I fear not spirits, ghosts, of which I am one, — that my body might, — but I fear bodies, I tremble to meet them. What is this Titan that has possession of me? Talk of mysteries! — Think of our life in nature, — daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, — rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?
—Henry David Thoreau, “Ktaadn”
Wednesday, October 28th, 2015
Beca really should have let Chloe know how much she hated ghost stories.
She honestly couldn’t have identified more strongly with the hiccupping first grader who, nestled in Chloe’s lap, had finally stopped crying. Chloe was still holding the book out in front of her with her free hand, but she’d made her voice so gentle that even that recently-terrified six-year-old no longer seemed to mind that she was talking about a headless horseman.
Beca looked around at the kids around her in the circle—some sitting cross-legged, some lying on their stomachs with their heads propped up on their hands, but all of them with their eyes fixed, mesmerized, on their storyteller as she nearly whispered her way through the last few pages.
Honestly, Beca couldn’t blame them.
It was her first time seeing Chloe since she’d moved to Massachusetts three months before. Beca had replayed the memory of the last time she’d seen her—at Aubrey’s dinner party that summer—so many times that it had actually been sort of weird to see her again, looking just slightly different than in that last image engraved upon her brain.
She’d cut her hair; its red waves just barely reached her shoulders. When Chloe had opened the door of the museum to her just an hour or two before and pulled her into her arms, Beca had tried to focus on that, or on how Chloe’s sweater must have been new. It was all those new details which were throwing her off, obviously. That was why she was feeling so unsettled.
Well, that and how the dude in the story was literally throwing his severed head across a river—Jesus. Beca would never understand why people were into this sort of thing.
Chloe caught her eyes as she read out the final sentence, closing the book. She smiled warmly, lifting her eyebrows at Beca, who could feel her face responding (without permission) in a smile of her own. Chloe wouldn’t have broken eye contact, probably, if the boy in her lap hadn’t started pulling on her sleeve. She tilted her head down towards him to hear whatever he had to say.
“Were you scared?” a boy in a dinosaur shirt sitting near Beca asked the girl to his left.
“No. It wasn’t that scary. Who would even be scared by that?”
Probably the boy in the dinosaur shirt, Beca thought. He was holding his knees pretty tightly to his chest.
“Yeah,” dinosaur-shirt-boy agreed uncertainly. “I wasn’t that scared either.”
The kid on Chloe’s lap, finally, had rejoined the circle.
“So,” Chloe intoned brightly, moving her gaze around the circle to meet the eyes of each individual child, “who wants to tell me what they’re going to be for Halloween?”
The arms shot up wildly.
Chloe squinted as she exaggeratedly deliberated over which hand to select first. Beca had to choke down a laugh, watching Chloe play her eager audience so well.
But her enjoyment of the scene was cut short by the frantic gesturing of Leila, Chloe’s boss and, allegedly, her “Massachusetts bestie.”
Beca blankly watched Leila’s waving for a few seconds, not realizing she was directing it at her. When she kept going, with more than a hint of annoyance in her eyes, Beca pointed at herself hesitantly, and mouthed, “me?”
Leila looked back at her like she was a complete idiot. She nodded shortly.
Beca could hear Chloe stumble a little in the middle of her sentence as Beca stood up (“so we have… oh… sorry. So, we have three Elsas so far?”)
“What’s up?” Beca whispered to Leila when she made her way to the back of the room.
“Finally,” Leila mumbled in what Beca thought was really quite an impressive, if unintentional, impression of Aubrey Posen. Chloe had such an awful type. “I need your help moving all the pumpkins from my car.”
“Chloe’s going to paint them with the kids.”
Oh. That was… okay, that was ridiculously cute.
Beca felt the warmth spread in her chest and thought—shit.
She was so screwed.
At least Chloe was enjoying her random-as-fuck new job as the Director of Children’s Programming at the Todesbury Historical Society and Museum.
As were many of world’s problems, Chloe moving to New England had been Aubrey’s fault.
Chloe had left the job search a little late, obviously, not even having had time to work on it between the retreat and the Worlds. Aubrey had swooped in, networking by proxy, calling friends of friends (… of friends) all summer until she’d gotten a lead from her former voice coach from high school—Leila’s aunt.
Beca thought it was ridiculous, honestly. Chloe could have found something just as good for her in Atlanta if Aubrey would have just let her.
To be honest, Beca had been seething about it for the past few months. But it was hard to maintain her anger as she watched Chloe reveling in her new position.
And, like, pumpkin-painting?
That was, actually, really perfect for her.
To get to the parking lot, Beca and Leila had to walk through the creepiest, saddest playground Beca had ever had the misfortune of encountering.
She’d walked through it just a few hours earlier after parking her own car, and had hated all thirty seconds of the journey.
She wasn’t a big fan of playgrounds in general. It was a weird sense memory thing, how they brought her right back to every recess of elementary school, sitting quietly under a tree, watching the other kids play as she carefully pulled the onion weeds out from the ground.
Seriously, that’s how she had passed the time—she’d focus on pulling the grass carefully and slowly enough that it’d come out with the bulb attached. She used to get so pissed at herself when she broke off the leaves accidentally, and would dig through the dirt with her fingers to root out the rest.
(She’d told Chloe that once, thinking she might find it funny, but as she did, it looked like actual tears had sprung to Chloe’s eyes. So it must have been pretty strange, Beca guessed.)
But this place—it was worse.
At the center of the playground was a tall metal pole with two rusty chained ladders hanging down the sides, anchored to a wheel at the top of the pole. Beca couldn’t imagine any reasonably safe use of this terrifying contraption even before it had obviously fallen into disuse.
The whole plot was flanked by two rows of empty swings which, pushed by the wind, creaked in uneven rhythm as Beca and Leila walked past. And—maybe this is what really did it—apart from that, it was basically empty. There was a steep metal slide next to one of the swing sets, all but covered with dead leaves, but that was it.
To her right, even more bizarrely, Beca could see the outline of a tall grey-brown stone obelisk, but whatever was written on it was obscured by a branch of orange leaves.
She walked so quickly through the playground, it was possible her stride actually qualified as a jog.
As Leila bent down to lift a box of pumpkins off the floor of her car, Beca noticed the tattoo along the inside of her right arm. Long lines of lettering covered almost all of the skin between her wrist and elbow, but from a couple feet away, Beca could only make out a few words.
Her heart sunk a little. There was no doubt about the fact that Leila was hotter than her (Beca had spent half of their first conversation trying to figure out who she looked like, and realized finally that she kind of resembled M.I.A.), and Chloe had probably already realized from hanging out with her that tattoos and scowls weren’t as much of a novelty as she might have thought before. Judging by the t-shirt Leila was wearing under her open jacket, its thick white letters proclaiming, “SMITH,” Chloe probably had a shot if she wanted one.
Ugh, what was she even doing? What did it matter what—or who—Chloe wanted?
Leila shoved the heavy box of miniature pumpkins into Beca’s arms, and climbed into her backseat to pick up a second one.
Kicking the car door closed behind her, she gave Beca an appraising look.
“So, what’s the deal with you two?” she asked, sounding more curious than annoyed for the first time in their interaction.
Beca was grateful for the distraction of the gust of wind which reared up then, excusing a few seconds of silence.
“Us two?” She tried to sound indifferent. “You mean me and Chloe?”
Leila didn’t even dignify that with a response. Beca clasped the box of pumpkins more tightly against her chest.
“Nothing—I mean, nothing. We’ve been friends for a long time. Four years—that’s sort of a long time, right? And, you know, a cappella war flashbacks. And all that. We’re deal-free.”
Oh God. The rambling was painful.
Leila locked her car with a touch to the fob on her keys. She didn’t respond.
“Why, did she say something about me?” Beca asked—too eagerly—and immediately regretted it.
Leila had gone back to looking at her like she was deeply stupid. Chastised, Beca glanced down at the pumpkins.
They walked back quietly through the playground, and Beca’s eyes roved for a second time to that hidden obelisk behind the tree.
“There’s actually some cool history there,” she said, her voice unexpectedly hinting at excitement. “You wanna see it?”
“Oh—yeah,” Beca responded, even if what she really wanted was to get the fuck away from that playground. “Sure.”
Leila led her across the grass back towards the line of trees. She placed the box of pumpkins on the ground as they reached the stone monument, and reached out to move aside the tree branch. Beca, shivering with a renewed chill from the wind, strained to read the somewhat faded words in front of her:
Mr. and Mrs. Josiah Mather Bard
dedicate this playground
in the name of their only son,
SAMUEL MATHER BARD,
in memory of his happy youth.
Leila moved her index finger to the name at the center of the obelisk.
“Samuel Bard,” she said. “He founded this place.”
“The town?” Beca asked, trying not to sound too weirded out by the whole situation.
Leila looked almost offended.
“Uh, no. Todesbury was incorporated into the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1628. He founded the museum.”
“Oh—right. Yeah. Of course.”
“Chloe and I will explain more after the kids leave,” Leila told her. “It’s actually a really interesting story.”
Beca had actually been hoping she and Chloe would finally get to spend some time alone after the kids left, but—whatever.
“Well, I’ll just have to wait with baited breath until then,” she said.
“You do that,” Leila replied indifferently, picking up her box of pumpkins.
Chloe paired Beca with dinosaur-shirt-boy (whose name, as it turned out, was Damian) to help him paint his pumpkin, while she and Leila multitasked between the rest of the kids.
“Dude, you can totally give your pumpkin scales if you want to,” Beca answered Damian’s question. “Like, do whatever you want.”
He smiled a little, nervously, at that, and dipped his thick paintbrush into the green paint.
“Did you think that story was scary?” he asked quietly, moving an inch closer to Beca in his chair.
She leaned forward so that she, too, could whisper her answer.
“The scariest,” she told him, and his smile grew wider.
Beca started as she felt a hand against the back of her shoulder.
When she turned, the delight she saw in Chloe’s eyes probably meant that she’d caught the end of their conversation. Embarrassing, but Beca couldn’t bring herself to regret it too much.
She was scratching the dried globs of paint the kids had left behind off the plastic table-covering with her fingernails when Leila came over and, shaking her head, handed her a scraping tool.
Chloe was sitting across from Beca at the table, her head balanced on one of her palms. She wasn’t cleaning at all. Beca did her best to ignore the intensity of her staring.
“So, Beca wants to hear the Bard story,” Leila broke the silence.
That was definitely overstating the case, but Beca didn’t contradict her.
“Oh,” Chloe said, moving her face off her hand and sitting up straight. “I don’t know, Leila.” She shook her head warningly at her friend, as if Beca couldn’t see what she was doing.
“Come on,” Beca replied, rolling her eyes. “I can take it, Chloe.”
Chloe looked a little stung. “I didn’t mean that, Beca… it’s just a really sad story.”
“Try me,” Beca insisted.
(She didn’t know why. She honestly had no interest in any of this.)
Leila watched Beca stare defiantly back at her. After a moment, she turned around and walked towards the wall, moving a framed photograph off of the nail on which it was hanging.
Chloe looked nervous—she was biting at the back of her lower lip like she sometimes did—as Leila handed the picture to Beca.
The photo, it looked like, was of a soldier. His uniform didn’t have a single crease in it. The picture was black and white, obviously, but Beca could still tell that his eyes (light-colored, probably blue) looked hopeful and proud.
