From the author: Teenagers balance that fine edge between childhood innocence, if they were lucky enough to have it, and adult worldliness as they inevitably, blindly stumble toward it, and among the many things they have yet to discover is that what they're told and what they believe may not always be true, and the ghosts of our past never really go away.
I bought Neil Young’s Harvest CD on Friday, the day Merle Meecham killed both his parents. It was a mistake. They didn’t have a CD with “Cinnamon Girl,” on it, a song my mom used to sing. The clerk recommended this title, bagged the disk, I took it home, and plopped it in the player. My god! It sounded like country. Lots of steel guitar and harmonica. Not rock and roll. Not “Cinnamon Girl.” Dad would know what to make of it, but he was at work. Besides, listening to the bootleg compilations that made up my entire collection tired me, so I played it through three or four times before going to sleep. As I drifted off, it started to sound okay. It wasn’t what I expected. Interesting moments I hadn’t noticed at first jumped out.
I mowed the soggy lawn on Saturday in the rain, the first moisture we’d had since June. Mom’s vegetable garden died without her to water it. The watermelons and peppers had collapsed on themselves and turned black. In the afternoon I reread C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet while listening to the CD, then walked under an umbrella to the supermarket for a soda six pack and milk chocolate stars, the perfect combination for Saturday night’s Creature Features, which had scheduled The Haunting, a film I’d never seen. Sunday, I read Lewis’s sequel, Perelandra, with my player set to repeat Harvest over and over again. That evening, I knew it was the best CD I’d ever listened to. The lyrics stuck in my head. Some things just grow on you.
By that time Merle Meecham’s parents were two days dead, and I didn’t know.
I heard about the murders Monday morning. Linda caught me in the hall by my locker. Kids stood next to the wall, talking over the noise of everyone else talking over the noise. This close, their cigarettes and shampoos and perfumes eddied like a fog.
“The F.B.I. will be here later today, Graham. You better clear those drugs out of your locker.”
She clenched a half dozen books to her chest--the top one was a bible--and her hair covered most her face. The funny thing about Linda was that she was very pretty, but no one knew it. She wore baggy brown sweaters and brown corduroys, and her dark hair almost always hid her eyes. She was also one the smartest people I knew. Homework forty hours a week. I asked once why she did so much, and she said, “Doesn’t everyone?” I didn’t have the heart to tell her I finished my assignments during lunch and study hall.
I said, “I have the pot bags out being laundered this week. Have to keep a tidy locker, you know. Why the F.B.I.? Wouldn’t it be the local cops?”
She looked up, revealing her eyes for a second. Deep blue. Startling really, under her dark eyebrows. “You’re probably right. They’re not looking for you anyway. I hear they’re going to interview everyone, though.”
Students streamed past, heading to class. The groups next to the lockers broke up. We had a couple minutes before we’d be tardy.
“You didn’t hear? Merle Meecham shot his parents Friday. Mom in the kitchen. Dad in the front yard. Dropped the rifle on the driveway. Stole his dad’s pickup, and the cops have been looking for him ever since.” She eyed the floor pensively. “I’ve been praying about them.”
My hand slipped off the locker. I caught myself from falling.
“They’re dead?” I said. “Both?”
“Drilled. Shot them in the back of the head.” She shook her head. “No one heard their confessions either, I’ll bet. No last rites. That’s what’s sad.”
“You’re both bloodthirsty and heartless,” said Rachael as she joined us. “Besides, I heard he was in the living room, she was at the backdoor and Merle got them both through the heart. You’re right about the rifle, though. He didn’t take it with him.” She was an inch shorter than me, which made her the tallest girl in the senior class. Red hair tied back in a long ponytail. Long-sleeved shirt buttoned at the wrists. “Will they want you to get a picture for the paper, Graham? Something of Merle’s from around the school?”
My mind did a neat split at that point. One part stayed sassy and said, “You’re right! They’ll put it in between the news and feature sections. I’ll call it, ‘The Killer’s Locker.’ What do you think? That’ll knock those smug yearbook photographers off their pedestals. Maybe we can get a Mobley High Post picture some national exposure. I know the janitor. I’ll bet she can get me inside Merle’s locker.” I pantomimed snapping a picture.
The other part stepped back, as if it had been scolded. Merle Meecham’s parents, dead?
Linda shrugged. “Like Mobley would ever get a national anything, other than that PETA brouhaha about the prairie dog shoot last year. I’ve got to get to bio. See you later.” She glanced in my locker before she left. “You ought to straighten up. I don’t know how you find anything.”
Rachael stayed. “I knew when they died. My candles blew out.” She put her hand on my elbow.
“I’m all right,” I said. Her green eyes were serious. She told me once they were Irish eyes to go with her red hair. This close, I could see how distinct her freckles were, how a few stray hairs had escaped the pigtail and dangled out of order.
She held my arm an extra second. “Okay, then. Are you good for lunch?”
I nodded. I didn’t know if she worried about me because of Merle or my mom. Either way, I appreciated the gesture, and the comment about the candles? well, that was Rachael. She studied the arcane arts, as she called them. I watched as she disappeared around the corner at the end of the hall. Rachael and Linda and I grew up together. In kindergarten, we’d sat at the same table, and would have contests to see who could get called on the most.
I suppose we were a little obnoxious.
