Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Secret Keeper

1

You know how this story goes: the girl was kissed in the womb by the devil. When she emerged into the too-bright world, she was missing half her face where his teeth tore it off. The doctors did their best; they grafted skin over the left side, added collagen in her cheeks. “Smile,” they said, tickling her feet. But she could not smile, and so no one smiled at her.

A girl is supposed to be beautiful. A girl is supposed to have rosy red cheeks and a laugh that makes men wilt to think of her bright future. A beautiful girl will have a beautiful life. An ugly girl slips unseen through secret doors.

The girl was always good at finding secrets. She was better at keeping them.

2

An ugly girl does what she can to get by. She is thrown into the world of zits and water bras and miniskirts, but none of that matters when she wears a face like flattened roadkill. When she is caught staring at the other faces in the locker rooms—eager to linger long on that which she doesn’t have—her interest is misnamed in a world obsessed with naming things. But this girl already has many names: Erica, at first, then ghost, a name given her for the ghastly pallor of her grafted skin.

A ghost girl cries for her first year of middle school, listening to an old Patti Smith song— “Pissing in a River”—and hoping someone might wrap their arms around her and carry her to a home where she is wanted, where there are hundreds of ghost girls like her. When she realizes that no one is coming, she stares into the mirror so long her face distorts into a thing of beauty. She is changed. She tears her eyes away. She must change.

She seeks out secrets like shadows seek their objects, until she finds the shadows’ secrets, until she knows how to be shadow when she needs to be.

3

The world of first cars and first fucks and first drinks is different than the awkward world of first kisses. All anyone wants is to be seen. But to be seen is to give away your power. To be hidden is to be known. Her first day of school, the ghost girl disappears, a shadow fleeing from the light. Everyone talks about her for a week, until she becomes a secret. Until she becomes so infamous, she is given credit for secrets she doesn’t spill, for wrongs she doesn’t commit. The football player’s jockey cup is filled with ketchup, and her name is signed to the note: Ghost Girl. The capital letters their own new rank. The English teacher’s book is shredded in her chair. Ghost Girl. Every tire in the parking lot is slashed. Ghost Girl.

Though that one was her. It hurts to laugh, so she moans as she watches her classmates fail to flee the school in the rain.

They say she creeps through the ceiling. They say she gets a report card, the same as anyone, and that the teachers are too scared to give her anything but A’s. They say she and the gym coach are having an affair; they meet beneath the bleachers every morning. Sometimes, late at night, they hear a voice belting a song only one girl recognizes from her parents’ record collection: “Pissing in a River.”

But the ghost girl is all alone, for one, two, three years of school. The ghost girl won’t earn a high school degree. The ghost girl doesn’t creep through the rafters. She prefers the home she has built beneath the theater stage, in the drained pool where the swim team used to practice, before the school’s swim budget was slashed. Her favorite season: the spring musical, when she falls asleep in the daylight dark to the struggling pitches of budding singers, most of whom will never sing after their high school tenure. The teacher favors the girl with the highest voice, the one who leaves your ears ringing: Aimee. The ghost girl plugs her ears when Aimee sings. Her world beneath the stage is too dark for such shrillness. The ghost girl knows the limit of her own talent. Though she could out-sing every one of these girls, she cannot stand in front of an audience, cannot let that much of her outside her body. She waits and listens, but does not hear anything that makes her shiver the way that Patti Smith record does.

Then, a new girl sings. Her name, she speaks softly into the mic, is Chrissie. When Chrissie sings, the ghost girl’s chest throbs with a particular empty ache. From the rafters, the ghost girl watches her: Chrissie with her short dark curls, her beautiful face bereft of makeup, her bright yellow smiley face shirt and torn jeans. She is kind, the ghost girl notices, to everyone.

The ghost girl follows Chrissie to class, moving in shadows the other students don’t see. She has become good at seeing shadows, at inhabiting them. The ghost girl doesn’t slash Chrissie’s tires when she pulls the prank a second time. When Chrissie is called into the principal, blamed, the ghost girl slips an alibi into Chrissie’s files: a psychiatrist’s appointment in another city, for a condition Chrissie doesn’t like to talk about. The ghost girl has done her homework; the condition is the same one that Chrissie was treated for as a little girl. Though she was pronounced healed, the school buys the excuse.

The ghost girl tracks Chrissie’s every move.

A new girl finds it hard to make friends. A new girl eats lunch alone in a bathroom stall. It is there that the ghost girl comes to her, hiding in the walls and speaking in her ghostly secret keeper voice.

“Chrissie,” calls the ghost girl, singing her own song. She has had years with little to do but practice. “I am your angel of music.”

