Swift, Brutal Retaliation

Swift, Brutal Retaliation

illustration by christopher silas neal

Presenting a new original story, “Swift, Brutal Retaliation,” by new author Meghan McCarron, a ghost story that cautions one against trying to win a ghostly prank war against one’s dead big brother. You can’t win that sort of war, only survive it.
“Swift, Brutal Retaliation” has been nominated for the 2012 World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story.

This novelette was acquired for Tor.com by Tor Books editor Liz Gorinsky.

 

Two girls in wrinkled black dresses sat in the front pew at their older brother’s funeral. They had never sat in the front pew in church before, and they disliked how exposed they felt. Behind them stood their brother’s entire eighth-grade class, the girls in ironed black dresses and gold cross necklaces, the boys in dark suits, bought too big so they could get another use. Few expected more funerals, but the suits would serve for graduation in May—which, after all, was a funeral, too.

The girls’ aunt gave the second reading, which was one of the letters of Saint Paul to the Corinthians. The younger sister, Brigid, loved the rhythm of those words, “Saint Paul to the Corinthians.” She didn’t know who the Corinthians were, but she imagined a small, dusty town, the people crowded around the town square as someone stood, just like her aunt, and read the latest letter from Saint Paul. This letter informed the Corinthians that though their outsides were wasting away, their insides were filling with the light of God. Life was a wobbly tent, but God had built a sturdy house in heaven. The older sister, Sinead, thought this God-house probably sounded good to people in the desert two thousand years ago, but her brother’s house wasn’t just sturdy: it had a pool. Also, her brother’s insides had not grown stronger. He had wasted away, all of him. This stupid reading confirmed her suspicions that God was like any other adult who lied and told you horrible things were for your own good.

Sinead and Brigid felt as alone as it was possible to feel while smushed up against someone on a pew, unaware that the other person was also furiously contemplating God. They were doing their best not to be aware of anything. Noticing things, they had discovered, was dangerous. Was that Ian’s English teacher sobbing three rows behind them? Was that the priest saying Ian’s name in the homily? Were those flowers already wilting on the coffin in the early-September heat? Before, Sinead would have gotten angry about these things. Brigid would have tried to figure out their meaning. Now, the sisters found it safer to sink into the fog of mourning, though they didn’t know to call it that. They were just trying to be very still, in hopes that events would pass them by.

A few pews back, two of Ian’s classmates trailed out, sobbing. The reading had ended, and the cantor began to sing “Alleluia.” The congregation rose to their feet, and their mother’s hymnal slipped out of her black lap. She chanted along in a low, flat voice neither of them had heard before. Their father did not stand, but sat upright at the edge of the pew so stiffly he almost looked funny. His suit was rumpled and he’d slathered himself in cologne to hide the scent of alcohol. Sinead and Brigid were used to the cologne, but they had never seen their father look so small before. They had done a good job ignoring their surroundings, but their strange, frightening parents dragged them back into reality. They stared hopelessly at Ian’s fat, luminous coffin.

The reception after the funeral filled the house with earnest thirteen-year-old girls bearing food made by their mothers. Every girl in Ian’s class brought food, and most of it was lasagna. Lasagna with beef, lasagna with pork and spinach, “garden lasagna” featuring broccoli and Alfredo, Mexican lasagna with hot peppers and tortillas, and one particularly vile concoction made with whole-wheat pasta and dairy-free cheese. All of the lasagna piled up in the kitchen, since the girls’ parents had brought in caterers. Their mother didn’t have the heart to throw it away, so she shunted it to the refrigerator.

The sisters spent the reception hiding in plain sight, or trying to. They glued themselves to their grandmother, who had flown in for the occasion. Their grandmother was a sour old lady who smelled like cigarettes and gin fumes. But she was also tall and heavyset, so they could literally hide behind her as she talked to second cousins and great-aunts and even a step-something, the girls didn’t catch what. Sometimes the sisters held hands. Brigid was the one who did the hand-seeking-out, but Sinead was secretly glad for something to hold on to when strangers stooped down to say they were sorry. Where were they when Ian was sick? Sorry? Sinead would make them sorry.

There were still people in the house that night, straggler aunts and loud neighbors. One of Ian’s coaches was out back with their father, smoking cigars and laughing too loud. At some point, their mother noticed the girls scavenging in the kitchen and sent them up to bed. Sinead made Brigid go up first, since her bedtime was an hour after her sister’s, but once Brigid was gone Sinead felt unmoored. She was too proud to give up her older-sibling right to a later bedtime, but she also didn’t want to be in the room with the loud, sad adults. She found herself contemplating the whole-wheat dairy-free lasagna. Their mother had left it out to rot, and the faux cheese was buckling and sweating.

