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I believe in ghosts.
Simple as that. I believe in ghosts.
Maybe that doesn't come across as very dramatic. After all, lots of people believe in ghosts. You always hear stories about some guy who felt a "presence" or glimpsed a fleeting, unexplainable phenomenon. There are mediums who claim they can make contact with the great beyond and receive messages to let the living know that all is well. Or not. Then there are those people who operate on a more philosophical level ... the spiritual types who believe that the energy of the human soul is so powerful, it must continue on after death to some other plane of existence. Of course, there are millions of people who love getting scared by ghost stories. They may not believe, but they sure have fun pretending.
I'm not like any of those people. At least not anymore. A little over a week ago you could have put me in the category of somebody who didn't necessarily believe in anything supernatural, though I did like horror movies. But that was then. Before last week. A week is like ... nothing. How many particular weeks can anybody really remember? A week can fly by like any other. Or it can change your life. You tend to remember those weeks.
I remember last week.
It was the week the haunting began.
Or maybe I should call it the hunting because that's what it was. I was being hunted. And haunted. It wasn't a good week.
My name is Marshall Seaver. People call me Marsh. I live in a small town in Connecticut called Stony Brook. It's a suburb of New York City where moms drive oversize silver trucks to Starbucks and most kids play soccer whether they want to or not. It's the kind of place where kids are trained from birth to compete. In everything. School, sports, friendships, clothes ... you know, everything. I'm not sure what the point is other than to win bragging rights. Luckily, my parents didn't buy into that program. They said I should set my own priorities. I liked that. Though it puts pressure on me to figure out what those priorities are.
I guess you'd call us middle class. We've only got one car and it's almost as old as I am. I can't believe it's still running, because we drove it into the ground. My parents liked to travel. That was one of their priorities. Whenever they had two days off, we'd hit the road, headed for some national monument or backwater town that served awesome gumbo or had historical significance or maybe just sounded different. I complained a lot about how boring it was, but to be honest, I didn't hate it. Bumping around in the back of a car wasn't great, but the adventure of it all made it worthwhile. It's kind of cool to see things for real instead of on TV. I miss those trips.
Other than that, my life is pretty usual. Unlike a lot of people in this town, I've never been inside a country club. Most of my clothes come from Target. I ride my bike to school. We don't live in a monster-size house, but it's plenty big enough for the three of us.
That is, when there were still three of us.
Things have changed. Not that long ago I thought I had a pretty good handle on what normal was. I was wrong. Nothing about my life is normal anymore. The events that unfolded over the last week weren't just about me, either. Many lives were touched and not all for the better. As I look back, I can't help but wonder what might have happened if different decisions had been made. Different paths taken. So many innocent choices added to a butterfly effect that fed the nightmare. Or created it. I guess it goes without saying that I'm still alive. Not everyone was so lucky. That's the harsh thing about ghost stories. Somebody has to die. No death, no ghost. I survived the week and that gives me a feeling of guilt I'll carry forever. Or at least for as long as I live. I hope that's a good long time, but there are no guarantees because this story isn't done.
The hunt is still on.
My story may sound like a fantasy, and maybe some of it is. But many things happened over that week that can't be ignored or explained away as having sprung from an overly imaginative mind. People died. Lives were changed. That was no dream. After what I saw and experienced, there's one other bit of reality I have to accept.
I believe in ghosts.
After you hear my story, I think you will too.
© 2010 D. J. MACHALE
Cooper Foley was in trouble. Again.
"What were you thinking?" I screamed at him. "Counterfeit tickets? Really?"
"Easy, Ralph," Coop replied calmly. "I didn't know they were bogus."
Cooper always called me Ralph.
"Even so," I argued. "It's illegal to scalp real tickets."
"No, it's not," he corrected. "Not if you sell them at face value."
"Did you sell them at face value?"
He smiled. "No."
I wanted to smack him.
Cooper and I were making the long walk to school on the last day of the year before summer vacation. He was my best friend. Okay, my only friend. My only good friend, anyway. I think the main reason we got along so well was because we were completely different. I worry. Cooper doesn't. I think things through. Cooper doesn't. I freeze in social situations. Cooper doesn't. I hate playing sports. Cooper doesn't. I worry about what people think of me. Cooper doesn't.
