Open Spaces

The West


Sarah and I did a ton of googling with all the extra time on our hands, and we resolved to fuck in each of the nearly one hundred public, state, and national parks in the continental United States that are rumored to be haunted. We wanted to do it before the world opened back up. That’s how we spent that year.

Take, for instance, Luana’s Canyon in Kingman, Arizona—sometimes referred to as “Slaughter Canyon”—where Sarah and I spent three whole nights moaning underneath the stars. It was on this land that, during the gold rush in the mid-1800s, an impoverished woman killed her starving children with an axe because she couldn’t bear to hear their anguished cries reverberating throughout the valley. Hunger killed those kids; isolation killed those kids. I think about this a lot. According to local legend, it’s the mother’s screams that visitors can still sometimes hear, echoing on across the centuries in the dead of night, and Sarah and I can attest to this. On our second night of camping in the gully, these moans drifted alongside the dry breeze and flinted over us. “Shh,” she said, slowing the friction of her body against mine. “Do you hear that?”

We listened, and, Sarah pushing me softly up inside her, we heard.

Not long after Slaughter Canyon, we visited Bodie State Historic Park, located in California east of the Sierra Nevada. Bodie was a certified boomtown in the late 1800s, but shortly following the turn of the century, the mine dried up and the population dwindled to under a hundred. Today, Bodie still stands in a state of arrested decay, with desiccated saloons and the husks of houses curbing the empty streets, a genuine ghost town in every sense. We were all alone there. Like just about everything that year, Bodie was shut down temporarily on account of the virus, and so we hopped the fence, Sarah pulling herself over much faster than me. “Dan and Erika will get a real kick out of this once we’re back,” she said, taking a snapshot of an abandoned storefront. Dan and Erika were her roommates, and, before we set out upon this journey, I had lived alone. “Do your friends dig this kind of stuff too?” she asked, and I mumbled something noncommittal, kicked a loose screw up the road. Detritus like this was all over: nails and shattered glass and weather-bent shoes. The Curse of the Bodie is said to afflict awful luck onto anyone who pockets an artifact from the town, but I suspect this is just a rumor started by the parks department to discourage tampering. Instead, Sarah and I found it was the buildings themselves that are haunted. That night, I ate her out on the floor of the Moyle House kitchen, cabinets opening and shutting with manic ecstasy, curled floorboards banging up and down joyfully, the ceiling groaning above us. Afterward, I zipped my jeans and wiped sweat from my brow. “I don’t know anyone who’s into this the way that we’re into this,” I said, panting.

The most haunted of the western parks is Cheesman. That’s where we began, Sarah and me, and where we discovered what we’d spend the next year trying to hold on to. That first day we met, on a Tinder date at the edge of the park, Sarah practically introduced herself with the park’s history. She explained that it had first opened as a graveyard, and that when Denver converted it to a park in 1893, families were allotted three months to resettle the bodies of their loved ones. Most couldn’t afford the excavation: something like two thousand corpses are still buried underneath the park to this day. “And so they moved the cemetery,” she continued, “but they left the bodies.” Even though I knew the story, I was eager to let her tell it to me. I was already rapt. We sat cross-legged in the grass, six feet apart from one another, Sarah picking at her elbow. This would have been April, about a month into quarantine. We’d elected to meet at the park because open spaces were much safer than bars, coffee shops, all the usual standbys. “Spielberg based a whole movie on this place,” she added, and I stuttered that I was familiar with Cheesman’s folklore.

“I’m uh, pretty into ghosts,” I said, and her eyebrows went up.

