Meeting Place

I don’t believe in ghosts, but I nearly jumped out of my skin when I received the postcard in the mail three weeks after her funeral.

I’m not dead.

Impossible. Jenna is dead—I saw her. I was the one to identify her body. I touched her cold, dead flesh. I picked out the cherry blossom scarf used in her open-casket funeral to hide the purple-red strangulation marks around her neck.

Jenna hung herself. She was was found by our RA spinning from the ceiling fan. She’s dead.

Jenna is dead.

Yet I find myself driving to Boxcar Bar & Arcade to meet her ghost by the four-person Pac-Man gaming machine.

I don’t know what to expect—a translucent manifestation; a member of the undead, slimy residue on her skin, limbs hanging on by a thread; a flesh and blood human being, the flush of life showing under her skin.

I’ve only told our RA about the postcard. They took Criminology together. Jenna had missed their midterm exam, worth 20% of their grade. Rebecca went to her dorm room to see if she was OK and found her . . . like that.

“Someone has a cruel since of humor,” Rebecca said.

“But maybe we got it wrong. Maybe it was her twin who died.”

“You’re her best friend. Does she have a twin sister?”

I couldn’t answer her. Because I knew Jenna didn’t have a twin sister, or any sibling, for that matter. And because her parents were at the funeral, and they sure were convinced it was Jenna in that casket—her mother going through three boxes of tissue over the two-hour service. And because “best friend” stung me right in the heart. How could she kill herself when she had a best friend? And if I wasn’t good enough to confide in when she was alive, why contact me after death?

Once inside, my eyes try to adjust to the dim lighting, but I already know where I’m going. The Pac-Man machine is in a separate room, in the back corner between Dance-Dance Revolution and the air hockey tables.

My throat has gone dry, my palms sweaty, my heart beats in my stomach. I don’t know who or what to expect when I turn the corner. A ghost? A demon? My best friend? My legs feel like Jell-O, I can barely stand. I bump into a guy’s rear end by the pinball machines. He probably thinks I’m drunk. I wish I were. I wish this were all a dream, that the postcard was nothing but a hallucination, that my prayers to see her again remain unanswered. I didn’t know what I was asking for; I didn’t recognize the dangers in bringing the dead back to life.

The morning I received the postcard, I went to the cemetery, straight for her grave. The Hunan-Smith Funeral Home tent cover still shielded the fresh mound of dirt, growing patches of grass. The flowers from the service were beginning to die. Her headstone—with a quote from her favorite Emily Dickinson poem, “Because I could not stop for Death”—still had not arrived.

The only marker was the blown-up picture from her obituary, posted on an easel in the ground. It was her high school senior portrait. A black shawl was draped across her bare shoulders, and she was looking at something off camera, smiling faintly into the distance. I never asked her why that particular Emily Dickinson poem was her favorite. It seemed so depressing. Was she trying to tell me something? Had she been depressed? We were all law school students. We were all depressed by the overwhelming workload of assignments. That’s why Boxcar had become our escape so many Friday nights.

There’s a group of people playing Pac-Man, a line for the air hockey tables extending into their game. I scan the room for Jenna and find no one who looks like her. I don’t know if it’s relief or disappointment that makes me fall back dizzy into the bar behind me. I press the back of my hand against my forehead. The neon lights from the machines, the stomping of feet at Dance-Dance Revolution, the slapping of the puck across the air hockey table, the beating of the buttons by Pac-Man, the screams of winners and losers all come together like an off-key marching band at concert that just won’t stop.

“Dammit, Jenna, why torment me like this?”

Behind my ear, I hear a whisper. “Faking your death is against the law. Criminology 101.”

I spin around just to catch a vanishing mist, and it is all I can do not to faint.

—Nortina


It is Short Story A Day May, and while I said I would only write 100-300 words a day, I got carried away with this phantasmic prompt from Gregory Frost: “The Dead Friend.” Will the same happen tomorrow? We shall see…

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