When Nick first sees streetlights up ahead, he can’t help but breathe a sigh of relief.
His neck is sore, his legs are stiff, and his whole body aches with the need for a soft bed and hot coffee.
The rain-soaked pavement glimmers beneath him.
As the streets turn to cobblestone closer to town, starlight and streetlights meld together to cast shadows on the red brick buildings. Nick doesn’t notice any of it.
He scans the town for a sign of a motel. When he finally sees a neon sign that reads, “Vacancy” in flickering red light, he almost spins out in his haste to make the sharp left.
Nick rubs a hand down his face, forcing himself to stand on legs stiff from driving. His lower back aches from sleeping on the bench seat of his car too many nights in a row. He opens the trunk to grab his duffel bag.
He steps into the building, and it has the kind of placelessness that only questionable motels seem to have. A bell chimes as he enters.
When the woman at the counter looks up to see him, all gray hair and grayer eyes, she freezes a moment, but she recovers quickly.
“Room for one for a night?” she asks shortly. Warily.
If Nick was taken back by her suspicion and lack of pleasantries, he doesn’t let it on.
“Yeah, yes please. If you’ve got one,” he says, his tone apologetic.
He’s not sure why he’s sorry.
She holds out a gnarled hand, and Nick rifles hurriedly through his pocket to find a crumpled wad of cash. The woman takes it without looking up, handing him an ancient-looking room key as she points him in the right direction.
Nick takes it dazedly, too tired to care about the strangeness of this woman.
He could have imagined it, but as he walks away to his room, he thinks he hears her offer a cryptic, “Good luck.”
Nick wakes up to sunshine streaming into his room and whispering from outside his door.
He blinks away his confusion with a yawn, moving lazily. The whispering of strangers is not enough to alarm him out of his sun soaked sheets.
Nick reaches for his phone that he’d left on the bedside table. He knows to expect texts best left unread and voicemails he doesn’t want to hear, but when he unlocks the screen, his notifications are startlingly blank. He blinks at the screen in confusion, but when he glances at the time-- ten in the morning, so he really must have been tired-- he notices the “No Service” message staring back at him. He shrugs it off. Motels aren’t exactly known for their strong connection, and this way he can put off the reckoning from the people he left behind.
Nick knows he should get back on the road. If his goal is to make it across America, then he’s running out of time before the snow will come to make country roads treacherous, and if his goal is to get back home before he can make anyone angrier, well, he’s already late. But something about this town seems ripe for lingering.
Anyways, he needs food. He’s been living off of gas station coffee and whatever chips are cheapest for just over two weeks, and he thinks that a real meal would go a long way. He can spare a few hours.
When he finally emerges from his room, showered and wearing clothes that he hadn’t slept in (which feels like a novelty), the old woman at the front desk from the night before has been replaced by a younger counterpart.
The young woman looks tentative when he first walks in, but eventually her face settles into an even smile. Something about it is so bright that Nick almost wants to look away, but he can’t.
“Good mornin’, sir,” she says brightly, all smiles and softly lilting voice.
Her eyes are the darkest brown that Nick has ever seen.
“Good morning,” he says with a nod and a polite smile.
At least she’s not looking at him the way the woman from the night before had, like any minute he might say something that causes the world to crumble.
“How’d you sleep?” she asks politely, and from this close, Nick can see that she seems to be wearing a nightgown. He doesn't give himself time to be puzzled by it.
“Really well, actually. Longest I’ve slept in weeks,” he answers.
“Oh?” she asks, and he should have known his response would raise questions.
“I mean, the beds here are a lot more comfortable than car camping.”
“You’ve spent a lot of time on the road, then.” She nods contentedly. “I’ve always wanted to do somethin’ like that. Just drive without stopping and see the world.” She blinks something away, then looks back at Nick, appearing almost dazed. “Name’s Bridget, by the way.”
Her breath is cold instead of warm, but her smile is so bright.
“I’m Nick,” he says, and something stops him from offering a handshake.
“Nice to meet ya, Nick.” Her expression is kind, but there’s something behind it that Nick can’t quite identify.
“Yeah.” He clears his throat. “So, I think I’m ready to check out, then.”
“Right, of course! Sorry to bother ya, it’s just we don’t get strangers often,” she says, and she seems so genuine that Nick rushes to reassure her.
“No, it’s no bother! I just didn’t want to take up more of your time, is all.”
She laughs at that, gesturing around the empty room. “Business ain’t exactly booming. And I’ve got nothin' but time.”
Nick offers her a smile. “I’m surprised more people don’t come in. It’s pretty close to the highway.”
Bridget seems puzzled by something that he said, so he continues clumsily, “And, I mean, it seems like a good place to stop. You know, if you get tired of driving.”
