Photo by Monica Louzon

People hurry out of your way when you’re a meter maid. I should know — I’ve been one in Cape May for eleven years. They’re always running to add quarters to expiring meters or scurrying away, hoping they won’t catch your eye. Meanwhile, you go on with your life, praying maybe today, an unhappy driver won’t fly at you in a fit of rage because they saw you ticket their car.

Even so, it’s not a bad job. I make a decent wage and I get to enjoy the sunlight and chat with people, both strangers I meet on the job and people I’ve known for ages. My family has been tied to this quiet, seaside Victorian town in New Jersey for over a century. Some of my relatives even helped rebuild the Congress Hall hotel after the 1878 fire — or so the family legend goes.

Cape May doesn’t have high-stakes problems, just small-town drama and tourists trying to escape their parking fines.

My favorite tourists are the children. I love watching their eyes as I unlock a meter and pour the canister of quarters down my cart’s metal funnel. You can see the wheels churning as they try to fathom how many times they could play their favorite game at one of the arcades on the boardwalk. Sometimes, I have to nudge aside greedy little hands reaching for quarters. That doesn’t happen too often — parents who like to vacation here usually instill good manners in their children.

Despite all that, Cape May’s not a perfect place. Back when my boss was a meter maid, one of her coworkers left tickets on the same car three days in a row before she spotted the dead body inside it. That’s a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.

I thought finding a stack of quarters and a note — in your own handwriting — on a parking meter would be a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, too.

But it’s been happening to me every morning, seventeen days straight, and I don’t know why.

Someone puts the note and quarters on the same parking meter by Congress Hall — the big yellow hotel with all the white columns — every time, even though there’s no parked car or expired meter.

At first, I thought maybe there was a carbon monoxide leak, like you see on the news. I had my house inspected, but everything there was fine. I bike instead of driving, so it’s not my car causing the problem, and when I walk my route, I don’t linger by idling cars.


Today, as I approach the big yellow hotel, I can see the note and stack of quarters from
the corner of Congress Street and Congress Place. Rather than diligently going down the row to hunt for the flashing red of expired meters — like I’m supposed to — I head over to Congress Hall’s valet kiosk.

“Hey, Keith, how’s it going?”

I’ve known Keith since he was small enough to first covet the quarters from my meters. This is his second summer parking cars for the hotel. He gives me a huge smile. “Couldn’t be better! Magda and I are going out!”

“Oh, that’s wonderful! Congrats!” I say. Magda’s one of the seasonal workers at Uncle Charlie’s Ice Cream. She’s a sweetheart, and — I suspect — a heartbreaker.

“Thank you!” He keeps smiling and then seems to register that I’m visiting him before I’ve done my walk up and down Congress Place. “What’s up, Miss Claire?”

“You’ve got the morning shift, right? Have you seen who keeps leaving those notes on that parking meter?” I point.

His smile fades. “What notes?”

“Got a sec? Let me show you. There’s one there now.”

He follows me over to the offending meter.

“What does it say?” he asks as I pull the thick, white paper from the meter.

“The meter’s jammed, so I left you some quarters.” I don’t tell him that it’s written with my handwriting, just like the other sixteen were, because I don’t remember writing any of them. I don’t want him to think I’m going crazy. I’d never do something like this to someone else. Why would I do it to myself?

“Weird,” he proclaims.

“And look, it’s not jammed.” I insert one of the quarters into the meter. The time on the display goes up by another fifteen minutes, just like it should.

“Well, I dunno, Miss Claire. Maybe someone’s playing a prank on you.”

“That’s what I’m worried about.”

He shrugs. “This is Cape May, Miss Claire. It’s probably just a Good Samaritan. If it bothers you that much, I’ll take the quarters next time so you won’t have to worry. Anyway, I gotta get back to the kiosk — that’s the Pinard family pulling in now. See ya later!”

“Bye, Keith.” I run my fingertips over the note’s uneven edges as he dashes away.


