At first, she thinks it’s yet another accident, here on this straight stretch of back road treacherous only for the speed it provokes in the young and the impatient. Another accident, right where that Nelson girl was killed last summer in fact, and Lynn lifts her foot from the accelerator, squints her eyes against the early evening glare. Really, she should be wearing her glasses. Should stop pretending that she’s still in her thirties, that her eyesight is good enough for driving without them. Never mind that they make her look like an accountant. Never mind that they make her feel so damn old.
But no, it’s not an accident.
The car she thought had slewed off the side of the road is actually just parked at an awkward angle. There’s no sign of damage, not to it, not to the bicycle that’s leaning against the tree next to all the flowers and wreaths and hand-made signs that have festooned its trunk for months now. Although the two figures standing in front of the car—there is something off kilter there. Two men, or a man and a boy, rather, a teenager. Father and son perhaps, the older man with his plump face squeezed red and tight with rage, thrusting a finger into the boy’s chest, hard enough to push him backwards a little with each angry jab.
There’s not even the slightest acknowledgement as she drives past—close enough to spot the spittle spraying from the man’s lips, close enough to catch the glazed, frightened look on the boy’s face. Lynn keeps her eyes on the rearview mirror.
As the man pulls back his fist and lands it, with a violence she can almost feel, right into the boy’s face.
As the boy crumples and falls, shielded from view by the parked car.
“Shit!” Lynn brakes hard, the seat belt cutting into her collarbone. Drive on, the no-nonsense voice in her head commands, this isn’t any kind of business of yours. But she’s sick of listening to that voice, sick to death of it, and now she can see the man’s shoulders jerking, his upper body moving as though he’s kicking something. Kicking someone. She changes gears, reverses the few hundred metres back down the road.
The boy is curled on the bitumen, skinny arms wrapped about his head, as the man’s sneakered foot thumps into his back and ribs. Lynn leans on the horn, doesn’t let up until the arsehole stops and stares at her, mouth agape. He’s crying, tears and snot streaking his face, and there’s something so broken in his expression, so gut-wrenchingly familiar, that she wishes she’d listened to the voice after all.
Lynn slides down the window a few inches. “Everything okay?”
Not the winner of the World’s Dumbest Question Competition, perhaps, but most definitely a contender.
“Go away.” The man sags against the bonnet of his car. “You don’t know.”
The boy has gotten to his haunches, scrabbled a few metres out of range. There’s blood on his pale, freckled face, a lot of it. Blood in his hair too, the short orange curls matted red. He’s older than he looked from a distance, late teens or very early twenties perhaps, short and thin and weedy.
And hurt, who knows how badly.
Lynn looks at the man again, at the way he’s snuffling and wiping his nose with the sleeve of his jumper, and decides the risk is minimal. Still, she moves slowly. Opens her door and steps onto the road, walks over to where the boy is sitting while keeping a careful watch on his attacker.
“Here.” She holds out a hand. “Let me help.”
His fingers are warm and slippery and she tries not to think about that too much as she pulls him gently to his feet.
“What’s going on?” she whispers.
The boy shakes his head and shrugs. He doesn’t let go of her hand.
Behind them, there’s a shuffle of shoe on bitumen, and Lynn turns around to see the man stalking towards the tree. “Bloody thief,” he mutters, grabbing the bike with both hands and throwing it into the centre of the road. A bright green milk crate has been tied over the back wheel with ocky straps, and from it spills a jumble of colour and shape. Flowers, both real and plastic, faded ribbons and a couple of tattered, fractured wreaths. A small blue backpack slumps in their wake and a water bottle rolls across the road into the grassy verge. The man snatches up a wreath, brandishing the thing like some pathetic, soundless tambourine. “Look what he was doing.”
Lynn frowns at the boy. “You were stealing those?”
“No.” He shakes his head again.
“Liar!” The man lurches forwards, thrusting the wreath into the boy’s face, into Lynn’s face as she finds herself stepping instinctively between the two of them, her free hand raised in warding.
