Mary Hogan wrote the word Afterlife in red chalk while the children whispered. There was an urgency to their words, like spoken prayers.
“Now, now. Pay attention.” Mary’s prim voice bounced against the dusty attic walls. She was forty-five years old. The time was now. The place was her mother’s townhouse in Astoria, Queens, from which she’d soon be evicted. Magic lived here. So did monsters.
Mary pointed at what she’d written. “Who knows what this means?”
Light spilled through the triangle-shaped windows, splashing against the blackboard. Outside, an ice cream truck trundled down 48th Street to the tune of London Bridge. None of the children spoke, not even little Oscar Knisely.
Mary pushed her black, dime store bifocals to the back of her nose. “Afterlife is existence after death. And you are all dead.”
The kids faded inside their seats. Their seven bodies turned translucent. Mary pointed again at her lesson. This was a disturbed group. Recalcitrants, every one of them.
“You’re dead,” Mary repeated.
The blackboard yawned. Its center opened, bunching Mary’s red-chalk lesson along its round edges. The sound was a knife-sharp fan, whipping around and around.
“This house is Limbo. The longer you stay, the more you fade, until you don’t exist anymore. You have to cross to the other side. It’s the only way out.”
Laughter burst from the front row. Desks overturned, one after the next. All seven lay in a heap on the creaky wooden floor.
Mary kept pointing. She was getting careless, obviously, because her index finger grazed the black deep of the portal, cold as dry ice. “Go. Your mommies and daddies are waiting.”
The desks went airborne, chasing each other like a runaway carousel. She imagined the kids inside them, smiling with maniacal glee.
“Stop,” Mary hollered, kneeling below the blackboard, her hands pressed over her glasses so that just a sliver of hazel eye peeked out.
The circle slowed. The chairs lined up. They took a running start, then slammed into the blackboard: bang! Bang! BANG! Slate and desks rained. The entire attic shook. Hundred-year-old wood joists groaned.
Mary stood. Her glasses, somehow, had cracked.
Seven ghost children who’d died without grace reappeared. We are not dead, they mouthed in unison.
For dinner that Tuesday night, Mary fried a shell steak in A.1. sauce with boiled potatoes on the side. She had to climb over about three hundred copies of National Geographic just to get to the stove. Her mother Corinne was a hoarder. The kind that pressed aluminum foil flat and remembered that the bit with the red mark once contained red velvet cupcakes while the bit with the black mark on the shiny side came from a bottle of Manischewitz. Over the years, she’d jammed their house with so much crap that they each wore their toilet paper on their arms; otherwise they’d never find it when they needed it.
Corinne Hogan’s crazy had passed for eccentricity until the Dollar Store on 39th Avenue failed. Corrine took it hard. First her husband left her for the floozy across the street, then the family business collapsed. They’d stored the stock in the basement: tea towels, singing mechanical birds, Christmas tree-shaped erasers, Hello Kitty staplers, fluorescent highlighter pens, sparkly party hats. But slowly, over that dark year in 1992, the crap washed ashore. It climbed the steps, then spread through the hall. Corrine stopped throwing things away, and started tweezing through the curbside rubbish in front of the floozy’s house. She collected used hair dryers and discarded photo albums. Tampon boxes and broken lamps. The crap crashed like a wave into the kitchen and dining room and den.
The way Mary remembered it, the hoarding started on a single night in 1992. She and Corrine were watching local news when the Pope came on and announced that Limbo was closed for business. From now on, all children went straight to heaven.
“I wish I was the Virgin Mary,” twenty-four year-old Mary had announced. “Then I’d have a baby and a husband, and when I died, my body wouldn’t get old. I’d just transcend straight to heaven.”
Corrine got up right then and started sorting Dollar Store stock. Pretty soon, the mess spread. By the end of the month, the Hogans were full-on hoarders. The only place the crap didn’t cram was Mary’s bedroom and the attic, whose steps were too steep for Corrine to summit.
