As I walked home after the show, there was a spot in the sky that looked blacker than it should. Alex had offered to drive me home, one hand searching for his keys while he asked me, and I’d almost taken him up on it. We’d have fallen into bed; sometimes at night, after shows, his skin tasted different. Everything about Alex was easy in a way that made me uneasy. So I said no, that I wanted the walk. And partly, that too was true.
The air all day had tugged me like spring sometimes did, though it was still at the edge of winter. Since I’d moved to Iowa, I hadn’t felt air that made me think of water in a long time. But the breeze did that day, the way it pressed against my skin as quick and fast as waves.
In the dark, streetlights only every couple of blocks and with only as much power as dimming flashlight beams, I closed my eyes a couple of times and let the breeze trick me somewhere else. I gasped when I stepped on something and it crunched beneath my foot. Opening my eyes I surveyed the sidewalk, but the dark was too complete. I used my phone to light the ground: bits of broken shell. I’d stepped on an egg, though that made no logical sense. Bird nests were empty this time of year, no hatchlings to have left eggs behind them. The shell, at least under the blue-tint of my phone light, was a pale green. I took a step back and looked up at the sky, feeling a need to turn away from the scattering of shell.
Above me the sky was deep blue, stars peppering across it in flashes of white, and then a swath of extra dark, as if a black cloud had floated across it. I blinked, but the darkness stayed. It didn’t seem frightening, exactly; maybe I’d never really believed in omens, but it unsettled me. I walked home, faster than I ever did.
Sleep, that night, came fast. In the morning, I didn’t think about the sky at all, until I noticed a fragment of shell, opaquely green as jade, stuck to the sole of my shoe.
At work, I made spreadsheets of software fluctuations. We tested all of our products copiously; a team of people sat around trying to make the software fail, bug out, freeze up screens, and it was my job to then input every different action that was tried and the results of each permutation.
“Did you hear about the girl?” Mara asks, leaning over my cubicle.
I shook my head no, imagining that Mara was about to tell me something sordid, maybe an inter-office affair.
“They found her body last night.”
I jumped slightly, taking the words in, as if jolted by something physical instead of verbal. “Body?”
“Look it up! Look it up!” Mara whispered, herer voice a thrilled hush.
I switched over from the spreadsheets and typed in “Body found, Ames.”
The first story up blasted the headline: Young Woman Found, Drowned. “Drowned”?
“It’s creepy as”— and here her voice lowered conspiratorially—“fuck. They found her in the parking lot of the Target and she was soaking wet. She’d drowned. Or been drowned.”
“So, someone moved her body?” A shudder ran up my skin. My grandmother used to say that a shudder was when your ghost ran its fingers across you.
Mara shrugged. “Maybe.”
Walking home, after work, I stopped in the store for groceries. Going through aisles, selecting things on whims and half-memories because I’d forgotten a list, I hummed along to the song playing overhead. Did I dream you dreamed about me? Were you hare when I was fox? In the checkout lane, the woman in front of me was reading the daily paper. The headline showed a picture of the dead girl: she was young, redheaded, pretty in the way that some Iowa farm girls were—wide smile and slightly plump cheeks that looked more rosy than overfed. Still, there was something about the girl’s eyes—as if a dam had been breached inside her and there was nothing stopping sadness from flooding out. I tried to shake away the thought—the pictures of the dead always looked sad because you knew the outcome that they couldn’t. The newspaper-reading woman turned back, saw me looking, and shook her head sadly. “She’s so young. Who would do something like that?”
I assumed the question was rhetorical, shrugged my shoulders.
“My daughter’s almost that age. She goes out sometimes and doesn’t always tell me where she’s going. I get scared, you know, and then I think, we’re in Ames. This is the safest place we could be. And then something like this happens. Were you like that as a girl?”
“Like?” I shifted the basket full of groceries to my other arm, the weight getting too much.
“Not telling your mother where you were, always?” The woman stared at me, seeking a real answer.
“I told my mom. I always told my mom,” I said. What I didn’t say was how my mother couldn’t have cared less, how she didn’t even listen when I said where I’d be, which friends to contact if she needed me. Had I been kidnapped, it might have been days before she would’ve noticed. “But, you know, sometimes girls just need a little freedom. She’ll tell you if she thinks you need to know.”
The woman smiled. “Thanks, sweetie. I wish that were the case.” The woman turned away from me, began talking to the cashier.
I thought of my mother. She was somewhere with her newest man. Sometimes she’d send me a postcard, say where she was. That happened less and less, though. I worried about her the way some people worried about characters on TV shows that they watched obsessively: the life I imagined for her was always about to crumble, but there was nothing I could do because it was being written by someone else.