At that, she nods in agreement. “Oh, it’s grand for stayin' a night. Not longer than that, though… This town’s meant for leaving,” she says, and something in her eyes turns so melancholy that Nick feels it in his bones.
He shivers as he asks, “You’ve lived here all your life, then?”
For some reason, his words yield another sad smile. “Never known another place.”
“Then maybe you can help me,” Nick begins, mostly just to get rid of whatever is hanging in the air. “Where do you recommend I go for some breakfast?”
Bridget’s smile turns genuine at that.
“I think I know a place,” she tells him.
Before he’s quite sure where he’s going, Nick agrees to look for the building on the corner.
When he turns back to thank her, she’s already gone.
The whole town feels like it is stuck in the past.
He’d been too tired the night before to process it, but the cobblestone streets and red brick buildings are sights he’s never seen in real life before, even after all of the miles and towns he’s already left in his rear view.
It is picturesque, almost too much so.
Then there are the people.
Every time he makes eye contact, the townsperson on the other end looks away. The Los Angeles streets that Nick grew up on certainly hadn’t taught him the realities of a small town dynamic, but he thinks that this can’t be right. He hasn’t let himself stop often on his road trip, but he’s seen his fair share of small towns, and none are like this one.
The people look at him like they have a secret to keep. He thinks that maybe they do, but he’s not about to ask anyone.
He just wants hot coffee and a decent meal.
When he finally sees the building on the corner, he stops walking without meaning to. This building bleeds history, the same way that the street bleeds nostalgia and the people bleed suspicion. He can’t explain it, but something about the old brick gives him goosebumps.
When he sees through the window that there are already several customers inside with plates piled high with food, he shakes his head at himself, and he doesn’t hesitate any longer.
Everyone freezes as he walks in. He hears whispering, and it reminds him of earlier in the morning.
Nick steels himself to walk up to the counter.
Every eye in the building follows him.
“Hey,” he greets the teenager pouring coffee.
“Hey,” the kid answers warily.
Nick sits down on one of the stools. “Could I get a cup of that?”
The kid raises his eyebrows, and for the life of him Nick can’t figure out what the boy is thinking, but the boy complies, setting a mug in front of him. Nick notices that his nametag reads “Josh.”
“So, Josh,” Nick sees the boy cross his arms at the use of his name, “did I come at a bad time? Town seems to be in a bad mood.”
“Nope,” Josh responds simply.
The answer makes Nick’s stomach turn uneasy, but the combination of coffee and a good night’s sleep has emboldened him.
“Any reason everyone’s looking at me like I’m carrying the plague?”
Josh turns away.
Nick pays for his coffee and leaves. He feels their suspicion follow him out.
As Nick ambles his way back to the motel, he sees Bridget across the street. He feels a smile split his face in spite of himself, and he raises a hand in greeting.
Bridget does not notice him, just continues walking aimlessly, almost desperately.
Nick’s eyebrows furrow in confusion. He thinks about calling out to her, but before he can do it, she vanishes in a shimmer of light.
Nick blinks once. Twice. Rubs his eyes in hopes that they are playing tricks on him.
The air is thicker where Bridget had just stood, like a fog rolling and roiling across cobblestones.
Nick picks up his pace, heartbeat loud in his ears.
It has to be that his mind is making things up after weeks of nothing but driving.
As he walks the rest of the way, he pays closer attention.
Where he had only seen suspicious people before, he now sees aimless ones alongside them. The ones glaring daggers at him seem more real. The wanderers just ignore him.
He sets his eyes on a man in a tweed suit walking ahead of him.
Nick speeds up his pace. The man continues drifting aimlessly.
When Nick catches up and juts a shoulder out, he is left gasping for breath as the impact never comes. A pain like frostbite shoots down his arm, and Nick doesn’t know if the reason he can’t breathe is the cold or the shock of what he has just witnessed.
Nick lets himself double over, hands on his knees as he struggles for air.
When he feels like he can function again, he does his utmost to talk himself out of it.
He knows what he saw, but he knows just as certainly that he can’t have seen it.
Nick runs the rest of the way to the motel, to his car, to whatever can get him away from this.
But it is staring him in the face. It’s not so much a matter of unseeing it as it is unfeeling it, and he can’t. Every step feels like not belonging, like the Earth breaking open, like lingering.
Nick stares at his own reflection in his rearview window.
The truth stares back.
Here, there are ghosts.
Nick hates that he’s still in town.
He’d almost decided that it was worth it to just leave his bag in the motel room, to jump in his beaten up Jeep and go, but that bag held the only things he’d packed. He was too far from home to just leave it behind.
Now, he has it slung over his shoulder, forcing himself to breathe.
