Amanda Boyle is a short story writer from New York. She holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Pittsburgh. Her stories have also appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, Sweet Tree Review, Critical Quarterly, and Queen Mob’s Teahouse.
About half a year after I died, I saw Greer at the supermarket. Greer and I went to high school together. I’d always had a bit of a crush on her.
Grocery shopping, after my death, was a calming force to my mom: here were concrete things to collect from a list, and a sense of completion at the end of it. She could even do it alone. At first, my parents wouldn’t go into town without the other. A teenage son, and so sudden. I heard—sometimes spoken, sometimes unspoken—the comparison to Greer’s death. Her parents had had warning, time to come to terms with their daughter’s fate.
I walked behind my mom; she rattled her cart sharply around corners.
“Richie, hi!” I turned around, half jumping because no one called out to me anymore. Greer was walking towards me, smiling and waving, wearing a light blue bathrobe over a t-shirt and sweatpants.
Greer had been unpopular and while we were friendly because our mothers were friends, I never felt comfortable enough to ask her out. She was a “weird” girl, whatever that meant. Then she was diagnosed with leukemia before senior year, and it was like that was just another weird thing about her in the eyes of our classmates, like her mother’s heavily accented English, or that she was the only girl that did crew for the school shows. After the diagnosis I distanced myself from Greer even further, but I pretended it was for the same reasons as before. She was half homeschooled that year and the teachers were very understanding and people were kind of jealous about that. She graduated, and went off to college, but had to leave before first semester finals, and she died after New Year’s. Some of the people that’d made fun of her in high school made Facebook statuses about her, using these words that who even used, like that she had a “vibrant personality” or that she “gushed with life” even when she was sick.
“Let me see it,” Greer said, pointing to my chest. I let her open my flannel shirt to see the bullet wound, the blood all over my t-shirt.
“Did it hurt?”
“Yeah. But it was quick.”
“Jealous,” she said, letting go of my clothes.
“I heard my mom talking about the accident, and I went to your funeral.”
“No way, I was at my funeral too. I didn’t see you.”
“I sat in the back,” she said.
“Yeah, I sat up front, by my parents. I didn’t stay for the whole thing.”
“I saw your parents walking out and your girlfriend. She’s really pretty.”
“Thank you,” I said. I didn’t know yet how to refer to Emily. Calling her my girlfriend didn’t seem exactly right as we weren’t still dating, but we hadn’t exactly broken up either, so she wasn’t my ex.
I realized I’d lost track of my mom, she might have left the store. I started walking towards the cashiers, Greer followed. “It was like your parents didn’t notice that your girlfriend was there, I noticed. And she was standing right next to them.”
“Uh, well, they had a lot on their minds,” I said.
“I wasn’t judging them, I just noticed and you said you left early, so I thought I’d let you know.”
I spotted my mom at the cash register, and stopped to wait by her. “Okay, thanks, I guess.”
“You seem to want to hang out with your mom, but let’s hang out later.”
“Yeah, definitely,” I said, although she hadn’t said it as a suggestion.
Greer was the first person I knew that died while I was alive. I had dead relatives, but they’d died before I was born. Greer was the only person I knew who’d died, until I did.
My roommate Blake was the one who shot me. “Come visit and we’ll go hunting,” he always said.
I watched, in the dark early morning, blood leaking out of my body onto the ground. He crashed off through the trees, and I waited, sat down next to myself. I tried to hold my hand.
It was still dark while I waited. It’d be a few hours before the sun rose. We’d gone to sleep at ten and woke at three to get ready. I knew that this was the procedure for hunting so I hadn’t complained. It took me awhile to fall asleep; it always did in an unfamiliar house. Blake sprayed this deer piss scent on us; it’s what you do so the animals don’t notice your foreign human smell. We were walking together through the woods and he was whispering stories about chasing down deer and boars. “And then you just,” he turned towards me, to mime shooting.
Blake came running back I don’t know how much later with two policemen and his father.
I tried hanging around Emily after I died, splitting my time between her and my parents. But she was always crying, and I couldn’t do anything, and she starting failing her classes. I needed some time away; I kept saying I’d go back to school to keep her company. Just things I said to myself. Not that I could say them to other people. Then leaves were back on trees, then it was summer and my dad tried to suggest a weekend beach trip to my mom. Emily would be back home and I didn’t want to intrude there, I said to myself. So I stayed away from her some more, following my parents on their well-trod paths through the days.
