“Thanks for giving me a lift.”
“Of course,” I said. “No problem.”
“I know it’s late,” Beth said.
Out of the corner of my eye, I watched Beth’s pale hands twist the strap of her canvas bag.
“I lost track of time,” she said. “And then I realized the bus had stopped running, and then I saw you coming out of Starbucks, and I recognized you from Chem class…”
“It’s fine,” I said. “Really. I don’t mind.”
I didn’t remember Beth from Chem class. The faces at school were still a blur of strangers. Names hadn’t stuck yet. I heard them and they slipped out of my head immediately. Still, it was weird that I didn’t remember Beth, because Beth was pretty memorable. She was waxy pale, her dark hair hanging lank around her face, a chunk of it scraped into a halfhearted ponytail. She looked like she hadn’t slept in a week. Or, like she was sick. Maybe that was it. Maybe she’d been out of school.
I realized the silence had stretched into awkwardness, and I said, “Ready for the test tomorrow?” My voice came out brittle and too bright. I winced, and then I felt like an asshole for wincing.
“It’s almost tomorrow already,” Beth pointed out.
The clock on the dash of the Camry read 11:45. I laughed, and Beth laughed with me, and I felt better. We weren’t entirely strangers anymore.
“Don’t worry about getting back to the highway,” Beth said more cheerfully, as if she felt the same way I did. “It’s easy. You’ll be home in twenty minutes, tops.”
“Okay,” I said. “Good to know. Thanks.”
Beth had probably lived in Ashfield all her life. I’d been here less than a week, and I was still fumbling my way around town. Driving down the winding two-lane road with the empty fields rolling by, the bright lights of civilization seemed very far away.
She was quiet, and I couldn’t think of anything to say. Darkness streamed past the headlights, like my Camry was a deep-sea submersible.
“So…” Beth said softly. “Anybody told you about the girl in the red jacket yet?”
“Oh no!” I lifted one hand off the steering wheel and flapped it at her. “No no! Don’t you dare start with the scary urban legends!”
“It’s a classic,” Beth protested. “Everyone needs to hear about Ashfield’s very own ghost.”
“Is there any way I can stop you from telling me this story?”
“Aw, come on.”
I huffed. I didn’t want to hear this story, but I wanted to be included. I didn’t want to be the new girl anymore. Bad enough that Dad lost his job in Boston, and we had to move here to his hometown in the sticks. Everybody at school thought I looked down on them, because I used to live in the big city. I wasn’t stuck up. I was shy.
Beth said, “Everybody in Ashfield hears about the girl in the red jacket eventually.” She put a hand to her chest. “I just want you to feel like you’re at home.”
“How charitable of you,” I said, making it come out all wry and sarcastic, but I suddenly, stupidly wanted to cry. I guess it hadn’t really sunk in until now, how alone I was.
Beth said, “So, there’s this girl. Just about our age.”
“Uh-huh,” I said.
“She’s new in town, and she doesn’t know many people.”
“Yeah. That’s how the story goes.”
“I told you not to tell me, remember?”
“One dark night, she’s driving home. She doesn’t know the back roads.”
“You can get out and walk, you know.”
“She gets in a terrible crash at the intersection of Gunderson Road,” Beth said. “Maybe she’s speeding. Trying to get home fast. Nobody knows. It’s late at night, and a deer comes running out of the woods. Right in front of her car. She hits the deer, and totals her car. They don’t find her until the next morning. She’s dead, pinned inside the wreck. Maybe she died instantly. Maybe she screamed and screamed for help. Either way, nobody heard a thing. It’s lonely out here.”
A chill crawled up my back. It was lonely. Very lonely.
The road dipped; the headlights of the Camry flared on asphalt, and then up at the sky as the road rose again. At the crest of the hill, the road curved and descended once more. An intersection loomed in the headlights. My heart did a little fear-skip, but the street sign read Polk Road.
“And now her ghost haunts this lonely road for all eternity?” I said.
“Maybe,” said Beth.
“That’s not much of a story. No offense.”
“I’m not finished. When they find the girl the next morning, her face is destroyed. Everybody who sees her says what a terrible tragedy it is. They say it’s the worst thing they’d ever seen.”
“So, now people driving at night see her horrible face, and they crash and die?”
Beth said, “She wears a red jacket, with the hood pulled up to hide her face. One side of her face, the side of her face that you can see, is the worst thing you’ve ever seen.”
“What about the other side?”
“Oh,” Beth said quietly. “Here we are already.”
Another intersection loomed in the headlights. Gunderson Road. The pole holding the street sign leaned back over a weathered wooden fence, as if a car had struck it. My heart began to pound, and my fingers tightened on the steering wheel until the cold plastic bit into my palms. One tire hit a pothole in the road and the car jolted sharply. In spite of myself, I gasped.
