A Paranormal Short Story
by Dominika Lein
I wonder about many things. Mostly, I wonder if wondering so much is normal. Mom tells me it is, but I wonder if she is lying to me in some noble attempt to make me feel better. I’m not sure why, so I wonder about that too.
When I wonder, I have a habit of walking to strange places, weird spaces, odd spots where I shouldn’t ever be. Starting since I was able to crawl, I’d wander into corners and wonder – as if illustrating the thoughts in my mind, my feet would move me somewhere, anywhere – and next moment I’d find myself in a stone quarry, or on a marbled mountain, where misshapen entities I’d never heard of swarm in restless meditation.
I have stayed at the mountain long enough to sketch their contortions in my journal. The weakened binding of my raggedy tome is duct taped, the pages are damp from rain and tears – but I don’t want to ask for a new one. Mom was upset that this one cost so much.
“Why does cheap paper cost so damn much?” were her exact words when I placed the journal on the conveyor belt, watching as it passed through the plastic red nails of a primped checker.
I stare downwards, at the counter edge, too nervous to see the dead look in the stranger’s eyes – but it is a common expression for people in these jobs, so I already know it well – and the morose way her lips curve down as she smacks on pink bubblegum.
All I think is how I want to write about her in crisp vanilla pages, maybe even attempt to draw her. At the time, I wonder why mom is worried about something like the price. She always told me, I “should get what I need”. Well, I needed that journal, but it’s hard to get money. She works so hard – harder than she should – harder than I ever could – for it.
I sit, crouched on a rock, overlooking a wide valley filled with blackened soil. Why do I feel guilty? Is it because after all my proclamations of how a journal would organize my thoughts, even enough to share with mom, that what was actually happening – after all that – after she agreed she’d stall seeing the school therapist if I did – after that promise, my journal is a mess, an absolute wreck?
If anything, I am certain that if I were to show this junk to her, she’d send me away to a white-walled building filled with crazies and bloodsuckers. An asylum, is it? Some sort of institution.
Maybe, it wouldn’t be so bad… if I didn’t like wandering so much. Mom and I both know that if I got stuck in a place I didn’t want to be, it wouldn’t be long before I’d sneak right out!
Still, I feel disappointed in myself. I lift the journal – realizing the pen I’d brought was out of ink – then watch as heavy globular forms cross the misty horizon. Are they in my eyes? Inside of me? Somehow, someway? But surely, they can’t be walking outside of me. Other people would know of them too then, wouldn’t they?
“They’re having a student gallery show at the end of the year, Perry should enter his art. I’m sure it’d fit right in.”
I avoid looking at Ms. Galloway as she ‘supports’ me, as she calls it, while mom saves me from detention again. Ms. Galloway likes to think of mom as her friend. She grooms her hair in a similar way and smiles too bright whenever mom speaks. I look at the ground as she tries to convince mom to stay. She gestures to a chair and moves to close the door.
“Demi,” She says too casually, as if offering mom a smoke or drink or cookies or something. I slip out the door before it shuts, escaping to the hall. Mom rejects the chair. Ms. Galloway pleads, “It’d really look good on his college application. You have to begin thinking about these things yesterday. We could talk. I have coffee. Please, stay,” she adds, “So, we can talk about his future.”
Unknown to Ms. Galloway, mom hates her. Mom despises the way the teacher copies her hair and pretends to be happy “like a goddamn barbie”, she grumbles the moment we are secure in our car, locked, hidden from the insanity of others.
Once we’re home, Mom asks if I’m hungry, but only once we’re inside with the door locked, safe again. We expose ourselves for fleeting seconds, like rabbits, between the car and the new apartment.
It isn’t new as in a new space built, it is just new to us. We moved into the complex’s ground floor a month ago. It is our third home this year and my least favorite. Our next-door neighbor, a veteran of some kind according to all the stickers and signs posted in his windows, hacks loudly during the night. The noise always wakes me when it is pitch-dark. Mom stays soundly asleep. I never want to wake her, so I wonder until she wakes. Then sometimes, I help make breakfast.
This Tuesday, an hour after mom left for work, I met a neighbor that was not the coughing veteran. I’d gone outside to stare at the sky. Fluffy charcoal clouds hung low on the horizon. I hoped the wind would blow them to ash, since I much preferred a wispy sky.
I’m not exactly sure where Hailey lives, but she acts like a neighbor, so I’m positive she is one. With shiny black hair tightly woven into dual braids, her eyes are a similar black.
