If there was one thing that could be said to be true about Charlie Madison, it was that she genuinely did not want to be out on the side of the road that Friday night. If she had had her way, she would have been just about anywhere else. Her own bed for preference, if we’re going to get down to it. But instead, she was walking on the roadside well past the sunset and well into the shadows. She drummed her fingers on her thigh as she stopped to study the highway. It wasn’t much of one, really, just an old 2 lane that fancied itself to be an interstate. She reached for the cell phone stuck in her back pocket and stared at it in confusion. Why was the screen cracked? When had that happened? She wasn’t sure. Shaking her head to try and clear the cobwebs, she tried to turn her phone on anyway. Maybe someone could come pick her up? She stopped, looking around. Something was wrong. Where was her car? The more she tried to think, the more it was like trying to think through television snow. Nothing but static and noise and the idea that maybe somewhere behind all of it was a picture that made sense. Lights surged around the corner and Charlie looked up, shielding her eyes with her arm. It was a car but she couldn’t make out what kind. Something on the smaller side. A four-door or maybe a hatchback? Certainly not a truck. She couldn’t make out the silhouette, just the lights and the general idea of ‘car’. With a silent prayer, Charlie stepped out and tried to flag the car down. Maybe she could get help, maybe she could go home. But there was no going home for Charlie Madison. The car shot through her and she screamed. For a moment, the world went white and then she was standing by the side of the road once more, just as lost and disoriented as she’d been before.
She was drumming on the wheel of her big old pickup truck while she waited for the light to change to green. Just another block and she’d be home and all of this would be over. She tapped her pistol with one hand, reassuring herself that it was there. Then the light changed and she was off like a shot. Turn the corner here and park in front of the old house, just like always. The old truck lurched as she climbed out of it and put both boots on the sidewalk. By the time she was a few feet away, it had faded from sight. Soon, she and it would be reunited as they always were. The door was so close, so very close. She pounded on the door with her fist, her other hand closing on the pistol and flicking the safety off. The door opened and a shot rang out, leaving the young boy who had opened the door startled and scared. He looked out at the empty stoop and turned around to run back inside.
“Mama! It happened again!”
She’d walked the same roads for so long, since before some of them had blacktop asphalt to replace the dirt tracks and wagon ruts that had formed them. Not many road ghosts could claim that kind of age. Most of them moved on when their roads were abandoned. Her? Her roads were never abandoned, never passed over, just paved and widened. She stood on the edge now, the border from state to state where her power waned. She was a Kansas girl and no matter how hard she tried, Missouri and Colorado would never have her. She brushed her skirts, though no dirt ever stuck. No, this was the best way to change them. Her old yellow dress with its apron and layers stuck out. To hitch a ride, she couldn’t be Bess who died on the road in her Papa’s wagon heading west. No, these days she was Betsy or Beth and she was just trying to find somewhere fun.
There was a light coming down the road now and a grin slowly crossed her face. Maybe it would be someone who could take her beyond the corn, beyond the pitch black tar, and out into the light again. She checked over her jeans and t-shirt before holding her arm out with her thumb raised to the sky. The beat-up pick-up truck trundled to a stop beside her and a woman her own age grinned at her from the driver’s seat. Well, her apparent age anyway.
“Need a ride?”
“Sure do, if you don’t mind.”
Bess wasn’t good at history, at trends, at fashion. It took her a good twenty miles down the road before she realized something wasn’t right. At least, not right for the here and the now. The woman behind the wheel seemed normal enough, but her clothes could have fallen out of the turbulent parts of the 60s, tie-dye and flowing with a headband keeping her hair back out of her eyes.
“What’s going on?”
“We’ve been looking for you a long time, Elizabeth Miller. You don’t have to move on or leave the roads if you don’t want to, but I figured maybe you wouldn’t want to be alone.”
The little boy ran down the street, bare feet slapping loudly on the dirt road. He was laughing and smiling, with a wooden toy sword clutched tightly in one hand. There was to be a Triumph today for the returning legionnaires. He was especially excited because the armored man Mama couldn’t see had said that his father had brought home a surprise for them. The armored man was following after him, passing through the crowd without hesitation.
“Cato, slow. You don’t want to run into someone.”
The boy slowed with a sigh and waited for the man to catch up.
“But I want to see. I heard there were elephants and everything.”
“You’ll see soon enough.”
Cato smiled brightly up at the armored man as they walked through the crowd and began to notice. No one else could see the man he spoke to, no one but one of the legionnaires returning home from far Germania. Marcellus smiled when he saw the family Lare standing with his son and his eyes widened when he realized that young Cato could see the spirit as well. If it was coming on him this young, then perhaps, just perhaps, there was a bright future ahead for Cato in the service of the gods. They hadn’t caught it young enough for Marcellus, but they had for Cato, and he would have all the chances he needed to succeed.
There are a few different classifications of dead people, and that’s the problem. Most of them, thank whatever, move on. I don’t know where they go. That’s not my job. My job is the other kinds. The never-were, the lost, the malefactors, and the desperate. That’s what I call them. The never-were are the ones I hate to meet the most. They’re a mixed bag of child spirits, some of them died young and some were just wanted so badly that they couldn’t leave. The lost at least don’t know what they are. They keep going about their lives with no idea that anything’s changed. It can get unnerving with the old ones. They don’t know how the newer buildings work and they end up going through them. The malefactors are pretty much what it says on the tin. They’re bad. If it tries to crawl into someone, kill someone, take over and destroy things, then it’s a malefactor. The scariest though, are the desperate. Malefactors do it because they have to, because evil and destruction is their nature. The desperate want to. They’re trying to find a way to cling to life in any way they can. They ride in other people’s bodies and try to reclaim who they were, they refuse to give up their past. All in all, it’s a bad time. Sometimes, though, it’s hard to tell what kind you’re dealing with. The lines blur and that’s when things get dangerous. That was probably how I ended up backed into a corner with four children smiling up at me. Their eyes weren’t black when I let them in. I know they weren’t. I know the rules. But today, it looked like the rules were being broken.
