“They really make very good companions,” Jo tells her mother. “You hear bad things about them, you know, about how they’ll get into your bedroom at night, shake their chains at you, howl and drape themselves in moss and all that, but really, that’s more ghosts down south or in Europe or wherever. But my ghosts, they’re not like that. They’re respectful, restrained. They love me. I love–”
“It’s all right, Josephine,” her mother says. “Not everyone has a career. Not everyone has children. It’s all right.”
The heat rises on Jo’s neck. She makes her excuses, hangs up the phone and peeks out her pane-glass patio window. Outside, shimmering figures play hopscotch behind the nine-by-twelve barbed-wire fence that hems in the crumble-stone graves in her muddy backyard.
Jo always pulls on her shearling-lined duck boots before she treks into the graveyard at this time of year–early spring but it feels like dead of winter, the puddles still frozen with dirty ice. But she won’t let the nasty weather stop her from heading outside. She’s never noticed the cold the way some people do–she was born here, after all–and after her latest conversation with her mother, she needs to be among her girls.
She hikes round back of the house, past the tiny weathered-wood shed where she stores the candles and the Ouija board in winter. She unlatches the gate and squelches into the pen. Addie is running her bitten-nail fingers along the Christmas lights strung on the chicken-wire fence. The lights aren’t plugged in, but when Addie’s index finger touches each of them, it pops with a silvery light that hurts Jo’s eyes if she looks at it too hard.
Addie’s prodding the lights urgently, whimpering and running her other hand over her patched dress. Her single playing card, the Queen of Spades, is shoved into the top of her boot. Jo crouches, pulls a white candle out of her oversize coat pocket, lights it, and screws it into the mud next to Addie’s broken boot. Addie examines the candle, then returns to popping the Christmas lights on and off.
Addie was the first ghost Jo found, back when she was sixteen years old and biked Old Route 17 to photograph an abandoned mill building for a school project. In the barn, Jo found Addie hanging from the rafters, a tangle of hair and patched dress. Addie whimpered and swung down, tugging on Jo’s coat-hem and ruffling her hair. Jo tried to shake Addie off of her, but Addie followed her out of the barn. As soon as she hit the cold air outside, Addie disintegrated, losing her form and drifting into smoke. Jo panicked, found a glass root beer bottle in her backpack, and scooped Addie right inside. Her hand trembled around the bottle all the way home. How was she supposed to care for a ball of vibrant cold energy quivering in glass?
Jo decided to wing it and trust her instincts: she loosed Addie in the small Puritan-era cemetery behind the family house.
Now, Jo doesn’t know why Addie’s ignoring her. She sinks to the still-frozen ground, the conversation with her mother clenching at her again, ignoring the cold seeping through the seat of her jeans.
The next week, Jo runs into her cousin Marcie in the grocery store parking lot in Blackwell.
“I need to talk to you about something.” Marcie leans on the handles of her shopping cart, which is overflowing with boxed macaroni and cheese and bottles of apple juice. “We, um….” Marcie licks her lips, avoids Jo’s eyes. “We want to sell the house.”
“Um, well, me, my parents, Becca, Jerry. Even your mom said–”
“So everyone? You mean everyone?”
“My mom and your mom talked, and they think it’s for the best. We all could use…I mean, I have three kids, Jo, and this economy….Our moms said we could split the profits, even though Grandma left the house to them.” Marcie smiles with all her teeth and not with her eyes. “I’m sorry, I know how much you love it there, but, it’s time.”
Jo dreams of skyscrapers that night–their lights are hard, and yet she can’t look away from them. In those hazy moments between dreams and this low-ceiling room she’s known her whole life, Jo squirms towards the skyscrapers. Where would she put her 18th-century armoire, her china cabinet with the one wobbly leg, her Governor Winthrop desk, in those steel monoliths?
Then Jo wakes up fully in her sleigh bed, shakes off the skyscrapers and settles back into this house and clearing, comfortable as the suede quilted coat she’s worn forever. This is her place, among the pines of winter and the whispering Queen Anne’s Lace of summer. She’s stood here in this clearing her whole life, watching a parade trickling out of the house: Mom, to Florida. Becca, to Chicago. Jerry to Boston and Grandma to the Catholic cemetery next town over and Marcie away from their girlhood of hair braids and catching frogs in the creek to her family life in one of the developments near Main Street.
