Ice cream tastes different when you’re dead.
It’s the first thing I notice, really. It’s not bad. But I can taste everything every part would have been. The milk becomes lasagna and chicken pot pie and carrot cake and sharp cheese. The sugar wants to live in everything. It’s not bad. I just don’t think I’ll need to eat again for another five thousand years.
Marina hates it. Marina says this is why ghosts never show up in mirrors (and I say that’s vampires and she says shut up, Olivia, I’ve been dead longer). Marina sees all her little selves strung behind her like cherry-red balloons at a zoo, and she didn’t get any of them.
My mom used to tell me when I was little that I had to move now, because there wouldn’t be time to do stuff when I was dead. That opportunities and possibilities disappeared forever. Dead Sister Twelve holds out her hand and I touch my fingertips to hers, one at a time, and she smiles. She’s the one who was way more autistic than I was. I think it’s okay that things disappeared, sometimes.
My mom is littler now.
We’re all walking backwards, all of us. I think the world matches what you are. So when I was alive I saw everything get to be, all slow and lovely; the flowers unfolding like a trick deck of cards that always shows the ace, the clumsy puppies learning to leap fences and lope down our street. The Jacobs’ dogs, all silky and lush black, and you’d be walking and they’d be beside you, snuffling in the palm of your hand just in case you had anything good. Like they owned the world.
My mom breathes in and fire flickers into existence, crowning the pink and white sheet cake with her name spelled wrong. She says something, but nothing makes sense now: it’s all backwards. It sounds like the sparky, crackling moment when you yank headphones out. Headphones don’t exist now. The Jacobs’ dogs unraveled years back.
I’ve missed ice sheets crack on Europa and the invention of the iPod and the Twin Towers and the individual burning of ten thousand stars. Forever doesn’t wait around. Forever doesn’t stay the same.
Marina says I should leave this behind.
Marina doesn’t need to talk about things. Marina’s been here longer than I have, and I can’t find out who she’s been watching, not in all that time. Marina just shows up on the corner of Willow and Halm at midnight, and we sit on the swing and feel everyone who’s ever sat there run through us, and we talk, and then she disappears.
I thought about following her, once. But then I would miss this. Forever doesn’t exist forever. My mom is seven now. I still haven’t seen it yet.
Marina’s face is all wrecked up, but we don’t talk about it. It looks like a church window someone threw a rock through. Little spikes of lead and glass. There are rules to being dead. You go back to the age you felt the most, I think. That’s why the little ones make me itch. Because you can’t ask them how old they were when it happened. Marina told me so. The ones who are old, though, they’re happy.
Some others traipsed through when the Winters’ house caught fire. All the white lattices burning. And there was a really old ghost there, the kind of woman you keep half an eye on when you’re alive just in case she drops dead in the street, and she held her glowing hand over where her heart used to be.
A firefighter ran out of the house swadding a little girl in his arms, clinging to him the way Velcro clings to your jacket in the rain, stuck but kinda fragile at the same time. That’s me, the ghost said, smiling. That was me. I was so young.
I wanted to ask what she had felt in the last few moments that ate the entire fire, but I didn’t.
Sometimes I think I like that Marina doesn’t have a proper face. She doesn’t ask me to look her in the eyes. My mom always did that.
It’s midnight. I sit in the swing and Marina pushes me.
I always feel like I’m missing forever, except now.
Marina can still move things. Years ago, she asked me what I would do after my mom went too, and I said I don’t know. Bide my time and kill Hitler? Marina laughed. We can’t move more than the wind could, she said, and besides. You can’t move anything after you were born. It doesn’t know you.
The day I was born there was a breeze everywhere in the room. Baby wipes spilled to the floor like confetti, or snow in August. My mother couldn’t get the corner of my little blue blanket to stay still. After that there was nothing. Today – because my mom is little and gets ice cream cones again – I followed her around and caught drops of vanilla on my tongue.
Ice cream is different now, though.
Marina pushes me, gentle. Have you thought more about what you’ll do next? It’s such an alive question. It’s such an SAT prep question. I look at the trees more full than they ever were in life with the gray shapes of every leaf that ever sprouted and ever could have and I still don’t know.
Maybe I’ll try to find someone famous, I hear myself say. Or watch someone famous live for a little bit. Leonardo da Vinci, he doesn’t exist yet, right?
No. Marina laughs even though she doesn’t have a real mouth and it sounds like a kid who’s gotten his front tooth knocked out whistling through the space. Definitely not.
I don’t want to say what else is inside me. That I don’t know if I want to go anywhere else because I don’t want to see her. Marina’s could-have sisters all have different colored eyes and sometimes they smile at me, even though they can’t really speak because nothing was ever inside them. Somewhere there’s ghosts worth an entire festival of paper lanterns watching the beginnings of the Viet Nam war. Somwhere every robin egg is cracking except one. If ghosts had dreams I think I would see Marina with my mother’s face. But there’s a wind down Willow Street and it’s blowing right through me, coaxing the azaleas right back into their bones. I keep hoping to find the moment my mom became the person who didn’t want to keep me around, and I think I missed it somewhere, so I’ll stay to the beginning. And then I’ll stay for Marina. And then we can decide the SAT questions, figure out whether forever has to be bigger than this.
The swing slides along the arc it loves. Five children have sat in it today, and a lady in a gray overcoat. She was sad. Someone had died.
Someone has always died.