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The House That Jessica Built

“We discussed this, Mark. She’s acting out because she’s trying to radically redefine herself.”

Rue knelt down by the upstairs banister and pushed her face between the bars. She used to feel a certain sophisticated glow from being driven across town for grief therapy sessions—it satisfied her to trudge into Dr. McKinley’s office with all the other broken people knowing that she had been marked “fragile, handle with care.” The girls at school worshiped sickness almost as much as they worshiped purity, and now they looked at Rue with the same adoration they bestowed on Jennifer, who was bulimic, and Nikki, who’d had an abortion. But now Dr. McKinley was coming over for house calls, and Rue had the disconcerting feeling that she had been marked something worse. Radioactive, perhaps. Terminal.

“This is common in girls her age. Especially after a traumatic loss, and a change like a new house. Negative energy can manifest in powerful ways. Try to be supportive.”

Rue’s father asked how he was supposed to accept this unacceptable behavior. He asked, again, if there wasn’t something he could do to make her stop this nonsense. Rue knew his instinct was to punish her, but he had already tried that—taken away her phone and internet privileges and sent her to her room, in the hopes that denying her information would put a stop to the house’s paranormal activity. It didn’t work. Even with Rue quarantined upstairs, the Ghost was still turning on faucets and banging on the basement door.

“You should think of the ‘ghost’ as a message from your daughter. Rue is trying to talk to you about something. Probably her mother. This ‘ghost’ is an easier way for her to communicate right now.”

Dr. McKinley really seemed to care about her mother’s death, so Rue had answered her questions honestly. What does the Ghost look like? How old is she? What color is her hair? Do you think she’s a friend? Does she ever tell you to hurt yourself? Or anybody else? She’d hoped to convince Dr. McKinley, and thus her father, that she was neither crazy nor lying. But it turned out Dr. McKinley wasn’t interested in the Ghost at all. Downstairs, her father wanted to know if playing along wasn’t just going to feed the delusion.

“She takes comfort in the delusion right now. It gives her back a sense of power and control that she feels like she’s lost.”

She could hear her father scoffing. She’s fourteen, he said. What sort of power and control does she expect to have? Jesus Christ. Just because we moved? This is unbelievable.

“I think for now you should try to meet the ‘ghost’ halfway, Mark.”

When she heard Dr. McKinley gathering up her coat and walking to the door in her patent leather heels, saying to please let her know if things got worse before next week, Rue hurried into the shadows toward her new bedroom. She took a deep breath before opening her door, just in case. Thank God, the room was empty. She stayed sequestered there until nightfall, when her father lured her out with the promise of Thai food, her favorite. Downstairs, her little brother Trevor was sitting anxiously at the dining room table with his inert Gameboy cradled in his hands. Her father had been very excited about this table, about having a dining room to put it in.

“Hi Rue,” Trevor said, “are you still sick?”

She glanced briefly at her father, who was focusing very deliberately on opening the sweaty little brown boxes. “I’m okay,” she said. Trevor knew about the Ghost too: not only had he overheard her screaming at their father about it, not only had he heard the bumps in the night, but he had felt its presence. She was sure about that. He had once crawled into bed with her, eyes wide with alarm, saying there was a woman in his room. “Maybe it’s Mommy,” he whispered under the sheets, his breath hot and his fingers ice-cold. “Coming to say goodbye.”

“It’s not Mommy,” she immediately whispered back.

“So,” said her father, once the table was piled with heaps of pad thai and shriveled egg rolls, “is Jessica going to be joining us tonight?”

Rue looked at him in confusion. He never called her by her given name. It had been Rue from the start, Rue after her mother’s mother, Rue because she just didn’t seem like much of a Jessica. Besides, there was another Jessica in her grade, Jessica Snyder, who wore the name like a pair of tight designer jeans. She would rather be Rue, a little rough around the edges, than Ugly Jessica. “I’m right here.”

“Yes, Rue. I know you are. I mean your special friend. Jessica.” He raised his eyebrows at her and motioned idly with his fork at the ceiling, at the air above them, at the seen and unseen universe. “Is Jessica going to come by, or is she busy tonight? I don’t know what ghosts do when they’re not messing around with the utilities. Rattle chains, I guess?”

Rue threw down her own fork. Hadn’t Dr. McKinley told him to at least pretend to play along, out of pity for her poor, stupid, broken brain? “I told you I’m not making it up!”

