Dalisay noticed the dead girl hovering below the living room’s vaulted ceiling, sitting with her legs tucked to one side. She wore a blue satin dress lined with lace, her dark hair falling across her shoulders accentuating the pallid hue of her skin, and the deep, red fingerprints across her neck that resembled a bird in flight. Dalisay shuffled closer, heart pounding out the decimals between each second. Any moment, she expected the girl to fade, for her mind to render the figure into disparate pieces of the house: shifting light, shadow, the dollops of the acoustic ceiling. Instead, the girl’s image clarified, and her name bullied through Dalisay’s lips in a breathless whisper.
A smile erupted on the girl’s face, mischief hiding in her dimples, her deep amber eyes intense and staring. Dalisay knew that look, had seen it many times during the years she and Jenny had lived next-door to one another. Only, Jenny wasn’t truly there. Not until Dalisay closed her eyes, tried to fall asleep, and in the space and span of something close to dreams, the once-empty field adjacent to her parents’ house filled with Jenny’s sprawling mansion.
The girls’ bedroom windows were aligned, but some nights, a chasm lay between them, its dark as thick as outer space without the sanity of moon and stars to make it seemly. They’d sit by their respective windows, making faces and signing to one another until sunrise, when they would both mouth their goodnights.
More often than not, Dalisay’s windowsill formed a bridge between them. She’d listen for the stillness—a sign her parents fell asleep—then pop the screen off the window and clamber into Jenny’s room. They’d lie in bed together, the curtains of the four-poster drawn, with only darkness for a chaperone. While Dalisay would share her day, Jenny would curl up against her, listening intently, watching with a dead girl’s eyes, breathing dead breath into Dalisay’s face that smelled nothing of soil or rot.
And now, here she was, floating near the dust and cobwebs of the vaulted ceiling.
“Come down from there,” Dalisay said.
Jenny nodded and began a slow descent, planting each foot on thin air as if supported by the rungs of an invisible ladder. When she reached the carpet, she turned, a nervous fidget tying her slender fingers into knots.
“How are you here?” Dalisay reached for Jenny, refusing to trust her senses. When her hand struck Jenny’s shoulder, felt solid bone and the blunted cold radiating through her clothes, she jerked away. This was no hallucination.
Jenny pointed to Dalisay and closed her eyes, tilted her head to rest against a pillow of her hands. Dalisay remembered that sign, along with all the others they’d come up with to overcome the obstacle of Jenny’s silence: dreaming.
“What do you mean? What about it?”
Jenny smacked a fist into her open palm and then splayed her fisted fingers. Afterward, she tapped a finger to her temple: memories.
Dalisay nodded. “I remember that.”
She could still hear the clicking of the engine, the squeal of well-worn brakes, the hiss of air pumping through vents that achieved little in that suffocating heat. What she couldn’t remember was what had started her parents fighting. Why her mother squeezed and twisted at the rubber of the steering wheel, or why that sick, red vein embedded in her father’s forehead throbbed so much. She spent the last three decades trying to forget—especially the volley of curse words that, to a six-year-old, felt downright obscene.
To cope with her parents’ constant altercations, Dalisay would close her eyes, snuggle into the darkness, and escape into her dreams.
That day, Dalisay nodded off at once and saw a girl crouched over a crowd of scattered marbles inside a circle etched into the ground, the whole scene smothered in the rheumatic shadow of an old house. The girl looked no more than twelve or thirteen, but a sort of knowing brimmed inside her eyes, aging her beyond her soft, round features. When she noticed Dalisay, she beckoned with a finger.
“Sorry,” said Dalisay. “I wish I could play, but I don’t have any marbles.”
The girl held out a fist, fingers facing downward. Dalisay reached out a curious hand and the girl’s fingers blossomed, her bare touch cold as ice cubes tickling Dalisay’s palm.
“For me?” Dalisay asked, examining the fat masher she was now holding.
The girl nodded.
