It’s nearly midnight, and Kyle is concerned that I haven’t had enough fun. We’ve been driving around in circles for about 20 minutes, trying to figure out our next move. I bite my tongue so as not to make a comment about our current speed versus the hypothetical speed of train A headed toward wherever we’re going. Kyle notices my nerves; my bouncing leg always gives me away.
“I can’t bring you home like this,” he says, tapping the steering wheel. “You’re a mess.”
“I just want to get it over with,” I say.
“Oh, man! I know what you need!” I can almost see the lightbulb switch on over his head, but I don’t know where we’re going. Ten minutes and four back roads later, he pulls up alongside the long-abandoned McKinley House. “Ghost tour!” he yells.
I’ve never been inside the McKinley House. Kyle and I have been talking about going in for years, but neither of us has been able to work up the courage. I’m afraid of ghosts and cobwebs, and Kyle’s afraid of toxic mold and spiders. We’re real party animals, the two of us.
“We’ll get caught,” I whisper as we park in the driveway.
“No we won’t,” he whispers back.
I don’t know why we’re whispering. There aren’t any other houses around for miles. Asher McKinley, who built the house in the 1920s, was a wealthy misanthrope who bought acres and acres of the surrounding land to make sure no one could move next door. He died alone after living in the house for 40 years, and nobody’s moved in since. My grandmother once told me that real estate agents gave up trying to sell it after a few months because the place had “a cruelty about it, like Old Man McKinley himself.” It’s said that his ghost still walks up and down the grand staircase, telling visitors to go away. If they don’t listen, he makes a piece of the ceiling drop on their heads. I should be thinking of all of this as Kyle and I sneak into the house through a busted window, but all I can think—and I hate myself for this—is that the place looks majorly lugubrious.
We hold up our phones for light and make our way through a narrow hallway and into what must have been a formal dining room. There are signs of former beauty—a brass chandelier, beautiful woodwork—but the place smells like piss. Someone scrawled “ALEX WUZ HERE ’04” on the walls in hideous blue spray paint.
“Well, at least we know that Alex was here,” Kyle deadpans. I can tell that he’s nervous—the giveaway is a tic that makes him look like he’s chewing gum when he’s not chewing anything at all. His jaw moves up and down and he tries to look casual. I want to make fun of him, but I don’t, because I’m scared too.
“I think we should go,” I say.
Kyle responds by sitting on the dusty floor and asking, “Have I ever told you about the French horn?”
I look around for spiders before sitting down beside him. “I don’t think so.”
He looks up at the corroded chandelier. “When I was five, I decided that I wanted to play the French horn,” he says. “So my mom enrolled me in lessons.”
I laugh. “Of course she did.” Kyle’s mother signed him up everything.
“So I get to the lessons, and I pick up the French horn, and I’m terrible,” he says. He chews his imaginary gum. “It was the first time I didn’t pick something up like, right away.”
“That’s normal, though,” I assure him. “Even for prodigies, I’m sure.”
“Lauren,” he says, “I tried to learn how to play that effing thing for an entire year, and even though I understood the mechanics, I couldn’t play a song without it sounding forced and horrible. My teacher finally told my mother that maybe I should consider other options.”
“So you weren’t good at one thing,” I say. “You’re good at everything else.”
The floorboards creak, and we both look around nervously.
“But I beat myself up for years over the French horn,” he says. “I mean, I was FIVE, and I felt like a total failure, like my entire life was over because I couldn’t master an instrument. I had to see a therapist and everything. It was bad. I thought I was going to be one of those child prodigy burnouts who peaks in kindergarten and ends up doing meth and writing screeds against the government in a cabin in Montana by the time he’s 14.”
I laugh, and it echoes through the empty house.
“It’s not funny,” he says, though he’s giggling too.
“So how did you get past it?” I ask.
He smiles. “I studied you,” he says.
I’m not sure how to take this. It must show in my face.
“Do you remember that time we decided to set up a lemonade stand?”
I do remember. It was the worst lemonade stand of all time. The “lemonade” consisted of eight of my mom’s Crystal Light packets and three cups of sugar, and I thought it was reasonable to charge five dollars a glass. We made zero money, which is what we deserved.
“We spent hours on that stand,” I say. “Total waste.”
“Exactly,” he says. “I knew it was going to fail. I mean, five dollars for poison in a cup is pretty steep. But even though it killed me, I let you take the lead because I wanted to see how you’d handle it. And I’ll never forget it—after a half hour of sitting in the sun, you said, ‘This is dumb,’ dumped the lemonade out, and told me it was time to play Guess Who instead.”
“So, your entire attitude was like, ‘Oh well, this experiment failed, let’s do something better.’ To screw up and not care and move on was a novel concept for me. And I’ve carried it with me ever since. There’s a lot of power in being able to say, ‘Who cares? Let’s try something else.’ If it doesn’t work out, fuck it, you know? Find the next path and keep running.”
“We should go,” I say, standing up and brushing the dust from my jeans.
“Lauren,” he says.
“Toxic moooold,” I say, wiggling my fingers in front of his face.
“It’s just a test,” he says.
“I want to hear you say it.”
“It’s just a test,” I mumble.
“Louder!” he yells.
“IT’S JUST A TEST!” I scream. A piece of plaster falls from the ceiling.
“Oh shit,” Kyle laughs. “You pissed off the old man!” He grabs my hand, and we both run, shrieking, through the front door, down the driveway, and into the car. For the first time in forever, I’m terrified in a way that feels perfect.
Kyle starts the car and turns to me. “You ready?” he asks, and I nod yes. ♦