Girl Group

While Sarah Witherspoon was still alive she was a mockingbird with a tin ear. Her attempts to recreate beauty never did justice to what she mimicked. When not insulting her outright, people called her Spoony. She was a plain brunette with thin hair and a thick brow that kept her from being pretty. The most remarkable aspect of her was how hard she tried and failed to be remarkable.

Spoony wore different colored sneakers to church. Her clothing made her look like a bag lady who had been miraculously made back into a girl. Her clashes of fabric were disturbing rather than an expression of taste. Striped skirts and argyle shirts with a plaid flannel. I avoided her until I fell for her sister Julia.

The Witherspoons lived around the bend of a lakeside road near downtown Roosevelt City. Both of our homes were considered historical sites. Our home’s myth of origin involved a doctor whose daughter was murdered in her sleep. That ghost never left her bedroom. Whenever a window would shut by itself in there my mother would say, “See? See?” Then we would laugh and I would wonder how seriously she took it.

Our house seemed to be a strange mélange of nineteenth century styles. It had a tower and stained glass but also a wide-open interior. I was told it was the fourth oldest remaining private residence in the county. It dates from the decade before the Civil War. The murder supposedly happened as a result of an unfaithful fiancée. A doctor’s daughter had wandered in wartime and she been killed for doing so.

Spoony supposedly lived where there was an early death as well. Her home was from the early twentieth century, but held more repute because it was done by a rouge pupil of Frank Lloyd Wright. Julia, Spoony’s younger sister, called it Frank Lloyd Light. The home attracted more attention than ours even though it was forty or so years younger. As a result, their supposed ghost was more renowned. Ethel died by her own hand as a teenager when her shell-shocked fiancé abandoned her shortly after World War I. Our families were both crusted with bloodstains that could never be washed from the spirit.

The homes were situated at the very northern extent of Roosevelt, where it ends with sand cliffs overlooking Agawatta Lake. As such, we both had docks at the bottom of long sets of wooden stairs. These docks had to be high for the chop that hit the lake. Across it was only a ribbon of green, North Roosevelt, richer than us. We looked rich, though.

One afternoon Julia got to me. It was a spring day in the nineteen-nineties. Julia had left her bedroom to read under real light, and had done so in a bikini. Her hair was the blond of Roosevelt sand, pale yellow, almost white. When I came down to see what wondrous thing had appeared on the dock down the way, she waved and then went back inside. Her smile was a life preserver that took me out to sea.

The next day it was hot enough to be August. I came down at the same time as the day before and was happy to find Julia there again. I shot looks at her skin without seeming to look at all. Spoony, overdressed and sweating out a glow, kept Julia there. Like shiny paper, the light crinkled on the choppy surface of the lake. Though only late May, there were already the white triangles of sloops ghosting over the water. The sun got so bright that it seemed to shine through skin, as if we were thin and held up to a powerful bulb.

I was beside my mother. She looked as young as me at times. I already had a beard at the end of my third year in high school. Though cracked by thin wrinkles, from a distance mom could pass for a girl. Her thin fingers played with the celery in her Bloody Mary, breaking it into chunks.

She and I talked about the children’s book she was always about to start, one based on personal myths I was told growing up. As an only child, I had shared these imaginary friends my mother had made. Sometimes, in the minutes before sleep, I would actually hear Pappy the Mongoose complain about the Cobra Sisters. The family stories made more sense to me than what little I had been taught of the Bible.

Julia and Spoony were the only other children who knew mom’s stories. Mom babysat for us all. Since babysitting, I had seen little of Julia. She was the sort of teenage girl who treated her bedroom like a cocoon. Then she emerged and flew, and I was searching for a net.

Spoony treated her sister as if she wanted to kill her in a jar and pin her to the family wall. Julia was elegant in every way that Spoony was plain – from features to wardrobe, it felt like Julia got right what Spoony meant to. If there was a song Spoony wanted to sing it was Julia’s. I suppose it was inevitable that sibling jealousy would arise. Still I thought she wouldn’t mind my pursuit of Julia; stupidly, but I thought it still.

Julia seemed to be pursuing me in kind. In June she swam over and dried off next to me. I loved it when she would emerge from the water and drip out a shine in the weak Michigan sunlight. Then it was my task to spread thick sunblock on her smooth back. We didn’t touch much other than that. Still, the give and take of her skin moved all of me.

Spoony followed her, swimming more skillfully but still seeming less graceful. When she climbed out of the lake, Spoony bragged that she had been up four days straight. Seeing a translucent girl every night did that to her. Spoony claimed impossible powers. She had a special connection to the spiritual world. Julia shook her head, and then lay a hand on her sister’s bouncing leg, stilling it.

