Here is what we know.
On January 22nd, 2008, Jack Hansen woke up at or around 8AM. He saw the portents of a blizzard in the grey sky through his bedroom window, so he dressed in his warmest clothes. He ate toast with butter for breakfast. He brushed his hair, his teeth. He put his books and pencils and pens into his old knapsack. He waved goodbye to me, and then he walked out the door, our car trapped in the garage by the previous night’s snow.
Bobby Sullivan says that he passed Jack on his way to school that day. He had been standing in the middle of the road, not moving, not speaking. He was just standing, staring intently at something just above Bobby’s truck. He had to swerve out of the way to avoid hitting him, and cussed him out furiously as his tires screeched. Jack didn’t even react. He says he was more pissed than confused, because ‘Jack was always doing weird shit like that’.
The attendance office record shows that he arrived late–around 9:30–odd, because the school was a fifteen minute walk from our house. To this day, no one can account for him for those forty five minutes between Bobby’s encounter with him and his arrival.
All of his teachers reported seeing him in class, and we have his receipts for a school lunch. The final bell rang at 2:45 PM. The first snowflakes of the worst blizzard Solomon Falls, Maine had seen in decades were beginning to fall. Ruthie Jones says she saw him leave the classroom–she didn’t see where he was going, except that he dashed out of the room like a bat out of hell.
Dad was at work–he always had to stay later at the hospital during the winter. I stayed home from school that day. I was too sick to even move, and had been drifting in and out of fever dreams. I fell asleep around 1 PM, and didn’t wake up til around 4 PM. I called his name–I needed a glass of water. I called it again. And again. When I realized he wasn’t home, I brushed it off, because he often stayed late working with his teacher, Mr. Wesleyan, on his art pieces. My brother was talented. Really, really talented. One of his paintings hangs in my room. Every time I look at it I am reminded of those hours I sat idle, falling easily into sleep again, assuming my brother would come home.
My father arrived at 8PM and woke me. He asked me where Jack was. I said I figured he would have known. He didn’t. We called Mr. Wesleyan–he had been home sick that day with my same flu, which had been particularly nasty that season. We called his friends, thinking that perhaps he had gone to their house to do homework. He wasn’t there.
By the time we called the police, the blizzard was in full force. Total whiteout. The phone lines went down. We couldn’t look for him until morning.
On January 23rd, 2008, we went out to search at dawn. I still thought we would find him. My dad told me he thought so, too.
It took me years to realize he was lying.
It was three hours into the search when we found it. I was the one that spotted it first. It was wrapped around the trailhead at the entrance to Donner Woods, the dense evergreen forest that borders the outskirts of our town, about a mile away from our school. It flapped like a flag in the fierce winds–a strip of corduroy fabric, the beige turned stiff copper with blood. Someone had written on it, in black Sharpie, At last!
The fabric was from the pants Jack had worn that day. The handwriting wasn’t his.
My name is Cara Hansen, and I have been without my brother for ten years now. Some people say that time heals all wounds, but I can’t agree. I think you just get better at masking the grief. I feel his absence every day–he had been an extension of myself, wildly different from me, and yet my complement in every possible way. Both my father and I loved him fiercely, and living day to day without him there was at first unbearable. Eventually, dad and I managed to carve out a life for ourselves in wake of the pain, but something was always missing. Dad still lives back in Solomon Falls, and he hasn’t touched Jack’s room in a decade.
I don’t think either of us ever really moved on. My brother was something special–extraordinary–irreplaceable. I’m 26 now, and things aren’t easier than they were that day I found that awful piece of fabric in the snow.
But I guess that’s neither here nor there. You don’t have to be interested in my sob story. I’m not posting on this sub for pity–I’ve had enough of that to last me a lifetime. I’m posting because I really, really need help. I know–maybe this isn’t the best place. But I don’t know what else I’m supposed to do, except get the word out to people who might be able to figure this out. I need help. I need to understand what’s going on, and what to do.
