"Talking to the Dead" by Ryan Mattern

Ryan Mattern

Ryan Mattern

Ryan Mattern is an M.A. student in the Creative Writing Program at UC Davis. He is the recipient of the Felix Valdez Award for short fiction. His work has appeared in Badlands, The Red Wheelbarrow, Criminal Class Review, THE2NDHAND, and Poetry Quarterly, among others. He is a member of poetrIE, a reading series dedicated to showcasing the literary voices of California's Inland Empire. He lives and writes in Northern California. Photo by Caitlyn Fairfax.

Talking to the Dead

Jack shouldn't play piano music in his car—this seventh-hand, white Honda Civic with rust-eaten teeth marks forging up from the undercarriage—because it will make Sylvia cry. But it's been one of those days, so he does. And then, she does. Look at Sylvia: tucked into the corner of the passenger seat, rubbing her nose on the seatbelt, the ghost-fingers of light from street lamps swiping at her reddening cheeks. Jack pretends not to notice, his hands busy indian-burning the steering wheel.

Here's the situation: Jack lost his job today. Up until shortly after 10 this morning, Jack was a turnstile salesman. McCaffrey Turnstiles mostly supplied their product on a small scale. Movie theaters, grocery stores, the usual. It was a failing business, though no one in the office ever said this for fear of jinxing themselves. But Jack's latest project was going to pull McCaffrey Turnstiles out of the red and put them on the map. He'd landed a contract with Felicity Fun Park, this brand new amusement park being built just outside of town. This meant 500 units, minimum. Jack blew off all other clients to handle this monster sale. He sank weeks on dinners with the owner and to survey the grounds. This sale would pay for a better a apartment, he thought. A ring for Sylvia.

“It's a sinkhole, Jack,” Mr. McCaffrey told him. His glasses resting atop his over-pomaded red hair.

“What are you talking about? Felicity's a gold mine.”

“No, a literal sinkhole.” McCaffrey held up a copy of the morning newspaper. “This is going to ruin us.”

Jack read the newspaper over and over again. Apparently, Mr. Nolan, the owner of Felicity, hired unlicensed contractors to build the park. They used poor materials and methods and were unable to determine that the park was being built on a literal sinkhole. When the crew showed up to continue working this morning, they found the entire park had shifted down and to the right, the Free-Fall Tower lowered by almost 40 feet.

Look at Jack: the newspaper trembling in his hand, completely oblivious to the people filing out behind him. They all cradled boxes stuffed with desklamps and picture frames. Eventually he was the only one left in the office.


Sylvia weeps silently the whole drive home from dinner. The car rickets to a stop in front of their apartment, the headlights strobing a sickly yellow on the mound of shoveled snow in front of their parking spot. Sylvia gets out of the car and hurries up the steps that lead to their front door. Jack stays in the car, waits until the light from their living room on the third floor kicks on, then begins punching the steering wheel. The staccato squawks of the horn echo through the neighborhood.

Sylvia's been at it again. All the clothes from their closet have been removed and thrown around the bedroom. Shoeboxes that held photographs and concert tickets have been busted like piñatas, their contents scattered all over the floor and bed. When Jack walks into the bedroom, Sylvia immediately slams the closet door, shutting herself inside. He sighs and removes his tie, casting it onto the floor with the rest of their stuff.

Jack lays down on the bed and pulls a picture out from underneath his head. He turns it over in his hands and holds it up to his face. The picture: Sylvia, standing behind one of the giant green lions in front of the Chicago Art Museum, her hand nimbly gestured up towards the beast's regal package, her head cocked to one side, her eyes mid-roll, her smile undeniable. That was before Peter killed himself, back when the world still seemed to make sense.

Jack thinks he should tell Sylvia about what happened at work today. He walks to the closet and knocks on the door. She does not respond. He stands there with his ear pressed against the door, listening to Sylvia's labored breathing, wanting to tell her everything. But when he opens his mouth to speak, the picture of Sylvia still in his hand, what comes out is this: “Goodnight.”


Sylvia has been a barometer of sadness since her twin brother, Peter, committed suicide last year. Things like the lost, meandering sounds of piano strings, clouds the shape of leaping deer with arrows jutting from their hides, a homeless man on the train, all make Sylvia cry. Lately, she's taken to barricading herself in the closet, a place she and Peter would hide—something she confided to Jack after the first time they made love—when their father came home drunk and in the mood to hit something.

It happened on their 25th birthday, Peter's suicide, the first of which they spent apart. Jack surprised Sylvia with a trip to Puerto Rico. And while the two were nestled in a beachfront cabana, warm with rum and drunk off the uncountable amount of stars pulsing overhead, Peter stood on the railings of the Lyric Opera Bridge, his back to the Chicago River, a loaded handgun, cold as the water below, pressed against his temple. It was sleeting then, so the entire city must have looked as though it were sketched with pencil.

Some children on the beach started setting off fireworks. The first explosion startled a blue heron from behind the reeds of their cabana. Jack and Sylvia watched the shadow of the bird run a long-legged skitter across the sand. The second firework, an erupting fountain of gold and green medallions, lit the heron from underneath, its slender body teetering toward the edge of the dark water.

