Her mother sits down across from her. She isn’t supposed to be there. Mom and school are a Venn diagram whose meeting place should be limited to special events and birthdays. Today is neither and yet there her mother is in one of her flowing flower print dresses and her hair cascading in perfect waves down her back.
“Hi, sweetheart,” her mother says as if it were afternoon pick up. Jillian glances at the clock, but she knows it isn’t time for pick up. She has a very good sense of time. ‘Innate’. That’s the word her father uses.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” Jillian blinks at her mother as if she will disappear between open and shut and open again.
“Mrs. Mulligan called me,” her mother glances away at where Jillian’s teacher stands at the chalkboard. “She says you’ve been acting up.”
“I haven’t,” she says immediately. Though maybe she has been. Jillian has never gotten a satisfying definition for ‘acting up’. It often seems to include nearly everything worth doing.
“She says you got up and wrote strange figures on the board.”
“I had an idea,” Jillian frowned. “We were doing origami and the folds made me think of that book that I was reading.”
“Which book?” Her mother prods when Jillian pauses.
“The one that Dad got out of the library? But keeps not reading? The one about math in nature and the Fibonacci Spiral. So I started drawing it out the way it was in my head, but the paper was too small and she wasn’t using the board.”
Her mother studies her face and stands up slowly and walks to the board where Jillian’s scribblings still remain and first vain efforts at paper folding lie in the chalk tray. She makes a soft sound. She turns to Jillian’s teacher and asks a few questions. Then she shouts and Jillian jumps. Her mother never shouts. Her mother is a pacifist who believes strongly that loud noises can harm people’s auras. Her father says that her mother grew up in a yelling household.
But now her mother shouts and then she holds out her hand to Jillian.
“Come along, sweetheart.”
Jillian takes her mother’s hand and walks out of her kindergarten classroom. She never goes back. Instead, her mother takes her straight to the library and asks if they have any other books like the one Jillian had read. They do. Not a lot, but a smiling librarian offers a few in a narrow section of the 500s section of the Dewey Decimal system. Jillian memorizes the numbers on the spines. Memorizes the insides of all the books.
Her mother teaches her English and History at home. A tutor comes for math and science. First a high school kid, then a high school teacher and eventually, her mother scours the local universities and finds a woman in a pressed suit with owl glasses that’s willing to come and talk to a nine year old about math.
They meet at a cafe.
“I’m Dr. Gorin,” she holds out her hand and Jillian stares at it until her mother prods her to shake. “Professor of particle physics.”
“I’m Jillian Holtzmann. I like dart guns and math.”
“We’ll get along fine then.”
And they do.
Jillian’s favorite thing about Dr. Gorin is what she says when Jillian’s mother finally leaves them alone to use the bathroom. She takes off her owl glasses, folds them and sets them down next to the still full mug of coffee. She hasn’t so much as pretended to sip at it. Later, Jillian will find out that she doesn’t eat or drink anything unless she prepares it herself.
But in that moment, Jillian doesn’t care about the coffee because Dr. Gorin looks at her with a piercing gaze and says,
“Has anyone ever told out that you march to the beat of your own drum, Jillian?”
“Yeah,” she chews on the end of her bendy straw. “Almost everyone. Mom says it right before she says she’s reached the end of her rope. It’s a long rope though. There’s always more.”
“Yes. Your mother is patient,” Dr. Gorin pauses. “You don’t. March to a different beat. Or whatever cute phrase someone uses. What you are is this: deeply strange. You’re extremely smart and very very weird. If you wanted, you could go back to school. You could pay very close attention to what everyone around you is doing and you could try to emulate them. Eventually, you will probably succeed. You could be like everyone else. Perhaps shaded just enough to the left to be thought a class clown.”
“Oh,” Jillian licks her lips. “Um.”
“I think that would be a goddamn shame.”
“You swore,” Jillian’s heart beat faster.
“I did,” Dr. Gorin smiles very faintly. “Sometimes a swear is appropriate. You are a strange person Jillian Holtzmann. I hope very much that you choose to stay strange.”
She is only nine, but Jillian knows love when she feels it. She pledges her heart and soul to Dr. Gorin on the spot. She loves her with a deep abiding passion that only increases as they explore the boundaries of the physical world through their shared language of numbers.