That night of the catechism, Mary went up to the attic to think about sex and heaven and getting out from under her mother’s thumb—all the wants in her life that squeezed her heart tight. And then a ghost girl came out from the eaves. She wore tube socks and a halter dress and she’d died in 1979 from an asthma attack. The two of them had talked about all kinds of things, like the television show Bewitched and hot Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica. Then the portal opened up. Together, they’d figured out that it was her salvation. The girl had waved on her way through, and in that moment, Mary had wished she could go, too.
From that day forward, the women of 48th Street found their callings: Corrine the hoarder, Mary the teacher. For Mary and her ghosts, the first years were easy, but over time, the outsiders collected. The ones who didn’t believe they were dead. The ones who’d been murdered and couldn’t rest. The haunters and sociopaths who’d rather fade away—recalcitrants.
She figured there were teachers just like her all over the world, who’d been chosen by God or maybe the Pope to lead the way. It wasn’t an easy job, but it was a rewarding one. She’d been content at it until recently, when the eviction notice came.
At dinner that night, Corrine smacked her lips while watching the Yankee game on Channel Nine. There was this perfect viewing-tunnel if you sat on the couch, where the books and newspapers and crusty take-out boxes framed the screen.
Still furious over the whole “Afterlife” lesson, the children played tricks. They popped into view like jack-in-the-boxes, then tore out their eyes to frighten her.
“It’s fixed!” Corrine shouted at the screen. “These games, they’re all fixed.” Little drops of Corrine’s spittle sprayed the side of Mary’s cheek. “How much they pay you, Jeter? How much they pay you to throw the damn game?”
An eyeball rolled between Corinne’s feet. She squashed it under her pink slippers without noticing. For that second before his eyes grew back, poor Oscar Knisely’s face was just empty sockets.
“Fuckers took the balls out of baseball!” Corinne muttered.
“We have to pack up soon, Mom. The court said Friday. It’s Tuesday already,” Mary said, because it loomed like that giant iceberg ahead of the Titanic. Every second since the court ruling, every moment that kept her from sleep, she wondered: Where would they go? Who would take care of the children?
“You can pack up. I’m staying,” Corinne answered. The vein running vertically down her forehead plumped like a worm. “Why the hell didn’t you pay the taxes?”
Mary looked down at her hands. Homeschooled since she was five, acts hewing to the social fabric were not her strong suit. She knew the Greek Myths and geometry. She didn’t know table manners or how to shake hands. The court-appointed lawyer had explained this to the Queens District judge, who had sneered at her the same way Corrine was doing right now, like she’d screwed-up on purpose. Like she wanted to live in city housing, abandon her ghost children, and hang out in a two-bedroom ghetto with her abusive, hoarder mother for the rest of her life.
Corinne flicked her imaginary remote control. “They’ll mess with all my stuff, Mary. And then I’ll have to kill them.”
“You’re getting yourself excited,” Mary said. “Remember your heart.”
“Ahhh,” Corrine moaned in disgust. “I don’t have a heart, you silly idiot. And don’t think I didn’t notice the mouse trap your friends put in my bed.”
After carrying her mother to bed that night, Mary inspected the mess in the dining room. She sorted through the mail from January 2011. Most were letters from lawyers. A few were marked “Final Notice.” This was before the eviction. Before things got dire. “Please call me,” one of the bankers had written. “We can work something out.”
Mary hobbled through the cluttered tunnels in the front hall until she found the phone. She dialed zero, because it was always easier to have the operator connect her than figure out when to use an area code. The operator didn’t answer. Instead, she got an automated message telling her to pay her bill. This had been the social worker’s job until the social worker got fired for incompetence. So now they were between social workers.
Mary leafed through the rest of the 2011 mail, which took up the entire breakfront, and was sorted by date and rubber band color. They were all marked “Final Notice.”
The words kind of spun: Finally Noticed. Fucking Notice. Why didn’t you notice?
The guilt punched a hole deep inside her, and she was sinking, sinking.
Up above, something scrambled. It sounded like mice. Mary headed up the stairs. She shoved aside the stacks of neatly folded moth-eaten sweaters that no one had worn in twenty years. Past Styrofoam containers, and Tupperware filled with colored sand. Past the embalmed cat and the conch shells. To the attic.
