GHOSTS OF ANACORTES

By David Wright

 

 

Isabel spotted another mural across the street—a woman in a red dress dancing on the hood of an old Model A.  Did girls really do that back then?  Dance on cars?  In heels?  What if she slipped?  Banged knees at the very least. And then there was the damage to the paint job to consider. 

The whole thing seemed rather surreal, especially with the Starbucks next door and the Safeway down the street—almost like this flapper dame had been lost in time, caught in some kind of wormhole in space.

“Wait.  I want a picture.”

I should have known what was coming next.  But I was too slow.

Screech of brakes.  A polite honk, but no middle finger, and then the Dodge minivan just drove around Isabel as if this happened every day, which it probably did.  I waved a polite “Sorry” to the patient local in the van and caught up to my wife in the middle of the street.

“Be careful, Izzy.”  I put my arm in the small of her delicate back.  “A picture may be worth a thousand words, but it's not worth dying over.”

“They won’t hit me.  I’m a tourist,” she quipped with confidence, and apparently she was right, at least so far.

Flapper dame was the 10th mural we’d seen since arriving in Anacortes an hour ago.  According to the Internet, there were 120 of these plywood masterpieces screwed onto buildings all around town.  And yes, I’d done the math.  If Isabel absolutely had to have a picture of every last one of them, we were in for a long night.

“I wonder who made these,” she mused half to herself.  She was still in the middle of the street, staring at the picture on her phone, the occasional car meandering around her without complaint.

“Did she blink?”

“What?”

“I hate it when murals do that.  It ruins the whole shot.”

Isabel cast a baleful eye in my direction.  “You’re not funny.” 

“No, I’m hungry.  Can we please eat, or at the very least, finish crossing the street before another soccer mom runs you down.”

She shrugged.  “Haven’t got me yet.”

Anacortes was a one-horse town, both figuratively and literally.  There were probably a few hundred cars on the entire island, but only one main street—Commercial Avenue.  And smack dab in the middle of Commercial Avenue was a little horse, or maybe a donkey, pulling two pioneer ladies in a yellow buggy—lost in time.

This particular plywood mural was screwed to Las Mexicanas, the biggest of four Mexican restaurants in town.  Small towns loved their Mexican restaurants, although I had yet to see a Mexican.  Of course, if Isabel didn’t feel like tacos or burritos tonight, there was an Italian restaurant two blocks away, a MacDonald’s around the corner, and several seafood joints that boasted fresh catch of the day.  I didn’t really care.  I just wanted to get off of the street before we got killed.

“This’ll do,” she said.

With a little more pressure to the small of her back, I gladly guided Isabel across the street and through the tinted glass doors of Las Mexicanas.  Maybe I would finally see a Mexican.  But alas, the place was practically empty.  Perhaps five o’clock was too early for Mexicans. 

The only other patron was a bearded white man in a wheelchair.  He sat alone at a table in the middle of the dining hall sipping a beer.  The waiter who seated us by the gaudy chain of multi-colored paper lanterns wasn’t Mexican either—just another tattooed hipster with thick-rimmed glasses and skinny jeans.

I sighed inwardly, giving up all hope of having an authentic Mexican experience 33 nautical miles from the Canadian border.  Isabel was immune to my angst, flipping through her cell phone photos with insipid abandon.

“Look at this one,” she said, and pushed the phone too close to my face.  I took off my glasses and blinked the picture into focus.  It was the Safeway manager—so real Isabel had almost started up a conversation with him before realizing he was just another life-sized mural.

“Yeah, I know.”

“And this one.”  She flipped to the little boy in front of the post office.  A little flag—a real American flag, not a mural—had been drilled into his little palm.  I wondered why some kids hadn’t stolen the flag by now.  Or maybe they had but some Good Samaritan just kept replacing it.  How many flags had gone in and out of that little tike’s painted wooden fingers?  Was he a real person from the past like the Safeway manager, or just some imaginary boy with a bowl cut and an American flag?

“Weird.”

“He’s not weird,” Isabel scolded.  “He’s cute.”

I heard laughter on the other side of the paper lanterns, followed by a fit of stupendous coughing, and turned to see the bearded man grinning at Isabel, spittle running down his gray beard.  “You like my Johnny?” he asked, still smiling.

“Pardon me?”

“My Johnny.  He’s one of mine.”

“No, it’s a mural,” Isabel explained, holding up the phone so he could see, which was clearly impossible from half way across the dimly-lit restaurant.