The tardy bell rang and the halls emptied, I dug through my coat in my locker for my camera, but I felt like I was on automatic. Merle and I had been friends in 6th grade. I would go over to his house and we’d shoot BB guns or hike the desert between his house and the bluffs that stretched for fifty miles on the valley’s north side. But the ride on my bike wore me out, so I had quit going. Then I started the paper carrying job. His house, way out on a dirt road past the quarry and the tree farm, was on the route. By then, we only said hello in passing at school. It used to take me an extra fifteen minutes to get the paper to them on a dry day, and if the road was wet I had to lean my bike against a fence post and walk it to their delivery box. Their house sat on a hill. Twice a year, when I collected their subscription, I trudged up the long, steep, graveled driveway to their porch. Mr. Meecham paid with a check. Then he’d hand me a dollar for the “extra effort.”
Mrs. Meecham was a delicate woman who hovered in the background. The few times I came into the house, she offered me cookies and ice water. Her perfume smelled like lilacs in the evening. Merle looked more like her than his fleshy dad who had a football player’s physique gone soft.
Both dead? It made me ask the question I’d avoided for months. Why?
Assistant Principal Welch, a gangly Ichabod Crane in a bad suit, rounded the corner, coming toward me. So I grabbed my books and headed toward the custodian’s office, thinking I could get Merle’s locker number for a quick picture. Halfway there I tossed that idea. A policeman passed me going the other way, holding a cardboard box. Down the hall, yellow crime scene tape marked off a section of lockers. One in the middle stood open and empty. The police beat me to it.
Lilly the janitor, a tiny woman who looked like she was at least a hundred years old, sat in her office scrutinizing a clipboard. Floor cleaners, buckets and rags took up a shelf on the back wall. Lilly was small but energetic, and probably had been here since the Coolidge administration. She knew more about the high school than anyone. Ever since I was a sophomore, whenever I needed help with a story, I went to Lilly first.
“Can I check your records?” I said.
She grunted without looking up. “Don’t you ever go to class, Graham?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Right.”
I copied Merle’s P.E. locker number and combination. The police might not have thought of that.
When I got to class, Miss Conrad had her back to the kids as she diagramed pulleys and lines while talking about mechanical advantage. “If you do it this way,” she said, drawing a new configuration on the board, “you need one pound to lift three, discounting friction, of course.”
She always said, “of course,” which made me feel like an idiot if I didn’t know what she was talking about, or she’d say, “clearly,” or “obviously” to things that were neither clear or obvious.
My dad did that too. “Clearly,” he said, “your mother must have been troubled” when it didn’t seem clear to me at all.
Most kids were slumped in their chairs, in a posture I’d come to think of as the note-taking-submission-position, where their hand rested on the page holding a pen, but their heads were either on the desk or leaning back. It made it easy to shut their eyes for a second.
It seemed surreal. Miss Conrad moved like a bird on uppers, flitting from board to book to podium. The kids who took notes faithfully were taking them. Jessica Builder wore the loose-sleeved blouse that when she moved the right way gave me a generous glimpse of her bra, when she wore one. Everything else about the room seemed like any other day, but none of it was. How could it be with the Meechams dead in their house on that hill at the end of the road?
I didn’t even know them well. It shouldn’t have been a big deal. But I imagined their house now, empty I supposed, with more yellow police tape surrounding it, bloodstains marking the spots where the bodies fell. Linda had said that Merle ran away, took his dad’s truck, an old red beater from the 50s that would be an antique if it weren’t in such terrible shape. Where was he now, while I sat in Physics looking at diagrams on a chalk board, a good solid breakfast of eggs and bacon digesting away inside me?
My notebook lay on the table, unopened. The edges felt ragged under my fingers. My shirt had come untucked. Cool air brushed the small of my back. How could everything seem like nothing had changed, when it had, so drastically for someone else? In Geography the year before, the teacher had talked about world population. He said that 4.1 babies are born every second, a stunning image if you think of it, but then he added that 1.8 people die every second. Ever since then, I’ve felt that an odometer was running in my head. Every second that I breezed through my life, waiting for a stoplight, perhaps, or yawning, or staring into the distance, 1.8 people gasped out their last.
I tried not to think about it. Turning up Neil Young helped. On Friday, the Meechams’ number joined the odometer, and I didn’t even notice, just like at the end of May, four months earlier, my mom’s number clicked into the total. What had I been doing? It didn’t seem fair that they could go while somewhere else people had been laughing or eating ice cream, or watching a movie.
Jessica Builder stretched in her seat. I didn’t look to see what it did to her blouse.
The last time I’d talked to Merle was the first day of our sophomore year, two years past. It was the one day I’d ridden the bus. I got on last, and the empty spot was next to Merle. He looked pretty much the way he had in elementary school, small, light boned. He was his mother’s son. I’d started growing in 7th grade, and I hadn’t stopped until my junior year when I topped out at six-three. “Hi, Graham,” he’d said when I sat next to him. “Do you still got that cool motocross bike with the foot pegs?”
I had to think for a second before I remembered what he was talking about. “Nope. Traded it for an mp3 player.”
The rest of the ride was silent, and I don’t think I’d given him another thought until Linda told me he’d shot his parents.
I wished I could go home, turn the stereo on and get lost in Neil Young. Maybe if I’d kept in touch with Merle, I could have called him. “Hey, Merle,” I would have said. “I’ve got this new CD you have to listen to.” We could have sipped sodas. Instead, he was a lonely boy, out on the weekend in his dad’s pickup. I supposed he’d grown enough to reach the pedals, but he probably was still small.
“If you’ll turn to page sixty-three in your text, you’ll see fifteen challenges in mechanical advantage. Disregarding friction inherent in the systems, you are to figure the total weight required to solve the problems. I’d like to see your work by the end of the hour.”
