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Chapter 2: “Roger”

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Click here for Chapter 1: The Gas ‘n’ Gulp

My day began like any other. I woke up and turned on the percolator in the kitchen before taking a hot shower. That way the pot would be ready by the time I was dressed. Once I was dressed I would usually spend around seven and a half minutes, give or take, deciding what to eat for breakfast. A futile task, as I always settle for eggs. Creatures of habit, we are, I suppose. It was Wednesday. I always visit mother on a Wednesday, which is an obligation I carry with pride, love and duty. Duty and reluctance. Don’t get me wrong, I love mother very much. She raised me well. She prepared me for the horrors of life and gave me all the opportunity a man could desire in his upbringing. It would be dishonest of me to claim I have not failed her and her expectations. Even on her deathbed she finds the words to tell me I’m living wrong. That I’m a failure. That I’ve squandered my talent. But, you see, things are just so difficult. Everything seems easy for people. People who are not me, that is. I don’t know why I find everything so difficult. I just do. To this day, I am the only kid to have been held back for two consecutive years at Ravenholme High. The third year I was probably only passed out of pity. I don’t deserve my Highschool Diploma. I didn’t earn it. This town just couldn’t bear to see me fail anymore. The rest of Highschool were the most confusing years of my life. I passed tests without understanding what was in them and I can’t even remember how to write an essay. I’m not even sure I ever did know. So many words in one place messes with how my brain works. I can’t really explain it better than that; if you put too many words on a page I just can’t figure it out. Sure, I can try, but gosh darn is it hard. I’ve never finished a book. Not even a short one. Sometimes I wonder how many people there are in the world who haven’t read books. I often think about other people while I’m in the shower. Like how many people have overbearing mothers. How many people still drink percolated coffee?

The air hung thick on that day. It was like a fog, only not. Maybe a mist? I’m not really too sure. I was only sure that it had a definite weight to it, as if the weight of the world was being laid upon the shoulders of man. At least, the shoulders of Ravenholme. As I sipped a mouthful of coffee and stared out of my kitchen window with a blank expression, I remember thinking something big was about to happen. Coincidentally, at that very moment, Tommy Johnson came hurtling past my window, charging down the street with his lacrosse stick raised above his head. His mouth was agape, though I am unsure if he was screaming out of anger or fear. The double glazed windows do a spectacular job of keeping unwanted racket at bay. It had startled me for a moment, on account of how sudden it seemed. The coffee only spilled solemnly on the countertop and was mopped up with a paper towel without much trouble. One of the perks of a percolator is that there is almost always enough coffee to top up a spilled cup.

Nevertheless, the air was heavy that day. I felt it from the moment I sprang upright in bed, drenched in a cold sweat. Was the air this heavy yesterday? Probably, but I couldn’t say. I haven’t been sleeping well for some time now. Lack of sleep tends to have a strange effect on the memory. You know, the little things that can easily be taken for granted. Like how thick or heavy the air is on a particular occasion. You know when you get into bed and roll around a little bit until you fit into your bed just right and close your eyes and drift off calmly to a far away land of dreams and splendor? I can’t remember what that’s like. I have had it, but it’s one of those things the memory takes for granted. Oh what I would do to fall asleep like that again. Why, I would kill to have that again. I think any person would after, what, at least two months of restless days. I know it’s been at least two months. Two months ago was when they shut down Ravenholme Mine and I hadn’t been sleeping well then, either. When they shut down that mine, it’s like a reference point in the memory. I wonder how many people use reference points in their memories. I look at it like if I’m trying to find my way around town, I use geographical reference points, you know, landmarks and the like. I do the same when I’m trying to find my way around my memories or the inside of my head. The closing of the mine was a monumental event in Ravenholme, and therefore an evident temporal marker.

They said it would save the town; the mine. From what, I always thought, I hadn’t realised we were drowning. And if we had needed saving, are we again doomed that the mine has closed? Of course not. We’re still here. The sweet little fishing town of Ravenholme. We might not be rich in minerals worth mining (though, we might be, I don’t know the details of the mine closure), but we are rich in community spirit. This town likes to win, which is probably why they couldn’t stand to watch me fail. When Ravenholme rallies together it cannot be beat. So if we do need saving, the spirit of the people will surely prevail where the mine could not.