“I’m not supposed to talk to strangers. But maybe it would be okay if we played so long as we’re friends. Will you be my friend?”
The girl nodded and Dalisay’s lips spread into the rare, delighted kind of smile that made her teeth show.
“Are you okay?”
The girl’s eyebrows furrowed and she cocked her head.
“You look sort of sick.”
The girl beckoned, this time pointing to Dalisay’s eyes before motioning to her own face. Dalisay stepped back, alarmed at first, but then had second thoughts and leaned in closer. If she squinted hard enough, she could see traces of fine gray lines that might once have been veins. The girl’s bone-white complexion intoxicated her and she felt an urge to scoop up a handful and squish it between her fingers like snow.
The girl tapped her nose and winked, then took aim at a marble in the center of the ring. Dalisay was about to join her, but she was awoken by a nasty, screeched enunciation of her father’s name. Her eyes filled with tears as soon as she opened them, knowing that, as was the way in dreams, she would never see her new friend again.
“What’s wrong with you?” Dalisay’s father said, his voice like broken glass dragging over pavement.
“Bad dream,” said Dalisay.
“Pull yourself together,” her mother said. “No one wants to hear you pouting and crying, and besides, we’re almost there.”
Dalisay nodded, scrubbed her eyes, and realized she was still clutching the marble, its alabaster surface as cool and smooth and pale as the dead girl’s face. She gripped the masher harder and shut her eyes, sighing the syllables of the dead girl’s name, a name she hadn’t known until the moment she spoke it.
“Jenny,” Dalisay said again, rolling the familiar shape of it across her tongue.
She used to consider Jenny her sister, her twin, but Dalisay was pushing forty. She fit the role of mother now and Jenny hadn’t changed. The oddity of it disturbed her and she couldn’t decide whether she should scream and rage, or laugh.
Jenny touched Dalisay’s arm.
“Don’t,” Dalisay said and bristled, scratching the feel of it away. “After what you did, you can’t pretend everything is fine, that everything is like it was before. Doesn’t work that way.”
Jenny spun around, her skirt flaring into a circle, streaks of red and orange supplanting the blue satin, like sunrise bursting through the early morning dark. Once she paused, she tapped her temple again.
Dalisay clenched and unclenched her fingers, mouthed random lines from movies—anything to distract herself. She stared at Jenny, through her, beyond her. The bitterness she felt made the harsh lines of her face slacken, a mask of apathy she had practiced and perfected in a mirror. She hated that she could never make her heart feel as empty as that expression.
Only seconds passed before the unwanted memory Jenny had prompted returned, an old wound made fresh.
Even after years of friendship, Dalisay never knew Jenny could cross into the real world, until an evening of silly, one-sided conversations when Dalisay invited her to school. To her surprise, Jenny agreed. They made plans, and a few weeks later, Jenny appeared inside Dalisay’s bedroom. She came as if from nothing, scuttling in on hands and knees before rising to her feet with flagrant ease that reminded Dalisay of those tube-men in car lots, riding on a burst of air to pull themselves erect. Jenny twirled around to display her dress, its skirt spinning in a circle. It was vivid, unlike the formal, antique clothes she usually wore, with a pattern like a sunrise dripping blood and fire.
“It’s beautiful,” said Dalisay, stroking the ribbon tied around Jenny’s waist. “Is it new?”
Jenny smiled, nodded.
“Everything’s set. I told my teacher you were a cousin visiting from out of town. He said it was okay for you to come to school with me, but just for today, because it’s Friday.”
She smirked and Jenny returned it curve for curve, gesturing in a way that implied impatience, that could have meant, “Let’s go.”
Once outside, Jenny hooked Dalisay’s arm and they set off down the street, Jenny’s steps so soft she could have been gliding. The lunacy of it thrilled Dalisay. The sheer impossibility of her secret dream-friend suddenly made real. Though no one so much as glanced in their direction, Dalisay pretended jealous eyes watched them ambling down the street, envious of their friendship.
