Friday, January 16, 2009

Untimely (Full Story)

There are two major downfalls to my existence:

 1.) I’m 5’4” and I wear a D cup

 2.) I talk to dead people.

I can’t see them, like that kid from The Sixth Sense. Thank god. That would suck. But sometimes I can hear them. And when I can’t hear them, they talk to me in other ways. This morning, it’s a greasy wrapper from a .99 cent heart attack lunch, plastered to my face by the “wind”.  The wind has good aim.

I peel the paper from my nose, wipe the leftover grease off my forehead with my jacket sleeve, and examine it--180 calories, and the 18 is circled. He or she is eighteen. Half of a word is ripped off so that it just reads, Mac. Mac, 18. The dead don’t do details.

“So, Mac. Is that short for something? Mackenzie? McEntire? Mac-hole.”  A passerby on the street gives me a backward glance. I turn the collar of my jacket up around my ears and hunker down into it. The wind blows cold, but this time it’s not the ghost. September is always cold in Vermont.

I picture Mac: I’m guessing a tall, gangly boy with blonde hair and pale skin, hands stuffed into his pockets, walking beside me down the sidewalk toward the dog park. I don’t have a dog, but I like dogs more than people. Dogs don’t like ghosts. And less ghosts is always a plus.

A dried red and yellow leaf skitters across the street. It stops abruptly when it hits the center of the sidewalk. I stop too. The leaf floats up into the air, eye level. What is he doing?

“I know you’re there. You don’t have to do weird ghost shit to prove it.”

The leaf crumbles and floats down to the ground in tiny pieces. Sometimes they try to tell me how they died. It helps them go on to wherever it is they go if they just talk about it. If one person knows. Usually I can understand the message—shot, strangled, drowned. If this is one of those messages, I don’t get.

“You were crumbled to death?” I keep walking. The dog park is just ahead around the next corner. The sooner I get there, the sooner I am ghost-free for the afternoon. I’ll reach the gate and Mac will stop short. There won’t be many dogs there today, it’s too chilly, but the dogs that are in the park will go nuts for a few minutes until I duck inside and claim an empty bench. When they go back to doing dog stuff, I’ll know Mac is gone.

The wind blows harder, colder. I wish I’d worn a heavier coat. I walk faster, even though I know I can’t outrun a ghost. A blast of ice-cold air hits me in the face, like I walked through a wall of cold water.  I freeze, stand up straight. My nose hairs stick together when I draw a breath. God, it’s cold.

“I said I know you’re there.” If Mac is doing this, he is one beefy ghost. They usually only drop the temps by a few degrees. I feel like I just walked through him, but ghosts don’t work like that. “Can we talk later? It’s not a good time.” It’s a selfish thing to say --it’s not a good time for me to discuss your unfair death and help you move on to find peace.

Maybe that’s another downfall. I’m selfish.

The gate to the dog park is shut tight and it sticks when I try to open it. I shove it and it swings in. The people in the park aren’t huddled into heavy coats like me. I can see my breath but not theirs. There is an empty bench in the sun, near a young guy with a toy poodle at his feet. That’s my spot. The tiny dogs are the most insistent barkers.

Locking the gate behind me, I anticipate the loud barking that I know will come from the small pack of Rottweilers in the corner. I smile as I turn around, but no sound comes from them. Or the Yellow Lab in the sweater. Or the poodle. Or any of the other dogs.

My back straightens and goose bumps prickle my skin. Every pair of dark dog eyes settle on me. The dogs aren’t barking at the ghost like they should be. They’re frozen, staring at me. Or something behind me.

I swallow hard and turn around.

What I see when I turn makes no sense. I blink, and blink again, hoping that one of these times my vision will actually clear. But it doesn’t. What I see standing at the gate, fumbling awkwardly with the latch, is me.

“How the hell do you work this thing?” The me that isn’t me asks.

I look down at the gate that I know I just locked and wonder, did I have one of those Sixth Sensemoments? Did I imagine I pushed the gate open and shut it? But really I just walked through? Am I dead? I try to remember what I’ve done for the last few days, could I have been hit by a car? Slipped and fallen into a ravine?

The me that isn’t me looks at me, raises an eyebrow. I never knew how bitchy I look when I do that. 

“Hello, a little help here. Your hands are so tiny, how do you use these things?”

