Read Streetlights Like Fireworks Online

Authors: David Pandolfe

Streetlights Like Fireworks (7 page)

BOOK: Streetlights Like Fireworks
5.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

I suck up the last of my Coke through the straw and set
the cup on the bedside table. “You said before that your house is full of
ghosts or something like that. What did you mean?”

Lauren reaches into her bag and gets a pack of gum. She
unwraps a stick. “It’s a mother and two kids.”

“Seriously? Can you see them?”

“Every so often. But mostly I just feel them being there.
I think it might also be up to a ghost when they can be seen. Or maybe it takes
some sort of special effort on their part.”

“Why do you think they’re stuck there?”

Lauren holds the pack out to me and I almost pass since I
don’t usually chew gum. Then it occurs to me that maybe she wants me to have
minty breath for a reason. Our eyes meet and, despite my vow, my heartbeat
starts picking up again.
Come on
, I tell myself.
Really? It’s a
freaking piece of gum
.
Probably not a whole lot of subtext there
.
Still, my hand shakes a bit as I withdraw a stick from the pack. I hope Lauren
doesn’t notice.

Thankfully, she doesn’t, I’m pretty sure. Her mind still
seems to be on ghosts. “My theory is they haven’t yet accepted being dead,” she
says.

I make myself focus on the conversation. Okay, that’s new
too. First, there was new at being dead. Now, there’s not accepting being dead.
“Not sure I’m following,” I say.

Lauren nods. “Well, like if you’re not totally convinced
yet that you are. Say, if it happened all of a sudden. Here’s the deal—you
know, my mother’s place is like a million years old or something, right? Well,
we heard that at one time the house that used to be on that land burned to the
ground in the middle of the night. No one knows why, maybe an electrical fire
or something. My guess is that the family—the mother and the two kids—were
sleeping and then, wham!” Lauren smacks her palms together. “They woke up
dead.”

Yet another new one, waking up dead. “What about the
dad?”

“Who knows? Maybe he was in town seeing his mistress or
something. It’s not like I’m going to ask about it. Just because they’re dead
doesn’t mean I should be rude. Besides, it’s none of my business.”

“Have you tried talking to them?”

“Sure, sometimes I talk to them,” she says. “I’m pretty
sure they hear me.”

“Don’t they talk back? Seems kind of rude, if you ask
me.”

“Mostly, I’ve heard them talking to each other. Sometimes
they look at me but they don’t usually answer. I don’t know—maybe they need
their privacy. We are sharing a space, after all.”

Okay, sure. Maybe ghosts need their privacy too. Why not?
At the same time, part of me can’t believe we’re having this conversation like
it’s totally normal. “So, okay, the guy I saw. What do you think might be up
with him?”

Lauren’s eyes meet mine again. “He’s
your
ghost.
What do you think might be up with him?”

“My ghost?” What did that mean?

She laughs. “Not your actual ghost, obviously, but a
ghost that’s started following you around for some reason. Why do you think
that might be?” I’m about to say I have no idea, but she adds, “Of course you
can’t know the specifics. At least not yet. But pick a category—something he
did, something that happened to him, or something unresolved. Trust your
instincts and don’t think about it.”

“Okay, something unresolved,” I say, just like that. And
the weird part is I feel like I might be right.

“That’s what I think too. Something about this whole
guitar thing, and that woman you keep seeing, feels like something left
unresolved. No idea what that might be but that’s what I keep thinking.”

We sit there for a few moments not saying more and I
become aware of how she’s shifted on the bed while we’ve been talking. She sits
with her legs crossed, angled toward me, her knee lightly pressed against my
thigh. And I’ve never been able to talk to anyone about things like this. I
always thought I didn’t have to, that it would just be better off ignored, but
that’s not how I feel now at all. I think about closing the remaining distance
between us.

“So, blankets or bed?” Lauren says.

It takes me a few seconds before I manage to say, “I
guess, blankets?”

Lauren shifts away and stretches her legs out. I still
feel the warmth of where her leg had just been touching mine.

“Okay, cool,” she says. “I figured one of us would take
the bed and sheet and the other would take the blankets and the floor.”

“Yeah, that works.” I feel blood rushing to my face and
will myself not to run my hand across my brow. “You should take the bed,
definitely. You drove all day.”

