He’s a ghost.
Not in the “haunted house, rattling chains” sense, although that seems to amuse him. No, he cannot phase through walls or float or haunt, but he is a ghost. A nobody. An invisible. You would never notice him if he didn’t want you to. And he doesn’t want to be noticed, for the most part. He’s not really shy, but he doesn’t like people very much and he hides from them. He doesn’t want to be seen and he can’t be seen, he says. Because that’s how it always begins, and once it begins, it will never stop. I tried to ask him once what that meant, but it only made him upset; I haven’t tried since. To this day, I’m still not entirely certain.
But that’s a story for another time. First, you need to meet Jack.
“I don’t like him.”
I take another bite of soggy cereal and try to ignore my mother. She’s sitting at the other end of the table with a newspaper unfolded in her lap, watching me over the top of the crinkled paper. Her foot is tapping an anxious beat on the floor. I say nothing, but she knows that I heard her; mothers always seem to know. The paper rustles and she loudly clears her throat. She’s really trying today. I finish the last of the cereal bits, drink the remaining milk, and stand up.
“I said, I don’t like him.”
I carry the bowl and spoon to the sink and turn on the faucet. The water sputters out cold, but warms up quickly and I start cleaning the dishes.
“Did you hear me?”
I ignore her.
I ignore her.
Her voice is tense now. I hear the newspaper rustle as she folds it and drops it on the table. I turn the water off.
“Just talk to me.”
I slam the bowl down and spin around to face her.
“What? What do you want me to say?”
She leans back in her chair, a startled expression on her face, and I realize I’m shouting. She has that effect on me sometimes, especially in the morning.
“Do you want me to tell you, oh, I’m sorry, Mother. You must be right, you’re always right.”
The sarcasm is so heavy it almost hurts. I turn back to the sink, grab my dishes, and deposit them on the small drying rack on the counter.
“Don’t you use that tone with me.”
“Tone? What tone? I’m agreeing with you, isn’t that what you want?”
I hear her groan, a satisfying sign of frustration.
“That’s not the point,” she says.
“Then what is your point?”
“He doesn’t exist.”
“Maybe not to you.”
“Damn it, Lucy, this has to stop!”
I can only shake my head. Six years of this conversation and she still doesn’t know anything. Without another word I grab my backpack from under my chair and sling it over my shoulder. As I leave the kitchen, I hear her chair scratching against the floor and her hurried steps as she follows me out into the hallway.
“We’re not finished here, young lady” she says. “Where are you going?”
“I’m going to school. Jack wouldn’t want me to be late, which is more than I can say for you.” I open the door and step outside as she sighs in defeat.
“Don’t forget your shoes.”
I look down at my bare feet and wiggle my toes. How about that?
I guess I forgot to tell you my mother knows about Jack. She’s known about him ever since I met him, almost ten years ago when I was six. That was the same year my father left us, but we don’t talk about that very much. Anyway, I didn’t have many friends then; come to think of it, I didn’t have any friends then. It was bad enough that I was a terribly shy child, but it made matters worse that there was no one around to play with. All of the kids in our neighborhood were too old or too young, and I didn’t get along well with most of my schoolmates. They had their toys and their games while I focused instead on my class work; I’d always loved to learn new things, math excluded. It made the other students pull away, and I let them go. My teacher called it a “mutual disinterest,” if I remember correctly. Big words for a six-year-old, and completely inaccurate now that I understand them. But all I knew then was that the other first-graders didn’t like me. I was different, and they didn’t care why. So much for the innocence of youth.
But Jack, he was different, too.
The first time I met him, I was sitting on the edge of the elementary school’s playground, running my fingers through the grass and humming a song to myself. He appeared out of nowhere, a small, gangly boy with scruffy brown hair and a crooked grin. I’ll never forget how scared I was. He sat down a few feet away and watched my hands with curious green eyes. I had stopped humming, but my hands still moved across the tips of the leafy green blades beneath us.
