Undead Girl Gang – Lily Anderson

THE PROBLEM WITH your best friend dying is that there’s no one to sit with you at funerals. It’s not the number one problem. Obviously, my best friend’s bloated, waterlogged corpse being lowered into the earth for the rest of eternity is currently at the top of my list of Emotionally Debilitating Things That Will Take the Rest of My Life to Recover From. But sharing my pew with strangers while Ms. Chu, the principal of Fairmont Academy, drones on and on definitely ranks high on the list of reasons why my friend being murdered is the pits. Everyone is crying. It’s standing room only for a sea of red-eyed, sniffling Fairmont Falcons. Their bodies are pressed to the familiar floral yellow wallpaper of the Greenway Funeral Home’s reception room, their hair ruffled by the dusty air the heater is pushing through the ceiling vents. The girl who slut-shamed Riley for dating a senior last year. The guy who punted Riley’s lunch across the quad just to prove he could. The girl who slapped Riley in the face for cutting in line for class schedules. The Nouns clique. The principal’s stepson. The sole reporter for the Fairmont Academy newspaper. All crying.

Wailing. Stifling sobs into each other’s shoulders. Eyes puffy to the point of closing. Snot ropes trailing from noses to sleeves. Mouths twisted into grotesque gargoyle shapes. The video montage of Riley from birth to sixteen really broke them, despite the fact that none of them were in the pictures. None of them were her friends. To be fair, they did have a pretty long dress rehearsal for this the day before yesterday. I hug my jacket closer to my chest, pressing my cheek to the denim collar. I’ve cried so much in the last forty-eight hours I think my organs have started to shrivel.

My face is numb. I’m sure people have noticed. The people sitting nearest me—Riley’s second or third cousins and some members of her parents’ church—must be wondering why the fat girl is glaring at the front of the room instead of weeping prettily with everyone else. They’ll think I’m an asshole, not understanding that I’ve spent two days screaming myself hoarse. That my eyes ache from use. Two days is a long time when you can’t sleep or eat because remembering that your best friend is gone slams into you whenever you think you’re safe from it. “Now more than ever, the community of Cross Creek must look to its young people,” says Ms. Chu, the words leaden with politician-like fake gravitas. She even gives a soft, wagging fist with it, her thumb pointing toward the front row of mourners. “We must do more than see their struggle.

We must hear them with open ears. Fairmont Academy will lead by example. The Fairmont family will not allow harm to come to another of our own. We will do everything we can to preserve the memory of Riley Greenway . ” Open ears are not a thing. Neither is the “Fairmont family,” come to think of it. Fairmont is about as bloodthirsty as an artsy charter school can be. But that’s problem number three—behind Riley being dead and me sitting alone. No one believes that my best friend was murdered. Despite our town being named after its twin bodies of water, no one in Cross Creek actually goes near the creeks.

They’re disgusting pits of algae and giardia. So when Riley’s body was discovered floating and bloodied at the right fork of the creek, I knew something shady happened to her. If nothing else, Riley would never risk her dye job with creek water. She lived in fear of her bleached-blond locks turning even kind of greenish and avoided all non-shower water as a result. She wouldn’t even use conditioner that wasn’t opaque. More importantly, Riley and I had already squished together in the back pew of the funeral home this week. June Phelan-Park and Dayton Nesseth, two of Fairmont Academy’s most notable and obnoxious, hanged themselves in the park on Saturday night. Since Riley’s dad is the town funeral director and June was Riley’s brother’s ex, we got guilted into going to their service. Double suicide, double funeral. Tragic as fuck.

But also kind of a scene-stealer if you were Riley and planning an outdoor suicide of your own. I’m not trying to be glib or heartless about it, but really: Why would Riley let herself get lumped in with June and Dayton’s honor society suicide pact? Riley was a lot of things, but copycat was not one of them. “And now,” Ms. Chu wraps up, inclining her head, “Riley’s brother, Alexander Greenway, would like to say a few words.” Mr. and Mrs. Greenway did not invite me to speak at today’s memorial. I’m pretty sure that my mom warned them about my “feelings” about Riley’s death—i.e., the murder thing.

It’s easier for everyone to blame Fairmont Academy, to put the weight of tragedy on academic pressures and stress, the uptick in antianxiety prescriptions in the student body. And maybe that’s why June and Dayton decided that they couldn’t hack it on this plane of existence anymore—they were both involved in way too many extracurriculars, and all their friends were trash people. They were on the fast track to peaking in high school. But that wasn’t Riley. Riley breezed through Fairmont. Last year, she literally slept through twenty minutes of her history final, woke up, and jotted down an A-plus paper. She didn’t need a way out. She would have told me if she did. I’m sure of it. My parents and my sisters—who came to show support for the Greenway family in their time of need—made it very clear upon arrival that they didn’t want to “encourage” me to “continue acting out.

