by MAYA LINSLEY (Canada)
Issue 2.1 April 2020
In the olden days, when our house was still new, folks liked to have cellar doors. Of course, every cellar door needs a cellar in order to be a cellar door; so, though the cellar doors themselves were long gone, our house still had an old cellar. A small flight of stairs led into it, and the darkness beyond was populated by cobwebs, loose insulation, and, frequently, a cat.
Jill climbed the dusty, rotting steps, and her upper half disappeared into the gloom.
“Be careful,” I called. “Mama says that if you touch the insulation, you’ll be itchy for the rest of your life!
“How silly,” Jill giggled, her voice muffled. “Nothing could make me itch for the rest of my life!”
She descended two steps and her head reemerged. To my profound horror, she was holding a large chunk of fluffy pink insulation. A cobweb had caught on her hair, dangling over her forehead like a scraggly spider. There was one stuck to her neon-orange cast, too. I regretted ever opening my mouth.
“You see!” she declared, triumph plating her voice. “Some stupid pink fluff! No way I’ll get itchy from this!”
Dismayed, I searched her face for clarity. “Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“I won’t. Come on, don’t be scared. Let’s go in!”
“No!” I protested, horrified at her blatant lack of concern. “That place is full of pink insulation and spiders! Only my dumb cat goes in there!”
“Aww, you have a cat? What’s its name?”
“Her name is Dumpling.”
Jill’s eyes widened comically, and she let out a shrill noise that pierced my eardrums and left me ringing, ringing, ringing. “Oh my God! Where is she?? We have to find her!”
“Jill, stop it!” I shouted, irritation exploding from me in a huge wave of burning salt water, stinging the backs of my eyeballs and scratching my throat raw, until the tips of the tips of my fingers started to tingle. “You’re too crazy! We’re here to look for ghosts and you’re just rolling around and yelling! Did you know that ghosts can get scared too? Well, they can! And guess what! You’ve scared all of them away! In fact, you’ve even scared me away! Look. I’m leaving! Goodbye!”
I whirled around on the ball of my foot, rough concrete tearing a little hole in my left sock. Balling my hands into fists, I shot a hefty kick at the closest cardboard box, tossed my head in the same way I imagined Anne of Green Gables might, and stomped out of the room. I stomped all the way up to the main floor, down the front hall, onto the porch. The sun reprimanded me. I flopped down on the top step and crushed a black ant beneath my sock-clad toes.
There I waited, in the buzz of bluebottles and the drone of cicadas, under the relentless pulse of an August sun and the stale absence of wind. I crushed more ants with a stick; waited for Jill; waited, waited, waited—eventually someone came, but it wasn’t Jill. It was Dumpling. She twined around my legs before settling down at my feet. I watched summer’s dust collect on her tortoiseshell coat, and wondered idly if it bothered her to lick it off. Perhaps cats enjoyed the taste of summer afternoons, so it wasn’t that bad for them; but I certainly couldn’t imagine life without a bathtub.
Jill did nothing to announce her arrival, but I felt it anyway, the same way you feel the sudden warmth of an emerging sun on a chilly sweater day. The same way you feel the trickle of a lagging tide that only reaches your toes on every third or fourth rush in. When she sat down beside me, the tide was gathering force and hurling itself all the way up to my knees. My belly was a simmering pot of angry thoughts.
“Sorry,” Jill said hesitantly.
I couldn’t think of what to say, so I said nothing. Killed another ant. Dumpling stretched, yawned, and wandered away.
“We can go look for ghosts in my house instead,” she offered.
“Why don’t you just go back to stupid old Frankton?” I spat, distrusting the excitement that kindled at the thought of ghost hunting in a new environment.
“Because my parents won’t let me,” Jill responded, as though explaining something quite obvious. “Besides, I actually like it here, even though you’re my only friend. Which is fine with me, though.”
I pretended to think about it for a moment before I agreed that yes, it was fine with me too, and we got off the step and wandered into the scraggly grass of my enormous side lawn, and I picked up the hose and sprayed it at Jill until Mama came out and yelled at us for racking up the water bill, and what did we think we were doing, wrecking Jill’s cast?
“It’s waterproof,” Jill told her proudly.
“May I sign it?” I asked. Jill miraculously procured a gold sharpie from the pocket of her plaid shorts, handing it to me and presenting her arm. I wrote "Anna Chung" in careful cursive, placed evenly on the inside of her wrist between "Jordan W" and "Hillary♡♡."
“You’re so weird,” Jill giggled.
“Am not,” I muttered, my face burning.
“Why’d you take so long to write it, then?”
“Because it has to look nice!”
“My parents say.”
When Mama had retired again to the house and we heard the faint groan of the vacuum starting up, Jill unhooked the hose and showered me in ice-cold water. I sprang away. Anxiety settled in the pit of my stomach when I thought about six-digit figures and dollar signs marching across the threshold of our home—and all the while Jill was laughing, and I felt the tide rush up to my chin—but perhaps it was just the hose.
Maya Linsley, 18, lives in Ontario, Canada with her family and her cat. "Jill" is an excerpt from a longer work-in-progress under the same name, which explores the relationship between two childhood best friends.