The moment they passed under the shade of the junior high school’s breezeway and into the courtyard, an older boy named Milo pushed between the girls, knocking them apart. He stood a head taller than Dalisay, with a body that had barreled too fast into adulthood, a strip of earnest stubble already cropping from his upper lip.
“Who is she?” Milo said, motioning to Jenny.
“She’s visiting,” Dalisay said. “She’s my friend.”
“You don’t have friends.”
“Go away, Milo.”
“Bet you had to pay her,” Milo said, laughing. “A dollar to stand next to you, five to let you tag-along, ten to let you call her a friend. Wonder what she’d agree to do for twenty?”
He leaned in and slid the tip of his finger down Jenny’s arm, from her shoulder to her elbow.
“Don’t touch her!” Dalisay shouted, shoving Milo away.
Other children noticed the commotion and a small crowd began to form.
“If she doesn’t want me to touch her, she’d say so, right?” Milo pulled Jenny closer. “You’re so cold,” he said, “but I bet I can warm you up.”
White light filled the periphery of Dalisay’s vision, a blur of tears washing out the center. She leaped onto Milo’s back, wrapped an arm across his throat and squeezed. Fire ripped into her side, but she ignored the pain of Milo’s blows and held on tight, until his vice grip locked around her wrists and pitched her through the air.
She landed with a heavy thump and the taste of salt and iron filled her mouth. The world dithered and folded around her like the inside of a kaleidoscope, the clicking of its pieces echoing in her brain. Dalisay barely felt the weight of Milo sitting on her chest, but she saw Jenny—a blur of motion sliding through the crowd.
Jenny caught Milo’s raised fist. Milo screamed as the skin smoked and blistered, the bones within the now red-hot furnace of his hand crumbling to ash within her grasp. Jenny touched his cheek and it split into a wide gash, exposing swollen meat and black decay spreading across his molars. Milo fell sobbing to the ground, wiggling along the walkway like a turtle freshly scraped from its shell.
Jenny reached for his arm.
“Jenny, don’t!” Dalisay screamed .
Jenny stooped and slid the tip of her finger down Milo’s arm, from his shoulder to his elbow. His cries echoed through the schoolyard as his arm withered, deflated, the bone bulging through a thin, transparent tube that resembled sausage casing.
The crowd of children screamed and scattered. Dalisay searched in all directions. Once she spotted the angry line of charging teachers, she struggled to her feet, grabbed Jenny by the hand, and ran.
All that power to reshape reality, to contravene the laws of physics, crammed into the body of an adolescent girl. Was Jenny a monster, a demon, or something worse? Dalisay had never thought to question it before, but now she couldn’t ignore it.
“He was a malicious boy, but he didn’t deserve what you did to him, and neither did my parents. Everyone blamed me for what happened.”
Jenny shook her head, struggling with gestures, none of which conveyed an ounce of meaning.
“You killed them, and then you abandoned me, left me all alone to deal with the repercussions: all the trauma, the years of therapy from having my whole life upended. I haven’t had a single sound night of sleep since.”
Jenny recoiled from her advance, touching her own temple again, again, again. Memories.
“You need to go. Just leave and don’t come back.”
Jenny motioned to herself, her eyes, and then to Dalisay. Dalisay didn’t have time to think or speak before Jenny caught her by the head and pulled.
The light blotted out. Dalisay crashed onto a rigid surface, cold and smooth as stone, though without its coarse texture. They were no longer in her house but in a vast expanse of nothing. With no sense of direction, Dalisay panicked, started thrashing, taking gulps of void into her lungs that felt and tasted nothing like air. Jenny’s cold fingers curled around her hand, hoisting her to her feet.
A voice said, “It’s okay. You’re safe.”
She heard the wet crinkle of lips parting. “Yes.”
“Where are we? How can you talk?”
“It’s a crossroads between life and death, memories and dreams. The rules are different here.”
