You know the game, right? I tell you three things and you decide which are the truths and which one’s the lie. Well, today I’m just giving it to you straight.
Last week I drove past the Kirkland Cemetery – the one across from Lake Washington High School for all my neighbors – and I spotted a shadow figure standing by a grave. When I turned the corner to get a better look, it stooped over and hid. This happened at 2:00pm in bright daylight.
On our recent trip to Japan, I was attacked by a spirit.When I woke up from a violent nightmare I could still feel hands around my throat choking off my air. I went into a full panic attack, bawled and raced to my daughters’ room to make sure they were okay. After about an hour, my heartbeat settled back to a normal pace and I was able to fall asleep again. Here’s the link to the hotel if you’re curious. Thankfully we only stayed there two nights at the end of our trip around the country. And yes, I’d stay there again in a heartbeat.
And Now the Lie (a short story I’d like to share with you)
The Burning Man
I startle awake, sit up too fast and smack my head on the upper bunk. Wood smoke claws at my throat and chest, and the skin on my legs sizzles from hot flames. I yank back the blankets to make sure I’m okay. Two legs, flannel pajamas. Everything’s normal. It was just a dream, just a dream, just a stupid dream, I think, as my eyes adjust to the dark and my room takes shape. Posters on the wall. Dirty clothes across the floor. Stacks of comics on the nightstand. My cellphone reads, “3:00am,” the witching hour.
The image of the burning man flashes through my head and my gut twists. Useless, I watched as his hair turned to ash and his skin melted like wax. As I stood there, too late to save him again, he was eaten by angry orange flames. Too late again.
I wipe away a mix of sweat and tears from my cheeks with the palms of my hands and yank them away fast. The skin across my hands sears as though I’ve been stung by a thousand bees. I hold them beneath the weak light of my phone screen and find tiny half-moons carved into my palms. Blood, too. Oh, God. Did I cut myself with my own fingernails?
I tried to keep the man from walking into the fire. I grabbed his arm as hard as I could and yanked backwards, but his shirt fell apart. I was left holding onto bits of burned overalls. As his house throbbed with flames, he stepped closer and closer to the heat and I screamed, “Move away! Get away from there! Please!” Then the glass windows of the little shack exploded. Shards flew at us, but he didn’t seem to care. In a strange, scratchy voice he said, “Stay with me, Sarah. It’ll be nice. I don’t wanna be alone no more. Please,” he begged.
An icy chill runs down my spine. I wrap my arms around my knees and hug myself. How did he know my name? Why did I listen to him and step closer to the fire? Why couldn’t I save him? I jab my fingers into my eyes to stop a stream of tears. Get ahold of yourself, Sarah. “You’re just a dream. You’re not real!” I shout into the dark corners of my room.
My cat answers back with a throaty growl. Romeo, my well fed Maine coon sits beneath the record player, his eyes glow like a jack-o-lantern. His gaze flits back and forth as he seems to watch something behind me. I slip out of bed and cross the room. All I find are shadows and little stars, plastic stars I taped to the ceiling when I was a little kid. They glow when the room is pitch dark, which used to make me feel safe at night. Not anymore, though.
“Romeo, come here, boy.” My voice comes out sounding like someone else’s, deep and coarse. I clear my throat, “Come on, sweetie.” I stretch out a hand and scoop him up, desperate to feel his warm furry body in my arms. The smoke from the dream tickles my throat and I cough, double over and hack until the taste of irony blood floods my mouth. Romeo hisses and vaults off my lap, then skitters out the door. I follow him down the hall.
“Blat! Blat! Blat! Blat! Blat!”
The smoke alarm erupts right outside my parents’ room. “Please! Not again.” I stand on tippy toes and try to push the button that quiets the thing, but it’s too high.
The door to Mom’s room slams open. “Sarah! It’s three in the morning! What did I say about candles?” She waves her hands beneath the smoke alarm, but it continues to screech, almost as loudly as her. “No candles in your room! How many times do I have to tell you?”