“Yeah, I know.”  He nodded nonetheless.  “That’s Johnny.  I painted him.”

“Wow.”  Isabel was impressed.  “Did you paint all the murals in Anacortes?”

“Yup, with a little help.”  He took another sip of his beer.  Foam added to the spittle on his whiskers, but he didn’t seem to care.

“Isn’t that hard, I mean, with your…”  Isabel glanced down at his wheelchair and blushed.

“You mean this?”  He grabbed the rubber runners and his whole chair shook.  It was old and rusty, like its owner.  Perhaps the two had rusted old together, grafted like an old stump to a rock.  “That’s how they got me.”

Isabel gaped at me quizzically.  I sent a strong “Don’t ask!” back to her via telepathy, but I guess her ESP was a little rusty.  Either that, or she was just ignoring me.

“Who got you?” she asked.

“The ghosts.”

Okay.  This was getting weird, but not nearly as weird as it was going to get.  “Excuse me, sir, but we’re just about to—”

“What ghosts?” Isabel’s curiosity was relentless. 

As if this was his cue, the stranger slapped his meaty palms on his wheelchair runners and wheeled his way dramatically across the pseudo-Mexican dining room to our table.  Only then did he remember his beer and spun on a dime to retrieve it.  You might think it would be difficult to carry a nearly full beer mug in his lap while wheeling around obstacles like chair legs and multi-colored paper lanterns, but somehow he managed—without spilling a drop, I might add.

 

“I first stepped foot on this haunted island back in the summer of 1984, and I say ‘stepped foot’ because that’s what I mean to say.  My legs worked just fine back then.  Got me all up and down this misty coast from Santa Maria, California to Anchorage, Alaska.  I was young and never thought I’d stay more than a day in this one-buggy town.  But then I started to see them.  Not all at once.  Not all the time either.  Just a flash.  And then a whisper.  And then they started talking to me as clear as I am to you right now.”

He paused to finally wipe the foam and spittle off his bushy beard, a little too late by my reckoning.  At the same instant, our waiter showed up to take our order, took one look at our scary guest and beetled off before I could stop him.  By then, the stranger had sufficiently groomed himself to continue.

“The name’s Bill,” he said, extending his meaty, now moist, palm to my wife, but not to me. 

“My name’s Isabel,” Isabel responded politely, shaking his icky palm.  Why was she encouraging him?  A strange man?  Probably homeless?  Okay, so technically he wasn’t a stranger anymore because we knew his name, and probably not homeless because he had a job making murals, but still...

“Who did you see, exactly?”

“Little Johnny.”  He pointed to Isabel’s phone that by now had gone to sleep on the table.  “But he wasn’t the first.  The first was Fred White and his safety bike.  He was just hanging out like he is today, except in a different spot.  Town council moved him to the old marine hardware store at the end of Commercial Avenue.  Fred’s still not happy about that.  But he’s not the worst complainer, not by a long shot.  Dancers.  They’re the worst.  You made my ankles too fat.  They don’t look like that.”  He altered his voice in mockery, and then coughed with the effort. 

“And the fishermen.  I can’t keep them happy no matter what I do.  ‘You painted the tackle all wrong.  Don’t you even know how to fish?’  Which I don’t, of course, because I’m a painter, not a fisherman.”  He downed his beer in one last guzzle, muddying his beard once again, and slammed the empty mug down on the table.  The waiter arrived with infuriating efficiency to replenish his pint, but still didn’t take our order.

“Got to be I couldn’t walk down the street without seeing this ghost or that, and all of them wanting me to paint them just right, just the way they remembered they were when they were still alive.  Got to be I just couldn’t take it anymore and I booked the next bus out of town.  But they wouldn’t let me leave.  No ma’am, they wouldn’t.  And that’s when they made my stay in Anacortes a permanent one.”

His narrative was abruptly interrupted by another angry fit of coughing, during which more orange spittle was exuded onto his grimy beard.  This unseemly operation went on for far too long.  When it had finally concluded, I expected the story to continue, but it didn’t.  Instead, Bill just nursed his beer slowly, not saying a word.

“Go on,” I blurted.  “What happened?” 

I was appalled by my naivety.  He’d reeled me in like a fish on the line, snagged me in his net of lies and plunked me in the cooler.  The only thing left to do was drive the boat back to shore, gut me, fillet me and cook me up for dinner.  But first came the proverbial bonk on the head to put me out of my misery.  Bill grinned at the prospect.

