Also, the Cat |


Even death is no match for a trio of elderly, stubborn, ever-sparring sisters, who refuse to rest in peace while their grudges live on…


Rosalee died, aged seventy-six.

Her oldest sister, Irene (seventy-eight), blamed their middle sister, Viola (seventy-seven), for sending Rosie out front to check the mail when she knew Rosie’s inner ear condition was acting up. Viola, on the other hand, blamed Irene for not paying to get the garden path repaved last summer when they had the boys in to fix the porch.

The three sisters had never gotten along. They’d been born one, two, three—Irene then Viola then Rosalee—over the course of twenty-seven months, courtesy of prematurity and an abundance of parental amour. Their exhausted progenitors had expected them to share everything from possessions to personalities. As a result, they despised sharing anything apart from heartfelt and mutual hatred.

All three sisters had high-tailed it away from home as soon as age and circumstance allowed—three teenaged marriages, each more dubious than the last—but over the years, tragedy and/or mishap had struck thrice. One husband had died in a bar (where he spent the majority of his living hours in any case); one had converted his mistress into a missus; and one had honest-to-goodness disappeared at sea. The financial strains of widowhood—combined with the indifference, incapacity, and simple ingratitude of the various children to which the sisters had given birth—had eventually driven them all back to the farmhouse to live like maiden aunts.

It was as if, in their elder age, their adult lives had unspooled, dragging them back to their childhoods—back to walls full of half-finished electrical wiring that Papa had abandoned because he didn’t trust all that lightning in the house; back to the kitchen icebox with the drip pan that needed to be emptied twice a day; back to summers redly swollen with insect bites and winters nibbled blue by frost.

Irene and Viola had begun venting their ire on each other only seconds after finding Rosie’s corpse. Once begun, the rants continued almost ceaselessly throughout the following days, subsiding only briefly for herbal tea. At night, when even tea couldn’t soothe the savaged vocal cords, they rasped off to their separate bedrooms where they continued to berate each other in their dreams, each pleased to be winning her points so eloquently until waking dashed her back to contentious reality.

Rosalee’s ghost was understandably unhappy with the situation.

She had returned to spectral consciousness a few seconds after dying, the back of her head still pouring blood onto the garden path. Her body had not yet been discovered by anyone but herself, which had the virtue of giving her time to come to terms with the reality of her demise before being forced to cope with the concomitant reality of still being stuck in the world with her sisters, only now, as she would soon learn, without effective means to communicate her opinions.

“Does this seem fair?” Rosie had asked her corpse. “It does not.”

If her sisters had heard her, doubtlessly one of them would have snapped at her in response that life isn’t fair. She would have liked to reply: Shouldn’t death be then?

However, her sisters were elsewhere—and even if they’d been present, it wouldn’t have made any difference: they, with their doggedly metronomic breath and circulating blood, couldn’t hear her at all, no matter their proximity, not even when strolling right through her.

Rosie tried, nevertheless, to make conversation. For instance, when Viola announced that she was going upstairs to choose which dresses to send to the mortuary, Rosie followed.

“Not the polyester!” Rosie exclaimed, waving her arms in distress as she watched Viola sift through the hangers. “Oh, no, no—what are you doing? That was for a church play! I was a tree! Oh—no—I inherited that one from my mother-in-law— No! You can’t be serious! No one should wear that color!”

The issue was simple: Viola had always envied Rosalee’s wardrobe—but unfortunately, although all three sisters had gained weight after marriage and childbirth, Viola had gained more than the others, and so Irene would inherit the lot. Viola had made it her objective, therefore, to deny Irene whichever of Rosie’s dresses she thought Irene would most enjoy.

This might have been tolerable except that Irene’s curmudgeonly tastes ran deep. Even at the age of ten, she’d dressed like the abstemious old woman it had taken her sixty more years to become. Given a choice between, for example, a cheerful bright red and a dumpy dried-puke green, Irene would always choose the latter. She regarded embellishments like lace with several degrees more disgust than an upright Puritan would regard a Roman orgy.

Alas, Viola knew Irene’s taste very, very well.

Rosie followed Viola from dress to dress, striving desperately to be heard. “What about the pink one? Yes! Right there! No, no, don’t put it down— Okay, the blue one, that’s fine, too. It’s right behind the one you’re looking at— No, Viola, that’s a dress I wore to someone else’s funeral— Oh, no. You’ve got the key to my jewelry box. You’re going to go straight for my husband’s gold rings, aren’t you? Viola! That’s enough of this— Stop!”

Rosie planted herself directly in her sister’s path as Viola went to lay her selections on the bed.

Viola walked right through her.

Glumly, Rosie went looking for Irene. She found her out front, endeavoring to scrub residual blood from the path where Rosie had fallen. This was characteristic of Irene, whose willingness to replace things barely extended to balding toothbrushes. She kept a box in the attic filled with torn wrapping paper which she reused by taping it to packages in unsettling mosaics of reindeer, birthday candles, and the baby Jesus.

“This path was too old to start with,” Rosie scolded her. “Viola’s right. You should have had it replaced when we got the porch done. Look at all those cracks. One or the other of you is going to break your hip if you don’t die outright. How’s it going to look to people in town if we all die the same way?”

Irene stopped scrubbing to examine her progress. She sneered in frustration at the persistent splatter. “Isn’t this just like Rosalee?” Irene muttered. “Inconsiderate down to the blood.”

“Oh, never mind,” said Rosie. “Break your neck if you want to.” A horrible thought occurred. “You won’t become a ghost, will you?”

“Couldn’t even be bothered to watch her feet, the stampcrab,” Irene continued.

Rosie fixed a fastidious eye on her left foot as she drew it back to kick her eldest sister’s rear end. Being insubstantial, however, Rosie’s foot passed through Irene’s worldly derriere, leaving Rosie’s specter scrambling to regain her balance while Irene carried on her grumbling unaffected.

Although Rosie went to sit alone for the rest of the day, watching the sun slump behind the horizon, she could still hear her sisters shouting in the distance. Before her death, Rosie would never have guessed—and nor would anyone else—that she’d acted as something of a buffer between her older sisters. She’d argued just as bitterly and hated just as passionately. Yet now it was undeniable: in her absence, something important had changed.

The truth was that withdrawing any sister from the trio would have collapsed the balance between the others. With only two of them, there were no more shifting alliances to motivate negotiations and truces. There were only endless frontal assaults between opposing generals.

Through sheer vocal exhaustion, the hot war ended one morning in a ceasefire of a sort, though certainly not a cessation of hostility. Irene swore never to speak to Viola again; Viola swore the same back. The funeral, it was agreed, was to be arranged by notes deposited hourly on the neutral zone of the kitchen table.

For the first few early hours, Rosie felt relieved on behalf of her ears, but by afternoon it became clear that the only thing worse than the constant shouting was the unbroken silence. Not only had Rosie lost the ability to speak herself, but now she was without any words at all.

That night, when Rosie went up to the room that had been hers, and lay upon the bed that had been hers, atop the ugly clothing that had unfortunately also been hers, she was surprised to spy one of their childhood cats, Mrs. Fritter, loping into the room. The creature leapt onto her chest, seemingly untroubled by the fact that Rosie was recently dead.

Mrs. Fritter herself was many decades past the feline veil. Rosie held out her fingers for the dead cat to sniff. “Hey there, Missus,” Rosie said. “We never did figure out what got you. Was there a wolf?”

Mrs. Fritter approached and Rosie stroked her back. The animal circled several times before curling up.

“What did I expect?” Rosie asked. “They never listened to me when I was alive. No one did. Eddie—that was my husband, you never met him—Ed never listened to me either. To be fair, he was usually too drunk to listen to much. Certainly, too drunk to listen to the doctor about his liver.”

Mrs. Fritter rattled a purr.

Rosie went on, “When I was a kid—nine, ten, probably, you were gone by then—I had this game pretending I was an actress starring in the movie of my life. You could’ve been my pedigree cat. I could’ve clipped one of my rhinestone pins right here.” Rosie ruffled the tuft behind Mrs. Fritter’s ear.

The cat bopped her head against Rosie’s hand to start it petting again.

“I had a pair of those pins,” Rosie said, a bit maudlin. “Viola lost the stones out of them. I bit her on the arm and broke her pencils.”

Mrs. Fritter settled down as Rosie’s hand resumed stroking.

Rosie continued, “I’d be at the bus stop, imagining the argument I’d have someday with the director of my autobiographical picture. How should we stage the scene where I was discovered? Should I be waiting for the bus? Weeding the garden? Should Viola and Irene be around so we could get some good shots of their faces turning green, or should we focus entirely on me?”

She shook her head.

“Now, I’m dead, and I’m still…here.”

