“This is so stupid. And you know I hate it when you call me that.”
“It’s really not. You just have to dig up my grave, burn my bones, and then I’ll be set free.”
I stare at my dead sister’s ghost. This is, quite possibly, the worst birthday I've ever had. And that's saying something, seeing as she died on the last one.
“And how the hell do you know that’ll work?”
“I’ve seen it before.”
“Er…a T.V. show?”
I glower. She rubs her neck. “You have got to be kidding me, Elise.”
“What? It worked!”
“Because it was fake, dumbass!”
She scowls and jerks her head toward the grave site. “Just start digging, please. Don’t you want me to be at peace? Go into the light? Shake hands with Gandhi? Play with Rufus again?”
I sigh, staring down at the plot overgrown with grass and weeds. Her headstone is clean and clear, thanks to the recent rainstorm. It’s quite small, about a foot in height and width with a curved top and her name etched into the brindle-colored stone. Elise Patters. There’s the year she died, too. A year ago exactly. On my birthday.
It still feels like it was yesterday, the car accident. Just this morning, I could have sworn I’d seen her sipping on a glass of orange juice, reading a book about horticulture, already dreaming up her next potted plant. Which was what she was doing just an hour before a drunk driver rammed into her car, forcing her vehicle straight into oncoming traffic.
But for me…I did see her this morning. I’ve been seeing her since the moment she was declared dead in the hospital. Nobody believed me, of course; I learned my lesson after my parents enrolled me in three different therapy programs––all at the same time. So, I kept it to myself: I could see my sister’s ghost. And her ghost alone.
And I was okay with that. I am okay with that.
I take the shovel and ram it into the ground, using the heel of my boot to wedge it further in the earth. And I start digging. Elise keeps watch as I continue, glancing around the cemetery for any onlookers. But it’s midnight, and we’re shrouded by a thick layer of trees; we’d hear anyone coming our way crunching through the fallen leaves.
“Wow. They really make this look easy in the movies,” I grumble, blinking sweat out of my burning eyes. My arms already ache as I push the shovel in the ground once again, load it with dirt, and throw it to the side of my rectangular hole. Wash, rinse, repeat.
“Can’t you go any faster? We need to be done by morning. Or, you’re screwed.”
“Just shut up and keep watch, okay?”
With each hit of the shovel, a memory flashes before my eyes. I try to keep them at bay, shoving them to the back of my mind; but they resurface immediately as the dirt flies around me.
So, I give up, and I let them flutter before me.
I remember the first instant I knew Elise was dead. I remember because the pain was so unbelievably crushing. I couldn’t breathe. Something or someone was standing on my chest that day, holding me down, preventing me from ever rising again. And when I saw her, standing there, looking at her own body, and then locking her eyes with mine in wonder…
I could breathe again.
I thought I was crazy, of course. But only for a second. And then I knew the truth: she was dead.
But she wasn’t gone.
Another memory flashes. I’ve dug about a foot down now in the grave.
I’m at school. Everyone is hugging me, telling me they’re praying for me, crying, sobbing. People I’ve never met before. Students that used to bully me in middle school. It’s surreal. They're all here for me.
And so is she.
She whispers in my ear as people pat my shoulders in sympathy, teasing some of my classmates as they talk to me. They can't hear her, of course, which makes it all the more hilarious. I have to bite my lip––hard––to prevent any sort of giggle from escaping. I receive some odd glances, but one can chalk it up to grief making people do strange things.
But I wasn’t grieving. Because my sister was with me. And she wasn’t going anywhere.
A third memory. Two feet in.
I’m on a plane. It was a spontaneous trip, sure; but, I wanted to take a gap year between my senior year of high school and my first year of college. So I convinced Mom and Dad to let me take a break, to explore the world, to fly solo––literally. So, they did. And even though I’d saved every penny throughout high school to save for this trip, they paid for my plane ticket as a graduation gift.
I used my savings to buy an extra seat ticket. It looked empty to others. It didn't look empty to me.
Elise and I spent a week driving all around Iceland on the Ring Road. I always made sure to stay in private homes or hostels, being careful to avoid being labeled as the “crazy traveler”. It worked. We had the best time of our lives; we gazed at waterfalls, splashed around in the sea, ate fish and crabs and gas station hot dogs, explored caves, discovered the fjords...
That trip is my favorite memory. I'd give anything to be there. And not here.
I punch the shovel into the earth once again, expecting another memory to overcome me. Instead, I hit something hard, and freeze.
Elise sucks in a breath. “Is that it?” she whispers.
“I…I think so,” I say quietly. I stare at the dirt below me, struggling to breath evenly. I don’t know if my panting is from exertion or panic.
“Well, what are you waiting for? Quickly!”
