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Deep South

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She closed her eyes and hummed. She could smell the storm coming in. Feel the lightning light up the distant sky. She could hear her feet tap against the cobblestone walkways in a steady rhythm with her heart. She could feel the weight of the summer air press against her as she perspired a prayer for a breeze. 

She knew the way. It just took one step after another. The sun felt good on her skin and her eyes opened when she heard the moss shift in the trees. 

Instantly she was back into her body like a rip chord went off. She slumped from her pose on the floor and huffed in annoyance. So close. So very far away. 

She slapped her hands upon the wood floor of the tiny apartment as she stood up and went to the window to see the freak ice storm that roared outside. The day was dark from clouds but the ice and snow twinkled anyway.

She glared at the weather as if it was openly mocking her before she kicked the wall below the window and went back to her spot on the floor. She took a deep breath. 

"Again, honey," she muttered, "Try again.I can do this."

She exhaled slowly, squeezing her eyes shut before relaxing and trying to find a rhythm to breathe in. She crossed her legs before purposefully extending her arms and planting her palms flat onto the floor. 

She inhaled slowly, and with her exhale she pressed her palms deep into the floor. Her muscles flexed and instantly she was back on the beach, feeling the breeze across her face like opening an oven door. She felt her hands press into warm sand and water the temperature of bath water caressed her forearms. 

This time, she didn't open her eyes. Instead, she could feel the lighthouse in the distance, it's visitors cooing and taking photos of the old place. She felt the boardwalk down the way bustling with families and couples buying ice cream to beat the southern heat. 

She slowly lifted her hands from the sand and water and turned her back to the sea, squinting at the waterway that turned into a river and led back to her home. She shifted along the waterway until her memory could place her along the riverbanks and her feet touched the cobblestone again. She thoughtlessly waved at the statue of the woman waving her laundry at the sea.

She strolled along the shops, her hands wistfully touching the old buildings as she went. No one that passed her even took a glance. She licked her lips as she passed the taffy store, watching the man pull the sugar long and slow in the window. 

She did not stop. If she stopped now, she might not find her way back. 

She ran her hand along the brick hotel that was once a mighty cotton gin company. She could feel the old building breathing, expanding and contracting with memories. She almost paused, but continued on.

Her time was short, and her energy was constantly depleting. She had to reach him. She had to see. She only had this much energy because she was stronger on the day she was born. Sunday. And time was short.

The day was winding down and street lamps slowly came on. She passed one of the dozens of beautiful squares. This one had a memorial fountain under the massive oak tree covered in moss. 

A sudden urge to sit on the edge of the fountain and touch the water moved through her so violently that her steps faltered for a moment. The breeze whispered in her hair, begging her to stop and touch the water. Her breath stilled. She took another step. 

One more trip past the old cemetery, she thought, pushing herself on. 

She thoughtlessly ran her hand across the metal fence as she walked past it, looking at the unearthed headstones across the far wall that had been desecrated by union soldiers. Names were changed, dates were scratched over. Sorrow poured from it's gates as it beckoned her in. She walked by, gently squeezing the metal gate before letting go. 

"Not today, honey," she said. 

She was almost to the flat. It was a quaint little apartment space in the attic of an old Victorian home, repurposed to be a string of low-income apartments rather than a massive plantation for an elite family. Her steps felt heavier as she locked her eyes on the attic window beckoning her with it's soft yellow light. 

Would he be there?

"You don't want to go up there, baby," a soft voice called from behind her. 

She startled before turning her head and seeing a middle aged woman walk across the street to stand beside her. The woman's black hair was expertly curled, and her dark dress shirt and slacks were covered with a charcoal apron that the woman patted as she looked at the house. 

Her skin was deceptively smooth with minimal aging lines around her dark eyes, and her voice was soft and smooth with the native twang of the south.

"He's not there no more," the woman said. Her tone held an edge as the girl stiffened beside her. "Child, don't be mad at him. Time works differently on the other side. He still thinks of you. Life continues on, just like we do."

