The house floats on night’s bayou like a ghost ship, the high shoulders of its rooftops surpassing the waves of fog drifting inland. Winter has taken the leaves from the high canopy of trees, and created a graveyard of wrecked masts that puncture the gentle roll through which the house drifts, sure to run aground in a limitless sea lit blue-white by the light of the full moon.
The moon spills into the upstairs windows of the house where the triplets are sleeping. Three small beds dressed in one each of the primary colors contain one each of the three sleeping white-haired children; Bradley on his back, his small throat open in a soft snore, his red blanket tangled around his torso; John in a ball, only his arm visible hanging limp from beneath the blue blanket and dangling in the cool space beside the bed; Evelyn on her side, hands tucked away beneath her head, yellow blanket flung onto the bare floor by the beating of her flushed legs.
The room is coaxed into gentle rhythms by their breathing, matching and departing from one another in the silent house, a soft and confused ebb and flow. The air is still, the sweet scent of plastic children’s toys tinged with the pepper of the bayou leaves dropped to rot in the shallows.
The white gauze of their hair is outgrown to their shoulders and tangled, curling gently against the pillows and clinging damp to the heat of their faces. Sleep stamps their round and angelic faces with looks of deep consideration, long eyelashes dropped over matching blue eyes. Their full cheeks blush with the damp heat, printed pajamas sticking to the steam of their short necks around their ribbed collars.
At almost six years old, theirs is a world of magic rules and shamanistic ritual. They each sleep through fitful nightmares which woke them crying since infancy, seeking the other two in their separate cribs. Now, Brad’s eyelids flutter and he moans high through his heavily-puffing breath. The other two children stir, but don’t wake.
This house perches on the edge of a chasm of the unknown they named Forever. Forever is the home of their nightmares; a land beyond the Backyard which is never breached without the protection of one another. Demons and monsters lurk in the fog of Forever, their long shadows casting darkness over the house. They were four before they would leave a single bed at night, and the discussion of having their own rooms induced panic and tears.
It’s a howl which wakes Brad, sounding from a long distance. His head jerks in the direction of the sound before his blue eyes wrench open to follow it, sitting up on his elbows. The lightest sleeper of the three, he is often the first to wake and wander the room to secure it from the clutches of his paranoia.
The animal’s cry which moans long through the night and turns to a sobbing whimper reaches Brad’s ears a second time. He rises from his bed and pushes the yellow and red plastic lawn chair to the wall beneath the window and climbs onto it, the strips of vinyl squeaking beneath the chubby knobs of his knees.
“Did you hear that?” John whispers to Brad, woken by his brother’s movements. Brad looks out the window, far across the expanse of the darkness touched by the moon, into the vacant stare of Forever. His breath fogs the glass in small pants as he replies.
“From Forever?” John asks, his interest drawing him from his blanket and into the chair beside Brad, which wobbles dangerously as their weight shifts. Together, they press their faces to the glass and look to the vanishing point of the black horizon.
“Yeah,” Brad agrees, chewing on the sleeve of his pajamas in thought. “It’s very far away.”
“What is it?” John asks Brad, and Brad chews harder.
“I dunno,” he says. “But I wanna see.”
He jumps down from the chair with a thud. As he crosses the threshold of their bedroom to go investigate the howl, John hisses at him.
John follows after him, his bare feet making a soft rain on the wood floor seasoned by time and dust.
“We’re not supposed to go alone.”
The two boys hold hands and venture down the stairs, their steps matched. The shadows in the house stretch out to touch their small ankles, transforming all that which was once familiar into skeletal imitations. They pass through the kitchen, dishes tossed careless from dinner into a heap in the sink, the smell of food aging to something no longer appetizing as it cures under the hood light of the stove.
It takes both of John’s hands to twist the rigid mechanism of the door knob. It swings open with a sigh, devoid of theatrical creaks and operating the perfect way only fate can provide. Leaving it open, they venture off of the back porch to the Yard where they are kept safe from the wild Forever beyond.
At the edge of the Yard, they look out into the bayou for movement in the trees. Anything they encounter in Forever is something they’ve encountered in nightmares, the intangible land beyond all they know, and the place where such things are imagined.
“It was an alligator,” John decides, attempting to be reasonable. Brad scoffs at him.
“Alligators don’t make noise like that.”
John presses his hand not clutching Brad’s into his cheek.
“What was it?” he asks, his small voice higher than Brad’s for the fear of the answer.
“A dog,” he replies. John flinches at his certainty, and his voice nears the squeal of Evelyn’s.
“Dogs from Forever are bad.”
