She knew mud and cold and darkness and the ache in her head and the squirming little boy in her arms. He took a deep breath and she instantly pressed her hand over his mouth to smother another squall. He struggled for a little bit, until she tightened her arms around him. Then he quieted. Just like all the other times he had tried to protest their silence and stillness.
They had to be quiet. They had to sit perfectly still here in the darkness. They had to stay where they were and never move again.
"Why" had no part in survival.
The world consisted of the darkness and the smell of rotting wood around her, the slimy feeling against her bare arms and the sharpness of splinters against her back, the chill mud squishing between her bare toes--and the smell of dirty diaper coming from the little boy.
After a time, the darkness grew grainy and turned to gray. She looked up into an immense, reeking darkness. She looked straight forward and watched the darkness shift into more gray with patterns running through it.
Gradually, in time with the pulsing of growing ache in her head, the patterns turned into trees. She sat inside a huge, rotted hollow tree, holding a blond, filthy little boy in her arms.
She wore shredded green flannel pajamas. The little boy wore a diaper and a T-shirt. Both of them were streaked with mud and darker marks.
Her mind shied away from examining too closely to see what those darker marks were.
The gray wrapped around them, and she realized it was rain when tendrils of cold and wet blew into the opening into the trunk. A worm squirmed through the rotting tree innards, crawling across her foot. She watched it and didn't think about moving her foot.
A loud, booming sound startled her. She almost stood, but her legs were asleep and the little boy was a heavy weight in her arms, tying them both to the filthy floor of their hiding place.
Voices. Those were voices somewhere beyond the trees. Words--but for some reason the words made no sense. Listening made her head ache. She closed her eyes and buried her face in the wet, muddy hair of the little boy crouching in the dirt in front of her and dug her back deeper into the rotting innards of the tree.
Squelching noises drifted through the misty air. Deep, slow sounds that were footsteps. Then higher, faster, sucking sounds.
"Goggy!" the boy crowed. He giggled and squirmed in her arms.
She opened her eyes, so tired it felt like lead weights tied all over her body, even her hair.
A hound dog speckled with mud, with drooping ears and slobbering mouth, looked into the hole of the tree at them. The little boy reached out to the dog, eager.
"No," she whispered. The pounding in her head filled her whole body. "Go away."
Something churned up from the aching deep in her guts and met the ache in her head. It turned to fire around her heart.
She saw a streak of red like her pain leap out and snap the dog across the nose. Yipping, it skidded backwards in the mud a few steps, then turned and ran with its tail between its legs.
"What in tarnation is wrong with that dog?" a man called.
"Goggy. Want," the little boy whimpered.
"No," she said, and pressed her hand over his mouth again.
"Do you see--Holy--" A weary, whiskered face appeared in the hole of the tree. "Wren, honey! We've been hunting two whole days for you and Petey. We thought you were--Come on out, honey." The heavy old man reached into the tree cave with huge hands and caught hold of the boy. "You just let Gramps take care of everything, sweetheart. You're all right now."
"Gramps?" The word touched off a chord deep inside her, cutting through the numb layers. She trembled.
"That's right, sweetheart." The old man tried, but his lips could only twitch and hold onto an imitation of a smile for a moment. His big gray eyes were rimmed with red and his mouth trembled and his thick bush of silver-white hair was a tangled, greasy mat.
Other men appeared out of the brightening gray and the black vertical lines of trees. More men, some in ranger uniforms, others in plaid flannel jackets. Some carried rifles, others held the leashes of dogs.
"Come on out, Wren," a slim man in mud-spattered army fatigues said. He holstered his revolver and reached out both arms to lift her out of the hole at the base of the tree. "Let Uncle Davey help you out of there, okay?"
Her gaze locked onto the revolver.
The trembling grew stronger, making her teeth chatter. Tears filled her eyes. She knew the man kept talking to her, but the words made no sense. His hands filled her vision but she could still see the gun.
He was reaching for her. He would grab hold of her.
He would grab her by the neck and shake her and throw her to the ground and kick her and then put the revolver to her head and--
Screams tore through the misty damp, dismal forest.
Her hands filled with wood rot and splinters as she tried to crawl backward through the tree, away from those reaching hands.
Petey, safe in their grandfather's arms, writhed and wailed.
"Wren! Honey! It's all right!" Gramps shouted. He handed Petey to Uncle Davey and got down on his knees, on the verge of crawling into the reeking hole with the violently trembling girl. He reached out a hand to her, and her screams turned louder and shriller.
A woman in a ranger's uniform raced up to the tree, her feet catching in the mud and exposed roots. She carried an oversized tackle box with a white circle and a red cross painted on it. Men stepped back, letting her through.