Now it’s just Jo and her ghosts, the girls, Addie and Em and Prudence and Samantha, and now Marcie and Mom want to take them away from her, too.
It’s March, but it’s still sleeting the day Marcie sweeps into the house without knocking.
“Oh Jo,” she sighs. “Oh boy. We have our work cut out for us, don’t we?”
Marcie’s nose wrinkles at the lumbering stacks of books, the four gleaming bottles Jo used to cart her four girls to the house, the Polaroids of her girls strung up on white string in old picture frames. Marcie runs her finger along the wide wood farmhouse table and examines it. “At least it’s not filthy.”
“I’m not a child, you know,” Jo says. “Although you’d probably be nicer to me if I was.”
“I’ve arranged for a real estate stager to come through, straighten all this up. Mom and Aunt Carrie are thinking of putting the house on the market next month. Does that give you enough time?”
Jo scoots herself up onto her counter, swings her legs against its wooden siding like she has since she was a little girl. “I don’t want them to sell it.”
Marcie plunks her purse on the table, slaps her hands against Jo’s knees, bends her head to try to force Jo to look her in the eyes. Jo ducks her head.
“We need the money,” Marcie says softly. “We all do. And–you need to get out of here. Come live with us for awhile, til you get on your feet. You know you’re always welcome with my family.” Marcie shoves off Jo’s knees, surveys the room. “Look, I’ll help you pack. It’ll be fun.” Marcie reaches towards the wobbly china cabinet where the girls’ four gleaming bottles sit, and Jo has time to bark out half a warning before Marcie grips the shelf, the cabinet shivers, and Adie’s bottle teeters and smashes on the cedar-plank floor.
For some reason, as the remnants of the bottle bounce over Jo’s wool-socked feet, a line leaps through her head, something she read a long time ago, or maybe wrote herself–who can remember? But the line went: in New York City, ghosts drift through the streets like steam through manholes.
And something lifts from Jo’s shoulders, the tiniest lightening lift.
Then Jo’s back in reality, shoving away that New York City line, shaking glass off her socks, glaring at Marcie, who’s saying, “I’m sorry, Jo, but come on, you can’t bring all this stuff with you.”
Marcie sweeps up the remains of Jo’s oldest bottle and throws them away, and Jo brews some tea and defrosts some blueberry pie to change the subject. But the whole time Marcie’s there Jo can’t stop thinking I won’t need to bring all this stuff with me, because I’m not going anywhere. This is my home. Those girls are my life. I need them. They need me.
After Marcie leaves, Jo slides open the trash can, where the shards of Adie’s bottle gleam among soggy teabags and the empty pie tin. Jo stares at them for a minute, imagines tying up the tops of this green plastic trash bag, hauling it out to the curb, never seeing that bottle again. She extracts the tea-slick shards out of the trash, one by one, and lays them on the counter.
Then she pulls on her trapper hat and hurries into the graveyard. The girls are huddled together, their long silver hair tangling together as they whisper among themselves.
“Girls.” Jo shuffles forward, her hands deep in her pockets. The girls turn, raise their eyebrows. “I have–Marcie–you remember her? She used to live here, a long time ago?”
The girls snort and shuffle. Of course they remember Marcie, who would never come into the graveyard, who scoffed when Jo asked her to leave candles at the gate.
“You know what she wants to do, don’t you? Well, I want you to help me,” Jo says. “I want you to help me stop her.”
Four pairs of eyes on her: Em’s, dancing with the bared-soul emotion of her hefty book of poems; Addie’s, scared and confused; Samantha’s, unreadable; and Prudence. Prudence’s eyes are angry: her eyebrows two silver lines, one hand balled in a fist. Jo hasn’t seen that expression on Prudence’s face since the All Hallows’ Eve ten years ago when Prudence gripped Jo’s hands and with the pressure of her ghostly fingers communicated to Jo the pain and rage of dying young.
