A Cigarette Pact

I write this as fiction, but people, good and smart people, swear to me it’s true…


A Graveyard Pact

“Rachel saw the ghost again last night.”

“Great.” Sam rolled his eyes, pulling tee-shirt over his head for bed. “She’s about got me afraid to work on the chimney in the attic.”

“That’s what’s so weird,” Julie said, putting down her magazine. “It’s all just a matter of fact to her. It’s like we’re at the store and she says, ‘I see grandma over there.’ There’s no shred of fear.”

“Not from her, anyway,” Sam said. “Our eight-year-old sees ghost and isn’t afraid of them. I don’t believe any of it, and she’s got me shaking.”

***

The next morning, Julie cleaned after breakfast with Rachel swinging her legs hard in her chair. “Hey sweetheart. Let’s go over to miss Gracie’s and do some stuff. She’s cleaning out a closet of pictures, and wants to know if we want anything.” Julie dropped to her daughter’s level and tussled her hair. “Maybe we can get something cute for your room?”

***

“Good gawd. Waddya got in there? Thirty boxes?” Gracie held the closet door open to display the work to be done.

“I bet,” she said. “I pulled most of ‘em out yesterday and spent the morning going through them.” She clutched a couple under her arm, like a hen with her chicks. “I’m saving these – for the funeral, you know – but, really, please, get out anything left and take whatever strikes your fancy. There’re some old photos in there of the neighborhood. Maybe of your house. Hey? You want coffee?”

Gracie stretched a photo in front of her, smiling. “Wish you could have known the old codger,” she said. He was a damned sweetheart. And he would dote on your little Rachel. God, that man loved children.” She stared at the photo again and scrunched her face. “Too bad we couldn’t have had more…now you two gather up whatever you want and I’ll go make coffee. Hope you don’t mind that it’s Mr. Coffee? Can’t get the hang of those things with the little cups. Rusty tried to talk me into one, but I’m too stuck to my ways…”

Julie grabbed a couple of boxes from the closet and started sorting. “C’mon, sweetie,” she said to Rachel. “Maybe you can find something for you.”

Julie found two black-and-whites, old pictures of the street, and stacked them. “Look, the backyard of our house. Look at the old cars. Find anything you like?”

Rachel slid a few photos around, but nothing attracted her. Her world was a blur of color and moving and the black-and-whites didn’t appeal to her eight-year-old heart. She grabbed a photo from the box and set it in front of her.

“It’s the ghost,” she said.

“Oh. Did you find something?” Julie asked.

“It’s the ghost,” she said again, nonplussed.

Julie examined the photo, holding it close. “No ghost here,” she announced.

“No ghost where?” said Gracie, carrying a tray of drinks.

“It’s nothing,” Julie said. “Rachel keeps pointing at this picture of you and a friend.” She flipped the photo over to show Gracie.

Gracie took the photo, and her countenance changed, a look drawing on her face. “This ain’t no friend,” she said, “and I think Rachel knows what she’s talking about.” She reached for her glasses, slipping them onto her nose. “Ooh la la. Will you look at that? We were so skinny. Hotties, right?” She held the photo out for Julie.

“You were two good-looking women, that’s for sure. Who are you with? Who is the ghost?”

Gracie moved the photo into the light. “That,” she said, pointing with a flair, “is Rachel’s ghost. Miss Gloria Aldridge. My best friend. Gracie and Gloria. We did everything together. We were closer than sisters.” She set the photo on the table. “Did you find anything with your backyard?”

“In this stack, I think. Do you want to keep it?”

“Honey no. I just want to show you and Rachel something.” She found the photo and pointed. “Here. You see now? Look at our backyards. See those little tables by the fence? One on each side? Every morning after the husbands would go to work and we’d get the kids off to school, we would meet right there. I would drink a coffee and she would have sweet tea and a cigarette.” She turned away. “God. I can’t tell you how wonderful it was drinking coffee with her at the fence.”

She looked at Julie. “That’s the ghost, you know.”

“That’s the ghost? She’s the ghost? You’re best friend?”

“That’s her. We made a pact one day. It was silly, but we sealed it with a drag from her cigarette. We were right out there,” she said, nodding to the fence. “We were laughing up a storm over something – who knows what – and she grabbed me over the fence. She kissed me on the cheek hard and her eyes watered up.”

“If I die first,” she said, “if I die first, I’ll wait for you here. Right here. By the fence and the house. I’ll wait for you to die, too, and we’ll go off together.”

I laughed and said, “Sweetie? I don’t know if it works that way.”

She totally cut me off. “It works that way for me. For us.”

“We were probably…thirty? I raised my cup of coffee, and she raised her tea. We looked at the cups and burst out laughing. ‘You know,’ I said, ‘a graveyard pact needs at least a cigarette.’ She looked sombre and reached down to her little table for a pack. We smoked a cigarette together, holding hands.”

She looked to see where Rachel was standing, and then turned to Julie, talking in a low tone. “In all my years, I’m here to tell you…I loved my husband, but that was the most romantic thing I ever did in my life. And I still believe it to be so.”

They waited for a moment, letting Gracie’s countenance settle.

Julie took a deep breath, turning to Rachel, “Baby doll? Let’s gather up whatever we’re taking and head on home. You ready?”

She turned to Gracie, lost in the photo of Gloria. “Gracie? Can I help clean up these piles? It’s a little messy. I don’t mean to leave you with a mess.” Then she looked like she just remembered something. “Gracie? What happened to Gloria? Do you know?”

“Do I know? Honey, I cried for a week. She died the next week. At the Piggly Wiggly. A whole shelf fell on her.“

“You have got to be kidding me. That’s terrible. What kind of shelf?”

