ATHENA’S INSTAGRAM STARTS POSTING AT LEAST ONCE A DAY. They’re always impossible photos of Athena, alive and well, positioned near objects that are deliberately dated—newspapers, recent New Yorker issues, books released after her death. Sometimes she’s winking or waving, taunting me with her insouciance. Sometimes her face is contorted in grotesque expressions; eyes wide, tongue wagging. Sometimes she’s clutching her throat, eyes crossed in mockery of her death. She always tags me at the end of her captions.
How ya doing, @JuniperSong?
Miss me, @JuniperSong?
I try to take Geoff’s advice. I mute the account, and then, since I still can’t stop myself from scrolling through the photos on writing breaks, I buy a timed safe in which to lock my phone during the day. I try to take refuge in my work. But I can’t lose myself in the words like I have before. All my happy memories with Athena are tinged now with niggling guilt, so all I can bear to dwell on are the bad ones—of awkward exchanges, of social snubbing, of constant stabs of jealousy in my gut. Of Athena, laughing obliviously as she asked about my floundering career. Of Athena, dying on the floor of her kitchen while I stood by, doing nothing.
I dream of Athena every night. I see her in her last moments: her wide panicked eyes, her fingernails tearing at her skin, her feet drumming against the floor. Powerless, helpless, literally voiceless. She works her mouth, desperate to make me understand. But no words come out, only a series of awful, strained gurgles, until her eyes roll up to the back of her head, until her convulsions dwindle to a faint twitch.
Those are the tame dreams. Worse are the dreams when she’s reanimated. She comes magically to life, but this time she’s not the same. There’s a scarlet glinting energy in her eyes, all the fury of the underworld, and vengeful delight twists her lovely face as she leaps up, arms out, reaching for my neck to return the favor.
SOMETIMES MY IMAGINATION RUNS WILD IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DAY, and I convince myself of myriad ways that Athena might still be alive. The funeral was closed casket, wasn’t it? She could have faked the choking. She could have hired those EMTs. This could all be one grand literary hoax, a deranged publicity campaign for her next project. Perhaps she’ll jump out from behind the corner any minute. Boo! Gotcha, Junie!
But the living are burdened with bodies. They make shadows, footprints. I would prefer that Athena were alive and stalking me, because then she would leave traces—public spottings, narrative inconsistencies, breadcrumbs of proof. The living can’t appear and disappear at will. The living can’t haunt you at every turn. Athena’s ghost has wormed its way into my every waking moment. Only the dead can be so constantly present.
I find myself typing “Chinese ghosts” into Google Scholar and diving deep into all the literature that comes up. The Chinese have so many different words for ghost—“gui,” “ling,” “yao,” “hunpo.” They are obsessed with death without peace. I learn that the most common word for ghost, “gui,” is a homophone for a different “gui,” which means to return. I learn that the female revenant is a common theme in early Chinese literature, a trope employed to explore the regrets of single, unmarried women who died violent and unnatural deaths. I learn about a trope called the “amorous ghost,” in which all the female ghost needs to sate its haunted desire is a good fucking. I learn about something called jiangshi, which as far as I can tell is like a zombie, a corpse reanimated by a spell written on a slip of paper. Perhaps someone reanimated Athena. Perhaps I composed the spell myself, when I published her words against her will.
When the nonfiction sources turn up no helpful advice on exorcising the damn things, I start devouring Chinese ghost stories.
From the Southern Song dynasty: A grave robber breaks into the tomb of a girl recently passed away from heartache and is so taken by her beauty that he rapes her corpse. The infusion of his male energy to her body restores her to life, but since no one else knows she’s alive, the grave robber imprisons her as his sex slave without any suspicions. The girl finally escapes and flees to the home of her former lover, but the lover, frightened by her presence and convinced she is a ghost, throws a cauldron at her head and kills her.
From the Six Dynasties period: A man’s wife of ten years dies before she can bear him a son. Distraught, he weeps over her corpse. His grief reanimates her corpse, and she instructs him to come make love to her in the dark until she becomes pregnant. She hasn’t come fully back to life, mind you—they keep her body in a side room, where she lies inert, waiting to be fucked. Ten months later, she gives birth to a baby boy, and then promptly becomes a limp corpse once again.
Also from the Six Dynasties period: A man’s wife dies, so he marries her cousin. One day, his icy-cold, reanimated first wife comes to lie beside him. He asks her to leave. Later she rebukes her cousin for marrying her widower, and shortly after, the man and the cousin drop dead.