“The bus showed up right on time and promptly plowed right into the bus stop where I was sitting, took my legs right out from under me, twisted my spine like a pretzel.”

I couldn't help but stare at the mangled wreck that was below his waist.  It kind of made me mad—not at Bill, just sort of at the universe.  “Why? Was he drunk or something?”

Bill shook his foamy locks.  “Never touched a drop in his life.  They said it was a mechanical failure, something wrong with the steering column, but I knew what it was.  It was them.”  Bill pointed a callused finger at Isabel’s sleeping phone on the table.  I assumed he meant the pictures on the phone—the pictures of murals—murals of real ghosts.  But that was just silly.

“The last laugh is on them.  They won’t have old Bill to push around anymore.”  He laughed loudly, and in a feat of Herculean drinking prowess, downed the entire pint in one gulp. This was followed by one last fit of gargantuan coughing from which I feared he would never recover.  But he did, and wheeled his rusty chair unceremoniously out of the restaurant without even a fond farewell.

“That was...”

“Weird.”

We left Las Mexicanas an hour later feeling less than full and more than a little unsettled.  Perhaps the two tacos and half of a half-frozen burrito were not sitting well on our stomachs, but more than likely, it was Bill’s ghost story that haunted us.

“That poor man,” Isabel commented as we sauntered down Commercial Avenue towards 9th Street.  Isabel didn’t want to return to the hotel just yet, but there was really nothing to do in Anacortes on a Wednesday night in the off season.  All the shops were closed, and there wasn’t really much to buy even when they were open.  Like Bill said, it was a one-buggy town.

“Yeah, but it was his own fault, really.”

“Getting hit by a bus?  How was that his fault?”

“No, not that.  It was an awful thing.  Don’t get me wrong.  But he didn’t have to stay here after the accident, not if he didn’t want to.  He could have moved to some other town.  And all that stuff about blaming the ghosts—that was just pathetic.”

“Oh, I don’t know.”  Isabel said, and held up her phone to take another picture.

This was mural number 112—Party Ladies.  They weren’t real ladies, just overly large men in drag who’d had a bit too much to drink.  How such a scene warranted its own mural, I couldn’t say, but Isabel seemed to like it.

“I’ve got to use the washroom.”

“Sure, fine.  I’ll wait here.”

“Yeah, I know.”  She handed me her phone.

I resisted the urge to hand it back to her.  I knew she had no pockets, but why wear a skirt and blouse with no pockets in the first place?  Fashion. I watched her disappear into the public washroom and then leaned up against the walkway railing.

We were in Rotary Park overlooking the marina—not the most scenic location on the island—Washington Park had a magnificent view of the straits and Deception Pass literally took my breath away—but it did have a pleasant promenade nestled under the red-barked Arbutus trees and towering Western Red Cedars.

Earlier that day, we’d seen hundred-year-old photographs of this exact spot in the town’s quaint little museum.  Of course, back then it wasn’t a park or a marina.  It was a rugged coastline with fishing boats dragged up onto the beach, stumps from sporadic, uncontrolled logging and numerous clapboard shacks up and down the shore.

How did people even live back then?  No electric lights.  No gas stoves or central heating or microwave ovens.  No TV or telephones or computers or Internet.  Just a fishing boat and a clapboard shack on the edge of the ocean.  And somehow that was enough.

“What you got there, mister?”

The voice came from the beach.  I didn’t see anybody at first, and then there he was dragging a wooden boat up onto the rocks.  He must have been about 12 or 13, barefoot with blue shorts, a blue tunic and a blue scarf.  But best of all, he had a thick, Spanish accent—a real, honest-to-God Mexican.  I knew there was a sailing school just around the point.  Maybe he was one of their students.

“You mean this?” I yelled back, holding up the phone.  “A ball and chain.  What’s it look like to you?”

“I’d be inclined to trade you for it, por favor.” 

“I don’t think my wife would like that.  She’s got her whole life on this thing, not to mention some pretty snazzy pictures of your murals.”  I laughed, thinking it was a joke. 

“Just the same.  I’ve got things to trade.”  He was hilariously cute, like a little blue Mexican Gonzales.  I fully expected him to pull out a pair of six guns.  Instead, he reached into his little sailboat and produced a rusted cutlass like in a Disney movie.

