The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 12, No. 1

Something Amazing

by Elizabeth McCracken

Just west of Boston, just north of the turnpike, the ghost of Missy Goodby sleeps curled up against the cyclone fence at the dead end of Winter Terrace, dressed in a pair of ectoplasmic dungarees. That thumping noise is Missy bopping a plastic Halloween pumpkin on one knee; that flash of light in the corner of a dark porch is the moon off the glasses she wore to correct her lazy eye. Late at night when you walk your dog and feel suddenly cold, and then unsure of yourself, and then loathed by the world, that's Missy Goodby, too, hissing as she did when she was alive and six years old: I hate you, you stink, you smell, you baby.
     The neighborhood kids remember Missy. She bit when she was angry and pinched no matter what. They don't feel sorry for her ghost self. They remember the funeral they were forced to attend, how her mother threw herself on the coffin, wailing, how they thought she'd been kidding and so laughed out loud and got shushed. The way the neighborhood kids tell the story, the coffin was lowered into the ground and Missy Goodby's grieving mother leapt down and then had to be yanked from the hole like a weed. Everyone always believes the better story eventually. Really, Pamela Goodby just thumped the coffin at the graveside service. Spanked it: two spanks. She knew that pleading would never budge her daughter, not because she was dead but because she was stubborn. All her life, the more you pleaded with Missy, the more likely she was to do something to terrify you. Pamela Goodby spanked the coffin and walked away and listened for footsteps behind her. She walked all the way home, where she took off her shoes, black pumps with worn stones of gray along the toes. "Done with you," she told them.

The soul is liquid, and slow to evaporate. The body's a bucket and liable to slosh. Grieving, haunted, heartbroken, obsessed—your friends will tell you to cheer up. What they really mean is dry up. But it isn't a matter of will. Only time and light will do the job. Who wants to, anyhow?
     Best keep in the dark and nurse the damp. Cover the mirrors, leave the radio switched off. Avoid the newspaper, the television, the whole outdoors, anywhere little girls congregate, though the world is manufacturing them hand over fist, though there are now, it seems, more little girls living in the world than any other variety of human being. Or middle-aged men whose pants don't fit, or infant boys, or young women with wide, sympathetic, fretful foreheads—whatever you have lost there are more of, just not yours. Sneeze. Itch. Gasp for breath. Seal the windows. Replace the sheets, then the mattresses. Pry the fillings from your teeth. Buy appliances to scrub the air. You are allergic to everything.
     The smell of the detergent from the sheets falls into your nose. The chili your nice son cooks visits you in the bedroom. The sweat from his clothes when he runs home from high school, the fog of his big yawping shoes, the awful smell of batteries loaded into a remote control, car exhaust, the plastic bristles on your toothbrush, the salt-air smell of baking soda once you give up toothpaste. Make your house as safe and impermeable as possible. Filter the air, boil the water: the rashes stay, the wheezing gets worse.
     What you are allergic to can walk through walls.

