The only part of the year Lucian liked was summer. The rest of the year was dull and lonesome. He loved his Mom and Uncle Jack was fun, but it was summer when he saw other kids and could hang out with them. He knew a few of the older kids in town because they worked as counselors, but that wasn’t enough to make friends because he wasn’t allowed to go to town without his Mom or Jack.
Lucian wondered how other people lived. He knew that other kids got to go to school. They got to have sleepovers and parties and dances. They got to hang out on the internet and get into arguments. They got to be people and live lives. He only got that once a year. It wasn’t even a complete experience. It was like his Mom was throwing him a bone. Giving him a taste of what life was like for other people before hiding him away for the rest of the year.
Even when summer was in, the other kids treated him differently. He didn’t talk like them. He couldn’t laugh at their jokes or get all of their references. It was like being a couple of steps behind in everything. It why he’d liked Rowan so much.
Rowan’s folks moved a lot because his Dad got moved around. Rowan was a fast friend and didn’t care how Lucian talked. He was happy to explain jokes and pop culture references that other kids made. He seemed to delight in it, but he never harassed Lucian about it or gave him funny looks. He just wanted to be friends with the weird kid. Lucian wanted to be friends with him too.
When Rowan died, Lucian felt pain. It wasn’t like when summer ended or even when his Mom told him about his Dad’s death. It was more like when his grandmother died. A sharp pain, overwhelming in its intensity, and then nothing. He felt hollow. Even when he thought about Rowan now, it was as if something was missing. It was like when he didn’t know what he wanted to read. He had all the books he could want, but none of them was the right one.
He wanted to take a walk. He wanted to go fishing or track some of the local animals. He wanted to do something, anything, besides sit in the house and stare out the window at birds who could care less about his situation. The bear attack had rained on that. If his Mom was a paranoid wreck before, she was an absolute disaster now. This house was a tomb, and Lucian was confident he would die in it.
A rock bounced off his window, starting him from his introspection. He looked out, half expecting to see a small bird or errant squirrel. What he did see made his heart skip. He fumbled with the window and threw it open.
“Rowan!” He shouted.
Outside, at the edge of the trees surrounding his home, was his friend. His friend his Mother had told him had died. The joy that Rowan was alive and the anger at his Mother’s lie warred for attention in his heart. Why had she lied to him? What did it matter at this moment? All that mattered was that his friend, the one kid he cared about, was okay and here.
“Hey, man!” Rowan called back excitedly.
“Come to the door! I’ll let you in.” Lucian said, pulling away from the window.
“Wait!” Rowan called back, but Lucian had already gone.
Lucian threw on some pants and a shirt and rushed to the door. Since his Mother and Jack were out in the camp someplace, it should be okay to invite Rowan in. When he got to the door, however, Rowan was nowhere to be seen.
“Rowan?” Lucian called.
He was met with silence.
Lucian pulled his sandals on and walked out the door. Around the side of the house where his window was, he found his friend hiding in the trees. As Lucian got closer, he noticed Rowan was wearing his pajamas. He also looked wet, his sandy hair hanging limply around his face and ears. It should have been strange, but he wasn’t worried about that.
“What are you doing over here?” Lucian asked. “My Mom’s not here. You can come in.”
“I can’t come near your house, man,” Rowan replied. “Don’t ask why though, because I don’t know.”
“That’s weird. It’s fine. I’m just so happy you’re alive!” Lucian flung his arms wide and went in for a hug.
“Yeah, about that,” Rowan started as Lucian’s arms passed through him without resistance.
Lucian froze with his arms halfway through his friend’s body. He waved them back and forth, his eyes wide with disbelief. He stared at Rowan, through Rowan, an uncontrolled mixture of fear, confusion, and sadness coloring his face.
“Pretty sure I’m dead, man,” Rowan said ruefully.
“Oh,” Lucian said as he took a step back. That hollow sensation from before returning like a stone in his chest. “I see.”
“It’s weird though. It’s like, I can touch things sometimes, but not others,” Rowan continued. “I’m just glad you didn’t freak out. That didn’t go so well last time.”
Rowan looked away before shaking his head, flinging drops of spectral water around. He took a deep breath and smiled. “It’s cool. It’s nothing to worry about now. I do need your help, though. Will you help me?”
“Sure,” Lucian said. He pushed all his other feelings aside. “What can I do?”
“I gotta get out of this place. I think if I can leave the campgrounds I can do whatever I gotta do to, I don’t know, move on? Can you help me?”
