From the moment she settled into the old beater car packed to the brim with all her worldly belongings, her dog refused to stop barking.
No, that wasn’t quite true. It wasn’t a constant cacophony; Fergus, mutt of many colors, would occasionally yip or growl or snap at the air instead. But while it wasn’t constant, it was consistent. The whole drive through Oregon was an endless series of startles and glares.
Adelaide wondered if maybe this was Fergus’s idea of driving conversation. Or maybe he was objecting to the music. Whatever the case, every few minutes her gaze would drift to her passenger seat. Fergus would look at her with plaintive eyes, then look back over his shoulder, into the mass of boxes that had engulfed the backseat and trunk of the half-wrecked station wagon.
Maybe he was claustrophobic?
Or maybe he just hated their situation as much as she did. Her brother had sworn up and down that he’d help her move, and her grandfather had offered to pay for a moving van, but her last final came and went with no word. She was left with her last ditch plan – buy the cheapest car she could find (her first, and not what she had been hoping for), pack up her dorm on move-out day, and head cross-country to where an aunt she had only met twice awaited her with an open door and at least a little patience. She’d find a job from there.
Hopefully, anyway. And that was if Fergus’s constant alert didn’t drive her off the road in a fit of temporary insanity.
“What is it?” she asked as she pulled into a gas station on the edge of Boise. They’d crossed the border after a long, winding drive through a seemingly endless canyon, and she’d hoped the return of unfiltered daylight would settle him. No such luck. She cut the engine and reached over, rubbing Fergus’s head. “You always liked riding in Mandy’s car.”
Mandy had been her roommate for two years, with a job right out of college that paid more than Adelaide could hope for in an entire career. She had a nice new car and expensive perfume and constant apologies that she couldn’t afford for Adelaide to move in with her. But she’d given Adelaide a parting gift – a little charm dangling from the rearview mirror, an old Victorian thing with what looked like a braided lock of wool or hair on part of it. Thought you’d like it, she’d said. It reminded me of your intro cultural Anth class, back first semester junior year.
It was pretty, at least. Her gaze fell on it for a moment before returning to Fergus. He looked at her with big, doleful eyes. If he’d been a little boy instead of a gangly something-or-other, his bottom lip might have quivered.
She sighed. “Let me fill this thing up and then we’ll get a nice long walk, okay?”
It was a scraggly little rest station and car park, but the gas was blessedly cheap, the convenience store had her brand of barbecue chips (which apparently wouldn’t exist out east), and there was almost grass peeking out through the pounded dirt bordering the pavement. Fergus trotted eagerly at her side as they took a third turn around the shop. He was a different dog; no barking, no tension, no nothing. He just hated the car.
Well, so did she.
The car was an odd shade of blue-green where the finish wasn’t chipped, the windshield was cracked, and it had over a hundred thousand miles on it. It had been cheap, and luckily didn’t smell like anything except dust and old upholstery. Now, if only she was any good with a manual transmission…
She leaned against the side of the convenience store and looked at the thing, Fergus sitting by her heels. Fergus followed her gaze, though from his eyes and the bobbing of his head, she could tell he was winding down and maybe even ready for a nap. If she was lucky, she could get to Utah by nightfall with nothing but her music on low.
As she began to push away from the wall, Fergus stirred. He whined, then pawed at the ground, shifting his weight. She reached down and scratched behind his ears.
“I know,” she said, with a grimace. “Not the most hospitable bed. But you can do it, you’re a brave boy.”
Fergus whined again, then barked.
“What’s the matter?” she asked, trying to bank her frustration.
Another sharp bark.
She looked back to the car. Everything looked perfectly fine. The lot was deserted. The sun glinted off the windshield in odd patterns from the cracks, and she shook her head. “Nothing there,” she said.
As she turned her head to look back down at Fergus, something flashed at the edge of her vision. Her head jerked up, following the shine of light, and-
There’s somebody in there.
