Paige Johnston

Ghosts of Summer


The thought of Olive still unsettled her – the way she stared into the distance like she could see something Nora couldn’t, and her icy skin. Trust the one other alien hunter she’d ever met to be crazy. Nora passed her mum the ingredients for the pasta sauce before letting out a heavy sigh. ‘Can I ask something?’ ‘Go ahead.’ ‘What does a dead body feel like?’ Her shoulders stiffened. Her mum stepped away from the scratched wooden counter and looked to Nora. ‘Why do you ask?’ ‘I just thought you’d know, and I was just wondering, I guess.’ ‘Is this about Oscar?’ It was like her mum had a superpower. All it took was one look into your eyes and she knew everything. Nora hadn’t got away with a lie in years. She dropped her gaze to her hands and tried to squeeze the right amount of confusion into her voice. ‘What do you mean?’ Her mum placed a hand on Nora’s shoulder, squeezing. ‘I know you wanted to see him, honey, but I had to make a decision and I didn’t think it was best for you to see him like that.’ ‘No, it’s not –’ she began, but her chest tightened as memories of the hospital rose in her mind. Of being left in the waiting room, of pressing her hand to a cool coffin. ‘It was just something I was watching on TV.’ ‘Nora, I’m really starting to consider putting some parental controls on that thing.’ ‘It was just daytime TV! But they were saying the skin stuck to your hands like goop –’ she lied, trying to pull her mum in with facts. Her mum tutted. ‘No. Nothing like that, especially if they’re recently dead.’ She let out a breath before saying, ‘A deceased person feels cold, heavy. Their skin feels different to you or me.’ She took a breath. ‘The best way I can think to describe it is you know when you fall asleep on your arm and it goes dead?’ Nora nodded. ‘It’s a bit like that. Your arm is heavier, flopping about. They’re usually a bit stiff, too, from the cold, but they’re still them. Not some zombie or whatever you’ve seen.’ ‘Oh,’ Nora said, heart tensing. How Olive had felt, she thought, minus the stiffness, before she chided herself. Ghosts aren’t real. She’s not dead. Her mum let out a sigh, rubbing Nora’s upper arm now. ‘Are you sure this isn’t about Oscar? It’s normal, you know, to wonder about these things, especially since the anniversary is in a few days.’ Nora didn’t know why they called it an anniversary, like it was something to celebrate. If it was up to her, they’d forget the day all together. ‘No. I swear. I was just curious.’ ‘Okay,’ her mum said, backing away. She didn’t take her eyes off Nora for some time as she cleared her throat and returned to the sauce. Neither of them spoke for a while, the air around them thick with discomfort. After a long pause, her mum crouched before the cupboard and muttered, ‘Ah shoot. We’re out of pasta.’ She stood up again, knees cracking. ‘You’ll have to have beans on toast or something.’ Nora pulled a face. ‘We could go to the shop?’ ‘Nope. I don’t have enough time before work.’ ‘I could nip to the Post Office?’ Her mum considered it for a second before reaching into a drawer and handing some change to Nora. ‘Be quick.’ Nora took the money and dashed outside, grabbing her bike. It was a short trip to the Post Office. It rarely opened; when it did, the hours were completely up to the owner, Old Joe. If he didn’t want to work, he didn’t open the post office. If he wanted to sleep, he slept instead. Nora respected that. She’d tried that excuse when it came to school, but her mum didn’t buy it. The Post Office was a small sandstone building that was once a house. It still was partly Old Joe’s house. Inside was cramped with a few shelves of necessities: bread, milk, toothpaste, pasta. The rest of the shop was for packages. As she entered, the bell chimed above her head and Joe looked up from the register, and said, ‘Heya, pet.’ Even after decades in the south, he still retained the hints of his Scottish roots. Nora said hello and moved to the shelves, searching for pasta, freezing only steps away. There’s no way, she thought as she stared at the wall where a flyer was pinned onto a coarkboard. On it, a familiar face smiled at her. But the girl in the picture was warmer, welcoming. It was a school photo of a pretty girl in a dark blue school jumper. Her hair was neatly plaited and her smile was perfected for that very moment, making her eyes shine. Nothing like the wild eyes and ashen face Nora knew. Still, it was undoubtedly her. And in big, bold letters, it declared her MISSING. Below the photo, it added, If you have any information on the whereabouts of Olive Jones, please contact the police. The change slipped out of her hand, clattering at her feet. The sound was unnaturally loud, breaking her from her trance, jumping her to life. She grabbed her money and moved back to the pasta, assessing with all her concentration if she should grab penne or fusilli to distract her mind from the poster. ‘You alright, pet?’ Joe asked. Nora looked over her shoulder, nodding quickly, but her mouth was dry and a sickness was building in her stomach, rising and rising and – ‘You know her?’ Old Joe asked with a wry smile. Did she? She’d met her, hadn’t she? Even if the girl claimed she was dead. If anything, the poster proved she was alive. Missing, but alive. But then Nora’s eyes trailed to the last seen date, the night of the crash. It’s not possible, she thought. How had nobody else seen her lingering around the treeline? Unless… She shook the thought. Olive wasn’t dead. She couldn’t be. ‘I’m okay,’ she said, realising Joe was still watching her. She decided on penne and took it to the till. Joe rang it up and Nora handed over the money before heading to the door. As her hand touched metal, Joe called, ‘I hope someone finds her soon.’ Finds her. People still thought she was alive. Which she was. She was definitely alive, Nora told herself. She’d seen her. Touched her and her cold, dead skin… No. Not dead. But how, standing between trees, facing the main road, had nobody else seen her? Outside, Nora stuffed the pasta into her bike’s basket and peddled towards the forest. * Nora jumped off her bike, not bothering to hide it in the bushes like before. She didn’t even know if Olive would be there, but Nora had a sickening feeling that she was the last person to have seen Olive. Nora glanced at her phone. She was already pushing it; the journey to and from the Post Office didn’t take that long, and her mum would be wondering where she was. She had to know what was going on. ‘Olive?’ Nora shouted, pushing further into the trees. The trees began to grow thicker, the trail rockier from where it was less travelled, and though she’d barely been walking more than a few minutes, her t-shirt began to stick to her back. She hated summer. Turn back, she thought. She didn’t have the time to go further, and what if Olive had been lying? What if she was long gone by now? But Nora couldn’t stop her feet from moving, venturing deeper and deeper into the forest. It was like something was controlling her body, desperate to know if Olive was just a strange, missing girl, or if she was telling the truth and ghosts were real. Ghosts aren’t real, ghosts aren’t real, she chanted silently to herself, but then she caught sight of a wisp of black hair and froze. To the right of the trail, a girl rested on a fallen tree, head bent, staring at her feet. Olive. Nora studied the girl for a moment, taking in her perfectly still form – the way her shoulders didn’t move as she breathed (was she even breathing?) – and the odd, grey tint to her skin. It was a little breezier than the past few days, but the wind didn’t touch the girl. And Nora would bet, if she touched Olive’s hand again, it would be icy to the touch despite the sun blazing down. This can’t be happening, her mind screamed. Ghosts aren’t real. But there Olive was, sat before her: alone and missing to the rest of the world. ‘Oh my god,’ Nora muttered to herself. ‘I’m losing my mind.’ Olive’s head shot up. As she met Nora’s gaze, she smiled weakly, but it quickly vanished again. ‘You came back.’ Nora stuffed her hands in her shorts’ pockets. ‘Is it true? Are you dead? Like actually dead.’ ‘I told you,’ she said softly. ‘Why would I lie about this? I don’t even know you.’ Nora sucked in a breath, mind still fighting for a logical explanation to it all. ‘I – I thought it was a prank or something. I don’t know. Maybe someone set you up to it, but you’re -’ But you’re dead. Nora couldn’t bring herself to say it out loud. If she said it out loud it became real. Too real. ‘Ghosts can’t be real,’ she whispered, taking a step back. ‘So you believe in aliens, but not ghosts?’ ‘I –’ Her voice scratched against her throat. How could she explain it to a stranger without sounding crazy? Nora swallowed and continued, ‘It’s not just aliens. The ocean is mostly unexplored – how can we rule out weird sea creatures? Maybe the megalodon is still thriving, deep, deep under the sea, or maybe, somewhere, sirens are lurking the seas. And Bigfoot – though, he’s probably just some weird, misunderstood guy – could exist, or once have. Maybe dragons did, too, but got wiped out by heroes – or villains.’ She shrugged. ‘But ghosts? People die every day. If ghosts were real, surely, they’d be everywhere. There’d be proof. So why you?’ Olive shook her head and gazed up at the sun, staring directly into it without wincing. ‘I don’t know, but if you don’t believe me, why are you here?’ ‘Too many things don’t make sense.’ Nora let out a breath. ‘And then I saw a flyer in the post office. A missing poster.’ Olive snapped back to Nora. ‘A poster?’ she whispered, eyes widening. ‘Oh my God, my parents must be – they must be so worried. I didn’t leave a note or anything, I just saw the post and left without even thinking. All I could think of was being the one to find a UFO.’ She stepped back, bowing her head and shaking it over and over. ‘Now I might never see them again.’ Nora took a step forward and reached out for Olive’s shoulder to comfort her. As soon as skin touched skin, Nora almost jerked back. She forced herself to remain still, adjusting to the chill running from her fingertips and up her arm, sending a shiver down her back. ‘But you could see them again though, right? I mean you’re here. I know you can’t leave the forest, but with the posters, it’s only a matter of time before someone spots you –’ ‘No. You’re the only one who’s seen me,’ Olive whispered in a voice so quiet the breeze almost drowned it out. Nora shook her head. ‘Why me? I don’t know you.’ ‘Honestly, I don’t know how this ghost thing works, but I’ve tried to get people’s attention – I’ve run in front of hikers, waving my hands, shouting. Nothing. I tugged on this guy’s shirt, thinking he’d have to notice me, but he just shrugged me off and kept going. That’s why I got so excited when I saw you yesterday…because you saw me.’ She took a step back and Nora’s hand fell. ‘I don’t know if my parents would be able to see me if they came.’ Nora ran a hand through her hair, pushing damp strands from her sweaty brow. There had to be another explanation, but none of it made sense. This is real. Ghosts are real. And then, as quickly as the excitement came, it died again as another thought crossed her mind: if ghosts are real, how come Oscar never came to see me? ‘But then why me? Why can I see you?’ she asked. ‘I don’t know. I just wanted to find the aliens. I didn’t want this to happen. I didn’t -’ As she spoke, her body shuddered and she choked on tears that weren’t there. ‘What are my parents going to think?’ Nora didn’t know what else to do, so she stepped forward and wrapped her arms around Olive’s back, pulling her close. ‘I’m sorry.’ After a moment, Olive’s hands, limp at first, found Nora’s back before bunching in Nora’s shirt. The cold seeped through. Nora closed her eyes, remembering her mum’s face those first few days after losing Oscar: bloodshot eyes and dry skin, a heaviness that seemed to last forever. Nora felt it too. There were days when she didn’t think she’d ever stop crying. Nora couldn’t imagine how Olive’s parents felt, not even knowing where their daughter was. ‘Do you want me to call them for you? Or the police?’ Olive pulled back with a breathless laugh. ‘Like they’d believe you. You still hardly believe me.’ She let out a sigh. ‘I – I don’t know what to do. I don’t – I don’t even remember where I was when it happened. It’s still blurry.’ She dipped her head, shaking her head. ‘All I know is I was looking for aliens and something stopped me. And now I’m trapped here.’ Heat prickled against Nora’s back. She hoped there wasn’t some crazy, murdering guy in the woods. That would certainly make it harder to find the aliens. ‘So what are we going to do?’ ‘We?’ ‘I can’t leave you,’ Nora said. Silently, she added, Plus, I still need to find that UFO. Olive smiled gently. ‘I don’t know. Maybe…we retrace my steps. I have a theory on where the UFO might have crashed, but I lost all my notes when I…’ She let out a sigh. ‘But if we retrace those steps…we’ll find, well, me. And hopefully the aliens, too.’ Nora couldn’t believe it. ‘You still want to find them?’ ‘I can’t leave here. I have nothing else to do, do I? Besides, if I died trying to find them, I have to. I can’t have died looking for aliens and not even find them!’ She paused, looking to Nora. ‘You don’t need to help, though.’ Nora bit the inside of the cheek. She knew the right thing to do was to call the police or someone, let them know the missing girl was actually a dead girl. Plus, Olive had died. Something or someone had killed her. The forest wasn’t safe. But there was a UFO out there, and Nora wasn’t about to give up. So she held out her pinky finger and waited for Olive to link hers. Once they were connected, warm skin against cool skin, Nora whispered, ‘We’ll find it. I promise.’

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