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  Table of contents Issue Thirteen ROADSIDE MEMORIAL

by
DAVID CALBERT
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month after the accident, Ellen still couldn’t believe. She drove down the road where it happened over and over again, an anguished loop of hope and despair as she rounded the turn. She spent entire days driving back and forth across the road, looking out the window. The dean at the high school had granted Ellen a leave of absence, to give her time to grieve.



“We all miss him terribly. The kids are a wreck, but I can’t even imagine your pain,” he said, patting her hand like she was some lost child.



‘Take some time to heal. Letting go can be very hard.”



Fuck you very kindly, Ellen wanted to say, how dare you tell me to let him go. So she kept driving down the road, that goddamned road, looking for something she couldn’t quite articulate. She hoped it would take her to some resolution. Her hands were shaking again this time, her wedding ring clicking hysterical Morse code against the wheel, but she managed to keep the car between the lines. There was no bike lane, just two deep ditches filled with dead leaves, empty water bottles, old newspapers, and one plastic shopping bag with its handles neatly tied up on top, holding something unknown. It was there every time Ellen drove by, discarded and forgotten. When she turned around the corner, obeying the sign that told her to take the turn at 20 mph instead of 25, she saw her husband Kyle riding his bike, his thick legs sheathed in spandex. The hair stood up on the back of her neck and she nearly slammed on the breaks. For a brief, dizzying moment, Ellen believed that the hit and run that left her husband smashed on the side of the road had all been a dream, that she had finally woken up.



When Ellen drove past the biker she saw that it wasn’t her husband, but a stranger. He looked at her from behind polarized sunglasses that made him seem alien, almost insect-like. He gave Ellen a flirtatious smile and a wave as she drove by. She thought that for him this was not a haunted place, not a road that always led to death. The knife that had been slowly digging into Ellen’s heart slammed all the way up the hilt. She drove home and cried in her bedroom for a long time.



A few weeks later, Ellen’s sister in law, Katie, came by the house. The visit was a surprise because Ellen had disconnected all the phones after the funeral. She opened the door in a stained bathrobe and when she saw the planks of wood and paint cans in her sister-in-law’s arms, she felt her heart sink.



Katie and Kyle had always been trying new hobbies and doing projects together, something that Kyle had assured her went back to when they were kids. There were five sturdy birdhouses in Ellen’s backyard and a stack of garish, hand-knit holiday sweaters in her dresser. They used to always nag Ellen to join them; saying that it’d be good for her, but Ellen had always dismissed their projects as boring arts and crafts. Now though, she almost envied Katie for the memories, the time she spent with Kyle. It reminded Ellen of all the empty moments she had in store.



“Katie I’m really not in the mood to make a birdhouse right now,” Ellen said.



“We’re not building a bird house. We’re going to make a roadside memorial for Kyle,” Katie said.



Ellen found the idea strange, even a little grotesque, and opened her mouth to say so, but Katie edged past her and walked into the house. Ellen had been adrift for some time, and her reaction time had become very slow. She often found herself standing in a room with no idea why she was there or for how long she had been standing there. She followed Katie to the garage like someone in a trance. Katie took a hammer and some nails for Kyle’ s workbench.



“I’ll make the cross and put the first coat of primer on it. You go inside and find some of Kyle’s belongings you want to lay at the base,” Katie said. After the death, Katie had turned her grief into an inexhaustible source of helpful energy, taking charge on all the arrangements regarding the funeral and the wake. It seemed that she was not quite done.



“What kind of things?” Ellen asked.



“Things that sum up who he was and how he lived his life," Katie said, lining up the planks of wood.



Ellen went back in the house and searched for items she felt were representative enough. At first it was a slow search, but after half an hour she had a cardboard box brimming with Kyle’s belongings. She went out to the garage where Katie had finished priming the cross and was letting it dry on the workbench. Together they went through the box and selected the most fitting items. Kyle had taught Physical Education, so they chose the metal pea whistle he’d always had draped around his neck. Ellen picked an extra pair of his biking spandex, and Katie picked a slim book of nature poems she’d given to him as a birthday present. Its pages had been respectfully dog-eared from several readings. Together they chose one of his t-shirts, a basketball, his 49ers jersey, and a framed picture of him and Ellen on rare sunny day in Half Moon Bay. At one point, Katie said they should put his bike helmet next to the cross.



“We can’t,” Ellen said.



“Why’s that?” Katie asked.



“It’s broken. Kyle was wearing it the night that…” Ellen tried to finish the sentence, but something hard in her throat stopped her. Katie put a hand over her mouth, her eyes wide and watery.