Constantly, I found myself getting lost in them as she’d laugh about some little thing her friend did, to or for, another friend that I could never remember what it was originally about because I’d forget that words had meaning beyond the beauty of her pale amaranth lips when they moved and her eyes when they’d squint in response to her own impassioned storytelling.
She says she’s sixteen, I don’t believe her. She looks fourteen with her puffy cheeks and the way her voice squeaks when she’s too excited. I lie and say I’m sixteen too, to make it fair.
In the stale summer air, Hailey and I ate lunch together; two cheeseburgers from the corner place. Afterwards, we went for a walk around the pond. I held her hand. She didn’t pull away until we returned to the apartment. Watching TV, we drank sodas until mom came home. After a tired introduction, we moved to the floor so she could sleep on the couch and turned the TV down.
“Can I order pizza” I asked.
After fishing them from her jeans’ pocket, she tossed her phone and credit card at me with a weary snap of, “I’m sleeping.”
Taking advantage of the opportunity – because there were few chances in my life to entertain a friend – I ordered three large pizzas; pepperoni for me, cheese for Mom, and chicken-bacon-alfalfa-something for Hailey. Oh, and more soda, “so we’d have food for a while”, I told my new friend. I even ordered some beer because I know mom’d be happy if there was some in the fridge.
Hailey left before mom woke, after a few slices of pizza. She gave me her brother’s number and told me to call her. I didn’t tell her that I don’t have a phone, yet. I figured I’ll get one, if just to give her a ring.
I watched Battlestar Galactica until my belly was bursting and I couldn’t chew another bite without slipping into a familiar coma, holding the pizza near my mouth while crust crumbles onto my shirt. The numb feeling is nice because I can barely wonder when I’m that full and tired.
Mom wakes me when she turns the tv off, cleans the pizza boxes and tucks me in bed for the night with a kiss to my forehead.
I awake to coughing.
Careful not to also wake mom, I slip out of bed to wander.
It’s to the left on South St., four blocks before Ninth St., where mom’s favorite coffeeshop is. When I get to that street, I always smell an evergreen forest, but I imagine it is actually a magical forest. Pocketed away from sight, there has to be a magical forest from where the scent originates.
I follow the sensation, through the quiet town at night, wondering where it could be. Eventually, I wander right into the forest. Looming ancient trees gleam in silver moonlight, nocturnal howls of unknown beasts echo in the distance. I find my rock, an impressive stone, which I scramble on top to watch a shimmering moon-shaped lake. Had I been here before? Though I cannot recall, it feels like I have.
Tonight, I wonder about Hailey.
I wonder where she lives, who her mom might be, what she’s doing as I think of her – she’s probably sleeping – Why did she spend so much time with me? Why does she like me? Does she like me? I think so. It’s nice not to wonder so much about that.
I wonder about mom and whether she’ll wake while I’m gone, though she never does. I worry that she’ll lose her job with how she keeps getting tired. If she loses her job, we’ll lose our apartment and even though it is my least favorite, it is better than the car. Cars get so cold at night, I can never feel my feet. I prefer to feel my feet. Why is that?
After many hours of wondering, I wander home.
I climb into bed, careful not to wake mom. Her alarm goes off a minute later. She gets up with a groan. I pretend to sleep, having covered myself with blankets, until I hear the fridge open.
We have an hour together before she leaves for work. As I crack eggs, I try to tell her about my dreams, which is what I call my wanderings so that she won’t worry more than she needs to, but she says to write it in my journal so she can read when she gets home. I know she’ll be too tired and want to sleep, but I say, “I will” and give her a kiss on the cheek. She grabs her apron, fixes my hair, then leaves for work.
I wait ten minutes before I go outside with a plate of eggs.
It takes ten more minutes before Hailey shows. Her hair isn’t braided, instead two high ponytails bounce at the sides as she approaches. The bands that cinch the hair are of different patterns, one striped, one dotted. I offer the plate to her.
“No thanks,” she smiles, wandering ahead of me, down the sidewalk.
I like the way her hips sway, so I follow while admiring her in the morning sun. Tossing the plate into nearby bushes, I can always get more dishes from the free exchange. It was an ugly plate anyways.
We walk over the decommissioned train bridge that rattles when wind blows through the canyons. Every time it does, Hailey’s hair whips about and I swear, pollen rises from her to plant beauty in the shallow, dead river below. I tell her about my journal, that I don’t know what to write in it.
She pulls out an apple from her backpack and says I should “just write” what I “see and think”, after a pause and a bite, “and believe,” then, “Can I look at it?”