Nothing happened. No girl in a red jacket appeared in the road ahead. Gunderson Road slipped into the darkness behind the car.
I expected Beth to burst out laughing. She’d gotten me good. But, she was silent.
“Beth?” I asked.
“My house is up here on the right,” she told me in a strange, faint voice.
The companionship I thought had started to grow between us, was gone. We were strangers again.
“Are you okay?” I said.
“Fine,” she replied. “Thank you for the ride.”
I slowed the car. “Where’s your house?”
“You see the mailbox? My house is back from the road a bit.”
I pulled over at the shoulder, the car’s tires crunching over sand and gravel. The mailbox was dented, dangling from a crooked wooden post. The door hung open like a surprised mouth, and the little red flag stuck up.
“Are you okay walking alone in the dark?” I asked her.
“It’s not far,” she said in that same dull voice.
I squinted past her into the dark. I couldn’t see a house. I couldn’t see much past my headlights. Beth popped her seat belt, and opened the passenger side door. The overhead light came on, illuminating her pale face and the dark smudges under her eyes. Not looking at me, she fumbled with her bag, tugged on her gloves, and pulled up the hood of her coat, shadowing her face. I shivered, in spite of myself.
“Great story,” I said. “Really spooky.”
“It’s always a different story,” she murmured. “Even thought it ends the same way.”
“Huh?” I said, frowning.
“Thanks for letting me tell it.”
I couldn’t tell if she was screwing around with me again, but I wanted her gone. She was freaking me out. “I’ll see you tomorrow at school, okay?”
Beth grabbed my arm. “My parents are dead,” she told me, her voice swift and urgent. “I moved here to live with my aunt and uncle when I was five –”
I yanked my arm out of her grip. “Get out of my car!”
“Everybody in Ashfield already knew about the girl in the red jacket. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I had to tell somebody.”
She scrambled out of the car and slammed the door, plunging me into darkness. She ran past the lonely mailbox and she was gone.
She’d never told me how to get back to the highway. I swore and slammed both hands on the steering wheel. Stupid Beth, and her stupid ghost story. It was past midnight, and it was effing cold out. Was there even a house out there in the fields beyond the mailbox?
I locked the car doors, then dug around in my bag, and pulled out my phone. No reception. Of course not. There was nobody I could call anyway. I didn’t have Beth’s number, and my parents would already be asleep.
I decided to backtrack along Route 17. It’d be the long way into town, but it was easier than trying to find the highway. I pulled away from the curb, and headed back the way I’d come, toward Gunderson Road.
I’d never thought of myself as easy to scare. The story of the girl in the red jacket wasn’t anything special. I’d heard a dozen sleepover stories like it. But why the hell would she keep the other side of her face hidden? The more I thought about it, the creepier it got.
I nudged the accelerator. The faster I got to town, the faster I’d be home. The road rose in the long sloping hill again, and as the car headed down toward the intersection of Route 17 and Gunderson Road, I heard a soft rustle behind me, like someone shifting their weight.
I looked in the rear view mirror. A figure sat in the back seat, a deep shadow eclipsing the moonlight and clouds in the back window. Someone wearing a deep, fur-lined hood. I gasped; my foot slammed the gas. The car lurched and roared down the hill, and it was nothing, I realized, as the moon illuminated the back seat. Nothing but shadows. My gaze flicked back to the road as the intersection of Gunderson Road flashed past, and a deer sprang from the trees, its eyes bright sparks in the headlights.
I stamped on the brake and swerved. I smelled rubber and tar and heard the screech of tires, and I was sure, I was absolutely certain, that I was too late. In that flash of an instant, I heard the deer hit the car with a thudding crunch. I saw the window burst into spiderweb pattern. I smelled the hot stink of metal and blood. But, none of that happened.
The Camry skidded, bounced off the road, bumping over frozen grass and hard earth, and came to a halt. The deer went bounding away, up over the fence on the other side of the road.
I sat with my foot jammed on the brake, my hands clamped on the steering wheel at ten and two. I was halfway convinced that the car was crushed against a tree, and I was crushed inside it, bleeding to death in the black cold night, and I just hadn’t realized it yet.
I forced myself to move. I eased my foot off the brake, and moved it to the accelerator. The car rolled forward slowly, lurched up out of the shallow ditch, and back onto Route 17. I drove, shaking as if I’d fallen into icy water. It took me nearly an hour to make it back to town, from woods and frozen fields to gas stations and dry cleaners and banks. It was after one o’clock, and most of the businesses in town had closed. Even the Starbucks, but when I saw the green sign with the familiar mermaid, I was so relieved, I started to cry, my eyes leaking tears that felt scalding and thick, like grease. I was still crying when I reached home.
