Julie Marcinik. She's beautiful. She's intelligent. She's witty. And one hell of a writer. And she isn't even out of her teens yet. I'd argue that is pretty damn amazing. I met Julie when I was hosting #writeclub one Friday night. She jumped in and interacted with everyone right away, cheering them on and being supportive. Ever since then, she's been a great friend. I was lucky enough to see some samples of writing on @seeredwrite's blog, in the Wonderstruck anthology where she is published, and when she let me help her out with her query (which was pretty great for a first one).
She is always there with a cheerful comment when I'm down, support when anyone needs it, and a smile always. I really do adore this girl. She is definitely someone to watch. And know.
And her story, The Ghost is a perfect example of what she is capable of. It's a great story that left me guessing until the end. It's a chilling example of karmic retribution.
The Memory Project (continued)
Jesse leaned his chin on my shoulder while we looked at the next page of photographs. The rough stubble of his chin tickled. I giggled and kissed him on the forehead. He looked up, his brown eyes so warm, and there was this tension as if he was about to tell me something. He shook his head slightly and turned his gaze toward the page.
"That's weird," he said.
"What?" My mind was still caught up in wondering what he was going to say, what he'd been thinking.
He pointed to a picture. Another black and white. A gravestone. "Do you see that? In the picture?"
I looked closely at the image.
"I do." It gave me the chills. Another stark reminder that this suitcase and these pictures were far from ordinary.
(to be continued…)
The Ghost and the Gravestone
No. Take that back. Let me start again.
I like to take photos. I call myself a photographer, although some would have to disagree. I love candid photos, one that you come across that portray the raw emotions we feel every day. Kindness—a homeless man huddled on the corner of a street, clutching a ratty dog to his chest, giving the animal his last scrap of food. Delight—a woman bawling and smiling as her boyfriend kneels down in front of her and flourishes a ring. Pride—a child riding a bike for the first time.
I like to watch those kinds of things. It’s beautiful how emotion can change someone into something new. Even when it’s heartbreaking to see, it’s beautiful.
Like now. The young man kneels in front of a gravestone, head turned down, hands folded in his lap. His back shakes softly, but no sounds escape him. The wind whistles, rattling the leaves on a nearby tree. I can taste rain in the air, can see it brewing in the plump clouds above. Goosebumps raise the hairs on my arms. I'd been stupid to leave my jacket tied around my bike.
I change my camera’s focus and peer through the viewfinder until the man is in perfect clarity.
The flash illuminates the back of his dark shirt through the thin wisps of fog.
I take another picture.
“What the hell?” The man's voice is strangled, torn between despair and anger. Muscles bulge under his shirt as he rises and closes the distance between us. I'll admit now—I'm a coward. Confrontation isn't my thing. I'm more of a keep-to-the-sidelines kind of guy. This guy looks like a professional linebacker, and I barely pass for a waterboy.
I'm used to this. It happens. People don't understand my art. This guy will yell and move on. I'm fine. I won't—
His fist shoots out, barely missing my shoulder.
I stammer out an apologize, flinching back so hard the camera lens catches me in the jaw. A flash of pain, bright as lightning on a dark summer night, erupts behind my eyes. The camera falls to the ground.
"You're sorry? Do you enjoy this? My pain? My suffering? What the fuck is wrong with you?"
My grandmother always told me I was 5 foot of 'skin and bones.' I'm not a fighter. Not when the guy is pissed and has at least five inches on me. I'm facing down a bull, all flared nostrils, red face, and big eyes. I don't miss the irony in the red shirt I'm wearing, even in my fear.
A firework of pain explodes across my jaw. More pain, another flash of brightness behind my eyelids. Garbled words I can't make out. Then, quiet. Dark.
Oh, God. So much blood. Dried on my cheek, clumping my hair together. Seeping into the ground...
I realize I’m on the ground.
I hesitantly touch my head and let out a heave of relief. Mud. Only mud. How long has it been? The sky is darker, the ground soggy from rain. My eyes are drowsy, unadjusted, like I’ve woken from a long slumber.
My camera lays a few feet away, dirty but hopefully unbroken. Pain jumps and throbs in my jaw like a live wire as I roll onto my stomach and then to my knees and finally to my feet. The world wobbles, but I gain my balance.
