I. Lights

Late in May at midnight, two teenagers met in the dark. One, a young man named Juan, shined a flashlight on the other's car. He asked, "Did you bring the beer?" "Yeah. Where are we going?" The other teenager, Nathan, rolled down his window. Nathan was the older of the two, though they were in the same grade, twelfth. Graduation was quickly approaching, but that date still seemed far off in both their minds. "First, we're getting food." Juan turned the flashlight off and got in the front passenger seat. "Then, we're sneaking onto the trail." "Where are we gonna park the car?" Nathan started the car. "Alex's." Juan messed with the radio. He glanced out the window for a moment. The wind was picking up. He couldn't make out the moon or any stars. 'Is a storm coming in?' "Does he know?" Nathan asked as he backed out of the driveway. "Don't worry about it. If he asks, I'll tell him what we're doing." Juan said. They picked up food and parked in front of their friend Alex's house. The lights inside the house were off. Juan thought about texting Alex he was there, but he doubted Alex was still awake. He got out of the car and carried the bag of food in his arms. Nathan carried the case of beer. Juan took another look at the sky. The air tonight was more humid than the last few days. He thought about asking if Nathan had an umbrella on hand, but he decided to test his luck instead. They were already being foolish as it was, going out to get drunk in the woods on a school night. He'd certainly regret his decision tomorrow, he thought. That was for the him of tomorrow to deal with. "We just have to go through his backyard. It's not far from there." Juan said. He walked Nathan around the side of the house. A flood light flashed on them for a moment. They both looked up at it out of instinct. Letting out a sigh of relief, Juan continued on forward. When that light went out, he saw more. In the woods behind the house, blue lights floated along above the ground and to high up in the swaying pines. Their shapes were unclear from where he stood, but he saw they varied greatly in size; from large, strange forms to what looked like lights smaller than a firefly's. The two young men stood in awe of the display, neither able to say anything while the lights danced in the distance. Then, all at once, they vanished. Juan turned to Nathan. "Did you see that?!" "Yeah...what the fuck was that?" Once they were gone, Nathan was less shaken by the lights than Juan. He quickly thought up reasonable explanations for what he saw. "Cop lights? No, that ain't right. Is there a road on the other side?" "No...it's the trail and a creek. Then it's nothing but woods for a long time before you get to any road. There's no way we'd be able to see car lights from that road." Juan's heart raced and a grin appeared on his face. "Change of plans. It's investigation time. Let's go." "Investigation? Uh...is that a good idea?" Nathan asked. "Probably not, but we're doing it." Juan rushed towards the woods. Nathan followed behind him. "We'll go straight through here." Juan turned his flashlight back on and pointed it in the direction he planned on going. The back porch light came on shortly after that. A voice called down to them. "Uh, what are you two doing in my backyard at midnight?" Juan looked back. The person who called out to him was Alex. Standing beside him on the deck was their other friend, Eric. Juan ignored his question and asked one of his own, his mind preoccupied with his need to know over logic and manners. "Were you setting up some lights back here?" "What? No." Alex said. "Did you see those blue lights?" Juan asked him. "What blue lights?" Alex responded. He looked over at Eric, who shook his head. "They looked like they were coming from your backyard." Juan said. "I just woke up. I didn't see anything." Alex said. He leaned forward against the railing on the back porch. "You woke up at midnight outside on a school night?" Nathan gave him a strange look. He had no room to judge, as he himself had slept in much stranger places, but he thought it odd for someone like Alex. "I fell asleep on the porch. I do that all the time." Alex explained. "Did you see cop lights or something?" Eric asked, standing close by Alex. "You saw them?" Juan asked. Eric shook his head. "No. I didn't see anything, but I was asleep until about five minutes ago." "Do you two just sleep out here or something?" Nathan asked. "What's the big deal? It's really peaceful out here." Alex shrugged. "Should've expected that from you. And of course you didn't see anything." Juan rolled his eyes. That was just his luck that something strange and unexplainable would happen right in front of his most skeptical friend and that friend wouldn't notice any of it. "If you came into my backyard at midnight to tell me you saw aliens, I am going to throw this at you." Alex held up a half empty soda bottle. Juan egged him on jokingly. "I dare you. I'm too fast for you to hit." "Juan, go home. I'm going inside." Alex threw the bottle down with a playful grin. Juan easily caught it. "Text me if you find out what it was." Eric said. He waved to them before going inside. "I will!" Juan called back. He sighed and took a swig from the bottle. "Damn. Guess we gotta go." "I thought you said Alex was cool with it?" Nathan asked. "Usually, he is. Must be in a bad mood or something. Damn, let's go." The two friends drove back to Juan's house and went to his bedroom in the basement of the house. In the basement, Juan opened up a beer, thinking deeply on what the lights might have been. Outside, thunder rumbled. A few minutes later, soft rain came down on the roof. Far in the distance, lightning occasionally lit up the single window at the far end of the room by the back door. Juan closed the curtains to block the view of that night light show. "That was some weird shit. What do you think it was?" Juan asked. "We could have stumbled on someone's special effects for a student film project." Nathan suggested. "In Alex's backyard? Without him knowing about it? No, we saw something, and I'm pretty sure it was ghosts." Juan said. Juan often saw orbs and lights in strange locations at night, but no