In the morning, Rosalee went out to the front porch. It was time, she thought, to fulfill her old aspirations, even if she had to do it on her own two ethereal feet. She gazed out at the flat horizon, wishing she had a hat and gloves and a suitcase so it would feel like a proper bon voyage. She took note of the brush of grasses against the sky, and the scent of open air, and the nearby copse of trees, and the little white car Viola had bought from her daughter-in-law at a discount—and she hoped never to see any of them again.

Mrs. Fritter came to see her off. The cat perched on the porch railing and washed her face.

Rosalee waved. “Goodbye, Mrs. Fritter!”

She set off on the road to somewhere.

A few minutes later, she was walking back toward the porch from the other direction, nothing in her head but blankness from the moment she’d crossed the property line. The shadows fell at exactly the same length and angle as they had before, cast by a sun that hadn’t bothered to budge an inch.

Mrs. Fritter proceeded to wash her shoulder.

“Well,” Rosalee started, but she wasn’t sure what else to say. “Well,” she repeated, sitting down on the porch steps until she gave up and started to cry. Mrs. Fritter jumped down from the railing, pushed her head under Rosie’s hand, and tried to purr the tears away.


Irene’s ghost woke after a heart attack landed her on the kitchen floor.

Two years ago, she and Viola had replaced the old fridge, and even called some boys to haul away the icebox. The new refrigerator’s harvest gold door stood halfway open, leaking cold, expensive air. The carton of strawberries that Irene had been looking forward to all day had fallen to the ground with her, where it snapped open, spilling fruit across the linoleum.

Irene tried to pick up a berry, but her fingers closed on nothing. “By Saint Boogar and all the saints at the backdoor of purgatory! I knew these cost too much. I didn’t even get to eat one.

Irene enjoyed antique swear words. They were not merely her favorite indulgence, but also her shield against slander. People with no sense of rhetorical wit said all sorts of nasty things about women—especially teachers—who let loose with mundane profanities, but you could shout, “Stop doing quisby, you fustilarian scobberlotchers!” in front of a whole classroom’s worth of parents and not-a-one would stop gawping long enough to complain to the principal.

Shakespeare was Irene’s gold standard, but she delighted in anything sufficiently well-honed by centuries. Saint Boogar, for instance, found its origin in Tristram Shandy whose eponymous narrator was a veritable fountainhead of insults.

As Irene aged, her elderly obscenities had lost some of their advantages, not because the average loiter-sack had gotten any more gumption, but because the wandoughts and fustilugs of the general public expected old women to use “outdated language.” Even the rare parent who was not an irredeemable loiter-sack—a truly singular, nay possibly extinct breed—was far too parochial to distinguish between the tatters of childhood lingo and the sterling abuses of Shakespeare.

In the secret and desolate corners of what must grudgingly be called her heart, Irene had always hoped to meet someone with a tongue nimble enough to answer back. For the rightly educated person, retorts would have been easy. They could have called Irene a “klazomaniac” who’d keep on screeching even if you cut out her vocal cords, or a “muckspout” whose talent for constantly swearing was only outdone by her talent for constantly running her mouth. They could even have called her a “dorbel,” a nagging teacher whose obsession with scolding and nit-picking made her a peer of the French scholar Nicolas d’Orbellis, whose name had been purloined to craft the insult. Irene took it as fact that the poor man, who had apparently once been forced to wrangle his own classrooms full of ungrateful lubberworts, had been unfairly defamed. It was just like students to sneak around slandering any competent teacher as “scolding” and “nit-picking.”

The immutable ignorance of the dalcops that surrounded Irene depressed her, it really did. She consoled herself by flinging more insults until the feeling went away.

Irene was the nastiest of her sisters, a sentiment with which she would have happily agreed. As children, the three of them, being opposed to sharing anything, had carefully allocated their sins along with their dolls and dresses. Rosalee was selfish; Viola was resentful; Irene was mean. However, both Rosalee and Viola had found that, without their sisters’ reinforcement, their worst traits were mitigated by the outside world. Irene remained equally nasty both in and outside of sororal company.

When Irene’s husband, Howard, had lost himself on an Arctic expedition, unkind people said he was searching for someplace warmer than Irene’s heart. Unkinder people said he’d found it.

As soon as Viola heard Irene’s body thud to the floor, she rushed stiff-kneed from the back porch. At the sight of Irene’s broken-down sprawl, she was sure her remaining sister was dead.

She lowered herself to check Irene’s pulse anyway. Finding the expected absence, Viola released a whooshing sigh—not of grief or good riddance, but rather of gusty relief—as if she’d been holding her breath for all four years since swearing never to speak to Irene again.

“Really, Irene?” Viola asked, panting. “You don’t say a word to me for four years, and now you’re leaving me alone?”

“Giving up, eh?” Irene crowed. “I win!”

Unable to hear her sister’s exclamation, Viola mused, “If you’re dead, I suppose I’ve won now, haven’t I?” She laughed. “I can’t believe I won against you, Irene.”

“Because you didn’t win! I did!” Irene’s eyes went wide with delighted realization. “Ha! I can talk all I want now. What a slovenly thing you are, Viola! Buying stuff and things. Leaving them everywhere. Not even unwrapping them half the time, you raggabrash. It’s intolerable living with a driggle-draggle like you. You’re as inconsiderate as Rosalee! And those plastic flamingo corn holders are the tackiest things I’ve ever seen! What do you want with them? What’s wrong with our corn holders? When are you eating corn?”

Viola, staring down at her sister’s body, asked listlessly, “What am I going to do? What if I miss you? What will I do then?” She shook her head. “Well, now it’s all over, I suppose I may as well speak my mind.”

“Over because I won,” said Irene.

“How did you get so mean?” asked Viola. “You kept getting worse and worse. It’s like you were pickling in your own spitefulness.”

“Nothing wrong with pickles,” complained Irene.

“How could you be so mean without saying a word? You could be mean with an eyebrow. You could be mean with your elbow.”

“I can be mean with my toenail, thank you very much.”

Carefully, Viola picked herself up. Her joints creaked, the sound reverberating through her bones. She glanced toward the stairs leading to the second floor. “I guess the sunny bedroom is mine now,” she said, referring to the room that had passed from Rosie to Irene. “Typical. The middle child gets everything last.” She shuffled out, mumbling to herself about which funeral home to call.

“Watch you don’t get fatter, too,” Irene called after her. She sniffed. “Ridiculous tallowcatch.”

“You’re both ridiculous,” said Rosalee.

The ghost of Irene looked up. She was not only surprised, but downright shocked to see the ghost of Rosie, who crossed her arms over her chest and looked back.

“You’re dead,” Irene informed Rosie.

“Pot, this is Kettle,” Rosie replied, pointing to Irene’s corpse on the floor.

Irene had known she was dead before this point, but the knowledge had occupied some passive, subconscious part of her deceased mind. Now, as it was forced to the surface, for the first time she really understood it. Her consciousness grabbed hold of the knowledge and ran around having a fit.


“Awful, isn’t it?” Rosie agreed drily. “You’re dead. I’m dead. And here we are.”


“No one thinks about haunting from the ghost’s perspective,” said Rosie, who’d had a long time to maunder on the subject and no one to discuss it with. “We’re not haunting the house. It’s haunting us. It’s always haunted us. Think about it—we all escaped and then it snatched us back.”

“Drate-poke,” Irene snapped back by rote, barely even hearing herself as she struggled for a grip on the situation. “Are Mother and Father here? What about Great-Aunt Nancy?”

“Just us. And Mrs. Fritter.”

“The cat?”

Rosie snapped as her resentments shoved their way center stage. “Do you have any idea how horrible it’s been in this house for four years when the two of you wouldn’t even talk? Not one conversation! I begged you!”

“Don’t try to tell me what to do,” retorted Irene.

“You could have made up with her anytime. Now Viola’s got however long to stew on things before she dies. You better hope she gets forgiving.” Rosie narrowed her eyes at her eldest sister. She added, “Because ghosts giving each other the silent treatment would be pathetic,” with the sinking feeling that was exactly what was going to happen.


Rosalee stayed out of Irene’s way; Irene stayed out of Rosalee’s way; Viola did as she wished, believing herself alone.

It was, in its way, a revelation for Viola. Not only was she apart from her hated sisters, but it was her first time living alone. From the day she’d left her childhood home until the day she returned there, she’d lived with her husband, Jack-the-Unzipper, who had no problem relying on her for housework and hot dinners even when he was relying on the new girl at work for horizontal refreshment.

Over the years, there had been many “new girls at work.” Viola didn’t know the precise number—certainly more than the eight or so with whom she’d become embarrassingly acquainted. High/lowlights included Bea who at least had the manners to claim she didn’t know Jack was married; Peggy who’d optimistically bought a wedding dress; and Susan who threw him over for his boss, triggering a month-long sulk during which Jack had the gall to cry to Viola about female perfidy.

