The ghosts of their former owners haunt the clothes in thrift shops. The dead linger, like the fading lilac scent of fabric softener or the sharp stink of cigarette smoke. My mother washed our purchases in vinegar and saltwater, then rinsed with lavender to purge the spirits from the clothes she bought for me. I never found a ghost — not hidden in the pockets of the old jeans or draped across the back of the thin, worn t-shirts.
From the second-hand clothes she chose for herself, my mother wove silk scarves into skirts and wore men’s suit jackets over lacy camisoles, slipping on the ghosts inhabiting the fabric as easily as I pulled on a pair of jeans. Folks thought she had visions — thought she heard voices in her head, but I knew different.
Everyone loved her at Cuttin’ Corners — the beauty salon where she worked. My mother, Cordelia Bleu, had magic in her hands. She’d read your palm and cut your hair to change your life. Make your wishes come true. Three hundred and sixty-four days ago, on a hot July afternoon — my mom walked into the desert outside our Texas town and never came out.
School was out for the summer, and I spent a lot of my free time browsing thrift stores. I thumbed through the rack of used jeans at our local Salvation Army. Right after mom died, my Aunt Peg donated all her things, and I often wondered if I’d come across something of my mother’s one day. I paused at a pair of blue jeans worn thin and white at the knees. The back pockets were decked out with rhinestones and fake pearls. I didn’t recognize them, but I remembered mom stitching bright buttons and colored threads onto her own pants. These jeans would work. Triumphant, I carried my purchase to the cashier.
At home, I washed the jeans in regular detergent before I tried them on. Spirits I could handle, but I’d pass on anything else that might be hanging around in the used clothing aisle. Warm from the dryer, I smoothed the soft denim against my legs. They fit a bit loose and I had to roll up the hems.
“Hello?” I whispered into the silence in my bedroom. Aunt Peg wouldn’t be home from work until after six. My mother’s older sister, Peg took me in after Mom was gone. Aunt Peg wore her hair in the same shaggy hairstyle she’d had in 1989, when she graduated high school. All the Bleu women had the same long nose with a crooked bump in the middle. I looked like my mom when she was young. I guessed Peg resembled what Mom would have looked like in the future, except Peg was heavier. Unlike my mom, Aunt Peg never skipped a meal.
I got up and wandered around my room, twirling at the mirror to admire the reflection of the sparkly pockets on my jeans. I’d keep them, even if the ghost never appeared. Maybe rhinestones would come back in style.
“I should have asked her how to call up the spirits,” I spoke to my mirror image. I’d assumed you just had to put on the used clothing. Sighing, I reached to unbutton the jeans and slip them off. The reflection of something wispy and white floated behind me, like smoke. I spun.
A woman stood in front of my bedroom window, afternoon sunlight streaming through her transparent image. Her hair was teased into a sheer cloud. One advantage to being dead, I supposed — you didn’t have to ever change your hairstyle. She had on the same flashy-pocket jeans I wore. The hem of her pants skimmed the top of her high-heeled shoes. While I stared, she lifted a ghostly cigarette to her lips and blew out a smoke ring.
“I didn’t know ghosts could smoke.”
She waved the cigarette at me. “It’s not as satisfying in the afterlife.” Squinting at me through the mist she asked, “I don’t suppose you smoke?”
I shook my head.
“You don’t look old enough to go to bars either. You got a fake ID?”
“No. Look, I picked you — picked your clothes because I thought you could help me.”
“Help you?” The ghost tilted her head and arched one perfectly shaped eyebrow.
“I want to find my mother.”
“Honey, you should have conjured up a detective. I’m — I was — a cosmetologist.” She added, “That means I cut and styled…”
“I know what it means. My mother did the same thing when she was alive.”
The ghost’s expression softened. “I’m sorry for your loss, but I don’t know how I can help.”
I shrugged. “I thought you’d have a feeling, maybe know how to contact her. In the afterlife.”
“It’s not like we all sit around in a waiting room, chatting each other up. The world’s full of ghosts, and most of us don’t ever run into anyone we knew when we were alive, let alone another dead person.”
I sank down onto my bed. The ghost tapped over in her high heels. “I’m sorry, but if you need help, sugar, I’ll do my best.” She stuck out her hand. “I’m Candy.”
I tried to shake her hand but my fingers passed right through hers. I felt a touch of cold, as though I’d put my hand in ice water. “My name’s Darcy. Darcy Bleu. My mom was Cordelia.”
“Pleased to meet you Darcy Bleu.”
