It’s been ten years since Cary lost Nick, but a part of him lives on, in more ways than one.
Written: April 2013
It’s a beautiful night at Camp Carter. A cool breeze ruffles the leaves, but the warmth of the summer sun lingers. Crickets chirp; cicadas hum. The sky is clear, and the stars shine brightly. Sitting alone on my front porch, I look up and suddenly remember sitting with Nick in the back of a pick-up truck on a night like this, looking up at the stars. He was so impressed with how many he could see, away from the city lights. I was just mesmerized by him. To me, he was more beautiful than any star.
It’s been ten years, but I still miss him. I’ll never be able to truly let go of him, even though he’s been gone for a lot longer than he was with me. But I’ve always cherished the short time I had with him, and I’ll continue to carry it with me, as I go on with the rest of my life. His memory is alive and well inside me. His spirit is all around me. It’s in every note of music that’s played, every line of color that’s drawn, every smile that’s seen and every laugh that’s heard around the camp. This place is Nick’s legacy, and through it, he lives on.
I like to think he’s somewhere up there, among the stars, looking down on us all. I think he’d be happy to see his dream realized. The camp is everything he hoped it would be – a place for kids with cancer to come and explore their creativity, escaping their reality for awhile. So far, our first season has been a soaring success, and we have Nick to thank for that. Although Kevin, Howie, AJ, Brian, and I took on this project, it was Nick who laid the groundwork, purchasing the property and leaving us both the land and directions for its use in his will. I look across the lake, where I can still see lights blazing from the lodge and in the windows of each little cabin, as the campers get ready for bed. Without Nick, none of this would exist.
The sound of an engine silences the crickets, and after a few seconds, I see shadows leap across the lawn, as a pair of headlights appears at the edge of the driveway. I raise an arm to shield my eyes as my husband’s pick-up pulls into the drive. He cuts the engine, and the lights follow. When he climbs out of the truck, I can’t help but smile. Without Nick, I never would have met this wonderful man.
“You alright?” Tom asks, as he comes up onto the porch and finds me sitting there alone.
“I’m fine,” I say, and I am. “Just enjoying the fresh air.”
“It’s a nice night,” he agrees, looking up at the sky. “Want some company?”
“Maybe in a little bit. Go change your clothes and get yourself a snack. I was thinking of taking a quick walk around the lake; I’m too restless to relax.”
He nods, seeming to understand that I need some time to myself. That’s one of the things I love about Tom – he understands me and what I’ve been through. “Be careful,” is all he says, bending down to plant a kiss on my forehead. “I’ll fix a snack for both of us when you get back, alright?”
“Sounds good,” I agree, smiling up at him.
He goes inside, and I get up. I love walking at night, when the rest of the world is asleep. The stars are so bright, I don’t even need a flashlight to see what’s in front of me as I wander off toward the water. It’s probably not smart to go walking around alone at night in nothing but pajamas and flip-flops, but I’m not worried. The camp is set on three-hundred acres of private property, and the only trespassers we get are the wild animals that inhabit the woods. Tom knows this, just as he knows that this is how I clear my head. I’ll bet he even knows where I’m heading, though he’ll never ask. He knows that this part of me is private.
I follow the waterline for a ways, until I come to a fork in the trail. I veer right, taking the path that leads me into the woods. My flip-flops skid on loose soil as I climb uphill; this trail is not as well-traveled as the one that winds around the lake. I’ll bet few campers even know where it goes. I wanted it that way. The place I’m going is perfect – a small clearing set on a beautiful bluff, overlooking the camp, but set away from it all. It’s a private place where one can find solitude and serenity. I’m sure it will be discovered by more and more people as the summer passes, but for now, this spot is a secret shared by only a few of us.
The trail takes me to the top of the bluff, where it circles around the clearing. On the far side of the circle is a small gazebo, set on the edge of the bluff. It makes a great observation deck and is the perfect place for a picnic, but I come here for another reason. In the center of the circle, surrounded by beautiful landscaping, is a small fountain. Engraved in the stone at the edge of the fountain are Nick’s name and the dates of his birth and death. And far beneath the bubbling water, his body is buried.
I come here to be close to Nick. I can feel his presence all around the camp, but it’s only here that I can be physically near him, even though feet of earth still separate us. I sink to my knees at the base of the fountain and lay a hand on the lush grass. The dew soaks through my pajama bottoms and wets my skin, but I don’t mind. My eyes have moistened, too.
