LOGLINE: Out-of-body experiences? Cool–until your life gets stolen while you’re gone.
A novel by Luisa Perkins
Blake Goes Out Walkin’
Blake wakes up, tears running down his cheeks and into his ears. He’s nine; he shouldn’t be crying like a baby. But he’s had that dream a million times, and every time the pain is fresh and new. In his dream, he plays hide-and-seek with his mama. He can hear her laughing, but he doesn’t know where she is. Why can’t he find her, when he knows she wants to be found?
Now fully awake, Blake knows the answer. Mama is dead, and that means he’ll never see her again. He remembers the funeral, even though Dad says that he was too little, and that he has made up the memories from pictures. The white casket covered with lilies. Dad’s gray face above his black suit. The tired-sounding music Aunt Edie played on the church organ. Even though it was five years ago, in Blake’s mind, it’s all as fresh as yesterday.
He wipes his face dry with his pajama sleeve and stares up into the darkness. The wound in his heart where Mama used to be gapes wide and raw; the lump in his throat feels like he’s swallowed a rock. Mama must be close.
After the graveside service that terrible day, Aunt Edie had been the only one who seemed to understand. She’d been doing dishes in the narrow kitchen, washing out the casserole pans and plasticware brought over by friends all week. Four-year-old Blake had come in to hide from all the sad smiles and hugs in the living room. He leaned against his aunt’s hip and closed his eyes. She took off the dish gloves, knelt down on the black and white tiles, and took his face in her long, cool hands.
“Your heart hurts, right, Sweetie?” she asked. Blake nodded, afraid that if he opened his mouth, he might cry or throw up, or both.
“I know, Blake. Your throat, too. Your mama was my big sister, remember. I know exactly how you feel.”
It was hard to look into Aunt Edie’s face. Even though she wore glasses, her eyes were the same as Mama’s: sea-blue with tiny yellow and white flecks. He hugged her so he wouldn’t have to see them. She hugged him tightly right back, then whispered into his ear.
“You can’t see your mama now, Blake, but she’s all around you. We buried her body today, but her spirit is still alive. You’ll know she’s close when you feel that pain in your throat and heart. She must be right here now, don’t you think? Because I feel that way, too.”
Blake nodded again. Hard but quiet, the sobs he had been forcing down all day squeezed their way past the rock in his throat. Aunt Edie held him until all the tears escaped, then a while longer.
“Mama,” nine-year-old Blake now whispers into the air-conditioned night. Though his voice is creaky because of his swollen throat, he hums one of his mother’s favorite songs, the song she’d sung when she peeled potatoes or folded laundry.
“I go out walkin,’ after midnight, out in the moonlight…”
If she’s so close all around him, there must be a way for him to find her, see her. She’d left him behind—left the world behind—her spirit floating free. Maybe if he could leave himself behind too, he’d find her hiding place. Could he take off his body like a bathing suit, walk out of it like leaving a house? He closes his eyes and imagines himself drifting, floating up and out like campfire smoke. He feels a little lighter, a little misty, so he concentrates hard. But then he’s rock solid again, lying on his bed.
Night after night, Blake tries to escape his body, usually falling asleep just when he gets that floaty feeling going strong. One night it feels like his arms are free, but the rest of him is still bogged down. It’s suffocating, like getting a turtleneck trapped over your face with your arms stuck high overhead. He remembers panicking once like that when he was little, then Mama easing the shirt up and over his shoulders. That’s the release he needs—he feels his collarbone and neck come free and then sfiff—he’s loose.
Really? He’s out? He looks around and gets dizzy. Gravity no longer anchors him. Little movements spiral him uncontrollably.
Run to ground, Blake. Go on home.
With a jolt, Blake realizes he’s back in his body. But if he’s gotten out once, he can do it again.
And soon he does. Soon he can get out of himself with the slightest of efforts. Up and out. He wanders around the townhouse, looking for his mother in all the old hiding places. Walls stop him for a long time, but only because he thinks they can.
One night he’s practicing his spirals, rolling around and around, then stopping suddenly. He throws his arms out as a counterbalance—and one arm goes through the window. The closed and barred window. Blake only pauses for a minute before imagining his hand outside pulling the rest of him through. Then, he realizes, he can fly.
