I found it by accident. I didn’t know if the land belonged to anybody. If I had, I wouldn’t have gone wandering through, ’cause I’m not a trespasser. I worry about people thinking stuff like that, so I just want to put it out there right away. So no one gets mad.

It was a Thursday afternoon, otherwise I would’ve been home. But on Thursdays my mom has all these people over yoga. They walk in a long line from the front door to our living room, different colored mats rolled up under their arms. They look like monks bringing scrolls from one holy place to another. Except these get unfolded and sat on. My mom always has me help her move all the living room furniture up against the walls, so that there’s a big, empty space in the middle for everyone. Afterwards, I always leave. Mom’s never asked me too, but I know that she likes it being just her and her friends. Or maybe co-workers. I’ve never stuck around long enough to find out how they all know each other.

When I leave, on Thursdays, I like to go different places. Usually to the arcade in town, where the owner, Austin, always gives me a paper boat of free mozzarella sticks. I think he likes me. Or maybe he just feels sorry for me. Because I’m always alone. Usually, teenagers come to the arcade in groups. My teachers call them “packs”. But they understand, too.

“It is that age of transition; when your soul feels so foreign and diminished, you must attach it to a large number of souls just like it in order to feel any amount of completeness.” This is something I once heard my English teacher, Mr. Murdoch, say.

Maybe he’s right. After all, he went through it too, at one point. It’s weird to think about, though. And it gets a little scary if you think about it for too long. For me, anyways. Because, if there’s no one for me to attach my strange, tiny soul to, will it just stay strange and tiny? Is the attaching just for comfort, or is it also important? I hope not. If it is, the future of my soul looks grim.

I know I’m making myself sound like a weirdo right now. The guy everyone makes fun of. I’m not. Just because I don’t belong to a “pack” doesn’t mean that they all hate me. They don’t. At least, I don’t think so. Maybe, if they knew I was even there, they could make up their minds if they liked me or hated me. But, if any of them have ever noticed me, they’ve shown no sign.

There are days I blame myself. There are also days I blame them. Every day, these moments happen, like a teacher needing a volunteer or a girl in the mall looking for directions to a shop, and my heart starts to beat very fast. It flutters, and my cheeks tingle, because I know I could say something. I could step in and speak up. Just the thought that I can and should makes my breathing go a little off. But then I don’t. I never do. And the moment passes, and is gone. My heart always slows down, down, down, and my lips tighten, because I am disappointed with myself.

But then sometimes it’s not my fault. Like, if I accidentally bump into the girl whose locker is next to mine. It happens a lot, since she never seems to see me. I always say, “Sorry!” But she never says it back. She hasn’t said anything to me yet. She doesn’t even look at me. I sometimes wonder what she thinks she’s bumping into all the time.

Or, when I go up to the front of classrooms to hand in a paper. The teachers never see me coming, so I always have to interrupt.

“Here,” I say, politely, holding out my homework while they are writing, or sifting through papers, or typing on a computer. And they never look up the first time. “Um, here,” I’ll say again, still politely. “Here’s my homework.” It usually takes the third try before they look up. And they’re startled each time.

“Oh!” they usually gasp, surprised. “Didn’t see you there! Sorry.”

“It’s okay,” I tell my teachers. I tell that to everyone. It all really is okay, after all, right? Isn’t it?

I frequently tell that to Keifer, my something of a friend. My “perhaps” friend. I reiterate it because he gets angry a lot. A lot, a lot. At anything, for any reason. He purposely seeks interests that guarantee fury. Like politics, martial arts, and the rain forest.

“Freakin’ government is tryin’ ta rob us of oxygen,” he’ll mutter to me while were stretching in gym class. “Why else do you think they want to cut it all down so bad? It’s a freakin’ conspiracy. They hate all of us, and want us to slowly die, our lungs shrinking into raisins while they hole up with oxygen machines made by the marines. They’re so freakin’ evil, they would do something like that!”

“Except Gingrich,” I say.

“Yeah, except . . . shut up!”

He loves Gingrich.

There are days I think the only reason Keifer talks to me is because I’m the only one who will listen to him. He likes to rant. Angry people do. Possibly, because it is a way to release some of the anger, so that it doesn’t build and build inside until they explode. So I let Keifer rave, even though he’s contradictory. Because, I don’t want him to explode.

