On the morning of her 13th birthday, Yésica eats her Os in front of the television, where she also sleeps. If there is no soy milk, she uses orange juice, and if there is no orange juice, she uses water. The morning news is a house fire, a school board vote split five to four, killed soldiers from Fort Bragg, lead in the water, a cat that can count to 12, a recipe for persimmons, the forgotten fruit, a pill that helps people who fart a lot, the weather, and sports.
Five to four makes Yésica feel itchy. With it, she makes nine, then divides by three, which makes her feel smooth. Farters eat too much gluten, as is commonly known. “I am allergic to gluten,” Yésica tells the screen.
Her Os are made of brown rice and that is something viewers might be interested in knowing. The weather will be mild, with a 60 percent chance of rain in the viewing area this afternoon, the weatherman tells her.
The weatherman reminds her of Mrs. Pfeffelman, her Science teacher. Except the weatherman uses Maps, not Books. His black hair is flat and shiny as her mother’s painted fingernails. When Mrs. Pfeffelman talks about numbers or the winds or the way heat rises from the ground to make a thunderstorm, she makes the things she is talking about seem small, like a ball or a box of jacks. On her desk, Mrs. Pfeffelman has metal clothes hanger arms holding the planets and a yellow Styrofoam sun. When her finger pushes the Earth, around it goes until the arm squeaks to a stop.
Books have things Yésica can see, not truth. Books with a big B, like Benson, places people go just as easy as getting in a car. But truth has a small t, everywhere and nowhere, smeared on her skin like her mother’s lotion. A capital T in truth would be spiky and too green. The small t is sleek, a handle that fits like her hand on a hairbrush. Perhaps there will be rain, but it won’t fall exactly when or exactly where the weatherman says on his Map.
Yésica likes sports, but she can never wait for it. She has to leave for school at 7:55 a.m., the color of daffodils. Otherwise, everything turns grey and prickly.
After rinsing her bowl and spoon, Yésica picks clothes from her clean pile. She has five white Henleys and five pairs of black Bermuda shorts, with black cotton crew socks rolled in balls and her Converses, black, with black laces that she ties in a double bunny, tight as she can. Before she will wear clothes, her mother washes out the sizing, 10 cycles minimum. Otherwise, the fabric pokes her like puppy teeth.
If there are no clean socks or the power goes out or if the Os box is empty, Yésica screams. This is the way of things. The screams wake her mother, who comes in to brush Yésica’s arms and shoulders with a nail brush. When Yésica stops, her mother uses the lotion. Then the day can start fresh no matter what number is on the clock.
Outside, the sun is hot. Her bicycle has long handlebars and a skinny, black banana seat. Yésica’s mother bought the bike for 55 cents. 5 + 5 is 10, a blue number. The rubber handles have silver streamers, which Yésica trimmed into nubs. She calls the bike Torpedo, because that is what is written on the frame: “TORPEDO.”
Every school day, she pedals to the end of Megan Faye Lane, then makes a right onto Blossom Falls. Megan Faye is a dead girl. Mr. Hobson Goode found her in the woods where he planned to lay cement pads for new trailers. The name is his way of honoring her, he told Yésica’s mother once, and to make sure the sick son of a bitch who did it goes to the death chamber, where he will be pumped full of rat poison. Megan Faye died when she was four, which is 1 + 3.
Today, Yésica’s mother will bring confetti cupcakes and cranberry juice for a birthday party in class. But Yésica never gets to class. As she pumps the pedals, she sees something on the side of the road that wasn’t there yesterday: a shoe. The shoe is muddy and kid-sized. Over it, the bushes are green and dense, cut straight as walls with Mr. Hobson Goode’s brush hog. Her mother tells her, “Go straight to school on that bike or you won’t have it any more. En serio.” But her mother never talked about seeing a shoe.
Yésica lays Torpedo on the roadside gravel. Carrying her backpack, she sees a dim path that leads into a brush tunnel. Further in is another shoe: the right foot. Kid-sized prints lead away from the shoe. The mud is so wet that she can count toes: 5. 4 + 1 = 5. 5 + 5 equals 10. Clear as the blue sky, she hears an invitation.
She knows this path. It is the path to where Megan Faye died.
A squirrel chucks at her: chuck, chuck, chuck. She wants to throw a stone, but there is only mud and rotting leaves. The path leads in, then turns to the right. She finds a Jolly Rancher wrapper that is pink and twisted. Pink makes her sneeze. Against her thigh, Yésica flattens the wrapper, then folds it into a triangle so that only the white inner side shows. Three points, worth keeping. She puts the wrapper in her pocket.
Sometimes, boys fight in the woods. They build forts and smoke. Yésica doesn’t hear any boys, only her own breath and squirrels and the trail with its signs, whispering like a television turned down very, very low.
Yésica reaches the pond Mr. Hobson Goode dug out to get the dirt he uses to flatten lots before he puts in cement pads. The edges of the pond are red clay. Pine trees, their roots sliced through and matted, angle over the brown water. Once, a boy whose name she does not know fell in. He had to be rescued with a ladder. Yésica saw him climb out with his clothes coated in thick, green scum. Water rolled down his brown legs and she thought of ducks on TV, when they tip their butts in the air then come up again, shaking the water off. His shorts hung heavy with water and low, and she wanted to run her finger down his bared stomach, following the curve that started at the sharp points of his hips.
