Isabel can hear her grandmother’s knife scraping butter onto fresh toast before she even reaches the bottom of the stairs. She knows Nonna is in a good mood because the kitchen table is laid out with food: a plate of toast, a jar of raspberry jam, a half full pot of coffee, a bowl of wet grapes.
Her mother, Antonia, flips through a glossy magazine at the table, basking in the empty weeks between the end of summer camp and the beginning of the school year. She glances up at Isabel. “Off to work?”
She shakes her head. Antonia returns to her magazine. Neither of them let Dr. Matthews’ name pass their lips while Nonna sits at the head of the table, reading a yellowed paperback over her coffee.
On mornings, the kitchen is full of fragile light—the gleam of her mother’s manicure as she turns each page, the sunflower pattern on her grandmother’s t-shirt—it almost makes Isabel forget that she is not living with them by choice. She eats slowly, savoring a silence as sticky sweet as the jam in her mouth. She knows that when she returns home from work, the tabletop will lose its honeyed glow and the grapes will close their little white eyes, leaving the kitchen desolate and vulnerable.
When Isabel moved into her mother’s house four months ago, she spent the first two weeks in bed going over her mistakes: the liquor that made her throw up the pills, the roommate who returned early, the lazy note addressed to no-one in particular. She ate very little, refusing to sit at the dining table with her mother and grandmother. Their raised voices drifted through the floor each night, assigning blame and arguing solutions.
“I think our kitchen is alive,” Isabel tells Dr. Matthews that afternoon.
“How so?” Dr. Matthews’ face has a way of pointing at her with its shape: his nose, chin, and pronounced brow are all fixed on the space between her eyes. The severity of his expressions take away from his otherwise disheveled appearance. Today he sits across from her in an ill-fitted salmon shirt, khakis still tucked into his socks from the bike ride to work.
“I think it’s the demon Nonna always talks about. The one she thinks is possessing me. I think it waits in our kitchen at night. Is that strange?”
“Yes. The kitchen isn’t the source of your conflict. I think you know that.” Dr. Matthews is a realist. Isabel often tries to talk to him in this way, bringing inanimate objects to life, attaching meaning to mundane things—the tree in front of their house, the way her curtains stir on windless nights—but he has no patience for it.
“You’re avoiding the real questions,” he always says. “I need you to really talk to me.”
Isabel isn’t sure what it means for a question to be “real”. She sits in the biting air conditioning of his office because the hospital threatens to rescind her freedom if she doesn’t show up. She goes because Antonia insists on it, the same way Nonna insists Isabel see the priest at her church. She can’t explain to them that she doesn’t know what is broken, or how these two old men can fix it.
“You’ve drifted again.” Dr. Matthews says after a moment. “Where do you go?”
“Nowhere.” Isabel says, and that is the truth.
Isabel likes working at the theatre. Even at night, it glows like broad daylight. Entering the lobby feels like an ascension, an airplane rising past dense clouds into the pale blues of higher altitude. Behind the glass panels of the box office, she is never asked a question that she can’t answer.
On her break, she eats her sandwich in the lounge behind rows of plush seats. The bar is closed, but its bottles and glasses comfort her with their neatness. She sits on one of the couches and watches rehearsals, or set building, or sometimes just the empty cavern around a dark stage.
Today there is a man in her favorite spot. He flicks his finger across the trackpad of his laptop, which sits balanced lightly on his spread legs. The man’s sharp nose, thin lips, and bold, arching eyebrows trace the same lines and shapes as Camila’s.
Isabel stands dumbly before him. Her imagination is filling in the details she has lost in the twelve years since she last saw her sister’s face. She suspects that she is being punished for so deftly avoiding the topic in Dr. Matthews’ office.
“Tell me about Camila,” he asks every time they skim a topic that hints at Camila’s existence or absence.
Isabel always shakes her head or shrugs. “I don’t really see how it’s relevant,” she says before changing the subject.