Over the years, Jillian’s parents offer her the chance to go back to school. Public. Private. There are scholarships for people like her. But she does not go. She stays and learns what she can from her mother, who takes her to rallies and buys her combat boots when she asks for them. She learns from her father, who likes random facts and spends his weekends wrist deep in computer parts, building them up and tearing them down.
And she learns and learns and learns from Dr. Gorin.
She stays weird. She doesn’t really have to try very hard.
Eventually though, the world cannot be put off any longer.
“You need a degree from somewhere in something,” her parents insist in unison.
She wins a national science fair, though she is nearly arrested when they realize that her miniature nuclear reactor actually functions. It’s the first time she meets men in crisp black suits with badges shined to a mirror polish. A scholarship arrives in the weeks that follow and another and another and another.
She picks M.I.T. and leaves home with her mother’s duffel bag stuffed with clothes, a photograph of Dr. Gorin taken without her permission and the book about Fibonacci Spirals under one arm with her train ticket sticking out the top like a flag.
As soon as she meets her roommate, she knows nothing has changed from kindergarten. The girl is sweet. And studious. And after a week she clearly hates everything about Jillian, spends all her time avoiding her. Jillian loves the classes, her professors don’t mind when she argues for the most part as long as she doesn’t interrupt during the lecture. She figures that out after the fourth or fifth time.
She joins clubs and unjoins just as quickly. She builds a robot that smashes the boys’ bot to bits and instead of asking her questions about it, they turn hostile. She tries out for track and she’s fast enough, but the other girls frown when she tries to talk to them in the locker room.
Over winter break, she cuts off her long waves that remind her too much of her mother. The shorter, uneven locks leave her neck bare and vulnerable to the unforgiving winter, but she likes how it looks.
She calls Dr. Gorin, who unlike her parents does not ask her about friends or extracurriculars. They talk about what she’s learned, what she wants to do with it.
“I cut off my hair,” she tells her unexpectedly, then wonders why.
“Good. You have a face for short hair,” Dr. Gorin says as if it’s normal for them to discuss such things.
Jillian flushes in pleasure and looks at herself in the mirror. She loves Dr. Gorin. Will always love her. But for the first time, she actually stops and thinks about what that means. Dr. Gorin won’t love her back. Can’t. Dr. Gorin just isn’t built for that. Jillian might not know people, but she does know her mentor. And that’s what she will always be. Even if she does think that Jillian has a face for short hair.
“I think I’m gay,” the words come out like so many of Jillian’s words do: unprocessed, unfiltered as honest as they were unintended.
“That’s nice. Good for you?” Dr. Gorin clears her throat. “Well. What were you saying about quarks?”
Jillian smiles down at her broken fingernails. She’d said it as if it were a hypothesis. So maybe she should do some experimentation.
For someone who has never had a friend, Jillian finds getting laid remarkably easy. From the first time she walks into the right kind of bar, women are interested. They respond to her winks and smiles and think she’s ‘delightfully quirky’. They take her to their homes and into their beds for the night. She learns how to eat someone out so that they scream and shriek and pull at her hair. Her experiments produce the same results over and over. She loves women. Loves their taste and their curves in the palms of her hands. She particularly likes women who start the night buttoned down and end it melted and messy over their sheets.
Women like going home with Jillian.
She does not get to stay. They politely show her the door in the morning. She gets kissed on the cheek. They call her ‘sweet’, but she hears all the other words unsaid underneath them.
She likes sex. She does not like leaving in the morning. She wants to stay and eat breakfast in bed. She wants to linger and kiss someone with bad breath. She wants something...something intangible.
She graduates and her parents applaud. They hand her graduate school applications. She looks over the choices and chooses the smallest, weirdest school she can find. She camps out in labs and builds contraptions, mostly useless. She has more one night stands. For a month, she sleeps on a rooftop and eats nothing, but Velveeta and pop tarts. It’s like camping, but tastier.
“You have to write a thesis,” Dr. Gorin’s voice seems stretched thinner these days, drawn out over the miles and years separating them.
“They want me to write about theoretical things,” she complains. “I don’t care about theories.”
“Then build them something real, Jillian,” Dr. Gorin snaps. “But we’ve worked too long and too hard together for you to walk away without a PH.D.”
Jillian goes down to the lab that night. She thinks about particle physics and a beer flavored kiss. She thinks about drums and Dr. Gorin and the way life refuses to stand still.