“I wish you could have been here tonight,” I whisper to Nick. “It was so much fun. It could have been a bust, Big Band Night, but the kids loved it. I hope you got to see some of it. I wore your dress. I sang your song.” My voice catches in my throat. “I haven’t sung it in public since we were on tour, but I sang it tonight. I think it went well, considering how rusty I was. I hope you liked it. I hope you’re proud of me and the way everything has worked out.” I sniff, taking a swipe at my streaming nose. “I miss you so much.”
I tilt my head back to gaze up at the stars again and am surprised to see a sudden flash of light across the sky. It’s a shooting star, I realize. Make a wish, I think, but in that moment, I have only one. “I wish you were here,” I whisper. I kiss my fingertips, raise them to the sky, then place them on the grass. Wherever Nick is, I hope it reaches him.
Then I stand up, brush the wet grass off my knees, and trudge back to the trail. It’s time to go back and leave Nick to rest. I head home, home to where my husband is waiting, home to where our son is sleeping, looking oh so much like Nick.
From my unearthly vantage point, I watch Cary walk away. I am proud of you, I think, though I’ll never be able to tell her so in person. I hope she knows.
I’ve checked in on her from time to time, watching the camp come together from behind the curtain. Life is like a show playing out on a large stage, with a cast made up of my loved ones and me watching from the wings. I am no longer a featured player, nor an audience member with a full view. I’m more of a behind-the-scenes guy. I only see snippets of the show.
I’d like to say I help out when I can, or at least haunt those who hated me in life, but sadly, I’m neither guardian angel, nor ghost. I can’t communicate or interfere with the living. I can only watch. It’s interesting, but also frustrating.
Like tonight. I’m watching over Cary while she walks home, when I notice a group of girls sneaking along the trail. I say sneaking because that’s what their body language suggests – they’re moving quickly, yet hesitantly, huddled together and hunched over, like they’re trying to hide. They’re probably not supposed to be out at this hour. They’re coming up one side of the trail, while Cary’s climbing down the other, and I half hope they’ll meet at the fork – I’m curious to see if Cary will tell them off for skulking around in the dark. But Cary reaches the fork before they do and continues in the opposite direction, completely oblivious. The girls, equally clueless, stop at the fork less than a minute later, and I’m half glad, wondering what they’re going to do.
“It’s this way!” one of the girls whispers through the darkness, pointing into the woods. “See where the trail splits off?”
They follow the path Cary took to get to my grave, climbing the hill up to the bluff where the gazebo stands, guarding my memorial. It’s a peaceful place. The fountain is a nice touch – I always loved water. For the longest time, I thought I’d have my remains cremated, the ashes scattered across both coasts – the Atlantic, where I grew up, and the Pacific, where I lived out the last few years of my life. But in the end, I decided to have my body buried in Tennessee, where I could rest in beautiful, rustic surroundings and let nature take its course. Besides, if Night of the Living Dead ever comes true, I don’t want to miss out on the fun! I’d make one badass zombie.
But the girls seem more interested in ghosts. When they get to the top of the bluff, they head straight for the gazebo and start setting up what I quickly realize is some kind of séance. They light candles, sit in a circle, and hold hands. One of them is missing an arm, so the girl sitting next to her puts her hand on her knee. Some of them are wearing scarves or hats to hide bald heads, but otherwise, they look like typical teenage girls. They giggle nervously, exhilarated and a little apprehensive at the same time.
“Shh!” the ringleader hisses, silencing the other girls. “Stop laughing, or it won’t work! We have to be serious.”
It takes a few tries for the girls to settle down, but finally, they sit solemnly, eyes closed, straight-faced, ready for the séance to begin.
“We summon the spirit of Nickolas Carter,” says the leader in a low voice. I snicker to myself. “Nick… are you with us?”
I’m here, I think wistfully. What I wouldn’t give to be able to project my voice or make something move, even rustle a few leaves. Anything to send chills running down their spines. But I can only watch.
The wind does my work for me. It whips through the trees that surround the clearing. The branches rustle. The girls gasp. “What was that?!” one of them asks, her eyes flying open.
“Is that you, Nick?” the leader asks bravely. “If so, give us another sign.”
The girls wait with bated breath. “I don’t like this, you guys,” one of them whimpers.
