by Luisa Perkins
Chloe rubs one nyloned leg against the other in front of the space heater and wipes down the counter for the millionth time. The Truck-n-Dine is so quiet that she can hear Fred humming to himself in the kitchen; more than likely, he’s sitting on a stool reading the paper with his feet up on the big stove. Not terribly sanitary, but hey, it’s his place. If there were anything to talk about, she’d go back and make conversation just to pass the time. But she and Fred have nothing to say to one another. Chloe knows very little about the Pittsburgh Penguins, and she assumes Fred is entirely ignorant about art, Berlin, single parenthood, or manslaughter.
(Fred actually does know more than a bit about manslaughter. But he would never guess that he and Chloe have something in common after all.)
She can smell the coffee slowly turning to acid in the industrial-sized pot behind her; probably she should make a fresh batch, but why bother? Chloe doubts anyone will stop in before her shift is over at dawn. The new Hess station, complete with mini-mart, oversized parking lot, and large, well-lit bathrooms, opened up a few months ago a couple of exits farther down I-84. Since then, business at the truck stop during the graveyard shift has been almost nonexistent. Chloe sighs; she could use the tips. It seems like Jake outgrows his school shoes every two weeks, and she’s not sure how she’ll pay for Anna’s piano lessons this month.
Light slides along the textured, faux-bamboo wallpaper, not high enough to be a semi. Chloe guesses that it’s a car full of penniless college students on a road trip, stopping in for caffeine and whatever is cheapest on the menu. A minute later, the bell on the front door tinkles, and a rush of cold air swirls in and around Chloe’s legs.
“Fire up the stove, Fred,” she turns and calls through the order window. She searches for her hospitable smile, pastes it on, and pivots back towards the counter.
“What can I get for you?” Chloe asks automatically. Even as she speaks, she realizes who is standing before her. She locks her knees and tightens her grip on the edge of the counter.
Henry sits down, looks into her face, and grins. “What are your specials tonight?”
I should have made fresh coffee, Chloe thinks. Henry is so picky about his coffee.
“Hello, Henry,” she says aloud, trying to stall for a moment in order to gather her wits. “I didn’t know the dead cared about food.”
His clipped Oxbridge English gives almost nothing away of his Swiss upbringing, yet conveys detached amusement perfectly.
“Alcohol, not so much anymore,” he says. “But food still holds appeal.”
“Right,” Chloe murmurs. His skin has a healthy glow; his pale blue eyes are as bright as they ever were. He looks the same; if she hadn’t been to his funeral, she’d never know he was dead.
Come to think of it, if she hadn’t cracked his skull with his own crystal paperweight and seen him slump open-eyed and lifeless to his office floor, she’d never know he was dead, either.
Henry raises his eyebrows at her, prompting her to answer. She blushes and thrusts her thumb at the chalkboard on the wall behind her.
“Our soup is Cream of Mushroom, and the entree is Meatloaf with Gravy and Mashed Potatoes.”
“Hmm. So very tempting. I’ll have a grilled cheese sandwich on whole wheat. And pie. Is there any pie?”
“Lemon meringue or apple?”
“Do you have any vanilla ice cream?”
“Then apple. A la mode. And coffee.”
Chloe hesitates, fearing Henry’s snobbery and temper. “If you can wait, I’ll make a fresh pot.”
Henry’s eyes crinkle, but his laugh is bitter. “I’ve got plenty of time.”
Chloe scribbles the order and rings Fred’s bell. “Order up,” she calls out of habit. She dumps the coffee and scrubs out the pot with hot water and baking soda, then fills it with fresh, cold water. All the while, she can feel Henry’s dead eyes on her back. She wonders why she hasn’t screamed or fainted; isn’t that what one does when one encounters a ghost?
The coffee is brewing; Chloe has run out of things to do. She turns to face Henry again, squaring her shoulders and smoothing back her short red hair.
“What brings you to Port Jervis, Henry? It’s a long way from Zurich, let alone…” not heaven; surely not that, “the afterlife,” she finishes lamely.
“I’m here because you’re here. I wanted to see the children.”
Chloe’s spine turns to ice. She moves closer to the space heater, momentarily heedless of the danger of melting her stockings.
“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea. Jakob barely remembers you, and Anna doesn’t even really know who you are. Besides, they think you’re dead. They know you’re dead,” she corrects herself.
“Where are they now?”
Chloe looks at Henry’s hands as he settles the cheap, battered flatware precisely on the paper napkin in front of him. His long, tapered fingers with their perfectly manicured nails are as familiar to her as her own; in the early days of their courtship, she sketched his hands constantly. Holding a coffee cup, the newspaper, a pen, a book: they fascinated Chloe endlessly.
(Later those fingers inspired a different kind of fascination, leaving bruiseprints on her arms, legs, and chest. Even around her neck, that last time.)
Chloe forces herself to meet Henry’s eyes. “They’re at home, with my mother. We live with her now.” Since you left me with nothing, she silently adds. Since I spent all my savings on my defense and several years of therapy. Henry purses his lips and nods as if he’s heard this last.