I blink back tears. “I didn’t light any, Mom. I swear.” I know she doesn’t believe me. She didn’t last night, either. Or the nights before that.
Mom grabs a chair and sets it beneath the alarm. She climbs up and pushes the red button whish shushes the awful noise. She climbs down and pushes past me to my room. She reaches my nightstand and pokes a finger into the top of the apple-scented candle there. I know for a fact it’s cold, the wax still solid and smooth. She scowls at me sideways, her forehead wrinkles with frustration. “Why do you smell like smoke then, Sarah?” She reaches out and grabs a handful of my hair and sniffs, then shakes her head. “Smells like smoke. Five nights in a row you’ve left a candle burning and set off that goddamn alarm. One of these times you’re going to set this house on fire and kill us all!”
“But I didn’t. Look,” I squeak.
I trail behind her down the hall and wipe my eyes with my shirtsleeve. She’s right. I reek of smoke, smoke and something sour like onions. Gross. She turns to me, “We will talk about this in the morning,” and slams the door to her room shut
I lock the bathroom door behind me and switch on the lights. I turn on the cold water and cup my hands in the stream. I gulp one handful of water after another, and wash away the taste of blood from my mouth. I close the drain and watch the sink fill. I unfold a washcloth and scrub my face until my skin tingles. I wring the cloth and tea-colored water rinses off. I wash my face again, rubbing even harder this time and using more soap. I squeeze the cloth and the water rolls off milky white. Thank goodness.
I look into the mirror and notice pink blotches across my cheeks and down my neck. As I stare, my reflection shudders and blurs. Thinking it’s a trick of the light, I bring my face closer to the mirror. To my horror, I watch as my eyes sink into my head, turning into dark caves. I grab at the skin around my mouth and it wrinkles under my fingertips. White whiskers erupt across my chin and jawline. I clutch my ponytail in my hand and it falls off. I throw the wad of blonde into the sink and white puffs, like cotton wisps grow across my scalp. I choke down a scream. The skin on my face and neck sags into folds and falls down down down onto the front of my shirt. A whimper slips from my lips and I slump onto the toilet.
I don’t know how, but I’ve become him, the burning man. This can’t be real. I pinch the inside of my arm to feel something real, something that makes sense. I pinch even harder until the burst hot pain pushes away what can’t be real. Nightmares aren’t real. I grit my teeth and stand, my legs shaky beneath me. I peek into the mirror and see me, just me, staring back.
My hands tremble as I turn off the faucet. I plunge my face into the cold water, holding my breath until my skin prickles and my lungs scream for air. The water feels magical somehow, purifying. A burning sensation explodes across my chest and I suck in a mix of air and water, stand up and cough out junk from deep inside my lungs. I spit out a mass of yellowish-brown junk, open the drain and wash the leftovers of the nightmare away. I want to be done with the burning man.
Worn out, I return to my bed and burrow under the blankets. I start typing a text to Matt and then remember, we broke up. I can’t text him. I blink back tears and stare at his picture. My fingers tingle. I type, “I miss you,” then hit delete.
As I struggle to fall asleep, I can’t hush the pity party going on inside my head. I need Matt. I’m scared and I can’t deal with this alone. The promises the burning man made replay in my mind. “You’ve never felt a peace like this, Sarah. Never felt so warm and loved in all your life.” I pull the comforter up to my chin. “Please, Sarah. I don’t want to be alone no more. Please. Matty can come to. I can fix all that.” My guts turn to jelly, sick with this deathly combination of longing and fear. I can’t dream about him again. I can’t stand aside helpless and watch him die. I don’t want to dream. Please, God. No more dreams.
