They went to bed early that evening, anticipating another night hike. This time Cassidy prepared. She made a pile of things for them to easily grab on the kitchen table – gloves, hats, scarves and an old flashlight they found in the closet. She packed her backpack with some extras, as well as her notebook and pen, and their water bottles and more granola bars, just in case. She also tucked a map, compass and pencil into one of the pockets of her jacket in the hopes that they might be able to mark where the tracks lead. Then she set her alarm to ring at two o’clock, and they went to sleep.
Cassidy woke up before the alarm, with the same feeling as the last two nights. She shook Simon’s shoulder while turning the alarm off before it could make any noise. “Simon, let’s go.”
They got dressed quickly, in the warmest clothes they had. Within minutes, they were outside, strapping on their snowshoes. They wouldn’t cause Simon any trouble at night. There were already tracks, leading off across the hills.
Simon was holding the flashlight, but the moon was bright enough that they didn’t need it, at least not out in the open with no trees. They walked up to the crest of the hills in silence, and paused when they got there. In the exact same place as the night before, in the slight dip between hills, a figure stood.
“When your light hit him last night, he vanished,” Simon said quietly. “So maybe tonight we should just try to get closer.”
“Ok.” Cassidy agreed. For the moment it didn’t seem like the figure was going to move, so she took the map, compass and pencil from her pocket. The moonlight was bright, but it was still hard to read the map, so it took her some time to guess at the figure’s location. She ended up drawing a little star halfway between the town and the cottage. When she tucked the map away, Simon had already taken a few steps closer. The figure didn’t react.
Cassidy followed him, letting Simon break the trail through the snow. The figure didn’t move as they got closer, but it did change. From on top of the hill it had seemed big, with undefined edges. The closer they got the more it seemed to come into focus.
The figure was so still that when it moved, Cassidy gasped and almost tripped over her snowshoes. She would have fallen, if Simon hadn’t thrown out a hand to steady her. They stood perfectly still, and watched as the figure slowly turned and began to walk towards the trees.
Simon let it get farther ahead before whispering. “I think it’s a child.”
Cassidy glanced down at the footprints it was leaving. They were certainly small, and didn’t go very deep, meaning whoever left them was light. Maybe that was from being a child, not from being a ghost.
“Come on.” Simon started walking, careful not to step on the ghost’s tracks. Again Cassidy followed in his path.
Ahead of them, the figure walked straight into the trees and kept going. Cassidy and Simon paused to take off their snowshoes, but the ghost didn’t wait for them and kept walking. They lost sight of it a few times in the trees, and it was dark enough that Simon needed to turn on his flashlight, though he kept it aimed at the ground.
A few times Cassidy took out the compass and checked what direction they were heading. The ghost seemed to be walking in a fairly straight eastward line, ignoring things like trees that stood up in the way. Cassidy and Simon had to duck around low branches or skirt around bushes. They climbed up and down ravines, crossed a frozen stream, and then a wide, icy section of forest that was probably swampy in the spring. The ghost kept going.
“Do you think,” Cassidy spoke up, “that he came all the way to the cottage to find us, and not because that’s his usual haunting ground?”
Simon had unraveled his scarf and unzipped the top of his jacket. Even though the snow wasn’t nearly as deep in the woods, he was still breaking the trail for her, and it was tiring work. “Sort of seems that way.” He stepped over a fallen tree and offered her a hand to help her climb over it. “I do sort of feel something now. As if… almost like he’s holding one end of a rope and I’m holding the other, and he’s tugging me after him. But not forcefully.” They kept walking. “I could let go whenever I wanted. But there’s definitely some kind of connection.”
“Maybe he came looking for you,” Cassidy guessed. “So you could help him.”
“If he just wanted me, he’s already had a few weeks of snow to leave tracks in,” Simon said. “And you’re the one who keeps waking up. Maybe he wanted you. Or both of us.”
“Shh, look. He’s right there.” Simon almost pointed with the hand holding the flashlight, then remembered at the last moment and switched hands.
Cassidy peered through the trees. She could see the ghost, a darker shape against the dark forest, not too far ahead of them. It might have been facing them, it was hard to tell. Cassidy took a careful step closer.
The ghost took a step back.
