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Things never changed at the Midway.
“Lei-Lei! Godammit girl, where the fuck are you?”
Things never changed, Leilani Harris thought to her herself as she mad-dashed through the maze of buildings and shops, all connected into one big commercial block, timeless. It was funny, of course, because things actually changed all the time. People came and went. Trucks pulled in – and, often, though fewer than the trucks, cars and mini-vans and pickups and cycles, but mostly trucks – and they pulled out, an ever-transient population.
And the people who worked at the Midway, and the Midway itself, changed. A couple of years ago, the Denny’s closed, then it reopened a few months later as “Suzie’s,” though nobody named Suzie worked there and it was independently owned and operated by Mr. Takahara. The employees at the various shops and stores and stations changed, too, drifting in or out, or sometimes even dying in place, like poor old Mrs. Alvarez a few years back.
Of course, Leilani knew she was way too young to be aware of what really changed and what didn’t. But even with all those changes, it still felt like the Midway itself, a mid-sized mid-point where two major highways crossed (and with a third not far away), never changed, that it had been sitting here since forever.
Or at least as long as she could remember.
“Lei-lei, where the fuck are you, girl?”
Mr. Woczak’s voice growled out of the intercom in the kitchen of Suzie’s as she short-cut through it. Tony and the new boy gave her grins as she ran past. They weren’t very busy. Suzie’s didn’t do a very big business, not like the diner on the other side of the building, and she’d heard others speculating about how long it would be before Mr. Takahara gave up and closed the place. She hoped he didn’t, though, because they had pretty good ice cream.
“There you are!” Mr. Woczak, grizzled hair buzz-cut, glared at her from the wooden stool he overflowed in the pay room. Beyond him, through the thick plexiglass window (“Guaranteed to stop all short arms-fire or double your money back!” – despite which promise, Mr. Woczak kept a shotgun up under the counter), she could see the store – chips and sodas and magazines and anything else a passer-by would want to pick up for the road. A truck driver in a gray t-shirt and tan jacket was at the window, waiting for Mr. Woczak to pass his credit card back through the little slot, and a black man with a Caterpillar hat and a down vest was eyeing the drink machine as if the decision between 64, 96, and 128 ounces was the most important one he’d faced all day and into the night.
“Where the fuck you been, girl?”
The truck driver beyond the window gave an audible snort of disapproval, and Wozcak threw him a glance. The sound had been barely audible, anyway, over the CD player, where some woman was singing, “Fly me to the moon?,” music that even Mr. Wozcak admitted was old fogey music when he was growing up, but which he played for a reason he pointedly wouldn’t share with anyone.
“I was helping Mrs. Navarro. With the pies.” She wished she were there now. It smelled good in the diner kitchen, especially baking pies. This little room smelled of packaged cigarettes and of a half-eaten hot dog on the counter and of Mr. Wozcak.
He shook his head. “Great. More fucking pies. Need you out there, anyway. Maria can make her own goddammed pies.”
“Spill?” Leilani’s job was ubiquitously menial. If it needed doing, and nobody else was around to with the inclination to do it, it was her job. Mopping things up was high on the list.
“No. Out there.” He held up a pair of binoculars, then pointed with them out the far window. “He’s back.”
“At the corner. By the fucking fence post at the on-ramp. The one I told you about.”
“How do you know it’s him? Could be any hitchhiker.”
“No hitchhikers, god dammit! Not on my property. And my property goes all the way north to the highway line. Anyone wants to hitch, they goddammed better keep riding right through, or find a way of doing it that don’t mean they stand by the fucking on-ramp with their fucking thumbs up, looking like goddamned beggars! Hitchhikers know the fuck better than to hang out here, god dammit!”
“’Scuse me, can I get my card and receipt?” The trucker’s voice was muffled, but clearly unhappy.
Mr. Woxzak muttered and looked at the signed receipt, then slid the card back through the slot with the dupe. “Thanks for visiting the Midway, come again soon,” he intoned in a rush, then turned back to Leilani. “Anyway, I know it’s not any old hitchhiker. It’s him.”
