Rhode’s IGA sits a block north of Millersburg’s downtown square. Housed in an older, one story, concrete block building originally designed to shelter something comparable to a mid-sized Quick Check, within a decade of booming prosperity, Rhode’s steadily added shelving units bursting with essentials until it’s limited space had reached full capacity.
While the thought of moving to a larger facility outside of town had become more than an errant discussion at the Rhode dinner table, the family adored operating their successful business in the heart of Holmes County’s busiest sector. They realized the secret of their success early on. Their grocery store was within easy access for not only Millersburg’s locals, but for the area’s large population of Amish, who would’ve been forced to pay a driver to transport them to Dover or Wooster, both a thirty minute drive, in order to purchase their family’s essentials. Rhode’s was within a buggy’s jaunt for most of the Amish residents living in Holmes County, thus making their shopping destination an easy decision.
And so despite their tighter quarters, the steadily narrowing aisles, and the sometimes frustrating lines at the checkout, the Rhode family held strong in their beliefs and remained at their smaller accommodations in order to stay within a rock’s toss of the town square.
What they did do however, was purchase the vacant lot directly across the street. They leveled the abandoned two-story home which had begun tilting slightly to the left over the past decade. They removed the overgrown shrubbery, chopped down a patch of struggling elms which were currently being choked to death by Dutch Elm’s holocaust of fungus. They paved the entire lot, permitted an access to the street, and thus opened up over a hundred new parking spots and a fifty foot long hitching post for buggies.
What they failed to do however, was arm the area with proper lighting. Only the nearby street lights and the occasional wink and flash of auto headlamps moving along the street provided the only means of lighting for the newly provided parking structure. No one seemed to notice the burdening lack of luminosity, even at night. No one realized how dark it actually became when a thick cloud cover hid the moon’s glow between the hours of eight and ten. Dark enough for a jet black Amish buggy to nearly disappear against the backdrop of a distant hillside. Dark enough to hold customers at bay for twenty minutes at a time while searching through the night for their car while jostling a wired cart filled to capacity with groceries over the concrete walkway. So dark...
"Is Mommy done yet?" four year old Abby Miller whined from the passenger seat of her parent’s pickup, where she’d ended up after scaling the extended backseat following an impressive escape from her car seat.
"She’ll be out any minute," her dad mumbled, eyeing down the lit up entrance from across the street. It had been nearly forty minutes. She’d said she only had a few things she needed.
"She’s taking a really long time," Abby continued. "Come on, Daddy. Let’s go find her."
Her daddy tore his eyes away from Rhode’s entrance long enough to watch his daughter’s blonde curls bouncing off her shoulders irritably. A grin somehow managed to curl his frown upwards. She looked just like her mommy. The natural blonde curls. Those dark brown eyes. But she acted like her too. Feisty. Impatient. All the things that had attracted him to Abby’s mom a decade ago, bundled up in this mini version of curls and attitude for them to enjoy for the next twenty or so years.
He reached up and turned the key back in the ignition, turning on the radio. "Let’s find some music to help pass the time," he suggested.
"Ughh!" Abby groaned. "She’s taking too long, Daddy," she complained.
Smiling, her daddy tried to ignore her as he spun the radio dial in search of anything Abby might want to listen to. He understood her impatience. This had become too long a wait for anyone, much less a four year girl.
The plan had been for the two of them to wait in the pickup while Mommy ran into the store to grab a couple things; she’d mentioned a gallon of milk and some detergent for starters, then as she left the store, he could pull across the street and meet her under the lights so they wouldn’t have to search through the dark parking lot for the truck if they’d all gone in together. Forty minutes ago the idea had made perfect sense. Forty minutes ago.
Unable to find anything on the radio, he settled for a local country station which he favored, but knew that Abby and her mother did not, and turned it down to where only the occasional tapping of a drum beat could be heard over Abby’s insistent whining.
"Let’s give her five more minutes, then we’ll go in after her," he finally relented. It had been long enough.
"Is five minutes a long time?" Abby asked.
"No, not long," her daddy answered.
Turning up the radio dial in response to a Randy Travis song he recognized, her daddy barely noticed when Abby stood up on the passenger seat and turned around to look out through the back window of the truck. Finding himself tapping a finger on the steering wheel to the beat of the chorus, Abby’s daddy enjoyed the sudden break from her constant whining, failing to realize the reasoning behind her unexpected silence. He didn’t notice when little Abby began holding her breath. Or when her back stiffened as she squinted those pretty brown eyes, concentrating on something in the near pitch darkness behind the truck.
