Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

Advertisement

Fiction

Raphael

By the time we were twelve, the four of us were already ghosts, invisible in the back of our homerooms, at the cafeteria, at the pep-rallies where the girls all wore spirit ribbons the boys were supposed to buy. There was Alex in his cousin’s handed-down clothes — his cousin in the sixth grade with us — Rodge, who insisted that d was actually in his name; Melanie, hiding behind the hair her mother wouldn’t let her cut; and me with my laminated list of allergies and the inhaler my mother had written my phone number on in black marker. Three boys who knew they didn’t matter and one girl each of us fell in love with every morning at first bell, watching her race across the wet grass to make the school doors.

“We’re the only ones who can see us,” Rodge said to me once, watching Melanie run.

I nodded, and Alex fell in. When Melanie burst through the doors we each pretended not to have been watching her.

It was true that we were the only ones who could see us. And there was a power in it. It let us live in a space where no one could see what we did. The rules didn’t apply to us. Maybe that freedom was supposed to balance out our invisibility somehow, even. The world trying to make up for what it had failed to give us. We used it like that, anyway: not as if it were a gift, but like it was something we deserved, something we were going to prove was ours by using it all up, by pushing it farther and farther, daring it to fail us as well.

Or maybe we pushed it just because we’d been let down so many times already, we had no choice but to distrust our invisibility, our friendship. Anything this good, after everything else, it had to be the opening lines of some complicated joke. We were just waiting for the punch line. By pushing what we had farther and farther each day, testing each other, we were maybe even trying to fast-forward to that punch line.

But it just felt so good to be part of something, finally, and then to act all casual, like it was nothing. Even if it was the rejects club, the ghost squad. Because maybe that was where it started, right? Maybe this was the rest of our lives starting to happen already. Then, next, weeks and weeks later — homecoming — maybe one of us would understand in some small but perfect way what it felt like at the pep rally, to give a girl a spirit ribbon then watch her pin it onto her shirt, smooth it down for too long because suddenly eye contact has become an awkward thing. Or, maybe one of us would be that girl. Or maybe we’d just get swept away for once in the band’s music. Maybe we’d believe in the team at last, know in our hearts that if they can just win Friday night, then the world is going to be good and right.

More than anything, I guess, we wanted to be seen, given a chance. We didn’t want to be on the outside anymore. That’s probably what it came down to.

And the first step towards getting seen is of course being loud, doing what the other kids won’t, or are too scared to.

The days, though, they just kept turning into each other.

Nobody was noticing us, what we were doing. Even when we talked about it loud in the cafeteria, in the hall.

It would have taken so little, too.

A lift of the chin, a narrowing of the eyes.

Somebody asking where we were going after school.

If we could have gotten just that one nod of interest, maybe Alex would still be alive. Maybe Rodge wouldn’t have killed himself as a fifteenth birthday present to himself. Maybe Melanie wouldn’t have had to run away.

Even if whoever saw us didn’t want to go with us, but just had a ribbon, maybe. For Melanie. Because she really was beautiful under all that hair. The other three, then, we would have faded back into the steel-gray lockers that lined the halls, and we wouldn’t have gone any farther in our lives, ever.

But we were invisible, invulnerable.

Nobody saw us walking away after final bell. We were going to the lake. It was where we always went.

• • • •

In a plastic cake pan with a sealable lid, buried in the mat of leaves that Rodge said was just above where the waves crashed in, was Alex’s book. It was one of a series off a television commercial; his mom had bought it then forgot about it. We didn’t hide it because we thought it was a Satan’s Bible or Anarchist’s Cookbook or anything, we hid it simply because we didn’t want it to get wet. If my mother ever missed her cake pan, she never said anything.

“Where were we?” Melanie said, not sitting down but lowering herself so the seat of her pants hovered over the damp leaves. She balanced by hugging her knees with her arms. She’d told us once that her father had made her take ballet and gymnastics both until the third grade, when he left, and the way she moved, I believed it. We were all invisible, but she was the only one with enough throw-away grace that you never heard her feet fall.

Sitting back on her heels like that, her hair fell over her arms to the ground.

The rest of us didn’t care about our clothes. Just the book.

What we were doing was trying to scare ourselves. With alien abductions, with unexplained disappearances. Ghost ships, werewolves, prophecies, spontaneous human combustion.

The person reading would read in monotone. That was one of the rules. And no eye contact either.

The first entry that day was about a man sitting in his own living room when the television suddenly goes static. He reaches for the mute button, can’t find it, but then the screen clears up all at once. Only it’s not his show anymore, but an aerial view of . . . he’s not sure what. And then he is: his house, his own house. Ambulances pulling up. He opens his mouth, stands, his beer foaming into the carpet, and then doesn’t go to work the next day, or the next, and finally starts getting his checks from disability.

“That’s it?” Alex said, when Rodge was through.

“What’s the question?” Melanie said.

Part of the format of the book was that the editors would ask questions in italic after each entry.

“Was he stealing his cable?” I offered, my voice spooky.

Alex laughed, not scared either.

“Was it a warning?” Rodge read, following his index finger. “Was TJ Bentworth given that day a prophecy of his own death, and the opportunity to avoid it? And, if so, who sent that warning?”

Melanie threaded a strand of hair behind her ear and shook her head, disgusted.