He floats up over East 78th Street into the still winter night. He feels the cold only as the slightest whisper of a breeze, even though he knows it must be below freezing. Using the grid of streets below as a guide, Blake flies farther and higher. The sleeping city spreads beneath him like a great, jeweled blanket. He steers himself gradually downtown.
Night birds notice Blake. So do squirrels in trees and feral cats wending their way through Central Park. He can see all of them in fine detail, as if through a magnifying glass with no distortion. All the animals look up and see him, one by one. They don’t seem surprised, or even shy.
Can people see him, too? He wonders. He drifts above Central Park South, then turns left and travels down low on Broadway, where there are plenty of people walking the street despite the late hour and the cold. No one seems to see him. Is that because they can’t, or because, being New Yorkers, they choose not to? Blake isn’t sure, but the diversion of making faces at preoccupied grown-ups pales quickly. It’s much more fun to be up high. Blake leaves the sidewalk for the open air.
The city looks glorious from up above. He stops high atop the Manhattan Bridge to look around. He sits on the edge of the western tower and notices that he is wearing pajamas.
Pajamas? Does a ghost need pajamas?
Because that’s what he is, Blake suspects. Isn’t it that way in all the stories? Ghosts are people separated from their bodies. But what is this that’s left when the body is gone? This weightless, sometimes visible self, free and light—this is the real Blake. Isn’t it?
Can he change how he looks? He imagines himself in last year’s Halloween costume, and he is wearing it instantly, torn pants, fake hook, eye patch, and all. In a blink he changes into his church clothes, then his bathing suit, then nothing at all. But that’s embarrassing. Even though he’s alone, he’s outside. His pajamas will do just fine.
Looking out across Brooklyn, Blake notices that the sky is getting lighter. Not much, but enough to worry him. The winter nights are long, and it’s impossible to know how long he’s been out. What if Dad comes in to get him up for school, and he’s not there? His body is there, of course, but this part of him that is out flying around is also the part that wakes and talks and laughs. He flies home faster than thought and immediately finds himself outside their townhouse. It takes a bit of courage to jump back through the window glass, but once that’s done, he’s back safe in his room.
Blake hovers at the ceiling for a bit, looking down at himself. I’m just a small boy, he thinks, and suddenly remembers that he was supposed to be looking for his mother. In all the exciting nights he’s been learning and perfecting his new skill, he has forgotten why he had wanted to learn it in the first place. How could he forget Mama? The shame of it overcomes him, and he glides down gently to his body. Tomorrow night he’ll fly out and look for her, he promises himself, maybe even find her.
He closes his eyes and prepares to settle in, as he has in the past—a sinking in, like lowering yourself into a hot bath, like pulling on your most comfortable jeans.
Except he’s not sinking. He opens his eyes and reaches out to touch his own hand, to pass through the flesh and put it on again. It is solid. It won’t let him pass. He tries harder, but cannot penetrate his skin. A little panicked, Blake reaches over and puts his hand through the wall next to the bed. No problem. As easy as moving through air. He moves around the room, swiping his limbs through the dresser, the bookshelves, the floor. Nothing in the room stops him. He comes back to the bed and touches his cheek, tentatively. It is as hard and cool as stone. He shrinks back, because it suddenly doesn’t feel like his own skin anymore.
Just then, Blake’s body opens its eyes and smiles up at him. Not a nice smile, Blake realizes with a nasty shock. Blake’s body laughs, and it’s not his laugh at all. Blake sees now that nothing about his body is quite right. It’s as if he has twinned himself somehow, or as if his mirror image has come to independent life. His body won’t stop laughing. Blake reaches out, tries to cover his body’s mouth to muffle that terrible sound, and his body slaps his hand away, sending him spinning across the room.
“You can’t come in,” Blake’s body whispers. “I live here now, and you can’t come in.”
