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Good Girls Go to Heaven
A Sparrow Hill Road story
And no one said it had to be real
But it's gotta be something you can reach out and feel now
It ain't right, it ain't fair
Castles fall in the sand and we fade in the air
And the good girls go to heaven, but the bad girls go everywhere...
-- "Good Girls Go To Heaven (Bad Girls Go Everywhere)," Jim Steinman.
Some people will tell you that there are two Americas: the bright and shining daylight country where normal people live their lives and count their blessings, and a second, darker place, a place where men with hooks haunt Lover's Lane and scarecrows walk on moonlit nights. Those people are full of shit. There are a lot more than just two Americas, because every inch of ground on this planet is a palimpsest, scraped clean and overwritten a million times, leaving behind just as many ghosts. Sure, that daylight America exists, and so do a thousand others just like it, but the midnight Americas outnumber them a thousand-fold, and people who aren't careful...people who aren't careful run the risk of slipping into the cracks between the countries.
There's a secret language written across the length and breadth of North America, etched out in highways and embellished in side roads. It sweeps from Canada all the way to the tip of Mexico, telling the story too big and too old for any living soul to understand. There just isn't time. You'd need to ride those roads for fifty years or more, just listening, just learning, before you'd start to have a clue. Even then, you wouldn't really know. You'd just be a little bit less ignorant. Me, I've been running these roads since 1945, and I'm still not sure what some of the side roads and interchanges are trying to tell me. I do know enough to understand that every story starts in more than one place, driving anchors into the flesh of the ghostside where stories are born, digging in its claws and screaming for the right to live.
My story started at a desert crossroads, and at a hairpin curve at the top of Sparrow Hill Road in Buckley Township, Michigan. The roads are still there, if you'd care to go and find them. They'll tell you everything they know. All you have to do is ask them the right way. More importantly, you have to listen the right way, and for most people, that's the hardest challenge of them all. That's what keeps the ambulomancers and the routewitches in business--they already know how to listen, and for most folks, it's easier to pay somebody else than it is to take the time to learn it for themselves. Me, I've got nothing but time.
They have names for me all over the country. The Green Girl of Route 42. The Woman at the Diner. The Ghost of Sparrow Hill Road. The Graveyard's Rose. The name that I was born with--the name that I died with--is Rose. Rose Marshall. Just one more girl who raced and lost in the shadow of Sparrow Hill Road.
The truck stop air has that magical twang that only comes from roadside dives that have had time to blend into their environment, a mixture of baked asphalt, diesel fumes, hot exhaust, and hotter exhaustion. Close to the obligatory diner--the charmingly-named "Fork You Grill"--the smell of grease and lard-based piecrusts joins the symphony. My fingers are cold, and the coat Iím wearing is too thin to really warm them. I got it from a twenty-something on his way to California to be a rock musician; he said it belonged to his little sister. From the quality of the perfume permanently bonded to the denim, she was only his sister if his sister was moonlighting as a prostitute. Who am I to judge? I traded the coat for a backseat quickie, and now my hands are cold, no matter how far I shove them into my hooker's-coat pockets, and I can taste the truck stop air. Being dead is one of those things that really teaches you how to be glad to be alive.
The air inside the diner is hot and dry and sweet with coffee and apple pie and the distant ghosts of greasy breakfasts past. Half a dozen truckers sit belly-up to the counter on stools twice the size of standard; this is a place that stays alive on the trucker trade, and isn't above admitting it. Another half-dozen patrons are sprinkled through the place, seated haphazardly at booths and tables. That tells me what the deal is even before I see the hand-written sign that reads "PLZ SEAT YOURSELF, B RIGHT WITH YOU." From the expressions of the folks who aren't too tired to enjoy their food, the staff here cooks better than they spell. That's for the best. Killing your customers with food poisoning isn't a good way to stay in business very long.
