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Stones

by Jeffrey Stevenson
 

The first I heard about the ghost, I was standing in line at Safeway.  It was early morning and I stopped to pick up a frozen meal that I could eat at lunch.  The cashier—he looked as if he had been up all night—methodically scanned each item of the order in front of me.  He wasn’t paying attention to what he was doing.  He stood there, mid scan with something in his hand—at first a loaf of bread, then a box of freeze dried noodles, then a bunch of bananas—and told his story.

“I’m telling you, it was about three in the morning, we had just finished lunch.  At first I thought it was someone else on the crew, standing at the end of my aisle,” he said.  His back was to the cash register, his weight on his right leg as he leaned against the scanner.  He was talking to the bag-boy who was filling the plastic bag stand at the end of the counter.  “When I looked up, it was just standing there, as clear as day, pointing at me.  Its hand was shaking.”  Even though he was speaking to the bagger, it was obvious he wanted everyone to hear.

“This sucks.  The closing carry-out is supposed to fill these bags.  It’s bad enough getting up this early.  But having to do two jobs?  I’m going to quit.”  When the bagboy was done with the plastic bags, he started on the paper ones.

It sounded like a lie to me.  The guy was probably hallucinating.  Who wouldn’t, that late at night?  As I stood there watching the cashier—he had finished scanning the order and was holding $13.57 in one hand, the other hand was poised above the keyboard, index finger extended but not typing—I decided that next time I’d just go get something from McDonald’s at lunch.

“As fast as that, man, it was gone.  One second it’s pointing at me like it’s calling me out, the next, like I changed the channel, it just disappeared.  I started stocking the shelves as fast as I could.  I don’t think I’m gonna stock that aisle anymore.” 

If a ghost made this guy work faster, I wished one would have appeared right then and there, hovering above the belt and my frozen lasagna.  Then maybe I’d finally get out of there.

It was the time of the year in Pinetop when the tree colors were beginning to change.  People from the valley (Tucson and Phoenix mostly) would spend an entire weekend just driving around and pointing out the trees that were the brightest orange, yellow, and red.  The mornings hinted at frost and the nights turned our breath to mist.

I worked at the bank in the same shopping center as Safeway.  If Pinetop had a downtown, it would have been here.  Safeway was next to the Hallmark which was next to the dime store, which was next to the two-screen theatre, the Lakeside Cinema.  At the end of the center was the town’s only ice cream shop.  The bank was a freestanding building in the parking lot, to the south was KFC and next to that, McDonald’s.

That day, after hearing about the ghost while standing in line at Safeway, I heard about it again from a customer at my window.  Hearing things more than once was pretty common for me.  In a town as small as Pinetop, it’s almost impossible to work a job that has a lot of public interaction—like a bank teller—without having to listen to repetition.  

Mr. Jenkins came into the bank everyday.  He’d bring his mail in and stand at the deposit table while he opened and sorted it.  There was an eccentricity about him that was severe enough to keep people from asking about his life, but engendered a certain amount of compassion.  I was his favorite teller because I was sure to face all of his bills the same direction when I counted them out to him.  I also reserved the crispest bills for him so he didn’t have to ask me to replace any that were crumpled or torn.

He was visibly shaken when he started telling me about what he had heard.

“I was having breakfast at Eddie’s Country Store.  A young man came in and started talking about a ghost in Safeway.  He said it had attacked one of his co-workers last night.”  His withdrawal slip was immaculate, as usual.  But the piece of paper where he’d written the breakdown of denominations he would prefer had at least three spots where he scribbled through a mistake.  Any other day, he would have re-written his request until it was error free.“When it vanished, it left a burn mark on the tile where it had been standing.”  He wasn’t even watching as I counted the money to him.“Apparently, the young man was so shaken that he had to spend the rest of the night in the breakroom.  If I were him, I would have gone home and never returned,” he said. 