By the time the sun finally set a few hours later, we’d abandoned any pretext of settling for masked, socially distant hand jobs, and instead we tussled hungrily in the wet grass, kissing and grabbing at each other. We didn’t have to worry about anyone finding us. Sarah dug her fingers into the mud, and I made a face like I was concentrating very hard on something. I heard the earth rumble, and I moaned involuntarily. It was not until a flash of lightning lit up the sky that I noticed dirt mounds pushing up out of the mud all around us, breaking apart as they collided with oxygen. Sarah noticed too, but of course we did not break eye contact. I sensed something significant was happening, and so I thrust so hard it was crazy, and then a segment of bone jutted out of the ground and scratched her side. “It’s just the rain bringing up dead things,” Sarah said, gasping. She bled, unbothered, and then motioned that she wanted to get on top, and so I rolled off her into the mud, wet seeping through the back of my shirt, and I could just barely make out her expression as bone fragments and limbs and femurs protruded out of the soil all around me, skulls chattering hysterically and skeletal hands caressing my shoulders in rhythm with our bodies. It was so fucking hot. Bony ankles hooked around my frame as thunder boomed in the distance, and—close as I was to orgasm—I felt that this must be what religion is. I put my hand on Sarah’s face. She bit her lip. We moaned like we’d be dead by morning.

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The Pacific Northwest


The Pacific Northwest is notable primarily for its relatively low degree of regional ghost density. This was one of our biggest surprises when Sarah and I mapped out our road trip during our two-week isolation together in my Denver studio. Sarah’s roommates had demanded this quarantine on account of the non-distanced nature of our first hookup at Cheesman, and she took to our isolation happily. During the daytime, she’d take Zoom calls from my kitchen table, and I’d haphazardly highlight spreadsheet cells, keeping up a lie from my Tinder profile that I was a coder with a tech startup, instead of just a recently unemployed bartender. At night, it was always back to Cheesman. Because of the emptiness in those days, we fucked ostentatiously: in the grass and against tree trunks and underneath the pavilion. We still came with urgency, but by the eighth night, the cackling skulls and the skeletal jazz hands had grown a little conventional, and we thought we might make the most of the hollowed-out world. “Let’s see what else America has to offer,” Sarah suggested, and I felt my pants tighten.

We began plotting our route later that night, and although we’d imagined the PNW to be brimming with tall men looming over trailheads and specters shifting from one tree to the next, we were disappointed to find that of America’s ninety-six ghost-ridden parks, only nine belonged to the Northwest, hardly any of them particularly novel.

Even still, we had resolved to fuck in each of these haunted parks before restrictions were lifted and life shifted once again. And so, after going hours out of our way for one last stop in California—the abandoned zoo at Griffith Park, where skeletal peacocks squawked as we rubbed against each other inside the long-dormant lion enclosure—we drove north up the coast into Oregon. It rained the whole drive, but we liked it that way, holding hands over the center console, climaxing in sync with one another over the screams of a murdered college student at Cathedral Park in Portland, and, farther east, whispering and groping feverishly beneath Fourth of July fireworks at Candy Cane Park in La Grande as a cursed barmaid cackled at us from the merry-go-round. “Do you think they’re jealous?” Sarah asked later, the dead cocktail waitress hovering over us. “That we can touch each other?” I kissed her against a northern red oak and said, “Fuck yeah.”

I was cavalier about it, these ghosts of the Pacific Northwest. How lonely they were, how pedestrian.

At Malheur National Forest, we finger-fucked and then sat around a fire, tipsy and postcoital, as ethereal horses galloped past us and into the distance. “This all would have been such a bummer,” I said, “if we hadn’t met when we did.” I passed her the old joint I’d been smoking—one of our last—and she smiled, nodded, took a hit. “I want this to be over so bad,” she said, and then she told me that she couldn’t wait to get back to concerts, to bars, to coffee shops. She couldn’t believe how much she missed just going to the corner store without a mask, without hand sanitizer, all these new appendages. “First thing I’m going to do on the other side of this is go dancing.” She asked what I was excited for, and I shrugged and tossed a stick into the flame. “It’s all so far off,” I said. “I don’t want to get my hopes up.”