“Just junk stored in the back. She was looking for a box of something with a guy who worked there, and she started poking around and he got on the forklift to lift a box down for her. He bumped the shelf and the whole thing came down on her. They said it was like she was swimming in cans of baked beans.”

“Gracie? That is just about the worst story I’ve even heard in my whole life. Sheesh.”

***

At home that night, Julie told the entire story to her husband. “You won’t believe what Gracie told me today.”

He gave a grumpy nod, his television time interrupted.

“She knows who the ghost is. It’s her best friend. They made vows to stay in their houses or by the fence or something and wait for each other ‘till the last one dies.”

“Doll?” Sam drolled. “Baby? Ghosts aren’t real.”

“I know, but Rachel is so sure, and if you heard Gracie’s story, you would be too. It’s crazy.”

“Julie? There are no ghosts. We know this. No ghosts. Got it?” He dropped his head, raising his eyebrows to look over the top of his glasses. “You aren’t filling Rachel’s head with this ghost stuff, are you? No ghosts. “

That night in bed, Julie woke feeling cold, like an icy washcloth was wiped over her forehead. Slipping out from beneath her blankets, she went into the bathroom, feeling the warmth in there. She felt the cold in her bedroom again and followed it to Rachel’s room.

She saw the clock in Rachel’s room, surprised she was awake. “What’s up, sweetie? Why are you awake?”

“I just am,” she said. “I’m cold.”

They both heard the kitchen screen door slam.

“Is it windy out?” asked Rachel.

“I don’t know,” Julie said. “Maybe Daddy forgot to latch the door. I’ll go pull it tight.”

“I want to come.”

“Okay. Here’s your robe.” She tossed the terry-cloth robe onto Rachel’s bed and rubbed her arms up and down once she put it on.

Everything was in place in the kitchen, where it should be. They checked the dining room and sitting room, too, and Julie looked out the kitchen window to the backyard.

“It looks pretty nice outside.” She looked at Rachel, still wrapped in her robe. “Hot, but nice. I don’t know if any wind would open the door.”

Julie went to Rachel, sitting at the kitchen table, seeing that her cheeks were wet.

“What’s wrong?” She said, kneeling. “Honey. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Daddy just forgot to latch the screen door.”

“I’m not afraid.”

“Then why are you crying? Why are you sitting here all sad?”

“The ghost is gone.”

“The ghost is gone? But Daddy said that ghosts aren’t real, sweetie.”

“The ghost is gone, and she’s not coming back.”

They sat together for a moment. Resting and confused.

“I want to go the bed now,” Rachel said.

“Okay,” said her mom. “I’ll take you.”

As the night foretold, the next morning was bright but hot, promising an oppressive day. Both girls were in the kitchen.

“Hey, I know what we can do,” Julie said to Rachel. “Let’s go out to the back fence and sit down. I’ll drink coffee and you can have a coke. Just like Gracie and Gloria. Want to?”

Rachel shook her head.

“It’s okay hon. I know it scared you last night. But it’s alright. So, how ‘bout it? Want to go? You want ice or just Kool Aid?”

“I’m going to my room,” she said.

Julie let her go and made a cup of coffee. “We’re all tired after last night,” she thought. She grabbed her coffee and went outside to the patio table while it was still cool, before the swelter settled. She sat down at their glass table, staring at the fence, wondering if a word of Gracie’s story could be true.

“Julie.” She turned, hearing her name called in an unfamiliar voice. It was Rusty, Gracie’s boy. He was carrying a yellow candy box and looking roughshod in the morning sun, slanting down on him.

“Sit down,” she said, doing a parade wave toward the opposite chair. “I was just over to see your mom yesterday.” She could see her daughter’s name on a card stuck to the box, written in Gracie’s formal script.

“I came to see you about my mom,” Rusty said.

Julie could tell it wasn’t a neighborly call. “Oh, gawd Rusty.” She touched his hand. “Is she okay?”

He shifted his elbows from the table to his knees and looked at the concrete between his legs. “Mom passed away last night. Doctor was here early this morning. Ambulance has already taken her. I just wanted you to know.”

Tears came to Julie. Between deep breaths, she asked what happened.

“The doctor said that it just looks like she was ready to go. No illness, and no reason the think that she suffered at all. Just up and died.”

“Rusty. I’m so sorry.”

Just then, Rachel came out of the house. She hesitated, seeing Rusty and her mom, with mom sad and misty. She pointed to the box with her name on it. “Is that for me?”

“Sweetie! Manners,” her mom said.

“It’s okay,” said Rusty. “Yes. You’re right. It’s for you, sweetie. I think Aunt Gracie made it for you yesterday.” He handed her the box. “I was here on the weekend and didn’t see it. She didn’t say anything about it, either. I don’t even know what it is.”

Julie stroked Rachel’s hair. “Honey,” she said, “Miss Gracie passed away last light.”

“I know,” Rachel said.

“I’m so sorry, honey. Did you hear us talking?”

“No.” She fondled the yellow box.

Rachel took the card from the top of the small box. She shimmied off the top, and it was filled with photos. All of Gracie and Gloria. On the top was a folded scrap, written in formal purple. “Thank you so much, Rachel, for helping me remember. I hope you are as lucky as me”.

She folded the note and put it in the box. Slipping the top back on, she hugged her mom and then surprised Rusty with a hug.

“I’m going back upstairs to my room,” she said, grabbing her box. Julie cried, and Rusty stood up.

“I don’t know what just happened,” he said, “but it was pretty special.”


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