one else with him ever saw anything. Alex told him he was seeing things or hallucinating. People always told him that when he saw things no one else did. Nathan was not particularly bothered by the thought. He opened up a beer and sat back on the couch. "Ghosts? I don't know if I believe in ghosts. It's a comforting thought, at least." "You find ghosts comforting?" Juan asked. "Well, yeah. If ghosts are real, that means there's something after this. That takes out any scariness about them to me." Nathan said. "Could be demons." Nathan shrugged his shoulders. "Honestly, I'd find demons comforting at this point. Anything that shows me there's something beyond this shit, even if it's terrifying, would make me feel a little less shitty about my lot in life." "You know, when you put it that way...it does make it less creepy." Juan thought about it, then added. "Less. It's still really creepy." "So, what do we do now?" Nathan finished off the can and opened up another. He came to get wasted. Whether it was out in the woods or at Juan's house, it didn't matter to him. He didn't want to think about today or tomorrow. Strange as what they saw was, he didn't really care much. "I don't know. You wanna do some ghost hunting with me?" Juan asked. Nathan raised an eyebrow. "Are you joking?" "No, why?" Juan got out a small device from underneath his desk. According to the person who sold it to him, it was a spirit box. "I have plenty of equipment I got from the pawn shop. Where did I put that old camera..." "Discount ghost hunting. You know what? Fuck it. Sure. How do we do this and when?" Nathan lit up a cigarette. "Do you work this weekend?" Juan asked. Nathan looked away. "I don't have to. What about you?" "I'm out of work for right now. The store went out of business. My last day was last Saturday. Well, I was gonna need a new one after I move to Florida anyway." Juan laid out all of his collected equipment onto the floor. He checked over it to make sure he hadn't forgotten anything. "You really wanna do this?" "Sure. Why not? I've got nothing worth doing anyway." Nathan got up from the couch and went to look over the odd collection of items. He wasn't sure what half of it was for. "How do we do this?" "Same as they do in the ghost hunting shows." Juan said. "I've never really watched any." "Seen any YouTube videos about ghost hunting?" Juan asked. Nathan shook his head. "I don't use the internet much." Juan stared at him. "Are you serious?" "I don't have a computer or a phone." Nathan said blankly. "Oh, really? Jeez, and I thought my parents giving me that old beat up piece of shit Windows ME computer was sad. Don't your foster parents get money to take care of you?" Juan asked. Nathan finished off his cigarette and opened up another beer. "I'm nineteen now. I haven't lived with them in about a year, but no. They pocketed that. I was free money for them." "Really? I'm sorry." Juan said. Something dawned on him. "Wait, where are you living?" Nathan looked away from him again. "Don't worry about that." "Do you...have a place to go back to?" Juan asked. "I have...somewhere." Juan put his hand on Nathan's shoulder. "Nathan, tell me the truth. Are you homeless?" Nathan faced the ground. "For the moment." "Where have you been sleeping the last year?" He asked. Nathan drank most of his beer. "Different places, usually in my car. Sometimes, I stay over at places. Uh, couch surfing. I do some services for people and they let me stay the night." "What kind of services?" Juan asked. "Just, uh, whatever they need done." Nathan scratched the back of his head. "Why didn't you tell me? You can crash here for a while. I wouldn't mind. Does Tyler know about all this?" Juan asked. Nathan and Tyler were best friends since early elementary school. Juan rarely hung out with him, but he did talk to Tyler from time to time since Juan was a friend of Tyler's younger brother, Zack. "Tyler and I don't exactly talk much anymore. Haven't for a while." Nathan said in an emotionless tone. "What happened?" Juan was surprised to hear that. "Nothing, really. We grew apart. There wasn't a big fight or anything like that. People change. That's all." Nathan shrugged. "I can't let you go back out there tonight. You can take the couch." Juan offered. Nathan shook his head. "You don't really need to do that." "I can't let a friend sleep in his car when I have room to give up." Juan said. "It's really okay. I have the car and a tent. Well, for now." Nathan's words didn't dissuade Juan in the slightest. Juan shook his head. "Nathan, it's okay. Sleep here tonight." "I guess I could..." "We're gonna be doing our ghost hunting over the weekend anyway. Stay here at least until Sunday. My parents won't care that you're here." Juan added onto the offer. "Okay. Is there anything you want me to do for you to compensate?" Nathan asked. Juan waved his hand dismissively. "What? No. You're my friend." "Well, guess that's that." Nathan returned to the couch. "Sorry. That thing's pretty beat up. My dad picked it up off the side of the road five years ago." Juan said. Nathan looked over the sofa. There were a few holes here and there in the fabric, but he didn't mind. It wasn't particularly uncomfortable. He had slept in much worse places. "Nah, it's fine. It's nicer than the back of my car. Say, what's with Eric and Alex?" "What do you mean?" Juan sat down on his bed. "They're all buddy-buddy with each other again." Nathan said. "Again? When were they friends before? When I met them back in middle school, they were always at each other's throats." Juan said. "They used to be best friends before middle school, then they hated each other for some reason. Now they're back to being best friends. I think they're fucking." Nathan said, then finished off his drink. Juan spit out his drink. "What? Why does that mean they're fucking?" "I know Alex is gay. I heard from Tyler. Alex told Zack. Don't tell him you know. I'm not supposed to know and neither is Tyler. Zack accidentally let it slip." Nathan casually explained. "Alex is gay?!" Juan took a moment to process that information. He couldn't believe it. Juan didn't have a problem with Alex being gay. He was in disbelief that he failed