The neighborhood kids don't remember what Pamela Goodby looked like back when she regularly drove down Winter Terrace; they've forgotten her curly black hair, her star-and-moon earrings, her velvet leggings. It's been five years. Now that she's locked away, they know everything about her. The paper mask she wears over her nose and mouth makes her eyes look big. She no longer cuts or colors her mercury hair but instead twists it like a towel and pins it to her head. Her clothes are unbleached cotton and hemp; an invalid could eat them. She and her son, Gerry, used to look alike, a pair of freckled, hearty people. Not anymore. Her freckles have starved from lack of light. Her eyebrows are thick, her eyelashes thin. She seems made of soap and wire wool.
     "Something's wrong in the neighborhood," she says. "Whatever killed Missy has made me sick."
     Of course she's a witch. The older kids tell younger kids, and kids who live on the street tell the kids round the corner. The Winter Terrace Witch, they call her, as though she's a seventeenth-century legend. She eats children. She kills them. She killed her own daughter a million years ago.
     Some gangly kid not even from the street tells Santos and Johnny Mackers about the witch and the ghost. The Mackerses have just moved to Winter Terrace. Santos is nine years old, with curly hair and a strange accent, the result of nearly a decade of postnasal drip. Johnny is as tough a five-year-old as ever was, a little monster Santos has created on the sly. Santos steals their father's Kools and lights them for Johnny. He has taught Johnny all the swears he knows, taught him how to punch, all in hopes that their mother will love Johnny a little less and him a little more. It's not working. Already they're famous on the street, where no one has ever seen Johnny Mackers walk. He rides his Big Wheel everywhere: up and down the street and into the attached garage. He rides it directly into the cyclone fence.
     "You're a crazy motherfucker," Santos says. "A crazy motherfucker." He doesn't like the word himself, but Johnny won't learn it otherwise.
     "That's Ghostland," the gangly kid says, from the other side of the fence. "That's where all the ghosts get caught, that's why they call it a dead end."
     "Nossir," says Santos.
     "Yessir," says the kid. "Dead girl ghost. Plus there's a witch." He spits to be tough but hasn't practiced enough; he just drools, and then he walks away, embarrassed.
     Johnny Mackers is swarthy and black-haired and Italian-looking, like his mother; Santos has his Irish father's looks. He likes to shut Johnny into things. Already he's investigated the locks of their new house. The attic, the basement, the mirror-fronted closet in their parents' room: every lock sounds different—key, bolt, hook-and-eye, dead-bolt.
     "The dead girl wants to kiss you. Here she comes. Here she comes. Pucker up."
     But the dead girl isn't interested, and Johnny Mackers knows it. The neighborhood kids are lying when they say they see her. The dead girl doesn't watch as Santos stuffs Johnny into the front hall closet. The dead girl doesn't see the fingers reaching out the bottom of the door, or the foot that stomps on them. She doesn't see Mrs. Mackers open up the door an hour later, saying, "What are you doing there, for Pete's sake? The way you hide, it drives me nuts. Why don't you go ride your bike. Go on, now." The dead girl doesn't sleep outside, ever. Why would she? She is with her mother, who—as she cleans the kitchen (her eyesight so vigilant she can see individual motes of dust, a single bacterium scuttling along the countertop)—can hear the mortar-and-pestle sound of a plastic wheel grinding along the grit of the gutter, a noise that should surely accomplish more than getting a grimy, black-haired boy from one end of the street to the other.

A different child might have turned into a different kind of ghost, visible only to little children, a finder of lost balls, a demander of candy. She could have visited Johnny Mackers late at night, when he plotted how he would kill his brother, Santos. She could have haunted Santos himself. She could have accomplished things.
     Instead, she likes to snuffle close to her mother's skin. The best smell is Pamela's skin in the hollows just below her cheekbones and just above her jaw: you have to press close, you have to nuzzle nearly under Pamela's nose to reach it. Sometimes Missy gets in the way and cuts off her mother's breath. She doesn't mean to. The biting, pinching child bites and pinches, along her mother's arms, her pale stomach.
     "Look," Pamela says to her son, displaying her forearms, which are captioned with strange, anaglyphic sentences spelled out in hives.
     Gerry Goodby was twelve when his little sister died. Now he's seventeen, still freckled, and athletic. He has watched his mother turn from a woman into some immaculate vegetable substance, pale, thin, lamplit. What will you do? his father says. He means about college. For the past five years Gerry and his father have had the same alternating conversations: I want to live with you, Gerry will say, and his father will answer, You know that's impossible, you know your mother needs you. Or his father will say, This is crazy, she's crazy, come live with me, and Gerry will answer, You know that's impossible.
     Gerry was the one who closed up Missy's room a year after she died, his mother wheezing, weeping, molting on the sofa. She gave him the directions: Don't touch a thing. Just seal it up. He nailed over the doorway with barrier cloth, then painted over that with latex paint. His mother felt better for nearly a month.
     Sometimes he stops in the hallway and touches the slumped wall where Missy's door used to be. He feels like a projection on a screen, waiting for the rest of the movie to be filled in. This is intolerable, he thinks. He's always thought of intolerable as a grown-up word, like mortgage. Missy the allergen, Missy the poison. She's everywhere in the house, no matter how their mother scrubs and sweeps and burns and purges. She's in the bricks. She's in the new bedding, in the nontoxic cleaning fluid. She leeches and fumes and wishes—insofar as ghosts can, in the way that water wishes and has a will, sometimes thwarted and sometimes not—that the house were not shut up so tight. She rises to the ceiling daily and collects there, drips down, tries again. Outside there's a world of blank skin, waiting for her to scribble all over it.
     "I would die without you," Pamela Goodby tells her son one morning. He knows it's true, just as he knows he's the only one who would care. The hard part—the reason he can't leave—is that even he thinks it wouldn't be such a bad bargain, his mother's death for his own freedom. Anyone would understand. Anyhow, it's time for school. She won't die during the school day; at least, she hasn't so far.
     Across the street Santos shuts Johnny Mackers in a steamer trunk in the attic instead of walking him to kindergarten. Then Santos, liberated, guilty, decides to skip school himself.

