Warning: This story is a little over 2000 words long.
I was at La Floquerie, one of the fanciest restaurants in town, when it happened for the last time. A year and a half previous, I had brought Dana Laughlin there and proposed marriage. I had saved four hundred dollars in the bank after I bought her ring just to make that one day as perfect as possible, so she could brag to her friends later about how romantic it was. Now, on the first anniversary of our wedding, we both had reasonably successful careers; I was a professional photographer and she was a certified public accountant. So I thought we could probably afford to revisit La Floquerie about once a year so Dana could relive that magical moment. I even brought a bottle of sparkling grape juice and paid the matre’d twenty dollars to bring that out in a bucket of ice instead of wine with our main course. I was just lifting my champagne flute in a toast to Dana and one year of successful marriage when something caught my attention.
In a far corner of the room, one of the wall lamps was flickering with a pretty regular rhythm, rather like a heart beat, and standing next to it was Cheryl, my first love. She looked just the way she had the very last time I saw her. Her golden blonde hair and bright green eyes always used to remind me of spring when she smiled. She wasn’t smiling now, though. Those elegant eyebrows were drawn down over her face in a hate-filled scowl and I could see the potted plant behind her as if she wasn’t really there at all.
“Matt?” asked Dana, sounding worried. “What is it?”
As she said that, both champagne flutes and both water glasses exploded, showering us in water, sparkling grape juice and fragments of broken glass. Dana let out a scream that reverberated around the whole restaurant. Suddenly, all the other people in the room were staring at us.
“It’s her again, isn’t it,” Dana guessed, trying to shake water and grape juice from her fingers.
I nodded, looking back into the corner, where the light had stopped flickering. Cheryl had gone again. This kind of thing had been happening for a year and a half every time Dana and I found an intimate moment; I would see Cheryl glaring at me like she wanted me to die and then something fragile nearby would explode. Dana even went so far as to put all her crystal glasses away, wrapped in newspaper. It did no good. When she went to get them out at Christmas, what she found was eight little newspaper wrapped packages of broken glass. I’ve never seen her more upset.
“You have to do something about this, Matt,” Dana declared, wiping water and juice from her face with her napkin. “I’m not putting up with it any longer.”
“What do you want me to do?” I asked, frustrated and a little annoyed at the whole situation.
“I don’t know!” Dana yelled. “Talk to her! Just do something!” With that, Dana left, her best dress soaked and her hair drenched. Later, from the window, I saw her raise a hand and whistle for a taxi. With a sigh, I paid for dinner and the damage to the glassware and the tablecloth.
Out in my car, I drove around, trying to think about what I should do. It was at the corner of Park Street and Ninth Avenue, the place where I first met Cheryl, that it finally came to me. Talk to her, Dana had said. Maybe that was what Cheryl needed, but where would she be? The answer to that was easy. Six and a half years ago, Cheryl had died in an apartment fire just a few hours after I’d proposed to her. According to the police, a small gas leak and a spark from some old wiring had triggered an explosion. So, the place she was most likely to be was her apartment.
When I got to her apartment complex, I was surprised to find that it looked almost exactly the way it had after the fire. A dilapidated sign told me that the complex had been up for sale for six years. I could guess that the reason for this was probably Cheryl. After the fire, from the looks of the place, the owner of the apartment complex had probably tried, first, to repair and renovate, then later, to sell it, unsuccessfully each time. As a result, I didn’t have to wonder where to find Cheryl. The odds were pretty good that she’d be in her apartment.
I walked up some stairs and down a hallway, feeling very much like I’d traveled back in time as I did so. It was almost like I was picking Cheryl up for a date, except I wasn’t nearly as successful back then. When I reached her apartment, I noticed that the door plaque with the number 207 was hanging rather lopsidedly on the door. When I touched it to try and straighten it a little, it was red hot, but the doorknob was as cool as ever. I guess Cheryl didn’t want me to change anything. I knocked and waited, wondering what I should do next. As if in answer to that question, the door creaked open. Cautiously, I walked in and the door promptly slammed shut behind me with a distinct click that told me I was locked in.
The front door led into the living area. Through an archway to the right was the kitchen. Down a hall to the left and through a door, the bed and bathrooms. Here, however, was the place where I’d spent the most time in Cheryl’s apartment, usually with other friends present. The entire place was black with soot, like the inside of a chimney nobody has ever cleaned. The television was gutted. The rugs had been mostly burned away. There was a large hole in the ceiling through which I could see the night sky and, beneath it, there was an equally large hole in the floor, through which I could see the ruins of the apartment below.
“Cheri?” I ventured, surprised at how weak my voice sounded in this place. “Can we talk?”