Jack’s last “new girl” had successfully lured him into giving Viola the ever-promised but never-before-delivered divorce papers. It was quite the acrobatic feat given Jack’s dread fear of alimony, perhaps assisted by the fact that Jack and Viola’s youngest child had finally earned a high school diploma, thus relieving Jack of his even worse fear of child support. The new girl seemed to think he was a catch. Perhaps he was; judging by the increasingly evident ravages of smoking in his Christmas card photos, he seemed literally ready to cough up her inheritance any day.

He’d taken the waif off to New York City, which for some reason had always been “too expensive” whenever Viola asked to go. He called it “an extravagantly stupid way to waste money.” Sometimes Viola tried to cajole him; sometimes she even begged. It would be cheaper if we stayed outside the city, she’d say. Or Even if we don’t go anywhere you have to pay for, there’s still so much there! Or Damn it, if you can take your tramps to ski lodges, you can pay for me to see Starry Night! But no. It was Jill who got to watch her face in the reflecting pool next to the Egyptian temple in the Met.

Viola considered that the worst part of this—worse than the difficulties of the divorce, worse than the revelations about bank balances and selfish children, worse even than seeing her husband strut off to New York City while she was forced into returning to the childhood home which had birthed all her miseries—the worst part of all was that the girl’s name was Jill. It was intolerable beyond belief that her life had been wrecked by a nursery rhyme. Viola retained some hope that the universe would show enough sense of irony to throw Jack and Jill down a hill together, but thus far her ex-husband’s crown remained lamentably intact.

After a few months alone (or so she thought), Viola settled into a pattern, going around the house unwrapping the plethora of packages that had so disturbed Irene. This would have made progress toward tidying if she hadn’t kept ordering new items. Some of what she sent for was still gimcrackery (like the plastic flamingo corn holders which had made their way to charity and thence probably a landfill), but she also began ordering things that she found intriguing or even genuinely profound.

She read memoirs of movers and shakers; she pored over coffee table books on the Castles of Scotland and the Great Houses of Morocco; she sighed at photo essays of bright lights among smog-stained skyscrapers. Her vague, lifelong yearnings had solidified into wanderlust sometime after Jack moved East with Jill. Why should he be the only one who got to see whatever he wanted to see? Why should he get to move forward while she got yanked back?

Not that she intended to actually travel. A more confident or iconoclastic woman might have set off for parts unknown despite fatigue and stiff knees and an eighty-two-year-old heart. Viola never really considered it. She was used to regarding herself as middling in the way middle children sometimes do. Not as strong-willed as Irene; not as cute as Rosalee; not particularly clever, not particularly talented, not particularly interesting. Certainly not someone who would do something extraordinary like explore the world for the first time while ninety crept closer on the horizon.

For a while, she became a devoted enthusiast of a television show about a food critic who traveled the world’s backroads searching for oases of fine cuisine. Eventually, the metaphor began to depress her—that she could watch the world’s wonders from a distance, but never really taste them. She found a show about a nun who visited art museums and watched that instead.

Rosie or Irene occasionally wandered through to harangue Viola about her viewing choices. (“We all have to listen to that, you know.” “Is this suicide by boredom?” “Turn on the movie channel.”) Viola never in the least registered their imprecations.

This is not to say that she never shuddered with the feeling she was living in a haunted house. She did. It was simply that the chills which shivered down her spine always came from leaky windows, and the horrible noises upstairs were never more than the settling of restive floorboards. Genuine uncanny activities—such as those times when Mrs. Fritter fell through Viola’s lap while attempting to cuddle—never roused a single hair on the back of Viola’s neck.

Rosie, for her part, saw no reason to change her routine just because Irene had died. She spent most days wandering the property with Mrs. Fritter until dawn and dusk swapped roles. The cat insisted on it; whenever Rosie tried to sleep past sunrise, Mrs. Fritter paced the length of her bed, caterwauling until the din forced Rosie out of bed. Rosie had no idea why. Maybe Mrs. Fritter was watching for ghost mice in the grass. Rosie had certainly never seen any.

Irene’s ghost, on the other hand, was curdling with boredom. Insulting Viola was useless; nastiness lost its savor when your target couldn’t hear you. Insulting Rosie was mildly amusing, but Irene could never get her to stick around for more than a few barbs. “Boil-brained, beslubbering giglet—” she’d shout and by then Rosie would already be on her way out the door.

Bored out of her ghostly skull, Irene tasked herself with learning to control the television. It came to nothing but the occasional burst of static so rare that even she had to admit it was probably random.

Books, however, were different. It turned out that they could be pulled from the shelf—or at least something could, a sort of ghost-book available to be read until someone set it down for long enough that it faded away. The metaphysical implications were disturbing. Did books have souls then? What did the soul of a book want? Could a book consent to be read? These questions occurred to Irene; she ignored them. In her opinion, all that was the books’ problem.

Reading made the afterlife bearable. When Irene got fed up to the eyeballs with Viola’s travelogues and the smattering of classics and popular novels in the parlor, she’d go up to the small bedroom to browse her father’s heirloom volumes of Shakespeare. They were nearly one hundred and fifty years old by now; even their ghosts smelled like must and leather. Irene particularly liked Richard III for his sensible treatment of his cousins.

Although the cat, Mrs. Fritter, spent most of her waking hours with Rosie, she occasionally went to find Irene. It was unclear whether Mrs. Fritter’s purpose was to annoy Irene, comfort her, or satisfy some other catly urge, but the most common result of her sociability was to be shouted at and chased away. Now and then, however, Irene would succumb to those parts of her which had failed to completely callous over, and she held Mrs. Fritter in her lap as she perused the soul of a book.

After a year or two, Irene realized the cat had gone. For some while, there had been no hissing, nor snuggling, nor ghost claws scrabbling on the hardwood. She was loath to admit feeling sad about some animal, but a misanthropic tear or two escaped her eyes.

Irene planned to ask Rosie about it, but the next time they crossed paths, she succumbed to the temptation to insult her sister’s hair instead.


In the race to kill Viola, chemotherapy snatched the gold before pancreatic cancer could reach the finish line.

The moment Viola’s sickbed became a deathbed, the atmosphere of the house changed in a way that would have been palpable to any ghost. It had gone from a place that held a living soul to somewhere only inhabited by the dead.

Irene barged into the sunny bedroom. “I saw what you buried me in!”

Viola’s ghost squinted and tried to clear her eyes.

She was still lying inside herself, her corpse beset with a strange, transparent doubling. One set of blue eyes looked toward Irene while the other remained fixed unblinking on the ceiling.

“Get out of there.” Irene jabbed her sister’s arm. Her finger sank through flesh to hit spirit.

Viola flinched. Seeing her ethereal arm come loose, she set about pulling herself out of herself. Her joints moved fluidly in a way they hadn’t for twenty years—which would have been more exciting if it weren’t for the obvious cause.

“Scarlet!” shouted Irene, mind’s eye filled with a vision of her corpse reclining gaudily in its coffin. “Scarlet and lace and rhinestone earrings!”

Viola snickered.

“I saw that puce nightmare you put me in for my funeral, too,” added Rosalee.

Both Irene and Viola startled. Neither of them had noticed Rosie’s spirit leaning against the windowsill where she’d been waiting for the past several hours, anticipating the inevitable.

Rosalee waved. “Hi, Viola.”

Viola glanced at Rosie, slightly sheepish. The puce had mostly been meant to annoy Irene. “Well, you were dead. How was I supposed to know you’d care?”

“Pfft,” said Rosie.

A balloon of dread inflated in Viola’s chest. “…have you two been here the whole time?”

“Since the day I dropped,” said Rosie.

With horrible inevitability, Viola’s brain reeled through every embarrassing memory from the past nine years. She made a small noise. “I used to wonder if you two were talking to me.”

Never,” snapped Irene.

“All the time,” said Rosie, “but you never heard.” Sniffing, she took on a long-suffering tone. “Not that I expected you to. None of you ever listened to me when I was alive.”

“Rosie,” said Viola with a laugh. “No one could avoid listening to you.”

Rosie’s mouth went taut. “What are you talking about?”

“Ha.” Irene snorted. “Isn’t it obvious, you absurd skelpie-limmer?”

Skelpie-limmer meant dreadful child. Rosie would have been indignant if she’d understood what it meant, but Irene’s blandishments were all the same to her. She’d never bothered to learn any of them except in as much to figure out that, like most curse words, they were mostly concerned with stupidity or sex.

Disappointed but not deterred, Irene continued, “Great horn spoon, Rosalee. You made a racket dawn to dusk.”

“Singing, dancing, pretending to be in movies,” Viola added. “Early in the morning, late at night, and any time in between.”

“I never got one good night’s sleep as a child except when you had pneumonia,” said Irene. “Best month of my life.”

Rosie glared between her sisters. Their accurate-yet-unsettling claims rose bravely against her long-held resentments but were no match for such well-armored forces of ego-defense.

