Winner of the 2023 Katherine Paterson Prize

The Girl in the Window

Winner of the 2023 Katherine Paterson Prize

The Girl in the Window

by Jess Rinker


I’m a wheelbarrow.

I let Mom guide me through our dark, chilly house, moving everywhere she pushes me, passively helping her complete her chores simply by existing. It’s not the first time for this middle-of-the-night gather-and-dash routine, and we move seamlessly from room to room, despite most of the lights being dark. In my bedroom, one of her hands rests on my shoulder as we roll up pajamas, jeans, extra underwear. For some reason she pulls a winter coat from my closet, even though it’s May and New Jersey isn’t all that cold in May. We shove things into backpacks and move like quiet, unwelcome ghosts in our own home until we reach the front door and an explosion stops us.

Shattered glass somewhere behind us.

It’s a loud splintering that makes my whole body jump.

My father’s rage fills the entire, dark space of the house the way smoke once filled our kitchen when Mom burnt corn muffins to blackened mounds.

Only that had made us all laugh.

Just as Mom pushes me the last few feet towards the door, I catch my reflection in the tilted mirror by the bathroom. Slack-faced, emotionless. I look like a ghost. Only for a second, I wonder if the reflection is actually mine. Is that what I really look like on nights like this?

The girl in the glass seems older, somehow more aware of herself than I. I try to straighten the mirror, but I’m swept out the front door, and the stronger girl vanishes from sight.

Only the shell of me is left.

Every time this happens, it’s like I become more and more transparent. I’m invisible and Dad becomes much—sharper. It’s as though he literally can’t see me when he’s drinking, unless he needs something from me, like a bucket for his vomit. Otherwise, I cease to exist, completely gone from his view. It has to be true because what dad can see his daughter, and then proceed to smash her favorite glass dolphin figure against the wall? That’s what happened one of the last times we left in the middle of the night. This time he seems more focused on punishing the kitchen, Mom’s bowls and vases. But I know by now not to expect anything I love to be intact when I return. The only choice is to stay smart, move quick, and accept it. This is just the way things are.

It’s better to not be attached to anything. Not even myself.

As Mom opens the car door for me, I see my tired reflection again in the dusty window, the same dark circled eyes, frowning. Me. I guess that’s what acceptance looks like. Every time we have to leave while Dad “cools down,” which most often means breaking dishes, ripping pages out of books and smashing Mom’s houseplants, I have to accept it. I have no idea why cooling down means taking it out on every object in the house, but apparently that’s what it takes for Dad to come to his own acceptance and back to us.

Fight, smash, leave, treatment, apologize. Wash, rinse, repeat.

“Lydia, sweetheart. Get in the car and fasten your belt.” Mom breaks me out of my trance. Her voice sounds exactly the way she speaks to her students at the glass studio where she works. Calm, calculated, always even-toned and so trustworthy. She can never get Dad to calm down before he explodes, but with me, and with her students, she’s like a still pond. No ripples, no disturbance. Almost as though nothing out of the ordinary is even happening.

It’s kind of confusing, honestly.

I climb into the backseat of the old Camry we call Georgia for some reason, throw my backpack across to the other side with a loud thunk, and put on my seat belt. Even though the drive will only take us around the corner, Mom plugs in her phone to play music. Some cheery Broadway musical, like she always listens to to drown out Dad’s screaming about money or countless other things I can never even make sense of. I'd rather have silence, but I don’t say anything as Mom starts to back up the car.

I never say anything.

“Everything’s going to be okay, Lyds. Okay?” Mom says, staring at me through the rearview mirror like her gaze alone will convince me. I look back at her tired eyes, but I know by now how empty those words are despite how much she wants them to be true. She really, really wants them to be true, no matter how many times Dad proves her wrong. But I nod so she’d just drive already.

Mom puts the car in gear, and I turn around in my seat to look back at our dark house. It’s a nice yellow, a little faded, but looks a bit like a farmhouse as it’s one of the older homes in town. Paint curls up in spots, but it’s not falling down or anything like most haunted-looking houses. Dad’s family owned it for decades and apparently it used to be a pretty popular historical home that people toured and everything. But in the last several years, I don’t think my parents so much as cleaned out a gutter. And with all those peaks and eaves and dirty, odd-shaped windows it looks a little haunted to my friends, especially at night with no lights on. The perfect trick or treat house. If only a real monster wasn’t hiding inside. I never invite people over.

