By Darcie Little Badger
15 December 2014
Great-grandmother taught me everything she knew about death before it took her.
Never sleep under a juniper tree. They grow between this world and the place below.
Bury the dead properly, lest their ghosts return.
A ghost is a terrible thing.
Someday, we will all be terrible things.
Great-grandmother, you were right.
Annie designed our pink-paint-on-cardboard sign: TELL US YOUR PROBLEMS TELL US YOUR STORIES TELL US ANYTHING. WE ♥ 2 LISTEN. We never offered counsel or passed judgment. Sometimes, people just need a willing ear. After all, that’s how Annie and I became friends. Beginning in high school, she listened to my troubles, and I returned the favor. Annie’s secrets, though bizarre, were easier to swallow after we spent time together, which is how she convinced me to busk for karma. The act would bring us good fortune, she promised. For better or worse, I believed her.
That day, Annie and I camped near a fountain shaped like Maria de Soto, the city founder. Water bubbled from her outstretched marble hands. The bowls she normally carried (they represented "cups running over," according to a copper plaque) had been removed for cleaning. "Stigmata," I commented, and Annie laughed. It was a pleasant distraction from my phone; Mom had been texting all morning, breaking our one-year silent spell, and every message felt like a needle in my chest.
As if drawn to cheer, a scruffy, thirty-something man limped toward the fountain. He wore a sweat-stained white shirt and wrinkled black pants; his patent leather oxfords needed polish.
"Morning," I said. Never good morning, because it often wasn't.
He knelt on the grass and looked from Annie to me, back and forth, like a tennis spectator. To be fair, we made a strange pair. Annie, a stout, tall Apache woman, had severely thick eyebrows and lips that turned down, even when she smiled. She also shaved her head daily, as if preparing for war. Her features contrasted with my girlish face and willowy frame. Primary school bullies called me "Pocahontas," so it goes without saying that I never braided my hair. However, I kept it long to protect my ears and back from the sun.
"You listen?" The man asked. His hoarse voice smelled sour.
"Yessir," Annie said. "We do."
"My daughter died."
Annie's cheerful expression withered.
"Murdered," he continued. "Nobody believes me. They think . . . but I didn't. My Melanie survived the accident. Car accident." He spoke in a breathless staccato. "During vacation in central Texas. Five months ago. Melanie sat in her car seat. My wife, Rita, slept. We entered Willowbee, small town, before eleven. A deer ran onto the street. No time to brake, so I panicked and swerved. The car hit a tree. Rita never slept with a belt."
He uttered a dry sob that sounded like "broken neck." Annie nodded sympathetically.
"After the collision, Melanie cried. She'd survived. But I could not reach her from the driver seat. I crawled outside, circled the car. Had two broken legs but managed. And Christ. Christ. When I opened the back door, an owl-woman was inside the car. She held Melanie."
"Owl-woman?" I asked. “What is . . .” Annie made a shushing noise.
"She had owl eyes," he said. "Big, yellow circles with black pits. But otherwise, the woman—or monster, or . . . whatever—looked like Rita. Just younger and taller. Taller than me, even." The man, who wasn't shorter than six feet, made another raspy sound before continuing, "I begged her to return Melanie, but she carried my daughter away. Outside, around the tree, across Heron Bridge. Into darkness. Impossible to chase with broken legs, though I tried. I tried. The paramedics found me thirty feet from the car. They found Melanie in the river. Not a scratch on her body. She'd drowned. But everybody—everybody—believes the accident threw her outside. Ridiculous. I strapped her in a car seat. Will there ever be justice for my girls?"
”Was it a juniper tree?” Annie asked.
Color drained from his ruddy cheeks. "Yes." He grasped her shoulder. "What does it mean?"
"Careful," I warned, touching the Mace hidden in my side pocket. We'd so far avoided most dangers that plague lost young things, but worry dominated my thoughts, especially after spending weeks inundated in confessed sins and tragedies.