Between parks, we’d sometimes spend a few days at a time in a hotel room, Sarah working and me pretending to work. We did our best to keep things as safe as possible outside the parks—shitting behind highway rest stops, masking ourselves when we had to be inside of places, only staying in motels that had signs like deep cleaned after every stay. In the hotel rooms, on the phone with her friends, Sarah would describe us as digital nomads. I could tell that everyone thought she was crazy for doing this with me. She’d always go quiet for a long while after explaining our situation, and then she’d get as far from me as she could, and say, a little softer, “Yeah, I mean, these are crazy times,” or, more assertive, “Well what should I be doing?”

Conversation in these mundane environments sometimes felt forced, stilted; she’d ask me what I did for fun in the Before Times and I’d just stare blankly. It didn’t take long for us to realize that hotel-room sex was a nonstarter. She’d be on top and then my mind would wander and then I’d remember about the first time at Cheesman, and I’d concentrate real hard on feeling that same sense of euphoria and magic, of a whole other world breaking open, but then the exertion would get the better of me and I’d get distracted again.

We did still hold each other, though, in those borrowed beds. With my arm wrapped around her, Sarah would stress herself out looking up the latest case numbers. “Jesus,” she said gloomily one night in late September in a Tacoma motel. “They’re saying it could be another thirteen months before this is over.” The forecast made me bright, and I imagined us maintaining this setup for a whole other year, but Sarah sounded so down about it that I felt guilty. She had more to miss than I did—a close circle of friends, a weekly trivia night, even coworkers—and as such, she was concerned about a return to pre-pandemic life in a way that I, simply, was not. The last few months had been good to me. I felt that all the anxiety and loneliness everyone else was now experiencing had just put the rest of the country on my level. I wasn’t proud of this. It was what it was.

“Why don’t you put your phone away,” I said, groping for the television remote. “We can watch a movie or something.”

Ammon Park in Pocatello, Idaho was famous for sightings of a young girl in a blue dress named Molly who had supposedly been murdered there, and who now apparently wandered the playground after nightfall. “Beware of making eye contact with Molly,” I read aloud off my phone as we waited around for an unmasked family of four to clear out of the park. “It is said that if you do, she will turn suddenly into a demonic spirit and become very hostile.” We laughed this off as an obvious overreach by local enthusiasts, but as Sarah pulsated atop me on the flat grass that night, I became gradually aware of soft footsteps approaching us. An awful feeling overtook me, this deep-down dread that would have knocked me down had I not already been prone, and I glanced over to see that the figure closing in was short, sporting pigtails, draped in baby blue.

Molly haunted toward us, expressionless.

Cold crept up my ribs and seized my chest. I looked back at Sarah. Riding on top of me, her eyes darted to her side. “Look at me,” I told her, as the ghost girl circled tighter. “Hey. Sarah. Don’t look at her. Look at me.” Uneasily, Sarah locked her gaze low on my face—on my cheeks, the bridge of my nose. She kept grinding, trembling, but she wouldn’t or couldn’t let her eyes find mine. Molly paced around us, her footsteps like a patient metronome. I could see how bad Sarah wanted to look, and I felt a kind of fear that I hadn’t yet encountered. “Sarah. Hey. Don’t look away,” I said onto her furrowed brow as we worked. I hooked my hands around her hip bones, my thumbs edging the soft valley between them. “Do not look away from me.”

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The Midwest


At Trollwood Park in Fargo, North Dakota, the specter of a murdered woman fumed around a willow tree, gibbering relationship advice as Sarah and I rubbed each other off hurriedly. “Never go to bed angry,” the murdered woman said, holding up a finger. “Don’t be afraid to talk about money.” At Antelope Park, in Lincoln, Nebraska, we watched, sitting half naked on the bark of a fallen tree trunk—Sarah with her top off, bugs nipping at my exposed genitals—as ghostly farmers paraded across a meadow toward the far-off woods, disappearing just before the tree line. At Raccoon River Park in Des Moines, Iowa, an apparition in a straw hat watched us curiously as I held Sarah backward against my chest in a bathroom stall with one hand up her shirt and the other down her pants. “Folks don’t come around here much to have their corn ground these days,” the ghost said, hovering above the urinal. “It’s strange what slips your memory, the nuances.”