“I’m going to take that as a no,” he said, loudly, confidently. She didn’t understand what he was doing. What was he trying to prove? Did he think calling the Ghost by her name would shock her into admitting there was no ghost, after all? The Ghost wasn’t sitting at the table, no, but the Ghost, like God, was somehow everywhere at once. “Good. More food for us.”

“I don’t think she eats pad thai,” Rue said, bitterly.

Trevor didn’t want to play the Midnight Game, but at that age he did almost anything Rue wanted. Even if he had to keep his hands clapped over his ears, he would sit and squirm as she reenacted scary stories she heard at school about Indian burial grounds and murdered cheerleaders. And although his whining could get annoying, it was easier for her to summon up the courage to dance with danger when he was around to be the weak one, the baby, the one that cried.

Anyway, she suspected he secretly liked it. Otherwise he would have told their father.

Rue heard about the Midnight Game from Chester King, a gangly junior in health class who had already failed health twice and wouldn’t graduate if he failed it again. She sometimes saw him smoking on the hood of a car in the parking lot, staring at the sun through his dark glasses. Her friends said he was a freak, but she talked to him so she wouldn’t have to talk to Mike Rickert, who was dating Jessica Snyder and on the soccer team and always asked Rue what STDs she had.

Chester said he’d met a demon playing the Midnight Game. It called itself BEL, he said, and said it was a defiler. After following him through the house it went away at 3:33 a.m., and Rue had the crazy thought that this ritual might eradicate all ghostly presences from the house—demons, midnight men, Jessica. “How do you play it?” she asked, and Chester drawled, “Look it up, dork.”

Not long after that, she got into a fight with Trevor over the shower curtain. The Ghost liked it closed, so they’d agreed to keep it closed. It was a favor they were doing for her, an attempt to keep her from becoming a Bad Ghost. Ugly Jessica. They had a whole set of rules like that: close the shower curtain, don’t leave any books open, always keep the basement door shut.

One night Trevor forgot, and at one a.m., Rue heard the stairs creak and slow, heavy dragging follow as the Ghost ascended from the basement, up to the second floor, and then down the hallway to the bathroom, where the shower curtain was dragged closed. And though Rue waited for the creaks to begin again, the Ghost just stayed in the hallway outside Rue’s door, freezing time, as if waiting for something. An invitation? She had to physically cover her eyes with her hands to keep herself from opening them.

The next day at the bus stop she screamed at Trevor for forgetting to close the shower curtain. Trevor crinkled up his face in fear and then screamed back: “Dad says you’re lying! He says Jessica isn’t real! You just made her up to get attention!”

“Her name isn’t Jessica!” Rue shouted—even though it sort of made her feel like they were sisters, and surely the Ghost wouldn’t hurt its sister?

But after school, Trevor still begged Rue to come watch his stupid cartoons while she was holed up in her room, trying to drown in her headphones and blankets. “Okay,” Rue said. “But only if you play the Midnight Game with me tonight after Dad goes to sleep.”

At 11:55 p.m. they wrote their names on an old math test, pricked their fingers, knocked on her bedroom door, blew out a candle, opened the door, and lit the candle again. Trevor was too young to carry his own fire, so he stayed glued to her side as they crept around in the dark, stumbling over extension cords, looking for the Midnight Man. “Carry the salt,” Rue said, but he was clenching her jeans with both hands, warbling something that she finally realized was “why.”

“Because we have to face our fears,” she whispered back. “It’s the only way we can be free. If we last to 3:33 a.m., then the Midnight Man goes away. Maybe he’ll take her with him.”

Eventually the only threshold they hadn’t crossed was the sacred basement door. Trevor—or something—was plaintively whispering “no,” but Rue knew she had to open it. She did so with a quick flip of the wrist and the door slowly rolled open on its own, like a long-held breath being released. There was nothing at first except the steel shelving at the bottom of the stairs, and then—and then a woman walked into view. They had never before seen her as more than a dark silhouette, but now they knew she wasn’t their mother. She was in a white nightgown and trudging slowly, almost robotically past the staircase and toward the fuse box, and then back again. She had not noticed them—it seemed as if they’d walked in on her private, tortured ritual. Like a dog tied to a post, Rue thought, feeling a twinge of pity. But Trevor, unable to contain himself, squeaked.

