Savannah Sullivan is dead.
Savannah Sullivan is dead and Tommie isn’t taking it well at all.
For starters, the news came from HoHo, Tommie’s hideous little brother. If the universe were kind he would have been playing a stupid prank, but the universe is not kind.
Second, Tommie’s been holding on to a Revolutions ticket since November. Tommie’s never seen the band live before, never seen Savannah Sullivan strut across a stage close enough to reach out and touch. It was supposed to be the show that changed everything, Tommie’s first concert. And it was supposed to be tonight.
Third, even though the most important person in Tommie’s whole life is gone, burnt out somewhere on the Long Island Expressway, Tommie has to go to school.
Mami was nice, brushed back Tommie’s hair and said I’m sorry, baby, I’m so, so sorry, but she wasn’t sorry enough to let Tommie take the day to hide under the covers, was she?
So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that it all becomes too much. It’s hot for May, and Tommie has spent the day feeling hungry and nauseous all at once. The atmosphere of grief around school is a living thing, a tight hand around the throat. Tommie muddles through biology, stumbles through phys-ed, and then, crossing the field towards third period, the world is suddenly too bright and too big, and Tommie hits the ground. Just turns off like a lamp.
Tommie’s first memory, or the first one that matters: five years old, a Saturday night at Abuelo’s house, HoHo screaming in the background and Tommie’s bare knees digging into the short pile carpet, while Tommie stares at the thing on TV. One of those music competition shows, or an awards show or something—Tommie never has been sure which. Could look it up in a second, but that would break the magic of it, turn it into a video clip and a nasty comments section, erase the itch of the carpet, the smell of ginger ale and lime.
There is a redhead on TV. Five-year-old Tommie thinks grown-up lady, but she can’t be more than seventeen. She is all alone on a huge stage with a microphone stand and a screeching guitar, and she is wailing a song about someone called Billie Jean like it is the most desperate song in the universe.
“Ay,” Abuela tsks. “Is that a girl or a boy?”
“Of course it’s a girl. Look at those tetas.” This from Abuelo, appreciative enough that he gets a smack on the arm for his trouble.
“What is she singing that song for, then? That’s a man’s song, listen.”
Tommie doesn’t know what to listen for. The song feels like a hole in the chest, and Tommie even looks down to make sure that hot blood isn’t dripping onto the carpet.
“Is it a rule, now? Songs only for girls, songs only for boys?”
“It’s indecent. Why would she want to sound like a man? It’s not right.”
And Tommie thinks: why not?
This was long before Revolutions, long before Savannah Sullivan transformed from an almost-forgotten pop-star to rock royalty. Long before she and Nick White became famous for writing each other’s songs, adopting each other’s perspectives and persona. Savannah Sullivan didn’t have the slightest bit of butch about her, not then and not ever, but still her femininity always seemed like a costume that she wore, and for Tommie, with one song, that opened a whole world.
A two-finger flick against the forehead, a disinterested thrum against a bass string, brings Tommie back to life. “Hey. Hey you. Thomasina. Wake up.”
A flash of dull, dirty sky, a dark smear of something red. No one’s used Thomasina since the first day of kindergarten.
“Tommie.” It’s a tires-on-gravel crunch in the throat.
“Oh. Sorry. I didn’t get nicknames.”
Something is so, so familiar about that voice. Tommie rockets upward, blood rushing to the head. Kneeling in the grass in artfully ripped jeans and an over-large grey t-shirt is Savannah Sullivan.
“No,” Tommie says. Absolutely, no.
“Yeah,” Savannah Sullivan says. Like she’s sorry.
“You. You’re. This isn’t real. You died.”
“Figuring that out, thanks.” She looks around, head flicking in random directions like a tiny bird.
“Did I die?”
“Ah, no. Definitely not. Probably definitely not.”
Tommie blinks, expecting the hallucination to disappear. It does not.
“This doesn’t make any sense.”