I’ve lived here all my life; this is maybe the tenth time we’ve had to leave because of Dad’s drinking. I lost count. But it wasn’t always like this. I remember laughing and board game nights and Dad teaching me how to play rummy. Back then it only happened once in while, it was easier to think Mom’s favorite phrase was true, that it would all be okay. But lately, it’s every few months. It’s like the house doesn’t really belong to me and Mom at all because of this, it really is all his, he haunts it and when he wants it all to himself, he gets it. All he has to do is scream or break something or punch a hole in the wall, and out we run. It makes me more than a little bit mad. And afraid. And being afraid of someone you love is the strangest combination. It makes no sense and it’s not fair. Because I do love my dad, and he sometimes has good days. But this isn’t one of them.

Mom pulls out of the driveway, and makes the left turn toward my best friend Jill’s house. Jill’s mom is my mom’s best friend, so that’s usually where we go. We watch movies and I sleep over in her room on the little trundle bed, and Mom gets the whole apartment over their garage. Jill’s house is always warm and smells of coffee and popcorn and there’s a lot of laughter. Her mom makes hot chocolate on cold afternoons and Mickey Mouse pancakes for breakfast just for the heck of it, and her dad doesn’t even exist—Jill and her sister Avery were born without a dad. I mean, a guy exists somewhere, but Mari said she never planned to get married, but she always wanted to be a mom. So she had Jilly and Avery on her own. I don’t totally know all the details, but I’m really glad Mari decided the world needed a Jilly. Because I know I certainly do.

Sometimes I wonder what it must be like to not have a dad at all. Much quieter, I imagine. Not that I ever would want my dad to not exist, only not be so mad all the time. Maybe have a snowball fight with me like we did when I was little. Or teach me guitar like he’s always promised but still hasn’t even tried. It would be okay if he just made hot chocolate once in a while. But right now, all I can imagine is him inside the house, stomping like a monster from room to room looking for more things to break.

Eventually there will be nothing left.

I glance up at my bedroom window and the attic window just above that. Right before the house is completely out of view I see a bright flicker of light. No one ever goes up in the dirty attic. It’s full of Dad’s family’s crap, as Mom says. She so badly wants to throw everything away and make the attic a library. But he’s never let anyone touch it and yet he never goes up there either. Plus it’s freezing in winter, sweltering in summer, so we just keep it closed up as though it doesn’t exist. A void in the ceiling.

The black hole above our heads.

The door to the attic steps is actually in my bedroom and I keep it blocked with my desk because the drafts in the house frequently make the door rattle in the frame in the middle of the night. But maybe Dad pushed it aside to run up there and maybe he’s trying to signal us to stop? Maybe he realized how hard he grabbed Mom this time and he wanted to say sorry for making her fall.

“Mom, stop!” I shout. She slams on the breaks and immediately pulls over out of surprise.

“Lyd, please. My nerves can’t take anymore shouting right now.”

I don’t apologize and only lean toward the back window to try to get a better look. “Just wait one sec,” I plead.

Sure enough, even in the shadows it’s clear someone has their hand pressed against the glass in the little arched window, but it’s a small hand. Not my dad’s. I squint. It looks like a girl. Like a girl maybe my age wearing a blue and red striped shirt. Goosebumps pop up all over my arms and the back of my neck.

I unbuckle, jump out of the car—despite Mom’s protests—and run a little way back toward the house.


But I can’t answer her back or explain what I’m doing because I don’t even totally understand what I’m seeing. My mouth feels dry and my jaw frozen in place.

She looks a lot like me. And she’s standing in my attic. Right now.

“What are you doing?” Mom pulls me by the arm back to the car, breaking my gaze. “What are you even looking at?” She glances back at the house, with a confused look on her face, but it’s obvious she doesn’t see anything.

I pull out of her grasp to look one last time.

But this time all I see is a dark, empty window.

And a foggy handprint slowly fading from sight.


I’m a flowerpot.

I stare at the intricate designs etched into the edge of the pot on the front porch of my best friend’s house as Mom gently knocks on the front door. All I can think about is that handprint and how Mom put me in the car like a ragdoll after it vanished because I could hardly move my own feet. She didn’t see anything. For a second, I’d hoped it really was Dad, maybe trying to put an end to nights like this where we have to knock on Jill’s front door at eleven o’clock. But the chance of that is just about as likely as a ghost in my attic. Still, I know what I saw.

Mari opens the door on the third try. She waves for us to come in, takes my hand and says, “Jilly’s upstairs, honey. She’s been waiting for you.”

I only take my eyes off the flowers to glance at Mari’s face, the familiar expression of “I’m sorry” and “I’ve got you” wrapped into one worried knot. Part of me is grateful her expression doesn’t say “again?” and yet it’s exactly what I’m feeling. We’re here, again. And it will probably happen again and again; nothing ever seems to stop it. But I don’t say anything and just walk down the hall to the back steps that lead up to Jill’s room. Behind me all I hear is Mom’s sudden muffled crying and whispering, “I really hoped things would be different this time. When are you supposed to just give up on someone?”