I once asked him why he’s always so mad. After considering it for a minute, he said, “I dunno. I guess I was just born angry, and it comes the easiest.”

So, you can imagine how he scorns my “It’s All Okay,” theory, though I prefer to stand by it.

“Your brain’s jacked, man,” he told me when I used it on him recently. Usually, he just rolls his eyes, but this time he added on to it. “There’s no other explanation. Face it, you can’t even see what’s going on in front of your own eyes, let alone in the White House or Guatamala.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked.

“It means you’ve got to get out of your stupid little fish bowl!” he yelled at me. When Keifer yells, which is often, his cheeks turn red and his eyes flash. But this was the first time he’s ever yelled at me about me.

I was shocked, but confused. And I guess it showed.

“Look at your freakin’ face!” Keifer shouted in outrage. “You have no idea what I’m talking about!”

I slowly shook my head.

“IT’S A METAPHOR, IDIOT!!!” Keifer bellowed, his nose and chin turning red, too. “FIGURE IT OUT!!!”

He then stormed away, muttering angry sentences to himself. Keifer must not sound like a very good friend. And, I guess if I were reading this, that also would be my conclusion. However, he tries. He does, which is admirable for a wrathful person. This was him trying, although I didn’t see it at the time.

Guys, I guess, are like girls when they have a disagreement. We, too, like to give each other some space. Especially if one of them is prone to loud outbursts. On that Thursday afternoon, I was attempting to habitually enter the arcade, but didn’t. Because Keifer was already in there. I could see him through the front window, banging away on the Wack-A-Mole, his knobbly elbow flying. I could tell by the way his lower lip was set that he was grumpy. Which wasn’t unusual, but if we were going to start interacting normally again, by pretending that nothing ever happened, it was best if he was in one of his brief good moods.

So I didn’t go in. Keifer was there first, it was only right that he got to stay, unperturbed.

But that meant I had to find somewhere else to go. I like our town, it’s a pretty nice place, but it’s not super big. The nearest mall is about a half hour away. I take the bus there on weekends sometimes. Never on a school night, though. Besides, malls are full of “packs”. They’re so much worse than school hallways or bowling alleys. And now that I was avoiding Keifer, my only friend, I suddenly felt like avoiding all humans. I didn’t know why. Possibly ,because Keifer’s words started ringing in my head, and they made me feel tired. It’s easier not to be ignored by people when there’s no one around to ignore you.

And so I headed for the woods.

The wood is on the other side of the park. The park is on the other side of town. I used to go there a lot. Mostly when I had no where else to go. But also when I wanted to not be somewhere in particular. Like the sophomore dance. Or my house.

To get there, you walk and walk and walk. Up and down sidewalks. From corner to corner. And then you leave all the lawns and concrete behind, which can be rather nice. Sort of like waking up after a long sleep. Anyway, you then cross a road to get to the playground. There’s a tall chain-link fence that surrounds the playground. It stretches on and on both ways. Protecting it. Wrapping the little playground kids in a big, metal hug.

Past the slides and swings is the park. It’s honestly not much. Well, I mean, it’s sparse. There’s lots of grass, dirt paths for walking, and benches for sitting. People go there to play frisbee with their dogs, or have picnics with their families. I’ve seen them. When I was little, we, my mom and dad and I, would do this occasionally. Mom would fold up a blanket, one that she didn’t mind getting stained, and load a blue cooler to the brim. It would be so full, she couldn’t lift it by herself. She would have to yell at my dad to help her get it into the back of our car. They would groan in unison, heaving it up and in. My dad would grouse about her packing so much. My mom would snap back. That’s their fundamental way of communicating: Grousing and snapping. But everything would be fine once we got to the park. We would hunt for a sunny patch of grass, spread the blanket, and eat. Afterwards, we would take a nap, my tiny body snuggled between theirs.

I haven’t been little in years. And I can’t remember the last picnic we had.

. . . Anyway.

Beyond the carpets of pruned grass and lacquered benches, way, way off in the distance, where there are no paths, is the woods. It’s just there. It’s always been there. Not really meaning anything, not adding, or detracting, just there. No one ever gives much thought to a bunch of trees . . . which is kind of sad. And maybe even wrong. Because, what if they deserve it? Although, that could be said about a lot of things. Not just trees. Or a lot of trees.