“He’s a bloody thief.” The man’s face crumples, a sob wrenching itself from his throat. “He was stealing from her, he was stealing from my little girl.”
Now Lynn recognises him. Recalls how those sad, corpulent features were splashed over newspapers and television for so many days after his pretty blonde daughter ploughed her hatchback into the tree—into that tree, right there. Remembers his tearful pleas for lower speed limits, and more street lighting, and safety rails, for all the good any of that would have done against a seventeen-year-old’s conviction of her own immortality.
“Mr Nelson?” Lynn waits for the name to register, for that red-raw gaze to meet her own. “Mr Nelson, you really need to calm down, okay? Is there someone I can call for you?”
“You can call the police is who you can call.”
Lynn takes a deep breath, aware of how tightly the boy is now squeezing her hand. “Do you really think that’s a good idea? Whatever he’s done, I don’t think it’s actually against the law.”
“It damn well should be.”
“Okay, but for right now—”
The man makes a hissing sound and throws the broken wreath to the ground, stomps it to pieces beneath his foot. “Fuck the both of you,” he says, climbing back into his car. The door slams, the engine turns over.
“Move,” Lynn says, pulling the boy by the hand, but the man isn’t aiming for them. It’s the bicycle that bears the brunt of his wrath, disappearing beneath the car with a savage crunch of metal and plastic, left like some miserable, broken-backed beast in the middle of the road as the vehicle speeds away. She lets loose a shaky breath and turns back to the boy. He’s still by her side, still clutching her hand as though it’s all he has left in the world. “I don’t think it’s going to pull through,” she says, trying for levity.
He shrugs. Blood nudges from his left nostril, fresh and thick and bright. “It wasn’t true what he said. Those flowers and things, I wasn’t stealing them.”
Emphatic, bullet-hard syllable and Lynn decides to leave it alone. He looks so fragile, so worn, and really, she doesn’t give a toss about the damn flowers. His t-shirt—washed-out blue with a faded rainbow across the chest, the sort of thing you’d expect a girl to be wearing—is spattered with drops of blood and ripped along one shoulder. Underneath, the skin looks ripped as well.
“Can I give you a lift somewhere?” she asks.
Again, that loose, one-shouldered shrug. The boy drops her hand and crosses over to his bike, pulls the backpack loose from the wreckage. He rummages inside for a minute then visibly deflates. Lynn can see the knobs of his spine pushing through the thin cotton shirt, flanked by sharp-angled shoulder blades.
“Come on,” she says. “I’m only five minutes away. We can get you cleaned up at least.”
The pipes are rattling again. An urgent, aggressive thumpthumpthump like something is trapped inside, so much louder out here in the kitchen than it sounds when she’s in the bathroom herself. She should call a plumber before it gets worse. Something else to add to the list. After another minute or two, the shower is turned off and the pipes gurgle into sulky silence.
Lynn reboils the kettle, then fills the two mugs waiting on the bench and jiggles their tea bags. Milk and sugar, he said, but she forgot to ask how much. A single spoonful for the first mug, then, two for the second; Lynn will drink it either way. She stirs milk into both then washes the teaspoon carefully, dries it and returns it to the kitchen drawer. She arranges four Anzac cookies onto a small plate, decides it looks churlish and adds another four. The biscuit tin goes back into the cupboard. She wipes a few stray crumbs off the bench with the kitchen cloth. Rinses the cloth, squeezes it out to dry.
Still, the boy fails to materialise.
“Aaron?” She pronounces the name the way he did on the drive over, a way she hasn’t heard before, that first syllable drawn-out long and languorous. Aaron, as in aardvark. No answer.
“Aaron?” Lynn walks down the hall to the bathroom to find its door wide open, the mirror steamed. A wet towel lies crumpled on the floor and automatically she picks it up, hangs it over the railing. The old, easy familiarity of the action stabs at her afresh. It’s been too long since anyone shared this house with her. And not nearly long enough.
She finds the boy in the bedroom.
