It was July again, and Annabel was standing barefoot in my kitchen, spitting loquat pits into the sink and teaching me how to twerk.
“Like this,” she said, with her serpentine spine, hips that could break my heart.
I felt her move against me, and I gripped the edge of the counter, trying to ground myself, trying to think.
The loquats were rotting on the damp paper towel, and the lightning cut jagged lines across the yard. Even now, years later, I could feel Jakub Buczkowski’s very pretty ghost in the room with us. I imagined him sitting across the kitchen at our dinner table in a diaphanous dress of mousseline de soie, watching us with a disapproving frown on his face. I imagined his mascara running, looking as tragic and elegant as he did on the day Annabel and I found him face down in Little Mulberry Creek.
“Here,” Annabel said, pushing forward, her hands on my stomach and my ass. Our skin was slick and salt-laced, sticking together where it touched. I thought I might like to kiss her, and I couldn’t hide it from Annabel or the ghosts or anybody.
“Do you ever think about it, when it gets like this?” I asked her. I meant that night.
I meant the kind of rain that comes down in sheets. “God, you’re so morbid sometimes.”
“You are,” she said, and kissed the side of my neck.
I imagined the bruise that would form there tomorrow, and the amount of concealer that it would take to hide the bruise from my parents. Across the kitchen, Jakub was laughing and dripping puddles on the linoleum floor.
Annabel Lee (cursed maybe, with a name like that) was born with bright red hair and her legs bowed inward. Annabel and I had been neighbors since we were little, growing up together alike and different – me with a mother, Annabel without.
That summer, it rained for 23 days straight, a record in southern Georgia. It rained and rained until everything began to bloat like a body held underwater. That summer, Annabel and I spent more days together than not, lounging around my bedroom in our new sports bras and complaining about our achy bones.
“Growing pains,” my mother called them, like she knew what was to come.
The day we found him had been a Sunday, and it was raining. It was always raining. The church windows, usually flung open in the summer to let in the breeze, were closed up tight.
Inside, the heat of the bodies congregated there made the men’s starched collars wilt and the ladies’ foreheads shine. Annabel sat a few pews in front of me next to her father, swinging her legs and letting the metal hinge on her leg braces clang against the pew. Above us, a hornets’ nest hummed in the rafters. Over the noise – the rain, the wasps, Annabel’s metallic knees – the pastor was talking loudly something about The Fear of God. I remember he said it just like that, all in capital letters.
After church that day, the clouds broke long enough for us to bike down to the creek behind our houses. That summer, my legs were getting stronger and Annabel’s weren’t, so I would bike everywhere with her balanced carefully on my handlebars. We had been delighted to find the creek as it was, muddied and overflowing its banks, deep enough to swim. Annabel and I wiggled out of our lace church dresses and left them hanging over the low branches of the poplar tree, like little gossamer ghosts of ourselves.
“Come on,” Annabel said, twisting out of her leg braces like she was shedding a shiny, silver exoskeleton. I loved her legs. Loved how they curved delicately outward and forced her up on her toes, like a bird about to take flight. Loved how they were all on display, just for me. I shed my shoes and followed her into the muddy water. By the river bank, we were secluded and shameless, naked and unholy.
We swam for hours as the water rose higher. When we finally pulled our bodies out onto the bank, like the fish must have thousands of years ago, discovering the land and their own limbs, we found that our legs and torsos were covered in fat, black leeches. I imagined them sucking on the sin and soft pulp of me, drinking me clean. I imagined Annabel and I as the first perfect creatures to crawl from the sea. We spent the rest of that afternoon with our heads bent together, picking the leeches from each other’s bodies and watching as the rainwater continued to fill the creek, turning it mud brown and carrying with it all sorts of interesting flotsam – a plastic water bottle, several tennis balls, a Snickers wrapper, recognizable. When Annabel pulled the last leech from my back, peeling away its sucker with her fingernails, she took a moment to laugh at its gaping, circular mouth.
“It’s like this,” she said, leaning over my shoulder to imitate it for me, mouth puckered into an ‘o,’ lips pulled back to reveal her small teeth.
“Cut it out,” I said.
She laughed, leaning down to press the small ‘o’ of her mouth to my shoulder. “I said cut it out, Annabel.”
Annabel scoffed. “What are you so scared of?”
“Nothing,” I said.
I thought: The Fear of God.
“I’m not lying,” I said.
I thought: Maybe we are.
Annabel pointed toward the opposite creek bank where a pink form bobbed in the water, shapeless and unrecognizable except for small things – a tuft of hair, a left hand. Annabel stood to investigate while I sat on the muddy bank, dull fear fizzing in my brain like strawberry pop rocks. The Fear of God. I didn’t know it then, but in the years after Jakub died, I’d feel this same fear over and over. Fear when Annabel’s first boyfriend sent her nude photos of himself. Fear when I found my brother in my bedroom, trying on my prom dress. Fear when I stood in front of Annabel in my kitchen, as she spat loquat pits into the sink and whispered in the shell of my ear, “Do you ever think about this?”
“Annabel, come on,” I said. “Don’t get any closer.”
Annabel glanced at me over her shoulder, grinning with her sharp baby teeth. “Haven’t you ever seen a dead person before?”
I hadn’t. My brain clicked over images of dead things I had seen before: a frog floating in formaldehyde, a dog curled on the side of the road, its guts spilling onto the pavement, my goldfish bobbing in its tank, belly up.
But never a person.
Annabel’s mother died when she was eight, and this made her blasé.
She waded deeper into the russet colored water, and the water skippers danced away from her shins on all sides. The pink chiffon dress bloomed under the water like a lily, or a bruise. I watched with horror as Annabel sloshed right up to the body, and lifted Jakub’s drunken head from the water.
“It’s a man,” she said over her shoulder.
I remember his square jaw and pink lipstick, and the algae clinging to the wire frame of his glasses.
“He’s kind of pretty, don’t you think?” And he was.
"That summer, it rained for 23 days straight, a record in southern Georgia. It rained and rained until everything began to bloat like a body held underwater. That summer, Annabel and I spent more days together than not, lounging around my bedroom in our new sports bras and complaining about our achy bones."
Jakub Buczkowski died looking beautiful in a pink chiffon dress. It wasn’t the kind of thing that people talked about. Talking about it required you to look at it squarely, for what it was, and give it a name. At the funeral, the photograph above Jakub’s casket was of him in a tweed suit jacket, teeth cigarette stained yellow in a grim smile. During the service, Jakub’s daughter sat on her mother’s lap, sucking on the hemline of her mother’s dress. And at the end of the service, when the pastor asked everyone to bow their heads and pray, everybody in the church prayed for news of a murder. Prayed that it was some evil force that killed him, instead of his own perverse love of pretty fabrics.
For months after, I dreamed of him jumping, finally free, pink chiffon dress catching the air like a parachute and slowing his fall, making him feel for a second as hollow-boned and weightless as the birds.
Another loquat pit landed in the metal basin of the sink with a plunk.
Annabel had another loquat tucked in her left side cheek even as she leaned in to kiss me square on the mouth, which was wet and sticky on account of the juice. I imagined a body falling off a bridge at dawn. I imagined my mother crying on my wedding day. Are you lying? Are we lying?
Across the kitchen, in a black tulle evening gown, Jakub smiled sadly at me and then politely turned away.
Keir Newkirk is a queer, non-binary kid from South Carolina who is currently working on their master’s degree at Northwestern University in Chicago. This is their first published piece of fiction.