The Dead Climb on Top of You
Third Place winner
Someone was in my house. I was living alone for the first time, it had not even been a month out of the shelter, and someone was in my house. I had never ever lived alone. In college there were roommates, and after college there was Teddy. And when I got tired of forgiving Teddy, of holding him and telling him it would be OK after he had hurt me, I shared the shelter. I was finally in my first apartment, and I was 30. Now someone was in my house, and I was not even safe alone. I had been dreaming and a child, a dream-person, kept looking to its left as if to say, look over there. Someone is over there. You should see what is over there. I woke suddenly at that. I woke like one does when they fall asleep on a plane and their head leans too far forward and they yank themselves awake and are made to look around embarrassed and wonder if anyone noticed them just jerk and snort in their seat. I saw the figure through the hazy kind of undarkness we get in city apartments: the blue-black light-touched dark, like sleeping inside a wine bottle. I pulled my comforter up around me for strength, crossed my arms over my breasts, and held my knees together.
Dream-addled, at first I thought the figure was wearing a suit like Colonel Sanders or Truman Capote would wear, all linen and mint juleps. I was sure it was Satan. My vision adjusted, and it turned out to be a woman wearing more of a Mommie Dearest silk pajama set than anything nefarious. She was barefoot. Her back was to me, but she was standing by the wall mirror just inside my bedroom door. So that for a moment it looked like there were two women in my house: one looking at me, the other away. She was small, but not slight, she looked strong under her pajamas. One of those CrossFit ladies, I thought. But still I said to myself, Thank god it is a woman, that it is not a man. That it was not Teddy.
"Hey," I said. The woman swayed a little. One of Teddy's ghosts, I thought. "Are you alive?" I whispered. Too low to hear. Stupid. I decided she had to have been sleepwalking. She had just somehow wandered in from someplace near.
She turned around then, holding something. A jingle in her hands. "You left your keys hanging in your door," she said.
I let myself breathe, and I switched on a lamp. "So you just came in?"
"I should not have done that." She pulled her hair back into a ponytail. "I could see the keys hanging there in the door." She crossed over and sat on the foot of the bed like she belonged. In the lamplight, I saw her better. She was Mexican or Native, her skin was browned, not Dallas dark by way of tanning beds and dollar bills but by birth. Her eyes were pools made for night swimming. Just pupils against black irises deep forever. "Were you drunk or something?" she asked.
She smiled at me, and I uncoiled from the ball I had wound myself into to hold out a hand. She set the keys into my palm. "No," I answered.
"You just do that sometimes?"
"I guess I do." The truth was. I did, I'd leave luggage at airport bars. Keys in doors. Wallets on the roof of cars. I didn't tell her all that. I just said thank you.
"I should have knocked. I get restless, insomniac," she said. "You guys got some good trees in the courtyard here. I saw your keys, and I wasn't so straight in thinking when I came in."
"Are you alive?"
"I know it's crazy, I've just got this ex-boyfriend."
"The one that hit you?" I nodded yes. "There is a photo of him on your mirror. I'm not a ghost."
"I know, I just had to ask, because to be around Teddy for as long as I have, there is something unnerving, and it's happening right here. I feel really stupid."
"Don't." She put a hand on my bare foot and wiggled my toe. "I'm definitely something. A devil. A mermaid. Maybe like a wood nymph? Or from the water?"
I laughed, "We should grab a coffee."
"Sure," she said, "but I don't know how to reach me. When you want to hang out maybe try Santeria?"
Then she left. And I thought I would never see her again. Only I did. She rode shotgun on a trip to help a girl get a secret and safe ride. After that, she was there when I needed her. I never saw her apartment, or even knew if she had an apartment, but she knew mine. When I wanted to see a movie, or go shopping, or when I needed a Thelma to my Louise. (Or whoever the tougher one was. She was that one.) Lucille was always barefoot, always there.
Lucille and I really bonded over Grace. A cocktail waitress from my bar who was maybe 19. She had come to me after her shift and had asked to talk. "Lora Lee," she started. "You used to date that guy from TV?" This is how many conversations in my life started and usually ended.
"Can he really talk to dead people?"
"Yes," I said, "and before you ask, I've never seen a ghost."
"He hurt you?"
I stopped her, "I don't want to talk about it. I can't. And I won't ask him to talk to anyone for you."
"It's not that." Then she started crying. "I thought you knew a place someone could go. Without them telling my dad."
This girl who had to be all of 18 was asking for help, and I had a big idea of what the problem could be and I needed to help this girl, and I could not do it alone.
This is how I came to first try witchcraft. I was literally trying to summon a woman who had told me she was a demon, or maybe a mermaid, so I wouldn't have to be alone when I drove a scared cocktail waitress to God knows where abortions were still obtainable and safe. I stole some tequila from the back bar: Cazadores or something in a tall bottle, not the pudgy bottles, and bought two limes and a Virgin Mary candle from the Mexican market down the road from my place. I also bought a live chicken on Craigslist. A little black-and-white thing that would sit happily in the bend of your arm like a clutch that matched no cocktail dress ever.
