“You wanna hear how I know there’s something after you die?”
I didn’t. It was the night after our best friend’s funeral. Anna Tavera. Car flipped on a wet road. Dead instantly, age twenty nine. That was the news report, and forever how I’ll remember it.
The service was nice, but the wake was better, good music and good fucking food, just like Annie would have wanted.
Now it was just Stella and me, drinking the dark away at my place.
It had been fun at first, the hysterical sort of fun only two kids who’d known each other thirty years can have, reliving their youth in honour of a bitch that by all rights should still be here, draining a bottle with us.
Then, around 2am, the mood shifted.
It was something about the rain. Florida rain, and the swamp heat, and the sinister song of cicadas in the night. But it was the rain most of all, the relentless fucking dirge of it.
You could feel things were about to turn, and they did.
Stella went to smoke a cigarette on the back porch, loitering barefoot in a tank top and cut off shorts, a cheap crucifix around her neck she’d shoplifted from a gas station as a teenager. She still looked that age, bleach-haired and freckled, except for the bags under her eyes. We’ve all got those, now, even Marianne, who’s so gorgeous we all just about want to beat her face in when we take selfies with her.
But Stella. I never knew she had a darkness in her till that night, swaying in the doorway, blowing smoke rings out into the rain.
Afterwards I’d wonder how I’d ever missed it, how I’d never seen the bleak, twitching, haunted cast of her eyes, always mistaking it for something else.
“You wanna hear how I know there’s something after you die?” she asked me, and I shook my head.
I didn’t want to think of Anna in the afterlife, Heaven or Hell or whatever the fuck else there was out there. I only wanted to remember her as she’d been, big haired and beautiful, always finding a song in her for any situation, and always getting half the lyrics wrong.
That was Anna, not the ripped up thing pinned together in a pine box by some poor fucker who’d done their best, and probably had nightmares about it afterwards.
“So,” said Stella, scattering ash on the wet lawn, “I know there’s something after you die because every anniversary of the day my ex boyfriend killed himself he comes back.”
“Stop that,” I said, with a groan, but there was no laughter in her, only a strange, dour certainty.
“I’m not kidding, Mel,” she insisted. “You remember Devon Carey?”
“I think so,” I said, although I didn’t.
Stella always had some new boyfriend or other, all of them assholes. I tried to forget them as quick as I could, and I figured she did too.
“You do not remember him,” said Stella, and snorted, an ugly, drunken, mirthless sound. “I never even told you I was seeing the guy. He was such a loser, I was scared you’d laugh in my face, or something.”
“Yeah, I probably would’ve,” I said, fondly, and then I was laughing, too, if only to break the tension a little.
“Anyway,” said Stella, after I’d caught my breath. “Devon. What a fucking guy. I was nineteen when he drowned himself in the Peroke River. Took a bunch of pills, God knows what, and jumped right in. Left me a bunch of voice messages just before that didn’t make any fucking sense, so I don’t really know why he did it. Guilt, maybe.”
“Guilt?” I asked, mostly because I felt like I had to.
I didn’t want to know about Devon Carey. I didn’t want to think about death at all, just drink until the sun came up, and all this felt a little less real.
Stella turned her head and gave me an odd look.
“Devon used to hit me, sometimes,” she said, softly. “Never told you that, either. He used to cry, afterwards. Told me his uncle did stuff to him, and that was why… so I’d hold him, make him feel okay again. But it never stopped him doing what he did, when he was mad at me. Some days even when I didn’t do a damn thing to deserve it. I kinda wanted him dead sometimes, you know?”
My stomach turned over and over itself, like one of those nasty looking bristle devices at the car wash. Still, I didn’t say a word, tongue locked down in disbelief that Stella had kept a secret like that for so long.
“So when they dragged Devon out of the Peroke,” she said, drawing on her cigarette, “I was, you know, not happy but… something like that. Didn’t feel bad about it, or anything. I was just done. Got on with things, lived my life. Then, a year later, June 7th, the same day he died. That’s when it happened.”
