The new management company was keen to get the old bungalow rented by the fall. They’d repainted the interior and laid down brand new carpet. The front room smelled fresh and new, but ‘Lita’s stomach did a lurch the second she crossed the threshold. The instant recollection of rusted penny smell nearly doubled her over and it was all she could do not to heave onto the plastic drop cloth that crinkled under her feet.
Breathing deeply through her nose, ‘Lita struggled to get her churning guts under control. Straightening herself, she took in the room. She could hear the contractors chatting quietly in Spanish at the back of the house, their boom box gently pulsing with that odd fusion of polka and mariachi–what her father called “bug music.”
At twenty years old, Carmelita was tall and slender with all the baby fat long gone from her cheeks. Her manner was always light, but there was a darkness behind her eyes left there by her last visit to this very room. Though summer was coming on and the air was warm, she dug her fists deep into her coat pockets and clenched her teeth to resist a shudder. She failed. When the shudder came it rolled up and down her trim frame as though intent on tearing her heart loose from its tethers.
‘Lita paused, swallowed and took a cautious step to the center of the empty room, reminding herself of the former location of this piece of furniture or that bookshelf. She did everything she could not to conjure the blood-soaked image of her best friend and her best friend’s mother. Ultimately her eyes drifted to the back wall where once crouched the big RCA TV set and the space before it where two bodies lay crumpled forever in her memory.
In another year ‘Lita would complete her degree in social work at Chemeketa Community College. Hers was a very loving and supportive family, but a lifetime spent in the Little Gray Town had taught her not everyone was so fortunate. Sometimes folks needed a little help, a little coaching and a little guidance—and sometimes they needed a lot. She wanted to be a person who could make that kind of difference. But she couldn’t do it here; she couldn’t do it in the Little Gray Town where everyone’s story is written on the privacy fences and carports, where she’d never once be able to apply what she knew without prejudice.
She’d decided months ago once she finished her degree in the fall she’d be leaving the Willamette Valley, perhaps for good.
After the unsolved slaughter of Dawn and her mother, ‘Lita’s folks signed a lease on some farmland several miles outside of town. ‘Lita’s father said it was time to return to the farming life he’d been raised into while her mother finished her nursing degree. But the heart of the matter was the Mendozas wanted to get their little girl away from West Clay Street and the unwholesome memories it harbored.
They succeeded, somewhat. By the time ‘Lita entered the 6th grade the nightmares had abated. For several months after the murder, ‘Lita visited a counselor and for a while there were prescription drugs to help her sleep and help her cope, but images like two crumpled bodies heaped before an old RCA TV set just don’t up and fade. They shape you and they shape you forever.
‘Lita had no clue just how difficult it had been for the previous management companies to keep long-term tenants over the last ten years. There’d been a steady stream of student renters, none of whom stayed longer than a quarter at the most. But short-term renters were hard on a place, especially when they were college students. The management company needed long-term lessors if they wanted to break even and it wasn’t going to be easy.
Though the student tenants lived outside the pulse of the Little Gray Town grapevine, word gets around. When you were living in a house once witness to the most bloody unsolved murder in the whole of the valley, word gets around.
None of that registered with ‘Lita. Not the fleeing tenants with their complaints of strange sounds and odd lights, objects being moved or disappearing altogether or the fact that the Little Gray Town after more than ten years kept to a 10 pm curfew put into effect the night Dawn and Carrie were slain.
‘Lita stood in the entryway to the kitchen. She let her finger trace the tiny edges of the painted-over screw holes where once the touchtone hung by the doorframe. The linoleum flooring had been stripped up several years ago and the old hardwood beneath had been restored to a slick finish. It made the room darker, so dark that ‘Lita couldn’t see the girl-shaped shadow that drifted in from the side-pantry to take up its vigil in the back corner.
‘Lita had mentally rehearsed a goodbye for years, but never voiced it. Not even on the day Dawn and Carrie’s bodies were laid to rest. ‘Lita’s parents wouldn’t let her attend the funeral. She’s been through enough already, they’d said. But that evening ‘Lita sat in the dark of her room with her fingers wound together in prayer and asked God to keep good care of her very best friend and help the police find the person who killed them. For years she’d wondered when those prayers would be answered. Over time she figured God was just too damn busy.
