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As I walk down the long autumn path in the woods, red and brown leaves crunch underneath my feet and my knitted scarf flies in the wind as the cold air hits my face. Winter is coming. As I look into the swaying trees of the woods, they seem to smile at me. I know them well. I wander on as another crisp breeze blows. To my left, the creek flows clear with water, tumbling over rocks and sticks as it makes its way south. A strong wind hits again, but my coat, which is three sizes too large, protects me from the cold.
My family bought an early nineteenth century Virginia farmhouse last month and I am exploring the grounds and woods as I have been every day since we moved here. It is a gorgeous property. The house is surrounded by acres of clear land which is surrounded by a large forest. The house itself has been abandoned since the late 1890s because many people say it is haunted. Although I don’t believe them, many strange things have been happening since the home renovations have started.
Today I chose to walk a path in the woods that I had never noticed before. The woods are beautiful. All of the leaves have fallen off the trees to create a colorful red, yellow and orange blanket on the ground. The sun shines through the trees and makes the creek sparkle as if it were filled with diamonds. The birds sing together in harmony welcoming me into their home.
I continue walking about half a mile, and the path forks. I choose to go left, deeper into the woods. I walk another mile and notice that the sky is turning gray and the birds have stopped singing, but I decide to keep walking. The path forks again, and this time I choose to go right, and uphill. The sky grows darker and I feel a couple of rain drops hit my face and hands. I decide it would be best to turn around and head for the shelter of the house, but I am too late. The rain is coming down in torrents and I cannot see far ahead. I come to the second fork in the path and instead of going left, like I should, I go right. I am now disoriented, but run down the path thinking I am heading in the right direction, the creek no longer beside me. I keep running and come to a small clearing. I stop and try to see ahead as best I can. The rain slows a little, and I notice a brown looking structure and head towards it. I shiver, not because I am cold and wet, but because of some other unknown reason. The brown looking structure turns out to be a small, square-like building. I run towards it, seeing it as a possible shelter. I reach the door, which is leaning against the frame, not even attached to the building. I push it aside and walk in.
I take observe my surroundings and realize it must be an old schoolhouse. Desks are scattered around the room, books with yellow pages lie on the floor surrounded by crumpled papers and broken slates. A chalkboard hangs crooked on the wall, displaying half erased arithmetic problems. The place is disturbing, but shelters me from the rain that is falling from the sky harder than before. I cannot leave now, or I will become even more lost than I already am. As I continue exploring, the door, which I had put back in place is abruptly pushed aside. A little girl, no older than nine walks in. Her dull, brown hair is braided into two pigtails, each resting on a different shoulder. She wears a leaden dress, and black shoes.
“What are you doing here?” she demands.
“I…I,” I am frightened and cannot speak. Something seems off about her. “I could ask you the same thing,” I reply without thinking. She walks closer to me, and I back up against the wall.
“My name is Claire,” she says. “I live here.”
“My name is Drew,” I say being careful not to stutter. “I was following a path through the woods, and the storm came. I tried to turn around and find my way home, but I became lost. I stumbled upon this schoolhouse and saw it as a means of shelter. Are your parents here?”
She gives me a blank look and responds, “I have no parents. They have been gone many years. I live here alone and have never encountered anyone until now. Where do you live?”
“I live in an old farmhouse,” I say.
“There is only one farmhouse around here,” she replies. “I know where it is and I can take you there. The rain has stopped. Let’s leave.” Her thin, cold, and bony hand grabs mine, and she drags me out the door. We start down the path.
“This is my path,” she says as we walk side by side. “I walk it almost every day.”
“Who takes care of you?” I ask. She stops, and looks into my eyes.
“My family is gone,” she says. “We lived at the farmhouse once. A long time ago.”
She points ahead. “There is your house.” I turn to thank her but she is gone. A cold chill travels down my spine. I walk to the house thankful to be home. My mother greets me at the door, takes me inside, and helps remove my wet clothes.
“I met a little girl,” I say casually.
“Oh?” is her only reply.
“At an abandoned schoolhouse,” I add. “She lives alone, or so she says.”
“That’s interesting,” my mother says.
The next day, I go out into the woods and travel to the spot where I had stumbled upon the schoolhouse, but it is gone. I walk to the spot where it stood, but all that is left is an old yellowing, arithmetic book, its pages flapping in the wind.
“Claire?” I call out. I scan the surrounding woods but do not see her. I keep calling out her name when I feel something brush against my left hand. Clair looks up at me, tears spilling out of her eyes.
“I have to show you something,” she says. Before I can respond, she grabs my hand and tells me to close my eyes. I obey, hoping that what she shows me will explain her tears. She squeezes my hand so tight, I cry out in pain, shake her off and open my eyes. But we are somewhere else.
“Where are we?” I ask. We stand on a dirt path surrounded by small buildings. She grabs my hand again and pulls me toward one. Stunned, I realize she is heading to the schoolhouse that we met in yesterday. I looks different though. The door is back on its hindges, the paint isn’t chipped, and the windows aren’t broken. Clair pushes open the door and steps inside while I follow behind. The schoolhouse looks completely different on the inside. There are students at the desks and a teacher in the front of the.
Claire tugs on my sleeve and points to the teacher. “That’s my mom,” she reveals. Then she points to a little girl sitting in one of the desks up front. “And that’s me. They can’t see us, you know” She looks up at me with her big blue eyes. “My mother was the best teacher. She always told me that there was nothing else she’d rather do.”
“Where are we, what is this?” I ask.
“My past,” is her only reply. She takes me back outside, and we walk to the farmhouse in silence. “This is where I used to live,” she says pulling me up the stairs that led to the door. She brings me into the kitchen and I see a family eating at a large wooden table. “That’s my mom, dad and baby brother.” She says with tears swelling in her eyes.
“I don’t understand. Why are you taking me here?” I reply becoming frustrated.
“There was a fire here,” she continues. “I was the only one able to make it out alive, but I died going back in to try to save them not knowing it was already too late. I wanted you to come here with me.”
“Why?” I ask.
“Because,” she replies as she brushes her fingers against the wall. I don’t want my family to be forgotten. They will always be a part of this house.” She turns to look at me. “You won’t forget me, will you?”
“No,” I say. “Never.” She takes my hand again and closes her eyes. I do the same. When I open them, we are back in the clearing of the woods. The schoolhouse and all the other buildings are gone.
“I’ll take you home now,” Claire says. “It’s dark outside now, but she knows the path well. It’s her path. As soon as the farmhouse comes into view, she stops and turns to look at me. “Please never forget me.”
“I won’t,” I say. “Never.” Then she is gone.
I never forgot Claire. She is a part of my home and even as the years pass on, there’s not one day I can look at this house and not see her.