Beautiful Ghost

Garrett Socol

The split second Susannah laid eyes on the young man meticulously packing her groceries into a sturdy, brown paper bag, she froze. She tried not to stare, but stare she did. Once the boy realized a set of blue eyes was burning him like lasers, he flashed a cocky grin and focused on the large box of laundry detergent in his hands. Susannah looked away too - at the frizzy-haired cashier who wasn’t finished ringing up the twelve items in the shopping cart. Petrified to glance back at the boy, Susannah was afraid what she’d seen wasn’t really there, that it had been an apparition. 

The young man happened to be a doppelganger for Timothy Ladd, the Goslar High School senior Susannah obsessively loved when she was seventeen, the one who took her on three dates, stole her very soul, then hit the road with the older, more voluptuous Denise Villard. Nothing had ever hurt like Timothy’s brusque rejection, his “I just don’t see us going any further.” Nothing had prepared a seventeen-year-old for such profound, debilitating anguish. “Nobody teaches this to you in school,” she whispered to her best friend Wanda at the time, “how to cope with something like this.”

Now, eleven years later, here he was, in a different town and a different setting. He was too old to be Timothy’s son, she surmised. A brother maybe? Cousin? Nailed to the white tile floor, she forced herself to look again. This time she noticed slight differences - fuller lips, lankier frame. But he resembled Timothy in a startling way - the huge, optimistic eyes, the sculpted nose, the luxuriant brown hair that fell over his brows. Susannah’s heart pounded with fury, as if threatening to burst through her chest. She was suddenly sorry she’d purchased a box of Tampons.

“Do you need help to your car?” the young man politely asked as he placed the last item, a bar of hibiscus soap, into the bag. Too shaken to speak, Susannah nodded her head. 

As soon as they stepped into the late afternoon sun, she spoke up. “By any chance, is your last name Ladd?” 

“Nope,” he told her. “Massey. Dylan Massey.”

A wave of relief washed over Susannah and she wasn’t sure why. “Well, you look like someone I once knew.”

“Oh cool,” he said, suddenly sounding sixteen. 

The leisurely stroll to the car gave him a chance to gaze - at Susannah’s long, tanned legs, wavy auburn hair, large eyes that seemed sad despite the fact that they sparkled such spectacular blue. She had always been the most beautiful one in the room - living room, bedroom, conference room, powder room. “You won’t be pretty forever,” her mother used to tell her. “Strike while the iron’s hot.” When she first heard that expression at
the age of nine, she had no idea what it meant. Years later, when she understood, she concluded that it was a horrifying thing to tell a child. 

A warm breeze blew as Susannah led Dylan to a spotless black Mercedes. 
The young man carefully placed the heavy bag in the back seat of the car as Susannah attempted to fix her windblown hair with two fingers. “Anything else I can do for you?” 


Dylan asked, imbuing as much innocence into his tone as he could to cover the question’s less than subtle suggestiveness. 

“Not right now, but thanks very much,” Susannah said. She could feel his youthful eyes undressing her as shoppers reached for bottles of juice and boxes of cereal just yards away. Susannah felt vibrantly awake, like her blood was flowing at an accelerated speed. Life had been devoid of this spectacular feeling for more than a decade; it was forgotten territory. Now it was back: the passionate, heart-pounding, ridiculous hunger.

“I only work here part-time,” Dylan announced as if apologizing for his low status. “I plan to study medicine.”

“Medicine,” Susannah said with surprise, trying in vain to imagine this kid performing a heart transplant. “That takes dedication.”

“When I commit to something, I give it my all,” he announced, staring into her eyes with such blazing intensity that it almost came off as comical. 

“I think you’ll make an excellent doctor,” she told him, quickly realizing she had absolutely no justification for this statement. Embarrassed and self-conscious, she turned away and climbed into the driver’s seat. 

“I think you’re beautiful,” Dylan said, his hand leaning on the side of the car.

