It’s a little late, but here’s a Valentine’s Day short story.
Gil’s All Fright Diner
Having a ghost girlfriend came with disadvantages. For one, Cathy was impossible to blindfold.
She sat in the passenger seat with her hands over her eyes. She’d peek between her fingers now and then, forcing him to block her view with his free hand as he drove.
“You said you wouldn’t,” said Earl.
“I know, but it’s just we’ve been driving for a while.”
“We’re almost there,” he said.
“I don’t like surprises.”
“You’ll like this one.”
She closed her fingers and leaned back in her seat. “Okay, but it better be amazing.”
They drove farther down the road. The withered trees stretched overhead, blotting out the night sky, leaving only the headlights to cut through the darkness. They didn’t do a great job, and he turned them off. He could see better in the dark anyway.
“You can admit it if you’re lost,” she said.
“I’m not lost.”
She moved her hands away from her face just enough to look at him. “It feels like you’re lost.”
He gently pushed her hands back over her eyes. “We’re almost there.”
He was almost certain they were.
The only sign of civilization were a few houses lit up in the distance. People moved here to be far away from their neighbors, but the houses with lights were not the one he was looking for. He was squinting at addresses of passing mailboxes when he almost hit a guy riding an old-fashioned bicycle in the middle of the night.
Earl slammed the brakes. Cathy was ejected, floating onward through the windshield. She slammed into the spectral bicyclist, knocking him down.
“Oh, jeez, I’m sorry,” she said.
The bicyclist stood. His great big waxed mustached twitched with annoyance. “Most inconsiderate, young lady.”
Earl stuck his head out the window. “Hey, don’t yell at her. You were the guy riding in the middle of the road.”
The man brushed his suit as if it would pick up any dirt from the road. “All these years dead, and I’ve never been hit by anything.”
Earl got out of the car. “How’d you die?”
The bicyclist frowned. “I don’t see how that’s any of your business.”
“It was riding your dumbass bike down the middle of the road like a dumbass, wasn’t it?”
“Earl, don’t be rude.” She righted the bicycle. “Again, our apologies.”
“Yeah, sorry.” Earl said, “We’re looking for Vanda’s Place. You’re a ghost. You probably know where it is.”
“I do.” He tipped his bowler hat to them as he mounted his ride. “Good day, miss.”
“Ah, don’t be like that,” said Earl. “We just need some directions.”
The man flipped Earl off as he rang his bicycle bell. The bicyclist turned off the road to disappear into a thick copse. Earl suspected that was the way to their destination, and the ghost had only picked that route because he knew they couldn’t follow.
“What’s Vanda’s Place?” she asked.
He gently guided her back to the car. “You’ll know when we get there.”
Just when he thought he’d have to admit defeat, he spotted another ghost. This one was a woman dressed in a flowing black wedding dress with a skull for a face.
He pulled over and rolled down the window.
“Excuse me,” he asked, “but do you know where Vanda’s Place is?”
The specter turned her glowing white skull toward him and shrieked. Her howl cracked the side view mirror. The wilted orchids in her bouquet transformed into vipers and snapped at him.
“Never mind,” he said. “I’ll find it myself.”
She covered her parted jaws with a withered hand wrapped in black lace intertwined with the flesh like a fungus.
“Pardon me. Old habbit.” She pointed the way. “Just down that way, turn left at the dead oak tree. The one that looks like the claw of Satan himself reaching out to challenge the throne of heaven.”
“Thanks. If you’re heading there, we can give you a ride.”
“Very kind, but I must refuse,” she said. “Any among the living who offer me comfort are doomed to die a most horrible death.”
“I’m undead,” he said.
“Seems a gray area,” she replied. “Better safe than sorry.”
As he drove away, she disappeared in his rearview. Her fading shriek caused the rearview to fall off. The car was a piece of junk anyway, so he didn’t hold it against her.
Her directions were good. The gravel drive was bumpy, not helped by the car’s aged shocks, but they arrived at the house at the bottom of the hill, long abandoned by the living.
The house was little more than a decaying memory, barely holding together. The windows were broken. The wooden porch was cracked and lopsided. The lawn overgrown. There was some vandalism, marked by a few spray-painted dirty words and other bits. Someone really liked skulls, having drawn dozens of them in one part.
The word’s Vanda’s Place we’re scrawled with unusual care and style over the front door.
“We’re here,” said Earl, uncovering Cathy’s eyes.
A dozen ghosts roamed about the place. Dozens more could be glimpsed inside. Their conversation floated out the broken windows, and on nights when the moon was new, when the air was still, and when the living were around to hear it, the soft murmur chilled their bones and sent them scurrying away.
“What is this?” she asked in wonderment.
He took her hand. “You’ll see.”
They walked through the crowd outside, and Earl flagged down the spectral doorman, an ordinary looking man in a three-piece suit and an arrow through his chest, a second in his crotch. There was a story there, but one Earl was polite enough not to inquire about.
“Vampire, huh? Here to gawk?” said the doorman.
“What? No. We were just wondering how long it would take to get a table?”
“It’s a busy night. Just get in line. We’ll get to you.”
The line of spirits stretched up the hill.
“Ah, c’mon, man. Can’t you just let us in?”
“It wouldn’t be fair to the others before you.”
“Yeah, but I can’t wait around all night like them. I’ve got to be out of here by sunrise.”
“How inconvenient for you,” said the Doorman.
Earl pulled the doorman aside. “Look, I’m trying to impress my girlfriend here, and it would really be a favor if you could just let us in.”
“And what would we get in return for this favor?”
Earl sighed. “I’ll do you a solid.”