The test now — and we’d sworn honesty, to not at any cost lie about it — was whether or not, that night, alone, we’d think twice with our hands on the remote control. The test was going to be if we thought, even for a microsecond, that that next station was going to be us.

Melanie looked away, across the water.

“This is crap,” she said. “We need a new book.”

I agreed.

Alex took the book from Rodge, buried his nose in it, determined to prove to us that this book was scary.

I left him to it, was prepared to go to Rodge’s house, raid his pantry before his brother got home from practice, but then Alex looked up, said it: “We should tell our own stories, think?”

Rodge looked down, as if focusing into the ground.

“Like, make them up?” he said.

Alex shrugged whatever, and clapped the book shut.

He was three hours from the Buick that was coming to kill him.

• • • •

The story I told was one that I’d already tried hard enough to forget that I never would. It was one of my dad’s stories. I was in it.

The first thing I said was that this one was true.

Alex nodded, said to Rodge that this was how they all start.

“It should be dark,” Melanie said, swinging some of her hair around behind her. There were leaf fragments in the tip-ends. I looked past her, to the wall of trees. It was night, in a way. Not dark, but still, with the sun behind the clouds, the only light we had was gray. It was enough. I nodded to myself, started.

“I was like ten months old,” I said.

“You remember?” Alex interrupted.

Rodge told him to shut up.

“My dad,” I went on. “He was like, I don’t know. In the bedroom. I think I was on the floor in the living room or something.” I shrugged my shoulder up to rub my right ear, stalling. Not to be sure I had it right, but try to keep my voice from cracking. The first time I’d heard my father tell this, I’d cried and not been able to stop. I couldn’t even explain why, really. Just that, you look at enough pictures of yourself as a baby and you imagine that everything was normal. That it doesn’t matter, it was just part of what got you to where you are now.

But then my dad took that away.

The story I told the three of them that last afternoon we were all together was that I was just sleeping there on the floor, my dad in the garage, getting another beer from the old refrigerator, my mom asleep in their room. The television was the only light in the room. What was on was wrestling — the reason my mom had gone to bed early. Anyway, there’s my dad, coming back from the garage, one beer open, another between his forearm and chest, when he feels more than sees that something’s wrong in the living room. That there’s an extra shadow.

“What?” Melanie said, her eyes locked right on me.

I looked away, down.

“He said that — that —” and then I started crying anyway. Twelve years old with my friends and crying like a baby.

Melanie took my hand in hers.

“You have to finish now,” Alex said.

Rodge had his hand over his mouth, wasn’t saying anything.

When I could, I told them: my dad, standing there in the doorless doorway between the kitchen and the living room, looking down into our living room, past the couch, the coffee table, to me, on my stomach on the floor.

Squatted down beside me, blond like nobody in our family, was a boy, a fourth-grader maybe, his palm stroking my baby hair down to my scalp.

My father doesn’t drop his beer, doesn’t call for my mom. He can’t do anything.

“What — ?” he tries to say, and the boy just keeps stroking my hair down, looks across the living room to my father, and says, “I’m just patting him.” Then he stands, walks out the other doorway in the living room, the one that’s really a short hall that goes to the front door.

“ . . . only that door never opens,” Alex finished, grinning.

I pressed my palms into my eyes and stretched my chin up as high as I could, so the lump in my throat wouldn’t push through the skin.

“Good,” Melanie said, “nice,” and, when I could control my face again, I pointed to Rodge, his hair straw yellow, and lied, said that it had probably been him patting me, somehow.

Rodge opened his mouth once, twice, shaking his head no, please, but, when he couldn’t get out whatever he had, Alex clapped three times, slowly, and then opened his hand to Melanie, said, “Ladies first.”

“Guess I’ll have to wait then,” she said back, flaring her eyes, but then wrapped a coil of hair around her index finger like she was always doing, and walked her hand up the strands, each coil taking in one more finger until she didn’t have any more left.

It was one of the things Alex and Rodge and I never talked about, but we each loved it — how she was so unconscious of the small things she could do. How she took so much for granted, and, because of that, because she didn’t draw attention to the magic acrobatics of her fingers, to the strength of her hair, she got to keep it.

We didn’t so much love her like a girl, we didn’t desire her, though that was starting, for sure. It was more like we saw in her a completeness missing in ourselves. A completeness coupled with a kind of disregard that was almost flagrant. But maybe that’s what desire is, really. In the end, it didn’t matter; none of us would ever hold her hand at a pep rally, or tell her anything real. It wasn’t because of her story, either, but that’s more or less where it starts.

• • • •

“Four kids,” she said, looking to each of us in turn, “sixth graders, just like us,” and Alex groaned as if about to vomit, held his stomach in mock-pain.

Rodge smiled, and I did too, on the inside.

A safe story. That was exactly what we needed.

“The girl’s name was . . . Melody,” Melanie said, arching her eyebrows for us to call her on it. When we didn’t, she went on, and almost immediately the comfort level dropped. Alex flashed a look to me and I shrugged my cheeks as best I could, didn’t know. What Melanie was telling us was the part before the story, the part we didn’t want and would have never asked for, because we all already knew: the thing between her and her stepdad. What they did. Only, to amp it up for us, maybe, make it worse, Melody added to the nightly visitations Melody’s mother, standing in the doorway, watching. Mad at this Melody for stealing her husband.

