Horror & Dark Fantasy

COSMIC POWERS

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Fiction

Who Is Your Executioner?

Five

Since we were little, Oona’s collected Victorian photographs. A certain subset of people love them, but I got a library book of them once, just before I met her, and I’ve never not been appalled. I don’t know what a book like that was doing lost in our local library. It’s exactly the kind of thing that would normally have been removed by a logical parent. The book was death images, yes, but worse than that. These were all dead children and babies dressed in their best clothes and propped up for the last family photo. Held in their parents’ arms, posed with their pets and toys, staring at the camera. It was like some sort of Egyptian funerary ritual, except much more hardcore. The thing about them was that everyone in them had to pose for a long time to make it through the film exposure. There’s lots of accidental motion, lots of blur, and so the families look like ghosts. The dead children are the only ones who look alive.

• • • •

“Did you hear about Oona? Because if you did, and you didn’t call me, I don’t know who you are anymore,” the voice on the other end of the line says.

The same rattle Trevor’s had in his voice since we were seven, a sound like tin cans tied to the back of a wedding day junker. It’s been a while since we’ve spoken. Since I’ve spoken to anyone, really. I tried to start over with new people, but I was still the same person and it never works the way you think it will.

Trev and I faded out in a record shop a few years back, arguing over Kate Bush for reasons that are now difficult to recall. Kate Bush wasn’t really the problem. The problem was the way friendship can tilt into more than friendship for one person, and less than friendship for the other. Trevor and I have a history of cheater’s matinees in crappy un-airconditioned theaters. Back then, we watched superhero movies together, the three-dollar shows where no one we knew would be hanging out. Sometimes I reached over and put my hand in his lap, and sometimes he put his in mine. We were having an affair, but neither of us could commit to a bedroom. Instead, it was his fingers inside me, and my hand on him, both of us watching the latest incarnation of Spider-Man like nothing was happening below our waists.

We were trying, as we’d been trying for years, to not be in love with Oona.

“What about her?” She and I have history too, but not the history I wanted. Probably she’s gotten married or is happy or had a baby or something. I’m expecting a New York Times announcement, her with something handsome beside her, a grinning, sports-playing something, and Oona, her yellow eyes and long red hair. She looks—has always looked—like a tree on fire. She’s six foot two and covered with freckles. One time she and I were naked, and I drew the constellations on her with a Sharpie. All there. Next time I tried it, they were gone. There were new configurations but not the ones I’d mapped.

It’s getting to be time again for weddings and babies. This is the second round after the first marriages. Trevor’s been divorced a couple years now, and I’m single again too after trying to settle for a woman in Georgia who got pregnant by sperm donor and then said, witheringly, “you always act like you’re so smart, but you’re not as smart as you think you are. You’re fucked up. You’re in love with her, and you should stop lying about it.”

She was four months pregnant and I hadn’t noticed. I didn’t know she wanted to have kids with me, and she didn’t, it turned out. She wanted to have kids without me. Now I’m back in the city, avoiding my roommate. My life, what there was of it, has dissolved like Kool-Aid in a cup.

We’re all thirty-seven, Trevor and Oona and me, and we’ve known each other since second grade. I haven’t talked to Oona in years. Every time I see her name in my inbox, I delete it. After the last time I saw her, I’m better off alone. She messes with my head.

“She’s dead,” says Trevor, sounding astonished. “Oona finally died.”

He says it like Oona’s gone to India. I’m used to mishearing things like this. Every time I pick up the phone I think someone’s going to announce a tragedy. I’ve been writing a lot of condolences, everyone of my parents’ generation fizzling out, and a fair number of mine too, suicides and cancers, car wrecks.

“She did what? Who did what?” In my head, I’m looking frantically at a slideshow of the Taj Mahal.

“Oona,” he says. “What the fuck? Oona died. Where are you?”

I take a moment to try to be this person, in this world, where Oona isn’t. “On my way wherever you are,” I say.

“Around the corner from your place, in that bar. The shit one.”

I didn’t know he knew where I lived. “Are you drunk yet?”

“I ordered for you. Your ice is melting.”

• • • •

I walk in, and there he is. His hair long and dark, his face gaunt. Goatee pointing off his chin like he’s a cave ceiling. He’s got on a t-shirt that I recognize, an anatomical drawing from the 1700s, a memento mori, a face pared down to the skull on one side, handsome and bearded on the other. Trevor has the whole bottle on the table, and when I look at it, he shrugs.

“To Oona,” he says and raises the bottle at me.

“To Oona,” I say and pour my own bourbon down my throat. For a minute, we sit in silence. But then:

“You know what I’m going to say.”

I’d rather he didn’t.

