My younger half-sister fell thirty-seven feet from the Canyon River Bridge sometime between 11:30 PM and 1:30 AM on a Thursday in early January, and I, being the coroner’s assistant, would have watched her autopsy if Dr. Stevens hadn’t led me into the stale, frigid morning, under a monochrome sky with its heart ripped out.
The living are of no interest to me. I look out for the dead things. The dead don’t bother with questions. Point of fact, they can’t, their consciousness being severed and all, so I ask for them. I don’t waste time on frivolities. Because I’ve snuck two slugs of gin in the car before my sister’s wake, I can only go for the throat. It earns me a slap across the face. It should hurt; there’s heat on my cheek, a notch in the bone. Mom’s knuckles are sharp, like the rest of her.
Partitioned from the others, we stand in the dining room, suffused with lemon wood polish and the preservative stink of a charcuterie board. That dark oak table is over a hundred years old. A hundred years once seemed ancient, but that didn’t stop me from cutting deep wounds in it. The polish only draws them out.
“How dare you.” She doesn’t mean the drink; she’s been at it too. It’s the question: Who was Maggie fucking? I’m just playing to archetype in the long-running serial drama playing in Mom’s head. I’m the coarse daughter; Maggie’s the proper one. I wouldn’t know since I’ve got 12 years on my sister and watched her life through the small windows of the requisite holidays.
Mrs. Gully, my once tenth-grade English teacher, places a hand on mom’s shoulder, skin-on-skin contact underneath the strap of the floral print dress. Together, they represent two-thirds of the city council members. She gave a beautiful speech at the funeral, quoted Keats. I’m supposed to call her Jordan. Her presence should temper me, but it doesn’t, so I ask again, hissing under the small talk, the clanking of mom’s fine china, the home theater system murmuring inoffensive pop music. The dance of the living is a masquerade of rictus smiles, galvanized only by the light buzz limply coursing between them.
Through the bay windows and across the road, Mary and Joseph linger over baby Jesus, oblivious to the onslaught of February. Mom blocks my wandering gaze, pinches her eyes at me, the bags filling with blood. She’s counting down to something or drawing reserves from her best friend. “Grace, where did I go wrong with you?” It’s rhetorical.
The heat on my cheek moves to the back of my neck. I’ve made a scene, so I bow out. Everyone in the hollowed-out living room returns to their cycle, their orbit; I’m a chunk of space debris, a world ender, and they’re clenched, hoping I leave them unscathed. If I were good at analogies, I’d write novels and not autopsies.
“Where are you going, Grace Justine?”
“For Chinese,” I decide, and the door rattles the windows when it slams. I swallow the cold, let it soothe the heat on my face as I amble the cracked walkway. Behind me, I recognize the familiar slow squelch of someone trying to sneak away.
“Hang on, Grace.” It’s Brandon Gully, who missed the funeral. He’s a professor at the state school. Many late nights, I’ve gathered. A blandly handsome man whose defining characteristic is a ghost of an Irish accent. The Gully’s have two kids, one in middle school, the other a toddler, not even two years old. Both are absent, shielded from the idea of death.
When I turn to face Mr. Gully, he’s retracting his arm like he’s remembered I’m contagious. “I don’t know about what you said, but I’ve seen her around with Danny Klein.” He gives a stink eye.
I’ve also seen her around with Danny in this very house. Their relationship was bitterly platonic. Don’t know which party was bitter though. That’s just kids, man. He’s what you’d expect of a suburban drug dealer. A lanky kid who plays chill, but oozes anxiousness, a heightened imposter syndrome. A grimness in his eyes, like he knows the tragedy of his own life but can’t stop it. He says, no problem instead of you’re welcome, which drives mom up the wall. And he always leaves before dinner. I have a soft spot for people who can’t escape what others assume of them, accept it because the hell else is there?
“He’s bad news,” he says. News like a noose.
I nod and walk on because I don’t take him seriously. Him or Danny. I step over the decapitated flamingo (a bit of Florida mom clings to), note the thin tire track over the corner of the lawn, and pass Mrs. Gully’s Prius, the one with the gnarly scrape over the passenger side wheel. I trust the dry winter to sober me before I reach my car.
