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On the road to the mountains, March clouds hang heavy with the promise of snow. Winding past Florissant and Lake George and across the flat expanse of South Park, columns of sunlight peek out then disappear. Hoosier Pass is windy and wet, and by the time I reach Breckenridge and my friend’s silent house — loaned to me, a gift of time and solitude — the world is in full white-out. Wind whistles through the chimneys. Two days go by before the clouds lift and the sharp white ridges across the valley finally come into view.
It is odd adjusting to silence. A persistent ringing in my ears. My big fat chair, surrounded by papers and books, looks out on swaying stands of pine, and beyond them, mountains so white their three-dimensionality has dissolved.
Late at night, despite the quiet and a tall, warm bed to sink into, sleep doesn’t come. I rationalize that I haven’t slept well in years, but this is an old, familiar sleeplessness linked to a childhood night terror. I haven’t experienced it for a long time, not since adult terrors took its place out here in the middle distance.
I am eleven, and my family has moved from the small southern Kentucky town where I grew up to the closest big city, Nashville. My father has sold his small company to a bigger one that has given him a company car and an expense account. A traveling salesman, he will be away even more than before and tries to appease our dislocation with a brand new split-level house, the biggest one we have ever lived in. We are in Paragon Mills, a subdivision bordering a winding country road that runs alongside a roaring creek, Seven-Mile Creek. Some family’s horse farm has been bulldozed and flattened in Nashville’s march of progress. The neighborhood is half-built and strangely empty, populated in the day by construction crews and at night, by screech owls and tree frogs.
For the first time in my life, I am on my own. My friends are all left behind. My older brother lives in a room off the garage, far away from the rest of us, and will soon be in high school. My sisters share a bedroom and new, white four-poster beds and bore me to death. I have a room of my own. My mother has taken a job at the department store on the other side of Seven-Mile Creek, in a massive concrete building called a mall, the first I’ve ever seen.
Every day I explore the banks of the creek, turning over rocks, walking carefully across the slick bottom, my ankles turned blue by the clear, rushing water.
One afternoon, I come home late from my wandering through half-built houses and abandoned streets and damp, moss-covered woods and the muddy creekside. I pick up the afternoon paper, the Nashville Banner, from our front porch. The headline is like a blunt blow to the chest — a 13-year old girl’s body has been found on the banks of the Cumberland River, along a shady cove. She has been murdered and left there. The paper says she wore flowered denim shorts. I have flowered denim shorts, my favorite.
When my mother comes home from work, I don’t say anything because she is upset most of the time anyway. We eat dinner in our modern kitchen’s shiny new breakfast nook. My sisters play Old Maids in their nightgowns as if nothing has happened. I go to bed and am paralyzed at the sight of the black rectangle of my uncurtained window. Later that night, voices drift down the hall. My father has come home late after a week away, and he and my mother are talking in urgent whispers.
That night and every night after, until I fall asleep, I am visited by a moving shadow in the darkness — at the window, in the air, crossing the room to where I cower beneath the covers. I am sure someone or something is there and it must be murderous because it takes my breath and my voice away.
Nearly fifty years later, in this silent mountain retreat, the moving shadow visits me in the night. For a heart-rattling minute, I don’t remember where I am.
I look across the room, through the uncurtained window. Outside, white drifts of snow glow beneath a sliver of new moon. The pines wave their spindly arms like old grandmothers. The shadow lingers nearby and I lie perfectly still. It is nearly spring, I remember, and soon it will be daylight.