THE BIRDWHISTLE PRIZE IN SHORT FICTION 2016
The bottle of cheap cherry brandy was missing.
Nate had stuffed it into the canvas grass trap on the lawnmower assuming nobody would think to look there, but it was gone just in time for summer vacation and no one was admitting to the theft. It wasn’t exactly the kind of thing you could flyer the neighborhood about.
Nate knew his parents weren’t responsible. Nothing angry had happened since it had been gone. Nothing yelled about or broken. Five days. It had been gone five days and his curfew hadn’t tightened, his car keys hadn’t been locked in a desk drawer. Nothing had changed.
“You brushed your teeth twice?”
“Let me see?” He bared his teeth and his mother leaned close to make sure he was telling the truth while straightening his hopeless clip-on bowtie. She smelled of red wine and house paint. The upstairs hallway carpet was swimming in drop cloth. One side was pale yellow, the opposite wall a pale lizard green. She couldn’t decide between the two colors, so she bought a wallpaper remnant from the hardware store covered in green and yellow wildflowers and glued it to the tiny wall at the end of the hallway. Before the glue had set, she decided the crown molding needed a fresh coat of white.
It would continue this way until it started getting dark earlier and earlier. New doorknobs on all the doors. Paintings materializing from the attic, choking the walls with oily ocean scenes. Her favorite shows would come back from summer hiatus and there would be big piles of craft supplies in the TV room waiting to be transformed. His mother collected things, changed them. He knew she was waiting for him to bring someone home. Girl, boy. It didn’t matter to her. She was proud of the house. How many rooms it had. How different they all were. How much of all of it she’d made herself. But Nate didn’t feel brave enough to love anybody, so for now, it was boxed wine and home improvement.
“And you really don’t have a date?” she asked, disappointed. Nate wanted to make a joke here. To invent somebody his mother would love.
“People don’t really do that.” His shoes pinched (it was the first time he was wearing them since the funeral) and he couldn’t help thinking being a little drunk would make the whole night vanish more quickly.
“Of course people take dates to the prom.” His mother motioned to the dining room picture window. Across the street, as if on television, Maryellen Hughes was standing on her front steps, laughing and tossing her hair while her mother took Polaroids of her date slipping a corsage of hideous lilies onto her wrist.
“She knows those are the flowers people leave on graves, right?”
His mother fought with frowning and lost. She was wine-flushed and getting annoyed.
“Nathaniel you have to be the most morbid…”
He ran the sink until the water was cold enough and filled a glass so he wouldn’t have to look at her.
“Kidding,” he shrugged. “Permission to stay out all night?”
“So long as you make breakfast when you get in,” his mother said, getting her own glass of water and stopping to kiss his forehead as she passed. “There are plenty of eggs in the fridge, and I think your father finally got the waffle iron working again.” The kitchen table was crowded with the week’s sales circulars, splayed and chopped apart, a neat stack of coupons next to his mother’s wine glass. “Bring your friends,” she added a beat later.
Instead of answering, Nate looked out the picture window again and saw Maryellen getting into the car with her date. From where he stood, it seemed like they were already arguing. She smacked the guy in the arm as the pulled out of the driveway.
“No drinking, no drugs, no sex. But if you have to, please just make sure I don’t hear about it,” his mother pleaded, half-joking.
The bottle hadn’t even been opened and now it was gone. Nate wasn’t a drinker, had never even touched the stuff, but when he won it in a bet he wasn’t sorry. Maybe the lost bottle was what drove him to park his car next to the school gymnasium to just sit there with the engine off. Maybe it was what drove him away from the dance and all over town that night. While everyone else was sneaking cigarettes or kisses or sips of whatever next to their cars in the parking lot, Nate circled back roads listening to the radio, brainstorming a convincing version of the night to tell his mother over the aforementioned waffles.
He’d made four loops of the entire town by the time his eyes got heavy, only getting stuck at the single traffic light once. And then he saw a girl walk out of the woods and up the path to the tiny stone church that hadn’t had a congregation in several decades.
Nate read aloud from the handwritten sign, “Breath should be held when passing the cemetery…”
“…as breathing is disrespectful to the dead,” Willy finished. She fiddled with the lock; it fell open and into the grass.