When he hurries back out of the motel, the old woman from the night before is there.
She looks at him knowingly.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Nick can’t even find it in him to sputter out a response, but the woman isn’t done with him yet.
“Was it Bridget?”
Nick lets out a breath, barely believing that he’s going along with this, but he nods.
“She’s my grandmother, you know,” the old woman says so matter of factly that Nick wants to scream.
“Never met her when she was alive. She likes the young out-of-towners, though. Soon as I saw you, I knew she’d visit.”
The world here is so upside down that Nick thinks he has forgotten every word he ever knew.
“What…” Nick begins, and when he realizes that it’s not going anywhere, he tries again. “What?!”
The woman looks at him like he’s slow, which maybe he is, but Nick thinks that he should hardly be expected to make coherent sentences right now.
The woman says in response, “Bridget is a ghost.”
She says it slowly, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world.
“How are you just okay with that?!” Nick asks in exasperation.
“Nothing I can do to change it,” the woman responds evenly. “And the ghosts don’t mind it too much, most of the time. But I’ve gotta ask,” she says, eyeing Nick carefully, “How’d you get here?”
Nick stares back blankly. “From the highway.”
“From the highway?”
Her voice is so skeptical that Nick almost wishes he had been lying so he has something to confess.
“I just… took an exit, and I didn’t care where I was going, just needed to stop. Then I ended up on this country road and then… here,” He finishes lamely.
She nods. “That explains it, then.”
Nick disagrees. “How?!”
“You didn’t care where you were going, so you’re running from something.” She narrows her eyes. “What are you running from?”
Nick feels himself deflate.
This whole thing is some kind of cosmic punishment.
“Nothing,” he says defensively.
The woman just waits.
“Okay, I broke up with someone.”
Her eyes stay narrowed. Nick wilts beneath them.
“We were engaged.”
“And?” the woman prompts.
Now, Nick is genuinely puzzled again. “And what? I dumped her, then I jumped in my car and put two weeks of driving between us.”
“There has to be something else,” the woman says, but Nick gets the feeling that she’s talking more to herself than him.
“I mean, I guess I’ve kinda been a dick by not checking my phone? But there’s no service,” he responds, defensive again.
“Oh.” She says it softly, and now he could see the resemblance between her and Bridget.
She looks him in the eyes.
“The only strangers who make it here are the ones with something haunting them.”
Nick supposes he doesn‘t feel great about the breakup, but he’s not sure about it haunting him.
“I guess that makes sense,” he says, mostly to appease the woman. Nothing makes sense.
She looks at him like he doesn’t understand, and sure, Nick figures there are quite a few things that he doesn’t.
He needs to get back to where the world isn't broken.
“So… I think I’m gonna go? I think-- yeah, this is enough for one day,” Nick says. He is trying to make light of this.
“Best thing, then.” There is a melancholy tinge to her voice.
As he turns away, he hears her once again offer a quiet “Good luck.”
Nick doesn’t start to feel better until he’s let town fade in the rearview.
He still hasn’t processed-- well, anything, but he figures that he can push everything that has happened on this road trip to a part of his brain where he never thinks about it, never looks at it too closely, never wonders.
He plays his music loud enough to deafen himself.
He doesn’t check his phone until he stops for gas. He knows Jessica will have texted him about the breakup, about how he always runs from things, about how she still has an engagement ring and nothing to do with it.
He thinks it’s time to face it all.
With a heavy sigh, Nick unlocks his phone.
To his surprise, the most recent calls and texts aren’t from her. He is almost more shocked to see when he glances through his missed calls that her parents had called him. That can’t be good. Her father never liked him much.
Nick decides that he’ll open one of his own mother’s seventeen voicemails. She was the most persistent.
The second he puts the phone to his ears, his blood runs cold.
In the message, his mother struggles to get the words out through her sobs, but when she manages it, the only words that Nick picks out are “Jessica” and “passed away” before he throws the phone to the ground.
He falls to his knees in the middle of the gas station parking lot.
Nick can’t breathe.
He thinks his phone screen might be shattered, too, but there are more pressing issues like he can’t breathe, he can’t breathe, he can’t--
He can’t do this.
He gets back into the car, and it takes him a minute to realize that it’s raining as he gets back on the road.
Nick thinks that all the water might wash the blood off of his hands. He hopes it doesn’t.
The rain keeps pounding, but it’s still too quiet. He thinks he might see something in his side mirror, maybe Jessica, or even Bridget, but his vision is blurred by tears and rain, and his hands shake on the wheel, so he can’t trust himself.
He passes a field of newly planted seeds which the rain has flooded and wiped away, and Nick hazily thinks that the seeds never stood a chance.