The Girl in the Green Silk Gown
A Girl and Her Car
THIS IS A GHOST STORY. If you’re not comfortable with that—if you like the lines between the living and the dead to be a little more cleanly drawn—this is your chance to bail. This is also a love story, in a sideways sort of way, and a story about second chances you never wanted and can’t refuse. It’s my story.
My name is Rose.
The living are never as far from the dead as they want to be, or as they need to believe they are. Tell someone a murder’s been committed in their house and the sale value goes through the floor. Tell them the field where they’re standing was the site of some brutal massacre or terrible battle and suddenly they’ll claim to have felt the bad vibes all along—and hell, for some of them, maybe that’s true. There have always been people who are more sensitive to the desires of the dead than others. But I’ll bet you most of them either wouldn’t have entered that field in the first place, or actively enjoy the company of hostile spirits.
Who am I to judge? I’ve been known to enjoy the company of a hostile spirit or two.
Regardless, since the world began, the living have walked on a shallow crust of mortality, balancing above the great chasms of the dead. We dig our own graves deeper and deeper, some of us out of a misplaced desire to give the living space, others because they hate what they don’t have, heartbeats and breath and an understanding of mortality that doesn’t take eternity into account. Dead folk like me, we occupy a level of the afterlife called the twilight, where the things the living love still are, just . . . twisted a little out of true, modified by the realization that physical reality isn’t all that big a deal. Dead folk in the twilight, for lack of a better way to put it, mostly want to go about our lives in peace. We want to work and play and get what we pay for and own what we build. Twilight ghosts can be malicious, sure, but for the most part, we aren’t out to cause trouble.
For the most part. That makes it sound like some big, homogenous, weirdly sanitized version of a haunting, where all the ghosts are polite and all the rules are clearly posted at the city limits. The sort of place where the good stuff happens behind closed doors and the bad stuff happens in the town square under the guise of words like “morality” and “faith.” And those levels of the twilight exist, because see, we’re one little slice of what waits on the other side of living, but they’re a long way from the only thing that’s down there.
The world of the dead is vast and deep and sprawling, and the only thing that matters is how far a body can dive before the pressure starts getting to them. So yeah, there are Elysian slices of the twilight. There are small towns that would make Ray Bradbury cream his chinos, places where it’s always Halloween and it never rains. For all I know, he’s the Mayor of one of those little places now, wiling away the endless hours as he lives out his own stories. If he is, that’s fine with me, for all that you’d never catch me in one of those tar pits of nostalgic sentimentality. Been there, done that, didn’t survive it the first time.
Below the twilight you have the starlight, and under that you have the midnight, and if those seem like trite ways to label a place that isn’t a place, one that predates our current ideas about the living and the dead, remember that the dead are still people. We get to be trite and simplistic and weird. There are sublevels, slices where the light varies, where the ghosts of stars shine a little brighter or disappear altogether, but those are the big ones.
And connecting them all, winding through them like a ribbon tangled in a dead girl’s hair, are the ghostroads.
No one built them; no one had to. As long as there’s been life in this world, there have been roads, paths that were a sliver more convenient or easier to travel. Shortcuts became trails became highways, until they fell, for whatever reason, out of favor. But life isn’t as easy to categorize as some folks would like, and anything that’s used enough, loved enough, favored enough, will eventually find its own way of living. So when those trails stopped being used, when those roads were skipped over in order to build a new overpass, when the weeds grew through the concrete and erosion pulled the stones away, they came here.
Only roads don’t want to build bucolic little towns and call them “Heaven.” Roads want to go. The ghostroads connect all the levels and lands of the dead, not only to each other, but to the lands of the living.
That’s where I come in.
I was born in 1936, third of three and the only girl in a house that seemed to consist more of draft than timber. Daddy made it eight years before the pressure got to be too much and he split. He’s got to be dead by now, one more phantom drifting somewhere out there in the void, and he must have heard that his darling girl went and made something of herself, me, Rosie Marshall, the Phantom Prom Date, the Girl in the Green Silk Gown. Me, Rosie Marshall, who broke every rule and somehow kept on going. If he’s impressed by what I grew up to be, he’s never cared enough to come and tell me about it. That’s all right. I got here without him. I sure don’t need him now.