“Before that someone hurts your kid,” Mari whispers back. “Look, we’ll figure this out, Suze. Everything’s going to be okay.”

Grown-ups lie to themselves so much.

Jill’s door is half open and I peer around the corner to see her. She’s sitting on her bed, scrolling through her phone, smiling, blissfully unaware that I’m a millisecond from ruining whatever funny corgi video she’s watching. She loves corgis. So much that she’s even wearing pajamas with the fluffy little dogs printed all over them.

The image of the girl in the window is burnt into my brain, and Jill is the only person I want to tell. But then, as if she senses me, she jumps up, drops her phone on the pillow, and wraps her arms around me. “You okay?” she asks.


“What happened this time?” Jill’s voice sounds hesitant. I just shake my head and stare at the floor.

It’s the way we work; I know she cares. She knows I don’t talk about anything.

But at the same time, my dad aside, I also have never had anything anywhere near this exciting or scary or unbelievable or whatever it is to talk about. How do I explain what I saw so she’ll believe me? For a moment we stand there, silent. And then just as easily as she jumped up to hug me, she drops her arms and changes the subject.

Jill reaches for the bowl of popcorn next to her bed. “Are you hungry? Wanna watch Disney?” She plops back on her bed, her face expectant and apprehensive at the same time. She loves everything Disney as much as corgis. Sometimes I wish I could be obsessed with something like that, it seems like it could be fun, but I’m not. It’s hard enough to have any interest in something let alone an obsession. My pajamas, which are rolled up in a ball in my backpack, are gray sweatpants and a white t-shirt.

“Thanks,” I say, taking the bowl and curling my legs underneath me next to her, happy to be distracted by ordinary stuff. I want to tell her about what I saw in the attic, but I also don’t want to ruin this. We sit side by side, knees touching, not talking, and watch TV for a while just laughing at some of the actors, looking up TikToks, and being normal before Jill starts yawning. It’s late, probably after midnight, and we have school tomorrow, but I'm not going to get the image of the girl in the attic window out of my head until I tell Jill about her. I should just go put on my pajamas, not drag her into my overactive imagination, but I also don’t really want to end the night either. It’s always hard to fall asleep on nights like this, nights when I don’t know what comes next.

“Can I braid your hair?” I ask Jill. She looks a little surprised, but then slips off her headband and turns her back to me. I take her silky black hair in my hands, section in three, and begin.

“Before we go to sleep, I have to tell you something,” I say as I braid. Jill’s shoulders tense; she never likes hearing too much about my dad. I’m fine with that; I don’t like talking very much about him. Although talking about ghosts right before we go to sleep probably isn’t the smartest either. Still, best friends share everything. And the one thing I can count on in my life is that Jill and I are best friends.

“I saw something in my attic window when we left the house.”

Jill turns to me, her eyes wide. “Something?

“Well, don’t freak out, but more a someone. I wasn’t imagining it. I swear, whoever she was, I saw her. Clear as day just like I see you now.”

“Wait, wait, wait. Slow down. Her?”

I just keep braiding. I don’t have an explanation for what it could have been, and despite everything in my brain that says ghosts aren’t real, I know what I saw.

“You’re freaking me out Lyd.” She turns all the way around to face me. “You can’t drop something like that and just…just braid my hair!” Her curtain of hair falls out of the half-hearted twists and cascades across her shoulder. It always amazes me that she can fit all that under a swim cap when we have practice. I cut my own hair so much when I was little, and not so little, that Mom finally had it styled in a bob to my chin and it still hasn’t recovered. More than once even in the last couple months, I’ve been taken by the temptation to trim my own bangs, but then I think about Jill’s long locks and put the scissors down.

Right now I love her so much for believing in me.

“Do you believe in ghosts?” I ask her.

Jill sits back on her pillows and crosses her arms. She wiggles her feet in her corgi socks, each toe a separate puppy.

“Maybe?” she finally says. “I think they’re like aliens. I don’t think I could decide one way or another for sure until I see one, but I mean, anything is possible, right?”

I nod. I mostly feel the same. “She was there, Jill. There was a handprint on the glass.”

“I wouldn’t have thought a ghost could leave a handprint,” Jill whispers.

“I wouldn’t have thought a ghost could be in my attic.”

