Real Things

By Nicole Hebdon

Lorna tells her fiancé that we met in the cemetery. “Chloe was writing a paper on the War of 1812 graves,” she says. “And I was taking photos for my photography class. It’s a haunted site. Paranormal investigators have looked into it and everything.” This is partially true.

The Riverside Cemetery is known for disappearing children and hovering orbs, but I wasn’t writing a paper. I was writing an article for the supernatural edition of the school magazine.

And we didn’t meet there.

Lorna’s fiancé, Caleb, tells us how he and Lorna met, and she folds her hands in her lap, like a child at Sunday school. Whenever one of Lorna’s roommates stands to get a wine cooler, or giggles purposelessly, he starts his sentence over, so I’ve heard his story approximately three-and-a-half times when he finally lets someone else talk.

They met in high school. They met in high school. They met in high school. They met . . . Lorna and I met at an abandoned mini-golf course. The castle’s peak looked like a crumbling monument, and I was sure it would lead me to another gravesite for my article, but past the thick cattails, there were toppled bridges, a sputtering stream that emptied into a square-shaped pond and Lorna wearing a university T-shirt.

And then there were the goldfish. So many that from a distance, I thought the water was overgrown with orange flowers. I lowered my hand to them and they filled my palm, nibbling on my lifeline. They flopped onto the dock, and she showed me how to nudge them back into the water, safely away from stray cats. They pushed their dead along, the current of their school too strong to escape.

It was very romantic, but we didn’t get to tell anyone that.

When Lorna stands to use the restroom, I say I’ll join her. I am drunk. I always feel it in my knees first. It’s like they’ve disappeared and my calves are growing longer. It’s almost how I feel floating in the university pool, like my limbs are endless.

Lorna doesn’t take me to the restroom. She takes me to my door across the hall. “Do you like him?” she asks, her hands still around my arm. My big fat arm. Her hands are so tiny. You can even see her ballet training in the way she grips. She holds her fingers so delicately.

“Do you like him?” she repeats.

I don’t like him. “My arms are fat,” I say. “No, they’re muscly,” she says.

She means manly.

“I like him,” I say, and I’m rewarded with a kiss. On my chin because she can’t reach my lips unless I’m bending down or she is in heels.

“You are such a great friend,” she says before leaving.

My room is dark and I am alone. My roommate is slowly moving into her boyfriend’s dorm, and she’s taken the fishtank. It had been my only source of light since I’d found out Caleb was visiting and smashed my desk lamp in re- sponse. The overhead light never worked. I could request a new one. Someone would be here in minutes to install it. I pull a beer from under my bed, drink it in the dark, and go to sleep on Lorna’s pillow.

Lorna steps onto my bed. It is the morning of the annual Champy festival, a day dedicated to the Lake Champlain monster. Lorna had invited Caleb to join us on the water, but he found a power metal concert in Montreal and decided to cut his visit with Lorna short. If Lorna lies down, if she puts her arms around me, it’ll be almost like last night didn’t happen. It’ll be like she was here the whole time. I will have turned Caleb into a ghost.

“Come on, Chloe,” she sings. “We have a ship to build.”

She means hot-gluing orange construction paper onto a pedal boat so that it looks like a search boat.

Something clicks, and white blobs are crawling across my eyelids. I open my eyes and see Lorna wearing a mining hat, the light on and pointed at my face. “Where did you get that?” I ask, but I don’t really care. The question is a dis- traction so I can grab her by the knees and pull her down.

She squeals and clutches her hat, but allows herself to fall. When she’s on top of me, her knees pressed into my chest, I swear I feel her heartbeat through her legs. “EBay,” she says, and turns the light off. I wait for her to say more. When she doesn’t, I scrunch my lips together and bend toward her.

“No,” she says. “He was just here. I’d feel gross.”

