I kept all your milk teeth in an old jam jar, you know, after taking them from underneath your pillow. Over the years I paid you twenty dollars in singles and collected an ever-increasing rattle, holding you while you cried and bled and healed and teethed again. You never lost your faith in the Tooth Fairy or Santa or the Easter Bunny, even when you were ostensibly too old not to wonder, and I had to fill you in over steaming bowls of pho at the corner store on Second and Main and you did your best to fight the tears but they came strong as ever.
You were a late bloomer, a real shrinking violet when it
came to speaking up, and the other moms would always tell me how to fix you
with honey in their voices and arsenic in their eyes. Don’t you think he’s a little strange, they’d always ask, and haven’t you tried music therapy or tae kwon do or did you give him the MMR vaccine before he started to talk? It was
that sticky smile in the asking, the way their questions sounded like
accusations, the pseudoscientific bullshit they’d shoot me with until I stopped
showing up to parent functions.
So bright, you always were, though, and curious, but your
fear grew in lopsided like your upper left canine. You gave no thought to
reckless things, stepped into traffic to see how headlights look up close, but
shrank at little things like raising your hand or talking to the boy next door.
I always told you life was a fragile thing like the little glass doll you used
to love that fell and lost her head. You never listened.
Rough and tumble, you racked up scrapes and bruises faster
than I could count, but as you aged the nature of them changed. Your eyes grew
purple underneath from late nights studying, your wrists callused from resting
against the keyboard. Your teeth straightened out on their own, almost like
you’d willed them to when you found out how damn much braces would cost. You
were always stubborn like that.
Anyway, all this is just to say that I still had your teeth
rattling around in my bedside table when you graduated, and I still had your
teeth when you moved away to college on the opposite coast, and they sat in the
jar still rimmed with residue of age-old peach preserves when they became all
that was left of you.
They kept you in cold storage for almost a month while I
made up my mind because I knew you couldn’t bear the thought of being chewed by
worms, but I couldn’t let them turn you to dust. Those are your options, they told me, take your time (but not too much). I could hear the parentheticals,
and I could hear the tick-tick-ticking as the clock wound down. I didn’t know
what they’d do to you if I couldn’t decide. But I couldn’t decide.
You’d never believe it if I—no, you would. Only you would,
because when I was talking to you with my mouth half-full of noodles you
stopped me with watery eyes and made me promise never to lie to you again. I
held fast to that promise just as soon as I gulped down the broth and we were
always straight with each other. You used to tell me things, but you stopped.
Sometimes I wonder if…
But you were cold and hard and smooth, like a diamond in one
of those fancy steel drawers, and I was hours away because I couldn’t afford
the plane ticket out with all the cost of the funeral I was delaying. I slept
with the windows open like always, letting the sound of rain on rustling leaves
try to steady my breathing. I was curled into myself beneath the blankets and I
remembered the way your hair used to smell when you were little, sweet and
clean like day-old shampoo and a hint of sweat and fabric softener and vanilla.
I couldn’t cry.
But something scuttled at the windowsill and when it
wouldn’t stop I looked up. In the dim illumination of the city’s light-polluted
glow, there was just the fuzzy outline of a squirrel, slick aerodynamic body
belied by a bloated silk-spun tail, perched and staring with glassy eyes. I
froze, a shiver sliding up my spine, and could only watch as the squirrel leapt
down to the nightstand and bent over, its small busy hands tugging at the
Everything that followed was sounds. A whoosh as the drawer
opened, a thud as the squirrel leapt in, and the sound of rustling as it
burrowed, searching, searching. The rattle of teeth as it found its mark.
It lifted the jar and leapt out of the drawer holding it,
though by all odds it shouldn’t have been strong enough to do so. And it shook
the jar some more, scampering back to the windowsill on two stubby legs, and in
a last brief flash of lightning before it jumped away, it smiled, and that
squirrel had your teeth.
