Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




Help Me Follow My Sister into the Land of the Dead

Help Me Follow My Sister
into the Land of the Dead




Pledged of $5,229


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The project will only be funded if at least $5,229 is pledged by July 24, 2015 3:41am EDT.

Aid & abet a heartwarming sibling reunion—albeit under grievous circumstances—in a terrifying place where no mortal has any business treading.

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015

This story also appears in the BEST AMERICAN SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY 2015, edited by Joe Hill (guest editor) and John Joseph Adams (series editor). Available now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.


This is the thing about my sister and I: we’ve never gotten along, even when we’ve gotten along. This is what happens when you have parents who fetishize family, and the viscosity of blood relative to water: you resent the force with which they push you together with this person who is, genetics aside, a stranger. And that’s what my sister is: a stranger.

Not to mention a strange girl. Even when we were children, she had a weird fixation on contradicting everything I said, just because. She would pick a phrase to scream at the top of her lungs and do so over and over, like a computer glitch, until I ran out of the room. Whatever. It’s not important now. But she’s always been trouble. Our moments of connection have always been purely artificial, forged by necessity, by parental birthdays and holiday travel plans.

When I tell you that my sister has absconded to the land of the dead, do not mistake me. She hasn’t died. She just did what she always does—i.e., go to a place where she isn’t welcome and crash the party just because she feels like it. She heard that there was some “cool stuff” happening on the other side of the veil, and went. I only know where she is because I managed to sober up her blitzed-out roommate vis-à-vis a cold bucket of water to the face just long enough to get access to their wi-fi. I found her search history, her bus ticket to Bethlehem (the nearest portal), her emails to her friends about how it’s going to be “so amazing,” etc.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I also searched her email for my name, but aside from an occasional ping regarding the aforementioned birthdays and travel, there was nothing.)

I am sorry and embarrassed that I have to even ask you for money for this endeavor. The truth is while I’m doing pretty well, all things considered, I don’t have the liquidity necessary for this journey. Olive will be embarrassed that I put all of this online, but maybe a dose of shame will do her some goddamned good.

If you sense a tone of resentment to this entire project, that’s because I have to go chasing after my wretchedly ungrateful wastrel of sibling into another dimension to tell her that our parents are dead.

Stretch Goals

Anything over $5,229 is welcome and will be donated to a TBD mental health charity.

How Will I Spend The Money?

Here’s how the costs will break down:

$36.95: Bus ticket to Bethlehem.

$176.05: Cost of ingredients (salt, sage, cypress branch, matches, mandrake, yew, chalk) to summon the necessary portal.

$16: The cheapest bottle of whiskey that I can force myself to drink.

$5,000: A one-time fee, for crossing.

Risks and Challenges

The land of the dead is the land of the dead. Sometimes people don’t come back.

• • • •


Do you remember when Olive was born?

I remember the time my mother had Braxton-Hicks contractions—the fake kind—and I went to the hospital with her and my father, and the doctor informed her that she wasn’t really in labor. As we left the hospital, I went into hysterics, because I’d been promised a baby sister and one had not been delivered to me. We walked past a woman who was holding her own baby, and I lunged toward her howling “THAT one! I want THAT one!” My parents had to carry me out as I screamed. But of Olive’s actual birth, I remember nothing.

How did your parents die?

You know how there was that SUV recall recently, because the brakes in some of their cars were failing for no reason, causing a series of high-profile, deadly accidents? I wish that was how they died. No, my father shot my mother through her left eye, and then turned the gun on himself. Nobody knows why.

Who found their bodies?

I came over for dinner. Olive had been invited, too, but she backed out at the last minute. She said she had “stuff to do.” Which honestly is better than her arriving two hours late with a weird dude in tow. Anyway, thank God she wasn’t there.

When was the last time you spoke to Olive?

I don’t remember.

When was the first time you spoke to Olive?

I don’t remember.

What is your biggest regret?

In order from greatest to least: being born, having a little sister, not being adopted, caring at all.

What is your biggest fear?


• • • •

Pledge $5 or more

9 backers

A thank you email from Olive, which I will make her deliver.

Pledge $20 or more

52 backers

A small gift from the land of the dead—a pebble or a twig or a finger or something—which I will deliver in a small, sealed jar. KEEP IT IN THE JAR.

Pledge $50 or more

1 backer

I will send you salt from my personal tears, in crystal form (hand-evaporated). Grinder optional.

