For almost an hour they’d held their positions: he sitting on the floor watching the wardrobe, and she, sitting on the bed, watching him. His green eyes were scrunched nearly shut. Her palms rested on her knees. It was as if they were posing for a painting: “Girl & Cat”, maybe “Girl Studies Cat”. The only flaw in the tableau was the tip of Cornelius’s tail, fidgeting like an insect on the scuffed tile.
Outside, the occasional bang of a door or drawer cut through the student chatter. It all sounded suspiciously fuzzy to Alice, like a recording wheezing from an old tape deck. Her own room lacked the movie posters and stick-on whiteboards she’d glimpsed her classmates slapping to cinder blocks on the four trips it’d taken her to unload the car. Her conditions for going to college had been twofold: 1) A doctor’s note wrung from a sympathetic shrink, classifying Cornelius a therapy pet and green-lighting his living in the dorm; and 2) her parents could not accompany her on move-in. The latter stung, she knew; her older brother had never made it to college. For her parents, Alice’s matriculation oozed the syrupy sentiment of the first baby bird flapping from the nest.
But the last two years had sapped her independence. Between the surgeries and the recovery and the rehab, she’d hardly had a second to herself. She craved an experience all her own, a new place unmuddied by the well-intentioned dirt of family. Eventually, she’d gotten her mom on her side, and outnumbered, her dad had folded. Alice packed her dinged-up gold Civic with three milk crates, a litter box, and a duffel bag, and backed out of her parents’ driveway while they stood waving on the porch, their jaws fixed into fake smiles.
Cornelius’s ears twitched as a fist began hammering the door.
“Hey! This is Nicole, your orientation leader!” Alice imagined a thin, overzealous girl with a bright green lanyard and a ponytail. “We’re all headed to the dining hall for a floor dinner. Wanna come along? It’s taco night!”
Alice didn’t move. She sucked in air and held it. One, two, three . . . By the time she’d gotten to thirty-seven, the floor had dropped into blessed silence.
She got up slowly, creaking like an old lady. The sunlight pouring through the window had pinned Cornelius in a rectangle of gold. Nudging him aside, she gripped the wardrobe’s handles and yanked. A gust of musty-smelling air whooshed out to meet her. Nothing inside, except a smeary mirror bolted to the left-hand door, and down below, a solitary maple leaf.
Alice twirled it by the stem. Though it was late August and the trees beyond her window still glowed a vibrant green, this leaf was a mottled orange-red, darkening to crimson at its points. She dug inside a milk crate until she found a roll of packing tape. She peeled off a strip and stuck the leaf to the door. Her very first decoration.
Alice froze, one hand wrapped around the cup-of-soup she was about to place in the microwave. It was the indeterminate hour between breakfast and lunch. She’d slept late, fed Cornelius, then lazed around in bed alternating between her Big Book of Sudoku and her Instagram feed, all without granting one thought toward the world beyond the third floor of the red-brick residence hall. And now here was the world, knocking.
She waited. Cornelius dozed on the windowsill, his paws fluttering as he raced his way through a dream. If he resented his confinement after years of free reign in Alice’s parents’ house, he didn’t show it. He was content to stay in this room forever, not wanting or needing a thing from anyone outside. The man in the hall exhaled.
“Listen, if you’re alive in there, please open up. Else I gotta come busting in, and no girl wants that.”
Alice set down the soup and stilted toward the door. The man on the other side was tall and Black with a gaudy silver crucifix hanging from a chain around his neck. A yellow patch on the arm of his sky-blue T-shirt read CAMPUS SAFETY.
“So,” he said, with satisfaction. “You are alive.”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“I got a report here that says you were a no-show to new student orientation.”
“All that summer camp stuff isn’t really for me.”
“You also missed your first day of class.”
Class. Shoot. What day was it, even? She’d completely lost track of time.
“I don’t even have my textbooks,” admitted Alice.
“The bookstore can help with that. Grab your keycard. I’ll show you.”
