Kenny liked to come to the empty lot on Leo Street weekdays after dark. The lot wasn’t exactly empty, though, if you counted all the weeds, poison ivy, and tangled honeysuckle at the back, beyond where the rundown house had stood. The fire had taken it all, except three concrete steps. Chicory and Queen Anne’s lace swallowed up whatever foundation remained.
He always sought the old cherry tree at the rear of the property. He and his best friend James had hid behind it, talking, and smoking the Chesterfields James swiped from his mom. James always said Mrs. Crandall was too “out of it” since divorcing his dad to pay any attention.
That was two years ago.
Since his mom died in the fire, James had moved to Kentucky to live with his dad. They hadn’t even had time to swap addresses and lie that they’d write to each other. And Kenny still hadn’t made another best friend. Now his mom told him that if he didn’t quit moping and improve his grades, she’d take him to see a counselor.
He started coming to Leo Street to get away from his sisters’ constant fights and think about all the stuff he hadn’t had time to yet: the A- on his English essay, the D- on his last geometry test, Gary Clark slamming him hard against his locker. But it was mainly Sherry Ostendorf. She gave him a big smile after he’d told the whole American History class he agreed with her that manifest destiny was actually genocide. Everyone booed; even Mrs. Hughes, who’d been his favorite teacher, frowned.
His eyes and throat burned as he remembered. He really came here to feel. High school wasn’t a place where you could feel anything; when the latest disaster was over, then you tried to absorb it.
Absorption. James had loved to talk about science. “Osmosis,” his buddy said right here one spring day under the tree, arms outspread. “The process by which a solvent passes through a semipermeable membrane into a region of greater solute concentration. Plus, it can mean the absorption of ideas and knowledge.” He’d punched Kenny’s bicep. “Like all the cool stuff you learn hanging around with me.”
“Like the Penthouses you stole. Real scientific.”
“Biology, man! But chemistry—now there’s an interesting subject!”
And he’d made Kenny listen while the sun sank and they could’ve been looking at those magazines. But that was James, and Kenny was his best friend, so he listened. (And kind of liked the lectures if they didn’t go on too long.)
Looking up now, Kenny was shocked to see an almost-full October moon. He could swear it had a girl’s face. He plopped down and leaned against the cherry tree’s cold bark. Closing his eyes, he osmossified. The word made him smile. He figured James had invented it, declaring, “I don’t study; I osmossify!” Kenny inhaled all the bittersweet dying green things around him while crickets began clicking Morse code in the dead grass.
Opening his eyes suddenly—some noise—he saw Mrs. Crandall standing at the top of the steps in a pool of moonlight where the back door of her house had been. She was holding out her hand to open the door. His spine seized by electricity, Kenny closed his eyes and silently counted to ten before re-opening. On nothing, of course.
He felt tears coming. Why would he cry at seeing James’s mom’s ghost? Because she’d died? Nah. Lots of older people died. But she wasn’t that old. While he and James read comics in the living room, she always sang with the radio. Not the songs he and James liked, like “Wipe Out,” but “The End of the World” by Skeeter Davis. Love songs.
When Kenny looked at the moon’s face this time, it gleamed like Sherry Ostendorf’s smile. Shivering, he let his head flop back against the cold bark. He and James’s mom had something in common: she’d wanted a boyfriend as bad as he wanted a best friend. Some people claimed she’d set the fire herself while James was in Lexington visiting his dad. Kenny didn’t believe it—until tonight. Seeing her ghost did it. Without a husband or boyfriend, she only had a son. She’d come back to find some part of herself she’d left in the ruins. To reabsorb it.
For a moment, Kenny’s mind went blank. Then he heard Elvis singing “I Can’t Help Falling in Love” from Blue Hawaii. He hadn’t told anyone, not even James, that it was his favorite song. His pal would’ve punched him hard. Mushy, weak, unscientific. But with Sherry shining inside the moon, he felt good tonight, even with bullies to dodge tomorrow and a geometry test he hadn’t yet studied for. Even with Mrs. Crandall’s ghost prowling. He’d absorbed new knowledge. Ghosts weren’t scary. They were solvents passing through the semipermeable membrane between death and life (now he heard James lecturing) “so that everything mixes together to make the concentrations on the two sides more nearly equal.”
Life and death . . . equal? He put his hands behind his head to support his heavy thoughts. Even if you couldn’t have fun with what was once right before your eyes, that didn’t mean it was gone forever. Losing stuff just made you look harder at what’s staring you right in the face, and what was staring him in the face right now was the moon, blazing like a billion suns.
Maybe Sherry Ostendorf would be his best friend: two concentrations nearly equal—if he studied harder, that is.
He stood, turned from the tree, stepped through the wild tangle and headed home, feeling the moon warm his back like sunlight, like solvent, dissolving him into the very air.
Ed Davis’s fiction, nonfiction and poetry have appeared in many anthologies and literary journals such as Main Street Rag, Still: The Journal, and Mountains Piled on Mountains: Appalachian Nature Writing in the Anthropocene. My novel The Psalms of Israel Jones won the 2010 Hackney Award for an unpublished novel and was published by West Virginia University Press in 2014.