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Don’t You Like It Here?

A Christmas ghost story.

While traveling home, James looked over his shoulder, just to stretch his neck. His eyes darted up and down the stone path behind him, which was slightly moist. He hadn’t walked this way but a handful of times over the summer. The night was humid, but otherwise temperate with a gusty breeze, carrying early hints of fall. The trail was lit by endless bronze lamp posts, their green patina hidden by shadow and the warmth of orange glow. The path was surrounded by oak trees which must have been hundreds of years old, so gigantic and gnarled were their branches.

James always liked walking home from school after swimming. He could drive, but during the school year, he often caught a ride with his friends in the morning and walked home afterwards. Now that it was summer break, he would jog to the high school, swim for an hour or two, then walk back home. He did this a couple of times a week to stay in shape. He had to be competitive or risk losing his athletic scholarship after his first year of college.

Taking the direct route home from the school, it was a short walk of just over a mile. Tonight, he took the longer two-mile trail that put him by Evergreen Park, which sat about halfway between his home and the school. He knew that getting home late would upset his parents, but he also knew that he would be moving out soon, and he wanted to see the park once more before leaving.

The wind picked up and battered the oak branches, leaves rustling and trunks swaying. James loved feeling the seasons changing as summer passed in to fall, loved the prospect of a storm heralding in the new season, loved walking alone with hope in the future before him. He even loved the bittersweet feeling he got at the thought of leaving home for another state.


James turned his attention back to the trail ahead. He could have sworn the wind carried the voice of someone who was calling for him. The voice was familiar, even boringly so, and yet he couldn’t quite place it. It reminded him of the nagging voice of a wife, if only he had one. Or maybe it was his mother.


This time, the voice in the wind took more shape. James saw the movement of a shadow ahead of him. There was a figure on the right side of the warmly lit trail, just inside the entrance to Evergreen Park. He cautiously approached the park entrance, still trying to make out who it was.

“James, I knew it was you!” The figure moved, jumping off one of the half-buried tractor tires that served as a playground feature for children. Long hair flowed behind her as she jumped, dark as the night.

“Cindy?” James asked, the voice now obvious. Without thinking, he pushed his hand across his dried-out hair.

“Of course! Come here,” she responded in her always-enthusiastic tone. You could hear her smiling through the words she spoke.

“I haven’t seen you in forever,” James said in surprise. “What are you doing here?”

James walked through the park entrance, which was wide and surrounded by stone monuments, the left side inscribed with the park’s name on wooden slats. He could see Cindy in full view under the orange light. She looked just like he remembered, thin with long legs, big blue eyes, dark brown hair, a smattering of freckles on her nose and cheeks, and a smile on her face, which always seemed to bear an expression of eagerness.

“I didn’t feel like going home, not with weather like this. You can tell fall is just around the corner,” she responded, flinging her arms out for emphasis.

James looked just behind her at the rest of the park, warmly lit, surrounded by oak and pine trees. Beside the buried tractor tires were some wooden swings, a seesaw, a large tire swing hanging from the branch of an old oak, and a metal jungle gym in the back. The creek ran just beyond the back side of the park, and James could see the sparks of a few dozen fireflies in the unlit creek-side woods. James watched the fireflies for a moment, being carried this way and that by the sporadic wind gusts.

Cindy leaned back against the tractor tire. Her hair hung halfway down her back. She held her hands behind her and began pushing herself forward and letting herself fall back toward the tire, then catching herself and doing it over again.

“You were just out here at the park by yourself?” James asked.

“I was out for a walk and stopped by. I thought everyone else was already gone,” Cindy explained. “Why are you here?”

“I was on my way home from the school,” James answered. “I wanted to see the park again before leaving.”

James had been coming to this park for as long as he could remember. It was a small park, no bigger than half a football field, and close to his house. When he was young, his mother would bring him here. Once he was in junior high, he would ride his bike here to meet up with friends. He had seen Cindy here many times before too, but this was the first time in the last year or so.

“What were you doing at the school?” Cindy asked.

“Swimming. I have to stay in shape or I can kiss college goodbye,” James said without too much concern, knowing he was a strong swimmer.

