Darren propped the ladder against the snow-stuffed gutters and hefted the coil of Christmas lights over his shoulder. They ran along the edge of the house, a black and pointy squiggle against the white. While Margaret sat inside the living room-the toasty, cozy, already decorated living room-her chastisement echoed in his ears.
“It’s only your imagination, Darren.” She’d sipped on her hot chamomile and hummed as if a new thought had entered her mind. “Why don’t you get some fresh air to clear your head? You could put up those lights while you’re at it.”
Her passive-aggressive insinuation had him in his coat, boots tied, gloves on, ladder out of the garage, and back braced for another climb. The nagging vision, however, the woman only he seemed able to see, clung.
Darren breathed in deep, let his lungs frost over, and exhaled a misty cloud. He staggered when the haze hovered before his eyes. The puff warped, taking on the same ethereal curves as they had since he’d stopped worrying about whether his students learned and started worrying about what he’d find in their end-of-the-semester essays.
Her mouth gaped. In an unfelt wind, her hair billowed and her calico dress fluttered. Her arms reached out, her fingers clawing for his throat.
Grabbing hold of the ladder’s rungs, Darren escaped to the gutters. He spied over the rooftop, the coils of smoke from the chimney gray with the fresh log Margaret must have put on the fire. Burying his chin into his coat’s collar, he warmed the stubble on his face and urged the ghostly chill out of his bones.
“My imagination,” he whispered.
“Hey Mr. Arnold.”
Darren snagged the roof’s edge, catching his balance when he glanced down. At the white-picket fence Margaret had needled him about putting up for two years, stood Jake, his mittened hands wrapped around twin posts.
Darren peeked at the neighboring garage, opened door revealing a space as empty as the driveway and darkened living room, and then returned to the knit-capped boy. He had to give the kid some credit, though, at least he’d managed to put on his jacket and scarf before heading outside.
Resting his chin on one hand, Jake blew off the powdery snow clinging to the pickets. Flakes fell in a slow shower, making divots in the ground-obscuring white.
Darren’s shoulder whined under the prickly weight of the lights and the thought of company, other than Margaret, Papa Oliver who seemed intent on staying forever, or the angry woman appearing in breath, in mirrors, in the night, gained appeal, even if it came in the form of a twelve-year-old latchkey kid.
“Want to help me out, Jake?”
Jake looked up, blue eyes wide, a warble in his voice. “Sure.”
“Come on then.”
Jake dashed to the gate and squirmed through the scant crack with surprising ease given the bulkiness of his man-sized winter coat. He trudged through the smothered lawn, the hem of his jeans already soaked, and slogged to the bottom of the ladder. Peering up, he cocked his head, fuzzy ball atop his hat jiggling.
“What can I do?”
Darren shifted the heavy coil, glanced over the slick sloped roof, and at the two stories he stood above. “Um…”
Dropping his head, Jake stuck his hand into his pockets and kicked a lump of snow. “It’s okay, Mr. Arnold. I don’t want to be in the way.”
Darren clambered down the ladder and yanked the cord connecting the lights on his shoulder to the ones already strung overhead. “These are actually supposed to go on the fence.”
He could feel Margaret’s ire, hear her teeth grind, see her glare, when she discovered the white lights on the pickets instead of gutter, but he didn’t care. The kid needed a friend and fresh air wasn’t doing much for his state of mind.
Shaking off the reprimanding he’d receive and the vestiges of the ghostly image draping his thoughts, Darren offered the coil’s tail to Jake. “In and out between the posts.” He demonstrated with a bit of slack. “Got it?”
Jake’s attention lingered on the winding route. “Got it.”
“Let’s go then.”
Walking backwards, Darren uncoiled the loop while Jake wound the lights between the pickets. Snow toppled off the peaks, landing in clumps, and scattering into Darren’s footprints only to be smashed by Jake’s lighter step.
At the corner, a larger clump fell, and looking down, Jake halted in the middle of winding the cord. “Hey, it looks like her.”
Darren followed the boy’s downcast gaze, and a shiver raced under his skin making all of his winter gear useless.
In the snow appeared her sunken face, those pitted eyes, wide mouth, and the lines in her brow suggesting fury and rage. Arms ended in ever grasping hands.
He’d pulled the blinds down when she’d initially appeared in the frosted windows on his first day off and been snapped at for blocking the pretty lights of the neighbors, those who’d decorated a good week earlier. Stifling his fears, he’d raised the blinds, and nothing but twinkling and illuminated deer lingered.
Night had brought another vision, however.
The bathroom light cast shadows, creating her figure in black against the white tile. Shaking Margaret awake, he’d tried to explain, to share, to make her see, but she’d brushed him off and curled up under the blankets, slipping with ease into the light snore of her deep sleep. After a stiff drink and splash of cold water on his face, the vision had gone and Darren had turned off the light and fumbled blindly to bed where he wouldn’t sleep a wink.