At breakfast the next morning, a waiter brought Sylvia a cordless phone on a bronze platter.


Jack and Sylvia are in a bookstore, Jack leafing through a hefty business law book and Sylvia sauntering through the psychology section. Jack is hoping to find some law that has been on the books for a century, something like:

If any party, who is representative of a business entity, elicits goods in exchange for monetary compensation, only to have the supplier of said goods royally fucked over because of the incapacity for foresight and common decency and sense, that party shall receive no less than 75 lashes from a wooden switch (the variety of flora remains up to the supplier's discretion) across the shins.


If a proprietor of an amusement park operation knowingly or otherwise constructs said park on top of a sinkhole, the sales representative responsible for supplying the establishment with turnstiles shall be invited to kick the guilty party into the interminable blackness of the aforementioned sinkhole.


“What's that?” Sylvia asks, placing a hand on Jack's shoulder.

“Nothing,” he says. “It's just, nothing.” He closes the book and places it back on the shelf. “Find anything?”

“I was looking at something about how twins have psychic abilities. Like, they can feel each other's emotions and read the other's thoughts.”

“Do you believe that?”

“Peter and I had secret codes,” she says. “Less like sign language than it was the ability to read each other's facial expressions.”

Jack nods and picks up another book.

“Like, if Peter opened his eyes really wide, flared his nostrils, and arched eyebrows, it meant Dad was home.” She laughs, and then goes quiet. “I guess it isn't psychic.”

“I guess not,” Jack says.

“But, I hear his voice sometimes.” The two are back-to-back as she says this, Sylvia lopping books in and out of the Bargain Bin.

“What do you mean?”

“Sometimes I think he's talking to me, like, in my head or under all the background noise of the city.” She starts biting her thumbnail.

“What does he say to you?” Jack thinks if their life were a horror movie, this would be the part where Sylvia tells him that her brother says something enigmatic yet suggestive like, Join me or Meet me at the riverbottom. Jack puts his book down and grabs Sylvia's hand.

“Nothing important, I guess,” she says. “Weird things like, he reminds me of things I would normally forget. Like, he'll say 'Don't forget pickles,' when I'm in the grocery store, or when I'm driving, he'll sing the lyrics to songs when I drive under bridges and the radio goes fuzzy. Things like that.”

“Do you talk back to him?”


Jack thinks he should ask her what she says to Peter, but knows if he does she'll cry. So instead, he tucks a piece of brown hair behind her ears and nudges his head toward the exit, his secret code for Let's get out of here. And Sylvia smiles and nods.


A brief list of Jack's secrets:

(1) It's been 3 days and he hasn't told Sylvia about McCaffrey going under.

(2) One time in the office, Jack accidentally brushed Claire's hand when she handed him a memo—Claire who is short with long brown hair and impossibly large brown eyes—and she was embarrassed, so much so that her face went hot and she immediately scampered away through the row of grey cubicles.

(3) Sometimes Jack imagines Claire naked.

(4) Jack smokes cigarettes on occasion even though his mother and Sylvia's mother both had cancer.

(5) Jack knew in advance that Peter had a gun.


Three weeks before their trip to Puerto Rico, Jack and Sylvia went to Peter's apartment for dinner. His place was on the west side of the city, just a few blocks away from the abandoned

Brach's Candy factory. Rumor had it the factory was inhabited by a cult. They performed satanic rituals, danced by the light of trashcan fires, placed curses on forgotten chocolate bars.

“Hey, Syl!” Peter calls from the kitchen as the two step inside. He runs into the living room to hug his sister, leaving a pan of frying onions unattended. Their hug lingers enough to make some small place in Jack feel uncomfortable. “Hey, guy!”

Jack nods and waives from the doorway. The apartment is a mess. A clutter of books and spindly dying plants and vintage license plates from Illinois and Indiana. Peter takes Sylvia's hand and drags her into the kitchen. Their voices blur beneath the sizzle and clanks of Peter's cooking. Jack makes a slow loop of the living room, picking up picture frames with photos of Peter and Sylvia, some with their mother. Though they all have Sylvia in them. In one, her hair is short like a boy's and her neck is long and slender and she is smiling with her eyes closed. This makes Jack look through the kitchen pass-through at Sylvia and she smiles at him and he smiles back. But Peter keeps talking to her, jabbing her side with his elbow to reclaim her attention.

The thing about Peter: he loves his sister. Loves her. When the three settle onto the couch to eat, Peter insists on sitting between Jack and Sylvia. The siblings spend most of the meal making inside jokes with one another and laughing hysterically about kids from their high school.

“Remember that assembly when Mike Palacz stripped and started freak-dancing the principal?”

“And when Brea Kendrick came to home room drunk and shit her pants right there at her desk?”

And they laugh. If ever Jack tries to speak, Peter will just talk over him with another story. Jack can feel the vein on his temple begin to thump. He empties his bottle of beer and sets it down on the coffee table with a bit too much force, thwack!

