top of page

I See (Through) You - Bethany Cutkomp

On quiet days, I still tasted the ocean salt and rolling fog. That was home, a delicious familiarity. When moving across the country, I suffered a staggering division. Somewhere out there, my somatic self lingered at the coastline, toes glazed by sea foam. What I kept of myself was merely voice and presence, resistance and longing.

Despite my parents’ reasoning, the dusty cornfields and gravel roads of Fairview would never feel like home. Three months have passed and the stench of manure still singed my nostrils when stepping out on the porch. Stacks of boxes in my bedroom remained untouched. On rare occasions where I did try to unpack, the cardboard slipped right through my fingers as if they weren’t even there.

The air weighed humid with ghosts drifting through the cracks of this town. Ghosts of loved ones and forgotten strangers. Ghosts of past mistakes, of lost connections. Ghosts of our living selves. Ghosts of the unfathomable.

Most of these slipped in and out of proximity unnoticed. Only the literal ghosts circulated in Fairview conversation. Christopher, my chemistry lab partner, talked my ear off about the relevant urban legends. When I started contributing to the conversation, he invited me to get slushies after school. It was the first time anyone in Fairview had expressed interest in hanging out with me, let alone felt my invisible presence.

“So there’s this train, right? Well, more like the spirit of one,” Christopher explained on our walk through the neighborhood. “Twenty or so minutes outside of downtown are railroad tracks deep in the woods—long abandoned. Legend has it that if you park your car on them at midnight, the train will pass right through you.”

“Bullshit,” I said, eyes glued to my phone.

“I’m serious, Sean. Look at me. Dead serious,” Christopher said with a mouthful of Doritos. “Does it look like I’m shitting you right now?”

I lifted my gaze to a stifled smirk brimming with chip dust—not very convincing. I smiled. My lab partner lost his composure, spitting laughter and Doritos crumbs on his graphic tee. Idiotic moments like this made Christopher and me the problem-pair of our class, but I didn’t mind.

We debated the logistics of his train phenomenon the entire way through town. Christopher didn’t stop talking until he recognized someone ahead. Sitting on a weathered bench beside the dead intersection, a petite girl wearing intimidating makeup waved us over.

“That’s my best bud, Nora,” Christopher said to me. “I told you she was joining us, right? This is kind of our thing.”

I wavered. A numb chill tingled down my nonexistent arms.

Christopher picked up a large styrofoam cup resting at his friend’s feet. “What the hell? We were supposed to get slushies together this time, remember?”

Nora groaned and turned to me. “I’m so sorry—I forgot you were coming. We can split this three ways, if you’re okay with that. It’s cherry.”

“That’s okay,” I managed, glancing at my phone. “Nice to meet you.”

“Likewise. Chris speaks highly of you,” she said, offering her delicate hand. “I hear you’ve saved this fool from using the eyewash station on multiple occasions.”

“The safety shower, actually. To be fair, it does look pretty fun. Minus the chemical burns.”

When I shook her hand, my palm passed straight through hers. She didn’t notice.

Two vehicles yielded at the intersection. Christopher and Nora exchanged waves with the drivers. My gaze fixed onto those winking yellow traffic lights. If I timed my blinks just right, it was as if the lights never came on. Invisible. Insignificant, even.

I sat down and checked my notifications. A hand snatched the phone out of my grip.

“What are you so obsessed with?” Christopher complained, tapping random number combinations on my lock screen. “You got a girlfriend or something?”


“Boyfriend?” Nora ventured.

“No, it’s nothing,” I said. Christopher shrugged and tossed the phone in my lap.

It was a mindless habit, checking my inbox. The dwindling lukewarm texts from my hometown friends stretched my existence thinner as the weeks dragged on. I wondered if they’d found the shell of me wandering the shores without a spirit.

Did they even notice something was wrong? Did they care?

Christopher crumbled his empty bag of chips and licked his fingers. “So, we’ve got an issue, Nora. Sean calls bullshit on the phantom train.”

I put my hands up in defense. “I’m not calling you crazy, I’m just saying the story sounds a little far-fetched.”

