June 15, 1970
Annabelle pushes into place on her record player an Archies cardboard record that she had cut out from the back of a cereal box. Placing a nickel near the hole in the middle to hold the lightweight record down makes it sound okay, not great. But now she has four different songs on cardboard record, plus two extra of “Jingle Jangle.”
She dances around, picking up dirty clothes and throwing them in the hamper. Rhonda is going to spend the night, so Annabelle’s mother told her she had to clean her room. “If you don’t clean,” her mother threatened, “there will be no sleep-over!” Her voice went up at the end of her sentence, punctuated with a throaty, cigarette-burned screech, as it frequently did, even when there was nothing to be excited about. Annabelle is used to it.
Her mother’s screechiness has something to do with why she goes to the mental institution in Cherokee and stays for weeks at a time. Annabelle doesn’t think about it too much, but she often has to do stuff for herself that her mother is supposed to do, like making macaroni and cheese and washing clothes. Once, she turned all her white socks pink in the wash, but her mother, when she came back, bleached them until they were mostly white again and sort of brittle and scratchy. Her father, when her mother berated him for not paying attention to what Annabelle was doing, merely shrugged his shoulders and returned to his study to work on people’s taxes. He wasn’t really present, more like a ghost.
Annabelle makes the bed, and, at her mother’s insistence, dusts the furniture in her room, even the old dresser and vanity set with the carved wooden legs. She poses her Barbie dolls to appear as natural and life-like as possible, seated and looking at each other as if in conversation. She cleans her bottle of perfume, Unforgettable, which one of her aunts passed along to her when she got tired of it. The bottle is about a quarter full of dusty pink fluid and sits on top of her vanity table. Her brother Robert told her it smelled like formaldehyde, but she ignored him.
That night, she shows Rhonda the perfume bottle and feels smug when Rhonda says, “I wish I had some perfume.” Rhonda is envious, too, of the number of Barbie dolls that Annabelle has and of Annabelle’s collection of Archies cardboard records. It makes Annabelle feel so magnanimous that she gives the warped copy of “Jingle Jangle” to Rhonda, who is thrilled.
“We have so much in common,” Rhonda says. She always says this, but Annabelle likes listening to the list. “We’re both left-handed. We’re the youngest of five children. We’re both Methodists. Our birthdays are in the same week. And now, we both have Archies music!”
“You forgot we have the same dress,” Annabelle says.
“Oh yeah, the peasant midi dress!” Rhonda says, smiling. They both got the same bohemian peasant dress to wear, so that they could dress alike at school. Rhonda has a Polaroid of them that Rhonda’s mother took, wearing their dresses. Annabelle doesn’t like the picture, though, because her straight, dark blonde hair looks stringy, and Rhonda’s dark hair is curly because her mom set it in rollers the night before.
They finish a frozen pizza that they sneaked up to Annabelle’s room, along with bottles of strawberry pop and some store-bought chocolate chip cookies that are stale but still okay. Then, they practice a dance routine to the song “Dizzy,” which they play over and over on Annabelle’s portable record player, a 45 record she bought at the Ben Franklin 5 and 10. They sing along with the chorus: “I’m so dizzy, my head is spinning / Like a whirlpool, it never ends / And it’s you, girl, making it spin / You’re making me dizzy.”
Finally, Annabelle tries to teach Rhonda how to blow bubbles with bubble gum. Rhonda is hopeless at it, screwing up her face in crazy ways, and they giggle non-stop until their guts ache. When Annabelle’s mom pops her head in the door, Rhonda abruptly stops laughing and stares at her with wide eyes.
“Girls, it’s time for bed,” her mother says. “You need to turn off the lights in fifteen minutes.” Her voice is coarse like burlap.
The girls brush their teeth in the bathroom next to Annabelle’s room. Annabelle has stopped smiling and laughing.
“Annabelle,” Rhonda whispers, “what’s wrong?”
Annabelle looks at Rhonda with no expression. She knows this freaks out Rhonda.
“Nothing is wrong,” she says tonelessly. Thinking about how Rhonda is afraid of Annabelle’s mother makes Annabelle angry. “Let’s go to bed before my mom comes back.”
Annabelle rinses out the sink, and they both go into Annabelle’s bedroom. Rhonda dresses in a faded green, loose nightgown that used to belong to her mother and stuffs her other clothes in the paper bag she brought with her. Annabelle slips on a cute two-piece pink pajama set that her aunt bought for her. She pushes the button light switch, crawls under the covers, and lies down next to Rhonda, the antique frame and bed springs creaking as they both settle in for the night.
Moonlight pores through the tall windows, illuminating Annabelle’s dolls, the dresser, the vanity table with the bottle of perfume, and the peeling plaster on the high ceiling. Annabelle sighs and turns onto her side to look at her friend. She might as well make the best of things.
“Hey,” she whispers. “Can you tell a story?” Rhonda is always making up stories and poems. It is one of the things Annabelle likes best about her.