In the four years I had been waiting on Mr. Jenkins, this was the most he had spoken to me.  It was also the first time his discussion had deviated from banking matters.  “And the worst part, the burn mark won’t go away.  The floor technician worked and worked, but it won’t clean off.  It’s really a shame.  The floors in that store are always so shiny, although I don’t like the new tile pattern since the remodel.  It used to be the most symmetrical red and white checker pattern.  It’s too contemporary now.  Too lopsided.”

I wasn’t sure if I should tell him what I knew.  He sounded so sure of himself.  Besides, I had learned quickly that customers don’t like to be corrected about anything by a teller.  Even if it is something as trivial as a rumor about a ghost.  I also didn’t want to lose my status as Mr. Jenkins’ favorite.  I wasn’t sure exactly which aisle the alleged sighting was on, but I didn’t remember seeing any floor damage earlier.  Still, it bothered me to see him as upset as he was.

“I’m sure it’s nothing.  We’ll probably find out in a few days that it was just a prank,” I said.  I wanted to be reassuring without being contradictory.

He waved his hand across his face and leaned closer to me.“If it was a prank, who’s responsible for the floor?”  With that, he patted the counter, turned around, and snaked his way through the partitions that zigzagged through the lobby.

The rest of the day was uneventful, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the ghost.  Something inside me wanted it to be true.  Even though I was sure the rumor was something that the workers made up—possibly to cover up a practical joke that got out of hand involving some lighter fluid and matches from aisle 12—I hoped the ghost would return.  I didn’t even want to see it, necessarily, I just wanted to know if something like that existed.  The thought of it made me feel lighter in a way.  Like something solid inside me had broken up.  At lunch, in the small kitchen in the back of the bank, I heated my lasagna and thought about what the ghost would look like.  Would it shimmer and move in glitches, would shadows form around it as it moved?  When I took the top off my box of lasagna, I expected to see the ghost in the puff of steam that came out.

A few days later, on a day that was covered in clouds and an unusually still air, Officer Reidhead came in to make a deposit.  The check was from Safeway and handwritten by the store manager.  Officer Reidhead was the type of customer who liked to tell me odd things about the community that he learned through his patrols.  He’s the reason I was one of the first people to know about Mr. Westing, the high school economics teacher, when he had been arrested for locking his wife in a closet for an entire weekend.  Officer Reidhead was also the reason I knew that the mayor’s son had been picked up for drunk driving seven times, but had never been charged for any of them.  This time he had information about the ghost.

Apparently, the manager of Safeway, upon hearing about the incident and seeing the smudge at the end of aisle six—that part had been true, although it came off the next night when the floor guy used wax stripper—called the police.  He was convinced the ghost was a homeless person hiding in the back warehouse of the store.  The police chief had refused to waste the time of his on-duty force to scour the store, so Officer Reidhead volunteered to go in on his day off.  He spent the entire day on Saturday climbing over pallets of laundry soap and toilet paper.  The only thing of substance he found was a stash of coffee beans that the manager thought had been stolen, and four rather large rat nests.

I had been thinking a lot about the ghost.  When I slept, I would dream of a tall entity sitting on a tree stump in the middle of a field.  I wouldn’t walk up to him.  Instead I would rush toward him—or maybe he would draw to me, shifting the field and surrounding trees around me—as if my eyes were camera lenses zooming in on him.  In these dreams, my insides felt as if they were no longer in my body.  I would fear that, without something to rest on, my skin would fold over and I’d be left at the feet of this man, a misshapen pile of flesh.  I’d concentrate as hard as I could to make my skin as rigid as possible so I could figure out who this man was.  I couldn’t see his face.  His body language didn’t suggest that he was aware of my presence, but every time I reached out to see if he was real, his skin would float away as if he was made of dandelion seeds.  When I would wake up, I would lie in bed as still as possible, fearing that my skin had hardened over night and if I moved, it would splinter apart and whatever was inside would drizzle out.  Even though I knew these were just dreams, I began feeling as if I was emptying out a little bit each night.  Every morning I felt as if I had lost some of my mass.