James wasn’t the strongest swimmer on his team, but he was close to it, and he was by far the best sprinter. His favorite event was the 100-meter freestyle, but he would have been better at the 50-meter, if it were offered. His sprinting was doubtlessly why he was receiving an athletic scholarship to a school that was well regarded, though not quite prestigious.

“Why is that? You mean you’ll lose your scholarship?” Cindy asked.

“Yeah. And if I lose that, I’ll probably have to transfer to an in-state school.”

“The horror,” Cindy joked. “But really, do they just let you go swimming at the school at night?”

James laughed. “Technically anyone can go swim on weekdays. But coach gave a few of us keys so we could go in and practice after hours.”

“That’s trusting,” Cindy remarked.

“Yeah, I guess so,” James replied, fidgeting with the key in his pocket.

“Well, how was it?”

“My swim? It was fine,” James said.

It was the last time he ever planned to swim at the high school. Tonight, no one else had joined him. Most of his teammates were also leaving for college, if they hadn’t already, or they simply wished to enjoy their last week or two of summer break. And he didn’t associate with the younger classmen whom he might have convinced to go with him. In truth, he wanted to swim alone tonight. It gave him a chance to say goodbye. He thought about the fact that to him, the pool would soon just be a memory. With each lap, he wondered if it was already becoming one. He imagined the pool’s water evaporating, never to be replaced, never again to hold him suspended above the hard plaster flooring. Tonight, the chlorine had smelled stronger than usual, so strong he thought his nose might bleed, and his hair was left stiff and dry. All of this pushed him to swim harder.

“No, it was good,” he corrected himself.

“Who else was there?” Cindy inquired.

“No one.”

“You swam by yourself?”

“Yeah,” James said. “Most everyone else is already gone.”

“And when are you leaving?” Cindy asked.

“On Friday,” James said, “And classes start next week.”

“That’s soon.”

“Yeah. Anyway, how’s your summer been?”

James hadn’t seen Cindy since the last day of high school, not counting her walk across the stage at graduation. The last few times he had seen her, he tried to act normal around her, the way he always had before. He didn’t want her to suspect that he had any romantic interest in her, an interest which had become more pronounced over the last half of his last year of high school. He often went so far as to disregard his feelings altogether. He had known Cindy through all of high school and had never had any interest in her before. There was no reason to start now. Nothing had changed. It was too late anyway. The summer was over and he was leaving.

“My summer’s been way too short,” Cindy replied. “It feels like it just started, and now everyone’s about to be gone.”

“Tell me about it,” James agreed. “But you’re not leaving.”

James knew that Cindy was planning to go to the local community college next year. He wasn’t sure what kept her from going to a real college. She was in honors classes, she had good grades, she played violin in the orchestra, and her family, to James’s knowledge, wasn’t poor.

“Nope. Someone has to hold this place down,” Cindy said.

“But really,” James said, “Why are you staying? Don’t you want to get out of here?”

Cindy stopped pushing herself back and forth against the tractor tire and stood still.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said, smiling. “Maybe I was just hoping that if I stayed, someone else would too. Or at least I could be the reason they came back.”

Cindy looked up at James with her blue eyes and batted her lashes at him. James felt his face start to flush. He knew she was joking, playing the part of a helpless small-town girl. But he also feared that she might suspect his feelings, and that she was trying to confirm her suspicions by watching his response. On the other hand, Cindy flirted with everyone. It was part of her charm. But charming as it was, it also made her enigmatic. James was glad that the lights were dim enough that any change in the color of his face would be hidden.

“I’m sure I’ll see you next summer. We should make it a point to hang out,” James offered as nonchalantly as he could.

“Like we did this summer?” Cindy said, looking at James out of the corner of her eye.

James was caught off guard, and he hurried to find an excuse. “This summer I was busy with swimming, and packing, and—” He couldn’t think of any other compelling reasons.

Cindy let out a carefree laugh and said “You’re not a very good liar.”

When Cindy saw through him, James liked her the more for it, and the more aloof she acted, the more interested in her he became. The truth was that James had been trying to loosen his ties with his home in anticipation of being away next year. He had spent his time training for the swim team, finalizing his classes, packing, and planning. He had wasted plenty of days lazing about with his friends too, but his mind was often on college. He would catch himself feeling melancholic about leaving the city where he grew up, but he knew he shouldn’t grow more attached to it, and especially not to her.

