It was weeks before I was able to find anything else about Winnie. Admittedly school had me bogged down pretty hard. Ms. Copper made sure to bring everything out of English that I might hate about it. We finished To Kill a Mockingbird, followed by a series on Edgar Allen Poe.
We only read the boring ones.
We had to write a paper at the end of it which Ms. Copper gave us very few instructions for. Apparently she had very specific intentions, though, because she flunked Dill on his. He wrote a comparison to another author, H.P. Lovecraft, and she tore him a new one for it.
“Lovecraft was a monotonous writer, a horrid drunkard, and had nothing but a grim outlook on everything about life. Those monsters of his are too fantastic to be talked about in this course. It’s time to get your head out of that fantasy land of yours, Mr. Luck.”
He shrugged and muttered something about Cthulhu taking her sanity or something. Dill’s funny like that.
I told him about everything I’d found with Winnie and invited him over on several occasions so he could look at the stuff.
“This music box is sort of incredible,” he said. “I mean, how old do you think this girl was? Four or five? Judging from the pictures, at least.”
“And the writing,” I reminded him.
By now I was well acquainted with Winnie’s diary. It wasn’t too long, about 80 pages or so like your typical memo book. But it wasn’t dense like a full diary might otherwise be. I kept it on my bedside table and thumbed through it before I went to bed every night, and I’d begun finding patterns. For one, the scribbles were consistent and many marks were derivative of actual letters, though some seemed invented entirely. Even the ones that seemed to be made totally of “real” letters didn’t make any sense. Stuff like “mvnni” and “aasnt” that I couldn’t even begin to make sense of. Her own name is all that she seemed to be able to write. And one other word:
It was all over the place, and it wasn’t sporadically capitalized like her name was. It was proper: capital J, lowercase umbo. It didn’t make sense except to think she was copying it down from somewhere. But as far as I knew, there weren’t any fast food places selling anything jumbo-sized when she was around.
“Right,” Dill nodded. “And the writing. Think she’s writing in another language? Like a made-up code or something?”
“I’ve thought about that,” I nodded. “I’ve tried with a few of the words. Moving all the letters over one to the left or right, that sort of thing. Nothing that makes anymore sense. And if she is as young as we think she is, even that’s really complicated. I doubt she’d do anything more than that.”
He nodded his agreement and opened the music box again. “This thing’s creepy.”
I’d usually listen to the music box when I was looking through her stuff. I imagined she listened to it while she was writing and drawing, so maybe if I did, too, I’d have the same ideas she did.
I showed the stuff to Terri one day, but made him promise not to tell Mom or Dad.
“Why would I tell them?” He asked, acting upset.
“Because you’re a snitch,” I answered.
“Am not,” he argued.
“Are, too. That time I was taking dad’s batteries for my Gameboy?”
“That was, like, 5 years ago.”
“So?” I retorted. “Snitches get stitches.” I brandished my knuckles at him.
“I could bury you.” Terri’s eyes narrowed, but I knew he had a fear of stitches in general ever since our neighbor’s pitbull bit him when he was 9. He should have developed a fear of pitbulls, but that was the sort of backward logic Terri subscribed to.
“Stitches,” I repeated, and puffed out my chest.
I’d put Winnie’s pictures all in a stack now, and pulled them out of the crawlspace in my wall. Terri looked into the small box of a room and his eyes widened. “You went in there?” He asked, bewildered. I nodded. “Well you’re braver than me, then.” He thumbed through the drawings and I showed him the music box which he opened and closed immediately. “That thing’s possessed, man,” he said, startled. “That’s creepy as crap.”
I grinned. “I know.”
“Well what does all this junk mean?” He continued, placing the music box back and shuddering slightly.
“That’s what I’m trying to figure out,” I answered. I pointed to the picture of the people. “It says ‘help’ right there. I wonder if she was in trouble, you know?”
He shrugged. “Maybe. How old is this, anyway? If she was asking for help, she’s probably long gone now. This paper looks like someone peed on it, it’s so yellow.”
I nodded. “Yeah, but still. If she is around still, I could ask her what all this is about.”
“I doubt she’d want to talk about it,” he said distantly, looking over one of the pictures of the circus. “If she was asking for help, it’s probably all bad stuff. Except the circus. She loved the circus.”