I leave the ARC, the mildly rich part of town with the steep HOA, by passing over the river Maggie drowned in, across the bridge she fell from. I could take the long way back. I could avoid the bridge entirely.
“I told you to take the week,” Dr. Stevens says, sitting splayed on the autopsy table, her back against the wall, 7 months pregnant. Half the fluorescents are off.
“I brought Noodles. And your fortune.” I set the baggie on the perforated steel between her Chuck-Taylors.
“Yuck. No thanks,” but she reaches for it anyhow, straining over her belly.
“So.” She sniffs the orange chicken, testing if it’s going to make her vomit. In here, you tend to shut off your olfactory system, but taste is tricky. Luckily I’ve got a strong stomach.
I sit in her office chair making myself small and unassuming. The opposite of needy. “Can you give me something?”
“I’m giving you another week off.”
“Priya. Come on. My sister.”
“Funny, you’d ask either way.” She’s decided against the orange chicken and goes for the Chow Mein.
“Can I read your notes?” During her examinations, she takes extensive notes in her phone, far more detailed than the blanket statements put out in the report, granular and only after poring over medical records. The killer is always hiding in their history. We don’t get murder victims, so we’ve got to spruce up the natural causes a bit.
“Nope.” I glower. She glowers back. It’s a glower party. “It’s not for technicians. Finish your pre-med, then we’ll talk.”
“Really? You want to do this now?”
“Yup. Hard knocks or whatever. Taking a page out of the Gracie catalog.” She bites into a noodle to underscore how little empathy she has for me. It’s a fake-out. She slurps it halfway before she lets it drop. “Okay. Look. She drowned. There was a cocktail of uppers and downers in her system, not enough to kill her. BAC of point one. She was conscious when she fell, and she took in water.”
“Something’s going on.”
“You know how it is. If the police thought it might maybe be murder, they would’ve rerouted her to City.” She went high on the scale on the might maybe. But she’s not bitter; she’s right. We don’t get the suspicious cases because they can’t control Priya (she’s young and female, and if you saw her face, you wouldn’t want to get dirt on her either). Property values are at stake. It’s always been this way. When I was a sophomore, a boy a grade below me went to take the garbage out and decided to climb an oak tree, tie a knot around his legs, his hands, his neck. And there’s the anonymous woman who flung herself out of a moving vehicle and into someone’s rocky front lawn.
Stories rewritten by the living. Maggie turned eighteen less than a month prior. Graduated high school a semester early. Worked part-time at a coffee shop. Was gearing up for college, though she hadn’t made a decision of where just yet. Her favorite food was falafel (or it was when she was ten). But the only thing that’ll cut through is the drugs. Just another cautionary tale. See how they reduce you? She climbed the railing of the Canyon River Bridge and fell. Not the first time it’s happened. But no one ever died from it. A high enough drop to get your heart racing, the water cold enough to stop it for a moment. But drugs drag you into the depths, clutch you there until the water swarms.
Priya eats happily, is even trying her luck with the orange chicken again, and I sit in silence—it’s not far from the routine, so, when she says, through a mouthful, “there’s one weird thing I found,” my stomach somersaults.
“A phone number. Written on a post-it. The police missed it. She’d sewn a real pocket inside her fake ones. Maybe that’s something girls are doing since the world collectively decided women don’t need pockets in their jeans. I handed it off to the detective.”
“Please tell me you wrote it down before.”
My shoulders slumped; the chair moaned in agreement.
“But I plugged it into google.”
“Did you get a hit?” I’m standing now, an about-face, my bones galvanic.
“Yup. I wasn’t going to say because I don’t want you making assumptions. Promise you won’t?” I nod three times, a silent drumroll, and she drops it like a punchline. “The local chapter of The Satanic Church.”
Occupying the sidewalk, a red-haired woman stands between the devil and me, her name lost somewhere in the abyssal storage of my brain. Doesn’t stop her from knowing mine. “Hey Grace, how you been? It’s been a minute.” She grips the tiny hand of a pre-k-aged boy sporting a grimace as he attempts to break free.
