The Girl Detective reads about her death on Twitter. She is surprised. She doesn’t remember much from the night before—a bar with Bess and George. A man. A drink. A struggle. A stumble home in the dark—but she is The Girl Detective. She can’t be dead. She has hamburgers already pattied for dinner tonight. She has a case to solve after putting the kids to bed. The Girl Detective holds up her hand. She can see right through it, just like Marty McFly could see through his own hand on that stage at Hill Valley High School. She wiggles her fingers.
Do dead people still drink coffee? she wonders.
The Girl Detective listens to the radio talk show hosts murmur about the rumors of her death while she drives the kids to school.
Her boy says Mama, is that you they’re talking about?
The Girl Detective says shhhh, love, there are lots of Girl Detectives. Her girl says Mama that’s not true. You know there’s only one.
The Girl Detective catches the eyes of her children in the rearview mirror.
Do I look dead to you? she says.
You look the same as always, says the girl. Mostly. Yeah, says the boy. That’s what worries us.
Back home, the Girl Detective examines her face in the bathroom mirror. She is 90, but somehow her face is unwrinkled, her skin as supple and dewy as if she is still eighteen. What will she look like in the coffin? Will they write the truth of it in her obituary? Will they say she lived long and stayed young because of coffee and Chinese food and bourbon at strip clubs and illicit sex in the back of her ancient blue roadster? Will they say she aged in reverse after her divorce?
In the mirror, the wallpaper is just visible through the skin of her cheek. She puts her fingers to her cheek, presses. How long before she is a character in the Gilman story, blending into the wallpaper itself, circling the room repeatedly on her hands and knees, invisible? How long before she disappears completely?
A partial list of The Girl Detective’s talents:
The Girl Detective is a skillful oarsman. The Girl Detective speaks fluent French.
The Girl Detective runs a bakery out of her kitchen and a chop shop out of her garage.
The Girl Detective has summited Mount Everest twice, once while pregnant, once blindfolded.
The Girl Detective is a crackerjack shot.
The Girl Detective fucks like Grace Kelly and dances like Fred Astaire.
The Girl Detective pulls up WebMD. There is no medical advice, unfortunately, about what to do when you’ve been murdered. There are no helpful tips on how to bring yourself back. She contemplates her bookmarks, as a little treat. She begins with a ghost story by Maggie Smith. When she gets to the part about how the death of a marriage turns the spouse into a ghost, about how Maggie floated, invisible, through room after room of her house, The Girl Detective whispers yes oh yes: it happened to her too.
Last year, right before she threw her husband’s belongings onto the lawn and set them all ablaze, she felt herself ripping seam by seam away from her body. She haunted her neighborhood for three solid months before she returned to find her body where she’d left it, sitting on the couch with her hands folded in her lap. She remembers cracking open her jaw and forcing her way back in. She remembers it was as hard as birthing her children, as hard as being born, but after a while, the pain was worth it, after a while, she came back into her body and into the world, screaming, sweating, panting with rage, her fingernails digging into the palms of her hands like shovels into the earth.
She forced herself back to life once.
She can do it again.
From Variety: Poll: Who Should Be Cast As The Girl Detective In Her Biopic?
a) Scarlett Johannsen
b) Emma Stone
c) Scarlett Johnannsen as Regina King as The Girl Detective
d) Regina King
e) Sofia Vergara
The Girl Detective gives The Boy Detectives a little ring-a-ling.
I know you’ve got my body, she says. But I’m not dead yet.
Half an hour later, they show up on her doorstep. She opens her screen door to them, pushes her hair out of her face, leaving a small comma of flour on her translucent cheek. They are, to be honest, a little starry-eyed. Until now, she has only been a name that’s a constant ripple in the fan threads online and a shining set of features: The Girl Detective With The Satin Hair, The Girl Detective With The Silken Grin. She is smaller than they imagined in real life, but she is bigger too. She is baking something; they catch the warm smell of cinnamon, nutmeg, a hint of banana. Her mother’s secret recipe. In the background, the low hum of a voice on the television. She welcomes them inside.
Boy Detective Number 1 isn’t surprised that The Girl Detective is in front of him, a bit pale, but still intact. Somehow, that seems like a thing she’s capable of. But she looks so much like his mother/the woman across the hall with the abusive husband/the lady they found dead in the alley last week. Funny how they all look alike, he thinks as he takes a seat.