I do, I think, amused.
Then something really does happen. Another shooting star goes streaking across the sky. Unbeknownst to them, the girls are holding their séance in the midst of a meteor shower. But this meteoroid is much closer than the others. When it enters the earth’s atmosphere, its energy lights up the night sky. The girls gasp again and jump up, looking around for the source of the light. When the meteorite crashes to Earth, the impact is enough to knock them off their feet.
They jump up, screaming. Some of them run off in a panic, but the ringleader and one other stay behind. The candles they placed on the gazebo railings have fallen, and the flowers surrounding my grave are on fire. The girls douse the flames with the only thing they have handy: bottles of Code Red Mountain Dew. When the bottles are empty, they refill them with water from the fountain and continue to soak the plants until the fire is extinguished. Then they run after their friends.
It’s always interesting to see how people react in the midst of a crisis, but it’s also infuriating. I hate witnessing mayhem from behind the curtain, where I’m powerless to stop it.
I watch the burnt shrubbery smolder, wondering if the flames will flicker back to life. A fire would spread quickly through a camp made of wood and surrounded by trees. If I had a body, I would shudder at the thought of my camp, the product of ten years’ hard work and dedication, burning to the ground in a single night.
Then I see something at the base of my memorial that horrifies me even more: a skeletal hand, clawing through the soft ground.
I’m halfway home when a flash even brighter than lightning illuminates the trail. I look up and see a streak of light in the sky. It’s much bigger than the shooting star I wished upon earlier. Much closer. I stop, stunned, and watch its progress across the sky. The light fills my vision like sunlight, blinding me, but before I can look away, it disappears behind the tree line.
A split second later, I hear a blast and feel the earth quake underneath my feet. It throws me off-balance, and I stumble backward, falling hard on my backside. The sound of distant screams has me scrambling to my feet again. I run toward the sound, back in the direction I came. The sky has gone dark again, and I nearly collide with someone at the fork in the trail.
“Sorry!” the girl sputters, and before I think to ask what she and her friends were doing up the hill that leads to Nick’s memorial, she and her friend start spewing apologies for being out of bed and out of bounds. They don’t explain what they were doing, and I don’t ask; it’s not the time.
“Go back to your cabin,” I tell the girls. “Make sure everyone is safe, and try to keep the younger kids calm. I need to call and report this.” I’m not sure what else to do. It doesn’t seem like we’re in any immediate danger, so I let the girls go and turn to head back home.
I walk quickly, knowing Tom will be worried. Sure enough, when I reach the house, I find him sitting on the front porch. “Thank God,” he says. “What the hell was that? It sounded like a bomb!”
“I think it was a meteor!” I exclaim. “Did you call anyone to report it?”
“I tried.” He holds up his cell phone. “No service. Power’s out, too.”
I look into the window behind him. The house is dark. The lights across the lake have gone out, too. I sigh. “I’ll walk over to the lodge and call from the land line.”
“I can go,” Tom offers, standing up, but I shake my head.
“No, stay here with Theo. I’ll go. I’m just going to change into some better walking shoes first.”
“Why don’t you take the truck?” he asks, following me into the house.
“I’d rather walk. I want to stop at the cabins and check on the campers on the way, and that’ll be easier on foot,” I explain, while I hastily change into a pair of jeans and a t-shirt.
“Well, be careful,” he tells me again, as I lace up my running shoes.
“I will. If Kevin or anyone comes by, tell them to meet me at the lodge.”
I set off again, following the trail back around the lake. I take the left fork this time, heading toward the lodge. If need be, all the campers and staff can gather there, I tell myself. But I’m not really worried. I’m sure I’ll get some answers from the authorities when I call, and the power company will have come to fix things by morning. We’re a summer camp; we can surely rough it for one night.
But until I start hearing screams, I have no idea just how much danger we’re in.
The stragglers from the séance are being stalked. I watch them from behind the curtain, wishing I could warn them. But I can’t. I am powerless to stop what’s about to happen. I would say it’s killing me, but I’m already dead. I can no longer feel fear, but I’m afraid they’ll soon be dead, too.
Light on their feet, the two girls walk with a sense of relief. Sure, they got caught by Cary, but they didn’t get in trouble. They aren’t afraid anymore. But they should be. They should be running. Because he – I mean, me – no, it – is closing in behind them.