Driving through Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin the weekend before Halloween, we picked up a ghostly, late-century hitchhiker who asked us lots of questions about soulmates and destiny and the abstract nature of love. He was friendly, rakish, skeptical of monogamy. “Can one person ever really be enough?” he asked. “I mean for an entire lifetime?” We expressed conflicting answers and then Sarah gave me impatient road head until the ghost chimed in to say that he had died in the middle of a similar sex act. “Crashed right into the median at a hundred miles an hour,” he said, and Sarah sat up and wiped her chin and looked out the passenger-side window. We dropped the ghost in Milwaukee, watched him disappear into the ether through the rearview.

At Potato Creek State Park a few miles out from South Bend, Indiana, Sarah suggested that we get it over with and have sex before midnight because, allegedly, the ghost of an old man who had drowned to death in the creek began screaming and splashing around in the water every night at midnight exactly, and Sarah didn’t want us having sex through that. So, we did missionary for like the hundredth time, alone in the quiet dark. Even with our bodies crinkling in and out of each other atop yellowed leaves, we may as well have been fucking in a bedroom. I tossed my blank condom into our trash bag, and sure enough, the dead man’s ethereal, sputtering wails overtook the sky not long after as we pitched our tent. “What’d you mean by that, earlier?” I asked, the old man thrashing in the distance. “You know, when you said to get it over with?”

“Maybe haunted parks are like anything,” Sarah answered. “Maybe you get used to them.”

Our last stop in this region was Paul Ruster Park Cemetery in Indianapolis, where a teenage punk played the harmonica outside a mausoleum as a dusting of snow accumulated above the graves. “I’m going to approach him,” Sarah said, but when she got too close, the kid gurgled up blood and raved about damnation. “Have you ever noticed,” Sarah asked me, later at camp, “how many of these hauntings involve dead kids? Sometimes I worry that if we got pregnant in one of these spaces, the kid wouldn’t stand a chance. That it’d slide out of me dead already, or be marked somehow.” We were not touching at all. I imagined a baby with clear eyes who never so much as whimpered, pictured him growing up to look just like me. Everything felt heavier than it had when we started, and so I articulated what I’d been feeling for a couple of weeks—that we’d both been a little less into things lately, that maybe we’d just been feeling a bit turned off by some of the parks and by all the little rituals that had come to comprise living this last year. I suggested we take a break from our travels, spend a week or so exploring the city, maybe even turn around. “We could go back,” I suggested, thinking of the scratch she’d taken on her flank, long since healed. “To Cheesman.” It was all I could think to say.

Sarah’s mouth frowned, and her eyes searched the sky past my head. “I don’t know what it would be like, trying to get back to that now,” she said, and of course I didn’t either. Her chin came down. “It’s not you—it’s just that a lot of these ghost stories around here, they’re turn-offs.” She nudged my foot and smiled, but I remember now how sad she sounded. “Please let’s keep going. It’ll be better up east.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I mean, of course.”

Sarah smiled, and later, tucked into my own sleeping bag, I lay awake blinking until the hum of the ghost kid’s harmonica carried me to troubled sleep.

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The Northeast


It was winter, bitter cold.

We were camped on the fringes of Beaver Creek State Park on the eastern edge of Ohio when Sarah showed me a video on her phone of a UK nurse administering the world’s first dose of the new vaccine to an elderly patient, cameras flashing all around them.

“It’s really happening,” Sarah said, astounded. She’d been growing more optimistic by the day. About her future, I mean. Everybody’s. Most nights she’d been telling me her hopes for a post-world, the one that was past all this, rattling off the names of friends and venues and hobbies she had never before expressed. I felt jealous of just about everything, of Sarah and the laughing grandma getting that first shot and the sturdy nurse giving it and all the people clapping after. She couldn’t understand why I was so muted, but there was nothing I could do to hide my disappointment. She asked me about it, I responded harshly, and I think we both said some things we shouldn’t have. I told her it was selfish to be so fixated on all the things she was missing, and she told me that she knew I was lying about working for a tech startup, that she felt suffocated being with me, that she couldn’t stand how I seemed to wish the pandemic would drag on indefinitely. “I had a life, before this,” I remember her telling me, and from then on, if the subject of the future came up, I would usually just play dead.

