A month after Danielle Haas was buried, the cemetery caretaker Mr. Wolf was found dead on the grounds with a rake in his hand and an awful look on his face like he’d just seen the Devil, or so the rumor went at school. Everybody was so convinced that he’d met the ghost of Lady Horn—the wife of the town’s founder, an insane woman buried in Plot 9—that nobody noticed that Danielle’s body was missing until it turned up a week later in the Roths’ living room, cold and clean and stiff-as-a-board, though not light-as-a-feather. The Roths surrendered her to the morgue, which then held onto the body during a slow and meandering sheriff’s investigation into possible grave tampering, and thirty days later the coroner Dr. Arnold was found dead in her office, looking just as wretched as Mr. Wolf, and Danielle was gone again.
By the time Danielle showed up on the floor of the Neumanns’ lemon-fresh kitchen, people had figured out what was going on. There was a four-hour town meeting for the grown-ups in the high school auditorium, and the older kids watched the younger ones over pizza and candy, by turns scared and excited because they were finally getting a taste of true adults-only Emergency. Tegan Sauer had just read The Giver and was sure they were on the verge of undergoing a terrible communal transformation from which she and her brother Emory would have to rescue everyone.
“So what are we going to do?” Emory asked when their mother came home from the meeting, looking exhausted and sniffly in her oversized all-weather jacket.
“We’re going to share the burden,” their mother said, filling a glass of water so she could take her usual clatter of pills. “Everything’s going to be fine.”
“What do you mean, share the burden?”
“We’re all going to chip in and take in Danielle for a month.”
Upset worked its way into Emory’s face. “It’s not our fault that she killed herself, that was Jon Richter and Matty Böhm. Everybody knows that.” Those two were always in and out of school, taking days off to talk to their lawyers, trying to settle with Danielle’s family out-of-court. Their neighbor who sometimes drove their mother to work after heavy snowstorms said that the case against the two boys was so weak that they never would have been able to convict them in criminal court, and if Danielle hadn’t killed herself there would have been no civil suit either. It’s really sad, but they shouldn’t have to pay just because she was unbalanced, he said. There’s a lot of pressure on young girls to be popular these days, he added, looking at Tegan meaningfully, as if to tell her not to follow in those footsteps, to stay good and sweet.
“Because we’re not that kind of town,” said their mother. “Besides, this way it’ll be under control, not some random . . . freak accident.” She had been friends with Dr. Arnold since their father died in a random freak accident on an icy road on Valentine’s Day. The two women used to go out on the back porch to drink wine, and their mother usually ended up crying.
“So we all have to live with a corpse for a month? One that can apparently kill us?”
“No one’s going to die, I told you,” their mother said, shutting off the kitchen light. In the dark she was just another pillar in a Roman temple. “That’s why we’re doing this, so nobody dies. Now upstairs, both of you. Chop, chop.”
Tegan had that stuck in her head until dawn: the murder-corpse going Chop chop.
“She needs to have her revenge,” said Gabby Schultz, as they watched Amy Neumann eat carrot sticks across the cafeteria. The body was staying with the Neumanns through the end of the month, and Amy Neumann had already been guaranteed a passing grade for the quarter. “You know she’s doing this because her spirit is so angry.”
“What do you think it’s like, having her body in the house with you? Isn’t she decaying?”
“Ask Amy,” said Gabby, and just then Amy Neumann turned her head and stared at them with shiny blue eyes like frozen ponds. Immediately, they closed their mouths.
Everyone was holding their breath for the Neumanns to die before their 30th day with the body, but they didn’t. The funeral home came to pick up the body in the only hearse in Iram’s Mill and drove Danielle to her next stop: the Franke newlyweds, who lived out by the long-closed lumber factory and had so little room that they had to put her coffin in their would-be nursery. Amy Neumann started laughing again, but she also had some choice words for the boys of Iram’s Mill that she shared during a Halloween sleepover.
“It wasn’t just Jon and Matty,” Amy whispered. “There were other boys at that party.”
The other seventh-grade girls leaned in hard. “Who?” they asked, but Amy just shrugged.
“She didn’t say who.”