We sat on the grassy area outside the fence of the town pool. Greer pulled at the grass, none came up. “When I was alive, I would get really bad allergies sitting on the grass.”
“I remember that,” I said, startled at myself. “Some gym classes we’d go outside and have to sit on the grass while Mr. Case talked about like, the history of ultimate Frisbee, and you’d be sniffling a lot.”
“Yeah, it’s nice I don’t have to deal with that anymore.” She paused. “I wish I could show you my last New Year’s.”
“My dad went and bought a ton of tinsel, and he and my mom and Tara decorated my room. It was all silver and gold and glittering. I was able to help a little, too. They brought the iPod speakers into my room with all the holiday songs that I liked playing. Then they all sat on my bed with me, and we played trivia games and charades and card games. My mom even allowed snacks. We did that for hours. Tara fell asleep there with me.”
“That sounds nice.”
She stared at the kids jumping and splashing in the pool, long enough that I laid down to watch clouds shifting, long enough that I considered she might want to be alone. “The next morning I woke up, and all the tinsel disgusted me. I was angry that this was it for me and I tore it all down. I was so tired afterwards I couldn’t even walk to my bed, so I had to lay down on the floor for like half an hour before my mom came up and found me there. She cried at all the tinsel.”
I sat back up. “It’s more than other people get.”
“You said, that that was it for you, a New Year’s Eve celebration. You got last good byes.”
“No,” she said, “There was so much I didn’t get to have. I never even had sex.”
“Oh, I—I didn’t understand that’s what you meant.”
“You know what Richie? Don’t compare your death to mine,” she said.
She stood up and stormed away.
I crossed lawns to get to Greer’s house a street over. I didn’t have a lot of options for company. A handful of old people hanging around their kids and grandkids, Don who’d been the one homeless guy in our town until he died from hypothermia one winter, and now Greer. Don actually wasn’t so bad, but sometimes he went on rants about the town, including my parents. Greer hadn’t done anything like that yet, and besides, she was kind of my friend.
Inside in the living room were her parents, her older sister Tara and a guy about Tara’s age that I realized, as I circled around the group, was her fiancé. “Huh, congratulations,” I mumbled. I didn’t know where Greer was, or if she was still annoyed with me. I wasn’t sure if I was annoyed with her, or why I was.
I tried to remember how much older Tara was than us. Five years? Six? I never knew her well. She looked similar to Greer, or Greer looked similar to her, but her features were more petite, and I noticed she had hazel eyes instead of Greer’s brown. She stood at the mantle and held Greer’s framed senior portrait up next to her own face. Greer’s smiling looking off camera, wearing a navy sweater and pearl necklace. “This is one of my favorite pictures of Greer,” Tara said, “She’s beautiful.”
Greer did look beautiful in the photograph, because, even though she was pissing me off in the moment, Greer was always beautiful. But it made me sad that the photo was Tara’s favorite. It was a blank canvas, not even the way Greer normally dressed. Tara had plucked the photo from a collection of framed Greer photographs. I liked one of her by the ocean, standing on large rocks, laughing, hugging a sweater closed while the wind blew her hair—long hair like she’d had most her life. Or another one of her dressed in all black standing outside our school auditorium, holding a bouquet of pink and white lilies, from one of the school shows. I went to them all, watched for her in the dark when they rushed out to change sets, tried to choose her from the darkness. I always considered that I could pick her out, that I knew the way she moved.
Tara brought the senior portrait, and another photo of Greer as a child at an arts and crafts table, over to the couch to show the fiancé.
“Yeah,” he chuckled, “So cute, look at her just diving into that finger painting. My brothers and I used to love that.”
“It’s such a special bond between siblings,” Greer’s mother, who was sitting in an armchair with a cup of tea, said, “Tara and Greer were so close. I’m sure she’s smiling down on us right now, so happy for you two.”
She probably knew about this engagement, but I couldn’t get a hold on the fiancé and how Greer may feel about him.
He was in the middle of agreeing about the surely angelic Greer looking down in benevolent tranquility when his cell phone started to ring. “Ah, sorry, I gotta get this. I’ll just be a second.”
