Fiction: Winter Forbes by Jan Stinchcomb

We were going to conjure the ghost of Winter Forbes, who drove herself into a highway divider after breaking up with her boyfriend earlier in the school year. We didn’t really believe in magic anymore, but Colleen shoved an old wooden Ouija board into her beach bag, right on top of the wine coolers, and Diana carried it all the way out to the rocks we thought of as our spot. Finals were over. The next time we stepped on campus would be for the graduation ceremony, and then we would start our new lives.

“You’re not supposed to call on the spirit world in the middle of the day,” I said, pretending to look around for ghosts, but I was actually more worried about somebody seeing me in my bikini. “And I’m not really a psychic. You should know that by now.”

From middle school on I had made predictions about romance and pop quizzes and I had even, at the height of my powers, foreseen an election upset at our high school. I had a talent for keeping quiet and watching closely. It was easy to arrange our town’s gossip into strands of narrative, as if each secret were a little Scrabble tile, but I had not been able to predict Winter’s last act.

I remembered how thin Winter was. Back then, in our high school, thinness was paramount. Girls would starve themselves, for which they were both pitied and criticized. One day on the bus I was trapped against the window seat, with Winter beside me, while she bragged about being hospitalized after dropping to ninety pounds. She told a lot of stories that were impossible to verify. One of the band members from Journey supposedly lived in her neighborhood; Winter had seen him on his deck having sex with his girlfriend, Rose. Winter swore her real dad lived on a houseboat in Malta. In reality Winter was a mean girl who had bad grades and spent each lunch period smoking in the bathroom. Once she made a big display of whispering in my ear right in front of Lucinda Johnson, the fattest girl in our school, but all Winter said was, “She has the prettiest hair,” leaving me baffled and Lucinda hurt.

It was hard to feel sorry for her.

“Well, I could go for a ghost story,” Diana said. “This could be your farewell performance, Pamela.”

“Nope. I can’t work in broad daylight.”

Colleen smoothed her hands over the board. It was beautiful, not like the Parker Brothers version we had all grown up with, but I noticed a problem right away.

“You forgot that thing!” Diana tipsy-shrieked. She had already finished her first wine cooler. “Oh my God, it’s the most important part.”

“The planchette,” I said. “We need the planchette.”

Colleen and I had grown up together. We were even best friends for a while, in lower elementary. When we were ending our best friendship, she called me conceited for using big words, and now I worried my use of planchette would anger her.

Collen looked right at me. “I don’t need a stupid plankette, or whatever it’s called. That’s bullshit.”

Diana passed around more bottles. Then she sat down so that we three formed a rough circle and placed the Ouija board in the middle. “What did you want to ask, Colleen?”

“I don’t know. I don’t really want to talk to Winter. I just want to know what happened.”

Diana spoke with the smug confidence she could only get from alcohol: “We know what happened, Colleen. It was a suicide. Our school’s only suicide, or haven’t you heard?”

I backed this up with the facts: “She was upset about her boyfriend. That was in the paper.”

“I know she was upset, Pamela. I’m not stupid. I want to know who he cheated on her with.”

“I assumed it was a girl from his school,” I said.

We all knew Winter’s boyfriend went to a different high school, a detail which had made the mourning period a little less awkward.

“Oh, you assumed it was a girl from his school?”

Colleen had a temper and she sometimes lost it with me. Earlier in the year we had tried to get into a club in San Francisco. When that didn’t work, we went out to Drake’s Beach to get stoned, but instead we had a stupid fight about how much I should pay for gas. She was so mad she kicked me out of her car, and I decided to hitchhike home although it was already dark. My feet hurt in my high heels, but I liked the way the fog wrapped around me. I was in an old movie and I wanted it to advance to the next scene, magically far from small-town pettiness.

Winter’s boyfriend, Jason, picked me up on his moped. At first I did not recognize him approaching in the mist. He slowed to a stop and said nothing, and in that silence anything could have happened. I hiked up my skirt and got on behind him, wrapping my arms around his narrow waist. Everything felt brand new: we were on an adventure in the cold night air, the road itself spiriting us to a secret destination. Jason took me all the way home, to the corner of my block. As I stood straightening my skirt, he told me, “You’re lighter than Winter. It’s like you weigh nothing.”

He sped away before I could thank him.

Nothing happened. I had wanted something to happen but nothing did. We could have pulled over and made love anywhere on the way home and I would not have minded. I would not have minded. In other words, I did not know what I wanted. I was afraid of what I wanted. Our ride, with its light touch and complete absence of dialogue, had left me more aroused than anything else in my short life.

At school the following Monday, Winter glared at me but I did not care. She was a mean girl and I was innocent. She was anorexic and I was naturally light. I knew I had dissolved into ruthless cruelty, lower than the meanest mean girl. I was proud and satisfied, a model of self-control. I told no one about the moped ride because it made me scared of myself.

I had become the version of me that Colleen hated.

Whatever happened between Winter and Jason was overshadowed by other events in our fast-paced teenage lives. College acceptances began trickling in, and soon we knew who was leaving and who was staying. The march to the end of the school year kept shrinking and then stretching, and I swayed back and forth between joy and dread.

I don’t remember how I first heard about Winter, but it made me feel cold all over, colder than that night on Jason’s moped. I wasn’t surprised but that didn’t mean I was psychic.

The kids at school began whispering a ballad that flowed through the halls and spilled out onto the streets: Winter Forbes is dead because her boyfriend cheated on her. The adults in our lives used words like unfortunate, unbalanced, and tragic. Winter was obviously a troubled girl, they assured us. She had, it was confirmed, been hospitalized for an eating disorder and depression. Over dinner my parents claimed it was foolish to blame Winter’s boyfriend. The newspaper should not have written that she was distraught over a recent breakup. This was merely small-town gossip finding validation in shoddy journalism.

“Her poor parents,” my mother said. “They’ll have to live with this for the rest of their lives.”

It took me a while to accept that Winter might have been undone by a moped ride. Maybe that incident had tipped the scales. I preferred to believe there was some other offending girl, and something much more dramatic, that had caused the rupture. This unspeakable moment would have involved groping and wetness, and beyond that, I could not yet imagine.

But whenever I pictured the couple in that scene, rolling around on the side of the winding road to the beach, I saw Jason and myself.

“So,” Colleen said, pointing at the letter P with her index finger, “who was it?”

I entered into my final staring contest with Colleen. The wind picked up and cut straight through us.

Diana threw on her jacket. “It’s freezing out here,” she said, and immediately Colleen rose and shoved the Ouija board and towel back into her beach bag. Then she stomped away without another word.

I hurried to put my clothes on as Diana tried to hide the empty bottles. We struggled to catch up with Colleen, who was not likely to wait for us in her little Volkswagen.

“What was that about?” Diana asked. “Why is she so moody?”

“It’s my fault,” I said.

“Your fault?”

“It’s because of something I did. You’d better run and see if you can catch her.”

Diana didn’t want to leave me alone out there on the cold sand, but I told her to go on ahead. I swore I would be fine on my own. I had to be.

Jan Stinchcomb is the author of The Blood Trail (Red Bird Chapbooks) and Find the Girl (Main Street Rag). Her stories have appeared in Longleaf Review, FlashBack Fiction, Gravel, Monkeybicycle and matchbook, among other places. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net Anthology and is featured in The Best Small Fictions 2018. Currently living in Southern California with her family, she is a story editor for Paper Darts. Find her at janstinchcomb.com or on Twitter @janstinchcomb.

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