During the day I would look into the darkest corners of my apartment hoping to catch a glimpse of the ghost watching me.  I wondered why it had appeared in Safeway and not somewhere else, like the old brick jailhouse near Woodland Lake, or sitting in a chair in one of the antique stores, or even at the bar of the Lion’s Den—where the most lawless of Pinetop’s population conspired.  It shouldn’t, I thought, only be Safeway’s ghost.  If it existed, we should all get to share.

“I think it’s real,” Officer Reidhead told me.  He leaned close to the counter to say it.  The leather of his gunbelt creaked as it shifted on his hips.“None of those boys are smart enough to come up with a story like that.  If one of them made that mark on the floor, the rest of them would have ratted him out before the manager even saw it.  No, it exists.  I felt like I was being watched the whole time I was in there.  Like I was on its turf.  I’m not a psychic.  I don’t have knowledge of, you know, the other side, but I felt its presence.”

There weren’t any customers in the bank and I could tell the rest of the tellers were eavesdropping.  I thought I should try to offer him overdraft protection just so I wouldn’t appear I was gossiping.  The last thing I wanted was to get in trouble for talking about a ghost.“What do you mean?”  If they said something to the supervisor, I’d tell him that I was trying to relate to the customer so I could sell him something even better, like a loan so he could spirit-proof his house.“Was it like the movies where the hair on the back of your neck stood up?”

“No, that’s a bunch of crap.  It was more like I felt bad for looking for it.  Like if I really understood why it was there, I’d wait for it to come to me.  I felt like I was letting it down.  I’m not sure if it could hear me, but when I left, before I started my car.  I told it I was sorry.”

When I was growing up in Pinetop, I had never thought about what else was out there.  I never understood the rest of the kids my age when they would complain about how there was nothing to do in such a small town.  I never cared much to meet the summer kids when they came with their families to stay in their cabins, fish on the Reservation, or golf the exclusive courses.  I didn’t dream of leaving Pinetop someday to seek some fortune or make my name famous.  When I was really young, I would spend time in the woods behind the house making forts out of fallen tree branches, damming the creek with rocks, or shooting things with my pellet gun.

I once shot a snake I came across.  By that time, I had moved from the pellet gun to a .22 caliber rifle.  I don’t think the snake was poisonous but it seemed an appropriate target at the time.  When it was dead, I uncoiled it and noticed three perfect lumps about halfway down its body.  I felt no remorse seeing the lifeless body.  I didn’t feel bad as I took out my knife and began to cut the skin open.  When I got to the lumps, I cut the skin as carefully as I could so as not to touch them with my blade.  The snake neatly filleted, I took the three lumps—by then I’d realized they were bird eggs—and inspected the blue-flecked shells to see if they could be salvaged.  They were all cracked, oozing the clear mucus that should have been their sustenance.  They didn’t belong there. 

I skimmed the ground and found a few twigs and pine needles.  As best as I could—with snake blood and egg fluid on my hands—I made a small nest.  After placing the eggs (by then they were barely more than hollow shells) in the nest, I climbed a few feet up a tree and balanced the nest on one of the branches.  I went back to the snake carcass.  Ants had already started to crawl over it, nibbling bits of flesh.  I took the carcass by the head and carried it to the base of the tree where I had placed the nest.  I lay it down, put three stones inside the body as close to where the eggs had been as I could remember, folded the skin back over them, and re-coiled the body.  After that day, I rarely went into those woods again.  Eventually, they were developed into an extension of the neighborhood.  Trees fell and houses grew until I lost track of where the tree had stood.  I always hoped it had been one of the lucky ones to survive the construction.

The next Friday, I decided to go to the high school football game.  It was late in the season and the townspeople were already talking about the playoffs.  If Blue Ridge could win the next two games, they’d be conference champions—for the third season in a row—and would have home field advantage for the first round of the playoffs.  When I had been a senior—nine years ago, which felt like a lifetime—we had gone undefeated.  The state championship banner hung in the gym next to the soccer, track, and basketball banners.

