The Lantern Man, pt.2

Amber never liked her name. It was too much expectation right from conception. It was a saving stroke of the brush, for her father. He’d struggled long and hard glorifying this landscape of a sun setting across some green meadow.

“It completes,” he’d exclaimed victoriously, twiddling with his artistic moustache. “A surge of Amber. It simply completes.”

That painting hung high over the fireplace.

Amber hated it. Having to complete things all the time put pressure on her tiny shoulders. Especially when completing something meant saving something.

A painting.

A person.

Her parents had bigger shoulders: it was them who could do it. Mummy. Daddy. Either one of them would have carried Little Lotta back from the edge of the woods. They would have taken her home.

But they didn’t.

She was gone when Amber showed them where she laid. Her parents weren’t happy.

“You’ve already had supper,” Mum said, “so no breakfast in the morning! Now off you trot.”

And to make it worse, all the dinner guests were still here too the following morning. Too many rooms: that was the problem. It was only Amber and her parents, they didn’t need eight bedrooms.

“My art, sweetie,” Amber’s Dad said. “I need them for my art. Soon this’ll be a museum and they’ll come far and wide to look at my art.”

And all these paintings!” He bounced out of the rooms at a run, grabbing so much paintings that they fell from his arms. “They all revolve around you. You’re the sun. A surge of Amber. You complete.”

Amber knew that crazed look her father had. She couldn’t bear to tell him that all the paintings were blank and they’d been blank since he’d bought the canvases. He’d only ever painted on the one above the fire.

“It just takes time to appreciate your Fathers art,” her mother said, “believe me. I know.” She looked out the windows and across the meadow. It was a sunny day on the farm. “Why don’t you go and see if Lotta wants to play?”

Amber looked down.

“And you’d do well not to mention last night. We don’t want her thinking her new neighbours are kooky.” She twiddled with Amber’s father’s moustache. “We’re not the Kookies!”

Amber didn’t want to go outside. What if Little Lotta’s parents were searching for their daughter? What if they were out in the meadows and in the woods and they found out that Amber had seen Little Lotta, down in the ditch. Or what if the Lantern Man had them too?

But her mum kept twiddling her dad’s moustache, so Amber went outside anyway.

Her gumboots were soaked. They lay against the deck, condensation soiling the wood beneath them. So Amber grabbed her mum’s gumboots instead even though they were fit for a clown. A big, big clown. Amber honked her nose.

She took big steps down from the deck and went over to the wishing well. She had been up all last night thinking of her wish.

She leaned over the brick, careful not to fall in, until she could see the big black hole in the middle that never ended. They didn’t have water in the well. Amber broke the end of the hose so that Mum couldn’t fill it up. If it was filled with water then where was the room for wishes? Then she broke the wood her Dad had put over it.

Amber looked deep into the well and began to whisper.

“Waning, waxing, crescent moon,

Don’t you cry.

The stars are gone but they’ll be back soon

I won’t let your babies die.”

CREAK! Amber froze. The sound erupted from over the fence.

She thought about darting back inside. It might be the Lantern Man. But why would he come now when the stars he stole can’t shine? He might be bringing Little Lotta home. As much as she didn’t want to, Amber had to find out. She got on tippy toes and peered over the fence. She scrubbed her eyes hard, certain they were fuzzy. But no. Sure as anything Amber had ever seen, Little Lotta sat on the seesaw.

Then Little Lotta tilted her head to the side and looked Amber dead in the eyes. She smiled a little girl smile.

Amber muffled the reaction scream, letting only a squeak stab the air.

She crouched down on her side of the fence and breathed hard. She tried to paint a picture of what happened last night. It was Little Lotta down in the ditch? Yes, it was. The Lantern Man had her? Yes, he did.

“What happened to Little Lotta?” Amber whispered.

“Did you want to play?” A little girl’s voice sounded closely, directly behind the fence.

Amber grabbed her heart before it jumped from her skin. She clambered to her feet, feeling uneasy, as if one hundred million unknown threats were about to strike. Her hair puffed wide in ginger frazzles around her head and eyes. She got on tiptoes again and looked over the fence. In the moment before Little Lotta looked up at Amber, she must have just been standing there, skeletal, half a meter in distance away from a fence that towered above her. Half a meter from Amber.

To be quite honest, Amber would have rather not played with Little Lotta. She would have rather gone inside and smacked her head through all her Dad’s portraits. She would have rather grow her own moustache and let her Mum twiddle with that. She would rather the upcoming seesaw conversation have never happened. It would have saved a lot of tears.

“Yes.”

So Amber got down from the fence and walked to the gate. Her legs were pretending to shake.

“Silly legs,” she breathed. She gave them a light slap.

When she’d opened the gate, Little Lotta was already sitting on the seesaw. The other seat was high in the air. Too high for Amber to sit on.

She walked over to it with Little Lotta watching her every move. It was a test. Amber couldn’t just tell Little Lotta to lower the seat. It was her seesaw after all. Or was she being punished for running away last night? Amber tensed up.

She found her arms moving. She put her hands up and tried pulling the seat down. Little Lotta didn’t allow it. She seesawed up and down so quickly the seat shot right back up. And this was how it went. And Amber didn’t stop pushing her up and pulling her down even though she knew she wasn’t ever getting on.

It didn’t matter. Amber didn’t want to be swinging.

“How did you get away?” Amber blurted out. “From the Lantern Man.”

“What?” Little Lotta said.

“I’m sorry I ran. I wanted to get help.” Amber felt the tears flooding behind her eyes.

“Run…” Little Lotta narrowed her eyes.

No sound came when Amber opened her mouth. Not at first. She’d never been more confused. “From the Lantern Man,” she said. “From you. Last night. You were in the ditch. And from the moon’s babies were stolen.”

Little Lotta pushed herself up and down on the seesaw.

“I’m afraid,” Little Lotta said. “I’m afraid I have no idea what you’re talking about. I don’t leave my house after ten pm. And neither should you.”

Little Lotta smiled. Her eyes looked distant but they were aimed like weapons directly at Amber’s. Abruptly she got off the seesaw and went inside the house, leaving Amber alone in the next door her garden.