Excerpt

Anyone’s Ghost

August Thompson

July 8, 2024 
The following is from August Thompson's Anyone's Ghost. Thompson was born and raised in the middle of nowhere, New Hampshire, before he attended middle school in West LA. After surviving California optimism, he moved to NYC for his bachelor’s, studied in Berlin, and taught English in Spain for two years. He recently received his MFA at New York University’s creative writing program as a Goldwater Fellow.

I assumed Jake didn’t speak because he was Jake. Talking when he wanted, doing what he wanted.

Article continues below

Fifteen minutes in, I realized it was because he was drunker than I’d ever seen him. On the freeway, he drifted to the yellow lines over and over, like they called to him. “You good, dude? We can pull over if you want. Just kick it till you’re in better driving shape.”

“I’m good, I’m good. I’ve driven way drunker than this.” I did not find this assuring. He sounded as if he were speaking with inflated lips and a new model of tongue he hadn’t quite figured out yet.

I didn’t know what to do. The responsible thing would be to get insistent. To drop an ultimatum: “Either you pull over or I’m getting out right here.” But I’ve never been interested in being responsible with friends.

When we finally made it to my dirt road, I was relieved. There was no way fate would be so cruel as to kill me a few miles from the house I grew up in.

Article continues below

We worked through the dirt, past three‑story houses, the make‑ shift junkyard, a few trailers, a veterans’ graveyard, the hundred‑year oaks—all the landmarks that were landmarks to me and me alone. Jake seemed a little more lucid. I’d be back home in ten minutes, and then when I got there, I’d insist Jake sleep it off. I’d offer a bed, which I knew he wouldn’t take, then I’d go pull pillows and blankets out from the house so he felt obligated to stay. I thought maybe this was even good—I’d get to see him one more time in the morning.

And then we were off the road. Nothing had happened. People always ask that—they expect a deer or a chain‑saw maniac, a wild swerve, an overcorrection, attempted heroics. But it was nothing. I didn’t even get in a good “Look out!” The road ended and we kept going.

We were driving just above thirty‑five, but once the road ran out and the slope started, we picked up speed. We didn’t yell. We just went until we hit a stoic birch. The center of the van folded around the tree—probably a foot round, surprisingly sturdy in the way that so much of the earth is—and I watched Jake jolt forward, caught by the seat belt I always insisted he put on, his body curving into a C. The force of impact made it so we were almost facing each other. The windshield shattered, as did the collarbone on my right side. The air‑ bags did not deploy.

It didn’t happen slow; it happened impossibly fast. We were fine until we weren’t. A second of separation. That was the most violating part—realizing that there were dozens, if not hundreds, of other sec‑ onds in my life that divided me from pain instead of pushing me to‑ ward it.

My arm hurt if I moved it, but the rest of my body was excited. I undid my seat belt and fell out of the passenger door. The right head‑ light was out, but the left showed all of the woods ahead of us.

Article continues below

I said Jake’s name three times and he didn’t respond. I went over to the driver’s side and pulled on the door handle as hard as I could. My left arm, the good one, wasn’t strong enough to open the door fully. I could only move it a couple of inches, and every time I pulled, I felt lava flow from my right shoulder, across my chest, down my left arm.

I yelled “Jake!” over and over until it became a word detached from personhood or meaning, but he was nonresponsive. I knew I should call 911, that Jake needed an ambulance. To everyone except Jake, I’d seem a kind of hero. But calling 911 meant damning Jake to a DUI. He’d be broke, lose his license, maybe even get hit with a felony.

Through the open window, I slapped Jake’s face. I shook his shoulder. “Jake, Jake! You need to get out of the car. You need to get the fuck up right now.”

He was dead. I was convinced he was dead. I grabbed more parts of him. I pulled his hair. I shook him by the shirt. Then I reached down and grabbed his left arm and he grunted. A sign of life. I shook it harder, yelling over and over that he needed to get out right now. I pulled on the door until it opened enough that I could wedge myself between it and the car. Then I pushed with my good shoulder for ten seconds, until the glowing pain in my collarbone became too much. Then I pushed again. I was winning by millimeters.

