Daphne Gets a Job Waiting Tables
Amateur detective invites too many questions in a town where gossip is prairie fire, so Daphne says no when asked if she has any prior work experience. Her interviewer, Cheryl, shrugs and hands her a schedule to fill out and a uniform.
“It’s a bit retro,” Cheryl says. “But that’s what people like these days, I guess. You can keep your scarf if you want.”
Daphne stumbles through the first day, head pounding as she unravels diner vernacular. The first week, she falls asleep on the sofa before she can untie her shoes.
On her fourth day of work, she drops a stack of plates, full moons waning across the floor. Danger-Prone Daphne howls in her ears. Daphne’s face burns, even as coworkers stop to help her clean up. If there were a trap door or false wall in this diner, she would have found it. A canary underground, singing with lungs full of poison.
“Here.” Cheryl hands Daphne a mug at the end of her shift. “Drink that. Don’t ask what’s in it.”
The tea is honey-sweet with teeth, warming at the base of Daphne’s throat.
“Everyone breaks some shit, especially during their first month. Everyone breaks shit, period. Depends on how you pick yourself back up after.”
Daphne wants to laugh and tell Cheryl about the times she nearly didn’t get back up, limb-curling forests and houses where dust lay thick as snow. Instead, she clenches her jaw and nods once, the shade of her old self flickering.
Daphne Has Written Velma Twenty-Eight Unfinished Letters
Dear Velma, how are you? We are fine. We’re renting a house near campus and a cute retro diner.
Dear Velma, I hope you’ve survived midterms. Fred was so stressed, he snapped at me for reorganizing the cabinets.
Dear Velma, I got a job at that retro diner. Strange, isn’t it, to suddenly have a full-time job and so empty of monsters?
Dear Velma, it is not so empty of monsters.
Dear Velma, do you ever lie awake at night, weariness like a wool blanket, liable to crackle and shock you when all you want is to shift positions?
Dear Velma, Fred says hello! He’s reading over my shoulder as I write…
Dear Velma, I hope the spring has reached where you are. The amaryllis I put in a pot near our south-facing window has started to sprout. It will be nice to see some color in the world again.
Dear Velma, how did you learn to thrive so in loneliness?
Dear Velma, sometimes I dream I’m still pacing the halls of the Stillwell Mansion, except I’m the phantom. If you yank off my scarf, my head goes, too.
Dear Velma, F is gone so much these days—fraternity & coursework, he says, though he comes home smelling like that bar over on 6th and Maple.
Dear V, do you ever dream yourself into the past?
Dear V, I don’t think I love F anymore, but is this because of him or because I love no one at all? They called you heartless at home, but I think I’m the one missing it.
Dear V, do you remember? Once when we were ten, we snuck into one of those model homes they had up before building the Riverbank Meadows subdivision and played house. You wanted to be the husband coming home from work and so I was the housewife. You’d taken a hat and coat from your dad’s closet, to really sell the honey, I’m home, even kissed me, loud and wet on the cheek. I’d thought then that being a housewife wouldn’t be so bad, but I hadn’t realized you wouldn’t be who I greeted at the door.
Dear V, I know you wanted to ask me to leave with you. I’m sorry, I was too
Dear V, I think I’m becoming a ghost. I watch my body take orders and smile. She’s good at it.
Dear V, do you ever wonder what it must be like, to be that background character in a popular TV show? I think I am one.
Dear V, F has spent most Sundays hungover and miserable. It’s only my biscuits and gravy that make him feel human again.
Dear V, I remember we left your dad’s hat in the model home, and I promised you I’d go find it the next day. It was in one of the cabinets, somehow, maybe been stuffed there during a showing.
Dear V, Sundays are my only day off, and I’m still taking orders.
Dear V, what do you think the parameters of “incapable” are? Can a person accept help from others and stay under the limit? Are certain requests for help weighted more heavily incapable than others?
Dear V, do you think a privileged rich girl can learn to be on her own?
Dear V, some days Cheryl lets me whip up the wildest malt combinations I can think of and we sell them to brave customers for half price.
Dear V, we fight more, and he says I’m incapable of living on my own. He’s not wrong. I can’t afford rent by myself and don’t know anyone else here.
Dear V, what would I even go to college for?
Dear V, some days I look at my front door and wait, breath between my teeth, for you to burst in, tell me honey, I’ve come to take you home.
Dear V, today I made a malt with pickle juice and we sold five times our normal amount, so the owner gave me a percentage of the profits. “You’d be good at this, long-term,” he said. I know I should be flattered, but I went home and stood in the middle of the front room for an hour.
Dear V, do you think you have to die to be a ghost? Or is there a slow fade, too, when people begin to overlook you?
Dear V, I just realized, I never did give you that hat back.
Velma Decorates Her House for Halloween
They like her in this town, though she feels them looking for clues.
“Where are you from originally?” They’ve asked her close-lipped smiles, their frustration an oil slick. “Is it just you?”
She changes the subject, a long-time student in misdirection, and lets them murmur over the unknown of her, lets them gossip when they think she’s out of earshot, “what does she have to hide?”
They wonder, too, about her house on Halloween. In late September, Velma spends two evenings winding ghosts in her trees like pear blossoms. Bats in the azalea bushes, a silhouette of a cat in her front window. She carves a cluster of pumpkins, places them at her front walk like heads on pikes. In the yard, she plants tombstones, lets a werewolf curl around her dahlias.
She leaves her porchlight off. They all come anyway, just to look at the house outfitted in the best decorations but where there is never any candy. Maybe one day, they’ll realize she’s left her résumé on the front lawn.
It takes hardly anything to keep something just for you, Velma discovered, once you have practiced, pried out the old veneer of Midwestern politeness burrowed deep in your heart. Once you have learned the secret to a good disguise is to wear your own face.