I think I can’t be dead. If I was, I wouldn’t be seeing myself, standing in the flesh, right? I’d be seeing some other poor kid that talks to ghosts. “Who...” No, wrong first question. I try again. “What did you do to me?”

I watch my right shoulder lift and settle back down. A shrug, but not my shrug, and I feel a tiny bit better. This is not me losing my mind and talking to myself. This is me, possessed... or something like that. 

“I don’t know exactly,” the other me says. “One minute I was trying to talk to you, and then you were being a bitch, and I got pissed. I tried to knock you down, but instead I ended up in here.” 

The dogs closest to us look back and forth between me and... me. They seem mildy confused, but not scared, which I guess means I’m not a ghost. Whatever this ghost did to me, I’m not dead. Although being without my body doesn’t seem promising. Maybe I should change that to I’m not dead, yet

“What’s your name? Mac?” I ask.

“Yeah. And I’m a guy by the way.” He looks down at my chest and twists my lips into a smirk. I see I look bitchy when I do that, too. “Don’t let the big boobs confuse you.”

Get out, Mac,” I say with as much venom as I can. 

He shakes my head slowly. “I don’t think so. I got something I need to do.” He struggles with the gate again. “Seriously, you’re not going to tell me how to open this thing?”

“Give me back my body!” Several of the closest dogs’ ears pull back and the poodle begins to whine. Mac doesn’t flinch.

“Fine, I shouldn’t be wasting time anyway. I got somewhere to be.” He turns and walks my body toward the road, looking both ways before crossing. I’m thinner from behind than I thought, and for a minute I can only watch myself in a sort of daze. This is so surreal.

My own voice snaps me back to the present. “You coming?” Mac calls over my shoulder. He doesn’t stop to wait, but walks into the woods that reach out from the sidewalk. 

I run to catch up. The ground feels strange beneath my feet, like it’s there but somehow less solid, hollow. Like if the world were silent, my steps would echo. Or maybe, I’m the hollow one, and the echo is me. I shudder and push the thought out of my mind. “Where are you taking me?” 

Mac ignores me and trudges deeper into the forest. It’s strange to see myself so determined. I look taller and tougher. It’s like getting a glimpse of the person I could be if I didn’t have to spend all my time hiding out in the dog park or my room.

The wind gusts through the trees and Mac shivers. I don’t feel anything at all. I reach for a fire red leaf that dangles from a branch and pull. It comes off, but I can’t really feel it. It has no temperature or sense of texture. It’s just there, between my fingers. I am in the world, but not a part of it, and it’s a scary place to be.

Bare branches scratch and claw at my face and Mac barely brushes them aside. “Hey, that’s my body you’re abusing,” I say. 

Finally he stops and turns to me. I stare into my own eyes, trying to read them. “You know,” he says, and my voice is flat, and surprisingly nasally. “You wouldn’t be in this situation if you just gave me a couple minutes of your precious time.” 

“You were freaking me out. Just because I can talk to ghosts doesn’t mean I want to. Sometimes I just want to feel alone, and not like invisible people are watching my every move.” 

“Look, I’m sorry,” he says. “I know this must suck for you. I swear I will give you your body back. I just have to take care of something first.”

He turns away from me and scans the trees slowly before touching the wide trunk of a giant spruce and ducking behind it.

“What?” I shout, following him. “What is so important that you have to hijack my body to do it?”

It only takes two steps into the clearing to get my answer. “Oh,” I say. And when no other words come, I say it again, but softer, the word slipping past the lump in my throat. “Oh.” 

“They’re still looking,” he says, extending my hands to the ground where a bright yellow backpack and red hoodie are obscured by autumn leaves. “They won’t find my body, though.”

I know exactly who this is, now. Mackenzie Crumb. Last seen wearing a red hoodie and a yellow backpack leaving school grounds two days ago. He didn’t show up to pick up his little sister waiting at the elementary school just a few blocks away. Police suspected he’d run away. He had a record for petty crime. The newscaster had used words like “troubled” and “at risk” to describe kids like him.

“Why not?” I ask, though to be honest, I’m not sure I want to know.

He pauses and with my own eyes looks up at me with such faraway pain that I shiver.

“Because,” he says, my voice stifled by emotion I’ve never felt. “There wasn’t much left when he was done.”

I don’t know how, but nausea twists in my gut. I’m sure I don’t want to know any more than that, but another question is hot on my tongue.