“Don’t worry. Our parents are on the way.”
I could hear the front door opening and my pulse hammered in my ears, blotting out the rest of what they said. Slow, deliberate footsteps made their way up my stairs and I turned towards the sound, dreading what I might see. My blood ran cold as I stared into my own eyes. The other me smiled slowly and walked forward, placing a hand on the shoulder of the tallest of the children.
“Now don’t worry, dear, there will be more than enough for all of us to feast.”
This part of the city was always a problem. Somewhere between the cobblestones and the old brownstones, the city had trapped echoes of the past. Granted, Sarah would get that just about anywhere she went, but it was particularly bad here. She staunchly ignored the little bevy of Red Coats arguing with colonists by the old state house. A few more minutes and they’d start shooting again. They did this every day and she just ignored it. It wasn’t like anyone else saw them, anyway. Turning the corner, she changed the music playing through her headphones and stopped to wait for the cross signal. That was when the strange woman grabbed her by the shoulders.
“Please, Miss, you have to help me. There…there was this light and I have no notion what’s happened to me. Everything is…changed. The city…the buildings. I don’t understand. Please, Miss.”
Sarah pulled her headphones off and looked the woman over. The dress was probably 18th century. A colonist then, or an early American. Straddling that line, at least. And not a reenactor. Admittedly, their outfits were very accurate, but there were little details you couldn’t fake. Like handwoven pre-industrial revolution cloth.
“You’re dead. Go into the light or whatever. And leave me alone.”
The young woman gasped and covered her mouth with her small hands.
She looked all around her now, eyes wide and clearly alarmed. Then she started to cry. Sarah sighed. She certainly hadn’t meant to make the ghost-girl cry, but she also just didn’t want to deal with this on a public street again. Pulling her headphones back on, Sarah decided to just ignore the histrionics. Maybe one of the other ghosts would take her in hand, give her the guide book and all that. Then the light changed and Sarah moved to take a step forward. She slammed into the strange girl and they both fell to the ground. With a strangled noise of surprise, Sarah got to her feet and stared at the woman.
“You’re…you’re not… Oh shit.”
Her world was silver and glass and cold as ice. It hadn’t always been like this. Sometimes, she could remember the feeling of the sun on her skin or the warmth of another’s touch. These days, she barely remembered what it was like to have skin. She was a nightmare monster given substance and forced to haunt the slumber party set. She was blood red eyes and terror sealed between silver and glass. She was the specter of midnight and thrice spoken names.
She was a promise in the dark and a crossroads. The words of the game were a key to her prison and the players were her sustenance.
The forms were nearly observed and soon she would feed. Soon, the little sweet sixteen who dared challenge her memory would be nothing more than a statistic and a mystery.
The girl opened her mouth a third time.
They closed the curtains and covered the mirrors, drawing in close and tight and safe. This wasn’t a time for the living, sun in the sky or no. This was one of the four days that belonged to the others, the dead and the never-so, the ones who dwelled in a distant place the living would only see when time had finished marching and their personal hourglass was empty of sand. This was her time. And it had been her time since 1927 and a boy with none of the manners he ought to have. Her hair was still bobbed short and her skirt still swirled around her knees, or at least it did on these days. Any other day and you’d never have picked her out of the crowd of college co-eds. Today, she was free to be herself though and to dance to a record that hadn’t been played anywhere but her mind since that year. Today, she smiled at a pretty girl and held out her hand, promising forever to the newly dead.
They had known about the fire. They had even known the stories the neighborhood kids all seemed to tell about how some night you could still smell the smoke and still see figures at the windows, even when no one lived in the old house. But the Mason family didn’t have a choice. It was what they could afford. The house had been rebuilt, of course. There were all sorts of safety features built in now. Everything was as safe as they could possibly make it. But that did nothing to stop the sounds in the night. Tanya Mason, five years old and exuberantly excited to have her own room for the first time ever, had carefully set her horses out on the new desk that sat in her room as a promise of starting school at the end of the summer. Now, she lay on her bed in the dim light of her night-light and listened. There were the scratches in the walls. Everyone knew about those. Her Daddy said it was probably mice and had laid traps. There were the bangs from the basement. Daddy had called the oil man and he’d said the furnace was just fine. But here was the part that only Tanya knew about: the voices
Every time he looked into the rearview mirror, the same girl was sitting in the back of the bus. It didn’t matter what day, what time, what route. As long as it was the same bus, he would see her sitting back there. He never saw her get off. At the end of the day, he would pull into the depot and park the bus. There she was in the mirror, but when he got off, he was alone. He never knew who she was or why she was there, just that she was.
It was raining. The wipers squeaked as they moved back and forth and back and forth. He didn’t have time to look back to see if she was there, not with how much he had to focus on the road. The rain was getting harder and harder and it was becoming harder and harder to see.
Her voice cut through the air and he slammed his foot on the breaks. The bus screeched to a halt, people jostling by the abrupt stop. The train blasted its horn as it streaked past, just barely in front of them. It wasn’t until that moment that he realized the barriers hadn’t come down. If it hadn’t been for that voice. He looked up into the rearview mirror and saw the girl smiling at him. Then she nodded slowly, confirming that it had been her as she faded away.