By Lenore Butcher
2015 Winner: Young Adult
The night before she saw the Burning Man for the first time, Tory went on her fourth date with the baddest boy from Karn Avenue and she saw her first ghost. Thinking back on it much later, after she’d gone through everything else, she couldn’t sort out if the two were related or not.
The date was at a local restaurant, a little place calling itself a ‘bistro’ that used to be a dance bar. Before it was a dance bar, it had been an upscale restaurant and before that it had been a heritage landmark, the former dwelling of one of the town’s upper muckity mucks.
It was definitely not the kind of place you’d expect to see the local drug dealer and her biker boyfriend. Tory loved shaking up the straights, going places she knew they didn’t want her.
The bad boy’s name was Kiel and he had a motorcycle, long hair and an earring. They’d met at a party way out in the sticks, somewhere around Drumbo on some dude’s farm. Their host had gotten really piked on meth and ended up face down in horse shit, calling it pudding. His neighbours had called the cops, everyone else had taken off into the bush and she’d gotten a ride back to town with Kiel.
So now she was sitting with Kiel, watching him toy with his long shaggy dark hair as he read the menu, glorying in the surreptitious side glances she was getting from the restaurant’s other inhabitants.
“What looks good?” he asked her. “I don’t think we can get served alcohol here, do you?”
She shook her head. “Doubt it.” The snotty little waitress who’d flung their menus at them before retreating to her safe zone behind the dessert bar knew Tory from high school. They had math together and she’d know Tory wasn’t twenty, no matter what her fake ID said. Tory couldn’t think of the snotty girl’s name. It was a V name… Violet… Viola… Vagina… Virgin… She watched as the girl fumbled her phone out of her pants pocket and began furiously texting, no doubt apprising her besties about her encounter with the punks at the bistro.
“Doesn’t matter,” she added, “I have beer back at my place if you want to come over after the movie,” she offered.
He gasped in mock dismay. “On a school night? Oh, Tory Matthews, you naughty girl!”
She giggled, shaking her head at him. Kiel was the coolest boyfriend ever. He was older and he had that motorcycle. A Harley, a real one, not some stupid piece of shit jacked up crotch rocket like most of the boys she knew rode.
She looked down at her menu, then up again, and that was when she saw the ghost.
The ghost was sitting on the steps leading up to the little fireside lounge that dominated the left hand side of the room. Tory was reasonably sure it was a ghost the moment she saw it, or rather her. It was a young woman, maybe a year or two older than Tory and definitely a ghost. The first clue was the woman’s dress, it wasn’t from this year or even this century. There was also a vagueness to her, her outline was almost blurry, like if Tory hadn’t seen her at just the right angle she wouldn’t have been visible at all.
One of the restaurant patrons stepped down and through the ghost and that clinched it for Tory. She was seeing an actual ghost. Only Tory and nobody else could see her, apparently, since nobody else seemed to be reacting to her appearance.
The woman just sat quietly for a few more minutes, as long as Tory was staring at her, and then she just seemed to fade away.
Tory shook her head, realized Kiel had said something and she looked at him.
“Did you say something?”
“Were you daydreaming? Thinking about my hot body again?”
She giggled, reached up to play with a lank of her long dark brown hair. “Don’t flatter yourself,” she said archly, “I was just hoping you wouldn’t order anything with cheese tonight. You know how gassy it makes you.”
“And for that, I’m going to have this ultimate cheeseburger.” He pointed it out on the menu. “And those cheesy fries, and maybe some cheesecake for dessert.”
“Would you like a cheese milk shake with that?” she added with a teasing grin.
“They don’t have anything like that,” he answered her, “Although just think of how awesome a cheese milkshake would be…”
“Um. Not,” was her answer.
“And what will you have?” he asked her in a mincing little voice. “A salad and a glass of water and one single dry breadstick?”
“I’m thinking steak, baked potato with sour cream and bacon actually.”
“That’s my girl.” He folded his menu up and set it aside with hers.
Their waitress looked over at them and then returned to texting, her fingers flying over the keys of her iPhone. Kiel cleared his throat, softly once, then more ostentatiously when she didn’t move towards them. She looked down, pretending to not have noticed.
“Oh for…” Kiel snapped his fingers. “Hey, Lulu Lemonhead…. We need service here please and thank you.”
With a sullen eye roll she shuffled reluctantly across the room to take their order. Tory was still stuck on her name. It wasn’t a V, but there was a V in it… Yvette… Yvonne… Ivanka… No, none of them were right either. It was starting to drive Tory a little crazy trying to figure it out.
“Yeah?” the waitress asked, her pad and pen still in the pocket of her apron.
“You’re probably going to want to write this down,” Kiel prompted. “So, you know, it’ll be right.”
A silent battle of wills ensued where she stood stolidly staring at him and Kiel looked back up at her, his dark eyes unfathomable, his expression implacable.
Another eye roll accompanied her finally pulling out her pad and pen.
“What wouldja like?” she said, her hip canting to the side as she shifted her weight from one foot to the other.
“Well I will have your delicious cheese burger supreme, and I would like cheese on my fries. My charming dining companion will have the steak and baked potato with sour cream and bacon.”
