CAROLINA TELLS ME NOT TO worry. She lives in the same room as my brother, Robbie, so she can check on him late at night. I’ve been worried since Mom and Dad left. They’re at a wedding in Albany and left Robbie in charge for the weekend. Robbie, who closes his door before dinner and leaves out frozen macaroni and cheese for me to microwave. Robbie blasts music called “death metal” and I don’t see him again until morning. It’s okay, though. If he doesn’t look after our house, defend it from bad people, it’s not so bad. There’s always an adult around because Carolina’s parents live here too.
We all live in this house called The Ash Cabin. We moved here when my mom got the job at the university and my dad got a “spousal hire.” The house is called The Ash Cabin because of the sign above the door. The name is written in these grooves carved deep into a plank hung on the lintel. When we first moved here, Mom led us on a nature walk through the woods. Before we even got started, she stopped at this tree at the edge of the lawn, right before the gate to the woods.
“This is the ash tree,” she said.
Robbie yawned. Dad flicked his ear. “Your mother is a renowned botanist.” Which is why we moved here, for her job, for the trees and plants and all this land. When the realtor showed us the Ash Cabin, Mom kept saying, “The land is stunning.” When the realtor told us about Carolina’s family for full disclosure, Mom looked at Dad and said, “The past is the past, but the land is just stunning,” and he shrugged. Now we live here, and the past does too.
The land is stunning. At night, I like going on walks in the woods with Mom, or sometimes with Carolina. Fifth grade ended two weeks ago, and Dad says now I can be trusted to play alone. So we go to the brook down the hill and sit on the banks. Little fish nibble our toes. I dip my head under and flick my hair back when I surface, so in one motion I see the river, water droplets in the air and the mountains.
Robbie never comes on Mom’s nature walks. Instead his new friend Ricky comes over. Ricky comes with this black backpack that’s all duct taped together on the bottom. Mom says he wears eyeliner, which is what makes his eyes so ghoulish. Ricky shuts Robbie’s door and they blast death metal. They come into the kitchen for spoons and tin foil, sometimes again for a snack. Earlier tonight, Ricky came out crying.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. He opened our freezer and dug around, pushing cartons of ground beef and the Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese I was stuck with. “What’s wrong?”
He didn’t say a word, just grabbed two freeze pops and went back. I jumped on the kitchen island and kicked my legs back and forth to brainstorm. Then Carolina came out of the fridge.
“Don’t roll your eyes at me!” she said.
My mom gets mad at me for that too, says I’m too young to roll my eyes, I can have an attitude when I’m older, blah, blah, blah.
“Don’t come out of the fridge,” I said.
“It feels good,” Carolina said. “I like it in there.” I don’t get it, because she says all dead people are naturally cold. I’d think she’d enjoy spending time in the fireplace or under the covers, but what do I know?
“Will you just check on Robbie?” I asked. “Something’s wrong.”
With two nods of her head, Carolina vanished. We’ve been watching TV Land at night. She used to like I Dream of Jeannie when she was living. Now, her parents don’t care so much if she watches “trash.” Half the time they’re still tied up in the basement.
I walked around the kitchen to make it look nice. Mom and Dad will be back tomorrow, and I want the countertops to sparkle, clean dishes stacked in the cabinets. Whenever Robbie or Ricky comes out with dirty food containers, leaving them in the sink as if the ghosts will wash them, I swoop in to scrub. There’s nothing else to do. And the ghosts don’t do dishes. And Robbie doesn’t believe in ghosts anyway.
I first met Carolina in the hallway. She was walking around, looking at the new painting on the wall, flossing.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Carolina,” she said. She jerked her head at the painting. “What’s this?”
“We got it on vacation in the Cape,” I said. “What are you doing here?”
She parroted my words in this dumb voice. “What are you doing here?” She walked to the sink to spit out gunk.
“Are you a ghost?” I asked.
“You’d think if I were flossing, I’d be alive but noooo,” Carolina said. She plucked each of our toothbrushes by the head. She settled on Robbie’s and squirted on a slug of Crest. “Oral hygiene still matters. I haven’t been able to brush until all you moved in.”
My mom asked who I was talking to, and Carolina gave me these smoky eyes, so I knew not to say anything. She didn’t want me to be the creepy kid in a horror movie. She didn’t want to be the imaginary friend.
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MICHAEL COLBERT is an MFA student at UNC Wilmington, where he’s working on a novel about bisexual love, loss, and hauntings. He writes a column on horror films for No Contact, and his work appears in Catapult, Electric Literature, and Gulf Coast, among others.