I don’t want to show her. Will the sketches frighten her? Maybe, they would scare her especially if she thinks the creatures exist purely in my mind. It would drive her away. She wouldn’t want to be my friend anymore. There’s no beauty in my drawings.
I eat the apple when she offers it, half-bitten. It stalls the topic long enough until it disappears.
We settle on a cliff where a river still flows. Watching the water currents underneath, there are a lot of sticks in the river today. I mention, “I wonder what it means.”
She laughs, “it means nothing” other than “the wind is strong”, but I wonder if something meaning nothing could possibly mean something different because after all, what does it mean when something means nothing… “that doesn’t make much sense at all”, I mutter.
Hailey is flustered; her puffy cheeks become vermilion-shaded as she starts to walk again.
I follow, tossing the applecore below. We walk down a ravine into some woods. I mention that the blackbirds flying in the sky look like a skull and what could that mean?
She tells me I shouldn’t think so much, that I might hurt my brain.
I admit, “that’s pretty solid advice”, even though I wonder what she means. Turning my attention onto her, she talks about a movie she watched the other day. Will we watch a movie together later?
By the time we get back to the apartments, Hailey says she has to go home and no matter how I beg, she ends up leaving me alone.
Feeling weak, I lock the apartment door and hide under the blankets. Pathetically, I hope mom gets sick and comes home early so that she could make tea or help me learn to draw well or something motherly. I curl, hugging my knees inside the fleece, and bawl.
I wake to coughing.
Mom is next to me in the dark, asleep. I slip out of bed silently, wondering what might have happened while I was sleeping. Looking around the apartment, on the couch there is a clean set of my clothes. I hurry over, stripping to my boxers and grabbing my night shirt. I just need my shirt since it goes to my knees. Slipping on sneakers, quietly, I sneak out of the apartment. I do not lock the door behind me.
I jog for a few minutes before slowing to my usual wandering pace.
Looking at the stars, I wonder how far away they are and why they shine so bright. A train echoes through empty streets. I wonder if it’s ever hit anyone before. Mom’s brother was killed by a train, though that was in the north part of the state. He’d been drunk with a gambling debt on his mind, not paying attention and wha-bam, not even a warning blare… least that’s what mom says – though she wasn’t there when it happened, so how could she know? How does a train conductor feel after he finds out he’s taken a human life? I think I’d cry. I never want to work with trains.
The grocery mart on Government Rd. and Sixth St. runs drug trades, so their back door is always open. They have a lot of security cameras, but I’m friends with the owner. I helped him earlier this summer, when he was drunk during one of those times when a fellow needs a true friend. He told me if I ever wanted anything, any time, to just come in and grab it – no matter what – and if “anyone gives you any grief, you tell them I want all complaints to go through me”.
So, I walk into the silent shop that is nearly darker than the night outside. Heading through the cold section, I collect five plastic-bottle sodas before walking to the counter to get a bag. I lean over to grab it when I hear a creak.
Looking around the shop, there doesn’t seem to be anything, so I try not to wonder… but I do, eventually turning to get a better look.
I hear another creak and though it sounds like settling floorboards, it strikes me as odd.
“Hello?” I find myself asking in a wavering voice.
A scraping on the floor reminds me of claws sliding about on wood, “Hello?” I repeat, twisting as I glance around the shadowed aisles and grab a plastic bag in the same motion.
Shuffling noises behind the counter startle me. I spin around too fast, dizzy as I see a shadowed figure. My eyes struggle to adjust.
I grip a soda bottle like it could transform into a gun, “I can be here!” I quickly explain, but the responding laugh is familiar and eases my mind, “Hailey?”
As the shadows form into shape, I see my neighbor and am relieved by the sudden switch from danger to safety in the situation.
Hailey laughs for a while, explaining through giggling bursts that she’d seen me leave and followed because she was bored, that I “scared so easy” and weren’t my legs cold with no pants? I grab a bag to stuff the sodas inside. My heart still flutters rapidly, but I am glad that Hailey is here.
We walk through the sleeping town. She tells me that she doesn’t like to sleep, that dreams are overrated, that the night was the best time to find the unseen. I offer her a Mountain Dew, she accepts with a smile.
By the time we reach the train bridge, our conversation slowed, wilting into silence as we sit on the edge in the center of the ravine. It’s too dark to see all the way below.
I joke that it is like an abyss to hell. Hailey laughs, causing me to feel confident. My tongue starts to give away secrets that I would never tell in daylight – of the creatures I see and the places I’ve been – of the things I’d been scared to tell her before.