Then after I drank maybe a bottle of 7-Eleven wine, I lit the candle and set it and the tequila on the back of the toilet with my best Wüsthof chef's knife. (Taken from the split with Teddy, 'natch.) I kicked off my boots, poured a shot of tequila, and set it on the toilet tank next to the candle, then stumbled into my bathtub holding that handbag of a chicken and a lime. The animal was restless now, maybe they have some memory hiding in the species' collective unconscious of what it means to see a knife, or a woman with tequila. Or a woman with tequila and a knife. So she kind of kicked out, with her little chicken feet, and cut me, and I dropped the lime which I was just thinking I had forgotten to pre-slice. As the lime rolled the length of the tub to settle in and plug the bathtub drain, blood from the chicken-scratch pitter-pattered droplets into to the tub and Luci strode into the bathroom, downed the shot of tequila without wincing, then tucked the bottle under her arm. "Leave the chicken," she said.
Since then, Lucille has always been there. And she was there the day I snuck into the walk-in to smoke a little settle-down pot after counting the drawer at shift change. After playing with an avocado, I decided on an impromptu exam. The shitty decisions one makes while stoned. And there it was. A lump as firm as that fucking unripe avocado. And I sort of came out of the walk-in slowly, like I was pulled by some invisible string, only to see her sitting there at the bar, talking to Marcus, three empty shot glasses already upended in front of her. She drove me home and held my hand while I sat on the couch. I pulled myself into a ball again. Tucked my boots under me on the couch. Crossed my breasts with my arms. I called doctors. I wanted to call my daddy. But he was gone. Dead. Only goddamned Teddy could see him. I would not call Teddy.
"I want to call Teddy," I said.
"Teddy who used to hit you?"
"That's a bad idea."
"Can you talk to the dead? Talk to gods or ghosts?"
I was mad now, "Is it cancer?" She nodded yes, "and you know for sure? You can tell?" She nodded yes again. "Can you fix it?"
"No," she said.
"You suck," I said.
The rest moved like things like this move. You go to the doctors, and you do what they say. It is a burden too often described, so I'll only say that on our first trip, we drove the same hours we had driven with Grace, to the same place even for the mammogram. Many oncologists and specialists later we discussed a double mastectomy. The doctors advised against it for now. The prognosis was good, they said. I'd lose the one breast. There would be chemo. I would be sick. I would have the first surgery of my life. And an angel, or maybe a mermaid, was there to take me home.
I was surprised to see him in my house, even though Luci had told me to expect him. That she had called him. Teddy had his knees pulled to his chest; his feet were on the couch. He was wearing his boots.
"Judge told me where you hid your key," he said.
"It's not Daddy's house."
"He knows." He looked at his still-booted feet. "I know."
I dropped my bag beside him and rubbed my neck. The sweat rolled grime into black beads at my fingertips. "I've kind of missed you," I said.
Teddy picked at the blue jean tatter at his knees, "You're OK now? Judge told me what he knew, which wasn't much."
"It's been almost a year. They saved the nipple."
"I didn't know they could do that."
"That's what I said."
I sat on the coffee table, and Teddy scooted forward, setting his feet on the ground. "Sorry about the boots," he said.
"It's OK. Do you want to see?"
"I don't know, L.L., Do I?"
"How could I know that," I said.
"You know what I'm asking. I never got over you, I keep your earrings in my sock drawer."
I was mad at him for that. But I knew it was true, and the sentiment was honest. "Give me your hand." I said. I didn't wait for him to offer it. I took it and guided it under my shirt to the scar where my right breast had been. He ran his thumb up the keloid ridge and stopped at the salvaged nipple. He let his fingers linger there.
"Can you feel that?" he asked.
I nodded. "You can't come back, Teddy."
I kissed him then I found myself on my back, and there was an overwhelming rush and I felt like I had just had a swig of whiskey. Teddy held my hips and grabbed a fistful of curtains. I heard the curtain rod rattle, and I watched the lace shake in the sunlight because I couldn't look Teddy in the eyes.
We will move to Oregon. No, to Montana. We'll leave in the morning and drive north. It may sprinkle in Colorado or storm in South Dakota. The radio will give out somewhere and turn into static and dead air, so we'll have to count the beats of the windshield wipers to stay awake. Saying nothing but numbers. I'll wait tables at first. They'll love me at the diners in Helena or the bars in Missoula. I'll take up cross-stitching or knitting. There will be time for that at first. Eventually I'll take classes while Teddy works for the local TV station. Maybe radio. I will be called a nontraditional student; I'll study history. I will see the Aurora Borealis.
Teddy will become a Montana man. He will chop wood, and his arms will harden. The cold air will turn his cheeks red, and he will seem younger than me when I watch him from the window. We'll be regular fixtures at college football games. Cold winds will blow down through the valley, and Teddy will pull me close to him because the thin blanket that we bring to the games will never be enough and Teddy will put his hand up the back of my shirt and rub me for warmth. His fingers will be cold, and I will shiver. Our team will complete an important play, and I will not see. Teddy will notice me grin because of his shouting. His excited hands will stretch my shirt. We'll share a secret flask and that night, at home, I will scratch streaks on his back as long as the northern lights.
We will not get married, but we will have a daughter. The three of us will visit Paris where Teddy will get drunk on a decanter of cheap wine and fall into a courtyard fountain at our favorite cafe. The waiters will find this endearing. We will never make it back to Paris, but Teddy will tell, and retell, the story of how he fell into the fountain while I sat there nibbling foie gras while our infant daughter nursed at my good breast.
And tomorrow I will be sadder still because I cannot let him stay.