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ALONE WITH THE CAMPFIRE, I can see stars peeking through the trees. Through a thin, lacy sheet of conifers, a lake glitters. Its faintly rippled surface looks like blown glass, reflecting a brilliant mirage of sky. Behind me, the forest is dark and deep.
I dip a thin stick into the flames, and the bitter, warm smell of ash sifts through the air. Smoke dances, forming a dazzling, fluted wormhole of spidery grey. Embers gleam on the edge of the stick. I smack it down on the firm earth, and sparks shoot out, a tiny firework of leaping orange lightning, tiny and bright.
Loneliness hangs around my shoulder like a cloak. I knock my knees together, trying to scare some of it away. This campground is its own cavernous oasis, the hanging boughs posing as stalactites, their dew the trickling underground streams. I am hungry, but not for meat. Instead, I am hollow.
Suddenly, music explodes from the water’s edge. I sit up straight, my stick, still full of embers, forgotten. A few campsites away, I can see a party growing. As I watch, people flock to the shore like bees to a hive. Their reflections tremble in the arms of velveteen waters, distorting blonde hair into plumes of fire and purple dresses into orbs of light.
I stand up. My hands are shaking. I mutter mantras to myself, looking over my clothes. I’m dressed relatively casually in the style of about twenty years ago, a plaid shirt and eighties jeans, light washed. My hair is short and chestnut. I take deep breaths of the forest air, which is fresh enough to sting the throat. My fists clench, and I try to force some of the light from the party into my own eyes, solidifying my shaking hands, bringing all the energy of the sap in the trees and the water leaching into the air from their leaves into my skin.
The ground shakes with the beat of the music. The family in the next campsite over must not be happy, but this party will not last long; this is the kind of thing that cops live to put an end to. I push my way through the bands of trees, and their wraithlike fingers try to draw me back into the shelter of the woods. I continue to walk forward, breathlessly, until I reach the swirling packs of teenagers. The music is deep-bass electronic.
There is energy and light here, but it isn’t enough. I can already feel myself deflating, and I could punch myself for coming here - people like me don’t belong at these raves.
A white moth flutters by me with angel’s wings, and I watch it float into the distance, over the serpentining waters. When I turn back, a girl is standing just close enough to me so that I feel the spark of contact between us, wires of attraction barely touching but glittering in the night.
She’s stunningly beautiful, although maybe in a different shade of light, or a different time, I wouldn’t have described her as so. She has a wide, upturned nose and a small grin that graces her strong lips. Her skin looks like sandpaper, rough and with tiny wrinkles on the edges of her young face, and her thin hair falls in dark curls around the firm, set bones of her face. Her brown eyes glow like lightbulbs in their sockets. She’s wearing brown boots and shorts and a blue sweatshirt, but somehow on her it looks almost fancy.
I realize I’m standing there slack-jawed while she’s still flashing that coy grin. “Uh,” I say, then nearly kick myself. “Hi - hey. Howareyouwhatsyourname?”
“What?” she says, laughing, in a bubbly, low voice.
I don’t say anything in reply. I am completely frozen, weak, and I need her to pick me up now and save me before I turn and run.
Luckily, she does.
“I’m Jane,” she tells me, reaching out her hand. When our fingers connect, her hands are warm, and I can imagine being content to hold these hands for a while.
“Luke,” I say in reply, grateful for her save.
“Like Skywalker!” she cries, and a smile lights up her face. She has a beautiful smile, wide and full of warmth.
Just then, someone near us bellows. “COPS!” he screams, and I hear the sirens, growing louder with every pulsating wail. I’d been so distracted with Jane that I didn’t hear them, faint peals in the distance, but now they’re close. I seize up.
“Come on!” I yell, and the sirens shout. Electric streams of blue light flash out on the water. The party scatters. Someone cut the beehive down. Wasps leap in their cars, and fly away.
Still holding Jane’s hand, we race away into the forest. She’s laughing and clutching my fingers, but I’m really running. I don’t have the energy for the cops to catch me right now.
When we’re finally far enough away, she’s the first to let go. She walks towards a patch of weeds towards the water’s edge and sits, breathing becoming slower. I hear some kid scream in the distance, but we are out of sight.
I look at her and wonder what will happen when I sit down next to her. I wasn’t expecting anything like this when I went to the party. This is an abundance of riches.
I sit down next to her, fully prepared to field a deep long conversation full of questions. As I expect, the first one is, “So, Luke Skywalker, where are you from?”
