The Girl Who Stopped Swimming - By Joshilyn Jackson


Until the drowned girl came to Laurel’s bedroom, ghosts had never walked in Victorianna. The houses were only twenty years old, with no accumulated history to put creaks in the hardwood floors or rattle at the pipes. The backyards had tall fences, and there were no cracks in the white sidewalks. Victorianna had a heavy wrought-iron gate guarding its entrance. The intricately curled top looked period, but it was new as well. It ran on hydraulics, and it swung wide only for those who knew the code.

Laurel and David had moved into the big house on Chapel Circle thirteen years ago, when Laurel was only nineteen, and since that day she hadn’t seen so much as a glimmer of her dead uncle Marty. He was tethered to the three-bedroom brick ranch where her parents still lived, half an hour away in tiny Pace, Florida. As a girl, she had seen him often, mostly on the nights before a storm broke.

She’d be fast asleep on her old Cinderella sheets, faded and soft from a thousand washings, with Anne of Green Gables or a Trixie Belden book lying open-spined on her bedside table. Then he would be there, standing on her side of the room by her bed, mournful and transparent. He didn’t belong near the ruffled shade on her reading lamp, and his feet should not have been allowed to rest beside her cotton trainer bra and Thalia’s dirty Keds and the abandoned issues of Tiger Beat scattered on the floor. The stuffed pony Laurel had loved best was still allowed a place at the end of her bed, but Marty was not reflected in its glass eyes, as if her loyal pony doll refused to acknowledge his presence.

He’d smile at her, one hand tucked easy in the waistband of his faded Levi’s, the other reaching out to her, ready to show her secret scenes, her own personal ghost of Christmas never.

A thin finger of moonlight came through the bullet hole left of his center, reaching to touch Laurel’s eye and help her lids come shuddering down. She’d leave them closed and roll away. In the morning, the sun would light up dust motes in the place where he’d been standing.

He left a cold spot in the room that she didn’t like to walk through, and sometimes she’d see the impression that his blanched cowboy boots had left in the nap of the rug. Once, her sister, Thalia, caught Laurel down on her knees, trying to smooth away those faint footprints.

“Are you feeling up the carpet, Bug?” Thalia asked.

Laurel only shrugged and stilled her hands. Thalia slept light and woke often, but she never saw Marty.

Laurel brought Thalia over to see the house in Victorianna a few days after she and David moved in. They’d been married all of five weeks. Thalia sat in the passenger seat, drawing her upper lip back from her teeth, higher and higher, while Laurel drove her slowly through the winding streets. The lip was practically touching Thalia’s nose by the time they’d passed six blocks’ worth of the large pastel Victorians with their gingerbread and curling gables and romantic little balconies.

“It looks like Barbie’s Dream House threw up in here,” Thalia said. “A bunch of times. Like, went full-on bulimic.”

“I think it’s beautiful,” Laurel said. Her tone was mild, but low in her belly, she felt the baby flip, popping sideways like an angry brine shrimp. “Look, this one’s ours.”

She pulled in to the driveway. Laurel and David’s house was the palest blue, trimmed in deep plum and heather. Two gargoyles hidden in the eaves watched over her with fierce eyes. A weathervane on the roof told her the wind’s plans for the day.

Thalia glanced from the turret to the sloped roof and then shook her head.

“You say something nice,” Laurel said, putting one hand over the swell of her abdomen. She was four months gone, and Shelby was so little, Laurel could only feel her fierce spins from the inside.

“Okay,” Thalia said, with the O stretched long, as if to buy her thinking time. Then she lifted her chin, manufacturing a June Cleaver smile. “It looks clean. Like they don’t even let dogs pee here.”

Laurel laughed. “I think that’s in our charter.”

She started to get out, but Thalia put one hand on her arm, stopping her. “Seriously? This is what you want? This house, this husband, a baby at nineteen?” Laurel nodded, and Thalia let her go. But Laurel heard her mutter under her