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I was 9, going on 10 years old. We lived in a small town in Vermont, in a large, green house at the crest of a steep hill. Up the street from us, the road ended at a large forest. My brothers and I would walk up there and play in the shelter of the thick tree branches. None of the trees were suitable for climbing, but enough had fallen over that we could build makeshift forts from their remains. We’d explore the pine-needle carpet for bugs, whack through the ferns with sticks like explorers, or just play hide and seek in the dense thickets.

Just beyond the edge of the forest at the top of the hill, there was a little stream. Beside the stream was the burnt-out skeleton of an old house. We had been told that the property belonged to somebody, so stay off, but on occasion we felt brave enough to explore the wreckage and find buried treasure.

One time, which was to be the second to last time I ever dared set foot among the blackened walls and scattered junk of that house, I found a small, cylindrical container. My brother was busy looking through a pile of dead books. The moment I picked up the container, there came the snap of a twig behind us, setting both my brother and me off at a sprint from the site and deep into the heart of the woods. When we caught our breath, I realized that I had taken the container with me, so I twisted and clenched at the screwed on cap, trying to get it open, but I couldn’t. My brother egged me on, but when given the opportunity to prove his might, he too failed to pry the jar open.

And so, the jar remained a mystery to me for several days. When we returned home, I hid it in a drawer I kept for things I found lying around called my “Junk Drawer”. It wasn’t until my friend James came over to play that weekend that the contents of the jar were discovered. When I showed him the canister, he instantly snatched it up and began trying to open it to see what was inside. His face turned red with the strain, he groaned, his hands shook, but lo and behold, the lid made a grinding sound and shifted. Eagerly, we fought over taking the cover off the rest of the way, but James won out, as he had been the one to get it open. He twisted, he popped the lid, and immediately we were assaulted by a powerful smell. I shied away, disgusted by the aroma, which to me was like a mix of baby powder and a bar of soap. James held the jar away from his nose and gagged.

“It smells like puke,” he declared.

Re-securing the lid, we took the jar outside to keep from drawing my parents’ attention to it. We went down a hill in the backyard, toward the swamp located on the outskirts of the property. There was a large rock there, where I had discovered a crag suitable for hiding things I didn’t want found. We opened the jar again, blanched at the smell, then looked inside.

What we found was some sort of cosmetic makeup, thick and buttery and the color of skin. I suggested to James that he try putting some on, and he gagged again at the thought. We had no idea how long it had been in the jar, and we certainly did not want to get that smell on us. People would think we had been rolling around in a field of old ladies. I resealed the lid on the jar and tucked it into the nook in the rock, obscuring it from sight.

The next day, my family left to go see an air show that my sister’s boyfriend was a part of. I had been temperamental, got in a loud argument with my mother, and was ultimately left behind to fend for myself. Half an hour after they left, there was a knock at the side door. I went to see who it was, and there was this middle-aged looking lady standing there. She had dark hair and brown eyes, and was tall and slender. She was wearing a big overcoat. She smiled at me through the glass of the outer door and asked if my parents were home. Naively, I told her that they weren’t.

“Do you mind if I come in and wait for them to return?” she asked me. I didn’t know who she was, but the last thing I wanted to do at that point was upset my parents by refusing to let in some friend of theirs who had dropped by. I opened the glass door, only to find that the air outside was heavy with the smell of that jar of makeup, only this time there was some underlying odor beneath it that made me queasy. The woman reached toward the door as if to take a hold of my wrist, and I quickly shut the door.

“I’m sorry, you’ll have to wait outside,” I told her. I felt really hot all of a sudden, and the air seemed thicker, “I’m not allowed to let people in who I don’t know when I’m by myself.”

The woman looked disappointed. Her brow seemed to furrow for a moment as if puzzling over my behavior, and then for a moment she seemed angry. I felt scared by her expression, and before I had even thought about what I was doing, I shut the door in her face. She knocked a few more times, then got quiet.

When my family returned, they came in by themselves, talking and laughing about the airshow. I asked them if the woman was still outside, and they asked me what woman I was talking about. I told them about the woman who had come to the door and asked about them then asked to come in. They told me I had done the right thing by not letting her inside and then I got a lecture on talking to strangers or even answering the door when I was home alone.

I saw her again on Monday when I was at school. It was recess, and we were all outside playing. I was taking part in a game of soccer. The ball got kicked through our goal and disappeared into the bushes by the edge of the schoolyard. I went looking for it and came out on the nearby road. As I picked up the ball, I felt the sudden need to look up. Just down the road from where I was standing was the woman in the brown overcoat. She was beckoning to me with one hand while the other seemed to be holding her coat shut. On the breeze I could smell that same smell of baby powder and soap that the contents of the jar smelled like. I fled back onto the soccer field.

