By Erik Olaf Dargitz
How many afternoons have you spent sprawled out on that scruffy carpet, mindlessly following the climbing, whirling sounds of that violin escaping her window? How many times have you listened to a car pull up, to her getting in, to them leaving, and wonder who had come for her and where they were going? How many nights, long after you’d already crawled into bed, have you heard the groan of the garage door, her parents finally home from the oh-so-important dealings of the day, or week, or whatever?
How many times have you wondered what she did with all that sweet, soundless freedom?
Lara, she’s one of those girls who’s had a sophisticated sort of independence since she got her braces off. Speaks fluent French. Parties with older kids. Got an off-the-lot Audi for her birthday. Is blessed with an immunity to gossip. Was born with that rare and natural mysterious intrigue.
Girls like Lara have it easy like that. Have everything like that.
You? You grew up on midnight monster movies and mandatory family dinners. Martian Octopus and bowls of mac and cheese with hot dog slices.
No mysterious intrigue here.
And now – no more hot dog slices either.
That all ended when you went somersaulting through the intersection at the speed of lights-out. When you flew over your handlebars, and then the Jeep, sailor-diving right smack into concrete. When your teeth went rattling across the pavement like a handful of little white dice. When you tumbled for like 30 feet, leaving behind a purple trail of Meghan – not to mention dozens of onlookers each with a fresh set of therapy needs.
It all ended when you bit it.
Anyway, here you are. Ready for your big Haunt.
Turns out, that’s what you get when you croak: a single Haunt. One-time spectral visitation rights. Thanks for playing, here’s your prize. After that, well, that’s still TBD. Tune in next week.
For the record, yes, you are well aware that you could be using your Haunt on anyone. Like, you could be visiting your mom and trying to send her a message, tell her you’re alright. Or you could Haunting your way into Harry Styles’ dressing room. But it was like you didn’t have a choice, right? You were too curious to pass up on her, weren’t you? Yes.
Lara, she is your beautiful space alien, like in that late-night B movie you just saw where this supermodel-looking extraterrestrial came down from Venus. And that scientist wanted to go back to her planet and study her life. You, you’re the scientist, and Lara is your Venusian goddess. Everything that you are not. Were not.
Lara in one word: effortless.
Lara in another word: enigma.
A list of people that hate Lara: (list empty).
Lara, she was always nice to you, but holy duh, that’s like saying the sun was warm for you.
It’s easy for girls like Lara to be nice. Isn’t the world so nice to them?
She was friendly to you, sure, but friends you were not. Mostly you just admired from afar, like so many others. You were just – and had been since she moved in – infatuated.
Lara: the anti-Meghan.
Maybe curiosity just comes with closeness. And maybe the meanest trick America plays is the one called suburbia. Like, where else can you find a Mercedes next to a minivan? A chain-link fence next to a manicured hedge? A you next to a her?
But it’s not like you resent Lara for having her life. And it’s not like you disliked yours. Mom and Dad loved you so much, so incredibly much, and were so good. Your little brother was growing up to be a smart, sweet, funny young man. Sure, your house wasn’t perfect, but it was always full of love.
But love doesn’t buy an Audi or mysterious intrigue, does it? Ha, ha.
All that to say: there is no big plan here. There is no agenda. Sometimes you just have to scratch an itch. You just have to see.
You stand on the sidewalk, making a big thing of it. Being all dramatic-like. On your right is your house. You can hear Mom yelling at Hippo. You can hear Hippo bark back, everything a game to him. You see flashes of Mom through the window, happy, still unaware her daughter is smeared all over the intersection of 34th and Robinson. That call won’t come until later, and you plan on being long gone by then. Your little heart couldn’t take that. No way. Dad opens the door and Hippo bursts out into the yard. He tosses a ball and the dog barrels after it. Dad has that lazy smile on his face, like right now everything is gravy. You feel a little guilty knowing that smile will die soon. You stay, just a few more minutes, just to watch.
That’s the thing about chain-link fences. You can see everything that happens in there. There are no secrets behind chain-link fences.
Lara’s house, well, they have hedges. Too dense to see through. Too tall to see over. Whatever happens behind those castle walls remains royal secrets forever.
You love your parents, but you gave them 17 years. So, you blow them an invisible kiss and walk toward the only gap in the hedges. It’s an iron gate, shiny, black and smooth. You reach to grab the knob, but your hand just closes over it, like trying to squeeze a puff of smoke. Ha, you dumb ghost.
