Scarlett accidentally wakes the dead in the bottom of a coat closet, with a half-naked boy pressed against her and a bottle of tequila she’s too drunk to drink. That’s all it is, in the end: flesh against flesh, and a few whispered secrets. A ghost story she swore she would never, ever tell.
It happens at one of Blake’s parties. Blake is notorious for encouraging both bad decision-making and social equality: every student from every caste is welcome to drink and grope one another without fear of reprisal. Scarlett’s social caste is invisible; it’s beige paint and fall neutrals. Kids with names you remember whenever you need to borrow a pen. She should be home writing a paper about Benjamin Franklin; instead, she’s here, graduating from Corona to Jose Cuervo, and all because she’d heard Anna Pascal mention big Friday night plans. But Anna’s not here. That was a totally facetious assumption to make. No, not facetious, she means … egregious? Specious? Something. She means … something.
She doesn’t usually drink tequila. It’s really not all that bad.
Only there’s kind of a … blank spot where her memory should be, and now she’s in the make-out closet with that new pretty boy from Spanish, only it’s not the make-out closet when you’re sixteen, is it? Scarlett’s pretty sure it’s the sex closet when you’re sixteen, but that’s a big deal for her, since she’s never even kissed anyone, and now—now there is definite kissing; there are fingers fumbling with the button of her jeans, and Jesus, Jesus. The fingers she can’t see are sliding under her panties, and they’re—but she isn’t—she isn’t sure she wants this—
“Stop,” Scarlett says into the boy’s mouth. “Stop.”
He pulls back. She can only see the barest outline of his face: angular, brown cheeks and askew hipster glasses. “O-okay. You okay?”
She doesn’t know if she’s okay.
“I’m okay,” Scarlett says. “But I think, maybe, I don’t—”
“Okay,” the new kid says—Ibarra, Matt Ibarra. “That’s okay.” He stumbles backwards and thunks straight into a wall. His laughter is a little breathless. “But you think, not, we don’t have to do anything, cause yeah, don’t wanna be That Guy, just. My head’s spinning, and … could we just sit here a minute, cause it’s all … whatever out there. Bright, and … loud.”
“We can sit,” Scarlett says, because she doesn’t want to deal with bright and loud things, either. Except … now she’s just sitting here, with a boy, and someone’s gonna have to say something. Come on, Scar. Say something. Say something. Say—
“You know any ghost stories?”
Because yes. That’s where her stupid, morbid brain goes whenever she’s somewhere dark, whenever she’s somewhere small with no windows. This is why she will never have friends.
“Cool,” Scarlett says, because hey, who has time to be mortified when the whole room is spinning? “Yeah, I don’t—”
“No, I do, I just can’t. Uh. Put them in order, or remember. Anything. Um. You know some?”
Scarlett does. She collects them by the dozen, but the one on her tongue is the secret story. The last story.
You can’t tell. Not ever, okay?
But Samantha’s been dead a long time now, and it still hurts, keeping her words locked away.
“I can think of one,” Scarlett says, and tells Matt all about the monster in the dark, the one who smells like cinnamon, the one with the flower petal hands.
She doesn’t go home that night. She texts Mom she’s staying at a friend’s and then passes out across Matt’s waist, waking with drool on her chin and a headache she can feel in her bones.
Scarlett sneaks out and, on the way home, prays to God that her text miraculously looks like something a halfway-sober person wrote.
God’s not listening.
Later, after her mom decides to forego a grounding in favor of an uncomfortably frank sex talk that seems to go on for years, Scarlett spends the rest of the day recovering in her room, flipping through photo albums. She stops on an old Halloween picture: Scarlett had been dressed as Wonder Woman; Samantha, Indiana Jones. Sammy had wanted to be an archaeologist when she grew up. And a pilot. And a magician.
Scarlett doesn’t think she’s supposed to cry about things that happened nearly a decade ago, but she’s tired and hungover and her best friend never became anything but bone dust. “Fuck it,” she says, and rubs mercilessly at her eyes, eventually falling asleep with the picture still between her fingers.
In her dreams, they’re eight years old again, and acrobats are flying through the air, soaring over dead elephants and broken peanut shells. “Come on!” Scarlett says, pointing at the Big Top. “I wanna learn how to become a superhero!”
But Sammy would rather be a magician. She grabs Scarlett by the hand, dragging her to an already full bathtub. “I can hold my breath forever,” Sammy says. “It’s an easy trick, see.” And she pushes Scarlett into the tub and holds her down, down, down.
Scarlett wakes suddenly, out of breath and eyes wet … but someone else is crying too, a child’s wail, high-pitched and gasping. “Scar,” it says between hiccups. “Scar—Scarlett—”
Scarlett lunges for the light. The room is empty and silent.