The convenience store clerk straightened up, shaking his head. “Nothing under here. You sure you saw something?”
I’m sure. There had been the shadow of a person in her passenger seat. It had been unmistakable – the taper of the neck, the flare of shoulders- her trembling intensified, and she tightened her arms around herself.
But she couldn’t see anything, now. No shadows, no outlines. Just a cracked old parking lot and an exhausted older man who clearly didn’t want to be dealing with a woman’s hysterics. She closed her eyes a moment and swallowed.
“Maybe not,” she forced out, voice wavering. Another deep breath calmed it to a just a tic of her lips. “It’s- it’s been a long day. Maybe it was just my own reflection.”
No, it wasn’t.
The man brushed at his knees. “Sure. It happens.”
She watched as he disappeared back into the store, shaking his head and muttering. Fergus, alert at her heels, edged forward a few steps. Another glance at the car showed no shapes or odd shadows, and she counted to ten.
“Ready?” she asked, looking down.
Fergus only prowled forward.
She followed, circling the car once, twice, and then setting about her own careful investigation, fumbling with her keychain until she got ahold of the little can of pepper spray. She looked over the back of the car, with all its boxes and tight little hiding places, then into the front seats and footwells, before dropping to her knees and scanning beneath the car. A sudden jolt of nerves had her on her feet and spinning around, then making a wide circle around the gas pumps.
Nothing. The place was deserted.
She unclenched the hand holding her keys and ran the other through her hair. She only had to drive until nightfall and then she could get a relaxing bath in a motel bathroom, read a book, unwind. This was all the stress of moving, after all. Too much sun and her, what was it called? Major life change?
She’d imagined it all, or maybe it had been a mirage.
“Right,” she said, voice trembling with forced confidence as she let Fergus into the car. He hesitated a moment and she pretended not to see it. “Like I said, nothing there.”
Settling into her own seat was a little harder. The seatbelt seemed like chains and it took all her strength of will to pull the door shut. The noise of the engine seemed like the perfect distraction from any shifting in the back-
Adelaide put on an upbeat, happy song and pulled out onto the highway.
Fergus was standing in the passenger seat, unwilling to sit down or relax. He circled a few times, as if unsure of where to look, and she could hear his low rumbling growl. Maybe he’s feeding off of my own nerves, she thought, fingers flexing on the wheel.
With a pasted on smile, she turned to look at her companion. “No good, huh? Come on, let’s get out of Idaho.”
Fergus only whined.
That same smile got her through the increasingly awkward attempts at flirting from the pimple-faced boy behind the Motel 6 counter.
“I love dogs,” he was saying.
You and half the world. He could only have been four years younger than her at the most, and his hair was an attractive enough shade of sandy yellow, but she wasn’t in the mood to be flirted with, especially given her yoga pants, sweatshirt, and scraggly hair. The guy was desperate, or a compulsive casanova. She doubted the latter. Prom coming up, then? Virginity clock ticking away while his buddies teased?
“Yeah,” was all she said, drumming her fingers on the counter.
“What kind is she?”
“He,” Adelaide corrected, barely stifling a yawn. “And he’s a mutt. No clue what’s in him.” That wasn’t entirely true, but she had no desire to ferret out hints at various herding dogs with this guy.
“Oh.” He blinked at her, then tapped a few keys on his console. “So, uh. Is he… do you do time trials with him? Or something?”
Animal Planet lover. “No, just throwing tennis balls when we can get to the park.”
She watched him scramble for conversation topics and come up empty.
“Are you going to be around the city for long?”
God I hope not. Salt Lake was not her sort of place. Too flat. “No, I’m heading out tomorrow morning. Bright and early.”
“Aw, that’s a shame.” A few more key taps and he cleared his throat. “We have coffee available in the mornings-”
“I don’t drink coffee,” she said, and his face fell a little. “But thanks.” She bit down the impulse to finally snap Look, just give me the damn room key. It came out instead as, “My dog’s still in the car.”
