There were places you shouldn’t go to, dangerous places like the woods. It’s best to stay home, where you belong. This is what everyone always said to me. Everyone, even the dead people.
"Play games with the family. The woods are dark and scary. We only want you to be safe.” I was absent-mindedly skimming the sign stapled to the lamp-post again. It just so happened that a ghost was in front of it, but that didn’t matter. They must’ve been dead awhile, because I could see right through them. The longer someone’s been dead, the more translucent they get, and they start to float higher.
We'd all, long ago, gotten used to the ghosts that haunted our streets and stayed in our homes. We’d grown up with them. The normalcy of the supernatural in my town makes every day pretty dull. In the morning, a ghost might be two inches from my face and let out a blood-curdling scream, and I would yawn and heat up some water for tea. Everything's been utterly numb my entire life, and I'm sure many kids my age feel the same. Tom did.
Halloween was coming up, and I didn't want to be like all the others with tired, sad costumes. But I didn't know what to do.
"What are you going to dress up as for Halloween?" My eyes were half open, gazing at Tom as he hunched over his book. We were waiting for the bus, and it was usually late to our apartment.
"I dunno. Book character, maybe." He wasn't very expressive. We probably wouldn't have been friends if we didn't live in the same apartment building. But I felt bad for him; I heard all the yelling through the walls.
"Well, I guess we don't have to do anything. Some people think we're too old for Halloween anyway."
The bus came. We went to school. It was the same routine as every other day. I was tired and bored. I wanted to do something different.
There was an old building down by the creek at the edge of town. Neither Tom nor I had gone there. No one had. We weren’t supposed to for some reason. I’d lived my whole life here, and somehow I hadn’t been inside that decrepit structure. I was hungry for something new. And Tom was hungry for the chocolate cookies I’d baked for him if he decided to come. He didn’t take much to convince.
We wormed our way to the outskirts, careful not to be spotted by anyone. We came up to a patch of cracked concrete on top of which the building stood. It wasn’t clear what its original purpose was. Maybe it was pretty a long time ago. I stared at it for a moment.
“Are we gonna go inside?” Tom said through a mouthful of cookie.
“Yeah.” We stepped through the doorway. A musty odor immediately hit my nose.
“What are we looking for?” he asked.
“Anything interesting.” I crept through a dusty hallway and found myself in what looked like a bedroom. I guess this was a house. I heard Tom creaking around. I found some old hairpins on a dresser and a brush with hair still in it. Gross. I looked under the bed.
“Hey! I found a box under here.”
Tom came into the room. I pulled out the box. It was old and rusty with a slight green tint. I tried to open it.
“It’s locked.” I walked to a different room—it looked like a kitchen—trying to find something to pry open the box. I was rummaging through a drawer when I saw someone. A woman, a live one—not a ghost, with wide eyes. She was staring at me through the window. I flinched and screamed, dropping the box and tripping on a rug. I fell and hit my head on the countertop. Tom came running.
Blood was dripping from my forehead. I wiped at it and saw how it stained my hand. It would stain everything I touched.
For some reason I got philosophical. I wanted it to leave a stain, a reminder of my youth stupidity. Why am I here? What am I doing? I asked myself these questions daily but in a much different context.
The woman would call the police on us for trespassing, I knew, and they would be here soon.
“What do we do?” Tom asked.
“They’ll let us off with a warning. Maybe some community service. We’ll be fine.” I was out of breath. My thoughts were swirling. I was madly smiling. What was this feeling? We walked out the shattered glass door.
All I’d ever wanted was a mess, something not so boring and orderly. The most I could seem to get was a little spilled milk or bedhead and bags under my eyes. But that evening had been a perfect symphony of horrible noise. Frantic whispers. Wide eyes. Shattered windows. Sirens echoed in my ears while my heart beat fast. I think I cried with joy.
Needless to say, my parents were irate. But anything they said never made it to my ears. I’d caught a high that night, and I was going to find it again and trap it in a cage and never let it go.
Being in between that feeling of dynamic bliss and looking for the next one felt stagnant. I’d switched back to being a background character. An extra in a dull movie. Although, I suppose some people would be interested in the ghosts in my movie, the people who hadn’t lived with them their whole life.
I had. I was surrounded by ghosts—the real and metaphorical ones. The people in this sleepy town might have had interesting lives at some point. But their pasts were long dead. Their present was just as bleak. Time didn’t quite stop but seemed to go on a sabbatical and leave its lazy nephew in its place. My future seemed to be victim to the same fate. Everyone here was gobbled up by perpetual haze. We seemed to sleepwalk through the days.
I'd spent my whole life feeling claustrophobic. I’d been suffocating. How could I leave this static wasteland? No one left. It was like a locked box with no key. We were dolls in a doll house. Like we didn't move on our own; we didn't live on our own. I wanted to go to someplace new.
I went over to Tom’s apartment.
“We should leave,” I said.
“What? Why?” He frowned.
“We can go see the world.” But I didn’t really want to go alone.
“I can’t leave my mom. She needs me.”
I huffed. “Well, I need you. I don’t want to go to places by myself. That’s dangerous.”