As soon as the Ghost heard him, she swung her head toward them and started to clamber up the stairs, half on her knees, her movements suddenly feral and raw and angry. Rue grabbed the door and slammed it shut, just as Trevor started howling. In no time at all, everything was back to normal—her bleary-eyed father was yelling at her, then yelling at “Jessica,” holding Trevor and glaring at her while yelling at Jessica. “Just stop this, Jessica! I’ve had enough!”

The thoughts tumbled into her head fast and manic as Rue strapped herself back into the safety of her headphones, trying not to cry from the aftershock of her father’s thunderous anger: Maybe Jessica’s had enough. Maybe I’ve had enough. I wish I was Jessica. I wish I was dead.

Dr. McKinley smiled, perplexed, at the picture Rue had drawn of the Ghost—in pencil, of course. “Rue,” she said, flipping the picture around, “she looks kind of like you, doesn’t she?”

Rue did not agree. Just because they both had dark hair, dark eyes, the desperately angry expression of a wounded, cornered wolf? Just because they shared a name? Was Dr. McKinley trying to say she looked like a corpse? “No.”

“Must just be me.” She thankfully put the picture down. “How’s Jessica doing?”

“I don’t know.” Rue had been trying very hard not to provoke it. She diligently followed an ever-expanding set of rules—radio only on channel 98.9, no oranges in the house ever—and drank NyQuil before bed. She’d also taken down all the house’s mirrors to avoid seeing the Ghost—not behind her, but within her, poking through her skin, bending her joints like a Malibu Barbie, stretching her mouth so wide her lips hurt. “She seems angry. Maybe because she’s dead.”

The temperature in her bedroom dropped by a few degrees, and she burrowed deeper into her hoodie. Why do you always wear that thing, kids at school said, you a druggie now? She was too sick to be cool. She had fallen way off that balance beam. She still sometimes saw the girls she used to call her friends, coagulated into one well-adjusted bangle-laden Girl Pack, looking over their shoulders at her with pity and fear. The same way she looked at the Ghost, she supposed.

“Is there anyone in particular she’s angry with?”

Rue shrugged.

“Your father? Trevor?” Dr. McKinley leaned in. “You?”

“My dad keeps breaking her rules, even though I’ve told him, over and over. It’s her house, you know? Or he’ll yell at her for things she didn’t do—random shit that happens at work. He’ll call her names. Say how much he hates her. He keeps calling her Jessica, and that’s not her name.”

Dr. McKinley tilted her head to the side. “Do you think he’d ever hurt her?”

“How? She’s a fucking ghost.” Her lower lip quivered, sore from self-inflicted bites, as Dr. McKinley gave her a kindly look. “Oh right. You think I’m Jessica, and I’m making it all up.”

“I don’t think you’re making it all up. But have you ever heard of a tulpa, Rue? It’s a thought that’s so powerful and so concentrated that it actually becomes real. And sometimes it grows strong enough that it develops a mind of its own. That means it’s not your fault.”

Behind Dr. McKinley, the knob of her bedroom door twisted open. Just a few inches. Just enough for a hand to slip inside, for a face to be seen in the shadows. Rue drew her knees to her chest and hid her face in her arms. She could hear Dr. McKinley shifting in her chair and, presumably, staring at the barely-open door. The Ghost didn’t wait for an invitation anymore.

“Do you see her?” Rue whispered.

“No,” said Dr. McKinley, although her voice sounded funny. “Rue, it’s an old house, sometimes doors open by themselves.”

Rue refused to risk it by looking. “God, you idiot. Why do you think Trevor’s always at the neighbors’? Cuz he’s scared. Why do you think my dad’s drinking again? Cuz he’s scared and he won’t admit it. Why don’t you go look if you don’t believe me?”

“Then why are you here?” Because no one likes you, because you’re crazy? “Aren’t you scared?”

“Cuz she’s fucking attached to me now!” Rue shouted, pulling away her arms so Dr. McKinley could see just how furious and broken she was—just how badly therapy had failed—and then immediately cowering back as if slapped because Jessica the Ghost was right there behind Dr. McKinley, making a soul-eating sound somewhere between a roar and a lament. Dr. McKinley was still silently moving her lips but none of that mattered. The only truth was that scream and whatever suffering had created it. The Ghost inched closer and closer, dripping over Dr. McKinley, and though Rue fell to the floor there was nowhere to run from that terrible mouth—

“Inhale . . . exhale . . . inhale . . . exhale.”