The girl stopped her screams for five long seconds when the woman's blond face replaced the reddened, whiskered face of the old man.
"Hi, Wren. My name is Maggie. No, it's okay," the woman blurted, when she raised one hand and the girl took a breath to resume screaming. She settled back on her heels, putting another foot of space between her and the girl. "It's okay, honey. Those bad men won't hurt you anymore."
"B-bad men?" Her teeth kept chattering, even though the numbness was starting to seep back in, covering up the hole deep inside that had created the screaming.
"Sure, the bad men." The woman ranger cast a puzzled glance at Gramps. Then she shrugged and opened up the tackle box. "I'm going to give you something to make you feel better, okay?" Maggie didn't wait for Wren to respond, but pulled a vial of amber liquid out of the box with one hand, a plastic-wrapped syringe with the other. Her movements were lightning quick as she unwrapped and prepped the needle.
Wren saw the needle aim for her--like bullets--and opened her mouth to scream. She got one long note out before the ice bit into her arm and traveled up to her head with a single heartbeat.
"Mamma," she whispered, as the darkness swallowed her and dragged her down into a bottomless hole.
Daylight came three times and passed across the sloping roof of the room and faded away. Wren lay very still and closed her eyes whenever she heard footsteps approaching on the creaky wooden floor. She held still, breathing shallowly, pretending to be asleep when the door sighed open and someone stepped into the room. Gentle, warm hands touched her forehead and wrist. Sometimes there was the bite of a needle, and then she didn't have to pretend to sleep. Sometimes there would be a spoon and ice water that tasted faintly of lemon, or once there was applesauce, and another time chicken noodle soup. Someone would put a few spoonfuls into her mouth, then move her lips closed and stroke her throat until she swallowed. Wren knew she should have swallowed without their help, but she couldn't seem to get past the thought. She couldn't move. Didn't want to move.
Then the fourth time golden, warm light spilled slowly into the room, she blinked and turned her head and looked around.
She lay in a big four-poster covered with rainbow quilts. The bay window hung open, letting the cool smells of morning sift in along with the sunshine; the smells of the mist on the lake and pine trees as the day warmed and wood smoke from a cast iron stove somewhere close by. She didn't wonder how she knew the lake and pine trees and cast iron stove were nearby. A clock bonged seven.
A mass of leaves swayed gently in the breeze. Wren was content to just watch the leaves dance as the sunshine grew brighter and birds started singing.
She had to go to the bathroom. Wren got up before the thought really registered as more than awareness of pressure. She was already at the door before she realized what the feeling meant. She kept going, turning the knob and padding out into the hall in her bare feet while she considered what to do.
The hall was long and wide, the walls paneled in dark wood, closed doors in a line vanishing into the shadows in either direction. She didn't want to go into the shadows. Her bladder didn't hurt now that she was standing up. She sank down to the floor, crouching on her heels, a pale figure in an oversized T-shirt that read Valleyford High School Recreation, with her dark, ember-colored straight hair almost touching the floor.
She crouched there, listening to the shadows and the creaking of the huge old house, smelling pancakes and coffee and hot maple syrup trickling up to her from somewhere far away. A clock bonged once. Voices accompanied the smells of breakfast. She knew they were voices, but the words made no sense.
A doorbell rang. More voices. Boards creaked and footsteps grew loud enough to be heard. Doors banged open and closed and the voices faded away. The clock bonged eight.
She trembled, just a little bit, as she recognized the creaks and muffled thuds of footsteps, climbing stairs, coming closer to her.
"I'm not going to argue with you, Judge," a woman said. "Being surrounded by familiar things will be far better for your granddaughter's recovery than leaving her in a sterile, unfamiliar hospital. I'm just worried that if she doesn't start to respond soon, we're going to have to put her on intravenous feeding and some kind of drug therapy to--"
The voice stopped as three people came into view near the end of the hall on the right. Wren sat very still and watched them watching her.
The big, silver-haired man from the wet, muddy forest stared at her. He looked so sad. Wren thought she had seen him smile before. She knew he smelled of peppermints and coffee and he liked to read bedtime stories aloud. He wore brown pants and a neatly pressed white shirt and a gold chain hung from his clenched fist. Somehow she knew he carried a pocket watch in that hand.
The woman with him was very thin, dressed in blue jeans with a long, white coat that hung down past her knees. A black bag in her hand and a stethoscope folded up in her other hand told Wren this woman was a doctor. The boy with them was tall, skinny, with deep red hair and lots of freckles, dressed in cutoff shorts and a T-shirt with the sleeves torn off, and barefoot. He grinned and pushed past the two grown-ups.
