MARY OF THE AETHER by Jeffrey Aaron Miller
The lunatic in the long, gray cloak dashed out of the forest and ran right up onto the front yard, waving his arms in front of him like a child playing tag. He skirted the porch, paused, turned a complete circle and fell onto his hands and knees. A hood obscured most of his face, but Mary could see the tip of a pointy chin covered in whiskers. She sat at the living room window, leaning against the sill and resting her forehead against the cold glass, transfixed by the sight. The crazy man crawled through the high, un-mowed grass, his face close to the ground, shifting back and forth like a bloodhound chasing a scent. He stopped at the driveway, lifted his head and appeared to sniff at the air. Then he scooped up a handful of gravel and sifted it through his fingers.
It was the last day of winter, and a hint of snow fell in the valley of Chesset. From her house atop Neser Hill, Mary had a panoramic view of the city, gray and brown rooftops poking up from the blanket of trees, the winding asphalt artery called Main Street drawing a crooked line from east to west. Her breath fogged the window, and she had, until a moment ago, been writing a name in the condensation with the tip of her pinky. A-I-D-E, she made it as far as the fourth letter before she forgot all about the cutest boy in the world.
The crazy man lurched to his feet, swept his cloak off his shoulders and turned his back to the house. In the distance, Mary heard the old familiar rattle and hum of the school bus winding its way up Neser Hill Road. The crazy man had heard it, too, apparently, for he took a stumbling step back, spun on his heel and fled back into the forest, disappearing into the deep shadows beneath the boughs.
The bus rounded the corner a couple seconds later, belching white smoke. Mary had been frozen at the window, but the sight of the bus jarred her loose. She shook her head and backed away, letting the curtains fall into place. She turned toward her father’s room. The door was open, and she could hear the soft murmur of the television. Gray light flickered on the wall above his bed. She walked over to the door, leaned against the frame, and peeked around the edge. Papa was in his chair, a blanket piled in his lap, eyes half-lidded. A cup of tea steamed on the small night stand beside him, untouched.
She called his name, and he started, jerking upright in his seat and reaching for his tea, almost knocking it over in the process. He looked at her, opened his eyes wide, and smiled. He was too old to be her father, that was the truth of it, and in the last couple of years his aging seemed to have accelerated. He looked like a little bundle of sticks wrapped in wrinkled paper. Most people mistook him for her grandfather, even a great-grandfather. And he always seemed to have the weight of the whole world bearing down on him.
“ Ah, Mary,” he said. “I think I nodded off. What’s happening?”
Mary started to tell him about the crazy man, but she caught herself. He looked so tired and burdened. How could she add to that?
“ Oh, just saying goodbye,” she said. “The bus is here. I’ll see you after school.”
Papa nodded and reached for his tea cup again but couldn’t seem to snag it.
“ Yes, after school,” he said. He raised his hand, as if to wave, but then pointed toward the dresser. A small ceramic flowerpot sat on the corner near a lamp, two wilted petunias curling over the edge. “Could you replace the flowers for me when you get home this afternoon? These seemed to have died.”
There were no flowers in the garden. It was early in the season and still too cold, and nobody tended the garden these days anyway. Nothing but cedar chips and dirt. She had told him this already many times, but he never remembered.
“ I’ll see what I can do,” she said.
He nodded and resettled his blanket on his lap. “Wonderful. Have a great day at school. Be safe.”
“ Of course.”
She started to leave but paused. She knew she had to tell him. A lunatic crawling across the lawn, sniffing the grass like a dog. Yes, she had to tell him. It was absurd not to. But she heard the hiss of the bus’s airbrake, and his eyes were already slipping shut again, so she left it unsaid. She gave Papa a last wave and dashed back into the living room, snagging her backpack off the couch in passing.
When she pulled open the front door, a gust of cold air swept into the house and curled around her. Mary gritted her teeth and stepped onto the porch. The bitter wind had teeth, and she had no winter coat, only an old hooded sweatshirt. Digging her hands deep into the front pocket of the sweatshirt, she trudged down the driveway, her shoes crunching on gravel. She cast a furtive glance toward the line of trees, fearing she might see the madman there, crouched in the shadows and watching her, but there was no sign of him.