“That’s when he was eighteen,” Leila explained. “Right before he left for the front.”
“World War I,” Chloe clarified quietly. She knew how much Beca hated history.
“Okay, so?” Beca asked.
She put the photo down on the table. She didn’t really like touching it.
“So—well, he was kind of Todesbury royalty. I mean, in the most anti-monarchist, Puritan sense, of course.” Leila paused for the laughter that obviously was not going to follow that statement. Undeterred by the silence, she went on. “His mom’s family had helped found the town. On his dad’s side, he was descended from people like Cotton Mather, so, that speaks for itself.”
Beca stared back at her vacantly. Leila was really striking out with the historical jokes.
“Can Chloe please tell the rest of this story?” she asked, her tone revealing her irritation.
“Beca, Leila is, like, the world expert on this person,” Chloe told her, and Leila smiled a little with pride.
Beca crossed her arms in front of herself and shrugged.
“Go on,” she said reluctantly.
“Well, his life was pretty much business as usual before the war,” Leila continued. “He was all set to start at Harvard when he returned; he’d talked about maybe becoming a historian, like his grandfather had been.”
“And he didn’t?”
“He never went to college,” Chloe said, like she was genuinely sad about it. “He was wounded pretty badly while he was over there.”
Beca looked down at the young, eager face below her in the photograph.
“Yeah?” she asked. She was already regretting the “a cappella war flashbacks” joke she’d made earlier that day.
“Yeah.” Chloe nodded. “He had, um, really bad burns.”
“On over half his body,” Leila explained. “His family kind of—he was kind of shut away after that.”
Beca was starting to understand why Chloe hadn’t wanted Leila to tell her this story. She was going to be bummed out for the rest of the day now, at least.
“That’s when he became really fixated on Todesbury’s supernatural history, though. Especially the fire,” Leila went on.
The way Leila said it, it was more like The Fire—definitely a thing, whatever it was. It was just enough, maybe, to make Beca a little curious.
But she didn’t ask for an explanation, and before Leila could keep going, Chloe reached across the table to link her hands together with Beca’s.
“I’ll tell her the rest later, Leila,” she said, moving her thumbs along the back of Beca’s hands. “We def don’t want to miss the Fall Festival.”
Chloe insisted they take a horse-drawn hayride to the place.
—which was fine, Beca guessed, except for all the people pressed around them. Some tourist on the other side of Chloe kept accidentally jabbing her with his elbow as he and his wife tried to take selfies with the brick buildings of the town in the background. Chloe actually apologized for getting in his way whenever he did this, which made Beca basically want to punch him in the face. (As if she even knew how to do that.)
Chloe kept pointing things out along the cobblestoned streets—antique stores, an ice cream shop, one of the oldest libraries in the country—but Beca’s eyes hardly left her face.
Beca watched Chloe’s hands reach up to pull strands of loose hair behind her ears, and how her cheeks would just pink when she’d see Beca smile back at her.
She was so, so screwed.
Realizing that she—whatever, she guessed you could put it this way if you absolutely had to—liked Chloe (like, liked her, liked her) was a pretty new thing.
It probably wasn’t great that she’d discovered it over the course of a phone call she’d made to Chloe after Jesse had broken up with her.
She wasn’t even sure why she had called Chloe first.
Fat Amy would have been the better choice for helping her laugh it off, and Cynthia-Rose would have been the obvious person to call for some no-bullshit moving-on advice. Stacie would have offered to buy her a few drinks, and Emily at least would have boosted her damaged ego.
But, no, she’d called Chloe, who, she had known, would do nothing at the other end but listen—and love her.
And she had. Beca had felt it so hard, even if she knew it didn’t mean anything special.
Chloe loved everyone. That was kind of the problem.
When the horses reached the farm on the outskirts of town where the festival was being held, Chloe reached over and squeezed Beca’s hand, looking around at the setup. Beca’s first thought was how obnoxiously loud it was—there was a local cover band playing a truly embarrassing version of a Maroon 5 song from a makeshift stage, but she could hear so much more than that. Kids were running, screaming through the apple orchard, and all the vendors in the little white tents were calling out to people they knew in the crowd.
Chloe looked overjoyed.
“Can you believe the colors?” she asked, gesturing towards the rows of yellow-leaved apple trees, and behind them, the orange- and red-streaked oaks and maples against the horizon.
Beca could, actually, believe them. It was like Chloe had forgotten where she was from in the first place.
(But Beca would have done anything else in the world before she made Chloe question that the miracle around her was anything other than completely new.)
“They’re incredible,” she replied, and Chloe nodded enthusiastically.
Chloe stepped down from the cart first. She turned around and waited for Beca to follow her, reaching out without asking to help guide her down towards the ground. Beca felt Chloe’s arm against her and thought—it would be so easy just to lean back and let her hold her.
She pulled away, but not before Chloe could catch her hand to bring into hers.
“I’m so happy you’re here, Beca,” she said quietly, tightening her grip.
Beca heard the words like music, and broke them down like she would any melodic line.
It was a cliché, she knew, just something people said. But there was that weight on that key word—happy—and the way her name always seemed just a little longer than usual on its way out from Chloe’s lips. It maybe wasn’t enough to add up to what Beca hoped for, but it was something.
She moved a little closer to Chloe, letting their arms lean against each other.
“I just—I’ve really missed you,” Chloe went on, still so softly.
Well—those were the notes Beca had been waiting to hear. It was also the only thing she had to say, herself.
“Me too, Chlo. Really.”
Chloe had to introduce her to everyone, of course.
It shouldn’t have surprised Beca that, despite the fact that Chloe had barely made it to the three month mark of living in Todesbury, she was already something like a local celebrity. They couldn’t walk five feet without a new person coming up to greet her. All of her new friends looked at Beca kindly, as if walking around with her hand in Chloe’s automatically made her a good person.
The middle-aged hippie selling homemade jewelry from one of the stalls cackled happily as Chloe held a pair of knitted jack-o’-lantern earrings up to Beca’s ears.
“It’s a good look, right?” Chloe asked the woman, who shook her head even as she said, “oh, of course.”
“Not really my usual style,” Beca noted wryly.
She hadn’t expected Chloe actually to buy them, though. Beca stared at the little creases that Chloe’s smile brought out around her eyes as she reached over to replace the loops in Beca’s ears with the horrifyingly adorable new accessories.
The touch of her fingers on Beca’s earlobes was, you know, fine.
“Well, it’s good to shake things up sometimes,” Chloe told her with a wink, moving Beca’s original earrings into the pocket of her jacket.
Beca couldn’t have agreed more.
“Nice earrings,” the guy at the Todesbury Ghost Tours tent told her.
“Uh. Thanks,” she responded.
She probably wasn’t even capable of a better response at the time. She looked at the brochures on the table in front of her with creeping unease as Chloe and the dude exchanged pleasantries—why, why would anyone actually pay money to go on a candlelit graveyard tour?
“So, are things just ridic this time of year?” Chloe asked.
He laughed. “Believe it. We’re no Salem, but we can hold our own.”
Beca moved the graveyard tour pamphlet to the back of the pile—partially to see what was under it, partially because it was weirding her out—but recoiled when she saw what was below.
The next pamphlet showed an image of a burning house and, at the top, the text:
FLETCHER HOUSE SITE GHOST TOUR!
Spooky Fun for All Ages
“You interested in that one?” the guy asked as he watched her stare at it. Then, seeming to remember something, he added, “But I bet Chloe’s already told you all about the fire, right? Best ghost story in Todesbury, if you ask me.”
“Oh—yeah, no, not yet,” Beca managed.
“Really? We do the tours where she works,” he explained, seemingly ignoring Chloe’s not-so-subtle signs to end this line of conversation.
“What?” Beca asked, unable to help herself.
(If Chloe was working at a haunted museum, she would kill Aubrey, she swore to God.)
“It’s just a story, Beca,” Chloe said soothingly.
“Quakers,” the guy went on, opening the pamphlet it front of her, like that was something that made sense. He pointed at a paragraph of text printed beside an image of a painting of some people who looked—like Pilgrims? Boring, depressing history. Beca hated it. “They were kicked out of Boston in 1658. Some of ‘em came here.”
“It was, like, a religious thing,” Chloe explained, evidently giving in to the storytelling. “Actually, Beca, they were so cool—they, like, they hated war, and they thought everyone was equal. They believed every person in the world had this light in them, so no one was more important than anyone else.”
Beca couldn’t help smiling a little at her enthusiasm. She imagined a whole community of Chloes, loving each other and every other goddamn person in the world.
“They were meeting secretly in one of their houses,” the guy explained. “Till 1675, when it burned down.”
Well, that really sucked.
And, okay—The Fire. Beca turned to Chloe, unprepared for the faint trace of sadness that had immediately shaded her face at its mention.
“It was on purpose,” she said softly. “Someone burned it down.”
There were a lot of things Beca liked about Chloe, but few she liked more than what she had just said seemed like a surprise to her. It was like she honestly couldn’t believe it, that humans could be such assholes.
“That’s really sad,” was all Beca could offer in response.
“A lot of people were hurt,” he continued, “but only kids died. Five of them. And they’ve been haunting us ever since.”
“Not really,” Chloe whispered, leaning a little closer. Beca looked down at the pamphlet.
He was smiling, but when Chloe had said that, he moved his hand to his chest like her skepticism had wounded him. “You’re killing me, Chloe! Working at Bard’s museum, and still not believing it.” He turned to Beca. “He was the one who kept seeing their ghosts, after all.”
(Seriously. Aubrey Posen was dead fucking meat.)
Chloe shrugged, but didn’t break her smile.
“Well, we are in serious need of apple cider,” she abruptly changed the topic. “But I’m really glad we got to see you.”
“Always a pleasure, Chloe,” the guy said genuinely. “And hey—” He turned to Beca. “Really, though. I love the earrings.”
“They’re good, right?” Chloe asked happily, reaching to loop her arm around Beca’s.
Chloe unlinked their arms only long enough to get them some hot mulled cider. She carried the two Styrofoam cups, one in each hand, a paper bag of apple cider doughnuts tightly secured between her elbow and side, over to Beca who waited for her at the picnic table.
Beca had been watching the kids playing in the orchard.
With a chill, she had realized that one of them, on his own, was sitting on the grass by himself, staring directly at Beca. It was mildly unsettling, but it wasn’t like he was the first kid to be lonely and weird.
At that thought, she had turned (with relief) to see Chloe walk towards her, looking just sickeningly beautiful as her eyes excitedly caught her own.
She settled close beside Beca and pulled out the doughnuts, placing them on top of the empty paper bag. Beca took her cup of cider and brought it towards her chilled face, taking in the sweet-spiced smell with a deep breath.
“Beca,” Chloe started, watching her tear a piece off from one of the doughnuts, “how are you? I want to know everything.”
Beca looked down at the bite of doughnut, and tried to think of anything to say.
“I mean—I’m fine, I guess. Work is good. Basically exactly the same as when you were there, to be honest. And I’m really liking living alone.”
“But you loved living in the Bella house,” Chloe interrupted, smiling. “You were the one who had the idea for the weekly dinner tradition.”
Beca popped the doughnut piece into her mouth. It was really surprising, how quickly it brought her back to feeling like a kid.
She chewed slowly.
“I liked living with you guys,” she said after swallowing. “That doesn’t mean I like living with people.”