“‘M from Tennessee,” I say, resting my arms on my knees. “I grew up there. What about you?”
“Cozumel,” she replies. “It’s in Costa Rica. Don’t look so surprised. My parents were journalists.”
“Awesome,” I say. “Wicked. Rad.” A silence falls between us, stained by my awful words. I really do want to talk to Jane, but kissing wouldn’t be so bad either. I’m actually considering leaning over and laying one on her when she does something unexpected. She stands up and lifts off her sweatshirt, and the moonlight shines across her, on each of her curves. Then she takes off her striped tanktop, and I see her white -
“Relax, you perv. It’s a swimsuit,” she says. laughing. My eyes are wide. Without taking off her shorts, she leaps into the water, spraying me with cold lake droplets.
Lake water always has reminded me of two things: boats, and Cheetos. When I was seven, my family took a trip to Lake Erie, and we went on my mother’s friend’s motorboat throughout the blue lake. We even went swimming over what seemed to be miles of seaweed that spiraled down endlessly through the murky water. On the way back to the mainland, we finished an entire bag of Cheetos, just my family and the other one with us, and I’ve never been able to kick the smell from my nose. That family, they had a little boy. He drowned the next year, I think, when they went to the same lake again. We weren’t with them. Those seaweed mermaids got him. He’s probably living down there now, I swear, with the mermaids, a thousand feet below on the ocean floor, ruling as king of their seaweed forest.
I laugh at my thoughts but my eyes still linger on Jane as she flips back and forth. Then she throws her shorts at me, still all the way consumed by the black water. The shorts smell unmistakably like real human skin. I hold them close to my face. For a second I have this crazy fantasy that she’s going to throw her bikini bottoms at me too, but instead she spins around a bit, skimming her hands on the water. “When I was a kid, there were these bugs that would always crawl around on the pond in my backyard,” she says. “They’re called water boatmen, but I always called them Jesus bugs, because they could literally walk all over the water, little water skimmers. They walked on it like it was a blue gymnastic mat.”
I can’t read the expression on her face, so I slide closer to the water. “Luke,” she finally says, with some difficulty. “Do you ever miss being a kid?”
I sigh, taking in a deep breath of lake air, knowing I need to be careful. I could give something away, scare her off, tip her on about how screwed up I am, and I cannot do that, not when she’s a pretty girl in what I still think is her undergarments in freezing water all of five feet away.“Every day of my life,” I say finally. “But this isn’t so bad.”
A certain sadness fills her eyes, but it’s a resigned sadness, and far away. The bulk of it seems to fill up her cheekbones and jaw. “Seriously. What do you miss about it?”
“I miss my family,” I honestly tell her. It’s kind of a relief to get this off my chest. “I really do. I miss being so close to people. Sometimes... all the time... I’m empty, like a balloon with no air in me.” I look at the stars to avoid looking in her eyes. I’m sure I’ve freaked her out enough by now, but I keep talking. “I’m floating nowhere with no direction. It’s almost as painful to be away from people that I’ve hurt as being close to them, but being close to them just shows me all the things I’ve screwed up by sticking around here. By what I did.”
“What did you do, Luke?”
“I tried to change things,” I say bitterly. Bitterness is becoming my body, and I lose control of my emotions. I feel myself, cell by cell, turning to stone.
She’s leaning on the rock next to the shore, so I grab her hands. They are right in front of me, and they gleam, the color of the stars. She climbs up, agile as a cat and dripping, and she’s shivering though the smile is still on her cheeks. She shrugs on her shorts and ties her sweatshirt around her neck and curls up next to me. She fits like a puzzle piece. It makes me so sad, that she fits like a puzzle piece.
I will not cry, though. Not when everything is so beautiful as tonight.
“You’re making me upset,” I say, and there’s nothing I can do about the tears in my voice. I swallow the lump in my throat. “Let’s look at the stars instead.”
The way her body tenses, it makes me think that she wants to keep talking, but we look at the sky anyway. Silence falls, but it’s a deep, worldly kind of silence.
The stars above us are a great shower of infinite light, and we might as well be sitting in the middle of space. It makes you feel unbelievably small when you’re sitting below stars like this. They bloom and swivel like someone sprayed glitter over the sky, and I realize we are all but dust particle on this earth, moving along, and that everything living and everything dead has the same weight in the end. That makes me feel the tiniest bit better.
