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The first time I saw Bret, I was nineteen. I’d found a job working security at Dave’s Storage Unit. My duties included keeping vagrants and thieves from disturbing the 40 rental units that were laid out in five neat rows in the middle of downtown Atlanta and helping customers with lost combinations for their locks. It wasn’t the safest part of town to be working night shift, but it seemed to be easy work and the hours meshed nicely with my class schedule at the community college. I trained two shifts on days, and then showed up that Thursday at 10 p.m. for my first shift alone. Or so I thought.
I arrived ten minutes early. A guy in a Fall Out Boy t-shirt sat at one desk playing Solitaire and a girl with long blond hair had her feet propped on the other, with a ball cap pulled down covering her face.
“Hi,” I said, when he looked up. “I’m Jason. New guy.”
“I’m Tom, ” he said, and started shoving stuff into a backpack. “Quiet day so far. Good luck. The crazies come out at night.”
The girl lowered her hat and stared at me. She was the kind of beautiful that just stops a guy in his tracks. Big green eyes, full lips, flawless skin … I realized I was staring and mumbled a ‘Hi,’ in her direction. Her eyes widened and she tipped her head in greeting.
Tom looked up at me, eyebrows raised. “Yeah…so, all the keys are in the top drawer of that filing cabinet, along with a master list of the combination locks. Don’t give anyone access unless they show two forms of I.D. and you make a copy of it. They’ll fire your ass if you’re not a stickler about that. And it has to be the person with their name on the contract, not a girlfriend, not a wifey. Some guy almost got canned because he let a wife in and she left with his whole stamp collection in the middle of a divorce.”
“It was him,” the girl said, and pointed at Tom. He ignored her, already heading toward the door.
“See ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya,” he said. “Night shift sucks.”
The girl flipped him a bird and I laughed. Tom shot me a look I couldn’t decipher, but then he gave a half-hearted wave and shut the door behind him.
I looked at the row of monitors and then back at the girl. She hadn’t taken her eyes off me and I felt awkward and flushed under her gaze.
“I’m Jason,” I said again, and immediately felt like an idiot.
“Bret,” she said, and leaned back in the chair. “Nice to have someone to talk to in this joint.”
“What about Tom?” I asked, sitting in the seat he’d vacated. She shook her head. “He’s a tool.”
“So… are you second shift or third? I thought I was working alone.”
She shrugged. “Wherever they need me.”
I guessed they called her in to keep an eye on the new guy, and she didn’t want to say she was supposed to babysit me. It was funny, because she seemed standoffish at first, but she was a talker and I loved to listen to her. By four a.m. it felt like I had known her forever, just one of those instant clicks and maybe even more so by the types of conversation people tend to have at those hours. We talked everything from childhood to politics. I think I was already falling a little in love with her.
She saw me stretch and said, “You want to go outside? We can do a walk around.”
A cool breeze blew, but she didn’t seem to notice. I couldn’t stop sneaking glances at her as we walked. Faded jeans, scuffed boots, black t-shirt and a camo jacket. I probably had close to the same outfit in my closet, but on her, even the ordinary seemed beautiful.
We walked the length of the first row and started down the second when she stopped and touched a bright yellow dandelion sprouting up through a crack in the sidewalk with the toe of her boot. “Those are my favorite flowers.”
I laughed. “Those are weeds.”
She smiled. “Those aren’t weeds. They’re wishes. Haven’t you ever blown on one and made a wish? And even when they’re yellow–that’s my favorite color. They’re such happy, hopeful little things.”
That made me smile, too. I’d never thought of them in that way. So many girls I knew seemed hung up on materialistic things, and Bret could find beauty in even this small flower. I was captivated.
When we made it to the fourth row, she stopped. Her face pinched into a grim expression as she said, “I don’t walk down this row.”
“Why?” I asked, taken aback by the look in her eyes.
“Number 27. It gives me the creeps.”
It was the third bay door, and it looked exactly like the first two. I didn’t understand, but I wanted her to smile again. “Then we skip this row.”
We finished walking the last row. A drink machine stood at the end of it and I asked her if she wanted one. She shook her head as I fed quarters into the slot.
A payphone I hadn’t noticed rang shrilly, making me jump. I laughed at myself and glanced at her. Bret’s expression wiped away my smile. She looked terrified.
“Don’t answer it!” she shouted. “Don’t ever answer it!”
I gaped at her, not understanding. “I don’t–I won’t–what’s wrong?”
She didn’t answer. She started walking briskly back toward the office. I chased after her, my change and soft drink forgotten.