Me, I made it eight years further than my father. I stayed in Buckley Township until the day I died, sweet sixteen and dressed in a green silk gown I’d worked my fingers to the bone to afford. The man who ran me off the road should never have been there. I was an innocent, and he was a predator, and Bobby’s always liked them sweet and virginal and so damn young. Like I was.
He doesn’t care much for me anymore. Not young enough, not innocent enough, not helpless enough by half. That’s all right. I don’t care much for him. Bobby Cross isn’t dead, but he’s going to wish he was when I finally catch up to him. He killed me once. I figure it’s only right for me to return the favor.
There’s ways to put a spirit on the ghostroads, and one of the finest and fastest is dying behind the wheel. I was on the road when he ran me down, and I’ve been on the road ever since. I’m that girl you see walking down the highway median with my thumb cocked to the sun, inviting anyone who wants a little trouble to pick me up and find out where I’m going. I’m the runaway in the truck stop and the teenager playing on the rest stop swings with not a car in sight to get her wherever it is she might be going. I’m harmless, as long as you treat me kindly. I’m so long dead that I’ve got nothing left to fear.
Folks can call me what they like. I’ve got my fans and my detractors, people who say I’m a menace and people who say I’m the ghost of a saint. It doesn’t bother me. Call me the walking girl of Route 42; call me the girl in the diner or the phantom prom date. I’ll still be Rose, just Rose, pretty Rose Marshall who died too young and refused to lie quiet in her grave. Like I’ve said and will keep on saying, I’m just one more girl who raced and lost in the hand of the forest, the shade of the hill, on the hairpin curves of that damned deadly road.
People call me a lot of things these days. The ones who know me, though . . .
The ones who know me call me Rose.
The neon sign in the window glows a steady green, painting the parking lot in shades of shamrock, glinting off the broken glass on the pavement and the intact windscreen of the lone car snuggled up to the curb. There’s always broken glass on the pavement in a parking lot like this one, even as far down into the twilight as I am right now. Where it comes from is a mystery a little bit above my pay grade, and so I leave it alone. It can be somebody else’s problem, if it’s a problem at all. Even broken things are beautiful when the light hits them the right way.
“Order up,” calls Emma, and hits the press-top bell she keeps for just such occasions. She beams at me as she walks my white paper bag and insulated cup over, setting them down on the counter in front of me. “From my hands to yours, Rosie-my-girl, fresh and good as anything. How’s your boy?”
I cast a fond glance at the single car in the parking lot as I pick up my dinner. Unnecessary, yes: the dead don’t need to eat, any more than the living are generally bound to the weird little metaphysical necessities that plague your average spirit. But some of us like eating, enjoy the reminder it represents of the days when we were human, and mortality was something that happened to other people. Also, I dare you to find anyone who wasn’t lactose-intolerant in the 1950s and yet still somehow failed to pick up a solid appreciation for a good chocolate malt.
“He’s doing all right,” I say, affection and exasperation in my tone. That’s always struck me as the best mix. True love isn’t all chocolate-dipped strawberries and perfect harmony. It’s work, work you enjoy doing, but work all the same. As long as love can drive you crazy and bring you back for more at the same time, it’s a good thing.
“It’s a big change for you, isn’t it?” There’s a delicacy in Emma’s tone that I don’t hear very often, and don’t particularly care for. I’ve known her for almost as long as I’ve been dead, and while I love her milkshakes, I hate her mothering. “For both of you. You’re used to making your way around the ghostroads alone, and he’s used to—”
“Having thumbs, yes.” I gave Emma a challenging look. “Is this you warming up to asking about our sex life? Because I swear, I will demand so many milkshakes if the question ‘how do you fuck a car’ passes your lips.”
“And you won’t answer it.”
“No, I won’t.”
