“Rachel saw the ghost again last night,” Julie said, already deep in bed.
“Great.” Sam rolled his eyes, pulling on a tee-shirt. “She’s got me afraid to work in the attic this weekend. The little weirdo.”
“Hey. Shut up.” She threw a pillow at him. “You don’t get to call your daughter a weirdo. It’s just her being a kid.” She pulled at the blanket around her neck. “It is kind of weird though,” she said. “It’s such a matter of fact to her. Nothing spooky at all. She doesn’t have any fear at all when she talks about it.”
“Right. Our ten-year-old sees ghosts and isn’t afraid of them.” Sam shook his head. “I don’t believe in them, and she’s got me scared to go upstairs by myself.”
Downstairs the next morning, in the kitchen and eating pancakes, Julie brushes the hair from Rachel’s eyes. “Hey sweetheart. When you finish up, let’s go to Miss Gracie’s. She’s cleaning out some pictures this morning and wants to know if we want anything. Maybe we can get something for your room?”
“Good god. Waddya got here? Thirty boxes?” Julie was shocked.
Grace laughed. “I bet. I pulled them out yesterday and spent the morning sorting them.” She held a couple out for inspection, pulling them from underneath her arm, like a mother hen protecting chicks. “I’m saving these – for the funeral, you know – but, please,” she held her arms out over the table, “rifle through the rest and take whatever strikes your fancy. I’ve stacked up some old photos of the neighborhood right here,” she said, pointing. “Of your house.”
She looked at the photo in her hand. “Wish you could have known the old codger,” she said, rubbing his photo with her thumb. “He was such a damned sweetheart. And he would dote on your little Rachel like a princess. Which she is, of course.” She flashed a pageant smile to Rachel. “That man loved children.” She looked at the photo again, and then at Julie. “Too bad we never had any. Or couldn’t.” She set the frames down. “You want some coffee? You two gather up whatever you want. I’m going to the kitchen.”
Julie picked through the photo boxes on the table. “C’mon, sweetie,” she said to Rachel. “Maybe you can find something cute.”
Julie found two black-and-whites, old pictures of the street, and set them aside. “Look,” she showed them to Rachel, “our backyard. Look at the old cars. Find anything?”
Rachel pushed a few photos aside, and something woke inside her. “Momma. It’s the ghost,” she said, pointing to a woman with Grace.
“Oh. You found something?”
“It’s the ghost. Here,” she said again, still pointing.
Julie picked up the photo, holding it closer and adjusting her glasses. “No ghost here. I don’t see it, sweetheart. I think Dad might be right,” she laughed. “You’re seeing things.”
“No ghost where?” asked Grace, carrying two china cups of coffee on a serving tray, Southern style. Grace put on airs, looking at the china. “Figure I ought to use it before I die,” she said in a rough London accent.
“It’s nothing,” Julie said. “Rachel thinks she sees a ghost here, but it’s nothing. Just a picture of you and a friend.” She flipped the photo over to show Grace.
Grace came close to look, and serenity fell over her like a net. “I think Princess Rachel knows what she’s talking about.” She stared at the photo. “O la la. Will you look at that? We were so thin. And sexy,” she mouthed to Julie. She held the photo out for Rachel. “Hotties, right?”
“You were two good looking women, that’s for sure,” said Julie. “Who are you with? Where’s the ghost?”
Grace moved the photo into the light. “That,” she said, pointing, “is Rachels’s ghost. Miss Gloria Aldridge. My best friend. We did everything together. We were closer than sisters. Thicker than thieves.” She sorted photos on the table for a minute, looking for something. “Where’s that photo of the backyards you found?”
“In this stack,” Julie said, handing her a pile of photos. “Do you want to keep it?”
“Honey, no,” she laughed. “I just want to show you two something. Here,” she said, pointing. “You see now? Look at our backyards. See those cute little tables by the fence? One on each side? Every morning after the husbands would go to work and we’d get the kids off to school, we would meet right there. I drank my coffee, and she would have sweet tea and a cigarette.” She turned away, wistful. “Those were wonderful times.” She looked hard at Julie. “That’s the ghost. Gloria.”