” Which is what they call not believing that the Cross Creek police did any sort of investigation before they told everyone that Riley died by suicide. They’re sitting right behind the Greenways. Izzy looks over her shoulder at me as Xander stands and makes his way to the pew. Even in times of absolute tragedy, you can’t stop an annoying little sister from making a face when your crush is around. Xander spoke at June and Dayton’s service, too. He was blindingly beautiful in a crisp black suit that made him look like an actor pretending to be eighteen rather than an actual high school senior. Today, he’s in a formal black sweater and slacks that crease along the lines of his calves. The son of the town funeral director never wants for black clothing. Normally he’d call them work clothes. This week has been different.

As he sets his hands on either side of the podium, the crowd shifts. The sobs tone down. The sniffling mutes. People lean forward, waiting. Even the picture of Riley frozen on the flat screen above Xander’s head seems to dim its light. This is what most people came for, to hear the most popular boy in school grieve aloud. The room is packed with rubberneckers. And I’m literally no better than them. I imagine what it would feel like to comfort him, to run my nails through his thick brown hair, following the arch of his part. To have his head rest on my shoulder, his breath on my neck.

Is his sweater as soft as it looks? The Greenway kids inherited expensive taste from their mother, so there’s a chance that’s real cashmere. It could slide under my palms, slippery soft . Focus, Flores. Don’t be a letch right now. “My sister,” Xander says, his voice wrung tight, “was the best person I’ve ever known. She was so funny and so smart and . There’s so much she never had a chance to do. She never went to a school dance. She never owned her own car. She never beat me at Uno.

” People laugh nervously, unsure if they’re allowed to be even kind of happy on such a sad day. Xander pauses with a wince, cheeks flushing. He’s doubting the joke, too. His cool blue eyes flutter closed. He has two sets of eyelashes, the same genetic mutation that Elizabeth Taylor had. Tears slide between them now. My crush on Xander predates his painfully handsome phase. When we first met, he wasn’t much taller than me and his knees and elbows stuck out like doorknobs from his pale skin. But it was unrequited love at first sight. Mortification stabs my guts as I remember talking endlessly about him over dinner back in middle school.

My sisters have never let me forget this. I had to start paying Izzy five bucks any time Riley was over just so she wouldn’t start blabbing about it in front of her. Should I have told Riley about my crush? It wouldn’t have saved her life, but it’s weird to have secrets from her now. I always figured I would tell her about it someday—when it was funny instead of pathetic. But I always figured that someday was coming, and, God, it sucks to be wrong. “The world sucks without Riley,” Xander finishes heavily, echoing my thoughts. My heart beats faster. “The world is darker without her. My life will be worse off for not having my little sister to share it with. And I’ll never—” His voice breaks.

He was so poised when he spoke at June and Dayton’s service. Sad, but recognizably himself. But today he’s unraveling. His spine curves and his shoulders pitch forward as his sobs echo around the room. One of his graceful hands comes up to his face, and he presses the heel of his palm to his wet eye. Even from the back of the room, I can see his fingers shaking. “I don’t know why she’s gone. I’ll never understand why . ” He turns away from the microphone, almost boneless. His father appears beside him, wrapping his son in a steadying hug as they weep on each other.

I wonder when the last time was that Mr. Greenway cried at one of his own funerals. He’s usually so unflappable, full of dad jokes and rarely seen without a can of sparkling water in his hand. But he can’t even lead the service. He steers Xander back to their seats. Mrs. Greenway joins their group hug as Ms. Chu reappears at the podium, reclaiming her position as the emcee. “And now,” Ms. Chu says, firmly redirecting the audience’s focus to her steady voice, “Fairmont Academy’s award-winning show choir will perform a final tribute to Riley’s memory.

” Wait, what? I scramble a little, looking for the program I shoved under my butt when I sat down. The picture of Riley on the front is less than a week old. The last picture she’ll ever post to Instagram. And it’s a bathroom selfie, heaven help us all. I flip open the paper, scanning down the itinerary. Sure enough, the Fairmont show choir is scheduled as the penultimate presentation. They performed at June and Dayton’s service, too, but at least Dayton had been in the show choir. Riley didn’t give a shit about their a cappella shenanigans. Out of the standing mourners, the members of the show choir file toward the front of the room. I should have recognized them in the crowd.

They’re noticeably less upset than everyone else, their shoulders squared, their eyes shining with the thrill of performing. Soulless freaks. As they shuffle themselves into rows in front of the podium, I flip over the program. On the back, there’s a quote from the Bible—nice try, Greenways, but Riley was pagan—and a poem that Aniyah Dorsey wrote about her feelings. Riley would laugh until she cried if she could read this poem. It rhymes. Riley. Shyly. Wryly. The show choir warms up, a series of menacing oohs.

The soloist standing at the center of the group aggressively taps out a four count on her leg. There’s a collective intake of breath, and they start the same damn song they sang at June and Dayton’s funeral. “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows.” They must be competing with it this year. They should rethink that. It’s terrible. A public domain rip-off of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” that’s somehow even more of a bummer. The soloist—a senior girl who is railthin and short-haired—starts the song. “I’m always chasing rainbows. Watching clouds drifting by.