Lorna makes the rules, which means they are often contradictory. Lorna says it’s not cheating if a penis isn’t involved. That it’s not cheating if we don’t love each other. That it’s not cheating if we don’t say we love each other. That it’s not cheating if we only say I love you in Spanish, a language neither of us speaks fluently.

I’ve been saying I love you in English since last semester.

It was easy to find Lorna after our first meeting. She was at the golf course the next day, taking care of the fish. I walked right past her and went to the pet store. I came back with three gallons of flakes, and we plunged our hands into the water until our skin was coated in a film of green that couldn’t be rubbed off. I’m sure I looked like an ogre, but Lorna looked like some nymph caught in a transformation.

When the food was gone, she turned to me and asked, “Who was the worst person you ever met?”

It was like I had been waiting for someone to ask me that my whole life. Diane Williams. I never had a grandma, so Diane Williams, my sixty-some-thing-year-old neighbor, was appealing to my teenage-self. She was a bit crazy too. She had a pond in her front yard, where she kept a sea monster pool toy. She believed Megalodons were still alive and the government was keeping them from us. She’s responsible for my love of cryptology, and in a way she picked what college I went to, since I only applied to Plattsburgh because of its sea monster.

Lorna found that part of the story hilarious. Then I told her how Diane tried to set me up with her grandson for junior prom, and that when I said I was a lesbian, she told me that gay women don’t exist.

“Then what happened?” Lorna asked.

“I just left.” I hadn’t planned to tell Lorna the next part. I had never told anyone the rest of the story, but she looked concerned for me, so I went on.

“That night, when I knew she’d be asleep, I sliced her sea monster open with a pocket knife.”

Lorna laughed.

I didn’t tell her how it felt as if I had killed something, how the plastic was hot and soft against my skin, so hot it repulsed me. I noticed its painted-on eyelashes, undeniably feminine. It felt criminal leaving her there, her limbs sput- tering like a bug’s detached leg, still squirming with reflex.

I asked Lorna, “Who’s the worst person you know?” And she told me about her dad. And I know it was selfish of me, but a few weeks later, when she stopped me from taking off her skirt, I blamed him. Whenever she presses her hands against her ears and tells me over and over that she’s straight, I blame him.

And she starts to blame him too. When she tells me about Caleb, when she takes the ring from its box and puts it in my hand, she cries and says she has “daddy issues.” It feels wrong to be mad at her or to blame her, so I do nothing. I let her keep Caleb, and I stay. She says I am helping her, that I am letting her “figure things out.”

My senior year was young when it started. It felt endless. It felt like I could have her forever.

We’ve forgotten to buy hot glue, but we decide our boat looks fine naked. I regret this decision as soon as we get to the launch site. The engineering depart- ment had built a sailboat out of real wood. The art club painted a rowboat to look like some famous painting I don’t know the name of, and the rowing club brought a legion of no-nonsense crafts, as if they were preparing for a raid and not a festival dedicated to a mythical creature.

Most abundant are the townie speedboats. They almost all have homemade “Search Party” and “Coast Guard” signs taped to their sides, and a few even have flags with medic crosses printed on them. This tradition of faking a search party started a few years ago. I suspect these people wanted someone to take notice and make a movie about their monster, but so far, all they’ve gotten are a few newspaper spreads of people in costumes, pulling dragon-shaped floaties and wilted parade floats from the water.

“Do you think it’s legal to pretend to be part of the coast guard?” I ask Lorna as I pop the trunk of her Jeep and tug on our shrinking pedal boat.

“Maybe? Probably not,” she says, pulling on the other side. “Either way our boat is fine.”

I can’t tell if her voice is strained from picking up the boat or if she’s disap- pointed in me. I shouldn’t have given up on the glue so quickly.

The launch site is nestled in the former airbase, one of my favorite para- normal places. The base isn’t wholly abandoned; there is a daycare, a nursing home, and a marine museum, but I’ve never seen customers at these establish- ments, so it’s easy to pretend it is.