The alarm on my phone startles me awake. The clock reads, “6:45am.” Last night’s events feel far away, but final exams are in forty-five minutes. I hurry into clothes and pull my hair back into a messy bun, dab lip gloss on my mouth and blot out acne with a stick of pink. I race down the stairs. Thankfully, no one’s home to notice that I’m late. My mom and sister have already left for school and Dad’s on a business trip. Then I notice Romeo, who watches me from a barstool, his ears lie flat and his tail flicks back and forth, back and forth.
“Don’t be so judgmental!” I tip the barstool he rests on ever so slightly and he slides to the ground. “You don’t belong up there. You’re not a real boy.” He growls at me and slinks out of the kitchen. He hates being reminded that he’s not human. I laugh and then cough. The taste of wood smoke fills my mouth. I cough again and reach inside the fridge for a can of soda. Power breakfast. I hurry from the house, slamming the front door shut behind me.
It’s a small miracle that I arrive at school with five minutes to spare. The halls bustle with too much happy activity for my taste. People gab, cram for tests, and two lockers down from mine a couple of freshmen are making out way too intensely. Ugh. I pull my locker open and dump my backpack inside, trying to ignore the pictures taped in there of Matt and me. Homecoming. Class trip. Prom. I rub the place beneath my ribs that suddenly hurts. I miss you, Matt, I think. I slam the metal door shut too hard, “BAM!” The smooching couple jolts apart. I smirk and then head to final number one. Calculus.
I take a seat and even though I try not to, check Matt’s desk. He’s not here. As the teacher hands out the tests, I worry about Matt. He must be sick. He’d never miss a test. She begins her instructions and a noisy fire alarm screams over her voice. Ears ringing, I startle to my feet and follow the others to the exit. The teacher screams, “Leave everything behind!”
In minutes, students gather in clumps at the far end of the parking lot. Bubbling with conversations, everyone seems thrilled to have had the first test of the day interrupted. Two fire trucks pull up to the school and soon firefighters rush inside. As I stand with the other kids in the parking lot, I check my phone. No texts. No new likes for the photo I posted of Romeo. Nothing. Fifteen minutes later, we hear the all-clear signal. I walk inside school and feel a hand on my shoulder. I turn my head and see Principal Swank.
“Sarah, I need a word with you.”
As I follow Principal Swank into her office, my mind races. What did I do wrong? I haven’t skipped any classes. And I wasn’t late today. Did I accidently park in the teachers’ lot? I don’t think so.
We turn into her office. Seated in a line are the vice principal and my advisor. My mouth dries up. “Please, have a seat.” She points to the only empty chair in the cramped space.
“Do you know anything about the fire alarm going off, Sarah?”
I shake my head. “I was just starting my Calculus test.”
“Well, unlike most times, today’s alarm was due to an actual fire.” I pick at my fingernails, still trying to figure out why she’s called me in to tell me this. “Thankfully it was small and easy to contain, but it could have done serious damage. We were very very lucky.” Principal Swank taps her pen on her desk blotter. She would be pretty if she smiled, I decide. “Is there anything you want to tell us about the fire, Sarah?”
I decide I don’t like the way she says my name. It comes out sounding like, Say-rah! As though it is part of some corny half-time cheer. She stares at me, her lips pursed and I realize I’m smiling. I hide my mouth behind my hand and try to remember what she asked me. Oh, about the fire.
“Of course not. I was in a test. How can I set off an alarm from math class?” She comes around her desk and stands right in front of me, leaning against her desk. She chews the side of her mouth and I follow her gaze down to my legs that bounce up and down. I hadn’t even realized I was doing it. I put my hands on my lap to keep myself still. Sweat breaks out on the back of my neck.
“Well, it started in your locker.” She purses her lips and glares at me. “Are you still sure you know nothing about it?”
“Yeah.” I feel my legs jiggle again and stop them with my hands. I’m a portrait of guilt. “I don’t know anything about it.” My voice sounds whiny.
“Hmm.” She clicks her pen, then sets it down on her perfectly organized desk. “Does anyone else know your locker combination?” she asks.