The clock showed we had twenty minutes left in class. I’d lost a half hour in a blue funk, but I hadn’t heard anything Miss Conrad had said. A half hour is thirty minutes. Thirty minutes times sixty seconds is a lot of 1.8 persons kicking off the planet. I rubbed the heels of my hands into my eyes and shook my head.
Rachael said that I can get morbid. She said I had a dark aura. I don’t think so, but sometimes when I think too long on death, I need to rattle my cage, give myself another perspective. The room vibrated around me, lively, real, not like the mythical ticking death odometer. Rachael would say that they hadn’t died; they transmuted to another form. Linda would say they’d gone to meet their maker. Me, I would say the murder weapon would make a great picture. We have our ways of dealing.
I opened the text book and started the computations. Levers, pullies, angles and mechanical advantage.
After class, I waited outside the gym until the halls cleared out. Inside the boys’ locker room a shower dripped and it smelled like damp towels and old sneakers. Merle’s locker looked untouched. I held his locker number and combination in one hand and the camera in the other. Ten minutes later, I slipped out.
When I stepped from the building for lunch, the warm, moist afternoon air hit me. It had rained Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, then been cloudy for the rest of the weekend. Today the sun got its first chance to bake the moisture out. The second cut on Neil Young’s album has a lyric in it about a mother screaming in the rain. I thought about Merle’s mother. Did she know what was about to happen when it happened in their isolated ranch house with rain pattering against the rooftop?
Rachael stood out in a crowd. Her red hair caught my eye first, embering in the noon sun as she and Linda sat on the grass-covered hill across the street from the high school. Kids took their lunch hour there, off campus, where they could smoke or lock lips or talk with their friends. Some kids would hop the fence between the park and the corn field beyond. They could smoke pot in the obscurity of stalks and broad leaves until the harvest knocked the field down.
Linda held a book in her lap while she was talking to Rachael. She looked up as I approached, but continued with what she was saying. “Mr. Warner blamed it on guns in society. He said America has 24,000 gun deaths a year while Japan has almost none.”
“Second amendment,” said Rachael. “You’ll get ranchers and farmers to give up their guns when Hell freezes over. Besides, Warner’s so liberal that when he gets a paper cut, Teddy Kennedy says ouch.”
I sprawled onto the grass on Rachael’s other side, then rolled onto my back. A couple clouds, torn into shreds on one side by a wind that didn’t reach the ground, slid from east to west until one disappeared behind the school’s clock tower. In the September sun, wavering in the heat, the school looked more like a castle than a public building. Grey brick. Long, narrow windows like archers’ slits. A broad gateway around the double doors. I could imagine a sturdy portcullis sliding into place to repel the barbarians. A moat wouldn’t be unexpected around such a structure. Maybe a knight or two, trotting past the drawbridge, if it had one.
Rachael said, “Things are stirred up.”
“Everyone’s talking,” I said. In the hallways people buzzed with it. A freshman cheerleader had said to a friend, “I talked to him once.” A wrestler in a letter jacket told his girlfriend, “He was a bit off.” I had heard one teacher whisper to another, “The police think he may have been high on something.” Avoiding the talk was impossible.
“No, not the students,” Rachael said. “I mean the other world. The tea leaves melted in the bottom of my cup last week. Unreadable. My Norse runes kept coming up bonkers. And have you seen Vice Principal Welch?”
Linda said, “You told me you were going to give that junk up. It’s satanic.”
“If Graham showed you a ghost picture, you’d change your mind about it, Linda,” said Rachael.
I sat up. “What about Welch?”
Rachael leaned back so the sun fell full on her face. “Watch him in the halls. He sees stuff. He’s my canary in the mine. When Welch gets trippy, the air’s going bad.”
All I’d ever seen Welch do was to roust kids from behind the convenience store and hand out suspensions. “Really? He’s sensitive?”
Rachael nodded. “Maybe more than me.”
Linda pulled her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. Her book fell on the ground beside her. It was C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain, which struck me as funny since I was reading Lewis too. “I believe in ghosts, Rachael,” she said primly. “I don’t need a picture. But the Bible says that messing with them is dangerous. All those things are dangerous. They are not of heaven.”
Most people would come off hokey saying a line like, “They are not of heaven,” but Linda could say it and sound matter of fact. She was the most unpretentious Christian I knew.
“I’m careful.” Rachael’s pigtail hung straight back, almost touching the grass. “Nothing black. A little sympathetic magic, that’s all. Some divining. Reading auras. A séance now and then. Besides, if God created everything, it doesn’t make sense to say ghosts aren’t from heaven. Here, let me check you, Graham.” She swiveled around so she faced me.
Dutifully, I gave her my hand, palm up.
“Don’t think of anything, okay?” she said.
I nodded. Then, gently, she moved her hands around my own, like she was going to cup an injured bird, but she didn’t touch me. Her fingers glided within a hair’s breadth of my hand before traveling up my wrist to my elbow. I tried to keep my head clear, but my scalp clenched into a thousand goose bumps. Rachael closed her eyes. Her mouth was relaxed and expressionless.
The sun felt good in a post-summer kind of way, solid and hot, but it gave way in the breeze, when it blew, to autumn and Halloween. The leaves rustled instead of hissed, and every evening lately, when clouds built up on the horizon, they seemed to promise snow, not thunderstorms. For a couple minutes we said nothing. Rachael repeated her pass at my hand and arm so slowly that I couldn’t see her hand moving, like a clock’s minute hand. My face flushed suddenly, and I was sure the girls would be able to see it, but the feeling faded as Rachael withdrew her hands and tucked them under her armpits.
“Very interesting,” she said. “I sense turmoil.”