Sinead heard Brigid turn on the shower in her bathroom. Brigid had only started showering before bed a few months earlier, to imitate her older sister. This infuriated Sinead generally; tonight it felt like a slap in the face. Sinead snatched up the casserole dish and took the withering lasagna up to Brigid’s messy pink room. She carved it up with a butter knife and hid the uneven squares under Brigid’s pillow, beneath her covers, in her shoes, under her dresser—anywhere it would either squish or rot. This was a cruel thing to do after Sinead had spent all day comforting and being comforted by her sister. But the comforting also served to remind Sinead that it was just the two of them now, and that she could no longer enjoy the position of invisible middle child. She had embraced this identity with gusto—her favorite book was The One in the Middle Is the Green Kangaroo—but now she was the oldest. In the books she’d read, the oldest was bossy and bullying, or foolish and frivolous. In their family, the oldest was either sick, or played pranks.

As Sinead stashed the lasagna in the tradition of her dead brother, she began to feel as if she were being watched. She whirled around, sure that she would find Brigid in her pink bathrobe, her hair piled on her head in a towel, like women in old movies and their mother. But the shower was still roaring, and Sinead found herself staring at her reflection in the mirror.

Except it wasn’t her reflection. The face was Ian’s.

Then it wasn’t. Sinead took several gulping breaths. One of her aunts had sent her books about grieving, so she’d known that she might end up hallucinating. She must be hallucinating.

This did not stop her, however, from snatching up the dirty pan, running into her room, and locking the door behind her. She threw the pan beneath her bed, jumped under the covers, and turned off the light. Then she switched it on again and covered her mirror with a sheet. But that really made her room look haunted, so she took the sheet down and stared at her reflection, willing her brother’s face to appear. The reflection remained her own, which made her feel stupid. Stupid was a familiar, oddly comforting feeling.

#

Brigid sat on her floor in the dark, drawing a picture. She used her tiny reading light, which was designed for airplanes, though Brigid had gotten far more use from it during long waits in the dim, fluorescent hospital. She almost missed sitting in the boring corridors, compared to funerals and evil sisters. Bits of lasagna were still mushed into her hair, and Brigid was drawing a picture of her sister’s head on fire. Sinead’s curly hair stuck out in all directions, like she’d been hit by lightning. Brigid added her parents to the picture as little stick figures, off in the distance. They didn’t do anything about the flames.

Brigid felt bewildered and hurt by the lasagna bombing. She did, however, recognize that a prank war had begun, and she had to respond in kind or risk humiliation. Unfortunately, she had the younger sibling’s handicap of not having seen as much television or read as many books as her older siblings, so she was reduced to deflecting the same prank back at them. For a time, Brigid had experimented with turning the other cheek, but this had only resulted in more spiders in her bed, more covert arm-twists, and more stuffed animals fed to the neighbor’s dog. Clearly, Sinead was attempting to take over Ian’s turf, and the only effective response was swift, brutal retaliation.

Brigid completed three more meditative, vengeful pictures of her sister before quiet settled over the house. When she was sure everyone was asleep, she slid open her door and crept down to the kitchen. The clean, shiny counters reflected the blue light thrown off by the oven clock. Brigid was old enough to understand that her house was full of “nice” things, though “nice” to her meant “alienating and not to be touched.” When Brigid opened the fridge, a chill crept along the back of her neck, like someone was blowing on it. But the kitchen was empty and silent and blue.

The white light of the fridge was warm and calming, so Brigid left the door ajar after pulling out Sinead’s special orange-mango juice. No one knew why Sinead liked this juice so much—their mother blamed their father, other mothers, television ads—but everyone else in the house thought it was nasty, and only Sinead ever touched it. Brigid left the juice on the counter, then got up on a stool to retrieve salt and hot sauce from an upper cabinet. She shook in as much hot sauce as she could, then poured in some salt. After shaking the mixture together, she examined its color and consistency in the fridge light. Satisfied, Brigid placed the bottle back on the top shelf exactly how she’d found it, with its label facing the milk. She took a moment to admire her handiwork and shut the door with a schuck.

Ian stood on the other side of it. Brigid stumbled away from him, and put her back against the counter. He had hair again, the straight, tufty blond stuff he’d grown in after the first time he’d gotten better, not the curls from the pictures before Brigid was born. He wore shorts and a polo shirt, like he was on his way to the country club. But his face was pallid and green, and his eyes were ringed by the deep, scary circles that had appeared right before he died. Brigid didn’t feel fear, or even shock. All she could think was, I thought I’d never see you again.

Brigid became aware of a soft hissing sound. Her elbow had knocked over the salt, and it was pouring onto the floor. When she looked back up, Ian was gone.

Brigid forced herself to go to the closet, find a dustpan and broom, and sweep up every last grain of salt. Seeing her ghost brother was terrifying, but having her father find salt all over the floor was equally scary, if not more so. Once the floor was clean, her terror surged back and she sprinted up the stairs.

As she rounded the bend, she nearly crashed into her mother. For a flicker of a moment, Brigid was sure she’d been caught, but then her mother looked over Brigid’s shoulder and said, “Ian, you better go wash the fishes.”