Her laughter dies and she listens with a closed mouth, feet swaying. Have I made her uncomfortable? I should have kept them to myself. Mid-sentence, I stop talking. My worries overtake me as I stare down at the abyss.
Then, a flowery scent reaches my nostrils, the only warning before Hailey’s lips press against my cheek.
I heat up, looking at her through the night. She leans closer, kissing my lips. I lean back, though it is not from distaste, rather from fearful anxiety. That was my first kiss. Had she stolen it? Why did she kiss me? Did she really like me or did she feel sorry for me?
She places a hand on my thigh. I blurt out that I don’t think this is a good idea. Expecting scorn, instead Hailey laughs and retorts contrary opposition that “it’s a wonderful idea”. She tells me that I’m too sweet, “so innocent and pure, like spring”, yes, like when the new flowers are born and pollen blurs everyone’s visions for the better – that she wants to keep me, have me be hers. What does she mean by that? Why do her fingers dig painfully into my leg?
A bright light gleams in the distance behind her, distracting me. What is it? Soon, I figure it out.
I shout, interrupting, “Train!”
She retorts, “That is impossible, the bridge is decommissioned”.
I scramble to stand, pointing behind her, “Train!” I repeat as the circular pearl-colored light grows larger. She grabs onto my hand. Despite my attempt to pull her to start running, she is heavy as brick and I can hardly budge, “Hailey!” I cry, wondering why, “Train, train!”
The slate gray silhouette appears behind the light now, an ominous old freight with grills and bars, smoking with black ash. It drowns out my cries as it rushes closer, closer, over, past.
Shaken to the core, my body trembles as an icy breeze penetrates my flesh. My nightshirt dissolves. I am left in boxers, my hand still held tightly by Hailey. I stare at the darkness where the train had come from.
Hailey stands, “Come,” She pulls me along.
My stumbling steps are numb, my mind spiraling from what – I’m certain now – had to be a vision of sorts. We walk across to the western side, where the forest I’d wandered into waits. I recognize the looming trees and dimly mention it in garbled whispers.
“You really do scare too easily.” Hailey mentions as she hears me. I ask where we are going, she explains that we’re going home, but home is the other way. So, I ask again. She stops walking and turns to me, letting go of my hand to place hers on her hip. She reminds me, “I want to keep you and that is exactly what I’m going to do,” She shrugs off her coat, “Especially now that you have a new home, you should be more excited.”
I wonder what she means, but can’t formulate speech as I follow her through thickening forest. Beyond the trees, dogs bark to alert their masters that stray humans were wandering about.
“Perry,” Hailey turns, holding both my hands, “Will you marry me?”
I didn’t know what to say, so I say nothing. Looking at her, could I ever read your mind?
Her flesh agonizingly ripples away. I can’t stop watching the quickened decay of skin, then flesh, leaving nothing but a skeleton with a pair of eyeballs behind. The Hailey I’d known melted away before me. Forcibly staring at her black eyes, the only recognizable feature that reminded me of who she was, I exhaled a soft gasp.
“Don’t be afraid.” The skeleton said, but I was already letting go, already moving back, unpleasantly surprised. Pain ran through my shoulder as I rammed into a tree, moving around the truck and sliding down to my knees. Should I run? Would that make matters worse?
“Come with me,” she said, “I want to show you something.”
Reluctantly, I stand and follow.
In an instant, the forest turns into pitch black shadows. I can’t recognize the trees, or even my feet, then, the shadows melt to reveal an elaborate manor set at the top of a steep ridge. We take a step towards it, and instantly arrive at a gigantic rusty iron door. It creaks open.
With her skeletal arm wrapped around my elbow, she leads me in.
The house was like a crypt. No, not like. It is a crypt, as if we have gone underground and the night sky has been replaced with a ceiling of clay dirt. Catacombs of dust weave tunnels and remind me of ant dwellings. There are strange stones and markings, and beyond an engraved archway, the skeleton shows me to a room without a word, shuts the door and leaves.
I am alone.
Questions overwhelm my mind, unable to focus on just one. Why am I alive? Am I alive? Really? Am I being punished? Have I done something bad? What am I talking about, of course I have.
Where did Hailey go? Is that Hailey? Was Hailey really the Hailey I knew? Is this all a trick? Would she come back soon? Could she come back? Had she been destroyed by the monster inside? Who was she after all? Will the same decay happen to me?
My thoughts encompass everything hopeful and twirls negative predictions in between them. The agony in my mind far outreaches the throbbing injury on my shoulder. Tears trickle down my cheek, but they evaporate quickly.
