The night gown
Way off in the distance, a dog howled.
I let my toes inch further and further over the edge of the cliff. The wind came up from the cavernous crag and pushed my long, white cotton gown out behind me. I had chosen the gown especially for this occasion. It is the only piece of clothing I own that makes me feel truly beautiful. It hangs past my feet and goes almost all the way out when I twirl. The bottom is trimmed with silk. It hugs me in all the right places and ripples and flows when I move.
All in all, a truly beautiful dress.
I almost managed a half-smile. Maybe when they found my body, they would think the same thing. Beautiful dress, beautiful girl. The last impression they would ever have of me. A nice way to be remembered. A nice way to go. I stared down into the crag that was barely illuminated by the moonlight.
But what if I never was found? Who would think to look for me in the bottom of the Yukatuk canyon? I frowned. That would not do. Not at all. Suddenly the wind that had felt so liberating was very, very cold. Before I could stop them, more what-ifs crowded into my head, all jockeying for my attention. What if I was eaten by wild animals? What if my entire body shattered due to my lack of food? What if…
What if no one thought to look for me at all?
I was beginning to see the hopelessness of the entire thing. This wasn’t going to work. No one would come looking for me. Of this I was certain. My entire effort would be wasted. My final dying act would go unnoticed.
I began to teeter-totter on the edge. I was stupid, stupid, stupid. How could I have even thought that this was going to work? I would have to think of a new plan. I teetered faster. A note. That’s what I needed. And no more cliffs. In fact, I was already getting a new idea.
I was just about to step back and go home when a voice sounded behind me. Startled, I whipped around. My feet slipped and I teetered wildly out of control. A hand closed around my thin wrist, but it found no purchase. I barely had time to scream before I teetered right over the edge.
Never in a million years or my wildest dreams would I have ever imagined that I would end up here. The moonlight was barely visible through the thick canopy of leaves. The ground was soft under my bare feet. Chaku lay under a big spruce next to my shoes. The wind whistled in the leaves above. I was completely and utterly alone.
No, I never thought I would end up alone in the woods, but I also never would have imagined being kicked out of my own house, either.
I picked off a twig from some tree I couldn’t name and snapped it between my fingers. I chuckled grimly to myself. Nothing ever works out the way you think it will, does it?
Chaku sprang up from the ground, barking madly. My half-hearted efforts to shush him fell flat. That dog. He barks if he sees his own shadow. But then he began to howl.
My grandfather had given me Chaku for my twelfth birthday. “This here is one smart dog,” he had said when Chaku had started barking at a grain in the floorboards. My mother had given him a Look. “He barks all the time, it’s true, but he howls when there are ghosts around. It’s pretty amazing.”
I had scoffed. “There are no such things as ghosts.” My mother had agreed. Grampa just smiled.
I had never heard Chaku howl before now.
Maybe it was because of how the moonlight played in mysterious ways between the trees. Or maybe it was being alone in the woods in the first place. But for whatever reason, my entire body had gone stiff with fear.
Don’t be ridiculous, I tried to tell myself. There are no such things as ghosts. Chaku is just a crazy old Labrador. Trying to swallow my fear, I turned to where Chaku’s nose pointed.
I swear my hair stood straight on its ends.
There, bright in the moonlight at the edge of the woods, was a white, moving, billowing, thing.
It took me a while to calm down enough to tell myself that I was being paranoid, and so was Chaku. There was no such thing as ghosts, after all. It was probably just a sheet caught in the wind. Something for us to sleep on tonight. I set off to get it.
The shadows and moon patches seemed to jump out at me wherever I turned. The white thing looked stranger and stranger the closer I got. And when I was close enough finally make out a shape, I was freaked out all over again. It was not a sheet at all. It was a woman in a cotton nightgown.
She walked so silently and smoothly she appeared to be gliding. Her long, waist-length black hair streamed out behind her. I didn’t think she was a ghost, but what was she doing out here in the middle of the night? I thought about calling out to her, to tell her that it wasn’t safe out here, but for some reason I kept silent. There was something about her. I didn’t want my presence to be known to her yet. I trailed her silently. Chaku had stopped barking, and he was a black shadow beside me.