Spoony was always touching me, and I was always jerking away. Finally I told her that my dad hit me a lot as a child, and that I didn’t like to be touched because of that. Later, though, when Spoony was looking at an empty spot somewhere above the boat-clogged lake, Julia put her hand on mine and I liked that touch.

Julia and I ran into each other twice at the same coffee shop, and the second time she asked me out. She was wearing a sundress and the wind off Lake Michigan was brutal, so that it clung to her on one side. It was checkered with small red squares that fell away before her pale skin at just the right curve of her chest. She caught me looking at her breasts and smiled quickly before darting away.

The meetings in the cafe parking lot allowed a private invitation to go to a movie. The sisters were privileged in that they had their own phone line. It was for both of them, though. I couldn’t call Julia without risking chatter with Spoony. That didn’t matter now that a date was set.

Julia had a car and I didn’t, so she showed up at my place. She had on pearl earrings. I complimented them. Julia said they were her great-grandmother’s and for special occasions. Her face paused in repose, every thin bone seeming to form a sentence she was about to punctuate. Then Julia pulled out a flask, right there, driving, she had a flask, and she took a pull in such a way that it meant freedom to me, as if I had achieved what growing up was supposed to be but never quite became. I held her hand in the film and got hard and smiled like a maniac for days after.

Before we got back to her house, she invited me in. Spoony was standing in the driveway when we got there, smoking a cigarette. Some light was still in the sky but so little that it blackened her so that I could see no color in her at all. There was a breeze coming off Agawatta Lake even at night, and it shuffled her long skirt and kept the cigarette smoke from lingering around her. Spoony’s puffs were awkward and thick with coughs. It was clear that she had been waiting for us. She was the only reason I didn’t kiss Julia goodnight.

Two days later, Spoony waded down the autumn shore just to show me something. Beneath her arms were slashes and cigarette burns. Spoony brandished them proudly, as if they were intricate tattoos. We said not a word about Julia, but there was no escaping one sister for the love of the other.

I stayed apart from Julia even as my ardor intensified. A few weeks passed where I didn’t call either sister. Spoony kept coming over with new wounds. Now the ghost girl was telling her to do terrible things. That’s all I was told, that the things were terrible. Spoony had always tried so hard to draw attention to herself that I tried to pay little attention. On callous days I scoffed to myself and wondered when she would end up in a mental hospital.

A few weeks after my date school started again. Two strange boys started showing up around the Witherspoon home, both of whom would set next to Julia on the dock. Senior year was getting underway by then, and I told myself to forget about my neighbors. Spoony didn’t leave me alone, but it seemed that Julia had forgotten me.

Then came the September day Julia called me. She had never called me before, and I expected to hear bad news about Spoony. There seemed to be no other reason left for us to speak. I was told we had to talk in person. We sneaked out very late and met by the water. Julia said nothing about Spoony. She just picked cattails until I took her hand and we kissed. Together we collapsed beautifully into the thin beach, the long grasses of the marshy shore brushing against my calves. I had long hair at the time, straight and blond, just like Julia’s, and we mixed our hair together as our mouths searched each others.

In October, Julia found Spoony under bloody sheets, cut all to hell. There was no one big slash, just dozens of slits in various degrees of healing, she said. I didn’t mention that I had known as much, nor did I tell Julia what Spoony had done the night before.

The cuts came the day after I got into bed and found Spoony there, fully clothed and sweating. She smelled like roses in a locker room. I told her to leave. She did. No threats. No tears. Only a strange, mechanical walk out of the house. I wonder what my parents thought, seeing Spoony leave my bedroom that late.

A few days before Halloween Spoony smothered Julia with a pillow. Then she hung herself in the dining room. The funeral for both was on All Saint’s Day. I remember wondering how there could be any saints after a world that could be so awful to two girls. I barely faulted Spoony for the murder at first. I felt I should have known and stopped it. If anyone had known enough to do so, it had been me.

School was a terror afterward. The two boys who had been doting on Julia told everyone that I had slept with both. Someone threw a hard-boiled egg at me during lunch. A guidance counselor curled her lips as if I stunk. I transferred from Roosevelt City to Roosevelt Shores and left high school alone.

Harmonies began to find me in the night. I saw nothing while awake. Awake I only hear voices. A quartet of girls sing Motown wordlessly. These voices only came at home, sometimes in the tower, sometimes in the attic. Sometimes in my dreams I still see Spoony teaching new songs to the older ghosts, though they are all the same age. In those dreams the voices take on new words, “Baby, baby, where did our love go?”

Dylan James Brock got his undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan and an MFA from Hunter College in New York City. He has worked as a reader at the Paris Review, a barista at Starbucks, a research assistant for author Kathryn Harrison, a dog walker, an adjunct teaching writing in Michigan and New York City, a sales associate at Best Buy, a founder of the record label Jumberlack Media, a ride attendant at a water park, and a freelance web developer.