I wasn't scared of darkness anymore.
That's what I told myself as I walked down the weed-splintered sidewalk that framed my neighborhood, the pale lights of the corner stores and all-night diners ahead of me and my home behind me, its shadows licking down my neck and back.
I wasn't scared of it anymore because I'd learned a long time ago, after my mother had left, that the monsters didn't lurk in it. Instead, they most often lurked in the living room, sitting in the ratty armchair surrounded by so many crumpled Miller Lite cans that it looked like a throne of sharp and damaged steel. Instead, they groaned in the garage, their head aching from drink. Instead, they most often hovered at the top of the basement stairs, in the spot where I'd just been standing, their hands still out in front of them from pushing me and their lips unmoving as they said nothing and I wheezed through cracked ribs.
The thought of what had happened just twenty minutes ago made me bring a still shaking hand to my eye; I could tell that the skin was darkening, and I had enough experience with markings like this one to know that it would only get darker.
My father had pushed me down the stairs because I'd said that Missy, our dalmatian, wasn't dead.
It was him that killed her.
He'd left for another night of disappearing into drink, his words a messy slurry as they tumbled out of his mouth. "I'm heading out, Bucky."
Bucky. My name was just Buck, but my father refused to call me anything other than Bucky.
It was a name I'd learned to associate with pain, and just hearing it made my skin crawl.
"Okay," I didn't look at my father as I heard him slip on his jacket and stumble out the door. I realized a long time ago that sometimes all it took was a glance to set him off, to have his sweaty fist crack against my jaw; according to him I looked too much like my mom, like that "heartless bitch" that left him and his son behind. So my eyes stayed away as the door closed and the cherry-red pickup crunched down our gravel driveway and faded into the night. I knew he'd be back, tears in his eyes and choked and empty apologies tumbling quietly out of his mouth. I didn't know if he was apologizing to my mother or myself.
I found Missy the next morning when I went to get the mail. Crumpled on the driveway, her body mangled and broken bones tearing through her skin.
She was dead, the cherry-red pickup's tire marks streaking darkly across her caved in chest.
I kneeled next to her body, running my shaking fingers through her matted fur, seeing splotches of it darkening as tears fell from my cheeks. Her eyes were bulging and glassy, and her teeth were broken, one of them, a long and pointed canine, a few feet away on the gravel. As I finally managed to peel myself away from the ground and her body, I pocketed the tooth, gripping it so tightly that its sharp end bit into my palm and small drops of red began to drip from between my knuckles.
Missy was dead, but she walked with me now, tongue flopping and her breathing heavy and wet as she marched beside me. Each breath and the specks of reddish spittle that fell from her broken teeth but didn't seem to ever make contact with the ground before vanishing seemed to make my blood ebb in the strange way that it did when she first came back to me, made the tug it had towards her pull a bit harder.
I hadn't expected her to come back.
First I felt a yank on my veins, like my blood was being pulled somewhere.
Then I saw her as I walked back inside and away from her corpse, a new set of bills that I knew would rot on the kitchen counter clutched in my shaking and dirty fist. She was sitting patiently by the door in the spot she always did when she was waiting for me to come home. Mangled, not quite alive, but back.
I didn't scream. I just held her in a stunned silence while she licked my face and then my palm, lapping up the tears and blood that I hadn't realized were there. My eyes were looking out the window to where I could still see her body.
Later, I found out that my father couldn't see her ghost like I could. That had made me angry, because he hadn't seen her when he killed her and I was hoping that he'd finally see something that he hurt. I yelled at him. Words I can't remember. And then I was at the bottom of the stairs, pain infusing itself into the blood that pulled towards Missy as she stood over me and whined.
My dad cried. He apologized.
But I knew that words couldn't heal cracked ribs.
Missy and I walked for what felt like hours, until the light press of shadows became the heavy crush of darkness and we reached a part of town I'd never been to. It was older and smelled like dust, and as I continued to walk I saw small shapes growing in the distance. My feet scraping closer to them over the pavement, their formless masses began to show their finer details, and I realized what they were: headstones. I hadn't noticed the twisted steel bars that divided me from them until I nearly ran into them, the metal looking black in the night.
The sight, the seemingly countless headstones and mausoleums, was an unfamiliar one to me; my mother felt dead to me, but they didn't bury people because of feelings.
It felt like they should though.
