John Svelten died in the hallway of his apartment complex in Hollywood when I was a freshman in college. He’d tied a rope to the iron rungs of the stairwell and then stepped off. That’s what the news said. His friends were in his apartment. He’d just stepped out for a smoke. They’d all come over to keep him company, because he’d been feeling down.
He was a movie star. A guy I’d never met. But in the end, my obsession with him was real.
Way back in middle school all of my friends had a celebrity crush, and at Heather’s birthday sleepover they kept asking me who I liked. I was missing out on entire conversations.
Heather sat on the counter in the bathroom, giving me a French braid. “I bet for our first date Brad would pick me up in a limo and hand me a dozen lilies.” She snapped the hair elastic off of her wrist and wrapped it around the bottom of the braid. “What’s your dream date, Nicole?”
I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, holding a hand mirror behind my head to look at the braid. Heather leaned to see into the other room where our friends were playing truth or dare. There was some gross concoction of milk and pickle juice that Stephanie was holding up to her lips, getting ready to drink.
“John would make a picnic lunch. We’d go out to this field and eat on a blanket, and then we’d explore a haunted house and he’d save me from the ghosts.”
Heather turned to me. “Who’s John?”
“He’s that guy from Shadows Upon Us.” I hummed a bit of the theme song.
“Oh yeah!” She jumped down from the counter. “Hey, I think there’s a picture of him in Tiger Beat. Wanna see?”
We sat on the edge of Heather’s bed, flipping through the magazine. There was a centerfold of John in a cable-knit sweater. His chin rested on his fist, and his dark hair fell across his eyes. Heather pried up the staples of the magazine with a pair of scissors and pulled the centerfold out.
“Here,” she handed it to me. “So he’ll be in your dreams.”
There was a poster of Brad Posely taped to the ceiling over Heather’s bed. His short, spikey blonde hair guys at our middle school copied.
When we’d watched Dirty Dancing and eaten popcorn and M&M’s until our stomachs ached we pulled out our sleeping bags. I put the poster of John underneath my pillow. I watched the shadows cast by Heather’s nightlight and listened to the soft snores of my friends until I fell asleep.
Things changed for me after that. I used my allowance to buy magazines, and I put the best pictures of John up on my wall. I wrote a few love poems, put them in an envelope, and tried to work up the courage to mail them to John’s fan club address printed in Tiger Beat.
I thought that if he only knew someone out there loved him, then it might change his life.
Eight years later, when I heard of John’s suicide, I felt personally responsible. If I had only sent him those letters, maybe it would have been enough to make a difference. What if all he needed was someone who loved him?
The morning that I heard about John I skipped class. I lay in my bed in my dorm room, underneath the covers even though it wasn’t that cold. In the afternoon I wrapped the comforter around my shoulders and poured a bowl of cereal. Then I sat watching a Shadows Upon Us episode on my laptop. It was one of my favorites. John was searching for a young ghost, someone he had fallen in love with. Back in middle school, I’d daydreamed about the episode all week after it aired, picturing myself as a ghost, winning over John’s heart so that he couldn’t capture me, even though that hadn’t worked so well for the ghost in the episode.
“Are there any spirits here?” John asked.
A shimmer of light and shadows answered him. A beautiful girl ghost trapped in the attic of an old house. But she wasn’t an angry ghost, or a mean ghost. She just made people feel uneasy. I closed my eyes, and imagined that I was the ghost in the episode. That it was my voice speaking to John, telling him that it was okay. It was my time to go.
John reached out to touch the ghost. Her long blonde hair floated in the air, like she was underwater. Her fingers lifted, ready to take his hand.
John looked into the ghost girl’s face.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
Then he pulled the trigger on his ghost capture and she swirled into it, imprisoned in the tiny box forever. The box clicked shut and steam poured from a side vent. There was a faint sound in the background, like a woman screaming. A tear ran down John’s cheek, his blue eyes so bright they almost glowed. I blew my nose into a tissue and took another spoonful of Lucky Charms.
When I’d watched as many episodes as I could stand, I searched for Shadows Upon Us memorabilia online. I thought maybe I’d buy a patch to sew onto my backpack as a memorial to John.
And then I saw it.