It was much cooler outside than in her dorm room. The sunshine was so bright. Alice wrapped her arms around the cardigan she’d thrown over her camisole, feeling like someone’s invalid aunt hauled outside for a day trip. The campus safety officer was big as a linebacker but walked with a monk’s serenity, hands clasped behind his back. A few kids waved and cried out versions of, “How’s it hangin’, Gus?” Gus smiled and shouted generic greetings in reply. Alice didn’t know what to make of all the goodwill. At her high school, the security guards had been big mean assholes with crew cuts, standing beside the metal detector each morning like gargoyles flanking a castle gate.
They reached a building with a handful of café tables scattered under a green awning.
“Ta-da!” said Gus, spreading his arms. “You just go in there and show them your course list. They’ll get you sorted.”
“Thanks,” said Alice. “And uhh—the dining hall?”
He looked at her with an unreadable expression. She felt her stupidity sucking her into its mouth like quicksand. He went into the building and returned with a black-and-white campus map. He spread it against the bookstore window and penned circles around a few locations: library, dining hall, fitness center.
“It can take some time to settle in,” said Gus quietly as Alice studied the map. “But just be patient with yourself. There are good people here.”
She found the textbooks for her four classes. She turned away from a large display of highlighters and note cards, knowing there were cheaper supplies at the Walmart in town—but she had money now. The settlement had been finalized in spring and it was still so new to her, this concept that she need not scrutinize every price tag. She bought a pack of highlighters, two composition notebooks, a box of fancy organic fruit snacks, and an overpriced baseball tee with the college logo splashed across the front.
By the time she got back to her residence hall, she was feeling happy and normal: just a regular college student returning from some errands. She tossed her bags on the bed, where Cornelius had relocated. He was watching the wardrobe again. He’d been doing that a lot over the past few days. Alice wondered if he was getting a little senile in his old age.
According to her course schedule, she had an hour before her next class. She would use the time to unpack. She found a bunch of metal hangers her mom had Scotch-taped together and wedged into one of the milk crates. She stepped forward and opened the wardrobe doors. Out puffed a second leaf. Cornelius pounced, batting it around the room. It was so like the first leaf Alice turned to check that it was still stuck to her door.
She ran her hands across every bit of the wardrobe, standing on a milk crate to reach the top shelf. Only when she’d reassured herself that it was completely empty did she begin hanging up her clothes.
She had to admit it was better, being involved. Alone in her dorm room, she’d been like a hapless water creature dithering on the sand, too disoriented to realize she was drying out. Now the currents were sweeping her smoothly along. She went to her classes. She ate her meals in the dining hall. She walked through the student activity fair where classmates waved their flags and free candy. Alice put her name on the email list for the board game club, not because she cared for games especially, but because she liked the way the club president smiled at her as she pressed a Tootsie Roll into Alice’s hand.
She even surprised herself by attending her first party, if you could call it that. A door down the hall from hers hung open. A gangly boy wearing neon swim trunks, sunglasses, and nothing else stood outside with a beer can, toasting everyone that passed: “Come on in, come on in, the water’s fine!” Inside, Alice discovered a fire code-defying assemblage of fifteen or eighteen people. Someone passed her a warm beer. She located a free patch of floor against the dresser and struck up a conversation with a tall blonde she recognized from pre-calc. It was unbearably warm in the overcrowded room. The air reeked of alcohol, sweat, and funky boy odor. Alice drained the beer and a second one appeared like magic.
“What happened to your head?” asked the blonde, whose name was Savannah. She sounded merely curious. Alice touched the rubbery pink worm on the side of her skull where no hair would grow.
“I got in a car accident.”
“Must’ve been a bad one.”
“It was.” Alice sipped from the beer, remembering. “I was in the hospital a long time. I needed seven surgeries. Rehab took a whole year. And my brother, Cleo—he was killed.”
As soon as she said it she realized her mistake. Panic glazed Savannah’s already glassy eyes, and the boy in the swim trunks, who’d been eavesdropping, declared, “Oh shit!” Heads swiveled toward them. Alice felt a flush creeping up her neck. Muttering something about the bathroom, she stumbled through the forest of outstretched legs and dove into the hall.
She found herself outside without understanding how she’d gotten there. In the days after the accident, time had often played tricks on her, morphine sanding off the boundaries between scenes, dumping her into conversations without beginning or end. Rain pattered the sidewalk. People slid past in the darkness like ghost ships. Those two cheap beers had hit harder than she’d anticipated. She never would’ve started blabbering about Cleo if she’d been in her right mind.