Desperate to not be hearing this, I latched onto that doorway as hard as I could, remembered it from my own story, and nodded to myself: all Melanie was doing was reordering the stuff I’d already laid out there. Using it again, because it was already charged — we already knew that bad things followed parents standing in doorways.

Or maybe it was a door I had opened, somehow, by telling a real story in the first place.

After the one rape that was supposed to stand in for the rest, Melanie nodded, said, “And then there was . . . Hodge . . .” at which point Rodge started shaking his head no, no, please, that he didn’t want to be in this story.

“We only have an hour,” Alex said, tapping the face of his watch.

Melanie turned her face to him and raised her eyebrows, waiting for him to back off. Finally, he did. As punishment, his character didn’t even get a name. Mine was Raphael, what Melanie considered to be an opposite of Gabriel, I guess. But Gabe, I was just Gabe back then.

I couldn’t interrupt her, though. Even when her story had the four of us walking away from school, to play our little “scare” game.

But this one was different.

In the Lakeview of Melanie’s story, Lakeridge, there wasn’t a book buried in a thirteen-by-nine tupperware dish, but an overgrown cemetery. It was just past the football field.

Over the past week, she told us, her face straight, the dares had been of the order of lying face-up on a grave for ninety seconds, or tracing each carved letter of the oldest headstone, or putting your hand in the water of the birdbath and saying your own name backwards sixty-six times.

“They were running out of stuff, though,” she added.

“I get it,” Alex said, holding his mother’s book closer to his chest.

Melanie pulled a black line of hair across her mouth and spoke through it: “But then Raphael had an idea,” she said, looking to me.

“What?” I said, looking behind me for no real reason.

Melanie smiled, let the silence build — she had to have done this before, I thought, before she moved here — and told us that Raphael’s great idea was to take some of the pecans from the tree over in the corner, the tree that (her voice spooking up) “had its roots down with the dead people, in their eye sockets and rib cages.”

“Take the pecans and what?” Rodge said, worried.

“Look at you,” Alex said to him.

“And what?” I asked, at a whisper.

“Take them to one of your basements,” she said, stepping neatly from our fake names right up to us, pulling the story in all around. “Then put them in a bowl with water for six days, then turn the lights off and each eat one.”

The lump was back in my throat. I thought it might be a pecan.

“That it?” Alex said, overdoing his shrug.

“Six days . . .” Melanie said, ignoring him, drawing air in through her teeth, “and the four of them collect back in the basement, turn all the lights off except one candle, and then, that candle too.”

“At midnight,” Alex added.

“At midnight,” Melanie agreed, as if she’d been going to say that anyway, and then drew out for us the cracking of the shells in the darkness, how they were soggy enough to feel like the skin of dead people. Then she placed the pecan meat first on the Alex stand-in’s tongue — he throws up — then on the Hodge-character, who swallows it, gets stomach cancer two days later, then it’s Raphael’s turn. All he can do though is chew and chew, the meat getting bigger in his mouth until he realizes that, in the darkness, he’s peeled his own finger, eaten that meat.

I laugh, like it.

And then it’s Melody’s turn to eat.

With her thin, beautiful fingers, Melanie acts it out for us in a way so we can all see Melody through the darkness of the basement, not so much cracking her pecan as peeling it, then setting the tender meat on the back of her tongue, only to gag when it moves.

In the darkness she’s created, we all hear the splat, then, unmistakably, something rising, trying to breathe. Not able to.

The lights come on immediately, and running down Melody’s chin is blood, only some of it’s transparent, like yolk, like the pecan was an egg, and —

“C’mon,” Alex said. “You don’t try to outgore the gore of Gabe here eating his own finger, Mel.”

“I’d expect that from you,” Melanie said, smiling through her hair, “it was you who was born from that dead pecan,” at which point Alex hooked his head to one side, as if not believing she would say that, then he was pushing up out of the leaves, tackling her back into them, and we were smiling again, and I finally breathed.

• • • •

When Rodge wouldn’t take his turn, saying he didn’t know anything scary, Alex went. Instead of telling a ghost story, he opened his mother’s book again.

“Cheater, “ I said. “They’re supposed to be real.”

“Wait,” he said back, “I was just looking at this one the other —” and then he was gone, hunched all the way over into the book.

I lifted my face to Melanie, said, “Where’d you hear that piece of crap?”

She pursed her lips into a smile, said, flaring her eyes around it, “You listened.”

“I heard it with a walnut, not a pecan,” Alex chimed in, turning pages, only half with us.

“A walnut?” Melanie said, crinkling her nose, “nobody plants a walnut tree in a graveyard.”

Looking back, now, I can hear it — how she’d used cemetery in the story, graveyard to Alex — but right then it didn’t matter. What I was really doing anyway was saying it had scared me.

“You heard it at Dunbar?” I said.

Dunbar was her old school.

She opened her mouth to answer but then stopped, seemed to be fascinated by something out on the lake.

I followed where she was looking.

“What?”

“I don’t know where I heard it,” she said, still not looking at me, but out over the lake. “Somewhere, I guess.”

“No, what are you looking at?” I said, pointing with my chin out across the water, and she came back to me.

“Nothing.”

We were twelve years old, going to live forever.

When Alex finally got the book open to the right place, it was about witch trials all through history. Salem, the Spanish Inquisition, tribesman in Africa. A whole subsection of a chapter, with pictures of the devices used to torture confessions, pointy Halloween hats, all of it.

