Subterranean Press Magazine: Summer 2011
The Ghost Party by Richard Larson
“I don’t want to go,” said Charlee as she rode in the passenger seat of the old Bronco through the dark and quiet streets outside of her tiny, depressing town. Even though by now she actually did want to go. The beer was helping. She just had to keep drinking. At least that’s what Taco had said when he handed her the first bottle, her face still puffy from crying.
“This should take the edge off,” he said.
Charlee finished the beer quickly, and Taco passed her another from the cooler that he kept by his feet as he drove. She wondered if the main reason she kept Taco around was that he was old enough to buy booze. A few years older than her—well, probably more than just a few—and surprisingly persistent about hanging out with her. He was sometimes even sexy, in the right light and after the right amount of drinks. Charlee downed her next beer as quickly as the first. They were headed to the ghost party at the edge of town and she figured that a good buzz might better prepare her, or at least take her mind off the mortifying shame of what had happened earlier that night.
The first ghost parties popped up way out in the middle of nowhere, south of the highway where everything was hills and winding roads. No one was told about them. People just showed up—people, and ghosts. The ghosts came out of a big bonfire and mingled among the living. Living people became ghosts, too. The ghost party was a give and take: you gave, they took. And then you were one of them.
The parties were noticed at first by truck drivers who saw the light from the huge bonfires and called the cops—and the cops, after examining the empty fields, never found any evidence of a party, the whole thing having disappeared in the night like a sinister traveling carnival. Lately, though, it seemed like the ghost parties were getting closer and closer to home, creeping toward town from the places where everything fell off into an endlessly dark expanse of ancient trees hiding secrets that people usually drove past too quickly to ever wonder about.
Charlee’s friends had told her that the ghost parties lasted all night and into the morning, and that no one noticed the sunlight until they were already driving home. But Charlee’s friends had never been to the ghost parties themselves, and none of Charlee’s friends were ghosts. The whole thing could just be gossip from older girls at school who had probably only heard about the ghost parties from the community college guys they were hooking up with on the weekends. And those guys had probably made the whole thing up.
That’s what Charlee thought, at least, until Taco called while she was lying in the dark, face down on her bed, wanting to die. When Charlee answered the phone, Taco said, “I found the ghost party. And I’m on my way over to pick you up right now.”
Taco was Charlee’s version of a community college guy to fool around with on the weekends, except that he hadn’t even tried to go to college, and the two of them did more than just fool around. Not sex, exactly. Charlee considered it more of an exchange of ideas. They got drunk together and laughed about how stupid the world was, and sometimes she would let him touch her. Almost like she owed him at least that much.
One time she even told him about her father, which she later regretted.
Charlee: not the hottest girl in school, not the smartest, and not the best player on the soccer team. She had to work to keep her weight down and studied harder than everyone else to get a B+ and could maybe, with more practice, warm the bench on varsity someday. And until her improbable best friend Amanda came around, all of this was fine—Amanda, who wore the right clothes and scored a record high on the SAT when she was only fourteen. Amanda, who played varsity her freshman year. Amanda, who made Charlee want to be better at everything.
And also, being all of the things that Amanda was, Amanda made Charlee want—
Well. That was the problem.
“Earth to Charlee,” said Taco, glancing over at her as he drove, a beer nestled between his legs. In the oncoming headlights his face glowed brighter and brighter before it suddenly went dark again. And Charlee laughed because if Taco was Earth then she was definitely Mars. Maybe even something past Mars, something no one had found yet.
Taco was watching her. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“About what?” she asked, but she knew. There had been a desperate text message sent in a moment of weakness. “Girl stuff,” she said now, a lame attempt at changing the subject.
Taco shot her a look. “Right,” he said.
But girl stuff actually was the problem. It was supposed to have been only an emergency study session for Monday’s history final. Just the two of them sitting around in Amanda’s pink bedroom, learning about oceans, how sea travel was such a big factor in allowing different cultures in history to trade goods and share knowledge—and also, Charlee noticed, to generally screw everything up. Isn’t it best to just keep to yourself and figure out how to make it on your own? This is what Charlee wanted to know. Especially now.
Because she had tried to kiss Amanda.
Not just out of nowhere. Amanda had been the one who suggested stealing some of her brother’s pot from his underwear drawer. She knew that he kept it there because she had once made out with one of his buddies, who—horny and desperate—had told her.
