There are a lot of things about that summer that I don’t remember, but I can clearly recall the golden sunlight filtering through the diagonal, green leaflets and falling like glittering rain onto the floor of dirt and fallen limbs. The sharp, rusted edges of discarded metal cans would glint into sparkles with the precipitation of a cotton-candy sky. And I remember spinning. I would whip my head around and my vision would blur into dripping watercolors. The trees would stretch and transform into an entirely new landscape and if I closed my eyes I could still see their sparkling outline in the darkness of my eyelids.
“Do you see it?” I would hear them yell.
And I hadn’t seen it, not yet, so I kept spinning until I felt like my feet would collapse and my insides would curdle into hard chunks. My feet began to clumsily trip over themselves, and I slowed my turning. My stomach lurched with unease, and I turned toward the gap between trees.
“I see it!” I screamed.
And I heard the rest of them giggle with nervous excitement. My eyes blurred back and forth. My vision still mixing reality with the watercolor strokes of movement. The shadow stood between the trees, and it was tall. If you didn’t concentrate, you might just think it was another tree, but as my eyes filled with soft, wet blur, I could see each limb clearly. He stood just over 8-feet tall, and as I fell onto my knees in the crunchy, dead foliage I could make out his top hat and the coat tails of his tuxedo.
“He’s here,” I croaked out, and I strained my eyes to stay open.
“Don’t blink,” one of them ordered.
My eyes fluttered with dryness and agitation, but I kept watching him. He slowly tipped his hat toward me, and I lifted a hand to reciprocate. He was still cloaked in darkness, but Billy had said if you stare long enough, if you just endure the stinging pain of inflammation, you’d see his face.
“Black eyes,” Billy had said. “Just black holes. There’s nothing there. Nothing. And if you see him smile, close your eyes and wish him away. Don’t hesitate. Never hesitate.”
“Mister Mortem,” I said.
“That is the most ridiculous story I’ve ever heard,” Lena fell back onto the gray carpet of my childhood bedroom with a muffled thud.
I laughed too, but the memory flooded back to me with painful illumination.
“So,” Lena began, sitting up and crossing her legs. “What happens if he smiles?”
“I don’t know,” I laughed again. “I closed my eyes.”
“There’s no creepy urban legend?”
“One kid said he would suck your soul out of your nostrils,” I choked out in a fit of giggles. “Another said he would pluck your eyeballs out with a wooden skewer and eat them. You know, so he could see this world.”
“Nom, nom, nom,” Lena laughed grabbing a handful of popcorn and shoving it into her mouth.
“You know his favorite eye color?” I asked, and she leaned closer to me, her eyes sparkling with intrigue. “Little mahogany fuckers like you,” I whispered
She exploded with laughter again bringing her hands to her eyes to cover them.
“I bet he likes brown eyes because they are the most common,” she said. “You can see more. Bigger world view.”
I shook my head and sighed. If I closed my eyes, I could see that sparkling forest, and I could see him again. That night, he stood deep in the forest. The next time we tried, he was closer. And the next time, he was so close, if I had reached my hand out in front me, I could have touched his blurred outline. That was the last time we played the game. I remember watching the curve of his thin grey lips began to slide into a crescent, and I slammed my eyelids shut. When I opened them again, the forest was empty. The next morning, my eyes were bloody with irritation and they watered hot, sticky goo. My mother made me stay home from school and told me to stop “getting into god knows what” in those woods. After a few days, the itchy pain subsided, and my eyes shimmered a deep green again.
“He almost got you,” Billy had said.
I punched the pudgy flesh of his arm and told him to “shut up.” I told him it was all made up. I’d just gotten dust in my eyes from all the spinning.
I never told Billy that sometimes as I closed to sleep, I could see him standing in the doorway of my room. But I’d blink, and the opening would be empty, just the soft filtered light of my bumble bee night light remained.
I could hear his voice now, the squeaky crack of pubescent cutting through the word “almost.”
“So, are we going to play?” Lena asked.
“No way,” I said lifting my body upright.
Lena stood up, and she began spinning. She laughed into the emptiness of my old house.
“Misterrrrr” she growled. “Mister Mortem show yourself!”
“Come on, man,” she continued. “Steal these peepers, and get me out of my calculus final!”
“Lena,” I hissed. “Stop it.”
She slowed her spin and fell onto the floor with hiccupy giggles. She leaned toward me, and her breath smelled like the red wine we’d been drinking.
“This really scares you, huh?” she asked.
I didn’t reply. I just pushed her backward with my left palm.
“I’m hungry,” she said, and we both stood up and moved toward the kitchen. The house was dark, and I flipped on overhead lights as we walked through the house to brighten the darkness I was feeling. It had been years since I’d thought of him. It had been years since I’d seen his slim outline outside my bedroom. I’d chalked most of my visions up to childhood fear, and I’d tucked the story deep into the folds of my brain.
When we reached the kitchen, I pulled a non-stick pan from one of the cabinets and clicked on the burner with a whoosh of heat and blue embers. I turned to see Lena headfirst in the refrigerator. She emerged with a pack of orange cheese in her right hand and a green grape squeezed between her teeth. She bit down on the grape, and it squirted clear liquid across the floor, a lump of gooey grape guts falling down her chin.
“Like an eyeball,” she laughed and flicked her tongue down her face to reach the bits of grape shrapnel.
I rolled my eyes at her and leaned across the counter to the roll of paper towels. I threw the roll at her, and it rapped against her chest with a soft thump. She reeled backward in artificial horror and then fell forward laughing again.
I walked to the pantry and found half a loaf of wheat bread. I un-clipped the bag and pulled out four fluffy slices letting my fingers drag over their pilled texture. Lena came around my side and laid two slices of cheese onto the open slices of bread.
“Butter?” I asked.
She walked back toward the refrigerator, and when she opened the door, I could hear the familiar buzz of machinery louden.
“Ah ha!” she smiled as she turned toward me holding a stick of butter.
She slid the butter across the counter to me, and I unwrapped the wax paper from the stick. While I slid a knife into the creamy flesh of the stick, Lena skipped out of the room, humming to herself.
I laid one of the sandwiches onto the heated pan, and it burst into a whispered thrum of sizzling. When I looked back toward Lena, she was spinning again. Her blonde waves erupted from her head like a maypole, and her golden, brown eyes were closed. I was about to tell her to stop when her eyes snapped open and her body immediately stopped moving, the residual motion coming out of her limbs in shaky waves.
“I see him,” she said. Her voice sandpapery with excitement.
“I see him,” she repeated, this time louder.
“Lena…” I whispered, my voice not daring to go any higher. “Close your eyes.”
She fell to her knees, her back toward me.
“Lena,” I whispered again.
She laughed, and I took a breath.
“Maria,” she said. “He’s smiling at me.”
“Close your eyes!” I screamed.
The room went silent.
“Okay, okay,” she finally said. “I closed my eyes.”
I walked over to her, and when I rounded the couch, she opened her eyes again.
“Maria…” her voice faded into a whisper.
“Yeah?” I said.
“He’s still here.”