By: Eric Anderson
I’ll save you the shouting, arguing, more shouting and “Caroline Mary Blake we are so disappointed in you”s that I received from my lovely mother and father that evening. Long story short, I went to a party the night of my college graduation and drank a lot. And when I say a lot, I mean—well… alcohol poisoning wouldn’t exactly be an inaccurate description. My parents were there when I was brought to the hospital. You should know that they aren’t even the occasional-glass-of-wine-with-dinner sort of people, so you can imagine the level of their disapproval. Considering that my father was running for local office, they wanted this kept quiet. So quiet that I was to be sent away to stay with my grandmother for the entire summer. I was supposed to “think about what I’ve been doing with my life” while they insured I wouldn’t be causing any further drama during my father’s campaign. I haven’t told many people the real story of what happened to me that summer, so consider yourself lucky.
My grandmother lives in a little middle-of-nowhere farming town called Pill. I have no idea how my mother could have stood being so isolated from the rest of the world while she lived there. The next morning my parents shipped me off to Hickville, Alabama with cold stares and a suitcase. As I drove into the population-barren and poor-excuse-for-civilization of a town, I pushed a strand of my hair behind my ear and stared out the window. Wheat stalks stretched for miles and beyond them were dense forests of greenery. The town was supposedly known for being one of the few wheat-growing areas of the state and having the only major hospital in a hundred-mile radius. The occasional cotton field and cattle ranch popped up intermittently, but in general the town was mostly covered in wheat. It was kind of pretty though, as the sun glittered off the tops of the stalks and the breeze created ocean-like waves in the fields extending past the horizon. It didn’t take much longer for me to reach my grandmother’s ranch. A big white porch with chipped paint greeted me as I dragged my suitcase across the dirt. The door swung open before I knocked—my grandmother stood in the doorway. She looked exactly the same since I last saw her five years ago. She was a fairly tall woman with long gray hair, ceaselessly welcoming eyes, and a smile warmer than a morning cup of coffee.
“My goodness you’ve grown, dear,” she said in a Southern melted butter accent.
“Oh… thanks,” I replied. Awkwardly.
“Come, let’s get you settled in,” she said as she ushered me in.
She seemed really happy to see me. I wondered what my parents had told her. I didn’t care to ask though. I followed her down a long hallway—pictures of my mother as a girl adorned the wall alongside some of myself as a child. The inside of the house was well-kept and furnished with good southern taste. Numerous windows scattered all across the home gave it a more open appearance. My grandmother was famous for raising grade-A show horses, so the occasional whiney could be heard even from inside the house. She stopped in front of a polished wood door and opened it with a wide smile.
“This room was your mother’s,” she said, right before she left to let me get situated.
Windows covered the back wall, filling the room to the brim with calm sunlight. A large window seat was situated between them. I sat down on the bed which seemed to suck me in. A vanity sat in the opposite corner of the room. Above it were pictures of my mother holding hands with a high school sweetheart she never cared to mention and school sports team paraphernalia that covered a small portion of the tacky floral wallpaper. The dark cherry-colored floor squeaked slightly when stepped on, giving the room another added touch of character.
“Come along now, darlin’, it’s time for you to meet the boys,” my grandmother chirped from down the hallway.
I knew my grandma had ranch hands, but last time I was here they were way past retirement age. I followed my Grams out of the house and around back to the stables. The new workmen that looked about my age were unloading barrels of hay off an old truck.
“Beau, Gavin, Caroline is here and it’s long past break time anyhow!” she shouted.
“Hey there, name’s Gavin,” said one of the ranch hands with a grin as he walked over to me. His dark brown wavy hair barely moved when the wind blew, and if it did, it was in a graceful fashion. He dressed a little high-end for a ranch hand, and oddly never seemed to get dirty either.
The other ranch hand came right up to me, grabbed my hand and kissed the top of it. My mouth dropped in a what the… kind of way. “Well aren’t you a beauty, Carol never did say you were this captivatin’. I’m Beau.”
Gavin’s eyes rolled in disgust. Beau’s sandy-blond hair was cut so short you could see his scalp, his eyes were parted too far from each other, and his nose was just a bit too big for his face. His body was more muscle than just about anything else, including brain for that matter, but I guess you could technically say he was attractive. To some people.
“Umm… hi,” I muttered.
“Tell me sweet thing, are all city girls as pretty as you?” asked Beau.
“Are all country boys as unobservant as you?” I answered with a completely disgusted look on my face.
