Kristin is late to Michael Amberson’s pool party.
She’s late because her mother has a migraine.
Kristin’s mother gets dizzy and sees auras when she has migraines.
“What do the auras look like?” Kristin asked once.
“Green,” her mother said.
Kristin sits with her best friend, Allie, at the edge of the crowded pool.
They move their feet in the water and watch Michael Amberson laugh at another boy’s joke over near the pool house.
“Michael’s cute,” Allie says.
Kristin doesn’t reply.
“You don’t think he’s cute?”
“I’m not sure,” Kristin says.
“You act so weird lately,” Allie says.
Kristin pauses. “Who’s that?” She points toward the other side of the pool.
There’s a boy standing at the fence-line.
He faces the fence, as if he’s studying something in the grain of the wood.
He isn’t wearing a swimsuit like the rest of the people at the party. Instead, he wears an oversized white sweatshirt, a white baseball cap, and a pair of dark jeans.
“What do you mean?” Allie asks.
“That boy,” Kristin says. “Who is it?”
Allie squints. “Who cares?”
“You know who it looks like?” Kristin says.
“What do you mean Josh?”
“I mean it looks like Josh Dalton.” Kristin says.
Allie looks down at her feet in the water. Finally, she says, “Kristin, you really shouldn’t—”
“Look at his hair,” Kristin says.
There’s a ruff of blonde, nearly-white hair curling up from the back of boy’s baseball cap.
“Just stop,” Allie says.
Josh Dalton died in a car accident the previous summer.
He was driving home from a pool party.
The party was at Mark Loughlin’s house, and Mark lived all the way out in the country.
Josh ran his car off the road and hit a tree.
There were pictures of the mangled red car in the newspaper the next day alongside Josh’s school picture.
Everyone had liked Josh Dalton.
He was nice and made jokes that were actually funny.
After the accident, the halls of the school were quiet for almost a month.
Nobody talked in the lunchroom.
Nobody answered questions in class.
Eventually, the teachers stopped asking questions.
“If it isn’t Josh,” Kristin says, moving her foot in the warm water of the pool, “who is it?”
“I don’t know,” Allie says. “Maybe somebody’s friend.”
“Well, why’s he looking at the fence like that?”
“Drugs,” Allie says.
Suddenly, Michael Amberson is kneeling behind the two girls. He’s shirtless, dripping wet. “You guys okay?” he says.
“We’re fine,” Kristin says. “But who’s that over there?”
Michael Amberson looks across the pool to the place Kristin is pointing. He shakes his head. “I don’t know. Paul?”
“It’s not Paul,” Kristin says. “Paul’s standing over there.” She gestures toward a tall blonde boy near the grill.
“Kristin thinks it’s Josh Dalton,” Allie says.
“What?” Michael says. He sounds angry. “Why would you say a thing like that?”
“I didn’t say it,” Allie replies. “Kristin did.”
“Well don’t—I don’t know—don’t joke around like that,” Michael says. “It’s just some guy. Somebody’s friend.”
Michael stands and starts to walk away.
“I’m sorry,” Kristin calls after him.
But Michael Amberson doesn’t look back.
Kristin taps her foot against Allie’s leg. “Hey, you shouldn’t have said that.”
“No,” Allie replies. “I guess not.”
“I’m going to go see who that boy is,” Kristin says.
“Because what if it’s—”
Someone splashes water near them.
Allie wipes chlorine from her eyes.
Kristin stands. “You can come with me if you want.”
Allie crosses her arms. “I’ll wait.”
Kristin walks around the edge of the pool.
On the way, she passes Jill Fredrick.
Jill dated Josh Dalton for a while when they were sophomores, and Kristin wonders if she should ask Jill who she thinks the boy in the white sweatshirt is.
But, at the last moment, she decides against it.
Jill is a nice person.
A question like that might upset her. Just like Michael Amberson got upset.
Kristin focuses her attention on the boy again.
He’s still staring at the fence.
His face is very near the fencepost.
So close, in fact, that his nose must be almost pressed against the grain.
Kristin remembers Molly Tanzer talking about how hard Josh Dalton hit his face in the accident. “He hit the steering wheel or something,” Molly said. “I guess it pushed his face—I don’t know how to say it—sort of backward.”
“What do you mean backward?” Kristin said.
“Not backward, I guess. It pushed his face in. Like inside his head.”
“How does anyone know something like that?” Kristin said.
“Tim McGreve’s brother is a highway patrolman,” Molly said.
Kristin didn’t want to think about Josh’s face like that.
She hadn’t known him very well—the friendliest they ever got was that Josh sometimes said hi to her in the halls at school—but she still didn’t want to think about him like that.
There was one time, after a football game, when Kristin saw Josh Dalton talking to a boy from another school.
The boy had thick black hair and dark eyebrows.
Josh and the dark-haired boy stood together under an oak tree near the back of the stadium.
Both of them had their hands stuffed into the pockets of their jackets. Like they were keeping their hands safe.
Their faces were pale.
Not in an unhealthy way, Kristin thought, but in an excited way.
She’d seen other boys get pale and excited like that.
She heard Josh Dalton and the other boy laughing together.
She wondered if Josh had made a joke.
And then, when he probably thought no one was looking, Josh Dalton leaned forward and kissed the dark haired boy on the mouth.
It wasn’t a long kiss.
But it was long enough for the dark haired boy to reach around and stroke Josh Dalton’s back. He stroked Josh’s back in an awkward way, trailing his fingers along the boy’s spine. Kristin could tell it was meant to be sweet.
Kristin looked away then.
She knew she wasn’t supposed to see the kiss or the way the dark-haired boy stroked Josh’s back.
And yet she did see.
As Kristin walks toward the boy in the white sweatshirt, he moves ever so slightly, shifting his weight from his left foot to the right.
Kristin wonders if the boy is finally going to turn around.
But he doesn’t turn around.
He just stands there with his face against the fence.
Kristin is on his side of the pool now.
As she gets closer, she notices that there’s something odd about the boy’s white sweatshirt.
At first, she thinks there’s some kind of stain on it.
A long stain that runs all the way down the boy’s back.
But the closer she gets, the more she thinks it isn’t actually a stain.
It’s more like a shadow.
Only there isn’t anything near the boy that would cast a shadow.
There’s no tree or lamppost or anything.
The boy shifts again, this time placing his weight back on his left foot.
It’s as if he’s rocking back and forth in slow motion.
“Hey,” Kristin calls.
She’s close enough now to talk to him.
The boy doesn’t respond.
The shadow appears to grow blacker somehow, darker still, on the white of the sweatshirt.
Kristin finally stands just behind the boy.
She reaches out to tap him on his shoulder.
Then she hears Allie say, “Kristin!” from somewhere behind her.
Kristin turns away from the boy.
She sees Allie standing maybe ten feet away.
Allie looks flushed, scared.
She’s staring at something just behind Kristin.
Kristin feels dizzy.
She doesn’t know why she feels dizzy, but she thinks it must be how her mom feels when she gets her migraines.
Kristin hears something move behind her.
Or maybe she doesn’t hear it.
Because maybe it isn’t a sound.
For a moment, Kristin thinks she can feel the shadow on the boy’s white sweatshirt.
The shadow is like an arm.
She can feel it move up and down.
And now the shadow is less like an arm and more like a cave.
A black, narrow space.
Kristin stares into the space.
She stares into it so long that the darkness begins to look like light.
Someone is still screaming outside the light.
Or maybe a lot of people are screaming.
Maybe everyone at the pool party is screaming now.
Kristin isn’t sure.
Photo by Noah Buscher on Unsplash
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