“Hmm. . . . “ After a few moments of thinking, Rhonda begins speaking softly: “Once there was a haunted record player that would play by itself all sorts of songs for records it had once played but that were long ago thrown away. Ghostly music. It especially liked playing waltzes and polkas. . . . ”
Annabelle smiles. “Where was this record player?”
Rhonda pauses. “In a big Victorian house with stained glass windows and a wooden staircase.”
Just like Annabelle’s house.
In the story, two girls wander into this beautiful, empty house and hear the record player playing old-fashioned songs. It locks the girls in the house so that they cannot get out and they have to listen to the old songs. One of the girls happens to have in her bag a cardboard 45 of an Archies record, “Jingle Jangle.” They put the record on the record player, and it plays it. The record player unlocks the doors of the house and tells the girls, “Anyone who comes into this house will be locked in unless they bring a record to play.” The girls hang a sign on the front door that warns people to always bring a record. THE END.
Annabelle’s eyes shine with pleasure. “That’s a good story.”
In the moonlight, she can see Rhonda nodding her head. “A ghost story with a happy ending.”
They continue to whisper and Rhonda to tell stories—although nothing as good as the first one—until Annabelle can tell they are both getting sleepy.
Lying on her back, Annabelle turns her head slightly and whispers, “’Good night.” She is not sure the other girl hears her words.
The dream is coming.
Annabelle stares up at the ceiling, puts her arms stiffly by her sides, and closes her eyes slowly and deliberately, as if she is doing it for the very last time.
Her muscles are being massaged, her arms carefully lifted, then her legs. The stiffness goes away, her body loosening.
Her eyelids are lifted, thin cotton stuffed under them. A tiny line of glue is applied just underneath the edges of her lids so that they will stay closed.
A curved needle and string pass through her jaw, through her gums, her nose. Her mouth is being sewn shut.
It is always the same, a soothing, familiar rhythm of actions. She feels no pain. She long ago learned not to be afraid.
The man standing above her in a butcher’s apron has blue eyes that glisten with tears.
“My darling Ann,” he whispers.
After all these nights of having the same dream, Annabelle has come to understand that this man is an undertaker, that his young daughter is dead. As this man holds her hand, Annabelle knows that she has never felt so loved.
The next morning, the girls have breakfast in the kitchen downstairs by themselves, since nobody else is up yet. The sugary cereal helps to disguise the close-to-sour sharpness of the milk. Rhonda assures Annabelle that the milk tastes fine, although Annabelle suspects her friend is just being polite. The kitchen is a huge room that Annabelle’s parents started to remodel and then abandoned. A layer of dust has gathered on the exposed wood framework and electrical wiring where they tore out the plaster.
“I had the weirdest dream,” Rhonda says suddenly.
“I was lying down, and I couldn’t move. People in black, old-fashioned clothes were looking down at me. One of them, a woman, was crying.” She finishes the last of her cereal. “Weird, huh?”
Annabelle decides that the milk really does taste sour. She sets down her spoon and stares at the other girl. “You’re making that up.”
Rhonda looks startled. “No, I’m not.”
“I want you to leave,” Annabelle says. “Go home!” She raises her voice and repeats, “GO HOME!”
Rhonda’s face is white. She gets up and walks upstairs, with Annabelle right behind her. Annabelle darts ahead of her, goes into the bedroom, and snatches the warped cardboard copy of “Jingle Jangle” from Rhonda’s paper bag.
“You know this house used to be a funeral parlor,” Annabelle says stonily. “You’re just pretending you had that dream.”
Rhonda shakes her head. “What? You mean, a funeral home? No, I didn’t know that.”
“Your mother probably told you,” Annabelle says. “I’m sick of the stories you make up.”
The girls walk down the staircase in single file, Annabelle right behind Rhonda.
At the front door, Rhonda turns and looks at Annabelle, tears brimming in her hazel eyes. “I did have that dream.”
“Sure, you did,” Annabelle says tightly. “Get out.” She adds in a screech, “Now!”
She follows Rhonda out the door and down the steps. Rhonda stumbles with her paper bag but hurries down the sidewalk. Once Rhonda is gone from sight, Annabelle turns around and marches back up the front steps and into her house, the cardboard 45 of “Jingle Jangle” still clutched in her hand.
Her father is standing at the bottom of the stairs, in his pajamas and robe, looking at her steadily. “Good morning.”
“Good morning,” Annabelle echoes. She stares at him, wondering what he heard. Will he scold her for yelling at her friend? Will he sit down and talk to her like he used to?
Her father clears his throat and heads to the kitchen, without saying anything more.
That night, for the first time since she has lived there, Annabelle does not have the dream. She wakes up, tears streaming down her face, the pain of abandonment as sharp as a curved needle through the jaw.
Michelle Rogge Gannon runs the writing center and teaches courses in English at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. She grew up in a small Iowa town and later spent several years in Minneapolis, always hoping for a glimpse of the elusive Prince. She loves reading and writing fiction.