[personal profile] x_h00ine
This was my second-round story; I didn't make it to the third round.

I know my character was Waitress and the object was a Statue. I guess the genre must have been ghost story? For some reason, I gook this down, so I don't remember . . .

In the first round, the max word count is 2500, then they strip that to 2000 in the second round, 1500 in the third. This one really shows the constraints of the word count.


Our Lady Of

No one in Aching ever saw the ghost. No one but Paula.

Heard. I never once saw her.

My chin snaps up at the sound of her voice. My elbow hugs the cracked vinyl bend in the high-backed booth, and I look for her. I always look for her, though she’s long since left Aching and the diner and me, I suppose.

She’s long since left, and the ghost along with her. If there ever was one.

Paula never said it was a ghost. She never said it wasn’t, either. Paula never said much of anything. More to me than most, though I figured that out too late. I figured that out when I’d swept together the few, sorry things I knew and went turning over stones and rooting around the couch cushions, looking for more. But it turned out she’d never said much of anything to anyone.

She was a year or two younger than me. I’m pretty sure of that, though it’s another thing she never said. When I think of the four or five smiles she ever let slip, I can count the lines around her eyes on one hand. A year or two younger than me, I think.

She wasn’t from Aching, any more than I am. Looking out the window now at brittle winter ground, even with the sprawling roots of old timers tangling my ankles under the table, it’s hard to believe anyone has ever been from Aching.

I didn’t know what brought her here until the end. In a lot of ways, I still don’t know.

*************************

She left four winters ago. Not three, as my pen would’ve had it just now, but four full winters since the whole ghost business was over, almost as soon as it had started.

I knew right away she was too good for Aching. Too good for the diner, certainly, though she never complained. She poured coffee and balanced plates. She was efficient and pleasant, if not quite friendly, and she never once complained.

The place had been called Brenda’s once upon a time. Or maybe Glenda’s. Some old-fashioned name attached to a cheap, garish statue under glass by the register. No one but a few of the lunch counter’s permanent fixtures cared to argue the the point any more.

It had been the Aim to Please for years by the time Paula showed up. But the name was a joke all that time before her—the surviving cursive on a dying outdoor sign. She’s the one who made it mean something.

She’d been in Aching half a year, though long months went by before anyone in town noticed. Not her. The ground would go hard and the world would bow under a thick, white weight before anyone but me really noticed Paula. The rest would’ve been hard to miss, though.

The Aim to Please was buzzing day and night. All of a sudden, or so it seemed, the bell over the door was swinging long and loud enough to make something like music. Knots of people were dancing by one another in the doorway, coming and going and coming and going.

It wasn’t new faces. Aching’s never seen a lot of those. It was just the town showing up. The whole town it seemed some days, and they’d linger. Everyone began to linger after Paula showed up.

Early morning regulars would haul themselves up from the counter, only to make their way in twos and threes to tables at the fringes. The lunch rush would swarm in to take up the still-warm stools. They’d sit elbow to elbow, tucking in and only thinking to eye the clock when they were already edging into late.

The lull between noon and after school fell away. Young mothers would shoulder through the door. Their little ones would trail behind, going wide eyed when the high school kids poured in a little while after, their voices loud enough to rattle the silverware waiting in tight bundles on the wire rack.

It started with them. Even in a dying town like Aching, it started with the kids.

************************

I wasn’t watching Paula for once. That’s not how I remember it, but a half a dozen words in the margin of that September page make me a liar. Or a writer, but I suppose that’s much the same.

Stoop. Grace. Whisper. Light. Spill. Bliss.

I must have been watching out of the corner of my eye.

The sun was just leaning west, and the Aim to Please was roaring. Voices and the hiss of the griddle met the clash of cup and saucer. There wasn’t a square inch of empty flat surface, and the register rang out high overhead.

Somewhere in the middle of it all, Paula smoothed the skirt of her uniform. Her knees dipped almost to the floor and her fingers curled over the dented chrome corner of a table. She leaned in, and the soft words she must have spoken were forever lost in the ear of a sad, shy little boy.

She was already gone by the time he stood on his chair and turned his mother’s bag upside down. Already safe somewhere out of sight in the belly of the kitchen when his mother's silverware clattered to the floor, raining down alongside lipstick and wrapped mints and loose change.

“Benjamin!”

Her voice rose shrill enough to quiet the place all at once. Shrill enough to draw every eye except the boy’s. He’d dropped to his knees on the cracked vinyl seat by then, hunched over the empty bag he’d turned half inside out.

“Benjamin . . .”

It was a gasp this time, almost lost in the sound of fabric tearing. Entirely lost when Benjamin’s grubby fist opened and the thin gold band resting on his palm caught the light.

