Joyland

The South |

Hitchhiker

by Charlotte Wyatt

edited by Laura Chow Reeve

Jason’s high school sweetheart Gwen died in an accident just before their graduation, and she has not returned in the eight years since her death. Not everyone does. This is the only part of the story Jason tells Marta on their first date.

“I don’t have any ghosts, either,” Marta says, unfazed. “Unless you count the janitor.”

A janitor haunts their office building, but only the first floor. Jason sees the grayish man in pale coveralls every day, skating his mop on the same hallway, over and over.

Jason and Marta are coworkers at Nashville Mutual. She is pretty, but not like Gwen. Marta has light hair, while Gwen’s was dark. She is big-eyed where Gwen’s were narrow. Marta is soft, petite, only comes to his shoulder. She is obscured by layers of make-up, lacquered nails, tall shoes. He watches her whenever she turns to observe the restaurant’s ghost, an old woman wrapped in shawls who paces the length of the dining room. He has taken Marta to Balletto’s, locally famous for handmade ravioli and this genuine, nineteenth-century nonna.

Jason likes that Marta uses the word “ghost,” unpretentious and direct. They are both a few years out of college. They both knew the world before it was haunted, but in the limited way of children. He cannot recall the change clearly. It came around the time hair first sprouted from his upper lip, and still, scientists and clergy alike squabble over the cause—a reversal of the earth’s poles? A rift in space-time? A surprise, extended prologue to Revelations? Experts still try to coin terms, like “spectrals” or “remnants,” but most people kept their own words, old words, for the shades who were suddenly everywhere and all at once.

“No family members. No exes,” Marta says. “No friends, even. There was a boy in my high school, but I don’t remember his name. He wore this costume for Halloween once, before he died. His ghost does too. It’s a tourist. Like socks and sandals. A Hawaiian shirt?” She explains how the ghost would sit deskless in classroom corners, one translucent eye always on the clock.

All spirits are like this, skipping on a moment from the record of their lives in a fixed sequence of events. They are silent and oblivious to the living, and each chosen haunt is unpredictable as fate.

“I’ve seen that video,” Jason tells her, because what the hell? He probably has. He has scoured every place he thinks could help him find out if and where Gwen might reappear, though most new ghosts seem to manifest within hours of death. No one has been able to prove much else about them, or predict who will leave an echo of themselves behind.

Marta asks, hopeful, “Did you hear about Ferris Wheel Fred?”

Five-year-old Freddy is a remnant often cited in articles published every few months, whenever someone claims a scientific breakthrough. His mortal tragedy forgotten, he is beloved for the perpetual glee with which he rides an unseen Ferris Wheel in a field near Raleigh, around and around in the open air.

“Gone.” Marta tilts her glass in a tiny bon voyage. “Just disappeared!”

Jason turns from the nonna whose skirts he has been watching, the way her silver hem makes the tile ripple in its wake.

Marta reaches for her phone. “This artist? She used to take pictures of ghosts that sell for like a shit ton of money?” She snorts at the rubes who’d buy such a thing. “Now she does this.”

She offers Jason the screen. He watches a wooden Ferris Wheel powered by a figure in black who pushes a giant crank. A red car with yellow trim turns in time with Freddy as if the ghost-boy is riding it. Like any ghost, Freddy is silent and unaware of the artist. After several full revolutions—“Wait for it,” Marta instructs—the ghost-boy vanishes.

“He hasn’t shown up again,” Marta says.

They turn to observe the nonna together, suddenly volatile in the way the air twists at her undefined edges.

A familiar itch of hopefulness scales Jason’s spine. Marta babbles on about the artist’s older projects, pausing to show him her favorites. He politely assesses the photos, but if what is known about the ghosts can change, he thinks, isn’t it possible Gwen could still return?

His attention is summoned back to dinner by Marta’s bare foot, stroking his pant-leg with startling progress towards his crotch.


***


Jason has focused on the palliative quality of casual sex in the eight years since Gwen. Other women cannot compare with his teenage love. He tries to put distance between himself and Marta after their date when he finds her at his desk after lunch or hovering over the coffee pot until he’s come to fill his mug.

He senses he may have made a mistake.

He is sure when Marta uses Nashville Mutual’s fall outing to serve her courtship of Jason, in a severe misinterpretation of his interest in ghosts

With everyone gathered in the parking lot, she gleefully spreads her arms to welcome a parade of tricked-out hearses. She has chartered the fleet to whisk them away on a “Ghost Safari.” It seems both macabre and in bad taste for a life insurance company to gawk at notorious local ghosts. But the hearses are nice. Each has had its roof removed so passengers can ride in the cool city air while a guide narrates the worst days from other people’s lives. They are stocked with beer and wine, like gothic limousines.