It was always funny to watch Chloe roll her eyes, like seeing a small dog try to be ferocious.
“Okay, Beca. If you say so.” She took a sip of cider, then looked at Beca thoughtfully. “And…” She seemed uncertain. “How is everything else?”
Beca wasn’t sure what she meant.
“I mean… after everything with Jesse.” Her eyes matched hers timidly. “How is your heart, Beca?”
Beca felt her chest tighten. Oh, you know, she imagined saying. It’s fine. Just yours now, no big deal.
Instead, she shrugged.
“Fine, I guess. I… honestly, I don’t really think about him that much anymore.”
Chloe nodded. Beca knew that hadn’t been the right answer; Chloe looked disappointed as she moved to stare down at her apple cider.
Beca’s mind flashed through a hundred possible different things to add, but before she could choose one, Chloe had rebounded, lifting her head with a slight smile on her face.
“Beca, you know, there’s a part of the story Leila was talking about that isn’t so bad, actually.”
“Yeah. It’s also a love story.”
Beca needed to work on preparing herself, so that her heart wouldn’t melt every time Chloe leaned in with excitement like that.
“Well, kind of,” she went on. “The only reason we know so much about Samuel Bard is that he kept writing all these long letters to his fiancée. Ruth.”
“Yeah?” Beca asked again, looking down at Chloe’s untouched doughnut. Beca considered breaking off a piece and handing it to her.
“Mmhmm. They weren’t even supposed to be together, you know. Their families didn’t want them to get married after he came back. But they would meet secretly, I think. Leila thinks she was, like, the only person he really talked to after the war. I’ll show a picture of her later, Beca; she was so pretty.”
“Was that before or after he started seeing ghosts?” Beca asked, trying to sound skeptical.
Chloe took a final sip of her cider, tilting back the cup to finish it off.
“Um, during. But we don’t have to talk about that. Just—well, I don’t know. Because the rest of it is just sad. I thought you’d want to know that there was a good part too.”
It actually did make her feel a little happier, hearing it. But even more than that, she liked how close Chloe’s body was to hers, and how her hands were slightly red with the cold as she held the empty Styrofoam cup in front of her.
The vendors were starting to pack up, and the band (mercifully) had stopped playing. Chloe was quiet as she watched the crowd start to dissipate. Beca wished she knew what she was thinking.
Instead, she pushed the doughnut close to Chloe’s hands.
“You should eat it,” she said.
The first signs of a sunset darkened the horizon as Chloe let go of the cup to pick up the doughnut, taking a bite. For literally the first time in her life, Beca thought she could understand why people always wanted to take pictures of things. She felt the phone in her hand, considering it.
Neither of them, in that moment anyway, remembered that Beca didn’t even know how the story ended.
Chloe bought a bag of apples as they passed the vendors’ stalls (all of which were already supposed to be closed) on the way to the road which would lead them to Chloe’s place.
In the time it took Chloe to hear all about growing conditions that summer on the farm of the woman selling her the fruit, the sky had gone from a light pink to a deep orange. Beca clasped the bag against her chest and watched Chloe laugh.
They were quiet as they walked home. Beca anxiously searched her mind for a topic, and Chloe hummed something Beca didn’t recognize under her breath.
Beca was just about to open her mouth, to ask Chloe more about her job, when she felt fingertips brush against her wrist.
She looked up from the ground to see Chloe’s face fondly searching her own. She gestured with her head to the right, where a small dirt path cut down onto the hill from the road.
Beca followed her. There was probably no one else in the world that could have convinced her to walk into the woods while the sun was setting, but Chloe didn’t even have to ask.
She led her down the path to the destination she had in mind: a wide, rocky creek cutting its way through a line of maple trees, dazzling with crimson foliage.
Beca watched Chloe reach for an apple in the bag Beca was holding, and loved that she smiled into a crisp bite.
Beca’s gaze moved from the fruit in Chloe’s hand up to the tinted clouds, then down again to the water mirroring the brilliant leaves above it.
All of it was bright and blazing red, just like everything Beca loved most.
Chloe lived alone, in a small cabin just a short walk away from the museum. She’d told Beca over the phone, when they’d started planning the visit, that she could totally stay in her bed if she wanted, that there was definitely enough room, but Beca had awkwardly declined.
There was a guest room, Chloe had admitted, but she’d sounded kind of weird as she’d mentioned it.
As it turned out, that was because the guest room was, in fact, the former room of none other than Samuel Mather Bard, after he’d left his family’s home.
Beca knew “useless with fear” was not really the image of herself she was trying to project, so she focused on taking in deep, calming breaths as Chloe placed sheets over her bed.
“It’s not—none of this is his furniture,” Chloe said, wincing a little as she turned to see Beca’s face. “Oh, Beca… can I just please sleep here instead? You can totally have my bed.”
So much for impressing Chloe. She had to try to hold on to some shred of dignity, though.
“No, no—this is cool. Really, Chloe.”
Chloe moved back to the bed, smoothing over the multiple blankets she had laid on top of it.
“Are you sure you don’t just want to stay with me?” she asked, barely audibly. She kept her eyes fixed on the blankets.
Okay is a pretty simple word, and Beca should have been able to get it out of her mouth.
“I just mean…” The pitch of Chloe’s voice got higher as she explained herself. “It wouldn’t have to be a big thing.”
That was just it, though.
For Beca, it would.
Despite using all three of the blankets Chloe had laid on top of her bed, Beca was still shivering. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t quite get the window to close.
She hated the feel of the wind blowing in every ten seconds, almost as much as she loathed the sound of the branch next to her window rapping up against the glass.
And, if she were being honest, that dream had freaked her the fuck out.
It really shouldn’t have, if she were thinking clearly about it. After all, she was used to weird-ass, vivid nightmares.
She didn’t have them all the time—or even most of the time. Maybe just one or two a month. They’d usually be something completely bizarre she never could have predicted, though for a few months towards the end of her relationship with Jesse she had had the same dream at least every week.
It must have had something to do with him, because she only ever had it when she stayed over in his bed.
(When she’d figured that out, she’d started coming up with increasingly weak excuses to leave before going to sleep. That probably was one of the reasons he’d dumped her, now that she thought about it.)
Every time, in the dream, she would be back at the Lodge of Fallen Leaves, sitting at the campfire—but unlike how it had been in real life, she would always be alone.
She’d know that she had to keep the fire going all night or (this part was unclear) something terrible would happen.
So, every single time, she’d spend what felt like forever gathering a pile of kindling from the woods near the circle, and she’d have to rush back as the fire started to collapse in on itself.
But when she’d shove the sticks into the glow, they would just lie there, cold. And she’d always forget that this is what would happen next, but she’d reach forward to reposition them, and a flame would catch just an inch of her skin—and the fire would roar.
She’d pull her hand back, and it would immediately die down. And she’d stand there, staring at the fading coals, holding her burnt hand, wondering how much of herself she could reasonably be expected to give, when she’d realize the Bellas were behind her, just watching.
That would kill her, every freaking time.
“I can’t do this alone,” she’d tell them, and they’d stare back.
Chloe was never with them.
“I can’t do this alone,” Beca would say again, and no one would answer.
But that night, in Samuel Bard’s old haunts, her nightmare had been new.
She’d been back on that playground, and, just like in elementary school, she sat on the grass, pulling out onion grass by the bulbs. The wind was stronger in her dream than it had been in real life, and it kept sweeping away her pile of discarded weeds, carrying them along with faded yellow leaves across the dirt.
As she reached forward to pull at the grass a few inches in front of her, she felt a hand soft against her shoulder. She’d thought of earlier that day, Chloe interrupting her conversation with Damian, watching her with those impossibly warm blue eyes.
But when Beca turned, full of hope, to meet her, she’d realized the hand on her shoulder wasn’t Chloe’s at all.
It was that kid’s, who had been staring at her from the apple orchard.
At the festival, he’d been wearing a sweatshirt and jeans. But in front of Beca in her dream, he was wearing a loose white shirt and dark pants. They both looked too big for him. He was shivering in the cold, his teeth just chattering, and his jet black eyes were staring directly into Beca’s.
The breeze rushed by again, taking along her small pile of weeds with it.
“You’re losing stuff,” the kid noted.
“It’s not important,” she said. “I don’t need it.”
He was quiet.
Beca gave him her hand without him even having to ask. She pushed herself up off the ground.
He walked her past that horrible metal pole, which, in her dream, was shining and rust-free, to one of the swing sets.
She expected him to climb into one of the swings—wasn’t he a kid, after all? She didn’t know much about this whole childcare thing, but she was pretty sure she could push him if he wanted.
Instead, he sat on the ground, cross-legged, just like the members of Chloe’s audience the day before.
“Why did you come here?”
Beca wasn’t sure what happened first—if she heard the question, or if she noticed the smell. Something was burning. Maybe meat? She coughed as the scent unexpectedly filled her nostrils.
(Wait, was it even possible to smell in dreams? Beca hadn’t thought so, before.)
She turned to her right, the direction from which she’d heard the hoarse voice, and nearly stopped breathing when she saw him.
The soldier’s uniform was well-worn now, and looked slightly discolored in patches. He was sitting in the last swing in the set, where an orange-leaved tree was growing in past the metal bars so that it obscured the entire right side of his face and upper body.
He repeated himself.
“Why did you come here?”
Beca turned back to the little kid, maybe for assurance, but (she felt nauseous) he was gone.
It was a surprise to her, even in a dream, that she responded honestly.
“I came—because of Chloe. I came here for Chloe.”
As a cloud above them moved past, the sun caught Bard’s strawberry blonde hair in its light.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he said.
She should have been terrified, but the weird thing was that she honestly just wanted to sit in the swing beside him, to… comfort him?
Okay. That was a strange thought. And not exactly Beca’s usual MO.
“You’re not the one,” he went on.
Beca’s stomach clenched.
“You’re not the one who’s supposed to be here.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Beca watched the chained ladders on the pole start to spin slowly. She felt her nails dig into her palms as she willed herself to wake up.
He didn’t need to tell her that. It was seriously all too obvious.
Thursday, October 29th, 2015
Leila’s eyes had a wistful, longing look in them as she whispered, “I love ghosts.”
Chloe was sitting at the table by the snacks cabinet, filling individual Ziplock bags with handfuls of Goldfish crackers. Beca had offered to help, but Chloe had asked her if she’d be okay setting up the room with Leila to prepare for a rehearsal of the “super spooky musical” Chloe was directing, to be performed for the kids’ parents on Sunday afternoon, the day after Halloween.
So, Beca was stuck with Leila, gluing dried leaves to a black and orange poster board background, using glittery white puffy paint to decorate a cut-out ghost.
Beca could make out almost a full sentence of the tattooed paragraph on Leila’s arm as she held up some construction paper to the center of the poster board. “I fear bodies, I tremble to meet them…” What a total weirdo.
“So, Chloe, you told her about how the ghosts took Bard away, right?” Leila asked, running over the back of the construction paper with a glue stick.
Beca shook away the tickle of fear at the base of her spine.
“Oh,” Chloe responded, moving a few plastic bags into the snack bucket. “Actually, we didn’t get to that part.”
Leila was mildly outraged. “That part? You mean, like, the entire point of the story?”
“It’s really okay,” Beca interjected. “I got the general idea, you know, like the gist.”