“I’m shaking,” I said to him, trying to chatter my teeth.

“Can it,” he said, following his finger to the next page.

It was one of the blue boxes framed with scrollwork. The stuff that was supposed to be footnotes, but was too important.

“How to test for a witch,” he read triumphantly.

“This is scary?” I asked.

Already, one of the blue boxes from two weeks ago had given us a list on how to become werewolves: roll in the sand by water under a full moon; drink from the same water wolves have been drinking from; get bitten by a werewolf without dying. Our assignments that night had been to try to become werewolves. Or get grounded trying, yeah.

“Weigh her against a bible?” Melanie read, incredulous.

“Her,” Alex said, quieter, an intensity in his voice I knew, and knew better than to argue with.

By this time, Rodge was rocking back and forth, looking up to the road each time a car passed. When the noise got steady enough, that would mean it was five o’clock, and this would be over. On a day the sun was shining, the sound of cars would slowly be replaced by the sound of boat motors out on the lake, but that day, if there even was a boat, then Melanie had been the only one to see it. If she’d seen anything.

“Her,” Melanie repeated, not letting it pass.

Alex smiled one side of his face, looked up to her. “How do we know?” he said.

“I’m a witch,” Melanie said. “Yeah.”

Alex shrugged.

Melanie shook her head without letting her eyes leave him. “What do you want to do, then?”

Alex looked down to the blue box and read aloud: “Devil’s mark . . . kiss of — do you, if I cut you, or stick you with a needle, will you, y’know, bleed like a real person?”

Melanie just stared at him.

“C’mon,” I said, standing, pulling her up behind me. She didn’t let go of my hand after she had her feet under her, either. Alex saw, looked from me to her, and, even though I was just twelve, still I understood in my dim way what he was doing here: he wanted to be the one holding her hand. And, if not him, then, at least for this afternoon, nobody.

“Do you?” he said, again. “If I stick you with a pin, will you bleed?”

“Do you have a pin?” she said back.

Alex scanned the ground as if looking for one, or trying to remember a jack knife or hypodermic one of us had in a pocket.

He shook his head no.

Melanie blew air out and then held the sleeve of her right arm up, cocked her elbow out to him. It was the wide scab she’d got three days ago, when, to scare ourselves after reading about the jogger who disappeared mid-stride, we’d each had to run one hundred yards down the road, blindfolded.

Alex curled his lip up.

“What?” he said.

“You asked,” she said. “It’s blood. Want me to peel it?”

“But that’s not — scary,” he said.

Melanie lowered her elbow, let her sleeve fall back down.

Ten seconds later Alex raised his face from the book. He was smiling.

“How about this?” he said, and I stepped around, read behind his finger.

“We can’t,” I said. “It’s too cold.”

Alex let his voice get spooky. “Maybe we have to, for her own sake.”

“What?” Melanie said, her arms crossed now.

“Tie your hands and feet,” Rodge said from below, where he was still sitting. “Tie your hands and feet and throw you in the water.”

“Bingo,” Alex said, shooting him with his fingergun then blowing the smoke off, the thing the football players had all been doing during class lately, because it made no real noise.

“Excuse me?” Melanie said, to Rodge.

“He’s been reading it after we leave,” I said. “Right, Rodge?”

Rodge nodded. I’d caught him doing it early on. It wasn’t because he wanted to know, to be more scared, but because, if he’d already read it once, then hearing it again wouldn’t scare him so much. He’d made me promise not to tell. In return, I’d walked to what had been my spot in the leaves that day, dug my inhaler out, held it up to him like Scout’s Honor.

“Well?” Alex said.

“It’s cold,” Melanie said.

“More like you just know you’ll float,” Alex said back, daring her with his eyebrows.

Melanie shook her head, blew a clump of hair from her mouth.

“Just tie my feet then,” she said, and already, even then, I had a vision of her like she would have been in 1640 or whenever: bound at the wrists and ankles, sinking into the gray water. Not a witch but dying anyway.

• • • •

Because we didn’t have any rope like the blue box said we should, Alex sacrificed one of his shoe-laces. Melanie tied it around her ankles herself.

“It’s only a couple of feet deep out there,” Rodge said.

He was standing now, facing the water. A defeat in his voice I would come to know over the next three years.

“Then I won’t sink far, I guess,” Melanie said, to Alex.

“Then we can tie your hands too,” he said back.

Melanie took the challenge, offered Alex her wrists.

“Not too tight,” I told him.

He told me not to worry.

“This gets me out of homework for two weeks,” she said, having to sling her head hard now to get the hair out of her face, then lean back the other way to keep from falling over.

“Three,” I said back.

“A month,” Rodge said.

Alex didn’t say anything. Just, to Melanie, “You ready?”

She was. Alex should have asked me, though, or Rodge.

All the same, he couldn’t lift her all by himself.

“C’mon,” he said, stepping in up to the tops of his lace-less shoes. The water sucked one of them off, kept it.

“Cold?” Melanie said.

“Bathwater,” he said back, grimacing, then, because her feet were tied together, gave her his hand.

“Thanks,” she said.

“It’s in the book,” he said, smiling.

He was on one side of her, me on the other, both of us trying to pull her along, not dunk her yet. Rodge was still on the bank.

“Not too deep,” I said, but Melanie jumped ahead of us, splashing me more than I wanted. “It has to be a little deep,” she said. “I don’t want to hit bottom either, right?”

