George didn't stop to think much about it, when he saw the girl in the dress. Looked like she'd been left out in the middle of nowhere by her prom date. He didn't know much about dresses, but he could tell when things were expensive, and this girl was wrapped in a good chunk of change along with some flowy purple stuff. He pulled right over, because if he'd ever had a daughter, he would have wanted someone to do the same.
"Hey, you okay?" He stepped down from the high cab of his rig and held up his hands. "I saw you walking, and I don't think a lot of cars come through here. You need to use a phone or something?" He was careful not to advance on her. With the rep some long-haul truckers had, he didn't want to scare her into the woods. "I've got a cell. You don't have to get in the cab or anything, or talk to me if you don't want to. You just looked like you could use a hand."
She frowned up at him, heels half-sunk in the mud of the shoulder. "I don't even know where I am," she confessed. "I was with Johnny and then the car broke down, and Mom's not answering her phone."
He relaxed a little. "Well, can I do anything for you? I know they say never ride with a stranger, but if you've got a phone and no one's headed out here for you I can at least get you to the 24-hour diner in Bucker. There'll be lots of people, and you can wait for your parents there, maybe?" He was worried about coming on too strong, but he really didn't want to leave a teenager on the side of the road so late at night.
"I just live off Exit 94. It's pretty close to the diner. I don't know why no one's answering at home," she fussed, pulling a surprisingly big mobile phone out of her little purse. "Is there any way you can just take me there? It's a pretty well-maintained road and I know my dad will give you gas money."
If he doesn't shoot me first, George thought, but merely said, "I can definitely take you there, no gas money needed. Do you need to call Johnny? Should we pick him up, too? How far away is the car?"
She shook her head. "I'm never talking to him again. He can find his own way home, he's probably got the car running again already." She picked her way over to the cab of his truck and glared at the display on her retro phone. "I can't believe I missed my senior prom because of this!"
George tried not to smile as he climbed back into the truck. "Well, your parents will be glad to see you home early, I guess." He leaned over to help her into the cab, her small hands gripped tight around his large one as he pulled her in. "Hey, you're freezing," he said. "Let's get you some heat." He started the truck, its patient rumble overwhelming his hesitation at having a strange teenage girl along for the ride. He cranked up the heat and, with a muffled exclamation, eeled around to rummage in the back. "Here, I knew this was kicking around somewhere," he laughed as he handed her a huge yellow-checked down coat. She took it, smiling, and wrapped it around herself like a blanket.
"Thanks. It was getting kinda chilly out there, huh?"
"Yeah," he replied, and busied himself with adjusting the heat. He signaled his turn onto the road as if there were twenty cars waiting and pulled back out. The familiar lull of highway driving soothed his nerves, and after about fifteen miles, he absentmindedly flipped on the radio. Ole Hank was singing, and George glanced quick over at the girl to see if she might mind the twang, but she had put her phone away and was leaning against the big window. He thought she might be dozing and turned the radio down a little. It was just a few more exits. He could wake her up once they got closer to the diner.
"I'm not asleep," she muttered. "I hate sleeping on the road. I told you where I live, right? It's about a mile past the diner you mentioned." After she gave him directions, they fell silent once more.
Ev'rything's agin me and it's got me down, Ole Hank sang plaintively into the night as George crossed the Big River bridge, just one exit away from the girl's. If I jumped in the river I would prob'ly drown. He looked reflexively over the guardrails, the moonlight shimmering on the fast-moving river, and shuddered. No matter how I struggle and strive, I'll never get out of this world al-- Grimacing, George reached over quick and snapped off the radio.
"Not such a good song for a moonlight drive, huh?" He grinned and looked over at the passenger seat, only to slam on the brakes as he realized the girl was no longer there. He backed up as fast as he could without fishtailing and jumped out of the cab. He ran frantically over to the bridge, leaning over the guardrail and scanning the river for some sign of her. His coat, her flowing dress, anything. She'd have to be visible. But he'd never heard the door open, he hadn't heard anything! He ran back to search the cab of his truck, and found nothing. In a daze, he climbed back into the cab, buckled his seatbelt, and headed on into town.
George was jolted from his reverie when he realized he'd absentmindedly followed her directions straight to what he assumed was her home. For one frantic instant, he thought about peeling back out of there, but it was too late. The house was lighting up. It looked as if they'd heard the truck and were looking for the source of the commotion. With one helpless glance at the still-empty passenger seat, he stepped down from the truck and walked up to the porch.
"Can I help you, son?"
George started, unnerved by the voice from a seemingly empty porch, and there was a chuckle.
A man probably ten years older than George himself stepped out of the shadows and down to the walk. "I'm Erica's dad," he said. "That's why you're here, isn't it?"
George began to sweat. "Well, I don't know her name, I mean, yes sir, but--"
"Don't worry, son. Happens every year," the older man said. "Picked her up outside of Bucker, right?"
"Well, yes, I mean, she said the car broke down. I didn't want to leave her," George said plaintively.
"Her ma and I would sure appreciate that, son. It's all right. Then you went over the Big River bridge and she was gone?"
George opened his mouth to answer, but no words followed. He stammered for a second or two, and blurted, "This happens every year? What the hell?! Is this some kind of joke?"
Erica's father rubbed at his eyes with a slightly trembling hand and sighed. "My daughter was killed in a car crash ten years ago, son. Her boyfriend was taking her to the senior prom and someone ran them off the road. I guess he was killed on impact, but the paramedics said Erica had been trapped in the car. She tried to call us on her new mobile phone, too. Hell of a thing, to hear your baby girl breathed her last calling you for help, and you didn't hear."
"This is a joke," George growled. "I don't have time for this, I'm on a schedule." He began to stalk back to his truck, fuming.
"I wish it were a joke," the older man said. "It ain't all that funny to talk to people every year as swears they were giving your girl a ride home, only to find she's disappeared partway home." He shook his head dolefully.
"Hell of a thing," he repeated as he turned back to his porch and tottered slowly up the stairs as George fumbled with the keys to his rig.
"Wait a second, son," he heard a moment later, and the older man came rushing down his porch stairs again.
George saw him coming and rolled his eyes. He wasn't going to be taken in by whatever scam these hill folk were trying to pull. And he was out a pretty pricey down coat, too, however this stupid trick worked. He was willing to bet he'd never get it back, either. The old man was tapping on the truck door now. Ridiculous, he thought, but grudgingly rolled down his window.
"Churchyard's just a mile down, you don't believe me," the older man panted. "You go on over there. My Erica's in the back left corner. Got a little rosebush behind the stone. You go on, you'll see."
I am sure the hell not going to go poking around in a graveyard at this hour, George thought. Then again, it's on the way to the Interstate, and I could call in a report on these people for fucking with my schedule. Why the hell not? He backed onto the road and gunned it for the church.
Thirty seconds later, he was poking around the overgrown graveyard, emergency flashlight in hand, when he spotted them. First the rosebush, white roses, really pretty but kind of creepy under the full moon's light. Next it was his yellow-checked down coat, folded neatly on the grave.
The month of ghost stories marches on! I hope I didn't stretch the prompt too far, as this was the first thing I thought of upon reading the challenge...
For the Indie Ink writing challenge this week, femmefauxpas challenged me with: "It had all happened exactly a year ago. Or had it?"
I challenged Sarah Cass with "Knife skills."