East Coast parks were haunted overwhelmingly by the spirits of fallen soldiers. And although I found the vibe to be an absolute drag, Sarah just loved it—all those young men and their hopes. Pennsylvania was lousy with them, patrolling aimlessly and getting uncomfortably teary-eyed as they relayed the horrors of battle like we were in a damn Ken Burns documentary.

At Valley Forge National Historical Park in Pennsylvania, the ghost of George Washington himself flirted shamelessly with Sarah. I resented his physical perfection: he was fit, handsome the way grandfathers are in old photographs. Even his hair was real, apparently. Sarah seemed so charmed by him. She laughed at all his jokes, even the outdated pop-culture references. “No, I totally get that,” she said, running her fingers through her hair. “William Blake’s a hack, everybody says so.” Eventually, I got so irritated that, through gritted teeth, I thanked him for his service—a move which earned me a click of Sarah’s tongue—and stormed off to our tent. I put a pillow over my ears to drown out their banter, but our first president’s baritone still kept me up late into the night, calm and confident and encouraging.

“What’s going to happen once we’re home?” I asked Sarah, after she crawled into our tent way past 2 a.m.

She slid into my sleeping bag and brought the heat between her hips against my rear. I hoped she would tell me that we’d hunker down together. That, in our own way, we’d continue on with this project we’d started, even if it meant having to meet her roommates, her friends, her father. “I guess things will go back to normal,” she said.

I wanted to ask her if there was anything between us that she’d consider normal. Instead, all I said was, “Normal is relative. And things don’t go back.”

Over the weeks that followed, Sarah pretended not to notice that I had begun taking us on byzantine routes to extend our trip, the car rattling with mounting intensity every time I put my foot to the accelerator. As we drove up, down, and around the coast, the emptied McDonald’s bags in the back seat of the car took up more and more surface area, and the parks grew stranger than all that had come before. We stepped through overgrown grass and felt a deep and unsubstantiated cold as we wandered Forest Park, watched hellfire emanate from the mouth of Anemone Cave in Bar Harbor, and stared up at the sky in Camden Hills as top hats materialized inexplicably and then fell toward the Earth at odd hours. On New Year’s Day at Truxton Park in Maryland, we came upon a deep hole in the ground at the edge of a long woods that was purported to have been the gravesite of a burned witch. Sarah poked at the edges with a stick and pretended like she was going to push me in. “Do you want to climb down there?” she asked. “Get each other off or something?”

The smell of turned earth grew wet in my throat, and I told her maybe later.

In the morning we drove out a half hour past Baltimore to visit a gazebo nicknamed Hell House that had been overtaken with plant life, in the middle of Patapsco Valley State Park. A cross was erected in the dead center, and the only information we could find online was a vaguely worded article that asserted it to be the site of “disturbing rituals.”

Staring upon the structure, Sarah gripped my hand underneath the full moon. “I want to take you here,” she said, her inflection firm, deliberate. Like she was steeling herself for me.

I followed her up the gazebo steps. We stood in its center, and she put her mouth against mine to kiss me. Her tongue felt cold, lifeless. It was so dark we could hardly see each other, but then a procession of hooded figures emerged out of the forest, each cupping a single lit candle. They were corporeal, all of them, and neither of us commented. I didn’t care about their presence one way or the other as the figures circled the gazebo, some with goats at their sides. Silently, Sarah took her body out of her clothes and lay down, shivering as her back pressed against the warped concrete. She exhaled as I slid into her, eased forward and backward and forward again. We were both so quiet and slow that I could tell it would be the last time. I thrust under the faint light as the hooded strangers began humming together in unison. It was low-pitched, mournful, the sort of long, slow croon that soundtracks church scenes in old horror movies. Around us, our guests’ tethered goats bleated on, and Sarah looked over to them and then back to my face, my mouth hanging open lamely. Sarah’s eyes closed as she arched beneath me. I put my hand on her cheek and tried so hard to be present.

