Swine Hill was full of the dead. Their ghosts were thickest near the abandoned downtown, where so many of the town’s hopes had died generation by generation. They lingered in the places that mattered to them, and people avoided those streets, locked those doors, stopped going in those rooms. But you might encounter a ghost unexpectedly?—?in the high school where Jane had graduated two years ago, curled into the hollow of a tree, hands out and pleading on the side of the road. They could hurt you. Worse, they could change you.
The haunted downtown of Swine Hill had been slowly expanding for years, stretching its long fingers into empty neighborhoods where grass fissured the roads and roofs collapsed into rooms of broken furniture and shattered glass. For the people who’d lived and died on those streets, it was anguish to see the vine-choked houses, to know their descendants had run away from all they’d worked for. Their spirits, most present in the stillness of night, raged in the empty places. Even if she was late for work, Jane knew to drive around those neighborhoods.
It was easy to feel alone. There were more dead than living in Swine Hill. Jane’s aunts and uncles had gone out of state after the collapse of the tire factory and the lumber mill. The town jealously cleaved to the pork-processing plant that had chewed up its sons for generations, hoping that in the end, it would be enough. Most people Jane’s age had already gone, scraping up enough money to start over somewhere else. The only ones left were those so poor that they couldn’t make it out, or so haunted they couldn’t see a world outside their ghosts, or just clinging to a past they couldn’t bear to leave behind. But Jane wasn’t alone. Her ghost flashed bright and quick through her mind.
Her car’s engine coughed as she turned the key, something sputtering under the hood like a laugh, and finally groaned to life. It accelerated slowly, heavy with the weight of spirits. The speedometer and gas gauge waved their orange arms erratically. Her windshield wipers often turned on without warning, and sometimes her horn would scream out of nowhere. She was happy the CD player still worked at all, though sometimes a ghost would settle into the discs, craving the bright sound of music, and then the stereo would play only noise.
Jane flipped open a case of burned CDs and put in one after another until she found one that played, throwing the dead ones onto a pile in her back seat. Music crashed out of the tinny speakers: sticky electronic pop, the lyrics full of secrets, gossip, and drama. The cold weight of her ghost swelled inside her, thrilling in the sound.
Though Jane didn’t know the ghost girl’s name, it had been a part of her ever since she was a child. It was nosy, listening in on other people’s thoughts and telling Jane what they were thinking and feeling. If the ghost didn’t have anyone else to listen to, it would burrow deep into Jane’s mind, unearthing her regrets and fears and making her fixate on them for hours. If it felt unappreciated, it might lie to her, withhold what it knew, or tell her the most vicious things people thought about her. But Jane had learned to manage it over the years, using music to placate it. The ghost had been her first friend, and now that she was still in Swine Hill after her classmates and family had gone away, Jane wondered if the ghost would be her last friend, too.
Something like fog rose as the sun slipped behind the trees. A chain of spirits so wispy and immaterial as to be little more than air, a mass of faces and trudging feet bleeding in and out of one another, drifted up the road to the Pig City meatpacking plant. These ghosts weren’t dangerous. They had somewhere to go, a purpose still. The plant that had employed them all their lives was older than the town, the only reason that Swine Hill hadn’t crumbled back into the earth. The ghosts were the unofficial night shift, still swirling through its rusted doors, crowding its blood-splattered hallways to do their phantom work.
Jane plowed through them like snow, their distorted faces stretching over the windshield. She turned in to the grocery store’s cratered parking lot, the sodium lights casting deep shadows at the building’s edges, the storefront murky yellow and cluttered with signs.
Near the front of the store, the specter of a man slowly spun up from the asphalt and took on substance. He lay on the ground, holding his stomach and bleeding, a phantom box of strawberries broken open on the ground beside him.