I wrapped my hands around the bars, wincing a little as their iciness seeped into my body. It helped the aching that had seemed to meet me at the bottom of the basement stairs when my body met the cement, but I knew the chill and its numb comfort wouldn't last long. I brought my face closer to the space between them, taking in the sight before me.
The grey stones, grass, and sky made it all look like a sea of loss, and I was still gazing across it when I heard a voice next to me.
My body tensed and my grip tightened on the bars in front of me, the cold beginning to hurt as my knuckles whitened with fear. I didn't jump; I was used to sudden noises far louder than a voice: yelling, glass breaking, my own body hitting the floor, or the wall, or the coffee table. But my muscles still tensed in the way that it did whenever the noises did happen, preparing for the worst.
"Hey," The voice repeated. It was touched by a rasp and sounded young and annoyed with me. A faint clicking noise filled the spaces between the words. "I'm talking to you."
I made myself turn to it, bringing a hand to cover my black eye which had begun throbbing even more.
Standing off to the side of me and on the other side of the bars was a boy. His pale face was all angles, the only softness coming from the heavy bags which rested beneath silver, dark-browed eyes. A thick strand of inky hair dripped over the front of his face like oil, giving it the appearance of cracked porcelain. He was leaning up against one of the stone pillars that bordered the cemetery and broke up the pointed bars, his slacks-covered legs crossed and his arms, white dress-shirt sleeves pulled midway up them, crossed. The smile that touched his gray lips grew deeper as I met his eyes.
But it was hard for me to notice any of that as I felt my blood tug towards him, the same sensation that I felt with Missy.
"Is that a threat?" The ghost rolled his eyes, the clicking noise becoming a bit louder. "I'm Henry, actually. And you?"
As he asked, he brushed away the hair that had been covering his face. The source of the clicking I'd heard was now visible in the moonlight: the ghost's jaw was broken, its left half hanging a bit lower and looser than the other. I watched as Henry tensed his face muscles, making the lazy half of his face snap back into place with a click as his molars met, only for it to begin sliding back down again. He did it over and over, a staccato rhythm sounding out between us.
He could see the silent horror on my face. "It's rude to stare, you know," his voice was filled with fake hurt, but the smile on his face didn't leave, the thin lips and sway of his jaws making it look like a drooping wound.
"Don't be. Not everyday that you see a ghost this good-looking," he gave a wink and a click. The way he was speaking, steadily, confidently, was like none of what was happening was strange. Like he wasn't a ghost and I wasn't somehow talking to him. "Name?"
I looked at Missy. Her gurgly breathing had quickened a little and her tail was between her legs, the two eyes that had been lifeless just the night before now alive with apprehension as they stared at the dead boy before us.
The smile only seemed to spread further and become thinner the longer we spoke. "Buck," he said it like he was tasting the name, pausing so he could run his tongue over it. "Buck. I like that name. Can I call you Bucky?"
Hearing that name made me feel sick. "No."
A few moments passed without me answering, but Henry didn't seem to mind, waving his hand through the air as if he was fanning the question away. "So, are you gonna show me?"
"Show you what?"
He gave an airy chuckle. "I showed you mine," a click sounded out as he ran a slender finger across his sharp jawline. "It's only fair that you show me yours," he removed the finger from his face and pointed it towards my hand, still cradling my bruised eye.
My face reddened, but I dropped the hand anyways.
The cool night air kissed against my eye, and Henry pushed himself up and away from the stone he'd been leaning against to come over and take a closer look. My hands were still wrapped around the metal bars and he placed his just over them, bringing his face closer to mine.
I could've sworn that the metal became colder at his touch as his breath, like a light winter breeze, touched my cheeks.
"Damn," he whispered, a shade of something like awe in his voice. "He got you good, huh?"
My blood ran cold even as it continued to pull towards him. "What?"
"Your dad. He hit you, right?"
"N--No," the lie that usually came with ease was weak and stuttered, making my eye ache a bit more as I pulled my hands away from the gate and took a step back. I had gotten good at hiding the reality of my pain from people, and I had grown used to how many of them, even those who really knew what my father was like, were so willing to believe shitty lies for the sake of comfort. It was that very lack of care that stopped me from telling anyone outright about my father. But Henry had seen through it, had seen through me, in mere moments. The fact made me shiver.
"Oh. My bad then."
Henry began to turn away when he suddenly swung back around, his hand lazily raised in the air. Despite the clear lack of threat and the divide between us, I flinched, Missy growling at my side.
Henry grinned, a loud click sounding out. "That's what I thought."
