Thirteen Candles by John Beechem

I was twelve years old when I met the ghost of Moshe David. Moshe was a legend at my school. He died about fifteen years before I encountered him, hit by a city bus while he crossed the street. That might not seem like an extraordinary death, but it sent a storm of anger and sadness throughout our whole community. Of course, I wasn’t around back then. Growing up in Livingston, New Jersey, it became one of the stories told about our town. Nobody could ever really figure out exactly why it happened. Why he crossed in the path of that bus, why the driver couldn’t stop in time, or what was going through Moshe’s head, if anything (besides a few tons of steel and rubber).

My older brother, Larry, first told me about Moshe. We both went to Rodeph Shalom Independent School, New Jersey’s only private school for Reform Jews. He got there a couple years before I did, and when I was still a little boy, he would try to scare me with stories about Moshe’s ghost.

“Noah,” he would whisper, “someone else saw Moshe at school today. He was in the third floor hallway. People could here chains rattling against the lockers. When one of the sixth grade girls went out to check, she rushed back into her classroom less than a second later. She’d seen Moshe flattened with a tire track down the middle of his body, his guts spilling out. Can you believe that?”

“Shut up!” I’d yelp, and then run away.

By twelve, I’d stopped believing in those kinds of things. At least, I had before that day at school.

A lot was going on with me back then, as you’d imagine. From the outside, most people wouldn’t have been able to tell. I was a bookish kid, about 5’6”, as tall as I am now thanks to an early growth spurt. I had curly brown hair cut short to keep it from growing into a poofy ball. I wore glasses with thick black frames, and had a few light freckles. At Rodeph Shalom, I wore navy blue slacks, a white polo shirt that was rarely tucked in, and a navy blue cardigan with our school’s seal on it.

What was eating me back then was wrapped up in Moshe’s legend. Moshe was handsome and popular. I’d seen pictures of him, even before I saw his ghost. Dark hair, sharp features, a big smile. He looked like he could’ve been cast on a sitcom. And even though the girls were crazy about him, he ignored them. Ignored everyone but his close friends, who were all girl crazy, as most seventh grade boys are, in that slightly innocent sort of way.

After he died, the girls in his class started a rumor about him. They said that he was a ghost now, trapped inside the school because he’d never kissed one of them. So he’d never be able to leave the building. Ever. That’s when the sightings began.

I always wrote it off as superstition. Even back then, I was well on my way to becoming the agnostic I’ve grown into as an adult, and I already didn’t like a lot about my religion or Temple. Religion wasn’t even that big of a deal for me, since I didn’t grow up Orthodox. I always thought the stories about Moshe were some kind of weird expression of his tragic death, seasoned with romantic notions of girls with good imaginations.

The Kiss Rule started a year or two after Moshe died. The kids in our Junior High swore that if you’d never kissed a girl (or a boy, depending on your sex) by the time you turned thirteen, you would die. So even if it was just a peck on the lips at one our school dances, everyone in 7th grade would pair up and kiss. Eventually, by the time you turned thirteen. If someone survived without being kissed after their thirteenth birthday, they were called “lucky”. But whenever anything bad happened to them, it was because of “Moshe’s curse”.

Not the most sophisticated curse, maybe, but it gave a bunch of horny, pubescent kids an extra reason to kiss or make-out. The story stuck. When the adults in our lives told us how sick we were to create a game out of Moshe’s death, it only made the legend of his curse that much cooler in everybody’s eyes.

The day I saw Moshe, it was a week from my thirteenth birthday. I still hadn’t kissed anybody yet. There were a few cute girls in my class, but I was supposed to kiss Rachel Simmons, and I took that as an insult. I won’t excuse myself for my prejudices, but the poor girl was overweight and had a few more zits than I did, so I wasn’t attracted to her. At all. So I refused, which meant my doom to the other kids in class.

What I didn’t tell anybody back then was that I liked a few of the boys too. I had the biggest crush on Jacob, one of smartest kids in class. He was tall and played baseball. His mom was Jewish, but his dad was Italian, so he had olive skin and wavy black hair. I would stare at him sometimes, navy blue slacks holding the gentle curve of his ass, a toned stomach that he revealed to us when we changed clothes for gym class. I don’t mean to lust after a twelve year old boy, but I was twelve back then too, and we’ve both grown up to be men.

