When Peter and I get home from the hospital—our daughter’s not dead yet, but it’s not like she’s going to be alive again—the first thing we realize is we forgot to pick up her sister from the sitter.
“It’s okay, right?” I say. “I mean, this isn’t about her or us, it’s just about…” I trail off. I wave my hand around in the air, at everything. “This.”
“Yeah,” Peter says. He doesn’t really do much in the way of eye contact anymore. “I’ll go get her right now if you want to just go to bed.”
“No,” I say. “I’ll go. Or I’ll come with.”
And when he finally replies, it’s almost a relief. “I’d rather you didn’t.”
I met Peter in college, when we were both campus tour guides on Buzzfeed’s number one haunted college campus in America. Ghost stories were our currency, and ghost stories are our currency now, and all of that seemed so much more important and so much more swallowable before yesterday afternoon, when we didn’t yet have the kind of daughter who’d push her sister out of a tree house.
Ghost stories and hauntings are the things you find solace in when your fears are broad and nonspecific. Ghost stories tell you: yes, be scared here, for these reasons, it’s okay.
My fears, now, are very specific.
I don’t sleep while I wait for Peter and Mila to get home. I sit on the floor of Vivian’s room. There are doll clothes everywhere, Vivian clothes everywhere, Legos everywhere, and it’s hard to flex my motherhood muscles beyond my usual reaction when her room gets like this. In the movies, the bereaved parents leave the child’s room exactly how they left it, but right now I just want to raise my voice at Vivian and say, “HOW CAN YOU LIVE IN THIS PIGSTY.”
I think, Am I supposed to leave her room exactly like this forever?
Peter comes home and takes Mila into our room, not venturing down the hallway to find me in here. He wants Mila sleeping in our bed, between us, because he worries about how she’s feeling and he doesn’t want her to be afraid. “She’s just six,” he tells me over and over again. “This was a freak thing. This was an accident. Can you even imagine what she’s going through right now,” he says.
When I’m sure they’re both asleep, I get up and brush my teeth with Vivian’s toothbrush and crawl into her bed for just a second, before I realize that my head on this pillow will hasten the loss of her smell from her pillowcase. And I should probably be with Mila.
(Exhibit A: The last thing I said to Vivian before head trauma left her without brain function was Can you not go a single minute without antagonizing your sister. I am losing my mind. I don’t know what to do with any of you anymore.)
(Exhibit B: The last thing I said to Mila before she killed her sister was You are doing this on purpose. You are the problem.)
Was that the last time I spoke to Mila? I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.
I built the tree house with my dad when I was in my second trimester of pregnancy with Mila. She would be the first grandchild and my dad was determined to spoil her. Peter didn’t help. Peter said, “It just kind of sounds like a bad idea.”
(Exhibit C: Maybe if Peter had helped with the tree house it wouldn’t have been a death trap.)
By the time Vivian learned to walk and Mila was in preschool, I refused to go in the backyard anymore because the supervision on account of the tree house was far, far beyond the scope of my patience and the scope of my anxiety. The scope of my ability to envision the worst possible scenario in any situation. Score one for my anxiety: I always just thought it’d be accidental.
When I was in college, which often felt like what I did to fill the time between my tour guide shifts, I took an intro to film class and the professor once wrote on the dry erase board The way we tell stories is inherently nonlinear and I never once stopped thinking about that. That class period was the last time I was a good tour guide. In my next shift, the following weekend’s crop of high school juniors and their moms on college tour road trips, I stammered repeatedly, thinking about that professor, thinking about the ghosts that haunt the campus, and I went off script. I told them how the ghost stories made me feel, and then I told them about the ghost stories, and sometimes I made it to telling them about the ghosts, too. Peter worked that same shift and afterwards he said, “Wow, Jenny, you can’t get so lost in this stuff. Just tell the people what they need to know. None of those kids are going to want to come here now.”
So maybe if I start this story with I am a failure as a mother and somewhere in the middle you find out that the last thing I said to my almost-dead youngest child is I don’t know what to do with any of you anymore, and maybe slightly before that you find out that I’m afraid of just two things now, and those two things are my eldest child and the ghost of my youngest child, and then I’ll tell you about the tree house, and about my marriage that was filled with made-up stories and blame, and then—surprise—close with the moment I ran outside after the scream and saw the way Vivian’s sweet face bled so much, then maybe you’d understand how this story works.
