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Girls Like You Once Were

Fiction by Erin Calabria

            You called me, and now I can’t go back. Of course it was October; one of you had pinched a letter of mine from the library, another lit candles the color of the last dress I wore. Then you steamed up all the bathroom mirrors and cast your spell, a circle of giggles and thumb-holed sweatshirts and French braids unraveling around faces as young as mine had been.

            You wanted to know if I truly loved him, the most foolish question you could have asked. A ghost loves everything that once belonged to them, so yes, of course, if you have to know, so much that I wanted to smash all those mirrors. In the end all I managed was a misty handprint that faded too fast for any of you to see.

            Soon enough though I made Jessica’s room so cold she had to wear her winter coat and study with a cup of tea in her hands. I slipped into the walls and knocked all night long so Amelia couldn’t sleep. And whenever Grace wanted to drive off-campus to bring you all donuts or beer, I mustered all my strength and dropped the car keys behind her bookshelf.

            I heard you all whispering the story then. How over a century ago, the building where you now took your lit and language and history classes had once been a barn. How, after my parents refused to let me marry that traveling salesman, I’d climbed to the top of the hayloft with a rope and stepped off. How my bones had been buried, unmarked, where your dormitory later would stand. And how the man, when he heard what I’d done, went down to the stream below the farm and drowned.

            It’s true, most of it. Though nobody ever remembers the most romantic part – that he played the fiddle. Growing up here in the mountains, with only the occasional tinker or animal doctor passing through, music becomes a magic thing. It fills a room with something that isn’t air but feels like what you were meant to be breathing all along. And then there’s the way it makes a person look when they play – but I could tell by the posters on your walls you already knew about that.

            Glancing over your shoulders as you hunched in front of screens or underlined passages in fluorescent ink, I saw that you knew so many things. Jessica shot black-and-white photographs and read philosophy. Amelia sang opera and studied Arabic. Grace took physics and wrote poems about death and innocence lost.

            For a while, I couldn’t help freezing rooms colder, knocking walls louder, throwing a book or two from your shelves. It was all so unfair, the things that I’d missed. You all thought so too. You whispered about my parents – How could they? – but you were just learning how young even parents are, how hard it is to grow up, to choose when to listen, and when to resist. In your bunk beds, across bathroom stalls, on the common room couches, I heard you talk about the teachers who only called on you when you wore contacts instead of glasses, about the boys who didn’t want to use protection, about the families you had to hide your pills from whenever you brought your laundry home.

            It made me crawl into the walls and weep sometimes, how it was all so new to you, and so much. Of course you had wanted to talk to the ghost of a girl.

            As if you could hear me, you put on jazz CDs for me to dance to, left chocolate and honey in a bowl for me to covet. Maybe you just wanted me to stop bothering you, but I imagined you wanted to be my friend. I dreamed that maybe, if we’d all been somewhere else, sometime else, we would have smoked joints out the window together, or read tarot cards, or stolen ice cream bars from the dining hall freezer. Perhaps we would have summoned some other ghost, or else we would have failed, gone back to pretending that none of our fears were real. Instead, I tried to warm the rooms a bit, knocked only to make sure you hadn’t forgotten me, let you study and drink and eat your donuts in peace.

            Maybe, I thought, if I could gather the energy, I would leave you alone for good. I would drag myself down to the water and search for him there, his face floating blue and milky below the current. I would dive down and go to him, we could be with each other again. Except it wasn’t another grave I wanted. And if I tell you the other part nobody remembers, the unromantic part, it was never much to do with him, love him though I did. It was wanting to be free enough to love him if I chose.

            Every autumn there are different girls, different Jessicas, and Amelias, and Graces. Sometimes they try to conjure me up from the earth, but I am already here. And each spring when they leave, there is always at least one who asks for me. Sometimes it is a girl leaving, or being left by, a boy. Other times it is just a girl who carries too much of the past, who can’t believe in a future that she will, but has yet to, embody.

            Emily, they sigh as they pack up their books, their posters, their heaps of shoes. Is it hell to be here forever – here with us heartbroken, headstrong girls – girls like you once were? And someday I will shake all the walls around them. Someday I will be so strong, I will speak into all of their ears at once. Turn every tap on full. Steam all the mirrors, the windows in all of your rooms. Watch me name every place that has ever reflected you home.


Erin Calabria grew up on the edge of a field in rural Western Massachusetts and currently lives in Magdeburg, Germany. Her writing has been nominated for Best of the Net 2015 and selected as a winner for The Best Small Fictions 2017. You can read more of her work in Split Lip Magazine, Sundog Lit, Third Point Press, and other places. She tweets @erin_calabria.