Gavin laughed so hard it seemed like he was going to die from suffocation—my Grams even let out a chuckle. It took a minute for Beau to get there, but he eventually came to realize his charms were ineffective and his expression matched that of a kicked puppy. He shot Gavin a glare before marching off like an upset toddler that didn’t get his way.
“I’ll let you two get to know each other, I’ll go see how the horses are doin’,” said my grandmother as she walked off in the direction of the stables, still with a light giggle under her breath.
“That was hilarious, I don’t think the big lug has ever been turned down like that. Did you see the look on his face?” laughed Gavin as we both walked into the barn.
“The women around here actually like him?”
“Have you seen the men around here? How the dumbass hasn’t impregnated half the girls in town, I will never know,” he answered with a wide grin as he found a seat on a hay bale.
“What about you? I’d think they’d go after you long before him,” I questioned while leaning against the door hinge.
“I guess you could say I’m not all that into women,” answered Gavin with a wink.
“I guess you could say I’m not into women either,” I chuckled.
Gavin laughed. It was nice to find someone to talk to, even if he did smell better than me on a daily basis. Gavin and I stayed in that barn till nightfall cracking jokes and talking about just about anything that came to mind.
The next morning, I entered the kitchen and was treated to a big home-cooked breakfast. When it came to cooking, my grandma went the whole nine yards. Tall stacks of pancakes topped with slowly melting butter, mountains of scrambled eggs, muffins and biscuits fresh out of the oven, and jars of sweet syrupy preserves decorated the table. I cleaned my plate, walked back to my room and grabbed my sketchbook from my bag.
“Grams, I’m going for a walk!” I yelled as I ran out the door with a leftover biscuit in hand.
I walked for what seemed like miles, past the stables out back, into the woods, and across a stream until I came to a clearing. Fully encompassed by forest was a large patch of wheat that by some happenstance found its way there. A large oak tree stood in the middle of the clearing with a branch stretched low to the ground that made for a contently comfortable seat in the shade. I sat down and went to work, with wheat as my inspiration. Drawing had always been my passion, even from a young age. My parents made me get a degree in business, something “practical” they said, but that didn’t stop me from minoring in art. Sun filled the clearing as I stared up at the sky between the tall arm-like branches of the tree. The longer I stared at it, the bluer it seemed to get, as if slowly saturating with color. Not a single cloud blocked the rays of the sun, but the summer heat was tolerable in the shade of the old oak. I drew, drew, and drew some more. I drew for hours, until well… something happened.
I fell backwards, letting out a shriek as my sketchbook flew up into the air and my back hit the ground with a resounding thud. I dusted myself off, picked up my things then looked up to see who was standing in front of me.
His blue eyes glittered in the evening light and were separated by a belt of golden freckles similar to mine. Light gingery-red hair slicked back to expose the entirety of his face and a smile almost as sweet as my grandmother’s effortlessly formed. He dressed in what looked like a fancy old-timey white suit with thin black stripes, probably vintage.
“That was quite a show,” laughed the boy. Something about the way he stared at me was off—almost as if he were watching me, not exactly looking at me.
“Come back later, I’ll give you an encore performance. On the house,” I said jokingly.
“You can see me?” he asked with a surprised expression.
“Oh—oh my! That must make me sound really weird—how do I explain? Uh… this would be the first time—I don’t want to scare the girl—well, anymore than I already have,” he rambled off to himself while pacing back and forth.
“Are you… okay?” I asked slowly.
“Well, I guess just straightforward telling her would be the quickest form of action,” he said as he continued to pace.
“Tell me what exactly?”
He stopped his repetitive cycle of pacing and looked at me for a moment. A light sadness formed in his eyes.
“Ok, here it goes… I’m dead, well sort of. I’m a ghost.”
“And here I thought the South was starting to get normal…”
“I guess there are worse responses to telling someone that. Please, I’m being honest,” he begged.
“I’ll just be going now…” I said as I began to slowly back away from him.
“Please don’t go! You’re the only one who’s been able to see me!” he yelled.
“Prove it then, prove that you’re not just some… creepy deranged… hipster!”
Fate then decided to promptly intervene by sending Gavin trudging through the forest.
“There you are! Carol sent me to get you, it’s almost time for supper, who’re you talkin’ to?” asked Gavin with a raised eyebrow.
“Oh, I’m umm… in community theater. Back home. I was just… getting an early jump on my lines for the fall performance. I’ll be along in a minute,” I lied through my teeth.
