City of the Dead

 Brooksie C. Fontaine

My mother explained that it was okay to go through the City of the Dead, but only in the daytime. 

We used it as a shortcut, because it was less busy. The crowds that normally packed sidewalks this time of day were put off by the stillness in the air, by the absence of open businesses. 

Only a few pedestrians were in sight, and I could tell they were living by the nervous way their eyes darted around, by the reverence of their footsteps, like they were in a graveyard. Which they kind of were. The City of the Dead was built on an ancient burial ground, and a more modern graveyard was at its center. 

“Their world wakes up when ours goes to sleep,” said my mother. “And the two are kept mostly separate by Parish Law, for our safety and theirs.” 

“Then what’s he doing awake?” I asked, pointing. 

Under a store awning was a young man, in his late teens or early twenties. He looks like a young Jack Kennedy, that befreckled handsomeness, a magazine in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He was leaning against a crate of fruit. 

There was nothing that pointedly separated him from the world of the living, yet I knew immediately he was one of the dead. There was a sense that if he stepped into the sun, I wouldn’t be able to see him anymore. 

“He owns a 24-hour store,” said my mother. “Or works there. It’s hard to tell, everyone’s so young here.”

The dead could look whatever age they wanted to look. 

My mother went on, “There are some all night businesses in our city, too. They need special licenses from the Church, and they still aren’t supposed to interact with the dead outside of a business setting.” 

It excited me to think I could speak to the dead just so long as I went into one of their stores. Just as I was thinking that, one of the few pedestrians—a living woman—walked past the young man to go into his store, and he nodded his head in greeting. 

“Mom, can we go in?” 

“Absolutely not. I don’t believe it’s bad luck to buy from the dead, but it does give me the creeps.” 

From our apartment, I could see the City of the Dead wake up each night. Most of the living weren’t supposed to be out after sundown, unless they had a special license. Just like we got run of their city during daylight hours, the dead could traverse our city at night. 

The windows of their tombstone gray buildings lit up with votive-yellow glow, the same color as our street lanterns, as if inviting them to traverse here. 

There was a little shrine outside of the building, like a big mailbox, where the tenants could leave offerings for the dead. That night my mother left some cookies, like a morbid version of Christmas eve. 

“Why do we leave offerings for them, but they don’t leave offerings for us?” I asked as we sat down for dinner. 

“I guess because we haven’t gone through the trouble of dying,” joked my father, sawing through his steak.

“I think it’s to let the dead know that we still love them, and haven’t forgotten them,” said my mother. 

It wasn’t that night that I decided to visit the city of the dead. It was a few weeks later, when the summer heat was setting in and I hadn’t been to school in a while and most of my friends seemed unavailable, at camp or visiting grandparents or volunteering on Mars or some such nonsense. 

I’d felt it for a while, the impulse to climb down the fire escape while my parents slept. I knew some girls who had done it—well, I knew girls who knew older girls who had done it. Their sisters and cousins were fine, they’d insisted. No one spirited away or possessed or sent to jail for being out after curfew. 

So that summer night, I acted on my impulse. 

The air was warm and full, lit by moon and lantern, and alive with chatter. The living tread carefully in the City of the Dead, but the dead feared little. 

Most of them didn’t pay me any attention, collecting offerings from shrines like they were gathering their mail, but some noticed and eyed me bemusedly. Something gave away that I was living—I don’t know what. 

I lived only a few blocks away from the row of red lanterns that divided the two cities, and entered through the same alleyway where my mother and I took our usual shortcut during daylight hours. I had five dollars in my pocket and a destination in mind. 

The crowd got thicker once I entered the City of the Dead, the sidewalk was crowded as the living side during daylight hours.

They were mostly the same age—teens and twenties and thirties. A few looked older. I got the sense that they chose to appear whatever age they felt most comfortable with themselves, and they looked self-possessed in a way the living weren’t. 

Their clothes were often dated, but I got the immediate sense that this didn’t matter as much here. There was a woman with a bustle and a parasol talking to a man in bell bottom jeans over a newsstand. There were flappers. There were disco jackets. There was big hair and shoulder pads. 

A girl in an Edwardian gown called down to her friends from her balcony, then floated down to meet them like Mary Poppins—sans the umbrella. The world was lighter for the dead. The convenience store barely looked like the same place, lit up like a lantern, but the young Jack Kennedy ringer was behind the counter. I grabbed a Mr. Nuttybutter candy bar, and took my place behind a girl with fishnet stockings and a tight skirt and big blown out 80s hair. 

“Hey, Francie,” said the Kennedy doppelganger, in a Boston-y accent so thick it warped every syllable. “The usual?” 

“You know it,” said the girl, her voice bell-like and amused. 

“Haven’t you heard?” said Not-Kennedy, getting a pack of cigarettes from the shelf behind him. “These things’ll kill you.” 

“You know I take my health seriously, Danny,” she said, handing him a bill. She turned to face me, and we gasped at the same time. 

I gasped because of how beautiful she was. Her skin was stardust white, but her lips were vampire red, and it brought out the green in her eyes. The combination of colors made me think of an apple.

I saw the recognition in her eyes—she knew I was alive. There was something familiar about the way she emoted, but I couldn’t stop to process what. 

“Hey!” exclaimed Danny, realizing what I was at the same time Francie did. “What the hell are you doing here? Are you trying to get thrown in jail?” 

My heart thudded. The situation was suddenly real. I started backing towards the door. He dematerialized into black-gray mist, and I didn’t know where he’d gone until I walked into him. He was cool to the touch, and I got the sense that if I pushed hard enough, I could go right through him. 

