A Friendly Haunting
Halfway to work, Richard Dunwoodie pulled into a Marathon and parked his car. He needed some more coffee if he was going to stay awake until his shift started at the factory. It’s not like he had to be completely awake in order to keep any stray limbs from getting caught in machinery, but he did need to make sure it didn’t happen to any of his coworkers. And to stay awake after getting up at five in the morning, he needed coffee.
He smiled at the clerk behind the counter as he entered the gas station and headed straight for the machines lined against the far wall. Humming to himself he got the largest cup available and picked a roast, waiting patiently as it poured. He didn’t have to get up so early. Even if he took his time driving he would make the two hour commute with an hour to spare. As his inner speed demon dictated, however, he would be at work, sitting behind his desk with an hour and a half of leisure time. Maybe he would nap, maybe he would read the paper. Tonya would call when she headed to work at around seven. Out of all of his children, one of which actually lived in his house, Tonya was the only one with whom he shared regular conversations.
Richard grabbed a newspaper from the rack as he passed it, smiling again at the clerk as she pulled the coffee cup and the paper closer to scan it. “Good morning.”
“Morning.” She pushed the items away, accepting his cash with sleepy apathy, and gave him a noncommittal ‘have a good day’ as he exited, heading back to his truck to continue his commute.
“Excuse me, sir?”
Richard turned as he opened the door, eyes finding the speaker. It was a young man. In one hand he held a plain duffel bag. In the other the hand of a young woman. She too clutched a duffel bag, hunched inside a Buckeyes hoodie that was too big for her. Richard guessed it was the boy’s, since he was just wearing a t-shirt in the brisk October morning. “Can we get a ride?”
“Sure. I’ve got time.”
They noticeably brightened, their postures straightening a touch. The boy’s smile widened to a grin as he scooped up the bags. The girl walked around to the other side as he threw them into the truck. He got in the back seat while she climbed into the front. After the boy’s door was closed, Richard shut his, and started up the engine.
The boy leaned forward from his seat in the back. “I can’t thank you enough, sir. Most people won’t let hitch-hikers in, since they don’t know who they’re letting into their car.”
Richard smiled back at the boy. “Well, the way I see it, you don’t know who you’re getting into the car with, y’know?”
The boy chuckled. “That’s true.”
After backing out of the parking space, Richard pulled up to the highway. “Which way you headed?”
“Woodhill Cemetery, just pass the bridge that goes over Twin Creek. Hannah’s parents live across the street from there.” The boy leaned back, finding his seat belt and pulling it across his lap. “Oh, right. I’m Jared, and that’s Hannah. What’s your name?”
He turned right onto the road and pushed on the gas. The cd turned to ‘Refugee’ and Hannah smiled, her fingers twitching like she was playing along with the guitar. Looking in his rearview, he could see Jared playing the air drums. He chuckled. “So, what do you need to hitchhike so early in the morning for? You couldn’t call home?”
“Jared’s car died. After hitting a tree.”
Jared coughed. “Yeah, um, I accidentally went onto the shoulder, lost control. There’s not much damage, cuz I wasn’t going very fast. But the engine just refused to start.”
He then poked Hannah, his voice turning a bit playful. “At least my phone was charged.”
“But out of minutes,” Hannah said, “Therefore, just as useless as a dead phone.”
Richard smiled, “Well, it’s a good thing you’re both okay.”
Hannah smiled, but Jared just glanced at her and rubbed the back of his neck. “Yep. That’s the important thing.”
Silence filled the car. Richard watched his passengers discreetly. They both were really pale, like they spent all of their time indoors even though the weather had still been warm just a few weeks ago. Jared looked tired, slouched in his seat, hands together in his lap. His attention was focused on Hannah, who was looking out the window, giving Richard the occasional direction. She hummed along with the CD player and would glance back at Jared with a smile. Her fingers still twitched along with the guitar line.
“So, Hannah, do you play the guitar?”
She grinned. “Yeah. Jared plays drums. We’re in a band back in Columbus. We mostly do covers, but our bass, Fiona, comes up with a decent tune of her own every now and again.”
“What bands do you guys play?”
