Hereafter

(prequel/spin-off of The Virgin Suicides)

It seemed, as we drove down our old street where the elm trees no longer ruled, where hedges had long since overgrown their territory, that everything had changed. We saw faces at the windows we used to clean, faces of strangers, and stepping onto our old porches were people we will never know, who by the look of it didn't much care about the way their lawns were growing thicker, about the dead drifting leaves on their driveways. And this was house after house, in the neighbourhood we grew up in. The Buell's house, once prim with rectangular lawns and Mr. Buell watering it daily, wearing a brimmed hat to protect his face from the afternoon sun, and a voluptuous rosebush next to the porch that flowered every year. Mrs. Buell clipping roses to dry in her greenhouse, for pot pourri, that she would give to Chase Buell to hand to the neighbours as a gift. Now the house was hollow, Chase's parents having died seven years ago, leaving their home to decay. The front door, once red, was now plain and warped, every knot uncoiling. And the windows were glassless.
Tim Winer, the former brain of our outfit, remarked how dead it looked. The whole street, once a thriving suburban community on the edge of the city, now resembled one of those towns in an old Western movie. There was only a patch of fine dirt that looked like it could be blown away from the wind of a passing car, where once we had bathed, relaxed, in the sun in front of the Winer house; watching with innocent ignorance, the water- sprinkler systems spurt to life and spray the younger kids who danced in its music. Mr. Head mowing for the third time that week the lawn that could win the prize for best kept lawn in the country. Or Sam French and Harry the Gimp climbing each tree in turn, leaving their mark at the summit as explorers leave their country's flag. Or Mr. Faheem and Mr. Larson talking baseball over beers, sitting in deck chairs on Mr. Faheem's porch until it was time to Playball, when they retired inside to shout in unison at the television screen. It seemed quite dark now in comparison, looking at that square patch of dirt.
And then the house that holds a thousand secrets, but would not, will not, whisper them into our eager ears. The house that was once a palace of some ethereal substance that housed within its confining walls the five Lisbon girls. And those windows we squinted into from across the street to catch just a glimpse of one of them, once veiled by curtains almost too often, and always at the wrong time, were now black and empty and lifeless with a veil of dirt as thick as the annual resurgence of the ephemeral fish- flies that covered everything in June. The elm tree stump in front of the house was still there, stuck there for all time to watch the decay. It triggered in us the memory of the four remaining girls running out of the house wearing only nightgowns, and circling the elm tree just as it was about to be felled. We watched from across the street their holding hands, the news van pull up, the arguing, and all that ensued. Yet despite their efforts, the inevitable occurred, only later when they were gone, the tree left unprotected with its degenerative disease.
We stopped the car in front of the house. All the grief, every twisted riposte, torn cry and shredded condolence flooded back into our hearts and ripped us apart all over again. We got out of the car and stood in a line, each one of us filled with our own personal ache. Chase remembered Lux lying in the sun wearing her bikini, Kevin Head recalled all the girls together again, waiting in their school uniforms to get into the car. Tim Winer saw Cecilia, saw the spiked fence back beneath her window, and her on it. Joe Larson walked over to the tree stump and knelt beside it, ran his fingers along the word we etched into it more than twenty years ago. WHY?

Getting together again after so much time was weird. One morning we all picked up a letter from our doormats to read we had been invited to our High School Reunion. Stomachs flared into butterflies immediately, except for Joe Larson, the detective, who simply smiled and said, "Be nice to see some of the boys again," and threw it aside to promptly forget about it and lose it under the mountains of paper strewn across his apartment, until it was almost too late. The rest of us were excited but anxious, perhaps apprehensive of looking into the greying eyes of our old friends, once so vibrant. As if each other's pot-belly and thinned hair would remind us of how old we really were, our youth now lost forever. And seeing the aged faces of those we grew up with would eradicate the fantasy that our adolescence wasn't so long ago. Seeing our childhood friends under speckled light, in the gymnasium that held, still holds, the Dances where boy and girl met for the first time, nervous fingers interlaced, a few brave boys spinning their dates under the turning world. Seeing them after twenty years of having lived was simultaneously sad and joyous. It was awesome to catch up and re-live old memories, to see what everybody was doing now and which relationships had survived or died, but for some of us, as we feigned conversation, looking into each others' eyes, there was only one topic that we wanted to discuss. But who would bring it up first?

The four of us met up again on the eastern coast of Florida, as far from our childhood as a baby to old age, far from that sleeping suburb, but ready to re-awaken what, if we were to be honest, we've never let rest.
It was Kevin Head, in the middle of the night, half-drunk from beer and abandonment, who gave us all a call. "Hi, Tim," or Joe or Chase, "how are you? That's great. Listen, I've had a really bad day, I need to get away. Will you join me for a little vacation? The others are coming," (though between ourselves we discovered he said that to each of us, that the 'others' may or may not have been coming.)
He also explained his state of mind, saying he had been drinking because his wife had packed up and left, right in front of him. And he hadn't even asked her to stay. He hadn't said a word, just came in from school (he worked as a Math teacher at the local High School, teaching teenagers their times table, again and again. A Math teacher like Mr. Lisbon. He hadn't even liked the subject.) And once inside he'd placed his briefcase of defiled Math papers onto the coffee table, wandered over to the kitchen table and sat down. His wife, wearing jeans and baggy top, her blonde hair back in a ponytail, charged down the stairs and to the front door, he could hear her, and something else that sounded large. Then in a quiet, deliberate state, she entered the kitchen and stood next to Kevin. A piece of paper floated from her hand, dropped in front of him like a ticking bomb. "I'm leaving," she said, and stood there waiting for a reply. (Maybe waiting for the unexploded bomb to detonate.) But, though he doesn't know why, or is not letting on, he said nothing. He didn't even pick up the note to read it.
