John Singer Sargent, "Palmettos," 1917. From the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

All the neighborhood kids play the game, but none of them are as good at it as Gail and Sasha. Ginny’s daughters stand over the other children with their fists dug into their hips and their legs spread wide. They survey the backyard with the serious expressions of seasoned military drill sergeants. It’s a game they play religiously. Every day after school, the same thing. Gail explained the rules to Ginny over dinner one night when Ginny got tired of guessing why they both had dirt in their hair.

You play dead, you stay dead. Gail said around a mouthful of mashed potatoes. Whoever lasts longest wins.

Eight kids sprawl in the weeds with their arms crossed over their chests. The sisters toe them with their sneakers to make sure they don’t move. Sasha smiles if she can make someone twitch; Gail frowns. These reactions say a lot about Ginny’s daughters. Her youngest finds humor in everything, but her eldest can’t stand it when things don’t go according to plan. It’s a very Ginny thing, to get angry about things you can’t control.

Dead children lie between anthills that cropped up overnight between the patio and the stunted orange tree. I need to go buy more ant killer, Ginny thinks. Someone’s going to get ants up their shorts.

She knows she should say something. It’s morbid to playact death on a daily basis, but she doesn’t have the heart to put a stop to it. Mostly she’s proud of her kids for being the best at something. They boss all the other kids around, even the ones who are a few years older. Sasha yells at a boy when his arm twitches. Gail stands over a girl and watches her face for signs of life. They take the game very seriously. They act like it’s real life and death.

Good, Ginny thinks. Let my kids know what it’s like to be winners. Get it in the bloodstream. Let them crave that feeling.

“You have to really hold it,” Gail says when a girl argues over an out. “I can see your stomach moving. No faking.”

“Like this.” Sasha pinches her nose closed with one hand and cups the other over her mouth. Her eyes get wide and bug out. “Dead. No breathing.”

It was originally called Living Dead, but her girls renamed it The Graveyard Game. They’ve been doing it for two months straight. No end in sight.

 

She holds a cold cup of coffee and watches her daughters from the sliding glass door. The kids are in her backyard now, but soon they’ll move two yards down, and then they’ll head across the street. Gail moves them around so they can try out the game in different settings. Most of the houses have citrus trees—the kids like to pull fruit off during time-outs—and there’s a yard at the end of the block with a loquat tree.

“Be quiet,” Gail says, standing over a girl and pointing down into her face. “If you’re laughing, you’re alive.”

Ginny’s yard has chain-link fencing around it because she hasn’t had the time to put up a wooden fence. When the kids first started playing back there, the neighbor’s dogs went wild. The kids never seemed to mind. They went about their business, running through the unmown grass and hiding behind the shed. But Ginny didn’t like how loud the dogs got. They slammed against the fence, butting up against the chain link until it shook like it might tumble down whole.

After she split with her wife and moved into the new house with the kids, the neighbors had all been very nice. It was the kind of suburb full of people who brought over casseroles and made small talk in the yard. But the neighbor behind her had asked if she could please not let her kids run in the yard.

What a bitch, telling me to keep my kids out of my own yard, she thought as the woman leaned over the fence, one hand on a blocky white pit bull’s head. The fucking balls on this lady.

She put a stop to that with one call to the neighborhood association, and hasn’t seen the dogs in the backyard since. On the phone, she’d called the dogs vicious, even though they’d never tried to bite anyone. It hadn’t mattered to Ginny. She wanted the woman to know she was tough and wouldn’t put up with disrespect.

Not in my own house, she thinks. Not in my own backyard.

Ginny sets down her coffee mug next to the stack of bills she needs to sort through, and when she comes back to the sliding glass door all the kids have vanished. It’s like that most days. She’ll see them laid out like sacrifices, and two seconds later they’ve scampered off. Scalps full of dirt and twigs, bodies dusty with upturned earth. Her kids’ hair, usually dark brown, is laced with blonde streaks from all the sun they’re getting. Their cheeks are rosy, teeth pearly in their tanned faces.

They’re the healthiest corpses on the block, Ginny thinks, and then she sits back down to work.

