The Paranormal Implications of Guilt & Never Growing Up || Anna Christiano

I pause to let a blackbird dart by and leap into a budding hawthorn tree with its family. Two freshman girls overtake me on the winding path, talking loudly about a party tonight, starts in a few hours, should be fun. The birds chirp at each other with equal cheer.

In my right ear, Delilah says, “Lovey. Hey, Lovey. Why don’t you ever pay attention to me anymore?”

I look out across the sun-drowned quad as I reach the top of a hill. Usually, boys playing Frisbee or football dominate the grass, but today there’s a dog that has gathered the requisite crowd of admirers. A pair of girls spread study materials and snacks across a blanket. Not things I ever bothered to do as an undergrad, but it’s nice. Normal.

Delilah sighs. “I knew back when you left for this dumb school that you were going to become even more stuck up, but you don’t even fit in with the other stuck-up nerds. Can you at least talk to someone? It doesn’t have to be me.”

No one else on the path. Evening classes will be let out soon. Best get to the car to beat the rush. If there’s one thing I miss about living on campus—well, there really is just one—it’s the lack of a commute.

“You know, it really is a pretty campus,” Delilah says wistfully. “I thought about coming here too. Before.”

When we were kids, my little sister always tried to follow me to school. When I started kindergarten, she was barely a toddler, and still, she’d cry. Moved on to middle school and sometimes she’d sneak onto the wrong bus, and I’d have to wait with her outside the front office for our mom to come to ferry her back to first grade. It used to bother me.

“You probably would have hated it,” Delilah says, “if I had come. But now we’re together again, right?”

Ever since she died, my little sister has started following me to school again.

 

“Lovey, wake up.”

Dawn filters through the dark curtains. A silhouette perches on the end of my bed, silver and indistinct around the edges. She shifts, and the outline of a slip dress and pigtail braids stand out for a moment before fading back into the obscurity of her body. Not body. It’s too early.

I close my eyes. “Go away.”

 

The line at the coffee shop snakes all the way back to the door. I take my place at the end, tugging my cardigan closed. The May mornings still have a gentle bite not acknowledged by the crowd of pencil skirts and short sleeves.

“Sorry you’re cold,” Delilah says. “It’s probably my fault. Or it’s Mom’s fault, right? Ha!”

Shuffle forward a step. Consider a croissant. Breakfast wrap would be healthier, but I can’t stomach eggs before eight.

“Lovey. Lovey, did you get it? Because Mom’s a frigid bitch and you got it from her, get it? Like, you’re physically cold and your personality sucks, it works on two levels.”

At the counter, I order a vanilla tea latte and a caramel macchiato. No croissant, no breakfast wrap. Just tea for my cold fingers and a cold nose. Beside me, Delilah finally falls silent just as I realize what I’ve done.

“Thanks for the drink,” she says softly. “You’re buying, right?”

 

Hypothesis: If I throw myself off the library balcony, Delilah will stop following me. She doesn’t have a corporeal form to break, but she doesn’t like heights. Didn’t? I turn left into my study room, dump my bag in a chair, and drop my latte on the table so hard that a milky brown geyser erupts and drips over my gloved fingers. Today, for the first time this week, I remembered not to order two drinks.

Delilah’s in a mood. That’s what our dad used to say when she would come whirling into the house after color guard, stomping up to her room because her sixth-grade boyfriend spent the practice watching some other girl instead of her. 

She’d always been boy crazy. That’s what our mom said when she followed her last boyfriend to Amsterdam instead of going to college.

“Well?” she says. “Do you remember I exist today?”

“I’m not entirely certain you do,” I mutter. It’s safe enough; harried grad students talk to themselves in these study rooms all the time.

“I did. I did way more existing than you ever have. You’ve never even left the country, not even when you were researching all that mythology for your thesis and Dad said he’d pay for you to go to Rome. Or was it Egypt?”

“It was Athens.” I set up my computer, my scratch-pad notebook. Wipe up the ring of tea around the base of my cup and set it back down on a napkin before it stains. I’d just thought of Delilah going to Amsterdam, and then she brought up leaving the country. Another tally in the figment of my imagination column. Unless ghosts can read minds. Had I read that somewhere, some bit of the folklore I collected like magazine articles about a favorite celebrity? Can’t remember. Tea lattes don’t contain enough caffeine.

