Just west of Boston, just north of the turnpike, the ghost of Missy Goodby sleeps curled up against the cyclone fence at the dead end of Winter Terrace, dressed in a pair of ectoplasmic dungarees. That thumping noise is Missy bopping a plastic Halloween pumpkin on one knee; that flash of light in the corner of a dark porch is the moon off the glasses she wore to correct her lazy eye. Late at night when you walk your dog and feel suddenly cold, and then unsure of yourself, and then loathed by the world, that’s Missy Goodby, too, hissing as she had when she was alive and six years old, I hate you, you stink, you smell, you baby.
The neighborhood kids remember Missy. She bit when she was angry and pinched no matter what. They don’t feel sorry for her ghost self. They remember the funeral they were forced to attend after she died, how her mother threw herself on the coffin, wailing, how they thought she was kidding and so laughed out loud and got shushed. The way the neighborhood kids tell the story, the coffin was lowered into the ground and Missy Goodby’s grieving mother leapt down and then had to be yanked from the hole like a weed. Everyone always believes the better story eventually. Really, Joyce Goodby just thumped the coffin at the graveside service. Spanked it: two little spanks, nothing serious. She knew that pleading would never budge her daughter, not because she was dead but because she was stubborn. All her life, the more you pleaded with Missy, the more likely she was to do something to terrify you. Joyce Goodby spanked the coffin and walked away and listened for footsteps behind her. She walked all the way home, where she took off her shoes, black pumps with worn stones of gray along the toes. “Done with you,” she told them.
The soul is liquid, and slow to evaporate. The body’s a bucket and liable to slosh. Grieving, haunted, heartbroken, obsessed: your friends will tell you to cheer up. What they really mean is dry up. But it isn’t a matter of will. Only time and light will do the job.
Who wants to, anyhow?
Best keep in the dark and nurse the damp. Cover the mirrors, keep the radio switched off. Avoid the newspaper, the television, the whole outdoors, anywhere little girls congregate, though the world is manufacturing them hand over fist, though there are now, it seems, more little girls living in the world than any other variety of human being. Or middle-aged men whose pants don’t fit, or infant boys, or young women with wide, sympathetic, fretful foreheads. Whatever you have lost there are more of, just not yours. Sneeze. Itch. Gasp for breath. Seal the windows. Replace the sheets, then the mattresses. Pry the mercury from your teeth. Buy appliances to scrub the air.
Even so, the smell of the detergent from the sheets will fall into your nose. The chili your nice son cooks will visit you in the bedroom. The sweat from his clothes when he runs home from high school, the fog of his big yawping shoes, the awful smell of batteries loaded into a remote control, car exhaust, the plastic bristles on your toothbrush, the salt-air smell of baking soda once you give up toothpaste. Make your house as safe and airtight as possible. Filter the air, boil the water: the rashes stay, the wheezing gets worse.
What you are allergic to can walk through walls.
The neighborhood kids don’t remember what Joyce Goodby looked like back when she regularly drove down Winter Terrace; they’ve forgotten her curly black hair, her star-and-moon earrings, her velvet leggings. It’s been five years. Now that she’s locked away, they know everything about her. She no longer cuts or colors her mercury hair but instead twists it like a towel and pins it to her head. The paper face mask she wears over her nose and mouth makes her eyes look big. Her clothes are unbleached cotton and hemp; an invalid could eat them. She and her son, Gerry, used to look alike, a pair of freckled hearty people. Not anymore. Her freckles have starved from lack of light. Her eyebrows are thick, her eyelashes thin. She seems made of soap and steel wool.
Something’s wrong in the neighborhood, she tells her son, it gave Missy lymphoma and now it’s made her sick.
Of course she’s a witch. The older kids tell younger kids, and kids who live on the street tell the kids round the corner. The Winter Terrace Witch, they call her, as though she’s a seventeenth-century legend. She eats children. She kills them. She killed her own daughter a million years ago.