“Oh god. I’m sorry, I should’ve known.” Katie tried to apologize, but Ellen waved it away.



On the cross they wrote his name and the years between which his life was spent. The parenthetical numbers, the way they took something so messy and complicated and summed it up, gave Ellen a chill when she looked at them.



They drove down the road to the spot where it had happened. While they were setting up the memorial Ellen asked, “What if someone steals all of this stuff?”



“Who would steal from a memorial?” Katie asked, hammering the cross into the ditch.



“Someone steals the baby Jesus from the Nativity scene downtown every year. Nothing’s sacred," Ellen said.



“This memorial isn’t for other people, Ellen. It’s for you and me, to help us commemorate him. To help us move on," Katie said.



“I don’t think I ever will," Ellen said.



Katie leaned the picture frame against the cross and looked back at Ellen with eyes that said Death-Is-Hard-But-Everything-Will-Be-Alright. Ellen wanted to kick in her teeth, but resisted.



They finished setting up the memorial and Katie took a picture of it to put on the Facebook page she’d created for Kyle. As she knelt to get a better angle, Ellen nervously spun her wedding ring around her finger, looking down the road. It was a quiet and Ellen suddenly felt on edge. A chill ran down her spine and everything was so quiet that her ears started ringing. There weren’t even the sounds of birds or branches in the wind. But there was an immense feeling that something was coming, right around the corner. She imagined she could hear the stealthy sound of tires rolling over pavement and the crunch of leaves. She almost told Ellen that they should get out of the road, but after a moment it all went away. No car came, just an empty slab of asphalt with long veins of tar hiding its cracks. Katie finished up and drove Ellen home. Before she left she told Ellen that she hoped she would pick up the phone every now and then, that the rest of the family was worried about her. Ellen agreed and went inside, but she didn’t plug in her phone. A week later, she forced her self to drive down the road again, taking the turn at little more than a 5mph crawl. When she came around she saw nothing. The memorial was gone.



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Ellen taught English at the high school for several years before Kyle was hired. He was initially hired as an assistant coach, but the students liked him so much that he was offered a full time job. He was cheerful and energetic, motivating his students through inspiration rather than discipline. When the basketball team ran laps, he ran with them and sang old Rolling Stones songs like a drill sergeant. More than once, Ellen had to close the windows of her classroom to shut out the chorus of “We Can’t Get No Satisfaction.”



Kyle was handsome and very charming. He was often the subject of hushed conversations in the teacher’s lounge. Ellen often saw Kyle riding his bike when she left to go home. Even she couldn’t say that her eyes didn’t linger on his pumping thighs or the tight spandex over his backside. But she would have never guessed they would end up together, or that he would even take an interest in her. But fate intervened and brought them together.



A couple of weeks after Kyle was hired, Ellen went jogging on a trail that took her deep into the woods behind the school. On a particularly rocky part of the trail, Ellen’s foot caught on an unseen tree root and she fell hard. The stones jutting from the trail scraped her knees and the palms of her hands and her ankle throbbed painfully. But the worst were the two small fingers that had taken the brunt of the fall and were bent in nauseating angles. Ellen leaned against the tree with the offending root and tried to call someone, but she had no service in the woods. Fire crawled up her arm and she began to feel very lightheaded. Ellen was on the verge of passing out when she heard the sound of wheels grinding against dirt. She opened her eyes to see Kyle riding up to her.



“Are you ok? What happened?” he said dismounting, letting his bike fall away.



“I tripped on a root. I twisted my ankle, and it may be broken. But I know for a fact that these are.” She held her twisted fingers up to Kyle and he sucked his teeth in sympathetic pain. He had a degree in kinesiology and had dealt with plenty of athlete’s broken fingers, including his own. He knew Ellen was in store for a final misery before it was over. He tore off a strip of spandex and held her injured hand gingerly.



“You work at the school don’t you?” he asked, waiting for her breathing to slow. She had to be relaxed.



“Yes. English," she replied, sweat breaking out on her forehead. Her face had grown very pale.



“That’s right. I’m Kyle, I teach Phyis Ed. What’s your name?”



“Ellen.”



“Ellen, everything’s going to be OK. But before we get you out of here, I need to do something a little unpleasant. Can you forgive me?”



“That stands to be determined," Ellen said, fighting the urge to vomit. Kyle said, “I need you to close your eyes. It’ll be over quickly,"



She looked up at Kyle with wide eyes and he felt her wrist tense up. He put a hand on her shoulder and asked, “Do you trust me?”



