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our ghosts will wander

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If she could just remember who killed her, she might be able to finally leave this Godforsaken place.

Mary’s always hated Hazard, always harbored dreams of leaving it all behind. Maybe making it big on the silver screen, or in the glossy pages of a fashion magazine. Richard had told her she had the look and the work ethic to be successful, and if she just lost a few pounds, maybe got a boob job and a perm and veneers, she could put Hazard in her rearview mirror.

But she’s dead now and she’s mired in Hazard, knee-deep, mud clinging to the hem of the dress she died in that she can’t ever take off. She keeps the white scarf wrapped around her neck most of the time, or stuffed into one of her pockets. The others—women and girls, mostly, but sometimes there are boys, even men—tell her she ought to let it go, it’s not healthy to hang onto what killed her so long after her death. She can’t, though. It reminds her of Richard. When she wraps the silky scarf around her neck, she catches glimpses of him, his fingers on her neck, stroking tenderly like she was unfamiliar terrain he wanted to map out, traverse, explore.

“Didn’t he kill you,” one of the new girls, Geraldine, asks her one day. Geraldine sits right there on the riverbank and looks down at her mud-stained hands as if she’s surprised that they’re hers. “Was the story I heard, anyway.”

Mary gently folds to her knees beside her and twists her fingers in folds of the scarf. “Richard loved me,” she says, tightening her fingers in the pale silk. “We were gonna get out of Hazard. Go out to California together, make something of ourselves.”

Geraldine clucks like a chicken as she draws her knees to her chest. “Loving somebody and killing somebody ain’t mutually exclusive.” She looks down at her muddy knuckles before turning her hands over to stare at her palms.

Mary sets a hand on Geraldine’s shoulder and squeezes gently. “Richard didn’t kill me,” she says.

“My husband killed little pieces of me, bit by bit,” Geraldine says, still staring down at her hands. “By the time he took a knife out of the butcher block on the kitchen counter and stuck it in my chest, I was pretty much already dead anyway.”

Mary grips onto Geraldine’s shoulder. “I”m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Geraldine says, finally wiping her hands on her slacks. “He’s rotting in prison now.”

That doesn’t seem like much of a consolation, but Mary keeps that thought to herself. “It wasn’t like that with Richard. He was—”

Geraldine cuts her off. “Yeah, yeah. He never laid a hand on you,” she snipes, then falls silent for a long moment. When she speaks next, her tone’s softened a little. “You really don’t remember anything?”

“Not really,” Mary admits, wrapping her arms around herself. “One day I was with Richard on the bridge and the next, I was up to my knees in Hazard.”

“Maybe he pushed you off the bridge,” says Geraldine, eyes sparking to life in her round, doughy face. “We got a real life murder mystery on our hands here.”

“I’m not a mystery to be solved,” Mary grumbles, edging slightly away from Geraldine and her excitement.

“Maybe if you could remember something about your death, you could finally leave this all behind,” she points out, sweeping a finger over the stagnant water in front of them.

Mary wraps the tasseled end of the scarf around her hand. Suddenly, the thought of leaving Hazard—leaving the memories she does have and the knowledge she isn’t sure she wants—seems overwhelming and scary.

She refuses to accept the idea that Richard killed her. But it’s like a door’s been wedged slightly open and all the nagging doubts she’s tried to hold at bay are suddenly spilling in. What if she’s been wrong about him all this time?

Geraldine reaches out and pulls Mary’s hand away from the scarf knotted around her neck. She squeezes gently on her fingers. “I’ll help you.”

Though they both died in the river, they’re not bound to it in perpetuity. They wander about town, unseen, hands clasped tightly. Sometimes Mary comes across someone she knew before this all happened to her and she tries to call out to them, but they never hear her. She’s never loud enough for them to hear her. Sometimes they hear Geraldine though, and she says it’s because she’s angrier, because she hasn’t accepted what happened to her like Mary has.

They pass the burnt out shell of Richard’s trailer on the edge of town, near the old landfill.

Mary stands amid the rubble and tries to feel anything, any sense of Richard, a lingering presence, but finds nothing.

“He didn’t die here, at least,” she tells Geraldine.

“I bet they chased him out of town,” Geraldine says. “Ironic, when you think about it.”

“Ironic?” Mary asks.

“You two were so dead set on leaving Hazard together,” she says. “You did, in a way.”