On that Thursday afternoon, I had no idea just how many trees I was heading towards. Like I said, I had never mused about the woods before. Not about how big it was, or what might be in it, or if any stories had occurred there. No, it was still just a place. A place I was aware of, but had yet to invade. It cropped up in my mind in this order:

The arcade was out, Keifer had usurped it. I couldn’t hop a bus to the mall. I was too old for the playground. Maybe I could have roamed the park, but it was suddenly giving me a weird, grimy feeling in my stomach. One I didn’t like. Logic pushed me further and further back, until I was standing at the edge of the woods, facing the trees.

As far as I knew, it wasn’t private property. There weren’t any orange “No trespassing” signs, otherwise I wouldn’t have gone in. I respect that sort of stuff. It drives Keifer crazy at times, because it means I never help him “fight the man” by doing things like breaking into municipal buildings, or striping myself with red paint and standing in front of butcher shops. I’m always explaining to him that, yes, I want to be a supportive friend, but I just don’t want to upset anyone. Or get in trouble. He frequently yells at me for this, telling me I’m weak and afraid. Patiently, I explain that, no, I’m just considerate. Which, only leads to more shouting from him.

“Consideration never changed anything!” is his claim.

I argue with, “Maybe change wouldn’t be needed if it were used in the first place.”

Keifer may be a hot head, but I can keep up with him intellectually. There are times he just walks away, spluttering, because he can’t think of a comeback. If Keifer’s in a position where he can’t win, he removes himself. Even though I know it’s a bit spoiled, there are moments when I admire him for that. Though, I’m not sure why.

As I stepped out of the sunlight and under the canopy of maples, I fleetingly thought about my many debates with Keifer. What would he think of me now, exploring a place most people ignore? Grimly, I figured he would scoff, and say I was just hiding better. But I wasn’t, not really. I was being intrepid, wandering through unknown territory. That Keifer, only dabbling in the Known. Here I was, delving into the New and Undefined.

But as I crossed over from the world of uniform lawns and preplanned gatherings, and into the land of bark and brush, I ordered myself to stop thinking about Keifer. We were at odds with each other. He didn’t have to be here when he was far away in town. So, I cleared my head of him and looked around me.

Growing up, I wasn’t the most nature-crazed kid, but I didn’t dislike it either. The woods didn’t intimidate me. Although, I did show the proper amount of awe for the broad, towering trees that seemed to go on forever and ever. They loomed above me, reaching out and touching each other with their long branches. As if the entire forest were holding hands and saying, “We’re all in this together.”

I kind of liked this. Even though I got the distinct feeling that none of them noticed I was there. But, if you’re a tree, so tall and mighty, why would you look down at a human? If other humans, who are the same height, don’t even do it, why should trees?

Pausing, I inhaled until my lungs were full. The air in here was so fresh, so filtered, and fragrant. It smelled like new and old. New leaves, bright and fluttering on twigs, and old leaves, decaying and crumbling underfoot.

The tree-ceiling above made a valiant effort to block the sun, but yellow beams still wove their way past the interlocking leaves. They lit up the gnarled trunks, and threw shadows on the ground. Birds, apparently invisible ones, ’cause I couldn’t see any, chirped and whistled high above me. Their singing, along with the rustle of leaves, were the only things I could hear. Otherwise, it was silent.

Extremely silent. And I know quiet. I’m something of a connoisseur. But, this quiet was unlike anything I had ever encountered. Empty rooms have a way of stuffing up your ears, like your eardrums are being suffocated by silence. Here, in the woods, there were no walls to swallow up vibrations. Just empty air that went on and on, with no noise to fill it. It was like my ears were straining, riding all that nothing space, seeking sound, and not finding any. It wasn’t a confining quiet; it was like a quiet that grabbed and stretched you. I shivered for a second, amazed. Things weren’t small in here, I thought. Things were big, and being a part of that Big made you feel small.

I stood, staring and soaking it in, for only a minute. Then I started walking.

Walking in the woods is nowhere near as easy as walking down the hallway or sidewalk. There is always something to step on, or avoid stepping on. My shoes made so much noise. I started to feel guilty about disrupting the holy silence around me. I weaved between white, papery birch trunks, which were so skinny they insisted on popping up every few feet, as fillers. I crunched and wove and hopped, my route going from undecided to erratic.

