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Stranger Things Happen

by Kelly Link

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Book Summary

Collects eleven short stories incorporating ghosts, aliens, and the living dead, including the stories "Survivor's Ball, or, The Donner Party" and "Louise's Ghost".

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Excerpt: Stranger Things Happen

Chapter One

Carnation, Lily,
Lily, Rose

Dear Mary (if that is your name),

    I bet you'll be pretty surprised to hear from me. It really isme, by the way, although I have to confess at the momentthat not only can I not seem to keep your name straight in my head,Laura? Susie? Odile? but I seem to have forgotten my own name. Iplan to keep trying different combinations: Joe loves Lola, Willy lovesSuki, Henry loves you, sweetie, Georgia?, honeypie, darling. Do anyof these seem right to you?

All last week I felt like something was going to happen, a sort of beesand ants feeling. Something was going to happen. I taught my classesand came home and went to bed, all week waiting for the thing thatwas going to happen, and then on Friday I died.

One of the things I seem to have misplaced is how, or maybe I meanwhy. It's like the names. I know that we lived together in a house ona hill in a small comfortable city for nine years, that we didn't havekids—except once, almost—and that you're a terrible cook, oh mydarling, Coraline? Coralee? and so was I, and we ate out whenever wecould afford to. I taught at a good university, Princeton? Berkeley?Notre Dame? I was a good teacher, and my students liked me. But Ican't remember the name of the street we lived on, or the author ofthe last book I read, or your last name which was also my name, orhow I died. It's funny, Sarah? but the only two names I know for sureare real are Looly Bellows, the girl who beat me up in fourth grade,and your cat's name. I'm not going to put your cat's name down onpaper just yet.

We were going to name the baby Beatrice. I just remembered that. Wewere going to name her after your aunt, the one that doesn't like me.Didn't like me. Did she come to the funeral?

I've been here for three days, and I'm trying to pretend that it's just avacation, like when we went to that island in that country. Santorini?Great Britain? The one with all the cliffs. The one with the hotel withthe bunkbeds, and little squares of pink toilet paper, like handkerchiefs.It had seashells in the window too, didn't it, that were transparent likebottle glass? They smelled like bleach? It was a very nice island. Notrees. You said that when you died, you hoped heaven would be anisland like that. And now I'm dead, and here I am.

This is an island too, I think. There is a beach, and down on the beachis a mailbox where I am going to post this letter. Other than the beach,the mailbox, there is the building in which I sit and write this letter. Itseems to be a perfectly pleasant resort hotel with no other guests, noreceptionist, no host, no events coordinator, no bellboy. Just me. Thereis a television set, very old-fashioned, in the hotel lobby. I fiddled theantenna for a long time, but never got a picture. Just static. I tried to makeimages, people out of the static. It looked like they were waving at me.

My room is on the second floor. It has a sea view. All the rooms herehave views of the sea. There is a desk in my room, and a good supplyof plain, waxy white paper and envelopes in one of the drawers.Laurel? Maria? Gertrude?

I haven't gone out of sight of the hotel yet, Lucille? because I amafraid that it might not be there when I get back.

Yours truly,
You know who.

The dead man lies on his back on the hotel bed, his hands busy and curious, strokinghis body up and down as if it didn't really belong to him at all. One hand cups histesticles, the other tugs hard at his erect penis. His heels push against the mattress andhis eyes are open, and his mouth. He is trying to say someone's name.

    Outside, the sky seems much too close, made out of some grey stuff that onlygrudgingly allows light through. The dead man has noticed that it never gets any lighteror darker, but sometimes the air begins to feel heavier, and then stuff falls out of thesky, fist-sized lumps of whitish-grey doughy matter. It falls until the beach is covered,and immediately begins to dissolve. The dead man was outside, the first time the skyfell. Now he waits inside until the beach is clear again. Sometimes he watches television,although the reception is poor.

    The sea goes up and back the beach, sucking and curling around the mailbox athigh tide. There is something about it that the dead man doesn't like much. It doesn'tsmell like salt the way a sea should. Cara? Jasmine? It smells like wet upholstery,burnt fur.

Dear May? April? Ianthe?