Listen, I beg them. Can’t you hear its footsteps behind you? That groaning sound it’s making? It wants to eat you! Run! RUN!
But if they hear its shuffling feet, they mistake it for rustling leaves. If they hear its hungry moans, they assume it’s the wind. Neither of them run until it’s too late.
“Did you hear that?” one asks the other, but before she can turn around to look, it lunges. She screams as it snatches her by the hair. Its bony fingers get tangled in the long, blonde locks, but the girl twists away, and the hair slips right off her scalp. Her attacker is left holding the wig in its hands. She is free, but only for a moment before it falls upon her again, knocking her to the ground.
“Sophie!” The other girl tries to help, but it’s no use – she only has one arm, and it’s no match for the surprisingly strong grip the creature has on its prey. She can only watch helplessly, her mouth agape in horror, as it opens its jaws and sinks its teeth into the back of her friend’s neck. With a slurp, it sucks out Sophie spinal cord. The slimy gray cord dangles from its lips like a giant noodle.
The other girl doubles over and vomits. I don’t blame her, but I wish she had run sooner. If she had, she might have made it. But the sound of her vomiting only attracts the monster, which swallows the rest of Sophie’s spinal cord whole and scrabbles toward the other girl. She struggles to run, retching and crying hysterically, her single arm pumping, but she’s not fast enough. In just a few paces, it has grabbed her from behind and wrestled her to the ground. She struggles for a few seconds, until it tears out her throat with its teeth.
Moonlight spills over the monster’s face as it raises its head to swallow. Through the smears of blood that stain its teeth and the chunks of brain matter that stick to its chin, I recognize what is left of its features. The patches of blonde hair still clinging to its skull. The cloudy blue eyes seeming to bulge from their sockets. They are the same eyes that stared back at me whenever I looked in a mirror. But they don’t look like mine.
This thing isn’t me. It’s only my skeleton, my shell. Somehow, my rotting corpse has become a soulless zombie, reanimated with an energy that isn’t life. But if it’s not alive, can it be killed?
It has to be killed, I think desperately, before it kills anyone else. But behind the curtain, I’m powerless to stop it.
Mmm… brains. Good.
Splatter. Wet. Thirsty.
Go. Grab girl. Pull down. Bite.
Mmm… blood. Good. Meat. Good.
Need more brains.
Smell meat. Something moving. Go.
Too fast. Can’t catch. Too small. Need more.
Hear sound. Something moving. Big. More meat. Go get.
I hear the screams and start to run. Not in the opposite direction – no, that would have be the smart thing to do. Instead, I do the noble thing – I run toward the sound, wanting to help whoever is hurt, whoever is screaming like that. I’ve always wanted to help people. That quality has hurt me before. I’ve gotten my heart broken trying to fix people. But I still try.
There’s no fixing Sophie, though. I find her lying facedown on the trail. The back of her neck is split open, and I know she’s beyond saving. Stunned, I stumble over to the crumpled form of her cabinmate, Madison, who is covered in blood. She’s been mutilated, her throat ripped out, her neck ravaged with what appear to be bite marks. I can’t be sure, but it looks like an animal attack. What kind of animal would do this? I wonder. A wolf? A cougar? A bear? Whatever it was, it nearly decapitated her.
My shock turns to guilt as I remember these were the two girls I’d run into right after the meteor hit. If only I had walked them back to their cabin myself, maybe they’d still be alive. Or maybe I’d be dead, too.
It’s then that my guilt turns to terror, as I realize I’m standing alone in a wooded area, surrounded by two dead bodies and a trail of blood. Whatever killed the two girls could come back for me. For a few seconds, I stay rooted to the spot, frozen with fear. My mind races, wondering what to do. Should I turn back and run for home or keep going? I’m closer to the cabins, and if I can make it to the lodge, I can call for help. I decide it’s worth the risk to keep going.
I make a run for it. I don’t look left or right, afraid of what I might see coming for me. Keeping my eyes straight ahead, I make a beeline for the nearest cabin. I don’t look back. I have blinders on, focused only on what’s in front of me. Safety.
I slam into the cabin door and start pounding. “Open up!” I plead. “It’s me, it’s Cary, please open the door!”
The door swings open, and a pair of scared faces peer out at me. It’s only once I step inside that I realize they belong to Emily and Isabelle, who are cabinmates of the two dead girls. This is their cabin. I look at their bunks and feel sick to my stomach, realizing two of the beds will be left unslept in tonight.