Leila pretended not to hear her.
“Well, did you at least tell her about the fire?”
(Beca could still almost smell something burning, when she remembered her dream.)
Chloe’s face fell. Beca could tell it made her sad literally every time she thought of it.
“Yeah,” Chloe said. “She knows about it.”
Leila reached over to grab the white puffy paint from Beca’s hand.
“So,” she started, without waiting for an invitation, as she drew what looked like fucking runes on the black paper, “Bard was totally obsessed with it. He had all this time at his parents’ house, and he just spent all of it tracking down stories about the fire, all the narratives of the ghost sightings, whatever.”
(Beca prayed she wouldn’t go into too many details about those sightings. Surprisingly, she didn’t.)
“And then he started writing these poems to the children who had died. They’re kind of shitty, to be honest. That’s fair to say, right, Chloe?”
Chloe shook the snack bucket, making room for more bags.
“Oh, um—well, I think they’re okay.”
“They’re not Shakespeare, though, for sure,” Leila insisted.
Beca smiled. Chloe felt protective of him; she could see it.
“Well, in any case, he wrote eighteen poems before the children answered.”
Beca walked towards the table where Chloe was sitting, and (nonchalantly, she hoped) sat down low in the chair next to her.
“One night before going to bed, one of the kids—the ghosts—was there, staring at him. And he led him to the place where it happened. Where the house burned down.”
Beca jerked slightly when she felt Chloe’s hand reach over to pull a strand of hair out of her face.
“It’s just outside, you know,” Leila said, putting down the puffy paint and gesturing out the window. “Where the playground is now. That’s where it happened.”
Beca felt like she was going to be sick.
“So, he just packed up in the middle of the night and came out here, and started building a cabin—Chloe’s cabin. I don’t think he ever saw his family again. And one night he just walked straight into the middle of the field, where the house had been, and called out, ‘I am here to talk with you.’ And they all came out.”
Chloe’s hands kept moving through Beca’s hair. She didn’t even try to protest.
“We don’t know too much about what happened after that. His letters to his fiancée almost stopped, basically—all he did was collect historical artifacts and papers and, I don’t know, probably had lots of ghost conferences by moonlight. Living the dream, if you will.”
It made Beca feel strange—almost angry, if that were possible—that Chloe hadn’t mentioned that before.
(That he had just completely abandoned her.)
“He disappeared,” Chloe said gently, like she wanted to be the one to break the news.
Beca looked to the framed portrait of the dude (young and hopeful) hanging on the wall. How did life always manage to do it, to take a perfectly good human being and chew them up, spit them out like that?
“Most people around here think that they took him to be their storyteller, or something like that,” Leila explained. “That he could entertain them, with poems and shit. I like that interpretation, because it’s like the ghosts were just extremely bored for the first two hundred or so years of their afterlife.”
“Or lonely,” Chloe offered. Beca leaned back a little into her touch.
“Well, anyway, that’s pretty much the whole story.”
Beca tried to breathe deeply. It wasn’t like this meant her dream was real, right?
She went over the details in her head. Playground. Child. Swing set. Soldier.
You’re not the one.
No, it was fine. The playground thing was a really horrible coincidence, but it wasn’t like she’d dreamt anything they hadn’t already told her.
“Oh—except,” Leila added, taking a few steps back to admire her artwork, “I forgot. Some people have this idea that eventually Bard will move on and they’ll have to take someone else in his place.”
Oh, just that minor detail.
“It’s why no one ever uses the playground. And why I spend so much time in it.” She crossed her fingers on both hands. “Here’s hoping.”
Chloe gave a half-hearted laugh at her friend’s comment, and pulled her hands out of Beca’s hair to resume her snack preparation.
The loss of her touch made Beca shiver. It was getting pretty cold.
Beca wandered through the permanent exhibition space as Chloe and Leila, in the next room, began the first full rehearsal of the musical with the kids.
Along one side of the room, placards and objects in glass cases told the story of Todesbury’s founding. A tacky, though surprisingly detailed, oil painting of the harbor hung to the right; Beca could make out all the little fishermen on each of the boats.
On the other side, two exhibition cases the size of small bookshelves framed an old, weathered desk.
Beca looked closer and looked the label:
Samuel Mather Bard built this desk in 1922.
She couldn’t have shrunk back more quickly.
Turning to the exhibition cases, she hoped she’d find something a little less creepy there. Instead, her chest tightened with the realization that behind the glass were all of the historical scraps Bard himself had collected.
The Museum’s First Artifacts, the placard read.
Curiosity getting the better of her, she looked to the first case on the left.
Jeremiah Hynde to Obadiah Foxe, 1675
In this letter, an eyewitness describes the tragedy of the arson fire to his brother-in-law, a Nonconformist clergyman residing in Newbury, Massachusetts.
Her heart beat quickly as she looked down at the fading scrawl on the yellowed piece of paper, but honestly, she couldn’t make anything out of it. She had to look to the second placard on the right, which reproduced the relevant passage in type.
Not without grief doe I recount these dolefull things. It has been only three weekes since those poore & miserable children were murdered. The neighbors made publicke testimony of their innocence, & yet I myselfe heard soe many roarings & screamings from the house when I entered to save, to my sorrow, only a few. By the house the neighbors were speechlesse & did not helpe. Yet the mouths of the liers shall bee stopped, & God shall bee pleased to vindicate the lambes that have been slayn.
Beca stopped reading.
What the fuck kind of town was Chloe living in?
She went to the cabin to do some work, settling down in the small common area by the fireplace. It was colder than in the guest room, but she had decided to avoid that place as much as possible. She did her best to reach her laptop through the pile of blankets she’d draped over herself.
She’d hoped that opening her computer would remind her of the real world, of the fact that all this ghost shit was totally made up.
It did, sort of (at least, she was no longer actually scared about actual dead people haunting her via her dreams), but she couldn’t stop thinking about it.
It made her strangely sad that Chloe hadn’t told her the last part of the story. None of it was real—none of it was real—but it did actually matter, she thought, what Chloe hadn’t told her.
She pushed the laptop off of herself in mild frustration. Shivering as she pushed aside the blankets, she walked across the room to the tiny kitchenette and looked through the cabinet to find the coffee and filters.
Hadn’t it bothered Chloe, that the people she said were so in love didn’t even end up together? He’d just completely left her behind.
To stop herself from getting too angry, she tried to imagine what Chloe would say to defend herself.
I think he still loved her, Beca, pretend-Chloe managed, her brow furrowing with the knowledge that Beca was upset. But he loved other things too. You know, he wasn’t really the same after the war. He really believed in the ghosts; he thought he had to help them.
But that’s why, that was exactly why—Beca thought—you can’t just love everyone.
Believe her, Beca knew.
(Her mind was wandering. That was never good.
Even coffee, which usually jolted her out of moods like this, wasn’t helping much. She couldn’t even bring herself to work; she was just listening to old mixes.)
It must have been just over twelve years since she and her dad had gone to that bonfire together, the last time they really hung out together before he moved away.
Oh, here we go, Beca thought, as she started to remember.
They’d stopped at the grocery store and packed their cart with marshmallows, packages of Hershey’s chocolate, and graham crackers—they’d gone completely overboard. The woman at the check-out asked if her dad was running a summer camp or something, and they’d laughed all the way back to the car, how she never would have believed it was all just for them.
It was her mom she was mad at, then. Not him. At that point: never him.
There was no way she ever would have gone to something like that stupid community bonfire with anyone but her dad. Especially not with her mom, who would have tried to get her to hang out with other kids, or made her small talk with her friends.
But her dad just asked her to go search for the perfect sticks to roast their marshmallows on while he went to buy them pizza from the food stall.
When she came back, branches in each hand, she saw he’d remembered to bring back a thick pile of napkins along with her slice. (Beca hated getting her hands greasy.)
Something broke inside her when she noticed it.
It was the first time it had really hit her—that he was leaving. That no one, no one would remember to do that for her anymore.
And, well, that was back when she still knew how to cry in front of other people.
“Beca, come here,” he’d said, quietly, if still firmly, and (it seemed incredible to her, that she’d ever been able to do this), she’d rushed towards him immediately, throwing her arms around him.
He’d moved his hand over her back. She’d closed her eyes, shutting out the knowledge that everyone was probably watching them, even in the dark.
She took in the smell of him and hated that she couldn’t just be happy while he was still there with her.
Probably more than a minute had passed when some idiot around the fire took out a guitar and started to play “American Pie.” Everyone else began to sing—they all sounded so happy—but her dad still didn’t let go, not till she pulled away.
“Beca,” he said, and he basically had to shout to her over the sound of the stupid tone deaf group, “please tell me you know… I know things are going to be different now. But nothing could ever change how much I love you.”
She’d wiped her eyes, and nodded. She knew. Just because he was moving to be with Sheila didn’t mean he loved her any less, right?
They sat on the blanket he had brought, and he’d pointed out the heavy moon hanging in the sky above them, orange and full. He was speaking loudly (everyone was still singing), and the poem that he recited then, he knew by heart:
The flame-red moon, the harvest moon,
Rolls along the hills, gently bouncing,
A vast balloon,
Till it takes off, and sinks upward
To lie on the bottom of the sky, like a gold doubloon…
Beca’s heart sunk at the memory: of his half-laughing face as he shared the words; of how she’d told herself—it’d be okay—she’d see him every other weekend; of how she’d quickly learned it’d only be every month; of how within less than a year, he’d started, just sometimes, to forget to return her calls.
Her ears perked up, pathetically, like a dog’s, when she heard the sound of the door opening.
“Beca,” Chloe said sweetly, seeing her sitting there on her couch.
She was wearing that grey jacket she’d worn all those years ago at Beca’s first riff off, but this time, being in a place that was actually cold, she was wearing a scarf to go along with it. Beca remembered the broad smile that had spread across her own face when, nervous, halfway through “No Diggity,” she had turned around to see Chloe’s open-mouthed, shocked expression.
(Had it really started that early? How had she ignored it for that long?)
She patted the space next to her on the couch and Chloe, predictably, sidled in an inch or two closer than where Beca had indicated.
“Did you get a lot of stuff done?” Chloe asked, leaning over to try to see what Beca was working on.
Beca closed the program.
“Let’s… not even talk about it. How were the kids?”
“Super cute.” Chloe shook her head fondly. “But they haven’t learned, like, any of their lines. I was thinking today about how mad Aubrey would be if she were in charge.”
Her smile looked a little tired. Beca hadn’t really thought about it till then—how much Chloe must have missed her.
She opened Facebook, and (Chloe watched her curiously) typed in Aubrey’s name. Beca clicked on her tagged photos, and pulled up a recent image in which Aubrey, glass of wine in hand, was clearly in the middle of a rant delivered to Beca’s own irritated face.
“Well, she’s always angry about something,” Beca said, passing the laptop to Chloe.
Chloe’s eyes widened in surprise and what looked like pure joy.
She started clicking through the rest of the photos (Beca was kind of surprised she hadn’t seen them yet, even though she knew Chloe rarely visited Facebook), stopping only to reach over and squeeze Beca’s hand when she got to a photo in which Aubrey’s face was distorted in momentary terror at the feel of Beca’s arms reaching around her waist from behind.
(Beca could have done without Chloe seeing that one.)
“This makes me so happy,” Chloe said, as if it weren’t already obvious.
