Prolific author Julianna Baggott (Pure, Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders) has published novels for both YA and adult readers, as well as poetry. But she’s got something new up next: her first volume of short stories, the provocatively titled I’d Really Prefer Not to Be Here With You. io9 has a ghostly tale to share today!
Here’s a quick intro to the collection, followed by the full cover and the chilling “How They Got In.”
In the title story, set five minutes in the future where you not only have a credit score but also a dating score, a woman who’s been banished from all dating apps attends a weekly help group with others who have been “banned for life,” and finds herself falling in love. In “Backwards,” a twist on Benjamin Button, a woman reconnects with her estranged father as he de-ages ten years each day they spend together. In “Welcome to Oxhead,” all the parents in a gated community “shut off” when the power goes out. In “Portals,” a small town deals with hope and loss when dozens of portals suddenly open. In “How They Got In,” a grieving family starts to see a murdered girl in all of their old home videos.
HOW THEY GOT IN
The daughter. Loose-limbed girl, twelve years old. Pumping her bike. Gangly as a puppet. It’s cold. She grips the handlebars, knuckles red and raw. Her breath catches and ghosts the air as she puffs along, uphill.
The developer of this neighborhood went bankrupt, so most of these houses were abandoned before they were fully built. Like the daughter was abandoned before fully built; her father’s gone. Cancer, awful and quick. Just a year earlier. She and her mom and brother are still trying to find the new orbit, to reconstruct a family around a massive, cratered hole of absence. The father had been a good father.
Their house sits at the end of the cul-de-sac, the sun on its back like a burden of dying light. The garage is just beams, an unfinished gesture. The leaky bay window is covered in plastic. The den still needs drywall. It’s laid bare in a way that recalls ribs—like being inside a body. She doesn’t want to go home. But her fingers are tight with cold, her cheeks stiff.
She stops. Takes out her phone, points the camera at her face. “Hi! Welcome to my YouTube channel!” She doesn’t have a YouTube channel, but dumb kids at school do, so maybe she could too. “This is where I live.” She points the camera at her house. It looks sad in the frame. Collapsible almost. Like a giant hand could pick it up and take it away.
She shows the street of half-built houses, focusing on one lot that’s only pitted foundation. Poured and abandoned. Things could be worse. That could be her house. She turns the camera off, wipes her bangs out of her eyes, and walks her bike up the driveway. The video uploads to the family’s cloud.
This was how the first one got in. Missing the summer of 1973. Fifteen years old. Her flute case found by a muddy brook six miles southeast.
But not her flute. Just the case, open on the bank. Its blue velvet interior caked in mud. Holly Martine. She remembers herself, some small registering of her existence. The pocket of her jeans; her cross necklace, which gets stuck to her collarbones in summer; her silky hair pulled back in a high ponytail; her teased bangs. The flute in her hand, flecked with blood, keys clotted with mud. The scent of her Jean Nate After Bath Splash and . . . him . . . Cigarettes, acrid body odor, and something like tar and shit and the clay along the water’s edge, gray and wet. She knew her killer. He lived along her route home, small house, neat yard. He was her father’s age. He’d try to make small talk sometimes. Slimmer. George Slimmer.
She appears. Cold. She crosses her arms, flute tucked under one arm. She knows this spot, her makeshift burial.
Holly sees a girl, a middle-schooler, standing in a driveway, pointing something at her then walking away. Holly feels like she’s slipped into something that isn’t the world she’s known. She’s hungry. Not literally hungry, but a physical feeling in her chest and ribs but also her legs and arms, like she’s been starving for a long time. For what?
For everything. Air, dirt, houses. My God, the girl with her bike. Going into a house. To her family? Holly wants life, people, words, her flute; its key pads are stuck. She wants to be and do and make noise.
She runs toward the girl’s house, fever in her chest, but comes to the edge of something. Like an idea has come to an end. She can see forward but can’t move forward.
