Authors: David Pandolfe
A New Use for an Old Lighter
I keep thinking someone will come after us but soon we clear
the gate and it feels amazing to drive out of that parking lot. By a miracle
named Lauren, I’ve regained my freedom. For how long, I can’t say but it still
feels like a dream come true. I can’t wait to see sidewalks, strip malls, gas
stations and fast-food restaurants. In a word, civilization. Above us there’s
the sunny blue sky. I gaze out my window, grinning.
It isn’t long, though, before reality rears its ugly
little head. I try to fight off the feeling but how will I explain this to my
parents? Should I go back and tell Mr. Wilhite it was all a misunderstanding?
Like maybe the whole coma thing had really been just a concussion or something?
“I just felt the mood shift,” Lauren says.
“Right, you’re kind of psychic. I forgot.”
“Hate to tell you this, but the dramatic sigh kind of
tipped me off.”
I stare out at the road trying not to sigh again. I sigh.
“Is it safe to assume the plan isn’t going back to Edmonds?”
Lauren turns onto the main road and the van picks up
speed. “Yep, it’s safe to say that isn’t the plan. Do you want to go back to Edmonds?”
It really is a loaded question, since it means so much
more than going back home. Do I want to go back to my life? Do I even want to
be in that life to begin with? I’m pretty sure that’s exactly how Lauren means
it even though she barely knows me.
“Not exactly,” I say.
Lauren glances at me. “That was the feeling I got. Call
me psychic, if you’d like. Or observant. Up to you.”
“Then what’s the plan?”
“Your turn to be psychic. What’s the plan?”
“I’m guessing maybe North Carolina.”
“We could,” Lauren says. “Time to trust your instincts.
In your gut, do you still think we should?”
I don’t have to think about it. Even if it means getting
my ass handed to me later, somehow I know we should still try to find out more.
“Same here,” Lauren says. “I’ve just had the strongest
feeling we should do this. Apparently, you share the same feeling so I guess
you’re psychic too. Welcome to the club.”
I’m not sure if she’s kidding. You just trust your
instincts? Obviously, there has to be way more to being psychic. Probably,
Lauren is just messing with me again. Obviously, she enjoys doing that, which
reminds me she didn’t answer my question before. “You do actually have a
“Of course,” Lauren says. “Don’t you?”
“Just a permit,” I admit.
It seemed important to know but now I regret opening this
door. Partly because I’m embarrassed but mostly because of
gotten my license. After getting my permit, those sessions spent in the car
with my father hadn’t exactly been bonding moments. It wasn’t that learning to
drive had been the issue. If it had been, at least we would have had something
to talk about. Instead, it was the prolonged awkward silences that made me keep
putting it off. He must have felt the same way since he didn’t push it either.
We both just put it on the back burner to avoid being around each other.
“You’re frowning again,” Lauren says.
I’m not going to tell her. It’s too depressing. “I’m just
thinking about how my parents are going to react.”
It’s Lauren’s turn to sigh. “So, you bailed out of a
smelly place in the woods. It’s not like you broke the law. You just broke some
rules. Feel better?”
She does have a point. What’s the worst that could
happen—I disappoint my parents? Nothing new there. I get sent back? Okay, then
at least I’ll have been gone for a while. “I’m good,” I say.
“Great, now try to relax. All we have to do is zip down
to North Carolina, check things out, then head back. The Outer Banks is only
like three hours from here.”
Suddenly, things seem good again. Maybe I really can make
up some excuse and check myself back into the
early evening. Then something else occurs to me. “How did you know where I
Lauren keeps her eyes on the road. “Are you kidding? You
complain about coming here all the time. I sat near you in math for an entire
“But we never really talked.”
“Doesn’t mean I wasn’t listening.” Before I foster the
illusion that she’d had any interest at the time, she adds. “I mean, you kept
going on about it. Anyway, where is Kill Devil Hills, do you know? It’s down
here somewhere, right?”
I turn to stare at her.
Lauren glances at me and bursts out laughing. “You should
see your face right now. Don’t worry, there’s a GPS in the glove compartment.