In the month before her disappearance, Camila began inviting Isabel to crawl out of her bedroom window late at night. They huddled together on the little rooftop that sheltered the front porch. Camila lit a cigarette and watched the moths gather around the streetlight above.
She taught Isabel swear words between drags: the English ones she had learned from movies and friends; the Italian ones Nonna yelled at other drivers when she picked them up from school.
Fuck. Bitch. Cazzo. Puttana. Isabel tucked them away for later use.
“Wait ‘til you’re in double digits,” Camila insisted. “Or they’ll know that I taught you.”
Just before midnight Camila checked her watch and patted Isabel on the head. “Go to bed,” she said, pushing her back through the window.
Isabel nodded. She was old enough to know that Camila snuck out each night, but never asked where she was going. She was sure that one day, maybe when she was in double digits, Camila would tell her everything.
The last time Isabel saw her, Camila had paused, perched on her window sill. “You know I love you, right?”
Isabel stood in the bedroom, staring at Camila’s silhouette. “I guess.”
Camila tilted her head, her face gouged with shadows. “Good night, Isa.”
Isabel replayed this moment over and over in the years that followed. She tried to remember Camila’s expression, swapping through her usual looks—the bright, toothy grin that cut her face with dimples; her sour, indignant glare; the mocking smirk she gave Isabel often. It wasn’t until she was older that Isabel could admit she didn’t know. Now she finds herself searching for the answer in the dark line that connects the corners of this man’s lips.
“You can sit down,” he says.
Isabel blinks and realizes that he is looking at her. He has been looking at her for some time. She takes a seat on the other end of the couch, clutching her sandwich in both hands.
He continues to stare. “Are you okay?”
Isabel feels the weight of her body acutely, and her mouth aches with the effort to form words. “You just remind me of someone.”
“In a good way, I hope?”
Isabel exhales slowly and begins unwrapping the sandwich. “You look a lot like my sister.”
He laughs, and the sound leaves a familiar echo in Isabel’s ears. “I’m not sure if that’s a compliment.”
She begins eating, and he returns to his work. The clatter of his keyboard matches her racing heart. This is one of the signs Nonna always talks about—the broken Morse code blips sent from above.
The play opening on Friday works its way through final rehearsals. Isabel watches the actors circle each other on stage. If the man appears again on Wednesday, she will find some way to tell him about Camila.
Father Marino is a short, stout man with no sharp angles. Twice a week, he and Isabel sit side by side in church, staring at the white arches of the ceiling.
Father Marino lets her talk about whatever she wants. He has known her since she was born, baptized her in this same church. Throughout Isabel’s childhood, when her father moved across the country and Antonia barely spoke to her children, he tried his best to moderate Nonna’s religious rigor. Unlike Dr. Matthews, he treats her gently, asks her easy questions. He asks about work, how she’s adjusting to being back home, about movies she’s seen and books she’s been reading. He understands that the word of God will not go very far with her. Their sessions are arranged to appease Nonna, so that she accepts Isabel’s visits to Dr. Matthews without complaint.
“Father, do you believe in ghosts?” This is the first question Isabel has asked Father Marino in her two months of counsel.
He leans back and the pew creaks slightly. “Real ghosts, maybe not. But I believe that sometimes we see things we want to see.”
“Yesterday I saw Camila in someone else’s face.”
“Have you been thinking about her?”
He doesn’t ask Isabel to tell him about Camila. He already gave sermons and lit candles for her in the months after her disappearance.
“Do you think she’s dead?” Even in their hushed tones, the words echo between the wood, the stone, and colored glass of the church.
Father Marino touches the thinning brown hair on his temples. “I honestly don’t know.” His cheeks, red and peeling from his Saturday fishing trip, give way to deep creases when he speaks. There is something delicate about his pulpy frame. The flesh threatens to slide off his bones with each movement, fatigued from the daily labor of believing.
“It’s okay, Isabel. I often wonder about her myself.” He places his hand on her shoulder.
“I dreamt that she was there in the hospital.” Isabel looks at her feet, bound by the fake leather straps of her sandals. It is the first time she has said this aloud.
