And then he and his grandmother were in her car; he was sitting in the front passenger seat, while Hilda drove. Rick couldn’t get comfortable. Physically, anyway; Rick doubted he’d ever be mentally comfortable again. But his muscles were really starting to burn. The day had given way to night, but the dark leather seats of his grandmother’s minivan had absorbed enough of the sunlight earlier to still carry a warmth that would’ve normally made Rick’s aching body feel a little better. But not today. And even if the warm seats had helped his back, that wouldn’t help his jaw, where he felt the most pain. His jaw was throbbing; he guessed it was because of how he’d spent hours talking more than he usually talked in a month. He reached up and pressed the tips of the two longest fingers of his right hand to the muscle just below his right cheek. “Ow,” he said out loud. Saying it with his fingers still there made his jaw cramp a little.
As Hilda drove toward the northern outskirts of Drodden, Rick imagined himself being able to turn the heat at his back into light. He’d have rather had light than heat. He didn’t like what the dark did to the roads of Drodden. He knew it was only in his head, but that didn’t change how the night made his brain go this way and that. Of course, he still felt reasonably safe with Grandma Hilda next to him in the driver’s seat. But reasonably safe wasn’t as safe as he wanted to feel. And as the drive continued, Rick’s imagination did what it always did when day turned into night; it looked for monsters. Like he had at the Marsh house.
The minivan came to a stop at an empty intersection, waiting for the light to change. Hilda always obeyed traffic laws when Rick was in the car. His grandmother looked away from the front windshield and over toward him; she must have been able to guess that he was doing worse the later — and darker — it got. “I really do understand, Friedrich.” She reached over with her right hand and patted his shoulder twice, before returning her grip to the steering wheel. “I know it’s not easy. But you know I can’t do it without you.”
“Yeah,” Rick replied, weakly. “I know.” He wanted to sound as sincere as he could, for her benefit. But he couldn’t. He was too shaky, and too tired. And he was distracted looking at the traffic lights that hung in the air over the intersection. There were two lights, stretched out from each other on a rusty metal pole on the opposite side of the street. Rick hated when there were two traffic lights like that, glowing red. It made him think of some kind of giant spider — still and hungry — hovering overhead and staring down at him with emotionless, unblinking eyes.
After, the traffic light directly ahead of them turned green, and Hilda drove further north.
Rick mused that the spider must not have been as hungry as it looked, even though he knew there was no spider. Of course, knowing that didn’t stop the back of his neck from itching. As he reached up to scratch at his goosepimply skin, he turned his head to look out the passenger side window. He saw the mostly-abandoned storefronts and cringed inside. Rick hated to look at abandoned stores. It made him think of failure. It made him think of old shopkeepers having heart attacks at their cash registers. He pictured an old man he didn’t know — with a weathered, mustached face Rick just made up on the spot — struggling to complete one last transaction before punching out for good. Shaking a tip jar before dropping onto the floor of some stupid shop. Rick thought about stuff like that when he saw empty streets. He figured there had to be people in Drodden who weren’t giving up their last moment of life for a quarter — the ones who were out there having a good time. But he didn’t know where those people were. All he saw were empty streets running past ramshackle businesses; a barbershop, a few restaurants, and Pawn and Ponderer — Grandma Hilda’s shop, where Rick worked during most of the summer.
“And, here we are,” Grandma Hilda said. The minivan came to a stop in front of the pawn shop’s dirty pink stucco facade.
Rick let himself slump back into his seat, feeling relieved. “Finally,” he murmured. He really did just want the day to end. He kept telling himself that a night’s sleep would fix things. That, in the morning, he wouldn’t feel quite so scared about the weird kid in the raccoon mask, or the fact that his best friend had become a murderer. He knew the facts wouldn’t change by him burying his head under a pillow — but he couldn’t help wanting to at least feel like it would all be easier to handle in the morning. When it was light again.
And, sure, Grandma Hilda had talked about her spirits. She always talked about things like that — always trying to ‘teach’ him about it all. And he, in turn, tried to be patient. Because, even though he didn’t believe in any of it, he knew what it meant to her. He saw the look in her eyes when she talked about it. Like people at church. Her beliefs were important to her, and so he’d usually just go along with it, even if — like now — he was exhausted. She would often come to him when he was feeling the most tired, probably because he was usually heading out the door most of the rest of the time. He preferred to be out in the world on his own, mostly because of how much his Grandma stuck close to him when he was home. He was dreading this spirit-communion like he did every single one. Because he knew how it would go. They’d go upstairs, because they lived above Pawn & Ponderer. She’d roll her dice or mess with her cards — or maybe she’d use those weird dominos, or the spirit board. And he’d have to help her out with whatever tasks were demanded of him. Which was, let’s face it, always terrible. And, well, often hurt. Sometimes, there was a little blood. Sometimes more than a little.
But what mattered to Rick right now wasn’t the possibility of hurt. What he cared about was that, at last, the two of them were home. And no matter how embarrassing it was for Rick to live above a pawnshop, he was almost giddy at the thought of taking the hottest shower he could manage and climbing into his bed.
Which is why Rick was so surprised when Hilda opened the driver’s side door and then turned toward her grandson: “Stay right here, Friedrich,” she said. “I left my bag. Can you believe it?” She rolled her eyes, as if mocking her own absent-mindedness. “I’ll be right back.” Pushing the minivan door shut, Hilda walked toward the front entrance of the shop.