“What do you see?” hissed a small, cold voice. Cathy flinched, stopping her toothbrush mid-stroke. The white, movie-star lights in her new bathroom dimmed to dark gold, while the shadows in the mirror beyond Cathy’s reflection lengthened and gained substance. A cavern yawned behind her, stretching into black nothingness. Its depths made her light-headed, but she couldn’t look away.
“What do you see?” the voice repeated. A faint buzzing in her ears grew to an unbearable whine. Cathy felt the blackness in the mirror sucking her down and in, farther and darker, inch by inch. Wrenching her gaze from the mirror, Cathy dropped her toothbrush into the marble sink and whirled around. She blinked and stared down at her five-year-old sister standing in the doorway.
“Huh?” Cathy asked, realizing her mouth was still full of toothpaste. Avoiding the mirror, she turned, bent over the sink, and rinsed out her mouth.
“What did you see?” asked Mae.
“Nothing, Mae. I didn’t see anything.” Cathy slid past her sister and sat down on her bed. She wiped her lips with the back of her hand and leaned her forehead against the cool brass bedstead. Mae came to her side and leaned on her knee. Cathy tried to smile.
“Need something, Maybe-Baby?” she asked.
“I was just wondering what you were up to. I thought I’d check on you.”
Now Cathy grinned, and her shock lessened a bit. Mae cracked her up sometimes.
“I’m fine! Don’t I look fine?”
Mae wrinkled her forehead and squinted her eyes. “No,” she retorted. “Maybe you need some fresh air.”
“You’re right. Maybe I do. In fact, I think I’ll go for a walk—do a little exploring. Do you want to come with?”
“Nah, no thanks. I’m gonna go play in my new room some more. It’s so awesome!” Mae raced out of the bedroom.
Cathy groped around under her bed for her flip-flops, then pulled her long brown hair into a ponytail without the help of a mirror. What had just happened in the bathroom? Whatever it was, she wanted to get away and sort it out. She shivered at the memory and left.
As she walked down the driveway, Cathy gazed up at the new house. Everyone else oohed and ahhed over how fancy it was, but Cathy thought it was the ugliest thing she’d ever seen. Way too big for the lot it was on. Skinny white vinyl siding. Windows that pretended to be paned, but were really just big sheets of glass with plastic grilles stuck to the inside frames. Ferociously green lawn surrounded by evil-smelling, rust-colored mulch. The worst part was that every house on the block looked exactly like this one. The whole neighborhood was like a bunch of inbred cousins at a family reunion.
Of course, she hadn’t told anybody all this, because who was there to tell? Her best friend Jessica had abandoned her for orchestra camp all the way out in California. Jess wouldn’t be back in New York until the end of the summer, and who knew how their friendship would change now that they weren’t living just a few blocks apart anymore?
Cathy could see her sisters jumping on the thick cushion of Fawn’s window seat. Fawn and Mae were thrilled about their rooms (thick pastel carpet, wallpaper borders with princesses on them), the big refrigerator (water and ice dispensers on the outside), and the new cedar swing set in the back yard. Cathy had been shocked at how easily the girls had made the transition from Manhattan to this backward town with the weird Indian name. Fawn and Mae were only eight and five, but still—totally disloyal. Didn’t they miss the city at all? Even if they did, they were too little to see Cathy’s point of view.
On the sidewalk, the thick heat of August engulfed her. She walked fast anyway, wanting to get out of the subdivision as quickly as possible. Tall maples lined the main road into town; she slowed down once she reached their shade. The metallic hiss of cicadas soothed her jumpy nerves and the humidity wrapped her in a heavy blanket of calm. Bushes along the sidewalk bent under the weight of what looked like ripe raspberries. Could they be edible? That seemed too good to be true. She decided to walk down to the gas station for a soda and see if they had a map of the area. Maybe there was a park nearby with trails.
Cathy considered her other options for someone to talk to. Her mom was normally a great listener, but not this time. Cathy knew that any complaints she made would be taken the wrong way. The whole stupid house thing was part of a bigger problem. Athena Wright was now Athena Harford; she’d gotten remarried just weeks before. Cathy didn’t feel ignored, not exactly. It was just that her mom and Malcolm were floating around in a bubble and didn’t seem to notice that not everybody was as happy as they were.