“Do you believe in ghosts, Sean?” Nora asked, straight-faced.

I shrugged. How couldn’t I, when her gaze went straight through me?

“Chris and I are firm believers of the afterlife.” She pulled up an article on her phone and read to us. “A decade ago, there’d been a catastrophic accident on the railroad tracks just outside of Fairview. Locals claim the train derailed and killed everyone onboard. Others swear it struck a crossing vehicle.”

“Severed limbs were definitely involved,” Christopher cut in. He exchanged canine grins with Nora, a goofy expression that only close friends shared.

I didn’t understand the small-town fascination with tragedies. These anecdotes always found their way into casual conversation with the locals. Just last week, my neighbor thanked me for mowing their lawn and snuck in, “by the way, did you hear Marcie down the street had her dog snatched by a hawk? Poor thing didn’t even weigh five pounds.” Then I was handed a lemonade to go and wished a good rest of my afternoon.

Christopher drew a long sip of cherry slushie. “We’re going to the tracks tonight. All three of us. It’ll be like a Fairview baptism for you, Sean.”

He passed me the cup. Two straws were wedged in the hole, one smeared with purple lipstick and the other caked in chip dust. I popped the lid up and drank straight from the cup.

“It’ll be fun,” Nora added. “Me and Chris haven’t been out there since, what? Fourth grade? It didn’t even count then. His older cousin chickened out and wouldn’t turn off his engine in case of killers in the woods.”

I gaped at my lab partner and he cackled.

“Come on, it’s a rite of passage,” he said. “Besides, the only killer out there is me.”

He sprang up and pounced across the bench, falling through my lap and dragging Nora to the ground. She shrieked as he pushed her near a smear of cigarette butts along the curb. At half his size, Nora was still able to shove his gangly frame off her and pin him. Her dark hair dangled into his mouth and he choked. They wrestled like I imagined siblings would.

I waned into the background. I became the weed-infested cracks in the pavement, the soft scent of the laundromat, the tinkling of nearby windchimes. Somewhere hundreds of miles away, my body without a spirit stepped further into the cold surf.

Christopher laughed under his best friend’s weight. “No really, stop. Ha!”

The styrofoam cup fell through my transparent hands, exploding in a wet splatter across my Vans. The lid rolled to the curb, two straws still wedged through its middle. Chunks of cherry ice oozed into the cracks of the sidewalk.

The pair halted, snapping their heads in my direction. Their stares went through my torso.

Nora whispered something indecipherable to her friend and he snorted. I braced for the invite cancellation, the inevitable ghosting to follow, but those words never came. Instead, the pair dusted themselves off and kicked the cup onto the street.

“I’ll pay you ten bucks if you do that with our beaker next lab,” Christopher finally said.

“Sounds like a trip to the safety shower,” Nora added.

A third vehicle yielded at the intersection. The truck made direct contact with the cup, crushing the styrofoam flat onto the road. The driver waved at Christopher and Nora. They waved back.


The moon was a fingernail clipping against the velvet sky, days away from dissipating into the night. I kept an eye on it while turning out of our neighborhood. As much as I hated driving in the dark, I was glad to be the one behind the wheel. Nora insisted we took her banged-up Impala as its poor condition would best suffice on the backcountry roads.

“You sure we’re headed the right way?” I asked over my shoulder.

Christopher paused from the backseat. “I—uh, yes. Yeah.”

I caught Nora’s eye-roll in the rearview mirror.

The car’s interior reeked of weed masked with air freshener. I fumbled for the air conditioning but switched on the stereo. All that came through was static, bits and pieces of a sermon breaching through the signal at rare intervals. The intoxicated chatter of my navigators blended together into one hum, static in itself.

If I let my focus drift, my foot pressed into wet sand instead of the gas pedal. Those frothing waves lapped against my ankles, rising up my calves. I was sinking and there was nothing I could do to control it from hundreds of miles away.

“Left,” Christopher blurted. “This street, here.”

I snapped back to attention and wrenched the Impala onto a bare gravel road. The vehicle rattled as its wheels kicked up a puff of dust and rocks. Christopher lolled against his window and burbled. Nora shoved him and they fell into a heap of giggles.