In the background, someone is murmuring that the The Girl Detective has been murdered.
We’re so sorry this happened to you, says Boy Detective Number 2, and he takes her hand in his. How pale her skin is, how cold, how much it feels like the hands of all the other dead girls in the morgue. But when he looks at her hand, he realizes she isn’t pale at all. In fact, he can see his own skin shimmering just beneath the surface of hers, as if she can take on any cast. He thinks of all the pictures of her projected on the sides of buildings, all the sketches and the stickers, all the wholesome pinup posters they’ve made—our heroine, the gumshoe white girl, blonde-haired, eyes as blue as the car she drives—and how his mind filled in that likeness as if it was for real, the same way he always fills in the end of his wife’s sentences. The coldness of her hand has sunk beneath his skin, slid along an icy thread into the pit of his stomach. He takes his hand away. He shivers. Funny how on top of it all, she’s also a master of disguise. Funny how she could look like anyone,
In the background, a voice, incredulous: The Girl Detective did not go gentle into that good night. She raged, raged, raged, against the dying of the light.
What can you tell us about your attacker? he says.
I remember nothing, says The Girl Detective. But I’ll find out. The lamp
behind her shines through her face like light through a fog.
Be careful, he says. This is dangerous business.
I promise to be as careful as a pussycat walking up a slippery roof, she says.
In the background, a voice mocking: The Girl Detective thinks there’s no teacher like
experience, Player, and you’ll know that when you’ve logged a little more.
What can we do to help? he says. You can tell me where my body is. City morgue. Drawer B5.
Boy Detective Number 2 will not meet her eyes.
You looked at me naked, didn’t you? In the morgue.
He pulls at his collar.
I remember nothing.
The Girl Detective sighs. Things might have been different if she had been killed in the Pacific Northwest, left on a riverbank, wrapped in plastic like some delicate-crumbed pastry. But her body was shoved behind a dumpster in Illinois, so she is left with these two delicate-crumbed pastries of men. She crooks a finger at the first one, leans in, pushes a lock of nearly invisible hair from his cheek and whispers into the pale pink whorl of his ear: Go on home now. I’ve got a handle on this.
In the background, a voice enraged: The Girl Detective knows that the ability to tell your own story, in words or images, is already a victory, already a revolt.
What are you going to do? says Boy Detective Number 1.
The Girl Detective leans back and wipes her hands on her apron. She traces her finger along the creep of ivy that sprawls across the fabric and remembers how her mother used to trace her finger exactly the same way. The leaves spiral away from their vine like a dozen different possibilities, like a dozen different lives. She remembers how she looked at herself in the mirror in the bathroom at the church just moments before she married, a woman in white like a million women before her, and the words rose up in her: we are a legion of ghosts. For a moment, she looked past herself and saw the ghost of her mother there too, standing just behind her, wearing this apron, tracing her finger along the thin line of vine that runs through the center. She used to think all of it began that day she was married, that finger on the vine, the fragment of skin that kept her there. But gradually they crept in: the moments before the marriage, the big ones and the little ones that led her there.
There was no neat little fix for a death like this.
She will have to reach back and back and back to the moment when she became a person in order to truly become a person again. This time, she will have to rupture something to animate herself. And again, the memory, like a vine stretching itself toward the sunlight: the mirror, that moment before her marriage when she thinks the ghost of her mother is mouthing something, but the ghost isn’t there. It is only The Girl Detective, whispering to herself in the mirror, alone: Chaos killed the dinosaurs, darling. Everything that rises must converge.
The Girl Detective smiles a smile that says something, if you’re the kind of person who can read it.
I’m going back to the beginning of the story.
Pinned by Moderators
Posted by thelegitcarolynkeene 206 points *1 day ago Who is The Girl Detective?
Everybody knows her face, but I keep hearing all these rumors about her real identity and idk, it all feels like speculation but does anybody know what her actual name is? Like who she is and where she lives? Cause I would really just like to take her out for coffee and like pick her brain, you know?
morale666 42 points * 8 hours ago
You know she’s just one of those women with a true crime obsession who sits around eating full fat ice cream.
