Fiction by Drew Coles
The very first thing on the very first day of school, the teacher brings Marty Elmo to the front of the classroom to introduce himself. He says his full name is Marty Elmo Flood, he is from Newland, North Carolina, there is a ghost living in his attic, and he once hit a bullseye with his rifle from ninety-seven yards away. The teacher asks if anyone has a question for Marty Elmo, and Lily Lawson stretches her hand toward the ceiling. She wants to know his favorite animal. Marty Elmo says deer taste pretty good. He stands with his feet apart, watching us watch him, and I remember an episode of Wild America where a lone wolf finds another pack in the woods, and they stare at each other for a long time before the lonely one decides not to press his luck. Lily sniffs like she’s about to cry, and the teacher points to the empty desk on my left and tells Marty it’s time to sit down.
My mamma won’t let my daddy teach me to shoot a gun. I’ve never tasted deer, and my parents only gave me one name, like everyone else I know. My tenth birthday is in ten months and eight days and I have lived in Hoover, Indiana my whole life. I have seen Marty Elmo’s ghost.
When Marty Elmo sits down, he immediately opens his notebook to draw. He’s good at drawing. When he’s finished a picture of a dog, it could walk off the page if it wanted. When I draw it looks like someone cut off three of my fingers. The lines don’t come together right. If my dog wanted to move, it would wobble all over the place like I forgot to give it bones. Marty says that drawing takes practice, that if I can use my brain to see the picture on the paper first, it just comes down to tracing lines. When I try his idea, I think of the picture of me, my daddy, and my mamma in front of the Dollywood sign last year. Mamma convinced Daddy to buy the photo, even though I could tell he thought twenty dollars was too much. She hung the photo on the fridge with a butterfly magnet, right next to the newspaper announcement of my daddy’s Firefighter of the Quarter award. But when I imagine the photo on the page, I can’t get my mamma’s smile right or the shape of my daddy’s shoulders. They fade beneath my pencil. Marty tells me I can get better by studying a picture every night before I go to sleep.
Marty Elmo’s family moved into the house across the soybean field, the one my daddy calls a trap house, the one I know is haunted. Even after Marty’s daddy re-tacks the plastic siding and clears the branches off the roof, I still feel like someone’s watching me from the attic window. When I ask Marty about the ghost, he says it walks above his bed some nights, that it doesn’t leave the attic. He’s not scared of it though, because a ghost is already gone, and what’s already gone can’t hurt you. I like Marty’s idea, but I don’t know if I believe it. Before I go to sleep I still look across the field to see if there are two glowing orbs, ghost eyes, peering out the dark square in the roof.
The first time I go over to Marty Elmo’s trap house, his daddy is building a porch. When it’s finished, the deck will run along the whole front of the house, but right now it’s only a row of posts growing from the dirt. The boards his daddy is using are piled high enough in the yard you can see them from the road. Marty’s daddy is such a good carpenter they get to stay in the house for free as long as he keeps working on it. This worries me because my daddy doesn’t do anything to ours other than adding gravel to the driveway when the rain washes it out. When the deck is finished, Marty says they’re getting a pool.
My house doesn’t have a pool, but it does have real window curtains. Marty Elmo’s mamma hangs folded sheets in their windows with thumbtacks. She works for a long time, cutting, pinning, and running the cloth through her sewing machine. She sings old country songs while she works, songs about buying one-way tickets and going west, about tearing off rearview mirrors. When she sings she puts on a real thick country accent like she’s from somewhere like Texas instead of North Carolina, and when Marty’s daddy calls her his Very Own Country Star, she says Damn Straight, and they dance across the living room floor until she smacks him and says she needs to get back to work. When she’s finished, the curtains almost look like the real thing, except they’re too thin to stop the light coming through, but it’s only a problem when Marty and I have sleepovers on the living room couch.
You can see my house through the living room window. It looks like a black shoebox, so low to the ground you’d think we’d walk with bent backs from leaning all the time. I start having nightmares where my mamma and daddy are twisted over one another, like in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Marty’s house doesn’t have any doors either. They did back in North Carolina, but his mamma’s curling iron caught fire and nearly burned down the bathroom before they smelled the smoke. Now, all that’s blocking the doorways are beads hanging on strings, and I don’t use the toilet while I’m over there.
The only room with a door is almost always closed. It’s for Marty’s brother Julian Constantine, who is so sick he needs a machine to help him breathe. One time Marty and I sneak in there to take a look.