“Is she really dead?” Trevor insists. “Where is she, if she’s not? Is she back there?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “How would I know? We don’t even know where there is, not really, Trev. What do we know? Nothing.”

“Because,” Trevor says. “You know why I’m wondering.” And he sings it, against the rules, the first time I’ve heard it in years. “Dead girl, dead girl, come alive.”

“Christ, Trev. Fucking don’t,” I say. My skin is covered in buzz. I feel like I’m full of tiny brainless insects, my body a sack of wings and antennae. My stomach lurches painfully, like something inside me’s trying to get out.

“How?” I ask him.

“Obit didn’t say,” he says. “I called. Her mom wouldn’t tell me. She was in Indonesia somewhere, collecting beetles. She got some kind of weird entomology job. Fuck,” Trevor says, and sighs. “The last time I saw her, something bad happened.”

“Don’t,” I say, again. “Please. I don’t need to know any more stories about Oona. I know what she was like when she was weird.”

But Trevor can’t help himself. “I was sitting at a bar,” he says. “Six o’clock on a Tuesday. Bar was empty except me and the bartender. I heard this sound.”

“Stop it,” I say. “I don’t want to talk about Oona anymore.”

Trevor looks at me. “I tried to tell Bridget about it, and you should have heard her. ‘Always been in love with Oona,’ she said. ‘You think that woman’s mouth is magic. You want a witch, Trevor,’ she said.”

I look at Trevor. He blushes.

“She wasn’t wrong. So, I hear this noise, and I’m trying to figure it out, when something crawls over my foot. Big black bug. Like, huge. Size of my middle finger. And more of them coming. A whole row of them. Each one of them perfectly in line with the next.”

“You always did like dive bars,” I say, trying to shut him up.

His fingers corkscrew awkwardly into mine. I can feel the clammy creeping from me to him and from him back to me.

“I bend over, and she’s under the bar, crouched down. Oona. Not Oona now. Oona then. She looks up at me, and she makes this face, this so-Oona face. And I’m freaking out, and the bartender’s freaking out on me because he can’t see the bugs, and he can’t see her either. The last thing I see as he kicks me out into the street is Oona, her braids, the corner of her mouth, and then she turns her head and she’s gone.”

“What do you mean, gone?”

“Like she folded up.”

“She didn’t fold up. Oona was still around. I got emails.”

“Did you open them?”

I shake my head.

“They weren’t from Oona. They’d be spam, win a vacation to somewhere, free car, lend money to the lost. Jumbles of numbers, lists of lines from things.”

“But she was around,” I insist. “Her mom talked to my mom. She grew up. You know she did. Come on. We both slept with Oona.”

“She was like an animal,” Trevor says. I wonder how much he’s been drinking. “An animal that might bite your face off.”

He fumbles in his jacket. “I brought something,” he says. “I know you don’t want to see it.”

We used to be special. Now we’re grown-ups, and this is what you learn. Special children turn into fucked up adults. You can’t even use the word magic now. Back then, we said it all the time, like we’d fallen into something amazing, like what had happened when we were seven could only be a good thing.

“Something went wrong. I don’t know if it’s ever going to be right.”

He brings a snapshot out of his pocket. Faded, from the ’80s. I don’t have to look. The three of us the day we met. Oona’s in the middle of the photo. She’d lost a front tooth. Yellow dress. I’m in a dirty t-shirt printed with a buffalo, and Trev’s shirtless. We’re on the steps of the trailer my mom lived in back then. It was the first day of summer, and we’d met at the swimming pool line, but they wouldn’t let Trevor in because he didn’t have a suit. Oona, who was already in her swimsuit, took it off and stood there naked. She said, “I don’t have a suit either.” It took about two seconds for us all to get kicked out, including me, because I’d seen Oona, and so I took my suit off too.

In the picture, both Trevor and I are blurred. We were jumping.

“Look at her, Zell,” Trevor says, and there’s something in his voice that makes me want to shut my eyes. “Look at the picture. Tell me I’m not crazy.”

I look over Trevor’s shoulder instead, out the door of the bar, from the dark and into the cold, bright January street. I see a girl walking past. Pale yellow sundress. Long red hair. A hitch in her step that I know. Except that this girl isn’t thirty-seven. And as she passes, she presses her fingers to the glass and looks in at me.

“Trev,” I say. “Trevor.”

“This is the only one she was in, and now she’s gone,” Trevor says, shaking the photo at me. “So maybe she’s really dead.”

The window explodes inward.

Four

“Kagome, Kagome?” Oona asks me and laughs. “All kid’s games started as adult games. That’s not more creepy than the normal ones.”