My body was tired, but a dull rage began to burn behind my busted ribs. I was hurting, and I was scared, but I dealt with enough shit from the living. I spat on the ground and started moving away, Missy following suit, trying to ignore the shaking in my limbs.
We had only moved a few feet before Henry spoke again behind us.
"My dad hit me."
I stopped. The fullness of Henry's voice surprised me; before it had slid out of his mouth emptily. But, for the first time, the emotions seemed real.
The dull sorrow in it made my blood feel colder.
The burning anger in it made it race faster.
"He was pretty good at it, too," Click. "His one thing that he could do well… It's so lonely, isn't it?"
Henry was the transparent one, the plateau of death behind him having been just barely visible through his chest, but for a long time it had felt like I was. Like people just looked through me, ignoring the bruises that leaked from atop my skin and beneath it, making my entire soul sore. I didn't say anything or turn around, but I could sense Henry's smile, his steely eyes seeing and cutting into me, peeling back my layers, searching for something.
And finding it.
"Are you angry, Buck?"
I walked away and back towards home without giving Henry an answer.
Instead, he got it when I came back to the cemetery the following night with a new bruise beginning to blossom along the left side of my jaw, a smile already on his face as if he'd been expecting me.
Without me saying anything, he whispered to me from behind the bars the pale moonlight behind his head smearing his face with a shadow like a storm cloud.
Like the sky right before lightning struck.
"Me too, Buck..."
I went to see Henry outside the graveyard over the course of months, talking to him through the bars whenever I felt invisible. It seemed like he was the only one who could see me. I soon learned that the feeling went both ways.
"My blood?" My skin felt hot.
"Yup. Your blood," He repeated. His hands left the gate that they had been gripping onto. "It lets you see me, hear me..."
Before I could react, a pale hand darted in between the bars and swiped at my sleeve. But just as the thin fingers were about to grab onto me, they instead phased through, a feeling like a cold breeze sliding across me.
A bored look settled onto Henry's face. "But not quite touch me," his eyes met mine. "Interesting, huh?"
I was unsettled, but what Henry said was true; it was interesting.
I gave a small nod.
"How do you know?" I asked.
A shrug. "You aren't the first," he flicked one of the bars, a ping sounding out, a fading echo accentuated by the click of his jaw. "And you won't be the last."
That hurt for some reason, but I ignored it.
"So how come I can touch Missy?" I rubbed her ears.
"Because you have a part of her still with you. Something that belonged to her. That's why she can go around with you, too. Why you can see her. I'm just stuck," he waved a hand over the graves. "Here."
"But I don't--" I stopped. I reached into my pocket, pulling out Missy's tooth. Its end was still stained a slight brown from the blood it had drawn from my palm.
"See," Henry chided. "It's not all about you."
I sucked my teeth. "Why you? Why no one else? Why can I see you without having..." My eyes looked at Henry's body, the broken sway of his jaw. "...a part of you?" Henry over the last few months was the only ghost I'd seen in full. The others only seemed to hide.
Like they were scared.
Henry's tongue swiped over his lips. "I like to think I'm more ambitious than the rest."
Missy growled. She'd never taken to Henry.
"What would you do if you weren't stuck here?"
The chuckle again. "I'd help you kill your dad."
My face reddened. It was an idea that came up at least once every time that I came to see Henry, like he was trying to stoke my anger. It was the statements like this, the statements that from his mouth seemed so casual but felt so heavy, that made me feel off put by him.
Henry made me feel nervous.
But even more so, he made me feel seen.
Despite the nervous tingle that had begun to trail down my fingertips, my mind continued to linger on the idea of my father being dead. The thought made my heart pound, and it felt impossible to tell if it was because it thrilled or terrified me.
For now, I decided to settle on the latter.
"Well," I met Missy's eyes. They were filled with concern, and I bent down to kiss her forehead, rubbing her behind the ears with a shaking hand. "That's a shame then."
I'd wanted to dissuade Henry with my words, dampen the flame that was his idea and soothe my own nerves, but instead he chuckled and clicked.
"You're right, Buck. It is a shame."
Two months later I came back to Henry with a shovel in my hand.
He was leaning up against the stones when he saw me approaching, the slick smile dwindling a bit as he saw the empty sidewalk beside me and the tool in my hand. "Where's the dog?"
The horror I'd felt that morning when I realized I no longer had Missy's tooth in my pocket was still fresh and made me want to throw up onto the street.
My father had been sitting on his throne in the living room when I'd gone looking for it, his breath already smelling of yeast. "You know I don't like secrets."