The house was dark. I groped my way up the stairs to my bedroom, undressed and fell into bed without bothering to brush my teeth or wash my face. I dreamed about the girl in the red jacket. We stood together in the freezing night, underneath the leaning street sign for Gunderson Road. The metal sign rattled in the wind. The side of the girl’s face that I could see, was Beth’s face.
“It’s always a different story,” Beth said. “Even thought it ends the same way.”
Her pale hands reached up, and pushed back the hood of her red jacket. Moonlight spilled across her face. Even knowing there was no one who could hear me in that freezing night, I still screamed.
Friday, I walked from class to class, looking for Beth. I kept seeing a flash of red in the corner of my eye, but whenever I turned to look, nothing was there.
Beth was not in Chem class. I hadn’t really expected her to be. The seat next to mine was empty. Maybe that was where Beth sat, and I hadn’t noticed her. I sat down to take the test, knowing I’d fail it.
About halfway through class, I’d filled out four of the questions on the test, and I was staring blankly at my paper, someone sat in the empty seat beside me. I saw that flash of red again in the corner of my eye, and I looked up, expecting to see the same nothing.
And there she was. The girl in the red jacket. I saw her, but I couldn’t accept what I was seeing. For a moment, one merciful moment, she was a jumble of reds and whites. My brain scrabbled through one explanation after another: I was sleep deprived, I was hallucinating, I was dead; I had died last night on the road, and everything in between then and now was a dream.
Then all the pieces fell together, and I saw her clearly. She sat with her face turned partway toward me so I could see just one side of it. Unlike the dream, her face was not Beth’s face. It was barely a face at all. It was glistening white bone and strings of flesh a deeper, darker red than her jacket. Her cheek was torn away, exposing her teeth in a permanent grin.
I bolted out of my seat and my desk toppled over with a crash, spilling my test paper and my pencils. A scream rushed up my throat, up from my stomach like hot vomit, and exploded out of my mouth. It shattered the silence in Chem class like a rock exploding the still surface of a pond. Kids jumped up, turned around, gaped at me with their mouths hanging open. I leaped away from the girl in the red jacket, colliding with another desk, bouncing off it, scrambling toward the front of the room.
No one moved to help me. Nobody asked me what was wrong. Even Mr. Perkins, the Chemistry teacher. All all they did was stare, their eyes blank and shining in the overhead fluorescent lights.
The world spun away. Next thing I knew, I was sitting on a cot in the nurse’s office. The girl in the red jacket sat on a folding chair on the opposite side of the small room, right there in the bright sunlight streaming through the window. Even though she kept her head slightly turned away, I should have been able to see both sides of her face. But, I couldn’t. Somehow, I couldn’t.
My dad walked into the office, and his gaze went straight to me. He couldn’t see her at all. She was only for me. He sat beside me on the cot, and took my hands in his. They felt so warm, that my own hands must’ve been like ice.
“Sweetheart, what happened?”
“Do you know the story?” I said through numb lips. “About the girl in the red jacket?”
Dad flinched, his hands tightening around mine. He knew it.
“Who did you tell?” I asked him. “You must have told somebody. You had to tell somebody.”
“It doesn’t matter, honey.”
I snatched my hands away from his. I could see her in the corner of my eye: red and white and darkness.
“It was years before you were born.” He stood up. “Come on. I’ll take you home.”
“How could you do this to me? How could you bring me here, knowing what you know?”
“I don’t have a job anymore. We don’t have any money. My parents’ old place was the only place we could go.” He smiled a crooked smile. “It’s not so bad. Just tell someone else.”
“Who,” I demanded. “Who can I tell?”
He shrugged. “Tell one of your friends in Boston.”
I stared at him like the kids in Chem class had stared at me. That bitter, burning scream rose in my throat again, and I clenched my teeth to keep it down.
Beth’s words came back to me yet again, from the dream, from the car ride: It’s always a different story. Even thought it ends the same way.
So, I asked my father, “When you heard the story, how did the girl in the red jacket die?”
“I don’t remember.”
I didn’t bother calling him a liar. I knew he would never tell me the truth.
I stood up. My head swam with dizzy darkness, and I put out a hand to steady myself against the wall. My books were stacked on a table next to the door.
“It’s just an old ghost story,” Dad said.
But, his eyes said he didn’t believe that. Nobody in Ashfield believed that.
Legs trembling, I crossed the room, and scooped up my books.
“Wait,” Dad said. “Please.”
I pushed past my father, and walked out of the nurse’s office. He didn’t follow me, but the girl in the red jacket did.
The bell rang. Doors opened, and kids flooded into the halls. No one approached me. No one gave me a sympathetic smile. No one put a hand on my arm and told me, It’s okay. We understand. You’re one of us.
They only stared at me.
Now I had my own story to tell. I didn’t know what that story was yet, or who I would tell it to. Or, even if I would get the chance to tell it, before my life ended at the intersection of Gunderson Road.