The Crowe family farmhouse stood two stories high in a flat field of windswept broom grass. Ivy climbed the barbed wire fences that designated pastures for the six head o’ cattle that lowed, often, in the lower field—the one down by the creek and the parallel rows of pulp pine. A huge, largely unused barn opposed the house roughly two acres away. A single silo leaned slightly to the left—too tired to stand upright, too proud to downright lie. The farmhouse, especially after the trauma from recent events, protruded like an exposed beating heart, and the farm, overall, replaced emptiness with an abundance of absence.
“One hundred seventy-eight, one hundred seventy-nine, one eighty. My-ma memoried.”
Inside the farmhouse, young William sat in the shadow of a grandfather clock that stood next to an electric wall sconce at the edge of the sitting room next to the kitchen entrance. Without any consistent interval and without any discernable relation to the time itself, Will repeatedly counted off three numbers in consanguinity with the guttural tocks of the deep, elder clock:
“One hundred seventy-eight, one hundred seventy-nine, one eighty. Me-me Mauri.”
Then, silence echoed across the hardwood heart-of-pine, measuring off by the clock’s timing tocks, thoughts that gathered somberly as far from formidable concepts as the East was from the West.
Nancy set the money on the table between the sofa and Mr. Crowe’s favorite chair, sliding it back to a neutral position between her clutches and Mr. Crowe, the man who’d just handed it to her. She hadn’t counted the money, but she could tell it was a lot, more than she would make in a week of babysitting other people’s children. That thought made her push the rolled wad even further in hopes that it we be morally strong enough to forget about her.
“You really don’t have to pay me, Mr. Crowe.”
Mr. Crowe really hadn’t thought about how much Nancy had grown up. How old was she now? Sixteen? Seventeen? “Oh, I…I didn’t mean to insult you, Nancy. Y’all grow up so fast.”
“One hundred seventy-eight, one hundred seventy-nine, one eighty. Mento Marie.”
“No. No sir. I’m not insulted. I mean, that’s a lot of money.”
“For a normal night, sure, but we have no idea when we’ll be home or when….” Mr. Crowe found himself unable to finish his thought.
“Yes, sir. I know,” Nancy said, noticing that the money hadn’t moved. “I just want to help out, especially….”
Similarly, Nancy found herself unable to speak when her words delivered her to the memory that the Crowe’s young nephew Geoffrey had recently died—drowned down by the creek while playing with Will. And with Geoffrey’s invisible friend, whom the boys had at various times referred to either as Mauri or Marie. No one was really sure of any details other than the fact that one child was dead and the other would never recover, and those were the only details that counted.
“…especially…,” she tried again.
Nancy was of no blood relation to the Crowes, and she lived roughly a mile away down the patched-up two-lane road. The people of Lancaster may have been dispersed widely, but their bonds were cinched tighter. The loss of a ten-year-old child was everyone’s loss. And Will was everyone’s fault.
Mrs. Crowe appeared in the doorway, holding her swollen belly like a fragile package.
The package inspired Nancy: “…especially since you will be home right after your little miracle is delivered unto the world.”
“Yes,” Mrs. Crowe agreed, smiling despite being short of breath. “Yes, our little miracle will—”
The clock struck six and played its six o’clock chimes, which would hot have, themselves, stopped Mrs. Crowe from talking about the imminent miracle, but her Will shouted his strangely familiar chant over the chimes.
“One hundred seventy-eight, one hundred seventy-nine, one eighty. Mento memory.”
“She will definitely be here very soon,” Mrs. Crowe said, feeling her miracle kick.
“I know where everything is,” Nancy said, avoiding any extra questions before the Crowes walked out to and left in the car that had been sitting packed and ready going on a solid week now.
Nancy turned to your Will, who maintained his spot. She’d been his sitter since he was born, it seemed, (He started counting again.) but not since the incident. She stood still by the window where she’d watched Will’s parents leave. The room had seemed crowded earlier, but something about the emptiness made the room seem smaller, somehow. And Will seem closer. He’d seemed, at first, to act as if he were unaware of his parents’ departure, and of his own aloneness with Nancy.
“Are you hungry? You dad said you haven’t eaten.”