After we’d finished, we walked down the steps of the gazebo. We’d barely made it three feet before one of the visitors stepped in front of our path. “Why don’t you stay for a while,” he suggested, in a sort of monotone, one hand motioning toward the dark of the forest. “Both of you.”

Sarah squeezed my hand and led us away.

Our final stop together was in late January at Harold Parker State Forest in Andover, Massachusetts. By then the vaccines were trickling out to people Sarah knew: family members, a grandmother, a great-uncle. “It won’t take long now,” Sarah said as we drove through the snow-covered park. It was like she was trying to convince us both.

Harold Parker was famous for the ruins of old houses overtaken by woodland, and for bridges that were supposedly prone to disappearing after you walked across them. We parked and hiked through the snow, Sarah keeping a few paces ahead of me, neither of us speaking much. At last, we came upon one of the haunted bridges. We stepped over, and when I turned back a few moments later, found that it had faded into the white behind us.

“Oh no,” Sarah said. The bridge was gone.

I trudged back to the ravine and looked across. It was too steep to climb down, and even then, the ice was so thin it wouldn’t have mattered. I could see our tracks on the other side, and Sarah, at last, began to cry. “We’re never going to get out of here,” she moaned, and I could see her breath. “We’re going to be stuck in this forever.” I took her close. Then I started crying too.

We’d left our camping gear in the car, and so we continued on until, deep in the woods, we came upon one of the old houses. The door was unlocked, and we stepped through it cautiously, trailing our fingers against cracked plaster. We’d been through ghost towns and abandoned homes and dilapidated visitor centers before, but this was the first structure, the first park, that felt truly empty. There were no spirits, no cultists, no sense of life beyond death. Even the mantlepiece was bare, some shards of broken glass strewn across the floorboards. We figured someone must have ransacked the place. It was as though nothing was sacred.

“I want to live in a house one day,” I found myself saying, not really knowing if it was true, and Sarah nodded, vacant.

We started a flame in the wide fireplace and sat around the hearth drinking from a bottle of whiskey we found in a cupboard. Sarah had settled down into a sort of glassy torpor. “I think it’s going to feel like a dream, when this is all over,” she told me. “Like it’s something that happened to somebody else.”

I asked if she thought that’s how the spirits felt, like being dead was the only real thing, like someone else had been stomping around in their bodies.

In place of an answer, Sarah put her head on my shoulder. “At least we’ll have each other,” I told her, as she was losing consciousness, “as a reminder that it really did happen to us.” We fell asleep in each other’s arms that night on top of those loose floorboards, and when I awoke the next morning, I was alone.

At first, I figured Sarah had just stepped out to pace and to think the way she sometimes did. She had left a note, though, on the kitchen counter. I’d had a feeling something like this was coming. I stumbled out the door after her before even opening it, hoping, I guess, that I’d catch up to her, embrace her, that we’d talk this through, that it wouldn’t matter what she’d written.

It was bright outside, the world almost painful to look at, but the wind had tossed snow over Sarah’s footsteps so they disappeared a step or two past the front door. I kept calling her name, shivering, until I reached the river, where the vanished bridge from the day before had returned, just resting there like it had never left. I ran across it, still calling for Sarah, and when I looked back behind me, already it was gone once more.

So that was it then.

I trudged on through the forest and to the parking lot, where I was relieved in a sorry kind of way that Sarah had left the car for me. I let myself in, and then I yelled and punched the console and stared out the windshield. I began the long drive back into town.

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The South


The South was riddled with haunted parks I’d been eager to see with Sarah: Dead Children’s Playground in Huntsville, River Legacy Park in Arlington, Dismal Swamp Park in North Carolina.