“Oh, right. Sorry. Here.” He held out the card in its little sleeve, and a receipt. “Room 214. Up the first set of stairs and to the right.”
She reached out to take it. He hesitated a moment as if deciding whether to casually brush his finger against hers, but she had pulled away before he could make a decision. Her shoulders slumped in exhaustion the moment she was out of the office. A Motel 6 was a little more expensive than she had budgeted for, but none of the smaller places she’d passed accepted pets. Still, if she could get up early and push on until dark every time, maybe she could cut a day off her trip. Fergus wouldn’t like it, and she wouldn’t be able to explain to him that longer days would mean fewer days, but-
She could hear Fergus’s barking from fifty yards away, and she broke into a sprint. The car lights were on and he was going wild, snapping at the air.
I didn’t leave the lights on.
I didn’t leave the lights on.
She fumbled with the driver side door latch and then yanked it open. Fergus streaked out of the car and crouched down behind her legs, snarling.
Her iPod was on, blaring Bliss by Muse.
She’d left it on a fiddle music playlist with the sound turned way down. And she’d turned it off. Her mouth went dry and her hands shook. Fergus let out a sharp bark and she took a deep breath. Scanning the interior of the car told her exactly what it had earlier that day in Boise: nothing there.
It wasn’t much of a comfort, but it was all she had.
She snatched her iPod and her backpack, turned off the lights, and slammed the door, beating a hasty retreat to her room.
“I’m a grown woman,” she told herself, staring at her reflection in the tiny bathroom mirror. “A grown woman with a plan and a dog and a can of pepper spray.”
Fergus barked and she scowled over her shoulder at him. “You had better come to my rescue if something happens. Which it won’t.”
It was late morning. Her 7 A.M. alarm had been shut off with barely an opened eye. The 8 A.M. alarm had been regarded with suspicion. 9 A.M. hadn’t fared much better, accompanied as it was by more consciousness and preceded by nightmares of lurking attackers in her car.
And now it was ten thirty, three hours after she should have been on the road, and she was giving herself a pep-talk in a bare little motel room.
Fergus had messed up the iPod and turned on the lights. It was the only logical answer.
There wasn’t room for anyone in the pile of her life flooding the back seat, and who would break into a car to turn the lights on and put on a song she’d barely listened to in years? The less logical, more fear-driven side of her kept tugging towards aliens, or maybe poltergeists. But that was about as likely as-
Fergus working her iPod and the front indoor lights of a car.
She hefted her backpack and smiled tightly down at the mutt. “Well, off to face another day on the road in a haunted station wagon.”
If the car was haunted, it gave no more signs of it that day. Perhaps Thursday was a ghost’s day of rest. Or the aliens had gotten bored. Fergus was uneasy, but notably less vocal than the day before, and it was remarkably hard to sustain full-blown panic for more than an hour at a time. Adelaide let her whole library of Muse songs play, in a half-hearted attempt to exorcise whatever spirit lurked in the little thing, and had moved on to movie soundtracks to speed her out into the midwest with all of its endless fields of soy and corn and wheat.
It did have the effect of making her feel a bit more epic. With swelling battle music as their backup, who couldn’t take on a little bump in the night? Her hands finally relaxed on the steering wheel for the first time in hours.
They were in Nebraska by nightfall, with another Motel 6 and a far more uneventful night. The woman behind the counter was in her forties, with thick glasses and the bored air of somebody who had been doing the job for far too long. Adelaide thanked her, retrieved a tense but quiet Fergus, and went up to the room.
“Just nerves,” she said as she shut the door and slipped the deadbolt. It was the first time she’d said anything about yesterday since they had left the last motel. She’d been afraid to jinx it. But with a day’s driving behind her and a door between her and the car, she unwound, flopping back onto one of the too-hard beds. Fergus jumped up beside her and settled down along the length of her, snout on her shoulder.
