When Rachel woke up one morning, there was a dybbuk sitting on the end of her bed smoking a cigarette. She knew it was a dybbuk because she could see that its form was human but also not, like its edges were all blurred and hazy, and its skin was white like bone, and its back was hunched and bulbous, like its wide, warty nose. The thing’s head was bald and round and lumpy like a cabbage. It was cloaked in a dark, draping robe and its feet were bare, the toenails yellowed and curled.
A dybbuk is the malicious spirit of a dead person that attaches itself to someone living, and she knew this because her grandmother had always told her to watch out for the dybbuk that would be hers and hers alone, which would be coming into her life sooner or later, and her grandmother would tell her this in a matter-of-fact perfunctory way, in the same way that she would tell her to watch her cholesterol because the family had a history of heart disease, or to keep an eye on that little mole on her shoulder because her great-Aunt Tillie had one just like it and then one sudden day she woke up dead.
Rachel smelled the smoke coming from the cigarette in her dybbuk’s mouth, and for a brief instant hoped that if she drifted quickly back into the realm of dreams, her dybbuk might get bored and decide to leave her alone and find someone else to haunt.
“Fat chance,” the dybbuk said.
Rachel groaned. Her head was pounding from the smoke. She pulled a pillow over her eyes. She felt its bulk plop back down on the edge of her bed and shifted away from it. “Go. Away,” she said through gritted teeth.
Then the dybbuk’s cold, wrinkly hand dropped onto her own wrist. At its touch, she felt numb. Rachel pulled the pillow off her face and sat up in the bed. The dybbuk stared at her, its eyes black, unending wells. She thought she saw something shining in them, but realized it was only the reflection of her own glossy head. It looked at her, not unkindly, and said, “I’m here to stay, kiddo. You know. Your darling old Bubbe told you the deal.”
She sighed. “Whatever,” she said, but she didn’t twist away from its weight on the bed. She smoothed down her wavy brown hair. She looked at the dybbuk warily, waiting for it to steal her very body. “Aren’t you, like, supposed to possess me or something?”
The dybbuk shrugged its small shoulders. “Maybe I already am,” it said, one thick black eyebrow raised. “Did you ever think of that?”
Rachel’s arms broke out into goosebumps and felt her joints loosen, as if they would release and break apart, and leave her body full of jellied bones.
Then came the dybbuk’s screeching laugh. Its teeth were small but sharp. “You should have seen your face, girl. Chill out, will you?”
Rachel clenched her jaw. The dybbuk stood up and started pacing around the room with its hunched gait, picking up dirty clothes from all around Rachel’s bedroom floor and sniffing them for inspection. “Things are different than in the olden days, Rach. I don’t have to possess you to do my job, you know. It’s the twenty-first century, kid, that kind of shtetl thinking never did much for anyone did it?”
“Jesus Christ,” Rachel muttered. The pounding in her head had grown louder.
“Not quite,” it said. It threw a pair of old black slacks and a purple shirt at her. “Here you go.”
She saw her hands grab and miss at the clothes, as if she were swimming through air. “What?”
The dybbuk pointed a long thin finger at the alarm clock resting on her bedside table. “I can see I’m really going to have to be the brains of this operation,” it said. It began to tap its bare, twisted foot. “Time for work! Come on now, brush that rat’s nest on your head and paint your face on. It’s my first day, so I’ve got to make a good impression.”
Rachel was about twenty minutes late for work. All she wanted to do was wrap herself in her comforter, and it took some cajoling from the creature and then some prodding from its long bony fingers before she managed to roll out of bed. Once she finally made it outside, her shirt tucked in haphazardly and her left sock slipping down, she tried not to notice all the stares she and the dybbuk got from people on the street. She had never actually been gaped at before, but if anything, travelling with a gnarled, freaky, supernatural thing would probably do it.