Now it was as if his name had unlocked a strongbox buried deep inside her guts. Out surged the goose honk of his laughter, the cigarette smell of his hair, the lurid green nail polish he’d wear to school just to upset their father. He was seven years older than Alice, a bright moon orbiting the dull rock of home. Sometimes she felt at peace with his death, and sometimes, the remembered brilliance of him left her starry-eyed and stupid, stunned into immobility like an animal stranded in the middle of the road.
Alice called her parents. Her mother snatched up the phone midway through the first ring.
“How are you? Is everything okay? How are your classes? The food? Did you make friends? Is everything okay?”
“Everything is fine.” Alice leaned back on her bed with her cell phone resting on her stomach and the cat nestled between her knees. It was Saturday morning, the building steeped in an achy hung-over quiet. She’d been out most of the night, just walking through the rain and thinking about her brother. “Do you remember what sort of tree it was that we hit?”
“The tree. Me and Cleo.”
During the first few months her mom had bent her head and wept any time her son’s name was mentioned. Now she just sounded annoyed. “I have no idea.”
“Is Dad home? Can you ask him?”
“Is this really—?
“Please. Just ask him.” If anyone knew, it would be her dad. He had a mind for details like that, the sort of man who could tell you what shirt he was wearing last Tuesday, who could identify a backyard bird based on the slightest flare of color between branches.
A faint clunk sounded as her mom set down the receiver. Alice waited, tracing two fingers down the soft fur behind Cornelius’s whiskers, until her mother returned.
“Your father says he has no idea.”
“Could it have been a maple?” She was facing her closed door. The leaves from the wardrobe stuck side by side like two weird eyeballs. Her memory of the collision was spotty, but she knew Cleo’s car had rolled down a hillside and smashed into a huge old tree. She knew that she had lain there upside-down for what seemed like days, harnessed to her seat belt, trying to decipher the secret code of the wet leaves plastered to the windshield.
Her mom took in a large, steadying breath. “If it’s too soon, Alice. If it feels like too much . . . You could take classes at the community college, work toward an associate degree.”
“I’m fine.” Cornelius cracked open an eye, irked by the harshness in her voice. “I have to go now, Mom. My friends are meeting me for brunch.”
Outside her window, blue jays were screaming. A dumpster lid slammed. Alice swung her legs out of bed and regarded the floor, streaky with the mud she’d tracked in a few hours ago when she finally found her way back to the residence hall. But something was wrong: her feet were size six—doll’s feet, her mom used to say. The muddy prints on her dorm room floor were large. Like a man’s. Like a boy trying to be a man. Like a boy who was shamefully extravagant about his footwear, who’d blow his paycheck on pills and a pair of Nike Joyrides and then show up stoned on his parents’ front porch at 2 a.m. and bang on the door slurring “Memory” from Cats until one of their parents let him in—until the night they didn’t. Until the night Alice staggered out of bed to find her parents bickering in the hall, Cleo pounding at the door, and what was it her mother had been hissing to her father over and over? You asked me where the line was and it’s right here. We’re standing on it. This is it.
She spent less and less time in her dorm room. Cornelius grew resentful, depositing revenge hairballs in the hard-to-reach corners under the bed. If it hadn’t been for the cat, she might never have come back. She would’ve crashed in the library’s twenty-four hour room with the procrastinators pulling all-nighters, or pitched a tent in the woods behind the football field.
But who was to say it would’ve made any difference? Cleo had never been one for boundaries or rules. For all Alice knew, she would’ve woken in her tent to the same screeching tire sound that startled her from sleep in her dorm room. Maple leaves would’ve trailed her into the library, slithering into her open backpack the moment she turned away.
One night in early October while emptying the litter box, Alice straightened and dropped the scooper with a clatter, certain she’d heard her brother’s wail as the car tipped over the lip of the hill and started rolling. Half a second later, the sound clarified into someone’s joyful shriek down in the parking lot, followed by a hiss and a pop. Fireworks. Alice went to the window and watched the spitting glow of sparklers in the darkness until her heart rate slowed.
On her way to the dumpster, she ran into Gus. The security officer leaned contentedly against a street lamp like he hung out there all the time.
