“This is the worst night of my life, but I’m only fifteen.”
Dad regards me indecipherably from the couch, his sweet potato chip pausing in midair.
“I’m being optimistic, actually,” I tell him. “Today is the worst night of my life, but in a decade it won’t even be top ten.”
He flicks the chip at me. “If this is the worst night of your life, then I’ve done a better job at parenting than you’ve let me believe.” He pats the seat cushion next to him and motions for me to sit and watch House Hunters. I allow myself to be herded onto the sofa and let my eyes glaze over to the tranquilizing medley of open plan kitchens. I am vibrating with frustration.
“What are you going to do with him?” Dad asks, gesturing to the cowboy.
“I’m not sure yet.” My voice is measured, an attempt to retain whatever dignity I have left in store.
“He could live in the garage. Or the guest bedroom; we’ll turn it into a Wild West theme.” Dad pats my knee. “You’re allowed to throw him out too, if you want,” he says. Then he says, “It’s not the end of the world.”
I am trying to work on my temper, but once I’ve lugged the cowboy upstairs, I shred him into a thousand bits. People always think they can tell you what you are. If I had a biographer, I’d go crazy and kill him.
Lying on my bedroom floor, the cowboy’s jolly smile looks accusatory. My phone buzzes with a message from Cerise:
that was a stupid move you pulled bitch. were through.
I roll my phone over and over on my bed. It’s so cliché, I don’t even know how to respond. Do you ever feel like the world is just some low-budget production run out of your own head? I wonder if Cerise consulted anyone before she wrote that. Was there a focus group? What was wrong with them?
The rest of the text messages will probably start flooding in any moment now.
I make eye contact with the cowboy.
The cowboy’s eyes are still Raleigh Van Hout’s, which makes me feel bad for destroying him. I didn’t expect this turn of events. Raleigh was the obvious choice to be the cowboy, because frankly he’s the most cowboy guy in school. He lived in Texas for three years and he has boots. It was either him or the generic Party City cutout with the creepy dead eyes and honestly when I was all alone with it in the Country Western-slash-Star Wars aisle I felt threatened. From the very start, I knew that Raleigh Van Hout would be the one.
Raleigh was really open to modeling for the shoot when I asked him. His dad runs the funeral home, so we’ve gotten to know each other better in the past year. He’s a nice kind of guy, really quiet, but not because he’s trying to seem cool. I told him that I’d provide a suede jacket and hat and he even offered to bring the boots. And that whole time I was making him pose with a lasso in front of the blank white wall in the art room, I’d totally forgotten that he was hooking up with Cerise. It’s a mistake anyone could have made. He doesn’t like to talk about her.
I think I hear my phone hum and I reach around for it, but it’s just the noise of my twin brother entering the room. He claims that he’s known me and watched over me my entire life, which is a pretty convenient way to automatically get the upper hand in any conversation. He knocks my SAT prep book off the bed as he passes by. This is his revenge for the time I ate him in the womb.
“The barbecue was a disaster,” I tell him, and he stills. “I’m despondent.”
My brother flips the pages of the SAT book until he lands on the page where despondent is listed as a vocab word. “You’re full of it,” he says.
“I think I’m full of something else.”
My brother’s energy hovers somewhere near my head. I can tell because his voice is very distinct in my ear. “Julissa,” he says, “This stuff doesn’t matter in the long run. Trust me. When you’re dead, you gain perspective.”
He likes to pretend he’s so freaking wise. Dead or alive, he’s just as fifteen as the rest of us.
“Clean up that posterboard. You’ll feel better if you do.”
“I already tore him up. It’d be over the top to throw him away.” I imagine Cerise and Raleigh digging through my trash and finding shredded pieces of cowboy in there. Cerise would probably have me reported for psychotic behavior. When she saw Raleigh and me playing horseshoes under the string lights out by the soccer field, she thought I was in love with him. When I rolled out his life-sized cowboy photo and announced that we’d be using him as a target for the balloon-throwing contest, she thought I wanted to kill him.
I had filled up the balloons with red acrylic to make the splatter marks more obvious. When Cerise flung the carton at my feet, and the rivulets started streaming in a delta around the soles of my shoes, it sort of looked I had been soaked in blood. But not as much as it looked like I’d been doused with cheap paint. A few guys glanced over as Cerise screeched and the balloons exploded on me; the looks on their faces said they didn’t know who I was but that they hoped I’d hurry up and die already. Cerise stomped off to her car with veggie platters and cartons of mini cupcakes in her arms, and her faction of student council members absconded along with her. I locked myself in a port-a-potty to scrub the paint off my blue gingham Bardot top, and by the time I emerged, the place had cleared out. Once the free food was gone, no one saw any reason to mill around and listen to Brandi Carlile anymore. Madison and I were left alone to gather up the shiny plastic ten-gallon hats and wipe down folding tables. Mads bitched the entire time. The whole night was over by 8 PM.
My brother sighs and falls silent. Maybe he’s gone off to whatever back room ghosts take their breaks in. I lie on my back and turn the screen of my phone on and off. Apparently nobody has anything else to say to me. I can’t see if Cerise is talking shit on her Finsta because she already blocked me months ago as part of her New Year’s resolution to cut off toxic people. I check my DMs and my texts again.
For good luck, I wait until 11:11 to go to bed. I pull all my blankets into a heap and close my eyes, letting the hum of the ceiling fan wash over everything. I feel very deep, in the sense of being underwater. Dad comes in to say goodnight and rub my shoulder, and I have this crazy knack for ruining things so I pretend to be upset at him, just lying there stiff as a cardboard cowboy.