to notice despite being friends with Alex since middle school. "What about Eric?" Nathan lowered his head slightly and looked up at Juan with a smirk. "How many girls has Eric dated? How many has he ever shown any interest in at all?" Juan went through his memories searching for any girl he could think of. He told himself there had to have been at least one, but no names or faces came to mind. He was in disbelief again that he failed to notice this for years. "Wait...he's never...but...I don't know, man." "I've been hanging around Eric a lot lately. He's never said anything about that, but my gut tells me I'm right and I'm rarely wrong about this kinda thing." Nathan said. "They're definitely fucking. If they're not fucking, they will be." "I can't really...see them together...That's crazy." This information was too much for Juan to handle at once. He reminded himself there wasn't absolute proof for Eric, but if Alex really did come out to Zack, there was no denying that. He rubbed the back of his head. "Alex and Eric. Huh. Gonna take me a sec to get used to that, but that kinda explains some things. Alex has never had a girlfriend, and it's not like it'd be hard for him to get one." "Eh, I don't know how easy that'd be around here. You know how some people are." Nathan said, his implication plain as day. "Yeah, but there'd still be plenty of options for him. I know a lot of girls think he's hot. There's this one girl in my class that's always going on about how 'he's even more dreamy when he wears his glasses'. Even Maria thinks he's cute. Glad I don't need to worry about that." Juan laughed about that last part. "You were worried Alex was gonna steal your girlfriend?" Nathan asked with a laugh. "No, Alex isn't that kind of guy, but things have been kinda...not great with Maria lately." Juan said. He looked at his phone in sadness. Every time he got a new message, he knew it wouldn't be her. "I can put up with her dad hating me, but lately, she hasn't been texting me like we used to." "You could, you know, talk to her in person." Nathan said. He opened up another can of beer. "It's not just that. She's been turning me down a lot for sex." Juan let out a deep sigh. He didn't want to admit it, but she rarely kissed him anymore either. "We haven't done it in three weeks now." "Maybe there's something else going on? Is she cutting off her friends too?" Nathan asked. Juan paused before answering. He didn't want to admit the truth. "No. It's only me." "Hmm. Might want to end it and move on already. No point in staying if it's already over." Nathan shrugged. "I know, but...I don't know. I'm not ready to let go yet. I keep thinking there's a good reason, and she'll tell me soon. I'm probably just being dumb." Juan dropped his shoulders. He finished off his beer. "Might be graduation coming up. A lot of couples split up around now." Juan rested his chin against his palm. "Yeah...I know..." The ghost hunting investigation was planned for Sunday night. Nathan and Juan didn't talk much about it until Saturday afternoon. Over the course of the week, Juan received no texts or calls from Maria. When he saw her at school and tried talking to her, she avoided him every chance she got. Interacting with Alex was nearly as awkward. He wanted to ask Alex a lot of questions, but didn't want to come off as being weird or reveal how he knew about Alex's secret. He avoided asking Alex about coming over on Sunday for the investigation out of nervousness that he might let slip something he shouldn't. He decided he'd ask Alex last minute and worry about it then. Saturday night, he went over his equipment with Nathan. He laid everything out on the floor. Nathan lit up a cigarette. He sat down on the floor beside the mess with Juan. He asked, "What is all this stuff?" Juan pointed to each item as he named them. "Spirit box, recorder, old Polaroid camera, newer camera, pendulum, flashlights, body cams, salt, chalk, snacks, protection amulets, candles, matches, and a pocket knife. You know, your typical ghost hunting stuff." "Salt? Chalk?" Nathan wanted to add 'and what are you going to do with a pocket knife', but he decided it was better not to ask. "For protection circles and summoning." Juan picked up the canister of salt and the box of sidewalk chalk. Nathan nodded his head. He had seen something like that in a movie before a long time ago. "And why do we have so many cameras?" "You can never have enough cameras when ghost hunting." Juan spoke confidently. Nathan picked up an amethyst pendulum. He watched it swing back and forth as he dangled it in front of Juan. "What the hell is this thing? A broken necklace?" "It's a pendulum. We can use it to ask questions of any spirits there." Juan took the pendulum from Nathan and put it in a duffel bag. He started putting everything else in the bag. "Okay...where are we doing this?" Nathan asked. "We saw the spirit activity at Alex's house. We'll start there." Juan said. He finished packing up the bag and zipped it up. "I don't know if Alex is going to want us fucking around in his backyard all night." "He can come too." Juan grinned. "Oh, that should be fun." Nathan laughed at the idea. "Would he really let us? He was pissed that night." "That wasn't about us. Alex lets me do stuff like that all the time. He was just grumpy. He'll get over it. I'll invite him tomorrow." Juan said. He put the duffel bag on the floor beside his bed. Juan hoped he was right. The next day, around noon, Juan finally asked Alex. He called him on his cell. "Hey Alex." "Hey, what's up?" Alex answered. Juan cleared his throat. "Nathan and I were going to do some ghost hunting tonight and we were wondering..." "Are you seriously inviting me to go ghost hunting with you? You know I don't believe in that crap." Alex said. Juan could hear in his voice that he wasn't irritated. "It'll be fun. Also, we wanted to do this in your backyard." Juan waited in anticipation for Alex's response. "What? Why?" "That's where we saw those weird, blue lights." "Not that again. Those were probably cop lights." Alex brushed it off. "From your backyard? There's only woods behind your yard." Juan begged him. "Come on, Alex. Please! We won't