Author's Note: I'd appreciate any advice on how to improve this story, but I'd especially appreciate advice on how to improve the ending. I wrote this all in a single day, so the ending is more than a little rushed. I'd also love to change Damien's last name, but I'm still not entirely sure what I should change it to - I just want it to sound ominous yet dignified.
The Boy Who Talked to No One
When Damien Prescott first came to school, we all knew he was different.
The first time anyone found him lurking in the hallways was the beginning of sophomore year. There was never any formal announcement in our classes about the newest student in our grade, but we all knew he was there. We whispered about him in the hallways, in the classrooms, and even when he was only a couple of feet away. Justifying it was easy - Damien just didn’t feel right. He wore dark clothes, wrote little messages in the corners of his notebooks, and always seemed to be looking somewhere beyond you. We had goths. We had nerds. We had classmates who weren’t always mentally there. But Damien was all of these things together, and something more.
We didn’t like that something more.
My friends and I liked to talk about him in the hallways before class started every morning. It had become a tradition by accident: Piper mentioned him one day in passing, and soon we began to recount our morning run-ins with him. Luna saw him hanging out by the broken boy’s bathroom. It hadn’t been used in years after one of the pipes broke, but the school never got around to fixing it. Everyone - even new students like Damien - knew that it wasn’t really supposed to be used. When Bella bumped into him in the hallway, he apologized to her. But he was staring past her head the entire time, and didn’t even seem to notice when she gave him a funny look while walking away. Mari always saw him sitting alone at lunch; he had a focused expression on his face, even though all he was doing was eating a sandwich.
Sometimes we traded stories we heard from our classmates. Sometimes we talked about what we had heard teachers say when they thought no one was paying attention. Sharing their unease made all of the gossip feel better. If teachers gave each other nervous looks when they saw Damien in mostly empty hallways, we could, too.
I usually just listened.
I didn’t see Damien that much. We had never had any classes together, and he rarely attended school events. I knew everything I needed to know about him from my friends, but one day I became the expert on him by chance. It wasn’t really a day - if anything, it was a night. I had been volunteering at the parent-teacher conferences. The teacher I was assisting had one of the longest lists of conferences. By the time that we finally finished, night had already fallen. I remember glancing out the window and feeling my stomach twist and turn when I saw how dark the empty parking lot outside was. My house was only a short distance away, but my parents had always stressed the dangers of the darkness. I was sixteen and considered myself an adult in everything but age, but I still felt a bit of childish fear at making the journey alone.
I said good night to my teacher and left the building.
I had only taken one step out from underneath the overhang when I saw Damien. A chill ran up my spine - a cliche thing to say, but something that was all too true. He was standing underneath an old, decrepit tree the school had been talking about taking down for years. Red and orange coated the ground around his feet; the tree had already lost all of its leaves. Damien was leaning up against the gnarled bark with an incredibly serious expression on his face. The swaying branches above him cast dancing shadows on his face as the moon drifted in and out behind a hazy layer of clouds.
I knew it had to be Damien. There wasn’t any doubt in my mind. He matched every story I had heard, and every little glimpse I had caught of him in the hallways. I didn’t know why he was standing underneath the tree, but I knew that my fear of going home alone had just gained a very real reason: Damien was the only one outside.
I took a nervous gulp of air.
I kept walking.
Each step felt like an eternity as I counted them off in my head. But I had to count them - it was the only distraction I had from the metaphorical monster under the metaphorical bed. I let myself glance up occasionally to see if Damien had noticed me leaving the building, but he wasn’t looking at me. It was just like what Bella had said: he always was staring somewhere he shouldn’t have been. He was staring off to the side, his head tilted ever so slightly as he kept that serious expression on his face.
I was almost at the other side of the road that led away from the school.
I could make it-
I didn’t hear the words. I didn’t want to. I just wanted to be anywhere but in that empty school parking lot, and anywhere away from Damien. But even if I couldn’t clear make out what he was saying, I still heard his voice: soft, somewhat deep and eerily calm. It was rude to walk away, but I kept walking. It was only when I heard him speak again that I turned - I knew I couldn’t keep pretending that I hadn’t heard him speak at all.
But when I turned, he wasn’t looking at me.
He was still staring at the spot.
Damien hadn’t noticed me. I knew that much. We had never made eye contact. He hadn’t even looked in my direction. I searched his ears for earbuds, and his hands for a phone. He didn’t have either.
Damien wasn’t talking to anyone.
He was talking to thin air.
I stared at him.
He didn’t stare at me.
Every limb in my body was screaming for me to run, but I couldn’t find the strength to. I was frozen in my fear. We had always known Damien was different. That wasn’t debatable. But we had never been able to put a reason to why. We had always needed something more - something that truly showed us we were all right in whispering about him.
Damien just kept talking. He’d pause, occasionally, but then he’d open his mouth again and seemingly continue from where he had left off. He seemed serious, and troubled, and even a little upset.
Then my teacher emerged from the building.
Damien abruptly fell silent.
No longer paralyzed by the sight of him talking to someone who wasn’t there, I darted off towards my house. My heart was pounding in my ears by the time I slammed the door to my bedroom shut, and I couldn’t get his unclear whispers out of my head.
Needless to say, I didn’t sleep that night.
I looked terrible that next day. My friends asked me what had happened. I told them as much as I could, but I kept falling silent every time I thought too much about what I had seen. They all proclaimed how creeped out they were by him and by my story - promising that they would protect me if Damien and I were ever in the same room. But the story didn’t just stay within my group of friends. By the end of the day, it had reached all of their friends. By the end of the week, the grade. By the start of the next week, the entire school.