“Ok, but don’t take too long, Carol’s makin’ her peach cobbler!” shouted Gavin as he walked away.
“Told you so,” said the ghost boy mockingly.
“Ok fine. I believe you.”
He didn’t exactly look like a ghost, he wasn’t at all transparent, and his feet firmly met the ground.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“That’s pretty. My name is Nathaniel Pill, but you may call me Nate if you wish,” he answered.
“Pill? Wait… did your family found this town or something?” I asked.
“And it’s still as small as the day we got here,” he answered.
I laughed, and he smiled in response.
“I don’t mean to be forward, it’s just, well… I haven’t flirted with a girl in over a century. Would you maybe be interested in seeing me again? It doesn’t have to be here, I could go to your house to greet you or—”
“I think I’d like that actually,” I interrupted.
It was adorable how shy he was at first, he was always good at making me laugh, whether he was trying to or not.
“Then meet me here tonight, I’ll show you something amazing, but don’t get too dressed up,” he said with a smile.
I ran home as fast as I could. He might not be totally alive, but hey, he was attractive—and there wasn’t much else to do out here anyway.
I scarfed down dinner and hopped into the shower. I would have to wait until Grams went to bed, but thank God old people go to bed early. I tiptoed down the hall in hopes that my grandma’s thunderous snoring would cover up my escape. I closed the front door ever so slowly and then hightailed it to the clearing in the woods. Nate was there waiting for me, sitting on the low oak branch. I greeted him with a brief hug. He smelled lovely, like a light sweetly-refreshing musk. Could ghosts have scents?
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“You’ll see,” Nate smirked as he grabbed my hand and started to run.
Nate pulled me into a part of the forest I had yet to explore. Few trees surrounded us, letting the starry night sky illuminate the forest. In front of us was a thin river. The light of the stars above casted a dark cyan glow upon the water—its slow current almost begged you to stay and relax for a while. Nate stripped off most of his clothes and jumped in. I recoiled as water splashed me from head to toe.
“Come on in, the water’s fine,” he said, wading in the river.
“Turn around,” I playfully demanded as I gestured for him to look away and began to unbutton my blouse.
Nate smiled and rolled his eyes before turning around. I removed all but my underclothes and jumped in with a quick squeal. I came up out of the water and met Nate face to face. Fireflies circled overhead, searching for a mate as they glowed in the night.
“How did you know about this place?” I asked.
“I have a lot of spare time. When you die, you tend to lose most of your daily obligations,” he chuckled.
“So I’m the first person who’s been able to see you?”
“That sounds awful. Doesn’t that get lonely, Nate?”
“You get used to it pretty fast. There are other ghosts, so it’s not too bad. It’s complicated though.”
“Most souls who stick around have some need they have to fulfill before passing on. They usually aren’t here for long.”
“What’s yours?” I asked as I swam through the refreshingly-cool water.
“That’s a good question.”
“So you don’t know?”
“No. Some souls do, but not me.”
“So you’re just stuck here? Walking around without anywhere to go?”
“I’ve traveled a bit from time to time, but I grew up here. It’s still home—somehow. Plus, it did just get a whole lot more interesting around here,” he said with a wink.
“Oh… so you find me interesting?” I asked as I swam closer to him.
“How could I not?” he smiled while swimming closer to me, “you’re also beautiful.”
“So are you,” I replied as we stared into each other’s eyes.
Nate leaned in until our lips met. I wrapped my arms behind his neck and the warm summer night melted away from us like ripples on the pond, crossing the stars reflected on its surface.
For most of the summer I spent every waking hour with Nate. As time went on, we grew closer and closer. One July morning I woke up refreshed, though starving from the smell of fresh bacon loudly calling to me on a deeply-spiritual level from the kitchen. I hurried through the meal and kissed my Grams on the top of her head before I ran outside.
I ambled through the woods on the way to the wheat clearing. The forest seemed glad to see me. Bluebirds sang in harmonious notes and flowery vines extended from trees, almost as if to greet me. I sat on the low oak branch and waited for a brief moment before Nate seemingly appeared from the ether. I stood up and my smile grew larger as he approached. He put his hand under my chin and lifted it to meet his lips.
“I have a surprise for you,” he said, his tone more serious than normal.
“Is something wrong?” I asked.
“No, just… there’s something I want you to see,” he answered with a reassuring smile.
Nate put his arm around me and we walked back into the woods. The succulent smell of dewdrops on honeysuckle perfumed through the morning air. We walked for some time, cracking jokes and exchanging displays of affection.