“That phone rings every morning at 4:17,” she said, as I opened the door for her. “When you answer it sounds like dead air, or there’s some sort of hissing noise. It gives me the creeps.”
“Probably some automated thing. Wrong number or something, but it’s set on an auto-program.”
She looked at me and said, “Do you believe in ghosts, Jason?”
“You think a ghost is calling?”
“Don’t make fun of me!’” she snapped.
“I’m sorry.” I held up my hands in a gesture of surrender. “Do I believe in ghosts? Well, I haven’t ever seen one–”
She made a scoffing noise, and I said, “–but I won’t rule them out. My grandmother believed in ghosts. She said she had ‘the sight’ and swore that some people in our family could see them. Some had the gift of precognition, too. She was a very smart, reasonable lady.”
Mollified, Bret sat at the desk. “So, do you think everyone becomes a ghost when they die? Or do some move on to someplace else? Why would people be stuck here?”
I shrugged. “Unfinished business? Violent death? I don’t know. What do you think?”
She took a moment before responding. “Maybe the unfinished business. Maybe…maybe there just is nothing else.”
The easy vibe of our earlier conversation disappeared. She seemed anxious. Stressed. No matter what I tried to talk about, she seemed distracted. When Abe, the old guy on first shift appeared to relieve us, she walked out the door without saying goodbye. I bid a hasty good morning to him and ran to catch up.
I almost lost her, but I spied her head as she got on the train. It’d been a long time since I had a MARTA pass, so I had to dig for the $2.50 fare. She frowned when I sat next to her in the back, and I realized I probably looked like creepy stalker guy. Too late now, but I didn’t want her to be upset with me. I really liked this girl.
“What are you doing?” she asked, and I wanted to run, but the train lurched forward.
“I feel like I upset you and I’m sorry.”
She looked at an elderly lady in the next row, who was staring at us. Bret shook her head, like it was okay, but the lady got up and moved toward the front.
“It’s not you,” Bret said. “But I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Let’s talk about dandelions then,” I said. “They’re my new favorite flower. Like you, pretty and magical.”
As corny as that was, she laughed, and our conversation slipped back into the same easiness it had before that payphone rang last night. At least, until the next stop.
A lumbering bald man with beady dark eyes got on and took a seat a couple of rows in front of us. I saw Bret stiffen, though he didn’t pay much attention to us at all. His gaze fixed on a pretty Latina who sat in the middle, playing on her smartphone.
The rest of the ride, Bret never took her eyes off the man. He wasn’t pleasant to look at, but I didn’t understand her terror.
“This is my stop,” she said, and stood. The dark-haired girl also stood.
“Bret,” I said. “Uh, where are we? I need to get back to my motorcycle.”
She laughed then, the tension evaporating from her face. “You crazy boy. It will circle back around in about 6 more stops. I’ll see you tonight.”
She waved and walked forward, giving the man a wide berth. For a moment, he looked like he was about to get behind them, and I was prepared to do so as well, so she’d feel safe, but he just sat there.
Bret was already there when I arrived that night. She laughed when she saw the small bouquet of dandelions in my hand. Tom’s eyebrows shot up. He opened his mouth, then closed it again. He left in record time.
“I don’t think that guy likes me,” I said.
She waved her hand dismissively as I put the dandelions in water. “He doesn’t like anyone. And thank you for the flowers. They’re lovely.”
So are you, I thought, but I didn’t have the courage to say it yet.
I wasn’t about to bring up the guy on the train. I hated that tense, scared look she’d worn this morning. But to my surprise, she did.
“That man is evil,” she said. “Please don’t ask me to explain how I know. I’m afraid he means to hurt that girl and I don’t know how to stop him.”
My stomach dropped. “Bret…did he hurt you? We need to call the cops.”
She hesitated long enough to make me think he had, but she said, “No. I don’t know. I can’t remember things, and I’m scared to remember things. The phone makes me think of something but I push it back. Anyway, it’s not about me now. It’s about that girl.” She took a deep breath. “Let’s talk about it later. I don’t want to think about it right now.”
“I looked up dandelions between classes today,” I said. “People in the 1800s used to blow on them after they went to seed. If all the seeds blew away, the object of your affection shared your feelings.” I shook my head and gave her a pointed look. “You may not know it yet, but I think you’re in love with me.”
She laughed, long and hard and I grinned, pleased to see her happy again. Then her face got sad. “I wish I’d met you before, Jason.”
“What’s wrong with now?” I asked, with uncharacteristic bravery. “You’re not married, are you?”
