Author: Steve Berman
Genre: Young Adult Dark Fantasy
Publisher: Lethe Press
On a chilly, autumn night, on a lonely New Jersey highway, a teenager meets the boy of his dreams dressed in vintage clothing. When the boy vanishes, the teenager discovers he's encountered the local legend, the ghost of a young man who died four decades earlier and has haunted that stretch of road ever since. Curious and smitten, the next evening the teen returns with his best friend. So begins an unusual story of boy-meets-ghost complete with Ouija boards, hours spent in cemeteries, scares and macabre humor. This new edition of the book, to celebrate its thirteenth anniversary, features an introduction by New York Times best-selling author Holly Black and an afterword by the author.
Open take-out boxes, torn packets of hot mustard, and Styrofoam plates and cups crowded the counter at Malvern’s. Watching Trace eat Asian food was better than Saturday afternoon television. She kept a pair of lacquered chopsticks in her purse. Twin sticks of dark cherry wood with a stained-glasslike pattern at the end. She lifted grains of rice, bits of wasabi, and sliced ginger with a jeweler’s precision. Smooth, neat, effortless.
I made do with the supplied plastic fork and still managed to spill enough to embarrass myself. “I was walking back last night—”
She dunked a sushi roll twice into a tiny dish of soy sauce fashioned from the soup lid. She didn’t spill a drop. “I told you to come out with us.”
“If I had I would never have seen him.”
“Him? What happened?”
“I was coming back from the diner out on Route 47, when I heard footsteps behind me.”
She lifted a hand and tapped her chin with one fingernail. “Right, it would have to be on 47….”
Her casual reaction surprised me. Somehow, she had swiped my momentum. “Why? What do you know?”
“No, no.” Trace shook her head. “You finish first.”
I hesitated but she gave me a crooked smile. “All right.” I took a sip of green tea to wet my throat. “So, there I was walking along an empty road when I hear someone behind me. I turn around and there’s this young guy also there.”
“Oh yes.” My memory recounted every detail of his face.
“Hmmm…” I couldn’t guess the sentiment behind her slight smile. “I’ve been wondering who you’d finally fall for.”
“I’m not falling for anyone. Am I?” I pushed my food away. I wanted to talk about ghosts, not love. “He wore these awesome clothes from the ’50s. I thought maybe Malvern had sold him the stuff or he found it online.
“I wasn’t sure if I should talk to him. Part of me worried how he might react. But it was late and he looked so damn cute, I had to say something.”
“You’re so smitten.”
I blushed. “He didn’t seem to mind the attention. Though I would have liked him to ask my name. He thought I went to this party—”
Trace’s eyes widened. “He spoke to you?” I nodded, a bit confused. She stepped back from the counter. “Delicious!” She began to pace back and forth. “Just delicious!”
“Enough. You’re obviously holding something back. Tell me.”
“I know your ghost.” She laughed. “Well not know him, but know of him. As soon as you mentioned 47. It’s an old urban legend around here.”
“I didn’t think this ’burb was big enough to qualify as urban.”
“Now, now. What did he say?”
I shrugged, pretending to be apathetic. “Not much.” In truth, I couldn’t recall all he said and it drove me crazy. “I think I startled him. If that makes any sense. Then a car came down the road, and he vanished.”
She nodded several times. “Makes sense.”
I reached out and grabbed her hand. “Tell me.”
“Well, over forty years ago a kid was killed out on that stretch of road. Run down.” She lowered her voice to seem dramatic. “Some say accident. Some say not.
“Since then… well, every kid in town knows that his ghost keeps trying to get home. We all want a glimpse. Last time I was out there looking for him was back in junior high with some friends and we all hid in the woods. I fell asleep.” The regret in her voice was very evident. “Still, some say they’ve seen him. A lot of the time they’re truckers out late and pass a lonesome guy on the road. He’s not in their rearview mirror. Or some lost couple stops and asks him for directions. He never speaks though. And he never reaches home.” She shivered in delight at her story.
I looked out the shop’s windows but saw only that empty highway.
She patted me on the arm. “Don’t worry. Tonight may be different.”
“Tonight?” I cracked open a fortune cookie. Good to begin well, better to end well. When had they stopped making actual predictions and become pithy sayings?
“Of course. You’re going back. And I’ll accompany you.” Trace took great care in wiping her chopsticks clean on the last paper napkin. “Pick you up at nine?”
Instinctively, I looked at the old grandmother clock Malvern insisted on winding every other day. So many hours until then. “Okay. Well before the witching hour.”
She was already at the door, stopping only to blow me a kiss. I could almost hear her thoughts, turning like gears. No doubt she’d dash home and go through all her books, preparing for tonight. I think Trace had been waiting for something like this all her life—proof that the world is not a sorry piece of shit. She wanted to know there was mystery out there.
As for me, I had been waiting my whole life to meet a boy different from the rest. Someone special. I closed my eyes, recalling last night. An afterlife spent walking the same stretch of road night after night seemed so lonely. What would it be like to be haunted?
I stared at the old clock. The hands had not even moved. It would be a long day, and I only wanted to see my ghost.
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Steve Berman sold his first short story at the age of seventeen. Since then he has written over a hundred articles, essays, and short stories. He has edited almost 40 anthologies, mostly ones of queer speculative fiction. He resides in Western Massachusetts, where he has many stacks of books to read.
Social Media Links
Twitter - @thesteveberman
Instagram - https://www.instagram.com/bermanlethe/