She didn’t. Yésica doesn’t like people touching her without asking. Even then, it hurts. Sometimes, she wraps her mother’s arms around her waist, just for a second, then flings them away again. If Mrs. Pfeffelman touches her, she bites.
Yésica hears spoons clatter in a metal bowl. A red bird with a pointed head perches on a branch. Looking straight at her, the bird squawks: 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 times. Seven. Seven tastes like hamburger-flavored tofu, moist and meaty. Her cousin Brittany is allergic to soy and breaks out in welts if she eats it. Seven makes Yésica hungry, but since she isn’t in the school cafeteria, she can’t eat her lunch.
She keeps walking.
By now, she can feel Mrs. Pfeffelman wondering where she is. Science is first period. Soon, Mrs. Pfeffelman will call her mother. Her mother will say to Mrs. Pfeffelman, “What on earth are you doing waking me up from mi descanso?” and Mrs. Pfeffelman will say, “Yésica is not here. Where is Yésica, is she ill?” And her mother will call the police.
This happened before. But before, Yésica did not see a shoe or a Jolly Rancher wrapper or a bird speaking to her in 1s. She had never had a thirteenth birthday before. 1 + 3, she thinks, equals 4. 4 is mysterious, a house with no door. On the other side of the pond are more woods and more brush and the place Mr. Hobson Goode said he would never ever go again.
Yésica is going. The red bird flits over her head
Yésica sees a gleam of metal, then a grey curl of window screen. Propped against a tree is a doll, its arm pointing toward a small trailer. Again, spoons clatter. Spoon is an especially nice word. Spoon is the thing it means. Round and hard and cold. The n is the handle end, which she likes to press into the soft pad on her thumb. Yésica eats with the same spoon every day. Her tongue knows it as well as the insides of her own mouth. Her mother says she has her grandfather’s mouth, with a broad lower lip and a deep bow. Pucker-mouth, her mother says. Pucker up, when she wants a kiss. Pucker makes Yésica laugh. Yésica kisses the air, and with her hand her mother catches the kiss, slow as a moth, and swallows it whole.
The doll warns her: be careful. The doll’s eyes hurt her to look at, so Yésica follows where the arm points, at a stump with an axe sunk in it and wood chips sprayed over the wet ground. Next to the stump is a bucket with a hole. She counts 8 crushed cigarette butts. She hates the number 8, with its rotting, twisted smell. The year she was eight, she did not say a word, for fear the stink would crawl right up her words, down her throat and into her soul, which is absorbent as paper towel.
The day before her 9th birthday, Yésica wrote a note to her mother: “What time was I born?”
Her mother stroked Yésica’s plush snake, since she knew better than to touch Yésica without an invitation. “9:33,” she said.
“AM or PM?” Yésica wrote.
“AM. They swaddled you during the morning traffic report. Like a red sausage. Screaming you were as they took you away. Maybe that is why you can’t get enough noticias.” Her mother wore her Hardee’s shirt, deep blue, and her red nametag: Moni. The snake was named Moni, too. Yésica loved the color blue so much that she had to close her eyes and dig the spoon into her hand.
“Ha,” Yésica wrote. The next day, Yésica spoke at exactly 9:33 a.m.: a rounded, pleasing number, like the hood of a car.
Now she hears voices: a man and a muffled voice that could be a man or a woman. Neither voice fits a kid-sized shoe. The trailer is not like the one she lives in with her mother. Theirs is long and white, with a wood porch in front that Uncle Toño built and metal awnings painted bright blue. Her plastic blue pool is in front, too, with two white plastic chairs. The mailbox has nine plastic daisies at its base, yellow and white and blue, 3 + 3 + 3. This trailer is splotched with grey and sags, the hitch propped on cinder blocks. The rubber tires are sunk in mud. Yésica can see the tracks from where the trailer was dragged in. A black pipe pokes from one window. The screen door hangs off the frame. To one side is a metal barrel next to a pile of something smoldering. Old clothes and empty cans are scattered everywhere.
The voices come and go. The trailer creaks when the people talking move inside. Then Megan Faye is at her side.
“I knew you would come,” Megan Faye says. Her voice is thick, like Yésica’s mother’s when she wakes up.
“It stinks,” says Yésica.
“Stinks,” repeats Megan Faye.
Megan Faye wears a nightgown with a lace collar. The fabric is worn flannel, pink, so Yésica sneezes. Her ghost face looks as if someone has dragged an eraser over a pencil drawing. Megan Faye doesn’t smell like anything. The trailer smells like sick.
“What am I supposed to do?”
“Eat nothing,” the ghost answers, “or you will never be able to go home.”
“I ate my Os.” Yésica remembers her backpack, heavy on her shoulder. “My lunch is in my backpack. Can I eat my lunch?”
“No,” counsels Megan Faye. “They cannot see me, but they can see you. There is a boy here who needs your help. His name is Brad Connor.”
Megan Faye vanishes.