“Uh-oh,” Peter says. “Looks like the big guy needs another beer.” Peter stands and disappears into the kitchen.

“'Big guy?'” Jack whispers to Sylvia.

Sylvia rolls her eyes and reaches across the couch to grab Jack's hand.

“We'll leave soon,” she says.

Peter returns and again sits between Jack and Sylvia. He sets Jack's beer down on the table and goes right back to reminiscing with his sister. Jack, feeling claustrophobic and invisible, gets up to use the restroom. Neither Peter nor Sylvia seem to notice.

Jack looks at himself in the mirror and begins imitating Peter's storytelling by flapping his mouth open and closed and bobbing his head from side to side. He knows the two are close, knows they've been through a lot, but Jesus, he thinks, just Jesus. Jack sees that Peter's sink is full of shaven facial hair and greenish soap scum. When he's finished, he decides not to wash his hands. He walks out of the bathroom and can see the outline of Peter in the shadows of the bedroom across the hallway.

“C'mere, Jack,” he whispers.

“Why are you in the dark?”

Peter leans his head out of the room. In the light of the hallway he presses his finger against his lips to shush Jack.

“I want to show you something,” he says.

“What is it?” Jack walks into the room feeling pretty uneasy.

Peter flicks the light on. He reaches into the top drawer of his dresser and pulls out a brown paper bag. He hands it to Jack. It's awkwardly heavy, like a bag full of nails.

“What is it?” Jack asks again.

Peter nods to the bag in Jack's hands, his eyebrows quickly arching up then drifting back down, his secret code for, Open it. Peter's nose is narrower than Sylvia's, and Jack thinks it is the nose of a villain.

He reaches into the bag and pulls out a black handgun. He immediately puts it back into the bag and shoves it into Peter's hands. Peter pulls the gun out and begins twirling it on his trigger finger, the way the old gunslingers did.

“Why do you have this?”

Peter says nothing, just laughs. There is something about Peter's smile that frightens Jack. It's the way his face seems to split in half: his mouth stretched taut, showing teeth and all, the smile of a child, but his eyes, wide and alarming, and perhaps worst of all, serious.

The images of Peter's smile and the gun will play on repeat in Jack's mind for the rest of the night. He says nothing of it during the quiet drive home.

Jack doesn't remember his dream that night, but it happens like this: Sylvia lights a few candles and they climb into bed. They make love, their naked bodies vanishing and reappearing in the undulating candlelight. Jack senses Peter. In that moment he places his hand around Sylvia's throat and squeezes. He feels the air trapped inside her body and sees her eyes roll back in an ecstasy only achieved by the culmination of pleasure and terror. This makes him come immediately. And as he lets go, feeling the power drain from his body, he looks up from Sylvia, who has dug her nails into his back, and sees Peter in the corner of their bedroom, holding the gun like a bible, smiling that duplicitous smile.


Tonight Jack drives to Felicity Fun Park. He leaves his car in the half-asphalted parking lot and walks through the snow toward the entrance. Through the crunch of his shoes against snow and the bays of the wind, Jack can hear the creaks of bending metal as the roller coasters edge toward the pit. The sinkhole is growing. He walks around the red and white skeletons of rides, using their frigid beams to steady himself as he circumvents the sinkhole.

He sits in a dismantled ferris wheel car facing the pit. It's eaten nearly a quarter of the park. The bumper cars, half of the outdoor video arcade, sections of the railroad track that traversed the entire park, all gone. The thing casts off a smell like dirt mixed with rainy concrete. Near the edge, he can see little bits of rubble loosening and eventually tumbling down into the nothingness.

Jack stands and runs up to the edge of the blackening hole.

“Are you happy?” he screams, his voice bouncing back in the darkness. “Are you?” He runs behind the ferris wheel car and rolls it with all of strength. “Here!” He stands over the sinkhole and watches it swallow the car. He waits for the sound of it hitting the bottom, but there is nothing.

“Fuck you!” he yells into the hole.

As if somehow taking offense, a ridge of the sinkhole breaks off and sends an avalanche of metal buttresses careening into the pit. Jack dives away into the snow, narrowly escaping an errant section of track that falls from a roller coaster. He scurries away on his hands and knees, the snow stinging his palms.

Here is Jack: a shadow in the distance, watching as the sinkhole takes everything.


When Jack gets home that night, his clothes wet with melted snow, he sees that Sylvia is in the closet again. Great, is what he thinks. There are clothes and wire hangers thrown all over the floor. Pictures, too. Hundreds of them. Little windows into better times when they were better people. Jack walks up to the closet and presses his face against the door. He can feel the sad weight of his heart plopping in his chest. He can hear the thinness of Sylvia's voice as she talks to Peter.

He opens the door and sits down behind Sylvia, her back against his chest. He drapes his arms over her. She is weeping and covering her ears, her code: a plea for an end. Jack looks up at the single lightbulb dangling from the ceiling of the closet.

“I lost my job,” he says.

He waits for one of them to respond.