By Jessica Berger
So, Kelsey had this ghost boyfriend, see, and it was weird because, well, for one reason, she’d met him through her younger sister, who was really like a little sister, like Kelsey’s sister was young, but before you go thinking, you know, this is the kind of fucked up story where kids are hanging out with much older people, you should remember that Bradley wasn’t, like, an actual person. He was a ghost. Like, in the literal way, in the way that first he was a presence she couldn’t see, an imaginary friend Kelsey’s little sister would prattle to about superheroes and her dreams as they ate popcorn and Capri Sun and watched Cartoon Network on the sofa. Bradley was that level of imaginary friend. You know what I mean. And Kelsey’s little sister had many imaginary friends with names like Frog-Petunia and Thumb, so the weirdest thing about this one was that his name was Bradley. The second weirdest thing was Kelsey’s little sister insisting Bradley wanted popcorn because, see, Kelsey’s little sister hated popcorn. So, Kelsey knew something was up, started asking around with neighbors and looking into old newspapers at the library which was, honestly, really not our scene. We didn’t listen when Kelsey told us the first time about the boy who drowned in the pond behind her house, we didn’t try to stop her when Kelsey said she was going to ask her sister what Bradley looked like, if she could see him, we so weren’t paying attention when Kelsey dropped $20 with the town medium to ask about strange energies. And then one day it was all different. Just like that, everything was cool. Everything was fine. And no, she couldn’t hang out on Friday or Saturday or next week. Just like that.
We wouldn’t have thought about it too much if she’d just cut us out, but the way it was she’d act like everything was normal in the cafeteria, in passing period, in gym class, but as soon as the bell rang she disappeared. Vanished. Didn’t waste a second. She wanted to get home, she said, and she’d mutter stuff about popcorn and everything being fine, don’t worry. When we talked about it we forced Kelsey’s disappearance into familiar containers. We all knew, after all, there hadn’t been a soul able to talk to Nessa for the whole month she’d committed herself to making out with Jason Libby. Without fail, she met up with him every afternoon on the bike path bench. It didn’t matter the bench was covered with bird shit. It didn’t matter we all could count at least one instance of running past a drunk vagrant passed out across it. It didn’t matter half the school took the path to smoke at the edge of the woods or to hide other illicit activities closer to the train tracks. Even when we ourselves would cut through – deliberately to pass the bike path bench—we couldn’t talk to Nessa. So, we had a sense of what Kelsey’s disappearance might mean, is what we’re saying, even though we looked at the evidence and considered ghostly possession was possible, we were worried about a Jason Libby situation.
Jason Libby-types were always a possibility, yet with Kelsey we suspected it was something else. There was the whole way she wasn’t bragging about it, one, or dropping hints or wearing chokers or turtlenecks to cover up hickies. And maybe, yes, we admit one of us was stupid enough to suggest that Kelsey had developed a “popcorn” problem, that “popcorn” was the street name for something, and maybe it is, we certainly considered it, but no one in our grade was doing anything harder than cheap weed. And again, yeah, there was the whole way she could have been possessed by a ghost or real haunted or something, but mostly we assumed this was some Jason Libby bullshit, that that boy was going to work his way through each one of us until prom or graduation or some depressing high school sweetheart wedding.
So, we followed Kelsey expecting Jason Libby. Or, we expected someone Jason Libby-like. Jason Libby types are never really a surprise, what with their hair and their skateboards and their one band they listen to on repeat. Jason Libby types would happen to the best of us, even the girls who liked girls. We all fall for a Jason Libby type at some point, we accepted this as our fate, and Kelsey was nowhere near the best of us. She was solidly in the middle according to a conversation we had where we ranked ourselves by moral fiber. Anyway, when we trailed Kelsey back to her house and she was alone, we didn’t expect that. We even saw Jason Libby pass her on the walk going the opposite direction and it’s not like she even looked up. Jason Libby checked her out and everything and she didn’t even see him do it.
We were relieved it wasn’t Jason Libby. Nessa was especially glad, even though, and seriously, just five minutes earlier she had told us about a crush she thought she might have on the new kid, Taylor. Which, like, as soon as we all saw the new kid we’d known he would be another Jason Libby situation. The new kid had Jason Libbydom written all over him plus a dumb, dirty friendship bracelet he wore that for some reason made Nessa swoon. A dirty bunch of string, literally, like he was the only one who ever had a friend and honestly he probably made it himself. Nessa loved it though, the idea the new kid was the type to adorn himself with sentimental nostalgia. Whatever. We thought it was kind of cute too, we guessed, but none of that solved why Kelsey was so excited to be going home alone, or why when we peered through the kitchen window we could see her dancing around, making microwave popcorn with an enthusiasm we all agreed was unnatural. So we did what anyone would do. We pounded on the sliding glass door of the kitchen and insisted that she open up, that she tell us, immediately, why she’d cancelled on showing up to study group, art club, pizza night. Kelsey didn’t like that, we guess, but we needed to know, we said, we needed to know if we were looking at another Jason Libby type situation. We deserved at least this much.