She scrawled it all down. “And to drink?”
“I suppose beer is out of the question?” His proposal was met with stony silence. “Oh well then, I guess a milk shake for me and… what do you want to drink, Tory?”
“Ummm I guess a ginger ale…” She was coming down off a bit of an oxy buzz and she didn’t want heavy caffeine to interfere with her mellow. Even the ginger ale might be too much for her to stomach because of the sweetness but she just didn’t like diet drinks. Putting chemicals like aspartame into your body was just too much for it. It wasn’t natural.
Their waitress trudged her way into the kitchen to put their order in.
“Do you think we should eat it when it comes?” Tory asked him. “She might get the chef to put something in it…”
“Well then we can call it our very own version of Russian Roulette,” he grinned. “Hey, do you want to hear a joke?”
“Why did Sally fall off the swing?”
“She didn’t have any arms.”
Tory didn’t laugh at it and neither did he. Kiel was looking at her with the patient expression of someone who knew she’d eventually get it. She didn’t, and she waited for him to explain it.
Instead he followed up with, “Knock knock.”
On more familiar territory, she immediately responded with, “Who’s there?”
He grinned broadly. “Not Sally!”
It made her let out a surprised laugh that was more a snort and that made him laugh harder, so the two of them disturbed the restaurant with their mingled snorts and laughs.
The waitress appeared, dropped their drinks in front of them. Ginger ale sloshed out of Tory’s glass but there was no apology and no offer of extra napkins to sop up the mess. She stormed away from their table without any word to either of them.
“How long do you think our food is going to be?” Tory asked him.
“I think awhile. This place is known for its’ freshness,” he answered.
“To say nothing of the vivacious staff,” she commented, “So very helpful.”
“Yes,” he agreed. “I was utterly charmed. I think a special tip will be in order for our server.”
“I would just make sure your change is right,” she advised him. “I know her from math class.” Tory was in remedial math, a basic course designed for those who weren’t destined for future higher education. She had a part time job in a machine shop that she was hoping to parlay into an apprenticeship when she finished grade twelve.
“Duly noted,” he nodded. “We do have some time before the movie, so I think we’re okay on that score, if that’s what you’re worried about. Being late for the movie, I mean.”
“No, not that.” She looked over at the steps. The ghost was back, still just sitting there and Tory took a closer look at her.
She wasn’t very old, perhaps a year or two older than Tory and she wore a dress that cinched in at her waist with very long voluminous skirts. She held a shawl wrapped around her upper body and she was leaning against the railing of the steps, her eyes half closed, obviously not seeing the world around her. Tory wondered what the ghost saw from her side, and why she was still here.
“This place has quite a history,” Kiel remarked. “Do you know what it was before?”
“Dance bar for dumb rich kids,” Tory shrugged. “My mom used to make a lot of money here on Saturday nights selling…” She didn’t elaborate. Kiel knew about her family and he didn’t judge either her or her mother for what they’d done to get by, to keep the lights on and food in their bellies. It was just the two of them. Tory never met her dad. He was long gone before Tory was even born and it had been just Tory and her mom ever since. So if Renee Matthews had made money selling a bit of dope, a bit of meth… or her own body just to feed herself and her child, Kiel wasn’t about to condemn her for it.
“No I meant before that,” he said.
She thought. “It used to be some kind of fancy restaurant,” she said, “But that would have been way before you moved here. Didn’t you say you only moved here like two years ago?”
“Three, actually,” he corrected her, “And yes you’re right, the restaurant was way before my time, but I’m kind of a history buff about places. I like to read up on where I’m living, know what kind of people were there before me. And long before this was anything commercial, it was the home of a very rich man who did very nasty things to his servants. It’s rumoured that those servants have cursed this place and no business here will ever succeed. It’s supposedly the most haunted place in Oxford County. I heard the fact that it’s so haunted is even on the deed to this place.”
“Well if this place goes under, it won’t be because of the ghosts, it’ll be the snotty waitresses that take it out,” Tory ventured, wondering why he’d brought her here and why he’d started talking about ghosts – just at the same moment when she’d seen one.
“That too,” he said. “But you have to admit, it’s actually a really nice restaurant.”
“Oh it is,” she agreed, “Maybe we can come some other night… when the staff are feeling more congenial…”
She didn’t think that would ever happen. She was used to it. Neither she nor Kiel were what you’d call an ‘ad for the Gap’. They both wore blue jeans and Kiel had his leather chaps over his, as well as a black leather vest over his plain white t-shirt. She was wearing a plain black t-shirt, but she knew her facial piercing and multiple ear piercings were quite often causes for alarm with typical folk.
“Ahh, here we are,” Kiel greeted the reappearance of their waitress. She held a plate in each hand and set each one down in turn with a thump.
Tory was glad to see both their meals appeared to be as they’d been ordered and neither had been ‘added’ to in any way that was obvious.
The waitress didn’t check to see if they needed anything else, and fled to her safe spot on the other side of the dining room before either of them could ask for anything. With mutual shrugs, they both dove into their meals.
“How is it?” he asked her when he came up for air after devouring half of his cheeseburger.
