by Sue Tokuyama
The sun hid behind a fluff of clouds. Rocket was there before her, sniffing around the edges of boots and coat, as curious as always. Lucy considered this fortuitous, because she would have tripped over the body otherwise.
Leaning down, Lucy studied the half-hidden face and shook a shoulder. Then she burrowed a hand under the woolen scarf wrapped around the body’s neck to see if she could find a pulse. The skin was as cold as the dirt upon which the body lay. No pulse.
Backing away several feet, Lucy felt for her phone, and punched in 911. She told the woman on the other end that she had found a body, on the Steadman Lake Trail, about half a mile from the trailhead. She agreed to stay until help arrived. Wondering what help they would give the woman who lay at her feet, Lucy hung up the phone and looked around for Rocket, who had wandered yards ahead, impatient to be getting on with her walk.
Lucy studied the body, unable to tear her eyes away. The woman lay on her side, as though curled up for a nap. One boot on top of another, knees square, wool covering all but her calves in corduroy. The coat was a herringbone tweed in light brown. The scarf, a darker shade of brown, wrapped neatly around her neck. A hat sat on top of her long hair, the ends of which covered half her face. Eyes closed, her repose looked quite deliberate. Studying her white face, Lucy realized that she knew the woman lying before her. Her name was Candice something, and she worked at the Pack N’ Ship near the post office.
Rocket had now wandered to the lake shore, her eyes focused on a gaggle of geese who paddled idly not far from the bank. On other visits, Rocket had gone into the water, determined to catch one of these fat, feathered creatures. With irritated honks, the geese glided away from her frantic paddling until she finally gave up and left the birds for the fox that also hunted the lake. Today she simply watched until she got bored, then wandered, her nose to the ground along the shoreline.
Now that she could put a name to the figure lying cold before her, Lucy began to shiver slightly in her own down jacket. The morning was crisp, and although there was no snow, the stalks of grass on either side of the trail were laced with ice. She scanned the area quickly, for the first time wondering if she herself was in danger. She surveyed the path in front of her, which disappeared around a tree-lined bend about 100 yards ahead. Behind her, the path lay open and flat, and nothing save a fox or a rabbit or another small animal could hide in the grass. Her heart returned to a calmer beat. The danger that had taken Candice was nowhere in evidence.
Rocket’s head shot up and she began to whine, watching the back trail. Two EMTs and a police officer appeared, rounding a curve in the path. Lucy watched them grow larger as they approached, relieved to see them. She clipped Rocket back onto her leash so that the dog wouldn’t smother them with affection.
“Ms. Rollins?” The officer stopped in front of Lucy and let Rocket sniff his fingers. A burly man, his uniform pulled to reach over his belly and his pants sagged a bit in the back. He had a kind face, and a slight double chin trembled below his mouth as he spoke. “My name is Officer Ned Stapleton. You can call me Ned.”
Lucy nodded. She watched the two EMTs crouched next to Candice’s body. The clouds had moved on and the sun splashed them with such intensity her eyes began to tear. The EMTs spoke in low voices for a moment, then rose and joined Lucy and Ned.
William Turner, the other officer, who was taller and skinnier than his partner, said, “She’s definitely been dead a while. We need to get forensics up here.”
Ned turned away and said something into the mic at his shoulder. Then he turned back to Lucy and said, “Why don’t you come back to my car with me and we can get your statement?”
Lucy agreed with a nod and they began to walk back to the trailhead.
“So,” Ned said as they walked, “do you walk this trail often?” He rolled his shoulders and stuck his hands in his pockets, as though they were simply out for a stroll.
“Yes, a couple of times a week Rocket and I come over. We live about half a mile from the trailhead and it’s an easy walk.”
“Did you know the woman? Have you ever seen her on the trail?”
“I think her name is Candice, but I don’t know her last name. She works at the Pack N’ Ship in town.”
Ned stopped for a minute and pulled out a notebook and pen. He jotted a few things down before closing it up and resuming their walk. “But you never saw her on the trail before, right?”
“It’s been what, twenty minutes since you found the body? Fifteen since we arrived on scene, five minutes for you to find the body and call us, yes?”
“That sounds about right,” she said.
They arrived at the patrol car which was parked on an island of dry dirt amid the muddy pool of the trailhead parking lot.
Ned pulled out his notebook one more time and scribbled. “I think that’s all we’ll need from you, Ms. Rollins. But if I think of other questions, can I give you a call?”
