David thought the party would be terrible. Strangely, it turned out to be one of the most memorable experiences of his high school years.
As he walked in the door, he realized he didn’t know anybody. Hell, he barely even knew the host. Winding his way through the guests, past the punchbowl and keg stands and stereo, he saw familiar faces, even ones he could match with names. But nothing beyond that.
The party was hosted by Graham, a kid in his history class. They'd been working on a group project the previous day, and Graham told David after the presentation that was the most he’d ever heard him speak. Then some cheerleader had approached them, asking Graham about the party planned for Friday.
“It’s still on, right?” she asked.
“Yeah, of course. You coming?”
“Wouldn’t miss it.” She gave a little wink and walked away. Then Graham must have remembered that David was still there, because he cleared his throat and said “You can come if you want, I guess. It’s tonight at my house. Seven o’ clock.”
At first, David had no intention of going. Graham was probably just inviting him to be polite anyway. David would spend Friday night the way he always did: Convince mom to order pizza, play video games, sleep, repeat. Then his older brother called with the news: He was getting married.
At that point, something changed inside David. The hours spent alone in his room, shooting zombies...suddenly they no longer seemed as appealing. He already got enough flack from his parents, as well as his other peers like Graham, for being a “nerd” and a “loner,” foregoing social interaction for single player games in his room. So here he was, on a Friday night, in a place where the quiet he was accustomed to was nowhere to be found.
He could’ve talked to any of these people, he knew. But if he embarrassed himself — and there was a good chance he would — he’d have to face them at school Monday, and every school day for the next year and a half.
He was considering grabbing a drink, just for something to occupy his hands, when he spotted a girl he didn’t recognize on the couch. She had long dark hair and olive skin and carried a drink in her hand. David gasped as he saw her. Now was his chance — not only was she cute, but after he inevitably made an idiot of himself, he’d probably never see her again anyway.
Inhaling deeply, he made his way through the partygoers and sat on the couch, right beside the girl. Fortunately, the stereo was in a different room, so the music wasn’t as loud.
He stared at his hands for a moment. “Great party huh?”
“Yeah,” the girl said with a smirk. “Can’t you tell how much fun I’m having?"
David chuckled. “Looks like it.”
“Really? How could you tell?”
David took another deep breath. “So,” he said, “I don’t think I’ve seen you around school before. And I’ve been going to school with most of these people my whole life.”
“We probably don’t go to school together.”
“Oh, I go to Parkway,” he said.
“Yeah, I used to go there. Now I don’t.”
“Oh?” he said, “Where do you go now?”
She hesitated. “Somewhere else.”
It was strange that she refused to tell him where she went to school, but he decided not to push. Maybe she was just really private, or didn’t want to give away a detail like that to someone she just met. “I’m David, by the way.”
“Jen. Nice to meet you, David.”
He scratched the top of his head. “So...I like your hair.” He cringed immediately as the words left his mouth. ‘Like your hair?’ How stupid could he get?
“Thanks,” she said, but sounded unsure. She picked up a lock of her hair and looked at it like there was something wrong with it.
David exhaled. “Sorry, I’m not very good at talking to girls. Well, I’m not very good at talking to anyone. Especially girls. Especially beautiful girls.” His cheeks were hot. “I’m being weird again, aren’t I?”
She laughed. “It’s fine. I just got out of a relationship, so I’m out of practice too. Talking to guys, I mean.”
He nodded. “Do you want a drink?”
“Um, sure. But can you get me a soda? I’ve been trying to avoid alcohol.”
So he wound his way through the crowd, wondering if the jocks he passed would get to Jen before he returned. He came back with two drinks a moment later, narrowly avoiding a drunk boy stumbling to the food table.
“So how is it?” he asked the second after they took their first sips. “I got you Fresca. Only thing they had without alcohol.”
“It’s good, thank you.”
He shifted in his seat. “So what do you like to do for fun?”
“Um...I like theatre and art.” She giggled. “That’s totally lame, isn’t it?”
“No,” he said. “That’s not lame at all.”
“Sorry...my ex thought it was lame. I guess I should stop assuming.” She took another sip of her drink. “I should also stop bringing up my ex.”
“It’s fine.” David looked down at his own drink which, without even realizing it, he’d already drained half of. “Do you want to dance?” he asked.
“Um, sure.” She set her cup down and they headed for the living room floor, where there were already several people doing the same thing. David wasn’t a great dancer in the best of circumstances, let alone when he had someone to impress and little space to do it — the floor wasn’t much bigger than the couch they’d come from. He managed to make some sort of movement, and Jen followed along.
They’d barely managed to get a rhythm going when Jen clapped a hand over her mouth and doubled over. “I think I’m going to be sick.” David watched, stunned as she dashed off to a side door he hoped was a bathroom.
He wanted to help her, but wasn’t sure how. He probably could have held her hair back, but that might be strange from someone she just met. Not wanting to dance alone — or stand in the middle of the floor -- he sat back on the couch. He wondered if Jen would even join him again when she came back out, or if she’d be too embarrassed — even though there was no reason to be.