She reached down to rub his flank. “We’ll get to Pennsylvania in no time, and you can run all over Aunt Laila’s yard. She has acres and acres, from what I understand. No sheep, but I’ll see what I can do.” Fergus snorted and pawed at her chest. She could pick out bits of working dog in him, some kind of collie, and while he’d never met a sheep, she could just imagine him bounding after one. Running through the grass, miles on miles of it, or along a dirt road, without the traffic and the concrete and the constant noise…
She startled awake, roused by the blaring of a car alarm just outside her window. Fergus was already off the bed and standing on his hind legs, front paws braced against the windowsill as he barked. She stumbled out of bed, squinting against the light she’d left on. Still in sweats and a loose shirt, she hooked a finger in Fergus’s collar as she pushed aside the curtain.
“Settle down,” she said. “It’s just-”
Her blood ran cold and her mind swam with thoughts of her car simply driving away, all her life going with it. Or maybe the back had been smashed in. Maybe windows were broken. Maybe- Maybe-
Fergus growled and strained against her hold.
God, the alarm would wake up the whole complex. Embarrassment warred with fear, and she let go of Fergus to rake her hands through her hair. Wait for it to stop and see in the morning? Or go down now, and… what? The car was too old for her to have a clicker that would turn off the alarm. She’d have to go all the way up to it and open it herself.
She was about to slink back to bed and cover her head with a pillow to block out the noise when she heard raised, irritated voices from the room adjacent. Great. Embarrassment surged again, accompanied by the resumed worry that the car would simply be gone in the morning. That would be worse, wouldn’t it? Paranoid Adelaide loses it all.
She swallowed and grabbed up her keys and the room card, then undid the deadbolt. “Come on, Fergus.”
The alarm was still going as she approached from a wide angle. Fergus stayed at her side, low to the ground and ears back, hackles raised. At least he’s a willing guard dog. If he’d turned tail and run, she wouldn’t have known what to do.
As she reached out for the driver-side door, the alarm stopped mid-blare. Adelaide froze.
There, in the window, a reflection-
She spun, keys jangling as she grabbed hold of the pepper spray on the ring. Nobody stood behind her. And behind the car- no. And not on the other side. There was nobody in the lot.
“I’m hallucinating,” she said with a hysteric half-laugh. “I’m alone in Nebraska and I’m hallucinating. God help me.”
Well, the car was here, the alarm was off. She could just retreat back to the room, throw the deadbolt, and somehow will herself to sleep. But Fergus wasn’t settled, still staring at the car. Trembling, she reached out again and opened the door.
Her voice sounded small and laughable in the night air. It had to be nearly midnight now, if not later, and there were no sounds except for the distant rhythm of traffic and a spot of warm wind blowing in from the south. Everything else was her own ragged breathing and hammering heart. She peered into the car, scanning the mountain of her belongings through the sharp shadows cast by the front light.
Maybe it had been a loose wire. She swallowed thickly, glancing back to her room. Or maybe her water bottle had fallen and- something. If only Fergus could go in for her and find the cause, report back when it was all better.
Still, she supposed this was part of being an adult. She had to make the stupid decisions at some point.
Gingerly, she lowered herself into the seat, one leg still outside, toe brushing the pavement. The sudden thought of a hand snaking out to grab her ankle made her jerk all the way into the car, her world contracting to a pinpoint of light. She’d never been good with fear, or the dark, or any of it. She made herself reach out, feeling along the edges of the seat for anything out of the ordinary. Just a quick check to make sure everything was as it should be, and-
The door slammed shut, lock sliding home, and she screamed as the lights went out.
Outside, Fergus was barking, teeth flashing in the dark. She could hear him, distantly, over the rising surge of panic as she jerked at the door handle, shoving at the latch. Nothing. Her scrabbling hands reached the window, palms smacking the pane once, twice, before she reached down for the crank. It stuck.