Marta pats his side and points whenever she spots a ghost. A bowlegged cowboy limps through 2nd Avenue’s Friday night crowd. A body dangles in a half-lit window above happy-hour drunks. They observe the lopsided flight of a jumper off the AT&T building, again and again, until the hearse turns a corner. Jason finds the tour tedious and a little depressing, but Marta’s excitement on his behalf is sweet.

His attention wanders when someone lobs an empty at the dog-run path of a prostitute, one of many who made the Cumberland River famous in the Civil War. It passes through the ghost’s midsection and clatters to the sidewalk, kicked away by a passer-by. Though she should know better, Jason sees Marta watch, breathless, as if something will happen. The ghost doesn’t stumble or change course. It, she, marches toward the flickering breadth of Broadway while people stream on either side of her, sometimes waving a hand through her torso the way a child might run his fingers on a chain link fence.

Throughout the tour, Jason counts as Marta drains several miniature bottles of André. He decides she should not be behind the wheel. He escorts her to his Camry and belts her in. She dozes beside him as he drives, and they travel this way until he exits the interstate on a long, winding ramp. The centrifugal motion swings her head back, and she wakes. She rests a hand on his thigh. He jumps. He does not like to be touched while driving.

“What’s a matter?” she asks, voice thick with drink and sleep.

“Almost home,” Jason says, though they are still twenty minutes out.

Marta watches through the windshield. She sits up, startled. “There!” She says, a little too loud for the small sedan. She indicates a side road.

Startled by her urgency, he takes the narrow lane, sheltered by a canopy of tree-cover.

“Here here here,” she says, pointing at an unmarked turn-off. It ends in an unkempt gravel lot on the top of a ridge. A slow tide of grass and dandelion eats at its edges.

“What is this?” he asks, though he has an inkling. The drop-off reveals a dim suburb of Nashville, contained by a black void of river in the valley below.

“This is where we used to come make out,” she whispers loudly in his ear. Her breath is sour, her eyes wet and frank. It is unclear who constitutes “we,” though Jason is sure he is not included.

Gwen was not like other girls, and would not have grown into a woman like other women. But it is not altogether unpleasant to imagine teenaged Marta with a boy like the boy he had been, to wonder in short seconds how his life might have been different.

Still, he gently pushes Marta away, and her brow furrows with hurt. He says, “We need to get you home.”

Marta ignores him. She sits up, and arches her back to wiggle out of her jacket, then unbuttons her blouse. It is clear she thinks she is playing a trump card. She runs a finger down his neck and he shivers.

“Time to go,” he says, and shifts the car into drive. She falls back in her seat.

He does not explain himself and she does not ask. He does not tell her that the last time he fooled around in a car was with Gwen at the end of Berry’s Chapel Road. He does not want to remember how he and Gwen started in the front while he drove, and continued after he parked when they moved to the back seat together.

How he took this as permission to give over to his own worn fantasies, the result of years of childhood friendship with Gwen and the slow, sweet slide into first romance. There had been mileposts: tree-climbing and cootie shots, confessions and awful poetry, a half-dead corsage he forgot to refrigerate but pinned to her dress anyway before a dance. And while sex was a new sensation, it was also warm and familiar between them, in the way of memory, or déjà vu, until Gwen’s first hiccupping sob, abrupt as a siren.

He does not remember clearly what followed. He must have asked what was wrong. He is certain he demanded to know if she was hurt, if he hurt her, how to help. If he misunderstood what was wanted. She told him to “stop, just stop,” but he knows she gave him explicit permission—hadn’t she? He remembers stumbling over the word “panties” in her ear—and the blur between knowing and thinking he knows, now, in the set-cement of his adulthood with no Gwen to accuse or absolve him, means the only truth must be hidden in their silent drive home eight years ago. Jason, afraid of further transgression, stopped at a red light in an empty intersection just outside her neighborhood. Sleepier even than the rest of their small town, especially at that late hour. Still, he was horrified when she undid her seatbelt and flung herself from the passenger seat as if from a sinking ship. He tried to stop her. He thought she saw the oncoming car. She wasn’t drunk. He shouted a warning, or he meant to. He remembers hurt, then anger, and then, like an answer to a prayer he hadn’t sent, the truck. It struck her in the middle of the road.

