The first time Emily saw Caleb, she was ten years old. He was digging in the sand at the municipal park near her house when a bigger boy tackled him and held him down in the muddy depression at the bottom of the slide.
“Don’t,” Emily said, and when the other boy only grinned up at her, she stuck out her chin and shoved a handful of sand down the back of his jeans.
The second time Emily saw Caleb, he was standing in front of the Dairy Queen, trying to protect his ice cream cone from the same boy. This tormenter, it transpired, was Caleb’s own brother, Irwin, a nasty piece of work. Eventually, he gained the ice cream, and Caleb sat alone on the curb. Emily had been about to start home with Deanie and Rose, her two best friends in the whole world, but first she went over and gave Caleb a piece of candy, which was wrapped in cellophane and shaped like a strawberry. He took it and his hand was sticky. Emily smiled and went home.
A week later, she was dead.
The way it happened was senseless and tragic. The car was driven by a sweet old lady on her way home from bingo when the brakes failed. A purely honest accident. Emily lay unconscious in the hospital for eleven days, with low neural activity and no awareness of her mother’s weeping.
When she woke up, she was standing out in the hall with an official-looking woman in a green pantsuit. The woman reached for her hand and together, they looked through the window into the little room.
The girl in the hospital bed was not Emily. She had Emily’s mouth and Emily’s dark hair, but Emily was standing with the grim, authoritative woman in the green pantsuit, so the girl in the bed must be someone else.
“Who is that?” she asked. “What happened to me?”
Through the window, the new girl looked at her. Emily was alarmed to see her own heavy-lashed eyes staring back.
“You’re not that person anymore.” And the rather severe woman looked suddenly regretful. “The Eater took her. I’m sorry.”
“But what will happen to me? What about my body?”
“It’s not yours. I’m sorry, but that body belongs to Emily now.”
“No,” said the green-suited woman. “You’re not.”
Like many artifacts of bureaucracy, the booklet was thin. It had slick, cheap pages and a fold-over binding held together with staples. She read the bullet-point directives, and then read them again. She read them until she could recite the entire booklet from memory. The guidelines were simple, but firm. She would work in grief management, and with any luck at all, she would be good at it. She would stop people from being sad.
And so she grew up and got a bicycle and a converted apartment in a crumbling Victorian. She got a body with long, fawn-red hair and laughing eyes. She painted her fingernails pink and drank raspberry flavored tea and lemonade, and she studied her booklet.
She did her job and liked it. The work was varied and engaging, and it was gratifying to do some good in the world. And she didn’t think about Emily much, when she could help it.
The first time Holly saw Caleb, she was nineteen. She was ringing up convenience items in the MetroMart. The manager, Mr Poole, was sixty-four years old and had just lost his wife. He was a morose man, with a deep violet halo around him and very little to smile about. But he liked Holly, and so she did her best to make him laugh, and buzzed around the stockroom, tossing her fawn-red hair.
Caleb was fifteen, with gray-green eyes and a smile that made the girls in his homeroom whisper and giggle. When he came through Holly’s register with a sports drink and a pack of gum, he leaned on the edge of the check-stand and stared right into her face.
“Is something wrong?” she said, smiling. She always smiled and the MetroMart customers always smiled back.
“You reminded me of someone,” he said, still watching her face. “It’s weird. Sorry—you’re really nothing like her.” Then, he left.
He came back the next day though, and when he reached the checkstand, he offered Holly a piece of candy. “I brought this for you. I thought it seemed like your kind of thing.”
Holly accepted the candy. The wrapper was made of colored cellophane, printed to look like a strawberry.
“What is this?” she said, not meaning the candy, but other things instead. What makes a boy bring candy to a stranger and why would he apologize for being reminded of someone else. How did you know it was my favorite?
“You remind me of my brother’s girlfriend.” But he was frowning when he said it. “Emily. That’s who you remind me of, but not in a normal way. I don’t know what I mean,” he said. “Just that I know you.”
He looked so completely unsettled that Holly laughed. It was good to laugh, and when she did, other people laughed too and birds hopped down from the phone lines to gather around her. Storm clouds broke up and drifted away. Streetlights came on in the daytime, for no reason. Caleb watched her, but he did not smile back.