My room has a bed with thin, limp sheets and an amateurish paintingof a woman sitting under a tree. She has nice breasts, but a peculiarexpression on her face, for a woman in a painting in a hotel room,even in a hotel like this. She looks disgruntled.

I have a bathroom with hot and cold running water, towels, and amirror. I looked in the mirror for a long time, but I didn't lookfamiliar. It's the first time I've ever had a good look at a dead person.I have brown hair, receding at the temples, brown eyes, and goodteeth, white, even, and not too large. I have a small mark on myshoulder, Celeste? where you bit me when we were making love thatlast time. Did you somehow realize it would be the last time we madelove? Your expression was sad; also, I seem to recall, angry. I rememberyour expression now, Eliza? You glared up at me without blinking andwhen you came, you said my name, and although I can't remember myname, I remember you said it as if you hated me. We hadn't made lovefor a long time.

I estimate my height to be about five feet, eleven inches, and althoughI am not unhandsome, I have an anxious, somewhat fixed expression.This may be due to circumstances.

I was wondering if my name was by any chance Roger or Timothy orCharles. When we went on vacation, I remember there was a similarconfusion about names, although not ours. We were trying to thinkof one for her, I mean, for Beatrice. Petrucchia, Solange? We wrotethem all with long pieces of stick on the beach, to see how theylooked. We started with the plain names, like Jane and Susan andLaura. We tried practical names like Polly and Meredith and Hope,and then we became extravagant. We dragged our sticks through thesand and produced entire families of scowling little gifts namedGudrun, Jezebel, Jerusalem, Zedeenya, Zerilla. How about Looly, Isaid. I knew a girl named Looly Bellows once. Your hair was allsnarled around your face, stiff with salt. You had about a zillionfreckles. You were laughing so hard you had to prop yourself up withyour stick. You said that sounded like a made-up name.

You know who.

The dead man is trying to act as if he is really here, in this place. He is trying to actin a normal and appropriate fashion. As much as is possible. He is trying to be a goodtourist.

    He hasn't been able to fall asleep in the bed, although he has turned the paintingto the wall. He is not sure that the bed is a bed. When his eyes are closed, it doesn'tseem to be a bed. He sleeps on the floor, which seems more floorlike than the bed seemsbedlike. He lies on the floor with nothing over him and pretends that he isn't dead.He pretends that he is in bed with his wife and dreaming. He makes up a nice dreamabout a party where he has forgotten everyone's name. He touches himself. Then he getsup and sees that the white stuff that has fallen out of the sky is dissolving on the beach,little clumps of it heaped around the mailbox like foam.

Dear Elspeth? Deborah? Frederica?

Things are getting worse. I know that if I could just get your namestraight, things would get better.

I told you that I'm on an island, but I'm not sure that I am. I'm havingdoubts about my bed and the hotel. I'm not happy about the sea orthe sky, either. The things that have names that I'm sure of, I'm notsure they're those things, if you understand what I'm saying, Mallory?I'm not sure I'm still breathing, either. When I think about it, I do. Ionly think about it because it's too quiet when I'm not. Did youknow, Alison? that up in those mountains, the Berkshires? the altitudegets too high, and then real people, live people forget to breathe also?There's a name for when they forget. I forget what the name is.

But if the bed isn't a bed, and the beach isn't a beach, then what arethey? When I look at the horizon, there almost seem to be corners.When I lay down, the corners on the bed receded like the horizon.

Then there is the problem about the mail. Yesterday I simply slippedthe letter into a plain envelope, and slipped the envelope, unaddressed,into the mailbox. This morning the letter was gone and when I stuckmy hand inside, and then my arm, the sides of the box were dampand sticky. I inspected the back side and discovered an open panel.When the tide rises, the mail goes out to sea. So I really have no ideaif you, Pamela? or, for that matter, if anyone is reading this letter.

I tried dragging the mailbox further up the beach. The waves hissedand spit at me, a wave ran across my foot, cold and furry and black,and I gave up. So I will simply have to trust to the local mail system.

Hoping you get this soon,
You know who.

The dead man goes for a walk along the beach. The sea keeps its distance, but the hotelstays close behind him. He notices that the tide retreats when he walks towards it,which is good. He doesn't want to get his shoes wet. If he walked out to sea, wouldit part for him like that guy in the bible? Onan?