And Kelsey went off. We couldn’t believe how much she went off. Fuck this and fuck that and we were all total psychos and jealous bitches and give her some fucking space, but none of this matters because suddenly he materialized for us, suddenly we saw him. Bradley appeared in the kitchen, floated, so skinny and pretty and with hair that flopped just so and with jeans that made us realize, immediately, what Jason Libby lacked. Bradley had this pulsing skeleton you could see and it was so hot, like, we had never seen a skeleton so hot before, but also he had this Nirvana tshirt on that was worn and classic and kind of transparent in this way that seemed really on trend and we looked at him and we all were like “hey” and he looked at all of us simultaneously with his dead-all seeing stare and responded, “hey,” and it was basically a mess of blushing and muttering how much we loved Kurt from there. We couldn’t say it fast enough, basically, except for Nessa, who couldn’t remember Kurt Cobain’s name because she’s practically illiterate.
Jason Libby may have had color and mass and form and all of that stuff we knew made him present, but the boy who emerged from the den, the boy gliding towards us to just, like, gently touch or pass through the popcorn with his elegant, long-fingered, non-hand? This boy had so much less, so much more. We could have swooned when his non-fingers touched the popcorn, when they seemed both to disturb it and yet failed to grab it, when he went through the motions of eating only to scatter kernels here and there across the linoleum. Kelsey was seething, we knew, yelling, maybe, but holy fuck we did not hear her. We had been presented with something requiring our immediate attention, we had been presented, Kelsey yelled at us, with Bradley. Obviously we could see Bradley was real and obviously we all suddenly cared about what we’d been ignoring for weeks and obviously she and Bradley were dating and we watched Bradley and barely heard her and we wanted to say, basically, we understood.
The thing about Bradley was he was always around. He had died ten years ago, drowned after falling out of a canoe while sneaking beers with his friends. He had been sixteen then and was sixteen still, sixteen eternally, locked into a place even after his parents and friends had all moved away, moved on. Kelsey told us her little sister had invited him in from outside, where he used to just walk in circles, waiting for something to happen, appearing and disappearing at random to pace and non-kick rocks into the pond. Ghosts could follow you if you saw them, we were told, and Kelsey’s little sister was the first to truly see Bradley, to bring him in and give him popcorn he non-ate, cartoons he watched while non-sitting, to keep him in the house like a garden cat who came and went and barely spoke except to say “thank you.” Bradley lived in their house, existing without Kelsey’s dad ever catching on someone else was there, hanging out at the kitchen table and waiting, always just waiting. Unlike Jason Libby, Bradley was a boyfriend installed in your home, one that came without the necessity of bike path bench trysts or curfew restrictions, one with nothing better to do than sit patiently where you left him until you returned. And, of course, there was his perfect hair, the way he non-wore those glowy jeans, his beautiful skeleton, the way he glitched and crackled like a piece of old film.
We imagined the possibilities of a pet boyfriend, a ghost boyfriend. We asked Kelsey, one by one, if he had any dead friends, if they were as cute as he was. Kelsey told us it was morbid to hope for more dead kids, but she was one to talk, she was making out with Bradley and his skeleton every time she was alone in her house, we assumed.
If you think we didn’t ask about the ghost sex, you’re dead wrong. We discussed it frequently. We asked each other questions like, was it really losing your virginity if it was with a ghost? Even if you did it every night, what was it you were doing? Could we get pregnant from a ghost? If a ghost could only touch or disturb the popcorn with its non-hand, could it hold us in the ways we wanted to be held? Could it perform the acts we’d memorized from magazines? Could it be alive in the way we needed it to be alive? In the Jason Libby sense of the word? Did ghost sex feel different? Was it cold? We couldn’t tell if Bradley was cold, when we saw him we shook, maybe, but we were so flustered we were sweating, too, at the sight of those black eyes, those perfect bones. We were obsessed with the idea Kelsey could be doing it with her ghost boyfriend every night, all the time. It didn’t matter Kelsey never confirmed this. It didn’t matter all she ever said was how sensitive he was, what great company he was, how chill he was about watching her favorite shows and how much he listened when she woke up and told him her dreams, when she read him the shitty fanfiction she wrote for creative writing class. We were insanely jealous. To the point, even, that some of us, Nessa at least, went over to the house to ask Kelsey’s little sister to go get Bradley, to tell Bradley that if he ever wanted to hangout somewhere else he could memorize her address. It was the house with the reddish roof just at the corner two blocks down, after all, he couldn’t miss it.