"Who --" the girl started, "how-- how do you know? How do you see me?"

"You can call me Momma E," the woman said as she slipped her hand into her apron, bringing up a red wrapper decorated like a strawberry and pushing it toward the girl. "I'm here to smooth things along, honey. Sometimes people get lost and need a push. That's what I do."

"Momma E," the girl says incredulously. "How am I lost? I know where I am. I belong here."

"Baby," Momma E said, dark eyebrows raising like angry wasps, "you might know where you are, but you don't know where you are."

She took the strawberry candy from Momma E and inspected it before popping the candy in her mouth. 

"Why can't I return here?" She asked quietly, deflated. 

"Do you remember how you got to that apartment?" Momma E asked softly. 

She jerked her head down with short images of running, blood, screaming. She inhaled sharply before slowly shaking her head. Momma E patted her on the shoulder.

"There, there, baby," Momma E soothed. "You just suck on that candy and focus on here. We don't have enough time for you to blink out now."

She focused on the taste of candy and crumpled the cellophane wrapper in her hand before shoving it into her jean shorts. Momma E nodded in approval. 

"Now," she drawled, looking down into the girl's eyes, "Listen closely because there isn't time for repeating. They're gonna find your body in three days, child. That could feel like a minute or a hundred years. We all move differently through time here. But in three days, they're gonna find you and they're gonna put two and two together. You ain't gonna be stuck no more. They gonna find your parents and they gonna bring you home."

She inhaled a sob of relief as tears started to form around her eyes. Momma E hushed her and with quick fingers rubbed the tear off her cheek.

"I ain't done yet, baby," she said, gently holding her chin. "You gotta go with 'em. You gotta go with your bones. 'Else you ain't ever comin' home, child."

She hiccuped with a jolt, grabbing the woman's hand. 

"But that means---" she started.

"Shhh," Momma E said, putting her finger to her lips. "I know what it means, child. You're gonna have to go back to that dark place and wait. I know it's scary, but it's only the only way to bring you home. Don't you wanna be home?"

She nodded, gasping in between sobs.

"Alright, then," Momma E soothed. "Then you're gonna have to go back, honey. You're almost used up as is, you gotta let yourself go back and be found. Then you can be here." 

She clutched the woman's hands, looking up into her dark eyes and tried to steady her breathing. Fear was etched into every feature as she slowly let go of Momma E's hands and disappeared slowly. Momma E quickly grabbed the candy wrapper out of the air and stuffed it into her apron. She looked back at the house in front of her and let out a sigh. 

"Poor child," she whispered. "Soon, baby, soon." 

------

He sometimes walked this way, remembering how it was her favorite. Not often, mind you, because it was so out of his way, but just often enough to remember.

She loved the moss-filled trees, the cobblestone, the meandering trail of it all. Most of all, she loved the graveyard. 

He never understood why she took solace among desecrated gravestones, but she always had to go and trace her fingers over them. 

It had been years and he still thought of her. Of their fight and breakup before she uprooted her life to go to college up north. Of how they found her body. She'd always be the 'what if' in his life. He'd never forget her. 

He thoughtlessly put his hand up on the metal fence like she did, slowing to peer in like she always did. He froze in panic.

There she was. She was sitting on the memorial, book in hand, hair behind her ear in the shade of the trees. She smiled softly to herself, lifting one knee to her chest to lean on as she continued her book. 

He inhaled sharply, hands clutching the fence spokes until his knuckles were white. He almost said her name, but hesitated. 

Her back straightened suddenly and she looked up at him, eyes locking. She gave him a soft smile before blinking out in the afternoon sun. He paused, searching the graveyard for her. No one had been buried there in hundreds of years. She was there. He knew it. With no other indicator of her presence, he exhaled the breath he had been holding.

"Hi darlin'," he whispered softly, letting go of the fence and stuttering his footsteps until he found an even rhythm again. "Hi, darlin'," he said even softer, but what he meant to say was goodbye.