Secrets of a Ghost Town
Down by the muddy riverbank on a sunny afternoon, Lizzy sat with her back against the trunk of her favourite tree and with her favourite book in her hands. The sound of the running water next to her soothed her nerves, and the words written across the pages she was reading had all of her attention. Lizzy had always been like that, she always appreciated the little things. Like the chirping of the birds jumping from one tree to another, the feeling of the soft grass between her fingers, the rustling of tree leaves, or even the sound of turning a page in a book she was lost in. Lizzy was a passionate, positive, and sensitive girl who always loved living life to the fullest. She romanticised everything, and always had a way of making something terrible seem perfect.
Every person in Lizzy's small town knew who she was, they all loved her. But no one knew where she always ran to when she felt life was too overwhelming and just wanted to be alone with a book. No one but Lucas.
"What are you doing?"
Lizzy jumped at the sound. She was too lost in her book that she forgot about the real world around her. She looked up and saw Lucas sitting down next to her. A smile drew itself across her face at the sight of her best friend. "I'm reading, obviously."
"You're always reading. I miss you."
"You just saw me yesterday, idiot." She said but her stomach fluttered with butterflies.
"Reading is the only place I can let go, you know that."
"Yeah, escape from reality and live all those different lives, you told me that before." Lucas said. "But don’t you get tired of reading that book over and over again?"
"I love that book. It's always good to live in a world where you know there's a happy ending."
Lucas raised his eyes to look at her. He took her in, her soft skin and the dimple in her cheek, her blue eyes that glimmered in the sunlight, the golden strands of hair that fell down her face and the warm smile she had as she pushed them back and looked at Lucas.
"Why are you looking at me like that?" Lizzy felt the same butterflies again. She loved how Lucas always stared at her. She loved to feel his gaze on her when she was not looking and imagine all the things he could be thinking of. She imagined he was thinking she was the most beautiful girl he'd ever known. She imagined he thought he'd do anything to make her happy. And she imagined he was picturing the two of them together, just like she always did herself.
"I just love seeing you happy. If reading the same book over and over makes you happier than living in the real world, then please, keep reading it." Lucas said. Lizzy noticed just a hint of a sad smile on his face she didn’t see a lot. Lucas was always happy, he always wanted her to do something or go somewhere instead of just sitting there reading. He was enthusiastic about life and knew how to put a smile on someone's face in the worst times possible. So that sad smile he had, Lizzy wasn’t comfortable with. When Lucas noticed her narrowing her eyes at him, he stood up in one quick motion and clapped his hands together. "But for now, you need to get up and come with me."
"Where are we going?"
He shrugged. "I don’t know. Anywhere. Everywhere. Come on, everyone's asking about you."
Lizzy closed her book and got up. "Why would everyone ask about me, Lucas? Are you just trying to get me out of here?"
"No, I'm serious. People love hanging out with you, Liz." He took a step closer to her. His eyes gazed down on her. "Especially me."
Lizzy felt her heart skip a beat. She gazed into his eyes and never wanted to look away. In that moment, she didn’t care about anything else in the entire world. In that moment, it didn’t matter that Lucas just got out of a serious relationship. It didn’t matter that they were best friends practically their whole lives. In that moment, Lizzy didn’t care about her books or the happy endings she was never going to have. She only cared about Lucas. She wanted to freeze that moment when he locked his eyes with hers and showed what she could only describe as love. Lizzy wanted to stay in that moment forever and never let the reality of their world break them apart.
But nothing that felt so good ever lasted. Lucas broke their eye contact first. He looked down, then up, then behind him at the river, he looked everywhere but at her. Lizzy could see the glistening of his eyes. And his lips turned up at one side. She wanted to ask him why they couldn’t be together if he felt that much about her. But she didn’t dare let the question past her lips.
Lizzy slowly lifted her hand to touch his, he turned to face her again, she dropped her hand beside her. "Come on, let's go."
He lead the way through the trees and back onto the road. Outside the shadows of the trees above her, Lizzy could feel the sun heat warm up her body. She had to scrunch her eyes to avoid the sunlight hurting them. She'd been sitting by the river for hours that she got used to the green colours of the grass and the light blue of the river water. She had to accustom her eyes to the pale yellow outside on the streets.
