Meatloaf Monday means Michael has to stop at the store on his way home. He buys onions and ground beef and ketchup because they’re running low. He takes his time walking up and down the aisles, scanning each one even though he knows perfectly well that ketchup is in aisle eleven, and this aisle has nothing but shelf after shelf of deodorant and body wash. Breadcrumbs are outside of the budget but there are always saltines somewhere in the house—his mother’s sensitive stomach usually subsists on coffee and crackers, the only things she says she can keep down.
Some nights she falls asleep on the couch, sweat pooling on her forehead, as infomercials play on TV. Beanie Babies, state quarter collectors, knives that cut through pennies, onion dicers, and plastic egg poachers. Michael watches Chuck Norris talk about the wonders of home workout tools while cleaning up his mother’s puke.
When he gets home, she’s still asleep. Michael mixes spices and egg into the beef, onion, garlic, and ketchup. He throws a package of saltines at the counter, punches them until they’re nothing but salty sand, then adds them to the mix. His mother wakes up when the house is brimming with the smell, when the juices sizzle and fall to the bottom of the oven. He bakes a few potatoes and microwaves a package of frozen broccoli.
He slices the beef, cuts open the steaming potatoes, pours a cup of coffee, and places it on a TV table. “Mom,” he says, tapping her shoulder, gentle as ever. “Time to get up.”
But she groans and turns away. “I can’t eat,” she says.
“When was your last meal?”
“Leave it for the ghosts,” she says, so Michael lifts the table and places it in front of the door to the entryway, the one they never use.
When Michael checks the next day after school, the meatloaf is half gone. He knows his mother ate it, but maybe the ghosts appreciate half a sacrifice.
Michael’s favorite part about biology class is Ray. Ray’s smile is two sharp corners that cut up toward his eyes. He stays after school to skateboard in the parking lot and comes early to help antsy freshmen study for science tests. He complains about school lunches (“it’s all mass-produced slop, you know”), and in the same breath he points out that lunch ladies make meager wages (“My mom did that before Marta and Pedro were born last July. She broke her back for us and made like six bucks an hour”).
“I love babies,” Ray says, “but I love them more when they’re not crying, shitting, or puking.” He shows everyone pictures of the twins, even flips through his phone at lunchtime to show every teacher how Marta can smile and how Pedro poses with his favorite toy, a singing turtle. And when Ray and Michael end up in the same study groups, Ray’s hair carries the faint scent of rotten milk, no matter how much Axe he uses.
Ray is everyone’s favorite biology partner—he memorized the periodic table in sixth grade and read every book about science in the library. From rocket ships to phosphorescence, Ray loves it all. “If you hold a lump of gallium in your hand for long enough, it’ll melt right then and there,” he told Michael once at a party before the cops shut it down. Of course, that part of the story never makes it into what people tell each other. They’re more impressed that Ray handed a cop his beer and saluted him before heading home. Michael is pretty sure that never happened, but mentions it when he tells the story at other parties.
When Michael makes it to class, he sits next to Ray. The room is more crowded than usual—dissection day is always popular. People are eager to see the insides of things that used to be alive. It’s the only reason why anyone takes Biology II. Mrs. Harris lets you dissect an owl and look at the prey in its stomach. At the end of the year, some students even get to look at a cat. If you’re lucky, you find kittens nestled in its formaldehyde-filled uterus.
“You ok?” Ray asks.
Michael yawns. “My mom wasn’t feeling too well last night. She’s sick.” His mother woke him up at midnight complaining about the ghosts. They’re not happy. They need coffee. So she pressed her hands up to the door as it whistled in the wind, and Michael made coffee. She drank most of the pot and they poured the dregs into the nicest coffee mug they had, left it at the entryway door. She wouldn’t go back to sleep, started crying and couldn’t stop until Michael made another pot of coffee, just for the spirits.
“Magnesium,” Ray says.
“Magnesium never stops burning once it’s on fire. You can throw that shit in water and it’ll smile at you and keep on burning. It pulls the oxygen out—anything to survive. You’re like magnesium.”