DING

The microwave told me my eggs were ready and I gobbled them up ferociously. I still couldn’t shake the habit of eating quickly lest the seniors doubled me over and stole my cafeteria tray. However, I was in a hurry on that day, as I usually am on a Wednesday, to get to the florist before it shut at five o’clock so I could pick up some Pansies for mother. They are her favorite. Only the deep red ones, though. Almost a blood red, with little yellow markings. They make me think of ember-spitting fires.

I reside on Oaktree Avenue, the street that runs downhill through the centre of Ravenholme towards the Coastal Highway, which is often referred to by the cool kids simply as “Coastal.” It is the only road in or out of Ravenholme. We are a nook in the landscape and dense cliffs that surround our town. No point in drilling a tunnel through, either. Despite it not being of much public interest to get here, it was decided it would be too expensive without aid or funding from the wider regions, which would not be given. “Can’t be drilled,” they said. “Can’t be mined,” they said, too, when the works began. Boy did we show them. Ha! Or did we? The Regional Council was probably sitting chuffed in their cushy chairs bearing smug mugs when the mine closed. Anyway, I’ve gone off topic. The florist was on Main Street, which dissects Oaktree about two thirds down. It would usually take me about six minutes, give or take, to get there by foot. I don’t own a car. When I turned the corner of Oaktree and Main, I checked my watch about three times consecutively and began to perspire. There were not the usual groupings of flowers displayed outside. Only a remnant of a broken pot and some left-over soil seemingly spilled in a hurry. I was in a hurry, it was Wednesday, and I had hurried there. They should not have been closed. Turns out they weren’t. Just unusually disorganised. I rapped three times on the glass door and peered in through the display window, which looked as though it was in turmoil. The pots that were still there were bare and flower stalks were strewn on the floor as though they had been torn and broken with bare hands. Alice, the nice girl that owned the florist, released the deadbolt and opened the door. She looked paler than usual, and was shaking ever so slightly. Tapping my watch I murmured to her, “uh, it isn’t quite five o’clock yet, should you be shut so early? I do get the same flowers at this time every Wednesday, and it is Wednesday, and I am in a hurry to get to the hospital to visit Mother before visiting time is over, so I won’t keep you. Are my flowers here? The Pansies. The red ones. Like blood.”

“Um, yes, of course. My apologies, there have been some, er, mishaps this afternoon. I should hope I still have your order out the back.”

“Mishaps? Whatever could go wrong at a florist? You seem to work like clockwork. To be honest, I sometimes wonder how you manage to stay in business. I suppose it is just as well Ravenholme is so sentimental in their flower gifting.”

“I’d rather not get into it, if you don’t mind. Let me see if I can find some flowers for you.” She closed and locked the door. As I waited I tapped my foot in time with the second hand on my watch and imagined a concerto in my head. I wondered how many flowers were thrown at orchestras. And then I wondered if anyone had ever given Tommy Johnson flowers. I started to wonder where he was running to down my street. Or was it something he was running from? Alice returned with an adequate bouquet, though smaller than I usually purchase. She waived the fee today through strangely frightened eyes. They were not in great shape, “will die within the day, I’m afraid,” she told me. What was I to do, except take them with me to visit Mother?

 


I arrived at the hospital about twenty-two minutes later, give or take. Darkness had befallen the town by that time and the hospital looked eery in the strange fog. It seemed to be unusually unlit. The solitary street lamp at the start of the cul de sac provided dim lighting that offered nothing in terms of increased visibility, rather just gave the air a faded yellow hue. As I reached the visitors entrance I noticed the sign’s green glow also saturated more than it normally would have, painting my face with a tint that made me slightly nauseous. I believe they call that ‘irony.’