Football games were a town affair in Pinetop.  The games were not only places where we went to cheer for the team.  They were also places where people made business deals and where would-be politicians campaigned.

I turned into the parking lot half an hour before kickoff.  The parking lot was already packed.  I found a spot toward the back, close to the main street, and began walking to the field.  The gym rose ahead of me—flashbacks of the emotions I experienced before a game, the adrenaline, hope of making the game-winning play, fear of making the game-losing mistake, rushed back.  To the right of the gym, the football field glowed, a mixture of the stadium lights and frozen air.  I passed through the gates: cheerleaders lined both sides of the walkway trying to sell programs, candy, purple and gold blankets with a Yellow Jacket stenciled in the middle.  The stands were just as crowded as the parking lot.  The only open seats were toward the top, behind the band where the wind bit the hardest.  I probably could have squeezed in with some of the people I usually sat with, but I knew the night would be spent soaked in nostalgia.  They would talk about how good the team had been when they were playing.  How Coach Monroe loved to make them run sprints after a big win, just so they wouldn’t get prideful, how the teachers had helped them through the toughest classes so they could retain their eligibility.  It’s not that I didn’t like to talk about these things—I even had some of the best stories to back up the claims—it just seemed that there were more pressing things.

The game started with the usual fanfare and Blue Ridge scored on the first drive with a big run from the running back.  After the cheering subsided and the crowd settled into the game, I began hearing things, seeing an anxiousness that wasn’t normal.  People were huddled in small groups, one person talking while the rest listened.  I heard snippets from the groups around me, “it’s because of all of the new construction,” or, “it’s a sign that we’re not living right,” and, “you can’t live this close to the reservation without eventually experiencing some sort of evil.”

At halftime, I left the stands and made my way to the gym.  I wasn’t sure if it would be open, but I had a theory about the ghost.  It had been seen by a single person, at night and in an open space.  I figured the gym was the closest to Safeway in the middle of the night as I could get.  Maybe if I concentrated hard enough, or if my footfalls were rhythmic enough, I could conjure it up.

One of the side doors to the weight room was unlocked and I was able to get to the gym from there. I went into the old gym, the one where I used to play when it was the only one in town.  As the basketball team became more successful, they built a bigger, more modern court with three times the seating as the old gym.  It was nice, but I felt more at home in the older, mustier one.  The court hadn’t changed since the last time I played on it.  The hollow spots in the floor were still where I had memorized them.  Part of our home court advantage had been corralling the opposing team’s point guard to one of those spots where we knew the ball would take an odd bounce. 

I wondered if we were like that court.  If we wore down over time until we were empty at points, until we were just shells after everything else had drained out.  What if the ghost was just a really old person who had worn completely away?

I heard the crowd as the football team retook the field.  I went to center court and laid down on my back, spread-eagle.  It was in this gym, a few years earlier, that I learned about my father’s cancer.  He had called me on my cell phone from Phoenix.  The headaches and dizziness that had perplexed the Pinetop doctors took the doctors in the valley mere minutes to diagnose as a tumor.  Maybe I should talk to someone from out of town about the ghost, maybe they’d be able to explain it without hesitation.

I must have dozed off at some point.  A slamming door startled me from whatever state I was in.  I could hear footsteps crossing the floor toward me.  At first, I thought maybe it had worked.  Maybe this was it.  I was going to meet it.  What would I ask it?  What if it was like a genie and I only got three questions?  I wasn’t scared, I figured that would come when I saw it.  At least I hoped I would be scared.

The footsteps stopped and the gym lights came on with a loud snap.  Even though the lights came on slowly, ramping up to full brightness, I was momentarily blinded by the sudden light.  When my eyes had adjusted, I saw my old basketball coach crossing the far end of the court.  He hadn’t seen me until I sat up.

