The Dead Girl

I’ve never been afraid of ghosts. Never thought a shadowy figure appearing at the end of my bed would be all that frightening. So when the dead girl appears in my grandmother’s kitchen on a humid August morning, my eyebrows nearly hike off my forehead with excitement. My first thought is that I’m not alone anymore; the second is that my mother must’ve sent her.

While she blinks away her surprise, I stiffen, spoon poised over a bowl of cereal. My eyes dart across the table to my grandmother, who’s watching an ancient rerun of Press Your Luck on the small black and white television perched on the counter; she’s angled her chair toward the screen so the sun glare doesn’t wash out Peter Tomarken’s face. “Pass! Pass it!” she shrieks, oblivious to the girl’s bare feet padding across the worn, leathery linoleum. At the window, she pauses to study the sun-boiled trees beyond the glass. Her arm stretches to the lock, trying to jimmy it open, but the glob of superglue I squeezed into the crank holds tight.

At the window, her hand flattens against the warm pane before sliding down, fingers gathering under the sill. When she pushes upward, it won’t budge.

With a hiss of a scowl, she stomps out of the kitchen. I toss my half-full bowl into the sink and chase after her, though she’s slow, wandering the dark house like a curious cat. I keep close as she runs a finger over the rip on the arm of the couch, kicks the stack of romance novels and celebrity magazines stockpiled next to the wooly dust ruffle of my grandmother’s chair. The knotted, yarn-like tangle of her blond hair flops as she creaks up the stairs, peeking in doorways, sliding through shafts of swirling dust motes. In my bedroom—my mother’s old room—she passes the unmade twin bed, the girly white hutch holding my books, the peeling teacup wallpaper. At the window, her hand flattens against the warm pane before sliding down, fingers gathering under the sill. When she pushes upward, it won’t budge.

“It doesn’t open,” I say, watching from the doorway. “None of the windows open.”

I step forward as she tries again, but the nails I hammered into the wood keep it sealed shut.

She whips around, silent, watchful. Her thin black T-shirt is tied into a knot above her belly button. Frayed cut-off shorts sit low on her hips, the white pockets hanging against her bone-pale thighs. Dried blood runs like a river over her temple and weaves into her blonde hair, turning it a sickly pink around her ear. She’s older than me, but I’m sure she goes to the high school, the one I’d start in a few weeks if I hadn’t refused to go. But even if we’d crossed paths in the hallways, I know we wouldn’t be friends. She isn’t the type who would look at me twice; she’s the girl under the bleachers, the girl whose kiss tastes like cigarettes. She’s not bad though. I can’t believe she’s bad.

“You can stay,” I urge. “You should stay.”

Her fingernail plucks at the shiny nail head splintering the wood, trying to pry it loose. When it won’t lift, she shoves by me without a word. She smells like the woods—sap and pine, along with fresh dirt. I have to hold my breath until it’s gone.

*     *     *

The top story on the news channel that night is about the girl who sulks on the sagging corduroy couch paging through a Star magazine from 2004. In the kitchen, my grandmother leans her dry elbows on the countertop and stares at the TV. Over the sizzle and pop of a frying ham steak, a reporter recaps how hikers found the girl’s body slung across a rain-bloated brook, her long hair tangled around a log. Her school photo appears onscreen. One eye is concealed by a strip of black dyed hair. She doesn’t smile.

I wander to the couch, settling myself at the other end.

“I’m bored,” she says, her first words to me. She looks up briefly before her eyes trail back down. The magazine remains open across her legs, but she plays with the knot of her shirt. “I didn’t expect it to be like this.”

“Like what?” I ask.

“Like being dead. Stuck here.”

“It’s not so bad,” I offer. I wonder if she believes me.

She alternates between mussing her hair into a halo of frizz and running through the knots until it’s smooth again. I shove my hands into the sponge of the couch. She has hair you want to touch—girls probably hated her, while boys curled their fingers when a trail of blonde flapped over the back of her chair onto their desk.

“I want to go,” she says, pointing to the window. “Out there.”