Brigid realized her mother was back on Ambien. She had foolishly hoped her mother would sleep better once she stopped spending every waking hour at the hospital, but apparently not. She pressed herself to the wall and let her mother sleepwalk down the stairs.

Despite the fact that she was furious with Sinead, Brigid jimmied open her door–Sinead kept it locked, though they had figured out how to break into each other’s rooms years ago—and jumped into her bed. Sinead woke with a groan and Brigid hissed, “Shhhhhh!”

“Euh?” Sinead said.

“I saw Ian,” Brigid said.

Sinead stiffened, then put her arms around her little sister. She noticed her hair smelled like tomato sauce. “I saw him too,” Sinead said.

“What are we going to do?” Brigid whispered.

Sinead thought about the brave older sisters she’d read about in books and said, “We’re going to help him.”

Sinead didn’t actually believe in her own bravery, but her borrowed stock phrase seemed to calm Brigid. It calmed Sinead a little bit, too. When Ian was alive, there had been very little either of his sisters could do for him. When he was well, they had tortured him, or tortured each other; as a result, when he was sick, every earnest gesture had felt forced. They had loved their brother, but they hadn’t liked him much. Now here he was, turning to them, of all people. Of course they would do right by him. Of course they would help.

#

Sinead woke early and cleaned up Brigid’s room while Brigid caught up on sleep in Sinead’s bed. She shook lasagna out of Brigid’s shoes and scraped off everything that remained under Brigid’s covers. Then she stripped the bed and took the whole mess downstairs. She put the sheets in the washing machine, pushed the rotting lasagna down the garbage disposal, and scrubbed the pan until her fingers hurt. Finally, when the evidence of her crime had been thoroughly erased, she let herself have breakfast. She poured herself some Rice Krispies, sliced up a banana, and sat down at the kitchen table with her laptop.

Technically, it was a school day, but Sinead and Brigid were taking a “leave” of a few weeks. This was supposed to help them recover from the trauma of Ian’s death, though Sinead suspected it was actually so the other students wouldn’t have to deal with their uncomfortable grief. Sinead had felt miserable and adrift in the days following Ian’s death, but now that she had a purpose, those feelings disappeared. She felt happy, even privileged, to be sitting at home in the morning eating cereal and a banana and Googling “ghost brother,” though this only brought up television-show recaps and one site about “Haunted Gettysburg.”

Brigid found her sister poring over her computer in the kitchen, a half-eaten banana by her side. Brigid had been deemed too young for a laptop, which filled her with uncharacteristic fury. She casually opened the fridge and found that the mango juice hadn’t been touched. Brigid appreciated that Sinead had cleaned up her room, but she felt uneasy letting her sister off entirely. She let the mango juice be.

“A ghost comes back because of unfinished business,” Sinead said, without looking up from the screen.

Brigid tried and failed to think of what unfinished business their brother might have. In all the books she’d read, “unfinished business” meant things like buried treasure or unsolved murders, which she didn’t suppose Ian had any of. “We should search his room,” Brigid said.

The sisters went up to Ian’s room, which no one had opened since he went back to the hospital for good. Sinead carried a thermometer and a compass, which the internet had told her were useful for detecting paranormal presences. The thermometer was to register sudden drops in temperature. It was less clear what the compass was supposed to do, but Sinead imagined it would spin wildly, like in movies about the North Pole.

Ian’s room had always been neat and uncluttered, utterly unlike his sisters’. His dresser was lined with soccer trophies, and his sneakers stood in matched pairs beneath his bed. The clock still blinked midnight from a late-summer power outage. His bed was made. It looked like a display room.

“Anything?” Brigid said, nodding toward Sinead’s tools. Sinead shook her head in what she imagined was a curt, professional manner. The thermometer did not reveal any strange differences in temperature, and the compass did not point anywhere but a woozy north.

Sinead remembered reading somewhere, or maybe seeing in a movie, that you had to ask ghosts what they wanted. They went into Brigid’s room, where Sinead had first seen Ian’s ghost. Brigid’s bed lay bare, and a few of her stuffed animals were piled to the side of it, wounded with tomato-sauce stains. Sinead took this in and finally offered a mumbled “Sorry about that.” Brigid shrugged and said nothing, trying to hide the anger over the lasagna and guilt over the mango juice warring inside her.

Not that Sinead was paying attention. She seemed satisfied by their stupid exchange and had turned her full attention to the mirror.

Sinead stared for a long time. Her eyes glazed over, which blurred her features, but she never saw her brother’s face looking back. Occasionally Brigid would ask “Anything?” and Sinead would blink her eyes, rub them, and say, “Nothing.”

Sinead and Brigid went to the kitchen next, the site of Ian’s second appearance. Brigid opened and closed the refrigerator door a few times, making sure that didn’t summon him, but she was too terrified Sinead would ask why she was in the kitchen to keep up the investigation for very long. Sinead blithely assumed Brigid was sneaking snacks.