Rosie turned on Viola. “Took your time dying, didn’t you?”

“Sorry to disoblige,” said Viola, affronted.

“Well,” said Rosie, “now that you’re dead, we can finally get out of here.”

“Out of here?” Viola asked.

“Out of this house,” said Rosie. “Away from this farm. Out of here.”

Irene clacked her tongue derisively. “Mumblecrust! What are you talking about, Rosalee? I’ve tried it hundreds of times, same as you. Walk off the property, and there you are, walking back again.”

“Things will be different now,” said Rosie, adopting her most tremulant and mysterious tone.

Viola looked with bafflement between her sisters as they tried to stare each other down. This seemed…unreasonable. She felt that she deserved more time to adjust to being dead before having to deal with anything else. She also felt like she had a headache. Did ghosts get headaches? She rubbed her temples. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Ignore her,” Irene told Viola. “This is just typical Rosie bespawl.”

“It is not.” Rosie tipped up her chin like an affronted socialite. “I know because of Mrs. Fritter.”

“…the cat?” Viola asked helplessly.

Irene felt a startled spike of anger as she remembered all those times when she’d thought about asking Rosie about the cat. She’d missed that cat, consarn it. “Why didn’t you bring this up before? Where’s Mrs. Fritter? Explain!”

Rosie sighed. She gave a little put-upon wave like a singer facing demands for an encore. “Fine. I’ll explain about the cat.”


Rosie did not explain about the cat.

Well, not immediately—not given that she suddenly had the opportunity to get more attention than she’d had in nine whole years. As much as Rosie had always liked Mrs. Fritter, a quirked cat ear made an insufficient audience for someone with as much pent-up joie de vivre as Rosie. Viola and Irene would also make an insufficient audience, of course, but at least they had human vocal cords with which to express admiration.

At Rosie’s insistence, the three relocated to the kitchen. The remains of Viola’s last downstairs meal lay on the table—a crumpled napkin, a glass with a splash of water, and a plate holding a few crumbs and a chicken’s thigh bone.

As they settled, Viola’s daughter-in-law, Kelly (who had somehow contracted the obligation to check in every few days on the woman she referred to as her monster-in-law), came in through the back door. She threw her coat on the counter and tossed her purse onto the nearest kitchen chair where it fell through Viola’s lap.

The sisters turned their heads to watch the luckless daughter-in-law head toward the stairs.

“That cumberworld going to make a racket in a minute when she finds your body,” Irene said to Viola.

Viola said, “Kelly will dress me in some ugly pastel skirt suit, see if she doesn’t. Something a sanctimonious church lady would wear on Easter. That’s what she did to her mother.”

Rosie said, “If you think that makes up for what you did to us, it doesn’t.”

Scarlet!” cried Irene. “Rhinestones!

Viola snickered again.

Irene’s turbulent anger sought the nearest target which happened to be Rosie. She jabbed an incensed finger at her sister. “Enough of this prattling conversation about nothing! Rosalee, you pribbling beef-wit, can’t you even bother to work your lazy mouth? Death’s head upon a mop-stick, tell your story!”

Viola and Rosie regarded Irene unperturbed.

“You left out fustilug,” complained Viola. “That’s my favorite.”

“I like saddle-goose,” said Rosie.

Irene’s mouth gaped open—no one was supposed to be amused by her outbursts, thank you very much!—but before she could deliver another torrent of abuse, the daughter-in-law’s inevitable shriek filled the house.

Rosie said to Viola, “You’ve been found.”

“Seems like it,” Viola agreed.

Irene, furiously shaking, shouted at Rosie, “Explain! Now!”

So, Rosie explained about the cat.

It had been about six months ago as far as Rosalee could remember, timekeeping not being high on her list of posthumous priorities. The last crusts of snow had failed to crunch and melt under ghost-foot and ghost-paw as she and Mrs. Fritter roamed the property.

The family lands were fairly small. Although they were fallow now, every inch had been planted or explored by someone in the family line at one time or another. Nevertheless, it was difficult to survey the whole territory on foot without using a map. Woman and cat’s daily wanderings drew them to some places frequently, and to others not at all.

Therefore, it was still entirely possible to find someplace their travels had not yet taken them. On the day in question, they found such a place: a nondescript hollow smelling of sage where a line of leggy bushes, undressed for winter, grew among patches of snow and dirt.

When Mrs. Fritter saw the naked shrubbery, her eyes lit with a wildness Rosie had never seen before. The cat bolted toward the westmost bush and began scrabbling at the dirt.

At first, Rosie merely watched, expecting Mrs. Fritter to lose interest. However, as the cat became increasingly frantic, Rosie, sighing, knelt to help.

The pair weren’t digging up real dirt, not exactly, which was probably for the best since they had only bare hands and paws to muster against the wintry ground. Yet in the same way that Irene had discovered that the souls of the books could be dislodged from their papery forms, Rosie now found that something was moving out of their way. She could see two realities at once: the intact patch of dirt that was part of the living world; and the growing, presumably spectral recess they were digging below it.

Mrs. Fritter stopped so Rosie stopped, too.

The cat’s ear cocked. Lonely, high-pitched noises came from the hole.

Rosie started to say something but caught her tongue.

Mrs. Fritter jumped in.

Leaping out again, the cat returned with a tiny ghost-thing in her mouth. It was a kitten, too young for its eyes and ears to open. It squeaked.

Rosie gasped. She hadn’t meant to, but—a new ghost! She’d never seen another ghost besides Irene and Mrs. Fritter.

Mrs. Fritter glanced back at the hole as if she wanted to jump in again. She hesitated, tense on her paws. It seemed to Rosie that the cat was worried about putting down the kitten.

Rosie held out her cupped hands. Mrs. Fritter gave her a skeptical look, seeming to weigh how much she trusted her companion. The verdict came back in Rosie’s favor; Mrs. Fritter dropped the ghost kitten into her palms.

It was such a tiny thing. Rosie laced her fingers around the shivering creature to keep it warm.

Mrs. Fritter carried up a second kitten, and then a third. By the time she brought up the fourth and final, Rosie had moved the tiny, squeaky ghosts into her lap to warm them in the folds of her skirt. She unfolded the fabric to make room for Mrs. Fritter who obligingly climbed up to sit with her kittens.

Mrs. Fritter set to licking, sweeps of her tongue wetting the kittens’ short, scraggly fur into cowlicks. They were too young to purr, but their complaints faded as they fell asleep against their mother’s belly.

Rosie remembered the early days of her death—how it had been the cat who initiated their routine, leading Rosie to the back door every day and complaining until she followed Mrs. Fritter outside.

“You’ve been searching for them, haven’t you?” Rosie murmured, quietly so the kittens wouldn’t wake. “You had a litter before you died, didn’t you? No one knew they were here. They must have starved. Poor little things. But now, everything’s all right. They have you again.”

Time passed. As Rosie began to worry about how long she could stay in her current position, Mrs. Fritter yawned and stretched. She took the first kitten by the nape and dismounted Rosie’s lap.

“I can help carry them inside,” Rosie ventured.

Mrs. Fritter ignored her. She turned to survey their surroundings. Her gaze fastened on a spot that Rosie would never have guessed a moment ago was different from anywhere else. Now, somehow, it was. Something about it seemed to glow—not the early grass, nor the dirt, nor the blue of the sky—something else, some nameless essence.

Mrs. Fritter approached the anomaly with the kitten in her mouth. She extended a paw. An ethereal glow shimmered over it like a beam of moonlight. The cat leapt forward and vanished, leaving only strange luminosity behind her.

Rosie exclaimed. The noise woke the other kittens whose little voices cried back. She started to panic. How was she going to raise three ghost kittens? Did they need milk? Would they ever get bigger? What if they froze? Or starved as they had before? Could they die a second time?

Even as these worries clamored in Rosie’s head, Mrs. Fritter bounded back through the portal, landing on the earth as if she’d never left.

Mrs. Fritter didn’t have the kitten anymore. Perhaps she’d left it on the other side? Was the afterlife through there? Was Mrs. Fritter playing Charon, ferrying her kittens to the land of the dead?

Rosie watched with a sort of stunned feeling as Mrs. Fritter approached for a second kitten and then carried it into nothing. For the third, it was the same. When she returned for the fourth, however, Mrs. Fritter paused to lick her shoulder.

“You’ll come back, right…? After you drop the last one off?” Rosie asked.

Mrs. Fritter washed the area where her shoulder met her back.

“You aren’t coming back, are you?” Rosie said quietly.

The mother cat bumped her head against Rosie’s knee to elicit a pat on the head and a scritch on the chin. Purring, she took the last kitten by the nape and started to go.

Rosie reached out as if to pull them back. The mother cat growled softly and leapt away, tail lashing. Rosie dropped her hand.

“I’m sorry,” said Rosie. “I’ll miss you.”

