A Cigarette Pact
By Dennis Mitton
“Rachel saw the ghost again last night,” said Julie, already in bed.
“Great.” Sam shook his head and put on his tee-shirt. “That girl’s got me afraid to work on the chimney in the attic this weekend. The little weirdo.”
“Hey. That’s not nice.” She threw a pillow at him. “You don’t get to call your daughter a weirdo. But it’s kind of weird, isn’t it?” she said. “You know, it’s weird because it’s all a matter of fact to her, like… making pancakes.” She tilted her head. “And she doesn’t have the slightest hint of fear when she talks about it.”
“Not of the ghost, anyway. Our ten-year-old sees ghosts and isn’t afraid of them. I don’t believe in them, and she’s got me shaking.”
The next morning, in the kitchen eating, Julie brushed Rachel’s hair from her eyes. “Hey, sweetheart. Let’s go to Miss Gracie’s. She’s cleaning a closet of pictures and wants to know if we would like anything.” Julie dropped to her daughter’s eyes. “Maybe we can get something for your room?”
“Good night,” said Julie. “Waddya got here? Thirty boxes?”
Grace laughed. “I bet. I pulled them out yesterday and spent the morning going through them.” She held out a few photos, pulling them from underneath her arm, like a mother hen protecting chicks. “I’m saving these – for the funeral, you know – but, please,” she held her arms out over the table, “rifle through the rest and take whatever strikes your fancy. There’re some old photos here of the neighborhood. And of your house.” She got up from the table. “You want some coffee?”
She bent over now, smiling and looking at a photo. “Wish you could have known the old codger,” she said, rubbing the print. “He was such a damned sweetheart. And he would dote on your little Rachel like a princess. Which she is, of course.” She flashed a pageant smile for Rachel. “God. That man loved children.” She looked at the photo again, and then at Julie. She made a face. “Too bad we never had any. Or couldn’t.” She set the frames down to go make coffee. “Now, you two gather up whatever you want.”
Julie sorted through the photos in boxes and on the table. “C’mon, sweetie,” she said to Rachel. “Maybe you can find something cute.”
Julie found two black-and-whites, old pictures of the street, and stacked them. “Look,” she showed them to Rachel, “our backyard. You find anything you like?”
Rachel pushed a few photos aside, and something woke inside her. “Momma,” she said, excited. “It’s the ghost.” She pointed to a woman with Grace.
“Oh. Sweetie. You found something?”
“It’s the ghost. Right here,” she said again, still pointing.
Julie picked up the photo, holding it closer and adjusting her glasses. “No ghost here. I don’t see it.”
“No ghost where?” said Grace, coming back into the room carrying two china cups of coffee on a serving tray. She put on airs, mixing her Southern with an English accent. “Figure I ought to use it before I die.”
“It’s nothing,” Julie said. “Rachel keeps pointing at this picture of you and a friend.” She flipped the photo over.
Grace came close to look at the photo. Serenity fell on her. “I think Princess Rachel knows what she’s talking about.” She stared at the photo. “O la la. Will you look at that? We were so thin.” She held the photo out for Rachel. “Hotties, right?”
“You were two good looking women, that’s for sure,” said Julie. “Who are you with? Where’s the ghost?”
Grace moved the photo into the light. “That,” she said, pointing, “is Rachels’s ghost. Miss Gloria Aldridge. My best friend. We did everything together. We were closer than sisters. Thicker than thieves.” She sorted photos on the table for a minute, looking for something. “Where’s that photo of the backyards you found?”
“In this stack,” Julie said, handing her a pile. “You want to keep it?”
“Honey, no,” she laughed. “I just want to show you two something. Here,” she said, pointing. “You see now? Look at our backyards. See those tables by the fence? One on each side? Every morning after the husbands would go to work, and we’d get the kids off to school, we would meet right there. I would drink a coffee, and she would have sweet tea and a cigarette.” She turned away, wistful. “God, those were wonderful times.” She looked hard at Julie. “That’s the ghost. Gloria.”
“That’s the ghost? She’s the ghost? You’re best friend?”