Greer’s family smiled, of course, of course, and I followed the fiancé as he walked onto the front porch. He sat on the front step, answered the phone. He kept his voice lowered.
“Hey man. No, it’s okay, they’re talking about the sister again. I just never know what to say, so hopefully they’ll be on another subject when I go back in. What’s up?”
He mostly listened, putting in a few “mhmms,” a chuckle. I went to the hanging flowerpot beside him, grabbed a fistful of dirt to throw in his well-groomed hair. No dirt moved, I hadn’t expected it to but it felt better to try to do something. I had to be satisfied with snapping my fingers near his ears for the remainder of his call.
I didn’t see Greer again before I left. I figured that she’d left town, and then I decided to do so, also. It was the end of August, I saw with a jolt on my mother’s kitchen calendars, and junior year would be starting for Emily and everyone else. I took a train down to Maryland. That was new. A free Acela ride, and plenty of seats in business class for the dead.
I sat next to an attractive woman in her thirties because why not. It took me awhile to realize that she didn’t have any bags or that the conductor wasn’t asking for her ticket; it took her awhile for her to notice the blood on the top of my t-shirt. She crossed her arms, “Get away from me.”
“I—I’m sorry, I didn’t realize, I just wanted some company.”
“Fuck off, I don’t care.”
I stumbled away. She wasn’t marked, how was I to know.
Back on campus, I wandered through crowds. With certain people I knew, it was some crazy revelation to see them again. Like, “Oh right, you’re a person!” Then I followed them. It was kind of similar to Facebook. Say a memory from high school pops up of playing beer pong a couple of weekends with some guy who was in my math class for one year. Then I’d think of how long it’d been since I thought of him, and I’d log onto Facebook and look through his profile. He’d gained weight (all that beer and no exercise) and had new friends with interchangeable faces. There was a girl in a few pictures but it was unclear if she was a girlfriend or not. He looked happy, but you can’t really tell with pictures because you’re supposed to smile and people only take pictures of people looking happy.
This was so much better than Facebook. I followed these old acquaintances—people who lived on my floor freshmen year, guys I used to drink with—to their classes, to lunch with their friends, back to their dorm rooms where they played video games or smoked pot. They all had these full lives that had had little to do with me when I was alive, and nothing to do with me now that I was dead. Girls they liked, tests they were worried about, pressure from their parents. It was like realizing there was a missing subplot in a novel I’d read. Or like I’d been writing a novel that I thought was wholly original but all the while about ten other guys were writing novels on the same subject.
One time I followed this girl I knew through Emily. They’d been friends and then grew apart the way people do, but remained friendly. Back in her dorm room she took a pair of scissors from the desk and cut herself high up on her arm, two cuts. I didn’t know what to do. I just left.
Emily was all around. Well, I walked around looking for her. But there was also this guy, someone I didn’t know. I kept seeing them walking together and he kept making her laugh.
I went to Morris Street, where everyone hung out and did shopping. The pizza place and Chinese restaurant Emily and I used to like. The dry cleaners, the small grocery store. And the dive bar that never carded.
As I walked by the bar, Blake walked out, and right into me. There was no sort of impact. He swung his backpack onto one shoulder. I followed him.
Nearing campus, he crossed paths with Tyler, a friend of his I’d never been close to. “Hey dude, what’s up?” Tyler said, putting out his hand, Blake shook it. “You been drinking?”
“Ha, yeah,” Blake said.
Tyler laughed, “Now that’s the way to start a school year. You off to class?”
“Yeah, I’ll catch you later. Wanna hang tonight?”
“I don’t think I can man, but this weekend, definitely.”
On campus, people stared pretty openly at Blake, and I noticed a few of our friends start suddenly in the other direction when they saw him. I’d had enough of him myself.
I was surprised when Greer arrived on the main quad one day. I was sitting under the big tree on the corner near the library. A steady trickle of students walked the pathways in one direction or another. “I missed you,” she said.
“You’re not still mad at me?” I said as she sat down.
“I was mad at you?”
“Yeah,” I tried to figure out how long had passed, “like two weeks ago. Maybe a month.”
She was blank.
“It was about, uh, death.”
