According to everyone you will ever meet, there were only three Reed children. The twins were the youngest and Jerry was the oldest. No one mentions the Between children.
It may not be so unusual that one child was forgotten. That happens, on occasion. One child would be swallowed by the stars or turned to dust by the spirits.
That is not the case with the Reeds.
You see, when I was a young girl, still playing in the mud and laughing in the rain, I was neighbors with the Reed family. There weren’t three children: there were six.
Jerry wasn’t the oldest. Briar was older than Jerry by a year. Before the twins were born, Hank was the third child. Then, before the last twin and after the first, came Tom.
You’d think their mother would at least remember the Between children. Her first, third, and second-born triplet.
But, if you ask about those three, she will only show confusion. She won’t deny it. But it will be as if she has forgotten them in the same way one forgets to buy something at the grocery store. It is the same with their father and with the twins. Only Jerry will hesitate and frown, and say, “Yes, I did have three other siblings.” But he will soon forget you even asked the question.
Back when the Reed family was normal, they had a yearly trip into the mountains. It was for the winter solstice celebration; they would invite their friends to a massive house on the solstice for a party.
I was invited to their last party in the mountains when I was ten.
It was an exciting, nervous trip. The land would turn from fields and rolling hills into steep cliffs and canyons. Some parts of the mountains were buried in a thick layer of forest, like a man’s beard. Other parts were only rock, dirt, and the occasional bush.
The house sat on a plateau not far from one of the many rivers that defined the shapes of the mountains. It was surrounded by carefully cultivated gardens of baby redwood trees and Christmas bushes, at the time thick with red berries.
My family and I arrived safely at the house, as we always did. At the time, I would never admit to worrying about the myths of the mountains: the stories of creatures waiting to do harm if you stopped on the road.
The driveway led up to a spacey lot already packed with cars. The house was loud with voices and music.
Despite the chaos, it didn’t take long for the six Reed children to notice my presence. They laughed and immediately showed me around as if I’d never been there. It was tradition. This time they showed me not a house, but a place that was entirely something else: they showed me the dragon’s breath captured inside the fireplace and the giant dog that guarded it, the staircase of a cursed castle, and the porch that was a pirate’s deck. The adults were our enemies, but if we were clever, we could avoid them.
As we took back our pirate deck and ate snacks of crackers and cheese, the time for storytelling began. Each Reed child, in his or her excited, almost staccato voice, told a story of the mountains. They each took a turn and told the story like a game of add-on.
Where did their stories come from? Who told them? It was a question I never thought to ask as a ten-year-old. They were just stories, stories much like our own. I assumed they were our own.
But, in a strange way, they must not have been ours. Each Reed child said something that could not, could never have been theirs.
As was tradition, the sixth child went first. “Red fire exploded in the forest.” From there, the story spiraled. It could’ve been a story about rescuing princesses or defeating the dreaded pirates. It was hard to tell.
When the fifth child spoke, he spoke with drifting words. “Fog like white frosting floated in the air.” He waved his hands about to emphasize the drifting. “It came from the river.” Then he continued in a somewhat more normal voice, telling a story that was far more usual.
Next came the fourth child, then the third, second, and first. And, at the beginning of each turn, each said something that should’ve been odd, before they would tangent off into how they thought the story should be. If what they described was combined, it would be: “Red fire exploded in the forest. Fog like white frosting floated in the air. Above the mountains, the half-moon hung in the only patch of sky. Below the moon, the clouds were thick and wet. It had rained all day. When evening came, the fog was a bloody red and only the quail birds thought to fly away.”
Their words enchanted me. I, being the outsider, was the last child to tell the story. But by the time they got to me, all I could say was, “They say spirits creep at the edges of the road, and only half of those who are captured by them escape. Those who do escape will never be the same again.” And that was the entirety of my story. Yet none of us paid much notice to my words.
By the time night had come, we had forgotten about our strange, almost haunted storytelling. We slept by the dragon’s breath, bundled in sleeping bags and blankets. We were happy. We didn’t remember the odd things we’d said.
But we all remembered when we woke. When we looked outside, the road had turned to mud and puddles. Waterfalls flowed down the mountainsides and the sky was as dark as if it were twilight. The rain kept up as we stayed inside and played in the cursed castle. It held up until evening.
When at last the rain came to a fading stop, the world was a different place. We couldn’t help ourselves. We went outside.
The clouds were still thick in the sky, but there was one barren spot where the half-moon shone through against a bright blue backdrop. The fog was thick below the clouds, so close to our heads it felt as though we could touch it. In the west, the fog had turned a bloody red, as if a fire had been lit below it.
We bundled ourselves in our coats, whispering daring words and teasing words.
“Are you scared?”
“Don’t worry, they only take the odd numbers.”
“The forest only eats you in stories.”
Only in stories.
We shouted at our parents that we were going outside, and set off down the driveway to the forest, toward that blood-red fire. Briar, as the eldest at thirteen years old, led the way. Tom, seven years old, was right beside her.
As we drew closer and closer to the inky red fog, it was as Briar had said: only the quail birds thought to fly away. They flew past us, away from the fog.
Jerry suggested we turn back.
Hank gave his best nine-year-old attitude and shamed Jerry into staying.
