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The Dead Thing

I have no courage. That’s what Lucy told me and I’m starting to believe it. Sometimes I get trapped in my mind and can’t fight my way out. I just don’t know how. But I don’t think that’s what Lucy was talking about.

She wants me to fight against the dead thing. Well, I want her to fight, too. How? That’s the problem. It’s like a creature out of a fantasy book. It’s made of mud and sticks and rocks, and it wanders between my house and Lucy’s as far as we can tell, but if we don’t kill it, it’ll continue to grow and something terrible will happen, we just know it. The dead thing might have already gotten to Lucy. She didn’t say much on the phone.

“You have no courage,” she said and slammed down the phone. All that was left was a peeling tone in my left ear.

People have said other things about me. Most of the time, it’s from teachers and other kids at school. “You’re smart,” they say. Well, being smart doesn’t get you invited to parties. Being smart doesn’t guarantee you’ll have a great job and a big house and a wife that will love you. They say it does, but I doubt they know what they’re talking about.

I’m lucky to have a girlfriend. I’m lucky the dead thing hasn’t killed me yet.  It’s all luck.

But about this dead thing: it wasn’t always dead, not really. Lucy and I predate the creature, so let me tell you about that.

Lucy is about the cutest girl you’ll ever see. She has long dark hair and a wicked smile.  If Lucy knew what a large dose of courage it took for me to ask her out, she wouldn’t be calling me a coward. Anyway, we started going out and our first date was to a horror movie. I thought she’d get scared, I’d put my arm around her, and the rest would be history.

Yeah, right. Of course it didn’t happen like that, but things went well and I remember our first kiss tasted like buttered popcorn.

We both have a lot of the same tastes, Lucy and me. We both like Stephen King novels, and we both hate chemistry class—especially Mrs. Rankor, the worst teacher there ever was. We both think there’s more to this world than meets the eye.

Sure, there’s God and angels and all that, but we wanted to know about the other side. So one day Lucy took some books out of the library. Witchcraft, demonology, stuff like that.  We found an interesting passage about giving life to inanimate objects by calling on the spirit world. We thought we’d give it a try.

Lucy’s backyard has a diseased and dying apple tree. We plucked a lot of dead leaves from that. Then we found a mud puddle.  It had rained the night before. I made a miniature mountain about one foot in height, and Lucy stuck the leaves on. The mud was warm and mushy in my hands. The last time I played in mud was probably sometime in elementary school, so it felt kind of a nostalgic. Seeing Lucy there and her cherry lips kind of turned me on, too. I don’t know what the hell’s the matter with me, but so what?

Anyway, Lucy stuck on the leaves and started reciting the spell from the book. We were supposed to hold hands and make a ring around the object. Then we’d channel some spirit into it.

My hands were as muddy as hell, so I wiped them on a patch of grass nearby. Lucy said that she didn’t mind. And I thought it was sweet that she would want to hold my dirty hands.

Man, if Lucy’s parents looked out and saw what we were doing, they would’ve thought us crazy. Lucky for us, Lucy’s parents were never home. And at that moment, I wanted to stop this nonsense about making this mound of mud move and rather feel the mounds under Lucy’s sweater. She didn’t have much, but I didn’t mind.

Instead, there we were chanting and holding hands. Lucy kept saying I wasn’t doing it right, and that I was messing it up. I told her to calm the hell down.

We tried it once more, and this time we heard this weird-ass voice. My eyes were half-closed in concentration, so I thought Lucy was screwing around or something, but then she said, “Was that you, Artie?”

“No way,” I said, “I thought it was you.”

And we looked down, and we both swear we saw the mound moving—and then that weird-ass voice again. “Why have you called me from the spirit world to inhabit this dirt?” The voice sounded like a cat being raped. And the hair on the back of my neck stood up, and Lucy’s nails stuck into the backs of my hands.

She let go, then slammed the book shut. I kicked the mound of mud until my shoes were completely brown.

“Oh my God!” Lucy said in a scream, “Let’s not do that again!”

“I’m with you.”

We hosed off my shoes and my hands, I was shaking the whole time. We then went inside. I looked back, though, just in case. The mound was how we left it: destroyed.

Well, it turned out to be my movie theater moment. Lucy was frightened and asked me to hold her. We were on her bed at the time—fully clothed. She wasn’t sobbing but she was shaking. For a little while, I just held her.

“What do you think that was?” she asked.

I told her it was probably some crazy spirit (no kidding) and we shouldn’t mess with that stuff again.