A sick pulse washed down over both my shoulders and down my back, and still I asked the obvious question.
“What? What happened?”
Stella grinned, showing teeth that had never quite aligned even after braces.
“Devon came back to me. In the night, he came back, crawling up in bed all over me, like he’d always done. Maybe he even came into my room through the window the way he used to, so my Dad wouldn’t find out. I was only half-awake; guess I forgot he was dead, because for a little while I just let him do his thing.”
She did a sort of sensual movement about her hips, but it was jerking and disturbed, like one of those animatromics they have in museum features sometimes to get a kick out of the tourists.
“Then I remembered,” she said. “I remembered he was dead. That they’d pulled him, bloated and gnawed at by gators out of the Peroke. That I’d gone to identify him because his Mom was dead, and his Dad was out of town, and his uncle wouldn’t come when they asked him. But it was Devon alright, there in bed with me. I could even smell the river on him. The rot.”
Lightning clenched a white fist across the sky, and Stella shivered. In the kitchen, fanning myself in the humidity, somehow I shivered too.
“You’re kidding,” I said, faintly. “You are, aren’t you?”
Wrapping skinny arms around herself Stella shook her head.
“Nope. I can smell it now just thinking about it. Feel his skin on me, wet and sort of pulpy, like fungus under a log. When he climbed over me I even felt the scratch of bone where one leg had come off because the animals got to him before the cops did. It was Devon, and he was dead, and he was fucking me.”
I mopped sweat off my forehead with the back of my hand.
“Shit is right,” said Stella, with a lipless smile. “I couldn’t get him off me; I couldn’t move. Locked in, like people get with sleep paralysis, only I wasn’t dreaming. The sheets were damp and reeking next morning, and the floor and window were stained with fuck knows what from his body. He was really there, and I had to lie there like I was a stiff myself until he rolled off, and suddenly he was gone. Guess the dead can do that, if they want to. Just… go.”
We stood in silence for a minute, me pouring another shot of vodka into my drink, Stella flicking her smoked-down cigarette butt off the porch, and sparking up another. Lord knows how she looked so young, always smoking like that, like a little girl wrapped up in a grown woman’s body.
“The next year it happened again,” said Stella, suddenly. “That time I slept with the light on, seeing as I thought it must have been some nightmare. It stopped feeling so real, after a while, or I told myself it did. I thought the lamp— the light— it would make me feel better. Stop me thinking about it all. Keep him away. Stupid of me. Stupid.”
Stella shook her head, strands of platinum hair clinging to her cheek with sweat, or blown in specks of rain.
“Around the time Devon drowned that night I woke up to him on top of me again, cold and slimy as a fish turned belly up in the tank. Only with the light on I saw how he looked that way, too, grey and filmy-eyed, river weed wound all around his neck. Dirt in his teeth. And I couldn’t scream, I couldn’t fight him. I was stuck there, just like before.”
I hated the way I could see it clearer than she described it, tungsten light yellowing the dead boy’s stare, the blind sureness of his hands upon her.
Suddenly I wanted to pour my drink down the drain and sober up, but I didn’t. I knocked back my glass and started again fresh, stronger this time, harsh as sheep dip.
“Stella, why didn’t you say something about all this before?” I asked, although I knew.
All of us, Anna, Marianne, the rest, we would have rolled our eyes and blamed it on the booze, or written down the names of doctors we knew that handed out Prozac like Monopoly money. The only reason I believed Stella then was that death felt so close that night that it was like a third person in the room with us, nodding along with the tale.
Staring out into the back yard, Stella said, “I didn’t want anybody to know. I thought I was going crazy. I tried going to church more, hanging up more religious stuff in my room, closest thing to an exorcism I had without spilling my guts out. Like how do you go up to a priest and say, ‘hey Father, once a year my dead boyfriend sleeps with me, how about that?’ without sounding like some sort of nutjob pervert? You can’t. I couldn’t.
“So I didn’t talk about it. I pushed it down and down in my head so I didn’t even think about it. But it didn’t stay down there. That was the problem.”
