“It’s so dark in here, Bee!” the little voice cried. “Bee, I can’t breathe! Oh, it hurts! Don’t leave me here, Bee!”
Albie shot up in bed and saw only the blackness, heard only the wind rushing under the eaves outside her window. This time she was sure she had peed the bed, it was so soggy with sweat.
Suddenly a light flickered in the hallway. It approached.
“Albie?” It was her mum, graying blonde locks streaming over her black flannel gown.
“I could hear you again.”
“He was calling me again, Mum. I have to go to him. He needs me!”
“That’s impossible, girl!” she growled. “I won’t hear you speak of it again! He’s gone! Three years gone now, so let it go! I forbid you to go near that place!”
It was almost midnight the following evening when Albie shimmied down the trellis outside her window. She had made sure she could hear both of her parents snoring, her mum’s high whistle and her dad’s troubled rumble; then she waited yet another hour.
Rose was waiting in the nearby hedge. Even in the moonlight her fox-red hair burned brightly and her milky blue eyes glowed.
“Took you long enough!”
“Not my fault the fogeys go to bed so late!”
Albie charged off immediately for her destination, the Derrymill Boardwalk, five miles away.
“Slow down, Albie!”
“Shhh! Keep it down. What do you suppose the sheriffs would do if they found two wee lasses like us out traipsing through the dark?”
“Wee lass!” Rose grunted. “I’m fifteen this October.”
“Come along quickly,” Albie cut her off. “We haven’t got much time.”
“Albie, why are we doing this?”
Albie grimaced quietly. Rose would never understand. Never understand having someone you love disappear without a trace, in a matter of seconds. She was supposed to be watching him. A tear began to tumble down her freckled cheek as she trudged along, Rose trailing behind.
“He calls to me, Rose. I know that sounds mad as frogs, but he does.”
“They’re called nightmares, Albie.”
“Not these! Not this! To hear him, as if he’s still there, waiting for me to find him. What if he’s there still?”
“That’s impos—” Rose started, but the wildly desperate tone that had crept into her friend’s voice made her think otherwise.
“Well, we’ll just see, won’t we?” she offered instead.
Two hours later they arrived at the Derrymill. Locals called it the Deadmill. Over the sixty years since its building, no fewer than a dozen souls had gone missing, mostly children, sometimes a suicide.
One only had to step out a few yards onto the bog the wooden path snaked through to find a final resting spot. The villagers of Ballinfort and Dargh had built it together, made use of it together, and borne the losses together as well.
“The last curve is coming up,” Albie declared. Even after three years she still remembered every span of that walkway.
Up until that moment they had used only the moonlight to guide them. Now Albie fished out a small copper lantern she had stashed in her knapsack. She set it alight and held it out in front of her as they slowed their pace before the final bend.
“Just a few more yards,” she assured Rose. “It was the northernmost bend where Mum had told us to –”
Impossible. Laying on the boardwalk was a child-sized gray felt cowboy hat with a crimson feather affixed to its black leather band.
“Is that –” Rose began to ask.
“It’s his hat,” Albie sputtered.
A hot stream came raging now, stinging droplets of anguish and guilt.
Rose knew that hat all too well to deny what she was seeing. When he was a wee tike, Albie’s brother Sam had yearned to be a Texas cowboy. His dad had ordered one shipped in all the way from the Lone Star state, to the verdant shores of Ireland, so that Sam could live out his dream.
Albie went to pick it up.
“Wait!” Rose protested. “What if this is some sick joke? Lots of people knew about Sam and his silly hat.”
But Albie was already holding it, feeling its velvety contours, stroking the feather with her fingers.
“Bee,” came a whisper.
“Rose, did you hear that? Rose?”
Rose had stayed back. She was crouching now, covering her face.
“Rose, did you hear that?!”
“Bee,” came the voice again, somewhat louder now.
Albie shined the lantern toward the beckoning bog but could only see a few feet.
“Sam, I’m here now! I’m coming to get you.”
She could hear Sam’s thin voice clearly now.
“Stay on the boardwalk.”
“But you called me here,” Albie cried, bewildered. “Why did you call me?”
“I didn’t, Bee.”
“But the dreams. I heard you. I came to rescue you.”
“No, Bee. I came to see you.”
“What?” Albie could still see nothing.
“It wasn’t your fault, Bee. I didn’t listen to Mum.”
“No, Sam! I was in charge of you! I was supposed to be watching you. My bonnet flew off. I should have let it go, not go chasing after it. I’m so sorry, Sam!”
“Did you make the wind blow, sister?”
“No, of course not.”
“Then it wasn’t your fault.”
“Sam…” Albie wept.
Then a young boy stepped into the light, still wearing the green chaps and yellow jacket from that hapless day. He bent to kiss Albie’s forehead, slick and matted with her black locks.
“Don’t cry, my sister. I’m not mad at you. I love you forever, Bee. Goodbye.”
“Sam, don’t go!”
But he had turned already and drifted rapidly out of sight.
Albie crumpled onto the wooden planks and cried softly.
She felt Rose draw near to her.
There in her hands, instead of her brother’s hat, was the bonnet.
The lantern flickered out.