Vincent Thatcher pulled off the interstate and turned onto Old Bridge Road. Few people traveled that route now; they much preferred taking Route 692, a highway that was lined with fast food restaurants, department stores and strip malls. Old Bridge Road, on the other hand, was virtually deserted. The houses were few and far apart, and the only business--if you could call it that--was Pine Grove Cemetery.
The darkness and loneliness of Old Bridge Road didn't bother Vincent. He had a good spare tire, was a member of AAA and always carried a fully charged cell phone, so potential car trouble presented no serious threat to his peace of mind. In fact, he preferred taking Old Bridge Road because there were no red lights or stop-and-go traffic.
Vincent inserted an Eric Clapton CD into his stereo, turned on his high beams and headed north. He had driven only three miles when he spied a person walking alongside the road. He slowed his Toyota, and as he neared the figure, he saw that it was a young woman hitchhiking. Vincent pulled the car up next to her, stopped and opened the door.
"Thanks," the young woman said as she eased her body into the passenger seat. "I was afraid that I would have to walk all the way home."
Upon close inspection, Vincent determined the hitchhiker was no more than sixteen or seventeen years old.
"Aren't you afraid to thumb a ride on this deserted road, especially this late at night?" he asked incredulously.
"No, why should I be? I live just up ahead."
Surely her parents had warned her of the dangers of hitchhiking. Apparently, she didn't pay much attention.
Vincent continued along Old Bridge Road but kept his speed to the posted forty miles per hour limit. He didn't want to risk getting into an accident with a passenger in his car.
They hadn't driven far, when Vincent noticed the girl's clothing, an outfit he'd never seen on other teenagers he encountered. The hitchhiker wore a dress that looked like a costume out of The Great Gatsby. Even the shoes, jewelry and makeup looked like those of a Roaring Twenties flapper. It wasn't Halloween, so why was she dressed like that? Vincent found the girl's strange appearance somewhat disconcerting. He tried making small talk, more to set himself, rather than his passenger, at ease.
"Do you like Clapton?" he asked.
She shrugged her shoulders, obviously not too eager to get into a discussion on music.
"If you don't mind my asking, where were you walking from?"
"I was at a party at Abbott Hall over at UMass."
That explained her odd attire. Following the popularity of the movie Animal House, toga parties were all the rage. Maybe this year flapper parties were the big thing.
"A friend gave me a ride from the campus as far as Old Bridge Road. My name is Amelia, by the way, Amelia Randall."
"Pleased to meet you, Amelia. My name is Vincent Thatcher."
"Vincent? That sounds like an old man's name, so stuffed shirt. I like Vinnie better."
"Most of my friends call me Vince. I don't care too much for Vinnie. It reminds me of a gangster."
Amelia laughed. "You don't look like a gangster. You don't have a big scar on your face like Capone."
Vince thought it odd that she would associate the word gangster with Al Capone. Most girls her age would be more familiar with The Godfather or The Sopranos and would picture gangsters looking like Al Pacino or James Gandolfini.
"Do you go to uMass, Amelia?" Vince asked.
"Oh no. I'm only sixteen. I go to the Amanda Winthrop Academy for Young Ladies."
Vince had heard that name before, but he couldn't remember where. Perhaps it was one of those new prep schools where more affluent New Englanders sent their children.
"I just saw a good movie over at the theater in the mall," Vince said, trying to keep up the conversation.
"Oh really?" Amelia asked with genuine interest. "Who starred in it?"
"Never heard of him," she replied.
That was odd, Vince thought. Even his ten-year-old niece knew who Leonardo diCaprio was.
"What actors do you like?" he asked. "Matt Damon? Johnny Depp?"
"I really loved Valentino! He was so dreamy! What a shame he died."
A sudden chill raced up Vince's spine. Rudolph Valentino died in 1926. Not many teenagers today had heard of the great Latin lover much less ever watched his silent movies.