In the bad horror movies you loved, the laws of ghosthood were always very convenient for whatever hack wrote the script. Like: spirits could walk through walls, but also flip the light switch or grab a knife. You wonder what the real rules are.
But then … you know, don’t you? Yes. Somehow, you do. You have no physical claim anymore. No flipping lights or grabbing knives for you. But … the soul is fair game, isn’t it? Yes. You can flip those switches, can’t you? Yes. Give joy? Give terror? Yes. Yes. Interesting.
For instance, if you find that your curiosity turns to jealousy, and if that jealousy becomes hatred, say: you could darken her soul to a midnight basement, couldn’t you? Yes.
Easy, Meghan. Easy.
You just want to study your space alien. See her real life. That’s all. Right?
Well, no time to waste when you’re dead.
You walk through the gate like it’s a light fog, then up the steps to the big door. The door to Lara’s world.
You walk through it.
Let your Haunt begin.
You’re in what’s called a foyer, you’re pretty sure. For comparison, your house opens up into what’s called a TV room. You look around. The place isn’t gaudy. It’s not in your face. It’s not the palace or space station or movie-star mansion you’d hoped for. But it’s still … breathtaking.
You try to put a finger on it, on its breathtakingness, and then it hits. It’s not what’s in here. It’s what’s not. No clutter. No scratches on the hardwood floor. No scraps of pink dog toy carcass scattered around like shrapnel. No multicolored heap of shoes. No basketball. No Mountain Dew bottle sitting on the little table by the door. The only thing on that table is a big abalone shell and one set of Audi keys.
You walk through the foyer into what’s called the sitting room, you’re pretty sure. Like a living room that you’re not allowed to live in. The couch is a shade of white that almost hurts. A no-Cheeto zone, that’s a duh. On the walls are photos, tons, like a museum exhibit. The largest is a professional shot of Lara and her parents. Mr. Meyer in his square suit with his square jaw and his square haircut. Mrs. Meyer in her shrunken black dress with that shrunken blazer, plus a shrunken little smile. Lara, the can-do-no-wrong, looking so right. Her blue dress flawless, her hair falling like velvet drapes onto her shoulders, her cheekbones carved out of ivory. Surrounding this centerpiece photo is what is more or less a shrine to themselves. The family in Rome. The family on some Caribbean-looking island. The family at Lara’s violin recital. The family here, there, smiling, always smiling.
Families like Lara’s have plenty to smile about.
You walk into the kitchen and – holy stainless steel, the place gleams. There is nothing on the fridge except sparkle. No Papa John’s coupons slapped on with magnets. No shopping list. No photo strip from a cousin’s wedding.
The whole house is so still. So quiet. You’re suddenly hit with the feeling you get when you walk by that graveyard on your way home from school. Like this place, dressed up with Gaggenau appliances and furniture from Restoration Hardware or wherever, is just a graveyard in disguise. Like you’re not the only ghost here.
You grin at your stupid self. Maybe you should have sprinkled in some rom-coms there, Wednesday Addams. You can bet Lara doesn’t watch that campy, gory crap. Hasn’t rotted her brain out.
And where is the star of the show?
Maybe she’s in some secret room where seduced freshmen lay like cadavers on long slabs, bright red tubes running out of their arms, pumping blood into some crazy whirring machine. Young blood to keep the Meyers vital, spry, full of life. To keep those smiles bright. Just like the evil billionaire in that weird movie you saw last—
Easy, Meghan. Easy.
But still, you think: Let me into your closets. Show me your skeletons.
You head back to the foyer and up the stairs. Lara is probably in her room, where she is probably not taking any blood from any freshmen.
But what is she doing? Hopefully not something boring like getting ready to play her stupid violin. Hopefully she’s getting ready to hit some underground fashion show or fight club or something.
What do you do when you can do anything?
At the top of the stairs is a hallway, teed off in two directions. You go right. There’s a closed door on your left, and you step through.
You’re in an office. Big, oak desk. Wrought-iron lamp. No blood boys. There’s a framed triangular flag on the wall from Pebble Beach. Two photos sit above it, outlined in thick, cream matting beneath black frames. One shows Mr. Business with other squares at some conference, holding a plaque. Another has him cutting a ribbon with those big, goofy scissors.
