The first time Misty looked closely at the manor on the hill was with her older brother, Kyle. They hid their tiny bodies behind the snow-covered bushes at the foot of the hill, just several meters away from the wood fence that marked the edge of the property.
Everybody in their village knew about the rumors that surrounded the manor. It was haunted. A rich countess lived there. A curse befell her child and killed it. Now only the child’s grave remained there.
These were the rumors, the lores. Nobody had a proof that they were real. The only thing they knew was that every once in a while, someone visited the manor, always by a shiny automobile that exhumed black fume. And some children claimed to have seen a shadowy figure looking out the window. The latter one, only some kids believed in, not including Misty.
She was one of the youngest kids in the village. Her red cheeks hadn’t lost the fat despite her mal-nourished limbs. In Kyle’s old clothes and her curly hair tucked in a hat, she looked like a smaller version of her brother. Of course, it made her the perfect target of teasing from the other kids.
That was precisely why she had convinced her brother to come with her to the hill. They were going to be the local investigators and put an end to this stupid rumor, which was nothing more than a horror story other kids had conjured up to scare her.
“That’s the window, with the curtains closed. See it?” Kyle said, pointing a finger towards the house.
Misty didn’t know which one to look at. There were so many windows that looked the same. But Kyle would make fun of her if she answered honestly.
“Do you see the ghost now?” she said.
He shook his head. “Maybe it’s taking a nap.”
“It’s a ghost. It doesn’t need sleep.”
“But it only appears at night. That’s what Mrs. Crete said.”
Misty wrinkled her nose. “How can she know? Her eyes are all shrunken. She can’t see, a ghost or not.”
He frowned as if the idea had never occurred to him.
Misty crossed her arms in front of her chest. “I don’t believe in them ghosts. It’s just the same when Ma says I’ll marry a man when I grow up and have babies. Adults say those things just to scare us kids. It’s too far to see anything anyway.”
“Why don’t you get closer, then, if you are so-- so-- unbelieving, Miss Brave.”
She trod to the fence, leaving footprints on the snow. With tight lips and her gaze on her brother, she put her hand on the fence and let it linger there for full two seconds before dashing straight back to the village.
Misty boasted her act of bravery to every single person in the village, but only a handful believed her.
They returned to the hill a few days later, hiding behind the same bushes. Even from there, Misty could see the little handprint of her in the otherwise impeccably undisturbed snow on the fence. That made her feel smug. She felt ready to prove to the whole village how much more brave she could be.
“I can climb over the fence. It don’t scare me none,” she said to Kyle.
“Yeah? Is that all? Why don’t you go up and knock on the door, piggy?”
Knock on the door. Of the manor that a ghost supposedly haunted.
Of course, Misty could do it. Of course.
“Promise you’ll let me touch your lucky charm if I did,” she said.
It was just a necklace of an animal fang they’d found in the forest. But it looked the coolest thing Misty had ever seen. The problem was that her brother always yelled at her if she tried to touch it without his permission.
With a grin, he took the charm out from under the shirt. “I promise, but you have to actually knock on it. Touching doesn’t count.”
“Can I wear it now?” She tried to reach it, and Kyle put it back under the shirt.
“No way. You’ll lose it.”
“Only half an hour.”
“Ten minutes. After you done it.”
“Fine.” She stood up and began her march towards the hill.
Kyle shouted at her back. “Maybe the ghost will answer the door and keep you in there forever. Then, I don’t have to share food.”
Ignoring his laughter, Misty climbed under the fence--it was too tall for her to climb--and walked up the hill. It was vast and steeper than it had looked. Her legs got tired soon, and the manor still looked as far as before, standing like a dessert-illusion in the snow.
Her shoes were damp with the snow seeping through them. Her bones in the feet felt frozen. She looked back, but her brother was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps she should go back, too. There wasn’t even a single door she could knock on from where she stood anyway.
Something landed near her with a soft thud. Confused, Misty looked around. Another thud came from a little afar, and a moment later, a snowball hit her in the back of her head. The freezing bits slid down her shirt. She turned around to see Kyle holding his sides with laughter.
Misty shook the remaining snow out of her clothes and hair, knelt down, and gathered as much snow as she could with her little hands. Thus, began the snowball fight.
They fought on the vast field over the fence. The door, the ghost, and the lucky charms were forgotten.
In terms of the terrain, Misty had the upper hand. But her brother had a better aim and the bushes to shield himself with, as well as bigger hands to make bigger snowballs. She got hit a lot more than she cared for.
So, she ran up the hill to hide behind a thick tree in order to regroup. Kyle shouted something about fairness. Misty smiled, leaning against the tree, trying to regulate her breath.
In that precise moment, her eyes caught something move in one of the windows. Not a full figure, but a distinct face of a girl peeking out from the slight gap between the curtains.
Misty ran down the hill at full speed without a word. And Kyle, seeing her practically roll down, stopped throwing snowballs at her. He tossed the snow down to the ground and met her halfway.
