Friday, January 08, 2016

The Teen Ghost-hunters of Stockton

A writing exercise from the Iowa Writer's Workshop MOOC I took in the fall. And yeah, it's based in a thinly-disguised Oxford full of old ghosts and teenagers so ... just a thinly-disguised Oxford then ...

The three of us are sitting on the balcony of the bookstore, eating stolen cookies and warming our hands on mugs of coffee, when Kaitlyn finally mentions the grave.

"I was walking down 14th last night, and right when I got to the bottom of the hill, I saw a light by the grave."

I know exactly what she's talking about. The only grave that matters in Stockton is Pentius Lamar's grave. Even though it's in a massive cemetery surrounded by hundreds of other graves, it's still "the grave," as if Lamar was Elvis or something. It's at the foot of a hill, with a giant oak spreading out over it, providing shade in summer and littering it with leaves in winter.

"It was his ghost," Cash says. I reach over and flick his ear. "Shut up, you don't know anything," I say, but not meanly. I'm glad he's deigned to hang out with his lame older sister for once. He rolls his eyes and keeps eating his cookie, huddling against the wind that gusts around the side of the building.

"Well, did you examine it?" I ask Kaitlyn. "What was it?"

"A phone light." She giggles. "Two people doing it."

I look pointedly at Cash, and then back at her. She is unrepentant, though. "I got an eyeful of pale white ass."

I make a move to cover his ears, but he shrugs me off. "I know what ass means already."

"Well, it weren't nothing, then." I cover my shiver with countrified bravado. That grave was the last place I saw—I think I saw—my mom. What I'm thinking must show in my face, because Kaitlyn leans forward and puts her hand on mine, crushing it against the rough wood of the table.

"We couldn't see anything behind all those branches. The mist was gathering, and it was dark. It coulda been anyone!" she says.

"I know what I saw," I say. "It was her. I saw her face." I saw my mother silhouetted against the dim lights of the cemetery, wearing her checked rain-jacket, the one that smelled like cigarettes because she got it at the Goodwill. Her hair was floating in the breeze around her face, and I saw her lift a hand toward someone in the distance. Her mouth was moving, but when I try to remember what she said, I only hear the sound of the wind, the crunch of the acorns underfoot as we shifted.

This is where our interpretations differ, although both are equally bleak. Kaitlyn maintains that whoever we saw down by the grave while we were playing spies in the bushes around the cemetery, it wasn't my mom. She said it was some tourist, taking snaps of the Lamar grave. What this means though is uncertain. Her working theory—formed from watching too many police procedurals--is that Mom got kidnapped, or killed. That thought makes my stomach churn, even now, 10 years later. But my theory makes a hot ball of rage sit at the base of my spine. She left us. And she was glad about it. I still remember the look of joy that lit her up from inside, just before we got scared and ran off.

Cash's theory, based on the fuzzy memory of a 3-year-old who tagged along even when he wasn't invited and did not stay silent despite big-sisterly commands, is that she went with the ghost of Lamar. "I saw her walk up to him, take his hand, and then walk into the hill," he repeats whenever anyone asks. When I ask him if she looked happy, he nods, and then tilts his head as if listening for something. "Sort of. More just ... peaceful," he adds.

I'd be inclined to write him off and stick to my poisonous resentment and pain, except that I've seen the lights, too. Because I've seen those lights, too, and they weren't always the harbingers of a hookup.

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