Wylie was dead.
It didn't quite seem real at first. Even when we leapt and tripped down the ridge to check, we knew it had to be a joke; we always assumed she'd outlive us all. Even when Peter stopped breathing and fell to the dirt beside her, we figured she must have been just like him: alive, but briefly out of commission. Even when I looked down into the smirk that a stick had poked the corner of her lip into, I asked Elliot, "Is she dead?" and he said, "No. She's Wylie."
But Wylie was dead, and it only felt real for me when I watched her body get lowered into the ground. She always liked dirt though, so she probably wouldn't mind, but I had to remind myself right then and there: "She can't care about anything. She is dead."
It took a few weeks, but I invited them over again. Since our group was then just four boys rather than four-boys-and-a-Wylie, I decided to have them stay the night. They didn't really want to go outside -- must have felt too familiar -- so we stayed in and watched superhero movies until long past midnight, popping popcorn and drinking room-temperature sodas that I'd found in our garage. Superhero movies these days are long, though. Peter fell asleep before the end of one, and we were about to wake him up for another movie, but the job was done for us. She tapped his shoulder real gentle, and he sniffled to his senses, and it took him a few blinks before he realized why we were all staring behind him with such startled faces.
"So. Which one of you assholes pushed me?" Wylie asked, and we wrinkled our foreheads trying to make sense of what she'd said. I was surprised that Lucas wasn't already casting paranoid glances around the room; instead, he stared at her as though he'd seen a ghost, and really, that did check out.
Lucas had always liked Wylie. Maybe it was the part of him that knew he was a weirdo and that girls like Macy Stringer and Rose Washel would never be fighting for his attention, but after seeing Wylie buried and watching the life drain from his eyes too, I understood him a bit more. It was an ugly, ugly feeling: seeing his stare burrowing into her closed eyelids at what we'd all expected to be a closed-casket funeral. But as Spiderman: Far from Home's end credits rolled and the two watched each other with the dazzled romance of a newlywed couple, the ugly feeling came back. Like my dad said, though, a bit of bad never bothered a Banh, so even when Wylie looked down into his wide eyes and spots of pink glowed on her cheeks, I didn't let myself be too angry.
She breathed slow, and I didn't think dead people could breathe, but she did. Something in her face changed, and she was calmer. She smiled at him, "Lucas." Scanning the room, she met each of our eyes; with every name, her voice became just a small bit quieter. "Elliot. Peter." Peter groped in the dark for his inhaler. It seemed that he and I were the only two that could still detect a chill in her voice. "Danh Banh." Wylie always said the full name, but she never said it right -- Don Bon, with long o's and a d sound. It kind of caught on, and nobody at school actually called me Danh. When I met Wylie, I was from then on Don Bon.
That was okay with me. What was not okay was her standing there above us, a one-and-a-half-month-old body that looked fresher and livelier than even Elliot, talking more than I had in the past hour. I wasn't about to try and change that; after all, talking was Lucas's forte, and even he seemed at a loss for words.
"Wylie," he said, short of breath. "Why are you -- how are you here? You're ..."
"Dead," she interrupted, "yes, it looks like it. And it sure looked like it at the bottom of the hill. Nobody thought to take the stick out of my mouth, it was like you all expected me to. I can't exactly touch much of anything." I looked around the room to see if anyone was going to remember how she'd tapped Peter's shoulder, and I hoped that one of them would call her bluff.
If anybody wanted to speak up, they missed their chance, as it was Elliot's turn to ask questions. "You were there?"
Wylie nodded quickly.
"But you haven't been here," he said. "Why now?"
She cast him a sideways glare, crossing her pale arms. To me, they seemed translucent in the low light, blending with the dust in the air and looking almost fuzzy.
Elliot scrambled to correct himself. "I mean, it's not bad that you're here. Except that, like, you're dead and all, but you -- "
"You haven't been together," she said, cutting him off, too. "I didn't want to show up until I knew I could see you all at once. You took your sweet damn time, guys, you really did."
"Ah ... sorry," mumbled Peter, but it was muffled by the blanket that he'd pulled up over his nose.
Wylie sighed, and when she lowered her arms and softened her shoulders, everyone else did as well. We didn't mean to, but even in death, she was in charge of us -- of our actions and our thoughts and even our emotions, our tension. That was not something that was okay with me. There wasn't much I could do about it, though; she was very smart, and most of us were not so. Elliot was a bit slow, and Peter was too spacey. Lucas needed to work on impulse control. I was always thinking too hard about what to say that I would usually figure it best not to say much at all. Wylie, however, was clever. She got mad at us a lot, but we figured that when she did, it was justified. After all, we were slow, and spacey, and impulsive, and quiet, and she was Wylie.
