Dead, to Me
Clare and I play games, in our yard, in the dusk of late June. Surrounded by beans that aren’t ours, the yard is small, dusty, and treeless. We were promised a swing-set three summers ago. It’s in a box in the garage. There are no other children around, and our influences are scant; our parents aren’t readers, and the television’s been something to stack laundry on since my father put his foot through it a couple months ago.
We were born eleven months apart, ten years ago, followed by three still births and a caul of silence.
My mother never leaves the house; it contains all she needs. My father rises before we wake and returns after we’ve gone to bed or sacked out on the porch when it’s too hot in the house. One of our games is to report sightings of him, as if he were a local myth.
“I smelled him yesterday, I smelled his coffee and aftershave on the hand-towel. He was gone,” Clare reports one morning.
“Last week he flushed the toilet in the middle of the night,” I add. “But I didn’t see him.”
“Were you too scared?” she asks.
“No.” I was. I heard him open the door to the cellar, something Clare and I are not allowed to do. There is no light and steep cement steps. A slide latch was thrown home at the top of a blue door. We know they keep things down there but can never summon the courage to find out what. I asked my mom once, but she just murmured about baby clothes and old furniture.
“Just old stuff,” she said. “The door sticks. If you go down there, you may not be able to get out.”
It's not up to me to know how and why they love each other, or if they even do. Clare thinks the cellar has something to do with it, but I tell her such a notion is stupid.
“You're a Fraidy Cat,” Clare teases, then, “I bet it was number two,” and giggles.
“I’ll wake you next time,” I say. I look into her eyes, big and serious now, the teasing over. “We’ll go together.”
The next night she whispers in my ear, “He’s awake,” and I can’t let my little sister see that I’m afraid.
The floor is cold, the hall bare. We have pictures, there is a camera, somewhere, but nothing on the walls.
My parents’ door is open, unusual in the nighttime. It’s dark, the only light from the clock radio on the bedside table. The cellar door is ajar.
We wait, in the hall, for our eyes to adjust. We listen.
We are patient.
The sounds from the room are quiet, but intense, the sounds my mother makes wrestling the bucket of salt from the garage to the driveway on snowy days, or the cries and grunts we hear during one of her nightmares.
The corners of the hall, the lines of the boards in the floor, fade into focus and we advance, holding hands.
I peek in first and regard the tangle of legs, the glimpse of damp, slept-on hair, the coils of bedclothes that snake up and around them. My father on top, my mother’s face pressed into the mattress, her breath a rasp. He raises his eyes and regards me. He grins and does not stop, his lower half thrusts forward and back.
"Mom’s sick,” I whisper back to Clare.
“Let me see,” she says.
“No. We should go. Daddy’s there.”
“She’s ok?” Clare asks.
I don’t answer but take her hand, back to our room.
“They're doing what grown-ups do,” Clare says. “It makes babies.”
“How would you know?” She's right, of course, but I feel it's my place to protect her from such things.
"I know,” she says, and pulls the covers close around her. “I'm never going to do that.”
The next day we play a new game. We take turns tying each other up and we see how long it takes to escape. Clare wins often, and not because I let her.
We call the new game “Ropes”, but after a day or two, the burns on our wrists and ankles force us to find something else.
Clare touches the cellar door on our way through the kitchen, feeling for the coolness on the other side. “I bet there's stuff to do down there,” she says.
“Maybe,” I agree, but leave it at that.
“Grown up stuff,” she says, suddenly sullen, pouty.
“I doubt it.”
“I wish we didn't have to have a cellar,” she says.
If my father is absent, my mother, though present, is rarely a presence in our lives. Baths are drawn. Food is out three times a day. We do not want. We have each other for company.
Clare, small for her age, with eyes that dominate her face, invents the next game we play. She calls it “Dead to Me.” The rules are simple.
The object, for the living, is to show no notice of the dead, and the dead’s mission is to catch the living’s attention. The game’s over when the living finally acknowledges the dead and brings them back to life.
We begin with an elaborate ritual. The dead lie on the hope chest in our folks’ room, pennies on our eyes and a clutch of dried flowers in our folded hands. Words are said, a prayer perhaps, and the game begins. The living goes about his or her business while the dead follows them about, pinching, poking, tossing toothpicks or Legos at them. The dead can resort to anything but words, which is our general understanding of ghosts. As with “Ropes”, Clare has a real knack for the game, whether dead or alive.
More than any other game we’ve played, “Dead to Me” provokes a competition. Neither of us acknowledges it, but scores are kept, the stakes rise, the period of time between death and resurrection lengthens. I find that death begins to terrify me, and that I will do just about anything to get Clare’s attention, short of leaving marks.
The game continues far longer than our previous games, and the rules bend and shift.
It happens around the time my father stops coming home. As far as we are concerned there is little change in our day-to-day—his absence simply has a clearer outline, a traceable form.
Our mother seems unchanged. Maybe sadder, she doesn’t say.
The change is unspoken. It just happens. One day--and at this point we’ve replaced the ritual with a simple “I die”—Clare, rather than follow me about the house flicking my ear and pushing my bowl of crackers off the kitchen table, simply wanders the other way, around the corner, and is gone.