“It’ll help us focus, right?” Amanda said, giggling as she opened the plastic bag, and Charlee agreed because she needed plenty of help focusing on something other than Amanda’s skin, her legs, the dimples that emerged when she smiled. Even if smoking pot sounded like it would provide exactly the opposite. Which, of course, turned out to be true.
Obsessing over a girl was definitely new for Charlee. Her occasional fooling around with Taco was fine, and there had been a few other boys here and there. One time at a party she got stuck in the kitchen with Tommy Carlton and he had shoved his crotch against her lower back as he reached around for a beer, and she had thought, well, maybe. Until he vomited in the sink.
But with Amanda, everything was different. When Amanda moved from a nice neighborhood near the city into a house down the street two summers ago and chose Charlee as her de facto guide to the ways of outer suburbia, it was as if a secret part of Charlee had emerged from the cocoon that she had wrapped around herself during the entirety of junior high. The world was suddenly more colorful, which sounds lame but wasn’t as lame to Charlee when she was writing it in her notebook during algebra class with Amanda sitting right in front of her, the fresh smell of her shampoo sparking images in Charlee’s head of Amanda in the shower—which guaranteed, without a doubt, that Charlee was never going to learn a damned thing about linear inequalities.
“So stoned,” said Amanda on her bed, holding Charlee’s hand, the smoke dissipating into the perfumed air all around them. “I’ve been having these nightmares,” she continued. “Really scary. You’re actually in them—” She paused. “Also, Taco. Has he seemed strange lately?”
Charlee propped herself up on her elbow and leaned in toward Amanda’s face. Their fingers were all wrapped up in each other and Charlee, also stoned, was not listening to Amanda. She didn’t want to hear about nightmares. She was thinking about origami: how you can fold things up into tidy squares and then, when you cut them, they can suddenly become something completely different. Whole new shapes, intricate and beautiful.
Charlee figured that there was no way to do this particular thing in a way that wouldn’t have been at least a little bit awkward, so why not just go for it?
All that meant, though, is that it probably would have always ended this way. Amanda tore her hand away from Charlee’s and stood up beside the bed, suddenly not looking so stoned anymore. More confused than anything else.
“Charlee,” she said, just as Charlee scrambled to her feet and ran out into the hallway and down the stairs toward the front door.
“Wait!” Amanda shouted. “You can’t go. This is what he wants!”
But Charlee was already gone.
The scene kept replaying in her head as she rode with Taco into some sort of future that she no longer really cared about: her face moving closer and closer to Amanda’s, whose eyes were closed; the sense that time had stopped, that the two of them could curl up in this moment and live there together forever. Why did the things she wanted always seem impossible? Getting into a good college, backpacking across Europe, moving to New York City, even her dream of being a writer—all were things she had been told, at some point, were not appropriate guideposts by which to plan a life. The life she had been born into, the life in which she stayed in this town forever and married Taco, or someone like him, and had a kid or two who would probably grow up to do the same thing with their lives that their parents had—absolutely nothing.
Charlee realized that Amanda was just another one of those things that she wasn’t allowed to have, and this sent her into a fit of tears when she got home from Amanda’s house, having sprinted the whole way. She desperately texted Taco to come save her from doing something terrible to herself—Taco, who never had anything better to do than to try to find a ghost party and then, if she would let him, take Charlee there.
Charlee thought about asking Taco how he had found the party, but then realized that she didn’t even care. She was already on her third beer, and this seemed much more important.
She saw the light from the bonfire before she realized that they were heading straight toward it, veering off the road onto a gravel driveway that could have led anywhere—but which, Charlee was certain by now, led at least somewhere. And that was enough.
“Is that it?” she asked.
“The ghost party,” said Taco. “We’re here.”
Charlee and Taco drove past a small lake which shimmered strangely in the light of the full moon, and then carefully circled a gigantic mound of dirt—a burial ground, Charlee thought—before the ghost party suddenly spread itself out before them like something to be devoured before someone else got to it first. Cars were parked haphazardly between trees, assembled around a giant clearing in which a bonfire burned like a portal to another dimension.
That’s where the ghosts come from, Charlee thought.
Taco maneuvered his Bronco alongside two old beat-up sedans, and since there wasn’t quite enough room on either side to open the doors, Taco and Charlee climbed out through the windows and shimmied off the tops of the adjacent cars. Then Taco opened the back of the Bronco and pulled out a cooler, presumably filled with more beer. As if they needed any more.