“Fine. You?’ Or some other monosyllabic, cavewoman grunts.
“Great.” She thrusts her kid forward like he’s proof. His face says otherwise, and so does the color of his trapped hand.
“Congrats,” I say, frog-faced. I scoot by as I replay the conversation except I drop the 100-pound sack that is my dead sister to remind her there’s an entire universe in motion.
Because I was once the subject of an Amber Alert, people know me, think they know me. Dad knocked on our door when mom wasn’t home, said he wanted to show me something. It wasn’t the fresh dragon tattoo on his calf, but his seedy apartment in LA, 350 miles away. The sun bore down on the passenger side window, and the radio talk show hypnotized me. Most of the time I was missing, I was asleep. I didn’t even see the inside of his apartment; I only imagined it was seedy.
Wedged in a row of architecturally similar buildings—all sandstone exteriors and bold typefaces—the Satanic Temple wears a charm of ordinariness. Strings of Christmas garland hang over its wide window the same as the shops and law offices and real estate agencies. Think it was a sushi place a few years ago.
In the lobby of blue casino carpet and veined walls, a man in khakis with a taut butt leans over a mahogany counter. He’s trying to show an ornately tatted young woman behind the desk something on her computer. “Okay, now drag and drop and you’re done.”
“Hello,” I say, an icy monotone, not meant to greet but to alert them of my presence.
He spins on suede shoes. “Hi there and welcome.” His speech is performative and over-enunciated. I’ve seen him before, not wearing a starched suit but a sweat-stained T-shirt and cycling shorts, mowing the lawn a half-block from mom’s, his thick dark hair attached to his forehead like leeches. Now it’s slicked back, revealing a precipitous forehead. “I’m Edwin. What brings you to our temple.” His smile isn’t malevolent. He just looks like a fit-but-still middle-aged dude trying on a new outfit, expecting others to do the imagining for him.
“I need to talk to you about my sister.”
The head tilt, the squint, the exsanguination of the face. Edwin sucks in a short breath and closes his eyes like he’s asking for serenity. “Grace. Right. Okay. Let’s talk in private.” He gestures to a narrow hallway replete with framed photographs of mismatched sizes. I go rigid and let him lead the way. Never let them walk behind you. A tattooed woman looks on in awe like I’ve performed magic. Must be new in town.
“Do you believe in God, Miss?” We enter a tiny office, half the space occupied by wall-to-wall bookshelves filled with leatherbound books. Mostly encyclopedias and almanacs, some psychoanalytic texts.
“No.” He can’t see my eye roll.
“Why?” He pours a glass of ice water from a pitcher and pulls another glass from a desk drawer. I have the same desk. It doesn’t do well with water, which explains its pattern of rings.
I shrug. “No reason.” I don’t ask before I plop in the vinyl chair. Edwin mimics me but with more precision and settles into his own leather one. He’s lit like a chiaroscuro by the window behind him which rattles to the beat of country music from the bar and grill next door.
“Who do you talk to in your head?”
Why, The dead of course. A vast legion of bloated corpses. “Myself, mostly.”
“An egoist, then. Well, I believe God feeds off faith and fear. But I don’t believe in him. That, I reserve for…”
He smiles too wide. Silly girl. “He’s an archetype. God is meant to provide order and suppress your individualism. It’s like a marriage—I used to be married before all this, so I know—you can give yourself fully to the other person like I did and get nothing back in return. Total submission. Or you can live your life. Do good deeds for the sake of it. That’s what Satan represents.”
His voice is a low thrum. It’s distracting; he’s trying to reframe the conversation, wriggle out of it. I clamp down. “Did you do something to my sister?” I lean my elbows on the desk. It creaks under my weight. Ambiguous enough not to spook him, accusatory enough to make him nervous.
He doesn’t startle but reclines further, relaxing like he’s so far ahead of the game that he can’t lose. “How would we continue if we operated like that? Frankly, it’s offensive.”
“Better write the ADL. Or… do you got one of those? Who does PR for Satanists?”
“The Catholic Church mostly.”