“That’s her. I’m sure of it.” She took a sip of coffee. “We made a pact one day.” Julie saw the thought carry Grace away to somewhere else, somewhere grounded and sure. “It was silly, but we sealed it with a drag from her cigarette. We were right out there,” she said, pointing with her eyes outside to the fence. “We were laughing up a storm over something – who knows what – and she grabbed me over the fence and kissed me on the cheek. Hard. Both our eyes watered up, too.”
“If I die first,” she said, “if I die first, I’ll wait for you here. Right here.” She pointed at the ground where we were standing. “By the fence and the house. I’ll wait for you to die, too, and we’ll go off together.”
Gracie’s eyes smiled. “I said to her…’Sweetie? I don’t know if it works that way.’
She cut me off. “It works that way for me. For us.”
We were probably thirty? I raised my cup of coffee, and she raised her tea. We looked at the cups, and I burst out laughing. “ou know,” I said, “a graveyard pact needs at least a cigarette.” She laughed and reached down to her little table for a pack. We smoked a cigarette together, holding hands. Marlboro Light.”
She looked to see where Rachel was and then turned to Julie. “In all my years, I’ll tell you what, I loved my husband desperately. But that was the most romantic thing I ever did in my life. And I still believe it. That’s why I say she’s the ghost.” Gracie sat back in a chair, fanning herself. “I’m sorry, Sweetie. I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone that story before. Never had any reason to, I guess.”
Julie waited for a moment, letting Grace’s countenance settle.
“Baby doll,” she said to Rachel. “Let’s get up whatever we’re taking, and head on home. You ready?”
“Grace?” she asked, waving her arms over the table. “Can I help clean up these piles? It’s a little messy since we sorted through everything.” Julie stopped, wondering. “Grace? What happened to Gloria? Do you know?”
“Do I know?” She wiggled and set herself deeper into the chair. “Honey, I cried for a week. She died a week later. At the Piggly Wiggly. Heart attack. Right in the middle of the store.”
Julie was confused and horrified. “She was so young. My god. That is so terrible.” She looked down for a moment, then at Grace, forcing a laugh. “That is just about the worst story I’ve ever heard.”
After dinner, Julie couldn’t forget the story. “You won’t believe what Grace told me today.”
Sam gave a grumpy nod, his television interrupted.
“She knows who the ghost is. Her best friend. They made vows to stay in their homes after they die and wait for each other, ‘till the last one dies.”
“Julie?” He turned to her. “I hate to be the one to break this to you, but Honey? Ghosts aren’t real.”
“I know, but Rachel is so sure, and if you heard Grace’s story, well, it might sway you.”
He snapped at her. “Julie, there are no ghosts. We know this. No ghosts. Got it?” He looked at her over the top of his glasses. “You aren’t filling Rachel’s head with this silly business?” He waited and turned back to the television. “No ghosts.”
Later, in bed, Julie woke, wrapped in covers but chilled. She touched the back of her hand to her forehead, and it was cold. Easing herself from bed, careful not to wake Sam, she warmed a bit. Going into the bathroom, she relished the heat. She followed the cold to Rachel’s room, like a mountain trail.
I was 2:30 and Rachel was awake. “What’s up, sweetie? Why are you awake?”
“I just am,” she said. “I’m cold.” She snuggled further into the blankets.
They both heard it. The screen door slammed. Worried, Rachel wondered aloud, “Is it windy out?”
“I don’t know,” Julie said. “Maybe daddy forgot to latch the door. I’ll go pull it right. No big deal.”
“Mommy? I want to come.”
“No need to be scared, honey. It’s just the screen door.”
“But I’m not scared. I just want to come.”
“Okay. Here’s your robe.” She tossed the terry-cloth robe on the bed. “I’ve been freezing tonight.”
Everything was normal downstairs. The kitchen, the dining room, and the sitting room, all normal. Julie looked out the back window. “Pretty nice outside. It’s hot,” she looked at Rachel, “but nice.”
They sat together at the dining table. She sees Rachel’s face, a tear dropping. “Honey,” she said, grabbing her hand. “Baby, don’t be afraid. Daddy just forgot to do the latch.”
Rachel sat, unmoving. “I’m not afraid,” she sniffed.
“Then why are you crying? Why are you sitting here all sad?”