On Sunday, my brother is very active and I have to make up some excuse for why my bedroom mirror is shattered. Dad stands on a stepstool looking at all the pieces and tells me that I should go grab the dust buster.
“I swatted a fly,” I say. “Really hard.”
“I bet you got him.”
“This wouldn’t be an issue if you’d just give me a name,” says my brother, after Dad has left. The whir of the vacuum makes his voice hard to place.
I shrug. “I haven’t known you for very long. I wouldn’t know what name to choose.”
“Just because you didn’t notice me doesn’t mean I wasn’t there, Julissa. I probably know you better than anyone.”
I don’t like it when he brings this up. According to him I was just ignoring him all those years. He says he used to try and contact me but my head was too filled up with the material world to care.
“I don’t want to mess it up,” I say. “I could give you a crappy name and then you’d be saddled with it forever.”
“Well, I’d tell you if it was a good one or not.” He grabs the handle of the vacuum from me and runs it roughshod all over the carpeting. “When I’m nameless it’s harder for me to control myself.”
“If I told Dad about you he could try and think of something.”
“Oh, don’t be like that. You said you wouldn’t tell your dad about me.”
“But maybe there’s something he and Mom wanted to name you in the first place, before you were born.”
“Before you ate me, you mean,”
I sigh. “Maybe I’ll name you later.”
My brother is dejected, and the vacuum hacks on a ball of hair. “Watch out,” I say, “or else I’ll call you Thurston.”
“I could be a Thurston.”
“Dragomir, then. Chauncey. Agrippa.”
“Agrippa is a girl name.”
“Yeah. So be careful.” I lie back on my bed and hum the fugue we’re learning in band. I am trying not to think about Monday morning and what awaits me at school.
“You seem gloomy,” says my brother.
I think about it. “I guess so,” I say.
I always knew that high school was going to be hard to navigate. I’m walking a tricky line, because I’m pretty academic but I also have leftover clout from being on the dance team in junior high. Taken as a combination, those traits should make me perfect for student government. And I am on student government. I am the fucking underclassmen activities secretary.
I should clarify that there is a difference between events and activities. Homecoming is an event, Prom is an event; events are handled by the seniors. The Rip-Rollicking Country B-B-Q was an activity and was handled by me. This is what people are talking about when they say that words mean something.
It’s not like I’m not some StuCo nut trying to amass power and minions through party planning. It’d just be nice to host something that people care about. I’ll let Cerise pelt me with paint balloons every Friday evening, if only it makes people care.
My brother positions himself on the windowsill and makes the curtains float around. “You know, your true friends will do the right thing.”
Sometimes I don’t even know what this kid is talking about.
When it’s time for dinner, Dad orders pizza and brings a slice up to my room.
“Jeez, Dad, can we not sit down like normal people?”
He shrugs. “I don’t want to set the table. Do you?”
I roll my eyes. I’m the only adult in this entire family. “Yes,” I say, setting the pizza down on my pre-calc book. “Give me two seconds.”
Dad goes back downstairs to evaluate the paint job on the wall molding or whatever he does in his free time. “Are you going to come down so we can eat like a family?” I ask my brother. Sometimes when the table feels empty with Mom’s absence, he agrees to come hang out under her old chair and listen to Dad and me walk each other through our days.
“You don’t have to do this happy domesticity act to make yourself feel better about my existence,” he says.
“Fine,” I say, “It’s not like you’d be much company anyway.”
He huffs and the room glows a little bit purple around the edges. “Do you really want to tell him about me? Want to see how he looks at you after the son you ate comes back to be a part of the family? I’m sure it’ll go over great. I’m sure he’ll be totally cool, and we’ll all go to Six Flags every day. Really, go for it.” I watch the corners of my bedroom scorch and curl in the light, and I lie down on my bed with a pillow over my head. My brother’s invisibility doesn’t make it any less freaky when he gets mad. “Well? Are you going to tell him?”
“Whatever,” I say. He’s such a drama queen.
“Maybe I’ll just go drop in on him right now. Maybe I’ll just head on over and introduce myself.”
“I said whatever. I mean, I said it’s fine. We don’t have to tell him.”
My brother calms a little and the bright light dies down. “I’m sorry,” he says. He whooshes the pillow away from my face and my hair stands up with static. “Julissa? Sorry.”
“It’s all good,” I say.
“It’s just hard to be a ghost these days.”
“Yeah, I bet.”
“You wouldn’t understand it. You have your dad and your friends and your life. You have a part-time job and a college counselor. I don’t even have a name.”
I sigh and let his energy curl up in my mass of blankets. I don’t actually have a job anymore. I quit TCBY three weeks ago.
“Hey,” he says, “Will you bring up some pepperoni when you’re done with dinner?”
“I don’t think we got pepperoni. Dad knows it freaks me out.”
“Because remember there was that health teacher who told us all how sausages are made and then I barfed a little on the floor—”
He coughs, sharp and dry. “Don’t know why I even bother,” he says, and disappears into my AC vent.