By the time I climb into bed, it’s after midnight. Mila sleeps between my pillow and Peter’s, conveniently spaced an entire child’s body apart since the last time we co-slept with our babies, which meant we wouldn’t have to hold each other as we fell asleep anymore, and at least we’d have a reason for the death of intimacy, and that reason is roughly X-sized and takes up X amount of space between the marital pillows. But it’s been years since we had a baby sleeping in here and Mila is so big now, so lanky, that half her body stretches into my spot. I lift a limp arm so I have room to lie down and let it fall across my body. Mila wriggles a little, wakes up enough to say, “Mama,” and then, drowsily, “When is Vivian coming home” and then “I see her here right now, I love you, Vivian.”
I don’t sleep that night. I also don’t open my eyes.
Peter’s favorite campus ghost stories were the ones set in the secret underground tunnels that supposedly span the entire length of the university. He liked the urban legend/ghost combo, something for everyone. His all-time favorite was the one about the head groundskeeper, the only human who could access the tunnels, who one day found the dead rabbit wrapped in string and hung on a hook from the tunnel’s low roof, unmistakable and unmistakably not there before. And, by way of coping, the groundskeeper laughed about it with someone from another department later, over their lunch break, only to watch his coworker freeze and, as the expression goes, turn white as a ghost. The coworker, speaking very slowly and carefully, said that he’d seen his friend the groundskeeper earlier that day, carrying a small, furry, long-eared animal tucked beneath his arm. The coworker said What is wrong with you? The thing with Peter is that his favorite stories have no narrative, chronological or otherwise. He likes the stories that make no sense because, he insists, the audience has to work harder to feel it. He always said, the two of us sunken in dorm room beanbags, passing a joint back and forth, “When you just tell people how you feel, Jenny, you’re doing all the work for them. It’s not their story anymore.” And all I could say was, “But why did the groundskeeper have the rabbit. Why was the rabbit in the tunnel! And I don’t even know who is the ghost. Is it a ghost rabbit! Is the groundskeeper the ghost! What does the coworker know that I don’t! I just don’t get it.”
When Vivian was born, Mila was there, in the room. Mila cried that day, holding her red-skinned, wrinkly sister for the first time and saying, “My baby is so special,” over and over again. I never knew my heart could grow so big. And when Vivian was old enough to understand this, she didn’t feel fondness or closeness to her sister—she just zoomed right in to the injustice and said, “No fair that she got to see a baby get born and you’re never having another baby so I’m never going to see a baby sister get born.”
(Exhibit D: The last thing Peter said to his daughters before one of them killed the other was Girls, just stop fighting for one fucking second and put your cereal bowls in the sink; I’m going to be late, and then they stopped dead in their tracks, staring back at their mild-mannered father who had just used the F word, the kind of staring like in cartoons where, with each blink, there’d be the staccato clink clink of a xylophone. And then he left for work.)
(Exhibit E: Peter and I used to never hang up the phone without saying “I love you,” and we used to never leave the house without kissing each other goodbye. It’s a linear narrative: a miniature closing scene multiple times per day, a dozen happy endings, regardless of what else happened in the story. We wrote these rituals into our wedding vows, which seemed cliché at the time but important, and when we stopped doing those things, generally just circumstantially more than anything, I didn’t wish that we would restart them. I didn’t wish that the last things we said to someone at every departure mattered. I just wished that we hadn’t decided to put it in the vows so I wouldn’t feel like such a failure.)
In the morning, still dark, Mila and I wake when Peter’s phone buzzes on the nightstand. Peter, as usual, sleeps through it.
“Mama,” Mila says. “I dreamed I pushed Vivian out of the tree house and I fell with her, too.”
I pull her to my side, wrapping an arm around her and resting my chin on the top of her head.
“But when we hit the ground, I dreamed I was the one who died and I came back as a ghost so I could be with you.”
“Mila,” I start, but I don’t know what to say.
“Mama, tell me a story,” she says, our favorite game. “A scary story.”
“Honey, I don’t think that’s a good idea right now.”
“Maybe I won’t be scared of Vivian if I have something else to be scared of,” Mila says, and it feels somehow like she’s older than me.
Peter’s phone buzzes on his nightstand again and I fully realize it’s morning, a new day, which means today isn’t yesterday, and it definitely isn’t the day before that. Today isn’t the day anybody falls out of a tree.
“Did I ever tell you the one about the rabbit and the groundskeeper?”
Julia Dixon Evans is the author of the novel How to Set Yourself on Fire (Dzanc Books, 2018). Her work can be found in McSweeney’s, Pithead Chapel, Barrelhouse, Hobart, and elsewhere. She is a freelance writer in San Diego, currently writes the Voice of San Diego Culture Report, is host and founding editor of Last Exit, a new project featuring workshops, a reading series and an online journal, and is nonfiction editor for Noble / Gas Qtrly. More: juliadixonevans.com, Twitter: @juliadixonevans