"It's all right, Josie," Annie said. "There are legends . . ."
"What legends?" the man asked. Then, he folded ten dollars in my empty coffee cup, but Annie shook her head. "We're only paid in karma," she explained, because the truth beggared belief. Even I didn't understand the preternatural laws we observed.
"What legends?" he repeated.
“The kind my great-grandmother knew,” she said. “Juniper trees often grow along passageways between this world and the spirit realm, like . . . Sir?”
"Hang on. I have something for you." With that, he stood and limped away.
“Is this guy serious?” I asked.
“Could be. Ghosts are terrible things."
“Ghosts? Huh, maybe he met La Llorona,” I said. “¿Dónde están mis hijos?”
“Stop, Josie. You can be irreverent about anything but this.”
“That actually wasn’t a joke. It’s possible, right?”
Annie considered my question for a couple minutes, and then she nodded. “Mmhm. Possible. Oh, look! He’s coming back.” Sure enough, the man had returned. He thrust a picture at us. It depicted a baby—Melanie?—with bright blue eyes and a gummy smile. Somebody—Rita?—cradled her. The adult's torso and left hand were visible; she had long pink nails and wore a gold cross around her neck.
"Sir, we're only here to listen, understand?"
"No, and that's the problem. I don't understand. But I want to understand. What happened that night?"
Annie tapped my shoulder until I turned and caught her eyes. ”Let’s go to Willowbee,” she said.
“Please? It’ll just take a couple days. Anyway, I have a feeling. We need to follow through.”
My cell phone beeped again.
Well, it's not like we had anything better to do.
"Meet us here next week, same time," I said. "Keep in mind that we can't promise answers."
"That's fine," the mourning father said. "Just promise that you'll try."
He left; he left the photograph behind; he left me in a lurch. What did Annie expect to find in Willowbee?
"We'll need travel money," she said. "C'mon." I folded the sign, while Annie tucked the photograph in her messenger bag. A vertical crease between her eyebrows spoke to more worries than usual.
After thanking Maria de Soto for her shade, we crossed sunbaked streets. At Markov Deli, I paused and asked, "Here?"
Annie shook her head. No. We continued wandering.
Outside a gas station, the ritual repeated. "Here?" No.
One hour later, the Asian grocery store on Vega Street broke our unlucky streak. "Here?" Annie nodded. As we entered the store, a wind chime over the door tolled sweetly. It rang again when we exited with chicken dumplings, chrysanthemum tea, and the five hundred dollars Annie had won from a scratch-off lotto game called "Pushing Your Luck."
When a black haze coalesced over our hometown, and only I noticed, Josie convinced me to leave. I wonder if it’s still there, haunting that lonely place. It resembled the cloud that followed Great-grandmother before she died.
The trip to Willowbee took one day by bus: nine hours riding and two hours waiting at a waystation in Dallas. Annie and I shared a duffel bag, and we sat behind a man who dozed in his bulky winter jacket, although it was late summer.
At sunset, Annie fell asleep with her cheek against the window pane. Every vibration that shook the bus rapped her temple against the glass. That couldn't be comfortable.
I removed a T-shirt from the duffel bag and tucked it behind her head. She muttered "thanks" between dreams. I'd offer my shoulder instead, but it was too low. Annie's height, five feet ten, seemed remarkable, considering her barely nourished past.
As a child, she had had a dozen allergies, and if you think it's hard funding a balanced meal with food stamps, try adding dietary restrictions to the mix. At least food malaise brought us together. We met during the free breakfast program in middle school. Instead of milk, Annie and I drank vanilla soy from paper cartons. "Are you lactose intolerant, too, or vegan?" I'd asked.
Her response was, "What's a vegan?"
We became school chums, a relationship that only exists between classes. At the time, my best friends all played basketball. The athletic sisterhood had been crafted by Coach Gomez-Frances, who believed that trust and companionship won games. She reinforced team camaraderie with extracurricular events like laser tag, pizza parties, and WNBA group outings. She oversaw trust-building exercises during morning practices. She promised that our loyalty would outlast our boyfriends.