“We can’t. We have to stay inside.”

She drops her dirty feet from the coffee table and leans toward me. “Take me into the woods. Now, let’s go.”

The next morning, when the girl is busy dangling a thread over the nose of my snoring grandmother, I creep to the front door and kneel before the mail slot. When I lift the flap, my eyes are full of trees.

“I can’t.”

She blows at that errant strip of hair falling over her eye. It’s no longer black, but blonde again, matching translucent lashes that remind me of spider webbing. She yanks her head in the direction of the kitchen. “Because of her?”

“Because I don’t leave the house,” I say, shrugging.

“Ever?”

My head wavers back and forth. No. Never.

She lowers her eyes, unable to disguise her disgust. Her chin weighs on her fist, the other arm limp with boredom. When dinner is ready, she trails after me, right on my heels. “Outside,” she whispers. “Let’s go outside.”

*     *     *

The next morning, when the girl is busy dangling a thread over the nose of my snoring grandmother, I creep to the front door and kneel before the mail slot. When I lift the flap, my eyes are full of trees. The leaves wave, challenging me, making me remember all those times I’d yell a quick nothing to my mother before bounding out of the house, running so far into the thicket that the sun was blotted out by a canopy of green. My hands whirled over flaking, white oak trunks, breaking pieces loose with my speed. The shrieks of my friends came from all around me as we took off like a pack of werewolves through the wild, overgrown brush, shedding ourselves and becoming a tangled, handsome mess.

For hours, the soles of our sneakers bent against lichen-slick rocks, making us slip as we’d jump into the soft layer of undergrowth below. The hum of a far-off creek matched the coursing of our blood as we sweated and issued dares and bragged about the worst thing we’d ever done. When dusk turned the sky dark blue and cast the trees into black silhouettes, we lingered, imitating the fretful voices of our mothers. At full dark, we dragged our bramble-scratched legs through the trees to home, our wildness temporarily tamed. There was always a light on behind closed drapes, suddenly bright, as the fabric swung back by a worried hand.

One of those times, I stayed out too long. My mother’s call echoed from the tree line, trying to find its way to me in the dark. I sprinted, scuttled, tripping over a twist of roots, colliding face-first to the forest floor. Dirt filled my mouth, wedged into the crevices of my teeth. My ribs flapped like moth wings for air, my heart banging so loud it drowned out the insects. I thought then how I’d show her my cuts and bruises; she’d know it wasn’t my fault I was late. Despite the full moon sagging in the sky, I ran right past her. Past the flashlight beaming its foggy eye into a thorn bush. Past her body that had fallen into a soft bed of clover after a blood clot burst in her head. I might have even jumped over her as I crossed over the fallen pine tree, the last hurtle to home. All night, she was there. By first light, beetles had taken up residence in the pockets of her knit sweater.

Through the mail slot, a thick haze soaks up the blue sky. A hornet spirals around the porch, tap tapping as it bounces against the door separating me from the tall grass bending in limp arcs, deceitful in their stillness. I know they clamor for ankles to pass through so they can slither forward, tie in knots around bones and crack them sideways as the trees watch with sick grins carved into their maws. I don’t know why the girl would ever want to go back out there.

*     *     *

“I’m leaving today,” she taunts me the next morning. “Last call. You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”

I don’t respond, but when she jumps off the countertop and runs to the hallway, I grab her arm. She’s stronger than I am and drags me with her. It’s only after the door hinges creak that I let go, wincing at the square of sun broiling the few hairs on my chin.

“No, it’s true. My grandmother can’t see you. No one else can talk to you. Just me.” I slide farther down the wall, closer to her. “Imagine what it would be like with no one at all? Being a lonely ghost trapped in the woods. Forever.”

I hear the trees across the street; they bristle, their leaves beckoning, sounding like hands running through my buzzed scalp. I flatten against the wall, trying to find something to curl my fingers around, but it’s only flat and more flat. The girl remains inside and juts her arm past the threshold to wave it around.

“See?” she says, craning her neck toward me. “There’s nothing wrong out here.”