Neser Hill was the last stop on the morning bus route, her house the only one on the street, so she was always the last to board. That meant a packed bus full of bleary-eyed, annoyed students watching Mary Lanham making the long walk from her front door. She hated it, hated all of the eyes staring at her out of the small, foggy windows. She stepped into the low cloud of white smoke pouring from the exhaust pipe and climbed the steps into the open door. Larry, the great hulk of a driver in his ragged overalls, gave her a polite nod and pulled the door shut behind her.
Mary gazed down the long row of seats at all of the familiar faces until she found the one that seemed pleased, or, at the very least, not annoyed, to see her. Kristen Grossman, the closest thing Mary had to a friend, was a sour-faced girl with long raven black hair. She was sitting in the back row, a cell phone clutched in her hands, the screen bathing her face in harsh, white light. She smiled at Mary, if only for about half a second, and gestured with the cell phone to the empty seat beside her. Mary made her way down the aisle, carefully avoiding feet that just happened to poke out into her path, and sat down beside Kristen. And as soon as her backside touched the cold vinyl seat, the bus lurched forward and started down Neser Hill.
Kristen had her cell phone flipped open, typing furiously on the keys, often without looking at the screen. She glanced at Mary, glanced out the window, glanced at the cell phone. Always restless and scattered. Mary set her backpack in her lap and wrapped her arms around it
“ Brooke is so stupid,” Kristen said.
“ Is that who you’re talking to?” Mary asked, pointing at the cell phone.
“ Yes, of course,” Kristen replied with a roll of her eyes. “She’s so wrong about everything. Listen to this.” She raised the cell phone and pressed it to Mary’s ear, and a song began to play, some twangy country tune. Mary did not know it and could not understand the muffled words.
“ What is it?” she asked.
Kristen pulled the phone away and sneered. “What is it? Only the current number one hit. God, why don’t you know anything?” She resumed texting.
“ I don’t know,” Mary said.
“ Brooke thinks it sucks,” Kristen said. “She’s an idiot. I was going to ask your opinion but never mind. You need to catch up with the times, Mary. You don’t have a phone or a computer or listen to music or anything. It’s kind of irritating.”
“ Sorry.” Mary sighed. How could she explain to Kristen that she didn’t own any of those things because her father was ancient? He knew nothing about computers or cell phones. She was lucky that he even owned a television, though she rarely got to watch it. Her father was too old, just too old, and she felt the lack. It was troubling enough without having to talk about it.
Kristen ignored the apology, however, and kept right on typing. After a moment, she nudged Mary. “By the way, can you believe it’s snowing?” she said. “They didn’t even cancel school, and the snow is almost sticking to the ground. They should have given us the day off. I mean the bus could lose traction and fly off the road. I tried to just sleep in anyway, but Mom made me get up. It’s so not fair.” She slammed her hands into the seat in front of her to emphasize the point, and the cell phone flew out of her hands and landed on the seat between them.
“ Yeah, I guess so,” Mary said, retrieving the cell phone and handing it to her. She noted, as she passed the phone back, that Kristen had gotten a new case for it, replacing the old metallic green cover with a metallic hot pink cover and adding a decal on the back of some country singer that Mary did not recognize, a muscled-up stud in a huge white cowboy hat, shirt unbuttoned down to the middle of his rippling chest.
“ We deserve at least one snow day,” Kristen said. “One snow day should be mandatory. That’s what I think.”
Mary turned to the window. She didn’t see any snow sticking to the ground, just a few small puddles here and there, but it was not worth disagreeing with Kristen Grossman. She caught a glimpse of her own reflection in the glass cast by the light of the cell phone, a pale, freckled face framed by long hair the color of a burnt orange. She did not like to look at herself. Plain-looking with big, sad eyes and a sickly complexion, that was all she saw.