The night was ominous, hot and low, with thunderstorms on the horizon. Holly was overbooked, working too many cases at once, and had just been out to dinner with an fragile young man whose sister had recently died boating. The air was blue around him, and exhausting. She came home to an open window and a lighted lamp, when she knew for a stone fact that she’d pulled the shades down and turned the switches off.
Caleb was curled in her armchair, with his arms around himself and his knees pulled up. His forehead was slick with sweat, shining in the lamplight, and the skin around his eyes was a yellowish purple.
Holly stood over him and did not touch him, although he looked like he needed it. “Are you all right?”
He shook his head and she did not ask how he’d found her, or how he’d gotten in. The lock to the backdoor had been broken since she moved in, and they always found her eventually. For the first time since her foray into grief management, she felt uneasy. She had a way with people, but she did not like having them in her house.
He looked exhausted though, and after a moment, she touched his cheek. It was hot and damp. “You should be at home.”
He shook his head again, turning his arm for her to see. There was a festering mark on the inside of his elbow. It wept yellow ooze, like the bite of something repugnant. “Emily will find me,” he said. His voice was low. “She’s coming.”
“You’re delirious,” Holly said, but she brought him aspirin and cold water, and held the glass for him when his hands shook.
He fell asleep with his head on her shoulder, whispering her name. Whispering for peace and safety, for Holly and for Emily.
Emily arrived on Holly’s doorstep the next morning, with a oversized bag slung over her arm and Caleb’s brother Irwin in tow. The two of them made an attractive pair and Holly was impressed by how glossy Emily’s hair was, how neatly she applied her makeup. The scrawny girl with scabs on her knees had grown into a graceful woman with long acrylic nails and a very large bag.
“Where’s Caleb,” Emily said, standing with her hip cocked to one side and her arms crossed. “His mom’s worried.”
Holly stared at the thing that had taken over her appearance and her four-poster bed and her stuffed tiger and her life. &ldquo
;Why would I tell someone like you something like that?”
“Because I have this,” Emily said. She held out a tiny vial, corked and labeled, half-filled with something pale and translucent. “It’s his,” she said, smiling slyly. “I sucked it out of his blood, and he won’t last long without it.”
“What are you doing to him?”
Emily smiled. “I’m just taking advantage of a convenient situation. The world is full of bodies, all new and exciting and waiting to be taken. There are billions out there, and this one’s getting boring. I thought I’d try his for awhile. Unless you have a problem with that.”
Holly stared into the dark ruin of her own eyes. “And if I do have a problem?”
“It will be a choice,” Emily said, waving the vial, “because those are the most fun. You can give this back to him. If you want.”
Yes, Holly wanted to cry, yes and yes and yes. Instead, she took a deep breath and folded her arms. “What do I have to do?”
Emily moved closer. Her smile was wide, and for the first time, Holly saw the old, dependable face she used to stare at in the mirror—the crooked tooth that had always caused her a certain juvenile despair had become a feature, imparting a wry, artful charm.
For an instant, her teeth appeared coated in thin sheen of blood—there, then gone. “You can save him, but it means giving up a shot at something you want very badly. Or, you can let me play my little game, and when it’s over, maybe I move on to something a little more satisfying. Maybe I take him, and you get your body back.”
There was a rumble of thunder. The sky was low and gray, and Emily had no color at all. She tilted her head in a coy, unfamiliar way. “You’re thinking about this. It’s okay, I can wait.”
Holly went back inside, but she did not take the vial. Holly went back inside and knelt down next to Caleb, who lay on the couch, the raw sore in the crook of his elbow still bubbling with infection. She saw his confusion and his loneliness, deep and soft like velvet. She saw melancholy, times he’d felt alien, isolated. Times he’d wished for a different life, a different self.
“It hurts,” he whispered.
Holly nodded, resting her hand on his forehead. “I know.”
Out on the steps, the Emily-thing was waiting, promising something horrible and fantastical. All she wanted in return was one negligible boy—a boy who’d always been too weak to tell someone no.
“What’s happening?” he whispered. His lips were starting to look blue.
“You’re leaving me,” she said, “but it’s okay.”
Photo by mickeysacks