Bourbon Penn 10


by Valerie E. Polichar

When they tell me Jimmy walks by my side, it means the same thing as when they say God walks by my side or Jesus wants me for a sunbeam: nothing. Though honestly, Jesus seems more likely than Katie's little brother—mittens on his hands, as they tell me, a scarf around his neck, just the way he looked when he disappeared.

It's not a cold winter, or so folks say. But I couldn't tell any real difference between this January and the one nine years ago, when I was two and a half, the first winter I really remember. I had a big pink snowsuit and I cried because I couldn't get my feet out of a snowdrift, which was probably a few inches deep. So now I've got a green plaid-lined jacket instead of a snowsuit, but the snow's still a few inches deep and my nose is still red and raw when I get inside. And it's cold enough, if you're a little boy and you don't come home the first day of school after the winter holidays.

The thing is, no one else has been upset, not really. Oh, Mrs. Davies cried a bit that first week, and again when they found Jimmy's watch cap at the end of the drive, a big-kid navy cap, not the kind with animal ears the other six-year-olds are sporting. But it's been almost a month now, and she just looks at the space next to me as if I'm not there. And Katie doesn't want to play with me so much anymore. She says it's no fun with her little brother always hanging around.

But there's no one next to me. I feel around with my hands, kick sideways with my leg, look out of just the corner of my eye. I try whipping my head to the left real fast just to see if I can catch something. Nope. It feels like everyone's gone crazy except me. Except. Except they treat me like I'm the one who's crazy. "You don't have to pretend he's not there, honey," my mother told me. "Be nice to the poor boy. He's been through a lot. He looks up to you." She said it in all seriousness, and when I said, "But Mom, he's dead," she looked me right in the eye and said, "Eden, that's not very nice."

I'm not very nice.

I have green boots because I begged Mom for them in J.C Penney last fall, even though they cost five dollars more than red or blue. They have plaid lining so they match my jacket, but it's kind of a secret because no one can see the lining when I'm wearing them. But it makes me happy. When Katie got blue boots I showed her the lining of mine. It made her sad because the lining of hers was just plain grey. I knew it would make her sad and I showed her anyway.

That was before her brother died, or ran away, or whatever happened. Maybe he got killed. Maybe some bad man took him. We'll never know now because nobody around here cares. He's still there for them. Standing right here next to me. Why me? I was never particularly nice to Jimmy, though I guess I wasn't particularly mean either. I could have been meaner. I didn't notice him much. He was a quiet kid and he was better than most folks' little brothers about following me and Katie around when we wanted to talk. Until now, I guess.

Aren't ghosts meant to hang around when they have unfinished business with the living? If that's the reason, you'd think there'd be a lot more of them around. When my grandpa died, Mom said it was a shame because he wasn't done yet. He was only 59, and nobody's seen him standing next to anyone that I know of.

I've read stories where ghosts come back because they want someone to figure out why they died. But Jimmy's not doing that. He's stopping folks from finding it out, if anything. The sheriff's completely forgotten he ever got a Missing Persons report. I asked him about it and he thought I was making a joke, but then again he was looking right at Jimmy when I asked him. I wish I knew a way to hide him so people only saw me. I wish I were able to be really alone.

I am really alone, though. When I asked Katie what I should do about her little brother following me around all the time, she said, "You should talk to him. He likes you." She thinks I'm just being rude, of course. But I'm not talking to someone who's not there and who I don't believe in. Sometimes I walk down the hall real close on the left side, even brushing the wall with my shoulder, trying to dislodge him, but it never works. I even slammed the door right next to my side once. Of course I didn't slam the door on Jimmy, because he's not there. I felt a little uncomfortable after I did that, though, so I didn't try it again.

When I walk home from school I try to take different routes to see if I can figure out where Jimmy went, since no one else is looking. I've looked behind a few folks' sheds for traces. I know I won't find footprints, because it's snowed a few times since then, but I dig around a little to see if there are any scraps of fabric or maybe a dropped paper from school. It'll be more clear in the spring but it'll probably be too late by then. It's too late now, of course, but I have to look anyway. In plenty of the detective stories I read, the girl is solving really cold case mysteries. Not cold like snow—I mean the trail's gone cold and everyone's given up. Just like with Jimmy, except in the books, everyone always believes the person is really gone.

