I was drunk. The shaggy man with the body order and sweaty armpits had been pushing up on me all night and probably slipped something into my drink. I might have hallucinated the whole thing. But could I have imaged the wailing siren? The flashing red lights from the ambulance? Could I have imaged giving my statement to the police? Could I have imaged those cold mud-crusted feet hovering from above, grazing my face as I stumbled into my neighbor’s yard trying to find my way home?
They zipped the body up in a large black bag and pushed it into the back of a van on its way to the hospital morgue. The police could have arrested me, charged me for being heavily intoxicated outside, but the trauma of seeing a young child hang himself saved me. I slurred my address, pointed to the dark house across the street. They carried me home, laid me down on my stomach on the living room couch. There, I awoke the next morning and realized the boy wasn’t dead.
His clouded, gray eyes peered at me through stringy, blonde hair. He wore a wrinkled white t-shirt and basketball shorts. His skin was so pale, it blended with his clothing. What stood out was the purple ring around his neck, created by the shoestring that strangled him underneath the ice-covered tree branch. He could barely hold up his head, similar to the struggle of an infant trying to sit. He looked so short and frail, but when I asked him his age, he mouthed, “Sixteen.”
I thought I was dreaming. Maybe that was why I didn’t immediately scream and flee out of the front door. Instead, I rose from the couch and tried to touch him, confirm that he was real, but he drew back, dodged my questioning fingers, and disappeared behind the naked Christmas tree in front of the window facing the scene of his suicide. I tried to follow him, but all of the alcohol from the night before rushed to my head in search of an exit through my ears or eyes. The red and beige zigzags in the carpet twisted my stomach into knots. I toppled over to the burn of the carpet’s fibers against my nose and cheek.
The office lights were too bright. The white cells of the spreadsheet absorbed the numbers I’d just entered and glared into my brain. I could taste my breakfast, a hazelnut latte, at the back of my throat. I pulled the trashcan from underneath my desk, laid my head down on the edge, and leaned over the trashcan, prepared to heave up the rest of my stomach.
“So how about that Christmas party, huh?” I heard my co-worker say.
I raised my head to see Charlette standing over me. She was a petite blonde who was as skinny as my pinky finger. A temp five years out of college, but she had the voice of a three-year-old.
“Hey, Charlette,” I said.
“You look like you’re still hung over!” Her shrill voice vibrated against my skull.
“It’s been a long weekend.” I massaged my eyebrows.
“You were dancing with Danny from finance most of the night.” She nudged my shoulder and winked.
“Not by choice.” I rolled my eyes, searched the office for a way to escape the conversation. The cubicles were quiet. Other than an occasional “Southland Rentals?” in response a ringing phone, I would have believed that Charlette and I were the only ones there. Most were already off for the holiday. The rest of us had to work up to Christmas Eve. Customer service—the boss so sure there would be last minute orders placed that he couldn’t be here himself.
We weren’t the only souls in the office. Every sudden chill, every attack of goose bumps, every time the hairs on my neck and arms stood on end as a current of static electricity surfed through them, I knew he was there with me.
I wasn’t ready to admit that I had a ghost following me. The only spirit I believed in was the Holy One, and I had no confirmation that the boy was really dead. I had woken up early that morning, five o’clock, just to watch the news, hoping the reporters would reveal information about the boy hanging from Mrs. Nash’s tree. I didn’t have the convenience of asking her. She was spending the holidays in Georgia with her daughter. Any other neighbors were busy, working parents who barely had enough time to worry about their own children, more less come to the door to talk about someone else’s dead child. Unfortunately, the news was of no avail either. Maybe that segment came on while I was in the shower, or down on my hands and knees, searching underneath my bed for my other pump.
“Well I saw you two leave together—”
“Did you hear about the kid who killed himself Saturday night?” I interrupted.
“No! That’s horrible! Where did you hear that?”
“I just…I heard,” I said. The evidence, or lack thereof, pointed to my encounters Saturday night and Sunday morning being nothing more than dreams.
The bar after work was a mistake, but I needed the whiskey. I needed the burn in my throat to kill the haunting feeling that I was being watched. Unfortunately, I gained another pair of eyes. They were green and belonged to a dark skin man with one dimple that made his smile look like a mischievous smirk. He was disgusting—the way he ran his tongue along his front teeth and bit his bottom lip whenever he made a suggestive comment about what other hard things, besides brown liquor, my throat could take. He put his arm around my chair and breathed words of encouragement into my ear, so confident that his one-liners would hike up my skirt. I wanted to retch my response all over his face, show him how lattes and take-out Chinese food tasted after festering at the bottom of the stomach for seven hours.