Do you mind getting it?”
I find the GPS and plug it into the cigarette lighter.
“I already set the route,” Lauren says. “I did a search
for Victor Delvechio yesterday. He came right up so we’re all set. There is
some bad news, though.”
“No CD player in this thing. We’re stuck with the radio.
And all I’ve been getting down here is country.”
“Actually, you’re stuck with the radio. Let me know when
we get to the Outer Banks.” I take my iPod out of my pocket and insert my earbuds.
“You are such a—” is the last thing I hear before
cranking up my music and closing my eyes. But I figure a nap is justified.
After all, it really was a shock hearing about my mother’s accident.
In the dream, she stands facing a huge audience, one hand
muting her guitar, the other resting on her microphone. Sweat drips off her
hair and she gazes out, her chest rising and falling like she’s just stopped
running. She parts her lips as if about to sing. Instead, she says, “Goodbye.”
The word reverberates through the auditorium, ten times louder than the band
playing behind her. Suddenly, she unstraps her guitar and hurls it into the
air. The audience stares up, following the path of the guitar that somehow
remains suspended beneath the stage lights in a slow motion arc. Only I notice
as she walks off the stage toward the darkness of the wings. I call out to her,
“Wait, come back! You’re not done!” She doesn’t hear me. No one hears me. In
that place, I might as well be a ghost. A moment later, she’s gone and that
guitar continues to sail through the air.
Something hits my arm. “Was it her?”
I open my eyes and blink against sunlight.
“What did you see?”
I look around, disoriented, then remember I’m in Lauren’s
van. The dream was so vivid.
“Wake up,” Lauren says. “You were talking in your sleep.
You saw her again, didn’t you?”
Her voice sounds muted and it takes me a second to
realize I still have my earbuds in. At some point, my music stopped. I take out
the earbuds. “It was just a dream,” I mumble.
“Sure, but sometimes a dream is
than just a
dream. You know that.”
Why does Lauren assume I know these things? Maybe because
she’s accepted this part of herself while I’ve kept hoping it will go away.
Even now, I don’t know that I’m ready to face it full-on like she does. Part of
me still just wants to be normal.
I sit up straight, still groggy, the road and cars ahead
of us blurry. “Sorry, but I don’t know that. I thought it was just a dream.”
“Well, think about that first time when you saw her on
stage like you were right there watching her, that moment when she looked directly
at you. You knew something was going on with that, right?”
I shake my head to wake up. “Technically, that was more a
hallucination,” I say. Still, it seems Lauren does have a point. “So, you’re
saying what? That somehow she knew I found her guitar? That she was trying to
get through to me?”
“Maybe not at that exact moment. She might not know
anything about it other than a vague feeling. Maybe not even that. Like we
talked about, she might be dead. But that doesn’t mean she can’t talk to you in
her own way. Spirits contact the living through dreams all the time. Not too
many of us can actually see or hear them when we’re awake.”
I’m still at least partly in denial when it comes to the
glowing guy, but it seems easier to just go with it. “Why’s that?”
“Because we refuse to see them. It’s that simple. They
can’t exist, so they don’t. Denial is a powerful thing. For example, how many
people tell themselves there’s no such thing as climate change even as the ice
caps melt and freak storms keep happening?”
“Good example,” I say, thinking of my parents and FOX
“If people refuse to accept that the polar ice caps are
melting—even when they know both that the ice caps exist and they’re
melting—imagine how tough it is to be a ghost. They’re not supposed to exist in
the first place. So, naturally, most people never see them.” Lauren signals and
merges into a different lane, checking the mirrors. “Anyway, you saw your
ghost. So, that’s a good sign.”
That’s the first time I’ve heard the words “ghost” and
“good” paired together. My world is definitely changing. “Of what?”
“That she might not be dead.”
“Okay, you just lost me.”
Lauren merges the van another lane over. “It’s kind of
basic. If you can see ghosts, then you’d see her if she was one. I mean, if she
wanted you to. So, she’s probably not a ghost. At the same time, we can’t know
that. She might just be new at being dead.”