“That’s good, because I don’t actually want to know. I just want to know that the two of you are happy, and that you’re treading easy with each other. It really is a big change, Rosie.”
“You think I didn’t notice that part?” I set down my bag long enough to jam a straw into my malt and take a slurping sip. Chocolate cherry explodes in my mouth, and my irritation melts a few notches. Trust Emma to give me the goods before she starts asking inappropriate questions.
“I think you noticed, I just also think the shock is going to wear off soon.” She shakes her head. “Honeymoon periods are another way of saying ‘the mind hasn’t wrapped itself all the way around a change’ yet. I don’t want you to break that boy’s heart.”
“Hold on a second here,” I protest. “Aren’t you afraid of him breaking my heart?”
“Sweetie, you moved on sixty years ago. You’ve always been carrying a torch for the one who got you home—only time anybody ever took the time, and I know you haven’t forgotten that—but he’s been carrying a whole damn forest fire. He turned himself into a car to have half a prayer of being able to stay with you in whatever passed for an afterlife, and he did it all on faith, Rose. Faith. How often do we see the kind of faith that can do that?”
“Not often,” I admit. “Gary’s special.”
“He is. But him having faith doesn’t mean you owe him anything. You understand that, don’t you?”
I pause, blinking, and have to swallow a laugh. Emma’s feelings will be hurt if I laugh at her. She’s only trying to help me, and it’s not her fault that she doesn’t understand my relationship better. It’s not like I’ve been exactly forthcoming up to this point, and really, how could I be? This is uncharted territory for the both of us.
“You know Gary was my high school boyfriend,” I say carefully. “You know he’s the one who found me by the side of the road, after I’d died but before I understood what the rules were. He drove me home.” A thousand rides over the course of sixty years, and only one driver had ever been able to get me all the way home.
Then again, only one of the people who’s ever picked me up has loved me. Maybe that’s what made the difference.
“A ride is not a wedding ring.”
“And a keychain is not a promise, but here we are.” I offer her my best smile. It’s contentment in a Sunday dress, and I hope she can see it for what it represents. “We’re good. We’re figuring things out. Maybe in twenty years he’ll decide to move on and go to an afterlife that lets him have hands again, or maybe we’ll go there together, after we take down Bobby Cross. For right now, we’re happy.”
“Well, then, you give him my best, and if you need me to figure out how to make a diesel milkshake, I guess I’ll buy another blender.”
Emma’s smile mirrors my own, and life—life after death, anyway—is good. Strange and impossible and difficult to describe as our existence is here on the other side of the sunlight, it’s good.
Gary’s engine roars to life when he sees me emerge from the diner, carrying the bag in one hand and my milkshake in the other. His headlights come on a second later, flashing a Morse code hello. I grin at him, still the besotted teenager who couldn’t understand why one of the neatest boys in school would want anything to do with her.
“Missed you too,” I say.
The driver’s side door swings open while I’m still a few feet away. His control is getting better. He’s learning his new body, its limitations and its possibilities. Not that long ago, he had trouble with anything bigger than his radio dial. By the time he finishes adjusting, I expect him to be able to do things no car should ever be able to do.
The radio clicks on, playing an old rock song about restless hearts and separation. I roll my eyes.
“Please. You could see me through the window the entire time. Emma sends her love.”
The song doesn’t change.
“You know, there aren’t any clear rules for the kind of ghost you are now. Maybe you could be human-shaped, if you wanted to try.”
This time the dial does flicker, the love song replaced by a country caution about reaching too far and losing everything. I don’t say anything. I know what he’s worried about.
The two best ways to find yourself on the ghostroads after death are to be some kind of routewitch—living people who work with the magic of distance—or to die in an accident. Almost everyone who’s killed in a car or bus crash will have at least the opportunity to walk the roads, even if most of them don’t choose to take it. For every hundred automotive deaths there will be maybe one, maybe two new ghosts of whatever type, hitchers or homecomers or phantom riders. All the rest will have decided to take their chances in the actual afterlife, whatever waits for people who’ve moved on and left mortal cares behind.