Once I’m alone I turn to my phone and swipe between the pages of my home screen until the icons blur. I finally open my browser and type problems with twin brother which is a search query too banal to even hit the enter key on, but I do anyway, because googling dumb things is a reflex at this point. I do a cursory scroll before rolling my eyes and changing my search to problems with twin brother ghost. It’s not that I even expect whatever forum to actually help me. Just, once in a while, you have to go reading internet advice pages to know you’re not the only one. This lady in Vancouver says her dead twin breaks things in her kitchen when she plays music he doesn’t like, but also his spirit once dialed 911 when she was trapped in a burning car crash. I guess I’ve never had both arms pinned behind my back by a smoldering wreck of Ford-tough steel, but my brother has never come to my rescue like that. He didn’t even care that time when I was eleven and I broke my shoulder in gymnastics. I sigh and close my eyes tight. Thumbs tapping blindly against my screen, I type wikihow totell. if someone isnt whp theyvsay tgey are. Sometimes when you do something that doesn’t make any sense, you have to pretend that it’s the ghost of someone much dumber flying into your body and possessing your limbs.
I tell myself it doesn’t count if I don’t actually click on the link. I’ll just read the preview description in the search results. The page loads and the words materialize, grey under the big blue header:
1. Stay composed. Remember losing your temper will not help you in the…
2. Collect your information. Baseless accusations are a good way to lose…
3. Be smart. Ask them a question that only they would know the answer to…
So stupid. I throw my phone to the other end of my bed and it slowly slips down the edge of the covers, landing in my empty shoe.
“Julissa?” Dad says from the doorway. “Aren’t you coming?”
After dinner I station myself in the kitchen where I can scrub the dishes and ignore Dad’s off-key take on Aerosmith from the next room over. I stole half the toppings from our pie and he didn’t even mention it. He just went along, the same way he goes along with everything. The one time he got suspicious about me always talking to somebody when I was supposed to be alone in my room, I just told him I was on video call with Maddie and he let it go. If I were different, I might take more advantage of how lax he is. But I’m just the way I am.
I crank open the window that gives a view of our backyard. It’s almost totally dark outside, but the noise of frogs leaks in through the open space like suburban ASMR. I wonder if I ever tell Dad about the ghost of his son if we would actually sit down as a group and hang out together every night. It would definitely be weird at first, but the extra company might be nice. Dad would finally have someone to hang with again when I’m locked upstairs with my homework. He and I were so antisocial all weekend that neither of us even had anything new to talk about at dinner. I could tell that part of Dad wanted to bring up the barbecue, but he’d only do it if he thought I wanted to talk about it, and I can’t tell if I do or not. Every time I think about school tomorrow, I get a little shiver in my ribcage like those old cartoons where the skeletons play bone xylophones. It’s the same feeling I get whenever I know something’s going to happen. Whether the thing is good or bad doesn’t make a difference. I think the boundary between good things and bad things isn’t always as clear as it should be for me anyways. This isn’t something I wanted to explain to my dad, so I just sat there across from him in total silence. I know that life with me must be lonely sometimes.
As the last soap bubbles mingle with the last orange grease-bubbles, I decide that part of me does actually get frustrated when my brother is so touchy. If he was more chill, I might get up the balls to mention some of the stuff I’ve been meaning to ask him, like if he ever sees Mom out there in the afterlife. But I don’t want to put him in an uncomfortable position, and the fact that he doesn’t mention her makes me think he doesn’t want to talk about it. Even if he did want to talk, I’m not sure what he’d say, or if I’d want to hear it. And then I would have to think up a reply, and I’m not sure what I would talk about. I hate conversations. In my next life I’ll communicate by echolocation alone, and the only thing I’ll ever say is do you feel me? Do you feel me?
I try to eat my lunch in the bathroom, but get caught by the history sub.
“Are you kids allowed to do that?” she asks, approaching me cross-armed and awkward from around the corner.
“We don’t have to be in the cafeteria for lunch.”
“But can you take those trays into the bathroom?”
“Sure,” I say.
“Why don’t you just set that back down in the lunchroom, honey. I’m sure there’ll be enough time to pee and eat.”
I’m not really sure what her game is, but I’m not one to argue with teachers. Even if I’ll never see them again after Ms. Mets gets off maternity leave.
“Okay,” I say, and then I thank her for some reason. I guess I could wait for her to leave and then sneak back in, but that just feels like too much effort to eat a sandwich in a toilet stall. Instead I shudder and brace myself for whatever might be lying in wait with my friends.
I approach everybody slowly so that I have time to evaluate the situation. My usual lunch table is composed of student council kids and a few randoms who defected from class board, plus everyone’s boyfriends and Bert Hoff’s fake girlfriend, and that one freshman who I guess is friends with us too. Everybody’s here today, minus Raleigh. He must have interpreted the situation and dipped. Cerise sits on the far end of the table, delicately coating her Bugles in ranch dressing.
I try to be nonchalant as I set my things down next to Madison, who greets me with a half-smile and a wave. “How was everyone’s weekend?”
“Pretty bad,” says the freshman. “I hate driver’s ed.”
Avery Slater looks at him pointedly.
“Yeah,” I say. “Cars suck.”
None of us are sure who’s on speaking terms with who, and we pass around the conversation like a hot potato. Cerise just ignores me, chatting up one of the more recent boyfriend additions and showing him videos on her phone.
“Has she been talking about me?” I ask Maddie under the noise of the lunchroom.
“Nah,” she says. “I mean, like a little bit, but we’re pretty much not mentioning it anymore.”
I open my sandwich and it’s just carrots and cucumber slices inside. I don’t know why the sleep-addled me from this morning thought that would be cute.
Maddie pops a cherry tomato into her mouth. “It’s no use worrying about it too much. Her little clique is always gonna be this way.”