make a lot of noise." Alex sighed. "Mm...alright. Fine. Let's go ghost hunting. It might be entertaining." Juan mouthed the word "yes" in relief. "Eric should help us too. It'll be fun. Do you think Zack would come?" "Hmm...Zack's busy at Andrew's house this weekend." "Oh, well, it can be the four of us, then." Juan said. "Okay. Bring food. I want pizza." Juan pulled his wallet out of his back pocket to see how much cash he had on him. He got his last paycheck yesterday. What he had on him was all he would have unless he asked his parents for some money or until he got another job. "I don't know if I can afford that." "Just one medium pizza at least. You are doing this on my property." Alex revised his request. "I'll try to see what I can do. No promises." Juan said. His thoughts went to what Nathan told him again. He almost said it aloud. Juan caught himself, but that left him silent for far too long to be comfortable. "Hey, you still there?" Alex asked. "Yeah, sorry. I got distracted by something outside." Juan said and fake laughed. "What time should we head over?" "Um, how about around nine?" Alex suggested. "Cool. I'll see you then." Juan said. He exchanged goodbyes with Alex, then hung up the phone. Nathan came down the stairs with a sandwich. "Did you call Alex?" "Yeah, he said we can come over at nine. See? Told you he wouldn't care." Juan lay back on the sofa. He looked up pizza places on his phone. "Now, I have to figure out where I'm getting food from. Alex always wants to eat something." Nathan looked out the back window at the sky. The clouds were gray. Wind pulled young pines near horizontal. "Is tonight really a good idea? Looks like another storm is coming through." "Even better. More energy to contact the spirits with." Juan compared the deals between the pizza places nearby. He wasn't happy with any of the prices he saw. "Never really understood why you and Alex are friends, no offense. You two are polar opposites." Nathan watched one tree in particular. It looked like it could snap at any minute. "Ya think? I dunno. To me, out of all my friends, I always thought we were the most alike." Something nagged at the back of Juan's thoughts. He brushed it off as absurdity. Within half an hour, the sky opened up and drenched the land with a heavier downpour than earlier in the week. The back of Juan's yard flooded. A little water dripped in through a small space where the back door wasn't quite aligned right with the door frame. Juan covered the area with a couple of towels. His father meant to fix the door, but there was always something else to do or pay for. Juan didn't intend to live there much longer himself, so he didn't bother with it either. He preferred it over the bedrooms on the main floor. The roof leaked too, and buckets had to be placed around the house. There was even less money to fix something like that. This was easier to deal with. The floor was concrete anyway, he told himself. He took a look outside at the flooded yard. The old play set his grandparents bought when he was in early elementary school sat half rotted and slanted. Over the years, the land had shifted enough to drag the slide a little downhill each year, the metal sinking deeper into the ground as it shifted. He often wondered when it would slide enough to drag the whole structure down the rest of the hill. No one in his family was the right age for it anymore, not even among his second cousins. One of the swings was broken at the seat from one of its chains and the other swing broke from the top, its loose chain completely submerged in the water. The disconnected chain of the swing that broke at the seat moved in the wind. The storm would need to flood the creek behind his house for the other chain to touch the rising water. He'd only seen it happen once. Juan tried to remember when that was, but it was too long ago for him to recall clearly. He couldn't really remember when he'd last gotten on either swing or when they broke. Juan closed the curtain. The storm let up an hour later. Before he knew it, the day passed by. He ordered two pizzas to pick up on the way over. Alex and Eric met them in the backyard. "Did you bring pizza? People usually bring food when they're going to be entertained." Alex smirked. "Yeah." Juan put his duffel bag down on a table in the backyard and went back to get two pizza boxes. He handed Alex the boxes. Alex opened them to see what kind he got. Pleased, he took a slice. "What are we doing?" Eric rubbed his eyes. He yawned. "Ghost hunting." Juan said. He opened up the duffel bag. Alex sat at the table with the pizza. "If there are ghosts out here, how come I've never noticed them before in all the years I've lived here?" "Maybe something happened. Something was disturbed. Or you didn't notice because you have your eyes shut to the spiritual world." The last one was what Juan believed the most. "At this point, I'm more inclined to think St. Elmo's fire over your ghost theory." Alex said. "Presuming of course, you actually saw anything and you're not pranking me." "There was a thunderstorm on the way that night." Eric said. "No, these were definitely ghosts. Or something supernatural. I don't know exactly what we saw, but it wasn't something like that." Juan shook his head. "Right." Alex put his feet on the table and leaned his chair back, a slice of pizza in his left hand. "Do you really buy this, Nathan?" "Eh. I don't know what I saw. I don't know what half this shit does either." Nathan said. Eric took the recorder out of the bag. He asked. "Can I ask the ghosts questions?" "Are you really getting into this?" Alex gave Eric a funny look. Eric shrugged his shoulders and smiled. "It might be fun. But let's not stay out too late. I'm really tired from work." "You can turn in early if you need to. I'll keep an eye on these goofballs. Might be fun to see if I can spook anyone." Alex said. Eric took a box out of the bag. "What's this?" "A spirit box." Juan said. At the same time, Alex said. "A broken radio." "What?" Eric asked. "Basically the radio shifts channels rapidly, and the spirits choose which channels so they can convey messages through other people's voices." Juan said. "Or it's