And then there is Crab Island, an actual mass grave in the middle of the lake. It’s supposedly forty acres, but from the airbase, it looks so small, like a line of trees. My floormates told me the lake freezes in the winter, and I could walk across the water to it. I wanted to do this with Lorna. I was convinced her rules wouldn’t apply on the island, especially on Valentine’s Day, but when we got to the base, the ice was cracking into panes.

This scared Lorna. She wouldn’t get anywhere near the water, even though she wanted to. “We could get such cool photos from the island,” she said.

“Yeah, you might never see the thaw again,” I urged her.

“Yes, I will,” she snapped. “You’re the one leaving in May.” She was referring to my early graduation.

Lorna gives up on carrying the boat about twenty feet from her Jeep, so I pull it along the grass until we get to the water. The lake is already bobbing with boats. Someone is flying kites from the largest, and I have the urge to wave at them. I feel lucky to be attending college in such a place.

Before I help Lorna into the boat I hug her. Usually I can feel the affection running through her body, pulling her limbs tense and straight, like she is fighting to keep from breaking all her rules, but today she is lumpy and soft. It is worse than holding nothing. She has gone away with him.

I hadn’t considered how unromantic pedal boats are. Five minutes into the lake, and Lorna is tired. I can manage the boat myself—my parents used to have one just like it—but I feel stupid. As I pedal, I’m thrusting my fat knees into Lorna’s face. In my room, Lorna makes me feel feminine and small, but in public, where Lorna can’t touch me, I am just me.

I should have spent the extra fifty bucks and rented a rowboat.

“So what did you do after I left last night?” I ask. Usually Lorna would say she went nail polish shopping or went out for veggie burgers with her friends, but not last night. Caleb was there.

She flicks her eyes toward me.

“Too bad the lake is so cloudy,” I recover, and she looks down into the water again. “There are some pretty big sturgeon down there. Some people even think that’s what Champy is.”

“It’s so weird,” she says. I stop pedaling, and after a minute, the boat is still. She is lowering her fingertips toward the water. I imagine her touch being so light that there won’t even be ripples. I hold my breath, so I don’t disturb the water, but when her fingers meet the surface, there are ripples.

“I don’t like it,” she says. “The boat?”

“No, the lake.” She withdraws her hand and turns toward me. “I guess I’ve never swam in a lake before. I thought it’d be more like the ocean and that      I could look down and see shells and fish. No wonder people think there’s a monster down there.”

She visibly shivers, and I smile. It’s involuntary. “I love you,” I say.

“We went to the mini-golf course,” she says. “The pet store was closed, so we fed the fish chocolate doughnuts.”

“What?”

“Chocolate doughnuts,” she repeats. “The fifty-cent ones from the gas sta- tion.”

I start pedaling again, as quick as I can, and shut my eyes. When I open them again, Lorna has scooched down the boat, so she is as close to me as possible. “You asked what we did after you left.”

“Why would you take him there?” I ask, pedaling slower now. I resist saying it’s our place, because just thinking that makes me blush. Fighting with Lorna turns me into a rom-com character.

When she doesn’t answer right away, I look around. Though not the farthest boat, we are a long way into the lake, closer to the island than I’ve ever been. I can hear birds from its trees and they sound different from inland birds. Their calls are deep and sorrowful, like a seashell pressed against the ear. I can hear children laughing, or maybe the echo of children laughing. The water is distorting everything.

Even Lorna’s voice has travelled away from her. I swear I hear it before her mouth opens.

“It was just something to do,” she says. “You don’t think the doughnuts were bad for the fish, do you?”

“But it’s our place.”

“I don’t want it to be our place,” she says, and slides back into her half of the boat. “And neither should you. I want to have good memories of all these places.” She holds her hands over either side of the boat. “And if we keep hang- ing out with just each other, we’ll only have bad memories of our college years.” “I have no bad memories of you,” I say. I am directing us toward the island.