“At least Mom’s going on vacation. Like, yeah, it’s a dick move to use your dead daughter as an excuse for ‘me time’ in Key West, but at least she knows I’m dead.”

“Trust me, I know you’re dead.” The words slip out before I can bite them back. Out of the corner of my eye, the overcast light from the windows brightens and shifts. Delilah, pacing.

She says, “I wish you’d do something about it.”

 

The funeral was about six months ago now. Mid-autumn, the November sky wide and blue. Brittle grass crunched under our dress shoes. Mom sobbed and wailed. Delilah’s boyfriend wore dark sunglasses to hide the black eye my father gave him outside the police station two nights before. Before the coroner ruled her death an accident and the gossip called it suicide. The old woman with no patience left for subtlety declared it a damn shame, how that boy pushed her.

I hadn’t seen him since Delilah and I stopped talking. He looked smaller with her in the ground.

 

“Why did we stop talking?” Delilah muses on the drive to campus. 

It’s afternoon, just past the lunch rush. I nudge the heat dial higher. The radio, playing soft indie pop, fades out and doesn’t fade back in, the host’s voice tinny and trapped in the speakers. Could be a paranormal thing. Could be a bad signal. A row of oak trees slips shadows over the distorted sunlight occupying the passenger seat.

I grip the wheel, stare straight ahead. “You stopped talking to me.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“You just said you don’t remember, now you know you didn’t?”

Delilah sniffs, haughty. “You were always the distant one. You always left me behind.”

The windshield blurs until I blink a few times, clearing my throat. “Dee, stop. You know that’s not true.”

“It is—”

“You were the one who left for Amsterdam first, then LA after that, then your boyfriend’s crappy apartment in fucking Queens when you were supposed to come to stay with me—”

“Because Jax loved me more than you ever could, you were just trying to get me away from him!” Delilah’s voice sounds just like it used to when she wanted to cry: furious, desperate, wrong. The radio flares back to life, loud static, and the station number reeled off in a too-cheery voice promising 90s classics for the next ninety minutes.

I hit the button to turn it off. The road becomes the boulevard leading to campus, most other cars dropping away until the sound of traffic is quieter than the birds.

 

Delilah used to sneak into my room past midnight, hitting her shin on the desk chair every time, tumbling onto my bed with a hand over her mouth to keep from cursing loud enough to wake our parents. She curled into a tiny ball under the covers, her back pressed to mine so we didn’t have to look at each other in the dark.

“Lovey?” she says now, tentative. The same. She’s the same. Shouldn’t death change a person more than this? I could almost feel her cold toes on my calf, ragged toenails scratching my heel. “He was lying, wasn’t he? He didn’t really love me more. Did he?”

I punch the pillow under my head into a flatter shape, stick my arm underneath it. Eventually, my hand will go numb the way it used to when Delilah would fall asleep on my forearm while I read during long car rides. “Not more than I did.”

“Did,” she echoes, her voice an open wound.

“You aren’t really here, Dee. You existed. Past tense.”

An owl hoots. The tenant in 2B flushes their toilet. Delilah sighs. “You know how to get rid of me, Lovey. If you wanted to. You know how they do it in the stories.”

Mysteries solved, unfinished business resolved. Bodies burned. Sacrifices, gifts. Revenge.

Or, possibly, grief counseling.

 

Dad calls. Delilah gets excited when she sees my phone light up with his name, like she’s a kid again, abandoning her after-school snack and running to the door when he got home from work. He asks if I’m busy. I am. He asks if I remember that tomorrow is six months exactly. I do.

He asks if I’ll come home.

In the kitchenette, Delilah leans over a pot of boiling water and blows shapes in the steam. I haven’t left town since she arrived.

 

She follows me. It was a silly thought, that she might disappear out of the passenger seat the moment we crossed out of the little college town where she first appeared. She plays with the radio, the music fading in and out as we drive, the roads twisting around the base of the hills the locals call mountains. It’s getting dark. Dad and I will meet for dinner—Dad and I and Delilah—and then I’ll follow him home. Tomorrow we’ll go to the cemetery. It’s the thing to do.