“No. Well, yeah. Matt. But he would never mess with it. We’re…” there is no way I’m crying in front of these people, I blink back tears, “…broken up. He wouldn’t be caught dead by my locker, not anymore.”
Principal Swank rises to her feet and hands me a small patch of fabric. “Sarah, I need the truth from you, understand? Have you ever seen this?”
It is a small oval of fabric, gray and charred. I trace a finger over the name “Stan” stitched in slanted script. For some reason, I hold it to my nose and sniff, breathing in a mix of smoke and gas. “I have no idea what this is.” I hand it back to her. The hairs rise across my arms.
Principal Swank takes off her glasses and sets them on the desk. “That was what started the fire. Someone lit it and put it inside your locker. And because the only other person that has access to your locker was absent today, well, I’m left to think you did this.” She drops the nametag on her desk and hands me a slip of pink paper. She holds up a hand, “This is a serious offense, Sarah. I’m suspending you until we can review the security footage and come up with a conclusive answer about who was responsible. If we find that you were involved, well, things will get very serious very quickly. If not, then we will allow you to return to school. Of course, you’ll have to reschedule your missed exams with your teachers.” She sets a duplicate of the pink slip into a file with my name across it. “Consider this a fair first strike, Sarah. I never want to see you in here for disciplinary action again.”
I slink out and drive home, but change my route so I can pass by Matt’s house. He’d never do something like this to me. He loves, I mean loved, me. I slow to a crawl and notice his red Mustang parked in the driveway. I glance up at the window above the garage, Matt’s room. There’s the slightest flick of motion as his curtains fall back across the window. Horrified to think I might’ve been seen; I speed away down the street. No, he’d never do something like this to me. Never.
Back home, I am relieved to find Mom is still gone. I curl up on the couch and fall asleep. When I wake up, there’s a pool of drool beneath my head and Judge Judy is holding court from the television in the corner. Out the window, the sun sits low in the sky and paints Seattle in pinks and oranges. The house smells like fried onions and my stomach growls.
“Hey, Sarah,” Mom says from over the kitchen island. “Have a good nap?”
I yawn and stretch. “Mmmhmm.”
“Dinner will be ready soon.” She glances up from her cooking and looks at me, I mean really takes me in. “Sarah, you’re all wrung out!” She comes around the island and touches my forehead. “Not sick, are you?”
“Just tired is all,” I say. School must not have called her about my suspension, not yet at least, or else she’d be ripping into me about it right now instead of checking me for a fever.
“Well, supper’s in an hour. Why don’t you take a bath? Relax a little. Finals can turn anyone into a stress ball.”
She’s right. I run the bath water as hot as I can stand, add some of my little sister’s strawberry-scented bubble bath and soon my problems don’t feel so raw. As I soak, my jumbled thoughts morph into white noise, like a static-filled channel on the radio and I almost fall asleep.
There’s a light knock on the door, and I sit up. “Sarah, dinner’s in about fifteen minutes.”
“Thanks,” I step out onto the bathmat and wrap myself in a fluffy towel. As the tub drains, I brush and braid my hair. I look into the mirror to check my handiwork, but the glass is coated with steam. As I wipe off the mist, words take shape beneath my hand. An invisible someone is writing into the fog. “I can get Matty back for ya.”
I scream and the hairbrush thunks to the ground.
“Sarah!” Mom pounds on the door. “Did you fall? Sarah! Open this door!”
I turn the locked knob. “Mom, I think I’m going crazy. Please tell me you see this.” I gesture to the mirror, fully expecting the words to be invisible to her, more proof that I’m going mad.
She gapes at the words that drip, but are still legible. “What is this? I don’t understand. Who’d you see?” She wipes the words away with the palm of her hand.