Her mother was usually so smart, but intellect had failed her when she had met Malcolm. What did she see in him? So he was a “famous” Shakespeare scholar. So he seemingly adored Cathy’s mother and did everything he could to make her feel loved and special. That didn’t make up for the fact that he was pale and awkward and boring and nothing at all like Cathy’s dead father. There was no way he was worming his way into Cathy’s heart and trying to take over where he had no business. Cathy hoped she had made that clear.
As she walked, Cathy kicked pine cones into the culvert that ran along the sidewalk and kept thinking over her choices. Maybe she could talk to Blake. Since the wedding, he’d been deferential to his new stepmother, gallant in a show-off way with Fawn and Mae, and polite (but not exactly warm) to Cathy herself. He seemed to get along great with his dad; he was obviously the apple of Malcolm’s eye. It was no wonder. Blake was tall, athletic, apparently some kind of braniac, and played the piano like no teenager Cathy had ever heard.
Would he understand? They were almost the same age. They’d both been uprooted and moved from the city they’d lived in all their lives. Cathy wasn’t sure if she could trust him, though. He’d said something at their parents’ wedding reception that had been bothering her for weeks. They had been standing in the receiving line, he in his custom-made tux, she in a lilac silk dress. An old friend of Malcolm’s had paused to chat with Blake.
“You’ll both be seniors in the fall, eh?” The man had nodded at Cathy and smiled. “You even look a bit alike. I’ll bet the kids at your new school will think you two are twins.”
Blake had looked at Cathy sideways and laughed politely. “Somehow, I doubt it,” he’d answered dryly.
Just a little comment, just a little slip of his mask, but it had lodged in her memory like an irritating grain of sand. She had been bristling to ask him what he had meant by that from the second he had said it, but had been too confused to know how. Now she was afraid that if she brought it up, he would have forgotten all about it. He’d think she was totally neurotic for even mentioning it.
Lame. Another thing she couldn’t tell anybody. And now this bizarre episode while she was brushing her teeth. Had she really heard a voice in the bathroom, or had it just been Mae? And that thing with the mirror turning into a dark cave—was she going nuts? Maybe she had just gotten light-headed for a minute. Cathy shivered again.
She reached the mini-mart attached to the gas station and went inside. The air conditioner was cranked up high. The clerk behind the counter hummed a tuneless counterpoint to its roar. Cathy grabbed a soda and browsed the snack aisle. As she turned to go to the register, she bumped into someone. Her soda bottle crashed on the floor, spraying sticky orange liquid all over her legs.
Metal crutches clattered down. Cathy slipped in the soda and sat down hard in the mess. Whoever she’d run into was still scrambling above her. He grabbed a shelf loaded with potato chips to keep himself from falling. For a moment, he seemed safe. Then the shelf ripped loose from its pegboard, and the guy fell into Cathy’s lap. She flung her arms over her head as mylar bags rained down on them.
Shouting in light-speed Spanish, the clerk came charging around the counter and slipped in the soda as well. Cathy leaned back against the candy shelves and laughed. It was like something out of an old movie. The guy on her lap turned around to look at her, then pulled himself off of her and started laughing as well. The clerk glared at them both and started picking up bags of chips, muttering under his breath.
Cathy stuck out an orange-spattered hand. The guy reached around and clasped it hard. Cathy realized that he must be about her own age. She smiled into his tilting blue eyes.
“Hi, I’m Cathy Wright. I just moved here.”
“Way to make a first impression, Cathy. Richard Mallory—call me Rich.” His grip on her hand tightened.
“Yikes, you’re strong.” Cathy wiggled her fingers. Rich dropped her hand at once.
“Sorry. It’s all the weight lifting I do.” Rich pointed to his sticky crutches. Cathy realized they weren’t the kind you got when you sprained your ankle; these were made for permanent use. Rich used his arms to shift his weight off of his twisted legs.
“Amyloplasia. It’s not contagious,” he said.
Cathy pointed to her own legs. “Klutziness. I don’t think it’s contagious, but that hasn’t been confirmed.” Cathy felt her face go hot and got to her feet. Had she just made the most tasteless joke of all time? But Rich laughed.
