"She's down there," Billy says, his voice interrupting the night. It's the first thing he's said since we left his dusty truck to trudge among the dead buried at Bluff Hill Cemetery. The arc of his flashlight reflects off the headstones, drawing my eyes from the last light of day that stains the horizon. Granite erupts in fireworks, tiny sparkles glinting like a million cat eyes.
I trip on the gravel, the ruts that were first molded by spring's torrential rains and later baked by the sun that settled over Monroe, Minnesota, at the start of July. My knee slams the ground.
"You hurt?" Billy's voice is closer now, his flashlight narrowing to a perfect circle at my feet.
"No," I say, picking myself up before he can touch me. I brush off my shorts and shake out my legs like I do before I step onto the blocks at a swim meet. "I'm fine."
Billy watches me from under hooded eyes. Then he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a crumpled piece of paper.
"Figured you'd have that thing memorized by now," I say, trying to pretend my voice isn't shaking.
The flashlight tips and for an instant Billy's olive skin glows orange and monstrous red. His eyes are pits of tar. I take a step back, chastising myself at the same time for being afraid. I've played this game at countless slumber parties. I know it's just a trick of the light.
"Yeah, well. Let's just get this over with."
He slips the paper back in his pocket and sets off along the path, his boots making a hollow sound as they thud against the ground. A backpack bounces against his broad shoulders. I hurry to catch up with him, the skin prickling between my shoulder blades. I can't shake the feeling that the cat eyes are real.
"You're not having second thoughts, are you?" I ask, squelching the hope rising in my chest. I tug on his arm to get him to stop. His skin is warm and I release him quickly.
"Polly, we're long past second thoughts. I must have been crazy to think this would work."
"You're the one who came up with this ridiculous plan in the first place!" I protest.
Billy's pacing tight circles and running his hand through his dark hair. "You're gonna have to think of another way to buy my silence," he says at last.
"You don't really believe that I can do it," I say. "You don't think I can hear what they're saying or that I can amplify their memories."
"Would you believe you?"
I prop my hands on my hips. "You seemed certain enough when you came to my house a few weeks ago. You told me everything I supposedly said in the woods that night."
The problem was, I didn't have any memory of what I'd said at the party last April or who might have heard. I was drunk. I don't remember blathering my secrets. Apparently I did, however, and Billy heard. He knew all the details, which meant he had learned the secret only one other person in the world knew: I could hear the final thoughts of the dead.
"Maybe I got it wrong," Billy says. I can feel his eyes on me in the dark. I debate what to do. I could pretend that whatever I said was nothing more than drunk delusion. Then I remember why we're here. Pretending Billy is wrong won't save me.
I don't remember much of the rest of that night, either. But Billy followed me after I left the party. He saw what I did at the school. And he took pictures. If those pictures get out, my future would be ruined. Billy won't give me the pictures unless I pay him, but I'm broke. In the end, my abilities to hear the dead are all I have to offer.
"You didn't get it wrong," I say.
There's a pause. It's freeing to admit my abilities to someone else. I'm reminded of when I told my ex-best friend Henrietta when we were eight. She thought it was cool and never doubted me. I have no idea what she thinks of it now. We haven't spoken in two years.
"Even if you can hear what they're saying, what are the odds you'll learn anything I can use to crack those security questions?" Billy says.
"You brought something from her house, right?" I ask, feeling a surge of determination. I march down the path with Billy at my heels. This is the first time in months I almost feel like myself.
"In the backpack."
"What'd you get?"
"Coffee mug. Couple of seashells that were sitting on her windowsill. I wrapped 'em up in an old sweatshirt that was on her bed."
"Fine. Keep your head down and stick close to me."
"Jesus, Polly, this isn't Mission: Impossible," Billy mutters as he follows me.
"You have any trouble getting into her house?"
"Nope. Went during the funeral yesterday. They'd left the back door open."
"Huh." A thought occurs to me. "Why didn't you just steal her bank card or grab some cash when you broke in?"
Billy huffs. "Don't you think I looked?"
Sweat trickles down my forehead and the curly ends of my ponytail brush the back of my neck. We skirt the edge of the security light and I catch another glimpse of his face. He looks like a jungle cat straining against its leash.
"You're afraid, aren't you?"
Billy's footsteps stumble but his voice is even. "I don't like cemeteries. Let's just do this."
I keep walking, my flip flops slapping against my heels. We don't say a word as we approach the gravesite, but the walk is not quiet for me.
