I am surrounded by the dead. They slip through the swamp and the cypress trees at night, sometimes as a howl, sometimes the burble of the bullfrogs which sit sunning on the lily pads outside of the cabin. There is always a smell when they come. This never changes–always dirt and must, like the smell you get in a garage or sun porch that hasn’t been used in a long time. It’s the smell of earth that’s been pushed aside, like the corpses in the cemetery have broken through their coffins, clawing up through the ground to find me.
In the morning, I find one of them leaning over my niece’s crib. Lala looks with her eyes wide. She doesn’t cry, though she should. The dead woman leaning over the crib has been shot in the side of the head. Her hair is short and blonde, and she is well dressed. The bullet has skimmed the side of her skull–less frightening than expected for this type of wound. I move to her side to pluck Lala from her nest of blankets. She reaches out for the woman, but she is already gone, and in her place is a sunbeam, all shot with mist.
“I’m going out,” Mariah calls.
There is another woman in the corner of the room, her hair wet with swamp water. Since I moved back in to help with Lala, more and more of them keep popping up. In the morning, they linger even after the night has burned off and the heat bugs start their screaming. It’s the house, the swamp. They have always been drawn to this place, but I can’t imagine leaving Lala. “Where are you headed?” I call back.
“Out,” she replies.
The front door slams, shaking the rest of the cabin. I look to Lala. She should cry, but she doesn’t. She never does. Not for anything.
When we were young, Mama used to take Mariah and me out gold hunting in the swamps. We’d sit in the little canoe in the winter, covered in scratchy wool blankets, while she fished for dead bodies. One day, we pulled up a skeleton with a gold bracelet. “That’s a new wardrobe, chickadees.” She plucked it over the bones in his wrist, which cracked and bent under her pressure, decrepit and waterlogged, then told me to row us home.
That evening, I saw the man with the collapsed wrist standing in the corner of me and Mariah’s bedroom. He stood with his back slightly arched, like he’d been hurt there, and his hand was extended to me, the wrist Mama had broken. His body was covered in shadows, so I couldn’t see his face clear.
I called for Mama, but she stayed in her room like she always did. It was just me and the man, and then he came running at me, his bones a creaking sound, his movements like the lizards running up the cypress trees outside, too quick to be predicted or stopped. I hollered and hollered, covering my face with my hands, and then it was just Mariah, her yellow eyes like moonbeams glaring down at me. “God damn, Minnie,” she kept saying. “Why won’t you fucking let me sleep?”
The blonde woman shows up again the next day while I’m working at the porch desk. The heat has receded–strange for a late September day in Louisiana–and instead a cool, yet humid breeze hangs along the windows. I notice her first by the garden. The lilies are wilting. She stands over them, shorter in height than most, and then reaches out to touch them.
I stand. “Hey.”
The light wavers over her. She turns to me, and this time, the gunshot wound is gone. It’s just her face, clearer than I’ve ever seen any before, the faint wrinkles, even the makeup. She has red lipstick. Green eyes. She looks like a woman from the rich side of town. Someone who happened upon some tragedy, something far beyond her normal life. “Your lilies are dying,” she says.
“Who are you?”
She looks around. “I’m Sheila,” she says. “Who are you?”
The breeze pushes at the curtains that hang around the open porch windows. I step around them, reaching for the front door. I keep expecting her to flit away, to disappear in a trick of light, yet she remains, firmly planted as the lodgepole pines in the distance. “Minnie.” I extend a hand, my heart clanging against my chest. She takes it, and I can feel all of her–muscle, bone, and skin, which is soft but cold to the touch.
Two days later, Sheila arrives again. This time, I spot her kneeling over the lilies in her fancy, rich lady outfit, the dirt and grass staining the knees of her pants. She wears heels. The points of them are covered in clods of dirt. “Your outfit,” I say, just to hear her response.
“I couldn’t find any of my gardening clothes,” she replies.
