This is by far— by FAR— the freakiest thing that has ever happened to me.

A lot of my friends and family live in pretty dispersed parts of the country and every so often I go on road trips in order to visit them. My job gives me the freedom to sometimes take quite lengthy ones, which is great because I am obsessed with thrift shopping, so I will sometimes plan out a route that lets me hit up a bunch of small towns’ thrift stores and see if I can score any vintage gems. It makes the traveling part of these trips much more fun. While I do a little bit of thrift flipping on the side on Poshmark, mostly I just look for myself. My collection of vintage dresses and hats and jewelry is absurd— its an addiction, folks.

This was in the summer and I had just dyed my hair a reddish-auburn from its usual blonde. I was really feeling the new look and excited about how different colors and styles might work with it. I set up on my phone a route through certain small towns’ thrift stores that I had read about online. I had already had a made a few cool scores on the first and second day before visiting my sister. After that, as I headed further south, is where the story gets... crazy. I was in the middle of no where Georgia heading to a small town that I won’t name, but which had a large church-affiliated thrift store I was planning to spend a few hours at. When I arrived in the parking lot, I had a good feeling just because of how huge the store was.

I walked in and within about five minutes, I started finding the most amazing vintage late 70s/early 80s clothes, all kind of clustered together and all very feminine. Knit skirts, flowy floral dresses, little sweaters, blouses. When I tried them on, they all fit *perfectly*, which is kind of amazing because I am pretty petite and often have to alter vintage stuff. I was convinced that these outfits must have belonged to the same person, because they were all of such a distinctive quality and era. I was super excited and looked through every rack in the store to see if I could find anything else that was similar, and I did find a few more items, like a vintage straw purse, but most of the store was contemporary t-shirts and kids clothes, so those amazing vintage pieces really stood out. They were also super cheap, like $4 a dress. Mega-score!

I had spent so long there that I decided this was the town where I was going to spend the night. I ordered Chinese to go, got a hotel room, and spent the evening eating lo mein and trying on different outfits and playing around with accessories while a movie was on in the background. The next morning, I was so excited to wear what I considered the star of my thrift haul (side note: in addition to being the freakiest thing that ever happened to me, this also remains my best thrift haul ever): a sort of Little House on the Prairie-esque long floral dress with slight puff sleeves. I felt like some kind of casual daytime princess wearing it, so I clipped my newly-auburn hair to the side, put my phone and lip balm in the just-acquired straw purse, and after packing up the car, headed out to get breakfast somewhere.

This was one of those towns that had a diner where everyone goes in the morning. The parking lot was jampacked. I figured they would have pretty good coffee, so I decided this was going to be my goodbye to the place that gave me such awesome additions to my wardrobe. I pushed the glass doors and walked in and— You know that feeling when it seems like everyone is staring at you? As soon as I stepped inside, the sound of place, which had been buzzing with different voices, noticeably dropped and I felt all these eyes on me. It wasn’t the usual lets-gawk-at-a-pretty-girl sort thing either, it felt— different. Almost unfriendly. It was unnerving. But a sign said “Please seat yourself,” so I slid into a booth and picked up a menu. I was contemplating my order when the waitress came over, an older woman in her probably late sixties. “Coffee, honey?” she said. I put down the menu, looked up with a smile, and said “yes, please!”

I’ve never seen the color drain from someone’s face before, but when I looked up at her, I saw her lips go white. She screamed and dropped the coffee pot she was holding, which smashed into the floor, hot coffee and glass going everywhere. And she kept screaming, over and over, staring right at me. I was stunned. Eventually someone took her by the arm and ushered her away toward the kitchen, where I could still hear her screaming. Every single person in the diner was staring at me now. A mother got up and clutched her children’s faces against her, as if so they couldn’t look at me, and left the diner. Other people were getting up and leaving, too, and one woman made the sign of the cross, staring at me, before she did. I didn’t move. I started saying, “I’m sorry...” which didn’t make sense, because of course I hadn’t done anything, but no one looked at me like they were going to offer any encouraging words.

I was going to get up and leave myself, but with all the other people still going through the door, I just sat there. From the back kitchen came an older man who from his apron appeared to be the short order cook. He brought me a mug of coffee and stared right at me. “Sorry about that, m’am,” he said. “She’s just had a death in the family and isn’t herself.” He stood there for a few seconds, just looking at me while I tentatively sipped the coffee, still in shock, and then he said, “Do you mind me asking your name?” I told him and his face seemed to visibly relax. “So it’s not Franny?” I told him it most certainly was not Franny. He stood there, still looking at me intently. I could see from his face that he was quite old, older than I first thought. “Because you look a lot like her. And...” he gestured toward my dress, “That’s her May Queen outfit.”

