There are Ghosts Here
- by Dominique Dickey -
The day Leo Johnson disappeared, his sister Louisa waited for him next to his hand-me-down minivan. She texted him, to no avail. She called him and left voicemails accusing him of abandoning her at school, even though the old Honda was still in the student lot where he’d parked it that morning. She was annoyed at first—he’d probably gone off with his friends and forgotten about Louisa—then angry, then worried, then terrified.
When the winter sun started to set, Louisa realized that Leo was likely in worse trouble than she could bring upon him by telling their parents. She sat on the curb and called her father, who then called her mother, who reported her eldest son missing.
By the end of the night, all the police knew was that he had vanished.
A few days after Leo went missing, Maisie and her family had flown to Los Angeles and camped out in the Johnsons' guesthouse. Maisie was a distant cousin, related in ways that Lucas, the younger of Leo's two siblings, didn't quite care to understand.
Maisie and Lucas were the same age, and minutes after her arrival the two of them were banished to the backyard with vague instructions to "go play" as their parents sat at the kitchen table in solemn silence. Maisie immediately began to explore the Johnsons' neglected flowerbeds, lacing her fingers through the spiderwebs that had formed between the rosebushes. Lucas stood on the back porch, arms slack at his sides, and watched the adults through the kitchen window. His parents sat across from Maisie's, all eight of their hands touching in the centre of the table. He thought he heard a humming—the kind that comes in through your bones rather than your ears—from somewhere inside the house. The grown-ups were all still, eyes closed, silent except for that hum.
Maisie tugged on his hand. "Play with me," she said, and ran off across the yard, leaving Lucas to follow. He glanced back through the window once more and saw Maisie's mother open her eyes and shake her head. He couldn't hear what she said, but from the movements of her mouth it looked like "I can't."
Lucas turned away and chased his cousin across the crisp, dead grass. It was deep winter then, but his cousin didn't care—she ran barefoot over the hard ground, looking for beautiful things like bugs and bones, and it was all Lucas could do to keep up. Maisie had been raised with an acceptance of death that Lucas strived for—perhaps if he thought of things as simply as she did, his brother's disappearance wouldn't hurt as much.
Maisie stopped suddenly, her head lolling back to stare up at the hazy sky. "Point to a star," she said, though few shone bright enough to cut through the city's pollution. "I know them all."
Lucas lifted his arm toward the twilit horizon. The gesture was languid, lazy, his body exhausted from their play.
"Jupiter," she said, and hummed a single, droning note.
Across the city, Leo was dying, although Lucas could not have known it.
In the kitchen, Maisie's mother sat with her hands folded on the table in front of her and explained that it was too late, that a death had already been traded for a life.
In the house next door, a newborn baby cried.
Maisie moved in a few months later, a few weeks before the LAPD started speaking of Leo in the past tense, a few days after her parents' car was hit head-on by a semi-truck. Lucas was shocked that, even as a new orphan, she was just as untroubled as ever. On her first day in the Johnson house, she strung hollow bird bones from her bedroom ceiling as if they were streamers.
"She's weird," declared Louisa, who was now the oldest Johnson child in Leo's absence. Louisa had spent the past months always looking over her shoulder, waiting for Leo to slip back into their family like a key into the right lock. "She's weird, and I don't like her."
Leo was dead and summer fell heavy on the Johnson house. Maisie rescued roadkill from the rushing thoroughfare at the end of their cul-de-sac. Raccoons, opossums, the occasional coyote. Mangled bodies came back together when she pressed her small hands to their crushed and bloody paws. Sometimes she vomited into the gutter afterwards, black sludge that Lucas thought smelled like weeks-old compost—like death made fertile. He held her hair back and rubbed her shoulders until it passed, every time.
The animals Maisie couldn't save—the ones that had been left to rot too long in the sun—she stripped down to bone with her bare hands. The bodies seemed to obey her, to yield, to unravel into their constituent parts neatly and with very little urging. The collection of skeletons hanging in her bedroom grew.
Maisie taught Lucas more constellations than he could remember. They forsook perfectly good beds to pitch tents in the yard and sleep on the ground, adorning each other with flowers and leaves.
In August, she sang that sad note to the sky, and readied herself for her long march to elementary school.
Two summers became three. Three became four. They were in middle school now, and Lucas fought Maisie's bullies with his bare fists. Louisa went to college on the East Coast and only came home for the month of July.
"There are ghosts here," she said. "And I've never liked those bird bones."
This puzzled Lucas almost as much as it puzzled Maisie. Of course there were ghosts here – there were ghosts everywhere. Dying was as natural as breathing, and that didn't scare him the way it used to. He was twelve years old and invincible.
