Halfway through a trip to a destination unknown, mind fixed on neon lights, lukewarm soda, greasy fast food and flickering fluorescents, a young girl grows tired. She’s been in a race with the wind and light, streetlights casting their yellows down as she tore through. She’s become little more than air and light— a sheen of sweat, a polished shine on her father’s beloved, vintage car. She is, like the landscape, dim and blurry, eyes dulled after miles and miles of unfamiliar gas stations and their monstrous attendants. She’s seen too many badly lit bathrooms in mom & pop shops, corners hiding their pale, deformed children. Too many 3 am supermarkets and parking lots full of empty cars and ill-intentioned boys.
Her name is Phoebe. She is too young to be alone, too young to be on this highway. Phoebe drives anyway, head full of music. She thinks about thumping drums and electric bass; that old devil music. She digs deep into her memory, smiling at images of her thrashing, tossing her head like to the heavy strings of Chuck Berry. Or swishing her hips to the rumbles of Big Mama Thorton. She’s up to her eyes in memories when Phoebe sees the figure. Tired eyes hardly register the lanky thing that stands by the side of the road as human. It takes her a few blinks and another few feet before she’s able to recognize the form as a young girl. She doesn’t seem to have much – a hand out, a thumb up and a ragged, old suitcase.
The girl feels a spike of fear go through her. Already she’s thinking about strangers with knives. Phoebe thinks of old Southern superstitions about seats left open for nameless things to come in and take a ride. Ghosts hanging on, ghosts hanging off door handles and in between leather seats, trying to hitch a ride to limbo and back. Phoebe brings the car to a rolling stop, wheels bellowing in protest even as she leans out the window to ask, “Where to?”
The young girl asks, “Do you think you could drive me into the next town? Quickly, please, if you can.” Phoebe says yes. She figures there’s nothing else to do, figures there’s nowhere else to go. Maybe she’ll stop in the next town and stay. The girl watches the figure get in. The young girl is covered from head to toe; hands with gloves and face with what looked like cheesecloth. The young girl is a dark thing; mysterious, but her eyes are sharp, piercing through the cloth and into the girl’s side with their unnatural brightness. She holds herself like flowers, delicate and fragile. Phoebe can see that she is not much older than the hitchhiker, but something about her is aged and lined with wisdom. She breathes heavy and ragged, lacy hands pressed to her strange, caved in chest. Phoebe stops looking and asks, “Are you alright? You look a little…”
“I’m fine. Just…” She stops to breathe, coughs into a cloth she pulls from her dress. “Just a little weak. Do you think we could go any faster?”
The request disturbs her slightly, but she reasons that there are no signs for a speed limit. The highway is a stretch of hot tar, empty and lonely. Hours ago, she would’ve denied the young girl’s request and puttered along. But it is night and there is no one to judge her in this vastness. She presses a little harder on the gas. The stranger rests her head on the window, hard breathing and loud thinking. Breath fills the car then empties it. The girl turns on the radio, sings along to songs that the stranger doesn’t recognize. The girl furrows her brows at the confusion on the young girl’s face and asks,
“You ain’t never heard of rock n’ roll? Electric guitars and drums so loud they shake your bones?” Phoebe’s trying to lighten the mood, trying to shake the suffocating heaviness the young girl brought with her. It doesn’t work. The young girl shakes her head, a bushel of coils that follow the rhythm of her movements. “Different time, I guess. Music is different where I’m from.”
“Really? You can’t be much older than me. A beat. Silence, and then, “Where you from?” The stranger smiles. She smiles. A true smile, teeth against teeth, pearly white that beams brighter than the creamy cloth.
“Not far. Not close. Middles times.” Phoebe laughs, big and young. “I guess I’m from middle times, too!”
She quiets some, stretches her hands against the red pleather steering wheel. Her eyes lose some of their youthfulness, aging by the minute as a memory comes to her. “I could put on some other music if you’d like.” The young girl waves her off, says, “No, no. This music … it’s loud, but it sure makes you happy.”
“Good memories come along with it. Whenever I hear that bass, I think I’m somebody. I think I’m ten feet tall, bigger than anybody.” A smile touches her lips, sad and sorry, “My daddy didn’t care much for music like this. Wouldn’t take with all that wailing and neon. Says it ruined the music.”
The young girl nods some, not certain of the meaning behind Phoebe’s words. She’s perceptive though and can understand that she needed to say it. She needed somebody’s ears. Something to confess to. She can see that a weight’s been lifted from her heavy chest, that the sweet face has grown softer and more youthful. The young girl can also see that there is more there, other things that will not be said to her or perhaps anyone else. It hangs between them like a curtain, swaying but never parting to reveal the other side.
The road is dark outside the car. They’re between realities, streetlamps, and billboards about God and hell staring down at them. There are trees and dirt leaning on the edge of the highway, loitering and looking for a place to grow. The World grows serious. Phoebe grows serious. Night makes her nervous. She grips the wheel but her palms are wet. Just to fill the quiet, Phoebe says, “You know, I don’t usually like to be out this late. Last time I was out at night, I was…” But the girl knows it’s not the thing to say or the time to say it. She swallows the words and her nerves. “You sure there’s a town around here?”
“I’m sure. Things change, but never too much.” The young girl is looking out the window and then, “Used to be a lot of stories about these parts. Eyes like headlights, cars coming out of nowhere to run you down. Strange girls asking for rides, offering them.”
“Crazy stories,” Phoebe says.