“It’s great,” she answered him, “And yours?”
“Really good. We’ll have to come back another time. Maybe you could put on your prettiest pinafore and I could wear my top hat and ascot,” he joked.
“Fuck’em,” she concluded bluntly, “They have to take us as we are.”
“Love your spirit,” he grinned, “Yes, fuck’em all. But not our waitress. I don’t dig corpses, baby.”
Kiel made her giggle so much she almost felt as though ginger ale would come out of her nose. She didn’t want that, so she reined it in.
The second she took her last bite of steak the waitress was back to their table. Mavis, she remembered. The waitress was Mavis. Stupid name for a stupid girl. Why didn’t the restaurant make them wear name tags? It would have been easier for Tory than struggling all meal to try to remember the name of a girl she didn’t even like.
“You want your bill?” Mavis said. It was the most words she’d said to them all night long.
“I think we’d like to hear about your desserts actually,” Kiel said, folding his hands on the table and looking up at her. He was being overly polite and well-mannered, but Tory could tell from the dancing light in his eyes he was having one over on poor stupid Mavis.
“We’re out,” she mumbled.
“Of all of them?” he asked in astonishment. He pointed to the dessert display case, which was apparently Mavis’ favourite hiding spot. Three cakes were all prominently displayed under a sign that read “Tonight’s special desserts”.
“Even those?” he asked incredulously.
“Yeah.” She tore off the bill and threw it down. “Pay on your way out.”
Before he could say anything else, she was gone down the hall toward the kitchen. Tory heard her calling out to someone named ‘Judy’ and telling her to “cash out my table, I’m going for a smoke”.
Kiel looked down at the bill, shook his head and groaned.
“She made a mistake, didn’t she?” Tory asked.
He nodded. “Yeah.”
She tried to avoid sounding overly smug. “Told ya.”
A new waitress came out of the back room, smoothing down her black apron. Her smile and her step faltered only slightly when she saw Tory and Kiel, but by the time she got to their table, she had her professional face on. This other waitress was markedly older than Mavis. Since she was an adult, she obviously didn’t know Tory’s reputation from school.
“Can I help you?” she asked. “I believe it’s Mavis’ break time. Were you ready to pay?”
“We had originally wanted dessert,” Kiel answered her, “But now it’s getting late, so the Countess and I have to get going. We have reservations for the opera you know.”
The woman stared at him, obviously not sure how to take his sense of humour. Tory stepped in.
“It’s fine, we have to get going anyhow, but I think there’s a problem with our bill if you could just check…” She handed it to the waitress who seemed to be mentally adding it up, then she frowned.
“I’m sorry. You are correct, the bill is added wrong… I’ll take ten percent off. Would that be satisfactory?”
Kiel nodded reluctantly. “I suppose…”
They paid exactly what was on the bill after the total was adjusted in their favour.
“If I was a different kind of dude, I’d give her a big tip to teach her a life lesson about not taking things at face value and being able to see what’s underneath,” Kiel commented to Tory as they left the restaurant. “But tonight I don’t feel like that kind of dude. In fact, is it a bit wrong that I overheard Judy saying that chick’s pay is going to be short to make up for making the mistake with her bill and I’m kind of happy about it? Do you think that makes me a bad person?”
“Nah, I don’t think so,” she answered him, taking her helmet from his hand as he held it out to her. “She’s a cow. She deserves it.”
“Agreed.” He strapped on his helmet. They might sell some pills now and then, and Tory might be guilty of underage drinking, but they weren’t going to get caught breaking helmet laws!
He climbed onto his motorcycle and she swung up behind him, snuggling in close, her chest pressing against his back, her arms wrapping around his waist. She loved this part of their date nights – rocketing through town on the back of his bike, the wind in her face, his hard body pressing against hers. It was intoxicating, almost better than anything she ever got from beer or oxy.
They roared through town on the bike, the heavy motor yowling like an angry tiger, letting people know they were on the move.
He pulled off on a side street before they got to the theatre. He cut the engine back to an idle, his heels coming down to rest on the pavement, straddling and balancing the bike with his long legs. He half turned to face her, his hand coming up to push his helmet visor up so he could speak to her.
“Hey, you wanna blow off the movie and head to your place instead?” he asked. “Did you really want to see the movie?”
She shook her head. “Not really. It sounded kind of lame. I only wanted to go because you wanted to go.”
“Well maybe I don’t wanna go now,” he hedged. “Maybe I wanna go home and be with you.”
Shit like that made her feel all warm and fuzzy inside, like what they had was the real thing – the kind of thing girls like her didn’t usually find in towns like Woodstock.
She decided to play it coy. “That would be cool too,” she said, “You know, whatever you want. Renee won’t be home for hours.” Tory hadn’t called her mother ‘Mom’ since she was eight years old.
He turned more towards her, so his gaze met hers squarely, honestly.
“I want to be alone with you,” he said directly.
She grinned. “Then let’s go,” she said.
About this story
This was my second year at the Muskoka Novel Marathon and my only win — so far! This was an odd one – I’d spent the better part of the year planning and researching one novel, as I usually do for the Marathon, only to have this one suddenly come to me the week before the marathon.