When DeDeAnne’s body was found, the town became nothing but a wail. It began in the family dining room, where all the piles of Lost Child flyers took residence on the scratched pine table. The neighbor women and family friends and one half-sister of DeDeAnne’s mom began to wail as well—some inside the mouth, under the tongue, some aloud in words like “There, there,” and “Someone should really . . .” The wail grew to the rest of the family, the rest of the street, and down through the soil so that once anyone reached the small town, they too became part of it.
When DeDeAnne’s body was found, the town was a wail except for in one solitary person. She was indeed the last to know of the incident. For when DeDeAnne died, no one remembered to tell her. She wasn’t a ghost. She wasn’t a memory birthed back into life. She was flesh and bone and all the things a living young girl should be.
At first, DeDeAnne thought it might be a game.
“Not now, DeDe,” they said to her when she tugged at arms and declared herself. “Not now,” they said again, a little meat in the voice, a little gruff, a little substantive. When the detective faced her parents and held his hands in front of him, then behind his back, and then at his sides screaming for them to stay still, DeDe hopped and ran in circles in front of him. Nothing. Her parents had become strange anchors on the couch. As if the world was a sea. As if the water had filled their lungs and only songs of seaweed and crustaceans bubbled in their brains. The detective stood, her parents stayed on the couch, and a family therapist leaned into the scene from a puffy, floral-patterned chair. The family cat stretched, claws nearly stuck in the couch leg, only to pull the claws loose and close again, up and under its body, lost to the fluff and black-gray swirl of itself.
DeDeAnne insisted she was not dead. And each in turn said, “Not now.”
Once the detective retreated, the therapist went to the kitchen to make tea, lean against the counter, rub her stubby fingers into her eye, and push away her desire to text her not-yet-boyfriend with something about this tragedy—a partial invitation so he could say something meaningful, heartfelt, soulmate-like to her, or so she could pretend it was never an invitation to begin with in case he didn’t. “Not now,” she said to DeDe. She hit send and waited for her phone’s screen to go black.
“If not now, then when?” DeDe said in her best almost-mature voice, the one she picked up from a girl two years older down the street. If not now, when? She practiced the words a few more times. They were good ones, the kind that unlock something in adults, like great vault doors giving way to a future made present.
“Fine,” said the therapist, “but we’ve only to talk about this once. We can’t be wasting time, when there’s so much more to do like address the anger and the bargaining and the floral arrangements.”
“Tulips,” the therapist mouthed and turned her head to the not-now girl.
“Well, I’m not dead,” DeDeAnne said. She put her hands on her hips. She put her chin at a tilt to the right. And she refused to lose any eye contact with the therapist.
“Have you heard of denial?” the therapist asked.
“I’m here and you can touch me and this is flesh and blood and the words are coming out of my mouth and you can hear them and I can feel myself growing. I can feel my cells holding a secret of tomorrow and the tomorrow after that.”
“Sure, but what of it, when you were so young—too young,” said the therapist. She looked at her phone. “You never even got to kiss someone. Oh—but what that man probably did . . .”
The therapist’s shoulders and chest made several shudders and she blinked a thousand times and her thoughts were bulldozed back into a landfill.
“I’m not dead and nothing bad happened to me.”
“Such a brave girl,” the therapist said and finally let go of the counter and quarter-turned to lean down to DeDe. “We have to accept many things in this world, brave girls or not. I’m accepting things right now. I’ve no texts from my maybe-boyfriend, no new shoes for the funeral service, no desire to talk to a stupid little dead thing that can’t be bothered to see how it is and lie still—so—even if it is true that you’ll continue to grow, you’ll have to accept this very hard thing too. Brave and smart and idiotic and trusting and head-of-fluff girls die. All the time. In horrible ways. The world is cruel.
“Acceptance,” the therapist whispered and turned to finish making all the tea, check her phone, count the amount of tea bags left in the cupboard, check her phone, tidy her mess, and push herself back into the front room and back to the wail.
DeDeAnne couldn’t imagine following her and entering that space yet again, hearing that wail from her mother’s hip. It was the only part of her mother that had not developed a hint of sound before. It was a quiet place, her mother’s hip, where she balanced DeDeAnne as a baby, as a toddler, and once as a kid who clung to her when she burned her finger. The mother’s hip remembered the weight of the child, remembered the slight thrust it needed to balance the child while her other arm was free to fight the world from her.
The doctor’s office was the smell of staleness and sweat and tired on top of the smell of things sterile and Clorox and anti-everything, all of which was coated in the smell of choked flowers from a spray can. The doctor typed notes into the computer from a yellow notepad and each hit of the space bar was deliberate and produced a clack that filled the room. DeDe tried her best not to interrupt too loudly as Dr. Jens had always been a warm and solid entity within DeDe’s life, despite what others continued to say.