Booyakasha 655 points * 7 hours ago
Somebody told me she runs a podcast and likes to wear caftans.
Vertical inverter 134 points * 7 hours ago
Aw, sweetie, no. She’s the one who took down the woman who wrote that shitty romance thriller about the Mexican cartels. She wears a mask like a fucking superhero.
Souperstarsfastcars 83 points * 7 hours ago Naw, she writes a Black Panther spinoff for Marvel. ElectricYouth7753 65 points *6 hours ago
My sister met her. She lives in Florida with her girlfriend. Eats at Olive Garden constantly.
Bebeboi 533 points * 6 hours ago
I think she’s probably just a divorcee with a couple of kids.
Tinymurmur22 74 points * 5 hours ago
Isn’t she the one who caught The Golden State Killer?
To travel back in time, you don’t need a flux capacitor or a DeLorean. You don’t need a door in a cave underneath a nuclear power plant in Germany or a portal in the back of a diner’s pantry in Maine. All you need to do is crack the spine of the right book.
In the library, here they are: all the books of her life, a hundred little doorways into the past. The Girl Detective ties an arm’s length of black ribbon to her wrist and runs her hands along their spines—Carmen, Kelly, Octavia, Ursula—until she comes to the one where everything started. She opens it. She places her finger on the first words in the first chapter – The Rescue.
Like crawling through a sewer shaft of shit and emerging into the thunder and the rain, she is there again: in the crisp, cold air of River Heights, 1930, in the deep green grass on the side of the road. She closes the book around her hand and ties the length of black ribbon around it, because once she removes her finger from the page, she’ll be sucked back into the library. Thank God for the little fragment of skin still solid enough to keep her here, thank God for the loaf of banana bread, still warm, under her arm, because now she feels fully like a specter, now she feels so faint that without these things, she is sure that she would just float away, and at that moment, she needs something to remind her that some part of her somewhere is still alive.
But careful now, duck, because look, there she is, The Girl Detective At Eighteen, driving along in her ancient blue roadster, distracted by the little girl running into the road and the van that nearly clips her, and The Girl Detective Who Is Dead But Not knows she has just enough time to complete her task before her younger self makes it home. Quiet now, through the soft shush of the grass, through the chattering cloud of insects that dip and dart all around her in the evening light, she makes her way homeward, her coat striking her ankles like the clapper of a bell and ringing something deep down inside her again and again, and then, up on the hill, the house of her childhood, its one lone porchlight beaming out into the gathering dark.
THE DEFINITIVE quiz on our favorite female sleuth! See how you stack up!
- Fill in the blank: The Girl Detective is________________
a)good, clean fun
b) dying of dysentery
c) as cool as Mata Hari and as sweet as Betty Crocker
d) in danger, girl
The Girl Detective Who Is Dead But Not climbs the stairs of her childhood home quietly, quietly. A breeze drifts down from somewhere above her, a breeze that she knows is from the window she left open at eighteen, the very morning her life first became a story, and she creeps toward that slow seep of air.
Opening the door is like opening a locket with a photo of her mother inside. There is something precious about every placket on every shirt in her closet, every particle of dust. She wants to swallow it all the way a snake swallows its own tail. But there isn’t time. Out the window, the buildings of River Heights are scattered across the hillside like stones, and that glimmer of blue there, that one traveling like a beetle along the arching gray branch of the road is The Girl Detective At Eighteen, her car just minutes away. The Girl Detective Who Is Dead But Not takes the banana bread from under her arm, unwraps it, places it on the desk. She picks up a sheet of paper and pen, and using the handwriting she memorized years ago so she could forge her mother’s signature on every school permission slip and report card, she writes:
Dear one, Stay alive.
And just as she hears the key in the door, just as The Girl Detective At Eighteen makes her way into the house and drops her bag and coat and calls for her father, The Girl Detective Who Is Dead But Not unties the ribbon – she opens the book – she lifts her finger – and she is back in her library again.
From graffiti on the side of Los Arrieros Restaurant, Roosevelt Ave. and 76th, Jackson Heights.
