IT BEGAN AFTER midnight with a low hum, an electric buzz like that of a bass guitar string. The sound grew louder and I tried to cover my head with a pillow, but my arms, heavy with sleep, wouldn’t move.
I struggled to sit up; I was paralyzed. Frightened, I tried to call out, but my mouth wouldn’t move. An odd sensation began in my feet and traveled up my body, each nerve ending tingling with electric energy. Stop! I thought. Please stop!
Anna. Let go.
It was a woman’s voice that spoke to me, a familiar voice, but I didn’t know where or when I had heard it. Years ago, I thought. Struggling to recall the person, I momentarily forgot my fear.
The vibrations stopped, and I stood up. I was surrounded by darkness. In the distance an orange light shone. As I moved toward it, I heard a confusion of voices, people talking and laughing. The orange light flickered, and I heard crackling sounds. I could smell now—acrid smoke. I was at a fire.
An object whistled close to my ears and exploded, glass against metal. A siren wailed. I heard feet—heard, rather than saw clearly, people running, panicking. I panicked too. I didn’t know who these people were or which way to turn, but instinct told me to get away from there. Then I heard someone else calling my name, a man this time. My uncle was calling to me from the fire.
Anna, be careful.
There were more sirens, the wailing growing closer.
Anna, be careful.
Uncle Will? I answered, moving in the direction of his voice.
The fire surrounded me. I could see the flames like clothing on me, yet I felt no pain, no burning. I reached out my hand, then pulled it back in horror. I had seen through it. I slowly put out my left hand, then my right: They were transparent. Was I dead? Was it possible to die and not know it?
Help! I called out. Help! Uncle Will! I want to go home.
I was plucked out of the ghostly fire, reeled in like a fish. Opening my eyes, I found myself in bed at home. The two beds next to mine were empty.
Then I saw my suitcase and remembered: The twins, Jack, and Mom had left early that morning. I was alone. Next to my suitcase was a plastic bag filled with summer clothes, enough for two months away. I had been dreaming—obviously—and yet I would have sworn that I had actually heard Uncle Will’s voice. A letter from him lay on top of my suitcase.
I knew the letter by heart, but I climbed out of bed and carried it to the window, pushing back the curtain, unfolding the paper to read by the orange light of a streetlamp.
Would you visit us this summer? The sooner the
better. Aunt Iris is doing poorly, and there are
things I must tell you about your mother and our
family. I want to do so while I am still
My uncle’s invitation had come as a surprise. Eighteen years ago, he and his sister, Iris, both single, had taken in my birth mother, who was pregnant with me. Joanna died in a violent robbery when I was three, and I continued to live with my great-aunt and great-uncle for two more years, before I was adopted by Kathryn, the only person I think of as “Mom.”
Since then, Great-Uncle Will had stayed in touch with me by traveling to Baltimore once a year. He didn’t like cities, but liked communicating by telephone and computer even less. I loved him and he loved me; still our conversations were awkward.
I never heard from Great-Aunt Iris. When I was older it was explained to me that she was not the most stable person in the world—apparently she heard voices and claimed to be psychic. Until now I had never been asked back to the O’Neill home on Maryland’s Eastrn Shore—perhaps to protect me from bad memories of my birth mother’s death.
The truth was, I remembered Joanna only through her photos. My family was Jack, age seven; Grace and Claire, six; and our dog, Rose—all of us adopted by Mom, living in a skinny brick town house.
There were lots of days I had dreamed of escaping our crowded home; now, having achieved a college scholarship that would allow me to do that, I was getting sentimental over sticky hugs, dog hair, even the sharp little Barbie shoes and Matchbox cars left in my bed. I wanted to spend the summer with my family, but I felt I owed it to Uncle Will, and maybe to Aunt Iris, to visit.
Besides, I was curious. With my brain crammed full of chemistry and calculus, world history and lit, maybe it was time to learn something never asked on the SATs: who I was.
© 2010 Mary Claire Helldorfer