A little bell dinged in the back of my head. For the first time in a great long while, I spoke without really thinking. "You said one of us pushed you?"
Heads turned. Not Wylie's -- only her eyes locked onto me, but the rest of her was still. With a sting to her words, she said, "Yeah. And I'd like to extend a warm 'thank you' to whoever did." I shut my loud mouth then and there. "So," she continued, "if any one of you would like to step up and tell me, that would be much appreciated."
I'd forgotten just how harsh she could be. The icy attitude, though, was new.
"You can't be serious," Elliot said. With his face backlit by the TV, he looked like a man on a movie poster. He was talking like one as well, so confident and sure of himself that even I almost believed him. "Wylie, none of us would do that. You know us."
"I thought so." Uncomfortable silence followed her words.
One hand on his own shoulder, anxiously rubbing with his thumb, Lucas looked down into his knees. "Who the hell would admit to that kind of thing in the first place, though?"
A sinister smile crept onto Wylie's lips, but there was no humor in it. "Honestly, I was hoping he'd come clean on his own. But maybe he will when he realizes I already know."
My mind raced, and I assured myself that certainly, I was okay. I unzipped my mouth to speak again, but quite consciously, unlike the last outburst. "Why can't you tell us, then?"
"I could," she said, tilting her head, "but I want him to say it."
Odd -- I almost opened my mouth again, but I realized I didn't know what I was about to say. I pulled my jaw shut quick before it could spit out something I'd regret. Such a snake as Wiley could twist one's words.
Three of us boys, like prairie dogs, shot accusatory glances around the room as if one piercing stare would force someone to confess. Peter was breathing heavily with his mouth hidden beneath his blanket; the fabric just in front of his mouth fluttered every time he exhaled. He and I were the only two who didn't have to guess whose fault it was. His eyes only focused on the floor, wide and unblinking. As I played along, narrowing my gaze at the others, I remembered the solemn conversation he and I had just over one and a half months ago: Peter, have you ever wanted to hurt a person?
Lucas was the one to break the tense silence. "Hey. Peter, are you doing all right?" Of course, Peter was innocent -- he was sweet, and childish, and careful. I could see it in their faces: to everyone but Wylie and me, Peter was not a suspect. To the two of us, though ...
Have you ever wanted to hurt a person so bad, that they can never get up again?
Peter hesitated, caught off guard. "Ah, yeah. I'm okay."
I was a bit disappointed in myself because in that moment, I found his fear cute. In the low glow of the paused TV screen painted across the room, his eyes were quivering, welling up, with a white-light wedge stretching across each on the side closest to the TV. He was scared, and it was an understandable fear, though not one I fully shared with him in that moment. Each shaken glance in my direction was a plea, and that was cute as well.
Just over one and a half months ago, Peter had said, "Yes." He'd said, "But I don't think I actually could."
And I'd responded with the softest smile I could muster, "Let's test that theory." It was the very next day that he and Elliot and Lucas and clever Wylie came to my house, and I pointed into the sky at a bird that didn't exist so that Peter could shove his hands hard into the girl's shoulder blades, and I didn't realize then how much it mattered that as she tripped and shouted, she turned her head and saw Peter staring over her with the least Peter-like glare she'd likely ever seen. His eyes had been rigid and cold, but they died like the girl when just a moment later, he came back into himself. His breaths had shortened, choppy and sharp as he raced after her. I'd expected kicked-up leaves and startled birds and screams, but the fall was less tremendous; if not for Lucas' "Shit, shit, shit!" and the dull thumps each time she slammed back into the soil, the world would have been unnervingly quiet. Nothing moved save for us and the body as she careened down to the creek bed. The walls of the ravine were rocky, so she had stopped shouting fairly quickly.
Wylie's sharp words pulled me back into the moment. Yanked me, really. "The weather is nice," she said, "it's clear. The moon is bright. We should talk outside."
The four of us, the four still living, were all but hasty to step out onto the steep walls of the ravine. Wylie was a hard person to object to though, especially with her hair down and her arms crossed and her jaw clenched as it was -- so out we went, and I didn't think it right to turn on the porch light. The moon was bright enough, especially if we stood out from under the porch's cover and on the packed dirt of the path that zigzagged all the way down. The path cut through fallen logs but wound around the trees that still stood. It was dotted with rocks too embedded in the soil to pry loose, though we'd certainly tried. Wylie had met with two of those rocks on her way down. By the second, she was lucky to already be unconscious; I remembered watching her skull ricochet off of its lichen-cloaked surface and hearing a muted crack as her neck struggled to keep its head connected, and for just a moment, her left leg seized up before crashing back down into the dirt. There was a spot of blood on that rock initially, but rain came pouring down just a few days later and it disappeared.