As if in response, the entire place seemed to burst into flames, except right around me. Out of those flames walked Cheryl. My ring still glittered on her left hand like a reproach. She was still wearing that beautiful yellow dress she’d worn when I took her out that final time. The only difference was that she seemed to be burning, her hair writhing like snakes in the fire that licked around her head.
“What are you doing here, Matty?” she asked, her voice filled with false concern.
“I came to ask–,” I began.
“You came to ask me to leave you and your little whore alone?” she interrupted, still in that same tone, ending with a laugh that spoke volumes.
“I came to ask what you need from me so you can rest,” I finished, feeling more than a little angry at the insult, but doing my best to hide it.
“Don’t lie to me,” Cheryl replied, walking around me. “You always lied to me. You never loved me. Never. If you did, I wouldn’t be dead!” At this last, flames shot from her mouth, singing my nose hairs.
“I’m not lying, Cheri,” I told her, rubbing my nose, “I never lied to you. I loved you more than life. When they came and told me you were dead, it was like a knife carved my heart out.”
“That didn’t stop you from marrying her,” Cheryl accused.
“I fell in love with her because she reminded me of you, Cher-bear,” I pointed out.
“Don’t give me that, you liar,” Cheryl growled. “She doesn’t look a thing like me.”
She was right. Dana was a brunette where Cheryl was a blond. Dana’s hair was usually short, where Cheryl’s had been quite long. Dana’s eyes were chocolate brown where Cheryl’s were the pure green of spring.
“I meant her personality, Cheri,” I replied, “not her looks. Dana likes a lot of the same things you did and she even has some of the same personality traits and quirks that you did.”
“So you admit you replaced me, you jerk!” Cheryl sobbed, flames coursing down her cheeks in place of tears.
“I could never replace you, Cheri,” I responded, wanting to take her in my arms, but held back by the flames surrounding her. “I do love Dana, but not the same way that I loved you. You were my first love. I mourned for four years after you died. My buddies kept telling me to let you go and I just couldn’t do it.” The flames around me and Cheryl were starting to fade. Cheryl’s expression was one of softening anger. I knew I had to keep going, but I had to work hard to talk because of the lump in my throat. “I kept telling them, ‘A man only really falls in love once,’” I continued, tears coming to my own eyes. I brushed them away impatiently. “Then, one day I realized that I had a choice. I could let your death kill me or I could move on. I thought you wouldn’t want me to die for you. Was I wrong, Cheri?”
With that, the flames died utterly and Cheryl’s ghost stood before me, crying. “Oh, Matty,” she sobbed, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. I thought you must have started the fire that killed me, because you wanted to get rid of me.”
“Why would I do that, Cher-bear?” I replied, pointing to her left hand as I stepped closer. “I had just proposed marriage to you and you said ‘yes.’ I checked the police report, Cher. I was at home, fairly singing with delight that I was finally engaged to marry the love of my life, when that fire started. The police turned up at my door the very next day. Before then, I had no idea that anything was wrong. By the time the police came, you were already dead. I’ll tell you, babe, my life hasn’t been the same since.”
Cheryl’s head dipped. “I thought you’d forgotten all about me,” she offered meekly.
“I could never forget you, Cheri,” I replied fiercely. “Look, I’ll prove it to you.” With that, I dug out my wallet, opened it and pulled out my three treasures. Dana used to tease me because I still kept them, but she never made me get rid of them. First to come out was a strip of shots from a photo booth Cheryl and I visited at the fair while we were still dating. I laid it on the remains of a nearby table. Second was a receipt from Cafe’ Overtime, where I’d proposed to her, back when I was still struggling to make it as a photographer. It went onto the table as well. Then, finally, my hand shaking as I pulled it out, her tear-stained obituary that I’d clipped from the paper. As I remember, the funeral was closed coffin. Cheryl’s body had been so badly burned that it was hardly recognizable as her. They’d had to identify her by her dental records. I didn’t want to go initially, but I went anyway because I wanted to be near her, even if she was dead.
“You kept all this, because of me?” Cheryl sighed, running her fingers over the table when I put down the obit with the rest of it.
I nodded, unable to say anything more without crying again.
“Thank you, Matty,” she smiled at last. “You’ve made me so happy.” With that, she disappeared. I never saw her again after that.
Both the restaurant names in this story are fabricated. I used a name generator at a website called Wordlab. Also, I have to give credit where credit is due. I struggled a little with this one. I was having a tough time adapting the given scene (see the above link) to a workable story. So, I talked with my daughter and she suggested that the thing to catch my main character’s attention might be a ghost by the name of Cheryl. So, kudos to her. Without her help, this story would have been much longer in coming.