You enter the room at the end of the hallway, and it’s the master. A bed the size of your room, yes, and a frame that looks like it took half the redwoods to make, yes, but nothing else. No Lara, no secrets. Not even a single photo to creep on.
Back in the hallway, its walls are also blank. Like they used all their photos in the sitting room.
Where are you, Lara?
A door on the other side of the stairs is slightly open, just a crack. You walk through it.
And there –
There is your space alien. There is your unicorn.
And what’s she doing?
Lying on her bed, on her stomach, looking at her phone. Scrolling with a drunken pointer finger, mindless little autopilot flicks.
High school deities: they’re just like us!
But that isn’t true, is it? No. Even in this position she looks like Aphrodite. Her spine and her ass and her legs are an undulation of smooth curves. Her goddamn life is an undulation of smooth curves. She is delicate and perfect. Her expression smokey and cool, even in boredom. For comparison, when you assumed this position, you looked like a ball of pizza dough on the counter, starting to flatten out.
You watch her for a timeless stretch. Nothing.
You look around the room. It’s plain, too. This whole house feels like a staged property. Fully furnished, lightly used. On Lara’s wall is a hat rack, with an assortment of wide-brim fedoras and sporty ball caps and floppy beach hats, and you better believe Lara can rock each one. The only other thing on those walls – those big empty canvasses – is a vertical column of small framed photos. You walk over and see that they don’t even have people in them. Just places. Somewhere European here. Somewhere tropical there.
Finally, the phone in her hand buzzes. Maybe it’s that hot quarterback seeing if he could sneak over. Maybe it’s that cute new boy, already caught in the all-consuming aura of the queen. Maybe it’s David Friggin’ Beckham.
It isn’t any of them.
“Hi, mom,” she says. The voice on the other end is just that mosquito whine from where you stand. “Okay. No, it’s fine. Yes, there are plenty of leftovers. Yes. Yeah, I’m practicing right now actually. Yeah. No, that’s fine. I’ll see you Sunday then. Glad it’s going well. Is Dad still coming back on Sat – okay. No, go. Love you, too.”
Lara sets the phone down on her white comforter and slowly rotates herself to sit up. She’s almost looking right at you, but she’s not. She’s looking right through you.
And what’s that look on her divine face? It’s a look alright. A sorrowful sort of look. A fragile sort of look. You feel ripped in two by it, don’t you?
A little, maybe. But more than that, you feel cheated.
Lara hasn’t earned that look.
Not that you’d been down and out all that often, but when you were … boy, did you have the right.
Girls like Lara have it too easy to look so melancholy.
Suddenly, you have an urge. It’s like that time you were at Josie’s house, and Josie had to help her mom run something to the neighbors, and there you were, all alone. And you had an urge to open the china cabinet and break one of the little plates with the gold and pink flower wreaths on them. And you did, didn’t you?
You wanted to break something beautiful, and you did.
There’s no satisfaction in breaking what’s already broken.
And when you know you won’t get caught…
Lara, doing her best impression of sulking, like she’s trying it on for fun. Lara, looking down in a world that has only ever lifted her up, up, up. Lara, with too much good for her own good. Maybe you could show her loss, just for a moment. Show her without.
That is your urge. To show her what blue really feels like.
You walk over and put your hand on her. Well, in her. You can feel her running over your fingers like water pouring from a faucet. And like a stream of water, where the slightest movement of your hand can change the direction of the flow, you understand that’s how this is. It would be that easy to drag her down, down, down. To turn her insides to ice. To introduce her to darkness she doesn’t yet know is possible.
Maybe you will, just for a second. Just to give her a taste. It will be good for her. You close your eyes and –
Just then, Lara slides off the bed and crouches on the floor. You step back and watch. The floor isn’t a scruffy carpet, of course not, but a white shag rug on hardwood – a rug like a llama had molted its coat just for her, an offering to her majesty. Lara gets on her hands and knees and reaches under her bed for something. Yes, yes, what is it? What secrets does the space alien hide under her bed? What does she do when she knows no parents are coming home? What does she do when she gets that borrowed wannabe-sad-girl look on her face?
Lara pulls out a flat Rubbermaid container. You can’t see what’s inside, but it’s fun to speculate.
She pops off the white plastic lid and reveals … paper.
