“Do you believe in ghosts, Regan?”
“No, I don’t. And what’s more, neither should you.”
William Regan woke slowly from his troubled sleep. For the space of a few minutes that lasted an eternity and beyond, he felt trapped in some nebulous, terrible otherworld, fighting to break free. His mind was hazy, his thoughts scattered and disjointed. When he finally shook off the last vestiges of the debilitating lethargy that had held him a prisoner in his own bed, he tossed back his covers with an impatient, frustrated grunt. For three nights now, his dreams had robbed him of any real peace and rest. He felt drained, weakened, and anxious.
But in the early morning light that streamed through a small crack in his curtains, he could feel the memory of his nightmares slipping away. He knew that by the time he’d showered and dressed he wouldn’t be able to recall anything at all of the disturbing visions that had plagued his sleeping hours.
He went about his regular morning routine, drinking far more coffee than was strictly prudent, knowing it would leave him unsettled and jittery. Still, the caffeine overload served to shock him into a more alert state and by the time he’d saddled Jupiter for a ride, he had convinced himself that he was sufficiently recovered from his restless night.
The autumn air had a distinct bite to it. He breathed it in deeply, reflecting that the crisp coolness was a welcome, bracing jolt to his weary body. The preserve was dressed in its finest fall colors of oranges, yellows, reds, and browns, and the sky overhead was a stunning, cloudless blue that defied the remnants of darkness that still hovered at the edges of his consciousness. He allowed Jupiter free rein, letting the midnight black gelding choose the paths they followed and by the time they returned to the stable, both horse and rider were coated in a fine sheen of sweat.
His day was uneventful. Bobby Belden and the male Lynch twins turned up mid-afternoon to help exercise the horses, their boisterous talk alternating between football, girls, and their plans for an “awesome, legendary” Halloween bash. As high school seniors, they were determined their year would be filled with parties and events that left their mark on the town before they graduated and moved on into the adult stages of their lives.
At five o’clock, he decided to go for a walk. The sun was already sinking below the tree line, the sky above now awash with an artist’s palate of ruby reds and golden yellows. He stepped onto one of the lesser used trails that wound around the Wheelers’ lake, and wandered along, his mind drifting from thought to thought.
He stopped at the edge of a small clearing and leaned up against the rough bark of an old eastern hemlock, crossing his arms over his chest and closing his eyes, taking a moment to listen to the sounds of the forest around him.
“You look tired.”
He just managed to keep from jumping. He pushed away from the tree, shaking his head slightly, and turned to look at the speaker. “You know how much I hate it when you sneak up on me like that,” he said, feeling a small smile push up the corners of his lips as he took in her unrepentant, mischievous grin.
“You are surprisingly easy to sneak up on, you know,” Trixie told him. She stepped a little closer, her head tilted to one side as she studied him. “What’s wrong, Regan?”
He shoved his hands deep into his jacket pockets. “Who says anything’s wrong?” he asked, not quite meeting those oh-so-knowing, cornflower blue eyes.
She arched one brow and stared up at him without answering his question, and he knew she wouldn’t let him get away with any sort of prevarication or evasiveness for long. “I haven’t been sleeping well,” he admitted reluctantly.
“Strange dreams. Well, not dreams, really. I’ve been having nightmares.”
Her curious expression melted to a small frown and he could see she was concerned. “About what?” she asked quietly.
“I can’t remember. It’s… weird. When I first wake up, it’s all there in my head and I feel sort of frozen and disoriented, but then it’s like I can’t hold on to any of it. I forget everything before I’ve even had my breakfast.”
“Maybe that’s a good thing,” she pointed out. “If your dreams are that bad, maybe you’re better off if you forget them.”
“But if I could remember them, maybe I could figure out for sure what’s causing them in the first place.”
“There is that,” she conceded. “What if we could figure it out anyway? Is there anything going on right now that’s worrying or upsetting you? Something that might be nagging you at the back of your mind or bothering you in some way in particular?”
He was silent for a moment as he studied her with the same level of scrutiny she’d used on him minutes before. “There’s a memorial service next week,” he said slowly. “It’s been five years.”
