The Imperial Valley is comprised of small towns coated in dust and boredom. These towns are separated by endless crop fields and surrounded by endless roads. There was a local legend about a young woman in white who walked along one such road at night. Everyone knows someone who knows someone who stopped to pick her up. She would get in the car and somewhere along the way, she would just disappear. Older adults like my mom would say it was La Llorona, the crying woman, looking for children to steal. Of course, telling ghost stories was as popular a pastime as gossiping.
I grew bored of traveling those never-changing roads and planned to move to San Diego where there was plenty of entertainment and more people than cows.
My girlfriend threw a party the night before I was scheduled to leave. She lived in El Centro which was only a 15-minute drive from my house in Brawley, but she insisted I stay the night. That was, until my tongue became loose with alcohol and I told her I thought we should break up. We'd been together since our freshman year of high school and it was time to move on. And although 15-minute drives hadn't been inconvenient, I knew two-hour drives would be. She didn't take it well, cried and told me to go fuck myself. Fortunately, we were outside smoking cigarettes so we didn't ruin everyone else's good time.
I stumbled to my car knowing I shouldn't drive, but turned the key anyway. Halfway home, I became drowsy. I drifted off the road a few times, lucky not to drive into a canal. But finally, my eyelids rebelled against all efforts to keep them open.
I was awoken by a loud thud and the weight of something hitting my car. My eyes flipped open and I slammed on the brakes, coming to a stop in front of a large tree. After a few moments, I got out of the car. I almost threw up at the sight of blood on the hood and windshield. I told myself it was probably a calf that wandered away from its pen. But somewhere, deep inside, the real answer was coiling around me like a snake, poised to bite.
I looked down the road and saw a pile of white fabric. Slowly, every part of me shaking with fear, I made my way towards it. As I neared, I realized there was a body underneath all that white cotton. I ran back to my car, jumped in, and sped home. When I got there, I rinsed the car with the hose, grateful the nearest neighbor was a half a mile away. I threw up on the driveway and hosed that down, too. I went to bed and listened to the violent storm that blew through, too frightened to sleep.
I left for San Diego the next morning, avoiding my mother's tear-filled eyes as I said good-bye.
I saw the story on the news about a young woman named Maria who had been killed in a hit-and-run on a dark road in the Imperial Valley. She was 18, had recently graduated high school, and wanted to become a nurse. Her car broke down on her way home from visiting her sick aunt and she didn't live that far. Her brother, holding her picture, promised the news anchor he would find Maria's killer.
Whenever I heard a knock at my door, I feared it would be the cops or Maria's brother. I worked two jobs which helped me buy a new car, and kept me busy. If I was alone with my thoughts, I would think of Maria. I would see her body on the road, her blood on my windshield. l saw her face in every crowd, saw her looking out from the eyes of every woman I dated. She haunted my days and infected my dreams.
When I went back home to visit, I avoided that road and made sure not to drive at night. That is, until five years later, when I had to return home for a funeral. I couldn't get the day off work so I left after my shift was over. I was exhausted and wanted to take the fastest route home. I was on that road before I even realized it.
Halfway to Brawley, my eyelids became heavy. I let them fall for just a second. When I opened my eyes again, there was a figure in white on the road in front of me. I swerved hard and went into the dirt, losing control of the car and slamming into a tree. There was a moment of excruciating pain, then darkness.
When I came to, she was standing beside the car. Maria in her white dress. Maria with her large brown eyes looking right through me.
"I'm sorry," I sobbed. "I'm so sorry."
She smiled, then disappeared. I got out of the car and started walking towards home. It was dark, but the sky was clear and the moon was full. After what felt like hours, a car approached and pulled over. The driver rolled down the passenger side window.
"You ok? Need a ride somewhere?"
"Brawley please," I whispered hoarsely as I got into the car. I leaned back into the seat and closed my eyes. I was so tired.
When I opened my eyes, I was standing on the side of the road again. I just turned towards home and started walking.
The Imperial Valley is comprised of small towns coated in dust and boredom. These towns are separated by endless crop fields and surrounded by endless roads. There is a local legend about a man in black who walks along one such road on nights when the moon is full. They say if you stop for him, he'll get in the car, but somewhere along the way you'll look over and he won't be there.
Lisa Lerma Weber is not a ghost but would love to haunt you. Her work has appeared in Crepe & Penn, Headline Poetry, Mojave Heart Review, Nightingale & Sparrow, Tiny Essays, and others. Follow her on Twitter: @LisaLermaWeber