The ghost girl has been thorough. From Chrissie’s files, she found two facts that will make it easier to be a friend. 1. Chrissie’s mother died when Chrissie was a little girl. 2. After her death, Chrissie heard voices. These voices? Chrissie called them her angel of music. A ghost girl can be an angel of music; the name seems to fit her better than all the names she has ever clutched in her palms. The devil, after all, was an angel fallen.

At first Chrissie says nothing in response. Then: “No,” she says. “Please, not again.”

“I’m not in your head. I am here, with you.”

The ghost girl presses her hand against the wall until the wall turns cold beneath her skin.

“Do you feel me, Chrissie?”

Chrissie shivers and runs her hands up and down her arms. “You’re really here?” she says. “Has it been you all along?”

“I’m here, your angel of music.”

“My AoM. Your voice is beautiful,” Chrissie says. “Where did you learn to sing?”

The ghost girl has never heard a compliment as sweet as this. “I have listened,” she says. Her belly warms with pride. “I can teach you.”

“Would you?”

“I would love nothing more,” the ghost girl says.

4

Their lessons begin. Every lunch hour, Chrissie hides in her bathroom stall while the ghost girl gives her lessons in strengthening her voice. Chrissie is a good singer. With the ghost girl’s help, she is great. When Chrissie sings, the ghost girl hears her own inflections, her own tones. When Chrissie surpasses the ghost girl, it’s time for Chrissie to play the lead.

The theater auditions The Secret Lives of Fairytale Princesses, a play written by the theater teacher. Chrissie auditions for the lead of Sleeping Beauty, but is given the supporting role of Snow White. The ghost girl fumes in her underground lair, where she paces back and forth until her feet bleed. She misses the next day’s lessons with Chrissie. Chrissie cries in the bathroom, thinking she has disappointed her AoM. The ghost girl hears her tears, but cannot go to her, so badly injured are her feet, her ego.

She hears, instead, a young boy enter the bathroom, crying for himself.

“What are you doing in here?” Chrissie asks.

“Oh please,” says the boy. “Look at me. I can’t use the men’s. If anyone has the right to cry in the girl’s bathroom, it’s me.”

The boy’s voice is familiar: the theater teacher’s second favorite, Trevor.

“What happened to you?” Chrissie asks.

“That role was supposed to be mine,” the boy says. “I’m the best. But I don’t ‘look the part.’ You know what she means by that? She means I’m too gay for it. Stupid fucking hick town.” The boy kicks the trash can; the ring of boot on metal reverberates into the ghost girl’s walls. It is a dissonant sound, not altogether unappealing. The ghost girl scribbles some notes on her sheet music.

“And you know the only reason you didn’t get Sleeping Beauty is because you have short hair. Mrs. Logan isn’t very imaginative. If she can’t see the exact look she had in mind, then forget it. I’ve been sucking up to her for, what, two years now? That part should’ve been mine.”

“It was just because of my hair?” Chrissie asks.

“You better believe it.” Trevor laughs. “If you think for a second you’re not the most talented in the class, you’re in extreme need of a wake-up call.”

“I’m taking lessons,” Chrissie says. “From a great teacher.”

“Well, you must give me her number.”

“It’s complicated,” Chrissie says. “She doesn’t take new clients? She’s a friend of the family.”

“Shit,” Trevor says. “Well, drop a good word for me? Now let’s clean ourselves up and get back out there and make the most of this utmost shitty situation.”

Chrissie laughs. The ghost girl’s stomach roils; no one is supposed to make Chrissie laugh but her.

5

If the ghost girl can’t make Chrissie laugh, she will make her smile. The ghost girl gathers her secrets. She snatches Aimee’s phone from her locker. She snaps photos of her out by the tennis courts sneaking cigarettes. She sends the photo to her family, her friends, to Mrs. Logan.

Aimee is grounded, forbidden from the play, given a talking-to by a certain disappointed theater instructor.

“Don’t you know what those things do to your voice?” Mrs. Logan says. “I thought you were a serious student. I see now I made a mistake.”

Mrs. Logan pulls Chrissie aside. “I had the wrong idea about the lead,” she says. “I found the picture you put on my desk. What confidence, to do such a thing! With your nice wig, you could easily be my Sleeping Beauty.”

“My wig?” Chrissie says.

Mrs. Logan waves the picture at her; it’s a picture of Chrissie sleeping, blonde hair spread across her pillow. Chrissie shivers but thanks her teacher. She and Trevor celebrate with cappuccinos at the local Holy Coffee! shop.

6

“You’re late,” says the ghost girl at their next lunch.

”Sorry,” Chrissie says, pulling her sandwich out of her bag. “I was talking with Trevor.”

”You haven’t eaten yet?”

”I didn’t have time.”

The ghost girl huffs behind her wall.

