“I think we have to be getting near," Nicole says. She speaks loudly, as if volume will make her words more true. I can tell by the way that she is tapping her hand against the steering wheel that she is not feeling as confident as she wants to sound.
I do not blame her. The darkness is oppressive on the car around us, and we can not see past her oldsmobile's dim headlights. These country roads are too far out for us to see the lights of our town square. The road seems to twist and turn nonsensically. The few houses we had passed before total darkness fell had been dilapidated, crumbling and forgotten years ago.
These are not roads that are frequented by townspeople anymore. Really, referring to them as “roads” at all is laughable. The further we go out, the more the road devolves into a trail of potholes.
The only people who come out this way anymore are demented teenagers. Which, I guess includes us.
Nicole and I really are not demented. She and I have always been the responsible, risk-averse ones. From second grade on, we have been the girls who always follow the rules, study for tests, and finish our reports early.
Brianna had always been the one who pushed us. While Nicole and I had walked the line of our parents' expectations and beliefs, Brianna had come into our lives and brought both excitement and terror. I love Nicole like a sister, but most of my childhood memories seem to revolve around Brianna.
I can still hear her voice, see her intense, gray eyes looking into mine. I remember one night in particular, when she was staying over for a sleepover. She had caught my eye while I was looking into my bedroom mirror, brushing out my hair before going to bed.
“Do you know that the dead can watch you through mirrors?” she whispered. Her pale face was practically resting on my shoulder, her eyes boring into mine in the mirror's reflection. “Sometimes you can see just a glimpse of them… if you look quick enough”.
My heart banged in my chest. “That is not true, Brianna”. I said in a shaky voice. “That is total b--b-bullshit!" I was not much of a swearer, but with Brianna I felt the need to assert myself through vulgarity.
Brianna’s eyes glinted at me. “I don’t bullshit, Megan”, she whispered back.
“Megan?!?”, Nicole punches my shoulder. “I asked you, does this seem right?”
I frown. The road seems to be ending, with just a dirt trail ahead of us.
“Yeah.” I say, trying to rub the gooseflesh off my arms. “She always said that it was half a mile down the dirt trail, once the road ended.”
“Jesus.” Nicole muttered. “Are we mental? Going off the urban legends of a thirteen year old? What kind of stereotypically small-town hicks are we, running off into the woods looking for ghosts? For what?” Her voice is starting to go into a higher pitch. “Seriously, Megan, why are we doing this?”
I give her a tight smile. “To know.”
Nicole understands this. Our last bucket list item, before leaving this town after graduation, has always been to find out whether Brianna was for real.
Brianna had been the terrifying force in our life from childhood into the beginnings of our adolescence. When we were with her, strange things happened. She ripped us out of our logic-led worlds, and let us see things that defied all of our beliefs.
“Come on, Meg.” Nicole whispered. “The whole 'light as a feather' thing? That is so stereotypical little-girls sleepover. None of it was real. And, that stupid story she would tell us? That she was putting sand inside of us, so that we couldn’t move?”
It’s true. Although our straight-laced parents would not allow us to access movies like “The Craft”, Brianna’s large family had been a lot more laissez-faire. Therefore, she had been able to take advantage of our comparative naivety.
Except. When Brianna conducted us through these girlhood rituals, it happened. I can remember the panicked, elated feeling that I got as I felt air flow underneath me as Nicole and Brianna lifted my prone form up into the air with their fingertips. I remember Brianna’s hypnotic, monotone voice as she led us through games that should have been silly, but with her were terrifying and real.
And so, Nicole and I trek into the darkness. We each hold a flashlight, and follow the trail.
One of the scary stories Brianna repeatedly told us was about the “bouncing circle” at the outskirts of town.
“There used to be a graveyard there, of the original settlers years before our town was built. The families left once a sickness spread and killed too many people. The crosses on their graves rotted and turned to dust. But the children still play in the circle of trees, and if you go there at night while they are playing, they will throw you into the air.”
“That’s dumb, Brianna!” Nicole had said, crossing her arms.
“How would a bunch of kids throw you into the air?” I added, frowning at her.
Brianna rolled her eyes. “Their SPIRITS do. If you look like fun, at least. It’s true. My brother went there years ago and told me.” She grinned. “When one of us gets a car, we are going too.”
Except Brianna never got the chance. Days before her fourteenth birthday, the summer before our freshman year in high school, she had been struck by a car. She had been walking home from our apartment complex to her home down the road. She had walked that route a hundred times over the past few years, but one careless driver had taken her from us at that critical moment in our lives.