Cars rolled from the parking lot. Kids going to lunch. I put my hand back in my lap. It felt drained or cleansed. It’s strange, but I experienced something whenever Rachael read my aura.
“The best you got was ‘I sense turmoil’?” said Linda. “Can you be any vaguer?”
“And Revelations is clear?” said Rachael languidly. This was an old argument they returned to a couple times a week. “You do Bible divining all the time. I’m not sure I see the difference.”
Linda shook her head. “Opening the Bible at random and putting my finger on a verse for guidance isn’t anywhere close to what you’re doing.”
“You say to-mah-to, I say to-may-to. You do Christian witchcraft. I like the pagan sort.”
“And I’m a skeptical existentialist,” I said. They looked at me expectantly. “I question the absurdity of my doubts.”
A boom box played a familiar tune in the middle of a bunch of guys sitting on the other side of the hill. I listened, trying to place it. The notes barely reached us. Then I smiled. It was the title cut from Neil Young’s Harvest album. Must have been a classic rock station. It’s a spooky cut, though. It reminded me again of mothers and screaming and isolated places in the rain.
“Merle isn’t on the run,” said Linda. “I’ll bet he pulled over in the desert somewhere and blew his brains out.”
Rachael inhaled sharply. Linda’s hand flew to her mouth They looked at me.
“Sorry,” said Linda. “Really, I’m sorry. I can be such a doofus.”
I took a deep breath. “Not a problem.”
For a couple minutes, we didn’t talk. Linda opened her book, but she didn’t read. Rachael pulled Tarot cards from her pocket, then started to lay them out. She wrinkled her forehead in disgust after the first couple cards and picked them up. I wanted to talk to break the silence, but I couldn’t think of anything appropriate. They tiptoed around it, just like my teachers and my dad, like it was this huge mess in the middle of the room that they were afraid to talk about, as if talking about it would make it worse. I remembered in the spring I’d had an argument with the editor about a picture I wanted to print in the school’s paper. A sophomore, running across the street after lunch got clipped by a Ford Fairlane loaded with kids coming back from the mall. He hadn’t been hurt seriously, but he’d cut his scalp and it bled like crazy. I took the picture. The kid’s eyes stood out like white marbles in his blood-streaked face.
“We’ve got to print it,” I had said. “How else can we illustrate the danger we’re all in every time we cross a street?”
“What about his parents?” the editor said. “When they see this picture, it will just make it worse.”
I laughed. “They’ve got the real kid in their house, and he has the real blood on his head. How can a picture make it worse than what actually happened?”
I had thought about that conversation a lot since then, when no one talked to me about my real mom. I was right. Nothing is harder than the reality, and reminding someone doesn’t make it worse. That photo sits in a drawer in my bedroom, unpublished. Printing it wouldn’t have hurt the kid more than he’d been hurt so far, and three weeks later a freshman got nailed by a van at the same spot. She wasn’t as lucky. The coma lasted over a month and she can’t feed herself now.
“Besides, I have something better than a ghost’s picture,” I said.
“What are you talking about?” said Linda.
“The cops were in Merle’s hall locker during second hour. I couldn’t see a thing. They put his stuff in paper bags. Locker was empty as a tomb, but it got me thinking. What if they didn’t check his P.E. locker? So I got the combination and opened it.”
They crowded around my camera, while I shaded the display from the sun. The first picture showed the P.E. locker locked. The next showed it open. I had been standing above it, so my flash revealed nothing beyond the open door. For the third shot, I’d gotten down to the locker’s level. In the inch-and-a-half wide display, I couldn’t tell what was pictured. It was all brown and wrinkly and scrunched together, but two beads glittered back at me from the locker’s depths.
“I thought they were eyes at first,” I said.
Linda said, “Did he have an animal in there?”
“Not a living one,” said Rachael. “It’s not alive.”
“You’re right.” I looked at her. “How do you know?”
Rachael shrugged. “It doesn’t feel alive.”
I shook my head. “It’s a picture as big as a postage stamp, for crying out loud. How can you feel from that?” I clicked to the next image. “I wondered whether I should touch anything, but I knew I couldn’t get the shot otherwise. I took it out.”
The camera showed us a teddy bear on its back on a locker room bench. One stubby leg poked straight in the air.
Why would Merle have brought a teddy bear to school, and why would he hide it in his locker? “That’s creepy,” I said.
Rachael tapped a fingernail on the display. “I don’t know. It seems pathetic to me. He was seventeen, and he brought a toy to school.”
Linda said, “Maybe there was something in it.”
“I checked it pretty good. All bear, as far as I could tell. Worn at the edges. A couple loose seams, but nothing out of the ordinary.”
A bell rang inside the school. Students started picking up their lunch trash to head to the building.
I leaned back, my weight on my hands behind me. “Maybe I’ll skip my afternoon classes.” Going back into the school with everyone talking about the killing made me ill. Besides, the school looked bleak. The sun had disappeared behind a cloud, turning the grey brick almost black. It reminded me of Prince Prospero’s castle in Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death.” We’d close the doors to keep the real world out for a while, and inside we’d be partying, except it wouldn’t be a party where we were having fun. It would be lecturing and drilling and note taking until they let us go back into the real world again.
“Not a good idea on a Monday,” said Rachael. “It would be worth it at the end of the week. They’d take a day or two to realize you’d ditched before they sent a detention slip. Over the weekend you could fake a reason you missed for your dad, and the whole thing would be forgotten. Do it on a Monday, though, and they have you in the attendance office on Wednesday without an excuse to hang on. Better go.”