“Well, we will have to investigate,” Jill yawns. “I’m going to pull out the trundle okay?” She jumps down, reaches under her bed and pulls out the mattress on wheels that has become my second bed, while I leave to change into my pajamas and brush my teeth. Between sleepovers that were planned and sleepovers that were unplanned, I’ve slept on this bed nearly as often as my own. But it is cozy and Jill’s mom always puts fresh sheets and a really fluffy pink fleece blanket on it.

While I brush my teeth, and stare at my reflection in the bathroom mirror, my eyes seem brighter than earlier in the evening. Then suddenly, like a light switch, I’m looking at someone else’s eyes.

Eyes blue as the pool at the Y.

My eyes are brown.

I jump away from the sink.

My toothbrush clatters to the ground, little splatters of toothpaste going all over my pants, the cabinet, the floor. I pick it up, look in the mirror again and it’s just me. Regular brown-eyed, brown-haired, me.

“Lydia.” I gently smack my face with two hands, making sure it feels the same. Making sure I’m awake. Maybe making sure I’m still here. “Now you’re being ridiculous.” I quickly rinse my mouth, shut off the light and run back to Jill’s room.

We lay down and Jill turns off her bedside lamp. I don’t tell her what happened in the bathroom because that was a little too weird even for me. “I’m glad you’re here,” she whispers.

I don’t know how to respond to that so I say, “When I go home, will you explore the attic with me?” I hear an intake of breath and there’s a long pause from Jill. “I mean, we’d only go up during the day,” I add.

“I think you’re supposed to look for ghosts at night.”

“No way I’m going up there at night.”


“So, will you?” I ask again. I can’t imagine ghost hunting without Jill; we’ve always done everything together. Swim, camp, weekends, girl scouts. Everything. But now Jill’s quiet.

“If I’m allowed,” she finally says.

I nod in the dark. Sometimes Jill’s mom knowing everything is really wonderful. We always have a safe, quiet place to go. But I also know Jill will not be allowed over my house if Dad is there, so we have to wait and “see what happens."

After “everything will be okay,” that is my least favorite phrase.


I’m a bundle of warm, soft cotton.

The next morning, the bed is like a warm hug; the kind of hug you never want to be the one to end too soon. Jill’s little sister, Avery, knocks on the door for probably five minutes straight while I pull the pillow over my head and pretend I don’t hear it, wishing I could disappear into the mattress and stay there all day. I really do not want to go to school and if there was any way to avoid it, I’d take it. But Jill finally groans and throws her covers off.

“Alright, Av, enough! We’re up!”

“Mom says eggs are ready now,” Avery calls through the door. “And she’s going to drive us all to school so you better not have stayed up all night on your phones!” And then she runs down the hall, her footsteps fading away as she goes.

“She’s like a little voice recorder. Never say anything around her you don’t want the entire world to know,” Jill says as she slides out of bed.

I push my own covers off and rummage through my backpack. We tossed such random things in the bag (a coat in May?) and now I wish I remembered my purple hoodie. It’s Color Week at school, which is kind of a spirit week for the middle school sports and arts activities, and every day is designated a different color to celebrate different teams or clubs. Today’s Wednesday and we’re supposed to wear purple to cheer on the swim team and choir. But I didn’t have any of that in my head last night, despite the fact swim team is my sport. Jill’s sport really. I only joined for her; I love swimming, but I’m not great at competing. Coach says it’s because I’m in my own head too much, but I really don’t know what that means. Whose head would I be in if not mine?

That makes me think of last night’s weird blue-eyed reflection. A wave of heat goes through my entire body. The leader at one of my Alateen meetings said that rush of heat is anxiety, the fight or flight reaction in my body when it thinks it’s in danger. Even if it’s not. I don’t know if that blue-eyed reflection is dangerous but I also don’t really want to find out.

“If you want to borrow anything of mine, you’re welcome to,” Jill says as she opens her closet door. She has a partial walk-in and tons of clothes. “I’ve got a lot of purple.” She pulls out a dress, a pair of leggings, and a fake fur jacket as examples. “Seriously, take what you want. I’m going to go shower quick.”

“Thanks,” I say as Jill leaves the room. I run my hand over the purple fur, and even though it’s fake, wonder what fantastical animal it might have come from. Having Jill as a best friend is like having a sister, I imagine. We’ve been friends since preschool because our moms have been friends since high school. But I still feel a little weird wearing Jill’s clothes. They smell differently, and they’re always a little tight, so I put everything back in the closet and shut the door. It won’t kill me to not wear purple. Jill just looks at me when she comes back out of the bathroom, wearing a purple jumper, but says nothing about the fact I’m wearing the same outfit I wore yesterday.

