Haunted Passages: Christy Crutchfield
Tess is Eve under her coat. She made the costume last year, three felt leaves sewn strategically onto a tan bodysuit. She’s just come home from the grocery store, but I nudge her back into the car.
“Where are we going?” she says.
I put a bottle of wine in one cup holder, a bag of Reese’s Pieces in the other, and start the car.
No candy has shown up in our cabinets, no pumpkins in the walkway. She’s only wearing a costume because her salon required it, but it’s good to see the old Tess for a night. If I didn’t get her in the car, grocery bags still stretching in her hands, I know what would happen. She’d leave the groceries on the counter for me to put away. She’d go to sleep without eating. I’d watch her fingers twitch until I could finally sleep.
In college, she used to cut my hair on a kitchen stool. She’d wet it with a water gun, and when she couldn’t get the right angle, she’d straddle me in low jeans and tilt my head forward so all I could do was stare down her shirt and think, We’re in a beer commercial.
Our first year in an apartment, when she was in hair school and I was temping again, she carved six jack-o-lanterns to line our walkway and put on a horror movie marathon I felt forced to watch. Every year since then, we’ve had more pumpkins than trick-or-treaters. Every year, we’ve eaten most of the candy, which I blamed for that time I puked, even though she knew it was that Italian slasher film.
This morning, I poured coffee into her thermos and said, “Maybe I could sew a leaf onto some khaki pants. We can be Adam and Eve tonight.”
“If you want,” she said, taking the thermos and closing the door.
Every year, I refused a costume, and I wonder if things would be different if I just sucked it up and wore one.
To fix it, I press start on my GPS and follow highway signs for Cumming.
Tess straightens. “Where are we going?” she says. “I know where we’re going.”
Kendra told me about Booger Hill this morning. She said it was in Cumming, where her people were from. That got a good laugh from the rest of the kids. But she just sucked on a fingernail and said, “They used to hang people there, so it’s cursed. This school bus crashed and all the kids died and now there’s ghosts everywhere. I see them all the time.”
Kendra said she was born with a veil over her face, so she sees things other people don’t. She said that’s also why she’s stuck at the home for children. Her people, apparently, don’t like to hear the truth.
In the car, I hear the screw top crack on the wine bottle.
“Really?” Tess says. “That’s the surprise?”
She always swallows too loudly, like she can’t open her throat, and I hear the wine go down.
“Jesus,” she says.
Of course Tess already knows about Booger Hill. But I keep driving because she says it’s okay. She says I’m not being insensitive.
Things are different now. Tess cuts my hair in a swivel chair that doesn’t require straddling. Her old Bettie Page cut is now a “practical but edgy bob” above her chin. But that bodysuit still fits, she still has Betty Page hips, and she still loves ghost stories.
Tess often accuses me of being insensitive. But there’s plenty I don’t say. Like, “Getting better means actually trying to get better.” Like, “It’s been a year.” Like, “I did my job. I put a baby in you.”
During Activity Hour this morning, Kendra sifted candy corn through her fingers back into the bowl. When she showed up last week, the counselors warned me Kendra is a compulsive liar, but I listened to her ghost story anyway.
They were supposed to be painting pumpkins, but they mostly ate the candy I’d laid out. A couple kids were painting their shoes, which I decided counted as a creative outlet. I had suggested carving pumpkins, but my boss wouldn’t let the kids use sharp objects. She said ghost stories could be triggering.
“Pretty scary,” I said to Kendra.
“So you can see ghosts. Are there any around here?”
Her eyes started at my flannel and stopped at my sneakers. “No. No ghosts follow you.”
“Oh well,” I said.
She picked up a dry paintbrush and ran it under her chin. “You know I’m only talking to you because we’re the only white people here, right?”
“You mean your mom was white,” Reuben said. He sat at the top of a stack of chairs pushed against the wall, a king at twelve, and all the other kids laughed.
I tried to smile at Kendra. I asked where Booger Hill was.
“Whatever,” she said, pushing away from the table.
“No, I really want to know.”
“You just went to a bunch of fancy schools to tell me I’m crazy.”
“I didn’t go to any fancy schools,” I said.
She moved to the other end of the table.
My summer camp experience seemed to be enough to plan Saturday activities for at risk youth. It was supposed to be temporary, but I’ve been there five years. I was supposed to get a better paying job a year ago and start saving for a house or a wedding. I don’t see the point anymore.
Truck headlights blind me, but I can’t look away. Everyone else on this two-lane highway is going 80, and two pickups have already passed me in the wrong lane. But I can’t go over 45 because when they’re gone, my headlights are the only light on the road, which winds in directions my eyes don’t predict. Otherwise, it’s just trees and occasional mailboxes. The yellow line is the only guide to keep me on the road.
I’ve always hated ghost stories, but I picture hitchhikers on the shoulder, calling “Going my way?” I picture lost women stumbling in front of the car in bare feet. I take a curve too hard, and Tess grabs the Oh Shit handle. But she doesn’t say anything. She returns to her loud swallowing. I wonder how much she’s had already, but I guess that’s what I wanted.
The jostling has pulled her coat open. My phone lights her, and I see a felt leaf squashed by her seatbelt. Last year, a toy snake was part of her costume. It coiled from her inner thigh to her waist to her breast and seeing her in her full Eve unearthed something buried under the years of seeing her every day. Dear God, this woman allowed me to have her. I almost tore the body suit before she pushed me away to take it off. We were two hours late to the party, and for once, that was fine.
I stop at a dead end. More trees, a dirt path, and a private property sign. I realize my GPS has dropped its signal.