Jason never talks about the week spent camped in the roadside culvert across from the site of her death. His first vigil for her ghost. He would have welcomed Gwen in any form. Angry, vengeful, even broken, with vital pieces spilling from her mouth. He still glances behind himself when he walks alone at night. He looks for her in shadows. He chants her name at mirrors in the dark. His role in every fantasy of her return is simple: to offer himself to justice, chest bared and on his knees.

Jason thinks the evening with Marta will end, as so many other evenings have, derailed by his own familiar missteps. But when they arrive at Marta’s apartment, she invites him in for coffee. He is still embarrassed for them both, but her place is bright and smells like cinnamon and chicory—Gwen never had a chance to graduate from fruity, school-girl scents—and he warms to it, and to Marta.

They stumble into conversation, first about their colleagues and then the hopelessness of dating in Nashville. They swap their worst stories. Jason discovers Marta’s sense of humor has a funny, biting dark streak when she isn’t nervous. They have surprising things in common, like a love for Pac-Man machines and a hatred for office holiday décor, and though he cringes when she giggles and says they are acting like a couple of teenagers, he is surprised to realize he likes her. They fall asleep on her leather sofa, entwined but fully clothed, while the television plays late-night reruns of procedural dramas neither recognize, but agree they have seen before.

He wakes just after three in the morning, stiff-necked and thirsty. He rises to get a glass of water. Not knowing where to find a blanket, he covers Marta with his coat.

On the kitchen counter, his wallet anchors a flyer handed to him by the hearse chauffeur. It is mostly a list of taglines and photographs: “Civil War Reenactors, Try the Real Thing!” above a “Miss Iris,” in corset and feathers, who beckons a bevy of translucent women in nighties. At the bottom, a banner ad shows a blue Chevy Bel-Air with a pony-tailed teen at the window. “Take this peachy hitchhiker for a ride!” The girl, a ghost, seems to look directly at him from the page.

He searches cabinets for a glass, finds one and fills it from the tap. He returns to Marta on the couch and plans to fall back into sleep but his thoughts stay on the hitchhiker. He remembers the basic story from Cub Scouts, when ghosts were still the province of campfires: a girl on the cusp of womanhood hitchhikes an empty highway late at night. The driver takes her to her desired address, and later discovers she has left something behind in his car. A jacket or sweater. He goes to return it the next day at the same destination, where a tearful mother tells him he is mistaken. The girl in question is always long dead, usually of a car crash.

He imagines Gwen on the side of a highway, thumb out, until light invades his half-sleep and Marta rests a hand on his shoulder. She offers coffee and gentle morning conversation, and then asks for a ride back to her car. She suggests they go to a movie after. When Jason hesitates, she blushes.

“I like you,” she says, simple as that. She rinses her hands, soapy from breakfast dishes, and goes to kiss him. She keeps kissing, until he blindly rests his hand on the counter behind him, knocking the flyer to the floor. He bends to retrieve it and as the eerie banner ad stares back at him, the kitchen shrinks.

It is a short drive to Marta’s car, alone in the office lot. He promises they can meet later, but has errands to run first. As she drives away, he unfolds the flyer from his wallet.


***


He has not lied to Marta. He needs to pick up groceries and dry-cleaning, and as he waits at the deli counter, he loads the tour company’s site on his phone. It is full of photographs but not much else. The company’s office, he sees, is only a five-minute detour from Kroger and he thinks it is better to satisfy his curiosity now. Get it out of his system.

Inside the office a ficus tree sits in a low, mauve-colored pot. There is little else besides a high counter and a woman behind it, sitting so only the top of her monitor and a thick, blonde bun are visible from the door. She does not stop typing when he enters, so he takes a seat beside the ficus in a chair exactly like his own at work. He swivels himself back and forth with one foot.

“Name on the reservation?” The woman catches him while he is swiveled away.

He stands to show her the girl in the Bel Air, and asks, “Is that on a tour?”

She nods to herself, a tiny bob of her chin. “The Hitchhiker,” she says. “I have it tonight, but then I’m booked through the third week of December. Lucky you!”

He considers this. “But how does it work? The picture makes it look,” and he taps his blunt fingertip on the image. “It’s like she’s in the car with you.”

The woman’s grin widens the way a stain seeps.

“So a party of one.” She makes a note. “You’ll meet a guide at a private location we disclose upon deposit. The girl is believed to be Emily Geffers, deceased.” She takes a moment to scroll down her screen, “in 1959. This tour is simple, six minutes or so. You basically give her a ride home. The guide will open a gate, and let you know when to cue the audio track.”

