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Ghost in the Machine
A Short Story for Halloween
I suppose ghosts were mowing the grass at the old battlefield. Two riding lawnmowers ranged across the expanse in neat rows, arcing around the trees. That much I was used to seeing. What surprised me?
Their seats were empty.
I follow the path through the battlefield almost every day. I live nearby. It’s a great place to walk my dog, and it’s lovely year round. It’s probably one of the last times they mow this year. The chilly breeze lets me know its fall. So do the leaves.
You should see these trees. They’re spectacular. It’s one of my favorite things about the battlefield. Every fall, it’s like a slow-rippling explosion of scarlet, daisy, amber, and persimmon—though I bet the falling leaves are a hassle for the park staff, especially at the cemetery.
Maybe there were ghosts. There are almost fifteen hundred Confederate soldiers buried at the battlefield. Undoubtedly, uniformed men died right under the very tracks those driverless lawnmowers were now tracing in the turf. I hesitate thinking of how many enslaved men and women died on that land before them. Sobering to contemplate. So much death in the world, some of it directly below our feet.
Mine had just completed the second circuit of the path through park, and Trigger had done his business. As I walked back to my car, I noticed the man and his sign. He stood next to a long white trailer with a ramp angled down from the back. The sandwich boards stood at the foot of the incline, proclaiming for all to see:
Stand Back 20ft
So, no ghosts after all. I waved at the supervisor, looking bored in his fluorescent yellow safety vest and hat. He waved back.
I opened the passenger-side door, and Trigger jumped in. Then I rounded the front, slid behind the wheel, and hit the ignition. Just then my wife texted and asked if I could pick up a few things from the store. Janice had some people coming by later and needed a few odds and ends.
“Sure,” I texted. Actually, I thumbed “suer” and autocorrect took it from there. Predictive texting helped with the rest of my message as well, including the close: “Love you!”
I told her I’d be back to the house in twenty minutes, give or take. But as I drove toward the entrance of the battlefield, I could see cars slowing to a stop along the road ahead. I frowned and pulled to the side of the lane to check my options before committing to a course.
I plugged the store into my phone’s navigation app and, sure enough, it advised going the long way to avoid what must have been a wreck. Crazy because it had to have just happened. As I pulled left out of the battlefield, I asked Siri to play my seventies playlist. Suptertramp came up first. “I guess I will take the long way home,” I said to no one but myself.
Still, it wasn’t that bad. The app allowed me to dodge any other slowdowns by guiding me through some neighborhoods off the main roads, and I was in and out of the store in less than ten minutes.
Trigger stayed in the front seat with the windows rolled partway down. I thought I could get away with it because it was only fifty-five degrees out. It was going to get colder, too. In fact, my weather app showed temps dipping into the high twenties that night. Brrr. After putting the groceries in the back seat, I paused to adjust the thermostat program from my phone to account for frigid evening to come.
Thank God for my navigation on the return trip, too. They still hadn’t cleared the accident, and it was causing slowdowns in all four directions. Must have been a bad one. Cars were parked on the streets nearing our house. Still, ducking into one neighborhood and around another, I skirted it all and was home only ten minutes later than I told Janice.
It could have been a lot longer because I almost T-boned a guy at an intersection. I don’t normally drive through that area and didn’t see the stop sign—or the truck—until it was almost too late. Thankfully, the auto-braking feature on my car stopped me just in time.
Pretty amazing if you think about it: Soon all our cars will all be like those mowers at the park. Ghosts in the machine! We’ll just sit back while they do the driving and we catch up on email.
I came through the front door and set the grocery bags on the kitchen island. Weirdly, Supertramp played on all the speakers in the house, and loud: “Who knows how long I’ll have to stay?” But Janice hates my music—she gets everything about me but that. So, why would she be blasting this? And where was she? Also: The lights? The house was completely dark.
“Janice,” I called. Trigger ran past me and down the hall to the bedroom. I followed. “Janice. . .” I flipped the lights switch in the hallway as I passed. Nothing happened. Flipped it again and nothing.
I called again but lowered my voice, now a little unnerved. “Janice,” I said as I opened the bedroom door and peeked inside.
There she was, sitting on the recliner in the corner, her back straight, her hands gripping the armrests. I’m not even sure she heard me. The music blared here, too. She didn’t notice me at all. She just stared straight ahead with a blank expression. Trigger licked her left hand. I could see her knuckles were white.
“Janice . . . what’s going on? What’s with the music? Why aren’t the lights working?” It took a second for her to respond.
“I have,” she said at last, her voice quavering, “no idea. No idea. There was an accident. An accident. A car hit a transformer and knocked out the power. That’s what the neighborhood Facebook page said. I checked on my phone.”
“But the music. . .” I looked at the small white speaker playing on the nightstand.
“I know. I know. Don’t you think I know?” Her breathing sped up as her feet stamped down. “Why do you think I’m in here like this? It’s been playing like that for the last thirty minutes—just the same terrible song over and over! Ever since the power went out.”
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