When Steven was about seven years old, he started spending summers with his aunt and uncle in the country. He played with his older cousin, whose nickname was Peppi. Whenever they played outside till sunset, his uncle would tell them not to be out too late because of coyotes and bobcats. The boys didn’t care because they felt like they always had good reasons to be out late.
In June of that first summer, they met Tamia. They often called her Mia, although she preferred her full name. She was older and taller than Steven but didn’t treat him like a baby the way other older children did. Mia also had an innocence about her. He and his cousin silently competed for her attention but never made any ‘will you be my girlfriend’ moves.
They were all partners in crime for the months that followed. Steven was worried about Mia when they climbed trees or balanced on bridge railings because she wore a leg brace. It didn’t take long for her to show them that she was fully capable of holding her own. After her brace was removed, Mia had a noticeable limp that grew less prominent over time.
At the end of that first summer, they said their goodbyes and even shed a tear or two. Peppi accused Steven and Mia of being babies as he turned his head to wipe some dirt out of his eyes.
The school year went by quickly, and then the crew was back together again. They sometimes played target practice with a slingshot and cans. That eventually turned into popping armadillos on the shell with small pebbles. Peppi and Mia were the most accurate and gave Steven tips on how to improve his shot.
Peppi wasn’t around much as the summer drew on because he had some older friends who obsessed over fixing and racing go-carts. This was when Steven found out so much more about Mia. She was orphaned a year before they met. It was a car accident that took both of her parents and left her in a coma for several months. She wasn’t expected to make it, but a miracle happened. There wasn’t a lot to cheer about when she awakened. The loss of her parents made her want to close her eyes again and never reopen them.
She had to go live with her aunt, away from all of her friends. During the summer, she would stay with her paternal grandmother. Steven once heard her grandmother remark that Mia changed after the accident. It was like the little person inside her was replaced by someone much older. Steven didn’t know her prior to the accident, so she was just a kid named Mia, who was also his friend.
There was one incident that Steven was sure to remember for the rest of his life. For years, he told himself it was a waking dream or a hallucination. But he was never good at lying, especially to himself.
One cool evening, Steven’s uncle had built a fire for them in the pit behind the house. They sat around the flames roasting marshmallows and telling each other ghost stories. Mia didn’t talk much because she had recently gotten braces on her teeth. Peppi and Steven kept making jokes, so she told them that the doctors installed a booby trap that would unleash an evil creature upon anyone caught staring at her braces.
Peppi took it as a challenge and started tickling her. Tongue, teeth, and braces were showing. Steven wondered if he was staring for too long before realizing how silly that was. Mia broke free from Peppi, who tripped over the log he was sitting on. She ran to the other side of the fire. Steven was watching Mia, who displayed the most radiant smile.
The light from the fire danced on her face and cast a shadow on the ground behind her. All of a sudden, the shadow contorted into something that was no longer shaped like Mia. It rose from the ground and appeared to be standing behind her with large wings and tendrils writhing violently.
Steven let out a bloodcurdling scream, covering his eyes. Peppi caught his breath and belted out a laugh that halted abruptly when he saw the living shadow. Mia ran toward Steven, leaping over the fire. She wrapped her arms around him, cradling the back of his head the way his mother always had. He tried to push away, but she held tight. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. The simple words rolled off the tongue of someone who didn’t sound like Mia. The soothing tone wrung most of the fear out of him instantly.
Whenever Steven tried to bring up what he had seen, neither Peppi nor Mia wanted to talk about it. Steven told Peppi’s parents about it but only received an admonishment from his uncle: “That’s why I told you kids not to be out after dark.” Steven distinctly recalled a warning about coyotes and bobcats, not evil spirits with wings and tentacles. His uncle is also the one who made the fire for them that night. At the end of the summer, the trio parted ways for the last time.
Steven didn’t return the following summer because he started helping his dad with various projects and doing yard work for the neighbors. He found out from Peppi that Mia fell back into a coma a few months prior. She never came out of it and died in her sleep. Steven felt the blood drain from his face and the hand holding the receiver. He heard very little of anything else Peppi had to say. A draft, almost a breeze, brushed the side of his face. The soft words were barely audible, but he heard them clearly. “I’m sorry.”
Copyright 2022 Darrell Winfrey