Being burned alive is the worst way to die. Caroline had thought about it a lot and done a fair amount of research. Of course, there’s something singularly terrifying about suffocation and flesh-eating bacteria is no picnic. Burns are really the worst though. Last winter, she’d scalded her hand making Cup of Noodles and the pain was so bad she could barely think. She tried to imagine that pain spread over her entire body, every single nerve ending scorched and throbbing. Burn victims often remain conscious right up until moment they die of shock. She’d learned that by reading news articles about self-immolating Tibetans.
She once asked Angel, her nanny, if she would rather die in a fire or die by drowning. Angel said fire. She was terrified of water. She’d seen her cousin drown in a river when she was a girl. Caroline explained to Angel that she was wrong: drowning is much quicker and far less painful than being burned alive. Burn victims are often suffocated by smoke, which is like drowning, except they’re also on fire.
“Really, Caroline you think too much about these awful things,” Angel said.
Angel didn’t know anything about anything, but Caroline was still sad when she left. She said she’d made enough money and she had to go back to the Philippines to take care of her own children. Caroline’s parents told her she wouldn’t be getting another nanny. At ten, she was too old for one. “I’m your mother, I’ll take care of you,” Caroline’s mother said. Caroline knew her mother wouldn’t actually take care of her, not the way Angel did. Her mother spent most of her time in her room with the door closed. She didn’t meet Caroline at the bus stop or put notes on heart-shaped paper in her lunch box.
Caroline had many ways to keep herself busy. She researched symptoms of cancer, watched videos of car accidents captured by Russian dash cams, made Cup of Noodles, drew pictures of cats, did the parts of her homework that weren’t too boring, read the Stephen King books she’d stolen from her father’s study, and went for long walks in the woods. Her family lived in the woods. Their own property was five acres, but all the surrounding homes were also on big lots, and it seemed no one but Caroline ever went into the woods. She could walk there for hours and never see another person.
One Saturday, a few weeks after Angel left, Caroline woke up around 10:00 a.m. and ate her favorite breakfast: toast and maple syrup. Her father was somewhere in Europe on business. He wouldn’t be back for another few weeks at least. Her mother appeared around 11:30. She moved very slowly, as though the air around her was denser. “I know I said we’d go to the movies today,” she told Caroline, “but I’m not feeling very well. It’s just one of those days.” She made coffee for herself and then went back upstairs.
Around noon, Caroline pulled on her rubber boots and went outside. It was only early October but cold enough for Caroline to need her grey pea coat. The fiery trees stood in sharp relief against the low, grey sky. She walked across the lawn, headed into the woods, and decided that today she was going to walk further than she had ever walked before.
She passed all the usual landmarks. She stepped over the crumbling stonewall that marked the edge of her property, waded across the brook, walked across the fallen maple tree. She came to the second stream. She’d never crossed it. She’d tried once in the spring, but the water was too deep. It had spilled over the tops of her boots and she’d had to walk home with her feet soaked and sloshing. Now the water was lower and more rocks were exposed. She was able to get across by carefully stepping from one stone to another.
She’d always wondered what was across the stream, and she was a bit disappointed to find the woods were just the same. The same carpet of decaying leaves, same clumps of raspberry bushes, same smell of earth and rot. She walked until she saw something different, a glint beyond the trees, something mirrored or metallic. She headed towards it until she came to the end of the woods. Ahead of her there was a house. A new house, with stonewalls and crisp white trim. It was enormous, bigger than her own house. No one was living there. She could tell even though she was too far away to see inside. The lawn was ragged and overgrown and the pool was murky and covered with a mosaic of fallen leaves.
She walked up to back porch and peered through the panes of the French doors. She saw a grand empty room, polished floors, a wide stone fireplace. She tried the door handle and she was not surprised to find it opened for her. No one lived in the house so it was part of the woods, and that meant it belonged to her.
“This is my house,” she said. “This is my house and I make the rules here. I don’t live with my parents. They have their own house. Angel and I live here by ourselves.”