My mom thinks maybe I need to talk to a doctor. She says I've been acting funny since school started again and she worries about me. I think the doctor will just wonder why I'm bringing Jimmy into the exam room with me. Everyone can see him, even the principal at school, and the guidance counselor too—she told me it was nice I was making friends. No one even asks me what a six-year-old kid is doing at a middle school. Adults can be so stupid sometimes. But of course in my case it's the kids, too.

Friday I went back behind Mr. Akehorn's house. I wouldn't normally go in someone's back yard—might get caught, especially if it's someone who doesn't have kids like Mr. A. But there was something odd about his side yard. I'd noticed it earlier in the week and it was bugging me. It looked like he hadn't put his trash out in a while—there was something piled up higher than the height of the gate, looked like a big garbage bag. I thought maybe there was a clue there.

I didn't want to open the gate right by the big bag. I thought, what if it's a coffin and Jimmy's body is in there and it falls out? But there was another gate into Mr. A's yard, and I only know it because he sometimes paid me a dollar to pick dandelions on his lawn in the summer. Mom says there's no point in picking dandelions, it's a stupid way to prevent weeds because even though it stops the flower from setting seeds, the stupid plant still stays in the lawn, ready to make more dandelions. But I could use the money and why do I care what his lawn looked like?

The other gate was hidden behind the big tree at the corner of his house. If you didn't know it was there you might not look. You have to kind of edge around the tree to get to it, but it works just fine and it has the bonus that there aren't any windows on that side of the house. Mr. A's car was gone, but just in case, I wanted a little extra cover. I slipped around the back of the house and peered in the kitchen window. You could see through into the living room from there and everything looked quiet, so I walked across the patio to the other side of the house.

The side yard here was gated on both ends, but the gate to the yard was open. That side yard sure was full of junk. A couple old rusted lawnmowers, what looked like an old tumble dryer, somebody's moldy old dress. There wasn't much snow this close to the house, but it was chilly and wet. The dress was scuffed into the icy mud and it made me feel creepy. Whose dress was it? Why was it there? His bins were there, closed and not overflowing. I went closer to the big black-plastic-wrapped thing that was leaning against the front fence.

Darned if it wasn't a kayak. The breeze was inflating the bag a bit so it looked bulgy, but once I was closer I could see the pointy ends at top and bottom and the thing felt hard and smooth when I patted it. I poked a hole through the bag and there it was, blue plastic kayak, nothing scary or weird except for the fact that I couldn't imagine Mr. A out on a kayak, his skinny body folded inside and his big stomach poking out. The image made me laugh, and the laugh sounded loud in the quiet place.

I went around the back to get out because I was afraid to tip over the kayak. I was sorry there wasn't a clue, but that was okay. I could tell Katie about Mr. A's kayak Monday at lunch and maybe she'd laugh. Maybe she'd look at me instead of off to one side for once.

But on Monday, people started to think they heard Jimmy talking.

I was getting ready to leave for school in the morning when I heard my mom call out, "Don't forget your backpack!" "I've got it," I yelled back, and she appeared in the kitchen doorway, wiping her hands on her pants. "You have a nice day too, honey," she said, addressing herself to the air just to my left. I was confused for a moment, not sure what to say, when her eyes slid over to me. "Have a good one, Eden," she told me, and then I knew. She'd been talking to Jimmy. And she thought he'd been talking back.

Conversations suddenly got complicated. People would address side statements to Jimmy, making me unsure what was directed at me. Or they'd have whole conversations with him, barely acknowledging me except to smile. Katie was the worst, laughing and laughing at something she claimed Jimmy had said and refusing to repeat it to me. She acted like I was kidding. "You're so funny, Eden! As if I'd say that. You guys are silly," she told me, then gave Imaginary Jimmy a playful shove. I pushed my fingers hesitantly to the side, but they encountered no answering pressure. No Jimmy. "EDEN," she said. "You heard him. Quit poking my little brother."

There had to be something. I kept looking in people's backyards, behind trees, across fields, along the creekside. Harder and harder to tell as each day went by, of course. More snow, then a warm day turning the surface of the snow to glassy ice, then more snow. You'd take a step and go crunch-fall-crunch-fall as your foot went through the layers. The snow was deep enough to sneak in the tops of my boots, especially when I stumbled off the curb into the deeper street. On a dry day this was not so bad—I could lever snow out of my boot-top with a mittened hand before it melted. But on the warm days the snow was sometimes slush and that would make for a miserable school day, wet socks gradually getting colder and colder. Katie scolded me for not helping Jimmy with his coat, reaching across me to button an invisible snow jacket. Even my teachers seemed brusque, and it seemed like half their comments were meant for the space beside me. I was walking around with a nonexistent kid that I couldn't get rid of and feeling more and more alone.

