The girl is dead. Is she a girl? She’s old enough for shimmer lipgloss, for a boyfriend. There she is in photographs, her brother’s arm large on her shoulders, grinning in low-cut jeans that show her belly button. The defense might say, there was some confusion, a misunderstanding. He didn’t know what girls look like. He thought she was a woman.
She’s at the bottom of a flight of stairs. Or spread-eagled on a bed, her panties — the cops will call them panties — missing. Or maybe she’s in a high stand of grass, or sunk in a lake, or half-buried in the bit of park where everyone knows not to go. Either way, she’s dead. The ones who discover her — and the subsequent waves of people who must now look at her, film her, dig with swabs under her fingernails — will all know, instantly of the deadness of her. Something about the way her mouth hangs open. Something about the eyes that won’t close.
The girl was happy. She had friends and pets and girl-wants. Things like marrying her sweetheart, or becoming a nurse. Yes, that’s it: one mention to one friend about nursing school and here she is forever, the nurse that never was. The dead girl, who is a ghost now because of that unfinished business, that nursing school, that boyfriend, sighs a tiny sigh, rests her chin in her substanceless hand. The dead girl has a lot ahead of her, so much to see. The people who will take her temperature and prod between her stiff legs. The ones who will go through her phone and internet accounts to discover her secret life. This is the part that people reading about her story will want to know most: it will help them explain away her life, give reason for why she is lying in that field, in the trunk of that abandoned car. What did she really want? Deep down, they will believe with a small smug certainty, she really wanted this. She wanted the attention, the morbid glamor. Well, she got what she wanted. Be careful what you wish for, some will say, nodding sagely.
There are the ones who will pull a sheet over her and say a prayer, whether or not she wants a prayer said. That’s the problem with being dead, the dead girl realizes: you no longer get a say in things.
But wasn’t that the problem before she died? Was there any say in the hands that closed on her throat, the knife or the gun, the knuckles on her skull? The girl wants to drift away from these tiresome questions, leave her body to the officials, the coroner, the inquest. Her body still is speaking, still has more stories to tell, but she no longer has any say in which stories get told.
The dead girl flits to the bedroom of the killer. He’s a stranger with a trench coat collection and a fantasy of seeing someone else panic. Or he’s her date, a friend of a friend with a nice smile. A lover. A long-time boyfriend. The father of her children. The ex who couldn’t let her go. Her father. The dead girl visits them all. She stays only long enough to press a cool hand to their sweating foreheads the way a mother might. None of them intended this. But now that it is over, they are not sorry. They are only afraid. The girl passes the cold wind of herself over their faces. There, there.
And just because she can, the girl drifts back through time as well. It’s her metaphysical prerogative. She’s heading back to the evening of the murder. She’s putting on that shimmering lip gloss, nervous and excited for the night out. Or she’s reading a book. She’s peering into the telescope her father gave her. She’s eating a sandwich with big gobs of mayo the way she likes it. She’s doing a thousand things, things we expect and things we could never know.
Now the dead girl is going farther back, to the time she first knew what being a girl was: turning your head to the side and smiling even when you don’t feel like it. She’s being examined by a doctor, and the doctor is telling her how pretty she is, when her knees are up in straps. She’s walking by a stranger on the street. She’s riding on a chair lift, small enough for her legs to stick out like logs, and a man is holding her hand and putting it down his pants. She says she doesn’t like this, and the man says no, she really does. That’s the source of the confusion, you see. She doesn’t know what she wants.
BLAIR HURLEY received her B.A. from Princeton University and her M.F.A. from NYU. She has stories published or forthcoming in West Branch, Washington Square, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Fugue, The Best Young Writers and Artists in America, and elsewhere. The recipient of fellowships and residencies from the Ragdale Foundation and the Writer’s Room of Boston, she is currently at work on a novel.