On the Fourth of July the girl sits on a crowded rooftop and watches a nearby apartment building catch fire and burn. She had hoped it would shudder and swoon, but the flames just wink at her through the windows and wave from the space where the roof had been.
This is the month she reads a magazine article blaming Tinder for rising rates of erectile dysfunction among men in their twenties. On a news website she reads about a sinkhole that swallowed an intersection in Brooklyn. She begins obsessively watching YouTube footage of the crumbling pavement. An outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease at a nursing home in Queens kills sixty-four people. A reality television star is running for president. Beneath the romantic lights of his Boeing he takes questions from a television reporter, who asks him where the aliens will go after the purge. And if there is no ‘home’? “We’ll work with them,” he says, passing his hand through the air like he’s swatting a fly. Solemn PSAs on late night television warn of a sickness causing paroxysms of laughter and tears.
The gray water that collects at the base of her shower takes an hour to drain. She goes to a thrift store with her roommate. They talk about vegan desserts and the right way to wear a crop top. The girl thinks about a dream she has sometimes where she’s stuck to the bottom of an empty bathtub with a dripping faucet, waiting for it to fill, drop by drop.
One afternoon her bedroom fills with the faint odor of gas. After this she begins noticing the advertising panels on the downtown N, Q, and 6 trains. They are all sponsored by a gas company, and say things like “Smell something? Say something.” She begins smelling gas everywhere..
It is around this time, too, that she begins worrying she might be dead. She identifies the first symptom after calling her mother to tell her she’s been feeling weird. Her mother says she should do more activities, so she decides to take up smoking. One morning she is standing on the curb in front of her building, lighting a cigarette, when a man wearing filthy sweatpants and a ragged football jersey approaches her from across the street.
“What’s your name?” he says. His teeth are black and pointed, like tiny obsidian arrowheads. He asks if he can “have a date.” She tells him she has a boyfriend.
“Fuck you,” he says. When he spits on her shoulder she doesn’t flinch. He walks away and she looks at her feet, continues smoking.
She sees the man again later, sitting on the front steps of the apartment next door, furiously masturbating. How odd, she thinks, that the skin of his penis is so much lighter than the skin on his hands.
She types “do dead people have emotions” into her search engine, but doesn’t find any helpful information. She tries, “do ghosts have emotions?” then, “can ghosts feel fear?” A website called ‘Spiritual Compass’ informs her that ghosts can’t feel fear – rather, they grow stronger by feeding on the fear of others.
Later she feels hungry and goes to a Chinese restaurant. She orders the spiciest dish on the menu. The dark-red peppers nestled among the slippery tofu and broccoli and peanuts look sinister, so she avoids them. But the dish seems too bland, so she places a single pepper in her mouth. It feels slick against her tongue. When it collapses between her teeth she braces for the burning sensation. She feels nothing. She eats another pepper, slowly this time, unfolding it with her tongue, sucking on the pieces. It doesn’t taste like anything. When she gets home, she fills a spoon with Sriracha and places it in her mouth. She feels nothing.
The next day she’s sitting on the train, wearing a short skirt, when she realizes her legs are covered in cuts and bruises. Worried, she begins picking at the skin around her thumbnail with her index finger. She looks at the people on the train. A man in a cracked leather jacket reads a frayed gun catalog. A girl who looks like she smells of expensive French perfume stares at her phone. She looks for a long time at the swollen ankles of an elderly woman.. She makes eye contact with the woman and feels uncomfortable, so she looks down at her lap, which is covered in blood.
Her hand is also covered in blood. She didn’t realize how hard she’d been picking at the skin. She gets off the train and stops at a store, where she buys bandaids and gum. She looks at herself in the surveillance screen.
She makes an effort to spend more time around people. If other people see her, she thinks, then maybe she’s not dead. She calls her friend Callie, who invites her over for coffee. They sit on Callie’s fire escape drinking strawberry lemonade that is, technically, expired.
Callie studies theater in college; her website says she is an actress and a photographer. “This one agent told me I reminded her of a mix between Kristen Stewart and Scarlett Johansson,” she says, “But she’s from a really small agency, so my chances of getting her are, like, zero.” When she frowns new creases appear at the corners of her blue eyes. On the sidewalk below two children kick an empty soda can back and forth.
A shaft of early-evening sunlight spreading across the front of the old church on the other side of the street makes the back of her throat feel tight. She thinks this is beautiful.
“Woah,” she says, pointing. Callie looks and rises.
“Let’s go get my camera,” she says. They run inside, enter Callie’s room, rummage through her drawers, clatter down the stairs and out the door. When they reach the steps of the church the light is gone.
She sits for an hour in a Chinatown laundromat wearing only her bra and underwear and a pair of dirty slippers and no one looks at her twice.
Although she is dead, and therefore does not speak or eat, the next day she goes to a pizza parlor with Callie and Callie’s friend Andy. Each slice of pizza at this pizza parlor bears an epithet–“Earth Mother” appeals to Callie. Andy orders “Mr. Pink.” She feels embarrassed referring to a piece of hot dough with affectionate familiarity, but ignores her better judgement and asks for “The Divine, please.” She is still waiting for her pizza when Callie and Andy have almost finished theirs, so she leaves the table to linger beside the counter.
“You waiting for something?” the cashier asks.
“Yeah,” she says.
“Um. The Divine?”