“New at being dead?” I’m not sure what to do with that.
Lauren glances at me. “Weren’t you once new at being
alive? How good were you at walking and talking?” She takes the exit, slowing
the van around the curve.
Things just keep getting more strange. Then it occurs to
me to ask, “Where are we?”
“Almost at the Outer Banks,” Lauren says. “It won’t be
long. You slept for like an hour and half. By the way, you snore. Did you know
that? You probably couldn’t hear it over your music.”
A smile tugs at the corner of her mouth again. I really
love that. She’s trying to keep a straight face but doesn’t know she’s giving
herself away. She’s lying, totally. I just know it. Okay, I don’t know for sure
but I really hope she’s lying.
Back when I was eight, my family went on vacation in the
Outer Banks. We never went again. Personally, I thought the place was
fantastic. Endless beaches on one side with waves rolling in from the ocean and
peaceful Currituck Sound on the other. So, you had both surf and calm water
depending on your mood. There were restaurants by the millions—burgers, pizza,
subs, ice cream and any kind of seafood you could think of—plus shops all over
the place selling tie-dye t-shirts, kites, posters, toys and even live hermit
crabs with painted shells. I never wanted to leave. Basically, it was kid
The Outer Banks didn’t quite have the same effect on my
parents. They kept describing their surroundings as being “tacky” or “seedy.” I
remember them also saying there were too many people around, which struck me as
being kind of odd since obviously it was summer at the beach. Later, I realized
what they really meant was that they were surrounded by the wrong kind of
people, ranging from basic families to dreadlocked beachcombers and bikers.
“Common” was the word I remember my mother using to describe them when she
didn’t think I was listening. After that, they tried taking us to more
“genteel” places like Charleston and Atlanta but after a while we were just
shipped off to summer camps and they went where they pleased.
I try to fight off the sinking feeling. Forget all that,
I tell myself—it doesn’t matter anymore. I’m here now, with Lauren. She drives
along roads that seem vaguely familiar and I stare out at flags flapping in
front of beach supply stores, mini-golf courses with waterfalls and dinosaurs,
places to rent kayaks and drive-throughs where people buy beer and silly t-shirts.
Behind the businesses is a seemingly endless row of giant multi-level beach
“We should be there soon,” Lauren says.
Suddenly, it occurs to me to ask, “Did you call this guy
or something? Does he know we’re coming?” With everything that happened, I
totally forgot about that part.
Lauren is scanning for a radio station now that we were
back in civilization, but she stops her search. “Nothing like that. I just
pulled up his address.”
“How do you know it’s even him?”
“There was only one Victor Delvechio listed in Kill Devil
Hills. Seemed a safe bet.”
Something else crosses my mind. “It’s like two o’clock or
something, right? What are the odds of this guy even being home?”
Lauren doesn’t hesitate. “Just a hunch but, considering
Anthony’s description, I kind of doubt his son works nine to five.”
She steers the van off the main road and down a side
street, the nice beach houses suddenly replaced by low end motels and apartment
buildings. Not scary places or anything. Just kind of—oh, crap—the words “tacky”
and “seedy” come to mind. The scenery around us continues to get more ghetto as
we drive another mile or so.
“Arriving at destination!” the GPS lady announces. She’s
been rambling on for so long that I forgot she was even there. Kind of like
having your grandmother in the back seat.
Lauren kills the engine in front of an apartment
building, hands-down the winner for the “tacky” and “seedy” prize. Blotchy,
faded green stucco walls. Moss clinging to the roofline and window frames.
Cheap, worn plastic furniture alongside rusting grills on cluttered balconies.
You can tell at a glance the place is a total dump.
“So, here we are,” Lauren says. “Pop quiz! Is he home?”
I check to see if she’s joking but she stares back at me,
waiting for an answer. “I guess he could be, sure,” I say. “Like you said, he
might not work—”
“That was a yes or no question. Don’t think, answer.”
“Cool, let’s go test your psychic abilities again to see
if they’re getting any sharper.”