[fizz as Aya returns, upset]

I just—


[collects herself]

I’ll start from the beginning.

Vicky pulled me out of the cabin and into the woods. As we went, she explained.

Madison had snuck out of her cabin that night, and at first, Vicky wasn’t worried. She figured Madison was just gonna steal a counselor’s phone and call her mom again. Vicky watched as she snuck into the main building, past the offices, and towards the head counselor’s bedroom. She tiptoed past dirty laundry and oversized car posters. In his drawers, she found a stack of vintage Playboys — what frat boys are reduced to without the internet, I guess. She looked under the magazines. Dug through drawers of Nike socks and bro tanks. It was only when Madison searched the pockets of his cargo shorts that she found what she was looking for— the keys to the camp’s four-wheeler.

When Vicky saw her there, her fingernails bright against the camo keychain, she ran to get me. I didn’t know what I could do, but I followed anyway. There’s no saying no to Vicky.

We found Madison on one of the park’s winding paths, her headlights shining against the dark wall of trees. She was pushing the ATV hard, hard enough to send her wheels airborne every time she hit a bump. She wasn’t wearing a helmet, and when she whipped around the corner, her wheels skidded briefly off the road. Vicky and I both gasped.

And Madison turned back, her mouth open, her eyes wide as DVDs. The ATV kept whizzing forward, but her gaze was locked, her eyes narrowing, her mouth tightening into a rigid line.

She was looking right at me.

I froze. Vicky kept racing after the ATV, her bell-bottoms blowing in the wind, but Madison and I didn’t move, didn’t shift our gaze, kept staring for what felt like hours but must have only been a second. There was an unflinching recognition in her face, a certainty made no less serious by her horribly smeared eye makeup. The sky seemed to twist around us. The fog thickened, pressed closer like the walls of a tent. I was so afraid.

Then Vicky screamed, and Madison’s head jerked back towards the road. She slammed on the brakes.

There was a man in her path. He blinked at the headlights, his hand lifting to cover his eyes. He was barefoot, his clothes ragged, but he stood tall. He smiled, and his face wrinkled like a candy wrapper.

Hey, he said.


Here’s where I should remind you that not all of Harding Park’s legends are about ghosts. I doubt there are groups of dedicated moms investigating muggings and missing bodies, but there’s no shortage of those stories.

One of those stories is about the Harding Park Hermit.

There isn’t much to say about him that the name doesn’t tell. There’s tons of homeless people living in the park, especially during the summer, but the Hermit’s different. He’s been here for decades. He’s like a— like a less-magical Long Island Bigfoot. He lives in the woods and shows up once every few years, usually in unrealistic circumstances. He knows the park better than anyone— well enough to avoid even us ghosts, who spend our whole afterlives here. Until today, I didn’t know if I believed in him.

I do now.


Madison stayed quiet when the Hermit stepped towards her. He put his hands in the air.

Don’t worry, he said. I won’t hurt you.

Next to me, Vicky scoffed, but I don’t know, I kind of believed him. There was something about his eyes, maybe, or the way his mouth moved. Something not gentle, exactly, but trustworthy. Madison reached to reverse the ATV, and he shook his head. Slowly, he reached a hand into his pocket and pulled out a switchblade. Madison flinched, and he dropped the knife on the ground at her feet.

Take it, he said.

Madison tilted her head. Then, carefully, she leaned over the side of the ATV and grabbed it. She clicked the blade out and pointed it at him. He put his hands up, but his gaze stayed steady.

I’m not what you’re scared of.

Madison stared at him, unblinking, and he stared back. Then, slowly, his eyes shifted to my face. He didn’t react. He didn’t make a sound. But there was certainty in his eyes, a certainty I had seen in Madison’s, just a seconds ago. He saw me. He knew me.

Next to me, Vicky’s mouth fell open. I moved closer to the Hermit, watching as he turned back to Madison.

I know what’s happening to you, he said.