"Hey, Birdy," the boy said. He dropped to his knees next to her, grinning. "I told them you'd get better. You're going to be okay now, aren't you?"
"I have to go to the bathroom," Wren announced. Her voice came out in a whisper, cracking like stale bread. Her throat felt full of dust.
"Want me to help you up?" He stood and held out a hand.
She hesitated a moment before letting him take her hand. Images of big, grasping, strong hands reaching for her kept trying to leap out from the dark shadows at the edges of her mind, from the closed doorways up and down the hall. When she had hold of the boy's hand, she held on tight.
"Where?" she whispered, when neither of them moved right away.
"You don't remember, honey?" the old man said with a groan. He took a few steps toward her, then stopped. Tears touched his eyes. "Wren, do you know where you are?"
She shook her head.
"Well, Judge, we've exchanged one problem for another," the woman murmured. She went down on one knee in front of Wren and held out her hand. After a moment of thought, the girl gave her free hand into the woman's grasp. "Wren, I'm Dr. Stanhope. I'm here to help you get better."
"Am I sick?" she asked. "How come I'm hungry if I'm sick?"
"There are lots of ways to be sick, sweetheart." The woman smiled a little. "Paul, Judge, why don't you two go downstairs and see what you can find for Wren to eat while we take care of the bathroom, all right?"
Wren waited until man and boy had grinned and nodded and gone back down the stairs. She let the woman lead her to the bathroom and was grateful when she was allowed to use it by herself.
She would have sat still in the bathroom for the rest of the day, enjoying the green and blue plaid wallpaper and thick rag rug, warm against her feet, and the cracked stained glass window next to the lion-footed, white iron bathtub. Dr. Stanhope knocked on the door several minutes after Wren flushed.
"Okay," the girl said.
"How would you like to get dressed? I bet that T-shirt is getting a little old," the doctor said as she came in. She carried a pair of shorts and underpants, a daisy-spotted T-shirt, and sandals.
Wren waited until the woman left her alone again, then peeled off the T-shirt and underpants she had been sleeping in. She didn't know what to do with them for a few seconds, until she saw the big green wicker basket in the corner, looked inside, and saw other dirty clothes.
"That's much better," Dr. Stanhope said when Wren stepped out into the hall again. "Your grandfather said that was your favorite shirt."
Wren looked down at the sunflowers. Shouldn't she feel good if this was her favorite shirt? She felt nothing. It was just a shirt.
"Judge Spencer. You're at your grandfather's house."
"Why?" Wren let the woman take her hand and lead her to the stairs. "Because I'm sick?"
"That's part of it, yes. Doesn't that smell good?" Dr. Stanhope took a deep breath as they started down the staircase. "I'm half tempted to eat a second breakfast. Your grandfather is a very good cook. Or else it's your brother."
"I'm a good cook," Wren said. "I can even make a cake from scratch. I'm going to make the whole turkey all by myself at Thanksgiving this year."
"You are? That's an awful lot for a little girl to do."
"I'll be eleven in October! I'm not little."
They stopped at the foot of the stairs. Wren looked to the left and saw a long hallway filled with bookcases on one wall. The opposite wall had a row of pegs filled with hats and coats, butterfly nets and fishing poles, and a bench running the length of the wall nearly hidden by boots and shoes and assorted sundry outdoor gear. The doorway that broke the expanse of wall was double-wide, an archway leading into a long room filled with shadows, dominated by the massive fireplace filling the wall exactly opposite the doorway. Old, solid chairs with deep cushions, thick arms, lion feet and clawed ends to the arms filled the room, placed haphazardly wherever floor pillows and books and games and a huge puzzle didn't take up floor space.
Wren turned to the right, following her nose, and saw another long hallway, narrow and lined with more bookcases. Light spilled from a doorway just out of her sight, and the smell of fresh pancakes and frying trout reached her and wrapped around her head and made her stomach growl. More important, she recognized those smells. She tugged her hand free and scampered down the hallway to the kitchen.
A long oval table filled up half the room, with a mismatched assortment of twelve chairs around it. A cast-iron stove sat in one corner of the kitchen, surrounded by cupboards and a hand-pump, with another, modern stove in white enamel in the other corner, a double-wide stainless steel refrigerator, and more cupboards. This was the largest kitchen Wren had ever seen in her life. She could almost remember being in here before, sitting at that table full of people, laughing and talking and eating. Almost. It was like the moment she tried to look directly at the ghostly images, they evaporated.
"Are you my grandfather?" she demanded of Judge Spencer when he turned from the stove with a sizzling frying pan in his hand to greet her.
"I sure am, sweetheart."