This was back in the 90’s, 1996 to be exact. About ten years before it became okay for a teenage boy to come out in a Jewish suburb of New York, even at a Jewish reform school.

“What are you, a faggot?” Sid asked at my lunch table. “Rachel might be ugly, but she’s a girl, and you’re not going to do any better.”

“He could,” Jeff said, “but he’s too chicken to talk to any of the hot ones. Ain’t that right, Noah?”

I stared back at my two friends, chewing through a turkey sandwich my mom had packed. I got either kosher turkey or roast beef any day I didn’t want the cafeteria food.

“I’m no faggot,” I said. I didn’t know whether this was a lie or not. I liked boys and girls. Girls slightly more, even. But I was still confused. So the denial was instinctual. “It’s a stupid tradition. Just admit that it’s stupid.”

“It doesn’t matter if it’s stupid,” Sid argued. “It matters that our whole class is going to think you’re a freak if you ignore the curse.”

“The curse,” Jeff repeated. “And it’ll become our curse by association.”

He told the truth. Jeff, Sid and I ate lunch together every day. We had a couple more friends we met with after school most days to play Dungeons and Dragons and Super Nintendo. Jeff even had a Playstation, so his opinion earned more clout than it used to.

I sighed. “I’m not gonna do it,” I barely spoke above a whisper. “I’m not.”

BOOM. A heavy fist landed on my paper lunch bag, scattering a cloud of potato chip crumbs, crushing the brownie inside.

“Hey, dipshit.” I looked up into the eyes of Raymond Goldberg, Rachel’s older brother. He was a freshman in our high school. Each school, including Elementary, Junior High, and High School had their own wings, but shared a cafeteria and a gymnasium. We occupied them on staggered schedules, but that didn’t seem to matter to Ray. He must’ve been cutting class.

“Ray,” I grunted. “What do you want?”

“Yeah, Ray,” Jeff spoke in solidarity, “what do you want?”

“What are you even doing down here?” Sid asked. “High School lunch isn’t for another half hour.”

“What are you, a hall monitor?” Ray growled. A patchy moustache covered his upper lip, and he was a half foot taller than me, but aside from that, Ray was still pretty much a kid. “I came to talk to you, Noah. I don’t believe in ghosts or curses either, but I love my little sister, and you’re making her feel like shit. So you give her a peck on the lips or I’ll give you my fist. I know how you get home, you little fuck. I know where you transfer. I know where you wait the longest. Unless you want a broken nose, you’ll give her that kiss. You got ‘til the end of the school day.”

My heart sank. I knew Ray was right, that he and his friends could chase me all around town, and eventually they’d catch up with me, no matter how much I ran. But I couldn’t think of anything to do in that moment. So I snatched the paper bag that contained the remnants of my lunch, took my unopened paper milk carton, and left the cafeteria without saying another word.

I ignored my friends as they called after me, putting my hand up in a gesture that warned them not to follow. I didn’t want them to know where I went to hide sometimes when I was feeling down. I walked down a hallway and into the darkroom, an annex of one of the art classrooms that I knew was empty during lunch. Inside, it glowed red, and smelled like chemicals, the acids and dyes used to develop film. I picked up a flat-head screwdriver and used it to pry open the lock of a door hidden behind a tall cabinet.

It was an unused storage space, but it hadn’t been sealed off. Hardly anyone, even the teachers, knew it was even here. Larry discovered it when he took photography, and showed me how to sneak inside. It was a dark tunnel, lined with cinderblock, covered in cobwebs. You needed a flashlight to get very far, so I grabbed the one we stashed in the dark room just for this purpose.

The cobwebs lit up like thin strands of smoke frozen in place. Spiders crouched like silent sentinels. I heard the squeak and scatter of rats running into the walls. As I raised the flashlight toward the end of the tunnel, a hundred cockroaches scattered up the walls, deeper into darkness.

It must have been weeks since anyone else had come in here. The webs were thicker than usual. A few Playboys were tucked into one corner, the most recent one at least five years old. There was also a mound of cigarette butts, and even a couple empty beer bottles.

