For Vera, the transition from seeing a ghost to becoming one began subtly, like the first leaf sailing down to her sunny marigolds in September. It was not terrifying, because the ghost was so beautifully dressed. In a rusty-rose, tweed jacket with a peplum, a full skirt, straw hat and big, pearl earrings, she reminded Vera of her Auntie Jane, who had died when Vera was 12. As she faded, Vera detected the nocturnal smell of moonflowers — which grew, long ago, in Auntie Jane’s garden but never in Vera’s. Although pleasant, this encounter was jarring for Vera because she knew something about death. She had watched her father slowly pass away at St. Otto’s Nursing Home. She remembered him gazing past her and conversing with numerous invisible people, sometimes her recently departed mother and sometimes strangers. “Don’t lean back!” he had once warned her, laughing, with an amazed expression on his face. “There’s a man with a long white moustache right behind you and, look out, you are almost in his lap.” The nurse-practitioner’s theory — that chemicals flooding his brain were likely causing hallucinations — was more than offset by the observations of daily attendants who whispered that it was not uncommon for dying patients to have visitors from the other side. So Vera interpreted this visit as a friendly warning of her own demise. Well, at least I have time to prepare, she figured.
At breakfast the next morning, Vera perused the local newspaper for Driscoll’s Department Store advertisements. She had regrets about the suit her father was laid out in. No one could find the navy blue business suit he had worn to work on Madison Avenue, nor the one he had danced in, after retirement, aboard the QE2. So they selected the one he had worn to his wife’s funeral, which they found in his closet, still fresh from the cleaners, sadly waiting for the next grim affair. Vera swore she would go out in style and, luckily for her, Driscoll’s was having a sale.
A dress on page two caught her eye. It was a green, botanical print with long sleeves. “Fetch your leash, Toby,” she commanded her brown, miniature dachshund. “We are going shopping.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Maddie from Misses hurried across the parking lot to punch in at Driscoll’s.
The Misses’ Fitting Rooms were already full. Women with armloads of autumn dresses and recently marked down pants and blouses stood in line, waiting to get in; husbands yawned on couches; howling toddlers tried to jiggle free from strollers. All the while, Maddie’s friend, Olivia, merrily chatted with the shoppers as she hung up clothing.
“Hey, Maddie,” her voice sang out above the din.
“What’s up, Liv? You look great today,” said Maddie. And she meant it. Olivia, in her leaner days, could have been a model, with her stature, lush lashes, and long-layered hair, and simple outfits accessorized with eye-catching jewelry.
“Thanks. So do you,” she said, but Maddie was not convinced. With her wiry, red hair, square chin, and craft-loving hands, she never felt movie-star-beautiful.
“Excuse me, do you work here?” asked a shopper with a brittle voice, iridescent, white hair, and designer eyeglasses. A dachshund wearing a harness perked up in her shopping cart.
“How adorable! Look, Liv! What is his name?”
“Toby,” she said, proudly. “I take him everywhere.”
“May I help you?” asked Maddie.
“Yes, please. Can you tell me where to find this?” she said, pointing to a dress in a Driscoll’s ad.
Maddie recognized it immediately because it was one she had planned to buy herself the next day, when a special sale for associates was starting. She loved the silky fabric with little teal vines unfurling on a jade background. She had one hidden, tagged with her name, behind the folding table in the Fitting Room.
“Sure … follow me,” said Maddie, leading the customer to the new line of autumn dresses. As they meandered in and around the sportswear, Vera explained why finding that particular dress was important to her.
“I am going to be the guest of honor at a big party, with all of my friends and relatives, so I need something special to wear.”
“A milestone?” Maddie guessed it might be her 75th birthday.
“Yes,” said Vera, thinking more like a gravestone.
Looking through the dresses, Maddie asked, “What size do you wear?”
Same as me, thought Maddie, checking the tags disingenuously. She knew that the one she had stashed away was the only size-extra-small, botanical-print dress they had in the store.
“I think we’re plumb out of luck. Sorry. Want to try small?” Maddie asked. “Or maybe another color? We have an extra-small in aubergine … ”
“No. Thank you anyway,” said Vera, wheeling her cart, with Toby in it, around toward the back of the store.
Marisol, who was folding jeans on a table nearby, sniped, “They expect us to be personal shoppers!”
“They do,” said Maddie, tackling a heap of long-sleeve t-shirts on the other side, sorting them by color, folding and laying them one exactly on top of the other.
“People are pigs,” said Marisol, jingling bracelets as she twisted her long, black hair up into a knot. Meanwhile, Olivia pushed two z-rails full of clothing out into the aisles.