The children had returned the desks to their places again and swept the slate blackboard crumbs from the floor. Mary smiled in acknowledgment, but elected not to praise them, since they’d made the mess in the first place.
“Children? Did you put a mouse trap in my mom’s bed?” she asked.
Harry Cullen snorted. He came from a farm out east, back when everybody on Long Island raised chickens.
“It’s not nice. I know she’s mean, but she can’t help it,” Mary said.
“Of course she can help it. That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” Harry answered. He had a slight British lilt—his family hailed from Quebec by way of London.
“She sucks,” Agnes Schermerhorn from Park Avenue answered. The girl was still wearing her bloody debutante gown.
“No more mouse traps,” Mary said.
“I’m not making any promises,” Harry answered.
Mary looked down to hide her smile. Then she noticed something. A quick head count gave her six instead of seven. Her heart sank. Deep, like it had just hit an iceberg. Like her whole body was sinking to the bottom of the ocean floor. “Where’s Oscar?”
Everybody looked down. Mary’s eyes watered. She walked the perimeter of the attic, and, under the shattered blackboard, found his stain. Oscar Knisely had become a shadow. His dark ink bled on her hands. She knelt down and tried to lift him, but he slipped through her fingers.
Tears rolled down both cheeks. “This is what happens when you wait too long. Do you understand?”
The six remaining stood in a line, their faces set like cold metal.
We are not dead, they mouthed.
Out of at least one thousand kids, she’d prided herself on only losing three. Now four. Oscar. They stopped being. Like they’d never been born. It was the worst thing she could imagine.
“You are dead. Dead. Dead!” Mary cried.
Anais Harlow shook her head slowly. She’d be next. Her fingers and nose had already turned shadow. She’d died at fourteen in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911. The managers had locked all the exits to the factory, even the windows. In the afterlife, she was terrified of open doors. That’s the perversity of abuse for you.
Trying hard not to cry, Mary crouched down. “Anais. Please. I’ve been doing this for more than twenty years. This portal suddenly appeared, you understand? And I knew. I just knew. God loves you anyway—you don’t need grace. You’re punishing yourself for no good reason,” Mary said. She’d meant to be strong—an inspiration. But little Oscar’s stain was on her fingers, and suddenly she was bawling.
She didn’t stop crying. Not when she left the attic. Not after she brushed her teeth and climbed into bed. Not when she looked out over bedroom—the same bedroom she’d had her whole life, decorated with Dollar Store Disney Princesses and white eyelet sheets. It was the only place she’d ever masturbated, her eyes fixed on Prince Charming. And in three days she’d have to leave here. Three days, and she was on the street. In three days, her children would be lost.
As if they knew this was her breaking point, they scratched along her bedroom door until it opened, all doleful gazes of apology. Anais stroked her forehead—a cold, gossamer touch.
“Stay with us,” she said. “We’ll make our own family.”
Wednesday morning, Mary found some quarters and hiked to the payphone at 31st Avenue before anybody woke up. After about twenty failed attempts and two crying jags, she got through to the number on the eviction notice. A guy with a sandy voice answered. She told him her case number, and that she’d procrastinated a tiny bit, but was finally ready to talk.
“Sweetheart,” he answered. “This went through trial. There’s nothing I can do. It looks like . . . oh wow. Uncle Sam’s repossessing.”
Would he still call her sweetheart if he knew she was forty-five years old and two hundred pounds, Mary wondered. “So, what do I do?” she asked.
Probably, she should have asked sooner.
“Call the news—Channel Twelve New York. Banks hate bad publicity. You pleaded mental incompetence, but they didn’t bite, right?”
Mary was drowning. Her body was the Titanic, only less fancy. “Uh . . .”
“Do you have a place to live?”
Mary stared at the phone, like maybe it wasn’t a real phone. It was a prank phone. One of the dead kids, playing a string tin can joke.
“Has a marshal visited yet?” the man asked. “Normally, people are informed by now. They’ve made plans.”