Jenny led Dalisay through the darkness. Whether inches, feet, or miles, it was all the same. Eventually, a light appeared. Jenny waited, arms crossed, while Dalisay moved toward it, bathing in its modest glory, reaching out her hands as if to warm herself. Her open palms struck a windowpane. It took a second longer before her eyes adjusted to the new illumination, before she recognized the room behind the glass: they were outside Dalisay’s bedroom, her childhood home. Inside, she saw herself on the day after the Milo incident, cowering before her parents, both bellowing and stamping, mad as angry bulls.
Dalisay shook her head. “I can’t watch this. It’s too much.”
“Please,” said Jenny. “You have to try. If you don’t, you’ll never know what truly happened that night.”
“Fine, but if I do, you have to take me home and never bother me again. Agreed?”
Dalisay recoiled from her mother’s red-faced fury. Her father stood behind her mother, arms folded, that same sick, red vein throbbing in his forehead.
“I didn’t do anything!” Dalisay cried.
“Nothing?” Her father dragged his belt off, prolonging the soft threat of leather licking at his sagging jeans. “How about I do the same nothing to you and see if that doesn’t change your answer?”
“No, I tried to hurt him, but I couldn’t. He was too big.”
Her mother scoffed, rolling her eyes. “See how the answer changes with a little motivation? You sent that boy to the hospital! Do you know how much money that’ll cost us if his parents sue? Ambulance fees, emergency room, surgery. We’ll be lucky if they don’t get our goddamn house!”
“I’m tired of this bullshit,” her father said. “If you didn’t do it, who did?”
Dalisay cringed, slinked back. Her parents had never had a use for truth or reason and this time was no different. She gazed through the window to the empty adjacent lot, imagining Jenny’s silhouette framed between the trim of her mansion’s only lighted window. If she called, would Jenny come? She hadn’t a clue about the rules that had brought her out before, only a vague instruction related by a simple gesture: Dalisay’s mouth, Jenny’s ear. Speak and I will listen.
Backing up against the wall, Dalisay slid down to the carpet, and closed her eyes. “Jenny,” she whispered, begging for the kind of miracle that only came in dreams.
“Don’t you look away when we’re talking to you!”
She heard the jingle of her father’s buckle, the stomp of heavy feet. A rumble in the floor drew closer and she braced herself, arms covering her face. There came the swish of leather cutting through air—but then, the soft patter of lesser footsteps darted from her right.
Dalisay dared to look again and found Jenny standing beside her. Her mother edged toward the doorway, her cheeks scarlet, her mouth agape. Her father grunted and tugged on his buckle with both hands, the long end of the belt strap locked in Jenny’s grip.
Jenny ascended to her feet, her gaze locked on Dalisay’s father. Dalisay’s mother paled and bolted out the door. Her father dropped the belt at once and backed away, the throbbing of his forehead vein more pronounced than ever.
“Dalisay,” he said. “What is this?”
Jenny flicked her wrist and the belt strap leaped at Dalisay’s father, coiling around his neck. He coughed and gagged as the strap tightened, clawing at the pressure sealing off his throat, his face sweating, bloated, spotted red. He snapped his head from side to side like a dog jerking at its leash, but it was no use. Jenny was stronger.
“Jenny! Stop!” Dalisay shouted.
Jenny’s eyebrows furrowed, and she shook her head, a sad expression that might have meant I can’t.
Her father lashed out. Jenny stepped aside to avoid his savage blows and grasping fingers, and the floundering man soon slumped against the dresser, his will to fight diminishing by the second.
Dalisay lunged forward, wedged herself between her father and Jenny. “He’s had enough!” When that failed, she grabbed Jenny from behind and pulled.
Dalisay’s mother stormed into the room, her fingers wrapped so tightly around the handgun’s grip that her knuckles were bleached white.
A blinding flash, a deafening bang, and Jenny jolted.