You stand above her, like supervising. Inside the Rubbermaid is a messy pile of sketches. Lara picks up a stack and thumbs through them like old photos, pausing to reflect, then flipping them over and setting them drawing-side down on the rug.
Here’s the thing: the sketches aren’t amazing.
They’re just pencil drawings, and they aren’t even real scenes. This one is just an apple. This is just a person sitting on a hill. They’re not horrible, but they’re nothing Lara-level.
In fact: you were better.
By comparison, your half-finished comic book is pretty impressive. Sophomorezilla: where a high school girl turns into a monster and terrorizes her school. It’s dorky, yeah, but your lines are sharp, your details are on point, your perspectives are nails.
Lara’s are fuzzy. Way overshaded. Her characters a little out of proportion.
But there’s something to them, isn’t there? Yes. What is it?
Like this one. A girl in an empty room. All the dark shading around her. The way she’s looking to her left at nothing. It’s … well … kind of makes the hair on your neck stand up. Kind of hits you in the feels.
And this one. Just a face, a girl’s face. Maybe Lara’s, maybe not. Too … avant-garde to really be anyone in particular. The face has a smile, but it’s too big, too toothy – a Joker smile that isn’t really happy at all, and gives you the creeps.
And then this one. Totally different. That tree, so full of life, bursting with life, exploding with joyful life. Way too many birds for one tree. Sloppy birds on every single limb, one sitting on the tire of the rope swing hanging from the biggest branch. A squirrel – you think that’s a squirrel – sits at the base, nibbling on something.
Lara pulls out a notebook and flips to a blank page. She grabs a pencil, examines it, and takes her supplies back up to the bed. She sits there, looking out the window, then back to her paper, out the window, back to her paper.
Draw something, you think. If she’s not going to skip off to some invite-only warehouse rave, don’t just sit there. This is Meghan’s Big Day Out, your one great Haunt! You chose Lara, so come on, she owes you some action!
Maybe she’s just killing time until whatever grand adventure awaits.
But Lara just shifts a little, settling into her daydream.
You climb up on the bed. You’re not going to bring her down into darkness. That was crazy. That was wrong. That urge has left, thank God, and that’s not why you’re here. That’s not who you are. You’re just the scientist observing the space alien. And it’s not her fault if she’s not as interesting as you’d hoped.
Not her fault at all.
You crawl on all fours and sit crisscross-applesauce, facing her, your back to the window. She’s still doing a bunch of nothing, her paper still blank. She is looking right through your face, and you study it. You study it like the scientist you are. And then –
You know that look, don’t you? Narrowing, restless eyes, searching for something to focus on? Yes. Because that look is your look.
She shifts her body weight again, for the hundredth time, and –
You know that move, don’t you? That twisting readjustment you do when it feels like your skin isn’t yours, like you’re renting it and it doesn’t quite fit? Yes. Because that move is your move.
Lara now closes her eyes, and they stay closed for a good long time, and –
You know that game, don’t you? The one where you think of a place, any place, and imagine that when you open your eyes that you’ll find yourself there? Yes. Because that game is your game.
When Lara finally opens her eyes, she isn’t anywhere else. She’s still on her bed, with her dead neighbor sitting in front of her, all up in her personal bubble. You keep taking her in. There’s a hint of a smile, a secret smile, a heartbreaking smile, one that is only known to the person it belongs to.
That, and anyone who might be examining it from an inch away.
Where could the ones at the end of the rainbow want to escape to?
Girls like Lara don’t need anything.
You finally look away from that face. You turn around to follow her gaze out the window.
Did you know that from her bedroom she can see your backyard? You did not.
There is Hippo, chasing a tennis ball like his life depended on it. There are Mom and Dad, sitting at the picnic table, beers in hands, smiles on faces. There is your brother, laughing, calling Hippo who has dropped the ball to chase a squirrel. The squirrel scurries up a tree, way too fast for that dumb dog.
'That tree, so full of life, bursting with life, exploding with joyful life. Way too many birds for one tree. A tire swing spins lazily.
A new urge swells inside you, washes over you like sunshine.
Lara begins to draw, and you put your hand on her. In her.
About the author:
Erik Dargitz is an award-winning copywriter at an advertising agency in Seattle. His short stories have been published in Dream Pop Press, Mystery Tribune and elsewhere. He’s working on his first novel—after he finishes changing this diaper.