The package was stuffed into my mail slot in my apartment building, haphazardly in between my bills and junk mail as if it was hot to the touch of the mailman. At first, I had to check to see if it was even addressed to me–I don’t have much by way of a social life, and although I’ve often stayed up til three AM binging purchases on Amazon Prime, this definitely was not an order. It wasn’t even a real box, just thin cardboard, practically tissue paper. But, sure enough, it was addressed to Cara Hansen in Chicago, Illinois. No return address.
I squinted at it and turned it over a few times in my hands, trying to discern its contents. It was light, smooth, the paper cool against my hands. Eventually, I took one look around the mailroom, and shrugged–fuck it, right? I tore the package open.
There, folded into a meticulous square beneath the paper, was a sweater knitted from mint green yarn.
My breath hitched. My hands began to shake, so intensely I dropped the sweater, which hit the floor with a thump, and splayed out like a mess of limbs. I stared at it, wide-eyed, like a dumb animal, unable to comprehend what I was looking at.
Abruptly, my eyes fell on a small white square that had spilled out of the folds. I bent down, all of me thrumming with a trembling dread as I picked it up. The world around me had begun to blur, but I realized through my cloudy vision I was looking at a newspaper clipping–a headline from February 2009’s edition of the Solomon Falls Gazette that read “Huge Strides in Children’s Medicine for City Hospital”. After a cursory glance I shoved the note into my pocket, too mesmerized by what was before me to focus on the random cutout.
Could it really be? No, it couldn’t, but it was–the same brown stain on the right wrist from when he spilled dad’s coffee on Father’s Day. The same hole on the shoulder where the thread had begun to unravel. Fuck, it even smelled the way it had–the pine trees, his sandalwood aftershave, the stale must of our childhood home–as if he had never left the house that morning. As if he had never left at all.
The sweater was Jack’s–I had knitted it for him. He got cold so easily. He was always like that–fragile. He was thin, and hairless, except for the golden brown mop on his head. He was unfocused, contemplative, and incurably frail. The wind blew and he got sick. I wanted him to be safer, so I gave it to him on our twelfth birthday. He didn’t grow much after that, so he kept wearing it. It was his favorite. He liked the way the green offset his eyes. He said it could keep him warmer than any windbreaker ever could. Which is why he put it on the day he disappeared.
My stomach dropped, and I realized with fascination, almost terror, that my cheeks were hot with tears. The inky black letters on the newspaper clipping had begun to blur into violet. I snatched up the sweater from the floor and ran up all three flights of stairs back to my apartment.
It was after Brett moved away that the mittens started showing up. We were fourteen at the time. The sparkle in Jack’s eyes was just coming back after Brett’s departure. It was the first time he’d been without him. He had to adjust to life without his best friend, the person he had loved more than anyone–sometimes, I thought, even more than he loved me. My brother was gentle–hands like cool water, a voice like birdsong, eyes like a doe. When Brett left, I expected him to change, become rougher somehow, less wide-eyed. But he just became flatter, duller for a spell, his gentleness stemming from a lack of will rather than compassion. The thing is, my brother’s compassion was inexhaustible, so as the winter began, Jack had begun to return to me.
I remember the day the first one came–December 16th, 2005, six o’ clock PM. It was of those December evenings where you couldn’t even see the sunset, just a grey tinted orange seeping through the window. My brother was singing a quiet, slow rendition of some George Michael song. “Cause I gotta have faith, faith, faith,” he mumbled to himself, absentmindedly dropping one ceramic plate onto another with a worrying smack.
“Jack,” I complained, looking up from my book, “You really have to pay attention when you’re doing that sort of thing.”
It seemed like such an insignificant comment at the time, something I would say to him on a regular basis, trying to pull him from his dream realm back down to earth. My brother’s eyes were a russet brown, almost amber, wide as saucers, and they would often grow hazy and wander as he entered the daydream world he created for himself. Every time I recall criticizing him for his dreaminess, I feel a wave of burning regret, so intense I could drown. I wish I had just let him be. I wish I had accepted him for who he was–been better. Hugged him tight while I could.