She went into the kitchen. She noticed the chrome trim on the refrigerator still had shrink wrap on it. The house was brand new, unlived in.
“I don’t cook,” she said. “I think it’s boring. Angel makes me pancakes on Saturdays, that’s the only reason I even have a kitchen.”
The entrance hall had a sweeping staircase. She ran up it so fast she almost tripped. At the top, she went through a doorway and found herself on balcony overlooking the living room. “I’m going to get married here,” she announced to the vacant room, “and this is where I’ll do the bouquet toss.”
She headed down the hallway. The bedrooms all looked the same with white white walls and no furniture, until she came to end of the hall and found a room with a wide bay window, a skylight, and best of all a window seat. Her parents had a window seat in their bedroom and she’d always wanted one. She imagined she’d lie there in the afternoons and write in her diary, if she had a diary, which she didn’t.
“This is my room,” she said. “I told Angel she could have it because it’s the biggest and she’s older than me, but she told me I should take it because she knows how much I like window seats.”
She walked over the window, stood on the seat, and pressed her face to the glass. She could only see trees outside. The wild lawn and then trees, all of them burning orange red. She couldn’t see any other houses. “There are no other houses,” she said. “It’s just this house and the woods go on forever.”
She jumped. Her throat closed. She turned around.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.”
A boy stood before her. He looked about ten, the same age as her. He had dark hair, milky skin, a sheen of freckles across his nose. He was wearing jeans and a red tee shirt; he had no coat despite the chill.
“Do you live here?” she asked, even though she knew he didn’t.
“Yes,” he said. “This is my house.”
“It’s not anybody’s house,” she said.
“We can share it.”
She supposed that would have to do. She got down from the window seat and walked towards him.
“What’s your name?” she asked him.
“That’s stupid,” Caroline said. “That’s not a name.”
“I picked it,” he said. “It’s my favorite color.
“You don’t get to pick your own name.”
“Of course you do,” he said. “This is our house, we make the rules.”
She couldn’t argue with that. “My name is Winter,” she said. “That’s my favorite time of the year.”
“That’s weird,” Red said.
“So what. You’re weird, too. Where do you actually live?”
“Here,” he said. “This is my house.”
Red and Caroline went from room to room making plans. There was a room with a ball pit, a room with an indoor swimming pool, a room for stuffed animals, a room for video games. When they ran out of rooms, they went outside and talked about the extra rooms they would build. They would make a bigger pool, one with a water slide, a garden with hanging vines, an entire additional house with its own sprawling rooms and verandas and window seats.
Caroline suggested they go back inside. The wind was picking up and the temperature was dropping as the afternoon wore on. “Aren’t you cold?” she asked Red.
He shrugged as though he didn’t quite understand the question.
They went into living room and sat across from each other on the floor. She noticed Red was very thin. Even though his hair was dark, almost black, his arms were covered with pale fuzz, baby hairs.
“Since we both live here, are we married?” Caroline asked. “Is that how we’re playing, like we’re married?” It had been years since she’d played make believe with a boy. If they were married, she wondered if she should ask Red to kiss her.
“Gross,” Red said. “We can’t get married. I’m your brother.”
“I don’t have a brother.”
“That’s not true,” Red replied.
Caroline pulled the edge of her sleeve over her thumb and started to suck on it. Last spring break they’d gone to Hawaii and Caroline had started to talking to a girl her age by the pool. The girl was the oldest of four. Did Caroline have any brothers or sisters, she wanted to know. As soon as Caroline said no, her mother’s hand was clenched tight around her wrist. “She has a little brother,” her mother said to the other girl as she pulled Caroline away. The girl stood absolutely still for a moment and then took off running back to her own mother. As Caroline’s mother led her back to their room she said in a high whisper, “What is wrong with you. What is wrong with you. How could you say that. You do have a brother.”
“I do have a brother,” Caroline told Red. “But you’re not him, because he’s dead.”