She still looked at me blankly. “No I’m not mad with you. Have you been here since then?” I nodded. “Why?”
“Why? Why not? Emily’s here, my friends are here.”
“You have fun hanging out with them?”
I shot her a dirty look.
I told her about Emily’s friend cutting herself, but didn’t tell her about seeing Blake. Greer frowned and patted me on the arm. “It happens,” she said.
“What? She’ll either grow past it or she won’t. People get sad, some people are sad a lot. There’s nothing we can do about it. We probably couldn’t do something about it if we were still alive.”
“Did you ever do that?” I asked.
“Cut? No.” Then she said, “Let’s go somewhere else, seriously Richie.”
“Being here means something to me.”
“You can come back. You can come back for the rest of time, here or to wherever Emily is.”
“I think she likes this guy. At least this guy, he likes her.”
“I’m sorry.” Greer watched the students walking. “Emily is very pretty.”
“Shut up, you don’t care.”
“No, I don’t. Eventually you won’t either.”
She hung around, and I didn’t mind it, she was company.
I walked behind Emily down a brick pathway to class. She was alone. Greer walked a little behind me.
“I came here about two months after I died. It’s a nice campus,” Greer said, “I thought I’d just stay for a day or two, but I got sort of wrapped up in your world. It wasn’t just you and being happy at the familiar face. The last few months of my life, and those months afterwards our house was a bleak place. It was refreshing to come here and see you being normal, and seeing you get this normal college experience I’d tried to have. I’d go to the gym with you, read books over your shoulder. I went with you for some of your and Emily’s dates.”
“Just a few!”
Emily entered a building, and we continued walking. “What did you do next?”
“I started taking rides around the country. If I went to New York City, I just walked into a Broadway show like who’s gonna stop me! Then I’d go up to Niagara Falls. And then from there, wherever. I only go to visit my parents, or Tara, occasionally.”
Greer shrugged. “There’s a lot of things to do. I’ve met people—people like us, had some fun with them. I even met Marilyn Monroe, I really liked her. And she says she doesn’t hang out with JFK at all.”
“I guess that’s pretty cool,” I said, “when did you meet her?”
Greer thought about it. “I don’t know. It wouldn’t have been right after I died but…I don’t know.”
We walked in silence for a bit.
“I guess our parents will be with us again sometime down the road.”
“Right? It isn’t always easy. Tara’ll have kids, and they’ll never meet me until they’re dead.”
I didn’t say anything about the fiancé. I’d thought about it, and when my parents used to bring up Greer’s death, or just Greer in general, I’d always change the subject. Maybe he was like how I used to be, someone whose family hadn’t been touched by death, really, and didn’t want to dwell on other peoples’ dead parents, aunts, uncles, or siblings. Didn’t know what to say.
Greer stopped walking and faced me. “You used to feel bad for me in high school, I always knew that. Then you felt bad for me after I died. And yeah, if I could have some option to go back and it was my choice to live or die, I’d want to keep living, but I can’t change it. You can’t change what happened to you, either. Stop feeling bad for yourself. Let’s get out of here.”
“Wow, sorry I’m not as enlightened by death as you are yet, Greer, you can leave if you want, but I still want to be here.”
She stared at me. “Show me Blake.”
Blake, like many other guys I shadowed, was playing video games. A girl was leaving as we entered his room. Blake played video games with Tyler. They were playing Call of Duty, a game Blake and I used to play, a multi-player game full of shooting and grenades. Life imitating video game.
Tyler said, without looking away from the screen, “So what’s that all about?”
“Huh? Oh, her?” Blake asked. “We’re in this class together.”
“Yeah, and she totally wants your dick.”
“What? She’s got a nice body, you’re not into it?”
They continued to play, without much comment. Greer turned to me and made her voice deep, “She totally wants your dick, bro.” I laughed quietly, I still wasn’t totally used to the fact that people couldn’t hear us. She started walking around the room, peering at books and discarded food packages.
“I think I’m going to ask Emily out,” Blake said.
I froze and for a second I felt like I had bodily feelings again: a tightened throat, pounding in my head, sweaty palms.
Tyler let his controller drop, and his player was killed. He sort of laughed, but it was choked. “Dude.”
“What? I’ve always felt that there’s something between us.”