“Be good,” she replied. She started the engine, maneuvered her wheels and stepped on the gas, admiring the fact that her young admirer didn’t say another word, that he didn’t shout “I get off at six” or “Can we have tea sometime?” No, he merely stood his ground and watched her drive off, as if making sure she’d exit the parking lot safely. Susannah was secretly glad that her iron was still hot.

 

Gliding through her picturesque new neighborhood dotted with crooked trees and old-fashioned phone booths, the entire supermarket interaction seemed like a hazy dream. But she clung to it like a life raft. The stranger named Dylan Massey made her feel alive. 
Susannah pulled into the driveway of the Spanish colonial house she shared with her attorney husband Neal. She opened the car door and seemed to float out, like she was weightless. The imprint of Dylan’s right hand remained on the side of the car, a large hand, a large print, and Susannah gazed at it. As soon as she realized the craziness of this action, she grabbed her groceries and headed into the house, walking past the defiant white scalloped wall that seemed to imprison her on the property.

Over the next two days, she spent hours obsessing about the items she needed at the supermarket. The refrigerator was fully stocked, but she could always use more bottled water and sourdough bread. Still, she realized driving to the store with such a lame excuse was legitimate cause for psychiatric counseling. 

She knew, as any professional would tell her, this was a textbook case: Timothy was the one that got away, and here he was again in the body of Dylan Massey. Absurdly simple. But she was seventeen then; now she was twenty-eight. Now she was married. 
Now she had a solid goal to build a reputation in a brand new town. 

Still, she danced by herself in the den to the music playing in her head. She dreamed about him - incoherent, oblique dreams she couldn’t recall the next morning in any detail except that Dylan had been kissing her and if felt sublime. She took the bar of hibiscus soap she’d bought and placed it on her bedroom bookshelf simply because he had touched it. Neal didn’t notice anything different about his wife except for the occasional faraway look in her eye, but he was accustomed to that. “You live in your own world,” he told her. This time, she tiptoed on its dangerous edge. This time, she felt convinced she would leave her husband, her home, everything that seemed to be working in her life. There was a certain excitement to this upheaval, with its thrilling possibilities. She’d grown tired of the sameness of her daily existence, bored with the routine, the monosyllabic dinner conversation with her one-dimensional, self-involved spouse. 

She patiently waited three days in which the tick-tock of the large living room clock seemed mercilessly loud, three days in which every waking moment included the image of Dylan’s face and the calming sound of his voice. Three days, and she legitimately needed jam and honey and oatmeal and eggs. 

Adrenaline pumping, she made her way to the market. The drive seemed to fly by
in seconds instead of ten minutes, and she was only dimly aware of traffic lights and pedestrians along the way. She took her time finding the perfect parking spot - a private one at the west end of the lot, under the shade of a towering sycamore tree. 

As Susannah approached the entrance, she was hit with the unthinkable possibility that Dylan might not be there, that it could be his day off. This notion almost paralyzed
her; she felt twice her weight and so weak that walking into the store felt like an attempt to walk from one end of a swimming pool to the other. 

The saliva drained from her mouth as Susannah grabbed a dark green plastic basket. Then, lips parched and heart racing, she glanced at the check-out area and didn’t see him. After taking a deep, nervous breath, she hobbled to the produce department where she absentmindedly chose a head of iceberg lettuce, some broccoli, and a bag of carrots. Then she glanced at the check-out area again. Still no Dylan.

 

Panic rising, she wandered aimlessly past the pasta and the toothpaste, somehow finding her way to the cereal. On the floor just inches from the corn flakes, she noticed a small pool of blood. Instinctively she stepped away from it and focused on the cereal, and that’s precisely when it happened. She couldn’t explain it to anyone who might ask. She didn’t see human eyes or faces, but she felt as if she wasn’t looking at boxes of cereal; the boxes were looking at her, judging her from the stacked shelves. She raced away, as if escaping a crazed killer. 

