In the nightmares that Drew had about Charlie coming to haunt him he would always be wearing the suit they buried him in, ripped to shreds and stained with dirt, his skin so pale it was almost translucent, his hair caked with globs of soil. The version of Charlie that stood before him now looked exactly as he had on the day he disappeared: Graystone Academy polo shirt, cargo shorts, a backpack strapped to his shoulders that was nearly as big as he was.
Drew stared at him blankly, his booze soaked brain trying to make sense of what was standing in front of him. He knew that this couldn’t be happening; that he was drunk and confused, and probably halfway dreaming. And yet everything around him suddenly felt intensely real – the feel of his jeans against the skin of his legs, the cold air filtering through the apartment, the faint electronic hum of the digital alarm clock on the end-table next to the couch. His senses were in overdrive, sending flashing neon signs to his brain insisting that he wasn’t dreaming, that he was seeing something real. Charlie stood in the center of the room looking at him with eyes full of heartache.
“I wish you could see me,” Charlie said. Drew continued to stare at his brother, his head feeling heavy and numb. He wanted to speak but the words seemed trapped in his throat. “It’s always weird when you stare in my direction like this,” He doesn’t know that I see him, Drew thought, the words still refusing to come. “Almost looks like you actually know I’m here. But I know you don’t. Maybe it’s stupid that I always talk to you when I come, but…”
Drew cut him off, finally getting the words to spill out of his mouth, “I can see you.”
Charlie widened his eyes and took a huge step backward. “You can see me!” He tilted his head to the side and stepped toward Drew. “I mean you just said that, so duh you can see me. But it’s not supposed to be possible for you to see me.”
“Seeming like it’s pretty possible.”
Charlie’s eyes got even wider. “And you can hear me, and we’re actually talking…” Drew started to respond, but Charlie cut him off. “Okay, just shut up – I think I know what’s happening, and if I’m right then we don’t have time for this whole thing. Listen, I need to…”
Drew cut his brother off for the second time, talking in a quick series of slurred words. “Charlie, you’re alive! And you’re still a kid. How is this even…?” He tried to stand as he spoke, but he stumbled and fell to the ground, his legs feeling like rubber.
“Are you drunk?” Charlie bent down to his level and took a sniff, then twisted his face into a grimace. “You smell like you took a bath in vodka.”
Drew got to his feet, wondering in the back of his mind how his nine year old brother knew what vodka smelled like in the first place. “Sorry,” he said. “But this is…”
“I know this is crazy but I need you to pretend like it’s not. Just shake it off because I only have…” He glanced at the digital clock next to the couch, which read 11:40pm. “Crap, only twenty minutes, so just listen, okay?” Drew nodded, still unsure if what he was seeing was real. “I need to show you how I was murdered.”
“Charlie, the police…”
“The police have it wrong – please just listen! Everything that the police said about what happened to me – how I was kidnapped, how I was murdered, they have it all wrong. But you won’t understand unless you see. We need to go to the woods behind Graystone.”
Drew shook his head. “I can’t drive, and walking there is gonna take a lot longer than 20 minutes.”
“We’re not walking.” Charlie extended his arms out to Drew. “Take my hands.”
Drew took a step forward and as soon as he took Charlie’s hands the walls of the room started to swell and contract, as if the apartment were breathing. It was slow and shallow at first, but with each “breath” it became deeper and faster. A small ball of light formed in the space between Charlie and Drew, and with each contraction of the wall the light grew brighter. When the contractions reached their apex and it seemed as if the walls were going to collapse on top of them, the ball of light expanded and engulfed the entire room, becoming so bright that Drew’s vision was overwhelmed with light, causing a sort of inverse blindness.
Drew felt a sharp, brittle wind rush over his body and a strong tug in his stomach, as if someone was pulling on his guts. Within seconds the light faded, returning his vision, and immediately he saw that he and Charlie were no longer standing in Sean’s living room. They were on the playground at Graystone Academy, the last place where his brother was seen alive. It looked completely different than it had back when Drew and Charlie attended Graystone. Every piece of equipment in sight was a complex monstrosity made of thick, colorful plastic and brightly painted metal. The swings, and seesaws, and simple wooden forts that had adorned the grounds when he was a child were nowhere in sight. Standing there in the darkness, the playground looked like something that belonged in hell, for demon children to enjoy.