So she builds a way to slow time. It works. It’s a beautiful machine. But she doesn’t protest when the men in black take it away. The hand her a diploma that’s fancier than her others and tell her that her dissertation was on string theory. Later, she searches and there is even a very convincing paper with her name on it in the database.
She has backup copies of the plans, of course. Because Jillian never forgets something she made. And now she has a degree and no job and she considers moving back home. She considers becoming a professor somewhere. She considers living on the roof again, but she doesn’t know the super at the building anymore.
“Are you Holtzmann?” A snub nose woman with her hair in a ratty bun and her eyes hidden behind clever glasses comes up to Jillian’s elbow while she contemplates her future sitting on a dumpster behind her favorite Denny’s.
“Yes,” she beats her heels against the metal.
“I’m Abby Yates,” she doesn’t hold out her hand. She’s not even really looking at Jillian, focused on some point at the end of the alley. It might be the place where Jillian has started a fire that flickers green and blue. “Did you really build a time dilation machine?”
“Might’ve,” Jillian leaps down in front of Abby. Abby doesn’t startle. She just grins.
“Weird question: do you believe in the paranormal?”
“Like what? That’s a big category. I like sasquatches, but I’m pretty sure those are just drunk guys in gorilla suits.”
“Ghosts,” Abby clarified. “Do you believe in ghosts?”
Jillian hums a few bars of ‘Thriller’ and does a half-decent moonwalk as she considers the question. Abby doesn’t roll her eyes or say anything. She waits.
“I could be persuaded,” Jillian finally allows.
“I have a job for you.”
The job is in a basement that smells like ripe gym socks and marijuana. Jillian loves it right away and sets up her workbench under the lone rectangular window. Abby doesn’t complain or set down rules. She lets Jillian eat over the equipment and sometimes even joins in the dance routines. They talk. Jillian never expected the talking.
At first it’s science. Paranormal. Abnormal. Even just...just the things Jillian likes. Abby asks hers about those. About the way energy comes apart and reforms. Abby barely seems to notice if Jillian lapses into rhyme or walks away mid-conversation.
“I think I made a friend,” Jillian tells her mother. Her mother is less responsive these days. The gravestone doesn’t have her mother’s smile, doesn’t remember her shapeless dresses.
Her mother’s death surprises Jillian over and over again. She went to live on a roof to avoid it, so the funeral happened without her. Her father says it was nice. The gravestone doesn’t call her sweetheart or hold her hand. Sometimes Jillian forgets for weeks that her mother is gone and out of reach. Sometimes she thinks about it every second of every day. But time ticks on with or without her remembering.
“Why do you want to believe in ghosts?” She asks Abby while she solders one night. What she wants to ask is if she Abby also has dead people that hang around in her head, cropping up when she least expects it, but she doesn’t know how to put words to that.
“Because this can’t be all there is,” Abby says. And she doesn’t sound like confident, bold Abby. She doesn’t sound like the Abby who stares down misbehaving students and berates everything that fails to live up to her expectations. She sounds like an Abby, who is very young and small and wants someone to tell her she’s strange.
Or maybe that’s just what Jillian hears. She knows she hears things that aren’t there sometimes.
But after that night they don’t just talk about science.
“You ever been in love, Holtzmann?” Abby asks her after they split the tequila worm in half, the bottle dead between them. They lie on the floor of a supposedly haunted conservatory, looking up at the sparkle of blurring stars.
“Once,” she admits.
“What’s it like?” Abby asks.
“Like swallowing sodium bicarbonate,” she ventures, unsure about being the expert in this particular field.
“That’s how it starts,” she beats a tattoo against her stomach, the hollow ‘thunk thunk’ rattling her bones. “I don’t know how it ends. If it does. But she doesn’t love me back. So.”
“So,” Abby agrees with a sigh. “Do you want to fall in love?”
Does she? The question comes apart in Jillian’s mind. It falls ragged and meaningless to the floor. She doesn’t want things, generally. She does things. Things happen to her. Wanting seems beside the point.
“Do you?” Abby has taught her this trick at least. Most questions asked are ones the asker wishes they were asked. It’s slippery, a little, but not dishonest.
“Not really,” Abby says. “I don’t want anyone.”
It’s not hard to believe her. Abby focuses. On ghosts. On her book. On being mad at a woman that Jillian has never met or seen outside a single photo on a book jacket. She does not focus on men or women. She notices men occasionally, but it’s mostly quick and gone.