“I have to admit, that was tiring.” Lauren reaches into
her bag and takes out her phone. “I’m going to step outside and call my
boyfriend. I’ll be back in a few.”

She goes outside and I sit on the bed. I can’t stop the
heat from spreading across my face but at least Lauren isn’t there to see it. I
chew my gum and stare at the silent television.

 
10

Talking to a Ghost

 

After Lauren falls asleep, I lay stretched out on the floor
on top of my blanket that I’ve folded to make a mattress. It’s not the most
comfortable situation but I also know that’s not what’s left me alone in the
dark staring at the ceiling. Part of it’s the calls and messages that have
stacked up on my phone since I last checked it. That had to happen and I was
kidding myself when I kept hoping it might be at least tomorrow before my
parents found out. That should be enough but it’s not the only thing on my
mind.

I also keep wondering why Lauren didn’t mention having a
boyfriend before tonight. God, I came within seconds of making a total fool of
myself. I try to picture who the guy might be but can’t think of anyone from
school, that’s for sure. Maybe it’s some college dude preying on high school
girls or some guy living in a nearby town. Either way, doesn’t he care that
Lauren is hanging out with me in a motel room in North Carolina? I want to be
mad at her but it’s not like she lied to me or led me on. There was no flirting
or anything even close. Any sexual tension had been entirely in my imagination.
I seriously hope I didn’t give off any signals. I tell myself I didn’t but I’m
not entirely sure. No, I’m not mad, I realize. Just embarrassed.

I give up on the idea of sleeping for now and take the
Fender out of its case. I run a few quiet riffs. I’m not plugged in so it isn’t
like I’m bothering Lauren. I strum a few chords. I keep expecting another flash
but no flashes come from the guitar tonight. I almost wish one did so I wasn’t
alone with my thoughts, since I know I should call my parents back. At the same
time, I also know it’s not concern for my well-being that’s compelled them to
call and text at least twenty times. It’s anger. Confusion. Disappointment.
Which to some degree or another is how they always feel about me. It’s the same
scale. We’ve just escalated the reading. After all, they must know I didn’t
leave alone. I didn’t drown or go missing in the woods. I took off. And why do
people take off? Well, typically that’s because they’re really unhappy.

Maybe I don’t exactly get a flash but I definitely get a
strong feeling. What kind of parents send their son someplace every summer that
they totally know he hates? You don’t have to be psychic to figure that one
out.

~~~

Hours later, I just know somehow and wake up. Sure enough,
there he stands in the middle of the room. He looks the same as before, tall
and thin with long hair. Again, the glowing light around him and through him.
Like he’s both there and not at the same time—as if he’s being projected from
somewhere else as he keeps flickering and fading.

This time, I don’t freak out or try to convince myself
it’s a dream. Maybe I’m less afraid because Lauren is in the room. Even if
she’s sleeping, at least someone else is there with me. Besides, she gets along
with ghosts. I guess I might as well try doing the same. But I’m not sure what
to say. “How do you like being dead?” seems a bad opener. “Why do ghosts wear
clothes?” is something that’s crossed my mind before. After all, why would
their clothes get trapped in some sort of afterlife? But that seems kind of
personal. I close my eyes, then open them again to be sure. He’s still there.

“I can see you,” is all I can think of, which seems both
stupid and obvious. After all, doesn’t that kind of go without saying if you’re
facing each other?

Nothing happens.

Suddenly, I think back to my conversation with Lauren
earlier. “Is it maybe something left unresolved?”

The ghost reacts, or at least it seems that way. For an
instant, he becomes less a glowing figure and more visible. More defined, more
solid. I see his eyes looking into mine. I wait, thinking he might even say
something but a moment later he’s already fading. Within seconds, he’s gone. I
sit there in the dark, staring at where he just was, both relieved and partly
hoping he’ll reappear. But the only light now comes from a streetlight outside,
just a sliver cast through a gap in the thick motel room curtain.

Across the room, Lauren keeps sleeping. I know this
because, yes, she’s snoring. I’m not sure which part I want to tell her about
first in the morning.

~~~

“I don’t snore!” Lauren says, as we drive back toward
Charlotte.

“Yeah, you totally do.”

“Not true.”

“Absolutely true. Like a bulldog.”

“Why should I believe you?”

“Because I took video.” I pull my phone from my pocket
and hold it up.

“You did not take freaking video!”

“Posting it to YouTube first chance I get.”