“If he was so careful, why is this still here?”

“That’s why I needed your help. With the news telling everyone what to look out for, it won’t take him long to figure he missed something.” He swings the backpack over my shoulder. “And this is what’ll get him. I mean, I hope.”

“How?” My voice doesn’t reverberate in my chest. It’s a soft, breathy thing that reminds me I’m not terribly substantial at the moment. That reminder is followed by panic. “Where do you need to take it?”

“Home. The police. I guess.” He starts walking again, in a new direction and as he does adds, “My phone has a camera.”

I follow, noticing again how strange it is to walk without feeling. I’ve never given much thought to what it must be like to exist in a world that basically denies that fact. I feel like a secret or a whisper and I desperately want my substance back. But how do you rush someone who’s trying to bring closure to his own murder? Asking “are we there, yet?” seems crass. Stupid and selfish.

Just ahead of me, my body stops moving. Just stops and grips the straps of the backpack tightly.

“What is it?” I ask, but Mac throws up a hand to quiet me and I realize he’s listening to something.

It doesn’t take much to make my new not-body be still and quiet. And then I hear it too. Someone else shuffling through the leaves. Not far from us. Mac turns slowly. On him, my face is a pale and solid, more serious than I think I’ve ever been. My own eyes focus on a spot behind me, but it’s not fear I see in them. It’s something worse.

“Hello, little thief,” says a grated voice from behind.

When I turn, the first thing I notice is his fat nose and skinny eyes. He’s in a hunter’s jacket and has big, meaty hands. His mouth is wet and his eyes excited or anxious or something else I don’t like at all.

Mac doesn’t say anything. His eyes fall to the ground and all the color drains from his lips. My lips.

“Run!” I yell, but he doesn’t respond. My body doesn’t move.

“Why don’t you give me that bag, pretty girl,” he says, taking a few steps closer to Mac.

“No!” I shout, wanting him to hear me and for just a second, I see their breath – Mac’s and big nose’s – hang in the air.

Mac still isn’t moving. My body shivers, but my hands are limp on the strap of the backpack and my eyes are still cast down. Big nose is grinning now and I’m sure I don’t care to know why. Moving around behind him, I raise my arms and push. A strange feeling passes over me as I move through him, like I’m falling and then bump.

When I open my eyes, there’s a big nose between them. My hands are two heavy clubs out in front of me, nearly resting on Mac’s shoulders.

I take a quick step back, falling to one knee because the feeling of being tall is too much to take right now.

“What?” I hear big nose gasping beside me. His confusion will buy us time.

“Mac,” I say in this new, thick voice. “Mac, it’s me. I have him so would you please RUN already?!”

The resignation flies from his eyes and he nods.

“Thanks,” he says before turning and tearing through the woods quickly, but awkwardly. Running with a D cup is a learned skill and he doesn’t have it.

Big nose is catching on. He’s throwing curse after curse at me and getting too close for comfort. Of course, being inside his skin is about ten thousand steps beyond even that. He comes at me and I run. Not after Mac, but in another direction. I run as fast as this body can take me, but just as running with D’s isn’t an easy feat, running with legs as tall as my usual body is isn’t much easier.

I only need to buy Mac time. Just enough to get to the police, to get that backpack and whatever’s inside it into the right hands, so I run as hard as I can for as long as this body can. He’s in good shape, I realize. My new legs don’t cramp and my new lungs don’t burn even after a few minutes. I keep going. Deeper into the woods. As far from Mac as I can get.

I don’t hear him behind me, but I feel the moment my back goes cold and then there’s a sensation of falling. For a moment, I think that I don’t know if I will survive so far from my body. Will I just disappear? Will Mac be me now? Did I give him enough time?

The falling sensation goes on and on and when I finally open my eyes there’s a police officer with his hand on my cheek and concern on his face. He relaxes a little when I shake my head to clear it.

“We called your parents,” he says, “they’ll be here soon. You just sit tight. Try not to worry about anything.”

“Yeah,” I say in answer, hoping to see my breath and knowing that I won’t.

On the floor beside me is Mac’s yellow backpack, in my lap his red hoodie, and in my hand a note scrawled on a piece of Vermont State Police stationary. It says, “Thanks for the rental. And thanks for everything else, too. –Mac”

Photo found on tumblr. Original author unknown.

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