Some gangly kid not even from the street tells Santos and Johnny Mackers about the witch and the ghost. The Mackerses have just moved to Winter Terrace. Santos is nine years old, with curly hair and a strange accent, the result of nearly a decade of post-nasal drip. Johnny is as tough a five-year-old as ever was, a preschool monster Santos has created on the sly. Santos steals their father’s Kools and lights them for Johnny. He has taught Johnny all the swears he knows, taught him how to punch, all in hopes that their mother will love Johnny a little less and him a little more. It’s not working. Already they’re famous on the street, where no one has ever seen Johnny Mackers’s feet touch the ground. He rides his Big Wheel everywhere: up and down the street and into the attached garage. He rides it directly into the cyclone fence.
“You’re a crazy motherfucker,” Santos says. “A crazy motherfucker.” He doesn’t like the word himself but Johnny won’t learn it otherwise.
“That’s Ghostland, by the fence,” the gangly kid says, from the other side. “That’s where all the ghosts get caught, that’s why they call it a dead end.”
“Nosir,” says Santos.
“Yessir,” says the kid. “Dead girl ghost. Plus there’s a witch.” He spits to be tough but he hasn’t practiced enough: he just drools, then walks away, embarrassed.
Johnny Mackers is swarthy and black-haired and Italian-looking, like his mother; Santos has his Irish father’s looks. He likes to shut Johnny into things. Already he’s investigated the locks of their new house. The attic, the basement, the mirror-fronted closet in their parents’ room: every lock sounds different, key, slide bolt, knob, hook-and-eye, dead bolt. He’s glad to learn of a ghost to threaten Johnny with. “The dead girl wants to kiss you. Here she comes. Pucker up.” But the dead girl isn’t interested, and Johnny Mackers knows it. The neighborhood kids are lying when they say they see her. The dead girl doesn’t watch as Santos stuffs Johnny into the front hall closet. The dead girl doesn’t see the fingers at the bottom of the door, or the foot that stomps on them. She doesn’t see Mrs. Mackers open up the door an hour later, saying, “What are you doing in there, for Pete’s sake? The way you hide, it drives me nuts. Why don’t you go ride your bike. Go on, now.” The dead girl doesn’t sleep outside, ever. Why would she? She is with her mother, who--as she cleans the kitchen (her eyesight so vigilant she can see individual motes of dust, a single bacterium scuttling along the countertop)--can hear the mortar-and-pestle sound of a plastic wheel grinding along the grit of the gutter, a noise that should surely mean more than a grimy black-haired boy getting from one end of the street to another.
A different child might have turned into a different kind of ghost, visible only to little children, a finder of lost balls, a demander of candy. She could have visited Johnny Mackers late at night, when he plotted how he would kill his brother Santos. She could have haunted Santos himself. She could have accomplished things.
Instead, she likes to snuffle close to her mother’s skin. The best spot is Joyce’s skin in the hollow just below her cheekbones and just above her jaw: you have to get close, you have to get nearly under Joyce’s nose to settle in. Sometimes Missy gets in the way and cuts off her mother’s breath. She doesn’t mean to. The biting, pinching child bites and pinches, along her mother’s arms, her pale stomach.
“Look,” Joyce says to her son, and displays her forearms, which are captioned with strange anaglyphic sentences, spelled out in hives.
Gerry Goodby was twelve when his little sister died. Now he’s a seventeen-year-old six-foot-tall lacrosse player. He has watched his mother turn from a human woman into some immaculate vegetable substance, wan, thin, lamplit. What will you do, his father says. He means about college. For the past five years, Gerry and his father have had the same alternating conversation. I want to live with you, Gerry will say, and his father will answer, You know that’s impossible, you know your mother needs you. Or his father will say, This is crazy, she’s crazy, come live with me, and Gerry will answer, You know that’s impossible.
He was the one who closed up Missy’s room. A year after she died, his mother wheezing, weeping, molting on the sofa. She gave him the directions. Don’t touch a thing. Just seal it up. He nailed over the doorway with barrier cloth, then painted over that with latex paint. His mother felt better for nearly a month.
Sometimes he stops in the hallway and touches the slumped wall where Missy’s door used to be. He feels like a projection on a screen, waiting for the rest of the movie to be filled in. This is intolerable, he thinks. He’s always thought of intolerable as a grown‑up word, like mortgage.