I track her through the house, looking under beds, behind dressers, in between the heavy, woolen coats in the hall closet. I even check the oven in the kitchen. She's hid in odder places. I glance at the cellar door, and notice the latch isn't in place.
I pull the door open and smell the black, earthy gloom. I call her name.
But I know she wouldn't call back. Not when she is dead.
I begin to panic but try to find the strength to take the first step down the stairs when I glance outside and see her in the yard, alone, on her back, staring at the impending July thunderheads, the incipient drops of rain dotting her green summer dress in mottled, ragged, thready splotches.
“This is not the game,” I say when I reach her. She is silent.
I wander back into the house. My mom crochets a doily she’s been working on for months and stares at the jagged, empty hole where the TV screen used to be. I sit on the counter so I can peak out the back window.
The storm rolls closer, taking up the western sky, turning the soybeans a sallow yellow and gray rather than their summer green.
I hop off the counter and return to the yard. The rains come in big sheets, the wind kicking up and sending the wind chimes into a tinkling frenzy. I can stand it no longer. Her dress is pasted to her, as my clothes are to me. Rain drips off my ears and down my neck, my shirt sticks to the small of my back, cold, a ghost.
Her hair is a soaked, tangled mop of black. Mud flecks the sides of her checks and the pink seashells of the inner folds of her ears, the fine ridge of her jaw.
“This is not the game,” I say. She remains on the grass, eyes closed.
“This is not the game!” I yell, but get nothing.
Finally I crouch close, to feel the breath from her nostrils, but I feel nothing, the rain and wind are too strong. Panicked, I get on my hands and knees and put my lips to her ear.
“You’re alive,” I whisper. “You’re alive.”
She opens her eyes, sits up , and smiles, a grin alarmingly close to my father’s.
A new game is born.
Now the dead remain hidden from the living; the goal is to remain dead for as long as possible. The living may choose to seek out the dead or not, but only the living have the power to bring the dead back, to acknowledge them, resurrect them with a word: “Alive.”
I do not like the new game. My existence is dependent upon the whims of Clare, who can be fickle, as gentle as she seems. I always believed she has my best interests at heart, and yet she lets me wander, dead, bereft, for hours at a time. I never say a word about it. To admit my fear is as forbidden as refusing to play the game. I begin to ignore her, to avoid her. The game fills me with dread.
Sometimes it's difficult to say whether we are playing the game or not. We avoid each other for days, a week. The dead stop haunting the living, the living forget the dead; the game becomes about denial, if it is about anything at all.
Are we playing? What has the game become? How long can one be alone?
Fall arrives and scuttles our summer games like big, dry boots through a pile of warm leaves. School begins, and for me junior high—a different building, a different bus. Clare watches me go, pale, mournful in the front parlor window as the bus rolls away. She will make the mile-walk to the elementary school by herself this year.
My mother begins seeing a man. At least, that is what Clare tells me. He is older, a repairman. There is no evidence that he even exists. I have only Clare’s word for weeks. My mother looks happier, though. Rosy and ripe as an apple.
“He comes after the bus leaves,” she says.
“How do you know?” I ask.
She pretends to go to school and then hides behind the cellar door, she says.
“The cellar’s locked,” I say.
“You shouldn’t go down there,” I say. “Mom and Dad—“
“There isn’t any ‘Mom and Dad’, now.”
I stare at her, at the smile that plays just behind her mouth.
“The teacher will call. You’ll get in trouble,” I say.
“They don’t even know I’m there,” she says.
I promise to skip the bus, to wait with her, to see if she’s telling the truth.
The next day, a Friday, I walk out to the bus and step on, only to tell the driver that I’m going to throw up. The driver stops, lets me off. “Just go on,” I say. “I’ll have my mom call.”
The driver nods and pulls down the old road, crushing broken soybean pods and dropped cobs from the farm trucks.
I run back to the house, and find Clare in the back yard.
We wait. Clare is not lying. He is skinny and grizzled, with a beard and baggy eyes. He wears a red flannel over a blue work shirt and colorless twill pants shiny at the seat and knees. My father--big, broad, with a flat, unhappy mouth and a smooth forehead—has nothing whatsoever in common with this man. Perhaps that’s the point.
The man opens the back doors of his work van and removes a large box. He struggles beneath it and kicks at the door. It opens, and he disappears inside.
We crouch at the window and peer inside as he unveils the new television and gets a hug for his troubles. He smiles. The wrinkles in his face look as if they are from smiling. My mother smiles too.
And that is the last we see him, because three days later my father returns, boxes up the new television, and sets it on the curb. It’s days before we see him again, though the old pattern returns. He is gone but there. Before we wake, after we fall asleep.
Weeks pass. Clare and I talk little. The last leaves drop, the trees’ branches sketched against the pale white sky, crackling and twitching with grackles. The November sun shines its spectral light into our late afternoon rooms. My mother’s belly grows. We hear her vomit each morning, the sound queasily like the sounds I heard her make in her bed, with my father, months before.