The cultural constructions are clear: so many Chinese ghosts are hungry, angry, voiceless women. In taking Athena’s legacy, I’ve added one to their ranks.
But the normal methods of dispelling ghosts, the ones that work in all the stories, seem insufficient. I doubt Athena will be happy with offerings of food, incense, or burnt paper. Which isn’t to say I don’t try. Deep down I know it’s stupid, but I’m desperate enough to hope the rituals might at least calm my mind. I order incense sticks on Amazon and kung pao chicken from Kitchen No. 1 and place both before a framed photo of Athena, but all it does is stink up my apartment. I print paper cutouts of all the things I imagine Athena could want in the underworld—stacks of money, a lavish apartment, the entire IKEA catalogue—and light them up with a match, but that only sets off the fire alarm, which pisses off my neighbors and lands me with a hefty fine.
I don’t feel better. I feel like a meme of a clueless white person.
The wildest thing about all this is that even now I cannot stop composing. I’m trying to funnel this awfulness into something lovely. My salacious roman à clef will become a horror novel. My terror will become my readers’ terror. I will take my fugue state of delirious panic and compost it into a fertile bed of creativity—for aren’t all the best novels borne from some madness, which is borne from truth?
Perhaps, if I can capture all my fears and constrain them safely on the page, this will rob them of their power. Don’t all the ancient myths tell us that we gain control over a thing once we name it? Dr. Gaily once made me write out by hand detailed descriptions of my encounter with Andrew, and then burn them. It felt good to translate those nebulous, nauseating feelings to concrete words. It felt good to see them crumple to ash, to nothing. Maybe I can’t make Athena disappear, but perhaps I can trap her safely within the covers of a book.
But I’m losing track of the narrative. My thoughts spiral out beyond what the pages can contain. This has gone from a dark, literary coming-of-age story to a jumbled, frantic ghost story. My carefully constructed outline falls apart against the story Athena wants to see. I abandon my original plot. I furiously transcribe everything that comes to mind, which oscillates between my truth and the truth.
I’ve written myself into a corner. The first two-thirds of the book were a breeze to compose, but what do I do with the ending? Where do I leave my protagonist, now that there’s a hungry ghost in the mix, and no clear resolution?
I stare at my screen for hours, trying out various endings, hoping to find one that will please Athena. The ghost devours me whole. The ghost rips me apart limb from limb and bathes in my blood. The ghost sinks into my body and takes over my life for my remaining years as reparations. The ghost impels me to suicide, and I join her in the underworld: two miserable souls without justice.
But none of these produce the necessary catharsis. Athena is not satisfied.
Frustrated, I flop onto my bed and reach, as ever, for my phone.
Athena’s account has updated again.
She’s standing in front of a mirror. There’s a long white paper taped to her forehead. The Last Front, it reads. By Juniper Hayward.
It’s a multiphoto post. I swipe right.
Athena, lying prone on the floor, hands at her neck. Swipe.
Athena, my book on her chest, eyes open. Swipe.
Athena, reanimated, standing up. Swipe.
Athena, veins protruding in her neck and forearms, mascara leaking from her eyes, howling at the camera, grinning, claws out like she wants to rip me apart head to toe. Swipe.
Athena, a vicious blur, leaping toward the camera lens.
I turn off my phone and hurl it across the room.
I’M OVERSTATING MY BEWILDERMENT. THE CONDITIONS OF EXORCISM are no great mystery. I know what this ghost wants, what sort of ending could make this all go away. It’s such a simple truth, loath as I am to admit it: that Athena wrote The Last Front, that I am at best a coauthor, that even though I deserve some credit for this novel, she does, too.
But I’m too deep into this now to confess. That is the only line I cannot cross. If I confess now, I won’t only lose everything I’ve gained, I’ll lose any chance I have at a future. I won’t just go back to square zero. I’ll be sentenced to both literary and social hell.
Tell me, do I truly deserve that? Does anyone?
Athena’s been dead for over two years. She’s already left an impressive legacy. The literary world will remember her forever. She has nothing more to gain.
But I need to survive this, somehow. And the truth would destroy me.
So I simply must continue to live with this ghost, to grow accustomed to her face lingering on the backs of my eyelids. We must find some other equilibrium of coexistence that does not involve my giving her the only thing she wants.