There's something not-right about one of the truckers, a barrel-chested man with a neat little goatee and the hands of an artist. Those artist's hands are wrapped around a coffee mug, stealing heat through the porcelain like a small child stealing cookies from the cookie jar. Most of the eyes in the diner skitter right off me, frightened mice catching the scent of a cat, but not him. He doesn't look at me for long, but when he does, he sees me. That, even more than the scent of ash and lilies that lingers in the air around him, tells me that he's the one I've come here for; he's the one that called me, made me give up a perfectly good ride westward to come to this middle-of-nowhere dive with nothing but the coat on my back and the frostbite in my fingers. I know him, or at least, I know his kind. He's in the process of sliding into the space between two Americas, this one, where the air tastes like apples and the jukebox plays Top 50 country hits, and a quieter, colder America, one where the kisses pretty girls sometimes give never taste of anything but empty rooms and broken promises. He's falling into my America, and there's not a damn thing to be done about it--that's not the sort of trip that you recover from.
The record on the jukebox changes as I walk toward the counter. Blue Oyster Cult, "Don't Fear the Reaper."
I hate it when the inanimate pretends to have a sense of humor.
He looks up when I sit down, flicker of interest in eyes the color of sun-faded denim. The blue-eyed boys have always been my weakness. I meet that brief look with a smile that's more sincere than I intended, flash of white teeth between candy-apple-red lips. It's hard, dressing for the truck stop circuit. Can't be too wholesome or they're afraid to even talk to you, too much chance that you're some sort of lure set out by the local cops. Sandra Dee doesn't play with the long-haul boys. Neither does her evil twin--going too far the other way makes you look like you're just another lot lizard, not worth the cost of conversation. So here I am in flannel shirt under denim jacket over too-tight wife-beater tank top, faded jeans worn as thin as paper, hiking boots, and makeup that would verge on slutty if it wasn't so inexpertly applied. I know my audience. I've had a lot of time to study it.
"Hi," I say, questioning lilt blurring the remnants of my accent, blotting out the route signs leading to my origins. "I'm Rose. Do you, um, come here often?"
He looks my way again. His eyes are kind. That makes it a little easier. We're about to get to know each other real well. "Honey, let me stop you right there. You're way too young for me. Hell, you're way too young to be out here. Don't you have a home to go to?"
"Not for a long time."
"I see." Disapproval overtakes the kindness like the sun going down--but it isn't directed at me, and that makes what has to happen next easier still. "When's the last time you ate?"
This time I don't have to fake my smile. "Too long ago." It's true. I'm always hungry--one more consequence of being what I am--and I have to follow certain rules. If the living choose to feed me while I'm material, the food has flavor and substance. If I try to feed myself, it's only air and ashes, like chewing on nothing.
"Can I buy you a burger?"
The burger tastes like Heaven on a sesame seed bun with ketchup and raw onions, and if Larry wonders why I ask him to pass me the condiments before I put them on, he doesn't say anything. The coffee is even better than the burger, and the apple pie is so damn good I could weep. The living don't know how lucky they are.
Larry finishes his food while I'm still demolishing mine. After that, he just watches, until I'm chasing crumbs with the tip of my index finger and wishing I'd thought to chew a little slower. He clears his throat. "I was thinking, Rose..."
"I don't think a girl your age should be alone in a place like this. Now, you don't have a reason to trust me, and I'll understand if you don't think it's a good idea, but I'm rolling for Detroit tonight. I'd be happy to take you along, get you to a place where maybe...you could find somewhere to stay."
Oh, Larry. He won't be getting anywhere near Detroit tonight. I know that, I've known it since I saw him across the diner, but that doesn't matter, because this is what I wanted; this is what I came here to do. I push my plate away, and if he sees that my smile is painted on over sorrow, he's polite enough to ignore it. He's trying to help. Most truckers are essentially good people, living one of the few vagabond lifestyles that's survived into this new world of electronic mail and cellular telephones. They help each other when they can, and they like to be seen as shining knights riding dragons instead of snow-white chargers.
"Thank you." I tug my borrowed coat tighter, smelling old perfume, old sex, old lies. My lies are some of the oldest of them all, but I tell them for the best of reasons. "I'd really appreciate a ride." Rides are what I unlive for, after all.
The waitress who takes Larry's money looks at me a little too hard, a little too intently. She knows me, she's deep enough into my America to know me, but she's still in the shallows; she's still too close to the daylight to understand why she knows, or what, exactly, it is that she's seeing. I flash her a smile and she steps backward, counts Larry's change wrong twice, and finally--once the register is closed--flees into the back. She won't be here much longer. She'll go back to the daylight, leave this blacktop twilight to the people who can breathe its air and not worry about suffocation. That's good. People like her should get out while they still can.