Mary hung up. All along the avenue, shopkeepers lifted metal security gates. The Hogan family Dollar Store was now a Victoria’s Secret. Next to it was a Gap. Next to that, a Taco Bell.
She stared at the dirty payphone and tried to think of someone to call. For almost half a century, she’d lived like this. Trapped in a house made of junk. Her father across the street, not giving a damn. A portal to the afterlife in the attic, a psychotic mother in the den, an eviction notice taped to the front door, the ghosts of dead children searching for peace. And she’d never once, in all these years, seen the ocean.
In the attic that night, Mary counted seven children again. The new addition wore suspenders and brown leather shoes. He’d been dead for a long time, and just by looking at him Mary knew he was angry. The air around him was cold. He wore red blotches shaped like adult hands on his throat.
The children had made a mess of the place in her absence. Chewed the walls like rats. Ripped apart the floorboards. Broken the desks. Mary picked her way through, then wrote along the remaining, unbroken parts of the chalkboard: “Safe Passage.”
“I know this is hard for you. It wasn’t your time. But nobody gets to choose the way they’re born, and they don’t get to choose the way they die, either. So just trust me! Look at Oscar. Oh, that’s right. You can’t.”
Someone—Jane?—threw a wad of paper. It ricocheted off the board and landed at her feet. She bent down and uncrinkled it. Bitch, it read in childish cursive.
The new boy tugged her shirtsleeve. His strangle marks were so red they looked bloody. “I can’t breathe,” he said.
“I know,” she told him
“My mother suffocated me.”
An eraser went sailing past Mary’s head. Bits of red chalk puffed the air. Mary raised her voice. “Children! No more pranks! My mother is an old woman. That mouse trap could have killed her.”
—“But it’s not her fault,” the boy said.
—“My jailers killed me,” Anais chimed in. Her voice sounded distant, like from under water. She was fading fast.
—“A horse kicked me,” Henry said.
—“My brother broke my wrists with a cleaver,” Anges Schermerhorn confessed. “It ruined my dress.”
—“She killed me because she loves me.”
—“I hate the door, but I love the prison.”
—“I branded its hind and set it on fire.”
Suddenly, all the children were chattering about their restive deaths. They did not hear each other. They did not see each other. Lost in their personal reveries, their words became soft, angry prayers.
It occurred to Mary that when the marshals threw her out of the house on Friday, her ghosts would turn savage. Go poltergeist.
“Goddamnit! You’re dead! You’re dead! You’re dead!” Mary cried.
“You’re the one who’s never lived,” Anais said.
Mary leaned her face against the broken blackboard. It opened up again, a tennis ball-sized void. She stuck her arm through until it went numb.
It felt like being unborn.
The sun had not yet set when Mary finished cleaning the attic, so she put a windbreaker over her mother’s shoulders and wheeled her into the front yard. The season was Indian summer, all red and yellow leaves.
Over the last forty years, the neighborhood had changed. The Turks and Greeks had joined forces against the Pakistanis. Sports cars blasted Moroccan techno music. Young, white hipsters walked arm-in-arm, wearing thrift shop clothes as a joke. All the Greek statues were gone, replaced by aluminum siding and Astroturf.
“It’s all weirdos out here now,” Corinne said.
A car alarm sounded. Mary couldn’t tell which one—all the cars looked the same. “I want to see the ocean, Mom. Could you show me how to get there?” she asked.
Corrine shook her head. “Why would you want that, stoopid? It’s too salty. Sand gets in your girl parts, takes your special gift.”
Mary dug her hand into a bunch of weedy grass. The dirt beneath was hard. “You never taught me anything, Mom. I don’t even know how to talk to people, and then you tell me I’m no good. It’s not fair.”
The car alarm kept beeping. Somebody in the ground floor apartment across the street shouted, “Shut up!”
Corinne looked ahead, all glassy-eyed like she hadn’t heard. Like Mary hadn’t asked, every year, for her birthday, to learn to use the subway. To see Coney Island. Or a baseball game, at a real, live stadium.