Maisie and Lucas babysat Bodhi, the little boy next door, while his parents went to work. He was a smart kid, raised on organic produce, Mozart, and Dr. Seuss. His little mouth dropped open when he looked at the stars. "Jupiter," said Maisie, while Bodhi pointed and babbled. She'd tried giving him coyote teeth and snake bones to play with, but he didn't want them. At four years old, he was a clever boy, but never quite clever enough to see the beauty in dead things.
"He's just like Leo," said Maisie, although she had never known Leo at all. Lucas took her at her word, forgetting that Leo had already gone missing by the time Maisie's family first came to visit—something in the way Maisie spoke erased the need to ask questions.
"I miss him," Lucas told her.
"Every single day."
"I know. He'll come back for you."
"You can't just say things like that," said Lucas. He didn't want to be like Louisa, always waiting, always wondering. He believed that his brother was dead, and that his brother's death was final.
But here Maisie was, holding out her hands for Lucas to inspect. They were small, brown, ordinary. He had seen them do incredible things, zip up wounds and unravel intact flesh. He had never once felt afraid of her.
"You can't just say things like that," Lucas repeated. He turned Maisie's hands over in his to look at her palms. "Do you . . . Do you miss your parents?"
Her mouth quirked. "You can't just ask things like that, Lucas."
"Do you?" In their years of being inseparable, they’d never talked about Maisie’s family.
She looked up at his face, then back down at her hands. "Yes, but I wouldn't bring them back. Do you understand?"
She flexed her fingers back, then clenched her hands into fists. "When they died, they left me this."
It was Maisie's fifth Los Angeles July, and Bodhi's fifth July at all. Maisie, Lucas, and Bodhi pitched tents outside, ran barefoot to catch the ice cream truck, and played in the grass while the sprinklers sprayed.
While Bodhi and Lucas lay on the lawn, Maisie hollowed out a curved length of bone, perhaps a rib, to make a pipe.
The pipe only played one note. Though Lucas was a terrible pianist, he knew that it was middle C.
"Bodhi," said Maisie. "Ice cream."
Bodhi looked up.
Down the street, a familiar tune played.
"I'll race you," Maisie said, and Bodhi was up in an instant, sprinting to the edge of the cul-de-sac. Maisie jogged alongside him; Lucas walked half a block behind.
Bodhi reached the corner and kept running, down to the pavement. "Leo!" Maisie called. He looked back at her, and then the truck hit him.
When Maisie hauled him out of the road he was life in the process of being unmade, beautiful and terrible all at once. "Leo," she whispered. She fluttered her hands over Bodhi's throat, barely touching him, and his eyes fell open. They were glassy and cold. Lucas could hear sirens approaching, paramedics coming too late. In a distant sort of way, he knew that Maisie could have saved Bodhi; in an even more distant way, he knew that she could have killed him far sooner. Why wait for a cataclysm, when she herself was cataclysmic?
Maisie gripped Lucas's hand so hard that he saw stars. He heard her breath come in a harsh and wet rasp through her open mouth. Lucas thought he felt a shift in the great big cogs of the universe.
"A reversal," Maisie said, chest rising unevenly as she inhaled. "A death for a life." Lucas tried to adjust his hand in hers, but she only gripped him tighter. "Please—I can't hold him alone. We'll lose him if you let go."
Lucas thought he understood. Leo's spirit—or soul—or whatever it was called—was nestled in Bodhi's broken body, and now Maisie and Lucas held it between them. Leo was in the space between their palms, twining around their arms, and Lucas had never known anything as certainly as he knew that he would not let his brother go.
"What do we do now?" Lucas asked.
"We find Leo's body, and then we wake him up."
When Bodhi's parents arrived, Lucas thought they had too many questions, and didn't understand why they insisted on complicating the simplest thing in the world. Their son was dead, and that was it. Why couldn't that be all?
In his impatience, Lucas thought he might have become too much like Maisie. Or maybe he had grown toward her just enough to survive, like a plant curling toward the sun.
"I waited," Maisie said to Lucas as they walked home from the scene of the accident. Their block had never felt so long. "You wanted your brother back, and I wanted to give him to you, but I waited."
"You were going to ask why I didn't do this sooner, weren't you?"
"I'd never," Lucas said, and it was true. He'd gotten used to living with unanswered questions. He still hadn't found the edges of Maisie's abilities, still didn't quite understand the myriad ways she traded death and life, but he didn't need to.