I looked down in confusion at my Little House on the Prairie dress. I told him that I had just bought it at the thrift store in town the day before. He nodded, like that made sense, and asked for my order, saying it would be on the house. I could still hear the woman in the kitchen, who was crying and moaning now, no longer screaming. So I made my order, and he came back with a mop and quickly cleaned up the mess near my foot, and soon brought out my pancakes and eggs. The noise in the diner went up a little, as the remaining diners began talking to each other again, and a few new ones came in, but I could still see them shooting furtive glances at me. Eventually, I realized I could no longer hear the waitress crying, although she never came back into the diner area.

As I finished my meal, the short order cook asked if he could sit down with me. I nodded. He asked me where I was from, and I told him, and what I was doing in this town (“we don’t get a lot of visitors here”) and I told him. I asked him what he meant about what he said before, when he asked if my name was Franny. He never took his eyes off me as he spoke. He told me that over thirty years ago “a sweet, pretty girl, my niece actually, that looked— very much like you” was murdered, strangled, and her body found in a nearby field. No one was ever charged he said, although some people suspected her on-and-off boyfriend. But no evidence was ever found. She had been the May Queen in the town’s parade in the months before she died and was going to go to college at UGA in the fall, but never got the chance. The whole town never forgot her or her murder.

“My wife,” he gestured toward the kitchen, where the waitress has gone, “just lost her older sister, who was Franny’s mother, a few weeks ago. So she’s a little skittish right now and, well— seeing you is a little like seeing a ghost.” I didn’t know what to say, so I just said I’m sorry. We realized that Franny’s clothes, which her mother had kept all these decades, must have recently been donated to the thrift store after she died. That was why there were so many great vintage outfits that fit me so well. It is strange also to think that if I hadn’t just dyed my hair, I probably wouldn’t have made nearly the same impression, as Franny’s hair had been reddish auburn, too.

“Can I ask you a favor?” he asked, as our conversation seemed to be wrapping up. “Okay,” I said. “You see that auto shop on the corner?” he pointed a gnarled finger through the diner window toward a sign I could only partly make out. “Yes?” I said. “If you don’t mind, I’d really like to walk with you into that shop and say hello to the owner.” For some reason, I didn’t ask further questions, but just said okay. He nodded and got up, getting a younger guy from the kitchen to come out to the diner while he was gone, then grabbed his coat, and together we walked without talking toward the nearby auto shop. I could feel everyone in the diner looking at us as we left. When we were close enough to be going inside the shop, I asked “Who are we meeting?” “Franny’s boyfriend,” he said grimly, and without thinking I walked forward as he held the door open for me.

There was no one in the room when we stepped inside. The short order cook immediately walked up to the empty front desk and rang a bell there and we waited. Shortly after, a man came from the back garage area. He was portly, bald, and in his probably mid-fifties, wiping his hands with a rag. “Hi, Randall,” the cook said. Something about how he said the name Randall seemed weighted with meaning. The man looked surprised, but nodded. Then he looked at me. Never as long as I live will I forget his face. As he stared at me, his expression changed to one of pure horror. “Jesus fucking Christ,” he said. Then he closed his eyes and wiped the rag over his face, which left a dark grease mark on his forehead. When he opened his eyes again, he repeated, looking at me “Jesus fucking Christ.” Then he said, “Franny?” We hadn’t talked about what I was supposed to do or say, so I just nodded. He started trembling all over, then weeping, saying, “Forgive me, Franny, forgive me.” He fell to his knees. The cook took my arm and we turned around and walked out, leaving him there.

When we were back close to the diner again, the cook turned to me and said, “Maybe not good enough for the law, but good enough for me. Thank you.” I told him I was going to leave now, and he said, “just one thing— wait here.” So I waited outside near my car, wondering what was next. When he came out, he handed me a paper bag. “Thank you, again, Laura,” he said (which is my name) and then we hugged, which was unexpected and nice. I saw that there were tears in his eyes when he pulled back. He stood outside the diner and waved at me as I drove away. Once I got to a stoplight, I opened the bag. It was an egg salad sandwich, a pickle, each wrapped in plastic, and a bag of chips.

Sometimes I still can’t believe all that really happened. The rest of the trip passed in a blur of visiting and thrifting. I told everyone I spent time with about what happened and they could hardly believe it, either, but it is true, every single word of it. Not that long ago, I happened to put on one of the knit skirts from that vintage haul (yes, I still wear all the clothes— they are lovely, after all) and realized there was a pocket I hadn’t noticed. I stuck my hand in it and out came a piece of paper. It was a dry cleaning slip with the date 3/19/79, and at the bottom was written in bubbly blue script “Francesca.”

I keep it in my jewelry box in a place of honor.