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.”
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.
If I’d known I wasn’t going to survive prom, I sure as hell wouldn’t have spent so much time worrying about the color of my dress. But instead, I pretty much wasted the last week of my life getting ready for this. I mean, at least I’m leaving a pretty corpse, right? I hope. Oh…oh no. What if I’m not? That would just be the absolute worst. What was that sound? Did…did my phone just start ringing? Oh shit. Mom. Ringing…ringing…ringing….aaaaand she hit voicemail. I’m so grounded. Wait…no. You can’t be grounded if you’re dead. At least my eyeliner game was on point. I think it was. Where’s Malcolm? Oh, there he is. That really doesn’t look comfortable. I wonder why he’s lying on the hood like…oh…there’s the blood. Guess he died too. I wonder if he found the light yet. I haven’t seen it.
I know I don’t normally preface my writing, but I feel like this one needs it. This is the (largely unedited) opening to my novel-in-progress for NaNoWriMo this year. Just a snippet, a teaser. Just enough to whet the appetite, as it were. If you have any feedback about this, I would love it. More especially since I’m hoping to publish the completed work when it’s…you know…completed. So without further ado, please enjoy the first 425 words of Second Chances.
Alan only barely saw the woman standing at the side of the road. The night was dark and she had almost become just another shadow. He pulled over and rolled his window down, smiling at her brightly.
“Hey there. Everything alright?”
She looked at him with tearstained eyes, expression uncertain. Then a tentative smile wavered onto her lips.
“I just need a lift to the next rest stop. My… I got left here.”
Alan nodded slowly and leaned over to open the door.
“Hop in and I’ll get you there.”
She slid onto the passenger’s seat and slammed the door.
“Thanks.” Her voice was soft and she looked down again. “I’m Jessie.”
And off they drove. She huddled in her seat, rubbing her arms and trying to warm herself. Every so often, Alan would glance over at her. Finally, he looked and she met his eyes steadily.
“You keep doing that.”
He laughed, just a touch of a blush coming to his cheeks.
“Sorry. I just…” He smiled, clearly embarrassed. “This might sound silly, but I thought you might be a ghost.”
Jessie blinked and her eyes went wide. Then she started laughing. He leaned over and turned the heat up then, giving her a smile.
“We should be there in a few minutes.”
A few minutes later, they did pull into the rest stop and Jessie got out of the car.
“Thank you so much.”
She turned to shut the door and thank Alan, only to find that the car was gone. Looking around, she tried to find him again. She thought she would recognize that car anywhere, but it was nowhere to be seen.
I turned slowly towards her voice. She looked so small, so scared and alone, almost like she was looking at a ghost. Slowly, I pulled myself up. It was probably the accident that had scared her. I couldn’t blame her in the slightest.
“It’s alright, Kat. Promise. We’re both alright.”
I didn’t look at the car, just at her. I could hear the sirens coming now, and smiled with relief.
“Hear that? They’re coming to help. It’ll be fine.”
Then I realized she wasn’t looking at me, just staring at the burning wreck of the car. Taking a few steps towards her, I raised a hand.
There was blood on her cheeks, on her hands, on her shirt.
My voice pitched up, fear overtaking me. She had to be alright. Kat had to be alright. She took a step towards the car and then dropped to her knees, head in hands sobbing. The sirens were getting closer and closer. I wished they would get here soon. Maybe they could do something for her.
“Fred…” Her voice was so quiet and her tone ragged. “Freddy…I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
I moved to go put my arm around her, to tell her everything was going to be alright. But then there were people there, bustling about fighting the fire, checking Kat’s injuries and controlling the traffic. I don’t know when they got there.
“Miss, were you alone?”
“N-no,” she looked past the medic in front of her at the smoking car. “My…my fiance. We…we were going to get-”
A hand rested on my shoulder and I turned to look at the woman in her crisp state trooper uniform.
“Fred, I need you to listen to me. The light, do you see it?”
Confused, I looked her over. She was about my height and built along lean lines. There was an emotion on her face that I couldn’t read behind those reflective sunglasses, but I just felt like I could trust her like she knew what was best.
“The light, Fred. You need to go. Kat is fine, you got her out and she’s going to be alright. But you need to go now.”
I couldn’t read the name on her uniform. My eyes just kept sliding off of it. Then I saw something behind her shimmering in the air.
“I see it.”
She took my hand in hers, turning to see where I looked.
“Let’s go. And for what it’s worth, Freddy, she’ll miss you, but she’ll be alright in the end. And there’re folks on the other side who can’t wait to see you.”
As I followed her, I could hear Kat explaining something, but as the sound of joyous barking reached my ears, I knew I was going to be alright too.