During the pauses, I continued trying to dummy Jake into waking up. I punched his shoulder, slapped his gut. When I hit his thigh, he woke up wincing. I pulled up a red hand. I looked down and saw gor‑ geous white bone, like a unicorn’s horn, lancing through tissue and flesh and a layer of black denim. Then I turned my head and threw up all over my good shoulder.

Article continues below

“Jake, get the fuck up. Jake, get the fuck up.” He was bleeding so much, and I remembered, panicked, that there was a major artery in the leg somewhere that could kill you if you let it.

Finally, I got the door open wide enough that he could squeeze out. He wasn’t coherent. I slapped his leg, right above the bone, as hard as I could.

He came to and looked around. He looked at me, expressionless, and said, “I think I pissed myself.”

“Get out of the car, Jake. Get out of the car now.”

I pulled on his arm and he barely moved, then got stuck. I thought he must have been pierced by some car part I would never understand and was piked. I’d forgotten to unbuckle the seat belt.

Article continues below

As I pulled on him, I called my dad. It rang and I pulled and it rang and I pulled and it rang and Jake fell out of the car and screamed, really screamed, and it rang. The sound of his voice ricocheted off the trees around us and haunted me from a hundred angles.

I hung up and called again. Jake was lying on the ground, more cogent than before but still infantile.

My dad answered. He was angry—of all the things he hated, being woken up was the original sin. “Davey, what the fuck time is it?”

“Dad, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. We crashed. We got in a bad crash.” “What happened?” His voice overcorrected to hyper‑loving; he was embarrassed for being angry. I started crying.

“It’s really fucking bad. Jake’s fucked‑up. I can’t move my arm. The birch tree saved us, but Jake’s bleeding and bleeding and I can’t get him up. I can’t move him, Dad.” I didn’t know if any of this was intelligible. I just kept talking. The surreality of the crash was fading. Terror replaced it.

“Davey, where are you?” I realized he’d kept saying that, trying to break through my monologue. His voice was calm. That made me feel calm.

“We’re down the road.”

“Which road?”

“Our road. Oh fuck, Dad, I’m so sorry. You told me not to get in the car and I did. I knew it was bad and I did it and it’s so bad.”

“Which way, Davey? Which way?”

“We’re by the bend, on the way to 104.”

“I’m coming. Stay there.”

“It’s so bad, Dad. It’s the worst thing.”

“Davey, it’s going to be OK. It has to be OK. Remember Cub Scouts?” I could hear him gathering himself, scrambling for shoes, car keys.

“Yeah?” I said.

“Remember all the badges you earned? You were so good. Remember the first aid class?”

“I don’t know, I don’t know. He’s going to fucking die, Dad.”

“Davey, I need you to remember.” He was moving quickly, clogs down the steps two at a time. “We went to the gym at the elementary school in Meredith and they showed us first aid. And you were so good that day, Davey. You were the very best at it. Do you remember?”

My legs couldn’t take me anymore. I slumped down and pain moved through me again, hotter. The water hidden beneath the grass, the water the earth held on to, soaked through the back pockets of my jeans.

“I remember.” I said it very quietly.

“You need to find where he’s bleeding and put pressure on it. All the pressure you can. And you need to hold it until I’m there, OK?”

“OK, Dad. OK.” I crawled toward Jake. “Dad?”

“Yes, Davey.” The sound of his voice was tighter. He was in the truck now.

“Don’t tell Mom, please. Don’t ever tell her.”

“OK, Davey. I won’t.”

Jake was awake but useless. “Jake, we need to put pressure on your leg.”

“Which leg? Why?” He started to glance down.

“Don’t worry about which leg. I’ll do it.”

He saw the bone and said, “Fuck me,” and clenched his eyes shut. I was above him now, on my knees. I thought of all the PE classes I’d skipped out on, all the exercise I said I’d do but never did. I was so weak. And now I needed to be strong, and I wasn’t.

I pushed on his leg without warning him and he screamed again. I pulled my hand back. “Don’t do that again, Theron. Don’t fucking do that, please, please.”

“Jake, you’re bleeding like fucking crazy. I’m sorry.” I pushed again, and he whimpered. He opened his mouth to beg me to stop, but then he stuck his bottom lip between his teeth and pressed down. My hand wasn’t enough. Blood was running through it, sinking into the wrinkles on my knuckles, creeping past my fingers. “Jake, do you have any clothes in the car?”

