I got you
You've got whatever's left in me to get
Our conversations are like minefields
No one's found a safe way through one yet
-Southwood Plantation Road, The Mountain Goats
Terezi and her mother came to live in the house like a yawning mouth when she was six years old. At the time, it sat on a quiet dead-end street with trees that arced overhead into a shaded canopy; perfect and picturesque suburbia.
Now, fourteen years later, the street is still quiet and dead end. But when Terezi was eight, the city had deemed the overhanging trees as a safety hazard, and the tree-cutting men had come to trim them. Afterwards, with the foliage gone, the sky seemed to spread itself across the sky, pale blue. But of course it had always been there, waiting.
“Here,” Terezi says, and Rose parks the car. Fifty feet away was where the school bus Terezi remembers riding from age six to sixteen used to stop. Perhaps it still stopped there, but having lost its personal relevance it had become a thing to be spoken of in past tense.
“Should I come in with you?"
“No need,” Terezi says. “Most of the stuff was cleared out already anyways, when my mother moved to hospice. And we can move out the rest tomorrow. I just want to do a quick inspection first.”
Rose tilts her head. “I’d like to see where my girlfriend spent her formative years though. Call it anthropological curiosity.”
A pause. “All right.”
They walk up the curving brick path together. Terezi laughs. “I didn’t used to do this,” she says. “Here’s a secret-” and she leans into Rose’s ear and whispers, “I’d cut across the lawn.”
“We’ll have to do that tomorrow then,” says Rose. “Historical accuracy.”
They pause at the doorstep as Terezi fumbles for the key. This now is reliving a memory. Weekdays, the bus would drop her off from school. She’d cut across the lawn, get her dragon keychain from her backpack, unlock the door, slip in and make herself a PB&J sandwich.
And then she’d lie on the living room carpet and talk to the other girl who lived in her house. Her name was Vriska, and she was a ghost. (Terezi didn’t mind, because she was great company. Also, ghosts are cool.)
The door has become jammed a little from disuse and Terezi has to shove it open, kicking up dust motes in flurries lit gold from light of the facing window. She walks in, turns towards the kitchen. More dust, on formica blue countertops; the tap tap tap of her cane on ceramic tile.
In the living room, Rose peers behind a cardboard box to find an old magic 8-ball. “Oh man,” Terezi says. “This thing has survived two moves in this house.”
Rose raises an eyebrow. “Is there some kind of story behind this?”
“You’re the one holding the 8-ball.”
“Fair point.” She tilts her head. “It’s telling me to concentrate and ask again.”
“Hm. Have you considered concentrating and asking again?”
“Who am I to refuse the wisdom of the 8-ball? This time. . . . signs point to yes.”
Terezi nods in solemn contemplation, and takes the 8-ball. In her bedroom, her desk is cleared away. Her bookshelf remains still, but without the books. She sits down on her bed, still spread with a garishly patterned comforter, and Rose sits besides her. “What I meant is that the 8-ball was owned by a girl who lived here before I did. Her name was Vriska Serket.” Terezi laughs, too-bright, and leans into Rose. “She was murdered in the kitchen.”
The fact that Vriska was a ghost had never been a secret. Terezi asked her how it had happened, once when she was seven. She had been lying awake in the bed, covered by that same teal and red comforter, and Vriska, perched at the foot of the bed, hadn’t said anything.
Terezi hit the nail on the head with childish farfetchedness. “Were you murdered?” she asked. “Because my mom’s a lawyer, and so am I. Or at least, I will be when I grow up, so you should tell me who did it, and I’ll be sure to put them safe behind bars!”
Vriska sniffed. “I know you’re going to be a lawyer. You only tell me every other hour. You’re only a lawyer every time we play pretend.”
“Nope!” says Terezi. “I’m a dragon lawyer when we play pretend. You can’t own dragons in real life, which is why its pretend. The lawyer part’s real though.” The words what will you be when you grow up balanced on knife edge on the tip of Terezi’s tongue, but she bit them back.
In make-believe, Vriska was always a pirate. In real life, she grew as Terezi did; a near facsimile of growing with the passing of time. In a moment of careful carelessness she told Terezi once it was never so easy to make someone see her as with Terezi. Terezi had reached over to muss Vriska’s hair. She felt cold, as always.
“It’s because I’m taking just a little bit of you. So you can feel me,” said Vriska once, guilt wrapping its fingers around the edges of her words as she stared dead on.
“I don’t mind,” said Terezi, tilting her head. She could sense it, actually. A little string in the back of her mind that lead to Vriska, tugging so lightly and pervasively she'd barely noticed until now.
The first time Vriska saw Terezi, it was through the front windows of the house. She was sitting in the car, and reading.