“I think it’s creepy,” I say. “Who Is My Executioner isn’t an adult game. It’s not a fucking game at all. Why would you need to know who your executioner is? You need to know what your crime is. You need to know who accused you. The executioner isn’t the point.”

“Maybe you want to know who’s capable of actually killing you,” Oona says, sitting twist-legged in front of me in a blue bustier and a pair of ridiculously short cut-offs. “Like, maybe they’re your lover, Zellie. Maybe you know their secrets.”

We’re twenty-seven, and I’m sleeping with her for another round of probable heartbreak. She’s midway through a dissertation on children’s games, and everything about it makes me miserable. Oona knows all my secrets. I don’t know hers. I only know she has them. She’s been mostly normal lately, mostly Oona, this gorgeous eccentric, charming enough to sidestep the fact that she’s professionally a scholar of creepiness. This has always been true. She can do better than pass, most of the time. There’s a thin line between out of control and spectacular.

I’m in love again, considering tattoos of Oona’s name because here she is, her hair in long copper braids, each one interspersed with black lilies she’s bought somewhere. She’s not goth. The flowers are alive. We’re in a coffee shop she likes, a place hung with bad art and someone in charge of the playlists who chooses Alan Lomax recordings of field songs. I hate it. Slave songs played over a backdrop of cappuccino steaming. Oona’s always been like this. It makes everyone else skeeved out.

Oona collects horrible things. I regret ever introducing her to the pictures of the dead, but that ship’s sailed. Her walls are covered in them now, all beautifully framed. It’s only when you look closely that you wish you hadn’t. There’s one she’s had blown up. Black beetle on a little blonde girl’s face, right at the corner of her open eye, like a tear.

“It’s about a beheading, maybe, or about a woman in a cage. Anyway, it’s Japanese,” Oona says. “And it might not be creepy. It might just be sweet. Translators disagree and so does everyone else.”

She shows me the game, even though I should know better than to play with Oona. She doesn’t play fair. “You’re the oni,” she says. “The demon who gets killed.”

She blindfolds me in the park with a long red scarf she’s uncoiled from around her neck. She recruits a bunch of kids, and the group runs around me, Oona singing in Japanese:

“Kagome, kagome
Kago no naka no tori wa
Itsu itsu deyaru
Yoake no ban ni
Tsuru to kame ga subetta.
Ushiro no shoumen daare.”

I don’t know the words to the song and can’t see the kids. I don’t want to do any of this. Old history. Bad history. The kids don’t mind. It’s blind man’s bluff combined with ring around the rosy, except no one falls down. When—through some silent signal—Oona ceases the ring running around me, I’m supposed to stand up. After that, she hasn’t given any instruction.

“I’m standing up now,” I say, but I don’t hear anything. Not even laughing. It’s daylight, and we’re in public, this day in July, but I feel like I’m lying face down on cold ceramic tile. “I’m standing up.”

“Who’s behind you?” I hear Oona ask. I can’t tell where her voice is coming from. “Who’s your executioner?”

I feel breath on my neck, and I feel something else, something I’ve never been able to describe, other than that there’s a sudden weight in my hands and a lightness in my skull. A spinning feeling. I see, for a second, myself as a tiny child, and then my same self, ancient. I see my head falling from my shoulders and into a basket.

I’m gagging, choking, and I tear off the blindfold only to find all the children gone. Oona’s always had a way with kids. I spin around. No one’s there. The park’s empty.

Oona’s always insisted she doesn’t remember what happened when we were little.

“It was just a normal day,” Oona always says, her eyes flashing gold. “Whatever you think happened, it didn’t. I don’t know why you always bring it up.”

Now Oona laughs from above me. High in a tree, she sits on a branch, her bare feet dangling down.

“Kagome, kagome,” she sings.
“The bird in the basket-cage.
When, oh when will it come out, in the night of dawn,
The crane and turtle slipped,
Who is it in front of behind?”

I look up at her. I’m sweating, like I’ve played another childhood game, a dizzying prelude to a blinded hunt. Her boyish body, her long white throat, her thighs in her cut-offs. Oona’s head is blazed out by the sun behind her, and for a moment it’s like it’s gone. The way I’m seeing her is not the angle I should be seeing her from. I feel like I’m looking up from too low, and from behind myself. I feel like I’m on the ground, and I start to turn to see what’s there.

The next moment, I’m down on my hands and knees, puking in the grass.

“You’re so sensitive,” Oona says, holding back my hair, her fingers on the back of my neck, and I shiver. She got down from that tree faster than she should have. I didn’t hear her land.

There’s something boiling inside her, a kettle left on the fire. I raise my head to look at Oona, and what I see is not Oona but something else.