I step forward, a tentative, shaking step, so I can yank her back by her hair if she tries to dart away. She brings her arm back and places both hands against the door frame. Her foot drops outside the door.

“Don’t,” I grunt. My palms leave wet prints on the wall.

“Stop being such a baby.” Her toes wiggle in the breeze before touching the rough straw doormat.

“What if you leave and can’t come back?” I croak. “You don’t know what’s out there. It might not be safe.” I lick my dry lips. “I bet you can’t come back if you go. I bet you’d disappear into thin air.”

“You’re making that up,” she snaps. “Stop trying to scare me.”

“No, it’s true. My grandmother can’t see you. No one else can talk to you. Just me.” I slide farther down the wall, closer to her. “Imagine what it would be like with no one at all? Being a lonely ghost trapped in the woods. Forever.”

Her face tumbles out of defiance and she glances outside, no longer so sure of herself. I’m all she has to tell her it’s okay to go, and I won’t. She hesitates and looks at me, defeated.

When she moves away from the door, I stand upright, releasing the wall one palm at a time. “You’re letting the air conditioning out,” I say over my retreating shoulder.

She stomps her foot, but I don’t look back.

*     *     *

When she finally stops pouting, I find ways to distract her. I read to her from my Orson Scott Card novels, and she shows me the constellations she knows. Her fingers ride mine, pressing against the window pane to trace the stars we can’t see. She guides me through the clapping games of her childhood; we slap our hands together in complicated rhythms and patterns, laughing when we mess up, until my grandmother shouts for me to stop making a racket.

Then I show her my photo album. She peels back the sticky plastic to touch a snapshot of my mother while I watch, making sure she doesn’t crinkle the sleeves or smudge the pictures. Next, I open the box holding my mother’s clothes—the few things my grandmother let me keep—carefully unfolding familiar gauzy skirts and blouses that are beginning to smell like cardboard. I arrange them on the bed, as if her body might come up from the mattress and fill them.

“Did you see her?” I ask the girl. “On your way here?”

She shakes her head and nods to the window. “Maybe she’s out there.”

I turn away, hiding my face while returning the clothes to their box, along with the photo album. Once they’re safely stowed in my closet, the girl tells me about another game, describing how she and her brothers used to dig up worms after a rainstorm, hook them to a line with clothespins and wait for birds to swoop in for their breakfast. It doesn’t take us long to find a frayed rope in the laundry room or clothespins. After she watches me yank the nails from the window sill, we take turns tossing the line out my screenless window until it catches on the antennae of the roof next door. I shout when I finally get it.

After baiting our pins with gummy worms—mine are bright orange, hers are green—we wait. The sun skims through their translucent bodies when a breeze rattles the rope, luring the birds. I’m skeptical, like maybe she’s made it all up, when a black streak of starlings launch between the houses, spreading their wings to plane directly into the line. With sharp beaks like darts, they tear the worms free in a fluid plunge, exactly how she said they would. I point and whoop, but the girl doesn’t see it; her eyes are closed against the heat scorching us from the open window.

*     *     *

The following afternoon, the sky turns pewter. Shredded clouds coil together, rolling and twisting like bed sheets in the dryer. Rain randomly drips, starting and stopping like a jumble of tuning instruments.

I run into the wind, launching over the threshold to find the girl sitting on the edge of my sill, staring at the churning sky through the open window. Her hair blows away from her face, skittering the limp ends across my wrecked photo album.

The girl says she’s afraid of storms and hides in my room while I eat breakfast.

When the first rumble of distant thunder breaks over the television, I expect her to come running downstairs, but the house remains still. I put my bowl in the sink, listening as I go up the stairs. As my foot slaps the final step, a humid gust slams against my skin. My bedroom door bangs against the wall, knocking me out of my stupor. I run into the wind, launching over the threshold to find the girl sitting on the edge of my sill, staring at the churning sky through the open window. Her hair blows away from her face, skittering the limp ends across my wrecked photo album. She tosses it on my bed by a mangled plastic sleeve and kicks aside the nails I removed from my window, sending them across the floor boards until they catch in the seams.