“That’s the ghost? She’s the ghost? Your best friend?”
“That’s her. I’m sure of it.” She took a sip of coffee. “We made a pact one day.” Julie saw the thought of it carry Grace to somewhere else. Somewhere grounded and sure. “It was silly, but we sealed it with a drag from her cigarette. We were right out there,” she said, pointing with her eyes outside to the fence. “We were laughing up a storm over something – who knows what – and she grabbed me over the fence, kissing me on the cheek. Hard. And her eyes watered up, too.”
“If I die first,” she said, “if I die first, I’ll wait for you here. Right here.” She pointed at the backyard where we were standing. “By the fence and the house. I’ll wait for you to die, too, and we’ll go off together.”
Grace shook her head. “‘Sweetie?’ I said. I don’t know if it works that way.’
She stopped me in my tracks. ‘It works that way for me. For us.’”
“We were probably thirty? I raised my cup of coffee, and she raised her tea. We looked at the cups and I burst out laughing. ‘You know,’ I said, ‘a graveyard pact needs at least a cigarette.’ She laughed and reached down to her little table for a pack. We smoked a cigarette together, holding hands. Marlboro Light.”
She looked to see where Rachel was and then turned to Julie. “I’ll tell you what. In all my years, I loved my husband desperately. But that was the most romantic thing I ever did in my life. And I still believe it’s true. That’s why I say she’s the ghost.” Gracie sat back in a chair, fanning herself. “I’m sorry, Sweetie. I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone that story before. Had no reason to, I guess.”
Julie waited for a moment, letting Grace’s countenance settle.
“Baby doll,” she said to Rachel. “Let’s get up whatever we’re taking, and head on home. You ready?”
“Grace?” she asked, waving her arms over the table. “Can I help clean up these piles? It’s a little messy since we sorted through everything.” Julie stopped and wondered. “Grace? What happened to Gloria? Do you know?”
“Do I know?” She wiggled and settled further into the chair. “Honey, I cried for a week. She died a month later. At the Piggly Wiggly of all places. Heart attack. Right in the middle of the store.”
Julie was confused. And horrified. “She was so young. My god. That is so terrible.” She looked down for a moment, then at Grace, forcing a laugh. “That is just about the worst story I’ve ever heard.”
After dinner, Julie couldn’t forget the story. “You won’t believe what Grace told me today.”
Sam gave a grumpy nod, his television interrupted.
“She knows who the ghost is. It’s her best friend. They made vows to stay in their homes after they die and wait for each other, ’till the last one dies.”
“Julie?” He turned to her. “I hate to be the one to break this to you, but Honey? Ghosts aren’t real.”
“I know, but Rachel is so sure, and if you heard Grace’s story, well, it might sway you.”
He snapped at her. “Julie, there are no ghosts. We know this. No ghosts. Got it?” He looked at her over the top of his glasses. “You aren’t filling Rachel’s head with this silly business?” He waited and turned back to the television. “No ghosts.”
Later, in bed and asleep, Julie woke, wrapped in covers but chilled. Her forehead felt cold to the back of her hand. Easing from the bed, careful not to wake Sam, followed the cold to Rachel’s room, like a mountain trail.
I was 2:30 and Rachel lay awake, staring. “What’s up, sweetie? Why are you awake?”
“I just am,” she said. “I’m cold.” She snuggled further into the blankets.
They both heard it. The screen door slammed. Alarmed now, and scared, Rachel asked her mom if was windy outside?
“I don’t know,” Julie said. “Maybe daddy forgot to latch the door. I’ll go pull it right. No big deal.” She looked at Rachel.
“Mommy? I want to come.”
“No need to be scared, honey. It’s just the door.”
“I’m not scared. I just want to come.”
“Okay. Here’s your robe.” She tossed it on the bed. “I’ve been freezing tonight.”
The downstairs looked normal. The kitchen, the dining room, and the sitting room, all normal. Julie looked out the back window. “Pretty nice outside. Hot,” she looked at Rachel, “but nice.”