Thunder moaned in the night, so soft you wouldn’t know there was a storm at all but for the lightning, and the rain.
Stella said, “The third time Devon came I’d moved out of my Dad’s house, got my own place with my new boyfriend, Terry. You actually knew the guy; he was always getting too drunk at parties, and you got so sick of it you started giving him non-alcoholic beer.”
“Yeah,” I said, softly. “And he thought it was the best shit he’d ever tasted. Still acted just as crazy as before. Dumbass.”
“Such a dumbass,” Stella echoed, and nearly smiled. “Well, Terry was with me the night Devon paid me a visit. I thought, hey, maybe if he’s here nothing’s gonna happen. I was wrong.”
“Jesus Christ,” I muttered, and looked at the bottom of my glass with a kind of useless horror, as though somehow it was to blame for all of this.
Stella bent down to pick up her own vodka, slopping a little of it over the rim. She licked the dribble off her wrist with the white-pink tip of her tongue, and it occured to me that I ought to sober her up, end this awful, broiling tension.
In the end I just stood and listened, the way she wanted me to.
“Terry was coming back from the john when he saw him,” said Stella. “I remember my head was turned on one side, just locked there; I was lay there facing him when he just stopped in the doorway, all lit up red and white by the TV. Twin Peaks was on, that weird old show. We had the boxset; Terry was all for that cult stuff, and I’m kind of a David Lynch nut, too. I remember lying there, hearing that creepy music, feeling Devon moving on top of me, cold and dripping river water all down my forehead, into my eyes. I couldn’t even blink it away.”
Stella glanced down at the lawn, seeming mesmerised by the way the puddles in the sparse grass took their thrashing from the rainfall.
“Terry just stood in that doorway,” she said, “just looking, and looking, and I was thinking to myself I’d never seen another person really scared out of their mind before, because I always thought it’d be more dramatic. But really it was like that dumb old movie, where people got buried alive in hot wax, and the only thing they could move was their eyes. Just like his. They were so big, and white, and afraid, and he was crying a little; I don’t even think he noticed he was doing it.”
“So what did he do?” I asked. “Didn’t he try to help you?”
Immediately I wished I could take it back, for Stella started shaking like a dog before a quake. Shaking like death himself had her by the shoulders, rattling the rest of the story out of her.
“He left me,” she said, her voice high pitched and infantile in her distress. “Terry left me. Ran out of the house, right there in the middle of the night while Devon was still there in the room. Later on I tried to call him, but he blocked my number and never talked to me again. We were done, just like that. Lord knows what he tells people about that night. Guess he lets them think I cheated on him, or something.”
Stella took a deep breath that broke in about six places, a staccato rhythm. Then she seemed to compose herself, consoled by the anger, an easier emotion than betrayal, or grief, or fear. Rage makes you strong, if only for a little while. It makes you hard.
“Anyway,” said Stella. “Terry seeing Devon with his own eyes meant he really did come back. That he wasn’t a dream, or something I made up. He was… he was a presence, I think some people call it. But when I went to look at Devon’s grave one time it wasn’t dug up or disturbed, like I thought it might be, from him crawling his way up out of there. Maybe that’s because he comes from somewhere else just one night of the year, and goes back to that place, afterwards.”
“Where?” I asked.
Stella gave me a bleak look.
“You know where.”
We both glanced downwards, and for a second I was convinced that I could feel it, Hell, all the voices and movement and hollow echoes of unlife churning like worms under our feet.
Now I figure I was just drunk, and in mourning, and hurting for a whole other reason than I’d started with when I got up that day.
“The year after that I tried to enjoy it,” said Stella. “Take the power back, all that dumb stuff. But I just couldn’t. I couldn’t make myself like it. I didn’t even like him when I was alive; how the hell was I supposed to start now?”
She scrubbed a fist at one teary eye, smearing black liner into the socket, like a gunshot. Then was quiet a moment, swaying as though to the music of the rain.