    He is wearing his second-best suit, the one he wore for interviews and weddings.He figures it's either the suit that he died in, or else the one that his wife buried himin. He has been wearing it ever since he woke up and found himself on the island,disheveled and sweating, his clothing wrinkled as if he had been wearing it for along time. He takes his suit and his shoes off only when he is in his hotel room. Heputs them back on to go outside. He goes for a walk along the beach. His fly isundone.

    The little waves slap at the dead man. He can see teeth under that water, in theglassy black walls of the larger waves, the waves farther out to sea. He walks a fairdistance, stopping frequently to rest. He tires easily. He keeps to the dunes. Hisshoulders are hunched, his head down. When the sky begins to change, he turnsaround. The hotel is right behind him. He doesn't seem at all surprised to see it there.All the time he has been walking, he has had the feeling that just over the next dunesomeone is waiting for him. He hopes that maybe it is his wife, but on the other handif it were his wife, she'd be dead too, and if she were dead, he could remember hername.

Dear Matilda? Ivy? Alicia?

I picture my letters sailing out to you, over those waves with the teeth,little white boats. Dear reader, Beryl? Fern? you would like to knowhow I am so sure these letters are getting to you? I remember that italways used to annoy you, the way I took things for granted. But I'msure you're reading this in the same way that even though I'm stillwalking around and breathing (when I remember to) I'm sure I'mdead. I think that these letters are getting to you, mangled, soddenbut still legible. If they arrived the regular way, you probably wouldn'tbelieve they were from me, anyway.

I remembered a name today, Elvis Presley. He was the singer, right?Blue shoes, kissy fat lips, slickery voice? Dead, right? Like me.Marilyn Monroe too, white dress blowing up like a sail, Gandhi,Abraham Lincoln, Looly Bellows (remember?) who lived next door tome when we were both eleven. She had migraine headaches allthrough the school year, which made her mean. Nobody liked her,before, when we didn't know she was sick. We didn't like her after. Shebroke my nose because I pulled her wig off one day on a dare. Theytook a tumor out of her head that was the size of a chicken egg butshe died anyway.

When I pulled her wig off, she didn't cry. She had brittle bits of hairtufting out of her scalp and her face was swollen with fluid like she'dbeen stung by bees. She looked so old. She told me that when she wasdead she'd come back and haunt me, and after she died, I pretendedthat I could see not just her—but whole clusters of fat, pale, hairlessghosts lingering behind trees, swollen and humming like hives. It wasa scary fun game I played with my friends. We called the ghostsloolies, and we made up rules that kept us safe from them. A certainkind of walk, a diet of white food—marshmallows, white breadrolled into pellets, and plain white rice. When we got tired of theloolies, we killed them off by decorating her grave with the remainsof the powdered donuts and Wonderbread our suspicious mothers atlast refused to buy for us.

Are you decorating my grave, Felicity? Gay? Have you forgotten meyet? Have you gotten another cat yet, another lover? or are you still inmourning for me? God, I want you so much, Carnation, Lily? Lily?Rose? It's the reverse of necrophilia, I suppose—the dead man whowants one last fuck with his wife. But you're not here, and if you werehere, would you go to bed with me?

I write you letters with my right hand, and I do the other thing withmy left hand that I used to do with my left hand, ever since I wasfourteen, when I didn't have anything better to do. I seem to recallthat when I was fourteen there wasn't anything better to do. I thinkabout you, I think about touching you, think that you're touching me,and I see you naked, and you're glaring at me, and I'm about to shoutout your name, and then I come and the name on my lips is the nameof some dead person, or some totally made-up name.

Does it bother you, Linda? Donna? Penthesilia? Do you want to knowthe worst thing? Just a minute ago I was grinding into the pillow, buckingand pushing and pretending it was you, Stacy? under me, oh fuck it feltgood, just like when I was alive and when I came I said, "Beatrice." AndI remembered coming to get you in the hospital after the miscarriage.

There were a lot of things I wanted to say. I mean, neither of us wasreally sure that we wanted a baby and part of me, sure, was relievedthat I wasn't going to have to learn how to be a father just yet, butthere were still things that I wish I'd said to you. There were a lot ofthings I wish I'd said to you.

