Nora called, “Hey Em, want to help me upstairs?”
“No,” came a small voice far too close to come from the off-kitchen bathroom. Nora startled, heart flying into her throat as she swung toward the sliding glass doors. Emma stood with her little hands pressed against the glass, her nose so close she left cloudy rings of fog with every exhale.
“What are you doing?” Nora asked.
Emma simply said, “Watching the man.”
Nora thought it a game. Six year olds make up all kinds of games, all kinds of imaginary worlds with imaginary people doing imaginary things. Emma told stories all the time. Once she told Nora about a dragon in her front yard. It flew in when mommy and daddy went to sleep and breathed fire at the neighbor’s dogs. It went underground in the morning, burrowed deep into the dirt so that no one would find it. “What about the whole in the yard?” Nora had asked, and Emma told her, “It hides it with magic. Duh.”
Nora wondered where this tale would go. She crossed the room and sidled up Emma, crouched down to the girl’s level.
“What man?” Nora asked.
“The man from the woods,” Emma said, matter-of-fact, as if Nora’s question was entirely preposterous and unwarranted. The woods-man. Of course. Duh. Nora cupped her hands around her eyes to block the high-hat glare of the kitchen.
“What’s he look like?” she asked.
“He’s right there!” Emma said, insistent and exasperated. Not like when she’d told the dragon story at all. That had been filled with wonder, with intrigue. Now, she just wanted Nora to see what she saw. The woods-man didn’t burrow underground to hide from people. The woods-man was right there, Nora. Duh.
“Tell me what he looks like,” Nora tried.
“He’s right there!” Emma repeated. She jabbed her finger hard against the glass. “I watched him climb the fence, and he’s walking over there.” Her nails tapped the glass as she frantically pointed. “He’s real tall,” she said, voice dropped to a whisper.
“Can he hear us?” Nora asked. She matched Emma’s whisper. Playing along if only to push away her concern. This is what kids do. They make up stories, tell you crazy things. Of course a man hadn’t hauled himself over their fence. Of course a man wasn’t strolling across the lawn.
“I dunno,” Emma whispered. She didn’t offer any other insights. She just stared wide eyed into the shadows. Nora could feel her heart creeping back up, pounding behind her sternum, at the base of her throat, climbing up her neck. She tried to swallow it back down as she stared in the dark.
And then she saw it.
On the fringes of the shadows, tall and lean, with stooped shoulders and long legs. Baggy clothes billowing in the breeze, one hand swinging into the stream of silver moonlight spread in a circle over the grass. Walking slowly, meticulously, toward the house.
“Get away from the door,” Nora said, so frantic all the words crashed and morphed into one another. She grabbed Emma’s shoulders and hit the light switch as she backed into the hall.
“I wanna watch the man!” Emma squealed at the same time Nora shouted, “Mom!”