Requiem For The Boogeyman
All summer the girl lived in the magnolia tree in her back yard. Her blonde hair stayed knotted up in the back, always unkempt as no one cared enough to comb it. She climbed up into the crook of the lower tree limbs that were thick enough to hold her, carving away the hours in the tree branches. She liked the way they wrapped around her like arms. Up in the magnolia, she clung close to the stars, rode out the thunder, stayed up where the pooling of raindrops could not wet her toes.
All summer, Jonathon, the man who lived across the street waited for her on the rusty swing set between the magnolia and her house. He knew that when the sun faded and the tiny lanterns of the lighting bugs jogged about, that she would scamper down and run toward the house. He knew she feared him. He didn’t want to use that to his advantage, but it just worked out that way.
That summer, the girl would turn ten. Although she had lost track of exactly what days were passing by, she figured it would be sometime soon. She sang to herself to pass the time and lately she had taken to singing the birthday song, just to feel something happy in the air around her. Happy birthday to Lila, happy birthday to me. She thought about birthday cakes and candles and wishes carried away with her breath. It might have been a better exercise were there something to wish that might come true.
Jonathon waited even when it rained—even when storm clouds clotted up the sky and the girl’s stubborn little beagle curled inside a hole or ducked under the steps of the front porch. Jonathon preferred the storms and the way the lightening illuminated the dog, the junk in the girl’s yard, and the inside of the tree. He knew it wasn’t safe for her to stay out in the storm, but he liked the way the flashes of electricity made everything visible for one sharp moment.
Because of that, she preferred the thunder. The thunder drowned out the creaking of the chains on the swing as he rocked—patient as the cows in the back field waiting to be fed. Most nights, though, the sky remained clear. The crickets and cicadas sounded off like a tiny winged symphony, back and forth, calling to each other. Fireflies rose above the grass like tiny fairies flitting to the music. She would have stayed in the branches all night were it not for the wee minutes when she felt the world beyond the waxy, green leaves disappear and she feared all but the monster and the magnolia had fallen away.
Sometimes Jonathon was not much fit for anything other than to grab her arm so hard it bruised, while with the other hand he touched her check and whispered to her. Other times, more agile, he let her think she could slip by him. Then he would spring up from the swing seat to chase after her, making the beagle growl and whine and had it not been kicked too many times for less, act like it wanted to bite him by the ankle and drag him away. On nights like that she would cry and hum to herself. He did not know how to be gentle, much as he wanted. It took all that was left of him not to scarf her up and eat her whole. Afterwards, once she was inside, he could hear that she was yelled at for waking the dead with all her crying and carrying on.
Sometimes she thought of making the tree a little home. She could bring some baskets from the house—wedge them in the crooks of the tree and make shelves. She could put some crackers, some juice and her toothbrush in them. She’d wish for a doll or something she could hold onto in the night. She could put on her raincoat and never come back down. She wondered what would happen to her when she got too big to sit in the magnolia. Maybe she could wait the monster out. Maybe he would die soon. She thought of all the ways that monsters were killed in the movies. Stake through the heart, silver bullets, magic spells. She didn’t have any of those things. She had fireflies and the birthday song and she didn’t see how either of those would help her.
Jonathon hated the fireflies. He hated the way they landed in the tree, twinkling like tiny white Christmas lights. It made the place that she hid look like something he could never possess. He wondered what it looked like from inside the branches. He hated most for the girl to cry. One day, when the whole world had been wet for a week, Jonathon did not wait on the swing. For a whole day he did not go. He wanted to see what she would do without him. Maybe she liked the tree. Maybe she did not stay there because of him.
She came down from the branches early that evening, fearing it all a trick. She sat on his seat on the swing set. She wondered if sitting there would make her evil. She waited and sang to herself. Happy birthday to Lila, happy birthday to me. The bug symphony grew louder, the fireflies filled up the yard so that she thought for a minute she was in a fairyland. It reminded her of the way the other girls at school talked about hair ribbons and cute boys and where they would have their birthday parties. She figured she’d have hers in the tree. No one would be there save for Jonathon. Maybe he was the only person who cared for her at all.
Jonathon didn’t go to the swing the next day, although he saw the girl sitting there again. He went to the tree. In his arms he carried a box wrapped in the comics from the Sunday paper. He had heard what the girl had been singing to herself and although it had been many years and devastations ago since that song had meant anything to him, he still remembered what magic and hope it held for little children like her. Yes, he knew she was just a child. He wasn’t delusional. He was a monster and he knew that too. He tucked the box into the branches of the tree and looked toward the girl, looking firm into her eyes one more time.
She went to the tree after he had gone and retrieved the box. She read one of the comic strips and then tore the paper away. The box inside read Sue Bee honey, but underneath the tape, wrapped in the sports section was a doll. Old, and already loved, albeit a long time ago, the doll was one like she would have wished for if she were in the habit of wishing.
Across the street, Jonathon settled into his recliner while the kitchen began to burn. He watched as much of the news as he could before it too caught fire. The forecast for the next day called for scattered showers and he hoped that the girl would remember her rain coat.
Under the tree Lila rocked the doll and shooed away the beagle that sniffed at the smell of mothballs and memories. The beagle’s ears perked up and the girl smelled the smoke on the wind. After some time, the whine of sirens joined the crickets and cicadas. Men shouted to each other and called directions. It sounded something like a song to her, filled with chaos and sadness and something being washed cleaned even though it was charred to the bone.
Amy Willoughby-Burle is the author of Out Across the Nowhere, a collection of short stories. Her fiction has appeared in numerous literary journals such as Potomac Review, Inkwell, Sycamore Review, Reed Magazine, The MacGuffin and many others. Amy was raised in the small coastal town of Kure Beach, North Carolina. She graduated with a BA in English (and an unfinished Masters in Creative Writing — “sorry Mom and Dad”) from East Carolina University. She spent several years in her husband’s home state of Missouri before getting homesick for North Carolina. She now lives in the mountains near Asheville with her very gracious husband and three children.