After breakfast, Mari drives the three of us to school. My mom already left early for work, which I knew to expect. She has to get the furnaces running and hot early in the morning. And the glass shop gets sweltering so quickly that Mom usually starts before dawn. I have no idea how she can even stand it, sweating all day like that. But she loves it. She says when she was young, she knew she needed a job where she got to work with her hands, but glassblowing works her whole body and mind. She didn’t go to college because the summer after high school she went to some art camp in Newark where she first tried it, and she never looked back. It’s also where she met Dad, who was working in a music studio.

We pass by my house on the way, and the thoughts of my parents quickly shift. It feels like all the air is sucked out of the car. But nothing looks amiss. The yellow house stands quietly, patiently, like it’s waiting for everyone to come home. Dad’s truck isn’t there. What I’m most interested in, the attic window, offers no clues. It’s empty, dark. No handprint.

Jill and I look at each other. She shrugs.

When we get to school, Avery and Jill get out of the car, but I sit for a minute and stare at the seat in front of me. Inside await a lot of teachers wanting homework I never completed, and last night I was supposed to finish an essay that I never even looked at. I’m pretty good with excuses, but I don’t know how much longer they can last.

“I’ll meet you inside, okay?” Jill says to me and turns to head in to the building. Avery already took off running. She didn’t seem to walk anywhere.

I pick at the seam on the headrest. “Did my mom say she was getting me this afternoon?” I ask. “Or am I walking with Jill?”

Mari turns in her seat. “She’s going to pick you up as long as she can get your dad to stay in treatment. You remember last time—”

“Yeah,” I cut her off. “I know.” I let myself out of the car and say thanks, ignoring whatever else Mari was trying to say. I’m not trying to be rude; it’s just that I only have enough room in my brain for so many explanations. Last time Dad refused treatment for days so we had to stay with Mari for nearly two weeks. I love the family, but that time I wanted to go home. And especially now I want to go home and get up in the attic.

School drags. I have no appetite at lunch, so I watch Jill and Rachel laugh and pick at their pizza. The whole day feels like that phrase teachers like to use on you when they don’t think you’re paying attention: in one ear and out the other. I guess sometimes teachers are right because I look around the room in Language Arts and forget how I even got there.

After class, Mr. Daily asks me to stick around for a minute, which is never good news. I stare at the little red and white glass paperweight on his desk. Red and white are our school colors. No doubt my mother made it. People in town constantly buy trinkets and ornaments from the shop. I always recognize her stuff.

“I already know what you’re going to say,” I say. “I failed this class.”

“Well, hang on,” Mr. Daily says. “The year isn’t over yet. Let’s talk about how we can turn this around.”

I stare at his well-intentioned mustache. “Mr. Daily. Sometimes there is nothing to turn around.” And I walk out. I don’t really care what he thinks. It’s Jill I’m more worried about. It’s because of her I even joined the swim team in the first place and I already know if I can’t turn this and my other classes around, I’ll never be allowed to stay on it.

In last period Science, I’m called to the office for early dismissal. I glance at Jill who gives me a crossed fingers sign, and say goodbye to the teacher, Mrs. Orr. If Mom’s there early to get me, it means one of two things. Either she got Dad settled and she wants to give me the rundown, or she didn’t get Dad settled and I can’t go home.

I walk fast to my locker and then run to the office. The quicker we get this over with the better. When I turn the corner, Mom’s waiting on a bench outside the office with a big smile on her face. I go in and hug her and she signs me out for the day.

Mom rubs my back as we walk out. For a second I want to take her hand, but I haven’t done that since I was like, seven, so I keep it in my pocket. “We’re going home?” I ask cautiously.

“We sure are. Dad will be away for a month this time. He agreed. New place, longer program.”

I hate that it makes me feel relieved Dad’s going to be gone for a while. But it does. When it’s just me and Mom everything is so much lighter. So much easier. I feel like I can go back inside my body and breathe. Thirty days of quiet.

I wait for the expected “and hopefully when he comes home things can start getting back to normal,” but Mom doesn’t say it this time. Maybe she’s finally convinced Dad is never going to stop drinking. I wonder what he even does when he’s at treatment. I know he has a lot of therapy and stuff but does he miss us? Does he regret what he did? Does he even want to come back?

“What if nothing changes?” I ask Mom as we get into the car.

“We’ll burn that bridge when we get there, okay? One day at a time for all of us.” Mom runs her hand over my hair and cups my chin in her had. “The grownups will figure it out. But be patient with us.”

I nod but really what choice do I have?

“Can Jill come over for dinner?” I’m kind of pushing it since we’re just getting home ourselves, but I also know Mom has a hard time saying no when Dad’s out of the house, to make up for all times she has had to say no.

“Sure. I’ll order a pizza.”