Misty nearly crashed into him, but on her face was a big smile. “I saw it! I saw the ghost, Kyle! It’s a girl!” She grabbed him by the arm and pointed to the house. “There! On the second floor!”
Kyle squinted his eyes. “I don’t see nobody.”
“But--” She searched for the shadowy face. It was gone. “I saw it. It’s not a lie. It was watching us play.”
“You’re saying that because you didn’t want to go knock on the door.”
“That’s not so!”
“No touching my lucky charm for you.”
“But I ain’t lying, you mean devil!” She began to throw punches.
He wrapped his fingers around her thin wrists. “Oh, no. You ripped a hole in it.” He took a fistful of Misty’s shirt, just under the left armpit.
Poking her finger through the hole, Misty felt her skin there. She had no idea when that had happened.
“Bad piggy,” her brother said. “Ma is going to beat the hell out of you if she finds it out.”
To Misty, it didn’t matter what her mother would do or say. As they began to walk home, she threw one last look at the house, at the window with the curtains half-closed.
She was sure what she had seen.
Her mother gave her one good smack in the side of her head upon seeing the hole in her shirt. Misty was used to it.
After getting her shirt taken off in one swift motion, she stood on a wooden box at the kitchen to cook dinner, while Kyle was outside chopping firewood.
Their shack was small. There was only little space between the kitchen and the table, and the other half of the room was occupied by two mattresses on the floor. When Misty got older and bigger, they would need to find another mattress somehow. Her mother always complained about that. She always blamed Misty for growing up.
In fact, in Misty’s eyes, it was all that her mother did. Complain. About her demeanor, about her dirty clothes, about her cooking. Just everything that Misty did, her mother found a fault in it. Even now, sewing her shirt up on the mattress, she continued to grumble. Misty was used to it. It was a sound as natural and constant as the sound of wind wheezing in from the crack of the window.
Misty chopped a cabbage and dumped it into a soup pot. The few pieces of cabbage sank like fallen leaves, and she still could see the bottom of the pot. She wished they had, at least, some salt to season the water. Or better yet, potatoes.
It was about time to go to the town to procure food.
“Dinner’s ready!” Misty shouted for her brother on the outside.
She carefully lifted the pot off the fire, placed it in the center of the table, and fixed three soup bowls. Each of them had equal amount of cabbage leaves. If anyone wanted more water in the pot, though, they could help themselves.
“Ma, I think me and Kyle are going to the town tomorrow. Wanna come with us?”
Her mother didn’t answer.
Misty looked to the bed. Her mother lay there, her body twisted, Misty's shirt thrown out.
“Ma?” Misty shook her by the shoulder.
Still, no response. So, she pulled her by the arm, trying to make her sit. The limp body slumped back down to the ground.
Misty ran out of the shack. “Kyle! Kyle!”
Her brother gave a grimace at her as he piled up firewood. "What? I told you I was coming."
"Something's wrong with Ma. She--" Misty burst into tears.
The news of their mother’s death spread through the whole village within a couple of hours. By the evening of the same day, people had dug a grave and lowered her body into it as it was. Nobody in the village was fortunate enough to afford a casket or an adequate headstone. Even a cloth to shroud a body was considered a luxury.
Misty hated to think her mother would feel cold underground.
She rolled a massive stone from the back of their shack over to her mother’s grave. When she was younger, she used to pretend that the stone was her pet turtle. Now, the stone could keep her mother company in the barren graveyard.
They had become orphans.
But Misty couldn’t be bothered to even wonder about their future. The world with her mother in it was all she knew. Life without her was unimaginable, and therefore it shouldn’t exist-- And yet, it did. The two mattresses felt too vast with just her and Kyle on them, too chilly to ignore. The winter wind wheezed through the cracks in the window, calling out to her. She slept, clinging to her brother like she would to Mama.
Uncle Arthur visited the shack to check upon them in the morning and evening. He also shared food with them. Misty thought they could live like this. There wouldn’t be any drastic change in terms of food. If the food given from Uncle Arthur wasn’t enough, she and Kyle could solve the problem in the town.
They could make it together, just the two of them.
But that didn’t last long. Two days after her mother’s death, Uncle Arthur came knocking on the door during their afternoon nap.
“Kyle, someone’s here to see you.” He wore a strange expression, pulling his hat lower to hide his eyes.
Kyle went outside. Misty followed him to the door and watched him talk to some stranger by a horse-drawn carriage. Other villagers watched them from a distance, too, but none of them came up to greet her.
The stranger handed something to Uncle Arthur when her brother turned around.
“Who is he?” she said to Kyle.
“He’s a blacksmith in the town. I’m going to be his apprentice.”
“When are you coming home?”
He put his hand on her head. “They said someone else is coming to get you, too. Someone that takes good care of you.”
“I can take care of myself good. I’m old enough.”
“I know you are, piggy.” With a tender smile, he took the lucky charm off his neck and put it around hers. “Promise to keep this safe, alright?”
The fang fit nicely in her palm. While she was preoccupied with the charm in her hands, the carriage drove away. She forgot to ask him when he would be back.