By Liz Breazeale
Selah’s mom told us ghost stories about the bar when they first bought it—faithless women who carried themselves like crumbling mountains, slaughterhouses and murderous lovers, how the air we breathed was never empty—stories that grew darker and bloodier with the years. Selah gasped in the right places, eyes never leaving her mother’s face, hearing the gospel in every word.
I pricked her with questions my father never answered. Mrs. Hicks, where do we go when we die? Mrs. Hicks, why would someone haunt a place they hated? Mrs. Hicks, do you believe in ghosts?
Her grin never reached past the wrinkles punctuating her mouth. Her lipstick-sealed cigarette wilted from her fingers. She said, Jenna, there are voids in the world we have to fill, and the way we do it is with something of ourselves.
IT WAS THRERE A.M., a week before I left for college. Selah and I stood in the cavern-silent Hicks Hooch, close enough that I could touch her hips through her jeans, press my chest into her back where it curved a little.
She snatched two glasses from behind the bar, poured shots of Jack. Stretched, her shirt rising and her belly button ring glinting. Said she felt a chill, prickles under her skin. “Someone’s here. Smells like whiskey. Whiskey and roses.” She whispered the same thing every time. It smells like Mom, she was saying.
“Disinfectant. Disinfectant and old wood.” I drifted toward the bar and snatched the glass from her hand. Downed the shot. “I’ll prove it. Nothing here but some rats.”
“In a week,” Selah said, the words already darkened and fading, “you’ll be Jenna Louise May, trainee savior of the pill popper and the alcoholic and the redneck.” She banged the bottle down onto the wood and laughed, dry and crackled. Voice scathed. “Oh, but you won’t tell them your girlfriend is one of those, right?”
“Your support means the world, Sel.”
“Mom supported you enough for the both of us.”
In her sober moments, Mrs. Hicks smoothed my hair on my sleeve, said, Jenna, baby, you’d be wonderful at social work. Pulsed with earnestness, echoed the way she’d hugged me, fierce and angry and biting like a wounded animal when my father kicked me out. That day she called him and screamed, told him he wasn’t a parent but a ghost of one.
“Don’t puss out now, baby girl,” Selah mocked. “Thought you had something to prove.”
It worsened over the year since we found her mother dead, the resentment. She fell away with the speed of a rockslide; I spent my time prepping for college, living with Selah and her father and the cold spaces where her mother was not, unable to interact with my own parent outside of screams. But Selah, she wove herself together with Xanax and booze. Counted the minutes her mother was gone in ghosts, in demons in basements.
Selah raised her voice. “Do another shot with me, college girl. Can’t hold your booze anymore?”
I squeezed her arm, harder than necessary, and crept through the room. Ancient jukebox, walls littered with beer signs and photographs of the bar in its past incarnations: a faded black-and-white ghost of a slaughterhouse, a shadowy brothel, a crumbling façade, all circled by the arms of trees and sky. Her dad bought the bar when Selah and I were young, when it was a ruin, stuck up in the hills. Kids hunted through it on dares, came back with stories of screams, growls. The wood was black and rotted, the roof caved in. The first time her dad took us out to see his new purchase, Mrs. Hicks nodded without speaking, walked to the car. Sat, arms folded, breath fogging the windows, until she was completely obscured.
“Your dad needs to do something about these walls. All the cracks and dents and shit.”
“Stay and tell him yourself.”
It’s like a person, Mrs. Hicks had garbled, this place. You can paint over yourself and make yourself different, but you’ve always got those fingerprints in you, those punches and stabs. And we’d stumble her back home, across the parking lot to their house, Selah and I, while she whipped her long hair dusted with gray and tried to tell us stories we already knew the endings to. I used to do social work, she said. I used to be like you, Jen.
“C’mon. We’ve had a few drinks.” I pushed past chairs matted with film, light from the window reflected dully from them, rasping across the wooden floor. “There’s nothing here to see.”
“You’ve been here so many times and you know—” She moved back into shadow. Her voice wasn’t as strong as her mother’s; it was skittery, barbed. “Anyway, thought you were gonna prove it. Isn’t that what you told me?”
My gut pitted. Said, there’s nothing here but crematorium air and people who love ghost stories more than they love you.
She shook her bag of pills, popped one and chased it. “What?” She grinned, mouth looped around the words.
“You’re going to kill yourself.”
She dumped whiskey in her glass until it sloshed over the sides. Rested her hands on my shoulders when I leaned over the bar, tried to take it from her. “Momma always said you were too good for me.”
“Such a martyr.” I leaned in; she met my lips. Backed away. Laughed like sleet on a window and wiped her mouth; her hand came away slick. Her mom’s lip gloss. Rimmel or Revlon. Mrs. Hicks wore it every day, even toward the end. We could count her bottles by the shiny traces on the rims.
“Gonna forget all about me. Just the way she wanted.”
“No.” I reached for her hand. “I can’t stay, Sel. You can’t.”
“Got it in your blood. Mom thought so.”
“I asked you to come.” I could feel them on me, those venom-glistened eyes, set back in craters. Deep and angry and falling into hatred.