 

Two weeks later and she notices they’re trying something new. They’re not in the yards as much, for one thing. When Ginny asks Sasha about it, she says that they’ve found a hideout underneath the palmetto scrub a block over. It’s a couple acres behind the subdivision, stuffed with pine trees and saw palm, so bristly and overgrown it’s incredible to imagine anyone spending any comfortable amount of time there. Palm scrub is forever damp and mucky, and notoriously full of roaches. She’s impressed her daughters have managed to stick with it and not given up at the first sight of a bug.

“We’re digging tunnels beneath the roots,” Gail says. “A whole bunch of ‘em.”

Ginny can tell that’s true because their fingernails are full of dirt. She goes through the gardening supplies in the garage and lets the kids have all of the stuff she always thought she’d use in the backyard but never got around to: spades and trowels, little buckets to transport plants and herbs, packets of marigold seed and cucumber that are well past their expiration date. She sets the tools out by her daughters’ backpacks, and they take them without any thanks or questions.

 

Working from home bores Ginny more than she thought it would. It’s the kind of malaise that sets her teeth on edge. Nobody to hold her to anything; no one to check up on her projects.

I can’t wait to be my own boss, she’d said when people asked. Love to set my own deadlines. And she’d believed it, even when people gave her sympathetic looks. Even when they said things like: I can’t imagine what you’ll do all day, alone in that house.

Work, is what she’d said, and she does work, but she also feels trapped by it. She’s stuck in a restless, aimless state that she can’t seem to shake. To combat the creeping depression, she manufactures deadlines for herself. She holds cocktail hour at 5pm: two drinks during the work week, three on Friday nights. It doesn’t matter. All the days slide into monotony, only broken up by the sudden intrusion of The Graveyard Game and her kids taking charge of the world around them.

Work, Ginny learns, is a word that has no strict meaning. It devolves into petty tasks like folding laundry or picking up cold medicine. Work, without the sturdy structure of leaving home, means there’s never a time she feels like work is Work, never a time where it feels like she ever stops working. It is no work ever; it is work all the time.

“What am I doing?” Ginny asks no one, and realizes she’s been staring out the window for ten minutes, hoping the girls will come home soon.

Gail and Sasha slip in through the sliding glass door. Ginny looks up from her computer and minimizes the browser where she’s been searching for rescue pets. Maybe a cat for her daughters. Something they could care for that’s living.

“Can we have dinner?” Sasha asks, and that’s when Ginny remembers that she didn’t go to the store again. It always feels like she’s just picked up all the same things: paper towels, milk, bread. But they’re out of the same things, all the time, so it feels like a never-ending loop of toilet paper, toilet paper, toilet paper. There’s nothing in the cabinet. There’s no time go to the store.

“How about pizza?” she asks, trying to salvage the night.

The girls both stare at her from the edge of the living room rug. They look tired, Ginny realizes. They have dirt on their cheeks, and their dark hair is blown into thin, wild strings that make them look like they haven’t had a bath in weeks.

“Can we just go to sleep?” Gail asks. She’s older by two years, but both girls are about the same height, with the same sharp noses and close-set black eyes. When they stand side-by-side, swaying underneath the circling ceiling fan, they look like they could be twins.

“Do you feel okay?” Ginny asks, getting up to touch their foreheads. It’s not like them to turn down pizza. Maybe they’re getting sick. They stare at her in response, identical purple circles pressed under their eyes. She decides to keep them home from school the next day, just to give them extra rest.

They both take showers, one after the other. Then they’re in the pajamas, brushing their teeth side-by-side at the sink, one spitting, then the other. They’re sharing a bedroom, even though the house has enough space both for a home office and for the girls to each have their own room. She’d read that it could be good for siblings to share that kind of closeness. That it might bring about more meaningful relationships in the future.

She gets them glasses of water. She braids their hair to keep it from breaking and getting tangled.

“All good?” she asks. The girls nod.

Settled into top and bottom bunks, Ginny snaps on the pink tulip-shaped nightlight that juts close to the door, as if it somehow infiltrated from outside and planted itself in the wall. It is frilly and girly, something her ex-wife picked out. The girls hadn’t even asked for a nightlight. She doesn’t know why she still uses it.

“You want me to read to you?” she asks, though she hasn’t done that in years. The girls lie completely still in their beds. They look like the corpses they imitate outside, fresh-cheeked as Snow White in her glass coffin.

“Could you turn off all the lights?” Gail asks, and Ginny pulls the string for the bulb in the fan.