“Thanks. Most people look away and pretend they don’t notice I’m not normal. You’re refreshing—like a nice, cold, orangey drink.”
Cathy went down the aisle, ripped open a package of wet wipes, and passed some over to Rich. They mopped the worst of the mess off of themselves and the floor.
“You pay for those,” the clerk interjected, pointing at the wipes and chips.
“I’ll pay for them,” Cathy and Rich both said, then looked at each other.
“Jinx. You owe me a soda,” said Cathy, “Actually two. One for jinx, and one for bumping into me.”
“Bumping into you? You did the bumping,” Rich countered.
“Fine. Let’s split all this, grab a couple more drinks, and call it even.”
Cathy finished the floor while her new acquaintance scrubbed off his crutches. The clerk rang up the cost of the accident. “$22.37,” he announced, clearly afraid they would balk. Cathy pulled some crumpled bills out of her pocket and started smoothing, sorting, and counting. She looked up after getting eleven dollars together to realize that Rich had already paid the clerk.
“Here,” she said, holding the money out to Rich. He shook his head and turned toward the door.
“Sorry, my hands are full,” he said over his shoulder. “Just keep it for now. I’ll hit you up for it later.” Cathy shoved the money back into her pocket, grabbed the bag of sodas, and followed him out the door to the parking lot.
“Which way are you going?” Rich asked.
Cathy pointed the way she had come. “We just moved to Silverado Estates, but I was hoping to not go home for awhile.”
“Silverado? Which house?”
“303 Turley Lane.”
“Well, howdy, neighbor! I live at 306.”
“Really?” Cathy frowned. Number 306 was across the street from her house. “I haven’t seen anybody at that house. I didn’t think anyone lived there yet.”
“We moved in at the beginning of the summer, but we’ve been at the shore for the last two weeks.”
“Well, that’s why, then. We moved in two weeks ago.”
“Gotcha. Okay. Escape from Silverado. If you don’t mind company, I can give you a tour.” He raised his eyebrows. Cathy nodded and smiled. “We could walk downtown to Main Street, or up to Waverly Lake. It’s more of a pond than a lake, but it’s pretty up there. What’s your pleasure?”
“Ooh, the lake. Pond. Whatever. Do you think it’ll be cooler there?”
“Definitely.” Rich pried his crutches out of the parking lot’s hot, sticky asphalt. “And we can pick berries on the way.” He pulled a plastic bag out of his backpack and handed it to her.
Rich’s speed on his crutches surprised Cathy. She hurried along next to him. A truck came up the road and slowed as it approached them. Someone rolled down a window and yelled and waved at Rich. He smiled and nodded back.
“Do you know people here already, or is everyone in this town just freakishly friendly?” Cathy asked.
“Both. I was born and raised right here in Kashkawan—our old house is down on Chestnut, off of Main. By the school. Have you been over that way yet?”
Rich stopped at a berry bush, leaned hard on one crutch, and started picking fruit. Cathy held out the bag and Rich tossed the fruit in.
“You can eat those?” she asked. “Wow. I just assumed they were poisonous, or something. It’s not the kind of thing they plant on the streets in Manhattan.” She popped a berry into her mouth. Warm, sweet juice exploded on her tongue. She closed her eyes in bliss.
Rich hopped up the sidewalk, picking as he went. “So that’s where you’re from?”
“Yeah. I can’t believe the city is less than an hour away, because this seems like a different country. Kashkawan is cute and all, but I hate our house.”
“Seriously? How come? I love ours. We’ve never had central air before. And it’s a lot easier for me to get around.”
Cathy felt ashamed of her ingratitude. Rich was right. The new house was extremely comfortable. “I don’t know. Maybe I’m blaming everything on the house. My mom just got remarried, so I have a new stepfather and a stepbrother. And I have to spend my senior year at a brand new school where I don’t know anybody.”
Rich stopped and pushed his straw-blond hair out of his eyes. “Poor babe,” he grinned. “But you know me now. Although I’ll only be a junior this year. I hope you’ll still talk to me.”
