The Girl in the Bushes
When they reached their camp, Dewey called 911, and then they began to pack and re-load their car.They looked longingly at the case of beer, but soon they would have the company of law enforcement, so it was better left hidden.
Then they waited. And waited.Each wanted to talk, each wanted to say nothing.The initial adrenaline rush was gone, Michael’s stomach had settled, but they could not escape the fact that a human skeleton lay several hundred yards from them.
“She led us here.”Michael broke the silence.“That girl, I mean.Do you know that story about the girl who hitchhikes and gets guys to pick her up? Then they go to a dance or something and when they leave she borrows a sweater.They think they are taking her home, but she has them drop her off at the front of a cemetery.The next day they come back and the sweater is lying in front of that same cemetery.
“Where did you hear that one?”Short Round pushed himself up and looked at him.“I mean, my culture has a lot of stories about ghosts, but I’ve never heard anything like that one.”
“My mom used to read me ghost stories.I liked them, but they always scared Kit.I remembered that one just now because it’s like what happened to us.I mean, who knows how long this girl has been waiting for someone to find her?”
“I know,” said Dewey, “I know without saying, just like you do, Mike.I’ll bet you anything that it’s the girl who’s missing.Before all this started happening I wouldn’t have placed any stock in stuff like this, but I don’t see things the way I used to.” He sounded unusually thoughtful, the expression on his face suddenly older.
Dewey would have continued, but they heard cars rumbling down the road, and soon a police cruiser and a coroner’s van descended upon them.The boys showed them where the skeleton was, then went back to their camp which now was overrun with members of law enforcement and the coroner’s office.
The sheriff asked them if they’d mind answering a couple of questions about how they found the skeleton.Short Round, the consummate actor, told a convincing story about needing to take a leak, and when he saw the skeleton he called for his friends.It seemed a plausible enough story and the sheriff didn’t press for more.He asked a few more questions, had they seen anyone?Were they familiar with this place?Did people come here often?Had they ever had any problems?
The sheriff finally seemed satisfied and regretfully told them they’d have to leave since they were now in a crime scene.When he told them he needed to inform their parents about what had happened, they raised a chorus of objections.They came to camp, they argued.It was easy to see the skeleton had been there for some time.Right now they just weren’t ready to go home and face their families and the questions that would inevitably follow.They’d find another place to camp—the last thing they wanted to do was go home.
They watched the sheriff’s face.He too had been a sixteen year old boy.Sympathy won out over protocol and rules, and he reluctantly agreed to their request. One person from the coroner’s unit was kind enough to ask them if they knew about a place that was located about five miles down the highway.He drew a map on a piece of paper, telling about a clearing along the river that was half hidden, but a nice place with good fishing.They’d probably have it to themselves.In exchange for this favor, they agreed to contact the sheriff’s office when they got home—and tell their parents.
The map was easy to follow.By the time they reached their new camp they were too exhausted to do anything but pitch the tent and crawl into their sleeping bags.None of them wanted to talk about what happened, or would have admitted they were a little afraid to go to sleep.Fatigue won out over fear, and sleep took each of them, though not to easy dreams.
The newspaper article about the missing girl haunted Michael’s dreams that night.Suddenly the picture changed. He was not looking at the face of Suzie McCann, Kit’s face blazed out from the picture, eyes staring accusingly at him.The awful realization came to him that he and his friends may not be able to keep his sister safe after all, that every passing day might be bringing her closer and closer to the fates of Suzie McCann, Crazy Girl—and Mariah.Half awake, half asleep, he started crying softly to himself.Then, he felt two cold lips press themselves against his neck.“Michael, don’t cry.It’s going to be all right,” Mariah’s voice whispered in his ear.
Wide awake now, he scrambled out of the sleeping bag, grabbed his jacket and crawled out of the tent.“Mariah?”Then, more loudly, he called her name again, “Mariah?”
Suddenly her cold body was pressed against him, and they began to kiss wildly, holding each other tightly, afraid to let go.There were no words of apology spoken, only endearments whispered in the others’ ears, telling each other how much they had been missed.
“Mariah, was that her?The missing girl, I mean,”He pushed her gently away from him.
“I don’t know, Michael; honestly, I don’t.”He could not see her features in the darkness, in spite of the riot of stars and the Milky Way overhead.But he could see the shadow of her form, and her voice was as familiar to him as his own.“Crazy Girl and I never saw her.We knew he disappeared for a while but when he came back he came back alone.I think it happened while you were in the hospital.”
Michael led Mariah to a log in the clearing, they sat, huddled together.He put his arms around her and held her close to him, laying his cheek against the top of her head.
“I bet he has an appetite for killing,” Michael whispered, afraid he might wake his friends, “Maybe he killed her because he couldn’t get to my sister.Maybe he killed her because he likes it. I read that the Green River killer would kill girls every day before he finally slowed down, but he didn’t really quit killing until they caught him.Maybe Kit’s safe for a while, but eventually the days will get shorter and it will be dark again when she walks home from the bus. I’m scared Mariah, I think it’s just a matter of time before he tries to get her. I hope I can stop him, but what if I can’t?”
“That’s how he got me.It was dark.I was walking home from the bus stop and he grabbed me from behind.I never even saw him.That yard, that house.No one saw anything.He’s like a predator, he stalks.He takes his prey down like he’s some sort of animal with a genius for hunting.”
“What are we going to do, Mariah?How can we get to him?”