“I don’t know, Mom. I’m scared.” Oh, crap. The truth slaps me in the face. I do know. I saw him, the burning man. I just didn’t recognize that he was the lonely old guy from Pinedale. He was standing by a dumpster. We locked eyes, his were the same as mine, sad. He grinned, this crooked thing, like he hadn’t smiled in a long long time and I waved. “I didn’t realize he was a ghost,” I shiver and wrap my towel around me tighter.
“What are you talking about?”
“I think all this has to do with our trip to Firwood,” I finally say. “The smoke alarms going off. My nightmares. That thing at school today.” Cold air swirls around my legs.
“Yeah, about that. I had an interesting chat with Principal Swank earlier. Sounds like you’ve got an enemy at school.” Even over the jittery bubbles in my belly from the ghost words, I am hit with a wave of sweet relief. Mom knows I’d never start a locker fire. She’s on my side. “So what’s this got to do with bad dreams?”
I tell her everything. I know how it must sound, but I have to off-load this on someone. Matt’s not mine anymore, not my counselor or my friend. Mom has to be that for me now.
“So this has been happening since our trip to Firwood? You saw the old man there? The one from your dreams?” Her eyes are huge and her forehead wrinkles with worry. “Okay, well, sounds like some dark energy followed you home. I’ll sage the house tomorrow. I was going to anyways with your Dad was out of town.” Mom’s always been hyper-aware of spiritual energy and uses this ancient Native American tradition of burning dried sage to rid our house of dark energy and invite good spirits to stay and protect us. I’ve never taken much stock in the ritual, but I have to admit, it’s always made me feel safe. “Sleep in my room tonight though, okay?”
“Yeah, thanks.” She side-hugs me which feels awkward in a bath towel.
“Alright then, I’m going to set the table. We’ll have supper and Annie can entertain us with her seventh grade gossip, right?”
Sure enough, the dinner conversation centers around Annie. Her grade is full of drama, so she shares a large helping of gossip with the meal. It’s a fabulous distraction and I scoop second helpings onto my plate, feeling more like myself than I have in days.
After dinner, I squish onto the couch with Annie and Mom to watch our favorite show. My phone vibrates in my sweatshirt pocket with a text from Matt. “I miss you.” I have to read it twice to believe what I’m seeing. Instantly, I want to text back that I miss him, too. But then I wonder if one of his friends has hacked his phone to have some fun at my expense. My heart squeezes.
A second text pops up, “Went for a drive to sort stuff out and the GPS in my car quit. Maps app isn’t working either. I’m lost. (sad face emoji).” Nope. His phone wasn’t hacked. Matt always drives around to clear his head.
Ugh. He’s adorable. Why did we even break up? I can’t remember. It must’ve been my fault. It bugs me that I can’t remember.
I text him back, “I miss you, too,” and linger over the heart emoji, but press ‘send’ without adding it. Then I type, “Where are you?” Immediately, I feel stupid. He told me he’s lost. Duh.
I stare at the gray dots on my phone screen. Then his response appears, “Past the airport. Gas station guy is giving me directions. Get this, I’m in Firwood!”
The hairs on the back of my neck rise. “Firwood?” I can’t coordinate my brain and fingers. “I hate it there.”
“I know. You came back from there looking for a fight, remember? And you got one.” Yeah, I remember. And in a rage that makes no sense now, I broke up with Matt.
It started out well enough. I tagged along with Mom to her mystery writers’ meeting. The guest speaker was an expert on viruses, something I’d been learning about in biology class. We arrived way before the meeting and decided to park and walk down Main Street. Mom wanted to shop and I planned to take photographs.
But, from the moment I stepped out of the car, Firwood got under my skin. It was more than the rain and gray skies. That town reeked of sadness. It was more than the brick buildings coated in bad art that hurt my heart. Boarded up storefronts next to businesses that were obviously struggling to stay open. Weedy sidewalks. And that old man by the dumpster that made my heart break. There was a make-shift memorial near him, dead flowers tied to a tree stump with faded ribbons. I scroll through the photos on my phone until I find the shot I took and zoom in. Beneath the flowers is a homemade poster. Faded letters I have a hard time reading, “Stan. R.I.P.” Stan? Like the nametag that started the fire today at school? I chew my lip.