The thought of other boys terrified Tegan. She had reconciled herself with the thought of Jon and Matty, two senior football players with abrasive laughs and the tendency to sneer, raping a sixteen-year-old girl at a party. She knew Emory was scared of Jon and Matty because they were in charge of hazing the younger players and Emory once came home from one of their parties drunk and bleeding and covered in bruises. She could imagine Jon and Matty being bad. But how much bad could one town have? She was left scrutinizing every house on her newspaper route, wondering, was it someone here? What about Gabby’s stepbrother? What about Emory’s friends? What about Emory?
“Did you know Danielle Haas?” she asked him while they were playing Call of Duty on one of the few nights he didn’t have football practice. Since Jon had gotten kicked off the team, Emory had moved up on the roster, even earned a little bit of playing time.
“Kind of,” he said. “But not really. She was a year older than me.”
“Were you at that party? Did you see what happened?”
Emory stared at her. “What are you saying? You think I did something to her?”
Tegan couldn’t look at him. She just kept firing and reloading, firing and reloading.
“You know me, Tigger. You know I wouldn’t do that. Dad would probably come back from the dead to kill me if I did.” He made a little scoffing sound, and Tegan giggled despite how morbid it was. It was nice to think of it that way, like their father was just suspended in extended hibernation mode, and if he got upset enough, he would come back and fix things.
After the Frankes had their month with Danielle the funeral home took her to the widow Norma Stein, who lived alone. Gabby joked that maybe Norma liked having someone around, even if she was dead. Word had it that Norma was buying twice her normal groceries, cooking elaborate dinners for the corpse, even buying Danielle new dresses. It would have been funny if it wasn’t so sad. Anyway, Gabby turned out to be right, because on Norma’s 29th day with Danielle she locked the doors and boarded up the windows and wouldn’t let anyone in. By the time the fire truck came and broke down the door, Norma was dead, and Danielle was gone.
“Well, Mrs. Stein was very sick,” said Tegan’s mother. “And very lonely.” And she let out an enormous sigh, because she was also sick and lonely, and because Tegan couldn’t do anything about any of these things, she just took her bike and pushed it to supersonic speeds, pushed it past Tinker Park, past the town limits, pushed it to the moon.
It was another two years before Danielle came to stay with the Sauers. After she killed Norma she was gone for three months, and the First Shepherd Church had just held a triumphant sermon likening Iram’s Mill to some sinful Biblical city that had begged for forgiveness and been spared God’s wrath when Danielle showed up again, this time in the mayor’s bedroom. After that the churches stopped fighting it—God works in mysterious ways, and all that—and the mayor released a statement on the perils of bullying, claiming it was up to the town to make sure neither Danielle’s “beautiful smile” nor her “very important” message were forgotten. He didn’t mention Jon Richter or Matty Böhm or the cops or the courts; that was water under the bridge.
Danielle arrived in a coffin, but Tegan snuck a peek at her on her second night in the laundry room. Even two years after death she was perfectly preserved. With her glossy black ringlets and her milk-white skin, she looked like Snow White. She was pretty. Only her nails were out of control: long witchy talons, looking sharp enough to scrape. Staring at her filled Tegan’s head with a gentle but insistent buzz, like a cloud of gnats near a summer lake. Before she knew it the sky was turning light and her mother was banging around upstairs, and Tegan had spent the entire night with Danielle. She didn’t even remember how she ended up with her hand on Danielle’s bony shoulder, as if trying to console a friend having a nightmare.
“That’s totally creepy, Tigger,” Emory said as they drove to school. He was a senior now, and thought he knew a lot about the world. “The body might have diseases on it, you know.”
“Is that what you said about her, when she was still alive? That she was diseased? Because she was a slut, she was diseased?”
Emory sighed. “Jesus, Tig. I told you I didn’t really know her.” They stopped at a light and some of his teammates pulled up next to him, revving their Mustang’s engine, teasing him for not boning Sara Klein at the party last weekend when she was soooo hammered and soooo begging for it, yelling that they wanted to race down Jefferson Street—or are you a pussy?