“Clothes?” He was so confused.

Slowly, I slipped my good arm down into my shirt. Then I lifted it up over my head and tried to sneak it off. The pain went everywhere—to muscles and bones I’d never even considered before. I wanted to throw up again, but I couldn’t. I told my body I couldn’t.

I got the shirt off—the hands from Master of Puppets helping—and balled it up and pressed as hard as I could on Jake’s leg. I saw blood start to appear beneath his teeth. His canines dug into his lip.

“Stop biting, Jake.”

“It fucking hurts, dude. It fucking kills.” His voice was hysteric. He became pathetic, as anyone would, but it endeared him to me more. He was so human when he was in pain. So much like me.

“Take my hand.” He didn’t move. “Take my fucking hand, Jake.” I put the hand at the end of my bad arm in his and said, “Squeeze when it hurts.”

I pushed down again. The shirt soaked up the blood so quickly. The blood that was in him rose to my hand. It felt like an awful magic trick.

He squeezed my hand tighter and tighter. His nails dug into me, and I started to pull away. But I told my body it couldn’t do that, either. I told it it couldn’t do what it wanted.

We stayed there, on the ground, me holding his thigh, him holding my hand, among blood and piss and vomit until I saw blue red, red blue. How were the cops here? How long had it been since I called my father?

I heard my father’s voice. “Davey? Davey!” His voice cracked the second time he said my name. He sounded young.

“Here! We’re down here!” I said. The beams of two flashlights pirouetted around us in a choreography that seemed planned. My father lunged down the hill and I saw the sheriff, Mr. Fisher.

Mr. Fisher said, “Be careful John, for Christ’s sake. We don’t need three of you in trouble.” But my father didn’t care. He ran down the steep hill, stumbled to his knees, got up, and continued toward us.

When he made it to the two of us, he collapsed onto me and put his arms around both my shoulders and squeezed. I made a weird noise, the kind of yelp Dr. Chips made when I stepped on his spot‑ ted tail.

“Oh, God,” Dad said. “Which arm is it?” I jerked my head to my left. “Let me see it,” he said.

“No, you can’t.” I was squeezing Jake’s hand now as he was squeezing mine.

“OK, OK. There’s an ambulance coming. It’s OK now. It’s good now.”

Mr. Fisher was close to retiring and his body showed it. He walked sideways down the hill to us, and when he reached the wreck, he shone his flashlight up and down and said, “Jesus, Davey. You’re lucky to be alive.”

He talked into the radio on his lapel, but the words didn’t make sense to me. The surge was ending. I was dissolving. My dad checked over Jake’s body. “Jake? Can you hear me?”

Jake squeezed my hand tighter. “He can hear you, Dad.”

“Has he spoken?”

“Some.”

“Where’s he hurt?” I didn’t need to answer. He looked at the bone and said, “Anywhere else?”

“I don’t know. There can’t be, right? There can’t be more,” I said.

“Jake, I’m sorry, but I have to see if you’re OK.” Mr. Fisher walked closer to us, and I instinctually squeezed Jake’s hand back. My dad pushed on Jake’s belly, his chest. He lifted up his shirt. He ran his hand down the leg with the bones in the right place. He touched Jake’s head softly with the back of his hand, like he was checking for a fever.

“I think he’s concussed. He’s not making sense,” I said.

Mr. Fisher said, “He’s in shock. It’ll wear off.” He didn’t seem interested in mingling with our bodies. I felt my dad grab my right hand. He tried to raise it off Jake’s leg, but I resisted. I pushed down harder.

“Davey, look at me.” I looked into his eyes. He was close enough to my face that I smelled every breath soured by sleep. “It’s OK to let go now. It’s OK.” He lifted my hand slowly and placed it on my stomach. He took over pressing on Jake’s leg, using both hands. I was proud of his strength. My hand left a crooked finger‑paint‑like outline of blood on my stomach.

I held on to Jake’s hand for the warped minutes until the paramedics carried him away. They were both short men. “Can you two carry him?” I asked.

One of them laughed. “We can handle him, kid,” the other one said. They walked carefully up the hill. A third paramedic poked at me, ran a light over my eyes. He spoke to my father only. “He might be concussed, and his arm is either broken or out of the socket. He needs to come to the hospital.”

