"Why would you of all people be cursed with visions of your uncle hanging himself?" Kara mused, dragging her fork through a pile of hash browns, mixing the over-easy egg yolks with the crispy, golden potatoes. "No offense, but you don't seem like the usual suspect for a haunting
"Who would be?" muttered Duke. He twisted his paper napkin into an even smaller shred, and twisted that shred into two shreds, adding to the growing pile next to his untouched grits.
Pancake World, established 1937, smelled like syrup and melted butter. The walls were lined with faded but carefully framed trimmings from the local newspaper. Giant, shining pancakes orbited overhead, spinning slowly to the crooners crackling over the speaker. No one, apparently, had thought to renovate Pancake World since the diner first opened during the Gershwins' prime. Only the prices changed over time— a sign behind the register (cash only, no cards, no exceptions) showed that the Big Boy Stack started at 15 cents back in the day. Green Jello Salad, originally 5 cents, would now put you out $2.50. I wondered how many time someone had ordered it in the last six weeks.
"I know he hung himself. It's relatively new knowledge, but someone," I gave Duke a nod, "helped me draw conclusions."
"How well did you know your uncle?" Kara asked.
"Not very. I only met him one or two times."
"Well, we need to find out why he killed himself," she declared. "What have you found out?"
"Kara, I have found out that his death wasn't a farm accident. This is a recent development for me. I can't exactly go home and ask my aunt what happened."
Kara rolled her eyes. "Yes, that would not be a good lead to pursue. Why don't you phone home and ask your mom or dad? Whose side is it again? This doesn't have to be an impossible task."
"Mom," Duke and I answered in unison. Kara nodded then refocused her attention on her potatoes. In all fairness, Pancake World did a great job with greasy breakfast food. I speared a square of fluffy waffle with my fork and dunked it in brown sugar syrup. The warm concoction melted in my mouth. I smiled softly at the sensation.
"I wonder what the point is," Kara interrupted my reverie.
"What do you mean?" Duke asked. Instead of explaining herself, Kara's eyes widened and her shoulders hunched forward over her plate.
"Shit, Max is here!" she hissed.
I turned my head. "Who?"
"I don't even know who you're talking about!" I whispered back. "Why are we whispering?"
"God, he's going to come over here if he sees me! Switch." Kara slid out of her seat and grabbed Duke's arm, wrenching him out of the seat next to me. I was begrudgingly impressed with her strength. Duke was no slight man.
"What's your deal with him? Did you date in high school?"
Kara curled her upper lip. "Absolutely not. I beat him out for valedictorian and he literally will not forget it. He loves to come talk to me about how amazing Princeton is and how great his professors are and how sad he is that I didn't get in. It makes me gag."
"You didn't even apply, though," Duke pointed out. I wondered if Kara's family wasn't as wealthy as they'd seemed. Her house was grand, but I supposed some families had to choose between an impressive degree and impressive real estate.
"Oh, that didn't matter to Max. He grasps at achievements to hold over my head. He's been sour grapes ever since we beat him in the three-legged race in first grade."
Duke shook his head. "No, he's-
"Why didn't you apply to Princeton?" I interjected, turning to Kara.
"University of Kentucky gave me a good scholarship," she said. "I'm not a math major, but I know a good return on investment when I see one."
"What do you think you'll major in?"
"Chemistry," she said. "They have a respectable enough program."
I raised my eyebrows. "Science girl?"
"Chemical engineer," she corrected. "And you? Business school, I suppose?"
"So you are a business girl."
I faltered. "We'll see."
Kara shrugged. I felt curiously disappointed in myself for living up to her expectations. Predictability was so very gauche.
"How's your head feeling?" Duke asked me.
"It smarts, but I'll live. No thanks to our darling companion here."
"I can see a little bruise coming in on your forehead." He reached out across the table and motioned as though he were going to touch the mark. I beat him to it.
I gently pressed to the area and grimaced. The flesh was tender under my touch.
"Do you need ice?"