Then Larry leads me out of the diner to his rig, and the waitress doesn't matter anymore.
Most truckers have permanent addresses, places they sleep when they're not rolling down the midnight miles, eating distance and turning it into dreams. Very few truckers consider those addresses to be anything like home. They live and breathe for their iron darlings, their eighteen-wheeled wives who carry them so faithfully and understand what it is to be one half of a marriage that goes deeper than passion, all the way down into true, undying love. Larry's truck shines like a beacon through the outside dark, glittering with a light he's never seen. If I asked him, if I had a way to frame the question, I bet he'd tell me he's felt it. That he feels it every time he crawls into his little wandering-man's bedroll and closes his eyes: the arms and the protections of his lover, soothing him into sleep.
He sees me staring at her, rapt, and reads the message on my face for what it is, even if he doesn't see the reasons for it. "Isn't she a beauty?" She shivers when he puts her hand against her door, loving bride welcoming her husband home. She's missed him so. If only he could see how much she loves him.
"She is," I say solemnly, and he opens the door for me, and I step into the open arms of his lover.
She knows me, like the waitress knew me, like the routewitches and the crossroad charmers know me. She knows what's coming as soon as the door closes behind me, and the question hangs heavy in the cabin air: Is there another way?
I press the palm of my cold hand flat against the worn leather of her dashboard. It's warm, like a beating heart. The heat spreads through me, wiping out the frost. I'm riding. Even if the truck isn't rolling yet, I'm doing what a hitchhiker is supposed to do: I'm riding, and I'm wearing a stranger's coat, and my belly is full of diner food eaten alongside a good man's last supper. That's enough to bring around the thaw. No, I tell her, and she sighs, deep, shuddering sigh that even Larry feels as he's getting in on the driver's side.
"Now, don't you be that way," he says, and pats the steering wheel. "I just had your shocks looked at."
"You talk to your truck?" My palm stays warm after I pull it away from the dash. I try to sound curious and amused at the same time, like the idea strikes me as funny. All I really manage is wistful.
"Spend more time with her than I do with anybody else," he says, and slides his key into her ignition. The engine comes alive with a muted roar, lioness ready to defend her mate from the wilds surrounding them. Larry pats the wheel again, the gesture seeming to come automatically. "She's a good girl. She's always done her best by me."
"She always will." I lean back into my seat, pretending not to see the curious look Larry sends in my direction, keeping my eyes on the road. The headlights come on, and then we're away, and it's too late for anything beyond the open road.
"So, Rose," says Larry, as he guides his truck around a gentle curve, the night closing in around us on every side. "What were you doing back there? A girl like you, in a place like that, well...it's just not safe. Not everyone is out to help. You're old enough, you should know that."
"I do." The road is unspinning all around us, and the air tastes like lilies and ashes and miles that burn out like candles. Not long now. We're almost there. "I just...I'd been hitching a ride, and the guy I was driving with decided he wanted to go in a different direction. So I thought I'd stop in and see if I could find anybody who was going my way."
I don't need to see his frown. I can hear it. "You never asked which way I was going."
"You told me Detroit."
"I left home when I was sixteen. I didn't have a choice." I let the sentence sit there to be examined, let him fill in all the spaces between the words, letting him realize that I still look sixteen, even if he doesn't understand that I always will. The story he tells himself will be terrible, because the stories we tell ourselves always are, but it won't come anywhere close to the truth. It never does. Until they finish falling into the ghostside America, they never start their stories with "how did you die?"
"Oh." His voice is soft. Silence closes in around us, for a while. Not long enough. "Don't you have any family you could go to?"
Family. There's an interesting thought. Show up on the doorstep of some woman twice my age with my older brother's eyes, and try to explain who I am, where I've been, why I went away...I shake my head. "Not really. We were never a very close family, and there's no one I could go to."
"Don't worry about me." I offer a smile across the darkened cabin. Something flickers in his expression, something old and sad and scared. We're getting close to the border; close to the final fall. He's starting to feel the wind from the onrushing ending, and he still can't see it clear enough to do a damn thing about it. They never can. "I've been on the road a long time. I can take care of myself." The truck rattles on beneath us, eating the road, turning distance into dreams.
I have to try. I always have to try. It might hurt less if I stopped. That's why I do it.