Before he knew it the front door was slammed and the last aching huffs of his wife were all wheezed out. Her perfume remained in the kitchen for sometime, and after a while Kevin had to leave because it was beginning to choke him, and then he recalled other smells, from his past, that had engulfed like this one. The one that stuck in his mind was of the Lisbons, was the Lisbons. Remembering the summer of their suicides, he breathed in and could smell, stronger than ever, the reek that once enveloped our small neighbourhood, emanating from the decaying Lisbon house where the guttering had begun to tear itself away. But it wasn't the damp wood rotting or the uncleaned, soggy carpets, though that smell was certainly there, as translucent as air itself, liable to be blown away. No, this other smell, the one Kevin recalled, was thick like liquid, and no deeper colour than red or brown, and breathing it in was like tasting a nectar that apparently only few of us could relish. We saw people as the summer approached, the heat increased, walking past the house and holding their breath, even putting their hand to their mouth. Mrs. Buell commented that "We should get the Parks Department out to them, it can't be right. It's spoiling our neighbourhood." But we sat there in our tree house, down-wind, and tried to figure out exactly what it was. We agreed the ingredients were bad breath, cheese, milk, tongue film, and swore we could even detect that singed smell of drilled teeth. And Paul Baldino, in his youthful wisdom, summed it up one sentence, "It's the smell of trapped beaver."
But even now, after years of lying with woman after woman, probably both parties never satisfied, after identifying the base of that smell, the components, Kevin lay on his couch thinking, 'Nothing's ever matched it.' And he started drinking, one can led to the next until the fridge was empty, and, finding it empty, he looked, with heavy eyes, around the dark kitchen with only the refrigerator light as a searchlight. The note glowed in the gloom. He retrieved it and returned to the refrigerator to read it.

I'm sorry, but I can't take it anymore. You're not the man I married.
I'm leaving you. I know somewhere inside is the man I loved. Maybe you
can find him again.

It was the second marriage breakdown. He looked at the note, read the words over and over again until they registered, and when they did the tears came. Somewhere Kevin realised, as he crumpled to the floor and let his head fall against the shelf where only the butter remained, that his grief was about more than a split marriage. Maybe, finally, the unconscious world was drifting and conquering the conscious one, allowing Kevin to see that he still grieved for the girls, even after all this time. He realised that time eradicated everything, and will eventually see him gone. He realised the truth of what he thought he'd known; that his occasional gut-ache flinches when he thought of Lux, or Cecilia, or Mary, or Therese, or Bonnie - walking down the school corridors in the uniforms that never aged with them – were not accidental adrenaline rushes caused by anxiety, but the sheer fact that long after their departing they still affected him more than any girl or woman had since. That time had not destroyed his love, or even quelled it.
And the letter may as well have been a ticking bomb, for all he wanted to do right then was go in search of the girls, following them to that distant land that right there, right then, he believed in more than he believed in his own existence. He saw himself already a ghost, drifting through his adult years. Saw a knife on top of the counter, its handle jutting over the edge, beckoning. He crawled on his hands and knees away from the refrigerator, its door swinging slowly and slicing the room into darkness hour by hour, toward the counter where he grabbed the knife and sat with his back to the cupboards. In the last light he caught his reflection, and then the refrigerator door was closed, leaving him in darkness. He felt a cold against his skin, near his elbow, felt it spread throughout his body. Then the source stroked his arm as it inched closer and closer to his wrist, the sharp edge a line that needed only pressure to cut.
Cecilia had done it. Over the toilet. Naked. Then had the sense to turn, lift a leg over the side of the bath and plunge it into warm water, followed by the rest of her, to aid the deliverance. He thought of this and her selfishness, and at the pinnacle point breathed in and held the handle tighter, ready to slice. But then he thought of all the years of preceding grief that followed after the sisters' passing, caused as much by unrequited love as by the fact that there was no suicide note, no way to find out why. And this, as much as the love, was why we all felt redundant and useless in our darker moments. We hadn't been enough for any of them. So, even though he thought, for a second, that maybe he should leave a note to answer all the questions and not leave people guessing as the girls had, this thought was met with "Fuck it!" as he pressed down on the handle. It hurt like hell, he told us later, and after the initial slice he thought he'd done enough. Through a pounding heartbeat he touched his wrist, expecting warm liquid to pour over his fingers, but felt instead a scratch.
"I couldn't go through with it. It was in the heat of the moment and the knife was blunt. After that I just didn't much feel like finding a sharper one." We looked at him, all thinking about the time he had a nosebleed and fainted from the sight of his own blood. He may have been telling the truth, but we think he woosed out. Anyway, he wouldn't discuss the matter further and we didn't push him.