So we went to class. I wore my headphones, letting Neil Young drown out the noise. You’ve got to love music through headphones. It’s like giving your life a soundtrack. I set the player to the third cut, “A Man Needs a Maid.” Linda snorted when I’d told her that I bought this CD, and this was my favorite song. She said that it was sexist, but I don’t think so. The song isn’t about women being maids; it’s about being lonely. The guy in the song says his life is changing and he doesn’t know who to trust, so he wants to get a maid. Having a maid would mean that something in his life would be stable, that he wouldn’t have to think about it. So the song talks about wanting a maid, until it takes a turn and you find out why he’s feeling so bad: a woman he loves has gone. You don’t know whether it’s a girlfriend or a wife, or maybe even his mom, but he wonders when he will see her again. That’s what the song is about. Life changing all the time. Missing someone.
My last class was English, but before it got started, Vice Principal Welch sent me a note saying I had to report to his office immediately. Two cops sat at the tiny round table in the room, while Welch sat at his desk, his knees poking up, and looking glum. The cops had to move the table a bit to get the door to close behind me.
“Did you know Merle Meecham?” the first cop said. He sported a tiny moustache that made him a double for Adolf Hitler. The second cop, a young guy who might have passed for a sophomore, hunched seriously over a notepad, a pen poised above the page.
“I used to.” My voice sounded too loud. Welch’s office wasn’t much bigger than a walk-in closet. The young cop made a note.
“Did you see him last week?”
“Has he made contact with you in the last three days?”
“No.” The Hitler cop smelled like pine air freshener and garlic. I pictured a scent-soaked cardboard pine tree hanging from his rearview mirror. It would wave back and forth as he cruised the streets.
“Is there anything you can tell us about what happened at the Meecham residence on Friday?”
“No.” The young cop wrote again. Welch’s mouth twitched when I caught his eye, but I couldn’t tell if he was trying to be encouraging or accusatory. Nobody said anything for so long that I offered, “I mowed my lawn Saturday.”
“Okay, kid. If you hear anything, we need you to call us right away. We think he’s fled the state, though. They’ll pick him up in Wyoming or Utah. The state patrols are working on it. Here’s my card just in case.” Hitler-cop handed me a business card with a police badge embossed behind the letters.
That was the whole interview. I don’t know how that interrogation would have discovered my guilt if I had any. Two other seniors sat on the bench outside Welch’s office, clutching the same note that had summoned me.
“Remember, just your rank and serial number,” I said as I passed them.
I took my seat in the back of my English class. Dead writer portraits hung on the wall. Miss Wallace, a short woman with grey hair and wire-rimmed glasses that perched on the end of her nose started talking about prepositions and antecedents. I put my headphones back on, turned up the music and shut my eyes. Yeah, a man needs a maid. Sing it, Neil. We all do. Women too. We need things not to change all the time.
I didn’t see Rachael after school, so I wrote a note to stick into her locker. It read, SEANCE, 8:00, YOUR HOUSE? But she walked up before I could get it in the locker.
“Sounds good,” she said, after reading it. “Bring a good attitude,” she said, grinning.
That gave me time for a long run and shower. I’d started running after Mom died, sort of a Forrest Gump thing. The idea that you could run your troubles into the ground seemed like a good one to me. Speed wasn’t the thing. Distance was, so I bought some good shoes and found the most isolated trails outside of town to run. A good course had hills, blind curves, and no people.
I parked the car in a wide spot on the rutted dirt road that led to a busted coal mine at the top end of a mile of zig-zagging cutbacks, followed by sharp rocks and axle-bending holes for nine miles. Bad for a car, but good for running. The day before school started I’d gone the whole distance there and back, my legs burning under me the last hour and my head blessedly empty. Took all morning. But today I wouldn’t go as far. I started slow, just trying to warm my muscles.
I’d talked to Linda and Rachael about the running once. Linda said that long runs in the wilderness were my way of reaching for God. A John the Baptist thing, and that I’d save time if I just came to church with her, but she wasn’t pushy about it. Rachael had just nodded when I talked. She did some running on her own. I don’t know if there’s God on a run, but I know the world can get meditative and serene after the heart’s been pounding long enough.
I jogged toward the adobe bluff and its winding climb, knowing if I went a good distance Merle Meecham would fade back where he belonged, like the assignments from Miss Wallace’s class, and the emptiness in the house when I came home from school, and how I put on my headphones when Dad came in from work so I wouldn’t have to talk to him.
The first half mile was flat. Creosote and scrubby bushes dotted the ground on both sides. A rabbit hopped away on my left. Seconds later, a brown-striped lizard sprinted off the road. My breathing came easy, and at this point it would be a cinch to stop running and turn back. This is the way it always goes. I’d invested nothing in the distance so far, so quitting would be easy. I pushed ahead to the series of switchbacks that would take me to the top and the dull-green pinion of the mesa.
Just before the road began to rise, an even crummier road crossed my path. I’d never run it, because I figured I’d only find a hollow littered with shot up beer cans and busted bottles. The desert out here served as an unofficial recreation spot for rednecks with rifles and drunk high school kids. Fresh tire tracks marked the dust. I hustled up the hill. The idea that someone could be taking target practice just out of sight didn’t appeal to me. More than one hiker out here had caught a stray bullet.