“Hello Alice. You taking care? What’ve you got there?”
“Cat shit.” She shifted the plastic bag to her other hand. “Busy night for you.”
“They’re all busy.”
“No one ever gets in any trouble.” She had observed this over the past few weekends, and wondered at it. Security swept through the building, waving their flashlights and ejecting kids from overloaded rooms. On occasion they might make an underage student dump his beer down the sink drain. That was it.
Gus shrugged. “We’re not the cops. We’re not trying to ruin anyone’s good time. Nobody makes it to adulthood without being forgiven for dumb mistakes.”
That had been true enough for Cleo, according to her mother: forgiven and forgiven again. Even after a brief stint in juvie his records were sealed. Blank slate. A thousand and one chances to make amends.
A breeze cut across the parking lot, wet and reeking of sulfur. Alice glimpsed the crucifix around Gus’s neck.
“Do you believe in the afterlife?”
She liked how calmly he answered her, as if she’d asked whether he enjoyed coffee. The way she’d grown up, religion, like politics, was a fraught and nasty subject, best avoided unless you wanted to piss everybody off.
“My dad was a minister,” explained Gus.
“So you never really had any choice.”
“Oh, there’s always a choice.”
“Do you believe in ghosts?”
Gus tipped his head back against the lamp post, the light beaming down into his upturned face. “Ghosts, no,” he said after a pause. “Angels and devils, yes.”
“I don’t believe in any of that,” said Alice. “Or—well—I didn’t.”
“That’s the funny thing about faith.” He tipped his head back down to look at her, blinking hard, and Alice knew he was struggling to see beyond the light’s bright afterimage unfurling in his vision. “You don’t believe until something happens, and then you do.”
Was Cleo an angel or a devil? She’d been asking herself versions of that question for as long as she could remember. It seemed to Alice that Cleo had two very different people living inside him. There was the rude, impulsive, selfish mess of a boy—her parents’ son—who had to be evicted from the household for his little sister’s own good, a terrible role model, a drug addict, chummy with all sorts of small-time criminals. And then there was the spry young person brimming with love and laughter—Alice’s brother—who’d smuggle her out of middle school midday for Wendy’s and an R-rated movie, who’d listen to her adolescent grievances with the patience of a priest, then swear vengeance on her enemies with the zeal of a Renaissance lover.
One time, her sixth grade geometry teacher, Mr. Rackowski, had refused to let Alice visit the bathroom during class. The resultant blood stain on the crotch of her gym shorts was a gleeful talking point for days. Alice didn’t remember telling Cleo about the incident, but she must have, for shortly thereafter, someone slashed every tire of Rackowski’s Subaru in the school parking lot and carved DICK in large letters onto the hood of the car.
And how had she repaid him for his loyalty? By shutting him out. By believing her parents’ lies. The night her parents had refused to let him inside, Alice could’ve pushed past them and opened the door. At the very least she could’ve snuck around back of the house and met him out front, talked to him, made sure he knew she was still on his side. But she was eighteen, she was thinking about the future. The more she mulled over those college application questions about personal growth and formative experiences, the more a belated resentment slunk through her like illness. She realized how fully the shadow of Cleo had eclipsed her childhood, her parents’ attention fixed always on fixing him, on preventing Alice from becoming him. She didn’t know a thing about herself that was not in opposition to her brother: good daughter, nice girl, the one who’d make her parents proud.
Alice emptied out the wardrobe, throwing down the clothes from their hangers. Another maple leaf fluttered out, this one shriveled and crunchy. Cornelius joined her on the floor. They sat, watching the open doors together, long after the second round of sparklers had been deployed and the campus extinguished into silence.
Alice began stocking her room with her brother’s favorite things. She didn’t have the wherewithal to sit down and make a list, which was just as well: there was something fitting about shopping for these items Cleo-style, dashing into town between classes or at weird hours of the night to snatch a jumbo bag of jalapeño cheese puffs, a shiny new pair of sneakers, or a tube of that smelly acne ointment he used to keep in his car and shove into Alice’s hands each time a zit bloomed on her forehead.
She was on her way back from one of these haphazard shopping trips when she got to her door and couldn’t find her keycard. She stood in the hallway, uselessly patting herself down while Cornelius wailed and scratched at the other side. Someone poked her head out of the communal bathroom.