“The nightlight, too,” Sasha says. Ginny looks at their pale faces, their eyes already closed. When she snaps off the nightlight, the room feels like a tomb. She closes the door slowly, letting the slice of light from the hallway illuminate the bunk bed for as long as possible before it finally snicks shut.

 

They’ve stopped playing in the backyard. She finds herself looking up from her computer to stare at the sliding glass door multiple times a day. There’s nothing there but the birdbath and the lawn that needs mowing. Birds flit back and forth from the grass to the bath, the bath to the grass, seeking out bugs. The girls still come home coated in dirt, exhausted, and she wonders what’s happening underneath all the palm scrub. She knows it would take monstrous effort to clear out the kind of clutter housed beneath palmettos. Her washer is full of broken twigs and bark and brittle pieces of oak leaves.

She wants to see what’s happening, but she doesn’t want her daughters thinking that she’s prying. Not when they’re finally doing so well for themselves. Gail is in the fifth grade and Sasha is in third. Old enough to play without supervision, Ginny thinks. Old enough to be out with other kids.

Still, when they come in and drop off their backpacks, Ginny decides to follow them for a bit down the street to see where they go. She figures she should know where the palm scrub sits, just to make sure that there aren’t any older kids hanging around.

In her front yard, her daughters stand facing the sun and squint into the light. They both wear jean shorts cut off at their scabbed knees, calves pricked with bruises. The other kids make their way over and stop in front of Gail and Sasha, awaiting orders. Ginny realizes she hasn’t put her shoes on, but she’s worried if she leaves the window, they’ll disperse and she won’t see where they’ve gone. After the sixth kid shows up in a dirty pair of overalls, Gail and Sasha turn and head down the street. They walk at the edge of the curb, two-by-two.

Ginny slips through the front door and creeps down the driveway. The concrete is hot under her bare feet, nearly scorching her soles. She worries someone will look out the window and notice that she’s walking around barefoot. How embarrassing, for one of the neighbors to see her like that. But she’s already two houses down, and the kids are moving quickly. There’s no time to go back for anything.

There are bits of broken glass along the curb, acorn caps and mud. Mulch and sprinkler water. Pine needles tacky with resin. Ginny tries to think of an excuse she can give if the girls happen to turn around and see her, trailing along behind them, barefoot. She hasn’t walked outside without shoes since she was in high school.

I’ll ask if they want a snack, she thinks, then changes her mind. Why does she even need to give an excuse? Shouldn’t she know where her children are? Still, she stays far enough behind that when they turn right at an intersection she startles into a trot, worried that she’ll lose them – that perhaps they’ll disperse so quickly she won’t know where they’ve gone.

But when she rounds the corner, they’re still directly ahead of her, marching like soldiers down to the end of the cul-de-sac. Three houses are set back at the end, ranch-style mirrors of each other in sherbet Florida hues: pale pink, green, and blue. Her girls lead the others directly between the green and blue homes and climb over the chain link fencing, disappearing into the overcrowded palm scrub. The brush swallows up the line of them like they were never there.

Ginny stands in the middle of the street, listening for the kids. They have always been so loud when they’re in a pack, raucous as birds fighting over a nest. Now there’s nothing but the far off crunch of scrub as their bodies press through the vegetation. When even that noise is lost to her, she turns around and walks back home, careful of her bare feet.

 

There’s less to do for her job than she’d like, but she still turns in projects a few days late. Ginny find it hard to concentrate on any one thing. Her mind shifts from one topic to another in a kind of slide that doesn’t allow her to focus on any anything for more than a few minutes at a time.

Groceries. Deadline. Dinner. Reports. Groceries.

She gets an email from the boss she’s never met: Is everything okay? This kind of pseudo-caring, prying question infuriates her, but she’d ask the same thing of a subordinate if they turned in the sloppy work she’s been trying to pass off as her best.

Everything’s fine, she sends back. Almost finished with that report.

More often than not, she finds herself thinking about The Graveyard Game, and what the kids are doing out at the end of the cul-de-sac, crawling through the tunnels they’ve scraped out with her gardening tools. When her kids come in from playing outside, they eat dinner hunched over their plates, nearly nodding off into the casseroles and pot pies and chicken fingers she makes to perk up their appetites.