Lauren reaches for my phone and the van swerves. I have
no doubt she’d whip my phone out the window.

“Okay, kidding. I didn’t take video.”

“Better not have.”

“But you totally snore.”

“Liar.”

“Don’t worry, it wasn’t all that loud. It’s kind of a
light snoring thing you’ve got going on.”

“What do you mean, like you could hear me breathing?”

“Yeah, kind of like that. But through your nose, sort of
raspy. Like a really old man.”

Lauren smiles. “Give me a break. That’s allergies, not
snoring. That’s like checking someone’s pulse after they climb a hill and
telling them they’re having a heart attack.”

“Look, I get it. You’re defensive about your snoring. Who
wouldn’t be? For the record, it wasn’t like it woke me up. I was already
awake.”

“So, you were up just sitting there listening to me
breathe? Creep.”

“Okay, here’s the deal—the ghost came by again last
night. I think he was trying to figure out what the noise was. Maybe he thought
someone left a power saw running.”

Lauren fights the urge, but laughs. “Allergies! God,
you’re like a nose stalker too. Now cut the crap about my totally-not-true
snoring and tell me about the ghost. What happened?”

Through the windshield, I see the city skyline again. In
another few minutes we’ll be taking one of the downtown exits. “I tried talking
to him again.”

“Pretty gutsy how you keep talking to a ghost. I’m proud
of you. Did he hear you?”

It hadn’t occurred to me until she said it, but talking
to a ghost does take a certain amount of nerve. I can’t help feeling proud of
myself too. “Wait, wouldn’t he hear me this time if he heard me before?”

Lauren shrugs. “It’s not like I wrote the ghost manual.
Anyway, what happened?”

“Yeah, he heard me. At least, I think he did. He kind of
got more solid. Just for a second, he seemed like a normal person.”

Lauren doesn’t say anything and at first and I wonder if
she believes me. Then she says, “You mean he changed physically? I’ve heard
about that happening.”

I take a second to process that. “Never happened for
you?”

“Nope.”

“What do you think it means?”

Lauren doesn’t hesitate. “That this is personal. He knows
you.”

“He can’t possibly know me. That doesn’t make any sense.”