On my lunch break, I walk to the Colonial House where my friend Meg works as a museum guide. It’s only a couple blocks, but it’s hot and humid, and the air’s heavy with the scent of tulip poplars — one of those late July days where the breezes stay on the beach, though I wish they’d have a change of heart.

Meg’s just wrapping up a tour as I walk in. The front room of the house used to be a tavern, but it’s quite small by modern standards. I step aside so her guests — an old man and his son — can exit.

She hugs me. “I thought you had to work today!”

“I do. I’m on my lunch break.”

She arches an eyebrow. “What’s up?”

“Someone keeps leaving notes like this on one of my parking meters,” I say, pulling the now-folded note out of my shorts pocket. “I was hoping you might be able to help me figure out who’s doing it.”

She unfolds it and laughs. “But this is your handwriting!”

We’d been high school pen-pals. Of course she knows my handwriting. “I know. But I don’t remember writing it. And I’ve never owned paper like this in my life.”

Meg nods knowingly. “You always were partial to those yellow legal pads.”

“Can you help me? I’m not trying to be rude, but I’m on the clock.” Even in a quiet town like Cape May, you can still get fired for slacking off.

“Let’s go upstairs. I want to look at this in better light.”

I follow her up the bare wooden stairs to the dormer room’s solitary desk. She shares it with the other museum guides. She sits, turns on a bright lamp, and produces a magnifying glass from one of the desk’s drawers.

Meg holds the paper under the lens.

I can feel my sinuses closing up from the musty air. “Crap, I forgot to take my allergy medicine today.”

She’s too absorbed to respond.

“See anything interesting?” I ask.

“Actually, I do. Where did you get this, again?”

“A parking meter.”

“Huh. Interesting. Well, the paper’s got a deckled edge, which means it’s handmade, and it’s also got some foxing.”


She points at some discolored spots on the paper. “Age spots, sometimes caused by humidity and oxidation of the materials used when making the paper pulp.”

“So the paper is old?”

“Older than either of us, at the very least.”

“This makes no sense,” I grumble. “How can someone be leaving notes for me in my own handwriting on old paper I’ve never used before?”

Meg looks up at me, her brow furrowing with concern. “Are you sure you’re doing okay?

Have you been having memory lapses?”

I shake my head. “No. Well, none that I’m aware of, anyway. This isn’t the only note, either. There’s been one on the same meter, along with a stack of quarters, every day for weeks. Today was day seventeen.”

“Do you have the other notes?”

I shake my head. “This is the first one I’ve kept.”

She examines the note again under the light. “Do you have a fountain pen?”

“No. Why?”

“I didn’t think so. You don’t have the patience for them.” Meg returns the note to me. “This is your handwriting, but written with an extra-fine pen nib — you can tell from the width of the strokes and the way the ink dried. If my trained archivist’s eyes don’t deceive me, I’d say this was written in the 1870s or 1880s.”

“This doesn’t make any sense,” I repeat, trying to figure out a logical explanation.

I look around, hoping maybe there’s some clue in this cluttered space that could explain everything. My eyes fall on the clock over the stairs. “Ugh, I’ve got to go.”

Meg follows me downstairs. “Please keep me posted.”

Her mothering tone makes me wince. “Of course.”

“Let me know what the doctor says.”

“I never said I was going to see the doctor.”

She hesitates. “Well, I think you should. Just in case you are having memory problems.”

I don’t reply — I just give her a hug goodbye, and hightail it out into the still, salty air. Somewhere in Cape May, there has to be someone who can give me answers. Someone, like the person who’s leaving me the notes and quarters.

The easiest solution?

Catch them in the act.


And that’s how I ended up here, three days later, hiding in the bushes surrounding Congress Hall’s valet parking lot. I’ve got my camp stool and a clear line of sight on the meter through gaps in the leaves. Keith parked some pickup trucks around my spot so no one will be able to see me from the hotel windows or the houses nearby — unless I stand up.