I called up that minute when a gunshot thunderbolt swept the
squirrel away and no one answered, of course, because it was the middle of the
night, even in your time zone. But the next morning I looked out at the little
mound of overturned dirt beneath the roots of that oak you used to play by, and
I called them and told them to bury you in the ground before winter because
that wasn’t you anymore, not really. You were a beautiful boy, you were, and
now you are only a smile.
Daisy died in front of my house on
an unseasonably warm Friday afternoon. Her arms were wrapped tight around the
bloodiest bible you’ve ever seen. The sun was beating down nearly as hard as
the car had, and I, in my wool coat and gloves, was sweating hard. I thought it
was the heat, but in retrospect, seeing something like that took just as big a
toll, maybe bigger.
I probably should’ve called the
cops straight away, or at least taken down the number on the plate, but frankly
I was so caught off guard by her and that book that I forgot to look. I thought
it was red, but when I got over to where she was lying with her chest moving up
and down in an uneven rhythm, I realized it’d been bloody all this time, soaked
through from front to back. The craziest thing was that she herself didn’t have
a speck of red on her, except where she was clutching it with white-knuckled
fervor. I guess it was the impact that did it, shocked the beat out of her
heart or something, but she wasn’t bleeding anywhere that I could see.
I’ll admit I let curiosity get
the better of me. It always does, and I always let it, and then when I wind up
in these sorts of jams I guess there’s no one to blame but myself, but anyhow I
don’t believe in guilt so it all kind of works out. So I took off my gloves so
they wouldn’t stain and I pried the book from her hands, but they were getting
real tight, and even with the blood making the leather all slippery I couldn’t
really get a good hold on it because my fingers were sliding more than hers,
but I kept on. When I heard a few snapping sounds I looked down at her, and her
chest had stopped moving and I said a little apology in case her spirit was
still nearby and listening and yanked the book good and tight and left her
fingers there at a bit of an angle.
Now I was all slick with it, and
really I should’ve showered and called the cops or something but I figured she
was dead and wasn’t going anywhere and I had missed the license number anyway
and so I might as well take a look at this thing before the pages all fused
There wasn’t much ink I could
make out anymore. If you’ve ever seen paper all saturated with iron and gore
then you understand it’s a whole lot darker than you’d think, and fragile. I
didn’t want to rip the pages and they made this awful squelching sound when you
tried to pull them apart anyway. It wasn’t hard to tell, though, from the care
in the binding and the embossed golden cross on the front, that this was a
bible, King James if I had to guess from the heft of it.
I was wondering where she’d gone
to get such a book and how it had come to be so thoroughly drenched in blood,
almost like the words themselves were dripping, when I noticed something else
odd. It started with a whisper of salt, like sweat or tears, and then I saw the
color fading from the bottom of the page, diluting as water began running from
it instead. The ink was taken with it, just leaving paper with the memory of
pinkness at the edges, and when I pried open more pages to figure it out I saw
a hole there, right in the center, oozing blood from one side and water from
And I said to myself, well, would you look at that, and then
remembered that in the heat of the day Daisy would start to smell soon if
someone didn’t come take care of her so I shut the bible and stuck it in the
kitchen sink so it wouldn’t keep leaking on my floor, then I went and got a mop
and after that took a shower, and when I called they didn’t take long at all to
show up and block off the road while they took pictures of her lying there with
her skin unruptured and her fingers all broken up and bloody.
Later they found the guy that did
it based on the approximate size and shape of the dent on his bonnet, and he
didn’t say a word throughout the whole trial even when his own lawyer questioned
him. He’s still locked up, but the book disappeared from my kitchen sink by
Sunday even though my doors and windows were sealed. A lot of folks have come
by lately, cops and reporters and curious folks asking questions I don’t have
answers to, and I wonder if maybe I shouldn’t’ve touched it at all because they
just keep coming like rats.
