Johnson County Library is pleased to announce that Derek W. has won second place in the 13-19 age group for the Summer 2021 Youth Writing Contest with his piece "I've Been Haunted Lately"
Derek W. is proud to be a lifelong student of the art of writing, a previous winner of a Young Arts Merit Award for writing and several Scholastic Arts and Writing awards. He is nineteen years old, and is currently studying at the University of Michigan. His story "I've Been Haunted Lately" speaks to the painful process of connecting with someone, and the fears that accompany opening up to that person, who may be haunted in more ways than one. Derek W. hopes to continue writing for the rest of his life.
“Trust me,” my friend said. “She’s great.”
I had no doubt that she was. My friend knows this kind of stuff. But just then, with the grilled cheese I ate for dinner weighing in my stomach (had it kept its shape? It still felt angular and uncomfortable), I felt like nothing that anyone would want to date.
“You’re both, like, night people. That’s what tipped me off.” I hustled down the street in the rain that was like a soggy towel around me. Portland has dozens of these little pubs. The type with moldy plaster where they couldn’t afford wood, with dirty, dirty windows, where writers and old bartenders have a symbiotic relationship, keeping each other alive despite how little the rest of the world cares. They’re a group hug, outside the harsh reality of the world. Portland is sort of like that. I like hanging out with artists. Advertising is good, but I feel like I’m mingling with different versions of myself. I always wear my suit to places like this. Not tonight. Tonight I’m Mr. Casual, and this isn’t my usual place.
I ducked inside. Dive level was maybe a six, so classier than I was used to. A couple of college students, too. I was uncomfortable around them, and I ordered a whiskey to calm down. The bartender was college too. Tattoos. I have a sense about these things, and I could tell that she was the type of liberal I hate. Too high-strung to bartend to real people. I’d have liked to think that real people would help this girl, with her piercing eyes and crop top, but as I said, I have a sense about these things. She was too brittle. She would break, I thought as I downed my whiskey. I didn’t tip.
Scanning the bar, the lack of my date was both glaring and predictable. Predictable because I show up early to everything but my bed. Glaring because my date was described by my friend as such: Black hair. Older than me, in her thirties (This doesn’t bother me; I’m not a fan of women my age). Well dressed, usually. Cool. Described by my friend as “like, seriously cool. And not in a modern way, like a sort of timeless way.” He knows I hate modern cool. The artists that I spend my nights with are an older, messier style of person.
She must have arrived while I was wrapped up in my thoughts and my whiskey, because I only noticed her when she called out for a drink right next to me. Then she turned to me and I knew it was her immediately. Timeless was right; she looked like a 1920s dame but for her clothes (the blouse and the skirt had no clean lines, like I associated with the time, but instead trailed off into fractals of lace).
“You must be Mark.” The way she spoke was a little old fashioned (You must be?) but her voice was pure and reassuring, like the stock character of a wife in a play.
“Hey. Amie, right?” She smiled slightly at her name, not that she had any doubt it was me, just a recognition of my attention.
“Sit down. Frank has told me sorta nothing about you. What do you do?”
“Oh.” She looked into my eyes. Her eyes were so big and black. They felt like mirrors, but with more depth to them than that.
“I’m a spiritual medium.”
I was shocked by her matter-of-fact tone. She said it like it was a real job.
“Hey, can we-” For the first time tonight she didn’t sound sure of herself. “Can we just not talk about work tonight? It’s just been rough lately.”
We talked about other things, about my job and Portland and about why we both liked the night. I said I liked it because everyone was drunk or high, and nothing was expected of me. She smiled and said that, at some point, the night must be drunk and high as well. She said she loved walking at night because it was just a different world from this sun-filled one. She said she missed it, had only stopped going out two weeks ago.
“Why’s that?” I asked, motioning to our bartender for more drinks.
“Again, I’d rather- I’d rather not talk about it.”
She’d brought it up twice now. I notice these type of things. She would talk about it before the night was up. I would be there to comfort her.