"I also like Chaplin, but not in the same way."
"You must attend a lot of silent film festivals," Vince said.
"I go to the matinee at the movie house on Essex Street."
The old movie palace on Essex Street had been torn down in 1971. Was this young lady pulling his leg, or was she a refugee from the local funny farm?
"I don't live too much further," Amelia said.
In a matter of moments, the wrought iron gates of Pine Grove Cemetery appeared on the right. Vince looked through the darkness on his left where he could see in the distance the lighted windows of a farmhouse. "Is that where you live, Amelia?" he asked, turning toward his passenger.
His words fell on empty air. Amelia had vanished.
Vince hit the brakes and pulled the car off the road onto the gravel shoulder. His heart beat rapidly, and his legs began to shake. He had often heard tales of ghostly hitchhikers like those of a young woman named Annie who was said to haunt a lonely stretch of Riverview Drive in Totowa, New Jersey, not far from the Laurel Grove Cemetery where she was supposedly buried. A more famous apparition, Resurrection Mary, was said to have accepted numerous rides to Chicago's Resurrection Cemetery, her final resting place. Vince had always thought such stories were good for entertainment on stormy nights or around a blazing campfire, but that they were just that: stories. There were no such things as ghosts. Or were there? After having met Amelia Randall, he was no longer so sure.
Vince waited several minutes for his nerves to calm. He was about to put the entire episode behind him and drive off, when a movement to his right caught his attention. Something white seemed to be moving among the headstones of Pine Grove Cemetery. It couldn't be Amelia, he reasoned, because she had been wearing a red dress. This thing, whatever it was, appeared to be ducking behind the stones as it moved deeper into the cemetery.
Vince's fear gave way to anger at the thought of being on the receiving end of a practical joke. That moving flash of white was more than likely a second teenager who was in league with Amelia in trying to frighten Vince out of his wits. Well, they wouldn't succeed. In fact, Vince thought with wry amusement, he was capable of turning a good practical joke himself.
He turned off the engine, removed the keys from the ignition and got out of his car. After locking the car doors, Vince opened the trunk. Inside was his old hunting rifle. Smiling mischievously, he shouldered the gun and locked the trunk.
Affecting his best Brooklyn accent, he yelled to the pair of pranksters, "Hey, it's me Vinnie, and I'm about to make you an offer you can't refuse."
This is fun, he thought, as he saw the white figure dive behind another headstone. Vince pursued it, changing his persona from The Godfather to that of Jack Nicholson.
"Little pigs, little pigs," he laughed.
He tried to recite the entire scene from The Shining, one of his favorite movies, but he was too keyed up to repeat it verbatim. "I'll huff, and I'll puff, and I'll blow your house down," he yelled as he ran toward the direction of the figure in white.
He saw the jokester move once more as it darted behind a large marble monument standing guard over a family plot, only inches away from where Vince was standing.
It was Clint Eastwood á la Dirty Harry who closed in for the kill: "Are you feeling lucky today, punk?"
Vince, pretending to aim his rifle, ran behind the monument to confront the teenager.
"Oh, for chrissakes," he groaned, feeling like the proverbial horse's ass as he reached down and picked up the mysterious figure in white. "All this time I've been chasing a damned newspaper!"
The hunt had been so absurd that Vince couldn't help laughing. Kneeling on his hands and knees in the damp grass of Pine Grove Cemetery, he laughed so hard his eyes began to tear and his side began to ache. If he didn't stop laughing, he'd surely pee his pants. Vince need not have worried about ruining his Wranglers, however, for when his eyes focused on the front page of the phantom newspaper, his laughter abruptly ceased.
LOCAL GIRL FOUND MURDERED the headline proclaimed. Beneath it was a photograph of Amelia, his mysterious hitchhiker.
Vince quickly skimmed through the article.
