Heather’s grandmother lived in a ramshackle farmhouse, with peeling paint and a crack in the front window. The first moment the building came into view, Heather thought, My grandma’s house is haunted.
Speckles was sitting beside her. She gathered him into her lap, digging her fingers into his soft fur. He licked her cheek.
Heather’s dad switched off the car’s engine. The roar died, but it kept making a quiet ticking sound. “Well, let’s go everyone.” He didn’t sound excited.
“Do we really have to go in there? Speckles doesn’t want to.”
“Your grandmother wants to meet you.”
“But I don’t even know what to call her.”
“Just go with ‘Grandma.’” Dad’s voice was tense. Mumbly. “You think I want to call her ‘Mom’?”
Heather couldn’t take her eyes off the slats of wood on the sides of the building. She imagined bugs crawling between the gaps. Fingers with claws, reaching out. Her bladder felt too full. She held her legs together.
Her mother turned around, giving her a stern look from the front seat. “We talked about this. Daddy needs you on your best behavior today. This is hard for all of us.”
“But you said Grandma barely knows what’s going on. So she won’t notice if I’m not there.”
The harshness of her dad’s tone made her jump.
“No more discussion. We’re going.” He got out, muttered a bad word under his breath.
Mom’s expression was sympathetic. “See?” she whispered. “Daddy needs us to be positive. I know you can do it. Speckles can, too. Right? Look, he’s smiling.”
Speckles was always smiling. But Heather did need to pee. They’d been driving for three hours since the last gas station stop.
“Okay. I’m coming.”
They got out, her dog trotting along beside her. Heather wrapped his leash tightly around her hand. Her palm sweated against the slick green fabric.
Her eyes moved up to study the windows as they approached. Curtains showed through the glass. Were they moving? Was somebody up there, watching?
At the front porch, her dad stood in front of the door. He hadn’t knocked yet. “Tie Speckles to the railing. He can’t come inside.”
Heather started to whine, but another stern look from her mom quieted her. She looped the leash around and around the wooden porch railing.
A lady in nurse clothes answered the door. “Mr. Davenport, Mrs. Davenport. Please, come in.” She smiled down at Heather.
The inside of the house was dim. It smelled like medicines and the basement of Heather’s house back in Omaha. Musty. She covered her nose, but her mom grabbed the hand and pulled it down.
Heather was eight. Her third grade class was memorizing their multiplication tables this month, and the teacher had promised that any kid to complete the task would get to have a McDonald’s Happy Meal. Heather thought about seven-times-four and three-times-nine as she shuffled behind her parents into a bedroom.
This room was crowded with furniture that looked like it came from a doctor’s exam—bright and shiny and new, which was strange compared to the old-fashioned furniture elsewhere in the house. She’d seen yellowed and scuffed kitchen floors, a stiff-backed sofa with button-studded cushions in the living room.
For a long time, Heather hadn't even known that her dad had a mother. She’d understood that he did in theory, since everybody had a mother. But he never talked about her. Heather thought that maybe the lady had died when he was a baby, or some other sad situation like the books she sometimes checked out from the library. The books that were meant for way older kids—like fifth graders—except Heather was an advanced reader.
Then about a month ago, the phone rang during dinner. Mom had gotten up to answer it in the kitchen. She’d looked shocked when she turned to Daddy and said, "Jonathan, it's about your mother."
Since then, Heather had learned in bits and pieces about her grandmother. How she lived on a horse ranch in Wyoming, and how Daddy had grown up there, too. Heather had been sad that she never got to ride any of the horses, but then Daddy had explained that no horses lived there anymore.
Heather's father hadn't liked growing up in Wyoming. Daddy hadn't wanted to explain why, but Mom had whispered something about his father’s belt. Her daddy didn't like the way his parents had treated him.
Heather got spanked every once in a while, but only with the flat of her mom’s hand. Sometimes Heather didn't like that either, except she still loved her parents and knew they loved her. She’d heard her parents whispering about how her grandpa had died, and Daddy hadn't even gone to the funeral.
But now, her grandmother was sick and wasn't going to live for very long.
Heather stared at the wrinkly, small woman lying in the bed in front of her. Then she looked over at her father, whose eyes were shiny though his mouth stayed angry. He was going to cry. It made Heather feel scared, and like she was going to cry too simply because there couldn't be any other possible reaction to her father shedding tears.
As soon as the grown-ups weren't looking, she started backing away towards the open door of the bedroom.
