It was never a straight line to get them home when they came to him. Sometimes they liked to play a while.
“You’re cheating!” Paula said. Her voice accusatory, but her smile playful.
“No, I’m not,” Walker said. But you are, he thought with a small grin.
“I’m five, and I’m just better than you,” she said boastfully.
“You sure are, Paula.” His grin widened, but there was a touch of sadness in it.
She stuck her tongue out at him. She was cute.
He’d been playing checkers with Paula for a few hours and letting her win. He’d made a show of his turn, looking at the board carefully, holding his finger on the checker, making sure she couldn’t jump him, and then he’d raise his finger, and nod. Your turn. He watched her eyes seeing the glee in them at the tack-tack-tack of her pieces moving over his.
“You lose,” she said delightedly.
He chuckled. “You win, again,” he said, folding his arms.
“Wanna play something else?” she asked. “Let’s play family. You’re the daddy and I’m the–.”
She stopped short and a melancholy shadow passed over her pallid face. Paula’s gaze fell to her hands and her long dark curls drooped forward covering her big brown eyes. Walker saw the depression on the top of her head. His throat felt full and his heart hurt looking at her. He didn’t know the details of what happened. He didn’t want to. He’d learned not to ask. Instead, he pushed his emotions away and asked her if she wanted to sing a song. She peeked from behind her curls and he watched her sadness melt away.
“Do you know Let It Snow?” she exclaimed, and proceeded to belt out the chorus.
Before Walker could ask her to turn down the volume, an anxious voice echoed up the stairwell.
“Walker? Are you okay?” It was his mother.
Paula abruptly stopped singing and her gloom returned. “Your mom doesn’t like me,” she whispered.
“Fine Mom,” he replied.
Their gaze held each other for a minute. “Time for me to eat now,” he said. Her eyes glistened back at him.
He stood and she followed him like a puppy down the stairs and to the front door. He turned to her.
“Hug,” she said and opened her arms.
“Walker…” his mom croaked from the hall. He turned toward his mother. Her face was grave.
“Coming,” he said.
He turned back to Paula but she was already gone.
Walker frowned. He went past his mother to the kitchen. Her chest heaved a sigh of relief as he sat down at the table and held his chin in his hands.
“You shouldn’t get close to them,” she said.
Walker didn’t look at her. He couldn’t help feeling sorry for the children. They were lost like the others but…they were just children.
“What were you playing?” his mother said placing a dish in front of him. Cheeseburger with all the fixings. His favorite.
“Checkers. Then she was singing,” he mumbled.
“Will you take her soon?” she asked, stroking his hair.
Walker shrugged. He would take her when she was ready. He had no say in the matter. He glanced up and her face was dark, her eyes wet.
She was scared. He was too. They only had each other, now.
He touched her hand, “It’ll be okay, Mom.” She squeezed his hand and went to the stove to clean up.
“…8…9…10! Ready or not, here I come!” Paula shouted.
Walker grinned from under the deck. He hadn’t played hide and seek for years and peeking through the lattice as she passed, her steps eerily silent on the fallen leaves, a wave of nostalgia passed over him.
A moment ticked by. The air was quiet and still.
“Gotcha!” she called from behind him, startling him, and a small yelp escaped his mouth.
“Walker!” His mother immediately called from above, worry knotting her voice. “Walker!” she called louder.
Paula’s frown showed in the squares of sunlight that passed through the latticework. Walker glanced up and his mother’s worried footsteps rained dust and dirt down on him through the cracks in the deck. He sneezed and she stopped above him.
“Walker,” she said, relief replacing worry in her voice.
“She hates me,” Paula said. Walker glanced back to where Paula had been, but she was gone.
“Coming,” he said.
He crawled out from under the deck and met his mother’s frightened gaze at the steps. “Hide and seek,” he said. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
His mother’s lips were tight. “When will you show her how to get home?”
He kicked the bottom step with his sneaker uneasily. They’d had this conversation before.
“Has she asked you yet?”
“No,” he said and his eyes dropped to the bottom step, kicking it harder. “Soon, I think.”
“Can’t you just take her, Walker?” she asked. “Why do you–”
“It doesn’t work like that, Mom,” he said softly. “I told you before.”
“I’m frightened,” she said, her voice thick. “There’s something not right with her…”
Walker nodded and a moment passed in silence between them. He glanced up. “It’ll be okay.”
“That’s what your father said. It’ll be okay. And now, he’s…he’s… Don’t you let her…like they did to him…I…” she couldn’t finish.
Walker took the steps, putting his arm around her as they went inside. “They’re not all bad, Mom. Most are just lost…”
Walker opened his eyes. Paula sat criss-cross-applesauce beside his bed, her brown curly hair hiding her face. Pale light stuttered across the floor behind her. It’s time, Walker thought and adrenaline pumped into his veins.
“Do you like playing with me?” Paula whispered.
“Of course I do,” Walker said.
“Will you come with me?” she asked, her voice pleading.
“I can’t,” he said. “But I’ll show you how.”
Tears fell from her eyes.
Walker got up slowly and walked to his closet door. He pulled it open and was blinded by a burst of flickering white light from inside. He glanced back at Paula.
“This way,” he said softly.
Paula shook with a sob.
“It’s okay,” he said, “It’s where you belong now.”
Paula rose and glided, head down, to Walker’s side. She hovered there, the white light dancing on her pale form.
“I’m scared,” she said, choking on the words.
“I know,” Walker said. “Don’t worry. I’ve shown a lot of people how to get home.”
She reached for his hand and Walker felt an electric tingle on his skin. Whispers echoed into his room from the closet. Hundreds of them.
“Please come,” she said.
“I can’t,” Walker replied, but he felt her pulling him. Her grip became like iron, and fright leaped into Walker’s chest as he stumbled forward.
“No!” he shouted. “Stop, Paula!” His heart hammered in his throat.
Paula sniffed and looked sideways at Walker. Her face was grim and filled him with dread. “I need you,” she said. “We need you…”
The shadows closed around him and the whispers rose to a clamor. Cloying air and the smell of dead things and rotting meat filled the room. Walker’s bedroom door burst open and his mother ran to him, and wrapped her arms around him.
“No!” she shouted. “Leave him alone!” Tears ran from her eyes. Her arms bulged.
Paula’s face darkened and so did the light from the closet. “He is ours!” she said, but her voice had become all of the voices reverberating in the room.
“Not my son too!” Walker’s mom cried, veins popping out on her neck as she pulled.
Paula’s skin fell away exposing a luminous skull and eyes as dark as the deepest ocean. The light behind her changed to crimson and fire. Paula’s hand became a claw, and tore into Walker’s arm. The voices howled, rattling Walker’s teeth.
Walker felt a surge of power flow through him. White light exploded from his chest. The voices in the room shrieked in unison, and Paula was thrust backward and into the fiery light. Walker slammed the closet shut. A thunderclap and a gust of hot wind pushed Walker and his mother to the floor.
The room was suddenly still, and they lay on the floor, holding each other. Walker’s mom wept on his shoulder.
“I’m sorry, Mom,” he said. But there was nothing he could have done. This was his curse.
She sobbed and he rocked her. Another lost soul would be along soon. They weren’t all like Paula, but some were.