“The police say that this is where a man, who told the recess monitor that he was my father, took me by the hand and led me off of the playground and into his van, which they claim was parked over there.” Charlie pointed to a narrow road that ran beside the school, separated from the edge of the playground by a field of grass that was a dozen feet long, and by a tall security fence that didn’t exist until three months after Charlie’s dead, mutilated body was discovered in a creek on the other side of town. Just as Charlie raised his arm to point, a cloud of spectral, smoky light rolled across the playground, bathing everything in a dull glow. The cloud started expanding and changing after it had finished spreading across the grounds, forming into the ghostly image of the playground as it had looked on the day of his Brother’s death - complete with laughing, playing children – superimposed over the modern equipment. Even the recess monitor was there, her ghostly figure pacing back and forth, admonishing various ghostly children as she saw fit. Drew looked around for the spectral counterparts of Charlie and his kidnapper, but they were nowhere to be found, nor was there a translucent apparition of the non-descript van that his brother was purported to have been forced into. “But that isn’t what happened. I wasn’t even outside at recess that day because I got in trouble for talking during a test.”
Suddenly the world started tilt and swell and contract, just as it had done in the apartment, then another flash of light, rush of wind, and tugging in his stomach. When it all stopped Drew and Charlie were standing inside the school, in the room that had been Charlie’s fourth grade classroom. Unlike the playground, the classroom looked nearly identical to the sort that Drew sat in as a student. Within seconds of their arrival, the smoky cloud of light from the playground rolled into the classroom. It filled the room from corner to corner, snaking between desks and underneath chairs, and shaped itself into two translucent figures – Charlie, whose ghostly figure was sitting at a desk in the back corner of the room, and a middle-aged woman, who was at the teacher’s desk in the front. “After the other kids went outside, I had to stay in the class while my teacher ate her lunch.”
Then the rest of the glowing mist that had remained unformed bubbled and swirled, and through the door walked another ghostly figure of light, one that Charlie recognized instantly as his Uncle Eric. “About five minutes before my class was going to come inside from recess, Uncle Eric came into the classroom and told my teacher that he was coming to pick me up early because of a family emergency.” The spectral versions of Uncle Eric and Charlie left the room. “Uncle Eric walked me out of the school and we made it all the way into the parking lot. He was driving the red Corvette – you remember that car?” Drew nodded.
Then came more swelling and contracting and walls that seemed to breathe; another flash of light, another tugging in the stomach, and then they were out front in the parking lot. From behind Drew and Charlie, the illuminated, translucent figures of Charlie and Uncle Eric walked toward a space near the middle of the lot. The cloud of light tumbled ahead of the specters and formed into the Corvette that his uncle drove in those days. “But right before we got into the car, Uncle Eric told me he had forgotten to give the office my excusal note. He told me to wait by the car, and he would be right back.” The specter of Uncle Eric walked back into the school, leaving spectral Charlie standing next to the car.
“Then…well, things get kinda fuzzy.” Charlie looked over his shoulder at the spectral version of himself, his eyes filling with panic, his breathing becoming heavy. “A few minutes after he went inside, two men came up from behind me. I didn’t notice them until they were right on top of me, and I didn’t get a good look at them…” Two glowing ghostly figures formed from the mist and walked toward spectral Charlie. Unlike the other specters, these had little detail to them, nothing but lumpy featureless humanoids. One of the figures carried a burlap sack, the other was wearing brass knuckles. Drew guessed at what was coming, didn’t want to watch, wanted to run away, to wake up from the dream. But he wouldn’t; couldn’t. “I turned around when I heard footsteps, and right away one of them put something over my head, blocking out my vision, then I felt something smack me in head and the pain exploded.” Spectral Charlie whirled around right as the two formless figures were about to descend on him. The one on the left shoved the burlap sack over his head, then the one on the right threw a powerful left cross into Charlie’s temple with the fist that wore the brass knuckles. Spectral Charlie crumpled to the ground. Drew felt sick, the contents of his stomach threatening to eject themselves via his esophagus.
“Then I blacked out.” The ghostly glowing mist swirled away, blown into nothingness like fog in the wind. And then It was just Drew and Charlie (of the non-spectral, corporeal-ghostly variety) standing in the parking lot, under the inky blackness of the night sky, illuminated only by the pale glow of a crescent moon. “When I woke up the sack was still pulled over my head. There was a throbbing pain inside of my skull that was so bad, I almost passed out again, right then and there. I guess that’s what they thought would happen, because my hands and feet weren’t tied up. It was more than just a pain in my head, my brain wasn’t working right – my thoughts were fuzzy, broken. I pulled the sack off my head, and I was in a wooden shack of some sort. There was no one around me, so I ran. I had no idea where the shack was – and honestly, dude, I still don’t really know. Like I told you, everything was…fuzzy…Drew, things happened…I feel like some really bad things happened to me in that shack, but I don’t remember any of them…it’s like when they hit me on the head, it did something to me…I don’t know.” Charlie took a deep sigh, and gripped onto Drew’s hands tighter. “Anyway, so I ran and ran; not thinking about where I was going, not trying to get to some place specifically…just away from that place. I made it all the way to Alcott Park. It felt like I had been running forever.”