Fifteen minutes later, gasping for breath, I reached the top. Spread like a wrinkled blanket, the town covered the valley below. Trees filled the gaps between buildings. The river, miles away, like a silver road wended its way through the middle. All three bridges glittered in the sun, and the afternoon traffic reflected bright shards crossing from one side to the other, but up here I couldn’t hear engines or horns or barking dogs. Wind whispered off rocks’ edges, rattling dried branches against each other. I wondered if Linda had this in mind when she talked about the world as God’s creation. Somehow I pictured heather-covered hills in her version of nature. Brigadoon without spontaneous singing and dancing. Here, bare stone poked from the dust and what plants there were got a sprinkling in the spring or a gully washer in the fall, like we had over the weekend. If I didn’t watch, I could kick a cactus and have to limp home to pluck out the thorns. Maybe her God thrived up here too, but this looked more like Rachael’s world. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine ghosts, or witches, or the breathy voice of pagan spirits.
According to Linda, God and Satan filled the universe, constantly at war, and we were both the foot soldiers and the prize. For Rachael, spirits, omens, spells and pagan spirituality’s dizzying turmoil made the world an equally frightening place. Her afterlife looked fearsome to me, a Greek version of the underworld where all suffered to a greater or lesser degree, although she also talked about nature spirits and the Earth’s healing goodness. I pictured the good people, the pure ones evolving into trees or something.
Or was the universe empty? That was the problem. I didn't believe in big answers from either Linda or Rachael, because I had made my throat sore from shouting "Why?" over and over to an ignorant night sky.
Next to the trail, wind skittered sand across a bare stone surface as big as a piano top, like tiny claws scratching a blackboard. I shivered.
Five miles in the distance below, the line where the town ended was visible. The river continued, and so did the state highway, but the trees quit with the buildings. Dirt roads marked the valley’s floor leading to the ranches in the hills beyond. One road led to the Meecham’s. Why would he have done it? How in the world could he have gripped the gun and pulled the trigger? I turned away without tracing the road’s twisty way to their house.
Beneath my shoes, the trail unreeled. Footing kept my mind off my mind. Watch that rock. Step over that busted branch. Go around the muddy spot. Running’s rhythm held me, and when I looked at my watch, forty-five more minutes had passed. The sun dropped closer to the horizon. I’d have to hustle to get back to Rachael’s on time.
I reached the bluff’s edge ten minutes after the sun had set. Dusk’s shadows turned the valley purple. My shoelace had come undone, so I stopped to tie it before heading down the switchbacks. The backs of my legs felt liquidy and warm, like I could run for another dozen miles without a problem, and for a moment the evening was perfect. My friends waited below, school was a distant annoyance, and for a bit I hadn’t thought about Merle.
I straightened. Twenty minutes away, all downhill, my car sat beside the road. Streetlights glowed along Main. I sighed. Motorcycle ruts and beat-up jeep roads crisscrossed the hills below. At the end of one trail a mile or so north of my path, the scrub brush seemed to move. After a minute, I realized that someone had built a campfire in a depression out of sight. The movement was firelight on the bushes.
The evening didn’t feel creepy like it had earlier, but then I had a sudden thought about my mom: when will I see you again? Neil asks the question in “A Man Needs a Maid.” It scared me to have that thought, so out of nowhere and uninvited.
By the time I reached my car, evening shadowed the road, and I had stumbled several times. Back in the hills, coyotes yipped.
Rachael answered her door before I knocked.
“I saw you pull up,” she said, then glanced at my sweaty clothes. “You want some water?”
She wore a yellow Tweetybird shirt and overalls. Broad-striped socks. No shoes. She’d swept her hair back with a white tie that looked sharp against her red hair. “Linda’s not here yet,” she said from the kitchen that smelled warm and buttery.
I sat on the couch, conscious of how sweaty I was. “Linda’s coming?”
“Wouldn’t miss it.” Rachael carried a water bottle in one hand and a glass of tea in the other. “She’s not as squeamish about the supernatural as you might think. In fact, she was miffed I didn’t invite her to the last one.”
“Was that the one that triggered the smoke alarm?”
Rachael flopped down beside me and put her feet on the coffee table. “Not my fault. It was the homemade candles. But no, I did one last weekend by myself.”
“Nothing has to happen for a séance to be successful. Churchy people don’t expect to see Christ every service either.”
“They never see Christ.”
“And yet they still attend. Go figure.” She opened a box on the coffee table and extracted a sage bundle, a bottle of red sand and five lumpy gray candles.
“Those are homemade, aren’t they?”
“I’m opening windows. That’s Linda at the door. Go let her in while I set up.”
Linda stood on the doorstep, her arms crossed, looking wary. She wore a bulky sweater despite the evening’s heat. “My church youth group has members in this neighborhood. What if they figure out I’m here for a pagan rite?”
“You’re over here all the time. Quit being paranoid.”
She pushed past me and into the house. A cloud on the western horizon hung pale against the darkened sky, and the first stars glittered. From Rachael’s porch the bluff at the town’s edge where I’d been running loomed, a dark shadow in the darkness. Someone in the neighborhood was barbequing. Charcoal and cooking meat lingered in the air.
Behind me, Linda said, “Aren’t you supposed to use a single white candle?”
“Somebody’s been reading, I see,” said Rachael.
I shut the door and stepped into the living room. Rachael had moved the coffee table away from the couch and put pillows on the carpet for us to sit on. She held the tipped bottle of red sand on its side, carefully making a circle that encompassed the pillows and table.
“I have been. Are you going to use a bowl of olive oil with a drop of blood in it?”
Rachael laughed. “That’s old school. More for the circle’s members than the spirits. In fact . . .” She put the five candles on the floor in the sand circle, equidistant from each other. “. . . the real requirement for the séance to work is that we’re respectful and receptive.” She lit the candles and turned out the lights. “There, we’re ready.”