The whiskey had other plans. It invited him back to my house, challenged him to test the limits of my strong throat. The whiskey took complete possession of my body. I could see myself in the mirror biting on his neck and shoulder as he nearly ripped the zipper off my pencil skirt. He threw me onto the bed and fumbled to unbutton his belt. I looked at his reflection in the mirror, hypnotized by his mahogany skin, and the gyrations of the muscles in his back as he moved. When he bent over to drop his pants, I saw in the mirror, standing directly behind me, another person in the room with us. Immediately, I screamed.
“He’s big isn’t he?” he said, looking down in adoration of himself.
“You …you have to go!” I scooped his pants off the floor and shoved them into his chest.
“Intimidated?” he asked laughing.
“Now!” I threw him out of my house with his pants still in his arms. He wasn’t the least bit embarrassed about being naked outside. He proudly strutted to his car, proclaiming to the world a false victory. I slammed the door behind him and stomped back to my room. The boy was sitting on my bed, his chin in his chest.
“So you only show up when I’m drunk? Is that it?” I asked him. I shifted all of my weight onto my left leg and place my hands on my hips.
He slowly lifted head and stared at me with wide eyes. He looked heartbroken.
“I’m sorry.” I sighed and dropped my arms. “You just…please, you look so sad. Are you depressed? Of course, you’re depressed. You killed yourself. I mean—” I was rambling.
He slowly stood to his feet. I rushed to the bed and knelt in front of him, almost touching him.
“Why did you do it?” I asked.
He walked around me.
“Did your parents divorce? Do you blame yourself?” I continued.
He paused at the doorway but didn’t turn around.
“Are you homeless?” I asked.
He started down the hallway toward the living room. I followed behind him on my toes. He was so silent, I felt like I was disturbing him.
“Are you gay? Did kids tease you at school?”
He stopped in front of the Christmas tree, which still had not been decorated. He looked it over from top to bottom and reached up to pinch the top branch.
“It’s not real,” I said. I’d bought the tree at Wal-Mart on Black Friday along with blue and white lights to go around it. The tips of the branches were white to give the allusion of a dusting of snow. I was on my way to the checkout when I’d spotted silver-glittered snowflake and icicle ornaments and bought four boxes each. They were a perfect addition to the winter wonderland theme I had planned for my Christmas decorations. I was going to prove my mother wrong. She often joked that people could tell I was single and without children because my house always stood dark during the Christmas season.
Unfortunately, in the time between exiting the store, and entering my house, I’d lost my motivation. Instead, the decorations adorned the coffee table for four weeks. The only reason I put the Christmas tree up was because I was sick of seeing the bulky box on my couch.
“I know it’s late. It’ll probably be next year before I get it decorated. But what does a Christmas tree mean, anyway? It’s not in the Bible,” I said with a weak laugh.
He looked translucent, his skin the color of glassine paper. I could see my brown curtains through him and feared he was about to fade away before my eyes.
“At least tell me who you are,” I begged. “Who you were?”
Without looking, he pointed to the coffee table where I had tossed the morning’s newspaper on top of the unopened Christmas decorations.
“The obituaries! Of course!” I shouted. I snatched the paper from the plastic bag and flipped to the obituary section, hunting for any name that didn’t sound like it originated in the 1920s. This was my final hope to prove I wasn’t imagining my haunting. I read throw the Beatrices, the Henriettas, the Homers, and the Kermits, until fell upon a Jason. Sixteen, first baseman on his high school varsity team.
I looked up at him. “Jason?” I asked.
He turned around, but the melancholy didn’t leave his face, a sad recognition of the life he once had. I continued reading. He left behind a grieving mother and three younger sisters.
“It doesn’t say that you killed yourself,” I said.
He curled his lips, as if to say, “Why would it?”
“Yea, I guess you’re right. The funeral’s tomorrow. That seems pretty quick,” I said, still reading. I considered going. Maybe that was what he wanted, why he latched onto me. Though our connection bore from a tragic event, maybe all he needed was a stranger to care about him after the world was rid of him.
“I’ll go,” I said to an empty room.
Read part two here.
Originally published December 30, 2015