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life slips away and the ghosts come to play

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if only we were ghosts, she thinks,

leaning into the rising hush,

 

if only I could wait forever .”

 

― Rita Dove, from “ The Venus of Willendorf”

 

1984

 

Ghost stories are a very common, recurring theme throughout her childhood. Every night, much to her delight, her father would tell Billie Dean a ghost story before tucking her in. A tradition, a father-daughter special bond. She grew up listening about deserted, haunted towns and houses infested with evil spirits, diabolical twins running around homes, kicking doors open, dragging screeching furniture around and pushing objects just for laughs. Paranormal activity used as nursery rhymes, who would’ve thought? 

 

Robert Howard genuinely appreciates them. Savors the chill that settles on his spine, the gory thrill when reciting a new folk tale to Billie Dean. And she does too–even if the shrill whistling of the wind and the moving shadows on her window scare her. Of course, the girl had nightmares for days on end the first few times she’d heard them; would make a habit of sneaking into her parents’ bedroom in the middle of the night, squeezing herself between them and sliding under the covers, pressing her cold, stubby toes against the back of her mother’s calves. Patricia had chastised her husband very passive-aggressively, as was her way, for his tactless behavior toward their daughter, but Robert had easily dismissed her, “ C’mon Patty, it’s all in harmless fun,” knowing perfectly well his wife hated being called Patty –especially if it was used as a coaxing weapon.

 

“Daddy, are ghosts real?” Billie Dean asked Robert once, after the story was over and the dim night-light was on, casting shadows on his long face, features etched with amusement at the question.

 

“No pumpkin, don’t worry about that,” he’d replied with kind hazelnut eyes, rubbing her cheek with the back of his long fingers. “Ghost stories are just that: stories people tell to scare you.”

 

“But how do you know?”

 

“Well, because I’ve never seen a ghost!” Billie had furrowed her brow at that. It was not the answer she’d been looking for. It wasn’t what she wanted to hear. “No one has.”

 

“But daddy, I’ve never seen Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy! And they’re all real!”

 

Robert chuckled at his daughter’s logic, and who was he to argue with the naive beliefs of an eight-year old? If it were up to him, Robert would keep Billie Dean in a state of safe ingenuity and childlike curiosity for the rest of her precious, yet-untainted life. He ran a hand through his thinning brown hair before adding, “I suppose you’re right Billie Dean. Maybe you’ll be the one to see a ghost one day! If you do, don’t forget to tell your old man about it, huh?”

 

The first ghost she sees is that of her father’s when he passed. At the time, she wasn’t aware she was staring right in the face of death. Young Billie Dean couldn’t quite understand the heaviness that threatened to crush her ribcage, the yearning for his father’s soft smile and crinkling eyes. All she knew is he was gone. He was not coming back. 

 

Robert had gotten off work late that tragic night–later than usual, anyway–and it was pouring rain, the streets wet and slick. The police told Patricia he’d lost control of the car, crashed the vehicle after a perilous u-turn; a total loss. Her mother had wept furiously, mourned the death of her husband alone, hiding away in the confines of their room for months. Mrs. Belivet, Harriet, the housekeeper, had looked after the girls for that same amount of time. Billie couldn’t fathom the loss, the concept of mortality too crude for her young mind to fully grasp; didn’t understand how Patricia couldn’t see him when Robert was right there . And her older sister Heather swore Billie Dean was just trying to scare her and mess with her head.

 

But she does see him. Fleetingly when she walks by mirrors. Briefly whenever she meanders into the kitchen early on Sunday mornings, and the smell of classy cologne is too strong to ignore. Robert’s gone as fast as he comes, never uttering a single word or making any movement. A magic trick; a flash of lightning and a thunderbolt.

 

At first, she tells Patricia with a twinkle of excitement dancing in her brown eyes, almost unable to contain her euphoria. Her mom, however, had found the alleged joke all too cruel; with her face twisted into a glare, she’d scolded Billie Dean for making a mockery out of such delicate subject. Mrs. Belivet would sometimes ask her when she’d seen him, where , but Billie sensed the underlying tones of disbelief laced in her amiable words. She was just being polite; she was just helping the young girl cope. Heather had cried and cried and cried the first night Billie brought him up. Laying in Heather’s room, nestled warmly under the pink covers of her four-post bed, Billie Dean had recited their encounters, achingly begging for Heather to understand, pleading her to see

 

“Shut up, Billie Dean! You’re just bein’ mean!”

 

“I’m not lying! I saw daddy, I swear!” 

 

Heather wailed harder, pushing her sister away from their embrace. “You’re a liar! You’re lying!”

 

Patricia had barged in, strawberry blonde hair tousled and panicked; uncharacteristically out of composure. She took a long second to take in the scene, emerald eyes zigzagging between her girls before gathering Heather into her arms. Stroking her pigtailed-clad golden hair, whispering sweet nothings into her ear, Patricia shot daggers at Billie Dean. 

 

“You do not joke about this, Billie Dean.” Heather was still weeping, and so was Patricia; Billie Dean soon followed. “Never about this. You’re upsetting your sister, you’re upsetting me. Do you understand?”

 

Whenever she sees her father, Billie can’t help but smile. He isn’t coming back, but Billie Dean meets him sometimes. It’s her golden secret, her imaginary friend. In her mind, it’s easier to believe Robert’s still around, watching after her rather than accept he’s dead.

 

They don’t talk about him again. Not until they’re both older. Not until Billie can no longer see him; stolen fractions of a second with him, intangible.

 

And in a weird way, Billie Dean finds herself alone in a world where she walks among the living and instead, accompanied by the familiar faces of spirits long gone. Even if she doesn’t know it yet.



1986

 

Billie Dean has always been a strange kid. 

 

Coming from an upper-class family, it’d be expected of Billie Dean to act the part. Dress up and play nice with the other, fine young ladies, daughters of other wealthy families. The Howards had a nice home at the outskirts of a small, quaint town in Georgia; a more-than-decent, two-story house with an even bigger lawn, Mrs. Belivet (who had been around for years), practically part of the family, and a posh King Charles Spaniel that Patricia adores .

 

Heather sure has no qualms playing the role of socialite princess. Not the same can be said about Billie.

 

Heather has always been her mother’s favorite. Granted, Patricia would never say this out loud, but the girls know it. Heather knows it, takes pride in the fact. Heather always wears the pale-pink dresses and the brown shoes and the white bows crowning her golden hair. Cheeky smiles and dimples, alongside Bambi green eyes that resemble her mother so much, it’s uncanny. She even walks with the same poise and determination. Heather’s a doll. Heather enjoys being mama’s very best doll–enjoys the attention and the glamour of it all. It fits her.

 

Billie Dean, on the other hand, had always been daddy’s girl. Too smart for her own good, quick wit and a sly smirk that would get her anywhere she wanted. Her brash attitude she got from him, and where Robert would find it charming, Patricia despises it. Patricia deplores most things she deems inappropriate. Her youngest daughter does most things under that category.

 

Billie Dean doesn’t wear the canary yellow dresses with the laced bottom, and her Mary Jane’s are splattered with mud, worn out and torn at the seams from chasing their dog around the lawn. She likes to play with Jackson and William and Tom, even if her mother says she should spend more time with Michelle and Jessica and Amanda. Billie doesn’t enjoy being around Michelle or Jessica or Amanda–what, with their boring dolls and tea parties. And her mother’s disappointment is written all over her face; even if she doesn’t say it either. Billie knows.

 

She’s always been a strange child in the eyes of her mother, but Billie Dean doesn’t mind.

 

Summer rolls around with an unforgivable heat that particular year. Where Billie Dean would spend the free time riding her bike with Tom and Will downtown or sneaking into the arcade with Jackson (with the excuse of being at Michelle’s), she begrudgingly sulks in the living room under the ceiling fan. The ceiling has a tiny mold stain, she notices. Her mother wouldn’t let her go out, afraid of heatstroke. Billie Dean thinks that’s bullshit. “ It’s summer! School’s out and my friends are waiting for me, mom! What am I to do here all day?” She’d said, and Patricia had rolled her eyes at her flair for dramatics. They’d gotten into an argument, but Patricia would have none of Billie’s moping. And Billie Dean knew better than to make a tantrum, even if she reallyreallyreally wanted to.

