After Death by Elizabeth Davis
The car stopped for her in the rain, the first one of the night. The man gave her a kind smile as she slid into his vinyl seat, smoothing down her poodle skirt. She looked at the driver. He had a kind smile, but she didn’t recognize the logos displayed on his shirt or the singer on the radio. It made her feel lonely despite his smile.
“At a retro costume party?” he asked, looking over at the large sunglasses she wore despite the night outside. She had been too proud to part with them, having bought them with her part-time cash from the drive-in theater. They made her feel glamorous like a Hollywood starlet. That theater had closed and had been replaced again and again.
“Something like that,” she murmured with a wave of her hand.
“At first I thought you were that ghost hitchhiker everyone’s been talking about. Alice is what she’s called?”
She leaned back in the seat, waiting to hear the worn story. Most agreed she had died in a car crash. Some claimed it was a killer hitchhiker. A few others claimed she was the hitchhiker, killed by an out-of-town stranger. An uninventive few added a hook, still dangling from the car handle. But everyone agreed that her ghost waited on rainy nights for a ride.
“Lot of ghosts in this town. Where are you going?”
She looked at the window, at the streetlamps shining down on them. “I’m not really sure.”
“How about your home then?”
“I don’t really have one anymore.”
“I guess that proves you aren’t a ghost then. She always wants to go home, doesn’t she?” She remembered walking in, watching her brother sleep before the sunlight pierced her darkness. “Mind me asking what happened to yours.”
“Time, I guess.” But even the routine of the dead never stays. Her brother lengthed and breathed deeper. “My brother went off to college and never moved back.” Her mother’s hair grew whiter and she shrank beneath her blankets. “My mother’s in a nursing home. I just don’t want to go back to an empty house.”
“Memories are the true ghosts around here.”
She tried to concentrate on him as they continued to drive. He drifted out of focus, face blurry if she didn’t.
“Maybe that’s why we have so many ghost stories. This is an old town.”
“I’ve only really heard about the vanishing hitchhiker. What other ghosts are there?”
“Well, we’ve also got this ghost lady out by the lake. We call her Ophelia. Have you been there?”
“It’s been a long time.” It had been one of the sleepovers. She remembered the splashing laughter of her friends, showing off their new swimsuits. She had brought the radio and feigned interest in getting the best signal as the flashlight illuminated their skin. “Don’t be cruel” crooned over her memories. But it was cruel—her friends had forgotten her as they grew up, while she stayed behind.
“The one who went out for a boat ride and whose lover pushed her in. Or maybe she drowned herself. No one can really keep that straight.”
She remembered her own sleepover rumors whispered under the radio, of poor drowned Ophelia. Doomed to reenact her namesake’s fate. How she always imagined her looking like the blonde starlets in Hammer films, gauzy nightgowns blowing as Dracula stalked them. She always wondered if she wanted to shout out to save them or to stalk them herself.
All her friends noticed was that she was a vampire for two Halloweens straight.
She hadn’t seen any sad damsels that night on the lake.
“The big thing is that she sings. But if you follow that song, you end up sinking in that lake. Has a bad undertow I’ve heard. Not much for swimming myself.”
She thought about her life before. Being dead meant she had nothing left to lose. Maybe she would go and hear the song for herself.
She reached over and gripped his arm. “Take me to the lake.”
He chuckled. “Hoping to do some ghost hunting yourself?”
“Something like that.”
He stopped laughing when they got close, and she saw no need to stay in the car—leaving him when she could see the dark waters and the rusty no-swimming sign. She remembered when it was new.
Alice waited there, waiting for the mist that came as the sun stalked the night.
The song was mournful, the notes elongated, the words echoing weirdly around here. Everywhere and nowhere at once. Ophelia’s tones were pure, making the words even harder to catch, as they danced on her off-kilter tempo. But Alice knew these words by heart, played so often in her life.
“Don’t be cruel, to a heart that’s true.”
This close to day, she was too immaterial to sink as she ran out onto the water.
Ophelia didn’t see Alice until she was standing there, close enough to see the buttons on her gray dress, the shawl draped around her shoulders. Enough to see where her black hair turned to mist. To see where the lake climbed her dress, threatening to swallow her down with the light.
Ophelia stopped her sobbing. “What are you doing here?” she asked with a wrecked voice.
Alice gave a shrug. “You were lonely.”
“I’m waiting for my true love,” the Opherlia announced grandly.
“Who was he? Nobody seems to know.”
The Ophelia’s shoulders slumped. In a way, she grew smaller. Now Alice could see that Ophelia wasn’t much older than she was. “…There wasn’t anybody. That’s why I ended up here.” Ophelia hugged herself, used to only herself for comfort. “I thought I would find someone on the otherside, for good or bad.”
“Why are you staying then?”
“Because… I have nowhere else.” Ophelia stuttered, before looking straight at her. “How are you here?”
“Duh, also dead. How did you learn that song?”
“Because you played it when you were here with your friends—I remember you with the radio. I thought if I sang those songs that you would come again. Bring back memories of those who I loved but never loved back. It had been so long since anyone came to visit me. What do you mean you’re dead…?” Ophelia looked down despondently. “That means you’re like me, trapped with everyone forgetting.”
“We have no one else to worry about.” Alice offered her arm to the Opehlia. “I’m tired of memories. Aren’t you?”
The Ophelia didn’t hesitate to grab her hand.
Elizabeth Davis is a second generation writer living in Dayton, Ohio. She lives there with her spouse and two cats—neither of which have been lost to ravenous corn mazes or sleeping serpent gods. She can be found at her website when she isn’t busy creating beautiful nightmares and bizarre adventures. Her work can be found at Silk and Steel: A Queer Speculative Adventure Anthology, the NoSleep Podcast, and Bards and Sages’ July 2021 issue.