Yésica doesn’t know any Brad Connor. Does Megan Faye want her to knock on the screen door and ask for Brad Connor? Why should she do anything for Brad Connor? She doesn’t want to touch the lopsided door, since it makes her skin feel like a rash. Yésica wishes that her mother were there. Yésica thinks carefully about what her mother might say. Here are things her mother says: keep the television sound low so I can sleep por diós. Go straight to school and come straight back again. Money doesn’t grow on trees. Be polite. Remember to say please and thank you. It’s like the 3 that comes after the 2, her mother says, or the square root of 16. It is one thing that follows another thing, something tú tienes que hacer.
√16. How beautiful, a number in its own tidy trailer, with a hitch. She has to say thank you, Mrs. Pfeffelman, or please, Mrs. Pfeffelman, may I use the bathroom. Then she has to wait, wait, wait! for the person to say yes. Mother says that people talk to people and wait for them to talk back. At work, her mother says please and thank you until she is blue in the face, she tells Yésica. This is what people expect. This is how people get along.
“Blue in the face,” Yésica repeated.
“Not really,” her mother answered. “An expression. Like green with jealousy or red with rage.”
Other times, her mother says things like Don’t talk to that man! or Get away! Once, a man stopped in front of the trailer while Yésica was in the pool. He rubbed his pants over his wiener. Yésica wondered if this was some sort of exercise. Then her mother, who had been hanging laundry, grabbed her arm and pulled her into the trailer. Yésica screamed, but her mother didn’t let go. Her mother got a blanket and Moni, the plush snake, and wrapped the two of them tight as presents. Eventually, Yésica stopped and her mother got the lotion.
As she is wondering about Brad Connor and what her mother would say, a man leaves the trailer. His hair is long and grey. He wears a black t-shirt under a flannel shirt. She sees the ridge of his jaw bone and how his collar bone juts out and how the bones of his knuckles are swollen and creased in dirt. He lights a cigarette. Then he takes a long drink from a can of beer. Yésica smells the beer along with sweat and something else, like the chemicals under the kitchen sink at home. The man squints at the sky, then looks straight at her, crouched in the bushes. But he doesn’t see her.
He is 11, sharp as sticks: Stick Man. But Yésica thinks, no, that can’t be, there is no 9 or 10. There’s no order, and tú tienes que hacer. Then she remembers: Megan Faye has 9 letters in her name. Brad Connor has 10. Stick Man is 11. Twelve is tricky, since it separates the single digits and what she thinks of as true teens, where numbers get tastier, but also more dangerous. Of course, she is 13. Then she thinks: truth and its handle. Thirteen. The letter t. Torpedo. The truth is inside the numbers and the words like cream in a cream-filled doughnut. Something is about to happen and she is at the center of it, waiting.
A chain clanks. From behind the trailer comes a creature. Yellow eyes dig straight into her and she shudders. A low growl seeps from its mouth. The black and brown fur over its ribs form the number 12.
The hairs on Yésica’s neck rise and she stops breathing.
“Shut up, Brutus,” Stick Man says.
“You must find a way to distract it,” whispers Megan Faye. The ghost stands next to her, cradling the doll.
Megan Faye is gone again. This must be the way with ghosts, Yésica thinks. Just as people need her to look them in the eye and say words back, even if the words are stupid and obvious, like “Good morning” on a sunny morning or “Have a nice day!” when there is no way to change the kind of day a person will have, ghosts come and go as they please. Tricky as 12s. Her mother would tell her to be polite. So she must find Brad Connor and at least say hello.
“Get in here,” a voice from inside the trailer shouts.
Stick Man drops the can and crushes it beneath his boot. He goes back inside the trailer.
Brutus growls again. Yésica starts breathing and Brutus’s eyes narrow, needles on her skin. Stick Man and the other person are shouting. Yésica’s stomach rumbles. She has it: lunch. Yésica pulls her lunch bag from her backpack. The lunch bag has Velcro tabs, padding to keep food cool and a compartment for her sandwich, spelt bread with barbecue tofu and shredded carrots. There is an Ambrosia apple, chocolate-covered cranberries and a box of chocolate soy milk. Yésica pulls off a piece of tofu and throws it at Brutus. The dog’s jaws snap in the air. She throws another and another. Brutus does not look at her anymore, only at the flying tofu. So Yésica throws the whole lunch bag as hard as she can. Brutus catches it and drags it beneath the trailer.
For the first time, Yésica notices a pile of rocks under some low bushes near where Brutus had been growling. A stone is wedged over a gap. When she rolls the stone away, she sees steps cut out of the red clay. In the blackness is a bare foot, pale as a mushroom.
“Brad Connor,” she says.
The foot twitches.
“Hello, Brad Connor. Good morning, Brad Connor. How are you today?”
Yésica picks up a twig to touch the sole of the foot. It twitches again. “My name is Yésica Fernández. Today is my birthday. I am 13. I have come to get you.”
The foot disappears. In its place is a face. A boy’s face, streaked in green and brown and some wet red. “I can’t,” the face says. “I’m tied.” The boy crawls out. She sees that a rope is wound around an ankle. The rope is tied to the same stake as Brutus.