As much as I wanted to watched where I was going, and what that direction was in conjunction to where I was leaving, it soon became more important to watch my shoes. The forest wasn’t a space waster. My mom likes to leave long stretches of empty space from one piece of furniture to another. She thinks it keeps things “open” and “airy”. This forest apparently thought things were already open and airy enough. There wasn’t much room anywhere on the ground. Not even for a foot. Bramble and sprouting plants and stones had popped up wherever the birches hadn’t. Even with all the layers of leaves, life had somehow managed to squeeze its way through. And I guess that was pretty nice. It almost made me smile. After all, wasn’t there plenty of sun for everyone?

I was concentrating and admiring so much that I soon lost track of a couple of things. The first thing was time. In school we have bells that sound every ninety minutes; at home there is always a digital clock or something to look at. But in the woods there’s nothing to mark the passage of time. It’s going by and away without you noticing. I didn’t.

The second thing was where I was going. Straight lines were impossible. I had to swerve myself and look down every two seconds. Therefore, when I finally looked up, I felt the first hint of panic. Before me, behind me, and to all sides of me was forest. The same forest. It all looked identical. Like it is when you dive under the ocean until you arrive at the very middle and tumble around for a second, upsetting your inner ear. Once everything stopped spinning, it all looked the same. But, at least, in the forest, I wouldn’t run out of breath. Though, it did try to run away from me.

“Calm down,” I told myself. “It can’t go on forever. No matter which way you walk, you’re going to reach the end of it at some point.”

It really seemed like good logic. Everything does have to end at some point. I know lots of people think that’s sad. And I guess it is. Or it can be. Sometimes it’s happy. Sometimes it’s the greatest thing ever. I think it’s sadder that everything doesn’t have to begin. But sometimes it does, and that is pretty wonderful. Or not.

So I kept moving, not knowing where I was going, what plant souls I was stepping on. Some flies swarmed my face, and I swatted at them. The birds over my head twitted, and it sounded like laughter. I probably did look pretty hilarious. Maybe they were trying to tell me to go back home, silly boy. You don’t belong here.

But, birds, I thought, swallowing, I don’t belong anywhere else, either.

I can only guess how long I walked. Maybe a couple of hours, or more. It must have taken most of the afternoon, because eventually there was a chill in the air. There weren’t any shadows on the ground yet, but you can always tell when that last golden glow of noon has melted away. I almost panicked again, but I didn’t. It had to end. Everything ended.

I distracted myself from my lostness by looking around. Sightseeing. Wherever I was, it sure was beautiful.

And as both my feet and my eyes roamed, something way, way off in the distance caught my attention. I stopped moving. I strained my neck and squinted. There was an object, a shape, that didn’t match the rest of the woods. Confused, I crept my legs closer, wanting to see more of it. The nearer I got, the larger it got, adding on to itself bit by bit with each step. I circled around a clump of skinny trees, and saw a roof. As I continued, the trees remarkably thinning and the ground becoming more spacious, walls came into view. And then a chimney, and then what only could have been a porch.

It was amazing. I was amazed. Dumbstruck, as Mr. Murdoch says when one of us just stares at him blankly. I, somehow, had found a little house. In the middle of the woods. If you could call it a house. It looked way too small. It was almost like a shed that had worked out a lot in an effort to become a house, but hadn’t quite made it. And what was it doing here? The middle of nowhere seemed like a highly unlikely place to put something like that. For a moment, I got worried. What if this was someone’s land? What if someone owned this place and I wasn’t supposed to be here?

I might have turned around and trudged back right at that moment, except that I was now close enough to see something very important about the house. It was old. And not just old, like before you were born. This was old as in before anyone was born. The roof was slanted and shingled with wood that had swelled and splintered and grayed. The chimney was made out of stones, and had long, jagged cracks running up and down its sides. The porch was gray, broken boards, held up by poles, which attached it to an overhang of the roof. It looked as though the porch wrapped all the way around, like the house had on a skirt.

About fifty feet from it, I stopped and stared. Without getting closer, I could tell it was abandoned. It was something I felt more than I saw. Sometimes, places just radiate certain feelings. Like being evil. Or important. Or empty.

No one lived here. I could feel it in my lungs. Therefore, there was probably no one to mind if I explored a little bit.