“Who’s your executioner?” Oona says. “Come on. It’s just a game.” She runs her fingers along my thigh, and it’s like I’m being flayed. The air is full of black dots, a swarm of beetles, then gone.

I take off running out of the park, my feet bleeding, and I don’t stop running ’til I get to my mom’s extra bedroom, where I stay for the next three weeks, losing my job, falling apart, dropping out of the grad school I sold my soul to get into.

That’s the last time I see Oona.

Three

We’re seventeen. We’re at the prom. I don’t do prom. I’m wearing fishnets that I ripped with safety scissors and then sealed with nail polish. I didn’t want them to disintegrate. They’re my only pair. Otherwise I’m inappropriately dressed. I should have tried to look pretty. I already don’t belong here. Me and Trevor are the only people of any color at this school, unless you count white as a color. My family came from Veracruz. His came from China. His people believe in ghosts and so do mine, and every time Oona comes around, my mom is like: Out. But that’s partially because Oona’s a high-end drug dealer’s daughter with a fancy house and all the cars anyone could want. My mom thinks they look like a funeral procession.

Oona’s in magenta, and it doesn’t suit her. Her red hair clashes, and she looks strangely old. Her mother took her to a salon and got her hair done into a high topknot full of bobby pins and hairspray and fluffy silk flowers. Her neck is like a too-thin stalk for a peony, and her head keeps sagging. She’s got vodka in her water bottle. Periodically she looks at me and grins, her eyes lined in silver. She’s been not okay lately.

“She’s gonna puke,” says Trev.

“No, she’s not,” I say. Oona is known for her iron tolerance.

Trev and I are the least of her interests tonight. We’re watching from the edge of the dance floor as Oona leads the dance. She’s the prom queen, of course. Oona is everything at once, and the daily Oona is nearly perfect. It’s only that sometimes things slip. People have short memories. Oona is mostly sweet. Mostly charming. Mostly beautiful. When she’s not, people think it’s them who’ve gone nuts, not her.

She neglected to bring a date, and so she’s supposed to get a king out of the crowd. Somehow no one got elected. I don’t get it. Neither does Trev, though I look at him, and he looks at me and shrugs, and I think I might know something about where the ballots went. Every boy in the room is circling her.

“Walk around me ’til I choose one of you,” she tells them. “I guess we need a king if we’re doing this stupid thing.”

Oona’s kneeling. She puts her head in her hands and sings.

“Poor Jenny is a-weeping,
A-weeping, a-weeping,
Poor Jenny is a-weeping
On a bright summer’s day.”

I don’t even know where she learned that, but this is classic choose-a-husband stuff, so I hate it. I’d rather do something involving jump rope. At least that would mean the husband needed a skill. She’s shut the DJ up, and we have no Nirvana, no “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Just Oona.

She does the next verse herself, standing up and looking down at the place she was. Boys shuffle nervously in their stupid-looking tuxedoes. I have a wrist corsage provided by Trevor. It’s made of weeds. He has a matching one. We both hate ourselves.

“Why are you weeping,
Weeping, weeping,
Why are you weeping,
On a bright summer’s day?”

She kneels down again and puts her head in her hands. Her hair’s stiff, a crest of red bone standing up from the back of her neck. I hate her. I don’t.

“Come on,” says the DJ. “What kind of prom plays fucking madrigals?” He makes a nervous attempt at something else, but the something else is Alanis Morrisette, and so it gets shouted down.

“I’m weeping for a loved one,
A loved one, a loved one,
I’m weeping for a loved one,
On a bright summer’s day.”

“Shut up, Oona,” Trev says, mournfully as Oona starts spinning, her eyes shut, her topknot swaying like she’s going to break her own head off.

“Stand up and choose your loved one,
Your loved one, your loved one,
Stand up and choose your loved one,
On a bright summer’s day.”

I see something moving out of the corner of my eye near the doorway of the gymnasium, near the photo backdrops. We got our picture Polaroided there earlier, me and Trev and Oona, looking all wrong together, a trio of suspicious class hierarchy, the popular girl being nice to the weirdoes, the weirdoes embracing the popular girl, and even as we got shot, I knew it was a trick. Oona was the weirdo, not us. Trevor and I were tag-a-longs, as always.

“That’s strange,” said that photographer, squinting at Oona, who smiled at her.

“What’s strange?”

“The pretty one,” said the photographer. “You’re not showing up very well.”

“Am I not?” said Oona as though this wasn’t something she knew already.

“Maybe it’s the glitter,” said the photographer, looking bewildered. “We’ll do the real one. That’s twenty bucks for the wallet prints.”

The wallet prints won’t turn out.

Oona, her eyes shut, reaches out her hands and grabs a kid named Steven. He’s tall and gawky, taller even than Oona is.

