A Short Story by Amanda Schroeder
Echo and I dream up powers that no one will believe. In the midday Summer heat, we lay side by side in her backyard under a linen teepee. She’s so tall her legs poke out the front holes, but I fit perfectly.
We spent the whole day in her backyard, exploring every patch of grass as though the lawn behind her house was the whole world. We catch box elder bugs and stow them in pencil cases while we build them a castle made of dirt and sticks. When we come back to release them into their new kingdom we find them dead, suffocated slowly in the yellow plastic. I hold back tears of frustration, but Echo assures me everything is going according to plan. We dump dead box elders onto the muddy castle and assign them their roles, moving their bodies like they’re Barbie dolls. I think This must be heaven.
Echo’s parents are never at home, which is why we always spend our days at her house. Her dad works at a law firm where they make money when people get injured at construction sites. Her mom works in marketing and is always talking about the copy for her latest mock-up. When my parents would ask me about her parents, I would always pretend to know that they are doing well.
Echo and I always like to make up games. Echo would play dead and I would dance around her like a witch, trying to bring her back to life.
Or we huddle in silence in her living room, listening for any sounds the house makes, making up stories for the ghosts that created them. The tapping of the heater springing to life is the soul of a young dancer who died dramatically on stage, a loose latch under his tap shoes plummeting him 8 feet to his death. Echo and I always argue about which of us he is in love with. The moaning of the pipes was a woman who died hot and heavy in the middle of childbirth. We don’t know what childbirth looks like, but we imagine it orange, like a flame in the dark, and damp. We imagine her wafting through the house trying to find her baby and we sit close, holding our breath so she can’t find us instead. Echo can hold her breath for longer than me, but I always cheat, sneaking in air through my nose.
We sneak into her mother’s closet and dress ourselves up in her clothes, smearing makeup on our faces and pretending to be prostitutes. We don’t know what prostitutes are, but we know the way men talked about them from the movies. We look at each other in the full-body mirror and think THIS was what it means to be a woman.
One day, we painted our faces red with her mother’s lipstick and chased each other around the house, screaming for our lives. We didn’t hear her mother come in over the sounds of yelling and laughter. When she found us with a full tube of Mary Kay’s Red Stiletto smeared onto our faces, she started hiding her makeup.
In fourth grade, Echo’s parents move to a house with big windows overlooking a flower garden Echo isn’t allowed to set foot in. She starts at the catholic school in the neighborhood and I don’t hear from her for weeks.
One day, my parents tell me Echo is coming over. They say it like I have no choice and I look down at my dinner, embarrassed that my loneliness is so apparent my parents need to intervene.
When Echo comes into our house, it feels like welcoming in a stranger. Echo and I sit in my basement and our silences feel like smoke. When the heater makes a creaking sound, I imagine an old man who died in a rocking chair opening the doors to the heating closet peering out at us, but Echo doesn’t seem to notice. She tells me about her new life and her new school and I try my best to picture it, but I’ve never imagined a place I’ve never been before. I ask her to describe the coat rack where they hang their book bags in the morning, but she doesn’t understand the question.
I try to ask a different way – where are you in the first five minutes of school, between where you drop off your backpack and walk into the classroom. Those minutes had always been my favorite, but I dreaded them without Echo to fill the silence. I found myself praying that she was just as lonely as me.
She tells me Tommy always waits to walk in with her. When I ask her about Tommy, she says they kiss after school lets out. She shrugs like it’s nothing and I blush thinking about all the things she has done that I have not.
Five years later, I hear that Echo has died. I haven’t heard from her since the day in the basement in fourth grade, but my parents still get a call from her parents.
When my parents break the news to me, they hold hands and cry. I don’t shed a tear because I don’t feel a thing. Echo has died so many times and has always risen again. I try to let the truth sink in, but all I can remember is playing Romans in her backyard. She was Jesus and I was Pontius Pilot. I washed my hands in the little puddle at the bottom of the drainpipe, then dragged her body to the cross, a tree low enough where she could hang her arms from the branches. She hung there for three full minutes until her skinny arms gave out.
We played this game on Good Friday the year before she moved schools. Echo called it her favorite holiday after we sat in the chapel at school and got chills on our arms when the pastor slammed a book into a wall – the closing of the tomb. The silence was so dramatic and our exhilaration was so high that we sat giggling into each other’s necks.
I can’t imagine the person Echo became at 14. She died of alcohol poisoning, something I have never even tried. We miss the open casket but show for the burial. While her parent’s friends all give speeches about the person Echo would’ve become, I stare into the face of the girl in the memorial photo. She looks like a fox, except she’s cold instead of warm. Older than 14. I don’t recognize a single thing about her except for her white-blonde hair, a color most people lose as a baby.
I try to fill in the blanks of who she became. I imagine her as a doll being thrown around in a castle made of sticks and mud, her exoskeleton keeping her safe from prying fingers trying to get inside. Her pretty blonde hair never gets dirty. I imagine her in cars with leather seats going places I’ll never be at hours I’m already asleep at. I imagine her dying little deaths every day, only to get back up and start again. I imagine her smarter than me, the kind of person who realizes we need to seize the best of life every day, but who slipped too early and couldn’t get back up.
Amanda Schroeder is from Utah but is currently based in San Francisco, California. She has a B.A. in English Literature from the University of Utah and her work has appeared in Cathexis Northwest Press, The Crack the Spine 2019 Anthology, and others. She is the co-founding editor of F3LL Magazine and currently serves as the web editor for Split Lip Magazine.