The man’s long gone, leaving behind only a messy, crumpled assortment of lilies at the grave. I glance past the inscription and retrieve my camera. It's not cracked, thankfully. Moonlight glints off the lens, but I can't see if it's scratched.
Melody's going to be pissed to see me like this—dirty and bruised. She always said my 'art' would get me into trouble. On more than one occasion, it had. I'd gotten slapped, screamed at, kicked out of restaurants, and once a drink tossed in my face.
"This isn't any different," I tell myself, beginning to trek across the cobblestone path. Someone's watching me. I feel eyes on my back, boring holes in my shirt.
I brace myself for an entourage of insults, maybe another punch.
"I'm leaving, see?" I hold up my less-than-perfect camera as a meek sign of surrender. "No more pictures."
I feel the burn of his stare.
"Look, I'm sorr...y." I end on a high note when, after whirling around, I realize no one's there. The feeling of being watched dissipates, and I walk on.
The sensation comes again, slowly at first like the prick of a needle. Then, as if a thousand needles pinch my skin together. I glance over my shoulder. The graveyard is vacant. At least what I can see. The fog drapes a wispy curtain over the tombstones. I can't see further than a few strides in front of me, and like I said, I'm a coward. I quicken my pace.
As the cemetery gates clang shut behind me, I hear a sound over the whistle of the wind. A girl's voice.
No, I hear nothing. I'm imagining things, putting shadows that aren't there, splashing my overactive imagination across this eerie scene.
It's saying 'help me.'
I pluck the photographs from the fixer solution and hang them from a clothesline.
My darkroom is my sanctuary. I could spend forever here, and it'd never be enough time. The vinegar tang of acetic acid smells like home. The red light that flickers in the corner looks like the finest chandelier.
Once the photos are all hung, I turn off the red light and switch on the normal fluorescent bulb. The images don't look ruined, but the camera is. Upon closer inspection, I'd realized the lens surface is severely scratched. I'm not sure whether to trash it and buy a new one or opt out for a new lens. These thoughts bog down my enthusiasm, so I push them aside and focus on the images.
Anger. A tearful woman with hair so crazy it could rival Medusa's shouting at an older man.
Love. An ancient couple holding hands under a willow tree.
Greed. A teenager pocketing a watch from a street vendor.
Sadness. The man in the cemetery. I stop at this one. It's the only one that's ruined. It's perfect except for a single smudge. I wipe at it with my finger even though I know it's no use. I'd already put the photo in the solution—it's permanent.
Sighing, I pull it off the clip and—
It's not a smudge.
It's a girl.
Melody's fast asleep by the time I waltz in and slip past the bedroom. I stop at the bathroom door, one foot in each room, when I hear her. She makes a soft sound in her sleep and rolls over, mumbling,
"Rus? Is that you?"
I laugh at her groggy state. "Of course. Were you expecting someone else?" I push her ebony hair away from her face.
"It's late." Melody squints at me.
"I know, Mel. I'm sorry. I just—"
"You're hurt." Her eyes widen a fraction of an inch. Her slender fingers trace my jaw, and I wince, having forgotten about the bruise.
"I know, and I'm sorry, but—"
She heaves a sigh and turns away from me, hands clasped over her stomach. "No more excuses. What about when the baby comes? Are you going to still spend all day and night taking pictures? I love that you love your photography, honey, but you're obsessed. You spend every second waiting for that 'moment'—"
"I don't want to miss it!" I interrupt. The moment is always short-lived and easy to miss. Emotions pass in the blink of an eye.
Melody continues with another sigh, "and you're going to spend your life waiting."
"You know I'll sell them. I'll support us."
"That's not the point." She pulls the blankets close to her. "I don't know if I can wait for you."
I close the bathroom door behind me.
I turn the photo over in my hands repeatedly as if the motion will make sense of things.
That girl hadn't been there.
But, she's in the photo, looking like she’s concocted of tufts of fog and dew.
I drop the photo and take a gulp of whiskey, letting the fluid burn away the confusion. I only drink when I'm stressed, despite what Melody says. She calls it a habit. It's not. It's a vice. The whiskey numbs everything and the photo swims in front of me. I feel my eyelids growing heavy like they’re pulled down by anchors.