Brad squints his eyes into the dark and follows the wisps of fog rolling across the swamp to the Yard. Their nightmares about hounds are collected fast between them in the silence. John blanches at them, and Brad’s shoulders straighten.
“Evie’s in bed, and we have the Power of Joshua,” he reminds John, and John squeezes his hand.
“Okay,” he agrees, his voice quiet.
Evelyn wakes alone in their room and sits up rubbing bleary eyes. Shaking sleep from her head, she sees the boys are gone and begins to cry through the tight ball of pouting confusion in her throat.
When she sees the chair moved to the window, she ventures to it, her face frowning deeply. They left her alone, which goes against the Rules of Joshua. When she sees them in the Yard below, approaching the border of their world to cross into the Forever, she balls her hands into angry fists.
She turns to face the prospect of crossing the expanse of the empty house alone and afraid. Her voice breaks as she wails soft and shoves her feet from the lawn chair and onto the floor. Her bear with the red ribbon looks on, sage and calm. The Rules of Joshua are simple, and she fumes them to herself; never go anywhere alone, never leave anyone alone, never go into the wastelands of Forever, never listen to the Forever monsters. She takes the bear under her arm - the last resort her parents had taught her to do. As she walks, she uses their adventure to mean they somehow love her less and would be careless enough to leave her.
“Brad,” she whines out of the back door, now standing open. She keeps her voice low enough to be a harsh whisper, and their distant white heads, illuminated by the moon, do not turn back to her.
“John,” she tries, and takes cautious steps out into the dewy lawn.
The grass is cold beneath her bare feet, and she clutches the slick polyester cuffs of her pajamas. The yard stretches uninterrupted to the horizon where the sun will rise at dawn. It’s lit pale in the light of the moon. The leafless trees make spiderwebs across the ground which she tries to avoid, but fails. The fog breathes toward her like a waiting animal.
“What?” she asks them, her voice a screamed whisper. All three of them up, and outside, and about to get in so much trouble.
“We heard something like a dog,” Brad whispers back, his eyes still fixed outward.
“There’s monsters in the bad lands,” Evelyn reminds them, her voice beginning to sob in hysterics. “We’re supposed to be in bed.”
“We wanted to see,” John explains, and turns to flash her a grin, sheepish and apologetic, but it freezes half-formed around his lips, and his eyes widen in fear.
“Evie!” he yells, and she turns her head to look behind her.
From around the house, the wolf comes bounding on heavy paws, wide enough to make the sound of drums. John and Brad break their grip on one another to rush to close the distance between them, staring down the fast-approaching beast.
“It’s a monster!” Brad yells, and the bulk of it gets close enough to melt from the black sky around it, the size and weight of it great enough to rival the shadows cast by the car it circumvents. It’s black fur raises in a brush along the ridge of it’s back, and it’s eyes glow orange and evil as it focuses on them.
Evelyn grabs for the bodies of her brothers, as part of the Rules of Joshua, and catches Brad by the collar of his shirt printed with dinosaurs.
“John, don’t!” Brad screams, and Evelyn is pushed to one side, onto her bear’s fluff, and Brad lands on top of her. She struggles, listening to John’s screams.
“Give me your hand!” she yells and clutches fistfuls of grass, grasping for some part of John, pinned now under the jaws of the animal.
A loud thunderclap scatters the wolf, and the light of the porch comes on near the house. Evelyn cries onto Brad, who sobs into her hair, while their parents run toward them.
They can hear their mother shrieking as she crosses the yard, “Which one is it? Jim? Which one of them is it?”
Their father brushes his wide hands over the mess that was once John’s face, and his voice shakes as he answers.
“Oh God. Diana, it’s one of the boys.”
“Johnny?” their mother shrills, and tries again. “Bradley? Johnny?”
“It was a wolf,” their father tells their mother, his voice vacant and shocked as he scoops up John’s small and motionless body. “It was a wolf. I saw it.”
In the hospital, John’s face is bandaged while Brad and Evelyn cry hysterically to be near him.
“He can’t be left alone!” Brad screams into his mother’s face, his cheeks red and wet. Their parents look from the door of the operating room where John is receiving stitches, and back to one another. Their mother holds down Brad’s angry fists from hitting her chest.
“Bradley, please,” she shushes him.
In the plastic chair opposite them, their father holds onto Evelyn and Evelyn holds onto the bear.
“Joshua says he can stay with John,” Evelyn tells her father in a loud voice pushing past sobs. “Joshua says he needs to be in the room with John. I’m going to give Joshua to the doctors.”
And she fights against the iron grip of their father.
John’s face is bandaged closed like the paper over a new shop window. Evelyn puts the bear beside him in the bed, and they let him sleep, where he dreams Joshua is speaking to him about heroes and courage.