Monday comes, unfortunately. Scarlett hopes Spanish won’t be too awkward—seating is arranged alphabetically by fake Spanish name, so “Alejandro” shouldn’t feel obligated to say anything to “Soledad” —but there’s still the Moment of Truth when Matt walks in. Fortunately, he only stares for a half-second too long before walking to his seat. So. Okay. Scarlett exhales, a sigh that is more relief than regret, probably. She tries not to think about either him or Anna, who sits in front of Scarlett, her teal tank top clinging close to her ebony skin, scooping low in the back, inviting careful exploration.
Sitting on her hands would be noticeably weird, so Scarlett grips her pen as she copies conjugations. When the bell rings, she all but runs out of class.
That’s when Matt promptly breaks their Unspoken Mutual Amnesia Pact.
“So,” he says, sitting on the grass beside her in all his skinny jeans and slouchy hat and coffee shop hipster glory. “Here’s the thing: being new and all, I kind of miss having friends to hang with? But I don’t really know anyone except you, and—hey, if you can’t be friends with the girl you drunkenly spooned with, I mean …”
Scarlett stares at him.
He winces. “I brought snacks?”
“Bribery seems like a good foundation for friendship,” she says finally.
Matt brightens and opens his backpack. “Right?” He pulls out a bag of pretzels and drops it next to his coffee cup. “So, I was thinking I provide food. You let me hang sometimes and pretend I’m not a total loser. Doable?”
He offers both the pretzels and the coffee.
Scarlett takes the cup: she loves Wyatt’s Coffee, goes there almost every day. “I’m not necessarily against this plan,” she says. “But I should warn you, in case you’re secretly blind: this isn’t exactly the cool kids table.”
Matt shrugs. “Whatever. Popular kids are boring. At least, that’s what Mama’s been telling me since it became stupidly obvious I wasn’t cut out to be one.” He cocks his head, peering down at her history outline. “I see you’re going with the ‘opening quote’ approach. Bold move.”
“Dick,” Scarlett says, amiably enough. “It’s a tried and true method. Besides, I’ve got a good one.”
“Death and taxes?”
Scarlett shakes her head, tries out her best spooky voice. “Three may keep a secret,” she says, “if two of them are dead.”
That night, Scarlett dreams she’s playing hide n’ seek with Samantha, but when Sammy finds her in an empty tub, the tub is suddenly full and Scarlett’s choking on bubbles and bathwater.
The next night she dreams she’s back in Sammy’s bathroom, lying on cold porcelain directly under the running faucet. Scarlett tries to get up, but she’s paralyzed as tiny, dead fingers pry her lips apart, holding her mouth open wide.
She dreams of bathtubs everywhere: at school, on the lawn, even one in the middle of the highway. She stops her truck to investigate, only to find Sammy’s pale, wet body inside—but when Scarlett tries to pull her out, Sammy pulls her in. Scarlett wakes from that one coughing into her pillow, and freezes when she hears something else wake with her.
You promised, a voice says. You promised you promised YOU BROKE YOUR PROMISE.
But it’s not Sammy. It’s not, because it can’t be, because Sammy is dead and Scarlett doesn’t believe in ghosts. It’s all psychological, some weird, repressed guilt thing, and it’ll pass because it has to.
It doesn’t pass.
On Saturday, Scarlett wakes, fumbling for the light—but this time, the whispers don’t fade, not until dawn. She doesn’t even try sleeping on Sunday, just works on her laptop, headphones blasting—but the music keeps cutting out, replaced with the sound of water rushing from the tap.
She’s in such bad need of caffeine come Monday morning that she drops by Wyatt’s Coffee and orders herself two cups. Wyatt, himself, is manning the register, and he softly touches her wrist when he gives back her change.
She shakes her head at his concern. “It’s nothing,” she lies. “Big test.” It’s the kind of lie adults believe, and anyway, she can’t exactly tell him that his dead niece has been drowning Scarlett in her sleep. Though she’d like to; anyone who still remembers Sammy talks like she’s just a story. Once there was a girl, and she died. It was very sad. But Wyatt talks about Sammy the way Scarlett remembers her: bright, wild, alive. Scarlett can almost find the words, when Wyatt talks.
Outside, Scarlett runs into Matt. He raises his eyebrows, but politely doesn’t ask about her new double-fisting habit. In return, she doesn’t ask about the shadows under his eyes or the unhealthy sheen that’s come over his golden brown skin. If bribery is a good foundation for friendship, then surely secrets are the key to keeping it alive.
You and Sammy didn’t need secrets, Scarlett thinks to herself, and then shrugs it away. Of course they didn’t. What kind of secrets did eight-year-olds even have?
“It’s time,” her mother says, and Scarlett follows her to the funeral. But when they get to the cemetery, they aren’t lowering a coffin into the ground at all; it’s a bathtub, and suddenly Scarlett’s the one inside it. Sammy and the rest of the mourners stand by, black water buckets beside their feet.
“Don’t do this! Sammy, please! Don’t leave me down here!”
Sammy smiles. “And if I go and prepare a place for you,” she says, “I will come back and take you with me.”
“I’ll take you with me,” Sammy says, “that you may also be where I am.”