“Takes one to know one, fuckhead,” Emory yelled back, and they guffawed, and it was all in good fun, because they had each other’s backs and they were brothers-in-arms and Sara Klein was nothing but a piece of ass, something between a one and a ten, some kind of farm animal. Tegan wasn’t born yesterday. She knew what she was becoming.
Emory saw her clenching her stomach in pain and asked if she was okay. “Those guys are losers,” he added. “They’re nothing. You know that.”
“They’re your friends,” she said.
“I don’t get to pick my teammates,” he said, but of course that was a lie, because he could have chosen not to be their teammate, but everyone said Emory was too good, and a positive influence on the team, and talent shouldn’t be wasted, and maybe he could even get a scholarship somewhere, maybe. She had been to his games; she had seen the love that the town showered on him when he completed a touchdown pass, as if he had just invented the cure for cancer. Gabby said that he was adorable, and Tegan wondered if Danielle had ever innocently sat on the bleachers with a bag of popcorn thinking Jon Richter was so adorable, Jonny the Football Hero.
That day she got into a fight with Kevin Roth because he was always kicking her chair in Computer Lab. He called her a dyke and she called him a loser, the way Emory’s teammates were losers, and he kept saying dyke dyke dyke until she was forced to deny it just to make him stop. The incompetent teacher finally called for order, but during passing period Kevin yelled that the only way she could prove she wasn’t a dyke was if she came over and sucked him off. Before Tegan could respond—that she would bite it off if she got the chance—Emory was right there, slamming Kevin into a locker, saying if you ever talk to her like that again I’m gonna make sure you never talk again, maggot. Only then, with his sneakers dangling a full foot off the floor, did Tegan realize how small Kevin was.
“It’s awesome you have him to protect you,” Gabby said jealously, and she was right.
Emory was given in-school-suspension for attacking a freshman, but he never whined, never blamed Tegan. She thanked him for standing up for her and he said glumly that he shouldn’t have had to in the first place. “It’s always the fucking shrimps that talk the most shit,” he said. Her mother wasn’t mad at Emory either. “You shouldn’t be so hard on your brother,” she said to Tegan. “He’s one of the good ones, you know.”
That night she couldn’t sleep because she kept hearing someone walk around downstairs, well past the time that her mother’s meds would have knocked her out, walking around and scratching the walls—then she blinked, and Danielle was standing, no, swaying in the doorway with her hideously long nails, whispering come on Tigger I want to show you something.
The rest of the month’s days and nights and conversations blurred together like water circling a drain that was death: the guttural tunnel through which we all must travel, past stars and moons and planets, into the abyss that takes us apart. The body is nothing. Our world is nothing. But there are other things that linger. And those things grow teeth out there in the dark.
When the funeral home came to take Danielle away, Tegan actually cried a little. Watching her get loaded up like cargo was painful, and it got even worse when she heard what happened to Danielle at the next house she went to. Bill Lang turned out to be a necrophile. His wife claimed to have no idea. Tegan felt like she’d shipped Danielle off to be raped again. The Langs were barred from taking any future rotations in the communal burden—geez I guess we should all be getting it on with her, the boys at school chortled—but it didn’t matter, because the Langs moved away.
Two more years passed and things took a bad turn for the Sauers. Emory hurt his knee on the field during his freshman year of college and lost his athletic scholarship when it failed to heal right. Their mother’s fibromyalgia worsened and she had to cut her hours in half. Tegan was now the age that Danielle had been when she committed suicide, and running with a rough crowd. It seemed serendipitous that Emory had to drop out of school and move home, as if to fix things. He was looking more and more like his father. The town was happy to help out the hero who’d brought home a state championship, and in no time he had a job at the nursing home.
Tegan alone saw the overwhelming sadness in his eyes. It seemed to have gotten worse while he was away. “You don’t need football,” she told him, but he said that wasn’t it. For the first time she could remember, he asked about Danielle.
Danielle had taken another life, but she was still hungry. Harvey Peters, a God-fearing man, strongly felt that the town should not negotiate with terrorists and that we have all repented more than enough, and so he tried to burn Danielle, then chop her up, and finally dissolve her in acid. Nothing worked, and Tegan figured it was no coincidence that Harvey—or rather, Harvey’s plastic sports watch—was found in his own acid bath. “Karma, baby,” as she told Emory.