Coach Gomez-Frances had been right, but that's only because I never found a boyfriend. Yes, the team's bond helped us defeat other sisterhoods, girls from foreign school districts who wore strange-colored jerseys and worshiped lesser mascots. But without basketball, our little clique dissolved.
For me, Annie was all that lasted past high school. I even lost my family.
The trouble at home started when Mom met good ol' boy Regis Miller at a singles mixer. When he became Stepfather Regis, he parked a new Corvette on the street, hung a forty-six-inch TV on the wall, and bought Mom a cubic zirconia tennis bracelet. Of course, the car didn't last a week before somebody broke its window to steal ten dollars from the glove compartment, so we had to purchase a new home, too, one in a better neighborhood, one with a garage. He told Mom, "Don't worry about money. Little Miss should feel safe."
That's what he always called me: Little Miss. Over time, the name became more sarcastic than affectionate. His father-knows-best personality grated against mine, and that brought out my gloves, which brought out his. Almost anything could trigger a fight between us. Unwashed dishes, crumbs on the furniture, music, television, politics, current events, potato-potahto. I once threw a remote control at his TV and broke the screen. He retaliated by "losing" my cell phone down a drainage grate.
Mom seemed oblivious to our fights, or perhaps she was cowed by them. Either way, her apathy hurt more than any screaming match with Regis. Finally, I cornered her in the pantry and said, "Do something. It's him or me. Choose." She shook her head and tried to walk away, but I would not move from the pantry doorway.
"Just do something," I begged.
And then, as asked, she did something. Mom slapped me, quick as a snake bites. Her star-cut diamond engagement ring bruised my cheek.
Later that night, I filled a backpack with clothes and a toothbrush, moved by a half-baked plan to call a friend and ask, "Will you take me in?" That's when I noticed Annie standing on the sidewalk outside my window. The streetlight at her back cast a lanky shadow across the yard. As she waved, her shadow swiped at me.
I called, "What are you doing here?"
She approached my open window and peered at the cluttered bedroom beyond, at the backpack on my bed, and at my red, wet eyes. "Hm?" Annie asked. "Oh, hi, Josie. I didn't know you lived in this neighborhood. Can I spend the night?"
I invited her inside by opening the window and raising its mesh screen. She climbed over the ledge easily.
"Are you in trouble?" I asked.
She shook her head. "Not really. My great-grandmother died."
"Sorry. That's rough. You can stay, but won't somebody worry? It's late."
"I'm eighteen," she said. "My parents don't care where I go or what I do, if I keep the Ten Commandments."
"No murdering, no stealing, no . . . whatever the rest are?"
"No coveting thy neighbor's wife." I didn't get the joke back then, before we shared secrets like real friends. "Well. Mom and Dad don't really like me. Maybe they love me, but they don't like me. You know?"
Somewhere in the house, a door slammed in implicit agreement. We hung out a lot more after that.
Now, on the last bus to Willowbee, Annie muttered in her sleep, "So bright."
There was a thud, and the bus lurched as it hit a doe. The driver cursed but continued driving.
"Uh?" Annie asked. She stretched and yawned. "What happened?"
A green sign that read: WILLOWBEE NEXT EXIT shone in the blinding headlights. Minutes later, the bus pulled into an open-air station. Two floodlights and a neon vending machine lit the square concrete parking lot.
"You have a good feeling about this, right?" I asked.
"I have a feeling."
"A good feeling?"
Wish I'd known that before we left.
Annie grabbed the duffel bag and followed me outside. She waved at a taxi idling near the street. The driver nodded.
"It'll only take a couple days, Josie, promise," she said.
"What can we learn in two days?" I asked
"Lots." To the driver, she added, "Take us to a cheap hotel, please."
