Gabriel West hated romance. And though he hated romance, he loved getting swept up in other adventures, always with a book in hand. So whenever he came across a hastily-added romantic subplot, he would put down the book and stop reading. It wasn’t so much that the romance was cheesy, though it was. It was that romance implied a dual partnership, spending your life with one person, being together forever. Gabriel West liked to fly solo.
The Indiana summer heat hit him hard, panting and sweating as music blasted through his ears while he stood outside the Kroger. His earbuds would quell the ramblings or questions of any stranger or store employee who might talk to him. Gabriel breathed in slowly to the 1-2-3-4 count of the song before grabbing a cart and going inside. He was a smart shopper. He ate beforehand. He had a list that Uncle Jesse made. He knew how to get in and out, getting the groceries quickly and efficiently. Gabriel had a routine, and nothing was going to mess this up.
He practically raced around the store, nabbing each item on the list, until he got to the last item: 12-grain bread. He pushed his cart to aisle 5, suddenly stopping because of what he saw. He gasped. Gabriel paused his music, removed his headphones, and put his phone down.
Halfway down the aisle stood a girl dressed in old-fashioned southern clothing. A cream-colored blouse. A pair of gloves on her hands. A pale yellow hoop skirt that spilled over the area. She stared at the bread, standing as still as a doll, until she turned to acknowledge him, her eyes meeting his. And in that moment, she wasn’t a doll, she wasn’t dressed weirdly at all, she was just a girl. The most beautiful girl he had ever seen.
The girl’s mouth opened and closed several times before words finally came out. “You can see me?”
“Yes, of course, why wouldn’t I be able to see you? What do you mean? Who are you?” Gabriel responded quickly and hastily, despite his usually calm, calculated way of speaking.
Her voice grew stronger. “My name is Mary Hyland. I died of smallpox in 1865. I am stuck here in 2015, where I cannot hold nor touch anything or anyone.”
“Wait, what-how-why-” Gabriel asked before being interrupted by a grungy blue-shirted employee with yellow teeth.
“Ya alraht theer, buddy? Ya tawkin to yeerself? Ya need any hayalp?”
Gabriel’s face turned a ghostly white as he realized that the employee couldn’t see the girl. Mary might just be telling the truth. But because the man was still gawking at him, he couldn’t talk to her anymore right now. Gabriel nearly sprinted out the door, down the sidewalk, the three blocks to his house. He wouldn’t remember until later that he had left his cart and his phone.
Once at home, Gabriel tried to calm himself down as much as possible. He got out his guitar and strummed to the calmer 90s songs on his playlist. But not even the guitar strumming could calm his runaway mind. So he put the guitar down and faced his thoughts. Gabriel loved to just sit and think deeply; he was very philosophical. He would often consider his future, his purpose in life. Hell, his purpose had to be more than the orphan kid who survived a car crash only to trudge through a McDonald’s job the rest of his life.
Gabriel gathered his strength and decided that he needed to face his life head-on. No more hiding in the shadows, clinging to the music, avoiding personal connections for fear of loss. He was going to go back to the store, and he would get answers. But right as he stood up, about to leave, suddenly, the girl from before was right beside him.
He hated the romance, of course. But then, so did she. Where Mary was from, people didn’t marry out of love. Only practicality. Love was a false hope that only hurt the heart. It was foolish to dream of it. So that’s why it surprised the both of them that during their many walks and talks, it was what they found.
The two couldn’t be in public together. To everyone else, it looked like Gabriel was under the influence of drugs, rambling and discussing to himself. So they left his home and his hometown and his minimum wage job, driving east for five hours until they reached Uncle Jesse’s cabin in southern Ohio, secluded by the woods and the hills, a burst of something man-made in the endless sea of trees.
Gabriel learned more about Mary, more than he picked up from her outfit, which, curiously, always stayed on. Her appearance didn’t—and couldn’t—change. He knew she was dead, of course. She was dead, and yet he was able to talk with her! They talked so much trying to figure out why she was here. And through their talks, they learned much about each other, and each of their times and places. Mary loved the idea of portable music, though it took her a while to adjust to the different genres. For Gabriel, someone who had never enjoyed much talking to other people, he loved talking with Mary. She was interesting! She was different! She was the connection he had needed for so long. When he made her laugh, he loved to see that smile light up her face. She was his light.
They could talk about anything and everything together, even agreeing to disagree on sensitive topics. And although they’d discussed many topics, today was the first day they’d talked about religion. Gabriel’s parents didn’t know what he believed, but he had read about all the major religions. And Mary, his sweet Mary, poured her heart out about her conflicting ideas of religion.
“My mother and father moved to Georgia from the north, where they had been Catholics. But while they raised me, we went to the Methodist church down on Thomason Street. They didn’t ever talk about beliefs. So I am stuck not knowing what I believe.”
“Well hey, I can maybe help with that! Jesse has an old Catholic book here somewhere if you’d wanna look at it.”
“That would be lovely.” She smiled, and he felt whole.
Gabriel dug through the cedar desk, rummaging through the drawers, until he found the book at the bottom of a stack of old newspapers. It was a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. He blew the dust off the book before placing it on the table near Mary. She leaned close, running her fingers over the cover almost instinctively, and her eyes widened.
“Gabriel, I can touch it!”
She picked up the book and held it in her hands. The room filled with wind swirling around them. The pages fluttered until falling open to Section III, 1030. Mary read aloud. “All who die in God’s grace, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” Mary’s figure began to glow.
She looked up into Gabriel’s eyes. “Gabriel. My purification. My sweet angel. I can never thank you enough.” She leaned towards him, kissing him on the cheek. The glow grew brighter and brighter until, in a swirl of wind and burst of light, Mary vanished. And Gabriel West was alone again.