Yésica is excellent at knots, patient and strong-fingered. She is careful not to touch his skin as she works off the rope. Still, the boy does not get up.
“Brad Connor?” she says, looking off his shoulder so as not to get trapped in his swirling eyes. He holds out his hand. Her skin crawls but she can’t look away. His eyes are blue. “Help me up. I can’t stand alone. I’ve been in there three days. I’ve pissed myself,” he finishes, licking his filthy lips.
He stinks. He cannot stand without her. She puts her left thumb pad in her mouth and bites. As she does, she reaches out with her right hand. He grasps it and she pulls. His fingers are like worms and as shivery. Brad Connor has no clothes. She bites her hand harder, until she tastes her own flesh. Then he is beside her, still hunched but standing, his arm on her shoulder.
Megan Faye claps. “Hooray!”
“Who in Hell are you?” Stick Man is standing at the trailer door, his mouth hanging open. Instead of teeth, he has glistening nubs. “Marsha, get the fuck out here.”
From the trailer, a thing emerges. It has the body of a woman, but the face is a machine, with a black box where the mouth should be and goggles for eyes. Red patches crawl up her arms and down her bony legs. “What the fuck,” Yésica hears, as if from far away.
“What the fuck,” repeats Stick Man. “Boy, you get back in there.”
“No,” says Brad Connor. Yésica is whimpering with the weight of his arm, and her tongue tastes her own blood. She sees his wiener and the curve of his belly. He is not the boy from the pond. She has never seen Brad Connor before. She knows her mother would want her to hold Brad Connor up, no matter how much it hurts. No one has ever written that in a Book.
“Let’s go,” Brad Connor says to her.
“You’re not going nowheres.” Stick Man grinds his cigarette into the mud. “You are going to take your punishment.”
“Cocksucker,” says Brad Connor. “You are not my Dad.”
Stick Man steps up to wallop the boy with his fist. Brad Connor ducks, and his arm whips from Yésica’s shoulder. Yésica can finally take her hand out of her mouth just as Megan Faye spreads her tiny, razor-sharp wings. The ghost lifts up and thrusts a tree branch at Stick Man, who jumps back. Brad Connor runs.
“This bitch.” Yésica sees the woman’s face now and knows that she should say something. But the woman doesn’t wait for her. “I’ve a mind to … ”
Now truth is too big and tricky as a tornado. Yésica doesn’t know what comes next or what her mother would say or even where she should put her hands, so she whirls them. She wants to count washing machine quarters and stack them in piles or roll in the fall grass when it is toasted and sweet, like Crackerjack, or draw the blanket tight around her shoulders and listen to the weatherman talk about the high-pressure system just off the coast. There are some truths that have no words or numbers at all. Here is one: boys are not to be buried in the ground.
“Hello, Brad Connor!” she yells. The squirrels chuck madly, as if agreeing with her, and the red birds squawk in perfect 7s, surrounding her with invisible thorns.
The woman runs at Yésica, and Megan Faye’s eyes grow circular and vicious. Without warning, the ghost slices her wings at the woman’s scrawny neck. At first, the woman ignores her, as if the wings are just flies or Yésica’s own screams. Her hand closes around Yésica’s arms and Yésica screams even louder. Just as the woman starts to shake her, Yésica hears the woman gasp. The woman’s hands fly to her own neck and claws. She gurgles. Megan Faye batters her from behind, and Yésica learns another truth: there is no escaping a ghost’s fury. Yésica sees no blood, only the effects of a slow spread of nothingness in the woman’s lungs. Yésica takes her two hands and pushes the woman away.
“Lord have mercy,” the woman gasps. She bends, then topples over.
The squirrels chuck-chuck-chuck as Megan Faye swallows every bit of air around the woman. Brad Connor lifts a pair of filthy shorts from the ground and pulls them on.
“Water!” Stick Man cries. He kneels beside the woman. “Marsha, what the fuck? Where’s your inhaler? Girl, get you water for her!”
Yésica always does as she is told. She enters the trailer and sees a sink and a cupboard. The woman had been cooking something, but it is not food. The stink makes her eyes water. Beside the sink is a chipped and cracked glass. She can’t bear to touch it. Instead, she grabs a paper cup with “Hardees,” like the ones on her mother’s name tag. Yésica fills the cup and brings it to Stick Man.
“Here,“ Yésica says to him. “Here,” she repeats. Still he doesn’t respond. “Tú tienes que hacer,” she says. But she might as well be a ghost. He pays her no attention. She sets the water down, and it tips over. He doesn’t seem to care.
Brad Connor is gone.
Megan Faye is back to her original size. She sits on the stump where the chain holding Brutus is attached to a metal ring. Brutus is still under the trailer, ripping Yésica’s lunch bag to shreds. Megan Faye sucks her thumb.
“Why did you hurt her?” Yésica asks.
Megan Faye doesn’t answer.
Stick Man weeps. The woman curls on the ground as if asleep. “She never hurt no one,” Stick Man is saying. “That boy is bad to the bone. Stole. Hit her. Little cocksucker. Now she’s dead and all because of him.”
“Brad Connor was tied up in the ground,” Yésica is saying, more to herself than to him. “He was dirty. He had no clothes. He pissed himself.”