When we get home, I slowly crack open the door a little afraid of what I might see, but the kitchen is clean. Everything is in place, everything left intact anyway. Whatever had been broken is gone. I look back at Mom who shrugs. “I didn’t actually stay at the shop today. I helped Nic get set up and then took the day off,” she says, air quoting day off.

And then she gives me a gentle push into the house and we say nothing more about it. I feel a huge grip on my chest suddenly release. I hadn’t even realized how worried I’d been all day about coming home and now everything seems fine. Mom cleaned it up and made it look like nothing bad had happened there at all. I could almost believe it.

Mom kisses me on the top of my head and says, “I’m going to go lie down for a while, okay?”

I nod and put my bag down to text Jill about coming over after school. And then send her a pizza and ghost emoji. The three little text bubbles pop up and then Jill says: I’ll ask! I set my phone down and rummage in the pantry for a snack while I wait for her next reply. There’s not a ton to choose from, so I settle for a box of Ritz. I pull out a sleeve of crackers and decide to take inventory, which is my normal routine after a bad night.

I slowly walk from room to room, nibbling on crackers, noting things that are missing, or in a new place. The blue glass flower vase Mom usually had on top of the mantle is gone, in its place a simple glass mason jar. She made that vase herself; it had been one of the first pieces she made years ago, and even though it was lopsided she kept it to remind herself of where she started and where she was now. So I know it’s now officially gone. I guess Dad decided she didn’t need the reminder anymore.

When I stop crunching on a cracker, there’s a strange, faint tapping sound somewhere in the distance, maybe in the walls of the house. A leaky pipe, maybe. I chew louder and keep inspecting the living room.

The lamp from the side table by the bookshelf is missing its shade, several books too. The wooden finial at the end of staircase railing is gone. Raw, exposed wood like a wound underneath like Dad karate chopped it right off. The sweet crackers melt in my mouth as I try not to imagine it, helping to distract from the gnawing feeling inside my chest. Nothing really surprises me anymore. But it still doesn’t feel good.

A slow, quiet creaking sound comes from upstairs.

Like something creeping its way down the hall, then abruptly it stops.

“It’s just Mom going into the bathroom,” I whisper too loud, too quickly, like I’m talking to the couch or something. I peek up the steps but I can’t bring myself to go up there yet, not alone. Not after what I saw last night. But what really stops me is the empty, blank wall that used be hung with photos. Mom made a collage of family portraits—what few we had—and some of her own landscape photography from a class she took a few years back. The river, hiking trails, but mostly me.

Except for one small frame about halfway up the stairs, they’re all gone. I squeeze my eyes tight and try not to see Dad smashing every single one of the carefully and lovingly hung photos, Mom’s attempt at trying. I try not to imagine him smashing Mom’s lopsided vase, crushing the lampshade or karate chopping the finial off the railing. It doesn’t really work though, the images flood my mind; the things he did when we left him behind.

And that strange tapping sound.

Louder now. Like it’s maybe in the kitchen. Is the sink dripping?

I don’t need to walk up the steps to see which photo is left; I know it’s the one of Dad pushing me on a swing at the playground when I was around three. Huge grins on both our faces. It had been the only photo of just the two of us on the wall. Now it’s the only photo, like Dad left me a message. I’m not sure, but maybe he was trying to tell me he missed those days too.


“Who’s doing that?” I shout to no one. At least I hope no one. My brain goes right to this stupid horror movie Jill and I never should have watched. One with a lot of dripping blood. But I can’t let something so stupid take over my thoughts. The tapping is not blood dripping in the walls, Lydia.

I take a deep breath and rush into the kitchen.

Of course it’s empty.

But then, there’s that strange tapping in the wall behind me next to the fridge, much louder now. It’s a weird pattern: three short taps, three with a pause, and then three more short. And it keeps happening, gradually moving through the wall as if someone is walking and tapping as they go around the room, getting closer and closer to where I stand. I squeeze my eyes tight.

Go away, go away, go away.

Mom must be doing something before taking a nap, I try to convince myself, although I don’t know what she could be doing that involves tapping a wall. And it’s wishful thinking as the sound is definitely in the kitchen.


Making its way right to me.

I slowly turn around to face it and the sound immediately stops. Outside the neighbor’s lawn mower roars to life. I sigh so hard cracker crumbs fly out of my mouth.

I don’t know if it’s a ghost. Maybe it really was just a dripping pipe, but whatever it was it seems to be gone now. Or at least drowned out by the neighbor’s lawn mower. You and your overactive imagination, Lydia Pearl, Dad would have said, shaking his head that way he always did, half laughing, half annoyed. Part of me wishes he was here right now. Most likely he’d walk past and tell me to grow up. But if it was a good day, he’d bang on the wall, calling out to whoever was in there to go away, while winking at me. If it was a good day, he could make me feel safe. But you never knew what kind of day you were going to get.