Missy the allergen, Missy the poison. She’s everywhere in the house, no matter how their mother scrubs and sweeps and burns and purges. She’s in the bricks. She’s in the new bedding, in the nontoxic cleaning fluid. She leeches and fumes and wishes--insofar as ghosts can, in the way that water wishes, and has a will, sometimes thwarted and sometimes not--that the house were not shut up so tight. She rises to the ceiling daily and collects there, drips down, tries again. Outside there’s a world of blank skin, waiting for her to scribble all over it.
“I would die without you,” Joyce Goodby tells her son one morning. He knows it’s true, just as he knows he’s the only one who would care. Sometimes he thinks it wouldn’t be such a bad bargain, his mother’s death for his own freedom. Anyone would understand. Anyhow, it’s time to leave for school. She won’t die during the school day; at least, she hasn’t so far.
Across the street Santos shuts Johnny Mackers in a steamer trunk in the attic instead of walking him to kindergarten. Then Santos, liberated, guilty, decides to skip school himself. He walks to the corner and gets on the bus that says, across its forehead, DOWNTOWN VIA PIKE. He has just enough change to pay his fare. The bus is crammed with people. A man in a gray windbreaker stands up. “Hey,” he says. “Kiddo. Sit here.”
The world goes on. The world will. At any moment you can look from your window and see your neighbors. The fat couple who live next door will bicker and then bear hug each other. The teenage boys will play basketball with their shirts off. The elderly lady next door waits for the visiting nurse; her bloodhound snoozes in the sun like a starlet, one paw across his snout. You want to drape that old, good, big dog’s sun-warmed fawn-colored ears on your fists. You want to reassure the elderly lady, tease the fat couple, watch--just watch--those shirtless, heedless boys. You have to get out, your family says, it’s time. It’s time to join the world again. But you never left the world. You’re filled with tenderness, with worry for every living being, but you can’t do anything--not for your across-the-street neighbors, or for the people on the next street, or around the corner, or driving on the turnpike two blocks away, or in the city, or the whole country, the whole world, west and east and north and south. You are so unlucky you don’t want to brush up against anyone who isn’t.
You will not join a group. You will not read a book. You’re not interested in anyone else’s story, not when your own story takes up all your time. When the calamity happened, your friends said, It’s so sad. It’s the worst kind of luck, and you could tell they believed it. What’s changed? You are as sad and unlucky as you were when it happened. It’s still so, so sad. It’s still the worst kind of luck.
The dead live on in the homeliest of ways. They’re listed in the phone book. They get mail. Their wigs rest on Styrofoam heads at the back of closets. Their beds are made. Their shoes are everywhere.
The paint across the door is still tacky. It’s dumb to even be here. Joyce swears she can smell the fiberboard headboard of the bed through the barrier cloth, the scratch-and-sniff stickers on the desk, the old lip gloss, the bubble bath in containers shaped like animals arranged on the dresser top, the unchanged mattress, the dust. The dress from Bloomingdale’s that had been hers and then Missy’s, in striped fabric like a railroad engineer’s hat. The Mexican jumping beans bought at a joke shop before the diagnosis, four dark little beans in a plastic box with a clear top and blue bottom that clasped shut like an old-fashioned change purse. You warmed them in your hands, and they woke up and twitched and flipped: the worms who lived inside dozed in the cold but threw themselves against the walls when the temperature rose.
“Worms?” Missy had asked. Her nose was lacy with freckles, pink around the rim. “How do we feed them?”
“We don’t,” said Joyce.
“Then they’ll starve to death!”
Quickly Joyce made up a story: the worm wasn’t a worm, it was a soul. It was fine where it was, it was eternal, and if the bean stopped moving that only meant the soul had moved on to find another home. Back to Mexico? asked Missy, and Joyce said, Sure, why not. (Who knows? Maybe that’s why the worms woke up when they got warm--they thought, At last we’re back home in Oaxaca.) Back then, reincarnation was a comforting fable. In fairy tales, people were always born again as beasts, frogs, migrating swans.
Now Joyce feels the world shake and thinks, Mexican jumping bean. She can’t decide whether the house is the bean and she’s the worm, or the bean’s her body and the worm her soul.
Neither: someone has wrenched open the wooden storm door of the sun porch and let it slam behind him. Then the doorbell rings.
Excerpted from Thunderstruck & Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken. Copyright © 2014 by Elizabeth McCracken. Excerpted by permission of The Dial Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.