When Oscar was little, the idea of death scared him. He thought about it as a form of terrible sleep, a sinking feeling into blackness. In bed he could imagine his ribs, lungs, heart, and then the rest of his body, dropping through the mattress, now body bending at the waist, arrowing downwards in an inexorable plunge. He had never thought of where the vortex would take him, or if it was supposed to end. Death was a dreaded feeling, not a place.
On a few dark nights he would wonder about hell, but he reasoned if there was a hell, then there was a heaven. And it seemed a bit selfish to worry about whether you personally ended up in one place or another. Knowing there was a paradise was consolation enough, wasn’t it? But the groping blackness? That made him pester his parents before bedtime.
“So, Grandma and Grandpa are asleep?”
“But they won’t wake up?”
“And where did they go?”
“Some people say nowhere.”
Havenholm was, apparently, Nowhere. It made Oscar laugh out loud. His voice carried over the water and echoed against the shore on the other side of the river and the hard slate autumn sky. Across the water, he could see his house. Though it was early morning, he saw a dim orange glow through a small window. He believed it was the small reading nook of the first landing that his mother had claimed as her own when they first moved in. The lights went out late and came on early. His mother must have been writing, but she also was not sleeping much. Nearly everyday since—let’s face it—Oscar died, he watched his mother and father leave the house and not return until evening. Oscar’s father must have been teaching since the semester had started, but where was his mother going?
Eight weeks before, his family had pulled up to the house in a truck and began to unpack. He had hardly settled in when he saw the girl with the red hair and yellow dress lurking in the tall grass on the hill that rose on the other side of the street. At her beckoning, he crept out into the moonlight. He crossed the ring road and climbed the sloping meadow. He reached out to her and his hands passed through her. He ran. He fell. She woke him up and asked to play with him and, as if in a trance, he did. He spent the summer morning and afternoon climbing trees with the perfect stranger. Oscar had begun to believe had made a new friend and that relocating to Havenholm would not be so horrible, except as the day waned he discovered he was no longer among the living, and this particular day of fun was his initiation into the afterlife.
Oscar recalled how his mother found his body in the tall grass near the foundations of the burnt-out cottage. She screamed and bolted back to their home. Oscar ran after her, wanting to comfort her and be comforted by her. But as he approached the road, it shimmered and transformed into a river, separating him and the hill from his parents and house on the other side.
Oscar attempted to wade across, but the girl, Willa, tackled him. They were the same age—or at least they were when they met their ends—but she was bigger and stronger. She clawed at his legs. He tried to kick her. He caught her in the jaw and the sick sound broke through the blur of frantic struggle and he stopped.
Until that moment, he had felt bafflement, fear, panic, but only when he struck her did he want to cry. It was the feeling of shame. Not since he was toddler had he struck anyone.
“I just… just want to go home.”
“Don’t. You can’t.”
Willa lifted herself up from the muddy bank with one hand and pointed with the other to something moving between the waves. A long, slick, scaly back undulated at the surface. A giant yellow eye popped up and stared with hunger at the two children. Willa scrambled up the bank. She turned to make sure that Oscar followed. He did not. Mouth agape, he stood stunned. A great tentacle lashed out of the river and wrapped around Oscar’s leg. Oscar snapped back to his senses. He tried to grab at grass stalks and crumbling earth. Willa flung herself at him, to anchor and tug him to safety. The creature was too strong. Willa gnashed her teeth and braced her legs.
“No, not again,” she yelled. “Tough Tom. Tough Tom. Tough Tom.”