See, those of us who stay here in the twilight, or even down as far as the midnight, and on all the layers in-between, we’re really like . . . kids playing house before they put their toys away and go home for the night. We’re playing out the last vestiges of our mortality, dealing with the unfinished business we should have taken care of before we died. Once we get tired of the game, we go past the last exit on the ghostroads, past the diners and the rest stops and the way stations we build to keep our hearts happy while our souls look for peace, and that’s all she’s wrote for the dead who walk among the living. People who go past the end of the road don’t come back.
Gary loves me. Gary has always loved me, even when we were kids and he didn’t know what to do with the feeling, which I can’t even imagine. I didn’t fall in love with him until we were both in our teens, and even then, the weight of wanting him had felt like a rock in my chest, so big and heavy it nearly crushed me from the inside. I can’t imagine feeling that way in pigtails and rompers. It’s too much for a little kid to carry. Gary would do anything for me, has done, in fact, everything for me. On the night I died, he drove me home, and right up until the day he died, he was working on a way to stay beside me on the ghostroads.
Gary died safe and sound and relatively comfortable in a starched white bed in the Sparrow Hill Senior Facility in Buckley Township. He never got closer to the pavement in the last year of his life than the edge of the nursing home parking lot. When his heart finally gave up the fight to keep beating, he was about as far from the open road, and hence the ghostroads, as it’s possible for a living soul to be. So how was he here with me, in the parking lot of the Last Dance?
Easy: he cheated. He spent his lifetime talking to routewitches and ambulomancers, and he found himself a way to jam a square peg into a round hole. He spent the last several years of his healthy life restoring and rebuilding a car that was a twin to the one I’d been driving when I died, and his death was the trigger for that car’s destruction. Anything that’s loved enough while it lives stands a good chance of leaving at least a temporary ghost behind. Gary loved me; Gary loved the car. When he and the car both died, their ghosts merged, and I got both a sweet set of wheels and my boyfriend back, if in slightly modified form.
Technically I guess he’s a new kind of coachman. They used to be common, back when we had horses and carriages and stuff. But they always had a human-shaped driver holding the reins, concealing the fact that they were part of their own vehicles. Gary . . .
Gary is just Gary. A car with the heart and mind of a man. A car who loves me. He’s afraid, and I can’t blame him, that if he tries to take on a human appearance, even for a second, it’ll break the fragile bond tying his two ghosts together, and he’ll fall off the ghostroads. Down into the twilight if he’s lucky, into one of those bucolic Bradbury towns that I mentioned earlier. Or maybe, since I was his unfinished business and he’s finally been able to be with me, he’d tumble all the way off the end of the world. Only way to find out for sure is to try it, and well . . .
We don’t want to. He doesn’t want to, and I don’t want to, and there’s no good reason to do it.
The manner of your death doesn’t just determine where in the lands of the dead you belong: it determines what kind of ghost you’ll leave behind, if you leave one at all. People like me, people who die in their prettiest dresses or nicest suits, on the way to or from some important event, we usually wind up one of two flavors. Either we’re what’s called homecomers—sad, confused, vaguely amnesiac spirits with a tendency to kill the good Samaritans who try to help them get where they need to go—or we’re hitchers.
That’s me. Rose Marshall, hitchhiking ghost. Like every kind of spirit and specter in the afterlife, my death shaped my afterlife, and it gave me a set of rules I’m expected to follow faithfully, whether I like them or not. When I screw around, or try to ignore the things I’m supposed to be doing, I get punished. Sometimes hard. So while I was never much of a rule-follower in life, I’ve been pretty effectively transformed into one here in death.
It sucks. But the trade-offs—eternal youth, seeing the country, and all the cheeseburgers I can convince strangers to buy for me in roadside dives—have been pretty well worth it.
Gary died in bed. Neither of us knows what kind of ghost that would make him, and neither of us really wants to. Even if sometimes I sort of wish my boyfriend had arms. I miss hugging.