Jane sits up. Her forehead is creased and lined. “Luke, you don’t have to do this to yourself. You don’t have to feel this way.”
“Oh, God, what a relief,” I reply. “I thought you were going to say you had a boyfriend.”
“Seriously!” she cries. “You don’t have to live with this pain anymore. The time for this pain is past, Luke. You can let go. Let go, Luke. You can walk on into that beautiful light.”
I push her away from me. It’s like her skin, once cool, has turned to fire. “What the h*ll are you saying?” I gulp. The tears are gone, replaced by bags of iron that seem to fall in and out of my chest.
“It is so simple. You’ve hurt people; a lot of people; but of course, you know that. You know it would be better for your family. If that’s all it would take to convince you, then you would have moved on a long time ago. But I’m here to tell you that it needs to come from inside of you, that you can find the strength in yourself to move away to the stars.” She’s crawling on her knees towards me, her little body shaking.
I am repulsed and fascinated by the way her body moves.
“You tricked me,” I growl. “How much do you know about me? You little... you wench, you liar.”
“I know that you weren’t going to listen unless I got you alone. You have to listen to me. I know Luke is not your real name. I also know that it is time. You are haunting yourself, Jalled.”
“Don’t call me that,” I say. My voice sounds jagged, like somebody cut up my voicebox and then put it back in my throat. “Don’t call me that. Why are you doing this?”
“Look at the stars,” she says, taking my hand. “You need to pass on to them.”
I shake my head violently back and forth, feeling more and more like a child with each swing. “How much do you know about me? You’d better tell me right now, you little witch.”
I can see the words sting her ever so slightly, but she hardly shows it, and I don’t care. That ridiculous smile stays on her mouth. She looks ugly now, like a joker, a clown. “Jalled, I know deep inside you regret your decision from twenty years ago-”
“I’m seventeen!” I scream, childlike. “I’m seventeen!” My hackles raise; my teeth bare, and now I am a grey wolf, feral and rabid. “This is my life, and my world. I am staying here until it burns down.”
“Don’t act like a child. Twenty years is too long to stay seventeen, Jalled.”
“Luke!” I roar, driving my fist into the rock beside me. My palm comes away painless, bloodless. All the blood goes straight into my bleeding, broken heart.
“Go into heaven,” she tells me, her voice like a grater. “This world is not a place for ghosts.”
“You little sl*t,” I say, and all of a sudden I pin her down. I can tell she wasn’t expecting this. At last, her awful smile falls away. I’ve got her under my arms. I’m still strong, for a ghost. “Who put you up to this, eh? Who the h*ll am I hurting, huh, just haunting this old campsite? Did you ever consider that I don’t want to leave, you with your dumb secret agenda? I’m scared as h*ll of the stars, Jane. I don’t want to spiral out into them. I can’t lose this world...at least for another... twenty years...”
She tries to say something, but I cover her mouth. Her chest is heaving. “I may be a ghost. This is my choice. I decided to stay here. You and I are equal weight in the scale of the universe and you cannot tell me whether or not to leave. I’m so scared of dying. I am afraid to die, so I will not.”
I let her go, and at last the tears come. I’m thinking about death; I’m thinking about my family, who I have tormented and haunted, bitter revenge for the abuses I have suffered at their hands, and I envy that little boy, king of the mermaids in his watery grave. I am green.
She holds her wrists, eyes wide with worry, and I can tell she thinks I’ll pin her again down in an instant. “When you made the decision not to die, that did take an incredible amount of strength. You pulled yourself back out of the void.” She lays a tentative hand on my wrist, and I see the red marks my fingers left on hers.
Together we put our arms around each other, and at last I am filled with the human contact I crave. Her energy spills into me and we are glowing. I even kiss her, too, though I feel hardly anything.
“So, have you persuaded a lot of ghosts to move on?” I say. “Is that what you are, a tamer of ghosts?”
“Yeah,” she says, looking at the ground. “You could go so easily, Luke,” she murmurs into me.
“Yeah,” I echo her, feeling myself growing remote. I stand up, smelling the ash. “I could.”
Then I turn away and walk, back to the lace trees, past the shore, which is now empty, and back to the campfire. The stick still glows with embers. It probably would have caught fire if I never returned. I laugh to myself. I am all bitterness. I stick my foot in the fire and it does not burn. I laugh.
I look at the stars peeking through the trees, just me and them alone once more.