The machine is nearly a head taller than me with three different screens full of bouncing lines like the ones on the ER show my mamma watches. Every few minutes the box lets out a sound between a sigh and a whine, the same sound my dog makes when he’s dreaming on the kitchen floor. A web of thin plastic tubes snakes from the back of the machine toward the bed. They weave through the spaces in the handrails and end in Julian’s body, in his hands, his arm, underneath his thin green shirt. A blue tube larger than all the others runs into a mask over his mouth. He’s under so many blankets it doesn’t seem possible to move. Those handrails are worthless.
Marty Elmo shakes his brother’s shoulder, and the boy’s head flops to the side. I almost scream because I think he’s dead, but then Julian Constantine’s eyes flutter open and I can tell he’s smiling underneath the mask.
Marty and Julian don’t look alike the way most brothers do. Marty has brown eyes and red hair. His brother’s eyes are blue, and his hair is so blonde that I didn’t realize he had any until Marty rubbed his head. My black hair is from my daddy, and he gets his from his mamma who is three-quarters Italian. Marty presses three buttons on the machine and takes Julian’s mask off. The machine beeps twice and goes silent.
A week after cutting his foot on a metal can lid in North Carolina, Julian couldn’t get out of bed, and Marty says even though the cut healed, it locked something inside of Julian’s body, something that’s traveled all the way to his lungs. That’s why they moved to Indiana. The doctors at the children’s hospital in Indianapolis think they can make whatever’s keeping Julian hooked up to a machine go away.
I don’t have a brother, so I don’t know how lonely it is to have one stuck in bed all day, but I can see how Marty Elmo, standing next to Julian’s bed, carries his loneliness. He curls over it like he’s carrying a basketball in his gut.
Marty introduces me to Julian, calls me his best friend. He reaches underneath the bed and comes up with a scotch-taped cardboard box beaten so badly it almost falls apart when he opens the lid. Inside is a board game, the kind with cartoon people and smiling mountains, a baby game, but we play it anyway. Marty sets it up on the bed squeezing the colorful board on the flat area to the side of Julian’s legs.
They leave me in the dust. When Julian draws the last card he needs to open the castle drawbridge and win, his victory yell bottoms out into a cough that goes on long enough I feel it in my own throat. Marty quickly taps those three buttons again and the machine returns to life. He works the mask over Julian’s face, only it’s harder this time because of all the coughing. It must’ve been loud enough for their mamma to hear because she’s suddenly in the doorway with a handful of pills the color of toenails and she says me and Marty need to go play outside so Julian can rest. Julian makes a noise through his mask like he wants to argue, but she’s right. The game wore him out enough that he needs to lay back against his pillows. Marty tells Julian to rest up because we’re coming back to beat him. But that never happens. Each time we play, Julian wins.
Soon after my first visit, Marty’s daddy hands me a shovel and says get to digging, I need to earn my keep. There hasn’t been much rain these past months and the ground is hard. He watches me stab the dirt a few times before he takes the shovel from my hand and shows me how to come at the earth from an angle so I don’t need to jump on the shovel. Marty’s daddy has hands like a gorilla and work boots big enough to hide a hammer in. I make a hole three scoops deep before moving on to the next one. Marty’s daddy says good job, only eighty-nine more to go. He says that the foundation is the most crucial step in any project, otherwise, everything falls apart as soon as you walk away.
While I’m digging holes, Marty pulls nails from the boards in the pile. He pulls nails the same way he draws, like he’s been doing it forever even though he’s just as old as me. He angles the against the ground and sticks the claw of his crowbar around the nailhead. When he pulls he steps on the board at the same time and the nail comes free with a sound like a metal balloon deflating. Watching Marty put a porch together makes me think anyone can do it.
I tell my daddy we need a porch but he says porches are for people with time to sit on them. Me and Marty are the same that way, our daddies don’t sit around much.
Marty Elmo has a secret code book for talking with flashlights. We practice spelling come over, homework, and spirits in the darkness underneath his bed, which is where we go when his mamma and daddy start throwing things. Tiny spaces usually remind me of tornados, about having to hide in the bathtub underneath couch cushions, but being under Marty’s bed blinking the light on and off feels safe, even if my daddy says it’s a trap house.
