I lean out of the window of the drive-thru, lighting Jared’s cigarette. The flame of the lighter brightens his face in the dim moonlight for just a moment, before it fades out and he returns to darkness. I had just closed the store- alone, again-
“Still can’t believe I worked here for 3 years,” he says. Jared used to be my manager here at Burg’s Burgers, ‘best burger in Huber county.’ I’ve been working here for 2 years myself. I was never interested in being a manager, though. “You been promoted yet?” he asks.
I shake my head. “I saw your work. I ain’t interested. A dollar raise for twice the work is bullshit.”
Jared laughs. “Yeah, it is, but you get more hours as a manager.”
I shrugg. “I pay my bills as it is.”
“I’ve got forty dollars worth of groceries in my trunk that says otherwise,” Jared chuckles.
“Ha ha,” I reply. “Look, I pay my bills just fine except when a pipe bursts and my landlord is too much of a shit to get it fixed properly.”
“I don’t mind, kiddo,” he says. “Better forty bucks in your mouth than forty bucks in a bottle. Your poverty is my sobriety.” Jared does a small curtsy mixed with a bow.
“Very glad my desire to not starve will help you get over your crippling alcoholism,” I jab. Jared’s not really an alcoholic. His philosophy is that-
“There ain’t shit to do in this town besides get drunk and fuck. I don’t fuck anymore, and I slacked off on the drunk part in college.”
“Just pick up a weird hobby. Start a podcast. All the cool kids are doing it these days,” I reply.
He snorts. “If I wanted to get into radio, I would’ve done it years ago. Not my speed.”
Jared is the kind of guy who has too many stories to tell. He’s hard to get a read on sometimes. He apparently went to an Ivy League college- though he’ll never say which- because he got a perfect score on his SAT back in 1987. He spent the whole time investigating corruption at the school and used it to blackmail a lot of money out of them for his silence. I would doubt the story, but after I got to know him I realised he has the money to back it up. His claim is that he lives in this shit town, Junton, because it helps him lay low. Lots of people are looking for him, apparently. He buys me groceries and helps with my bills when I need it. I see him as my rich, gay uncle. He once offered to pay to get me out of this place, all expenses covered. Anywhere in the states I wanted. Said “A queer kid like you shouldn’t be wasting your days in bum fuck nowhere.”
I want to get out, yeah. I just don’t think I could explain to him what I mean by that. I’m not entirely sure I understand it myself.
“If we’re doling out advice,” he continues, “I think you should get out of Junton.”
“I plan on it,” I say.
He shakes his head. “That shit’s a myth, Mirim. You think I haven’t gotten bored and gone on a bender out in the woods before? Or even searched for the ghost sober? Shit ain’t real. I even got one of my contacts in cryptozoology to help me seek it out. Those missing persons cases are probably some awfully wily coyotes. You ain’t gonna find it.” He takes a long drag off of his cigarette, and blows it into the wind. It’s September, and the season is just beginning to change. The wind is cold, and I’m glad I’m still inside the store.
“I’m going to seek out the ghost tonight. I’m going to find it. I can feel it. I can’t explain it, but there’s something deep inside me that tells me that I’ll find him.” At this point I realised how tightly I was gripping the edge of the window. I loosen my grip.
Jared doesn’t seem to notice. He sighs. “So it’s a him now? You grow magic ghost gender sense?”
I shrug. “I guess so. He’s a ghost and his name is Matthew Matthias Matt… Yeah. That’s it.”
Jared roared with laughter. “Alright. So you plan to just walk out into the woods and find a ghost?”
I nod. “S’not like the woods are that big. Can’t really get lost in them. I mean, you got drunk in them and you still got out.”
Jared sighs. “You work tomorrow?”
“I do. Well, if I prove the legends to be true, I won’t.”
He shook his head. “You’re going to hate yourself on shift tomorrow.” Jared takes one last drag off his cigarette before flicking it to the ground and snuffing it out with his boot.
“You’re not gonna stop me?” I ask.
“You’re an adult. You can make your own mistakes,” he says. He shakes his head. “It was good talking to you, Mirim. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“And if you don’t,” I reply, “You’ll know that I succeeded.”
Jared smirks at me. “I’ll call off the search parties after a week. If you haven’t turned up after then, I’ll know you succeeded. Good luck, kiddo. Maybe this is what you need.” Jared turns and walks away from the fast food joint. He doesn’t drive over, even though it’s a 20 minute walk at 2 AM. Then again, I would probably walk too if I had as much time to waste as he does.