The air inside the car was close and overly warm, smothering her and making it harder to breathe. She turned in her seat, and then leaned across to the passenger door, jiggling the handle. It refused to give. She gasped for breath, jamming one hand against the cracked windshield for balance, catching the old medallion beneath her palm.
No no no, she thought, and closed her eyes, sucking in breath after deep breath. No, she could do this. Start the car, see if that changed anything, and if not, she could drive to the office or to a police station or- Why don’t I have my damn phone? It was sitting back in the room, in the side pocket of her bag.
A welcome, cool breeze tickled at the back of her neck. It made a fraction of the tension in her shoulders uncurl. Her fingers slid against the glass and the ornament trapped beneath her hand.
Rigid, she pulled away from the window. Mandy’s trinket fell from her palm and clacked against the windshield. The sound was too loud, all other noise muffled. Even Fergus’s barking seemed a mile away. Slowly, she turned her head, afraid and yet resigned to what she might see.
A pale haze seemed to float just a little behind her. There were no features, and no shape, but unless somebody had snuck a bucket of dry ice into her car-
She felt what almost seemed like a hand settle lightly beside hers.
“I don’t know who you are-” Car crash victim, woman murdered and stuffed in the back rolled up in a carpet, pedestrian hit by a drunk driver– “but- but I- please let me go?”
She needed her orchestral score; she sounded pathetic and childish. “Please?” she repeated again, all the same.
The haze faded and the lock on the door clicked open. She stumbled out of the car and ran to the office, to change her room to something on the far side of the complex.
She was getting to be good friends with motel mirrors. “I can’t do this,” she said, frowning at herself. Fergus paced protectively around her legs. He hadn’t slept all night, and she was fairly certain that she hadn’t, either. What she wouldn’t have given for it all to have been a nightmare, though either way, she still had to go down to the car. She had to get in the car. She had to drive in that car for an entire day, and then another.
“I’ll just sell the thing,” Adelaide said, then glanced to the motel window. The car was around the complex from her, but that didn’t stop its presence from seeming to linger right outside the door. “I’ll take all my stuff out, camp here, put up a Craigslist ad…”
She’d love a break, an excuse to just lie back in bed and avoid everything for a few more days. Of course, just half a minute’s thought of how much the room would cost for a few more days, or a few more weeks, and she was sagging forward against the sink counter again.
“Once we get to Pennsylvania,” she said, “I’ll sell the thing. Just a little longer. We’ll just have to hope it doesn’t run us off the road.”
Fergus whined and she grimaced. Smooth, Adelaide. Freak yourself out a little more, that’s a good girl.
She slunk back to her rumpled bed, sitting down on the edge and reaching for the phonebook. She doubted there was a section for auto exorcisms (though maybe, if she were really lucky, one of the local auto repair shops would offer it as an optional service for only a few, what, thousand dollars?), but there was always the local psychic.
Nebraska, it turned out, had a surprising number of women with Caribbean sounding names that began with Madame. Palm readers, tarot readers, fortune tellers of unspecified denomination, astrologists, dowsers, crystal… aficionados. There was even a man who claimed to be an ex-Catholic priest who specialized in screaming the devil out of people. Adelaide fell back onto the mattress with a groan. If only she were back on the west coast, she might have been able to find somebody who at least sounded legitimate. Of course, back on the west coast, people sold her haunted cars.
The bed bowed as Fergus jumped up onto it. She waited for him to settle down by her feet, but instead he padded up to her chest and stared at her.
He placed a paw on her solar plexus.
Was this a plea to stay in bed? Or was it for more doggie treats, or water, or a walk, or-
Shit. She swore Fergus had a better sense of time than she did, even through a time zone change or two. She twisted her neck to look at the clock. 11:52. Checkout in eight minutes, or another sixty dollars plus tax.
Now or never.