“Maybe I’m a ghost,” Red said.
“No, he died when he was being born. His cord strangled him, and that was only a year ago, so you’re too old to be him.”
“I get to pick how old I am, just like I get to pick my name. Those are the rules I made.”
Caroline supposed that might be true. She knew she should be afraid of Red but she wasn’t. She decided that meant he must be good, even if he was a ghost. It made sense. If her brother hadn’t died, he would have loved her, probably.
“I have to go home before it gets dark,” she said. “Can we play together again?”
“Yes,” he said. “I’ll be here when you come back.”
Her mother ordered Chinese food for dinner. “I know I said I’d make you something,” she said, “but the day just got away from me.”
“It’s okay,” Caroline said. Her mother had at least remembered to get mu shu pork, which was her favorite.
They sat together at the dining room table, which was much too big for just two people. Her mother only put rice on her plate and took small, infrequent bites, as if she was forcing herself to swallow a bitter medicine.
“I found an empty house in the woods today,” Caroline said. At one time, she never would have admitted such a thing to her mother. Caroline technically wasn’t supposed to go beyond the old stonewall that marked the limit of her family’s property, and at one time her mother would have had a near meltdown if she found out Caroline was venturing any further. Now she was sure her mother would barely care.
“An empty house?” her mother said. “Hm.”
“It’s brand new,” Caroline said. “No one has ever lived there.”
“Oh,” her mother said. “It’s probably that spec house over on Meadowlark Crescent. I saw an ad for it in the paper. What a monstrosity.”
“What’s a spec house?”
“That means a developer built it just to sell it and make money, but no one wants it right now because the economy’s bad.”
“The doors were open,” Caroline said. “I went inside.”
“You shouldn’t do that,” her mother said, although she didn’t sound particularly concerned. She always spoke very slowly now, as if she needed to think about every single word. “You might get in trouble if someone finds you.”
“They shouldn’t leave it open if they don’t want people to go inside.”
“Well, I suppose that’s true.” Her mother picked up the two white pills she’d placed next to her plate before dinner and swallowed them both at once with a long, deep gulp of water.
Caroline waited a week before going back to the house. She was afraid to go back, not because she was afraid she would see Red, but because she was afraid she wouldn’t see him. As long as she stayed away, she could imagine returning to the house and finding him there, sitting on the window seat, waiting for her.
When Saturday came again, she decided she couldn’t put it off any longer. She left early, before her mother was awake. It was blindingly sunny, shards of light pierced even the densest parts of the woods. The golden leaves were embers, blazing from within. When she got to the house she went right up to master bedroom. It was empty. She searched every alcove and closet, the bathrooms, the other bedrooms. She went down to the kitchen and started opening the cupboard doors.
She turned around. There he was in the same red tee shirt.
“I thought you weren’t here,” she said.
“I told you I’m always here.”
“Do you want to play assassin?” Caroline asked. “It’s like hide and seek but when you find the other person you kill them. You get to decide how you kill them.”
Caroline was It first and she found Red hiding under a shelf in tool shed near the pool. She killed him by filling the shed with carbon monoxide. “I’m doing you a favor,” she explained to him. “Carbon monoxide poisoning is the most painless way to die. It’s just like falling asleep.” Next Red was It and he found Caroline curled on the floor of the linen closet in the upstairs hallway. He chose to decapitate her with a samurai sword. “The blade is very sharp,” he said. “I don’t think it will hurt.”
“I heard you stay awake for like ten seconds after you get your head chopped off,” Caroline said.
Red considered this for a moment.
“We’ll do a test then, after I cut your head off, blink three times if you’re still awake.”
After the Samurai sword severed Caroline’s jugular vein and trachea and spinal column she lay on the hallway floor with her tongue hanging from the side of her mouth and blinked. One. Two. Three.
Caroline didn’t have a watch, but from the waning sunlight she guessed it was late afternoon. She was sitting next to Red on the window seat. “I should go soon,” she said to Red. “My mother will be worried.”
