Mary glanced back in the direction of Cholly’s. The two seniors had finished their root beers and left, the bottles carelessly discarded beside the fuel pumps. She started to turn back, but a shadow shifted at the corner of the building. Iris stepped out from behind Cholly’s, her hands clasped in front of her. She nodded, as if to herself then started down the sidewalk after them.
“No,” Mary gasped, lurching forward. She stumbled and almost fell, but Aiden caught her by the arm.
“What is it? What?” Then he looked back and saw her.
“She’s following us,” Mary said.
“Following us?” Aiden said in a voice tight as a coiled spring. “Okay, so we let her catch up to us, then I’ll knock her block off. She’s just an old lady. I’m not afraid of her.”
“No, we can’t let her catch up to us,” Mary said, pulling her arm free and hurrying away. “I don’t know what she’ll do. I don’t want to find out. We have to get away.”
“She’s only an old lady,” Aiden said, coming after her. “It’s not like she’s hiding a gun. Her dress doesn’t even have any pockets.”
“You don’t understand,” Mary said. “I have to get home!”
“Okay, that’s fine,” he said. “We’ll get you home.” He looked back over his shoulder. “Here she comes.”
Mary didn’t look. She didn’t want to know. They were passing an abandoned house when Aiden grasped both of her shoulders and turned her toward the fence.
“Come on,” he said. “We’ll lose her.”
At first, Mary resisted. Her primary instinct was to get home, but then she thought of poor Papa in his bed, and this awful woman forcing her way through the door. Aiden was right. They had to lose her.
Aiden hopped a low place in the crumbling fence and beckoned for her to follow. Mary dared a glance in the direction of Cholly’s and saw Iris coming, hands still clasped but moving at a brisk pace. Her long hair had fallen forward, hiding most of her face in shadow, but there was a glint of teeth. Mary turned back to the house. The high, unkempt grass of the front yard had engulfed the path to the porch, and the porch itself was sagging downward. Two second story windows covered in grime looked like anguished eyes, the porch railing a broken frown.
“Are we going in that way?” she asked. “That porch looks like it might fall down.”
He shook his head and beckoned her again. Mary climbed the fallen portion of the fence, and he led her through the high grass. She was staring at the house so intently that she did not see the old For Sale sign and ran right into it, giving it a good, solid kick with her shin. It didn’t really hurt, but the sound of it was like someone banging an off-tone cymbal. She fell, dragging the sign down with her, but Aiden swooped back, grabbed her hand and propelled her forward. The momentum helped her keep her feet under her, so she did not hit the ground.
“This way,” he said, leading her around the side of the house.
The side looked worse than the front, old wood siding crumbling out of the wall like the scales of some dead lizard. A single window toward the back was busted, shards of glass strewn in the yard. Mary’s shoes crunched over fallen bits of siding and a random scattering of junk—an old baby doll reduced to head and torso, a shoe, a dog’s collar.
Aiden stopped at the shattered window and leaned inside, careful not to cut himself on the jagged remnants of glass. Mary came up beside him. Beyond the window was what once must have been a bedroom. No furniture remained, but a ceiling fan, torn free of the ceiling, hung down by its wires, and a blanket, black with mold, lay crumpled in the corner. Beer cans were strewn about.
He started to climb in, then seemed to think better of it and headed to the back of the house.
“We’re not going in there, are we?” she asked.
“Not sure yet,” he said, winded, as he raced around the corner.
At the back of the house they found another porch. The weight of a barbecue grill had broken through the soft wood, taking half of it down in a big pile of wreckage, but the section of porch in front of the door and the stairs leading up to it remained intact. Aiden stopped at the bottom of the steps.
“I don’t think she’ll follow us inside,” he said, testing the weight of the first step. It bowed precariously under his weight but did not break. “And if she does, she’ll have more trouble getting through, what with her long dress on.” He turned to Mary. “What do you think?”
