There are places where everyone wants to buy a house, but that’s not here. We have empty subdivisions. We have coyote in broad daylight. Our hospital is flying at half-mast. This used to be a steel town. Slag pits line the highway. The sun sets behind mountains of shattered stone.
Do your magic! the real-estate rep writes when she sends pictures of the house. I blur moldy faucets and overexpose smeared windows. I clone-stamp wallpaper.
After rehab, I trained for two weeks without pay to do this job. I could’ve learned in two hours, but I had to do exercises until the picture of the woman with a high ponytail in a blue polo shirt popped up and said, Great job!
When Nina Nelson disappeared, things were different. The sheet metal fabrication plant was still open and new Caravans lined the edges of its five AM parking lot. Nina Nelson had a part-time job there. Weekends. The graveyard shift.
She was a couple of years out of high school, and I was just going in. We didn’t look unalike: hair parted down the middle. Frankenstein shoes. Half-shirt.
I always liked monsters. When we were kids, my sister and I used to stumble around our house with our arms straight out in front of us like sleepwalkers. “Nice to eat you!” we’d say when we bumped into each other.
After she disappeared from the plant’s parking lot, my friends told the story of Nina Nelson over hog fries and chicken nuggets and fire worms at the mall. We drove by her house at creep-pace. When her family moved, their house sat empty. Soon, the rest of the houses on the street were vacant, too. It was like all the people turned to piles of dust.
If you ask anyone about Nina Nelson now, they’re just: “Who?”
I talk to my sister on the phone every Tuesday night. We talk on Tuesdays because that’s when the zombie show comes on. We’re wrapped up in the dynamic of the family who keeps their zombie children locked in the basement.
By the time I got a job at the plant, I was pure crystal unicorn magic on the graveyard shift. I scrubbed scum from the microwave in the breakroom. I wiped down safety goggles. I worked the hot press with Johnny Dee John.
I thought Johnny Dee John was ancient, but he was probably mid-thirties. Johnny Dee John wore a thin nylon jacket even when it was cold out. He was a tall man, and the jacket was gray and short. I can still see him with his hands high up in the pockets of his zip jacket. He’d come into the break room and do the usual thing with his locker. Johnny Dee John carried a ton of shit in all his pockets, and he took ages putting it in his locker. I’d shout, “Whatcha got, Johnny Dee John?” but he always ignored me. When he finished putting his stuff away, he’d work the lock. Close it, pull it three times, open it, and repeat the whole thing all over again.
When I told my sister, she made a buzzer sound and yelled, “What is a serial killer!”
My sister is very into true crime. She loves this one podcast where there’s a baby serial killer. “How’s a baby kill people?” I asked, and she was Oh My God. She dropped the phone she was laughing so hard.
Me and Johnny Dee John were on the last team working when the plant closed. We were the skeleton crew. Our final shift was just before Halloween, and Johnny Dee John wore a skeleton costume as a joke. It was raw cold for October and I didn’t like seeing him on the other side of the hot press in a skeleton costume.
After work, I had drinks at Johnny Dee John’s house. I thought he would change out of his costume, but he got some beers and sat down on the brown flowered sofa next to me. I kept looking around. I had the feeling I’d been there before. I asked Johnny Dee John if he had anything besides beer. “Like whiskey?” he asked.
“Sure,” I told Johnny Dee John. “Whiskey.”
I went outside to smoke a cigarette under the porch light and Bingo! I knew exactly where I was. I went back in and said: “You live right down the street from that poor Nina Nelson.” Johnny was standing in the middle of the room holding the whiskey bottle and it was like he was slumped and then stood up straight and the bones in his costume seemed bigger. “Who?” he said.
I knew there was no way he couldn’t know. I drank my whiskey and said good night.
My sister had to come and pick me up from the police station when I went in to tell them about Johnny Dee John and Nina Nelson. I hadn’t slept for a week. I was dehydrated.
“Is there someone we can call?” is all the cop said.
In the car, my sister yelled, “You can’t go around accusing people!” She pretty much forced me into rehab.
By the time I got out of rehab, Johnny Dee John had left town.
All I’ll say now is it wouldn’t surprise me if Johnny Dee John offered Nina Nelson a ride home the night she disappeared.
A lot of people look at real estate when they’re not ready to buy. There’s a house somewhere with high-sheen wooden floors or fresh vacuum trails, where green hills roll beyond pristine windows.
Maybe Nina Nelson lives in such a place. She’s in the next room or downstairs where you can’t see her. Her hair is still parted down the middle. She sits in front of a birthday cake, her name written in icing—just Nina— because no one who actually knew her called her Nina Nelson. Nina smiles. Behind her, the room is dark, but in front of her, the candles are all still burning.
Beth Hahn is the author of the novel THE SINGING BONE (Regan Arts, 2016). Her work has been published in CRAFT Literary, Necessary Fiction, and the UK’s Platypus Press Shorts series.
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