Selah drank straight from the bottle. Pleaded. “She’s here. I—I’ve felt her, you know?”
“Tell me something new.”
“There’s something down there, in the basement. I’m not the only one who’s—” She’d found a pile of hooks and chains in the basement years ago when I dared her to go down there. She screamed and screamed the whole time, sobbed about something touching her. Mrs. Hicks investigated, came back white-faced and snapped at all of us to stay out. We never ventured down the steps again.
Her voice trembled, feathery. “Prove it.” She grabbed the bottle and poured. The dark crept in around her face. It snuck into the lines and made them wrinkles. She took the shot.
“If I can—” I paused. “If I prove to you there’s nothing here, would you leave with me?”
“Already told you no.” She tried to sit on a barstool but slipped instead, caught herself with a smack that rang through my bones. I reached to help her, but she pushed me away. “A year. A year it’s been. Since we found her. And—and you need to see her before—“
I’d always told Mrs. Hicks I’d never stay here in these dull gray hills. And she looked at me, something glimmering even behind the booze, something like pyrite, and she gripped my hands and said, of course, of course, do something. Of course. You’re better.
Her daughter sat before me, swirling the bottle in circles on the cracked tabletop; it kachunked through dips in the wood.
I said, “She was never going to come back.” She slid off the stool and stumbled after me, and I turned to face her. “I’ll prove it. I promise.”
Mrs. Hicks told us how the earth moved on, and the wind drifted the prehistoric mountains away, the ones that used to surround this place, higher than the Himalayas. She told us they had become nothings, ancient and collapsed by caverns. Hunched behind her desk, swiveling her chair, glass empty of anything but leftover boozy breath, she said the limestone cliffs were stories told too many times, riddled with faults.
The last time I spoke to her, she repeated this, held my eyes in hers, craters in the ocean, told me this was love, the mountains: the waiting, the slow annihilation.
I kissed Selah, violent and hurried, and for a moment afterwards, she focused on something behind me, glance juttering and cave-dark. Touched my cheeks with hands that were always cold, and I saw the first time we’d kissed, three years ago, because she said she’d never kissed a girl and pulled my face toward hers and her lips were glacial in the summer air.
I grabbed her hand, tracing my way around the bar, needing no light, knowing the landscape.
She whispered, “I’ve been hearing her stories.”
The wooden walls were made from trees growing on nearby slopes, the tables and chairs fitted so close together I heard Selah suck in her nonexistent gut and squeeze past rather than disturb them. “When Hicks Hooch was a slaughterhouse slick with cow blood and pig blood and goat blood—“
The air in the room was a breath on my neck.
I traced my hand over the cool wood of the tables, slashed and pitted by years of violence.
“Hurry up.” I pulled her toward the hall. I opened up my phone to light my way even though I knew how the planking fell away in a depression.
Selah’s bare feet scuffing the wooden floor, her tiny white jacket cutting through the thick darkness. She used to walk this way home from the bus stop, shuffling through puddles or anthills or piles of trash outside trailers. We weaved through the woods, leapt through leaves with no one to rake them, unearthing creatures that scuttled away, thick-legged and black. Ignored the hills sprawled behind us and before us because we knew they went on forever. Spun as fast as we could, arms outstretched, imagining we could gather enough speed to lift off, fly over the peaks and valleys until the ground was flat and spacious and left us room to breathe. I asked if she remembered this.
“No.” Her voice tiny against the black.
We stopped at the basement door.
Everything seemed to close in, confine us with the deepest darkness. The old-timey light fixtures jutted out at odd intervals, delicate curls.
Something slammed. Selah bucked.
“Wind,” I said.
She, pale and slim, looked as though she would wither away. “How d’you know?” From her hollow sockets, her spider eyes glittered, words clicked from her pedipalp lips. “Maybe it’s—” But her thoughts disintegrated in the air. “She never went down there, remember?”
I told her I didn’t, that I was pretty sure her mother went down there all the time. Even though this was never true, especially toward the end when she would go out the back rather than pass by the cellar, would refuse to set foot in it, telling disjointed stories about demons and murder. They began empty, the stories, they began with spending long renovation hours entertaining us, but Mrs. Hicks was a house waiting to be haunted.
In that moment, I hated the place, hated how Selah’s eyes were like her mother’s and leaned into something she could never focus on, how her mother hadn’t left us at once but pebble by pebble, in the way mountains are eroded. Hated how her missingness and the missingness of my girlfriend could be felt in holes where words stopped fitting, in absences of footfalls, in lack of breaths, and kitchen scents, and tangles of hairs in the carpet.
I held Selah’s arm when she stumbled, pointing from office to cellar door. “Said she didn’t believe when people said that about haunting.”
“No,” I whispered, tugging on her arm. “She never believed it.”
“But she never went down there.” She sang the words, stumbling forward. She turned and tripped over the sticking-out floorboard she knew to avoid. “Something’s down there. You don’t believe she’d—“
“Your mom hated it here. Why would she stick around?”
“I’ve seen her, she’s here and I smell her and—“
“There’s nothing.” I stepped through the door and a wave of cold air and mildew washed over me. “You can’t keep walking around here, walking and walking because she’s not here.”