I just couldn't believe in imaginary dead boys. You know? When I was with someone who was talking to both of us, I might start to, just for a moment. I'd start to feel a presence next to me, almost a heat. If I didn't look at it. But the moment I was by myself again, I knew it was really just me. No Jimmy, much though I'd like him to still be around. No heat. No aura of presence near my left hand. I'd have been scared but I was long past being scared by an imaginary kid.

It came to me to look out in back of the elementary school, by the big fence. It wasn't the direction Jimmy would have taken to get home, wasn't a shortcut, wasn't really in anyone's direction because the school kind of backed onto a little ridge so there weren't any streets there, and when you got over the other side there was another fence and a bit of forest and then a couple of office buildings. No houses. But if something or someone took Jimmy out here—maybe if he got lured out by an overly friendly scary man, the kind they warn us about in school—he might have ended up out back, and no one would really ever look. Well, that's what I thought anyway. Not that anyone was looking. So after my last class I walked the two blocks to Jimmy's and my old school to see what I could see.

It was quiet. Jimmy's school gets out an hour or so before the middle school and the parking lot was pretty deserted. Only one station wagon was parked in the corner. Maybe a teacher was finishing up something, stapling paper Valentine hearts to her bulletin boards to get ready for February, or perhaps the custodian was still cleaning. It was easy to sneak around to the back side of the building and slip between the building and the fence. There's a narrow passage there, actually a sidewalk in the spring but they chase the kids out of it and always block off the ends with pylons, so I hadn't been all the way through it before. Now it was just snow wedged between the chain-link and the wall, strange uneven multi-layer snow that was a real pain to walk through and deeper than my boots in spots.

It's strangely dark behind the school—I guess because the building faces west—but I was walking in the shade, and the long shadow of the building stretched across the snow to the edge of the ridge. You couldn't see much over the edge there, just the tops of trees. I could imagine something sneaking up that hill. Maybe whatever took Jimmy. It was hard to look for clues on the dim ground, extra hard in the deep snow, but I went poking around anyhow, kicking up a little snow with my boots here and there, pushing it around to see if I could see anything buried in the drifts.

The first thing I found was a mitten. It wasn't Jimmy's. It was a tiny red mitten with a pink heart on it, a girl's mitten, with a string and pompoms hanging from the edge. I have no idea how that mitten got behind the school. Maybe the wind blew it back here. I couldn't imagine a little girl wandering back here in the dark. I wasn't sure exactly why I was here myself. Suddenly I had to whip my head around and look behind me, but there was no one there. I heard a car in the distance, nothing else.

Up ahead, the wall bent in to make a little sheltered spot with a bit less snow. I found some paper jammed between a rock and the brick wall of the school. It was soaked with water and frozen together in places, so I put it in my pocket to warm it up. I pushed forward, shoving snow in every direction. I was getting pretty tired and was almost ready to give up when I saw the hole in the fence.

I can't think of anything that can tear a hole in a chain-link fence. Maybe a wolverine, but my dad says there haven't been wolverines around here for a hundred years. No bears around here, either. I guess a car could drive through a fence if it were going fast enough, but this hole was way too small for a car. Not too small for me to go through. Not too small to drag a little kid like Jimmy through, either. The edges of the chain-link around the hole were ragged, and I crept through carefully so I wouldn't snag my green jacket.

Well, you couldn't tell if anyone had been back here, but I didn't expect footprints at this point. I stepped a bit forward. The snow stretched smoothly in front of me, deep blue in the shade. It felt colder than it had ten minutes ago, but all the same I pulled off my gloves and reached into my pocket for the wad of papers to see if it had thawed, and though it wasn't all the way warm I was able to peel one or two of the wet layers away. "I LOVE…" I read, and then the other piece said "MAMA AND DADY." I pressed the rest of the wad against my jacket until I could peel one more layer off. I guess I knew what it was going to say. I took a deep breath and peeled the top layer away and there it was, in tipsy printing across the lined page: "JIM."

I should have gone back right then. I should have marched up to the sheriff next time he came to the school and given him the papers and told him where I found them, and then maybe, just maybe he would have looked. But I didn't, of course, because would Nancy Drew have given up? I put my gloves back on and I put the papers back in my pocket and I kept on walking across that blue snow, kept walking even though it was getting darker and colder. I thought I was going to find another clue. I thought it right up until I took that step in what looked like a little low spot and punched right through the snow and fell smack into a big hole.