I nodded in agreement. He had a point. There was nothing I could do to help her. But there was this vague sense of obligation. I’d stumbled upon her secret room, something that was probably sacred to her, if only because it housed all her crayon drawings. And if she was asking for help, if something bad was happening to her… Even if I couldn’t fix it, I should know.
Someone should know.
“Welp,” Terri slapped his knees and rose. “Good luck with your circus girl. Don’t do anything stupid trying to find out what happened. Like, get arrested or whatever.”
“And you’re not going to tell mom and dad,” I reminded him. He spat out air in a pfft and walked out of my room. That was like a handshake to us; a brothers’ seal of honor.
I continued to flip through the book every night. Jumbo, Winnie, letters and squiggles, little drawings of circus animals, a trapeze, rings, a rope swing, tents, a ladder, some-
A ladder. That was weird.
I think it was a ladder, at least. And come to think of it, some of the trapeze looked weird. Like, with other little bars coming off of it. And I’d seen that somewhere before, too.
In the back of the book, on the last page, were three scratches. They were repeats, which was weird because the only thing that Winnie repeated was “Jumbo” and her own name. Most of the elephants looked alike, too, but give her some credit: there are only so many ways to draw an elephant.
But that weird trapeze was there again. And the rope swing and the ladder. It was also a weird page because that’s all there was to it. Every other page was filled completely up, some “words” going off the edges even. This was totally white (well, yellow) except the pictures.
I showed Dill at school the following Monday, finally getting it off my chest from the weekend. “That is weird,” he confirmed, looking at them. “And look,” he turned from the back page to the three others. “They’re exactly the same. Same number of rungs on the ladder, same number of weird sticks on the trapeze in the same places. Same little foothold at the bottom of the rope swing.”
“But why?” I asked, mostly rhetorically, but hoping Dill had an answer. He did, but not a good one.
“Maybe they were her toys.”
Thanksgiving came and went and a couple days afterward, Terri had a girl that he liked over at our house. The box was sprawled out on the floor as usual when he opened the door to my room. He was giving her the tour of the house, I guess. Mom and Dad would do that for their friends, so I guess Terri fancied himself an adult now.
“This is Cade,” he introduced me to her. “Cade, this is Ashley.”
“Hi,” I greeted her, stepping out of my chair to shake her hand (since we were all adults here). “Terri’s told me a lot about you.” He hadn’t, but I knew that the comment would either make me seem like a nice guy or make Terri look creepy for having talked about her more than was socially acceptable. I liked either outcome.
“What’s all this?” Ashley motioned at the crate on the floor next to my desk. By now I’d forgotten that it wasn’t a part of everyone else’s everyday life.
“Oh,” I started, “this is a box I found inside the wall over here.” Ashley wasn’t a concern for the secrecy of what I’d pretty much determined was a case. I walked over and creaked open the panel on my wall. “Found it a while after we moved in.”
Her eyes widened. “Really?” She asked. “What all’s in there?”
“Some drawings, a diary that looks like it’s in another language,” I listed.
“A creepy music box,” Terri added.
“Really?” Her face lit up. “Can I see?” She crouched down next to the box and I pulled out the music box. She nodded and raised her eyebrows as it began to play. “Yeah, you weren’t wrong about it being creepy.”
“What’s creepier,” I said, “is this drawing. The little girl’s asking for help. From what? I don’t know.”
She looked it over carefully. “That is the mystery,” she said. “Whose grave is this?” She pointed at the rock next to who I assumed was Winnie.
How could I have missed that? That was so obvious! A grave! “I don’t know,” I admitted. “But maybe,” I pointed to the other girl above the rock, “it’s whoever this is?”
“Like she drew a ghost or something?” Ashley asked.
“Yeah,” Terri tried to add in like he’d been a part of the conversation.
“Man,” she sat back. That’s cool. I love this sort of thing. Sherlock Holmes? Favorite books, hands down.”
Terri got this shocked look on his face like he was surprised to find out she could read. “Yeah,” he said, “I’ve been helping him try to figure some of the stuff out. Not a whole lot to go on, though.”
“Have you tried the library?” She asked. We both stared up at her.
We tried City Hall first, but found that Poll Oaks’s city records were very limited. The hall itself was vastly smaller than I thought it would be, only large enough to contain a small hearing auditorium, the offices of the mayor and a couple other officers, and the front desk. The whole building was in a perfectly cubic box.
