Read Haunted Love Online

Authors: Cynthia Leitich Smith

Haunted Love

ON MY WAY TO WORK
, I pass the worn-out white cottage where I lived as a little kid. The windows are boarded up. So is the door. I expect it’ll be put up for auction. I expect it’ll go cheap. Nobody’s moving to Spirit, Texas.

Every year, the high-school grads pack up and leave — one or two for college, the rest for jobs in bigger towns. And every other week, a crowd gathers at the funeral parlor to pay their respects to one of the old folks. Death is the most lucrative business in town.

It seems like everyone dies or leaves. But I’m not going anywhere. Spirit is home. It’s the little piece of the world that makes sense to me, which, lately, is saying a lot.

“Cody!” calls a bright, female voice from behind me.

I ignore her. I’ve never been a talkative kind of guy.

“Cody Stryker!” exclaims the teenage daughter of the new mayor — the one who’s going to turn the empty storefronts into antique shops and the abandoned houses into bed-and-breakfasts and offer Spirit a future again, or so he says. “Wait,” she pleads. “I need to talk to you.”

I pause, turn. Did I say nobody moves here? The girl standing in front of me this evening is an exception to that rule. Last fall, Ginny Augustine and her folks arrived in Spirit after the bank foreclosed on their home in The Woodlands.

Typically, you have to live in town for at least a year before running for office, but nobody else wanted the job, so the city council passed a waiver and Mr. Augustine ran unopposed.

My glare falls to Ginny’s hand on my sleeve.

She snatches it back. “I don’t believe we’ve met before. I’m—”

“I know who you are.” I begin walking again. Glancing at her sideways, I ask, “What do you want?”

I feel a faint flash of guilt when she blinks, startled.

“Well,” Ginny begins again, “someone’s cranky. Here’s the deal: I’m going to handle ticket sales for you. Cool, huh?” When I don’t reply, she adds, “You know, at the theater. Movies? Tickets?”

For the first time in over fifty years, the Old Love Theater will open tonight at 8
P.M.
After Uncle Dean’s death, I sold off a third of his cattle, his antique gun, and his fishing boat to make the down payment. None of it was worth much, but neither is the Old Love.

It’s reassuring to have somewhere to be on a night-to-night basis, though, to have another purpose beyond satisfying my thirst. To have something else to think about besides the night I faced down my uncle for the last time.

I keep going, trying to ignore how Ginny falls in step by my side.

At sixteen, she’s girl-next-door pretty, medium height, and curvy. Her teeth are even and pearly white. Long, honey-blond hair frames her friendly face. What with the powder blue baby T that reads
sassy
in rhinestones and her faded denim cutoffs, Ginny looks like she was born and bred in Spirit, like a real small-town girl.

When we reach the theater, she persists in following me around back.

Ginny leans against the door, coy, as I fish my keys out of my jeans pocket.

“Big night,” she observes. “You nervous?”

“No,” I lie, unlocking the dead bolt. Once inside, I add, “And I’m not hiring.”

“Really?” Ginny asks, shoving a sandal-clad foot in the doorway. “You mean you’re going to run the projector, pop the corn, restock the concession stand, ring up food and drinks, vacuum the carpet, change the toilet paper, and do . . . whatever managers do — paperwork and bills — all by yourself? Think about it, cowboy. How do you plan to sell tickets and handle concessions at the same time?”

On one hand, I don’t want to encourage her. On the other, I don’t need any trouble from her leaving pissed off. I don’t need trouble — period. I wish she would just take off. “I’m not opening the concession stand.”

“Well, there go your profits! You’re charging — what? — three bucks a show? I know people around here are cheap, but do you have any idea what, say, electricity alone is going to cost? It’s summer. It’s Texas. Think: air-conditioning.”

Honestly, I hadn’t considered that. It’s not like I have an MBA or anything. I just graduated from high school a couple of weeks ago. I used to mow lawns in the summer, but this will be my first real job off the ranch. I may have been overambitious.

“Plus,” Ginny goes on, “insurance, taxes, and you might want to advertise the place as a tourist attraction. The founders of Spirit were key players in the early days of the Republic, and historical tourism is becoming —”

“Enough.” She’s a politician’s daughter, all right. Opening the door wider, knowing I’ll regret it, I say, “Come in. We’ll talk.”

Ginny quiets as I lead her through the service hallway. It is hot in here. Muggy.

I wonder what, if anything, she knows about the building’s tragic history, its lingering reputation. A teenage girl — Sonia Mitchell — was found dead in a storage closet in 1959. Another girl, Katherine something-or-other — Vogel maybe — went missing for good. She was new in town, like Ginny, and her body was never found. Both girls worked at the theater. And again, like Ginny, both girls were sixteen.

Everyone hereabouts has heard the story. Partiers have busted in over the years, too, and every now and then a whole pack would run out hollering about a ghost.

There’s no denying that the theater has an eerie quality to it. Over the past week, I’ve seen the letter
S
written in the dust and wiped it away again and again. Once or twice, I could’ve sworn I heard a soft voice coming from somewhere in the building. Enticing, musical, feminine . . . I’m starting to hear it in my dreams.

As Ginny and I enter the lobby, I don’t give her the satisfaction of cranking the air conditioner immediately.

Instead, I take in my new business, trying to see it the way tonight’s customers will. It’s a grand old place with a huge antique crystal chandelier, built when cotton was king. Granted, the gold-and-crimson wallpaper is faded, and the blood-red carpet is worn. So are the red upholstered seats in the screening room — both on the main floor and up in the balconies. But there’s still a romance to the place, a whisper of the past.