“What will we do when we lose the house, Mom?”
The alarm kept going. Some fifteen year-old boys rode by on skateboards. Their bodies were preternaturally agile. Corinne craned her neck as they passed, tsk-tsking.
Just like at the trial, Mary started crying. “Why won’t you teach me anything?”
“I don’t remember anything,” Corinne spit. “You want me to show you how to do things, and I don’t remember.”
Mary bunched her grass-filled hands into fists. That fucking car alarm was driving her crazy. “I see ghosts, did you know that? They live in our attic. Everybody who got stuck before they changed Limbo. I help them. I’m good at it. They love me.”
Corrine coughed. Alarmingly, and to Mary’s terror, the spittle was red. “They’re idiots,” she muttered.
Corinne jutted her chin in the direction ahead, where Mary’s father and the red-head floozy who was now sixty-eight years old came out and turned off their car alarm. Mary imagined the two of them spooning at night. Caressing. But they didn’t seem like people in love. From the garbage they set out, she knew they drank. Everything here was so ugly.
Her dad and the floozy spotted Mary and Corrine. They froze like shocked deer, then jogged their out-of-shape bodies back indoors. They never said hello or called or visited anymore. But at least, just then, when they’d gazed upon Mary and her mother, she’d felt good. Safe. It meant that she was real. “I’m not talking about Dad. I’m talking about the ghosts. Do you ever see them?” Mary asked.
Corinne nodded, and maybe she understood, maybe she didn’t. “They always want something. What the fuck do I care that they’re lost? Jesus, if I’d known this house was haunted I’d have bought on the N train instead.”
Corinne coughed into her hand. More blood. “You just—don’t worry, Mary. Ignore them and they always go away. Or you can trap them. I figured it out a long time ago. Mess the rooms up so they never see the same landmarks. Mess the garbage into all kindsa piles. They get confused. Then you put them in jars and don’t punch air holes. They lose it like you wouldn’t believe. They don’t know they don’t need air. They don’t know they can get out, dumb fuckers.”
Appalled, Mary got up and headed back inside.
“Help me up!” Corrine howled from her chair.
For the first time in her life, Mary kept walking.
Thursday morning, the children switched the Scope for Drāno. Corrine would have drank it if Mary hadn’t been passing by the bathroom.
In the attic, Mary found three more children. High school kids. They’d died in a boating accident. Drunk, they’d crashed their rum-runner into a sand bar. Everybody got thrown. The girl wore a yellow, motor-mangled polka dot bikini and that song played in Mary’s head.
“Today’s lesson will cover fractions,” she started. “You, for example, are not whole. You never will be. So just give up.”
Anais coughed from the front row. The center of her chest was gone. It was dark in there, like it had been folded in half, then re-opened.
“Anais, please. Go through.”
Anais stood from her chair.
“Don’t! Don’t! Don’t!” the girl in the polka dot bikini chanted. Mary hated her right then, because she was young and beautiful, and because she’d seen the ocean. She hated all of them, because they’d had the good fortune of not being Corrine Hogan’s daughter.
“Don’t!” all of the children started chanting.
Mary bent down to Anais’s level. The girl still smelled like electrical fire. Mary imagined luring her down to the den, then playing hide and seek among the ruins of the entire Hogan civilization. Capturing her in a jar without holes.
“I want my mother,” Anais said.
“She’s in the portal,” Mary answered. “Go find her.”
“No,” Anais said. “You’re my mother. My good mother that loves me. I’ll never leave here. Not when I could be with you.”
Mary exhaled. Everything tight inside her broke apart, like a giant iceberg turned to sharp shards. “I’m not a mother. I’m nothing.”
“You’re mine,” Anais answered, “I love you.”
Mary’s heart filled; it really did. This was the same attic where Corinne had homeschooled her until she turned twenty-two. The same attic where she’d had to balance bibles on both outstretched arms, and where she’d had to crawl on her knees as penance for days at a time.
She kissed the top of the child’s head. Then she carried her to the blackboard, where the portal opened, edges spinning. “Don’t!” the others shouted.