And I still could barely sleep.
People kept asking me my story. I would tell it to them as well as I remembered it, but I found myself changing up parts here and there. The story got so boring after awhile. It wasn’t nearly as terrifying when told in the light of the old, loud hallways. I added in Damien looking at me. I added in muttered threats. Sometimes I wasn’t the one adding them in - I’d just confirm what people asked me.
Maybe what happened next was some kind of karma.
It was nearly three weeks after the conferences. School had just ended for the day. My friends were boarding their buses and heading for their cars, but all I was focused on was going home and getting a nap in. It was easier sleeping in the day than in the night. I was always careful walking across the road. Overeager students and bus drivers always sped across it. On most days, I avoided it by looking both ways and running across.
But I was sluggish from all of my sleepless nights.
And I forgot to look.
A bus came rushing down the road. I didn’t really have time to register the blur of yellow slamming into me. I’m not really sure what happened next - I didn’t really feel the pain. The last thing I saw during the collision was Damien staring at me from the other side of the road, a look that I couldn’t quite describe on his face as I died.
But death doesn’t always work as advertised.
I died on the pavement. That much is clear. But I wasn’t gone when I died; I wasn’t whisked off to any afterlife. I found myself as a ghost, standing beside the remains of what had been my body. I’ll spare you the darker side to this part of my story - I won’t describe how hard it was watching my parents cry over my body when they saw it, how strange it was to be mourned by a school that, in retrospect, knew so little about me, and how heartbreaking it was to see my own coffin lowered into the ground.
I wandered a lot those first few weeks.
It was frustrating not being noticed. Not being seen. I started noticing other ghosts, too, but interacting with them wasn’t like interacting with the people I had grown up with. They didn’t know me. Some weren’t even from my own time - they had died decades or even a hundred years before. But, throughout it all, I made sure to avoid the school. I couldn’t clearly remember the bus, and I couldn’t clearly remember the pain.
But I remembered Damien.
Damien, however, has the habit of lurking where you least want him to, and I really shouldn’t have been surprised that the town cemetery was one of his favorite haunts. I had been watching people walk by for the past hour when he suddenly appeared out of nowhere. Leaning against one of the graves, I watched as he surveyed the area. I felt a little afraid when I realized he was there, but it wasn’t like he could see me - I could take solace in that.
Until he did.
Damien looked right at me.
I thought it was a trick of the light. I hoped it was a trick of the light. But then he was walking across the thin layer of snow on the ground, that look I could never describe on his face. It was only when he was standing right in front of me that I finally got it: it was a strange mix of pity and understanding.
“Hi,” he said. “I’ve been looking for you.”
I glanced around to see who he was talking to - sure that the graveyard had been empty except for us - but stopped when I heard him give a short little laugh.
I turned and stared at him.
“I’m sorry,” he apologized. He wrung his hands together, an apologetic expression replacing his previous one. “It’s just that you always do that.”
I kept staring.
He let out a quiet sigh and slipped his hands into his pockets. He tilted his head to the side like I had seen him do weeks ago - just a slight little, almost childlike little tilt. “I can see you,” he said. “You being ghosts. I have since I was little. That’s why I was looking for you - I saw your death, and…”
He looked me over.
A conversation floated in on the wind from the road that lay outside of the cemetery, but Damien didn't seem to notice. He didn't even look back. I had been disturbed in the parking lot when he hadn't looked my way, but now I was glad he wasn't paying attention to the world around him - I desperately craved his attention.
“I knew you were a ghost,” Damien said. “I saw you at the crash.”
I finally found my voice.
“I saw you, too,” I said. I straightened a bit, my back no longer touching the grave behind me. “You were staring at me.”
“I wanted to say something,” he replied. He took a step closer. I could see his breath in the air “But death is always traumatic, and I didn’t want to scare you anymore than you already were.”
I snorted. “You already did that.”
He gave a small smile. “I know.”I furrowed my brow.
“I saw you run away that night,” he admitted when he noticed my confused - and then horrified - expression. “Last month. I heard the story in school, too, so I guessed you were the one who shared it.”
There was a sinking feeling in my gut.
We had always thought he was oblivious to the things that we said, but I was beginning to realize that Damien had observed more about us than we had ever observed about him. My ghostly skin paled, and I dug my fingers into the palms of my hands.
“I’m sorry,” I managed to get out. “I-I didn’t…”
I let out a quiet sigh, a breath forming in front of my lips that only Damien and I could see. We both knew that an apology didn’t quite cut it, but I like to think that he at least appreciated the attempt. His small smile returned, and he took a step closer to me.
“Let’s start over,” he said.
Then he held his hand out.
I stared down at it.
“My hand would go through yours,” I pointed out.
“It’s okay,” he reassured me. “It’s the thought that counts, isn’t it?”
I looked up again.
Behind him, I could see my friends passing by the cemetery. I couldn’t remember the last time they had visited the grave I had been lingering by, but I was startled to realize that I didn’t really mind. Their gazes traveled over through the open gate and rows of graves, eventually landing on Damien. I already knew they’d be talking about seeing him lurking in the cemetery the next day at their lockers.
My hand went through his.
“I’m ready for a new start,” I agreed.
Damien’s hand returned to his side, and he gave me a genuine grin.
“Do you want to come to my house?” he asked. “I’m getting a little cold.”
I nodded. “I could use a change of scenery.”
Then the boy who talked to no one and I departed from the graveyard, walking past my former classmates and friends into the winter twilight of the streets beyond.