Dry-eyed now and with a calming heartbeat, he stood groggily to his feet, leaving the knife dangerously on the floor, and, in the dark - the night sky clouded over outside - he made his way to the bathroom on the second floor. He left all the lights off behind him, but turned on the bathroom light above the mirror. Examined something like a paper cut, only less painful, across his left wrist, which he held under the cold tap for a while. He saw a bar of 'Dove' soap in the inlet of the sink, drowning in water. 'Dove' because it was her favourite. She said it was the only bar of soap that really moisturised, leaving your skin feel soft (of that he could testify.) He recalled the playfulness of their first shower together in their new home, using the soap much like a painter decorating a room with a clean brush, not missing a spot. And after; both their skins as soft as the brand new sheets on the mattress of their four-poster bed, each available tongue tucked into every available orifice. Kevin whispering, "Put on a shirt, a white one, and a skirt, and knee high stockings. Then put this on," he threw her our old High School tie.
"You want me to dress up as a schoolgirl, do you?"
"Yes, please."
"Well, okay, sir. Mr. Head, whatever you say. I hope I haven't been a bad girl."
"Don't talk to me like that. After-school detention for you."
"Please, sir, no. I'll do anything. How about a little head for Mr. Head?"
And while she went down as the tie dangled from her neck, tickling Kevin in all the right places, did she notice him fingering her white, knee- high stockings, puncturing holes where there had been holes in Mary's knee- high stockings? If she did, she didn't question the defilement. Maybe she noticed the tears as she threw them into the washer-dryer the next day. Maybe she grew tired of having to dress up every time, in the same outfit, with that goddamn tie. Or maybe it was the strawberry flavoured lipstick, a subtle shade of pink, that he asked her to wear; that in some point in the last twenty years, on more than one occasion, we have all produced from a drawer and offered like candy to our lover, pleading with our eyes for her to dapple her lips with the taste. As if some strange elixir, she'd find us more voracious, desperate to savour her, as she lay there – with our mouths or our noses to her lips – filling with curiosity. They never knew why, most knew better than to ask. We wouldn't have told them.
It was then that Kevin came up with the knowledge that he had to do something, and as he showered under tepid water, a plan formulated that involved us. From the High School Reunion he knew that we all still harboured within us, some deeper than others, feelings that we couldn't shake, about those Lisbon girls. So he decided to give us a call, to get us all together again to lay the matter down to rest once and for all (though no doubt, if we live to be bachelors at seventy years old, we'll still dream of the girls and love them in our individual ways.) Maybe take a vacation together, and maybe, with Joe Larson the Detective's help, piece together the puzzle. Maybe solving it will clear our minds.

"I wonder where Tom is," said Joe, who filled another glass with punch and spiked it. "Who?" replied Kevin. "Tom Faheem." "Didn't you hear? He's dead. Died from testicular cancer about ten years ago." "Oh. I thought only old men got that." "Not now, doesn't matter how old you are anymore."
It also emerged that Paul Baldino, the son of the local Mafioso ring leader back when we were too young to know better than admire him, died in his early twenties, not from attempting to dodge a bullet, but, inversely, from firing one through the roof of his mouth.

Tim Winer was the first to join Kevin out in the sun. The location of choice was Melbourne, Florida, near Cape Canaveral that for a period of our childhood was renamed Cape Kennedy in President Kennedy's honour. Merritt Island, the home of the Space Center operated by NASA, was also nearby.
Together, they sat beside the Indian River spreading like a lagoon, where the water hyacinths had gradually overtaken since their accidental introduction. The trees sliced the high sun, allowed only shafts of light through the high canopies. The air carried a slight whiff of oranges, drawn from the nearby orange orchard and processing plant. Around their relaxing bodies as they sat on the river bank, strangers walked hand-in-hand, wearing their love in their eyes and mouths that were ever-eager to smile. Kevin and Tim paid no attention to them, nor they to them. They divulged instead parts of their lives to each other that had not been confessed over reunion drinks; over the buffed, slippery floor of the Gymnasium that later became the Dance Hall, where we had all retraced, literally, the boogying steps of the Lisbon girls across the gleaming floorboards. Remembering how the girls' fingers felt, entwined in ours for a brief moment before being swept away by their next fervent partner. Looking over our dates shoulders, their smiles of became inconsequential to the glimpsed flashes of Lisbon teeth. And then the dream was over, ending suddenly in a rush of bright light. That light revealing the tired eyes and the sweat on the foreheads of everyone, even the Lisbon girls who rushed quickly out. If we'd have known they'd never step foot in the school again, that we'd never get as close again... maybe things would have been different. Instead, our dates glared angrily at our wandering eyes, and didn't kiss us on their doorsteps. Of course, at the only Dance the girls had been allowed to attend, one was missing. The dead Cecilia. The youngest at thirteen. But for a second everyone forgot that she was in the earth. And for a second the girls enjoyed themselves.
Recollections of Cecilia led Tim to disclose only what his psychiatrist knew. That ever since opening his first Law book at University he'd been plagued by a recurring dream that involved Cecilia. That he still had them now. That he'd learnt to wake quietly if not alone in bed, and drift back off to sleep between damp sheets, skin moist. Inching away from whoever lay beside him.