Her computer goes to sleep as she stares out the sliding glass door, contemplating the sandy patches of yard that still need ant killer. When she turns back around, the screensaver is up. It’s a picture of herself with the girls at the beach three years earlier. They crouch over the remnants of a demolished sandcastle. The moat they dug houses Sasha, grinning at the camera with a mouthful of sandy baby teeth.

Maybe they’re hungry, Ginny thinks, and she gets up to pull together a plastic lunchbox full of snacks. Celery slathered with peanut butter and raisins, crackers with neon cheese sandwiched between them, tangerines, packages of yogurt you drink by ripping off the ends with your teeth. Putting everything together, she feels like she’s getting ready for a trip. She puts on her dark sunglasses, her beach hat. She smears sunscreen on her shoulders so she won’t freckle up. Once she’s out the door and feels the warmth hit her body, she smiles for what feels like the first time in weeks. It’s not until she’s halfway down the driveway that she spots her kids walking towards her up the road.

They’re far enough away they haven’t seen her. She hurries into the house and throws everything into the hall closet and slams the door.

When the girls get inside, she’s already back at the computer, typing an email.

“What’s up?” she asks, not turning around. “You’re done early today.”

“Got tired of it,” Gail says. “We were bored.”

“Can we have Kraft tonight?” Sasha asks.

It’s been months since her daughters have been interested in food. She’s aware of the kernel of shame growing in her chest. It’s clear to Ginny that one of the other kids has ousted them from their power position; now they’re home and they won’t play the game anymore. She’s deflated. Lets them walk past her into the bathroom before she gets up to make their macaroni and cheese. When she puts them to bed, they ask for the nightlight.

“I gave it away,” she tells them, though she knows exactly where it sits inside her nightstand, beside a tube of lavender hand lotion that belonged to her ex-wife. She closes the door firmly behind her and makes sure it clicks shut.

Two weeks later she finds the lunchbox in the closet while she’s digging out a pair of running shoes. The food inside has soured to slime. She throws the whole thing in the garbage, not even bothering to wash it.

 

“You need to chill out a little,” her ex-wife says, unwrapping a piece of green sugarless gum. “Like chill out at least 15 percent, please.”

It’s the second weekend of the month. Her ex is returning Sasha and Gail to the house after two days of sugary breakfast cereal for every meal. The girls haven’t had baths. None of their homework is done. They’re testy and whiny, fighting over who’ll use the bathroom first. Ginny can hear them from all the way down the hall, voices raised like sirens.

“Don’t be dumb,” Ginny says, but she’s not upset. Their split was amicable and it feels like they’re still friends, even though they aren’t and never will be again.

“Let them have fun. They’re young. It’s not gonna kill them.” Gum flashes neon green-green-green between the ex’s molars as she chews with her mouth wide open. “You should try it, it’ll put you in a better mood.”

“My mood’s fine,” Ginny says, but her tone says don’t push it.

“I’m just saying, chill out.” Her ex-wife gets into her car and starts the engine. The thing she’s always disliked about her ex is that the woman knows how to exit an argument.

“You chill out,” Ginny says, but the car is already backing out of the driveway.

Inside, the girls screech over the bathroom. Because they’re so evenly sized, neither of them has the upper hand. Sasha’s got raised, puffy scratches on her cheek and Gail is pulling her sister’s hair. Ginny walks down the hall to separate them. Sasha gives up after a second, but Gail refuses to stop. There are several tense moments where Ginny wonders if her daughter will ever let go.

“Quit it,” Ginny says, but Gail won’t let up.

Sasha makes noises that remind Ginny of the neighbor’s dogs: high-pitched, uncontrolled yips. Her eldest has a look so intense it feels like staring at a stranger’s face. Finally, Sasha screams and yanks backward. They separate and fall apart, Gail still clutching a fistful of her sister’s hair. All the labored breathing makes the hallway feel tight like a blocked airway.

“Get into bed,” Ginny says. “Right the hell now.”

They file into the bedroom across the hall. Gail closes the door behind her, holding the hair like a trophy.

Ginny waits until it’s quiet. Then she sits down on the floor and breathes deeply, in and out, head pressed between her bent knees. Chill the fuck out, she tells herself.