“Hey,” he says.

“I guess you’re the king,” she says.

“I can’t believe you picked me.”

“It wasn’t me,” she says. “I was spinning. The spinning picked you. That’s how the game works. It’s like spin the bottle, but I’m the bottle.”

“Are we going to kiss, then?” asks Steven and manages a grin. He’s out of his league beyond belief.

Oona takes a paper crown from one of her attendants, and puts it on his head. He looks knighted. He stands taller. The foil shines, and it’s horrible for a second. I see Trevor cringe too. Blade, I’m thinking, but then it’s just a crown made of craft paper and staples.

Oona takes a step back from Steven and looks at him quizzically for a moment.

“Pretty,” she says and then takes his hands in hers and dances as she sings.

“Shake hands before you leave ’er,
You leave ’er, you leave ’er,
Shake hands before you leave ’er,
On a bright summer’s day.”

She lets go of Steven’s hands, and I feel Trevor flinch. Something’s moving over by the photo backdrop. Something small and fast, a flash of yellow, long red braids. Holding hands with someone else, this person tall and slender, same hair, but this hair caught up in white-streaked snarls. The somethings are spinning, running, flying around the edge of the room.

I look back in time to see Oona kiss Steven very properly, very gently, on the mouth, and him, dazzled, kiss her back.

“Oh no,” says Steven. He lifts his hand to his mouth. His eyes widen.

Steven starts coughing, and Oona leans toward him. He doubles over. A crowd around him. He coughs harder. People are closing in on him now, worried, patting him on the back, and he begins to choke something up. People start screaming and backing away, a chorus of Oh my gods and swearing, the music the DJ’s put on ringing over the whole thing, a crazy chorus of beat and bass as Steven falls to his knees.

“Somebody call an ambulance!” someone yells.

Steven’s coughing up black beetles, a torrent of them, all wings and legs. Thousands of them, legs tearing and twitching at each other, chitinous crunches underfoot as people freak out and climb onto the chairs, run from the room in their high heels.

Oona’s right beside him, but Steven’s not looking at her. They’re swarming out of his nose and mouth. Oona’s scared. She looks around frantically, and as she does, we all see it, Steven stops breathing.

Nobody’s breathing. The people left in the room are all just frozen, staring, me and Trev included.

“Help!” Oona yells, but no one moves.

He falls forward, and the crown tilts off his head and crumples on the ground.

At the corner of my vision, I see the redheaded girl and the white haired woman shift back into the bouncing gleam coming off the disco ball, and all the beetles are gone with them, the floor covered in black confetti.

Someone laughs nervously, and Steven stands up looking stunned, and Oona’s there beside him, her spine straight, herself again.

“King and Queen,” she says, and maybe only Trev and I can hear her voice wobbling. “There you have it, ladies and gentlemen.”

“Are you okay?” I ask her, even though she looks like she is. She looks fine.

“Nothing happened,” she says.

I watch a beetle crawl from the inside of her fist, very slowly, up her arm and into her dress. She reapplies her lipgloss. Her hands shake.

On the photo wall as we leave the prom, there’s a fully developed Polaroid of me and of Trev, with Oona between us looking like a smudge of light, and inside that the faintest outlines of a little girl looking straight at the camera, her eyes glowing.

Trevor and I each take her hands and we go out to Trevor’s car, borrowed from his grandfather. We ignore the sweetish smoky smell. Oona’s fingers lace into ours.

“What was that?” I ask her.

“That was nothing,” she says. Her eyes reflect headlights, and then she gets out of the car and takes off running down the highway, five miles from anywhere. We follow her. Her magenta dress, her corsage, her heels, one by one, her bra, her underwear, center of the road. She gets home. I call. Her mom answers. Oona’s sleeping.

I’ll sleep, eventually. All of high school is a process of forgiving Oona for moments like this, but we’re not even sure it’s Oona who’s the problem. Maybe me and Trev are the problem. Maybe we just love someone who’s crazy. That happens. Me and Trev sit in the car listening to Nine Inch Nails, a pile of Oona’s clothes in the passenger seat.

“I hope this gets better sometime,” says Trev.

“Which ‘this’ do you mean?” I ask him.

“All this.”

“Everything?”

“It’s never getting better, is it?”

“It might.”

We look at Oona’s clothes. They’re still there, even if Oona is gone. Later they tell us that somebody slipped LSD in the punch, but they never figure out who it was.

Two

We’re seven. Oona’s on the ground in the middle of the trailer park, surrounded by window blinds not usually opened. The trailers face inwards around a central core where there’s nothing planted. I sometimes find bits of old toys here, little things in the ground. There’s not much to recommend it beyond the fact that it’s an open space no one wants to deal with, and so it’s available. We play here like crazy. This is where I learned to do a backflip. This is where my neighbor taught me to square dance, and where I learned to identify birdcalls. It’s a piece of dirt but it’s my dirt.