For lunch they microwaved giant chunks of Mexican lasagna and leftover caterer chicken fingers. Their mother was home, but it didn’t even occur to them to ask her for lunch. During Ian’s last few months, their mother was usually busy taking care of him. When he died, they had briefly hoped she would recover her interest in their well-being, but instead her caring engines shut down completely. She spent whole days in her room; the girls had no idea what she did in there. If they put their ears to the door, they heard the television, but they had the eerie feeling it wasn’t being watched.

When the leftovers were ready (re-ready?), Sinead opened up her laptop and logged on to Facebook. Sinead never used her account, since she was already sick of everyone at their school and couldn’t imagine spending her free time reading their stupid updates. But Ian had been obsessed with Facebook, forever adding friends and commenting on pictures and taking polls. None of his own status updates ever had to do with chemo, or the hospital, or his family, which were just annoying distractions from being normal and popular. His updates were bizarre hypothetical questions about Batman or The 300 or Boondock Saints. Any comments pertaining to “good thoughts!” or “HUGZ” were deleted, unless they were posted by someone really hot.

“I’m going to send him a message,” Sinead announced.

“On Facebook?” Brigid said.

“Ian loved Facebook,” Sinead said. “Maybe he’d rather communicate that way.”

Ian and Sinead were not Facebook friends, but he let anyone who went to their school see his profile. Even though his last update was weeks old, his page was full of activity. New wall posts filled in the top. Someone had posted a picture of Ian with his arms around two girls Sinead didn’t even recognize, sitting in a hot tub at someone’s pool party. He was grinning like he’d gotten away with something. Was he already sick by then? Or did he still think he was in remission? There were also messages on the page, “IANO WELL MISS U!!!” and “I KNOW UR A REAL ANGEL NOW!” The “angel” messages were a million times worse than “good thoughts!” or “HUGZ.” Sinead felt an overpowering urge to tell these kids exactly which species of idiot they were, but the most insightful commentary she could come up with in her blind fury was “FUCK U.” She moved to post it, but she felt Brigid staring at her. She looked at Brigid, who shook her head.

Sinead sighed and started a new message. She typed, “Ian, r u haunting the house?” She pressed send. Then she opened another one and added, “Why?”

They ate their Mexican lasagna very slowly, watching Sinead’s Facebook inbox like it was extremely boring television. No new messages arrived.

#

The girls were in Sinead’s room creating an altar out of Ian’s trophies when they heard their mother banging dishes in the kitchen. If it had been their father making angry sounds, they would have stayed put. But with their mother, it was better to get the confrontation over with.

“You’re not on vacation,” their mother said as they came down the stairs. She wore glasses, a rumpled blue sweat suit, and, weirdly, makeup. She shoved their dirty dishes across the counter. “What if Daddy came home?”

Brigid immediately pulled her stool in front of the sink and started scrubbing the lasagna pan. Sinead stared very hard at her mother, trying out her telekinetic powers. She had just hit puberty, right? Maybe Ian wasn’t Ian at all, but a poltergeist that had been unleashed by her hormones.

Her mother stared back at her, looking both dazed and furious. The side of her neck quivered, and there were huge circles under her eyes. Her mouth tensed, like she was about to say something nasty. Instead, her thin face collapsed, like a building imploding, and she started to cry.

Shame burned Sinead like poison. She snatched a dish from Brigid and rubbed it dry with a towel. Their mother went into the bathroom and both girls pretended not to hear her sob. When Ian was home, their mother never acted like this. It was only when he was at the hospital. Now, instead of Ian’s death breaking the spell, he would be at the hospital forever. Brigid kept washing dishes, which Sinead dried and put away. They took a long time doing this, to kill time until their mother finally emerged from the bathroom.

#

That night, the sisters convened in Sinead’s room to watch clips from Real Ghosthunters, a YouTube show Sinead had found. They were huddled in the dark around the laptop, taking mental notes about plasma, when they heard the garage door open. They held their breath, praying for their father to just come upstairs. Instead, his footsteps stomped around the kitchen. The master bedroom door opened, and their mother rushed out. After a moment of loaded silence in the kitchen, their voices exploded. The girls made out single words: “pigsty,” “brats,” “son.” Their father pounded up the stairs, thundered past Sinead and Brigid, and slammed the bedroom door. Their mother’s footsteps came next. They were slow and quiet. They heard her go into Brigid’s room; then there was a knock at Sinead’s door.

Their mother’s arms were full of Brigid’s white sheets, which Sinead had put in the wash and then forgotten. She had only added detergent, not bleach, and the soggy sheets were still covered in smears of red tomato sauce and greasy faux-cheese blots.

“What is this?” she said. Her voice was tight and quiet, the worst possible tone.