She agreed and gave him her number. Then she turned Rocket toward home, skipping across the squishy lot and onto the sidewalk that would take her to her neighborhood.
Once at home, she stripped off Rocket’s harness and divested herself of her coat, hat, and gloves, putting everything in its place. Wandering to the kitchen, she made a fresh cup of coffee with the coffee press, doctored it with milk and sugar, then went to the living room to sit in a patch of sun coming through the window. Rocket settled down next to her.
Despite the coffee, she must have dozed, because she looked up to see Candice sitting across from her in an ancient Barcalounger. She blinked several times, thinking she dreamed, but there the woman sat, in the same coat and hat she wore on the trail. Rocket was still at Lucy’s side, but his eyes were focused on the figure across the room.
Lucy got up and walked over to the woman. She tried to put her hand on Candice’s shoulder, but her hand went right through. Lucy jumped back. Her hand tingled where she had touched the apparition. “Wha-what are you?”
Looking back at Lucy, the ghost said, “My name is Candice.” She got up, put her hand out and touched Lucy’s arm, but her hand disappeared into Lucy’s flesh, leaving the only the tingling sensation Lucy had felt in her hand. She pulled it back. “My name is Candice,” she said again, her face puzzled. “My name is Candice,” she repeated, rolling the words slowly in her mouth.
Lucy touched her arm where it had tingled with Candice’s touch, but now felt nothing. Her eyes went back to the apparition before her, then around the room, as she tried to get her bearings. The room looked the same as always, cluttered in the homey way she preferred.
“What are you doing here?” Lucy asked the apparition.
Candice was also looking around the room, but with Lucy’s question, her eyes came back to Lucy’s face. She seemed to think for a minute, but she didn’t say anything.
Lucy rubbed her face briskly and looked back at Candice. Still there. “Well, what do you want?” I must be ill. I’m talking to someone who isn’t there.
Candice got up from the chair and walked around the room. She tried to pick up a picture in a frame, but her hand couldn’t grasp it. She tried Lucy’s coffee cup, and her fingers slipped through as though they didn’t exist. Giving up, she went over to the window and stared out at the cold and windy landscape.
“Something’s definitely wrong, though I feel okay.” Lucy was talking out loud, to herself.
She took her half cup of cold coffee into the kitchen and poured it down the sink. Then she went and got ready for work. Rocket followed Lucy to her bedroom and watched her get dressed.
The ghost of Candice was still in the living room after Lucy showered and put on work clothes. Lucy got her lunch from the refrigerator and loaded it into her bag. She fed Rocket, then bundled up and stepped out into the cold. The car started grumpily, and she cleared a bit of frost from the windshield. Then, she got in the car and began to back out of the driveway.
Candice appeared in the passenger seat.
Lucy stopped the car and put it in park. “What are you doing here?”
Candice looked around but didn’t say anything. She placed her ghost hands on her ghost knees and stared straight ahead. “My name is Candice,” she said.
“Got that part.” Lucy put the car back in drive and headed to the filling station two blocks away. Pulling up to the pump, she got some gas, then went in and bought some red licorice. “Do you see that woman sitting in the car over there?” She asked the cashier casually.
The bored cashier flicked a look out the window. “In that beige Corolla?” He handed her change. “Don’t see anyone out there.”
Lucy looked at Candice sitting quietly in the front seat. “Thank you,” she said and left.
Back in the car, Lucy looked back over at her passenger and sighed. “I can’t take you to work.” Driving back to the house she noticed Mr. Colletti on his front porch and waved. He frowned a minute, then smiled as she pulled into her driveway.
“Hello, Lucy. Heading to work?”
“No, I’m working from home today.”
“Ah. Good day to stay inside. Spring just isn’t here yet.”
“No, it isn’t.” She got out of the car and walked up the steps to the front door and didn’t turn around. Maybe whatever the ghost was would slip away, go into the light or something, if she just ignored it.
Once inside, she pulled her laptop from her backpack, booted it up and sent an email telling her team she wasn’t feeling well and would be working from home. Setting up her workspace at the dining room table, she deliberately avoided looking for the apparition. Soon she immersed herself in emails and preparing for conference calls.
Ned Stapleton called her mid-morning. “Miss Rollins? I just wanted to give you a quick heads up that it looks like Candice committed suicide. We found a note in her apartment. I wanted you to know so you wouldn’t be afraid to walk the trail again.”
Lucy hadn’t thought about that, but realized it would have eventually occurred to her. She would have avoided the trail if she thought there was a killer on the loose.