“We’ll be able to stop her,” Jo says, “if–”
Something cold and rough explodes across her cheek. Prudence crouches with one arm cocked back, mud dripping from between her shining fingers.
“Prudence, what–” Jo starts forward, reaches out a hand, but Prudence snarls, her long braids swinging against her back as she crab-crawls backwards. Addie examines her playing card. Em flips through her book. Samantha simply glides away.
All afternoon, Jo tries to get their attention. She places planchettes just inside the gate for them, and they turn their noses up. She sets down cups of tea, her hand shaking so porcelain rattles on porcelain, and they skitter away. They whisper and glance at her, but whenever she raises a hand to them they veer away and race to the far side of the pen.
Two weeks later, Jo stands by her bay window. The days are getting longer, but slowly, and it’s already dark as she watches the girls glow in the graveyard. They’ve ignored her ever since she asked for their help. The real estate stager is coming in the morning, to rearrange the furniture that Jo has kept the same, just the way she likes it, for the past ten years. How will the real estate stager get the marks out of the carpets from the places where Jo’s china cabinet, end tables, dressers and desks have stood for so many years? Jo’s sure she has some kind of real estate stager trick. Not that it matters: if Marcie gets her way, soon this house won’t even be Jo’s anymore. If only the girls would help her, use the seething power of the dead that she knows accompanies their graceful games and bookish ways…well, then, of course they could stop Marcie. So why do they race off every time she squelches into the graveyard?
What if they can sense that line that leapt through Jo’s mind: in New York City, ghosts drift through the streets like steam through manholes. And there it is again, running through Jo like a train that can’t be stopped. What if they’re angry, because she keeps having this thought? What if they’re angry because as Jo shook the glass from Adie’s broken bottle off her socks, something lifted from her shoulders, as though the bottle had been a burden instead of a precious thing? But those were just thoughts. She kept the bottle shards. She wants to stop Marcie, wants to prevent her cousin from sending her out into the vast world of skyscrapers and manhole covers alone, prevent her from leaving her girls to fend for themselves.
Jo turns from the window, pulls on her boots and coat, and marches outside. She flings open the gate and stomps into the graveyard. The girls are draped around and over the graves, listless.
“The real estate stager is coming tomorrow.” Jo crosses her arms over her chest. Addie, who’s lounging on a grave adorned only with the faded outline of a winged skull, fiddles with her card and hisses. “Do you know what a real estate stager does? She’s going to move around all my furniture, throw away a bunch of my things. Get the house looking like some stupid catalogue, to prepare for some new people moving in here. Is that what you want?”
They ignore her. They fidget and shift and sigh and none of them make a move.
“I would think you’d help me,” Jo whispers. “Why won’t you help me?”
She trudges back inside, a sick feeling clenching at her stomach, that feeling before the drop, when you’re about to lose something bigger and more monumental than you ever dreamed of losing.
She sits at the kitchen table, fiddles listlessly with the shards of Addie’s bottle.
The bay window rattles. Jo looks up.
Addie’s standing outside the window, her palms pressed against the panes, her face stony and her teeth gritted, her arms already trailing into silvery ribbons. Jo leaps up. The girls never leave the cemetery and lose their forms. What are they doing? Have they changed their minds? Are they coming to help her?
A rattling at the front door, and Jo flees through the house, knocking over her chair in the process. She flings the door open. The girls stream inside, their footsteps making no noise against the faded carpet in the front hall. Their hair trails behind them, and they’re holding hands, and their dresses are shredding before Jo’s eyes, disintegrating into mist.
“Girls,” she says, “I–”
Addie hisses, and knocks a vase off an end table.
The vase falls to the ground and shatters.
Jo only has time to gasp in a breath, before the girls emit a collective shriek, a long and lonely and horrible keen that maybe comes from the earth itself.
And then they tear through the house.
They sweep books off shelves and the pages grow hoarfrost and melt away beneath their fingers. They shatter wine glasses and cut-glass decanters, they rip down paintings and put their fists through the canvas, they turn Jo’s African violet upside down and shake the plant onto the floor.
“Why are you doing this? What–why?” Do they want her to leave them? Have they come to hate her? Do they not need her anymore?