“Yeah, I know. Funny I ended up here, huh?” Matt texts me a picture of a wall mural, the same one in my picture. I see the memorial and standing in front of it is an old man.
I suck in my breath. A jolt of fear zips up my spine. Grease-stained overalls, white hair. I tremble so hard; I drop my phone in my lap. There’s no mistaking him. It’s the man from my nightmares. And then I remember the words written into the steam, “I can get Matty for ya, Sarah.”
Next to me, Mom turns. “Sarah, you’re trembling. You cold?” She shifts the gray fleece blanket off her lap onto mine.
“Thanks.” I lean on her shoulder. “Matt texted me,” I whisper.
“Oh, really?” I can’t see her face, but I know she’s smiling. It warms me up inside. Mom has always liked Matt. We’ve dated since eighth grade, so was always considered the fifth member of the family.
“Mom. Don’t read too much into it.” He was driving and got lost is all. But it’s weird because he ended up in Firwood.” I try to sound casual, but inside I’m scared. What kind of trouble is he in?
“Whoa. That’s a strange coincidence. Firwood’s trending tonight.” She nudges me. “Boy, you really did hate that place, didn’t you?”
“Yeah.” I shiver.
“Well, tell Matt to get out of there,” Mom says. She grabs my hand and tucks it into hers. “And when he makes it back, have him stop by the house. I just made those cookies he likes so much, oatmeal chocolate chip. If he’s anything like you, he’ll need chocolate after his visit to Firwood. Isn’t that what cures you after seeing the dementors in Harry Potter? Chocolate?” She giggles at her own joke.
I force myself to smile so Mom quits looking at me funny, all worried. My uncoordinated fingers type, “Come over. Mom made you cookies.”
In the kitchen, I fill a paper bag with cookies and set them by the front door. I open up the text conversation again and look at the photo Matt sent. I zoom in, but there’s no old guy, no burning man. Am I making all this up in my head?
I return to the living room and scooch between Mom and Annie again. Worried about Matt, I find it impossible to keep track of the show. I won’t be able to relax until I know Matt is safe and sound. I tuck fidgety hands beneath my legs and cross my fingers. Maybe something good will come of all this. Maybe tonight will be a fresh start for Matt and me. The truth is, I love him. I want us back. I lean into Mom’s shoulder and make a wish.
A news alert interrupts our show. The newscaster reads a story about a major car accident. Long backups. Five people injured, one in critical condition. He says it occurred in Firwood. Mom sucks in her breath “Honey, text Matt! Make sure he’s okay.”
How many times has my mother reminded me never to text and drive, but I am scared for Matt, so I send him a message, “Bad accident in Firwood. Are you okay?” I check my phone. Nothing. “I’m sure he’s fine,” I say.
I stare at my phone, willing him to respond. One word. An emoji. Anything. It feels like forever. Finally, gray dots throb on my screen, then a message from Matt, “I’m out front.”
“He’s fine,” I say. “He’s here.” Not hurt in that awful accident. Away from that sad town.
“Oh, thank God!” Mom answers.
As he scarfs down cookies, we talk. We’re sappy and sweet and stupid. And by the time he has to leave, we’re back together. Outside by his car, he leans in to kiss me. I close my eyes, but then open them again when I’m not kissed. “Sarah, you smell like a campfire.”
I pull a lock of hair to my nose and sniff. Definitely smoke.
“I kinda like it. Reminds me of camping. And s’mores.”
I wave goodbye as he slowly drives away beneath the amber streetlights. I catch a glimpse of myself in the reflection off his back window. It’s not me staring back. It’s him, the burning man. He’s sitting next to Matt and smiling at me. I fall to my knees and clutch my face in my hands. I watch Matt drive away through blurry hot tears. What is happening to me?