A Polaroid photograph of John, in his Shadows Upon Us clothing. The description said the photograph was taken by the wardrobe department between shots, to make sure that everything would be in place for the next take. John was on set, in a corner of a large, grey living room. He was laughing, his head thrown back a little and his Adam’s apple sticking out. It looked pointy, almost sharp enough to cut you if you tried to kiss it.
The price was $15.
I had thirty dollars on my checking card that had to last me the next two weeks. I clicked “Buy.”
The photograph of John came in the mail two weeks later. It was bubble-wrapped, and had “Do Not Bend” written in red ink on the envelope.
Soot smudged the outside edge of the photograph, and the episode name and number were written in a ballpoint pen at the bottom. It had that white frame around it that old Polaroids have. The frame was peeling up in places, and it made the photograph feel a little fake. They’d also gotten the name of the episode wrong–someone had written “An Encounter” instead of “An Eerie Encounter.”
I held the Polaroid in my hand, looking at John. His Adam’s apple was even more sharp in the photograph than it had looked online. The photograph was in color, the army green of his ghost-catching uniform the same hue as my messenger bag, but there was a grayness to the picture that made me uneasy. John belonged there, in the dilapidated house. The angles of his face as sharp and unexpected as the rotting boards over the windows.
My finger lingered over his face. This photograph had been in the same room with him. Maybe particles of his breath had touched the paper. I pressed my finger to his hair, and imagined him looking down at me.
That night I used my cellphone as a flashlight and stared at the photograph for as long as my eyes would stay open. When I couldn’t stay awake any longer, I slipped the photograph beneath my pillow. At one point in the night I woke up and thought I felt someone’s hair beneath my fingers. But when I pulled them out from under the pillow there was only the photograph there, John smiling back at me. I held my hands under my chest and went back to sleep, but my fingers reached for the photograph again. Even in my dreams I felt my fingers pushing through the photograph, creeping into the room where John Svelten stood by the window.
I tried to will myself to wake up. To pull my hand from the photograph. But my hand inched forward, pulling my body beneath my pillow. My hand slipped inside the frame. The world inside the photograph was dry and hot. I rubbed my fingers together and my skin made a scratching noise. Tiny tears in the photograph scraped against my skin as my arm traveled further inside. The air stank of hot tar.
It was only after my head passed through the photograph that I was able to wake up.
John Svelten turned to face me. He stood by the window, his green ghost-hunting jumpsuit unzipped to the waist. He saw me and laughed. His Adam’s apple cut back and forth in his neck.
I was here. And in my sports bra and panties, no less. Maybe mom was right about always wearing pajamas to bed in case there was a fire.
I tried to cover myself with my arms. But there’s only so much you can do.
John walked over to me, slowly, like he was afraid I’d try to attack him. He had his ether-catch device with him, his finger ready to open the catch.
He laughed. “I’ve never seen a ghost blush.”
“I’m not a ghost,” I said. “See?”
I held out my arms in front of my body to show him how solid they were. Fingers squeezed together, palms covering up my face. The only problem was I could see John through the palms of my hands. My skin and everything inside it had gone milky white and transparent.
Then I remembered what I was wearing, and I put my arms over my body again.
“That’s what they all say,” John said.
“No, but, I’m from the future. I’m here to rescue you.”
John nodded. “They all say that, too,” he said.
The ether-catch device shook in his hand. Faint sounds, like a mewing kitten, came from inside the little black box.
“What’s in there?” I asked.
John gave a wicked smile. Like I should already know.
A man came in from one of the side doors. He saw John and me talking. “Are we rolling?” he asked.
“We’re always rolling!” shouted a woman.
I turned around and saw a huge camera. A woman leaned into the eyepiece, watching me and John. A little red light blinked on its top corner. Not just watching, then. Recording.
A man with a Polaroid camera stood off to the side, shaking a piece of developing film.
I turned around to face John. “Listen to me,” I said. “In six years you’re going to kill yourself.”
John pressed a button on the ether-catcher. A green light turned on the top of the black box, and it started to hum. He fiddled with a calibration on the side, not looking at me.
“Yeah, yeah,” he said. “In a car accident, right?”
“No. With a rope.”
He looked up at me and we stood near each other for a moment. I almost still wanted to kiss him.
“What is it with you ghosts? Do they teach mind manipulation at Ghost University or something?”