My mother was sometimes so spontaneously sweet, when I was young, that my friends would be jealous: showing up suddenly at school to give me balloons or a box of chocolate or whisk me away for a day of shopping. But then there were all the times when she couldn’t get out of bed because the latest man had left, she would tell me to go away, say it was because of me. Later, she’d say she didn’t mean that. And I don’t think she ever did.
The men were always kind. That was the thing, never a bad one in the bunch. They just always left her. One, Brent, talked to eleven-year-old me as he was leaving—“You know, kiddo, it’s not you. You’re a sweet kid. It’s just she can’t ever trust me.”
I was sitting on the porch, reading, as he took boxes to his car, and, at first, I thought he was talking to himself. Telling himself that it wasn’t his fault. But then he made sure to catch my eye. “You’ll be all right, kid.”
I nodded. I’d never not been all right. He returned my nod and I think he felt better about himself, like he’d imparted some sage dadvice and could go about the rest of his life thinking he’d helped.
That was one of the worst. My mother spent weeks in bed. I had to go to the grocery store by myself, had to forge her signature on absence notes so that I could stay home from school one week and take care of her. I thought she would do something drastic. I dreamed of coming home and finding pink-tinged water running down the stairs, cascading out of the overflowing tub, and even in the dreams, I couldn’t look in the tub. Never.
In bed one night, I woke up feeling like something, some unknown weight, was pressing into my chest. Alex slept next to me, his breathing so even that I always thought he was only pretending to sleep. Getting out of bed, I walked to the window, cracked it open slightly to let in the cool air. The breeze caressed my face, the top of my chest, as I breathed it in. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw someone standing at the edge of the apartment parking lot. A woman, tall and drenched in shadow. She raised a single hand as if in acknowledgment of me. I raised my own hand, mimicking her gesture back to her. The woman lowered her hand, slightly, and palm facing upward tapped her fingers backward into it—a child’s gesture of beckoning, of come out to play. I stepped back from the window. The cold air pressed against my face, I could feel it in my mouth even. I closed the curtains.
Slipping back into bed, Alex rolled over to face me and placed his hand on the small of my back, tucking me closer into him. “I love you,” he mumbled. I wasn’t sure if he was sleeping, if it was an automatic response.
“I love you,” I said back. I wasn’t sure if my response was automatic, also. Falling into sleep, I remembered something my grandmother had said about my mother once—“Her problem is that she falls too deeply every time. A bit of advice for you, dear: never keep someone you know you can’t lose.”
“Another Body Found,” the newspaper’s site screamed up at me. Mara was beside herself—“In Ames! I mean, is it a serial killer?” She was a true-crime aficionado, the kind who could rattle off victim statistics, left in the wake of killings, without even trying.
I shrugged. Again a shudder iced its way up my skin.
“There’s no signs of trauma. I mean other than the fact that they’re drowned, obvs.” Mara’s voice trailed off, or rather, I stopped paying attention to what she was saying.
The picture of the latest dead girl stared up at me: kind eyes, a dimple in one cheek that gave her smile a pleasing edge of mischief, but the smile itself seemed forced, as if someone just kept telling her to do it over and over until she did. She looked like someone who was a good friend, a good daughter.
“. . . eggs!” Mara said, and my attention snapped back.
“What about eggs?” I asked.
“That’s what I heard from a friend, he’s a cop, remember I told you about him? I met him doing some research?” she said.
I nodded, though I didn’t remember.
“Well, anyways, that’s what he said. The weirdest thing is that there were egg shells near the bodies.”
My stomach dropped, as if in an elevator beginning to plummet. “That’s weird.”
Mara nodded. “So weird. Maybe it’s the killer’s calling card?”
Up my spine, my ghost’s fingertips climbed quickly.
I walked from home to Alex’s show. My phone rang, halfway there, and I recognized my mother’s number. “Hi, Mom.”
“I dreamed you died,” she said. My mother’s voice on the phone never sounded like her voice; on phones, she sounded happier, always, as if calling from an alternate dimension.
“That doesn’t sound like a nice dream.”
“It was,” she said, then laughed realizing what that sounded like. “I mean, not that you died. But you were so happy. You said you fell through the sky but that it felt all right. You were a ghost in my dream.”
“Huh,” I said. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know what my mother needed to hear.
“But that’s not why I called. I have big news!”
“What news?” I had stopped walking. Across the street, I saw a woman pushing a stroller. I wondered what kind of mother the woman was. Maybe she didn’t know quite yet, either.