Tyler turned around in the chair and looked at us. He scanned the room. Sometimes people did that when we were around and I was starting to believe some people felt presences, although I wouldn’t say Tyler was the type of person to ever think that, even if he did feel us there. Greer moved to my side, and put her hand on my shoulder. “Do you want to go?” she asked.
“I want to stay, I fucking, I fucking want to—”
I lunged at Blake, punching with one hand and clawing with the other, kicking even, like a Riverdancer with bad rhythm, unsure of what would be my best attack method. Greer circled around us, perched next to the TV. When I tried jumping up to body slam him, like a wrestler, she laughed. I paused, stalled not knowing what to do, and Greer swooped in. She led me away by the arm. “It isn’t our world anymore, Richie.”
As we were leaving, Tyler said, “I kinda feel like that’s a bad idea.”
Greer decided that we should go to the beach. It didn’t matter what beach. We walked across the quad. I stopped. “Do you think she’ll say yes?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Why can’t you just say no?”
“Because I don’t know! I don’t even know Emily, how would I know what she would do.”
A lie would have been kindness.
We walked to a nearby diner and found a car leaving town. We sat in the back, each staring out the windows. Three long chapters of an Audiobook in I said, “Why aren’t we talking?”
“I was listening to the book, weren’t you?”
“Sort of but, that’s not what I meant.”
“Richie, we have eternity, it just feels less important to talk all the time. Or, time not talking seems less. You’ll see, or you probably won’t notice it, I don’t really.”
“What is the it I won’t notice?” I asked.
“The way…time takes up a certain amount of space, in our perception of it, and the longer you’re here, this afterlife, the more that space lessens.” She looked back out the window. I guessed, with an Audiobook in and all, our driver was going some distance, but he seemed to prefer back roads through small towns. She watched trees pass, leaves blurred. “Do you think, for a tree, a year seems to them like a second or a minute might to a human?”
“And what about us? A tree’s entire life, it’ll be like, what, a yawn to us?”
She smiled at me. “Personally, I’ve never yawned in my death.”
“And so what? We could pick up this conversation again in five living years and think there was only a pause.”
“Just one of us checking out the window,” Greer said, and she turned back to do just that.
We got out when our driver stopped at his friends’ house. A man and a woman his age ran out the front door, all smiles, hugged him and laughed.
Greer and I stood at the end of the driveway. The couple barely let the driver get in a word. They rattled anecdote after anecdote.
“They must lead very boring lives,” Greer said.
“Well hey now, let’s never be like them,” I joked. Not a very good joke. Or maybe the best joke ever.
I stepped closer to the people. I could hear their conversation. The woman from the house had freckles across her nose and cheeks. The man had a large gold ring and a habit of running his other thumb over it while he listened.
When I turned around, Greer was gone.
How long had I been watching the three people?
I started jogging towards where I thought the main road was. “Greer?” I called out. I followed signs to the beach area. She wasn’t there, either. What the hell, Greer, I thought.
I didn’t know what to do. Where to go. Finally, I returned to the main road, and found a gas station. I picked a parked car, driven by two middle aged women. They pulled out of the gas station. When they started talking about the rest of the trip—“What do you think we’ll need, one more refill, or two?” the driver asked—I realized they were heading further south. There wasn’t anyone in that direction for me. But then I thought, why not the change of scenery? Maybe Greer had had that same thought, when she’d either forgotten about me or decided to ditch me. I decided to ride with the women to their destination.
I don’t remember much of what I did in that time away from Greer. I don’t know how long we were apart, either. Something would jolt me, occasionally, remind me of Greer and I’d set myself north. I knew that she could easily be in California or Alaska instead of the Northeast. But there wasn’t an anxiety. I had the time. Just one of us checking out the window. And then I’d get sidetracked, willingly, or my mind would be taken off Greer, and I’d forget about her for a bit.
I got to New York City. I went there because I had a faint memory of Greer saying she’d go to Broadway shows. I’d been to New York a few times as a kid. I just walked around. It was nice when I stumbled upon the NYU area, being around people my age. But were they my age? Or: were people my age, still my age? I was stuck at an age, but I remembered Greer had said she’d spent months following me at my college without realizing it, and I couldn’t really say how long I’d been travelling. How old was Emily now? And Blake? I remembered Blake saying he wanted to ask Emily out on a date. I wasn’t struck as hard by the recollection. I didn’t want to find Blake and somehow try and attack him. Hadn’t I tried to do that?