“Most years after that I took to drinking, when June 7th came around. Drinking myself into the black so I wouldn’t wake up, when he got there. I’d always know he’d been by; I’d smell him on me, see the mold on the sheets. But I wasn’t there for it, you know? And that made it easier.
“Still, even though I checked out my body remembered. Sometimes, in the middle of some random day I’d think about the waterbeetles under his tongue, or the mud under his fingernails, and I was just… cracking. But I think I hid it okay, most of the time.”
I raised my shoulders in a useless shrug.
“I mean, I had no idea. I feel like shit.”
Had I really not known? Or was it that I hadn’t wanted to see the glaze that rolled over those big brown eyes, sometimes, like she was watching a movie inside her own head?
I guess I saw something, a shadow moving between the curtains, beyond the window of her. I guess I saw and then unsaw it just as fast, because that was easier than asking what was really there, and blowing the dust off the back of the secrets Stella had locked up for so long.
“I’ve tried a lot of different stuff, over the years,” she said, abruptly. “Coping mechanisms, curse breakers. Anything to avoid Devon, see if I could shake him off. I tried staying in motels— he’d still find me. Staying up all night, not going to sleep… I’d close my eyes for one minute and he’d be there, even if I wasn’t home, and I’d be just as stuck as I was the first night. I don’t want to know if anyone else ever saw him. They never tried to help, if they did.”
As Stella glanced over her shoulder at me I looked away, tracing the lightning’s path across the sky until the pattern imprinted itself under my eyelids like grooves in a dead man’s palm.
“So I held onto it all,” said Stella. “Asked myself what I’d done to deserve it, when I’ve always tried to be a good person. Was it because I ignored Devon’s calls and voice messages the night he killed himself? He’d hit me that same day, bounced my head off a doorframe after I said I wanted to break it off. I mean, why would I talk to him? Why would I put myself through that shit?”
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” I said, firmly, and Stella flapped a hand loosely at me.
“I know, I know, and thank you, Melly, but that’s kind of the point. For a while there I blamed myself for him coming back. When you make yourself responsible for something that gives it a reason, one that makes sense to you. Thing is, I knew why Devon did all that stuff when he was alive, and even though he was sorry sometimes he never said the shit I needed him to. He never said, ‘hey, I hit you because I’m fucked up on the inside, because of this bad thing somebody else did to me. Because you’re smaller than me, and you’re soft, and nice, and I don’t respect you enough not to use that against you.’ I always wanted him to say something like that.”
“But he never did,” I said, and Stella coughed out a dry laugh.
Another pause, both of us watching the night sky ripped apart by savage lightning. I thought I could smell it, through the rain, where it had hit trees somewhere and set them alight.
“Funny, though, isn’t it,” said Stella, “how even the dead don’t go after the right people, put things right the way they should? So I decided to do it for him.”
Something cold turned over inside me.
“God, Stell. What? What did you do?”
“I drove my truck across state looking for Devon’s Uncle Mick. See, I’d asked around town, found a guy who said Mick had moved to a trailer park somewhere. I took my Dad’s shotgun with me; he leaves it at my place when he goes on trips, always says someday I’ll need it. Kind of a laugh. I never thought he’d be right.”
A finger of sweat traipsed my clammy neck, and when I went forward to take Stella’s drink from her she twisted past me, re-filling from a bottle on the counter top.
“It was good for me, going out there,” she said, leaning her back against the stove. “Driving around playing Lana, and Amy Winehouse, Fiona Apple through the speakers, just me and all my thoughts, but in a good way. Had time to ready myself, get in the right frame of mind, for when I found him. And I did find him. Wasn’t so hard.
“Mick’s trailer was out on its own down a dirt road, not a park at all. He was sitting out front on a fold out chair, looking about ten years older than he was. Nearly no hair. Cataracts practically double glazed. Drinking whiskey, slapping the love bugs off his arms, and cussing up a storm. He didn’t look much like Devon, but you could tell they were related. Same demeanour.”