In her heathen nudity Cecilia lies naked in the bathtub, red spreading through the water from her wrists in stormy clouds, her armamentarium displayed like a surgeon's tools; a collection of knives in descending size placed left to right on the cistern (though in reality there was only one knife), and her clear blue eyes stare starkly up at Tim's bending body; bending over her and placing a hand underneath her shoulders, another hand beneath her knees and lifting, raising her dripping body from the poisonous water as still she stares, coldly, into his eyes, telepathically saying, "Don't, don't," but he lifts her higher, the water on her body swelling in the well beneath her belly-button, other rivulets streaming from dangling arms and feet, red from the arms, and from soaked strands of hair, causing ripples in the bathwater. Once upright with the damp Cecilia to his waist, he walks through the dark doorway of the bathroom and is in her room, the blue hue of night blanketing everything unimportant, warmth draining from Cecilia, the moonlight reflecting off the swirling net at the open window that beckons, as once it had beckoned Cecilia, that allows in a cool, pulling wind that draws him near, and nearer, when Cecilia, now whispering in a cracked tone, says, "No, no, I don't want to," and casts in her eyes a frozen look of fear, that pleads as he steps closer, that thaws to turn towards the window and the net now flapping in her face, veiling her in death and not marriage of love. Then, in her descent, her eyes close, opening again as she meets with the fence- spike that tears her maturing chest. And then through another dark doorway, to outside, Tim finds himself standing between her parted legs, holding her legs like rails and staring at the puncturing spike, then staring at her limp head swaying left and right as she tries desperately to lift it up, but failing, her long blonde hair left trailing and stroking the uncut grass. He's naked, and inches forward, now inside her, having to do all the work himself because she won't budge, her arms pulled down by a strength stronger than gravity, like her head which she is still trying to raise. And if she were to succeed, lifting her eyes to laser Tim's, as she passed over, he would die too. But he continues to make love to her rapidly drying body, turning blue but still moving, with the legs clamped straight and against his legs, until, with a bolt her head shoots up from behind her shallow breasts and the eyes pierce Tim, waking him.
This revelation, this thing that has accompanied Tim in his darker nights, came as no real surprise to any of us. We all had similar dreams, though not as frequent and never so intense. And for the rest of us the theme of the dream tended to be saving the girls, not necrophilia. In another world, at another time, maybe we would have teased, even shunned Tim, for dreaming of making love to a dying body, but this was not another world, it was our Lisbon-less, pathetic world where our existence continued to matter less and less to more and more people. And this was Cecilia, the weird one, so maybe it was only right that strange dreams should follow in her wake, as though she tapped into Tim's mind from that other world. Are you there, together again? Is there a there? Can you not signal, flashing your lights, leaving notes, like before? Are you waiting for us?
Out on the riverbank where the grass grew with tenacity, Kevin and Tim talked some more, as small yachts sailed by. And it was around this time, the sun visible through the trees on the other side now, that they noticed the rickety docks downstream, and the warehouse with a million empty eye sockets staring blankly at them. "It's the way it is," said Kevin, "no need for the waterways now, not when you got the train and the road." This wasn't exactly new news, but as they headed back, walking towards it, they noticed the sign which read, 'Suki Oranges, est. 1968,' so either the company fell under relatively early, or fought till the end. We like to think they hung on.
Kevin and Tim continued to walk, passing an English style pub with a beer garden that was hosting a children's party or some such event, as a castle bounced up and down on the grass with the kids that bounced on it. Someone was filling what looked like party bags at a table; bulging blue and white plastic bags that overflowed with candy and cake and party hooters and balloons. It seemed an inexorable fact that we would never fail to be excited by these; at our own childhood parties, but now party bags represented relics of the past, and even when we tried to recreate these quite mundane artefacts at our own parties, they were never as good, the treats inside never as exciting. It was a gimmick that outlasted only the canapés that were scooped up from half-moon plates. And then they spoke again of the only party the Lisbons hosted, that ended abruptly with Cecilia's suicide, but it was well-tread ground and they weren't in the mood for any more Lisbon-reminiscing. Instead, Tim told Kevin how he met his first wife, and how they came to be together.
The book entitled simply, 'Law,' slammed shut in the library, alerting everyone of his presence. From the dust-filled air, the clouds lilting away, her accusing eyes demanded justice, an apology, or maybe more, Tim needed to know. He found her gaze, beneath blonde arches, and mouthed, 'Sorry,' and smiled. From then on their eyes met frequently across the lamps with thick-green shades, and the old tables and chairs, and ancient books forgotten on the shelves. Someone had left a coat hanging off the back of a chair where someone sneaked by and snatched it. A fleeting smile, on her face as she pretended to read, hooked him. He had no reason to stay, he was hungry and ached for a hamburger or anything, but the silence in the vast library held him there. He wanted to stroll over and sit casually next to her, talk to her, but he didn't want his whispered chat up lines echoing into other ears too. A used, blunt pencil rolled off the edge of a table and fell to the floor, where it was kicked into darkness to stay for a millennium, lost, where maybe the robot-cleaners of the future would find it and suck it into their paunch. Finally, she stood to leave, and Tim followed her out. She saw him and waited on the steps outside. Tim almost passed without saying a word, but instead he asked if she wanted to go somewhere to eat.
Up close, over hamburgers and coke, he noticed her teeth were slightly crooked through over-crowding, as the Lisbon girls' had been. But discrepancies had not put him off before, and they chatted about life, about home (he didn't mention the girls, we never do), and of hopes for the future. The kind of things you might get round to on a third date. But they clicked and felt immediately destined to share a bed for the rest of their lives. A week later, in the dorms, after smoking the hash that became an occasional habit as the stress and work-load mounted, they made love for the first time. And half way through their lazy drug-induced sex, where colours merged and time almost stopped, where what they were doing barely registered, they stopped for munchies, with Tim rising and walking over to the cupboard to grab potato chips and make a sandwich of tomato ketchup and paté. In the delirium, Tim noticed the tartan skirt he'd left out while re- sorting his clothes in his drawers. It was Lux's. And even though stoned, with his naked future ex-wife lying on the bed, he had the sense to hide the skirt, making it disappear as it had from the washing line a few years before. And then, finally, after sex, they slept in the spoon position, with Cecilia making her first appearance in his dreams. His red-hot body, sweating, woke her up only seconds before Tim woke himself, shaken. He wouldn't tell her what was wrong, what the dream was about, but she got him a cold glass of water and comforted him nonetheless.

