Moonville, Ohio 1982
“Come on outside, little Lucy. Come play with me in the moonlight.”
I’d hear her whispering from the shadow of our dogwood trees and I would go. Every time I would go. Even though it was forbidden…and so insanely dangerous. Still, I’d sneak out of the house in the dark of night to skip through the woods with my ghostly friend, her laughter stirring the leaves around us.
We’d splash in the lazy current of Raccoon Creek by the light of the moon, no adults in sight. Sometimes, we’d even tiptoe across the black asphalt of the state highway to play hide and seek among the crumbling brick furnaces. Even after Grandmother caught me with my feet in the kitchen sink washing away the tell-tale grass stains and Grandpa Max padlocked the cellar door, I still found new ways to escape the house and join Annabelle in the moonlight.
Her first visit came on a heavy, heat-soaked night in the summer of 1982. I remember that first night vividly, though our later adventures get twisted and tangled up in my mind. My grandfather had taken me to the Moonville Drive-In to see E.T. for the fourth or fifth time and my brain wouldn’t stop boiling with visions of friendly aliens and flying bicycles. After the echoes of Night Owl Theater ended and my grandparents shut their bedroom door, I crept out of bed to search the night sky for signs of spaceships from other worlds.
“Hey, little Lucy! Why don’t you come outside and play?”
That first time, she scared me so badly that I dropped down to the floor and hid beneath the window sill. My lungs wouldn’t fill with air and my ears were pulsing with the sound of my own heartbeat.
“You hiding?” she asked. Then her bubbling laughter filled the empty space around me.
Even though it was not the laughter of a living child, the sound was pure fun. Somehow her laughter made it possible to fill my lungs with breath. With crossed fingers, I stood up and walked to the window sill. At every step, I expected some new fright, but nothing happened.
Climbing up on the window seat, I pressed my head against the aluminum screen and looked down on our back lawn. There she was, right below my window, a shade among shadows. In later years, she wouldn’t come that close, but that first night she waited for me just outside the yellow puddle of light leaking from our kitchen window.
“ There you are!” She started spinning in slow circles with her arms stretched out wide. “Now come on and play. I’ve got something to show you.”
I’d seen her many times before that night, but I didn’t know her name. Her blue-gray dress and beribboned braids were familiar to me, though I’d only seen them briefly when she skipped past me on the walking paths that wove through our woods or when she balanced precariously on the railroad trestle over Raccoon Creek.
“Can you hear me?” I whispered to her.
She stopped circling long enough to plant both hands on her hips. “I hear lots of things,” she answered, tilting her chin to look up at me.
“I can’t come out and play with you,” I explained, the regret in my voice very real.
“Oh, yes, you can,” she answered, pointing to the cellar door that led to our basement, “if you really want to.” Having issued her dare, she stretched out her arms again and started circling the other way.
For a few moments, I was frozen in place as the idea she’d planted in my brain grew and blossomed into something wild and wonderful and totally forbidden.
“Come on then,” she chimed, still circling. “Come out or I’ll go away and find some other friend to play.”
There might be worse threats to unleash on a six-year-old orphan, but the thought of being left behind that night seemed like the worst possible thing she could do to me.
“All right,” I whispered urgently. “I’ll try.”
As I carefully inched open my bedroom door, she continued singing her challenge out on the lawn.
“Try, try, try to come out and play. Try really hard or I’ll go away, away, away.”
Once I had eased my bedroom door open wide enough to slip through, I tip-toed the ten or twelve feet to the back kitchen stairs. My eyes remained glued to my grandparents’ bedroom door, looming ominously at the opposite end of the second floor hallway, as I squatted on the top step. Slowly and carefully, balancing my heels and palms on the edges of the steps, I lowered myself step by step down toward the kitchen. The ordinary groan of the fourth step seemed so loud that I pressed my right palm to my lips and waited for the sound of footsteps rushing down the hall. When none came, I continued scooting down with a little more confidence.
Once in the kitchen, my buoyancy grew even more and I didn’t bother to tip-toe across the black & white checkerboard floor to the basement door tucked beside the massive humming Frigidaire. Stretching up, I slid the brass antique bolt with the tips of my fingers and the door obliged by swinging inward smoothly, without a sound. From there it was ridiculously easy to creep down a second set of stairs, through the swinging door that separated the laundry room from the rest of the basement, then up the bare wooden steps to press both hands upward against the cellar door.