“John?  What are you doing here?”  He was sort of crouching and squinting to get a better look at me.

“I don’t know, just needed a quiet place, I guess.”  I stood and began walking toward him.  We had kept in touch since I graduated.  He would open the gym for me and some friends every so often.  From time to time, he would even play a few games with us.“What about you?  Shouldn’t you be in bed by now?”

My first varsity season had been his first at Blue Ridge.  We were dismal that year.  I’m not sure if we won any conference games.  The following summer, he took the team all across the state to play any team we could.  He hadn’t had a losing season since then.

“Things just don’t feel right anymore.  Did you hear it was spotted on Porter Mountain Road?  It was standing in the middle of the road on one of the corners.  Alan Velázquez said he drove right through it.”

“Come on coach.  You know Alan was probably coming back from a party up there.  I guarantee he was as high as usual.”  I’d heard the story a few days ago, but had discounted it based on Alan’s reputation and the fact that no one else in the car had substantiated it.

“I just don’t like the thought of it out there.  I thought I’d come here and shoot some free-throws, get things back in line.”  He was a believer in the process and structure of the free-throw.  No matter how crazy a game got, he would say, a free-throw could always bring it back to the foundations.  Fundamentals and control.  For him, it was the eye of the storm, the moment of clarity after the first punch is thrown in a fight.

We stayed there until one in the morning shooting free-throws.

Ghost fever was taking over.  It had been a month and a half since the initial sighting.  Since then, people had claimed to see it on Porter Mountain Road (no matter how hard I tried to discount this one, most everybody accepted it as valid), floating over Fools Hollow Lake, knocking books off the shelves at the library, stealing slices of pizza from Joey’s Pizza, rearranging furniture in room 14 of the Bear’s Paw Motel, and turning the lights on and off during Mr. Thomas’ English class. 

Most people thought the ghost was to be feared.  Because of this, they began referring to it as Skippy.  They hoped that giving it a silly name would somehow make it more tame, that by naming it, they knew it and could therefore categorize it.  They even took to spray painting a stick figure on the road where the city limit sign stood.  The image had an oversized head and a toothy smile.  Its arms were in the air and the legs were spread, frozen in a jumping-jack.  Underneath it, block letters read SKIPPY!, a heart where the dot of the exclamation mark should have been completed the caricature.  The high school made Skippy the honorary mascot for the state championship football game.  After winning the game, the student counsel proclaimed the following Monday, Skippy Day.  They sold T-shirts with the stick figure on the front and the final score on the back.  Under the score, tiny letters read, Thanks, Skippy.  They sold out of the shirts before lunch.

I was still waking up feeling lighter than when I went to bed.  I wouldn’t feel hungry, but I began fixing myself giant breakfasts.  I couldn’t eat eggs—every time I cracked one open, I felt as if I were on borrowed time—so I cooked bacon, sausage, potatoes, and pancakes from instant batter mixes.  This lightness spread to my possessions.  When driving to work, my car felt as if it was floating above the road.  Rounding corners, I expected to continue straight and crash into a stand of pines.  Eventually, I found some large stones in a field and put them in the trunk to weigh it down.

I bought a map of Pinetop and posted it on my living room wall.  This ghost was here to help and I needed to find it.  I was sure it would be able to fix whatever was causing my leak.  Tiny push pins stuck in the spots where the ghost had been spotted.  As far as I could tell, there was no pattern that could predict where it was going to appear next.  The sightings were becoming more frequent and more detailed.  The last one, in Mr. Thomas’ class, lasted a minute and a half.  Most of the students agreed on what took place.  It only materialized during the brief moments when the lights went out, a strong pine smell filled the room after the encounter, and it seemed angry.

When Mrs. O’Neil, the school’s administrative secretary, came into the bank, I asked her about the incident.  She just rolled her eyes and said, “Kids.”  Apparently Mr. Thomas had neither confirmed nor denied the occurrence.