She screwed up her face, willing the damn phantom to manifest in time for the drive-through attendant to see it. If it flung her five dollars and change at an observer, then she could be sure she wasn’t going insane. And maybe the girl working the window would be an armchair supernatural specialist, and-
Adelaide blinked wordlessly at the girl, face slackening to an expression of bewildered embarrassment. No phantom. No confirmation. Instead, she had a teenager with a wad of chewing gum in one cheek, too much blush, and brown hair brushed up into a really unfortunately lopsided topknot.
“Oh,” Adelaide said, curling her fingers more tightly around her money. “Um. I-”
“That’ll be five twenty-two?” the girl supplied, brows climbing and lips falling open in annoyed boredom so that Adelaide could see the flash of perfect teeth.
“Right.” She thrust out the money and got her baggie in return, along with a large milkshake. If a ghost was going to run her off the road, she deserved a last treat. “Sorry about that. Long-”
“Thank you, ma’am.” The window slid shut.
Fergus nosed at the paper bag.
“Yeah, yeah,” she muttered, cheeks still burning, “Just a minute.” She pulled the car into a parking spot and tore at the packaging, rummaging for Fergus’s cheeseburger. “Glad to see you’re feeling normal, at least.” An appetite was better than pacing, she supposed, though what she really wanted was somebody to tell her that everything was fine.
Then again, what would they actually say? Oh, don’t mind the ghost, it’s just being playful, locking you in your car and making you beg for freedom. That’s just a ghost game! It likes you!
She put Fergus’s cheeseburger down and took a pointed slurp of her milkshake before reaching for her map. They’d passed the halfway point about a hundred miles back, which put them firmly in the heart of Iowa. There had been a few tense moments, when she could have sworn the car grew colder despite the busted AC, but beyond that the ride had been smooth. Smooth, boring, and relentlessly nerve wracking.
Adelaide sat back in her seat, looking around the exit stop. There were at least six different motels here, and all the fast food she and Fergus could want. Half of her wanted to give up for the day; her back was unbearably sore, her arms tight, her legs all aching muscle. The other half cried out to run, run as far away as she could from the stretches of time spent in the car – which meant, unavoidably, going forward.
She settled on staring off into the middle distance while Fergus wolfed down his meal.
Her milkshake was turning to muck when she finally shook herself. She looked up at the rearview mirror, giving herself a thin smile. “Onwards and upwards,” she said. “To more and better things. Cheers.” She clinked her paper cup with a nonexistent companion’s.
And now there was the sound of laughter, distant but rolling, like in a dining hall or a ballroom.
Fergus had stopped eating. His ears were pricked and she could see the beginnings of a growl. Her own hand was shaking as she reached out to settle a hand on his head, as much for her comfort as for his. He was far warmer than the car, and she swallowed nervously, waiting for the door locks to click, trapping her again.
Instead, there was only the soft ebb and flow of indistinct voices. It wasn’t the mutter of conspirators, the screams of victims, or even the chatter of passengers. The sense of a large space pressed in on her. There were too many voices over too much space to be real, but the car sat utterly still- no locks, no flickering lights.
Her exhale clouded in the growing chill, and she lifted her gaze to the rearview mirror once more.
“Hello?” she asked again, voice still soft and hesitant. She searched the boxes, the nooks and crannies, and from time to time she caught glimpses of- something. It wasn’t a person. It was movement, shifting light, panoramas caught in the shadows. She leaned towards the mirror, frowning slightly.
“Cheers,” a man’s voice whispered, before all the haze fell away.
“Of course I can make it another seventy miles,” Adelaide muttered, all thoughts of the afternoon’s excitement gone beneath the heavy weight of exhaustion. It was pitch black outside her windows, and she could have sworn she hadn’t seen a mile marker in over half an hour. Fergus was trying to sleep beside her, tail tucked over his snout, but she could see the wink of light that meant he was looking up at her. Aren’t we going to stop soon?
God, she hoped so.
Her eyes were growing heavy and the clock read 12:42. They’d certainly made up for lost time. But now she was somewhere in the wilderness of Iowa (or was it Illinois?) with no motel in sight and just an endless stretch of asphalt ahead of them. She was pushing seventy-five; it hardly seemed to make a difference.