I circle her, looking for the wound. Instead, her blonde hair hangs clean against her skull. It’s bright blonde, obviously fake, but fitting of her somehow. I kneel in the dirt across from her. The cold from this morning remains there, bleeding through my jeans. The heat bugs are absent today–autumn is coming. “I didn’t think you’d come back.”
“It’s too quiet at the house.” She pats around the soil of one of the lilies, her fingers caked with dirt. In that moment, I have the overwhelming desire to find out what happened to her, why she is here with me when she should be on the other side.
“Do you want to have sweet tea on the porch with me?” I ask.
She pauses. When she looks up, I spot wrinkles near her eyes and a mole near her upper lip. She is beautiful and so very alive. “You entertain guests often?”
She leans back. “Why not? You have a certain charm to you.”
“Not according to most people.” I stand and extend my hand. She takes it. Bits of soil press into my skin, keeping me from feeling her. “Do you have family?”
“Boys,” she says. “But they leave me home alone a lot.”
I tell her I know exactly how that is.
Sheila does not smell like the dead. She smells like expensive perfume, and when it lifts through the house during the days, when Mariah is gone and Lala is sleeping, I know she has arrived. She likes to sit on the porch and look out at the swamp in the distance, at the lilies which have now miraculously recovered, standing pert in their small garden box. She tells me about her sons and her job at one of the fancy antique shops downtown. I don’t have the heart to tell her about the shooting that occurred there just before she started showing up.
When the heat bugs are at their loudest, she goes quiet, closing her eyes to listen. I find myself staring at her sometimes, at the way the light plays across her cheeks and skin.
“Don’t you have a child?” she asks one day, about two weeks after she first showed up.
“My big sister does. A girl.”
She turns to face me. It surprises me how quickly I have grown fond of her, how unintimidating she is now, even though I know what she is. “Can I hold her?”
The baby monitor is quiet. Mariah is gone again–I don’t know where. I am halfway through edits of a romance novel, the cursor blinking over the last paragraph in the chapter. A chill sweeps over me. I rise, heading to the baby’s room. Lala is awake, her feet in the air, hands in her mouth. She blinks at me as I lift her by the armpits, bringing her to my chest. She lets a cough loose onto my shoulder, her tiny baby breath tickling my neck.
My stomach is tight as I approach the porch. “Where is your sister?” Sheila asks.
“I don’t know where she goes during the day.”
Sheila looks so calm. Every day, she seems more and more alive, like each visit is solidifying her. There are times I think maybe she is real. She has all the makings of a real woman–the quirk in her mouth when she smiles, the bite in her laughter. But, too, part of me knows that no real woman would ever come around so much like she does. I have never in my life gotten a woman to love me, not even my own mother. “Baby,” she says, and holds out her hands.
I hesitate. Lala’s gaze finds her and then she smiles. I place a soft kiss on her forehead, then hand her over to Sheila. There’s a moment where my body fills with fear; I worry I have done the wrong thing. Sheila is not Sheila, but a shell of a person, a figment, a trick of light. But then she grasps Lala softly, supporting her neck, and the baby lets out a gurgle, almost like laughter. “She likes you,” I say.
“I miss this,” she replies.
That night, I wake up to the smell of expensive perfume. The window is open; I left it closed. My gaze goes immediately to the corner, but the man from the swamp is not there. My door swings. I shift my gaze to find Sheila standing in the doorframe. There is barely any light in the room, just the faint illumination the moon gives through the open window. Shadows pock her eyes.
“Minnie,” she whispers. “I think there’s something wrong with me.”
I sit up in bed. My body feels the fear more than my brain registers it. Because this is not normal. This is not silhouettes or shadows or creepy crawling bodies that slink across the room and fade at night. I have come to expect Sheila everywhere–in the morning while I’m making Lala her bottle. At night as the sun sets red over the swamp. “Nothing’s wrong with you,” I say. “Why do you think that?”
She looks around the room. Delicate. Then she places herself on the edge of my bed. She is so small. Not frail–Sheila has always seemed strong to me, even at her worst–and something about that has made me tender for her. “My kids are gone,” she says. “None of my stuff is in the house. I just come here every day and then I walk home.” She looks at me, and it is the first time a dead person has broken my heart. “What am I supposed to do?”