Mary drifts out of the charred mess that had once been Richard’s trailer. “I guess,” she says, all of a sudden feeling listless and lost. “Richard moved on. Why can’t I?”

Geraldine takes her by the hand again. “Let’s keep going. The answer to all your questions has gotta be here somewhere.”

“In Richard’s trailer?”

“In Hazard,” Geraldine says.

Geraldine leads and Mary follows, heading toward the heart of town. Where, hopefully, all the answers to Mary’s questions might lie.

The heart of Hazard is mostly as Mary remembers it, which is to say: barren. It was practically a ghost town when she was alive and now—

“It literally is a ghost town,” Geraldine cackles.

They pass a row of empty windows—the place had once been a bakery but now the only thing on display is cobwebs and dust. The paint’s long chipped and faded away, but Mary can still see the outline of the shop’s name—Bad to the Bun—on the glass.

“Mr. Casey’s shop,” Geraldine says when she notices Mary lingering in front of the empty window.

“Hazard’s practically a ghost town,” she says.

“Perfect place for a couple displaced ghosts, then,” says Geraldine.

“I don’t wanna be stuck here forever,” Mary mumbles, tugging her hand away. “Before I met Richard, I always figured I’d die in Hazard. But he opened my eyes to possibility. To a future where I—I could be special.”

“You did die in Hazard,” Geraldine says, gripping onto her hands again. “You were born here and you died here. And in between the bookends of your too-short, ordinary life, Richard filled your head with lies.”

“Dreams,” Mary protests.

Geraldine’s eyes grow cold. “Fantasies. Nonsense.”

“Don’t take away my dreams because you never had any of your own,” Mary sneers, lip curling.

“You’re so stupid. He fed you empty promises and you starved to death on them,” Geraldine snaps. She grabs onto the end of Mary’s scarf and tugs, until the fabric goes taut around her slender neck. “He choked the life out of you and tossed you off that bridge and you still worship the ground he walked on.”

“Shut up,” Mary protests, trying to pull away from her. “He loved me!”

“Who else could it have been?” Geraldine asks, finally relenting and letting her go.

Mary wants to tell her it was someone else—maybe that other guy she’d been seeing behind Richard’s back—but she knows Geraldine would never buy it, she’s got it in her head that it was Richard. And they’d never found Tony after she died. He skipped town right after the pulled her body up and out of the river, and hardly anyone even believed he existed. They thought Richard had just made him up to be his scapegoat.

Tony hadn’t made her the same kinds of promises Richard had. He’d only relieved her of her virginity and reassured her she was ‘good enough.’ Richard found the two of them parked close to the river’s edge and then the rest of her life—all two weeks of it—is nothing more than a blur, a smear of half-remembered images and sounds that haunt her like she and Geraldine haunt Hazard now.

“It might’ve been Tony,” Mary says, quietly, fisting her hands in her flower-print skirt.

“He booked it, after,” Geraldine says. “Everyone just assumed Richard made him up. There were some who thought they remembered him, though. Thought maybe Richard’d killed him too, in a rage.”

Mary shakes her head and presses cool, clammy palms against the sides of her face. “Seems like a lot of people wanted me dead,” she sighs.

Geraldine squeezes her shoulder in sympathy. “Maybe… Maybe you could ask him.”

“What do you mean?” Mary asks.

“Maybe we could find Richard,” Geraldine says. “And ask him what happened.”

Mary shakes her head; what her friend is suggesting is nothing more than a pipe dream. A fantasy born out of desperation. If it was simple as asking Richard if he’d done it, she thinks she’d have been able to find him by now. But she hasn’t seen him in—Mary doesn’t even remember how long.

“I think I’m on my own,” she says.

She feels Geraldine’s fingers lace with her own, squeeze down firmly on her hand.

Maybe she’s not quite on her own.

Mary might never find what she’s looking for. She understands that now, in a way she hadn’t before, and it still stings. It doesn’t seem as daunting as it did at the start, when she’d just woke up.

She looks over at Geraldine. Feels her friend’s fingers tighten around her hand in reassurance. Mary turns and glances about her, at what remains of Hazard.

Maybe they would find their way out together, maybe they would end up stuck here like Mary had in her lifetime, but they would be doing it together. Being stuck in Hazard doesn’t feel so hopeless and lonely anymore.