"There's only one hotel in Willowbee," he explained. "It's a Best Western. The Millers run a bed and breakfast on their ranch, if you prefer."
“The hotel will be fine,” I said. ”Thanks.”
In the Best Western, as I brewed decaf coffee, Annie lay on the single bed in her tennis shoes, ratty jeans, and sweater. "Heron Bridge is five miles away," she said. "But before we visit the accident site, let's find Willowbee's cemetery."
"What for? Rita and Melanie weren't locals, remember? They'd been vacationing."
"I'm not interested in their graves. We need to learn how well this town treats its dead."
“You think they’ve angered spirits with disrespectful burials?” Though I tried to be open-minded, the world would flood with violent ghosts if souls could wreak havoc for unmarked graves or other ceremonial slights.
She smiled enigmatically. "No."
This life is nothing but a great story with no end. Though I don’t know who or what the storyteller may be, sometimes I hear its voice. When I left home to escape the haze, that strange voice was screaming. Now, it speaks in hushed murmurs, like campers sharing ghost stories around a fire. I am afraid.
In the morning, Annie and I picked over the breakfast buffet and enjoyed weak coffee. Then, she plied the front desk for directions to their cemetery, while I snuck muffins, potatoes, and sausage links back to our room.
"It'll be a long walk," Annie said, once we regrouped outside.
"There's nothing better to do in this Podunk." In daylight, I realized that Willowbee was more roads, grazing land, and wilderness than people or buildings. We traveled down a two-lane road, sweating when the shady juniper woodland around our hotel thinned into grassland. Every few minutes, a truck or car passed, and some honked in greeting. One white pickup slowed to a crawl, and the driver lowered his window. Visor-style sunglasses were sandwiched between sandy hair and a smiling mouth. Their blue-silver glass reflected the wildflowers growing directly behind me. "You ladies need a ride?" he asked. Annie's eyes widened, as if she could see the skeleton under his skin. "No thanks," I said.
"It's not inconvenient. Where are you going?"
"Still no." Mace would be a feeble deterrent if he had a gun, but I slipped a hand into my pocket anyway. "Not interested."
"People drive like maniacs," he warned. "It's dangerous along the road."
"I won't say it again: no."
Finally, Mr. Concerned Citizen zipped away with a mechanical rumble that drowned his parting words. The pickup tailpipe expelled black smoke.
"Did you see your face reflected in his sunglasses?" Annie asked.
“Not that I recall."
"Huh. Me either. At least he's gone."
One hour later, we reached Willowbee's heart. To the east: a hardware store, grocery stop, and antique warehouse with rag dolls in its windows. To the west: a post office, Baptist church, and diner. The cemetery was beyond these shops, due west, surrounded by a black wrought-iron fence with ornate swirls and metal roses sandwiched between its bars. The plot resembled a green velvet patch on a yellowing cotton quilt. Professional golf courses didn't have lusher grass.
A freckled brunet teenager arranged flowers before each headstone. He was dressed to the nines in a black formal suit, wide-brimmed cowboy hat, and turquoise bolo tie.
"They're afraid," Annie said.
"How d'you figure?"
"This town works hard to placate their dead."
"Maybe they're just respectful."
"Maybe," she agreed.
"Hey, kid!" I called. "Why do what you do?"
The grave keeper approached us with measured steps. "It's my job," he said. "Beats working at McDonald's, right? Here." He passed two bright yellow buttercups over the fence. Annie took them both and tucked one behind my ear.
"Thanks," she murmured.
"No problem. Have a nice day, ladies."
"I've seen enough," Annie decided. "Let's visit the bridge."
"Lunch first. Ghosts may not need to eat, but we do."
We ordered burgers and fries at the diner before resuming our investigation. They were greasy, salty, cheap, and perfect. By one p.m., the sun had drooped but felt no less hot. Our take-out slushies melted rapidly and filled their Styrofoam cups with lukewarm syrup long before we reached Heron Bridge. It was just concrete and steel, not the creaking, shadowy bridge-of-the-damned I’d expected. Juniper trees grew along the river, their branches interlocked like teeth in a zipper.