“Look, I really can’t stay out. I’m already late getting home. I don’t want my parents to kill me,” James said.

“I was just joking with you,” said Cindy.

“I know, but I really have to get back home,” James said.

“Why? Because of your parents? You’re about to leave the state,” Cindy said. “They won’t mind if you’re out a little late one night, will they?”

The breeze whipped up again, still carrying the faint portend of summer’s end mixed with the chance of a storm. James looked again at Cindy. She was beautiful. She belonged here, in this park, leaning against that tractor tire, her long hair flowing in the wind. He hoped she would still be standing right there when he came back next summer. He looked around at the playground equipment, considering what to say.

“Well, don’t let me stop you from getting home,” Cindy said playfully and insincerely, before James had a chance to respond.

James watched as she climbed back onto the tire and sat down. He wondered how long she planned to stay perched there.

“Go on,” Cindy said with a big smile on her face, shooing James off in the direction of home.

“What, you’re just going to sit on that tire by yourself in the dark?” James laughed.

“Why not?”

“Well, it’s insane. And it will probably rain on you. C’mon, why don’t we walk home?”

Cindy didn’t live far from James. In fact, her neighborhood was connected to his, so her house was directly on his way home. If he walked with her all the way to her front door, it would add six minutes to his walk at the most. But he wouldn’t walk her to her front door because that would be abnormal for him. He had always let her turn off and walk a couple of streets alone. There was no reason to do it any other way.

“No need to walk me home,” Cindy responded. “I don’t feel like being at home, doing nothing. It’s not very late anyway.”

James agreed that it wasn’t very late. He guessed it was probably almost nine o’clock. He was already too late for dinner with his parents, but he knew there were sure to be leftovers in the fridge. If he were to get home right now, his parents would most likely be watching a couple of shows before bed. But if he didn’t get home until after they went to sleep, James imagined his mom would be worried all night. She might even stay up until he arrived. And his dad would reprimand him in the morning. After all, James was still living under their roof and therefore still subject to their rules, a fact that his father was sure to reiterate.

Realizing that Cindy was not going to be convinced otherwise, James climbed up the tire just across from her and stood atop it. He figured he could spare ten more minutes.

“I knew you couldn’t just leave me here, alone in the dark,” Cindy teased.

Though he liked them, James was trying his best to ignore Cindy’s insinuations. “I’m going to have to leave in ten minutes, it’s up to you whether you stay here in the dark or walk home.”

“I have a better idea,” Cindy said in a tone full of mischief.

Cindy was letting the statement linger in the air, as if she wanted James to figure it out. But he was coming up short. All he knew was that, for all her idea was, it was probably not good.

After a few moments, Cindy added “Why don’t we go swimming at the school?”

James tensed up. He knew the idea was terrible, yet he was excited at the thought of it. Cindy sat kicking her legs back and forth, her heels dipping into the hole of the tire she was sitting on. She was smiling and looking at James eagerly.

James knew that all it would take was his agreement, and the two would be walking back toward the empty school with the vacant parking lot, lit only by security lights that were always on. They would go through the side entrance closest to the athletic wing, walk down the hallway where, during the school year, hundreds of students would pass from class to class, walk past the trophy cases, and finally James would unlock the door into the natatorium, where the pool was now covered in darkness and evaporating.

Part of the trouble was that James had already put the school behind him. Tonight’s swim was his final sendoff. It would ruin that finality if he were to go back and swim around for fun. He suspected that by the time they arrived, the pool wouldn’t even be there at all. It would just be a humid room with a giant pit that reeked of chemicals. And getting home that late would make his parents more than a little upset. If his coach ever found out, he would be furious. Not to mention James was starving.

But James couldn’t deny the thrill that came with the thought of swimming with Cindy. In doing so, he might reveal his feelings toward her, but by proposing the idea, James figured that she was admitting she was open to it. Even still, James also knew that in the best case, nothing lasting could come of it, not this summer anyway. He wasn’t sure yet what to do.

“Do you have a swimsuit?” He asked, biding his time.

“I can swim in my clothes.”

“And how will you dry off? Your walk home will be miserable.”

“I’ll use your towel.”

“Then what will I use? Plus, it’s already damp.”

“That’s fine. Maybe it will be raining by then anyway.”