It came as only a slight surprise to us that throughout our history of sexual encounters, there has been only one brunette between us. And this was a one-night stand. And there have been no redheads either, only blondes with long hair. At first we thought this was funny, but in the lapse of conversation where we had a chance to think about it, it grew disturbing: that we were so affected. The psychosomatic denominator no doubt resided, in some Freudian way, inside our subconscious. Its blatant emergence now left us feeling stupid, like we had no control over our lives, and as we fell asleep that night we even doubted our free will. It wasn't enough to say, as Chase put it, "I just prefer blondes, always have." It became a matter of principally, why? It also made us realise exactly how affected we were.

Our women were as anonymous as our lives. So many one-night stands that grew promising but withered after dark. An early account from Joe emulated similar reports from us all. While still at the police academy, Joe became embroiled in a fight over a woman, but mistakenly so. As he sat at the bar, nursing a blackening eye, the barmaid came over and offered a damp cloth that had been dipped in the water of the ice bucket. She mothered over him for the rest of the night as he tried to figure out why he was punched. The question rolled around in his head long after his friends had left, and to this day he doesn't know why. But the guy who hit him was thrown out screaming, "Don't touch her again, motherfucker!" He thought the guy mistook him for someone else, but still...
Later, back at her flat, after taking advantage of the barmaid's hospitality, they made out passionately before falling asleep with their legs knotted. In the morning, he woke in a strange place with a strange woman's blonde hair in his mouth.
"Joe?" she said, lifting her head as he tongued the hair out of his mouth.
"Yeah?"
"Sleep well?"
"Oh. Yeah." She looked a little like Therese, or maybe Bonnie. Her breath was as sweet.
"N-not to push the issue but," she squirmed and her leg touched his penis, "was last night just a one-night stand?"
"Was it?"
"Asked you first."
The room smelled like the neighbourhood during the Lisbon lock-in. "Do you see me making excuses to leave?" He leaned in to attempt a kiss. She let him.
"No," she said in response to the question.
"Exactly. I'm gonna wait till you've made me breakfast first."
The two of them dated for a few weeks but broke up after she discovered Joe preferred to study than be with her. Joe has never married.
Not long after completing the necessary training, he joined the police force of home. He wasn't like the rest of us, escaping the neighbourhood and its demise before it could get us too, one way in which we agree to see the girls as prescient and wise, cutting short their lives in a world that would only end in grief. What did we know compared to them? They had been children, that age of freedom where the will is unbound, and they had seen the downhill spiral of adulthood and ageing, that throws chafing ropes around our bodies and subdues our psyches with words like 'pressure' and 'responsibility,' that tames our ignorant souls and kills our innocence, and they had seen this and, knowing the despair of frailty and hurt of splintering relationships to come, they ended their lives when it should be ended, when they could still recall the simple happiness of playing in the sand and thinking, "I am a princess, where is my knight?"
There had been more than one knight for each of them. But they never wanted us.
Perhaps Joe felt even more than the rest of us, the long-lingering effects of having loved and been loved back, and being knocked down near the moment of consummation by the sight of Bonnie's swinging, dead legs. The hole in the heart never quite healed from that first marriage, the divorce of which was brutal. Constant reminders would have eaten the rest of us away, but Joe's persistent resolve lacked any teeth marks. They were concubines of our imaginations, concupiscent to the last, and Joe would see their ghosts more often than us, who saw them filtering the sun and lying in the grass of our back-gardens, or sitting beside a fountain-pool and dipping their feet in cold, shimmering water.
Now a homicide detective, one of the few in the small town, Joe's life went from one dead body to the next. He saw the poison spread and become more potent as years passed, the number of gun deaths rise, the number of those copycatting the Lisbons peak but not yet at an exponential zenith. He searched for truths, answers, in the clues of other cases, but was always left with more questions. Two days before Kevin's call, Joe found himself on the edge of sanity, caused yet again from that which ails us.
He had walked across the threshold and into the room where a lopsided spinning-top sat on a wooden floor, the boards stained, the familiar smell of acridity thick in the air. The once white sheet had been pulled viciously from the single bed and wrapped around like a newborn baby, the small head – with those wide eyes – staring at nothing. A light from a foreign source scintillated the chamber. CDs were stacked neatly as if never enjoyed, atop the rectangular desk. The lamp flickered for a second before fizzling out, popping silently. A water-filled vase sat atop the bedside cabinet embracing freshly clipped roses from the garden, white but streaked with veins of red. The arterial colour conjoined the bedside cabinet and spread like a virus down the grains of wood, on to the wooden floor.
He bent down to pick up a pillow, and already sensed that he'd seen this all before. Holland, his partner, was the busy one. The one who rushed around making sure that every tiny thing was checked and marked for evidence. The door handle for fingerprints. The pillow for hair. The doll for DNA.