“Audio?”

“Some clients want it to feel more interactive,” she says. “So we’ve recorded her part. I have several versions to choose from, depending on your interests.” She asks for his license and gives him a waiver to sign, and adds, “We offer discounts with package purchases.”

Jason thinks of Marta. She might enjoy a silly tavern tour, some other night. But the woman guides him to “special” offerings. The Bride, for instance, at an historic Nashville hotel. In life, the Bride’s fiancé stood her up the night of their wedding, and now she pines indefinitely from the former bridal suite.

“What you don’t know,” the woman tells him, “is her ghost’s loop includes twenty minutes spent consoling herself with the attentions of a bellhop, who didn’t leave a remnant. It’s one of our most interactive offerings.”

Bile rises fast in Jason’s throat, almost as quickly as his curiosity. “No thank you,” he says, but he doesn’t stop her.

“I have something else tonight, too. An exclusive arrangement. There’s a time-slot just after the Hitchhiker. It’s the tail-end of an event the hotel has, for obvious reasons, failed to publicize.”

“No thank you,” he says, more urgently this time.

“It’s very popular with,” and she pauses, cautious. “It’s often booked with the Hitchhiker. If it matters, the victim—the remnant?—was another young woman—”

“No,” he says, and steps toward the door. “That’s not why I’m here.” But why was he, after all? What could the ghost of a girl, dead decades before Gwen’s own birth, possibly offer him, he wonders. Not absolution. Not an answer.

The woman’s eyes are clear in an instant. Forgiving. “You’re all set.”

He takes the glossy packet she offers without looking at it, and flees the small, dark office for his small, dark car.

While he shuttled groceries home, went for a jog, and showered, Marta texted twice and rang once. He is glad for her interest, but hesitant to reveal his evening plans. On the one hand, he suspects she might understand, or try to. But there could be questions he isn’t ready to answer—why he is going alone, for instance. The whole thing feels private and dirty, a sensation he blames on the aggressive woman with the bun. He settles on a fib, “Feeling under the weather,” and adds a sad-faced emoji icon. He promises himself he won’t lie to her again, though of course, coping with his feelings for Gwen has often required management of the truth.

He dresses himself for the evening. Gwen always liked him best in blue because, she said, it brought out his eyes. He wasted his best blue sweater on the hearse tour and it’s a little ripe now, though it seems unlikely ghosts can smell. He pulls it over a button-down. He knows the ghost isn’t Gwen, but as he anticipates the evening he begins to understand he has a hunch. It occurs to him that if things go just right—he isn’t sure what this means—an encounter with Emily might ease his obsession. Hypnosis has tried and failed. Ditto talk therapy and support groups. This could be the thing to help him focus on the living, breathing Marta, the one he ought to call back. He’ll call tomorrow.

He is nervous and unable to eat, so he sits and flips through the slick packet from the tour company. Past summaries and scenarios for saloon dancers and soldiers, he finds a two-page spread on Emily Geffers, born 1942, died 1959. Killed when her boyfriend drove them into a fence post in the pre-air bag, pre-seat-belt era.

Emily’s remnant is stuck in a loop the tour company has been unable to pin down, but that clearly took the form of a ride home. Perhaps with the boyfriend, perhaps not. She waits several miles from her family’s former homestead and the client-driver sets his cruise control as close to 31 MPH as possible to maintain the illusion of her presence. She speaks silently, unless the pre-recorded audio is played. Then, after just over six minutes, she exits the vehicle and vanishes, only to flicker back into existence around the curving country road for her next ride. The experience costs him just under $300.00, including tax.

Marta sends him a message to ask how he is feeling. She offers to bring him medicine and soup. Jason silences his phone.

He follows the Harpeth River on an empty highway alongside sun-dried corn stalks and golden grass. A remnant in a straw hat paces the rows. Jason has not been this far out from Nashville before. Something about the novelty of the landscape and his own momentum, unchallenged by traffic, reminds him of a thrill ride anchored to a track.

The sun begins to set as he climbs and dips deeper into the country. An occasional wink of light between trees exposes a house, a trailer, or a barn set back from the road. He sees no other cars until the final turn, where a small red pickup waits on the weedy shoulder. A man leans against it. Beside him, a gravel turn-off runs beneath a long, aluminum gate, flanked on either side by chain link and hotwire. Jason pulls over and the man approaches. It is the same guide from the Ghost Safari, but he does not betray any recognition.