It seemed like forever, but was only a couple of minutes before she emerged and, thankfully, joined him on the couch. “I don’t feel so good,” she mumbled. “I don’t think I can stay. I hope you understand.”
“Of course,” he responded. “Let me take you home.”
“Oh, you don’t have to do that. I don’t live that far away. I’ll just walk.”
David wondered why Jen didn’t go to their school when she lived so close, but didn’t push it. Maybe she went to private school or something. “Well at least let me walk you home. Come on, you don’t really want to walk in the dark by yourself, do you?”
She hesitated, then smiled. “Okay…sure.”
The neighborhood was pretty big, so they’d only walked past a few houses when the noise of the party faded away. David was secretly grateful for the opportunity to leave before the police were inevitably called. At least that’s what he thought would happen —his experience with high school parties was limited.
At the end of the block, a dead end street gave way to the city’s largest cemetery. David’s breath caught in this throat. “Um..is that the way to your house?”
Jen smirked. “Are you scared?”
“No, of course not. Just wondering.”
She reached out her hand. “Come on. It’s not so bad. I cut through here all the time.”
So they held hands as they made their way along the path. He’d never been in a cemetery at night before, but it wasn’t as bad as he anticipated. Somehow he thought he knew why.
“So how often do you do this?” he asked. “Walk through the cemetery, I mean.”
“A lot. Most of my friends live around here, so I walk home from their houses. I love it. It’s so peaceful.”
As they walked, David observed the tombstones, mausoleums and stone benches. Jen was right — everything was so peaceful and still. Around them, crickets sang and the warmth of the night permeated the air. Suddenly his earlier fear seemed silly. What was he even afraid of? Ghosts? That was silly; there was no such thing.
Near the end of the path, Jen tugged on his hand and led him off. Now they were on the grass, so David figured her house must be nearby. Sure enough, when they reached the next road, she led him to their right for just a few feet. They were in front of a small house with a neatly trimmed yard. Lawn decorations and old Christmas lights adorned the outside.
Jen dropped his hand. “You don’t need to go in with me,” she said. “My family is probably already asleep, and they wouldn’t like a stranger in their house.”
“Right. Of course. Go ahead inside — wait!” She turned back around and he said, “Can I see you again?”
She grinned. “I think you will.” Then, without giving any more information, she walked inside.
David stood on the sidewalk for several minutes, stunned. He’d just spent an evening with a girl he might actually have a shot with, but had no way of contacting her. He knew where she lived, of course, but not much else. No phone number, no idea where she went to school. He didn’t even know her last name.
He hadn’t recognized her at the party when he first walked in. Someone had to have invited her, but talking to every one of the dozens of people there to see if they knew her seemed like a daunting task. He could talk to Graham, of course…if he wasn’t drunk or passed out somewhere. Though from the little he knew about these parties, the host not knowing every guest wasn’t uncommon.
He walked back to Graham’s, where the party was winding down. The music volume had been lowered, and most of the people still there were dozing on couches or whispering in corners. The floors and tables were littered with empty and half empty red plastic cups.
There was really no reason for him to stay, except to sober up before driving home — and he’d only had one beer so that wouldn’t take long. He ended up back on the couch he and Jen had been on, where something caught his eye.
It was Jen’s jacket.
It took him a moment to realize what this meant. Not only did he know where she lived, but now he had an excuse to go back. It was too late tonight, of course, but he could go by tomorrow afternoon. With nothing else to keep him there, he took the jacket and drove home.
* * *
He couldn’t get away until the following afternoon. He hadn’t had much alcohol the previous night, but wasn’t used to drinking. What little he’d had, combined with staying up later than usual, caused him to sleep until almost noon. His mother made him do his homework before he went anywhere, and by then it was almost dinnertime. Not wanting to rush back home, he waited until after he’d eaten to venture back out. By that time it was nearly seven and starting to get dark.
Fortunately, it was only about a ten minute drive, and he remembered how to get there. He stepped up to the porch and, not seeing a doorbell, knocked hard a few times. There was no noise from inside, but a moment later, a girl answered the door. She looked about his age, and had the same olive skin and dark hair as Jen. They must have been sisters.
“Hi,” he said, shifting on the balls of his feet. “Um, is Jen home?”
The girl raised her eyebrows. “Excuse me?”
He held out the jacket. “She left this at someone’s house Friday night. I was just returning it. Can you give it to her?”
The girl pointed at the jacket with a shaking finger. “Where did you get that?”
“I told you…Jen left it behind Friday night. I was just returning it…is something wrong?”
“I don’t know who put you up to this, but it’s not funny.” She snatched the jacket from him. “Leave us alone.” She slammed the door and he stood stunned on the porch for a moment before getting in his car and driving off.
* * *
Monday afternoon before history class began, many of David’s classmates said they thought Mrs. Walsh would go easy on them after Friday’s presentations. Instead, she already had a new assignment for them.
“All right, here’s the idea. All of you kids these days have your fancy iPhones, your bluetooths, and all that jazz. But what I want you to realize is that it hasn’t always been that way. Why, just a hundred or so years ago, people had to heat their bath water with fire. Look how far we’ve come since then — little computers that fit in your pocket! But when you look at everything on a screen, you tend to forget that print even exists. So, for your next assignment, I want you to find a print newspaper and...”