The word slips into my foggy mind a second before I feel myself drifting, floating, buzzing:
I wake up on the couch with a quilt strewn haphazardly over my legs. I sit up too quickly, and my head throbs. Squeezing my eyes shut, I wait until the pain subsides to move. I open my eyes and notice the pink note on the coffee table.
Needed some space. I’ll stay at my sisters. I can’t watch you lose yourself again. Last time, you said you’d stop. I’m not going through this again. Make your choice.
The note is blunt, and I know exactly what my choice is. Photography or her. I rack my head for an answer, but I can't choose. I love them both. Why is she making me choose? One time, I'd gone over the edge. I'd lost weight, let myself go, and slept only when it was absolutely necessary. I'd spent every second wandering the streets like a shadow, searching for that 'Kodak moment'.
I'd caught a homeless man sleeping in front of a liquor store with an empty bottle in his hands, hand clutching a ratty photo I couldn't make out, sadness etched into his features like old leather—despair.
A woman clad in a miniskirt, fishnets, and a low-cut shirt leaning over a rusty car, lips puckered as she named her price—desperation.
The emotions had been so raw. I'd let myself get lost in the beauty. I'd almost lost Melody in the process.
It's not going to go that far. Melody knows that. I know that. She's being overworrisome because of the baby. Come tomorrow, she'll be back. She always comes back.
I push the note away and, after polishing two aspirins and leftover lasagna, recede to my desk. The picture is facedown, its corners wrinkled and worn where I'd held it.
I don't flip it. I don't need to see the wispy figure that hadn't been there, the blur that's too eerily human to be a mere error of film. Ghosts aren't real. But....as I turn the picture over, there she is, almost camouflaged into the background, eyes closed, face looking down at the man. Who is she? His daughter? Sister? Niece?
Am I crazy? Is Melody right? Am I too obsessed? Am I chasing a ghost—no pun intended?
I stare at the blob again, squinting. It doesn't change. It's definitely there. It's a girl. No doubt.
This part of the cemetery is empty save for the birds that hide in the thick foliage, heard but unseen. I feel their beady eyes on my back.
Fear. If I could snap a picture of myself, that's the emotion I'd see.
The sun beats on my back, yet I shiver.
"Hello?" The word brings a jab of pain to my bruised jaw.
I slowly approach the tombstone, replacement camera clutched in my right hand. It's old—evident from how worn it is, ravaged from the weather. I think the stone used to be marbled, shiny, and pretty, but now, it's grainy and flecked with dirt.
I think of the man I'd seen hunched over this stone and wonder how often he visited. Did he clean it? No weeds or moss crowd the stone, so someone's been tending to it, but the stone itself looks like it hasn't been brushed off in years. Swiping my hand across the surface, I wipe away the grime until I can read.
Taken away too soon. Laughing with the angels now.
Sophia Lynn Rivers
The man who'd been here yesterday had to be in his mid-twenties to early thirties, so this can't be his daughter. I lean back and snap a picture of the stone, putting the inscribed words into focus.
"Help me." The wind picks up just as the voice comes, and I'm not sure I heard her at all. The sun is still glowing, but I can't feel it. The cemetery has dropped at least fifteen degrees.
I jump, catch my replacement camera before it falls, and spin around slowly.
"Sophia, is that you?" I ask, trying not to feel foolish by talking to the wind. Dead leaves crunch underneath my feet as I stand.
"Sophia? I know you're here." I pull out the crumpled photograph and flourish it out in front of me. "I see you. I saw you, I mean. In this." I wave the picture. "Are you here now?"
I hear a faint sound, something I can't make out. A word? A moan?
"Give me a sign."
Wind howls, and the photo is ripped from my hands. Heart jumping faster than a dog's tail, I chase it down. Dodging gray stones and protruding rocks, I find the picture tangled in the cast-iron entrance gates, fluttering. When I reach it, the wind slows and the photograph falls to the ground, barely missing a mound of dirt.
"Was that you, Soph—" I break off and stare at the dirt. It's moving. Blinking, I watch at words appear, dug into the dirt as if by a stick, sloppy and barely deep enough to read.
"Why are you here? What are you waiting for?"
I squint at the dirt as imaginary hands wipe it away and write a new message.
Raking my fingers through my hair, I blow out an agitated breath.