Before he could respond, the doorbell, a brassy, shrill noise, echoed throughout the house, followed by a rapid, terse succession of the same sound, as if someone were pounding on it. “Holy hell!” my father shouted from the next room. “Some mailman! Grab the door, Cara!”
I rolled my eyes. My father loved The West Wing so much he couldn’t even get up off his ass long enough to answer the psycho at the door? I pushed my chair back from the table and rose halfway before I felt Jack’s soft hand on my shoulder. “Let me.”
“Why?” I sat back down, brow furrowed, searching his face for a reason as the doorbell blared over and over again.
“I don’t know,” he admitted as he crossed the room–the doorbell was nearly a constant sound now, being hit so rapidly. And it was…different, somehow. Angry. Deeply, deeply angry. “I just don’t think they’re here to see you.”
For some reason I couldn’t identify, my heart began to creep into my throat. Suddenly, the situation began to dawn on me. Who was so desperate to get into the house? What did they want from us? My brother’s intuition was an esoteric thing that I didn’t understand–I don’t think I was capable of understanding it–but it was never wrong. Something was not right here. Something was off. The air felt colder, and it wasn’t the blizzard. “Jack,” I said, and he stopped with his hand on the doorknob. “Maybe you…shouldn’t. They seem…”
He knew what I meant. He always did. He smiled at me, thin-lipped, almost mournful. He opened the door.
The sounds stopped immediately, and all I heard was the hiss of the wind, thick, and sharp. My brother uttered a simple “Oh,” before shutting the door and walking back to the kitchen. He didn’t say anything, just sat down next to me, face placid and expressionless. I stared at him as if he had grown a second head.
“So? Who was out there?”
He shrugged. “Nobody. Just these.” He placed a pair of little white mittens onto the table. They were tiny–clearly intended for a toddler, even a baby.
“The hell do you mean, nobody?” I demanded as I studied the mittens. They weren’t completely white, I realized. The left thumb was marred by an odd, jagged, yellow stain, and there was a small tear in the area as well. “You mean they were playing ding dong ditch?”
“No. Nobody was ever out there, Cara.” I was waiting for the joke, but he just gave me a blank look, like he was telling me that the sun is hot. Dad chose that moment to enter the room, yawning languidly as he passed through the doorway.
“What is all this fuss about?” he asked, looking between me and Jack. “Who was there? Vacuum salesman? The IRS? Hell, sounded like President Bush himself was at the door. Wish he were, so I could give him the good ass kickin’ he deserves.” He laughed heartily to himself, and even I smiled a little bit, despite my pounding heart. Jack gestured to the mittens, and dad’s eyes followed his hand. Instantly, I saw his face go two shades whiter, but he attempted to compose himself right away, as if sensing my fear.
“Well, I’ll be damned.” He drew closer to the table, placing his hand on Jack’s shoulder. “Who was out there, Jack-o-lantern?”
Jack didn’t react. “Nobody was out there. Just those.”
I crossed my arms and turned to my father. “Dad, he’s making shit up again…”
My brother just cocked his head. “No, Cara. There couldn’t have been anyone. There were no footprints.”
My stomach dropped to my shoes. I tried to speak, but my throat had dried up. Dad must have seen my blanched face out of the corner of his eye, because he immediately interjected, “It was the wind, I’m sure.” He picked up one of the mittens and brought it to his face, inspecting it as if he expected it to come alive and bite him. “The gusts out there are inhuman. I’ll bet it blew into the doorbell, and carried these right onto the stoop. Creepy stuff, but nothing to worry about.” He kissed us each on the forehead. “Don’t you go and get anxious on me now–talking to you, Care-bear.” He gave me a pointed glance. I rolled my eyes–although I had always been the jumpy one, clearly, my dad was shaken up about this too, his eyes wider than they had been when he walked in, his legs stiff as boards.
Jack never, ever got nervous, though, and then was no exception. He was calm, serene, thoroughly unperturbed. Sometimes I wonder what allowed him to always stay like that. I don’t think it was naivete. It was…something else. Jack always had access to that–to something else–but it never scared him. My brother just didn’t get scared. Sometimes, I wish he did. Maybe, then, he wouldn’t have…well, it doesn’t matter. I try not to focus on the hypotheticals. It just…makes it sting, I guess. Anyway, eventually my adrenaline dissipated, and the nonchalance of my brother began to rub off on me and soothe my nerves. Soon I had forgotten about the incident entirely.
