~2000 words, ~10 minutes reading time
You wake up in the middle of the night and your girlfriend isn’t there.
Your first thought is that she’s dead. Again. (Always so dramatic, she’d say, eyes rolling up halfway but never quite all around). You grip the edge of the cotton mattress, embed your toes in the carpet and force yourself to breathe while picking through the mental coin collection of most probable explanations: she got up to go pee,
or make herself a cup of sweetened milk;
she couldn’t fall asleep;
she’s watching Halloween DVDs in the living room;
she ran away she got hit by a truck she’s sleep—
sleepwalking (she never did that before (before she returned)).
Before is almost six years ago. Freshman at MIT, Pride month, queer drama club. The staff had put up a scattering of flag-corresponding colored tents on the main campus. She was the only one under the black, gray, white, and purple-striped tent on a Wednesday afternoon at 2 a.m. She was wearing a calico blouse and holding a tray of lemon squares. You took one bite and grimaced. She explained that she’d accidentally used one, or three, too many lemons in the recipe.
Later that night a summer thunderstorm rolled in, and some of the tents collapsed under the gale. You bumped into her again when you joined the other volunteers who rushed outside to put the poles back up. The asexual tent had deflated down to rippling waves of purple and black, like some bruised ocean creature. She tickled your elbow and the two of you rolled around in the folds, getting mud and grass stuck to your hair before one of the seniors yelled at both of you to stop goofing around. You held her towel while waiting for the shower and she used so much orange-scented shower gel that the entire stall smelled like the inside of a juicer.
You dated for two years before she died, and now it’s been six months since she’s returned. Your girlfriend was dead for three years in between. You’re never quite sure how to calculate that gap in the timeline. You switch between replies whenever people ask how long you’ve been together, the number “five and a half” sitting like a mouth sore on your lower lip (if you loved her when she was dead, and you’re sure her ghost loved you back, does it count?)
The day she walked back into your apartment, newly resurrected, she had bits of black and purple nylon fabric in her teeth. That’s how you knew it was her, that you weren’t hallucinating or having a waking nightmare. She’d been buried with the ace flag you gave her for your first anniversary together (you’d pinned a note in the corner with a paperclip, asking her to move in with you). In the first week after she returned, every time she went to the bathroom there were remnants of both the flag and the note in the toilet bowl.
You pace through the apartment now, checking inside every cupboard and closet and behind every piece of furniture. She started sleepwalking a few months ago. Once you found her huddled under the kitchen sink. You had to shampoo her hair thrice to wash the stove grease out.
A dead person can’t see a doctor or get a medicine prescription. You tried to figure out a pattern to the sleepwalking so you knew which days to lock the bedroom door, but the occurrences are frustratingly sporadic. Some weeks it’s Monday to Friday. Sometimes it’s on weekends only. Then there are weeks when she stays pressed to your side like a tattoo all night.
The one recurring symptom is that when she does sleepwalk, she always seeks out the smallest place her body can squeeze into. Washing machine, shoe cupboard, the space underneath the glass coffee table.
Okay, now you’ve checked all her usual haunts. The apartment still turns up no signs of her.
You count and breathe and count and breathe because panic never helps anyone solve a problem faster. You check under the bed once more, just to be sure (there’re still strands of hair stuck to the underside of the bed frame from the last time you had to pull her out of there). You comb the hallway outside and look behind the escape door and down the stairwell.
It’s when you’re walking back into the kitchen that you notice it.
The plant pots on the window sill.
They’re usually full of dirt (they have to be). Friends who come over to the apartment always comment on the quantity of empty pots in every room. You tell them you’re growing seasonal flowers that haven’t sprouted yet. You don’t tell them that your girlfriend eats most meals with one hand in the plant pot dirt, the other fiddling with her fork. You don’t tell them how when she holds your hand during movie night you can feel the granules of soil still stuck under her nails. She says the damp soil calms her. The small spaces reassure her.
Of what? you asked once while standing in the gardening aisle of Home Depot.
Being there. She toyed with a bottle of lawn weed killer. I know this sounds weird but I actually remember what it was like being dead. I just knew at that moment time would never happen again. There was no more before or after. Can you imagine that kind of peace?
You shook your head. Well. You paused. We can get high and get pretty close to that.
She giggled and turned over the bottle in her hand. Kills crabgrass—she paused in reading out the label. Honestly that sounds like a sexually transmitted disease.
You’re thinking of crabs.
Whatever. Not something we aces ever have to worry about. She laughed.
The kitchen plant pots are empty now (not knocked over—empty). Like someone scraped out the insides. You don’t think your girlfriend eats dirt. You don’t think. There’s no textbook to consult, no theories of thought to explain a resurrected girlfriend and her possible behavior traits. (She doesn’t want to die, she tells you, she just misses the scent of the ground, being held inside the—)
Your eyes widen and fall to the shoe cabinet by the door.