I kicked them out of the corner and sunk down to the ground. I kept the flashlight pointing up, its beam casting an eerie light full of dust motes and moth wings. I bit into the remnants of my sandwich, and poured potato chip crumbs into my mouth. I washed my meal down with the milk from my carton, and began to cry. My whimpers grew into sobs. I was folded in on myself, huddled in the near darkness, when I felt someone’s eyes upon me.

I looked up without thinking and peered through the flashlight’s beam to see the smoky outline of a human being. I squinted, rubbed my eyes and saw Moshe David, his form translucent and hazy. I blinked, and suddenly Moshe’s form appeared solid, but his body was covered in blood, his clothes tattered. I cried in surprise, and covered my mouth with both hands. That’s when Moshe noticed me.

“You can see me too?” He asked. Once again, I could see through his body, and he looked like the pictures I’d seen of him. Taller than me, handsome with a sharp jaw and cheekbones. His shoes were a little old-fashioned, his uniform out of date, but aside from that, he looked like any other student in this school. “Why are you here?” Moshe asked.

I was trapped. I didn’t know what to do. The ghost of Moshe David stood between me and the door, and now he was talking to me. “I’m hiding,” I told him, struggling to breathe, to dam my tears.

“It’s okay,” he said, and placed his hand on my shoulder. I could feel it pass through my body, but instead of a numbing chill, all I felt was warmth. I looked back into Moshe’s eyes and saw how kind they looked, how handsome he was. Then I blushed, and Moshe noticed.

“Now don’t be silly,” the ghost chided me, “just tell me what’s wrong.”

“I-I-,” I stuttered, unable to loosen my tongue. I took a deep breath and continued. “I need to kiss Rachel Simmons, or her older brother is going to beat me up. I don’t want to do that, but I don’t want get beat up either. So I came here to think about it.”

“Kiss her then,” Moshe spoke. “That’s easy. Kiss her once, and her brother will leave you alone. Why’s that such a big deal, anyway?”

“After you…after you died,” I stumbled over my words, “the girls in your class told everyone that it was because you’d never kissed one of them. After that, the only way to avoid your ‘curse’ was to share a kiss by your thirteenth birthday.”

Moshe’s eyes crackled with delight, his laughter echoing in the tunnel. “I’d been kissed plenty of times before I died. Not from any of those girls, though.”

“Who?” I asked. “Who did you kiss.”

Moshe looked at the ground and scratched the toe of his shoe into the tunnel’s corridor. At least he would have, if his foot had been real. Now he looked like he was blushing. “If I tell you something,” he said quietly, “do you promise not to hate me?”

My eyes widened for a moment. “I promise,” I whispered. Moshe may have been a ghost, but I was already forming a crush on him. The tunnel’s intimacy stoked whatever bond was forming between us. And I’d already shared my secret.

“Matthew, my older sister’s goy boyfriend, kissed me,” Moshe’s voice trembled as he spoke. “I’m gay.”

He looked at me with fear in his eyes. His ghostly form wavered for a moment, like a television with a bad signal. “How did you know?” I asked him. “How did you know you were gay?”

Moshe made a noise that was half scoff, half chuckle. “I’d known ever since I was a little boy. Ever since I can remember. But the time I spent with Matthew. That’s what made it real.”

“What was it like?” I asked him. “What did you do?”

“Much more than we were supposed to,” Moshe told me. “Matthew was the only man in my life back then. My parents got divorced when I was real little, so when he started hanging out with my sister, my mom encouraged us to hang out too. To bond.

So some weekends, my mom would pay for us to go into the city and see a Mets’ game. Or we’d go to a museum or a park. Once, she even had us go camping together, since Matthew was on his way to become an Eagle Scout. That was supposed to ‘toughen me up’, she said, to give some outdoor skills that a ‘real’ man is supposed to have.

Well, I did learn some skills that weekend, but not the kind my mom had in mind. Matthew caught me staring at him one too many times, I guess. We were out on a trail, miles away from any trail head, and hours since we’d seen any other hikers. He glanced at the creek the trail had been following for about two miles or so.

‘So hot today,” he said, ‘feels like I’ve eaten half a pound of trail dust. Want to go for a swim?’