She shook her head. “No, but I’m not what you think I am. There are a lot of bad things, Jason. I don’t want to explain, because I really like you.”
“You’re a beautiful girl with a weird taste in flowers. Think of all the money I’d save on Valentine’s Day if you were my girlfriend.”
She laughed again. “Just keep talking to me. I hardly talk to anyone anymore, and you’re so funny. Tell me about the motorcycle. I’m glad you made it back to it.”
“I actually didn’t come back to it this morning,” I admitted with a laugh. “I got off the train and took an Uber to my place, then hitched a ride to school. Took the train back to work tonight. I was kinda hoping I’d see you.” I had seen the creepy guy, but I didn’t tell her that. “Come outside and I’ll show it to you.”
She walked around it, trailing her fingers on the gleaming blue paint. “It’s pretty,” she said, “but I don’t like these things. They’ll get you killed.”
“I was hoping I could take you on a ride on it some time.”
She gave me a glance that looked like a definite ‘no’, but said, “We’ll see.”
Everything was fine until the phone began to ring at 4:17 a.m. I watched her face get that same terrified look and wondered what in the world had happened to her, and if it connected somehow to the creepy guy.
Around time for the day shift guy to come on, she mentioned the guy on the train again. “I don’t know why, but I have the feeling he’s going to do something to her, soon. I hate to ask, because I know you need sleep and go to class, but … would you ride the train with me again?”
“Of course,” I said.
Abe appeared at six on the dot. “Good morning, Sunshine!” he said, dropping his backpack onto a chair.
“Good morning, Abe,” Bret said. To me, she said, “I love that old guy.”
I chatted with him for a moment. Bret moved to the door and I said goodbye to Abe, intent on following her, when he called out, “Hey!”
His old face was pale when I glanced back. He pointed a shaky finger at the Styrofoam cup filled with dandelions. “Where did these come from?”
The look on his face spooked me. I wasn’t sure what was happening.
“I–I picked them for Bret.”
The old man face went slack with shock. “You know Bret? You’ve seen her?”
“Wha–” I whirled to look at her. She held out her hands in supplication. Tears streamed down her face. For the first time, I noticed she had on the same outfit as she had yesterday.
“I’m sorry, Jason. I didn’t–I didn’t know what to say.” “Jason?” Abe asked, louder. “I said, have you seen Bret?”
I couldn’t tear my gaze from her.
“Apparently, your grandma wasn’t the only one who had the gift,” she said, and walked through the door. When I say, walked through the door, I mean right through it. A freaking solid metal, closed door. I couldn’t move, couldn’t speak.
Finally, I half-fell onto one of the chairs. I heard Abe talking, but it was like he was speaking through a tunnel. It seemed like forever before I could focus on him.
There was nothing I could say that wouldn’t sound insane, so I didn’t bother to sugarcoat. I said, “You didn’t see her, just now, when you came in here?”
He shook his head, his rheumy eyes huge.
I told him about working with her, about some of the things she’d said. Even about the weird ringing phone. When I finished, he just stared at me.
“To be honest, I don’t know whether to believe you right now, or to call the cops,” he said.
I nodded. It was a fair statement. I don’t know what I’d think, in his shoes. “She said you used to be a cop, before your wife got sick.” I looked up at him. “She said you’re the reason she loves dandelions. You told her about how your wife loved them, and how you decorated her hospital room with them before she died. Bret said it was the most romantic thing she’d ever heard.”
Abe sat heavily in the chair. “I did tell her that. Can I ask you to describe her for me?”
I did, down to her scuffed boots, and he nodded. Then he reached into a desk drawer and pulled out a picture of her. It was Bret, alright, but on a MISSING poster. The clothing described as the last outfit she was seen wearing was what I’d seen her in.
“She went missing from her shift here, six months ago. I showed up and this place was wide open. There was a great deal of blood out by that payphone. The police never had any leads.”
I gestured at the row of monitors. One showed the drink machine and phone. “What about the cameras?”
“Installed after the fact. Because of her. Too little, too damn late.” He leaned forward, giving me a hard stare. “I loved that little girl. She was like a daughter to me. I’ve brought her dandelions myself. I have never believed in ghosts, but I saw your face this morning. I believe that you saw her, or you’re some kind of nut and think you saw her. But I don’t know how you know some of the things you know if that were the case. Bret and I worked together some, before we lost personnel and she got bumped to nights. I think she would’ve mentioned you, and I only told her the dandelion story right before she went missing. You could be the nut who took her, but I don’t think so. I can’t imagine why she’d share something like that with a person who would hurt her. If you see her again, ask her how much a mail order bride costs.”
