At first, Ariel thought it was her father who awakened her. She lay, eyes wide open, listening hard. Outside the window, the sounds were the ones she heard every clear night: trucks on the distant highway, the crickets in the grass that told her summer was hurrying to a close.
“It’s like they’re saying goodbye,” she remembered once telling her father as they sat together on their darkened patio.
This sound was inside the house. Not rhythmic, but insistent. Someone running. Voices, but not happy ones.
I won’t be afraid.
Her father had said he would be there, watching over her. She pushed back the light cotton blanket and slipped into the robe that smelled like flowers. The top of it clung to her body, while the skirt floated behind her, making her feel graceful. Graceful. Why hadn’t her mother said anything about how much better she was walking? First the cane had gone, and now she had almost no pain at all.
She stepped out into the hallway and looked up to where she thought the sounds had come from. Moonlight filtered through the clerestory windows around the base of the dome, tracing shadows everywhere. Maybe there were people from the party who had stayed behind, hiding upstairs. The idea filled her with a strange mixture of fear and delight just as Jefferson’s sudden appearance upstairs had. Could it be him?
The footsteps stopped.
“Jefferson?” Ariel whispered. Her voice was small, but sounded loud to her own ears in the vastness of the hall.
But what if I’m afraid?
Across the gallery, she saw the faint glow of a nightlight beneath her mother’s door, and she had an urge to run to her mother’s room and climb in bed with her, as she had when she was a very little girl. Back then, her father was always there, his comforting, solid presence balancing her mother’s warmth.
She had two choices: to run and hide in her mother’s room, or to go upstairs alone. She pushed the thought of the ballroom out of her head. These noises were different. Definitely not children.
Someone else was whispering. She strained to make out the words.
Moving quietly down the hall to the staircase to the third floor, she listened. Someone was moving around up above her. Jefferson hadn’t admitted to being in the ballroom, and now she regretted not making him confess. He’d asked for her phone number so that they could text one another. She’d thought at the time he was just being nice. But if he was here, in the night, that was a different matter.
Is he looking for me?
When she put a foot on the staircase, it creaked. She wished she’d brought the flashlight her mother had put in her room for emergencies, but knew if she went back for it, whatever was upstairs might be gone when she returned.
Glancing back out to the gallery, Ariel caught a flash. She hurried back to the railing.
The shimmer came from the third floor, and for a moment she thought it might be a flag of some sort, or a swath of fabric. It shone, but was almost transparent as it quickly took the form of a young woman.
She was older than Ariel, maybe about Jefferson’s age, and so thin that her mane of red hair overwhelmed her body. The loose, pale garment she wore looked familiar to Ariel, but she couldn’t see it quite clearly. That she was barefoot comforted Ariel somehow. It seemed so normal. Maybe it was someone from the party who had been too drunk to drive home.
The shimmer around the girl didn’t reach very far into the darkness, but Ariel could hear men’s voices coming from somewhere upstairs. She could tell by the attitude of the girl’s body that those voices were making her afraid.
If they’re real. If they’re not a dream.
The girl leaned back against the railing, a sleeve of her robe— yes, it’s a robe. . . . the robe—hanging over it like a curtain. Ariel could hardly process what she was seeing. It was happening fast, but she couldn’t look away. In a blink, the girl had climbed up to sit on top of the railing.
The house was so quiet that Ariel could hear the ticking of the clock down in the hall. Her heart pounded. She thought of those seconds just before her father died, the leaden hush that had surrounded them. Like the universe holding its breath.
Slowly, so slowly, the girl leaned back into the air.
The robe floated like a rain-laden cloud around the girl, and moonlight glanced off of it like tiny flashes of lightning. Her arms were a perfect V. Her mouth and eyes open wide. Knowing. Accepting. She might have been crying out, but the only sound Ariel could hear now was the blood pounding in her own ears. Before she could look away, she saw something else: someone, a man she thought, standing at the railing where the girl had gone over.
Ariel flung herself back against the wall so she wouldn’t have to see the girl hit the ground far below her.
When Ariel awoke on the floor, her head cradled in the crook of one arm, she had a single perfect moment of forgetfulness. But as soon as she felt the worn hardwood beneath her palms, she remembered what had happened. Hardly any time had passed at all. The moonlight was no longer so strong, but dawn was still a long way off. “Mommy,” she whispered. The glow of the nightlight from beneath her mother’s door hadn’t changed.
What will I say? Was I dreaming?
She willed herself to look.
Standing safely on the second floor gallery, she saw that there was definitely a woman or a girl lying on the big oriental rug below. She was barefoot, and had similar hair to the girl in the robe, but she wasn’t nearly as thin and was wearing a tight dress that was hiked to her hips. Even from where she stood, Ariel could tell she wasn’t wearing panties. One of her legs was twisted at a distressing angle, and Ariel winced, imagining the pain. But she knew the woman wasn’t feeling pain or anything else. She was too still for that. Her eyes were open.
This wasn’t the girl she’d seen fall from the third floor.
“Button.” Again, a whisper. One that she heard clearly.
Ariel looked across the hall to see her father standing just outside her mother’s bedroom door.
It can’t be you, Daddy.
He mouthed something to her that she couldn’t understand and put a shushing finger to his lips.
He had come back!
But Ariel’s flush of happiness at seeing him quickly retreated. Her father was dead, and death was all around her now. She turned and ran back into her room, slamming the heavy door. Crawling into bed, she gathered every sheet, every blanket within reach into a nest around her.
For a long time she lay there, shivering, her eyes squeezed shut. Finally, the nighttime sounds from outside her open window overcame her panic, and she buried her face in her pillow to cry until she slept.