I brought Trevor and Oona here, showing off my powers. Oona’s not allowed to do anything. Her parents live in a different part of town where there are driveways. My mom, when Oona says her last name, is impressed and also not. “I’ve heard about your dad,” she says.

Oona’s yellow dress is spread on the ground. She doesn’t care about it, and I’m desperate to be like her. She already trampled it at the swimming pool. It’s still wet. My own t-shirt is nothing nice. It came from Salvation Army, but the thought that dirt on it might become permanent is always a thing in my household, my mom crying over stains. Oona’s dress seems to ask for the dirt of the world. This dirt especially likes it. It’s all over her in a minute.

We’re playing a game. I learned it from my friend who has a trampoline at her house. Not a friend, really, but a birthday party I got invited to because everyone did. Someone’s mom had rules. In the original version, a person sits curled in a ball, eyes shut in the center of the trampoline, and the rest of the party bounces around her, chanting the words to the game.

Deadgirl, deadgirl come alive, come alive at the count of five. One, two, three, four, five.

The dead girl bounces up and keeps her eyes shut while she jumps around trying to grab someone. You try to keep the dead girl from getting you.

We eat cheese sandwiches, and I teach the game to Trevor and Oona. No trampoline here, but it can be done in dirt. I’m dead first. I curl up, and Oona and Trev run in circles around me, singing out the words to the game. I’m smelling the ground, hot and dry, and under that something chemical that burns my nose. I stand up blind, and start hunting for them. It only takes me a second to grab Trevor because he can’t stop giggling.

“Dead girl,” he says weakly because he’s laughing too hard to talk.

“You must be bad at hide and seek,” says Oona.

Then Trevor’s dead, and he can’t get either of us because we’re better at it than he is. Oona’s moving fast and I keep looking at her, and finally I’m looking at her so hard she turns around and says “what?” and then stumbles and cuts her knee on something.

I see something, a firefly, maybe, a bright flare, and then it’s gone, right into the wound, but it disappears. Maybe it wasn’t there. She dabs at her knee, which is bloody.

“Ow,” she says. “Sharp.”

I catch a glimpse of something that looks like an old knife and feel the dirt where she fell for whatever cut her, but there’s nothing.

Trevor grabs her. “Dead Girl,” he shouts, triumphant.

I see a glint just for a second, the firefly, maybe, but not from outside Oona. Her eyes are almost all black, and then they aren’t. I see them glow, a brightness, and then black again. I could yell for a grownup but they’re not home.

She licks her finger. She shuts her eyes and curls up. “I’m dead,” she says. “So now you get to be alive.”

She might need a Band-Aid. From where I’m standing, I’m seeing blood soaking into the dirt, but Oona waves her hand. Her eyes are still shut.

“Run around,” she insists.

We do. I keep looking at that blood. The dirt is wet. I feel like I see something crawling up out of it. I feel like I see the firefly under Oona’s skin, making its way somewhere. Oona seems pale, but she also seems like it doesn’t hurt. There’s a clacking sound, and I don’t know where it’s coming from. Like wings rattling against one another. I look up. Nothing.

We circle her, and Trevor starts chanting. “Dead girl, dead girl, come alive.”

I join him. “Come alive at the count of five.”

Now together: “One.” Oona’s face is turned toward the ground, and her shoulders are hunched inside her yellow dress.

“Two,” and the sky has thunderheads. Oona’s totally still. I want to start laughing, but I don’t.

“Three,” and a dog’s barking. The last light’s on Oona now from the sun coming down, and I hear a screen door slap itself against a doorframe like a mosquito killed on a thigh.

“Four,” and Trevor’s jigging high-kneed behind Oona and then around in front of her. She’s still as a statue, and for a second that’s what she is, a marble girl, hard-skinned and smooth and waxy as a plum. There’s a smell, an oven smell, and then a cold smell, a dark blue-green smell, and I feel my bladder give.

Trevor doesn’t notice. He’s swooping and bouncing and Oona doesn’t notice either, because she’s getting up.

“Five,” Trevor shouts, but Oona’s already off the ground. Not Oona. Someone else, unfolding like a newborn calf, awkward arms and knees all folded up. Red hair to her waist. Ragged yellow dress. Pale speckled skin and wide eyes. I look at the ground. Oona’s gone.

“Dead girl,” the lady says, and looks at me. Her lips are parched. She’s filthy. She raises her hand to her mouth and coughs, and I’m stuck in front of her as she gags on bugs. The whole world’s full of bugs suddenly, all kinds, and I don’t know where they’re coming from, but I can see them coming out of the sky and up from the dirt too, all in rows and then in a rush as quick and glittering as water. Beetles and moths and lightning.

