The Art of Crafting friends
by Kathleen Palm
The first time I saw a ghost, I was three. The wispy form of Dad came to my room and said good-bye. I remember it clearly, how the flowered wallpaper on my wall cut across his middle, vague blobs of color shining through his gray form. I remember his wavering grin and the shine of his eyes. I remember how free he was. No more questions. No more pain. No more limits. Just cold bliss.
I hold onto that image, that feeling as I tuck my hands in my lap, my fingers tugging at the holes in the hem of my shirt, Dad’s shirt. I ride in silence in the passenger seat of Mom’s shiny new car. A shadow sits behind me, whisper whisper whispering a warning…no, not a warning, a promise. I can’t reply. Not in front of Mom.
Spirits. Entities. The dead. Not everyone believes.
I glance at Mom. Her hair tugged into a messy gray-streaked ponytail. Her green-eyed gaze fixed on the bumpy country road as she talks and talks, her words trained on the need to make me normal.
I pretend they’re not there, the ghosts. For her. For the therapist she dragged me to.
“Oh, Genevieve, you’re going to have so much fun.” Mom’s words ache with forced enthusiasm. “You just need to talk to the other kids and get involved in activities. At the end of the week, you’ll have so many friends.”
I have friends. Out the window, a mass of greenery spreads out from the road. Trees. Trees. And trees. Between the trunks, hunched in death, ghosts creep to the side of the road. They come for me. They sense me, one who can see them, hear them. I want to go to them.
“It’s pretty here. There’s canoeing and archery. They might have horses too.”
Mom won’t stop talking, all the way to summer camp…Camp Friendship, or something stupid like that. A flood of words, of encouragement, of happiness, of positivity. At least one of us has benefitted from therapy.
She taps her fingers on the steering wheel. “You can forget all about your imaginary friends.”
The figures in the trees, the wispy figure behind me in the car, not imaginary.
“I mean imaginary friends were cute when you were three or maybe five, but not at eleven years old.”
I clench my jaw and clasp my hands, holding in the words I want to scream.
Over the road, a large wooden arch holds the words ‘Welcome to Camp Friendship’ in crooked black letters. We bump into a dirt parking lot. Sunlight reflects off shining smiles as kids run between cars with bags banging on their backs and knees.
A shiver of hate crawls along my back. They know nothing. Only the limited view of the living.
I run my fingers over my watch. Dad’s watch.
Mom pulls the car into an empty spot and turns the key. “We’re here!”
I reach for the handle. “Great.”
The closing of the car door echoes in my head, so final, like the sound of a guillotine blade striking. I know because the ghosts show me the past, bring it to life in my mind, teach me. With a stupid smile plastered on her face, Mom hands me my bag, then heads to a building with a sagging sign with the word ‘registration’ printed in unhappy block letters.
Trees line the parking lot, and, tucked within their trunks, cabins crouch under leaf-covered branches. Sunlight freckles the metal roofs and wood sides. Spirits hover outside the spots of light. They call me.
I want to be with them, the dark misty forms and silver wisps of those who have been.
But there are others creeping along the ground. Dark and jagged beings constantly hunting, searching, but for what I don’t know. They never tell me. The not-people, I call them. One hid under my bed when I was six or seven. It tap tap tapped on my floor, on my walls, on the ceiling. Mom never heard it and didn’t believe me.
She never believes me.
It had never been a person, never been alive. Skulking and sneaking. Tapping and growling. It played wicked games. It spouted evil words, though I never feared it. It hovered in corners and crept along the ceilings, but didn’t hurt me. And one day it was gone. I met others, more not-people, over the years. One here. One there. Months would pass, years would go by, without seeing their crooked shapes flicker across a doorway. But at this camp, hordes of not-people crawl and limp through the shadows.
Strange and intriguing. For a moment, I am glad to be here.
But why are they here? Why this camp?
Voices slink from every shadow and ooze over the shiny new shoes of the smiling campers, unaware and uncaring. We were called. We were summoned. We were promised a gift.
We wait for the promise to be fulfilled.
I spin, the calm place I found ripped away by my name. Mom has her hands on her hips and fury clear on her face.
In a few purposeful strides, she stands before me. Her gaze dips, as if taking in my shirt, Dad’s shirt. “It’s not real, what you think you see out there. You know that.”
“No,” I say, begging for a fight. “You know that.”
Mom’s hands crash onto my shoulders, her fingers pressing with a need to silence me. “No more of this!”