Lizzy and Lucas walked side by side, street after street, shop after shop. Lizzy never liked their small town. Whenever she walked down those dusty streets, surrounded from both sides by different kinds of shops, and feeling the always hot air on her face, she felt suffocated. She felt like she could never leave, like every turn she will take, will always lead her to the same spot again. The only thing that made it all better, was having Lucas by her side.
They opened the door to the florist's shop, Mrs. Jackson. She was an elderly woman who walked on crutches. She smiled when she heard the ringing of the door chimes and looked at them. Her smile only made the wrinkles in her face more defined. She walked over to Lizzy and Lucas using her crutches for support.
"Oh, I wasn’t expecting you two today." She said in her high-pitched, old woman voice then she narrowed her eyes at them. "Did you skip school?"
"No, Mrs. Jackson, it's Saturday, we don’t have school today." Lizzy laughed and looked at Lucas but he wasn’t giving any reaction. "Lucas is going to buy me flowers. Right, Lucas?"
He snapped out of his trance and gave her his most charming smile. "Of course, anything for you, love."
Mrs. Jackson grinned, making her wrinkles even deeper. They walked further into the shop but everywhere Lizzy looked, there were wilting flowers. She looked at Mrs. Jackson, "Mrs. Jackson, have you been okay? Was there no one taking care of these flowers?"
The old florist frowned. She looked around her small shop. "Uh… I'm not sure…" she stuttered with confusion. "Maybe I wasn’t feeling well,"
"Mrs. Jackson, it's okay." Lucas said and supported her when she started to fall back. "It's okay, you should rest."
Lucas walked outside with a confused Lizzy. The world outside the shop seems to be even dustier and yellowish than it was before they entered the flower shop. "How come the weather is only getting worse when it's almost evening?"
Lucas stopped and looked up at the sky, covering his eyes with his hand. "I don’t know. We always get these very dusty days, Liz, don’t worry about it."
He looked at her and extended his hand for her. She didn’t care about the weather anymore as she accepted his hand and let him drag her behind him into an aimless run. They ran, their hands intertwined, and their laughs blending together and they didn’t stop until they were already at the end of the street. They kept laughing as they breathed heavily, trying to recover from their sprint.
When Lizzy stood straight up again, she was startled to see Lucas standing inches away from her. The last of their laughs died down and they were left staring into each other's eyes again. "Lizzy," Lucas spoke, his voice barely audible, "Elizabeth Parker, what are you doing to me?"
Lizzy's voice got caught up in her throat. Her heart jumped and her skin tingled. Her lips parted and she saw how Lucas's eyes flitted down to them.
"Lizzy, I missed you so much."
"What do you mean, Lucas?"
He shook his head and smiled. He opened his mouth. Lizzy wanted to kiss him. He wanted to say something. His eyes held so many words that never passed his lips. But he was leaning in. Lizzy closed her eyes. She waited. But nothing happened.
She opened her eyes again then frowned. The flower shop was right behind Lucas. "How did this happen?"
Lucas followed her eyes.
"How did we get back here?"
Lucas didn’t say anything.
Lizzy was distracted from the flower shop when she was almost knocked down by a strong body. She looked to her side and instantly felt a lump in her throat at the sight of Laura. She looked at Lucas and he looked just as surprised.
"What are you doing here with her, Lucas?"
"Are you stalking us?" Lizzy couldn’t help but ask.
Laura turned her attention to Lizzy and smirked. "It's a small town, Parker. If you don’t want to run into me, get out of here."
Lizzy almost took a step back under the intimidating look Laura pinned her down with. How could Laura know that Lizzy wanted to get out of that town? And why did Lizzy sense a warning in Laura's glare?
"Lucas, we need to talk."
Lucas looked at Lizzy before he said anything. "We shouldn’t, Laura."
"Please. I need to talk to you."
"It's okay. I'll wait for you." Lizzy said and gave his hand a squeeze. His skin was cold. Lizzy didn’t think anything of it.
She walked a few steps away from the ex-couple. She couldn’t even look at the two of them together. So she let her eyes wander around the street. One side was lined with small shops, the other was the woods that lead to the riverside. Lizzy wandered to the edge of the woods and lost herself in the life she made in her head for herself and Lucas. How they'd go through their ups and downs then end up together in the end. She liked to think it would be a romantic moment in her life when years from then, Lucas finally confessed his love for her and then they lived happily ever after. Lizzy smiled at the thought as she let her eyes follow a chirping bird over the river.
She longed for the calm tide of the river, for the sweet singing of the birds, and the soft grass. It was the only place she could let go of all the stress and be as peaceful as she could ever be. It's where she felt the most calm.