This wasn’t the John Svelten I’d grown up loving through the television screen. There was cruelty in his voice. And anger. This was going horribly wrong.
“I’ve watched every show you’ve ever been on. I have your action figure.”
John laughed. “Do you want an autograph?”
I shook my head. “I just wanted to tell you, you’re special.”
His hand twitched just a little bit on the trigger to the ether catch device. And only because I had watched the show so many times did I know the one way to escape before I was pulled down into the black box. I pushed off the ground and floated up. My body passed through the ceiling as if it were water.
I found myself alone and safe in the upstairs room of a rickety old house. I stood in the center of the room, surrounded by peeling wallpaper, my arms covering my body.
That night I found a tiny alcove that had been bricked over on the outside. It looked like a kid, or maybe other ghosts, had been here before me. There was an old Barbie with dark blue eye shadow and a red one-piece swimsuit propped in one corner. A shard of a mirror was wedged between two exposed beams. My face was an odd, milky color. I wasn’t completely transparent, not like the ghosts that you see in movies. It was more like I was a person in a black and white television show. Reduced to grayscale.
I huddled there with the Barbie in the crook of my arm. I knew I wasn’t dead. When I closed my eyes, I could see my world. My roommate getting dressed before her class. A campus policeman searching my desk. Everything there was in color. The images came in over my body like chills.
Temporal. That’s what I was. Because really, what’s a ghost but someone stuck outside their rightful time?
I decided that my best chance for getting back home would be to find that Polaroid picture and to try to slip back into it. Maybe it could work in reverse.
Screw John Svelten.
I waited until the filming for the day had ended. I travelled by wall, down the cool plaster of the great room. A corkboard leaned against the wall at the far end of the room. Polaroid photographs hung from their pins. I searched for the one I had traveled through.
The bottoms of the photographs had curled up, like bark peeling off of a tree. In all of them, John stood in the center of the frame, looking back through the lens with a cockiness I’d never noticed before. A photograph near the top of the board shifted. There was movement in the small square image. I stood on my tiptoes. First there was John Svelten, hair bedraggled. The smoking ether-catch device in his hands, signaling that he had just captured a ghost. Then John’s face blurred. A photograph taken while the object is in movement. A girl appeared. Young, sitting on the floor in a living room. Her parents on the sofa. The light of the television gave their faces a moon glow. In the girl’s lap, I could make out the cover of a teen magazine. John Svelten’s face was on the cover.
My photograph was beneath this one. John stood by the window, hand in his hair. And then there I was, holding my cellphone open at night so I could stare at his picture.
There was a creak from one of the floorboards. I pulled the photograph from the board and turned around.
John Svelten stood in the center of the room, dressed in his Shadows Upon Us ghost hunting jumpsuit. The camera hovered at the side of the room, and I could feel its hulking presence. The director made a motion, which I suppose was a silent call of “Action!”
“You’ve haunted this house for too long,” John said.
I’d pictured myself in a movie with John so many times when I was younger. In those daydreams, I always felt nervous, excited, happy.
“Your killers tried to rape you. They tore your clothes off, but you ran away,” John said.
Oh shit. We were in denouement mode.
“That’s not my story,” I said. “That’s not who I am.”
John blinked. The director made another motion: keep going. My talking could be edited out.
“You ran away. You were strong. But it was a cold night, and you couldn’t find your way back home.”
Now I knew why the ghosts John captured were so angry.
The photograph flickered in my hand. A policeman lifted the sheets of my bed. In my time, the photograph tumbled to the floor of my dorm room and the policeman stood above it, looking down into the snapshot.
My fingers pushed into the snapshot, pressed down. A sound came from the other side of the photograph. A man’s voice.
“What the hell?”
“Please help me!” I shouted to the policeman. I imagined his shocked look, him running out the door. But I felt someone’s fingers touch mine. And as my hand slipped further into the photograph, his hand gripped me tightly as he began to pull.
“Don’t worry, Vanessa!” John shouted.
It took me a moment to realize he was talking to me. But my name wasn’t Vanessa.
John slid the ether-catcher beneath me and pressed the button. White light shot up all around me, and my body pulled down, closer and closer to the black box on the floor. I could hear voices now. They were trying to tell me something.