“Go on through,” the man says. “I’ll close up behind you. You’ll need to drive another mile or so. There’s a red flag where she starts the loop, so if she’s in the middle of it, you just wait for her to come back. Don’t start the tape til she’s in the car and smooths out her skirt.” He demonstrates, sweeping his palms across his thighs. “After she loops out, you got half a mile before you hit the exit. It’s automatic. Any problems, call the office. All good?”

Jason nods.

The first curve of the road is through dense, old growth forest. The sun isn’t fully down, but he needs his headlights. He reaches the flag quickly, a simple stake in the ground with a long, red cloth hanging limp from the top. There is no breeze. He waits.

Then, a girl. She is transparent, like others he has seen, watery around the edges and prone to refract and distort what she touches. She stands outside his car for a moment, a little out of alignment with the actual door. She looks in and mouths something silently, as all ghosts speak. Her eyes are wide and happy, her curled ponytail high on her head. She mimes the opening of a door, and slides her slender body into the passenger seat. He corrects his car to the right to maintain the illusion. He stares openly, first at a string of beads draped across her pale neck, then to her blouse, tight over her chest, then where her skirt cinches on her narrow waist. Finally, her delicate hands straighten the felt fabric.

He presses play.

“Hey mister. I’m real thankful for the lift.”

“You are welcome, Emily,” he says. “I am Jason.” He tries to relax.

She turns to look out the window, so he isn’t sure if her mouth is moving when the stereo says, “I had an awful good time at the dance.” The actress has given Emily a deep accent with stretched and airy vowels. He half-expects to hear, “I declare!” and isn’t disappointed when her next line is, “Lord-a-mercy, it’s hot.” There were themed tracks: “Elvira,” “Lolita.” He opted for “Classic,” and now is glad he didn’t overextend. He turns it off.

But it seems as if Emily is trying very hard to tell him something. Though she is only shades of gray and white, he can see her flush from exertion.

“I wish I could hear you,” he says. She stops talking, a moment of synchronization. “I wish I could ask you things.” He did not prepare a speech, didn’t need to. The same questions are always on his mind. “Does it hurt? Is there a way to send a message?”

Emily is watching him, intent. Encouraged, he goes on, “I need to know the reason Gwen didn’t come back. Because no one knows. About any of you. Isn’t that unfair?”

He has to pay attention to a switchback in the road. Emily starts to speak again, and he waits until she is finished, waits in the silence, before he continues.

“She said to take her home. So I did, and it was late, much later than this.” He can see on his clock they only have another two minutes, so he rushes. “I think she didn’t come back to punish me. We were sitting at this light, and she—when I was—when we were in the backseat, before—” Emily is turned toward him, hands folded, head tilted. Sympathetic, he thinks. “I didn’t want to run a red light. It doesn’t matter, she said. But it did, because this truck came out of nowhere! But she, she was already out of the car. Could I have—?” Emily is trying to talk again, but he doesn’t care. “Am I a bad guy?”

Emily ripples a little, and he is relieved to think his time with her is up. And yet, the moment feels heavy, and he remembers Ferris Wheel Fred, evaporating in the air that held him for so many years. He needs to finish the story. His, and Gwen’s, and Emily’s. He feels as if a physical weight is falling away. His back straightens. His shoulders drop. He whispers a silent goodbye to Gwen. He resolves to return to Marta, to tell her everything, to hold nothing back.

But Emily does not disappear, and does not get out of the car. He can see the exit gate ahead, and eases forward, thinking he has missed the mark. “Thank you,” he says, wishing he could embrace her, but she’s talking again, and the illusion is broken. She should have restarted her loop, but she remains in the passenger seat. He is only fifty yards from the gate. She turns to look at him, expectant and smiling.

He speeds for the exit as it whirs open. He hopes it is a threshold she cannot pass. The car jumps the curb on the other side, and skids a little on the asphalt. Emily is still beside him, watching, effortlessly aligned with the car seat as if she is substantial. As if she takes up space. He reaches for his phone but it has no signal, and the screen will not respond to his touch. He is sure she is looking directly at him.

“It’s okay,” he tells her. “You can go now.”

He realizes he is afraid.

Up ahead, there is nothing to offer guidance but a mile post, so he eases them forward until they are just past it. She stays with him. He promises himself he’ll pull over and call the office if she isn’t gone by the next marker, but it comes and goes, and she is still there. He looks eagerly for the next, and by then she isn’t watching him anymore. She looks only at the road ahead.