Beyond the window, the trees were passing in a blur. Suddenly, a shadow broke free with a burst of leaves and limbs. A gray shape dashed out from the branches, crossed the ditch beside the road and moved into the light. The crazy man. The crazy man in his long cloak. Mary gasped and pressed herself to the glass, but the bus had already passed him. She turned in her seat and looked out the back window and caught a last glimpse of him as he ran across the road. Flowing cloth and long legs, his arms thrust out before him, fingers splayed. He glanced, very briefly, in the direction of the school bus, and she saw a grim, unfriendly mouth and strands of greasy hair falling over a heavy brow. A shiver ran down her spine, like cold fingers tracing her vertebrae, and she covered her mouth with her hands to keep from screaming. The stranger reached the ditch on the other side of the road, leapt it in a single bound and disappeared back into the forest.
Kristen remained oblivious, prattling on and typing away on her phone. “That stupid math test,” she said. She had apparently been talking about it for a few seconds. “At least I studied a little bit last night, but I’d have more time to study if they’d given us the day off. It’s not fair.”
“ Not fair, right,” Mary agreed numbly, turning back and settling down in her seat. She clasped her hands together to keep them from shaking.
Kristen, catching the distraction in Mary’s voice, leaned in close and gave her a questioning look. “What’s wrong with you?”
“ I don’t know,” Mary replied. She leaned forward, resting her forehead on the back of the empty seat in front of her. “Nothing.”
“ I don’t believe you,” Kristen said, elbowing her in the ribs. “Something’s wrong. I can always tell. It’s about the math test, isn’t it? You didn’t study. I’ll bet that’s what it is. You stayed up all night knitting hats or socks or whatever it is you do, thinking we’d get a snow day, and you didn’t study.”
Mary almost didn’t respond. Let Kristen think what she wanted. It was always best to avoid confrontation. She turned to the window, daring another peek, but the bus had turned off Neser Hill Road onto Main Street. They were out of the forest, and there was no sign of the crazy man.
“ So I’m right?” Kristen said.
“ Sure,” Mary replied. “I didn’t study. I don’t really need to. Math is easy.” She said it without thinking, a throw-away comment meant to stave off further discussion, but she knew as soon as the words were out of her mouth that she had messed up. Mary was a straight-A student. Everything came easy to her. Kristen, on the other hand, found school a constant struggle, a fight to keep her head above water. Mary never rubbed it in. In fact, she never brought it up at all if she could help it, but she felt the ongoing tension anyway.
“ Oh, I see,” Kristen replied with a sneer. “Little Mary Know-It-All never has to study. Studying for tests is only for stupid people. God, I wish I could be as smart as you.”
“ That’s not what I meant.” Mary sighed.
“ I know what you meant,” Kristen said under her breath, and the typing on her phone became more furious.
Mary looked at her, but she refused to make eye contact. The silent treatment, it was Kristen’s way of punishing impudence, and on normal days, it drove Mary crazy. Today was not a normal day, however. Kristen turned ever-so-slightly away from her and fixed her attention firmly on the tiny, shimmering cell phone screen, but she had a little half-smile on her face, the kind that usually made Mary want to slap her. But at the moment all she could think about was a crazy man in a gray cloak running across the street, fading into the shadows.
Mary hugged her backpack tighter. The last few minutes of the ride were quiet and tense, broken only when the bus took its last turn into the parking lot of Chesset School and thumped over the speed bumps. A dull, dun-colored building nestled in the heart of Chesset, the school served a number of very small, very rural towns in Crawford County, one-stoplight towns tucked between hills and along the edges of Ozark National Forest. The lights of the football field rose like rusty bones over the building, surpassed in shabbiness only by the second-hand playground equipment in the nearby city park.
Still ignoring her, Kristen flipped her cell phone shut, jammed it into the pocket of her jeans and strode down the aisle. Mary cast one last glance out the back window, but, of course, the crazy man was long gone, and Neser Hill had disappeared into the distance. She slipped her backpack over her shoulders and made her way, alone, out of the bus and into the chilly air.
They were not reconciled until lunch time. Mary stepped into the cafeteria as the noon bell rang, and there stood Kristen, all smiles, beckoning her as if nothing had happened. Mary ducked her head and dutifully approached. American History, English and Art had done little to drive the images of the man in gray from her mind. She only wanted to sit in peace and eat her food and think about nothing.