 

So, for the day at least, she’s stuck home.

 

It doesn’t seem as bad when Heather comes sprinting to her with a playful quirk to her lips. Twenty minutes later, the sisters find themselves playing hide and seek inside the house, shying away from the burning sun. 

 

“Eight… Nine… Ten!” Heather’s sweet voice echoes through the empty hallways of the second floor. Tiny hands uncover her face, ready to look for her sister. “I’m coming to get you, Billie Dean!”

 

Big green eyes glance around the rooms, scanning along the flowered wallpaper on the corridor before deciding to start at Billie’s bedroom. The door creaks open to soft purple walls, an unmade bed, crayons scattered over the carpeted floor. There’s a dress tossed under the bed, a scribble in blue and orange markers on the wall behind the door. Heather chuckles fondly at her sister’s mess. She expected nothing less. There isn’t much room in there to hide, and the girl moves on to the next room, and on to the next until she’s standing at the white, double doors of her parents’ bedroom.

 

Tentatively, she saunters into the room, shoes squeaking against the spotless, cream colored tiles. It’s not like they’re forbidden to be here, but she’d rather not disarrange anything so as to not send her mother into a senseless fit. Quickly peeking under the grand bed, she spots small legs folded uncomfortably in a squat. 

 

She continues her trek, finds Billie crouched between their mother’s bed and her boudoir. Her face pinched in an attempt to control her breathing from giving her away, Billie Dean’s trying hard not to laugh. She doesn’t hear Heather walking up to her. Heather chuckles then, tapping on her shoulder playfully, and Billie’s eyes open so wide she’s afraid they might pop out of her skull. 

 

“Got you!”

 

The girls begin to laugh so hard they’re crying, big belly laughs bouncing off the pale green walls of Patricia’s bedroom.

 

“Girls? Girls, where are you?” Patricia calls from the bottom of the stairs, and the sisters scramble to their feet to meet her.

 

Swiftly running past her sister, Billie beats her to the bottom of the stairway. Almost clashing into her mother’s legs, the younger blonde manages to catch herself before collision.

 

“Oh Billie Dean, whatever happened to your clothes?” Patricia wails, “Look at them, they’re ruined.” She straightens her tiny dress with the flat of her palms, brow furrowed and lips puckered in displeasure. “You’ve been inside all day, where the heavens did you manage to stain them?”

 

“It’s just a little dust, mom.”

 

“Well, decent ladies have no dirt on their dresses. Christ, Billie Dean. Go ahead and change into something proper, why don't you?” Patricia huffs, pushing Billie back towards her room. Heather, who’d been hanging a couple steps back, gives Billie’s hand a solidary squeeze. “Heather, darling, would you help your sister?”

 

“Of course, momma.” She smiles that cheeky smile, decorous and compliant, and Patricia loves it, eats it up with a silver spoon. “C’mon Billie, I’ll fetch you a clean dress.”

 

“Mom, I don’t want a dress,” Billie Dean whines. With her bottom lip protruding and a faint blush to her cheeks, she crosses her arms over her chest, and with a heavy puff plops down on the step. “Why can’t I wear something else?”

 

“We’ve talked about this already. Fine young ladies–” 

 

Fine young ladies wear fine, proper clothes , I know mom,” Billie mocks, rolling her eyes at her mother’s usual choice of words.

 

Patricia bends over, coming face to face with her daughter. She brushes dirty blonde hair out of her brown eyes, an despite the hissy fit and the disagreement, she chuckles at the adorable ten-year old. “Oh, Billie Dean you’re such a strange little girl.”



1989

 

It’s safe to say Billie Dean loves Halloween. 

 

As a small girl, she’d look forward to the freedom of dressing up in something other than fancy dresses that resemble Bo Peep. Billie would nag her mother incessantly for gory masks, and oily face paint and ragged clothing. 

 

Her mother loathes it. 

 

Not so much the holiday, but the horrible, bloody costumes and wicked morbidity the children adopted for the night. A fascination for death and a distorted excuse for violence, which seems almost idolized. Patricia understood the appeal of trick-or-treating, the charming effort in handmade costumes, but couldn’t fathom why on earth children enjoyed getting scared shitless.

 

Heather, as could be expected, hadn’t been one to go out for candy or even dress up. She’d accompanied Billie Dean once or twice, bribed with a few bucks and the promise of new shoes. Having turned thirteen just a couple months prior, Billie Dean had successfully convinced her mother she needed no babysitter for the night (or any other night, really, but that was a conversation for another time). Unfortunately, being thirteen also meant she’d soon be too old to go trick-or-treating; a year or two at most. Patricia sure as hell wouldn’t let her out after turning sixteen. That would be embarrassing in the woman’s eyes. In this town, everything the Howard sisters did came back to her. An image to uphold and all that.

 

Bearing that in mind, Billie Dean enjoys the freedom she’s been granted to make the most out of this Halloween. 

 

The whole country heard about the reopening of Camp Redwood in California and the tragic events that transpired back in ‘84. Massacre and death galore. Robert had talked about it non-stop in the weeks that followed the apprehension of Brooke Thompson, convicted for the murders of the camp’s counselors and staff. Worthy of being a bedtime story, for sure. All the icky details, Billie Dean knows by heart because of his retelling of the events. She may not be particularly keen to the idea of murder, but the reasoning behind it is fascinating–to this day Patricia is still mad at Robert for Billie’s interest in ugly things.

 

Camp Redwood Food and Music Fest is by far the stupidest idea anybody would have come up with, is what Patricia thinks. It’s no surprise this year the stores were drowning in Mr. Jingles masks and costumes since late August. (She hadn’t allowed Billie to dress up as a murderous man, by the way.

 

Even so, Will and her agree to dress as the infamous Jason from Friday the 13 th behind Patricia’s back. It’s oddly cute.)

 

The house at the end of Kingwood Street is off limits to everyone. It was once home to Judy and Nicholas Harper, parents of Hannah, twelve; and Theo, forever four and three months old, deceased. High school kids say it’s haunted. Have milked the rumour for years to scare the curious children away: murder-suicide. A mother and his little boy. The rest of the family had moved away shortly after. Billie vaguely remembers attending the funeral.

 

It must have been only two or three years ago. A church. Two closed caskets. A tall, gruff man with a funny looking mustache had sobbed angrily. Then the whole church was crying too. Patricia had wailed furiously locked in her car for thirty minutes straight. There was carrot cake at the reception which Billie Dean had thought was a strange-looking party before Patricia explained why they were all gathered at the Harper’s.

 

Now the abandoned two-story, victorian-styled home looks quaint and darkened. Rusty by absence. The lawn has grown unevenly, some green twigs here and brown patches of dead grass there. Pieces of the police tape hang meekly from the iron gates. Sometimes the light in the left room on the second floor twinkles on and off and on again until it fizzles out.

 

Billie’s friend Tom dares them all to go inside this year. Jackson opts in immediately while Will glances at the girls for confirmation, quickly backtracking in spite of his friends’ mocking. Michelle and Amanda naturally bow out. Billie Dean hesitates, but agrees.

 

The floorboards to the porch creak as the kids step on it. There’s something wickedly morbid about stepping into a dead family’s house. Billie Dean buzzes with something she can’t figure out. It’s not bad, she knows, bit it still makes her skin prick.

 

“Who wants to go first?”

 

“It was Tom’s idea,” Jackson says, his leg bouncing irregularly. “He should go in first.”

 

Tom looks pointedly at him, cursing under his breath. He swallows thickly, has to try the doorknob twice before it turns. A waft of putrid air hits them, warm and soggy. Tom peeks his head in, fingers still wrapped tightly around the golden knob.

 

“What’s in there?”

 

“I can’t see anything.” 