I locked the drive-thru window, primed the alarm, and left the store. I got into my car, and drove to the other side of town. That’s where the forest was. The forest was technically off limits, but no one really enforced it. You’re supposed to get approval from the city if you want to stay, but the problem is that everyone likes to go ‘camping’ sometimes, and the forest is just far enough away from the city to feel like you’re really in nature. There are fire pits built into clearings that are very clearly meant to be used for camping, too. The city should just open it, but because of the missing persons cases, they know if they did it would cause legal trouble.
The last time someone disappeared was 4 years ago. That’s about how long it takes before another person disappears. Every 3 or 4 years, someone new is gone. Hopefully tonight that person will be me.
I get out of the car, bringing a flashlight with me. I always keep one in my car, just because Junton’s street lights aren’t great. It’s never a good idea to walk around the city at night without some light. Less so because I think someone will attack me, but because there are coyotes sometimes. Jared is right about that.
I wander the forest for about 30 minutes before I figure I’ve covered it from end to end. I sigh. It’ll be a long night if I’m just going to walk back and forth like this, over and over.
Another hour passes with nothing new happening. Then another. I lap the forest another three or four times before I sit down to take a break. I’m not as in shape as I used to be. Walking for a couple hours straight wears me out.
I sit against a tree and just catch my breath. It’s honestly pretty cozy right now, just sitting here. The warmth of summer hasn’t entirely faded, and the trees prevent the cold winds from reaching me. I close my eyes and sigh. “This was a waste of time, wasn’t it?”
Even still, I’m not ready to give up. I just want to rest a while.
“Heeeeeey, Mirim,” he whispers. He’s lying next to me, whispering in my ear. “You’re alone out here, huh? Out in the woods?”
I nuzzle into his chest. “Not alone if you’re here,” I mumble.
“Mm. You’re making some assumptions about why I’m here,” he says.
Suddenly I remember. I don’t love him anymore. My legs remember the pain. I jolt away from his body and try to run, but he grabs my ankle and I fall.
“You can never get away from me!” he roars. “I own you!”
I roll over, panicked, to look at him. There was hatred in his eyes. There was death in his eyes.
I’m frozen. He drags me close to him and lifts me up. I’m now face to face with him. He whispers one last thing in my ears: “You will be ruined.”
I scream. I’m awake. He’s not here. I pull my legs into my chest and just cry.
Eventually, the sun is beginning to rise again and I figure I should give up the search and catch some sleep before I have to go to work again.
I head back to my car, groggy and tired. I hadn’t slept in way too long at this point, and the night was a waste. Whatever that feeling was earlier has faded by this point. That strange itch is gone, and now I’m just kind of here. Jared was right, I would hate myself by tonight’s shift.
I kind of hate that I’ll have to admit that he’s right tonight. I mean, I guess I can take satisfaction in knowing that we didn’t leave any weird loose ends between each other open, but still. I want to get out of this reality. It feels awful and-
My bones itch. I want to dig beneath my skin and scratch. My hands are shaking and my breathing is ragged. I slowly turn around. There’s nothing behind me. I keep turning. There’s nothing near me at all. The trees are gone. I’m standing in an empty field.
I continue my rotation, and am greeted by something huge looming over me. It looked like a ragged curtain, but there were two long, branch-like arms stretching out to either side and antlers on top of it. Below the antlers was… a head. Of some kind. However, the eyes it had were piercing. They saw more than I ever could. My spine began to itch worse than the rest of my body.
“What might you be?” he says. It’s him. I’ve met him. The ghost.
Claiming he said that is kind of generous, but I don’t know how else to relate the way that he talks. Some kind of sound comes out of his body, and it’s definitely not english, but I can understand it. The sound causes the itch in my spine to crawl up to my neck. It feels like my own blood is crawling around like an insect underneath my skin.
The ghost leans towards me. “What are you?” it asks. It reaches out to me, and I reflexively move away. My body wants nothing more right now than to not touch him. Yet, I can’t just run. I found him.
“My name is Mirim,” I say. I stick out my chest and stand proud.
“That was not the question,” he replies. “I want to know what you are.”
