Caftan Fran winks at me again from her seat at the organ, little dribbles of hot chocolate forming a mustache over her mustache. It’s deep February and the prairie winds blow thunderous sighs against the creaky wooden door of St. Drogo’s Coffee. Sounds like a thin cover for cocaine smugglers, but the stroller crowd finds it charming and the college students get sick of that rusty sludge in the cafeteria, so here we are. Used to be folks came for Sunday worship, but nowadays it’s lattes and acoustic nonsense. I put up with it because it’s just a block from the old folks' home, practically my living room. And lately I’ve been getting winks.
Some say she’s a benevolent ghost, a bra-burning, blunt-smoking Vietnam protester who took a bad trip and couldn’t pick herself back up. Then there are the whispers that she’s that one vicar’s wife who ran away with the citrus importer, or was it the fella who managed the grocer’s? Memory’s going these days. They say he dragged her back to Dodge and kept her under lock and key in the sacristy until one day they both just disappeared. About that time the caffeine peddlers moved in.
The town’s official position is that she’s a rumor.
The town’s official position is that she’s a rumor. It’s been looked into. No Frans, Frannies, Franceses, Francines, or any other variant on all the deceased or missing persons reports from any era when the caftan would have been remotely fashionable. If it’s even a caftan. If her name is even Fran.
I take another pull of my lukewarm breakfast blend and it's so weak it feels like I’m drinking water. It goes right through me, nothing. So hard to stay awake and focus in these liminal late winter mornings when even the sun is phoning it in. Do the kids still say that? My grandkids haven’t answered the phone in months, entitled pricks.
I’ve been seeing her for weeks, but it’s only the past couple days she’s paid me any mind. Sly like, never obvious. At first she was just a speck in the corner of my right eye, swirling around my day, following me, gone the second I tried to fix her. Next thing I know she’s popping up in the scenery, blending in like she belongs. And now here we sit, face to face, a man and a woman in a coffee shop. Meetin’ cute.
A couple of guys at the home said she lured them to the cornfields at the edge of town spitting sugary promises between her few good teeth and sneaking peeks at their pleated bulges.
A couple of guys at the home said she lured them to the cornfields at the edge of town spitting sugary promises between her few good teeth and sneaking peeks at their pleated bulges. Those same fogies would come back panting in the night, leaning hard on their walkers and crying wolf something about that witch bringing a rusty Fiestaware blade to their shriveled okra. I ain’t scared.
She must know I’m thinking about her because she looks up at me again, adjusting her tumbleweed of bristly gray back behind one ear, all ladylike. I meet her gaze this time, working up the courage to scoot her way. None of these youngsters here even notice us crumpled fossils, busy with their phones and papers. I clear my throat to let her know I got something to say but the sound catches in my chest and I don’t even croak. Maybe I look funny because she seems to get the hint and sets her cup down.
None of these youngsters here even notice us crumpled fossils.
Fran swivels to face me, pulling her robe up a skosh to side her bone-white legs a little more in my direction, at once graceful and lurching. She winks again with that pretty eye of hers, pearly blue with cataracts. And then she straightens up taut, a black cat stretching, locks my eyes in a stare as cold as the icy dusk, and clamps one hand on each of her knees, veins popping like talons. A silky, pale tongue darts across her earth-stained lips and a devilish smile breaks from those hollow cheeks.
She spreads her legs in a violent jerk, caftan hiked to high heaven, and I’m a man as any other and I can't help but stare, except there’s nothing in the cradle but dark―deep, thick, sooty like a stain that blooms over my whole field of vision and it’s so black, the kind of dark you only get way out beyond town on moonless nights, but even then you got the stars to show you what it is. This is nothing.
I’m a man as any other and I can't help but stare, except there’s nothing in the cradle but dark . . .
No twinkle, only the world collapsing on itself in inky shadow, the vacuum of what could have been, the intense, painful presence of absence and I feel my whole mind inhale sharply. My focus narrows and narrows to a tiny pinprick and the pressure is so big and so vast and I’m gone.
They find my body after five days―home, tucked into bed, stinking up the joint. The neighbors would’ve noticed earlier but they haven’t been able to smell since the chemical spill in '73. It’s their daughter who calls it in during her weekend visit. Her name is Francesca. Natural causes. A vacancy at the retirement home. A dirge on the organ.
Elsewhere, a floater in the eye.
Amanda Walwood lives in Minneapolis. She rents her talents to nonprofits during the day and then writes weird ass stories and poems during the witching hours. This is her first publication.
Illustrated by Carson McNamara.