I felt a bit taken aback, but Matthew was so confident, he made it seem like a good idea. ‘I didn’t bring any trunks,’ I told him.

‘No worries,’ he said, ‘we can just go skinny-dipping.’ And before I could say anything else, he’d already placed his pack next to the trail bed and began untying his shoes. In the next minute or so, he was completely naked, and then so was I. I saw him walk into the creek, his bare white ass sinking beneath the stream, the bronze skin above his tan line speckled with water, shining in the sun.

I followed him in, the creek swallowing me up inside of it, its cool waters taking me in. I could feel my feet on the smooth rocks at the bottom, see them even, because everything was so crystal clear. We floated in the creek for a little bit, lettings its waters rinse the dust off of us. It felt cool and peaceful. Our own tiny oasis. Then I noticed Matthew’s dick getting bigger. Hard. And he noticed mine too. With the water so clear, it was hard to hide something like that.

’Here, let me show you something,’ Matthew said as he swam closer to me. He took me in his hand and put his arm around me, kissed me, and stroked me until I got off. Then he got me to do the same with him. After that, I could tell he was getting nervous, so we got out of the creek and got dressed.

Maybe ten minutes had passed, but it felt like my whole world had gotten bigger. Like I knew something I felt in my heart was true. Matthew told me not to tell anybody about what we did, that nobody else would understand, and of course I knew that. I also had the feeling he knew something was wrong with it, that aside from two boys feeling this way about each other, that he shouldn’t be doing this with someone so much younger than him, especially since I was his girlfriend’s kid brother.

But none of that mattered to me. It just felt good to have someone care about me like that. So for the next few months, we would hang out almost every weekend. We’d always find a place to be together, alone. It helped that Matthew had a car. He showed me all kinds of things. I learned a lot. But I also fell for him. Fell hard. I thought we were in love, but I think Matthew knew better. Or at least he could see further into the future.

He was graduating high school that spring, and was going away for college. Far away. He and my sister broke up. So he stopped coming by. And I was heartbroken. I felt like I couldn’t tell anybody. Maybe I shouldn’t have.

‘One of my best friends, Adam, could tell something was wrong with me. We’d played baseball and soccer together for years, getting to know each other better than most people ever get a chance to. He and I were known to be close, and always took the same bus home together after school. So one afternoon, waiting at the bus stop, he asked me, ‘What’s wrong? Why do you always look like you’re about to cry?’

That’s when I told him everything. It came spilling out of me. Everything about Matthew, what we’d done together, how he left, and how I felt. When I finished talking, I looked into Adam’s eyes. I don’t know what I expected, but what I saw was pain, anger and a little bit of fear. I saw what looked like a tear in his eye, and heard the rush of a diesel engine from one of the busses that passed by our stop.  He opened his mouth like he was about to speak, then closed it. Then he walked to the other side of the bus stop and wouldn’t look at me.

I was so upset it was all I could do to keep from bursting into tears. Already I felt my eyes getting wet. So I decided to walk home instead. I stepped into the street, and my world went blank. For a moment.

Then I felt myself floating up, and I could see my body below me, broken and shattered, my blank eyes staring into the sky. I felt so much pain, so much anger and sadness in that moment. More than I’d ever felt before. So I fought against the tug pulling me up. I fought so hard, the tug stopped, breaking like a rubber band, and I shot like a dart right back down into the street. But no matter how much I fought, how much I cursed him, Adam ignored me. He couldn’t see me or feel me. No one could.

I tried following him, but I couldn’t leave the school. I couldn’t step further than the bus stop. I was stuck, anchored there. Adam became an obsession for me, so I’d follow him from class to class. I felt like he betrayed me, and blamed the hurt he caused me from seeing that bus coming down the street. Sometimes he’d leave class with a stomach ache, and at the end of that school year, he’d left altogether. But I couldn’t.

So instead, I’ve walked these hallways. Like a prisoner. I come here when I want to be alone. Truly alone. And that’s when I found you.”

Moshe fell silent. I let his words fall into me, felt his story as an ache in my heart. I realized that I couldn’t speak up either, that the risk was too great to tell anybody how I felt. Anybody except Moshe. He could keep my secret.