Rick felt hot anger burning all along his neck and in his chest as he watched from the minivan. And his guts really started to burn again as he watched Grandma Hilda unlock the front of Pawn and Ponderer and step inside. She didn’t even close the storefront door; she always got on him for ever leaving it open even if it was just to go in or out for a minute. It was really uncharacteristic of her to apply one set of rules to him and another to herself. And it just served to remind him how totally fucked up the day was. He was even too tired to be as furious as he wanted to be. Alone in the car for several minutes, Rick felt the heat of his anger fade to a sensation of general weakness; not that it was any better to feel like that. He whined in a high-pitched, squeaky voice that was wracked with half-hearted sobs: “I just want to sleep!” Then, he got mad at himself for how weak he sounded and the anger came back. So, he decided to try venting: “I mean, the FUCK, Grandma?!” he shouted “Fucking — fucking RAT PISS!” He swiveled in the seat like he was kicking at something, but he didn’t move his leg. Nothing about the situation changed, but the yelling had helped purge some of the overstuffed emotion until Grandma Hilda came back out of Pawn and Ponderer. She now had her big red-and-black checkerboard fabric handbag with her.
Grandma Hilda opened the sliding rear door of the minivan and set down her handbag in the back seat. “We’ll fix this,” she was muttering to herself, loud enough for Rick to hear. “We’ll fix all of it; it’s time. It’s finally time.” She came around and opened the driver’s side door and got back behind the driver’s wheel again. “All right, Friedrich,” she said, looking behind them to pull back away from the pawn shop and onto the main street again. “I’m sorry about the detour — really.” She sounded even more embarrassed than she had before. “This has been hard on me, too — seeing all this again. Seeing it the way I see it. You know what I mean. I promise I’ll fix this. I’ll make it better for all of us. You just have to believe me; once we get to where we’re going. Okay?”
Rick looked away from Grandma Hilda toward the passenger window again. “Yeah.” He looked back ahead, and then lowered his head into his hands, rubbing at his face. That’s when the car stopped. But Rick didn’t look up. He just felt like he wanted to hide. He felt Grandma Hilda’s hand on his left shoulder and back, giving him a reassuring squeeze. Then, Grandma Hilda let go of him, and after a moment they were moving once more. Rick realized that they were heading toward the northern edge of town now. And suddenly driving a lot faster than his grandma normally drove. Like, hitting every speed limit. It was weird to Rick, but he quickly decided that it would probably mean getting to bed sooner. Until he realized just where the drive seemed to be headed. All the way out of town.
Onto an old industrial road.
Rick felt panic sweep over his insides again. He felt a little bile flow up into his mouth; he swallowed it back down, his tongue going hot and his throat now scratchy and burning.
Grandma Hilda must have noticed. “We have to go back to the woods,” she said to him. “I know you don’t want to. But we have to.” Her fingers tightened around the driver’s wheel. “I think you and your friends might be in danger.”
Rick sniffled, the burning sensation getting into his nose now. Tears welled up in his eyes. “I don’t want to go back, Grandma. I don’t,” he said in a quavery voice. He knew he sounded childish. He didn’t care. “I just want to go to sleep. I just want to get into bed. Please. You know I love you, but I don’t want to help with this tonight I just want to go to bed. Can’t we do it tomorrow?” Only then did some of the words she’d said a moment ago really get through to him. “What do you mean, ‘danger?’”
She reached over with her right hand to pat twice against Rick’s knee before returning her hand to the wheel. “I love you, too, Friedrich,” she said. “I’ve loved you since you were born. And that’s why we need to do this. That’s why we’re going back to the woods. Because I think I know why that man and his son were killed. I think it’s got to do with a spirit.”
Rick hung his head. “I feel sick.” He felt like he had to make his chest move up and down, or he wouldn’t breathe, and he felt too tired to bother. It wasn’t true, of course. But his mind felt like it was playing tricks on him. And the closer he got to the woods, the heavier his chest felt. And the more that headache he’d had at the police station kept feeling like it was coming back — like white-hot points jabbing at the opposite side of his head from his eyes. “My head hurts.”
“I know it does,” Hilda said. “And I know you’re dealing with so much. I know you’ve really been hurt. I know Mickey was your friend. And you feel betrayed. I do, too. I’ve been betrayed a lot in my time on this Earth. And I don’t want you to have that kind of life. I don’t want you to have it that hard. Friedrich, I’m so sorry. I know I failed you on this in letting it happen in the first place.” Her voice sounded regretful, and her sympathy sounded genuine. “And I’m sorry to have to put you through any more suffering. You should have a different life. So much better than this place. But here we are. And I know — it hasn’t been long since you’ve seen some … really horrible things.”
They were both silent for a long time.
Then, Hilda continued: “And, tell me, Friedrich … if you thought you could save people — and you didn’t do anything — and then those people ended up getting hurt … would you be able to forgive yourself? Or me, if you knew I didn’t do whatever I could?”
Rick’s head still hung down. “No.” He didn’t feel like he had enough energy to lift it to look at Grandma Hilda. He tried to imagine her face. He thought about her strength. How she always seemed willing to do whatever it took to help him, and keep him safe. “What do we need to do?” he finally asked.
Hilda pulled the minivan up to the side of the road, out of the way of any traffic, no matter how unlikely that might have been at this hour in this place. She reached back behind her seat and retrieved her handbag, resting both hands on its red-and-black checkerboard fabric. Then she looked back toward Rick: “You know where the Yellow House is? Between there and the Marshes’ house there’s a clearing with the biggest willow tree in the woods, in the middle of it. It’s a little ways away from that big pile of dirt.”
“The Really Big Willow?”
“Is that what you all call it?” She sounded a little disappointed in him. “It has other names, Rick. It’s a very special place to my faith. And I think that’s where this particular spirit we need to find lives. Inside that tree. If I do my work there, and do it right … I think we can ask that spirit just what’s happened to your friend — and how to stop it from ever happening again.”