“If you want to know what I think,” she said, “this whole town is going insane.  Spirits only exist in Heaven or Hell.  If these people went to church every once in a while, they’d know that.” 

In fact, local churches were capitalizing on the ghost atmosphere by putting catchy phrases on their marquees like, “Don’t Get Caught Here Like Skippy.  A Sure-Fire Way To Avoid Limbo For Your Soul.  Sunday, 9 and 10:30 a.m.”

People began to accept the ghost as if it were simply another tourist attraction.  They began attributing inconsequential things to it—like not being able to find their keys, or a pen leaking on a shirt, or a car battery going dead.  I continued my search.  I checked books out from the library.  Books that referenced ghosts as spirits that are bound to the earth because of some unfinished business, or their loved ones needed protection.  Some books took the stance that ghosts were simply evil spirits that stayed around just so they could pick on people.  Most of these theories felt off to me.  This ghost seemed to me to be a reflection of ourselves, or maybe it was here to show us what we really looked like—a mirror that showed us what was on the inside.  Something that illustrated our voids so we could work on filling them.  I didn’t think this ghost was here for its own purposes; it was here for us and it was our job to figure out how it could help us.

On one of my days off, I drove over to White River—a town about 40 minutes away that served as the heart of the Apache Reservation.  I had gotten in the habit of buying my shoes from an Apache man named Albert Kinney.  Albert ran a store that sold a little bit of everything.  It had begun as a gas station, but he had expanded it to sell clothing, shoes, hunting equipment and a small selection of books.  There was also a restaurant off to one side.  I found out about Albert and his store when I was in high school.  I could buy the newest and nicest pair of football and basketball shoes at a fraction of what other stores charged, plus I didn’t have to pay sales tax since he was on the reservation.  I’d been buying shoes from him ever since.  He loved to talk to me about his latest shipment of supplies.  He would also tell me about how he planned on expanding his store even further.

It had been a couple of weeks since the last real sighting and I was beginning to wonder if the town had run the ghost off by not giving it the right kind of attention.  When I pulled into Albert’s store—the sign above the door was hand painted and said, Everything’s Inside—I thought about how inconsequential the store looked.  The building didn’t look like it could house as much as it did.  If I didn’t know what was inside, I would have driven by without ever considering what it had to offer.

Inside, Albert’s wife stood behind a counter that was lined with candy, maps, sunscreen, mittens, and first-aid kits.  She told me that Albert was downstairs and to go on down. 

The stairs were old and felt as if they could give way at any time.  Walking down them, I was reminded of the old gym floor at Blue Ridge.  I wanted to stomp through one of the steps to see if anything would come billowing up.  I wasn’t sure if the step would break, or if my leg would crack apart.

Albert stood on a stool, hanging some shirts over a shoe display on the back wall.  As basements go, this one was huge.  It was deeper than most, which made it feel like it was above ground, and the walls looked like they were farther apart than the upstairs.  Walking down there felt like walking into a different dimension.

“What new stuff do you have for me?”  I startled him and he wobbled on the top step of the stool before regaining his balance.

“Only the finest for my customers.”  He finished hanging the shirts and climbed off the stool.

“When are you going to hire someone to do that for you?” I asked.  Albert had been working here everyday since he had bought the place, 15 years earlier.

“Right, and watch all my profit fly out the window?  People don’t come here for what I sell, they come here because of me.”  He was probably right.  I didn’t drive that far anymore just because of the savings.  I had come to look forward to Albert’s energy, his passion to move beyond who he had been the day before.“What can I interest you in?”  His arms were spread as wide as they could go.  He reminded me of a carnival announcer.

“Got anything that’ll help me catch a ghost?”

“I’d probably sell it if they made one.  So you’re caught up in the hype, too?  I’m surprised.”

“Not like the rest of them,” I said.  I didn’t want to make the ghost into something I could know, I wanted to change myself into the type of person that would comprehend it.