Don't forget to feed the chickens, a woman's voice slides through the darkness. Don't forget to feed the chickens, she implores as we pass.
Goodbye, you sons of bitches! a man shouts to my left and I choke back a snort of laughter. Sometimes the dead are funny.
We reach an older section of the cemetery and I'm enveloped by the singsong lilt of Swedish. I've been around enough dead Swedish immigrants to pick out words and phrases.
"You're doing it now, aren't you? Listening to them?" Billy sounds wary.
"Old habit," I shrug. "Now where's Ms. Svenson?"
"There." Billy points to a mound of fresh soil midway down a row in the new section. The clouds covering the moon slide toward darker parts of the sky and in the dim light, I can see it.
"Okay, what do we know about her?" I ask when I'm standing over the grave. I nudge the dirt with my sandal. Grit creeps between my toes.
Billy switches on the flashlight and pulls the crumpled paper from his pocket again.
"Ida Mae Svenson, ninety-seven, died in her sleep at the Benedictine Living Center. Funeral was today, with memorials preferred to the Humane Society. Interment at Bluff Hill Cemetery immediately following the service. You want to see a picture?" he asks, thrusting the paper at me.
"I'll see her soon enough," I say, crouching next to the dirt. "What else?"
"Not much. Born in East Farmington, the youngest of eight. Married Carl here right after the war."
I glance toward where Billy is pointing. A flat stone spans the mound of dirt, bearing both their names.
"They having some kind of big reunion or something?" Billy asks.
"I told you, it doesn't work like that. I can hear echoes of their final thoughts. That's all. At least until I amplify them. And I'm not going to amplify Carl." Still, I cock my head and concentrate on the flat patch of earth just beyond Ida Mae's grave. "He's saying . . . he's saying, 'It's forty-three degrees in Albuquerque this morning.'"
"That was his last thought? What the hell does that mean?"
"I just report it, Billy. I don't interpret it." I lay my hand on the earth covering Ida Mae. Her voice is much louder. I stop and listen. "Ida Mae is saying, 'Now where did I put that thread?'"
"Missing thread won't give me access to her bank account."
"That's why I had you go to her house," I say, irritation rising from a hot knot in my gut. "Now let me have the stuff."
He swings the backpack off his shoulder and into my hands. I ease the zipper open and start unwrapping the objects Billy brought.
"Carl died in 1985," I note. "She was a widow for almost three decades. Think she ever dated again?"
"Gross," Billy comments, returning to the obituary. "They had three children, all married. Eight grandkids. No, seven. One died."
"Huh," I murmur.
"It's sad is all," I say. "Does it say how old the kid was?"
"Why? You gonna raid his grave next?"
I shoot to my feet and the seashells clatter to the ground.
"Listen to me, you asshole, I'm not a grave robber. And do I need to remind you that this is your crazy idea? If you're going to insult me, we can leave right now."
Billy takes a step toward me. "And how exactly will you buy seventeen grand worth of my silence?"
My breath catches in my throat as he towers over me. I take a step backward from the warmth radiating toward me, trying to ignore the scent of pine and sweat wafting from Billy's skin. I've saved exactly $342 from lifeguarding this year. The rest has gone to the mall and the college savings account my parents made me set up, even though I might never make it to college now that I'm flunking out of school.
I tuck that thought away. It's another secret I'm keeping.
"Fine," I say. "I'll do it. But stop pissing me off."
Billy holds up his hands and withdraws. I sink onto the grave, sitting cross-legged. It hasn't rained in weeks and blades of grass prick my thighs, sharp enough that I wonder if there will be scratches on my skin later. I line up the coffee cup next to the seashells and then drape the sweatshirt over my lap. I straighten my spine, imagining I am one of the Buddhist monks in the documentary about the Dalai Lama we watched in my world history class last spring.
"Am I supposed to do something?" Billy asks, and I jump. I've only ever amplified in front of Henrietta before.
"Just leave me alone and keep watch."
Billy moves away, leaning his hip against a nearby stone. I think about messing with him and telling him that he's sitting on top of devil worshippers planning on stealing his soul, but he wouldn't believe me. There may be devil worshippers in Monroe, but they wouldn't be buried in Bluff Hill under a marker carved with a tractor and a sewing machine.
I shut out thoughts of Billy and concentrate on the woman lying beneath my feet. I take a breath and when I exhale I discover I'm whispering an apology. Ida Mae doesn't respond except to repeat her inquiry about the thread.