Taco had always been called Taco, maybe because he used to work at the Mexican restaurant by the supermarket in town, and that was all people really needed to create nicknames which would stick to someone for life. Charlee thought that Taco’s real name was Sam—where had she heard that?—but you can never be sure about these things. Taco, anyway, was more appropriate. She liked to think of him as a hard shell full of tasty insides, even if the insides often proved disappointing, like take-out food that stayed in its container for too long and got soggy. Taco was like old take-out food. But that wasn’t quite right, was it? How many beers had she had so far? Why had she been crying earlier?
Charlee looked around and could hardly believe that she was actually at the ghost party with Taco. This is not what she expected. But she found herself excited, the same way people get excited before the start of an important race. Charlee was coming to certain conclusions. There were ghosts and there were people and people could become ghosts if they really wanted to, and also by accident. All of this made sense to Charlee because it was true, and nothing else mattered. The world outside the ghost party: nothing at all, really. You could only see the sky if you tried really hard to remember that it was there. And the fire was so welcoming. It was almost as if you could walk right through it and not even be burned at all.
When a few of Charlee’s classmates had come to school after a long weekend having suddenly transformed into ghosts, no one really thought it was that big of a deal. Like everyone would become a ghost eventually, so why make a fuss? And it was almost like the ghosts had always been there, except now they were skipping class to smoke in the parking lot instead of haunting old mansions and saying oooooooo to anyone who would listen.
Now Charlee stood around at the ghost party with Taco while he talked about random bullshit with older guys who Charlee had always seen around but never really cared to meet. Guys like that were all the same, and they were all going to the same place. Maybe the whole ghost thing was like their last chance to be something better than what they always would be in the real world. They were talking about things that Charlee didn’t understand. One of them mentioned a sacred ritual, and another said something about the Ancient Ones. She tried to follow the conversation but everything was getting foggy, the world spinning around her like a dark, dangerous carousel—gradually but steadily accelerating.
Charlee opened another beer, tossing the empty into a nearby pile. She watched the people standing around the bonfire and moving back and forth, not really dancing but definitely moving, as if they were trying to perfect a series of steps which would call forth something terrible from down below.
Or maybe she was just being paranoid. But the possibility unnerved her.
“Taco,” she said, interrupting a conversation about football, or cars, or something else that didn’t matter to her at all. But she thought she heard someone mention a Dark Lord. Ghosts were hovering around behind real people, and everyone was watching the fire anxiously.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
Some of the guys snickered, and she felt like maybe she wasn’t in on a particularly funny joke. “Taco,” she said again, angry.
“You’ll figure it out,” Taco said calmly, looking away. Dismissing her. “When the time is right,” he added.
Charlee stalked away into the darkness, dry leaves crunching below her feet. She was colder than before and she shivered, wrapping her arms around herself. Was it October already? She took another sip from her beer. She had ended up near the edge of the field by the trees, beyond which was only shadow. She watched the people across the field still moving around the bonfire, ghosts staring longingly and hungrily at the living, and Charlee thought that she could also hear them chanting something, the strange words growing louder and louder. Reaching for her from all directions and burrowing into her mind. She watched people doing the synchronized moves around the bonfire and then realized that her own feet were moving in a similar way, unconsciously mimicking the steps.
Already she was becoming someone different. Losing control.
The last time she lost control, Charlee had been in the supermarket in town, doing the week’s shopping because her mother had been working such long hours at the restaurant. And she thought she saw her father turn the corner into the next aisle.
It couldn’t have been him. But the shape of his body, his posture, his hair—
She abandoned her cart and rushed down the aisle, but just as she turned the corner, he passed into the next aisle over. Again and again, she turned the corner only to see him disappear before she could get to him, like he was running away from her and she would never be able to catch up.
Charlee was crying, probably shouting his name, and people stared at her, some with their hands over their mouths. Poor girl, they must have been thinking, all of them knowing the whole story the way people know things about each other in small towns. Poor girl.
Charlee finished her beer and wished that she had brought another one with her, but she didn’t dare go back to Taco and his buddies. What an asshole. He brought her out here only to—what, to ignore her? How was this helping? She had been at home with her music and her books and her chocolate—and, if she was lucky, some of the vodka from her mother’s liquor cabinet. Maybe surrounding yourself with familiar things was the way to get through crises like trying to kiss your best friend. Not going to the ghost party with someone like Taco.
But then Taco was there next to her with another beer. “I’m sorry,” he said.
“You should be,” she mumbled, but she was happy that he had come back to her. She felt like she had won an important battle and that it would all be downhill from here.
“I want to show you something,” said Taco, looking ghostly in the darkness.