“Yeah, for sure,” I say. “Cerise is just petty. I’m only worried it’ll affect the rest of the group.”
“Don’t stress. I’m pretty sure nobody will care in a couple of days.”
“Really? But people were so worked up on Friday.”
“It’s just not that big of a deal,” says Maddie.
The class board kids are all talking about a camping trip they want to take, except for one guy who’s just staring at his copy of Romeo and Juliet. Madison’s boyfriend is nominally on my side, but Mads and him are in a fight so he doesn’t talk to us. Cerise and Gina’s boyfriend are laughing about something with Gina and Mel and Vivian, a many-sided conversation with a hole in the middle from excluding Rayna and Josh, since Rayna was technically a co-planner on the barbecue and Josh is guilty by association. I spot Raleigh Van Hout at a faraway table, looking subdued with some kids from the wrestling team. He’s not talking to any of them, but he doesn’t usually talk that much anyway. I zone out in his direction until Maddie loses the straw to her Capri Sun and we have to root around under the benches to find it, meeting face-to-face with loose pieces of chopped cheese. Cerise is giggling about something again.
“Don’t you love the springtime?” says Bert Hoff’s fake girlfriend. “The whole world is just unfolding with possibilities.”
When I get ideas, I get hit with them hard and it’s difficult for me to even breathe. I don’t mind it though. It’s like being under a weighted blanket filled with electrical shocks.
“I’m going to fix this,” I tell Maddie during chem lab.
“The barbecue,” I say. “Everything. I’m going to make everyone forget it even happened.” We’re doing titrations, and I have my goggled eye up against the edge of the Erlenmeyer flask as Mads drops down tiny aliquots of sodium hydroxide.
“The barbecue?” says Maddie. “I don’t get why that’s such an emergency. Like, it’ll blow over.”
“I know, it’s like—fine or whatever, I get it. If Cerise wants to be pissy at me that’s her prerogative. But I can’t just lounge around knowing that my activity was a flop.”
“Nooo,” she says, and then adds, “I mean, the barbecue was fine,” after I wait for her to clarify. Our solution turns a fine pink and I wave my hand at her to stop pipetting.
“It’s not fine,” I say, “and it’s no use denying it. That barbecue was the worst thing I’ve organized all year, even before Cerise freaked out and made a scene.”
“I guess I don’t have enough familiarity with this kind of stuff to make a judgment,” says Maddie. She’s the honor code chairperson, so her only experience is in giving the evil eye to kids who got caught with test answers written on the inside of their Snapple labels.
“It wasn’t fine. It was lame. A barbecue without even a grill. It doesn’t matter now though, because I’m going to fix it.”
Mads mops up the acetone spill that’s rapidly expanding toward our notebooks from the next lab station over. The wad of paper towels comes up acrid and smarting. “Whatever you say, I guess,” she says.
After school gets out, I buy my brother Starbucks from the strip mall down the road. It’s what I always do whenever I’m trying to get on his good side. He doesn’t eat or drink, but he’ll let his spirit sit in the cup like it’s a bathtub. It gives him a megawatt energy rush and he gets super zippy and annoying afterwards. Also, he’s partial to aesthetics so he makes me get him crazy stuff off the fake secret menu, like “Unicorn Frappuccino”. Every barista in the county hates my guts. The things I do for family.
I knock on the door of my bedroom in case he’s already waiting in there. I’m holding his rainbow coffee behemoth in the other hand.
“One moment,” he calls out in his fizzy whisper-shouting voice.
“Okay,” I say, “But I’m licking all the whipped cream off this tie-dye frap.”
There’s a pause, and the door swings open on its hinges. The drink floats out of my hand and hovers in mid-air.
“Wow” I say. “You’ve been busy.”
“Thought I’d redecorate a little. If I’m going to stay here like a real part of the family, I mean.”
All my posters have been stripped off the wall and my armchair sits in the middle of the room. He’s moved my bed so the headboard juts into the closet space, the blankets flung off into a giant pile at the end.
“Oh. Feng shui,” I say.
“You hate it.”
“Of course not! It’s an adjustment, but you live here too. You deserve to be comfortable.”
“Okay. You’d tell me if you hate it?”
“What’d I do to deserve such a cool sister? Here, take a sip,” he says, launching the Starbucks cup in my direction. Blue and pink droplets splatter on the rug.
“Nah, I don’t really drink coffee.”
“What? Come on.”
“Caffeine gives me jitters. Remember?”
He pauses to consider. “Yeah, I guess so. You know, when you’re a ghost, your memory gets kind of fuzzy and you don’t always remember things as well as you’re supposed to.”
“It is,” he says, and I can tell from the whirlpool forming in the plastic cup that he’s dunked himself inside. “That’s why it’s so great to have a sibling who’s chill about it.”
I give him a thumbs up, ignoring the stupid needling sensation on both sides of my ribcage. “Whatever makes you happy, man.” I flop back on my bed so I’m looking straight up at the yellow closet light. My brother has collected the pieces of cowboy and stashed them neatly on the shelf that used to house all the bobbleheads Mom would send me from her work trips.
“So. How was school?” he asks, once he’s adequately along the way to his sugar high.
“Really, really great.”
“Oh yeah?” He pauses. “Wait, weren’t you dreading school today?”
Was I? I guess I might have called it something like dread. But morning me isn’t on speaking terms with afternoon me, so I can’t rewind to confirm. All I say is, “I found a way to redeem myself.”
