Gifts, Ghosts, and God

The boy’s father taught him how to pray. To pray without kneeling, to pray without altars, to pray without priests. How to pray with ink and balloons.

The people in the churches were wasting their time, his father told him. All their voices just collided with each other’s, a deafening roar of wishes, wants, demands. A sound so loud nothing was heard. So a wise man, instead of trying to shout his prayers louder than the rest of them, leaves a note. He sends it up to heaven with his own delivery system. That is how God hears him.

“How’s he get it up there?”

“Where?”

The boy looked up.

“How do you think?”

“He ties it to a bird.”

“They don’t fly high enough.”

The boy crossed his arms. “He throws it, and it lands on a cloud. Then it drifts over to God.”

“Clouds don’t drift high enough.”

“What’s he do then?”

“I’ll show you.” He tore a piece of paper from the back of a book no one read, folded the jagged edge so it was smooth, and plucked a marker from his pocket. A magician. Only he had no wand. His cape was missing, too.  “Write a prayer.”

The boy wrote as neatly as he could: A Prayer

“Now write the rest, and then fold it, so the birds don’t see it. They’ll try to pop the balloon if they see writing inside of it. They can’t read, so they hate letters.”

The boy thought and asked God to protect his future prayers from the birds.

They put the note in a red balloon, so God couldn’t miss it,  pumped it up with helium, and tied a piece of his mother’s old ribbon to the end. Then they went outside and let it go. The wind always blew west, so the boy always thought that’s where God was. West.

The boy sent up a balloon each Sunday. When his father wasn’t around to help, the boy took Webb outside with him, and they filled the balloon with helium, tied the string, and let it go by themselves.

Webb was a parting gift; the boy’s mother, the giver. She was just an idea to him, like pirate ships, or dragons, but Webb was very real, though he lacked most of what a real marten would have. Because Webb felt. When the boy watched the stuffed marten’s eyes, he could see joy and pain and all the other emotions of real things. He saw them ten times magnified. And thus, Webb was ten times more real to him than the frogs that lined the sidewalk or the dog that his father allowed to sleep in front of the fireplace.

That dog roamed the street from time to time. She was thin and had fleas. The boy’s father would open the door and bid her welcome when the nights got cold. The boy would sit on the counter, his feet tucked safely under his knees,  watching as his father went through the trashcan and picked out old fruit cores, ribs, and half eaten sandwiches for her to eat. She snored loudly and would prick up her ears and narrow her eyes when the boy walked past. She never growled, but the boy knew it was because if she did, his father wouldn’t let her in anymore. And she didn’t have enough fur to keep her warm until winter had passed.

Once, when his father was outside and she was inside, the stray dog snapped at Webb’s dangling tail. The frightened boy, who had moments before been searching for faces on the ceiling, gave a startled yank. The dog’s nails scratched the wood floor as she lurched forward, but she held with her yellow teeth, pulling. The boy braced his feet against the arm of the couch, pushing. Something split. His head hit the other side of the couch. He was left with his mutilated stuffed marten while the dog scuttled away with the other half of its tail.

The boy cried that night, his mouth stuffed with sheets, so his father wouldn’t hear him. He was in a black mood after driving the dog out, for he liked the dog, talked to it, and when she was gone, he cursed. The boy wiped away his tears with his palms, but eventually his palms were as wet as his eyes, and it stung to wipe them. So he stopped trying and kept crying, crying for Webb because he couldn’t cry for himself. The marten lay at the end of the bed, shuddering and wheezing and whimpering. But glass eyes couldn’t cry tears.

The next morning, as his father slept, the boy went out in the cold with Webb tucked away in the hood of his coat. The early sunlight was cold, and instead of warming, it bit. He buried his numb fingers in his palms.

They went out into the garage where the helium was. On the hood of his father’s truck, he hastily scribbled a note missing so many letters he had to cross it all out and rewrite it. The boy stuffed it into the balloon. It was hard to tie. His fingers were stiff and shaking.

He and Webb went outside, and the boy took the marten from his hood. They held the string of the balloon together, the boy with his hand and Webb with his paw. Then they released and watched it sail away over the tall, jagged trees. When the boy glanced at the lawn, he saw the remnants of Webb’s tail. He blanched. Looked to the sky. That was the first real prayer the boy ever sent up.

The second one came with the summer storms. When the thunder and lightning began, the boy began to see ghosts.

