That one stretch of Highway 75 across the corner of Nebraska between the Kansas Turnpike and the turnoff to cross the river and connect with I-29 always spooked her.
When she made the trip alone, she would make sure she had enough gas to drive that section of her journey without having to stop. When she was with her partner, she still got the heebie-jeebies, but at least she had another human being, real and alive, sitting next to her.
“I’m just going to shut my eyes,” she’d say, even though they both knew she never slept in cars. “Wake me when we get to that rest-stop with the fancy Japanese toilets.” She’d pop headphones in her ears, and squinch her eyes shut, and pray she could keep them that way until they’d crossed the Iowa state line.
Invariably, though, she would wake up just as the speed limit slowed and the road narrowed to two lanes as it crept through the old town.
Tonight, they hit that part of the trip just as the sun was setting, and she couldn’t help but watch as the dying rays illuminated the creaky old buildings with their ghost signs still evident on long-derelict buildings.
“You okay?” her husband asked, more focused on the road ahead than on her.
“Yeah. I just… this town makes me sad.”
Sad was an understatement. She could feel the neglect like a weight upon her shoulders. The town had been cute once – the remnants of it were still here – the old bones of a place that was too far from any city to be a suburb, and too small to thrive.
The post office was little more than a phone booth – or maybe one of those roadside ice cream stands that are only open in summer. She imagined Ralph, from the market still bore his name even though it was long since closed (replaced by a Walmart up at the crossroads between this tiny town and the next), rushing over to handle the mail or sell some stamps in between customers picking up their grocery orders.
She could almost hear the happy voices of children playing tether ball in the yard of the schoolhouse across the street – the school that no longer hosted lively classrooms. A few windows were broken, and the chains for the balls hung limply. Probably the kids would have trooped over to the market when they were done playing, and spent their allowances on penny candy and the kinds of pop they didn’t sell much anymore: Mr. Pibb, RC Cola, Grape NeHi.
Up at the corner, the motel still had lights on, and one lonely car was parked in the criss-cross of broken paint lines that was its parking lot, right in front of the payphone – an actual payphone! – and the sign promising free ice. Those lights were a beacon to her, a sign that the oldest part of the town was behind them, and the next block would hold the Tast-e-Freeze and Dog House – two stops on an endless march of fast food.
They waited at the light – the only one in town, and she could have sworn she saw shadowy figures in the background, the essences of the people who had lived and worked here once upon a time, but then the red switched to green, and she realized it must’ve been a trick of the light.
Still, she shuddered, glad they were back up to speed.
Old towns always made her feel like someone was watching her.
And who knows? Maybe they were. Old towns are always haunted, aren’t they?
Photo credit: Daniel Ritter
Written for October 2021 #CreativeFest. Prompt: Ghost