“Have you told Dr. Matthews?”
At night when the darkness in her bedroom takes heavy, swollen breaths, Isabel lies awake thinking about that day. She always expected death to be like sinking into clean linen after a long, arduous week. Instead, she found herself facing a dense, black ocean. It inched towards her, alive somehow. Just as she began to feel herself hollowing out, filling with dark water, the world pulled her back with its gentle hum.
She woke up that evening to a cold square of fluorescent light. She knew immediately that she would then have to do many things she didn’t want to. Her grandmother was asleep on a chair in the corner. Both of her parents sat side-by-side, staring at the floor like scolded children. She hadn’t seen them in the same room since her high school graduation.
The first time Isabel saw Camila’s ghost, she was standing at her beside next to the IV drip. Her face was still eighteen and fresh. She stroked Isabel’s matted hair and leaned over, whispering tenderly in her ear, “Fuck. Bitch. Cazzo. Puttana,” until she fell asleep once more.
“That day in April… why was there nothing?” Isabel’s question drifts towards the sleepy eyes of carved saints, whose tilted heads offer no consolations.
“You were only asleep,” Father Marino replies. “It was just a dreamless sleep.”
The lounge glows dark orange when the house lights are off. The white tiles on the checkered floor glare up at Isabel like hazard signs. She finds the man exactly where she left him two days ago. His computer screen bathes his face in blue, highlights the white in his striped shirt. He emerges like a beacon from the black fabric of the couch. She sits next to him without prompting.
“Do you work with the company?” she asks, gesturing to the actors rehearsing on stage.
He nods, pausing his fingers over his laptop. “I’m the assistant producer.”
“Do you always travel with them for shows?”
“Not always.” He turns his body towards her a little, his face smooth and glacial in his laptop’s glare. “Do you go to school around here?”
“Taking a break.”
“Breaks are good. I took a year off before I went to school, and it was the best idea I’ve ever had.”
Isabel tries to separate this man from her sister, but his cheeks crack and dimple when he smiles, lit like Camila under the moon. “Where are you from?” she asks, looking away.
“I live in Chicago. Where the company is based.”
The actress on stage cries out an accusation as the play reaches its climax. Her satin dress is like glass, soft and pliable where it meets the curve of her thigh.
“Do you ever see ghosts?”
“I think she’s following me.” Isabel meets his gaze and his smile falters.
“I have to get back to work.” Isabel stuffs her sandwich back into its plastic bag and stands up.
The man closes his laptop and leans forward. “Wait.”
Isabel shakes her head. She sees his lips tense on the brink of words, but turns her back before he can speak.
“Ghosts?” Dr. Matthews arches his eyebrows.
“Maybe not a real one. Maybe just something I want to see.”
“Is this an ectoplasmic, wailing ghost? Or are we talking about the curtains again?”
“He’s real. Flesh and blood.”
“I thought you just said he wasn’t real.”
“Well, not a real ghost.”
“What are you trying to say?”
Isabel falls silent.
Dr. Matthews leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “I can’t help you if you resist.”
“I’m not resisting.”
“You are.” His voice gets softer with each word, as though he is addressing a skittish animal. “I’d like to know what you are thinking, how you are feeling, then and now. We talk, but you never tell me anything.”
“Everyone thinks it was because of Camila.”
“I don’t. It’s not that simple. Maybe she is a factor, but we’ll never come to any understanding if you don’t take our sessions seriously.”
Isabel doesn’t know what he is asking for. All she ever feels is nothingness, acrid in her mouth, crackling in her skull, gumming up her sinuses. Unlike Camila, she had done everything she was supposed to. She hardly fought with Nonna and could speak Italian fluently. She went to a state-funded college, dated only a couple of boys who were baptized and parted their hair neatly to one side. She let Antonia take her shopping and paint her nails, tolerating her attempts to play mother after Camila left.