“The turn’s back there,” Tess says, pointing a thumb behind us. She opens the bag of Reese’s and pours a handful in her mouth. I moved to Atlanta for school and stayed for Tess. I still only know the city, but she grew up an hour from here. Of course she’s trekked out to Booger Hill before, with some better boyfriend.
I spin around in the dirt driveway. She saw me miss that turn and said nothing, some punishment for trying.
The thing is, I could be more insensitive. I never tell her that a hobby could fix her: a garden or a sourdough starter, something that requires nurturing. I never tell her that we only knew she was pregnant for a month. Or that she was only three months pregnant, and the baby was more of a peanut than a child. Or that it’s been a year. I never tell her that we could have just tried again. Or that I want to pull over and lick each leaf on her Eve costume. Or that if she’d let me touch her, I’d make sure we wouldn’t create another baby because we’re too broke for a baby anyway. I never tell her that I know she’s awake those nights when she doesn’t eat, when I push my stomach against her back and wait for her reaction, any reaction.
“It’s here,” Tess says.
I brake too hard and pitch us forward.
There’s no sign announcing Booger Hill. We’re just at the top of a small slope on any old country highway. I don’t know how I would have found it without her. I squint at the lane line, at oak arms in the headlights.
“Put the car in neutral,” she says.
I almost say, “Why?” but when she looks at me, my mouth locks into a strange vowel. She tilts her head to get a better look.
“Do you even know the story?” she says.
I realize now my response to Kendra should have been, “I didn’t say you were crazy.” Kendra said both she and her grandmother were born with a veil, grey skin covering their faces. Her grandmother pressed hers into paper and saved it in a shoebox next to her own. But she died a month ago and, “My bitch of an aunt probably threw them both away.”
An internet search told me a veil is a harmless piece of membrane that attaches to a baby’s face during birth. I only looked up directions to Booger Hill, not the story.
I don’t know why I brought Tess here, why I asked a crazy 14-year-old where to take my girlfriend on Halloween. I told myself it was because a ghost story might bring the old Tess back for a night. But what did I think would happen next? That we’d drink wine and fuck in the backseat among the groceries? That her hair would grow back, and everything would be better? The only thing I know is, if Halloween can’t fix Tess, I sure as hell can’t.
We’d only known she was pregnant for a month, and we hadn’t told anyone before she lost it. Not even her parents know. I never tell her that when my skin touches hers it feels different. I never tell her I’m the only other person who knows that peanut ever existed, and that’s not fair.
It hasn’t really been a year. It will be a year in December.
“Hello?” Tess says.
I look at the underwhelming Booger Hill. The moths aren’t dead yet, and they turn a ghostly white in the headlights. I try Kendra’s version. “They used to hang people here.”
“Any old people?”
“I don’t know, but it’s cursed and a school bus had an accident and—”
“Oh. Okay. So that is that version you’re telling.” She hands the bottle to me. I’m surprised there’s any left. “Jesus Christ, Sam.”
“Look, why don’t you tell it,” I say.
“There are two stories. Yours is easier to swallow.”
She looks out the window. I can’t see her face or what she sees outside. I wonder if I should turn around again and drive us home.
“A car broke down in this same spot,” she says. “It rolled backward down the hill. A school bus was running late and took the curve too fast. It swerved to miss the car and rolled over. The bus driver lived, but all the children died.”
In the rearview I only see brake lights. I wonder if I’ve put us in a horror movie instead of a ghost story. I wonder if anything is melting in the back seat.
“And if you stop here and put the car in neutral, you roll backwards until the ghosts of those children stop your car and push it back up the hill.”
“They push the car?”
“You’re supposed to put flour on the bumper. Then you’ll see tiny handprints pushing you up the hill. The one time I came here, we forgot the flour.”
“Did they push your car?”
I lean into my seat. I always feel ghost stories in my back.
“That’s not the real story though,” she says.
She looks at me the same way Kendra did this morning. “They used to hang people?”
“That’s why it’s cursed?”
“Who else gets hung?”
I’ve gone through racial sensitivity training for five years now, and I still can’t read between lines. I wonder if this is Kendra’s revenge, if she’ll tell all my coworkers where I went tonight. She’ll prove I’ve learned nothing in five years of being the only white person at the home. But they don’t need Kendra’s second sight to see that.
“It’s a gravity hill,” Tess says. “It’s just a trick of perspective.”
I offer her the bottle but she shakes her head.
“At some point they changed the story to the school bus. That’s the story I grew up on, not the lynching. I guess that’s the scary part.”
She lets me touch her knee. Little hairs scratch out through her tights.
“So, dead children?” she says. “That was your bright idea?”
Would anyone believe me if I said dead children didn’t even occur to me? I take a sip of wine. I know I have to drive us home, and I take another. The candy’s too loud now. I suck on a piece until it melts.
Tess unclips her seatbelt. She digs in the grocery bags behind us, and pulls out a blue canister of salt, the closest thing we have to flour.
She leaves the car door open. It’s much colder up here than it is in Atlanta, or maybe it’s just late. Her face is lit from underneath by the brake lights, and I think of campfire ghost stories, flashlights under the chin, how as a camper and even a counselor I’d watch the fire and pretend to listen. Salt crystals ping off the bumper.
When Tess slides back into the car, she rubs her hands together and says, “Put the car in neutral.”
We start our backward slide.
I pull her hand to my mouth and breathe warm air over her fingers. We wait for someone else’s hands to save us.
Christy Crutchfield is the author of the novel How to Catch a Coyote. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, Massachusetts Review, and jubilat, among others. She has received a grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and is the Nonfiction Editor for Juked. Originally from Atlanta, she writes and teaches in Western Massachusetts.
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