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Nothing lived for long in this Jersey strip mall.
It was my 12th birthday, and I’d seen dozens of stores cycle through. First, there’s the grand opening, and then, a few measly months later, moving trucks and a blow-out sale. It’s happened before. It’ll happen again. The nail salon only lasted a year or two, though I could still smell the sharp stench of polish and remover. Last month marked the end for the pizza joint, though that wasn’t exactly a surprise — their pies tasted just like the cardboard boxes they came in. And judging by the signs hung haphazardly on the windows (“75% OFF EVERYTHING!”), Candy Clothing wasn’t long for this life, either.
Next to me, my best friends Lauren and Lila were like kids in a ball pit, flailing around in the discount pile of $5 jeggings, off-the-shoulder tops, and denim on the verge of decay. They were both balancing ten hangers on each arm.
Lauren and Lila were very good at remembering when there would be a massive sale; they texted me to come over so they could get the 3-FOR-1 sundress deal.
So far, they were not very good at remembering my birthday.
“I’ll try this if you will,” Lila said, holding up a cropped sweatshirt.
Lauren nodded, and the two paraded into the same dressing room, giggling as they shut the door.
“That’s okay,” I said, though they were already gone. “I’ll try this on by myself.”
I took my sole selection, a blue dress, and walked into the second dressing room. It’s a good thing I went alone. It would’ve been crowded, all of us trying to fit.
Especially with the ghost.
As soon as I stepped into the dressing room, I stripped off my scratchy sweater. All I had on underneath was a My Budding Breasts! bra — they came in a pack of five, and there were cartoon flower embellishments on the pastel purple cups. Whenever I changed in gym class, I stood behind Lauren and Lila so that no one would see that I was still wearing training bras.
A ghost popped up from the floorboards.
“Ah!” I said, throwing an arm across my chest. Instinctively, my first fear: this ghost is going to notice that my boobs are underdeveloped for my age! Moments later, a second fear: ghost!
The ghost was wispy blue and barefoot, like I’d expect a ghost to be. I didn't expect her overlined lips, massive perm, and tulle ball gown, forever only half-zipped up, but she had those, too. “What brings you here?” she demanded.
“Uh,” I said, “75% off sale.”
The ghost frowned. She was so clear that I could see through her to my smudged reflection in the three-way-mirror, where the purple flowers on my nearly nonexistent boobs stared back at me like soulless eyes.
“The store’s having a sale,” I tried to clarify, “Everything-must-go.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” the ghost said.
“Oh,” I said, “Of course.”
The ghost leaned in. “It’s rude to undress in front of the dead, you know. Might haunt you for that.” She smiled a terrible grin — there was lipstick on her sharp teeth. I’d tell her, but I was pretty sure it was there for eternity.
“But this is a dressing room,” I said.
She shrugged. “I didn’t choose where I died.”
“Please,” I said, words muffled because I was pulling my sweater back over my head, “I’m sorry I bothered you. I’ll go.” I turned towards the door, but she stepped right through me to block the entrance. I gasped — as she passed over me, I could smell rotting nail polish and stale pizza crusts and I was suddenly, unbearably cold — cold like only forgotten things can be.
“Give me one good reason not to haunt you,” the ghost said. She had the strongest Jersey accent I had ever heard.
“Let me out,” I pointed a finger at her, and she bit it. “Hey!” I yanked my hand back. Now, the tip of my finger was as cold as the pit of my stomach.
“Give me a reason.”
“Today is my birthday,” I said.
She clucked her tongue. “Terrible reason. Most people mention their families, at the very least.”
“You’ve done this before?” I shuddered, crossing my arms to stop the chill from spreading. “How long have you been dead?”
“Not that long.” The ghost sounded almost defensive. “I don’t look old, do I?”
I shook my head. And it was true. She was still wearing blue braces.
“I was a girl just like you,” the ghost said, one hand on her chest, which had clearly progressed beyond the need for a My Budding Breasts! So, not just like me. “It really wasn’t so long ago.”
“I’m sure,” I said, eyeing the door. What if I just ran? But I’d have to pass through her again, and I’m not sure what would happen if I got any colder. It felt like I’d be frozen in time.
“This used to be a prom dress shop,” the ghost told me. “I was in my fitting when my heart stopped.” She tilted her head, though her stiff perm didn’t move at all. “This place used to be a lot of things.”
Nearby, there was a clang, then a fit of giggles. Lauren and Lila would be done trying on their clothes soon.
The ghost peered over the dressing room. “Who’s that?’
“My friends,” I said, rubbing my hands together, which were starting to lose feeling.
She gave me another terrible smile. “They seem like nice girls,” she said. She swayed side to side, her ballgown skirt swishing. “Tell you what. Since it’s your birthday, I’ll give you a present.” She leaned in close, so that our foreheads were almost touching. “You can decide who gets haunted.”
“Your choice,” said the ghost of the Jersey strip mall. “Either one of your friends. Or you.”
“This isn’t fair,” I said.
“Life isn’t fair,” the ghost said, “And let me tell you, neither is death.” She stepped through me again, and I fell to my knees. I was so frozen that I didn’t feel cold anymore. I just felt empty, like a store long abandoned.
The ghost sat down on the tiny bench in the corner. “I came in with friends too. We were getting our dresses together. They were like sisters to me.”
“I bet you wouldn’t have haunted them,” I said.