Dressed again in the same jeans and grimy t-shirt, sitting on the edge of the bed with his hands in his lap. His head swivels in Lynn’s direction as she comes into the room, but his eyes remain unfocused. Blood congeals around a cut on his lip; across his left cheek, bruises are rising to the surface.
“What are you doing?” she snaps. Already the smell of the room is getting to her. Flat and musty and, yes, still medicinal even after so many empty months. “You shouldn’t be in here.” No one should be in here.
The boy swallows. His gaze sharpens. “It pulled me.”
“What?” Lynn wonders if he might not have concussion after all. Or perhaps he’s just what her mother would have called a little bit dim. A little bit slow. Christ, why didn’t she just leave him by the side of the damn road?
“It pulled me,” the boy repeats. “This room. You can’t feel it?”
Feel what? The ache, the loss? The insistent press of memories she would much rather live without? She can feel all of that, certainly. It’s why she’s still sleeping in the spare room, on the lumpy sofa bed that feels too vast for comfort, too full of hollow, pointless space. But it’s better than in here.
Lynn shakes her head. “The tea’s getting cold.”
Aaron chooses the mug with two sugars. He holds it in both hands, long fingers curving careful around the cheap ceramic as though it’s finest porcelain. He stares at the surface of the kitchen table. Goosebumps pimple his skinny arms.
“Did you know Kathy Nelson?” Lynn asks. “Is that why you were taking all that stuff from her memorial?”
“No.” His gazed flicks up to meet hers, then drops again. “I didn’t know her.”
“So what were you doing back there?”
Aaron shakes his head. “Did you know her? Before she died?”
“No,” Lynn says.
“But now you do? You know her name?”
“She was all over the news when it happened.”
“And now when you drive down that road and see her shrine, you think about her.” He says shrine as though the word is dirty, as though he wishes he could rinse his mouth out afterwards. “You remember how she died.”
“I guess that’s kind of the point.”
“Yeah,” he says. “It’s exactly the point.”
Lynn sips at her tea. Too strong; the tannins cling to her tongue. “I don’t understand.”
He looks at her properly now, his grey eyes pale as last night’s dishwater. How many people, he asks. Every day, every week, how many of them drive down that road, listening to music or maybe the chatter of kids in the backseat, thinking about their jobs or their football team or what they’re going to watch on TV that night, certainly not thinking about a dead girl called Kathy Nelson until they see the shrine. The flowers, the crosses, the ribbons, the cards wrapped in discoloured plastic. They can’t help but think of her then, Kathy Nelson and the horrible way she died, right here, right there. It might just be for a second or two, or maybe they’ll dwell on it a bit longer, their eyes lifting to the rearview mirror as they pass, thinking how their own kids are growing up far too soon, how soon they’ll be behind a wheel of their own, and how one stupid mistake could see them end up like poor dead Kathy Nelson.
“Poor dead Kathy Nelson, broken to pieces in a car crash. That’s how they remember her.”
“It’s sad,” Lynn agrees.
“It’s wrong.” Aaron puts down his mug. His fingers twist into angry-anxious knots. “It keeps her here, it keeps her like that. It keeps all of them like that.”
“I’m not sure—”
“The dead can’t pass if the living won’t let them.”
Lynn sits back in her chair. “Okay.” She tries to keep her face neutral.
“I mean, what if you died and instead of going, I dunno, wherever the dead go, you’re stuck here because the people who love you just won’t let you leave? Not just them, but complete strangers too. People you never met and all they know about you is how you died, and so that’s where you are. Trapped in the worst moment of your life, forever.”
“I think it’s just a way of remembering someone. Honouring them.”
“By reminding the whole world how they died? You can remember someone without doing that. You can remember all the good stuff—just do that.”
“People grieve in different ways.”
“People are fucked.”
Lynn suppresses a smile. “Sometimes, sure.”