Mary looked at the house, looked at the expanse of field behind them and the line of trees beyond. They were within sight of the school, but the doors would be locked by now. There were other houses, of course, with actual people living in them, but who would believe Mary’s story? Sheltered local kids being rude to out-of-towners, that’s what they would think.
“Okay,” Mary said, at last. “Inside.”
Aiden grabbed the handrail and mounted the steps, but the handrail broke and fell to one side. Aiden would have gone down with it, but he managed to lunge forward and take hold of the porch railing. When he made it onto the porch, he turned and gave her a thumbs-up. She started up after him, but the first step broke immediately under her weight. The embarrassment of that made her want to call the whole thing off. If he had shown even a hint of a smile, she would have. Instead, he offered his hand and pulled her up.
“Is the whole house gonna fall down on top of us?” she asked.
“Boy, I sure hope not,” he replied, turning to examine the door.
It was dusty and dirty, and one of the hinges was broken, but it was not locked. He turned the knob and managed to force the door open about six inches before it gave a great squeal of protest and stuck in place. He slipped through, and she went in after him.
Beyond the door was a small den of dark wood paneling. A couch sat against the far wall, the stuffing bursting through the frayed upholstery, more beer cans nestled in and among the cushions. Cobwebs draped from the corners like old curtains, and the whole place stank of musty decay. When Mary stepped inside, Aiden pushed the door shut behind her and set the deadbolt. Then he led her across the room to a narrow hallway, where they found more ruin, including a large hole in the drywall, a crumpled up t-shirt on the floor and a pile of trash. The floor was soft here; Mary felt it bowing under her feet with every step.
“I don’t like this place,” she said.
“Yeah, maybe we lost her already,” Aiden said. “Let’s take a peek into the living room and see if we can see her through the front windows.”
The hallway ended in three open doors. The one of the left led into the bedroom with the broken window. The one on the right led into a kitchen that was an absolute horror of filth, trash and even a couple of dead rats on the countertop. Straight ahead was the living room, an open space with peeling wallpaper and an old busted television on the floor, face down in a bed of its own glass. Windows on the far side of the living room gave a wide view of the front yard, the crumbling fence and Main Street. Cars passed, including the sputtering Studebaker of Thad and Ethel Fenster, who had apparently finished their chicken dinner at Cholly’s and were now driving home at a snail’s pace. There was no sign of Iris.
“She’s gone,” Mary said, feeling not quite relieved. Even if she was out of sight, she was there somewhere, and the traces of aether meant that Mary could never really get away. Papa had not prepared her for this. What was she supposed to do with all of these awful Lookers?
Aiden crossed the living room and stood at the window, gazing outside.
“I don’t see her,” he said. “I figured she wouldn’t follow us in here, an old lady all prim and proper like that.”
“She didn’t look prim and proper to me,” Mary said, skirting the fallen television to stand beside Aiden. “She looked horrible and mean.”
“Wonder what she was looking for,” he said. “Figure she wanted to rob us? She didn’t seem like the type to need money, but you never know. Maybe the big fancy black dress is all she has left in the world.”
Mary didn’t answer. She didn’t know what to say, and she wasn’t willing to outright lie to him. Tell him the truth, then, part of her said. He’s already a part of this. He needs to know.
But Aiden was already moving to the front door. A chain latch was in place, so he undid it and grasped the doorknob. “Let’s get you home,” he said and opened the door.
And there she stood, framed in the doorway as if she had been waiting for them. Her hands were still neatly clasped in front of her, and she had a little smile on her face. Mary screamed and stumbled backward, her feet slipping on bits of glass. She went down hard, hit the edge of the television and rolled onto the floor. Aiden cursed and tried to slam the door in the woman’s face, but she shouldered her way in, and the door merely thudded off her bony arm and flew back.
“Children should not play in abandoned houses,” she said. “They might get hurt.”
Excerpted from "Mary of Aether" by Jeffrey Aaron Miller. Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey Aaron Miller. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.