For two weeks, maybe, we talked constantly about Bradley. We used ghost emoji with eggplants and lips, sent sparkly hearts and teased Kelsey in the hallway about whether or not she’d ask him to turnabout. The thing about ghost boyfriends, though, is that weeks become months and the ghosts are still there, doing their thing, haunting shit and just hanging around. Ghosts are lazy like that and it’s not like you can bring a ghost to a party or to the mall or to the movies, and the Bradley’s ghost cried when we invited him to laser tag and it became a whole thing, see, because real Bradley had loved laser tag and hadn’t thought of it in ten years, and we told him the lasers weren’t real but Kelsey told us later that had hurt his feelings too, see, because he was about as real as the lasers. Ghost boyfriends were always crying, it turned out. They were either crying or lamenting or generally just depressed about their existence, and soon Kelsey went from ditching us constantly to wanting to stay out longer and later. Everything needed to be a sleepover, she said, because she couldn’t stand Bradley anymore, because he was always just there and never had anything new to say and honestly seemed kind of bitter about the whole being dead thing. And it’s not like the sleepovers were even that fun, honestly, because Kelsey herself became sensitive anytime we tried to do stupid shit like break out a Ouija board or play light as a feather. All we did was eat too much candy and steal little spikes of schnapps from our parents’ liquor cabinets.
Then the worst thing happened: we were cutting down the bike path after school one day and there was Kelsey with Jason Libby. Making out. Shamelessly. With an intensity beyond anything we’d ever seen with Nessa. She’d learned a lot from her ghost boyfriend, we assumed, was practiced and sophisticated in ways we could not fathom. She had a grip on his neck and seemed to be groping him, maybe, with the other hand and well, it was scandalous, we couldn’t believe it. Here was Kelsey with Jason Libby. Subpar Jason Libby. Jason Libby who didn’t have a beautiful skeleton, Jason Libby who had recently started wearing a dumb, flat-brimmed snapback that read, DOPE in big, stitched white letters. Jason Libby with Kelsey’s hand somewhere near his crotch and Bradley, poor, half-invisible Bradley probably off haunting some bedroom corner as it happened. Nessa snapped a blurry picture on her phone as we sped past, whispered loudly that we needed to go to Kelsey’s house right now, we needed to tell Bradley his girlfriend was unfaithful.
We didn’t, of course. We didn’t because it was Wednesday and Kelsey’s dad would be home and confused about why we needed entry to the house so desperately when his daughter wasn’t even back from study group. We didn’t because the more we thought about it the dumber it was to tell a ghost it was being cheated on. We had all seen movies or read stories where ghosts became vengeful, where they became spirits capable of possessing their victims and performing devious tasks. We loved Bradley, but we worried he hadn’t yet grown into his powers. We could imagine a version of him, his pretty bones passing seamlessly into other bodies, stalking the halls of our high school, standing vacantly on our front lawns in the dead of night. We called each other, sent texts, looked up articles about devious poltergeists. We realize the downside of a ghost boyfriend, the way he is always there, the way he can never change, the way he will always be touching the popcorn and watching cartoons and wearing his Nirvana shirt, the way he is sixteen as we slowly pass through cycles of birthdays, as we will leave for college, as we come back for holidays and breaks only to find him just there, still, hanging out by the dresser when we bring home new boyfriends, girlfriends, fiancés, roommates.
Turnabout turns into prom turns into summer break. Jason Libby is replaced with Kevin Levy. Kevin Levy is replaced with no one. Bradley remains, hanging back at the house as an imaginary friend to an 8-year old girl, a ghost ex-boyfriend who stares longingly at Kelsey as she brushes her teeth, as she makes a sandwich, as she tries to teach herself guitar. One day, we are invited to Kelsey’s house. We have a discussion with Bradley fading in and out softly, glitching next to Kelsey on the sofa. Bradley, we ask, are you happy here? Don’t you want to go? Don’t you want to see the world? We try to encourage Bradley to move beyond Kelsey’s house. We tell him he is beautiful, that his death has meaning. We reason that if he could move from the pond he could trespass in other places, that everyday he could see new people, make new friends.
Bradley nods and touches the popcorn. His fingers, those delicate bones break our hearts.
We tell him we are all moving on, that we are getting older, that we will continue getting older. Kelsey tells him they can still be friends, that she loves him in a way that counts, that he has done so much to change her life and yes, we think of Jason Libby. Of Kevin Levy.
Kelsey kisses Bradley on his blue lips, those lips made of light. We decide, one after the next, to take turns embracing him, to hug his non-body and kiss his hair, his hair some of us claim later to feel as hair or to have felt as nothing, as non-hair, as a change in pressure.
We encourage Kelsey to tell Bradley she has freed him, though what she’s asking is for him to free her. We insist Bradley has so much potential, that he could play laser tag still, that he could make friends at the skate park, at the mall, in after school detention.
We watch as Kelsey kisses her ghost boyfriend again, convinced now that even she cannot feel anything, that their embrace never was. They hold each other and it is so obvious she is a girl, a real person where he is an image, a flickering disappearing now into nothing. When he is gone we cry, we comfort Kelsey even though we are strangely sad, melancholy, aware suddenly of our own mortalities or impermanence or some nothingness of the universe. We decide that Bradley really took it all rather well, we are confident he will not return.
Jessica Berger is a Chicago-based writer and fiction editor of Grimoire Magazine and the newly launched Always Crashing. Her work has been featured (or is forthcoming) in Ninth Letter, PANK, Gamut, The Spectacle, Maudlin House, FANZINE, Midwestern Gothic, Occulum, and elsewhere.