“I found it.” He blinked up at his mother. “The lady told me where.”

“The lady,” she repeated dumbly. She reached for the ring, her hand flinching back, once, twice before she snatched it up and slid it home. She held her shaking fingers up, the gold catching the light once more. “The lady.”

**************************

Everyone in Aching knew the story before the sidewalks rolled up that night. By the time Rose pulled the squealing metal grate back and opened the next morning, everyone in Aching had a story of their own. Lost things found and fences mended. Sudden courage to ask the question or face down the decision. Sweet memories surfacing after years and years. A tired old man whose last kindness in life came at her hands.

All good things, and Paula suddenly to thank for it. Everyone remembered now that it was something to do with her. Every story suddenly recalled a smile or a sigh. A low word or two or three. A hand reaching out at just the right moment, and Paula to thank. Our Lady of Aim to Please.

She didn’t like it. Not the hushed me toos and I knows traded over steaming plates and cooling coffee. Not the attention and certainly not the name.

She was the same as always, but the stiff set of her shoulders and the quick rap of her steps said she didn’t like it loud and clear enough for even the good people of Aching. But the name stuck and the stories multiplied.

September gave way to December. It felt that way, at least. Fall came, swift and punishing to Aching. Leaves fell, colorless, to the ground, leaving naked branches to bend sharp into the wind, moaning and creaking under the weight of too-early snow. A ghost story was inevitable.

I smiled the first time I heard the word.

Ghost. She listens. That’s how she knows.

It was a high school kid, of course. Telling his tale in the deafening stage whisper of the still young. I leaned hard on my elbows to listen. To watch them, packed too tight into the corner banquette to count. I followed broad gestures and not-so-sidelong looks as Paula moved from table to table, a half-full pot of coffee in her hand.

I smiled and wished I’d been the one to come up with it. I wished I’d been the one to pull the threads together in just that way.

The word came again.

Ghost.

Full voice this time. It set my head on a swivel, looking for Paula to see if she’d like this turn of events any more or less. To see if she liked ghost stories.

She stilled, as the final t died away. I watched her in the act of coming to rest and thought how strange it was to see her like that. Not in motion for once.

She scanned the room for Rose. For anyone, though she gave up that idea quickly enough. Her stillness hardly lasted a moment. The kids rose up at all at once, hushed and loud, somber and stumbling with suppressed laughter. She moved to meet them behind the register.

I don’t know if the world slowed or it only seemed that way. I don’t know if a synapse fired or it was nothing more than light hitting glass just so.

I only know I watched it happen. I watched Paula’s fingers strike with precise force at the ancient register’s stiff, mechanical keys. I watched the kids—too many to count—whispering and jostling one another, change and limp bills moving from hand to hand.

I watched one—the storyteller, I think—snatch the pale green check high. I watched the back of his hand sweep that cheap, garish statue from the counter, glass and all.

I watched Paula drop to her knees and reach blindly for the million pieces fanning out across the tile.

“Oh,” she said. “Oh.”

She might as well have howled.

**********************

I waited for her that night. I never had before, though we were friends after a fashion. I guess I knew that. I guess I suspected, even before turning over stones and rooting through the couch cushions only to find that no one had more of her words than me.

I waited just at the edge of diner’s overnight lights for her to pull the squealing gate across the door and snap the padlock home.

“I’m going,” she said without turning.

“I know.” The words surprised me. Why? and Where? and Don’t had raced right to the tip of my tongue, but those sorry two had won. I took a cautious step toward her. Another and another, hardly breathing until I was close enough to see her profile.

She stands just barely in the shade of pretty.

I’d written that on some foolish April page after she’d first come to Aching. Here, in the diner’s overnight lights, just as she was going, I knew she was beautiful.

“She calls.” Her breath hung in the air, the words frosting the glass, even through the rusty diamonds of the gate. “I have to.”

“Is it always like this?” My hands curved around cold nothing, an empty, all-encompassing gesture.

“Always,” she held up one hand to let the light fall on a jagged, angry gash, and then she was gone.

*********************

November came, strange and mild.

People still talked about her, though her real name slipped through the cracks of memory by Christmas. The days began to stretch and the year turned. The Aim to Please settled back into sleepier rhythms.

The kids still talk about the ghost four winters on. It’s funny, though. Not a one claims to have seen her. They pass the stories on behind them, hushed tones and significant glances at the empty space in the clutter by the register. They gild and embellish until they border on miracles, but everyone knows Our Lady is the only one who ever saw the ghost.

Heard her, I want to say, though I never do. She never once saw her.









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