She stopped when we got out of the woods and was standing on the rock sheet over the Yukatuk Canyon. All my instincts told me that something was amiss. What was the woman doing here? I got my answer soon enough. She stepped onto the ledge and bent her knees, leaning forward.
“NO!” I shouted. I raced to her. I shouted again. Chaku was strangely silent.
Finally I reached the woman, who was roughly in the same position as before. It hadn’t taken me a second to get to her side. I reached out and grabbed her wrist.
Shock rippled through my body. I dropped my hand and took an involuntary step back. My heart was in my throat and beating out a frantic refrain. My fears didn’t seem so silly now.
I had touched nothing but bone. The woman screamed once as she tumbled over the edge. Something black raced to the edge where she had fallen. Chaku. No such thing as ghosts, I chanted to myself.
I threw myself to the edge of the cliff. The woman was hanging by the back of her cotton nightgown from Chaku’s teeth. She was slipping fast.
“Hold on!” I shouted as my hands shot out to grab her under her arms. Chaku released his hold on her. She weighed next to nothing. She was not a skeleton after all, but her skin was thinner than tissue paper and she had almost no meat at all on her arms. I fought the bile that rose in my throat.
I heaved. She barely budged.
“My gown!” she shouted. “It’s stuck on a branch. Here, I’ll kick it loose.”
“No, don’t—” I started but it was too late. She struck out with her bare foot. With a small groan, the rock that the twig was firmly attached to gave way, hanging off her night gown.
She was suddenly a hundred pounds heavier.
Chaku was barking again. Swearing, I called on all of my strength and pulled. I gained mere inches until, with a rip, the boulder fell from the gown. We went flying, hitting the ground with a thump, she on top of me. I could feel every one of the bones in her spine, hips, and elbows. I pushed her off and sat up. Now that I could get a good look at her, I could see she was not a ghost, or a skeleton, or anything of the sort. She had the look of the half-starved. Her big, light brown eyes protruded from her skull. She had been beautiful once, that was obvious. But now she had wasted away to almost nothing. She wasn’t homeless, I could tell by the gold necklace she wore around her neck and by the fineness of her nightgown.
In a rush, the past fifteen seconds caught up to me. I realized the woman was looking at me, too. I rose to my feet.
“What were you doing?” I fairly yelled at her. I was stressed. Chaku came to stand by my side. I swear he glared at the girl, too.
She looked down, and colour pooled in her cheeks. Her thin, razor-sharp cheeks. I never could figure out why girls would starve themselves as a means of losing weight. Didn’t they realize how deadly it could be? And then there was the matter of suicide. What had she been thinking? Was her life really that awful?
The woman didn’t say anything. Finally I threw up my hands, giving up. “I am taking you home,” I told her. “Where do you live?” she pointed. “Come on, then.” I held out my hand to her. She looked up at me then, and her eyes were filled with tears.
My harsh emotions evaporated. I knelt in front of her awkwardly, embarrassed by her tears. “Hey,” I said. “Come on. You’re safe now.” She nodded and took my outstretched hand. I was so afraid I would squeeze too hard and break it. I dropped it as soon as I could.
Chaku trotted beside us, his tail between his legs. Every so often he would give a little whimper. Finally, I stopped and turned to him.
“What is the matter with you?” I asked. He lay down and rolled over onto his back. And then he was perfectly still.
I stared at him for a few seconds. Then I walked away.
The girl looked up at me. The top of her head barely reached my shoulder. “What’s wrong with him?” she asked. I shrugged. We walked on in silence.
Of course, I had questions for her. But for some reason I kept quiet, just like I hadn’t wanted to let her know I was following her until it was too late. There was just something about her…like if I said the wrong thing she would turn to dust. She was so fragile. I was still shaken badly by the cliff escapade.
It was she who finally broke the silence. “What is your name?” she asked.
“Austin. Austin Braucop.”
“I am Peyton.” She was still looking at me with big brown doe’s eyes. I smiled at her.
“Peyton. It’s nice to meet you, Peyton.”
“It’s nice to meet you, too, Austin.”
Chaku howled very softly.