Sisterly solidarity was running strong, but it was still vulnerable to attack. If neither of them said anything, both would be punished. Traditionally, this had been the route the siblings took, because Ian believed in, and enforced, a no-ratting policy. The one time Sinead ever bucked it, Ian told everyone at school she wet the bed. For a month, everyone called her “Pee-nead.” But the one time Brigid had told on Sinead, both Sinead and Ian conspired to punish her, first by locking her in the attic, then by tricking her into eating a bag of their father’s favorite cookies. When he found the bag in Brigid’s room, she lost snacking privileges for a month. As a result, Sinead had come to view the policy as a necessary evil, but Brigid hated it. If there was a moment for Brigid to change the status quo, this was it. It didn’t matter how nice Sinead had been to her today; she had spent every other day being mean, and if Brigid did nothing things would go back to the way they’d been.

“Sinead put lasagna in my bed,” Brigid said.

Sinead stiffened next to her sister, and Brigid shrank away. The instant the words were out of her mouth, she regretted them terribly. Their mother stared at Sinead with murder in her eyes, but the look she gave Brigid was not much kinder.

“Your father will speak to you tomorrow, Sinead. Brigid, come with me.”

Their mother led Brigid out of the room, and Sinead was left alone, equal parts terrified and furious. She couldn’t stop imagining all the terrible things that would happen now that her father knew. She also couldn’t stop thinking about hitting Brigid, or kicking her, or pulling her hair. Sinead got up and started pacing, but this only made her anger worse. Brigid’s insubordination could not stand, and since they weren’t going to school, the only way to punish her was with another prank at home. But if her father caught her doing something bad again....

She needed a quick, deniable solution.

Sinead rooted through her desk drawer until she found a stiff, moldering stick of gum and chewed it until she couldn’t even remember what flavor the gum had been. She found Brigid lolling facedown in a fresh set of sheets, her hair tousled against the pillow. Sinead’s fingers delicately removed the gum from her mouth and nestled it into Brigid’s hair.

Sinead marched out into the hallway, flushed with triumph, only to find Ian staring forlornly at the door to his room. The sight was so sad that her adrenaline-and-anger high crashed, and shame surged in its place. What was she doing torturing her sister when their brother needed help? Ian turned to face her and cocked his head, as if he sensed her regret. She’d never received such a look of understanding from her brother. People had told them they’d get along when they were older, but Sinead had always written that off as the same kind of adult bullshit as telling her that she’d look prettier after the braces came off, or the kids would be nicer next year. Now, under the weight of Ian’s look, she felt the loss not just of her brother, but of their friendship. Their future.

Tears spring to Sinead’s eyes. She hadn’t cried since Ian went back into the hospital, and even then she had been crying for poor Sinead, who had to endure Ian’s disease ripping her family apart. Now she was crying for her brother, who’d been bludgeoned by cancer and rewarded with a confused, silent afterlife.

This was no time for emotions, however. Ian needed her help. She swallowed her tears and whispered, “What do you want?”

She wasn’t sure what she expected. He was waiting outside his room. Maybe he needed her to open the door? Instead, Ian looked at her with hurt confusion. He mouthed something at her, but there was no sound. She wondered how long it took to learn to read lips. Probably more than twenty-four hours.

“I can’t hear you,” she whispered.

Ian mouthed it again. And again. When Sinead shook her head, his face colored with unfamiliar anger. Ian had a temper, but Sinead had never seen fury like this. Ian spat a silent evil phrase at her, then disappeared.

A loud thump came from the kitchen downstairs, then a rustling. Something soft hit the floor, over and over. There was a crash, then the sound of footsteps, running.

Sinead rushed to the kitchen. When she flipped on the light, she found the entire floor covered in lasagna. It was strewn on the floor in messy goops, stuck to the cabinets, mashed on the fridge. The trash can had been tipped over, as if by a dog they didn’t have; the rest of the lasagna lay inside in one red mass. The pans were still stacked in the sink and on the counter, crusted with burnt cheese products. One of them had shattered on the floor.

Her mother must have thrown the lasagna in the trash, though Sinead couldn’t imagine her doing it—she hoarded food like a squirrel. Or maybe their father had decided he didn’t like it filling the fridge. Their father wouldn’t like all the dirty dishes in the sink, either, but perhaps her mother had staged her own tiny rebellion and refused to clean up after him.

But now, the lasagna was smeared across the entire kitchen, which definitely wasn’t her parents’ doing. Brigid was fast asleep, and anyway, she never would have made a mess like this. But blaming it on her angry ghost brother wasn’t going to cut it with her father, so it was up to Sinead to fix it.

Sinead got out a mop to push all the lasagna toward the trash can. It slithered along the floor, leaving a streak of sauce behind it. Sinead scooped the lasagna into the trash with a dustpan and thanked God that her mother took sleeping pills and her father drank whiskey. Then she reminded herself that she didn’t believe in God. Praying was a hard habit to break, though. She wished she could ask God to explain her brother to her. Why was he so angry? What was she supposed to learn from his punishment? But God wasn’t listening, and she had to mop the floor.

#

Brigid marched down the stairs the next morning and threw the clump of her gum-wadded hair at Sinead. There were perhaps more sophisticated or more covert ways of handling her anger, but Brigid did not want to employ them. She hated her sister, and she wanted her to know it.