The shack smolders. Smoke blurs the edges of the wood structure, but there aren’t flames. Not yet. Finally, I’m in time to rescue the old man! I run across the wide yard, my legs move in slow motion, like I’m pushing through sand. I see the old man and grit my teeth, willing my legs to step towards him. “I’m coming! Stay there!” I scream, my throat tightens. I feel the air in my lungs, as black toxic smoke squeezes out the last of the pure oxygen. The man takes a step towards his shack. “Don’t go any closer, please! I’m coming!” I beg. He laughs as flames lap at the bottom of the wood siding, lick the walls and climb up to the roof. I reach out and watch smoke escape from the gaps in his jumpsuit, his sleeves and pant legs. Smoke pulses out of the neck of his overalls. The skin on his neck bubbles and blisters. It turns gray and crumbles as he turns to me. And I want to look away, but I can’t. I’m stuck there, mouth wide open, the heat of the fire sears my skin. I stare at him, the burning man. He turns gray like a statue, veins of red crackle and break through his flesh until he crumbles into a heap of ash. I hold my breath to keep from inhaling the ash that fills the air, ash made of him. I cough and cough. I give in to the cries of my body and inhale deeply, the soot and ash and oxygen soften the ache in my lungs. Black. Waxy like the smell of a candle that’s been blown out. I cough and the taste of blood washes over my tongue. I cough again, so hard I feel my ribs crack.
I startle awake. My mother stands above me, speaking in a jumble of words that I can hardly keep up with. “Sorry, honey. I had the worst dream.” She speaks fast and loud. “It was awful. There was a man. He was on fire. He burned to death right in front of you and then…” she wipes her nose with her free hand, “…you followed him into the fire. I don’t know why you’d do that. You’d never do that, would you, Sarah? Would you?” She sobs and I see the bundle of sage in her hand, curls of smoke twirl above my head and settle down onto me. She sweeps the sage back and forth, back and forth and I breathe in, earthy pure smoke. The burning man fades with every sage-filled breath I take. He’s far away now, like something I remember from a movie, and I am safe. “I couldn’t go back to bed until I knew you were safe.”
“Mom, I’ve had the same nightmare since our trip to Firwood,” I admit. “The man’s house burns and I try to save him but I’m always too late. I always end up watching him…”
“I know,” she nods. “I know.”
She cries as she continues to wave the smoking sage over me. The end of the bundle glows orange. I breathe in deep, letting the cleansing smoke push out the last of the old man’s tortured soul. Out out out of me and away. When she leaves, Romeo pads into my room and jumps onto my bed, snuggling into the side of me. “Hey, old friend,” I say. He pushes his head against the palm of my hand and I fall asleep to the rhythm of his purrs.
The next morning, I see a note Mom left for me on my desk:
“He’s real. I did some research. I think his spirit followed you home. The sage got rid of him, though.”
Next, I read the newspaper articles Mom attached with a paperclip.
The first is from the local paper and says:
The man who was critically burned in a Firwood fire has died, according to the King County Medical Examiner’s Office. Stan Anderson suffered burns on 90 percent of his body from the Sunday morning blaze. He died soon after medics rushed him to Harborview Medical Center. Medical investigators ruled his death a homicide. Three people have been incarcerated for the crime. An investigation is ongoing.
The second read:
In Firwood, a third sighting of the alleged “Burning Man” ghost has been attributed to deceased, Stan Anderson. Set on fire by three teenagers in 2007, locals blame a rash of car accidents on the 300 block to sightings of his spirit. A shock to drivers, a burning man appears in the busy intersection. The urban legend has drawn paranormal investigators from across the nation to Firwood.