It was her turn to look away. “I know,” she murmured. “So you think that’s what’s causing your nightmares?”
“You don’t think so?”
“After five years?” she asked on a sigh. “Regan, you have got to quit blaming yourself. How many times are we going to have this conversation? What happened? It wasn’t your fault.”
He felt his jaw clench and he had to consciously work to relax his muscles. “If I’d paid more attention to what was going on at the party… If I’d realized how much he’d drunk that night... If I’d insisted he let someone else drive… He never should’ve gotten behind the wheel.”
“If. If. If. Life is nothing but a series of ‘ifs,’ Regan. Dan was celebrating. And we were all celebrating with him. It’s not every day you land your dream job like that. Besides, you left the party hours before the rest of us. There was no way you could’ve known or prevented the accident.”
He leaned back up against the hemlock trunk, noting the lengthening shadows on the ground. Night was falling around them. The first stars were already twinkling in the darkening sky. “You must blame me on some level,” he said.
“Don’t be ridiculous. Of course I don’t blame you.”
“Then why are you here, Trixie? Why do you keep haunting me like this?” He looked over at her, afraid of what he might see on her expressive face. Accusation? Anger? Loathing?
There was nothing but compassion.
“Because you blame you,” she told him sadly. “Everyone else has let go. Even Dan. He’s gone on with his life and found a way to work through his guilt, but you… you’re still holding me here.” She nodded toward a break in the trees twenty yards away. The bend in Glen Road was just visible in the dwindling light. “You keep coming here to this spot, torturing yourself, over and over again. I’m not haunting you, Regan. You’re haunting me.”
He couldn't bring himself to look in the direction she indicated, at that gap where one yellow birch no longer stood and several others still bore the scars of impact even after all this time. “I miss you,” he whispered. “Things have never been the same since… since that night.”
"And they won't ever be the same. But that doesn't mean things can't be good again. You just have to forgive yourself and let go.”
“How? How do I do that?”
“I think only you can really answer that.”
“And if I do find a way? Does that mean… you won’t visit me here anymore? I won’t ever see you again?”
“Oh, I think if we’ve learned anything from all this, it would be that there’s no such thing as ‘won’t ever see you again.’ We will. Someday.” She peered up at him thoughtfully. “Maybe that’s what this is really all about. Maybe you’re having these nightmares because part of you finally wants to let go and part of you won’t surrender your guilt.”
He drew in a shaky breath. “I already bought a candle,” he told her, abruptly steering the conversation in a different direction. “For your memorial service. It’s blue.”
She smiled faintly. “It doesn’t have some kind of crazy scent, does it? Wild Sunrise Ocean Blueberry or something equally inexplicable?”
“No. Uh, at least, I don’t think so.”
“Good. Scented candles always gave me raging headaches. Go to the service. Light your candle for me, and then… release me. Start looking forward, not back, okay? And if you have dreams about me, let them be the good kind. Not nightmares.” Her smile suddenly grew and she was again that impish girl he remembered so well. “Maybe not too good,” she added with a wink. “No getting all naughty on me now.”
Despite everything, he found himself chuckling softly along with her at her teasing admonishment. They fell into a companionable silence as the sun disappeared completely beneath the horizon. Regan watched the shifting colors of the sky for several minutes, appreciating the simple beauty on display above them. A cold wind blew through the preserve, rustling through the trees and stirring up the dried leaves on the ground. He realized he was starting to feel chilled.
When he looked at her again, she seemed to him less solid, less substantial, and he wondered if that was a trick of the dying light of the ending day, or something else of a less mundane nature. He swallowed hard against the lump in his throat. “Goodbye, Trixie.”
The smile she offered him lacked the sunny brilliance she had always been known for. Instead, there was a gentle sweetness that reached inside him somehow, lessening the pain in his heart. “Goodbye, Regan,” she said, her voice echoing as if from a distance as she faded from his sight entirely. “For now. We’ll see each other again sometime. I promise.”
That night, he dreamed only of her laughter.