The doorman perked up. Ghosts had few ways of acting on the material world, unlike vampires.
“Can you kill my wife?”
“Did she kill you?”
Earl wondered about the arrows again before shifting gears. “I don’t kill people. And it’s a hurtful stereotype that you think I do. I can tell somebody you love them or sumthin’ like that.”
The doorman frowned. “End of the line, please.”
The line of phantoms was a varied bunch. Some were like Cathy, mostly passing for human aside from the slight bluish glow to their ectoplasm. Others bore strange scars beyond death. One was a blackish silhouette with a leering mask for a face.
They passed the bicyclist, who twitched his mustache pointedly at Earl.
At the back of the line, Earl pondered the night sky. He had a few hours before sunrise, but the line didn’t appear to be moving very fast.
“What is this place?” asked Cathy.
“The ghost that dwells here used to love to bake when she was alive. So when she died she just kept doing it,” he said. “I think she mostly makes pies.”
“Ghost food?” said Cathy. “She makes ghost food. Is that really a thing?”
“It is for her,” said Earl. “She just makes it like the way you can make your baseball bat or that guy on the road with his bicycle. She makes food. And ghosts can eat it.”
“Oh my god.” She jumped, wrapping her arms around him. “That’s amazing! That’s, like, amazing!” She kissed him and clapped her hands, searching for better words.
“That’s so fucking amazing!”
They waited an hour in line. It didn’t move an inch. He wondered if ghosts ever got full? He wondered how many pies Vanda could produce in an hour? He wondered if this was how Cathy felt in their relationship sometimes? Though this time it was his material limitations that were making things difficult.
She stood there beside him, leaning into him, smiling.
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to wait around with you,” he said. “So I can just leave you here and come back tomorrow night.”
She took his hands. “Earl, we’ll go in together.”
“Together. Or not at all.” She squeezed his hand tighter.
He knew couldn’t talk her out of that, but he wouldn’t deny her this. “Okay, fuck it. I’m going to talk to somebody.”
“Earl, don’t make a fuss. It’s fine.”
“I’ll just go explain things again,” he said in a controlled tone. “Once they see the situation, they’ll let us in.” He kissed her cool ectoplasmic hand. “You wait here. I’ll be right back.”
Before she could protest, he was off, muttering to himself. “She came here for some goddamn pie, and she’s going to get some goddamn pie.”
He approached the doorman. “I need to speak with your manager.”
“Please, sir, return to your–”
Earl marched past the doorman, opened the front door which fell off its rotting hinges and hit the floor with a heavy thump. All the customers in the place stopped talking, turning their eyes–or eyeless faces for a few–in his direction.
“Sorry, I just wanted to talk to–”
The doorman put a hand on Earl’s shoulder. “Sir, I’m afraid I must ask you to leave.”
“Or what?” asked Earl. “Are you going to snooty me to death?”
“Or I shall have to call security.”
Earl laughed. “Ooh, scary.”
Smirking, the doorman snapped his fingers. An unearthly howl trembled the rotted house and the temperature in the restaurant dropped. Neither the dead nor the undead were much affected by it, but some nearby rabbits scampered to their burrows for warmth.
A black shape came screaming from the kitchen in the back. It was on Earl in a moment, seizing him by the arm. There were advantages to being able to touch ghosts, but also, disadvantages. Having a huge hellish Pomeranian dragging him around like a chewtoy was one of those disadvantages.
The dog, its eyes burning red, its fur bristling like thorns, capered out the front door and spit Earl onto the lawn. It sat, panting playfully, waiting for him to do something.
“Okay, okay. I got it.” Earl held up his hands in surrender.
Cathy came over. “Oh, baby, are you all right?”
“I’m okay. You shouldn’t have gotten out of line.”
“Earl, it’s just pie.” She helped him up. “Let’s get out of here.”
The black bride screamed and several planks fell loose of the house. She covered her skull.
“Pardon me. What I meant to say was, you should really let these two in. I mean, we do have all the time in the world. More even than that, perhaps.”
The bicyclist grunted. “They can have my place, I guess.”
“Rules are rules,” said the doorman. “And without rules, there is only anarchy. Death does not absolve us of that.”
“Oh, do be quiet, Runyon,” said the ghost of a stout old woman on the porch. She wiped her hands on her apron as she approached. “We don’t get a lot of troublemakers at my place. Thought I’d see what the commotion was about.”
She sized up Earl and Cathy.
“You two together?”
“Yes, ma’am,” said Cathy.
“Well, I’ve seen many things on both sides of the grave, but a man who is willing to go up against Ol’ Bunbun in order to give his lady a taste of my humble baking . . . that’s not something I see every day.”
She scratched Ol’ Bunbun behind his ear. The dog leaned into it. Its eyes went from blazing red to a soft blue.
“Just a dumb ghost dog,” mumbled Earl. “I can take a dumb ghost dog.”
Cathy elbowed him.
“I mean, sorry, ma’am.”
“Never apologize for love, friend. Especially a love that transcends death itself. Not a common thing.” Vanda threw her arms around both of them. “I’m sure we can find someplace for you. Maybe by the fire.”
The fire was only a spectral manifestation of such. To Earl, it felt cold though in a comforting way. Cathy warmed her hands by it.
Vanda brought two slices of pie. Cathy bit into her apple cinnamon slice, and her joyful stuffed cheek smile lit up the room. After she was done, he offered her his piece.
“So good surprise?” he asked.
“Fantastic fucking surprise.”
He’d have watched her eating ghost pie with that smile until the sun came up.
That would’ve been just fine with him.