Jillian goes right on noticing women. They notice her back. For a little while. She even has a girlfriend for an entire two weeks until she doesn’t answer a series of text messages because she’s busy fixing their EVP recorder and scrounging for parts at the scrap yard. It turned out Laura wanted to meet for drinks. It turned out that being ‘unresponsive and withholding’ were on Laura’s list of turn offs.
Jillian doesn’t call Dr. Gorin. She writes her long rambling emails about her work and Dr. Gorin writes back precise suggestions neither approving nor disapproving about the turn Jillian’s work has taken. Her father buys a houseboat. Her mother is still dead. Ghosts continue not to exist.
“You need to take the book off the internet,” a woman in a crisp suit and an interesting shirt walks into the lab.
She looks a little like the picture. Jillian tries a few of her usual moves, but then Erin is unkind to Abby. Abby gets that small look and Jillian plays the fart noise. She pokes and prods at Erin. She films her getting covered in slime and posts it on the internet. Jillian knows all about tenure.
She does not apologize. Not even when all the bridges are mended. All is forgiven, but Jillian never forgets.
“Hey, Holtzmann, are you okay?” Erin frowns at her over their third round of beer.
“Peaches and cream.” Jillian shoots finger guns at her. Peggy and Abby are drawing elaborate diagrams over a map of the city.
“It was nice meeting your mentor today. You and her are a lot alike.”
Are they? Jillian thinks about Dr. Gorin studying her machines, there and in person, so alive and present for the first time in years. She says she came this way for a conference and she shows up to touch all of Jillian’s things. Jillian is nine and nineteen again and also somehow twenty-nine still all at once. Her heart still beats faster as Dr. Gorin talks about improvements and praises Jillian’s designs.
“I have to go,” Dr. Gorin announces when all the other women pour in and start making their beautiful cacophonous white noise that balms Jillian’s soul. But she can see it does not do the same for Dr. Gorin.
They do not hug. They do not shake hands. But Dr. Gorin gives her a smile that is nearly warm.
“I like your friends,” she says. “They suit you.”
Patty is the one that sees Jillian watch Dr. Gorin leave. Sees the way Jillian stays in the door long after she’s gone.
“C’mon,” Patty takes her arm and leads her to the bar that’s become their local.
Abby and Erin show up later. They do multicolored shots. Fire green and cool red liquors that settle into Jillian’s stomach uneasily. They roil there even when they’re safely back in the fire station.
Jillian tinkers with her nutcracker and that’s when Erin asks her if she’s okay. Tells her she’s like Dr. Gorin.
“No,” Jillian finally replies. “She’s like herself and I’m like me.”
Jillian hates that. She hates that Erin’s learned to wait the way Abby does. The way Patty does.
They’ve all learned to wait for her and it’s so annoying she could scream and so nice and understanding that she wants to burrow under the floorboards and never come back out. She wants to tell them all that she’s present in this moment and waiting makes her brain catch up with the future and she hates that. Hates consequences and sequential timelines.
She built a time dilation machine once. She could do it again and freeze herself inside, an oasis of making while the world deals with itself. But then she would have no one to talk to, pauses and all. She likes looking up from her work and seeing Patty reading a thick dusty book or texting furiously. She likes Abby’s trusting hand on her newest weapon. She likes...she likes almost all of Erin.
Erin has big wet eyes and steady hands. She has yet to make it through a single bust without winding up filthy. Her tidy suits have disappeared one by one, replaced by more practical things. First it’s slacks and ruffled front shirts like she’s stepped out of a time machine or something. Those get toasted too. She still wears her nice things out, but now....
The longer they all live in the firehouse, the more their things muddle up and right now she’s wearing jeans with oil spots that might’ve been Jillian’s once and a t-shirt with a faded M.T.A. logo on one pocket. Her hair is pulled back with a scrunchie that might’ve been Abby’s.
She waits for Jillian with her hands folded in her lap and her eyes darting from machine to machine. This is Jillian’s lab and while Abby may wander and pick things up, asking questions, Erin never does. She holds herself in tightly and waits for Jillian to hand her things. To explain.
Today Jillian doesn’t want to explain. But she’s never been good at stopping up her mouth.
“She’s my mentor,” Jillian wires the wrong two things together. She has to undo them. “Fuck.”
