NEW EDITION COMING
MARCH 1, 2018
It was sixty-five degrees, unseasonably mild for a Halloween night in Cleveland, but the warm wind tearing across the moonlit field swore to holy hell it would unleash a bitter cold front on all of us tomorrow. The weathermen were even calling for snow.
The stupid wind kept knocking my felt witch’s hat off, and I finally stopped trying to keep it on my head, letting it hang instead by its black satin strap across my back. As I trudged across the field, it bounced up and down against my shoulder blades, happy to remind me it was the winner of our little battle of wills. My hair had won, too. I’d left it loose under the hat, and now, without the hat or a hair tie to keep my frizz in check, it was free to attack me from any direction it chose.
I was coming straight from passing out candy in costume at Meri’s house and was still wearing my short black dress and green fishnet stockings, though I had switched out my peep toe pumps for my aging hiking boots. I was excited. I had a surprise for Michael. One I hoped would bring back happier memories. One I hoped would draw him away from the dark nothingness that ceaselessly called to him.
I should have been afraid as I stood in the gaping mouth of the woods a few minutes later, alone, with a pitifully small flashlight in my hand, but my heart thrilled with nothing but anticipation. The magic that was Michael always affected me the same way. I paused in the forest vestibule to savor the feeling and the smell of the woods. Nestled in among the pines and sheltered from the wind, the air was so warm and muggy it smelled as if someone had brewed a cup of pine needle tea.
“Michael,” I whispered.
Strange, he almost always met me at the start of the trail before stubbornly disappearing to meet up with me later back at the cliff or the lightning tree.
Nothing. Not even a whisper of his signature clean, woodsy cologne. I started to walk down the trail alone when I heard a soft exhalation above me and then…
“Boo,” Michael said solemnly, appearing suddenly out of the heavy air in front of me.
I should have expected it, but my heart stopped anyway. “Shit!” I cried. “Michael you scared the crap out of me!” He grinned, laced his fingers behind his head and rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet. His eyes twinkled with delight. Halloween seemed to agree with him.
“Isn’t that my job on Halloween?” he wanted to know. “I am a freaking ghost after all.”
“You’re a pain in the…” I grumbled, but I couldn’t help grinning back. He was so pleased with himself. “How did you get that close without me smelling you?” I asked, leaning in to inhale a nose-full of his clean citrus scent. It helped to chase back the shadows.
“Ah…” He looked embarrassed by my affection for the way he smelled, but tried to hold still. “That was easy. I just stayed above and downwind of you.”
“Above?” The fact that he could do that still freaked me out a little.
“Sure,” he said, like it was no big thing. Then he appraised me from head to toe and shook his head back and forth a few times. “What’re you supposed to be? A witch?”
“Hmm, I like the boots with the fishnet. Very fashion forward of you.”
“Ha ha. I didn’t think my high-heeled pumps would fare too well out here in the middle of the woods.”
“No, probably not.” His eyes drifted away from me to the peaceful empty forest, and he became still and quiet. With the twinkle absent from his eyes, he looked tired. Exhausted. The darkness was calling him, even now, even with me standing right in front of him. How could I compete with the solace it offered? I cleared my throat, and he blinked hard and refocused his eyes. He looked me up and down again, zeroing in on my butterfly bag.
“So, what’s in there?” It bulged suspiciously and the strap dug in to my shoulder.
His eyes regained some of their light, and he studied the bag with growing interest. He took a step toward me.
“No, you have to wait,” I instructed, laughing. I put my arm out so he’d have to walk through it to get to the bag, and he grinned at me wickedly. I definitely had his attention now.
“You know I could go right through that.” He took another step toward me.
“Yes, but you don’t like to do that.” My heart rate spiked as he stepped closer still. He was pale, and he was flickering, and his eyes were deep gray craters on the edge of the flashlight’s cone of light. He looked almost…frightening. “Besides, the bag is closed. Even if you—”
He raised his eyebrows, and I realized he could pass his face right through the bag if he wanted to, and I snatched it behind my back. He disappeared and materialized instantly behind me.
“Cheater!” I squeaked, turning swiftly around. My breath momentarily failed me. Calm down stupid, its only Michael.
“Okay, okay,” he surrendered, relaxing his stance, and I exhaled softly. His eyes lingered on my hair for a moment, and then he added, “Um…I’ll meet you back by the lightning tree. It’s really windy along the cliff top, and I don’t think you’d survive the beating your hair would give you.” Then he disappeared again.
“Thanks,” I said sarcastically. But with him gone, the shadows closed back in. “You’re still here, though…right?” I whispered cautiously.
A wave of his scent washed over me, and he laughed.
“Yeah, Catherine, I’ll stay nearby.” And he did. His fragrance followed me all the way back to the lightning tree deep in the woods.
As I settled down on a waterproof stadium cushion, I aimed the light around the tiny clearing until I found Michael leaning casually against our tree. I glanced up above his head at the little plastic ring I’d looped onto one of its branches, and he followed my gaze and grinned.
“I scared off a raccoon last week that was intent on stealing that thing, the little thief.” I was about to ask him how many of the animals could see him, but he rubbed his hands together impatiently and squatted down in front of me. “So…what’ve you got in the bag?”