“Our mother,” Red said. “What’s she like?”
“I don’t know, fine. She sleeps a lot.”
“What color hair does she have?”
“Brown, like the same as your color.”
“What does she smell like?”
“Pillow cases right after you wash them.”
“I like that smell.”
“Why do you want to know all this stuff?” Caroline pulled her feet onto the seat and rested her knees on her chin. She looked out the window so she didn’t have to look at Red. Her stomach felt heavy. She didn’t want to lie to him. It seemed to her he was entitled to the truth since he had the misfortune of being dead, but she didn’t want to disappoint him.
Red didn’t answer.
“Maybe you should come back with me,” Caroline said.
“No, I can’t do that,” he said.
“She loves you more. She wishes she was dead now. That’s why she’s always asleep.”
Red looked right at Caroline. It seemed like he was studying her, like he couldn’t quite figure out what to make of her. “Being dead is a lot different from being asleep,” he said finally.
“Can I kiss you?” Caroline asked. “Just on the cheek.”
“Okay,” he said.
Caroline kissed him, just on the cheek. She was afraid he would be cold but his cheek felt like anyone else’s cheek and that made her happy.
When she got home, her mother was lying on the couch with a washcloth over her eyes.
“Were you out playing in that house again?” her mother asked. She didn’t sit up or even move the washcloth.
“Yes,” Caroline said. “You know, there’s a boy out there.”
“A boy? Does he live nearby?”
“How old is he?”
“The same age as me.”
“What’s his name?”
“Hm,” her mother said. “What a funny name.”
“I like it,” Caroline said.
Caroline’s mother took the washcloth from her eyes and blinked a few times. She looked at Caroline.
“Oh, your cheeks are all red,” her mother said. “It must be cold out there.” She rested her hand on the side of Caroline’s face for a moment. Her palm was cool and a little damp.
“Pretty cold,” Caroline said.
“You shouldn’t stay out so long,” her mother said. “You might get sick.”
“Being cold doesn’t make you sick,” Caroline said. “That’s an old wives’ tale. I read an article about it.”
“Well, okay then,” her mother said. “As long as you’ve done your research.”
“Are we having Chinese for dinner?” Caroline asked.
“Oh, I’m not hungry,” her mother said. “There’s a pizza in the freezer. It’s the brand you like, the one with extra olives.”
Caroline twisted her foot in the carpet. She wondered what her mother would do if she knew she’d found her brother in the woods.
“You know Red, he told me something funny,” Caroline said.
“Oh yes, what’s that?”
“He said…” Her mother wasn’t even looking at her; her eyes were on the ceiling. She was fingering the washcloth in her hand like she was anxious to put it back over her eyes. It wouldn’t work. Her mother would never believe her.
“Never mind. It’s stupid.” She walked out of the room and went up the stairs to her bedroom before her mother could say anything else.
She couldn’t sleep that night. She was thinking about Red. He said he couldn’t come live with her and her mother. She wondered if she could go and live with him. She thought about the house at night. All the rooms turned deep blue in the moonlight. She would be cold. Red was never cold. Maybe he could change her so she was like him. She wondered why he never asked her to stay. What did he do when she wasn’t there? Didn’t he get lonely? Did he go somewhere else? She wondered why he never told her anything.
The next day, she returned to the house. She knew better than to try to look for Red. She went up to the window seat, looked out at the trees, and waited for Red to find her.
“Winter,” he said.
She turned around. “That’s not my real name.”
“Do you want to play assassin again?”
“What’s your real name?” she asked.
“That’s not my brother’s name. He had a name, it wasn’t Red.”
“What was it?”
“You’re so stupid!” Caroline stood up so she was facing Red. “If you really were my brother then you would know. Who are you?”
“I don’t know my other name,” he said. His voice wavered a little. Caroline’s stomach turned over. Maybe it was true he didn’t know. He died before he was born. He’d never heard his own name.
