They said our town was cursed.
I remember the time I first heard the legend of Bricton; I was twelve years old and playing with other kids around the neighbourhood. We were daring each other to jump from different crumbling stone walls and to jump over the biggest puddles. Most of us wore sweaters that were big enough to fit at least one other person inside. Our rubber boots always had a habit of coming off as we jumped in a puddle.
“They say the town is dying,” a loud boy announced to the group from the top of a moss covered wall.
“Who is they?” I asked, crossing my arms over my chest.
The loud boy shrugged, jumping from the wall before darting off with another boy to play tag.
Another boy came up to me, looking grim. “Once upon a time,” he started, “The town was ruled by an angry warlock. He had all the churches built to worship him, but no one ever attended. To punish all the people, he left and cast a spell so no one would ever come to the town again.”
Everyone sighed and rolled their eyes.
“They say it’s the stranger,” one of the girls whispered to another, “I heard he brought the curse to the town. He steals young girls in the night and does a ritual with their dead bodies.”
“That’s all lies,” I said. “The stranger doesn’t do anything.”
Not so long ago, a mysterious man wandered into Bricton. At first, he was just another person in the town. Us kids would see him walking to and from the market square. Pa said he saw the stranger at the pub, chatting up the bartender, the locals, and pretty much anyone.
“He seems fine to me,” I stated loudly. I’d never seen him do anything but what everyone else did in town.
“They say he’s a wizard, or a ghost. Something unnatural,” said the boy.
I stomped up to him. “That’s stupid! Nothing’s gone wrong here, so how do you know it’s cursed?”
He turned towards me. “Traders don’t come here anymore, outsiders don’t go to church.”
He pointed at the sky. “Have you ever seen it rain?”
“Then why are there giant puddles everywhere?”
At dinner that evening, Pa came home all flustered.
“What happened, dear?” Ma asked him as she took his patchy brown coat.
“That stranger. He got into a fight with Jim,” Pa answered as he sat down at the kitchen table with me.
“Who started it?” I asked as a swirled around the mashed potatoes on my plate.
“Jim did. He kept saying that the stranger was ruining the town. Jim threatened him.”
“But, the stranger hasn’t done anything wrong,” I said indignantly.
Pa nodded. “I’m just worried about the effect he’ll have on the kids.”
I frowned and crossed my arms over my chest. “He doesn’t even come near us.”
Ma clicked her tongue against her teeth and shook her head. “I saw him talking to Lily Evers one morning. She’s only fifteen.”
“What happened with the fight?” I asked, trying to divert the conversation back.
“The stranger just left. He looked angry, though.”
Ma seemed to pay no attention, and put her hand on her forehead. “What will we do, Shara’s almost thirteen. What if the stranger takes a liking to her.”
“I’m right here, Ma.”
Ma and Pa looked at each other, using their secret language I didn’t understand. I just frowned and shoved a forkful of potatoes into my mouth. Even if the stranger tried to talk to me, I doubted we’d have anything interesting to say to each other. The only appeal he had for gossip was his “newness” and mystery.
After a few minutes of silent conversation, Pa looked at me with stern eyes. “I don’t want you going out to play with the other kids, anymore. You will help your mom around the house during the day.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but the look in Pa’s eyes made me decide against it. With a silent nod, I ate the last of the potatoes and excused myself from the dinner table.
My bed made a satisfying groan as I threw myself down onto it. They couldn’t make me stay home, they weren’t the bosses of me. Frustrated tears stung in my eyes and a rubbed them away.
From the bed I could see the world outside my window. It was dark, the sky twinkled with tiny sparks and the town twinkled with windows coming alight. Without another thought, I stood and walked over the window. I opened it slowly, listening for any sound of my parents’ approach. The tiniest of squeaks from the window made me freeze, but my parents didn’t appear.
I remembered last summer when I used to sneak out to see Billy. He had been my best friend until his family moved away. He always came to my window and hit it with a pebble or two. Together, we would run through the quiet streets, laughing to ourselves for being so clever. My parents never did find out.
It was easy enough to slip out of the window and I hit the ground with very little noise. I crept away from the house. A small breeze seem to guide me down the road, towards a loan bench under a lamppost.
Sitting on the bench was a man wearing a black trench coat and black heavy boots.
I stood there watching him for a moment, wondering if it truly was him. I approached slowly, noticing that, under the light, he looked a lot younger than I thought he was. I didn’t ask questions, nor did I want to. I sat beside him without a word.
“I didn’t cause the business to die,” he said to no one in particular without turning his head or looking at me. Up close, he looked younger than I’d originally thought. He didn’t have the deep lines on his forehead like Pa and there was a child-like wonder in his gaze.
I didn’t say anything. Should I be scared? I thought. I didn’t feel scared. “Are you going to steal me away?” I asked, trying to ignore the shake in my voice.
He laughed as pulled his hands from his pockets and rested them on his lap. “No,” he said.
“Did you curse us?” I asked, as a sort of timid feeling crept into my chest.
“This town was cursed before I came here,” he said, taking a few breaths before continuing. “As long as people from the outside consider this place good enough for them, it’ll stay intact.”
“Other cities don’t like us, though,” I stated, matching his posture. “Hardly anyone comes here anymore and lots of people are moving away.”
“The people will slowly disappear. The town will be empty. Haunted.”
“That’s a lie. Just like all the boys say. It’s not true.”
“Why would I be lying, child?” His eyes held a sincerity I could not deny.
“If the town is cursed, what are you doing here?”
“I’m a type of a ‘caretaker’, to keep this place alive,” he finally looked at me and smiled.
“What if I don’t want to disappear?” I asked, gripping the bench beneath me as if it was an anchor holding me in reality.
His smile became bigger. “You could become a caretaker like me.”