“She’s never going to stop,” he said. “I guess I don’t blame her. It’s not like . . . ”
Her head shot up. “What?”
“It’s not like we ever stopped talking about it. Until she was dead.”
Tegan relayed this information to her new clique as they sat in the woods on the outskirts of town, passing around a flask of Old Crow. “I knew it, man,” said Amy Neumann, who was a gothabilly now. “Those fuckers took pictures. They took videos. And they passed that shit around. Probably everybody at that whole high school saw the evidence.”
“It wasn’t just boys,” said Kit Arnold, the former coroner’s kid. “Girls did it too.”
“Whatever,” said Amy, flicking her wrist. “My point is: what if she doesn’t want us passing her around forever? What if she really is just trying to kill us all and this stupid burden-sharing, awareness-raising thing just keeps getting in her way? We should all be making like Norma Stein and treating this like the sign from God that it is. She’s a missile. An atomic bomb.”
“We should help her,” said Zach Zimmermann, who had successfully flunked out of the military boot camp his stepfather put him in. “Help her cross that finish line.”
Eventually they decided to weaponize her curse by hiding her in Tinker Park, which was where everyone hung out all summer with their pie contests and their picnics and their little league baseball. The idea of her mother and brother dying in an undeserved nuclear blast grieved Tegan, but she soon realized that her mother never made it out of the driveway let alone to Tinker Park, and that Emory was doing double shifts every day at Whispering Pines.
“Since when do you dye your hair black?” Emory said, stirring dinner. “And why are you hanging with those weirdos? What happened to Gabby Schultz?”
“Gabby’s dating one of you losers now,” Tegan said, with a bruised note in her voice. She resentfully pulled her hair back into a ponytail. “And I’m not some cheerleader princess.”
Zach’s family was up next in the rotation, so he bundled the body into his van with Kit and Amy’s help and they drove it to Tinker Park in the middle of the night. Tegan had volunteered to be the getaway driver at first, but then she thought about college and chickened out. Amy called her a poser pussy and Zach said she’d better not tell, so she conceded to be the look-out perched on top of the playground fort tower. She watched for headlights and dogs and out of the corner of her eye watched as Danielle, looking like a large glow worm in her white sheet, was lowered into a poorly-dug hole. Even after the others scattered, Tegan stayed at her post, listening to owl hoots, half-expecting the dirt to start shifting and Danielle’s hand to struggle out by her long nails.
“Don’t you just want to stop?” she whispered, gripping the cold, oily bars. “Be at peace?”
Wind passed through trees like big water crashing, and she understood: there is no peace.
Zach’s mother and stepfather freaked out when they realized Danielle was gone. She really was a weapon of mass destruction, because the cops and the firemen and the neighborhood watch searched every house, interviewed every family. It’s very important we find her, they said, it’s possible somebody could get hurt. Amy and Zach laughed about it at the 24/7 McDonald’s, knowing everyone was still going to the now-toxic public lands of Tinker Park, crawling just a little bit closer to their end. Kit didn’t laugh—he was just mad.
“My mom didn’t do shit to make Danielle off herself,” he said. “My mom was innocent. At least this way some of the people who actually bullied her will pay.” He slurped his Hi-C. “I gotta say, for a guided missile, the bitch has terrible aim.”
“I don’t think you can aim very well once you’re dead,” said Tegan.
“I don’t think you care,” added Amy. “Shit! I feel dead right now.”
But then they brought in police dogs attuned to the scent of Danielle’s old hairbrush to search Tinker Park, and one of the German shepherds dug up Danielle’s shallow grave before running away, whimpering the way dogs do when they come across a much larger predator—at least according to Officer Franke, who had hunted bears in Alaska. Tegan lovingly imagined Danielle as a giant bear, romping over snowy hills, chasing villagers through the tundra.
Zach took the fall for everything and was shipped off to a new military boot camp, a “wilderness experience” in the Black Hills. Supposedly he became a Satanist there. Amy blamed Tegan for how it all went down and never spoke more than five words to her again. But now all of Iram’s Mill saw Danielle for the loaded gun that she was. After Jamie Walter killed Sara Klein in a drunk driving accident, Sara’s father waited eight months until Jamie had to take in Danielle and then kidnapped both of them on Day 29. He turned himself in on Day 31, having watched Danielle rise like Lazarus and slowly slide toward a bound, drugged Jamie.