Savannah Sullivan’s head keeps flicking, her attention zipping from one thing to the next. It’s making Tommie dizzy. “You’re telling me. I grew up Catholic, but I wasn’t a very good one. Still, I don’t remember learning about this. Did you know everyone has to do it?”
Do what? Tommie is having trouble concentrating. That flicking has got to stop.
Tommie crawls over, starts snapping fingers. “Hey. Hey. What are you doing?”
Savannah closes her eyes, takes a deep, dark breath. “Sorry. I’m kind of in a lot of places right now. It’s hard to focus.”
“A lot of—?”
“It works like this. Apparently.” Her eyes roll up to the sky in annoyance. “Turns out I was important to a whole lot of people. Which is flattering, don’t get me wrong. But I was more important than I thought to a whole lot of you. More important than some stupid songs. So, anyway, one minute I’m bopping along in my own life, and then the next minute I die, which, let me tell you, I’m not overly thrilled about this development, and then I find out that I have to get messages to all those people like you, and hey presto, I get to be your Jacob Marley.”
Tommie stares, lost in the rapid-fire stream of words. Manages to bite down a dumb question about Rastafarians. That’s the wrong Marley. Probably definitely.
“Your Clarence?” Savannah ventures, when no validation is forthcoming. Still nothing. “Guardian angel thing? Never mind.”
“What message?” Tommie asks. Something canned and corny from an after-school special, undoubtedly. It gets better. What a load of bull.
“Well. Uh. Here’s where it gets fun. Nobody told me.”
Tommie struggles to stand, wondering where everyone is. Why no one, not even a teacher, could bother to help a student passed out on the ground.
“Wow. Even my delusional fantasies are completely useless.”
The ghost—if she’s a ghost and not a stroke or something—crosses her arms. “One, I am not a delusional fantasy, and two, you are not completely useless. Or in any way useless. Thoughts like that are poison, so get it right out of your head.”
“But I am standing here talking to a dead person that no one else can see, right?”
“You . . . may be standing here talking to a dead person that no one else can see.”
Fantastic. Another Weird Tommie Aguilar story to add to the school’s lore.
On that note, Tommie fidgets. “Where is everyone?”
Savannah shrugs. “Class? I made them not see you, so we could have a private minute. Weird ghost powers.”
"Well that’s unsettling. What do we do?” Tommie asks.
“I think I get to follow you around until I figure everything out. High school. Joy of joys. Do you know, I am at four hundred and thirteen high schools right now? I’m so glad I skipped it. High school, I mean.”
The imaginary-friend/possible-ghost version of Savannah Sullivan, Tommie is rapidly learning, can’t shut up for more than two seconds at a time.
Savannah natters on through four more classes, while Tommie’s patience thins. Tommie gets through the day in a daze. Skirts the cliques in the hall. Everyone wants to talk about the crash, or huddle in knots around their phones to watch Revolutions videos, but no one wants to talk to Tommie and that is more than fine.
It’s almost the same as any other day, except for the hallucination of a famous dead woman offering color commentary on Tommie’s every move.
At home HoHo, practicing being mean, throws a basketball at Tommie’s face, calling “Heads up, Big Tits.” They both know it was not an accident, but there’s no point in confronting him. He’s been like this for a while, ever since Tommie stopped being his big sister and started being something else. Mami says he’ll come around. Tommie’s not so sure.
“Wow,” Savannah says drily, as Tommie dribbles the ball back. “Your brother is a dick.”
“I remember my brother when he was thirteen. He wasn’t a sociopath.”
“He’s not,” Tommie says, unsure why HoHo is even worth sticking up for. “We . . . we don’t get along.” Pretty much the understatement of the century.
The ghost drifts into Tommie’s bedroom. This is different than her being at school. It’s Tommie’s bedroom. Mortified, Tommie kicks a pile of dirty underwear under the bed. Savannah doesn’t seem to notice.
“Want me to scare the pants off him? I could, you know. Mercilessly and publically.”
“Yes. No.” Tommie slumps onto the bed, exhausted. “Can you get to the inspiring already? I don’t know how much more of this I can take.”