James sat down atop his tire. Cindy was ruining all of his halfhearted excuses. And he didn’t want to look like a child by invoking a fear of his parents. Nor did he want to look like a coward by invoking a fear of his coach. He certainly didn’t want to try and explain how the pool was already just a memory.

“Do you even know how to swim?” He asked her jokingly.

“I mean, I couldn’t swim on a team like you, but…”

“Why do you say that?” James asked.

“Say what?

“That you couldn’t swim on a team.”

“Oh, my hands are too small,” Cindy replied.

James laughed.

“I’m serious!” she exclaimed.

“Here, let me see,” James said, holding his right palm up, out toward her.

Cindy returned the gesture, extending her arm out over the chasm below the tires and placing her hand in James’, palm faces touching. Compared to his dried-out hands, hers felt delicate and soft. James had the urge to clasp his fingers around hers. But no sooner had their hands touched than Cindy’s face went bone white. In fact, for a moment the entire park was exposed in a blinding flash. A few seconds later came the crash of thunder. Cindy let out a short scream.

“I think that’s our sign to get home,” James said, hopping off his tire.

“No way, the night is just getting fun!” Cindy jumped to the ground and stood close to James. She was looking out over the back of the park, toward where more lightning had just flashed. The treetops were starting to whip violently in the suddenly powerful gusts. The wind became so strong that James thought heard the sound of wood cracking near the creek.

“Don’t you love this?” Cindy yelled over the sound of wind and trees and leaves blowing and metallic playground equipment being knocked together somewhere. More thunder crashed, and Cindy screamed again, this time grabbing James’s arm.

James did indeed love this. He loved everything about this. He loved standing here with the girl whom he did not want to get attached to on the night of his sendoff to high school. He had high hopes for his future. He had a bittersweet feeling toward the place that he was leaving. And in the air was the exciting proposition to do something truly foolish, defying his parents’ wishes and his coach’s orders, to return to the place he had already said goodbye to.

“Yes,” James responded loudly enough to hear over the sound of the wind and rumbling thunder.

Maybe it was because she had grabbed his arm so tightly. He felt her body pressed close to his, felt the warmth of her, he could even smell her hair. Perhaps it was the exciting proposition to go swimming. Or maybe it was the approaching storm. Whatever it was, James abandoned his resolve to hide his feelings. He placed his free arm around her shoulders, pulling her in closer.

“Yes, this is great,” he said.

James wished he could bottle up everything that was happening right now and hold it forever. He wondered if Cindy would understand this. To move in any of the conflicting directions would be to ruin the moment. He didn’t want to go back to the school, he didn’t want to go home just yet, and he knew he couldn’t stay here. It was in this tension, delicately balanced and destined to crumble, that he wanted to be.

Cindy looked up into James’ eyes, as if she understood all his thoughts.

“Kiss me,” Cindy said.

James struggled to breath regularly, and his heart started racing. He felt a painful longing to kiss her. He leaned toward her in obedience to so gentle a command. He closed his eyes and let gravity overtake him. And as he was falling, a raindrop hit him on the forehead. The drop ran down his face and past his nose. James smelled chlorine. His right arm braced against her shoulder. He loosened his grasp and put some distance between himself and her.

“Any second now it’s going to start pouring on us,” James said. “You should be home. I need to be home too. We can’t do this now. Not yet.”

“What do you mean ‘not yet’?” Cindy asked in a tone of bewilderment.

James, for his part, wasn’t entirely sure what he meant. He was surprised that he had stopped himself at all.

“I mean,” James thought for a moment, though his mind was not operating clearly, “I think we should wait until next summer. I’ll come back from school, and then we can try this.”

Cindy was looking at the ground. James was upset that he had pulled her closer to him, betraying his resolve. Now nothing between the two was hidden. Several moments passed. The wind gusts had gone still. The air was thick and cool. A few remaining fireflies sparked in the woods behind the park.

“I’ll be here next summer,” Cindy said at last, her tone carrying a hint of sadness, “but how do I know you will?”

“I’ll be back, too,” James reiterated.

“But what if you’re not? What if you decide to stay on campus? Or find a girlfriend?”

“What if you find a boyfriend?” James responded.

“How about we agree to wait for each other until you come back next summer,” Cindy suggested.