Erin blinks, startled as a deer in headlights. “You swear?”
“Everyone swears,” Jillian pushes back her goggles.
“You’re not okay,” Erin decides. “Here.”
She produces a bag of kettle corn seemingly from nowhere. She puts it into Jillian’s hand and closes her fingers around it. Then she gets up and leaves her alone.
The popcorn is perfect. She eats it in a state of stunned confusion.
Patty looks up from her book when Jillian starts licking her fingers clean.
“Did we not feed you enough today? Are you going to start performing autocannibalism?”
“No,” Jillian grins at her. “I think I made something that might made more of a medium-high poof.”
“Might?” Patty slides a take out receipt into her book. “How much might?”
“Medium-high, I told you.”
The rest of the evening is orange smoke and perfectly soldered wiring.
They take down a level four at Jillian’s favorite bar. She stays after, proton pack and all, sips her way through a cocktail while a flock of women ask her questions. She’s a ghostbuster and no one is immune to that kind of cool. They buy her drinks. The other busters hang around at their own table. Patty and Abby sit closer and closer together, sending out unavailable signals like beacons. But Erin doesn’t blink. She stares at Jillian like she can see through her coveralls and duct tape to where her heart pumps uneven spurts of blood through her tired body.
“You’re not going home with that one?” Abby asks as a pretty redhead waves good night and Jillian heads for the door.
“Sometimes you gotta let ‘em swing,” she mutters, fingering her belt loop before hooking her finger into it.
Abby hooks her arm into Jillian's’. They walk home. Behind them, Patty and Erin debate the merits of mustard versus ketchup on hotdogs. Their arguments mix together. Jillian isn’t sure who’s arguing for what. Jillian eats her hotdogs buried in sauerkraut, but she’s not in the mood to argue condiments. She just leans into Abby and listens.
They walk up to the third floor segmented now into mini-apartments for each of them. Since Jillian is the official ghostbusters alarm clock (she sleeps the least and consumes the most caffeine), she has been inside all of them.
Patty’s is Jillian’s favorite. Patty drapes fabric over the windows so the sunlight comes in tinted orange and pink. She has her earrings hung on a metal sculpture of a tree like they’re fruit and there are stacks of books by her bedside that she has to step over to fling herself on her mattress. Patty let’s Jillian sun herself in the square of pink-orange light of the late afternoon as long as she doesn’t touch the books or the earrings. The floor smells like pine and Dior.
Abby’s space is a carefully controlled chaos of figurines and notebooks. There may or may not be a rabbit in a cage somewhere in there. Abby claims it’s so, but no one has ever seen so much as a hair. But Abby buys rabbit food and it goes somewhere. Jillian prods her awake with a stick she leaves by the door, certain that she will step on the wrong floorboard and bring ten pounds of Hummel figurines down on her head.
Erin’s room is bare. She has three photos on her nightstand. Her bed is white on white with a beige cover. Her clothes are tucked neatly away or in the hamper. She only ever has a single book, her laptop and one notebook on display at anytime. It’s restful and upsetting and Jillian always makes a lot of noise when she wakes Erin up. It doesn't matter. Erin always wakes up by cracking one eye at her, nodding and then sitting stiffly up as if someone has plugged in an automaton.
No one comes into Jillian’s room. That’s where she goes when they get back from the bar. Her lab is her home, where she eats and usually sleeps, but her room is sanctum sanctorum. The bed is practically forgotten, shoved under the mock window with it’s painted scene of Central Park.
Here Jillian is surrounded by her machine. The intricate humming sprawl that runs it’s endless circuit of movement. It’s a Rube Goldberg monstrosity that serves no purpose, yet she adds to continuously. It ticks and whirs and hums and keeps her enclosed in it’s electric embrace. No one comes into her room because they think it will explode.
So Jillian goes there and sits on the floor and bounces a rubber ball with one hand and sketches designs with the other and sips an energy drink from the novelty hat she stole from a baseball game years ago. The machine clicks and whirs around her, sending marbles cascading from route to route.
There’s a knock. Jillian frowns.
“What?” She barks.
The door opens and Erin steps inside. She comes in like she’s been here a dozen times. Slips between the low hanging stalactites of aluminum and sparks. She hops over the train track and nimbly avoids the bubbling crude in its glass cylinder. In a very Erin way, she folds herself down small beside Jillian. She says nothing. She’s watching the progress of the machine.