Her head hurt. Nausea welled. Rue retched and someone blonde—Dr. McKinley—thrust a trash can under her face. She was in the living room and a uniformed policeman was sitting in her father’s favorite chair. Another one, a woman, was lurking by the staircase, looking suspiciously at the basement door.

“Rue. Something’s happened with your father. These police officers need to talk to you.”

The policeman leaned in before she could say yes. “Your dad ran off the road a few miles north of here. He’s at Saint Augustine’s. He’s pretty roughed up but we think he’s gonna make it. No one else was hurt.” The policeman sighed and paused, as if expecting her to say something. “He said someone named . . . Jessica . . . made him do it.”

A stray fantasy that she hadn’t known she had uncoiled in her head: her own body manifesting in the middle of a road that she somehow knew was Lockland, watching that asshole’s eyes widen in mortal fear of what poor little Rue might do to him. It triggered an ugly burst of laughter—Ugly Jessica—that she managed to contain to a tremble. She heard his next question before he asked it: “Have you been getting along with your father?”

She stared up at him, thinking not about her father but about Ugly Jessica and her timelessness, her spacelessness, and how it was that despite those apparent signs of omnipotence she was still tethered to this horrible house. Dr. McKinley was whispering that Rue couldn’t possibly have been involved—no, couldn’t possibly, little Rue?—and that Jessica thing was, well—a thing—just a piece of make-believe, an inside joke, and no doubt Mr. Duval was just badly disoriented—crazy?

The policewoman started down the hallway, fingers reaching for her holster. Had she heard the scratching noises, smelled the death rot? The gun wouldn’t help her. Ugly Jessica, unlike little Jessica Rue, was invincible, and seething in her anger. Eternal. Unsparing. “Don’t go into the basement!” Rue tried to shout, but fingers reached up through her throat and gagged her silent. The policewoman took a long skeptical look at her—little miss drama queen—and then went into the basement to meet her fate.

“You’re making some of your classmates uncomfortable, Jessica.”

Rue pulled back a rubber band—snap it when you’re anxious, Dr. McKinley said—and warned her possum-eyed principal with a loud snap: “Don’t call me that.”

“Right, sorry. Rue. You’re making some of your classmates uncomfortable. All the random outbursts, claiming there’s some . . . ghost woman in the school . . . ”

The first time Rue saw her after moving away was at the homecoming game. She had gone in a pathetic attempt to be “normal,” sat with some nerds playing Magic the Gathering on the bleachers, and almost—almost—forgot who she was. And then there was a roar as their runningback ran down the field for a touchdown, and there was Jessica, standing behind the other team’s unhappy cheerleaders. Now she saw what Dr. McKinley was on about: she did look a little like Jessica. Certainly they were both lonely outsiders. Rue almost felt guilty for abandoning her.

“And you’ve been caught smoking in the parking lot.”

“Oh my God.” Fucking Chester King. He and everybody else had been on a recent God-kick that had passed her by—on his second go at senior year he joined Campus Life and traded in Joy Division for Jesus.

“Everyone’s really worried about you,” he’d said.

“Fuck off,” she replied.

“I know it’s been rough, with your mom dying and your dad suffering his . . . accident . . . ”

She snapped the rubber band again. She never visited her father at Mercy Regional. Trevor went once and said their father “kept screaming about Jessica,” so he never went back. Uncle Owen couldn’t be bothered—he ran a vet practice, he was very busy—and Aunt Claire said that it was no surprise that Mark had gone off the rails. Perversely, Rue had come to love him more in the two years he’d been absent. After all these years of misunderstanding, they shared a secret. Jessica had brought them together. She was his Little Princess again. There were a lot of pictures of Little Princess Rue at Uncle Owen and Aunt Claire’s house. They seemed to think these would help: reminders that Daddy once loved her before he became convinced that she was capable of conjuring evil.

“But we have to make sure everyone has a safe learning environment. I’ve talked to your therapist, and we’ve agreed that maybe you should take some time off from school. Just to get yourself together.”

Uncle Owen and Aunt Claire would be thrilled. They had been so nervous about taking her in while they were trying for possibly the last time to get pregnant; Dr. McKinley had scared the shit out of them with that book Taming the Demon: Adolescent Girls and Psychokinesis. They could coo over Trevor, who was on the up-and-up since starting middle school—joined the soccer team, got third place at an all-state science fair—but they did not know what to do about Rue, the hunched-up mood-suck that followed bizarre rules and never seemed to want to go anywhere or do anything or be with anyone. But they didn’t know what was out there. No one did. Only Jessica.