After the Challenger blew up—the classroom air felt solid, no one moving or breathing. They saw the stalled smoke cloud, nothing at the edges of it, either. She reaches into this stalled air. Opening and closing her hand, it becomes a bunch of dots, like TV channels that don’t work.
Is she going to stand here and wait? Has she learned nothing? She heaves herself in the direction of the girl with the bike, heaving herself into that pixilation.
Now, in the basement, the son. He’s fifteen. A workout bench, gaming station, futon. Buzzing space heater. Cave crickets appear, so muscular and erratic that he’s scared of them and embarrassed by it.
His girlfriend is here. She came in through the cellar door. This is how his life is since his dad died. No one knows what he’s doing. No one cares. He loves it except if he thinks about it too much. Like the way his mother sees past him. They could go for days, near misses, almost seeing each other. He hears her walking around overhead. Maybe she hears his video game gunfire. How long could he go missing before she noticed?
His girlfriend would notice. She’s wearing an Old Navy sweater over a tank top. She smells like a strawberry-scented car deodorizer, the kind that clips onto the air conditioning vent. His dad had one in his Toyota.
On the futon, she slips her hand along his thigh.
“Does it stink down here?” he asks. His Christmas stocking was foot sprays and Axe body spray—as if his mother didn’t see him anymore but could still smell him.
“My mom sells essential oils,” his girlfriend says. “There’s one that smells like pot, swear to God.”
“I’d need something to cover up pot.”
“She’s got those.” She kisses him. “Do you want me to steal one?”
“But does it stink down here?” She looks around. “It smells like a basement. Right?”
She pushes him down onto the futon and straddles him.
“You know what we should do?”
“I’ve got a few ideas.” He’s surprised that he knows what to say sometimes and how to lower his voice to say it.
“We should tape it,” she says. “Like celebrities.” “
Tape, like, us?”
“Like how much?” She tugs his shirt. “Just a teaser. We’re not sluts.” The first time she called him a slut it was confusing. They’d hooked up at a party. Two months later, he still doesn’t know how to take it.
“Just a teaser,” he says. “Okay.” She takes off her sweater, her tank top riding up her soft stomach, and picks up his phone.
Holly is at a birthday party. The girl with the bike is younger, turning seven. The mother is presenting a Barbie baked into a cake, which is the bottom of her ball gown. Smart, the girl thinks. Did they put the Barbie in after the cake was baked? Still, she can’t help it—she imagines the Barbie burnt to char.
Holly stands at the back of the room, holding her flute. She doesn’t recognize these people, these toys. All of these things gripped in their hands. They point and shoot like cameras. They bing, click, play music. The father touches a button, and it’s Aunt Jackie, calling from Baltimore. A phone?
Why this house and this family and this moment? She moves toward the kitchen, finds an edge, like the one she heaved herself into. Can she push from this moment to another? She’s warm here. There are sweets, a punch bowl with ice cream and foaming ginger ale. She wants to eat the cake but she also wants to shove her hand into it and feel it. Again, it’s hunger but not typical hunger. It’s wanting . . .
They sing “Happy Birthday.” She sings along quietly at first. A stranger at the party, and no one notices?
She sings louder. Do they see her at all?
By the time they get to the little girl’s name, she’s singing at the top of her voice, off-key, angrily. “Happy birthday, dear Little Giiiiirllll . . . happy birthday to you!”
Their eyes glide past her. But then, a quick flip. They’re in a living room. The daughter opens a gift of pink cowboy boots. And a Lego set—a pirate ship? Holly remembers getting a yellow Wuzzle bear and a SheRa Crystal Castle for her birthday. Her older brother grabbed the castle, screaming about Castle Grayskull.
These two fight the same way. A sudden brawl. The father says, “Hold on.”
“It’s her birthday, for crying out loud!” the mother says.
Holly hated her family, but she misses them now.
She sits down, cross-legged. She thinks of marching band and how she didn’t get to go to the marching band competition. They had a routine to an old sitcom theme song, My Three Sons, her band director’s favorite show as a kid. Mr. Tidek. He thought they could win. She starts to cry.