“Well, that is impressive.  But I’m afraid I’m not in the market for a pirate sword at the moment.  And even if I was, I couldn’t give you my wife’s phone, not and live to tell about it.”  I laughed again. This was a strange sailor indeed.

“All the same.  We like her pictures.  We’d like her to stay.  We all would.”

“It’s a lovely town,” I answered back politely, wondering where this conversation was going.  Did he work for the Anacortes’ Chamber of Commerce?  “But I’m afraid we’re leaving tomorrow.”

“All the same.  We don’t want her to go.”

We don’t want her to go!  That was a strange thing to say.  How did this little Mexican kid even know Isabel?  And who was the “we” he was talking about? 

I felt an involuntary shudder run down my spine and turned back to check on Isabel.  She was just emerging from the washroom, adjusting her skirt.  I left the little Mexican sailor with his boat, and walked over to Isabel.

“Who were you talking to?”  There was a puzzled look on her face.

“A little Mexican kid.  I guess he’s from the sailing school.  Kind of creepy.”

She glanced towards the marina, but didn’t see him.

“No, not there.  He’s down on the beach.”  I led her to the railing, but the boy was gone.  “No, really.  He was right there.  He had a funny accent and a little boat and a real pirate sword that he wanted to trade for your phone.” 

She blinked in panic, but I held up her phone just so she’d know I hadn’t done anything foolish like trade it for a sword.

“A real pirate sword?”  She scoffed, snatching the phone out of my hand.  “You’re not funny.”

I wasn’t trying to be funny.  But there was definitely something funny going on.  This one-buggy town was starting to get to me.  First the crazy mural artist in his rusty wheelchair, and now the little blue Mexican sailor with the pirate sword.  Not to mention the two tacos and half-frozen burrito that had suddenly declared civil war in my stomach. 

I tried to convince Isabel that we should cut short our little adventure for tonight and head back to the hotel, but she wouldn’t have it.  She thought I was being paranoid, irrational.  My complaints about crazy locals and bad food bounced off her voracious enthusiasm like hollow points off Kevlar.

“We’re not leaving this town until we’ve got every last one of these babies captured on film.”  By babies, she meant haunted mural portraits.  And by film, she meant digital images.  She brandished her phone like a sword—a pirate sword.  I wanted to point out that her phone didn’t have film in it.  But I just didn’t have the energy.  So I stifled my belly-aching and followed along quietly in her wake.

Like every good treasure hunter, Isabel had a treasure map, of sorts, that indicated where in Anacortes each of the 120 murals was located.  This was printed up by the real Chamber of Commerce, as if they had nothing better to do. 

I hadn’t noticed before, but every mural was numbered.  Isabel decided to start from the end and work our way backwards.  She said it would be more fun that way.  I didn’t see how.  Apparently we had only just barely scratched the surface before.  We were in for a long evening of walking the streets of Anacortes and taking random photographs of random people from the town’s rather mundane past.  God save me.

Mural number 120—old couple by a train. 

Mural number 111—young family in an old car. 

Mural number 87—flapper girl. 

“Um, didn’t we already do this one?” I asked.

Isabel squinted, flipping through her photos.  “I don’t think so.”

“But I thought...”  The flapper wore a red dress and high-heeled shoes.  She was dancing next to a red car with scratches on the hood.  It seemed familiar, only different.  There were marks on her knees like she’d fallen recently.

“Nope.  Come on.  We don’t have all night.”

It was dark by now, the crescent moon high in the sky and a bit of a wind.  I shivered.  There was no use in complaining.  As I’ve already mentioned, Isabel was relentless.

Mural number 63—men collecting old newspapers in a junk truck.

Mural number 45—random municipal leader known for nothing in particular. 

Mural number 17—mule buggy.

“Mule buggy!” I exclaimed.  “Now I know for sure we did this one.  We’re going in circles.”

“We are not,” she said, but studied the map anyways.  “See.”  She pointed.  “We started here, and now we’re here.”

“But I remember this mural because I couldn’t tell if it was a donkey or a horse.”

“It’s a mule.”  She pointed at the title.  “It says right here—mule buggy.”

“I can see that.  What I mean is that I remember this mural.”  I was insistent.  “But weren’t there two women in the buggy?”  I shouldn’t have said this last part out loud because Isabel jumped on it immediately.

“See?  You don’t remember.  It was probably just another mural that looked like this one.”