"Are you sure this is the right bridge?" I asked, because none of the trees seemed damaged by a high-speed collision, and there weren't any stumps in sight. "Annie? Annie!"
She'd climbed down to the muddy boundary between land and water, where an exposed tangle of roots spilled into the river. I pressed through itchy weeds to reach my friend, who, I should note, couldn't swim. Annie sank like a rock in water, as if something unusually heavy lived under her skin.
"Here," she said. "Look here."
"Look for what? Back off! I'll handle this."
Crawling on her hands and knees for balance, she ascended the steep bank and sat against a tree. Gray-brown mud speckled her jeans and arms up to the elbows.
"What am I looking for?" I called, while digging around black roots. Should they be so dark, like something charred?
"I don't know. A clue?"
Sometimes, her feelings were awfully unhelpful.
My fingers curled around a lump in the ground: Rita's gold cross. "This may be it, Annie!"
I scrambled up the steep bank and held out the necklace. Annie took one look at the cross and said, “Rita went into the river. This confirms it.”
“But I thought she died in the car. Maybe that necklace flew off during the crash?”
“I think not. Her ghost drowned Melanie.”
“That’s . . .”
We heard a mechanical rumble. I pulled Annie behind a tree as a familiar white pickup truck screeched across the bridge, swerved, passed through the guardrails, and plunged into the water. The impact didn't cause a single ripple. In fact, there wasn't any trace of man or machine left.
“What the hell was that?” I asked.
“The fabric between Here and Below is threadbare in Willowbee,” Annie said, calmly, as if ghost trucks were a commonplace thing. “Especially where we stand."
“Can we please leave now? Rita’s ghost drowned baby Melanie. Mystery solved.”
“Not yet. The father needs why, not how. He wants to understand.”
I shrugged. Who really understood matters beyond the here and now? “Obviously, there’s something weird about Willowbee, especially those juniper trees. Rita came back because she died on Heron Bridge. It’s a fatal wrong place, wrong time situation. Right?”
“Why did she kill Melanie? There must be a motive. Vengeance?”
We couldn’t stay there forever, asking questions without answers. “Only Rita knows,” I said, “but she’s gone somewhere we can’t follow.”
"Hm. Let’s speak to that cemetery kid tomorrow morning. Maybe he’s privy to rumors."
“Fine. We have to be quick, though. Our bus leaves at eleven a.m., and I don’t want to miss it.”
I couldn’t think of resting when we returned to the hotel. After dark, with its baby-killing ghosts and doomed pickup truck drivers, Willowbee seemed unbearably creepy. As Annie slept, at midnight I searched the room for unwanted visitors, peeking under the bed, in the closet, and behind the shower curtain. Nothing. Yet.
Unfortunately, it's hard to resist a soft mattress after sleeping on a yoga mat for one restless year. I dozed off during a retro sitcom and woke to static on TV and the sound of running water. The bathroom door was closed; Annie must be bathing, I thought, until I noticed her curled under the comforter. She didn't stir when I whispered, "Hey." In fact, Annie didn't move at all. She wasn't breathing anymore.
The bathroom door swung open.
Josie, when the haze descended, I warned my parents that it portended disaster. They just hung their heads and called me "unwell." They once called Great-grandmother "unwell," too, and sent her to a nursing home across town. Nursing homes won't take healthy young women, but there are other places, facilities named after saints. That's where Mom and Dad wanted me to go after high school, but I refused. No, I'm not sick. No, I'm not a sinner. Yes, I'm visiting Josie again, but no, we aren't sweethearts. She doesn't like anybody that way. Don't look so relieved. We're still close. She accepts my weird baggage, and that's more than you've ever done. Josie is my sister.
Sister, that night, you said, "If bad things are coming, let's run away."
What about your education, Josie? The fall semester classes? The community college basketball team? That part-time job at Applebee's? Your mother?