Acres of cornfields transitioned into oak woods with dense vegetation. The unlit road became a winding snake, sinking and twisting around tight corners. I rolled down the front windows, concentrating on the crunch of gravel and grass. An array of insect chirps sounded like gears and zippers in the trees. The occasional howl of a dog miles away made my skin prickle.

What spooked me most were the eyes of animals reflecting briefly in the headlights. One sweep of reflection and then they disappeared again, a spitting image of those blinking yellow traffic lights from earlier.

“You’re scared,” Christopher teased.

“Eager,” I corrected. “I’m ready to prove both of you wrong.”

I accelerated to drown out their scoffing with the hiss of wind. The night air was charged with giddy anticipation. Everything about this outing felt deliriously forbidden. With each “private property—no trespassing” sign we passed, the lump in my throat swelled larger. This sickening excitement was foreign to me. Maybe this thrill was the kind of stimulation I’d always craved.

And then my phone buzzed in my pocket.

I jolted. It was them—my hometown friends were finally contacting me. Three months of radio silence and this exact moment was when they chose to reach out. At that same instant, my body on the coast fell to my knees. The waves crashed over my head and stole me away with the tide.

You left a shell of yourself behind for us. I imagined the text read. Where’s the rest of you, Sean? Who did you leave us for? Where did you go?

My hands vanished through the steering wheel as we approached a sharp turn.


I prayed for a second of tangibility and stomped on the brakes. We lurched to a halt just as the car dipped off of the road, its bumper kissing the densely vegetated ditch below. Our headlights illuminated a fenced-off property riddled with goats. A handful of them bleated and scampered away from the action.

Wild, seagull-like laughter exploded behind me. It sounded far away, like my ears were submerged in water. The churning waves tumbled me as I faltered in the driver's seat. I couldn’t breathe. My eyes stung and brimmed with a sea I once called home.

Feeling around for the door handle, I fell through the door and stumbled out into the night. My eyes strained against an almost moonless dark so I ran my fingers on the fence as a guide. The metal passed through my fingers.

Christopher shouted after me from the open window. “Sean! Come on, it’s no big deal. We’ll get it back on the road. Where are you going?”

His words became wisps of wind tickling my arm hair. I was merely the cicadas’ hum and waning crescent looming above. Hundreds of miles away, my detached body sank to the ocean floor, defeated. The car door opened and shut, followed by approaching footsteps. The weak beam of a flashlight glared through my back.

I cut to the left, plodding through the ditch wet with soggy leaves. My shoe caught on a root and I fell forward onto my hands and knees. Damp grass soaked my shirt sleeves and gravel pierced my palms. I gave up, rolling over and opening my unread message.

You’ve been selected to win a FREE gift card! Click the link below to claim.

I dropped my face into my hands.

Footsteps followed my path and someone sat down next to me. They were alone. Their flashlight clicked off, so they remained anonymous beside me for a moment. By the stench of Dorito-breath, I knew it was Christopher before he even started talking.

“What’s the matter?”

The regular goofy tone to his voice was gone.

“There’s something wrong with me,” I whispered.

“Cut it out. There’s nothing wrong with you.”

“I’m invisible.”


“I’m transparent. Nobody can see me anymore. I can’t even see myself.”

Admitting that truth out loud depressed me, but the words had always been there. I didn’t understand what made me slip through the fingers of friend groups with no attachment, even among friends right in front of me. Would I always be intangible? Forgettable?

Christopher hesitated. “Well that’s because it’s dark as shit. Here, where’s my flashlight?”

I heard the leaves under him crunch as he shifted forward. His hand felt around the vegetation, brushing against my fingers, my knee. Then came a flick, producing a vertical beam of light between us. Christopher’s face was incredibly close, features contorted by light and shadow. I watched his gaze shift, inspecting me inch by inch. What he said next made my stomach twitch.

“I see you.”

And before I knew what was happening, his lips found mine. I flinched and our teeth met in a jarring collision. Christopher let out a stifled chuckle and steadied me. His kiss was gentle, tentative, tasting like Doritos and marijuana.