“Grass is nice,” he said. Suddenly he was on his back, waving his arms and legs across the turf. “Grass is nice!” He laughed. I laughed. The teacher blew the whistle that signaled the end of our recess. I looked over my shoulder at her, and when I turned back, the small boy was gone.
But he was back the next day. And the day after that. We started to talk. I learned his name was Jack, he learned my name was Lucy, and that was all it took. At that age, nothing else mattered. We played with the grass. We climbed the large oak tree in the schoolyard. We watched the sky and played with the clouds. He never came into the school, and he resisted when I wanted him to meet the other students. But that was okay because he was my only friend anyway. It never crossed my mind that the others
I think the sign’s supposed to be motivational, but it mostly serves as target practice for the school’s less-edible food.
could not see him. I never knew that he existed only in my head. Well, that is at least until he met my mother.
In fourth grade, the teacher called my mother to school during recess. I saw her when Jack and I were pointing out small insects in the grass. I told my mother about Jack, but they never actually met, so I grabbed him and pulled him after me to see her. She stared at our clasped hands. She kneeled down in front of me and placed a hand firmly on my shoulder. She looked me straight in the eye.
“Lucy, this has gone on for long enough. You’re too old now for imaginary characters. It’s time to let him go and make some real friends.”
I looked over my shoulder at Jack. He looked scared; his green eyes were wide and his lower lip was trembling. Real friends?
“Stop it. You’re hurting his feelings,” I said. Her hand on my shoulder tightened, and I turned around to glare at her.
“Yes, you are. Just look at –“
“That’s enough of this nonsense.”
“Look at him, Mother.”
“Luce, there’s no one there.”
“Yes there is.” When I turned to look, my hand was empty. Jack was gone.
School’s the same as ever, at least by the Minnetonka High School standards. The same teachers, the same crowded hallways, the same seven-hour equivalent of banging my head against the desk. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy school. I’ve always loved to learn, especially about history. But sometimes I feel stuck in someone else’s routine. I didn’t pick these classes or these teachers or this schedule, yet I’m expected to follow what they tell me and still “blossom into my own individual identity.” I’m not kidding. The school even has a sign strung up in the cafeteria with a picture of a painfully colorful butterfly and the words, Awesome is the blossom of individuality! printed in large, blocky letters. I think the sign’s supposed to be motivational, but it mostly serves as target practice for the school’s less-edible food. I have to give the maker of the sign some credit, though. It’s pretty clever when it’s not covered in mashed potatoes. Maybe it was meant for better than a high school cafeteria.
I stop by my locker to drop off unwanted textbooks before I leave, and, as usual, the lock is stuck. After a minute of awkward twists and jerks of the dial, it finally springs open with a loud clang. So far, so good. I wrestle the books from my bag, but before I can do anything with them, a sneakered foot appears on the edge of the door and proceeds to slam it shut again. Laughter behind me. I sigh and look over my shoulder. Russell Peters, backed by his usual two cronies, smiles at me and shrugs his shoulders as they continue their arrogant strut down the hallway.
“Tough luck, Loon,” he calls back, and their laughter picks up again.
I watch them disappear around the corner before turning back to my locker door. As I fight against the lock, I remember a brief moment of the first day I met Russell Peters. It was only a week or two before I met Jack. Short, skinny, and shy, he used to spend most of his time on his own, coloring pictures in the activity books his parents had always provided for him. We were two of the same back then. If things had turned out differently, we might have even been friends. But time has a way of changing people, and not always for the better. Russell grew taller and smarter, gained new friends and a new sense of purpose. He traded obscurity for recognition. He marked his name in the minds of our peers when he dubbed me “Loony Lucy” in middle school, and that was that. We were both on the map after that day, just on different ends.
Shaking my head, I jerk the door open, dump my books on top of an old pile of notebooks, and slam it shut. The hallways are empty now, save for a few stragglers and the occasional members of some after school club. I keep my eyes on the ground in front of my feet as I walk, just in case.