I nodded. “Me too. Pleased to meet you.” I liked Candy. My mom probably would have liked her too, if they’d met when they were alive. “Here’s what I was thinking…” I explained my plan to her.
Our town sat at the edge of a Chihuahuan Desert plateau. Hot summer days tar bubbles dotted the roads, and water puddle mirages shimmered on the highway. I biked out of town, an easy downhill ride to a spot where the brush thinned and a slight trail led off toward the Davis Mountains at the edge of the horizon. When I laid my bike down Candy appeared beside me.
“We hike in from here,” I told her. I hadn’t thought about it before, but I glanced at her shoes. “Can you keep up? I mean, can you stay with me?” I’d changed into hiking boots, but kept on the thrift store jeans.
“Don’t worry about me. You just lead the way.” Candy produced another ghostly cigarette and puffed on it as we started out.
The sun, a giant orange-red ball, hung over the horizon. I figured we had a little over an hour before dark. Enough time to get to where I’d marked on my map, if we didn’t stop for anything. I stepped over rocks and kept my eyes on the path. A rattler will warn you if you get close, but I planned on keeping far enough away they wouldn’t have to.
“What happened out here, Darcy? With your momma?”
“That’s what I hope we can find out. I hope we’ll find her.”
“Sure is pretty out here.” Candy stopped to admire a cluster of yellow wildflowers.
I hadn’t come out into the desert since before my mom went on that final hike. “Mom liked to walk out here at night sometimes. She said it cleared her head.”
“Sun’s going down,” Candy said. “I’m okay, but did you bring a flashlight?”
“Moon will be out soon, we’ll be okay.”
The desert at night smells like sage and rain. I liked the night, liked moving through a world where darkness hid most flaws. I think my mom was comfortable in the night world because it matched the blackness she felt sometimes. I too, knew how that felt.
“This is where they found her.” We stood before a large, flat rock. I climbed up and sat cross-legged. “Do you think she’ll be here?”
Candy waved her cigarette around, testing the air with the smoke. “I’m sorry. Maybe we should have brought a candle or one of those spirit board things. Or if you had something that belonged to her.”
“We kept some of her jewelry. I guess I should have brought that, but I don’t know if it works like clothing. It might be a surface area sort of thing.” I stretched out on the rock and stared up at the stars. “I really thought she’d be here.” I closed my eyes against the tears.
Cold air ruffled across my brow. Candy hovered over me, brushing my hair with her fingers. “You gonna stay out here all night? It doesn’t bother me but you might get cold.”
“I’m gonna stay, yeah,” I said. “As long as it takes until I see her again. Even if it takes forever.”
I fell asleep and dreamed I ran toward the mountains. Some huge, grey creature chased me across the desert. I woke with a start, and sat up to spot a figure holding a flashlight jogging along the path toward me.
“Darcy!” It was my Aunt Peg.
“Here,” I called and climbed from the rock.
Aunt Peg draped a jacket across my shoulders and led me back to her truck. We stashed the bike in the back and headed home.
“How’d you know where to find me?”
Aunt Peg gripped the steering wheel and shivered. “It was the oddest thing. I checked your room and you weren’t there. Then it was like someone whispered ‘Cordelia, desert’ and I knew you’d gone there.”
When we got home, I changed into pajamas and Peg warmed a mug of milk for me. “You want to talk?” she asked. We sat at the kitchen table. Her hand rested on my arm, and I imagined this was how it might have been with my mom, if she hadn’t died that night in the desert.
“I just want to know why she went out there that day. Why did she want to leave me?”
“Oh hon, I’m sure she didn’t mean that. Your mother had a weak heart. She should have had more water, and she shouldn’t have gone off while the sun was still high. But I don’t think she meant to die.”
I took a breath. “Why did you get rid of all her things?”
Aunt Peg pushed back from the table and left. She came back into the kitchen carrying a cardboard box. “I saved these for you. I thought I might make a quilt for you someday.”
I lifted clothing from the box. Here was my mom’s favorite green sweater, the ruffled skirt in rainbow hues, the blue jeans she’d worn until the denim was soft as butter. The box was filled with her things. I thought of how it would be, lying under a blanket made from scraps of her clothes. Would her ghost watch over me at night?
“I’d love that. Thank you.” I dashed from the kitchen to the laundry, where I’d dropped Candy’s jeans. I carried them over to Aunt Peg. “Do you think you can add this to the quilt?” I pointed to the rhinestone pockets on the jeans.
“Sure, we can do that.” Aunt Peg wrinkled her nose. “But you better wash them first. They smell like cigarette smoke.”
* Originally published May 8, 2021 in Hinged on Medium