I thought: there has to be someone dead around here who can give me directions. I was around some university buildings and most people were carrying bags, something that marked them as alive students. There was a park, and that seemed like a perfect place to find the dead. I started walking up to people sitting on benches, lying on the grass. People that didn’t seem to have anything with them. “Hi,” I said, over and over. On the grass I saw a hippie guy with long hair lying by himself. I walked over, “Hi.” He pushed himself onto his elbows. “Hi.”
“Great, you’re dead,” I said, and sat down next to him.
“You’re so young, little dude,” he said, “that always bums me out.”
“Sure,” I said. “But could you tell me where Broadway shows would be?”
“Broadway,” he said.
“I meant, how can I get there?”
“An arts lover, right on. It’s Times Square area, like forty blocks north of here. You walk that way,” he said, and pointed.
“Thanks,” I said, and walked in that direction. I considered for a moment that the guy didn’t look like he’d been that old when he died. How long, in alive time, had he been lying in that exact spot in the park?
Times Square was bright, and crowded. I tried to overhear families’ conversations and see if they were going to some play or musical. I finally found one, and followed them. They were going to a Chekhov revival, but I didn’t think that’d be what Greer would seek out in her death. I started walking into theaters advertising musicals.
Maybe it was a sign that it hadn’t been that long, that I hadn’t been travelling for years, that I knew I could call out Greer’s name and not disturb anyone, but when I did it I kept it as whispered as I could. “Greer?” I said walking down the aisles, “Greer?”
I didn’t see her that day, or the next when I came back. I went back to the park. The hippie was still there, and I asked him if I could join him. I laid there, maybe a week. I liked watching the students. Then I sat up. It seemed to be afternoon. “I think I’ll try to find her again.”
The hippie looked over to me. “Good luck, buddy.”
Back on Broadway, I stepped into more theaters, searching the audience and whispering her name. Finally I saw her. On stage was a big musical number, with the whole cast dancing, and Greer was dancing with them,or more weaving through them, trying to turn when they did. She wasn’t good at dancing, and she clearly wasn’t familiar with the steps, but she was laughing up there, twirling in her blue bathrobe. “Greer!” I shouted out.
She heard me over the music and the dancing, and squinted out into the audience. I ran towards the stage, waving my arms, and finally she started waving. She hopped into the area where all the musicians were, then made her way out of there. “Richie!” She hugged me. When she pulled away she tilted her head back towards the stage, “I always wanted to act in high school. Don’t get me wrong, I liked crew, but I wanted everyone to watch me sometimes.”
“Where have you been?” I asked. “I didn’t know where to look for you after you left.”
“When I left?”
“Yeah, I can’t remember when it was, but we were supposed to go to the beach, and you left.” The musical number ended, and the audience applauded. “Let’s get out of here,” I said.
We walked into the lobby, and sat on a bench there.
“It was after we left my school,” I continued.
“Do you remember why you left?”
“No, I don’t remember leaving, or planning a beach trip at all. I’m sorry.” I knew she meant it.
“I missed you.”
“Are you upset?”
“No. I’m really glad to have found you.”
“Me too,” she said, “what’s next?”
“Do you want to go to the beach?”
We took several trains pushing us further out onto Long Island. At the announcement of one stop, Greer looked at me and shrugged, “Why not this one?”
We walked to the beach. There were a few people there, three groups scattered. Mothers or nannies, with very young children. The people were dressed in long sleeves and wore floppy hats, the brims moved slightly in a wind I couldn’t feel.
I walked in. I looked into the water and saw the bottom half of my body, my jeans, the bottom of my shirt. Greer walked in, too. “Did you know you can walk on top of it?”
“Yeah, I’m not going to do that,” I laughed. I pulled her toward me, wrapping my arms around her body and hugging her. She climbed into the hug, nestling her face into my shoulder. She kept her arms folded to herself, though, pressed against my chest. I could feel her, just slightly; she felt like what a shadow must feel like, a whisper. Would I ever forget the feeling of pressing skin to skin. “How long could we stand here for?” I asked.
“Years,” she said.