A sad scene. After interviewing the parents, the story formed in his head. Her mum returned from night class, French or German, to find that in the time her husband had left to pick her up, the girl had found her father's razor blade. Turning off the lights, opening the window so the night air could filter through the streetlight-speckled net, the girl had sat in a quiet corner and undressed. The smell of rose would have hung, her final scent before the blood poisoned it. Might she have searched her pristine room with sudden panic, stood and thrashed about, or stumbled awkwardly toward the door for a bandage? The room said not. But for the mess made of her world by the intruders, the only thing wrong, apart from the lifeless body and the initial spray of blood, was the sheet torn from her bed, the duvet crumpled beside it. When her mother had returned, uttering 'Je t'aime,' or 'Ich liebe dich,' she'd found the lifeless room. The door ajar but through the crack was a darkness barely found, for her daughter was afraid of the dark and needed a night-light to help her sleep. She opened the door to find a single square of light illuminating a cold, bare foot. Her daughter's name she whispered, again after no response. She felt for the switch over the rough wall, lit the room. Rushed towards the limp body, blood no longer pumping from the open wrists across the up- turned palms. Head slumped to the side, hair matted across the face. She knelt down and grabbed it, trying to squeeze the life back in. Tears fell and sobs wailed louder than the sirens of the ambulance that later rushed to the scene, as she stood and slipped in the pools of blood. She stood again and yanked away the bed-sheet to wrap the body as once she had wrapped it twelve years before.
Yet again, there were no answers, only indecipherable clues. The parents sat, the arms of the couch hugging them, as if zombified. They couldn't even look anyone in the eyes, much less each other's. Just another example of the ultimate act of selfishness. That night, feeling not tortured but frustrated, Joe took his car for a spin and parked it outside the church. He went inside and stared up at the image of Jesus crucified on the cross, blood leaking from his wrists, and prayed. "Do you know something I don't? Did they?" He prayed for an end to the suicides of those who still had years to live, who still had potential, who thought they were being brave, or cowards, whatever. Then he returned to his car and crawled through the old neighbourhood, his hands and knees, his eyes, began to bleed. The generic street was lit with sprays of white light, and new cars hummed on driveways, and on one front garden a caved-in couch sat vacant. He could take no more and stepped on the gas. Once home he went up to his loft and rummaged beneath the rafters where cobwebs were strung, void of spiders. He found them. Five suitcases each with a tag hung from the handle. On the tags, the name of one of the girls, and inside the cases; exhibits, relics, evidence of their lives. We had collected items in our childhood, taken from the garage sale or from the black bags left on the pavement to be collected at a later date, by Mr. Hedlie employed to drain the house of all its memories. The cleansing had an effect of detoxifying the neighbourhood, everyone felt better and able to forget the tragedy. Except us, maybe because we held on to those physical artefacts which, in turn, were still smeared with the toxins of their lives and deaths respectively. The suitcases were thick with dust that rose as he moved each one into position, forming an arc around his sitting body. He opened the lids from left to right, noticing the name 'Therese' now read 'These.' The grey pencil lines were fading. He made a note to go over them in ink. A musky smell wafted from the open cases, where inside photographs were fading not from the constant overthrow of sunlight, but mould. Young faces smiled through growing green that would soon delete them forever. In the dim light he could make out the girls dancing in the water's edge as some boy kicks water at them. But it was fading too. Even the paper bound between the leather jacket of Cecilia's diary was yellowing and felt ancient between fingers. In Lux's suitcase her pink bra blanketed yet more photographs, but when he picked it up it felt stiff in his hands, and, putting it to his nose, the smell of sweat and perfume had been replaced by something lifeless. He almost didn't see the point of putting it back into preservation. But he did. It still keeps the photographs company. One man in his loft, the spotlight circling him and his keepsakes. He felt uselessly old. The suitcases around him seemed to hold more life than he harboured, despite the dilapidation and the fact that the girls had died long ago. He fingered the tag saying, 'Mary,' stroked the name and said, spilling particles of dust lightly into the shadows, "This is Mary." Her cellotaped image stared back at him from the underside of the lid.
We kept what we could – Lux's lipstick didn't last very long – because we wanted to keep them alive. Because we respected them and thought the memory of how beautiful and brilliant they were should be remembered and never forgotten. Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon are probably dead now, or will be soon. We could be the only ones left on this whole planet that remembers them, and definitely the only ones left who even came close to knowing them. Would someone like Mr. Hedlie search this house and throw out anything useless, including the suitcases, after our deaths? Would they still end up in a skip? Would we care, or would we, at long last, be happy? Who would remember the little girl who had just killed herself, after the parents were gone? She had no suitcase documenting her life. A suitcase in a crumbling loft, with dust-layered spiders hanging shrivelled, in darkness, rotting.

Perhaps the tartan skirt would have been better suited in Chase's possession, since he's been searching for Lux ever since. Not that the rest of us haven't, but we haven't married three eighteen-year-old blondes and divorced them for no real reason once they were old enough for body parts to start sagging, bums to expand, the inflexibility of living evident in their eyes. The rigor of mortis infecting their couch-ridden bodies, draining any childhood innocence left, day by soap-opera day. Of course, it could have been any of the Lisbon girls, but Lux is the only one whose photograph – 'My cousin who died when she was fourteen in a car accident' – was slipped between the sleeves of every wallet he's ever owned.