“Are you always going to be here?” Caroline asked.
“As long as you come, I will be.”
“What if the house gets sold? What if it burns down?”
“That won’t happen. It’s our house.”
Caroline sat back down on the window seat. Red stayed standing. He watched her with his dark eyes.
“I never saw you,” Caroline told him. “They took you away and cremated you. Do you know what that means? They set you on fire.”
“Were you really dead?” Caroline asked. “Sometimes I think maybe you were still alive and they made a mistake. I used to put my hand on mom’s stomach and feel you move.”
Red didn’t say anything. He walked over to Caroline and kissed her on the cheek. His lips were soft and warm.
They played so long that day it was almost dark by the time Caroline got home. She thought her mother might be angry, but when she got back her mother was in her room with the door closed. She didn’t come downstairs until almost 9:00. By then Caroline had made herself Cup of Noodles for dinner.
Her mother was wearing a bathrobe, and she shuffled into the kitchen where Caroline was watching TV. She sat down very slowly, as if she found it painful to move.
“I didn’t mean to sleep for so long,” her mother said.
Caroline’s mother sank into her chair, and rested her chin on her hand. It looked like she might fall asleep again. She’d slept all day. How could she still be tried? Her mother probably wouldn’t even care about Red, she realized. Even if her mother did believe her, she would probably just shrug her shoulders and go back upstairs to bed.
“I saw Red again today,” Caroline said.
“His name isn’t really Red, though,” Caroline said. “His real name is Patrick.”
“Oh,” her mother said. “Well, that’s funny.”
“It’s not funny. He is Patrick. That’s what he told me.”
Her mother stood up very quickly, grabbed Caroline’s arm, and pulled her up so she was standing too.
“Why would you say that?” her mother asked.
“It’s true. He’s Patrick. He lives in the woods and only I can see him.”
Her mother slapped her, hard. Pain blazed across her cheek.
“Don’t lie to me,” her mother said.
Caroline put her hand on her cheek and looked up at her mother. She had thought her mother was beautiful once, but now her skin was sagging and grey. Her hair was frizzed and broken, roots growing out. Her bathrobe probably hadn’t been washed in weeks. Caroline could see stains on it.
Caroline didn’t say anything. She just started to run. She ran out the kitchen door and across the black lawn, beyond the reach of the house’s lights. The grass was growing hard with frost and she didn’t have a coat, but she didn’t feel cold at all. She ran into the woods, tripped over a root, and fell to her knees. She got back up and kept running. Her eyes started to adjust and the woods didn’t seem dark at all. She knew the path well and she could see her way by moonlight. She slowed to a walk and she realized how quiet it was. This is how it will be from now on she told herself. Just Red and her and no other people.
Then she heard the crash of snapping twigs. “Caroline!” Her mother.
Caroline stopped. Her mother was still far enough away that Caroline could outrun her. She didn’t know the way, and she would get lost soon enough.
Caroline turned to go, but she couldn’t make herself move. She hadn’t thought her mother would follow her. She had expected her mother to sink back into her chair and stay there for the rest of the night. Caroline started walking towards the sound of her mother’s voice.
Her mother was still at the edge of the woods. She was trying to make her way through the brush but her robe was catching on raspberry thorns and her feet were clumsy and useless on the uneven ground.
“Go home,” Caroline told her. “I’m not coming back.”
“I don’t want you to come back,” her mother said. “I want to go with you.”
“That won’t work,” Caroline said. She wished it would. She imagined starting over in the other house. The three of them together with all the empty rooms to make their own.
“Please,” her mother said.
Caroline thought of her mother in the dark house, opening all the cupboards and the closets. Searching the bathrooms, the basement, every hidden space.
“He’s not out there,” Caroline said. “I was just pretending.”
Caroline was afraid her mother would hit her again, but she didn’t do anything. She just breathed in and out very deeply, as if there wasn’t enough oxygen in the air.
Front page image by Janne Poikolainen.