“What?” I felt like I’d fallen back down the rabbit hole again. Nothing made sense. I wondered if I was dreaming.
“Just do it,” Abe said. “Now go home. You look like shit.”
Only when I stumbled to the parking lot did I remember my promise to ride the train with her. I thought about Bret and the Latina girl. In fact, I skipped class and lay in my bed and thought about them all day.
When I got to work that night, Tom was the only one there. Even though I still felt punch drunk and scared, I had hoped Bret would be sitting there. Abe apparently hadn’t told Tom about any of it, because he treated me with the same dismissiveness as always. It was weird to look back and realize he and Bret had never really spoken or interacted at all. I hadn’t had a clue.
By 4 a.m. I was getting a little stir crazy, so I jumped up to walk around the storage buildings. I turned the corner of the last one and walked straight through Bret.
I screamed like a little girl. She giggled a little, and clamped her hand over her mouth. “I’m sorry. Jason–”
“Are you real?” I demanded. “Am I crazy?”
“I think I’m real,” she said. “At least, I was. I know it sounds like I’m lying, but I don’t remember much.” She nodded at the payphone. “I remember this phone and it ringing. I think he used that to catch me off-guard. I answered it and he hit me with something. I think–” She pinched the bridge of her nose. “I think he’s about to kill that girl on the train. Maybe I’m supposed to help her.”
Abruptly, she swung her fist at my arm and it passed right through. I yelped.
“Stop doing that!”
Despite everything, she laughed. “I was just checking. I don’t know how I’m supposed to stop him when he can’t see me and I can’t touch him.” She winked. “On the bright side, I bet you look crazy as hell on the security cameras right now.”
I scowled at her, then something occurred to me. I glanced at my phone. 4:20 a.m. “Hey, the phone didn’t ring.”
She shot it a scared look. “What does that mean? Are we on the right track, or are we running out of time?”
I had no answer.
The next morning when Abe came in, he gave me a wary look and said, “Is she here now?”
I nodded and pointed at the chair she was sitting on. “Bret, how much does a mail order bride cost?”
She laughed. “Tell him I said, ‘Ask Ernie.’”
I told him and his dark eyes teared up.
“Bret, what happened to you?” he asked.
“She doesn’t remember but we are trying to figure it out,” I said.
“Tell him Maggie still visits him. I’ve seen her around him. She’s got a little girl she calls Bumblebee with her.”
I told him and he burst into tears. When he could finally speak, his voice was a gasp. “There’s not a soul alive who knows that. Bumblebee was our daughter. She died back in 1974. I’ve never talked about her since.”
“Jason, the train,” she said, and I told Abe we had to go.
“Godspeed, son,” he said.
When we got on the train, the girl was already there. The bald man got on the same stop he had previously. His attention was once again fixed on her, but hers was once again fixed on her phone.
I had no weapon and this guy was twice my size, but when I thought about him hurting Bret, or this stranger, I think I could’ve taken him down with pure adrenaline. We were about to find out, anyway, because this time when she stood, he stood too.
It was still early, not a lot of folks out yet. We followed him, following her, trying to stay ducked out of sight.
She paused outside a storefront and fumbled in her purse for her keys. That was the distraction he was waiting on. He charged her like a bull.
It was terrifying, how quickly he seized her and dragged her into an alleyway. I ran blindly into the alley behind them. He had her pinned against the wall, his meaty hand around her throat.
“Hey!” I screamed. “Hey! Let her go!”
She still had her keys in her hand. While he gaped at me, she swung at his head with a vicious arc. She missed his eye, but the key dug into his cheek. The girl gave it a savage yank, opening up his face.
With a bellow of pure rage, he dropped her and grabbed his ruined cheek. Blood spurted between his fingers and he ran straight at me. I made a desperate lunge for his legs, but he barreled past me–straight into the pathway of a Meko’s Milk truck.
I’d hear the sound of that impact in my head for the rest of my life. A thudding, cracking, squelching sound. But I was glad. He’d never hurt another girl again.
Bret was gone. I missed her terribly and hoped every day she’d reappear. I realized that was selfish and then I just hoped she was at peace. There was no grave to visit, so sometimes I’d gather little bouquets of dandelions and place them at the office, or at my apartment. Such happy, hopeful little things …
Four months after the incident with Edward Culpepper (that was his name–I’d followed the story avidly in the papers), I was getting a little overtime, helping Abe go through the stack of delinquent customers.