“Wonder how she killed him,” Tegan said as she and Emory watched Mr. Klein being led away on the evening news. Mr. Klein was the only person who had ever seen Danielle’s powers at work, and he looked catatonic. No, more than that. He looked hushed, like all the irrelevant noise that had been the building blocks of his existence had been subdued by . . . something.
“Massive retaliatory strike,” Emory replied, lifting the bottle to his lips. In the back corner of the house, their restless mother coughed.
Tegan got a job as a waitress at Sparrow’s Bar and Grill during her senior year of high school to pay for things like college application fees, and that was how she met Mike Bergman, who everyone called Pony. Mike was one of Emory’s ex-teammates, and after he learned her last name, he claimed to recognize her from the linoleum hallways of Iram’s Mill High School.
“Yeah, yeah, you were friends with Brittany Sommer right?” he said.
“Not really,” she said, trying to remember if he had ever been to the house with Emory.
“Aw no? Well, that’s just as well. She’s a bitch anyway.” She smiled a little, because Brittany Sommer was indeed the kind of boss-bitch everyone had to pretend to like. “Say, how’s Mr. Goody Goody Two Shoes doing? How come he never comes out these days?”
It was odd to think of Emory as a Goody-Goody; he was sullen, impatient, drinking when he wasn’t working. “My mom’s real sick, can’t work much anymore. Em’s gotta work a lot.”
“Yeah, I hear he’s changing bedpans.” He wrinkled his nose like a rabbit. “Must suck, I’m sorry.”
He got her to give him her number, and then he showed up on St. Patrick’s Day when everything was a mess of broken bottles and green food dye and kept pushing her to drink with his crew. They were chanting Tee-gun Tee-gun Tee-gun and she was outdrinking the older girls with their trying-too-hard eyeliner and she wanted to outdrink the guys too, she wanted to keep pace with Pony Bergman to show how fucking badass she was. Then sometime later, sometime after, they were outside and he wanted to give her a ride home and she was saying she would walk, don’t touch her, she would walk, and he was getting all, oh come on, Sauer, don’t be such a fucking cock tease! and she was throwing up in the parking lot and one of the older girls who smelled like cigarette-apples was holding her hair back while Pony was saying fucking trailer trash and another one of the older girls was shouting into the void, “Did somebody call Emory?”
She woke up in a polyester backseat and immediately thrashed herself upright, but it was Emory’s truck, and he was driving through what was now rain. He hissed at her to lie down.
“I’m sorry, Em,” she tried saying, but he was so mad he couldn’t hear her. She passed out to the sound of him muttering profanities to himself like bullets, and had a bunch of dreams she wasn’t sure were dreams of Danielle lying on the floor of the truck, grinning up at her with eyes like black marbles.
Tegan felt too sick to move for most of the next day, finally stumbling out of bed sometime between three and four in the afternoon. Emory was sitting on the couch staring at the television that he hadn’t turned on, with a beer he hadn’t opened in his hand. Tegan saw herself in the television’s black mirror as she crossed behind him on her way to the sink, where she ran the water extra cold. She needed something to cauterize the shame.
“I have to talk to you,” Emory said, his voice so flat and steady it didn’t seem to be his.
Water cooled the taste of burning garbage in her throat, though she could barely keep it down. “I said I’m sorry. You didn’t have to get me. I could have walked home.”
“I have to tell you something.”
And in that instant, the haze lifted and the darkness withdrew and it was as if all of God’s angels and fallen angels had landed on Earth to announce with trumpets the triumphant arrival of The Truth. And for the first time since she first heard that a girl in high school had committed suicide thirty days after being gang-raped at a party, she realized that The Truth wasn’t something she wanted to hear after all. Chop chop, said Danielle. I want to show you something.
She actually found herself saying, “wait, wait,” but the distant screeching of fingernails scraping against drywall canceled out her voice.