preprogrammed to say specific messages. There's no standard for these." Alex added. "Uh...how do you know when it's ghosts and not regular gibberish?" Nathan asked. "The messages will be clear." Juan said. He picked up the spirit box. "I'll show you how it works. Let's see if we get anything." The box made a lot of static then spit out a string of incoherent words. "Dog--advertising space--new look--swift--balls--coming this--oh yeah!" The group was quiet for a second. Alex broke the silence. "Deep." "Uh...I don't think it worked." Eric said. "We might not be at the right spot. Let's try it over there." Juan said. Juan, Eric, and Nathan moved over a few feet. Alex watched them from the table. Juan tried the box again. "Saggy--balls--going down--to Coachella--give the gift of life--must be 18." Alex laughed loudly behind them. "Do it again. This is great." Eric snickered under his breath. "If there are any spirits here, I think they're screwing with us." "Yeah. Maybe they don't like you, Juan." Nathan said. "What? Why wouldn't they like me?" Juan's shoulders dropped. Alex got up from the table and went over to them. "Let me try it." "The truth came from your--cash title loan--star--adults--hole in one." "This thing is great. I want one." Alex grinned widely. Nathan took the box from Alex. "Let me see that. Spirits, give me divine wisdom on how to live the good life." "It's raining men--at the Big Chicken--esta noche--fill up." "Huh. Okay. I think this thing told me to blow some guys at the Big Chicken tonight." Nathan laughed. "Maybe there's a big celebrity there tonight and they'll put you in a movie if you do." Alex said. "That's fucked up." Juan said. "Let me see it." Eric took the box next. "I know you--remember--Rome--in your dreams." Eric's laughter stopped. He went quiet. "What's that supposed to mean?" Nathan asked. "It doesn't mean anything." Alex said. "That one was coherent though. Isn't that supposed to mean a spirit did that one?" Nathan asked. "We were bound to get a real sounding sentence eventually." Alex quickly gave a rational explanation. "Eric, mess with it again." Eric tried it again. "He knows--white walls, white halls--got these chains just in case." "See, gibberish." Alex said. Eric remained quiet. "Okay, so maybe the spirit box isn't working here." Juan took the box from Eric. He went back and grabbed the duffel bag. Juan got the pendulum out of the bag. "Let's try this." "What is that?" Eric asked, still uneasy. "It's a pendulum. We'll ask the spirits yes or no questions, and it will swing in different directions depending on the response." Juan held it up. The pendulum moved back and forth. "See, look, it's already reacting." Alex rolled his eyes. "Your hand is moving it." "It is not! It's doing this on its own." Juan said. "Let me try it." Alex took it from him. The pendulum nearly stopped moving. "Look, nothing's happening." "It's because you're so closed off." Juan said. Eric watched it for a while. "Can I try?" "Here." Alex handed the pendulum to Eric. "It's got nothing to do with whether I believe in something or not. Your hand isn't completely steady, and there's a light wind tonight. That's causing the movement. The weight of the pendulum itself is causing the pattern we're seeing from there. This isn't magic. I kept my hand steadier than you. That's why it moved less." Eric held the pendulum out while Juan and Alex argued. "No, it's because you're refusing to open up your mind." Juan said. Nathan sighed at the both of them. He looked over to see how Eric was doing with the pendulum. His eyes widened. "Uh, guys..." Alex and Juan looked over at Eric. The pendulum spun in a complete circle, moving faster and faster. Eric's hand was perfectly still. The amethyst glowed a bright blue, the same shade as the one Juan and Nathan saw earlier in the week. Eric threw the pendulum on the ground. "What the hell?!" "Did you get that on video?" Nathan asked. "Shit. No, I forgot to record anything. Hold on, let me turn on the good camera." Juan searched for his newest camera from the bag. He turned it on and pointed it at Eric. There was enough light from Alex's back porch that he didn't need to turn on night vision. "Damn it. Eric, pick it up again." "What are you guys up to? Are you hoaxing us? Come on..." Alex side-eyed them. "I swear to god I didn't do anything." Juan said. Eric picked it back up. It glowed immediately. Around the pendulum, tiny specks of blue appeared. "Are you getting this?" Nathan asked. "Yeah." Juan said. "How are you guys doing this?" Alex refused to believe it was real. "We're not doing anything." Juan said. "Eric, give it to me." Alex held his hand out. Eric gave Alex the pendulum. The moment it was in Alex's hand, it stopped glowing. Alex pulled his phone out and turned on the flashlight. He examined the amethyst. "How does it work?" "We're not doing anything. Really." Juan defended himself again. "Right. Well, we're not using this the rest of the night. Let's see what else we can get on camera." Alex put the pendulum in his back pocket. Eric held up the recorder. "Maybe we could use the recorder now. You saw the lights around here, right? Why don't we ask some questions?" "Let's take turns. I'll go first. Eric, you got the recorder ready?" Juan said. "Yeah." Eric started recording. "Alright. Spirits, hello. We're not here to cause you any trouble. Is anyone here tonight?" Juan said loudly. "I don't hear anything." Alex said. "Shh. We may not be able to hear them, but the recorder might pick up on their voices." Juan said. "Or random noises from down the street." Alex said. "You know, why don't you go next, Alex?" Juan rolled his eyes. "Sure. Hey, spirits, if you're here, get the fuck out of my yard. You ain't gonna do shit to me. I fucking dare you." Alex yelled louder than Juan. "Alex!" Juan panicked. "Don't anger them!" "What? Oh look, nothing's happening." Alex smirked. "You're gonna get cursed." Juan warned him. "Bring it on, ghosts. Curse me. I dare you." Alex taunted the spirits more. "Do it, bitch!" "Alex, you are crazier than I am. Nathan, you wanna try?" Juan said to get Alex to stop. "Uh, okay. Um, if someone is here tonight, why are you here? Did you die