I stare at the moon. The night is cold and empty except for the roar of cars on the dual carriageway. I’ve heard stories about muggings and murders happening nearby, existing in the nebulous place called could. Could happen to you, could happen to me – could be true, could be bullshit. I’m more afraid of seeing someone like me. Imagining our eyes locking, our cold breath lightly touching, illuminated by moonlight, disappearing into bracken and blackness and brake lights. I walk away from the road. The tires screech above and behind me. A tunnel of spray-paint, a gallery of tags.
I stare at the moon, the moon stares back. Two giant craters, pools where the water of the night has burst its pure, white, round face. It studies me like an animal, quizzically, with a mixture of pity, fear and far-away disinterest.
The moon has been drowned. It looks up at me from just beneath the river’s surface. It’s features warp with the wind. It drowns, an inch from air.
I’m sure now that the moon is dead. But when the rough track scrapes beneath my feet, the sound wakes it from its revere and the moon grows luminous wings. They spread wide and propel it in silence. The water isn’t disturbed by this flight, it lazily laps at the banks as before, but a thick branch above me rocks with delight. In the distance, I think I see a ghostly white bird gliding towards its far-away sibling: a luminous owl face, monstrously huge, suspended in the night sky.
At last, I come to a particular field. The shadows of horses lurk here, their powerful hooves reduced to wisps of memory. A shallow stream cuts across the grass, marked by pebbles on both sides. I sit on the hard, stone beach beneath an indigo sky. Behind me, the river digests its astral meal; beyond, the woods titter with interest as the wind tickles their leaves.
There’s a group of teenagers not so far away. They’re erecting tents around an electricity pylon as though it were a totem. They hammer in pegs with a shoe until at least the roof is up, in a fashion. They’d come while it was still light, but it’s almost completely dark now except for the false sunrise coming from the dual carriageway, and the cold light emanating from the owl in the sky. They take warm beer stolen from parent’s garages and cigs taken from older siblings’ coat pockets. Lips purse against cans and bottles, around filters, into kisses. Smoke gets inhaled. A cough, a smoky burp. Laughter. Jeers. Red eyes. Stained teeth, all round.
There’s chat and banter and posturing. I forget which is which.
A young woman laughs, flicks back hair, teeth shine. ‘Well’, she looks at one boy, clearly hoping to impress, and says ‘at least you’re funny’. Tragic. Well-deserved. Predicted by everyone but him. Oh well. Who’s got a bottle opener? Use your teeth.
The waters freezing, but they don’t seem to care. They’re without shoes, I think of small cuts from broken glass. They clearly don’t. Heads and volleys though? Prop up those bikes, they’re the goal. Kick ups? My records 100. Fucking hell you’ve got time on your hands.
Someone slightly older, a zoot in his mouth, another in his pocket. I’ve seen him before; he brought a petrol dirt bike to the track where we only had our pedals. He’d kicked up so much dust, it stung my eyes. When it was my turn, I crashed almost immediately. All that noise. I just wanted to go home.
Someone lights a fire. It burns dimly, fuelled by newspaper and constantly needing to be resuscitated back to life. Almost everyone paired off now. I can’t keep up. They talk so fast. Something about someone being gay. Wouldn’t that be funny. Hey, don’t you think? A mate for you eh? Yeah. A mate for me. That’d be funny.
I watch these phantoms of my memory as though they were here with me, all this time later. They’re so clear, I’m amazed they can’t look out and recognise the older boy staring at them across the river and beyond time.
But I remember being distracted that night. Looking out beyond the firelight, I thought I saw a man. An older man. Mid-20’s say. A mythical age for me then, a realm of possibilities and boundless freedom, a time when I could be myself and be accepted for it. I thought I’d never reach it. Perhaps I haven’t.
Sitting close-by, on the same stretch of pebble beach, along the same bank. I thought the others must have seen him, but they carried on like they were alone in the world. Maybe they were too. His features barely illuminated, I couldn’t make him out. But he seemed familiar. I felt him looking at me peacefully, sadly. He looked at me then, the same way I’m looking at the shade of my past now. That young man at the pebble beach, drowning in the water of the night.
I turn and look to the other side of the field, far beyond. There’s an old man there. His features are wreathed in shadow, but I see grey hair and two craters peering out. The old man doesn’t move. Just like me, just like my younger self, we all sit perfectly still. Just looking out. All three of us, sitting on the pebble beach. Why doesn’t he move? Why doesn’t he speak? Why doesn’t he do something.
Oi, gormless. What’re you looking at? It’s your turn, it’s your turn. Are you scared already? You want two’s on this? Want another can? Okay go, go on, tell us a ghost story.
Joe Howsin studied with Manchester Metropolitan University’s MA in Gothic literature and film. He was a finalist in the London Independent Short story Prize with his ghost story, ‘Snapshots’ and can be found in Not Deer, The Walled City Journal and Horrified Magazine.