“Is that a baby?”
“He thinks so.” Alice sifted through her shopping bags one at a time in case the card had fallen inside. She looked over her shoulder again. It was Savannah. Of all the people to be stuck in the hallway with. They hadn’t spoken since that first party weeks ago.
“What are you looking for?”
“My keycard. I must’ve dropped it on the way in.”
“I do that all the time.” Savannah stepped out of the bathroom and let the door swing shut behind her. “You’ve just got to retrace your steps. I’ll help!”
They descended the musty, echoing stairwells and followed the track of orange carpet around the first floor to the north exit. Savannah kept her eyes on the ground and Alice kept her eyes on Savannah, wondering why she was being so nice. In the parking lot, Alice unlocked her car and they crawled around for a minute until Savannah emitted a triumphant shout: there it was, lying under the backseat where it must have fallen while she loaded her groceries.
Savannah helped her carry the remaining bags upstairs. In Alice’s room she cooed over Cornelius, who gave her a disinterested onceover before stalking under the bed.
“Thanks for your help,” said Alice.
“No worries.” Savannah’s eyes slid from the gaping wardrobe to the pile of clothing in the corner of the room. She seemed to decide in an instant it was best not to ask. “Do you have a fake?” she added, as Alice slid a six-pack of Cleo’s favorite Pilsner into the mini-fridge.
“I turned twenty-one over the summer.”
“I had to take a few years off after high school.”
The implications of this statement hung in the air like smog. Savannah picked up a feathered cat toy and tossed it from hand to hand.
“I wanted to apologize.”
“I was like, really insensitive when you told me about your brother. You know how your brain just shuts off when you aren’t sure what to say?” She threw the toy onto the floor. Cornelius’s paw drifted out from beneath the bed and gave it an experimental swat. “I think I know a little bit of what you’re going through. My stepdad died of cancer when I was twelve.”
She nodded. It should have been a heavy admission, yet Alice felt a succession of tight knots within herself sliding loose.
“How did you get over it?”
“I don’t think I did. I don’t think I ever could. I mean, my favorite person was gone. Do you ever really get over a thing like that?”
Alice didn’t have an answer. She opened the fridge and grabbed two Pilsners, one for herself and one for Savannah. She thought that Cleo wouldn’t mind.
Halloween had always been Alice’s favorite holiday. Christmas and Thanksgiving were sad and insular affairs, especially without Cleo, the house pressing in on her and her parents like the rounded walls of a snow globe. But on Halloween the world felt a little bigger. It was like a hidden window had opened in a stuffy bedroom, bringing in moonlight and forest smells, the promise of the unknown.
According to myparanormalodyssey.net, which Alice had bookmarked on her laptop, Halloween was also the day when the line between the living and the dead was at its thinnest. Things slipped from one side to the other with ease. Some cultures acknowledged this by spending the day cleaning gravestones and praying for relatives stuck in purgatory. Not so in this country. Even now, with hours to go till sundown, kids were hurtling around the hall in half-assed costumes and makeup that was already starting to smear.
At Savannah’s request, Alice had bought alcohol for the floor: four bottles of wine, a fat green jug of gin, two liters of tonic. She did not expect to be paid back, but around six, she opened her door to a person draped in a bed sheet, their palm unfolding around a sheaf of damp dollar bills. More classmates came by. A girl in a leotard and cat ears. The gangly boy from the first party who’d added flippers and goggles to his swim trunks.
“You’ll be cold,” said Alice, feeling like a buzzkill mom.
“Baby, I’m on fire,” slurred the boy, who had already sampled the gin. He tottered away, flippers slapping. Alice added the money to her Cleo-shrine in front of the open wardrobe.
Darkness fell. The building tipped into a chaos that made past weekends seem docile as church retreats. People screamed in fun or in terror. Stereos pounded clashing rhythms that shook the walls. From the parking lot came the repeated sound of glass breaking, as if someone had a boxful of vases and was just hurling them against the ground. Savannah came by once, shouting through the door, begging her to come join the fun. Alice lit three votive candles and stuck them in the wardrobe. The shadows squirmed over the walls like wiggling fingers. She didn’t know what she was doing. She wasn’t a minister or a medium. She was a dead man’s little sister, and she wanted the impossible to come true.