I approached the visitor’s desk, which was unmanned. I checked my watch again to be sure, and visiting hours were still running. It worried me that it was unmanned because I had a little over half an hour to visit, and Mother was always displeased with my short visits as it was. A small, rather gaunt looking nurse came scurrying over to the desk from around the corner after I rang the bell exactly seventeen times. There was some kind of commotion coming from the hallway from which she had emerged and the lights kept turning on and off. “I’m terribly sorry, Mr. Fredrickson,” she told me, “ some unusual happenings today have had the hospital in a bit of disarray.”

“Yes, well, there seems to be a lot of happenings today causing disarray.” I wondered if it had anything to do with Tommy Johnson or what happened at the florist. I also wondered when the last time the nurse had eaten something. “I hope it hasn’t had you overworked without a meal break.”

“Although unusual in this town, Sir, it isn’t uncommon for nurses to be overworked. Lucky, I am, on most days. Here to see your mother I presume?”

“Of course. Same day, same time every week for the past two years.”

“I’m sorry, silly question. Just go on up, dear, the elevator should still be in order, despite these odd lights.” The lights were behaving oddly. I wondered if the hospital employed their own electrician or if they contracted out.

Possibly the strangest thing to happen that day was the doctor in the elevator. It might have been a close second to my experience I had in my mother’s ward, but we’ll get to that in a moment. I had not met him previously. I do not recall ever sighting him in the hospital, in fact. This made me wonder if it was like in the movies when someone puts on a doctor’s coat and plays with people’s trust. He was visibly sweating. His hair was a testament to that, although it also could have been overly greased. It looked very wet, nonetheless. When I entered the elevator he was facing the wall and no floor had been selected. My entering the elevator did not seem to startle him, either. Instead, he slowly turned to me and recognition washed over his face. “Mr. Fredrickson,” he said, apparently aware of who I am, “I should talk to you about your mother.” I feared the worst. She is the only terminal patient in Ravenholme hospital. She should have died well over a year ago, if the doctor’s predictions were anything to go by. “She’s alright,” he went on, “well, as right as she can be for someone of her status. However, she has been acting somewhat unsavory as of late.”

“Unsavory? Whatever do you mean? And who are you? I don’t believe we have met.”

“There have been some . . . incidents.”

“Incidents? What the devil are you on about?”

“On more than one occasion she has attacked a member of staff and she is refusing to eat or take her medication. We’re going to have to put her back on I.V. meds. There really isn’t any good news here. I’m sorry, Mr. Fredrickson, she just isn’t herself any longer.” I stood there in silence. There was a howl in my mind. My top lip curled up and I pinched my elbow. I counted the seconds with my foot and tried not to grip Mother’s bouquet too tightly. Thirteen. Thirteen seconds until the elevator reached the floor my Mother has lived on for the past two years. The doors opened with a muffled, drawn-out squeal and I squinted into the hallway before stepping off the elevator. All the lights were out, bar one that was flickering intermittently at the far end of the hallway. The doors had begun to crawl closed again, but I had reached back with a clammy hand to stop them. “Why are all the lights out?” I asked.

“Oh. A simple electrical fault, I’m sure.” And with that final exchange, the doctor turned again to face the wall. The doors shut. He hadn’t even selected a floor. I listened in an attempt to hear if the lift moved from that floor, however found myself wondering if I would know what that sounded like. I decidedly would not. And so, I turned to face an ominous, dark hallway that, for just a moment, began to swing and snake about as I squinted harder to see the end of it. I knew Mother’s room was almost at that end of the hallway, despite wishing it to be at the other, with the occasional comfort of fleeting light. I began to slowly step down the corridor with one hand on the wall so as not to lose my direction or footing should something block my path. I had counted seven steps when I could swear I spied a figure at the doorway to my Mother’s ward. “Excuse me! Sir, Madame!” I called out to them, to no avail. They were gone upon returning my gaze from glancing over my shoulder when the distant light flickered. The walls and floor looked to me as though they were moving. Surely my eyes trick me in this darkness, I reassured myself. After all, hallways don’t snake the way I had seen it do. My assurance was short-lived when something on the wall touched my hand. I recoiled and let out an embarrassing yelp. Nothing, it’s nothing. More tricks. Just the darkness. I returned my hand to the wall and continued to walk towards Mother’s ward. Just nothing. Just nothing. There’s nothing. Nothing. The darkness faded to a fog when the beacon far behind me beamed for a moment. I saw the ‘M’ on the sign that juts out from the wall just above her door before the darkness swallowed it once again. ‘M’ for ‘Mother,’ I used to think. Of course I knew this wasn’t the case. ‘M’ for ‘Mortal,’ no doubt. No one has ever shared the ward with her, despite the extra beds. No one has been terminal here, either. ‘M’ for ‘Morgue.’ She will die in that room. I quickened my feet and the lights flickered again, all of them this time. They all lit up sequentially, and faded almost as quick. I was reaching for the door when it happened, but my left arm was still on the wall, which was covered in swarming cockroaches. They crunched under my shoes and flew past my face. They screeched in my ears and crawled up my arm. They were the ceiling and the floor at once, making it snake and swing. Making me sweat and squeal. The door slammed behind me, and Mother’s ward looked as it always did.