I dragged it up onto my lap, reached in and pulled out a book of matches, and he groaned. I looked up, alarmed. “What?”
“Catherine,” he groaned again. “Don’t be a dumbass. Didn’t you learn your lesson last time?”
“What last time?” I asked, reaching into the bag again and lifting out my perfect little jack o’lantern. “What are you talking about, Michael?”
When I looked back up at him, he was grinning. Then he looked off to the side and into the woods, sighing as if in relief. “I thought…” He laughed softly. “I thought for some stupid reason you brought a pack of cigarettes.”
“You thought that was the surprise?”
He nodded sheepishly.
“Crap, Michael. Do you like this one better?”
“It’s awesome.” He sank down in front of me and watched me pull the top off and light the little candle I’d placed inside. I fit the lid back on and then gently set the glowing jack o’lantern on the ground between us. It cast wavy triangles of light onto the forest floor and a warm earthy glow upon his otherworldly skin.
“Happy Halloween!” I said.
His eyes crinkled up at the corners. He stared quietly at it for a while, deep in thought, but slowly, his brows knitted themselves together, and he suddenly threw up his hands in frustration.
“I’m sorry I thought…I just…” He cleared his throat, flustered. “You have everything going for you…two great parents…you’re smart…” He paused and then glanced away self-consciously. “You’re freaking adorable…”
My heart thrilled at that, but when he looked back, he was upset. “I couldn’t understand that first night why you wanted to screw that up, by smoking, that is. You know it was stupid, right? I was glad when it looked like you were about to hurl…” he went on and on as if he were scolding a small child, which was how he was making me feel, which was stupid, because he was actually younger than me. Why did he have a monopoly on rebellion? Why did I have to be perfect?
“You never did tell me why,” he pressed. I knew him well enough now to know that I wouldn’t be able to distract him again, but the reason he sought was stuck in my throat.
Where did he get off asking me for it anyway? He was no bastion of—
“Catherine, you’re smart enough to know the consequences…” He shook his head again, and that’s when my reason tore itself free and threw itself violently into his hypocritical face.
“You don’t think I know the damn consequences?” I snapped hotly. “I see them playing out every day at home! In my perfect world. It sucks to watch…to hear someone dying in the room next to yours, and it sucks worse to know they did it to themselves. I wanted to know if it was worth it! I wanted to know if—”
He was startled by my furious counter attack, and he fumbled his words. “Wh…what are you—”
“My grandmother is dying,” I said sharply, and then I stared him down. There. The splinter was out.
I wasn’t prepared to face the mangled mess it left behind. I didn’t want to deal with that part, so I clamped my mouth shut and looked away. He was silent for a moment, just breathing. Then he sighed himself into the glowing candlelight and reappeared within my new field of vision. He was nearly invisible within my shadow.
“Catherine…” he whispered.
I wrapped my arms around my legs, and buried my face in my knees.
You don’t have to be alone in this. He really—
“NO!” I lifted my eyes and set my jaw. He was startled again. The small amount of candlelight that made its way around me reflected temptingly in his darkened eyes.
“Catherine…” he whispered again, and though I could still see the faint outline of his face a few feet in front of me, the sound of his voice came from just above my left ear, and I closed my eyes and leaned into it. How did he do that?
“How long does she have?” he asked quietly. He was trying to draw me out. His voice was hypnotic.
I shook my head, but my thoughts broke my rules. They let themselves out. Just like my reason. Only they just wanted to be understood.
“I don’t know…months…weeks. No one tells me anything. I guess I don’t ask. I don’t want to know,” I murmured and then looked up into his face. Yeah. I wanted someone to understand.
“She’s suffocating, Michael.” I pulled out my inhaler and held it up for him to see. “I know what that feels like, and it scares me.” I looked down at it with growing resentment, my muscles tensing all the way up my back, in my throat, in my jaw, and I cocked my arm back to wing the damn thing into the shadows that surrounded us.
“Don’t!” His voice was an anxious bullet that knocked my arm down. “What if you need it?”
I let my hand drop back into my lap and twirled the little case in my fingers. I was too much of a baby to do what I really wanted to do, which was to chuck it all—the meds, the inhalers, the doctor appointments—just to see what would happen, to see if I could survive without them. And at that moment, I finally realized what I was afraid of.
“I don’t want to die like…her…” My voice caught, and I breathed hard to smooth it out.
“You won’t…” he started to reassure me. I was used to that. People worrying about me then telling me everything would be alright. It was annoying. Extremely. I just rolled my eyes and stuffed the offending object back into my pocket.
“Right,” I said, scowling.
“It’s fine.” I turned my head away and gazed back into the eyes of the jack o’lantern. I’d cut out his eyes and made him smile. I felt my jaw tense and focused on relaxing it. “Can we please talk about something else now?”
In my peripheral vision, I saw his shape slowly fill in to the left of the jack o’lantern, and I shifted my gaze slightly to take in his expression. He was studying me carefully, and for a minute, he didn’t say anything. Then he looked down at his feet.