Not long after meeting Julian Constantine, I find my mamma’s lost photo. It’s one of those old-time pictures that you need to shake before you can see it. Even though she has funny curly hair and a goofy pink pouch tied to her waist, I can tell it’s my mamma by the way she’s smiling, the way that’s impossible to draw. The way her arm wraps around the man in the photo is the same way it wraps around my daddy when they’re on the couch, only this man isn’t my daddy. He’s small in the places where my daddy is big, his arms and belly, and he doesn’t have hair from Italy. My mamma and this man are a place I’ve never been, standing in front of a statue of a kneeling angel with a helmet from ancient times and a sword stuck in the ground.
When I ask my mamma who the man in the photo is, she grabs the picture and wants to know where I found it. I say in a book on the bottom shelf of the tv stand. She says the photo and the man are from such a long time ago they’re not worth thinking about. The whole time her eyes don’t leave the picture, as if she’s getting ready to draw it. She puts the photo gently in her pocket, like it might break, and tells me to go play with my friend.
Sometimes when I’m spending the night at Marty Elmo’s, I hear the ghost walking back and forth in the attic. The ceiling creaks from one wall to the other. When it passes over me, the air gets heavier, and I can almost see its empty white eyes through the ceiling. But I don’t scream. The ghost is already in the past and I’m in the now so there’s nothing real it can do to me.
One morning there’s an ambulance in Marty’s driveway, and at breakfast, my daddy tells my mamma that he heard ‘cross the radio that the sick neighbor boy died last night. My mamma is going to fix a dish and bring it over to them later. She wants to know what kind of food Marty likes, if there’s anything she needs to avoid. I eat all the normal cereals bits of my Lucky Charms first, saving the marshmallows for last, but by the time I reach them, they’ve melted to slime that turns my stomach sour. I tell her Marty really likes deer meat.
For the rest of the week, Marty Elmo’s driveway is filled with cars and I don’t get to see him.
The next time Marty Elmo is at school he gets in trouble for knocking Lily Lawson off the swing a recess. I don’t see it because I have to stay inside for missing too many times-tables, but everyone’s talking about it when they come back. She fell and busted her lip on the gravel. There was enough blood they had to run and get the nurse.
During silent reading time, I’m called into the principal’s office, which is scary because I’ve never been there before. He has a pencil holder shaped like a hedgehog on his desk with all kinds of fancy pens sticking out of it’s back. Sitting next to the principal is a lady I’ve never seen before. She has blonde hair and a bumblebee pin on her sweater. She says she’s the school counselor and that it’s her job to make sure everyone feels okay. And I say like a nurse and she says not quite but almost. She takes care of kids’ emotions, which I’d never thought of as something that needed taking care of before. The office smells strange as if someone just uncapped a whole box of Sharpies. It reminds me of a hospital and makes me dizzy.
I tell them I can’t answer any questions about Marty and Lily because I wasn’t there since I’m bad at math but they should take it easy on him due to the fact Julian Constantine died not too long ago, and now Marty is lonely, and sometimes lonely people do things they know they shouldn’t, especially to Lily Lawson, who is mad at them for eating deer. The counselor lady raises her hand and smiles in a way that is easy to draw. She says they know. She says they’re trying to help Marty because he’s grieving, which is okay until it makes people hurt others. I ask when Marty will stop grieving, and the counselor says that with help it doesn’t have to be a long time. The principal interrupts her to ask if Marty has ever hit someone at school before. I tell them no because he hasn’t.
Marty doesn’t come back to school the next day, and I don’t get to see him when I get off the bus. That night we talk with our flashlights. Trouble, accident, sorry he says from his bedroom window. I know I flash. Then, Marty’s attic window fills with light, it’s only for a second, as if the ghost suddenly turned on its own flashlight. I click my flashlight twelve times to spell past. Marty’s window stays dark.
Marty gets out of trouble just in time to see a meteor shower. Me, him, and his daddy put some loose boards together to lie down on in the yard so our backs don’t get wet. We’re on our backs for a long time but the only lights we see are lightning bugs, planes, and a helicopter probably heading to the county proving grounds. After the helicopter disappears, Marty’s daddy does inside, saying the radio was wrong. When it’s just us, Marty tells stories about living in North Carolina. He used to live on top of a mountain, and some days it rained so hard the school bus couldn’t make it, and he and his brother got to stay home alone. He and Julian could watch movies, play in the creek and eat all the microwaved deer burgers they wanted.