Emory didn’t turn his head. “I was there. At the party. In the room. I was taking the video.” Then he sucked in a deep, ragged breath that was halfway to a sob and added, finally spinning around, “But I promise I didn’t touch her!” But by then it was too late, and Tegan was already on the floor, her hands locking behind her head as if in a falling airplane.
“I was a stupid kid, I made a mistake . . . ” Brace, brace, brace! Heads down, stay down! “Jon and Matty told me to film it and I didn’t know how to say no . . . ” Brace for impact!
“Don’t touch me,” she whispered as his shadow approached.
“I’m so sorry, Tigger. I fucked up.” He let out a little moan and she could tell that he was in pain and that only made everything that much worse. “I didn’t know how to tell you.”
But the sin wasn’t hers to forgive, so instead he had just ended everything.
Tegan decided to attend the most faraway college she got into. She stopped speaking to Emory—no matter how much her mother begged—and she took to cycling again, hard and fast and wicked, and leaving yellow roses on Danielle’s empty grave. She told the ghost that they could switch places, if she wanted. Danielle’s mother was the only other person that ever came to the gravesite, and she left things that she believed her daughter would have wanted: a blank journal and a fountain pen, her stuffed rabbit, her violin, a favorite scarf. Then she would sit for hours on a nearby stone bench in a mismatched jumble of clothes, and sometimes she would give Tegan a mint from the local Italian restaurant, of which she seemed to have an endless supply.
“Dani wouldn’t wish harm on anyone,” Mrs. Haas said. “That thing haunting this town . . . it isn’t her. It might look like her. It might have taken her body. But Dani wouldn’t do this.” She meant the five deaths that had followed Danielle down the great universal drain: Mr. Wolf, Dr. Arnold, Norma Stein, Harvey Peters, Jamie Walters. But there had been other deaths too, other calamities both undocumented and incidental: divorces, miscarriages, addictions.
“What do you think it is, then?” Tegan asked.
“Their guilt,” said Mrs. Haas, widening her eyes as if it was the most obvious answer in the world. She was looking over the crests of the headstones at clouds roiling like sea serpents. “When I was a little girl there was a monster in the lake near where I lived. Lake Bodéwadmi. My grandparents used to say that it wasn’t conjured up from the tears of the families that had lost someone in that lake, but from the tears of the families that had never known such a loss.”
Then she popped a mint in her mouth and tightened her scarf under her chin and shambled away.
If Danielle Haas really didn’t want to be forgotten, she succeeded. Her message spread far and wide. Amy Neumann moved to Herrod City and showed a collection of oil paintings called Long Live the Queen, substituting Danielle’s face into iconic images of famous queens: Elizabeth I, Antoinette, Victoria, Hatshepsut. Brittany Sommer started a community mentorship program through her sorority called Danielle’s Angels and franchised it around the country. Kit Arnold wrote a well-received memoir dedicated to his mother called The Girl in the Morgue.
The New York Times came and did a story on Iram’s Mill and the town’s “unique manifestation of collective guilt,” though it ended up implying that they were all insane, and when 20/20 came calling, the mayor said no. Religious groups came to investigate Danielle as an incorruptible, but her coffin would seal shut whenever they tried to see her. Eventually the town established a memorial in Tinker Park, a six-foot-tall granite statue of a young girl releasing a dove. “Dani loved this town,” Mrs. Haas said at the unveiling ceremony, eyes sparkling with happy tears, but for everyone else hers was a smothering blanket, a rib-crushing embrace.
Tegan was assisting a psychological study on conformity and the “cruelty contagion”—her professor nicknamed it Asch II Milgram, but she privately called it The Danielle Project. She had not been home for four years; she had spent her breaks reading Hannah Arendt and John Rawls in silent dorms. But then funding for Asch II Milgram got pulled, and she got an email from Gabby saying that her family was up next on the Danielle rotation, and as everybody in Iram’s Mill knew, families had to come together to care for Danielle. Danielle is the force that gives us meaning, Tegan wrote in her diary as she curled on a window seat of a Greyhound, groggy in the half-light, Danielle is the reason for the season.
Iram’s Mill seemed to have shrunk, hardened like vines freezing into brick. She expected to see their surly old neighbor sitting in his lawn chair, yelling, how could you leave your poor mother?—but his house was dark, and a for-sale sign was staked into the dead grass.
