By Alexis Malloy

"What rests, but that the mortal sentence pass
On his transgression, death denounced that day?"

– Milton, "Paradise Lost"

"What are you thinking about?" I ask, my voice easing into the night rather than shattering the silence. Even ghosts can seldom weave their way so smoothly into a loop of thought and conversation with little more than a whisper to mark their passing.

A thin column of smoke issues from between his pale, glossed lips; it's poetic in a way that it shouldn't be. Sitting on a cold and uncomfortable bench, waiting for the day to die, the air is still, but not silent. A tremor of distant wind chimes, fading voices, and the rush of evening traffic venture self-confidently across the river and pervade the tranquility of the small park.

Ken takes another drag of his slender cigarette, balanced delicately between two fingers nearly as slim and white as the cancer stick. His luminous gray eyes slide to the side, lizard-like, as he looks at me with a small half-smile. The right side of his mouth; that is a good sign.

"Death," he says simply, calmly. Not even a ripple in serenity.

Ken is the master of smooth.

"Mmh," I nod. A nearby swing set is cosseted by the wind, squeaking as the chains brush against metal. "You never used to,"

"I've changed," he responds, tapping his fingers so that a small cascade of ash tumbles to the ground. He stares at it for a moment, his gray eyes shifting to the cigarette dangling from his ivory fingers. Perhaps really seeing it for the first time.

"I know," I say as it tumbles to the ground and Ken links his hands in his slender lap. "But we all do."

"But I sometimes think," Ken goes on, "that I haven't changed enough."

He falls silent, tilting his face up to the finger-painted sky. I hardly know him anymore. His eyes are too wise for his young, gaunt face, framed by strands of bluish black. His boyish body has been honed into the wiry, angular body of a young man, and conformist school outfits have long since been abandoned in favor of more expressive outfits. He wears a black T-shirt and faded jeans, with a borrowed red flame-patterned jacket that is far too big for him, which he wears anyway. It belongs to somebody he loves.

Not that he'll admit it.

"You are who you are, Ken. Nobody can change that, except yourself... and only when you're ready."

He smiles, with both corners of his mouth, but it is a sad and mournful expression. Not bitter, never. Ken does not blame; he understands - perhaps too much.

Silence falls, uneasy and expectant, like the fading daylight. Ken leans forward on his elbows, curling them on the lap of his pale jeans. His eyes follow a spider as it skitters across loose gravel and into slightly battered grass.

"What are you thinking about?" I ask again, quietly. Tilting his head ever so slightly, his hair slipping below his chin to curve around his girlish, angular face, he looks up at me and half-smiles with only the left side of his mouth.


"You never used to,"

"I've changed,"

"You were afraid,"

Ken leans back in the bench, not looking at me, his jacket-clad arms crossing protectively over his chest. I have unstrung the familiar puppet dance and we now tread on unfamiliar and potentially dangerous ground. But he does not retreat, does not hide behind his mask like he did when he was a child, however he might like to.

He doesn't speak, so I probe him, gently. "You have always been afraid of death,"

It was not a question, but he answers anyway.

"Yes." His hands are clenched into fists, his toes curled up inside his shiny black shoes, ankles crossed in a feminine yet Ken-like expression of unease. "But not anymore,"

"What are you afraid of now?" I ask.

He looks up at me, large eyes gleaming. His face is pale, but his lips are glossy and parted with his slow breathing. Two bright, feverish spots highlight his cheekbones. For a moment it doesn't look like he's going to answer; or perhaps turn his face away in disgust and scorn, laughing mockingly at the idea that he might confess his flaws. But he doesn't.

He looks me in the eyes, his own flashing with stubborn will. "The only thing we have to fear... " he says, tilting his chin up. "Nameless, unreasoning, unjustified..."His eyelashes drop as he glances away quickly; his eyes flickering back to meet mine, a feral snarl hovering at the corner of his mouth.

I begin to laugh.

"Oh, Ken, oh, Ken..." He shivers, cringing away from me. "How incredibly noble of you…"

He tries to move, but is not quick enough. The heel of my hand connects solidly with his jaw as I smack him across the face. He gives a small cry and pushes back, crashing to the ground. The side of his face hits the side of the bench along his arched left cheekbone, and the sleeve of his borrowed jacket snags. He lies crumpled on the ground, favoring his right hand where it scraped against the ground, the other hand cupping his face. His breathing is noisy, angry and frightened at the same time, and his head is bowed. I can see the darting fury in his gray eyes, pupils dilated, tiny springs of furious tears blooming at the corners.

"Screw you," he finally speaks, his voice shuddering. "Screw. You. Leave... me... alone..."

"Oh Ken," I say, sweetly, "What's wrong?"

I go to move closer to him, the leaning branches of the tree behind me accenting the shadows against Ken's pale form, but he cries out, lashing at me with his scraped hand. Scrambling desperately against the loose, dirty concrete and torn yellow grass, he leaps to his feet, darting a step back. He is nearly spitting with fury now, but I can still sense the fear tempered with the anger.

"Leave me alone!" he yells, desperately.