Ellen looked at him, reading his eyes. They were the color of toasted bread, and communicated something simultaneously soft and strong. In her pain she found comfort there. Ellen found that yes, in fact, she did trust him. She nodded.



“Close your eyes now. Take a deep breath," he instructed. Ellen obeyed and he felt her relax. She took one slow, trembling breath in, and as she was releasing it Kyle quickly grabbed her two broken finger and snapped them back into place with one swift jerk. Ellen cried out, tears running down her cheeks, and then it was over. Kyle bound the fingers with the torn spandex.



He walked her down the trail and then drove her to the hospital. He kept talking to her, telling her little jokes and even succeeding in making her laugh. He waited the next the four hours it took to bandage her wounds, x-ray her ankle (it had only been sprained) and fit a brace over her fingers. Then, before driving her home, he took her to In and Out. Years later, Ellen would refer to it as their first date, while Kyle would always maintain it had just been a good deed.



“You came for me when I needed you most,” Ellen would always say, “and then you took me out for a burger.”



Ellen always laughed at this, but Kyle would only smile and say, “I’ll always come for you.”



Then she would sidle up next to him. He was so much bigger than Ellen. She hardly came up to his chin, but he spoke so softly to her. During their marriage, whenever he stooped down to kiss her, she would think of him as her gentle giant. It was something she had planned to confide to him later on in their life together, perhaps after they’d had a child and Kyle was worrying about being a good father. But then he died and she found herself alone.



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A few days later, Ellen opened the backdoor of her house to let the cat out. A wooden cross was lying facedown on the mat, still covered with beaded morning dew. The cat sniffed it and licked at a few water droplets. Ellen shooed the cat away and with trembling hands turned the cross over. Across the its arms she read Kyle’s name in chipped black paint. She took the cross inside, plugged in her phone and called Katie.



“What the fuck are you getting at?” Ellen yelled into the receiver.



“What? Ellen, calm down, I don’t understand," Katie said.



“Is this some twisted way of reaching out?” Ellen asked, shaking the wooden cross. Water hit her face and she felt it creep coldly down her cheek.



“Ellen, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Katie’s voice came out in even tones, trying to restore order.



“You didn’t leave the cross on my back door?” Ellen asked.



“What? No of course not. Did someone take…”



Ellen hung up the phone before Katie could finish. She threw the cross into the recycling and went around her house locking doors and pulling windows closed. She locked herself in her bathroom with the telephone, 911 keyed up, but she couldn’t bring her self to hit call. What would she tell them? That someone desecrated her husband’s homemade memorial and left part of it on her doorstep?



She eventually came out of the bathroom and put the phone back in its cradle. When it rang a few minutes later and Katie’s name flashed across the screen, she unplugged it again. She opened a bottle of wine and thought, dear God, I just want to be left alone.



Later, when Ellen was taking out the recycling, she found the picture of her and Kyle at the beach propped up on top of the bin. A few dead leaves were pinched beneath its frame. They crumbled and blew away when Ellen picked up the picture and went back inside. She plugged the phone in and finally called the police, but when she explained what was happening, they told her there was nothing they could do.



“Unless they damaged you or your property, we can really do much about it," the dispatcher told her. Ellen hung up and once again unplugged her phone. She could have pressed the issue of trespassing, but the idea of someone on your property didn’t seem all that threatening until they were lurking somewhere outside the walls of your home. Ellen pressed her face against the front window. The sun was setting, bringing to life long shadows that seemed to reach across the lawn towards her. Gooseflesh crawled up her arms and she yanked the curtain shut.



Ellen became paranoid. The sadness that wrapped around her like a wet quilt after her husband’s death now fell away and left her naked and shivering. Whenever she ventured outside of her house, she found another piece of the dismantled memorial. The whistle was hanging from the knocker on her front door like a Christmas wreath. The jersey she found on the hood of her car, neatly pressed and folded. She tried the police again and they still refused to help. After that she threw her phone out completely. One evening, she heard knocking at her door and she stood very still, careful to breath softly until long after the knocking had stopped.



Ellen exhausted herself trying to understand why this was happening. Who was doing this? What was the meaning of it all? Was this some dark prank pulled by the same kind of people who stole the baby Jesus every year? Ellen remembered that the plaster savior was never reported found, in pieces or otherwise. Were people returning the pieces of the scattered shrine as they found them? Perhaps her neighbors were finding things on the side of the road and returning them. But with no note?