It took every scrap of my strength to lift that door high over my head, step into the grass, then twist around to lower it back into place. And I was more than a little peeved that the other girl, now standing in the shadow of our cherry tree, only watched me struggle with it. But once the door was closed and I had scanned the windows above to be sure I had really escaped, the exhilaration was indescribable.
A prisoner walking away from Alcatraz could not have felt giddier. First I threw my arms out and tried a few spinning circles in a revved up imitation of the other girl. When I got dizzy, I kept my arms wide and ran in crazy loops through the yard. My new playmate’s intoxicating laughter rang out loud and clear, but I still didn’t dare to make any noise of my own. I knew all too well how easily my Grandmother could hear me from the house. So, instead of noise, I threw myself into leaping arabesque movements in my best imitation of an Olympic gymnast.
The other girl clapped then pointed to a spot between two sugar maple trees at the edge of my grandmother’s garden before running ahead of me to lead the way. Without a second of hesitation, drunk on all this unfamiliar freedom, I followed her right into those woods.
Although the trees closed in around us, the full moon light was so powerful that it found its way through the leafy canopy overhead to illuminate everything in a greenish silver glow. The shelter of the woods gave me enough security to talk.
“So where are we going?” I asked.
The girl, ahead of me on the path, twisted around and pressed a finger to her lips.
“Is someone here?” I whispered, swiveling my head around to look at the darkened woods.
All I could see were the silver outlines of the surrounding trees. The woods were alive with a cacophony of sounds – crickets, cicadas, frogs and so many other creatures I couldn’t name – though none of it sounded human.
The girl just tapped her finger to her lips repeatedly until I nodded my head. Then we moved on. We walked in silence, single file, along the smooth dirt path. Although the trail was well-worn, my feet were bare so I kept my eyes focused on where I was stepping.
It seemed we walked on and on that first night, going deeper and deeper into the woods. In reality it wasn’t so terribly far. As the trees grew thicker, the trail became a bit rougher with weeds and I really needed to concentrate on my feet. So I was startled when the girl in front of me stopped suddenly.
When I looked up, I discovered we had reached the summit of a small hill. From here, the path descended at a gentle decline before opening into a wide, grassy clearing next to Raccoon Creek. What I saw in the clearing, made me gasp in delight.
Here the moonlight glistened wildly on the water, creating a river of tiny stars. While the surrounding trees remained outlines etched in silver, the open grass took on a deep green hue that glowed. And everywhere I looked, the air was alive with fireflies.
The other girl skipped in circles, gently stirring the fireflies along her path. Me, I couldn’t figure out where to look or what to do. Stepping forward like a sleepwalker, I let my feet carry me to our ordinary muddy creek, magically transformed into a dazzling spectacle. That water was singing a song to me, reaching out to touch me. I think I said something like, “I wanna swim,” as I peeled my sweaty cotton nightgown over my head and dropped it on the grass.
That’s when I heard a shrill, hard, tearing laughter coming from the woods. The sound broke the magic spell the fireflies, the water and the moon had worked so hard to cast. My playmate glared into the woods with her hands on her hips.
“Her again,” she growled, then looked over at me. “ Hide.”
She didn’t have to tell me twice. I grabbed my nightgown and pressed it to my body as I ran for the shadows outside the clearing. Once there, I picked my way through the darkness to the blackest shadow I could find and crouched down in a small hollow. The summer grasses tickled my bare tummy, calves and arms.
Seconds later, a flashlight beam sliced through the forest, illuminating the same path we’d just taken.
“Oh, would you look at this!” demanded a female voice.
It was a voice I recognized as Tonya Michaelson, my seventeen-year-old babysitter who lived two doors down from us on Poplar Hill Drive.
“Why don’t you turn off the flashlight and sit here with me to enjoy it a little more,” another voice answered.
This one was male. Though it was much quieter and softer, I recognized its owner as well. Mr. O’Grady and his wife always invited me to their daughter’s birthday parties; even though Jenny O’Grady was three years older and never invited me over to play on normal days.