Right. I just thought it, didn’t say it, because I knew she’d hear it in my voice: that this didn’t feel like a game anymore. It wasn’t like rolling in the sand under a full moon or running blindfolded down a part of the road that had one of us standing at each end, to watch for cars.

Something could really happen, here.

It was too late to stop it, though. That’s what I tell myself.

We followed her out until the water was at our thighs, and then Alex nodded, and she turned sideways between us, so one of us could take her feet, the other her shoulders. She leaned back into me and I held her as much as I could, but she was already wet, her hair in the water so heavy.

“If she’s —” I started, taking her weight, trying not to hurt her, and when Alex looked up to me I started over: “She walked out here, I mean. Like us. And she didn’t float. Isn’t that enough?”

Alex refocused his eyes on the water and silt we’d just disturbed.

“Doesn’t matter,” he said, “it wasn’t a test, then. It was her doing it herself, not getting thrown. ‘Cast,’ I mean. Getting cast into the water, to see.”

“But you know she’s not —”

“On three . . .” he interrupted, starting the motion, setting his teeth with the effort, and I shook my head no but had to follow too, like swinging a jump rope. One as thick and heavy as a young girl’s body.

If I could go back, now, I would count to three in my head and never look away from Melanie, I think. But I didn’t know. Instead of watching her the whole time, I kept looking up for boats, for somebody to catch us, stop this. Meaning all I have left of swinging her is a mental snapshot of her face, all of it for once, her hair pulled back, wet, inky, her skin so pale in contrast it was almost translucent. And then we let her go, arced her up maybe two feet if we were lucky, and four feet out. Not even high enough or far enough for her hair to pull all the way out of the water.

It was enough.

Without thinking not to, I raised my right arm, to shield my face from the splash, but then — then.

Then the world we had known, it was over. Forever.

Instead of splashing into the water, Melanie rested for an instant on the surface in the fetal, cannonball position, eyes shut, all her weight on the small of her back, her hair the only thing under, and then she felt it too — that she wasn’t sinking — and opened her eyes too wide, arched her back away from it, her mouth in the shape of a scream, and flipped over as fast as a cat. Once, twice, three times, until she was out over the real water, where the gradual bank dropped off into the cold deep. She was still just on the surface, writhing, screaming, whatever part of her that had been twelve years old dying. Finally, still twisting away, she lowered her mouth to the laces at her wrists, then her hands to the laces at her ankles, and then she tried to stand but fell forward, catching herself on her hands, her hair a black shroud around her.

She looked across the water at us, her eyes the only thing human on her anymore, pleading with me it seemed, and then she whipped around, started running over the surface on all fours, across the mile and a half of lake, leaving us standing knee-deep in the rest of our lives.

• • • •

Thirty-two years later, now, the two hours after Melanie ran away are still lost. There’s an image of Alex, falling back into the water on one arm, of Rodge, just standing there, limp, and then it’s trees, maybe, and roads. The red-brick buildings of town; an adult guiding my inhaler down to my mouth. Alex running up the side of the highway to meet his Buick.

At his funeral Rodge held my hand, and I let him, but then I couldn’t hold on tight enough, I guess. Three years later, on his birthday, he bungee-corded car batteries to his work boots, stepped off a stolen boat into the middle of the lake.

Leaving just me.

Geographically, I moved as far away from Lakeview as possible. There are no significant bodies of water for fifty miles, and my children, Reneé and Miller, they each got through their twelfth years unscathed. Probably because I stood guard in their doorways while they slept. Because I only allowed history and political books into the house. Because, like the world was paying its debt, they were each popular in their classes, unaware of the kids standing at the back walls, their faces a combination of damaged hope and hopeful fatalism, ready to break into a smile if somebody looked their way, at them instead of through them, but knowing too that that was never going to happen. I didn’t tell them that that kid was me.

The day Reneé came home with a spirit ribbon on her sweater — Skin the Bobcats — I almost cried. When she forgot about it, the ribbon, I took it from the dash of her car. It’s in my sock-drawer, now. One Saturday morning I woke to find my wife, Sharon, studying it, but then she just put it back, patting it in place it seemed, as if putting it to bed, and I pretended not to have been awake. It’s a good life. One I don’t deserve, one I’m stealing, but still, it’s mine.

Last Sunday I dropped Miller off at basketball camp two towns over, then, on the way home, bought Reneé some of the custom film she said she needed for the intro to photography course she’s taking at the local community college.

Three nights after that, a Wednesday, I took her to the carnival. Because she’s seventeen, and I won’t get many more chances. I even broke out the Bobcats ribbon; she remembered it, held it to her mouth like the past was something you could breathe in, something you could go back to for a breath or two, if you closed your eyes. At the carnival she took picture after picture, washing the place in silver light — clowns, camels, the carousel — and at the end of the night put her hand over mine on the shifter of my car, told me thanks. That she wouldn’t forget.

Like I said, I don’t deserve any of this.

When I was twelve years old, I helped kill a girl. Or, according to the doctors, helped her kill herself, punish herself for what her step-father had been doing to her. I never told them about the dead pecans, though, or about how her hands had been tied. Just that we’d been daring each other farther and farther out into the water, until her hair snagged a Christmas tree or something. At first I’d tried the truth, but it wouldn’t fit into words. And then I realized that it didn’t have to, that, with Rodge clammed up, catatonic, I could say whatever I wanted. That I’d tried to save her, even. That something like I thought I’d seen couldn’t actually happen, was impossible, was what any twelve-year-old kid would insist he’d seen, rather than a drowning. Especially a twelve-year-old kid already in a “scare” club, a book buried in a cake pan under the leaves that nobody ever found, that’s probably still there.