Chase was the last of us to meet up in Florida. We took advantage of the nearby beach and sought resolution in the sand and the sea water. The four of us must have looked strangely out of place. The sun in late Spring wasn't very potent, but it was warm enough for us all to strip, revealing our white podges. A mass of blubber, four blobs side by side, remembered sunbathing in the past on top of Faheem's roof, when we were skinnier. This was us now; with less hair than we had then, holding cans of beer, a cool box nearby full of ice and extra cans. The ice slowly melting from the constant onslaught that was also reddening our noses. Crowds of people were in the distance, as if not really there. The Lisbon girls sat with us as we talked. Chase spent some time in a mental institution. He was locked up there after being arrested. After his second failed marriage he moved to San Francisco, even further from our childhood home, and met his future third wife. She was a seventeen-year-old wraith in need of being saved, and Chase obliged. He met her one night in the door of a liquor store; he was leaving, she was entering. He felt something strange as they brushed each other, and, when he got outside, he rummaged in his pocket to discover his wallet was missing. She had picked his pocket. He went back into the store to confront her.
She looked terrible, her eyes were bloodshot and her hair tangled. Bags hung from her eyes that were dark. "Please, please," she begged, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, but I need some money bad. You gotta help me, you gotta help me, just twenty dollars, just twenty dollars." Chase fell in love immediately, maybe it was the pleading or the blonde hair, or a combination of the two, or maybe it was that she needed to be saved. Either way, he helped her. He took her in, gave her his home. At the time she had been seventeen. He asked her to marry him when eighteen came. She said yes. There was no one else for her, she never said where her family was or what had happened to them, she didn't have any friends, and before Chase came along she was living without a home, and before Chase she was addicted to coke. She had been rattling for a score the night they met. Twenty dollars bought her four scores, but that had gone in two days, and then she needed more. Rehabilitation and prescriptive drugs barely helped, only money to visit her local dealer seemed to do the trick, money that she would demand from the besotted Chase in return for sex. Otherwise, no sex. Chase saw his money being sniffed away, as, in the middle of the night, waking up at three a.m. they made dark love until the lamp on the bedside cabinet was turned on, so she could fumble in the drawers for her score, as her breasts flopped in his face until she fell back and lined up on his chest. With the buzz came screaming, exhilaration heightened through sex. Without it came shaking, the rattling, the sweats, the inconsistent heartbeat and the pain of migraines and intestines turning inside out. It wasn't so simple to just stop. The body needed its hit. Otherwise, the physical and mental anguish could kill. But Chase was determined to help her quit. He locked her in the basement, each day giving her food rations and plenty of water. Plenty of water. He cooked up gourmet meals involving hours of preparation that in fits of anger she would throw at the basement wall, only to, days later, crouch down and nit-pick from the floor. Nit-picking became an onslaught, not caring what she ate. He gave her plenty of water. And more water so she could wash her deteriorating body, her stringy hair, covered in the grime of the basement floor. This had been a spontaneous act and Chase had not had time to furnish the room. Over a week later, Chase entered the room and found her curled up, fetally, in the corner, still as the air inside a tornado. Which was weird, she hadn't stopped shaking all week.
"Help," she whispered, so quiet Chase had to bend over her body, which stank of urine, and put his nose so close to her skin he could swear he smelled decomposition. "I need to go to the hospital."
Chase checked her pulse. It was slow. "Babe. Babe?" he said. "Are you cured?"
There was no response. She felt cold, too cold. Her skin, usually smothered in sweat, was as dry as Cecilia's after falling, or Bonnie's after tripping, or Lux's after choking, or Therese's after suffocating, or Mary's after taking the pills. Panicked, Chase lifted her light body and ran up the basement stairs with it, to the front door, to the car. He put her on the back seat and took her to the hospital where they managed to save her, during which time Chase, quite normally, said, "She was addicted to coke. I couldn't get her to stop. I couldn't cure her, but I have now. I locked her in the basement where she couldn't get her hands on the evil stuff and now she won't be touching that again."
The police followed, then a lawyer, then a psychologist. The jury agreed that he had not been of sound mind and the judge sentenced him to an indeterminate term inside the state mental hospital, until he was well enough for society again.
"I always thought you'd go nuts one day," said Tim, trying to lighten the atmosphere.
"It's like I was someone else. I can't believe that was me. I did love her. I loved her like hell. But it was like I was another person... Well, now you know."
We still don't think he's well enough for society. We don't think any of us are. But then, who is? Anyway, he's out now and sane enough to be hurt by love again.
The tide began to draw in like the day. Gulls flew overhead and dived to the ground, only to lift themselves up at the last minute. The four of us still sat there, talking, getting each other's life story, but going nowhere. It was weird, but it stuck out like the dreary Lisbon house in a line of manicured homes: we had no children. Not even accidentally. And there seemed to be no likely answer. We couldn't all be sterile, all our women too. Even with constant use of contraception, something should have slipped through. No great revelation could be found, as usual, to answer why. Kevin and both his wives even actively tried to have a baby, but failed. Tim looked down at his sack and grabbed them, jiggled them and said, "I guess my boys just aren't firing." He pulled his shorts back into place. We didn't hear him, we were too busy staring at a group of people walking by, all staring at the same woman in the group. We didn't need the reassurance of asking each other who. "I guess my boys just aren't firing, I said," repeated Tim. We didn't acknowledge him. If it wasn't for the fact that she was in a group, Chase would have stood and followed her, caught up with her, talked to her, wooed her and made love to her that night on the roof of some random house, just to satisfy a fantasy. "I said, my boys aren't firing."
"I'll fire you in a minute if you don't shut up," said Kevin, flicking sand. The woman became a distant figure, drowned in murky sun.