“Bitch,” Brigid said. Ian had taught her all the curse words when she was five, but she’d never used one before. The anger behind it burnt her mouth.

Sinead flinched at the word, but also seemed strangely impressed. “I’m sorry,” Sinead said. She didn’t do the looking-away-and-shrugging routine that usually accompanied her apologies. But she didn’t seem that sorry, either. Or, she seemed to feel she’d already paid the price.

Brigid stood there, fuming. Then she turned on her heel and marched into the pantry to look for something to eat.

“I saw Ian last night,” Sinead called to her. “After I did it. He tried to talk to me, but I couldn’t hear him, and he got mad.”

“I don’t care,” Brigid said. This was not true, but she was sick of doing things Sinead’s way. She took an entire box of cookies and marched back up to her room.

Brigid spent the entire day in her room, making herself sick on Chips Ahoy and reading through every book she owned that featured ghosts. But the ghosts in these stories were either too evil, or too good. The kids had friends, or adult helpers, or siblings who didn’t put gum in their hair. None of them told you what to do when you were alone, and scared, and haunted by your mean, sick brother.

Brigid was sitting on her floor, staring at her pile of useless books and tugging on the newly gum-shortened chunk of hair when an epiphany broke: They had only seen Ian when they were pulling a prank.

She found herself perversely glad that Sinead had put gum in her hair. That meant she needed to get revenge on Sinead. And when she did, perhaps she could finally help Ian.

When Brigid heard her mother go downstairs to start dinner, she stole down the hallway into her mother’s bathroom. She enjoyed spelunking in the cabinets when her parents weren’t home, and the dusty bottle of Nair was right where she remembered. She’d seen a commercial that suggested it had something to do with summertime and shorts, but people also made jokes about using it for pranks on TV. Brigid was used to not understanding things, but she’d filed the idea away for when it was needed.

Brigid took the Nair into Sinead’s bathroom and got out her honey-vanilla-mango shiny-hair shampoo. She unscrewed both caps and prepared to pour the white Nair into the conveniently white shampoo. But in the bright bathroom light, the clamor of words on the bottle—“patch test” and “doctor” and “burning”—gave her pause. Burning? Brigid was furious with Sinead, but was she furious enough to set her hair on fire—which, as far as she could tell, was what this concoction would do?

Brigid unscrewed the cap and watched herself in the mirror as she raised the bottle. She moved in slow motion, raising it, then placing it over the shampoo bottle, then tipping it in. When the first bit of Nair poured out, Ian was standing next to her.

Brigid set the Nair bottle down on the counter without taking her eyes off her brother. In the mirror, Ian snatched it up and tossed it between his hands in the languid, confident way he’d moved when he was alive. Her throat tightened; this bottle-tossing was the most Ian-like thing she’d seen the ghost do, and it made her ache for her brother. Brigid sensed he was waiting for her to do something.

“Hi,” Brigid said.

Ian nodded in response and continued to toss the bottle back and forth.

Brigid tried to remember the plan she and Sinead had come up with for this encounter. “Do you...W-what do you want?” she said.

Ian’s face darkened at that question, and Brigid fumbled for a new, non-angry-making one. She couldn’t think of anything. Instead, she blurted out the only other question she had. “Is it better? Now that it’s over?” she said.

Ian snatched the bottle out of the air and froze.

“I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to say it like that. But, I just...people said, when you died, that it was a blessing, because you were suffering but now you’re here, and I don’t understand—”

Ian’s face had changed when Brigid said the word “died,” but she couldn’t stop herself from talking, even as he looked at her with angry confusion, like Brigid had just told him a lie out of spite.

“Don’t you know?” Brigid said. “Ian, you’re—”

The scary anger returned to Ian’s face, and his hands began to twitch. They flew up to his head and grasped the tufty blond hair that grew there. He pulled on it, and a chunk came away in his fist. He opened his hand and watched it float to the ground. Then he pulled out another chunk. And another. The chunks of hair floated down all around him, like the leaves of a dying plant.

“Stop!” Brigid said. His eyes darted between his head and Brigid’s, then to the bottle of Nair. He snatched up the bottle and poured it all over Brigid’s head. The thick liquid gushed down in a white stream, covering Brigid’s messy brown hair, her forehead, eyes, nose, and mouth. Her eyes burned and she choked for breath. She watched her reflection in horror as Ian pulled her long brown hair from her head in sickly, dripping strands.

Brigid bolted out of the bathroom and down the stairs. She nearly knocked her mother over when she burst into the kitchen.

“Brigid!” her mother said, grabbing her daughter by the shoulders. “What are you doing?”

Brigid tried, and failed, to hide the terror in her eyes as her mother scrutinized her. She wasn’t sure what her mother saw, but she seemed to think it required no more than a comforting hug. She held her daughter for a brief, sweet moment. Then she turned her attention back to the kitchen.

“Daddy will be home for dinner,” she said. Her mother’s hand on her shoulder tightened at the mention of Daddy. Brigid felt trapped. “Could you set the dining room table?”