“Oh yeah?” he says again. He doesn’t ask for more details, so I provide them, gratis.
“I’m throwing an event,” I say. “It’ll be more of an unofficial thing, so I’m not using student council resources. But I’ll still publicize it and let people know it’s open for the whole school. Like, you know in 10 Things I Hate About You when they print all those fliers and toss them down the giant stairwell? I’m probably going to do something like that.”
“You’re throwing a big party? Will there be dancing on the tables?” We watched that movietogether last month, when neither of us had a Valentine’s date.
“Not really a party,” I say. Now that I’m about to tell what I need from him, I’m a little nervous.
I reach over my head and play with the long hanging cord of the ceiling lamp. The lights flicker on and off. “I was thinking of throwing an exorcism.”
The room goes very quiet, and I can feel my brother holding himself still. “I suppose I would be involved in some capacity,” he finally says.
“Don’t say no, because I know that I’m the only ghost you’ve ever even met. What else are you gonna do, purge your creepiest Littlest Petshop doll?” He laughs sharply.
“I didn’t mean like a real exorcism,” I say sheepishly. “We could just, like, put you in some kind of earthly container and then when I say the magic words you go flying out of it. Just smoke and mirrors-type stuff. You don’t have to freak out.”
“No, I really want to unpack this,” he continues. “Do you realize how hurtful it is to be told that I need to be exorcised? I don’t care if it’s ‘for real’ or not. You showed your hand, Julissa. You showed me how you really think of me.”
“Jeez,” I say, “You know I didn’t mean it like that.”
“I guess it was too much to ask that you treat me like a person and not some Halloween decoration. But hey, maybe I am just another evil spirit materializing behind you in the bathroom mirror and spinning my head around like an owl. Want me to be that for you? Because that could be arranged.”
I guess I’d known from the start that I’d have some trouble convincing him, but I must have really hit a nerve. I curl up deeper in my closet and lean my head against the wall, listening to the slow hiss of my brother’s breath. He seems to have gotten out everything he wanted to say, and I know if I don’t finish this fight, he’ll disappear for days to sulk. I hate it when he does that. It stresses me out, not knowing when he’ll pop back up again.
“Hey,” I say after a while. “I’m sorry.”
He blows short spurts of air out into the room in response.
“I didn’t mean to cross a boundary. I just thought this could be sort of like… a fun project or something. Like, a brother-sister scheme. Please don’t stay upset.”
My brother doesn’t answer me. I can only tell he’s here from the sloshing noises still coming from the coffee cup. The lights have dimmed and the temperature of the whole room has dropped several degrees, which only happens when he’s seriously dejected. But I still have one more chip to play.
“You know, this wouldn’t just have to be a favor you do for me,” I say. “We could do a trade.”
“Yeah,” I say, and I let him soak in the suspense.
“What kind of trade?” he says finally.
“I mean, it could be anything you want. I could bring you Starbucks every day. Or let you burst all the light bulbs in my room again. Or,” I say, “I guess I could give you a name.”
There is a bright burst of light from the other side of the room, and my brother makes a sound like a sharp intake of breath.
“Are you serious?” he says. “You’re not messing around?”
“Nah. I guess it’s probably time you get one anyways.”
“If you’re joking—” There’s a rocketing noise and my brother zaps into the lamp, making it turn purple and orange and blue in rotations.
“Not joking,” I say. He flies into my George Washington PEZ and the head chatters up and down.
“You have no idea how great this is gonna be!” When his voice comes out of George, he sounds like a founding father, full of booming gravitas. “My powers…oh man, my powers will be out of control!”
“Wait, I thought you said a name would help you control those.” He spins around in a whirlwind, joining with all of my teddy bears and making them dance. They hop merrily from one leg to the other, all in unison.
“I mean figurativelyout of control, obviously! I’ll have so much control, it’ll be like my strength is doubled.”
“Alright!” My hair gets caught in the wind and stands on end. “Whatever you say.”
“Come on, name me!” he says, flying through the curtains and slamming the window open and shut. The force knocks my cell phone off the ledge, and he flies into that too, making it spark and light up and buzz. All of the sudden, it’s hard for me to remember any names at all.
“Give me a second! I’m thinking.”
“No need to think too hard about it! I like all sorts of names!” My brother zips over to the closet where I’m sitting and spins around and around my head until I’m dizzy. “What are you waiting for, a dictionary? It isn’t that hard!”
“Well,” I say, holding my head between my hands. “What kind of name do you want? Like, a family name? Something cool?” He flies over to the shelf where the shreds of cowboy lie and they float upwards in his tailwind.
“Just think of something! Seriously, I don’t mind.”
I don’t want to give him a bad name, though. He’ll be saddled with it for the rest of the afterlife. The cowboy pieces swirl and fit together until they form the face and neck of Raleigh Van Hout. He bobs up and down before me.
“Come on, come on, name me!”
“Shut up, I can’t focus like this.”
“Just name me!”
“Do it!” All the shredded pieces join together and dance as one at the foot of my bed.
“Calm down!” I say as the cowboy flips and whizzes around my bedroom. He’s moving so fast that it scratches the paint job when he brushes up against the wall. “Calm down, John Wayne!”
Everything collapses in one piece. When my brother gets up again, the cowboy stands with him, glowing at the edges where I had originally torn him up. And when my brother speaks, it’s from the cowboy’s paper mouth.
“Huh,” he says. “Kinda weird.”