They assumed their regular positions at a table in the middle of the room, hunched over trays of lukewarm turkey spaghetti and corn, while the echo of restless voices filled the poorly insulated cafeteria. Mary picked at her food. She had little appetite.
“ Math test,” Kristen said, for the hundredth time. “Stupid math test in two hours. I’m gonna be sick. Algebra. God, I hate it. I hate it.” She jabbed her fork into her spaghetti.
Mary grunted and managed a nod. She wasn’t really listening. One wall of the cafeteria consisted of a row of giant windows giving a broad view of the city park and a line of trees beyond. Out of the corner of her eye, the shadows seemed to move amidst the trees, the swaying branches looked like arms reaching. He was out there somewhere, creeping beneath the canopy of new leaves. Mary turned away and let her gaze wander across the room, seeking solace, seeking escape. And she found it, like a little beacon calling to her from the far corner. Aiden Tennant. She had a clear view of him, surrounded by his friends and gesturing dramatically with his hands as he spoke. He was smiling, and, though the smile was not directed at her, she couldn’t help but think that he meant for her to see it. Don’t worry about madmen in the forest, Mary Lanham, that smile said. I’m right here with you, and all is well.
Aiden had never actually spoken to her, though she had heard his voice countless times in her head. Oh, yes, he was with her always in her head, and Mary liked to think, though she knew it was absurd, that somehow he knew it. He was pointing at one of his friends and laughing, and she almost convinced herself that he meant to be pointing at her and shouting, “I know, Mary. I know.”
Nobody knew about her secret life with Aiden Tennant, the one that existed only in her imagination. She had made the mistake of telling Kristen Grossman that she liked him, though she had not described the true depth of those feelings. Nevertheless, even that partial revelation had been like unfastening the floodgates to a river full of bile.
“ Aiden Tennant?” Kristen had said with a disgusted look on her face. “You can’t be serious! Look at him. He wears those ratty old t-shirts that look like something you’d buy at a gas station. His hair is always a mess, like he slept on it wrong and couldn’t find a comb. He’s just so…shabby looking, Mary. Shabby looking! Please tell me you’re not serious about liking him.” And she had laughed a grating little laugh like fingernails on a chalkboard.
“ No, I’m not serious,” Mary had replied. What else could she say? Each insult had been like a thorn piercing her heart. Ratty? Messy? Shabby-looking? She had wanted to cry but somehow managed not to.
Since then, she had never again mentioned her crush on Aiden Tennant, not to Kristen, not to anyone. But she stared at him openly today because the sight of him and his big, beaming smile was the only thing that drove the darkness out of her thoughts. Long seconds she stared, as he laughed and joked and gestured at his friends. He had some kind of magazine or comic book on the table in front of him. He picked it up and thrust it at one of his friends, and they both nodded. And every movement, every look, might as well have been for her alone.
She stared until she felt a flush creeping up her cheeks, and finally she dropped her gaze to the tabletop.
“ Are you okay?” Kristen asked.
Mary started to speak but only a little squeak came out. She cleared her throat and tried again. “Yeah, just tired, I guess.”
“ What are you tired for?” Kristen replied, an edge in her voice. “You said yourself you didn’t study last night. What do you even do up there on Neser Hill? You don’t have a computer; you’ve only got that one tiny TV in your dad’s room. What possible reason could you have for being tired?”
“ I don’t know,” Mary said, moving the corn around on her tray with the edge of her fork. “Didn’t sleep very well.”
“ You’re so weird,” Kristen said with a shake of her head.
“ Yeah.” She dug into her food and made herself eat and dared no more glances at Aiden Tennant.
Lunch came and went. The math test came and went. Kristen agonized while Mary breezed through it. She was beyond the material and should have been in a higher level math class, she knew, but somehow her accomplishments had been overlooked. She didn’t mind. Mary was used to being overlooked. At the very least, the easy test was another thing to take her mind off what she had seen that morning.
The anxiety returned on the bus ride home. Sitting in the back row, clutching her backpack and listening to Kristen complain about things that didn’t matter, Mary shivered at every passing shadow. By the time the bus wound its way up Neser Hill Road, she couldn’t even bring herself to look out the window. Dark shapes and the hint of cloaked figures filled the edges of her vision.