Mind you, snuggling into heated bucket seats makes up for a lot. The dead are almost always cold, unable to reach the sunlight or the heat of our own hearts from this side of the grave. That’s true of Gary too, whose metal frame sometimes feels frigid enough to slough the skin off the fingertips of anyone foolish enough to touch him, but he has a car’s heart roaring under his hood, and internal combustion turns out to have its own ideas about the grave. Inside his cabin, it’s always warm, and sometimes the heat drifting through his buttery leather seats is enough to make a girl forget that she’s dead.
I prop my feet on his dashboard and take a bite of burger, relaxing as he spins his dial through a hundred Top Forty ways to say “I love you,” and everything is pretty much right with my world.
“Pretty much right” is one of those states that can’t ever last for long. In between one bite and the next the flavor drains out of my burger, leaving it tasting like air and ashes. Even the textures fade, until my mouth feels like it’s packed with wet newspaper. Disgusted, I spit my last mouthful into a napkin. It taunts me, cheese and meat and half-chewed onions, still smelling like the truest proof of Heaven’s existence.
“Oh come on,” I say, not even trying to keep the whine out of my voice, and take a sip of milkshake. I might as well be drinking cold gruel. It would be tasteless if it didn’t give the distinct impression of being curdled, and I gag, barely getting Gary’s door open before I toss my cookies on the pavement.
When I look up, Emma is watching through the big glass window, and the neon reflecting off her skin flickers red for just a moment, like an omen of bad road up ahead. She doesn’t move toward the door. I could go inside, stuff myself into a booth and try to wait whatever this is out, but that wouldn’t get Gary out of the path of danger, and for the first time I realize that having something—someone—to care about is going to be a liability for me. I’ve been running the roads not caring about much of anything for a long time. This is going to be an adjustment.
One nice thing about my current predicament: the food didn’t regain its flavor on the second pass. My mouth still tastes of nothing but air and ashes. I straighten, breathing in deep, and try to figure out where this summons is coming from.
There are plenty of ways for the ghostroads to get my attention. Sometimes they want me to do what I was made for, get out on the roads, cock my thumb, and keep the spectral energy of my unbeating heart circulating through the system. I am a black pen in the hand of reality, tracing and retracing routes until they become runes, until their power is great enough to accomplish whatever it is the road is hoping to do. The routewitches may know what those runes will someday do, but for me, when it’s a system I can’t opt out of or escape, it’s enough to take as many breaks as I can and otherwise keep on going.
Sometimes the ghostroads want me to return to the land of the living and play psychopomp for someone I knew while I was alive—not common anymore—or someone I met after death but nonetheless managed to make an impact on. Those callings don’t feel the same as the general call to get my ass out there and catch a ride. They’re softer, usually, sadder. They’re also laden with little restrictions, drivers who can’t see me by the side of the road unless they’re going the right way, coats that don’t lend me the semblance of flesh unless I’m planning to use it to reach my charge. Still, it doesn’t happen often, and it isn’t happening now. The last time was Gary.
Speaking of Gary . . . his radio dial is spinning frantically, his windshield wipers making slow sweeps across the glass as they telegraph his distress. I catch a breath I don’t need and rest my hand against his side, feeling the warm heart under the cutting cold.
“It’s okay,” I say, and I almost mean it. “I’m okay. I just have to do something.”
Gary doesn’t hear the road the way I do. He’s mine and I’m his and where a girl goes her car can follow, but that doesn’t make him a road ghost, and if there are rules that govern his new existence, we haven’t fully figured them out yet. He still gets to be a mystery.
There’s a third kind of calling that comes sometimes, although it’s rare as hell and every time it happens, I hope it’s the last time. The dead can be summoned. Like the games kids play with Ouija boards, only more so. If someone knows our names and our faces and where we came from, we can be called, and we don’t always have a choice.