here? How did you die?" Nathan asked. "Good questions. Eric, why don't you try?" Juan asked. He pointed the camera at Eric. "Alright. Um...hello, are you here to see one of us? Do I know you? What's your name?" Eric turned around. "Who did that?" "Did what?" Nathan asked. "I thought...I thought someone touched my shoulder." Eric said. "Your mind's playing tricks on you. You're getting freaked out." Alex said. "Haha, probably." Eric tried to laugh it off. He looked back again. "Did you hear that?" "Hear what?" Juan asked. "I thought I...I don't know...Haha, maybe I am getting freaked out. Uh, if anyone's here, could you show yourself?" Eric's tone changed. He yelled and looked back. "Stop it!" "Stop what?" Alex asked. Eric moved in closer to the rest of the group. He pulled his arms in. "One of you is doing that. Who touched me?" "Nobody touched you." Nathan said. "I definitely didn't." Juan said. "I'm gonna have to vouch for them. We're over here. How would we touch you without you seeing us do it?" Alex surprisingly sided with Nathan and Juan. Eric stopped the recording. He handed the recorder over to Juan. "Uh, I think I need to turn in. I'm losing it. I need sleep." "Go ahead and go to bed. I'll hang out here for a little while longer." Alex put his hand on Eric's shoulder. "Get some rest, Eric." Nathan said. "Night." Eric waved and went inside the house. "Damn, something really wanted to get his attention." Juan said. Alex crossed his arms. "Be honest with me. Y'all're pranking us, right?" "We're not. I swear." Juan said. "Well, now what? Do we listen back to the recording?" Nathan asked. "We can." Juan said. He played back the recording Eric made. For most of the recording, there was nothing unusual to hear. What they could hear was themselves speaking, a few dogs barking in the distance, and what sounded like very distant thunder. However, when they got to Eric's portion of the questions, there was another voice. "Alright. Um...hello, are you here to see one of us?" They heard Eric say. Someone laughed in the audio. The voice sounded close enough to be standing beside or behind Eric. "Play that back." Nathan said. Juan went back a few seconds to play the laughing again. "The fuck is that?" Nathan was unnerved by the unfamiliar voice. "Probably some people down the street. There's a party down that way." Alex reasoned his own fears away. Juan continued playing the recording back. Eric said, "Do I know you? What's your name?" A voice said with a whisper. "Eric, come play with me." "Who did that?" Eric asked in the recording. Juan stopped the recording again, his eyes wide and his heart pounding. "What the fuck?!" "That voice clearly said 'Eric, come play with me'. We all heard it." Nathan's heart raced. He'd never experienced anything like that before. "Not necessarily. Our brains may be priming us to hear Eric's name and something that makes sense." Alex said. Despite the logic in his words, he looked nearly as terrified as the other two. "We hear a voice saying Eric's name, then Eric reacts to something behind him. Alex, there's something there." Juan wouldn't accept Alex's explanation. "We don't know that for a fact. We have no other evidence." Alex refuted the suggestion. "I was filming whoever was asking questions. We can watch the video after this to see if anything shows up." Juan held up the camera. "Sure, and there will be nothing there." Alex said. They listened to the recording more. Something loud and incomprehensible made noises near the recorder. They heard Eric say something about it. "Did you hear that?" Juan stopped the recording again. "He reacted to something again that's clearly on the audio." "He might have heard someone from the party." Alex said. Juan shook his head and continued the recording. "Uh, if anyone's here, could you show yourself?" They heard Eric say. Someone mumbled on the recording. "Stop it!" Eric said. Alex stared at the recorder for a while. "Show me the video." "Okay. Let's see..." Juan played back the video he took. The three of them watched it, looking for anything off. Nathan pointed to something on the tiny screen. Small, blue specs floated around Eric in the video. "Blue dust." "That could be something wrong with your camera." Alex said. "No, look. When it's not focused on Eric, nothing's there." Nathan pointed out as the video went on. Whenever the camera was on anyone but Eric, nothing blue appeared on screen. "Alex, you said you'd never noticed anything like this before, right? What if this is attached to Eric?" Juan suggested. "What? Like a possession? Come on." Alex narrowed his eyes. "Let's keep filming for a while. What we saw the other night was something more impressive than anything we got on camera." Juan waited for the video to end, then started a new one. Alex rubbed his eyes. "One more hour. I'm falling asleep.." The young men walked deeper into the woods. Alex lagged a little farther behind them. Juan looked back at him. "Alex, what do you really think is going on? We're not hoaxing you. You know I wouldn't do that." "I don't know. I'm not ruling out the possibility you're screwing with me. It would be interesting to see if I can be tricked into believing something that's complete bullshit. I wouldn't be that mad about that." Alex yawned. "If you're really not, then I don't know what this is. I'm not going to sit here and say it's ghosts or demons or whatever. All I'm saying is, from what I've seen, I don't know what's causing this." Nathan noticed a sound getting louder as they walked in deeper. He asked, "What's that noise?" "That's the creek." Alex walked ahead of them. He shone his phone's flashlight on the water. "It's over here." Where Alex shone his light, blue dust appeared. Floating above the water's surface, larger orbs formed. The three young men looked around. Blue lit up the woods. Some of the orbs grew larger in size and morphed into animal shapes. A sideways rabbit floated by Alex's face; a fawn, legs spread out in every direction, spun by Juan's leg; and an upside down dog, eyes wide open, hovered before Nathan. Nathan stepped back. "What the fuck..." "Ghosts." Juan moved his camera around to catch everything. "Is this being projected by