I wiggle out from under her grasp. “I don’t want to be here with these…people!” Frustration sinks into my words, lifting them above a whisper. “They don’t understand. I hate—”
“Stop!” Mom glanced around, giving half smiles to those who gaze our way. She closes her eyes for a moment, then takes a breath. “You can’t hate the living…you are one.”
A phrase the therapist made me repeat.
“You feel as if you don’t belong, so you’ve created a world only you can see.”
More nonsense from the therapist. I’ve tried before, to be in the world. It never works. Ever.
“Time to let that go,” her voice is a dangerous whisper. “No more getting kicked out of school for scaring kids with talk of ghosts. No more avoiding life. You will go to camp. You will make friends. You will be normal.”
Normal. Like the girls who giggle and skip around me? I’m not like other people. The dead find me. They talk to me. That is my normal. I can’t help that I am drawn to their cold, to their knowledge.
Mom grabs my hand and walks towards a door with another registration sign taped to the glass. With an uneasy smile, she looks at the other parents and kids. “Don’t be nervous, dear. You will have so much fun!”
They follow me. Whispering. Tapping. Growling. No judgements. No expectations. No petty name calling or eyes full of insults. Unseen, but not unfelt as campers and parents react with a shiver or glance over their shoulder.
Not-people slink down the roof to the top of the doorway. Pointed fingers stretch over the stone. Eyes shine from black heads, staring at me. Obsidian claws reaching.
I reach my hand to the lingering shadows. “My friends.”
They want something. Need something. Maybe I can help them.
I enter the building. Adults stand, shifting as if uneasy, as if overwhelmed, as if ready to get away from the noise and chaos. Voices echo as kids run to greet each other. Other girls watch from the sidelines, quiet smiles of excitement. This is not exciting. It’s torture. Mom pulls me through the room. She expertly slides past parents standing with bags hanging from their arms or sitting at their feet. I barely avoid collisions with little brothers and girls intent on getting as far from their parents as possible. Mom continues to look back at me, as if afraid I will disappear.
If I could vanish, I would.
Spirits glide along the ceiling. Not-people crouch in the corners. Watching. Waiting. For what?
Girls giggle, huddled together, whispering secrets. I wait for them to look at me. They always do, their stares laced with mean words and sickening grins. The living. Shallow and awful.
“Just a little effort and you can make so many friends. Real friends,” Mom says with a nod to the masses as she pulls me to a table.
They will never be my friends.
Smiling adults sit behind the table, pens tapping on papers with lists of names. A woman with a limp, brown ponytail sits up straight. “Hi! Welcome!”
I glance at a name tag stuck to her shirt. The edges curl around the green hand-written letters. Margo.
“I’m sorry, we’re late,” Mom says, a hint of annoyance in her voice. “Someone was reluctant to come.”
“Oh, sweetie,” Margo says with a lame look of sympathy. “You’re going to have so much fun, you’ll forget all about missing home.”
But I won’t miss home.
“This is Genevieve Fries.”
“Just Gen,” I say.
“Well, Just-Gen, you’re in Cabin 13. Find the counselor with the Cabin 13 sign. They will lead you to your happy home away from home in a few minutes!”
Just-Gen. Like I haven’t heard that before, as well as Genevieve believes, Geneweirdo, Spooky Gen.
“She has trouble making friends,” Mom adds.
I clench my fists, fighting the urge to slam my hands on the table and declare that I have friends, ones that don’t post stupid pictures online, ones that don’t make me feel bad for wanting to wear my dad’s old shirts, ones that don’t make fun of my light blonde, nearly white, hair.
“Oh, well, don’t worry, here at Camp Friendship, we’re all friends!” Margo’s words are sickly sweet and hollow.
To distract myself form the need to throw up, I check the room for my friends. Shadows glide across the floor, hover at the ceiling, and pass in front of windows. Darkness gathers in the corners and crawls up the walls. Thick and burning, the air sparks with their desire…their hunger.
So strong. Excitement at what it could mean drives away my annoyance.
Mom embraces me, an awkward hug filled with demands. “Be nice to people. Make friends.” So much left unsaid.
To fulfill her expectations. To be normal.
Only I won’t.