“Where are you taking me?” I asked.
He paused for a moment and didn’t quite look like himself. Anguish drained the blue from his eyes, the smile from his lips, and the color from his cheeks. Hatred formed in the shadow of his gaze as he spoke, “To the place I died.”
“You don’t have to unless you—”
“I want to,” he interrupted me.
“Okay,” I whispered as I leaned my head on his shoulder in an effort to comfort him.
We walked for a little longer until coming upon the blackened skeleton of a spacious foundation in a wasteland of ash that stuck to my shoes. I looked at him, and it was as if he reflected what once was. A spiral staircase that stretched above the sky, apparent even before the entrance. Marble floors shining beneath our feet. Chandeliers that once hung from impossibly long golden chains and room upon room filled with love, wealth, and family.
“This is where it happened,” he began, “remember how I told you my family founded this town? It wasn’t exactly because we wanted to. We were running away.”
“From what?” I asked as I walked into the middle of what once could have been a luxurious ballroom.
“My father, he was a wealthy businessman, but he made some investments—investments that stepped on toes of the less law-abiding of his business partners. We received threats, so we packed up and moved to a place we hoped they would never find us. We tried to make a name for ourselves out here. We built this town from nothing. We hoped that someday it would be a prosperous town, maybe even a city. But they found us, woke us from our sleep, tied us up, and burnt down our home. With us in it. That’s how I died,” he explained.
“I’m sorry… and I don’t really know what else to say,” I said as I walked over to him and wrapped my arms around him.
“I just wanted… I don’t know, to tell it to someone who I knew wouldn’t disappear on me. You are the only living person that’s been able to see me.”
“I’m glad you showed me.”
A gust blew and scattered the ashes—the dust of the past flew around us.
That night when I returned to the house, I left my shoes on the porch and grabbed a wet rag from the kitchen to clean off the ash so I wouldn’t track it around the house. The stream I walked through on the way back must have taken care of it, because there was only a little dirt on my shoes by the time I got back to my grandma’s. I showered, then sat down in the window seat of my mother’s old bedroom, staring at the stars in the night’s sky until I grew tired and dozed off.
That August was exceptionally warm, sweat dripped slowly from my brow as I walked through the woods. Even the trees couldn’t block the heat of the brazen sun. By the time I reached the meadow of wheat, dark cumulus giants encroached on the azure sky.
“Caroline,” Nate called as he walked up to me with a bubbly grin.
He was happy. After all the time I’d known him, I became happy too. He brought a joy to my life that I could never explain. I knew I’d eventually go back home, and anxious thoughts filled my mind and tormented me while I tried to sleep. What about Nate? What about us? How would we continue to see each other? Would he come with me? Would I mind that nobody else could see him but me?
The wind picked up. Cold rain poured from above, trickling down my skin and wetting my hair. I walked over to Nate and wrapped my arms behind his neck.
“There’s something I need to talk to you about,” I said.
His hair was now drenched and drooped in front of his eyes. His face was concerned, but still welcoming. His blue eyes glittered like pools of sapphire.
“Soon I have to go back home, but I still want to see you, I don’t want to lose you.”
“Take me with you,” he said.
“Take you? Can you leave?” I asked.
“I’ve stayed here because I chose to. I’m free to go where I please. I’ve traveled away from here and come back many times. Now I’m choosing to go with you… I love you,” he said as he brushed the hair out of my face.
“I love you too.”
Our lips rushed together like our bodies, blending into one. The rain came crashing down and thunder erupted from the sky. I didn’t care if I was the only one that could see him. I loved him.
The next morning, I slept in long after my grandmother had finished cleaning up after breakfast. She left a few blueberry muffins for me, fragrant even after sitting out for a while. I grabbed one as I left. I walked into the stables to find Gavin. He was sharpening some kind of farming tool.
“Hey,” I said.
“Hey, where have you been lately? It seems like I mainly see you at meals.”
“I know that look, what’s his name?” Gavin asked with a wink.
“Nathaniel,” I blushed.
“There’s gonna be a carnival tomorrow night—everyone in town is goin’. Maybe you should bring Nathaniel so I can meet him,” he said.
“I don’t think that will work…”
“Can you keep a secret?” I asked.
“I know enough to start a lot of trouble in this town, go ahead.”
I told Gavin everything from the first time I met Nate to the last time I saw him. He seemed a little confused at first, but in the end he seemed to believe me.
