Luke Wortley. Sarah.

4 Jan

SARAH

Even as she lay dying, Sarah knew that, when it was over, she must remain dead forever. Sarah also knows that, when she uttered her last syllables, her family gathered round could only hear her as one hears through the crackle of radio while driving through the mountains on the way back from Richmond. She’s since heard the same fizzy murmurs from other people in the house as they died, but for some reason they don’t come to join her. Sarah also remembers the coughing and the tightening of muscles in her face, remembers her mama’s palms, calluses catching in her snowy hair, her daddy’s first tear. She remembers iridescence angling through her window and leaking onto her forearm in a pool of dusty air the way it does down at the mouth of the holler well after the rest of the world has already woke up. She remembers the feeling of light scraping her skin without warmth, and she remembers the cooling band of her grandma’s turquoise-studded ring against her earlobe.

Sarah remembers a building pressure beneath her skin that bubbled up and collapsed inward again, drawing all the tightness to her chest. She was the fish her older brother hauled out of the Kentucky River, jaws opening and closing with such violence, throats bloating and gills flaring as they sucked in the terrible, terrible oxygen. They thrashed on the end of the line. She, too, thrashed beneath her coffin quilt til she bit her tongue, just before her eyes closed and her head folded into the pillows like an egg being cradled by a feathered breast.

She awoke almost immediately and felt unreal. She could see her body crumpled into the sheets, her mama’s hands trembling like tuning forks.

After several years of being dead, Sarah now has an acute awareness of the existence of her own hands, their uselessness. She still imagines they itch, even though she knows she can’t actually scratch them. She can’t feel anything, actually; it’s as though her skin is covered in healed burns. Sarah can walk, can’t glide as she thought ghosts could. She’s gotten used to it, the idea of being a ghost, though complete darkness still scares her. And she’s remained in this form since, unable to see herself as she used to, the clear and colorful way she looked in the vanity while mama touched up her blouse on Sundays.

She has, however, seen her parents die, seen her brothers and sisters leave. And she’s seen two other families move in before this one. Her older brother, Scotty, toasted the first ones with a glass of bourbon. No ice. No chink of the glass. Just the silent slap of caramel liquor against the lips and a sudden swallow. During his final days at the house Sarah watched him smoke on the back porch and rock in a bleached wicker chair. She remembers she could almost hear the bluegrass growing, could almost see the pollen roiling about in the air. She remembers a few cowbirds, dark as the topside of a catfish, nesting in the sycamore trees out back, the smell of honeysuckle.

When Scotty left for the last time, Sarah ran down the gravel drive after him. Something, though, held her back—a pressing force that prevented her from leaving. She went back to cower in the entryway on the tile and cried. In the days following, she prowled around her empty bedroom. Every once in a blue moon she thinks about when her furniture got taken outside. Her mattress folded and thrown in the trash, the wooden headboard tossed on the burn pile in the washout basin lined with stones. Sarah waded through the smoky remains the next morning, unaware of the heat, and watched white smoke rise from the ashes. She wanted to feel the stones poke the bottoms of her bare feet, hoping the fire might rekindle. Though, of course, she felt nothing, and before long, she climbed the bank and walked through the bluegrass and into the thistle which, as most things did, made her miss her mama a lot. She remembers when, before she died, she wandered through a thistle thicket and emerged about a mile from the house at the old Holloway crop line, legs swollen and covered in tiny red gashes. Her whole body itched and stung at the same time, and mama gave her a wet washcloth and slathered something on her shins that eased the burning.

She remembers that, shortly after her own death, she started to lose her mama. Her mama would light candles in the bathroom and soak in the tub without washing herself until her hands turned wrinkly. Sarah thought the water made her older. Her spine started to curl, and her shuffling footsteps became barely perceptible unless you listened real hard. What was most surprising of all, though, was not her mother’s aging. She had always known that old people existed. Her grandma had been old. What was truly strange was that she found herself watching her daddy more and more, and although Sarah knew he mourned her death, she had no specific memory of his weeping other than the dangling thought of a tear. So, the first time she really saw her daddy weep still came as a shock. He drank a lot that night, and each time he brought the bottle to his mouth he unbuttoned another button of his shirt. She saw the big bulge in his throat bob up and down several times before he finally let the bottle back down to the couch cushion. He screamed something incoherent over the top of the television that crackled with black static. And then he started to cry. Sarah remembers his gut jiggling as his shoulders heaved up and down. A shiny wetness slid out from his eyes and clung to his cheeks like dew.

Sometimes, especially when the Kochs are out, she goes upstairs to the guest room, her old room, and cries. The bedspread is crisp, and the paisley pillows match the comforter. The carpet is the color of an ancient map. A school desk sits in the corner; above that is a shelf that houses three bumpy, conical figurines of Santa Claus and a wicker basket with a broken handle. The twigs curl and splay like horsehair.

The first family, the Cunninghams, had a dog that whined when she came near. It cried like an old, rusty swing. They didn’t stay long. Sarah remembers the dining room table that Scotty had left behind, covered in papers with all sorts of numbers on them. Jagged envelopes with more papers stuffed in. Stacks and stacks of papers.