I told it enough like that that sometimes I almost believed it.

But then I’d see her again, running on the surface of the water on all fours, and I would have to sit up in bed and force the sheets into my mouth until I gagged.

When I finally told my wife about her — the girl I’d had a crush on who I’d seen drown when I was in the sixth grade — I’d even called her Melody, I think, like the story, and then not corrected myself. The main thing I remembered was her hair. The sheets I stuffed into my mouth were supposed to be it, I think, her hair. An apology of sorts. Love. The way your lip trembles when your best friend from elementary tells you he’s moving away forever. Or when your mother tells you they found him out on the highway, crammed up into the wheel well of a Buick.

The story I told myself for years was that her body was still down there, really tangled up in a Christmas tree or a trotline. That Rodge was down there now for all of us, trying to free her, but his hands are so waterlogged that the skin of his fingers keeps peeling off. Above him, a mass of fish backlit by the wavering sun, feeding on the scraps of his flesh.

“Keep her there,” I’d tell him, out loud, at odd moments.

“Excuse me?” Sharon says when I do that, from her side of the bed, or table, or car.

Nothing.

The other story I told myself was that I could make up for it all. That I could be the exact opposite of whatever Melanie’s father had been — could be kind enough to Reneé that it would cancel out all the bad that had happened to Melanie, and that Melanie would somehow see this, forgive me.

So I go behind Sharon’s back, buy Reneé film she’s supposed to buy herself, with her own money. I take her to the carnival and hold her hand. I sneak into her room the morning after and — a gift — palm the film canister off her dresser, so I can pay for the developing as well, then can’t wait twenty-four hours for it so go back and pay for one hour, leave the prints on her dresser without looking at them but then have to, when she leaves for a date. Like Rodge, I’m reading the book in secret, preparing myself, cataloging points to appreciate when she finally shows them to me, proud: the angle she got the man on stilts from; the flag on top of the main tent, caught mid-flap; the carousel, its lights smearing unevenly across the frame. The . . . the tinted or heat-sensitive lens or whatever she had on her camera, to distort the carnival. And the shutter-speed — it’s like she has it jammed up against how fast the film is, so that they have to work against each other. Like she’s trying to mess up the shots, or — this has to be it — as if it might be possible to twist the image enough that it becomes just another suburban neighborhood. Maybe it’s part of the project, part of her assignment. They’re good, all of them, every photograph. She’s my daughter.

• • • •

Saturday, deep in the afternoon, Sharon gone to get Miller from camp, I walk into the living room and Reneé’s there. She has all the prints out on the glass coffee table, the lamp shadeless now, lying on its side under the glass, making the table into the kind of tray I associate with negatives, or slides. I see why she’s done it, too: it filters out some of the purple tint in the prints, and makes everything sharper.

She’s in sweats and a t-shirt, her hair pulled back to keep the oils off her face. No shoes, her feet curled under her on the couch.

“Date?” I say.

She nods without looking up.

I’m standing on the other side of the coffee table from her. “These them?” I ask.

Again she nods.

“They’re — wrong,” she says, shrugging about them, narrowing her eyes.

I lower myself to one knee, focus through my reading glasses, pretend to be seeing them for the first time.

“What do you mean?” I say.

“Daddy . . .” she says, as if I’m the thicko here.

“They’re . . . purple?” I say.

“Not that,” she says, and points to one of the carousel shots that, with her lens/shutter speed trick, has come out looking time-lapsed. I lift it delicately by the edge, hold it up to the light, my back old-man stiff.

“See?” she says.

I don’t answer, don’t remember this one from when I flipped through them the first time. It’s one of the carousel shots, when she was figuring out how to move her camera with the horses. The effect is to keep them in focus, more or less. Not the children — their movements are too unpredictable to compensate for — but the horses, anyway. And some of the parents standing by the horses, holding their children in place.

I shrug.

“Look,” she says.

I try, and then see it from the corner of my eye, as I’m giving up: what’s been waiting for me for thirty-two years. I relax for what feels like the first time. I don’t drop the picture.

“Right?” Melanie says.

I make myself look again. Tell myself it’s just a trick of the light. The special film. It was a carnival, for Chrissake. I even manage a laugh.

What Reneé captured and the drugstore developed — maybe that’s where the mistake was: an errant chemical, swirling in the pan — is two almost-paisley tendrils of iridescent purple breath curling up from one of the wooden horse’s nostrils, the horse’s eyes flared wide, as if in pain.

Somebody with a cigarette, maybe, a mom or dad standing behind the carousel, smoking. Or cotton candy under neon light. But then I follow the high, royal arch of the horse’s neck, to the crisp outline of a perfect little child sitting on its wooden back, holding the grimy brass pole with both hands.

Standing beside him, out of focus, is his mother, her hand to the horse’s neck. She’s patting it.

All I can see of her is her hair. It’s out of control, is spilling down her shoulders, down along her arms.

This time I do drop the picture.

• • • •

After Reneé’s gone on her date, her mouth moving, telling me her plans but no sound making it to me, I take the flashlight into the backyard.