And I wanted to comfort her. Through the course of our conversation I found myself strangely charmed, despite the fact that I detest mediums (no, not mediums. Mediums who buy their own bullshit). Our conversation was smooth and intelligent. I thought she was beautiful, more so with every glass we drank. Finally, through the slight haze of drunkenness and lust, I suggested we go for a walk. It was eleven fifty, according to my watch. She hesitated, but agreed. It was a beautiful night, drunk and high. The rain had let up and it was cool, but not cold. The kind of summer night you can’t help but dig. We laughed from kiss to messy kiss, and, though there was still a strain, a nervousness in those big eyes, she felt good. She must have. She felt good enough to tell me, didn’t she?
It was when I pulled her into our fourth alley of the night, when I pawed at her blouse, our sloppiest kiss of the night, when she pulled back and told me:
“I’ve been haunted lately.”
That was it? I felt the night and the alcohol and her presence pulling for me. I kissed her hard enough to make her forget about it, just for a second.
“I’m serious, Mark,” she said, much later in my room. “This is for real. It was a channelling a few weeks back. Someone looking for a dead grandfather. I- I was drunk. I thought I was straight enough to do a real channeling. I should have faked it but…”
She pulled the covers tighter over us, and I held her tighter. I felt her tensed muscles and any doubts I had that she meant it vanished. I held her for a long time, and whispered that everything was going to be okay.
“I let something bad in,” she said, almost childishly. “I don’t think I was supposed to look there.”
I fell asleep with her, in the alright-part-of-town apartment that I could more than afford. She made me happy. God, she made me happy.
We kept seeing each other. We went places with each other. She asked me about work (profitable, but boring). I asked her about work, and there was always a story. I think we took comfort in that. Like a real couple. Like real people. Frank talked a big game about how he set us up, of course, but to be honest, I was really grateful to him. It took me a long time to convince Amie to start walking with me at night again, and seeing the night through her eyes made it different for me. It was bluer, and darker, and infinitely stranger.
I worked harder than her. I’m honest with myself about these things, and I worked harder. I called her. I offered to talk when she started the fight, I made sure we made time for each other. Little things make a big difference. Without the little gestures, our relationship would have failed a long time ago. She hated it when I said that.
“Jesus Christ, Mark. Why the fuck do you say things like that? Don’t we love each other? Isn’t that enough?”
It’s not. It never has been. After three months, we both got bored with our presents and started poking around in each others’ pasts. Neither of us appreciated it, but we went through it with a dull sense of obligation. I talked about my grandmother, who took care of me growing up, and my grandfather, who I had always felt I should remember, but did not. Amie told me about being sixteen and starting to have visions just as she went through puberty. It was funny, I almost believed her now.
“What was the first one?” I asked her at a sushi restaurant, as brightly colored fish slid past us on conveyor belts.
“The first vision?” She looked up and to the right, like she always did when searching for a word or a memory. “It was a bad one.”
I signalled her to go on as I nabbed a tuna roll from the belt.
“Well, there was this thing of… a knife. Sorta slicing at the floor. And I felt tired. So tired. And scared, and betrayed, and… just tired.”
“Hmm,” I put my fist in front of my mouth as I finished chewing. “Did it ever come true?”
“Not yet,” she sighed. “Really scared me, though. God, I hope it never happens.”
I reached out and held her hand on the table, and looked at her big eyes. She looked back at me. That moment felt real. I made sure to remember it, to hold on to it. At times those moments are few and far between.
Life went on, as it always did. I worked, she worked, we drank and ate together, we felt (mostly) good. She moved in with me. That was nice. A few days after, she got up in the middle of the night. Looking over, I saw her pull some cards out of her bag.
“Yeah,” she smiled like she had finally found the guts to do something she was scared of. “Tonight.”
I had brought it up early in our relationship, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more violent reaction from her. She screamed at me to never mention it again. But here she was, in one of my tee shirts and her underwear, offering them to me. I let my hand float over the cards for a second, then took one. Six of Wands.
“I thought you didn’t like cards anymore, just crystal balls and palmistry.” I picked another one. Lovers. She was deeply concentrating.