“Where’s Oona?” I ask the lady, but she doesn’t answer me. In the sky around us, something’s ripping like nylon stockings, running down from the center of the dark. Brightness rolling casually from behind the black. Holes all around us. Lightning bugs disappearing into them, a blink, a blink.

I feel her hands on me, on my shoulders, and she’s looking down at me as her head rips off her shoulders and falls. I’m a basket. I’m a hoop. I put my hands up to cover my face, and I catch her crown of braids. One of my fingers sticks in her mouth and I feel her teeth in my skin. Another in the corner of her eye, and I feel it give, swishing wet, a ripeness.

“Oona!” I’m screaming, and I’m holding this dead thing, and I move my hands, trying to drop it, but I can feel her skull. I can feel her jawbone and the sockets of her eyes, and she’s dead.

I look at the ground and it’s covered in a carpet of dying lightning bugs.

The head in my hands says something, but she can’t even talk. Her tongue is thick and garbled, and my hand is in her mouth, and when she looks up at me, I see one of her eyes is missing. I can’t move. I can’t scream anymore. The sky is ripping open. I see ambulance lights and someone on a motorcycle. I see a fishhook gleaming. I see a pile of bodies. I’m seeing all these things and also I see my own skinned knees in front of me, and my mom is nowhere.

A dark hole in a pale face, a mouth around my hand, bugs crawling out the corners, dirt everywhere, and blood, and then it’s done. There’s a flash of light brighter than the bugs.

• • • •

Trevor’s standing behind me with a flashlight, and all the screen doors are opening, and Oona’s on the ground in front of me, a flickering image at first, fetal position, dress torn, and all around her this woman, a bigger version, who looks at me, her eyes screaming, glowing, and then she’s gone.

“Don’t,” she says, but she’s not saying it to me. The sky zips itself like the back of a dress.

Oona sits up. She looks at us and at my mom and at all the parents in the circle, who wonder why I screamed. I look down at my hand. I wipe it on my t-shirt.

“Do I come alive now?” she says and laughs. “You look weird.”

There’s a stripe of red on my buffalo t-shirt. There are teeth marks in my finger. When I go to bed, I find dead lightning bugs in my shoes. Everyone says we have a big imagination. Oona doesn’t say anything.

We didn’t really know her, and now we don’t really know her more. We’re invited to her birthday. She turns another age. We’re invited to all her birthdays. Her dad doesn’t notice us. We ride in fancy cars. We get bikes. We eat hamburgers. Oona never shows up in school pictures. Oona never shows up on videos. Sometimes I see the lady outside the school, waiting, but if I look at her, she’s gone.

Sometimes I pull the book from under my bed, the one full of dead girls, pictures of them in their fancy silk dresses, but I don’t look at it. I just pull out the library check-out card, and then I put it back in. My name isn’t even on it. Nobody knows I have it. Nobody knows anything.

I don’t think it was my fault.

I think it was my fault.

One

The window explodes behind Trevor, and I watch it happen. A swarm of insects filling the bar so there’s nothing to it but wings, and all of them on fire, glowing with captured sunlight.

The little girl steps over the sill. The bottoms of her feet are black. She’s been walking dead for thirty years, and beside her I see another Oona, and another still, this one old, all of them walking through that window.

Trevor turns. I look at his neck. There’s a piece of glass in his skin. I lift my hand, wondering at the piece of glass in my arm, and blood around it, pulsing out calmly to a beat. I see myself from the wrong angle, and then I see Trev from the wrong angle. I see dirt below me, me pitching into it, downward.

We’re surrounded. All the Oonas are in the bar with us, and there’s something about them, the way their hair is braided, the way they hang for a moment by their necks and then tilt forward under the blade, the way we’re everywhere at once, an execution on a hillside somewhere, Oona’s head shaved, a basket to catch it, and an execution in a prison somewhere, Oona’s head hooded, and an execution on a street somewhere, a little Oona and a car slamming its brakes on, a grave full of beetles, a little Oona in a Victorian dress, a little Oona made of light, her whole body glowing and then dark, glowing and then dark.

Trev and I are on the floor in a landscape of glass and both of us on our knees.

