I could hardly breathe, yet my legs forced me to carry on through the darkness as tree branches slapped and scratched my exposed flesh. My aunt’s scolding words chased me, echoing in my mind. I had always hated the dark, but my anger fueled me onward. My mind felt as though it were floating above my body, watching me acting like a madman. I was mad.
A soft amber light broke through the darkness and marked the location of the shack. I reached the front door and knocked twice.
“Mrs. Thomas! It is Mr. Allen!” I called.
As I panted and stood there on my shaking legs, the door opened a crack. I met the muzzle of a rifle.
“You are mad,” the woman growled.
“Wait,” I said.
She kicked the door open and stepped toward me. As I fought to catch my breath and stay coherent through the mania, I did not miss that her finger rested on the trigger that would put an end to my writing forever.
“Please, Ma’am,” I said, backing away and holding my hands over my head. “I received a note tonight about your son.”
“Where is it?” she shouted.
I pulled it out from my pocket.
“Here. Right here. See?”
“You do not seem to be the sort to play tricks on poor, crazy women, but if you are, I will not hesitate to blow your brains out.”
“Someone knocked on my door tonight and then left this letter in an envelope addressed to me. Do you have any idea who could have left a note like this?”
She lowered her gun, shaking her head. Her eyes would not meet mine.
“I already know he isn’t dead, Alfred. Dead to me, but still breathing.”
Her numbed voice sent shivers down my arms. I clenched my fists. I wanted to yell at her and ask her what was going on.
“Where?” I asked.
“Go away,” she said much too calmly. “If I see you here again, I will shoot you. You need to forget about them.”
Them. She was referring to the suicides. They all wanted to forget about the inconvenient illnesses that plagued more souls than anyone cared to admit.
I tripped over my own feet as I sprinted for the daunting woods. I barely recalled the journey back to my aunt’s home as my mind detached from my body again, but I made it through the winding trees somehow.
I woke up in the rocking chair surrounded by the black.
My aunt’s voice was gentle and smooth, but her sudden closeness sent a chill down the back of my neck.
“How did I… I don’t remember how I got back.”
“You’re all right now, dear. Just rest.”
“I am not tired. Could we light a candle? The darkness is a little too much right now.”
I blinked as a flickering flame danced on the end of a match that she held at the wick of a candle.
“Please,” she began. “I am asking you to stop this madness now. Do you realize the position that you have put me in? After you leave for your own home, I may face being ostracized at best.”
“I am so sorry.”
Warm tears slipped down my cheeks before I realized that I was crying. I wanted to get to the bottom of what really happened to Jeremy, to all of the suicides.
“Do you know what could have happened to him?” I asked.
“Dear boy, you are very kind, but do you realize the damage that you are causing by wondering such a thing?”
“Are you sure it is I who is causing the damage? I was trying to help honor their memories.”
“I think that note was a terrible jest.”
Mrs. Thomas admitted that he was alive. I had some ideas about where I needed to look for him. I would have to pretend that I had given up on my investigating for the time being, but I would find out what happened to him.
“I know why the suicides are important to you,” she said.
My stomach knotted. I searched my mind for a way to change the subject, but I could barely think through the haze.
“Your mother told me about what happened in the dormitory during your last week of classes.”
I swallowed hard past the lump in my throat. She did not have the nerve to say it. No one did.
“Alfred, I am very worried about you. It is not good for you to focus on the illness that nearly killed you.”
I stood quickly, shaking my head. I felt ill remembering, but it was all that ran through my mind. I could nearly feel the sharpened knife slicing into my wrist.
“I was in a trance. I didn’t want to die,” I whispered. “I just wanted it to stop.”
“I will brew you a pot of tea,” she said quietly. “It will help you feel better.”
My writing project had given me such purpose, but as I stood there in the dim, I could feel the slow death of my hope.