I wrap my hands around her coffee mug and slide toward her mind.
I don't remember the first time I heard a dead person. It was just always something I could do. When I was four, my mom did a pottery series inspired by mid-1800s cemetery markers. She spent most of the summer in rural cemeteries, kneeling before stones with paper and charcoal. I ran wild in the long grass, the sun warm on my face, listening to the murmur of lost voices.
I was eight when I realized no one else could hear them. We were at my grandmother's funeral and I was laughing because Elmore Schabert (1917–1982) in the next plot over kept yelling, FART! at the top of his lungs. My dad had to take me aside and calm me down. I asked why he wasn't laughing and he sat unmoving as I explained what I had heard. When his face folded in an origami of concern, I amended my story and told him that of course I was imagining it.
It never seemed weird to me. It's always been a part of me, like my brown skin or the fact that I was adopted. But as I watched the worry emerge on my dad's face that morning, I knew that it was a secret I had to keep. Just like my skin and adoption story, hearing the dead made me different in my little world. Even at eight I knew not to draw attention to it.
It wasn't until seventh grade that I learned I could amplify the voices and tumble into the memories of the dead. Rory Donaldson had been diagnosed with leukemia in October that year. We organized bake sales and bowl-a-thons to raise money for his treatment. His friends shaved their heads when Rory's hair fell out. But not Billy, I remember. He was already lost in a haze of pot smoke by then. Rory was soon lost in a tangle of hospital tubes. He was in the ground by the next April.
It snowed hard that year, huge storms rolling off the plains to squelch any hopes of spring. On the day of Rory's funeral, his parents gave us each one of the hundreds of friendship bracelets Rory made in the hospital. I was clutching mine and snow was pelting my neck as I listened to Rory's final thought (Swing and a miss), when suddenly I was in his mind, watching an army of Pokémon figures advance on Barbie's Dream House beneath a shelf full of trophies. The scene shifted and I watched two Christmases and a pool party before I realized I was doing more than just hearing his final thoughts. Shocked, I dropped the bracelet and earned a few confused looks from my classmates.
I experimented again a few weeks later. The next time we visited my grandma's grave, I clutched a Little Mermaid beach towel she had brought me from Florida. While my parents watered geraniums and clipped the boxwoods, I gripped the towel and fell into her mind, past the sigh that had been her last thought. I saw Florida, the sandy beach tinged with sadness as she walked alone. I saw a young version of my mother fall off a bike and I saw my grandmother aim a BB gun at the pigeons on her roof. Then I saw my own face, velvet brown pressed against her white hand. It was weird.
I stopped visiting cemeteries a few years ago. I didn't renounce my abilities or anything, but I just drifted away. I had new friends, a boyfriend. When everything fell apart a few months ago, I started coming back. Mainly to the Sigrudsons behind my house. But a few times to Bluff Hill and some of the other cemeteries in town. This will be the first time I've amplified anyone in years, though.
Billy clears his throat behind me, the sound rumbling in his chest, and I realize I am floating on the current of Ida Mae's thoughts. I push my memories aside and tighten my grip on her coffee mug. I tuck the seashells between my palm and the cup. Their spiky horns dig into my flesh. I take a breath and let Ida Mae's words float over me and pull me under. It's as familiar to me as breathing.
A torrent of images rushes through my mind. I see white gardenias in a bridal bouquet and a scrap of pink afghan. I sail through feedsack dresses and curling irons. I am present at christenings and ice cream socials. Big band music echoes in my ears and I watch in dismay as President Kennedy's death is announced on the television. The later years contain cheap cardigans from Sears, grandkid artwork taped to the refrigerator, and one glorious, sun-soaked week in Palm Springs.
I grasp at details but they spin away, lost in the vortex of a fading mind.
Then, a picture of an orange tabby jumps into my head, a mangy creature that Carl pretended to hate but tolerated on behalf of the kids. The tabby poses on a table, bobbing as he attempts to jump to the Christmas tree, which is dripping in tinsel. There's a shout and a broom handle knocks the cat to the floor.
"Army," I say as the picture fades.
"Huh?" Billy asks.
"It was the name of their cat. They had a cat that tried to jump onto the Christmas tree one year. Carl almost killed it."
Billy scrawls in a notepad that he pulls out of his back pocket.
"Army, cat, okay. What else you got?"