The Girl Detective can mimic any bird call. She can bring forth the flocks of ravens and crows and seagulls and sparrows
faster and with more force than Hitchcock on Bodega Bay
For a moment, it is as if she can almost see it, the new memories rewriting the old. Each image, each thought, each word she knew is scratched out, and a new one carved in its place: The Girl Detective now remembers walking into her bedroom at eighteen and finding the note, the banana bread, still warm, on her desk. She remembers she could feel it in the very roots of her teeth: her mother had been there. Stay alive. And it was as if her mother had reached inside her and turned up a dial: the world became brighter and sharper and slightly more terrifying. From that moment on, every man she’d walked past, every dark alley, every honk of a horn was a warning.
Now she knows that memory is faulty. There was no mother. She’s been her own mother all along. And in the moments it takes for history to rewrite itself – for it doesn’t happen in an instant, as she had assumed it would, it is instead like the long, slow pull of a rubber band before it is released to snap back into place – while the world shimmers and quakes in the gap between
the before and the now, she can hear it: the creak and slide of the morgue drawer. Her body, loose-limbed, pale as a corn husk, drawing itself up off the metal. Her naked corpse with its dark, dead eyes, its limp limbs, marionetting its way up the stairs and out the door and across the city toward her, one plodding step at a time.
She waits, thin as a reflection in the glass, in the dark of the library, for her body to come back to her. She can feel each step as it gets closer, the way you can feel it in your feet when a door slams somewhere in the depths of your house. As it grows near, she can still feel the letters of her story being rewritten, the memories retooled, until she comes to last night, sitting at the table in the bar with Bess and George and their round of drinks.
Bess, with her typical sweet cheer, Bess drinking her Cherry Coke without a hint of remorse, and George, all angles, all snark, all bourbon neat as always. The Girl Detective steps away from the table for a moment, laughing, to get another drink at the bar. A man is there, a drink before him, pushing one toward her. He is tall and slender. He is wearing a sweater vest like her father’s (she can hear the dragging of her corpse’s feet across the concrete, the screams of the passersby as they clear the street in front of it). His smile is infectious, and she takes the drink from him absently and thinks how lovely you are but before she touches it to her lips, she remembers: stay alive.
Would you mind, she says, buying drinks for my girlfriends too? She points over his shoulder, and he turns to look at Bess, who waves at him, and George, who rolls her eyes, and while he’s looking at them, (she can hear the manufactured shutter click of the phones as people snap photos, stream video, the gasps and whispers as they recognize her face) she switches their drinks. He turns back.
Sure, he says. He waves his fingers at the bartender, two more, and when the bartender brings them over, she takes them, and she smiles at the man, balances all three drinks in her hands. She returns to the table and (already the first video is up on YouTube – HoLy ShIt THE GIRL DETECTIVE IS A ZOMBIE! – and now she cannot just feel, but see it: her slack-skinned body is here, it is staggering across the concrete walkway and up the stairs to her house and somehow, it is herself but even she is scared) she tells Bess and George what she suspects.
If you’re wrong, says George.
Then nothing will happen, says The Girl Detective.
But in half an hour, he is nodding, sliding off the stool. She and Bess and George look at each other. They get up off their stools. They walk across the room and slide his arms around their shoulders.
We’re going to get him a Lyft, The Girl Detective says to the bartender. Outside, Bess puts her head in her hands.
What do we do now with 200 pounds of self-roofied white guy? says George.
The Girl Detective is about to say, fuck him. The Girl Detective is about to say, let him sleep it off in a pool of someone else’s piss. But then the guy moans and grabs her wrist (and there is a knock at her door, and she walks over slowly and opens it, and there she is, looking at herself, her eyes hooded, drool dripping down her chin, and she feels sorry for this thing, this body, because all it has are its urges, its desires, and she feels the sudden need to love it) and it is as if the memory of what happened in the other timeline was so terrible that it is still imprinted somewhere in her skin. She has nothing but vague impressions – an arm around her waist, dragging her behind a building, a momentary flutter of surprise and desire as the man cups her breast, the quick liquid rush of terror as he takes her by the neck and begins to squeeze – and this is where she leaves that memory, because she refuses to be the audience to her own death – but then it comes to her: just before she blacked out, just before he was about to squeeze her life away, she pulled herself away (and so she reaches out and cracks her jaw open just like last time, but instead of forcing herself back inside like she did before, she whispers let me love you back to life and she can feel her body jump under her touch as if her fingertips are electric). But instead of pulling her neck from his hands, she’d ripped herself away from herself again just like after the divorce, seam by seam, and then she’d been standing there all of a sudden next to her slack body, marveling. It wasn’t him who had killed her. It was her who had saved herself. She’d taught herself a glorious trick, and now it was sheer willpower that was keeping her here. She can feel her body open itself to her, and she slides down inside and saturates every space and suddenly, she is home and staring out of her own eyes again.