The mourners upturn their buckets, and water fills the grave—
—and Scarlett wakes up, coughing so hard that she throws up over the side of the bed. She freezes, listening out, before remembering that her mom is still down at the firehouse. Shaking, Scarlett cleans up the mess, and jumps a foot in the air when her phone goes off. It’s a text message from Matt. At 3:17 in the morning.
[Gotta GTFO of my house for a while. If ur still rocking hardcore insomnia wanna come? y/n]
Before she can even respond, another message comes through. [Holy shit that’s creepy AF huh? Nm, nm. See you tomorrow. Promise not a serial killer]
Scarlett snorts softly. Could use some fresh air, she texts, since she sure as hell isn’t going back to sleep now, or ever again. Fair warning. May be going crazy.
[It’s going around. Meet up where?]
There’s a diner about 15 minutes away that’s open 24/7. She’s about to send the address when she realizes she’s already sent a different one. Jesus, she thinks. No, no, not THERE.
But Matt’s already agreed, and Scarlett doesn’t want to seem even crazier by vetoing her own suggestion, so she throws on her sweater and ratty sneakers. Her phone dings again, and she picks it up. This time, it’s an unlisted number.
[YOU TOLD YOU TOLD YOU PROMISED NOT TO TELL]
Scarlett gasps and drops the phone. It cracks when it bounces against the floor. Water leaks from the screen.
Scarlett runs, leaving the phone behind.
The house is little and gray and hiding underneath a monstrous weeping willow. Scarlett sits on the dirty porch, staring at the picture of her and Sammy. It was in her sweater pocket. She doesn’t remember putting it there.
Scarlett looks up. It’s Matt, and he looks terrible, pale and hunched in on himself and moving slow, like things are broken inside. “Jesus,” she says, half-standing. “Are you—”
“I’m fine,” he says, waving her off, as he cautiously settles beside her and looks around. “So, I said let’s hang, and you picked a porch on a totally abandoned house in the middle of nowhere. That … seems normal.”
“Promise I’m not a serial killer either?”
“Don’t buy it,” Matt says. “But nobody’s perfect, I guess.”
Scarlett tries to smile. She must not do a very good job because he frowns. “Hey. Are you okay?”
“So, that’s a no, then.”
Scarlett rests her head on her knees. “Last week my biggest problem was having a crush on the most popular girl in school, and whether to come out to my mom as maybe-sorta-quasi bi.”
Matt raises his eyebrows. “Maybe-sorta-quasi?”
“Well. Cause mostly I like guys—” Scarlett remembers Matt’s fingers under her panties and realizes that she’s actually not too exhausted to blush. “But, uh. There’s this one girl, Anna. It’s really just her, so I don’t know if it counts, and I don’t really wanna say anything yet, even though my mom’s pretty awesome, and she’d be all awkwardly supportive, but … it just feels like a lot. You know?”
“Yeah,” Matt says. “I mean, technically, no. I’m pretty straight. Like Idris Elba could come up, and I’d be like nah, man. But sure, my mom’s the best, and I’d still be freaked about saying, ‘Hey, BT dubs, I’m kinda gay. Thoughts?’”
She looks at him. “You think?”
“Yeah.” Matt says. “I mean, I get you on perspective—last week, I was just worried about failing that Spanish quiz … that’s today, right?”
“Shit, I’m fucked. But that’s what I’m saying: last week total panic; this week, well. I’ve got other stuff this week. But even if you were 100% on the bisexuality train instead of the bicurious go-cart, and your mom was handing out ‘I’m Down With with the Gay’ buttons left and right, like, you don’t gotta rush anything you’re not ready for. Don’t have to justify that shit with reasons, either. Some secrets are okay to keep.”
Maybe. But Scarlett thinks she’s holding onto one too many secrets. How do you know when to release them? How do you know when it’s safe?
She glances back at the photo in her hand, and Matt grins. “Look at Tiny Scarlett, busting a move with the Lasso of Truth. Girl Indy … is that Anna?”
That’s almost funny. “Sammy,” Scarlett corrects. “She was my friend, my best friend. She used to live here.”
Matt’s grin fades as he looks around at the cracked porch and dust-covered windows. “How did she die?”
Scarlett stares straight ahead, and she’s so exhausted that her vision is blurring. If she squints, she can see a bathtub on the lawn.
“She drowned,” Scarlett whispers, and closes her eyes.
“You don’t have to—”
“She slipped, hit her head. Her parents found her too late. They never got over it, packed up and moved out of town. Wyatt stayed—Sammy’s uncle—but he doesn’t live here. People never live here long. Six months, maybe, and they’re out.”
Matt’s voice is hushed. Scarlett’s startled to realize he’s trembling, with a wary eye out on the front door.
“I don’t think so,” Scarlett says; after all, Samantha isn’t haunting the house. “There aren’t any sightings, anyway. People just … never seem to stay. Matt, I’m sorry.”