Madison flinched.

I want to help.

Madison shook her head, her eyes fixed on the handlebars. Behind me, Vicky smacked my shoulder. I was like what the hell, but the living didn’t seem to hear me, nor did they react to Vicky, who thankfully didn’t hit me again.

It’s him, she said. Her skin had paled into transparency. It’s the priest.

If I’d needed breath, I would have lost it. The priest — the man who’d led the cult to their doom. The Harding Park Hermit. It was the kind of lead I could only have dreamt of. I mean, here was a man who has literally been present for every significant moment in the park’s history, and he was right in front of me, giving weirdly opaque advice to Madison. And here was Madison, literally the one person in the world who could help me ask questions to an actual, living human. I couldn’t help it. I lost my head. I forgot Vicky standing next to me. I forgot all the reasons I shouldn’t do it. All I wanted was whatever he had to tell me. Whatever he might know.

And so I rushed at Madison.

And she screamed.

It was different, possessing her without an invite — like looking for a doorknob in the dark. I felt myself narrow, slipping in through her ears. She was weaker now, her defenses thinned and frayed. There were holes in her self, gaping and raw, wounds that hadn’t been there when I first saw her. I laid myself over them and opened her mouth.

The Hermit stepped back. You shouldn’t be here, he said.

I shook Madison’s head. Each turn felt like pushing a car-- unnatural and completely unmanageable. I tried to reach for him, and Madison’s hands dropped the knife, her fingers dangling limp in the air. Her arm was the heaviest thing I’d ever lifted, and I could feel her fighting to press it against her side.

He had to tell me what had happened, what was happening. I had to know.

I used Madison’s other hand to rev the ATV engine. The Hermit looked down at the road.

I could help you too, you know, he said.

I wrenched Madison’s jaw open.

Help with what? I asked. Madison’s mouth felt slimy, unnatural. I could sense every drop of saliva on her tongue. Felt the sweat under her armpits like beads of boiling water.

The Hermit raised his face to mine, and I saw for the first time how tired he looked. Don’t you want to rest, Aya?

I wanted to ask more. How he knew me, and why, but he’d already turned around. Rage curdled in my stomach, and I hit the gas pedal, hard.

He was back in the woods before the four-wheeler even moved. I lifted Madison’s foot and let her head slump. I’m not sure how much time passed. Eventually, I heard footsteps pound against the road behind us. Someone called Madison’s name.

I closed her eyes and loosened my grip on her. My spirit seeped out her nose, and she gasped.From where I floated above her, I could see a man approaching and grabbing her shoulder. I recognized him— the head counselor, the same one I’d seen outside the cabins on that very first day. He spoke. I moved out of Madison’s eyeline, floating to where Vicky waited behind them. Madison must’ve said something, but I didn’t hear. The counselor shook his head and offered her a hand to get off the ATV. As she stepped down, her body twisted, and her eyes flitted back towards me. The counselor turned his head to follow her gaze. He shook his head and turned back to her.

He led her away, down the path. The ATV stayed idle on the road. Every inch of me was exhausted, so heavy I struggled to float.

I turned to Vicky. Her eyes were sparking. When she spoke, her voice was tight.

Aya, she said.

And I started to say— I don’t know. Sorry, I guess, except I didn’t really mean it. My mind was still on the Hermit, on his offer, or warning, or whatever it was. I expected a lecture. Some classic Vicky rant about boundaries and a woman’s right to her body. But she didn’t speak. Her mouth seemed sewn shut, and her face— it was swelling, like a balloon, filling the black sky. Each of her pores was the size of my thumbprint. Her legs shot up towards the trees, and her torso stretched to match it, pulled like taffy towards the stars. In that moment, I remembered how old she was. Ancient, almost.

Then her body JERKED down to my level, like a glitch, like a disc-skipped, and she had her normal proportions back. She took a deep breath, and when she opened her mouth, inside was just a deep, empty black. No tongue, no tonsils, just endless void. I felt a churning where my stomach should be, and I knew.