something?" Cautiously, Alex tried to touch the floating rabbit. His hand went through the rabbit's stomach. The rabbit twitched. Alex retracted his hand. He looked around for a source. "Who would be setting up something like that out here?" Juan asked. "I don't know. I've seen some people have parties a little deeper into the woods. Someone may have planned a party and forgot their little light show behind, and it got triggered to come on by something." Alex said, crouching down. He shone his flashlight underneath several bushes. "I don't see where it's coming from." The lights abruptly vanished all at once. Alex stood up and shone his light all around the woods. Juan pointed his camera where Alex's light was. Nathan looked around, but he couldn't make out anything. "They're gone?!" Juan's hands shook. "Did you get that on film?" Nathan asked. "I think. Let me check." Juan played back the video. "Yeah." To their left, they heard rustling in the bushes. Everyone froze. A white light shined at them. Eric stepped into view with his phone held up in his hand. "Hey." Eric said. Alex breathed out a heavy sigh. "I thought you went to sleep." Eric walked straight to Alex. He put his arm around Alex's. "It's weird sleeping alone. Are you coming to bed soon?" Juan and Nathan exchanged looks. "Uh...yeah. I'll be there soon." With the little light around them, it was still obvious to Juan and Nathan that Alex's face had gone bright red. Alex looked away from Eric. "Let's just do another ten minutes of searching, okay?" Nathan held back a laugh. "You know, we got a lot tonight. If you need to turn in, that's cool. This is your house." "Yeah, don't mind us." Juan said. "It's fine." Alex's eyes were wide open. He slipped out of Eric's arm. "Eric, I'll see you in about ten minutes." "Okay. See you guys later." Eric waved to Nathan and Juan before heading back toward the house. "See ya." Juan said. Alex looked flustered. "Sorry. Um, what did you guys wanna do for the next ten minutes?" Juan grinned. "What did he mean by sleeping alone? Do you sleep in the same bed?" "Um, yeah." Alex glanced to the side. "He hates using the futon, and so do I." "Don't you have a guest room?" Juan asked. "He doesn't like using the guest room." Alex said. "Why?" Juan asked. "I don't know. He says it's awkward." Alex scratched the back of his head. He avoided making any eye contact. Juan nudged him and laughed. "Do you two cuddle at night?" "We do not." Alex lightly shoved him. "Are you guys done? I thought we were investigating." "Hehe. I think we're good. Actually, I'm getting tired too. Thanks for having us over. We're gonna head out." Juan laughed. "Alright. Whatever. Let's go back." Alex led them out of the woods. He walked a little faster than them, as if avoiding having to look at either of them. When they got to the back of the house, Alex waved from the bottom of the back deck's steps. "See ya, Alex!" Juan called out before heading to the front of the house. He grabbed the rest of the pizza on the way out, not wanting any to go to waste. Nathan waved and followed right behind him. In the car, they both laughed. "I can't believe I saw that." Juan replayed the encounter in his mind. He nearly forgot about why they were actually there. "I told you. They're fucking." Nathan pulled out of the driveway. "I've never seen Alex act like that. If they're not, it's gonna happen." Seeing Alex like that, losing his cool and sarcastic attitude over a little contact, the amusement of it all made what Nathan told him finally sink in. He had a hard time accepting it before, simply because he couldn't picture it. Now that he'd see that, he couldn't accept anything else as the truth. "If they're really cuddling every night, that won't take too long. But to me, it looked more like Eric was the one making the moves." Nathan said. "That confirms that." "You really think so?" Nathan raised his eyebrow and smirked. "What do you think?" Juan thought back. He laughed again. "This is a lot of information to accept at once." "Don't forget about the ghosts too." Nathan said. "Oh, damn. Right, we have evidence to review." Juan looked around the car to make sure they hadn't forgotten the duffel bag or any of the equipment. "I'm gonna make the news with that shit. The mysterious blue lights of Hiram, Georgia. I can see it now. That's going to be the title of the documentary they'll make about this." "Who's they?" Nathan asked. "I don't know. Somebody will though. If you have an impressive enough video, somebody will make a documentary about you. I can hear the narration now. 'In Hiram, a city in Paulding County, Georgia, a little under an hour west of Atlanta, two young men first spotted the lights in a friend's backyard.' Something like that." Juan spoke the fake narration in a deep, monotone voice. "Does anyone outside of people in the Atlanta metro know where Hiram actually is?" Nathan asked. "No. When most people hear Dallas, they think about Texas if they're not from here. No one gives a fuck about Hiram, Georgia. But that adds to the allure of it. If no one's heard of a place, it seems automatically 'remote' to any viewer, and that makes it more likely to get media attention." Juan explained. "Are you out to prove ghosts are real or get fame?" Nathan asked. "Why not both?" Nathan chuckled. "Yeah, that sounds like you." Back at Juan's house, Nathan and Juan checked over everything they brought with them. Juan turned on his old computer, praying that today would not be the day it finally died on him. It took fifteen minutes to boot up. Nathan watched TV and smoked while he waited on Juan to get things ready. Outside, the wind howled. The hills in his backyard and the yard on the other side of the fence were steep. When he was little, he used to think the wind got caught in there and the howling was it screaming to get out. One day, he told one of his older cousins about that. His cousin said it wasn't the wind. There was a big monster under the ground, screaming to get out. 'Whenever it rains and you hear thunder, that's the monster banging its paws on the ground, trying to get out. The lightning is the sky hitting it back down.' His cousin said to him. Juan remembered his cousin leaning close to him after that and whispering. 