“Crystal wants you to run these now,” she said, meaning they had to hang everything where it belonged. Crystal, the assistant manager, had a strong build, a powerful laugh, and a glare that could make anyone’s stomach churn.
Marisol looked at the rails and sighed.
“At least we’re burning calories,” said Maddie. Shoulders aching, she grabbed one of the z-rails and pushed it down toward Misses, opposite Seasonal, where Christmas decorations were already encroaching on Halloween. A few children were playing with the interactive items — the display models of a light-up jack-o-lantern and a light-up haunted house; and a device for previewing holiday music CDs.
Maddie hung a few blouses in Clearance, where she spotted Vera and her dog a second time. Her cart was now brimming with Housewares sale items. Four cherry bath towels, a wicker bread basket, and two sunflower pillows were piled around Toby. A wind chime dangled from the cart handle.
Vera still believed her death was imminent, but her head asked how imminent. And her heart replied that surely she still had time to enjoy a few more bargains from Driscoll’s — a few more mornings in the garden, a few more loaves of crusty bread, a few more baths, a few more evenings on the sofa, watching TV with Toby. Maybe we’ll celebrate Christmas a little early this year, she thought, eyeing the snowglobes, tree ornaments, and scented candles across the aisle.
“Did you find a dress?” asked Maddie, feeling a tad guilty about the one she had kept hidden.
“Not yet,” she said.
Maddie, quite familiar with the size extra-small Clearance merchandise, deftly extracted a prussian-blue dress from the “Nautical Nights” collection and held it up.
“I love it,” said Vera, squinting to see the yellow price tag marking it down to $9.80.
“Try it on,” said Maddie, adding it to her cart, behind Toby.
About an hour later, in the fitting room, she saw the customer a third time as she emerged from one of the cubicles, wearing the prussian-blue dress. She looked fabulous.
“Very nice! Fits you perfectly,” said Olivia.
“Thank you,” said Vera. Then she did something odd. She laid down on the couch in the Fitting Room, folded her hands across her chest and closed her eyes. And asked Maddie to snap her picture with her cell phone.
Maddie looked at Olivia. “I don’t get it,” she whispered.
“Neither do I,” whispered Olivia. “But just do it and let’s get her out of here. Crystal is watching, and you have to finish those rails.”
Maddie took the snapshot and handed the cell phone back to the customer.
Vera opened her eyes, studied the photo, and imagined herself in a mahogany box, tastefully asleep in the prussian-blue dress. Not the one I had in mind, she thought, but it will do. She considered asking Maddie to call other Driscoll’s stores to inquire if they had the botanical-print dress in her size, but did not want to overburden Maddie, who seemed so kind. Besides, the one she had on was a great bargain. Blue dress, it is, she decided.
Maddie ran the rails until her shift ended.
On her way out, she saw Vera smile as a cashier rang up her purchases, wowing her with how much money she saved.
No one expected that as Vera exited the store, the giant letter “D” from big green DRISCOLL’S sign would snap off the building’s exterior and come pounding down on her head. Maddie, who was walking to her car, heard the noise and turned around to see the customer lying face down near the entrance, under the big letter. Toby, still strapped inside the cart, barked and wriggled, making the cart roll forward, toward the parking lot. Maddie ran back and stopped the cart, and waited with Toby until the police and the ambulance arrived.
The news coverage of the Driscoll’s accident started out on the front page, but shrank daily with each subsequent report. The stories focused on what could cause a letter to separate from a store’s signage (some speculated that bird droppings had deteriorated the fixture’s metal supports); whether a lawsuit for negligence would follow (one eventually did); Vera’s fate (she died of head trauma at the hospital, a few hours after her injury); and Toby’s fate (Vera’s sister adopted him).
No one reported the full impact on Driscoll’s employees.
Maddie arrived early the next morning. The store felt peaceful, devoid of customers, with the rain drumming on the roof. Vera’s death had not hit the news yet.
After punching in, Maddie retrieved the botanical-print dress from behind the table in the fitting room. She tried it on, and gazed into the tall, three-fold mirror in one of the cubicles. Maddie could not remember the last time a dress made her feel so beautiful. Mesmerized by her own reflection, it was minutes before Maddie realized she was not alone. An older woman wearing a sweet-but-nauseating perfume was standing behind her, dressed in an odd, rose-colored outfit and big pearl earrings. She tapped Maddie on the shoulder.
“What a lovely dress, dear,” is all Maddie heard her say. But she also whispered, under her breath, “If Vera can’t have it, no one can.”