Sirens finally stirred her from her vigil. She’d heard them approaching for the last few minutes, but once they were under her window, they were impossible to ignore. She got to her feet, legs aching, and leaned into the hall where the overhead lights dazzled her eyes. When had it gotten so quiet? A big white donut of industrial toilet paper lay on its side just outside the bathroom. Someone’s mask had been stripped off and abandoned: a grotesque reptilian face with a crown of flaccid spikes.
Alice heard people murmuring. She rounded the corner and the crowd of waiting monsters melted to admit her passage. The door to the floor’s second bathroom was propped open. Two flippered feet protruded from the handicap shower stall. A girl was in there with him, doing CPR.
“She went to lifeguard camp,” explained a boy in a unicorn onesie, the self-appointed narrator of this tragedy.
Alice couldn’t stand the way they were all loitering there like gawkers at a car accident. She went back to her side of the hall and slumped against the wall, feeling worse and worse, until the noise of the EMTs clattering up the stairwell spooked her into her room.
Fire. Her room was on fire. The flames stretched from the base of the wardrobe to the pile of Cleo’s offerings a foot and a half away. For a minute, Alice could do nothing but watch, mesmerized, as the bag of cheese puffs curled and smoldered. Then a door banged somewhere and she was jolted back into her body. She seized a towel from her hamper and leapt, stamping hard with her shower flip-flops until the last bit of orange had been snuffed out.
She sank into the ruins, a rank, burnt plastic smell tingling in her nostrils. The wardrobe doors were shut tight. She didn’t understand what had happened. Had Cleo rejected her gifts? Did the cat pounce on a candle in those few minutes she’d been out of the room?
She heard him stirring under the bed, but he wouldn’t come out.
Too tired to make sense of any of it, Alice slipped under the covers fully dressed and closed her eyes. Still she could see the Martian glow of the ambulance lights pressing against the window. Flippers was young. He would be fine. They’d pump his stomach at the hospital like they did for Cleo that one time, and he’d wake feeling like shit, embarrassed, lucky to be alive.
Unless he didn’t, and Alice went to jail.
“Cleo,” she said aloud. “I really messed up.”
I’m coming to get you. That’s what he would’ve said if she’d had him on the phone. Because no matter how fucked up his life, no matter how much money he’d blown through or people he’d steamrolled on his ever-deepening plunge toward the next mistake, Cleo would’ve moved worlds to help her.
Predictably, her aloofness had lasted only as long as it took her to need him again. Eight weeks she ignored his texts and snubbed his covert visits, and then her girlfriend dumped her for a basketball player and suddenly Alice wanted only for Cleo to take her out, sneak her into a bar, distract her from the tiny problems of her mundane life. He complied. As if she hadn’t spent the past two months being a total asshole, he swooped into the driveway and laid on the horn, launching the neighbor’s hound dogs into a fit of howling. Alice entered the car through the back and climbed over the divider into the front seat because the passenger door handle was held together with duct tape, and off they sped in that clattering junk heap, Cleo without a seatbelt because he never wore a seatbelt, the two of them laughing, laughing, right up to the moment the stranger’s Lexus drifted over the yellow lines and bowled them over the side of the hill, and the irony of it all was that Cleo was ten days sober. He got like that sometimes: little bursts of purity, juice fast, cigarettes in the trash.
“This is it,” he’d swear. “I’m getting it right this time. Are you ready to meet Cleo 2.0?”
“I’m ready,” said Alice, opening her eyes. She must have drifted off. Music and shouting filled the hallway once more. How could they keep partying like nothing had happened? And then Alice thought: How could they not? No one wanted to make room for loss, the way it went rudely on and on.
The ambulance had departed, but as Alice sat up a light flared in her room, two lights, twin beams blazing with blinding intensity. She lifted her hands to shield her eyes, and between her woven fingers caught a glimpse of Cornelius perched on the edge of the dresser, staring calmly at the wardrobe from which the brightness emanated. Over the sound of her classmates’ merry-making, Alice heard the purr of an idling engine.
“I’m ready,” she said again. She got to her feet. She reached for the doors.
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