This wasn’t about Vicky and her overeager rants. It wasn’t even about Madison. It was about me. Because that’s what I’d done. Made it all about me.

And it meant nothing. I was no closer to— well, to anything.

Vicky shook her head. Still silent.

I’m sorry, I said. This time, I meant it.

But Vicky had already left.


Helen: This is Helen, from M.A.A.G. — Mothers Against Aliens and Ghosts. This is day 35 of our investigation into paranormal activity at Harding Park, off Wrangler Road. The time is 4:25 p.m. The tapes are fully loaded and awaiting an EVP response. Is anyone present?


Helen: [sigh] I’ll be back tomorrow.


Aya:  So here’s how I figured it out.

I went to Dead Man’s Slope, just like Vicky had been telling me to all along. The slope’s up high, obviously, only reachable from one of the park’s most advanced hiking paths. To die there, you have to really want it. You have to work for it.

Once you get there, though, it’s easy. Just one step too close to the cliff’s edge, and you’re done for.

As I floated up the path, fear built like a brick wall in my stomach. It was like a weight where my body used to be, tying me to something for the first time since I’d died. I crept forward. Up the hill.

My anxiety wrapped tighter around me, and I broke through the treeline. And I was there.

It was actually kind of beautiful. The trees broke into a scraggly field, which broke into clumps of loose dirt. The dirt gave way to the river, whose green water ran around and over a series of boulders. I could understand why someone would choose to spend their last seconds there.

I sank onto the ground. My fingers tried to dig into the dirt, but they just phased uselessly through it. And then I remembered something. Something from life. My sneakers, coated in dust, struggling to stay still on the tilting dirt. My breath vacuumed out my throat. Fear.

In the present, dizziness choked me. It was like I could feel myself falling. I imagined my body, limp, careening into the water.

In that moment, I was certain. There was no conspiracy. No massive, unnameable mystery. There was just me, alone, unable to even touch the ground that killed me.

And then Vicky showed up.

Her paint-splattered bell bottoms filled my eyeline, floating a half-inch above the ground. I didn’t look up.

You were right, I said.

She stepped forward but didn’t acknowledge my apology. In that moment, I couldn’t imagine anything making it better. I thought I would just sit there, miserable, for the rest of eternity, like all the other sad sacks dragging their way across the park grounds. But then she said my name.

I could hear her smile when she said it’s not all bad.

And, her voice -- It was different. Deeper, and heavier, and also, noticeably NOT BRITISH. I looked up.

My eyes skimmed over her tunic, up her long, dark hair. Then, just for a second, her corset flickered into view. Her skirt poofed around her hips. Then our eyes locked, and her dress shifted. The corset stretched into cheap cloth, shirt buttoned up to her neck. Her skirts were now practical trousers, made of some thick fabric. Scruff sprouted along her jawline.

She was Vicky, same as always. Her hair cropped close and her Adam’s Apple prodding at her throat, sure, but still Vicky. The mist held her tight as always. It curled in her ears, around her face. She closed her eyes, and the mist wrapped thick around her face. Her outfit slipped back into a nostalgia-obsessed twelfth grader’s Halloween costume. Or, er, she returned to being a very fashionable ghost.

I stood up. My chest felt warm, tight, irrepressible. The mist was warm and smooth against me. I lifted my hand to cup Vicky’s cheek, and she turned towards me, her lips pressing against my palm. Looking at her, looking at us— I realized, for the first  time, that the mist wasn’t just surrounding us. It was holding us, tightly, like a lover. I blinked.

And that’s when I knew. I told Vicky that I would be back as soon as I possibly could, and I ran here, through this fog, this thing that I thought was the veil. But that’s not what you are, is it?

You’re somebody. Something.

I came back to this shed— this church, this surveilled place, this famously haunted house— I came back to hear from you.


Let’s talk.