She wonders if the memory of her death will be erased, but she thinks not. The timeline is too strong. There will be too many videos, too many photos, too many stories to erase them all. Something will survive that erasure just like she did. Something will persist.
The Girl Detective remembers. Go ahead, she says to Bess and George. I’ll see him home. And once they are gone, she takes out his wallet, and she tucks them both into a Lyft. They go to his apartment. She draws him a bath. She strips him of his clothes and she helps him into the water. And then she presses his groggy head under the surface, gently, gently. He doesn’t struggle much. When he stops sputtering, when he is still, she lifts her hand away.
It is this – the sound of the man taking water into his lungs, like water passing a slow drain – that will for The Girl Detective forever be the sound of time correcting itself, the sound of the two timelines of her life seaming themselves together again into one.
The Girl Detective picks her kids up at school. The girl throws herself into her arms.
You look better, she says. More solid somehow.
I feel better, says The Girl Detective. What do you think? she says to the boy. He hugs her around the waist. You’re all right.
The Girl Detective helps her children with their homework. She makes them hamburgers for dinner. She draws them a bath. She strips them of their clothes and she helps them into the water. She presses their giggling heads under the surface, gently, gently, and after a moment, they pop back up again. While they’re splashing in the tub, she goes downstairs to the kitchen to pour herself a glass of wine. There, on the counter, is a loaf of banana bread, still warm, and a note in her mother’s handwriting. It says:
Dear one, Keep safe.
The Girl Detective pours her wine. She cuts herself a slice of bread and eats it. This time, at least, she understands what it means.
Once the children are settled in bed, surrounded by stuffed animals, she asks them what story they want. Make one up, they say, patting their blankets the way the men at the cemeteries pat the dirt down on top of newly-filled graves.
The Girl Detective is silent for a moment. Then she says, once upon a time,
in a great dark room lit only by candlelight, a man wrote the final words in the very first book. And he sent the book out into the world under the cover of darkness to another great, dark room, where it was copied by another man twice. And this went on and on and on in more great dark rooms and in some small ones, with more men, and with women, and with more books.
Sometimes, people wrote new stories alongside the old ones. Sometimes those stories were long enough that they spilled over into books of their own. And after a while, there were millions and millions and millions of books, and it was good.
Once upon a time, in a small, bright room, someone began to write a story, and I was born. I pondered. I hunted. I loved my parents. I listened to my friends. I poked around in tunnels and old houses and in the innards of clocks. And slowly, slowly, all the stories about me began to fill a book, and then another, and then another, until there was a collection and then a shelf and then an entire library. And I knew all the secrets. And I was the mystery and the resolution. And I was The Girl Detective, and it was good.
And once upon a time, on a night like this one, a woman went into a bookstore and found the first of my stories on the shelf. She took it home. She stuck it under the covers with her child, and in the low light of the nightlight, under the beam of the flashlight, in the pale yellow light peeking in from the hall through the cracked bedroom door, the child opened the book and was behind the wheel of my ancient blue roadster, driving toward River Heights, 1930, rushing to save a girl, and it was good.
The Girl Detective smooths the hair of her children. They are still and silent in their beds.
And what, my loves, do you make of this? she says.
There is no death, says the boy.
There will always be a Girl Detective, says the girl.
From the two-story billboards in Times Square.
From the ticker at the New York Stock Exchange.
From the script scrawled on the chests of all the steel-eyed girls on TikTok.
From a hundred thousand flyers thrown out of a thousand different planes.
THE GIRL DETECTIVE IS RISEN
THE GIRL DETECTIVE LIVES
WE CAN SAY HER NAME
Originally published in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading and forthcoming in The Best American Mysteries and Suspense 2022