“Who’d we bring back?” I ask him, because we tangled time back then, thirty years ago, and the Oona that was with us that day is not the Oona we’ve ever seen again. I’ve known it and Trev’s known it too, and now we’re going to die knowing it. We’ve seen her sometimes, glimpses of the original, but she’s wired together with something else, an Oona full of centuries worth of dead girls, all held in one body, all moving at once. I’ve tried to puzzle it out: thirty years of antennae and wings, thirty years of insects crossing centuries, flying fast. No one would listen to me when I tried to talk about it. I stopped trying. I thought I might end up shouting, trying to tell strangers. No one ever believed that something came up out of the dirt. No one ever believed she was a nest full of spirits, and I tried not to believe it either.

I try to be ready to go. I try to be ready to skip back in time, to die over and over, to be whatever it is Oona needs me to be.

Trev’s looking over my shoulder at her.

“Who’s your executioner?” says Oona from behind me. “You catch your own head in a basket and spend the rest of time carrying it around with you. You get murdered in Mexico and dropped into the dirt and no one ever finds you. You get beheaded for being a witch in Massachusetts. You walk through a jungle with a basket on your head. You fill a basket with bugs. You die in a pit in Indonesia, shot for selling them to the highest bidder because the beetles all contained god and you blackmarketed them.” She pauses. “I did that one time. Maybe that’s how this started.”

She leans over me. “You shake hands with your lover before you leave her. How about you, Zellie? You used to love me. Do you still love me?”

She coughs. A lightning bug on her tongue.

This Oona’s not the little girl Oona, but the ancient Oona, her body full of bright, her eyes dark.

“Where is she?” I ask. Trev’s choking and a little bit of blood is coming out of the corner of his mouth.

“There’s no Oona left,” she says. “We filled her up.”

But there’s a flash in those eyes, a thirty-year-old circle of dirt. The ancient Oona looks at me, her head tilted, black wings running down her cheeks. The thirty-seven-year-old Oona looks at me too, and at Trev. She leans forward and picks him up. She blows into his mouth, and in her breath appears a black butterfly. Trev gulps.

“Oona?” Trev asks. “Are you in there? I’ll take the rest of them.”

“Let’s go home, Oona,” I say. “Dead girl, dead girl,” I say, and I struggle to my feet. “Come alive.”

There’s a blurry motion and for a bending moment, there are nine of us in the room, three children, three adults, three old people tilting to our graves.

I grab Trev’s hand, and Trev grabs mine, and another mine, and another Trev takes another me. We ring around the Oonas and the room fills with light, with glowing and dark, with blurring motion.

Trevor leans in. He’s a broken man in bad shape and he doesn’t give a fuck about fear. He kisses Oona, and the room bends. I lean in. I kiss another Oona, the old Oona before me, and the floor tilts. The little ones stand together in the center of us all, children, smaller than I remember being. We’re both kissing blurs.

“Dead girl, dead girl, come alive,” I say into the ancient Oona’s mouth.

“Five, four, three, two . . .” Trev says into the little Oona’s ear. We are both the dead in the picture, but we’ve been good as dead since we fell in love with someone who wasn’t living. We have nothing to lose.

“One,” we say together.

I see my executioner, and I see us all weeping for a loved one. I see a basket, and I see myself in it, my own head, my own hands. I see an Oona, naked and dead, and beneath her body a litter of shining insects carrying her over the forest floor, moving their treasure to a mound of dirt. I see an Oona swarmed by tiny gods, all with their wings humming, their mandibles clacking. I see a living, breathing Oona in our arms.

Someone flies into me, and someone flies into Trevor, filling us with the dead. Our bellies, our bodies. We carry the lost. We share the burden.

But on the floor, there’s a circle of dirt. And curled in it is Oona, asleep, like a volcano erupting, like a yellow iris blooming, her hands full of old knives, rusted with centuries of exposure to the elements.

She opens her eyes.

“When did we get so old?” she says, and outside it’s bright, and gold, and summer.

Maria Dahvana Headley

Maria Dahvana Headley

Maria Dahvana Headley is the author of the young adult skyship novel Magonia from HarperCollins, the novel Queen of Kings, the memoir The Year of Yes, and co-author with Kat Howard of the short horror novella The End of the Sentence. With Neil Gaiman, she is the New York Times-bestselling co-editor of the monster anthology Unnatural Creatures, benefitting 826DC. Her Nebula and Shirley Jackson award-nominated short fiction has recently appeared in Lightspeed (“Give Her Honey When You Hear Her Scream,” “The Traditional”), on Tor.com, The Toast,  Clarkesworld, Nightmare, Apex, The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, Subterranean Online, Uncanny Magazine, Glitter & Mayhem and Jurassic London’s The Lowest Heaven and The Book of the Dead, as well as in a number of Year’s Bests, most recently Year’s Best Weird. She lives in Brooklyn with a collection of beasts, an anvil, and a speakeasy bar through the cellar doors. Find her on Twitter @MARIADAHVANA or on the web at mariadahvanaheadley.com.