That is, until the next pair came.
It was almost exactly a month later. This time, there was no doorbell. My brother simply rose from the table when the clock struck six, opened the door, closed it after a brief moment, then deposited the mittens right next to our pine candle centerpiece. “These ones are red,” he said, simply, like I couldn’t see.
I didn’t know what to say. I just gaped. I still didn’t know what to say at the sight of the next pair, or the next, or the next, or any of the pairs my brother received every month for over two years.
It’s odd how humans assimilate to the inexplicable–he simply accepted the mittens as a reality of his life, and, eventually, so did I. Each time the color and size differed slightly, although they were all clearly for children, though which children we could never figure out. The only constant was the ripped thumb, the odd yellow stain, and the total lack of indication in the snow anyone had come to our door at all.
My brother didn’t donate any of them, simply stacked them neatly in a drawer–and on a gut level, I understood why. These mittens were…tainted. Wrong, somehow. No one could ever wear them. But he also claimed he couldn’t throw any of them away.
“They’re for me, Cara,” was all he told me. “I can’t give them to anyone else.”
When the sun began to set the day after my brother vanished, I stopped crying long enough to force my weary legs to the door. I don’t know why I thought the mittens would be there, or why I felt the need to pick them up. It simply felt like it was what I had to do–a feeling so guttural I couldn’t ignore it.
But, when I opened the door, there was nothing there. Our porch was empty. No mittens. I nearly sobbed out of relief–until my eyes drifted toward the snow beyond our stoop, I felt the familiar tears start again, and sting as the froze to my cheeks, as I took in what lay before me. There, in the snow, were huge, clear footprints. But they didn’t lead to the door. I followed their path as it wound around the side of my house, right outside of Jack’s bedroom window, where they abruptly ended.
Placed very gingerly beneath the window was a pair of mittens. They were adult-sized, knitted from thick, russet yarn–my mother’s last gift to him before she died. I picked them up with a sinister calm that came from a place deep inside me I never want to return to, a place devoid of emotion built specifically to house my grief. That moment is forever preserved in amber in my mind, forever tainted by the anguish of the realization that it was real. This was real. He was gone.
Then, something else dawned on me. Something I hadn’t noticed before. The footprints did go straight to Jack’s window–but they started at the window, and led to our front door. The window itself was slightly open, as if someone had been unable to shut it all the way. There were no other prints leading to the house, only away from it.
I have never sprinted as fast as I did right then. I slammed the door shut and locked the deadbolt.
I never told the police. I never told dad. If you asked me why, I couldn’t explain my reasoning in a logical way. Somehow, I just knew that this was a delivery for me, and for me only.
I am the only one who knows about what I found in the snow that day.
The mittens stopped coming after that.
His paintings were oil on canvas. When he would work, you’d never see his brow furrow, his hazel eyes narrow. He would smile slightly at the corners, moving the brush in languid, assured strokes. He knew exactly where he was going to end when he began–he never asked questions, he simply carved out the beauty he saw in the blank white. When I see his paintings, the air leaves my lungs, every time. It is like filling your chest with a thing you cannot name, but that you need.
For the first few weeks afterward, we were terrified to touch them. Losing him wasn’t like the absence of something, rather like a presence, something sinister, that jealously guarded the evidence he had lived in our house. Every time my dad would take a step toward one of his paintings, it’s as if the thing living in our house would snap at him, and we’d recoil. I walked down the long hallway to my room, every night, catching parts of the shadowed paintings out of the corner of my eye.
Eventually I came home one day to my father ripping them down in a whirlwind, as if something were hot on his heels. His eyes were wild–hair haphazard–practically snarling. In a way, my father’s heart froze over that day. He didn’t have any fear left in him. He tossed the remaining reminders of his son into a closet and we haven’t touched them since.