 

Billie Dean glances inside. Pitch black. “Maybe we shouldn’t.” Whatever she felt, it’s not entirely good anymore, and she suddenly has the urge to run in the opposite direction. An invasion of privacy, she knows, to the home of a ruined family. “We shouldn’t go in.”

 

“Yeah, Billie’s right,” mutters Tom.

 

Jackson, always one to impress, lunges past them into the house. “Y’all are a bunch a’ pussies.”

 

“Jackson, don’t

 

Running footsteps echo down the hall. Boyish laughter. A woman screaming. The lights on the second floor turn on, bathing the foyer below in a mellow, piss yellow.

 

The kids freeze to their spot, unsure of what to do, unsure of how or if to react. 

 

Lights off again. A gunshot. It all happens too fast, a blurry image. Thick, wet blood splattered. Laughter turns into crying. Jackson darts out, trips somewhere between the entrance and the porch steps, bringing Tom down with him. The doors inside begin to slam, rhythm like a drum. 

 

Then, complete silence.

 

Billie Dean’s belly turns, oily and frightened. Tom and Jackson manage to untangle themselves, scurrying off the property with tails between their legs. Everyone holds their breath until they reach the corner and cross the street.

 

On their way back, not a word is spoken. 

 

Will meets them at their usual spot (the intersection between Main Street and Meadow road), and the event is forgotten. Once they begin trick-or-treating, too high on a sugar rush to care, it’s all pushed to the back of their minds.

 

And after the sun dips back down the horizon, and the monstrous children scramble back home with bags full of sugary sweets and scraped knees, Billie Dean stays back and watches. Observes as a blanket of darkness covers the skies and flows through the streets, and with it, tormented faces desperate to catch a glimpse of the new world. Faces twisted with horror and pinched with despair. Faces she knows , but isn’t able to place in her memories. The unexplainable pull young Billie Dean feels toward these shadows pique her curiosity. They’re gone in the blink of an eye, before she can make any questions.

 

Standing near the gates of the last house at the end of Kingwood Street, a short, willowy woman with milky brown eyes grips the hand of a little boy, who smiles when he catches Billie Dean’s wandering gaze. 



1993

 

She’s 17 years old when she kisses a girl for the first time.

 

It was a long time coming, she could see it on her rearview mirror, a wandering image, creeping closer. It’s not surprising and it’s definitely not unwelcome. The thought had crossed her mind before; after her first kiss with Will, wishing she’d kissed Michelle instead; after being completely and utterly fascinated by her english teacher, Abby, and wondering if she could run her hands under her deep-gray pencil skirt; before kissing Jackson at that party and after accidentally walking into a steamy room that smelled of shitty sex, which she thought was the bathroom. So yes, she’s thought about it before. 

 

It inevitably happens before winter break, when the air is crisp and the trees are bare. Football season already over, being the last day of cheerleading practice there’s only a week left of the semester. Billie Dean always sits around at the dressing rooms or the cafeteria, waiting for Heather and Nicole to finish their routine so the sisters could head home. Nicole is Heather’s best friend, has been since they were seven, and probably will be until they’re both married and with kids. They’ll be each other’s bridesmaids, godmother’s to their respective children. The kind of genuine friendship that truly lasts. At least Billie Dean hopes so; she likes Nicole, thinks she’s funny and honest and a good influence on Heather. Or maybe she’s being biased. She stops her train of thought there, as she’s done many times before; not because it’s a girl, but because it’s Nicole . She can’t be thinking about Nicole. Not like this, never like this.

 

After what feels like an eternity, the older girls finally emerge from their showers, out of the sweaty, tight blue outfits that border on inappropriate.

 

“You ready, Billie Dean?”

 

“Yeah, I’m the one who's been waiting around all this time.”

 

“Oh I’m sorry, were you bored? Did we keep the queen from her royal duties?” Nicole says with a tone so mocking she can’t even keep her face straight. Her slim tooth gap peeks adorably beneath her lips.

 

“Ha ha, very funny.” Billie Dean squints at her, poking at her ribs. Their relationship has always been this way. Easy, comfortable, simple. “But yes, actually, I had pressing matters to attend to, if you must know.”

 

Maybe not as simple; not when Billie Dean feels the uncertainty of the electricity which accompanies Nicole’s presence. 

 

“Yes well, hurry up Billie,” urges Heather, cutting their banter off, “we don’t want to be late for dinner. Mom’s waiting.”

 

Billie Dean purses her lips, dragging her sneakers as she follows after her older sister. 

 

“Oh, wait–” Nicole reaches for Billie’s hand, fingertips barely curling around her palm. “I think I left my jacket back at the field.” Her hazelnut eyes meet Billie’s, and the look she gives her feels oddly exciting. “Will you come with me? I promise we’ll be quick Heather.”

 

“Sure. I’ll wait for you girls at the car, alright?”

 

As the pair walk out of the building and up to the white bleachers, Billie Dean realizes there’s no missing jacket. Raising her eyebrows, she turns to Nicole. Her raven hair styled in long bangs frame her face softly. Pink lips curl into a mischievous yet tiny smile, almost shy. Her hand finds Billie’s, tugging until they can smell each other’s perfume. Nicole’s taller by a few couple inches and Billie Dean’s nervous for the first time in her life. She tries her best not to show it when Nicole’s thumb tilts up her chin, and has to physically control her breathing when the tip of their noses brush.

 

Kissing Nicole feels natural, feels right . And if the way Nicole’s hand clutches at the blonde’s waist is any indication, it feels right for her too.

 

Even if they pretend nothing happened after that day and avoid each other all break. Even if they inescapably seek each other out when the semester begins again, and end up meeting under the bleachers everyday after cheer practice to share secret kisses and secret feelings and secret mutterings of scared affection.

 

Nobody needs to know.

 

Soon, Heather and Nicole are off to college, and unknowingly Billie Dean experiences her first real heartbreak. Alone. Painful and messy and secret still.

 

*** 

 

The kind of people Billie Dean attracts are not normal . Or at least not the social high school student her mother would want her to relate with. Her small group of friends consists of what others would call basket cases, punk wannabes, dropouts and rejects. She has a weak spot for the damaged, the left out kids and the outcasts; kindred souls alike. 

 

Unlike her sister Heather. The pretty sister, perfect-marks student–top in her AP classes, crowned prom queen alongside her high school sweetheart, Christopher. He wasn’t the quarterback, because that would’ve been too perfect, a total cliché, but he was in the football team. Naturally, she was the cheer captain and president of the debate team. Miss goody two-shoes.

 

Heather had been dating the same boy since sophomore year, and now that she was off to college, they had decided to ‘embark on this new chapter of their lives together’, as they’d said to their parents. Losers. Chris’s mother was delighted. It was almost an arranged marriage. Patricia, for her part, went on and on about how happy she was for her eldest, who was sure to become the perfect wife and (as soon as the time was right) mother. 

 

Billie Dean, however, was always on the receiving end of the passive-aggressive rage. A constant discomfort and unfulfillment on her part. 

 

Even if Billie had considerably mellowed down along the years; she’d tried to make her mother happy. Billie Dean now wears the pretty pale-pink blouses, the hip hugging skirts, the dangling earrings, the pearls, sweet perfume. Voluminous, dirty blonde hair that frames her delicate face beautifully . She tries her best not to curse around Patricia, bites her tongue as to not speak her mind out of turn, does her best to contain her beastly sarcasm. A couple years back she’d started attending tennis lessons–upon Patricia’s demand, of course–and she’s good . And she actually likes it.

 

Some things, you just inherit from your parents, against your will and wishes, sure . Billie Dean doesn’t even notice, not until one of her friends points it out. It’s a subconscious thing. Maybe not as much as Heather, but Billie speaks like her mother, persuasive, patient and so fucking smooth ; a velvet timbre. Her voice has that crystal-clear don’t mess with me quality, which is rather effective, but manages to stay ever so eloquent. It’s in the little things, the tight lipped smiles and the gestures with her hands, long fingers flicking with ease, eyebrows raised just so to get her point across. But her heart, her heart is as soft as ever.

