The ghosts who ran the ice cream shop were nice enough folks. A married couple that had passed on about a decade or two back, but decided that our town was a decent place to settle down for their afterlife. When they noticed there was no ice cream parlour to speak of the wife, Maybelle, suggested it would be a good way to spend time rather than haunting and annoying the neighbours. Edward, the husband, agreed and figured it would be a nice way to get to know the local youth.
Honeymoon Treats quickly became the local hangout for kids around town. The soft lighting and clean interior were pleasant enough, but the real draw was the selection of flavours. Edward and Maybelle never received any shipments of new ice cream, probably because every time they yanked a scoop up from one of the vast tubs the frozen dessert below would begin to reform. Sugary matter creeping in on itself to fill a void left for the customer’s pleasure. We would often ask them about the name ‘Honeymoon Treats,’ only to receive a sad smirk in return. I usually argued that it was because they died on their honeymoon, since they seemed to be a younger couple and all, but that was just one of many theories.
Every now and again, midscoop, one of them would go rigid. They would force a smile, then about-face and march to a back corner of the room. Once there, nose to the wall, they would begin to let out a bloodcurdling scream or a terrified whimper, as if seeing something the rest of us could not comprehend. This would last for about a minute, sometimes two, depending on the weather. Sunny days this would rarely occur, and almost always for shorter lengths of time. Rainy days it was more consistent and prolonged. On snow days the couple would sit, each huddled in a different corner of the shop, weeping endlessly until the white flakes stopped falling. They did not open much around Christmas time.
It was once in autumn when I happened to be their only customer all day. I walked up to the counter and tucked my unlit cigarette behind my ear, dirty blonde hair hanging like a drape over my impromptu storage. “Slow day?” I asked, glancing up from behind my glasses, sliding my scraped up flip lighter into my blouse’s breast pocket. Maybelle gave a small nod, but still smiled warmly. “I don’t mind it, it’s nice to have some quiet time with Edward.” I glanced past her slight form, noticing the broader shoulders of her husband drooped in the corner. He was shifting listlessly back and forth, muttering to himself as if in a world all his own. They were sweet folks, no 1matter how odd, besides what the hell did I know about being dead?
I ordered my usual, a small cup of vanilla with a light scattering of chocolate chips, and paid at the far end of the counter. They often took a few dollars off for me, each time repeating like a mantra how much they enjoyed my company on slow days, insisting I take the discounted treat. Whenever I was their only customer Maybelle would flit around the counter and invitingly demand that I sit behind the register with her and chat. She was always interested in my life, keenly leaning in as I answered her questions or explained my grumpy distaste for the majority of the people I knew. To be honest she seemed far too positive and bubbly in her reactions for somebody listening to a teenage girl prattling artsy angst and stereotypical nonconformity. As surreal as the situation may have been, I always quietly cherished these moments while smirking at the image of a lonely girl venting her feelings at the dead… how cliché.
A few minutes into our conversation Edward suddenly snapped back to reality, shaking his head and grumbling. Maybelle and I looked over as he regained his composure and turned to walk over.
“Hey! When did you get here?” he cheerily asked as he approached.
“She’s been here, sweetie.” Maybelle answered before I could even open my mouth, smiling up at her husband.
“Well, let’s go get you some ice cream!” was his next attempt to try and play off his extended absence from the world.
“She’s already finished it,” she nodded to my empty cup of ice cream sitting on the floor beside my chair.
“Ah, shit… how long was I on the other side?” he finally gave up and asked, scratching the back of his head. The ‘other side’ was what they called wherever the hell it was they went when they seized up and spaced out. I figured that it was off in some other space and time, maybe the real afterlife was trying to get them back from the living world, but whatever unfinished business they may have had kept them here. Maybelle shook her head and told him “not long” before turning back to me.
After sitting in the shop with the two of them, chatting and keeping one another company I shifted forwards in my seat. I was getting antsy. “I’m gonna go out and have a smoke, be back soon.” I said, smiling somewhat gravely at them as I pulled the lone cigarette from my ear. Edward nodded back to me, a similarly moody expression on his face. Maybelle, on the other hand, was clearly a bit distraught, as she always was, by my habit. Every time was like it was the first she had heard of it, her brows knitting together in a look of concern and disapproval. “I really wish you wouldn’t do that,” she’d say, voice tinged with melancholy, always adding, “It isn’t good for you,” to make sure to get her point across.
To be fair my reactions were almost always exactly the same too. A childish sigh as if rolling my eyes at a parent, and a half-hearted, “I’ll quit eventually” were my go to responses. I never meant to be so standoffish, even if it was more passive aggressive than anything else, but sometimes I honestly felt like a child being scolded or warned by her mother. That day, as I stood outside exhaling the dancing wisps of ash, I sighed and frowned. I felt bad, knowing she was honestly just concerned for me. After all, when you’re already dead it’s probably much easier to worry about the living mistreating their lives. I finished my cigarette, stamping it out beneath my boot heel and sucking in the cool autumn air. It was one of those strange moments where you suddenly become more aware of the world outside than before, almost hyper focused on the distinct crispness and impossible to describe scent of a perfect breeze in October.
By the time I made my way back into the shop, the smell of tobacco clung to my clothing and hair, made sharper by the cold air outside. Edward was at the register this time, strong features with a weak smile as always. Maybelle stood in the far corner, the one opposite to where her husband had stood not long before, murmuring and crying at nothing in particular. “She on the other side?” I asked, by this point well-used to their departures from reality. I didn’t really have to ask, but it had become a sort of formality that I kept to. Edward gave a slow, low nod, as if every fibre of his being was easing closer to the floor. I silently walked behind the counter and sat back down, sighing heavily.