‘Lita turned back to the front room, a bitter knot in the thick of her throat. At a volume just above a whisper, she addressed the vacant room:
“Sometimes I’m terrified I’m going to forget what you looked like,” ‘Lita said to the empty air. “I still have pictures of you in a box, but I can’t bring myself to look at them, not even now. But I had to come here, just for a second. I had to come and say ‘Good Bye,’ because I never did it when I should…”
The shadow in the corner behind ‘Lita shifted and began to drift in her direction.
“People have been living and dying since the beginning. You’d think we’d learn how to get the grieving part right. We just don’t seem able to get it up and done and move on…”
A wave of grief rose from the deepest part of ‘Lita’s core and crested hot tears that streamed from her eyes, turning her view of the room to a blur. ‘Lita dropped her chin to her chest and poured hot and bitter tears onto the plastic drop cloth beneath her feet.
“You look like Carmelita,” said the shadow in the shape of a little girl, “but you’re too tall. You’re a lady. ‘Lita was my best friend, but she was more my size. I’m so mad at her. She never comes over anymore and there are all these strangers here all the time and I can’t find my Mom…”
The little shadow went on like this for some time, talking in confused circles and asking Carmelita questions. Carmelita never heard a word the shadow issued, but she did feel a brush of cold air across the back of her neck as she drew a tattered old Kleenex from her pocket.
‘Lita dabbed at her eyes with the ratty tissue and tried her very best to ignore the tinny, irritating music issuing from the back of the house.
“And I try to leave here but I can’t get off the front lawn…” the shape continued. “Every time I try I forget why I’m there or where I’m going and then I step back and…come back to myself.”
“I’m going to have to leave, Dawnie,” said ‘Lita to the air about her hot, salty face. “I can’t stay here anymore…No one understands what I’ve felt all these years. It’s left me very much alone…”
“How do you know my name?” said the ghost. “Nobody called me ‘Dawnie’ ‘cept Mom …and ‘Lita…”
“After a while you just try to pretend everything is normal,” said ‘Lita. “But all of the pretending? It just isolates you more, I swear to God…”
New information took a long time to seep into what passed for the little shadow girl’s mind. A revelation like the fact the woman standing before her was her best friend all grown up was a jagged thing to ingest.
“Your hands are so big now,” said Dawn as she held up her translucent digits, comparing those to that of the older woman, recalling afternoon after afternoon spent brushing knuckle to palm, palm to knuckle and chanting together,
“Come out and play with me…”
“And bring your dollies three…”
“Climb up my apple tree…”
“I can’t stay here anymore,” the little ghost girl and the weeping woman intoned as one.
“You’re hands are so big,” Dawn said again and something bubbled to the surface of what passed for the little shadow girl’s mind. A feeling of fear and blood and a hand– hand with very long fingers and lots and lots of blood, but as soon as the image formed it was gone—everything was gone save for the notion that ‘Lita was here. It really was ‘Lita. And she was all grown up.
“Please, ‘Lita, please. I’m all alone here,” cried the shadow. “Nobody hears me when I talk to them. I try to get their attention and they ignore me. Somehow they all got together and made plans to ignore me and I could just scream!”
“It’s just not good for me here. There’s a lot of good I can do in the world—it’s something I want to do more than anything, but I can’t do it here. It’s just…too much,” said ‘Lita.
“And when I do get mad enough to scream, nothing happens–except all the lights flicker for a second and sometimes people get all weird but mostly they just ignore me,” said the ghost of the little girl.
‘Lita stood for a moment, sobs disrupting her normal breathing. She tilted her head back and let her compounded sinuses drain down the back of her throat. She struggled to smooth out the hitch in her breath. She blinked hard and waited for her vision to clear. “I’ve got to go now, Dawnie. Wherever I go, I will always have a part of you with me.”
‘Lita made her way to the door and turned back one more time. “Wherever you are, I pray you’re at peace,” she said and stepped out of the bungalow.
“I’m right here, ‘Lita. Can’t you hear me, you stupid– I’m right here!” The ghost of the little girl stomped her foot and let out a scream. The single 100-watt bulb overhead flickered and the boom box echoing tinny Mexican pop music gave a brief roar of static. Dawn ran to the front door threshold and screamed at the grown-up lady who’d once been her best friend, “‘Lita, come back—Please, I’m right here!”