We can touch on the island. There are no rules on the island.

“When you leave, you will hate me,” she says. “You will think I used you. We won’t stay friends because I’m getting married, and every time we think about these beautiful places, we’ll feel sad.”

“I could never hate you,” I protest. I want to be small and beautiful. I want her to reach out and touch me. Even if she just uses the nail of her pinky finger. “Are you going to be my bridesmaid? Are you going to stay in the hotel room next to our bridal suite and listen to us fuck? You’re going to have to let me go.”

She sighs. “I think for the rest of the semester, we should hang out less. Create memories with our other friends.”

I have no other friends. I don’t say this aloud, because Lorna knows. She knows I’ve filled all my time with her. I even skipped classes for her. She is Plattsburgh.

I reach out to touch her, and she swats my hand. “No,” she yells. “No more touching. I want to get off this boat.”

“You’re confused because he was just here,” I say.

“I swear to God I am going to jump off this goddamn boat.” I don’t know what I can say to that.

“Anyway, there aren’t going to be any shells. Well, maybe snail shells.” Lorna’s face softens. I know her. She wants to ask what I’m talking about.

But then she hardens again, and I swear I even see her collarbones rise beneath her skin, like her skeleton is tractable. She opens her mouth, but I cut her off.

“You know that cemetery up there? Old Post Cemetery? There is actually a grave of a—”

“No. I want off this boat.” She screams so loud that the birds go silent. “Where do you want to go?” I ask. “The island? There’s nowhere to go.” “Yeah, take me to the island,” she says. Her voice is unkind, but I ignore

that. I let her request marinate in me and convince myself that once we get to the island, it will be like I’ve always wanted it to be. It will be better than the Valentine’s Day I imagined.

She hops off before we’re to shore in waist-high water. Behind her the line of trees turns into an entire forest. Far away, they looked still and permanent, but up close they shake each time a bird hops branches. They are splintering down the middle, revealing black, dead bark. Lorna rushes toward the forest.

“Lorna, wait for me. You don’t know what’s in there,” I say. She just flicks me off. She trudges on toward the trees. Her wet jeans turn black and she blends right into the bark.

I pedal around the island once to calm down. Or I think I do. The island is longer than I expected and every side looks the same. The sting of the air makes my eyes tear up, so I let myself cry. I almost turn around instead of completing the circle, but I don’t. Or maybe I do. The wind and the tears and the voices whipping by make me feel lightheaded, and I can’t concentrate. All I can see clearly is Lorna and her blue jeans turned black, outlining her calves, the same warm calves that were against my chest this morning.

When I make it back to where I left Lorna, she is not there. But I know this is the spot because I see her footprints, and an imprint of the pedal boat’s nose. I call her name, but only the birds respond. White boats whizz by me. But she is not there.

There’s a Coast Guard ship just far enough away to be blurry. I remember reading that walking on the island is illegal, that it’s an animal sanctuary or something, and I am grateful for the men patrolling it. I pedal toward them, and they speed toward me. But less than three minutes later, I realize they’re not real. Some old townies have dressed their boat up, they’re even wearing costumes, the slutty military ones the mall sells around Halloween.

I try my phone, but I know it won’t work. The mountains are to blame for that.

The fake recruits blare Nineties hip-hop and it wraps around me. I almost feel drunk. It would be so easy to stand up and let myself fall into the lake.

The closer I get to the mainland, the thicker the boats are, but I suspect some of them aren’t real. They’re echoes or ghosts or something. I wish them all away. I want them to turn invisible, but they stay solid, and it takes me almost thirty minutes to get back.

I leave the boat in the water and jump up. There’s a police car driving slowly by the old barracks.

I wave at them, and they stop. I walk to their window. I don’t consider how I look to them until after I’m there, red-faced and panicked. “I lost my friend,” I blurt out. “We were on the water.” I pause to breathe. “And my phone wouldn’t work.”