“What did we do wrong?” Sheryl Cunningham had asked.

The Smiths, the family that moved in after, made good food. The smell wafted from the stove and snaked through the air like a living thing. Choir tones lifted up and out of the mouth of a large cleaning woman as she washed dishes with yellow rubber gloves that came up to her elbows. Her flat shoes shuffled silently across the checkered-flag tile. And Sarah would run along the fence line with the children, Mary Ellen and Paul. She always wanted to show them how she could blow all the seeds off dandelions in one breath.

“Watch,” she’d shout at them, her fingers slipping through the stems. Once, she thought they heard, but after a brief pause they just stooped and ripped up clover by the handful.

The Smiths stayed for a while and cleaned up the property. By the time Scotty had left, the land was a complete mess. Out back, the two hulking sycamores had been through two bouts of disease, and though they had survived, most of the bonelike limbs had stopped growing, morphing into spindly fibers that curled like insect legs. Scotty had sold some of her family’s land a few years before he finally left, a few acre parcel that backed up to the highway, unable to take care of it any longer, where kudzu had strangled the cottonwoods, wrapping around the barbed-wire fence and growing up and up, adhering to everything, draping itself like a circus tent over the site where, decades ago, before even Sarah and her folks had moved in, they found rusty shackles attached to a plough, caked in loam.

But eventually they also left.

This is the third family—the Kochs—to live in the house since her family. Don is bald and reads the paper. His wife Kathy bustles around the kitchen in the mornings, clinking together breakfast. And Juniper was about Sarah’s age when they moved in, which is to say that Juniper was about Sarah’s age when she died—about seven. Now ten, Juniper likes bubble baths and calls her parents mama and daddy. They’ve been there a while, and even so, Sarah also has yet to find a way to interact with anyone since her death, though not for lack of trying. She’s been trying for a very long time.

She’s repeatedly tried to talk to the Koch family, even gone so far as to reach her hand through the back of Don’s newspaper; she’s tried to blow out candles, open and shut doors—all with little to no effect. All the things she thought ghosts might do. Yet so far Sarah has failed to make any noticeable impression whatsoever on the world of the living. And after years of complete silence, she wonders if anyone will hear her voice again, a feeling compounded by the sight of cardboard boxes beginning to pile up against the back door yet again.

***

As the day wanes, Sarah seethes and watches Kathy fuss over potholders and hand towels. Upstairs she hears the slamming sound of water hitting the tub. Sarah drags herself up the stairs with the faintest hope that she might, after all this time, be able to communicate with someone before they, too, leave her. The bathroom door is open, and there’s Juniper all wrapped in a towel and sitting on the edge of the tub and feeling the water. Sarah remembers squatting in the hot water and the feeling of just squatting there, uncomfortably aware of the heat on her privates until mama made her sit down and tilt her head back.

Juniper undresses. Sarah looks away, covers her eyes. Eventually Sarah hears the sound of feet squeaking along the bottom of the tub for a moment and the sharp intake of breath as June’s body sinks beneath the steamy surface. She uncovers her eyes and stares at Juniper for several minutes, taking in the sight of her. Juniper’s arms are sudsy sleeves, and Sarah can’t help the rolling sensation in her chest that bursts forth—something like a giggle or a hiccup. A combination of the two. A gigglup, she thinks. And this makes her laugh even harder. Juniper doesn’t respond; Sarah just stands there watching Juniper soak, still laughing and unheard. She hasn’t been this close to anyone in a long time.

“Is the water warm?” she asks as she reaches forward to test it herself. Her hand disappears into the water. She looks at Juniper’s face and detects the smallest hint of disturbance.

She says over and over, “Can you hear me? Juniper? June? Please!”

Eventually Sarah closes her eyes and screams and screams, trying to pummel the water with both her ghostly, childish fists.

“Mama!” yells Juniper. Her voice, though shrill, is good.

No answer. She could be in the garage poking around boxes. Juniper sighs and flips the switch to let the water drain.

Sarah is grasping for a connection. The water must’ve gotten cold. Dead people were cold. She was dead. She must be cold. This thought excites her young mind. She’s never come this close to garnering a direct response from anyone. A shout catches in her throat and sort of tumbles out of her mouth awkwardly, like a cough. Sarah feels what she imagines warmth would feel like, what she remembers warmth felt like.

“Juniper? June?” she says again.

Juniper pauses and looks in the mirror and wipes off a section with a towel. Sarah stands behind her so that she can have a look as well. Not too close. As expected, she can’t see her own reflection clearly, but Juniper, on the other hand, is clear. The valleys of her collarbones delicately stretched and indented like the tops of a drum; the mole above her lip clear as a beetle on the screen door; water beads on her shoulders, refracting her freckles, enlarging them. She smiles. Sarah smiles back, only able to imagine what it looks like. Before long Juniper shivers and turns around. She sidles right through her ghostly friend, and Sarah turns around just in time to see Juniper look back. For the first time in a long while, she questions whether or not she is alive. She spends the night in the guest room and imagines drawing shapes in the carpet as she used to.