An old lady touches her shoulder. The grandmother, the next-door neighbor? “They’re just playing,” she says, pointing at the kids.
This old lady sees her? As much as she hated not being seen, this is more disturbing.
She should be gone. She’s dead.
She knows this. She stands up. “Thanks. I have to leave now.” How many places exist? How far could she get from this moment? She walks quickly toward a hallway. It disappears into nothingness.
She runs toward the nothingness and lets it swallow her whole.
And then: Christmas—the tree in the quiet, the gifts.
Another birthday party. At an arcade.
A soccer match. She stands on the sidelines.
She runs to the edge of each one, feeling light and buzzy—a ripple of energy—then lands.
An ice-skating rink. She has no skates, but there she is on the ice, holding her flute. The skaters gliding around her.
A beach vacation—the father holding the two kids as he moves into the ocean.
A choral recital. When the crowd claps, she claps . . . And then it strikes her. A crowd. What if she found someone she knows? What if she isn’t far from home? She’s in the aisle, searching faces. The kids take their final bow.
It all stops. The grainy light. The pixelation. But only for a moment. Then the concert begins again, midsong. She’s back in the aisle. The conductor, in her woolly skirt . . . Holly looking at faces . . . A man in his midtwenties is looking at her. He really sees her. He stands up and tries to push down the aisle toward her. People aren’t getting out of the way. He’s stuck.
The beginning again, midsong. The man in his seat, staring at her. He doesn’t try this time. He lifts his hand.
She waves back and leaves. The sand, ocean, the father, the two kids . . .
The mother is two stories above her son. Almost exactly. If the house disappeared and they were suspended midair, you could connect them to the same rope, perpendicular to the earth.
He’s making out with his girlfriend on the futon. His phone propped against the TV. Recording.
The mother made dinner—fish sticks, frozen veggies, chopped pickles in mayo—left it for the kids. Her glass of wine bobbles as she situates herself in bed. Laptop open. This used to be her son’s room. The bedroom she shared with her husband, where he died, is untouched.
A knock at the door. Her daughter sticks her face in. “Can I do my homework in here?”
“I know this game,” the mother says. “You need to sleep in your own bed. Are you still afraid of monsters?” It’s supposed to be a joke but comes off cold.
The daughter’s afraid of a lot of things. “Whatever.” She shuts the door and walks to her own bedroom. She crawls under her bed. She likes the tight space, the dust ruffle like a tent. When she’s here, she doesn’t exist. If she doesn’t exist, her father isn’t dead. Because he never existed either. She blows on the dust ruffle—pink and billowy.
The mother’s relieved that her daughter left her alone. Her kids can’t regress just because their father died. She sips her wine, looks at her movie options, hovering over the link to a period piece.
She does what she does when she gives in. She goes to the family videos in the cloud. She misses her husband, their inside jokes, the sex.
She clicks on a clip of him with the kids on the beach, pushing into waves, holding both of them, his back red from sun. She’ll let herself watch it ten times and then stop.
On the ninth time, her husband looks left. He turns as if someone’s called to him. He turns, takes a step. What?
She starts again. The kids—one in each arm, the surf. He turns again, takes a step toward—what? A sound, a voice? This is new.
And then he turns again—back to the mother on the beach. He looks at her, worried, as if to say, “Do you see what I see?” She watches again. Something’s wrong. Something’s there that wasn’t before. She shuts her laptop, her heart thudding. Her best friend told her, Grief does strange things.
She grabs a bottle of Xanax off the nightstand and swallows a pill. This is grief, she tells herself.
“Welcome to my YouTube channel!” the daughter practices, wearing lip gloss and her mom’s mascara. Her nose is too big for her face. It used to be cute, but now it’s not. Her poofy hair looks dumb.
On her desk is the start of her research paper: Rafflesia arnoldii, the largest flower in the world, is a parasite. It’s like fungus because it grows in a mass of strands and depends on hosts to get water and nutrients. Its flowers are huge and reddish brown and smell like rotten flesh.