He blinks at her. “For what?”
Freaking you out. “Just … for dumping this all on you. Maybe I should stop telling you ghost stories.”
Matt smiles, and it’s hard to read. “I do spook easy,” he says bitterly, and staggers when he tries to stand. Scarlett jumps up to catch him, and he leans against a post for support.
“Jesus, Matt, are you—”
She stares at him. He’s slightly out of breath and grimacing, and she suddenly wishes she knew more, or anything, about him. His mom might be the best, but he didn’t say anything about his dad, and maybe that’s just because his split like hers, or maybe …
“Matt,” Scarlett says. “Look, if someone’s, you know, hurting you—”
He snorts. “Save your pamphlets. I’m fine. All I really need is some sleep, and for someone to teach me Spanish so I can stop disappointing my grandparents every time we visit.”
“Well, I definitely can’t help with that,” Scarlett says, watching him not quite meet her gaze. “But after we both fail the quiz today—maybe we can study together? Talk about girls?”
He looks at her finally, even smiles a little. “It’s a date,” Matt says.
But he never shows up to school.
Scarlett texts Matt fourteen times and actually calls him twice. Maybe he just overslept, but … she can’t shake the worry. She should never have let him drive off; he was out of breath from trying to stand up. Something’s wrong. Maybe he’s choking to death, maybe he’s already dead—
[14 messages? Damn girl. Thought I was popular for half a sec]
Scarlett immediately calls him again.
“Look,” Matt says, answering. “I’m—”
“Don’t tell me you’re okay,” Scarlett says, crossing the parking lot and throwing her books in the back of her truck. “I won’t believe it. What’s wrong?”
“I’m just, I’m.” Matt’s sigh becomes a wheeze, which becomes stifled coughing. “Sore, that’s all. It’s not a big—”
“Matt?” Scarlett hops into the driver’s seat. “Some secrets aren’t so great to keep.”
There’s a long pause. “I can’t tell you,” Matt says finally, and his voice sounds raw, scratched and bloody. “Not this, Scarlett. I want to, but you wouldn’t believe me. I wouldn’t believe me.”
She considers bursting into hysterical laughter. “Trust me,” she says. “At this point, I’d …”
It can’t be. It can’t be, but … the timing of it all. And he looked so scared, back at the house. He looked—
“Matt,” she says quickly, to keep from second-guessing herself. “Are you being haunted?”
Another long pause—and then, Christ, Matt whimpers. “You—how can you know that?”
“Long story. But I guess that’s what got us into this.”
“Give me your address,” Scarlett says. “We need to talk.”
Matt lives in a pretty nice part of town, the kind of place where all the houses look the same and there are restrictions on what color and size your lawn gnomes can be. He answers the door in a worn, gray hoodie and bare feet, looking about five seconds from tears. She hugs him without thinking, and he holds on even as he grunts a little. “Are your parents home?” she whispers.
He lets go. “It’s just Mom and me,” he says. “And no. Took forever, convincing her to leave. She thinks my ribs are bust.”
“Maybe. But you don’t seem so bad off. Hasn’t it—”
Scarlett frowns. “It?”
Matt takes a faltering step back. “Yeah, you said, I thought you …” He’s breathing too fast, and each breath is a whistle, air drawn through a straw. “Scar, please don’t be screwing with me. Please, I can’t—”
“Hey, hey. It’s okay.” She takes him by the hand and is startled by how cold his fingers are. “I’m not screwing with you, I swear.” She guides him into the living room, sinking down on the couch.
“Samantha told me,” Scarlett says. “That story, she told it to me the day she died, said it was a secret, but I never thought anything like this … she’s haunting me, Matt, but you—what the hell is haunting you?”
Matt does start crying then.
“It’s the ghost from the story, Scar. It’s the monster with the flower petal hands.”
“You can’t tell,” Samantha said. “Not ever, okay?”
They were in Sammy’s bathroom, sitting on the floor with the door closed and the lights off, squeezing each other’s hands to keep from getting lost. It was silly, but sometimes Scarlett thought-pretended that the room grew in the dark, that if she lost her friend’s hand, she’d never find it again. Sometimes, Scarlett thought-pretended that all the ghost stories were real.
“Not ever,” she said.
“Okay.” Sammy’s voice shook. “Once upon a time, there was a lonely monster who lived in a cellar, a, a candy shop cellar. The monster wanted a friend, but it was all dark fur and teeth, and it knew the kids in the candy shop would be scared of it. But the monster was still lonely, so one night it followed a little girl home, and when she went to bed, it wanted to play. She could only smell it at first, cause it smelled like sweet things, like cinnamon, and its fur was too dark to see. But then the monster touched the girl, and she could see its hands. They were soft, like, like flower petals.
“The monster was happy to finally play with a friend, but it didn’t know how to play right. The petals touched the girl all over, sucking up her soul. The girl was real pretty, and her soul was bright and special. The monster kept coming back, and the girl hid, but eventually it found her. It fed and fed until she died, and the monster realized it had never been lonely at all, just hungry. So the monster went looking for other kids, pretty kids with bright, shiny souls, and if you don’t wanna be one—you don’t wanna be one, right?”