“What do you need me to do? I mean, you can walk in any direction long enough and leave the grounds.” Lucian said, confused by the request.
“I figured that, but for some reason, I keep getting lost. I know where everything is, but I can’t seem to get out. Everyone I see is scary as hell, man. Even your Mom and Uncle,” Rowan seemed to be holding back tears, but it was hard to make out from the water that was already on his face. “I can kinda feel them, and they all feel like, I should be scared of them. Not you though. I don’t feel anything from you. I hoped you could help me find my way out.”
Lucian could hear so much desperation in his friend’s voice. He’d read about ghosts though. Most folks didn’t believe in them, but the ones that did felt they usually needed help. Rowan was asking, so Lucian would give. “I got you, man. Maybe you have some sort of rule you have to follow like you gotta go out the front door or something? Maybe that’s why you keep getting lost.”
“The camp doesn’t have a door, man,” Rowan said as he rolled his eyes.
“No, but it does have a front gate. C’mon.” Lucian said, walking towards the back of the house. “There’s a side path to the main access we can take so we can avoid my Mom and Jack. No one knows about it, so it’ll be cool.”
The side path Lucian was talking about was near the back of the house. It wasn’t immediately visible, as the trees and shrubs were thick and flush with leaves. He’d use it when he snuck off to the dock at night for star counting since no one used it or seemed to pay it any mind. As the pair walked, Rowan was quiet, looking furtively into the woods around them.
“What are you looking for?” Lucian asked finally.
“Oh!” Rowan started at having been caught. “I’m just making sure we don’t get snuck up on,” He said nervously.
“Is it the bear?” Lucian asked.
“Yeah, the bear. One of the maintenance guys got mauled by a bear.”
“That wasn’t a bear,” Rowan said sadly. “I don’t know what it was, but it wasn’t a bear.”
“How do you know?” Lucian said, stopping in his tracks.
“I was there. I saw it,” Rowan shuddered. “It’s gone now, but it wasn’t a bear that killed that guy.”
“Was it the same thing that hurt you?” Lucian asked, his chest full of fear and that strange hollow feeling.
“I don’t know,” Rowan said with a shake of his head. “When you left that night, I remember just falling asleep. When I woke up, I was running from it, whatever it was. I just know I was scared. I wanted to get to you or get out of this place, but when that thing got close, I would get scared, and everything would go blank.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t help you,” Lucian said with tears in his eyes.
“It’s not your fault, man. I don’t think you could have anyway.”
The sun hung low in a cloudless sky, painting the landscape that unique shade of orange an artist could spend their life chasing. To Jack, the view of that burnt orange sky reflected from the lake was a reason to breathe. It was an appreciation he’d taught to many people over the course of many years. He looked to his companion and shook his head sadly. If only Lucille could see the sunset as she used to, things might have been so much better for her.
Lucille didn’t realize it and if pressed would not accept that she has two slightly different gaits. Jack had noticed a few years ago that if she were walking away from Lucian, she would move in a step slower than when she was walking towards him. At first, he found it sweet, this unconscious trait that shouted out a mother’s love for her son. As of late, however, it had become troubling.
“Lucy,” Jack said, breaking the silence. “Stop for a moment.”
“We’re almost home, Jack,” Lucille replied. “We can walk and talk.”
“No. I actually need you to stop moving. Stand still.”
Lucille stopped with an exasperated huff. Her shoulders tensed and her arms folded across her stomach. “What?” she said, her tone as agitated as her posture.
“We need to talk about what’s going on with you and Lucian right now.”
“We can do that at home.”
“Yes, we can, right after you put him to sleep. Not put him to bed. No. Put him to sleep with magic.”
“That is unless you suspect his grief is breaking through and you have to smother that again.”
“It’s for his own good, Jack!” Lucille snapped. “He doesn’t need that. It’s just pain, and he’s a baby.”
“He’s thirteen, and it’s not just pain. It’s life. It’s something a normal boy is going to experience,” Jack said firmly. This was going to be a fight, and Jack knew that. It had to happen though.
“He’s not normal. One day, something with a chip on its shoulder is going to get a good long look at him and decide to ruin his life. Or even better, the Choir will take him and turn him into a murderer who they’ll sell out the moment he looks at the wrong person cockeyed.”
“What you’re doing isn’t helping,” Jack said, tapping the back of one hand into the palm of the other for emphasis. “I know you love him, and you want the best for him, but can’t you see you’re abusing him?”