That is until she saw a shadow moving in the trees. She walked closer. Then closer. And even closer. There was no shadow. There was something else. Blood. Dark, red splotches of blood ruining the beautiful green of the grass and the brown of the tree trunks. Red blending in with no longer clear blue water. Red everywhere.
Suddenly, Lizzy was crying in Lucas's arms. She opened her eyes and dared a glance at the woods. Everything was normal. No blood. Nothing.
"You're okay, Liz. You're okay, baby."
She looked up at Lucas. His fingers ran across her cheek gently, his hand held hers tightly. He was colder than before. When she looked at his face, the redness in his cheeks was turning pale. The green of his eyes was losing their glimmer.
Lucas smiled. "She left. She thought we could get back together."
"What did you think?"
"I don’t want her, Liz."
Lizzy smiled despite the rapid beating of her heart and the fear she still felt. She let Lucas help her to her feet and he walked her home, saying that it was getting dark. They walked through the same streets until they reached her house. The sky was getting darker and darker very quickly. And by the time they reached Lizzy's house, it was completely dark, the street only lit by a dim moonlight.
Lizzy's father opened the door for them when they knocked. His usual red face was as pale as Lucas's. But he smiled even though he looked tired. "Lizzy, come here." He pulled her into a tight hug that Lizzy didn’t understand.
She laughed it off. "Dad, I've only been gone since this morning."
"I know. It's always good to see my daughter anyway."
Lizzy ignored her father's overly emotional attitude and thought that maybe he'd been looking through his old pictures with her mum and it made him emotional. But she couldn’t ignore his freezing skin. She touched Lucas's hand as they walked up the stairs to her room and wasn’t surprised to see it was freezing just as her father's.
"Lucas, what's going on?"
He didn’t answer her. He walked into her room and she followed him. She stood at the doorway and watched him looking at every corner of the room like he was taking it for the first time.
Lucas turned his back to her. She took a step closer to him. Slowly, she brought a hand to his shoulder. He flinched away.
"Lucas, what's wrong? Why are you freezing like that?"
He turned around to face her. Lizzy was surprised when she saw tears falling down his face. "Lizzy… I tried… I'm sorry…"
"What are you talking about?"
"I tried to protect you from the truth."
Lucas smiled. A smile that Lizzy fell in love with from the moment she saw it. He took a step forward. "I can't be around much longer. No one can. We all tried." He said, "I wish I could go back in time and leave this town with you when I had the chance."
Lizzy frowned in confusion. When did she leave town and asked him to go with her? She was still in school. She'd planned to leave after school, and she'd always planned to take Lucas with her.
"I wish it was easy to keep you in this world. This world where everything is fine, where we find our happy ending, you and me. I wish we could stay here forever."
"Lucas…" Lizzy whispered. She didn’t have anything to follow his name with. She didn’t need to, because he was stepping forward again and closing the space between them.
Lucas brought an ice-cold hand to Lizzy's face. He brushed her hair behind her ear. He leaned in and stopped right before their lips touched. "I love you, Lizzy. I always have."
Their lips connected and they weren't as cold as Lizzy thought they would be. She shut her eyes and kissed the only boy she ever loved. She shut her eyes and remembered. She remembered how his lips felt against hers. She remembered the way it made her stomach flutter. She remembered feeling complete for the first time in her life. She remembered how Lucas whispered those three words, I love you. And she remembered losing all that in seconds, when she failed to convince him to leave with her.
His cold hands were warm on her skin. His hair tickled her face. His tongue moved with hers.
A wall broke down in her mind. The wall guarding her from the truth. A gate opened and all the memories came rushing through. She was scared to open her eyes. Lucas's touch was gone. His lips weren't on hers anymore. She couldn’t feel his presence anymore. All she could feel was emptiness. She knew when she would open her eyes, she will be in the real world, the one in ruins, the one that took away everything she ever loved.
Lizzy braced herself for the harsh reality. She opened her eyes and she wasn’t in her house anymore. She was in the street, in front of Mrs. Jackson's flower shop. She saw the world for what it really was. Messed up. In ruins. Shop fronts were broken down. The signs were cracked and thrown off to the side with blood trickling down the wood. What horrified Lizzy the most wasn’t the town in ruins, it was the people. Torn open and thrown onto the streets. Red everywhere. Everything was red. Red streets, red broken glass, red tree leaves, red torn clothes. Red, red, red everywhere.