I rolled my eyes. "What I needed was a knight in shining armor to pay attention and step in when a woman took up arms against me."
"I thought you said you could take care of yourself."
"Yeah, if I'm carrying groceries. Not when she's," I nodded at Kara bitterly, "coming at me with a two-by-four."
Duke grinned at her. "You've got a good arm."
I glowered. Kara was hardly paying attention to our banter. Her brows furrowed as though she were trying to divine a solution to a very difficult problem.
"Can you hear the whispers?" she asked. "I mean, can you understand what they're saying?"
I shook my head. "Not much at all. The only words I've picked out are 'Listen,' and 'Curious.' Other than that, I get the feeling that they're trying to tell me something but I can't make out what it is."
"So they're trying to tell you something."
"Yes, but I'm not sure if it's benevolent or not. It's just static, but it's urgent. It doesn't sound angry, but it's all panic. I can't tell if it's warning me about something or if it wants to drive me to the edge."
Kara leaned back in her seat, sighed, and rubbed her hand up the side of her neck. Across from me, Duke stared into his plate. He'd been swirling around the mix of melted butter and syrup with his fork, but now his fork lay still and his hand clenched white.
"Not to be the bearer of bad news, but I feel like this night has been massively unsuccessful," I finally announced, firmly placing my cheap silverware on the table.
"Well, we found out your barn is most definitely haunted," Kara huffed.
"I feel like we told you that coming in. And I thought you were supposed to supply some sort of voodoo protection!" I crossed my arms in indignation. "Remind me again why you're here?"
"Oh my god, I don't know voodoo!"
"You're grandmother is, like, the voodoo queen of Clay County," I retorted. "You have to know some voodoo."
"It's not—it's not voodoo. It's like… a craft, or something. I know some of it, like the mixes of herbs, and certain phrases you say, and what it means when a bird flies overhead. But it's not real." Kara buried her face in her hands and groaned. "It's made-up. It's just some weird stuff Granny does. We ignore it and everyone ignores it and no one cares."
"Kara. It's real," Duke said. "I know you had your doubts at first, but you've seen enough."
I huffed. "Doubts? So you didn't believe me?"
"Tegan, seriously? I don't think anyone reasonable would believe you without some evidence," he insisted.
"Oh, so you didn't believe me either?"
"I believed you when you told me because it explained why you'd been acting like an insane person!" he cried. "You had, like, four episodes in front of me before you admitted you were seeing your dead uncle."
"I am not insane."
Kara slammed her palms on the table, startling us both. "Stop. Y'all are both insane because y'all are talking very loudly about dead people in a public place," she hissed, looking around. We'd attracted the attention of an elderly couple, and a 30-something dark-haired man wearing a worn jean shirt. We locked eyes across the room. He looked familiar, but I couldn't place where I'd seen him before.
"Who is that guy in the jean shirt?" I asked, nodding toward his table.
"That's John Manderly. He's your aunt's farmhand," Duke informed me. "You've been with me when I've said hi to him."
Kara scoffed. "Seriously, Tegan? Do you even spend time outside on your own property?"
"I do," I retorted, my face burning.
Duke and Kara stared at me.
"Well, not a lot," I admitted. "It's clearly unsafe."
Kara cleared her throat. "Yes. Well, there's clearly no plan in place here."
"Plan for what?" I asked.
"For literally anything. Y'all have all these ideas, but ideas are not plans. Y'all met my grandmother, figured out she seemed legit, then dragged me along on your ghost adventure with no set expectations about what was going to happen or what I was supposed to be there to do."
"Duke's idea, not mine."
"If you spent half the time problem-solving that you do mouthing off to someone, you might not have a ghost problem anymore."
"Well what's your bright idea?"
"My bright idea is that we're going to make a plan."
"And what's that?"
"I'm going to go home and talk to Granny about what y'all have been getting up to, then y'all are going to come over for tea on Wednesday and we'll have a plan."
"But it's Friday! What am I supposed to do until next Wednesday?"
"I'm busy this weekend," Kara shrugged. "I suggest you don't go back to the barn."