Her father smelled bad when he was dying. She didn’t want to hug him. She hates to remember that part.
She slumps into her beanbag chair, plays footage she captured earlier—going fast on her bike downhill, a bird on a limb, the sky—“Hi! Welcome to my YouTube channel! This is where I live.” Her house and then, quick turn, her street, the lot that’s a cement hole.
And then something scrabbling up. A person. The top of a head as they crawl up. A teenager, a girl, stands up. Ponytail and bangs. She looks around, cold and a little dirty.
But there was no girl at the time.
But she’s real, holding something—a short baton? No. A flute.
The daughter shouts, “Mom! Mom!”
Her mother still has a panic response from her husband’s death. She runs down the hall and throws open the door. “What’s wrong?”
The daughter hands her the laptop. Frozen on a still shot of the girl, arms crossed, flute tucked under one arm, eyes wide.
The son’s girlfriend blew off her curfew by an hour, but she’s finally gone. He’s supposed to work on a group project designing a city on the moon. He’s in charge of making tubes for housing. One thing he’s learned about building a city on the moon is that it shouldn’t be left to teenagers. He wants to write the team’s conclusion: This should only be tried by NASA engineers and shit. We’re too stupid and lazy.
A mess of Sharpies, cardboard, a box cutter, poster board. He’s too wired to focus. His girlfriend sent the teaser to herself. He hopes she wants to trash it. They aren’t celebrities. They’ll look like dorks because they are dorks.
He doesn’t want to think about it or a moon city. He puts on his headset to do some gaming.
The mother sits on her daughter’s twin bed. K-pop posters on the wall. Her daughter talked her into staying until she was asleep. The mother wants to curl up next to her, but she’s afraid of her daughter’s need for her.
Or is she afraid of her need for her daughter? She learned from her husband’s death—don’t need people. She looks at her little girl, tenderly. She smooths her soft hair. Then she opens the laptop. The girl with the flute. The mother sees herself in the girl’s clothes and hair. Her own era. The girl with the flute is connected to her husband on the beach—his face, alarmed, maybe even scared. He looked at her. He needed her. Their eyes met—here, now, today.
She closes the laptop, turns out her daughter’s light, and heads back to bed. In the morning, things will make sense.
Holly kneels in the wet sand, digging with her flute. It’s already wrecked. Her first thought was SOS. But instead, she writes her name: HOLLY MAR—She runs out of time.
It begins again.
The father glances over sometimes, knee-deep, hip-deep . . . She ignores him. She keeps trying and gets faster. Maybe if someone knows she’s here, something will change. She can’t have her life back. But she’s driven.
When she gets through her whole name, the father smiles. The kids are oblivious, squealing exactly the same way, each time.
The clip starts over, and she digs—so quick now. The father shouts above the surf, “Holly!”
Her name stuck from one repetition to the next. She draws in a breath and holds it. Stares at him.
They haven’t had a family meeting since before the father died. Those were medical updates, the father dying upstairs. But here they are on a Saturday morning.
“What’s going on?” the son asks.
“Something happened,” the mother says. “Something weird, and we need to address it.” She tries to explain about their father on the beach, but she’s accidentally confessed that she watches clips over and over.
“That beach in North Carolina?” The son tries to focus on facts.
The daughter is lit up. “And I was riding my bike . . .” She shows the clip, freezing on the image of the girl with the flute.
The son fiddles with his phone case.
The mother asks the son, “Anything weird?”
“You want something to be weird, don’t you?” He’s not sure why he says this.
“No. It’s just . . . we should talk. Because if there’s something wrong. Well . . .” She’s not sure what she’s supposed to be saying. “Grief does strange things.” Maybe she does want something to be strange—so strange that their father comes back.
The son thinks about the teaser. Could it have uploaded to the cloud automatically? “I’m fine. Can we wrap this up?”
“Don’t be like that,” the mother says.
His phone dings. It’s a text from his girlfriend.
