“The Tragically Dead Girlfriend” by Kate Marshall
They’re fighting when she dies. He thinks she’s pretty when she’s mad; her eyes light up. He tells her so, puts a finger under her chin and tilts her face toward his. She shakes him off, leaves him in the kitchen and slams the door. It’s eighteen steps to the curb. He counts them out like a metronome. The tick-tick-tick of his count bothers him later, the kitchen-timer precision of it all before the boom.
The bomb’s in the car. Her fingertips lift the handle – one last tick and everything shatters. There’s nothing of her left. The front windows go in, snowing glass on the couch and on the coffee table where her breakfast is getting cold. A piece of fabric curls up, burning, on the lawn, and steel bones remain of the car, but she’s nowhere.
Cops come. They tack up yellow tape, make notes so it looks like they know anything at all.
He gets numb, he gets angry. He gets a gun, vows to find the men who did it. Spends six weeks, six hundred dollars on jujitsu lessons from a man he calls sensei; much bowing, and he tells his friends he has a profound connection to the Japanese people. He learns to pick locks from a scrappy street kid who swears to turn his life around, makes love to a woman who says she tastes his grief on his lips, stares out over the bleak city and whispers her name.
He finds them six months in. They’re two men in overcoats with shadows over their faces wherever they go. He says This is for herwhen he squeezes the trigger and makes a tunnel of the tall man’s right eye. When the short man topples with three to the chest he’s got nothing to say at all.
He heads home limping, hair mussed and a few shallow cuts to show the world he did well. Some of them might even scar. He slings himself onto the couch – new couch, same house – and wonders if he ought to go catch a train, or take his car down the thinnest road out of town with her picture tacked to the dash.
Only she’s in the kitchen, hip cocked against the counter and a cigarette tucked between two bone-white fingers. Her eyes are lit up now, lit up like embers, and before he gets language back she tucks the cigarette ash-first between her lips and smiles.
Where you been? she asks. I’ve been waiting here for you.
You’re dead, he says.
Profound. She grins, Cheshire-like, and stubs the filter on the counter. Damp ash dots her tongue.
He squares his shoulders. I killed the men that killed you, he says. I’m a different man, now. Stronger. I know it’s not what you’d have wanted, the way it’s made me hard–
She laughs and cuts him off. My father’s drinking himself to an epiphany, she says. My brother’s turned to poetry to soothe his soul. Pretty sure my cousin got laid off my sad story. And here you are with dead men around your neck. Everyone’s changing in the name of me, but I’m the one that did the hard work of dying. Figured I deserve some change, too.
Are you a ghost?
She sways over, puts her cold lips on his. Do I feel like it?
Well, that’s a change, I guess.
She’s harder than she was. Her hipbones grind like granite when she pulls him up against her. She smells of metal, burnt ozone, damp earth. He jerks away. Straightens up, tightens his jaw. I’ll get to the bottom of this, he says. I’ll find out what brought you back. I’ll find a way to bring you peace.
A man of action. She rolls her eyes, rolls her shoulders, falls into bed. I was going to break up with you, you know.
We were having a rough patch.
She snorts. You’re shit in the sheets. She lights another cigarette. The smoke twines around her fingers, reluctant to let go.
Why are you here? he asks.
She shrugs. They sold my condo. Two days dead, and my stuff was in storage. Can you believe it?
You should move on, he says. She says she thinks she’ll haunt him for a while.
He doesn’t see a way to tell her no.
He finds he liked her better dead. He’d forgotten how she always left the peanut butter jar open on the counter, never replaced the toilet paper roll. She drinks foul-smelling things out of unlabeled bottles and smokes five backwards cigarettes a day. She refuses to suffer.
She watches static channels and laughs at all the jokes, lays back on the couch with her ash-streaked feet on his lap. Her fingertips leave dark smudges on the counters and his skin; nothing ever comes clean.
He starts to remember why they were fighting, the day she died.
I have to fix this, he says.
Whatever you gotta do, she tells him, and combs a bead of windshield glass from her hair. He catches her wrist and kisses her palm. She tastes faintly of motor oil.
I’ll make this right, he promises. He can’t read her smile.
He drops her off at the storage unit, picks the lock (thinks of that scrappy street-kid, whats-his-name, in juvie now). He leaves her sprawled in her old armchair, feet hitched up on boxes of unread books. Wait here, he says, and clicks the padlock closed.
He hits the road and it’s all right again for a while. Heads to New Orleans, figuring he’ll find some voodoo woman in a muumuu with hoops through her ears. He does. She says Jesus Christ, son, I just work here, this is a goddamn tourist trap. He walks into a church, gray stone and stained glass, finds the priest in a confessional booth that smells of frankincense and camphor. Lays out his story, head hanging, voice hoarse and broken. Gets a business card for his trouble – an excellent psychiatrist with a specialty in couples’ therapy.
He winds up at last with a weathered old man who pushes a shopping cart around all day, just two teeth thrusting up from his speckled gums; the man says he knows the words to get a ghost back to properly dead. A crumpled twenty and a fast food bag turned translucent with grease buy him the incantation and an old mayonnaise jar filled with grave dirt.
This is a thing he can do. Drive grimly home, put her troubled soul to rest; he feels the heat of purpose again, rushing to his head like a shot of whiskey slugged straight. But he cracks open the storage unit and finds her gone, a scrawled note in her place. Sorry, got bored.
She’s out dancing. She can drink ten margaritas before she gets a buzz, and someone’s always ready to buy another round. The music’s nice; makes her forget her heart doesn’t beat. No one else seems to mind she’s dead. We liked her fine before, they say. A little thing like a missing pulse doesn’t change that.
He drags her out back, hand clamped around her skinny wrist. She puts her arms around his neck like she wants to dance, there in the alley crushing brown bottles beneath their heels.
He pushes her away, up against the wall, presses a palm brown with grave dirt to her chest. She stares at him, head at a tilt and cracked lips parted like she’s waiting to speak.
This is all my fault, he says. I couldn’t let you go. Kept you here with my anger. But I’m going to do right by you, he says, and starts up the chant the old man taught him. It’s full of sounds his tongue doesn’t want to make, strange and twisting. He feels the pressure of it in his chest, his throat, behind his clenched teeth.
She quiets him with one last kiss, no love in it.
Enough, she says.
I have to– he begins, but she traps his voice with one cold finger against his lips.
When are you going to figure out this has got nothing to do with you? She shakes her head, sidles away from the wall. She brushes grave dirt from her chest and sighs.
I killed for you, he says.
You really didn’t, she tells him, and slides a cigarette from her back pocket. Anyway, I’m going to stay with my sister while I figure some things out. Take care of yourself, okay?
She walks away, leaves him bereft. She has no need of vengeance. If she’s not dead, or at least if she’s dead and not troubled by it, she’s just his ex. That’s no good for fire in the heart.
You don’t need…? he calls after her.
She looks over his shoulder. Find some other dead girl to hang your life on, she says. I haven’t got the time. He watches her go, waits for her to turn around. It’s eighteen steps to the curb, and then the cab door slams.
He sits on the sidewalk, two dead men around his neck. Huh, he says, and they nod along.
About the Author
Kate Marshall lives in Seattle with her husband and a slightly demonic cat. She’s written everything from coffee orders to ad copy to supernatural noir video games, and her own work has appeared or is forthcoming in Strange Horizons, Pseudopod, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies.
You can find more of her work at katemarshallwrites.com.