It sounded more like an incantation than a plea for help. Either way, it was answered. Heavy footfalls thudded down the hill—seemed to. Branches snapped. Tough Tom trampled toward them. Oscar, despite being an increasingly stretched rope in a tug of war between Willa and the monster, was amazed by what came. It was a younger boy. Eight years old, perhaps. He was stocky and thick-limbed, like a small weightlifter in britches, suspenders, and a woolen cap—like the one Oliver Twist wore in the movies. Without hesitation, the boy grabbed Oscar and Willa by their wrists, tore them from the tentacle, and flung the pair up the bank. Oscar’s face was in the dirt and his blood (he knew it was the blood of the dead) pounded in his head, but he could hear the stream of inventive but antiquated curses emitting from the small boy’s mouth. Schoolyard swears Oscar had at times used himself, but never with such intricacy or length, gilded with old-fashioned gems like “cussed,” “golderned,” and “tarnation”. As Oscar, raised his eyes to take in the sight, Tough Tom—Oscar could only presume it was him that Willa called—picked a stone as large as his head and threw it easily, as if it were a tennis ball. The creature in the water dodged the missile without much much concern, gave Oscar one last ravenous look with its giant unblinking eye, and dove down into the deep.
Dazed, barely standing, and unable to speak, Oscar let his rescuers guide him up the hill and along the deer trail. Willa and Tough Tom muttered to each other. She pointed at her chin where Oscar’s sneakers met her face. The smaller boy tsked the way a parent would. They arrived at the great tree. Oscar prepared himself to ascend the soaring oak, but instead of climbing, they circled around it. Among its thick roots, Oscar found another burned-out ruin. There was a dip in the ground, and he thought they were leading him to a cave or a dugout but there was a door. Inside, he found a dim room with shelves that covered the walls. They were laden with books. On the floor in a corner, building a fort out of old tomes, were a twin boy and girl. They were about three. They darted into their refuge and Oscar could only see their eyes through a slit window they had made.
“Where are we?” he asked.
“This is home,” said Willa.
“No. Is this heaven or hell?”
“Well, gee, neither. It’s Havenholm.”
“But it’s not. There used to be a road, not a river. And this tree, there was no tree like this before.”
Tough Tom interrupted with a cough. He cleared his throat and said, “If one reads Dante’s Divina Commedia—in English that’s Divine Comedy—one will find in the second cantica the Mount of Purgatory. Naturally, the reader may note Havenholm’s similarity to Purgatorio, but in fact, this hill or island, as it is indeed surrounded by water, is a nexus between the natural and spiritual worlds presently manipulated by mystical energies.”
The stout boy crossed his arms in satisfaction.
Oscar turned to Willa. “This must be hell.”
“Sorry. Tough Tom has read a lot, and likes to show it.”
Tough Tom sniffed, “Would it be better if we mooned over Howdy Doody and Leave It To Beaver?”
“Quiet, Tom. Oscar, I died a long time ago. I used to live in a house like yours on the hill. My mum and my dad worked at Havenholm. It was a school for deaf and blind kids but there were other kids too, kids who didn’t have parents. There was a big fire.”
Oscar saw Willa’s lips begin to tremble. Tough Tom put a paternal hand on her shoulder. She continued, “My mum and dad saw a bright light on the hill. They called for me to come. I ran to them. There were other kids, some of them students, others like me, and they went to the light. But they had to cross the water. Back then I didn’t know where it came from. And the monster you saw caught them and swallowed them. Just the kids.”
She shook her head. “I would have been taken too, but something stopped me.”
“What?” asked Oscar.
“I dunno,” whispered Willa.
“Anger,” said Tough Tom. “Vengeance.”
Willa looked away. Oscar toed at the floor and shoved his hands deep into the pockets of his housecoat. He nodded toward the twins in the fort.
“What happened to them?”
“They were the only two I could save. Until you.”
Oscar thanked Willa at the time. Since then, however, he kept returning to the river and struggled with the urge to dive in. The light went out in his mother’s study window. He saw his mother and dad step off the porch and into the family car. The car seemed to roll upon the surface of the river and then turned left, heading to town.
He wished he could be with them. But if he crossed, where would he end up? Surely, not among the living. In the weeks following his fatal collapse, Oscar’s curiosity led him to read the book Tough Tom had mentioned. It was a really long poem and some of it he didn’t understand. Three lines, though, stayed with him: Tell us how is it that thou makest thyself/A wall unto the sun, as if thou hadst not/Entered as yet into the net of death.
Oscar had one answer, “I’m a ghost.”
Oscar scanned the river, picked up a rock, and flung it as hard as he could. It fell short.