The housing authority was swampy with heat, slowing work to a crawl behind the desks and lulling everyone into a kind of languorous stupor. August in Florida and the only air conditioner to be found was chugging along in one corner, occasionally spitting condensation onto passersby.
Casey Oliver sat stiffly in a 1970’s vinyl-backed chair, trying to keep a pleasant expression on her face. It was hard going. The chair was scratchy with popped seams that dug into the meat of her thighs. Sweat clung to her skin, an unpleasant reminder of a childhood spent mostly outdoors.
“Says here you’re employed at the suit factory,” said the woman behind the desk. “You work the machines?”
“Yes ma’am,” Casey said, sitting forward. “Stitching lapels.”
“My sister used to work at Kendrick’s,” the woman said. Her name plate read June Grady. “Hard work, especially in the summer.”
“It’s not too bad now. They bring in those big industrial fans to cool down the floor,” Casey lied. It was Hell on Earth, but she couldn’t afford to be overheard disparaging it.
“Hmm. Well, I think we have everything we need. Rent’s due on the first of the month, all utilities included. Here’s your key.”
Warm relief spread through Casey’s chest. “Thank you so much, Mrs. Grady.”
The woman smiled, the first genuine one Casey had seen in a while. It made her feel like crying. Instead, she gathered her things and escaped, securing the apartment key inside her purse.
On the way out, Casey passed a box of books sitting in the lobby. Novels, several children’s titles. The one on top was her childhood favorite: The Wondrous Circus, a picture book filled with dreamy watercolor illustrations. She knelt and flipped it open, marveling.
“Go ahead and take it home,” said a voice.
Casey turned to find the man behind the front desk watching her with a smile. “What?”
“You got kids?”
She nodded. “A boy.”
“I bet he’d like that one,” the man said. “Go ahead, take a few. They need a good home.”
“Are they yours?”
“Nah,” he said. His clean-shaven head gleamed in the overhead lights. “Belonged to the son of a woman used to work here. He drowned a few months ago, terrible tragedy. She brung those books in and said to give ‘em away. Guess it hurt her feelin’s to keep ‘em around.”
“How sad,” Casey murmured. She drifted through the pages until she came to the end, where an ornate bookplate was affixed to the last page. In Memoriam, it read. This book donated in loving memory of Jayson Cross. “I’ll just take this one. My son will love it.”
Casey picked Henry up from school and they drove to their new apartment, a benign tenement building with fading white paint on the shutters.
“Almost forgot,” Casey said, taking the book from her purse. “I found something for you today.”
Henry’s eyes lit up as he turned the pages. “Wow, thanks!”
“This was one of my favorite books as a kid,” Casey said. “We’ll look at it tonight before bed, okay?”
“Sure. What’s this?” His fingers traced the bookplate.
“Well, this book used to belong to someone who passed away. His mom donated his things so that other kids could use them. Wasn’t that nice?”
Henry glanced sideways at her. “This is a dead kid’s book?”
“That’s one way to put it,” Casey began, but Henry was already pushing it back into her hands.
“I don’t want it,” he said, his voice shivery. Casey could see the front of his shirt trembling against a stuttering heart and suddenly felt like a moron. At seven, he was prone to nightmares that sent him out of bed, seeking comfort at 3 a.m. Of course this was going to upset him.
“I’m sorry,” she said, shoving the book in her purse. “We’ll go to Thornberry’s tomorrow and you can pick out a book you like, okay?”
He nodded, keeping a wary eye on her purse.
On the way inside, she dropped the book into the dumpster.
Henry went to bed without complaint, even though they only had sleeping bags for the moment. Casey tucked him in and kissed his soft forehead, feeling the urge to cry for the second time that day.
“We’re gonna be okay here,” she said with a smile.
“It’s kinda dirty,” Henry said, and she laughed.
“I know it’s not much, but we’re lucky. Remember what I told you about where me and Grammy lived when I was your age?”
“You slept in a car,” Henry said.
“That’s right. We’re fortunate to have a place to call home, even if it is a little dirty. Will you help me do some cleaning tomorrow?”
“Sure. I can do the mop, that’s my favorite part.”
“Teamwork! I love it.” She ruffled his hair gently and stood to go, but he stopped her with a question.
“Why did that lady give away her kid’s books?”
“I guess she wanted to make sure he’s not forgotten.” An image popped into her head unbidden: a baptism in the river, taking the Eucharist as snakes slithered across muddy banks. Do this in remembrance of me.
Henry stared up at the ceiling thoughtfully for a long moment before turning over and closing his eyes.
In her own sleeping bag, lights out, Casey began to drift almost immediately. Relieved thoughts of their new home were replaced by images from her childhood: leaf-lights, scorching car interior, always running. No more of that, she thought distantly. They had roots now.
“Mommy?” Henry whispered beside her.
Casey snapped her eyes open, searching the darkness for the shape of her son. She’d been afraid this would happen, that the first night in a strange place would leave him sleepless.
“What’s wrong, honey?” she asked, sitting up.
But Henry was still in his sleeping bag across the hall, blonde head gleaming in the moonlight.
Casey’s mouth suddenly went dry, neck creaking like the hinges of a coffin as she turned to face the ghoul at her shoulder. He was missing his eyes, she saw. Lake water streamed from the holes; she could smell it, stinging and briny. She opened her mouth to scream but no sound emerged, even as he moved closer to drop a book into her lap.
“Do this in remembrance of me,” he said.
About The Author
Amanda Crum is a writer and artist whose work has been published in The Hellebore, SmokeLong Quarterly, Shotgun Honey, and more. She lives in Kentucky with her husband and two children, where she cultivates a healthy obsession with all things horror.
If you want to see what Amanda is up to, you can follow her on Twitter @MandyGCrum.