And what if the next stop didn’t have a Motel 6? What if she had to do the dance of begging Mom and Pop motels to let her keep the dog in the car? She hadn’t had to, so far, but it would be just her luck.
Still, seventy miles wasn’t so bad. Under an hour. Her gaze drifted to the clock again. What time had it been when she passed the last exit? She couldn’t remember. Sometime around midnight, surely. It couldn’t have been earlier, or she’d be there already, and any later and there’s no way she would have stayed on the road.
But there hadn’t been a Motel 6 back there, she remembered. She let her head fall back against the rest, looking along her nose at the straight, unerring, empty stretch of road. No exits since then, no merges, no nothing.
And she was too far north for the Bermuda Triangle.
Mandy’s trinket spun in little lazy arcs on its string, dull in the faint light of the dashboard. Fergus shifted and huffed in his seat. The space where the edge of her headlights met the shadows grew gentler as if dawn were creeping over the horizon. That would be nice. The light would wake her up, and she’d be able to see those mile markers. And the corn, all the endless corn and soybeans and…
The car jerked right. Adelaide startled awake as her shoulder hit the door. A truck howled past, horn blaring, only inches away. Fergus was up and barking, and she shook her head to clear the sleep from it.
Shaking, she pulled over to the shoulder and ran an anxious hand through her hair. “Shit shit shit,” she whispered, staring at her reflection in the windshield. She burned all over, flushed and ashamed and terrified, and as she sat back and let go of the wheel, the trembling began to worsen.
But a cool breeze curled itself around her, and she steadied her breathing.
The car pulled itself out of the way. Her hands had been loose on the wheel when she came to. She had thought the headlights of the other vehicle was dawn. The car had pulled itself out of the way – and saved her life.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
It was that same voice, and this time she could hear him clearly, as if he sat just beside her. She turned her head. Fergus had slunk into the footwell.
In the passenger seat sat the hazy figure of a young man.
He had a high, broad forehead and carefully combed pale hair. His nose was aquiline and his smile faint and a little lopsided. His gaze focused squarely on her, though she could barely make out the boundaries of him, could barely understand him except for the wafting chill.
“Um,” she said, helplessly.
This was the man- ghost– who had locked her in the car. Who had messed with her iPod and had freaked Fergus out. Who had toasted her milkshake and her move-
“Um. Who – who are you? Why are you here?” Is this how it goes? Should I make demands? Be firm? Oh God…
At first he didn’t respond, silent and unmoving, and she was reminded suddenly of a video correspondent waiting through the transmission lag. “Henry,” he said at last.
She took another deep breath. “Right. Henry. I’m Adelaide. You, ah- have you been here this whole time?”
Again there was the lag, and then he nodded.
What should she say now? Please leave? Her gaze dropped from his face to the shadowed rest of him, his fine shirtsleeves, his broad hands. Those hands had saved her life – more or less. He was no murder victim or car crash death. In fact, he looked her age.
A comely college student. She could handle this. “Are you haunting this car?”
He shook his head. His focus seemed half elsewhere, a far cry from what had felt like unwavering focus as he messed with her car, but she supposed that was to be expected. He had to control a body now, not just poke at things as a ghost. She watched as he extended a hand and lifted the trinket dangling from the mirror.
He turned the trinket towards her. “Eram quod es, eris quod sum. I was what you are, you will be what I am.” His expression rippled into a cocky little smile, enough to wash any foreboding from his words. Instead, it arrested her a moment before she turned to the medallion. In the dim light, she could barely make out the letters- but they were there, etched into the metal around the braided lock of pale hair.
“I remember making this,” Henry continued, his voice becoming clearer and more natural as he spoke. “A couple of the boys and me, at Haverford. We’d just decided to enlist. Go off and fight in the Great War. Be heroes. We all sat around one night and made our own little memento moris to take with us. I guess I forgot mine somewhere.” His smile was quick but bright at the irony, though his shoulders bowed as if from exertion.