“This isn’t grief,” the daughter says. “This is a dead girl, alive in our videos. I’m sure it’s why Dad’s different on the tape. It’s all . . .” She shoves all of her fingers together.
“Interconnected,” the mother says.
The text reads: What the fuck is wrong with you?
Followed by a super pissed emoji.
“We should keep an eye on each other,” the mother says.
The next text: Who the fuck is she?
“Let’s put our phones away,” the mother says.
“Keep an eye on each other. Got it,” the son says. “Can I go now?”
His phone bings and bings and bings.
“Sure,” his mother says.
He whips out of his chair and heads into the basement. His phone keeps binging. He opens the video. Hits delete.
The texts read: She’s psycho. Is she Avery Bickley’s cousin?
Who’s Avery Bickley? One of the sophomore soccer players? The keeper?
She’s a fucking perv. WTF. You’re the worst. Fuck off and DIE.
He looks around the room. Everything is just the way he left it. His laundry basket, his collection of Axe body spray and cologne, the housing tubes from the model city.
Except the box cutter. Its blade is exposed. His father prioritized safety. The son would never leave the blade like that. He feels cold, deep in his gut. He kicks the stacks of cardboard. And that’s when he sees it:
HOLLY MARTINE WAS HERE. I AM HOLLY MARTINE . . . HOLLY MARTINE HOLLY MARTINE HOLLY MARTINE HOLLY MARTINE HOLLY MARTINE HOLLY MARTINE HOLLY MARTINE HOLLY . . .
“You’re dead, too,” Holly says to the dad.
“About a year now.” They’re at a baptism. He can only stray so far; sometimes he has to gesture or move in a way that has nothing to do with their conversation but is required.
“The old woman at your daughter’s seventh birthday party and the guy at the concert,” she says. “They’re dead, too.”
“Yes. My wife’s grandmother. She lived into her nineties. I don’t know the guy at the concert, but there was a GoFundMe for his funeral expenses.”
“What’s a GoFundMe?”
“A fundraiser. Online.” She doesn’t get it. “Never mind.”
They’ve been through this loop at the baptism many times, the light fuzz on the baby’s head being doused with water and oils, again and again.
“What do the dead do here?” she asks. “Do they get trapped?”
He looks younger here than on the beach. His hair dark and full, a goatee. “They’re usually here for a while and then fade and become the repetitive images again, how they were first filmed. I think they have to be ready to go and those who love them have to let them.”
“What’s it with you? You can’t go, or they won’t let you?”
“Both.” The father’s eyes go wet. He smiles. “I loved this life.”
She looks at the stained glass, the priest in his pale robes, those hovering around the baby. “That’s not how it is with me, though.”
“You weren’t here. And then, suddenly, you were everywhere.” He has to make the sign of the cross and bow his head. “What do you want?”
She looks at him, completely confused. “All of this. All of it. A life! Look at what you got!” She remembers the girl in the basement taking off her tank top, the boy on top of her, their heavy breathing, kissing, the roughness and sweetness. Can’t she have that?”
He lifts his head. The prayer is over. “What about the man who . . . did this to you?”
She doesn’t want to talk about George Slimmer. Why should he even be allowed to exist in her mind? She taps her flute against her leg. “It was all woods, you know. Your whole neighborhood. And the last thing I saw was leaves and the sky behind them. I’d stopped breathing. But I still remember that. The leaves shaking. They weren’t angry or scared. Or happy. They were beyond all of that. I’m beyond hating him. Maybe it’s not trauma with us dead people. Maybe it’s just wanting.”
“But you’re stuck here. You should—”
“You’re stuck, too!” It feels good to shout in a church. “It’s how you know I’m stuck.”
“If they die, you could have them here.”
“If one of them dies, maybe I could take their place.”
“Are you crazy?”
“I wrote my name and it stayed. If I can do that, I can do more than that.”
She feels alignment, like in marching band when they synced up and the form took shape for the crowd—even though none of them could see it. Each one of them was a piece of something bigger. My Three Sons was three pairs of shoes, one of them tapping its foot, impatiently. They made that out of their marching bodies, their furry hats, chin-strapped into place. They only saw it when Mr. Tidek wheeled the AV cart into the band room and played the tape back. She feels powerful, caged.