And then he did what he was best at.
He'd explained to me as he'd broken me that he'd found Missy's tooth and thrown it away as he did laundry, one of his weak and increasingly more scarce attempts at trying to fill the roles that my mother left behind. He'd found it and watched as the garbage truck came to bring it to the dump. It was gone forever along with the ability for me to see and touch her, for her to see and touch me. The only semblance of loving contact I'd felt since my mother left
A rib was definitely broken, each breath a near gasp, and my bottom lip was completely split. I was still licking blood from my teeth.
"Crying won't do anything," Henry repeated.
I wiped the tears away that burned hot down my face because I knew he was right.
He'd been right.
I needed Henry to come with me. To help me with what I was going to do.
Quickly, I scaled the fence, landing next to him with a thunk. Up close he looked even more hollow.
"Which one is yours?" A question that sounded more like a command. It felt good to hear such control in my voice. Control I hadn't had in so long. Henry almost looked impressed as he pointed off into the shadowy horizon.
His smile had never been so dark.
We began to walk, each step feeling more difficult than the last.
"Don't feel too sad, Buck," Henry whispered, so quiet it might as well have been to himself. "I've never been a fan of dogs."
"I'm home, dad."
My voice seemed to echo through the dark foyer, splintering off against framed photographs of myself and my mother. The air was cool and dry.
"Damn. Shitty place," Henry was standing behind me, the smile that hadn't left since I'd decided to dig up his grave still slashed across his face. "Better than the cemetery, though."
I ignored him, beginning to pick nervously at my fingernails.
Henry's grave had been unmarked and I'd dug with an empty mind, my silent rage fueling me as I shoveled more and more ground away, tore apart the earth as I waited for my shovel to meet a coffin.
Instead I heard a leathery smack.
Continuing to dig, I found him. His body was nearly all bones, only bits of sinew and scrappy fabric matching what he was currently wearing clinging to them. He smelled awful, but what caught my attention most was the container I found him in: a large golf bag, not big enough to fit his body as it normally was, his limbs broken in places so that he could be better shoved inside of its slim body.
"Who killed you?" I asked the question even though I already knew from Henry's stories that sounded so much like mine what the answer was.
He tapped a finger to his broken jaw. "Turns out, 9-irons can really," His hands moved in a motion towards my head like he was swinging a heavy club at me. "Take a person out."
"Guess so," The words shook a little. There had been times where I was genuinely afraid my father would kill me, but the sentiment was always accompanied by a childlike sense of sureness that he wouldn't, that somehow it would be beyond a father to kill their own child, that he would go back to the person that he was before my mother had left.
That part of me died as I dragged up Henry's body and broke off a finger bone, pocketing it and him.
And now the two of us stood in my half empty home, getting ready to kill my father.
Henry put a hand on my shoulder. A new and unpleasant sensation, his thin fingers like ice as their chill ebbed into me. The tug on my blood was more like a violent yank now.
"Ready?" His voice was brimming with a stomach-churning excitement, the clicks of his jaw becoming faster.
I told myself I wasn't lying even though I knew I was.
My eyes didn't leave my father as we ate dinner together. He ate with a smile on his face. He'd made dinner, and I'd watched him. There had been a steadiness to him, the strange fervor that seemed to fill his body whenever he wasn't already five cans deep that allowed the part of him that I had known when my mother was still here to come back to the surface.
The part of him that seemed to care about me.
I wished then, for maybe the first time in my life, that he was drunk. That he was far enough away that what I was going to do wouldn't be any harder than it already was. But instead he was here, his eyes lively and not glazed, the clear liquid in his glass not carrying a scent that burnt my nostrils.
He was looking at me.
But I knew, or at least I told myself that I knew, that he didn't see me.
I wondered if he could see what was coming, that there was some animal part of him that could smell the danger, the blood, in the air, his instincts throwing back on the sober facade that was one burning mouthful away from disappearing. Maybe he could sense Henry as he stood right behind him, disgust lighting up his otherwise dull eyes and his hands tightly clasped together like he was holding himself back from wrapping them around my father's throat. But he continued to eat, giving me small smiles between bites like he used to give to my mother and I.
I knew each one was a lie.
But what if just one of them was true?
Before I could ponder any longer, my father's plate became clean.
It was time.
I walked shakily over to the basement door, opening it with a creak and staring down into the darkness, the cement floor below out of sight. Henry's hand fell onto my shoulder again with the weight of a guillotine.