Something about Charlie’s story seemed off. Drew spoke up, trying his best not to sound like the drunken mess that he currently was (can’t feel drunk in a dream, he thought). “How can you not remember stuff? I mean, you have power now, Charlie – everything you’re showing me…”
Charlie cut him off. “I can only show you what I can remember happening to me. I’m dead, not all-powerful. If you can’t remember it when you were alive, you can’t remember it when you’re dead. At least not when you’re like me.” Drew started to ask what he meant, but Charlie cut him off again. “I told you already that we don’t have time for this, so shut your mouth and listen to me; we’re almost out of time.” Drew shut his mouth and listened. “So I was in Alcott Park, and I stopped running because I saw you.” Drew cocked his head to the side, confused. “Yeah – you. I saw you standing in the middle of the park, holding a football and staring into the sky like some kind of weirdo.
“I guess seeing you snapped me out of fight-or-flight mode, because when I saw you, I stopped so fast that I tumbled over onto the grass. You saw me, ran up to me, and then I said something to you…It was important, Drew. It was about the shack, about what happened to me...But my brains had been so scrambled that I forgot what I was talking about halfway through what I was saying…the entire thought process just fell out of my head.….and…” Charlie paused and pursed his lips. “And let me guess: you don’t remember this at all, right?” Drew shook his head that no, he didn’t remember. “I didn’t think so. But I’ll get back to that in a second, because it’s time for the Grand-Finale.”
Charlie took a deep breath. Once again everything around them contracted, swelled, breathed. There was a flash of light, a rush of ice-cold wind, and a tug in Drew’s stomach that was stronger than the other ones had been. And then Drew saw that he and Charlie were no longer on Graystone school grounds at all. They were about a hundred feet behind Graystone Academy, standing in the middle of a long abandoned dirt road that, once upon a time, in the days when Reynolds was still four separate townships, had been one of the main avenues of travel in and out of the area. The road cut through the middle of a wide-open field that served as the boundary between Graystone Academy, and the massive circular wall of trees that surrounded the entire town. Drew and Charlie were standing in the middle of the dirt road, the North Town edge of the woods looming in front of them in the darkness like monuments of some long-dead civilization. Standing there, the light of the moon somehow seemed brighter, the sky somehow darker, the sound of hundreds of blades of grass blowing in the wind somehow deafeningly loud. His senses were ramped into overdrive, just as they had been in the apartment when Charlie had first appeared before him.
“Whatever it was I said to you in the park, it made you haul ass out of there pretty quick. Almost as soon as you left, the men who kidnapped me from school found me; they put the bag over my head and bashed me in the skull, just like before. This is where they brought me.” Charlie let go of Drew’s hands. “They took the bag off my head, and for a while, we just stood here.” Charlie took a step back and pointed to Drew. “Right there, right where you’re standing. My head was feeling so fuzzy from the last time they hit me that the pain wasn’t all the way there anymore. I could have ran again – they weren’t even holding on to me – but I was so out of it that I could barely think….And then something happened – something that’s about to happen right now, in ten minutes – and after that, I don’t remember a thing. My memory just stops. After this, the next thing I remember is suddenly finding that I was standing in the cemetery, and that you and mom and dad and everybody was there. And that I was watching my own funeral. The thing that’s about to happen: I know this is what killed me, but I don’t know much else.”
For a few seconds Charlie and Drew stood there looking at each other. Drew was still drunk – his limbs felt heavy yet somehow light, as if every step he took had the potential to send him either crashing to the ground, or bounding up into the sky. But looking at his little brother, a sense of stone-cold sobriety had washed over his mind. He wanted so very much for this to be real; Charlie looked okay, he looked alive. He had wished for a chance to see his brother again more times than he could remember. He had begged, pleaded with God or The Universe or Whatever Is Up There to take him instead, to switch him places with Charlie, so he could live, could get the chance to grow up. The long seconds passed and Drew broke the silence.
“What do you want me to do?”
“I just wanted you to listen, and in about eight minutes I’m going to need you to watch.”
Drew took a staggering step toward Charlie. “You keep saying that, about how there’s only a little bit of time. Time until what? What’s about to happen?”
“Okay first: telling you what’s about to happen isn’t gonna mean shit, so I’m not gonna bother. You’re gonna see it, and that’ll do a whole lot more than one more long speech. But hey, here’s a little food for thought for you, for after this is over: I do know that I was kidnapped and killed on the same day. You remember the date when I was kidnapped?”
Drew remembered; April 30th, he said to Charlie.