I stared at the mural for a long second.  The pioneer woman stared back at me, grinning at some unspoken joke.  I didn’t like it.  But I didn”t have time to think about it either.  Isabel was pulling on my arm, dragging me back into traffic.  As the night wore on, she became more and more reckless—stepping out into the middle of the street every time she spotted another mural.  She was going to get us both killed.

We reached the Safeway and Isabel lined up another shot.  “Thank you,” she said to the manager from 1952 as she captured his likeness.

“You're welcome,” he answered back in a deep baritone.

I glanced back to see who was making this rather distasteful joke, but there was nobody in the parking lot.  It was past 11:30.  The Safeway was closed.  Everything was closed except a few restaurants.

“Did you hear that?”

“Hear what?”

“You said ‘Thank you’ and someone said ‘You’re welcome.’”

“Someone said?  You mean, like the mural?”  She gazed at me with tired eyes.  “You’re not funny.  How many times do I have to tell you that?”

“I wasn’t trying to be funny,” I said, but there was no point in arguing.  Obviously the mural hadn’t said anything.  So what did I hear?

Isabel marched on ahead.  According to her faithful treasure map, there were only a few murals left and then we would be done.  We could finally go back to the hotel and tomorrow we would leave this haunted one-buggy town for good.

I didn’t know what was wrong with me—maybe the tacos, maybe the fatigue, or maybe just the creepy locals—but my mind was swimming with irrational thoughts, flights of terror that I’m sure would seem mere feverish fantasy in the cold light of day. 

What if the ghosts were real?  What if they came after Isabel tonight like they did old Bill?  Could they do that?  Crash a bus into her just so she’d stay?  Why did they even want her?  She didn’t paint, at least, not anymore.  She just took pictures of other people’s paintings.

I caught up with her just as she spotted the post office across the street.  Without even a glance up and down the street, she darted across.  My heart leapt in my throat, but fortunately there were hardly any cars on the road tonight.  Anacortes was pretty dead at 11:45 on a Wednesday.

“Isn’t he cute?” she said as she took his picture.  “Look at his little flags.  They’re real.”

“His flags?”  Something jogged in my memory.  This was Johnny.  I knew it.  But instead of one flag, now he had two.  Was my memory really that bad?  Or was somebody purposely messing with me?

“Izzy, doesn’t he seem familiar to you?”

“Oh, don’t start.  We’re almost done.”  She closed her phone case and started marching down the street.

I glanced back at Johnny and he waved his flags.  I know you don’t believe me at this point.  I hardly believe myself, but I’m not lying to you.  I saw his arms cross over three times, and then he laughed out loud. 

I gasped, or grunted.  I’m not sure which, but it was loud enough for Isabel to halt her marching and look back.

“What’s gotten into you?”

“He—” I didn’t know how to say it.  How could I make somebody believe the impossible?  “He moved.”

I guess that wasn’t the right way to say it, because Isabel didn’t believe me.  Instead, she just got really, really mad.

“Look, Daryl.  I don’t ask much of you.  I had plans for my life too, you know.  I wasn’t always just a homemaker.  The very least you could do is do something I like for a change without whining about it the whole time.  You know what?  Just go back to the hotel.  I don’t care.  I’ll walk back if I have to.”

The hotel was two miles away.  I wasn’t about to let her walk there alone in the middle of the night, not with real, honest-to-God ghosts on every second wall.  So I shut my mouth.  Maybe if I hadn’t, things would have turned out differently, but that was what I did.

It was almost midnight by the time we finally reached the end of Commercial Avenue by the old marine hardware store, oldest store in Anacortes.  It was the end of the line—the last mural on our list, and the oldest. 

Mural number 1—safety bike.

What can I tell you?  The wheels were moving, spinning like a fan.  Fred White was pedaling away like a madman, but not going anywhere.  He glanced over at me and grinned, his black mustache twitching.

“Why the sour face, gent?”  He said with a heavy Irish accent.  “Enjoy your stay.  Just don’t try to leave us.”  He got off of his safety bike, but the pedals and wheels just kept spinning.  “You see, friend, we like her pictures.  We’d like her to stay.  We all would.  We don’t want her to go.  Stay with us.”

His words echoed in ghostly chant.  “Stay with us.  Stay with us.  Stay with us.”

And now I could hear them down the empty street, dozens of voices, 120 voices or more, some from miles away but in unison calling to me.  “Stay with us.  Stay with us.  Stay with us.”