I remained silent for another minute before I turned away from the shadows and called over my shoulder and into the kitchen. "Dad," My voice was remarkably calm. "Can you come over here for a second? I think there's something in the basement."
I heard a huff of breath before he rounded the corner. The car keys were swinging from his fingers again and his windbreaker was on. He looked the same as he did the night he ran Missy over with his car.
"What?" His voice was calm and flowing, a rare softness. This shift from his usual growl usually didn't affect me, but now it made my skin crawl.
"The basement," I repeated the words more slowly. "I saw something in the basement."
A click from behind me.
"What was it?"
"I don't know. Can you check?"
He looked to the door for a moment before looking back to me with a smile. In the dim light, I wasn't able to see if it reached his eyes. "Yeah… I can look."
My father stepped past me and through Henry, leaning forward and over the staircase to get a better look.
"It's too dark," He muttered.
My hands moved upwards, and part of me thought it had been by my own will. But I could feel after a moment the deep chill of Henry's hands as he raised my arms for me, poising them to push.
"Do it," Henry's voice was a whisper even though my father couldn't hear it.
Shuffling my feet forward, my hands were now hovering just inches away from my father's back.
All it would take was one shove.
I'd thought it was Henry speaking again, but I realized it had been my own voice.
My father began turning towards me. "What did you--"
"DO IT!" Screamed Henry.
All the air seemed to have left my lungs as I felt two icy palms press against my shoulder blades, sending me and my outstretched arms forward and into my father's chest.
It was over in seconds.
The brief moments following the leaving of my father's feet from the top step were painfully silent. He didn't make a noise as ribs shattered, wood broke, blood splattered. He simply tumbled in silence until he disappeared into the shadows below, a wet crack sounding out.
Neither Henry or I made a noise as we stared at the void, waiting for him to reemerge, for a groan to sound out.
But it was still and quiet.
Without a thought or breath my feet began to creak down the stairs, moving through the heavy shadows until the moan of wood became the thunk of stone.
I flipped the lightswitch, a small field of light illuminating him.
His body was mangled. Every limb seemed to be broken in at least one place, his fingers on the hand that had just a minute ago held the car keys were broken and bent like a tree's branches in winter. His hat had flown off of his head and a widening pool of crimson had begun spreading out from beneath his skull. I only got a glimpse of his face, but his eyes were glassy like they were when he was drunk and I could see blood coming from the spots where yellowed teeth had been.
His smile was gone.
I placed a hand on his red jacket, pulling away as I felt a wetness, his blood slicking my hand.
I threw up on the ground as Henry cheered behind me. "You did it, Buck! You did it!"
There had been a thrill as my hands first met my father's back, as I saw his feet leave the ground. But now I felt sick, like my blood was rotten. The tug towards Henry was nearly painful now and it made me throw up again.
He looked over at me. "What's wrong with you? We did it!"
The spots where his hands had touched me, had pushed me into my father, felt frostbitten.
I spit a string of bile onto the ground. "Shut… up..."
His face contorted in anger. "What? What's your deal?" He moved towards me. "We did it. We killed him, we did what you wanted to--"
"Shut the fuck up. Just," I was crying now, even though I knew it wouldn't help. It never did. "Go the fuck away."
I turned around, expecting to be faced with rage, but Henry was gone.
I was confused until I heard a voice behind me. "What did you just do, Bucky?"
A broken-fingered hand smelling of beer fell onto my shoulder with a familiar weight, a gurgle and burp sounding out from behind me as small, coppery flecks struck the back of my neck before vanishing.
The blood in my veins, my blood, was pulled taught towards the hand on my shoulder, each beat of my heart almost painful.
But the blood on my hands wasn't mine.
It was someone else's.
Someone who wasn't supposed to be able to touch me anymore.
The stairs were slick with blood and I nearly slipped and fell, the door in front of me just out of reach. I stumbled, the air being knocked out of me as my bloody hands tried to grab onto the final step. I began to pull myself out of the cold darkness, back into the dying daylight.
Then his hand was on my ankle.
I saw Henry standing at the top of the steps as I was pulled away into the darkness. There was a deep, empathetic frown on his face as he shook his head in disappointment, turning away and walking out of sight.
The hand on my ankle tightened its grip, my bones moaning and freezing beneath its pressure. "Bucky," The words were choked out through tears, tears that I knew would never help. "I'm so, so sorry."
I heard a click fading away into the distance.
And then he was upon me.