Before she could even finish, the class emitted a collective groan. “I know, I know. Newspapers, right? So ancient. But they’re still around, I promise. The assignment is simple: Find five articles that detail historical events, and write down a summary of what happened. You can find them at the library or, you know…by subscribing to them. That’s right, subscriptions aren’t just for the YouTubes.”
David and Graham had their next class together as well. So after the bell rang, David caught up to him in the hallway.
“Hey, do you know a girl named Jen? Short, kinda olive skin, dark hair, about our age. Real cute.”
Graham scrunched up his face. “Doesn’t sound familiar. Why?"
“She was at your party Friday night. I talked to her for awhile, wanted to find her again but I’m not sure how to do that. She said she doesn’t go to our school.”
Graham shrugged. “Someone else probably invited her. You could ask around, I guess. But I’ve never heard of her."
But the few other people David managed to track down said the same thing — nobody had a clue who this mystery girl named Jen really was. Over the next few hours, the incident faded from his mind. He figured the girl who answered the door and yelled at him was just protective of her sister — especially after her bad relationship.
Mrs. Walsh's newspaper assignment wasn't due until Friday, but he figured he’d get it over with the next day — Tuesday. He hadn’t been in the public library for awhile, a fact he realized with a bit of shame. He had no idea where the newspapers were kept, so he asked a librarian who didn’t look much older than him, but led him to a machine in a back room.
He flipped through the local newspapers, starting with the previous year, not seeing much at first. But several papers in, an article caught his eye.
‘Pregnant teen murdered by boyfriend'
The thumbnail looked familiar — an awful lot like Jen. He clicked on the article and, sure enough, the girl in the photo couldn’t have been anyone else. He started to read.
A local teen has been arrested in connection with the death of 15-year-old Jennifer Burke. Matthew Layton, 17, is being charged with two counts of first degree murder in the death of Burke, who was three months pregnant with his child at the time, last month. A hearing is set for next week.
David looked at the top of the page. The article was published twenty-five years earlier and came from the county newspaper just outside the city limits. Could this really be Jen? Was she pregnant? That would explain why she’d just gotten out of a relationship, why she didn’t want alcohol and why she’d vomited even without it.
No, he realized, that was impossible. Even if Jen was still alive, she had been a teenager when this article was published. She’d be in her early forties now. And there was no way she could be…dead. A dead person couldn’t do all the things she had done. There had to be some logical explanation for it.
But no matter how hard he racked his brain, he couldn’t find one. A few minutes later, after sifting through the same newspaper issue multiple times, he left the library and went home.
* * *
He found her grave a week later. After coming to terms with the situation, accepting the fact that ghosts might actually exist, he went back to the cemetery they had walked through that night. But even after hours of combing through each section of graves multiple times, even asking a caretaker for help, he couldn’t find it. He was about to give up when he saw the girl from the house standing by a tombstone.
She looked up before he could say anything. “Hey,” she said. “David, right?”
“Oh um, yeah.” He shoved his hands in his pockets. “You remembered.”
“Yeah…look, I’m really sorry about the other day. After you left, my mom asked who was at the door. I told her what happened and…she told me something.”
“What? What did she tell you?”
“She said she’d seen Jen too.”
David could see the disbelief in her eyes. He’d probably looked the same way when he read the article about Jen’s death.
“So, was Jen related to you?”
“She was my aunt.” The girl nodded down, and David saw the markings. It was Jen’s grave. It wasn’t until then that he realized they were standing near the road, in the same spot where Jen had guided him off the path that night. The grave was in a far corner and he would’n have been able to find it without Jen’s niece standing right next to it.
“Aunt Jen was fifteen when she died,” the girl said. “Killed by her boyfriend when she got pregnant because he didn’t want to be a dad. My grandparents moved not too long after it happened, but my mom was already an adult by then and she decided to stay. Then she married my dad and they had me and now it’s just our house.” She ran her hands through her hair and continued.
“It was weird at first. Aunt Jen died before I was born, and my mom never talked about her. But when she said she saw her…well, it’s kind of nice. Like she’s still here somehow.” She paused. “I’m Amaya, by the way.”
“Nice to meet you, Amaya.” They shook hands; her palms were soft and cool. He held out Jen’s jacket, the reason he’d come in the first place. “Do you want this back?”
She shook her head. “She gave it to you.”
“Well, she didn’t actually give it to me…more like left it behind.”
“Still, she picked you for a reason. To reveal herself to. She saw something in you.”
David unslung the jacket from his arm. Unfolding it, he draped it over the top of the tombstone like he would for an actual person.
“Hey Amaya?” he said. “Do you want to hang out sometime?”
She smiled. “Yeah, I’d like that a lot.”
They stood by the grave in silence for awhile. A few minutes later, David asked for Amaya’s phone to program in his number. Then he left. As he walked off, he saw her standing peacefully by the grave as the sun dipped below the horizon.