Edward was a nice boy; soft spoken and attentive in the way that might make the older folk stop and say “well bless his heart.” The kind of boy a girl might not notice, not right away. The kind of boy I was hopelessly drawn to right from the start. He was a year older, but had a locker next to mine. We'd run into each other sometimes between classes. He'd say hello as he studied his loafers, as though he could never remember whose face was on the penny.
“Good afternoon, Jeanine,” he said, swapping out his books for his gym clothes. “Nice weather today, isn't it?”
I nodded along and did my best to meet his dark brown eyes. They were as brown as his loafers and reflected a quiet tenderness that only a girl of quality could appreciate.
“It is nice today, isn't it, Edward?” I said, “not a cloud in the sky.”
He smiled affably into his shoes. “Tell me, Edward, do you know what's so special about today?” I asked. He looked up from his loafers, showing his oversized front teeth through an affable grin.
“Tonight's the harvest moon,” he said, reverting his gaze back to his lincolns.
“Oh, is it?” I said. “I suppose a lot of kids will be heading out tonight; boys taking their girls out to enjoy the scenery.”
“It's a known fact that the rain follows the equinox like clockwork.”
“Oh, is it?” I mused.
“The upperclassmen are all driving out to the locks,” he stammered.
“I hear the moon's reflection on the river is breathtaking this time of year,” I said, hoping the poor boy would catch the soft ball.
“It is,” he said, “I saw it once with mother. We took a drive out that way a few years ago. Mother made a pie.”
“Apple crisp, actually. She ruined the crust.”
“Is that what they drive all the way out there to do, eat pie?” I asked.
A deep rouge broke out across the poor child's cheeks.
“I wouldn't know, Jeanine.”
“Call me Jeanie, Edward.”
“I wouldn't know, Jeanie.”
“That's a shame. A senior like you not knowing what goes on out by the locks. A real shame. Your face is redder than a raspberry, are you breaking out in hives?”
“I'm feeling just fine. Did I hear the bell?”
“It rang five minutes ago, Edward. There's no helping it now, we're going to be tardy.”
The color ran from his face. “I can't be late, coach makes you run laps if you're late,” he said, looking pensively down the empty hall.
“I think we got preoccupied, with all that talk of the weather. Fascinating stuff.”
He checked his wristwatch and stammered: “It- it was nice talking to you, Jeanie, but I can’t be late.”
“You're going to leave me here all alone in this empty hall? Edward Munson, have you forgotten your manners?”
“Sorry, no, Jeanie.”
“Good, I'd hate to think you were just like those other boys; taking their girls all the way out to the locks to . . . leave their manners behind?”
He began tapping his foot.
“But you wouldn't know anything about that, would you?”
“The apple crisp?” was all he could offer.
“Doesn't your father have that new Mercury? That sure is a nice car. I’ve never ridden in something so nice. My father isn't a man of such means.”
“The Cougar?” He asked.
“Is that what they call it? That sounds like a powerful automobile. I hear it's otherworldly to feel the engine rev in something like that. I’ve heard all that horsepower can make a person go wild. Though I don’t suppose you’d know anything about that.”
“He lets me use the car,” he said, mustering up what bravado he could. “He never drives it at night.”
The question was on his lips, but the poor boy was as mute as he was red in the face.
“So the car's free tonight?” I finally said.
“Yes, it's a really nice car.”
“I'd love to see it.”
“Well, you should. I could take you for a ride.”
“I'd like that, I'm free tonight.”
“So am I.”
“Edward, are you alright?”
Beads of perspiration formed around his temples.
“You can pick me up at ten,” I finally said.
“Ten at night? That's kind of late, isn't it?”
“We're already late. Sometimes good things can happen when you're tardy.”
“I don't know, I'd have to ask my father.”
“Edward, do you like my skirt? It's not too short, is it?”
“It's nice,” he said, staring at my legs.
“Leave something to the imagination. I'll be waiting for you outside. Ten sharp.”
Edward may not have been particularly sharp, but the boy was punctual. His father's behemoth pulled up at ten o’clock without a second to spare. Though, in all fairness, I did see him circling the block for a good ten minutes beforehand. A girl could appreciate that sort of enthusiasm.