"How come I don't know you?"
"I don't know, Wren." He glanced at the boy, who stood stricken at the refrigerator with a cardboard carton of milk in his hand. "Do you know who that is?" he asked after a moment, and gestured at the boy. He choked a moment when Wren shook her head. "That's your brother, Paul. Do you remember your brother, Petey?"
"There's a baby... " Wren winced, feeling as if something had just slammed up against the back of her head and tried to knock her off her feet.
She blinked and found herself sitting down, with Judge Spencer helping her settle into one of the big, sturdy wooden chairs at the table.
"Petey is the baby?" she asked, forcing the words out.
"That's right," Dr. Stanhope said. She sat down on the other side of the big table. "Petey is the baby we found with you. Do you remember the forest, Wren?"
"Cold and muddy all the time."
"What else do you remember?"
Wren thought until her stomach started twisting into knots. She pressed her hands against her eyes until she saw rainbows and finally shook her head.
"Hey, I'm just a kid," Paul said. He sat down next to Wren and rested a hand on her shoulder. "But on TV when somebody has amnesia, they're real careful not to tell them anything, so they get their memories back without any big mess-ups. Shouldn't we do that with Wren?"
"I don't subscribe to the television writing school of medicine," Dr. Stanhope said with a smile. "I do believe in good food and rest and exercise and being surrounded by people who care. Wren needs her breakfast." She smiled and gestured at the empty red-checked tablecloth in front of Wren.
In moments, pancakes and sizzling fried trout appeared on a plate, drenched in butter and syrup, and placed in front of Wren. She stared at it a moment, then attacked. She choked a few times when she tried to breathe while swallowing. Judge Spencer patted her on the back and Paul hurried to refill her glass with milk, twice. No one said anything until Wren had scraped the last drops of syrup off the plate with her fork.
"Feel better now, honey?" Judge Spencer asked, and patted Wren on the back.
"What happened to me?"
Silence. Even the fire in the big cast-iron stove muffled its crackling and the breeze blowing through the open windows softened.
"You had a very bad scare," Dr. Stanhope said slowly, her voice soft, a sad little smile on her lips. "The fancy psychological word for it is 'trauma'. You saw or heard something terrible, and it hurt so bad your mind decided not to remember it. The best way of explaining is to think of a big, thick, brick wall built inside your head. If it's thick enough and high enough, you won't be able to see or hear or feel the bad memory that hurt you. Does that make sense?"
"I guess so." Wren sat very still, waiting for the shivering to start again, and the ache in her head.
"Well, when your mind built that wall to protect you, it also pushed a lot of good memories out of sight. The important things like this house and your family. Understand?"
"I won't remember anything until the wall goes away?"
"She's just like her father," Judge Spencer sighed. He slid an arm around Wren's shoulders and she found she liked it. The feeling was familiar. Or at least it was until she tried to remember where she had felt his warmth before, and smelled the clean, comforting smells coming off his clothes. She leaned against him, and he tightened his arm around her in response. "That man has--had more brains and common sense than both his brothers put together." His voice caught and broke.
"Where's my Daddy?" she asked after a moment of thought.
"He's dead, Wren. That's the bad thing that made you forget everything else," Dr. Stanhope said even more softly. "We think you saw your mother and father die."
They wouldn't tell Wren all the details of how she and Petey ended up in the forest, which she thought was rather silly. How else was she going to remember, to break down the protective brick wall in her head, if she didn't have all the details?
Little girls who knew how to be quiet and listen could find out things that grown-ups and older brothers and cousins didn't want them to know. As the months went by and early summer turned to fall, she put together the story bit by bit.
She and Petey, who was nearly three, had gone camping during spring break with their parents, Paul and Maggie Spencer, and their aunt and uncle, Bea and Carl Spencer. They had welcomed two strangers to their campfire one night; big, rough-dressed men who simply appeared out of the forest shadows. The men were escaped felons from a penitentiary only twenty miles from the forest. Wren and Petey were sleeping in the family's station wagon because Wren thought it was more fun than sleeping in the tent, and Petey wanted to be with her. This part of the details they got from Petey, after very careful questioning. He was very excited about sleeping in the car with Wren. He hadn't seen anything, or if he did it didn't register in his conscious mind. All they could get from him was that Wren woke him up and carried him out into the dark and that was fun, but she wouldn't let him talk, and that wasn't fun.
The Spencer men were found murdered in their sleeping bags. Their wives were dragged from their beds and brutalized before they were murdered. No one would have known anything had happened if the two men hadn't stolen the station wagon, got drunk and wrecked it only a day after leaving their victims. When the report came to Judge Spencer, he pulled strings and called in favors to investigate and get answers immediately. Wren and Petey spent two days alone with no food, drinking from the river, and hiding small, dark places before they found the tree and the hunters found them.