All the way down Commercial Avenue and into the side streets, the haunted figures broke from their plywood prisons like stilted, cardboard cartoons—dancing girls, pioneers, farmers, policemen, store clerks, firemen, fishermen, librarians, politicians, horses, buggies, cars and trains—an entire town of bygone days springing to life for one last haunted bacchanal. 

And all to keep Isabel from leaving their little town—because they liked her pictures—because they wanted her to stay.

“I think I’d like to do one,” Isabel mused half to herself as she flipped through the 120 pictures on her phone—the complete set.  She couldn’t hear the haunted chorus all around her, or see the spirits who were coming for her soul.  And I couldn’t make her see them.  She would never believe me.

“Do one what?” I asked, my voice shaking.

“A mural.  It can’t be that hard.”

No!  This was their plan all along. They didn’t want Isabel’s phone or her pictures.  They wanted Isabel.  They wanted her to make murals for them, to keep their memories alive.  They would keep her here like they did Bill, trap her in this little town forever just to paint these ghosts back to life.

The chant was getting louder as every second another town spirit joined the ghostly parade down Commercial Avenue.  I knew where they were going.  They were coming to the hardware store at the end of the street.  They were coming for us.  Soon we would be surrounded, trapped by 120 chanting, remorseless spirits, all of them wanting one thing—my Isabel.

“You can’t paint,” I said harshly, and my words struck home.  I saw my wife stiffen like a soldier stabbed in the heart with a bayonet.  But that wasn’t enough.  I had to twist the blade.  “You never went to art school.  You can’t even draw very well.” 

It was probably the meanest thing I’d ever said to my wife, maybe the meanest thing I’d ever said to anybody.  I’d give a million dollars to take those words back, scramble them in a blender and chug them down in one Herculean gulp, even if it killed me. 

But I couldn’t.  Not ever.

Isabel didn’t respond.  She just started walking quickly across the street as if she’d suddenly remembered something, without saying a word, without even looking up from her phone.  I couldn’t tell if she was crying.  I wanted to say something, but I just stood there like an idiot. 

And then I saw the bus coming.  But it wasn’t just any bus.  It was an old trolley bus from the 50’s—you know, the kind with round, slip-stream corners and long antenna poles that sparked on wires that dangled above every street like a giant spider web.  Except that, there were no wires anymore.  The poles just sparked against thin air.

“Isabel, look out!” I yelled, or tried to, but my voice was swallowed up by the rude blast of the bus driver’s horn.  Isabel, lost in dark thoughts, appeared not to hear it, marching with oblivious disdain directly into the bus’s path.  And the bus driver, in spite of his horn, appeared not to see Isabel, not slowing his approach, but accelerating.

It was then I noticed the driver was a boy, a sailor boy dressed all in blue.  He waved his rusted cutlass out the window and bellowed like a drunken pirate.  Arriba!  Arriba!  Andale!  Andale!   I blinked my disbelief away.  This wasn’t a vision spawned from lack of sleep and too many chili peppers.  This was really happening.

“Isabel, look out!” I yelled again, stepping off the curb.  Gratefully, she turned just in time to avoid the spectral apparition.  Unfortunately, I did not.  I felt a sharp pain in my right femur, and then my lower back, and then my body was spinning end over end ten feet in the air.  The last thing I remember before my head hit the pavement and the world turned black, was the look of utter terror on the driver’s face.

At the time, I didn’t know it was a Dodge minivan that had hit me.  I only discovered this detail of the story much later on when I woke up in the hospital, about the same time I discovered I would never walk again.  Of course, that wasn’t how the doctors put it.  They said I would “probably” never walk again, and so I spent the next three weeks in therapy.  By then we knew I would never walk again, and nobody had to tell me anything.

“Everything’s going to be okay, Daryl.”  Isabel could be so understanding it made me sick.  But really, I was lucky to have her.  “People have rallied around us like we were their own family, the whole town, but mostly Margaret.  If it weren’t for her...”

Margaret was the soccer mom, and the driver of the Dodge minivan that hit me.  There might have been a moment—at the beginning—when I blamed her.  But not now.  She’d been an absolute saint—organized a fundraiser to cover my medical bills, found housing for Isabel, even a job for her in town.  She still felt guilty about what happened to me, but it clearly wasn’t her fault.  When I saw that bus coming for Isabel, I had stepped out blindly into traffic, right in front of her.  She never had a chance.

I couldn’t blame her even if I wanted to.  But I didn’t anyways.  I blamed the ghosts.