Though we sleep in the same room, in twin beds separated by a small night table and a cast-off lamp, the summer connection is all but forgotten since my mother's pregnancy, Clare's presence merely physical, like she’s thrown a switch inside herself. Never a nuisance; rarely a comfort. For her part, Clare seems to accept our distance with a stoicism I’ve never been able to imitate, in our games or in my life.
It’s almost as if “Dead to Me,” despite it’s earlier incarnations, evolves into a kind of baedecker for how a family endures life: present but silent, alone but not lonely.
My father is home one Wednesday afternoon. He wears a pair of wool trousers and a while Oxford shirt. My mother stands beside him in a denim skirt and hooded sweatshirt.
“Your mother hasn’t been feeling well,” he says. My mother says nothing. I don’t even know if he’s talking to me. “We going to help her feel better and may be gone for the evening.”
“Don’t worry about me,” my mother says.
“Get in the car,” says my father, and they push past and out of the house.
“What should I tell—?“ I begin, but they’re already outside.
Clare skips into the house to find me at the kitchen table.
“Where’s mom?” she asks.
“Mom and dad went to the doctor’s, I guess,” I say.
“Oh,” she says, and then: “Because Mommy’s been sick?”
Their bedroom reveals nothing but a half-made bed and a half-eaten apple on the comforter, one of my mother's tennis shoes on the floor.
The sun sinks low and red and the shadows climb up the walls. The wind whips through and under the shutters, the sound like a dying man’s grunt and shuffle.
It’s been hours.
Clare leaves the kitchen and goes to our parents’ room. I know what she is doing even as I turn into the hallway to check on her. I find her on the hope chest, pennies on her eyes and a clutch of dried flowers in her hands.
I lean over her body like Prince Charming and whisper “Alive.”
She opens her eyes and the pennies fall to the top of the chest and she smiles. “I missed you,” she says.
That evening, until late, it’s as if summer returns. We play “Ropes” and earlier versions of “Dead to Me.” We eat anything we want out of the refrigerator and dance to the radio.
Both of us are tired, loopy, sleepy eyes and care-worn. I agree to one more round--any game, her choice.
I lay back on the hope chest. She places the pennies on my eyes.
“I wish it could always be like this,” she says.
“Just you and me,” she says.
“Things change,” I say, thinking of junior high and the girl who sits next to me in Algebra.
“And change back.” Clare taps at the gloom on the other side of the window.
“And change back,” I agree.
“What happens if mom and dad are gone?” she asks.
“Why would they be gone?”
“Or maybe they couldn’t find us, because we’re gone.”
“I don’t know that it would make that much of a difference.” My tone, harsh, sarcastic, angry, surprises me. But the words are out of my mouth, and I can tell that it shocks Clare. Then she smiles.
“Yeah. It wouldn’t, would it?”
“OK, lady. One more time.” I clutch the flowers. “I’m dead.”
“Me too,” she says.
I open my eyes and wipe the pennies from my face. “What?”
“I’m dead too. We’re both dead.”
I look at her, at her smile. “Alive,” I say.
“You can’t. You’re dead, like me.”
“Alive!” I yell.
“Sorry,” she says, and the smile slides into the grin, the grin I saw on my dad’s face, the grin I saw in the yard.
I fall off the hope chest and run downstairs. Clare follows.
“Now it’ll always be like this,” she calls after me.
“It’s just a game,” I yell. “Stop following me!” I grab the phone from the hook and dial my father’s cell phone. No answer. I hang up the phone, wait two minutes, and dial again.
I slam the phone back into the cradle and only then notice the cellar door, wide open, the blue door replaced by a gape of chill black that changes the entire kitchen. On the second step down is my mother’s other shoe.
Clare strolls past me and sits at the kitchen table.
Did you do this?” I say to her.
“Do what?” she asks, eyes wide and innocent.
“The door,” I say.
“It’s been like that since I got home.”
“You didn’t notice.” It’s not a question.
“What did you do?”
“To who?” she asks.
“To mom and dad.” My words are a strangled squeak.
“I didn’t do anything to them. Nothing to them.”
“You did something.”
Clare straightens her pink blouse and grins. “We’re just playing.”
“I'll tell mom and dad when they get home,” I say.
“About the door, about school, about being dead.” I sound like a fool, made more so by the blubbering hunk of hysteria under the words.
“What makes you think they can do anything?” she asks.
“It’s just a game.”
“Yeah,” she agrees. “It’s just a game.”
“It’s just a game, right?” I am crying. I try to hide it but the tears roll down each cheek.
“It would be better, wouldn’t it?”
“How would it be better?”
“How could it be worse?” And I see, now, that everything I’ve tried to tell her, everything I’ve tried to hide, was a waste of time.
“When will we know for sure if this is a game or not?” I ask.
A gash of light cuts into the darkness of the front room. We run to the picture window, both of us awash in the blinding glare.
It's them. Their car. It has to be.
Clare stares out the front window, directly into the light. She says, “Maybe never.”
About the author:
Matthew Lykins live and works in Oxford, Ohio with his wife and three children. In addition to teaching English full-time, he writes fiction and nonfiction, some of which has been published in PIF, Metazen, decomP, and Fugue, among others. He recently completed a novel and is at work on a second.