“Can I ride with Jake?” I asked.

The paramedic shook no. “We can’t fit three.”

Mr. Fisher, who had seemed so aloof, said, “You two ride with me. We’ll get you there quick.”

Dad looked at me for confirmation. I wanted to be with Jake, but I could tell my dad needed to ride with me for his own good. And he came, he was here, he didn’t punish me, he did what he was supposed to. “Only if we can go fast.”

Mr. Fisher smirked. “We’ll put on the sirens. Don’t worry, kid.”

The van was still running, but it sounded pneumonic, the engine strained. Mr. Fisher shone his light in the driver’s seat, up and around, scanning for information. One of the van’s back doors had opened on its own. He leaned in, and I heard the ting of aluminum. He pulled out a Narragansett that Jake had missed—maybe from today, maybe from earlier in the summer. He made a displeased noise. It wasn’t di‑ rected at me but at what he had to do.

“Which one of you two was driving?”

“Rob, can’t this wait?” Dad said.

“John, I’m doing my job here.”

Before I could say anything, Dad said, “Davey was. He told me on the phone.”

“Davey, were you drinking before you got in this car? I need to know, son.”

“He wasn’t. The other kid, Jake, he got too drunk, and Davey drove him home so he could rest up. He told me on the phone. Right, Davey?”

I nodded. I heard another cop car pull up and gravel kick around when it came to a stop. Doors opened and slammed closed. “Down here, boys!” Mr. Fisher yelled.

He walked back to the front of the car and shone the light. I pan‑ icked. The seat was too far back, and there was blood everywhere on the driver’s side.

“Where were you driving from, son?” he asked me.

I said, “We were at the Walmart,” as if there could only be one.

“And you drove back? All the way?”

I nodded again. “And this Jake, he was intoxicated?”

My dad reentered the conversation. “Davey was just trying to get him somewhere safe. The kid had too much to drink.”

Mr. Fisher ran his tongue over his teeth. “And when did you get your license, son?”

“I didn’t,” I said before Dad could cover for me.

“But we’ve been practicing all summer. Every day. He’s gotten real good, Rob. A natural.”

Mr. Fisher put his hand to his mouth and pulled on his lip. “Rob, he was just trying to get home,” my father said. “He was just trying to do good. My boy just wants to do good.”

The sheriff turned back to the driver’s seat and scanned it with his flashlight again. “It’s illegal to drive without a license, Davey. You know that, don’t you?”

“I know.” I looked down at my stomach. The bloody handprint was starting to harden.

“Rob, he’s just a kid.” Dad’s voice broke again, moving up and down like a heart monitor. “He’s my boy, Rob, and he was trying to help his friend. He just wanted him to be all right. They both just needed to be all right, Rob.”

Mr. Fisher sighed. “Kid, you both could have died. Hell, you should be dead, by the looks of it.”

“He’s my boy, Rob. My boy.” My dad was near crying. I’d never seen him cry except when Neil Young performed at the 9/11 memorial concert. “He just needs to be all right.” He wasn’t making much sense. I noticed for the first time how tired my dad looked. The circles under his eyes were deep enough that they looked like leeches.

Mr. Fisher didn’t say anything. He kept thinking as two deputies came down the hill. “What do we have? Drunk driving?”

My father shook his head, No, no, no. He only looked at Mr. Fisher. He put an arm around me, palm facing in, creating a barrier between me and the police.

Mr. Fisher spat. The glob landed on a tree branch and dripped down like bubbled sap. I felt cold. “No, I don’t think so. Looks like this one got in over his head. The other one was drunk as a skunk, and I think Mr. David Alden here got a little lost on the ride home.”

My dad’s arm slackened. “Thank you, Rob. Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me. Thank that birch tree. Thank the Lord.”

I tried to stand, then fell back. My dad helped me up, and I leaned all the way into him. The lights from the ambulance started to shrink. Mr. Fisher, my father, and I began to make our way up the hill as the deputies stayed back.

I was halfway up before I stopped and said, “The present. There’s a present in the car.”

“Davey, we need to get to the hospital. We’ll get it all later,” my dad said.