“Yeesh,” the dybbuk muttered under its breath, which, now that it was keeping close to Rachel’s elbow, she could smell was a bit like hot deli meat, “do I have some schmutz on my face or something?”
She didn’t reply, only sighed, and kept sighing because once she reached her bus stop, she had to shell out extra fare for the dybbuk, who conveniently had no cash. “I’m an otherworldly being!” it cried out when she shot it a glare. “What, do you want me to carry around an Amex?”
People scooted around her on the bus, and when she finally found two seats free for her and the dybbuk, the woman sitting across from Rachel wrinkled her nose. “You leave that thing at home,” she muttered. The dybbuk stuck out its fat, purple tongue and Rachel’s face burned.
When she got to work, she had already missed the morning meeting and once her boss Lydia caught Rachel’s eye, she gestured to come into her office.
Rachel sat in one of the empty chairs across from Lydia’s desk and the dybbuk sat right next to her. “And who is this?” Lydia asked, her lips pursed firmly in barely restrained disgust.
“It’s a dybbuk, it—”
“Never heard of that,” Lydia said. She took a sip of coffee, raising her eyebrows as she drank.
Rachel had trouble finding the words to express herself. “It’s this thing, you see, kind of runs in the family, and tries to, like, do annoying stuff like play songs on repeat and pinch you awake when you try to fall asleep and suck out your soul and all.”
Lydia held up a hand to hush her. “Listen,” she said quickly, “I don’t need to know all that. That sounds like personal business, but right here, right now, I need to know if you’re committed to doing your job.”
Rachel nodded vigorously and apologized, just as the dybbuk let out a loud, wet belch.
Lydia grimaced. “Make sure you keep that thing under control,” she said.
Back in her cubicle, Rachel tried to ignore the dybbuk, which was standing behind her, resting its elbows on her shoulder and fiddling with her hair. She swatted it away and turned on her computer.
“Rachel. Rachel. Bobachel. Banana. Fanna. Fofachel–”
“Can you get your own life please,” Rachel muttered. She dodged a wary glance from a passing coworker.
“Not the way this works, sweet cheeks.” It sat on her desk, swinging its little legs so that they bumped against her chair. Only, its legs weren’t so little, or not as little as they’d been that morning. Rachel thought the dybbuk surely looked a couple inches taller, a bit less twisted and folded over. And was that a hint of a red hue in its pale face?
Rachel turned back to her email and started to type. “Oh yeah? So how does it work then?”
“Didn’t you ever listen to your Bubbe? I’ll give you the sparks notes version. You know I’m what they call a ‘bad thing,’ right?”
“Well, I take offense to that term, but we don’t have to get into that now. I’m a malicious spirit sent to cleave to your soul. A demon of a type, if you will. I’m here for retribution.”
Rachel turned to it, her eyes wide. “But what did I ever do?”
The dybbuk’s sharp face was still. Then it broke out into a grin, baring its spiky teeth. “Hell if I know,” it cackled. “Yeah, I’m sure there was some kind of wrong-doing done somewhere down the family line, you know, way back in the old country. Maybe somebody stole somebody else’s goat or something. My money’s on murder.”
“Anyway,” it said, “you know the rest, I bet. Yadda yadda family curse, all you Abrams get your very own dybbuks when the time comes. Then badda bing, driven insane, badda bang, early grave. And all that jazz.”
Rachel said, “Bull. How come I’ve never seen one of you before? My grandmother? My father?” She tried to remember some lost moment from her childhood when she saw something, a flash of dark out of the corner of her eye, her father’s evasive response, but whatever was there fell through the cracks of her memory and there was nothing left. There was only that look on her grandmother’s face, that raised brow and sucked-in cheeks, the eyes narrow and alert, the tsk-tsk in her voice that told Rachel without telling her, Watch out.
When the dybbuk turned to her again, its face stayed stony. “Maybe you haven’t seen their dybbuks. Some people are really good at hiding them. Doesn’t mean they’re not there.”