Every summoning is different, depending on the skill and desires of the summoner. When my niece Bethany summoned me to come and be her sacrifice to Bobby Cross, for example, I had thought I was just being called to attend another senior prom. Proms are always a good way to get my attention. I never made it to mine, which makes them magnetic for me now that I’m a haunting looking for a house to shake. But it isn’t prom season now, and this summons doesn’t feel like that.
I’m still trying to figure out what it does feel like when my hand goes through Gary’s metal skin, throwing me off-balance. I jerk upright and away as his horn begins to blast a staccato SOS, calling Emma out of the diner, into the parking lot, into the red, red glare of the neon. I don’t have to look to know that the sign has changed, Last Dance becoming Last Chance, get off the road, Rosie, get out of the way of this truck before it hits you.
This isn’t a summons. This is a demand, and I’ve taken too long in answering it.
Gary’s horn is fading into silence, becoming an echo of a dream I had a long time ago, when the world was kinder. Emma’s mouth is moving as she shouts something at me, but I never learned to read lips, and I have no idea what she’s saying. For all I know, she’s ordering me not to leave.
I’d stay if I could, Emma. Persephone knows, I’d stay if I could. But I can’t, I can’t, I’m going; the parking lot is turning hazy, red glare turning into red absolutely everything, the world washed in blood, the world become blood, and then even that is gone, replaced by blackness so profound that it has neither beginning nor end. It’s like the sky has been stripped from the midnight, divested of stars and wrapped around me, a shroud secure enough to bind the dead.
This is new. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned from spending sixty years on the ghostroads, it’s that new is very rarely good.
I can move. I’m not in a spirit jar, not in some weird holding cell waiting for an exorcism. I exist. I take another breath I don’t need, clear my throat, and say, “Fuck you.” My voice is audible, at least to my own ears. So whatever’s going on, it’s not a ghost-killer.
That should probably be a relief, and in a way I guess it is, but again, dead. Long, long dead. I don’t need to eat or drink or sleep or breathe, and if someone wants to shove me in a box somewhere and forget about me, I could be there for a long, long time. Most people look at Ghostbusters and see a fun romp. Me, I see a nightmare of ghosts getting crammed into boxes by assholes who didn’t even bother to install cable.
Eternity would be less awful if I had HBO, is what I’m trying to say.
There’s nothing for me to beat my fists against or kick, but there’s something for me to stand on, which means there’s someplace to sit down. I settle, glaring at the blackness, and I wait.
And I wait.
And I wait.
I am not the most patient ghost in existence, and I’m beginning to consider the benefits of losing my shit completely when the blackness starts to fade, first becoming gray, then turning to a flickering gold. The ground shifts beneath me, until I’m sitting in a plain wooden chair. As soon as that comes into focus, so does everything else. I’m in a kitchen, old-fashioned enough to look like it hasn’t been redecorated since the late seventies, all lime-green linoleum and lemon-colored walls. There are no digital readouts or displays in evidence; whoever lived here stopped paying the power bill a long time ago.
What there are, instead, are candles. Literally dozens of candles, maybe as many as a hundred, candles in gray and red and a shade of green uncomfortably close to the prom dress I died in. Their light bounces off everything, turning it into something out of a fairy tale, glittering off the salt circle that’s been used to bind me here. I can’t see the circle’s exact runes from my position, and I don’t actually care to, because there’s something more important holding my attention.
It’s not the woman kneeling in front of the circle of salt, although I’m sure her hands were the ones to draw it, her fingers the ones to bleed to set the corners and lock the incantation into place. She looks like she’s barely nineteen, already well on her way to used-up, little routewitch who got her feet nailed to the floor by the circumstances of her birth before the road could call her home. She probably thinks she won some moral victory by refusing to run away, not understanding that the voice beckoning her with increasing desperation is the horizon itself, trying to save her before it’s too late.
She’s the road’s problem, not mine, even if she cast this summons and pulled me here, through the veil of death, back onto the mortal plane. My problem is standing behind her, a smirk on his pretty-boy face, ice in his pale brown eyes.
“Hello, Rosie girl,” says Bobby Cross. “It’s been a long time.”