The ghost’s eyes narrowed. “What’s your decision?”
I glanced to the side. On the other side of the dressing room wall, Lauren and Lila had likely opened up the calculator app to figure out the damage of their spree. They’d be going to check out any minute now. When it came to Lauren and Lila, “sister” was not exactly the word that came to mind. Our friendship consisted of the following: we chose each other as group members in school, our moms carpooled us to soccer, and we sat together at lunch. We never scored lower than a B+, we were always on time to practice, and they didn't chew with their mouths open. And with them, I was never truly alone. They were the best fake friends I’ve ever had, and I didn’t want them to freeze into oblivion just because someone kicked the bucket in a prom dress.
“I would’ve,” the ghost said, interrupting my thought. “I would have haunted my friends.” She tucked her knees under herself, nearly smothered in tulle. “They left without me,” she said. “They forgot me. They tried on their dresses and they left.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“I was still zipping up this dress when my chest started to ache and then I couldn’t breathe and then my heart wasn’t beating at all. And they didn’t even know. It took hours for anyone to even find my body. The store attendant was cleaning up for the night.”
A long silence stretched between us.
The giggling had ceased.
I heard the faint clang of a cash register, and the bell that rings whenever someone enters the store.
Or whenever someone leaves.
The ghost looked right at me. “They left.”
“We don’t know that,” I said.
“They left without you.”
“It’s fine,” I said. My lips were so cold I could barely spit the words out. “I would’ve chosen myself anyways.”
She scowled. “Don’t tell me that.” Her skirts swished furiously as she stood back up and started pacing around the room, passing through me again, and again, and again. “There isn’t even a point to all this now, since they’ve already forgotten you. That’s all that haunting is.”
“Please,” I said, and I was cold in the way a body was by the time the name had eroded from the tombstone.
“That’s all that death is, too,” the ghost said, “Disappearing little by little. First your body. Then your old haunts get bulldozed down. Then they stop telling stories about you. That’s when you’re really gone.” Her bedazzled bodice shimmered under the fluorescent lights. “The whole world might as well be haunted now. Nobody remembers anything anymore. Nobody remembers Princess Prom anymore, or the store after that, or the store after that. No one’s gonna remember this place either. But I’ll still be here. I’m always here.”
“Please,”” I coughed, “Let me go.”
“You’ll remember me, won’t you?” Her eyes looked so desperate, like mine when I scanned the room for a group partner after Lauren and Lila chose each other first.
I didn’t quite see how I could forget.
“We’re similar, I think.” She almost smiled, the lipstick on her teeth glinting. “Though if I were actually you, this is the time that I’d start running.” She leaned against the mirror. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll catch up.”
I crawled towards the door, then stumbled to my feet. This would be easier if I wasn’t so cold. When I staggered out of the dressing room, the ghost did not say goodbye.
Instead, as the bell above the store door rang, I heard her say, “See you soon.”
When I reached my mother’s car in the parking lot, I found Lauren and Lila in the backseat.
“I invited your friends to dinner,” my mom said. She looked so pleased with herself. I asked her to turn on the heat. My legs were frozen. I stared out the back window, but the only thing following us was the glow of Jersey traffic.
My mom drove us to SUPREME HIBACHI, and ordered the SUPREME BIRTHDAY SPECIAL. The chef chopped up the vegetables with great flourish, set the teriyaki on fire, and aimed sake right into our mouths. Everyone clapped, but my hands were too numb to move. Later, when the chef came back with a slice of chocolate cake, the waiters burst into song.
Lauren and Lila’s lips were moving, but they weren’t actually singing. Who could blame them? We were all twelve years old and embarrassed, embarrassed that any real part of us might slip through and betray us as opaque. All you want to be when you’re twelve is transparent. All you want to be is so clear that no one sees you. At least then there’s a reason you’re lonely.
The SUPREME HIBACHI waitstaff reached the final chorus. Soon, Lauren and Lila will drop soccer for lacrosse, and I’ll have to find new fake friends. Soon, Candy Clothing will be bulldozed down along with the rest of the strip mall. Soon, I’ll forget about this night, just like I’ll forget most of being twelve. But I will always remember the girl in the changing room, spinning in dress for a dance she didn’t go to. I will always remember that she said we were alike.
The flame of the birthday candles flickered, and then I knew. Haunting wasn’t just being forgotten; haunting was remembering.
“Make a wish,” everyone said.
I wished I wasn’t so cold. I wished someone noticed.
God, what I wouldn’t give to be warm again.
I stuck my finger into the flame.
Even as Lauren and Lila started to scream, I willed myself to forget, forget, forget, shivering with a cold much older than me, shivering even as my skin forgot its own shape in fire.
Vivian DeRosa (@vivianpderosa & @writingwithstyle) is a rising sophomore at Smith College. She is a 2019 Presidential Scholar in the Arts and a 2020 Aspen Words Emerging Writer. Her writing has appeared in the Huffington Post, Lunch Ticket, and The Louisville Review, among other publications. When she’s not writing, she enjoys watching reality TV, reading children’s books, and looking at houses on Zillow. Currently, she is working on a novel.
Sebrina Gao (@seb.draws) is a second-year Entertainment Arts student at ArtCenter College of Design. She creates believable environments for animation and is interested in using color and mood to tell stories! She loves hiking, driving, and trying all types of food. You can find more of her art at sebrinagao.squarespace.com!