The young girl nods, “Hm, yeah. There used to be this absolutely cockamamie story they used to tell us about this girl. She wasn't much older than you, I think. Pretty young thing, all hope, and expectation. Thought she might be better than her mother, went hungry tryin’ to beat a dead woman. Say she took up a job with a white man. You know taking care of his babies, lookin’ after his wife.” Phoebe looks towards to the young girl, intrigued. The young girl continues,
“Young thing hated it. Some women ain’t meant to take care of things. Some ain’t meant to hem and sew, but she did it and she did it well.” The young girl’s eyes seem to glow brighter as she speaks, excitement building as she retold the story.
“But men get hungry. Wanted somethin’ the girl had but didn’t want to give. He wanted her body. He wanted a young thing, an exotic thing he can control. He wanted her, but she didn’t budge. Man don’t got a lot of power in this world, but they don’t like for the small amounts they have to be tested. The White man told everybody the girl was a thief, that she was nothing but a problem. Nobody would take her in after that.”
“Sad story.” Phoebe’s neck prickled with sweat, and her hands slid against the pleather.
“Gets worse if you can believe it. Poor thing might’ve starved if she didn’t put a curse on him. That curse was so bad, so wicked that it took his wife, his kids, his money and his mind. Littles chants of two or three words turned this great, powerful man into a boy. He wandered, drank, gambled away his last red cent. Spent all his time lookin’ for somethin’ that burned worse than the spell. ‘Course men don’t take no credit for they own misery.” Stranger chuckles. “Nah, they go lookin’ for the little Negro witch.”
“Oh.” Humming, noises fill in the seconds of silence. Breathing so hard it pushes the car like a wind in a sail. Radio stopped playing. There’s only static and clicks and whirs.
“No deed by a woman goes unpunished. Especially no Negro woman. White men got friends in white, friends in hoods. White men gather together to speak loud, make the whole town quake in fear. The only thing the poor girl has to do is press her ear to the right door and hear words like ‘hanging’ and ‘tree’…”
“Oh,” Phoebe says, shoulders falling.
“Naturally, the girl gets scared. She starts wonderin’ if she might die if she might follow her mother into the dark ground. She don’t think— she runs. Figures if she’s fast enough, she could get to the main road and find somebody to take pity on a poor Negro girl. Figures somebody might give her a ride into the next town so she could lie low, hide her face.”
“Did she get her mercy?” Phoebe asks, barely concealed hope in her eyes.
“She got her death.” The girl turns to the stranger, lifting her brows.
“Men caught up with her?”
“Nah. It was a horse comin’ faster than she could move. Trampled her.” Breath. Swallow. The whir and static and click. “Say it took apart her face, tore her witchin’ mouth. Devilish beauty rendered useless by God’s Almighty hand.”
Phoebe’s shaking at the wheel. Her stomach turns, knuckles go white from holding on the pleather. The young girl watches her hands and face, mouth pulling into a clever, knowing smile.
“Some people— crazy folks— say that this road is haunted. Say the girl got no peace, got to making trouble for every driver on this road.”
“Yeah? Well, I can’t blame her. I know what it’s like to run. Nobody has a heart anymore. People see a young girl, vulnerable, being chased and people jus’ stare or worse, look away.”
“No souls.” Stranger shakes her head and says, “So what happened to you that you out here? Awfully young for a place like this.”
Phoebe shrugs. “Nothin’. One minute I was jus’ fightin’ with my dad, tryin’ to get away from him. Next thing I know I was hot and red
in the back of his car, bleeding all over the seats.” The young girl looks back and sucks her teeth, looks at Phoebe. She laughs. The girl at the wheel laughs too. They’re both laughing, tossing back their heads and snickering. Yellow and orange sounds, foreign on a dark road, red and black feelings in a dead car. Radio decides to start up again with something about meeting again, crooning and whining into the blank spaces.
“Those are jus’ silly stories, ain’t they? Things to scare teenagers into listenin’, to put bad chil’ren to bed. Ain’t nothing like that in this real world. Too many trees and roads and breathing bodies.
“A ghost story,” Phoebe says confidently. She turns her head towards the young girl, streetlight revealing the gory mess of her face. The mouth is swollen and distorted, the remains of the broken fence of teeth barely hiding the blackened wreckage of her inner cheeks and tongue. Her nose- what’s left of it— is folded in on itself, destroyed by the force and heat of the bullet from her father’s favorite gun. Phoebe’s one good eye lolls in its socket; the other one is gone, presumably dumped with the rest of her rotten body.
The young girl turns as well, cloth sheer enough to reveal the black and blue bruises that made up her face. There is less of her than Phoebe. Where there should be a mouth, eyes, and nose, there is only pulp and pus and viscera. There is only the killing split to the skull that oozes blood and the shredded gore of her mouth, empty save for a few jagged teeth. Her eyes, if they can be considered eyes, are little more than sockets, hollow but still brilliant with their headlight gleam. The lacy gloves hide the twisted hands, the tore fingernails and bruises that continue up to her forearms.
Ghosts hanging on, ghosts hanging off the edges of reality.
“Yeah, exactly—a ghost story. And me and you, we sensible girls. We don’t hold with things like haints, now do we?”
There’s more laughter, perhaps not as genuine, but it fills the car and the highway so they aren’t so lonely. If the either girl wishes, prays, that they had made it to their destination unharmed, it is not said out loud. It is held within, privately kept beneath their cold skin and still hearts.
Phoebe turns the music up higher. The young girl looks out the window. Outside, the highway stretches on, permanent and primordial – the one thing girls can’t outrun.
Artwork by Heri Dono, Untitled, 2012