The heads float on the pond like beach balls. They float like balloons. They float like hollow gelobes.
Everyone wonders about the heads. How they got there. Why they stay. What purpose they serve. Why no one jumps in to see if torsos and arms and feet grow like tree roots beneath the invisible necks.
The heads appear after Sarah comes back home. She walks into the kitchen, lights a cigarette, looks out the window, and says, Well, shit. They’re out there. The heads.
We all thought Sarah was dead.
We haven’t seen her in three years.
She looks the same, and I look older.
Sarah’s hair is still short and neon green. She is still skinny. She still has the gypsy tattoo on her shoulder. She is still wearing her Tough Shits t-shirt.
She is still Sarah.
That night, she sleeps in her bed. Even though we’d given up hope and never found a body, we kept everything in her room arranged the way she liked. Dirty clothes in the closet. Post-punk band posters on the wall. An old store mannequin propped in the corner. Ostensibly, Sarah was going to use the mannequin for an art class, but then things changed.
Things changed drastically.
Maybe that’s where the heads came from, Rachel suggests. Maybe Sarah had more mannequins. Maybe she dumped them in the water before she disappeared. Maybe they’ve always been there, but we’re just now seeing them.
Before she dropped out of college, Rachel took a literature course that changed her world. Now she sees symbolism in anything and thinks everything means something.
Maybe they don’t mean anything, I say. Maybe they aren’t even there at all.
John laughs. He has no further suggestions.
Or maybe, Rachel says, maybe the heads represent our deceased parents and those family members who came before us. You know, like headstones. Just more literal.
John laughs again.
The heads don’t have eyes, and I think this is what disturbs me most. Though I’ve never touched the heads, I’ve studied them from the safety of the bank. No hair, either. Just noses and mouths. Noses to smell the stench of the pond and mouths to ingest the flies.
Mouths to sing.
I tell Sarah that we don’t smoke in the kitchen, but she keeps puffing. She gives me that look, the I don’t fucking care what you say look that all younger sisters give their older siblings. Or maybe it’s the our parents are dead, and you can’t tell me what to do look.
I don’t ask her where she’s been, mostly because I’m afraid that she will leave again.
Nobody wants that to happen, not even Rachel.
Everyone wants Sarah to stay.
We’ve had too many people leave us in the last few years.
I look outside and see the heads. I wonder if I should count them, take an inventory. I wonder if I should spoon them out of the pond and have them tested for diseases. Pollutants. Poisons.
I know what you’re thinking, Sarah says. They aren’t fitted with spy cams from Russia. It’s nothing like that.
John no longer laughs.
I think that he is finally starting to feel frightened by the whole ordeal.
What the hell does Russia have to do with anything? Rachel asks.
They didn’t teach her that in college.
Sarah ashes in the sink.
I imagine that the cigarette ashes float in the small sink puddle like the heads in the pond. Unlike the heads, however, I know how the ashes arrived at their destination. I know who put them there.
I know where they will go.
Before she disappeared three years ago, Sarah and I had a fight. After the car accident, Sarah wanted to spread our parents’ ashes in the trees behind the pond; I wanted to keep them for at least a year.
I wanted some time to think.
At the time, I didn’t even know if we should spread them in the same place. Our parents really didn’t like each other a whole lot, especially toward the end, and I thought that our mom probably just wanted to be alone.
They belong here, Sarah said.
Yes, here in the house, I said.
But you’re not keeping them here in the house, Sarah said. You’re carrying them around in that huge bag of yours. I’ve seen you. Sooner or later, you’re going to drop them, and they are going to be spread at the recycling center or at the post office or at the dollar store. Is that what you want?
No, it wasn’t. I just didn’t want to let them go.
John said he didn’t care, and Rachel was in Virginia and wouldn’t answer her phone.
I feel like we should put them someplace special. Even if it’s not the same area, I said.
The trees behind the pond were special to them, Sarah said. Special to us.
And then she walked out the door and was gone.
Before this, Sarah and I agreed about pretty much everything. Sure, we were different. She went to post-punk clubs in the city and smoked a pack a day. Even when our parents were still alive, I rarely left the house. I took care of things at home. The cleaning, the cooking, the domestic stuff. Sarah dyed her hair bright green, and I kept mine a normal shade of brown.
But before she disappeared, we both liked watching Johnny Depp movies, and we loved feeding the stray cats that congregated behind the back door. We both liked Siouxsie and the Banshees. She would play Tinderbox, and we would dance until the floors shook like broken hearts. We both thought that since she went to college, Rachel had become a pill. We both liked coffee before bed and peanut butter sandwiches for breakfast.