From the place where she left Torpedo, Yésica hears her name. Hobson Goode is the first to enter the camp. After him come three policemen. They talk into the black radios they wear on their shoulders. One of the policemen comes up to Stick Man, who is slumped beside the woman’s body. Megan Faye is gone. The doll sits against the tree, its arm is in its lap.
Then her mother appears, still in her PJs and barefoot. Yésica tells her mother about Brad Connor. She shows her the cave. He had no clothes, she says, and his legs were shiny with pee. She doesn’t tell her mother that she saw his wiener because her mother has gone white as Brad Connor’s mushroom foot. She wishes her mother would explain, but then she remembers that she threw her lunch bag to the dog and the dog has eaten it. Maybe her mother is angry about the lunch bag. Yésica is always losing them and if it’s not one thing it’s another, her mother says, and she should be more careful and money doesn’t grow on trees goddammit.
Yésica says she is sorry about the lunch bag. She will buy a new one with her allowance. Her mother shakes her head, shakes and shakes. Then her mother says, well, let’s go home, you are probably hungry. And she is.
Yésica walks behind her mother, placing her feet inside her mother’s footprints. Torpedo is just where she left it. She rides it home, then sits at the kitchen table to wait for her mother to arrive. Her mother makes her soup and gives her a confetti cupcake. Yésica hears her mother call in sick.
Truth is exhausting. Yésica has had enough for one day. Yésica rinses her bowl and spoon, then curls up in front of the television and falls asleep in her usual spot. A tap tap tap on the roof announces rain.
Brad Connor is on the news that night, boy rescued by local girl. “What a story!” the weatherman says before he talks about the high-pressure front approaching the viewing area. They show a picture of the boy, clean-faced and smiling. Yésica wouldn’t know him except for his eyes, which still hurt to look at.
The next day, while Yésica is at school, Hobson Goode hauls the grey trailer away. Although her mother forbids her to go to the pond, Yésica starts to sneak away when her mother is at work. She is careful to hide Torpedo in the bushes, so no one will bother her and her mother will not take the bicycle away.
They continue to meet. Megan Faye rarely speaks. She doesn’t have to. She and Yésica understand what happens in the woods. One thing follows another and tú tienes que hacer. The squirrels chuck and the birds speak in sevens as they hop from branch to branch. Even when it rains, the animals take the bits of bread and tofu Yésica throws, always hungry for more.
For Vera, the transition from seeing a ghost to becoming one began subtly, like the first leaf sailing down to her sunny marigolds in September. It was not terrifying, because the ghost was so beautifully dressed. In a rusty-rose, tweed jacket with a peplum, a full skirt, straw hat and big, pearl earrings, she reminded Vera of her Auntie Jane, who had died when Vera was 12. As she faded, Vera detected the nocturnal smell of moonflowers — which grew, long ago, in Auntie Jane’s garden but never in Vera’s. Although pleasant, this encounter was jarring for Vera because she knew something about death. She had watched her father slowly pass away at St. Otto’s Nursing Home. She remembered him gazing past her and conversing with numerous invisible people, sometimes her recently departed mother and sometimes strangers. “Don’t lean back!” he had once warned her, laughing, with an amazed expression on his face. “There’s a man with a long white moustache right behind you and, look out, you are almost in his lap.” The nurse-practitioner’s theory — that chemicals flooding his brain were likely causing hallucinations — was more than offset by the observations of daily attendants who whispered that it was not uncommon for dying patients to have visitors from the other side. So Vera interpreted this visit as a friendly warning of her own demise. Well, at least I have time to prepare, she figured.
At breakfast the next morning, Vera perused the local newspaper for Driscoll’s Department Store advertisements. She had regrets about the suit her father was laid out in. No one could find the navy blue business suit he had worn to work on Madison Avenue, nor the one he had danced in, after retirement, aboard the QE2. So they selected the one he had worn to his wife’s funeral, which they found in his closet, still fresh from the cleaners, sadly waiting for the next grim affair. Vera swore she would go out in style and, luckily for her, Driscoll’s was having a sale.
A dress on page two caught her eye. It was a green, botanical print with long sleeves. “Fetch your leash, Toby,” she commanded her brown, miniature dachshund. “We are going shopping.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Maddie from Misses hurried across the parking lot to punch in at Driscoll’s.
The Misses’ Fitting Rooms were already full. Women with armloads of autumn dresses and recently marked down pants and blouses stood in line, waiting to get in; husbands yawned on couches; howling toddlers tried to jiggle free from strollers. All the while, Maddie’s friend, Olivia, merrily chatted with the shoppers as she hung up clothing.
“Hey, Maddie,” her voice sang out above the din.
“What’s up, Liv? You look great today,” said Maddie. And she meant it. Olivia, in her leaner days, could have been a model, with her stature, lush lashes, and long-layered hair, and simple outfits accessorized with eye-catching jewelry.
“Thanks. So do you,” she said, but Maddie was not convinced. With her wiry, red hair, square chin, and craft-loving hands, she never felt movie-star-beautiful.
“Excuse me, do you work here?” asked a shopper with a brittle voice, iridescent, white hair, and designer eyeglasses. A dachshund wearing a harness perked up in her shopping cart.
