The sun hung low in the sky by the time Brianna got home; she couldn’t see it, of course, but she could feel its warmth on her face.
“It’s getting close to winter,” she heard Dale say as she made her way up the stairs to the front porch.
“It is,” she agreed. “It’s getting colder already, too cold for just this sweater.”
She came into the house and walked to the kitchen; she knew the rooms so well that she didn’t even bother to use her cane. She had been blind her whole life, and knew nothing else, so it wasn’t strange to her at all to navigate her world with confidence. The bus driver, at first uncertain about it, no longer even waited at the bottom of the driveway for Brianna to reach the porch. Either he had learned to have faith in her abilities, or he was comforted by the knowledge that Dale waited at the house for her.
Dale was an old man who lived further down the road – at a place he called Misty Rock – but he used to live in this house, in the house Brianna and her family had moved into three years ago. He had shown up one day just after they had arrived, and told Brianna how much he had loved this old farmhouse. “But I had to let it go,” he explained. “It just got too hard – impossible, really – after a while.”
Although he waited for her most days after school, and kept her company with stories from his youth and from the town, Dale never stayed until her parents got home from work. He said he didn’t want them to feel obligated to invite him to supper.
Brianna’s parents hadn’t liked the thought of Dale being there at first, especially since they hadn’t even met him, but more than one person in the town said that Dale was harmless, that he was in fact just the sort of person you would want looking after your child. So many people had nodded knowingly and avowed that Dale was a protective and good sort of man, that Brianna’s parents had finally decided to allow the unusual situation. He was terribly old, after all, and probably lonely himself. So every day, Dale would take himself home to Misty Rock only moments before Brianna’s parents pulled into the driveway, and Brianna would regale her parents with the stories Dale had brought.
Today, though, an unexpected guest had come to the house, and sat now in the kitchen. “Hey, kiddo!” a familiar voice greeted her, and Brianna rushed forward in delight. “Aunt Trudy!” she cried, throwing her arms around her. She turned then toward Dale, who had followed her, his boots clicking on the wood floor, and now stood just behind Brianna.
“This is my aunt,” she introduced. “Trudy, this is Dale. He lives down the road.”
Trudy paused the tiniest second, then said brightly, “Hi, Dale!” She returned her niece’s embrace. “I’ve heard a lot about you,” she went on. “From my sister.”
Brianna realized that Dale seemed a little nervous. “Don’t worry,” she said to him, remembering that he was very cautious about strangers. She laughed. “She’s really my aunt.”
Trudy laughed too. “That I am,” she said. “So, Dale, if it’s okay, I needed to talk to Brianna about … well, about some girl stuff. Would it be okay if I walked outside with her for a minute? We’d be right back. I – I don’t want to offend you; I know how much Brianna values her time with you.”
Dale chuckled, and said in his raspy old-man voice, “No offense at all.” Clearly he had decided that Trudy was indeed a safe person for Brianna to have in the house. “I’ll wait here, and put the kettle on. It’s getting cold outside.”
Brianna nodded. “It really is,” she said. “I should have worn my coat.”
“Well, it’ll only be a moment,” Trudy assured her, getting up from the kitchen table and opening the back door. “It’s nothing serious,” she said. “It’s just girl stuff.”
“I completely understand,” Dale said. Brianna heard him walk across the kitchen to the stove, and heard the rattle of the kettle and the snap of the burner-knob.
“Be right back,” she said to him, and followed her aunt out to the back yard. Once they had walked several yards away from the house, Trudy stopped and faced Brianna.
“Sweetheart,” she began, her voice low. “Is Dale out here now?”
Brianna frowned. “No,” she said. She was pretty good at telling when someone was near her. “Why would he follow us? He’s way polite.”
Trudy stood closer to Brianna. “Sweetheart,” she said again. “I don’t know how to say this, but …” She paused, and sighed, and put her hands on Brianna’s shoulders. “I was reading about this town,” she said. “When I decided to visit, I thought it might be fun to learn some of the history.”
“Did you find out something cool?” Brianna asked, smiling expectantly.
“Well,” Trudy said. “I found out that Misty Rock is the name of the drainage pond north of town. There aren’t any houses there or anything. But ten years ago, somebody drowned in it, a local farmer. His name was Miller.”
“That’s Dale’s name,” Brianna revealed. “Dale Miller.” He had never mentioned any family member drowning, but he probably wouldn’t think it was a good story for a twelve-year-old. “Maybe we could ask him about it.”
“Sweetie,” Trudy said. “We can’t ask him. I mean, I can’t ask him.”
“Why not?” Brianna asked. She shivered, and pulled her sweater closer around her.
“You’re the only one who can hear him, sweetie,” Trudy said. “I can’t hear him or see him. He’s only here for you.” She sighed again. “The woman who runs the bookstore in town said that a lot of people have encountered Dale on the road to Misty Rock – you know, as a … as a … ghost.”
Brianna was completely unable to process what her aunt was saying. “That’s crazy!” she said finally, and went quickly back toward the house. “Dale!” she called out. “Dale!”
She entered the kitchen, but she could tell that it was empty. “Dale!” she called again. “Are you here?” She waited, but no one answered. Trudy came back in too, pulling the door closed behind her.
“Sweetheart,” Trudy began, but Brianna cut her off.
“Maybe he’s in the bathroom,” she suggested, walking into the hall. The bathroom door was ajar, and no one answered her. “He must have gone home,” she realized. “Why would he go without saying goodbye?”
“I’m sure he didn’t plan it that way, sweetie,” Trudy said, hugging her niece’s shoulders. “Maybe he can’t stay in a place where there are too many people.”
“He can’t be a ghost!” Brianna objected. “That doesn’t even make any sense!”
From the kitchen came the keening whistle of the tea kettle.