“Then stay.” He was frustrated. I could tell he had been fighting with his dad again.
I cried. This time they were tears of frustration.
No one went into the woods, because no one left the town. I would be the first. I needed to go by myself. I decided that, come nightfall, I would leave this town. I would trek to the nearest highway and find some way to get to a better place. I would see the world.
I was at the entrance to the woods when I turned around and saw a dark shape approaching.
“Aah!” I yelled.
“Relax. It’s me.” Tom said.
He was carrying a large backpack that clunked a little while we walked.
“What’s in there?” I asked.
“Necessities. If we’re starting a new life we need things. I brought food and some money.”
“Oh, wow. I didn’t bring anything. . . Well I brought a little bottle of perfume. It was my grandma’s. It’s French. I want to go to France.” For some reason I was embarrassed.
“We can. Once we get out of here.”
Something had changed his mind.
We crunched through the woods. I didn’t like how much noise our boots were making. I didn’t know what people would do if they discovered us.
“Why did you come?” I said, already out of breath. “You said you needed to stay.”
“I had to,” he mumbled. “I wasn’t really helping.” I couldn’t help but feel relieved and a little giddy. But also sad for him. It was pretty dark, but I could see now he had a bruised cheek and a nose crusted with blood.
“He beats you, doesn’t he, your dad?” I guess I already knew. He must’ve reached a breaking point. “What about your mom?” I didn’t expect him to respond, his soft crying was answer enough.
We both had to leave.
But the town didn’t want us to. There were dozens of ghosts at the edge of the woods, blocking the path. They wouldn’t harm us, though something had clearly harmed them.
“I wonder what killed them all?” Tom asked.
“They probably didn’t die here. Maybe they just like the woods or something.”
But as we stepped into the woods, I knew there was something malicious there. Something that stopped everyone who tried to leave. Fear made its way into my stomach. I shivered. It would be freezing soon.
I started doubting myself and my future. There was something evil in the forest.
“Maybe we should head back home. I don’t think we should be here anymore. It’s not safe.” My voice shook.
“We came all this way. We have to keep going.” He sounded desperate. I realized he needed this more than I did. Maybe I was being selfish.
He looked contemplative. “I managed to open the box.”
“What? What’s in it?”
“A key. I don’t know what it’s for, but it must be important. They’re trying to stop us.” He gestured behind him, at the ghosts, the town, all its people. “That’s why we have to go.”
“I don’t know—I think something bad’s going to happen.” I wavered.
Crunch. Crunch. There was something behind us. I squealed. We couldn’t see anything. I might’ve liked the thrill if I hadn’t thought I was actually in danger.
“What was that?” Tom asked.
“Let’s go back,” I pleaded. I turned around. Tom didn’t follow. “Please!” I grabbed at him, only managing to pull his backpack off.
“No! I can’t go back!” There was fear in his voice. He was shouting, but not loudly, afraid of what was listening. I saw him run. Then I saw his figure slump to the ground.
“Tom!” I cried. I didn’t care who heard me. I ran to him. He was so pale. I tried to find his pulse, but he was already cold and lifeless.
Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. Whatever it was, was getting closer.
I vomited. I had to leave him behind.
I ran back, not stopping, barely slowing down. My sides were aching. My feet were throbbing. I was out of breath. But I felt safer when I got home.
There was a knock at the door.
It was Tom’s mom.
“Oh, hey, Mrs. Daniels.”
She came inside. She didn’t look me in the eye.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Were you with Tom last night?” She fiddled with her gloves.
“Uh—no,” I lied. “What’s wrong?”
She took off her coat and gloves. “Could I have something to drink?”
We settled at the kitchen table with two glasses of water. Mrs. Daniels was clinging to her glass and gazing out the window. She finally said, “Something happened to Tom last night. The police aren’t sure what.” There was a pause. “They found his body out in the woods, all frozen and rigid.” She sighed and frowned. “They say he died of hypothermia. I just don’t understand what he was doing out there. Especially at night.”
“That’s horrible,” was all I could say.
I was dazed. I was the one who saw his body slump to the forest floor.
My mind thought of what Tom said he had in his backpack. “Did they happen to find a box with a key with him?”
“Oh, yes.” Her voice was faint. “They found a box.” She scrunched her forehead. “No key, though. Why?”
“Oh, nothing. Just something he mentioned showing me earlier. Sad that he didn’t get a chance.”
I would never get a chance to see what had been in that stupid box. Tom said it was a key to something. The key to an exit. And now he was dead. My mind turned into fog.
It was like I had been on a mountain top. Then I was plummeting. What had happened? What had I done? I abandoned my friend. He died because of me. What if they find out?
Somehow I ended up walking to school the next morning. I didn’t take the bus. I guess I wanted to get some air and try to clear the fog in my head and the guilt in my heart. I was scared. It seemed like everyone was watching me.
I was at the entrance to the school when I saw him.
Tom. He was right there, hovering about an inch from the ground. He’d just died, so he was still mostly opaque and human-like. He was reading a book like he always used to. He looked up.
I saw him, and he saw me, and in that moment of shame and fear, we both turned and silently walked away.