“Ned, thank you so much for your call. I hadn’t thought that far, but it’s good to know that there isn’t a threat lurking out there somewhere. Rocket and I do enjoy that trail and I won’t hesitate to walk there again.” She thanked him again and hung up the phone.
At 11:30 she stopped and stretched, cracking her neck from side to side before going to the kitchen to get some water. She drank it over the sink, looking out the kitchen window at the dreary weather that had taken over the day. For a while she had forgotten her visitor, but when she took her glass with her into the living room, the ghost was there, sitting gracefully in her favorite chair.
Her edges were more than a bit misty now, it seemed to Lucy, the outer edges of her coat wavering like a candle. Perhaps she was fading away.
“Don’t you feel the urge to go somewhere? Do you see a light or something? You can’t stay here forever.” Lucy let her anger show as her voice raised in intensity. “Why are you bothering me?”
The ghost that was Candice looked subdued and apologetic, but stayed silent.
“Well, you can’t come in and disrupt my life this way.” Lucy marched back to the kitchen and put the glass in the sink. What am I going to do? She thought. I can’t talk to someone about her if they can’t see her. She banged her head gently against a cabinet door, then decided to ignore the apparition. It was all she could do. She ate her lunch and settled back in to the afternoon’s work, Rocket under her feet. At six p.m. she finally finished for the day.
She pulled on her boots, coat, hat, and mittens, snapped the leash on Rocket, and let herself out of the house. The apparition was still in the chair, arms folded. The air stung a bit with the first few breaths, and Lucy tried breathing through her nose to warm the air until she got used to it. Rocket, nose glued to the grass, was on the hunt for bunnies or squirrels, preferably the latter, and dragged Lucy a few steps toward the bushes in the front yard before Lucy reined her in.
Lucy shivered and decided it would be a short walk. The days were getting longer, but the sun was gone by this time. In the growing darkness, she saw faint puddles of light where the street lamps started coming on, and she mentally mapped a route through the neighborhood long enough to let Rocket do her business and stretch her legs a bit. The apparition paced at Lucy’s side, stopping when she stopped and detouring with her when Rocket dragged her toward something interesting. While completely aware of the ghost, Lucy was determined to ignore her, and did so successfully for the entire walk.
Once back in the house, Lucy fed Rocket again and changed into sweats and a t-shirt. She made herself a sandwich for dinner and watched a little TV with Rocket at her side until her eyes started to droop. All the while, the apparition sat quietly in the living room chair, losing shape.
With a yawn, Lucy got up from the couch and wandered into the bathroom to brush her teeth and pee. Then she closed her bedroom door, took off the sweats, and crawled into bed with her book. Within half an hour she slept, Rocket snoring at the foot of the mattress.
Lucy woke up in the middle of the night, gasping for air. The apparition’s face was inches from her own, but wavy, losing definition. A mist came off of all the ghost’s surfaces—hands, face, and body—and it was sinking into Lucy. She jerked upright and scrambled off the side of the bed, falling to the floor. Rocket was barking at the misty figure, which rose from the bed. Backing away like an inverted crab, Lucy scuttled to the bathroom, fell through the doorway, and slammed the door. She scrambled to her feet and locked it.
The black mist bubbled up from under the door. Grabbing a towel, she stuffed it along the crack, partially blocking it. The mist that did make it through melted into the skin of her arms and legs, bringing back the familiar tingling and then a numbness. It began to pour through the lock mechanism in a steady stream, all of it making its way toward Lucy who had stepped into the tub. She turned on the hot water, grabbed the hand-held showerhead, and began to spray the mist, sending it briefly off-course and down towards the floor. Soon, however, it began to crawl up her legs, sinking into her flesh.
“No, no, no!” she shouted, trying to rinse away the smoky substance, but it continued its numbing path to her knees, then to her hips. She blinked several times as the bathroom blurred and came in double exposures. The steaming water ran over her from the waist down, but didn’t make a dent in the mist which was now almost completely absorbed by her skin.
The stream from the door diminished, but it sought her out with purpose in her doubled-up view of the room. Dropping the showerhead, she stepped out of the tub and cautiously reached for the sink. The mirror held an image of overly large eyes, and the skin on her face and arms were striped with gray, as though the mist had left a fine film on her flesh. Dripping and numb, she stood there in shock, until her mouth opened and a voice that was not her own said, “My name is Lucy.”
Sue Tokuyama lives in Colorado, where she enjoys the weather for hiking and skiing. This is her first publication, and she is currently working on a novel.