When Maddie turned around, she was gone.
How strange, Maddie thought. She considered alerting Loss Prevention about the suspicious shopper but didn’t, because she couldn’t remember the correct number to call.
Around noon, Vera’s death was reported on the local television network. Everyone at Driscoll’s who happened to be eating lunch in the Break Room at the time heard the news from the giant flat-screen over the dining table. Maddie nearly choked on a potato chip.
“Isn’t that the lady you were helping yesterday?” asked Deirdre from Customer Service.
“Yes,” said Maddie.
“How sad,” said Deirdre, munching a sandwich. “I saw her in Seasonal, listening to the Christmas CDs … with her little dog in the cart. She looked sweet.”
“She was,” said Maddie, going back to the floor.
The sky outside the glass doors darkened. Lightning zig-zagged over the parking lot and, as the day wore on, little, random, unsettling things happened throughout the store. Sally from Kids noticed an unattended cart rolling down the aisle between Toys and Ladies’ Denim. Bill from Housewares observed the Haunted House and the Jack-O-Lantern lighting up on their own. Evan from Shoes got annoyed because a shoe box refused to stay put, repeatedly poking out an inch or so from the perfect wall of shoe boxes it had taken him over an hour to create. Deirdre heard a Christmas CD playing on its own. And in Misses, Maddie heard the sound of hangers sliding over rails from an area where no one was rummaging. Then she got paged by the robotic voice of Customer Call Box — “Misses … Misses” — only to find an abandoned shopping cart with windchimes dangling from the handle.
The rumor that Driscoll’s was haunted rapidly ignited and spread throughout the store.
Tara from Beauty, a college student with an elfin face, rainbow hair, and a nose-ring, reacted joyously. She had a passion for all things occult. Heart beating wildly, she ran to her locker to retrieve her prized possession — a mint tin that resembled a tiny ouija board — and brought it back to Beauty. There, a small crowd of associates gathered to watch her hold the tin very steadily in her palm, place a mint “plank” on top of it, and quietly asked the spirit its name. “It’s moving,” she said, gasping as the plank floated over the letters “V,” “E,” “R,” and “A.”
“It’s definitely Vera,” said Tara.
“I knew it,” said Sally.
“What does she want?” asked Deirdre.
Tara tapped on the mint tin some more and, seconds later, the tiny plank floated once more over the letters.
“What she came for,” Tara replied.
“Huh?” asked Deirdre. “Let’s ask Maddie what she was shopping for. She helped Vera yesterday.”
“Good idea,” said Tara.
“Heads up. Here comes Crystal,” said Bill.
Tara furtively tapped “Goodbye” on the tin and stashed it in her pocket, while the little gathering dispersed.
Meanwhile, Sal from Freight was delivering a fresh tote of hangers to Olivia in the fitting room. He said all this talk about a Driscoll’s ghost was “ridiculous” and “about the stupidest thing” he had ever heard. “Listen to me,” he said. “Everything has a logical explanation. Electrical malfunctions on account of the storm are probably to blame for everything weird that’s been happening.”
Olivia agreed, and reminded Maddie to buy her dress before going home.
Maddie’s eyes welled up with tears.
“What’s the matter?” asked Olivia.
“I can’t buy it now,” said Maddie. “It’s the one Vera wanted, and now she’s dead!”
“Sure you can. It’s not your fault,” said Sal, “that a sign fell on her head.”
“And you knocked yourself out for her,” said Olivia. “Who found her that gorgeous, blue dress?”
“But she really wanted the dress I hid for myself. I should have offered it to her.”
“Well, she can’t use it now,” said Sal, smirking, “unless she wants to be buried in it.”
Maddie knew Sal was only teasing her, but this comment made her recall Vera lying down on the fitting room couch with her arms folded across her chest, and she suddenly wondered if that was not exactly what the customer had in mind.
“Maybe,” said Maddie, “I should try to contact the family and let them know I found the dress she was shopping for, you know, in case they want to bring it to the funeral parlor.”
“Are you crazy?” said Olivia. “You want to contact a grieving family who doesn’t know you … ”
“ … and who is probably suing the store already,” said Sal.
“Crystal will have a fit!” said Olivia.
“I guess you’re right,” said Maddie, drying her eyes with a tissue. “So what should I do with the dress?”
“Buy it and wear it in good health, you nutjob,” said Olivia.