 

Despite all the similarities and the effort, they’d never managed to see eye to eye. They aren’t about to now that Billie has one foot out the door. 

 

Of course, she loves her mother, but she can’t wait to get away from this town as soon as possible. As far away as she can. It hasn’t been the same, not since her dad passed. Perchance she doesn’t want it to be. The memories of her childhood and her hometown were to be kept in a musical box, one that Billie Dean only wanted to listen to when she got much, much older. Watch the ballerina dance with a certain kind of newfound fondness. 

 

Patricia Howard, née Collins, had remarried five years after Robert’s death, to a man named John Davis. Heather and Billie Dean were old enough then to understand it was more of a settlement than anything else. Patricia never knew how to be alone; couldn’t handle the loneliness and the responsibility of motherhood. Didn’t want to, either. No one could blame her, and John was nice enough, if a little overbearing, but he made her as happy as Patricia could be–and Billie Dean guessed that had to be enough.

 

When she tells her mother she got a scholarship for a college in Los Angeles, the woman flips . Billie Dean thinks she’s being selfish. Patricia thinks Billie Dean is being irrational, and perhaps she expected Billie to take the easy way out and follow after Heather’s footsteps, enroll at the Georgia College and be done with it. What she never expects is to hear Billie Dean say she’s moving halfway across the country.

 

“What are you even going to do there, sweetheart?” she asks calmly, though the exasperation is clear on her satiny voice. “What are you looking for?”

 

“I–”

 

“And law ? Women like us do not study law , weren’t built for that type of stress.”

 

Women like us ? What does that even mean, mother?”

 

Patricia huffs, “Oh Christ, you know what I mean Billie Dean.” With big green eyes, she supplicates her youngest daughter to reconsider. “Let’s not talk about this now, would you mind?”

 

“Mother, I’m going.”

 

Suddenly it’s not a question anymore. Now it’s defiant, an announcement that leaves no room for further arguing. Patricia’s stance straightens, but Billie Dean’s does too.

 

“John, don’t you have an opinion? Aren’t you saying anything?” Patricia always does this; calls for assistance when things get complicated, when her patience starts to wear thin. She pretends to never solve anything herself, feigns to never know how to play her cards. But Patricia always wins. No matter the situation or who she’s going up against. John, ever at her beck and call, has paid rapt attention to their conversation from afar. Alas, he never quips before he’s required to.

 

“I believe,” he starts in that even, steady voice he uses when he’s certain he has the upper hand, “Billie Dean is old enough to decide for herself, dear.” Turning beet red, Patricia’s smugness morphs to indignation rather quickly. “Perhaps it could be a good idea,” he finishes, and that’s the end of it.

 

Billie Dean leaves for Los Angeles a week after high school graduation, and she’s determined to not look back any time soon.



1997

 

In all her years getting acquainted with the vivid flashes of faces, she’d never stopped to actually wonder what it meant. Billie Dean had stopped asking questions when she was around thirteen years old, around the time she’d become more preoccupied with boys and hair curlers and the wonders of the expanse makeup world.

 

And it’s not like she forgot, how could she? But it just wasn’t a pressing matter, wasn’t worth bringing up around Patricia. Wasn’t worth the hassle and the fight. Billie Dean had stored the knowledge in a safe box within her mind, where she kept the outlines of faces like mugshots and antique photographs. After her father’s death, Billie Dean never saw him again. Never saw anything resembling a ghost. The rational part of her brain knows better, obeying the skepticality she carries nowadays. Ghosts aren’t real. Ghost stories are just ghost stories

 

College and the big city of Los Angeles leave no room for her thoughts to drift off either.

 

It takes her a while to adjust to the people and her classes and her new roommate, Jennifer. Jen . Jennifer is not the type of girl Billie Dean would’ve befriended back home in Georgia. Jennifer is exactly the type of girl her mother would’ve paired Billie up with for playdates and later on, sleepovers and makeovers and tennis practice. 

 

Needless to say, Billie Dean doesn’t like her at first. Jen’s blatantly conceited, and though intriguing, she’s too proud and self-centered to build a relationship (of any capacity) with Billie. They’re much alike, common interests, similar backgrounds, but what certainly binds them is the deep longing that runs deep within the surface; longing for something, somewhere unknown. Somewhere they belong. She’s aware of this connection, this bridge that exists albeit they’re not willing to cross. Their personalities collide, both brash and domineering; and though conscientious, Billie Dean doesn’t do vulnerable . Her defense mechanism tells her not to trust. 

 

Most days Billie wanders around campus with her friends, avoiding her room in hopes Jen will be either out or asleep by the time she comes back. It’s not like they avoid each other, but conversations are short and unpleasant (and the stretched, uncomfortable silences are admittedly even worse). Jen always seems to be as annoyed with Billie as Billie is with Jen. Bickering soon escalates to silent competition, and it’s so easy . Billie Dean’s a huge tease. And Jen is so fucking pretty , little miss know-it-all. The sexual tension is there. They both feel it; they both know it’s bound to implode sooner rather than later.

 

And oh boy , it does.

 

She quietly stumbles in one bright morning, too early for Jen’s sake. Rightly, Jen must think she comes from whomever boy’s dorm she slept at. Billie Dean smells of cigarette ash and sex. Blue eyes stare tiredly at her, and Billie tries to ignore her because she doesn’t have the energy required for this.

 

“Take a picture, it’ll last longer, doll.” Billie mocks, feeling Jennifer’s gaze bore holes on her back.

 

Ugh , why are you such a bitch?”

 

She shoots Jen the fakest of smirks, not even bothering to care what her roommate thinks of her. Billie then ponders why Jen’s been gawking at her for the last five minutes. Irritated, she huffs, “Is there something you need?”

 

“Can I ask you something?”

 

“I guess. Yes, ask me.”

 

“That guy you sleep with, is he your boyfriend?”

 

“What?” It catches her completely off-guard. The question is unprecedented; sure they’ve talked about classes and acquaintances, but not once have they talked so directly about their families or their relationships, and it’s definitely not a subject Billie’s comfortable diving into.

 

“You heard me.”

 

“It’s none of your business.” Immediately, she regrets the bite to her words at Jen’s hurt expression (she knows Jen means well, no need to be rude). Billie groans, giving in. “No, he’s not. Why would you want to know that?”

 

“Just curious.” Billie silently stares at her, evidently not believing her alleged reasons. Jen rolls her eyes at Billie’s flair for dramatics. “It was just an innocent question.”

 

“I’ve learned that no question is innocent with you.”

 

“Oh for fuck’s sake! It was only a question.”

 

She half expects Jen to elaborate, but when her roommate doesn’t, all Billie can do is sigh. “Fine.”

 

“What, that’s all? No snide remark? No bite?”

 

“Oh I can definitely bite, if that’s what you’re into.”

 

Pause. That was the real Billie Dean coming back–headstrong, as always.

 

“Maybe I am.”

 

Well, fuck .

 

Doing a poor job of burying her desire, Jen’s electric blue eyes are alight with indecency. Trapping her lower lip between her teeth, Jennifer gives her a look that’s so purposefully feral Billie Dean can’t help herself. She captures plump lips in a blazing kiss, and before she knows it, Jen is straddling her on her bed. Running her hands through Billie’s rich blonde locks, Billie Dean is left speechless at the sudden force with which Jen kisses her. She allows the woman on top of her to do as she pleases. Billie grips Jen’s ass, guiding her gyrating hips as Jen nips and sucks at her exposed neck. Soft hands travel south, unbuttoning the silk blouse but not taking it off Billie’s body. Cold fingers tease perky nipples through the black fabric of her lacy bra. It leaves Billie a squirming, whining mess. 

 

But she won’t beg. No, Billie Dean never begs.