They make me repeat myself three times. And then I start again, but with the real story, about how I wanted to take her to the island to make love, how I wanted to for months, but they cut me off. One of them says, “She probably got on another boat.” But I ignore this. Lorna had my boat. She wouldn’t have gotten on another one.

The other officer leads me to the medic tent, and a medic gives me some lem- onade. The officer tells me that there are search ships already in the water, and a helicopter will be above us soon. I start to tell him the story again, and when he floats away, I turn to tell the medic.

The lake is clogged. I watch the real search ships try to push their way through the fake search ships, but there are so many, almost a wall of them. Their white, rising sails look like a forming mountain.

“They’ve found something,” the medic says. “Some of the college kids think they’ve found her.”

“Lorna?”

“Oh no, honey. They think they’ve found the monster.” I just stare at her. The monster isn’t real.

Lorna is real.

The medic gets a phone call and walks away from me. I turn back to the congested water. The cops can’t get through it. They need backup. They should call in backup. I decide to tell the medic just that when she comes back. I know she’s in contact with them.

I list real things under my breath, but most of my hobbies revolve around un- real things, so I switch to listing those. Ghosts. Champy. Vampires. Witchcraft. The word “lesbian” scrolls across my mind, but I don’t say it. Instead I say “Lorna.” Lorna is real, I know, but in that moment, it’s hard to know what parts of our relationship were.

The medic comes back. “The helicopters have found something.”

I hadn’t heard them before, but now their whirling is constant. “Something” means a body. I’ve seen enough true crime documentaries to know this.

“They say it looks like a whale carcass from above.”

“Maybe the cops need backup,” I suggest. “So they can get to the island.” “The helicopters are helping to break people up. They’re going to find your

friend before you know it. It’s a small island.”

“But I don’t think she’s on the island anymore,” I protest. The medic puts her hand on my shoulder and asks if I want an apple juice. When I say no, she asks me to lie down on one of her pink cots, as if I’ve just given blood. I do, but only because I can still watch the boats from there, and because the color pink smells like Lorna.

The lake is cleared of boats eventually. More cops come. A whole ambulance comes. Some professors from the marine bio department come. Reporters come. Some crackpot medium I interviewed for my article comes. Some of them go into the lake, but most of them stay on shore, huddled around the medic tent, which has become more of a refreshment station for the emergency responders.

“They found a beluga whale just a decade or so ago.”

“No, they just heard noises that sounded like a beluga whale call.” “What about the Charlotte Whale?”

“That was all fossilized. This is fleshy and rotten and swelling.” “I knew today was going to be the day. I dreamed about it.”  “It could be two or three big fish, caught up in a net.”

“You know how snakes try to eat alligators and the gators claw open their stomachs? Maybe that happened. Maybe it ate something too big.”

“Maybe a pile of sturgeon just decomposed in a way that resembles a monster?”

“You know the natives saw them long before we even got here. They called them Ogopogo.”

When I imagine the monster’s corpse it is made of deflated pink and purple plas- tic and smells of Barbie perfume and sunscreen. And when the plastic  unfolds, Lorna is inside, all made-up. Her face is lovely, but it’s punctured, and there’s glitter streaming out in rainbows from the holes.

I try calling Lorna’s phone, but it goes right to voicemail. Her voice isn’t there. Some machine does the talking for her. This relieves me. I know Lorna isn’t dead because when people die, you call their voicemail to hear their voice, and I can’t do that. She wouldn’t say she loved me, so she owes me that voicemail.

It is starting to get dark, and most of the responders are in the water, circling the same spot over and over again. They told me to go home hours ago after they got my official statement, but I wanted to stay. I had no idea how long it would take. True crime documentaries are usually only an hour long.

The medium wasn’t allowed on the water, but she is standing as close to it as she can. She’s at the very edge of the dock, her toes pressed against the decrepit ledge. She looks different from the way she did when I interviewed her. Her hair is in a tight braid, and she’s wearing no makeup.