I’M WRITING IN A BOOTH AT SAXBY’S ONE AFTERNOON WHEN A FLASH of emerald green catches my eye. I look up through the window and see her, windswept locks floating around her face, staring right back at me. She’s wearing the same shawl, the same high-heeled boots. Is this not proof she is a ghost? The living change clothes, do they not? The dead stay the same.
Our eyes meet. She whirls about to flee.
I jump up and sprint out of the coffee shop. I don’t have a plan; I only want to pin down this apparition, to shake its shoulders and demand answers. What are you? What do you want?
But by the time I weave around irritated patrons and out the door, she’s already a block away. Her heels clack rapidly against the pavement; her shawl billows in the wind. No, she is no ghost. She’s a person, flesh and blood, as mundane and solid as I am. I sprint as hard as I can—two strides and I’ve caught up to her. My hands reach out, grasp for her shoulders, and meet solid flesh—I have her—
She whirls around. “What the fuck?”
It’s not Athena.
I take in her bright, hard eyes, razor-thin brows, the brilliant gash of red lipstick across thin, angry lips. My stomach drops.
It’s Diana Qiu.
“June?” She flinches back as if I’m trying to bite her. Her hand flies to her purse, whips out a canister of pepper spray. “Holy shit—stay back—”
“I caught you,” I breathe. “I caught you—”
“I don’t know what you want,” says Diana. “But stay the hell away from me—”
“Don’t gaslight me.” I can feel my heartbeat in my throat. My face feels terribly hot, tight; my head dizzy. Reality is careening away from me, and I’m only hanging on by a thread. All I know—all I can hold on to—is the revelation that Diana did this to me. It’s been Diana all along. “I know what you’re doing. I know it’s you—”
“Jesus Christ.” Diana’s arm trembles, but she doesn’t spray me. “What are you talking about?”
“Those are her boots. Her shawl.” I almost choke, I’m so angry. Was it Diana that first night at Politics and Prose? Was it Diana at Coco’s? Has she been fucking with me for months? I think back to that rant she gave at the panel in Virginia, to all those interviews and blog pieces she’s put out about me since. The woman is obsessed with me. Is this all some perverse art project for her? The Haunting of Juniper Song?
“Hold on.” Diana lowers the can. “Do you think I’m trying to dress up like Athena Liu?”
“You can’t pretend,” I insist. “You’re dressed up like her; you’re stalking me—”
“These are my boots,” says Diana. “These are my clothes. And I’m walking by Saxby’s because I fucking live here, you psycho.”
“I’m not a psycho—”
“Not all Asian women look the same,” Diana snarls. “Is that so hard to comprehend, you crazy bitch?”
I almost slap her then. “I’m not crazy.”
But up close, all the resemblances fall apart. Those aren’t Athena’s boots—Athena’s favorite Uggs were brown, with tassels. Diana’s are black, with buckles and stiletto heels. Diana’s hair is blunt and straight-edged, not loosely curled. She’s wearing hoops, not emerald danglers. Her lipstick is far, far brighter than anything Athena would ever wear.
She doesn’t look like Athena. She doesn’t look like her at all.
What on earth did I see in that café window?
“I’m not crazy.” But I can think of no evidence otherwise. I can’t trust my eyes. I can’t trust my memory. All the fight goes out of me then, and my chest sags; the air lets out. My voice cracks. “I’m not.”
Diana watches me for a long moment, her face a mix of curiosity, pity, and disgust. At last, she places the pepper spray back in her bag.
“Jesus,” she mutters, then hurries away from me, glancing over her shoulder with every other step as if making sure I don’t follow. “You need help.”
SOMEHOW I MANAGE TO COLLECT MY THINGS FROM SAXBY’S AND head home. My Uber driver must think I’m drunk—I’m breathing hard and I can’t stop reeling, clutching the armrest like it’s the only thing that will keep me from toppling over. My mind keeps replaying the encounter with Diana. My fingers digging into her shoulders. Her pepper spray. The disgust in her eyes, the fear.
For a moment there, she really thought I was going to attack her.
I can’t believe I did that. There’s no excuse. No explanation. I accosted someone in broad daylight.
I run for my bathroom and dry heave over the sink, shoulders quaking, until my breathing steadies. A thin stream of saliva trickles into the porcelain. I look up at the mirror, and what I see there makes me want to cry.