I still wanted to complete the trip, but I knew that I would need to adjust to experiencing these things on my own. I masturbated at Cold Harbor Battlefield Park, at Harper’s Ferry National Park, at Mammoth Cave National Park, at all the parks. Before long, I was just a few months out from eligibility for my first dose, then two, then a couple of weeks. With vaccination numbers on the rapid rise, these public spaces got to be more and more crowded. It was becoming harder to get off discreetly, even on my own. Once, I came in a ditch at Meeman-Shelby Forest in Millington, Tennessee. The ghost of a man with a pig’s face stumbled onto the immediate aftermath, and averted eye contact with me as I kicked dirt over my deposit.

Like he was embarrassed for me, the pigman.

As my travels continued, I became less and less interested in orgasming in haunted parks. Less and less interested in hauntings. I burned entire days in open spaces I knew nothing about, sitting above hilltops and watching the sun crater below the Appalachians, or eating a sandwich on a splotch of grass outside an office building.

I checked the vaccination numbers before bed most nights. The experts seemed to be coalescing around a kind of cautious optimism, the sort that Sarah had expressed to me. Even with how precarious it all felt, things were looking up, and I felt at once comforted and resentful to know that she was likely doing this same thing each night, tracking the bar graph as it coughed from 1.7 million doses a day, to 2.4 million, to 3 million, over 4. Those numbers must have brought her so much joy, so much to look forward to.

April hit. I became eligible for vaccination and found myself waylaid in Wilmington, North Carolina for nearly two whole months—one week out from my first appointment, plus four more until my second shot, plus two more until promised immunity. All the while I thought long and hard about what would come after, a kind of dread creeping up inside of me. I didn’t find any of it particularly interesting. Once, I walked through the nighttime fog along an oceanside boardwalk, waving politely to the strangers I passed, and they me. It was more couples than not, all of them saying hello like it was a compulsion. There were no ghosts out that night. I sat at the edge of the dock and dangled my feet above the water and checked my phone. It was a painful relief to see that Sarah had posted something on Instagram, her first sign of life since we parted ways. In the photo, she was smiling on a crowded bar patio, surrounded by friends, each raising a glass for the camera. I felt a flash of anger and then another of guilt. Vaccinated. Grateful, she’d written. Excited for whatever’s next. I slipped my phone back into my pocket and looked out onto the ocean.

Things could be so much worse, I told myself, and I flung a rock into the murky dark.

The day before my second dose, I drove out to Grandfather Mountain State Park in Banner Elk, an hour or so from where I’d been staying. Legend had it the ghost of an elderly man who had died on one of the trails still roamed the park alone, and legend had it he spoke to no one. Sure enough, I saw the old specter shuffling silently down the trail toward the parking lot just as I pulled into a space, well before sunrise. His face was weathered and decomposing, and I could see fragments of his skull breaking through long-dead skin. He did have spirit, though. He flashed a thumbs-up to an early morning hiker passing him by, his deteriorated smile revealing not a hint of decay.

Briefly, I thought I might ask to join him. Once he hit the start of the trailhead, though, he just turned right around, already heading back up the mountain. He moved implacably, so sure of himself, that I knew he wouldn’t have me. “How long can you keep going like this?” I called out after him, but he didn’t look back, didn’t even slow. He just kept along up the path.

I sat on the hood of my car, waiting for the old man to come down again. Cars began to pull up, and people began to get out of them. I waited for hours, watching the migration arrive, a kind of natural spectacle that Sarah and I had not witnessed on our trip together. By late morning, the parking lot was crowded, then full. Sitting there, I watched an overeager father try to rouse his bored children into feigning enthusiasm for the hike they were about to undertake together; watched a flock of college kids pop open early-morning tallboys around a weathered picnic table; watched a young couple kiss ostentatiously in front of the park message board, like they wanted to be seen, like they were the only two left in the whole, entire world.

Spring had begun. The sun was on us all. I watched the woods and waited, but everything around me was alive.

Chris Vanjonack’s fiction and creative nonfiction appear or are forthcoming in One Story, Barrelhouse, Electric Literature, Ninth Letter, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and he writes and teaches at the Ohio State University as a Post-MFA Scholar. Find him on Twitter @chrisvanjonack.