“How adorable! Look, Liv! What is his name?”
“Toby,” she said, proudly. “I take him everywhere.”
“May I help you?” asked Maddie.
“Yes, please. Can you tell me where to find this?” she said, pointing to a dress in a Driscoll’s ad.
Maddie recognized it immediately because it was one she had planned to buy herself the next day, when a special sale for associates was starting. She loved the silky fabric with little teal vines unfurling on a jade background. She had one hidden, tagged with her name, behind the folding table in the Fitting Room.
“Sure … follow me,” said Maddie, leading the customer to the new line of autumn dresses. As they meandered in and around the sportswear, Vera explained why finding that particular dress was important to her.
“I am going to be the guest of honor at a big party, with all of my friends and relatives, so I need something special to wear.”
“A milestone?” Maddie guessed it might be her 75th birthday.
“Yes,” said Vera, thinking more like a gravestone.
Looking through the dresses, Maddie asked, “What size do you wear?”
Same as me, thought Maddie, checking the tags disingenuously. She knew that the one she had stashed away was the only size-extra-small, botanical-print dress they had in the store.
“I think we’re plumb out of luck. Sorry. Want to try small?” Maddie asked. “Or maybe another color? We have an extra-small in aubergine … ”
“No. Thank you anyway,” said Vera, wheeling her cart, with Toby in it, around toward the back of the store.
Marisol, who was folding jeans on a table nearby, sniped, “They expect us to be personal shoppers!”
“They do,” said Maddie, tackling a heap of long-sleeve t-shirts on the other side, sorting them by color, folding and laying them one exactly on top of the other.
“People are pigs,” said Marisol, jingling bracelets as she twisted her long, black hair up into a knot. Meanwhile, Olivia pushed two z-rails full of clothing out into the aisles.
“Crystal wants you to run these now,” she said, meaning they had to hang everything where it belonged. Crystal, the assistant manager, had a strong build, a powerful laugh, and a glare that could make anyone’s stomach churn.
Marisol looked at the rails and sighed.
“At least we’re burning calories,” said Maddie. Shoulders aching, she grabbed one of the z-rails and pushed it down toward Misses, opposite Seasonal, where Christmas decorations were already encroaching on Halloween. A few children were playing with the interactive items — the display models of a light-up jack-o-lantern and a light-up haunted house; and a device for previewing holiday music CDs.
Maddie hung a few blouses in Clearance, where she spotted Vera and her dog a second time. Her cart was now brimming with Housewares sale items. Four cherry bath towels, a wicker bread basket, and two sunflower pillows were piled around Toby. A wind chime dangled from the cart handle.
Vera still believed her death was imminent, but her head asked how imminent. And her heart replied that surely she still had time to enjoy a few more bargains from Driscoll’s — a few more mornings in the garden, a few more loaves of crusty bread, a few more baths, a few more evenings on the sofa, watching TV with Toby. Maybe we’ll celebrate Christmas a little early this year, she thought, eyeing the snowglobes, tree ornaments, and scented candles across the aisle.
“Did you find a dress?” asked Maddie, feeling a tad guilty about the one she had kept hidden.
“Not yet,” she said.
Maddie, quite familiar with the size extra-small Clearance merchandise, deftly extracted a prussian-blue dress from the “Nautical Nights” collection and held it up.
“I love it,” said Vera, squinting to see the yellow price tag marking it down to $9.80.
“Try it on,” said Maddie, adding it to her cart, behind Toby.
About an hour later, in the fitting room, she saw the customer a third time as she emerged from one of the cubicles, wearing the prussian-blue dress. She looked fabulous.
“Very nice! Fits you perfectly,” said Olivia.
“Thank you,” said Vera. Then she did something odd. She laid down on the couch in the Fitting Room, folded her hands across her chest and closed her eyes. And asked Maddie to snap her picture with her cell phone.
Maddie looked at Olivia. “I don’t get it,” she whispered.
“Neither do I,” whispered Olivia. “But just do it and let’s get her out of here. Crystal is watching, and you have to finish those rails.”
Maddie took the snapshot and handed the cell phone back to the customer.
Vera opened her eyes, studied the photo, and imagined herself in a mahogany box, tastefully asleep in the prussian-blue dress. Not the one I had in mind, she thought, but it will do. She considered asking Maddie to call other Driscoll’s stores to inquire if they had the botanical-print dress in her size, but did not want to overburden Maddie, who seemed so kind. Besides, the one she had on was a great bargain. Blue dress, it is, she decided.
Maddie ran the rails until her shift ended.
On her way out, she saw Vera smile as a cashier rang up her purchases, wowing her with how much money she saved.
No one expected that as Vera exited the store, the giant letter “D” from big green DRISCOLL’S sign would snap off the building’s exterior and come pounding down on her head. Maddie, who was walking to her car, heard the noise and turned around to see the customer lying face down near the entrance, under the big letter. Toby, still strapped inside the cart, barked and wriggled, making the cart roll forward, toward the parking lot. Maddie ran back and stopped the cart, and waited with Toby until the police and the ambulance arrived.