“Not now,” the doctor said and brushed at a small tear developing in the eye. “Your body was so cold. Just so cold. Even under that sheet. And not the TV blue of corpses I had readied myself for. It was a loss of blue and a loss of color all together even in that once-dark skin of yours.”
“Well, you can touch my arm now, if you’d like.”
“It wouldn’t help. The blood moving through you, the flesh that is storing its secrets, and the bone that continues spewing out its coding matters very little right now. You are gone to us, DeDeAnne. Gone gone gone. The way of things tossed away.”
“I don’t feel tossed away. I don’t feel gone, Doctor.”
“It matters little. When they found your body it was all the stuff of nightmares, you know. What with the song atmospheric and sobering in the background while the sun went down and the volunteers flushed themselves throughout the forest. The soft glow of flashlights bopping about. And then the shouts were heard and the detective, looking ragged-angry, still sure-footed his way over. It was all very dramatic. By the time I got there, the sun was back up and though I shouldn’t have, I just kept saying ‘Who would do this? Who could do such a thing?’ Of course, the autopsy would prove it, you know. Blunt force and whatnot. Ligature marks and whatnot. Here, I wrote it on this paper.”
DeDe grabbed the doctor’s yellow pad to see ‘Blunt force and what-not. Ligature marks and whatnot. Time of death TBA,’ scrawled in green pen.
“The detective will say it was pre-meditated, of course. When you were just sleeping or at school or looking at cans of SpaghettiOs at the grocery story, this future was unspooling out in front of you. People have died here, of course. But you, so young. Who could do such a thing? The stuff of nightmares.”
DeDe shook her head. She felt deep inside herself, tried to meditate on her liver and spine. She tried to listen to her veins and nothing in her felt dead at all. Nothing felt silent. She was thrumming and awake.
As she rode her bike to the police station, her legs and heart were pumping a certainty through her. Her blood was hers. Her air was hers. There was nothing between the world and her, until she saw the first townsperson, and then another, and another. She braced herself. See me. See me breathing. She waved, but a chorus of Not now followed her. The townsfolk tsked and shook at her, exhausted from oh-so-much-death-in-the-world.
Her own friends rolled towards her from the playground field to the street, like so many wayward playground rubber balls of the past. “Point him out!” they chanted at her. “Point him out!” Even Charlie motioned for her to stop, and when she did, he kept his hand on her hand. “You could just point out your killer, DeDe. And then we could tell someone for you. We couldn’t keep this secret. We wouldn’t be afraid. We’d tell our parents—unless it’s our parents. Is it our parents, DeDe? Did our parents kill you?” he cried.
DeDe brushed his hand off hers and continued down the street. “Not yet,” she began to scream. “I’m not dead yet,” she yelled, hoping to shut down that terrible wail in the town.
“Of course you are,” said the detective. He was sitting on a bench near the police station eating a salad from a paper bag. “I know. I should be eating a hot dog or burger or a sub,” he said to her, “but this case has me not sleeping, not feeling well. Not shitting either.” He fluffed the lettuce about. “Roughage,” he whispered.
DeDe left her bike splayed out in the sidewalk as she half-nodded. “Aren’t you too busy to talk to me?” she asked in a voice that was not even like her own. A tiny one.
“It’s fine. All I do is talk to the dead and the missing and the things gone.” The detective spit out a still-yellow cherry tomato. “God, that sounds more interesting than it is.”
“Well, I’m not dead.”
“Well, we found your body.”
“My body is right here.” She put an arm out, which he reached for reluctantly, sadly, and with the “mmhhm” of one resigned to his job.
“Fair enough,” he said. He let go of her wrist, and for a second wished he could keep that warm of her on his fingertips. Grab her up and place her in custody. He got this way with all the children in the town when he thought of all the awful in the world. Put them under surveillance. And lock. And key.
“The kid cases are always the hardest,” he said. Then he pulled out his small notepad and read the words. “Yeah, that’s right. ‘The kid cases are always the hardest.’”
“The therapist said I could still grow and the doctor didn’t say I was a ghost or memory either. I think I’m alive, detective. I think I’m still here. I know I am. Could a dead person do this?” She kicked the detective in the shin, once softly and once more thinking of soccer balls, and misplaced rocks on otherwise clear paths, and the way the one neighbor kid had kicked that wishful dog.
“Ouch. Well, I normally wouldn’t think a dead person could kick me. I really wouldn’t. And if you were a ghost, you could probably help save this case. And if you were a memory, I think I wouldn’t care so much about this half-eaten salad.”