They were hideous. Long dried hair. Eyes as hard as bone, dead as skeletons. Ball gowns and dusty suit jackets. They opened his door at night as he and Webb stared at them, bug-eyed. Sometimes, they glanced in and laughed, their breath filling the room like fog. Other times they would come in. They didn’t have feet, just stumps. And they would whisper to him with cold smiles in a language he didn’t understand, their tongues snaking back and forth through their mouths. Each time they blinked, their pupils grew smaller and smaller until they were pinpoints in ice.

One night, as they hissed and chanted, he recognized a sound. His name. It was as if he’d been standing outside, and the wind had called to him. The boy screamed.

His father threw the door open, and in the hallway light, they dissolved.

“What?”

The boy shrunk at the fear in his father’s voice. “Ghosts.”

“Where?”

“Not where—when?”

“All right, when?”

Always.” He paused for seeming lack of breath. When he spoke again, his voice was a whisper.  “As soon as you close my door they come, and they open it. Sometimes—sometimes they stand in the doorway for the whole night. Just staring. And I can’t ever sleep.”

His father stared at the pale boy with his face half hidden in the sheets.

The boy looked back at him. No, looked past him. Then at him. “I don’t think they’ll ever go away.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because I think they’re a part o—. I don’t know.”

His father wiped the circles under his eyes.  “I know how to make them go away.”

“How?”

“Ask.”

“Ask wh—?” He blinked. “But what if they see me writing the prayer? What if they pop the balloon before it ever reaches—.”

His father tugged at his wiry beard. “If we go quickly and quietly, they won’t catch us. Won’t know.”

“But—.”

“Come on. Quickly. Quietly.”

The boy got up and followed his father.

“The most dangerous part is the stairs. Ghosts are always sliding down banisters.” He checked around the corner. “But it looks like they’re somewhere else for the time being. Quickly now.” Their feet pitter-pattered on the wood, and the boy shrank at the noise. But the ghosts stayed hidden, or if they did peer out of the shadows, they did it when the boy’s back was turned.

The garage door creaked and whined as it opened. The boy stood tense outside of it and made his father stop when it was high enough for them to duck through. He banged his head, but he had forgotten about it by his next step. When they were both inside, the boy shut the garage door, and, after checking for cracks, finally decided he was safe. He gazed in delight as his frozen breath caught and shattered in the moonlight.

Then he squinted at the shadowy shelves, looking for the marker and paper. When he found them both, he began to write. His father fumbled around in the dimly lit garage for the balloons.

“How will he see it?”

“Who?”

“God.”

“It’s a lot brighter up there. Closer to the stars.”

The boy nodded and continued writing. His father continued looking for the balloons.

He found them. Put the prayer in. Helium. String on the bottom. Raised the garage door. They held their breaths as they passed under the door again. No sound of ghosts. They let the balloon go into the night where it was swallowed up.

When they returned to the house, they went on a ghost hunt. They found nothing. The ghosts had gone.

The third real prayer was the last one the boy ever sent up. He wrote it sitting on the driveway with the paper balanced on his knee and Webb perched on his shoulder. The clouds above were the types that held faces and elephants and dragons, and the birds in the trees were calling to each other, but the boy was too focused on his task to notice them.

The boy wrote something and then drew a line through it. He tried again. He kept trying until the clouds and grass grew too dark to see. Scraps of paper lay scattered on the ground beside him—attempts.

His father called him inside. The boy paused in his writing. The clouds had merged with the dark sky and the birds had gone away. So he saw nothing and heard nothing. His father called again. The boy quickly finished the thank-you letter and ran towards the garage, pressing Webb against his shoulder so he wouldn’t fall into the mud. He folded the note. Put it in the balloon. Helium. String. Let it go.

The boy went inside, walking carefully, so Webb wouldn’t fall off. When they were inside, the boy took the marten by his half-tail and set him on the counter, where he used to sit when the dog would come in.

The boy’s father hadn’t let her in again. But he felt bad, so he would give her scraps every Sunday. As a result, she lingered, and the boy saw her sniffing around in the yard from time to time. She narrowed her eyes when she heard his footsteps. He narrowed his.

It was autumn, and the leaves were on the ground, colorful and dying. The wind rattled the bare branches. The boy was on the driveway again, with Webb in his hood. They were being watch dogs, watching the dog. Whenever she got too close to the house, the boy would charge at her, his battle cry ringing through the air. It never came to that though. Battle. She would always snarl and back away. The boy would retire to the driveway, and the cycle repeated.

She got too close. He jumped to his feet and ran at her. She glared and darted away. The boy turned triumphantly to face her. They both froze, glanced at the fallen marten on the ground between them, then back at each other.