Familiar signs loom in the blue dusk as we get closer to home. Chain restaurants, service stations, street names where our friends once lived. Then, a faded sign at a turnoff sharp enough to miss: Scenic Overlook, it reads, with an arrow pointing up. Pink graffiti has turned the arrow into a penis, still visible though someone has made an effort to scrub it off.

Families take children there on Saturday mornings, and we’d gone with our parents a handful of times. Delilah went more than me later. High school students get drunk there on Friday nights until college students home for break commandeer it all summer. Delilah’s boyfriend took her there for romantic picnics when she got too close to leaving him.

In the passenger seat, the silver outline of my sister flickers in and out at the corner of my vision.

 

On the second day of my visit home, Delilah leaves. Not disappears, as a ghost should—she gets right off the couch and walks out the front door. I look up from the television, where I’m trying to figure out how my parents locked themselves out of their Netflix account. From my seat, a sliver of the hallway is visible, and the very edge of the front door. It’s shut.

I might have imagined it opening.

I could let her go.

Outside, the air is warm for the first time in weeks. The sun shines directly overhead with the white light of spring. A breeze lifts my hair and brushes it across my shoulder. I look both ways down the street as if my little sister has wandered off while I was babysitting as if I need to catch up to her on her bike.

I drive slowly along the side of the road as if she might still be here, a zombie walking to haunt another person, another place. 

The overlook is empty when I arrive, caught between the morning and afternoon crowds. Gravel crunches under my tires. An abandoned McDonald’s milkshake sweats on a nearby picnic table. Beyond that, the trailhead, different hiking paths marked on weathered wood with faded squares of paint.

When I get out of my car, Delilah is sitting on the hood. “You found me.”

“I thought…” It feels stupid now, to say that I thought Jax would be here. That he’s the only person she’d leave me for as if she still doesn’t know any better.

She tips her head back, nearly transparent in the sunlight. The impression of her looks at peace. “He’s coming.”

The main view from the overlook is the gaping sky, the horizon broken by small, jagged mountains like this one. A lake pools at their base and glitters solid gold at sunset. Delilah came here for that view, avoided the cliff itself as her life depended on it. I look over the edge at the sheer drop, the treetops flush and green with spring below, and wonder if it did. 

Sticks break under heavy steps, a warning that someone is approaching the trailhead. I turn from the cliff. The truth is, I know what happened. Delilah would never have jumped, or gotten close enough to fall. It probably was an accident. The same way I once saw Jax hold her hand over a hot burner until she cried and apologized for splattering oil, I can picture him here, his grip on her wrist tight while her feet slip on loose stones. He probably didn’t mean to let go.

I would jump. If it were me. Delilah would rather kill herself any other way, but I like the idea of doing it here.

Jax steps out of the woods wearing real hiking boots, a pack fastened across his chest. When he catches sight of me, his face screws up. He knows he should know me from somewhere—we’d never spent much time together by his own design, except for the funeral, at least—but he doesn’t. He approaches slowly like I am another wild animal he’s come prepared to encounter in the woods.

I know the moment he recognizes me is the moment he’s close enough to see my pale green eyes. Delilah’s eyes. 

He drops his water bottle in the dirt. “Lovey?”

Close enough for me to push. I take a step back toward the cliff’s edge, the scenic overlook. He steps forward. The sun still shines on my shoulders, birds chirping and rustling leaves. From far below, the chatter and laughter of other hikers float up on the wind.

In my ear, Delilah says, “You know what to do. You know how to stop this. Don’t you love me the most? Lovey—”

Anna Christiano has a B.A. in Media Studies from Central Connecticut State University and a corresponding obsession with pop culture. She won the Leslie Leeds Poetry Prize in 2020 and has had her work published in Import Sky and Blue Muse Magazine. Currently, she works as a programming coordinator for the Connecticut Literary Festival; she spends her free time cooking Italian food and daydreaming about turning all her favorite fantasy books into television series.

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