The last thing Brigid wanted to do was touch the good china with her shaking hands. No, that wasn’t the last thing she wanted to do. The last thing she wanted to do was sit in her room, alone, and wait for Ian’s ghost to find her. She didn’t think they should be trying to help him anymore. She wondered if she and Sinead were actually keeping him here.

The dishes in the china closet trembled when she approached it, and Brigid caught sight of herself in its mirrored back wall. Between the mirrored backs of the dishes, her reflection had all its hair. Brigid searched the corners of the mirror for Ian, but he was nowhere to be seen.

#

After Brigid finished setting the table, her mother discovered her newly short chunk of hair and yelled at her for ruining her haircut. Brigid didn’t rat Sinead out this time, not because she was cowed by the stupid gum prank, but because she was afraid Sinead’s revenge would provoke more terrifying Ian episodes.

Sinead was hiding in the basement out of an attempt to put off her interview with her father, but she also had important work to attend to. Sinead had decided after the events of the previous night that Ian was lost, and being lost made him angry, so he needed to be guided to heaven, or wherever he was supposed to go—Sinead was pretty sure heaven was a part of the whole God-lie. Sinead had not made the prank connection, since she didn’t know about all of Brigid’s pranks; in fact, she was convinced that Ian was seeking them out, unable to let go. She had spent the afternoon acquiring the necessary tools: salt, an important memento, a tiny bell. The next time she saw him, she intended to send him off to eternal peace, whether she believed in it or not.

Sinead refused to come up from the basement to cut the potatoes, or polish the silver, or put out the glasses. She didn’t even respond to their mother’s calls for assistance, which made her sound if she was shouting down the stairs at no one. By the time Daddy came home, their mother was crackling with irritation, and it fell to Brigid to make the appeasing niceties required whenever her father joined the family for dinner. When he asked her how she had spent her day, she told him she had watched cartoons.

The rest of the family was already seated by the time Sinead emerged, the little bell tinkling in the pocket of her hoodie. Her parents’ half-empty bottle of wine sat on the kitchen counter and reminded Sinead that she wanted juice. She dug into the refrigerator for her orange-mango concoction, which she had secretly started to get sick of. But it inexplicably annoyed her father, so it would serve well as a final act of defiance before her punishment.

When Daddy came home for dinner, the family always ate in the dining room, with the gold-edged china and the freshly polished silver. The candles were always lit, and the girls’ mother made food that was cooked in the oven, not the microwave. Tonight there were small, bloody steaks freshly seared in the broiler, roasted fingerling potatoes, and garlicky greens. Each of the women handed a plate to Daddy, and he dropped on greens and potatoes and a single, wobbly steak. Brigid got half a filet, both because she was the youngest and because she was considered by the whole family to be fat. Then Daddy served himself a filet and Brigid’s leftover half, and the women listened to him talk about his day, and everyone enjoyed a nice family meal.

When Sinead sat down at the table with the mango juice, Brigid banged her knife on the table to get her attention, but Sinead refused to look up from her plate. She took a bite of her potatoes, then took a sip of her juice. She didn’t even register the taste; all she knew was that it had to be out of her mouth, now. Sinead spat orange liquid all over the white tablecloth, splattering the green beans and extinguishing one of the candles. The silence afterward was so complete that when Brigid took a breath, it sounded like the rush of the ocean.

“What,” their mother began with a sharp, clipped tone, “was that.” She clearly hoped to derail their father by taking on the scolding herself, but he spoke over her before she could get out her next word.

“Is there something wrong with your drink, Sinead?” he said. He said it so gently that all three women at the table tensed.

Sinead said nothing as she stared at Brigid, who looked at her with wide, helpless eyes. Brigid had never felt regret like this before, not even when she told Ian that he was dead. That had been an accident. This was something she had done on purpose, and it had worked exactly as she had planned. As terrifying as Ian’s reaction had been, he had stayed trapped in the mirror. Sinead and her father were here in the room.

Sinead kept staring at Brigid as she said, “Just went down the wrong tube.”

Their father considered this answer, folding his hands like the girls imagined he did in complex negotiations. “Take another sip,” he said—then added, as if it had just occurred to him, “so we know you’re all right.”

As she brought the glass to her lips, Sinead thought of the people who ate bugs on television. The horrid hot-salty flavor of the juice burned her throat, and her stomach turned and gurgled when it hit bottom. She put down the juice in a way she hoped was ladylike, then covered her mouth for one tiny cough.

Sinead could not tell if her performance had any effect, because now their father was looking between them, as if trying to spot an invisible thread. “Brigid, why don’t you take a sip?” he said.

Brigid should just take it. Just take the glass, choke the whole thing down, and spare Sinead. But she would spew juice everywhere or, worse, throw it up. “I hate that weird mango stuff,” she said. She pathetically hoped this would win his sympathy, since he, too, hated the weird mango stuff.

“Give it another try,” their father said. “Go get the bottle.”

