Saturday, August 30, 2014

Haunted: 5x5 Fiction Project

A little while ago, I signed up for the 5x5 Fiction Challenge through the Art House Co-op (who also coordinate the Sketchbook Challenge). I had a lined notebook to fill with a fictional story and the (loose) theme was "June". Here's what I came up with:


I'm sitting on the bench directly in front of the library, as I do every week at this time. It's an old wooden bench, etched with decades of initials, hearts, stars, and swear words. My fingers trace the patterns absent-mindedly as I watch the boy across the street. I don't know him, but his red backpack has caught my eye. He's looking at his brown boots, scuffed and worn, his hands reaching deeply into the pockets of his olive green multi-pocketed coat. He needs a haircut – the ragged dark brown strands cover his collar at the sides and brush the bridge of his nose.

I can't decide what he's up to. I usually fabricate stories about the random people I see while out and about and especially while sitting on this bench, waiting for my ride home. My stories are elaborate and dramatic, real heart thrummers... but this guy. There's just something about him that leaves my imagination blank. There's nothing striking or funny or quirky about him, nothing that stands out except for the colour of his pack. He's scruffy, but not in the homeless sense and definitely not in that chic, poseur student-who-just-doesn't-give-a-damn way. He doesn't even look like a student, but he's certainly not old enough to be out of school. He is completely mundane, totally run-of-the-mill, plain jane, all the same. I can't put a label on him. He doesn't fall into any of my categories. I keep staring, trying to place him into a role, into a scene. But he has no place.

Suddenly he looks up and stares straight into my eyes. I can't tell their colour from this distance, especially shaded as they are under his shaggy mane, but they appear to be dark and drill into me, locking me in place. I can't move, I can't look away. I blink as he blinks.

Everything else fades away. I don't know how long we remain connected across the road as my mind has gone completely blank, a black void, but eventually I notice the edges of my vision are going black and starbursts and I shudder as I draw a long awaited breath. He nods once, directly at me, then breaks the eye contact, walking away down the street. I track his progress, knowing he knows that I watch.

And then he's gone. But only from my vision. I cannot get him out of my mind. He stands out, in his own space, pushing against all the other stereotypes I've collected.


A week later, same bench, same graffiti at my fingertips. I'm living through the traumatic birth of the little blond girl singing in a dark green wagon, jouncing along behind her weary mother. It wasn't easy for her, she laboured for hours in the dark, alone, but the rewards have been great.

A flash of red in the corner of my eye breaks my vision. He's back. He's standing in the exact same spot, wearing the exact same clothes. He's standing the same way, hands in pockets, eyes on his toes. Once again, he occupies his own unique space in my mind, no fiction attached. He consumes me, distracts me. He erases all the other stories I've been collecting over the last 20 minutes.

This time I feel like he's asking me to look, knows I'm staring, wants me to watch. I suppose this might be his story, his supernatural power over me, but I can't take it further. I can't find his motivation, the reason for his being there. Besides, I don't think I'm making anything up – he is back to see me. I wonder briefly if he's been here every day, waiting for me, discerning my patterns. But that doesn't seem to fit either. I think – no, I know – he's only been here at the exact same time as I have. He already knows my habits.

At the moment this thought flits behind my eyes, he locks his with mine and nods. Significantly, confirming my suspicion. He has only been here for me. He is here for me.

Shivers slowly crawl down my spine and limbs. My insides quake surreptitiously. My eyes close as I take a deep, calming breath.

A jarring honk causes them to fly right back open. My mom is looking at me impatiently through the dirty windshield. The boy – my boy – is gone. How long have my eyes been closed? It felt like seconds. Where did he go? How did he vanish before my very face?


I'm thinking of him. I have every day since I last saw him. He seems to have relocated in my head, disappearing from the sidewalk to reside in my brain until he can manifest once more in “our” spot.

Still, I cannot fabricate a legend around him, I simply think of his face, his manner and wonder. Who is he? Where did he come from and where does he go? What does he do with his days?

What does he want of me?

I am haunted.


Our routine – he appears, seemingly out of thin air, looking at his boots; he looks into my soul; he disappears for another week – continues for a month, two, three. I can't remember what the wait was like before him. I can't remember how I spent the week, the evening before, without that building anticipation. I can't remember my life without him in it.

And still, I don't know who he is, what his name is, why he has targeted me out of a crowd of many. Some days – usually the day before the day I wait and see him – I am almost convinced that he is a ghost, a figment of my vivid inner world. I can almost hear the timbre of his voice though I can't fill it with words. I can almost feel his hand in mine, warm and supple. Surely none of this is real. It is much too strange to be real.