Buried under what Sharon insists will be a compost pile someday is a cake pan I bought at the discount store. In it is a book. Not the same series, not the same publisher, but the same genre: an encyclopedia of the unexplained.

The carousel horse isn’t going to be in there, I know. Because it was an accident.

But Melanie.

That’s the only page I read.

Her entry is in the chapter of unexplained disappearances. The woman jogger who disappeared is on the opposite page from her, like an old friend. The title the jogger gets, because of a later sighting, is “Green Lady Gone.”

The title of Melanie’s entry is “Roger’s Story.” They forgot the d; for the thousandth time, I smile about it, then close my eyes, lower my forehead to the book the way Alex used to, in class. It was a joke: by then we both knew enough about Edgar Cayce that we wanted to be able to just lay our heads on a book, absorb it.

Like every time, though, it doesn’t work. And it doesn’t need to. This book is already in my head. All closing my eyes to it does is bring Melanie back. Not as she was on the water, but as she was running across the wet grass for the morning bell, fighting to keep her hair out of her face.

Did she even leave tracks in the dew?

If she hadn’t, and if we’d noticed, it would have just been because of her ballet training, her gymnastics. It would be because she was made of something better, something that didn’t interact with common stuff like grass and water.

But that wooden horse, breathing.

The mother I always knew she would be, this is the kind of gift she would give her child, I know. If she could. If it wasn’t just a trick of the light.

Rodger’s story is what he left as a birthday card to himself. Not word-for-word — his suicide note’s been edited into the voice of the rest of the entries — but still, I can hear him through it. It starts just like Melanie’s, with four social outcasts, creating their own little society. One in which they matter. How none of the four of us knew what we were doing, really. How we’re so, so sorry. We never meant for . . . for her —

Rodger places us by the lake. The reason I’ve never been able to stop reading his version is the same reason I was never able to forget my father’s story about me as a baby, sleeping on the floor: because I’m in it, just from a different angle.

In the light-blue box framed with scrollwork, the way Rodge tells it is he was just watching us, not as if he knew what was going to happen, but as if, in retelling it, reliving it, he had become unable to pretend that the him watching hadn’t been through it a hundred times already. The way he watches us, he knows about the Buick coming for Alex. He knows about Melanie, writhing on the surface of the lake. He knows how a car battery changes the way a boat sits in the water.

Maybe the gases that escape from the cells of the battery on the way down are iridescent, are the last thing you see before the strings of moss become hair, smother you.

According to Rodger, Melanie asked us to tie her hands and feet, throw her in the lake. I shake my head: he’s protecting Alex. Protecting me. And then our stories synch up, more or less, the viewpoint just off a bit: instead of an image of Melanie’s face just as I let her go, I see her rising, slipping out of mine and Alex’s hands the way a magician might let ten doves go at once.

And then she hisses, throws her hair from her face, and crawls across the lake, her hip joints no longer human.

Her body was never recovered. That’s the entry’s last line.

The question after that is What was Melanie Parker?

I close the book, set it on the island in the middle of the kitchen, then look down the hall when the noise starts, but I don’t go to it.

It’s the bathtub. It’s filling.

I raise my chin, stretching my throat tight, and rub my larynx, trying to keep whatever’s in me down, then I’m clawing through Sharon’s cabinets in the kitchen, spice jars and sifters raining down onto the counter.

Finally I find what I knew she had somewhere: the three tins of nuts, left over from Christmas.

The first is walnuts but the second two are pecans, still in their paper shells.

I raise the blackest one up against the light, to see if I can see through it. When I can’t, I feel my chest tightening the way it used to — the asthma I’ve outgrown — and I know what I have to do. My head wobbles on my neck, though. Not in denial. More like a plea.

But it’s the only way.

I place the pecan on my tongue, shell and all, afraid of what might be inside, then work it over between the molars of my right side, close my eyes and jaw at once. I make myself swallow it all then fall coughing to the floor, have to dig out one of Miller’s old inhalers, from when he had asthma too.

The mist slams into my chest again and again, my eyes hot, burning.

At the end of Rodger’s birthday card to himself — I remember, I saw it, I found it — were the words She’s still down there.

I envy him that.

• • • •

When I was twelve, I helped kill a girl I thought I loved, helped give birth to something else, something she didn’t even know about. Something that saw me before crawling away. What makes it real is the way, that last time she looked up, she spit out the piece of Alex’s shoe lace she had in her mouth. She had to shake it away from her lip.

Her tongue was any color. Maybe the same color it had always been.

Because I don’t know what else to do, I sit with my back against the wall, behind my chair, every light in the living room on, random muscles in my shoulder and right leg twitching, as if cycling through the sensory details of letting Melanie go that day, above the water. My lap warms with urine and I just sway back and forth on the balls of my feet, hugging my knees to my chest, Miller’s inhaler curled under my index finger like a gun

An hour later, eleven, midnight, one, I try to tell the story to the end, name the out-of-focus kid on the carousel Hodge. I give him a good life. And then the front door swings in all at once and I know I’m dying, that this is what death is, and have to bite the knuckle of my middle finger to keep from screaming.

From behind the chair, all I can see is the top of the door. It closes and my vision blurs, a grin spreading from my eyes to my mouth — that this will finally be over, after so long — but then a sound intrudes: keys, jangling into a brass bowl. The one on the stand by the coat rack.