“I forgive you for making assumptions,” he says like I asked. “I assumed a lot about you.”
“Same as everyone, I think. But also, that your mother sent you here.” I flinch at that. “She’s been trying to shut us down.”
“Dude. That’s motive.”
“Is it?” He chugs the ice water, and I wonder if his deal with Satan is to never get brain freeze. With his glass empty, he sets it down and clears his throat. This is something he got from a book, a lesson in commanding the room. “She has no legal power to do so. And the harder she pushes, the more people get interested.”
“Murder also helps.”
“There’s been no murder here. The police have already been by, and for no other reason than to understand her frame of mind. I pointed them to your mother.”
“You think my mom had something to do with my sister’s death?” I smirk but can’t help but think of the small abuses like hairline fractures: remarks about my body, how nothing I did was ever cute or funny, how she’d keep a list of all the ways I wronged her and rattle them off like a spray of bullets. But wherever I was criticized, Maggie received adulation, incapable of doing wrong.
“If you heard their arguments like everyone within a block of her house, you might too. Is it a stretch?”
Yes, unless the daughter in question is me. “Maggie was her whole world, her hopes and dreams, etcetera. And I’m not exaggerating. My sister was the most important person…”
“Exactly. Love is a kind of desperation.” His brow furrows as he studies my reaction to his truism. “That kind of love can lead a person to some dark places.”
“You should know about dark places.” I’m gritting my teeth, barely getting my words out.
Edwin blows air and slumps back in his chair like he’s deflating. The music next door fills the silence with a garbled twang. “Fine. Okay. Your sister. She came to us about…” Looking to the blank ceiling, he scrunches his face. A man pretending to not know off the top of his head. “Six months ago. We accepted her application…” He catches my raised eyebrow. “It’s a very standard form. But we were clear she either wait until she turned eighteen or get parental permission.”
“Can I see it? Or is there a rule, like section 31.C, ‘the application must be sealed for all eternity?’”
“It’s actually section 11.” He grins like no one’s ever died. “But we can release it to an adult family member.”
“Great.” I cross my arms and uncross them because it reminds me too much of mom.
Edwin leaves the afterimage of his toothy smile as he ducks over and opens a drawer. My eyes wander over his desk to a framed photo of a young boy in a baseball uniform, an engraving below reading Best Sportsman, 2012, his features distantly recognizable and then obvious when I grab the frame and study it. I snicker and spittle lands on the boy’s face. Everything’s coming up Danny.
You can’t turn this place over and shake loose the criminals. There’s no underbelly. There’s no bad part, unless you count the bowling alley where folks cosplay like it’s the nineties. This is a prison town proud of its prison, and even prouder the inmates arrive from elsewhere. Our addicts sleep at mom and dad’s, who pray their kid gets clean, send their kids away for three few months at a ‘spa’ so they come back a blank slate. But because it’s Saturday night and because Danny’s a dealer, I put my gas money he’s at one of the rich-kid house parties.
I fold the application in my jacket pocket; that I’m following a literal paper trail isn’t lost on me. The digital age collapsing on itself. I’m about to get out of my car when a blast of throbbing music leaks from the door before it’s sealed away again, leaving Danny to navigate the plastic winter wonderland that is the lawn. He crosses the road like a somnambulist, passing in front of my car. I think of honking the horn just to wake him a little.
The playground is a shipwreck: a hull torn apart, monkey bars connecting each piece, and a smiling blue whale that sprays water from its blowhole in the summer. Danny collapses stomach first on one of the pair of swings that hang from the horizontal mast; his body sways limp as the chains screech, his peaked face illuminated by a phone screen.
Danny is what happens when the rich split up their investments in a divorce. Not poor enough to complain, not rich enough that his whole future is set up before him. The drugs are not an act of rebellion; they’re acceptance, a languid surrender to a languid way of life. Dealing is the cycle of life and death in microcosm.
Sand is a bad idea in general, and I have to step around animal shit like I’m crossing a minefield. When I sit in the swing next to him, the accumulated mist soaks my ass. He stares at my feet like he can figure out who I am from my off-brand tennis shoes.
