Josh invited me to the party, and I was grateful. It was summer and the house looked out onto the Puget Sound. The water could have been black ice, but it wasn’t, so I assumed we’d have a nice night and nothing terrible or otherworldly would happen to us.
I didn’t know anybody in this city. Josh showed me around the office on the first day of my new job, and we kissed in the alley behind the building. I don’t know why that happened. It was like a movie, where one minute you’re talking to someone next to a parked car, and the next they’ve leaned forward and you feel their hand under your shirt, touching the skin over your ribs. “This is weird,” he whispered hotly in my ear. “Blake from programming is having a party tonight, do you want to go?”
At the party, there were people with cups standing out on the wet grass leading out to the lake. It had rained earlier, and a garland of colored lights hung from the trees. Josh and I arrived well after 10, so people were just starting to get drunk. A tall man came out of the crowd and shook my hand. “Hi, I’m Blake. It’s Terese, right?”
I said it was.
“It’s really great to meet you. I’m so glad you could come. Josh, thanks for bringing her.”
Some people are naturally gifted at being nice to strangers at parties and this Blake person appeared to have the touch.
“Where is the hooch?” Josh said.
“Just through there, in the screened porch area. You can go into the house to use the bathroom, but otherwise—my Ma is kind of a cunt about it. White carpet, you know.” Blake lowered his voice. “Plus, fucking Sandy’s here.”
“Shit,” Josh said. “Still?”
I came to Seattle for this job at the bookseller’s outlet. I knew which editions were worth money and I wrote blurbs about the books on the website. It was a hip new project for the new economy. It wasn’t the sort of job you move to another state for, but I had nothing else going on, so why not. I like change and meeting new people. When the opportunity came, I took it, and already a man in button-down plaid and black glasses had kissed me in the parking lot.
The people standing around at the party had nice hair and languid limbs. The girls looked like coat hangers, the way their summer clothes draped elegantly off their shoulders; I wanted to be like them.
On the way into the screened porch area, we walked by an argument between two men with matching beards: which was heavier: the lightest stone or the heaviest wood. Sub question! Global warming is real, sure, but is it man made or a naturally occurring cycle?
That’s when I saw her across the room, standing next to a table with half-hearted food spread out on it, and then the smell of her hit me afterward, the smell of churned stomach acid and stale vomit. The girl wore a navy wrap dress; it was sopping wet and elegant. The water dripped off of her in clumps. Maybe it wasn’t just water. Her skin was green and sallow. I watched her scratch at her elbow and look around the room with meek, yellow eyes. Her hair was stringy and matted to her face. It wasn’t just the dress; the girl had been pretty once. I couldn’t understand what I was looking at.
I turned and he wasn’t there. A large girl with dark hair and creamy skin was standing next to me. “It’s fucked up, right?”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“Somebody should tell her. It’s been over a week.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Oh, you’re new, right? You work for the booksellers. I’m Karen.”
She put her hand out. I shook it and struggled to remember my name.
“You’re Terese,” She said. “So, Sandy used to date Blake. She had the wrong idea about that situation, one thing led to another, she drowned herself off the pier behind his house.” Karen gestured to the water. “But, I don’t know. The death, it didn’t quite take. Sandy is so weird. Really, it’s just like her. Poor dolt can’t even do suicide right. She emerged from the water, and that’s it, she’s been milling about ever since.”
Josh came back with a couple of drinks and I stared across the porch at this impossible girl. People came by to talk to her and then quickly walked away. She smiled shyly at everyone, hugged her wet arms into her chest and shivered. Was it a costume? Her skin seemed to bubble off of her and drop off like a volcano. The flesh singed when it hit the ground. If this were Hollywood, maybe, but these were booksellers in Washington. Special effects? A lighting system? I searched around the room at everyone’s faces for clues and none of it added up to anything. I felt a dread, starting at the top of my head and then pooling down my body into a rock in my stomach. Josh handed me a red cup with fizzy liquid inside. I went to talk and only puffs of air escaped.
“Did you tell her about Sandy?” Josh said.
“I started to,” Karen said. She put on a mocking voice. “Nobody tell Sandy she’s dead.”
“Well, what do you think we should do?” Josh said. “This is Blake’s deal. He’ll deal with it.”
“He better,” Karen said. “This is seriously messed up. If I were dead, I sure as fuck would want somebody to tell me about it. I told Blake, if he doesn’t tell her tonight, I’m going to.” Somebody from outside called to Karen and she clanked the screen door shut behind her.
“Karen’s a cow,” Josh turned to me and explained. “Do you want to go outside? The smell is getting to me.”