It’s two thirty in the morning and all’s quiet now, but earlier, the ghost tour trolleys kept startling me with their dinging bells as they came up Congress Street and turned onto Congress Place. I think the trolley drivers and tourists are done for the night, because it’s been a while since the last one passed through.

There’s no moon in the sky and the streetlights on this end of the block burned out, but the stars are bright. There’s a storm coming closer to dawn, but for now, the evening sea breezes have chased away the clouds.

My eyes are tired. I’ve been awake for nearly twenty-four hours, and I’ve been staring at this same damn parking meter since nightfall. There were some tourists who parked in front of it around dinner time, but they took off before midnight. I blink once, twice… again…


My eyes snap open. Is that a kid? At this hour?

I sit up straighter and peer through the hedge.

Sure enough, there’s a boy and a girl blocking my view of the meter. The boy’s about eleven and dressed normally for his age, but the girl is probably a teenager, and she’s wearing a glow-in-the-dark pinafore.

They’re talking, but I can’t quite hear them because the wind keeps rustling the leaves between us.

The girl glances over her shoulder.

Can she see me? No way. I had Keith help me pick my hiding place before it got dark.

She looks familiar, but I can’t place her face.

Why is she in costume? It’s July, not Halloween.

As I watch, the boy pulls a roll of quarters from his pocket and puts a few coins on top of the meter. The girl hands him a piece of paper. He produces a roll of masking tape from the backpack on the ground beside him and meticulously tapes the note to the parking meter.

They start giggling again as the wind shifts. Now I can hear them.

“What do you think she’s gonna do this time?”

The boy snickers. “I dunno, but it serves her right for not letting me have any quarters!”

I squint.

Was he the kid whose hand I smacked last summer, the one who was begging me for quarters to use on the new pinball table in the arcade? It’s hard to make out his features in the dark, but there’s enough light from the girl’s glowing costume — and the hotel’s outdoor lights — that maybe, just maybe, it could be him.

“You do realize that you could keep the quarters and go to the arcade instead, right?” the glowing girl asks. I smile, because she just said exactly what I was thinking.

“I don’t care about that stupid game anymore. Besides, pranking people with you is way more fun!”

“I wish I could do it during the day.”

“Me, too.”

They both look sad for a minute, and then the wind starts to shift again. As it does, I think I hear him add, “I wish you weren’t a ghost.”

They almost embrace, and then she freezes. He bends down, picks up his bag, and runs across the street. He goes up the front steps of one of the houses.

I pop my head up over the bushes in time to see him pull the front door shut behind him.

I must have made a noise, because when I look back at the parking meter, the girl’s staring at me with glowing purple eyes.

She glides toward me, straight through the bushes as if they weren’t there.

“What the — ” I fall backward off my camp stool and into the closest pickup truck with a thud.

She rises up into the air over my head and disappears.

Shaken, I pick myself up. “That’s enough sleep deprivation for one night,” I mutter.

I pack up my camp stool and walk up the block to where I chained my bike, trying to understand what just happened.

By the time I get home, I’m pretty worked up about the whole affair. I’m too upset to sleep, even though I’m exhausted. I’ve got work in just a few more hours.

I need to calm down, so I put the kettle on. When it whistles, I pour myself a cup of soothing herbal tea and wait for it to cool.

I find myself idly flipping through the family photo album, which is basically the love story of my family and Cape May for over a hundred years.

I turn another page, and freeze.

It’s her.

The ghost girl’s face is staring back out at me from a black-and-white picture.

I squint at the handwritten caption beneath her.

Claire. Age 15.

Died in Congress Hall fire.

Nov. 1878.

The eyes in the photograph flare purple, and a chill runs down my spine 


Monica Louzon (she/her) is a queer writer, translator, and editor from Maryland. Her words have appeared in over 25 publications in 6 countries, and her story “9 Dystopias” was a Best Microfiction 2023 winner. To learn more about Monica and her works, visit