The third article is from a website called, “Ghost Sightings, Washington’s Most Famous Ghosts,” reads:
Stan Anderson, a homeless man burned to death in Firwood after teens doused him in gasoline and set him on fire. Seen on foggy evenings, his shocking vestige has caused countless accidents at a busy intersection. Witnesses report the ghost man is surrounded by gray flames and when motorists slow for him, he rushes at their vehicles causing them to lose control and crash. In the decade since Anderson’s death, local teens have performed rituals in hopes of making his ghost appear.
As my mom slows the car at the bottom of the highway exit, I double-check the address I found online. According to the police report, this is the place. “There!” I point to the brick building that matches the black and white photo in the newspaper article. “This is where Mr. Anderson was killed.”
She rolls to a stop at the end of an alley. The brick building runs the length of the block. I take a deep breath and get out of the car, thankful to see my mom do the same. I walk into the alley and fear squeezes my guts. My hands tremble and warmth rushes at my face and hands, everywhere my coat and jeans don’t cover feels hot as though I’m standing in front of a blazing fire. This is the spot. I pull up the hood on my sweatshirt and approach a dirty rusting dumpster. I wipe tears from my cheeks.
“This is it. This is where he died.” Anger and hate pulse through my blood like oxygen.
“You doing okay, honey?” Mom approaches and wraps an arm around my waist. She pets a hand over the back of my head. “It’s awful what they did to him. He didn’t deserve this.”
“No…” I wipe my face with my sleeve, “…he didn’t. I’m so sorry for what they did to you. It was awful.” The words don’t have enough power behind them, not enough punch.
I made a drawing to honor him. The words beneath say, “Your life mattered to me. I will always remember you.” At first, I sketched the words in pencil, but it seemed too simple, too dull. Then I added black ink and layers of watercolors. The splotches in the blues and greens and yellows? Those were made when tears rolled off my face and fell onto the art. “I brought these, too.” I lay a bundle of sunflowers near the brick wall. I take a shuddery gulp of air. “I wish I’d been there to save you. I hope you can find peace somehow. I think maybe you should let this place go. You don’t have to forgive those kids, but maybe move on to something better, okay?” Mom hugs my side and we stand there in silence.
A coolness blows at my legs, up my torso and blasts into my face hard enough to blow my hood backwards. For the first time in days, I don’t smell wood smoke when I inhale. Only flowers. And rain. “Goodbye,” I whisper. “Goodbye, Mr. Anderson.”
We return home and Matty is parked at the curb waiting for me.
“You okay?” he asks as I lead him to the bench on the front porch.
“Yeah. I’m good.” I smile. I can’t help but feel like we brought the burning man, no, Mr. Anderson, peace today. I reach for Matty’s hand and take it into mine. He smiles and looks away like he’s shy about it. I kiss his cheek. The stubble growing there tickles my lips and I giggle.
He looks sideways, “What?”
“Are you growing a beard?”
“Maybe, I’m not sure.” He bends over and coughs. I put a hand to his back and he coughs deeper and then stands up. “I should probably go.”
“Are you sick, Matty?”
“Naw.” He stares down at me and something about his eyes is different, makes him look older somehow. It must be the light. “I don’t know. Maybe it is a cold. I better go.”
“Okay.” He walks down the stairs to his car.
“Hey! You forgetting something?” I ask. I chase him to his car and hug him from behind. I squeeze him around the middle and expect him to turn around and kiss me, but he freezes. I smell it then, the wood smoke that seems to radiate off of his shirt. “Now who smells like a campfire?” I try to kid, but inside my mind is racing. Didn’t the burning man say he could bring Matty back? Is that what he said to me in the dream? And then Matty went to that cursed little town. He drove right past where the burning man was killed. No. I shiver.
“I gotta go, Sarah. See you tomorrow, right?”
“Yeah. See you.” I rub my arms to feel warm again and force myself not to watch him drive away. I’m not sure who I’ll see behind the wheel. I’m not sure of anything.