Rachel ended up going home early because the dybbuk kept singing show tunes during her committee meeting and because it stole her coworker’s cola can from the office fridge.
She wasn’t hungry when she got back to her apartment, which turned out to be a good thing since the dybbuk had raided the fridge. Now its head was covered in a thick layer of dark hair, and Rachel wondered how it had grown so quickly. “Eating my greens, that’s how,” it answered. The dybbuk took out some celery sticks from the crisper drawer.
She wanted to go to sleep right away. Her hands had begun to shake for some reason. As a matter of fact, her whole body felt a little jittery and not her own. She was unexpectedly exhausted, and when the dybbuk tried to follow her into her bedroom, she put her palm against its cold forehead and pushed. “Stay out,” she said, and slammed the door shut before it could enter. She thought she would be angry at the thing, but she wasn’t, just tired.
And yet, she couldn’t sleep. The dybbuk sat outside of her bedroom, wailing and scratching at her door all night. Even after it had quieted down and fallen asleep, still she heard its gravelly voice in her head. “Let me in,” she heard. She hated the thing, and it was crying so steadily that the sound made her grate her teeth, but she found it so pitiful because she too knew what it was like to not want to be alone.
In the morning, she decided to skip work altogether, and when she opened the door, the dybbuk jumped to its feet and threw its arms around her. Without meaning to, she squeezed back, and found its body more solid than it had been before. It was nearly her same height. Now, its shoulder-length hair was brown, held streaks of shine in it, and its eyes were whirling with color, green and browns settling in the black the way those little white flakes drift around in snow globes.
It stared at her for a long while, and Rachel felt a little guilty about locking it out all night. Then it said, “You look like shit.” Rachel went into the bathroom and slammed the door.
She decided to pay a visit to her parents to try to make sense of this mess, and the dybbuk came along with her, but this time there were not as many stares as the day before. In fact, many people darted a quick glance at them and then looked away quickly, as if they were somehow ashamed. In that brief moment before they looked away though, Rachel saw something like a mixture of disgust and pity in their eyes, and a hard block of pain formed in her throat.
On the bus, she said to the dybbuk, “You’re a spirit, right? So who were you when you were alive?”
It shrugged. “Can’t remember.”
She found that so unexpectedly sad. She said, “But where have you been all this time? Ever since you… died, or whatever?”
It pursed its lips, like it was trying to keep from saying something. There’s a first, Rachel thought, and it shot her a nasty look. “I don’t want to freak you out, is all,” it said. “Seeing as how we’re in public. But, if you must know, I was here all along, with you. From the day you were born, kiddo. It came time that you were able to stop ignoring me.”
There was something in her that wasn’t surprised in the slightest, and then the dybbuk gave her hand a quick squeeze. She wondered why it was being nice to her, and it replied, “It’s cause I’m such a goddamn softie, kid.” Then it hit her with a sharp elbow. “Cigarette?”
“No smoking on the bus!” the driver suddenly bellowed, and everyone jumped. “Miss, you gotta keep that thing under control or I’ll have to let you out.”
When she got to her parent’s house, her father didn’t seem surprised to see her, although he said, “Honey, what are you doing here?” He didn’t look at all at the dybbuk, and didn’t even appear to have seen it. “Come on in, your mother will be sorry to have missed you. She’s visiting Aunt Jill this week.”
Rachel walked inside and the dybbuk sidled in after her, quickly before her father shut the door on it. Her father asked about work and her friends and offered her some soda, which the dybbuk grabbed from her and downed in one greedy gulp.
Rachel found herself looking down at her hand, where the soda was a second ago, and found her fingers still wrapped around an invisible bottle. She saw the lines on her knuckles, the ragged edge of her pinky from where it had been bitten to the quick, the fragile green vein leading to her thumb that twitched in time to her own heartbeat. She saw the fingers clench and then release, and wondered vaguely why her head felt like it was stuck inside a dream.