Next Friday, I ask Raleigh Van Hout for one last favor. It’s a chilly evening, and I stand there rubbing my hands together as he fiddles with the lock to the East Wing gym.
“Thanks for doing this,” I say.
“No sweat.” He laughs and his breath makes a cloud. “Coach B would probably be pretty mad if he saw what I was using my captain’s keys for, though.”
“I promise it won’t make it back to you if we get caught. I don’t want you to get kicked off wrestling or anything.”
“Nah, don’t even worry about it.”
I wonder what Raleigh thinks about in his unflappable blond mind. Endless horses and sunsets, I bet.
“Hey,” he says, pointing to the cowboy under my arm. “You still have that?”
John Wayne had been pretty calm since I gave him his name. He even consented to being folded up in the trunk of the car when Dad drove me over to the high school that night.
“Julissa,” Dad had said as we were stopped at the endless traffic light on Beech Street, “Is this just the Rip-Rollicking Country B-B-Q part two? I mean, are you trying to make up for something?”
“Of course I’m trying to make up for something. It’s my responsibility at the underclassmen activities secretary. I owe it to everyone,” I said.
“Honey, I’m sure all these kids will be just fine without you breaking your back to throw parties for them every week.” Dad’s voice was muffled under the sound of rustling leaves and wind outside. I pretended not to hear him and John Wayne refrained from snorting as the light turned green and we drove off into the night.
Now that we’re faced with the empty gym, the rubber floors gaping wide as a scream, he seems to be more in his element. He flies from my arms and whoops as he does a lap around the room. Raleigh does a double take as he’s walking back to his car. I wave at him enthusiastically. “Thanks again! Feel free to stop by the event!”
“I don’t like having that dude’s face,” says John Wayne.
“Well, we’ll de-possess you of it soon.” I scuff my outdoor shoes against the gym floor and they make a long dark streak. I feel incredible, like a vampire.
John Wayne is practicing his haunted cowboy voice. “This town ain’t big enough for the two of us,” he hisses.
“Should we go over the plan? I don’t want you to get stage fright.”
“I think you’re underestimating me to a level that is frankly insulting.”
“Just let’s run through the steps one time.”
He sighs dramatically and lets the cowboy fall back dead on the floor. “I’m in the cowboy. You’re working the audience. I’m the uncanniest valley anyone’s ever seen, and I make some noise. You say your Catholic shit, and I leave this earthly carapace.”
“And then once everyone’s gone, we reconvene around at the back. I can probably call Dad for a ride home.”
“Sure.” The extremities of the cowboy twitch and John Wayne rights himself.
“I hope people show up,” I say. I did actually use my stairway flier technique, along with harnessing the power of social media. Like a hundred people marked themselves as interested on my Facebook event, but who knows if that actually means anything.
“Maybe if enough people come they’ll promote you. Maybe you’ll get to be student treasurer.”
“Oh, shut your face. I’m not in it for the social climbing. I just want people to have fun.”
“It’ll be top notch,” he says, and his southern twang ricochets off all of the walls.
When the people arrive, it happens all at once. Like blood coming out of an elevator, there are students that I’ve never even seen before streaming into the open gym, and I wave and greet each one.
“Hey Jules,” says Madison on her way in. “This is a pretty crazy turnout.”
“Are you really doing an exorcism?” asks the freshman from lunch. “Or is it like a magic trick?”
“The former, obviously. This isn’t your middle school talent show,” I say, spotting Cerise off in a dark corner with Avery and the Avery-boyfriend.
I’ve placed John Wayne in the center of the gym. He lies there almost peacefully, encircled with lit candles. Once everyone has shuffled in, I motion for the kids in the back to shut the door, and move to the center of the glowing ring. I clap five times: clap-clap-CLAPCLAPCLAP, the same way teachers do, and the room falls silent.
“Hey everybody! Thanks for coming out on a Friday night.” I’m holding a single candle up to my face and the light makes my eyes water.
“This better not be a prank,” yells out someone from the mass of people. It’s a guy I’ve never talked to before but I recognize him from the B-B-Q.
“Of course it’s not a prank!” I say. “There is an actual demon in the room with us tonight. John Wayne, would you care to stand?”
My brother lays flat on the floor. “John Wayne…” I coax. In a series of jerky motions, he rises to his feet and regards his audience through blackened eyes. The room gives a collective gasp and a few people move toward the doors.
“No need for concern!” I call out. “We’ll have him sorted out momentarily!”
“Is that Raleigh Van Hout?” someone shouts from the back.
“Is it? What an interesting question. I suppose, at one point, he was Raleigh Van Hout. Then he was our cowboy, and the balloon target at the Rip-Rollicking Country B-B-Q. And now he is a vessel for the demon John Wayne. I guess you could say that he is the ghost of Raleigh Van Hout.” I thrust my candle under my brother’s cardboard chin. “Will the ghost of Raleigh Van Hout please dance?”
John Wayne lets out a piercing howl and pirouettes into the air. At this point, the people in the room feel they have license to scream.
“John Wayne! Are you ready to be banished from this vessel?” I cry.
“NO!” he shrieks, flying around in the cowboy’s body like an escaped balloon.
I set down the candle and reach for my little black-bound notebook where I’ve written out my script.
“Most cunning serpent, you shall no more dare to deceive the human race, persecute the Church, torment God’s elect, and sift them as wheat!” This is a line I stole from www.catholic.org. It isn’t supposed to be recited by anyone but a priest, so I got online ordained as a minister beforehand as a sort of backup measure. John Wayne doesn’t seem to mind either way and continues to thrash around in the air.
