Caretaker, by Carlie St. George

The stars are all dead. You wish it didn’t haunt you, but it does, it does.

The dead come out to watch over you at night.

A ghost took care of you when you were young. She made you peanut butter sandwiches without speaking, shuffled silently from room to room in her threadbare bathrobe and bare feet. She didn’t have eyes, your mother. Or she did, but they didn’t work because she always stared right through you, even as she cupped your face with her cold, dead hands.

You tried to bring her back to life. Someone told you—wish on a star—so you wished, wished hard as you could. You didn’t know you were wishing on ghosts.

Some days, your wish came true. She looked at you those days, read you books, put on new clothes.

But the next day she’d go back to stumbling through the house.

There is a girl lying at your feet. She is the kind of dead that cannot make sandwiches, cannot blink, cannot stumble. You pick up her body and carry it to the trunk.

You drive for miles and miles. The silence is too heavy, too much. You turn on the radio to drown it out—only it’s all Kurt Cobain, Donny Hathaway, Mindy McCready, Nick Drake. You switch to Catcher in the Rye, the only audiobook you own.

The narrator sounds like your mother.

“What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day.”

Your mother would have been good at that, if she hadn’t been dead most days. She’d said it sounded like the best job, maybe the only worthwhile job. There was something other about your mother, something reaching for magic in a dull, dirty world. You wish you could have caught children with her in the rye, but that’s not the job she left you.

You get to the spot, near the river. You get the body. You get the shovel. You feel the weight of the stars as you dig and dig and dig.

Don’t fall, you think, don’t fall. Don’t fall don’t fall don’t fall.

But stars will do what they want. People, too, when they are hopeless. You can’t reason with the hopeless, can’t make them love you enough to stay.

caretakerYou wonder who the dead girl is. You wonder where she comes from, where any of them come from, the ones who just . . . appear beside you when the sun goes down. You lower the girl in the unmarked grave, careful of her left wrist, sliced wide open, and deep, so deep, like she was digging for something. A way out, maybe—she found it. You wonder how much blood she left behind.

It doesn’t matter. A bathtub might be painted in blood, a razor in the sink, an apology upon the glass—but if there’s no body, then no one’s dead, not for sure, not for forever. There is always room to hope, for those who are left behind. This is what you can do for them. This is what you can do for the world.

It’s important work, you know. It’s a gift others can’t bring themselves to give—but you don’t understand how the dead find you, how they know to seek you out. You don’t understand why the bodies keep coming to you and you alone.

Another girl appears at your side before you finish burying the last one. There are rope burns around her broken neck.

It’s going to be a busy night.

You found it before you found her, submerged and naked in the bathtub:

I wish you didn’t have to find me. I wish there was someone to take my body away, hide it somewhere lonely, somewhere secret, and you could just keep on going, pretend I was somewhere golden, catching everyone in the rye.

I’m sorry, she wrote. I’m sorry.

But is she sorry she left, or for what she left to you?

The sun is just beginning to rise as you finish burying the bodies. Six in all. Very nearly a record.

You wish you had another job. You wish you could help in some other way, become a detective, maybe, find clues, fight crime. Provide closure instead of preserving open wounds. You even wish the police would catch you, but the bodies, they wouldn’t stop. They’d just follow you to your cell, their cold flesh piling between your bed and the bars. If only you knew what ghost your mother had wished on, to make a prophecy of her regret.

You’d wish her back, if you knew what ghost. You’d wish she’d stayed for you.

When you sleep, you dream about stars falling. They drop down and down by the dozen, and you have to pick them up, bury them somewhere lonely, somewhere secret, and then nobody will start crying; nobody will be afraid. Everyone will just stand together, holding hands, whispering that the stars could always come back, that they’re just traveling somewhere else now, some other, better, magical place.

fin

Carlie St. George is a Clarion West graduate whose work has appeared in Lightspeed, Shock Totem, and Strange Horizons. When she’s not busy incorporating her odd obsession with peanut butter sandwiches into even her most macabre and melancholy stories, she blogs extra-snarky movie reviews at mygeekblasphemy.com

Carlie St. George
Carlie St. George

 

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