“Right,” Scarlett whispered.
“Then be ugly,” Samantha said, squeezing Scarlett’s fingers tighter. “Be ugly and ordinary and not special at all, or the monster with the flower petal hands is gonna eat you, too.”
“I don’t get it,” Scarlett says, leaning forward on the couch. “Sammy haunts me for breaking the promise, fine. But you, it’s, it’s just a story.”
Matt shakes his head. “Maybe it was once, I don’t know. But it’s more than that now. Like, like one of those horror movies. Watch the wrong video, play the wrong game, read the wrong text, boom, you’re dead.”
“But I heard the story eight years ago,” Scarlett says, “and nothing came after me. And Sammy … nothing ate her. She drowned.” That, at least, Scarlett knows for sure: even now, the back of her neck feels damp, like water is trickling down from her hair. She tries to wipe it away. “Are you sure—”
Matt nods. “It comes at night. I can’t see its fur or teeth, but its hands, its hands …”
He’s shaking again. She hands him a box of Kleenex.
Matt wipes his eyes. “Its hands really are flower petals, these big, red weeping ones. Creepy soft. When it touched my face …” Matt shudders. “If I don’t fight back, it almost doesn’t hurt. I’m just sick and exhausted. But if I do?” He lifts his shirt up, and she stares at the horrific spread of black and purple stretching across his torso.
Matt almost smiles. “Yeah. And it’s weird, but it really does smell like cinnamon. My mom made hot chocolate this morning, and I almost fucking lost it.”
“What did you tell her?”
“About the new body art? Bullies.” He chucks the Kleenex at the coffee table—it bounces straight off—and sinks back into the couch. “I tried hiding. It worked once, but the next night the monster found me. It’s just gonna keep finding me, and I don’t, I don’t know how much soul I’ve got left to give.”
She squeezes his too-cold hand tighter. He squeezes back, but his grip is weak.
“Okay,” she says. “You need to sleep at my place tonight.”
Matt stares at her.
“Hide there. Maybe the monster won’t look for you in my room. Give us more time to think of … something.”
“Um,” Matt says. “Won’t your mom have a problem with that? Cause, you know, school night. And genitals.”
Scarlett does not giggle at that, and if she does, it’s only because of insomnia-induced hysteria. “Possibly,” she says, “but I’ll figure it out. I promise, Matt. I’m gonna fix this.”
“Hey.” Matt leans into her. “This isn’t your fault.”
Scarlett closes her eyes. “It is.” Somehow she knows it is.
She goes home and makes dinner. Mom, only just waking up after her 24-hour shift, is justifiably suspicious.
“Let me throw some water on my face, kid,” she says. Scarlett’s ladling macaroni into plastic bowls by the time Mom comes back, arms crossed. “You’re not pregnant, right?”
“Hey, I’m just checking.”
Scarlett shakes her head, sits down at the table, and makes her pitch. Mom is halfway through her macaroni before she finally says, “This your boyfriend?”
“You want him to be?”
Scarlett pauses, takes an especially long sip of milk. “No,” she says finally. Matt’s a good guy, and she likes guys; she’s certain about that much at least, but she doesn’t think she wants to date him, either. “But he’s going through a rough time right now, and I wanna, you know. Help.”
“And how are you doing right now?”
Scarlett blinks, and Mom snorts. “Scar. I try my best to give you space, but I’m not an idiot. You’ve haven’t slept with the lights on since you were six, and with the drinking—“
“Okay, that was a one- time thing,” Scarlett says, which is the truth, mostly.
“And the sleeping?”
“… bad dreams, I guess.” She pushes her macaroni around. “I’ve been thinking about Sammy a lot, lately.”
Mom stops, and sets down her fork, which is not a thing that happens when Velveeta is on the table. “You don’t talk much about Sammy.”
“I know,” Scarlett says. “I …”
But the words get stuck in her throat. All these years with Sammy gone, and Scarlett’s never known how to explain that Sammy isn’t just an old picture, a ghost story, a tragic event that Scarlett overcame. Wyatt knows, but Wyatt only likes to talk about the good times, and some days she just can’t. Samantha was her best friend, and was stolen away. She’s an open wound that never fully stopped bleeding.
And now …
“Hey.” Mom reaches over and squeezes Scarlett’s hand, which—for Mom—is the equivalent of a giant bear hug. “You know you can talk to me, kid.”
I want to, Scarlett thinks bitterly. It hurts, how much she wants to. But you wouldn’t believe me. I wouldn’t believe me.
“I know.” She clears her throat. “So, can Matt stay over?”
Mom sighs, and releases Scarlett’s hand. “Bedroom door open,” is all she says.