“You must be wound like a clock,” I said as I made way across the large bench seat, pulling his arm around my shoulders, “ten o'clock on the dot.”
“I didn't want to keep you waiting, Jeanie.”
“That's very nice of you. Now get me out of here.”
The engine pulled the car at a good clip, causing me to sink into Edward's arms and making me wish I had been born to a father of such estimable means. Before long, we were on the open road, heading east to the locks.
“What a beautiful night,” I said. “Play some music, Edward.” He turned a dial and the sounds of big band music whirled about the cabin, why don't you do right, like some other men do Janet Lee lamented as the signal ebbed and flowed to the subtle changes in the car's direction.
“I hope you don't mind the classics,” he said, “rock 'n' roll is fine and all too, we could listen to that if you like.”
“I love the classics, Edward.”
The highway ambled east as it followed the river. Fingerlings of moonlight danced across the wide expanses of black water as they cut out and reappeared through solitary banks of fir trees. Edward was quiet. No one would ever accuse him of being a chatterbox, but his silence made me uncomfortable. He was driving me to the locks after all, and that did at least warrant some exchange of pleasantries.
“There's a legend I heard once about a hitch hiking girl,” I said, trying to break the ice. “Drivers see her here sometimes late at night. They say that she's wearing old clothes, like a flapper and that she's soaking wet. When they ask where's she's headed, she gives an address and says she has to get home, that her mom's worried sick about her. So the driver agrees. Sometimes it's just a trucker, sometimes it's a family that picks her up, but they all give the same description of the girl and they all say that, after a few miles, she just ups and vanishes into thin air.”
Edward's arm tensed around my shoulders. “You don't believe in those stories, do you?”
“I don't know,” I said, “but the thing is that, after she disappears, the driver is so shaken that he goes to the address- it's a house deep in Southeast. They go to the door and there's an old woman living there. The driver gives a description of the girl, and the old woman says that it's her daughter trying to get home, that it always happens around the harvest moon. The driver's confused and offers to call the police, but the woman says it's no use because her daughter drowned in a boating accident thirty years ago.”
Edward drew a deep breath and tensed his arm. I grabbed his hand gently and pulled him in closer.
“It still doesn't make any sense,” he said. “Why does the girl keep disappearing?”
“I think her spirit's bound to the place where she died,” I answered as though it couldn't have been more obvious. “She keeps trying to get home and she can't.”
“But,” Edward said with an uneasy concern, “if she died wouldn't she go to heaven?”
“Maybe she doesn't know she's dead?” I suggested.
“I don't think it works that way, when you die you go to heaven,” he answered resolutely.
“So you don't think it's true?” I asked.
“No, it's just a childish tale. Nothing more. Girls don't just disappear into thin air.”
“But people tell that story all the time, about the girl on Highway 26, why would they make up such a story?”
Edward shrugged. “Mass hysteria, that's all. Like with people believing their neighbors are communist spies.”
“But there are spies, you hear about it on the news,” I said. I don't know why I was making such uncomfortable conversation, but I couldn't help myself. “So if some of the people actually are telling the truth and do have the Rosenbergs for neighbors, isn't it also possible that some people pick up hitch hiking girls who turn out to be ghosts?”
“I'm not saying it's not possible, but I don't think there's any truth to that story, not in the specifics anyhow.”
“Not in the specifics? And how would you know?” I asked defensively.
“It's just that I've heard that story before, only it took place in Eugene. A man is driving along late at night and he sees a girl walking out in front of the old cemetery. He's concerned because it's so late, so he stops to see if she's alright. The girl says she's trying to get home from a party and that her house isn't very far away. The man offers her a ride and she accepts, but as soon as they cross the bridge, she disappears. The rest of the story with him visiting the girl's mom is the same as in your version.”
“Well, maybe somebody here told that story to someone in Eugene and that person changed the details?” I said. “It doesn't mean that the girl on Highway 26 isn't real.”
“No, it doesn't,” Edward agreed, “but doesn't it make you think that maybe every town has a version of that story?”
“But mine's the original,” I blurted, “I know it is. Every year, on the harvest moon, she appears on the highway by the locks. Everyone knows it's true, just ask them.”