Tuesday, I couldn’t get the smell out of my head. I awoke to it smothering me. It masked the taste of my cereal. It was there with me on the bus, in home room, during silent reading, at recess, at lunch, at gym, at every one of my classes and all the way home. My tongue felt ready to shrivel up in my mouth.

When I got home, the smell slapped me in the face at the front door. Exasperated, I threw my bookbag down and ran back outside and down the path to the swamp. I turned round the corner of the large rock and the woman was there. Her back was to me, but it was clearly her in her large overcoat. She was hunched over, muttering to herself and I could smell that choking aroma all over her. As soon as I stepped round the bend, she stopped what she was doing and with her back still to me, stood up, set the jar of makeup down on the rock and turned to look at me.

“You took my makeup,” she said, head half turned. “I had lost it, but you found it. I can’t go out without my makeup.” she turned her head all the way around, and I saw her entire face.

Where she hadn’t yet applied the makeup, the skin of her face was red and swollen. It was covered in blisters, in some places it was black. She looked like a cooked piece of meat. She cocked her head slightly and smiled at me, half normal, half burned.

“I just wanted to thank you for finding my makeup,” she said through her teeth. Her eyes seemed to say otherwise.

I was frozen in fear. As I watched, she pulled open the front of her overcoat, revealing a tattered black dress. It wasn’t black to begin with, I was sure of that. Bit of it that fluttered and hung off it had some sort of floral print. But almost the entirety of the dress was burned to cinders. Beneath it, I saw more blackened flesh. Her shoulders, her legs, her feet in a pair of roasted heels… all of it was burned. And the worst part of it all was the smell. She smelled like she was still cooking. Even as she stood there, exposing the destruction of her body to me, she seemed to be shriveling and flaking away, and the air was rife with the aroma of it all.

“Don’t I look better now?”

She reached out to grab me, and I ran. She yelled at me. It was almost more of a wild growl, like a wolf bearing down on an animal it plans to eat. I sprinted up the path, never looking back, for I was certain she was right behind me. Her smell, the smell of her roasted body mixed with the smell of the makeup, it was all over me. I jumped the steps to the side porch and nearly injured my shoulder throwing myself through the door in the same instant that I opened it. I didn’t want to risk it being locked or jammed… if it was, I was going to bust it down to get in before she touched me.

I was out of breath when I stumbled into the kitchen. I was babbling and waving my hands frantically. My mother watched me for a moment from the sink, thinking I was playing some sort of game, then her nose turned up in disgust.

“What is that awful smell? What have you been up to?”

“There’s a burned up lady chasing me!” I finally managed to stammer out.

“Is this some sort of game?” my mother replied, “I watched you from the window here, bolting up the path like it was you that was on fire.”

“There’s a lady down in the swamp,” I gasped, “She’s all covered with burns!”

Well now that got my mother moving. I was warned that if I was lying, my father would hear about it. This was not the sort of thing to make jokes about, I was told. My siblings overheard the commotion, and before I knew it, everyone in the house was marching down the path to the swamp. I lead them around the rock to where the lady had been, but as you would expect, she was gone. The canister of makeup had been dashed against the stone face. Broken glass was everywhere, as was the goopy concealer. And the smell. My brothers and sisters covered their noses and turned back home. I was dragged home by my arm, scolded and punished.

It was weeks later that my brother and I were back at the burned out house in the woods, looking at blackened books and other junk. I had been having nightmares ever since the incident with the woman, but somehow I did not correlate the fact that the jar of makeup came from this old ruin of a building with what had happened. It wasn’t until I found the smoked-over glass and brass frame, pulled the yellowing photo from it and saw the old black and white picture of a middle-aged couple that I realized. And as I knelt there, my hands shaking as I looked at the photo, I heard a whisper from somewhere close.

“I can’t go out without my makeup.”

There was a clatter of junk from behind me, and I turned in a panic. My brother was standing there, leafing through a brown book. He looked up at me and grinned.

“A little jumpy?”

His expression paled suddenly. He dropped the book and ran, stumbling over the rubble. I felt a pair of hands on my shoulders. Before they had a chance to grip my shirt, I took off after my brother. We hid in the woods for almost an hour. We had plenty of practice at not being found among the ferns and branches and fallen logs. When we finally felt it was safe to come out, we broke from our hiding spot, sprinted for a path we knew of and followed it out, not once slowing down. We hit the pavement of our street and continued our dash until we were home.

We never went back to that place ever again.


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