The cat gave her a slow blink of forgiveness.

Mrs. Fritter ran into the shimmering grass. The glow vanished with her.

Rosie took a little time to cry.

Afterward, she walked around the place where Mrs. Fritter had disappeared, but she found nothing other than mundane earth and cold air. Before going, she stopped to heap the ghost dirt they’d dug up into a memorial mound. It seemed right to leave something.

In all Rosalee’s wanderings since, she’d never found the place again. The memorial, it seemed, was gone. She supposed that, like the ghost books, it had faded back into the material world.

At the table with her sisters, Rosie dabbed her eyes.

“So.” Rosie tried to clear the lump in her throat. “I’ve been waiting for the two of you so we can do what Mrs. Fritter did.”

“Have kittens?” asked Irene sourly.

Rosie flashed her a look of pure disdain. Her older sister didn’t seem to have been affected by the story at all. Irene really was a nasty thing.

At least Viola was sniffling. “Rosie,” she said, dabbing her eyes. “That’s all very sad—and sweet too, a bit, but…Maybe it’s because I only just died, but I don’t understand what it has to do with us.”

“Ignore her, Viola.” Irene rolled her eyes. “Rosalee’s up to her usual mammering nonsense.”

Rosie ignored her eldest sister. She spread her hands in a lecturing gesture as she embarked on her explanation. “What makes a ghost? Unfinished business. Our Mrs. Fritter died and so did her kittens, poor little things. None of them could move on until they were together again.”

“Don’t even try picking me up by the nape,” Irene said.

“You think we have to leave together,” Viola said.

Rosie shrugged. “Mom and Dad and—heck, basically everyone—expected us to do everything together. Seems like the universe agrees.”

Viola glanced at Irene. “What do you think?”

“Mammering nonsense,” repeated Irene, but her expression was thoughtful.


Later, Rosalee realized she should have told her sisters she didn’t want to go.

First, Viola wanted a night to sleep on it. Then Irene declared it was a waste of time that would never work. Then Rosie tried to appeal to their sisterly feelings, but for some reason they were unmoved by her many anecdotes of victimization. Then Viola, having slept on it for two nights and an afternoon, insisted on staying until after her funeral.

“You both got to see the preparations for your funerals,” Viola said.

“Yeah, it was so exciting to watch you two exchange notes,” muttered Rosie.

Scarlet,” said Irene. “And rhinestones.”

Rosie challenged Viola. “You just want to memorize every time someone slights you.”

Viola waved her arms as if to suggest that this was such an obvious and natural thing to do that she had no choice in the matter. “Why shouldn’t I want to be informed? I might see them again in the, whatever you call it—the after-afterlife.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Irene broke in, “since Rosalee’s delusional.”

Rosie turned on Irene. “If I made it all up then where’s Mrs. Fritter?”

Irene hesitated then made a pshaw noise before stomping away.

Rosie was not deterred.

She had only one goal now: leave. If that didn’t count as unfinished business, nothing did.

Rosalee knew of exactly one place where the world could fissure. True, up to now she hadn’t been able to find the rift through which Mrs. Fritter had escaped, but this time she’d have Irene and Viola with her. Obviously, once all three of them were there, the world would open up again.

(Will it? asked a tiny part of Rosie. She ignored it.)

Once Viola and Irene saw an actual exit right there in front of them, they couldn’t possibly keep being so unreasonable.

(Couldn’t they? asked the tiny part of Rosie. She told it to shut its stupid mouth.)

She formed a plan, tucked a ghost-volume of poetry into her pocket, and went off to lie.


“You’re sure you saw the cat around here?” Viola asked Rosalee as the three sisters trudged through the musty-smelling humidity, searching the property. Rosie and Viola felt phantom itching on their calves as they passed through the overgrown grass. Irene’s calves, however, did not, being protected by the most boring spectral pants the sour-minded sister had been able to imagine.

Rosie put on an expression of wounded indignation. “Absolutely, completely, one hundred percent,” she said with fraudulent passion.

“Calm down,” said Viola. “I’m just asking.”

“Hmff,” puffed Irene, walking behind.

Rosie had begun this trip quite pleased with herself. Irene and Viola had agreed to come surprisingly quickly after Rosie told them that she’d seen the ghost of Mrs. Fritter from a distance on one of her afternoon rambles, perhaps because Rosie had learned from her previous mistake and told them she thought they should stay away.

The only problem was they’d been out for at least a couple of hours now and, so far, there were trees and weeds and buzzing insects that made Rosie’s intangible skin twitch, but there was no sign of anything shiny.

“Why are you so sure it was the cat?” asked Viola. “If it was that far away?”

“Because I’m sure,” retorted Rosie. “You think I can’t recognize my own cat?”

“It can’t have been more than a blur,” said Viola. “Maybe it was a skunk.”

“It was Mrs. Fritter,” Rosie snapped.

“Give it up, Rosalee,” said Irene.

Rosie and Viola stopped to look back at their older sister. Irene stood planted about ten feet behind them, arms crossed over her chest.

Irene smirked which was never a good sign. “You didn’t see the cat. You never saw anything at all.”

Rosie feigned indignation. “That’s not— Of course I—”

Irene cut her off. “Don’t try it, Rosalee. We’re not stupid just because you are.”

Rosie shrank a step back. She was usually inured to her sister’s insults, but the naked simplicity of this one had an unexpected sting.

Viola’s forehead creased. “You were trying to trick us into leaving?” she asked Rosie.

“No!” Rosie protested.

Irene pointed an accusing finger at her youngest sister. “Then what’s in your pocket?”


Irene turned to Viola. “It’s a poetry book. She was planning to recite a few elegies before we dearly departed. Don’t take my word for it. Look for yourself.”

Viola made a grab for Rosie’s pocket which, deflected, became a grab for Rosie’s rear. Viola adjusted her grip while Rosie struggled to fend her off. They grappled until Viola managed to jab a finger into Rosie’s left armpit which Viola knew from childhood fights was particularly tender. Rosie yelped and twitched involuntarily, giving Viola time to snatch the poetry book with a triumphant yawp.

Viola read the title with disgust. “Collected elegies!” She waved indignant arms. “I told you I wanted to stay until after the funeral!”

“And how long are you going to want to stay after that?” Rosie shouted back. “How long am I supposed to wait to get out of here?”

Irene laughed. “I heard her practicing. ‘Shall we take the act to the grave? The ravenous grave?’ Her poetry reading is almost as ridiculous as her plan.” She clacked her tongue. “You don’t even really know where the cat disappeared, do you, Rosalee?”

Tears burgeoned in Rosie’s eyes. “It has to be close— I think I see the line of bushes— If we just go back—”

“Rosalee, you’re a flap-mouthed leasing-monger,” said Irene. “That cat went through where she found her kittens. That’s where she finished her business. It’s got nothing to do with us.”

“But we’re together now—” Rosie started.

Irene scoffed. “Come on. Even you can’t be this daft. If all we had to do was go together, we’d have gone at Viola’s deathbed.” She sliced her hand decisively through the air. “We’re stuck here. It’s obvious. I only came along to see your face when you realized it.”

“No—” Rosie’s voice broke. “That can’t be true. I’ve been here so long. I can’t bear it anymore.”

“Truth doesn’t care what you want,” said Irene. “And neither does anyone else.”

Rosie’s whole face was wet. “You don’t have to be so mean.”

You don’t have to be so selfish,” said Irene.

Rosie’s hands clenched. “I’m not being selfish!”

Viola broke in before Irene could respond. “You act like what anyone else wants doesn’t matter! I told you, Rosie! I want to stay for my funeral!”

“But—” started Rosie.

Viola glared back with contempt. “I’m going back to the house. Kelly and Archie have probably been there for hours. Now I’ve missed everything they have to say because of you.”

Viola stormed off.

The oldest and youngest sisters stood in silent reproach for a few long minutes until Viola was out of hearing range.

Rosie pleaded, “Irene, I—”

Irene gave Rosie the sweetest smile that she could dredge from its quivering hiding place in her soul. “Thanks for the outing.”

Rosalee watched through watery eyes as her eldest sister left. She considered waiting to follow them both, but she couldn’t bear the thought of being stuck with them in the same, dim rooms where she’d been stuck all along. She turned toward the outskirts of the property instead and went wandering, searching for somewhere that shimmered.


Viola’s funeral passed. The relatives remained, fixing up the house for sale.

Viola felt sullen as she sat on the dresser in the sunny bedroom where she’d died, watching her son and daughter-in-law arrange the house for sale. It was fun hearing what people had to say, “very Mark Twain” according to Rosie, although she hadn’t read the book for decades. Viola mentally stored every slight as ammunition to use in post-mortem altercations once the living had given up their ghosts—assuming the various relatives turned up in the same afterlife, of course.