I am overcome with the desire to be touched. She is old. She could be my mother. It isn’t cheating if it’s an old person.

“Hi,” I say.

“Hi, hi,” she responds. “Isn’t this exciting?” Her smile becomes bigger when she recognizes me. “Are you on duty? Do you want a quote for the school pa- per?”

“No, thank you,” I say. “I wanted to know if you could do a reading for me.” “Of course.” She reaches into her purse, which jingles with what I imagine

are crystals and Tic-Tacs, and hands me a business card.

“I was hoping you could do it now.” I push the business card into the pocket of my shorts. I feel Lorna’s keys.

She stares at me for a good ten seconds before she says, “Okay.”

“Do you want to go over there?” I point toward the apartment buildings, where a family has started a bonfire for all the banished festival-goers.

I am hoping to walk away from the water.  It is so dark that it looks like   a hole in the earth. It looks like something I could disappear into. And it is so quiet. There are no yelping cats. No cracking ice. No pedals slapping the surface, just the echoes of emergency responder language, a series of numbers and letters I can’t piece together. They might as well be speaking beluga whale.

“No, let’s stay here,” she says and sits down. She wants to be the first to see whatever they pull out of the water. I’m sure that will up her psychic points or whatever, give her something to brag about at the next crystal ball convention.

I sit down too. I reach my palm out to her, and she shakes her head at it. She’s in her purse again. She pulls out tarot cards. “Think of a question,” she says, shuffling the deck. I leave my palm out. I leave it waiting.

Though she didn’t ask me to, I close my eyes. I can’t bring myself to ask if Lorna is dead, so instead I say, “I think I lost the love of my life today.” The medium doesn’t respond so I add, “Forever.”

I hear the shuffling of cards, but I still don’t open my eyes.

“You can look now,” she says. I shake my head no.

I hear her shuffling the cards again, and then her hand is on my knee. She feels solid and hard. She feels real. Her touch does nothing for me. I am still fat and ugly. “I think you lost something today,” she says, “but not the love of your life. This boy—”

“I’m gay,” I say. I don’t let the medium make eye contact. I know she’s a good person, a kind person. She helped me with my article. She touched me. I know she wants to make eye contact and apologize, but I don’t let her. I want to hurt her. I want to hurt Caleb. And I want to hurt Diane Williams.

The medium apologizes and I tell her I need to go home. I can either walk through Old Post Cemetery or the bonfire crowd to get to Lorna’s car. The bon- fire seems less depressing, so I head in that direction.

I call Lorna’s phone. Still just a machine.

The same hip-hop music is playing from before, though most people are wearing coats over their costumes now. I smell s’mores and burning plastic. I smell the chlorine woven into their swimsuits. I smell the wet rocks of the lake. I hear someone say, “Mom, we’re staying here until after they get the monster out.”

I remember the taste of Lorna’s hairspray from this morning, when she was on top of me, her knees over my heart. I turn toward the fire.

I see a cone of light dancing, its harsh white bulb cutting through the flames. It’s attached to a miner’s helmet, which is on a girl’s head. A girl that looks  just like Lorna. But this girl has a wine bottle in one hand and her other’s on a shirtless boy’s shoulder. He is a scarf, a spineless animal, something she can drape over herself to keep warm. She is so happy I can hear her smile. It sounds like cracked ice. Loud and scary and wet. She is dancing barefoot. Her makeup isn’t flowing from her, she is dusting everyone in it. She isn’t missing anyone or anything. I stop and stare. I wonder. And then the smoke blows over her, turns her gray and blurry, and she looks like a ghost caught between worlds. I keep walking. I know she isn’t real.


Nicole Hebdon‘s fiction has been published in The Kenyon Review, The New Haven Review, The Southampton Review, and The Antigonish Review among other places. She is currently working on a horror novel about sisterhood.

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