Years back, Tyler dropped Jen off each night before his pizza delivery shift. The rutted dirt tracks cut between twin swamps. Lily pads and snapping turtles clustered along the banks. Cedars grew sparse, roots left to keep the road from washing out. Only one house stood at the end of the lane. The porchlight glow was their north star.
Now when he drives the pitted trail, no light waits for him. The windows are broken, the roof caved with black shingles surrounding a collapsing aperture. Tyler thinks he sees movement within, but never climbs the porch’s three steps to check. He’s afraid of what he’ll see through shattered glass, what memories are trapped inside. Instead, he peers through his windshield at the pale luminescence treading across the swamp, feet no longer disturbing the water, ethereal gown fluttering in her wake. Jen didn’t call that night. Finals were next week, and Tyler assumed she was studying Calculus. No one reported the blaze. Her family was so far in the woods, so far from town.
And now she’s a ghost, obviously.
This is a sad ghost story.
There’s no other outcome.
No one could miss the lead up, the well placed signifiers and emotional anchors. Readers usually feel bad for Tyler, for Jen. He lost the girl he loved. She never actually got to live her life. But really, readers should feel glad for Jen. Now she gets to be a glowing fairy thing that chills in a swamp all day, not worrying about the world falling apart. She’s not endlessly scrolling through social media, reading one atrocity after the next as she tries to decide which anxiety medication has the least terrible side effects. Her world has been reduced to a finite number of acres, but the scenery is pleasant. Night herons keep her company. The frogs never remind her about the housing crisis, or the Supreme Court, or whatever Russia’s doing. They never ask how she thought she would pay back her student loans after an art history degree. The amphibians are kind. Mosquitos swarm.
Tyler swats a big one ballooning on his forearm. He swears and watches Jen’s ghost make a second pass along the shore before he pulls out his phone, checking the time. There are only so many hours in the day he can tune out the world until notifications call him towards town, towards the night shift at Harwichport Pizza and another guy who will refuse to tip him for delivery. But he has little choice. Jen is dead and he is alive. Someone needs their pizza. The herons don’t speak to him. The frogs simply sound like farts in the night. He puts his car in reverse, following the artificial glow of the strip mall on the horizon. The halide lamps are so bright he can see them above the cedars. He wishes this was his ghost story, but it’s not. Maybe next time, he says, illuminating the pizza sign on his roof, vibrant red LED pepperonis fading into dusk.
COREY FARRENKOPF — Corey lives on Cape Cod with his wife, Gabrielle, and works as a librarian. He is the fiction editor for The Cape Cod Poetry Review. His work has been published in The Southwest Review, Tiny Nightmares, Flash Fiction Online, SmokeLong Quarterly, Wigleaf, and elsewhere. To learn more, follow him on Twitter @CoreyFarrenkopf or on the web at CoreyFarrenkopf.com.
Art by STEPHEN LILLIE — Stephen is a professional illustrator based in London, England. He’s a compulsive mark-maker and enjoys letting the crazy creatures that rent space in his head run riot on the page, or, in fact, on any piece of paper that’s within reach. Despite working on literally hundreds of books and magazines, he still manages to find time for beer. When he’s not working, he’s usually playing chess, getting high on coffee, and testing out new pen-nibs.