It’s been more than sixty years since that night, and she’s still sixteen, and she’s still running.
They have names for her all over the country: the Girl in the Diner. The Phantom Prom Date. The Girl in the Green Silk Gown. Mostly she just goes by “Rose,” a hitchhiking ghost girl with her thumb out and her eyes fixed on the horizon, trying to outrace a man who never sleeps, never stops, and never gives up on the idea of claiming what’s his. She’s the angel of the overpass, she’s the darling of the truck stops, and she’s going to figure out a way to win her freedom. After all, it’s not like it can kill her.
You can’t kill what’s already dead.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
And when the night hails down and you’re afraid
That you’ll never get what you’re owed,
Go and talk to the girl in the green silk gown
Who died on Sparrow Hill Road.
And when you see her face in the truck- stop light,
When the final cock has crowed,
Then you’ll go with the girl in the green silk gown
Who died on Sparrow Hill Road.
— excerpt from “The Ghost of Sparrow Hill Road,” author unknown.
There is nothing more human than the ghost story. Every culture in the world creates hauntings for itself, things that lurk in the shadows and wait for the unwary. Yet, at the same time, there are certain ghost stories and certain forms of haunting that seem to be quintessentially American. This leads us to the story of the Phantom Prom Date. Her story is considered an example of the Hitchhiking Ghost sub-type (see Appendix A for further details on the base legend), but has been expanded into a cautionary tale for teenagers about the dangers of driving recklessly. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Phantom Prom Date first began to walk the roads of America in the early 1950s, when concern for teen driving was at a national high.
The most interesting thing about this legend is that it presents a hitchhiking ghost with no specific geographical ties. Unlike Chicago’s White Mary or New Hampshire’s Lonely John, the Phantom Prom Date can be seen anywhere in North America, and has made appearances in locations as diverse as Florida, Ontario, and the Pacific Northwest. The only American state with no recorded sightings is Hawaii, which fits with the legend— how would a ghost whose only means of travel is the highway reach a state surrounded entirely by water?
The physical appearance of the Phantom Prom Date may also be relevant. One would expect a legend this far-ranging to present with a dozen different descriptions, but all recorded sightings have included the same details. She is in her mid-teens, with shoulder-length, light brown or dark blonde hair, Caucasian, attractive enough to be noticed without being strikingly beautiful, and wearing a green silk prom dress with matching dress flats. Neither the style of her hair nor the style of her dress changes from report to report; she seems to be caught in the era where she died, forever roaming the highways of America, forever looking for someone who can help her find the way home . . .
— On the Trail of the Phantom Prom Date, Professor Laura
Moorhead, University of Colorado.
The Dead Girl in the Diner
THERE’S THIS VOCABULARY WORD— “linear.” It means things that happen in a straight line, like highways and essays about what you did on your summer vacation. It means A comes before B, and B comes before C, all the way to the end of the alphabet, end of the road . . . end of the line. That’s linear.
The living are real fond of linear. The dead . . . not so much. It’s harder to make everything fall into a straight line when nothing begins until you die. The dead begin our “lives” as newborns with heads full of memories, and it can make even the most straightforward story a little difficult to follow. I’ll do my best.
My name is Rose Marshall. This is not a story about my life, although my life will occasionally intrude on the proceedings. It’s messy and unfortunate. It’s also unavoidable. Sorry about that. Only not really, because like I said, the dead aren’t all that invested in “linear,” and I’ve been dead for a long damn time.
I was born in 1936. The country was just starting to come out of the Great Depression. Skirts were tight, movies were big business, and everyone was trying to put their best foot forward. Of course, it wasn’t sunshine and roses for everybody. My parents were still tightening their belts and pulling up their bootlaces when little Rosie Marshall made the scene, just one more mouth to feed and one more untried heart to break. They wouldn’t be feeding me for long. Daddy split when I was eight years old. Me, I made it all the way to 1952, sixteen short years of chances and choices and opportunities. And then it was over.
I died on a hot summer night in my junior year of high school, driven off the road by a man who should never have been there. My body was battered almost past recognition by the accident. My spirit fared a little better, sweet sixteen for the rest of time, missing the warm coat of life’s embrace.
I was alive, and then I wasn’t. Someday, they’ll say the same thing about everyone. Someday, they’ll say the same thing about you.
There are a lot of names for people like me, the ones who can’t let go, even when the movie’s over and the credits finish rolling. Specter, haunt, phantom . . . and my personal favorite, the sweet and simple “ghost.” “Ghost” is a lot like “linear”: it’s a word that doesn’t fuck around pretending to be something it’s not. There are even a lot of names for me in specific, names that try to dance around the word “Rose.” I’m the phantom prom date, the woman at the diner, the girl in the green silk gown, and the walking girl of Route 42. But most of all, I’m the ghost of Sparrow Hill Road. Rosie Marshall. Just one more girl who raced and lost in the hand of the forest, the shade of the hill, on the hairpin curves of that damned deadly hill.