The bus stopped at the end of her driveway with a squeal and a hiss, the door opened, and Larry the bus driver gave her a polite but impatient nod as she stepped outside. She walked into the house to find her father sitting on the couch in the living room, his blanket wrapped around his shoulders. He had a book of crossword puzzles in one hand, a pencil poised in the other, and a brow creased in contemplation. At some point during the day, he had made the long trek from his bedroom to the living room, and it might as well have been a marathon. He looked unwell, dark half-circles under his eyes, a sheen of sweat on his face. When she closed the front door, he looked up.
“ Ah, Mary, it’s you,” he said. “How was school?”
She did not answer. She had to tell him. Aiden would not always be in sight to take the anxiety away. She had to tell him, but she had no idea how to work up the courage. Buying time, Mary slid her backpack off her shoulders and flung it into the corner. Then she jammed her hands into the front pocket of her sweatshirt. Papa had returned to his crossword puzzle, but he looked up again after a few seconds of silence.
“ What is it?” he asked.
She tried to think of a good way to start, but everything sounded weird in her head. So she just went for it. “Papa, do crazy people ever run around in the woods?”
He looked confused. He glanced at the crossword puzzle book, then back up at her. “Excuse me. What?”
“ In the woods around Neser Hill,” she said. “Have you ever heard of crazy people running around in there? Lunatics? Have you ever heard of that happening?”
He grabbed the corner of his blanket and dabbed the sweat off his forehead, and she knew he, too, was buying time, trying to think of a response. “I must confess, my dear, I don’t know what you are asking me. I can’t say that I know personally of any lunatics running around in the forest, but I’m sure it’s not unheard of. Why are you asking me this? What’s happened?” And now he looked concerned, even fearful, and she regretted telling him. He would worry. He was prone to worry. Mary cursed herself for bringing it up, but it was too late to take it back.
“ Just wondering, I guess,” she said. “No particular reason.”
He stared at her a moment, and the fear turned to puzzlement, his mouth hanging open, his brow drawn down. Finally, he shrugged and went back to his crossword puzzle.
“ Did you get some fresh petunias?” he asked. “The ones on my dresser have died, I’m afraid.”
“ I’ll look into it a little later,” Mary said. The dead garden. Another thing to worry about. Crazy people and dead gardens. She wanted to crawl into her bed and hide under the covers to escape them both.
“ Thank you,” he replied and resumed scribbling in his book.
Mary sighed and trudged past him, down the hallway to her bedroom. She sat on the edge of the bed, staring blankly at the wall and wishing he had said something to make her feel better.
She had a plain-looking room. Kristen Grossman had once declared it “the dullest place in Chesset.” It had little in the way of decoration save for a small map of the world tacked over the bed, a pen and ink drawing of a horse she had made in seventh grade—Papa had insisted on framing it—and a photograph she had cut out of a magazine of some flowers, petunias, oddly enough. Mary sat on the bed for a long time, trying to think of something to do, but she dared not go outside where the lunatics were, dared not call Kristen, who was no doubt still in a bad mood about the math test, and she was too addled to read a book. She considered getting her crochet hooks out and working on something, but she didn’t have any desire to do that either. She didn’t want to do anything at all, really.
In fact, she might have sat there all afternoon and evening, gazing at nothing and trying not to think, but her father called her name. When Mary did not respond, he called again. And again. Each time, he sounded more frantic, so she finally rose, groaning, to her feet and walked back into the living room.
He was still sitting on the couch, but he had tossed the book of crossword puzzles onto the coffee table. As she approached, he looked over his shoulder at her, eyes wide.
“ What? What is it, Papa?”
“ Crazy people in the woods,” he said. “Is that what you asked me about? Crazy people in the woods?”
Mary bit her lip. He looked upset. Was he mad at her for some reason? She could not tell. “Yes, sir.”
“ Why? Why did you ask me about that? What did you see?”
“ I saw…” Mary hesitated. “It was probably nothing.”
“ No, you tell me what you saw,” he said, shaking a finger at her.