Hannah glanced back at Jared who cleared his throat, “Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, The Who. We don’t gig much; usually a frat just decides that we’re cheaper than a DJ.”
Richard nodded as Hannah started to look around. She pulled out the CD case under the center console. She smiled at Richard, “Gotta be plenty of good stuff in here if your taste includes Tom Petty.”
She flipped it open, and paused. She pulled a picture out of it, staring at it. It was of Richard when he was a bit younger, thicker hair on the top of his head. He was smiling at the camera, a young woman on his right, a toddler in his lap. They were sitting on porch steps. Richard glanced at the picture and chuckled. “Forgot that was in there. That’s my daughter and granddaughter.”
Jared leaned forward to look. “Wow, Rick. You had hair?”
The older man laughed. “Yeah, I did. That picture’s about ten or so years old now. Doesn’t take much time to bald.”
Hannah glanced up from the picture. Then she shrieked, “Look out!”
She leaned over to yank the wheel up and to the left as Richard slammed on the brakes. They came to a stop just a few inches from the side rail of the bridge. Richard was yanked against his seat belt. He sat there for just a moment, staring at the metal railing he almost collided with. He wondered if it would’ve held against a speeding truck or if he, Hannah and Jared would’ve been sent into the river below. Would they have survived that? Probably not. Would Tonya fly up for his funeral? Would she bring Erica and Jacob with her? They’d miss school, but a family death would count as an excused absence, right?
Richard turned to Hannah. “You okay?”
She was frozen, the picture clenched in her fingers as she stared straight ahead. Richard raised his eyebrows. Then he looked back. “Jared?”
The boy waved his hand, seemingly unaffected by the near collision. “I’m fine.”
Jared reached forward, his fingers wrapping around Hannah’s shoulder, and shaking her softly. “Snap out of it, Hannah. We’re okay, all of us.”
She blinked, and it was like she breathed for the first time since she had warned him. She glanced at Richard, then looked away, her hand finding Jared’s, and squeezing it, once. “I’m alright.”
He leaned back again. “I think it’s time to go home.”
Hannah nodded, staring out the window. “Yeah. Me too.”
Richard backed up, his headlights illuminating the house across the street. It was nice, red brick, two stories. He glanced back at the cemetery gate, the large entrance locked with a chain and padlock. Hannah and Jared unbuckled their seat belts, and Hannah opened her door to let Jared out. She stepped down and smiled back at him. “Thanks for the ride, Rick.”
He smiled back, “No problem, guys. You take care, okay?”
Hannah nodded. “Okay.”
The door closed, and then Hannah was gone. Richard blinked, and then frowned. He looked around, trying to see if she had simply moved, but everywhere he looked there was no sight of either Hannah or Jared. He swallowed, fingers tightening around the wheel. Taking a deep breathe, he put the truck into drive, and then pulled out of the drive onto the highway, speeding away. He glanced at the passenger seat, noticing that the CD case lay open. The picture was gone.
He found the story in an issue of the local paper from last year. It wasn’t much, but it did tell him their full names and the cemetery they were buried in. Woodhill, the same place he had dropped them off in. As he sat in the hard library seat, the newspaper spread before him, he tried to put together the printed words with the breathing kids from the other morning. They had been married just a few months before they died. They both had gone to Eaton High, graduated together a few years past. When Richard looked in the right yearbook, he found them in the Seniors pages as The Couple of the Year.
He stood before their gravestone, a dozen cheap carnations in one hand. Rubbing the back of his neck, he knelt to put the flowers in the grass when he noticed a rock with something beneath it beside the marble. Picking it up, he froze. The air seem colder as he picked up the picture Hannah had been holding when they had almost crashed. The wind picked up, and he shivered, tucking the picture into his pocket and huddling into his jacket. He quickly walked back to his truck and after he climbed in, he glanced at his rearview. At the headstone, sat Hannah and Jared together, hand in hand. They smiled and waved, then vanished in a flash of white light. Richard blinked, and turned his head to see with his own eyes. The grave looked the same as when he had been in front of it. Smiling, Richard started the engine, and shook his head. As he exited the cemetery, he glanced back at the sign.Woodhill Cemetery. Not a bad place to rest in peace.