Exactly one year after my father’s death, he woke me three
hours before dawn. It went something like this: the ceiling staring down at me,
me staring up at it, the moon glittering off the chandelier, and my hands
curled into fists. He was sitting at the end of the bed—he had pulled the
covers up and was now pinching my toes as though trying to figure out what they
were. I couldn’t move them but I could feel his incessant tickletwitch touch.
If I had the wherewithal to unclench my jaw I would have told him to leave off,
but I’m not so sure he would’ve understood. He died before he taught me how to
talk to ghosts, and it would appear no one had really taught him how to talk to
the living. So instead we sat in silence, me stiff-muscled and silent and him
still fiddling with my toes.
When the sun finally rose I felt the strength return to my
muscles, and as I sat up I realized my father was gone. I couldn’t point to the
moment it happened—it was like I’d forgotten something. If I hadn’t known to
expect him, I wouldn’t have believed myself. But he had told me, on the day of
the crash, that he’d see me next year, and my father was nothing if not
When he’d died, my mother had taken to washing the dishes
herself, scrubbing them until her bony fingers split at the surface like
grapes. I told her not to worry and even Gianni, my father’s suave Italian
butler, stepped in. He put his foot down when he saw the wine glasses streaked
with blood. As he bandaged up her cuts, Gianni said grief worked in mysterious
ways. My father would have laughed, or maybe been offended that my mother had
so little faith. But after years as the wife of a television medium, she’d lost
whatever belief in the beyond she might have started with.
At any rate it had taken a year after my father’s death for
him to visit, but once he started he wouldn’t stop. It became incessant—every
night I’d wake up at three a.m. and he would be sitting there at the end of the
bed. He wasn’t always alone—sometimes a few other shades would be with him, and
they’d walk around the room, or come closer to inspect the top of me. He had
stopped playing with my toes but it seemed the mysteries of flesh were still
captivating to the dead. He did a lot of eyebrow stroking for a week or so,
then some ear tugging. Once, one of his companions slid her cold dead finger up
my nose, and if I hadn’t been paralyzed and if she hadn’t been dead, I would’ve
killed her then and there. But I was, and she was, so I glowered instead.
It seemed like there were more and more of them every night,
but never the same ones. There were new ghosts and old ghosts, shades of every
race, religion, and creed, and they were all stuffed into my bedroom, inspecting
the place, inspecting me. They carried with them some astral chill that stifled
my breathing to thin, shallow gasps, and the more they poked at me the stiffer
I felt, like a cadaver. Once in a while one would try to lie down in my place
but my father would always corral them away just at the moment before fusion. I
didn’t know exactly what would happen if they joined into me, but I wasn’t so
sure I wanted to learn firsthand.
When Gianni noticed the dark circles under my eyes, I had to
confess I wasn’t sleeping. He told me to try some of my mother’s sedatives, but
they didn’t help at all. I was just groggier the next morning. Instead I asked
Gianni if he’d kept my father’s papers, and I began to study.
Scribbled on yellow legal pads and scrawled in the margins
of books, my father had left a lot to work with, but little of it was relevant
to me. It seemed he wasn’t interested in the theory of ghostwork, but rather
the psyches of the dead. His notes read like those of a therapist. Onscreen,
he’d always acted… well, larger than life. That was the name of his show. But here,
now, I could see he was a man obsessed.
I could find no guidance for talking to ghosts, no evidence
my father had ever experienced the same paralysis I was undergoing. Instead, I
found out only that ghosts felt more welcome in the presence of burning mugwort
but hated sage, that they often cared
more about the body they left behind than the people they had, and that they could
manifest just about anywhere, but once they had they couldn’t travel through
That last one sparked
my interest. I always slept with my door closed, afraid of someone creeping in
during the night. But now that I had dozens of nightly visitors, I realized
perhaps I could let them out. That night I piled sage onto a ceramic plate on
my bedside table and set it to smoldering, and left my door wide open, sure
that this time I would finally get some rest.