And then it was over as soon as it began. Christopher peeled away first, looking off at the stretch of gravel ahead. His signature kooky grin returned. I reeled in insect-infested silence, kneading my scraped palms into the grass to work some feeling back into them.

He’d touched me and didn’t fall through. He could see me. What did that make me?

I met Christopher’s gaze. When he registered my shock, the animation left his eyes and he lowered the flashlight beam to our feet. We both disappeared in the dark.

“I, uh. I shouldn’t have done that. I just thought…I’m sorry.”

“No,” I blurted. “I mean, I wasn’t expecting—I never thought I…”

My words faded with uncertainty. I heard him swallow. Somewhere along the fence, a goat rummaged in the underbrush and sneezed.

I tried again. “I thought Nora and you—”

Christopher bristled and shook his head. “I love Nora, but not like that. She’s my best friend.”


“You’re my friend, too,” he added quickly. “I just—I like you. I like being around you, and I just assumed that…I don’t know. I’m being stupid.”

I didn’t say anything. Turning away, Christopher picked at his face and tilted his head upward. An almost moonless night produced a magnificent celestial display silhouetted with trees. I’d never seen so many stars in one place.

I breathed. Brisk midnight air and the sour stench of goat droppings filled my nostrils, not aspirated sea water. I was confused. The coast still called me back, but its urgency dimmed with the distance I put between it. My body would find its way home, piece by piece until I became whole again. Maybe I never truly left myself behind in the first place.

“We should probably head back.” Christopher stood and held out a hand. His fingers gripped my solid wrist as he hoisted me up. When he let go and turned toward the glow of the Impala’s headlights, I reached for his hand. It was his turn to stiffen in my grasp.

“Hey, Christopher?” I spoke.



I didn’t let go of my friend’s hand.


After several wrong turns and pointless arguments, the three of us found the tracks. Our headlights illuminated the railroad crossing sign, faded with age and obscured by foliage. I hesitated and then pulled forward. The vehicle bobbed up and dipped down as we rolled onto the tracks. I put the car into park and let it idle.

“You’ve got to turn off the engine, Sean,” Nora said.

“Do I really?”

“You’ve gotta.”

I removed the keys and clicked off the headlights. We all vanished into the dark, merely voices.

“What now?” I whispered.

Christopher said, “Now we wait.”

We squinted at the stretch of nothing, expecting an immediate result. My eyes didn’t adjust well to the dark. I imagined the railroad tracks melting away and the nearby branches fizzling to nothing. We were free floating in a black hole. I lost track of what was sky and what was ground.

At least an hour went by without speaking. Impatience and drowsiness stole our words away. I couldn’t tell whether or not the pair were asleep in the backseat. The last hint of warmth lingered inside the car with the weight of a whisper.

Christopher’s voice startled me. “Indulge us with your invisibility theory, Sean.”

I peeled my forehead from the steering wheel. “What?”

“Tell us what it’s like to be a ghost.”

It was difficult to properly articulate my transparency. I started at the beginning, covering my divine separation of flesh and consciousness. Yes, I lived two lives at once, both my own. Neither half felt entirely real. Perhaps it was the loneliness that slimmed my perception, the constant waiting for a reunion that never surfaced.

The pair didn’t say anything for a minute. I figured they’d dozed off, but eventually Christopher broke the silence.

“Your friends sound like dicks.”

“They aren’t,” I said, then corrected myself. “They weren’t.”

Nora roused herself into coherence. “So you believe you're a ghost but doubt the plausibility of the phantom train. Sure. Makes total sense to me.”

Before I could formulate a comeback, a distant horn seeped through the closed windows.

“There’s no way,” I said under my breath.

Christopher stirred. “What?”

“Here.” I cracked open the door and let in orchestrated insect chirps. The horn wailed again, distinctly clear.

Christopher shot up in his seat. “Wait. It’s actually happening.”