Heather wandered down the hall, peering into the few open doorways till she found the bathroom. It looked dingy, but not much worse than the gas station toilet she’d used a few hours ago.
The toilet flushed with a low gurgle. She opened the bathroom door a crack and peeked out. Voices still murmured from the bedroom. Heather turned and tiptoed toward the front door. The hinge on the screen squeaked when she pushed it open. She froze, waiting for her mom to make her come back inside. But nobody did.
It was darker outside than when they’d arrived, the sun beginning to set. Heather's stomach growled, making her think of the powdered donuts that she got to pick out at the gas station. She still had half the package left in the backseat of the car. She laughed, thinking of how Speckles had licked the powdered sugar from her fingers.
Then she realized—Speckles wasn't tied to the railing anymore.
Oh, no. Didn’t I tie him tight enough? she wondered.
She ran down from the porch, quietly calling his name. She was afraid her parents would hear her if she yelled. But she didn't see the dog anywhere. Not around their car, not hiding underneath the porch or behind the house.
There were open fields out beyond her grandma’s home, with fences for the areas that probably once held horses. She started walking through the grass. It itched at the bare legs beneath her shorts.
It was bad enough she’d snuck away from her grandma’s bedroom. Now her parents would be even madder at her for not tying Speckles up properly. Tears pressed at her eyes.
They were sounds all around her. Wind rustling in nearby trees, insects buzzing their wings. Even her own breathing. But nothing that gave her a hint of where her dog had run off to.
Heather ran into a wooded area, wading through brush and dead leaves. Shadows danced around her. The setting sun winked in and out between the tree trunks.
Then she stopped. She’d heard something.
There it was again—laughter.
But dogs didn’t make noises like that. It had sounded like a grown-up lady. Not like Mom. More like Heather’s babysitter Lindsey, who was almost out of high school.
The lady was talking to someone. Maybe she’d found Speckles.
“Hello?” Heather asked, inching forward.
Something darted through the shadows of the brush.
The woman’s laughter tinkled again, clear and crisp as a wind chime. It was a nice sound. Happy. Maybe she could help Heather find the dog.
The trees thinned. Heather pushed between two bushes and found herself in another open field. A little wooden building sat up ahead.
And there was her dog, scratching at the weather-stained door.
“Speckles!” Her sneakers crunched dry grass as she ran. She grabbed the green leash, which trailed on the ground. Speckles looked over at her, grinning widely. “What have you found?”
The dog whimpered, gaze moving back to the wooden structure. It looked like a one-room cabin. Heather had seen similar pictures in books about pioneers moving out West in the olden days. The roof was dark red from rust. There was a tiny window next to the door, but it was boarded up. The front door had a padlock attached to it.
Speckles resumed scratching his nails against the wood.
“You want to go in there? We’re probably not allowed.” But Heather saw her hand close around the padlock, testing it. She hadn’t even realized she was going to do it.
After a single tug, the lock came apart in her hands. Rusted, like so much else around her grandma’s ranch.
The door remained shut tight against the frame.
Heather’s stomach made a high-pitched, hungry sound. The girl in your tummy is whining. Does she want out? That’s what her mom always said, and Heather usually giggled at the silly image. But right now the thought made her teeth clamp down, setting her on edge. Her breaths were shallow in her chest.
Does she want out?
The woman laughed.
Heather glanced around, still not seeing the source. “Where are you?” Who are you? she added silently.
Then it came to her.
The woman was inside the cabin.
Again, Heather’s hand reached out before she even knew was she was doing. Her fingers pried at the edge of the door. Speckles came closer, tail wagging and tongue lolling. The door creaked open on protesting hinges.
The moment a gap appeared, Speckles squeezed inside, disappearing into the blackness.
“Hey!” Heather shouted. “Wait!”
A stale smell came from the gap. She couldn’t hear the laughing anymore—just the sound of her dog’s claws digging into dirt.
She tried to pull the door wider, but the hinges were stuck. It wouldn’t move any further. Heather couldn’t get enough air, and all she breathed in was that old dusty smell, like the crawlspace underneath her house. Dirt and mold and something savory. Rotten.
Acid rose up from her stomach and into her throat. A fat tear rolled from her eye.
“Speckles, come out!”
The lady’s not in there, she thought. We’re not supposed to be here. We’re going to get in trouble.
But finally, her dog bounded through the gap, smiling around something clenched in his teeth. His tail wagged as he looked up at Heather, as if saying, See what I’ve found?
It was a skeleton hand, a tarnished ring still attached to one finger.
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