A bundle of trust, Anais watched with wide, frightened eyes. Mary eased her against the opening. The child’s heart fluttered under her fingers. She’d faded so much that her mouth was gone.
Up. A little higher. Mary eased her through. Her fingers went along for the ride. They turned to ice, like you could crack them to pieces. Anais grunted in terror. Her heart stopped. Then she was gone.
A better place, Mary hoped.
Back in the classroom, the children had disappeared. Everything was still. The hole closed like it had never been. Dust speckled against sunlight. For just a moment, she wondered if she’d gone mad. If there were no children, and had never been. But then a box of off-brand wax crayons came hurling from the polka dot cutie’s desk. Mary ducked as it smashed into the broken chalkboard.
From nothing, the strangled little boy appeared. Hands shone red against his neck. “My mother’s very sick,” he said.
“You have to go through,” Mary told him. “All of you.”
“Will you help me find my mother?” he asked.
“She doesn’t love you. I lied before when I said she was on the other side. She was a bad woman. She can’t possibly be in a good place. Let me be your mother. Let me help you.”
“But I have to find her. I have to make her love me,” the boy said.
Mary shook her head, and, as if it meant everything, told him, “But don’t you see? I loved my mother, too.”
Mary found her mother in the den watching Red Skelton. “What happened to your arms?”
Corrine lay recumbent across the wicker couch, her feet propped by a broken toaster oven. Someone had scratched the word bitch all along her bare arms in dark red marker. Mary counted: ten times in all.
“What the hell do you think?” Corrine asked. “Get me some fucking soup.”
In the kitchen, Mary heated some Campbell’s chicken noodle, then threw all the February mail stamped “Final Notice” out the back door where it drifted in the autumn breeze. It felt so good to let go that she threw out March, April, and May, too.
In the evening there was another Yankee game, followed by a dead mouse that Mary found between her mother’s sheets. Followed by seven jars crammed behind a bunch of old stuffed animals under Corinne’s bed. Mary pulled them out and opened them. The smell was rank, like festered souls turned to soup. Each had a name and some numbers written in masking tape along the side:
Jillian Mapother – six years old, thirty years dead. Captured July 16, 1992
Charmaine Dulles – nineteen years old, 107 years dead. Captured December 25, 2001
Atticus Spenser – four years old, twenty-one years dead. Captured June 4, 2002
David Sperlog – two years old, 218 years dead. Captured June 3, 2005
Hugo Fielding – seven years old, forty-three years dead. Captured June 4, 2008
Lisa Sconzo – twelve years old, ninety-eight years dead. Captured June 4, 2011
Enique Saloman – twelve years old, ninety-eight years dead. Captured June 4, 2012
Oscar Knisely – eight years old, 113 years dead. Captured September 14, 2013
After that, Mary filled a bag with freshly washed jeans and faded t-shirts. She carried it down the stairs on tip-toe, unlocked the back door and sneaked out. The crisp, fall air felt like freedom. She could see the children’s faces pressed against the hunched attic windows. They watched in shock.
Moths circled the streetlamps. A gypsy cab beeped and pulled over. She started to get in, then remembered she had no money.
“Who did that to you?” the Iranian man behind the wheel asked.
She backed away slow, then ran like a little piggy all the way home. In the bathroom mirror next to the Drāno, she saw that someone had doodled a third eye over her forehead.
Corrine needed help getting to bed that Thursday night, so Mary carried her. She wasn’t light like most old ladies. Her bones could have been lead. Mary washed her arms, then her legs. The bucket went red with bleeding bitch.
The girl in the polka dot bikini hid in Corrine’s closet. She snapped her suit against her toned, tight thigh—loud as bubble gum. “We ought to put her through the hole,” Polka Dot said as Mary hung her mother’s laundry. “Like a canary in a coal mine!”
Mary looked down at Corrine, who wasn’t sleeping.
“You always thought you were special. And look where it got us,” the old lady said.
“All children are special,” Mary answered.
Corinne sneered. “Not you. You’re talking to these little monsters and God doesn’t even care about them. I mean, where are all my dead soul jars? The truth is, you’re crazy and stupid: croopid.”