The only one I’ve seen since that awful winter day is the one I’d had in my room. He’d painted it just for me. When I burst into the room today, Jack’s sweater clutched to my chest like a talisman, it was the first thing that caught my eye. I’d spent the money from my college graduation gifts to frame it in the finest mahogany I could find, and I hung it above the wall that faced my doorway. Aurora Borealis Over Donner Woods–glowing ribbons of light looming over the snow-capped pines. If you looked at that picture for long enough, I swear, the lights began to glimmer, the way the sun does on a summer lake, taking on every shade between wine red and rosy pink.
When I looked at it then, they were a rusty copper, like the fabric had been that day. Suddenly I was nauseous. I chucked the sweater as far away from me as I could, as if I could banish it to the corner of the room and bind it there forever. Finally bind the grief. Finally banish the memory.
“I need to call the police,” I squeaked. The room couldn’t hear me. I fumbled my phone from out of my pocket, but, as I did, the newspaper clipping fell out and fluttered to the floor. It landed on the opposite side–and on it there was a handwritten note, in elegant, fastidious writing.
Do you remember the window behind him that night at the party?
I gaped at the note dumbly. I had no clue what it could mean. Who was the him? Jack? Dad? Before I could even begin to comprehend what that meant, my phone, clutched weakly in my hand, began to blare. The screen flashed some number I didn’t know….with a Solomon Falls area code. I thought maybe it would be the sherriff–maybe they’d received something related to my brother too? Another personal possession? Or…oh, god. Or worse. A body. I picked up the phone.
The person on the other end spoke before I did. “Hey, is this, uh, is this Mary Jones?” There was a brief pause on the other end. Before I could muster a response, the voice–male, crackling, and reedy–spoke again. “I know…I know, it’s more customary to uh, to text. But…I had fun last night, so, I, so I called.”
“Um…” I choked, this conversation seeming like such a wild diversion from my state of mind that day. “No, uh, you have the wrong number. My name is Cara Hansen.”
Another brief silence. “Cara…Cara Hansen, like Cara Hansen from the class of 2010? At Solomon Falls High?”
“Um, I mean, yeah–yes. Yes, that’s me–sorry, I’m, uh, I’m a little shaken up right now. Who…who’s this?”
The voice on the other end grew in pitch and enthusiasm. “Holy hell! It’s me, Cara, Jamie Brown! Do you remember me?!”
“Oh…my God. Yes, of course I do!” Jamie was an old friend of mine from back home. Once, way back in ’99, third grade, he’d climbed to the tallest branch of a tree and his arms got frozen to it, so everybody called him Brown Bear for far too long afterward. He’d been my first kiss, and I thought he would be my first boyfriend–but I didn’t have much of a stomach for that sort of thing in the wake of losing my brother. Like with all of my friends from the Falls, we’d lost touch after high school graduation. “How are you? How did you end up calling me?”
“I’m great, just great! I, uh, I moved back home a few weeks ago, actually. I drive, uh, drive for Uber. Whole fuckin’ lot of good that Art History master’s did me, eh?…And, uh, I called this number trying to call Mary Jones–you remember her, don’t you?”
I did remember. She’d been my friendly acquaintance. She was smart. Very pretty.
“We…we uh, well, she uh, she stayed over last night and left her, left her number and uh…I wanted to call her, to, uh…” I could practically feel his cheeks getting hot, even from a thousand miles away. Something was gnawing at the back of my mind–something having to do with the note–but I couldn’t quite place it yet. “Well, nevermind, it isn’t all that important why I called, but, I, uh, I entered the last couple of digits wrong, I see that now–I have ya on speaker, actually, I’m driving!”
“No, no! Nothing like that, nothing at all, just driving around. Business ain’t boomin’ here, know what I mean?” I did. Our town had a population of 1200, most of whom were older than the mountains that lined the edges of our little hamlet. “I’m, uh, actually drivin’ by Kate’s house, that is, uh, Kate Williams. Hah, remember her? Remember Christmas Eve? Before uh…before your brother, I mean. Sorry about that, sorry to, uh. Hey, I saw your dad at the supermarket the other day! He, he looked good! Real good! All smiles! Lotta color in his cheeks! Was good to see! Good to see!”