Matt comes over an hour later. Mom eyes him for a while before eventually shoving store-bought cake at his face and shoo-ing them off. Matt blinks at the cake as Scarlett drags him to her bedroom. “It’s a good sign,” she says.
“You look pretty pathetic. Need feeding. Way too weak to jump my bones.”
“Great,” Matt says sourly as he collapses on her bed. “That’s, oh. Maybe I should, uh, the floor—”
“Relax,” Scarlett says, amused. “I’m not sleeping anyway.”
But she does, of course. She’s just so goddamned tired: one second she’s at her desk, and the next she’s in the bathtub, Sammy on the ceiling above her. A flood of water pours down from her long blonde hair.
“Bad things! BAD THINGS! BAD THINGS!”
Scarlett wakes, choking—and immediately coughs up a mouthful of water. No, that’s not, it’s not possible—
Matt’s kneeling at her side. Hesitatingly, he reaches out. His fingers graze her lips and come away wet. “Holy shit,” he breathes—
And then the lights go out.
Scarlett stands, and something grabs her hand. No, not something, Matt. He pulls, and she’s not expecting it, tumbles forward to her hands and knees. “Matt,” she says, but he doesn’t hear her, can’t, maybe, over the sound of his own breathing: in, out, in, out, in, in, in, in. He pulls again, frantically, and she knocks her head against the bed frame before she figures out what he’s doing.
Scarlet crawls under the bed, pressed up against him. She can just make out his hipster glasses, his angular cheeks, and his hands, clamped tight over his mouth. She starts to say his name—
But then she smells it. Cinnamon.
Scarlett can’t hear the monster, but she knows its there, looking. A red petal drifts to the floor, then another. Any second it might kneel down, duck under and reach …
But eventually the cinnamon fades, and it’s just her and Matt again.
Matt just clings to her, crying. She clings right back, and they stay like that until dawn, until sunlight drives both their ghosts away.
“Fuck school,” Matt says the next day. “We’re going to the library.”
She drives them there slowly, in case she has to dodge any phantom bathtubs. Then Matt falls getting out of the truck. They’re quite a pair.
“Let’s pretend it is a cursed story,” he says, as she helps him inside. “There’s gotta be records or something, right? Weird local shit?”
He Googles “weird local shit,” while Scarlett looks up ghosts in the non-fiction section. She feels ridiculous and gives up an hour later, sitting next to Matt. His color is better today, but his skin is cold. The desk might be the only thing keeping him upright.
Matt shakes his head. “No mysterious deaths. No ghost sightings. Shit, there’s not even a candy store for 70 miles.” He crosses his arms. “This town is bullshit.”
“Well, maybe it’s an old story,” Scarlett says. “Like, I don’t know. From Europe, or something.”
“Maybe? But I still can’t find it. Monsters in the dark, but not cinnamon. Clawed hands, but not petal ones. It’s like … someone just made it up.”
“I know. But maybe Sammy did.”
“No,” Scarlett says. “No. She was scared, Matt. Why would she be scared of a story she made up?”
Matt shrugs. “I don’t know. But if she knew what could happen, why did she even tell you?”
Scarlett doesn’t know. She doesn’t understand the ghost story at all. It’s never fit in her collection, doesn’t function the way a ghost story should. The monster was never dead. The monster was never wronged. It’s not seeking revenge or punishing the wicked. It’s looking for other kids instead: pretty kids, special kids. You have to be ordinary and ugly to escape it. What the hell kind of moral is that?
Maybe it’s not a ghost story, Scarlett thinks. Maybe it’s something else.
If a monster like that was real, it would’ve hunted Samantha down for sure. She was smart, fearless. Samantha was one of the bright and loud things.
And Matt …
“You’re pretty,” Scarlett says.
He is, though. He’s pretty, and he’s loud: he talks all the damn time. He’s too weird to be popular. He’s a coffee shop hipster, and he shines.
Is that how the monster found him? Is that why it crept into his room and … and touched him all …
Bad thing happen if you tell.
Samantha told. Samantha told a story, but it was never a ghost story at all, was it? And Scarlett, she hadn’t understood, but now—
“Scarlett? You okay?”
No. She’s really not.
But she does make it to the bathroom before she throws up.
“Scarlett,” Matt says anxiously when she returns. “What—”
Scarlett swallows. “I think I need to tell another ghost story, after all.”
They wait until midnight, and then break into the house. Scarlett leads Matt into the bathroom. It’s even smaller than she remembers. Thin slivers of moonlight stretch from the living room window. When she closes the door, even that is gone.
Blindly, she reaches forward and finds Matt’s hand. She squeezes his cold fingers, suddenly afraid of getting lost in the dark.
“Once upon a time,” Scarlett says, voice shaking, “a little girl lived in this house, and something was hurting her. Someone.”
Water trickles down her spine again. Scarlett shudders, and Matt squeezes her hand.
“What happened next?” he asks, even though it’s an old story, a depressingly old, familiar story.
“The person hurting her was a monster, but not the kind of monster with fur and teeth. His hands were flesh, not petals, and they … they touched where they shouldn’t touch.”