I reach out and grab her hand. It is warm to the touch. “I don’t know,” I say. “But you’re welcome here until you figure it out.”
I fall asleep with Sheila perched on the edge of my bed, then wake up to the smell of burning. It’s Mariah. When I stumble into the kitchen I find her with the baby on her hip, a piece of burnt toast in front of them. The orange juice is out. A trail of it leaks across the counter. “You taking her today?” I ask.
“God damn,” she says. “I just woke up.”
“I have a lot of work to get done.”
“She sleeps half the day, Min.”
I go quiet. Sheila is not here. There is no perfume smell, just the stink of the burnt toast.
“You were talking in your sleep last night,” Mariah says, and then that look slips across her face, the one I see so rarely but makes everything feel like it might be okay, even though I have never really been happy here, even though I’m worried there is nothing in this life for me. “You okay?”
“Probably a nightmare.”
She leans in, placing a kiss on my forehead. Then she shuffles Lala into my arms. The baby smells like she needs to be changed. “I’m headed out, but I’ll be back soon, and I’ll take her then.”
Mariah turns away from me. Her hair has already been done. It’s smooth and silky, unlike mine. “Promise?” I ask.
“Promise,” she says. “Don’t worry so much, chickadee.”
She finishes making another round of toast, then slips out the door. Everyone in my life has loved me the way Mariah loves me. They rely on me but don’t know it. Expect me to be there but are never really excited about me. Every single person I’ve ever loved has seen me as good, but not quite enough.
The only ones who want me are the dead.
A man with a broken leg shows up in the afternoon while Lala is down for her nap. Then, around two p.m., Sheila arrives. She is in a strange outfit–a red robe, her hair undone. It looks like she has been crying. “I thought you weren’t coming,” I tell her, standing. “Are you okay?”
“Did I die?” she asks.
She is so small with the light reflecting off her features. So real. She is the realest person I have ever met in my life. “I think so,” I say. “I’m sorry.”
“Why did you not tell me?”
I pause. “I didn’t want you to leave.”
Sheila looks over me, then approaches, placing her hands over mine. It’s so much the same as the first time, except now, I can feel her heart beating through her skin. “Is that what happens?”
She tilts her head and reaches out, running her thumb along my jawline. There is so much warmth in her eyes. I have not had anyone look at me this way in my entire life. “What if I don’t want to go yet?” she asks.
I draw the baby from her crib, and we settle on the porch. Sheila nestles her on her lap, humming a song as the bugs whistle in the background. We sit, the three of us, watching the sun shift through the clouds until it gets dark.
The morning rises with a red sun. Storm’s coming. The tension of it lingers over the trees, which sway towards one another at the very tips, the motion so slight you can barely see it. The air is taut, like electricity. Lala is fussy all morning, needing to be changed, needing to be fed, burping up her formula, which usually goes down easy. Mid-morning comes and goes. No Sheila.
Near noon, I get a call from the sheriff’s office telling me that Mariah has been arrested for selling methamphetamine. “Where is she?” I ask him. “Is she okay?”
“She’s fine. Asking for you to come bail her, though.”
I bounce the baby. She burps and reaches for a lock of my hair. “How long will she be in there?”
“If you don’t get her? A few days.”
The first trickles of rain start pinging against the cabin roof. Not far off, thunder crashes. It startles Lala and she pulls on my hair, letting out a soft whine. If Sheila were here, it wouldn’t be like this. Lala would be happy; so would I. “Leave her,” I say.
The line is quiet. Then, “You sure?”
“I’m sure,” I say and hang up.
The rain comes after I put Lala down for a nap. It bullets the ground near the lilies, flooding the earth around them. The smell returns–that musty stink of the dead. I picture them crawling out of their shallow swamp graves, pulling themselves over vines and roots to reach me. I wait and wait, but Sheila never comes. The lilies wilt. Through the baby monitor, Lala cries herself to sleep.