His voice wobbled in delirious excitement. A subtle rumbling materialized in the distance. I felt it in my insides, my eyelids, my hair. Glancing through the passenger’s window, I saw a small yellow sun emerge around the bend. It looked like a traffic light, unblinking in our line of direction.

I unbuckled my seatbelt. “This can’t be happening.”

“Chill out,” Christopher said. “It’s only your mind playing tricks on you.”

Nora’s half-empty bottle of Sprite just barely rattled around in the cup holder. The vibration traveled through the soles of my feet and up my shins. I shivered and rubbed my thighs for the sake of moving.

“I didn’t believe you at first, Chris, but this is insane,” Nora laughed. “It feels so real.”

That was the issue. It felt too real. There was something disturbing about it all—the rattling, the growing light, the horn—that made it overstimulating. Such an experience couldn’t possibly lend to a spirit. Maybe these tracks weren’t abandoned after all.

“I don’t like this,” I said over my shoulder.

“Don’t chicken out, my guy.”

At that moment, my ego was not a priority. Hands trembling, I inserted the key into the ignition and twisted. The stereo came on, spitting that awful static, but nothing else. I tried again. Nothing. I felt sick to my stomach.

Christopher grabbed my shoulder. “What are you doing?”

“We need to get out,” I snapped. “Get out of the car. Now.”

Nora pouted. “This is so—”

Her words were cut off by the train’s horn, now a thick blast that shook our surroundings. It was so loud that I momentarily lost the ability to think straight. I barely heard Nora’s scream as the train’s brakes grated against metal.

I passed through the door, not out of misery but out of drunken adrenaline. The rural night once soft and enigmatic now quaked with radiance and terror. I rushed to the back of the vehicle and pounded on Christopher’s window. He sat rigid in his seat, eyes locked on the swelling light of the train.

“Get out!” I shouted.

His head turned toward me as if in slow motion. I yanked open the door and grabbed fistfuls of his jacket. We fell outside, his lanky body pinning mine to the tracks. There was no laughter like earlier. I gasped for breath as he rolled off of me. Christopher ran to Nora’s door and opened it. We found her crying and struggling against her seatbelt.

I was moving in ways I didn’t know I could, climbing into her lap to reach the buckle. The horn and Christopher’s screaming to hurry, hurry, drowned out my own shouts. The belt finally released and we stumbled from the car into the reaching arms of the woods.

We pulled each other into a huddle, bracing for the sick crunch of metal bulldozing metal to follow. But what did follow left us mute. The train glided straight through Nora’s Impala, swallowing the dead vehicle in a thick mist. Its body was still in one piece, stagnant among the bellies of translucent freight cars whizzing past. The railroad tracks screeched. The gravel beneath us vibrated. A vacuum of force pulled us toward the movement. The train was undeniably real, yet not entirely opaque.

Then I realized something else. The three of us clung to one another, trembling as one. I felt the wet tears and drool from Nora’s face burrowed in my chest. Her chipped fingernails dug into my shoulder. I felt Christopher’s body pressed against mine, his shuddering Dorito breath hot against my neck. Between the two was me. Tactile. Present among ambiguity.

With the departing light of the phantom train, the three of us faded together in the dark.

"This piece of fiction is a cocktail of true stories. When I was eleven years old, my cousins and I had my mom drive us out to "haunted" train tracks. If you parked on the tracks, legend had it that the ghosts of passengers would tap on your windows. My mom chickened out before we could experience it. Weeks later, it was revealed that the railroad wasn’t abandoned, and a real train plowed into a car of teenagers parked on those same tracks. In my twenties, I still visit small-town railroad tracks in the middle of the night with friends—not for the ghosts, but for the exhilarating rush of passing trains. These characters reflect the silly/serious dynamic I share with my closest friends, and I loved developing their dialogue and mannerisms." -- notes from the artist


BETHANY CUTKOMP is a writer from St. Louis, Missouri. One day, she hopes to publish YA novels and befriend the wild opossums under her porch. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Worm Moon Archive, Moot Point Magazine, Pigeon Review, Split Rock Review, tiny wren lit, ballast, and oranges journal. You can find her on social media at @bdcutkomp.

140 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page