I took a seat on a pillow. Linda settled in on my left and Rachael sat on the right. “Of course, it doesn’t hurt to make a friendly environment. The sand and candles create an outer circle, a threshold for spirits to gather, and we are the inner circle. Dim light is more inviting than bright light.” She turned to her side so she could singe the sage I’d seen early. The pungent odor filled the room. “Oh, I forgot.” She pushed herself to her feet, and soon returned with a basket of sliced freshly baked bread, which I’d been smelling since I came in the house.
I reached for a slice.
Rachael slapped my hand. “That’s for the spirits. I’ve found they like nice smells. Indian shamans make a big deal of sage smoke cleansing, and nothing smells better than fresh bread. Maybe they don’t get enough to eat on the other side.”
Linda said, “The smell doesn’t go away if we eat some.” She took a piece. I gave Rachael a “so there” look and snagged a slice for myself. She shrugged then took one too. For a minute we chewed in silence.
Rachael looked at me. “What’s the goal here?”
“If spirits really do visit, I want to see if you can raise Merle’s parents. Merle is out there somewhere, on the run. Maybe we can find out what happened.”
“You don’t believe in spirits.”
I shrugged. “But you do.”
Behind her, the living room curtain bowed a little from an outside puff. It had grown dark enough that the candles had become bright beacons, casting shadows every which way close to us, but leaving the room filled with black shapes.
Linda said, “The Bible doesn’t mention human spirits often. I don’t think they’re that common. There are many more references to angels and demons. If we contact anything from the spiritual realm, it’s much more likely to be a messenger from heaven or hell.” She had brushed the hair away from her eyes. In the candle light, her skin glowed.
“Do demons worry you?” I wondered if I could take a picture under these conditions. My camera had a low light setting, and if I could steady it, I might be able to get a good image. I liked the way the shadows highlighted them both, and thinking about taking pictures kept me from thinking about contacting spirits, if they really existed. What would the Meechams be like, if they could come back? If they were me, I’d be mad. Very, very mad. But I didn’t believe that you could contact anyone on the other side. Four months of waking in the middle of the night with no one there convinced me. Not a peep from my mom. Not a hint. Worse than that, I couldn’t feel her. She was gone.
Linda said, “Prayer has more power than demons. I’m not scared.”
“Good. Then let’s see what we can see,” said Rachael. “We need to join hands. It helps to remind us that we are among the living if we work in a circle, I think. That’s why I do the sand circle, and why the candles are on the outside. Circles are a good metaphor.” She held my left hand, her long, cool fingers wrapping around my palm. Linda held my right. Her hands were smaller than mine and slim.
“You all need to think of something that makes you calm, like a mantra or a happy place.” Rachael closed her eyes and squeezed my hand. Linda squeezed too. It felt good to be connected to them both this way. I thought for a second about what would calm me, and what I settled on was Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold.” The song is about searching. In Rachael’s living room, bathed in candlelight, holding my two best friends’ hands, I couldn’t have better company on a search.
For a long time, it seemed, we sat. My palms grew warm, and felt slippery with sweat. I worried that maybe I was still overheated from the run, but when I peeked at Linda and Rachael, their faces glistened in the candle light. No breeze stirred through the open windows in the hot autumn night. No sounds either. I strained to hear a car or a barking dog. Nothing from the outside, but my own breath passed with a whisper, and the candle flames made tiny snapping sounds.
The silence made me think of my house. Five nights after my mom died, Dad had to stay late at work to catch up and wasn’t home when school ended. School had been weird. It had been my first day back. Everyone leaned away when they noticed me, or, if they caught my eye, they nodded, their lips set and concerned. My science teacher didn’t say anything, but he put his hand on my arm while I was taking a makeup test. His eyes looked sad. Even Linda and Rachael had been at a loss. Linda walked with me to my classes, chattering about a church outing she’d gone to over the weekend. Rachael met me for lunch. She’d picked up chocolate cake from the cafeteria, the food they do well, and we sat outside on the grass, eating without words.
Then, I went home to the empty house. For an hour, I sat on the couch, my book bag beside me, listening to the refrigerator’s hum, the steady click in the air conditioner, and a branch tap, tap, tapping against the window. But the thermostat turned the air conditioner off, the refrigerator lapsed into inactivity, and the wind died. For a moment, the only sound was my own breathing. It was then I noticed I could smell spent powder, the terrible odor a big handgun leaves when it’s fired indoors. Five days old, and it still lingered. Breath murmured in and out, playing scratchy notes through my nose hairs. I’d never heard a house so quiet, but I didn’t want to move. I didn’t want to break the peace. For an instant, the world teetered for me, time came unhinged. Was I an eighteen year old who’d just lost his mother, or was I six? Would the back door bang open to let Mom in from the garden, or would I hear a creak in the floor above as she walked from room to room? The silence disoriented me, like I had been spinning and now was still. But the air conditioner kicked back on, startling me, and my eighteen years weighed in my chest.
Rachael cleared her throat, an explosion beside me. “Spirits don’t need an invitation, but mostly people aren’t willing to listen to them, so we do the séance. It gives them a chance to communicate. We invite them by our willingness to listen.”
Linda said, “Should we try for your mother, Graham?” She was serious.
The possibility hadn’t occurred to me.
I peeked at Rachael again. Shadows crisscrossed her face and wavered in the unsteady light. Her chin was up a little, and the skin above her eyes reflected a smooth, unwrinkled sheen. Her hand held my own firmly, and I really did feel connected to her through her grip, her living hand in mine.
“I read somewhere that if we breathe in unison, we become less threatening and more receptive,” said Linda.
“How much research did you do?” I asked, but I regretted saying anything. Talking altered my mood.