“Christ, you’re not even supposed to be past city limits after dark. How’d you like it if you saw me slinking around YOUR city during daylight hours?” He glared down at me. “And put that candy bar back if you’re not gonna pay for it!” 

“Danny.” Francie drifted over, her big combat boots barely grazing the floor. “It’s alright. I’ll get her back past city limits, and I’ll pay for the candy bar, too.” 

He huffed, though his face immediately softened. “I had no idea you were such a good samaritan.” 

“I’m not, usually. I just happen to know her mother.” 

I ate the candy bar as Francie walked me back towards city limits. She seemed to prefer to sort of float rather than walk, though that was easy to miss if you weren’t looking at her feet. “Do you really know my mom?” I asked. 

“I think I do. She’s Joan Nelson, right?” 

I nodded. That was her maiden name.

“I thought so.” Francie’s eyes were misty as seaglass now. She wasn’t really looking at me—through me, more like, as if I were the ghost. The ghost of someone she knew. “You look so much like her.” 

I realized she looked like my mother, too. Her angular face, the upturn of her nose, her bright, narrow eyes, the cupid’s bow shape of her upper lip. 

“She never told you about me, did she?” asked Francie. She didn’t wait for me to respond. “I get it. It’s too much to explain. I don’t think she even knows I’m dead—not for sure, anyway.” 

I stared at her. “Are you—” I was just guessing— “her sister?” 

Francie looked away. 

The strangeness of this hadn’t hit me yet—it wouldn’t for a while. But I knew I had more questions. I opened my mouth, just as Francie looked up. Her eyes widened. A row of tall, hooded figures were marching along the sidewalk. People seemed used to them—enough so not to pause their conversations—but they crossed the street to avoid them, as if out of habit. 

“Get into that store,” she hissed, not taking her eyes off the figures. 


“Just get inside, and duck under the clothes.” 

There was a clothes store open next to us, so I hurried inside and underneath the sale rack. Francie pretended to be browsing, but I could tell she was watching the figures in the reflection of the glass. 

Once they’d passed, she took my wrist with her cool hand. “Come on,” she whispered. “Those were Parish Authorities. You don’t want to run into them—not the ones over here.”

For the first time that evening, I was beginning to sense the danger of what I had done. I didn’t like it. The situation started to feel less like a dream and more like a nightmare. I crinkled the candy wrapper still in my hand, as if for comfort. “I want to go home.” 

“I know. We’re almost there.” 

The rest of the journey felt torturously long, though it was only a few blocks. I wasn’t actually that far from home, yet I was, literally, worlds away. 

She wouldn’t let me run until the city limit had come into view. “Okay, go now. Hurry.” I ran past the row of red lanterns, and she followed more slowly, keeping an eye out over her shoulder. 

“You can still get into trouble for being out after curfew over here, but not as much trouble,” she explained. “The Parish Authorities are human over here.” 

My heart sank. I knew I wasn’t supposed to be out after dark, but no one had ever told me that Parish Authorities could be anything but human. 

“They’re… not human over there?” 

“Let’s just keep going,” she said. 

I was relieved to find my street mostly empty—without the deceased pedestrians, it reminded me of Halloween night when most of the trick-or-treaters had gone home. When we arrived in front of my apartment building, I almost cried. I had endured more than enough independence for one evening. I was ready to be a child again. 

“I wish we had more time to talk,” said Francie, looking up at the hive of windows. Some lit, some dormant. “But I’m not supposed to be talking to you at all, and you’re not supposed to be out after dark.” 

That’s when it occurred to me that I wouldn’t likely get the chance to ask her any of my questions. I might not even see her again—not while I was alive, anyway.

“Are you… really my aunt?” I asked. The word sounded strange to me. I didn’t think I had an aunt. 

My mom was, supposedly, an only child, and my dad had only brothers. 

Instead of answering, Francie took off a gold chain from around her neck. “I want your mom to have this,” she said. “It’s up to her if she wants to tell you what happened. I won’t take that away. But let her know, I never meant to leave without saying goodbye. I always planned on coming home.” 

She kept watch over me as I climbed up the fire escape, locket looped around my hand. “Oh, and one more thing!” she called, just as I was reaching my bedroom window on the third floor. “If you ever tell your mom what happened tonight, tell her I said thank you for the cookies.” 

“I will!” I called back over my shoulder. 

She was already gone, leaving only an empty street. 


Inside the locket was a picture of Francie, a few years younger. Hugging her was a little girl who looked so much like me, I thought for a second it was me. 

I carefully removed the photo, and read the back: Joanie, I never stopped loving you. XOXO, your favorite big sis, Francie. 

I pressed the photo back inside, smoothing it with my thumb. 

The apartment was cool and quiet compared to the moonlit summer night, the ironic liveliness of the City of the Dead.

The TV filled the living room with blue light, a TV presenter moving his mouth with volume muted. The dog slept in my father’s easy chair. 

The door to my parents’ room was always left open a crack—I used to climb in with them at night, back when I had a lot of nightmares. My father had a pillow over his head. My mother always looked younger in sleep—she looked like me. She looked like Francie. She looked like the girl in the photo. 

I left the locket on the pillow next to her, as if I were a ghost myself.

Brooksie C. Fontaine is a coffee addict who got into college at fifteen and annoyed everyone there. She is a teaching assistant, tutor, illustrator, and grad student. Her work has been published by Eunoia Review, Quail Bell, Boston Accent Lit, Anti-Heroin Chic, and the Cryptids Emerging and Things Improbable anthologies.