The Body Left Behind
By Elizabeth Sowden
The old houses in Minneapolis are haunted, especially in the fall. Pre-war duplexes with sagging eaves, Queen Annes visibly rotting on their foundations—all take on an air of eerie quiet when the sun goes dark at the end of the summer. The shiftless shadows in their windows and doorways make you shudder. You wonder if invisible fingers play the piano keys at 3 a.m., or if a little girl is trapped in one of the paintings on the wall, aging just a little every day, unnoticed by the people in the house.
You think of this as you rake leaves for your church Youth Group. The cracked wooden handle blisters the crevice between your thumb and forefinger as you comb the grass for dry leaves. You stare up at the attic window of the old house. It stares back at you, like an empty eye socket. Below it, there's a door that leads to a tiny balcony, just large enough for a servant to beat rugs on, a servant who died over one hundred years ago—maybe in that dark attic. When the grandchildren visit, they hear strange sounds in the middle of the night: a muted thumping followed by the closing of a door, and then slow, metered footsteps down the unused, back stairway. The children get so rattled the grandmother regretfully calls her son to come fetch his kids, who can't even endure one night with her. Breaks her heart.
"Grace," someone calls your name. You glance up. "It's time to go." It's Trish, your Youth Group leader. She's holding the door of the minivan open for you. Everyone else in your confirmation class is already inside. You stash your rake in the back of the van and climb in next to Jack. Your breath makes a jagged cloud on the glass. You ball your hand into a fist, press it into the patch of steam, and with your index finger add four toes so that it looks like a foot.
A baby's foot. A dead baby.
You open your backpack and take out a worn out copy of Beloved and reread the passages about the tiny handprints in the cake. You run your finger down the spine of the book. There's a deep ravine there, from being open face down on your bed. How many times have you read it now? Three? Four? You can't remember. But you don't discuss it with the other kids in the Youth Group. You asked Trish, but she just said, no way, too violent. You couldn't teach the elementary classes the ASL sign for "Jesus" either—the two middle fingers touch the opposite palms representing the nails through his hands. You had planned to teach it to them when you worked at Vacation Bible School last summer, but the mothers wouldn't let you.
Jinny is behind you, playing with her digital pet. The sound of its electronic barking grates on your nerves. Trish is playing the same Jars of Clay CD that you've heard at every church retreat for the past two years. You take your CD player out of your backpack and play your favorite mix—Nirvana, Marilyn Manson, Silverchair—and disappear behind a wall of sound.
Trish turns onto Lowry Avenue. You glance up at the old blue house with the rotting white gingerbread and sharp peaks. The house is your secret siren; every time you pass it you can't help but stare, it draws you in. You want to know how it looked when it was new, who lived there, who died there, what's still in there. You want to rip the plywood off of one of those windows and climb in, to explore her from the inside, to part her drapes and feel her walls.
Someone taps your shoulder. You tear your eyes from the window. It's Jack telling you that Trish said to take your headphones off.
"Why?" you ask, even though you know the answer.
"Because we're a group. We're together. Headphones mean you want to tune out, that you don't want to be part of the group. And we all want to be a part of the group, right?"
"Yes," you say, before she starts singing "Rise and Shine and Give God Your Glory." It's the song she sings to coerce everyone to cooperate, in exchange for her shutting the hell up.
Trish turns on Cleveland and pulls up in front of the church. You glance up at the belfry. It never rings. It's full of bats. You know this for a fact.
The sign out front says "Creamed Chicken and Biscuit Dinner, Tuesday Night/Come to Church! Jesus Saves!" Last year, you and Eric snuck out of a lock-in and changed the sign to "Eat Jesus' Creamy Come! Cunt Biscuit Dinner!" Remembering the way Trish squealed "Who…? Who…?" like she was a tire with a leak about to either deflate or explode, you smile, just a little. She never found out who did it—everyone blamed it on a phantom neighborhood hoodlum with lousy parents who didn't have the benefit of Church. You glance over at Eric, but he's staring at his watch.
You follow the others into the Youth Room. The couches are harvest gold and it even smells like the seventies. A cloud of dust is exhumed from the cushions as you plop down into them. Trish catches you making a face, and she makes one back; the one where she purses her lips and shakes her head so slightly that only you can see. It says, "Be good. We're all good here." You sigh, and watch Eric play foosball.
Jinny and Nicole flip through Teen Beat, twittering about the latest Britney Spears single. Trish orders a pizza. Before you can eat, you have to hold hands and pray. You bow your head but keep your eyes open. You stare at Eric's toes.
"Heavenly Father," Trish begins, "We thank you for this wonderful day we've had and we ask that you bless each of the people we met today…" You tune out the rest. Your hands feel clammy in the meaty paws of the fat kid next to you. You swear this kid's a retard. His entire family is morbidly obese, except for the youngest kids who are skinny with sunken eyes. His mother is about 300 pounds and wears stretch pants so tight you can see her labia—two flabby flaps that hang between her legs, jiggling and jarring as she waddles through fellowship hall. You didn't know it was possible to store fat there. You smile. Dimples form around your mouth as you try to hide it. That woman has the most kids of everyone in church. Who, you wonder, who can do that with her?
"…and Lord, we thank you for this bounty. In Jesus' name, Amen."
"Amen," the others mutter. Everyone drops hands and looks up. You wipe the sweat from your hand and move away from the fat kid. Someone hands you a plate. You take a slice. The cheese slips off and it lands on the floor.
"Shit!" you exclaim as you bend down to pick up your sullied cheese.
"Grace," Trish scolds.