When she looked up, her father was staring at her. “Honey,” he said, gently, “what’s wrong?”
Slowly, Rachel turned to the dybbuk. Its face was round, had a healthy pink glow, and its cheeks were full. At the same time, they began to laugh together, their crazed giggles indistinguishable from one another. “What’s wrong?” she said, once she had finally caught her breath. She pointed to the dybbuk. “Um, hello!”
Something in her father’s face flinched before he caught himself. “What do you mean?” he said absently. He turned and began fiddling with the remote control, flicking channels on the television so quickly that all the sounds grew loud and intermingled. Her father kept clicking up the volume, so that Rachel had to cover her ears, and the dybbuk finally stood up from the couch and let out a long piercing screech.
Her father jumped and flicked off the television. The dybbuk sat back down, its elbows resting against Rachel’s own. The feeling of its touch, its strange new warmth and solidity, gave Rachel something on which to ground herself. She said to her father, “So, you do know it’s there. You have one too, don’t you. Why didn’t you ever tell me about yours?”
He didn’t meet her eyes. “It’s nothing, honey,” he said. “I have mine under control, and soon you’ll learn how to do the same.”
Rachel wanted to ask what he meant by that, but before she could, the dybbuk stood, sniffing the air. “It’s here,” the dybbuk said. It turned to Rachel and she was surprised to find something like fear behind the kaleidoscope of colors in its eyes. “I can sense it. Where is it? Locked away somewhere?”
Her father said, “It’s in the room above the garage. That’s where I keep it. That’s where it stays.”
The dybbuk snorted with anger. “Don’t you ever visit it? I bet it’s lonely up there, all shriveled up and hungry. You need take care of that thing, buddy, you need to treat it better, give it a blanket, feed it–”
“Feed it what?” her father snapped. Rachel noticed then how old he had begun to look, his back stooped and his hair thinning. She had always remembered him as such a tall man, but now he appeared to have shrunk several inches. Her father’s eyes were wide. “My soul? Feed it me, you mean?”
The dybbuk shook its head sadly. “No,” it said. “You can’t see clearly, man. It’s already feeding on your soul. Hiding it away doesn’t change that, only makes it do it in different ways.”
Her father sighed. “Rachel, honey, I have it handled. That’s how you handle these things.” He turned and headed into the kitchen, calling over his shoulder, “You going to stay for dinner? I’ll order a pizza.”
Rachel’s head felt all stuffed-up as they boarded the bus back to her apartment. The air had grown cold. When had it gotten so dark? What time was it?
Next to her, the dybbuk said, “You need to get a watch, babe,” but its voice was gentler than it usually was.
She had gotten a few texts that night from her friends begging her to come to the bar. The dybbuk pulled clothes from her hangers and held them up. “Come on, Rach,” it said, helping her into a dress. “Go, it’ll be fun. And I want to meet your friends.”
Somehow she ended up in the bar, her friends on one end of a booth and her and the dybbuk squished into the other. They looked like sisters. The dybbuk had borrowed her lipstick, and a barrette to hold back its newly thickened hair, and its eyes were bright. She caught a glimpse of her reflection in the bar window next to booth, and started to see how white her face looked. The dybbuk pinched her arm. “Jack’s talking to you,” it murmured. “Earth to Rachel.”
She said something back, she didn’t know what, and her friends laughed or maybe they didn’t, and she finished a beer somehow. Next to her, the dybbuk was laughing, a soft bark of a laugh that resembled what her own used to sound like. Next to her, the dybbuk was doing shots of tequila with her old college roommate. Next to her, the dybbuk was trying to convince Molly to sing “No Scrubs” with it for karaoke.
Someone grabbed the dybbuk’s hand and said, “God, I just love ya, Rach!”
Rachel got up from the booth. Rachel picked up her purse. Rachel went home and crawled into bed.
The dybbuk followed.