The news coverage of the Driscoll’s accident started out on the front page, but shrank daily with each subsequent report. The stories focused on what could cause a letter to separate from a store’s signage (some speculated that bird droppings had deteriorated the fixture’s metal supports); whether a lawsuit for negligence would follow (one eventually did); Vera’s fate (she died of head trauma at the hospital, a few hours after her injury); and Toby’s fate (Vera’s sister adopted him).
No one reported the full impact on Driscoll’s employees.
Maddie arrived early the next morning. The store felt peaceful, devoid of customers, with the rain drumming on the roof. Vera’s death had not hit the news yet.
After punching in, Maddie retrieved the botanical-print dress from behind the table in the fitting room. She tried it on, and gazed into the tall, three-fold mirror in one of the cubicles. Maddie could not remember the last time a dress made her feel so beautiful. Mesmerized by her own reflection, it was minutes before Maddie realized she was not alone. An older woman wearing a sweet-but-nauseating perfume was standing behind her, dressed in an odd, rose-colored outfit and big pearl earrings. She tapped Maddie on the shoulder.
“What a lovely dress, dear,” is all Maddie heard her say. But she also whispered, under her breath, “If Vera can’t have it, no one can.”
When Maddie turned around, she was gone.
How strange, Maddie thought. She considered alerting Loss Prevention about the suspicious shopper but didn’t, because she couldn’t remember the correct number to call.
Around noon, Vera’s death was reported on the local television network. Everyone at Driscoll’s who happened to be eating lunch in the Break Room at the time heard the news from the giant flat-screen over the dining table. Maddie nearly choked on a potato chip.
“Isn’t that the lady you were helping yesterday?” asked Deirdre from Customer Service.
“Yes,” said Maddie.
“How sad,” said Deirdre, munching a sandwich. “I saw her in Seasonal, listening to the Christmas CDs … with her little dog in the cart. She looked sweet.”
“She was,” said Maddie, going back to the floor.
The sky outside the glass doors darkened. Lightning zig-zagged over the parking lot and, as the day wore on, little, random, unsettling things happened throughout the store. Sally from Kids noticed an unattended cart rolling down the aisle between Toys and Ladies’ Denim. Bill from Housewares observed the Haunted House and the Jack-O-Lantern lighting up on their own. Evan from Shoes got annoyed because a shoe box refused to stay put, repeatedly poking out an inch or so from the perfect wall of shoe boxes it had taken him over an hour to create. Deirdre heard a Christmas CD playing on its own. And in Misses, Maddie heard the sound of hangers sliding over rails from an area where no one was rummaging. Then she got paged by the robotic voice of Customer Call Box — “Misses … Misses” — only to find an abandoned shopping cart with windchimes dangling from the handle.
The rumor that Driscoll’s was haunted rapidly ignited and spread throughout the store.
Tara from Beauty, a college student with an elfin face, rainbow hair, and a nose-ring, reacted joyously. She had a passion for all things occult. Heart beating wildly, she ran to her locker to retrieve her prized possession — a mint tin that resembled a tiny ouija board — and brought it back to Beauty. There, a small crowd of associates gathered to watch her hold the tin very steadily in her palm, place a mint “plank” on top of it, and quietly asked the spirit its name. “It’s moving,” she said, gasping as the plank floated over the letters “V,” “E,” “R,” and “A.”
“It’s definitely Vera,” said Tara.
“I knew it,” said Sally.
“What does she want?” asked Deirdre.
Tara tapped on the mint tin some more and, seconds later, the tiny plank floated once more over the letters.
“What she came for,” Tara replied.
“Huh?” asked Deirdre. “Let’s ask Maddie what she was shopping for. She helped Vera yesterday.”
“Good idea,” said Tara.
“Heads up. Here comes Crystal,” said Bill.
Tara furtively tapped “Goodbye” on the tin and stashed it in her pocket, while the little gathering dispersed.
Meanwhile, Sal from Freight was delivering a fresh tote of hangers to Olivia in the fitting room. He said all this talk about a Driscoll’s ghost was “ridiculous” and “about the stupidest thing” he had ever heard. “Listen to me,” he said. “Everything has a logical explanation. Electrical malfunctions on account of the storm are probably to blame for everything weird that’s been happening.”
Olivia agreed, and reminded Maddie to buy her dress before going home.
Maddie’s eyes welled up with tears.
“What’s the matter?” asked Olivia.
“I can’t buy it now,” said Maddie. “It’s the one Vera wanted, and now she’s dead!”
“Sure you can. It’s not your fault,” said Sal, “that a sign fell on her head.”
“And you knocked yourself out for her,” said Olivia. “Who found her that gorgeous, blue dress?”
“But she really wanted the dress I hid for myself. I should have offered it to her.”
“Well, she can’t use it now,” said Sal, smirking, “unless she wants to be buried in it.”
Maddie knew Sal was only teasing her, but this comment made her recall Vera lying down on the fitting room couch with her arms folded across her chest, and she suddenly wondered if that was not exactly what the customer had in mind.
“Maybe,” said Maddie, “I should try to contact the family and let them know I found the dress she was shopping for, you know, in case they want to bring it to the funeral parlor.”