It occurs to me that I might beckon him over, to cross the street and sit on my scarred bench. Or I might cross the road myself and finally determine the exact shade of his eyes. But I don't. No matter how many times I tell myself that today is the day we will finally meet under my own initiative, as soon as I see him I sit frozen under his spell. He controls our meetings, he keeps me in my spot and stays in his, not breaking the routine. I unwittingly, helplessly, leave it up to him.


Today marks the beginning of the last week of school. The last evening for me to sit outside the library and wait for a ride. The last time I sit on my bench and stare across the street, transfixed in wonder. My insides have been in a turmoil for days knowing that this might be the last time I see my boy without a name. The not-such-a-stranger who remains a stranger with no back-story. I can't imagine how I'll survive the summer. I know I'll be shipped off to camp for most of the two months, far from home, far from the ever present ghost-boy. Worse, the after-school program that brings me here weekly is being discontinued. This will be our last scheduled non-meeting.

June's humidity is wrapped around my shoulders like a moist, fetid wool blanket as I slowly step down from the library entrance, my eyes on the bench. I let the anticipation build, imagining all the things I might do to culminate these months of communion. But I know in my heart that if he does nothing different, neither will I. Could he possibly understand the monument of this occasion? That this will be the last time? Could he feel my anguished yearning?

I take a seat and immediately look to his side, to his spot. It is empty. Too soon. He is never immediately there. He never arrives before I do. Always, I must wait. Instead, a sweaty, fat man catches my attention and his past slowly unwinds before me. The poor fellow has struggled all his life with his weight, with the ridicule flung at him. He mops his forehead with a wet rag as others point and laugh. His genius – a virtuoso on the trombone – is ignored. He contemplates suicide daily, toying with the method that would work the quickest and most painlessly.

Just as I pick up the thread that will lead to the fat man's survival, his safety, the story is lost, replaced by the blankness that can only mean my friend has once again returned to his spot. I take a deep breath with eyes closed before turning to look. Of course he is there and already he is looking at me.

He knows.

He must know that this is the last. One corner of his mouth actually curls up in an ackowledgment. He does know. He does feel the same despair as I do. If not here, where else shall we meet? Where else can we find each other?

I urge him to feel all my longing, all my bated breaths, all my discarded bravado. I plead with him to not let this strange relationship end here. The sadness in his eyes breaks my heart. The sadness in my heart is too great to bear. I rise, my knees working on their own volition, incredibly shaky. His head jerks to the left, ever so slightly, a no. I can't move any further. I can't do anything further. I can only hope and regret.

The sleek silver car pulls up and my mother looks at me expectantly. My concentration breaks and in that moment, he is gone.



No other word can adequately describe how I feel. The entire summer is simply bereft.

I fabricate tales around my fellow camp-dwellers, but they don't comfort me as they used to. I see my shade everywhere I go, and yet it is only an impression, a ghost image against my eyelids. He isn't really there with me, it is only me wishing it were so.

And yet I see him everywhere – in countless cars, trucks, vans, pulling up beside and passing the yellow school bus that is slowly conveying me to camp. He is at the rest stop, just coming out of the restroom as I enter the girls'. He is pumping gas at each station we pass, taking photos at every scenic outlook. He is on the lake, in a canoe just past the buoy line we cannot cross.

He is everywhere.

He is not there.


One day, late summer, I realize that I've been talking to my ghost-boy. I'm not sure how long I've been doing it, but instead of making up stories about the people I see, I hold in depth conversations about them – and everything else, from the day-to-day happenings in my life to deeper existentialist themes – with him. And his voice responds. It isn't me talking to myself, he literally has come to reside in my head, expressing his own opinions that I don't necessarily agree with, laughing at things I don't find funny and revealing truths I'd never considered.

It isn't strange. He is a comfort. I knew I would never be lonely while he is with me.


I'm sitting on a bench, waiting for the school bus. The bench is a new one – no scars to run my fingers over. As usual, I'm talking to my man, discussing the book report I need to finish for class tomorrow. I barely notice the people walking by, listening intently to his interpretation of the ambiguous ending I don't quite understand.

A flash of red makes me glance up briefly. I look away before realizing he's back. It isn't the same spot, it isn't our spot, but he's there. My ghost is wearing the same green coat, the same scuffed boots, the same pack sack. I'm so shocked at seeing the owner of the voice in my head that everything goes blank. A few seconds pass before I pick my jaw up and close my mouth.

There's no pretense this time. He's looking right at me and has been since I noticed him. His expression is unreadable. I want to rush across the street and continue our conversation, ask him about a particularly difficult math problem from the calculus class he's been helping me with.

And yet...

I like the boy in my head. What if this boy isn't my ghost-boy? What if his voice isn't the same voice?

What if this is all he wanted? He'd had plenty of opportunity to approach me before – perhaps this was enough.

The school bus pulls up. I smile and we nod at each other from across the street and I get up and climb in.

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