Brigid rose from her seat as slowly as she possibly could, and shuffled into the kitchen. She pulled out the orange-mango juice and a glass and shuffled back into the dining room like a prisoner headed to the gallows. The three members of her family stared at her with anger as she approached, though their anger was confused, and directed at different people. Her sister was angry with Brigid for pranking her and furious with their father for toying with them. Her mother was angry with the girls for provoking her husband, though her constant, simmering anger at their father boiled up from beneath the other, safer emotion. And her father—her father was angry at his children, and at his wife, but his ideas of who they were and what they represented were so distorted that the anger might as well have been at different people entirely. He’d been furious at Ian when he got sick again. Brigid had seen him slap him. Their father’s anger made no sense.

All these competing angers made Brigid angry, too. Hers was not mixed with denial, however, or directed at someone who didn’t exist. She was angry at everyone, and she was going to make this stop. When she crossed the threshold, she slid her foot underneath the rug and elaborately, comically, tripped. The glass went flying out of her hands, and the juice bottle crashed to the floor. Their parents stared at Brigid, frozen, but Sinead leapt to her aid, making sure to knock over her juice glass in the process. Sinead slid her hands beneath her sister’s arms and drew her to her feet.

Then their parents started screaming about the rug and broken glass and carelessness and disrespect. Sinead and Brigid couldn’t make the words out, exactly. They were too distracted by Ian’s reappearance. Sinead saw him standing next to their father, arms crossed. Brigid saw him staring out from the china-cabinet mirror, hovering.

“—disrespect that should have died with your son!” their father shouted, just at the moment when their mother fell silent. Then everything was silent, taut with the ugly truth that had just been unleashed. Ian was dead. And each member of the family had wished for that death in the hope that life would be better without him.

The first dish in the cabinet broke like a gunshot. The one closest to it went off next, then another, and another, the dishes exploding like targets in a carnival game. Sinead saw Ian pick them up and hurl them. Brigid saw his face in the mirror behind each dish. Their parents were screaming again, and the sisters watched the carnage unfold before them like spectators, rather than two people intimately involved in the situation. Then Sinead remembered the bell in her pocket, and Brigid remembered the look on Ian’s face when she told him he was dead, and they both began to shout, too.

“You can leave!” Sinead shouted. She rang her little bell at the dish cabinet, then pulled out her salt and shook it around the floor. “You don’t have to stay here! You can leave!”

“Ian, I’m sorry!” Brigid said. “I’m sorry you died! I’m sorry!”

The dishes kept exploding, and every member of the family kept shouting, and the sisters weren’t sure if they had unleashed something cathartic or something terrible. Sinead believed Ian just needed to release this anger to move on. Brigid wondered if their family had poisoned him with their selfishness, and now they were paying the price. Either way, all they could do was cower under the table, holding hands, until it had run its course.

 

“Swift, Brutal Retaliation” copyright © 2011 by Meghan McCarron

Art copyright © 2011 by Christopher Silas Neal

13 comments
JCMP
3. Robin D
That was really good..........
JCMP
4. Programmer
Useless. Starts off gripping but ultimately a waste of time. Like the ghost this story goes nowhere.
Donald Phillips
5. Dicedagger
The story just ends too simplistically. It is like the author ran out of time during an essay exam. Beautiful work up to that point though.
David Schwartz
6. snurri
I see that the critics have spoken. Personally, I find the emotional catharsis at the end both stunning and moving. That is, if it is catharsis--it may be just the beginning of the real horror. I'm a big fan of this story.
Frank Hablawi
7. ParticularlyEvil
Love it - so dark, and all of that darkness comes from the tragedy of a broken family, and not the supernatural being in the story.
JCMP
8. Juanito
Oh I liked this a lot. Spooky, heart-breaking, real. But damn. That was the literary equivalent of running into a brick wall.

~~~~~~~~~~*smack!*|-|-|-|

Oww...
JCMP
9. abeam
I loved it.

That being said, it desperately needs an ending.
JCMP
10. Bob Dennis
I was leaning towards the no-ending critique, but then I realized the story is mostly about the sisters' relationship and at the end they're together, holding hands. So yes, I think the ending is here, just not a very classic THE END. Beautiful writing. My personal take-home message was "when we stop doing bad things, bad things stop."
JCMP
11. Jean B
I have to say, if this is representative of what will be in this year's Years Best Science Fiction, I think I'll skip it. #1 - it's not SF and #2 - it's not a good story (to me); I'm not a fan of things that just meander off into nothing.
JCMP
12. xolotl
Great story! The second I finished it i wanted more, there had to be more. As I sit here though, I really like it, parents crashing against one another, brother destroying things that it seems only the girls can see, but them coming together as he had wanted. Really like it, wish there was more.
Sumana Harihareswara
13. brainwane
Thank you for writing this. I especially liked:
Brigid was old enough to understand that her house was full of “nice” things, though “nice” to her meant “alienating and not to be touched.”

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