She shuddered as two cold hands slipped around her throat. The feeling was almost comforting. She was getting tired of running, of explaining. Death would bite hard at first, but then the pain would end. Maybe. To exist is to suffer, Jessica had taught her that.

“Who exactly is so scared of me?” Rue asked. “Maybe I can comfort them.”

The principal squinted. “I don’t think so, Jessica—I mean, Rue.”

But by that slip of the tongue alone, Rue knew that it was Jessica Snyder, Head Sanctimonious Bitch. Good Jessica. Pretty Jessica. Jessica Snyder had told the whole school that Rue was a demon-possessed psychopath who had driven her own father to a suicide attempt—a rumor that Rue fought ferociously at first, and then let simmer because it meant everyone left her alone. After Rue received her two-week out of school suspension, she marched down junior hall to where Jessica Snyder was laughing, flanked by her Prom Court cronies, and punched her in the face. Jessica Snyder banged her head against the locker and crumpled like a withered flower.

“You’re so fucking ugly,” Rue hissed at her. Bad Jessica. But at least she knew what Bad Jessica looked like, didn’t she? She knew what Bad Jessica could do. Underneath the studs and halters and rhinestones, they were all monsters in violent denial. All cowering and whimpering and crying oh my God. “You’re so fucking ugly on the inside and you have no idea.”

So a two-week suspension became a four-week suspension. Didn’t even need to snap the band. She slept-walked home and kept her headphones in through Aunt Claire’s mildly-sedated “I’m-so-disappointed” talk. She probably would have slept-walked all the way to her room if she didn’t see Trevor standing very still in the kitchen in his grass-stained soccer jersey, staring into the night-veiled backyard.

“Trev,” she said. “Trev. Are you okay?”

“She’s back. Your stupid twin.” He whispered the word “stupid,” because old habits die hard—Jessica didn’t like to be insulted—and then he turned around and sped out of the kitchen, his little eleven-year-old face creased in anger and fear.

As leaves tapped like impatient guests against the window, Rue started snapping the rubber band so fast that it broke. She didn’t go any closer. She wasn’t ready. Wasn’t ready for Jessica at the new house. Jessica at the high school or the mall, engulfed by crowds walking through her, was one thing—but inside the closed walls of a home, Jessica could swell. She could engulf. She could infect, and she could hurt. Especially when she was lonely.

“She’s not my twin,” she hissed, although no one was there to listen.

Rue was right—Jessica wasn’t Jessica.

County deed records and twenty-year-old newspaper articles, cached for posterity on the Gorehound crime site, revealed that Jessica was Esther Pohlmann, a seventeen year-old high school dropout with an abusive father who had fallen in love with twenty-one year-old Sawyer Cross, who liked killing little girls. Because she loved him—for a variety of reasons that the Gorehound bloodsuckers were only marginally interested in understanding because who cares, dumb bitch was clearly crazy—she helped him. They lived in her dead grandmother’s house and drowned their victims in the upstairs bathtub until Sawyer beat Esther to death in the basement because she wasn’t keeping up with the laundry. He got sloppy without her. He was on death row now, ten miles away, and still received heartfelt pornographic photos from teenaged fans.

Rue instantly recognized Esther from her yearbook pictures. It was strange to see that mouth twisted into a pained attempt at a good girl smile, but that dead-eyed stare had only become sharper in death. So Rue stuffed a small pink heart-shaped backpack from her Little Princess days with lighters, papers, salt canisters, candles—black, to ward off evil—and a Swiss Army knife, in case things got bad, then went to the old house to see the Ghost.

She pedaled her bicycle past her father’s favorite little coffee cantina, the playground where she went to her last birthday party, the old bus stop where she and Trevor used to play Twenty Questions back when they were friends. In the night everything was silent; lulled to death. Even two blocks away she could feel the darkness that she could now call Esther seeping out like a chemical spill, and wasn’t surprised to see several For Sale signs staked in weedy lawns as she closed in. The house seemed larger than she remembered, although the yard had tried to consume it. Some brave soul had draped a crucifix over the mailbox’s metal flag; someone else had written BAD JUJU on the driveway in white chalk. Bad Jessica. People knew her, even if they couldn’t name her. Bad Jessica lived everywhere, in everyone.