Rachel didn’t leave her bed for a while. She lost track of the hours. She slept and then she didn’t sleep, and when she did it was an unrestful, dreamless sleep. At first, the dybbuk curled next to her on the bed and didn’t say anything. After the second day, it grew restless and tried to prod her awake. It pulled away the bedcovers and shoved Rachel to the floor, but she made her way back. It lit cigarettes and blew the smoke in her face, but she didn’t flinch. It ordered Thai food and held it under her nose for her stomach to growl, but she wasn’t hungry.
Finally, on the third day, the dybbuk began to cry. “Why?” it sobbed, grabbing onto Rachel’s arm and hugging it. “What’s wrong with you? I don’t want to be alone.”
Rachel turned her face into the pillow, but said, “You’re not alone, I’m right here.”
It shouted, “Bullshit! This is the loneliest I’ve ever been! Why are you making me feel this way?”
Rachel’s head began to pound. For the first time in a while, she felt something and this something was anger. “Me?” she seethed. “I’m doing this? Are you kidding? It’s you, it’s been you all along!”
It shook its head.
Rachel sat up. She yelled as loud as her dry throat would allow, “It’s like you’ve stolen my life! I want you to leave me alone!”
The dybbuk said, “I can’t. I’m a part of you.”
Rachel began to cry. She hadn’t cried in so long, even though every second since the dybbuk had arrived she had felt like she needed to. “But what do you want from me?”
The dybbuk rested its hand on hers and squeezed. “I want you to see me,” it said. “I want you to take care of me.”
Rachel kept crying, but the dybbuk didn’t say a word, just sat there and held her hand. They fell asleep, the dybbuk holding Rachel tight, as if her body would come apart if it were to let go.
The next morning, Rachel awoke and the dybbuk’s hand was still wrapped tight in her own, making her self feel more solid. She stood, washed her face, pinched some red into her cheeks, and began to clean her apartment. The dybbuk washed the floors while she did the laundry. She wiped down the kitchen counters while it cleaned the windows. They talked while they worked, and then sometimes they didn’t, but each knew the other was there.
When they were finished, Rachel made the dybbuk sit at the kitchen table with its eyes closed shut as she scurried around the bedroom. “Okay,” she finally called. “I’m done. Come here.”
There in her bedroom, under the window, Rachel had dragged in the couch cushions and placed them on the floor. She made up a bed with her extra sheets and pillows, and a little bedside table out of hardcover books. “This will be your spot,” she said. Her voice was friendly but firm.
The dybbuk nodded. “Whatever you say, boss,” it said, then gave a salute.
And so it happened that the dybbuk stayed there, with Rachel, in that little place she had made for it, and some days it appeared to have shrunk a little bit and some days it seemed to have grown larger than she herself, but she made sure to talk to it every night. They would fall asleep to the sound of each other’s voices, and sometimes it came with her to work and to see friends, and sometimes it stayed in and watched television and did Sudoku by itself. They liked to have coffee dates every Thursday, and the dybbuk would give her a hug when she was crying, but it would always retreat to its little spot under the window. After a good long while, it grew smaller and smaller, but its sharp smile never faded, until one day it did, and when Rachel woke up one bright morning, there was only a tiny ball the size of a marble on its bed, a deep black with greens and browns sifting through it, like a snow globe shaken and then frozen before the flakes could reach the bottom. And Rachel held the tiny ball in her palm and knew her dybbuk was in there, and was a little sad and also not, and then she went to a jewelers and had them string the tiny ball on a silver chain, which she wore around her neck every day for the rest of her life.
Taylor Kobran holds an MFA from Hollins University. She was the runner-up for the 2016 Andrew James Purdy Prize for Short Fiction and was the recipient of the 2013 Moorehead-Timberlake Award for Creative Writing at Dickinson College. Her work has been published in The Nottingham Review and is forthcoming in Lunch Ticket and Emerge Literary Journal. She enjoys spending time with her dog and alphabetizing her overflowing bookcase. She lives in New Jersey.