She kept going, back a few months, till she got to the last pictures in which Chloe herself was tagged with Aubrey—at that dinner party before she had left.
(Beca barely remembered any of the last part of that evening, after everyone else had left. The three of them had gotten so drunk.
She did remember squinting at Chloe’s laptop as she half-jokingly announced she was buying plane tickets to Boston. She definitely remembered almost actually clicking “book your flight” before lifting her fingers off the keyboard.
She could remember seeing Aubrey’s eye-roll as she finally made her way out of Chloe’s long hug at the end of the night.
More lucidly, she remembered the e-ticket confirmation that had shown up in her inbox the next afternoon, forwarded with a note: “I had some frequent flyer miles to waste. Have a good Halloween, I guess. Chloe really likes that holiday. – Aubrey.”)
“She’s coming up here next month, isn’t she?” Beca asked gently, hoping the reminder would stop the slight spread of sadness over Chloe’s still-smiling face.
Chloe nodded, and exhaled loudly. She met Beca’s eyes.
“I’m so glad I have you,” Chloe said, moving a hand up and down her arm, and Beca knew it was a plural “you,” a Bellas “you,” but, in any case, it was true.
She had her.
They went for a walk along the harbor. The clouds hung heavy and grey over the deep blue waters, and Beca followed Chloe’s eyes as she watched the wind push small waves against the sides of the white boats.
They could hear what Beca was sure was the same godawful cover band from the day before playing in the town square. They seemed to have embraced their shittiness more this time around; they were confronting it head-on with a mediocre rendition of a mediocre Blues Traveler song.
“Please give me a reason not to take a blunt object to their entire sound system,” Beca asked Chloe, who raised her eyebrows.
“Um, because you already have a record of vandalism, remember? Or have you repressed that memory?”
(Of course we waited up for you.)
“Not at all. I just know now that I have someone who’ll organize everyone into a welcome-back-from-jail support party in my room.”
Chloe looked confused. She had never told Beca it had been her.
“Stacie told me,” Beca explained, and Chloe—it looked like—blushed. “So don’t even try to deny it, Beale.”
Chloe was watching a shivering gull try to maintain its balance on the front rail of a boat as the wind sped up. She moved her arms around herself.
“I wasn’t planning on denying it, Beca,” she said. “I was just so glad you were okay.”
Beca moved out a hand from her pocket, considering reaching for Chloe’s, and was surprised by the drop of cold water that immediately hit it.
She looked up at the clouds—shit. It was going to pour.
She nudged Chloe with her elbow, gesturing with her head up to the darkening sky above them. She had meant it as a message, “we should get out of here, immediately,” but Chloe’s response was different—her entire face brightened just as they heard the first crack of thunder.
Chloe loved thunderstorms. She should have remembered.
The band had stopped playing; they must have been packing up as quickly as possible.
It started to pour.
Beca watched the few stragglers left on the streets pull their jackets over their heads, or reach for their umbrellas, darting to their cars. But Chloe moved closer to the harbor, leaning against the wooden railing, and closed her eyes.
By the time she opened them, they were both already drenched. But Beca didn’t even feel cold as Chloe grabbed her hand, and smilingly, wordlessly invited her to run home.
Chloe’s hair, darkened by the rain, was sticking to her face as they took off their soaked jackets. When Chloe lifted the sweater she was wearing over her head, accidentally pulling up the shirt underneath it a few inches, Beca automatically bit down hard on her bottom lip.
“Could you turn on the fireplace?” Chloe asked Beca, grabbing a towel from the bathroom closet.
Beca looked over to see the on/off switch on the wall.
“Wait, this has been electric the whole time?” Beca asked in frustration as she turned it on. “I was so cold all day.”
After a minute, Chloe returned, handing Beca a towel of her own. She had switched into pajamas—a loose green-and-blue plaid shirt and, surprisingly, shorts. How was Chloe not as freezing as she was?
Beca dried her hair as she watched Chloe move blankets and pillows from her room to the floor in front of the fire. Despite herself, her heart leapt in anticipation—sitting beside Chloe, all that warmth.
She reached into her bag (she’d dragged it out of that horrible guest room earlier that day) and pulled out her sweatpants and a t-shirt. Chloe was already sitting down in the little blanket fort she’d constructed for them, watching Beca eagerly as she walked to the bathroom.
She was still sitting in exactly the same position when Beca came back and moved in next to her. Chloe spread half of the blanket over Beca and pulled her close with an arm around her side.
Beca leaned forward a little to feel the heat on her face. Chloe (it shouldn’t have been unexpected) rested her head against her shoulder.
“This is nice,” she said, and Beca could feel herself letting go of it—all of that twisted, bitter, meaningless fear she’d been carrying around with her since coming to Massachusetts.
“Yeah,” she said. “But we really do need to get you a place to live—and a job, by the way—that’s not haunted. Then it’ll be perfect.”
Chloe shook her head, and Beca could feel it against her arm.
“Nope. Already there.”
Beca didn’t have it within her to get up. When Chloe, eyelids drooping, unlinked her arm around Beca’s side to reposition a pillow below her and lie down, all she could do was follow suit.
As Beca’s face reached her pillow, Chloe’s eyes opened again. There were only a few inches in between them—this was dangerous; this was bad—and Beca’s heart sped up as Chloe started to move forward, her hand pressed against Beca’s upper arm.
Chloe’s lips rested softly, for at least a few seconds, on Beca’s forehead. When she moved back, her smile was brighter than Beca could remember seeing before.
Beca knew her face must have been so red, but maybe she could pass that off as from being too close to the fire.
Still smiling, Chloe closed her eyes.
Beca listened to her breath steady into a rhythm.
(Whatever stirred in her chest, hearing that, made Beca want to do something, to create something no one had ever thought of before. She wanted to make music. She would have been able to compose a whole freaking symphony, she was sure, if she could have even considered getting up.)
Beca fell asleep. For the first time in years, she didn’t dream at all.
Friday, October 30th, 2015
When Beca woke up, she turned to see Chloe’s face still just beside her, almost grinning in her sleep. The longing Beca felt at the sight was paired with something like guilt—she should have just gone to sleep in the guest room. Sleeping next to Chloe (the sweetness of a kiss on her forehead) made everything one hundred percent more complicated.
Beca got up quietly, as carefully as possible, and, thankfully, Chloe didn’t wake.
She reached over to feel her jacket on the couch; it was still wet. She tried to forget that, running through an open field in a thunderstorm the night before, she’d started laughing and hadn’t been able to stop.
She made coffee, sat at the table in the kitchenette, and opened her laptop. For about the thousandth time, she re-read the email her boss had sent her the day before she’d left for her trip.
It was still addressed to “Reggie,” which was honestly baffling, considering that he’d emailed her at “email@example.com,” but whatever.
She’d definitely found her voice, he’d written her. He heard it more clearly every time she sent him something new.
It was subtle, he said, which was maybe why he hadn’t noticed it before. It was her control that he liked. Everything in her music, he said, was deliberate. She was cautious. No element was out of place; nothing was wasted.
(It was annoying that his praise of her music sounded more like a description of Aubrey preparing for a dinner party, but she felt proud anyway.)
He’d said some other nice things, stuff that maybe made her nervous—made her feel like she didn’t deserve it.
And… well. It was weird, realizing that maybe that’s all her music was.
When he said cautious, he could just as easily have said scared.
When Chloe opened her eyes, she stared at the empty space next to her for a few seconds, her face troubled.
“Hey,” Beca said, maybe just to reassure her that she hadn’t left.
Chloe turned to the kitchenette at the sound of her voice.
Her smile was probably completely genuine, but it wasn’t exactly glowing.
“Good morning,” she said hoarsely, and then yawned. She was so fucking cute.
“Did you sleep okay?” Beca asked, stupidly—it was just something people said, but she hated the stilted words as they came out of her mouth.
“Oh,” Chloe said, caught a little off guard. “Yeah. I did.”
Beca stared at her laptop screen, trying to think of what to do next.
“Do you want some coffee?” she asked, finally, and Chloe sat up in the pile of blankets.
“That’d be great, Beca,” she said, and some of the tightness in Beca’s chest relented.
She picked up the pumpkin-shaped Halloween mug off the counter. She’d saved it for Chloe.
After they’d both had breakfast, Chloe led her up to the attic of the museum, where, she said, they’d be able to find lots of props for the kids’ play that weekend.
She hadn’t really mentioned that by “props” she really meant “dead people’s stuff.” Beca rifled through the boxes of hats (or canes, or shoes), ignoring the nervous pit settling in her stomach.
Chloe was excited to find a children’s book (its cover was nearly falling off) from 1890 with the title The 3 Little Kittens. The cover featured a cat woman garbed in Victorian dress with her three equally as well-dressed kittens.
“I’m totes going to give this to Leila,” Chloe said with excitement. “She reads children’s books to her cat sometimes.”
Of course she did. Jesus Christ.
“How many hats did you say you needed?” Beca asked.
“Um, I didn’t, really. Let’s just feel it out—like whatever the coolest stuff we can find is, we’ll use that.”
Beca wasn’t sure if she and Chloe had the same definition of “cool.” Chloe so far had enthusiastically set aside a few ostentatious feathered hats and a pair of aviator goggles.
Uncertain of her next step, Beca wandered towards the window next to a set of hanging pictures. With a wave of discomfort, she recognized the man in the lower photograph—it must have been from before he had gone to war. He was trying to look serious, maybe, but his eyes were laughing. The patterned cap on his head was just a little crooked.
She didn’t have to ask who the woman was in the second photograph. Chloe was right; she was really pretty. The picture was taken in profile, so that Beca could see her whole hairstyle, the dark curls in the front, the bun pinned up in the back. Only one of her eyes was visible in the photo, but she looked curious, really smart.
“Chloe?” she asked, wanting to ask her about the pictures, but she didn’t get an answer.
Turning around, she couldn’t see her at all.
“Um, Chloe?” she asked again, not quite panicking.
Maybe she’d just gone downstairs for a second.
Beca had just turned back to take the photo of Ruth from off the wall to bring downstairs with her when it happened.
She was sure it wasn’t the wind. It wasn’t anything. There was no reason for Bard’s photograph to fly off the wall like that, smashing against the floor.
In the shock, Beca didn’t feel the shard graze against her cheek.
She didn’t even know she was bleeding till Chloe was there, holding her face in her hands, pressing a hand (covered by her shirt sleeve) over the cut.
“Oh, Beca, how did you hurt yourself?” she asked, as if Chloe’s haunted attic were her fault.
“I thought you went downstairs,” Beca said, her breath still short with fear.
Chloe’s eyes widened.
“Do you think I would leave you alone up here? I was over there by the photo albums.”
She gestured with her free hand to the far end of the attic.
“You didn’t hear me,” Beca said, quiet.
Chloe tilted her head sympathetically.
“I’m really sorry, Beca,” she told her. “Just—give me one second,” she added. “I need to get the first aid kit that’s up here.”
Beca looked at Chloe’s matted sleeve as she withdrew. Beca felt so bad; she’d ruined it.
Chloe was on her way back to her in less than fifteen seconds, but in the meantime, Beca’s gaze caught the back of the photograph—whoa. There was something else in there.
She tried to tell Chloe about it as she tore off the plastic around the bottle of saline wound wash.
“Wait, Beca, don’t move,” she stopped her.