His voice was muffled and indistinct. I could hardly comprehend it over the buzzing in my mind.
I had connected the dots.
The Christmas Eve party, in 2007, a month before my brother disappeared. One moment, Jamie and me were kissing, his hands in my hair, my chest gloriously warm, and the next, he had stopped, and he was laughing to himself, oddly, almost absently. He told me some odd story–completely unrelated to anything we had been talking about–about the time he and I were playing in the clearing near the entrance to the woods, in 1996, when we were five, and I had stolen his…jacket? His hat? No…no, he said, he said I’d stolen his mittens. Yes, his mittens! That his grandma made. And that I’d…stuffed them into his locker just that last month. They were definitely the ones I had taken. The little heart was sewn into the palm and everything. Did I remember?
But I didn’t. I’d never played with Jamie in the woods when we were young. I hadn’t even met him til everybody started calling him Bear, so it must have been in ’99, or after. I told him that, and that he must have had me mixed up with someone else.
Katie Williams had a nice house. Built a long time ago, probably from wood from Donner, before it was protected land. There was this nice, square window on the wall facing the bed. Jamie was sitting crosslegged, facing me. I was staring right out the window. He asked ‘do you remember’?
And as I said no, my eyes drifted to the window behind him. And…fuck, sorry. I haven’t thought of this in so long. I don’t know how to describe it.
It was my mother. Oh, god. It was my mother, dead for eight years by then. Except it…wasn’t her. Not really. Half of her face was normal, as beautiful and smooth as the last time I’d seen her, but…the other half was a mass of exposed, bloody pulp, the flesh that had once covered the quivering muscle flapping up and down in the cold wind. She had no teeth. Instead, her mouth was full to the brim with writhing, slimy earthworms, more than it seemed should be able to fit. Some of them had slithered her face and were creeping into the empty eye socket. With one hand, as slim and elegant as it had been in life, she motioned for me to come outside, pointing insistently toward the dense pines behind her. In the other hand, she held some amorphous, black mass–which I discerned, to my horror, was a raw, matted clump of hair, a chunk of the scalp still clinging to the end.
I didn’t scream. I couldn’t. In a split second I looked back to Jamie, then back to the window. The only thing outside of it was the still winter night, the light of the full moon shining down softly on the blanket of snow.
I whispered very meekly that I did not want Jamie to tell that story anymore. I said I wanted to go home. I was hammered drunk–too drunk for Jamie to even help me off the bed. I called Jack, and he drove me home while I sobbed. The next morning, horrific as the thing I saw was, I brushed it off. The whole image was foggy, marred by my partial memory loss, and had surely been a hallucination borne of alcohol and the adrenaline of my first kiss. It was awful, but, with my brother disappearing soon after, his was the only face I had room for in my nightmares.
The note had made reference to it. If Jamie hadn’t called, it would’ve taken me hours for remember. Instead, he called, right after I read it, and then he drove by Kate Williams’ house, and he reminded me.
“Jamie.” I interrupted his tangent. “Tell me again. You called me because you dialed the wrong number?”
“Uh, yeah!! All on accident. Silly me, right?”
I went quiet for so long that he cut in, “Cara? You, uh, still there?”
“Yes,” I said, “I am.” I crossed the room and picked up Jack’s sweater from the ground. My brother. My brother, who had been another part of myself. My brother, who had always been there for me, no matter what. At once, I knew what I had to do. “Jamie. Any chance you can cut the cost for me when you pick me up from the airport?”
I am on the plane as I write this. I called dad. He has my old room waiting for me back home. Jamie is already at the airport, waiting for me at the gate. The sweater is stuffed into my suitcase, rumbling somewhere below the plane. I am reminded of something Jack told me when Brett moved away–if you love someone, they never really leave you. I feel his presence, thrumming somewhere, somewhere near my hometown. I don’t know who has him, or what they want from me. But here is what I do know: I will not leave my brother behind again.
Hold on, Jack. I’ll see you soon.
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