Even then, a chasm opened up between her and the world. She often felt her body move from a great distance, as though she walked just a few paces behind. It became so difficult to navigate that she would rather spend days alone, her mind decomposing inside her body. In the coffin-like rooms of her college dorm, nobody noticed her diminish the way spring melts the snow banks flanking every street corner into filthy gray heaps.
She wants to blame Camila, accuse her of running away with some essential piece of her, but her sister never even crossed her mind that day. The last thing Isabel saw was her own vomit, a bright splatter across the tile floor of her dorm room. The last thing she felt was relief that she wouldn’t have to clean it up.
“There’s nothing,” Isabel says after a long silence. “That’s the problem. The answer is always nothing.”
Her eyes wander to the ticking clock. Dr. Matthews nods. “We are out of time today. But this is good. I want you to think about what ‘nothing’ means. Write it down. We’ll start there next time.”
When Isabel returns home her mother and grandmother are putting away groceries in the kitchen. She stops at the front door, watching them through the opening at the end of the hall. The tones of their conversation sound tranquil. She drops her bag and sits on the stairs. She can still see them through the railing. A gourd slips out of Antonia’s hand and rolls onto the floor. They both laugh.
Isabel often sat here when Nonna and Camila fought, watching them pace the kitchen through the gaps in the bannister. They flitted in and out of view like actors on a screen, absorbing her in their loud, operatic arguments.
The last fight they had was in the May before Camila left. When they returned home from school, Nonna immediately sent Isabel to her room. She lurked at the top of the stairs until their footsteps receded into the kitchen, before crouching in the middle of the staircase.
“To think I would have to get such a call from Sister Catherine. The woman could hardly say the words out loud. You will be suspended for sure. Are you trying to get expelled before you graduate?” Nonna’s speech battered the air with rapid Italian.
“It was your idea to send me to Catholic school.” Camila, as always, replied in English. Nonna could never get her to speak Italian.
“I should have sent you to an all girls’ one.” Nonna emptied the dishwasher with such ferocity, Isabel feared for her favorite Pocahontas cup.
“Then instead of sucking dick, I’d be eating—”
The rest of Camila’s sentence was splintered by the sound of a plate shattering on the countertop. “What is wrong with you?”
“No, Camila. There has always been something wrong with you. Why do you think we send you to Catholic school, and not Isa?” Nonna formed her words in English now, the curl of her accent tipping her syllables with menace. “Every step of the way, you fight. Every good thing I have tried to teach you, you tear up and throw in my face. Why?”
Camila’s anger rippled across her profile. “If you knew anything about me…”
Nonna shook her head and turned away, moving out of Isabel’s sight. She heard the crescendo of high pitched rings as Nonna swept the broken shards into the trash.
“I don’t want to know,” she said, shutting the dishwasher. “I just want you to change.”
Camila didn’t argue. She picked up her backpack and left the kitchen. She didn’t stop when she saw Isabel, cheeks pressed against the wooden bars of the railing. She brushed past her and walked upstairs without a word.
Isabel wakes to the sizzle of onions in hot oil. She had dozed off on the stairs, her head resting on the faded floral wallpaper. The afternoon light leaks into the hallway, thickened to syrup by the passing hours.
Antonia and Nonna are still in the kitchen, oblivious of her presence. Isabel considers slipping out, sinking into the bruised evening shadows. She had done so many times just before she left for college. She walked through their neighborhood all evening, watching the vinyl sidings of each house steep in twilight until the streetlights blinked on.
It is impossible now. She can’t be trusted with her own time. They map her steps by the hour, keep her days airtight. If she doesn’t walk into the kitchen soon, the phone calls will start. First to her cellphone, then the theatre, then the therapist and eventually the police. They had explained this procedure very carefully upon her release from the hospital.
Isabel enters the kitchen and sits at the table. Antonia is beside her, snapping the leaves off a dripping bunch of basil. “How was work?”
“You look tired.”
“Dinner will be ready in a bit,” Nonna says.
“Can I help?”
Nonna points to a bowl of olives on the counter with her wooden spoon. Isabel takes a small knife and slices each in half, prying the pits out with the tip of the blade.