The world goes on. The world will. At any moment you can look from your window and see your neighbors. The fat couple who lives next door will bicker and then bear-hug each other. The teenage boys will play basketball with their shirts off. The old lady on the other side waits for the visiting nurse; her bloodhound snoozes in the sun like a starlet, one paw across his snout. You want to drape that old, good, big dog's sun-warmed, fawn-colored ears on your fists. You want to reassure the old lady, tease the fat couple, watch—just watch—those shirtless, heedless boys. You have to get out, your family says. It's time. It's time to join the world again. But you never left. You're filled with tenderness, with worry for every living being, but you can't do anything—not for your across-the-street neighbors, or for the people on the next street, or around the corner, or driving on the turnpike two blocks away, or in the city, or across the whole country, the whole world, west and east and north and south. You are so unlucky, you don't want to brush up against anyone who isn't.
     You will not join a group. You will not read a book. You're not interested in anyone else's story, not when your own story takes up all your time. When the calamity happened your friends said, It's so sad. It's the worst kind of luck, and you could tell they believed it. What's changed? You are as sad and unlucky as you were when it happened. It's still so, so sad. It's still the worst kind of luck.
     The dead live on in the homeliest of ways. They're listed in the phone book. They get mail. Their wigs rest on Styrofoam heads at the backs of closets. Their beds are made. Their shoes are everywhere.

The paint across the door is still tacky. It's dumb to even be here. Pamela swears she can smell the fiberboard frame of the bed, the unchanged mattress, the dust. Scratch-and-sniff stickers on the desk, lip gloss, the bubble bath in containers shaped like animals arranged on the dresser top. The dress from Bloomingdale's that had been hers and then Missy's, in striped fabric like a railroad engineer's hat. The Mexican jumping beans bought at a joke shop before the diagnosis, four dark little beans in a plastic box with a clear top and blue bottom that clasped closed like an old-fashioned change purse. The worms who lived inside dozed in the cold; but then you warmed them in your hands, and they woke and twitched and flipped.
     "Worms?" Missy asked. Her nose was lacy with freckles, pink around the rim. "How do we feed them?"
     "We don't," said Pamela.
     "Then they'll starve to death!"
     Quickly Pamela made up a story: The worm wasn't a worm, it was a soul. It was fine where it was, it was eternal, and if the bean stopped moving that only meant the soul had moved on to find another home. "Back to Mexico?" asked Missy, and Pamela said, "Sure, why not." (Who knows? Maybe that's why the worms woke up when they got warm—they thought, At last, we're back home in Mexico.) At the time, reincarnation was just a comforting fable, and in fables people were always being born again as beasts, frogs, migrating swans.
     Now Pamela feels the world shake and thinks, Mexican jumping bean. She can't decide whether the house is the bean and she's the worm, or the bean is her body and the worm her soul. Neither: someone has wrenched open the wooden storm door of the sunporch and let it slam behind him. Then the doorbell rings.