“I like boys too,” I spoke, barely above a whisper. Moshe looked back at me, his eyes widened for a moment. “Boys and girls,” I said. “But I haven’t told anybody that. I’d like to know what it feels like, though. To share a kiss that really means something.”

I looked up at Moshe, my eyes brimming with tears. I didn’t know what this moment meant, but it felt like I had just bared my soul to someone who, for the most part, was still a complete stranger. He looked back, and reached his fingers out to me, to the tight brown curls in my hair. I could feel them touching me, and felt a sense of solid warmth coming from his ghostly form. A cascade of peace and happiness fell from the spot where he had touched me, and my body tingled, vibrating like a taut string.

A strange thing happened then in that dim hallway: I saw Moshe’s fingers, arm and hand become real again from the spot where he caressed me, slowly at first, and then the transformation continued up his shoulder and chest, throughout the rest of his body. He glowed too, with a light I’d never seen before, one golden and warm, like a thousand campfires all at once.

“I don’t know if this means anything to you,” he said, sliding his right hand to the back of my neck, “but it means a lot to me.” He pulled me in for a kiss, and I felt his lips upon mine, soft and urgent. I kissed him back, and then our mouths were open, like we were breathing each other in. He pressed me against the stone of the hallway, and I felt him fumbling with my belt buckle, heard the sound of my zipper and the clank of my buckles coming apart. I felt his hand on me, and in an instant I came, like he had twisted the cap off a bottle. I shook in his arms, even the spams of my ecstasy unable to bring my lips from his mouth. The white light became everything.

* * * * *

I woke in the dim, dank hallway, the flashlight still pointed up. The residue of my dream was on me, in a metaphorical and literal sense. I could still feel Moshe’s touch vibrating inside me, but I could also feel my come, warm and wet inside my underpants.

Fuck, I cursed myself, how the hell did I fall asleep? I unbuckled my pants, took off my shoes and socks, peeled off my pants and underwear, and cleaned off my body with the dry part of my briefs. I threw my soiled undies in to a dark corner of the hallway, one more piece of refuse atop the pile. Then I collected myself, picked up the flashlight, and walked to the door leading back out into the dark room.

I locked the door behind me, pushed the cabinet back into place, and hid the screwdriver back in our hiding spot. The Art teacher was on her planning period, so luckily the classroom was empty when I crept back inside of it. I left the room and entered an empty hallway, walking into the administrative office for the tardy slip that would let me back into my next class, Mr. Liebowitz’s English Lit. I took my seat, sliding sheepishly into my desk as a few of my classmates snickered, wondering where I’d gone.

The rest of the day slid by in a blur, my thoughts returning over and over again to Moshe and the vision I had inside that dark corridor. Even though my rational side told me it was only a dream, my heart told another story, remembering how real  it had felt, more real in its own way than my own life. I felt an intense desire and joy remembering Moshe’s touch upon my skin, the electricity of our kiss, and then a twinge of sadness knowing I’d probably never see him again.

But my mind was made up about the kiss and Moshe’s curse. Now I’d felt like I’d already had my first kiss, so there wasn’t really much left to lose, except for a beating. So at the end of the school day, I found Rachel hanging out in front of the school with her friend, Becky Samuelson. And making sure Raymond was in view, I walked straight up to Rachel, taking her chubby cheeks in my hand, pulled her close to my face, and laid a big, loud smacker of a kiss right on her lips. Rachel stood shocked, a blush spreading up from her neck.

“Thank you, Rachel,” was all I said before walking away.

* * * * *

For the next couple of weeks, my life went back to normal. My family bustled with activity as they planned for my Bar Mitzvah. I studied the verses from the Talmud that I’d have to read with my father, mouthing words that were meaningless to me except to appease my parents and community. A lot of effort for not much of an outcome was my opinion on the whole matter. But I knew it was expected of me.

Two nights before my Mitzvah, my parents had a birthday dinner for me at our home. We shared my favorite meal, and I even got to have a small glass of wine as they toasted me. And then my mother brought out my birthday cake, coated in white frosting and gleaming with thirteen candles, the small flames dancing as they smoked. I thought of Moshe as I inhaled, and then blew out the flames with a rush of air. In the smoke, if only for a second, I saw Moshe’s face smiling down at me, before it dissolved into the wisps of my memory.