The boy had read somewhere that dogs could smell fear. He tried not to breathe, for breath came from his chest and his chest was where the fear was. He glared at the dog to tell her she’d better step away. When she didn’t, he yelled. He yelled that he was afraid, but it didn’t matter because she couldn’t understand him. He shouted and glared with a terrifying intensity.

Then, all of a sudden, his voice caught in his throat, and the silence that filled the yard made him shrink.

The dog launched towards Webb. The boy shot after her. He slid onto the ground and reached blindly, hoping.  They grabbed the marten at the same time. Only he had fingers, while she had teeth. They ripped the skin on his fingers, scalded him like fire, burned him like ice, and his hand, of its own accord, recoiled, leaving Webb unprotected. The dog rushed towards the woods, her captive dangling between her jaws.

The boy sprang to his feet.

He shouted words his father used when he dropped something. He shouted words he’d heard on television. He shouted words he made up because the words he knew weren’t enough. He shouted them all as he ran towards the break in the trees where he had last seen the dog.

He ran blindly, screaming, screaming. He tripped. Blood in his mouth. He spat it out and rose to his feet. Tracks. He stomped on them as he ran. Fell again. This time he tasted fear. He spat again. It landed on his hand. He wiped it as he stood. Slowly now. His head spun as he ran, and the world spun with it.

“Webb,” he called. “Webb.” The tracks had faded in a spot, and he had kept running. He had no idea where they were or where he was. He slowed. And began to meander through the trees, calling for Webb.

“Weeee-ebb.”

“We-ebb.”

“Webb.”

He found him.

He found him mangled and strangled and tangled in a heap. The white cotton which flecked the ground sagged with spit. One of Webb’s eyes stared at him from where it sat, alone in a heap of white. The other one was still attached. Barely. It dangled uselessly from the split head.

The boy knelt and rubbed the damp little ear. He put his hand over the animal’s eye because he couldn’t stand to have it looking at him like it was. He was going to cry. He lifted his own eyes.

And then he sank.

Dappling and dotting what must have been the tallest tree in the forest were colors, blue and yellow and red. They looked like globs of paint that had dried as they were about to fall. Only they had jagged edges, where the air had knifed its way out. So jagged. Endless rows of colorful teeth. They belonged to dead things. The murdered bodies of prayers.

When the wind passed through, the notes on the ground rattled. The wind shoved them forward and backward on the forest floor, and so the paper was smeared with mud. The remnants of dried rain dotted the pages, and the ink dripped.

The boy’s eyes did the same.

All the prayers he had ever written to God lying in Hell. His strength left him. He sat staring.

Then he stood. He went over to the prayers and read them, collecting them in his opposite hand. They stained his fingers. The mud. The ink. He finally reached the last one. The ugliest one of all. It cracked when he picked it up, that last prayer. He knew what it said.

I want to thank you. For helping Webb. For chasing away the ghosts. For answering my prayers. For making my dad a wise man. And everything else. The whole world, really. It’s so pretty I could cry.

The papers crackled in his hands, as if they were burning. He kicked a piece of bark from a rotting stump. The black bugs scurried away in the light. He picked it up. He picked the dead marten up. Opened the belly. Stuffed the marten with old prayers. He placed the body on the sheet of bark. Then started to walk. He knew where he was now.

The river wasn’t much of a river, but it would do. It was ten feet across and at its deepest point was four feet. But it would do.

He picked at the scab that had grown over the dog bite. He did it ‘til it bled. On the back of a prayer he wrote his last real prayer. The one he never sent up.

Thanks be to God.

He winced. Picked at his finger again so he could sign his name.

Then he sucked it until it stopped bleeding.

He waded into the water, and when it had reached his waist, he placed the bark on the oily surface. It dipped but didn’t sink. He took his last look at the corpse. The place where the marten’s eye had been was just a pale patch of dried glue. He placed the paper over it.

Ghosts lined the river banks, their hands overstretched as if in blessing. They stood beside each other as far as he could see, with eyes that knew all and faces that betrayed nothing. They emitted a pale glow that frosted the grass of the riverbank.

He wasn’t afraid to look away. He knew they would do him no harm. Because he was no longer afraid of seeing ghosts. He was afraid of teeth, and he was afraid of lies, but not of ghosts. He saw them and it was all right. So he looked at the wood with its poor passenger, floating on the water’s surface.

And then, like he had with so many balloons, he let go.

They watched solemnly as the current carried the craft farther and farther downstream. Like Moses. Only the water was rough. The basket tipped, and the baby drowned.

 

short story by Nicole Dominiak, age 15

2014 Gold Key, American Voices Medal

BASIS Scottsdale, Scottsdale

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