The lights were far too bright in that room. “Why you have to wake me like that, boy?!”

“Sorry, Mother. I didn’t mean for it.”

“I’m dyin’ and here y’are tryin’ to frighten the life outta me.”

“I said I didn’t mean for it, Mother. There was . . . it was an accident.”

“Yes, okay. Come here, son, it’s okay. You look drained, come, come.” The lights were always that bright, even when she slept. Even when she was pacing around the room or staring into the night at four a.m. She says she’s used to them these days. I can’t imagine it to be helpful to her health.

I took her old flowers out of the vase on her bedside and replaced them with the pansies I’d bought that day. They didn’t look much better. “I got you some new flowers.”

“Rubbish, they don’t look new.” I sat on the side of her bed.

“There was an incident at the florist. I don’t know much of what happened, but these were the only ones they had. Still your favourite, at least.”

“Ha. At least.”

“The doctor said you haven’t been yourself lately. Said you wouldn’t be much for a conversation. What’s going on? You seem right to me.”

“Nonsense. Why would you say that? Which doctor said that? Howard isn’t in today.” Howard was her usual doctor. “The one in the elevat- you haven’t had a new doctor see you today?”

“No.”

“He has greasy hair. Wait, who was in your room just now? Someone left as I was coming down the hall.”

“No one. Nonsense. Why do you always have to come here preaching nonsense at me, Clarence? I’m not well enough for this. Just once it would be lovely if you’d come in here with your life screwed on straight. Could you do that for me? Just once? Clarence?”

“Yes, well, I don’t know what you want me to do. I’m sorry, Mother. I have a job and pay my rent, and my bills. I thought I was doing okay.”

“You’ve thrown your life away and now you’re comfortable in a hole. Do you still play that clarinet?”

“I play the trombone now, as well,” the sad trombone, “I was thinking I could try to join the town band, again.”

“You know they don’t want you around. Even though you’re better than mos’ of ‘em.” It was true. I’ve only ever been great at one thing. No one in the town band is great.

Her curtains were still open and there was a chill in the air, so I stood up to draw them closed. “Are you cold? It’s cold. I’ll draw the curtains. I can’t stay long. I have to get to work,” I said, trying to divert the conversation.

“I know. Always fleeting, you are. Every week you can’t give your own mother the time of day. Slaving away at that stupid place. They can’t even get your name right. What is it today,” she squinted at me, “‘Roger?’ why strangers gotta call you ‘Roger?’”

“It’s just a name tag, Mother, it’s fine. I have to wear one, doesn’t matter what it says.” The fog outside looked thicker now. I could hardly see the light at the end of the cul de sac. My chest felt heavier and I lost my breath. The lights were far too bright. I took a knee and swallowed a lump in my throat. I remember the howl in my head grew to a deafening scream. The lights were somehow getting even brighter. Blinding. Glass was showering over me and scattered all over the teal linoleum. The lights were far too bright. The ceiling convulsed and lifted away. It was sucked into a maelstrom of clouds in the sky. Cockroaches covered the walls.

Then there was a bright light shining in my eyes. The doctor from the elevator turned it off and asked, “are you alright there, son? Bit of a fall on the lino, was it? Can you stand?”

I looked over at Mother, who appeared asleep.