“He kicked the bucket a couple months ago after a turn with Danielle. One time he came over at one a.m., saying she was trying to scratch his eyes out. There ought to be an age limit.”
Emory was standing on the front step. He looked gaunt, at least for the former Johnny Football Hero, but was still wearing a faded shirt that marked him PROPERTY OF IRAM’S MILL HIGH SCHOOL ATHLETIC DEPARTMENT. She was surprised that the town hadn’t taken better care of him. But he had never tried to ride his reputation, and now there were younger boys, tawny and tall, who could throw balls and win games and bring glory.
“Didn’t anybody go and stay with him?” she asked.
“I did. She didn’t kill him. He died after.” He tilted his head. “It’s good to see you.”
Danielle arrived the next day, like a Christmas package from a long-lost relative. They put her in the living room and lit candles and dusted her coffin regularly. It was important to be respectful.
Tegan managed to keep a clinical distance from her family at first, but then their mother fell on a patch of ice and broke her femur, and as she slept on morphine in the backseat of Emory’s truck, Emory told Tegan about a dream. “I’m trying to teach you how to drive a stick. And then we start fighting, and you get mad and jump out of the car. So I get out and I start chasing you, but you’re running so damn fast I can’t ever catch you. Then suddenly I look around and I realize I’m in the middle of the ocean, and I can’t even see the land, and I always get this thought like, if I just dive to the bottom I’ll find the road again. Of course I never do.”
Tegan had had enough, by then, of conversations-not-had and questions-not-answered. “Do you ever see her?” she asked. Tegan dreamt about Danielle once a month. Usually she would just walk into a dream about something else—rescuing drowning kittens, running away from an active shooter—and just end it, the way a lightning storm might fry a television.
“She’s usually waiting for me down below.” He leaned back toward the headrest, drumming his fingers against the wheel. “I’m sure that’s how it’ll all end, sooner or later.”
A sudden night chill wafted into the truck. “Whatever happened to Jon and Matty?”
But Danielle operated in a world without institutions, without human concepts of justice or even time. Of course humans still tried to exert their rules; what else but ritual could keep terror at bay? “Nothing? They moved away a long time ago. We’re not exactly friends.”
They passed a group of men dragging someone out of Sparrow’s and into a red pick-up truck. Emory slowed down; he couldn’t drive past anything anymore. Tegan caught a glimpse of the unfortunate, lingering on the bloody edge of unconsciousness. It was Kevin Roth. Dyke dyke dyke ping-ponged between her ears. Pony Bergman climbed in after him with a butcher’s focused enthusiasm and noticed Emory’s truck idling like an uncertain child in the next lane. “Hey, Sauer,” Pony said. “Tegan, we thought you died.”
Tegan mashed her back against the seat, trying to make herself small. Emory shouted across her body, “What are you guys doing?”
“Giving Pervy McRapist here his just desserts! Don’t want another Danielle on the loose!” Pony looked up, grinned. “Wanna come?”
Emory rolled up the window and drove away. They called the cops, though Officer Franke didn’t sound like he was paying attention, and Emory doubted anything would be done until after it was over. Kevin had roofied a girl in high school, supposedly—no one knew who, but everyone was sure something had happened. It’s Kevin Roth, as their mother said, and that was enough. Hunters found his body in the woods a few days later, his face looking like frozen grapefruit pulp.
It was a good month, otherwise. Danielle kept her manifestations to a minimum—mostly just creaks and shadows—and they managed to get their mother out of bed and into the car to tour the town’s gaudy Christmas lights and hokey glowing inflatables to the shaky soundtrack of the First Shepherd Church’s Christmas Eve service. Their mother fell asleep listening to Tegan and Emory argue over gin rummy and she was smiling, the fire lighting up her face.
And then came the storm. It took the town by surprise: no one even had time to buy supplies. It was forecasted to taper off on the morning of Day 29 with Danielle but then it didn’t: it got worse. They lost power and they didn’t have a ham radio, just cell phones with dying batteries, and although their mother insisted that someone would be along to pick up Danielle, that there was some kind of emergency plan, no one ever did. The drifts blocked their door and made the street where Emory had indeed taught Tegan how to drive a stick shift a churning white sea. They hadn’t had a storm that bad since the Valentine’s Day Ice Storm that killed their father, though nobody wanted to say it; Emory was the man of the house now, and he was trembling.