His gaze again focused on the entrance to Rhode’s IGA, his head unconsciously bobbing to the twangy beat of the country hit, it wasn’t until little Abby reached over and grabbed a handful of her daddy’s flannel shirt sleeve, and whispered his name into her ear that he finally realized something was wrong. He turned to her, noticed how pale her small cheeks had become, spotted the lone tear drooping from her eyelid, then watched as she slowly raised the index finger of her left hand, the one not clutching a firm hold on his shirt, and pointed toward the back of truck. He looked at her questioningly as she leaned toward his ear and whispered one word.
Without turning his head, he glanced up at the rear view mirror which allowed him a six inch view of the ever darkening parking lot directly behind the truck. Not doubting that Abby had indeed seen something, he was preparing himself for the fuzzy silhouette of a stray dog, or maybe a scavenging raccoon darting from one wheel base to another as it searched for any morsels left behind by evening shoppers. As he watched, a shadow appeared within his small reflected view. It seemed to float across his six inch expanse of mirror, only to disappear a second later.
"What the..." Goose bumps rose up in battalions along both of his arms as he slowly turned his head to face the back window of the truck. In the brief moment he’d spotted the dark shape, just a shade darker than the background of night behind it, he’d quickly realized that what he’d seen was not a dog or a raccoon. The shape he saw was standing or floating, or whatever, in an upright position, like a person. But not a person. Couldn’t have been. It’s gait was too smooth. It seemed to glide over the pavement.
Abby’s hold suddenly tightened around her daddy’s arm. Her breath caught in her throat. "Daddy," she breathed, her eyes widening. "Another one."
He followed her gaze out through the passenger side window. Another shadow caught his eye. Slightly taller and thinner, but armed with the same flawless movement as the one dashing across the parking lot behind them.
Fighting to get a grip on his anxiety, he began watching both shapes using his peripheral vision as they seemed to dart lithely between the endless rows of vehicles around them. Then he spotted an interior light flash on and then off almost immediately. And then another. And that’s when he realized that what he was seeing were indeed the shadows of people after all. People rummaging through the parked cars and trucks. Cars and trucks which had been left unlocked and unattended while their owners strolled through the aisles of Rhode’s IGA.
"Thieves," he mumbled to himself in a whisper.
"Ghosts, Daddy!" Abby suddenly hollered out loud enough to be heard outside their pickup. "They’re getting closer!" She bounced across the bench seating and plopped into her daddy’s lap, burying her face into his chest.
"Sshhh!" he hissed. He stole a glance out the passenger side window. The shadow was gone. A quick glance out the rear view mirror proved the same results. No sign of them anywhere. "Stay still, Honey," he breathed.
He slowly moved his hand toward the ignition on the steering column where they brushed against his awaiting key ring, the truck key already inserted. He placed his thumb and forefinger upon the flat metal grips, preparing to engage the ignition. His concentration now focused on starting the truck, he never saw the shadow rising from the pavement below his window until it stood in full height directly beside him. He turned with a start and stared wide-eyed into the darkened form, a thin piece of auto glass being it’s only deterrent.
He tore his eyes away from the shadow in time to see the second form rise into view just outside the passenger side window. Clutching Abby in a death grip, he whipped his head back to the darkened form standing next to him. He saw a face. He glimpsed a set of eyes. Green. Bold, daring in their striking glare. But young. And that face... Then he heard the familiar clicking sound of the door latch, and suddenly realized that he’d never locked them inside.
"Aah!" he released a scream while twisting the ignition and revving the truck’s engine to life. He slammed the gear shift into drive and peeled forward. Thumping over two concrete parking bumpers and careening across the road, nearly sideswiping an oncoming car which had luckily slowed to turn into the parking lot. He bounced across the street unscathed, Abby still burrowed into his lap. He skidded to a stop directly in front of the lit up entrance where several onlookers were watching him curiously.
"It’s okay now," he said, running a shaky hand through his daughter’s thin blonde hair. "Everything’s okay."
He turned his head back toward the parking lot across the street as his wife at last walked out of the store, a look of concern forming across her brow. He could see several vehicles moving slowly about, either in search of parking, or making their way toward the exit. He could see several people clutching bags of groceries as they awkwardly made their way through the shadows in search of their cars. What he didn’t see were two lanky shadows standing in the spot where his truck had been only moments earlier. They were gone. Like ghosts.