Weeping. Scarlett tries to ignore it. “He probably told her things to keep her quiet. Said he was lonely, needed a friend. Said she was too pretty, too special. He tried to make it her fault, but Sammy, it never was.”
Matt inhales sharply. “Scarlett.”
She can smell it too. Two ghosts with them now: one real, one made real.
“Stop,” Samantha whispers from behind her. “Bad things happen if you tell.”
But she has to tell, otherwise it will never end, not for any of them. “The little girl was scared. She didn’t know how to make it stop. I don’t think she couldn’t accept that it was a person hurting her. So she made up a story that made more sense. She told it to her best friend.”
Something groans behind her, something rusted that doesn’t want to give—and then a rush of water. “That, it can’t,” Matt says desperately. “The water can’t be turned on, it’s not—”
But the water is on, and it’s loud. Scarlett yells to hear herself over it.
“Her best friend didn’t understand. She didn’t, she didn’t tell anyone, and the little girl went home and … maybe, maybe he did come by, but I think, I think it was just an accident. I think she just—”
Samantha screams, so loud the room shakes and something explodes above them, breaking glass, cascading shards—the mirror, Scarlett realizes, and tries to cover her head. Matt pulls back, swearing, and before she can reach out again, something’s wrapped around her arms: cold, tiny fingers digging into her skin and dragging her backwards. Towards the tub.
Scarlett’s the one screaming now.
She tries to grab onto something, but there’s nothing to hold onto. Samantha drags her effortlessly, lifts her up and rolls her over—and then Scarlett’s splashing face first into the water She bucks back, kicking frantically, trying to push herself up—and finally breaks through, coughing so hard she can barely hear Matt across the room. “Matt,” Scarlett tries to say, and is pushed under the water again.
Her lungs are squeezing shut. She can’t breathe. She can’t breathe.
She manages to lift up on her elbows again. “Sammy, Sammy stop. Please, you have to stop.”
“You promised,” Samantha says. “You promised you wouldn’t tell!”
“I should have told,” Scarlett says, trying to get to her knees. She slips, nearly goes under. “Sammy, I—”
But there’s a strange thumping sound she can’t identify, something smacking against wood. “Mother. Fucking. Christ,” Matt says, and suddenly Scarlett can see, as the bathroom door swings open and moonlight filters through the room.
It’s hard to see it, the thing crouching over Matt. A glimpse of teeth that vanish, black fur that disappears into the shadows … but she can see hands floating in the darkness. Its long fingers are pale and smooth.
Its long fingers transform into rose petals as they crawl over the back of Matt’s neck.
Matt gasps and tries to pull himself forward, but the petals fall from nowhere: sliding under his shirt, weighing him down, leeching him. He breathes in short, reflexive gulps. The pauses between them grow longer and longer.
Scarlett pushes up from the tub, hard as she can, and rolls onto her back.
Samantha, above her, doesn’t flicker from sight. She just stands there, a dead little girl with wet, tangled, blonde hair and blood-burst eyes. “Bad things,” she whispers. “Bad things, bad things.”
“Not because you told,” Scarlett says. “You need to hear the rest of the story.”
“No,” Samantha says, and attacks—--but Scarlett’s prepared this time, catches her by the wrists.
“The little girl died,” Scarlett said, “but she didn’t rest, not really. I think maybe she hid right here in this house, hid from the monster she believed in so much, the monster that she took with her. I hope—” Her voice broke. “Christ, I hope it never found her, that it wasn’t, wasn’t hurting her all that time. I hope she just curled up and slept under the bed for eight years. Until, until her best friend broke a promise and woke the girl, and the monster too.”
“No,” Samantha says, letting go and putting her hands over her ears. “No, I don’t want to hear.”
But it’s almost done now, and it has to be Samantha who finishes it.
Scarlett can’t hear Matt anymore.
She doesn’t look. She can’t look.
“The monster went after a new kid, just like in the story. But the little girl, she forgot that she’d made up the story. She kept the secret so long she forgot the monster, this monster, wasn’t real. You have to name the real monster, Sammy. You have to say it out loud.”
“I can’t,” Samantha says, sobbing. “He’ll hurt me if I tell.”
Scarlett grabs her hands, squeezes tight. “It’s the secret, that’s hurting you,” she says. “And you don’t have to keep it for him anymore. You don’t have to be scared anymore.”
“Please tell me, Sammy. Tell me who the real monster is.”
Sammy clings to her. She screams into Scarlett’s shirt: “Uncle Wyatt, Uncle Wyatt, Uncle Wyatt!”
And everything suddenly stops.
There’s no sound, no sound at all, but Scarlett’s heartbeat and Sammy’s tears. Scarlett hugs her desperately.
“I’m so, so sorry, Sammy. I didn’t tell, I didn’t know—”
“I was so scared—”
“I should’ve known—”
“I didn’t want it—”
“I should’ve known.”