"Have you ever heard the story of the woman at the diner?" Such an innocent question. Such a guilty answer.
Larry laughs. "Now we're telling ghost stories? I suppose that's one way to get me to stop asking personal questions. I've heard of her."
"How does the story go? The way you heard it, I mean. It's different everywhere you go."
"Road stories always are." He clears his throat. "Uh, the story goes that she was a cheerleader."
That's a variation I haven't heard before. "A cheerleader?"
"Yeah. Went to some middle-of-nowhere school and wanted to get to Hollywood. So she and her boyfriend saved their pennies, and they hit the road. Only his car rolled less than three hours out of town, and he was killed. She managed to pull herself out of the wreck, and went staggering off, looking for help. She found a truck stop. The truckers, they said they'd help her, put her in the diner with a cup of coffee while they went down the road to find her boyfriend. See if maybe she was wrong, and he was still breathing."
"He wasn't, was he." He never is. In the versions where I have a boyfriend in the car, he's always dead on impact. Guess it would screw up the story if their little wandering lady wasn't doing her wandering alone.
"No. So they covered his face, said they were sorry, and one of them stayed to wait for the police while the others went back to the diner. But by the time they got there, the girl was already dead. Her throat had been slit, and the cook was gone. Left a note saying their meals were all free, and thanking them for the tip."
Larry doesn't see, or maybe Larry just thinks it's that delicious fear that comes with a good ghost story, but either way, he keeps going. "The one trucker they'd left back on the road, see, he doesn't know she's dead. So when she comes walking down the road a few minutes after the police take her boy away, he just thinks she got tired of waiting. Tells her that her boyfriend's dead, and she cries so hard. Cries like her heart's been broken. The trucker, he's a good guy, and he asks if there's anything he can do."
"So she asks him to take her home," I say, in a whisper.
"Yeah." Larry nods. "She's cold, so he gives her his coat, and he drives her all the way back to where she started from. Lets her off in front of her very own house. It's not until the next day he realizes that he left his coat, and so next time he's driving that route, he stops by. Figures he'll see how she's been doing. Only the police are waiting. The police have been waiting ever since her body was found, tucked into her own bed, with her throat cut ear to ear, wearing a stranger's coat."
"God." The ways the story twists and changes never fail to surprise me. People are nothing if not inventive in their lies.
"He tried to say he was innocent, but nobody believed him. He was executed, and when they buried him, this pretty little girl came up to wife right next to the grave, and said she was sorry; said she didn't mean for that to happen. She just wanted to go home. Then she walked away. The wife realized who she was, and ran after, but she was already gone, like she'd never been there...except for the coat. The trucker's coat, hanging on a tombstone."
"That's a new version," I say, if only to break the silence that the story leaves behind. "I haven't heard that one before."
"Really? There are others?"
"Hundreds." The weariness in voice could be used to veil every star on the ghostside. The smell of lilies is strong now. Not much longer.
"I guess that little ghost-girl gets around."
"You have no idea."
The road signs flicker and blur in the dark outside the cab, headlights cutting a bright road through the night. Larry chatters about inconsequential things, all of them mingling and blurring like the signs, until they're nothing but the final solo in the symphony of a man's life. Would it have gone differently if I weren't here distracting him? I don't think so. He's tired--it comes off him in waves, under the lilies and the ashes and the growing scent of empty rooms--and without me to talk to, he would just have dozed at the wheel. I don't condemn them. I don't save them, either. All I do is get them home.
The other truck looms out of the darkness like a dragon, whipping around a blind curve at the sort of speed that's never safe, not even when the sun is up. Larry swears and grabs the wheel, hauls it hard to the side, fights to dodge and then fights even harder to keep control of his truck. There's a crash from behind us, the sound of metal tearing into metal, and all the stars go out overhead.
Larry doesn't notice. Larry is too busy clinging white-knuckled to the steering wheel, eyes wide and terrified, breath coming in panting hitches. "That was...oh, Jesus. Rose, are you all right? Are you hurt?"
"I'm fine, Larry. I'm not hurt." Truth. I'm not the one he should be asking.
"That was--that was way too close. We have to go back. Did you hear that crash? He may have tipped. We have to go back."