Aaron reaches for his phone, plugged in to charge on the other side of table. Its screen is blank, the glass shattered, but he presses the buttons a few times anyway, holds them down in various optimistic combinations. After a while, he tosses the device aside. “That’s fucked too.”
“I can phone someone for you.”
He grins, if it can be called that. “You think I know any numbers off by heart?”
“Who does these days?” Richard used to. Names, numbers, birthdays; nothing slipped her husband’s velcro mind. It would drive her crazy sometimes, how he could rattle off the contact details for a former client at a moment’s notice but not remember to get the chicken out to defrost for dinner that night.
Aaron leans forward onto the table, resting his face in his arms.
“You shouldn’t fall asleep.” Lynn taps his shoulder. “In case of concussion.”
He rolls his head to the side and stares at her. “Anna used to see them.”
“My sister, my twin sister. She saw ghosts, ever since she was little.”
“Okay,” Lynn says.
The smile that stretches his lips is tired, thin as old sheets. “I know you don’t believe me. It’s cool, I never really believed Anna either. Then she died.”
“Oh.” All at once, the air in the kitchen feels weighted. “I’m sorry.”
Drunk-driving accident, he explains. Not Anna—she was riding shotgun, seatbelt hanging loose at her side—but she probably wasn’t totally sober either. They don’t bother blood-testing dead passengers. The driver was her boyfriend, or he wasn’t, depending on the day, and they all reckon it was quick. She wouldn’t have suffered. Much. It’s what their parents cling to, especially their mother: the speed of it, the lack of suffering, like anyone can know for sure.
Lynn swallows. She still hears it sometimes, when she wakes in the night to pee. Off in the bedroom, the faint wheezy hiss of the syringe driver pumping its regular dose of pain meds. She has to stand motionless, hold her breath and remind herself where she is, when she is. On the worst nights, she needs to open the bedroom door to make sure.
“After she died, that’s when it started.”
The boy, and he does seem like a boy again now, young and fragile and lost, shakes his head. “I’ve never seen them, no. But I feel them, I feel where they are.”
“At roadside shrines.”
“And other places.”
“Did your sister—was there a shrine for her?”
“For a bit. She was popular, you know, one of those girls. The school held a memorial assembly, and her friends . . . not just her friends, either, kids who never really knew her, kids who hated her because she was one of those girls . . . they kept leaving stuff by the road where it happened. I kept taking it down, bringing it home to burn. Mum didn’t understand.” He closes his eyes. “We don’t talk about it anymore. We don’t talk about much of anything anymore.”
Lynn sips her tea. The boy’s hair has fallen into his face, and she stops herself from reaching out to brush the damp, orange curls from his cheek. The only sound comes from the clock on the wall, softly ticking down the minutes to eight o’clock.
“Are you hungry?” she asks. “There’s leftover pasta sauce in the fridge. I could boil spaghetti if you wanted to stay for dinner.”
Aaron blinks, makes a visible effort to focus his gaze.
“Unless you need to be some place,” she adds.
He pushes himself up from table. “Spaghetti would be aces. Thanks.”
It was linguine in the end, half of the sticks broken in half or worse, but Aaron wolfs down a second helping regardless. Teenage boys and their bottomless stomachs. Lynn smiles as she pushes cold pasta around on her plate. She doesn’t eat much these days, rarely bothering to cook for herself more than once a week or so. It was oddly refreshing to make a meal for someone else again, even if all she did was throw old packet pasta into water and nuke a Tupperware container of sauce in the microwave.
Aaron offers to clean up, but she shakes her head. “Dishwasher needs to earn its keep.”
Instead, he pulls a dog-eared notebook from his backpack and flips through the pages while she rinses and stacks. Out of the corner of her eye, she watches him write. Ballpoint pen clutched awkward in his fist, like he’s still learning to use it, hunched over the table so his face is mere inches from the paper.
“Journal?” she asks.
“Nah,” he says. “Just keeping track of stuff.”