“There’s something in the photo frame.”
“Just wait, okay?” Chloe implored her again. “Don’t talk.”
Beca obeyed, and closed her eyes as she felt Chloe clean the cut.
“We’ll have Leila look at it when we go downstairs,” she said gently as she applied a bandage. “She used to be an EMT, actually. But I don’t think it’s that bad, Beca; it’s just a little cut.”
Beca nodded, and as Chloe moved her hands off her face, she reached up automatically to replace the touch with her own fingers. Her hand was still trembling.
“There’s something in the photo frame,” she said again, and this time, it was like Chloe actually heard what she said.
“What?” she asked, and Beca pointed at the ground.
Chloe bent down to pick up the broken frame. Her mouth opened in surprise as she saw it—two pieces of folded paper behind the photograph. She looked up to share a startled glance with Beca.
She looked down to unfold the sheets, and read them.
“What do they say?” Beca asked, trying not to sound too impatient.
Chloe’s brow was furrowed.
“It’s… they’re from Samuel,” she said hesitantly.
(Of course Chloe was on a first name basis with her poltergeist. Or probable poltergeist, whatever. Beca was pretty freaked out.)
She passed the sheets to Beca.
“Let’s go downstairs,” she said.
Beca stared at the papers in front of her as Leila re-bandaged her cut. It was surprising that Leila wasn’t curious enough to look down and see what it was she was reading, especially considering how obnoxiously she probably would have geeked out at the content.
The first sheet was short and brutal.
Forgive me. I couldn’t stay.
The second—Beca didn’t even know what to do with it. It was a poem, a shitty one, just like Leila had said. But she couldn’t get the last few lines out of her mind.
“Yeah, you’ll be fine,” Leila said, letting her go. “It’s really shallow. How did you even manage to hurt yourself up there?”
Beca didn’t bother to respond to that. Besides, if Leila had known that Beca was actually being haunted, she probably would have gotten jealous.
“Beca,” Chloe said, moving to sit down next to her at the table, “you okay?”
It wasn’t like she was going to admit that she was terrified in front of Leila in the first place, but even if they had been alone, she would have done whatever she could to stop Chloe from looking so worried.
“Yeah—sure. You heard the woman; it’s a shallow cut.”
(She knew that wasn’t what Chloe had meant.)
“Are you sure?” Chloe asked uncertainly.
Beca tried to give her a reassuring look. She smiled.
“Yeah. Everything’s fine.”
Everything was not fine.
Back at the cabin, while Chloe was at work, Beca read the poem, over and over.
She didn’t know much about poetry, and she was sure she didn’t understand whatever the hell he was trying to say, but she did know that it was fucking weird.
And—she thought the basic idea was pretty clear. It was about him giving up. It was about him choosing to leave.
Sonnet XVIII. The Harrowing of Hades
[To the children in the fire. – S.M.B.]
I will not leave you in the lonely dark;
I will not cede you to its iron hold.
My skin, like yours, will share the rough of bark,
My hair, leave-spun, will shelter from the cold.
Sweet-voiced dryads, your woods for me make room,
Your ring I’ll join, your spells I’ll learn by heart.
My song will dig a grave, my verse a tomb,
Magic severing life, yielding it to art.
I will not falter; I won’t turn behind,
I’ll fasten myself to my bounded will,
I’ll forfeit my body—limbs, heart, and mind
to the muse of lyre who’ll strengthen me till
like Orpheus, mourning, I play so well,
I find the chord to loose the gates of hell.
October 31, 1922
Like she said, fucking weird.
She was stuck on the last part. “I’ll forfeit my body”—she hoped he hadn’t actually sent this to his fiancée.
Forgive me. I couldn’t stay.
Beca didn’t care. She didn’t care about any of this.
An hour or two of mild terror later, Beca considered texting Aubrey.
I’m 90 percent sure Chloe’s town is haunted and the Poet Laureate of Deathsville is after me. Aubrey. What have you done.
No, no. That was a bad plan. She would laugh at her.
She wondered: should she call Chloe?
No. Stop. She wasn’t being haunted. And Chloe was at work.
She wasn’t being haunted.
She opened her laptop. At least she had music.
The electricity went out.
At first, everything just flickered (including her computer, which was weird; it wasn’t even plugged in), and Beca’s heart had skipped a beat.
Thirty seconds passed till Beca’s breathing had resumed a normal pattern.
Fade to black: her laptop screen dimmed again, but came back after a few seconds. Everything else, however, was out.
Beca looked around her frantically, waiting for a next move that didn’t come.
“No, no, no, no,” she whispered under her breath. “Not real. This is not real.”
What if it was real?
She was calling Chloe before she could stop herself.
Please answer, please, please answer.
She hadn’t been mad at first—Chloe was at work, after all.
But as an hour passed, Beca’s mind started to stew in frustration.
The lights had come back, and she had calmed down; it had all been nothing. But Chloe couldn’t even be bothered to call her back, to check on her after what had happened that morning?
She considered just walking the five minutes to the museum and confronting her there.
But if Chloe didn’t want to talk to her, whatever, she didn’t have to talk to her.
Chloe came back late.
As she had the day before, she smiled automatically as she opened the door and saw Beca on the couch, but when she didn’t get a smile back, her face grew concerned.
“Beca?” she asked. “Are you okay?”
Beca liked the sound of her voice so much, she almost wanted to let go of the weird resentment she’d been letting build up all day.
(But, no. She was too attached to her own hurt.)
“Where were you?” she asked, only a little harshly.
Chloe put her bag down on the floor. She looked so worried.
“I’m sorry, Beca,” she said quietly. “The dress rehearsal went a little over.”
“You could have texted me.” Beca felt her face warming. “You didn’t answer my calls.”
Chloe walked slowly to the couch, and sat down next to her. She leaned forward to catch Beca’s eyes, and as Beca stared back, Chloe reached over to bring their hands together.
“Beca, I’m really sorry,” she said. “I didn’t even look at my phone. I should have known you might have needed… I mean, that you might have wanted to talk.”
Beca shook her head. Chloe was so sweet. What was wrong with her, freaking out for no reason, making Chloe feel guilty over nothing?
Chloe pulled hair out of Beca’s face and tucked it behind her ear.
“What did you want to call me about?” she asked. “Do you still want to talk?”
Beca kept shaking her head. She didn’t know. She didn’t know why she was feeling like this at all.
Chloe moved her hand to Beca’s cheek, tracing a thumb lightly over the bandage.
“Can I check on your cut?”
She nodded, just a little.
Chloe did it so carefully, Beca could barely feel the bandage lifting from her cheek. Out of the corner of her eye, Beca watched Chloe stare at her, just a few lines of concern disturbing her forehead.
Just as gently as she’d taken it off, Chloe pressed the bandage back down onto her skin. Beca looked down at her hands, which Chloe once again took into her own.
She was almost whispering when she spoke again.
“You’re still healing,” she told Beca.
Beca turned to meet her teary eyes.
(She was too good.
She was too good for her.)
Chloe checked on the frozen pizza she’d put in the oven while Beca, once again, read through the poem.
“Not quite ready,” Chloe called out. “Maybe another, like, five minutes.”
Chloe placed the oven mitt on the table and rejoined Beca on the couch, sitting just too closely, like Chloe always did.
Beca didn’t say anything as she read through it once more.
“Do you want to talk about it?” Chloe asked.
She was pretty sure she didn’t deserve the kindness in her tone, but what else was new?
“I just feel like…” Beca shrugged. She decided to take a different tack. “Well, what do you think this poem is about?”
Chloe reached over and slowly took the paper into her own hands.
“I’m not totally sure,” she said. “But I think it’s really sad.”
“Me too,” Beca admitted.
Chloe pointed at the first line.
“But there’s something beautiful too, isn’t there? ‘I will not leave you in the lonely dark.’ Like, I think he thought he’d found people who could understand him. Maybe. Even if they weren’t real.”
“Yeah, but what about…” Beca stopped herself. She took in a breath. “I feel like this poem is about giving up. Life is too hard, so he just gives up and leaves.”
The timer started going off in the kitchen. Beca waited for Chloe to get up off the couch, but she ignored it.
“I don’t know, Beca. It was kind of complicated.”
Beca felt just the faintest shadow of her earlier anger move over her.
It’s not complicated. People do it all the time.
But her tone was more defeated than sharp when she responded.
“It’s what people do. They leave, all the time.”
Chloe folded the poem and put it on the end table next to the couch. She was still ignoring the timer.
“Not always,” she said. “People don’t always do that.”
Beca in all honesty had no idea that she was going to say what she did next—replying without a beat.
Chloe’s eyes got so wide.
Beca’s was pretty sure her own must have done something similar.
(What did she even mean by that?
It wasn’t even true. Chloe didn’t owe her anything; she was allowed to move to whatever random, ghost-ridden part of the country she wanted to live in. It wasn’t like they were actually…
Ugh. Could this really be what Beca had been upset about the whole time?)
“I didn’t…” Beca scrambled to take it back. “I’m sorry, Chloe. Seriously, I don’t know why I said that.”
She was so embarrassed. Turning away from Chloe, she jumped off the couch, walking to the kitchenette to turn off the timer.
She opened the oven door—the cheese on the pizza was just a little blackened.
Beca stared at it.
“You know, I’m actually not that hungry,” she said, even as her stomach rumbled at the sight.
She glanced back apprehensively at Chloe, who, still sitting on the couch, looked totally at a loss.
“Beca, can we—”
She didn’t let her say talk.
“Chloe, please,” she snapped, and Chloe’s mouth closed immediately.
Frustrated—with herself most of all—Beca moved her hands up to her face, accidentally pressing too hard against the tender skin around her cut.
She winced. Shit. Shit.
When she dropped her hands, she saw Chloe with her palms pressed against the couch cushion, leaning forward, halfway to pushing herself up and walking towards her.
“I’m sorry,” Beca said quietly, and she wasn’t even sure exactly for what.
Chloe didn’t press any further on the talking front, but she did make Beca eat a slice of pizza before (silently) they went to bed.
Beca listened to the branches rap against the windowpane in the guest room—again—and, despite herself, closed her eyes to remember the warmth of the night before: the storm, the fire, the blankets, Chloe’s lips on her forehead.
She absentmindedly ran fingertips over the bandage on her cheek.
It must have been the wind, earlier, that had knocked the photograph off the wall. And there was probably some elaborate explanation for why a laptop screen would flicker when the electricity was out; she’d look it up later.
No. Even better: she wouldn’t.
The poem, after all, was just a stupid poem—not even a very good one. Bard was just lonely and, she didn’t know, probably traumatized or whatever. He didn’t really choose to run away with ghosts. No one knew what had happened to him.
But even she probably got over it eventually. That’s just how it goes.
Dreaming, Beca followed her.
It had started in front of the fireplace; Chloe and Beca were still buried in the blanket pile from the previous night. At the beginning of the dream, all Beca could feel was relief—everything from the past day must have been a nightmare. She was back with Chloe; she was safe.
But Chloe pushed aside the blankets and stood up, and when Beca asked her where she was going, she didn’t respond.
It only could have been dream-logic that convinced her she had to chase after Chloe, carrying a coat, since she had left without one. So she followed her, one step after another, through the woods, Chloe’s winter coat in her hands. Beca waited for her to shiver, or to look cold at all. She’d be ready.
