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Friday, August 14, 2009

Chasing Ghosts - A Short Story

The yellow lines unfurled before Jeanette’s Impala like miles of ribbon in a summer breeze, but there was no breeze today. Sweat trickled down her neck, and soaked into her collar. The hot air pressed in through her windows tasting of dust and leaving her eyes gritty, her throat dry. “Damned air conditioner.” She muttered as she scanned the roadside for a gas station, or restaurant---somewhere to get in out of the heat.

Ahead she saw a neon coffee cup. Bold, blue letters spelled out ‘café’. As she pulled off the road, gravel crunched beneath her tires and she slipped the car into park. Turning the key, she leaned back against the headrest, closed her eyes and replayed the conversation. “I just need to go, Michael. I can’t explain it. I mean yeah, things have been rough; and I honestly don’t know whether it’s worth fighting it out. The two of us are making each other miserable. But this trip isn’t about us…it isn’t about you.”

A blast of cool air hit her as she entered the quiet diner, her eyes adjusting to the shadows. The waitress behind the counter pulled a pen from her dish-water blonde hair and a pad from her apron. “Come on in out of the heat, and grab a seat anywhere you’d like, hun!” She followed Jeanette to the corner booth, her sneakers squeaking on the tile floor. “You look like you could use some iced tea. Sweet, or un-sweet?” Jeanette slid across the faded vinyl and nodded at the woman’s name tag. Linda. “Un-sweet, please. No lemon.” With a wink, Linda handed her the menu. “The blue-plate’s normally the best bet, except when Earl’s cookin’---which he is---and when Earl’s cookin’, you can’t go wrong with a cheeseburger.” Linda patted Jeanette’s arm, before turning. Jeanette smiled at the familiarity, and then turned to scrutinize her reflection in the window.

Standing in the bedroom doorway, Michael had stared the same way at her half-packed suitcase, asking, “Can you honestly say you’re not running from this, from me?” He’d sighed, annoyed when she didn’t answer. “You know we’ve got the counselor Tuesday?” Her response had been strained. “Michael, I don’t know. I just need time and space. I can’t breathe. There’s paranormal activity in Santa Rosa, and you know I’m on deadline. Call it a research trip.” She wiped her forehead with the flat of her hand, echoing his sigh. “I’ll be back soon, and we’ll reschedule counseling, okay?”

The clink of glass on the table brought Jeanette back to now. The waitress asked, “You decide on lunch?” Jeanette accepted the tea, and gulped from the glass. “That’s good.” After a second drink, she realized that Linda was waiting for her to order. “Oh! I’m sorry. I think I’ll go with the cheeseburger.” She was too exhausted to bother with the menu.

Linda arched an eyebrow leaning against the booth, “Looks like you’ve come a long way. What brings you to Amarillo?” Jeanette shrugged. “I’m headed to Santa Rosa, for research, writing about ghosts.” Linda brightened, settling into the seat across from her. “You know we’ve got ghosts in the Nat, uptown. She lowered her voice conspiratorially, though the diner was empty except for the two of them, and Earl. “I’ve seen them myself---a couple waltzing across that polished wooden dance floor all satin and sequins. Tommy Dorsey played the Nat, years ago.” She paused.

“And the cafe used to have a ghost. Not for a while now—but a pretty, little slip of a girl, no more than nineteen used to haunt the place. “Folks say she came in one night, put quarters in the jukebox, ordered a Coke, and ducked into the restroom. She just disappeared, never came back for that Coke. Shirley had the late night shift. She remembers the girl, because of the dandelion tattooed on her left thigh---you know, the white kind, with the seeds that look like umbrellas on the wind?

Nobody thought much of it until later. Old man Henderson drove by one night, and saw a girl at the jukebox. He called the owner and Sheriff Wallace, but by the time they came, the place was empty. Folks have spotted her at the counter sipping a Coke, and I’ve been here alone late, and heard the restroom door open and shut. Poor girl. Dunno why she chose this place, but seems to me, she was waiting for someone. I guess she decided life was short, and went on her way.”

Jeanette felt a chill, and took a deep breath. Linda frowned in concern, “You okay, hun?” When she didn’t respond, the waitress jumped to her feet. “Oh, listen to me---going on, while you’re starving for a good lunch.” Jeanette nodded vacantly. “I’m sorry… yeah, maybe food would help. I feel dizzy.”

As Linda headed for the kitchen, Jeanette raised the hem of her cotton skirt, tracing the outline of the tattoo on her right thigh. The dandelion was the exact mirror of Jackie’s tattoo, done on their eighteenth birthdays. The twin connection thing had always been true for them, like a sort of ESP. The night Jackie died, Jeanette had awakened screaming in her dorm, the sound of screeching tires echoing in her head. The news came hours later, but Jeanette already knew, she’d heard Jackie’s goodbye. Staring again at her reflection, she watched a tear trace its way down her cheek. After twenty years, Jackie was still sending her messages.

When Linda returned, she was surprised to find a gold band on the table, and a twenty-dollar bill. She stepped out into the bright August sunshine and shielded her eyes from the sun, watching the Impala disappear over the shimmering horizon. Trudging back into the dark diner, she sank into the empty booth, and took a bite from the cheeseburger. “Yep, I’d have to agree. Life is too short.”

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