I took Stella’s place on the porch, wanting fresh air, finding nothing of it. What rolled in from the rain was muggy and foul, like dog breath, or sewer heat. Like a river where a dead boy had lain until police divers found him.
“I got out of my truck,” Stella continued. “Walked up to him. ‘Michael?’ I said. He squinted; we’d never met before, so of course he didn’t recognise me. ‘It’s Mick, goddammit,’ he said. Then he was snapping at me: ‘and who the hell are you? The fuck you want?’ I had my Dad’s shot gun with me in a bag over my shoulder; Mick hadn’t figured out what it was yet. I told him, ‘I’m here about your nephew.’ And he stiffened right up, drew back into that chair like it might protect him.”
“Stella,” I said again, in a voice half warning, half horror.
I wanted her to abandon the story part way done, tell me she’d been playing around, laugh a little, leave it be. But she just went on talking, the weird light played across her face by the rain and the moon and the naked bulb overhead making her look nuts, like Vincent Price in a forgotten creature feature flick.
Stella tilted her head back in a scarf of nicotine and said, “He kept asking who I was, over and over, and I just shook my head. ‘I’ve come about Devon,’ I said, and then Mick was standing up, kicking over his stupid fucking ten dollar chair, red and white in the face like a sun burn. ‘What about my nephew?’ he asked me. ‘He’s dead, he’s dead. What about him?’ He was scared right out of his mind; I knew that from Terry. The eyes. It was all in the eyes. ‘What about fucking Devon?’ the old bastard asked me.
“Well, I took the shotgun out of the rucksack and I looked him right in the face, and I said, ‘You know what.’ And that was it. I saw that he’d been waiting for a day like this. He’d run away from it, sure; that’s why he lived out there, all alone. But he knew it’d find him, that day. And here it was.”
Thunder roared at my back like a tigress, like God clapping His hands at the end of the world; I wanted to scream, but I couldn’t. My tongue was flat to the roof of my mouth, and my jaw locked. The omen of terror is a strange magic, one that holds us still enough to see it out.
“The old fuck sat back in his chair,” said Stella. “And I lay the shotgun down in the dirt next to him. ‘What the hell are you doing?’ he asked me, and I just stood looking at him, letting him strew, letting him ponder on it. I said, ‘You just better do the right thing by Devon, is all.'”
“Oh Lord,” I whispered, but Stella ignored me, committed to reach the end of the tale.
“Then he was yelling again,” she said. “Straight up hollering. ‘You get out of here and take that thing with you!’ he told me. Well, I picked it up alright, but then I said, ‘You ought to go out and buy one just like this, because if you don’t I might just come back here and remind you to. Because if you don’t, maybe your nephew will.’ And just like that Mick started crying, just like Devon used to, just like Terry. That’s what they do. That’s what they all do, in the end.”
The night beyond the house seemed to shake in the apocalypse of thunder, only the thin walls and the rattling windows keeping us safe, and barely, at that.
“So I got in my truck and left,” said Stella. “Drove all the way back, put away my Dad’s gun. And then I waited.”
She was smiling again, a small, hard smile, this time, one of satisfaction, and a little pride.
“Dad got home from his trip and swung right by to see me. First thing he said was, ‘Heard you been asking about Mick Carey.’ I made something up, I don’t know what, but my Dad gave me the weirdest look, eyes sort of narrowed. Then he said ‘So you haven’t heard the news about him?’ I shrugged, trying to act like I didn’t give a shit, and still my Dad stared at me like he was trying to figure out a stranger. ‘Mick’s dead,’ he told me. ‘Shot himself. Bullet went straight through the back of his head and put out his trailer window. Hitchhikers found him.'”
I gasped— and I don’t think I’d ever done that out loud in my life, until then. The sound was lost over the clap of the rain against the porch steps, but I felt it come out of me, like a speech balloon in a comic book strip: GASP. Just like that.
“I guess I should have felt something,” said Stella, fidgeting with the rim of her glass. “But I think I knew from the minute I set out on that road trip I knew. I just knew that’s how it was gonna end. It was like, closing a circle, something I was always meant to do. I still believe that. I do. Because, this year, June 7th, Devon didn’t come back.”