I lean over, put a hand on his arm. The ghostroad is smoother than the real one, the street signs crisper, brands against the starless night. "We have to keep going," I say. "We have to get you home."
Maybe it's my tone, maybe it's his own fear, or maybe it's just the ghostside, already starting to dig its claws into him, already getting under his skin. Finally, slowly, Larry nods. "All right, Rose. We'll keep going."
"Thank you." The dashboard is cool when I touch it again. I wonder when he'll notice that. "Let me tell you my version of the woman at the diner."
"She wasn't a cheerleader, although she was in high school. She liked to drive. She liked to watch other people drive. And she liked her boyfriend, who worked in the auto-shop, and fixed her car so that it ran like a fairy tale. The cheerleaders would never have let her get anywhere near them. She might have gotten them dirty.
"She was walking down the side of the road when the trucker pulled up next to her and asked if she needed a ride anywhere. She said yes, and that she'd really like to go somewhere to get something to eat. So he drove her to the truck stop diner. Only when they got there, she thanked him for the ride, and she went and sat with someone else. Another trucker. And after she ate her burger, she asked him for a ride."
Larry is watching me more than he's watching the road, now; he's watching with the sort of terrified understanding that only comes on by inches, only comes when you're not looking for it. He's starting to realize that something--that everything--is wrong.
"So he let her into his cab, and then they drove off together. But there was a crash. A terrible crash. He was killed, and she...she was never found."
"Only a year later, a year to the day, that first trucker saw her walking down the road again. Same place, same stretch of road. He pulled over, and said he'd been afraid she died. She just smiled. Asked for a ride. And when he asked her if she'd stay in his truck this time, she said no; said she had another ride. Same thing happened. Accident, dead trucker, missing girl. And again, two years later, she shows up. By now the first trucker is starting to realize there's something wrong. So he pulls off the road when he sees her, and he demands to know: are you killing these boys? Are you doing this to them?"
"And she looks at him and says, so sadly it about breaks his heart, 'No. I've never killed anyone. I just want to make sure that somebody's there to see that they get home.'"
This time his voice is just a whisper; this time, he understands. "Rose."
I offer him a smile as sad as Sunday in September. "I came to you for a reason, Larry. I'm just here to make sure that you can find the right roads. I'm only here to get you home."
Driving through the ghostside is easy, and Larry's rig knows the way. She travels light and faster than she ever did in life, finally free to corner on her own, to compensate for her driver when he can't focus through his tears. He only cries a while. Not as long as some, longer than others. That's fine. There's nothing wrong with crying when someone dies, not even when it's you. If you can't weep at your own funeral, when can you?
The ghostroad gets simpler, turns and curves fading into straight lines and dark exits. Finally, like an oasis, the bright neon of the Last Dance Diner appears up ahead and to the right. I reach over, squeeze Larry's wrist.
"This is my stop."
"Yours is up ahead." The danger is past. Once they reach the Last Dance, they can find the rest of the way on their own, and I don't dare go any further--for me, the Last Dance is where the danger really begins. I don't know where that road ends, and until I'm finished with everything that needs doing, I don't want to find out. Besides, the Last Dance makes damn good malteds.
He pulls off the road, letting the engine idle as he looks at me. He looks younger than he did when we met. The ghostside is easing the years away. "Why me?"
"Because the crash was coming whether I was here or not, and sometimes people get lost on the road. Sometimes they just need someone to tell them what exits to take." I lean over, kiss his forehead--cool lips brushing cool skin--and open my door. "Good luck, Larry."
Larry looks at me in silence for a long while before he nods, and starts the engine up again. I slam my door, and the truck pulls away, driving down that long, straight stretch of road. And then it's gone, like a piece of tissue whipped away by the wind, and overhead, the stars start blinking back on. The wind picks up, and I'm cold again, falling out of the midnight and back into the twilight, where the air still tastes like apples.
Hunching my shoulders under the thin fabric of my jacket, I turn and start for the Last Dance Diner. Maybe Emma will be working tonight. She's usually willing to buy me a malt when the boss isn't looking.
And in all the Americas, from midnight to noon and in-between, the truckers roll out, and the diners stand like cathedrals of the road, and the beat...the beat goes on.
Story by Seanan McGuire, Copyright 2010
Image by Rory Clark, Stopped Motion Photography, Copyright 2010