The sketch takes form on the paper. It’s not a device, per se. It’s not even a whole thought yet. Just the tease of an idea. This time she waits. But Erin never does say a word. She just falls asleep, her head heavy on Jillian’s shoulder.
Jillian stares at her, sniffs her hair. It smells like the discharge of the proton pack. After a while, Jillian’s ass hurts from sitting on the floor too long. So she drags Erin up with her and tumbles them both into bed. Erin doesn’t quite wake up. Just rolls and sets her head back on Jillian’s shoulder like it’s magnetized there.
Over the bed, the electric train zips back and forth. A cuckoo clock chimes.
Jillian sleeps. When she wakes up, Erin is still there. She’s sitting up. She has one of Patty’s books on her lap and she’s wearing different clothing and her hair is wet. Jillian tries to make sense of that.
“Eat this,” Erin puts a hot pocket in Jillian’s hand. Everyone knows that Jillian cannot refuse a hot pocket and it’s their go-to when the amount of food she’s eaten doesn’t add up to the amount of days gone past.
She eats it and Erin starts to read to her. The words don’t seem to matter much, a drift of names and dates and battles that pushed immigrant groups across the island they call home. Erin’s voice is even and quiet, barely audible over the noise of the machine. Jillian licks her fingers clean and when she looks up, Erin closes the book.
“Hey, Gilbert.” Jillian blinks at her. Her goggles are on the floor and her eyes hurt a little already. She needs that filter to take out the harsh blues of the world. But right now, she likes seeing Erin’s naked face, unmarred by bright lipstick or amber tint.
“There was a girl in college,” Erin sets the book down on the floor. She has to lean over Jillian to do it. Now she smells like Erin, Herbal Essence shampoo and the same laundry detergent they all share. She got up sometime this morning. She showered. She changed. She climbed back into bed with Jillian. “For a few months.”
“Oh,” Jillian follows the line of Erin’s back as she sits back up, the swing of her hair over her shoulder.
“You’re a very strange person,” Erin continues as if the two thoughts are meant to meet in the middle. “And Abby loves you like a sister. And we’re colleagues.”
“Those are the facts as I understand them,” Jillian knits her eyebrows together.
“Hypothesis,” Erin spreads out on hand as if giving a lecture. “We would be compatible in bed together. But there are mitigating factors as stated.”
Oh. Oh. Oh. Jillian smiles, she knows it’s not her most appealing come hither smile. It’s a manic, Monster fueled smile. It’s electricity at her fingertips and static in her hair.
“Experimentation is a necessary step,” she gets up on her knees and sits on her ankles.
“But what if everything goes poof afterwards?” Erin bites her lip.
Consequences. Future. Time dilation. Jillian takes in a breath and lets it out in a slow deflation.
“I’m good at explosions,” Jillian says with care. “But I’m also good at repair.”
Erin nods. Her teeth release her lip. It’s red now and a little puffy. Jillian bends forward and Erin meets her halfway.
She shows Erin how good she is at explosions with no detonator, but her own hands and tongue. She’s proud of the way Erin goes loose afterwards, and takes her time kissing the hollow of her hip, the slight curve of her stomach. Jillian memorizes Erin’s freckles and the tickle of her pubic hair against her palm. Jillian never forgets.
They stay in bed all day. They eat from the snacks that Jillian has ferreted in every corner. They talk about string theory and dark matter. Erin proves she knows how to cause explosions too. They only emerge long after the others have gone to bed. They shower together, slippery and giggling, Erin seizing Jillian’s hair in her hands and scrubbing it clean until it sticks up in a thousand directions.
Erin doesn’t leave the next day. She doesn’t go back to her own quiet room. Patty and Abby side-eye them. Say nothing. Say nothing.
A week goes by. Two. Three. Erin starts touching Jillian during the day. A hand at the small of the back as she eases by. A brush of the lips over Jillian’s chin before Jillian goes out to scavenge. A sideways hug when Jillian presents her with an improved version of the ghostpuncher (patent pending).
“You good?” Abby asks over a shared enormous pretzel at 2am. They’re both covered in ectoplasm. Erin and Patty are shaking down the client for payment.
“Uh huh,” she watches the salt rain down on the pavement.
“She’s good to you?” Abby offers her a paper cup of mustard. Jillian dunks into it.