Wren supposed she would never get her memory back. After learning the bare facts, she supposed it would be stupid to want to get her memories back. Petey woke up almost every night crying for his parents. Paul, age fourteen, didn't like talking about their parents. Their cousins, the twins Michael and Matthew, age eight, and their older brother, Charlie, age fifteen, had been orphaned by the same men. They didn't talk about their parents much, either. All the boys, including Uncle Davey's sons, had been at baseball camp and missed the camping trip. Judge Spencer would talk about his dead sons and their wives sometimes, but it hurt him, too. Wren thought it was only common sense to avoid as much pain as possible.
She told Dr. Stanhope so, when the woman made her bi-weekly visits to the house to see how she was doing. Wren realized early that Dr. Stanhope didn't have to do that. She was the doctor who had examined and treated Wren when the rescuers took her from the forest to the big metropolitan hospital more than seventy miles from their home in Valleyford. Her responsibility stopped when Wren came home and the family doctor took over.
"Everyone has to face pain sooner or later," the woman said with that half-smile that always made Wren wonder what she really thought. "You can't avoid it all your life."
"I'm not." Wren leaned back against the spindles of the kitchen chair and drew her knees up to her chin. Yesterday had been her eleventh birthday, October first, and she had realized as she blew out her candles that she felt far older than the calendar said she was. "I just don't want to go looking for it. Everybody else still hurts a lot. If I start crying all the time and getting nightmares, that'll just hurt Gramps all over again, won't it?"
"You like taking care of everybody, don't you?"
"I guess." She wondered why the woman asked that particular question. "It feels good. I'm a good cook."
"Yes, you said that the first time we met. You're the lady of the house now, aren't you? Maybe a little too busy to go to school?"
"I study. I get good grades. Gramps says I'm smarter than the kids who go to Valleyford High," Wren muttered. Her hands trembled for a moment as she relived that burst of terror when she stood in the doorway of the middle school on the first day of the new year and stared at all the strangers going through the doors and knew, just knew, she couldn't go inside. She had fled to her grandfather's hardware store and hid in the loading dock until Uncle Davey found her. She hadn't gone back to school since and her grandfather let her sit in the back room of the hardware store and study on the days he couldn't stay home with her. Judge Spencer understood why she couldn't go to school. Just like he understood when she got dizzy and vomited when she saw any gun besides a rifle.
"Do you leave the house at all? And I don't mean to the stable to ride your horse, or to explore the woods." A twitch caught the corner of Dr. Stanhope's mouth.
After Wren's traumatic experience in the forest, she had been surprised to learn the girl liked to explore the shadows and quiet of the forest. Wren tried to explain to her, only once, that the woods felt safe. It was people who made her want to run and hide.
"I go shopping in town. I go to church."
Her face warmed. Shopping meant quick trips to the grocery store where Aunt Marianne worked. In church she always sat in the back row of the balcony, where she could see everyone and they couldn't see her. No one except Pastor Andrews. She liked him; he was thick and silver and sadly understanding, like Gramps.
"I've been thinking about this a lot," Wren continued, when Dr. Stanhope just nodded and sat back to sip the blackberry tea Wren always made for her visits. "I think I do remember a few things. Like the wall in my head is thin in a few places. I think I remember just enough to be scared. I don't like it when there are people around and I can't see them. I like to be either alone, or to be where nobody can see me. Except my family."
"Are they really your family, Wren?" the woman asked softly.
"My grandfather and my brothers and my cousins. My family."
"Are they your family in your heart, or just your head? They're holding onto each other and to you because of their loss. Why are you holding onto them?"
"Because..." Her throat grew thick and she blinked her burning eyes rapidly until the longing to run away and scream died out again. "Because I don't have anybody and they want me here. They take care of me and I take care of them. I like them a lot," she offered. That sounded lame. Wren knew liking someone a lot wasn't the same as the love she should feel for her family.
Maybe she wasn't so smart, letting the wall stay up in her head so she wouldn't hurt again. Was it a good trade for the memories and the sense of belonging?
"That's a good start."
The doctor's smile seemed sincere. Wren had grown very adept in the last few months at reading beyond people's words and expressions and voices. It wasn't something she thought she could do before. Judge Spencer had remarked often enough how perceptive and thoughtful she had become. Then he would smile and hug her and remark how quickly she was growing up. Once he even said how much he missed his giggly little girl. The conversation in the room had stopped completely and he had a glimmer of tears in his eyes. He never said that again.