"I can't afford more school," you said. "Regis taught me one big life lesson: debt will kick your ass.”
I should have insisted, "Leave the city, if you can. Escape the haze. But don't follow me." Josie, I'm sorry.
As I doze, shadows thicken and spread like smoke. The floral comforter becomes wildflowers colored like pieces of sunset. Great-grandmother, you warned me: never sleep beneath a juniper tree. But I'm surrounded by them here, and there's death on my mind. My spirit leaks from its bone cage and falls to the place below.
Ahead, Rita cradles Melanie.
"Why did you kill your daughter?" I ask.
"Love." She rocks the quiet baby. "Loneliness. It's autonomous. Understand?"
"I never wanted to kill my child, just like the heart doesn't want to beat. It. Happens. Automatically." She laughs. "Who do you love?"
I grab Melanie and run, run, run until Rita's screams become whispers.
Annie's ghost (or was it something stranger?) sat on the edge of the full tub. Her eyes were round and yellow. Their black pupils expanded; I could not look away from the pits, as if my soul had been drawn into the vacuum beyond.
"We'll never be happy here," she said.
I screamed as she dragged me to the water. I screamed for her, not myself. Did anybody hear me? Did anybody care?
"I came back for you."
Annie pushed me into the tub and held my body underwater. Nails, sharp like talons, so unlike her typical ragged, worry-chewed stubs, dug into my shoulders. I kicked and thrashed, my lips pinched to seal out bathwater.
"No more running," she promised.
It wasn't fair.
"Life is not fair, but you've known that since the day we met."
I was afraid.
"Aren't you always?"
I'd die in this place. When the news trickled back to my mother, she'd wring her hands and pity the black sheep whose sins drove her to suicide. But then, she'd move on, because Mom was expecting a new daughter soon to complete the picket-fence family she made with Regis, the one that didn't include me. It wasn't fair.
Though I outran the mother's screams, her question hounds every step: who do you love?
Oh, Josie. I must reach you before my ghost does. I must find the path home. In this place without time, thoughts unfurl into infinity. Within one step, I relive our short life together. Within two steps, I am lost. A juniper forest sprouts, and figures emerge from the wizened trunks and strong branches. The spirits surround me. Are you lost, they must wonder. Are you one of us? They paw at Melanie, who wails in my arms.
A wrinkled brown hand parts the crowd. It points. "Go that way," Great-grandmother says. "And don't return until you're ready to stay.”
"Thank you, Gramma. Nkásht íí. I love you."
I dash through trees and spirits until the wildflowers underfoot transform into patterns on a cheap hotel comforter.
The terrible thing vanished a second before Annie (the flesh and blood Annie with brown eyes and stubby nails who'd never hold me underwater until my lungs burned) called, "Josie!" I lurched from the bathtub and collapsed facedown on wet linoleum. My body shuddered with coughs as it expelled water. Some had filled my nose during the struggle.
A bout of wooziness swelled. Darkness. Ache. I felt a hand over my heart. Her hand, my heart.
Oh, no. She was trying to resuscitate me. That could only end in broken ribs.
"Stop, Annie!" She sobbed with either relief or shame and begged for forgiveness, asked me to say something, anything, but I was too consumed by guilt for the rage that almost followed me into the grave and out again. I had to make peace somehow.
"Let's go home, Annie."
She helped me stand, her face still creased with concern, and said, "The bus won't come until morning."
"I mean real home."
"You mean . . . but what about the darkness?"
"We'll chase it away. We have to. Annie, my mom is having a . . ."
An infant's banshee wail interrupted the conversation. We scrambled from the bathroom. Melanie lay on a flat pillow, keening for comfort. She sounded so miserable, pity overcame fear, and I cradled her until she calmed and looked up at the bright light fixture embedded overhead.
Was this a miracle? Yes. It must be.
I could see my face reflected in Melanie's wide blue eyes.