The parking lot is a flurry of rushing bodies when I emerge from the school—a battle between cars and students, frustrated parents versus careless teens. A uniform row of buses line up against the curb on the other side of the lot. I carefully avoid the crowd and the cars, sticking to the sidewalk whenever I can until I reach my destination: a faded yellow bus marked
The blocky blue letters are hard to see, but I can still make out the name: Purgatory Park.
with a large 218 in the front window. The driver opens the door and I find my usual spot in the front seat. I slip in next to the window and wait.
A few more students hop up the steps and make their way to the back of the bus. No one talks to me, no one looks at me. I’m starting to know how Jack feels. I just stare out the window until the engine roars to life and the bus jerks into motion.
Five minutes later, I watch the yellow beast sputter away down a very beaten Excelsior Boulevard. There’s only one other girl with me. She’s two years older than I am, a senior at the high school. I think her name’s Melanie, maybe Melissa. She ignores me and takes off toward Westmill Road on the other side of the street, probably heading for home. Normally she’s the only student at this stop. I live another mile or so down the road so I don’t use it often myself. But I don’t want to go home yet. I have other business to attend to today.
I turn away from the departing senior and start walking down Excelsior, careful to avoid the rough dips and cracks that have yet to be repaired from Minnesota’s harsh winter. There’s no sidewalk along this road, but the shoulder is wide enough for pedestrian comfort, and I don’t have far to go. A small street winds off to the left, marked by an old wooden sign overrun with weeds and thick, tall grass. The blocky blue letters are hard to see, but I can still make out the name: Purgatory Park. An ominous title for a pleasantly secluded wilderness trail. I used to come here all the time with my mother. We’d walk the mile-long loop through the trees and picnic in the grass and play in the stream that ran through the—
I shrug the memories away and follow the road. It opens up into a small parking lot, empty save for one bright SUV hidden away in the farthest corner, between the trail and the designated picnic area. For a warm, sunny afternoon, there aren’t as many people as I’d expected. There’s a boy throwing a ball for his dog around the picnic tables and a young couple holding hands in the shade of a large maple tree, but I see no one else. I’m okay with that; I usually come to this park to be alone. To avoid running into the boy, I go right. The trail loops back around, so it doesn’t matter which way I go anyway.
As I walk, I listen. The park is alive with its unique symphony of busy animals and windblown trees. I’ve come here often enough in my sixteen years to tune out the cars and the planes and the city. Before he left, my father taught me how. I was so young, but I somehow still remember.
A cool breeze drifts through the park now, carrying with it a promise of rain, and I look up to watch the trembling branches of the trees. I know in a few weeks their leaves will start to change color and then fall. And in typical Minnesota fashion, hellish snow will soon cake the skeletal branches in clusters of grainy snow. It’s the same cycle every year. But for now, in these final weeks of summer, the trees are bright and strong. I breathe in deeply and smile.
Ahead of me, nestled comfortably near the twisted trunk of an old oak tree, is a small wooden bench. This is the place; I can feel it. I drop my backpack on the ground and lay back on the warm seat, kicking my shoes off and letting my feet hang off the end as I close my eyes. I dig my toes through the grass into the dirt and smile. With only the sounds of birds and whispering leaves, it’s the best feeling in the world.
“Grass is nice.”
I wasn’t expecting that, so when I sit up and hit my head on the arm of the bench, it isn’t entirely my fault. I hear familiar laughter from above and crack one eye open. Slowly, cautiously, I sit up again and tilt my head back to see him perched on a thick branch of the oak tree.
His hair is brown and thick and unruly as ever. His green eyes are the same, bright and inexplicably mischievous, watching me with a boundless curiosity. He looks no different than the first day I met him. Well, he’s taller and older, but even so nothing seems to have changed; he’s timeless in that regard.
“Hey there, stranger,” I say, smiling as a crooked grin spreads across his face. “Where have you been all summer?”