“Who wrote that?”
Nate had never dared set foot in a graveyard before. He knew Willy did well on physics tests; he knew she liked reading romance novels from the dollar bin at the truck stop just off the highway; he knew she climbed out onto the roof outside her bedroom window to smoke after her parents fell asleep. But he certainly had no idea she had keys to the bone gardens.
Willy spent more time in the graveyard than she did in her own house. Nate never saw her walking home from the bus stop after school anymore. She had favorite headstones she’d etched onto wax sandwich paper and tacked to her bedroom walls. They’d studied for the previous year’s chemistry final together; the spring wind had whipped the loose edges away from her wallpaper in a way that made the etchings sound like sawgrass, alive. Now she did all of her homework in the un-mowed grass until at least the first frost. Nate did his homework at his mother’s kitchen table next to the coupons. He stumbled after Willy through the rows of slanted granite, uncomfortable dress shoes in hand, catching his toes on bits of stone and uneven patches of moss.
When he found Willy again, she was sitting under a gnarled tree, the black tulle underskirt of her prom dress spread out around her in an almost perfect circle, a rusty cookie tin in her lap. The orange moon was one night away from full, and Willy had told him while they were walking that the fuller the moon got, the more likely running into a ghost.
“I saw one once,” she’d whispered reverently, and though Nate waited for her to go on, she failed to elaborate. Even without a proper story, Nate believed her. He’d seen ghosts too. Or, a ghost. In the yard between his house and Willy’s. A girl ghost, spotted from his tree house one night while he should’ve been studying for a trig exam. Not quite as foggy as they are in the movies, not runny or formless or trailing off at the ankles like a sheet hanging from a chandelier. She looked just like a normal girl, but milky. His age, even. Maybe his mother would stop leaving dessert plates in the yard for ghosts if he lied and told her the house was full again. The girl stood by the lake with a hand on her hip. Nate only looked away for a second to check if any lights were on in her house, to see if someone had moved in, but when he looked back, the girl had vanished.
He sat down next to Willy and she showed him the contents of the cookie tin: three marbles, a very old pint of moonshine with wax seal intact, a shard of floral china, a truck stop hash pipe, various bits of string, and a piece of newspaper dated June 1991.
ONE YEAR LATER, NO EVIDENCE IN CASE OF MISSING GIRL—Nate mouthed the words as he read them.
“They dredged the lake and never found a body,” Willy offered. “She lived in that house…”
“I know,” Nate interrupted. “She could’ve run away.”
“Everybody does at some point,” Willy sighed. “I can’t wait to get out of here.”
“A city?” It was more of a question than a stated fact. “I don’t know.” She produced a sandwich bag of pot and packed the pipe. Nate took it when she passed it, started coughing after his first inhale and couldn’t stop.
“Water?” he wheezed. She handed him the moonshine. The brown liquid went down with an antiseptic sting, but it did stop the cough.
“Better?” she asked before taking a swig of her own. Nate nodded. They took turns with bottle and pipe and soon were dizzy and lying on their backs, staring up at the orange moon, hands nearly touching.
“I wonder who left it,” Nate said, cutting the silence in half.
“Bootlegger,” Willy answered, sounding bored.
Nate took another short pull and looked at the labelless bottle in his hands. How could it be that they were the first to open it? Maybe it had been drained and refilled with piss or something similar, new wax poured over the old cork to complete the lie. Maybe it wasn’t moonshine at all, only long-forgotten cider. Maybe he should kiss her now and get it over with, Nate thought, setting the bottle on the ground and shifting his weight towards where Willy was sprawled.
But the face he caught in his hand was not warm with liquor like his: it was smooth and cool as stone. The mouth felt practiced somehow, though Willy had sworn on her cookie tin that she’d never been kissed. When he opened his eyes, he could see right through the back of her head. Is this what being drunk is like? he wondered, but closed his eyes again, because maybe it was, and while Willy doubled over the wrought iron fence and puked up moonshine and gravy fries and cheap shot-gunned beers as quietly as she could manage, Nate continued to kiss the ghost that had taken her place beneath the willow tree—a ghost with no headstone to sleep beneath, a girl who had kissed three boys before she died and dozens afterwards and few of them had known the difference.