“Ecce crucis signum, fugiant phantasmata cuncta!” That one is from wikiHow. People are freaking out and trying to leave at this point, but the door seems to be stuck in place. Rayna and Josh are trying to jimmy it open with a floor hockey stick.
“What defenses have you against the word of God?” I call out to John Wayne as he roils above my head.
“I’m sure a resourceful ranch-hand like me with think of something,” he says, and the walls begin to bleed. I didn’t actually know he could do that.
“John Wayne!” I whisper-yell. “John Wayne! Are these your new powers?”
He ignores me. “Do these human insects truly believe they stand a chance against me? Me, with all the fortitude of the American West and the Kingdom of Hell?”
“You have yet to be met with the full strength of our numbers!” I yell back, improvising. I turn to the rest of the room. “Come on guys, chant with me! Exorcizamus te, omnis immundis spiritus, omnis satanica potestis…” Some people weakly try to follow along, but most of them are busy screaming.
“Pathetic!” roars John Wayne. He blows out one of the little square windows at the top of the gym, and the glass comes cascading down at our feet.
“Tone it down!” I hiss. “The school will notice the damages!” At this point, I’ve lost any capacity for crowd control. There’s a spinning cluster of class board kids that keeps accumulating mass, and I watch as Avery Slater tries to duck and crawl his way outwards.
“This mortal girl still thinks she has the upper hand,” John Wayne booms out, shaking the entire gym. In one fluid motion, he knocks over all the candles and I find myself in the middle of a ring of fire. “Tell me,” he cries. “Do you think she has the upper hand?”
I take a running start and hop over the rapidly rising wall of flames. “Jesus Christ. I’m not even going to try if you’re going to be like this.” The smell of burning rubber fills the entire room and I notice that the cuffs of my jeans have been scorched by the flames.
“Then give up!”
“Are you kidding me, John Wayne? You’re just going to burn down the fucking school?” The blood from the walls has made its way down to the floor and begins to mingle with the fire.
“I’m not really sure what I’d like to do. Any better ideas?”
I decide it’s probably best if I just get out of here. There’s no used talking to my brother when he gets all worked up. I elbow a path through the masses of people and throw my full weight against the door. He must have actually used his powers to wedge it tight, though.
“Come on everyone, let’s push,” I call out to the crowd. We all lean against the door and shove, but it doesn’t budge. The smoke is getting thick and I cough and choke. From across the room, I can just make out Cerise screaming her head off and John Wayne square dancing gleefully in midair. I realize this is one of those times my brother is not going to help me out.
“Seriously?” I yell at him across the suffocating wall of clouds. He doesn’t answer me. The cardboard legs of the cowboy are alight at the edges. The heat makes my eyes tear up, and water streams down my face as I ram myself against the door. John Wayne just ignores me as he whoops around the room. I probably should have never given him that stupid name. The door isn’t cold from the night anymore and I feel its burn every time I throw myself against it. The freshman is crying because he doesn’t want to die before he gets his driver’s license. Hypocrite. I make eye contact with John Wayne and he turns away, streaming out one of the broken windows.
The hot metal of the door scorches against my back, then falls away. I close my eyes and collapse into the cool night air.
My mom led a pretty normal life. By that I guess I mean she never woke me up at midnight to look at the stars, or dressed up like Santa Claus in July, or served ice cream for dinner. It made it sort of difficult to speak at her funeral. All those people staring at me hoping for the verbal rendition of a movie montage, but my mom’s life wasn’t a movie montage; it was long and unedited and probably better because of it. But that didn’t help me when I had to stand up and deliver a speech about it. I made something up instead. I’m not proud of it, but I was such an idiot back then. I felt the embarrassment the second I saw Dad’s face in the congregation as I fed them all lies about some invented dating profile we made for our garden gnome. That dumb thing was definitely better off single.
Here’s the thing though: I had been thinking about it for a long time, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that when the universe was boiled down and distilled into its basest energies, the goo that was left would sort into three jars: one for me, one for my dad, and one for my mom. And it was my job to make sure that those jars never ran out, and as long as they never ran out everything else could fall apart and die or whatever. My mother had died, but parts of her were still floating around somewhere, and it was up to me to keep them there. I had started by remembering things, whole conversations we’d had, word-for-word, like they were being written from scratch. I remembered the make and model of the car she drove when I was little. The name of her shampoo. But in the course of all the remembering, it had occurred to me that I could be doing more–like, that I could actually add to the cosmic store of knowledge that was all that was left of my mother. I mean, if someone is holding onto a memory, but the memory is fake, will it dissolve at the end of the world? I wasn’t sure, but I wanted to cover my bases. All those distant relatives and stupid family friends at the funeral; if I could make them think about my mother, give them something catchy to hold onto—could that possibly help? I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity. I was determined not to let the goo in that universe jar fall another inch.
It was around that time that my brother showed up. Actually, it was the very night of her funeral. I don’t like to think about that, because I look at the situation from an outside perspective and realize it makes me look infirm. But that’s honestly what happened. I came home and fell down on my bed in my black suit, and when I looked up at the ceiling lamp I noticed there was one more light in there than usual. There were bigger things on my mind, so I couldn’t bring myself to care. I was busy remembering the names of every friend my mother ever had. Once I knew all their names, I would make up lives for them and hobbies. I had my schedule locked in for the night. When the light started flashing multicolor, I sat up though.