“What’s wrong?” Nonna asks.
“There is something.” She reaches over and rubs Isabel’s back without stepping away from the stove. “You hate cooking.”
“Do you ever think about Camila?”
Quiet envelopes the kitchen as both women pause.
“Every day,” Nonna replies without hesitation. “Every day I pray for her.”
Isabel puts the knife down and wraps her arms around her grandmother’s waist. The back of her neck smells like garlic and aloe lotion. Nonna continues to stir the pot without turning around.
“Don’t do any more stupid things, Isa,” she says. “I don’t want to light two candles in church.”
Through the corner of her eye Isabel sees Antonia holding an empty web of stems. There is something spiteful about the intimacy she reserves for her grandmother. It dares Antonia to ask for the same affection, but she never does. She places the bowl of basil leaves by the stove and goes upstairs.
The next day, Isabel is surprised to find that the man is in the lounge once again, and that he waves to her when she walks over. She thought for sure that she had scared him off.
“I’m sorry about yesterday,” she says. “I was in a weird mood.”
“No, no. I’m sorry.” He shakes his head. “I asked you something personal.”
She sits beside him and unwraps her sandwich. “I never caught your name.”
“What?” Cameron asks, looking self-conscious.
“Nothing…” She looks at her sandwich. “My sister’s name was Camila.”
“I’m sorry. I’m not trying to be a downer.”
“It’s okay.” Cameron sets his laptop on the low table next to the couch. He leans against the armrest and looks straight at Isabel. “Were you close with her?”
“Kind of. She was a lot older than me, and I don’t think she really told me anything. I had so many questions after she left.”
“Died, I mean.”
Cameron turns away from Isabel. They watch the play run its last rehearsal.
“Dying is a way of leaving, I suppose.”
“I understand it a little, now. Sometimes you’re just tired.”
Cameron places a large, slender hand on Isabel’s head. It is a gesture she hasn’t longed for in some time. “I’m sorry.”
“About… your sister. It must have been difficult.”
Isabel shrugs. “Everything is difficult.”
After a moment, Cameron returns to his laptop. Isabel stares at his profile. There was something remorseful in his apology. Or maybe that was how she chose to hear it, longed to hear it.
That night Isabel’s path home is tipped in silver-leaf. The asphalt of the empty street glows as though it is covered in snow. The orange sodium lamps have been replaced with white fluorescents and the hard light makes the trees look like plastic props, the street a set after curtain. The shadows of the power lines break up the sidewalk and Isabel steps through the pieces.
A car door opens and shuts across the street. She glances up to see Cameron with one of the actors. Their shoulders are touching and they are laughing. Isabel wonders if Cameron is telling a story about the box office girl who asks strange questions. She almost turns and follows him.
The street yawns between them as he walks away, and the ground no longer looks opaque. Camila’s ghost reaches out from the past and takes hold of Isabel. As her body continues down the street, she feels shards of herself scrape off and sink to the cement like fine dust.
When Isabel returns home, Antonia is sitting on her bed with the lights off. In her silhouette, Isabel sees Camila’s sharp, pale profile—one that Isabel always wished she shared.
“Not now, Mom. The box office was so busy today.” Isabel doesn’t want to have to comfort her mother, who sometimes comes into her room late at night, weepy and apologetic.
Antonia doesn’t move, so Isabel sits down next to her. “What’s wrong?”
“Have you been thinking about your sister?”
“Well, all of you keep asking me about her.”
“Isabel, listen to me.”
Isabel lies down.
“I was never sure when to tell you that I was in touch with Camila. When the police found her back then, she was with your father.”
Night scorches the bedroom walls. Their bodies are unfamiliar shadows, swaying in the mirror on her closet door. Isabel can’t make out the face in her reflection, and for a moment she is convinced that the dark figure lying on the bed is someone else.
“She wouldn’t be happy with us.” Antonia’s voice cracks but Isabel does not reach for her. “Your grandmother can never know. And Camila didn’t want to tell you—you were too young back then, and after the years started to pass… the moment never seemed right.”