For three solid weeks, as Isabel came and went visiting me in the hospital, I told her about the ghosts I’d seen.  I told her everything.  For the first little while, I didn’t even wonder why the psychiatrist kept visiting me.  He seemed entirely interested in my ghost stories.

It was only in the last week that I began to understand that they were not real.  I was suffering from a psychotic break—possibly from the concussion or maybe just from stress.  Apparently I had imagined the whole thing—the ghosts, the bus, everything.  But I was better now, all except my legs.  They would never work again.

Isabel turned into the driveway of an unfamiliar bungalow in the center of town.

“Where are we?” I asked.

Isabel laughed.  “This is our new home.  I told you all about it.  Don’t you remember?”

Maybe she had, but I hadn’t paid much attention, not while in hospital.  I knew she’d said something about selling our condo in Seattle.  I couldn’t work in construction anymore, so there was no way we could keep up the mortgage payments.  But a new house, here in Anacortes...?

“Come on.  I’ve been dying to show you around.”

She brought the chair around to my door and I fumbled my way into it.  I still wasn’t very good at the whole process.  It was awkward, embarrassing, demeaning, but Isabel didn’t seem to notice.

“There we go,” she said happily and proceeded to wheel me up to the front door.  The house was ready-made for wheelchairs with ramps, wide hallways and low counters for easy access.  She was lucky to find such a place in a little town like Anacortes.  On the other hand, the decor was pretty freaky—tie-died curtains, fishnets hanging off the walls, and a life-sized statue of a mermaid in the living room. 

“Who lived here...before you bought it, I mean?” I asked.  “And how did you afford it?”

“I already told you all that.”  She cast a familiar scowl in my direction, and then relented.  I was in a wheelchair, after all.  “When old Bill passed away, Margaret petitioned the town council to offer us his home.”

“Old Bill?  You mean that freaky guy in the Mexican restaurant?  He’s dead?”

“Yes, Daryl.  And he wasn’t a freaky guy.  He was a very nice old man.  He died the same night of your accident.  That’s how I got his job.”

“Doing what?  Making murals?”

“Of course.”  She stared at me squarely, perhaps waiting for me to criticize her talent again. 

“That’s...” I paused, searching for the right word, but didn’t find it.  So I settled for something trite.  “That’s really great, honey.”

“It is, actually.  In fact, I’ve never felt so...”  Now she was searching for the right word, but unlike me, she found it.  “Fulfilled.  Come on.  Let me show you my latest project.”

Dropping off my measly bag of belongings in the bedroom, she wheeled me into her new art studio.  Here, a dozen plywood murals were stacked around the well-lit room in various stages of artistic completion—old bearded men from the turn of the century, picnicking ladies, school children, loggers, fishermen, store clerks, policemen, firemen—they were all too familiar.  I shuddered.

“So, what do you think?” she asked.

Again, the words escaped me.  “They’re great.”

One mural was covered by canvas—her latest masterpiece, I assumed.  I sought for a better word to describe it even before I saw it.  I couldn’t say “great” again.  Special?  Intriguing?  Really, really nice?  I was hopeless.

Then she pulled back the canvas, and I gasped audibly.

“So, what do you think?” she asked again.  I knew she expected an answer.  She needed validation.  Every artist did.  But I said nothing.

“I got the idea from your joke—the one about the sailor boy in blue.  Remember?  You said he tried to trade you a pirate sword for my phone.  I was flipping through the town archives one day, and there he was.”  She showed me a black and white photo on her phone—a little sailor boy with a sword.

“As it turns out, there really was an orphan boy like that in Anacortes about a hundred years ago.  They called him Sailor Juan.  He used to comb the beaches in search of lost treasure like that old sword.  Funny, isn’t it?” 

“It’s very authentic,” I said at last.  It was the best I could do under the circumstances.

Isabel winked at her pretty, blue mural with some degree of self-satisfaction, and although she didn’t know it, the mural winked back. 




David Wright is a writer and teacher living on Canada’s majestic west coast.  He has a lovely wife, two sparkling daughters and more than 50 published short stories.  His work has appeared in dozens of magazines including Outliers, Silver Pen and Neo-opsis.  David’s latest novels are available on Amazon and Smashwords.


His story
"A World Without Faces" was published in omdb! in February, 2016 and "Little Collectibles" in May 2014.

Copyright 2018 David Wright. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!


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