 

She flirts and teases and plays, but she doesn’t beg . Jen bites at her pulse point, intentionally grinding her hips harder while squeezing Billie’s breasts. Jennifer thinks she has the reins of this–believes she has Billie at her disposal; and if Billie weren't so smug about it maybe she would have let her. Maybe. Shifting her weight quickly, Billie switches their positions, effectively trapping Jen under her body. Her mouth moves fast, leaving marks wherever she can. Jen lifts her hips to get rid of her pants, and Billie wastes no time to tease her inner thighs. The moan born at Jen’s throat is sinfully arousing. 

 

“Billie, please .” 

 

Billie won’t beg, but she’ll make damn sure Jen does. She sits back, deliberately taking her hands off her roommate's body. “Please what, dear?”

 

“Just fuck me already.”

 

She touches her there, fingertips ghosting over her clit through the wet fabric of her underwear, and enjoys the way Jen’s back arches as goosebumps erupt on her body. Heat coils deliciously on her lower stomach as Billie’s mouth does wonders. It builds up, up , up and culminates in a rough entanglement of limbs. Milky thighs and soft stomachs, warm tongues and an exquisite assortment of sounds that could be easily confused as a chorus of angels. 

 

But Jen has a boyfriend and so, Billie doesn’t dwell on it much. They keep it casual, a non-exclusive thing, and both women are more than pleased with their agreement.

 

Halfway through second semester, she begrudgingly realizes her mother had been right; women like them weren’t built for the type of stress and level-headedness that entailed being a lawyer. Billie Dean is determined, composed, sure of herself, always gets her way because she’s stubborn (and for good reason), but law isn’t for her. It requires a certain coldness, a detachment for which Billie’s too sensitive. Too soft-hearted. 

 

Jennifer suggests psychology, and Billie Dean’s not opposed to the idea. She switches majors and doesn’t plan on telling Patricia until it’s absolutely necessary.



1999

 

To be fair, Billie Dean’s not all that surprised when she ends up fucking her literature professor. She’d felt an unknown fascination for him ever since the very first lecture, and it’d escalated fast. He’s handsome, charming dimples and the softest chestnut hair. 

 

Normally, he’s the kind of guy Billie steers clear of, someone plain, born and raised lucky: good looking, charming, brains and brawn. Conventionally attractive. These men are never interesting to Billie; they have no sharp edges, no dare in them. They instinctively flee any situation that might cause them embarrassment, and they stick to their rules and routines strictly. But he doesn’t bore Billie. Maybe because his grin is a little crooked or because he practically undresses her with his eyes: a look so sexual and raw it leaves Billie Dean wet and breathless every time.

 

She doesn’t think much of it either; especially when she’s bent over his desk, hands gripping the edge so hard her knuckles ashen as he viciously pounds her pretty little–

 

“You did what ?” Exclaims Heather in a flustered stupor. “You fucked him ?”

 

“Take it easy, dear.” Billie says in that collected tone as she finishes off her whiskey. Friday night, end of term in a city alive in a way Billie’s hometown has never been. The bar they’re in has some dim orange lighting that makes Heather’s hair a burnt color, cheeks aflame in second-hand embarrassment. “It was just a casual, two-time thing. Nothing else.”

 

“A two-time thing? Are you serious Billie Dean?”

 

Smirking, Billie Dean gives her a look that says, what did you expect? She signals to the waiter for another round against Heather’s protests.

 

“Can’t you get expelled for this?”

 

Of course she could, that’s what makes it all the more fun. Billie Dean just shrugs nonchalantly.

 

Her older sister huffs, something between amusement and exasperation. “Is he good at least?”

 

“Oh, yeah,” Billie answers smugly. Reaching for the cherry on Heather’s fruity cocktail, she sucks on it obscenely before laughing. Chews, licks the tip of her nail. “ Very good . He does this thing with his finguers–”

 

“Ew, gross, gross, gross ! Forget I asked.”

 

Please , you have two kids Heather!”

 

“And they were conceived very lovingly , thank you very much.”

 

Well, that’s a mental image she doesn’t want. Chris fucking her sister, great . And so boringly vanilla. “I’m sure they were.”

 

“God, you’re helpless.” 

 

Smirking, she easily downs the rest of her glass. “Bless your heart.”

 

***

 

Billie Dean goes back home to Georgia for the holidays that year, the first after a couple of avoiding traveling. It’s a brief visit, but it’s enough to bring all the ugly memories back. Sliding the lid off Pandora’s box.

 

She arrives two days ahead of Heather, whose twins have yet to wrap school. Being alone in the house, in her old bedroom, takes her back to the last years of high school, once Heather was off to college and she used to lay on her sister’s four-poster bed as they spoke over the phone. Thank God victorian houses were spacious, a lot of room to stray away from each other–bedrooms and living rooms and reading rooms blooming out on all sides. Plenty of room to wall herself from her mother’s sticky emotions.

 

Patricia had never been abusive; ill-tempered and easily bothered perhaps. Picky and stubborn and sharp around some edges. A rose thorn. The unpolished edge of a porcelain figurine. But not abusive. She loved– loves , Billie Dean. She just forgets to show it some days. Days when Robert’s absence is suffocating.

 

Holidays are understandably hard.

 

She trails down to the kitchen the morning after her arrival. John reads the newspaper while sipping on an espresso. He nods courtly at Billie, his way of greeting good morning ever since she was younger. Patricia slices fruit delicately on the marble island, humming a tune Billie doesn’t recognize. Smiling at the homely feeling glowing in her chest, she places a tender kiss on her mother’s temple.

 

“Would you like something to eat, baby girl?”

 

Breakfast goes smoothly, if uneventful. Well, that is until Billie casually–but accidentally, comments on an article sprawled on the front page of the newspaper. It reads ‘ Columbine High School massacre memorial: As we loved you so we miss you’ . There’s a gloomy black-and-white picture of the Class of 1999 at the bottom of the page, as well as a brief bible passage next to it. 

 

“Can I see that?” John hands over the page without thinking, unaware of its contents. Billie swiftly reads the article over, cringing at the named victims, detailed events and the overall sad information. The v erse reads: "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand; (John 10:27-29)," and it does absolutely nothing to soothe Billie’s racing heart. “Did you hear about this? There was a shooting this April–”

 

“Billie Dean, don’t,” warns John, folding his newspaper and slapping it on the table. He stands, straightening the collar of his navy shirt and shoving his wallet down the front pocket of his pants. “Just don’t.”

 

“What? I was only asking.”

 

John tiredly shakes his head, disapproval written on his disgruntled expression. He squeezes Patricia’s shoulder sympathetically, shoots another stern look at Billie Dean and bids his goodbyes. Before he leaves for work, he seems to remember, “I won’t be home for dinner tonight, dear. My apologies.”

 

So formal, as ever.

 

Regarding her daughter again, Patricia reprimands, “That’s called gossip, Billie Dean. And why would you want to talk about such ugly things so early in the day?”

 

“How is this gossip? I just read this on the newspaper.”

 

“Oh, darlin’ stop. Just drop it, please.” She pinches the bridge of her nose, green eyes fluttering close. “Why must you always have an opinion?”

 

“Isn’t it important to know what’s going on in the world?”

 

“Not when it’s so horrendous.”

 

“Not when it doesn’t involve you,” Billie mutters under her breath, and it’s regrettably not lost on her mother.

 

“A sharp tongue does not mean you have a keen mind.”

 

“Everyone was thinking it. I just said it.”

 

“That’s all your father,” Patricia puffs, clearly annoyed and resentful. “Why must you be so much like him?”

 

“It’s not my intention to hurt you, mom.” Billie wipes a lone tear with the pad of her thumb, hanging her head minutely. “I didn’t ask for this either.”

 

Patricia studies her a moment, organizes her thoughts, calibrates her words. “You’re right. I apologize, sweetheart.” Delicate tears stream down her face, raindrops on porcelain skin. “I suppose that should be considered a blessing.”

 

“Would you rather me be more like John?”

 

“Don’t be silly, he lacks the charisma.” She giggles. It sounds like reverse gulps of air. “But he does make up for that in elegance, I must say.”