“In like a good way?”
Ray laughs. “A very good way.”
Ray claps him on the back and Michael’s spine tingles all the way down. “No worries, dude.”
Mrs. Harris sets trays of crucified frogs down at each table as Michael tries to decide if Ray was flirting, or if he, too, had a rough night. He watches Ray as they receive instructions—there is a proper way to deface a corpse. Ray twirls their small scissors like a pen in his hands, nodding as Mrs. Harris warns against “tomfoolery.” He’s probably already read entire books on frog dissection.
“Thank you for your contribution to science, sir frog,” Ray says, cutting into the frog’s tiny body. His hands are precise, careful, and gentle. Together, Michael and Ray play I Spy: corpse edition. They find the frog’s tympanum, heart, liver, gall bladder, and lungs. Ray sweeps each tiny organ aside to find the stomach, small intestine, and the pancreas. Other groups give up after they find the five main organs on their handout, but Ray insists on exploring everything. Mrs. Harris gives them extra credit.
“You’re like fucking Einstein,” Michael says when the bell rings.
“I like things that make sense,” Ray says. “But I’m no Einstein. I could help you study for the test on Friday if you want.”
“I—yes. Yes. To study.”
Michael stops at the corner store because Jorge doesn’t check I.D.s. He buys three packs of Marlboro lights and some Hostess cupcakes. Around the corner, under trees blooming in fire for fall, past the church, to home. Home. The word still feels strange in his mouth. Maybe because it’s not really a home—it’s the basement half of one. Maybe it’s the fact that his uncle, Scott, actually owns the house, and can’t stop reminding his mom about it. Scott lives upstairs and works third shift at a bread factory. He’s grouchy whenever he’s awake with the sun, and always comes home smelling like flour and yeast and sometimes, on bad days, like the ashes of an archaic toaster.
“Don’t fuck with me this month Cheryl,” he says to Michael’s mother when she asks for more time to pay rent. Like he could get another tenant when the stove doesn’t work, when the heater flickers like a flame in the wind, when the entryway is haunted. But haunted isn’t the right word, either. His uncle says the entryway door molded shut decades ago. The door won’t open no matter who tries it. Michael forgot the first few times, used his shoulder as a battering ram, even a drunken back kick. Nothing.
Sometimes it rustles. Like stiff dying leaves in an autumn breeze. Like bugs scattering after their rock is lifted away. Michael presses his ear to the door, listens to the soft grumble of creatures who were born and lived and died in the dark, the earthy smell of moss and something deeper.
Wood warps. It shapes itself into thick grooves and pours itself into space like water if you give it enough time. But the entryway is blocked by more than just mold. Something lives there. Cheryl told him that. She sat up in the middle of a high fever and told him that they had to move. They never do, though, because his uncle is right about one thing: “You have nowhere else to go.”
Michael’s mother believes a lot of things that aren’t true. She thinks their neighbors record her while she’s in the bathroom. She says the repair man is a psychic who controls technology and her mind, fills her head with nonsense, forces her to forget, her thoughts fleeting as a bird in November. She says there are ghosts in the entryway, that they need whispers and sacrifices, that they’re fragile and volatile and so, so scared.
Michael doesn’t believe much of what his mother says. But when she talks about the ghosts, her eyes sharpen, her brow furrows, and her back straightens. She’s back from wherever she so often goes. So he believes her. At least about the ghosts.
Every so often, the ghosts knock on the door. Cheryl stacks bookshelves full of prayer books and bibles near the inside door, but the ghosts wait on the other side. Their wails shake the door—sometimes it even rattles before Cheryl falls into a pit of panic. She writhes and shouts and so do they, like a supernatural mood ring.
Her body fails her almost as often as her mind does, so when Michael comes home to find her asleep, he doesn’t get angry. He sets her cigarettes down on the table and she wakes up, filling the room with a cloud of smoke.
“How was school, sweetie?”
“Fine,” Michael says, but she’s already gone, eyes locked onto the television. A man in a shiny suit fails to transition from a robbery to the results of a school spelling bee.