The library, on the other hand, was this immense building, looking more like our house than a government building. If you took the ornate exterior of our home and spread it across a much larger area, that’s what we found at the Poll Oaks Public Library.
I’d tried googling Filmore and Winnie Temptower before, but there were no results. I hadn’t much expected any, given that I’d never known this city existed until I moved here. But in the public records downstairs, we found a sort of face book of inhabitants of Poll Oaks, alphabetical order.
There were 5: Filmore and Alexandria (the mother and father), Clara (the eldest), Joel (the middle child), and Winnie (the youngest). They sat in that same arrangement you always see in old photographs. It didn’t seem so old as to require them to stand perfectly still and not smile, but none of them smiled anyway. There were several pictures of their house, as well. Pictures of the porch and the entryway, and then a picture of the ballroom with the chandelier in it.
“Is that the same one that was taken out?” Terri pointed to it.
“I don’t think so,” I shook my head. “That one had wires. I don’t know when this picture was taken, but I doubt they had electric chandeliers rigged up back then.”
“Hey,” Ashley said. “It’s something.”
That something was all I had to really go off of for a while until Christmas drew nearer and the air got a whole lot colder. Dill and Ashley both came over one weekend (though only Dill got to spend the night, much to Terri’s dismay) and we finally showed them both the attic, now populated by a handful of our things. The space was so massive, though, that there was still a lot of room to run around, or at least spread out a board game like we did. We used the extra furniture to sit on, and Terri would intentionally knock our pieces far away into the corners to make us leave for a moment so he could steal a smooch off Ashley.
“This used to be a bedroom,” Dill said while we were next to the wall once, deciding to give Terri a little extra time.
“How do you know?” I asked.
“It’s big enough,” he said, “but also, here.” He pointed to the baseboards which I must have seen a thousand times. There was a pattern raised on it, a continuous line of ropes, each tied in a hangman’s knot, but connected to the next in a square knot. “That’s pretty ornate for just an attic,” he said.
So the attic had been a bedroom. Good to know, but it didn’t make anything make any more sense.
Dill and I extended our charity to Terri and decided to venture outside, finally taking advantage of the space behind the house. Outside always seems to hold more promise when it’s cold and threatening to snow. The backyard could have been a freakin’ football field if Terri and I had taken the time to chalk it all out. And then maybe a baseball diamond after that. We took my and Terri’s bike over the stretch of grass, trying to hop into the rolling humps that sprung up from the ground, convincing ourselves we were getting some sick air. In reality we were working with inches, but when you exaggerate with a friend, the exaggerations seem a little more real.
We made it to the handful of trees that lied beyond the field and began rushing around them, trying to convince ourselves again that we could reach the lower-hanging branches. There was one that we could grasp, but it was literally the only branch, attached to a dead trunk. We found sword-sized sticks and fought for a while, the sun lowering, the ground becoming even darker under the shade of the trees. I thought I’d finally bested Dill when he tumbled to the ground, but when he rose, he looked intently at the pile of leaves he’d been standing on.
“You hear that?” He asked.
“You probably heard something when you fell down because you, you know… Fell down,” I said.
“No,” he argued, and began shuffling around the pile. “I tripped. My foot snagged on…”
He pushed enough leaves away to reveal a wooden corner. His head turned to me excitedly, our eyes wide. It could just be another fact like that the attic was a bedroom, but it was something! We pushed the rest of the leaves out of the way and revealed a square of wood with a cork in the center of its bottom.
“You have a knife?” Dill asked.
I did, and retrieved it for him, watched him wriggle it around the cork, gradually jostling it loose. He popped it out of its hole and poked his finger in just long enough to grasp it and fling the wood up. It was hinged and was now obviously a trapdoor. “Didn’t happen to bring a-“ I cut off his question, offering him the flashlight I’d carried in the back of my waistband. It had clunked against my back and butt as we rode down, but now I knew it was worth it.