“What’s going on?” Emily demands. “Why did the lights go out?”
“Have you seen Maddie or Sophie?” Isabelle butts in, breathless. “We can’t find them. They never came back after the s-… after the show.”
Emily shoots Isabelle a look. I can tell something’s off about her story, but I don’t question it. I’m too busy trying to figure out what to tell these two scared girls now that I’ve burst into their cabin in a panic. “I need to get to the lodge,” I say, still shaky and out of breath. “There’s a wild animal or something out there that may be dangerous. When I leave, I want you to lock the door and stay inside.”
“But what about Maddie and Sophie?”
“It’s okay,” I lie. “Just lock the door behind me.”
Knowing there’s nothing I can do here to help, I reach for the door handle, ready to run again. But when I open the door, there’s someone standing on the other side.
For a second, all I can do is stare up at him. His shape is familiar – tall and slender, with the slightly wasted appearance he had the last time I saw him. The clothes he’s wearing are in tatters, but I recognize them, too – they’re the clothes I buried him in.
“Nick,” I whisper, pressing a hand to my heart. It’s thumping like crazy. I know I must be going crazy, too; the shock’s got me seeing things. He looks so real, though, real enough to reach out and touch.
I can’t resist. I reach out my hand, but then he staggers forward, and as the two girls start screaming, I realize my mistake. The light of the candle flickering in the corner catches his face, and I see that this isn’t my Nick. His eyes gleam from the center of their sockets, no longer blue, but pale and cloudy. His skin is rotting away, revealing the white bone underneath it. This isn’t Nick. Nick has passed on. This thing is just… dead.
The realization sends me reeling backwards, but not before its skeletal hand has snatched hold of mine. The brittle fingers close around my wrist, their grip surprisingly strong. I twist and yank my arm away, breaking off a couple of its fingers, but it catches me with its jaws, its teeth clamping down on my forearm. Screaming in agony, I sink a kick into its pelvis, slamming it into the wall. It releases me long enough for me to see the crescent-shaped bite wound on my arm. It throbs with pain, bleeding freely, but before I can react, the thing lunges at me again. This time, it grabs me by the neck. I stumble backwards and fall, slamming my head against the floor.
Bright spots dance before my eyes. Stunned, I look up and see Nick’s face, a halo of light over his head. He lowers his mouth to mine, and I taste metal, as something warm and wet washes over me. For an instant, I feel pain, then pleasure. I look down and see myself drowning in a pool of blood, but I feel as if I’m floating.
I’m in the middle of the lake, floating on my back. There’s water in my ears, distorting the sound, but I can just make out the muffled voice of my mother, calling me to come in. I sit up, allowing my bottom to sink, and stick my head out of the water. “Coming, Mom!” I call back. The sunlight is so bright that I have to squint, but I can see her silhouette on the shore, beckoning to me. I smile and start swimming toward her.
The curtain parts, and she glides through it, sparkling and radiant.
I knew she would come. I’ve been waiting.
She’s been waiting, too.
I can’t believe it’s really you. I’ve missed you so much, Nick.
Ten years. We both thought she’d have to wait a lot longer than that. I wish she had.
I’m sorry, Cary.
It’s okay, Nick. Now we can be together again.
This is what I was afraid of. No, you don’t understand. I am sorry that my reanimated corpse ripped your throat out, but more than that, I’m sorry that you’ll never get to grow old with your husband.
Growing old is overrated. You and I can stay young and in love for eternity.
She’s still as sweet as pie, and if I weren’t dead already, it would kill me to be cruel to her. But since I am dead already, it’s time for me to be blunt. You still don’t get it. That guy loved you, the way a man is supposed to love his wife. I never loved you that way, Cary. The only reason I let you have my baby is because I knew I was gonna die. If I hadn’t, I probably would have dumped you by now. I’m sorry.
The truth hurts, but hey, at least we can’t feel pain behind the curtain.
Yes, this story was a joke, as in, not meant to be taken seriously. Sorry for being so weird; the idea to turn dead Nick into a zombie who stalks campers at Cary’s camp, Friday the 13th style, was too funny not to attempt, so I went there. It’s sick and horribly insensitive, I know, but thaaaat’s me! :) I hope you were properly horrified and maybe even amused. In any case, thanks for reading!