"Shhhh... You wouldn't want anybody to hear, now would you?" His face pales, looking more ghostlike than ever. The sun, nearly set behind the peaks of gray chrome buildings, sends streaks of pink and red across his gleaming, tousled hair, illuminating the glowing pallor of his eyes and skin and accenting the shadows underneath his eyes.

"I don't need you anymore..." he says, slowly, carefully. His delightful tenor voice is taut with suppressed emotions, but his eyes betray the stark, utter truth.

"I hate you." He says firmly. "I hate you. I hate you. I hate you. I wish you were-" he breaks off suddenly, breath catching, eyes widening.

"Dead?" My eyes flash, gleaming, at the suddenly illuminated image of Ken as a car grinds its way up to the park, headlights flooding the area. "Oh, baby, how far did that get you last time?"

The car motor splutters to a stop, sighing deeply as a door is opened. Keys jingle and gravel crunches underneath stylish combat boots as a slim figure steps out of the car, slamming the door. The headlights abruptly die.

"Ken?" a voice calls, followed by the slamming of the car door. Ken is jolted out of his wide-eyed state and he looks past me to where a lean, tall young man makes his way across the nearly abandoned park. His eyes dart back to me, a brief expression of smug triumph crossing his features.

"I'll show you. I'll show them all," he whispers venomously. He dashes the back of his injured hand across his eyes, leaving behind a faint smudge of dirt, blood, and eyeliner; but the tears are no more. He takes a step forward, tilting his chin up. "And nobody's going to stop me."

He straightens up as the footsteps arrive, the innocuous eyes of Daniel Anderson peering out of the darkness. His white teeth flash in a grin, briefly unsettling in his tanned face, but it quickly fades as he sees Ken's bruised cheek, torn clothes, and bloody hand. "Ken?! Are you alright?" He darts forward, the tails of his long jacket trailing behind him. "What happened? And what are you doing out here by yourself this late?" He peers, worriedly, into his best friend's eyes. "Ken?"

"I'm fine," the gray-eyed young man assures him, smiling comfortingly. He tucks a stray lock of fine hair behind his ear. "I just came out here to think. It's... quiet here."

Daniel plants his hands on his hips in an unconsciously jaunty gesture. "Well, okay, but what happened to you?" His eyes soften and he reaches out quickly to brush Ken's bruised face with the tips of his callused fingers. Ken pulls away quickly. "What? Ken, I -" he looks hurt.

"Sorry, Daniel," Ken says, bringing his own cool white hand up to cup his chin. "It hurts. I fell off the bench, that's all. I must have nodded off." Daniel smiles in sudden understanding, but still looks worried.

"Come on, then," he says, linking his hand around Ken's uninjured wrist and tugging gently. "The others are all at Patti's house. Watching movies. And stuff." He looks hopeful. "Do you want to go?"

"Sure," Ken nods, half-smiling at his friend. "Let go of my wrist, please,"

Daniel grins sheepishly, and complies. They walk in silence for a few moments, infinitely comfortable in each other's presence. Then Ken looks over at Daniel with a puzzled expression. "How did you know I was here?" he asks.

Daniel smiles at him and shrugs. "I don't know. I knew you were in a Mood today, and I figured that you'd probably either be here, at the soccer field, or at home. You come here a lot, don't you?" Ken nods. "I can't understand why. How can you stand being alone in a place like this?" He glances nervously over the broken-down, silent, and abandoned park. The swing sets are battered and unkempt, barren of children. The once-shiny metal of the slides is tarnished with disuse. "It's creepy..."

"I'm never alone, Daniel," Ken says, softly, almost imperceptibly. The brown-haired boy looks at his best friend in confusion, steps faltering. Ken just smiles mysteriously. "I have my memories."

"Yeah but... memories aren't very good company," Daniel points out, obviously once more at sea in Ken's world of philosophy. He is not stupid, but neither is he suited to worlds of mystery. "Sometimes they should just stay... I don't know, dead."

Ken smiles. "I'm trying," he says. "But sometimes they are more than memories."

Daniel reaches out to touch Ken, maybe to glean some sense of this pale boy's infinite knowledge in the swirls of his fingertips. Ken allows this and turns, turning the touch into a hesitant caress. Then Ken places a thin finger on Daniel's lips.

Not now, this gesture seems to say. Not here. But maybe some day. You are too alive for this.

They get in the car. Daniel puts the keys in the ignition. The fuzzy dice hanging from the mirror bang together as the midnight-blue car leaves behind the dead playground, the children's graveyard, and the spiders skittering across the ground. Ken runs his fingers across the white leather upholstery, glancing into the rearview mirror with a haunted look in his eyes and a brave smile trembling on his pale lips.

Daniel sees this. "Ken..." he says hesitantly, but determined, "I don't think you should go back there anymore." His pale, slender friend looks up, twining his fingers in his lap. He nods.


They drive in silence for a few minutes. As they cross the threshold into the city, Daniel glances over at his friend again, lights from a Blockbuster sign casting a blue-gold sheen on his skin, his white teeth as he smiles hesitantly. "But if you do," he says, "I'll still be there to pick you up."

Ken smiles, but doesn't look up, silver eyes watching neon signs as they flash by. He knows.