“Ouch. Guess we’re done with the hero-worship portion of this haunting.”
“It’s not that. It’s just—do you always talk so much?”
It’s supposed to be a joke, but Savannah takes it seriously. She sits next to Tommie, weightless on the comforter. “I’m trying not to fall apart, okay? Being dead is really, really scary.”
“You don’t sound scared.”
“I’m in two thousand, seven hundred and eighty four places right now, and none of them are with my kids. I’m terrified.”
Tommie is embarrassed to have not even thought of Savannah’s kids. They’re just toddlers, they won’t have any idea of what is going on.
“I think he died with me. Right?”
Savannah’s voice turns hollow. “I can’t find him. I can’t find him anywhere. And I can’t find the kids and I don’t know what to do.”
“I’m sorry,” Tommie says, so inadequately.
“Not your fault.” Savannah flexes her fingers, buries the grief she’d let through under her snappy, get-down-to-business tone.
“Well, let’s do this. Tell me. What kind of girl is Tommie Aguilar?”
Tommie winces. “Don’t call me a girl.”
“I’m not a girl, okay?”
The ghost of Savannah Sullivan ogles Tommie’s breasts. Tommie blushes and wants to disappear. This day just keeps getting weirder and weirder.
“Okay,” is all she says, which is already way better than Mami or Papi. “Not a girl.”
Of course, that’s the easy part to explain. The not a boy, either part is harder.
“What kind of person is Tommie Aguilar? What are your goals?”
“Come on. Work with me, here.”
“I don’t know. I’m fifteen. Do I have to have goals?”
“When I was fifteen, I already had a career.”
“Yeah, well, I’m definitely not you.”
“Ah, that must be the answer. Make you an international superstar so I can move on to the Great Beyond.”
Unexpectedly, Tommie laughs. “Know what my goal was? To see your show tonight. I was going to be in the front row, and you were going to play 'The Modern Prometheus' and I was going to sing and dance. That’s the only goal I had.”
Savannah’s eyes spark with interest. “We haven’t played that in ages. I don’t think it’s made the setlist in two tours.”
Unexpectedly, ridiculously, Tommie’s heart sinks. “It’s my favorite.”
“Where’s your music? Records, CDs?”
Tommie points. Computer.
Savannah scoffs at Tommie’s laptop and cheap speakers, scrolling through Tommie’s music collection. “Digital files are worthless on this thing. You have got to get a real sound system. And listen to more than four artists. Grab a pen and I’ll give you a list. That is definitely what I’m here for.”
“Are you insulting my taste in music? Mostly I listen to you.”
“Exactly.” Her tongue sticks out a bit as she concentrates on shuffling songs into a setlist. Eventually, she crows in triumph. “Okay, Tommie, I’ll give you your show. I can’t quite get it right without the boys, but I’ll do my best.”
And then she is singing over a recording of her own voice singing Tommie’s favorite song. It is impossible to be sad in the face of that. Soon, Tommie is singing too, awful and loud, and dancing. They go through song after song after song, much longer than a real concert would last, and for just a moment, even if Tommie is going insane, everything is perfect.
Tommie wakes to a ghost’s face, hanging over the bed and grinning wide. She still exists. She’s still here.
“Any big weekend plans?”
She rolls her eyes. “You’re seriously going to hide out in this room for two days?”
“As much as humanly possible.”
“Unacceptable. Get dressed. We’re going out.”
The force of her personality is just as staggering this morning as it was yesterday. Tommie rolls out of bed, shoves on jeans and a wrinkled T-shirt, grabs keys and a banana, and walks with Savannah out into the neighborhood.
“I’ve been thinking. About you not being a girl.”
Here it comes. Tommie sighs. “Yeah?”
“Well, what would you say you are?”
Tommie shrugs. “I’m not good at labels.”
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with you, kid. I feel like this is the thing I’m supposed to help you with, but there’s not anything that’s actually wrong.”