Lynn wonders what the difference is. Beyond the kitchen window, it’s gotten dark. It’s also started to rain, the drops falling soft and sullen onto the roof. Tomorrow’s the weekend, an empty, fathomless yawn of time to get through before she can go back to the office and fill her minutes with phone calls and purchase orders.
“Do you have somewhere to go?” she asks, not necessarily of the boy at her table who looks up from his non-journal. He seems almost surprised, as though he’s forgotten she’s even there.
“Sorry.” Aaron shoves his notebook into his backpack. “I should hoof it. You’ve been—you’ve been really nice.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“I’m couch-surfing with a mate.” He reaches across the table and jerks the charging cable from the wall. Wraps the cord around the phone then drops the bundle into the backpack as well. “It’s not far, about a half hour ride—oh.”
“I can call you an Uber?”
“Nah, it’s cool. I’ll just walk.”
Lynn glances out of the window. The rain is coming down harder now. She hates driving in the wet, especially after dark, hates the blear of oncoming headlights and sound of water sluicing beneath the tyres. “Look, if you want to crash here tonight, I can drive you over in the morning. Our couch is pretty comfortable.” As well she knows, after falling asleep on it far too many times while Netflix rolled on in the background. She should cancel the subscription, break herself of the habit, but the account’s one of the last things still in Richard’s name, which means she’ll probably need to make a phone call and speak to someone who’ll put her through to someone else, and she’ll have to explain everything at least three times and suck up another queasy dose of corporate sympathy and email the death certificate and so: she still has Netflix.
Aaron scratches at the cut on his lip. “I mean, if you don’t mind.”
“I’ll find you a blanket.”
Lynn leaves the fridge door open so there’s enough light to see by as she pours herself half a glass of water. It seemed she’d barely fallen asleep when something startled her back to consciousness, dropping her wide-eyed into the dark with ears tuned to all frequencies. Nothing, nothing, for several minutes, not even the sound of rain anymore, but by then her bladder was awake as well and she knew better than to roll over and try to drift off again without attending to its demands.
She also knows better than to drink more than half a glass of water in the middle of the night, but her mouth is lined with cotton, her throat parched to aching, so she pours herself a refill. Downs it in three hard swallows.
It’s only then that she notices the girl.
Standing on the other side of the kitchen, right next to the cupboard where Lynn had gone to get her glass, right where no one and nothing had been standing just two minutes before. Denim shorts and a bright blue t-shirt, the rainbow across her chest as vivid as the day it was printed, hair hanging in thick auburn curls to her shoulders.
“Oh,” says Lynn. She finds herself weirdly, distantly pleased that it’s the only sound she makes. That, come face to face with a dead girl in her kitchen, she doesn’t scream or faint or turn tail and run. She hasn’t even dropped her glass.
“Sorry about my brother,” says the dead girl.
“He’s no trouble.”
“He’s nothing but.”
The fridge beeps a reminder and Lynn closes the door. She can see the dead girl as clearly as ever. She has a feeling she would be able to see the dead girl even if there were no light left in the entire world. The dead girl doesn’t glow, precisely, she’s just inexplicably, inescapably there.
“You’re Anna,” Lynn says.
“I’m not not Anna.” The dead girl twists a curl tight around her finger. “But I’m more what he remembers.”
“So, Aaron’s right? What was it, the dead can’t pass unless we let them?”
She shakes her head. “I’m mostly gone. This isn’t me—or it is me, it is me, but it’s like a part of me, or a—version, or what’s—leftover?” The dead girl squeezes her hands into fists, flexes them tight, then loose, then tight, as though she’s trying to milk the air for words. “It’s like I’ve stepped in something thick and sticky and I just can’t—scrape it off.” Dark liquid starts to seep from beneath her hairline, another runnel edges from her left nostril.
Lynn taps at her own nose. “You’re bleeding.”
The dead girl closes her eyes for a moment, heaves a sigh from her chest. “He’s awake.” When those delicate lids flutter open again, her pupils are clouded, the whites of her eyes yellowed and spun through with red.