Can't move on. Stuck.
"Why are you stuck? How can I help? What can I...?"
Footsteps sound behind me. Heavy, slow, dragging steps. The words are swiped clean from the dirt, and no new ones appear. The footsteps are closer, louder, and then they stop.
I stand up slowly.
It's him, the man who knocked me unconscious with one punch. As soon as he sees me, I can tell he remembers me.
"You again?" He makes an irritated sound, shakes his head, and continues to walk.
"Wait!" I follow. "I need to ask you something."
"If you're here to take my picture again, fuck off!" He growls, muscles tensing.
"No pictures. Just—"
"Go away," he grunts, moving faster, crushing plants and flowers beneath his giant feet.
"Can you stop for—"
"How did you know Sophia?"
His pace falters.
"Was she your sister?"
"A friend? How did she die?" The questions leave my mouth before I can contemplate how obnoxious I'm being.
He stops so quickly, I almost plow into his back—not that it would do any damage to someone his size.
"That's it, isn't it? She was your friend?" What does she want me to do? How can I help her?
His palms slap against my chest as he shoves me away and continues to walk.
"Don't make me tell you again." There's a fire in his eyes that could burn me if I look too long. "Leave me alone."
He stomps away, towards Sophia's weathered stone, and I don't follow. I know my boundaries.
My phone vibrates from yet another text from Melody. I don't read it; there's already been ten today. I have to help Sophia, and then, I can fix things with Mel. I turn off my phone and stuff it into my bag before turning to the newspapers in front of me.
I don't know how many I grabbed, but they're decently thick with ads and ripped pages spilling out like entrails. They're all dated 1999—the year Sophia Rivers died.
I go through each month separately.
January and February give me nothing, March gives me false hope when it mentions a Sophia who'd won a spelling bee. The last name isn't Rivers, so I toss it aside. April through September prove to be useless as well.
I don't even get to the obituaries.
She's on the front page. She's miling with bright green eyes and a white dress, brown hair tucked carefully behind her eyes. Sophia's young and happy in this picture.
Sadness seizes my lungs; for a second, I can't breathe. The library walls disintegrate around me, and I'm left staring at the fuzzy headliner.
An Innocent Life Lost
The library comes back into focus—the pretty librarian, the rainbow of books, and ancient computers—and I hastily turn to the article.
The next day, I find him at the cemetery again. I know what Sophia wants. I know how to help. I know why she won't leave this graveyard.
Closure. I imagine a family, relieved yet sad.
I hope I'm right.
He's hunched over her stone again, head buried in his palms. He has to come here every day, bringing a small array of flowers, tending to the stone, and drowning in his guilt. It's been fourteen years, and I doubt he's missed more than a few days coming here.
I set my camera on the ground before I say, "You killed her."
The way he stiffens tells me all I need to know. He doesn't turn.
"Why didn't you tell anyone?"
"It was an accident," he says, hoarsely, shaking. He doesn't look so tough now that I've stripped him of his armor. He's like a turtle without its shell—soft and vulnerable and weak. I could crush him.
"You hit her when she was on a bike. You hit her and left her there to die. It wasn't instantly. You could have saved her. You could have done something." She's dead because of you, and now she's stuck here, caught between words, because you never confessed.
I'd thought I was a coward. Now, standing next to a real one, I know that's not the truth. Melody would be proud of me.
"I didn't mean to. It was...the road....I didn't see the damn ice." He shakes his head. "I got the car under control, and I thought the noise was...nothing. I read it in the paper the next day, and I knew. Hell, I was on probation. I couldn't get into more trouble, so I kept quiet."
"Were you drunk?"
"I was fine."
"Were you drunk?" The sky darkens, and just like that, I know that Sophia's here. I can feel her in the whistle of the wind and the rattle of the leaves.
He stays quiet.
"What's your name?"
"You need to tell her family. All this time, they didn't know who was responsible."
"She's dead. Telling won't bring her back. They'll only hate me," Jason sniffles.
Of course. "They need this. How do you think it feels to know your daughter died and suffered but not know who did it? You feel bad, don't you? That may help them, to know it wasn't ruthless and that you've thought about it every day. Anything will help."
"I can't. Anything else, I'll do. Just not that. I can't go to jail."
"You have to pay for what you did."