“You can’t,” the father says. “Jesus, Holly.” He grabs her arm, but she pulls away just as he’s controlled by the moment, pulled back to prayer.
She turns and runs to the edge.
The son does a Google search. Holly Martine . . . News about the missing person case from 1986, the grieving family. Two years later, another disappearance. A high-school freshman field hockey player. The body was found. A few men were questioned. One was charged, tried, convicted.
George Slimmer. Expressionless, scarred lip. Fifty-five. Worked in HVAC, lived not too far away, in the house where he grew up, inherited from his mother after her death.
Cold and sweating, the son climbs the stairs, two at a time, to the first floor then the second. He finds his mother in the hallway, looking through boxes pulled from the crawl space. His sister is looking at the laptop, headphones on.
“Holly Martine,” he says.
The sister pops one ear out of the headphones.
“What?” the mother says.
“That’s the girl’s name. She was probably murdered by a guy named George Slimmer.”
They huddle around the son’s laptop. He scrolls and lands on a news story.
“She’s been in the basement,” the son says. “She wrote her name. Obsessively.”
“Why is she haunting us?” the mother asks.
“Did she write down what she wants from us?” the daughter asks.
“Does she have to want something?” he asks.
The mother thinks about it. “Don’t ghosts always want something?”
“Maybe she wants to kill us,” the son says. “Ghosts want that sometimes.”
The son twists away from them, looking at the door at the end of the hallway, the room where his father died.
“I’m collecting all the footage,” the daughter says. “She’s everywhere.”
Holly has done everything she wanted. Her hands are sticky with icing. Her jeans wet and sandy. Her fingers cold and red from the ice rink. Her throat raw from singing at the concert. Now she’s in the basement. The boy and the girl are making out. She watched them before, flushed with shame, but now she doesn’t look at them. She moves around the room, touches the headset; picks up cologne, sprays it, and walks through the mist.
She puts her flute down on the card table next to the cardboard tubes and Styrofoam, the markers, the box cutter. She picks up the box cutter. She recalls the first shovel of dirt settling around her. Once you’ve been murdered, you earn the right to murder someone. She’d never thought of murdered people when she was a teenager. What would happen if she killed someone here? Her actions have effects now. They ripple into the real world. She looks at the girl and the boy, moving around into some new configuration. “You’re on my hair,” the girl says, like she always does. He lifts his elbow. “Sorry, sorry.” They’re so alive. Do they deserve it? Why did she die and not them? Could she change that?
She looks up at the drop ceiling. She remembers the leaves against the sky. She tightens her grip on the box cutter and closes her eyes.
The mother, the daughter, and the son huddle around the laptop on the kitchen table.
The father looks at each of them now, through the camera, searching their gazes. He’s desperate. He wants to tell them something, but he can’t. He breaks away from his predetermined role only for a few seconds here and there, then he snaps back to the way he was before.
Holly isn’t in any of the clips. She’s gone.
The mother says, “Did she choose us? How did she get in?” She doesn’t think of her daughter’s cell phone. She thinks of the hole in this family—the hole ripped wide by the loss of the father. They have a human-shaped hole. Was Holly drawn to it?
“She needs a better flute.” The son wants good things for her. She’s been through so much. And she’s pretty, in a way. Maybe because she’s sad and he understands sadness. “We can do that, can’t we?”
“How?” the mother asks.
“I can buy a flute and film it. Upload that to the cloud, and it’s hers.”
The suggestion surprises the mother. It’s so practical and selfless.
“We could give her a birthday party,” the son says. “We could figure out what she’s missing, and, I don’t know.” The son feels himself falling for her. Will she be with them forever?
“What about Dad?” the daughter asks.
They play the clips, and their father is terrified. At their cousin’s wedding, while teaching the daughter how to ride a bike, in a hammock at a lake house. His eyes will snap, and he’ll stare into the camera. Does he want something from them? What?