My cheeks are hollow. My hair’s unwashed, my eyes bloodshot and sunken against dark, mottled bags. I haven’t slept. I haven’t talked to anyone who wasn’t my doorman in days. I’ve been living a haunted existence from hour to hour, trying to distract myself with my manuscript so that my thoughts don’t torture me, and I can’t do this anymore. I’m so fucking tired of it all—the visions, the paranoia, the nightmares. I’m tired of seeing Athena around every corner, hearing her voice, her laughter. I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t ask to witness Athena’s death in the first place. I didn’t even want to be there that night, but she insisted, and there I was, and it’s clearly fucked me up even more than I realized.
I’m so tired.
I just want her to go away. I want to be okay.
I call Rory. She won’t understand anything I’m talking about, but I’ll explain it all from the beginning. It doesn’t matter for her to know the details, it only matters that she listens, hears me, hears how much I’m hurting. I need someone to know that I’m not all right.
The phone rings and rings. I call a second time, and then a third, but Rory never picks up.
I search Dr. Gaily’s name in my phone. I haven’t had an appointment with her for years, not since I graduated, but I still have her number saved. She answers in two rings. “Hello?”
“Dr. Gaily?” My words spill out, too eager, too desperate. “I don’t know if you remember me—I’m June Hayward, I was a patient of yours a few years ago, I was at Yale—I was the one who, um—”
“June, of course. Hello.” Her voice is kind, if puzzled. “What can I do for you?”
“I know it’s been a while—” I have to stop then, take a deep breath to keep my sobs from overwhelming me. “But you said to give you a call if I ever needed therapy again, and, um—I think I’m really not all right—a lot has happened recently, and I’m not dealing with it well, and I think it’s bringing up a lot of, um, past trauma—”
“Slow down, June. One thing at a time.” Dr. Gaily pauses for a moment. “Would you like to schedule an appointment with me? Is that what you’re asking?”
“Oh—um, sorry, I know you’re probably busy, but if you have any availability now—”
“We can look into that.” She pauses. I hear a drawer open; I think she’s just sat down at her desk. “But I need to know if you’re still living in Connecticut.”
“I’m in Rosslyn. Virginia.” I sniffle. “But I have insurance—well, I guess you’d be out of network, but I can pay out of pocket—”
“It’s not about that, June. I can’t give you telehealth care if you’re not in Connecticut. I’m not licensed to practice in Virginia.”
“Oh.” I wipe my nose. My hand comes away streaked with snot. My mind feels very blank right then. “I see.”
“But I can set you up with some referrals.” I think I hear papers shuffling. “You said you’re in Rosslyn, right?”
I can’t do this. “Actually, Dr. Gaily, it’s all right—I can look up in-state therapists myself. I’m sorry for wasting your time—”
“Hold on,” she says. “June, are you having any thoughts of harming yourself? Or anyone else? Because I can connect you to a hotline—”
“No—no, I’m okay.” I’m suddenly so embarrassed. I didn’t mean to take things so far; I didn’t mean to be such a problem. “I’m not suicidal. I’m fine, I’m just—I’m having a really bad day. I just wanted someone to talk to.”
“I understand, Junie.” Her tone softens. “I can’t offer you care in another state. But we’re going to set you up with the help you need, all right? Can you be patient for me?”
“Okay,” I croak. “Yeah. That sounds good.”
“Then I’ll email you some referrals tomorrow first thing in the morning. Are you still using the same address on file?”
“I—yeah. That one works.”
“Then you’ll have some contacts in the morning. Take care, Junie.”
She hangs up. I sit cross-legged on my bed, my face pressed into my hands. I feel even worse than before. I want to disappear. Why did I fucking do that? It’s past nine on a weekday. Long past work hours. Dr. Gaily must be bitching to her husband right now—Sorry, dear, I had a former patient call; she was being a psycho—
My phone lights up. I lunge at it, desperate—but it’s not Rory. It’s an Instagram notification.
It’s from the ghost.
This time Athena is sitting in a booth at Saxby’s, sticking her tongue mischievously out over her straw. She’s wearing precisely the same outfit I saw her in at the reading, at Coco’s Coffee—the outfit I thought I saw at Saxby’s this afternoon. Lips painted scarlet. Eyes glimmering.
Spotted an old friend today. I wonder if she remembers me.
I want to scream.
I can’t take this anymore. I have to know the truth. I cannot move on. This will gnaw at me my entire life until I know, for better or worse, who or what she is.
I need release. If I can’t get help, I at least need answers. I need something to happen, or I’ll explode.
I open my phone, navigate to Athena’s account, and write: okay. You got my attention. what do you want???
The ghost is online. She responds immediately.