The policeman shouted, “Hold on!”
But my thumb was already out of the picture, back on John’s side. My fingers slipped out of the policeman’s hand. My thumb left a black print on the edge of the Polaroid. It fluttered through the air and landed on the floor, out of reach.
John Svelten was playing the comforting role, trying to ease my journey from ghost to ghost in a box.
“It’s time to transition, Vanessa,” he said.
My fingernails clawed at his shirt and he screamed as I scratched his skin. Pieces of his uniform came apart in my hands. I was an animal, an angry ghost, and all I wanted was to take John down into that dark box with me.
The director bounced in her seat. She made the motion to keep rolling. The assistant John had kissed in the closet stood out of frame, a first-aid kit in her hand. Waiting for the director to yell, “Cut.”
I tore into John, but the pull was getting stronger. My fingernails tore down John’s pants. His warm body touched the tips of my fingers. The lower half of my body was cold. I couldn’t be sure, but I thought I felt arms beneath me, trying to push me back up.
A trickle of blood ran down John’s leg. His face was panicked.
He tried to kick me off and his shoe came off in my hands. As I fell into the ether-catcher, I screamed at his smirking face.
“You’re going to die, John Svelten. Unhappy and alone.”
A girl with blonde hair set me up on a large comforter while the others looked at John’s shoe. There were all sorts of things down in the ether-catcher: a beautiful Tiffany lamp, a curling iron, a croquet mallet. Every girl had managed to take something with her before the ether-catcher doors closed.
“It’s always hard right after your fall,” the girl said.
I recognized her long blonde hair from the Polaroid on the wall. She was barely fifteen. Most of the girls were that age or younger. I was the oldest in the box.
The other girls huddled around John Svelten’s shoe. Smelling it, tracing every piece of it with their fingers.
The comforter was soft, and I pulled it over my head to muffle out the sound of the others talking. Being in the ether-catcher was like being in a submarine in the bottom of the ocean. You knew life was out there somewhere, not too far away. But you didn’t know how you’d ever reach it again.
Sarah, the girl with the blonde hair, warned me about the Edges. “Don’t go too far from the center,” she said as she brushed my hair with her fingers. “We’ve lost a few girls out there. They go exploring, and don’t come back.”
First I learnt their names, then their bodies. The tiny fingernails of Dana. The honeybee tattoo on Charlotte’s ankle. The scar on Trisha’s scalp. We were all we had to keep ourselves company. Sarah rearranged the center of the box every day. The lamp at our feet, then out a few yards. The comforter was a bed, then she propped the edges up into a tent. We tried to keep ourselves busy. Sometimes there were sounds from the Edges, like bed sheets being torn.
One night Charlotte woke up screaming. She said she’d felt fingernails scratching her ankle, right where the honeybee was. We scooted in closer to her, laid our heads on her feet. Our fingers made soft strokes against her fingernails. Pretending to paint them blue, green, pink, colors of nights out with friends and dates with other boys.
I traded John’s shoe to Dana for the comforter. When it was draped over my head, it made the horribleness of being trapped inside a box a little more bearable. The air underneath was heavy, and the smell of the comforter magnified with my warm breath. Arms lifted away from my sides, for the first time I felt like a ghoul.
There was a noise outside of the box. A girl’s voice. She must have had her face right against the box in order for us to hear her so clearly.
“It’s from John’s old show! How wonderful! Here, let me try it,” she said.
I peered out from beneath the comforter. Charlotte and Dana ran up to me, and we huddled with the blanket around us.
“Do you think she’s going to –”
“Listen for it.”
“She must. She must.”
I pulled the comforter off our bodies. “Can you help me?”
Charlotte grabbed one corner of the comforter and Dana the other. They held it between them, as if they were making a bed. I stepped into the center of the comforter and bent my knees.
“Up!” I shouted.
Charlotte and Dana pulled up, but the comforter only rose an inch off of the ground.
“Hold on!” Trisha called.
Sarah grabbed one side, and Trisha held the other.
“Now, on the count of three,” Sarah said.
She gripped the comforter. Ready.
There was a click and the ceiling opened. I fell back on the comforter, blinded by the non-darkness.
Nothing happened. No force propelled us out. The battery must have died long ago.
“Hello?” the voice called into the box.