Charlee’s cell phone vibrated in her pocket. Ignoring it would have been impossible at that point, so she tried at least to not look completely desperate as she scrambled to pull the phone out of her pocket. And there it was, a text message from Amanda:
Don’t know what to say about tonight but I think the nightmares are real. CALL ME.
Yeah, right. Instead of calling Amanda, Charlee would run as far away from this place as she could get. She would learn another language and invent a new name for herself. She would never see anyone she knew ever again.
“Okay,” she said.
Taco tugged at her arm and they moved closer to the trees. She swayed drunkenly, trying to put one foot in front of the other but often failing and having to be caught by Taco, who was drenched in beer and sweat. But it’s so cold, she thought.
“Where are we going?” she asked. She was slurring now, the words probably only making sense to her.
Charlee’s father would have known what to do. But he wasn’t there. He wasn’t anywhere. Dying is a kind of leaving, but it’s the kind of leaving that you can’t really punish people for. You can’t hate someone for dying. You just have to deal with it and move on, all by yourself.
But here she was in the dark with Taco, and something was wrong. Taco kept saying, “You have drunk the elixir. You have drunk the elixir.” Everything was spinning. The chanting and the bonfire became further and further away, and Charlee was already forgetting the steps to the movements that she had only just been beginning to learn.
There was a dark open space ahead of them and suddenly Taco stopped walking—and so did Charlee, since she was still leaning heavily against him. He turned her around so that she was facing him, and he didn’t look at all like himself. Charlee saw something in his eyes that could not have been from this world. Not a color, but an absence of color. Not an expression, but instead, no expression at all. He looked blank, but also hungry.
“What happened to you?” she asked quietly.
“This place,” he said, gesturing proudly into the dark. “It’s mine.”
“I don’t understand, Taco.”
“I’m not Taco here,” he said. “I’m the Dark Lord. I’m a ghost. Can’t you tell?”
Charlee shook her head. “Is this a game? What are we doing out here?”
“You know what we’re doing out here,” he responded flatly. Then he said, “The ghost party gives you power. Or takes it away.”
So this was the moment of truth, and Charlee was not prepared. They stood there looking at each other. “I don’t think I do,” said Charlee. But she did.
Taco grabbed her by the shoulders, roughly, and then tugged at her shirt. “You’ve been such a fucking tease all this time,” he said. “I think you owe me.”
And that was all the reason Charlee needed to start running. If only the world hadn’t suddenly gone black. She was falling, falling, tumbling deep into the world below.
Taco’s accusation wasn’t really all that far from the truth, though. He always wanted to go further than Charlee did, and definitely further than she would ever let him. Was it because of Amanda? Or someone like Amanda, some future version of Amanda? Was she really just waiting around for someone to sweep her off her feet, to show her that love was real? Charlee was convinced by now that love was real but that it was probably as unavailable to her as everything else that she wanted from her life. Maybe Taco was right—maybe she was just a tease, always trying to tease out a future that she would never get to have.
When her father had explained love to her, none of it had made any sense. Nothing he said made much sense by then. “Love is a secret language,” he said. “Goo goo goo.”
She was ten years old, clutching a Stephen King paperback that he had given her to read. When he was moved to the home after the stroke, he took all of his old books with him. An entire lifetime of books. But he constantly gave them away to everyone he met: nurses, mailmen, other people’s children visiting for birthdays. Soon there was nothing left but an old copy of The Stand, which he anxiously handed over to Charlee when she arrived, as if he was scared that she would go away if he didn’t have a gift for her.
“Goo goo goo,” he said.
Moments of completely lucid thought—he had once been a high school science teacher and would sometimes still try to explain things like reaction rates and evaporation—were always followed by nonsense that came from somewhere else, a place that seemed like another world to Charlee. She would tell her mother that she wanted to go there with him so that maybe she’d understand the things he talked about, but her mother turned pale at the suggestion.
“No one wants to go there,” she said.
Charlee thought she was running, but then she woke up. Everything was blurry. Her head was pounding, and it took her only a second to realize that it was because the chanting had grown louder, impossibly louder, and now it had become a part of her.
The fire. She was above the fire.
Terror brought the world into a sudden, sharp focus. Her hands were bound and she was tied to a tall wooden post leaning precariously out above the bonfire. Her shirt was slashed, tattered. And there was blood. Ghosts were crawling out of the bonfire, and real people were going in and then coming out as ghosts. Charlee didn’t see a way for this to end well for her.
The memory of the night came back to her like a slap in the face. Taco had drugged her. That much was clear. That last beer—he had brought it to her already opened.