I think we stayed friends because there was never any competition between us. We had plenty of fights over the years, but they always ended up in a wrestling match that lasted about eight seconds. No punches were ever thrown in anger. As we walked along on that hot June day, I was ready to plot out all the exciting adventures we'd be sharing that summer. Instead I found out that Cooper was in trouble. Again.
"What's going to happen?" I asked.
Cooper shrugged as if he didn't really care. "Nothing. I got spanked, that's all. Nobody thinks I printed out a bunch of phony Yankees tickets. And for the record, I didn't."
"Then who did?"
He gave me a sly smile. "Can't tell you that, Ralph. I'd have to kill you."
Coop was changing ... and not for the better. Though he was always a wild guy, he never got into serious trouble. With him it was about being a goof in class or skateboarding without a helmet. The thing was, he always made the teachers laugh and didn't need a helmet because he never crashed. Ever. Once when we were around ten, we snuck into the private stable of some uber-rich Wall Street guy. I was so scared, I wanted to puke. In fact, I did. All over my pants. Not Coop. He hopped on the back of a prize thoroughbred and rode it, bareback, out of the stable and across the huge lawn, shouting, "Yippiekiyay!" He didn't get in trouble, either. I, on the other hand, caught hell for ruining my pants. Cooper lived a charmed life. He never puked on his pants.
That is, until we got to high school. That's when he started pushing things. He got into fights. Real fights. He'd skip school. His parents started coming down on him for his grades, which made it pretty tense around the Foley house. They grounded him ... he snuck out. We'd go for weeks without seeing each other because he started hanging around with some older guys. They smelled like bad news, so I didn't go anywhere near them. I'd bet anything they had something to do with the counterfeit tickets Coop was busted for selling.
None of this was like Coop. At least not the Coop I knew. Yeah, he liked to have fun and push some limits, but he wasn't a bad guy. Or maybe I was just naive.
"It's okay, Ralph," he assured me. "It was dumb. I get it. I'm not going there again."
I'd heard that promise before.
"C'mon!" he said. "Tomorrow the gun goes off on summer. What's the plan? I know you've got a plan."
My mood changed instantly. Coop had that ability. When he got psyched up about something, he brought everyone else right along with him. He was right. I had a plan. I'd been looking forward to this summer for months.
"It's gonna be great," I said with excitement. "The rocket kits finally came in. We can set up shop and build 'em at my house ... wait'll you see the new plasma Dad got from work ... hello, Yankees in high def ... then we can head up to the reservoir and camp for a couple of days and launch 'em."
Cooper gave me a blank stare. "Okay," he said with absolutely no enthusiasm.
Undaunted, I pressed on. "Oh! And the Jansens said I could take their Hobie Cat out whenever I wanted. I'm thinking we can race the ferry out to Captain's Island like we did last summer. Remember that?"
Cooper barely reacted. No, I take that back. Each time I mentioned something I thought was cool, he winced like I was nailing him with poison darts.
"What?" I asked, confused. "Doesn't that sound great?"
"Uhh ... yeah," he muttered awkwardly. "But I was kinda thinking more like we should hang out at the beach."
"No problem," I said. "We'll do that, too."
"A lot?" he asked.
"Yeah, sure, if you want. But there's so much more we can do."
Coop gave me a sly smile. "Not that involves girls in bikinis."
Couldn't argue with that.
He added, "I'm thinking the beach at the Point will be our base of operations. Or maybe our entire operation. Why not? We've only got a couple of months."
"But ... really? That's all you want to do? Hang out at the beach?"
"No! I'm all for the rocket thing," he exclaimed. "Let's get that on the schedule for, oh ... sometime in late August."
"You're killing me," I said.
I was disappointed in Coop. He hated being bored and so did I. He was always looking for different things to do and coming up with new adventures that kept us moving. That was his job. Trolling for girls at the beach was okay by me, but I didn't want it to be our sole focus. Besides, the girls I liked had more interesting things to do than spend every waking moment sitting around at the beach comparing tans.
"Aw, c'mon, Ralph!" Coop said. "What's better than sitting on a blanket in the warm sand next to three or four or eight girls wearing little more than underwear?"
"And talking about ... what? Reality TV? Perez Hilton?"
"Okay, now you're killing me !" he said. "Who cares what we talk about?"