The first time Terezi saw Vriska, it was when she walked into her room to find the shadow of a girl on her bed. She blinked and it was gone, but it didn’t stay that way. For three days, she saw the girl on the edges of her vision; when she got up in the middle of the night to get a drink of water, when she crossed a threshold, when she blinked very fast. On the third day, sitting on her bed again, she said aloud, “I know you’re there.”
“You can see me?” said Vriska, brightening slowly into Terezi’s view.
“It’s rude to hide,” Terezi told her, and then they were friends.
That’s what Terezi told everyone at school on her first day, three months later, after summer had gone and fall had come again. “My best friend’s a ghost,” both because it made her sound weird and because it was true.
“Interesting,” said a girl named Aradia Megido. “I’ve read all about ghosts. Maybe I could talk to yours sometime?”
“We’ll see,” said Terezi, sticking out her hand to shake Aradia’s and smiling.
But when Terezi invites Aradia over, Vriska is a no show. Or- not quite. Vriska stays invisible, but she pulls on Aradia’s hair and knocks over her cup. Terezi, uncannily, finds a way to glare right at her.
Vriska stays away even after Aradia leaves, until appearing that night after Terezi’s gone to bed. Sometime past twelve, Vriska finds herself sitting upside down on the ceiling, suspended and half-translucent; the blue of Terezi’s nightlight refracting endlessly beneath her skin. Sometime past then, Terezi wakes to spot her there, and blinks twice in sleepy acknowledgement before pulling the covers over her head.
Terezi had found the magic 8-ball in the attic loft the week she moved into the house, in the days she had spent cataloguing everything in the place from top to bottom. But Vriska doesn’t tell her that she used to own it until the day after Aradia visits.
“I got that for my eighth birthday,” Vriska tells Terezi, unprompted; an anachronistic bit of detail. “My mother took me to the toy store and let me pick it out. It was my favorite.” And then, after a moment: “But I’m letting you have it, because I’m soooooooo nice.”
Terezi looks up from her textbook, stills her hands from fiddling with the 8-ball. “Objection! You aren’t even ‘so nice’ with one ‘o’, not to mention eight. I hold you in contempt of the court.” But she takes Vriska’s hand (cold as always) and drapes it over her own, clasping in turn the toy.
One afternoon when she’s nine, Terezi pesters her mother into buying her scarlet and teal nail polish from the drug store. She paints her nails when she gets home, in alternating stripes on each individual nail so that the colors blend into each other.
“That looks awful,” Vriska tells her. And then: “It smells awful.” And reluctantly: “The colors are nice though, by themselves. The red tastes like cherries.” Vriska did that a lot, mixing up sights and tastes and smells, something Terezi accepted as a Vriskaism.
Terezi only laughs. “Can you do better?”
“Maybe if my fingers didn’t sometimes disappear? On second thought, I still might be able to do better.”
Privately, Terezi suspects that Vriska couldn’t paint nails half-decently even when she was alive. But she can brush Terezi’s hair, on nights Terezi is too wired to sleep. In the dark, Vriska’s hands are quiet and draining.
Terezi dates Karkat Vantas for half a week one fall when she is eleven. She breaks it off after he kisses her. “Do I need to beat him up?” asks Vriska after Terezi tells her about it.
“Don’t worry about it,” Terezi says, wrinkling up her nose. “I’ve got it covered.”
Some indistinct moment when Terezi is thirteen, Vriska stops growing.
This means that when she’s fourteen, Terezi begins to catch up to Vriska in height. And it means that the day Terezi confronts Vriska about having torn up her homework, they are four inches apart instead of five. "You don't need that junk anyways," Vriska tells her, and Terezi frowns and frowns.
The second time Terezi invites Aradia over she invites Tavros as well. It’s at her fifteenth birthday party, eight years after the first time. It’s not the last time, although it very nearly is.
Vriska remains, as last time, absent. She remains absent as they watch movies, even though Terezi puts on her favorite one, half-expecting see her appear for half a second behind the television to wink at Terezi. She remains absent as they sprawl out in sleeping bags on the living-room floor. She remains absent until Tavros picks up a certain magic 8-ball from its ledge at the top of the stairs.
“Stop!” calls a voice.
Tavros blinks. “Did you hear something, Aradia?”
“Put it down!”
“Is someone else in the house?”
Aradia appears behind Tavros, rubbing her eyes sleepily. “Maybe its that ghost Terezi always used to say lived in her house when we were kids.”
“We still are kids,” says Tavros, but already the air has taken on a sort of deadly still. Suddenly, Aradia starts to scream, high and plaintive; the end of the world as we know it.
Several things happen at once. Aradia, moved as if by another’s force, pushes Tavros down the stairs and then collapses. In the kitchen, in the middle of making bright red pancakes and alarmed by the voices coming from the stairs, Terezi is suddenly seized by a killing cold. She will remember nothing of landing on the floor in a jumbled heap except a searing and terrible lightness, and the thin string of Vriska in the back of her mind becoming consuming.