Moments later she found herself in front of the mayonnaise display where the jumbo glass jars seemed to be staring at her too, examining her, searching for motives. She looked to her left and felt a giant, raging rush of water crashing toward her, felt it coming the way birds know a storm is approaching. She grabbed the nearest jar and zoomed away. The moment she left the aisle, her eyes fell upon Dylan, busy at work. He had materialized, magically it seemed. Not only could Susannah breathe again, she was hit with such a blast of happiness she thought she might cry. She realized that a certain insanity had taken over, and she was powerless. Or was she? She’d been told by doctor after doctor that she could exert control; that’s what had been drummed into her troubled head. And she’d believed it. Until now.

Nine items nested in her basket when it came time to check out. She could’ve gotten on the express line, but that wasn’t where Dylan was working. She stepped behind a short white-haired woman with an almost full cart that included two dozen cans of cat food, a few gallons of milk, and a mop. 

When her eyes met Dylan’s, the recognition was instant, as if he’d been dreaming about her the way she dreamed about him. He barely took his eyes off her while bagging the older woman’s cat food then smiled warmly when it came Susannah’s turn to step up to the plate.

“Do you need assistance to your car?” he asked with a subtle smirk.

“That would be lovely,” she said. 

Dylan carried the two paper bags and gently placed them in the back seat of Susannah’s car. Then he stood firmly opposite her, close enough to smell the floral fragrance she had dabbed on her neck. This mingling of entities, this spontaneous combustion, created palpable heat. “You probably think I’m too young for you,” he said, certain that he wasn’t. “I’m over eighteen,” he stated with boyish bravado. “Isn’t that what counts?”

“When you get older, you’ll be able to answer that question truthfully,” she told him as her eyes feasted on the smooth, taut skin and thick, wild hair of a typical teenage boy. But it was Timothy standing in front of her, not Dylan. It was Timothy she would kiss if she kissed him, Timothy she would invite into the passenger seat of the car her husband had chosen for her. 

“I’m not a virgin,” he quietly proclaimed, his eyes holding an almost heartbreaking expression of longing. 

“You’ll make some girl very happy,” Susannah said. “Treat her nicely.” She extended her right hand and Dylan held it like a precious gem. Then he noticed the crooked purple line on the inside of her wrist. “What’s that?” he innocently asked.

“Just a silly old cut,” she said as she pressed her left arm against her body, covering the similar cut on that wrist. 

He tenderly kissed the violet slash, and Susannah instantly knew what lay ahead. If she gave herself to this boy in any way, if she allowed this unquenchable desire to take hold, her security would have crumbled like a cupcake in a fist, right then and there, in the west end of the supermarket parking lot in the fading sun. Nothing would have satisfied her short of lurching into the newly opened ravine, eyes closed, trusting Dylan/Timothy would catch her in his strong, secure arms. She also understood that moving so blindly and daringly forward was a headlong rush to destruction. This she knew as well as she’d known anything in a strange, turbulent life that contained more than its share of crushing sorrow and slow journeys back to sanity. This young country, with its bright “Welcome” sign beckoning, was not foreign to her; she knew what waited beyond the border. 

“We’d be eternally sorry,” she said to him. “Nobody teaches this to you in school.” She kissed him softly on the cheek. Then she closed her eyes and breathed him in as deeply as she could, into a place that would be his alone. She stood close to the almost vibrating eighteen-year-old and felt his fervent, desperate need. She knew she could extend the rapture, but this unending love would undoubtedly end for one of them, and the experience would be catastrophic. 
It almost seemed like an otherworldly force compelled her to turn from Dylan/Timothy and climb into her car.

The young man didn’t budge; he stood his ground once again, watching his cherished customer pull away toward the beauty of the dazzling setting sun. A mélange of shadows, shapes and color, majestic as anything Dylan had seen in his young life, decorated the sky. 
 Stopping for the long light at the corner of Crestview and Lake, tears began to pour from Susannah’s eyes like lava. But she triumphantly wiped them away as she recognized the sliver of faith she had found years earlier. 

From that point forward, Susannah would shop at the market five miles down the road.