After the fight, Sarah left without a bag. Without her cigarettes. Without her phone. Without her pink and green Libra lighter.
Without the things that made her Sarah.
The only things she took with her were the Tough Shits t-shirt on her back and her gypsy tattoo.
I suppose that for her, the pond was so special that she wanted to be there forever.
These days, our parents’ ashes rest under the sink, between some Comet and a package of dirty sponges. After Sarah disappeared, I just couldn’t look at the ashes any longer.
I just couldn’t wait any longer for Sarah to show up, wet and probably sick from all the storms.
On a Monday evening, John scalps one of the heads from the pond and brings it inside. He sets the head on the table, and water drips onto the surface like beads of angry sweat.
I didn’t see what else we could do, he says. I had to do something. Pa would have wanted it this way.
I can’t argue with John. Pa was someone who needed to know things, even when he didn’t need to know them. He would have wanted someone to inspect the head and try to figure out what the hell it was.
Who the hell it was.
Why the hell the head and its friends had been floating on our backyard pond for three days now.
I pluck a piece of wet grass from the cheek. I imagine that it’s hair. The skin feels soft and real.
I see no blood or flesh.
I want to wash my hands.
I ask John how he decided on this particular head.
It floated to me, he says. I was out there staring at them, and I felt like this one wanted out.
Despite my curiosity, I wonder if I should tell John that perhaps it is best for him to return the head and leave things alone. The heads aren’t really bothering us, not really. They are just floating along like empty eggs or milk jugs or rubber ducks in a muddy bathtub. They are not sprouting arms and legs and walking into our house like zombies or worse. They are not irritating the neighbors. (Well, we don’t really have neighbors, so I guess that’s not a good excuse. But still.) They are not drinking the pond water or shredding deer, coyote, or black bears.
That we know of.
But now here it is. A head. On our kitchen table.
For reasons I still don’t understand, I pour a glass of water on the head. Clean water from the sink.
Welcome to our home, I think. Welcome to the home of no one. Welcome to the home of the crazies.
I fear that Sarah will be gone when I wake up.
It is a Tuesday.
When I roll out of bed, I feel the beat of a Siouxsie and the Banshees’ song pounding through the ceiling and into the floor. It’s an odd song choice for early morning, I think, but Sarah is full of odd choices.
The head is still on the table.
John brought us the head of a preacher man or the head of Christine or the head of an Arabian Knight. Something like that. Now someone needs to put it back.
No one has asked Sarah how long she will stay.
She’s still eating, sleeping, and living here. She’s watching the television. She’s using the telephone. She’s helping herself to the cookie stash that I keep on the highest shelf of the pantry.
She’s still here.
Sarah comes down the stairs, and I wonder how such a lightweight can make such a heavy thud. She walks into the kitchen; she looks at the table. The water I poured onto the head the night before has pooled below the chairs like a small pond of tears.
Sarah pulls our parents’ ashes from below the sink and rolls them into her cigarette paper.
I pretend I’m not watching.
When she’s finished, Sarah lifts the head from the table and saunters out the back door, the screen swinging to the melody of a post-punk song not yet written.
My sister, still in her torn Tough Shits t-shirt, places the head on the grass and lights her cigarette. No one else is awake yet, and I’m not sure I am either. She picks the head back up, the lit cigarette hanging from her mouth like a lost cause and smoke rising toward the sky like a thin bass line.
Sarah walks toward the lake.
She glances at the naked trees.
Sarah places the rogue head back amongst the others, and the pond looks perfect once again. Without removing any of her clothes, Sarah slips into the water and joins the floating heads.
I fear that she will go under and disappear forever. I fear that she might be dead, and she is nothing more than a ghost. I fear that she is leaving, and this time for good.
But instead of plunging completely under, Sarah floats on her back. She holds her cigarette just above the water, the surface reflecting the bright purples and reds of her gypsy tattoo.
She floats like a plank of wood. She floats like a twig. She floats like a forgotten leaf.
Every second or so, Sarah flicks our parents’ ashes from her cigarette and into the pond.
I tap my foot to the beat of music that she can no longer hear.
The heads turn to her as if they are watching, almost as if they expected this kind of thing to happen.
SUZANNE SAMPLES lives in Asheville, NC, where she plays roller derby with the Blue Ridge Rollergirls. Suzanne has a Ph.D. in Victorian Literature from Auburn University, and she teaches at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC. When she’s not writing, teaching, or knocking over roller derby jammers, Suzanne spends a lot of time watching Wheel of Fortune with her cats.