I don’t read much, out here on the highway, but I remember everything I’ve read. And here’s something I remember, a stray scrap of poetry, cribbed from a water-stained paperback that someone left on a bench in front of a Valero. I left the book where I found it, but I kept the words: The living are wrong to believe in the too-sharp distinctions which they themselves have created.
That’s Rilke, sister. Keep it in mind.
• • • •
The girl with black stars tattooed on her wrist stirs first one, then a second sugar packet into her coffee. Her eyes are pink from too much caffeine and too little sleep. She’s looking down at her hands, admiring the way the ink catches the fluorescent light from the long, milky bulbs above the café window. I know she’s thinking that she’s a girl with a story, and maybe she’s right. It just isn’t the story she thinks it is.
“Everyone has a ghost story,” I tell her. “One of those things you remember or half-remember when you’re reaching for the light-switch at the end of the day, and it makes your knees stiffen and your fingers go numb. The story that makes you afraid of meeting your reflection in a dark window. You know what I mean.”
Across the street, a woman in blue linen is struggling to fit an unframed canvas into the back seat of a taxi. The owner of the art gallery stands on his doorstep, wringing his hands.
“Yeah,” she says. “I got one.”
She rests the wooden stirrer on a stack of brown napkins, smooths the torn sugar packets out beside it, and folds her hands on the table.
“My mother was at this school, right? Way out in New York, up in the hills. It was named after some woman, Abigail Ephrath Something, I only remember that much of it. Girls got sent there for all the usual reasons. Boy trouble. Pregnancy. Other things, too. Anyway, when these girls got out, after they graduated, a lot of them had problems.”
“Problems like . . . ?”
“Weird shit.” She sips her coffee, scalds her tongue. Tries to cover it with a sip of my ice water, and I let her. “There was one woman, a year or two before I was born. She killed a man. Hit and run. He was crossing the road out in the middle of nowhere, no crosswalk or anything, and she just — bam, head on.” The heel of her hand hits the stack of napkins in slow motion. “Didn’t even stop. The police caught up eventually, and they asked her why. Why she didn’t stop.”
There’s an art to letting a story unfold. Like watching a cut flower open, or a maggot wiggle up to the surface of something rotten. If you give too much, too fast, you’ll drown it. Too slow, and it just shrivels up. I watch the woman in the blue suit worry herself all the way around to the other side of the taxi before I look back across the table, back at the girl with the black star tattoos.
“So,” I ask, “why didn’t she stop?”
“She said she didn’t know he was a real person because she saw fake people all the time. All these shapes that looked like people but weren’t, walking in and out of her vision all the time.”
She isn’t smiling, and I don’t smile either.
“Creepy,” I say.
The waiter sets our order on the counter, two grease-golden panini in a pair of green plastic baskets. Hers comes with a handful of potato wedges in a cone of waxed paper. Mine has a yellow apple, round and freckled like a woman’s cheek.
“I wonder all the time what happened at that school,” she says. “What could have fucked someone up like that. But I guess I’ll never know.”
“Yeah,” I say. She stands to get our food. Across the street, the taxi trunk slams with a crunch, and I think the canvas is broken. “I’m sure you’ll never know.”
• • • •
The long, narrow town with the café and the art gallery sits at the northern end of one of the loneliest stretches of highway in the world. For a couple hundred miles, there’s nothing but failing orchards and empty fields, orderly rows of dying things that scratch at your peripheral vision like sandpaper. Sometimes the road passes over empty irrigation canals, and the concrete makes a heavy, hollow sound beneath your wheels. The big rigs roll by from healthier places, loaded with oranges and tomatoes, with rosaries or St. Christopherʼs medals swinging from their rear-view mirrors.
As for me, maybe I’m a familiar face around here, and maybe I’m not. It’s hard to tell, because I’m nothing you would give a second glance. Just a small woman in a small white truck, with the start of a vigorous shock of gray running through her plain brown hair. The cup holder in the cab of my first-generation Tacoma is full of gas station receipts and tarnished pennies. There’s nothing in the bed but red dust and dead leaves and a rusted nail or two in the corners. Nothing in my head but country-rock radio songs, ghost stories, and the unhurried calculation of where to get my next meal.
So where are you headed, sister? It’s a long road in front of us. Nothing but ghosts for miles.
• • • •
The girl with the orange backpack is headed south. Then “West,” she says, “to the ocean.” She won’t tell me why. I’ve never been to the ocean, and I can’t think of many reasons to go. Maybe she wants to swim with the sea lions. Or maybe she wants to drown.
We’re sitting on a short bench in front of a convenience store. The bench looks like it belongs with a bus stop, but there aren’t any signs, and no stripes of color on the lamppost behind us. No bus has stopped here for a long time. She’d come by the store to buy a box of strawberry snack cakes, which I watched her shove to the bottom of her bag. I stood in line behind her and grabbed a fifty-cent book of matches at the register.