We clicked it on and poured the light into the room, making sure there were no animals in there who might take offense to our break in. After seeing it was all clear, we lowered ourselves down into it, sliding down the dirt mound that backed up to the hatch. The whole room was dirt, a handful of wide wooden planks set against the walls and braced to keep the areas compacted, as was the roof. It was larger than Winnie’s crawlspace, tall enough for us to stand all the way up and still have about a foot between our heads and the ceiling. In the corner was a stepstool and a rope, curled up near the end, twisting randomly, gnarled. Next to these two were a pile of bottles that Dill and I rummaged through, and an old, tattered square of burlap that fell apart when you ran it through your hands. Dill investigated the stepstool more closely and I joined him. The screws and hinges were old and rusted, but still extended out so that the stool could be used. There were tarnished metal braces under the rungs, too, that supported the planks as Dill tested the first step of four. It didn’t give but sagged, and Dill decided to step back down. I paced and gazed at the stepstool.
Four steps, but still A-framed with metal caps on the feet and either side of the top step to give stability like most ladders.
I pulled Winnie’s book out of my back pocket which had become its home for the past months. I flipped to the final page and looked at the three objects. The ladder only had three steps, but they were smooshed to try and fit in the space she’d made. But no ladder has only three steps anyway. Winnie was more specific than we’d given her credit for.
“What if this is the ladder?” I asked Dill.
“In the picture?” He replied. I nodded and he began to look at it more intently. “Well,” he said. “It’s possible, but then the same question comes up that we had before.”
“Why’d she put it there?” I answered.
We brought the ladder and rope up and out with us, replaced the cork and covered the hatch again. We left the bottles because Dill had turned one over to look at the label and saw that it was alcoholic, and we didn’t want my parents thinking we were going out to the woods to drink when we were going out to the woods to do something much cooler.
“Hey,” I asked my dad the next morning. “Do we have any plans for the cellar out back of the house?”
He cocked his head at me before answering, “We don’t have a cellar at this house.”
It hadn’t been listed on the property.
Dill called me a couple days later, the first day of Christmas break. “Hey, you know those photocopies you gave me of the pictures of the Temptowers and the diary?”
I nodded before realizing he couldn’t receive that through a phone call, recovered with a “Yeah, what about them?” I’d made additional copies for him so that he was looking at all the things I was, so nothing would be lost just because I overlooked it.
“I’ve been looking at that picture of the ballroom with the chandelier.”
“Do you know what happened to it? I think that’s our funky trapeze bar.”
“It was thrown out in the 80s, I think,” I replied. “I can ask Cheryl if she knows.”
“Cool,” he said. “Also, have you looked all over that ladder?”
“Some,” I glanced up the stairs to the attic where I’d stashed it.
“Take it apart,” he said.
“We’re not learning anything with it still together are we?”
There was a toolbox in the attic that I retrieved a screwdriver from and wedged into the crease along the first of the four feet. The metal split and crumbled, the rust damage doing most of the work for me. Underneath, some of the wood was rotted and fell away with the metal cap. The next two bore a similar result and the last, mostly unrusted, I was able to pry away. Still no result. I came to the first edge of the top step, these caps less damaged than the others. I placed the head of the screwdriver in a screw and twisted, watched the metal already begin to raise like something was pushing out. I did the next, across from it, not above it, and a piece of folded paper fell out.
“Dad?” I called down. “Can Dill come over?”
I’ve left these pages to Winnie to hide in the best places she could think of. She’s good like that. I don’t know which place you found this, so I’ll say that there’s one with the stepstool, the chandelier, and the rope. I can’t imagine why you’d want to find these, or even if you meant to. But on the back of each is a simple message leading to the diary I left behind. It’s yours now. Thank you.
Dill clutched the shoulder of my shirt in excitement. “We were right! Holy crap, man! Did Cheryl ever get back to you about that chandelier?”
“Not yet,” I shook my head. “She doesn’t get into the office until tomorrow.”
What’s on the back?”
I turned it over. “The,” I chuckled. “Helpful.”
“And the rope…” He trailed off and took it in his hands. “Think it’s, like, wound up in here?”
If it was it’d be impossible to get to. It was caked and fused with age and dirt, damp. The end was tangled around on itself in permanent twists.
Dill spent the night, fully invested in hearing back from Cheryl the next day. She called my father even though I was the one who’d called her. She was concerned about my curiosity and warned my father that it was a gas chandelier so if I wanted it for anything, it would be difficult to get it to work. Anyway, one of the neighbors had taken it when it was replaced. They’d always been fond of the look of our house, but that center room especially.
The Hughlings were old but spry. Mr. Hughling, no younger than 85, took a jog every morning and would remind me the importance of education every time he passed me on the mornings when I had to take the bus. Mrs. Hughling spent all of her time on the back porch with a single box plant that was supposed to grow tomatoes. It did, but they were about the size of the tip of your nose. She said, though, that they were sweeter than grapes.