“What?” I said. “Hello?”
“Hi honey,” called Dad from his bedroom where he was probably spending his evening in a similar state of mind.
Standing on my bed on my tiptoes, I could almost reach the light. I felt the warmth it gave off from inches away. At that point I didn’t believe in ghosts, but I was willing to be convinced.
“Hi,” I said, whispering this time. We were so close to each other. I could look but not touch. “Hi.”
“Julissa,” said the light, pink and purple now. “What a pleasure to finally introduce myself.”
A while ago I learned the word moirologist. It was an advanced term in my SAT prep book. It means a paid mourner. People hire them all the time and they’ve been doing it for centuries. In my dreams, the whole world is filled with moirologists, and everyone knows about it but nobody cares because they do their jobs so well. They flock into the streets for their crying fits, dark clothes dragging out behind them in a pool of black and gold. The events draw thousands and people eat barbecue and pull up lawn chairs to watch the performance. It goes on for days. When it gets cold outside, the moirologists shed their layers and throw them over the road, shivering and wailing. At some point I think the tears must become real. The combined force of all that perfect misery could power the sun. It could power anything.
I won’t pretend it wasn’t weird to meet this ghost claiming to be my brother after being totally unaware of his existence. But he told me that he’d been watching everything since I was a baby, and I promised that I’d believe him. All those fifteen years of life. If he remembered me, he could remember her too.
I come to on the asphalt, staring straight into the eyes of Raleigh Van Hout. I squint, to make sure they’re his real ones.
“Hey there,” he says. “I thought I’d stop by your event. Door was pretty stuck, but I got it open.”
“Thanks. You just missed it, though.”
I am a jumble of limbs, so he picks me up and hauls me to his truck. The car is janky but Raleigh’s a steady driver, and if I close my eyes I can almost forget that we’re moving at all. I turn back in my seat to watch the school disappear through the frame of trees. The gym has stopped burning by now. Actually, the entire building is still standing and looks pretty much undamaged from the outside. Even the windows are sound and unbroken in their places. John Wayne does stuff like this sometimes—smudges out the line between my world and his until I’m not sure what’s real anymore. Something like a finger of smoke drifts out from over the roof. Or maybe it’s only a cloud.
I press my face to the cool pane of the window and wonder how he’ll make his way back. So much for our plan, I guess. So much for a brother-sister scheme. I watch the landscape blur into impressionism as we drive and flutter my eyes open and closed to blur it further. The radio is playing that song about West Virginia and belonging somewhere.
“Part of me wants to ask you what happened in there, but I guess I’ll hear all about on Monday,” says Raleigh.
“You think so?”
“I guess it was kind of something.”
We’re quiet for a while, and I let myself stay suspended in that place between planes of consciousness. I don’t feel quite like falling asleep.
“Everyone else left in a hurry,” Raleigh says as we’re floating down the road to my house. “They seemed pretty upset.”
“Yeah,” I mumble. “We were burning your effigy.”
“Huh,” he says. “I really can’t catch a break.”
He drops me off at my front door and I wave goodbye as I let myself in. In all the chaos, I still managed to keep hold of my keys and my phone. Dad is conked out on the couch, so I tiptoe up the stairs to my room. Everything is still in disarray and I’m wary to lie down on my bed when it’s still halfway in my closet. Sticking out, it looks like the tongue in the mouth of a clown. I fall down on the floor instead and press a fingerprint to my phone to read my messages.
That was legitimately traumatizing. I don’t know how you did that or who you think you are but im filing a complaint with the principals office the second we get back on monday and trust me when i say this whole school will come together to make sure you aren’t allowed to psychologically terrorize anyone ever again
Julissa??? What in all hell was that?? will you freaking call me im freaking out what just happened
There is something seriously fucking wrong with you!!!! You actually almost killed people all for what? attention? please get some actual help and in the mean time don’t bother calling me up every single fucking time you need a ride to quiznos
i literally texted ms diavolo on her cell number that she gave me for emergencies and she says she doesnt know whats going on but if all this is true youre definitely off student council and probably suspended maybe expelled plus shes gonna have a serious talk with you and the student counselor
just know that you WILL get what you deserve for this maybe not today maybe not tomorrow but some where SOME day and i cant wait for it to happen
It’s no use arguing with any of them or trying to explain. No one would believe me anyway. I let my phone rest on my chest and fall up and down with me. Behind its waxy shell, the light in my ceiling lamp begins flickering. When I close my eyes, the darkness is incomplete and I can still feel the light there, watching and blinking at me. All my life I have never been alone. That is something I choose to believe.
I look up and I sigh. Sometimes I feel like a sucker on wheels.
“If you’re really my brother, then flash Mom’s favorite color.”
I keep my eyes open and focused in case it happens quickly. But the lamp just strobes a few more times and then goes out. And I guess that’s what I get for making deals with lightbulbs. I feel a sudden jolt, and for a moment I think he’s back home again, rattling the air and shocking me, but it’s only the buzzing of my phone. All I can do now is just roll onto my stomach and let all the pain and humiliation flow over me like a warm bath. All the angry texts still streaming in, the taste of smoke in my mouth, the smooth parts of my palms where the metal of the gym door should have burnt the skin. I let it wash around me and I bob on it like a wave, all deep and calm and blue. It’s so great being a teenager in agony. The whole wide world is free, and full of bad things to happen to you.