With a few smiles of encouragement and waves, Mom slips out the door. I turn to the counselor waving a sign with the number 13 and tiny hearts painted on it. Her dual braids bounce on her shoulders, her smile a perky curl. I don’t look at her name tag. I don’t care. In a wave of squeals and flailing girls, I am swept to the group headed to Cabin 13. Pine needles cushion my feet. Birds sing and flutter in the air. A breeze carries the solemn voices of the dead, call call calling me. Shadow people circle the mob of campers. Silver mist trails overhead. Spirits everywhere. They want to talk to me, to share their stories. It’s the not-people who creep at the edges of my vision, jagged angles and harsh black, that demand my attention. Wanting…something.
We want what was promised.
What was promised?
“Go ahead and unpack your things, Cabin 13! Then meet back at the main cabin for arts and crafts. Our theme is friendship!” Counselor Perky waves at the cabin, a poor example of a place to live, and skips off along the trail, leaving me trapped in a group of girls.
Girls I was supposed to talk to, to be friends with. I want to run off into the woods with the ghosts. I want to hear their tales and learn what they know. I long for the cold touch of forgotten fingers and memories of days lost to the past.
The screen door creaks as the girls push their way in, chatting and laughing. The wood floors echo with footsteps as a group of seven rush to one side lined with three bunk beds. Four others wander to the opposite side of the square room, glancing at the larger group, as if gauging how well they would be accepted. They all look at me, judgement in their eyes, as if wondering who will get stuck with me as a bunk mate. A game the living play and the dead don’t. Beds protest as bags land on their rusty springs while everyone discusses where they want to sleep, pushing beds together and sharing where they are from and what they like. Clothes and make-up and boys and being happy to be away from their parents. Nothing important. Nothing real. Cell phones flash as they take pictures.
I don’t have a phone. The dead don’t like flashes and pictures.
I toss my stuff by the door, away from the oddness of the living. The corner of one of Dad’s books pokes out from the top of my duffel bag, his glasses a comforting weight in my jacket pocket. My keepsakes, stolen from a box without Mom’s knowing, to remind me of Dad, of what he said, of what it meant to see him before the light swallowed him.
I lean against the door, ignoring the bright colors of life and turning to the gray. Shadows grow, shift. Ghosts step through the walls. Not-people crawl up through the floor, clinging to the underside of beds, dark fingers gripping the sides, waiting.
“And you are?”
I look up. The group of seven girls stare at me, hair twisted in fancy designs. The others in the cabin fall silent.
“Gen,” I say, my gaze straying to the creeping shadows.
A girl in a pink tank top steps forward, judgement oozing from her stance. “So, Gen, what are you looking at?”
Ghosts. Spirits. “Nothing.”
“Nothing must be pretty interesting,” a girl with red curls says. She laughs, then everyone laughs, before returning to their meaningless chatter.
Make friends. With the living?
Not-people crowd under the beds and hang from the ceiling. So many. So powerful. So hungry.
The sensation flows from them to me. They look to me. As if asking a secret question. Begging. Icy fingers grip my leg and I look down at a wicked grin. A game. Fun. I gaze at the girls of Cabin 13, who glance at me, as if confused as to what I am, and giggle. My insides fill with frigid delight.
A high-pitched whine precedes the loud speaker crackling to life. “Arts and crafts begin in the main building in a few minutes!”
With eyes rolling and phones in hand, the seven girls file out the door. The others follow, looking a bit more excited.
I take up the rear. A pulsing wave of darkness crashes behind me. Not-people and ghosts. Excitement drips from them as if what they need is close.
The crowd enters the main building and finds seats at long tables, tables full of glue and paper and glitter, of string and beads and fabric. Those who follow me, who speak to me, guide me to take a seat in the center of the room, in the center of the smiling girls, who talk talk talk as if they know everything.
The counselors direct us to create something to give to a new friend. To open our hearts to new people. To give a gift.
Not-people stir and shudder. A gift.
Beads scatter across the table. The pile of string is pulled in different directions. Talk of bracelets and necklaces flitters from one girl to the next. Beads and string don’t make friends. I long for the cold touches, for the knowing of what comes after this strange existence. There are no questions in the icy embrace of death. There is no pain. No glasses without an owner. No ragged shirt hanging from slumped too-small shoulders.
The spirits rise behind the campers. Not-people crawl onto the backs of the living and occupy open spaces on the benches. Black voids among the color of life.
“Gee, I wonder why she has trouble making friends?”
I glance up at brown eyes locked on me.
Brown Eyes nudges the giggling blonde next to her and points at me. “Did you hear her mom?”