“Of course!” Then Cathy realized Rich was teasing and rolled her eyes. “What’s the school like?” she asked after eating a handful of berries. “You must know everyone if you’ve lived here forever.”
“It’s small, but fine. I guess. I don’t have anything to compare it to. Sports are very big, which you might guess is not really my thing.”
“Right. So what do you do?”
“Read, listen to music. Computer games. Obscure stuff like that. What about you?”
Cathy laughed. “About the same.”
Rich turned left onto a dusty unpaved road. The shade was deeper here, the cicadas louder. The trees grew so thick that soon Cathy couldn’t hear the road noise at all. The rutted clay road traveled gradually upward. After going around a bend, Cathy and Rich came to a fork in the road. A sweet reek filled the air, a smell that almost shimmered in the heat. Rich nodded toward the left fork.
“That way’s the town dump—obviously,” he said. “We’ve got to go uphill a ways here to the right, and then we’ll be at the lake. Are you up for it, or have I worn you out?”
“I love to walk. Did you know New Yorkers walk an average of five miles a day?”
“Good to know. But there won’t be any taxis coming along to bail you out if you get tired.”
“I think I can handle it.”
Waverly Lake was tiny, but gorgeous. Just the sight of it, placid and blue in the summer heat, made Cathy feel cooler. And Rich had been right: it wasn’t as muggy up here. A long, wide beach lay before them. Cathy guessed that the sand must have been trucked in. Natural or not, it instantly became Cathy’s favorite spot in Kashkawan. Rich had to slow down once his crutches hit the sand. Cathy cut her pace to match his, looking around as she walked. Tall sugar maples and oaks came right down to the water’s surface on either side of the beach. Far away, a woodpecker worked busily. The sound of its drill accented the peace that settled over Cathy.
They sat down at a picnic table near the water’s edge, backs to the table on the side facing the water. Cathy kicked off her flip-flops and passed Rich a soda. “You win,” she said. “I love it here.” She sipped her drink and considered the view. “Is this a reservoir, or has it always been here?”
“It’s been here forever—or at least as long as Kashkawan has been settled. This all used to be the property of the Voorhees family. They got thousands of acres in a New Amsterdam land grant and built a big house near here back in the mid-1600s.”
“Aren’t you the historian.”
“You’ll be one, too, soon enough. We’ve got legends aplenty here in Kashkawan. Local history gets hammered into every student. Once school starts, you’ll realize that the Hudson Highlands were as huge in U.S. history as Philadelphia.” Though Rich smirked as he said it, Cathy could tell that affection tempered his sarcasm.
“Huh. And here I’d been thinking Manhattan was the center of the world. I stand corrected.”
Rich’s laugh echoed from the opposite shore. “Cool!” cried Cathy at the sound, and hooted like a loon. Her voice came back to them, faint and empty-sounding. It sounded like the cry of someone lost and gave Cathy goose bumps, reminding her why she’d wanted to escape the house in the first place. She shivered and rubbed her upper arms, trying to chase her unreasoning fear away.
“You can’t be cold,” said Rich.
“No—I got spooked at the house this morning. I’m just trying to shrug it off.”
“Why? What happened?”
Cathy hesitated. She’d known Rich less than an hour. Right now, he was the closest thing to a friend she had. No way was she going to risk alienating him by telling him about her earlier freak-out in the bathroom. Now, sitting in the peaceful sunlight, Cathy realized that she must have imagined the entire thing, because what she thought she had experienced was impossible. She let out a breath and smiled.
“Really, it’s nothing,” she said. “Hey, I should probably get home. The only person I told I was leaving was my five-year-old sister. Walk back with me?”
“Sure.” Rich stood up and put the empty soda bottles into his backpack. “I hope coming up here won’t get you into any trouble.”
“Oh, no, it’s fine. I’d love to do it again another time—I mean, if you want.”
“Absolutely.” He started across the sand, planting his crutches and swinging his twisted legs between them. “Don’t forget the berries.”
“Got ‘em,” she replied. “Goodbye, lake!” she called out across the water.
“…ache,” her lonely voice came back. Suddenly, Cathy felt small and incredibly isolated. She turned and hurried up the beach after Rich.