When she found the last item, the book of poetry slid halfway into the mail slot, Ellen thought it was over. Her nerves were nearly at their end. She’d been having nightmares and waking up in a cold sweat. The dreams were always of the road. She would be walking and then the road would tip forward, sending her falling into some dark conclusion, but she always woke before discovering. When she slid the poetry book on the shelf, she thought she might finally get some relief.



But then a shattered bike helmet appeared outside her door. The jagged, twisted bits of hard plastic and Styrofoam were arranged on the mat to represent its shape before it was broken. It looked like something from a crime scene. It was maddening. Ellen kicked at the pieces of her husband’s helmet, sending them spinning down her driveway and slicing her foot open on the sharp edges.



“Why are you doing this to me?” Ellen screamed down the road. When nothing answered her she went inside to bandage her bleeding foot.



She began finding crumbled asphalt everywhere. The hard black lumps were sprinkled all around the house: the inside of her bathtub, on the kitchen counter, in the corners of every room. Ellen couldn’t pull a sweater out of her dresser without the pattering sound of asphalt hitting the carpet.



One night she almost tripped over a tangle of metal when she let the cat out. After examining what looked like piece of modern art, she realized it was a bicycle, bent into something nearly unrecognizable.



Ellen managed to keep it together, that is until she started seeing blood. She thought the bandage around her foot had come loose, but its cloth was firm and unblemished. She was only cut on one foot anyway, which wouldn’t explain the dual set of maroon footprints she saw around the house. She placed her foot in one of the prints to compare. The toes extended far past her own. The prints were large and athletic, the oblong ball of the foot pressed fully in scarlet.



Ellen drove over to her sister-in-law’s house and knocked on the door. When Katie answered, her eyes widened in surprise. Ellen was painfully wan and her hair was knotted and greasy.



“Ellen! Where have you been? I’ve been round the house a few times and you were never there.” She took Ellen’s hands in her own and felt how cold they were.



“What’s going on with you?” Katie asked.



Ellen came inside and Katie made them both some tea. Ellen watched her sister-in-law as she moved about the kitchen, gathering the porcelain and the teapot. Katie’s energy had died down quite a bit since Ellen had last seen her. She moved with a slowness that was almost arthritic, as if every exertion now cost her dearly. It took her three tries to pry the lid off of the bin of tea bags. When she finally sat down with two steaming cups of tea, Ellen saw that her eyes were red and she blinked constantly through out the conversation.



“Katie, something’s been happening," Ellen began. “I think Kyle is trying to communicate with me.”



Katie said, “I know what you mean dear. I feel his presence everyday.”



Ellen thought of the blood drying on the linoleum in her kitchen and said, “I don’t think you do understand.”



She held the mug of tea in both hands and watched the curling fingers of steam. She wondered what it would feel like to be made of vapor.



“If Kyle could come back, why do you think he would?” Ellen asked.



“Oh dear, it does no good to think like this," Katie stammered.



“No I mean hypothetically. Why would he come back?”



Katie looked at her in silence for a moment. Ellen remembered the toast Katie gave at her wedding, saying that her brother loved his new bride so much that he would walk across oceans to be with her.



Ellen knew what Katie was going to say before she said, “For you, Ellen. He would come back for you.”



That night, Ellen lay awake in bed, listening. The fear, the paranoia, even her grief had slipped away. She felt completely numb, and beneath it a small pulse of anticipation. She was waiting. She closed her eyes and thought of the road where Kyle died, how long it had seemed the night the police had driven her to where he was lying. In her mind, the road stretched on forever, winding back and forth.



Somewhere in the house there was a noise, something shuffling quietly against linoleum. Ellen’s cat hissed in the other room. She ignored it and focused on the image of the road, how in unfurled like a black tongue and swallowed her. It would be a long journey, she thought, walking down a road that never ended. A little less lonely, perhaps, with the right company.



His hand was cold when it touched her shoulder. Ellen didn’t open her eyes. His face had been crushed into something horrible on that road and she didn’t want to see it again. Maybe afterwards it wouldn’t bother her as much. She would have a long time to get used to it.



“My love, I came back for you. It led me back to you.”



“I know. I’m ready.”



“Do you trust me?”



“Yes. I always have.”



Cold fingers pressed around her throat and she felt the air rushing out of her in a quick sigh. The last thing she thought, before darkness took her, was that she could feel the hard metal of his wedding ring pressing against her neck.



And she was finally glad.



   
   

 

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David Calbert is a freelance writer and fiction writer living in Northern California. He’s constantly looking for opportunities to write and hopes one day to meet a real ghost, but hopefully not someone he knew in this life. His email is dcalbert@gm.slc.edu.



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