Will looked up as if to count. Instead, he stared through a tuft of hair at his standing sitter: “He knows you’re here.”
Nancy had to remind herself that the boy had been through a lot, especially for his age. Like Geoffrey, Will was only ten years old. Nancy had been a dependable sitter for both of the Crowe families, even keeping both for the majority of a summer while the boys’ fathers worked in the fields. Farm mothers, like their husbands, worked from sun to sun, but neither worked in the house all day. And keeping the boys rescued Nancy from her own house. All the farm families were tight; some were too tight.
“Who, Will? Who knows I’m here?”
Nancy had heard the name before. She’d never understood it—still didn’t—but Geoffrey’s invisible friend became a turning point in his life. Not nearly as happy as he had been, his parents believed he’d invented the friend to replace Nancy after both boys had recently grown too old to need a sitter, as such. Geoffrey had even stopped playing with Will, or Will had stopped playing with him. No one was certain.
“Maybe that boy actually started believing the imaginary friend was real,” Nancy’s father had said about Will. “Maybe that’s why he killed the other kid. Just plain old, good old jealousy. That’s it. That’s all it takes.”
He offered Nancy a .38 snub nose revolver to take with her “just in case the little murdering psycho” struck again. She refused. He laughed, thinking Nancy was afraid of the little pistol. Nancy noticed that he put the gun back in his top drawer, and she noticed that it was loaded. She wanted to be ashamed of noticing. She wondered what her mom would think about the gun or about anything for that matter.
“Mauri?” Nancy asked. “Geoffrey’s invisible friend?”
“Friend,” Will repeated. “He’s my friend now. And he wants to be friends with you.”
Nancy thought about what her father had said. Jealousy? She said, “People can have more than one friend, you know.”
Will did not answer, but he seemed to be enraptured by the possibility of multiple friends. Or highly disturbed.
“You know that don’t you, Will?”
“One hundred seventy-eight, one hundred seventy-nine, one eighty. May man-to Mauri.”
“Why do you do that? Why do you count like that?”
“That’s not a real….” Nancy remembered that Will’s parents had called her to protect, not to upset, the child.
That money that sat on the table, she decided, would stay there. She was scared—chilled—but there was no one she could call even if she’d have wanted to. Will’s parents were busy with their miracle, her own father was the worst monster she knew, and her friends’ parents wouldn’t allow them to help her babysit a known killer.
“I didn’t kill…,” Will began. “I didn’t kill those chickens in the barn. And I didn’t steal the food we had out for Sunday.”
His tears drew her in.
“I didn’t hear about that,” she said.
“Mom said…. Mom and Dad said it showed that I still had the streak.”
He didn’t answer.
Nancy wasn’t sure where to go with this. “Have you tried telling anyone...what you told me?”
“Nobody listens. Not even Mu-Ray.”
“Will, you know your parents still—”
“Only Geoffrey listened, and Mau-ray took him away.”
Nancy leaned down and rubbed the hair from the child’s face. He sucked in hard to catch his breath. “Three minutes,” he said.
“What happens in three minutes, Will?”
“He told me to count the seconds.”
“Mori. He dared Geoffrey to hold his breath under water for three minutes. And he made me count, but Geoffrey lifted his head, so Mori pushed his head back under. And I counted, and he made it, but Mori said I counted too fast. I had to count real seconds. I had to start over, and if I didn’t space out the count by seconds, I would have to start over again. I tried to keep the seconds, and Geoffrey fought. He pushed Geoffrey’s head in further. One hundred twenty, one hundred twenty-one. And he fought harder. And then, I knew he would make it. One hundred sixty, one hundred sixty-one. I wanted to help Geoffrey fight, but Mori would make me start all over. And he’s big and mean. One hundred seventy. We were so close, but then, he stopped fighting. Geoffrey stopped fighting. One hundred seventy-eight, one hundred seventy-nine, one eighty.”
“Why had nobody ever met him, Will?”
“And when Mori let him go, Geoffrey floated down to the sandbar. Mori swole his arm in my face and said, ‘Tell them I did it, friend.’ And he walked away.”
“There’s nobody like that in the whole county, Will.”
“I didn’t even want to go down there,” Will said. “Geoffrey said he really had something he wanted to show me. Like it used to be. Before….”