They hadn’t changed the locks. Rue lifted up the grinning gnome on the porch and used the spare key to open the door. The house smelled heavy, old, like ruins after a rain. A constant quiet hissing raced like termites under the floorboards, inside the walls. She’d never noticed how full of walls this house was. She fumbled her way up the stairs, wanting to run but unable in the dark, and pushed open the door to her old room. She’d taken almost nothing, because she’d wanted nothing from this time, and now her posters were all over the floor, a sea of gloss in the moonlight. Every hollow-cheeked model was face-up, looking at her. Esther was waiting, all right.

Quickly, Rue pricked her finger and wrote her name, not in ink but in blood. And not Rue this time either, but her real name: Jessica. She had to squeeze out a little extra for the “ca.” Then she lit the candle, rapped on the door, opened it, blew the candle out, closed the door, and lit it again. Even before she’d put the flame to the wick she heard the deep corpse-rattle from the dead house’s heart.

She forced herself to leave the room. She looked down the hall and was struck by the sudden memory of her father standing outside his bedroom, crazed with sleep deprivation, shouting, “if I see one more thing broken this week in the kitchen, Jessica, I swear I am gonna lose it!” and Bad Jessica hovering over him with her arms outstretched like some demented chandelier. Rue closed her eyes, tried to remember some of the bullshit affirmations Dr. McKinley told her: I am a rock in a sea of chaos. I am a boundless beacon of light. She was concentrating so hard that she must have missed the tell-tale thuds of Jessica coming up the stairs, because when she opened her eyes, there was Jessica—no, Esther—creeping around the corner in her dirty nightgown. She looked like no one. Nothing. Eyes like dark pits and an inhuman, wanting mouth.

But the name just slipped out, the way vomit can’t be kept down. “Jessica . . . ”

The Ghost—Not Jessica! Esther, Esther, Esther!—let down its jaw, and as it came buckling toward her, its face contorted into a bloated, decaying version of the sunken eyes and crooked nose Rue saw when she couldn’t avoid mirrors. The scowling yearbook entry between earnest Grace Duong and sun-kissed Sara Dwyer. Her face. The terrible feeling that everyone had been right, and she alone had birthed that thing—your twin—forced a horrified gasp that blew out her candle.

And then there was a rush of unclean movement that can only come from a human body that is no longer a human body, and Rue stumbled backward—away from that incomprehensible motion, that corrupted flesh—without needing to be told. She backed all the way into the bathroom, where she tried to close the door but was defeated by the Ghost, whose infestation knew no human walls. She threw the salt and the grains froze listless in mid-air. She fell into the bathtub and the Ghost, now all darkness—her darkness—came pouring onto her like wet cement. Jessica’s world.

But she’s not Jessica, she thought as a pair of clammy hands pressed needily into her neck, as if they didn’t know any other way of showing love. “You’re Esther,” she croaked, and two wide, bulbous hazel eyes inside the writhing shadow flared open in shock. “Esther . . . Pohlmann.”

Pressure subsided. The Ghost jerked backward, the shadow folding up like a flower unblooming, and then shyly uncurled again into the form she had first seen methodically circling the basement—the brown-haired misfit in the dirty nightgown, trapped in her long, exquisite moment of pain. “Esther,” the Ghost repeated, with a little crooked smile. She seemed confused, frightened the way beaten dogs are, but still hopeful—still reaching out for love. “Esther.”

“Yes,” Rue whispered back, slowly sliding up to press her back against the tap. “And I’m Jessica.”

Esther was now sitting curled at the other end of the tub, lazily prying off her toenails with fingers stained black with blood. Rue imagined her before Sawyer Cross, before their victims, when she was just another quiet little nothing playing Princess Make-Believe for a life she’d never have. “Hi, Jessica.” Just a whisper from a carcass tongue. “Best friends? Best friends forever?”

“Okay.” She was willing herself not to run, not yet. “But I can’t stay.”

Esther just closed her eyes and smiled. Didn’t breathe. Didn’t move. So still, so taut, it was as if she’d been mummified, calcified, not twenty-years dead but two thousand. Rue wondered if ghosts were haunted by ghosts of their own, or if lost souls could make tulpas, but received no hint of an answer from Esther’s corpse. Only when the first glimmers of morning bathed the bathroom in a breath of blue light—dust and salt and bodily detritus danced in the air like tiny flakes of snow—did Rue shakily ease herself to her feet.

A leathery hand closed around her wrist. “Come visit,” Esther said, grinning.