She took a nervous breath. “Maybe he’ll go away. Maybe someone will –“
“He won’t go away until someone picks him up. Every year, like fucking clockwork, ever since I bought the place. Hell, maybe before. Shows up, hitching, until someone fucking picks him up. And when someone does, then next thing you know I hear fucking rumors from other truckers about the ‘Cornerpost Ghost’ disappearing on him in the middle of the night ride – and I’m out one customer plus however many else he scares off. Been that way since I bought the place, and goddamned if I’m gonna let it keep happening.”
Leilani really didn’t want to go out there. It’s not that she was scared, exactly, but the lot was busy, and the trucks didn’t always seemed to be watching for a blond thirteen-year-old. “Why don’t you go talk to him?”
He glowered at her. “For one thing, I’ve tried. He won’t talk to me, he won’t react to me, and, goddammit, I can’t even touch him. For another thing, I got a job here, taking money and running credit cards.” Mr. Wozcak held up fingers, ticking off points. “For another thing, you’re cute as a button, so maybe he’ll hanker to you.” He smiled. “And for one last thing, I’m your goddamned employer, and I’m telling you to get the fuck out there and tell him to get his ghostly ass off my property and fucking stay away from my customers.”
Leilani sighed. “Okay.” She wanted to get out of the stuffy little pay room anyway.
Mr. Woczak buzzed her through the door, eyeing as he did the man still pondering the drink station. She crossed through the store and out the front doors, into the roaring beyond.
The air in front of the station was choking thick with diesel exhaust, as the trucks never shut down if they were just there to tank up. It was an ungodly racket, too, and Mrs. Donnelly told her it reminded her of “infernal mills,” whatever those were.
She was cautious to around the edges, sticking to sidewalk where she could. Truck drivers were actually pretty careful, but people didn’t always see her, and she could be easily squashed like a bug (as her father used to say) if she weren’t careful.
Then she was out past the cracked concrete driveways and headed the fifty yards or so to the on-ramp. There was no sidewalk here, just a dirt verge, heavily rutted from trucks pulling over on those occasions when it rained. Beyond the truck stop, she could hear the roar of traffic on the highway, as people passed by rather than passing through. And up on the corner, by the eastbound on-ramp, she saw him.
He was taller than her, a bit, but skinny, hair blond like hers and almost as long, but not pulled back, lanky and stringy around his ears and shoulders. He was wearing a dark green hoody with a bright yellow “A” on it, and blue jeans, and a dirty vinyl rucksack sat on the ground next to him as he held his thumb up.
A fuel truck rumbled past Leilani, then past the corner, ignoring the young man there, then through the pools of street lights and into the darkness beyond, only a glimmer of red lights twinkling behind.
She stopped a dozen feet away from him. She wasn’t scared – really. She didn’t know why that was. She had a little silver crucifix her mother had given her, but it was under her shirt and she felt funny about taking it out. Besides, were ghosts scared of crosses? Or was that just vampires?
She’d never met a vampire. She had met a ghost before – besides this one. That one had been scary. This one – not so much.
At least it was a pleasant evening, cool. Nice to get out of the kitchen, in that way. Later, in the summer, it would stay horribly hot even past midnight, but for now it was nice.
“Um … hi.”
The young man ignored her. His eyes were shadowed under the orange street light, but they seemed to be watching the road behind, the trucks at the Midway.
“I don’t think we’ve met,” she said, trying to come up with something to say that wouldn’t bore her to tears, too. “Mr. Woczak asked me to come out here. My name’s Leilani. What’s yours?”
Silence, aside from the sound of trucks, and, fainter and more distant, crickets. A breeze rustling the brush.
“You live near here?” She cringed. That was a stupid question. “I mean, did you live near here? Are you leaving? Or are you going someplace?”
The dark pool of eyes looked past her, unseeing.
“Well, I live here. Well, kind of. Mom’s up in Austin, trying to get work, and Mr. Woczak said I could stay in one of the old cottages, like some of the workers? They don’t rent ‘em out to the truckers any more, so they’re not kept up real well, but it’s not bad. And it lets me earn a bit of money, too. I’m gonna go to college, eventually. I want to become a doctor.”