“You know as well as I do, Luce.” Jack shifts his weight and starts to move carefully along the branch, but his hand slips before he can reach the trunk. His arms flail out, trying to grasp the bark but to no avail.
His voice is loud and panicked, and I wince as his body drops to the ground by my feet. He scrambles to sit up, and I can’t help but laugh.
“You’re a graceful one, you are,” I say. He pushes his dark hair back with one hand and grins.
“Says Lucy, the walking train wreck. At least it only happens to me every once in a while. With you, it’s a constant disaster.”
“Hey, you can only be as coordinated as my mind allows you to be.”
Jack freezes, and his smile vanishes. I immediately regret my words as an angry scowl darkens his features. He sits up and turns his back to me.
“That’s not funny, Lucy.” His voice is cold, rigid.
“I-I know. It wasn’t supposed to be. I’m sorry, Jack.”
He’s silent for a moment.
“I’m not just in your head,” he says.
He looks over his shoulder and there’s an intensity to his gaze that I have never seen before. It isn’t malicious; it isn’t even slightly threatening, yet, for the first time in my life, I am afraid of Jack. The bright afternoon sun, warm and comforting only seconds before, now feels cold and distant. I don’t know how it ever could have been pleasant in the first place. An unfamiliar chill washes over my skin, raising the hair on the back of my neck. I resist an urge to shiver and meet his gaze. A shadow falls over the park; a cloud
Whatever had been looking through his eyes, whatever caused the chill and the darkness and the fear, was not him. Or was it?
must be blocking the sun, but I can’t see because I can’t look away from those eyes. Those horrible green eyes. I don’t see him move but he’s suddenly kneeling in front of me.
“I’m as real as you are, Lucy. You know that.”
There is a tone of desperation now, and the raw plea in his voice breaks my heart. I feel myself nod.
“Say it, Lucy.”
“I know, Jack. I know.”
His eyes roam over my face, looking for something, anything, to prove me a liar. He seems satisfied with what he sees because he smiles again, and like that, the cold spell eases and the sun returns to the park; the cloud has moved on. His eyes soften back into their normal childlike wonder, and I can pick out the curious glance that I have come to expect from him as he drops his hands to feel the grass.
“That’s my girl,” he says.
I watch his hands move back and forth in the vegetation, and I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to do. I don’t even know what happened, or if it was all just in my mind. That’s a funny thought, I suppose. All I know is that this is not the Jack that I knew. Whatever had been looking through his eyes, whatever caused the chill and the darkness and the fear, was not him. Or was it? Maybe it’s always been there, lurking in the depths of his eyes or at the edge of his charming smile. Maybe I didn’t see it because I didn’t want to see it.
“Is something wrong?”
I realize I’m staring at his mouth, and I shake my head quickly as my cheeks start to burn. Of course the blushing has to come at a time like this.
“No, of course not,” I say quickly. “I was just thinking.”
Jack laughs and shakes his head. “And you say I’m the weird one.”
“Only because it’s true,” I say.
I laugh. He laughs. Just like we always do. When I reach for my backpack, he raises an eyebrow.
“Where are you off to now?”
“I really have to get home. I lost track of time and I have a lot of work to do for school, and my mother—“
“Ah, the mother, queen of worry and woe!” A strange look passes over Jack’s face, and I tense up slightly; he just shakes his head and laughs. “Wouldn’t want to upset the mother.”
Without warning, he reaches up, grabs one of my hands and pulls it toward his face. I feel his fingers around mine; they’re surprisingly cold. I don’t know what I was expecting, but the light kiss he lays on my knuckles is definitely a surprise; the sharp burning sensation shooting up my arm is even more so.
“Take care, Lucy.”
I jerk my hand away as soon as he lets go and the burning fades away. I hear him laugh as I examine the fresh burn across my fingers, but when I look up again, Jack is gone. I fumble around for my backpack, sling it over my shoulder, and I don’t stop running until I slam my bedroom door behind me.
Shannon McDonald is an English education major who plans to graduate in the spring of 2015 from Bemidji State University.