“I know . . . someday . . . I’ll get . . . away . . . ”

Jessica tapped on the steering wheel of her peeling Camaro, waiting for the light to turn green. Her father’s favorite coffee cantina had gone, and left behind a fat yellow ring of dead grass.

“And I won’t look back . . . ”

The light turned green, and she turned onto Lockland Road. Past the playground where a girl from her old high school was jogging alone in the fading half-light. Past the bus stop. She thought of Trevor, somewhere out in California—she heard from one of his soccer team buddies, an increasingly drunken regular at Night Shift, that he was in Pasadena, studying engineering. “Didn’t you know?” She gave him a pinched smile, a new Redbull Vodka. “We weren’t that close.”

Then she reached the house. She tried to drive past at least once a month to check that the For Sale sign was still there, though sometimes she’d forget—lost herself in the life that she was beginning to believe was hers to keep—until a cold long-buried touch would wake her in the middle of the night, like a wayward friend: hey, you still up? So last week she drove by for the first time in a while and saw that a new family, with a new minivan, had moved in. More importantly, there was a teenaged daughter, carrying in groceries. Of course none of the families ever stayed, teenaged girl or no—the broken dishes and electronic mayhem always drove them out eventually. But a teenaged girl, well. She would be destroyed. She would destroy.

Jessica rolled down the window and smoked a cigarette to the rumble of the engine, going over Dr. McKinley’s affirmations. Very briefly, long ago, she’d been convinced that her family was cured. After that night with Esther she had hopped on the bus to Mercy Regional and told her father not to worry, that everything was over. He was so heavily-sedated, so thin, almost baby-like in his frailty—it was touching. He smiled, but died the next day; some grotesque side-effect of his medications. It was Dr. McKinley who cut through her hysterical sobbing to tell her that saving her father wasn’t her responsibility, that all she could do was save herself. She still didn’t know if Dr. McKinley believed in Esther’s ghost, but she’d accepted what she called the “disassociation.”

Just before getting out, Jessica sent her a text: Going in now. Dr. McKinley replied immediately: Good luck!!!

She rang the doorbell. It was her third intervention, and she had this part down pat—“Hi, my name’s Jessica Duval. I used to live in this house, and I think I left some keepsakes in my old closet. Do you mind if I just take a quick look?” Just like the Choys and the Verrans, the Santos family let her in. She always wore her conservative best to these drop-ins. No spikes, no studs. She looked harmless, little Jessica Rue.

It was just outside her old bedroom that Jessica paused to take a breath, to prepare. This was the part she had to get right. Wooden block letters announced ELENA as the room’s new mistress, and hopefully ELENA would be easier than Krista Choy, her first messy intervention, and the Verran sisters, who’d been double the trouble. Esther went after the weaker girl, the weirder girl, but her well-adjusted older sister was the one that ended up jumping out of a second-floor window. By the damp chill permeating the house, Jessica could tell that Esther was still working her way into this family—probably still just a velveteen shadow with fly-away tendrils, skulking in the shadows.

Elena was huddled on her bed, surrounded by math equations and the nonstop-garble of a Top 40 radio station, looking out the window with longing and absently scratching at something beneath her long sleeves. Jessica could see plainly that Esther’s cord had already wound its way around Elena’s neck; it was just a matter of tightening now. Jessica rapped on the door, and Elena looked at her with a familiar mute skittishness. The cornered wolf. The dog tied to a post.

“Hey, I’m Jessica. This used to be my room, long time ago.” She cautiously sat on the edge of the bed. “My brother and I used to think this house was haunted. What do you think?”

Before Elena could answer, the radio station changed with a rough scratch to 98.9.

“No I won’t look back . . . ”

At the sound of Esther’s favorite radio station, Elena’s eyes grew very large and her mouth dropped open an inch, but then she quickly averted her gaze to her homework and mumbled, “Nobody believes me.”

Jessica reached out and squeezed her hand, before Esther could take them both by the neck. “I believe you.”

About the Author

Nadia Bulkin writes scary stories about the scary world we live in. A three-time Shirley Jackson Award finalist, her stories have been recently featured in anthologies such as Aickman’s Heirs, Autumn Cthulhu, Cassilda’s Song, Letters to Lovecraft, The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu, and She Walks in Shadows, as well as in Paula Guran’s The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2015 and 2016. She works inside the Beltway in Washington, D.C.