“Are you crazy?” said Olivia. “You want to contact a grieving family who doesn’t know you … ”
“ … and who is probably suing the store already,” said Sal.
“Crystal will have a fit!” said Olivia.
“I guess you’re right,” said Maddie, drying her eyes with a tissue. “So what should I do with the dress?”
“Buy it and wear it in good health, you nutjob,” said Olivia.
So Maddie bought the dress after punching out that day. Guiltily gleeful at all the money she saved, she carried her purchase out to her car, hopping over puddles in the parking lot. Maddie tossed the Driscoll’s bag onto the back seat and turned the radio on to her usual classical station which featured medieval music that day. As she drove, the music soothed her nerves — even though one of the songs was a long, flute and harp rendition of “Greensleeves” — until, about halfway home, she heard a rustling noise in the background. Was it static? She turned off the radio, but the noise continued. No, not static. Could it be the wind? No, it was coming from inside the car, behind her. When she stopped at the traffic light, she glanced at the back seat, and saw the Driscoll’s bag moving like something was crawling inside it. Nonsense, she told herself, like Olivia. It’s just the car jostling the bag around. Don’t panic, she told herself, like Sal.
At last, Maddie turned onto her street and pulled into her driveway. When she parked the car, the noise stopped. But she opened the back door to find the Driscoll’s bag empty and the dress sitting up like a passenger. It was just too absurd! How ridiculous, thought Maddie, laughing nervously. Then she spoke to the dress. “I don’t care how that happened,” she said, stuffing it firmly back inside the bag, “you are nothing but a piece of clothing and you won’t get the better of me!”
Maddie went inside. The house was empty, with everyone else still at work or school. Maddie poured herself a generous glass of Chablis. She went upstairs and changed into her new dress so she could see how it looked, with the proper shoes on, in her cheval mirror.
But for the zipper, which nipped a tiny piece of skin at the base of her neck, the dress went on easily and it looked amazing. Minutes later, however, although it didn’t look tight, the dress began to feel very tight. The silky-but-stretchy fabric compressed her arms and her middle.
She took it off, letting it drop to the floor, threw on a robe, and finished her wine. She decided to take a cat nap before making dinner, and sank into a dream in which the little teal vines on the botanical-print transformed into blue snakes with tiny red eyes and pointy, yellow fangs. They wrapped around her body, constricting her respiration, and bit into her flesh.
Luke was in the bedroom, hanging up his jacket and tie, when she awoke.
“Hard day, honey?” he asked. “I hope you don’t mind, but while you were sleeping, I ordered take-out — sesame chicken, pork fried rice, wonton soup and a couple of egg rolls.”
“What a husband,” said Maddie, hugging him.
“New dress?” he said, picking it up off the floor.
“Yes, but it’s going back tomorrow.”
“I don’t like it. I’ll buy you socks instead,” she said on the way downstairs to wait for the food delivery.
Maddie exchanged the dress at Customer Service the next morning. Within weeks, Driscoll’s sold out of every other dress in the same collection, both in-store and online because it was so popular; however, the extra-small, botanical-print one inexplicably remained in the store. Many women tried it on, and rejected it. Others bought the dress and later returned it for a refund. It became a running joke among the Misses associates to encounter the dress “hiding” in different places — crouched on a shelf behind some sweaters, dangling from the overhead trolley in the stock room, or burrowing under the disrespected, fallen clothing in Clearance. But Maddie never laughed. She never told anyone about the day she found it sitting upright in the back of her car — they’d think she was losing it, and maybe they would be right. And she had an additional reason to dislike that dress.
One day, while she was up on a stepladder, organizing the blouses that hung against the wall above a row of trousers, she fell and broke her wrist. She also suffered numerous contusions, and had to file an accident report.
“What happened?” Crystal asked her.
“I have no idea. I felt the ladder jiggle and I lost my balance.”
“The ladder moved?”
“Yeah, I don’t know why. I guess I’m just clumsy,” she replied.
Crystal asked Sam in Loss Prevention to run the videotape caught on the store’s surveillance camera, which showed the botanical-print dress coiled around the bottom of one leg of the stepladder. Tugging it, it appeared to Maddie. She gulped. That dress hates me. It’s trying to kill me.
“Next time, be more careful when you use the ladder. Make sure there’s nothing under it,” said Crystal.
“Of course,” said Maddie, although she knew for certain that she had not placed the ladder on top of the dress.
At night, when the lights dimmed after the robotic announcement, “Driscoll’s is now closed,” the dress creeped among the shelves and slithered along the floors throughout the store. Maddie found it one morning with a trail of dust on one side.
“Well, we can’t sell it like this,” Maddie decided, so she took it to the cash register to print out a “damaged” ticket. The dress writhed as Maddie stapled the ticket to the sleeve with vengeance. Then she tossed it onto a pile of “discards” in Customer Service. “Goodbye,” she said to the botanical-print dress. Why didn’t I think of this before?
But that night, the dress escaped from the bin, wriggled free of the ticket, and made its way to the fitting room where Vera’s ghost waited, as always, to try it on.
Featured image: Two Women on the Shore (1898) by Edvard Munch, The Art Institute of Chicago