I guess I did. Unfortunately. Truth was, I needed help in the girl department. Whenever I was around somebody I liked, I got self-conscious. I'm not sure why, either. I think I'm okay-looking and wasn't hit too hard by the acne stick. I've got blond hair and brown eyes, which I've heard more than once is a pretty good combination. I think part of my trouble is that I get nervous and start talking too much about things I'm interested in, and most girls don't care about graphic novels or wartime history. At least not the ones I've met. Coop may have had high hopes for a stellar summer at the beach, but I couldn't see myself starting up a casual conversation about the Battle of Bull Run with a bunch of near-naked girls. They'd crucify me.
Besides, I liked building rockets.
"C'mon, Ralph!" Cooper said. "What's wrong with messing around a little? That's what summer's for. It's in the rule book."
"There's nothing wrong with it," I shot back. "But there's other stuff too. You always liked doing stupid stuff like building rockets."
"I liked Power Rangers too ... when I was six." He put his arm around my shoulder and said, "We are looking at what could be the most awesome summer of our lives, and all we have to do is ... uh-oh."
He spotted something over my shoulder.
"Trouble Town," he whispered.
The courtyard in front of school was packed, but the crowd parted magically to reveal a stunning girl walking toward us. She had long, shiny black hair that fell to her shoulders and dark skin that was the product of an early season tan. Judging from her short shorts, she didn't mind showing off her long legs. She was hot, and she knew it. Her dark eyes were focused on Coop. My mouth went dry. Something was about to happen. She walked right up to us, locked eyes with Cooper, and snarled a simple, succinct, and venomous "Idiot," then blew past us without breaking stride.
"I love you too, Agnes," Coop called to her.
Whenever Cooper gave a girl a hard time, he called her Agnes. With guys it was Richard. In this case the Agnes was Sydney Foley. Cooper's older sister. She and Coop didn't like each other much, which was too bad because I wouldn't have minded hanging out with her. I didn't have the same trouble making conversation with her like I did with other girls. That's because when I was with her, I couldn't speak at all. Seriously. My tongue would swell up and my throat would close. I guess you would call her intimidating. She and Coop had the same dark hair and blue eyes, but that's where the similarity ended. The girl was cold. I mean icy. She was a year ahead of us in school and light-years ahead academically. I think she'll have a shot at class valedictorian. She always had a boyfriend but never anyone for long. I guess she got bored easily. Sydney Foley was definitely out of my league ... if I were to be in a league. Still, I would have welcomed the chance to hang out with her a little, and if it just so happened to be on one of those days that Coop made me go to the beach and she just so happened to be there in a bikini, maybe I'd have to think twice about being so critical of Coop's summer plans.
"I guess she found out about the scalping thing," I said weakly.
"Yeah. Dinner tonight's gonna be a real party," he lamented. "I'll get lectured by my parents about straightening up and being responsible while she stares through me with those undead vampire eyes. Yeesh."
I didn't think Sydney's eyes looked undead at all, but I could see where getting stared at would be unnerving. But that's just a guess. Sydney barely knew I existed.
Coop shrugged it off and broke out a big, winning smile. "But it's cool. Tonight I pay the price and tomorrow ... summer!"
He gave me a double okay sign. That was his way of saying not to worry and that it's all good.
"You know what?" he added. "I say we load up on frozen pizzas, head to your house, and build us some rockets."
I had to smile. "You're a piece of work, you know that?"
He gave me a friendly shove and said, "Absolutely. It's all part of the Foley mystique."
Coop had done it again ... he made things right. As we strode into school, I had new hope that the vacation might turn out to be decent after all, especially if I got the old Coop back.
The last day of school was pretty much a blow-off. You're supposed to go to classes, but exams are over and teachers don't care what you do. Most everybody hangs out and gets their yearbooks signed with "See you this summer!"--which seems like a lame thing to write, but who am I to judge? I didn't buy a yearbook, so I headed right for the art department. That's where I hung out when I wasn't in class. The art rooms were a refuge for those who didn't fit into a particular clique ... which I guess meant we were our own clique. But since we didn't run with each other outside of school, it was a limited social circle.
The art department wasn't just a hideout. I liked to draw. I'm pretty good, too. Whatever talent I have I got from my mom. There were a bunch of sketches in my cubby that I'd been procrastinating about bringing home because my bedroom was already a mess of paper and half-finished drawings. Bringing home more would probably make Dad's head explode, but I couldn't leave anything at school over the summer, so it was time to clear out.