Linda said, “A séance is a meditation, like eastern religion, where you try to empty your mind of yourself, and when it is empty God can fill it. It’s just a meditative technique. I’ve done the reading.”
She took a deep breath, held it, then let it out slowly. “Try it,” she said.
I matched my next breath to hers, and by the tension in Rachael’s hand, I could tell she was too. We breathed that way for several minutes. My hands felt like they’d tuned into electrical connections where they touched the two girls, and the bread smells, the burnt sage, the candles’ earthy odors mixed within me.
“We are open to the spirit world,” said Rachael, and it didn’t sound corny. She said it in time to the exhale. When she said it again on the next breath, it was if I had said it. The connection through my hand felt even more profound. I could feel her pulse, the way her arm connected to her shoulder. Her femaleness. On Linda’s side, the same sensations flowed but they were Linda-flavored. A little part of me wondered if I was hyperventilating, or if Rachael had mixed a drug in with the candles.
Rachael’s breathing rasped. We were taking bigger breaths now, caught in a feedback loop of each other’s making. “We are open to the spirit world,” she said for the twentieth or thirtieth time. My own breathing had become ragged, and I blushed as I realized I was a little aroused. Sweat stood out on Linda’s face. Rachael took her air in between parted lips.
With a shudder, Linda asked, “Is this normal?”
“We are open to the spirit world,” repeated Rachael.
Then, the wind picked up. The big maple in Rachael’s front yard creaked, and the leaves rasped against each other as if a giant hand brushed across them. The curtains bowed inward. A hot, windy caress slid over my legs. One candle winked out, but the others seemed to feed on the wind and glowed even brighter.
Linda’s eyes popped open and looked into my own. “What good comes from the spirit world?” She held my hand hard. “If they are good, wouldn’t they be with God?”
Rachael gasped, “I can feel them. People are in the room.”
Air circled around me, catching the smoke from the extinguished candle, twisting it around into a tiny tornado for a second, then spreading in a layer above us, pushing it into ripples, as if we were looking at a dusky sea from below, but the air moved faster and faster, pulling the smoke into tatters and then nothing.
Something chittered in my ear before retreating. Where the room had been silent before, now slight sounds emanated from everywhere. A faint dried chicken bone clacking. An aching moan, almost below the level of hearing. A thread of giggling. Something choking.
“Is it the Meechams?” I said, my voice quivering. If either girl had flinched, if they had shown any fear at all, I would have been up and out the door, but they held on, facing the center, strong and solid.
Rachael said, “It’s working.” She looked at me and smiled. “This has never gone so well.”
A maple leaf flew through the open window and whirled above the table, then another. Soon a handful circled in the wind. Linda’s lips were moving. A prayer? But she looked at the display with as much interest as Rachael. Brown hairs whipped across her face.
“Is it the Meechams?” I said again. “Are they trying to give us a message?” In the wind I smelled cut grass and raw dirt, a cemetery smell.
“Are you the Meechams?” said Linda. “Do you have something to communicate?”
The wind picked up, but just within our circle. Behind us, the candle flames burned bright and upright, steady pillars of light. Suddenly, the room cooled. Tiny shrieks, frightened shrieks echoed around me. The leaves dropped to the table, and I could almost see things fleeing.
“What is it?” She squeezed my fingers so tightly, I could feel bones grinding. “What’s happening?”
The room darkened. Whatever entered the circle of our arms emanated ice and anger.
“Don’t let go,” said Rachael to us. “Who are you? What do you want?”
“Did Merle kill you?” I blurted.
I felt the scream. I didn’t hear it. The rage had a flavor, like a cold railroad spike, all crusty and old and broken. Then, it slammed into me and I fell back, letting go of Rachael and Linda’s hands. I fell back, and as I pitched away a face swam before me for a blink, not long enough to name it, but long enough to see the emotion, the hate, the thousand black dots that held it together for a snap of time. My head hit the floor, clacking my teeth together sharply.
The candles blew out.
Afterwards, we sat on the couch, Linda on the left and Rachael on the right again. There’s wasn’t quite enough room for all three, but it didn’t matter because they were leaning on me and me on them, all shivering.
“That had to be Merle’s dad,” said Rachael. “It felt male.”
“Couldn’t it have been anybody, Rachael? Why would it be someone we knew?” I asked. Inhaling hurt.
“A séance establishes connections. The spirits who come are always attached to the members of the circle. Besides, we were trying to evoke him.”
Linda said, “I don’t want to do that again.” She took a shaky breath.
Rachael’s arm wrapped around my shoulder. Her hand rested on Linda’s head. “I’ve heard about séances that attracted dangerous spirits. I guess good intentions don’t protect you.”
My chest ached. Whatever came at me hit me just above the breastbone. If I looked in a mirror, I bet that there would be a bruise, but I was happy.
And I was happy walking to my car after we made our goodbyes. Whatever forces ripped through Rachael’s house hadn’t touched the evening, which had settled into a pleasant warmth. A streetlight filtered through the maple’s broad leaves, twinkling like bright sodium stars, and the distant cars humming soothed me. I didn’t know for sure what happened in Rachael’s house. I didn’t know if Merle Meecham’s parents visited us, or if we’d released a malevolent force, but for the first time in my life I knew, I really knew, that there was another side. What I’d been hoping for my mother was there. If dead people’s angry remnants could spin leaves or knock me flat on my back, then my mother might have gone on too. My existentialism’s atheist component would have to be reexamined. Questions might be answered.
I would have never believed that seeing a ghost could be so relieving.
--to be continued in Harvest: part 2--
This story originally appeared in Alembical.