Johnny Mackers has escaped. He's kicked his way out of the trunk, the one his great-grandmother emigrated from Ireland with, still lined with the napkins and tablecloths she'd thought she'd need for a new life. She once told Johnny a story about a monkey that belonged to a rich family she worked for, and though he knows that monkey died in the rich family's house, he is sure the trunk smelled of monkey, as well as the inventory of every story his grandmother ever told him: whiskey, lamp oil, house fires, a scalded baby's arm treated with butter, horse sweat, lemon drops, the underside of wooden dentures. The trunk turned out to be made of cardboard held together with moldy oak and cheap tin. He kicked one end to pieces and crawled out. The wreckage scared him. It was as though he'd kicked his grandmother apart before she'd had a chance to get on the boat and sail to Boston and meet her future husband at an amusement park and have children.
     Now he rings the doorbell again. Last year in their old neighborhood, he helped Santos sell mints for the Y; you were supposed to ring, count to ten slowly, and ring only once more. He counts to ten but quickly, and over and over. To keep himself from ringing too many times, he runs a finger over the engraved sign by the bell. He doesn't know what a solicitor is or that he's one. He's running away from home and he needs to raise money. The air of the sunporch is stale. He gulps at it. The front door opens.
     "Lady," he says, "do you wanna buy a rock?"
     The rocks in Johnny Mackers's hand have been lightly rubbed with crayon. He found them a week ago at Revere Beach with his father: at the beach they were washed by the water and looked valuable and ancient. Dry, they turned gray and merely old. The woman who has answered the door is the witch, of course, the dead girl's mother. She's the cleanest person he's ever seen and yet not entirely white. Everything about her is blurred, like dirt beneath the surface of a hockey rink.
     He would do anything for her. He knows that right away, too.
     He has cobwebs in his hair but she doesn't smell them. She doesn't smell the cigarette smoke, or the fibers from the wall-to-wall carpet, or the must that clings to him from the trunk, the usual immigrant disappointments, the rusty cut on his ankle that needs medical attention. What she smells is little-kid sweat touched with sweet, bland tomato sauce. Ketchup, canned spaghetti, maybe.
     "Come in," she says. "I'll find my purse."
     Once he's inside she doesn't know what to do. She sits him at the kitchen table and offers him a plate of brown, pebbly cookies. He eats one. He would rather something chocolate and store-bought, but his own mother likes cookies like this, studded with sesame seeds, and he knows that eating them is a good deed. Pamela hooks a cobweb out of his hair with one finger. He picks up another cookie and rubs the side of his cheek with the back of one wrist.
     "You need a bath," she says.
     "OK," he answers.
     Now, Pamela. You can't just bathe someone else's child. You can't invite a strange boy into your house and bring him upstairs and say, "Chop-chop. Off with your clothes. Into your bath."
     The bathroom is yellow and pink. Johnny Mackers understands his new obedience as a kind of sanitary bewitching. He is never naked in front of his mother like this: his mother likes to pinch. "Just a little!" she'll say, and she'll pinch him on his knee and stomach and everywhere. Santos is right, their mother loves Johnny best. His hatred of kisses and hugs has turned her into a pinching tickler, a sneak thief. "Just a little little!" she'll say, when she sees any pinchable part of him.
     "Bubbles?" Pamela asks, and he nods. But there's none in the bathroom. Instead she pours the entire bottle of shampoo into the tub.
     So it's true, what the neighborhood kids say. She does kidnap children.
     He's not circumcised. He looks like a little Italian sculpture from a dream, a polychrome putto from the corner of a church. The tub is rotten, pink, with a sliding glass door that looks composed of a million thumbprints. Soon the bubbles rise up like shrugging, foamy shoulders, cleft where the water from the faucet pours in.
     The almond soap is cracked like someone's old tooth. The boy steps over the tub edge. "Careful," Pamela says, as he puts his hand on the shower-door runners. When Missy was born Pamela was relieved: she loved her husband and son but there was, she thought, something different about a girl. Maybe it was merely scientific, those as-yet-unused girl organs speaking to their authorial organs, transmitting information as though by radio. This boy is different, which makes him easier to love. The water slicking down his dirty hair reveals the angle and size of his ears. She soaps them and thinks of Missy in the tub, the fine, long hair knotted at her nape, the big ears, the crescent shapes where they attached to her head. The arch at the base of her skull.
     "Your ears are very small," she says.
     "I know," he answers.
     She soaps the shoulder blades that slide beneath the boy's dark skin and is amazed to see that he's basically intact, well fed, maybe even well loved.
     (Of course he is. Already his mother is calling his name on the next block. Soon she'll phone the police.)
     "What's your name?" Pamela asks.
     He says, "Santos."
     "That's your first name?"
     He nods. He looks at his foam-filled hands.
     "What's your last name?"
     "Lion," he says. He drops his face in the bubbly bathwater, plunges his head down, and blubs. When he comes up she says, smiling, "Your clothes are filthy. You're going to need clean ones. Where were you?"
     "Of a car?"
     "Trunk like a suitcase," he answers. He pounds the shower door, a little kid bored with questioning.
     It's after school. Mrs. Mackers, the owlish pincher, is back on Winter Terrace, asking the neighborhood kids if they've seen Johnny, the little boy, the little boy on the trike. She doesn't know where Santos is, either, but who worries? Santos is old enough to take care of himself (though she's wrong in thinking this—Santos even now is in terrible trouble; Santos, miles away, is calling for her). The last teenage boy she asks is so freckled she feels sorry for him, a small pause in her panic.
     No, Gerry Goodby hasn't seen a little kid.
     He's looking up at Missy's window; he always looks at it when he comes home. He didn't remember to pull the blinds all the way down before closing the room, and it bothers him. You can see the edge of the dresser that overlaps the window frame, a darkened rainbow sticker, and just the muzzle-end of an enormous rocking horse named Blaze who used to say six different sentences when you pulled a cord in his neck. Blaze had been Gerry's horse first. It seemed unfair he had to disappear like that. Someday, Gerry knows, they'll have to sell the house, and the new owners will find the tomb of a six-year-old girl pharaoh. It's as though they've walled in Missy instead of burying her in the cemetery, as though (as in a ghost story) he will someday see her face looking back out at him, mouthing, Why? Gerry, in his head, always answers, It's not your fault, you didn't know how dangerous you were.
     But this time he sees something appearing, then disappearing, then appearing again: the rocking horse showing its profile, one dark, carved eye over and over.
     Not only that: the front door is open.