Jo screams at them to stop, as she watches her life smash and shatter and disintegrate around her, but they ignore her. As they destroy the house their forms fall away completely, until her girls are nothing but swirling shadows, ripping through her extra blankets and smashing a snow globe. When they sweep the three remaining catching bottles off the china cabinet, when Jo watches the hardy green-tinted glass explode against the floor, she fights back tears.
At last the howling, spitting shadows sweep down the stairs and flood out the front door. Jo’s left with her own thudding heart and the erratic tick of her injured grandfather clock, and the wreck of the things that she once held dear.
And her shoulders relax. Her clenched stomach loosens.
It bursts through her, this identification of the feeling sweeping through her body, the same feeling that swept through her when Adie’s bottle broke. It’s relief.
Why? Why are parts of her glad to see her precious things smashed and broken?
She steps out the front door, tiptoes to the cemetery. The girls are gasping, their howling shapes resolving back into ghostly arms and fingers and legs and hair. Addie’s on her hands and knees, and Prudence is leaning her head against Samantha’s shoulder, quaking. Em’s off to the side, stony-faced and straight-backed against the chicken wire fence.
“Why did you do it?” Jo whispers to the night, to her girls.
Samantha shifts, sits up. She looks almost ordinary now, the same old Samantha, although her edges still quiver slightly. She palms her chalk and scrapes its edge against her chalkboard.
YOU ARE NOT US.
Jo’s stomach swoops, and the hard mud beneath her seems to tilt. The scene burns into her mind: the acrid smell of woodsmoke drifting from some other house, the glint of lamplight on dirty snow, this moment, when she loses them.
When they give her permission to be lost.
Jo leaves the graveyard, carefully closing the chickenwire fence behind her. She steps back into her silent, destroyed house. She pulls black garbage bags from beneath the sink, and she picks up glass, torn books, all her scattered broken memories, drops them into the voluminous plastic. She sweeps the floor with her old splintery-handled broom. She wipes down the counters.
Light is seeping into the house when she packs her sleek leather suitcase, laying in just the few things she needs. No shredded books. No bottle shards. She clunks down her stairs for the last time, pushes out her front door, and steps into sunlight, into fragile hot dawn. She’s sweating in her coat and vines are twining around her front railings. The trees are heavy with the dusty leaves of mid-to-late summer, and bees buzz around the bluebells dotting her lawn. How did she become so suspended in time? How did roots and seeds shift within the earth, trees burst forth in bloom and spring rains wash away the snow, without her noticing?
At the back of the house, she pauses, memorizing the carvings on the gravestones, the slumped bodies of her sleeping girls. As she turns to go, Addie stirs, stands, and slinks between the gravestones. She presses her playing card into Jo’s palm, and before Jo can do or say anything, she’s gone, slinking back to her ghost-sisters.
And Jo closes the gate for the last time behind her, wondering what time the train rumbles out of town heading for points south.
The next time Jo walks up the moose path from Old Highway 17, she’s wearing a new coat. Her hair is short. She carries the playing card in her wallet, but its edges are creased and its picture is stained by hundreds of coins and bills wending their way past it.
An unfamiliar car idles in the driveway outside the house. The chipped white paint has been replaced by pale yellow. Jo hears a little boy’s shout, long and sustained, from somewhere inside.
She sneaks around back, past beds full of unfamiliar plants. Ahead of her looms the old gap-toothed graveyard. The wire pen is gone, the barn dismantled, but there, among the gravestones, glimmer her girls: Em, flipping through the pages of Emily Dickinson, Addie pricking her finger against a strand of Christmas lights, Prudence and Samantha leaping their way through a game of hopscotch.
“Girls,” Jo calls. “Girls.”
They look up. They cock their heads at her, frowning. And they turn back to their pursuits.
“Girls,” Jo whispers again.
This time, only Addie looks up. For half a second, her face changes, her cheeks soften and she gives Jo half a nod, a bashful smile. And then she holds up her Christmas lights, turns her back on Jo.
Jo shoves her hands in her pockets, sneaks out from behind the house and walks back out the moose path to Old Route 17 and to other lives.