Mary spilled the bucket of pink water across Corinne’s bed. “Oops. The children did it,” she said as she walked out.
Friday morning, the doorbell rang. Mary went first to Corinne. The water by her bed had turned to ice. The strangled kid, Mary guessed. Sometimes their anger froze things. Surrounding Corinne was a mountain of crap. Clothes, towels, plastic shoes, kitty litter, cigarette lighters. A grandfather clock that had stopped chiming.
“Help me up!” Corinne ordered from beneath the frozen pile. “I’m stuck!”
Down below, the marshals banged. Mary looked at her mother for a long second. “I’ll forgive everything if you take me to the ocean.”
Corinne shook her head. “I told you, I don’t remember.”
Mary headed for the attic. At first, the children’s giggling was muffled. But after a while, it got loud.
“You think I don’t know what you do up there, Mary? You think I’m croopid?” Corinne shouted from down below. She’d followed, it seemed. Her voice came from the bottom of the steep stairway.
Mary sat down beneath the blackboard. The children had replaced her chalk with razor blades.
“Does my mom ever come up here while I’m sleeping?” she asked. “Does she hurt you?”
“Good for nothing,” the girl in the polka dot bikini said. The scary part: she used Corinne’s voice.
“Not much of a looker,” another chimed in Corrine’s voice, too.
“I’ve seen monkeys with less hair on their chins,” spat the strangled boy.
—“Remember when she pissed her pants at Beth McDonald’s sleepover?”
—“Remember when Donnie Nowicki kissed her and she started to cry?”
—“Remember how she wanted to be the Virgin Mary?”
—“Remember how she almost drowned in that pool?”
—“Remember that picture she hung over her bed of the ocean, and how we laughed and laughed?”
All were talking. All using Corrine’s voice. Corrine’s memories. They didn’t see each other. Didn’t see anything, except their own pain and fury. Already, they’d gone poltergeist.
“Were there more of you, only you didn’t find your way to me? My mother caught you?” Mary asked.
They’d stopped seeing at all and felt their way, walking through walls and each other with blind hands. Their words were a frenzy, spoken to no one.
—Wish she’d never been born.
The broken blackboard yawned. It sounded like hard wind. Like a fan. Like . . . the ocean.
Two floors below, a door burst open. Heavy footsteps clomped, then stood still as if amazed by what they’d discovered. “Hoarders!” A cop mumbled from far away.
Corinne climbed the attic steps. Mary could hear her pink plastic slippers. She was coming. The cops were coming. They all were coming.
Mary clutched her opposite elbows and hugged her ample breasts as she backed up against the broken blackboard. The hole yawned giant.
The children, all nine of them, chanted and jeered in a lunatic frenzy.
“Mary? Where are you? Help me, Mary!” Corinne shouted as she climbed. “You got a way out, don’t you?”
Mary picked up the razor. Just one. A little one. She thrashed. Corrine leaped back in surprise and fell. Down, down, down. The children woke from their madness and cheered. The body down there moved slowly as it groaned. Its eyes stayed open in shock.
The children jumped. They hooted. They hollered. They screamed.
“Follow me,” Mary said. “Now!”
She reached inside the ice-cold blackboard. First her hands, then her feet, the tip of her nose, the edges of her full breasts. Its noise, she now recognized, was what she’d once experienced at a neighbor’s pool back when she’d first learned to walk. She’d gotten away from her own house—known even then that the place was a trap. So she’d fallen inside the thing, then sunk to its plastic bottom. Like the portal, it’d had an echoing of sound; a strange density of something that isn’t air. She’d been in perfect control of herself, free and happy, until Corrine pulled her out. Her whole life, she’d been trying to get back there.
Edges whipped. Marshalls’ footsteps clomped from far, far away. The portal drew her inside. One step, the next. To the ocean. To the deep. To a place where her mother would never find her.
She beckoned with her remaining hand, and the children, disarmed by her sacrifice, followed.
© 2012 Sarah Langan.