Suddenly there were tears beading Stella’s eyes, and I rushed across the kitchen, grabbing her free hand as tight as I could. It was cold, despite the impossible heat, so cold that I bit back another stupid gasp. Still, I held on, the only thing I could think to do when there were no words that fit what she was telling me.
“I sat up in bed all night,” said Stella. “Sat up, watching the shadows, wondering which one he’d haul himself out of this time. The hours went by. God, I wanted a drink, but I just threw back coffee, stayed sober. If he was gonna come after everything I wanted to face him, really face him, knowing I’d done my bit to settle the score. But the night went by and then it was morning. Morning, and he hadn’t come back. The air smelled so fresh, and sweet, and I just felt clean. Fuck, I’m shaking just thinking about it.”
She was; I poured her a glass of water and pushed it at her, gently, relieved when she clipped it from my hand and downed the lot. She was slurring by now, and I could tell she’d wake up with a devil of a hangover if I didn’t see her down a few more cups before bedtime.
“So, maybe what was left of Devon figured I’d done him a good deed, and now he’s done with me,” said Stella. “Maybe it was all my sitting on that guilt that long that made me weak enough for him to hurt, or feed on. I don’t know. Maybe it was a fluke, and some year, sometime, he’ll come back.”
“So I’ll stay up with you,” I said, shaking Stella’s small fist, kissing it. “Every year, that’s what I’ll do. We’ll make a holiday of it. Hell, I’ll fight him off, if I can. I dunno how all this works. But either way, every year, I’ll be there. Okay?”
Stella nodded, shaking my hand right back.
We stood together for a moment, listening to the rain, which had died down enough to hear ourselves think.
Then I said, “So, what about Annie? You think she’d ever, you know…”
“No,” said Stella, shaking her head limply. “That’s what’s got me so worked up. She was such a good person. I don’t think she’d have it in her to haunt anybody. She was just so happy and nice all the time, like, the only time she was ever mad at me she didn’t even yell, just looked all disappointed, like she was my mom or something.”
Suddenly there were tears in my own eyes again; stunning, the reserve we have of them, when by rights they should all be dried away.
“God, you’re right,” I said. “Annie was such a mom friend. Who’s gonna fill in for her now?”
Stella dragged in a mucusy breath and chuckled.
“Not me, that’s for sure.”
I busied myself locking up the back door, emptying Stella’s ashtray, washing up glasses in the sink, anything to settle the shock, and the grief, and a junk yard of other feelings I had no idea how to put away.
It’s as I was filling a jug full of water for my bedside table that Stella said, “I almost wished I’d pissed her off more, now. Just to see her again.”
I thought of Anna, as she’d been after the crash, legs torn off like a roach trapped in a screen door, and shook my head.
“No way,” I said. “I think we had as much of Annie as we were meant to. And wherever she is? I’ll bet it’s a nice place. That’s what there is, after you die, for people like her. I’m sure there is.”
Stella nodded, and again it was like there was a little child standing in my kitchen with me, the nineteen year old that never grew up, though she’d killed a man, in a roundabouts way of doing it.
I wondered, almost coldly, whether Stella would come back one day, when she was gone, drawn back to the living in a trawler’s net of her own wrongs.
But, looking into her eyes, I didn’t believe it. She’d done a good thing, when it came down to it, the right thing. If Annie was any sort of ghost she’d settle the doubt and fear in Stella’s heart by holding her close, or else by giving her some sign that we might never know until it came.
“Alright,” I said, gently. “Bedtime. Let’s wrap it up.”
Stella half smiled.
“Watch a movie first, though?”
“You know it;” I said. “To Wong Foo. Anna’s favourite.”
Before I left the kitchen to follow Stella upstairs I glanced out at my back yard one last time, just to see if the storm was over. It was too dark by then to see anything but the rain against the the glass door— still, for a moment it felt as though there was somebody standing out there, on the other side, looking back.