Lizzy walked through the mass of dead shop owners, she held her tears back and tried to keep the bile in the back off her throat from coming out. She saw people she knew and people she never spoke to before. She saw Mrs. Jackson on the ground with one of her crutches sticking out of her stomach. She saw classmates she hadn't seen in a while. She saw Laura lying down in a heap of dead bodies. She tried not to recognise the faces but her mind did it before she could think about it.
Her friends. Her family. Everyone.
She passed from house to house, all with shattered windows and broken down doors. Some with still flickering lights shining over the glistening blood still on the walls inside. Abandoned bikes were thrown into the streets. Cars with opened doors and dead owners inside. Lizzy always thought their town had to have been cursed for her to hate it that much, she always connected that hatred to her mother losing her life slowly in their house. But for everyone to die in this town, it had to be cursed.
Lizzy found her house, standing in the midst of a dying fire. She took a deep breath and pushed through the open doorway. Her feet stuck on something squishy. She stopped moving and brought her hands to her mouth, refusing to look down. Her eyes burned with tears that begged to fall. She looked down and gasped at the sight.
Her father laid down in a pool of his own blood. Lizzy couldn’t hold back the sobs that broke out of her. She leaned down and touched her father's face. She watched her tears trickle down and onto his pale skin. She closed her eyes and forced herself to keep going. She went up to her bedroom, no sign of blood. No one lived in this bedroom anymore.
Lizzy's eyes were fixed on the spot right in the middle of the room. The exact same spot where Lucas kissed her for the first, and the last. Where she tried and failed to convinced him to leave with her. He had to stay and take care of his sick mother and his little brother, he'd said.
I love you, Lizzy. The words echoed in Lizzy's head. She shut her eyes and pretended he was still standing there. She pretended he was speaking the words, over and over and over again. She'd told him that she had always been in love with him. Then he kissed her. He promised to join her someday, when his mother was better, when his brother was older. She promised him she would come back someday. They were empty promises.
The whole room taunted her. Reminded her of her selfishness. Reminded her that she could have stayed and suffered the same fate as everyone in this town. Some might say she was lucky she got away, but Lizzy thought this was what she got for abandoning her family, abandoning Lucas, she got to live with the fact that she was completely alive, and alone for the rest of her life. No one ever left their small town. No one but her. And that was her punishment.
Lizzy left her house. She knew where she was going. She knew the way like the back of her hand. She'd taken that path thousands of times ever since she was a kid. The path to Lucas's house. She arrived and saw his little brother first. He was lying on the porch steps, just as dead as everyone else. His mother was right behind him, her throat slit open in her wheelchair. Lizzy remembered all the time this woman had welcomed her into her home, all the times she made her dinner and covered her when she fell asleep on the couch watching television. She remembered how she felt she had a mother in Lucas's mother. Lizzy forced her blurry eyes away from Lucas's family as she stepped over the wooden sticks that were once a door.
Up the stairs she went, her hands sticking on specks of blood on the railing. She stopped at the top of the stairs and stared at his open bedroom. Her heart started beating faster. She was scared of the state she will find him in. She was scared she would never be able to sleep without seeing his bloody face in her dreams.
Lizzy breathed in, then out. She went in and the tears fell down immediately. He was on the floor next to his bed. Scratches covered his arms, and bruises covered his face. But what took him out was the knife sticking out of his chest, where his heart is. Lizzy leaned down and laid on the floor next to him, she touched the tips of her fingers to his cheek. He looked peaceful, she could pretend he was just asleep. She let her tears fall as freely as they could, she let her sobs be as loud as they could be. No one was there to hear her anyway. She put her head on his chest and her arm around his body and she closed her eyes, pretending to just be asleep next to him.
Lizzy felt herself pulling away again. Pulling away from the town in ruins, from the broken glass and the bloodied dead bodies of her town. She was pulling away from the truth, from the real world, and to her own perfect world. She wondered if she could leave town right now, just get in her car and drive as far away as possible. She wondered if she could start fresh somewhere else where no one knew her. She thought of the possibility of a new life, new love, new family. And let go of her past, let go of the fantasy she made herself live in over and over again.
But when Lizzy opened her eyes again, the sun was casting its light through the tree leaves above her. Lizzy sat with her back against the trunk of her favourite tree, with her favourite book in her hands and her nerves at peace.