“I want to apologise to her,” I spoke, softly expressing my guilt to Edward.
“She’ll be back soon, don’t worry, kiddo,” he responded, warmth entering his expression as he walked over and took the chair closest to mine.
“I know, I know… I just feel bad for being rude and stuff. You guys are just trying to look out for me is all, I shouldn’t be so bratty.”
Edward chuckled and patted my shoulder, friendly yet somehow more intimate. Fatherly? I couldn’t tell. “Trust me, it’s okay. She’ll be happy to hear you thought about it at least. Maybe one day she’ll get through to you.” He said with a smirk, poking my forehead playfully. I felt like curling in on myself at that, like a child that had done wrong. I was always so indignant at home and at school, yet there I was feeling like I’d been a brat to the ghosts who ran the local ice cream shop.
“It’s getting a bit late isn’t it? Won’t Carla be worried?” Edward asked me, brows raising slightly to emphasise the question.
“Eh, she knows I kinda tool around. It’s whatever,” I responded, waving my hand dismissively.
“She should be cooking dinner right about now though, right?” he followed up, scrutinising me with his gaze.
“I’ve made it perfectly clear to Carla that I can’t stand her cooking… I’ll probably just grab a burger or something on the walk back,”
“Carla? It doesn’t hurt her feelings that you call her that?”
I sighed heavily, looking at the floor before facing him, “She’s not my mother, and she never will be. Carla and Paul just have to make sure I’m not dead until I’m eighteen and then I’m out of their hair.” Edward tried to respond, I could tell he wanted to say something thoughtful, but I cut him off. “I don’t expect you to understand how I feel… just like I can’t possibly know how you or Maybelle feel,” I gestured half-heartedly to the corner where she quivered, “but I can ask you to respect it okay? Things change when you find out you’ll never get to know your real parents. You’ll never know if they loved you. You’ll never hear their advice, or their fussing care…”
I didn’t realise that I had started crying until after the last few syllables escaped my lips, hung in the air for a moment, and dissipated. I suddenly felt like I was shivering, ripples of unsteadiness washing over me. In hindsight it doesn’t make much sense, how quickly my mood changed, how a simple exchange of words suddenly popped a bubble somewhere inside, but I guess that’s just how things are at that age. I’d brought my knees to my chest, hugging them close and avoiding eye contact, but I knew he was looking at me. They always made me feel so warm and welcome, so understood and comforted… I guess that was why I ended up lashing out in front of them. I felt like I could trust them.
“I… I’m so sorry… I shouldn’t have said that…” I sputtered, my words tumbling out as if they would choke me if I didn’t spit them out fast enough. My hand came up to readjust my glasses and I could see the slight shaking, the vibrations of aftershock running through my system. Anxieties long ignored or oftentimes too briefly expressed had tumbled out at the slightest of stimuli, and left me sitting there looking like an unappreciative kid. What the hell did I know about having it rough? Carla may have paid more attention to her real kids, but I could never really blame her for that. I may never get to know my real family, who I really was, but it wasn’t like I was dead, constantly dragged off into some bizarre otherworld to face things that tore into the very fabric my soul. I knew no real suffering, I was just an angst-ridden kid who let herself wallow in loneliness.
“You don’t have to apologise,” came a sweet, lilting voice from behind me. My eyes opened at that, but almost bugged when I felt two slender arms wrap around me. They were cold, an unnatural sort of cool that I had never experienced before or since, and yet they were somehow comforting. Maybelle held me from behind while Edward walked over to tussle my hair softly. “H-hey…” I began to protest, but decided against it as he smiled down at me. “You’re all right, everything is okay. Just relax a bit.” I could hear Maybelle’s gentle words drifting from just behind my ear. I sucked in a breath through my nose, held it for a moment, then exhaled as if expelling all the gunk inside of me with the used up air.
Maybelle circled around to face me, smiling warmly and holding my shoulders. Edward stood beside her, supportive and unsure of what to do, as usual. They were like a television couple, a chemistry that seemed almost fake it was so pleasant… and yet I was fully convinced, no doubt existed in my mind that these two were partners for life, and for whatever the hell it is that comes after it. “Your feelings always have worth, kiddo,” Edward said, a firmness to his voice as if he’d finally selected the right thing to say out of the jumble in his head. Maybelle looked to him and then back to me, giving the slightest tilt of the head in confirmation. It felt so strange to feel accepted and cared for by two random ghosts that had come to town and, instead of haunting or possessing or whatever the hell it is you do as a ghost, serving ice cream to local kids.
I sniffled a bit and thanked them, feeling weirdly vulnerable, but not quite in a bad way. It took me a minute or two to regain my composure, muscles loosening in what felt like slow motion. “Thanks guys… you know I don’t usually do stuff like that.” I muttered, looking up almost apologetically at them. They both shook their heads and waved it off, “You’re fine! Everybody needs to let it all out sometimes, it’s human.” Maybelle spoke, kneeling and stroking my cheek. Again the cold felt soothing, as if there was a heat buried somewhere beneath.
Once I felt more composed I rose from the seat, hugging Maybelle close and whispering a simple “thank you” into her ear… extremely melodramatic, but it felt appropriate at the time. I gathered my things and patted my pocket to be sure my lighter was still resting safely inside. “I should probably get back home now, I think I need to get some rest a little earlier tonight,” I said, readjusting my clothes before starting for the door, holding it open and turning to offer them a smile and a “goodnight”. They both waved back to me from behind the counter, standing side-by-side. “Oh! Come back next month on your birthday! Whatever you want is on the house!” Edward called after me, grinning widely. I cheerfully thanked them and walked out, sucking a breath deep into my body.
I paused, my eyes slowly opening… I never told them when my birthday was.