“Oh,” she said, feeling very small now. Her ghost really was no car crash victim; he was from World War I, trapped in a final gift between friends. She’d taken him all across the country.
She was suddenly very much awake.
“Do you remember dying?”
He shook his head. “This,” he said, letting go of the token and letting it sway, “is the last thing I know.”
A thousand questions raced through her thoughts, tumbling one over the other. When did you know you were dead? Is heaven real? What’s it like to be dead?
What came out was, “Why bother me?”
His expression settled into something earnest and a little empty.
“I was lonely. And we were going home. The closer we get, the more I remember. And can do. I –“
A flash of light in the rearview mirror dragged her attention from him, and she looked over her shoulder to see another car approaching. As it neared, she could make out the brown of a county officer’s vehicle.
“Henry-” she said, turning to face him.
“I’m sorry,” he said, the lag almost nonexistent as he began to fade. “For scaring you. For locking you in.”
Her breathing shivered to a standstill.
“When you get where you’re going,” he said, barely a whisper, “take me with you. Please.”
You saved my life. “I promise.”
He disappeared from view.
The officer’s car drew up behind hers, and she made a hurried inventory of herself. Her hair was a bit mussed, but she looked alive and not drunk. That was something. A pat of her pocket said she had her driver’s license within reach, and she knew her registration was in the glovebox. Fergus pulled himself up into his seat and watched quietly.
Before the cop could knock on her window, she rolled it down.
“Good evening, miss,” he said. “Is there a problem I can help with?”
She shook her head. “No, sir. I was just starting to get sleepy, so I pulled over for a quick cat nap. I’m ready to go now.” With a ghost at my back, apparently. She bit down a secret, giddily relieved smile.
“Alright, then.” He scanned the back of the car. “Moving?”
“All the way from Oregon,” she said.
“Brave girl,” he said, and retreated with a friendly tap on the roof of the car. “Drive safe, you hear? Roads can be dangerous at night.”
“Got you,” she said with a smile, and within minutes she was back on the road. Ten miles more and she was at the nearest exit, blessed with a Motel 6 and an easy parking job. That night, she settled down to sleep with the medallion sitting on the room desk.
It was a wonder what settling a haunting did for the soul.
“Are you ready?”
Adelaide looked over her shoulder. Her aunt Laila stood in the doorway of her room, her greying hair long and loose.
“I think so. Do I look ready?” Adelaide looked down at herself. She’d picked up a suit jacket and skirt from the thrift store down the street, and her heels were left over from a few failed business interviews across the country.
“I think you’ll knock them dead. But-” Aunt Laila stepped into the room proper, reaching out for the necklace laying on the bed. Fergus, curled up nearby, barely stirred. “You’re not wearing your good luck charm?”
Adelaide shook her head with a small laugh. “Oh, it’s going with me,” she said, holding out her hand. Laila passed over the memento mori, now hung on a thin gold chain. It was a bit too large and gaudy for an interview, even for an interview at the local museum for a position in display design, but she hadn’t gone a day without it since arriving in Pennsylvania a month and a half ago. She’d made a promise, after all. She could have turned it over to Haverford, looked for records of the man he had been, but a special collections room would be just as lonely as an antique shop, she was sure.
She slipped it into the small pocket on the front of her jacket.
“But I don’t need to see it to know it’s there.”
Caitlin lives in Portland, Oregon, where she’s trying to be a legal assistant, an SAT/ACT tutor, and a writer all at the same time. In her few off moments, she also weaves and knits. This is her first piece of published original fiction.
Chris Holley-Starling said:
Wow! Caitlin, I was really drawn into your story. Can’t wait for the next one. I didn’t know you knew dogs so well. Found myself on the edge of my seat several times. This could make a good screen play. Bravo!