Isabel hears Antonia’s words, but she is afraid to move. There is demon lying behind her mother. Its fingers wait to close around her white throat.
“But I told her what happened in April, and she wants to see you. She feels terrible, she wanted to come right away. I told her to wait, that we didn’t want to shock you—”
Isabel turns her back on the mirror to face the wall. “I’m tired, Mom. Let me go to sleep.”
“Are you angry?”
Antonia lingers on the bed, sniffing and waiting for Isabel to say something more. When her daughter offers nothing, she stands up and leaves, shutting the door behind her.
The flat, empty wall suffocates Isabel. A year after Camila left, Antonia packed all of her things into garbage bags and took them to Goodwill. Her bedroom lay empty until Isabel turned ten and wanted to stop sharing a room with her grandmother. Though she occupied it for years and years, she could never see this room as her own, because it will always be Camila’s. Even without her clothes and furniture, its corners crawl with the remainders of someone else’s life.
Isabel opens the window and climbs onto the rooftop. It is much smaller than she remembers. She has to bring her knees up to keep her ankles from hanging off the edge. The patch of scuffed shingles looks unremarkable without Camila’s slim shadow. Isabel sits there for a long time, watching the ink bleed and fade from the sky. The overcast twilight turns everything gray.
When Isabel enters Dr. Matthews’ office that morning, she stands before the closed door and crosses her arms. “Camila is alive.”
“I know.” Dr. Matthews says. Today he is wearing a very crumpled orange shirt, but he has remembered to pull his pants out of his socks. “Antonia called me this morning. She was afraid of how you might react. Do you want to talk about it?”
“No. Fuck her. That bitch. Che cazzo, puttana?” Isabel has never before sworn in Italian, and it feels good to finally say the words out loud.
Dr. Matthews just nods. “Okay. Sit down.”
Isabel leans her head against the door and looks up. The ceiling fan makes lazy loops, vestigial in the sharply air conditioned room. “You know, my favorite memory of Camila was always her confirmation.”
Dr. Matthews doesn’t dare speak.
“We spent all morning in Camila’s room, helping her get dressed, even Mom. She straightened Camila’s hair and put it up in this really nice twist. But just before her entrance, Camila disappeared. We were already in the pews, looking for her. When she walked in, we almost didn’t recognize her, but then I saw that twist—she was behind a group of boys, wearing a suit and tie. She left her confirmation dress on the bathroom floor. Nonna crossed herself so much I thought her arms would pop out of their sockets,” Isabel shook her head, laughing. “I thought it was so amazing. I feel so stupid.”
“Why would you say that?”
“Camila was never going to tell me anything.”
Isabel sits. She admits that she hasn’t written anything since their last meeting. Dr. Matthews says that he had a feeling she wouldn’t. They don’t mention Camila for the remainder of their session.
As the day presses on, the clouds begin to collapse around the town. The theatre emerges from the fog like a distant cliff, austere without its gaudy lights. The employees stuck in the lobby are restless in anticipation of rain, their faces dewy with sweat. Isabel arrives early and slips into the lounge to cool off before her shift.
The room is alive with activity. Actors flit in and out of the dressing rooms, assistants and technicians yell at each other across the stage. The bartenders fill the ice bin and unpack a new shipment of beer.
Cameron is sitting on the same couch, undisturbed by the chaos. He does not have his laptop, but his thumbs work rapidly on his phone screen. His legs are crossed and one foot twitches in the air, the house lights sliding back and forth across the shiny surface of his oxfords.
As Isabel approaches, he looks up. He puts away his phone and tugs his suit, sitting straighter. “You’re early.”
“You made me think I was crazy,” she says. “That I was seeing ghosts.”
Cameron is silent. She sits down beside him, reaches for the nape of his neck. She feels the sharp ends of his cropped hair on her fingers, but he does not pull away.
“I’m sorry, Isa,” he whispers. She can barely hear him over the noise in the theatre. “You must be so tired.”