“Looks like we’ll be cleaning out units #27 and #38,” he said. “Non-payment of rental fees.” He tossed the copies of their agreements on the desk in front of me and I froze. Edward Culpepper’s face stared up at me from the photocopy of his driver’s license. Renter of unit #27.
Abe noticed my face and said, “Jason? Are you okay?”
“That’s him,” I said. “That’s the guy who killed Bret.”
I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before then. Her strange fear of that unit. Now it made sense. I told Abe and that old man moved faster than I did as we grabbed the combination for that lock.
It took us awhile, because the until was completely filled with old furniture and boxes of junk, but towards the back, we found a metal barrel. On the ground beside it lay Bret’s army jacket.
Abe grabbed my arm. “We are not opening that. We are calling the cops right now, do you understand me?”
I let him pull me outside, because I didn’t want to see her like that, either.
Bret’s body was finally laid to rest. With her mother’s permission (and notice to the caretaker so he wouldn’t try to kill them), Abe and I did some gardening work on her grave that next spring. Yellow dandelions covered it, looking as beautiful and sunny as the girl they memorialized. I think she would be pleased.
Five or six years passed. I graduated college, got a real job, fell in and out of love a couple of times, but I never really stopped thinking of her. Every time I saw a white dandelion, I picked it and made a wish. When I was in the area, I visited her grave and made sure she still had her cheery little offerings.
One day, I was riding my motorcycle up near Nashville, enjoying a sunny summer day. I guess the driver of the Camaro didn’t see me when he swerved around a semi to change lanes.
I flew through the air and fell back down, hitting the ground with a bone-jarring thud. I lay there, conscious of sounds and light, but I couldn’t move at all. I couldn’t feel anything either, except for the heat of the sun on my face.
I was disoriented, but I guessed I was in the median. Lying on grass, for sure, because there was a round, white dandelion inches from my nose. Blackness seeped at the edges of my peripheral vision. I couldn’t blow on it, but I made a wish anyway, then passed out.
When I came to, I still couldn’t move, but I felt a little more. Specifically, I felt someone nudging my side. I looked up to see Bret prodding me with the toe of her boot.
“You gonna lie there all day?” she asked, and extended her hand.
Surprisingly, my hand rose to grab hers and didn’t pass through. She felt solid. Real. I wondered if I was in the hospital and this was some anesthesia-induced delirium. But the sun felt real enough. I even smelled burned rubber. I let her help me up, and I stood there for a moment, swaying. I saw my bike some yards away, crushed.
“Ugh,” I said. “Maybe I shouldn’t move too much before the paramedics get here.”
She winced. “Yeah, about that…” She pointed to the ground beside me.
It was surreal to see my broken body lying there, staring sightlessly up at the sky.
“Oh,” I said. “Ouch.”
She shook her head. “I told you those things would kill you.”
“So … now what?” I asked. “Is there a bright light we walk towards or what?”
“You’re so calm. I like that about you.” She shrugged. “If there’s something we’re supposed to be walking toward, I haven’t found it yet. Maybe it’s just me and you.”
“Maybe it’s my wish,” I said, and she raised an eyebrow.
“I made a wish right before I passed out—died, whatever.”
She scrunched up her nose. “Oh, yeah? Is that why I’m here? What was the wish?”
“Just one I’ve wished a thousand times now. You’re really bad about responding to your ghost messages.”
I took her hands and made her face me. “Sorry. Still getting the hang of this business.” She waved her hand dismissively. “Such a rookie. But tell me, what was your wish?”
“What I always wish–that I could see you again someday, and do this,” I said, and kissed her.
I’m not sure how long we stood like that, kissing and holding each other while sirens screamed and traffic whizzed by on the other side of the median.
Eventually, we started walking. I didn’t know where we were going. Didn’t care. All I knew was that I was with her.
“So,” I said. “Who’s Ernie and what’s this about a mail order bride?”
Before she could tell me, a terrible cramp seized my body and I felt myself being tugged backwards. Brett frowned, her green eyes suddenly sad.
“It’s not your time,” she said. “Stop fighting it.”
I didn’t want to let go. I wanted to stay with her.
But the tugging became a vacuum until I had no choice I went hurtling backwards.
I blinked and saw an ambulance worker standing over me.
“There you are,” he said as he popped up the stretcher I was somehow on.
They loaded me onto the helicopter. I saw Brett standing over his shoulder. She held a dandelion in her hand.
“It’s okay, Jason,” she said. “Some things are worth waiting for.”
Then she blew on the dandelion, making a wish.