(She misses being buried.)
Her favorite pair of sneakers, the ones you spray-painted purple and black stripes on, are gone.
(She misses she misses she) You snatch a coat—then go back for a second one in case she’s cold—and pull on a pair of jeans, barely zipping them up before you’re out the door. There’s a park just a few blocks from your apartment. It’s not much more than a few square feet of green and five rickety benches. You sprint there like it’s the open mouth of hell (tasting grave dirt in the back of your throat when you inhale).
She could die (be dead/dying) again. You’ve never tested the limits of her return. Never stabbed her through the chest or threw her out the window to see if she’d magically reappear again like some video game character. You did obsessively monitor her breathing for the first two weeks. You’d put a finger under her nose and wait for the thin gust of an exhale to ghost over your skin. Sometimes she’d sneeze on your knuckles purposely. Or snap at your wrist, teeth bared like some horror show zombie, just to laugh when you’d jolt away in alarm.
Do you think there’s something wrong with me? she said once.
No. I’m just making sure.
No, seriously. Do you think there’s something wrong with me?
She was standing by the stove, scrambling eggs in that choppy, messy way that used to always bug you (fold, not scrape). Her hair was falling out of the elastic, and she was wearing your old gym shorts as pajama bottoms. You watched her take a pinch of salt and scatter it like glitter over the frying pan.
You came back to me, you told her. How could that be wrong?
By the time you reach the park you’re winded so hard you’re hyperventilating. You do a little dance over your own feet and stumble down the pathways, scanning for any signs of your girlfriend’s auburn hair streaking through the dark like a shooting star. You call her name as if your strangled gasps of air can reach below the ground. You wonder if you’ll have enough time to dig up the whole park before she suffocates. You’re shaking too hard to even drop to your knees and start tearing at the ground
Then you notice a patch of shadow under the spreading elm tree. Crabgrass. It’s October. Too cold for weeds like that to survive. They don’t belong here, not right now.
When you move closer, you see that the surface of the ground is uneven. It smells freshly overturned (it smells like your girlfriend). It smells like Tuesday evenings when she’s at the kitchen table, up to her wrists in a flowerless plant pot and recounting the latest episode of Modern Family.
You fall to all fours.
You claw furiously, gaining little depth considering the ferocity of your movement. Your arms ache but you don’t stop, trying not to make a montage in your head of your girlfriend like some curated memorial video but you can’t help it. The slides click into place as you throw fistfuls of dirt behind you:
your girlfriend sprawled across your stomach, taking selfies with that stupid phone filter; her signature eye roll every time a new acquaintance asked what it meant to be a homo-romantic asexual couple; (the way she’d always tap the center of her forehead and say kiss me right here); the day she walked back into your life, and you spent an hour picking coffin splinters out of her calves before you finally started crying; the crease of her nose whenever you’d make her laugh while drinking water
: your fingers grasp something soft and pudgy. You scoop around the weight and pull your girlfriend out of the ground by the arms. She’s topless, wearing blue and white checkered pajama bottoms. Her eyes are shut, and she feels cool (not cold not cold not cold).
You rise to half-standing, dragging her out, clammy fingers gripped around her armpits. She spits out clumps of dirt and saliva and emits a low whimpering sound. Her knees bend, as if protesting the movement, resisting the removal of her body from where it belongs, and it makes you trip over your own ankles and land on your bottom.
She falls into your lap, breasts pressing into your thighs. Her fingers come around your waist and you feel the wet smear of dirt through your shirt fabric. She breathes against your hip bone, short and trembling.
Your own nostrils flare, welcoming in a rush of relief. You run a hand through her tangled hair, picking out the ants and earthworms. When your fingertips glide down her back you feel thin, stiff stalks of crabgrass protruding from her spine (she curls tighter against your body). The strips of green poke out sharply like a centipede embedded under her skin.
She mumbles something into the hem of your sweater
(it sounds like i’m sorry)
as you feed her arms into the extra coat and fish her sneakers out of the handmade grave.
Back at the apartment you turn every light in the house on. You need to see her without any shadows, to have no doubt she’s real. She winces at the brightness, blinking slowly, eyelashes heavy with mud. You reach out to touch her and she shrinks away, eyes watering with shame.
She turns away from you in the bath. The water pours a brown landslide down both sides of the tub. You help her dry off and pull on your old gym shorts. You listen to her sleeping on your stomach while your fingers uproot every strand of crabgrass.
(you tap the center of your forehead)
kiss me right here.
Elena Sichrovsky (she/they) is a queer Austrian-Taiwanese writer currently living in the Netherlands. Her work tends to explore themes of identity, grief, and femininity through the lens of horror. Her writing has been published in Nightmare Magazine, Mud Season Review, and Ninth Letter, among others, and is forthcoming in The Deadlands, Baffling Magazine, and Strange Horizons. You can read more on her website or on Twitter @ESichr.