He led me through the screen door, away from the dead girl. Someone had turned on Radiohead’s Kid A. They skipped the first track and it went straight to a crooning voice, repeating, “I’m a reasonable man, get off my case.” It reminded me of when I was young but I couldn’t put my finger on where I was when I first heard it or what any of it meant.
“What’s going on?” I said to Josh. “Why are you doing this to me?”
“Terese, what’s the matter?” He looked at me with burning brown eyes through his black, designer- framed glasses, a look of concern torn out of a glossy magazine.
I watched Sandy move away from the food table and try to open the door into the house. Blake ran up and got between her. He had a big voice. I heard him say, “No. Don’t go inside, okay? Just don’t.”
Sandy looked upset. She looked like a body who’d been dead for a week but was walking around like a normal person, and I couldn’t understand how that could possibly be, and why the people at the party weren’t more astounded by it. It had to be an elaborate trick for my benefit, but I didn’t get how they’d made her look so real—and the smell. How and why would booksellers harness the bowels of hell and let it loose on an otherwise beautiful evening?
Above us, the stars were out in staggering numbers. The moon was half full. I looked around and noticed a few good-looking partygoers gazing up in a moment of shared romance.
It seemed as though the number of guests had doubled, fifty people or more, all of them well dressed and beautiful. The whole thing looked fake and I started to feel my body tremble. “I need to get out of here.”
“Let’s go down to the dock and chill out for a second,” Josh said.
He grabbed my elbow again and started walking me down the wet grass. It touched my bare toes around my sandals, and I thought, this is a dream, this is a dream, this is a dream, except the wet grass told me even louder that it wasn’t. Dreams are muted; they don’t jump out at you that way. I tasted the beer in my cup and it couldn’t have been more real. It was Blue Moon. I knew by the way it foamed up inside my mouth. You can’t dream a taste like that.
I heard people murmuring about the girl around us. “No, we’re just not going to tell her,” A girl said. “Nobody tell Sandy she’s dead,” said another one.
“God, look at the sound,” Josh said. He stared out at it from the water’s edge. “It’s beautiful.” Up close you could see the ripples and the way the stars reflected off the surface. I wanted to jump in and swim across to the other side to get away from everyone. My heart was beating fast in a panic with no name or peg to hang it on.
“Who are you?” I said to Josh. I started breathing heavy. I was crying, maybe, I don’t know. “Why are you doing this to me?” I tried to remember how I’d gotten there in the first place. I’d taken a plane, but from where?
The music sounded farther away but I knew the album by heart. “I’m not here,” it said. “This isn’t happening,” it said.
I knew that I had one, but I couldn’t remember my mother’s face. She had red hair, I thought.
“I need to get out of here,” I said. “I need to go home.” I went to run away but I didn’t know which direction to go. I messed up and took a step toward the water. Josh grabbed me by the elbow again, hard enough to leave a mark.
“You need to chill out,” he said.
The smell of the dead girl was all of a sudden on top of us, and Josh turned around. “Hey Sandy.”
“Josh,” Sandy said. “Is something wrong?”
Up close, Sandy had only half a nose. The sight of her blue lips cut with red was lit up by the reflection of the colored lights. It really was stunning, if you didn’t stop to think about what it all amounted to.
“Everything’s fine,” Josh said.
Sandy turned to me. “Hi,” she said. “I’m Sandy.”
She touched my hand and I screamed. “Get away from me. Don’t touch me!”
Sandy’s jaw trembled and she pulled back slowly. That feeling the dead girl couldn’t quite put her finger on crawled around from behind and tapped her on the shoulder. The feeling grabbed her and started shaking. I stood there watching all of this happen.
“You’re dead!” I screamed. “Oh my God, can’t you see that? Look at you!”
Sandy looked down at her paper skin, then out over the sound with yellow, comprehending eyes. She put her hands up to her head and pulled at a chunk of wet, stringy hair. “No,” she whispered.
Josh made his way up the wet grass toward the house, yelling, “Blake. You better get down here. The bitches are running wild.”
“No!” Sandy screamed again. Her voice came out shrill and strangled. Salt water poured out of her lungs and her water logged tongue caught on the roof of her mouth. She grabbed my arm and squeezed it, shaking me and screaming. “Who are you?” She screamed. “What’s happening to me?”
I screamed back, “What’s wrong with you? Let go of me!”
And we just stood at the edge of the lake with the whole party staring, the CD skipping, shaking and screaming at each other: “Who are you? What’s happening? Where Am I? Why are they doing this to us?”
* * * * *
Molly Laich is a Michigander/Montanan who lives in Seattle. She writes film reviews, makes up stories and helps to edit Unstuck Magazine. Read about her secret life at http://www.mollylaich.com. Her other contributions to Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.