I step around her to see the clothesline we found rippling in the ferocious wind. The pins she’s clamped to the line teeter precariously, holding on with tight hinges, keeping my photographs in their grip. A dozen dot the blank space between houses, alongside my mother’s clothes. A white blouse is seized at the shoulders by pins; it cracks the air as the fabric lashes like the tail of a whip. I can’t turn away, as if my gaze alone might hold everything down.

Behind me, the girl waits.

My mother’s smile swings forward and backward, twirling and twisting. She is glossy against the matte sky, flashing as a great whoosh of air snatches the first photo. It spirals as the current dips and wanes, then flies away. I lean out the window, stricken, trying to snatch it, but the trees swallow it whole, licking their lips for more.

The next picture rips free and I tug on the line, trying to loosen it from the antennae, but it won’t release. The tautness only gives the wind more power. Another picture snaps free, smacks the house, then peels away. The shoulder of my mother’s blouse tears and swings wild, jerking the other side off the line. It floats and twists, curling into a summoning finger before drifting away.

“Let go,” the girl says, pushing my hands off the line. “Let it go.” The corners of her victorious smile are like a scythe.

I shoulder past her and pound down the stairs. Her bare feet trail after me, matching my pace until I slide into the foyer. My grandmother’s voice rises in alarm as the door smacks against the wall. “Oliver! Stop all that noise!” The wind dissolves her voice as the pads of my toes burrow into concrete, then into the scorched, needle sharp grass.

The girl grabs my hand and holds it so tight I feel the bones under her skin. She leads me down the hot asphalt driveway, across the road and toward the woods, tugging me farther from the house; by the time I look back, it’s already faded into stripes behind the trees. We stumble and explode through tangles of weedy thistle, too fast for them to twine around our bare shins. We run like cheetahs, boundless, until my muscles sear along their seams, unused to the exertion. When a stitch burns my ribs, I slow, and the girl’s palm slips from mine. She dashes ahead as I curl my fingers around the lichen-spotted bark of a birch tree, using it to press forward.

Along the way, I pick up leaves and bits of trash, anything resembling my photographs. I sprint up gentle slopes and down shallow valleys, bursting mushroom caps and snapping twigs under my bare, aching feet. Around me, the girl has disappeared. I stop and whirl around in a circle of panic, looking for a tail of blonde hair, a flash of her pale skin. Wind plasters my clothes against my body and whips my hair around like helicopter blades. My back is slick and cold while my face burns from the humidity soaking the atmosphere.

When I realize she’s gone, my own weight pulls me to the ground, into a soft bed of decayed leaves. A splotch of rain thwacks my lip. Another splashes my eyebrow before rolling to my ear. Trees sway, rustling and dousing me in loose branches as the hem of a black cloud rolls overhead. Against the dark sky, I suddenly see the tattered white sleeve of my mother’s blouse holding onto the elbow of a knobby branch. I reach out, as if I might be able to pull it down to protect myself from all this wildness. I don’t move as we watch each other, having a silent conversation, just before a great wind carries her over the canopy, one sleeve whipping around like a farewell. I search the empty sky until the raw clouds open up, finally unleashing torrents of rain.

As I limp home, water drips from the ends of my hair, my nose, my grimy fingertips, picking up dirt from my skin and rinsing it back into the ground. I leave puddles on the stairs up to my room while my grandmother stares, mouth agape. The next morning, I cut down the clothesline and unpin the pictures that survived the storm. They’re wrinkled and waterlogged, but I take them outside, into the sun. As I sit on the step, sweating in the humid August heat, I watch them dry into new wavy shapes. Thinking that maybe they aren’t ruined completely.

Lori Ann PalmaLori Ann Palma earned a Fine Arts degree before deciding she wanted to tell stories with words instead of pictures. Now focused on Young Adult fiction, she writes and creates in Southern New Jersey, and contributes to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Eastern Pennsylvania chapter in the role of Co-Blog Coordinator. To learn more about Lori Ann, follow her on Twitter @LAnnPalma.