They walk without further discussion while the subdivision starts to wake up. Tommie thinks about categories. Usually, it’s easier to be nothing at all than to think about male and female and where to fit on that spectrum. If you are nothing, then nothing can hurt you. But now all the insecurities Tommie thought had been vanquished are back, crowding Tommie’s brain.
The ghost seems to have drifted to other thoughts. They are walking through the dog park behind the subdivision when she stops, puts out a hand, jars Tommie to full awareness.
“I got it. Her.”
She points to a girl sitting on a bench, hunched over a sketchbook. Tommie knows her by sight. Lanie, or Laurie, or something.
“You should be friends with her.”
“How do you know that?”
“Look, I don’t know for sure. I’m making this up as I go along. But you, and no offense here, but I mean it, you really need a friend. And I think she’d be good.”
“Why?” Tommie’s voice quivers with distrust.
“Call it intuition.”
“Call it a guess?”
“Okay, fine. If you insist. But don’t forget, it’s like a magical mystery tour in my brain right now. I have access to all kinds of stuff you can’t even imagine.” She wiggles her fingers in front of Tommie’s eyes, makes a spooky ghost noise that sounds cartoonish and silly.
Tommie’s not friends with girls. Not like there are a ton of guys lining up, either, but still. Girls. They never were easy, they always had sharp edges, but at least there used to be rules, used to be a code. Share your plastic ponies, swap cookies at lunch time, say the right words and sing along to the right boy bands and you get to be BFFs for the school year or during church camp. Now girls cultivate viciousness, and the rules are out the window. Tommie used to have a best friend. Zoe Fischer. They shared a heart-shaped necklace that split in two, and passed folded notes to each other in the hall even though they shared every other class. And then one day, out of the clear blue sky, Zoe Fischer called Tommie a cuntlicker in front of half the school and never spoke to Tommie again.
So maybe Tommie does need a friend. Maybe. But why this girl, aside from the fact of her proximity?
“You just want to be done with me, don’t you? I’m that bad.”
Savannah rolls her eyes “You’re not bad. Whatever your hang-up, kid, you need to relax. Stop hiding from people all the time.”
“I don’t like people.”
“Then you just haven’t met the right ones yet.”
Bright anger flares inside Tommie. “You think it’s so easy. I’m not you.” Not beautiful or smart, or charismatic, or brave. Especially not brave.
“I’m not asking you to be me. It’s a little thing. Just walk over there and say hello.”
But it’s not a little thing. Even hello seems insurmountable.
“Go talk to her,” Savannah persists. “Take a look at what she’s drawing. Ask her favorite song. Maybe you guys won’t hit it off. Maybe you will. But you have to make a leap, Tommie. Please.”
Tommie shuts down. “I can’t. I really can’t. Go on, go to the light or whatever. Whatever your mission is with me, just forget it.”
“Not gonna happen. Don’t you know how stubborn I am?”
“What are you going to do? Haunt me for the rest of my life?”
“Maybe. I told you, I don’t know how this works.”
Tommie takes a deep breath. Maybe it’s time to talk to Mami about this, go to the doctor and bury this whole mess under some kind of drug. But what if it’s real?
Tommie takes one step forward. Two. Lanie/Laurie looks up, not at Tommie but through. Then she bends her head back to her work. Tommie stops.
It’s too much. Savannah shouldn’t ask for this. It’s too much.
Tommie runs home, not daring to look back. Spends the rest of the day safe in the bedroom, headphones on. The ghost reappears at some point, but if she says a word of reproach, Tommie never hears it. The music is too loud.
Sunday morning, instead of a bright, shiny face Tommie wakes to the sound of crying. Savannah sits curled up in a corner, T-shirt stretched over her knees, face hidden in her curls.
“What’s wrong?” Tommie asks, forgetting the anger and humiliation of the day before. The ghost sniffles.
“I’m fading. I’m starting to finish. I’ve only got two hundred and twelve people left, and then I’ll be gone for good, and I still can’t get to the kids.” Her breath hitches on a sob.
“Do you know where they are?”
“With their grandpa on Long Island. That’s where we were going when . . . well.”