...Amelia Randall, a senior at the Amanda Winthrop Academy for Young Ladies, was apparently strangled to death on the evening of May 15, 1928. Miss Randall's body was found on a wooded lot near the Essex Green campus of the University of Massachusetts. She had attended a party at Abbot Hall on the night of her murder and was last seen leaving with one of the male students....
The paper in Vince's hand was crisp, legible and free of wrinkles. It had definitely not been blowing about the cemetery for more than eighty years. Even so, Vince no longer deluded himself into thinking this was nothing but a practical joke. Amelia hadn't simply jumped out of his car while it was going forty miles an hour. The door hadn't even opened. His young hitchhiker had disappeared into thin air.
"Amelia," he whispered, trying to reestablish contact with her spirit. "It was no coincidence that you were out on the road tonight, was it? Today is May 15, the anniversary of your death."
As he spoke, he heard a soft, sweet disembodied laugh, Amelia's, coming from behind him.
"Where are you?" he called to her.
Again, the soft laughter. Vince followed the sound of it.
"You left this newspaper here for me to find, didn't you? You were trying to tell me something. What is it, Amelia?"
The continued laughter was her only reply.
Vince felt an icy touch on his shoulder. He spun around, but no one was there. He looked down at the old, chipped headstone at his feet. It was nearly hidden by the overgrown grass. He knelt and pushed the growth away. Engraved in large block letters were the words AMELIA MARIE RANDALL, BORN 1912, DIED 1928.
"Come on, Amelia, stop playing games. You didn't bring me here just to show me your grave. What do you want? Do you have a message for someone?"
No, he concluded. Amelia was killed in 1928; her friends and family must all be dead by now.
"Do you want me to help find your murderer?"
That was equally ludicrous. He was probably dead, too.
"Look, Amelia, if you want me to help you, you're going to have to let me know how."
A car horn suddenly sounded two loud blasts. He reeled around to look at his car. No one could have gotten inside since the doors were locked and he had the keys in his pocket. As Vince watched, his right headlight came on and cut through the darkness of the night like a flashlight beam, illuminating an old headstone about fifteen yards from Amelia's.
Suddenly, Vince had enough of ghost-busting. He wanted to get back into his car and continue along Old Bridge Road to ... where? With a sudden sense of dread, Vince realized he had no clue as to his destination. He wasn't even sure where he had been coming from. Had he really been to a Leonardo diCaprio movie at the mall? He didn't think so. Then where had he been?
The headlight blinked off and on again. Vince had the eerie feeling that the answer to his question would be found at the end of that beam of light. Now the question was, did he really want to discover the answer? Vince knew he had no choice.
He walked slowly forward, one foot in front of the other like a robot. It was as though he had taken these steps before, in some form of atonement ritual. As he had so often in the past twenty years, he stopped at the foot of the grave and stared down at the plain stone monument, at his own name engraved upon it. VINCENT THATCHER, the ornate letters proclaimed, BORN 1910, DIED 1988.
Amelia's laughter, no longer soft and sweet, echoed harshly through the cemetery. Her spirit appeared to Vince once more, looking as she had the night of the party at Abbott Hall, wearing the red dress of a flapper, one quite unsuitable for a student of the Amanda Winthrop Academy for Young Ladies. Amelia's youthful beauty that had been obliterated by an untimely death was restored for all eternity, marred now only by her pinched lips and the look of cold hatred in her eyes.
Vince had once pursued this beautiful creature with a passion that knew no bounds. After her murder he secretly grieved and prayed for her to forgive his evil deed. Now, however, he sought only peace and an end to her vengeance, a hope of atonement that had haunted him for the past twenty years.
As the dawn's sun appeared on the eastern horizon, Vincent Thatcher's spirit faded into the morning mist. His soul would rest at peace for another year, until the night of May 15 came again, at which time he would find himself pulling off of the interstate onto Old Bridge Road, a lonely, deserted thoroughfare that ran past Pine Grove Cemetery.
Uh, Salem, I don't think you should pick up any more hitchhikers.