”What about you? You didn’t even show up last time! I said I was sorry.” Chrissie takes little bites.

The ghost girl waits, then waits no longer. “Enough,” she booms. “You know who gave you that role? I can take it back. This is it, Chrissie, your shot at being something here, your chance to show them that you’re not one of them. Do you want me to go?”

”No, please,” Chrissie shoves her sandwich back into her bag. “I can’t do it without you.”

”Then you must do as I say. To be great takes great focus. That’s what you have over all the other girls. Over Trevor with his boyfriend, his endless distractions. You can do this. But you need to make some changes.”

”What changes?”

”We’re going to have to set some rules.”

”Anything.” Chrissie presses her hand against the wall; it warms the ghost girl’s skin. “Anything as long as you don’t leave me.”

The ghost girl lays out five rules: Chrissie will practice every day for two hours outside of their lesson. Chrissie will not go out after school or on weekends. Chrissie will not speak to anyone but her. Chrissie will not tell anyone about her Angel of Music. “These are the rules you need to follow if you want to be something. If you want to be the best.”

“I do want to be the best,” Chrissie says. “I want to make you proud of me.”

That evening the ghost girl stares at herself in the mirror. She eats snack cakes from the dumpster. She fingers the scars of her face beneath her mask and pulls at the skin around her belly. She sings to a crowd of no one.

7

Chrissie follows the ghost girl’s rules until opening night, when Trevor pulls her into his car and takes her out for a pre-show dinner at the burger place down the street. The ghost girl follows them, moving as shadow through sewers and gas lines and an old buried military complex the town keeps secret. She presses her shadow body against the ceiling tiles and watches through a crack as the two scarf meat and laugh nervously like madmen.

“So what’s going on with you?” Trevor asks, dabbing his greasy fingers on his napkin. “Oh my god, are you pregnant?”

“No,” Chrissie says. She doesn’t smile.

“Honey, I was just kidding. That’s not it, is it?” He clamps his hand upon hers. The ghost girl’s stomach heaves. “You can tell me.”

“It’s her,” Chrissie whispers. “It’s my teacher. My Angel of Music? She’s very strict. I have to do what she says, or else I won’t be good enough.”

“But you’re good enough already. There’s no one as good as you.”

“But I can be better. I mean, I totally fucked up the second chorus in “Bring on the Sleep.”

Trevor rolls his eyes. “The music you’re singing sucks, first thing. Second thing, you’re seventeen. You don’t need to be a pro right now. You need to be a teenager. Chrissie, have you even kissed a boy? Have you even had a friend before?”

“I’ve had friends.” Chrissie shrugs. “I had to leave them all back where I came from. And my AoM. She talked to me when no one else would. She’s been there for me, from the beginning.”

Trevor sighs and leans across the table, tucks a strand of her hair behind her ear. “I’m your friend. Don’t you forget that. If you want me, I’m here.”

Chrissie untucks the strand. “You shouldn’t touch me,” she says. She presses her palm to the wall, checking for the chill. “It’s not entirely safe.”

8

The performance is everything the ghost girl ever hoped it would be. Chrissie hits the high notes as though her voice were breaking out of its shell: revelation over shrill insistence. The ghost girl watches from the back row, the shadow of a seat. The theater is half-empty. The male lead, Chrissie’s Prince Charming, is unworthy but beautiful with his beach boy hair and thick lips.

“It’s nearly a shame to wake such a sleeping beauty,” he sings, “but if her brains are as big as her bonnet, I’ll have made the right decision.”

The ghost girl ignores the words. She makes up her own: lonely girls rule the lonely world. Bossy girls rule the bossy world. A ghost girl writes the story she wants to read across the blank slate of her burnt skin.

Everyone claps. Chrissie bows. Prince Charming holds her hand a little too tightly. The ghost girl disappears back underground, where she belongs.

9

Chrissie goes home that first night, and the second, and the third. On their penultimate night, when Trevor demands she join them at the after-party, Chrissie glances around the room as though checking for the AoM she knows will not be there. She smiles. “Why the hell not?” she says. “If my teacher’s mad about it, I’ll just quit!”

“That’s the rebel I want to know.” Trevor links his arm in hers. “Your Prince Charming will be there. Let’s see which one of us he likes more.”

The ghost girl races along the walls to follow them out, but they go too far from the school, out past where she can follow them underground, along long country roads with no shadows to seep into. She seethes in the abandoned theater, stomping her feet until they ache all the way up to her knees. She wanders the halls, ripping the BOOZE IS BAD posters from the walls. DEATH TO THEATER, she scrawls over the front doors. Downstairs, she sets her traps. Chrissie won’t go again where she can’t follow. She is so lost in her fury, her planning, that she doesn’t hear Chrissie and her friends sneak back in through the loading door to the theater. Finally, their drunken giggling breaks through.