“Bad tomatoes,” he mouthed before continuing. “But, let’s say you are alive, what is there even to do?”
“You could tell my parents. And everyone.”
“Hmm, I don’t know. We’ve just been through so much already. Finding your body like that. The stuff of nightmares.
“Did I get that right?” he asked and pulled the notepad out of his pocket again. “Here it is, yep yep. ‘The stuff of nightmares.’”
“Maybe you should take me there, then. To where you found me.”
“Oh, it matters little. It’s a field, of course. A field and there’s some woods nearby. And it was at the end of everything. And we looked for footprints and tire tracks. And we talked about access roads. And the town therapist isn’t very good at profiling, but one of the volunteers offered up some thoughts on the dump site.” He caught himself still talking to someone. “Oh, I’m sorry. That’s what it was, you were dumped there. As you know.”
“I really don’t.”
“Well, there didn’t seem to be any struggle or anything in the area to suggest the deed was done there. Nope, you were snatched or invited somewhere else and then—then all the things of our nightmares playing out—and then your body there in the field where we found you. It happens like that, you know. Well, that’s what I hear. Hold on—yep, here. I wrote it down. ‘Find in a field. Call it a dump site.’ I’m on the mark today.”
“Does it say anything else? About catching the guy? Or about what becomes of my life?”
“Oh, well, the wail will quiet down eventually, I think. Though there will be moments when people remember you. Your parents must sit themselves still sometimes. And sometimes even acquaintances will suddenly think of you. They’ll be sad and think about how it could have happened to their own. Oh, and my investigation will lead me to a family member, a weirdo in the town, then the last person we ever thought of, then to myself, and then to the woods where there will be a story about what lies buried in there. And then possibly to your doctor who will, of course, suffer at the hands of someone seeking justice, only to find it was not the doctor. And then I think back around to that neighbor kid who kicked the dog. Sometimes I might think it is a stranger, an outsider. Wouldn’t that be something? Out of nowhere, right? Catching a serial killer,” he said and dreamed the dream of putting a small town and its small-town cop on the map. “Gah, it matters little anyway.”
“No, justice—wait, did I get that right? Yes, here it is. ‘It matters little.’ ‘No, justice.’ Hmm, I said ‘anyway,’ I said ‘it matters little anyway.’ I think it’s still okay though.”
“I need to talk to my parents.”
“I think you are supposed to talk to your killer, actually.”
“I don’t have a killer, detective.”
“Nonsense. You better find one. Everyone has one and maybe if you would have found yours sooner—this wouldn’t have happened, young lady.”
“And if it didn’t happen?”
“It matters little anyway. No, justice—crap. I think I got that wrong again.”
DeDeAnne’s bike scraped along the sidewalk the same way it always did when she picked it up carelessly, a tiny metallic red scratch left on the cement. The bike ticked and ticked the same way it always did when she walked it slowly. DeDeAnne passed all the houses she normally did and all the storefronts she normally did. She even stopped to coax the yapping dog behind the ‘beware dog’ fence like she always did.
“Do you think my killer is inside?” she asked the Pomeranian-Yorkie mix.
But it only yapped back and she imagined her days spent walking about town asking for her killer as if that is what young girls are supposed to do. What she needed was someone to work it out with her. Someone whom she trusted who could also keep a secret. Someone who would open their door if she showed up. And this someone, she began to realize, was most likely the one who was waiting for her unsuspecting body to end up in his or her hands. A teacher, a tutor. The grocery store clerk, the gas attendant. The priest, the town do-gooder. The mean guy, the bully kid. The silent one, the weirdo. Her parents, her neighbors, The Stranger, an authority. The no one. Everybody. It really could be anybody and it really was always everyone.
Before DeDeAnne went to the edge of the town to escape her killers and the haunting of her fated body, she decided to spend one last moment with her parents, and the family cat. At first, she worried she was indeed a ghost, as Time had left her home completely. Her mom sat at the kitchen table. Her dad at his desk. The cat at its empty bowl. If the wail was still here it was too loud to be heard. Its vibration became a vacuum. It was only when a small tuft of her mother’s hair moved as DeDeAnne slid in next to her that she knew there was still time for her parents, there was still air, and there could still be a sound in the world.
“Not now,” her mom said. The words so quiet it was almost as if they weren’t said at all.
“I heard they found my body.”
“Yes, your body, but not you.”
“But I’m here now, Mom. Right here.”
“I know, my hip aches. Like you could crawl back onto me. I think my body was built with you. You against my hip, against my shoulder. Your head in my crook. I’m still full of you—all my indentations are yours.”