“I don’t know why you’re all so interested in this thing.  There are all kinds of spirits around here.  All this uproar over one.  Doesn’t make sense.”

“Do you just ignore them?  Do you even pay attention anymore?”  We were walking slowly down the long wall that held most the of the NBA jackets.  Every so often, I’d stop and run my finger along the fabric of one of them, or test the smoothness of a zipper.

“Never.  But we learn to live with them.  One of the first stories we tell our kids is about the Dark Man.”

“Dark Man?  Isn’t that a movie?” I asked.

“Dark Man is one of the most powerful entities there is.  He always appears just on the corner of your vision.  But when you try to look at him straight on, he disappears.  If you ever do look right at him, it’s said that you’ll die.”

“Stop screwing with me.  You really believe that?”

“It’s a kid’s game.  But the older people do believe it.  My mom, before she died?  She told me she thought he was waiting for her to look at him.  She wasn’t scared.  And she wasn’t senile either.  I think she really saw him.”  I wondered why it was so easy for the children and elderly to accept something like that, but the rest of us just threw it aside.“I’ll tell you what, though, just because you may die if you look at him, he’s not evil.  Us being alive, or us being dead doesn’t mean anything to them.  It’s like us painting a wall navy blue, or black.  They see it with the same detachment as we see a snake shedding its skin.”

I nodded my head in agreement, even though I wasn’t quite sure what he was talking about.  How could something that caused death not be evil?  Albert walked from one rack of jackets to another, adjusting something every so often.

“I think I’ve outgrown this place.  It may be time to think about moving into something with a little more room.  There’s so much in here, I feel like we’re sinking a little deeper with every shipment.  Either that, or these walls are just going to split open one day.”

I couldn’t wait any longer.  I’d been patient.  The ghost had chosen to appear to other people.  People who had been less reverent, more flippant about its existence.  As I waited, bits of me had seeped out until I began tiptoeing around my apartment in fear of grazing against a desk leg or table corner and losing the little bit I had left inside me.  I knew what was happening, and Albert had been wrong.  They all had.  I had emptied that snake years earlier and now I was being drained too.  I knew where I needed to go.  The ghost would be there.  It had been waiting there the entire time.

The neighborhood that had once been the woods behind my house was quiet and neatly kept.  Most of the houses were owned by families that lived out of town and only came up a couple times each year.  The few houses that had year-round occupants were bunched together toward the end of the street.  When I drove into the neighborhood, the houses seemed to melt away until I saw the woods as they had once been.  I picked my way down the street until I came to the area where I guessed the tree had stood.  I parked my car and began walking slowly past the empty houses, inspecting the trees as I went.  After passing a few houses, I saw the tree.  It had grown over the years, but its shape remained the same.  The same gnarled branches that allowed me to climb it all those years ago still hung low to the ground as if there were an invisible weight pressing them down.

I expected the sky to cloud over and blot out the sun, but it didn’t.  I was sure I would have been able to see the ghost at night, sitting on one of the branches, beckoning me closer.  As I approached the tree, I felt the strange weight of the snake in my hand.  The ground around the tree wasn’t landscaped.  It looked the same as it had the last time I was there.  I circled the tree, trying to remember from which direction I had approached.  Once, twice, on the third time I stopped where two giant roots split the trunk before they dug into the ground.  There, in the hollow between the them, lay three round stones in an outline of where the snake had been coiled.

I picked up the stones and began to climb the tree.  The ghost had emptied my body so I could be filled with something that would last long after the skin crumbled away.  Once I got to the branch where I had envisioned the ghost, I shimmied about halfway out.  I sat there, my legs dangling from the limb, the stones cradled in the palm of my hand. 

  
 

Jeffrey Stevenson lives in Tucson, Arizona, where he received his creative writing MFA from the University of Arizona in 2006. In March, he and his wife welcomed their first son. "Stones" is part of a linked collection of short stories set in Pinetop, Arizona (where Jeffrey grew up).  He is currently finishing work on his first novel.
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