By the time I stepped outside, the leaves were on fire. The grass hissed and gave way to smoke underneath the flicker of a flame danced across them, setting them alight with but a little bit of coaxing. Most of the grass underneath was no longer the vibrant, lush green associated with summer. Instead, it had faded to a dark green mixed in with dead grass and orange-brown leaves. Now, over a quarter of the lawn was blackened.
I flicked up my gaze to two boys, mischievous grins plastered on their faces. One was tiny, obviously younger, and immediately tugged on the other boy’s grass-stained jean at the sight of me. His whine was barely audible from across the yard, a gentle breeze trapezing through the area. The gesture, however, was clear. His arm stretched and pointed directly at me.
I tried to ignore the way the colour drained quickly from the young boy’s face. The way his eyes widened and his mouth fell open slightly before he drew it shut. Insistence upon his brother's confusion and narrowed brows that I was, indeed, standing right on the rickety porch in front of house 17.
Are you scared? Don’t be scared. I told the little boy, taking a few tentative steps toward him and cringing at his cries to the older boy.
“She’s talking to me, oh please Matthew you gotta believe me!” With each word he grew more desperate and fearful. I didn’t intend to scare, I wasn’t one to terrorize children until they cried themselves to sleep at night. A few did, I knew. But not me. I was nice.
The older boy, Matthew, just tugged his jeans away from the younger one’s grasp. He didn’t look scared or even mildly unnerved, and though it was not my intention to scare, his arrogance frustrated me for I could not explain. The discomfort wafted off of him like a foul smell, but it wasn’t because of my presence. It was because of the little boys.
Why? I would ask him if I could. What makes the little boy that idolizes and relies on you irritating? Do you not see your indifference affects him? But as always, I was rendered invisible and unable to communicate with them.
My eyes narrowed on the little one, his hands clenched tightly at his waist after being shaken off by Matthew. His eyes brimmed with frustrated tears that sent my anger aflame. Is he your brother? I managed to ask, not letting my emotion seep through, trying to calm the boy.
He nodded once, glancing up at Matthew once and looking quickly away at the glare that ensued.
What is your name?
He hesitated, looking between his brother and me cautiously. A smart boy. Even at his young age, he knew talking to an invisible stranger on the grass was odd. It would make it even easier to invite him into the house.
Why don’t you come inside for some hot chocolate, and we can talk some more? My voice was sweet like honey, and I stepped down toward the boy and offered him my hand. Slowly, carefully, he lifted his arm and took it.
Matthew’s back was turned, focused on turning more of my grass to tiny flames. Occasionally forcing a leaf into the fire and holding it until it crumpled down to the stem and the breeze carried bits of the leaf away. His fascination with fire matched mine, but that may have been the only way we were the same. It wasn’t until the little boy was looking back on the steps that he called out for him.
But it was too late.
I closed the door, pulling in the little boy with haste. Biting my lip when the little boy wouldn’t tear his gaze from Matthew. Despite how horrid he was treated, he still refused to sever his connection with him. I hated to be the one to do it, but still, my lip lifted with pleasure at the lesson Matthew would inevitably learn.
The impermanence of people’s lives tangled with yours. How you should savour every moment, clutching onto those close to you like they might slip away if you look the other direction. Gently tugged someone’s fingers from the hem of your jeans.
“Wh-who are you?” he asked, his fingers tugging at the hem of his black batman shirt. I could sense the worry and hesitation in every tight breath.
My name is Omisha. I answered quickly, running my fingers through his hair. What is your name?
“Ethan,” and after a moment's hesitation, “I’m sorry we lit your lawn on fire.”
It was your brother’s fault. I don’t blame you. He nodded, and my attention was just drawn to how much he was shaking.
Ethan nodded slowly again, taking the time to glaze over the contents of the inside of my house. I wasn’t proud of it, I spent most of my time outside watching the humans interact. The walls were charred and burnt black, every piece of furniture nothing more than the metal bones of what it was. Nobody ever lived to see inside of it, and he would have no different fate.
“Wh-wh” The question died on his lips, and I gently squeezed his shoulders. I felt this boy’s emotions like they were my own, detected every twitch and nervous smile. It’s okay. I won’t keep you for long.
“You promised hot chocolate.” Ethan accused me in a small voice.
Without a word, I started the kettle and emptied hot chocolate powder into a mug. Unlike the rest of the house, I had materialized it just then, and had not yet worn from age. Ethan’s mouth curled up into a small smile at the sight of it. Do you know what happens after? I asked him, trying to keep his attention.
“After what?” My heart broke at his innocence, his pure ignorance of all that was bad in the world. I didn’t enjoy taking the souls that didn’t deserve it, the ones who were just collateral damage in deals made with the devil.
And I knew, without hesitation, that taking Ethan’s soul was to teach Matthew a lesson. He had sinned, and he would pay the price with his brother’s soul instead of his own. May you rest in peace. I thought, handing the boy the steaming mug.
His eyebrows furrowed in confusion, taking a few sips of the hot chocolate. “Isn’t that what people say when-”
So he did understand, finally. I’m sorry to be the one to do it, truly. His eyes welled up with tears, and guilt overtook me. I was the judge condemning an innocent soul to death.
Actually. The word slipped out without control, but warmth bloomed across my chest. Why don’t you head outside.
“What?” It was a question I was asking myself, too. What was I doing? But I already knew the answer. I was breaking free of my own cycle of hell. If I was the judge of life and death, then justice would be served.
I took him by the hand and led him outside. Matthew was banging on the door without avail, and his face bloomed with relief at the sight of Ethan. So he does care. He cared all along. He just didn’t know how to show it.
“Matthew!” Ethan ran into his arms, and was embraced tightly. “She let me go! She said something about what happens after then changed her mind. Can we go home?” The words were excited and fast, and Matthew hesitated at the end.
“Sure, bud. I think we’ve had enough of an exciting day already.”
The two walked hand in hand, both with hesitant smiles on their faces. I could have destroyed them, torn their family apart. Left Matthew hurting in revenge for his indifference. But instead, I taught them both a lesson, and allowed them to learn.
Too bad I would take the punishment for it.
But in that moment, for the first time in hundreds of years, I felt human again.