Hank was the first.
The trees rustled as we passed them, as if delivering messages to one another. The wind murmured secrets in my ear.
“Drip,” Hank said. “Drop.” He said it again, in a sing-song voice. “Drip, drop. Drip, drop, drip, drop.”
Jerry pushed him and told him to stop being so annoying. Hank, as usual, ignored Jerry. “Drip, drop,” he said again.
Then I heard it.
The droplets of falling water echoed and sung in my head. I could feel the ripples of water brushing up against the edges of my skull.
My voice joined Hank’s. “Drip, drop, drip, drop.”
After that, it didn’t take long for the others to hear it too. Soon, all seven of us were singing, singing like children in a choir sing.
If anyone heard us, I’d think they would believe us to be spirits. I had never sung that way before.
The trees became thick around us. The fog touched our heads now. We tromped through the mud, singing like spirits, following a trail none of us had taken before. And all the while, the trees whispered their messages and the wind murmured things into my ear.
“They only take children, you know,” the wind gently told me. “It’s because children are so bright and wild; their imaginations haven’t been constrained into the boxes of being an adult.”
The wind was telling me things I already knew. Why else would the grown-ups be our enemies? Undoubtedly, the grown-ups wouldn’t have even been able to hear the trees singing, “Eenie-meenie-miny-mo—one, three, five, one.”
I suppose I hadn’t quite processed the word “they.” In retrospect, my brain was hardly working at all. I didn’t realize that line between my imagination and my reality had grown very thin.
It all happened in a blink. One moment, the fog was above us. The next, it was all around us, shaded that strange red that had drawn us like moths to the light. The road beneath us was unstable, ready to shatter. Ahead of us, a bonfire lit up the sky and painted our faces in bloody spectrum of color.
The fire wasn’t the safe, gentle crackle of the dragon’s breath back home. It was a hot battle of lightning and clashing colors, dying logs and phoenixes. It spat flames well above the treetops, sending waves of heat into our faces. Beneath the fire, red embers pulsed and glowed like bright eyes.
Boulders, each taller than myself by several feet, surrounded the fire. Between the boulders we could see the flames; twisting and turning with colors.
And inside, we could see a person of flame and eyes of ember, watching us with a tilted head.
And, just like that, the constant dripping turned into a hiss, like water splattered onto still-hot coals.
The fire danced. It swayed and twirled.
Hank was first.
He walked toward the fire, leaning one way, then another, trying to move with the flames. Like in an awkward dance, he turned and twisted.
A moment later, I joined him. Then, not long afterward, we were all dancing. We circled the fire, our eyes each on our own flame, trying to do the impossible and mimic the fire’s unpredictable movement.
Our young bodies were soon coated in sweat. We pulled our coats off and kept dancing, eyes glued to the fire.
The screams were loud. They were harsh and crackling. They were agonizing howls of pain that were ripped from the throat. They were jagged and awful. It took a few, terrible minutes before the screams died away. When they did, I saw purple shroud itself into the shadows and cracks of the fire.
And still, I danced. Twisted. Turned. Day became night and the screams came again, just as terrible, so terrible I wanted to cry. I was ready to collapse, but I couldn’t stop. I had stopped sweating. The blood pulsed in my face, in my ears, in my head.
The third scream came not long before I fell unconscious.
It was evening again when I woke. The image of fire was seared in my brain. It’s still seared there—it’s a tattoo that won’t be scrubbed off.
The fire was gone. Only smoking coals remained. The boulders were blackened from the fire.
Cold, stiff, and wet, I got up with all the grace of a falling stick. My muscles collapsed beneath me, so I crawled around the fire to look for the Reed children.
I couldn’t find them.
Panic tore through me, and I began to cry. I cried and screamed, tears gushing from my eyes, my chest heaving.
My parents and the Reeds found me. There was Jerry and the twins, following their parents.
Briar, Hank, and Tom weren’t there.
I cried for them, blubbering and making no sense to them. I watched the three Reed children with desperation, begging them to remember. They only looked at me with confusion.
“Briar?” said their mother.
“A daughter, would be nice, wouldn’t it?” their dad joked.
The terror bloomed again in my chest.
Who were these people?
Where were my friends?
I crawled around, searching for the odd-numbered children. All I found were three piles of ash.
My parents grabbed me and took me back to the house. I kicked and screamed and fought them the entire time.
At first, they attributed my attitude to a hard party night.
But when two days had passed and I still screamed for Briar, Hank, and Tom, they began to worry.
They didn’t know of the still-dancing fire which seared my thoughts. The fire which told me to go out on an evening when the fog was thick, the half-moon was out, into a forest lit red by flames.
My life continued, but without the odd-numbered Reed children. As I calmed, I thought up ways I could save them, ways I could bring them back.
It would, of course, start at the bonfire in the mountains.
But the Reed family never did host another winter solstice party in the mountains. My family refused to let me go near the place, afraid I’d have another “breakdown”. In fact, they kept me far away from the Reed family.
When the winter solstice came again, I curled up by my own dragon’s breath, and looked into the flames.
And that was when I named Briar, Hank, and Tom the Between Children.
For there, in the fire, I saw them dancing. Dancing in purple flames.
And then they were gone.