A meteor burns through the sky and I can tell it’s the real thing because it moves fast enough that I’m not even sure I actually saw it. I wish for a robot that will do my homework. I don’t tell Marty about my wish and I don’t ask him about his. If you talk about them they won’t come true.
When Marty’s parents are gone, returning Julian’s bed and machine to the hospital, we bring his daddy’s ladder to the wooden square in the ceiling that covers the attic. We’re searching for the ghost. The attic floor is nothing more than a line of two-by-fours laid end to end across the supports. One wrong step and your leg would drop straight into the living room. On the far side of the attic is the window, beneath it a sheet of plywood wide enough to sit. Marty walks ahead of me because he knows ghosts can’t hurt him. We tiptoe across the boards, testing each step. We haven’t made it off the first plank before my t-shirt clings to my back with sweat.
Marty sweeps his flashlight into the dark corners of the attic as if there’s something hiding in the little wedges where the roof slopes into the floor, but he doesn’t know what he’s hoping to find.
All he knows are the sounds of footsteps. All I know is white light. Neither of us can say what a ghost actually looks like.
We make it to the plywood, Its solidness is strange after all the wobbling boards. I look out the window toward my house and try to imagine it in the nighttime, like how the ghost would see it. From up here, it’s even smaller than a shoebox. A tiny black square stuck in the ground, like one of the porch posts. My mamma and daddy and me, we’re no longer bent, we’re ants.
I rise on my toes, move from one side of the window to the other, but it’s no use. A ghost can’t see into my room from here. The angle is too high.
Marty stomps on the plywood, yelling for the ghost to come out, to make its presence known like they say on tv. He pounds hard enough that the two-by-fours wobble with each hit. They make their own noise, tiny rattles applauding Marty’s power. Soon, I’m stomping with him, and all around us, the attic is dancing, dust flying through our flashlights like snow. We call the spirit a scaredy cat, a coward for hiding now that we’re finally here. And because we’re best friends, I know Marty wants to ask the ghost about Julian Constantine, about why he hasn’t heard any noises coming from his brother’s old room, about why there’s still a closed door. And I don’t know if Marty knows that I need to ask the ghost why it keeps looking out the window at night if it’s not looking at me.
Then there’s a crash more louder and powerful than our stomps and screams, as if Marty’s daddy’s eight-drawer toolbox has turned on its side, and then there’s a hiss from a creature with a mouth full of sharp teeth and no legs and eyes that can see in the dark, and then we’re rushing for the ladder, planks jumping under our feet, and we’re down it so fast that we almost forget to cover the hole, but Marty pulls the board over at the last minute.
As we carry the ladder outside, I wait for Marty Elmo to say how he wasn’t actually scared, how he was only running because I was running, and that way I can say I was only running because he was running, and we can both not be scared and whatever’s in the attic still can’t hurt us. But, when we place the ladder back on the side of the house he still hasn’t said anything. I tell him whatever’s up there probably scared off the ghost, that we need to go back and make a video so we can be famous. Marty Elmo doesn’t look at me, just says ghosts can’t get scared, and they only leave when they want. I can tell by the way he says it that I shouldn’t ask him about the ghost anymore. We don’t go into the attic ever again.
And one time we’re playing in the backyard, where the pool is supposed to go, when Marty says we should shoot guns. He runs inside and comes back with a rifle, and even though I’ve only ever seen guns on TV, I can tell by the way he’s holding it, like it doesn’t weigh more than a book, that the gun only shoots BB’s.
There’s a pine tree nearby eaten up by bagworms so bad the only needles left are at the top. Marty places an old Pepsi can from the ground in its bare branches. When he comes back to me, Marty aims the gun at it, stands straight, spreads his feet, and I can suddenly see Marty grown up and in the army, with a yellow helmet and black boots on top of a concrete building in the middle of a desert somewhere. Soldier Marty is calm and concentrated, his mouth a tight straight line. Whatever he’s aiming at is as good as dead.
Both Martys, the one in the desert and the one in the yard, take a slow breath. There’s a click and then Soldier Marty is gone and normal Marty is left. The can is still in the tree. He says hang on a second and aims again, breathes, and shoots. Miss. He gets on his belly and fires a third time, quicker and not holding his breath anymore. And then he’s pulling the trigger over and over again, but I know that he could pull it one hundred times, and when we go up to that tree its trunk will be just as smooth as it was when we started. He suddenly grips the gun by the barrel and starts smashing it into the ground, and I jump out of the way because I’m sure you can’t do that with any gun, even if this one only shoots BBs. By the time he’s done, the gun is busted beyond all saving, plastic cracked and shattered like the toy it is.