My schemes are just like all my dreams. Ending in the sky.” God. So nasal. It’s physically painful to my ears. I won’t give them the satisfaction of looking at them. I turn back to the program. Riley smirks up at me, blond and effortless, with the kind of athletic build that everyone subconsciously registers as healthy. She should have been the queen of Fairmont. Considering she was Xander’s sister, she could have been.

But she was happy—seemed happy—to hide in the background with me. In the picture on the program, she’s wearing a beanie with round bear ears on top pulled down almost to her dark eyebrows. Her roots were growing out. It was only just starting to feel like real autumn, but she swore she was going to hide her hair under a hat until she got a chance to buy a box of bleach this weekend. And now she’ll never have the chance. She’ll have half an inch of dark brown growth on display until it decomposes from her scalp. If she knew, she’d be pissed. Fuck a duck, she’d say in her raspy voice. She didn’t smoke, but she always sounded like she was getting over bronchitis. I can hear it so clearly in my head, it’s like she’s with me, making commentary in my ear.

Where she should be. Where she never will be again. My head spins. I can’t do this anymore. I can’t be here. My body is too exhausted to cry, but if I stay I might start screaming over the show choir. And while I don’t care if I ruin this garbage performance, I don’t think it’ll disprove my parents’ theory that I’ve lost my mind. “Some fellows look and find the sunshine.” I stagger to my feet, turning my back to the performance and the crowd. It’s not like I can blend in.

I can’t pretend like my body doesn’t take up space. The only thing to do is lean into it, to do what Riley would do and not give a fuck that people can see me leaving. The sounds of my boots are muffled against the carpet as I stride down the aisle. I keep my head up, letting everyone I pass see my makeup untouched by tears, letting it confirm their worst fears about the fat witch of the junior class. I see Aniyah Dorsey, amateur poet and school newspaper reporter, standing near the door. She’s in plus-size leggings and a black flannel. Tears fog the silver glasses perched on her dark brown nose. She whispers after me, “Mila?” “Your poem fucking sucks,” I growl at her. Her chin snaps back. I can’t tell if she’s offended or indignant, and I honestly couldn’t give half a shit to stick around long enough to find out.

I don’t need fat-girl solidarity right now. I don’t need anyone’s solidarity. Ever. “I always look and find the rain.” I pop the collar of my jacket, stuff my hands into the pockets, and step out into the friendless world. TWO I’M NOT READY to be back at school, but here I am, balanced on a stool at the center table in third-period chemistry while Mr. Cavanagh wipes last period’s notes from the whiteboard. People filter into the room, their voices like mosquitos buzzing. I can’t seem to stop myself from flinching when they pass too close to me. According to the internet, only 20 percent of homicides are committed by strangers.

Which means there is an 80 percent chance that the last thing Riley saw was the face of someone she knew, staring down at her through the murky water of the creek. There is an 80 percent chance that it was someone like Dawn Mathy of the Nouns clique, who is sitting daintily in front of me, smoothing her short bangs. She gets belligerent whenever someone questions the need for a speech and debate team. Or Dan Calalang, a senior stuck in junior-level chem. His forearms are scary beefy from CrossFit, the better to drag you to your death with. It could be one of the janitors or Ms. Chu or someone whose name I’ve never bothered to learn. Someone who took my best friend from me and is still going to class and taking notes and looking forward to cafeteria chicken nuggets. I feel sick to my stomach. I’m not ready to be here.

Everyone seems so normal, but they can’t all be—normal people don’t drown girls in the creek. “Hey, Mila.” I look up and immediately wish that I had a bushel of bay leaves. (They’re good for banishing—although Riley’s mom kept them in the spice cabinet to use in her spaghetti sauce.) Caleb Treadwell, Ms. Chu’s stepson and my lab partner, is climbing onto the stool next to mine, wobbling a little as he tucks a silver chain into the collar of his T-shirt. I should have smelled him coming. He starts every morning by drowning himself in cologne that smells like leather and moss, but it can’t quite smother the tang of clinical-strength face wash. He stinks like a chemical fire. On the surface, he’s almost painfully nondescript.

His hair is too khaki-colored to be considered brown or blond, and it’s cut into the same short-on-the-sides, long-on-top style that every other guy in school has. His chapped, mauve lips are so puffy that he has a near constant pout. “It is Mila, right?” he asks, even though there’s no chance he doesn’t know my name. We’ve been lab partners for almost two months. He just wants me to feel bad for not immediately saying hello. He smiles when he’s angry. The insincerity makes his eyes look dead. His teeth are as big as my thumbnails. “Hi,” I say shortly. I plant the sole of my boot on the bottom rung of my stool for balance and lean a little farther from him.

“I saw you leave the funeral.” “Oh yeah?” I say, digging through my backpack and retrieving my chem notebook and slapping it down on the counter. “Which one?”

.

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