“I’m getting married! Me!” She laughed. It sounded so pretty, like wind chimes in summer.
“Oh, Mom, congrats!” I didn’t even remember the latest man’s name.
She chatted briefly, told me some details of the engagement, but they barely registered. Then, as she was hanging up, she said, “Be happy. The sky is huge, but I think eventually life’s better than the sky.”
The phone clicked off, before I could respond. She had never liked me to say goodbye to her. She told me once, when I was eight, that too many people were telling her goodbye and so she didn’t want me to. Often I’d be going out and I’d shut the door, then say goodbye, so quiet that she couldn’t hear it.
At Alex’s show, the speaker system worked badly: everything sounded distorted, blurred out. I stepped outside for a breath of air and a moment of quiet. The wind swarmed me as soon as I was alone. My clothes weren’t particularly loose, yet the air crawled under them easily, pressing against my skin almost intimately.
I walked a few steps, closing my eyes, breathing in deeply. Something crunched underneath my foot. I opened my eyes and looked down, knowing what I’d find. Egg shell bits, tiny and distinct. They almost shimmered in the moonlight, such soft greens.
My breath caught in my throat. Behind me, someone was there. I could feel it. “Alex?” I asked, though I could still hear his band playing.
A hand touched my shoulder, icy cold. I turned to face whoever it was: a woman, taller than me, and beautiful. Her features were so precise and so evenly spaced that the flawlessness made her less pretty. She smiled, not showing her teeth.
“I saw you the other night,” I said.
“You saw me,” she said. Not questioning. “Look up,” she said. Not asking.
I looked up at the sky. The spot of extra dark had spread like a bruise, so deep and black. I felt like the darkness was everywhere, dripping down toward me like blackberry juice seeping out of a pie crust.
I tasted the darkness: sweet and tart and thick with absence. It filled my mouth and then I was choking on it, gasping for breath. I looked away from the sky. Coughing, I looked back to the woman.
“A taste,” she said. “You want to go there? Swim beneath the night?”
“What?” I asked. My legs felt weak, my breathing still ragged.
“The sky is the surface, but beneath it, you can swim. You can dip in and out of the waves of dark. I can take you there.” The woman held out a hand.
“Those girls,” I began, but didn’t know what to say, what to ask.
“They’re up there. Just left their shells behind. Like you’ve been doing for days, breaking free. Now they’re swimming. You can be swimming,” she said. Her voice was deep, calming, cool. She sounded like the breeze felt.
I thought of leaving everything behind. Of stars and night and waves. I felt something behind me. A shudder ran up my spine, quick, quick, my ghost was frantic.
When I was eleven and dreamed every night of overflowing bathtubs, of pink-tinged water, I’d wake up and check on my mother. She slept soundly. It was the only time she looked happy, deep in her dreams. I always wondered what she was dreaming about. I’d perch at the edge of her bed and watch her breath, in and out, in and out. Such a reassuring thing the act of breathing is and I thought to myself: never grow up and lose yourself. Remember to breathe, remember to be happy, remember that you’re never going to get as lost as this. And I’d go back to bed and I’d wake up and make her breakfast that she wouldn’t eat, but I’d know that things would get better.
I thought of Alex, playing music not so far away. The soft easiness to his smile. I thought of how long it had been since I’d smiled like that. Always a flincher, a hesitater.
And then I thought of how, once, I’d gone swimming and went so far under the water. How deep and dark it had looked way down at the bottom of everything and I’d realized that the water was the same as everywhere. Sometimes, you needed to keep swimming, up and up toward the air. You couldn’t stay under forever.
“I don’t think I want to,” I said. The woman tilted her head, as if she’d misheard me. “I don’t want to.”
“You don’t want to swim in the night. The darkness will hold you and hide you,” she said.
I thought of the deepness of the ocean, of the way that it could swallow you up and not let go. I shook my head. “No, but thank you.”
The woman studied me for a moment longer. Then she turned and walked away, disappearing into the shadows on the street as if she’d almost never been.
I let out my breath. Breathed in and out. I forced myself to not look up at the darkness, to not let it catch me in its swirl.
I turned and walked back to the bar, music pouring out from around the door. Inside people were laughing, having a good time, and so I walked in, hoping to join them.
Chloe N. Clark holds an MFA in Creative Writing & Environment. Her work appears (or is forthcoming) in Apex, Flash Fiction Online, Gamut, Smokelong Quarterly, and more. She teaches college comp, writes for Nerds of a Feather and Ploughshares, and can be found on Twitter @PintsNCupcakes.