More of that terrible laughter came from Tonya. Before that night, I never realized she had such an obnoxious laugh. The flashlight went off and the night was again filled with the sounds of the forest. Crawling forward in my little hiding hollow, I searched the clearing. I couldn’t spot them at first because they were pressed up against a tree, or rather; Mr. O’Grady had his back pressed to the tree while Tonya was pressed up to him. Her feet were planted between his feet and his hands were in the back pockets of her shorts.
There was no question they were kissing, but I’d never seen kissing that looked like this. Tonya was acting like she was going to swallow up his whole face and keep going. I’d certainly never seen Mrs. O’Grady do that to him. Something deep inside my belly cramped up as I watched them from behind the grasses in my little hollow. When Mr. O’Grady placed his hands on either side of Tonya’s face to pull her back a little, I thought they might be finished with their kissing.
“Let’s sit down closer to the water,” he said, nearly breathless.
When he pulled her out into the moonlight, they both just tumbled down in the grass and started kissing all over again. This time he kept one hand on her face so it wasn’t so frantic and weird, but I was still dizzy with shock.
My new playmate emerged from the shadows beyond them with a rock about the size of my grandpa’s fist held high above her head. She walked right up to the kissing couple and dropped it over Tonya, who jerked violently and sat up holding the shoulder where the rock had hit.
“What the hell?” she screamed.
Mr. O’Grady just picked up the rock and looked at it hard, like he was a gypsy studying a crystal ball.
“What… how…where…?” Tonya stammered, looking around wildly, her eyes never pausing on the girl standing less than two feet in front of her.
The girl smiled over in my direction then flung a handful of dirt at the couple with her other hand. Tonya scrambled to stand up, clutching her stomach, as her companion simply stared down at the soil scattered over his white t-shirt.
“Oh God, oh no, oh God,” Tonya chanted.
The child ran around them in a circle, slapping at the tall grasses and the low-hanging branches. Then she started laughing. Only this was a different laugh than the one I’d heard from her back at my house. This laugh rippled through all the hairs on my body, and brought up goose bumps on my skin despite the summer heat.
Tonya and Mr. O’Grady didn’t exactly run away from the clearing, but they didn’t walk slowly either.
After the beam of their flashlight disappeared back down the trail, the girl appeared in front of me.
“This is my place,” she whispered. “I’ll keep you safe here.”
And she always did. She couldn’t do anything to get me safely out of the house or back into it undetected, but once I entered her woods, we were always safe. And free.
Over the years, she came back many times. Always on full moon nights. Usually in the heat of summer when the fireflies were out.
Whenever I asked her name, she would sing, “A name is a name by any other name the game is the same. Ask me again and I’ll tell you the same.”
Whenever we would part, she would walk away from me down the weed choked trail behind our garden shed without turning once to look back.
A few years later, when I was old enough explore that weedy path, I found an embankment thick with blackberries and elderberries. Right in the center of the bramble a mossy headstone peeked out with a single word carved in the stone – Annabelle. Only the name, no dates.
Annabelle was my nighttime playmate, I had no doubt. I just knew. What I did puzzle over was the obvious signs of care. Whenever I visited her grave, there were always freshly cut places where the thorny vines had been cleared to keep the stone visible. On some visits I would even find a simple bouquet of Queen Anne’s Lace, Tiger Lilies and Black-Eyed Susan tied with a blue-gray ribbon to match her dress. It was a mystery I was hoping Annabelle would clear up for me.
I was wrong.
It was a mistake to ask her about the gravestone. There’s always some elusive, ever changing etiquette required when speaking to the dead about…well, about anything, but most especially about their death. There was no one to explain that etiquette to me. I had to learn from experience. With Annabelle, my ignorance ended our friendship.
The first night I called her by name and asked her about the lonely grave was the last night she came to play.
I watched and waited and hoped and apologized to the empty nights, but Annabelle never came back to sing or laugh or play with me. Never again.
In later years, I would occasionally catch a flashing glimpse of her in the woods or near the train tracks. Every time I caught sight of her I would call out her name. Every time, my voice would be ignored. Every time it cut, like reaching out for something soft and grabbing a fist full of broken glass.