Another truck rolled past them. It let off klaxon horns as it did, making her jump. The young man didn’t.
“So, where’s your home?” she said, trying desperately to come up with a question he’d answer.
He did. Sort of. “I have to get home,” he said, absently. “Something terrible’s going to happen.”
She stood very still, but he didn’t say anything more. “Something terrible?”
Silence. A truck rolled off the northbound highway, across the road, and slowly accelerated toward the Midway. The scent of diesel exhaust hovered about them like a fog.
“Is it something terrible you can stop?” She tried think of movies and TV, of what ghosts wanted, or did, or – “Is it like a murder that you want to stop? Or something terrible that you couldn’t stop, so --?”
“What time is it?” he asked. His voice sounded normal enough, but now that she was close to him again, she knew it wasn’t, and that he wasn’t. She didn’t know how she knew, or how Mr. Woczak knew. Wasn’t that strange?
“It’s, um …” She thought about when she’d last looked at a clock. “It’s maybe eleven or so. Eleven thirty.”
“I have to get home. It’s so far, but something terrible’s going to happen.”
“When?” She had him talking now, sort of. She wished she were smarter, that she could come up with a question that would get something from him that she could understand. “When will it happen? Or when did it happen?” She felt all mixed up. “How long have you been here?”
It was like she had hit the magic question, the secret words to the mystery, a key that unlocked -- “This place,” he said. “This crossroads. So many people pass through here. So many people have. I've seen them. Migrants, legal and illegal, swarming north or heading west or migrating south. Cattlemen. Traders meeting to pass on carvings and crafts, pelts and pottery. Tribesmen fleeing from wars to the south, conquerors with bloody daggers. People moving south, fleeing the ice. And others …”
And as he spoke his form changed, his skin and hair and clothes. Only his eyes stayed covered in darkness, though now and again she caught a gleaming reflection from headlamps or the Midway. Now he was dressed in plaid and denim, now in buckskin, now in more crude leather, now –
Something golden, like a priest’s robe, or something from that Roman movie that her mother loved to watch. His hair was still blond, but his skin was darker, and a jeweled headband – waves the size of skyscrapers crashed over a port city, towers fell, fire and flames from above, a choking smoke of burning bodies and the salt sea, the wrath of Nature or of God or of Something was destroying it all, and he was caught, thousands of miles away, unable to help, unable to die with his people, unable to return to them --
She took a step back. “De dios,” she muttered, the way the Mexican ladies did.
And he was back to normal. As normal as he could be. And she wondered if she’d imagined it.
A large Allied moving van was slowing for the turn, and then it flicked its lights and came to a stop. The passenger window rolled down, and a man’s voice shouted out, “Where you headed?”
“Atlanta,” the ghost said, or something like it.
“Hop in, you and your girl. I can take you far as Baton Rouge.”
“I –“ Leilani suddenly felt a crazy desire to hop into the truck. “I’m not – just him.”
“Well, hop in, ain’t got all night.”
The young man looked at her, the leaned forward, and a cold breath whispered in her ear. Then he was up in the truck and gone, in a cloud of smoke and dwindling red lights.
Mr. Woczak buzzed her back in. “Well?” he said, when she started to move past him toward the service hall.
She caught herself. “Oh. He’s gone.”
“I can see that from here. He got on that goddamned truck eastbound.”
“I don’t think he’ll be back, though.”
Woczak started. “He always comes back. One fucking year to the day.”
She shook her head. “He said he was leaving for good, one way or the other.”
Mr. Woczak stared at her. Then he started to laugh, roaring, cackling. “God damn, Lei-Lei! Should have sent you the fuck out there sooner! Good job!”
“I don’t think I –“
“Sent you out and you did the job, girl. Fantastic. Take tomorrow off.”
“Tomorrow’s Sunday. I already –“
“Okay, take Monday off, too. Just don’t get underfoot.”
Leilani nodded. There was no point in trying to explain. She didn’t understand it herself. Or, to the extent she understood the words, she understood what it meant.
I won’t be back. Things are changing.
She just wished she was as sure as Mr. Woczak was that it was a good thing.
-- by Dave Hill