I was so busy trying to get the dolt to see my point that I hadn't been paying attention to where we were. Before I knew it, Edward pulled off the highway and turned onto a small road that led to an open park. Various cars were parked along the side of the road. Some had people milling about outside, but most were closed tight with fogged windows. Edward eased the car into a small turnout that was flanked by some trees and put the car into park.
“That's why you wanted me to take you out here tonight, to see the girl?” Edward asked. “You didn't really want to park with me.”
“Edward, that's not true,” I started, but my voice trailed off. He was right, even if I hadn't fully realized when I made him ask me. He was a nice enough guy and certainly not offensive to the eyes.
“I mean . . . we can, if you want,” I said, steering my lips towards his cheek. I stole a quick taste of his aftershave before he pushed me away.
“I can't,” he said, “not if you don't want to. That wouldn't feel right,” He stole his arm from around my shoulders. “We can watch the road, though, if you want. Just to see if your version of the story is true.”
“It's just over there,” I said, pointing up the road a ways. “That's where the marina used to be. That's where she appears.”
The behemoth hesitated under its own weight for a moment before lurching into motion with a groan. He drove cautiously, scanning the road. “I think this is it,” he said pointing off into the distance, “the road dips here towards the river, it was probably a boat launch once.” He pulled the car to the side of the road and again put it into park.
“Turn off the lights,” I said, eager to catch a glimpse of the girl. The road ahead went pitch black and we sat in silence, contemplating our surroundings to the low hum of the engine.
“Maybe you're right,” I said after some time. “Maybe the girl is nothing more than a story. I'm sorry to have dragged you all this way on false pretenses.”
Edward grunted apathetically.
“You can kiss me, if you like. Just keep it above the neck.” It wasn't much of a consolation, I admit, but he didn't respond. I looked to Edward, he was staring through the darkness, his brow furrowed.
“That was our last trip out,” he said meekly after some time.
“Our trip- the apple crisp. It was the last time we went anywhere as a family. The last time Mother left the house. She died not long after.
“I'm sorry, I didn't know. I shouldn't have asked you to come.”
“I asked you, remember?” He said. A curious smile formed at the edges of his mouth. “It was a sunny day, Mom said it was perfect picnic weather so she baked the crisp and we picked up a chicken dinner to go. Then Dad stopped and picked up a bottle. He hasn't put it down since. He got so drunk that day he passed out in the sun and woke up with a wicked sunburn. Then he threw up into some poor family's hibachi and challenged them all to a fight. He had this wild look in his eyes, he was so angry.”
“I'm so sorry, Edward.”
“It's not your fault,” he said.
“What happened after that?” I asked, unable to mask my curiosity.
“Mom grabbed me and started marching me home. She was so mad I think she intended to walk the whole way. But a man who saw what happened drove us home in his truck. The three of us rode together in the cab. When I woke up the next day, Dad was there drinking coffee and reading the paper at the table. They just acted like nothing had ever happened. A few weeks later, Mom stopped eating, then she stopped getting out of bed. Then one day, some men showed up in an ambulance, they covered her in a sheet and wheeled her out.”
“You didn't get to say goodbye?”
He shook his head.
“Edward, that's so sad. But like you said, I'm sure she's in heaven now.”
“I pray for her,” he said, “every night.”
“That's sweet. I'm sure she hears you.”
“I hope not,” Edward began to say when he was interrupted by what sounded to be a scream. We both fell silent, and looked to each other for verification. A second scream soon followed. It sounded like a girl.
“It can’t be,” I said, thinking I was about to finally meet the famous girl of Highway 26.
“Get off of me,” the voice said. And soon a silhouette of a girl emerged from the darkness, not far from where we were parked. I heard a car door slam and a man’s voice shouting “get back in the car!”
I peered through the windshield. It was a woman, she was wearing a white summer dress and she was running straight for us.
“I said, get back in the car!” the other voice shouted. Soon a man appeared just behind her and grabbed her by the arm, turning her around.
“Is that Margie Stilman?” Edward asked.
He was right, it was Margie, and that was Jimmy Tillman dragging her back to the car. Margie tried to break away and run towards us, but Jimmy had her by the arm. He picked something up with his free hand, a large rock, and violently swung Margie around towards him before striking her across the head. Margie instantly went as limp as a ragdoll.