Michael changes into a nice shirt and sprays himself with cologne. He does his best to slick back his hair, but the gel makes it crunchy.
“Going out to study,” he says, and she almost nods.
By Friday, Michael aces a biology test for the first time. He knows everything about the anatomy of frogs and owls and cats and pigs and humans. As it turns out, kissing is the best mnemonic device of all. Somewhere in between livers and kidneys and notes on proper dissection practices, Ray leans in, too close, to point at a chart. Once they start kissing, it becomes hard to stop. Why bother? What feels as good?
The librarian kicks them out, so they kiss outside in the parking lot. They kiss outside of the entryway, and Michael watches Ray until he turns the corner on his skateboard, blocking the setting sun for an instant.
The next day at school, they kiss in the morning. They kiss in the locker room. They kiss before and after lunch. They kiss when Mrs. Harris shows a film in biology—they sit in the back and no one sees because everyone else is way too invested in Shark Week. They kiss when Ray follows Michael to advanced English. They kiss before Ray goes to skate in the parking lot. The kissing continues for quite some time, and why shouldn’t it? Michael’s world seems to open up, beyond the smelly basement apartment, beyond the cigarette smoke, beyond the entryway.
He dreams about the entryway, sometimes. He walks through the front room, sour dirt and coffee wafting from every corner. In the dream he turns the handle and opens the door—it doesn’t even creak. The darkness wraps around him and he grows into the wall, soft green skin covering him like a blanket. Sometimes he dreams about applying to colleges in other states in other countries. More often than not, though, Michael dreams of Ray. At school or at the library, or even at home. Michael in the entryway, Ray pounding at the door, begging to be let in. If only Michael’s arms weren’t roots, he’d reach out and open the door so Ray could join him in the peace and quiet.
Ray wants to come over. “To study,” he says.
Michael looks up from Shakespeare and raises his eyebrows. “To study or to make out?”
“You can’t look me in the eye and tell me you know what mitochondria are.”
“So teach me at the library.”
“There’s no privacy at the library,” Ray says.
“Nah, my parents would kill me if they ever knew we were kissing. Is your mom chill?”
No, Michael wants to say. What’s the opposite of chill? Is there a word to describe Cheryl? But she has a doctor appointment the next day, so Michael says Ray can come over. “Just for a little while.”
Ray is silent when he sees Michael’s house for the first time. Michael opens the windows and curtains, takes out the garbage, and turns on a fan. He moves bottle after bottle of medication from the coffee table to the kitchen counters, empties the ashtray and moves Cheryl’s pillows to her bedroom.
“You take care of her, don’t you?”
Michael folds a blanket and sets it down on the couch. “Sometimes,” he says, which is a kind lie. He wants to tell Ray how his mother is so much sun-stained soot that once unsettled, never seems to find respite. He wants to tell Ray how she fell down the stairs trying to do her own laundry and how hard she laughed at the terrified look on his face when he heard the crash. But Ray’s lips are too close now, and everything else is far enough away that Michael can breathe. So he breathes as slowly as he can, willing time to pause here, in this basement, with Ray.
It doesn’t work. He knows it as soon as he hears his mother gasp—she slipped in more quietly than most of the ghosts in the house. Before they can break apart, before Michael can apologize or disown himself, Cheryl smiles.
“You two are adorable,” she says. “What’s your name?” She makes them coffee and sits in the kitchen while Ray and Michael study. They don’t dare kiss again.
“I thought you said your mom was crazy?”
Michael glances toward the kitchen. “She’s never this calm. Maybe the kissing threw her over the edge?”
“Maybe just she seems crazy to you because she’s your mom,” Ray says.
The words are a knife in Michael’s back. He clears their glasses to hide his face from Ray. In the kitchen, his mother sits, reading. She’s so still, like a scary movie before the jump scare, like a volcano lying dormant before an eruption. Cut the shit, he wants to say. But he rinses out their cups and ignores her instead.