“C’mon,” Jillian grumbles and shoves the pretzel into her mouth so she can’t say anything else.
Patty doesn’t actually ask. She sits closer. She talks about her last boyfriend being a shit. She pokes at things until Jillian slaps at her hands. She’s just there, in her space. Making sure.
They do the same thing to Erin in reverse. Jillian knows because Erin tells her with a laugh.
The center holds. And holds.
Until even Jillian has to admit that maybe there’s more to it. That maybe Erin isn’t stuck in the experiment phase and that one must draw a conclusion from the casual pecks and the second body in her narrow bed.
She calls Dr. Gorin. Because her mother is dead and her father is finding himself on the other side of the world. Because there are no childhood friends and her family already knows.
Dr. Gorin needs to hear it.
“Hello, Jillian,” the line goes live and Jillian smiles down at her oil stained fingertips. They’re manicured now. On request. Painted a neon green because Patty had been bored while Jillian took a quick worktable nap. Abby had written a reminder on her index finger to buy milk when she went out.
“Hi, Dr. Gorin,” she ran a hand through her hair. “I was wondering if you’d be in New York again anytime soon?”
“I didn’t have plans, but I’ll look into it. Why?”
“I want you to meet my girlfriend.”
There’s a pause and she waits, chest tight.
“I would like that,” Dr. Gorin says at last. “Very much.”
So would Jillian. They make a plan. They set a date. She puts it on the calendar so everyone can see it. Abby decides to bake a cake for the occasion and it turns out that she’s a terrible baker, but Kevin is actually pretty good. Even if he does spell ‘Welcome’ wrong.
And he puts candles in it.
But the candles are actually sort of festive. They have dinner right there in the firehouse staff room on a table with a scavenged table cloth (Jillian), Thai take out that’s still hot and delivered on time (Erin), matching silverware and plates (Patty), and wine (Abby). Kevin’s cake sits at the center, blazing prettily. Dr. Gorin claps Jillian on the shoulder and sits next to her to the right while Erin presses close on the left. The two of them talk over her head about the absurdity of tenure and glass ceilings. Patty one-ups them with tales of sexual harassment underground and Abby tells increasingly absurd stories about their old college (most of which are true).
Jillian vibrates at a new frequency. She resonates with the brick of the building and the warm bodies on either side of her. She eats an entire plate of noodles and four spring rolls without tasting any of it.
On her way out, Dr. Gorin studies her face,
“I’m proud of you.”
“Dr. Gorin,” she pants, knocked breathless, suckerpunched in a good way.
“I think, Jillian, that you’d better call me Rebecca now,” she says.
“No,” Jillian grins at her. “You’re always my Dr. Gorin.”
And to her surprise, Dr. Gorin grins back and gives her a very stiff hug before walking out into the night.
Erin slides up behind her, wraps arms around her waist and hooks her chin over Jillian’s shoulder. They watch Dr. Gorin leave together.
“I like her,” Erin says.
“I love you,” Jillian blurts.
Erin pauses. She waits. But there’s nothing to add. Nothing else to say about that. It just is. That’s how Jillian falls in love. With certainty and no net to catch her. And it never stops.
With a gentle tug, Erin spins her around. She studies Jillian’s face and then she leans up and kisses her.
“I love you too.”
They land in bed, the great machine humming around them.
No one, not even Erin, ever quite gets around to asking Jillian why she loves ghost hunting so much. Maybe they’re afraid to ask. Maybe they think it’s obvious that she loves making things and kicking ass. Maybe Abby suspects that Jillian agreed all those years ago because she didn’t know what else to do. Maybe Patty thinks that Jillian is pretty paranormal herself. Maybe Erin thinks it’s her own sad little girl story of finding family.
Jillian doesn’t ask them what they think. She doesn’t really care.
She builds traps and weapons. She makes love to her girlfriend. To her wife eventually. She stays strange.
And if, deep down, she wonders if she’ll ever see her mother sit down across from her at a table again and call her sweetheart. If she imagines putting Erin’s hand in hers and holding her mother’s hand and walking away from the dense absurdity of everyday requirements. If that’s true then it’s only hers to know.
She loves her life. She loves this moment and the next. She drinks and eats and fucks and laughs and makes and makes and makes.
She is Jillian. She is Holtzmann. She dances the goddamn body electric.