"Not much," I say, although I tell him the name of the hotel in Palm Springs and a few other details. We already have the dates of anniversaries and birthdays from the obituary. Billy's plan is to use the details to answer security questions and break into bank accounts. He found lists of common security questions on the internet and I'm supposed to get as many details about first grade teachers and prom dates as possible. Billy hopes we stumble across a match or two when he tries to log into the newly dead's bank account. I don't like it, but I don't have much of a choice if I want to pay him off before he tells everyone what I've done.
"You need to do anything else?" I ask, suddenly anxious to leave.
"Nope, let's go."
The cat eyes on the gravestones follow us the whole way out, silently marking our passage.
The road to my house winds through the grassy meadows overlooking Monroe before climbing Brammer Bluff. Streetlights carpet the plain below us, cheap sequins on a discarded prom dress. The thick, inky ribbon of the Mississippi River hugs the miniature downtown, dividing us from the sleeping farmlands across the Wisconsin state line. Billy's muffler rattles as his truck bounces over the unpaved roads. I hold my armpits up to the vents, but the wisps of cool air are not strong enough to dry my shirt. We don't say anything.
Billy eases the truck to a stop underneath the massive cottonwood tree that marks the entrance to my driveway. The drive curves toward the house, blocking the truck from view. I've told Billy this but he turns off his lights anyway.
"You good?" he asks as I reach for the handle.
"I'm fine," I say, popping the door open. I'm about to slide to the ground when Billy's words stop me.
"We're not even." His hands grip the wheel. "Not yet."
"I never said we were," I reply after a long moment.
I lean against the cottonwood as Billy executes a perfect three-point turn and vanishes down the hill. Only then do I exhale the breath I'd been holding. I collapse against the rough bark. I'm tempted to stay here all night, sleeping underneath the thick branches, but mosquitoes start nipping my ankles and neck.
Images of the past few months spin through my mind: the party, the flames, the drive halfway across the country, all sparked by the phone call that destroyed the axis of my world.
"Not now," I tell my thoughts. I don't have the strength to go through them again right now. Instead I wander back to the house.
It is surprisingly easy to sneak out of my house, especially when my dad is away at his lab, like he is this month. A few hours ago I hugged my mom goodnight and waited until she trailed down the hall to her bedroom. Then I slid open my window and climbed onto the kitchen roof. The original farmhouse was built in the 1890s and has been expanded and renovated several times, mainly by my parents when they bought the place fourteen years ago. There are countless nooks, crannies, and conveniently placed footholds to help a girl sneak in and out, as long as she is careful to avoid the compost pile behind the kitchen.
I shimmy through my window and reattach the screen, then close the curtains and light a few candles on my bedside table. Soon the scent of pine and frankincense permeate the air. When I put the lighter down, my hand knocks something to the floor. I bend and retrieve a tiny black elephant figurine studded with rhinestones. I'd almost forgotten about it. Henrietta gave me the elephant two years ago after she came back from a mission trip to Thailand with her family. It was only a few weeks before we stopped being friends. I've meant to throw the elephant away countless times but I always hang onto it; a sign of my guilt and regret, I suppose. I return it to its place next to the candles.
I step over the squeaky pine board near the foot of the bed and turn on my iPod, filling the room with the brassy growl of Nina Simone. I undo my ponytail and shake down my hair. I should rinse it under water and slather it with conditioner before running a comb through it, but I'm too tired. I catch sight of my reflection in the mirror. I haven't been avoiding the mirror in the past four months, but this is the first time I've stopped and looked in a long time.
What I see surprises me. I'm Polly but I'm also different. My skin is its usual darker summer shade, thanks to my lifeguard job at the city pool. My hair is extra curly from the humidity, the dark strands jutting from my scalp. My face has always been lean but now it looks almost gaunt. I step back and pull my shirt over my head. My shoulders and upper arms are muscled. My breasts are small and round. I look into my eyes last, wondering if I inherited them from my birthmother. Did she ever stand in front of a mirror, wondering who the woman was looking back? I gaze for another moment, seeing a despair that wasn't there at the beginning of spring.
I flop on my back and gaze at the ceiling. There are two cracks, one near the window and one that branches over my bed. They look like rivers on a map of a fantasy kingdom. I've been watching for years to see if the two will ever meet. So far they haven't. June bugs bounce off the window screen. For a second I think about opening my history book and tackling the mountain of work that is crushing me. You don't want to start a big project when you're tired, my mind tells me. You just need to find some big block of time where you can really concentrate on your work.
"Maybe tomorrow," I murmur. I wrap my hair with a silk scarf, snuff the candles, and go to sleep.