So far, this conversation was light on snubs, but then again, it was also light on words. Mostly, Archie was sniffling by the window frame he was supposed to be fixing while Kelly silently unpacked the dresser.

How like Archie. Her son had always been a brooding child. He was like Rosalee if Rosalee had been inclined toward self-scourging rather than foisting recriminations onto perfectly innocent sisters.

And how like Kelly. That most execrable of daughters-in-law was leaving the poor boy to cry without a single “there, there.” What a termagant. (One couldn’t live with Irene without picking up a few words.)

Into the stillness, Archie said, “I know Mom wasn’t nice.”

Not nice? A slight. Viola cataloged it.

Kelly snorted. “To put it mildly.”

Viola cataloged that, too.

“But it breaks my heart sometimes,” Archie continued. “I’m not sure she was ever happy. If only…I mean…I wish I could have…”

The sliding of dresser drawers was the only sound in the gathering pause.

Archie looked up at Kelly. His wife remained focused on her work, face averted, but Viola saw her son’s upraised expression. Tears blurred the blueness of his pupils and exhaustion bruised the skin under his eyes. His face, usually near-white—he was an indoor sort of boy—was patched and red from rubbing. He made a noise in the back of his throat, part-clearing and part-sob.

Viola, softening, decided to de-catalog his last few affronts.

Archie sighed into the quiet. “I don’t know.”

Kelly still didn’t look up. “It’s not your fault.”

Her daughter-in-law’s voice was soft but stiff, almost annoyed. Archie barely seemed to hear.

“I know,” he said.

“Do you?”

Yes,” Archie protested, followed by, “Dad didn’t help.”

Kelly snorted again. “Thank goodness you didn’t inherit whatever gene it is that causes his dick to spontaneously dive into the nearest canal.”

Archie frowned slightly. “He’s been faithful to Jill.” He paused before mumbling, “I think.”

“He probably can’t find anyone else who’ll take his old ass,” said Kelly.

“I think he regrets things with Mom. He cried, you know. When I told him she’d died.”

“Really?” asked Kelly.

“Really?” asked Viola.

“He said ‘she was my first love.’”

“Huh,” said Kelly.

Huh,” said Viola.

That was nice to hear somehow. She added a little positive tick to her mental catalog. She didn’t have many of those.

“None of them were happy,” Archie went on.

“You mean Rosie and Irene?” asked Kelly.

Archie nodded. “I didn’t see much of them growing up. I mean, you know how Mom felt. But I didn’t have to see them much—you could just tell.”

Kelly shrugged. “Irene seemed plenty happy whenever she screamed at me.”

“I guess…” Archie admitted, “but addicts are happy when they get their next dose, too. They can still be miserable.”

“Sometimes I wonder whether they’d all have been happier if they’d started drinking. I guess Rosie’s husband did enough of that for the whole family,” Kelly said. “I don’t see why you’re wasting time worrying about Irene. She spent plenty of time yelling at you, too. Honestly, I don’t see why you’re worrying about Rosie either. Or your mother. How many happy memories do you have of her? I bet you could count them on one hand.”

“More than that,” Archie said with a frown, but Viola noticed he didn’t say how many.

Come on, Viola thought, there had to be at least a few dozen. Right? There was that national park trip when all four of the kids were in grade school—well, up until she and Jack had that argument over the tents and they had to go home…and there were those milkshakes she used to make with Archie on weekends until she realized it was making both of them fat…Oh, just after she brought home Archie’s first baby sister, that had been a good time. Archie was such a sweetheart, helping out in that cute-but-unhelpful way toddlers did. Viola had to redo everything on the sly so she wouldn’t hurt his feelings. But even then, there were those hours-long shouting matches at night after Jack came home five hours late, rumpled and smelling like someone else’s brand of cigarettes…

Viola’s fingers fretted at the hem of her sleeve. How many happy memories did she have at all, really, in her whole life?

Archie continued, “They all got…stuck. Sometimes I wonder what Mom would have done if she’d been born twenty years later.”

“People have always been pressured into things,” said Kelly. “You’re making excuses. It wouldn’t have changed anything. She could have done things differently if she wanted. She chose to be what she was.”

Viola’s eyes narrowed. She knew the girl couldn’t hear her, but she responded anyway. “Meaning?”

At the same time, Archie said, “Don’t be mean about her.”

Viola smiled. Sweet boy.

Kelly continued, “It’s easy for you to be maudlin. I was the one who had to deal with her. At least, by the end, I was free from those other two horrors.”

Kelly,” Archie said, chastising.

His wife finally looked up. She took out a last shirt, threw it in the donation bag beside her, and banged the drawer closed with her hip. “You can’t make me do everything and blame me for how I feel about it. She was a monster-in-law. It wasn’t cute because she was old, or because she was sad, or because she had dreams that never came true. If she wanted to be something else, that was her responsibility. Not mine—and not yours.”

Kelly stopped, breathing heavily after the gust of words. She looked over at her husband; he was fully crying now, though silently, tears streaming openly down his cheeks as he didn’t even try to cover his face.

Viola, who had been stunned by the vehemence of Kelly’s speech—no, not speech, self-important sermon—suddenly sparked with anger. She leveled an accusing finger. “You witch,” she growled, not caring that Kelly couldn’t hear. “Leave my son alone. How dare you.”

Kelly’s face had softened. She spoke gently. “She was the parent, Archie. It wasn’t your job to take care of her. It’s not your fault.”

“But Dad—” Archie started.

“—doesn’t matter,” Kelly finished. “At some point, we’re in charge of ourselves.”

Viola stared at them. Her anger had fizzled out. The pit of her stomach—even though there was nothing in it, could be nothing in it; even though it was ethereal and not really a stomach at all—felt horribly heavy and swollen as if she’d eaten something terrible that had lodged in her so deeply she’d forgotten it wasn’t part of herself.

None of the three of them, the two living humans or the ghost, moved for several minutes. There was no clock in the room to tick, but insects droned outside in the humidity.

Archie looked down at his feet. He wiped at his eyes, and then looked up again, staring glassily out of the window. “I just wonder.”

Kelly said, “I know.”

After a while, Archie picked up his hammer and returned to the broken window frame. Kelly opened the next dresser drawer. Viola went up to the attic to sit by the dormer windows overlooking the farm and think.


Viola had never brought it up with her sisters because she’d been afraid they’d laugh—but sometimes, when they were little, she’d had fantasies they could be friends.

The fantasies were always strange and hazy because it was so hard to picture. When hatred is your bedrock from the time you understand other people exist, it’s not a thing you can just get away from. Viola’s hatred for her sisters had metastasized before she knew what the word sister meant. It was in her fingertips and her tongue and her toes even now when they were all transparent. She could get as far as imagining the three of them as dolls with stitched-on smiles, but the daydream fell apart as soon as she tried to imagine what those sewn-shut mouths would say.

After moving out to get married, Viola had realized that while they all knew that their parents had planted the pernicious seed of hostility by forcing the three sisters to be alike, the truth was that their parents had also watered, fertilized, and nurtured that seed into bloom by pitting the sisters against each other. When one sister achieved something the others had not, whether easy or extravagant, she became the favorite, showered with praises and treats. The esteem never lasted. Soon enough, Rosalee would get a compliment on her choir singing from the mayor’s wife, or Irene would win an attendance award, and favor would pass.

Viola hadn’t been the favorite very often. Perhaps that had made it easier to see what their parents were doing. While Rosalee and Irene brawled for approval, Viola watched carefully to snatch up the scraps.

A person could learn to like scraps. A pat on the head—savor the comfort, remember it. A second-hand dress with checkered trim—hang it up and treasure it. The next pat would be for another head, but they couldn’t take back the first one. The heirloom Bible and earrings would be doled out to Irene and Rosalee who “deserved the family legacy,” but the second-hand dress hanging in the closet never passed judgment.

Except when she gained weight. Then it felt like the dress was judging her, the same way it felt when Mom laughed any time Irene called Viola a heifer (during the days before Irene became a cussing expert). Then the dress became a reminder of all the things she didn’t have, the same way Jack had been every time he came home moping over some “new girl at work.” At least she could put the dress in the back of the closet where she didn’t have to look at it.

After Rosalee’s failed attempt to find Mrs. Fritter, Viola had been gnawed by a parasitic worm of a thought: perhaps the universe wanted them to act like the dolls with sewn-on smiles. Maybe it wasn’t satisfied by their simply being together; maybe it wouldn’t let them go until they all gave in and got along. Could that be their unfinished business?

No, how horrible. To make them responsible for each other’s fates? That was how everything had begun in the first place.

Their whole lives, they’d been twined in a horrible dance, a quartet with the house taking the fourth position, continuing long after their parental choreographers were gone. How could they reconcile even if they wanted to? When you keep stirring volatile chemicals, you can’t be surprised when they explode.

Sometimes things don’t have to mix. Sometimes things are separate.