So Maddie bought the dress after punching out that day. Guiltily gleeful at all the money she saved, she carried her purchase out to her car, hopping over puddles in the parking lot. Maddie tossed the Driscoll’s bag onto the back seat and turned the radio on to her usual classical station which featured medieval music that day. As she drove, the music soothed her nerves — even though one of the songs was a long, flute and harp rendition of “Greensleeves” — until, about halfway home, she heard a rustling noise in the background. Was it static? She turned off the radio, but the noise continued. No, not static. Could it be the wind? No, it was coming from inside the car, behind her. When she stopped at the traffic light, she glanced at the back seat, and saw the Driscoll’s bag moving like something was crawling inside it. Nonsense, she told herself, like Olivia. It’s just the car jostling the bag around. Don’t panic, she told herself, like Sal.
At last, Maddie turned onto her street and pulled into her driveway. When she parked the car, the noise stopped. But she opened the back door to find the Driscoll’s bag empty and the dress sitting up like a passenger. It was just too absurd! How ridiculous, thought Maddie, laughing nervously. Then she spoke to the dress. “I don’t care how that happened,” she said, stuffing it firmly back inside the bag, “you are nothing but a piece of clothing and you won’t get the better of me!”
Maddie went inside. The house was empty, with everyone else still at work or school. Maddie poured herself a generous glass of Chablis. She went upstairs and changed into her new dress so she could see how it looked, with the proper shoes on, in her cheval mirror.
But for the zipper, which nipped a tiny piece of skin at the base of her neck, the dress went on easily and it looked amazing. Minutes later, however, although it didn’t look tight, the dress began to feel very tight. The silky-but-stretchy fabric compressed her arms and her middle.
She took it off, letting it drop to the floor, threw on a robe, and finished her wine. She decided to take a cat nap before making dinner, and sank into a dream in which the little teal vines on the botanical-print transformed into blue snakes with tiny red eyes and pointy, yellow fangs. They wrapped around her body, constricting her respiration, and bit into her flesh.
Luke was in the bedroom, hanging up his jacket and tie, when she awoke.
“Hard day, honey?” he asked. “I hope you don’t mind, but while you were sleeping, I ordered take-out — sesame chicken, pork fried rice, wonton soup and a couple of egg rolls.”
“What a husband,” said Maddie, hugging him.
“New dress?” he said, picking it up off the floor.
“Yes, but it’s going back tomorrow.”
“I don’t like it. I’ll buy you socks instead,” she said on the way downstairs to wait for the food delivery.
Maddie exchanged the dress at Customer Service the next morning. Within weeks, Driscoll’s sold out of every other dress in the same collection, both in-store and online because it was so popular; however, the extra-small, botanical-print one inexplicably remained in the store. Many women tried it on, and rejected it. Others bought the dress and later returned it for a refund. It became a running joke among the Misses associates to encounter the dress “hiding” in different places — crouched on a shelf behind some sweaters, dangling from the overhead trolley in the stock room, or burrowing under the disrespected, fallen clothing in Clearance. But Maddie never laughed. She never told anyone about the day she found it sitting upright in the back of her car — they’d think she was losing it, and maybe they would be right. And she had an additional reason to dislike that dress.
One day, while she was up on a stepladder, organizing the blouses that hung against the wall above a row of trousers, she fell and broke her wrist. She also suffered numerous contusions, and had to file an accident report.
“What happened?” Crystal asked her.
“I have no idea. I felt the ladder jiggle and I lost my balance.”
“The ladder moved?”
“Yeah, I don’t know why. I guess I’m just clumsy,” she replied.
Crystal asked Sam in Loss Prevention to run the videotape caught on the store’s surveillance camera, which showed the botanical-print dress coiled around the bottom of one leg of the stepladder. Tugging it, it appeared to Maddie. She gulped. That dress hates me. It’s trying to kill me.
“Next time, be more careful when you use the ladder. Make sure there’s nothing under it,” said Crystal.
“Of course,” said Maddie, although she knew for certain that she had not placed the ladder on top of the dress.
At night, when the lights dimmed after the robotic announcement, “Driscoll’s is now closed,” the dress creeped among the shelves and slithered along the floors throughout the store. Maddie found it one morning with a trail of dust on one side.
“Well, we can’t sell it like this,” Maddie decided, so she took it to the cash register to print out a “damaged” ticket. The dress writhed as Maddie stapled the ticket to the sleeve with vengeance. Then she tossed it onto a pile of “discards” in Customer Service. “Goodbye,” she said to the botanical-print dress. Why didn’t I think of this before?
But that night, the dress escaped from the bin, wriggled free of the ticket, and made its way to the fitting room where Vera’s ghost waited, as always, to try it on.
Featured image: Two Women on the Shore (1898) by Edvard Munch, The Art Institute of Chicago
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