Pledge $100 or more

1 backer

I will drive my sister to your house, where you can ask her any question. Limited to the contiguous United States.

Pledge $500 or more

0 backers

You will receive an exclusive copy of my and Olive’s life story, written with my own hands, and complete with a happy, narratively satisfying ending, detailing the success of our journey.

• • • •

Update #1 • Jun 26, 2015

Starting Out

I know I haven’t hit my funding goal yet, but I’m just going to put it on a credit card and pray. I’m on a bus to Bethlehem, which has a pretty decent wi-fi connection but, weirdly, no toilets. At least three drug deals have happened in the seat next to me, and in between deals the guy is singing this one part of a song out loud that I recognize from somewhere. I think it might be Paula Cole?

Update #2 • Jun 26, 2015

Still Here

Oh, yeah, it’s definitely Paula Cole. It’s that weird, chanting part of “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” Just that part. Over and over. This is why I don’t do drugs.

I’m assuming Olive has no idea I’m coming because there’s no reception in the land of the dead, but I have been texting her every hour on the hour anyway, just to cover my bases. I haven’t told her why I’m coming, because I can’t tell her that our parents are dead via text message. I mean, I could, but despite what she thinks about me I’m not a monster. I just keep writing “Need to talk to you, v. important.” But Olive has no sense of what’s important and what isn’t. Even if she got the messages, she’s probably all “Oh man, Ursula’s just having one of those days,” which is something I overheard her telling our mother once, just because I was upset that she didn’t want to be my maid of honor. Not that it mattered in the end, with the wedding being called off, but it was upsetting nonetheless.

I’m so fucking tired.

Update #3 • Jun 27, 2015

Past Midnight

I wake up and the bus is parked at the depot. I’ve probably been here for hours. I’d been dreaming about Olive. While I was sleeping my face had been pressed against the window, with my mouth hanging open.

I walk two miles to the elementary school playground. I get a blister and do the last half-mile limping and barefoot. Then I have to pee, and since I don’t know what the restroom situation is in the land of the dead, I squat in some bushes. As I do so, I wonder if my sister is also peeing in a semi-public place. (If the land of the dead can be considered public at all, I guess.)

There is another woman standing here, burning her sage and drawing sigils on the pavement. She doesn’t look like she’s chasing a wayward family member; she looks like she’s ready to party. She has a lot of eyeliner on. I feel angry at her, like she’s Olive. She says something and the portal slides open, like the door of a minivan but wreathed in smoke. I look away—it feels rude to stare.

Then she’s gone, and it’s dark once again. I draw the sigil and arrange the ingredients according to my notes. I say the spell, the unfamiliar syllables catching behind my teeth.

When my portal opens, a faceless creature is standing there. It’s tall and roughly shaped, like a duststorm or a swarm of gnats. There are dimples where its eyes should be, but I feel like it’s watching me anyway. It takes my credit card, holds it for a moment, and then hands it back.

Olive, backers—please keep in mind that I’m still paying off my student loans.

Oh, I also got a comment on this page from Olive. Three comments. I guess she does have reception. Olive, I’m coming anyway, kid. You can’t stop me. I may not be the best older sister in the world, but I can do this.

Update #4 • Jun 27, 2015

This is The Land of the Dead

This is what they don’t tell you about the land of the dead: it looks and smells like some approximation of your entire life, but in muted colors and shifting scents—sunscreen, then smoke, then raspberry shaving cream. When I step through the portal I see layers of images shimmering in front of me: the street where I grew up, my current bedroom, my ex-fiancé’s house, my college dorm, all in grays and creams and beiges. They undulate back and forth, as if the land of the dead is trying to decide which is the most comforting, and settles on our childhood street. It smells like cedar and blood.

Partying here seems like an impossibility. This is the sort of place where I’d cry or scream or eat water ice or have an existential crisis or drown myself in a memory. I would cut my hair here, all of it, in ragged chunks off my skull. But this does not look like a place with cocktails. There is no club music, only the sound of birds.

Update #5 • Jun 27, 2015

Olive Located

It takes me a while to find Olive. The road stretches and meanders and doesn’t lead me exactly where I want to go, like in a dream. I twist through fragments of memory. I see the Girl Scout campground where I bit off a chunk of my tongue tripping into the cold firepit. I see an empty kitchen, a pot of soup boiling over on the stove. I see the dorm where I lost my virginity, the white cinderblock bare of decorations, the whole room ringing hollowly, like a bell.