"Oh come on Trish, what am I supposed to say when my cheese falls on the fucking floor?" You throw the slice and the cheese into the trash. "Jesus Christ."
"Grace, that's enough," Trish says, raising her voice just slightly this time. You don't say anything more. If you do, she'll send you home. It's not that you would mind leaving, but Trish will tell your parents. She can never keep her mouth shut. Last summer after camp, she told them you had been having thoughts of suicide. It was something you had said in the safety of the Small Group. It was supposed to be confidential.
You glance at Eric. He's smiling at you.
After Bible Discussion, you all decide to play Hunters and the Hunted. You run up to the third floor and hide in the shadows of the nursery. You crawl behind the piano and pretend you're Anne Frank, hiding from the SS. The pale copper-toned light from the streetlight in the alley outside pours through the windows and casts shadows on your face. You hear the footsteps of the Hunters in the hallway and shiver. They are coming to take you away to Bergen-Belsen, no wait, Treblinka. When you get there, you'll carry bricks to build the new additional gas chambers the Nazi's build to accommodate the influx of deportees, the exact same gas chamber in which you'll be asphyxiated by Zyklon-B, twisting in pain as your lungs close. You read the book. No one in Youth Group wants to hear about what's inside.
Footsteps fall on the carpet. You hear a clatter followed by a ding and a squeak. Someone tripped over a box of toys. "Shit!" a voice cries out. You smile. You know who's coming to get you. You feel a tap on your shoulder. The hairs on the back of your neck stand up, making your skin tingle just a little. You shiver just a little. You turn. It's Eric.
"Hey," he says, the light from the alley shimmering on his smile, "Wanna go play Ding Dong Ditch?" A smile spreads across your face. You feel warm all over. You grab his hand.
"I have a better idea," you say, and lead him out of the church down the back stairway, where Trish and the others won't see you sneak out. You run down the street hand in hand. As you run down the hill, you gather momentum. Your heart beats faster; you think it's going to break out of your chest.
Even in the dark, she thrills you: the blue Queen Anne with the decaying gingerbread. You step up to the window, boarded over with gray plywood. You grip the edge with your fingers and pull. To your surprise, the nails slip out easily. The holes have worn away from years of rainy autumns, snowy winters, icy springs and stormy summers. As the board falls away, you tug Eric's hand and step across the sill.
As soon as you are inside, the stench hits you. Eric lurches and covers his mouth. Mildew and old vegetables, and probably bird and rat shit too. It's dark, but you can make out photographs on the walls, and the silhouettes of a couch and a sunken fireplace. You look harder. There's a stairway. Its dark mouth beckons you.
"Let's go upstairs." You feel the hesitation in Eric's arm as you lead him, but he says nothing as he follows you. The stairs buckle underneath your weight. You reach for the wall to steady yourself as you climb the winding staircase. When you reach the top, you push open a door, and find a room with a window that's not boarded. Two of the panes are broken. There's a bed in the room. The bed is covered in white blankets and is strewn with leaves. You walk over to it and brush the leaves off the bed. The mattress groans as you settle into it. Eric stands next to you.
"Grace…" you hear tremors in his voice. His fear makes you brave. You pull him toward you. He sits next to you on the bed. "What are we doing here?" he asks. You lean in. You kiss him.
He kisses you back. His tongue dances around yours, and the pressure of his lips makes a fire burn between your legs. He runs his hand through your hair. You lean in to his body. He leans back. He makes you warm.
Suddenly, you hear the flutter of wings. A bat flies in through the window. Eric pulls away. You can feel his pulse rising.
"Grace, let's get the fuck out of here!"
You don't move or speak.
"Grace! Let's go, please!" You can see the panic in his eyes, but you don't move. "Grace!" Eric leaps away from the bed and runs down the stairs. You hear a thud and a shout and know Eric must have tripped over a chair. You hear him crawl out the window.
"Grace!" he shouts from the street. His voice sounds small and far away. "Grace, get out of there, please!" You wonder if anyone in the neighborhood will notice Eric shouting up at the empty house. You hear his footsteps turn and run up the street, and fade away.
You lie on the bed. You smell the mold in the sheets. You trace the round, dark spots of mildew. You cross your hands across your chest and pretend this is your house. You lived here in 1908 when it was brand new, when it smelled of fresh pine and camphor. You spent Christmases by the hearth and drank lemonade on the porch in the summers. Then, at fourteen you became tragically ill, and you spent the last year of your life in this room, on this bed, staring at the crucifix nailed to the wall.
You close your eyes. You died in this house. The reverend came and gave you your last rites, your last sip of communion wine. Your mother pressed a handkerchief into her wet eyes. It had your initials embroidered on it in green floss. They left your body in the room, surrounded by lilacs.
You wonder if Eric has reached the church yet. You wonder if he has told. You wonder if Trish is on her way to come get you, and if she is, will she climb through the window, up through this rotting house and grab you by the wrist and pull you out of here, or if she will stand on the street and shout, beg, scream for you to come down.
You wonder if, in one hundred years, anyone will remember you. If anyone will find your dog-eared books at a time when books are obsolete and people will have evolved past having fingers and toes and feelings.
No one comes. You close your eyes. You wait for the ghosts to come. You know there are no ghosts here, that ghosts only haunt homes where people still live. They don't wait for other people to discover them.
You take a deep breath; take in that smell of fungus and fermentation. You are the body left behind, with icicles for limbs.
Elizabeth Sowden is originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, and now lives in New York City. She works as an office assistant in Midtown, but is thinking of being a teacher or moving to Venezuela, whichever comes first.
Photo "Veronica?" courtesy of John Moore, Fayetteville, Arkansas.
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