“Yeah, I’m learning to get over it. One more.” She seemed almost impatient. Her eyes seemed different, somehow, when she was reading the tarot. The mirrors were deeper than ever.
“One more.” I turned around the Fool. I tried to remember what that meant from the few times I’d skimmed her books.
She stared at my tarot for a long time, then she sighed and went back to bed.
“Hey, what’s up? What happened?”
“I can’t read your fucking cards if you’re going to be that closed off.”
“What did I do?”
She snorted. “I can’t believe I even did this.”
She switched off the light and the room was swallowed by darkness and silence.
The next morning I left my room to find her on her hands and knees, drawing a chalk symbol by the doorway.
“Uh… what are these.” I thought it would be better not to talk about last night.
“Protective sigils. I found them online.” She didn’t look up.
“Hey,” I waited until she looked at me. “What do you need protecting from?”
She frowned. “Remember on our first date, I told you about that channeling that went wrong?”
“I’ve started seeing things again.”
I’m patient, but not that patient. “Babe, isn’t your job… ‘seeing things?’”
I should have known not to joke with her about this stuff, but I’m not perfect. I’m just not. I went to work feeling like shit. I expected her mystical remodeling to fizzle out pretty quickly, but it didn’t. Every night she would hang some new amulet from the ceiling or pin herbs to the wall or prop up a weird doll in the corner. She wouldn’t talk to me about it. Just wouldn’t talk.
One night, I decided I would go out without her. Just clear my head, go to a dive she didn’t know about. I got drunk there. Sloppy, fast alone-drunk. They don’t kick people out at this place, but after throwing up in the bathroom a couple times, I decided it was time to go home. I cursed her out to my miserable cab driver. But by the time I got up to my apartment, I was tired and sick. I wanted her to hug me and tell me everything was going to be okay. When I got there she was in her room, meditating.
“Hey. Amie.” I said it in what I thought was a measured tone. She pretended not to hear me.
“Fuckin- Hey! Amie!” She stayed stuck in the same pose. I knew she could hear me, she just wouldn’t talk to me.
“Fucking listen to me!” I got angry. I got so angry. I stumbled outside our room and grabbed a knife from the kitchen. I don’t know what I was thinking: hurt her, hurt myself. I slashed at the new-age shit she had hung up in my home. I shredded her herbs, threw crystals, toppled shrines. I was King Kong, or one of those guys who burned witches, or a fucking nuclear bomb. I wanted to be someone who could destroy her. With that thought in mind, I attacked the floorboard that held the first symbol she had drawn.[Text Wrapping Break] My knife cut smoothly through the heavy white chalk. I didn’t notice anything changing. Nothing at all. But just then (probably a coincidence. Definitely a coincidence.) she came out of her room.
“What the fuck is this?!”
We fought, and I apologized. Then we fought again, and she apologized. In the end, tearstained in bed with her, I felt better. I felt like we had struggled, and we could make it through together. We brushed our teeth together. The shadow must have been downstairs by then. We turned out the lights. It must have been at our doorstep. All I know is that when we finally settled in to go to sleep, it was in our room with us. She sat bolt upright.
She turned to me, and looked me in the eyes, those big dark eyes of hers so full of fear, so tired, so betrayed.
“No, no, no, no! Please no! What did you do?!”
I reached out to her. Tried to tell her that everything would be alright, that nothing was in the room.
I swear, it swallowed her in one bite.
Ever since then I’ve been seeing things. I’ve seen Amie now and again, whispering secrets to me, and she looks more real than the Amie I woke up to that morning, who said I was weirding her out with my talk about shadows, who I broke up with and who refuses to see me. I’ve seen my grandma and my mom and dad, all long dead. Old me would have liked this version of Amie, who can’t remember that night and brags about the cheap tricks she uses to scam the foolish and bereaved. But I’m not the same anymore. I still go out at night alone, but it’s to parks and homeless camps and empty alleyways. I’m often mugged, but I never have money. Just a deck of cards that no one believes in.