Mary took a deep breath. “This morning, I saw a man. He came running out of the woods. That’s all. He looked a little…off.”
Papa snagged the edge of his blanket and pulled it off his shoulders, flinging it onto the couch. He looked like he might lurch to his feet and bolt for the door, but he only managed to rock back and forth a little bit. “What did he look like? What was he doing?”
Should she tell him that he was crawling around on the grass like a dog? Should she tell him that he dug through the gravel on their driveway? She almost did but caught herself. Better not to compound his worry, she decided. “He just ran out into the open, looked around and left. That’s all. I don’t know.”
“ What did he look like?” Papa asked.
Mary shrugged. “Just a guy. Kind of a scruffy-looking guy in some kind of coat or cape or something. I didn’t get a good look at his face.”
Papa closed his eyes and pressed a hand to his forehead, as if he had suddenly developed a pounding headache. Mary couldn’t help but feel responsible. She had no idea what to do, so she just stood awkwardly in the middle of the room, her hands in her pockets, and waited.
“ I have to…” He stopped mid-sentence and shook his head. His cane lay on the floor beside the couch, and he reached for it. With his other hand, he reached for her. “Help me up.”
Mary grabbed his hand and helped him to his feet. It took a good half a minute, Papa gnashing his teeth and leaning heavily on the cane. And again she was reminded of just how ancient her father was. He had no job and could not work, living off savings he had accumulated over the years. He spent most of his days in the chair in his bedroom, taking only brief forays into the living room, usually to read the paper or work on crosswords puzzles. In some part of her mind, Mary knew it wasn’t right for someone so old and frail to be the only one raising her, but mostly she loved him too much to complain.
Once he was on his feet, the brass handle of his cane clasped firmly in his hand, he shuffled into his bedroom.
“ What’s the matter, Papa?” Mary asked, still standing in the middle of the living room.
“ You don’t worry about it,” he replied, giving her a reassuring look. “Wait for me right here, please. I just need to check on something.”
“ But what…” She left the question hanging.
“ Wait here,” he said, stepping into the bedroom and closing the door behind him.
Mary took a seat on the couch and waited. And waited. She heard some shuffling in the bedroom, what might have been a dresser drawer opening and closing, and then a long stretch of silence. Outside, the clouds parted, and a burst of thick afternoon sunlight bled through the curtain and flooded the living room.
Finally, he returned, standing the bedroom doorway, a smile on his face.
“ All is well,” he said.
Now she was more confused than ever. “Okay,” she said. What else could she say? Ask him if he was losing his mind, perhaps?
“ Mary,” he said, leaning against the doorframe. “Chesset is a peculiar town, you know. That big furniture factory out on West Street draws a lot of people from far and wide. We’ve got an eclectic mix of folks. You’re bound to get an odd one from time to time. Do you follow me?”
“ Sure, I guess,” Mary replied. Odd enough to crawl around like a dog and sniff the ground?
“ You have to watch out for people, that’s for sure,” he said, stumbling toward the couch. “People are not always safe, and you can’t be too careful. However, in this particular instance, I think we can chalk it up to a simple weirdo. Was he picking wild blackberries? Was he catching small game? Was he bird watching? Who knows?”
She helped him sit back down on the couch then settled the blanket back over his shoulders. Picking wild blackberries? They weren’t in season.
“ I shouldn’t have brought it up,” Mary said. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“ I’m not scared, Mary, dear,” he replied, patting her on the arm.
“ But you were yelling my name,” she said.
“ I got a little spooked, but we’re fine. I don’t want you to worry about anything, not now, not yet. You carry on being a teen, or a tween, or whatever it is you are supposed to be.”
“ I’m fourteen, Papa,” she said. “Remember?”
He smiled again. “Fourteen. Yes, of course. Go and be fourteen and don’t worry about crazy people in the woods.”
Mary stood up to leave, but he grabbed her hand. When she looked back down at him, he was staring with particular intensity. “There’s still time,” he said. She waited for an explanation, but he said no more. Finally, she worked her hand out of his grasp and walked to her room.
She sat down on the bed and resumed staring at the wall. He had meant to comfort her, she knew that, so why did she not feel comforted?