The ghost girl makes her way to the theater. They are so busy laughing on the stage in the dark—Chrissie, Trevor, and the Prince Charming—that they don’t hear her enter, though, in her anger, she keeps only a tenuous hold on staying shadow, moving in and out of skin, of bone. She watches them as she would watch a show—and what a performance! The ghost girl studies each mess of hormones. They hold wine coolers in their hands; the ghost girl can smell the cheap sugary stuff from the front row. Neither Trevor nor Chrissie is the obvious winner of Prince Charming’s affections. They sit on either side of him and talk about their families: hard lives for soft children. They weren’t granted the power of invisibility. Their scars are hidden beneath more than masks.

“I don’t think my father loves me,” Chrissie says.

“My parents love me two inches in,” Trevor says. “They don’t care that I’m gay, but if I don’t end up married with babies, I’m useless to them.”

“Mine love me too much,” Prince Charming says. “If I’m a step out of line—”

Who can say who is hurt the deepest? It’s a game to compare horror. The stories the ghost girl could tell, if she had people with which to share stories.

“Enough pity party,” Trevor says, pulling out his iPhone. He plays music with no lyrics, incomprehensibly simple beats. They dance and laugh and finish their wine coolers, leaving the empty bottles in the wings. The ghost girl picks them up and smells them, careful not to make a sound. The smell makes her stomach ache with want: fake fruit and the kind of sugar that leaves your teeth grainy. Calmed by their useless bickering, the ghost girl allows herself entrance into their shadows. She moves around their feet, around their mouths. The human body is full of dark spaces, shadows in their own right. She slips, soundlessly, into Prince Charming’s warm mouth. She gleans all his secrets. When Chrissie kisses him, the ghost girl is a shadow that passes from his lips to hers.

From inside Chrissie, the ghost girl speaks. “You disobeyed your Angel of Music,” she says. Chrissie shrinks back into the dark, a headache taking hold.

“Leave me the fuck alone,” Chrissie says. If pressed, she might chalk her newfound courage up to 3% ABV, but the ghost girl scans her chemistry, her biology. Though she’d never tasted it for herself, she has read of the effect weak booze might have on a girl like Chrissie. It isn’t enough to change her kindness into cruelty. There is only one explanation, then: Chrissie was never who she pretended to be. She is an actress to her core.

“Chrissie, who are you talking to?” Trevor kneels beside her and places his hand on her knee.

“Can’t you hear her?”

“I don’t hear anything,” Trevor says. “Chrissie, have you been taking your pills?”

“What pills?” Chrissie says. “I haven’t taken those since I was little.”

Trevor blushes. “That’s not what everyone else says. Chrissie, you can tell me anything.”

Prince Charming stands back behind them. “What’s going on?” he asks. “What’s wrong with her?”

“Not now,” Trevor says.

“Don’t listen to them,” the ghost girl says. “I’m real as you are. Realer, in fact, because I’m not a liar like you. I’m not a pretender.”

“What’s she saying to you?” Trevor says.

“Tell him to stop interfering,” the ghost girl says. She spreads her arms through Chrissie’s arms and stretches the shadow inside her until the skin hurts like it’s burning, like it’s soon-to-break.

“Stop,” Chrissie screams. Her voice echoes the way only a performer’s can. “Both of you, stop.”

“I’m not doing anything,” Prince Charming says.

Chrissie stands, knocking a wine cooler over. The blue spreads across the stage like a burst vein bruise. “I’ll go with you, I will,” she says to the ghost girl. She pushes past Trevor, past Prince Charming. The ghost girl leads her only friend into the darkness underground.

10

Underground, the ghost girl has faked two prescription bottles full of the pills Chrissie took when she was a little girl, dated for the present. The clothes scattered throughout the ghost girl’s lair are inscribed with Chrissie’s name, black ink on every tag. The ghost girl has been thorough. She’s been cunning. She is an actress too. If she can convince Chrissie that they’re one, then they’ll be one. She whispers untrue secrets: Chrissie never moved to a new town, never met a new friend. The ghost girl has been here, inside Chrissie, all along. A ghost girl is part of you always. She stretches to fit the new body. She sings through the new voice. Her mouth moves in a face that she will never have to hide again.

Girls without friends make ghosts all the time, the ghost girl says. It’s not the worst you could have done.

A ghost girl keeps her own secrets best of all.

Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam

Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam lives in Texas with her partner and two literarily-named cats: Gimli and Don Quixote. A Nebula Award finalist, she has published fiction in magazines such as Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She also curates the annual Art & Words Show. You can visit her on Twitter @BonnieJoStuffle or through her website: http://www.bonniejostufflebeam.com.