Chloe wasn’t walking on a path—she was weaving in between the old, knotted trunks, walking barefoot over the rotting leaves on the ground. Beca realized she should have brought shoes too, but maybe she could just give her hers.
Beca hated every moment of wandering through the dark. It felt like such a long time. She was beyond happy, then, to see a sliver of moonlight peeking through the edge of the trees. They were almost out.
But when Beca followed Chloe out into the open space, she stopped dead in her tracks.
Somehow, they’d ended up back at the playground.
Next to the metal pole (in this dream, it was matted thick with rust, almost black) was a pile of children’s books, stacked maybe about half as tall as Beca.
Chloe didn’t hesitate; she just walked over to the pole and sat down on the ground, leaning against the metal. She picked up a book and placed it on her open lap.
Beca, unquestioningly, moved to sit down near her, cross-legged. Chloe didn’t seem to notice her.
Beca counted them as they filed in: one, two, three, four, five. She wasn’t even surprised. Three boys, two girls. Unlike Chloe, they all definitely saw her. The kid from her dream the other day was the oldest, at maybe eight or nine; the youngest couldn’t have been older than three. Something in Beca’s chest ached as she watched them.
They sat down in a circle with Chloe and Beca, just as the children at the museum had a couple days before.
Chloe turned the bright red cover of the book and started reading: “Here is Sam Trolley, the fireman of Little Snoreing.”
The kids leaned forward, rapt with attention. One of the older children lied down on her stomach on the ground, resting her face on her hands as Chloe kept going.
They loved when she did the voices.
“Send us a real motor fire engine to Much Snoreing,” she recited, her voice pitched low, her best attempt at a villain, “and we’ll put out all the fires in Little Snoreing too.”
They applauded as she finished, and she smiled at each one of them individually.
“We liked that one,” said the girl on the ground.
“Thank you, Chloe,” said the youngest, in such a small voice.
Chloe was polite as ever. “You’re welcome.”
“You won’t leave us, will you?” asked the oldest—that lonely boy from the apple orchard.
Beca’s heart sank as she waited for her response.
(Of course not. Chloe’s strongest motivation had always been pity, right?
What else was there to love in Beca?)
The ghosts all smiled, like they couldn’t believe their luck. Beca knew that feeling.
Well, just, of course. Of course. Beca wasn’t the one.
The ghosts wanted Chloe.
Saturday, October 31st, 2015 (Halloween)
When she woke up, the cabin was empty.
In the light of day, she could once again convince herself that believing in ghosts was totally irrational, and that everything was going to be fine.
Beca searched for a note on the fridge, on the table, on the ground—maybe she’d taped it to her door and it had fallen off—but there was nothing. It wasn’t exactly typical of Chloe not to think of something like that before leaving, or even to leave without saying goodbye, but Beca did her best to shrug it off.
Whenever the image from the night before of Chloe’s mouth snapping shut as soon as Beca had raised her voice floated into her mind, Beca dug her nails into her palms till it passed.
She’d fucked up, obviously, but she couldn’t think about that yet.
She made herself a bowl of instant oatmeal. She’d put in too much milk, and it was watery and lukewarm. She poured on the sugar instead. Whatever. She was having a rough day.
A few hours later, Beca wasn’t exactly panicking, but it wasn’t completely off the table as an option. Chloe wasn’t answering her calls; they were going straight to voicemail.
She listened to the whole thing every time; the sound of her voice calmed her down a little.
She was staring blankly at her computer screen, trying to force herself to read work emails, when her phone finally dinged with the notification of a new text. She’d jumped a little in her seat; she had turned up the volume all the way so that there was no chance of missing something from Chloe.
But (she tensed with disappointment) it wasn’t Chloe. She didn’t recognize the number—it had a 978 area code, which, Beca was pretty sure, was local.
She read the message.
Hey beca. This is Leila, chloe gave me your # earlier. Is she with you? I have a question about the play tmrw and I think her phone is dead
So Beca’s last hope, that Chloe had randomly gone into work on a Saturday and had forgotten to tell her, was gone.
She took in a deep breath, and started to compose a response.
I haven’t seen her since last night. I was up early and she was gone. I’m really worried that
I haven’t seen her since last night. I was up early and she was gone. Do you have any idea where she might be?
She read it through a few times before she sent it.
She stared at her phone until, a minute later, she got a response.
Are you like freaking out right now
Beca narrowed her eyes at the screen. She could hear Leila’s tone as she read the text and she did not appreciate it. She decided not to answer.
A minute later, there was a second response:
It’ll be okay beca. You should come to the museum
As she considered it, another followed:
I have snacks
Beca looked over at her half-eaten bowl of watery oatmeal, then turned back to her phone.
On my way.
Snacks, apparently, really meant digging into the refreshments (cookies and candy) Chloe had bought for the play the next day.
Leila’s fingers were stained orange from the stuffing of Halloween Oreos. Beca found herself liking her a little more when she realized that she ate Oreos two at a time, just shamelessly stuffing both into her mouth.
Beca was too nervous to be hungry, but she’d never met a Reese’s product she couldn’t manage to eat under any circumstance. She picked slowly at a chocolate-peanut butter pumpkin.
“I really and truly believe Oreos may be the love of my life,” Leila told her, wiping crumbs off the table.
“You don’t know what we’ve been through together,” Leila went on, moving the half-finished box back to the snacks cabinet. “There was some serious Romeo and Juliet shit going on when I was growing up. My parents wouldn’t buy them for most of my childhood because they used to be made with pig fat.”
“Yeah, I’m glad we’re having this special bonding moment,” Beca cut in, “but could we really talk about where you think Chloe might be?”
Leila closed the cabinet.
“I honestly have no idea, Beca,” she said. “But I’m sure she’s fine. I just invited you here so that you wouldn’t lose it waiting to hear from her.”
Beca shook her head at the dismantled pieces of chocolate pumpkin in front of her. She didn’t look up.
“Beca,” Leila said, not too condescendingly. “It’s going to be okay.”
Should she tell Leila about all the weird ghost stuff? She’d probably be the only person who would actually believe her. No, that’d be worse.
Beca looked up.
“So, why ghosts?” she asked.
Leila looked kind of caught off guard by the question. Beca didn’t know why; she couldn’t have been the first person to have asked it.
“What about them?”
“Why are you so into them? It’s weird.”
Leila squinted her eyes and smiled, probably composing a list in her head of her top ten favorite things about dead people.
She sat back down next to Beca.
“Lots of reasons, honestly. Like, when I was a kid, I just really liked horror stories—of any kind. But now that I, like, have a brain to think about them with, I like them even more.”
Leila reached over to take a piece of Beca’s chocolate pumpkin. Rude.
“You sure you want me to go into this? I wrote my Honors thesis on the topic.”
Gross, but okay.
“Give me the short version.”
Leila leaned back in her chair as she chewed, deciding where to start.
“Ghosts are so fucking queer.”
Whatever Beca had been expecting, it wasn’t that.
“No, no, think about it,” Leila said, leaning forward. “They’re like literally an embodiment of that slogan: ‘We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it.’ They refuse to go away.” She was grinning broadly as she went on. “And that’s almost always who it is in ghost stories, right?—people who’ve been murdered unjustly, or forgotten, or, you know, thrown aside in some way. They keep coming back. And when you think about it—well, even, like, think of those five kids Bard was so obsessed with. Are we really afraid of them? Those harmless little kids? Or are we afraid of the fact that people are so fucked up they’d burn down a house with children in it?”
(Beca was pretty sure she was terrified of both.)
Leila wasn’t done.
“I don’t actually think anyone’s really scared of ghosts at all,” she said. “But I think we are all wicked scared of other humans. Of being human. Ghosts are like this constant reminder of all the ways we fuck up. How we hurt each other. They don’t let us forget.”
Beca regretted asking her about any of this. She moved the extra pieces of chocolate into the empty wrapper, ready to say she was going to go take a walk, when Leila kept talking—
“But then there’s also Chloe’s theory.”
Beca’s heart couldn’t really help warming at the mention of her name. Leila, too, was smiling faintly, and for the first time Beca saw what had probably been obvious all along—how Chloe’s “Massachusetts bestie” also felt about her.
“Chloe has a theory?”
“She has a lot of theories, Beca. But her ghost theory…” She shrugged. “I think I may actually like hers better than mine.”
Beca felt so sad. She stared at her phone screen, willing it to show some sign of her.
“Chloe thinks ghosts are about second chances,” she said.
(Of course she did.)
Beca felt her throat constrict. She couldn’t cry, no—not while Leila was there.
“She thinks that ghosts are, like, the living, not-so-much-breathing proof that nothing is ever totally over. We get to do it again—see them again—and do better this time.” Leila’s voice had gotten kind of quiet. “That’s what Chloe thinks.”
Beca took in a deep breath.
She couldn’t just sit there—she had to go out and find her. How many places could she be? The town was tiny.
“Um, yeah. Thanks, Leila. For the snacks, and telling me about that stuff.”
Leila looked surprised.
“You going somewhere?”
“I just—I don’t know. I know you’ll make fun of me, but I really need to find her.”
Leila watched her curiously.
“Yeah,” she said. She balanced her chin on one of her hands. “I get it.”
Beca threw her wrapper in the trashcan.
“Hey, Beca,” Leila said—and was it even possible that her voice sounded nervous?
Leila looked embarrassed.
“You know that you have something that a lot of people might want, right?”
(Beca didn’t know. Beca didn’t know that.)
“Just…” Leila shook her head. “Don’t be an idiot about it. If you can manage it.”
There wasn’t really a good way to respond to something like that.
But Beca really did mean what she said.
“Um. Okay. I’ll try.”
Beca asked around town: had anyone seen her?
Most of the people she asked knew her by name, and when she asked about her they almost all had a message they wanted Beca to pass on to her, but no one had seen her that day.
“If you see her, could you let her borrow your phone to call me?” she asked them, and everyone said yes.
She didn’t call.
Beca walked along the harbor, dragging her hand over the wooden railing. She walked through the field Chloe had taken them through in the thunderstorm the other day. With a flash of hope, she rushed down the dirt path to the creek she’d shown her that first evening Beca had been in Todesbury.
When she started walking back to the cabin, it wasn’t because she had given up. It was just that she literally didn’t know where to go next.
But as she passed the museum, reaching the border of the playground, she stopped herself.
The wind had gotten stronger, and kept pushing one of the swing’s chains against the pole, making a sharp metallic sound—like a bell, she thought.
She shook her head, and took in a deep breath.
She walked up to the wayward swing and stopped it with a hand to one of the chains. She stood there for a few seconds before turning and leaning back into the seat. The wind reared up, nearly pushing her feet off the ground.
She shivered. She looked around at the empty plot, at the wheel at the top of that horrible metal pole—just creaking.
Before she started speaking, she rolled her eyes at herself.
“Hey, kids. I’m here to talk with you.”
Okay, so, Beca was never sold lock, stock, and barrel on the whole “Chloe was kidnapped by ghosts” thing.
But at the time, in that moment, it seemed like the worst thing that could possibly be happening, and Beca knew better to discount that.
“So, okay,” Beca started hesitantly, speaking to literally no one. “I was thinking maybe you guys… have you seen Chloe around at all?”
The wind stopped abruptly. Beca could feel her breath shortening as she tried to steady herself.