“Grace. What are you doing here?”
“Got the invite. I’m that cool.”
He lets out a little atomizer spray of bitterness. “I guess you want to talk, huh? About Maggie.” Brave of him to say her name. He pulls himself up; the holes in his sweatshirt, limned by the streetlamps, reveal the pasty white skin underneath. He’s a thin, wisp of a boy, settling into the seat like it’s still the right size.
“I met your dad today,” I say. He snaps his head to me, studies my face a moment, and pinches the skin between his eyebrows like he’s stanching a headache. I have that effect. It’s the thing I like most about myself. “Let me guess, not a fan?”
“Most parents find god after the divorce. Or some hobby they can meet people. I don’t know; it’s the same kind of silly, but it’s hard to explain.” His backward cap belies the depth in his words.
“Any idea why she wanted to join?” He shakes his head as I unfold the application. “She says, she’s smothered by the idea of perfection—and I get that’s from mom. She worries her life is meaningless, that the world will fall apart in her lifetime. Again, I get it.” I gesture with one hand to the universe en masse. “But then she says, she’s lived with blinders and now they’re removed. And she can’t cope with the ugliness of reality. She can’t cope with the secrets people keep. Know anything about that?”
“That’s how we all feel. Maybe because…” He buries his face in his hands. “Maybe she was too good to let it get to her. Until it hit her all at once.” Now he’s digging his palms into his orbitals. “She was my best friend. She was the only person that didn’t judge me, didn’t ask things from me.”
“Danny, look at me.” When he does, I cull every hard-edged stare, thin-lipped, so-rigid-the-words-are-barely-enunciated-tone mom has ever used on me. “That night, tell me what happened.”
“We were at my mom’s.” He points down the road. “Everything was fine. But then she just wouldn’t stop. Usually, it’s one beer and she quits there, takes a hit, and passes it on. But that night, she took everything she could get ahold of. She locked herself in mom’s bathroom, took her Vicodin. I knew she wasn’t okay. I thought maybe she’d…” Removing his cap, he gazes at the nothingness that is a suburban row of houses. He looks lost as if this isn’t a world he knows, wants to know. “She stepped out and acted like everything was fine. And then she left.”
“She walked home? You let her walk home?” It’s more than five miles back to ARC but I’ve walked it before in the middle of the night. Guess we’re not so different. It would’ve been cold though; she didn’t have a jacket.
He nods, barely, before his body quakes and he heaves like he’s trying to expel his soul.
“Jesus, alright no more questions. Listen, it’s only kind of your fault, if that makes you feel better. I mean, you’d probably get charged for something. Not manslaughter though. Well, a good lawyer could fight it at least.”
Danny dry-retches again. I pat him on the spine with just my palm. “I’m not gonna say anything. But I want something from you.”
“Whatever you’ve got.”
His eyes veined red, he holds a long stare. “After tonight, I’m done with that.” From his tattered sweatshirt, he digs out a handful of baggies, pills, and weed like I’ve just said Trick or Treat. “I’m sorry.”
Nodding, I accept his apology for serving me herring, but not for letting my sister walk home stoned in the middle of the night. I leave him to sulk on the swing.
It’s 11:30 PM, the streets are empty, and I sit on a beam of cold and chipped steel, my shoes dangling like heavy stones. Inside me, two nondescript pills go to work, colluding with slugs of gin and nicotine gum. Below, the river roils over itself like slender, supine bodies. Kids might jump to impress a girl, or because their friends goad them, or because they’re the last one standing and that kind of loneliness is untenable, but they’re thinking of death when they hit the water. All these chance-ghosts in one place; where children make dares, there’s a darkness that accumulates.
Was she afraid, treading the freezing water, locking up as she thrashed against the current? Or had she accepted it, was she calm, did she let herself slip into the river the way she might’ve slipped into her prom dress?
The thin, ropy currents have a pull on me. The inconstant whisper fills my head. How easy it would be to slip in, be carried face down. I picture my body, fractured by the rocks, not Ophelia, pure and elegant, but a wreckage of torn skin, my rot finally spilling out, trailing behind me. That makes sense; a conclusion I can wrap my head around. Not Maggie though, an infinite flash that should have sustained her whole life. And so live ever—or else swoon to death.