“I was just speaking with . . . what time is it?”

“I’m sorry, son, I told you she isn’t herself much these days. Hard to talk to, even when she is awake. She’s been asleep all day.”

I felt confused. Maybe I was concussed. It was too bright in that room.

“I’ve got to get to work, am I allowed to leave?” Why I asked permission, I don’t know.

“Yes, yes of course. Don’t let me keep you.” So I left. I walked out of the room and I ran. I ran down the hallway, and I ran all the way to work. All the way to the Gas ‘n’ Gulp. I prayed I wouldn’t be late; my boss would kill me if I was late.


 

Click here for Chapter 1: The Gas ‘n’ Gulp

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Neptune

neptune empty sky dinner parties

I’ve never felt so alone, as I do on a night of an empty sky. Especially if the night is dead still. Nothing says you are vulnerable and alone like a quiet, still night. No wind in the woods out the back. No mating calls bouncing between the trees. No wildlife, and no sounds of civilization. That’s the downfall of living out in the sticks, isn’t it? On a night of an empty sky, when all is still and lifeless, the sound of the city could be a comfort. Out here, the serenity and solace that comes from isolation changes its face from time to time.

I grew up in this house, and it was far more secluded in my childhood. Then everyone started sub-dividing. It had become the fashionable way to own property. So, of course, my parents went along and sub-divided as well, resulting in this house not being so secluded as it once was, long ago. The nights can still be just as quiet, however. And sometimes, they’re so quiet that you can hear the silence over the laughter and intermingling of friends and family.

The ironic part of this isolated fear I have found myself to have is that I’m not so afraid of being alone, but rather afraid of being not alone. Afraid that none of us may ever be alone. And that we are not alone. Is someone watching us, right now? Are they incessantly observing? Are we really just an equation? 

There was an incident, a somewhat embarrassing one I might add, when I was a child. The night was dead quiet – it was an empty sky. We often had guests over for dinner parties and the such, because we had a large decking looking over the rear of the property to the woods. The woods looked brilliant when they were painted silver in the moonlight. That night, however, they swallowed the light that spilled out from the glass doors that led onto the deck. We had a large, glass dining table on the deck that seated up to twelve people, and a massive grill. With the amenities, it seemed like we were almost obliged to throw all of those dinner parties. I didn’t care for them, really. I mostly kept to myself while the adults swapped stories from work or exaggerated anecdotes about business trips abroad. My brothers would show off their newest toys to the other children before we all sat down to eat the meat and pretended to be a civilized species. I didn’t care much for the meat, either. It always saddened me to think of the potential life it could have lived had we not been eating it. Of course, I was still young, so my perspective was naive.  I didn’t really know where it came from. It still seemed all very silly to me to be having dinner parties in the cold season, but father always insisted.

Father was also a proud owner of a very large telescope. The biggest in our neighborhood, in fact. It always came out on cloudless nights, and that night was no exception. All of the other kids gaped in awe at its magnificence. It was so much longer than any they had at home, but more impressive was its girth. If it were a canister, you could gather all of their telescopes together and store them in it. Pushing and shoving ensued as each child raced to Father’s side begging and grovelling for a chance to see the cosmos through its superior lens. Of course they would, as this was half the reason it came out. The other half was the inevitable “mighty fine piece you’ve got, Harold, good show!”

I had also wanted to see the cosmos through that giant lens, but custom dictated that I let the other kids have a turn first. Father would find a star or a planet, get the lens in focus and hold a child up to the eyepiece. They would squeal in delight at the probably magnificent view. I sighed deeply. My eyes moistened as my lips curled into a frown and my cheeks flared a hot crimson. I knew I probably wouldn’t get to have a go. By the time the other children, and my brothers, had all had their turns it would likely be far passed bedtime and that would be that. I marched inside to continue drawing, as I was before the meal, and took off my coat. Father called out to me just as I had found the right shade of green in my case of colors. “Come! It’s your turn. I found your favorite, Neptune. It’s beautiful, tonight, you really have to see it.”