Dalisay felt a sting that probed deep into her shoulder. The pain deepened, picking at her pieces, tossing them aside, clearing a path for the hollow ache that followed. Darkness swelled, snatching away her breath, her strength, her vision, and she collapsed to the floor.
Jenny fell upon Dalisay, cradling Dalisay’s head upon her lap. All the while her parents shouted profanities, motioning to the gun, to each other, to the inconvenience of Dalisay and her wound. They didn’t breathe a word about an ambulance, didn’t seem concerned enough to even drop a bandage by her side.
Dalisay struggled to remain conscious, watched the blood beneath her pool and spread. The moment she slipped away, Jenny stood and raised her arms.
Dalisay’s parents levitated off the floor, their arms and legs twisted and stretched, joints pressed hard against the limits of their motion. Their faces swelled. Blood streamed into their eyes, following the path of veins before exploding into swirls of red across their sclera. Their faces contorted, but they made no sound, not even the barest whimper.
Jenny turned to Dalisay, let her gaze rest on the stillness of her body as if searching for a sign. Then she turned back to Dalisay’s parents, the lines of her face etched deep with agony and grief, but mostly fury.
Dalisay turned away from the window. She knew what happened next—had found the evidence of it the following morning. Heard about it on the news. Spent years being evaluated by child psychologists and interrogated by police. She didn’t want to see it for herself, but she could still hear it through the glass of her old bedroom window: the sickly pops and cracks of her parents’ limbs wrenched in all the wrong directions, and the sticky splash of their insides strewn across the walls and ceiling.
Dalisay’s life had changed after that, but not for the better. Her grandmother was too old to care for her and her uncles didn’t want her, so she was foisted off, shuffled between careless foster parents. The children in the group homes never liked her, and her foster families made her feel so forgotten that, by the time she’d reached adulthood, she’d grown used to being invisible, made it the base assumption of her life.
“I blamed you for everything,” she said. “You tried to explain, but I forced you to leave.”
“I didn’t mean to be gone so long,” Jenny said, touching Dalisay’s arm. “I tried to find you. Your dreams used to be my beacon, but the world is big, and you haven’t done much dreaming since.”
“All this time I thought you betrayed me, abandoned me. I let myself believe you were a monster, and for who? My parents?” Dalisay shook her head, pinching tears beneath her thumb and finger. “So what now? Where do we go from here?”
Jenny shrugged. “I can take you back to your old life and never bother you again. If that’s what you want.”
Dalisay considered her “old life.” Her lonely house was crammed with decades worth of other people’s stuff—old photo albums, yearbooks, and various antiques—things she thought would make her feel part of something greater than herself but that only ever reminded her that she hadn’t formed real connections. She’d known most of her co-workers for more than twenty years, yet not once had she been invited to a social gathering after work or shared a brief conversation she hadn’t forced upon them. Dalisay didn’t have a single friend, or lover, or reason to return. She had routine, but nothing she would call a life.
“Or?” she asked.
“Or, you can stay with me.” Jenny held out a hand. “My house has many rooms. The light is dim, but the darkness knows its place and there’s a peace and quiet that goes on for ages.”
Dalisay looked Jenny over. She’d once feared her power, but whatever Jenny was and whatever she could do hardly seemed to matter anymore. She took Jenny’s small outstretched hand, reacquainting herself with the symmetry of its slender fingers and the coldness of her touch. God, how she missed that feeling.
“Let’s go home.”
Jenny nodded, barely stifling a grin. With gentle twists and tugs, she led Dalisay through the darkness once again. Dalisay couldn’t tell how long they walked, whether seconds, minutes, hours or days, but the figment of her childhood bedroom faded and Jenny’s mansion appeared like a mountain sprawled across the horizon. Shadows slipped over its gables and parapets, winded through its balustrades, and caressed the suggestion of a stone and brick façade. Children once again, they climbed the steps of the main entrance hand-in-hand, and the front doors opened, spilling a path of light.