The Only Time I’ve Seen the Dead

“You poor drowned rats,” our savior told us. “You have to let me take you home.”

It was raining and it was winter and we were huddled in the dark under the awning of some convenience store somewhere on the Oregon coast. No one would pick the three of us up. My friends were Swamp Rat and Tortoise, two women who’d sat in trees and blockaded roads and hopped freight and lived free lives and they weren’t even as old as my twenty years.

Our savior was sixty, with gray pigtails. She told us she was dying of Lyme’s.

We piled into the back of her SUV and she drove us deep and deeper into the woods. She lived far away from anything, like a witch in a fairy tale. Like a witch in a fairy tale, she could have murdered us.

As we drove through the dark forest, she told us about how her daughters didn’t visit anymore, about how it was getting harder for her to maintain her property. When we finally reached her house, she showed us photos. One of the photos was of her and her two daughters, smiling, in a row. For some reason, I looked at one of those daughters and I was certain that one was dead. I couldn’t tell you why I thought that, but I did.

Our host set us up in her probably-not-dead daughter’s room, and I slept on my back, with the forest creeping in towards the window. Tortoise and I shared the bed, but we weren’t on cuddling terms or anything like that. The moon came in and lit up the wall.

I woke up hours later, and the daughter was sitting there in the moonlight. She had sewing in her hand, but she wasn’t stitching. She was just sitting, watching me, between the bed and the wall. She was three dimensional, but she wasn’t solid; it was like she was made of moonlight.

The thing is, I knew I was awake.

I’d never seen a ghost before.

I couldn’t move. All I wanted to do was move. I wanted to get under the covers and maybe cuddle up with Tortoise and make her tell me the daughter wasn’t there. But the daughter was there and she was watching me. And I couldn’t move.

So I laid on my back, and I watched that dead daughter, and I questioned every decision that put me where I was that night, in the house of a woman who refused to admit her daughter didn’t call anymore because she was dead.

The night before, we’d slept in a suburban woman’s storage unit while a storm raged outside, because Jesus told her we needed a place to sleep but Jesus wasn’t reason enough to let three filthy hitchhikers into her house. We’d slept among the boxed up memories of someone who didn’t want to think about the past.

There I was, though, in the house a woman who should have boxed up more of her memories, who should have let more of her past go to rest. Fitfully, frightfully, slowly, while her dead daughter watched me, I drifted back into sleep.

* * *

In 2002, there was an eco-sabotuer on the run named Tre Arrow. He’d set some logging trucks on fire, and you have to understand that in the aughts, the FBI’s top priority for domestic terrorism was the Earth Liberation Front. That man would have been hunted to the ends of the Earth.

Twenty-year old me was the spitting image of that arsonist. It didn’t help that I was friends with his friends, and it sure didn’t help my paranoia that all these aforementioned friends were terrified on my behalf that I’d be confused for him and taken in. I carried my ID everywhere and just accepted that one day I’d probably be trying to convince somebody that no, I was not an eco-terrorist on the run from the law.

* * *

The next morning, our host was gone but for a note. “Went to the store, help yourself to anything.” And by “anything,” she meant the weed and bread and almond butter she’d left next to the note.

Now, I don’t smoke, because it makes me paranoid and anxious, but I’m going to admit that twenty-year-olds aren’t always the smartest people or at least I wasn’t, so I smoked the shit out of that weed.

High as fuck, paranoid as fuck, I realized this woman had gone off to tell the cops that she had Tre Arrow sitting in her house. I realized the whole thing had been a trap. I ate a lot of almond butter sandwiches in the intervening hours, because waiting for the feds to come pick you up, that’s kind of nerve-wracking, so might as well eat some sandwiches.

She came home without any cops, though. It was New Year’s Eve, and she invited us to stay another night. She wanted our help clearing an old trail on her property, and she armed us with machetes and we made our way through the woods, attacking every bramble and weed that crept onto the path. Her dog, a giant white ball of fur, flitted in and out of the forest just at the edge of our vision like a second ghost.

“These are my favorite trees,” she told us, when we reached out destination. Two trees of different species had grown together at their base, and a spring burst out of their roots.

That shit was magic. Maybe it was the kind of magic that you can explain with science, but I don’t care. That shit was magic. We watched water come out from those two trees, and I was utterly in love with the world.

We went back home, and she showed us conspiracy videos about 9/11 as the year 2002 came to a close. That night, no daughter visited me in my sleep.

* * *

At the time, I didn’t know what sleep paralysis was. Now, I understand that when I sleep on my back, particularly in tense situations, my body fails me and I wake up, paralyzed and hallucinating. That night in the forests of Oregon was the first time I’d experienced sleep paralysis, though it wouldn’t be the last.

It’s also the only time I’ve seen the dead, in all the dozens of times I’ve suffered paralysis. It probably wasn’t real, similar to how the feds who were after me weren’t real. Those two trees were real, though.

Our host didn’t kill us with the machetes and leave our bodies at the mouth of that spring or anything, which was nice of her. If I’d written the whole thing as fiction, to be honest the character representing me probably wouldn’t have survived. Reality is a lot less predictable than stories, and its magic more subtle.

The next morning, that woman took us back to the highway. We set off again down the 101, hiding from the pissing rain and each of the three of us set off to our separate fates.

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