Even still, I didn’t feel like running up to it. Empty things can be scary too. Emptiness scares a lot of people, though there’s nothing there to fear. Nothing real and touchable to hurt them. That’s not the point. I’m not sure what the point is. Anyway, I walked up to the house slowly, my feet suddenly way louder than before. It was sitting on a kind of slope that made it higher than the ground around it. Only a little, though. As I trudged and scuffed up to it, I could make out the wide, uneven siding that covered the walls. All gray and splintered. Just like the porch boards. The window glass was cracked and dirty, dead bugs littering the sills. But that was to be expected. Abandoned things don’t last well. That’s just science.

Mr. Murdoch once told us the word for abandoned, worn, filthy, falling-apart stuff. Derelict. As I gazed at the rotting seams and crumbling chimney, I knew that this cottage place was definitely Derelict.

I didn’t see the lanterns until I was almost at the porch.

I don’t know why I didn’t spot them sooner. Maybe the day had dulled my senses. Or maybe I was so busy looking at the houseness that I didn’t take in the details. But when I got about a yard away, the sun glinted off something below me. I blinked. I looked down. I frowned.

There, lined up like an infantry along the lip of the porch, following it all the way around, were lanterns. And not like the fancy Colman camping lanterns that use bulbs and switches. These were old. Made out of rust and glass. Confused, I bent my knees so I could examine them better. They all sat shoulder to shoulder, one after another, like they were trying to keep out invaders.

The glass in most were shaped like pears, rounder on the bottom, and stretching up like a pipe. They sat on metal bottoms, where the oil would go, slim metal arms reaching up around the glass. In the center lopped an old, used wick. But the lanterns varied, too. Some were like boxes, glass for sides, held together by rust and hinges, topped with a handle. Others were shaped strangely, with sheer metal rising up behind, kitty-cornering the lantern. But all of them had shapes and markings stamped out of the metal wherever possible. I saw leaves and bears and stars and suns, all their edges softened by time and rain.

I was bewildered. Straightening up, I stepped back. My gazes followed them all along the porch. Not a space was open. There might have been a hundred. A hundred lanterns. Some big. Some little. All weird and set up weird. I shook my head. Why would someone do something like that? What’s the point? Just to be strange?

Well, a lot of people do strange things for the sake of strangeness. There really wasn’t anything too wrong with that, as long as they weren’t hurting anybody. My mom didn’t necessarily agree with that. Odd things weren’t a favorite of hers. She said so when the occasion called for it. Mostly, she liked neatness and beauty and talking with our neighbors about what was good and pretty. I doubted she’d have liked it if she knew I was here. But that was okay. She didn’t know, and I’m not prejudice against weirdness. Not that I always understand it. If ever.

At that moment, I almost wished I did. Because the weirdness of the cottage didn’t end with the lanterns. Looking up, I saw wind chimes and empty bottles strung from the eaves. I hadn’t seen them from the woods. Carefully, so as not to disturb their solace, I stepped over the lanterns and onto the porch, to get a better look. The chimes and the bottles were all spread out, dotting the eaves with clusters of metal and glass. The bottles were extremely old, and dusty. I could see dead wasps and flies curled up inside. Trapped. Unable to escape, so they died. It made me feel a little sad.

Even though they were dusty, I could make out bits of color on each bottle. Some were red, some were blue, and some were green. And some were clear. Several had pieces of label still sticking to the sides, none of them still readable. String, or maybe twine, had been looped around the necks of the bottles and attached to nails under the roof. They all hung and swayed forlornly in the air. If there had been a breeze, they probably would have clinked together.

The wind chimes might have, too. But they also hung limply, too old and lonely to move or touch. They were all different. Most metal. Or maybe tin. Tin was used a lot in the old days, right? Some had long tubes arranged in a circle, some had shapes stamped out of metal and hanging from wire, while others looked homemade, made out of everything from forks and spoons, to broken pieces of jars.

I shook my head in wonder. There were so many. Who needs this many wind chimes and bottles swaying around? What if there was a windy day? The racket would be insane. If you’re a little cottage in the middle of the woods, aren’t you hiding out or something? Wouldn’t you not want to be easily found? Anyone could follow their ears here if there was even a slight breeze. It was confusing. It didn’t make sense.

But, the whole cottage didn’t make sense. After turning away from the outer porch, I faced the walls and windows. I guess anyone else would have been freaked out by the lanterns and chimes and bottles. So much so that they would have gone back the way they came. Only stupid people don’t take advantage of warnings and keep going. I wasn’t stupid. Just curious. What kind of person, who decorated like this, had lived here?