Will’s tears took over his ambition to tell the story. Nancy realized that whatever Will thought he saw was his reality. His memory had solidified in the world he lived in now. This mystery person also resided in that world, and nothing could dissuade Will. At least not that night.
Again, she rubbed his head and used her sleeve to wipe away his tears. “Tomorrow,” she said, “or whenever your dad gets home—”
“I can’t tell them. No one believes me, never has. I could only talk to Geoffrey. Ever. And Mori took him away.”
“It’s Ok, Will. You’re still—”
“And now, I talk to you, but he’s on his way.”
Nancy pushed Will away and stepped back toward the middle of the room.
“Will, that’s not nice. Will!”
“I want…,” Will began. “I want to go to bed.”
“I’d say that’s a good idea,” Nancy said.
Nancy helped Will to his room. He was fragile, like when he was a baby, and she would carry him to bed. She’d wish him sweet dreams, but now he was, himself, a nightmare. Nancy understood how Will’s mother must have felt all the time. He had been such a sweet boy with a good heart. Now, he would probably be sent to an institution as soon as his parents had time to transition from the birth of their miracle to the death that no one talked about. Nancy just wished she could lock the boy’s door on the outside.
How do his parents even sleep in the house? she thought. When she returned downstairs, she decided to make coffee. She didn’t normally drink coffee. In fact, if she had to make coffee at her own house, she would have no idea where to find anything. But she had made coffee for Mr. Crowe several times after she slept over after keeping Will late. He and Mrs. Crowe paid well, especially for poor farmers. Nancy always wanted to find a way to show her appreciation. Still, she definitely wasn’t planning to take that money that was sitting on the table.
Then, she heard the voice in the sitting room.
“One hundred seventy-eight, one hundred seventy-nine, one hundred eighty.”
Why is he back up? What is he doing? She tried to look into the room without actually going in, but she couldn’t see the couch where the heard the counting continue.
She didn’t want to pick up a knife and scare him. Would she really stab Will even to save her own life? She saw her purse still sitting on the counter. Perfect! The purse was small, but she grabbed it low near the opening. Heavy.
I could at least try to knock him back with the weight, she told herself, knowing the purse held everything she needed to protect herself.
“One hundred ninety-eight, one hundred ninety-nine….”
Nancy saw the money in his hand being counted. Then, she acknowledged that this grown, muscular man wasn’t Will.
He was lying stretched out on the couch like her dad did, only he had the money rather than a drink.
“Where will I spend two hundred dollars in this little slice of heaven and remain invisible?” he asked.
“I’m calling the cops,” Nancy said. “You better get out of here.”
He laughed, said, “And you’re telling the cops what? What that boy told you? Even he has learned that it’s better sometimes just to make friends, stay friends, play nice. He knew I’d be friends with you. I knew you were coming over.”
“You couldn’t have. It was last minute.”
“Your daddy knew.”
The man watched the blood escape from Nancy’s face.
“They’ll believe Will now,” Nancy said. “There’s two of us.”
The man laughed again. “Do you know that’s exactly what that other boy said before I showed him a new game. He was actually pretty good at the game, but Will—he panicked. I just hate when people can’t keep score right, you know what I mean?”
He sat up on the couch. Then, he leaned back, said, “But I want to play a different game with you, girl. I know you’d do just about anything to keep that little twerp safe up there.”
Nancy walked around in front of the couch ad stood. She noticed the man’s buzz cut, his blue jeans and tank top, and the clock tattoo on his left bicep that indicated 11:34. The words “memento mori” were etched under the clock.
“Memento mori,” she said out loud.
“Yeah, baby, you know what that means?”
She shook her head.
“Always remember that you’re going to die,” he said, laughed, leaned back further. He opened his pants, said, “I think you know how to play this game.”
She knelt in front of him, using the purse in her right hand to help guide herself down.
“Maybe you can earn some of this money back,” he said, smiled, and tilted his head back, already a little satisfied just from the power.
“Memento mori,” Nancy said.
“That’s right, baby,” he said, smiling.
As he reached down to help her please him, she reached into the purse and pulled out that .38 snub nose. The man known then as Mori felt the cold barrel underneath his stubbly chin, but he didn’t feel it long enough to count even a real second.