“Let me try,” Simon said in such a quiet whisper that she barely heard him. He took a step, and the ghost didn’t move. He tried a few more, and it still didn’t move. Cautiously, Cassidy followed his trail. The ghost didn’t seem to care. It was getting clearer and clearer, and it almost looked like its face was turning towards Simon. Just watching him.
Simon stopped when he was close enough that he and the ghost could have held hands with a bit of stretching. Cassidy came up behind him.
“Hello,” Simon said gently. “I’m Simon, this is Cassidy. Are you trying to show us something?”
A gust of wind made the trees creak and branches clack together. Cassidy glanced up at the sound, and when she looked back down the figure had become even clearer. “Keep talking,” she whispered.
“I’m a ghost, too,” Simon said. “Can you feel that connection? It’s a little frightening, isn’t it, being a ghost. It’s confusing. But Cassidy and I would really like to help you. Cassidy helped me, when I was confused.”
The ghost’s outlines became a little more solid. Cassidy could make out dark coloured clothing, like a coat, with a hood pulled up over a blank face. The ghost was short and slim, definitely a child.
Simon crouched, putting him closer to eye level with the ghost. “I understand if you’re scared of us. That’s all right. We just want to do whatever we can to help you. You just have to tell us what that is, when you’re ready.”
The ghost lifted an arm, and pointed east, along the same straight line he had been walking.
“We can keep walking if you’d like,” Simon said. “You’re—oh, the map?”
Cassidy pressed it into his hand. Simon opened it and carefully shone the flashlight only on the paper. He traced his finger along the arrows Cassidy had made during their walk. Over the stream, over the swamp, and continued east until he hit a tiny cluster of buildings.
“Oh,” Simon said, looking back up at the ghost. “Are you from East?”
The ghost might have nodded. Without a face it was hard to tell. But he dropped his arm.
“All right.” Simon folded the map and tucked it away. “We can’t walk to East. But maybe we can go visit and spend tomorrow night there, and you could meet us. Do you think you could find us?”
The ghost nodded again, and that time the face came into focus.
Surprised, Cassidy spoke the obvious out loud. “She’s a girl.”
The girl looked at her sharply, with wide eyes. She was very pale, with dark braids hanging down either side of her face. Her jacket had come more into focus, as well, and it hung down to her knees. Her legs had never come into focus because she was wearing a dress. She looked maybe eight or nine years old.
“We’ll meet you in East,” Simon promised, and the girl’s gaze locked onto him again. “And you can show us what you want us to see. Can you tell us your name?”
The girl just looked at him.
When it became clear she wasn’t going to answer, Simon nodded. “All right. We’ll meet you in East,” he said again. “But now we need to go back home and go to sleep.”
The ghost pointed back the way they had come.
“Exactly.” Simon smiled at her. “You can come with us, if you’d like. Or you can keep going on your walk.”
The girl looked at him for a moment longer, might have shrugged, and then continued on her walk.
Cassidy and Simon had been walking for nearly forty-five minutes, and the walk back to the cottage wasn’t any faster.
“What’s East?” Cassidy asked along the way.
“It’s a very creative name for the hamlet in the middle of the island,” Simon explained, his voice sarcastic. “Its full name is Eastern Hamlet, but everyone calls it East. And that’s only because it’s east of the main town. When I was a kid not many people lived there, so I can’t imagine it’s any more populated now.”
“All right, so she’s from East,” Cassidy said. “It’s too bad she didn’t tell you her name, but this gives us a better idea of what to look for. A girl from East. And did you see how she was dressed? Whatever happened to her probably happened even earlier than when Charles wrote about those footprints appearing around town.”
“East used to be a bit bigger, they might have even had their own paper that long ago,” Simon said. “We can ask Alice about it.”
Cassidy nodded. “And we need to spend the night in East tomorrow to meet the ghost. You promised her we would. Simon.” She caught his hand so he would stop walking, and look at her. “You were really incredible with her. She seemed to feel pretty comfortable.”
Simon smiled. “I was trying to show her I understood, but she’s been a ghost much longer than I have. She probably knows more about it than I do.”
“Maybe not. She’s a little girl, it’s probably all much more confusing for her than it ever was for you. And you weren’t floating around as a ghost for twenty years. You reappeared. That might have happened to her, as well.”
“Oh, good point.” Simon continued holding her hand, and started walking. “We really need to get back. We have a pretty busy day ahead of us.”
“Good point,” Cassidy smiled, as she followed him.