I see Jesse’s face in my dreams at night, still and pale, and young. She’s always young, even after all these years. I can’t call it a nightmare. She doesn’t scare me. She doesn’t move and she doesn’t talk. Her eyes are closed, heavy lids and dark lashes, her mouth a thin line. It’s not the dead we should be afraid of.
Jesse was my cousin. She was all quiet moments and pretty things. When we were up to our knees in muddy creek water, hands digging in the muck for crawdads and river rocks, she’d be up on the bank, making flower crowns woven so tight and so clean, every flower perfect, you’d think they were plastic. I wore torn denim overalls and dirty sneakers. Jesse wore white linen, soft cotton in pastel shades. She loved checkers and cherry colas, always in a tall glass with big ice cubes. Her blonde hair lay braided and neat, trimmed bangs framing her freckled forehead. She offered to braid my hair once, and to help me comb out the tangles. I told her it wouldn’t be worth the time.
She was three or four years younger than me. If she’d grown up, we’d be in the same spot – mothers and wives and almost old women, both of us. But when I was eleven, nearly a grown-up, she was a baby. I often wonder what kind of teenager she would have been, what kind of mother, what kind of person. I try not to think of her often, but it’s gotten harder now. See, place is a powerful thing, and this is Jesse’s house.
I’ll tell you a story. Over the years, the details have gotten fuzzy, and most of the people who remembered it well are gone now. I feel like someone should tell it and remember it, though, even if it’s done poorly, because I don’t know if there are even any pictures of Jesse left.
On her last day, we’d gone out into the woods. The weather wouldn’t let up. It hadn’t rained for days, but the dewy air stuck to our arms and faces. The heat wouldn’t break, even at night. Nothing to do in that kind of weather but live with it. So the neighbor kids had strung up a rope swing into one of the old oak trees in the clearing near the river, under its shade and out of the brightest sunlight.
There were five of us that day. Me, my brother, Bill and Audrey from down the road, and Jesse. We headed out after lunch time, our faces and hands stained pink and sticky from the watermelon we’d snuck out of the refrigerator. Except for Jesse’s. She’d decided to save her watermelon for later. Our plan was to cool off in the river, and then to spend some time on the swing, maybe see who could get the highest and then jump the farthest.
“Audrey’s scared of heights,” Bill said.
“I am not,” Audrey yelled, and crossed her arms and stomped on ahead.
“She is so,” Bill told me. “She won’t even climb up the ladder in the barn.”
I wasn’t really listening or not listening. Bill and Audrey argued a lot, and it played in my head like the music on a radio station. Constant background noise. Jesse trailed along behind us, picking the dandelions from along the path and blowing their fluff out around her. She giggled, and I smiled. I turned around at one point and threaded a stem behind her ear.
“It’s itchy,” she said, but she smiled too.
The river was low and warm when we got there. It almost stood still.
“There are mosquitoes everywhere,” I said. “Let’s just go back.”
But the group decided we’d come all this way and we should at least get some time in on the rope swing. So we did, and took turns.
“It’s too high,” Jesse told me. “I don’t want to.”
“That’s okay,” I said. “Next year.”
We headed back at about 3:00, a little more dirty and tired for the time, but pretty happy and mostly distracted from the still sweltering summer day. Jesse trailed along behind again, clean as a whistle, but with a wrinkle in her brow and downcast eyes.
“What’s wrong,” I asked.
“Nothing,” she said.
“Nah,” I said. “I can tell it’s something.”
“You’ll laugh at me.”
“I would never!”
Now, this wasn’t strictly true. I’d laughed at Jesse plenty. She was an odd kid. But I could tell something was eating at her, and I wanted her to tell me. I especially wanted her to tell me before she told her mom, in case what was troubling her meant trouble for us.
So I added, “You can tell me, promise.”
And she said, “I want to go back and play on the swing.”
“I thought you were scared,” I said.
“I was, but that was dumb. Now I can’t even try.”
“We’ll go back tomorrow,” I told her. “We’ll go just us.”
She grinned a little then, and I thought it was fine. I held her hand most of the way home, and only let it go when Audrey tripped over a rock in the road and needed help to get up. I don’t know how Jesse slipped away from us. But she did. And when we all walked through the kitchen door, Jesse wasn’t with us. I’ve never felt so terrible for anything in my life as I still feel for letting her disappear like that.
“Jesse still outside?” My aunt sat at the table with my mother, shelling sweet peas.
“She was right behind us,” I said. And I thought it was true.
But by 5:00, Jesse still wasn’t back. And people started to worry, and then, before dinner, they went out to look.
They found her in the swing, all tangled up in the rope. She looked like she’d been there a long time. I’ll spare you the details. I don’t like to think of them.
They brought her into our back room, and laid her out on the little twin bed. If you didn’t know, you’d have thought she was sleeping. She looked peaceful there in the dark. I hope she was.
Or, I suppose, I hope she is.
I don’t think she ever left.
Everyone else did, though, and now it’s just me and my husband in this old house. My brother left for the Army. Bill and Audrey moved away. My parents died, and Jesse’s mother, my aunt Margie, she could never come into the house again.
“She’s still in there,” she’d say. “I know she’s still in there.”
I thought she was just sad. Sad and a little crazy. They say she went a little crazy after Jesse died. Now that I’ve had children, I don’t blame her. I’d go crazy, too. I’ve had a hard enough time knowing they’ve moved away to start families of their own. The house is too quiet without them.
Except when it’s not.
Every once in a while, I’ll hear a giggle. Sometimes a creak on the floor, or a rustle on the bed. Sometimes, I’ll hear a door open and close, slow and quiet. Jesse was always so quiet. And when that happens, I’ll say to my husband: “Jesse’s in the back room.”
Whether he believes me or not, he’s never said.
Thank you for reading! This is the seventh of twelve stories I’ll write as part of my 2021 Short Story Challenge. Twelve months, twelve stories, and the theme this year is: Home.
Here are the first five stories, if you’d like to read them:
And if you want to join in the fun, here’s more information. I hope you do! But just reading is good, too, and I’m glad you’re here!
The next story will be posted at the end of August.