Anger melts away Jason's guilt, and he jumps to his feet, mouth pressed into a thin line. "You can't tell anyone."
"I can't let her family suffer anymore," I say gallantly.
"I can't let you do that."
Everything happens fast. His fingers cinch my neck, and I claw at them. Skin peels away under my blunt fingernails, but his grip doesn't budge. He's mumbling to himself, and I catch a mantra of "can't, can't, can't" over and over again.
Vision growing fuzzy around the edges, I gasp and try to yell. I try to kick, but Jason dodges my efforts. I feel...weak...can't breathe. Uncomfortable pressure explodes in my chest, emptiness fills my lungs, and I can't see straight. I see dots.
A flash of blue lightning, a crack of thunder as loud as a lion's roar.
The pressure subsides, but I feel lightheaded. As I spiral towards the ground, I see Jason's wide eyes watching something to his right.
Sophia, face drawn, is standing beside him, mouthing something. He trips over a rock in an attempt to run and plummets toward the ground.
A loud crack and then silence.
"Thank you" is the last thing I hear before Sophia dissolves, a golden smile slanting her features. A surreal, liquid warmth runs through my veins.
The storm clouds dissipate, but I still see black dots.
"Sir, sir, are you okay?"
Someone, donned in white, apparel hovers over me with a flashlight. It's not until then that I hear the telltale sirens—the ambulance is here. I remember seeing a frowning crypt keeper when I entered the cemetery, and immediately know who called them. I take a second glance and realize I'm in the ambulance.
The EMT glances behind him. "Your friend?"
"He wasn't my friend."
Relief lightens his features. "He died on the way to the hospital. He was taken in another ambulance. They couldn't do anything. There was no way."
"Did he say anything?" The cops can't question him about the hit and run if he's not there to testify.
The EMT is quiet.
"Did he say anything about Sophia Rivers?"
"How do you know her?"
"Did he?" I repeat, frustrated.
The EMT sighs loudly. "He kept mumbling about seeing her and how he was sorry. He said 'it was an accident' and...I shouldn't be telling you this." His eyebrows furrow.
"Tell me, please."
Another glance behind him—at whoever is driving, I assume.
"Keep it a secret." His voice lowers. "Sophia died a while back. Hit and run, they said. This—Jason, you say?—said 'I killed Sophia Rivers.' He kept repeating himself, up until his heartbeat went flat. Wouldn't stop."
"How did he die?"
"He hit his head off one of the tombstones. By the time we were called, it was too late. We tried." Concern mars his tone.
"Thank you. For telling me." I lean back against the hard cot I'm lying on and sigh.
Sophia's okay. I helped her.
"Want to know what's creepy?" The EMT leans forward, like a woman about to spill some juicy gossip.
"The tombstone he hit? It was Sophia's."
I'm released from the hospital with mild bruising and a tiny concussion. I was told the police with be in touch for information about Jason Martin, but I'm not worried about that now.
I find myself in the cemetery again.
I can tell Sophia's gone. The air is less tense, warmer, and clearer. She's gone. She's moved on to wherever ghosts go.
I read her tombstone slowly. Maybe, she really is with the angels now; I can't say.
Her family won't be happy per se, but they will have closure, and after nearly fourteen years, that's one thing they need. They'll know that the one who killed their precious daughter was found and is now dead.
My replacement camera is surprisingly still here, covered in a layer of cool dew. I hesitantly pick it up and let myself think about Melody for the first time in almost a week.
I know my choice.
Happiness. I snap a picture of Sophia's tombstone. Wherever she is, she's happy now.
I love pictures. I love seeing raw emotions. I love the beauty of happiness, sadness, love, desperation...it's such a rare art.
But, why not live the emotions instead of watching on the sidelines?
I picture Melody—I'll apologize, choose her, and make amends somehow even if it takes hours and hours—and our future baby and know that I won't need this camera anymore. I leave it there, in front of the Sophia's gravestone, and walk away, leaving my old life behind.
I can still take pictures, but these ones—these emotions—will be centered around my beautiful family.
I'll buy a new camera and with it, start creating new memories.
My own memories.
Find Julie on twitter here: @jmarcinikglsd
Read Julie's blog here: http://figment.com/users/44471-Julie-Marcinik