You know who.

The dead man sets out across the interior of the island. At some point after his firstexpedition, the hotel moved quietly back to its original location, the dead man in hisroom, looking into the mirror, expression intent, hips tilted against the cool tile. Thisflesh is dead. It should not rise. It rises. Now the hotel is back beside the mailbox,which is empty when he walks down to check it.

    The middle of the island is rocky, barren. There are no trees here, the dead manrealizes, feeling relieved. He walks for a short distance—less than two miles, hecalculates, before he stands on the opposite shore. In front of him is a flat expanse ofwater, sky folded down over the horizon. When the dead man turns around, he cansee his hotel, looking forlorn and abandoned. But when he squints, the shadows on theback veranda waver, becoming a crowd of people, all looking back at him. He has hishands inside his pants, he is touching himself. He takes his hands out of his pants. Heturns his back on the shadowy porch.

    He walks along the shore. He ducks down behind a sand dune, and then downa long hill. He is going to circle back. He is going to sneak up on the hotel if he can,although it is hard to sneak up on something that always seems to be trying to sneakup on you. He walks for a while, and what he finds is a ring of glassy stones, farup on the beach, driftwood piled inside the ring, charred and black. The ground istrampled all around the fire, as if people have stood there, waiting and pacing. Thereis something left in tatters and skin on a spit in the center of the campfire, about thesize of a cat. The dead man doesn't look too closely at it.

    He walks around the fire. He sees tracks indicating where the people who stoodhere, watching a cat roast, went away again. It would be hard to miss the directionthey are taking. The people leave together, rushing untidily up the dune, barefoot andheavy, the imprints of the balls of the foot deep, heels hardly touching the sand at all.They are headed back towards the hotel. He follows the footprints, sees the single trackof his own footprints, coming down to the fire. Above, in a line parallel to hisexpedition and to the sea, the crowd has walked this way, although he did not see them.They are walking more carefully now, he pictures them walking more quietly.

    His footprints end. There is the mailbox, and this is where he left the hotel. Thehotel itself has left no mark. The other footprints continue towards the hotel, where itstands now, small in the distance. When the dead man gets back to the hotel, the lobbyfloor is dusted with sand, and the television is on. The reception is slightly improved.But no one is there, although he searches every room. When he stands on the backveranda, staring out over the interior of the island, he imagines he sees a group ofpeople, down beside the far shore, waving at him. The sky begins to fall.

Dear Araminta? Kiki?

Lolita? Still doesn't have the right ring to it, does it? Sukie? Ludmilla?Winifred?

I had that same not-dream about the faculty party again. She wasthere, only this time you were the one who recognized her, and I wastrying to guess her name, who she was. Was she the tall blonde withthe nice ass, or the short blonde with the short hair who kept hermouth a little open, like she was smiling all the time? That one lookedlike she knew something I wanted to know, but so did you. Isn't thatfunny? I never told you who she was, and now I can't remember. Youprobably knew the whole time anyway, even if you didn't think youdid. I'm pretty sure you asked me about that little blond girl, whenyou were asking.

I keep thinking about the way you looked, that first night we slepttogether. I'd kissed you properly on the doorstep of your mother'shouse, and then, before you went inside, you turned around andlooked at me. No one had ever looked at me like that. You didn'tneed to say anything at all. I waited until your mother turned off allthe lights downstairs, and then I climbed over the fence, and up thetree in your backyard, and into your window. You were leaning outof the window, watching me climb, and you took off your shirt sothat I could see your breasts, I almost fell out of the tree, and thenyou took off your jeans and your underwear had a day of the weekembroidered on it, Holiday? and then you took off your underweartoo. You'd bleached the hair on your head yellow, and then streaked itwith red, but the hair on your pubis was black and soft when Itouched it.

We lay down on your bed, and when I was inside you, you gave methat look again. It wasn't a frown, but it was almost a frown, as if youhad expected something different, or else you were trying to getsomething just right. And then you smiled and sighed and twistedunder me. You lifted up smoothly and strongly as if you were going tolevitate right off the bed, and I lifted with you as if you were carryingme and I almost got you pregnant for the first time. We never weregood about birth control, were we, Eliane? Rosemary? And then Iheard your mother out in the backyard, right under the elm I'd justclimbed, yelling "Tree? Tree?"