Nicole and I stuck together, our friendship cemented through our shared experiences and pain. As we grew older, our memories of Brianna became more clouded, uncertain. How much of it had been real? Had any of it?
“Megan? I swear to god, don’t make fun of me. But.. can we hold hands?” Nicole’s flashlight is starting to shake in her hand as we move down the trail. Our flashlights are just two spots of light in the oppressive darkness. Normally, this close to summer the sounds of cicadas would be overwhelming. Tonight, it is eerily quiet.
I link my arm through Nicole’s, and we glue ourselves to each other as we continue down the path. I glide my flashlight to the ground and pull Nicole to a stop.
“Nicole?” I say, tightening her too me, and slowly rotating us in a circle. “This is it.”
As I shine the flashlight, I see that we are in the center of a circle of tall oak trees. Their branches reach into the sky, and intertwine with each other over our heads.
“Confirmation bias, Megan.” Nicole whispers at me. “This is the woods. Of course if we look around us, we would see a circle of trees”. She shivers, however, and I can feel the goosebumps rising on her arm.
We stand in silence for a beat, taking in the stillness of the night.
I take a deep breath. “Well. I guess we are not much fun, at any rate.” I say with a harsh laugh, recalling Brianna's long-ago remark.
Nicole follows with a tight laugh of her own. “Honestly, how mental are we? Who puts this on their high school bucket list? We would never live this down if the rest of the debate team found out.”
I sigh. It’s true. Once Brianna was out of our life, me and Nicole continued on our super-driven, ambitious student careers. None of our mutual friends would have anything to do with urban legends like this. We had made a lot of memories together, to be sure. But nothing like the belief-suspending experiences we had with Brianna.
“Do you miss her, Nikki?” I say, briefly resting my head on her shoulder. “Four years is objectively not that long, but it feels like a lifetime”.
“It IS a lifetime, to us.” Nicole says. “It’s sad, but the truth is… we probably would not have even stayed friends If she lived. I don’t mean that in a bad way but… people grow apart. And, she was damn weird. I mean, I loved her. I still love her. But she scared the hell out of us, too. How would we have fit together in high school?”
My stomach sinks. I know Nicole’s words are likely true.
Nicole, sensing my sadness, pulls me into a hug. “Of course I miss her. You miss her too. What other reason would we have for running out here, in the middle of nowhere, on a Saturday night instead of partying with the other debate nerds?” I can hear the smile in her voice. To be honest, we were not missing out on any good parties.
“I do have to say though.” She said, “I am a little disappointed. No bouncing ghost children! Looks like Brianna was wrong on this one.”
I sigh. How fanciful were we as little kids, imagining all of those pretend games were real? I feel my face heat. How immature was I to still to believe it was true?
“I guess it was all bullshit”. I say in a flat voice.
The ground heaves underneath me. One moment, I am leaning against Nicole. The next, we are thrown to the ground. I feel my chin scrape against the rough dirt and twigs on the hard ground beneath us. Suddenly an unknown force pulls at my hair, ripping me off the ground and into the air again. I fall with a thud, this time back first into the ground. I hear Nicole’s screams and I turn my head in time to see her falling face-first towards the earth.
I swear I hear the soft sounds of laughter around me, as I am lifted up once again by hands and feet, and thrown into the air. In my mind’s eye, I see Brianna’s intense gray eyes. “I don’t bullshit, Megan”.
This time I fall hard on my butt against the ground. I definitely can hear laughter around me. Mingled with it, I hear Nicole’s terrified sobs.
Thrown into the air again, I start to scream. “STOP. Please, stop! It’s no--” my voice catches as I hit the ground again. “Not fun. I’m sorry, Brianna!” I scream. “It’s not bullshit!”
The air stills. I gasp for breath, not feeling ghostly hands on my ankles and hands anymore.
I scoop up my flashlight, tossed on the ground just a few feet away. I help pull Nicole to her feet, and we stumble out of the circle of trees.
We limp to the car. My heart is banging in my chest, worse than I have ever felt in my life. We reach Nicole’s car, and she desperately starts the ignition with her shaking hands.
We don’t talk as we drive down the road. Nicole is still crying, and I can still feel my entire body trembling. I am sore all over, but I know that we will have nothing to show for our experience other than a few scrapes and bruises.
Nicole tears down the gravel road, desperate for us to reach home. I know without asking that we are staying together tonight. No way we are sleeping alone after that.
I pull enough courage together to pull down the passenger mirror and look at my chin. Sure enough, a red scrape stares back at me prominently. That will make for memorable graduation pictures.
As I look into the mirror, I think of Brianna’s long-ago words. “Do you know the dead can watch you through mirrors?” I shiver. Okay, Brianna. Okay.