She shook her head. Go big or go home, right?
“I’ve been looking for her for hours,” she said, hoping her voice conveyed a little of her desperation. “I really need to find her.”
She was actually kind of surprised that they hadn’t emerged from the woods yet. Wasn’t that what they had done for Bard? It was annoying, if they hadn’t even given her the rules to play the game.
It wasn’t fair.
The wind renewed, shaking an oak tree above the swing set and hurling down a few acorns, one almost hitting Beca’s hand as it fell. Jesus, she thought.
“Look, is it, like…” She blew some air out through her lips. “Do you need me to tell you a story? Is that how this works?”
Nothing. She could feel anger, acidic and helpless, rising in her stomach.
“All right, listen,” she said shortly. “I have no idea what I’m doing right now. I’m pretty convinced that me trying to have this conversation is crazy, I’m pretty sure I’m crazy right now, but if, let’s just throw it out there, hypothetically, there were a bunch of ghost children who wanted to drag Chloe to the underworld to read them bedtime stories—just as a random example—then I really, I really need to ask them not to do that.”
It sounded even worse out loud. Oh my God, what was she doing?
(But she couldn’t stop.)
“Like, I get it, obviously she’d be good at that, she’d be perfect at it—who are we even kidding—she’s Chloe, but it… it’d be really shitty. It wouldn’t be fair.”
Her stupid voice was cracking. It wasn’t even the point she was trying to make: what was fair in this world?
“And, okay, I know what happened to you wasn’t fair either. Nothing is. But please. I can’t do this alone. Like, you guys could understand that, right? I can’t do this alone.”
The last sentence was more air than words. She gasped for breath as she finished.
Beca stared through the annoying tears in her eyes at a single yellow leaf falling slowly from one of the trees.
She sat silently in the empty playground, confused, embarrassed, for at least a few minutes, till she (once again) jumped at the unnecessarily loud volume of her phone.
Seeing that name on the screen was like surfacing for air.
“Chloe,” she said, first to herself, and then, a second time, as she lifted the phone to her ear.
Chloe was panting for breath when she reached the playground a few minutes later.
Strands of hair had fallen around her face out from her bun as she ran, and Beca couldn’t believe it, that Chloe thought she was worth running towards in the first place.
Reaching Beca at the swing, Chloe pulled her up into a tight hug, resting her head on her shoulder.
“Beca, oh my God, I’m so sorry.” She squeezed tighter. Beca closed her eyes. “I didn’t realize my phone had died until, like, just now. And I just got all your texts and voicemails; I’m so, so sorry.”
Beca shook herself out of the hug, but Chloe kept one of her hands firmly in hers.
“Dude, it’s okay; I’m sorry I freaked out.”
Chloe shook her head, reaching over to stroke Beca’s hair.
“No, it’s not okay, especially after yesterday—when I didn’t answer your calls.”
Beca had honestly already forgotten about that. It was incredible to her, that Chloe could ever think she was the one who had something to be sorry for.
“I shouldn’t have left this morning without telling you,” Chloe said.
Beca moved her hand out of Chloe’s, bringing her arms around herself as the wind rushed back.
“Where did you go?” she asked cautiously.
Chloe turned her eyes away from Beca’s.
“I just, um. I needed some time to think… about stuff,” she said. “But there is no excuse that I didn’t leave a note. I’m so—”
“Don’t be sorry, Chloe.” Beca moved her hand back into Chloe’s. “There is an excuse. I was such a dick. I—”
“Don’t be sorry, Beca,” Chloe interrupted her, inching closer and squeezing the hand in hers.
Beca didn’t say anything. She looked around at the playground and thought—what had her problem been? It wasn’t scary at all.
Chloe’s grip on Beca’s hand was still tight as they walked along the harbor. Chloe marveled at the groups of trick-or-treaters as they passed, reaching into her bag to give them all small handfuls of Reese’s peanut butter cups. Every time she’d fill up a different group’s bags, she’d hand another one to Beca.
Chloe chatted enthusiastically with each of the kids, asking them about their costumes (“a zombie Donald Trump? That is amazing”), but as soon as they’d move on, she’d go back to being quiet.
Beca tried on a thousand apologies in her mind, and another thousand declarations of love, and nothing seemed to fit. She didn’t have any idea what it was she wanted to say.
As it turned out, she didn’t have to decide.
Chloe led her towards the railing and let go of Beca to lean her arms against it. She stared out at the water which, that day, at least, was completely calm. She took one of the peanut butter cups out of her bag and unwrapped the foil.
“So,” she started. “Aubrey says I’m not good at making decisions for myself.”
(Beca had to swallow every kneejerk insult about Aubrey that immediately rose to the forefront of her mind. Chloe was probably going somewhere with this.)
Chloe chewed slowly as she thought about what to say next.
“And, you know,”—she swallowed—“it’s not something I really like to do, Beca. You know how terrified I was of graduating. Of being on my own. It was like I didn’t even know who I was anymore.”
“We were all kind of terrible last year,” Beca interrupted. “It wasn’t you.”
Chloe ignored her.
“I thought…” She looked self-conscious. “Um, I kind of thought I was doing the same thing with you. Holding onto you way too hard. Like I did with the Worlds.”
She could see Beca move to contradict her, and shook her head.
“I know I do that sometimes, Beca. I get really…” She shrugged, reaching up to move a few strands of hair behind her ear. “I don’t know. Anyway. That’s why I asked Aubrey to help me find a job so far away. I thought I had to leave. I didn’t—I didn’t think you wanted me.”
Beca heard her words with disbelief.
She wanted to say something like: I’d have to be an idiot not to want you.
She just shook her head, wildly.
Chloe watched her, something like hope brightening her gaze. She reached out for both of her hands and moved fingers along her wrists.
“I wouldn’t want you to think I left because I didn’t…”
She looked down at the ground.
“What is it, Chloe?” was all Beca could ask.
It was so strange, how much kinder her own voice sounded when she was talking with her. She liked it—maybe a lot.
Chloe brought her head back up, and her cheeks were red as she sought out Beca’s eyes.
Beca tried to tell her with them: it’s okay.
It was like surrendering, the way she said it.
“Beca, you’ve always had my heart. I thought you knew that.”
Beca had known—of course she had sort of known it was coming—which is why it made no sense that she chose that moment of all moments to start crying.
Chloe’s grip on her hands tightened immediately when she saw it.
They weren’t sad tears, or, to be honest, even happy ones. It was stupid. She pulled one hand out of Chloe’s to wipe her face with her sleeve.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“No,” Chloe stopped her. “Are you okay?”
It was the first time she’d cried in front of someone else in twelve years. She thought of the last time like she was picking at the skin around a wound: sobbing in front of the bonfire, strong arms around her, so many promises that were forgotten way, way too soon.
“I don’t know why I’m crying,” she said, smiling, still wiping away tears.
Chloe, taking control, led her over to a bench a little further down the railing.
Beca sat down, and tried to not to feel too humiliated as Chloe moved a hand in circles over her back.
None of it was exactly how she had imagined it.
A few peanut butter cups later, Beca was feeling silly.
“Please don’t tell Aubrey about this,” was the first thing she managed to say out loud.
Chloe smiled fondly.
“Don’t worry,” she told her. “I won’t.”
“I’m sorry,” Beca repeated.
Chloe just pulled her closer against her side.
“Um, Chloe. It’s just—”
Chloe turned towards her as she started speaking. Her face was way too close.
“Well, I mean, of course I like you. Like, of course.”
(Ugh. That was a pathetic start.)
“God. I’m so bad at this. I just… it’s terrifying, okay? Because I know you love me—I do—but you love everyone, Chloe. You love me, and you love Aubrey—you love all the Bellas. You love the woman who made those horrendous earrings you bought me. I mean, you love Zombie Donald Trump and you just met him two minutes ago. You love everyone.” Beca let out a deep breath. “And I only love you.”
It was kind of a surprise that Chloe didn’t respond immediately.
It was definitely a surprise that she didn’t respond with words.
A few seconds after Beca had stopped talking, she felt it—Chloe’s lips pressing gently against the side of her forehead. Her mind flashed back to the other night, but before she could say anything, before she could apologize for having left her alone there on the floor, Chloe’s hand was in her hair, guiding her face up towards hers.
Chloe was so sweet—not just because the taste of the Reese’s was still in her mouth—but her lips were so soft, her touch so careful as she avoided the tender cut on Beca’s cheek.
Beca never wanted it to end.
Maybe Chloe didn’t either. When she moved back, she kept a hand in Beca’s hair, not quite letting go.
“Listen, Beca,” she said, catching her breath, “I love a lot of things; of course I do. But Beca…” She smiled shyly. “I would always, always choose you.”
Beca moved forward, kissing her again, not even hungrily, just—so happy—so, so sure.
Sunday, November 1st, 2015 (All Saints’ Day)
It was nice of Chloe to agree to wait in the car while she embarrassed herself.
Not that Chloe knew what she was doing—she hadn’t even asked why Beca had wanted to go to the store and buy things she already obviously owned. That was one of the very many things Beca liked (loved, that she loved) about Chloe; she always knew when Beca needed something to be just for herself.
And she also knew (how, Beca wasn’t exactly sure) when she didn’t.
When she couldn’t stand to be alone for even one more second.
It was good that Chloe was working with kids, she thought. Like, she was sure all of the children loved her, but there were some kids that just really needed that kind of thing.
(She had to stop thinking about it—if Chloe had been there, if she’d found her on the grass in elementary school, if she’d reached over to stop her hand from pulling up any more of those weeds.)
“So, I’m still ninety, ninety-five percent convinced you all don’t exist,” Beca announced to the playground while settling back into one of the swings. “Which, given some of the weird shit that goes on in this town, is a pretty sane percentage, if you ask me.”
Beca looked around to make sure no one was there to hear her. But of course it was empty; it always was.
“Anyway, if you do exist, thanks for doing me a solid and letting Chloe stay.” She could feel her face moving into a smile. “I really need her.”
She reached into her bag and pulled out what she had brought with her.
She wondered how long it would be till some kid realized an iPod and some expensive headphones were just lying there on the ground. Whatever. She needed to do this.
“I know music isn’t the exactly same thing as stories,” she said, a little apologetically. “But I couldn’t really give you anything else.”
She shivered as the wind shook down more of the leaves—the tree next to the swing set was almost bare.
She got up.
“Thanks, dudes,” she said again, and started making her way back to the car.
When she opened the passenger side door, Chloe was looking at Atlanta Craigslist on her phone, scrolling through job postings.
Leaning over, Beca shook her head.
“I thought I told you I’d find a job in Boston, Chlo.”
Chloe looked up at her affectionately.
“We’ll see,” she said.
Beca sighed as she put Logan Airport into Chloe’s GPS.
It was probably weird that she had a sudden urge to roll down the window, given how cold it was. It’s just that she knew she would miss the fall air as soon as she left.
As the glass lowered, she sensed it immediately—someone had started burning a wood fire. It smelled so good.
Beca took in a breath. Her heart—it was strange. She felt so safe.
“Ready?” Chloe asked hesitantly, and Beca turned towards her.
She could tell by Chloe’s mirrored expression that her own smile must have been truly repulsive.
Chloe started driving away, past the museum, past the playground, and it was a surprise for Beca—to realize all at once that she wasn’t scared of anything; she wasn’t scared of anything in the world.