A few weeks before my birthday, I asked my mom if me and Marty can have ours together because it sounds like the kind of thing friends do, but my mamma says I’m not to go over there anymore because Marty’s daddy wailed on his mamma last night so hard he chased her into the yard and would’ve killed her if my daddy hadn’t been coming back from his shift at the firehouse.
I know what this means so I run to my room and point my flashlight out the window even though it’s still daylight and click our code Marty Elmo if he is okay. He doesn’t answer. I spell it on paper to make sure I’m not sending gibberish. His window stays dark. There is no flash of light from the attic. I decide I’ll sneak over there tomorrow and leave a note out in the branches of the pine tree saying that he can leave me a note here if he doesn’t want to use the flashlights anymore. But what ends up happening is I don’t leave any notes, and Marty’s daddy stops working on the porch and leaves Marty’s mamma and takes Marty with him far enough away that he goes to a different school. The woodpile is hidden by weeds.
Marty’s mamma stays in the house a little longer but asks my mamma to come over and take what she wants because she’s moving back to North Carolina to live with her sister. I walk over there with her, but I don’t go inside. I walk to the overgrown weeds and push through to the woodpile. On it is Marty’s crowbar, sunburned and rusting away.
I pull a board from the pile. It’s a mean thing, splintered at both ends, white splotches of rot in the middle, black iron nails puckering out longer than my thumb. I catch the head of the first nail in the claw of the hammer and pull it towards me, but the nail doesn’t budge. I remember what Marty’s dad says about angles, how coming at something slant saves an effort. I look up at the window, and my mind runs down a list of people I know it can’t be. Marty’s mamma, Marty’s brother, Marty Elmo, and the nail finally comes loose and my hand hits the board and a splinter drills straight between my knuckles. I run home because I’m hurt and scared. When my mamma asks how I got it, I tell her I was playing in the woods. And after she digs it out with a tack and tweezers, it’s so small that she must’ve left something inside.
The cut heals to a bright red color and eventually fades to pink. By the time I go to college, it’s faded enough that I go months without remembering it but sometimes, when my mind is wandering in class, I’ll look down at my hand and see the white line cutting between my knuckles, albino as a rabbit and I’ll get surprised all over again.
I didn’t see Marty Elmo again until a visit home from college. I left school later than I wanted and couldn’t make the full drive without getting something to eat, although I knew mamma was keeping a plate of meatloaf warm in the oven while she was waiting in daddy’s big easy chair. There’s hardly anyone in the house anymore. On my visits back it doesn’t seem like I can turn around without knocking my elbow on something.
I pulled into the barbecue restaurant at the same time Marty Elmo was leaving the building. At first, I thought it was Julian, alive, free of his machine and bed, and all grown up. Marty had shaved his head. I waved to him and he waved back, but it was the type of wave you give when you think the other person is just being friendly, not like you know them. There was a girl with him. She was really pregnant like she was about to burst any day. He kept a few yards ahead of her the whole way to the truck. Marty opened the door of a beat-up Toyota Tacoma for the girl and she hoisted herself on the seat. He moved just like his daddy, like his hands were too heavy. The basketball was still there, barely. I waited until the glow of the tail lights disappeared before I went inside.
The waitress told me to sit wherever, and I chose an empty booth in the corner even though the place was mostly empty. The benches were laid out in flat cracked foam that had lost any sort of comfort years ago. When I sat down there was a lingering heat, like someone just left. The warmth of a ghost body. I wanted to ask the waitress about Marty Elmo and his girl, if she overheard their conversation. And I knew it was foolish to think about Marty being in that exact spot, sitting across from his lady, probably talking about how their life was going to be different once the baby came, but I couldn’t help it.
I ordered a plate of fries and a Heineken, only they didn’t have Heineken so I got a Coors instead. After she left, I took a pen out of my pocket and scratched a doodle onto the countertop among all the other monsters carved into the surface and thought about signing my name.
Drew Coles is a recent graduate of the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. His work has been supported by the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference as well as Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing, and can most recently be found in BULL. He lives on the Indiana side of the Ohio River Valley.