I never cared for Peter's reasoning, only that he'd said yes, so I had never bothered to ask. I assumed he already knew mine, else he would have pestered somewhere along the line. Peter and I were good observers. Although in that moment, it was easy to be an observer of Peter, as out on the ravine under the moon's accusatory eye, all I saw in him was fear. There was no leftover malice towards the girl, no rigid stare like I'd seen one and a half months ago. Instead, he shivered in the chilly air, clutching an old plush giraffe to his chest and standing with crossed legs to hide the small spot of piss on his pinstripe pajama pants. He wasn't thrilled to be standing the closest to Wylie. I looked to my right, and Lucas was restless and fidgety being the farthest away; just like that, the ugly feeling returned.
The moonlight treated Lucas differently from the rest of us. It coveted and held him like a precious piece of treasure, leaving bright highlights in his hair and white ribbons along the folds of his shirt. It brushed down the side of his nose and along his jawline. As he rubbed his thumb into his shoulder, the stillness of the world complimented him well.
I jumped when I felt Peter tugging on the fabric of my shirt. He held it tight between his thumb and pointer finger like a pouty child would. His head hung low, and although I couldn't see his face, I could picture it: tears hanging uncertainly along his eyelids, cheeks hot and red, lips pursed but nostrils flaring with each breath. I swatted his hand away.
If only it wasn't his fault, I might have felt bad for him. My teeth ground together as, in my mind, the word cute was clouded over by pathetic. He was pathetic. He didn't have to do anything, I never forced his hand -- but by the look in his eyes that I'd seen one and a half months ago, I could tell that it was something else forcing him. It took a different form then than it did in front of Wylie's ghost, but its name never changed. It was fear. I could understand that much, although I never expected him to tell me why, and I didn't care quite enough to ask. All that mattered was that he'd had enough fear in him to do as I had said.
"Look a little happier to see me, Danh Banh," Wylie said.
I flashed her a weak grin, and I wished on every star to know what she was thinking. "Sorry. I'm just surprised is all."
It seemed that Lucas had snapped out of his heart-eyed daze. He cast a suspicious glance toward Wylie. "We should go back in."
"But it's so nice out," she said, and took Peter's hand. He flinched, keeping his stare trained on the ground. Wylie looked down at their hands and smiled, but it was a rotten thing; her eyes were dim and devoid of kindness, and I remembered seeing the same serpentine smile when she was still alive. She only ever showed it to me, and maybe it was because she knew I was a bit of a snake myself.
Letting go of Peter's hand, Wylie breathed out into the sky, closing her eyes to let the glowing moonlight wash over her. She ran her fingers through her hair and turned her face to the bottom of the ravine, where a creek bubbled and whispered and carried strands of moon all through the quiet forest. It had rained just that morning, and so the creek was lively, but even when full it never rose past my knees. Wylie pointed down to the very bottom where the water swerved to avoid a patch of gravel and geodes. "That's where I landed, remember?" The other boys shared a grimace. She then pointed at the first rock, which had grown more moss in one and a half months. "But that's where I died." Lowering her arm, she tilted her head with an almost mechanical smoothness. The thought of her own death didn't seem to faze her much as she focused of the rock, face blank and empty. Wylie was dead, and it made her quite inscrutable to me.
Peter, however, seemed to feel something that Elliot and Lucas and I didn't. He slouched his back and hugged his shoulders and his eyes still bored into the dirt, and I watched as little diamonds fell from his chin and nose, sinking into the ground and losing their shimmer. They'll join the creek soon, I thought, and though I wasn't sure why it mattered to me, I hoped for Peter's sake that his tears wouldn't just become food for the weeds -- I hoped that they'd help fill the creek for fish, because Peter had always been very fond of fish.
"We missed you, you know," Lucas whispered, but it wasn't entirely fair of him to speak for me.
Wylie smiled again, far softer. More genuine. "I missed you, too." She set her hand on Peter's shoulder, and I watched him start to move in order to shove her away, but he decided only to sink lower into the ground. Lucas and Elliot hadn't seemed to notice him crying, else they would have asked him what was wrong; Wylie, however, reveled in it. She held her chin up and smirked at him, knowing he was a regretful creature and pitiable, gripping his giraffe tight over his chest with knuckles as white as bone. A dark blotch ran down his leg, and as he whimpered, I reminded myself: pathetic.