Had someone actually lived here? In this tiny, weird, old house; had it ever been a place where people had gone back to at the end of the day. Had people at one time slept and ate and grown here? Had they breathed, cried, dreamed, and loved inside those fraying walls? Had this eerie, unexplainable house once been a home?

If so, what was on the inside? Was it like the outside? All jumbled and mysterious, without the comforts of everyday living? I don’t know why, but I felt, based on what the porch was like, that whoever had lived here wasn’t a traditionalist. Maybe this wasn’t even a home. It could have been a hideout, or something. Where this person only went to do experiments or unleash the crazy he or she couldn’t show in society.

This theory made more sense to me, but it suddenly made me scared to look through the windows. I was still really curious, but I now wasn’t sure what I would find. Potions? Animal skeletons? The thought made me gulp. Instead of moving forward, I stood rooted to the porch planks. I knew I wasn’t really being fair. How a person decorated didn’t automatically determine how they lived. At least, it shouldn’t. This thought made me shrug uncomfortably. Because that’s kind of what my house was like. It had always been really important to my parents how our house looked. “Presentable” was a word frequently thrown around. Also, “modern” and “investment”.

Except, our home was sparse. Airy. Empty. Very pretty, though.

I don’t know why the cottage made me think about my own home. Maybe because it was so different. So opposite. Cluttered and unusual and secluded. My curiosity got the better of me. I stepped towards the closest window.

The windows were so much smaller than the ones at my house. There were only four panes of glass, and had a seam down the middle to open them. Ours opened by shoving the bottom half up. These used hooks and shutters. Though, the shutters were broken. Some had fallen off. Dust caked the glass, but there were some clear spots. I leaned in close and squinted my eyes. I saw keys.

Blinking, I took a step back and glared through the glass. The dust wasn’t so thick that I couldn’t make out certain shapes. Keys. Dozens of them. Hanging in rows in front of the glass. Someone had strung them up in neat lines to make curtains or something. They were old, and shaped funny. The tops, where wire was looped through so they would hang, were all different. There were both intricate and simple designs, swirls and circles and flowers. The teeth were at the very tip of the body, unlike today’s keys that have the teeth all along one side. Skeleton keys.

That’s what they were called. The most essential part of the key. Stripped down. It’s barest bones. My history teacher explained them to us once. They were supposed to be able to open any locks no matter what kind it was. He also said that the name has become synonymous with antique keys. I couldn’t tell which these were. Antique was a great description, though. Each one was rusted and flaking, their delicate details mossy with age. They competed for space on the other side of the window, at least four lines of them, being used like . . . curtains.

Key curtains. Who makes key curtains? Why would you make key curtains? They’re not going to give you any privacy. Though, it’s not like you really need any out here. Maybe they just liked the way it looked. They, who, though?

Who had lived here? Why had they lived here? Of all locations? Why did they put up all these things? What kind of person does that? Did more than one stay here?

My mind was rampant with questions. Squinting, I tried to see past the crusty teeth of the skeleton keys. Was furniture and stuff still in there? When they had left, they obviously hadn’t worried about packing everything. The rooms were too dark and the window too dirty for me to see much. There were shapes. Lumpy, smooth, squat, long. Shapes littered the area. But their details were shrouded.

Frowning, I walked to another window, the planks creaking under my feet. Hesitantly, I wiped some grime off the glass with my palm. I wasn’t sure if that counted as vandalism. Does making property better mean you’re vandalizing? I got a little scared. I didn’t want to get in trouble. What if this house was preserved by someone, or people took tours here? I didn’t really believe that, but my thoughts can nag me sometimes. Leaning in, I peeped through the cleared hole my hand-made. It was still too dark to see distinctly. No wonder they didn’t want real curtains. There was barely enough light in there as it was.

Sighing, I went to the next window. And then the next one. There were six in all, two for each side. I circled the house all the way around, noting the lanterns as I squeaked past. They went all the way around the porch, too. Mostly they were angled so that the faces weren’t blocked. They all seemed to be pointing towards the front of the house, where all the lanterns were facing into the forest. As I returned to where I had started, by the front door, I eyed the knob and then the lanterns.