I check my phone and still no text from Jill. If she can come over, I’ll meet her halfway—there are only a few blocks between us and after we’d turned twelve last year, both of our moms said it would be okay as long as we told someone where we were going. I finish an entire sleeve of buttery crackers while I wait to hear back from Jill and hope it’s a yes so I have an excuse to leave my increasingly creepy house. Imagination or not, something feels way off.

There are always groans and creaks in the house, and Mom says old houses do that when it’s windy or really cold, but now the familiar sounds make my skin crawl and my bones feel locked in place.

And it’s not windy or cold.


I’m a street sign.

I stand at the corner of Pine and Cherry where Jill said she’d meet me at four. I left before I heard from her, because I couldn’t be in the house anymore, and decided if nothing else I’d take a nice walk until Mom woke up from her nap.

Pine and Cherry, Pine and Cherry, I say over and over in my head as I stare at the green rectangles and step up and down on the curb. It has a nice sound to it. My phone says 3:53. Seven minutes. I can’t wait to see her, talk to her, just be near her. Jill always makes me feel a little bit safer, a little bit more real. She’ll know how to handle all of this.


Jill comes around the corner and we run to meet each other and end up a little out of breath. “So, did you go up there yet?” she asks.

I shake my head. “Are you kidding? We have to do it together.” I don’t tell her I haven’t even gone back into my bedroom yet, let alone go up in the attic! We walk fast to get back to my place, and both of us pause to look up in the attic window, which is empty.

“She was right there,” I whisper. “Like she needed to tell me something.”

Jill shivers. “Don’t say it like that!” She playfully shoves me.

We both laugh and then I swear I see sunlight catch an old handprint. It is still there! But before I can even point it out, the sun goes behind a cloud and it’s gone again. This time I shiver, but it feels like a sign and a little bit of a relief that I hadn’t completely imagined it.

“First, we should find out what tools we need for a paranormal investigation,” Jill says as we run up the front porch.

“That makes it sound so much more serious.”

“But it is! I mean if we’re going to do it, we have to do it right.”

I hadn’t thought that far ahead. “I guess so. What tools do you think we need?”

Jill shrugs. “Google will tell us.”

In the kitchen I open Mom’s laptop. Her password is so easy a dog could have figured it out. We search “how to conduct a paranormal investigation” and discover at the very least we should have a flashlight, something to record sound and video, and ideally a device that measures energy.

“We don’t have anything that measures energy,” I say. “I don’t even know what that is.”

Jill purses her lips. “No, but at least we have our phones to record. That’s better than nothing. And since you saw the ghost, maybe we don’t need to detect energy. I think that’s more important for ghosts that don’t show themselves, so that you know they are present. We just have to hope she shows up.”

“True,” I say, unsure if I actually want to run into her face to face. What if she isn’t friendly? How do you even know if a ghost is friendly or not? “Alright, let’s do this.”

Jill stands up, but then pauses. “Do you think we should, like, wear armor or something?” she asks, tapping a finger on the table.

“Armor? Like chain mail and helmets?”

She looks as uneasy as I feel but we both laugh. “Yeah,” she says. “Never mind.”

I lead the way to my room, where the door is wide open, how I usually leave it. Nothing seems off. Jill follows me inside, but neither of us walk toward the attic door and instead sort of stand in the room like we’re waiting for something to happen. I don’t think either of us really wants to go first.

Jill looks at me. “Is it colder in here than usual or is that my imagination?” she asks, rubbing her hands together.

“I think the heat is low,” I say without having any idea if that’s true or not. It doesn’t seem any different to me, but considering how cozy Jill’s house usually is it might feel colder to her. I stare at the attic door, lodged securely behind my desk the way I always have it. I pushed the desk there months ago, when it was still winter and the drafty house seemed to want to dislodge the door every night. It always rattled in its frame a little bit. While I wasn’t terrified, and honestly ghosts never even occurred to me before, it was certainly a nerve-wracking thing to wake up in the middle of the night with the sound of what seemed like someone trying to break into my room.

Now I wonder if it really had been the wind or something, or someone, else.

I shudder, walk over to the desk, and easily slide it back along the wall.

“Is there a light up there?” Jill asks.

“I’m not sure. But there’s a little flashlight in my bedside table,” I say and point to the stand. Jill grabs the tiny light and holds it like a dagger.

“Are you going to stab the ghost with that?” I tease.