Then I come upon a two-story house. My childhood home. Well, ours. She is in the living room; I can see her red hair through the window. I open the front door. She is on the couch, the green couch where we both stayed when we had the chicken pox, where we had scratched each other’s raw, blistered backs in our sleep.

When she looks up, and sees me, she begins screaming.

I haven’t held my sister in so long, not since we were children. She is like something starving, an animal with too many bones, and she pushes against me. She has been crying for so long, her voice falls away. She punches me with her fists, but it is like a bee bumping up against a windowpane.

Update #6 • Jun 27, 2015

Heading Home

She tells me she is going to stay. I say to her, “You cannot stay.” She says, “We can bring Mom and Dad back with us, it’ll be different,” and I say no, it doesn’t work that way. I only have enough spell ingredients for two people, and besides, only visitors can leave, not the committed. The land of the dead is the worst kind of hospital. “How did you get here?” she asks. “Magic,” I say, and it sounds like I’m being sarcastic, even if I’m not. She says “I hate you,” and I say “Sure.”

I pick her up from the couch and carry her across the threshold of the house. I drop her to her feet and then pull her through the streets. I remind her that we are all each other has. She pulls against my grip around her wrist, a balloon angling for freedom. “Let me go,” she shouts, “please.” “No,” I say. We flit past my memories, and the images waver like someone has just bumped into a projector. We come back to the portal, beyond which is the playground, glowing faintly in the watery dawn.

But when I reach out to touch it, someone materializes in front of us. A woman with sad eyes and a floppy sunhat, like she is a hipster, or going to the beach in 1948. She points to me.

“You can go,” she says. Then she looks at Olive. “You,” she says, “need to stay. You know that.”

• • • •


Olive R about 2 days ago

Don’t come for me.

Susan Jameson about 2 days ago

Ursula, I am so sorry!!!! Let me know if I can do anything else. Your parents were great people I cannot believe this has happened. You’re a great sister, Olive is so lucky.

David Mantis about 2 days ago

Donat’d! Good luck, Ursula.

Olive R about 1 day ago

Don’t come.

Lucille L about 6 hours ago

Ursula, have the cops managed to get a hold of you? They found something new. Ursula, please call me ASAP.

Olive R about 6 hours ago


Lucille L about 4 hours ago

Ursula, check your DMs. I need to talk to you, it’s very important.

Olive R about 1 hour ago

Do you remember when we were little girls, and you took me to that abandoned convenience store parking lot where Dad taught us to ride our bikes? The thunderstorm? You were so scared, even more scared than me, I think, and you said “We have to go inside” and broke the glass door with a rock. And we were inside, and the shelves were empty and dirty, and we just sat and watched the lightning bleach the sky and the rain go horizontal. I think that was the last time we really connected. You squeezed me so hard it left black and blue marks, but I felt so safe. What were we so afraid of, after that? We just stopped talking. I don’t know why. You’re a tight ass and neurotic as hell but I love you anyway.

I came over to Mom and Dad’s early, to catch you. I was going to ask you if you wanted to go partying with me in the land of the dead. Just so we could hang out. I know you’re not much of a partier, but I don’t know. Sometimes people unexpectedly love dancing. You seem like the kind of person who would unexpectedly love dancing. Or karaoke.

They’re going to ask you what happened. Just tell them I came over too early. For once in my life, I was even better than on-time.

• • • •


Lucille L

Jun 27, 2015

Jesus, Ursula, stop traveling, shut down this page, come home. Fuck. Ursula, just look.

Lucille L

Jun 27, 2015

I’m so sorry. She was in the woods behind the house. They weren’t looking for her, at first, that’s why they didn’t find her.

Lucille L

Jun 27, 2015

Ursula, are you there?

Lucille L

Jun 28, 2015


Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2015

This story also appears in the BEST AMERICAN SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY 2015, edited by Joe Hill (guest editor) and John Joseph Adams (series editor). Available now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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Carmen Maria Machado

Carmen Maria Machado’s debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, was a finalist for the National Book Award, the Kirkus Prize, LA Times Book Prize Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, the World Fantasy Award, the Dylan Thomas Prize, the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, and the winner of the Bard Fiction Prize, the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction, the Brooklyn Public Library Literature Prize, the Shirley Jackson Award, and the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize. In 2018, the New York Times listed Her Body and Other Parties as a member of “The New Vanguard,” one of “15 remarkable books by women that are shaping the way we read and write fiction in the 21st century.” She is the Writer in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania and lives in Philadelphia with her wife.