 

She pictures John with his polo shirts and patterned pants. Black hair and soulful blue eyes. After all, it’s hard to compete with the ghost of a beloved father and husband. 

 

“Robert would be so proud of the woman you’ve become.”

 

“I’d hope so, momma.”

 

Heather arrives with her family and it’s all Patricia can focus on. 

 

The Howard women sit on the porch that late evening, sipping coffee and tea, snuggled under light blankets to shield from the chilly, winter air. Patricia interrogates Heather non-stop, as if she were programmed to do so, but Heather doesn’t seem to mind. Talk of her, her hair, her new workout routine and vitamin program, Chris, her twins, whine about the school system, sigh: motherhood is hard work! Yes, sigh: Billie Dean wouldn’t know. She’s not included in this conversation, again . She tries not to feel jealous, knows she’s got nothing to be jealous for, but her throat bobs and closes involuntarily and all she can do is trace her knuckles with the stiletto of her nails as to not show her blotchy, reddened face.

 

As the conversation unravels, she knows it’s about to turn on her. Patricia would start with a cheeky smile, bat her eyelashes. She’d ask her a question about university. Then, any boys? Followed by a petty, I’m sure there are plenty of decent men in California, sweetness. Are you scaring them all away? Mirthless chuckle. Billie Dean would smile politely in return. It’s time to think about what you want to do with your life, your future. Chastising look of disapproval, When are you giving me grandchildren? She could already picture it. They did this every year over the phone, only now she couldn’t just hang up on her.

 

“Excuse me,” Billie says, abruptly standing. There’s already a headache blooming behind her eyes.

 

Patricia reaches for the inside of her arm, not quite touching it. “Are you alright, darlin’?”

 

“Fine, just–” I need a drink – “forgot I made plans to meet Amanda tonight.” 

 

Glass face forgotten, her sister can see right through her lie. She always knew when Billie Dean got overwhelmed. It happened most often than not. Heather smiles knowingly, averts her gaze before she bursts out laughing.

 

“Be safe.”

 

Her hometown has a couple acceptable bars. Not too fancy, not too shitty. Drinking holes made for the restless townie and the soft drunk. For those who need a place to run away at night when the world closes in oneself. She parks outside Scarlett’s , named after the founder’s wife (her stage name at the strip club she worked in when the woman was younger), if she remembers correctly.

 

Approaching the bar with a beat to her step, Billie momentarily wonders what her life would’ve turned out like had she never left this town. Diving into perilous territory, she wonders what would’ve happened if her father were still alive. If she’d moved out with the same desperation with which she did a couple years back.

 

Unfortunately, her father isn’t alive and this town is the living, breathing reminder of the picture-perfect life he began building but never got. Now she really needs some alcohol.

 

“Billie Dean? Billie Dean Howard, is that you?”

 

And there he is, William Baker all grown up, standing right here in a grimy bar back home (which doesn’t feel much like home nowadays). The interruption from her self-deprecating reverie is much welcomed. Will and Billie go way back, and his presence moves something within her; she’s delighted to see him, face splitting into a natural smile.

 

“Will, how are you, dear?” She hugs him tight. He smells like beer and drywood.

 

“I’m great! Jesus, it’s so good to see you! It’s been ages!”

 

Humming, her eyes sweep the man over. “Too long.” He’s tall and slim, clearly exercises; his chocolate hair combed straight out of an 80’s flick–exactly the same it’d been when they were kids, beard groomed carefully. Under the mist of adulthood on his face remain the childish dimples she remembers perfectly. 

 

Will summons the barman, asks for another beer, then, “Let me buy you a drink, Billie. For ol’ times sake. On the house.”

 

She quirks her brow at the insouciant admission. Will had never been one to boast, and that’s why he was always secretly her favorite. “On the house?”

 

The color rises to the tip of his ears bashfully, despite his efforts to remain cool. “Yes, well. I couldn’t be working at my uncle’s refactionary forever. My dad decided to make an investment. Last payment is due next month, and Scarlett’s is ours for good.”

 

“Impressive, truly. Speaking of, how’s your father?”

 

“Oh he’s just peachy , same ol’ man,” he grunts, scratching the top of his head and lifting his chin up–a gesture Billie remembers from high school. “Still a bastard.” They laugh loudly, accepting that yes, in fact Mr. Baker is nothing if not a bastard. “How’s your mother?”

 

Billie purses her lips, downs her bourbon in one swift motion. She signals for the bartender to pour her another. Double.

 

“Damn, that bad, huh?”

 

“No, no. She’s fine... most of the time.” Will chuckles as he watches Billie down her drink again to catch up with him. “Finally wrapped her mind about me going away.”

 

“Your accent’s gone. You forgettin’ us?”

 

Billie Dean taps her nails on the bar. Would like to say yes, I’m trying to ; would like to say no, I would never , and actually believe her words. Instead she chuckles and rolls her eyes, attempting to conceal the emotion that threatens to give her away. Here isn’t home anymore, she knows.

 

Will takes a swing of his beer, a water ring atop the bar. He’s smiling before he even removes the bottle from his mouth. “It’s good to have you back, Billie Dean. Tell me, how’s the big city?”

 

Talk about Billie Dean, Los Angeles, no boyfriend or husband yet but she’s hopeful! (not really). (No girlfriend or wife either, but Will doesn’t need to know). He seems smugly pleased to know this. “Look at that, I might have a chance after all.”

 

Charming. His forwardness isn’t intrusive, doesn’t feel like he’s pushing her for anything. “Only in your wildest, wettest dreams, Willy.”

 

Will snickers, “Still a smartass, aren’t you?”

 

Billie Dean grins, gestures exaggeratedly at him, adds, “Still a dumbass.”

 

“Well, a dumbass with half a decent beard and a bar.”

 

“Cheers to that, then.”

 

Around 2 am, Will offers to drive her home. Billie Dean wishes she hadn’t sucked down so much bourbon, thoughts vaporizing and mingling together dangerously–she wants to argue, but her cheeks are warm and her mouth buzzes with excitement. They fuck in the back seat of his car, windows foggy, the bar’s neon sign flickering in sync with Billie Dean’s grinding hips. She rides him without abandon, silicone nails scratching his upper back as his gruff hands roam her half-clothed body. Will grips her hard as he cums, fingertips bruising smooth, ivory skin. Billie lets him take her home after with the promise of meeting again before her departure.

 

With the alcohol buzz, she falls into a deep sleep hard and fast. Panic floating into her subconscious like a sour mist. A dream. (Or a nightmare). A little girl walks into her bedroom, softly as to not disturb Billie Dean. Her curly hair is a dirty shade of blonde, drowning in a dress a size too big. She looks straight out of a memory: a younger Heather or a long lost sibling. Laying down beside Billie, she pokes the woman’s beauty mark and smiles–her front teeth are missing. When she grows bored, she halts for the door, stops, grins wickedly and unnerving.

 

The child plucks her eyes out with a silver spoon.  



2001

 

At 23 she moves out and work is scarce and she really doesn’t want to go back home and admit defeat , that is not who Billie Dean is.

 

Two years later Billie believes she’s got her life figured out. A life Patricia would be proud of. A life similar to what Heather has–minus the husband and the kids, of course. Job’s good, she’s sure to be steadily improving her tennis game (“ The new rising star within the team! ”, as her coach had proudly exclaimed), and she’s close to unseating Charlotte Whitney as president of her book club (it’s her turn to host next week, and she’s determined to dethrone that cheap bitch as soon as possible). Close to having all the things she could aspire for, all the things she believes she wants.

 

She has become that person, that woman Patricia expected her to be. Billie Dean had sworn to never become her mother and yet, she did. It was inevitable. To anyone, she’s sure she looks expensive, the kind of woman who has a twelve-step skincare routine, a fancy job at a prestigeous psychiatry office, some stud husband investment banker, superbly rich parents and a lake house. 

 

And she absolutely despises it.

 

Billie Dean is truly not that person. 