People call me a lot of things these days. You can call me Rose.
Now come with me.
The truck stop air has that magical twang that you only ever find in roadside dives that have had time to fully merge with their environment. It’s a mixture of baked asphalt, diesel fumes, hot exhaust, and hotter exhaustion. The smell of grease and lard- based piecrusts join the symphony as I get closer to the obligatory diner, the charmingly named FORK YOU GRILL. The smell of ashes and lilies runs under it all, cold and enticing as the grave, and I know that I am where I am supposed to be.
My fingers are cold. My fingers are always cold, and the coat I’m wearing is too thin to really warm them up. I got it from a twenty-something on his way to California to be a rock musician. He said it belonged to his little sister. From the smell of the perfume permanently bonded to the denim, she was only his little sister if his little sister was moonlighting as a prostitute. But who am I to judge? I traded the coat for a backseat quickie, and now my hands are cold no matter how far I shove them into my hooker’s-coat pockets, and I can taste the truck stop air. Being dead is one of those things that really teaches you how to be glad to be alive.
The distant drone of cars on the highway accompanies me across the parking lot, my shoes crunching on the glass and gravel. The sound of the jukebox slithers out to meet me as I open the diner door, Top 40 country hits with all the passion of a dead dog on the side of the highway. I keep on going. I’m not here for the music.
The air inside the diner is hot and dry and sweet with coffee and apple pie and the distant ghosts of greasy breakfasts past. Half a dozen truckers sit belly- up to the counter on stools twice the size of standard; this is a place that stays alive on the trucker trade, and isn’t ashamed of that reality. Another half- dozen patrons are sprinkled around the place, seated haphazardly at booths and tables. That tells me what the deal is even before I see the hand- written sign inviting me to “PLZ SEAT YOURSELF, B RIGHT WITH U.”
From the expressions of the folks who aren’t too tired to enjoy their food, the staff here cooks better than they spell. That’s for the best. Killing your customers with food poisoning isn’t a good way to stay in business.
There’s something not-quite-right about one of the truckers, a barrel-chested man with a neat little goatee and the hands of an artist. He has those artist’s hands wrapped tight around a coffee mug, stealing heat through the porcelain like a small child stealing cookies from the cookie jar. Most of the eyes in the diner skitter right off me, frightened mice catching the scent of a cat, but not him. He doesn’t look at me for long, but when he does, he sees me.
That, even more than the scent of ash and lilies lingering in the air around him, tells me he’s the one I’ve come here for; he’s the one that called me, made me give up a perfectly good westward ride to come to this middle-of-nowhere dive with nothing but the coat on my back and the frostbite on my fingers. I can’t save him, but I know him.
At least, I know his kind. He’s in the process of sliding into the space between two Americas. This one, where the air tastes like apple pie and the jukebox plays the Top 40, and a quieter, colder America, one where the kisses pretty girls sometimes give never taste of anything but empty rooms and broken promises. He’s falling into my America, and there’s not a damn thing to be done about it. It’s not the sort of trip that you recover from. If the scent around him were rosemary and sugary perfume, maybe, but ashes and lilies . . .
There’s nothing to be done. The record on the jukebox changes as I walk toward the counter. The Country Gentlemen, “Bringing Mary Home.”
I hate it when the inanimate pretends to have a sense of humor.
He looks up when I sit down, a flicker of interest showing in his eyes. They’re the color of sun- faded denim, all their darkness bleached out by the road. The blue-eyed boys have always been my weakness. I meet that brief look with a smile that’s more sincere than I intended, flashing white teeth between candy-apple-red lips.
It’s hard to dress for the truck stop circuit. Can’t be too wholesome or they’re afraid to even talk to you; there’s too much of a chance that you’re some sort of lure set out by the local cops. Sandra Dee doesn’t play with the long-haul boys. Neither does her evil twin: going too far the other way makes you look like you’re just another lot lizard, worth the price of a blow job, but not worth the cost of conversation. So here I am in flannel shirt under denim jacket over too-tight wife-beater tank top, faded jeans worn as thin as paper, hiking boots, and makeup that would verge on slutty if it wasn’t so inexpertly applied.
I know my audience. I’ve had a lot of time to study it.
“Hi,” I say, with a questioning lilt that blurs the remnants of my accent, blotting out the route signs that might lead back to my origins. “My name’s Rose. Do you, um, come here often?”