It was a statement of fact. “The ghost is gone.”
“The ghost is gone? But you heard Daddy, ghosts aren’t real, sweetie.”
Still not moving, she said it again. “The ghost is gone. She left out the door, and she’s not coming back.”
They sat together for a moment. In silence. Resting and confused.
“I want to go the bed now,” Rachel finally said.
A bright morning sun promised another hot, humid, and oppressive day. Early light filtered through to the kitchen. “Hey! I know what we can do,” Julie said to Rachel. “Let’s go out to the back fence and sit down. I’ll drink coffee, and you can have a coke. Just like Gracie and Miss Gloria did. Want to?”
Rachel shook her head No.
“It’s okay hon. I know you were scared last night. It’s all right. So, hey? You want to? You want ice or just Kool-Aid?” Julie started pouring the drinks.
“I’m going to my room and read.”
Julie let her go and made a cup of coffee. “Everyone is tired after last night,” she thought. “Out of sorts.” She went outside with her coffee while the morning was still cool, before the heat smothered her like a rug. She sat under the porch, at the glass table, staring at the fence, wondering how much of Grace’s story could be true.
“Julie.” She heard her name called in an unfamiliar voice. A man’s voice. “Julie?” Surprised, she saw Rusty, Grace’s nephew, come ‘round the corner. “I was just coming to see you,” he said. He looked rough and carried a small packet.
“Sit down,” she said, smiling, waving her hand toward the chair. “I was just over to see your Aunt yesterday.” She saw Rachel’s name on a card taped to the box, written in Grace’s ancient script.
“That’s what I came over for,” Rusty said.
Julie deciphered that this wasn’t a friendly call. She reached across the table. “Oh, God, Rusty.” She touched his hand. “Is she okay?”
He shifted his elbows from the table to his knees and looked at the concrete between his shoes. “She passed away last night. Doctor was here early this morning.” He looked up at Julie. “Mortuary has already taken her.”
Julie turned away, tearful. Between deep breaths, she asked what happened.
“Doctor said it just looked like she was ready to go. No illness. No reason to think she suffered at all.” He paused. “Just up and died.”
“Rusty, I’m so sorry. We loved her. Rachel loved her like a Grandma.”
Rachel popped through the screen door. She hesitated, seeing Rusty and her mom, with mom sad and teary. She came to the table, to her mom’s side, and pointed to the box. “Is that for me?”
“Sweetie! Manners,” her mom scolded.
“It’s okay,” said Rusty, grabbing the box and giving it to Rachel. “It’s for you, sweetie. I think Aunt Gracie made it yesterday. I was here on the weekend and didn’t see it. She didn’t say anything about it. I don’t even know what it is.”
“Honey,” Julie said, turning to Rachel. “Miss Gracie passed away last light.”
“I know,” said Rachel.
“I’m so sorry, honey. You heard us talking?”
She shook her head. “No. I just know.”
Rachel took the note off the top of the small box. She shimmied the top off, and it was filled with photos of Gracie and Gloria. On the top was a folded scrap, written on with purple ink. Thank you, so much, Rachel, for helping me remember. I hope you are as lucky as me.
With tiny hands, she folded the note and put it in the box. She slipped the top back on and gave her mom a hug. She surprised Mom and Rusty when she hugged him, too.
“I’m going back upstairs to my room,” she said. “Too hot for me.” She grabbed her box and went inside. Julie cried a little, and Rusty stood up.
“I don’t know what just happened here,” he said, “but I think it was pretty special.”
Julie went to the store that night, for sweet tea and a pack of Marlboro Lights. The next morning, when Rusty left for work, he saw her from the back, at the fence, with a wisp of smoke rising. “What are you doing out here, girl? I mean, it’s early. Besides the fact that I’ve never seen you smoke.” He hesitated like he was gathering up courage, and walked over to her. “Really, sweetie. What are you doing?”
She stared ahead, at Grace’s house, into her back living room window. She took a drag on the cigarette, careful not to breathe in any smoke. She dropped her hand to rest in on the top of the chain-link fence. “Waiting for a friend,” was all she said, never looking away from the house. “Looking for a friend.”