“They can be again. I’m right here, Mom.”
“Did you find your killer?”
“Mom, I’m not dead.”
“That matters little. We’ve been through so much already. When they found your—”
“I’m right here. Dad will see.”
“Don’t bother your father. He is not the same. We are not the same. It’s just as they say, you know. The loss of a child. The horror of man. The evil in the world. It’s just as they’ve said it would be. The stuff of nightmares. We should have warned you. Maybe we did. So many shoulds. So many ways we did things to keep you safe. The detective said we could lock up all the children and keep them under surveillance and maybe that is the thing the world should do—we should have done.”
Her mother pulled DeDe’s warm hand into her own. She kissed the tips and rubbed her forearm, she almost pulled her into her, like pulling at bed covers, like gathering warm laundry before dropping it onto the bed to be folded.
“There’s always some child out there, DeDeAnne. In a field. In a basement. Brown girls like you in plastic trash bags in the river. We knew it happened, but never knew it could happen to us. We’ve only acceptance to do now. Moving on and one-day-at-a-time-ing and coping and your father and I will probably divorce and one of us might drink, or worse, and we’ll lose the mortgage, of course, because we won’t be able to work. First, the funeral though.” Her mother sat up, wiped a tear. “DeDe, I don’t think you should go to that. There’s very little for you to do there. Go on now, you little dead thing. We’ve no use for your living now.”
The family cat gave one last brush up against DeDeAnne’s hand, darting away before she could touch her back. The soft padded steps of kitty paws made their way up to the family den to the father worn silent and should-ing above.
When the cars began lining up at the chapel, DeDe set her bike down on the grass and tried her best to stand out of the way. Many told her to get going and others said she was a lovely girl, but they’ve all their answers now. Others nodded and some ignored her completely. The neighborhood bully was the only one to stop to talk to her.
“You smell like the living,” he jabbed at her and then shrugged and picked up a rock and threw it at nothing. “I don’t know why I’m so mean,” he said.
“I don’t know why I’m dead,” DeDeAnne said.
“You’re not. Of course, you’re not. But they tell me it matters little. Better to sort it out now, I guess. Have you been there yet?” He leaned close to her, the hand he placed on her shoulder was soft and gentle, barely the weight of a bird. “To your dump site? The crime scene? Your un-resting place?”
She shook her head.
He sighed and leaned even closer and kissed her cheek. “I just wish it were me.”
“The stuff of nightmares,” she said.
At the edge of the main road, at the edge of a road full of potholes, at the edge of the dirt road beyond that, at the edge of the field, at the edge of the woods, at the edge of the very town, DeDeAnne walked back and forth along a fence. The posts were too old and broken to touch, the thought of slivers frightened her. Who would care to pull them out? And the fence wire, though drooping and thin, seemed too dangerous a thing to cross. Something to be tangled in. Something to slow her down if she were running. Running for her life.
She thought to slump down and let the brush prick at her dress, thought to move no rock or stick, but only to sit and feel her way through a real death, a real last breath, a real permanent coldness to her. But there was a shuffle closing in. It started as if from everywhere, from every corner of every world. So known to us all, it took its time toward her. There was nothing but time for this sort of closing in. Nothing but its inevitable reach. She waited for it to come. For rough hands and a gentle voice or gentle hands and a rough voice. For it to be the last person she thought of and the first, for something in her—a nerve, a cellular knowledge, a fated code that said Yes, this. I was built for only this. The shuffle shrunk from all the space around her into one location, moved from her inner ear to her very real ears, gathered its speed. From the other side of a fence, a sigh-sob and the thwap-thwap of weeds hitting shins and knees.
A young girl from the neighboring town emerged.
“Can you see me?” she asked. “Am I alive?”
“I think so, but what do I know?” DeDeAnne said.
“They say I am dead. They say I’ve nothing but evidence to me anymore. Nothing but the will of the world. They say my body has been found and it’s a ‘nightmare of a world,’” the young girl said.
“The stuff of nightmares?” DeDe asked.
“No,” the girl held the word long in her mouth. Then she said, a little brightly, a little hopeful, “The detective said, ‘a nightmare of a world.’”
The two girls sat on either side of the fence, facing back toward their own towns, facing back toward the wails that emitted from them. That wail that said it’s such a shame. That wail that said the world is going to hell. That wail that continued to ignore them, the living, and simply agreed the death of little girls was just another part of life and therefore another role to play.
“Well,” said DeDeAnne, cheered enough to straighten her hair and smooth out her top. “Mine said ‘stuff of nightmares.’ So, at least there’s that.”
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