 

Still, she isn’t about to give up all she had accomplished just for genuity; she isn’t stupid. And even though she hates to admit it, she fiercely longs for Patricia’s approval. She always will. Heather does as well, which Billie Dean takes comfort in knowing. Virtually they might never get it, because there’s always something wrong, something Patricia is strategically displeased with. John makes his best to contain her misdirected rage, that bitterness that never left her heart after Robert did; it festers deep in her gut, a ruinous, insatiable thing that swallows everything whole. The sisters agree that she’s entitled to it, to the despair and the heavy sorrow. 

 

Even so, Billie’s thankful for the effort John puts in taking care of her, especially when the sisters no longer live there under the same roof. Heather’s closer–just a forty minute drive–but it’s not the same; she has a family, a part time job, duties outside of their parent’s house. And Billie Dean’s not keen on going, not after the last Christmas she’d spent home. Not like Patricia seems to be bothered about her daughter’s absence, anyway.

 

Deep down, Billie Dean hopes it’s not hereditary. The so called hysteria. The unswerving indifference.

 

Running around her apartment, she’s fashionably late for a meeting. Barely . Billie Dean must try on at least fourteen different blouses and the same amount of skirts, not to even mention shoes, necklaces, rings. She’s been skittish ever since the early morning, but she can’t place why. Her eyeliner is uneven, she thinks as she brushes her teeth. Staring hard at her reflection, trying to clear the fog off the bathroom mirror, it’s bizarrely cold to the touch. The fist she furiously rubs on it does nothing to clear it. 

 

She feels it before she sees it. She’s not alone. 

 

As if being full of cotton, Billie’s light-headed. The freezing chill that runs through her spine and settles on her bones is familiar. She’s felt it before, a lifetime ago. Or maybe it never left her. Maybe it had stayed with her all this time, waiting to be shaken awake again. 

 

Her blood pumps, hits her face warm and fast. A shimmer of sweat quickly covers her skin, hair sticking to her nape. For a second she thinks she might smack the ground next to the toilet, arms and legs growing slack. Gripping the sink, Billie Dean takes deep breaths, counts to ten slowly willing her thumping pulse to slow. Her eyes pick up images in meaningless sequence: the rusty tip of an ice picker. A superficial scar above a man’s eyebrow. A dirty bathroom and a tub. Dried blood under unevenly cut, blue nails.  

 

Bloody and naked, a woman appears in her doorway. Billie Dean almost jumps out of her skin when she catches sight of her cleaning lady. Alma’s face is contorted, twisted wickedly in a pain that Billie Dean can nearly feel herself. There’s a stream of blood running freely from the side of her throat, a sticky gush cascading from her yugular. 

 

“Oh God, Alma,” Billie Dean falters back, stilettos doing a poor job of keeping her upright. “What the fuck is that? What happened?”

 

Unmoving, Alma stares back at Billie Dean before letting her eyes roll back on her skull. Eye to eye with the devil. Fuck . Choking sounds swallow the woman’s mumbles. Billie Dean can make out some of Alma’s thoughts, head swarming in fractured spanish prayers and murky memories of dire ire. 

 

Dios te salve María, llena eres de gracia, el Señor es contigo… 

 

Fighting. An ardor discussion about infidelity with a man who appears to be her husband. Then, a flash of red; such violence clinging to Alma’s body and soul. She can see the man dragging Alma to the bathroom, fist looped tightly around her black hair. The ice picker digging into her flesh. Billie’s cheeks turn wet and salty.

 

“He killed you?”

 

Alma stares back at her, seemingly paralyzed either by force or fear, Billie Dean doesn’t know.

 

“Alma,” there’s a rising tremor in her voice. “Why- why would he–”

 

The shriek that follows is mind shattering. It breaks through Billie’s stupor and sends her into a desperate panic that has her backing into the wall, shielding herself from whatever atrocity is bound to happen. She feels the darkness reverberating off the sound, hovering above her head, coating the room in a dense steam that makes it difficult to breathe. An express pot boiling, boiling , boiling .

 

Eyes squeezed shut. Alma’s gone. No trace left behind except for the sticky, trail of blood on the irredeemable white tiles of her bathroom.  

 

Santa María, madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros, pecadores, ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte… 

 

Seconds turn to minutes turn to hours, and Billie Dean hasn’t moved an inch. Meeting forgotten, she’ll come up with a believable excuse–surely something that has nothing to do with ghosts and mexican maids. Billie Dean understands then that everything in her life has led to this. Comprehends the horrendous things she’s drawn to, the people she remembers but whom she’s never met. It’s the foul, gut-wrenching pull of something repulsive and dark. 

 

Perhaps the stupid book club is the last of her problems. Charlotte Whitney can kiss her ass anyway.

 

2002

 

“Hello?”

 

“Billie Dean,” John’s voice sounds groggy behind the phone. Billie Dean checks the clock on her nightstand, it’s a quarter past 4 am. “It’s Heather.”

 

“What? Do you know what time it is?”

 

“I’m so sorry. Your mother couldn’t bare to call, understandably–”

 

“John, what about Heather?”

 

The line quiets, buzzes eerily. “She’s dead, Billie Dean,” he says, with something that could be easily mistaken as indifference if it weren't for the wet thickness in his voice. “My condolences, truly–”

 

Billie Dean hangs up in a daze, John’s consolations still bouncing within the walls of her mind. She lays back down, her heart thumping violently in her ears; without being able to close her eyes, she notices there’s a faint crack on her ceiling. If she stares very hard, for a minute too long, she’s convinced it resembles a wilted flower.

 

***

 

Home these days reeks of death. Unluckily, it has a dirty streak, a way of digging up the worst parts of Billie Dean, the saddest pieces of her life. 

 

She never thought she’d live to see the day of her sister’s funeral.  

 

It seemed to her, that Heather would live a happy, long, long life. Billie could always picture her as an old woman, with graying hair curled at the ends and bangs that framed her face in a way that made her chin look finely smaller. She could see her sniffing at her twin daughters’ college graduation and their respective weddings. She could picture her humming while putting the kettle on, sipping tea on cold mornings, sharing a soft breakfast with the man of her dreams, and laughing about how awful she cooked. Slow dancing with Chris on their 37 th wedding anniversary and falling in love all over again at their 40 th

 

Smiling, always smiling. Billie pictured her sister on Christmas mornings, an early riser to watch her grandkids tear through the gifts under the tree, excitedly showing the many toys to the adults. She could see her at winter recitals and spring recitals and experiencing the first day of school all over again. Spending summer weekends with her grandchildren, and Thanksgivings with her whole family. Billie Dean could picture her sister growing old, dying old.

 

Life had other plans for her. Apparently, Heather was alone in the house when it happened. Slipped. Cracked her skull. Chris had found her in a puddle of ruthless red. All those images in Billie’s head cruelly dashed and divided as much as Heather’s future.

 

Billie can’t bear the weight of knowing her sister died completely alone, when she always imagined her surrounded by people who loved her. 

 

28 is too young an age to die.

 

“For a moment I thought you weren’t coming.” A sweet voice, kind olive eyes glancing at Billie Dean. Heather’s hand is cold where she places it on her sister’s shoulder. Her whole presence cracks wildly, television static. A bittersweet dream, a wounded mirage.

 

“I thought about it, but I couldn’t do that. Not to you.” A pause. An acknowledgment on Billie’s part. Heather smiles at her sister and Billie Dean wants to scream. It makes her so angry . She decides to stay silent instead. 

 

“You were right. About Dad, I mean,” Heather says. “Were you always able to do this?”

 

“Speak with the dead?”

 

The older blonde hums, still wrapping her mind around the fact she’s now included in that list. The dead . What a wicked club.

 

“No, not always. Though looking back, the gift might have always been there.”

 

“Don’t tell momma, not about this.”

 

“I wouldn’t.” Her eyebrows tilt, in that very characteristic way that says I know this, you don’t have to remind me . Heather thinks Billie Dean is too crass; might be because she’s never able to keep her mouth shut; might be because she’s too crass. “She’s been through enough, no need to add to her sorrow.”