I was trembling as I pressed up against the eye-piece. I couldn’t see anything. It was very cold outside, and the eye-piece was icier still. My face was trembling more than my body and I was beginning to become frustrated. Raising my eyebrows did not help; nor did widening my eye as much as I could muster. Then, suddenly, I heard a deafening, low-pitched hum. Or did I feel the hum? As I brought my head away from the eye-piece, I noticed all the hairs on my arm were standing on end. Once again, I tried to view Neptune and was met with futility. Something had to be in the way.

It became vividly apparent, as I looked up, why I could not see Neptune while spying through the telescope. Directly in front of our deck, blocking the telescopes line-of-site, was a massive craft. Its hull was a deep green and the windows, of which I counted at least eight, were a burnt yellow. They were emitting a faint glow from inside the craft. The hull looked as though it was spinning, but the windows showed no such signs. Several figures flurried past the windows inside the ship. It must have been the size of our house.

My feet were anchored heavily to the decking. My face was no longer cold. I was weeping sweat from every pore as my core heated to unfathomable heights. I let out a shriek of pain and broke free from my paralyzing fear. Everyone was staring at me, questioning and judging. “What are you staring at?! They’re here, they’re here! They’ll take us all!” I tried to tell them. But no one listened. No one believed me. They all thought I was hysterical. Father told me to go to bed. And just as fast as it had appeared, it was gone again.

I haven’t seen any of them since that night. Not Father, not my brothers, not any of my neighborhood friends or their parents. No one could make sense of it. The newspapers called me Family Killer, but there was no trace of murder. They were there, and then they weren’t. Just like that. No one believed me. They all thought I was hysterical. I still don’t know what happened that night, exactly. I do, however, know where the meat comes from. It’s the only food you can buy in this sector, now. You just have to read the packaging:

Superior prime-cut human calf steak – stair-mastered and tenderized;

John Doe Rack o’ Ribs – finger-lickin’ good, serve with fingers;

Twerkin’ Toni’s Rump – the chewiest bubble-butt-steak you will ever eat!

Even the milk comes from them.  

 

 

 

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The Boy in the Woods

I’ve known Billy a long time. Most of my life, in fact. We met when I moved here, I think I was 5 or 6 at the time. It didn’t seem like he hung out with anyone, and we were around the same age. I think he lives on the other side of the woods behind my house, but I’ve never actually been to his house. Which I suppose you could consider somewhat odd, because he’s my best friend. Come to think of it, he’s one of my only friends. You see, I don’t find it particularly easy to make friends. Most others think me to be a weirdo, or just strange, I guess. A lot of people like to just steer clear of me. But I don’t really mind that too much, because Billy and I get along so well that we don’t really need other friends. Well, we hadn’t before. I’m not really sure what I mean by that, but maybe I could have made other friends if I tried to. I’ve been thinking a lot about it recently, because I haven’t seen Billy in a while. Maybe he’s been sick or something, I don’t know. I’m sure he’ll call around once he’s feeling better; when I’m raking the leaves out back or playing out in the woods like usual. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve seen him since that day he freaked out on me. I hope I didn’t scare him by what I was asking, it was just a simple conversation, a simple question, a simple query between friends.

It was a couple of weeks ago. I was wandering in the woods out the back of my house. I’d walked for about twenty minutes in until I reached the part of the woods where it thinned out a bit more, where we used to make forts a few years ago. We made so many over the years, all different sizes and designs. You could even still see the skeletons of some of the more sturdy forts we’d constructed. This part of the woods was kind of an old fort graveyard. Fallen down and half destroyed little huts, decrepit and covered in moss and mushrooms. Big orange toadstools covered the entire solitary wall which was all that remained of one of them. Another was just a crumpled heap of rocks and barren, dead branches. A tattered old sheet, mottled with gaping holes and severely frayed edges clung to an old tree, violently flapping in the mild breeze, almost as if trying to wrestle free from the twiggy branch that it was once tied to, but now only tangled in.