I thought she must have seen me climb it. I looked out the windowand saw her directly beneath me, and she had her hands on her hips,and the first thing I noticed were her breasts, moonlit and plump,pushed up under her dressing gown, fuller than yours and almost asnice. That was pretty strange, realizing that I was the kind of guy whocould have fallen in love with someone after not so much time, really,truly, deeply in love, the forever kind, I already knew, and still noticethis middle-aged woman's tits. Your mother's tits. That was the secondthing I learned. The third thing was that she wasn't looking back atme. "Tree?" she yelled one last time, sounding pretty pissed.

So, okay, I thought she was crazy. The last thing, the thing I didn'tlearn, was about names. It's taken me a while to figure that out. I'mstill not sure what I didn't learn, Aina? Jewel? Kathleen? but at leastI'm willing. I mean, I'm here still, aren't I?

Wish you were here,
You know who.

At some point, later, the dead man goes down to the mailbox. The water is particularlyunwaterlike today. It has a velvety nap to it, like hair. It raises up in almost discernableshapes. It is still afraid of him, but it hates him, hates him, hates him. It never likedhim, never "Fraidy cat, fraidy cat," the dead man taunts the water.

    When he goes back to the hotel, the loolies are there. They are watching televisionin the lobby. They are a lot bigger than he remembers.

Dear Cindy, Cynthia, Cenfenilla,

There are some people here with me now. I'm not sure if I'm in theirplace—if this place is theirs, or if I brought them here, like luggage.Maybe it's some of one, some of the other. They're people, or maybeI should say a person I used to know when I was little. I think they'vebeen watching me for a while, but they're shy. They don't talk much.

Hard to introduce yourself, when you have forgotten your name.When I saw them, I was astounded. I sat down on the floor of thelobby. My legs were like water. A wave of emotion came over me, sostrong I didn't recognize it. It might have been grief. It might havebeen relief. I think it was recognition. They came and stood aroundme, looking down. "I know you," I said. "You're loolies."

They nodded. Some of them smiled. They are so pale, so fat! Whenthey smile, their eyes disappear in folds of flesh. But they have tinysoft bare feet, like children's feet. "You're the dead man," one said. Ithad a tiny soft voice. Then we talked. Half of what they said madeno sense at all. They don't know how I got here. They don't rememberLooly Bellows. They don't remember dying. They were afraid of meat first, but also curious.

They wanted to know my name. Since I didn't have one, they tried tofind a name that fit me. Walter was put forward, then rejected. I wasun-Walter-like. Samuel, also Milo, also Rupert. Quite a few of themliked Alphonse, but I felt no particular leaning towards Alphonse."Tree," one of the loolies said.

Tree never liked me very much. I remember your mother standingunder the green leaves that leaned down on bowed branches, draggingthe ground like skirts. Oh, it was such a tree! the most beautiful treeI'd ever seen. Halfway up the tree, glaring up at me, was a fat blackcat with long white whiskers, and an elegant sheeny bib. You pulledme away. You'd put a T-shirt on. You stood in the window. "I'll gethim," you said to the woman beneath the tree. "You go back to bed,mom. Come here, Tree."

Tree walked the branch to the window, the same broad branch thathad lifted me up to you. You, Ariadne? Thomasina? plucked him offthe sill and then closed the window. When you put him down on thebed, he curled up at the foot, purring. But when I woke up, later,dreaming that I was drowning, he was crouched on my face, his bellyheavy as silk against my mouth.

I always thought Tree was a silly name for a cat. When he got old andslept out in the garden, he still didn't look like a tree. He looked likea cat. He ran out in front of my car, I saw him, you saw me see him,I realized that it would be the last straw—a miscarriage, your husbandsleeps with a graduate student, then he runs over your cat—I wastrying to swerve, to not hit him. Something tells me I hit him.I didn't mean to, sweetheart, love, Pearl? Patsy? Portia?


Copyright © 2001 Kelly Link.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 1-931520-00-3