Jena Crowe McCann was driving down the Oregon coast and breathing in the cool night air when her husband’s ghost appeared to her. She slid her hand along the car door, pressing down the button that would crack the window open so the smell of pine and salt filled the car. Then she took a deep breath, holding the fragrance in her lungs for as long as she could before she let out a long sigh.
Lowell’s ghost kept her company, silently watching the oncoming lights and occasionally glancing over a phantom shoulder at his sons. The boys were sleeping in the backseat, both crashed after a final day of packing and saying goodbye to friends and the suffocating helpfulness of their neighbors. His ashes were in a simple urn carved from cedar and placed into a box with a few other mementos from his too-short life. Jena would give the box to his parents when she and the boys got home.
“I’m going to miss that smell,” Lowell said.
“The pine?” Jena glanced over. “Can you smell that? Really?”
His shadowy outline frowned. “I’m not sure if I can smell it, or I just remember the smell of it.”
“Well, that clears everything up.”
“Hey, I’m as new at this being a ghost business as you are at seeing ghosts.”
“I don’t see ‘ghosts,’ I just see you.”
“Really? Never before?”
“Don’t you think I would have told you if I saw ghosts, Low?”
Lowell smiled and leaned back in the seat, turning his head so he stared at her profile in the low light from the dashboard. “I don’t know. You always had your secrets.”
“I didn’t keep secrets from you.”
“I didn’t say you kept them from me, just that you had them. It’s okay. I like that I never figured you out completely. You were my favorite puzzle.”
A sharp ache pierced her heart. “Am I still going to see you when we get there?”
“I don’t know.”
She drove on in silence, his soft voice keeping her company on the twisting roads lined by dark conifers.
“Do you think I’m making a mistake?” Jena asked. “Moving so soon after they lost you?”
“No. It’s a good move. It’ll be a new start for all of you.”
“I feel like I’m moving backwards.”
“Nah.” He grinned. “Moving back, not backward.”
“What’s the difference?”
“You know. You’re just not seeing it.” He crossed his arms. Arms that had once held her tightly. Held their sons. Thrown darts at their favorite pub in college. Arms that had carried her name. The boys’ names. Favorite verses and patterns tattooed permanently onto all too un-permanent skin.
“I miss your arms, Low.”
“I miss your everything.”
She blinked back tears and forced herself to focus on the road. In the rearview mirror, she saw her youngest, Aaron, shift in his seat. Lowell turned his head to stare at the small boy who was the spitting image of himself.
“The boys need this, Jena. They need to be around family. Even my crazy people.”
“Don’t forget mine.”
“Them too. And our friends. And Joe and Allie’s kids. Ted and Ollie and everyone. They need to be in a place where they’re going to be understood. Where they won’t have to hide.”
“I’m afraid for them.”
He frowned. “Because of me? That’s not how it works; you know that.”
“Still… I worry.”
“You’re a mom. It’s part of your job.”
She sniffed. “Damn straight, it is.”
Lowell grinned again. “That’s my girl. You’ll watch them like a hawk.”
He took a deep breath, letting it out slowly as he stared straight ahead. “It’s the right move. The boys need to go to your mom and dad’s diner every day after school for a milkshake and help with their homework. They need to go fishing with my dad or pull weeds with my mom at the park while being lectured about native plant species and good manners. They need all that stuff. And you do, too.”
“I’m pretty well educated about good manners already, thanks.”
He laughed. “You know what I mean.”
“I do.” She swallowed the lump in her throat. “I’m going to end up working the grill at my dad’s diner.”
“You’ll class up the place.”
“It’s not exactly why I went to culinary school.”
“I don’t know. You liked Cartwright well enough. It’s about the same size as the Springs.”
“Nothing’s as small as the Springs. And Cartwright was a college town. It may have been small, but there were plenty of food snobs with disposable incomes to experiment on.”
He shifted again, and Jena had to pinch herself. There was no sound when his ghost moved except the expected whistle of the night wind at the window and the soft snoring of eight-year-old Low Jr. in the back seat.
“Well, now you’ll have truckers, farmers, and desert eccentrics to experiment on. The town could use a little shake-up. You’re just the woman to bring it. Your dad won’t bat an eye when you add duck confit hash to the breakfast menu. It’ll go great with a side of your mom’s gravy.”
Jena winced. “That’s wrong on so many levels, I’m not even going to respond.”
Lowell laughed, the rich, welcome sound echoing in the tightly packed car. He looked over his shoulder at the sleeping boys. He watched them silently for a few moments, then looked around the car before his brown eyes settled on Jena.
“I’m glad we spent the money on the Subaru. You’ll like the all wheel drive out in the desert and this thing will last a long time. Really safe, too.”
Jena looked over to meet his eyes when the road straightened out. A smile lingered on his lips and blond hair fell over his forehead. He looked the same. He looked better. Like he had when he was a vibrant young man, before the cancer had ravaged his body and stolen the light from his eyes.
Jena blinked away her tears, and he was gone. She looked into the rearview mirror at her five-year-old son. “What’s up?”
Aaron yawned, his round cheeks stretching as his arms reached out, whacking his older brother, who grunted and shifted away.
“I need to go potty. When do we get there?”
“Not for a while, Bear. But we’ll stop for a break, okay?”
Jena stared at the urn in the passenger seat for a moment before she turned her eyes back to the road and kept driving.