Shock, pain, and indignant anger flickered across Lucille’s face. She spun hard on her heels and began walking away.
“Wait,” Jack said as he grabbed Lucille’s arm.
Lucille turned back, free arm extended. Jack caught her arm by the wrist in a smooth motion and stepped into her, keeping their folded arms between them. He winced as a searing cold bit into his chest. He glanced down to see the hand Lucille was going to slap him with coated in blue flames.
“You were going to hit me with that?” Jack said sadly.
“You said I was abusing my son,” Lucille seethed through clenched teeth. “How can you say I love him and I’m abusing him in the same sentence? How dare you?”
“Because love and abuse are not mutually exclusive. Lucille, when is the last time you touched him without casting on him in some way?”
Lucille shook her head and tried to pull away, but Jack was many times too strong for that. “Let me go!” She said tugging are her arms futilely.
“Not until you answer,” Jack said, keeping his tone even. “When was the last time you touched your son without involving magic? When did you last hold him, just to do it?”
The flames on Lucille’s hand faded. “Stop it,” She said, bracing her head against Jack’s chest and pulling with her whole being.
“You used to touch him almost like you couldn’t believe he was real. Now it’s like you’re scared he isn’t. You’ve become so scared of what might happen to him or who he might turn into that you’ve lost sight of what is happening to him right now.”
Lucille’s struggles stopped, and she slumped to the ground. “What am I supposed to do? People talk about taking their kid’s pain away, but I actually can! How is that wrong?”
Jack knelt beside her. “It’s not, in and of itself, but there are limits. You’ve taken it too far. You smother anything that isn’t happiness, and it’s cruel. It’s selfish. You aren’t doing it, so he doesn’t feel pain. You do it, so you don’t have to see him feeling it. You can’t see the forest for the trees and Lucian is suffering for it.
I’d hoped I could steer you in that direction in a less direct manner, but I realized, with everything that’s happening right now I’ve been letting you hurt him and in turn hurt yourself. I’ve failed you even as you are failing him. Not out of spite, but because love can be as selfish as it can be selfless.”
“What am I supposed to do, Jack?” Lucille said, brokenly.
“Talk to him. He is young, and he’ll understand, either now or in time. Tell him the truth and then teach him properly. He’s a much smarter boy than you realize.” Jack stood up and offered her his hand.
“My baby is brilliant, Jack,” Lucille said, her small smile framed by her tears. She took Jack’s hand and stood back up.
“Then start trusting him.”
“I’ll sit him down when we get back.”
The pair continued to Lucille’s cabin in silence. Lucille’s gait was different now. It was a half step slower than it was before and her face was mired in conflicting thoughts.
As they reached the house, Lucille paused before stepping inside. She turned and stared out at the sunset.
“LUCIAN!” A terrified shriek tore through the trees from the direction of Lucian’s house. His Mom had discovered his absence. They were halfway to the main access, so if they ran, they could make it before his Mom caught them. That was if she could figure out what direction they went. Jack was another matter. He’d made a science out of tracking Lucian, so if Jack was there, time was short.
“Dang,” Lucian spat. “My Mom is gonna freak out if she sees me with a ghost. We gotta get you outta here.”
“Lucian, stop! Look!” Rowan said, pointing ahead of them on the path.
Further down the path, Lucian saw the familiar form of Dell Wagner. He was jogging down the path, toolbox in hand.
“That’s just Dell. It’s cool.”
“I thought no one used this path?”
“Well, he worked on the camp before we moved here. I guess my mom called him to work on the house or something. We’ll come up with something.”
“Hey!” Dell said as he reached the boys. “Sounds like your Mom has it out for you!”
“Yeah, but I’m on a mission,” Lucian said. “Can you keep a secret?”
Dell smiled broadly. “I like to think I’m pretty good at it.” The large man said.
Lucian suddenly felt Rowan’s fingers dig into his arm. “Rowan, calm dow-” He froze as he saw Rowan’s face. It was blank with fear.
“M-m-mon,” Rowan began to stammer.
“Oh, good. Two birds, one stone,” Dell laughed placing a hand over Rowan’s eyes.
“NO!” Rowan screamed out as a flash of light burst from Dell’s hand.
As Lucian’s vision cleared, Rowan was gone. Dell shook his hand and chuckled.
“That was one mistake that got way out of hand,” Dell said. He grabbed Lucian’s neck with one massive hand. “You’re a hard rabbit to catch, Lucian King, but hard hunts make the best meals.”