Miss Giggling Blonde laughs and nods as her face twists with evil intentions. “Maybe if you weren’t weird, you could make friends.”
I grip the hem of my shirt, holding in the hate that wants to spill out. “I don’t want to be your friend.”
Brown Eyes rolls her eyes. “Oh. I’m hurt.”
“The girl who stares at nothing,” a familiar voice says. Pink Tank Top from Cabin 13 strolls along the aisle.
“What are you wearing?” Red Curls from Cabin 13 follows in Pink’s wake.
My fingers poke through the holes at the hem of Dad’s shirt. Anger coils deep in my soul ready to strike. The living and their questions, their need to pick and poke and make fun of.
I hate it. I hate them.
The dark spots around the room seep in through the frail edges between here and there. The dead’s eyes fill with longing. Hunger. Whispers fill the air. Chanting. Their icy fingers caress the girls’ faces.
A gift. Our gift.
I know what they want, what they’ve been waiting for.
The image of a symbol glows in my head.
I know what I need to do, what they need me to do. My friends.
How? Draw the symbol? Make it real. Not-people grip the table edges, staring at me.
Make. Create. The words grow louder, screaming in my mind.
I need something to draw on.
I reach for paper, but not-people push it away. Make. Create.
A wad of pipe cleaners sits in the center of the table. I grab a handful and scatter them in front of me, colorful and fun. The symbol burns through my thoughts, dark and powerful. A star. A crescent. An arrow. All these somehow combined. Not-people drag their claws over the table. The room vibrates, it hums, as if ready to explode.
I don’t know if I can bend these fuzzy nothings into what I see. Not-people cheer for me, push me. A red, blue, and purple form a crescent. Not-people call for more. Green, green, and white and the crescent grows. An arrow. Black, purple, black, yellow. A star. My fingers trip and stumble over each other as frustration tangles the commands traveling from my brain to my hands. I hold the final shape in my thoughts. Not-people close on me, grip my arms with cold touches. I work as fast as I can, my fingers guided by the dead.
I swipe the remaining pipe cleaners from the center of the table, waving away the whiny protests of the others at the table. They don’t like me. I don’t care.
My creation must be…will be perfect.
One look. Their minds will open. Make. Create. Our gift.
The ghostly chant gains momentum as I near the completion of my task. Excitement rambles in my chest, pounding on my heart.
I finish crafting the symbol, and a rush of power darkens my mind. Ghosts press forward. Not-people hiss and tap tap tap on the wood tables.
I look from one twisted form to another. Look?
Everyone must see.
So many girls fill the room. How do I get everyone to see? Cold hands boost me up, help me to stand on the bench. Everyone must see. Everyone must look at the strange girl who has no friends.
Except I have a lot of friends.
I thrust the arts and craft project in the air. “My friends!”
Bright faces turn to me. Bodies become motionless and smiles freeze into emotionless grins. The glint in the eyes of the living fade as shadows drape across their skin. Not-people crawl onto the campers’ backs and sink their dark claws into heads covered with shiny blonde or perfectly curled hair. Black seeps over the girls’ eyes, no longer full of shallow thoughts and judgements.
The pipe cleaner symbol flares to life with blue flame, then disintegrates. I drop my arm. The bodies around me stiffen, then jerk. All of them. Everyone has looked at me. Hands slam on tables. Feet stamp on the floor. Spasms rock their shoulders, slanting one way then the other. Bones snap and pop. Muscles quiver. With a collective gasp, the bodies still. One by one, they pick up a hand and gaze at it in wonder. Black oozes from eyes and down chins.
“My friends,” I say as I climb down from my perch. “Join me for arts and crafts!”
My friends whisper in strange new voices as not-people and spirits make themselves at home in the living.
Maybe Mom will believe me when I tell her I have friends. I’ve always had friends.
About the Author
Kathleen Palm loves the weird, the scary, and the fantastical, believing that magic makes the world a fabulously strange place. Her kids, husband, cats, and dog add laughter and general chaos to her life, which includes writing, reading, and watching creepy television shows, featuring demons or time travel. An author with REUTS Publications, she is working on her debut YA fantasy DOORS. Her short stories DARK WOLF and TOGETHER can be found in the anthology FAIRLY TWISTED TALES FOR A HORRIBLY EVER AFTER. Her horror short story WHAT LURKS IN THE DARKNESS can be found in the anthology HALLOWEEN NIGHT: TRICK OR TREAT.