Besides, my mom loved it. Every time we passed by, she’d say the Old Love was a ghost of the glory days of Spirit, a reminder of who we’d been and could become again.

“Do you know how to run a register?” I ask Ginny, gesturing.

She’s already playing with it. I only have one, set at the ticket counter. It’s an older model that I ordered off eBay.

“Hmm,” Ginny says, scanning the lobby before brightening. “I know! We can lay out candy and popcorn on the counter, post prices, and provide a box with a slot in it so that people can pay on the honor system. Like at the library for folks with fines on overdue books.”

That wouldn’t work in most places. In Spirit, it’ll do fine.

“There are some boxes in my office,” I say, impressed despite myself. After a pause, I add, “Why do you want this job anyway?”

Ginny shrugs. “I could use the money.”

That makes two of us. The thing about living forever, I suddenly need a long-term financial plan. And, I realize, so far as Ginny is concerned, there aren’t any other jobs within walking distance. I bet she used to have a flashy car. I bet it was repossessed.

I can’t help wondering if there’s more to her being here than that. Not to be conceited, but I’m fairly good-looking. I’ve got Mom’s blue eyes, and they stand out against my deep brown skin, slick black hair, and the sharp features I inherited from whoever was my dad. I’m wiry but solid enough from working on Uncle Dean’s ranch.

Outside Spirit, girls are always flirting, not that I know what to say back.

The locals, on the other hand, they pity me. When my mom died, everyone said what a shame it was for me to be orphaned at only ten. They saw my bruises in the years that followed. And they knew what Uncle Dean was like.

For a long time, I thought sooner or later somebody would report him to social services — a preacher, a teacher, the school nurse — but it never happened.

I guess most folks were as scared of Uncle Dean as I was.

Ginny is looking at me with an oddly knowing smile, and I realize she’s waiting for my decision. I can’t help thinking she may be useful. I can’t help wondering if she has a boyfriend. But spending quality time around that flesh-and-blood girl is intrinsically problematic. The flesh is a problem. The blood is a problem. At any given moment, it’s a toss-up which is worse. “Okay,” I say. “You’re hired.”

The chandelier rattles, distracting us both.

“Drafty,” Ginny says, glancing around. “But where’s it coming from?”

She asks too many questions. “I turned on the air conditioner.”

It’s a lie.

After a ridiculous amount of negotiation, I agree to ten cents above minimum wage, send Ginny home to change into a white button-down shirt, black slacks, and black shoes, and tell her to come back in a couple of hours.

Unlocking the door to my cramped office, I’m less than thrilled to realize that I may need to hire a second person. Someone local. Quiet.

Within the next few years, I need to sew up an understanding with the good people of Spirit. They may not know what I am, but they’ll figure it out over time. On the off chance that Ginny’s daddy’s “revitalization” plan works, I’ll be here for generations. I need to reassure them that my presence is no more threatening than the fact that Edwina Labarge collects snow globes or that Betty Mueller talks to her dead husband or that Miss Josefina and Miss Abigail have been “roommates” for more than thirty years.

I’ll need front people, I realize, so that the customers who drive in from nearby towns don’t notice that the “young” owner never seems to age.

Inside the office, I hit the ceiling-fan light, and begin sifting through the old newspapers and boxes, looking for one that will do for the concession stand.

The headline of a yellowed copy of
The Spirit Sentinel
from June 13, 1959, catches my eye. It reads “City Mourns Daughter; New Girl Missing.”

I lift it, studying the black-and-white picture — Sonia’s dimple and laughing eyes. I trace the hairline around her lovely face. Sixteen forever.

I never want to be the kind of monster that destroys innocence like that.

Reaching into my small half-fridge, I grab a bottle of blood, pour a quarter of it into a Texas A&M mug, and pop that into the microwave on the shelf.

Seconds later, I close my eyes, savoring the taste, pushing back the disgust.

I’ve been this way for only a few weeks.

It’s funny. I used to roll my eyes at all those media stories about the trouble kids get into on the Internet. How every generation of grown-ups assumes that whatever’s new — from flapper dresses to rock and roll to the World Wide Web — is automatically a sign of the apocalypse. My theory was that parenthood triggered amnesia followed by paranoia, though I had to admit it would’ve been nice to have someone who cared.

Not long after Uncle Dean cracked one of my ribs, I heard at school that there was this guy in Athens, Georgia, selling a “power elixir” on the Net. I figured it was some kind of steroid cocktail. Probably risky, but it’s not like my life was all that safe to begin with. Anyway, the guy supposedly supplied a vat of the stuff to the Varsity football team in El Paso that took state last year.

It was so easy. I “borrowed” Uncle Dean’s Mastercard and put in my order. The vial arrived overnight in a box packed with dry ice.

I remember thinking as I unscrewed the cap,
What the hell?

Nothing could’ve been more appropriate.

Blinking back the memory, I reach for the bottle to pour myself more blood.

Someone has used a finger to write something in the condensation on the glass. It looks like the letter
S
. It wasn’t there a moment ago. She’s getting bolder, making a bigger play for my attention. It’s flattering, I admit. “Sonia?”

“What do you think?” Ginny asks, straightening the newly poured paper cups on the concession stand counter.

“Not bad.” I have to give her credit. In Ginny’s make-do theater uniform, complete with ponytail, she looks like the picture of all-American wholesomeness. She also had her mom swing by Walmart (two towns north) and they picked up ice, several two-liter plastic bottles of Coke (diet, regular, Dr Pepper, Sprite), and several discounted packages of candy bars. It’s quite the display of enthusiasm, of
spirit
, you might say.

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