I recall being distracted by the sight of it. It began its life here as a doorway to the fort we considered our keep. The greatest and biggest we’d ever built. Ironically, this shredded sheet seemed all that remained of it aside the dead tree the fort was built around and the memories that I clung to. The thought that I was holding onto these memories unnecessarily had crossed my mind. I hold onto many things that could be better laid to rest. Like grudges and the sort. I call it sentimental, but maybe it’s something else. Perhaps this sheet exhaustively trying to take flight on the wind was a perfect metaphor of these things, and I, the tyrannical twiggy branch, perverting this natural course. As I was pondering this existential philosophy, I saw his shadow in the distance and it made me feel uneasy. My train of thought was broken, and I felt an urge to turn and run. But I couldn’t, just like the sheet.

Billy walked into view through the light mist, and I let out a great sigh; I must have been holding my breath.

“Billy!” I was strangely shocked to see him. He beamed a smile at me, and I was puzzled because I didn’t do the same.

“What’s crackin’, Click-Clack?”

“Don’t call me that, dude, you know I hate it.” It was a silly nickname he’d made up one day, Click-Clack Cracker-Jack. He even had a weird rhyme to go with it, too. It creeped me out, but he doesn’t usually break it out. We bumped knuckles as he reached where I was standing and leaned on the dead tree next to me.

“Pretty foggy day today, eh, Jack?”

“Yeah…” My voice trailed as I looked up at the sheet again, now above his head.

“You alright, Jack? You look a bit lost, mate.”

“Do you think that some people hold onto things for too long, like memories or notions? Or, like, I dunno, it’s really hard to explain. You know what, never mind.”

“People do lots of things we may never understand, Jack. People are weird like that.”

“Yeah, I guess. But do you think their lives might be better off if they just let go of some of those things? Put it behind them and keep moving forward?”

“Maybe. Some of them, sure. Some people might only be where they are on account of holding onto something. Like a life raft, hahah!” He chuckled gleefully.

“Do you believe in ghosts?”

The smile faded from his face and he stood off the tree, looked at me real intently and narrowed his eyes. The tension was strong, the fog seemed to thicken. I didn’t know if I should say something else, if I should change the subject or ask him again. I don’t even know why I asked him. It was probably the eerie atmosphere that came with the fog, the sheet flapping on a bony branch like a Reaper’s cloak, the skeletons of summers passed surrounding us. All culminating with this idea in my head about things perhaps better forgotten still lingering.

And then, like flicking a switch, he smirked as he slowly turned, pointing to the crumpled heap of rocks over the way.

“Do you remember building that one?”

“That was the sentry tower, right?”

“The keep has to have a sentry tower, you said. Every keep has a sentry tower…”

“Oh, come on, man, I said I was sorry.”

“The rocks shouldn’t be this high, Jack

But a sentry tower must be strong and tall-”

“It was six years ago, Billy.”

“You snapped my leg, Cracker-Jack, the fucking bone was sticking out.”

“Yeah…i-it was intense, but it was an accident. I-I’m sorry!”

“I thought things would be different with you, Jack, but they’re not. You’re just like Simon. I never made it home, Jack!”

“Who’s Simon? We never built forts with anyone else…”

“Click-Clack Cracker-Jack
Always breaks a bone!

Click-Clack Cracker-Jack
You’ll never make it home!

Click-Clack Cracker-Jack
Might be lookin’ at you!

Click-Clack Cracker-Jack
To break your bones in two!”

He said it so viciously, and yet, with a whimper in his voice. He began stepping backwards during the last few lines before turning and scurrying away, enveloped by the thick, grey fog. I was stunned, rooted in place. Once again, I looked up at the tangled sheet. It was hanging dead still.

On second thought, I don’t think I ever will see Billy again. Though, something about what he said still bothers me. I should ask Mr Berensin about it. He’s lived here his whole life and, if I recall correctly, also lives on the edge of the same woods. I’ll ask him if he knows of any other kids building forts in these woods. Maybe he knows Billy and if he had been building other forts with a kid called Simon. I’ll ask him once he’s done speaking with Mrs Kowalski, here.

“Oh, and Simon, can you check over the Bunsen burners and make sure they’re up to scratch for the science class in period 4?”

“Sure, no sweat, Nancy.”

“Thanks.”

Wait, hold on a dang minute. Mr S Berensin is Mr Simon Berensin?