I reluctantly knocked on the door, hesitant to go through the lead-up to asking to see the chandelier. Fortunately, they beat me to the punch as they had it set on a table in their front room. “This,” Mrs. Hughling said, “is actually from your house. Have you seen it before?” I nodded and explained I’d seen the pictures of the old house which she then asked to see. I obliged and took advantage of their distraction to look over the chandelier.
“Yeah,” Mr. Hughling said, not looking up from the pictures, “we loved the look of that thing, so it was a shame when those folks threw it out. We wanted to put it up in here, but it’s gas, so it’s… You know. More trouble than it’s worth.”
“Nice centerpiece, though,” Mrs. Hughling conceded.
“Makes it hard to notice that arm that’s crooked, too,” the Mr. added.
“Oh, it’s old,” she answered. “You’re crooked now, too, Stanley.”
I felt around the bottom of it, on a knob that dangled from a chain at the center of the 6 arms. There was a screw in it and it scraped and screeched as the threads unlatched for the first time in years. There was a piece of paper rolled up and jammed inside which Dill slid out, replacing the bottom latch before the Hughlings looked up from the photos.
“Well that’s nice,” she said, handing us the photos back. “I wish I could have seen it the first day it was put in.”
“Me, too,” I agreed.
“Better days,” said the husband.
“Better days,” I nodded, though I wasn’t convinced.
The same message was scribbled on the page in the same deliberate, calculated handwriting as the other. “Furnace” was written on the back where “the” had been on the other. Dill lamented for a moment, saying someone was sure to have burned it up by now, before I reminded him there was another word.
So hopefully the last word wasn’t “In”.
We ran up to the attic again and looked at the rope. This couldn’t be it. This couldn’t be a dead end after we’d found so much. We’d been promised this now! Two-thirds of the way there.
“Maybe,” Dill suggested, “the twists are for a word.”
“What?” I looked at him incredulously.
“Like, it twists into a word.” He picked it up and began maneuvering the twists with one another, doubling back and bending the cemented curves. He passed it off to me, and I tried to twist it as well, but the rope would only follow its own curves. So I allowed it to and found it looping back, over and over, on a single point until only a loop stuck out from a stack…
A hangman’s noose.
We’d seen this before.
I looked from it to the attic floor in front of me and followed the lines of the hardwood to the baseboards. I watched Dill’s eyes float from the baseboards to me and we both scrambled to it.
She couldn’t put the note in the rope itself, but she could use it to point to somewhere she could stash it. We spent fifteen minutes knocking on the baseboards, listening for a hollow spot until I received a soft *clonk* from a segment.
Dill rushed over and handed me the screwdriver from the toolbox and watched as I wedged the slat of wood free. The paper was adhered to the wood and we unfolded it, skimmed to make sure the message bore no difference and then turned over to see the word on the back
“Behind,” It read, and we swung around the corner of the archway to the furnace nook. The cast iron body pressed nearly against the wall and it was difficult to see. There wasn’t enough room to put your head in to get a clear line of sight, so I just reached in, sliding my hand up the back to get to it. I found another chunk of wood that had served to shim the book against the wall and protect it from the heat of the furnace.
I brought the book out into the light and Dill and I gazed at the cover: black leather, bound tight and pages only somewhat yellowed, still strong and bearing words written in legible inked handwriting. Each page was filled and then some, several additional papers folded neatly and carefully into the back. In the front was an additional note and we hunched down to read it.
I don’t know who you might be or how you found this. If it was just by incident, I should inform you there are three other notes hidden in objects around the Temptower property. One will be in the chandelier in the Great Room, another in the baseboards of the attic, and the last inside the metal plate on the top of the stepstool in William’s hovel. I asked Winnie to hide them in places no one would think to check, and she told me she’d put them with “Mommy’s favorite things.” She held on to that rope for so long, I had to have Will come and take it away from her, but she knew the shape of it.
It will probably be too late for you to do anything, should these details bring anything to light. If not, I pray you act on it to the best of your ability, but if so, I should hope it’s not too much to ask you to read on. I only get to sleep now with the hope that someone will know what happened to us tucked away in my chest. Someone needs to be told. Someone needs to know what he did to us.
-Clara Temptower, 1891