She sat with Rachel at the dining table and sees a tear fall from Rachel’s face. “Honey,” she said, grabbing Rachel’s hand. “Baby, don’t be afraid. Daddy just forgot to do the latch.”
Rachel sat still, not moving. “I’m not afraid,” she sniffed.
“Then why are you crying? Why are you sitting here all sad?”
It was a plain fact. “The ghost is gone. She took Miss Gracie with her.”
“The ghost is gone? But you heard Daddy, ghosts aren’t real, sweetie. And Miss Gracie isn’t going anywhere yet.”
“The ghost is gone. It’s not coming back.”
They sat together for a moment. In silence. Resting and confused.
“I want to go the bed now,” Rachel said.
The next morning was bright and promised of another hot, oppressive, Southern day. Early light filtered through to the kitchen. “Hey! I know what we can do,” Julie said to Rachel. “Let’s go out to the back fence and sit down. I’ll drink coffee, and you can have a coke. Just like Gracie and Miss Gloria did. Want to?”
Rachel shook her head No.
“It’s okay, hon. I know you were scared last night. It’s alright. So, hey. You want to go? You want ice or just Kool-Aid?” Julie started pouring the drinks.
“I’m going to my room and read.”
Julie let her go and made a cup of coffee. “Everyone is tired after last night,” she thought. It was still cool outside, and she took her coffee to the porch table before the heat sweltered like a rug. Outside, she sat sipping coffee at the glass table, staring at the fence, wondering how much of Grace’s story could be true.
“Julie.” She heard her name called in an unfamiliar voice. A man’s voice. “Julie?” Surprised, she saw Rusty, Grace’s nephew, come around the corner. “I was just coming to see you,” he said, looking like something the cat dragged in. He carried a small packet.
“Sit down,” she said, smiling. “I was just over to see your Aunt yesterday.” She saw Rachel’s name on a card taped to the box, written in Grace’s ancient script.
“That’s what I came over for,” Rusty said.
Julie could tell that this wasn’t a friendly call. She reached across the table. “Oh, God, Rusty.” She touched his hand. “Is she okay?”
He shifted his elbows from the table to his knees and looked at the concrete between his shoes. “She passed away last night. The doctor has already been here. I came over early and found her.” He looked up at Julie. “The mortuary will be here later this morning.”
Julie turned away, and between tears and deep breaths, asked what happened.
“The doctor said it just looked like she was ready to go. No illness. No reason to think she suffered at all.” He paused. “Just went to sleep and didn’t wake up.”
“Rusty, I’m so sorry. We loved her. Rachel loved her like a Grandma.”
Rachel popped through the screen door. She hesitated, seeing Rusty and her mom, with Mom sad and teary. She came to the table, to her mom’s side, and pointed to the box. “Is that for me?”
“Sweetie! Manners,” her mom scolded.
“It’s okay,” said Rusty, grabbing the box and giving it to Rachel. “It’s for you, sweetie. I think Aunt Gracie made it yesterday. I was here on the weekend and didn’t see it. She didn’t say anything about it. I don’t even know what it is.”
“Honey,” Julie said, turning to Rachel. “Miss Gracie passed away last light.”
“I’m so sorry, honey. You heard us talking?”
She shook her head. “No. I just know. From last night.”
Rachel took the note off the top of the small box. She shimmied the top off, and it was filled with photos. All of Gracie and Gloria. On the top was a folded scrap, written on with purple ink. Thank you so much, Rachel, for helping me remember. I hope you are as lucky as me.
She folded the note and put it in the box, slipping the top back on. She hugged her mom and surprised Rusty when she hugged him, too.
“I’m going back upstairs to my room,” she said, gabbing her box. She went inside and Julie cried a little.
Rusty stood up to go and looked at Julie. “I don’t know what just happened here,” he said, “but I think it was pretty special.”
Julie nodded, watching the fence while Rusty walked away, wishing for a cigarette by the fence.
Dennis Mitton is a Seattle ex-pat living in the southern US. He has written for the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature and maintains an active website. His book “Can I Fix My Brain” about living with brain injury will be published in 2021. Follow him on Twitter at @dennis_mitton.