“There’s a present somewhere in the car. I need it. I said I’d open it when I got home. I need it. In the front seat. I promised to open it.” I was woozy by this point, but I started to backtrack.

Mr. Fisher grew impatient. “For the love of God.” He raised his voice so his underlings could hear him. “Hey, Dickey, we got a present down there?”

“Like a Christmas present, sir?”

“It’s August, Dickey. I don’t know what kind of goddamn present it is. Do you see anything?”

“It’s the one with a bow,” I said, as if Jake were carrying around Santa’s sack in the back seat.

“Looks like we got one, sir.”

“Would you be so kind as to leave it at the Aldens’ whenever you two are done here?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Are you happy?” Mr. Fisher asked me.

“I just didn’t want to forget. I want to know what’s inside, but I can’t open it till I’m home.”

Mr. Fisher turned and started back up the hill. “Let’s get this taken care of, John. I want to get back to bed.” My dad put his denim jacket around my shoulders. On me, it looked like a cape.

*

My injuries were largely minor—my arm put in a sling, a cracked rib babied, a four‑day headache. They put a magic painkilling liquid into my arm and gave me a fifteen‑day supply of Vicodin after my dad pushed them. “Are you sure he’ll be all right with just five days? What if it gets worse?” It was late at that point, and the nurses were just finishing or just beginning a shift. None of them wanted to deal with my father, who became doting and overattentive.

I wasn’t held overnight, but I don’t remember getting home. I didn’t see Jake again that summer. He was taken to a more critical part of the hospital. I asked the nurses about him, but no one knew who I was talking about. I didn’t see how that was possible. He was just down the hall, maybe on another floor. Couldn’t someone pass information a hundred feet away? But the drip in my arm warmed me up and made me sleepy. I lost the ability to be insistent.

I didn’t call Max to tell him I wasn’t going to make it in, and he didn’t call me. Maybe my father handled all of that. My last paycheck may still be there, sitting in a drawer, depreciating by the minute.

For my last ten days in New Hampshire, I returned to my habit of getting drugged out and watching as much TV as possible. I learned a lot about Maury Povich and how much Vicodin one could take with‑ out inflicting permanent liver damage.

Jake and I did text lightly once he’d returned from numbness to Jakedom. His texts were curt, but I knew that was because of pain and frustration, not contempt. He was trapped in New Hampshire for at least another six weeks. His injuries, he told me, were:

no biggie

I told him he wasn’t the one who held the blood in his body. He sent back:

The words of a true pal.

He was concussed, he had three broken ribs, a punctured lung, a shredded leg, and a snapped tibia. I had to look up what a tibia was. But compared to the drama of the moment, he seemed healthy. His reporting was filled with typos and no punctuation, just a blurt of information. I’m sure he was tired of talking about it.

You’re the luckiest motherfucker I know.

better lucky than dead

How’s Jess taking it?

He didn’t respond for a couple days. I had moments of that abandonment anxiety, but none of it stuck. We now shared a time together, a pain, and a secret. On top of the love I felt for him, these were ties that felt invincible. So I forgave him for being him and chose to believe he was focused on what he needed to do to make himself happy and well. I couldn’t figure out how to ask the two things I wanted to ask him. The first was logistical and needy—When will I see you again? But the second was unending, a question that could never lead to an answer: Were we lucky, or were we entitled to survival?

Dad and I made a plan to explain how this had happened. It was selfish and selfless on both of our behalves—if my mother knew what I’d done, what my father had allowed me to do, I’d be put on lock‑ down, and he’d forever lose any kind of advantage in their ongoing petty war. He didn’t say it, but I think he agreed with me that it was important to protect her. A broken collarbone and some bruises caused by an unlucky fall down the stairs from the attic didn’t reveal that I was entering a more brutish part of adolescence in which I’d chase down trouble if it meant I could avoid being alone. We each added details to the story—Dad said I should point out that the floors had been waxed the winter before; I’d tell her that he’d checked in on me every two hours until I got annoyed—and in this lie, this secret, we found our strongest bond.

__________________________________

An excerpt from Anyone’s Ghost, published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2024 by August Thompson




More Story
Jayne Anne Phillips on Awards and Rewards Write-minded: Weekly Inspiration for Writers is currently in its fourth year. We are a weekly podcast for writers craving...

Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.

x