“Hey,” Aaron says from the archway that leads to the living room. “Thought I heard something.” He yawns, his mouth stretching wide and black.
“He doesn’t see me,” the dead girl says, blooding pouring from scalp to shoulders now, dripping onto the tiles with a wet, hollow sound that cinches Lynn’s stomach. “He never sees me.”
“I—I needed some water.” Lynn waves her empty glass. “Sorry I woke you.”
“S’okay,” Aaron says. “Might have some too.” He crosses to the sink and flicks on the tap, bends to scoop a hand beneath. He sounds like a horse, slurping water into his throat. Drops spatter into the steel basin like rifleshot.
“That’s not the worst thing,” the dead girl is saying, but Lynn can’t look at her anymore, not with the whole left side of her face crumpling like a cardboard box crushed underfoot, not with the way her body is folding over itself, ribs caving and arm hanging loose, perhaps near to severed, a cardigan sleeve all that’s keeping it even close to where it belongs. The rainbow t-shirt is gone now, in its place a short flouncy dress that probably looked adorable once, before the blood and broken glass. “The worst thing is, he can’t scrape it off either—so he’ll just drag it around forever.”
“Lynn?” Aaron’s staring at her, his face shadowed. “You alright?”
“I’m fine.” She’s backed herself right up to the counter, she realises, as far from the dead girl as she can possibly get. “I’m just—I’m going to bed.” With great care and precision, she lowers her tumbler onto the benchtop, slides it away from the edge. She doesn’t look at Aaron, or at anything else in the kitchen, as she leaves.
Still, a voice trails in her wake, distant now and dull-edged. “Or maybe he doesn’t want to scrape it off. Maybe that’s the worst.”
Lynn pauses at the door to the spare room, considers the rumpled fold-out and her aching lower back, then moves on. The bed in their room is neatly made, has been neatly made for months, right down to the defiant arrangement of cushions piled up against the pillows. She pushes them all over to the far side of the mattress—Richard’s side—then slides beneath the clean but fusty sheets. The springs creak in the same place they always did.
Lynn closes her eyes, curls up tight beneath the quilt.
It’s her bedroom, she tells herself, it’s their bedroom. They bought the queen size mattress and base together, right before Richard moved in, neither of them wanting to start things off in a bed once shared with someone else, however long ago that might have been. This was theirs and only theirs; why shouldn’t Lynn reclaim it? Those last awful weeks are merely that: weeks. Before them—oh! The years they had together in this bed, in this room, in this house. This life. Those years are theirs too.
She swipes at the tears spilling hot down her face.
Those years are hers.
The two of them in the kitchen, Lynn chopping, Richard frying, or vice versa, dancing the intuitive ballet they’d developed to manoeuvre around one another as they worked. Richard calling hot behind as he carried a pan from the stove, and Lynn’s habitual murmur of yeah baby never not funny, not to them. Sometimes, if she had a hand free, she’d even whack his arse as he went by.
—that first time he fell, knees turning traitor as he made his slow way down the hall from the kitchen, Lynn yelling at him because, oh god, it had scared her, the sight of him lying crooked on the floor, robe flared around legs rendered skinny and pale as chicken skin. You have to use your cane! And Richard yelling back, because the fall had scared him too, but not as much as the look on her face when she’d seen him—
Hiking together, daypacks and water bottles hanging from their hips, Richard pausing to check over his shoulder any time he heard her stop—usually just for a closer look at an insect or the texture of a tree, or because she heard a bird singing somewhere up in the canopy—his smile as patient as the old growth forest through which they both loved to trek. Shaking his head as she waved him on. Not gonna leave you behind, Lynnie.
—near the end, when she would slip into the bedroom a couple of times during the night, just to check. They kept a nightlight plugged in, its modest glow enough that Richard didn’t get disorientated if he woke in the dark, enough that Lynn could see too clearly the sharp, sunken lines of his face, the shallow rise and fall of his chest beneath the sheet. Sometimes, it took a while to clock his breathing, and she could never tell whether the spiraling sensation in her gut came closer to relief or disappointment—
Stop, enough now.
