Chesiree Williams aimed a flashlight to reveal the path on a moonless night. Boots crunched across the snow and ice as she crossed from the two story house to the small cabin. That Catherine woman grew more bitter with age, and she was relieved to put her to bed. Somewhere in the dark beside her, the creek rushed over rocks. Wind wailed and roared through the trees. Snowflakes drifted down again.
She slipped on a patch of ice, shooting adrenaline through her veins, but she regained herself. She hated Gatlinburg winters. Cold air burned her nostrils and her lungs and streamed out of her mouth in mist. At least she was almost across the property by now.
Movement caught the corner of her eye. She stopped and squinted through the snowflakes, aiming the beam of light toward the woods. There was a masculine figure in a black sweatshirt with his back turned toward her.
"Hey!" she shouted. The man spun around and she screamed. His complexion was absolutely ivory, and his eyes pale. Without remembering her steps, she rushed to the cabin, threw open the door, and scrambled inside.
"What's going on?" asked her older sister, Yolanda, as she approached with a frown. She was swirling a dish towel around the face of a plate. She set the dish on a lamp stand when Chesiree stumbled back against the door and reached to steady her. "What happened? Has Catherine died?"
"N-no," she stammered. "There's a ghost outside!"
"A what?" Yolanda demanded incredulously.
"A ghost! Go outside and look for yourself!" Chesiree wrenched the door open and swung her arm to gesture outside. "Go look! He is right out there by the woods. But stay close to the house!"
"Let me see that," Yolanda snatched the flashlight out of her hands and strode out the door, slamming it shut behind her. Chesiree leaned against the wall, palm on her forehead, gasping for breath.
"What's up, Aunt Chesiree?"
She looked up to see the concerned black face of her teen nephew leaning over the edge of his sleeping loft.
"Someone's outside. A ghost. White as a sheet."
"Ghosts don't exist."
"Oh, yes they do!" she retorted.
Outside, Yolanda surveyed the property with the beam of light. It caught the black sweatshirt and jeans of someone at the edge of the woods. She approached with cautious steps until she was about ten yards away.
"Excuse me," she called authoritatively. "What are you doing here?"
The creature turned toward her, and her breath caught in her chest.
"Who are you?" she demanded. He remained still. She could see that his eyes were wide with fear, but he remained standing where he was. There was a smear of crimson blood on his porcelain cheek. A twinge of concern moved inside her. "Do you need help?"
He remained silent, but she could see his chest move with heavy breathing. There was fear in his eyes. By his appearance, he seemed young. She moved closer and closer until she stopped about three yards away.
"Are you all right?" she demanded. His eyes darted away, prepared to run. "Wait, stop! Let me take a look at you, see if you're all right."
This could be a stupid move. He had no good reason to be on the property. He could be on the run from a crime. He could be about to commit a crime. There was no way to know, but Yolanda was overcome with the maternal instinct to see what was wrong with him.
She crept closer. His eyes darted in every direction and he fidgeted in place, but he made himself stand in place. He was so lean that his sweatshirt bagged around his torso. He shivered relentlessly. She could see the breath misting ahead of his mouth.
"Let me see your hands," Yolanda ordered gently. He removed his trembling hands from his pockets and held them out toward her. She accepted each hand into her own and rotated them to examine the scrapes and cuts that tarnished the ivory with red. "What happened?"
"Let me see you. Could you take off your hood?"
He hesitated. Then he reached up and dropped the hood back. His pearly white hair was mangled and reached his shoulders. She could see the scrape and a couple this cuts on his cheek more clearly. She started to wonder whether his trembling was all because of the cold, or if it could be in part due to fear.
"Come inside and warm up. You can sleep upstairs."
She reached toward one of his hands and led him toward the cabin. The entire strange event was surreal. She sort of wondered if it was a dream. But she had not slept since six that morning, and it was close to midnight, so that seemed improbable.
As she reached the door, she said, "You gave my sister a start. Don't be surprised if she freaks out again, but don't you worry, I'll explain."
She twisted the knob and pushed the door open. Chesiree appeared at once with a split second of triumph on her face. Then her jaw dropped and she staggered backward, reaching toward the cranberry couch to her right to steady herself.
"Stop being foolish," Yolanda snapped. "He is a living, breathing young man."
Her sister's skepticism showed.
"Stop it. He is alive, and he is cold. Réquan," she added when she caught sight of her son peering down at them with a scowl and an open mouth, "get some of your pajamas out. I think you two are the same size, and his clothes are soaked through."
He scowled and retreated back to pull pajamas out of the drawers beside his mattress. As he rummaged around, Yolanda pointed to the right, saying, "That is the kitchen," and at the hall to the left, saying, "on the way to the bedroom where Chesiree sleeps is the bathroom," which made Chesiree scowl at her, and "straight ahead is storage," and "here beside us is the living room. I sleep here on the couch. And my name is Yolanda, by the way."
Réquan started down the ladder at the corner of the loft. When he reached the bottom, he presented the clothes wordlessly to the stranger.
"Thank you, Réquan," Yolanda said. "Go ahead and change in the bathroom. You could also shower, if you want. There are clean towels in the cabinets."
The stranger reached out with shaking hands and accepted the clothes as if they were bubbles. Then he met the eyes of the other boy and started down the hall.
"Mom," Réquan hissed the moment he was gone. "Why would you let him in? We don't even know who he is!"
"Because he is a young boy who needs help," Yolanda reprimanded him.
"And where's he going to sleep?"
"There is plenty of room in your loft."
"I'm not sleeping with some freaky white dude!"
"I have to agree on this one," Chesiree broke in.
"Do you remember those white rats with red eyes?" Yolanda asked Chesiree.
"Those are albinos. And that," Yolanda pointed down the hall, "is what he is. An albino. He has virtually no pigment in his skin, but that does not make him a freak."
"No, the fact that he hasn't spoken a word and we found him in the woods does," Chesiree retorted. "What makes you so sure he ain't some serial killer or something?"
"Because he is a scared boy!" Yolanda hissed.
"So are some serial killers!" Chesiree hissed back.
"Call it a mother's intuition," Yolanda crossed her arms. "Réquan, get a sleeping back and roll it out in the loft."
He remained still.
"Do it," she insisted.
By the time Réquan had done so and returned downstairs, the stranger was emerging out of the hall. The other three stared at him. His pearly white hair landed on his shoulders in tangled masses. The black tee shirt hung from his skinny frame as if it was on a coat hanger. The blood on his cheek stood out against the ivory complexion.
"Come get something to eat," Yolanda broke the silence and nodded toward the kitchen. She walked into it and picked up an apple out of the basket on the table. When he arrived behind her, she held it out to him. "Do you like apples?"
He accepted it and examined it for a moment. Then he bit into it and ripped away a chunk. He repeated this several times, devouring the fruit like a ravenous dog. Without asking, Yolanda put a glass under the faucet and filled it with water. When she passed this to him, he gulped it all down.
"Honey," she said, "you can get something to eat or drink anytime you like, all right?"
He stared at her, eyes round with surprised.
"Now get to bed. Go with Réquan."
This sent a chill up her son's spine. He looked at the stranger, then silently made his way to the ladder. He climbed up to the loft and crawled onto his own air mattress. He nodded to the sleeping bag. The albino stranger gingerly crawled inside.
The lights went out. Moonlight streamed through the loft window. Réquan stared straight ahead at the albino stranger staring back at him. He wanted to sleep, but he had too much adrenaline to do that now. And he wasn't so sure he wanted to close his eyes when someone was staring at him.
And so it went until the sun rose.