“Yeah, I got a ghost story,” she says. Belligerent, which I like. “When I was a kid, my dad inherited his sister’s house down in New Orleans. Huge place, six bedrooms and a ballroom, but it was in awful shape because my aunt had been in the hospital with cancer, and nobody took care of the place while she was dying. After her lawyer called, my dad went down to take a look, and he brought me along.”
She jiggles her leg like she’s waiting for something, and her knee brushes up against my thigh.
“A policeman met us at the door,” she says. “Some girl had taped a note to the front gate one night, then crawled in through a window. She filled up the tub in the first-floor bathroom and slit her wrists.
“Mind if I smoke?” she asks suddenly, and I nod, even though I hate the smell. She fishes a Salem Slim out of the front of her backpack. I strike the match for her.
“So we go into the bathroom, okay? They’ve cleaned it up. Taken her away, sealed her clothes in plastic bags, whatever. Drained the blood and water out of this big white tub. But the line is still there — this dark red stain about a fourth of an inch wide, right where the surface of the water was.” She lifts her free hand, her thumb and index fingers held the stated distance apart. “And here’s the weird part, okay?”
Now she pauses intentionally. Puffs on her cigarette.
In my pocket, my fingers curl around the keys to my truck. I wonder how far she thinks those strawberry snack cakes will take her, and what she thinks she’ll find waiting for her when she reaches the ocean.
“Okay,” I say. “What’s the weird part?”
“The water in that house had been turned off for weeks,” she says. Her fingers close with a snap. “We’ve got no idea how the dead girl could have filled that tub.”
• • • •
So many of you girls want to go south. It’s almost beckoning, isn’t it — the blinding sun at noon, that pale grapefruit-colored sky in the morning, or the velvet blue at twilight? In summer, my Tacoma’s broken air conditioner blows emptiness into our faces, and my open window lets in the stink of melting tar, and the steering wheel sticks to my palms as we roll down mile after undeviating mile. In winter, the radio picks flashes of song out of the static, and the road before us swims in and out of focus, a thicker darkness behind the rain. At every season, this highway exit is full of girls like you, heading south. Tattoos on your hands and backpacks over your shoulders, thinking you have a story.
And me, maybe I’m nothing memorable, but I’ve got a story, too. So look out that window and listen.
Out there on the side of the highway, somewhere beneath those dying trees and behind those ridges of banded rock, there is a monster.
The truckers who drive down this lonely stretch, they say they’ve seen it when they pull over to the side of the road, hoping to catch a few hours of sleep. It’s tall as a man, they say, and red as dust, its arms dragging along the broken earth. They’ve seen it loping across the ridge with its muscular tail snaking behind it, its teeth long and blue in the moonlight. Some say it walks on four legs like a wolf or a hyena, and some say far, far more. Its skin is wet and hairless, its face a skull, like the fleshy crickets you find hiding in the damp places under rocks.
And you know what I think, sister? I think it’s out there on the side of the highway, waiting for you. It’s crouched in the dust and thinking of you, its breath loud and hot in the dark.
And on the road, there’s me.
That monster is going to crack your bones and suck your marrow. It will chase you through those trees, up the stony ridges and over the empty canals. You’ll stumble, and maybe you’ll even fall. Your legs will ache, your lungs will burn, and then you’ll feel its breath on your throat. In a week or in a year, they’ll find your body turned inside out and scattered among the roots, if they find it at all.
And me, I’ll find you first, ask you for the story that makes your blood run cold. Between the two of us, the monster and I, we’ll munch and crunch and suck you up until there’s nothing left.
So you see, sister, your story isn’t that special. This highway eats a hundred of you every year. Just another girl who ran.
Just another girl who doesn’t want to die.
• • • •
The girl with the purple scarf smells like sweat and jasmine. She has a bruise beneath one eye, imperfectly covered with powder make-up that’s a shade too light for her skin. I followed her into a bookshop, which she left without buying anything.
“I knew this girl who kept a diary,” she says. She’s taken me back to her motel, to the plastic chairs along the edge of the pool. The pool shed behind us smells like chemicals and hot plastic; the pool itself stinks like dead leaves. A drunken bee buzzes low over the stagnant water. “She was afraid of leaving blank space on the page. Couldn’t stand it if the words didn’t run all the way to the margin. So she filled out the lines with random letters. All the way to the bottom of the page, if it would be left empty otherwise.”
“Strange,” I murmur. The plastic is hot against my bare calves. I bend my knees up, and she does the same, maybe unconsciously.
The bee lands in the water with a sound like a burst of static.
“One day,” she says, “I get it in my head that these aren’t just random letters. So I steal the diary from her locker and spend all night trying to decode it. I couldn’t get anywhere with it. But the girl wasn’t seen again after that.”