“Um…I really miss my left Converse,” he said, and then he wiggled the mangled naked toes of his left foot. “It was my favorite.”
He glanced up anxiously into my face from under his long lashes to see if he’d said the right thing. He had, and I almost laughed. Almost. I’d forgotten that he knew what it felt like to desperately not want to talk about something. I escaped with him to the new topic.
“So…is that the only thing that you miss?”
He thought for a minute. “I miss my favorite jeans. They were light blue, like totally broken in, and they had this little frayed hole above the right knee.” He gestured with his hand to show me where. “A real hole, not one of those pansy holes made by the manufacturer.”
I felt the tension easing out of my shoulders. “Go on.”
“Um…” He closed his eyes for a minute and then said, “Bruce Springsteen.” He lifted his hands to an imaginary guitar and started to play as he hummed the opening notes of “Thunder Road.”
“I love that song! It was playing on the car stereo when my dad let me take his car out on the highway for the first time!”
He paused in his playing and asked, “What kind of car?”
“A 1971 Dodge Demon.”
“So…you drive a Demon, and you talk to ghosts dressed as a witch. That’s freaking awesome!” he laughed and picked his air guitar back up. “That’s the song I would’ve picked if I’d learned to drive.” Then he looked off into the forest, still strumming, and added, “It was my dad’s favorite. He liked to play that when me and my mom and him went out for a drive. He would sing it to her, horribly…” He paused, cleared his throat and went back to concentrating on his playing.
“So you must have inherited your voice from your mom then?”
“Among other things,” he murmured. He didn’t look up from his playing, so I let it go.
“So, we have your tennis shoe, your jeans, Bruce Springsteen, anything else?”
He bobbed his damp blonde head up and down a few times as he played and then lifted his fingers up.
“My fingernails,” he said matter-of-factly. “They feel weird, weirder than the rest of me, like…really numb…” He brought them up near his face to study the ragged nail beds. They still looked raw and incredibly painful.
“Do they hurt?” I nodded to his fingers.
He shook his head, and a wry smile crossed his lips. “Nah…it’s like I spent the morning with a special effects artist. The cuts and scrapes feel like they’re painted or glued on, mostly numb to the touch.” He looked up at me, and I inched closer, reaching out tentatively with my fingers.
“Can I?” He pulled his hands away, but glanced up cautiously into my face and then held them back out palms and forearms up, fingers curled over, steady and waiting for my touch. I lifted my hand over the place where his fingernails should have been, then took a quiet, anxious breath before gently touching the tips of his fingers. He shivered but kept his hands and arms still. I felt nothing solid, but a fuzzy sensation travelled up my arm, like a pulse of heavy static electricity without the shock. I yanked my hand back, startled, and looked up into his face. He gave me a strange look.
He said, “See? No pain, but…shit. That felt weird.”
I rubbed my forearm absently. “Have you touched anyone else since you became a ghost? Does it always feel like that?”
He laughed out loud. “What. Do you think I’ve been cheating on you, Genius?”
My cheeks burned. “I was just—”
“Relax.” He lifted his chin and laughed again. Then he looked away self-consciously. “Yeah, I did a little experimenting right after I—” My eyes went wide.
Seeing the look on my face, he hurriedly added, “Chaste experimenting, strictly G-rated, and no, it only feels that way with you, with anyone else it feels…um…strange, but not nearly as intense. And no one but you ever noticed I was there. I don’t know why.”
I inched closer still to get a better look at the lacerations that laced his forearms, but my attention was drawn to older, completely healed wounds beneath them. Small, pale and shiny raised circular scars. There were three of them on his left arm. I had one to match them on my palm. My cigarette burn. I held up my palm next to his arm for comparison.
He saw what I was looking at and pulled his arms quickly away and tucked them in close to his body.
“What happened to your—” But I didn’t have to finish the question. He’d been burned, too. Either he’d done it to himself or he’d been abused. My stomach rolled completely over.
“You promised!” he snapped, and I dropped my hands and concentrated on keeping my eyes dry.
My cell rang, and I blinked. Then, Michael was gone. I cut my eyes from the empty space in front of me to the face of my cell.
10:00 p.m. My dad’s phone. He was probably wondering when I was coming home. I ignored the call and looked around for Michael. He had reappeared and was observing me pensively from a distance.
“You should go,” he murmured. “You shouldn’t be out here this late alone.” He faded slightly for a moment and then cocked his head to the side as if he were listening for something.
“I’m not alone.”
“Yeah. You are. There’s nothing I could do if anyone…you know…”
I had never thought about that, and I gathered up my stuff. When I was ready to go, I walked over to him and glanced up into his ghostly, pale face.
His jaw twitched, and he nodded stiffly. There was tension between us. I’d uncovered part of his secret, and he was keeping the rest of it locked up tight. He didn’t trust me enough to share it. I’d find out though. If my mom couldn’t or wouldn’t tell me what happened to him when he was little, I’d find out another way. I’d find out who was responsible for burning him and, God forbid, anything else that had happened to him. I’d make sure they paid, and then we would deal with the pain they left behind together.
Maybe then he could go home.