 

“I’m glad you’re here. I know you two don’t always get along, but I’m genuinely happy you made it, kid.”

 

Billie doesn’t have anything else to say to her sister. 

 

People trickle into the church gradually, footsteps heavy with distress, faces grey and sad. Women crying, blowing noses in handkerchiefs, men with serious faces, holding back tears, children laughing while others wail uncontrollably. The low hum of chatter is agonizingly woeful. Heather’s old classmates arrive in a flock, as was to be expected–it was natural, to move together, always together even after high school. Cheerleaders out of time, clinging to naive youth.

 

“Natalie’s dress is hideous,” Billie Dean comments and Heather is unable to stop the cackle that follows.

 

“You’re awful.” Both sisters observe Natalie (a scrawny looking woman that has always been as small and bony as she’d been in middle school), Heather looking for anything nice to say, to compliment. “It’s horrible, you’re right.”

 

They laugh again, deep and careless, like they used to, like they would’ve. They were always in sync, even if they were complete opposites.

 

“Michelle’s is pretty, though.”

 

“Yes, well, Michelle’s wardrobe has always been a dream.”

 

“Billie Dean, can I ask you something?” Heather waits for her sister’s nod of approval. “Did you and Nicole ever… you know.”

 

“Did you wait to die to ask me?”

 

Heather purses her lips. Her face has lost the glow to it, lost the pink undertones of her natural, ever present blush.

 

“We did. I was so in love with her,” Billie admits with a fond smile. She scans the group of women for Nicole, who stands with her back to them. Makes a mental note to catch her later. “It was strange because she was your best friend, and I was incredibly jealous. Can you believe that?”

 

“I thought so, but maybe I didn’t want to see it back then.”

 

“Mom wouldn’t have been too pleased to know that.” Billie grimaces, thinks of a scenario where Patricia found out about her sexuality. Shudders involuntarily. “She wanted- wants me to marry someone like Chris...”

 

As if on queue, Christopher and his twins walk in, teary eyed and blotchy. There’s a film of confusion ghosted over their little faces. At the sight of them, Heather’s face falls. The family looks incomplete, missing a puzzle piece, missing balance. Forever waiting for someone who will never come back to them.

 

“Please take care of them. Of Chris, of my children, please just–”

 

“Hey, it’s alright sweetheart.”

 

Heather’s throat bobs, suffocates on her sobs and the sound lacerates Billie’s heart. The crying is so strained and grievous, it’s surprising Billie isn’t crying too. After managing to wipe her sister’s tears away, she presses their foreheads together, whispers, “I will, I promise.”

 

“Tell them I love them. Please make sure they know I do.”

 

John beckons Billie Dean over, and her concentration is gone. Heather is gone. Patricia sobs softly, though her sadness is palpable in the air around her. Perched on her head is a huge hat, adorned with a feather and veil. Her mascara streaks. Disheveled and somehow composed, all at once. Billie almost expects her to bolt up and yell and howl and sob loudly and uncontained, until her throat gives out and her lungs are ultimately depleted: finally unhinged. Patricia doesn’t. Billie Dean sits beside her, takes her hand gingerly hoping to console her. They let the silence speak for itself. Wisps of Patricia’s strawberry blonde hair peek from under the hat when her shoulders shake. The tears don’t relent, prompting a fresh batch from Billie Dean’s own eyes and she finally lets them fall.

 

The ceremony goes by in a choked blur. Patricia wanted it be an open casket, Heather wearing a beautiful satin, flowered dress; her makeup done perfectly, her golden hair twisted into a loose braid. Heather looks ethereal, an angelic expression across her hardened face. The photograph they’d chosen manages to catch her spirit perfectly. Gorgeous. 

John’s eulogy is deeply personal, speaking of Heather in a way that would make anyone believe he’s her birth father. Christian cries through the whole thing alongside his kids.

 

Behind them, Billie hears someone say, “We were so close, best friends. I’ll miss her so much.” Lie . Heather had lost touch with pretty much everyone from high school. Her blood boils even hotter. “Poor Chris, how will he manage with two children?” She hears someone else whisper. “I heard he was cheating on her. Do you think he fucked the sister?” Go to hell .

 

Billie Dean doesn’t want to be here, surrounded by people who claim to have known her sister–because these aren’t the people who love her.

 

When it’s over, Patricia places a tender kiss on Heather’s forehead, one last time. Billie Dean remains in her seat, cross legged and bleary eyed, watching as Patricia desperately clings to her daughter’s dead body. Heather wraps a cold arm around Billie’s shoulders. It is then, and only then, that she manages to accept there’s no coming back from this; that this might be the last time she sees her sister. In all fairness, she’s not ready to let go. 

 

“You were so young, I’m so, so sorry Heather.”

 

“See you around, Billie Dean.”



2005

 

Craigslist is not ideal .

 

Billie Dean had been chosen, gifted, and thus, she deserves some respect.

 

All sort of people contact her. From the most looney woman claiming her cat’s possessed, to the sixty-two year old creep looking to get laid (no, thankyouverymuch ), to the couple looking for a threesome. People ask her for tarot readings and hints into their future; others dare to ask the most ridiculous questions (no, she does not have a crystal ball). There’s this soccer mom who believes she’s a magician and tries to hire the medium for her son’s seventh birthday party. Billie Dean’s awfully offended.

 

And, of course , there’s everyone else who believes Billie Dean is a sham; it bothers her, and it’s made even worse by the constant flow of hateful messages left in her inbox: Ghosts aren’t real, you peroxymoron! and, seriously the word medium and legitimate should not be used in the same sentence ; as well as, you contradict yourself by claiming to be an “expert” in the paranormal as there is no such thing as an expert in anything paranormal (to be clear, she never claimed to be an expert on anything, Jesus); to straight down being called a fake psychic (for crying out loud, is it that hard to wrap their mind around the concept of medium ?) Leaving behind her psychiatric career to focus solely on talking to spirits seems irrational still, reckless and meaningless and–

 

Craigslist is not ideal , but it’s all there is, for now. 

 

Soon enough, she’s being hired for the real thing. A woman calls the medium in hopes of contacting her recently deceased mother (surprisingly true. Billie had been skeptical at first). Then there’s an older man, Charles, claiming the spirit of his long-lost husband is still wandering the halls of their home in Malibu (turns out it wasn’t said husband, but another man Charles had never even met. Last owners of the house, Billie gathers). Her popularity is widespread, and though part of her is immensely happy her medium career is about to take off and be abundant, she’s mostly pleased to know–and she would never state this openly–she’s helping people reconnect with their loved ones. 

 

Lifetime rings her up for a meeting, they want to discuss the making of a brief segment on the local news. There’s nothing certain yet, it’s all tentative but the medium can’t deny she’s thrilled. Billie Dean Howard, medium to the stars ; sounds nice, doesn’t it? It has a particularly glamorous ring to it. Not an obnoxious thing Patricia would show off, but true, alluring captivation. 

 

Quickly, she grows to learn about the fragility of the barrier that divides the human world from the spirit realm; about the dangers withheld in the obscurity, awaiting to be set free, and the amount of willpower needed as to not fall head-first into it. Whenever she’s too close to the edge she can almost taste it, like black smoke clogging down her airway. Then there’s the light too; white and bright enough to keep her from falling deep where the living cannot follow.

 

Her whole life had been plagued with death. Followed by the grim reaper. Cursed with stolen pain and stolen memories of people long gone. Ghost stories aren’t just ghost stories anymore.

 

She meets Constance Langdon two and a half years later, and the world shifts under her feet. Billie Dean feels it, this inherent darkness, this magnetic pull toward something that can only be described as pure evil. Tangible, not easily manageable but tamed, confined. And amongst the darkness an unusual glimmer of hope–an anguished wail laced with deeply rooted grief. Wet, azure eyes pleading Billie Dean to come home. 

 

***

 

Thousands of ghosts in the darkness

Lost in a strange neighborhood

The lights from the warm houses haunt them

They forgot what they lost but they know it was good