“How is Janet?” he asks.
Suddenly Chloe’s had enough. “Why do you care?” she challenges. “You always hated my mother. You treated her like garbage when she came to visit us. I can’t believe that death would have changed you that much.”
Fred rings the bell and slides the plate with Henry’s sandwich under the heat lamp. He looks out the window suspiciously. He and Chloe may not be close, but Chloe knows he feels protective of his waitresses. “You okay, Chloe?”
Chloe smiles and nods with a calm she does not feel. “Fine, Fred, fine. Just a visit from an old friend.”
Fred gives Henry another long, measuring look, then shuffles out of sight. Chloe sets the plate in front of Henry, curious to see whether he’ll actually eat it.
“How is Janet,” Henry repeats, a little more forcefully this time.
Chloe gives in to the social nicety of the question. “She’s okay. She was always on your side, you know. She told me I should have kept on taking your crap; that’s what good wives do.”
“We weren’t married,” Henry points out.
“We lived together. We had two kids together. In Mom’s mind, we were married. It’s easier that way for her, neater.”
Henry shrugs, picks up his sandwich, and takes a bite. “Mmm.” He nods and chews with satisfaction. He swallows, then says, “I think that coffee’s ready.”
“Oh, right; sorry.” Chloe pours him a cup and gets fresh cream for him. She gets his pie as well, setting it beside his elbow. She shivers and hugs herself; these echoes of a former domesticity bother her more than the fact that she’s talking to a ghost. Henry sips the hot liquid, and either death has blunted his taste buds, or he’s developed tolerance in the six years he’s been gone, because the coffee seems to pass muster. Chloe relaxes a fraction.
“So, the children,” Henry says, slowly rubbing the edge of the cup against his lower lip, back and forth, back and forth.
“I can’t let you see them,” Chloe blurts out. “I’m sorry; I know it’s been a long time, but it wouldn’t be good for them. You have to understand that.” She hates the way her voice has gotten the slightest bit whiny; how much therapy has she been through, and she’s right back in her old patterns that fast? Of course, Dr. Murphy couldn’t have predicted Chloe would face a trigger of this magnitude.
Now she wonders whether she’s dreaming; that certainly would be a preferable alternative to the possibility that this is all a psychotic break. But Fred’s here, right? He saw Henry. So she’s not crazy; she really could be dreaming. The thought gives her a certain freedom; she can do whatever she wants in her own dream. Sometimes she has awakened from a dream and wished she’d known it while it was going on, so that she could have done things differently. Now is her chance, it seems.
Henry forks himself up a bite of pie and chews it with obvious appreciation. He sets his fork down, folds his hands, and gazes at her over them, like a meditative priest. “I do understand. I know the children are in good hands. But I’m not sure I can stay away.”
“You have to,” she says, but realizes as she does so that she has absolutely no leverage; she’s quite sure the local authorities won’t issue an order of protection against a dead man. “You have to,” she echoes weakly.
Henry stares at her for a long time, then exhales and nods. “Very well, then. I’ll go.”
Chloe feels off balance suddenly, as if they’ve been playing tug-of-war, and Henry has just dropped the rope. “That’s it? You’re giving up? What’s happened to you, Henry?”
“Things are different now. There are lines I can’t cross.” Henry stands up and fishes out his wallet. “What do I owe you?”
Chloe hesitates. “Don’t worry about it; it’s on the house.”
Henry gives her his usual graceful, dancing-master’s half-bow. “You have my thanks.” He starts to go, but turns back after a few strides. “So Janet has recovered from her accident?”
“Oh, yes, she’s fine now,” answers Chloe. “It was rough going for awhile, but the insurance paid for this great physical therapist who came to the house….”
She breaks off, remembering her mother’s hysterical phone call from the car just moments after the collision. She had been babbling about having seen Henry, he was right there on the road, he’d come out of nowhere, but how could he really be there, he was dead, and she had swerved to avoid him….
”You were there,” she whispers. “She kept insisting that she’d seen you.”
“I’m afraid that’s true,” Henry acknowledges.
Chloe feels a wave of panic surge through her; she’s not sure it won’t carry her away completely. “Why did you come here?” she cries. “You’ve got to go back wherever it is you came from. Get out of here, Henry!”
Faster than thought, Henry is back at the counter. He lays his dead hand against Chloe’s flushed cheek; his cold touch is somehow as soothing as a compress. She looks into his eyes, and for the first time, she sees a shadow of the old Henry, the self-assured, mocking Henry she’d known so many years ago.
“I confess that I’m surprised, love.” Henry says. “After all this time, I’d thought that you might welcome my company.”
“Go to hell,” she hisses into his face. He raises an eyebrow at her.
“My dearest Chloe,” he murmurs. “Where is it, exactly, that you think we are?”
Luisa Perkins is the author of the YA novel Shannon’s Mirror and a contributor to the essay collection Silent Notes Taken. Her short story “Dodmen and the Holophusikon” was recently produced as a podcast on SteamPod.org. Her cookbook Comfortably Yum is forthcoming in April. She lives in the Hudson Highlands with her husband and their six children.