I look back at her. She’s retying the scarf around her short, wooly hair. “For real?”
“Not totally.” She shrugs. “I guess she checked into a psych hospital.”
“So what happened to the diary?”
After I followed her inside, I’d felt bad leaving that bookstore empty-handed. I wound up paying $15.35 that I’d been saving for lunch to buy a book of short stories, none of which were about ghosts.
“What do you think happened to the diary?” The scarf tied, she folds her arms across her chest. “I burned that shit.”
The bee falls silent, slips beneath the surface without even a murmur.
• • • •
Have you ever tried to tame a stray cat? Every night, you set a saucer full of rich, cold milk out on your doorstep. You can leave something of yours next to the saucer, if you like: a scarf or a sweater or a pair of gloves. Leave the porch light off. Every night, move the milk a step closer to your door. You’ll tame it eventually. If you like, you can have it eating out of your hand.
Of course, I’m not sure you’d want to. They have rough tongues, don’t they? Rough tongues and sharp, sharp teeth.
Park the car. Turn off the headlights. Listen.
• • • •
“Everyone gets one ghost story,” I tell her. My wording has changed this time, gets instead of has, and I’m not sure why. Maybe just a slip of the tongue. We’re seventy miles south of town, three score and ten, the valley a golden-brown blur outside the dusty truck windows, the highway humming with the dull bourdon note of freight trailers. You’re going to die with this sound in your ears, sister, and how fucking sad is that?
I’ve already forgotten where she thinks she’s going.
“Everyone gets one,” I tell her, “and I want to know yours.”
She’s a big girl, brown skin and waist-long hair dyed red like an apple. An apple so ripe it’s mostly bruises. Her backpack has a broken strap, a jammed zipper. Her nose has been broken at least once, making a sharp ledge just below the bridge: a shelf to rest her glasses on. If she ever wore glasses, which now she won’t.
She has a gun in that backpack, a tidy little handheld with the safety off, but she fell asleep forty miles ago, and I emptied all the bullets.
“I think I missed mine,” she says. “I had the chance to be haunted, but I didn’t take it.”
She faces the road, but she’s watching me through the rear-view mirror. My hands on the wheel, my hair blowing in the dry breeze from the crack of an open window. A wind full of infinite space gnaws at our faces. That’s Rilke again, from that same water-stained paperback. And I wonder what I am to you, sister.
The girl with gray hair and a dirty white truck, with ghost stories and scraps of poetry rattling in her brain. The girl with gunpowder under her nails, with bones as sharp as knives.
I nod for her to go on.
“I went to a thrift store in St. Louis,” she says, “looking for a lampshade. There on the shelf was this heart-shaped box about the size of my hand. It was silver, lined with red velvet, and the red was so bright, it almost looked orange. The top and sides had some sort of design, ivy vines or roses. It felt so cold when I picked it up. A deep cold, like the water at the bottom of a very deep lake.
“But I didn’t buy it,” she says, “because it was tarnished, and I didn’t have any silver cleaner. That’s really stupid, isn’t it? I missed my chance to be haunted because I didn’t have silver cleaner.”
In the east, the sky is darkening. In the west, the clouds are bursting into flame. Lifting one hand from the wheel, I twist a lock of her red, red hair between my fingers. “How do you know the box had a ghost in it?”
“I got this feeling,” she says, “just holding it. A feeling like everything in me had been scraped out and was being stuffed in against the velvet. I’ve never felt anything like it before. So hungry and lonely, but fitting into something just right.”
The bullets from her gun are in my jacket pocket, pressed against my ribs just below my left breast. The sun is sinking fast. There’s one bullet for every minute left of daylight.
“I get feelings a lot,” she adds. “They steer me right.”
Through the rear-view mirror, I smile at the girl with the broken nose. “So what feeling do you get about me?”
She turns her face from the mirror and kisses my cheek. Her lips are warm and dry. And the highway unwinds for us like a ballad, one verse after another.
• • • •
Your kiss fades from my cheek, and I feel your hands moving over me, passing unknowingly over the pocket of bullets, down across the ribs you could count like rosary beads. For now, I let you touch me, but my eyes are on the road. Maybe you think there’s a story in my pocket, a story that will fit you better than this one. But this is the only one I know.
There is a monster on this highway. When the sun goes down, it comes slinking out of its hiding place, eyes aglow and sniffing for you on the air. My doors unlock with a sound like canvas breaking.
Sometimes I wonder if it can taste your stories in your bones, and if those stories ever give it nightmares. Nightmares of strange shapes emerging from the darkness and of water that flows from nowhere. Nightmares of blank spaces and unfathomable patterns, of velvet and tarnish, of hearts with hinges. And then I wonder if it’s acquired a taste.
Look out that window and listen, sister. Can’t you hear it moaning for you? The night is long and cold, and all its arms are empty.