Lynn pushes it all away, reaches beyond those last wretched weeks to sink her fingers into deeper loam. The long, aimless drives they took on weekends, trying to get lost, hoping to find something new, to stumble across some small and surprising delight. Drinks on the back porch after work, coffee or wine, depending on how their days had gone, chatting about nothing much, or just sitting silent in the dusk, together. How she would catch him staring at her sometimes, that familiar smile quirking his mouth. What are you thinking? His stubble-rough cheek against her skin. How lucky we are. His hands trailing down her spine. Because no one else would put up with us? The weight of his body against hers, solid and slick with sweat. No, they would. But we found us first.
The pillow is damp. Lynn wipes her eyes again and flips it over.
“I miss you,” she whispers into the darkness. “I miss you so damn much, but I can’t keep missing you. Not like this, not forever.”
As she drifts into sleep, she feels it, or thinks she does. A body curled close around her own, another’s heart beating against her back. How lucky we are. Breath, warm across the nape of her neck, and a hand resting, light as loss, on her hip.
Lynn is glad for the note. A page torn, no doubt, from Aaron’s notebook: Thanks printed in neat blue letters across the top and signed with a simple A. If she hadn’t found it pinned to the kitchen table beneath an empty glass, she might have been tempted to dismiss the entire previous evening as some weird, hallucinatory dream, or even—
But no, dead boys don’t leave thank-you notes.
She folds the paper in half, then half again, and slips it into the pocket of her dressing gown. It’s almost noon. Lynn can’t remember the last time she slept so long, or so well. She can’t remember the last time she actually felt rested. The kitchen is bright and sunlit, hardly the sort of place you’d expect to strike up a conversation with a dead girl, and Lynn doesn’t think she’ll be back. It’s not Lynn the dead girl is stuck to.
After a long shower, she drives to Kathy Nelson’s shrine. The bike is gone, although there are some jagged pieces of orange reflective plastic among the debris by the side of the road. Perhaps Aaron retrieved it, or a scavenger happened along, saw something in the wreck worth hauling away. There’s a faded photo of Kathy taped to the tree; its plastic sleeve might protect against rain but can do nothing for the pitiless effects of UV light. Around the photo, people have taped plastic flowers and handwritten notes. There’s even a small teddy bear that might have been pink once upon a time but whose fur is now a grimy, washed-out grey.
The dead can’t pass if the living won’t let them.
Lynn considers finishing the job Aaron started. Taking it all down, bundling it into her car and driving away to—what? Burn it? Bury it? Toss it into the bin and have it picked up with all her other rubbish? She shakes her head. This isn’t her job to finish. Kathy Nelson isn’t her dead to grieve, and never was.
There’s nothing for Lynn to scrape off, not here.
The pinot noir was an excellent choice, and she savours every sip. Ridiculously enough, it’s the first time Lynn has opened a bottle of wine since the funeral. She’s never been able to drink more than a glass or two in a sitting and has shied from the thought of pouring sour leftovers down the sink after a couple of days, but what else is she going to do with the stockpile Richard left behind?
And it is a lovely wine.
In the bedroom, she pulls the drapes back and slides the window open. Sunlight pours in and a fresh afternoon breeze billows the white lace curtaining. Closing her eyes, Lynn takes long, deep breaths.
“I’m not telling you to go,” she says at last, setting her glass down on the dresser. “But you don’t need to stay. I’m sorry if you felt you had to.”
A few minutes later, the old linen is stripped and piled in a heap by the door. Lynn stretches a blue fitted sheet across the mattress, swearing when a corner slips free and needs to be retucked, then smooths out the wrinkles. Standing empty like this, the bed looks vast, an ocean calm and unsailed. She shakes out the top sheet and lifts it high, throws it over the mattress as though casting a net and for a moment, for barely a moment, the fabric seems to settle across an unseen form, to catch the intimation of a body stretched supine beneath, before finally it falls and flattens to nothing.