“Ok,” James said.

“Do you promise?” Cindy asked.

It was easy to promise something in the excitement of a strange night, but James wondered how he would feel about it when he woke in morning, where things would be standard and covered in daylight. For his faults, James prided himself on living up to his commitments. He looked again at Cindy. He couldn’t imagine himself meeting someone that he wanted more than her.

“Yes,” he said.

Cindy walked away from James, through the middle of the buried tractor tires which were arranged in a lopsided circle. She approached the tire furthest from where James stood, near the large oak tree with the tire swing hanging from its branches. Reaching under the lip of the tire, she grabbed something. After walking back to James, she extended the object toward him. James could see that Cindy held a knife with the blade end pointed at him.

“Prove it,” Cindy said. “Go carve our initials into the tree.”

The tree she meant was the large oak tree. It was where local couples enshrined, and to an extent publicized, their relationships. The carvings in the tree were common knowledge, though James didn’t know that there was a knife hidden under the far tire. He took the knife from her.

“Are you serious?” he asked, turning the knife around so that he was no longer holding it by the bladed end. James looked at Cindy, expecting her to start laughing. But Cindy wasn’t laughing, or even smiling.

“We aren’t dating,” James said.

“If you won’t do it,” Cindy responded, “I can’t give you my word that I’ll wait for you.”

James nodded and took a few steps toward the tree.


James turned around.

“Make it say, ‘C and J forever’.”

James took several more steps toward the giant tree. He saw decades of initials and markings in the rough bark. Hundreds of couples with hundreds of stories whose plots had, at one point, all coalesced here, at the grand oak tree. His own parents, he was told, had left their mark somewhere on the tree, now covered by time and subsequent generations of young romance. James hesitated, twirling the knife in his hands.

“What’s the matter?” Cindy asked.

“I’m not sure,” he said. Cindy was acting strange, desperate even.

“Don’t you like it here with me?”

James thought about how to answer her. “Of course,” he said at last, turning around to face her. “But I’m worried that we’re both just… caught up in the moment. Earlier, I was thinking about how I wanted this night to last forever. But it can’t. Tomorrow is just going to be a normal day.”

“But tonight can last,” Cindy said. “It’s still early. Carve our initials and then we can go swimming.”

James knew that the night was still young. But it was quickly becoming too late to go home without trouble. And if the two went to the pool, he didn’t think he wouldn’t be able to restrain himself from her any longer.

“We’ll regret it in the morning,” James said.

“Carve our initials,” Cindy pleaded, “and tonight will never end.”

What Cindy said didn’t make sense, but James was struck by how he believed every word of it. If he plunged the knife into the tree and carved their initials, this night would last forever. It was that simple. The moment before a kiss, the calm before a storm, the last day of summer, all this height of anticipation would be his.

More lightning illuminated the park. For a moment, James saw in the jungle gym a chaotic wreck of twisted metal with rust pushing through old and chipping paint. Tires were strewn about the frame, and the tree before him stood scarred and weeping. He smelled the musty earth and a sharp scent of iron, as if the tree itself was bleeding from all the cuts and lashings it had been given over the generations. The fireflies rose like embers from Cindy, and James saw that the knife in his hand was bloodied and dripping. Surrounding the park was a great storm, and he was right in its eye.

James stared at Cindy, into her deep blue eyes, and longed for her. He thought of the school, and longed to be back, swimming in the full vigor of his youth. He thought of his future, and longed for the feeling of an uncertain, yet optimistic outlook. He heard the wind picking back up, and longed to feel the rush of excitement that a late summer storm brought him. He longed for everything this night was, and yet…

James let the knife slip from his hand and stick into the ground. He knew that with the knife also slipped Cindy, whom he would never hold again, and this night, which like the pool was sure to evaporate, was already evaporating.

“It’s too late. I have to get home. You should too. You sure I can’t walk you?”

Cindy didn’t respond. James knew that she wasn’t going to leave the park with him, and he was sure that she wasn’t going to wait for him any longer.

“I’m glad I got to see you again,” he said.

With another crack of thunder, the heavens opened and rain began falling all over Evergreen Park. James saw Cindy leaning against the tractor tire, a black outline with long legs and long hair. He turned his gaze back to the stone path and began his walk home under the warm light of endless lampposts.