"So anyway," started Joe. "Look! What are we going to do? We've tried living our lives but evidently... the girls still bother us. We could just carry on as willing subjects to their memory, but I've had enough of this. I want my life back!" The truth is, and we must admit this, we never got close enough to them to see their faults, so they linger like angels, glowing points in a dimming world; angels whose skin was perfect, whose silence spoke like promises in the tickling bed of our necks, whose virginal bodies remain uncontaminated (well, except for Lux and her clandestine meetings and her homemade contraceptive devices; vinegar, tomato ketchup, anything acidic) who are and always will be the perfect enigma, where no woman has been as perfect as their faultlessness. Admitting this changes nothing though, at the end of the day.
"I don't know, Joe," said Kevin. "You're the detective, what do you suggest?"
Joe lay back and put his arms behind his head. "I think maybe we should burn the suitcases."

Three of us stood in front of the Lisbon house, and Joe knelt down beside the elm tree stump to finger the word, 'WHY?'
Returning from Florida, to stay with Joe for a while and burn the suitcases, we first made the detour to visit our old stomping ground. On the windows we saw again hand-made circles, portals from inside to the outside world that the girls wiped clean, so they could watch us. A dim lantern light came on in the upstairs window and flashed three times before going out, revealing briefly the thin form of Mary or Therese walking aimlessly inside. Where once mail was received in the open casket of the mailbox; magazines depicting other places from around the world that the girls wanted to visit, and we with them, there was now only the rusted, crusted door hanging open with nothing inside. A candle was carried carefully across the front room, its light a beacon, before someone blew it out. From where the girls had smiled at us, it now rained.
We turned about and headed back for the car, but Joe noticed the old house opposite, where our tree house was mouldering away in the full form of the tree that had been so much smaller. The house next to it looked even more dilapidated than the Lisbons' old house, and hence, uninhabited. And even if it was, we doubted the habitants would care if we took shelter under their tree.
So we ran to it and stood beneath the old boards that had taken our weight before, looking up, wondering. Could we still fit? Could it hold us? Tentatively, Chase placed a foot on the first knot hole, than another on the board nailed to the tree, than another on the three nails poking out. He was in up to his waist. He pulled himself up and sat cross-legged in the corner, where he always sat. "It seems to be holding up well enough!" he called down. Then he looked up and across the street. There was the house.
The rest of us climbed up and sat in our usual positions, feeling momentarily stupid and young again. Four middle-aged men reliving their childhood by entering their old den.
"Hey," said Tim. "Look." He pointed to five photographs that had been tacked by us all that time ago, and they were still there, stuck beneath the make-shift window. Only they were plain white, not an ounce of colour in them. Their faces had gone, and then, we realised, it was true. Their faces had gone. We couldn't remember what any of them looked like, not even Joe who had looked at photographs of them just a few weeks ago, albeit faint images of a time on a beach, or at a picnic.
"Shit..." said Chase, and his eyes and stomach began to melt. "Is this how it is?"
"I can't remember a single, goddamn face," said Kevin.
"I can't see them, but... that just makes it worse."
We stared as a group again through our old spy hole, our spy hole that wasn't really a spy hole, because they knew we were watching them, in hope. Chase didn't cry in the end, he was just having an emotional moment.
Outside, the rain tried its best to diminish our view, and its best to soak us. It dripped in all the old places so we knew where to slink. There was the porch through the spy hole, the guttering running along the roof falling, heavy from the weight of all those years of tears that had been spilt within the walls. We noticed a hole in the floorboards of the porch, like someone had stepped through rotten wood and kicked their way out. And then, just like twenty years ago or however long, we saw Mrs. Lisbon walking out onto the porch and stepping on the now fresh wooden boards. The rain now ceased; the paint on the door, though peeling, still there; and in her hands a clump of paper; a thick manuscript (this is after the last suicide). And from her pocket a lighter, then a flame from the lighter, and flames on that manuscript that begins to blacken as she holds it and looks up at the neighbours that may be watching – but she doesn't see us – before walking to the trash can and throwing the smouldering pages away.
"That stupid bitch," said Tim. "You just know those pages had something to do with the girls."
"Yeah. Maybe we should track her down and ask her, if she's still alive," said Joe.
"You have all the good ideas, Joe."
And then, as silence evaporated and merged with the pattering rain, Joe said, "We shouldn't burn the suitcases, at least not yet. I reckon we should write the first true account of the girls' lives. Put it all out there, make them real to us again, and at the same time tell people the truth of it all. Instead of there just being all those crap news reporter articles that aren't even half true. "Maybe it'll help us forget, in the long run. Happy, knowing that people will know them, as we write it."

The lake is sparkling and we are dancing in it; Joe, Tim, Chase, Kevin, even Paul Baldino and Tom Faheem, and the girls are with us dressed in their swimming costumes. Cecilia a five-year-old girl, nothing more, just having fun in the water. Lux, six, hanging around Joe's neck. Bonnie, seven, bent over a sandcastle with her eight-year-old sister, Mary. Therese, nine, trying to swim. And we are with our parents on this annual outing where everyone in the street gets together and heads off down to the lake. Everything is perfect; Mary is pretending to be a princess trapped in the tower of her sandcastle. She wears a plastic tiara on her head. Tom, in his trunks, bounds in and demolishes the castle, saying, "There! Now you are free, princess." And Joe is in the water now, with all the girls who are lining up for a photograph. But he spoils it, kicking water at them as the camera clicks.