I wasn't stuck exactly, but it hurt, and if I'm honest, I was scared. I was down just past my armpits with my arms forced up in the air, and I couldn't figure out how to grab onto anything. I had one foot on something—maybe a rock in the side of the hole—but my right leg was dangling and I couldn't find anything, feeling around with my boot, for it to step on. I didn't know how deep the hole was. Maybe Jimmy was down there, dead, at the bottom. As soon as I thought that I felt more scared. I was afraid to look down and it was probably too dark to see anyway. I opened my mouth to yell but I couldn't make any sound come out.

I kept waving my arms around, which was silly really, out in the middle of nowhere like that. And I think maybe I was crying, but we don't have to talk about that. Anyway my hands started falling asleep, and that made me even more upset, and I was getting close to giving up and just letting myself fall down the hole—they probably wouldn't find me until spring—when I felt a hand grab my hand. A little hand. But a hand. And it started pulling.

I couldn't see anything. It was really getting dark now. And I still couldn't get my voice to work. But the hand kept tugging, tugging, and even though it wasn't strong enough to really take my weight, it eased the strain on my left foot and I managed to bring my right foot over and put it on the same little rock. Then I took a big breath and lifted my right leg up a bit, and my toe found another rock. Can you hold me, I wanted to say, if I take a step up? But nothing came out, so I pushed hard with my right knee, using that little hand for balance, and I pushed up.

And then, very suddenly, I was out. My arms came down in the snow, and I pushed down with my gloves and kind of scrabbled and kicked off with my legs and rolled myself away from the hole. After I was out I crawled away from the hole as fast as I could manage, because now I was scared to stand up, at least until I realized I was crawling back over my own footprints and that I could just step back into them and get back to the fence and out of there. I forgot all about that little hand in mine, and I didn't even think of it until I was standing back in front of the school again. I looked to my left, sort of sidelong, you know, but I still didn't see anything. Then I just ran for home.

I was cold and wet, and it turned out my nice green jacket had a big old tear on the side, which maybe happened when I slid into the hole, I don't know, or maybe happened on the fence after all. Fortunately my mom didn't care because she was just so glad to see me. No one knew where I was after school and they'd already called the sheriff. I told her I went for a walk and fell in a hole and got stuck, and she cried and hugged me and made me some hot chocolate, and then she yelled at me for not coming straight home after school. But I didn't mind so much. Because she was talking to me, not Jimmy, and it took me a while to realize she wasn't even looking at Jimmy anymore.

They didn't find Jimmy at the bottom of that hole. It wasn't until an early thaw in March when someone saw his shoe poking out of a bush in the woods and then they found the body, and I guess they still haven't caught the man who killed him. Mr A.'s left town—he left his whole mess in the side yard, too; I saw some guys in uniforms picking through it last week—so I'll have to find someone else to pay me this summer. I don't walk home alone anymore. My mom comes and picks up me and Katie even though we're almost twelve and can walk fine by ourselves.

I dried the papers I found on the radiator, and then I gave them to Katie and she gave them to her mom. She said her mom cried a lot but that the papers made her happy, too, and sometimes she still picks them up and reads them and cries, but then she smiles. Katie says some days that's the only time she sees her smile. My mom managed to sew the tear in my jacket so you almost can't see it. I think they filled in that hole, but I'm not going back of the elementary school again to check. Everyone seems to have forgotten they ever saw Jimmy standing next to me.

So I can't see Jimmy and neither can anyone else. Ok, we each believe what we believe, and I'm not going to tell anyone else what to think or not think. I won't talk to their God, and they don't have to talk to Jimmy. It's ok. I don't think he minds.

But when I say that Jimmy walks by my side, maybe it's the same thing as when folks say God walks by their side, or Jesus wants them for a sunbeam. There's a warmth—just a bit of heat, like when a small person stands near you and blocks the cold. And I don't really feel alone, even when I'm by myself. If I reach down, all the way down to my left, I can feel a tiny hand in mine.

Valerie E. Polichar is a writer and singer/songwriter living in San Diego, California. She has edited and published the journal Grasslimb since 2002. She creates electropop music and collaborates musically under the name Huge Shark. By day, she masquerades as a data communications and research IT program manager for the University of California, San Diego.