Scarlett closes her eyes, weeping. She should have, she could have—
“I’m going to tell,” Sammy whispers. “I think I’m ready to tell now.”
Scarlett opens her eyes then—but Samantha’s just gone.
The water is gone, too, although Scarlett’s still wet. The scent of cinnamon has vanished, flower petals too, and Matt—
“No,” Scarlett says, gracelessly scrambling out of the tub. “Matt!”
She crawls forward, grabbing him by the arm and pushing him on his back. Shaking him. “Matt, please don’t be dead. Wake up, don’t be dead, don’t be dead, don’t be—”
“Not,” Matt says faintly. His eyes flicker open. “Don’t think, anyway.” He tries to lift his head off the floor, fails. “Is it over?”
“I—I don’t know. She just, she—I think so. I think so?” Scarlett shakes her head. “Can you move?”
“Yeah, totally,” Matt says. “Any second now.” He pauses. “Or. Alternatively. We could just, can we just—”
“Sit here a minute?” Scarlett asks, and collapses beside him. “Yeah. It’s all whatever out there anyway. We can sit. We can definitely sit.”
On Monday she goes back to school.
It seems horrifically unfair that she still has to deal with pop quizzes and P.E. after nearly dying, but no one accepts 'a ghost ate my homework', and she can’t fake a cold forever. Matt seems to be doing okay with it, anyway, after sleeping for two days straight. He even gets an A on his makeup quiz. Scarlett’s paper on Benjamin Franklin, meanwhile, is turned in two days late for a C-. Fuck it.
She still isn’t sleeping well. She keeps waking up in the middle of the night, tense and shaking, but lonely too, when nothing else wakes with her. Scarlett misses Samantha. She wants to know her best friend’s okay now.
A couple of days later, Scarlett decides she is.
There are whispers around town that Wyatt’s Coffee is haunted, stories about a dead girl who disappears when you blink, who sits at your table and drips water on the floor. When the Muzak cuts out, the speakers hiss a name: Uncle Wyatt. Uncle Wyatt. Uncle Wyatt.
It’s all just ghost stories. Rumors, pranks—nobody really believes the whispers, not even the whisperers themselves. Ghosts aren’t real, after all, and there’s a rational explanation for everything. Which doesn’t explain why the shop’s deserted when Scarlett walks in.
Wyatt is at the counter, eyes bloodshot and wet. Scarlett orders a mocha, which he spills twice in the process of making.
She doesn’t pay for it, doesn’t take the cup, never wants their skin to touch again.
“I know what you did,” Scarlett says. “And everyone here, whether they can admit it or not, whether they can prove it or not … they know too. Everyone knows what you are.”
Wyatt shudders. He looks to the left, shudders again, and opens his mouth.
But Scarlett doesn’t need to hear anything he has to say. She turns and sees Samantha sitting at the far table, staring at Wyatt. Scarlett holds out her hand, inclines her head. Come with me, Sammy. Come home.
But Sammy just smiles and shakes her head.
“I’m not done talking yet,” she says, and Scarlett has to accept that.
“When you are,” Scarlett says. “I’ll be around.”
She leaves the coffee shop, and behind her, Wyatt weeps.
Meanwhile, life continues, and with that—
“Homecoming,” Matt says, as he stands up from her kitchen table and packs his books away. “Are you going to ask Anna?”
Anna probably doesn’t even know Scarlett’s name. She does know her fake Spanish name, because she used it the other day. Asking for a pen. “I don’t think we’re quite at dance level,” Scarlett says. “I thought maybe I’d just try, you know, saying hi instead. Doesn’t sound as scary as it used to.”
“Well, it probably can’t get drowning-in-your-sleep bad.”
“That’s what I’m saying.” Scarlett hears her mom pull up and instinctively takes a breath. “I’m still not exactly sure where I fit, like, I don’t think I wanna tell Mom I’m …”
“Maybe-sorta-quasi bi?” Matt asks, smiling. “Sure. Just, you know it doesn’t have to be a 50/50 split right? Like, pretty sure the bisexuality train is not a rollercoaster: you don’t gotta be this much gay to ride.”
Scarlett laughs. “I’ll keep it in mind,” she says.
Mom comes in with a half dozen grocery bags on each arm. Matt helps out before taking off, leaving Scarlett standing alone, standing around helplessly. She’s rehearsed sixteen different conversation starters; none of them were “so, want me to make dinner?” But apparently, that’s what she’s going with.
Mom looks at her, sighs. “Let me take my boots off, kid.”
Scarlett scoops chili into a pan while she waits. She’ll tell Mom about the bi stuff, eventually, but … she needs a little time, and anyway, that secret isn’t hurting her, not yet.
Mom walks back into the kitchen and squeezes Scarlett’s hand: her bear hug, her wordless love. “Whatever you want to tell me,” Mom says, “it’s safe.”
Scarlett takes a deep breath.
“It’s about Sammy,” she says. “I’m ready to tell now.”