The third, fourth, and fifth appearances within the next forty-eight hours had left him edgy, restless, fearful of turning a corner and seeing her once more, ready to throttle, to seize, to do whatever angry ghosts did.
And here stood Jake, seeing her in the snow.
Margaret’s off-handed remarks about his lack of sleep, about not taking his vitamins, or his imagination carrying him away, irked. Darren coughed, silencing her, and hoped he wasn’t alone.
“Looks like who?”
Jake glanced up, his face paling. “Nobody.”
“Does she have flowing hair?”
Jake gaped, misty breaths puffing through his dark maw of a mouth.
“She holds her hands out,” said Darren, hushing his voice.
Jake nodded, the ball on his cap flailing.
“She’s snarling like she’s angry?”
Breaking out of his shock, Jake tilted his head. “She’s not in angry, Mr. Arnold.”
“What do you mean?”
“She’s sad.” Jake returned to the face.
A flurry drifted down, filling in the divots and softening the features until they almost smiled.
Darren crouched, dropping to eye level with the boy. “Sad about what?”
“She says she misses her children. She left them because her husband…” Jake glanced over the fence at the cleared plot across from his empty driveway. “He wasn’t a nice man and now she’s sad because she can’t find her them.”
“She told you all this?”
Jake nodded and looked away from patch of where a home had once stood. “We talk a lot at night before my mom comes back from work.” He scrubbed his button nose. “She doesn’t talk to you?”
“No.” Darren hung his head. “I always get scared and looked away.”
“But you’re a grownup.”
He met the disbelief in Jake’s face. “Grownups can get scared too, especially when ghosts are around, looking like they want to grab you.”
“She never looks that way to me. She sits on my bed and she tells me stories about her travels. Her life. I tell her about my day, about the kids at school, about my mom…”
“I see.” Darren rose and rested the loop of remaining lights on the corner picket. “How about we go inside for a bit and warm up?”
Jake eyed the door with a skeptical brow. “Into your house?”
“You can wait on the front porch if you want.” He motioned to the stoop he’d shoveled clear. “I’ll bring some cocoa.”
“I like cocoa.”
“Come on then, I could some time to thaw.”
Jake held up the cord of lights still in his hands. “What about Mrs. Arnold’s decorations?”
“We can put them up afterwards if you still want to help.”
Jake wound the cord around one mitten. “I like putting up decorations, but cocoa’s even better.”
“Then cocoa first.”
Darren tromped across the front yard, Jake at his side. The boy stayed on the stoop, stomping snow from his boots while Darren slipped inside. Leaving the door ajar, he tiptoed across the kitchen to the cupboard, plucked two mugs, and placed them next to the stove. He tore into two packets of instant cocoa, the ones with mini marshmallows he kept hidden from Margaret’s all-natural sensors. Each made chocolate plumes in the mugs. With the kettle still warm from Margaret’s tea, he poured and steam rose. He returned to the door, one drink in each hand.
Jake sat on the top step and Darren joined him.
“Here you go, kiddo.”
The boy took the mug, holding tight with both mittens. “Marshmallows, neat. My mom never lets me get those.”
Darren hefted his mug in toast. “To decorations.”
Jake chuckled, dimples appearing on his rosy cheeks. “To decorations.”
They clinked mugs, the steam twining. Holding his breath, Darren stared at the dissipating coils.
Her face appeared again as he feared she would and he glanced at Jake who stared at the same sight. Flicking back to the ethereal form, Darren found her smiling, her hands now held out as if waiting for others to grab hold.
Jake lifted his finger, placing it in her palm. Feeling foolish but drawn at the same time, Darren placed his index finger into her other hand.
Warmth permeated Darren’s glove and washed up his arm, mirroring a sip on the drink he held.
“See.” Jake motioned with his cocoa. “She likes you.”
“I think she likes this.”
The steam evaporated, taking the lady with it.
Jake peered into his drink. “What do you mean?”
“I think she likes us having cocoa together. Being friends.”
Darren sipped, the promised heat running down his throat, the marshmallows smearing across his teeth, encouraging cavities with their artificial sugars.
“Do you think she’d want us to do something together after the lights?”
Darren met Jake’s questioning eyes, ones as hopeful as a dog locked into a car.
“Sure. That’s what neighbors do and there’s all sorts of stuff we can work on.”
He started listing Margaret’s honey-do list. Jake perked at each, even the stuck windows in the attic and that pesky musk in the basement.
“Sounds like fun.”
“Yeah,” said Darren, surprised at the lightening weight of each chore. “They do now.”