“Let’s do this,” I said.
They held the blanket. Sarah counted.
On three they lifted their arms. The blanket lifted a few inches from the ground, but I didn’t make it up into the air. I was too heavy. There were only four people holding my weight.
A person I’d never seen floated up to the blanket. Her hair was long and braided. She wore a blue corduroy skirt. Her face was gnarled around her jaw, as if someone had eaten it. Then a girl with high pig-tails and a neon orange t-shirt. A boy in a black baseball cap with Shadows Upon Us monogrammed into the front. And another girl with a short, black bob who wore all black.
They weren’t like us anymore. The Edges had turned them into ghosts. No. Not just the Edges. John Svelten had done this, too.
More shapes floated up around the comforter, until every space around the blanket edge was held. They were transparent, but that didn’t hide their gory wounds. Blood in black and white is scarier than red.
Dana whimpered a little, but a smile from Trisha shushed her.
Sarah counted again.
On three I flew up into the air. Arms stretched, reaching for the edge of the box. John Svelten spoke somewhere in the distance, saying he was stepping out into the hallway for a smoke. I twisted my muscles as taut as a rope.
My fingers caught the edge of the opening and as soon as they touched the outside air they started to tingle. I pulled myself out over the edge and flopped onto the floor of a messy bedroom. A pair of boxers were thrown over an old, expensive-looking camera. I lay there for a moment, my body readjusting to light, to touch, the little sounds outside the window that meant there was a world there.
“Hey John,” a voice called from the other room. “We’re going to order a pizza. What do you want?”
“Whatever.” His voice was thin, empty. Nothing of the swagger and edge when I’d last seen him.
Good. Let him kill himself, I thought. Then I remembered the girls in the box. Me stupidly crying in my dorm room when I should have been meeting real boys in college.
Goosebumps raised along my arm, my naked back suddenly cold. I pulled a t-shirt out of the closet and some gym shorts off the corner of the bed. I ran down the hallway and out the front door, too fast for his friends to even see me.
He already had the rope around his neck, his fingers just barely touching the railing for balance.
In the box, I had dreamt about pushing him off this railing. But he was heavier than he’d ever been on the show, and something looked wrong with his leg, like he had broken it and it hadn’t set right. They never mentioned that part in the papers.
“Hey,” I said.
He turned and nearly fell. I took a step forward to catch him but he raised his hand in a warning.
“Please don’t do this,” I said.
He half-grinned. “The ghosts always come back at the end.”
For a moment I thought he recognized me, then I held my hand out, the walls visible through my skin. The t-shirt and shorts had fallen away as soon as I’d put them on.
“Still want me to take off the rope?” He asked.
“You don’t need to make any more ghosts to make this right,” I said.
He smiled at me then, the smile I’d wished for all of my lonely nights in high school with my parents sleeping to the television down the hall and the country sky so full of stars that you could barely pick them out from each other.
Then his smile changed, and I felt the other ghosts behind me. I turned to them, spread my arms out wide to block him.
“No,” I said. “Please, please. Don’t.”
They pushed past me all in a rush, and even though John knew they couldn’t touch him he still took a step back.
I closed my eyes, but the crack of his neck and the creaking of the rope still haunt my dreams.
The other ones celebrated, hugging each other, running off through the walls to find wherever their other selves had left off.
Only Sarah paused a second before leaving. “It’s going to be okay now, Vanessa.”
She handed me the blanket we had huddled underneath inside the box, and I cried into it while the paramedics worked on John, then gave up and took him away.
I don’t know what happened to the other boys and girls I was trapped with in that box. But I can tell you I was always part ghost after that, even after I hitchhiked my way back to my college dorm room and my body became real again. My hands were still temporal as I watched my body get pulled through the photograph into John’s world all those years ago, and my new boyfriend tells me as we lay together at night that my feet are as cold as the dead.
Jenni Moody is a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. Her stories have been published in Booth, SpringGun, and Mason’s Road. She’s lived in a dry cabin in Alaska and a small town in Japan, and was once chased by a family of bears through the Yukon at midnight. She collects stamps (inked, not licked) and writes in the company of two black cats and a dog named Abe in Huntsville, Alabama. Her website is jennimoody.com.
Photo: Caryn Drexl, “Break on Through 2”