Lucy felt so warm. I could feel an energy between us. And I felt myself getting turned on again. I couldn’t resist. I touched Lucy’s breasts. I cupped one and grabbed the other.  I was really getting turned on.

Lucy’s body stiffened. For a second, I thought she was going to slap me, but she just backed away and said, “No, not now. Some other time.”

I felt myself slouch sheepishly and did my best to play it off. “Uh-huh. Some other time, you’re right.”

I don’t know why but at that moment, I felt that the spirit of the dead thing in the backyard had made its way into Lucy’s bedroom and was hovering between us now. The former heat and energy was gone. It was so weird. I felt cold and frightened again.

“We need to get rid of those books,” I said.

Lucy asked me to drop them off at the library on my way home. I said, “Sure.”

We kissed good-bye but there was no life in it.

*

That night I got a call from Lucy.

“Did you return those books?” she asked.

I told her of course I did.

“It’s alive,” she said.

“What?”

What? That dead pile of leaves and mud. It’s not there anymore—not how we left it.”

“What?” I said again. I was already beginning to doubt all that had happened that afternoon.

“It’s not there,” she said, “the dead thing.”

“The dead thing? It was just our imaginations. Come on, Lucy.”

“You think I’m lying to you?”

“No, no.”

That’s when there was a banging at my window. It was already past dark, and I knew a storm was coming, but Lucy was freaking me out and I had to see. There was something formless and shadowy out there. I stared right outside, my face to the glass, and something slammed the window again. My nose felt it, and there was a splatter of mud on the window.

Just my imagination, just my imagination. I repeated the mantra over and over again like Lucy and I had repeated that silly spell earlier in the day.

I finally spoke into the phone. “You’re right,” I said, “the dead thing.”

*

We would see it, now and then, crawling around the neighborhood. Winter was coming and the daylight diminished quickly. We only saw it when we were alone, though.  I can’t think of once when we had seen it together. And the only place we saw it was between my house and Lucy’s.

The relationship was growing cold, too, but with this secret between us—this monster, this dead thing—we couldn’t simply break up. Lucy was calling me a coward for not doing anything about it, but what could I do? Besides, I had the same thoughts about Lucy. She was the one who brought that dead thing about.

I didn’t hear its voice anymore, but every time I saw it, I was sure it was a little bigger. A mountain of mud and sticks and leaves. Rocks, now, too. And then if someone else came around, it would camouflage itself, so they didn’t see it.

How do you kill a dead thing? I didn’t know, still don’t, but I wasn’t going to let Lucy call me a coward anymore. Like I said, our last phone conversation was short, and I tend to get trapped in my mind.

The dead thing exists, but its form is tricky. I wanted to move on with my life. And I wanted to get with Lucy again, but only if I killed it. And the questions kept coming. How do you kill something that you’re not fully sure exists? Something that has no true form? So, it’s not that I’m cowardly, it’s just that I don’t know how to fight the unknown.

But it got to me, it did. Enough was enough. I went to my dad’s tool bench and grabbed a large knife. It felt good and heavy in my hand, but then I thought, “What the hell can a knife do against a pile of mud?” I switched it for a small sledgehammer. As long as the dead thing wasn’t too wet, I’d have a chance.

I went out in the darkness. Wind tossed the dead leaves all about.  There was a pile of them stuck to the fence. And it was a warm wind. I remembered someone once saying that this was earthquake weather. I felt like I was shaking inside, but when I looked at my hands wrapped around the sledgehammer’s handle, they seemed as sturdy as could be.

It was the world and the wind and my insides that were moving. Not me.

The neighborhood was deathly dark and deathly still. At least half of the streetlights seemed to have gone out. I had the feeling of extreme isolation—like a lone man in the deepest darkest space.

I took my usual path to Lucy’s house. No cars drove by. And I started wondering if it was all my imagination? Was it all in my head? A mind trap.

But that raped cat sound screamed in my ears, “There are worlds you’ll never know.”

I swung the hammer blindly—turning my whole body with each swing. I thought I saw it.  The leaves swirled all around. The screaming was inside my head like some telepathic signal. I kept swinging.  I saw swirls of brown and black, mud and rocks and leaves.

I heard new screams then. Lucy’s black hair was somehow entangled in the dead thing’s muddy body. I swung my hammer to set her free. I swung to be rid of the dead thing.

There was more blood now, and Lucy’s screaming stopped. I realized what I had done and what the dead thing was.