I clear away the rest of the dirt, my arms surprisingly shaky. I dig a little extra space for me to stand in the dirt beside the coffin, too. And then I stare at it.
It's long and black, almost invisible in the dark night. I reach out and touch it hesitantly. Ice cold.
“Come on, Tori. Open it!” Elise gestures to the coffin impatiently, raising her shoulders in question of my sudden stillness.
“Elise, please be quiet,” I say, my voice sounding strangled.
“What? Tori, just open the damn––”
“Elise, I’m about to look at the bones of my dead sister. I need a minute.” I avoid her gaze. She doesn’t say anything.
I take a deep breath. And then another. Another.
I can do this.
I unlatch the top of the coffin and open it.
I had been prepared for the possibility of a stench; I had plugged my nose prior to undoing the latch, protecting my gag reflex should any sort of scent reach me. I had been prepared for the body; I'd even expected decay. I knew it’d be too early for a skeleton, but certainly, something was bound to be rotting. I had even been prepared for the color of the body: the pale skin, the added makeup. I thought I had prepared myself.
I guess I thought wrong.
Because she still looks just so alive.
A lump rises in my throat as I stare down at my sister, still so beautiful and serene, even in the faint moonlight above. The weight comes soaring back, slamming into my chest so hard that I take a step back––and find myself pressed up against dirt. My breathing quickens and my heart races until I can’t get air, I can’t breathe, everything is dark, I can’t see, there's just no air––
“…Tori? Tori? Can you hear me? Tori, look at me. Come on. Yes. Listen to my voice. Open your eyes.”
I open them.
I’m slumped over her body in the coffin. I reel backwards, black dots exploding in front of my eyes from the quick movement, my stomach folding in on itself in nauseous, endless waves. I lean over and place my hands on my knees, ready to retch. When my stomach finally settles, I shakily rise, looking back at my sister’s body in the coffin.
“Tori, climb back out. So you can get your lighter. And rest a second."
Mechanically, I follow her instructions. I place my hands at the top of the grave and heave upward, lugging my body forward and onto the cool grass. Breathing heavily, I drag myself across the grass until I’m in a sitting position, leaning over the grave. Elise sits beside me, her hand inches from mine.
“It’s okay. Just breathe.”
“Easy…for you…to say…you’re dead,” I gasp.
“You think it’s easy for me? To say that to you? To tell you to breathe? To tell you to live?” Her voice is very quiet.
“No…I just mean...I just…”
“It’s not easy, Tori. It’s not easy at all.”
We say nothing for a moment. Finally, I catch my breath, and take a long, calming breath.
“I thought I could do this.”
“You can do this. It’s easy; just switch on the lighter––”
“No,” I say softly, shaking my head. “That’s not what I meant. I thought I could say good-bye to you. Finally, this time. But I––I––”
My eyes fill with tears. I blink furiously. Instead, the tears fall. And I let them.
Elise is quiet for a minute.
“I don’t want to say good-bye to you either, Tori,” she whispers.
“Then why do you have to? This past year––it’s been so fun, Elise.” My voice quickens in pace as I plead with her. “We could keep doing it. Forever.”
Even as I say the words, I feel guilt. I look at her face. At her small, knowing smile. She shakes her head sadly. “You know we can’t, Tori. You have to live your life. And I have to live my death. I want to.”
I turn back to the grave, at her still body below.
“I don’t know how to live without you,” I whisper. “You’re my best friend.”
“You’ll figure it out. You know why?”
I shake my head.
“Because you’ve already been living ‘without’ me. I’m not here. I’m dead. And you can do this.”
I sit there, crossing my legs, the grass cool beneath my hands as I lean back to look at the stars. They’re clear tonight. Clear and beautiful.
“I’m going to miss the hell out of you,” I say, my voice slightly wobbly. I clear my throat.
“Let’s hope that’s not a place I’m headed to,” Elise says, laughing. I crack a grin.
And take the lighter from my pocket.
“Do it, Tori. You can do it.”
I stare down at the lighter in my hand. And then, I stand. I take the little flask of lighter fluid I’d stolen from dad’s garage. I pore it over the hole, over her body.
“I love you, Elise,” I whisper, turning to her one last time.
She is there, and she is so beautiful. She smiles at me widely, her warm brown eyes twinkling in the light of the fire below.
“I love you too, Tori. And…I’ll see you again. One day. I promise.”
She reaches forward. And even though I can't feel her touch, I imagine her hand there, resting on my shoulder, lending comfort and warmth and love.
I nod, savoring this moment, this last image of her. And then I turn to the fire and throw the lighter in the coffin, where the flames take hold and begin to devour the body inside.
"Huh," she suddenly murmurs beside me. "It's Iceland."
When I look up, she's gone.
And I am alone.