Lucas and Elliot finally heard him. "Jesus, Peter," Elliot said, "are you doing alright?
Peter's voice was quiet and strained, and he had to squeeze his words in between sharp gasps. "Please ... don't ..."
Lucas scowled at his friend's appearance, but he looked away so that he could manage a kind tone. "It's okay, dude. I know it's rough being out here again." Behind his sweet words, I wondered if he was thinking the same thing as me -- pathetic, pathetic, pathetic.
"No ... it's ... " Peter dropped the giraffe. He drew his hand up to his throat.
Lucas's eyes widened, and he pushed past me to stand beside Peter. "Shit. Elliot, his inhaler is inside!" Elliot nodded with the same wildly afraid look and rushed back into the house.
The hand that Peter had used to gesture to his throat didn't stop moving. Reaching past his neck, he grabbed for Wylie's wrist that still sat firmly on his shoulder. His fingers wrapped around it and tried to pry her away, but her hand barely moved against his weak attempts, and her smirk had disappeared. With her chin still tilted upwards, she held the same numb expression as she had earlier in the night, but I finally understood its meaning. It meant that she really did know who pushed her.
It meant she hated him for it.
It meant I was safe.
As Elliot slid on the rain-slick wooden deck, the inhaler flew from his grasp and into the dirt. Lucas shoved his way past me once again to reach for it, and as he did, Peter gasped sharp and loud and harsh. I watched, frozen, as Wylie planted a strong foot behind him, pressed her hand into the square of his back, and pushed forward with all her might. Peter's chest led and his legs fell limp behind him. He fell from one ledge and landed on the back of his head at the top of the next. The first rock met with his knee and the second, his skull. In an all-too-familiar manner, his head ricocheted off of the boulder and a crack like a gunshot rang through the air before he hit the ground with one last dull thud.
It registered for only a moment that my hand was still outstretched, trying to grab for Peter, before I took off after him. Lucas nearly lost his balance on his way down, but Elliot and I chased the body as swiftly as we had one and a half months ago.
It lay still at the bottom of the ravine, just where Wylie's had, but it didn't look like Peter anymore. Wylie had almost looked beautiful, but it was an abomination, barely human. Its neck was twisted farther than I thought possible, and a deep gash through the skin traced up from the chin to the bottom lip, splitting the flesh for its tongue to spill through the gap. There was an extra joint in its left leg. A scrape along its arm oozed shining blood, and the skin around it had already begun to bruise under the too-bright moon. The fabric of its pajama shirt had folded up to reveal a tear along the stomach that had already bloodied much of the cloth. One eye was wide, wide open, but the other was pinned shut by a twig that went well through -- I stared into the open eye, and before I could turn away, its pupil twitched and looked back at me. "Oh, God," I muttered, and my voice wavered. "Oh, God, he's still alive. He's still alive. Oh, God." With its desperate glare and the stench of near death permeating my nostrils, I felt a sour bile rise in my throat and I stumbled away before it erupted from my mouth, burning my nose and squeezing tears from my eyes. "Oh my God ..."
Lucas finally reached the bottom of the ravine. He hurried up to the body, but came to a halt when he saw state of it. Taking a step back, he muffled a yelp with his hand, but his palm did nothing against the agonized scream that followed. He fell onto his back and scrambled to push himself away from the body, whose eye had focused on him. Lucas, noticing its rising chest, cried out in terror, pulling his knees to his stomach and hiding his face from the disfigured Peter before him. Elliot, however, could only stare, morbid curiosity keeping his focus sharp -- I figured I knew what he was thinking, and that it was the same as me. He knew that the poor thing wouldn't be alive for much longer, and, as I did, he hoped for it to die.
I leaned against a tree to cough up the last of the vomit, and looked up towards the house. Wylie, translucent as a projection, stood at the top of the ravine, arms slack and head high. As she turned around, she gracefully crumbled away, scattering into the leaves around her. Lucas shrieked at the body, and a light turned on in my parents' room. I lost my legs and slumped against the tree.
The last glowing specks of Wylie's ghost had settled into trunks and leaves and the dirt where she had stood, slowly flickering away like lightning bugs. The bark dug into my shoulder, but I couldn't find the will to move. Lucas screamed. Elliot choked on his own tears.
Peter, intact and breathing and iridescent, glared at me from the top of the hill.