When he goes back to the front room, Ray is sitting by the entryway with a Ouija board out. His hand rests on the planchette like a finger on a trigger.
“Put that away,” Michael says, quietly.
“Come on,” Ray says. “If these things are for real, they should respond to stimuli. Don’t you want proof?”
Michael wants to be as far from the entryway as the boundaries of time and space will allow. He wants to take Ray and get to the other side of town, the state, the country, the world. He wants the door to stop making noises in the night. But mostly he wants Ray to stop chuckling at the restless spirits.
“It’ll upset my mother.”
Ray pulls Michael down and holds his cheek. “Then we’ll be extra quiet.”
“It’ll upset the ghosts.”
The carpet swallows Ray’s laughter. “You don’t seriously believe in this stuff?”
“Please,” he says. “Before my mother sees.”
Slowly, Ray puts it away. “I’m sorry, dude. I thought it’d be fun.”
He kisses Michael quickly, on the cheek, and leaves.
Next week, Cheryl invites Ray to stay for dinner. Michael shrugs. He has no idea what to expect from a social, outgoing mother. She jokes with Ray. Asks him questions. Pays attention to his answers.
“My mom’s nuts about family dinners,” Ray says. “So I need to call her.” He goes to the other room, switches to Spanish, comes back to the kitchen. “She wants to talk to you.” He covers the phone. “Don’t mention the kissing, please.”
Cheryl drifts into the kitchen and laughs. Michael’s body coils up tight—Cheryl doesn’t get along with other parents. She doesn’t get along with other people. He wants to slap the phone from her hand.
“This is a bad idea,” Michael whispers.
“Hey, relax, she’s pretty nice.” Ray holds Michael’s hand tight.
She laughs. “Oh thank you. No, of course! He’s not imposing at all. I’m thrilled to have Ray over. Michael’s first boyfriend! How exciting!”
Ray’s face crumples and Michael closes his eyes. Ray snatches his hand away and reaches out for the phone. He starts several sentences, unable to finish a single one, before tears cross his cheeks. When he hangs up, He glares at Cheryl. “What the hell did you do?”
But Cheryl has begun her own descent. Michael can tell because the entryway has started to shake. It thrums quietly at first, but as Cheryl’s first sobs echo on the linoleum floor, the entire door bangs and vibrates. Cheryl retreats into her bedroom like a banshee into the shadows, slams the door behind her.
Ray is all fury and rage. He glances at the entryway door. “What the fuck is that?” he says. “Your mom ruined my fucking life. You ruined my fucking life.” He runs to the door without packing his books.
Michael reaches out to Ray, but the ghosts are wailing so he lets Ray go. They scream and cry in a chorus. Michael makes coffee and leaves it out for them, lights a candle and places it by the door. He microwaves a can of soup, even reheats an old slice of meatloaf. Still, the ghosts murmur.
He knocks on his mother’s bedroom door. She’s crying, softly, possibly into a pillow. Why did you do that? he wants to say. You ruined my life too. You ruin my life every day. Why can’t you understand how to be a person? But instead, he says, “Are you ok?”
“Did Ray leave?”
Michael rests his forehead against the door. “You weren’t supposed to tell them, Mom. Remember?” He says it as gently as possible. She ignores him. “Want some coffee?”
She opens the door just enough to let Michael hand her a steaming mug, then shuts him out. The entryway door quivers like it’s made of glass. Michael paces, checks his phone, sees four new text messages.
My mom might kick me out—I don’t know what to do
I need to talk to you
I’m outside your place
Where are you?
Michael shuts the screen off and falls asleep in front of the entryway, cooing to the ghosts, hand pressed flat against the door.
Kira Bell hails from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but her heart is in Chicago. She’s taught in Kansas, Alabama, and South Korea, performed standup comedy in Evanston, and led volunteer programs in Costa Rica. An assistant editor for the Black Warrior Review, she is currently working on her MFA at The University of Alabama. When she’s not writing, she’s probably singing in public, falling off a paddleboard, or talking to her cat, Yzma.