Jill sticks her tongue out at me, but laughs. I put my finger on the metal latch, the tiniest piece of hardware that blocks my room from the giant emptiness up there. It’s definitely time to get a new latch. “Ready?”

Jill nods, but her teeth are clenched. I lift the hook and the door creaks open on rusty hinges. A sudden strange, spiraling sensation in my stomach makes me a little nauseated but I try to ignore it. It’s probably from all those crackers I ate.

Cobwebs cover the inner door frame and the corners of the wall just inside. Although the webs are gross, and the last thing I want to do is walk face-first into one, I don’t really mind spiders all that much. Mom and I always catch and release them from the house. I grab a dirty t-shirt and begin wiping down the sinewy structures. They’re all empty; the spiders long gone anyway. There’s a light switch on the left-hand side and I try it. Much to both of our surprise, it works.

Jill sighs. “Thank goddess.”

“What?” I ask, laughing.

“I don’t know, it’s something my mom always says.”

“Okay, let’s go see,” I whisper. But as soon as I take the first step inside the door, there’s an even stronger tugging sensation from the center of my body, like something is pulling me from the inside out. It makes me suck in my breath and grab the walls with both hands to steady myself.

“You okay?” Jill asks, putting a hand on my arm. I don’t know what to say or how to describe the sickening feeling so I just nod and hope it will go away. Together we slowly go up the stairs. Each step groans with strain.

“I hope these stairs can hold us,” she whispers.

I think the same but I also know my parents had been up there a few times in the past haphazardly sorting through old boxes (but never making a decision about what to do with Dad’s family’s crap) so it had to be fine. But each step up makes the pulling feeling stronger, worse even, like I’m losing control of my feet.

When we are about two steps from the top, just before I can see across the floor and all the boxes and furniture shoved up there, I have to stop. I have to get away from the awful tug. It feels like it’s going to pull me down into a very deep hole. One I’ll never get out of.

“I’m so sorry,” I gasp. “I can’t … I don’t feel well.” And I quickly move past Jill and back down the stairs, the grip on my gut loosening the further away I get until I can finally breathe normally. I sit on my bed, confused.

Jill hops off the bottom step into the room. “What happened, Lyds? Are you okay?”

“I just—felt like I might throw up,” I lie, although it’s not that far from the truth. Whatever that feeling was, it was awful, like I had no control over my own body. Like something wanted me to come into the attic so badly it was trying to force me, but no way thankyouverymuch.

“I’m okay now, but I think I’d rather sit on the couch and watch TV or play a game. Try this again later. Is that okay with you?”

Jill shrugs like it really doesn’t matter to her. “Yeah, I’m cool with whatever. I thought you really wanted to go up there though.”

I nod. “I did. I do. And I will. I think maybe I just didn’t get enough sleep last night after everything, you know? Maybe you could sleep over this weekend and we could try again?” I think I sound convincing, I nearly convince myself that it would be fine, but wonder if that’s actually true. Maybe ghost hunting is just another thing I’m only okay at. Like swimming, school, and pretty much everything I’ve ever tried.

“After our meet on Saturday morning,” Jill says. “I’m sure I could stay overnight.”

“Yes! That’s a great idea,” I say and smile. It’s not often I get to return the sleepover invitations so we should squeeze in as many as we can until … until we can’t.

“I’m sure you’ll feel better by then,” Jill says as we head down the stairs to the living room.


But I can’t get that terrifying feeling out of my head or even out of my body—like it’s a current within me even when it’s not full force.

And then it occurs to me.

Maybe I’m the energy detector?

Jess Rinker


Jess Rinker is an award winning writer of several books for young readers including picture book biographies and middle grade fiction. Titles include Gloria Takes a Stand, a biography of feminist icon Gloria Steinem, Send a Girl!: The True Story of How Women Joined the FDNY and middle grade novels The Dare Sisters and The Dare Sisters: Shipwrecked! She’s also the author of Out of Time: Lost on the Titanic and a new middle grade novel The Hike to Home.

Jess has a BA in Social Welfare and an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She also teaches in the University of Reno, Nevada at Lake Tahoe’s MFA program in the Writing for Children and Young Adults track, and undergrad creative writing at Centenary University in New Jersey. Most recently she was awarded the Excellence in Teaching and Learning award for quality online course creation and teaching.

In addition to writing for children, Jess’s creative nonfiction has been featured in Feminine Collective, Creative Parents, Family Circle Magazine, PA Theatre Guide, Hunger Mountain, and other online publications including a recent guest article on the Cancer Hope Network website chronicling her experience as a caregiver while living in a rural area. You can also find more of her personal work on Substack. She currently lives in a small river town in New Jersey with her husband, Joe McGee, who is also a children’s author.

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