“But you can’t just . . .” Tommie makes an ineffectual gesture “. . . get there?”
“I don’t know how.”
Tommie takes a deep breath. There are ferries, there are buses. This is something that can actually be done.
“If I went, could you go with me?”
Savannah’s eyes widen. “You would do that? Why?”
“Maybe that’s why you’re here. Not so that you can help me, but so that I can help you.”
The ghost stares at Tommie like Tommie has sprouted three heads. “You can’t just knock on the door.”
“So I won’t. But I can get you close. Maybe it will be enough.”
“Tommie Aguilar, I think I love you.”
Tommie blushes. This is both the worst idea ever, and the right thing to do. Savannah should be able to see her kids, say goodbye to them. If Tommie’s the only person who can make that happen, well, so be it.
A fake stomachache gets Tommie out of church. There’s some money saved up from birthdays and Christmas, rolled into a sock in the bureau. It should be enough. It has to be enough. Tommie leaves a vague note on the refrigerator and runs away with a ghost.
By afternoon they have made it to a quiet suburb, which doesn’t look like it would be home to anyone famous, or even famous-adjacent. But the crowd of news vans and posturing reporters gives it away. Tommie loiters on the edge of the block with a few other voyeurs, hoping not to look too conspicuous.
“This is crazy. Who are all these people?”
“Welcome to fame, honey. I suppose it’s flattering, in a morbid kind of way. But if they’re upsetting my kids I’ll have to go poltergeist on their asses.”
“Your funeral isn’t even until tomorrow. You’d think they’d have better places to be.”
“How do you know when my funeral is?”
“Does the magical mystery tour in your brain not include the internet? Stop stalling. Go. It’s not like they can see you.”
“You’ll be okay?”
“I don’t think I’ll be long, but I don’t know. Please don’t—”
“Go. I’ll be here as long as you need me.”
Savannah looks uncharacteristically nervous, but heads into the fray. Tommie waits for hours, sitting on the sidewalk staring at the house and ignoring tons of phone calls from first Papi and then Abuela, then texts from HoHo that start out obnoxious but gradually start to show actual concern. There’s a lot of time to think, about hurt, and loss, and whether it’s better to feel pain or feel nothing at all. It’s always been safer to be nothing, to try to feel nothing. But maybe safe isn’t everything.
When Savannah reappears, she seems more solid than before. She’s crying and smiling, and when she reaches out to touch Tommie’s hand, Tommie can actually feel it.
On the ride home, the ghost chatters about her kids, her brother, her friends. Tommie doesn’t mind, could listen to that voice say anything. Savannah gives Tommie her list of essential albums, and tells funny stories about the night she met Nick, about pranks she played on the rest of the band, about wardrobe malfunctions and long days on the tour bus. Tommie falls asleep somewhere before home. When the driver shakes Tommie awake, Tommie is alone.
On the last day of school, Tommie sees Lanie or Laurie sitting on a retaining wall, one leg dangling, the other balancing her sketchpad, scribbling furiously. Lily, a voice whispers into Tommie’s ear. The little hairs on Tommie’s neck prickle.
Maybe it’s time to be a little bit brave.
The girl is drawing Revolutions in manga style, copying the poses from a promo picture but turning them into something all her own. Lu’s hair defies gravity. Noah’s glasses are razor-sharp rectangles that seem to glint even though they are only pencil on paper. Savannah and Nick are mirror images of each other, shoulder to shoulder, their mouths sardonic slashes slanting in opposite directions.
“That is amazing,” Tommie says.
The girl, Lily, shrugs. She doesn’t seem bothered by Tommie’s presence, but she doesn’t react to the praise, either. “I’ve done better. Want to see?”
Tommie hoists up onto the wall next to her. “Sure. Hey, what’s your favorite song?”
“'The Modern Prometheus,'” Lily says instantly, without hesitation.
The heels of Tommie’s sneakers kick a percussive beat against the brick wall. Tommie smiles. Pretending this is easy almost makes it so. “Really? Mine, too.”