back in your hideous van and out of my neighborhood or—”
Hyla rattled the gate again.
“Hyla…” Lizeth said.
“Nelly says her mother chased after her with a weapon.”
Emma rolled her eyes again. “Nonsense. Gillian would never—”
“She also says her family vanished.”
“She told me that ridiculous story, too.”
“Did you call Gillian to tell her Nelly is here? She must be worried sick.”
Emma’s gaze dropped, and her defiant expression wilted. Was it guilt? Worry?
“You haven’t been able to get her on the phone, have you?” Hyla pressed. “Answer me, Ms. Huggett.”
The woman tapped her shoe on the stone sidewalk and glanced over Hyla’s shoulder, a muscle flexing in her smooth jaw.
“Fine. This is what I see from where I stand.” Hyla put her hands on her hips, and without meaning to, raised her voice. “A little girl ran away from home three days ago. You can’t get ahold of her mother. And you haven’t called the police.”
Lizeth caught her eye, and Hyla felt her sister’s secret, guiding words, telling her to calm down.
“They don’t need to get involved. There’s nothing going on here but a private family matter. And my brother would rather that be kept quiet.”
Hyla whipped out her phone. “You have two choices, Ms. Huggett. You answer our questions, and we talk to Nelly, and the police stay out of it. Or we get in our ugly van and go to the police station. Which is it?”
Emma’s lip curled. “Fine. Ask your questions.”
Hyla’s pulse throbbed in her neck, and she slid her phone back in her jacket pocket and pulled out her notebook. Emma crossed her arms and cocked her hip.
Hyla tried to force calm into her voice. “What happened Halloween night?”
“About eleven p.m., I woke up to the sound of knocking on my front door. Lo and behold, there’s my niece, sopping wet, half-dressed in her Halloween costume, shivering on my porch.”
Emma’s snide tone nagged on Hyla’s last nerve. She took a deep breath, but annoyance still seeped into her voice.
“And what did Nelly tell you had happened?”
Emma rolled her eyes again and spoke slowly, every word laced with skepticism. “That Gillian attacked her, or something, so Nelly ran away.”
“Attacked her how?”
“I think she said she grabbed her by the hair.” Emma pointed a stubby finger tipped with a manicured nail painted mauve into Hyla’s face. Hyla imagined cracking it in two. “Gillian does not abuse her chil—”
“Why did Nelly come to your house?”
“I’m the only relative close by.” Emma sighed heavily, as if the role were a heavy burden.
“What else did Nelly say?”
“Just that whole business about them vanishing.”
“Did you go to the house to check on them?”
“I tried the next day, and yesterday, and this morning, and Nelly threw an unholy fit. She won’t go home, and I can’t go alone to check on them and leave her here—she could run away again.”
“And no one has answered the phone in three days?”
Emma squirmed, stared at her feet, then at a spot over Hyla’s shoulder. “Not the landline, not their cell phones…”
Hyla tapped her notebook with her pen. “And so you decide to do nothing.”
“No, not nothing. This is my family. I know them,” Emma yelled. “It’s just as likely Gillian needed a break. She often pawns that girl off on me. Nelly is always in trouble. She’s…”
Emma closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. Hyla was reminded of Theresa’s mother, whom she once overheard gossiping with a neighbor about her daughter. I don’t know what to do for her anymore… She’s always in trouble. I’m afraid she’s a lost cause.
“…a mischievous, hateful child. You wouldn’t believe the things she’s said to her mother.”
“So Gillian snapped? Is that the matter you want kept secret?”
“Of course not!” Emma said.
“So what’s this matter, then?”
“Let’s just say it’s nothing supernatural.”
Emma said the word like it, too, was an embarrassment or a nuisance. Hyla made a small movement forward, but Lizeth anticipated it, grasping her elbow to keep her back. Calm replaced her sudden anger. She was grateful her sister was there to keep her out of trouble once again.
Hyla gritted her teeth. “And how would you describe Nelly’s behavior the past three days?”
“Quiet, somber. Not like herself.” Emma frowned, and for a second Hyla read genuine concern on the older woman’s face. “Which is an improvement.”
The woman couldn’t answer a single question without demeaning her niece. Hyla wondered why, and if her dislike of the child was a clue in itself.
“Any reason why Nelly would act out? Anything happen to her recently?”
“I don’t know… Some of her classmates are sick, some strange illness they all caught a week or so ago. I heard about some incident at school, a fight of some sort. Nelly has a bruise on her arm. Miles is away a lot on business. But”—Emma dropped her voice—“something is wrong with her. When I look into her eyes, I see nothing but—”
“Are you the Frontenac sisters?” a sharp, proper voice interrupted.
A lanky girl stood on the porch, long brown braids framing her face, her hands on her hips and brow furrowed. For a flash, Hyla saw Theresa standing there. Theresa had been shorter than this child, her hair long and straw-colored, and fragile, even before a monster destroyed her innocence. What path would Nelly take after this mysterious monster destroyed hers?
“We are,” Hyla said.
The girl snorted. “It’s about time.”
Photo Courtesy Stefano Chiarelli, Flickr Creative Commons