PART 5, CHAPTER 7
The story so far: Oscar is the spirit of a boy trapped on the hill of Havenholm, where a supernatural river surrounds him and his ghostly friends Willa and Tough Tom. Beneath its waves swims a monster created by a wizard named Maurais. Maurais is seemingly immortal and sustains himself by stealing the souls of deceased children. Willa believes they will find the means to break Maurais’ dark spell in the ruins of her burnt-out home.
Willa forged ahead with ease through the woods but when she turned she discovered Oscar had fallen far behind. She made her way back to him. “What’s the matter?”
“Just a second,” said Oscar. “I just need to catch my breath.”
“That would make sense if you actually still breathed.”
He made a wan smile and bent over. They were going back to the spot where Oscar first encountered Willa, where his then-mortal hand passed through her spectral one, where he ran, and where his heart stopped.
“Look, it’s okay. I died there too.”
“That house is your house?”
“Yes. I lived there.”
“How can you go back?”
“I didn’t. I never went to my place. Then you came and changed everything. I was there because of you.”
“Don’t you see? You make everything different. He needed my soul and he didn’t get it. He needed yours and he didn’t get it. We got you instead. We needed help and now you’re here.”
Oscar said, “You must think I’m chicken.”
Only when Willa set a hand on his shoulder did Oscar realize he was on his knees, half slumped in the snow. He picked himself up.
“Don’t tell Tough Tom, but the place still gives me the heebie jeebies.”
“And, like, we’re the ghosts, right?”
“Oscar, you were meant to help us.”
“Dead or alive.”
“Tough Tom says it’s fate.”
As they set off again, Oscar intoned, “Luke, it is your destiny.”
“Empire Strikes Back.”
Oscar had watched Return of the Jedi that past summer and had filled Willa with the more-than-relevant details of 1980s childhood, with a particular emphasis on the great saga of his time.
“Right,” she said. “One of the Star movies.”
“The last I’ll ever see. When I think about it, I should be more afraid of you.”
“I said I was sorry.”
“I didn’t mean it.”
“Sorry, my ass. With friends like you, who needs soul-sucking river monsters?”
It may have been at this particular moment, as they finally found their way through the wild brush and stepped onto the meadow, as he teased her and she laughed, that Oscar noticed Willa’s smile was quite pretty. It faded, however, like the sun behind a cloud, when they reached where Willa’s house once stood. Oscar stood in the centre of the ruins and slowly turned around to survey what remained, all the while avoiding casting his eyes toward the spot where he met his demise. “So, where do we start?”
Willa pointed at the foundations of the north wall, the one facing uphill. “This is where the kitchen was.”
She glided to a spot near the middle. “My parents kept a book in a box in the cupboards. I want you to dig around and find it.”
“Geez,” said Oscar. He was not one for doing chores. If he were watching TV or working on a model boat or plane at his desk and his mother called his name, he wouldn’t hear it. Of course, if she switched to calling his dad’s, well then, in a majestic feat of selective hearing, Oscar would rush to get to her before his dad did. “What are you going to do?”
“I’m the lookout.”
“I thought you said you wanted to help.”
Oscar could not dig with his hands. The ground, under the snow and bits of ice, was compact and hard. He found he could clasp a piece of wood and scrape at the rubble and debris: layers of soil, rocks, old roof tiles, and scorched and rotted bits of rafter. Soon the wood became inadequate to the task, but Oscar came upon a chrome table leg. He used it as a pick and crowbar. The work would have been back-breaking for the living, but for Oscar the problem was his mind going numb with concentration.
“If only I could do what you can do,” said Willa.
Oscar grunted, “It would speed things up, that’s for sure.”
The chrome leg slipped through his hands. Oscar stepped over the foundations into what was once the backyard and sat down on crumbling concrete steps. “Do you think I could do what you can do? Fly and appear and disappear?”
Willa kept her eyes on the woods and treetops as she answered. “Tough Tom says you can. I’ve tried, but he says I haven’t tried hard enough. He says there are different kinds of ghosts because there are different kinds of souls. How you become a ghost makes you a certain kind of ghost.”
“I see.” And Oscar did. He imagined Willa’s house bursting into flames. The smoke kills her and then the flames take her, turning her into smoke. What did death do to her soul? If Willa had her chance to deal with Maurais, what would she do to him? He thought of Maurais’ soul. He thought of Maurais haunting them. Oscar shivered. “At the end of Empire Strikes Back, Luke starts to be like his father.”
“You mean the old guy?”
“No, Darth Vader. The bad guy. He becomes like the guy he’s trying to beat.”
“Is this the one with the teddy bears?”
“They’re Ewoks, and that was Return of the Jedi.” He wanted to explain that Luke saved his enemy’s soul instead of destroying it, which he thought was kind of neat, but he knew Willa wouldn’t like to hear about it. Oscar sighed and stood. He glared at the table leg and tried to focus.
“Don’t move,” said Willa. As she started to fade, she pointed down the hill to the incongruous scene of a car driving on the wavy surface of the river that trapped them on Havenholm. Of course, Oscar knew from the driver’s perspective, that of the living, that the band of water was simply a road of gravel and dirt. “Have you seen it before?”
“I…don’t think so. No.”
The car was long and low, matte black. Long fins topped with chrome extended along the trunk. Though it was midday, the taillights smoldered like embers. The engine rumbled and the pulse air and its sound throbbed up the hill and through the veil between life and death, sending tremors through both Oscar and Willa. The car rolled slowly, as if its occupants were sight-seeing or going on a Sunday drive. It went around the bend towards Maurais’ side of the hill and disappeared from sight.
“Did you see who was driving?”
Oscar said, “No.”
“I think we should go back to the tree.”
“Do you think it was him?”
“I don’t know. We should go back now.”
Oscar took his makeshift tool and, in the way only a thirteen-year-old would, speared it through a layer of rotting floorboards. It struck something metallic and hollow.
Willa reappeared next to Oscar. “Dig. But hurry.”
He jabbed and scraped away until he uncovered a rusted cash box. Clumps of clay and stones clung to it like barnacles. “I can’t open it.”
Willa wasn’t listening. Her eyes were fixed on a nearby, leafless tree. On its branch perched a black bird. At least, that’s what Oscar thought it was until he noticed it had neither beak nor eyes. Its legs were made of dried twigs. It appeared to be a clump of black feathers that someone had twisted, tangled, and knotted with twine into the shape of flying creature. But it was no bird. It hopped along the branch until it reached the trunk and began to knock itself against the tree. It made the tock-tock of a woodpecker. From deep in the woods sounded a reply. Then another, then another, until a chorus rose, a hundred crazed cuckoo clocks, ticking and tocking from the walls of a madman’s workshop. Willa looked up to see a flock of black feathers swarming towards them. She grabbed Oscar’s hand and ran.