“I get that you like the guy, he sounds great and all, but where do you see this going? You can’t exactly get married to a guy nobody else but you can see…”
“I honestly don’t know,” I sighed.
“Are you gonna have little half-living children—” he gasped, “are you gonna have zombie babies?” he joked.
“I hope not,” I laughed.
“Well if invisible lover-boy won’t show, then let me take you. I’ll pick you up at 6:30,” he said as he put the tool away and walked toward his truck.
I hopped in Gavin’s pick-up and we drove across town. Someone’s grassy livestock field had been converted into a festival ground and parking lot. Gavin took me on carnival rides, bought us beer and shots (lots of them) and taught me how to square dance. When it started to rain again, we ran back to the truck.
That night made me realize that for a brief moment I didn’t have a care in the world, and my parent’s “punishment” had turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me. We were so carefree and drunk on life (and tequila) that we didn’t pay attention to the road. We didn’t notice the car swerving on the wet pavement. We didn’t notice the big rig in front of us. We didn’t notice its horn blaring. For that brief moment, we didn’t have a care in the world.
“Caroline, Caroline honey can you hear me?” I heard my mother yell.
“I think she’s waking up,” I heard a man say.
“Frank, honey get in here, she’s waking up!” she shouted.
My eyes flew open to see my mother, father and a doctor standing over me.
“Where am I?” I mumbled in my poor state of consciousness.
“You’re in the hospital, in Pill, we were going to transfer you to a bigger hospital tomorrow. How are you feeling?” my father asked.
“Alright I think,” I answered.
“I’m sorry, honey. Your friend is in pretty rough shape, he may not make it,” my mother crooned sympathetically.
A warm tear trickled down my face, but before I could respond the doctor cut in.
“Mr. and Mrs. Blake, if you don’t mind I would like a moment alone to speak with your daughter,” said the doctor as he ushered my parents out the door before closing it.
“You’ve been asleep for a few days Ms. Blake. Are you dizzy?” he asked as he picked up my file and skimmed it.
“A little. Can you tell me about my friend? Is Gavin going to be okay?”
“I’m not at liberty to discuss the medical status of other patients, Ms. Blake. Now, I see you’re taking Auscorpcred, what was it prescribed for?”
“My parents had me take it to ‘control my cravings for alcohol,’” I said.
“I see. I’m going to recommend you stop taking it immediately. The manufacturer recalled that medication about a month ago,” he said as he set the bottle down next to my mother’s purse on the chair, “Have you been having any strange reactions: vomiting, migraines, hallucinations—”
“Hallucinations?” I asked as my eyes widened.
“Have you been seeing strange things or things others couldn’t? It was a fairly common side—”
“Nate!” I yelled as I jumped to my feet.
The doctor tried to push me back into bed, but I manage to slip past him. I frantically grabbed the car keys out of my mother’s purse and knocked the bottle of medication off the chair. Small blue pills scattered across the floor. I rushed out of the room while the doctor chased after me, shouting and insisting I needed to rest. I ran down the hallway in my hospital gown. I had been in bed for several days, and a stabbing pain shot down my legs with every step.
“Caroline!” I heard my mother yell from down the hall.
I ignored her. I ran past the front desk, out the sliding doors of the hospital’s visitor entrance, and into the parking lot. I ran to my mother’s car, hopped in, and drove. I could see the sun was rising, but blocked by somber fruitless clouds. I sped back to my grandmother’s house, got out of the car, ran past the stables and into the woods. My feet moved faster than I thought possible. I forced them to keep going, keep moving, despite the pain. The sky was grey and cloudy, without a drop of color. Had the whole thing been fake? Every word, every touch, every kiss, did it never happen? Was the whole thing some illusion caused by some stupid little pill? I kept moving, gaining speed, running faster. The pain in my legs grew more intense, louder, harder to ignore. My breath quickened—my lungs yelled at me, demanding me to stop. My heart beat with such force it felt like it was going to burst from my chest. I ignored my need for air. I ignored the pain in my legs. I ignored the aching parts of my body. I ignored how tired I was. I ignored my parents. I ignored the doctor. I ignored the words printed on the pill bottle. The woods grabbed me, scratched me, slashed at me, but I kept going, kept running. Despite the clouded colorless sky, the air felt dry, cold, stale and sucked void of its humid saturation. Flowers had fallen from their vines and returned to the earth from which they came. I burst from the trees and into the clearing. I looked at the field around me and fell to my knees.