The next morning Sarah waits for the family to come downstairs, waits for the sunlight to slide through the bay window of the living room. It feels like Christmas morning. Even the cardboard boxes appear glossy. Don traipses down the stairs first, still in his pajamas. It must be a weekend, because he doesn’t come down in slacks. He mumbles something, slides the back door open, and slithers his belly through. Sarah knows he’s peeing off the deck.

“Don, really?” Kathy asks as she thumps into the kitchen. For a skinny woman, her feet make a lot of noise. She also scrubs the calluses on her feet with a stone hairbrush.

“Hell we’re only in here for another couple days,” Don says over his shoulder, “Might as well.”

Kathy throws her arms up, begins to set out some of the remaining glassware for breakfast. Sarah waits for Juniper.

“Come on,” Sarah says, rocking on the balls of her feet.

Juniper finally comes downstairs, working her knuckles into her eyelids as she tries to get rid the sleep. Sarah remembers that her own dreams were always gone by morning.

“Morning, beautiful,” says Don, edging his way back into the kitchen.

Juniper doesn’t respond. Instead she sits down at the table and buries her face in her arms; a hoarse moan escapes.

“You’re up early,” says Kathy, “You feeling okay, sweetheart?”

Kathy walks over and places the back of her hand on Juniper’s forehead. Sarah remembers her own mama doing this, remembers the first visit with the doctor and the taste of treated wood on her tongue. She remembers a swollen, red feeling and heat crawling along the roof of her mouth.

“Don, she’s burning up.”

‘What’s wrong?’ asks Sarah.

Don walks over and puts his hand on Juniper’s forehead as well. “Come on, sweetie. Back to bed.”

He scoops her up. Juniper’s hands look infantile, as though they have never grasped anything. She sniffles and lets out another gravelly moan as Don hoists her up to get a better grip. Sarah watches them walk away toward the stairs.

“I’ll get her some medicine and some water,” Kathy calls after them.

She busies herself pouring tawny liquid into a spoon and gets a glass of water from the tap. Sarah follows Kathy’s measured footsteps upstairs, watches as she hands the glass of water to Don, lifts Juniper’s head up from the pillow, and angles the spoon between Juniper’s lips. Juniper’s face contorts, and she coughs at the bitterness. Even though it looks like honey, Sarah remembers that cough medicine tastes like metal.

“You should get some sleep now, sweetheart,” says Kathy.

“Is she okay? What is it?” asks Sarah.

Sarah looks to the opposite wall, looks at the shelves. A small collection of trinket boxes winks back at her: a baby carriage with candy pink wheels; a pilgrim with white frilly collar and red, red lips; a gold-studded seahorse; a rotary phone on a chain, also pink. Everything looks rusty; the whole world loses its shine.

“Let her sleep,” says Don.

Don and Kathy leave the room. Sarah creeps up to Juniper’s bedside. “I know how you feel,” she says.

Juniper stirs, reaches over for the glass of water on her bedside, and takes a sip. Sarah reaches out to stroke Juniper’s brown hair. Juniper clears her throat, and Sarah thinks she can feel Juniper’s breath as she fusses under the covers before finally getting up and plodding her way down the hall to the bathroom.

Sarah remembers back to her own sickness, remembers that in the final moments she felt far away from everyone. She knew others were there, but she herself was unreachable. She has replayed her final memories of dying so many times: grandma’s turquoise ring, daddy’s spectral tear, mama’s shaking hands. Sarah remembers these things, and she remembers the tightness, the pressure.

Sarah finds herself in the corner hugging her knees and crying.

She opens her eyes and looks at the glass of water. She shuts them again, screws up her face, and bites on the insides of her mouth, the fleshiness of which she is aware for the first time in years. She remembers how it feels to have her inner cheeks crushed between molars, the jagged feeling of flesh rubbing against teeth. Sarah imagines herself small. Small as a dust bunny. Lithe and thin like a dandelion seed being carried up in the wind. She imagines herself submerged in the glass of water on the table and being tilted back, peering down over the rim of into the back of Juniper’s throat. Sarah careens over the sandy tongue, past the uvula and down the throat where she breaks apart and is forced through ribbed tubules, pumped into an outer extremity, washed over insides.

As Sarah thinks this beautiful thought, she hears the unmistakable thunk of the glass wetly adhering itself back to the end table. She opens her eyes to see Juniper crawling back under the sheets. The comforter rises and falls slightly with each breath. Sarah wonders if, when she breathed her final breath, the quilt floated for a moment before it fluttered down and came to rest on her lifeless body. This, of course, the one moment she can’t remember.

 

 

LUKE WORTLEY hails from the Bluegrass and says yall a lot and can whip up some fried chicken that’ll make a tomcat smack a bulldog. He’s also currently the fiction editor at Booth: A Journal and the co-founder of Axolotl. You can follow him at @LukeWortley.

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