Drawing my knees to my chest, I curl into a ball and hope it is a dream.
I don’t know how much time passes – hours, days, weeks – wondering about everything I’ve ever known and anything I didn’t know. Eventually, my face and ears burn, my body quivers from neglect. I close my eyes to think of mom. Did she know I was gone? Would she care? What would she think had happened? Was there a decomposing body of mine left behind? What if I disappeared entirely from their memories? What if I simply didn’t exist anymore? At least, not in that world? – I didn’t know which was sadder to me.
Then, one day, or night, or whenever it was, my thoughts stopped.
They stopped. I wasn’t sure what to make of it because I couldn’t think about it anymore. I stared at the wall and thought nothing at all. Funny, now that I understood what nothing was and I didn’t have to think about it. Perhaps, Hailey would return soon. Maybe this was all a lesson to teach me this understanding.
I look to the door. Scratching at the flat side, I push at it, then pull at it. When nothing works, I cross my arms and sit back down. Thinking nothing else for one more second, I chew at my fingernails until a flood of thoughts and ideas barrage my mind. I cry out.
My cry echoes as if a hundred and one souls scream back. I cover my ears. The door is trembling with vibrations. Breathing heavily, I look around before calling out this time, “Help! I don’t want to be here!” I cannot wander here, I cannot wonder.
There is a thud on the door.
I step away, flinching as another thud lands.
The next thud splinters the door into a bent shape, then the final one smashes it through and a gruff man with an eyepatch stands above it. In his sweaty fist, he holds the engraved hilt of a magnificent hammer. I stare at what has to be an apparition.
“Perry?” The man asks in a low voice. He is wearing military gear, “Is that you?”
“Who are you?” I squeak.
“I’ve come to bring you back to your mother.” He explains, grabbing onto my bicep and pulling me out of the room, “We’ve got to move.”
I let him drag me, or don’t have the energy to fight, glancing around the dark hallways – and how did I not notice before that they were lined with skulls and bones and corpses and were those eyes following us? Looking away from the gruesome interior decorating, I kept my eyes on the old man leading, “Who are you?” I ask again.
“Your neighbor.” He barks back, then holds out a hand, stopping suddenly. When I hear him cough, I get it.
“Oh.” I chuckle hoarsely.
“What’s so funny?” He growls, but doesn’t wait for me to answer as he starts to walk again.
The shadows seem to dance in front of us, not attaching to our bodies, spiraling in odd formations and patterns, “So distracting!” I mention, which causes the veteran to look down.
A blast of cold air hits us squarely in the front. We both come to a halt.
Squinting, I watch as the shadows twist into the skeletal form – the eyeballs are Hailey’s – but garbed in a misty black robe that makes me nauseous. Looking away, heat rises. I, instantly, feel dizzy.
“Oh, no, you don’t!” screeches Hailey, “Not again.”
I feel the hand leave my bicep and sink to the floor in a daze. The old man has gone to fight with the skeleton. I’m too dizzy to notice, vision blurring as I sway, barely sitting up.
But soon enough, I am being lifted. By who? I hope it is the old man. I just want to be back in bed, pretending to sleep before mom wakes. Clinging tight, I mumble, “who are you?”
“Your mom sent me down here, was adamant I bring you back.”
“No, what’s your name?” I ask.
“Names aren’t important,” He pauses, then adds, “Herman, though. You can call me that.”
I’m relieved, feeling light as my energy drains entirely. “Herman… thank you.” I drift to sleep.
“Don’t mention it.” He grumbles.
I open my eyes to mom standing above me. As soon as I register who she is, she gathers me into a tight embrace, “Oh my god,” She gasps, “Don’t scare me like that, ever, ever again!”
“Herman said he found you passed out in the mart? All the way in town?” She pats my face, as if searching for hidden wounds, “Are you okay?”
“Uhm,” I sit up, rubbing my eyes, “Do we have pizza?”
She smiles, “We have some leftovers, but we can order too.”
I nod, laying back down, “Then yeah, I’m going to be just fine.” I smile, “I’m going to sleep some more now.”
“Okay, hun, you do that.” She kisses me on the forehead, before folding her apron and placing it on the chair.
As I drift to sleep, I hear her call into work – today, she’s vomiting too much to go in. The next call she makes is to the pizza place for two large pepperoni pizzas. She sings a lullaby while waiting for it to arrive.
I am home, but when the shadows come… will I see Hailey again? I try not to wonder anymore and drift back to sleep.