Ghosts have always been real. I knew that from my dreams, but I never talked about it because no one else did, so I thought I wasn’t supposed to either. They came to see me in my dreams and sometimes stayed as lingering shadows on the wall when I was awake. The really brave ones got close to me, sitting on my chest and covering my mouth so I felt like I couldn’t scream. Those were the mean ones, the ones that wanted something, but I had nothing but my chicken legs under the blanket. The mean ones scared me, but the regular ones were okay. I tried to think that maybe the regular ones had a good reason to be around, maybe they had lived here too and never wanted to leave. The older I got, the more I was starting to think wasn’t just heaven and hell. Maybe life and death both had in-betweens. I don’t know how that fit in the Bible and being the good Christian boy my momma wanted me to be, but I knew these ghosts had been here. I knew they knew things I didn’t know. They just held their place, waiting.
And the other thing was, I only really saw them at night, before sleep or waking up. Never during the day. Except when I saw Theo’s ghost.
I saw it on an afternoon I had followed him after choir practice. He had been in the church with his pop, talking with Pastor Matthews in his office. As I was putting the music book away, I walked the long way so that I would pass by Pastor Matthews’s office. The door was open halfway, and I could see Theo sitting in the red chair in front of Pastor’s desk. He looked serious, his face tight and hands clasped in his lap. I thought about making my friend laugh, like the way I sometimes do during service by making silly faces, and the way his smile makes his eyes squint. I got myself so distracted I hit the edge of the closet door I had left open. Quickly, I plopped the books on the shelf and went back to the music area before they saw me.
As I finished my cleaning-up duties, I looked out the window and saw that Mr. James was getting in his car to leave, but Theo wasn’t getting in with him. Instead, Theo stood in the parking lot for a few minutes, just staring into space. That’s when I saw it, almost the color of a cloud, looking as thin as the film my momma put pictures behind in her photo album. It looked like a full person too, feet to the ground like it was alive. I saw Theo’s mouth moving, and I wondered if he was talking to it, except he was facing the opposite way. My heart was beating like when I drank a soda too fast. What if he saw ghosts too?
He started to walk down the block, and I had to see, so I ran outside. I didn’t even say goodbye to Miss D in the office because I was afraid I’d lose sight of him. I tried to keep my feet quiet as a fox, toe-running to catch up close enough where I could see him but he couldn’t see me. The ghost was still there, gliding along like it was pulled by a string tied around Theo’s belly. It was just shorter than him, features too faded for me to see how old it might be, but the long, braided hair made me think it was a girl.
Theo walked down the street until he reached the bank of a creek. He climbed down that side of the drainage pipe that linked the creek beneath the road and into the soft dirt near the water. It was a downhill slope, and that mud made it slippery, and I was certain he was going to fall. The ghost moved around him, in front and then behind, back and forth, like a shield. Maybe Theo didn’t see the ghost after all, since he had stopped talking, but I didn’t have conversations with my ghosts, either. He seemed to know where he was going, so they didn’t need words.
Theo kept walking, about a block’s length, getting closer and closer to the water until he finally just let his shoes get wet. I stayed at the top of the slope, keeping myself hidden in the bushes. He finally stopped at a rock that sat in the middle the creek. It was as big as the coffee table in my living room and looked that polished shoe black that river stones tend to be. Theo took off his shoes first, then his shirt, and laid bareback on the rock, his face to the sky. The sun shone through the trees overhead and across his chest in a scattered shadow pattern than swam back and forth with each breeze. His ghost didn’t follow him into the sun, but stayed on the bank, slowly fading away with the passing sun rays.
I lifted myself up from the crouching position I had been using to hide and wiped my eyes to see if the ghost was still there. Sun rays can play tricks on you. But then my foot slipped and I slid down the bank, until I landed butt-first in the water a few feet from Theo’s rock.
He sat up, frightened, pulling his knees to his chest like I was a snake in the water about to bite his toes. As I gathered myself, feeling the heat of shame run my blood hot, I realized I had ruined one pair of good pants, and momma was sure to tear me up about it later.
“Satchel?” Theo asked.
I stood to face him. The way I had landed not only got mud on my butt, but the inside of the legs were also wet like I peed myself. “Theo, hey,” I answered.
“What ’cha doing down here?”
“I was trying to see if you were okay,” I said in a half truth. Then I made a full lie, “I saw you walk out by yourself and I didn’t want you to get lost. I was trying to catch up with you to walk home.”
“I’m alright, Satchel, you don’t need to come down here to come after me like I’m some kid. I’m not that younger than you.”
I was scared I made him mad. I flushed again, this time with cold in my muscles like dad’s menthol rub and I grabbed my arms around myself like I was the one sitting here half naked in the garbage creek. Was I supposed to tell him about ghosts in this moment? He’d think I was crazy and I couldn’t stand that thought. I covered it up. “I’m sorry, I guess I was bored and I also wanted to see what you were doing walking all this way.”
“That’s weird,” Theo said, but the sides of his mouth turned up just enough to know meant it in a good way. “Wanna sit?” He pointed to the spot next to him. “At least you could dry your pants.”
I joined him, Theo laying down again on his back, me, muddy butt to the sun. We were quiet long enough for me to watch a water bug jump from one side of the creek to the other – magic hops I imagined Jesus did in that one story. We laid still long enough I thought Theo was asleep; his eyes closed. He had stretched his arms out, hands tucked beneath his head so that I could see the tuft of hair in his armpit. I found myself reaching my face just a tiny bit closer to him, wanting to isolate his smell, but I smelled nothing but leaves and murky water.
“I talked to Pastor Matthews today, like you probably saw,” he started.
I held my breath so he wouldn’t hear my startled pant. “Umm-hmm,” I managed.
“They want me to travel to a big convention, to preach and get some money for the church. They want me to preach like I did before. Whatever everyone thought I did.”
There was a part of this that felt secret, so I tried to hold it gently, to picture each word in my brain. “What do you think?”
“Nobody cares to ask me that,” he said, “and the church needs money. We all need the money. I figure I gotta do it cause what else can we do?”
“I don’t want you to go,” I said before I realized it. I sat up, eyes moving around searching for my next lie if I needed it.
“You got friends, Satchel, why you worried about me?” He reached for his shirt, turned it right side out, and slipped it over his head.
“I’m just siding with you,” I said, “like I don’t want you to go if you don’t want to go.”
“I didn’t say I didn’t want to go.”
Theo turned to face me. “It’s nice you care so much about people. How much you worry for other people?”
“Most of the time,” I answered, my first whole truth.
“That sounds like a lot of worry,” Theo said.
Nobody had ever said anything like that to me. I never thought anyone could see all my worry as a real thing. Real as ghosts.
“There was a ghost following you,” I said to him. “I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true. Something was following you. I can see them sometimes.” My legs started shaking like they do before I cry.
Theo took a breath that sounded like a sigh and the dread wriggled beneath my kneecaps. Then, Theo put his hand on one of my shaking knees to steady it.
“Was it a bad ghost?”
“I don’t think so. I think maybe it was trying to help you.” I stopped shaking, but the tears came anyway, I let them. He couldn’t see me more bare than I was with the truth.
And here he was, seeing me, without having to wipe it away.
“I’mma be okay, Satchel. Trust me. You too.”
JAMIE MOORE is the author of the novella Our Small Faces, a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow, and an English Professor in central California. Her work has been featured in Drunk Monkeys, Blackberry, and Mojave River Review, among others. She is the Literary and Workshops Director for the Mixed Remixed Festival and is at work on a novel.