When Viola was done thinking, she went to find Rosalee because Rosalee was easier to persuade than Irene.

“You really think you’ve got a plan that will work?” Rosie asked with a skeptical squint.

“Positive.” Viola paused to consider. “Well, maybe about sixty percent.”

One corner of Rosie’s mouth dipped downward, but allowed it was, “Still worth trying, I guess.”

Viola told Rosie that the next step was finding Irene. Rosie complained and tried to convince Viola they didn’t really need Irene, did they? When that line of persuasion didn’t work, Rosie tried to wheedle Viola into at least telling her what the plan was before they went off searching for their sister, but Viola found it exhausting to think about trying to explain things twice. More accurately, Viola found it exhausting to think about having to debate things twice. She had no desire for a double helping of nit-picking.

In order to make her reasoning more palatable for Rosie, Viola called this “wanting to get everything done at once” rather than “wanting to spare myself a headache (and by the way, I still think it’s unfair I have to deal with headaches when I don’t even have a real head).” Eventually and grudgingly, with a bit of stomping and a bunch of sighing, Rosie gave in.

The problem was that Irene had been hard to track down ever since the elegy incident. Even though Rosalee was the only one who’d actually expected to leave that day, the failure had disappointed all three of them they did not understand. It had the feeling of a final condemnation, the turning of the key in the lock of the prison door that would cage them here forever.

However, it still felt odd for Rosie and Viola to see how badly the incident had affected Irene. She had, after all, gloated almost unbearably at the time about how she’d “defeated Rosalee’s mammering.” Yet since then she had become sullen and shadow-eyed, avoiding both becurst farmhouse and belated sisters in favor of haunting remote crannies of the property. Her invective had fallen silent; her glowering was squandered on rodents and spiders.

In contrast, the other two sisters were perfectly able to rely on their usual comforts. Rosalee, for instance, had a lifetime’s experience of feeling hard done by when reality refused to reshape itself for her convenience. Whether her peevishness was unreasonable (as in most circumstances) or reasonable (as in this case), she used the same technique to channel her angst—namely, swanning around with great sighs and lamentations.

Thus far, Viola had been able to entertain herself by spying on Archie and her other relatives, but when the need arose, she’d soon be able to resort to her own default behavior of passive aggressively doing chores while snapping at anyone who asked: everything’s fine, don’t bother about me, here’s your damn laundry. Granted, her ghostly state made most chores impossible, including laundry, but Viola’s self-martyring instincts were no doubt up to the task of finding substitutions.

As for Irene, well…Even Irene, the erstwhile vulgarian herself, didn’t know why salutary activities like flurries of abuse now failed to raise her spirits.

In an inchoate and unarticulated way, Rosalee and Viola had begun to suspect that the cause might lie with Irene’s stagnant disposition. During those all-too-short years when Rosalee and Viola had moved away from the farmhouse and their parents and everything else that had made their childhood what it was, they’d found their worst vices alleviated by their new surroundings. In their outside lives, they had been sometimes affable, even occasionally friendly. This meant that now, from time to time, the two ghosts were able to marshal their admittedly minimal social skills and tolerate each other’s company.

For Irene, there existed no such possible relief. She had never done anything—never wanted to do anything—but ferment like a herring buried beneath an icy patch of Scandinavian ground. She faced an eternity of nothing but sisterhood—which by her lights was far worse than an eternity of almost anything else.

In any case, Rosie and Viola had to expend significant time and effort before locating Irene near the border of their farm, sitting in the mildew-scented dark under the fallen roof of a shed that had been built for some unknown purpose and then likewise abandoned.

“Leave me alone,” Irene said, not even bothering to call anyone a canker-blossom.

With a pshaw, Rosie waved her hands in defeat and turned to go. Viola took her arm to stop her from leaving.

“This is important,” Viola said.

Irene shrugged.

“You’ll want to hear it,” Viola added.

Irene repeated herself.

Rosie rolled her eyes. Viola decided it was time to bring out the big guns.

“Rosie was wrong,” Viola said.

That got Irene’s attention. She liked other people being wrong.

Irene turned around. Viola found her sneer oddly reassuring; apparently, Irene’s hateful self remained somewhere beneath that mopey facade. Rosie, however, did not find the sneer reassuring, given that it was at her expense.

“Of course Rosalee was wrong,” Irene said. “She’s always wrong.”

“I’m done with this,” Rosie said, turning dramatically on her heel. Viola grabbed her arm again.

“Well?” Irene snapped as if Viola was the one delaying things. “Are you going to say what this is about or not?”

Viola ignored the provocation. “Rosie thought our business was finished now that the three of us are dead. Our business isn’t finished. It’s just beginning.”

“Tsch,” said Irene, waving her off. She looked dangerously ready to turn her back again.

“Will you just give me a chance?” Viola complained. “Look, we’ve been stuck here with each other our entire lives. We were still stuck here even when we were living in other places.”

“Rosalee’s been running her mouth about that for years,” Irene said. “So what?”

Viola spread her hands as if revealing a truth in the empty space between her palms. “Everything has always shoved us together. Our destiny is being apart.

Neither of Viola’s sisters seemed impressed by this revelation.

Viola tried phrasing it a different way. “Our unfinished business is to leave.”

“I knew this was a waste of time,” Irene muttered.

“Don’t be stupid,” Rosie said to Viola. “We can’t leave the farm. That was the first thing I tried.”

“No— See, Rosie, you weren’t entirely wrong,” Viola replied, earning a tsch of indignation from Rosie and a tsch of dismissal from Irene. Viola continued, “You said we all had to be together, and we did. Just like Mrs. Fritter couldn’t leave without her kittens, we couldn’t leave until we were all here. But now we are all here.” She looked between Rosie and Irene. “Have you tried leaving since I died?”

“Well…” Rosie said, sounding defensive. “I mean, I’d tried so often…”

Irene pitched in, “I don’t do things that are obviously a waste of time.”

“That’s what I thought,” said Viola. “Do you see what I mean? Now that we’re all here together, we can all leave to go our separate ways.”

“Like leaves dispersing in the wind,” Rosie said in her best poetic voice.

“More or less,” Viola agreed.

“It can’t be that simple, can it?” asked Rosie.

“Some things are simple,” Viola said. “When you were alive, how many times did you lose your glasses and then find them on your head?”

Rosie looked indignant. “Never. Why would I need glasses?”

Viola strove not to roll her eyes. “Okay then, thought your TV was broken, but the cord had just been pulled out of the socket.”

“Never,” Rosie repeated before admitting, “but I have thought my curling iron was broken when Eddie tripped the circuit breaker.”


Rosie bit her lip. Sometimes she did that to look cute, but this was an unstudied gesture, awkward and thoughtful. “You know? I think you’re right. After all this time, it just seems…right.”

Fretting nervous fingers, Viola turned to their eldest sister. “So, uh…What do you think, Irene?”

Despite Irene’s pinched expression—which had been growing more and more contemptuous throughout her sisters’ exchange—Viola entertained a thread of hope that Irene’s disdain might be a mask to conceal her vulnerability. Alas, that hope unraveled as Irene coughed a laugh and pulled to her feet.

“Do whatever you want. Just leave me out of it.”

“Irene—” Viola began, but before she could voice her protest, Irene had already begun to stalk away.

Viola closed her mouth on her unspoken objection. She and Rosie both watched Irene disappear into the ever-growing grasses, heading in the opposite direction from the farmhouse at a surprisingly rapid pace.

“Don’t tell me we’re going to have to run around and find her a second time,” Rosie complained.

Viola shook her head slowly. “I think we’re just going to have to try without her.”

“Will that work?”

I don’t know.” Viola shook her head again then suddenly stopped to laugh. “You know, life never made any sense. I guess there’s no reason for the afterlife to.”

“Maybe life and death should both get their act together,” Rosalee said.

“Well.” Shaking away her anxieties, Viola rubbed her hands together as if cleaning off dust. She turned a determined gaze on Rosie. “Tomorrow, I’m going to wake up at dawn and follow the sun East. With any luck, I’ll get to keep on going. You should go wherever you want, Rosie, just as long as you don’t follow me.”

Rosie didn’t even pause to think. “I’ll go West. I’ve always wanted to go West.”

Viola chuckled. “Gonna take Hollywood by storm?”

Rosie’s expression went stormy. Viola realized the comment had come across as a slight. She raised a conciliatory hand.

“Sorry, Rosie. I was joking. If there’s a ghost Hollywood, I’m sure you’ll be a star.”

Rosie, who did not quite believe the apology, arched a skeptical eyebrow. Nevertheless, she chose to forgo pursuing the subject. She asked, “Do you think it’s all right if we leave at different times?”

“If we’re all doing our separate things, why not?” Viola scratched her elbow. “Why? When do you want to leave?”