“Okay, now tell me: what day is it today?” Today was September 30th; he started to ask what that had to do with anything. Charlie just shook his head. “Time is about up, but just listen, and remember what I’m about to tell you: Drew, the way I was actually killed is nothing like the official story. But it’s more than that: people don’t just have the story wrong, some of them are lying about it. Uncle Eric came to pick me up – I know he did, I remember that crystal clear. And yet, he has never once mentioned that to a single person. He claims that when I died, he hadn’t seen me in two weeks. But my teacher should have said something, right? Wrong. She lied about it, too. And then there’s you, Drew. You saw me. That night, you were in the park, and you saw me, and you talked to me. I said something to you, something really important, something that even I don’t remember. But for some reason, you don’t remember it either. You don’t remember even being in the park that night, let alone seeing me, right? And let me guess: ever since you came back into town, you’re memories aren’t what they should be. And not just because you were a little kid when you left, but because you’re forgetting really big, really important things. Things that most people would remember from their childhood.” This was true, Drew confessed. Charlie continued, saying, “Something bad is happening here. This town, these woods, our old school…Drew, something isn’t right.
“For a while I thought maybe I was just crazy, that I was just upset over how unfinished I left everything…but when then I found out that tonight – on this specific night, in this town – you can see me, I knew that something was up. Some sicko didn’t kill me randomly, they planned it out very carefully, and almost everyone involved is lying about how it happened. But I don’t think I was the first one that this happened to. And I don’t think I’ll be the last. It’s gonna happen again, to some other kid. And I don’t know how, but I think this is a part of something bigger than just murdering kids, and their families covering it up later. It’s a part of something really really bad. And I think it’s about to start happening again.”
Drew put his hands to his head and took a deep breath. “What does that even mean? Something bigger how – Charlie, that could mean almost anything. Please just tell me what you want me to do here!”
“I want you to stay alive and I want this whole thing to stop. You can’t bring me back but maybe you can stop this from happening to anyone else. Being dead and being stuck – it really sucks. You can see everyone and everything, but no one can see you. I’ve had to walk around this town for fifteen years, slowly figuring out that the people I cared about, who I counted on, were lying about almost everything about how I died. And then I have to watch the same stuff happen to other kids over and over again, and I can’t do anything about it. I just wanted to tell someone, to let everyone know that something fucked up is happening here. But lately some really weird things have been happening here. And then I come and visit you, and you can see me. I’ve wanted this for so long, but it’s just not possible. What I’ve learned from being dead is this: when this shade of impossible-thing happens, it’s a bad omen. On this night, in this town you can see me. That means you’re involved in all this, somehow. Something is sucking you into whatever it was that killed me. At least now you won’t get sucked in blind. And maybe, if you want, you can stop it. Or at least make it harder for them to keep doing it.” Drew looked at his brother. He didn’t know if this was real.
He didn’t care.
“I miss you,” Drew said.
“I miss you, too,” Charlie said.
Then the sirens sounded. Drew listened, and realized what Charlie had been counting down to ever since he first appeared in Sean’s apartment: Curfew.
As the sirens sounded they seemed to roll through the town like thunder. Each blast had two tones layered on top of each other; one a high pitched whine, the other a deep trumpeting sound. Drew had vague memories of hearing the curfew sirens during his childhood days in Reynolds – soft, faraway sounds that reminded him of police sirens. The siren that he heard now was piercing, a sonic scalpel that cut into his head and sent shockwaves across his brain. He looked around, trying to find the direction that the sound was coming from, but it seemed to be coming from every direction at once. Each time the siren went off it sounded in two notes: a long, stretched out blast, followed immediately by a short staccato burst. Every time the notes played, the trees in the part of the woods in front of him swayed and rustled, the leaves and branches bending and blowing as if caught in the middle of a blast from a massive air cannon.
With every explosive blast of the siren it became louder and the time between each blast shortened, until they all blended together into one long, unending string of repetitive notes. When the speed and volume of the siren reached its apex – taking on a sound like some demonic horn echoing up from hell – the air became thick and humid, filling his nose with the sharp, metallic smell of ozone. And then all at once the sound stopped, and an explosion of light erupted from deep within the forest in front of him. The light rumbled forward, resembling the ghostly cloud that Charlie controlled at Graystone, only bigger and brighter.
At first Drew stood transfixed, staring at the light with wide, empty eyes. But then Charlie snapped him out of it.
“Bye, Drew. I love you,” Charlie said, grabbing Drew’s shoulders. For a moment the brothers just stood there, staring at each other.
“I love you too,” And then there was a flash of light, a burst of wind, a tugging on his stomach. But this time Drew didn’t see wherever Charlie transported him. Immediately the world fell away and images flashed before his eyes. His brother. The funeral. Uncle Eric. A small, bloody boy running toward him full speed at Alcott Park. Very quickly, the images warped together and faded into blackness.
Drew felt himself collapse onto something soft, and allowed the blanket of unconsciousness envelop him completely.