Drugs, I’m learning, make me sentimental and little else.
I’ve tracked her life through the holidays we spent together, the requisite ones, the ones you’re expected to show up for. This past Christmas, she bought me a gift with her own money, with a note reading, sorry for all the gift cards. A white noise machine which played rain sounds because I always complain about how little rain we get. It’s to help babies sleep, and now I can’t sleep without it. Marrow deep grief seeps out. Fuck. I was really interested to see how she’d grow. Fuck. She was just starting to identify mom’s bullshit, get my deadpan jokes.
Three chimes break the quiet and three vibrations rattle the railing like a defibrillated heartbeat. Before I toss my phone into the river for its audacity, I catch the name. I nearly fall over.
I read the texts backwards, and then forwards.
You’re so put together. You don’t let things get to you. I wish I could be like you.
I never ask for help from you. Grace, you scare me. But sometimes I think you’re the only one that can keep me safe. And then I think, that part of you that’s scary? That’s from mom. It’s in me too. I need to get away from it.
You need to help Danny. It’s not his fault. Grace, he’s BJ’s father.
In a compactor of fluorescent and linoleum, my sight caught in a zoetrope, I can’t string my words together so they find me an officer who just so happens to be a woman my age to talk to me like I’m surrounded by a bed of glass, like my heels are already over the precipice, because I’m Grace Holden and I’m fucked up, who knows what my father did to me, and now my sister’s dead. I speak in staccato breaths, text, from Maggie, how, Danny, and then, who the fuck is BJ. She tells me it’s just a text delay, cellular lag, stuck in the outbox, it happens all the time, well not all the time, but sometimes when the techs get the phone working, I need to sit down, take a seat in the lobby, I don’t look so good and I can’t tell her it’s because I’ve got a concoction pulsing through me, that’s why it’s so fucking hot that I’m drinking water straight from the cooler, splashing it on my face. And then it’s Edwin, his hand on my shoulder, wisely not telling me to calm down, but that it’s okay in his hypnotist’s drone of a voice.
“What are you doing here?” I’m hunched over, looking up at his figure edged by hazy bright white.
“It’s Danny. He’s gone, turned off his phone.”
“I just saw him…” I’m about to tell Edwin he might be a grandpa when Mr. Gully pushes open the double doors, his hair rumpled, accompanied by the sheriff.
“You alright, Brandon?” Edwin says.
“No, I’m not alright,” he says like he’s been waiting for someone to ask. “My wife is missing. My kid is missing.”
“The little one. Junior.”
I retch a gallon of water and two barely digested white tablets over Edwin’s oxfords.
Jordan, Danny, and Brandon Junior got picked up in Eugene, Oregon. Can’t say what their plan was. When it’s too late to undo what you’ve done, you try to get as far away as possible. I think of what Edwin said about where certain kinds of love lead. Jordan Gully confessed the secret with a little pressure on the family she was quick to abandon. The news has already forgotten about Maggie; this part of the story has more bite.
I’m like a sin-eater, bloated with living evidence. I rearrange it into something I can make sense of. I’m impassive, objective, efficient. I type it out like a police report.
For months, Maggie lived with the knowledge Danny fathered Jordan Gully’s second child. On the night of her death, she took a mixture of Ecstasy, Vicodin, and alcohol, and threatened to report Jordan to the authorities. Danny pleaded with her until it became clear he would be unable to convince her otherwise, at which time he texted Jordan for help. Jordan agreed to drive her home and attempt to explain herself.
While crossing the Canyon Bridge, Maggie tore the wheel from Jordan’s grip. The vehicle collided with the barrier. Maggie then exited the car, climbed the railing, and threatened that, if Jordan refused to call the authorities and turn herself in, she would jump.
I stop here; when I tell mom, I’ll let her believe Maggie didn’t mean it, that it was an accident. I know better. I know the pull. When you’ve been awake for so long, you’ll sleep anywhere.