The barrier cloth has been slit from top to bottom. Beyond it, ajar, is the old hollow door, with the brassy doorknob still bright from all its years in the dark. Beyond the door is Missy's room.
     "Hello," says his mother. She's sitting on Missy's bed, smoothing a pair of pale yellow overalls on her lap. There's a whole outfit set out next to her: the Lollipop brand underpants Missy had once written a little song about, a navy turtleneck, an undershirt with a tiny rosebud at the sternum. Dust is everywhere. It's a strange sort of dust, soot and old house, nothing human, dulling the colors. Even so, compared to the rest of the house, this room is Oz. The comforter is pink gingham. The walls are pink, with darker pink trim. Dolls of all nations lie along one wall, as though the rubble of an earthquake has just been lifted from them. The fifty-fifty bedclothes are abrasive just to look at. He inhales. Nothing of Missy's fruit-flavored scent is left.
     But his mother doesn't seem to notice. She has—he's heard this expression but never seen it manifested—roses in her cheeks. "Look," she says, and points.
     A boy. He's fallen through the chimney or he's a forgotten toy of Missy's come to life. What else can explain him here, brown and naked next to the rocking horse he's just dismounted, a gray towel turbaned around his head. He's pulling two-handed at the cord that works Blaze's voice box, but Blaze has had a stroke and can't speak; he just groans apologetically before the boy interrupts him with another tug. Through the half-drawn shades the police flashers color Winter Terrace: blue, less blue, blue again.
     Outside, the neighborhood kids sit on the sidewalk, their feet in the gutter, daring the cops to tell them to move along. The little smoking kid, the one who likes to swear, is missing. The kids are working on their story. When did you last see him? a policeman asks the woman, who is not crying yet. But the fact is she will get her boy back. That is, she'll get one of her boys back: the one she hasn't missed is missing for good, and by tomorrow morning he will be his mother's favorite, and by tomorrow afternoon the police will have questioned everyone on the street, and the neighborhood kids will pretend that they remember Santos, though they can't even make sense of his name.
     Inside Missy Goodby's room, Gerry obeys his mother: he looks at the little boy. He wonders how to sneak him back home. He wonders how to keep him forever.

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