He looks my way again. His eyes are kind. That makes it a little easier. We’re about to get to know each other real well, and it’s better when their eyes are kind. “Let me stop you right there, honey. You’re way too young for me. Hell, you’re way too young to be out here at all. Don’t you have a home to go to?”
“Not for a long time.”
“I see.” Disapproval overtakes the kindness like the sun going down— but the disapproval isn’t directed at me, and that makes what has to happen next easier still. “When’s the last time you ate?”
This time I don’t have to force myself to smile. “Too long ago.” It’s the truth. I’m always hungry— one more consequence of being what I am— and I have to follow certain rules. If the living choose to feed me while I’m material, the food has flavor and substance. If I try to feed myself, it’s only air and ashes, like chewing on nothing.
“Would you mind if I bought you a burger?”
“Not at all.” I slide over a little on my stool, trying to make myself comfortable. “If you’re going to buy me a burger, can you tell me your name, maybe? I like to know who I’m thanking.”
“It’s Larry. Larry Vibber.”
“Pleased to meet you, Larry.”
“Pleased to meet you, too, Rose,” he says, and laughs as he waves for the waitress to come over to our little stretch of counter. I’d feel guilty, if I had anything to feel guilty about. There are worse ways to spend your last night on Earth than buying dinner for a stranger in a diner, and if I wasn’t here, he’d be spending this time alone.
The burger tastes like Heaven on a sesame seed bun, assuming that Heaven comes with ketchup and raw onions. If Larry wonders why I ask him to pass me the condiments before I dump them on, he doesn’t say anything about it. The coffee is even better than the burger, and the apple pie is so damn good I could cry. The living don’t know how lucky they are.
Larry finishes his food well before I do. After that, he just watches me demolishing my meal, until I’m chasing crumbs with the tip of my index finger and wishing I’d thought to chew a little slower. I wish that every time. I never do it.
Then Larry clears his throat, and I turn to look at him again. He smiles, weakly. “I was thinking, Rose . . .”
“A girl your age shouldn’t be alone in a place like this. Now, I know you don’t have much reason to trust me, and I’ll understand if you don’t think it’s a good idea, but I’m rolling for Detroit tonight. I’d be happy to take you along, get you to a place where maybe . . . you could find somewhere to stay.”
Oh, Larry. He won’t be getting anywhere near Detroit tonight. I know that, I’ve known it since I saw him across the diner, but that doesn’t matter, because this is what happens; this is what I came here for. I push my plate away, and if he sees that my smile is painted on over sorrow, he’s polite enough not to say anything. He’s trying to help. Most truckers are essentially good people, living one of the few vagabond lifestyles that’s survived into this changing world, where it gets harder every year to keep from putting down roots. They help each other when they can, and they like to be seen as shining knights riding dragons instead of snow- white chargers.
“Thank you.” I tug my borrowed coat tighter, smelling old perfume, old sex, old lies. My lies are some of the oldest of them all, but I tell them for the very best of reasons. “I’d really appreciate a ride.” Rides are what I don’t live for, after all.
The waitress who takes Larry’s money looks at me a little too hard, a little too intently. She knows me. She’s deep enough into the twilight Americas to know me, but she’s still in the shallows. She’s still too close to the daylight layers to understand why she knows, or what, exactly, it is that she’s seeing. I flash her a smile. She steps backward, counts Larry’s change wrong twice, and finally— once she has the register closed again— flees into the back.
She won’t be here much longer. She’ll go back to the daylight, leave this blacktop twilight to the people who can breathe its air and not worry about suffocating. That’s good. People like her should get out while they still can, to make up for all the people who never get the chance.
Then Larry leads me out of the diner, out into the night, and the waitress doesn’t matter anymore. We’re on the road again, and there’s nothing that can save us now.
What People are Saying About This
"Seanan McGuire doesn't write stories, she gifts us with Myth—new Myths for a layered America that guide us off the twilight roads and lend us a pretty little dead girl to show us the way home." —Tanya Huff
"McGuire is a writer to be reckoned with, landing stone-cold emotional blows in quick succession while simultaneously stringing laugh-out-loud moments alongside lush descriptions, knife-sharp badinage and quickfire action sequences." —Strange Horizons
"McGuire applies a hard-boiled mentality and a keen appreciation for mythology to a blend of politics, magic, and romance." —Publishers Weekly
"Hitchhiking ghosts, the unquiet dead, the gods of the old American roads—McGuire enters the company of Lindskold and Gaiman with this book, creating a wistful, funny, fascinating new mythology of diners, corn fields, and proms in this all-in-one-sitting read!" —Tamora Pierce