Charlee looked into the bonfire. Something inside of it was gaping, yawning as if just now waking up from a long sleep. Reaching up for her from somewhere. Charlee looked down and she knew, even after all the beer, the darkness, the feeling as though she was sinking into the ground to somewhere dark, darker than dark, somewhere secret kept down below—she knew that something was coming for her.
“Daddy?” she said. Her voice sounded small and pathetic, even to her.
“We offer her,” Taco was saying, his arms raised up to the sky. “We offer her to the Ancient Ones.”
Maybe Taco had to believe that he was a Dark Lord of something, because otherwise he was just Taco. Not even a ghost—just nothing special at all.
“Get me down,” Charlee said hopelessly. She knew that she would fall into the bonfire and she would come out as a ghost. She would just hang around town forever, haunting people who used to be her friends. This was her future. She would run and run and no one would see her. She would call out her father’s name, knowing that he was there somewhere just out of reach, and that he desperately needed her help. Even though he was the one who left. Suicide is a kind of betrayal, but not the kind you can punish people for. He just decided one day that enough was enough, and Charlee had to let him go. She had no choice.
“Nowhere to go now,” said Taco. He was smiling in a ghostly way. He was there and not there all at the same time.
Charlee wanted her father to step out of the bonfire, even if that meant that now he had to be a ghost. She wanted him to save her. Was that too much to ask? There were hands on her body, hands reaching out of the fire and trying to pull her down. Things crawling up from below, creatures with wrinkled skin and glowing eyes. All those forgotten things—lost things. Doomed to climb and climb and never get anywhere.
Then Amanda crawled out of the bonfire.
“What the hell,” said Charlee.
Amanda was so pale, almost translucent. Pieces of her were loose, as if she had been hastily thrown together: a patchwork Amanda, composed of pieces of the truth but never adding up to the real thing. Like she wasn’t a real person but she also wasn’t a ghost, at least not yet.
“Let me love you,” said Amanda. “I want to love you.”
“You’re not real,” said Charlee. “None of this is real.”
You can’t outrun the ghost party. You can’t hide from it. Taco had known that when he took her out there. Maybe guys like Taco needed the ghost party to turn them into the people who would actually go through with doing the things that they really wanted to do. People who had nothing left to lose and nowhere else to go.
“I will make you my Queen,” Taco was saying, licking his lips, his eyes glowing in the ghostly darkness. He stepped menacingly toward her. “Even if I have to chain you to the throne.”
Charlee woke up in the car with Amanda, who was driving her home from the party in the early morning light. She was shivering, but Amanda had given her a blanket from the trunk of her car, so that was helping. “That was a close call,” she said quietly. She kept glancing at Amanda, making sure she hadn’t turned into a ghost.
“I’m glad you called,” said Amanda. She looked really tired. “It took me forever to find you in the woods. How long had you been running?”
“I’m glad you came,” said Charlee.
“You were so drunk. Like, way drunk.” But Amanda was smiling.
The world rushed past them in the car windows as they headed toward home: the real world, the familiar world. The one that Charlee would stay in, at least for a while. “What were you saying about nightmares?” she asked.
Amanda stared straight ahead as if she was carefully considering her words. “It started a few days ago. In the nightmare, it’s impossibly dark. And your friend Taco was there. He—”
“What is it?” asked Charlee.
“Well,” said Amanda. “He wants to make you into a ghost, just like him. And a ghost can never leave the house it haunts. That’s what he keeps saying to me in the dream.”
“Listen,” said Charlee. “I’m sorry about earlier. I don’t know what I was thinking. I shouldn’t have done that.”
“What you shouldn’t do is hang out with people like Taco,” said Amanda, as if Charlee trying to kiss her had been no big deal at all. Something they could just forget about, maybe even laugh about later. “He always gave me the creeps. And tonight he proved me right.”
A deer ran across the road in front of the car, dashing from one side of the forest to the other, and Charlee thought to herself that maybe life was like that: a series of jumps from one place to another, deep breaths before the plunge. There would always be danger, but sometimes you can be the girl who gets away. The girl who makes it to the other side.
“Goo goo goo,” said Charlee.
Richard Larson‘s stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, ChiZine, Electric Velocipede, Sybil’s Garage, Eclectica Magazine, and others, and have been honorably mentioned in The Best Horror of the Year. He frequently contributes book reviews to Strange Horizons, and his film and theater reviews have appeared at Slant Magazine and The House Next Door. He lives in New York City.