I glance around again. There still isn’t a tree anywhere nearby. I have no idea where we are. “Um… I’m a human. That’s what we call our species. Our scientific name is Homo Sapien, if that means anything to you.”
Even in a crouch, the ghost is still floating above the ground. The way that his body contorts to allow him to bend down while still keeping all of himself from touching the earth below is boggling. The itch gets stronger, but I continue to resist.
“Human is a poor name for a creature,” He says. He rises back to his full height. “You should consider a new name.” He turns and floats away from me.
I’m absolutely speechless. How do I even respond to that? The ghost begins to move away from me, and I have to react. “Wait!” I call out.
The ghost stops moving and turns back around. “That’s a rather stiff word,” he says. “‘Wait.’ I suppose your mind doesn’t know of something softer. That is alright.” He closes the distance between us. “What might you need from me?”
“Well,” I begin. There are stories about you.” I felt embarrassed. “There are stories that say if you wander the woods, you might run into a ghost, and that the ghost will spirit you away from here. I wandered these woods searching for you. I want you to take me away.”
He makes a sound, one that causes my ears to feel like they were rubbed against the concept of metal scratching metal. I suppose it’s supposed to be laughter. My spine burns. “I am a traveler. That is true. I have never met one of your kind before, however. Interesting story. Perhaps there are other travelers near your home. I know for certain that it was not me.”
I stare at the ground. Really? Other travelers? But there have been disappearances for the better part of two decades. There’s more than one ghost?
“Have a seat,” he says. “It seems you have much to talk about, and I am very curious.”
I look up, and the trees are back. We’re in the forest again. The shadows shift. They taunt me. I look around, and there’s a foldable chair some camper must have forgotten. I sit down. The ghost seems to take a stance that’s more relaxed as well, but he still floats.
“Why do you want to leave?” he asks.
“This world sucks. I hate it,” I tell him. Things feel more clear now that he’s here and I’m actually saying them. “Everyone hates everyone for arbitrary and worthless reasons. I’m oppressed and so are many others, just because we aren’t some ideal model of human being. We have to work our hands to the bone to afford the things we need to live, but the people who pay us to live own more than I can even comprehend.”
“So why not walk somewhere else?” he asks. “This sounds abnormal, as you would put it.”
This time I laugh. “No, that’s the worst part. It’s entirely normal. You can’t go anywhere without dealing with it. Worse yet, even if I did try to go somewhere else, there are laws restricting that, too. I’d need a passport, and even more money to afford to uproot my life and move somewhere else. People could still very easily hate me, even if I could. The issue isn’t this place, it’s everything.” I felt weird and childish explaining this to the ghost. It was something that was so simple to me, something I understood so well, that I felt like I was telling a toddler why they shouldn’t eat their fingers.
“This is not how this works,” he says. “You don’t leave your world because it is broken. Your eyes wander. What are you trying to escape?”
I gasp, involuntarily. I thought I saw him again. It was just a bush. The ghost is right.
“There’s a man,” I say. “He’s a cruel man. I thought I loved him, once. I tried to, at least. I wanted to. He… he hurt me. He still does.”
The ghost leans towards me, and nods. His eyes still pierce me, but it feels like they only do so to get deeper. They crave to find more, not to carve.
“He died last year. He was killed. I know a different guy. He put the man into the dirt. I’m grateful for that, but I think that even being in the same plane of reality as this man’s bones haunts me. I can’t do it anymore, I can’t!”
I sob again. I throw my face into my lap, and cover my head with my arms.
The ghost sighs- I think. It sounds like nails on a chalkboard. It’s soothing, still. It feels mature. Like a mother doting after her child. “Your wounds go far deeper than what this world could create. This reality is your pain.”
I feel his hand on my shoulder. It hurts. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
“You may come with me,” he says.
I sit back up. He moves his hand off of my shoulder, and reaches out for me. “You can heal. You might return. You might not. But you will leave. It is what you want. This is what you need.”
Something about this ghost reminds me of Jared. He’s gruff. Cold. At the same time, he’s comforting and understanding. He’s the kind of sore you feel after working out. You hate it at first, but you learn to appreciate it. It’s good for you.
I stand up and wipe my eyes. My shoulders hurt, my spine feels like it’s going to rip itself out, and emotionally I’m exhausted. “Thank you, Ghost,” I say.
He leans his hand further towards me. I take it. “You are welcome.
The world loses a Mirim, but I think that’s okay.