 

It’s twilight and the girls haven’t come home. Outside, the sky purples into black along the tops of the oaks and bats flutter through the broken branches. She stands at her computer, wondering if she should be worried, but knowing that she already is. You don’t think about whether you should be worried if you’re not already feeling it, she thinks.

She puts on her sneakers and goes outside. But once she’s standing in the driveway, she has no clue where to go. She decides to walk the long way around to the street behind her, where some of the girls live that she’s seen Gail and Sasha talking to when they get off the school bus.

Light gleams yellow from the gaps in her neighbor’s living room curtains. Everyone is sitting down to dinner. Her own kids haven’t eaten yet, and she hasn’t even been to the grocery store to get milk. She walks quickly, unsure where she’s going but wanting to get there faster. When she finally stops, winded, she realizes she’s standing in front of the neighbor’s house who lives directly behind her. It’s the home of the woman with the too-loud dogs. There’s a for-sale sign in the woman’s front yard and no car in the driveway.

I don’t know where I’m going, Ginny thinks. None of these people can help me.

She decides to walk down to the scrub brush because it’s the only other place she knows. It’s quicker to jog, she thinks, and she’s got her sneakers on. She starts off slow, and then she’s running down the street, the houses flashing by with their timered lights and parked cars and matching, perfectly watered lawns. It takes her no time at all to get to the palm scrub embankment.

There’s almost no sun left, and what little remains is slowly leaching away, like it’s draining into the tree line. Even though it looks deserted, she climbs over the fence and starts calling for her daughters. Sasha she calls first, because her youngest has always come running, while Gail takes her time no matter what’s happening.

The ground has too much give. It’s wet, like it’s been raining, even though there hasn’t been a cloud in the sky for weeks. Leaves slip into her sneakers and move along the bottom of her foot, tripping her up while she crashes through the brush.

“Sasha,” she yells. “Sasha, answer me!”

She stands still for a minute, palm fronds sawing at her calves and arms, hearing only her heartbeat in her ears. Then there’s something else. Not words exactly, but something. She moves left, deeper into the scrub, trying to locate it. It is a lowing, kind of keening. The path twists, thinner and less traveled, and then she finds it. Her youngest kneels in a thick wad of moss and dead leaves, tracing a circle around herself in the dirt with a stick.

“What are you doing?” she asks, and Sasha makes the noise again. It’s like crying, Ginny thinks, except more like the sound that comes after crying. “Where’s your sister?” Ginny asks, and Sasha keeps trailing her stick through the dirt, gouging deeper, thicker impressions. Then she points with the stick to a small, burrowed opening in the scrub directly ahead of them.

Kneeling beside her daughter, moisture soaks through her jeans. “Is she in there?” she whispers, and her youngest nods. “What’s she doing?” Ginny asks, and Sasha points again before she goes back to digging out the trench around her legs.

Ginny’s hand alone enters the tunnel of scrub. At first there’s nothing but wet fronds and piled dead leaves, but then there’s something else. The sole of a sneaker. She wraps her hands around an ankle and tugs. “Gail,” she says, the name like a cough in her throat, like it hasn’t ever been said before that very moment. “Gail, come out here, please. Come out right now.”

The shoe wrenches off in her hand. It’s warm and sweaty inside the sneaker. Then she is yanking both legs, pulling the still body through the tunnel toward her. Her daughter is so heavy, heavier than she thinks is possible for a ten-year-old. Dragged free into the dim, fading light, Gail is a corpse covered in a fine blanket of leaves.

Sasha moans as Ginny leans over her eldest. She carefully touches her pale, moony face, gently sweeping the dirt from her lids with her thumbs. A large, iridescent beetle crawls out of the tangled nest of Gail’s hair.

“Game’s over,” Ginny says, voice shaking. “You won.”

Gail opens her eyes. Triumphant.

Kristen N. Arnett

Kristen Arnett is a queer fiction and essay writer. She won the 2017 Coil Book Award for her debut short fiction collection, Felt in the Jaw, and was awarded Ninth Letter's 2015 Literary Award in Fiction. Her work has appeared or is upcoming in North American Review, The Normal School, Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, Guernica, Electric Literature, Literary Hub, Volume 1 Brooklyn, Bennington Review, Tin House Flash Fridays/The Guardian, Salon, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her novel, Mostly Dead Things, will be published by Tin House Books in summer 2019.

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