“What part makes
sense
?” Lauren freaks me out by
taking both hands off the steering wheel to make air quotes. Thankfully, she
puts her hands on the wheel again. “None of it, right?”

~~~

It turns out there really is a place in Charlotte called the
Trolleyman. Actually, it’s the Trolleyman Brewery, on Tryon Street in what they
apparently call the “uptown” area. We couldn’t be sure before if Victor might
have been lying. We snag a parking space across the street and wait for the
light at the crosswalk. It’s a nice part of town, actually, with tree-lined
streets, clean wide sidewalks and bus stops topped with curved glass. An old,
brick church with an ornate circle of stained glass sits on one corner, the
Trolleyman on the other at the end of a row of shops and restaurants. Sunlight
sparkles off skyscrapers not too far down the road, each architecturally
unique.

I guess Lauren must be thinking the same thing since, as
we approach the front doors of the Trolleyman, she says, “Not exactly what I
expected.”

“Same here,” I say. “I was guessing seedy dive. Doesn’t
look like the kind of place to sell drugs.”

“True,” Lauren says. “Then again, it’s easier selling
something to people with money.”

Inside the Trolleyman, we find bright lights, gleaming
wood and rows of widescreens silently showing sports stations. We stand at the
front desk for less than a minute before a pretty, blonde girl maybe a few
years older than us approaches smiling.

“Hey, you two,” she says, with just a hint of a southern
accent. “Having lunch with us today?”

“Is Susan working?” Lauren says. “We were wondering if we
could sit at one of her tables.”

The hostess thinks for a moment. “I don’t think we have
anyone named Susan working here.”

Crap. Of course, Lauren had already been pushing things
with Victor by asking where Susan worked. She hadn’t asked him when she’d
worked there.

“Susan Walker?” I try.

She shakes her head. “I’m sorry. I don’t know who that
is.” At that moment, a guy comes out of the bar. Early thirties, crisply dressed
in slacks, shirt and tie. Manager material, definitely. The hostess turns to
him. “Mike, do you know anyone named Susan Walker?”

He stops mid-stride and turns our way. An automatic smile
appears, then fades. “Are you two friends of hers?”

“You know her?” I say, pointlessly since obviously he
does.

He nods, eyes guarded. “She no longer works here.”

The way he says it tells a story in itself. Not one that
ended happily, I guess. “Did she work here recently?” I say.

The manager shakes his head, a little impatiently as if
we’re wasting his time. “It’s been a year or two.”

“Do you know where she might work now?” Lauren says.
“We’re trying to find her.”

He straightens a stack of menus and tucks them under the
front desk. “No idea. Susan didn’t exactly leave under the best circumstances.”

In other words, she got fired. He doesn’t have to say
why. It doesn’t matter. Susan Walker is long gone and not missed, obviously.

“Can I get you two a table?” His meaning is clear. The
conversation is over.

Five minutes later we’re sitting back in the bus, sitting
parked across from the Trolleyman. I stare down the street at those shiny
buildings.

“Shit. We just drove all the way here for nothing.”

“Maybe,” Lauren says.

I glance at her as she watches people pass by on the sidewalk.
Two old ladies walking arm in arm, laughing about something. A middle-aged man
talking on his phone.      

“Maybe?” I say.

Lauren turns to face me. “Well, probably. I’ll give you
that.”

“It’s a total dead-end.”

“It does seem that way.”

I wonder if she’s just messing with me. “Do you maybe
know something I don’t?”

“Nope.”

There’s the smile again, tugging at the corner of her lip
and, despite the situation, I feel a smile coming too.

“Okay, how can this be anything other than what it seems
like?”

Lauren shrugs. “Well, we both felt strongly that we
should try to figure this whole deal out, right?”

That much is true, definitely. “Okay, sure.”

“Do you suppose we were wrong?”

“Maybe.”

“You don’t mean that.”

Which is true, I don’t. Or at least I don’t want it to be
true for several reasons. The first being I’ve just gotten myself into a
shitload of trouble for no reason at all. The second being I really want to
know why I experienced Richter Scale 7 magnitude flashes. The third being our
trip, and hence our time together, will now already be over. Despite last
night, boyfriend or not, I really like being around Lauren. A lot. And it’s not
like she’s married. Things can still change. I’m nowhere near ready to have her
pull up in front of my house and drop me off and say something like, “See you
at school next year.”

“Okay, I hope it’s not true,” I say.

“I don’t think we were wrong,” Lauren says. “So,
something has to come our way. Hopefully, that will happen. How about we go
find someplace to eat.”

I look across the street at the Trolleyman Brewery but
Lauren reads my mind.

“Not there,” she says. “The manager seemed like kind of a
dipshit.”

~~~

We decide to walk around, just to check things out while
also looking to see if we spot someplace where we’d like to eat. It feels good
to be out of the bus and not worried about getting somewhere. We’re just more
people on the sidewalk, blending in like we live in Charlotte too. The day is
getting hotter and more humid now that it’s almost noon but it doesn’t bother
me. I look at the bright side—right now, I probably would have been herding a
bunch of twelve-year-olds on a hike through the woods or hauling a cart full of
dirty towels from the pool to the laundry. Every day is an adventure for a
Leader in Training. Ten minutes ago, I felt totally depressed but now it
doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. Maybe Lauren is right and something will
come up. And, if nothing does, we’re still together for now. That’s worth
plenty in itself.

We walk past an old guy sitting on a milk crate playing
an acoustic guitar—dark scalp ringed with gray-frizzled hair, eyes hidden
behind black glasses—and we stop to listen. It surprises me that he’s tearing
into a Pixies song,
Dig for Fire
, when I expect to hear some old blues
or something. In fact, he’s totally owning it, putting his own spin on the song
and it sounds really cool. I’ve been a Pixies fan for a while and I almost want
to take it for some sort of sign. But I can’t see what the Pixies, or the old
street musician, have to do with anything. All the same, when he’s done I drop
a dollar into his open guitar case and he says, “Keep the faith, my man.”

We walk for maybe another half-mile and spot a place
called the Midnight Diner, a restaurant basically made out of chrome that
dazzles my eyes in the bright sun.

BOOK: Streetlights Like Fireworks
5.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Too Wicked to Tame by Jordan, Sophie
All My Tomorrows by Ellie Dean
Being Invisible by Baldwin, Penny
Alligator Candy by David Kushner
Bitter Sweet by Mason N. Forbes
Citadel: First Colony by Kevin Tumlinson