I'd been working on an idea that was slow to form. I wanted to create my own superhero graphic novel. That sounds fairly cool and a no-brainer except for one thing . . . it's a no-brainer. Meaning: Superheroes have been done to death. Pretty much every superpower has already been explored. Besides, I didn't like the whole tights-and-cape thing. For a while I monkeyed around with a character I considered to be the "true" Superman. My theory was that if Superman was powerful because he came from a planet with heavier gravity than Earth, then why the heck did he have huge muscles if he never had to strain to do anything? In reality he should look like a skinny wimp. But creating a superhero that looked like limp lettuce didn't seem promising, so I scrapped it.
What popped out of my head instead was something I hadn't planned on or set out to do. I kept coming back to a character I called "Gravedigger." He wasn't a superhero at all. In fact, he looked more like a super villain . He was more or less a skeleton with a thin covering of powder white skin. His fingers were abnormally long and spiderlike. His eyes were hollow. He wore a dark cloak and a broad-brimmed black hat. Very creepy. I hadn't even come up with any stories about him. I simply sketched him in various settings . . . skulking through an ancient graveyard, lurking through the ruins of an old church, cowering around dark alleys. (I'm good at depicting skulk, lurk, and cower.) His signature weapon was a sharp, lethal-looking, double-edged pick like you use to crack rocks in a mine. Or gouge out the earth to dig a grave.
Whenever I tried to draw something else and use a bright color like blue or red, my hand automatically went back to the blacks and grays. I don't want to say that Gravedigger was drawing himself, but the ideas came easily and I sketched hundreds of incarnations of the guy. I didn't even know what the point was. Who was he? Was he evil? Was he the living dead? Did he need to eat a potato and get a little sun? I didn't know. Gravedigger pretty much represented all the work I had done that year and it was time to move him home, so I began the long process of stacking the pages.
"You are obsessed with death," came a soft, flat voice over my shoulder.
I turned quickly to see Tyler Frano, a student teacher in the art department. The guy was shorter than me by at least a foot ... not quite Munchkin-like but in that ballpark. He always dressed in black because he said it hid the streaks of sketching charcoal that got on his clothes. I think it was more because he was an art poser and wearing black made him look the part. He had no personality that I could sense and always spoke in a dull monotone. He was creepy but harmless. I think.
"I'm not obsessed with death," I said defensively. "I'm developing a character."
"It's all you ever draw," he countered. "That's bordering on obsession."
"Well, maybe, yeah, but ... it has nothing to do with death."
Frano gave me a skeptical look. "Or perhaps you have no significant life experiences to draw upon for inspiration."
The guy was starting to piss me off. "No, I have choices," I said. "I just choose to develop this character."
"Good luck with that," he said with a superior sneer and walked off to do whatever student teachers do on the last day of school.
The guy was all wrong. I had plenty of inspiration. And I wasn't obsessed with death. I glanced through a few of the Gravedigger sketches, trying to imagine what Frano saw in them. Okay, my character looked skeletal. Okay, he hung around cemeteries. Okay, I called him Gravedigger. Okay, he was all that I drew. So what? Did that constitute an obsession with death?
I quickly jammed the sketches into a portfolio, zipped it up, and got out of there. I was sick of hanging around the art department. Vacation couldn't come fast enough.
At 2:05 it did. Summer. I love the feeling of stepping out of school on the last day of the year, because the next day of school was as far away as it could get. I think I was especially psyched about this summer because it held so much possibility. I even had some money to spend. I had been lucky enough to land a part-time job with a small company that made trophies and awards. In a town like Stony Brook, where so many kids went to sports camp, there was a huge need for all sorts of trophies. It wasn't exactly exciting work, but building and engraving the awards made me feel like I was using my artistic talent in some small way. Better still, I could work as much as I wanted because the regular engraver had quit. He was a kid a few years older than me named Mark Dimond. Since Mark left, there was plenty of work for me. I planned on putting in at least a few hours a day to keep the cash flowing. Thank you, Mark.
So the summer was shaping up nicely. I had money coming in from a job that didn't suck, lots of projects to work on, and truth be told, I wasn't going to mind putting in a little time at the beach. I figured that as long as Cooper kept his promise and didn't do anything else that was dumb or criminal, the two of us were set for a summer to remember.
© 2010 D. J. MACHALE