“Don’t you miss her?”
Exactly a year before, we’d walked into the office, Selah’s hand cool in mine, knowing immediately when we opened the door it was too cold and cavernous for summer, and Mrs. Hicks lay across the desk glowing pale, the fool’s gold Selah and I found when we were so young we thought we’d found something real glittering on the floor.
She slapped me away. “You just wanna forget her.” Her voice scalded, malignant. If I didn’t take her with me from this place, she’d sink further away. Become one of those cave dwelling creatures, blinded and pale.
I shoved into the mouth of the basement, and my stomach sank into an ooze.
Selah scrambled behind, clunking on the steps. The thumps coated themselves in the thick, cold air of the basement. It was dark, the angry dark of evil eyes, and I felt only hate seep in from the shadows. The light from my phone glowed weak against the stone walls. Wooden pallets stacked around the perimeter, mold-scented. Something scuttled under the stairs. I reached the floor, ancient, tamped down dirt. Drainage holes in lower areas, blackened and caked. I imagined blood seeping into them. Stools strewn across the room, broken chairs. An outline against the far wall, a fireplace-shaped hollow where the slaughterhouse well had been.
The dark crushed, soaked us in itself.
“Mrs. Hicks!” I called. The air around us, around me, seemed to fill. “If you’re here—“
Selah whimpered. “Jen…”
I waved my phone and shadows leapt behind piles of debris. I pushed forward. Waded through newspapers, yellowed boxes. Metal against my shins. Made my way toward the well. Selah cried behind me, screamed words I couldn’t discern.
Smell of sweet decay. I turned and stumbled over an empty crate. Movement against the far wall—corner of my eye—a shift in the darkness.
“Mrs. Hicks! Hey, anybody!” The air turned cold. I spun, faced where I thought I heard Selah whimpering.
Cold lunged against me. I dropped my phone. Shoved over wires, stuck my foot through a sign. Something shattered. The air frigid.
My breath caught.
I stepped on wadded up tarp and stumbled forward until I reached the far wall where I’d seen the shape.
“Mrs…” I whispered. Held my breath.
Silence pounded waves.
Selah sobbed. “Please, please.”
I twisted. Smashed backward. Flailed. Collided with boxes, shapes, poles. Shoved through debris. Swore something jumped next to me, breathed into my limbs.
Selah’s shoulders shook when I smashed into her. She latched onto my shirt, weeping and weeping. I couldn’t see anything, couldn’t feel anything but her weight stretching my clothes, pulling me down, her hair tangling in my buttons and in my fingers.
I crashed through the cellar, dragging her behind me. She yanked back against the steps. Her nails slashed against my arms.
I shoved Selah up the stairs, scrabbling, cursing. Her eyelashes thick and clumped.
Only empty air.
Selah was shouting, pounding against anything. The door we’d just slammed behind us. Me. “We have to go back, we have to—“
I pushed her away. When she came again, I seized her wrists and held them until I thought they would snap.
Nothing tingling my neck, nothing in the air.
“I don’t, I can’t, don’t make me…”
“No. We’re going.” My words tumbling boulder-thick. I couldn’t stop shaking. Nothing had put its hand down my throat and squeezed my stomach, my lungs; nothing tugged at my jeans. I yanked her behind me toward the broken window we’d come through earlier. “Staying here looking for a ghost? Are you serious?”
There was a silence where the air staled. My heart beat in my ears. Her hair hung limp, her hands balled up, and her jacket hung askew off her shoulder. Her words jumbled together. “Then why the fuck are you here?”
“Because.” She’d walk that slaughterhouse for as long as she had legs and maybe longer. She’d drink like it would wash away all her loss. “Come with me,” I said, legs shaking. Her body softened in my grasp. She became fluid like the first time I ever held her, river-fresh and clear. Every day, I saw her, both of them, I breathed them in with brushfires that couldn’t be put out and the dust that always lodged in my lungs and in Selah’s handprints across my body.
She stood there, smearing her makeup in watery strokes, digging mascara into her dark circles. I yanked her with me, but she sank her heels in, and her skin squeaked across the floor. She flailed.
I shouted. “She’ll never come back for you.”
She shoved me. Snapped back, my fingers catching her sleeve as she fell. She smashed to the floor. Lay there, shivering and sobbing.
Once, I spun with her on the bluff, thought we’d lift off, seeing Mrs. Hicks from the corners of our eyes while Selah shouted, Mommy, Mommy, look! Dust flowing past Hicks Hooch, her mother beginning to be haunted, the mountains tumored with caverns deep in their throats.
I didn’t tell her I was sure something was down there. Something angry and deep and sad all the way through, something waiting for her. How I feared it was true, all of it, that there was something to stay behind for. How she looked like her mother, in her coffin before it was closed, some creature at the end of the world with sinkhole eyes, so deep and holding so many dead bodies she’d never let rise up.
Liz Breazeale holds an MFA in creative writing from Bowling Green State University, where she worked as Staff Editor for the Mid-American Review. Her work is forthcoming or has appeared in Passages North, Booth, Carolina Quarterly, Tupelo Quarterly, apt, and others.