Each evening, the old woman put a box on her doorstep. The next morning, the box was gone.
Gene and Cynthia watched from the attic window, because the attic was really the only place with a broad view of the neighbor’s property. The silver sky faded to black as night set in, shadows sprawling across the overgrown grass and weed infested sidewalk.
“Do you think she’s a spy?” Gene asked Cynthia, squinting his face so that his freckles bunched up inside his cheeks. One of his glasses, perched precariously on his nose, had a crack from the last time he’d slung himself down the banister. Mom hadn’t liked that one bit. Said it’d be months before she could afford a new pair of glasses.
“A spy, here in Little Creek!” Cynthia scoffed at her little brother’s assessment. He always wanted things to be more exciting than they really were. To Gene, dogs and cats could talk to each other. Cars were self-aware and the tooth fairy was an actual forest magician who lived in a tree.
Cynthia prided herself on being a realist. While other girls her age were fixated on boys and nail polish and school dances, Cynthia had long since rationalized that boys weren’t worth spending time on and what was a the point of painting a tiny thing like a nail?
Gene’s face crumpled, the way it usually did when Cynthia stepped all over his dreams.
“Why shouldn’t there be spies in Little Creek?”
Cynthia opened her mouth to explain to Gene the dull proportions of their town, the distance it was from any big and exciting cities where things actually happened, and how no one would actually move here because most people didn’t even know it existed. “Look!” Gene cried, pressing his face against the window. “There she is!”
The old woman opened her front door and stooped to place a box just outside it. To Cynthia, the box looked as ordinary as boxes could be. Plain brown cardboard with bits of scotch tape holding it together.
But to Gene’s imagination it was “a ticking bomb”, “stolen diamonds”, or, “a flash drive with nuclear codes.”
Mom found them, as she always did, huddled in the corner of the attic with dust patches on their knees and cobwebs in their hair when she told them she’d been calling them for half an hour to wash the dishes.
Dad was downstairs whistling, carving a pipe out of wood, curls and shavings scattered on the table around him. “So,” he said with a look of grave finality when his children descended the staircase heavy-footed. “Did you crack the code?”
Cynthia didn’t bother telling him that there was no code to crack, because Gene had already started on his latest theories. The old woman was sending messages to another dimension, of course.
“So who’s picking up the boxes?” Cynthia snorted over the sink, elbow deep in bubbles. “Ghost mailman?”
But that night, Gene slipped out of bed an hour after mom had tucked him in--he’d made a very convincing nodding-off-to-sleep impression.
“Get up, Cyn,” he whispered. “It’s time.”
Rain lashed the windows. Outside it looked dark and cold and not at all the type of weather for a secret mission.
But Gene looked extremely important in his raincoat, green cap (because camouflage), and binoculars circling his neck. He wore a grim but determined ‘for King and country’ expression. Cynthia didn’t have the heart to tell him that they were probably going to come back home in twenty minutes wet and miserable. The mission had already failed.
They had to climb out of the attic window. Next year, Cynthia knew it would be too small for either of them to fit through. But somehow now they managed to wriggle out legs first, their feet touching the horizontal downspout. Trying not to slip in the cascade of rain. Gripping the window sill, and then crouching to their knees, they slid down the rest of the downspout and—gracefully—into a waiting puddle.
Gene’s hair was matted to his forehead and water was pouring from each sleeve of his raincoat. But he nodded in the affirmative. “Right. Cover me.”
Cynthia tried not to complain too much about how soggy her socks had become, or the fact that her shoes were sprouting waterfalls each time she took a step forward through the now marsh-like grass.
In the flurry of last-minute preparation, Gene had forgotten to bring a flashlight. Or snacks. Which would have come in handy forty minutes later as they sat under the porch roof of the vacant house across the street trying to watch the old woman’s property through sheets of rain.
Skittles, or even just a crust of bread, would have been a small comfort. Payment for her troubles, Cynthia pointed out. To which Gene shushed her, pressing a finger to his lips and suggesting they sit “back-to-back so they can keep an eye on all sides of the street.”
“If he’s a ghost, we’re not going to see him anyway.”
But Gene refused to be swayed. Even when Cynthia’s head lolled for a moment and she started to dream of soft, warm quilt covers and chocolate-chip cookies hidden underneath her pillow. Gene scolded her that she’d never be recruited for any sort of important government work if she couldn’t at least stay awake.
“There she is,” Cynthia said, so that Gene abandoned the whole back-to-back formation and shuffled over beside her.
The old woman had opened the front door. Through the mist of rain, they could just barely make out her fluffy slippers, her white dressing gown, and the curlers in her ash white hair. She picked up the box.
“I told you,” Cynthia said, even though she never had. “It’s the same box. She’s taking it inside and then she’ll put it out again in the morning. She’s no spy. She’s just a crazy old lady.”
Gene shook his head as he peered through his binoculars. “She’s onto us. She knows we’re watching.”
Cynthia proclaimed that she was cold and now half-starved and it was true; both their teeth were chattering and their stomachs were grumbling loud enough to wake up all of Little Creek.
The woman retreated inside for a minute, then she returned with an umbrella.
“She’s coming over here,” Cynthia marveled.
“Abort, abort, abort,” Gene exclaimed, stashing his binoculars under his raincoat.
But Cynthia couldn’t move. Not even when Gene grabbed her hand and tried to pry her off the porch she was frozen to.
The woman was halfway across the road now, walking in a slow hunch. The umbrella in one hand, the box in the other.
“She’s seen our faces,” Gene moaned. “We’ve been compromised.”
The woman stepped onto the lawn of the vacant house and shuffled through the grass.
Her white dressing gown was splattered with mud but she didn’t seem to mind.
“Don’t tell her anything, no matter what happens,” Gene whispered between clenched teeth. Cynthia wanted to reassure him that it was highly unlikely they were going to be taken away to an underground bunker and tortured for information. Not at their age. But she couldn’t speak. She found that she, too, was afraid. Whether it was Gene’s fault, or because the old woman was in fact terrifying, she couldn’t say.
Then she was there. The old woman stopped not five feet away from them, and they couldn’t move. Couldn’t breathe.
They held hands so tightly Cynthia couldn’t feel her fingers. She should have left a note. A practical girl like her, why hadn’t she thought of that? Mom and Dad would worry if they never came home. If something terrible happened to them. If they were never found. Cynthia would never forgive herself if--
Then the old woman spoke. Her voice was stronger, richer, than expected, given her stooped and frail body.
“Bird and River, there you are,”
Gene and Cynthia dared a glance at each other.
“You are Bird and River, are you not?” the woman asked, tilting her head. Her eyes were a shrewd blue, etched by lines as thin as water. A playful smile lifted her lips.
Cynthia opened her mouth to reply but Gene beat her to it.
“What if we are?”
Cynthia turned to him, eyes wide. But Gene was looking at the old woman, sitting as straight as a bullet.
“Then I have a mission for you,” the old woman replied. She handed the box to Gene. “You know where to go.”
The box moved.
It actually moved.
Gene and Cynthia looked at each other, aghast. Ticking bomb. Exotic pet. Human heart. Poltergeist. Now it was Cynthia’s imagination running wild.
“But where—” Gene turned to ask, but the words shriveled in his mouth.
The woman was gone. As though she had disappeared in a door of rain. The lawn was empty. The house was dark.
The box thumped between them.