The son paces around the kitchen, animated. He reminds the mother of his younger self when he let himself get excited about things. It scares her—his hope, his sudden naivete. “We can see him, and he can see us! It’s all different now, right? Maybe we can have him back, kind of—”
“No,” the mother says. “We can’t have him back. We have to heal.” The gaping wound of his absence. “It’s what he would want.” It’s what she would want if she were the one who’d died.
The daughter walks quickly to the back door, picking up her bike helmet from the floor and her coat from the doorknob. “I’m going for a ride.” She puts on her coat.
“We should stick together,” the mother says.
“It’ll get dark soon,” the son says. “You shouldn’t be out by yourself.”
The daughter opens the door. “I won’t be gone long.” She walks out and they follow her into the garage.
“Hey!” the brother says.
She pulls her bike out of the garage, hops on, and glides down the driveway.
Her mother runs out into the yard.
Her brother stands beside his mother. “Wait!”
“I’ll be back!” she calls to them.
The daughter pedals hard. Gets some momentum, passes where the dead girl first appeared. Keeps going. Downhill, out of the development’s entrance. Two stone posts were supposed to hold the name of their development in wrought-iron cursive. Still empty.
She pulls onto the main road. She stays on the shoulder. Her wheels pop and slip amid the gravel as cars pass. Headlights stretch her shadow then snap it back. Cold air burns her lungs.
At the top of the hill, she stops. Catches her breath. She says, “Welcome to my YouTube channel,” her voice hoarse and dry. She pulls out her phone and looks at the stretch of road. What if her father’s death has made her special?
There’s the cemetery. Her father is buried there. Lots of people who don’t want to be dead are buried there. She pulls out her phone. Headlights behind her slow; she casts a long shadow. The car pulls onto the shoulder. She looks back.
Her brother gets out first, leaving the door open. He takes a few steps toward her. “I know what you’re thinking,” he says slowly. “Don’t do it. Just hold on.”
The mother kills the engine but keeps the headlights on. She gets out of the car. The daughter, still straddling her bike, holds up her phone, ready to record. She has to do this. It’s the only way to get him back.
“Your father’s dead,” the mother says. “But we have to keep going.”
This is her shot; the daughter has to take it. She fakes giving in. She nods, lowers her phone, and gets off her bike like she’s going to walk over, put it in the trunk, and go home.
Her mother and brother exchange a look of relief.
Then she drops the bike and takes off running toward the cemetery. She holds up her phone and hits record. Her phone bobbles as she’s taking in the graves. She focuses on her father’s grave, up on the rise of the hill. But she’s sweeping over lots of graves, even the modest headstone of George Slimmer, who died in jail but was buried out here, in his hometown, next to his mother and sister. The daughter doesn’t know this. She wants her father back, that’s all. She couldn’t begin to understand what she’s setting loose.
Her mother cries her name. Her brother runs after her. Her body is lit up by the headlights, pouring into the darkness. Her brother is getting closer, and then leaps and tackles her to the cold, hard dirt. Her phone pops loose. She kicks him and twists away, but he doesn’t let go. He holds her. Both of them caught under the press of the darkening sky. And the mother arrives, standing over them, protective and breathless with love and fear. Their hearts bang wildly in their chests. The wind shivers, gusts.
And then her brother makes a strange noise. He lets go of her. He’s wincing in pain. He rolls to his back and pulls up his sleeve. There’s a cut on his wrist, short but deep. He looks at his mother, who falls to her knees and crawls to him. She presses her hand to the wound, blood rising through her fingers.
The daughter whips around, taking in the night sky, the graves, the road, her hair flipping in the wind.
From I’d Really Prefer Not to Be Here with You by Julianna Baggott. Used with the permission of the publisher, Blackstone Publishing. Copyright ©2023 by Julianna Baggott.
Julianna Baggott’s I’d Really Prefer Not to Be Here with You is out today; you can order a copy through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Bookshop.org.
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