One of our happiest summer traditions is a blazing fire in the fire pit, s’mores, drinks, and stories. The kids like them scary. The parents like them funny. Everyone takes a turn. This is the one they pried out of me the other week, not exactly high drama but good for a little shiver on a hot night.
Once upon a time there were three children who lived with their parents in an ordinary neighborhood on the edge of town. They had lots of friends all up and down the street, and they spent hours playing basketball and running through sprinklers and riding bikes and climbing trees with their friends. The three kids were lucky, though, because they lived at the edge of town and the dense woods grew right up to their back fence. There was a little gate in their fence that led out into the woods, and the three kids loved to slip through the gate and play in the woods. They were the only ones with such a convenient gate, so they often had the woods to themselves, which was just the way they liked it.
One summer day the three children were busy building a fort in the woods. They gathered interesting sticks and smooth stones and the occasional piece of old fence or broken garden pots that neighbors had thrown out under the trees. The middle child (and only boy) knotted an old rope around a branch for lifting things up, and the oldest fitted things together to make rough walls and a floor, while the littlest poked about among the leaves on the forest floor gathering beautiful odds and ends to decorate their playhouse. That was how she came to find the most wonderful treasure of the afternoon. Nestled in the moss at the foot of a tall pine was a shining silver circle.
The little girl picked it up, brushed off some dirt, and turned it over. It was a mirror, cracked down the middle but set in a silver case that held the pieces together. She was so excited when she saw it that she ran immediately to show her brother and sister. They all agreed it should have a place of honor in the playhouse, and they worked together to rig a little shelf for it to sit on. So the afternoon passed happily, and the playhouse came together nicely, and as they worked, each of the children would glance over from time to time at the little mirror and think how pretty it was glittering on their wall. They each thought to themselves that the playhouse reflected in the mirror was much more magical and wonderful than the playhouse in the real world.
As dinner time approached, they knew they wouldn’t have much longer to play, so the oldest called a meeting. “This is the best playhouse we’ve ever made,” she said, “and I think we should try to keep it as nice as possible.” They all agreed. “We all need to promise right now that we won’t tell anyone else about our playhouse or let anyone else come back here to find it. That way no one will wreck it.” Her brother nodded, but the littlest furrowed her brow. She had been looking forward to showing the playhouse off to her little friend down the street. “This is really important,” her big sister explained. “If anyone else comes here they might knock things down. They might break our mirror or take it when we aren’t looking.” The littlest couldn’t bear the idea of something happening to the mirror, so she agreed that the playhouse would be their own special secret. “I wish we could play here forever,” the oldest concluded, “and that no one would ever bother us, but we’d better go home for dinner. If we aren’t on time, Mom and Dad may come looking for us, and then they would find out where our playhouse is.”
Again they all agreed, and they hurried through the trees towards their own little gate, each casting one last look at the mirror glittering on their playhouse wall but none noticing the little flash of light that burst out of it just before they were out of sight.
They went into their back yard and up the back steps into the kitchen. Instead of their mother standing at the stove finishing dinner as they expected, they found the room chilly and dark.
“Mom! We’re back!” they shouted. No one answered.
“Dad! We’re back! Where’s mom?” they shouted, sticking their heads into their father’s study. No one was there.
“Mom? Dad?” they yelled, stomping up the stairs. The house was completely silent.
The kids searched every room. They were all empty.
They went out into the yard and yelled again. There was no answer. They went into the front yard and shouted as loud as they could. No one replied.
As their own shouts died away, the three children noticed that the street was unusually quiet. They began to get a very, very uncomfortable feeling in their stomachs. The littlest felt tears already poking out of the edges of her eyes.
They thought maybe they should ask some of the neighbors if they had seen their parents, so they went next door and knocked. No one answered. They went across the street. The house was seemed deserted. Up and down the street they went, ringing doorbells and peering into backyards. Everyone was gone.
Everyone. Suddenly the middle child gave a great yell. His sisters came running. He was standing outside the last house on the street, pointing at the front door. The girls immediately saw what had made his face go white. The door had a tiny window in it, larger than a peephole, but still just as perfectly round. It was edged in silver and a crack right down the middle. It reminded them distinctly of something they had once thought beautiful, but this didn’t seem beautiful at all. Standing here on the empty street, all alone, that cracked window looked ominous and disturbing.
“They’re all cracked,” said the littlest. She was pointing at the rest of the house. Sure enough, when the kids looked closer they saw that all the windows, whether big or small or square or rectangle, had a single crack running right down the center.
Slowly they backed away from the house and began to move toward home. That was when they noticed that all the houses were the same. Cracked windows. Cracked windows. Cracked windows.
The kids began to run, and they ran all the way to their house, through the front door, up the stairs, and into the girls bedroom. There they stood, panting and clutching each other until the oldest said with a tremble in her voice, “I think we should go into the bathroom. Remember what Mom always said when we talked about tornadoes? No windows in the bathroom.” She was looking at their bedroom window and its enormous, dividing crack.
They crept into the bathroom, and the oldest turned on the light. There before her, she saw herself reflected in the mirror, and she had a crack right down the middle of her face. She grabbed her sobbing sister and backed out into the hallway.
“You know where we need to go, don’t you?” said her brother.
“Yes,” she said.
“I’m scared,” said the littlest.
“We know,” said her siblings. “We are, too. Let’s do this together.”
Slowly and carefully now, trembling with every step, the three children went out into the back yard, through the little gate, and into the woods. Shadows were falling all around, making the trees look taller and more menacing. They made their way to the playhouse and stopped just outside.
“Who’s going to do it?” whispered the oldest.
“We all will,” said her brother.
Together they went into the playhouse and took the mirror off the wall. On the count of three, they hurled it out the door as hard as they could. It flew through the air, a glittering arc, as beautiful as ever in spite of their fear. Then it smashed into the trunk of a tree and burst into a million pieces. This time they all saw the flash of light that darted out on impact. Together, they breathed a sigh of relief.
“Do you think that did it?” asked the middle child.
“I don’t know,” said the oldest.
“I hope so,” said the littlest.
“Kids!” called their mother. “It’s time for dinner!”
And the three happiest children in the whole world went in to eat and to tell their parents all about their new playhouse and their plans to invite over every kid on the street to play in it.
The last campfire tale I told them: The Window.
Another scary story: Little Red Didn’t Listen