“I said get back in the car!” Jimmy shouted. He turned, still holding her firmly by the arm and proceeded to drag her behind him.
I turned to Edward, but he was already well out of the car and in running in a full out charge towards Jimmy who still appeared to be unaware of our presence.
“You leave her alone,” Edward shouted as he ran at a frightening pace. Jimmy turned and brandished the rock above his head, ready to strike. Jimmy was big, he played football, but Edward was quick and wiry. If high school had taught me anything it was to never discount the quick wiry boys in a fight. They’d be on top of you before you knew what hit you. Jimmy hesitated, seemingly unable to decide between the rock in his one had and margie’s arm in the other. Instead of committing, he dropped them both and ran to his car. A second later he peeled out, leaving a wake of dust and exhaust.
Gathering my senses, I ran towards Margie and Edward. He was holding her now, cradling her head in his hands and pleading with her to come back. I knelt beside her. She was pale white and a river of blood flowed from beneath her mousy brown hair.
“Oh no, oh no,” Edward repeated as he rocked her in his lap.
I felt a surge run through my entire body. Pure electricity. I placed my ear over Margie’s mouth and put two fingers on her throat like they had instructed us in health class. “Edward would you be still for a second,” I snapped, trying to get a clear read on the situation. But there was nothing. Not final gasp, no death rattle, no final confession. Just Margie’s body.
I looked to Edward. He was still holding her tight. Tears streamed down his cheeks. He was the sort of boy who would have happily taken the bite of that blow for her, but he arrived too late.
“She’s gone,” I said.
“I know,” he said, “I can feel it. What are we supposed to do now? Drive her home?”
“I don’t think you’re supposed to remove the body from a crime scene,” I said. “We should probably get the police.”
I ran and found another couple not too far up the road. They weren’t happy to be interrupted, even less so when I told them what had happened, but they agreed to drive up to the service station and ring the police.
I sat with Edward and Margie while we waited for the authorities to arrive. I studied Margie’s face. She looked so still, so pure. She had developed something of a reputation, or so I’d heard. A reputation that was entirely undeserved. She once told me that she’d gone on a couple dates with a basketball player, but that he wanted to take it too far, so she called it off. Jilted, he told the entire team that he had dumped her because he had caught her sleeping around. Being high school, the players told their girlfriends and so on. Thus a reputation was born. I guess Jimmy was the sort of guy who would go for a girl like that. Maybe even seek one out for the harvest moon.
The authorities soon came. They took a brief statement from each of us and told us that they would be in touch with our folks and that they’d handle it from there.
“Huh,” Edward said, as pulled back out onto the road.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked, still shaken by what had just transpired.
“My old man always said that when you’re rich, you can do whatever you want. I guess he was right.”
“Well, his dad employees a lot of people,” I said. I should know, mine worked for him.
“It’s a shame,” Edward said. “Margie just wanted to go home, that’s all. If only I’d been faster. Maybe I could have saved her.”
“But we didn’t even know they were. Nobody could have known that, besides you were as fast as lightning. Something out of a comic book, really.” And it was true, I’d never thought of Edward that way before. Nice guy, sure, but protector?
Edward just frowned and drove on. I spent the rest of the drive trying to piece everything together. I tried to imagine Jimmy asking Margie out that night. What did he tell her? That they were all going out for a bonfire, all in a group? Probably. Did he try to act surprised when she asked why nobody else turned up in that location? How many times did she say she wanted to go home? My head was reeling.
Before I knew it we were parked out in front of my house. Edward and I looked at each other. He was still visibly upset.
“Well, I guess we’ll be hearing from the police tomorrow?” I said.
“I’m not so sure, but the entire school will know what happened,” he answered.
“So you don’t think Jimmy’s going to see any repercussions?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t hold my breath,” he said.
“I feel bad for her, she just wanted to go home.”
“I know this sounds strange,” I said, “but is there any chance you’d take me back there next year, on the harvest moon?”
“Margie’s in heaven now,” he said flatly.
“But-” I tried to interject as he drove away. Poor boy, little did he know he’d be proposing after graduation. His idea, of course.