Candace by Sam Martone

The ghost bear rises up on its haunches. Candace, on its back, grips translucent fur as the memory of muscles shifts beneath her. Her older sisters had teased her. They’d all ridden more conventional steeds: the ghost of a bay mare, a gazelle, an outsized jackrabbit. But her sisters were the sick ones now, shivering and confined to their organ beds, their steeds mere miniatures, galloping in place in the palms of their hands. It fell to Candace and her bear, crude and prickly and repulsive, to retrieve the medicine.

In the cold, Candace is thankful for the mask she must wear. The ghost bear’s feet crunch on the snow, but leave no prints. Candace squints through the world’s glare—that’s something they don’t tell you about snow, the way it captures sunlight, bulbs the landscape into a topographic tanning bed.

Growing up, Candace roamed the woods while her sisters stayed inside with their austere hobbies. Carving ice sculptures, forging wind chimes. She’s not afraid to venture into the world, even as it rends itself into something new, but she hates leaving her sisters alone. She tells herself they’ll be fine. She thinks of what Callie used to tell her when they shared a trundle bed and Callie seemed to vanish beneath her. Even though you can’t see me, Callie called out, I’m right beside you.

Rock sharks circle them on the way there. The ghost bear bristles and they keep their distance. There’ve always been rock sharks in these woods, but not in such numbers, not so close to civilization. The rock sharks thrust their boulderous noses into the cool air, then dive back beneath the snow, their rocky bodies splitting the earth.

At the pharmacy, Candace takes out her plastic trumpet, slips the mouthpiece under her mask, and blows three distinct notes. This means, I’m here for medicine. The pharmacist’s steed, a ghost giraffe, watches blandly from its pen. Its mouth is full of leaves slowly draining of color with every chew, turning into ghost leaves.

From inside, Candace hears the pharmacist’s trombone, two sputtering blares, indicating she’s on her way. Ever since the sickness, this is what passes for conversation. How it spreads is still uncertain, but multisyllabic words are a known vector. Early on, people shared messages written on notepads, but then only serif typefaces were deemed safe to read. Certain musical instruments—guitars, drums, woodwinds—were potential transmitters. It fell to horns, whichever could be found, to shape this new language of valves and bells.

The pharmacist emerges, her face mummy-wrapped in a scarf, totally covered but for her eyes. Candace sees her glance warily at the ghost bear. The pharmacist tosses the bag of medicine and slips back inside. The ghost bear leans over so Candace can hop down and pick up the bag. It’s always heavier than she expects.

The ghost giraffe lets ghost leaves fall from its mouth, having masticated all the lifeforce from them. Candace reaches into the pen and grabs one of the ghost leaves, then climbs aboard her ghost bear. She plucks a bobby pin like a hidden blade from somewhere deep within her mask and affixes the ghost leaf onto ghost fur, the kind of adornment her sisters would politely commend. Brava, Candace, they’d say, clapping their hands together soundlessly. Brava.

On the way back, mud crows squawk and drip from the branches of birch trees. Candace thinks she spots a rock shark, but it’s an actual boulder, a nose-point corner painted with rows of teeth, a beartrap jaw. Meant to scare travelers or ward off actual rock sharks, she’s not sure.

At home, Candace washes her hands. She takes off her mask and puts a clean one on. She washes her hands again, and only then enters her sisters’ room. Their organ beds hum pleasantly. Her sisters do not stir from their shivering sleep. Their ghost steeds dart around in excitement at Candace’s presence, inflating to the size of softballs before shrinking miniature again. At the foot of each bed is a keyboard, like on a baby grand. Each key pipes into a vital organ. Candace takes the vials from her medicine bag and slots them into tubes beneath each keyboard. She sits at Catherine’s bed first, adjusting the swivel stool, and begins to play the medicine into her sister.

When she plays, she tries to conjure something specific to each sister. Tonight, she thinks of Catherine’s nail polish, the way she’d worry the color off as soon as it dried. She’ll think of Callie eating jelly beans with eyes closed, guessing the flavor. She’ll remember Cassandra replacing the toilet paper backwards on the roll. All the tics and habits they’ll someday subject Candace to again.

The song comes out wretched and homely. If her sisters weren’t suffering, they’d balk at it. They’d compare the noises to those of her ugly bear, laugh at the howling, farting sounds. They could be cruel, her sisters, but their ridicule cloaked a tenderness toward her.

She moves from bed to bed, playing her twisted songs for them, pumping the precious serum into bodies she shares so much with—thick hair, weak stomachs, fast-growing toenails.

Later, in her room, Candace lies in the bed she doesn’t share with anyone anymore. Outside, the sun is setting, tucking itself into the trundle bed of the horizon. She can see the ghost bear from her window, pawing around, the ghost leaf in its fur fluttered by wind. The snow has dimmed in the evening light, turned blue and harmless.

When her sisters are healthy, the organ beds will churn out beautiful melodies, sweet tones their mouths will be strong enough to sing along to. Candace peels off her mask and tosses it to the floor with the week’s laundry. She places her hands on her nose. She drags a finger across her lips, the cleft in her chin. She touches every part of her face, making sure it’s still there.


Sam Martone lives and writes in New York City.