Reneé.

She swishes past me in slow motion, for the mess the kitchen is.

I stand in the doorway behind her, my slacks dark enough that she won’t see the stain maybe.

Instead of putting stuff back into the cabinets, she’s looking through the book I left out. Opening it to the place I have marked — marked with a spirit ribbon.

Slowly, she cocks her head to the side, studying the ribbon, then holds it to her mouth again, breathes it in.

I cough into my hollow fist to announce myself, there behind her already.

She sucks air in, pulls the book hard to her chest. She turns to me, leading with her eyes, and looks at me for too long it feels like, then past me, to the living room, so bright.

“You okay?” she asks.

I make myself smile.

“How’d it go?” I ask — the date.

“You know,” she says, opening the book again. “Sandy and his music.”

I nod, remember: Sandy’s the one with the custom stereo.

“What is this?” she says, about the book.

“Just — nothing,” I tell her. “It’s old.”

“Hm,” she says, leafing through, wowing her eyes up at the more sensational stuff. Aliens, maybe. God.

“She did it to herself,” I say, all at once.

Reneé holds her place in the book, looks up to me.

“She was . . . she was sad,” I say. “She was a sad little girl. Her dad, he was — you’ve got to understand.”

Reneé shrugs, humoring me, I think. I rub my mouth, look away, to all Sharon’s cooking utensils, spilling onto the floor. When I don’t look away fast enough, Reneé has to say something about it: “A surprise?”

“Surprise?” I say back, trying to make sense of the word.

“Reorganizing for Mom?” she tries, holding her eyebrows up, giving me room to come up with an explanation for this mess.

I make myself grin, feel something rising in my throat again, have to raise my shoulders to keep it down. I close my eyes.

When I open them again, Reneé’s sitting on the island, the book shut beside her.

“I could have stayed home tonight,” she says, an offering of sorts, but I wave the idea away.

“You need — need to go out,” I tell her. “It’s good. What you should be doing.

The heels of her hands are gripping the edge of the countertop. I can’t not notice this.

“Okay,” she says, finally, “I guess —” but then, sliding the book back so she won’t take it with her when she jumps down, her hand catches on the stiff, upper part of the spirit ribbon, pulls it from the book. “Oops,” she says, doing her mouth in the shape of mock-disaster, “lost your place.”

I shake my head no, it’s all right, I know where my place is, but then she has the ribbon again, is studying it. Remembering too.

We were ghosts, I want to tell her. And then the rest, finally.

Instead, I watch as she pulls the stick pin from the head of the ribbon.

“Stacy showed me this,” she says, holding her right arm out, belly-up, in a way that I have to see Melanie’s again, waiting for Alex to tie his shoe-lace around it.

“No,” I say, taking her hand in mine, but she steps back, says, “It’s all right, Daddy.”

What she’s doing is placing the pin in the crook of her elbow, the part of her arm that folds in.

I shake my head no again, reach for her again, but it’s too late, she’s already making her hand into a fist, drawing it slowly up to her shoulder.

I feel my eyes get hot, my mouth open.

When she unfolds her arm, the pin slides out of her skin like magic. No blood.

“That’s —” I say, having to try hard to make the words, “in a blue box, that’s the — it’s Devil’s Mark.”

She looks up to me, not following.

I touch her arm, say, “You didn’t bleed,” and then I’m crying, trying to swallow it all back, but it’s too late: the pecan is coming up.

I step back from her and throw up between us, and it’s not just a pecan, but bits of shell and meat and blood. Not red blood, like the movies, but darker. Real.

Reneé steps back, raising one of her shoes, to keep it clean maybe, and I look up to her, wipe the blood from my lips with the back of my forearm.

“Daddy?” she says, and I nod, sad that it’s come to this, but there’s nothing I can do anymore. With trembling hands I pin the ribbon to the chest of her shirt, through her skin maybe, I don’t know. It makes her pull back, look up to me, her eyebrows drawing together in question.

“Skin the Bobcats,” I whisper to her, unable not to smile, then, when I pick her up in my arms like a little girl, I say it at last — that I’m not a good person, that I’ve done bad things. She doesn’t fight, doesn’t know to. She doesn’t know that we’re going down the hall to the bathtub, which is already full.

Afterwards, my shirt wet like my pants, I stand again in the kitchen, hardly recognize it. I have to go outside, onto the balcony, my face flushing warm now like my eyes, my teeth chattering against each other.

Standing at the wood railing, then, I feel it: the tip ends of hair, silky long hair, lifted on the wind, trailing down from the roof.

She’s up there I know, one knee to the shingles, her long fingers curled around the eave.

“Reneé?” I say weakly, unable to look around, up, and it’s not so much a question as a prayer. That this isn’t real. That it’s Reneé on the roof, maybe. Trying to scare me.

But then Melanie speaks back in the breathy, adult voice I knew she was going to have someday: No, Raphael.

I nod, see my shadow stretching out over the gravel drive, how it’s split, doubling from two sources of light, and I know that this is all right, finally, this is as it should be, as it’s always been ever since that day, and then Sharon pulls in under me, my son in the passenger seat, and I’m invisible again, a ghost. Able to do anything.

Stephen Graham Jones

Stephen Graham Jones

Stephen Graham Jones is the author of twenty-two or twenty-three books so far, and some two hundred fifty short stories. Stephen lives in Boulder, Colorado.