“We have to get her out of here.” Emory whispered. He pointed the flashlight at Danielle’s coffin. “It’ll be thirty days at eight.” He pointed the flashlight at his watch. “It’s four.”
“And take her where? The Voigts are in Utah. Half the houses on this street are empty.”
“The Engels down the street. But we have to start digging.”
They dug. They dug with spatulas and the fireplace shovel, though snow kept falling and all the empty houses stood dark and silent as giant tombstones around them. Tegan lost track of time and then suddenly Emory was shaking her, yelling, “I’m gonna go back to get her! Keep digging!” As he staggered back to the house she realized that it had to be close to eight—he had to be scared of leaving Danielle in the house with their mother—and a surge of panic-fueled adrenaline pushed Tegan into a frenzy, screaming at her arms to swivel faster, to burn less. By the time Emory came back with Danielle wrapped in a quilt they were still two houses away, and the Engels’ house was dark. Tegan screamed until she felt something in her vocal chords snap.
Emory squeezed her shoulder. “You gotta go now! Go back to the house!”
Her arms kept moving like pinwheels. “Shut up. Shut up. Just keep digging.”
“Tegan!” He wrested the fireplace shovel away from her. “You need to go!”
Behind him, Danielle was a still-silent lump on the ground, her face obscured by the quilt, but her black hair was swirling free in the wind. The strands were floating, in fact, as if she was underwater instead of buried in a blizzard, as if the body itself was brimming with energy from another plane. Not for the first time, Tegan wondered where human spirits go after death.
“I can’t leave you like this,” she whispered, though her hands were shaking so much that she wasn’t sure they’d be able to hold a shovel if she had one.
“Yes, you can,” said Emory, and to her horror, when he gave her a push she slowly backed away. Perhaps she had simply lost the strength to actively resist. She nearly tripped over Danielle and then Emory reached down and picked the body up, urging her to go, go. Then he carefully hoisted Danielle’s dead weight over his shoulder and kept digging—the snow flew like big globs of wet powdered sugar behind him but it was much too slow, much too little.
And then their mother’s quilt shifted and the limp neck stiffened and the dangling head started to lift. When black eyes emerged out of an icy face and fixed upon Tegan, she let out an involuntary cry. She heard Emory yelling, “No, no, no!”, saw him falling on his back as Danielle tried to clamber over him, but all she could feel was her heart slowing to big, soft wallops the longer Danielle looked at her, because Danielle was the abyss. Her mouth and eyes were holes in a weak veil that separated this vile world from the even more predatory one that comes after. She had scratched them out herself. She wanted them to see. She wanted them to know.
I want to show you something, Danielle was saying, and Tegan was beginning to see—her heart pinched as she saw her father wandering in that abyss, a blind beggar pawing at the storm—but Emory never let Danielle come any closer. “No,” he said to her, over and over. “No, you look at me. Look at me! I’ll carry your burden. I’m enough. I can do it. I can take it.”
The abyss vanished. She saw Emory at one of his old games, running alone in the backfield with the ball in his hand, looking desperately for a receiver as the roar of the frightened crowd swelled, finally lobbing it up because time had run out, Hail Mary, Full of Grace—and then she opened her eyes. The crumbling snow-ditch was still dark—the Engels never did turn on their lights—but by Emory’s flashlight she could see that Danielle was now prying open her brother’s mouth, forcing her hand down his throat, starting with the nails and then the knuckles and then the elbow and then the shoulder, and finally folding up like a little bird so she could burrow the rest of her way in, finding the spaces inside him to fill—the bones to wrap around, the skin to slide under, the muscles to tear into and spread apart. All these things fade.
But other things last. Mostly, the memory of watching Emory weep beneath the stalactite of his own mortality, his own weakness. Her brave big brother. She had never seen him cry before.
Originally published in Looming Low, edited by Justin Steele and Sam Cowan.