Needless to say it did not go as planned.
I woke with sensation in my limbs, surrounded by sage smoke but
ghost-free. I checked, and checked again, sitting bolt upright and even
stepping out of bed to prove I could. It was still dark out, the kind of cloudy
night where you can’t even see the stars, and so lit only by the ember remnants
of the herbs I poked my head out of the door.
I heard a sound like running water, and despite the smoky
heat I shivered. It was probably Gianni doing some household task. But then
again, maybe it wasn’t. With the door open, who knew what mayhem the ghosts were
I decided to investigate. I walked down the hall on the
balls of my feet, as though by tiptoeing I could sneak up on ghosts. It felt
reassuring in a frail way, like pulling a blanket over yourself and pretending
like that will ward off monsters and murderers.
In the kitchen I found my mother at the sink, her eyes wide
open as she scrubbed and scrubbed at spotless plates. It had been a while since
I’d seen her do this last, but the image of her bloody fingers was fresh as
“Mom?” I asked. She stared and stared at nothing, and didn’t
stop scouring the dish.
“Mom,” I tried again, but she kept going, so I called loudly
I could hear his footsteps, then so many footsteps like a
stampede. He walked into the room from the long hallway, flanked by ghosts.
I felt the motion drain from my limbs and I froze in place
as the ghosts filled the room and began poking at me, tugging at my mother. She
was still washing the dishes, her hair disheveled and her nightgown sweaty, and
she didn’t seem to notice as the ghosts pulled at her flesh.
I looked at Gianni, and Gianni looked at me and seemed to
take in my condition.
“Now, now, Evelyn, that isn’t nice. Let him go, please,” he
said, and immediately I could move. I jerked away from one set of ghosts and
tumbled into the next.
“You…” I said. It was all I could spit out.
“Yes, me.” He was smiling as he said it. I looked around for
my father, but he was nowhere to be seen.
“You didn’t really think your father could do any of it
himself, did you?”
I’d never seen Gianni look so alive. It only made the dead
look paler, thinner, poor facsimiles of the living. You could see they had no
“I saw him speaking to ghosts on Larger Than Life. I read his notes!”
“You read my notes. Couldn’t you tell they weren’t really
his style? No, he would go on set and manipulate poor sad widows into revealing
things they didn’t realize, and he’d regurgitate their message back at them.
When it came to real ghosts, when he needed real information, that was all me.
Until he decided he didn’t, anymore.”
I swallowed hard. My aching fists were clenched like they
were still paralyzed.
“And even now, look what he’s done. All that trouble I went
to, arranging the crash and everything, and he still finds a way to profit off
the dead. He’s been charging them to see you, you know.”
Just then my mother dropped a dish into the sink and it
“Mom?” I said, my voice raw and high and scratchy.
“Oh, that’s not your mother. It hasn’t been for a while. She
was bothering me, asking too many questions, so I had her replaced.”
I felt my eyes bulge. “Replaced? With what?”
“Now, now, you’re being rude, just like your father. With whom, you mean. And her name is Edith.
She died some hundred and seventy years ago or so, and she just doesn’t
understand the dishwasher.”
It felt too staged to be real and I expected at any moment
to wake in my room again, groggy from some strange, sage-induced hallucination
until Gianni stepped forwards and touched my face.
“I always thought you were cleverer than your father.
Wouldn’t you like to join me in rebuilding his empire on a real foundation now?”
I opened my mouth to say yes, to convince him for long
enough to get to my sage-safe room, or outside at least. But he saw all the no he needed in my eyes.
“Very well, then, Evelyn, take him,” he said, stepping off
to the side. I felt my body go stiff and lock again.
“They all want a piece of the living, you see. I try to tell
them it won’t last, but that hasn’t stopped them yet.”
And they came forwards and tugged at my toes until they
popped off, and bit at my ears until they ripped, and they divided and divided
me and I screamed and screamed until I was one of them.