The knob was old and rusted and shaped like a crescent moon. Even if they had remembered to lock it before they had left, I could still easily break it down. Time hadn’t been nice to the wood. It was shrunk in some places, swollen in others, and all around rotted. I could get in if I wanted to. I wouldn’t have to peep. I could wander throughout the inside, learning all the secrets. If there were answers to the secrets, that is. Somehow I doubted it. And the thought of breaking in made my chest get all achy. My mouth dried. Even if no one lived here now, someone once had. Their memory would still be etched into the floor and hang heavy in the air. And I would still be intruding.

So I returned my focus to the lanterns.

They really baffled me. Why put up lanterns all around your house if no one was around to see them. On one hand, yeah they looked kind of cool, but on the other hand, it was a bit pointless. Or was it?

I walked around the porch again, but this time I studied the lanterns. I bent down and stared. The wicks or the candles in all of them had little charred tips. Someone had lit every single lantern when they lived here. They weren’t just for show. They were used. Needed.

But for what? Why would you need light out here? Who was going to see it? And why would they need to? This many lanterns was kind of excessive, wasn’t it? Unless, they were trying to light up their whole house. But, again, why?

I couldn’t figure this place out. It befuddled me. Things that befuddle me tend to anxious. Which is why I rarely let my mind venture into confusing areas. Restless, I walked across the porch, over the lanterns, and into the forest. I went a few feet before stopping and facing the cottage. It might have been being in the woods too long, or the dimming sky, but I swear to you that the lanterns were looking back at me. The glass was their eyeball and the wicks their pupils. It shouldn’t have, because it’s silly, but my heart began to race. Not really in fear. I wasn’t sure what it was. Maybe excitement. Except, I never found this stuff exciting before. I got fidgety, my limbs affected by whatever it was.

I didn’t move. I kept staring. My heart beat hard and my gut fluttered. The lanterns. It suddenly made sense. They weren’t staring at me. They were all aimed in the same direction. A breeze was drifting past my body. It bumped against the wind chimes and made all of them explode with tinkling. It was noisy.

An imaged flashed through my head. It was a guy, or maybe a girl. It was hard to tell, because they were bundled up for the cold. They were walking through the trees, trying to get home. Trying to find home. But it was dark. And windy. And there were too many trees. Then suddenly, they heard chiming and rattling, and a light appeared far off in the distance. They followed it. And found this place. Maybe they did this every night. The lanterns looked liked they had been used a lot. It was possible.

Even if that wasn’t the reason, I still felt my throat clog a little. I mean, that’s awesome, right? Who would do that, night after night? That’s a lot of work. But, then again, it was probably from a time when people didn’t mind work. When they didn’t want their loved ones getting lost on the way home. Like, even if they had their own lantern and compass and everything, someone, whoever had lived here, still didn’t want to take any chances. They loved them too much to take any risks.

The more I looked at the whole cottage, the more I was convinced that my idea was true. And the more I pictured it, the more my eyes smarted. Sheesh, was I crying? Seriously? It was weird. I’m not really a crier. Not that it’s a bad thing, but I’m just not prone to it. It freaked me out. But, I guess it also made sense. I had originally thought that this place was weird and creepy, but now all I could see was an insanely beautiful gesture. Not even a gesture. Effort. An act of love. And love is what makes the home, everyone knows that.

And what I thought next still bugs me. I’m not sure why I thought it. It was pretty selfish. But, you can’t always control what you think. Anyway, I suddenly thought about my parents. I know, strange. But I did. I thought about them back at home. Mom was probably cleaning up after her yoga practice, and Dad was probably in his office with the door closed. And as I thought about them, I looked at the lanterns. I tried to imagine them lighting each one. Every night. After night, after night. And I couldn’t.

That scared me. I’m not kidding. I tried to see them lighting the lanterns, knowing I was out there trying to get home. But it didn’t happen. I couldn’t imagine it. And, truthfully, in my heart, I began to doubt. I doubted that they would ever do something like this just for me. I doubted that they would put in that much effort. I doubted that they would think it up. I even doubted that they would care.

I shook my head. It made no sense. How could this place, in the middle of nowhere, reeking of weirdness, be more of a home than my house? My house was up-to-date, airy, had great plumbing, and curb appeal. But . . . the more my mind churned and churned, the more I understood. And, I realized with a painful stab of sadness, I owed Keifer an apology.

I didn’t stay much longer. It was getting late and I was lost. I was too depressed to look around any more. I felt like my eyelids had been ripped off. It was a little numbing. And as I walked away from an empty house that had once been a home, I realized with a sigh that I was now heading towards a full house that had also once been a home.