When time starts again, it remains bent. Tavros tumbles as if in slow motion down the stairs. Vriska comes to herself gradually. In the awful quiet, she manages to pick up the phone and dial 911, clutching the receiver until it falls through her hands. She watches, intangible, as the ambulance arrives, silent and austere.
Terezi wakes in the hospital. “Calm down,” the nurse tells her, although she is very calm. Distantly, Terezi notes that the nurse’s face is all blurred out, as is everything else in the room. But she can make out the red of the nurse’s name tag, and it tastes like cherries.
When the time comes to speak to the doctor, she lies, and when the time comes to speak to her mother, she lies, and when the time comes to speak to her friends, she lies, and when the time comes to speak to the police, she lies some more.
She is in the hospital for three weeks.
On her Terezi’s third day back at her house, Vriska appears; eyes and voice ghost-blank and still. “It was lonely without you,” she tells Terezi.
Later, Terezi will remember that summer in crystalline shards embedded in an indistinct sea. She has a month of schoolwork to make up and a routine to relearn whilst legally blind and then the endless omnipresence of a friend she no longer knows how to feel about, if she ever did.
Sometimes, sitting beneath a tree in the backyard and studying, Vriska will appear beside her, fading in slowly, as if in warning. “I don’t think I’ll go back to school,” Terezi tells her once, measured.
“I didn’t take you for a dropout, Pyrope.”
“No, I mean, I think I’m going to ask my mom about homeschooling. Maybe that way I can even finish high school early.”
“And then. . . . college?” Vriska says a little unsteadily.
“Yes,” says Terezi. A laugh. “I still want to be a lawyer, you know. If you had doubts for a moment.”
“I know you’ll get accepted somewhere nice,” Vriska tells her finally. “Maybe the best, even.” The unsaid words hang heavy in the air.
“You can talk to me more often, if you want,” says Terezi after a while.
“I still have to take the energy to form from you,” Vriska says in a sort of oblique admission of something else entirely.
“I don’t mind,” Terezi says. An echo.
The next Saturday, when the ice cream truck came around, Terezi buys two orange creamsicles, one for her and one for Vriska, like she used to years and years ago. She eats hers on the back stoop, while Vriska sits next to her and holds her creamsicle idly. “It smells like stars,” Vriska says, and Terezi agrees.
Terezi lets Vriska brush her hair again that night, feather-gentle. “Sorry,” Vriska whispers, into that moment between the waking world and the dreaming one.
One day that summer Terezi walks to the library and heads for the archives. Waves Mrs. Leijon away when she asks if she needs help. It takes her four hours to find what she’s looking for; two newspaper fragments from thirty years ago. An obituary for one Vriska Serket, bland and short - stolen from us at the tender age of thirteen, too good for this sinful earth, God has called her back to His flock - and an article on her death - MOTHER STABS DAUGHTER WITH KITCHEN KNIFE IN FIT OF RAGE, SHOCKING MURDER. Years later, Terezi will visit Vriska’s mother in prison, by then an old woman, and staring silently attempt to find a trace of Vriska’s smile in the creases of her mouth.
When she returns, she says nothing but, days later, to Vriska, “Serket is a nice last name.
And Vriska does nothing but tilt her head upwards to stare at the ceiling slowly, flickering in and out, and say, “If you say so.”
“Have you been happy?” Terezi asks Vriska finally, sitting together in the attic loft with their feet dangling off the edge.
Vriska blinks. “Of course,” she says. Her hand is as cold as ever, as are her lips when Terezi kisses her. She tastes of abandoned places and loneliness and bleak bleak death and an endless fight to not be consumed whole by nothingness and digested into peanuts, and orange creamsicles, and love.
But Terezi pulls away after only a moment. “Goodbye,” she says, quietly.
“Okay,” says Vriska, and knocks her forehead gently into Terezi’s, like a benediction. “Okay.”
Terezi gently unravels the Vriska-string from her mind and lets it go, and slowly Vriska’s hand fades away from hers until she is alone.
Some time in the future, but not so far away, Terezi reclaims her 8-ball from Rose. “Maybe tomorrow we can go up into the attic loft and I’ll tell you the whole story,” she says. “In one cohesive narrative. I’ve heard telling ghost stories can be a fun and bonding experience.”
“And then maybe afterwards we can leave the 8-ball behind? So it may survive another move, thus continuing a cycle into perpetuity?”
“A cycle of shitty artifacts?”
“Yes. Indiana Jones would be so disappointed.”
“I revel in his disappointment. I will knit it into a cloak and wear it forever.” But she nonetheless slips the 8-ball into her bag with nimble fingers; quickly, as if fearing that it would, like memory, dissolve if noticed too directly.