"You wondered," Maisie said, and that was true as well. "Why didn't I do this sooner? Because you didn't want me to. You wanted Leo back, but you didn't want me to kill for him, so I waited." She paused, as if waiting for Lucas to speak. "It really was an accident, Lucas. And he was hurting. Before I touched him, he was really, really hurting. I would have waited – I know you would have wanted me to wait, right? I would have let his heart stop on its own, but I couldn't let him hurt like that."
"You could have saved him." It was confusing to watch her bend the lines between life and death, to watch her make these choices—why save some creatures and not others? Why let some die their own deaths, and why kill others? Coming from someone who had the power to save lives, putting someone out of their misery felt an awful lot like murder.
"Of course I could have saved Bodhi," Maisie said, "but wouldn't you rather have Leo?"
"But he was a kid."
"He was Leo," she said. Something in her voice made Lucas feel stupid for not understanding. "It doesn't always happen like this—the trade isn't always so direct—but when it is, we make the trade regardless. I do what I have to. A death for a life, Lucas. You know that by now."
"I don't care if you're my brother," said Louisa. "Hell, I don't care if it could save the world. I am not driving you across town in this traffic."
It took Lucas nearly an hour to convince Louisa. In that time, he never once loosened his grip on Maisie's hand.
"So what's this about?" Louisa asked as she backed Leo's old blue minivan out of the driveway.
"Magic and science," said Maisie.
"Leo," said Lucas.
"Magic. And science. And Leo?" She formed her mouth around his name as if worried that the vowels could cut her gums.
They were leaving the cul-de-sac, the silent summer suburbs. Without saying a thing, the three of them remembered tricycles and rapidly melting popsicles, running barefoot on freshly trimmed lawns, splashing around in kiddie pools.
"It's complicated," said Lucas.
"We have a long drive," said Louisa.
"It's a manmade lake," said Louisa, as the gang tumbled out of the car and marched into Echo Park. "There's no magic in a manmade lake."
She’d spent the entire drive demanding to know why they needed to go to the park, threatening to turn the car around in response to the kids’ careful non-answers. She hadn’t questioned the cluster of emergency vehicles at the end of the cul-de-sac or the drying smears of blood on Maisie’s shirt.
"There’s still science," Lucas said.
And then his sister’s hands were on his shoulders, holding him in place, even as Maisie kept tugging him toward the lake. “Lucas, none of this is real. You know that, right? You have to know that.”
“But . . . you already drove us all this way.”
“Because, whatever this is, I think I’m going to have to let it disappoint you.”
When Lucas didn’t answer, Louisa settled for scowling and scuffing her feet against the ground. She followed Maisie and Lucas down to the lake.
Mosquitoes floated in the stagnant water and nipped at their bare legs as they walked laps around the lake, first clockwise, then counterclockwise. Every few steps, Maisie breathed through the bone pipe, tuned so unwaveringly that it made Lucas's head hurt.
The sun was beginning to set when they stopped. "Jupiter," Maisie said, and Lucas had never heard her voice so hesitant. She played that note again on her pipe. The sound was long and low, with a sort of mournfulness that Louisa associated with late August. It was the whole universe contained in a single tone.
"He's underneath us," Maisie whispered. They shuffled a few feet away from the lakeshore and looked up at the sky again, leaning slightly toward each other.
"Point to a star," she said. "I know them all."
Lucas understood then the exact moment that they were trying to recreate. Five years ago, winter, dead grass hard and cold under his bare feet, hours of hunting through the yard for pill bugs and bird bones, chasing Maisie until he could barely breathe. He felt it all, perhaps even more strongly than he felt it then. He felt the moment Leo died, the moment Bodhi was born, the way something shifted and clicked between them. He was awed by his cousin all over again, the arrogant way she claimed to know every star in the night sky. He pointed toward the twilit horizon.
"Jupiter," said Maisie. She played that note again.
The damp ground began to shift. Layers of mud retreated: a ribcage, a skeleton, Leo's tattered blue jeans.
Flies gathered around them and covered the skeleton. When they departed, the greying flesh had returned to his body, tattered in places, wounds not clear enough for Lucas to piece together what got his brother into this predicament. Worms appeared, looping through the spaces in Leo's skull, then slid back into to the ground. His eyes were swollen and bulging until they settled back into place, eyelids closing over them. His finely stubbled jaw shifted and creaked, healing from some invisible fracture.
In the wind, the leaves whispered "Galileo, Galileo, Galileo." Maisie took up the chant. Lucas joined her, gripping her hand so tightly that his whole arm went stiff.
After the years had undone themselves, the three of them stood there, staring at Leo's pale corpse. He looked the same as he had when Lucas last saw him, save for the beating he'd taken.
"Galileo," Lucas whispered, and let go of Maisie's hand.
Leo's eyes opened.
© 2018 by Dominique Dickey