'If you fall down there during a storm, like the kind that's brewing right above us now, you might break through the ground and fall into its mouth.' Then his cousin pushed him down the hill. The story was ridiculous, but he believed him for a full week before his dad finally convinced him it was all nonsense. He was in kindergarten then. Being in the backyard always made him a little nervous, even long after that day. He remembered something Alex told him once in middle school when they were outside working on a science project. They were having a laugh about that memory of Juan's, but then Alex said something that terrified him. 'It's not that crazy. The monster part is, but the earth really can swallow you whole. Sinkholes happen in Georgia sometimes. Part of a hotel got swallowed up once, I think.' Alex said. That was the first time Juan had ever heard that word. 'What's a sinkhole?' 'The ground collapses in and makes a big hole. Sometimes, they're tiny ones, like about this big, and sometimes they're big enough to eat an entire house.' Alex said, holding his hands up to suggest the smaller size. 'The really big ones don't happen here, right?' 'I don't think Georgia's ever had any of the biggest ones ever, but there have been ones here big enough to get people killed. We could look around to see if it looks like one could happen here. Have you seen any small holes appear in the yard?' Alex asked him. Juan said no, but they went around the yard checking for holes the whole afternoon anyway. All they discovered that day was that the house had a few snake holes and the foundation of the house was a little cracked. Alex reassured him he was probably safe, but it kept Juan up that night. Juan looked over at the back window. It was too dark to see anything out of it. He got up to close the curtain, then transferred over the audio recording and video to the computer. "Let's see what we got here." Juan said. He checked through the audio first. "Hey Nathan, you wanna check this out with me?" Nathan stood beside the desk. Juan skipped ahead to Eric's portion of the recording. "Okay, this is where things started getting interesting. Let's find the accompanying video part and sync them up." He skipped through the video to find the same portion, then played them at the same time. "He's definitely reacting to something behind him." Juan said. "This is the weirdest shit I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot of shit." Nathan said. "Yeah, but the weird shit you saw involved ordinary people. This..." Juan stopped the video and the audio. He pointed to something on Eric's left shoulder. "Look at this." Nathan leaned against the back of the chair closer to get a better look. "Is that a...hand?" "It looks like it..." Juan wrote down the time in the video for future reference. "Definitely ghosts. Alex won't believe this. He'll think we added that in." "To be fair, I would assume the same thing." "We should try investigating there another time. I bet we can get more. We need to do it again with Eric. Something or someone is clearly trying to communicate with him." Juan continued the video to look for anything else that shouldn't be there. "Are you going to show this to Eric?" Nathan asked. "Yeah, later." Juan took more notes on the video and recording. He jotted down a set of questions to ask for their next investigation. The hand was the end of the strange finds for the night. Nathan turned in earlier than Juan, who reviewed everything a few more times before giving up. The portion of the video with the blue orbs and blue animals was by far the greatest thing he had ever captured on video, but also the most likely to be assumed to be added CG or faked some other way. The recording would be the easiest evidence to get people to believe. He was very satisfied with what he got. It was more than what most non-hoax videos ever caught on camera. He debated on whether he should upload it to his YouTube channel or one of the forums he frequented. Juan decided to hold off on posting anything yet. He wanted to get in at least one more investigation before doing that. As much as he wanted to keep reviewing, he needed to go to bed. He had school in the morning. Sleep didn't come easy. His thoughts kept returning to those memories about the hill. He looked over to make sure he covered the window. The curtain was where he left it, but he could see some light coming in from the moon. Juan tossed and turned until he finally fell asleep. In his dream, it was raining. His clothes were soaked through. Thunder echoed so loud he could feel it inside his body. He stood over the side of the hill, looking at the bottom of it where the two hills met. The ground shook beneath him. Juan fell to his knees as the hills flattened out. In the middle, the ground fell through, creating a perfect circle. The circle was longer across than he was tall. Juan crawled on his knees over to it. He looked inside, but he couldn't see the bottom. Rain didn't fill it up. The water vanished inside. Then, something shook the earth again. The land moved up and down. Juan clung to the flimsy grass, having nothing else to hold onto for support. Lightning struck the ground, opening it up even more. With a great shaking, something pushed up against the red clay. A feline nose, nearly as big as the hole, poked out of the darkness. It sniffed up at the air. The rain turned red and sizzled as it hit the ground. Juan's skin burned wherever the rain touched him. The tiny pieces of metal on his shoelace holes rusted on contact. One of Juan's arms slouched down against his will, contorting in strange ways before transforming into a snake. The snake bit his other arm, transforming it into another snake. The two snakes looked up at him and lunged for his neck. Juan couldn't escape their bites. He rolled on the ground in agony as they attacked until his legs wouldn't follow his mind's commands. He couldn't feel them there at all. Juan looked down at where his ankles were exposed. Black flesh crumbled and disintegrated into dust. The white underneath shone brightly. Juan screamed at the sky and woke.
II. Secrets