“Sunset,” Rosie said with the kind of flat intonation used to signal something should have been obvious. “When else are you supposed to ride off at the end of the movie?”

Viola chuckled.

Rosie smoothed the hair behind her ear. “So, this is goodbye then.”

“I guess so!” Viola agreed.

Rosalee took Viola’s hand. With a flourish worthy of a close-up, she bowed to give it a kiss. “Dearest sister, I sincerely hope never to see you again.”


Viola felt some sort of sentimental obligation to wander the farm, taking one last look. She kept waiting for a wave of nostalgia, but none came. It was more like riptides of awkwardness, sudden swells dragging her into memory. Not even anything traumatic, really, just stupid things that made her flinch. Here: that dirt patch surrounded by stones where Rosalee’s friends left Viola out of their games. There: behind the shed where Irene tricked her into sticking her hand into a bucket of live bait.

Oh, and over there: the old carriage house where guests stayed sometimes. That was where she’d said the stupid thing to Aunt Nancy about how it was easy to stay skinny if you weren’t lazy. Aunt Nancy had cried, and then later Viola heard her mother reassuring Aunt Nancy that, “Viola can be a little brat sometimes. I don’t know where she gets these ideas,” as if Viola hadn’t just been repeating something she’d heard from her mother in the first place. Viola often remembered the incident at night. Sometimes it hurt more that she’d upset Aunt Nancy; sometimes it hurt more that Mother could just betray her like that without even pausing.

Where were they now? Aunt Nancy? Mother? Had they died with all their business finished? What had their mother’s business been? Traumatize your daughters then sit back and watch the show?

Viola felt guilty about her indifference. You’re supposed to care about your home, aren’t you? Even if you hate it?

Well, supposed to or not, she didn’t.

She did end up spending time with her books of photographs. Their slick smell, which still rose from their ghost pages, made her stomach feel shiny with anticipation.

To go East! Those were the museums she’d always dreamed of in her deepest heart. Not the Louvre or the Uffizi Gallery—however beautiful they looked behind the nun on TV—but the Metropolitan Museum of Art. And the Smithsonian! Where she could see the Star-Spangled Banner, the Spirit of St. Louis, the microphone from the Fireside Chats. Viola was going to walk past brownstones; stare up at goddesses carved into marble facades; explore tall ships in Boston Harbor. She was going to stand in the spray of Niagara Falls and, thanks to ethereal resilience, she could even dive down it if she wanted to. She flipped through her books until dark, but every beautiful Mediterranean villa and French vineyard only made her itch to head for Central Park.

After a night’s fitful sleep, it was dawn. Viola wasn’t surprised to find the porch was empty, its steps layered with sawdust that the sisters’ ghost footsteps couldn’t disturb. The goodbye she’d exchanged with Rosalee yesterday had felt final. Even if Irene had known Viola was leaving, she’d never have come. She’d probably be cackling with joy up in the attic.

Viola took a deep breath. She straightened her ghost hair and her ghost dress. Not that anyone would see her—or would they? If there could be a ghost cat, why not ghost elevator operators and ghost cigarette girls? Maybe Rosalee would get her ghost Hollywood after all, full of departed swains and starlets.



She set her feet to the path and went.


Rosie slipped into the front room to watch as Viola set off. She didn’t call out; they’d said their goodbyes. As Viola passed out of sight, Rosie felt a little choked up. She’d always been sentimental.

Now that she had made the decision to go West, Rosalee couldn’t imagine how she hadn’t decided to do it when she was alive. She’d wanted to all her life, hadn’t she? At least, all of her life before she did her best to stop wanting things.

She’d only been fifteen when she took up with Eddie. Neither of them came from families that believed in taking time between taking vows and making babies. She already had one squalling in her arms by the time Eddie decided that alcohol was the best cure for an ex-bachelor’s boredom. If there was more boredom after you’d drunk your first five shots, he believed, then the answer was to keep drinking until you were either cheered up or passed out. Eventually, instead of not caring much about family life, Eddie stopped caring much about life at all.

Rosalee had rocked the baby and thrown her ambitions out with the bathwater. Well, what else was she going to do? Ambitions are halfway thrown out by the time you grow up anyway, especially ambitions of stardom—which, let’s be honest, are about as likely as a manifestation of your long-dead childhood cat appearing to pester you about going outside.

Could she even remember—really remember, down to her bones—a time when going to the cinema wasn’t about counting pennies and wrangling kids? When she was a child, going to the theater had been different; it had stirred a promise of wonder and beauty in her chest. She remembered the promise. The feeling was gone.

Had been gone. She could feel it flickering again like a single bulb coming back to life on the long-dark frame of a backstage mirror.

Through the window, Rosie kept watching the empty road that led away from the farmhouse, honestly expecting to see her middle sister pop back onto the porch any second. She watched long past the time it should have taken for Viola to walk off the property and then kept watching longer. She watched and watched until it was ten in the morning, and then eleven, and then noon, and the porch was still empty.

The porch was still empty.

Viola was headed East! Or maybe she’d disappeared in a puff, or ended up in the afterlife, or who knew what—but whatever had happened, she wasn’t here anymore.

Rosie still had hours before her planned departure. She wished Mrs. Fritter were still around so she could say goodbye with a pat on the head, but the cat had napped long ago. Rosie went to find Irene instead—well, again, she’d always been sentimental. She couldn’t find her, though, and eventually gave up.

As dusk settled, Rosalee stood at the base of the porch steps, looking back up at the railing where Mrs. Fritter had been perching the first time she’d tried to walk away. Viola’s daughter-in-law had stripped the paint off so they could redo everything for the sale. Too bad, since the porch had just been redone. Wait, no, it had been almost ten years! She laughed.

Sunset flushed the Western horizon pink, and Rosalee headed toward the lights and the cameras.


Irene was having none of it.

Unfinished business? By the double-barreled jumping jiminetty, she wasn’t going to let some bobolyne like destiny push her around. Maybe some people really did die with “unfinished business,” whatever that meant. Certainly, the common froward barely possessed the wherewithal to tie their own shoes. But it wasn’t as though she’d ever asked the universe for its opinion, thank you very much.

Besides, Viola and Rosalee had told her to do it and there was no way she was going to obey them.

Irene stayed in the farmhouse, and why not? When it contained an appropriate number of sisters, which was to say absolutely none, there was nothing wrong with the old place. If Viola and Rosalee were correct that the three of them had been fated to go their own directions—note the if; it was a pretty long shot that either one of them would be right about anything—then she’d chosen the direction “staying put.”

During the day, various factions of nieces, nephews, and hangers-on tramped all over the house. Irene had never bothered to keep track of Viola’s and Rosalee’s broods; she registered them as anonymous blob. That was, until she had the nasty surprise of finding her own children mooching around the kitchen. The gall! So she wasn’t good enough when she was alive, but now that the smell of inheritance was in the air, the estranged sorners ran in like dogs after the dinner bell.

Irene spent several creative hours swearing at her perfidious progeny, but their living ears heard nothing. For the first time, Irene missed her sisters a bit.

A bit.

Eventually, the parade of useless relatives became a parade of useless home buyers who squinted at things and yawped about widening windows and knocking out walls. The family that settled in had both a daughter and a son. This offended Irene’s anti-sibling sensibilities, but their parents never forced them to interact with each other so that was all right.

The daughter got a bad-tempered pet rat for her birthday that bit her a lot. When it got sick, the family let it die. Although it was particularly absurd to imagine why a pet rat would become a ghost, the next day when Irene went to look, there the thing was, nosing around its cage. Irene reached in to take it out; it chomped down in hello; thereafter, they were best friends.

Most days, the rat rode around on Irene’s shoulder, chit-chit-chittering as Irene paced the house making her own acrimonious observations. The rat proved to be a surprisingly good listener who enjoyed Irene’s secondary occupation of settling in the armchair to read aloud from the family’s regrettable collection of tasteless paperbacks. (The armchair had once been designated for the father; eventually, with an appropriate but subconscious apprehension, he bought a second sofa.) While Irene sometimes threw the soul of a particularly stupid technothriller across the room, the rat itself was an undiscerning literary connoisseur. It was perfectly content to listen to anything, including the occasional time travel romance that Irene felt vaguely guilty about pulling off the shelf.

From time to time, Irene wondered what had happened to her sisters. By now, had they passed through some rupture like Mrs. Fritter?

Ridiculous. How incredibly stupid to walk into who-knows-where just because the entry is shiny. Even if she did see a portal like that, Irene was planning to cling to the Earth like an angry barnacle.

Here, she had a rat, a bountiful quantity of dubious quality books, and a pair of teenagers to learn new insults from. Fulfilling? Perhaps not. But who said life should be fulfilling? She could be unfulfilled if she wanted to.

She told the rat as much. It seemed to agree.



“Also, the Cat” copyright © 2024 by Rachel Swirsky
Art copyright © 2024 by Rovina Cai



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