“\I don’t know. But Michael,” she paused, “I’m sorry.I never should have gotten mad at you and abandoned you.Your accident, your concussion.You had that horrible dream and I reacted to it.I didn’t even think, I just got mad.I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry, too.I wish I hadn’t gotten so caught back up in that dream.I’ve never dreamed anything like it--I don’t know why I did. We have each other, for now.We can work this thing out—I don’t know how, I just believe it and that’s good enough for me.”
“I better go,” Mariah whispered in his ears, “I think that one of your friends is waking up, wondering where you are.I’ll come to see you when you get home.”They shared one last kiss, and Mariah’s shadow shimmered and vanished.
Michael stood for a long moment, staring at the stars and thinking.Once he had thought that Mariah would fill that great, empty hole he had been felt ever since his father had lost his job.Now he wasn’t so sure.He shivered to shake the thought away and returned to the tent, seeking the warmth of his sleeping bag.
The spirit of joy that had anticipated the camping trip was gone out of the boys, but they could not bring themselves to return home.They did not speak of the skeleton that had lain so pathetically in the bushes, but they could not forget it either.Each knew the image would follow him home.“CSI” and “Forensic Files” no longer seemed cool, but morbid, after seeing the real thing.
To compensate, they threw themselves into hiking, fishing, and riding their mountain bikes.At night they would build a fire and cook their dinner, washing it down with the forbidden beer.The radio they had brought along for entertainment was left untouched.Wanting to know nothing of the outside world, they went to bed early, slept long hours, and woke whenthe sun was high in the sky.
The night before they went home, they ate the now-thawed steaks they had brought, and finished the last of the beer.They built a bonfire, then sat and said nothing for a long of time.
Dewey finally broke the silence.“Guys, what are we going to tell people?Do we even want to say anything about this?”
“I wonder if they’ve notified our parents.”Michael stood up and threw another log on the already-blazing fire.“It’s not like we’ve done anything wrong, but we’re minors.My parents have good intentions, but they’d freak, maybe act like we were in danger when all that happened was we found was the skeleton of a missing girl.Me, I think I don’t want anyone at school to know about this.They’d ask stupid questions, or think it was cool when it’s not.I don’t want to have to deal people asking me questions about this.I’d rather not talk about this to anyone at all.We know about it, and I want to keep it that way.”
“I feel sorry for her,” Short Round spoke up.The others looked at him, surprised.“I mean, she’s lain there for months waiting to be found.You guys, your culture, you don’t really know about the dead, what they need.You embalm them and bury them in the ground, or maybe cremate them, but that’s it.Maybe you visit their graves once in a while.You don’t get that they never really leave.The dead need to be remembered and honored.You like to think dead is dead, but it’s not that simple.This girl, think what she’s been going through.She needed to have someone find her a long time ago.”
“Wonder what we’re going to face when we get home?They didn’t send us home to our parents, that’s a good sign.Maybe if we just tell them we had a good time, they probably won’t think anything about it.”Dewey was trying to speak as the voice of reason, but even he didn’t believe what he was saying.
“I just want to know if we found the missing girl.It would be nice to know that some good came out of this.I guess we’ll have to wait and find out on the news,” Michael shrugged his shoulders and shook his head, “Or maybe from the police.”A part of him didn’t need to find out, because he already knew.The minute they’d seen the first bone he’d known.The article in the newspaper, the horrible sense of something being wrong when he’d been in the hospital, and the nausea that had overcome him when they’d found the girl’s body—everything was giving him a fierce headache.All he wanted to do was to take some of his Tylenol and crawl into his sleeping bag.
They all agreed they’d go home and try to act as if nothing had happened.They’d go home and pretend they’d had a good time and couldn’t wait until their next camping trip. At the moment none of them had any appetite for any more excursions into the woods until this one could be forgotten.If they were lucky, they would not have to deal with it any further.If by some chance the police wanted to talk to them again, they hoped their parents would be understanding about having been kept in the dark.
The next morning they packed in silence, each keeping his thoughts to himself.The beer cans were crushed and put in the garbage bag; the tent and poles were packed, sleeping bags rolled, fishing tackle was carefully put away.They poured water on the remains of the fire and stirred the ashes.
They got in the car, their mood still solemn.Dewey pulled carefully out into the traffic and they headed back home.As they passed the turnoff to their old campground, Short Round watched as they passed and said, “I wonder what they found there.I wonder if we could…”
“Forget it,” said Michael and Dewey simultaneously.Michael looked at him and Short Round slunk back in his seat.
“I just can’t help wondering,” he said helplessly.
“It isn’t any different for us,” said Michael, “but it’s a thing better left alone.It’s a little too morbid for me right now.Maybe it’s still a crime scene.Someday, when this all has passed, I’ll be able to go back there.Besides, I think we all know who she was.”He lapsed into silence.
“We don’t know,” objected Short Round, “It could be anyone.”
“We’re still not going back there, so forget it.I thought you didn’t want to go back to that place again—ever.I think that’s how you put it.”Dewey spoke without turning his head.
“I just want to go home,” Michael said. He needed the comfortable familiarity of his family. The possibility of seeing Mariah again hung in the air.On the one hand, finding the remains of the dead girl had been depressing; but on the other, it had brought Mariah back to him.He didn’t care how, he didn’t care why.All that mattered was that she was back.She was no longer angry.She had forgiven him.His shattered heart was slowly starting to feel whole.
Dewey dropped Michael off first.He and Short Round made polite conversation with Michael’s parents about how great the camping trip had been.As usual, Short Round, stared too hard at Michael’s mother when he thought no one was looking. Dewey slapped the back of his head and mouthed, “Stop it.”
When Michael’s stuff was unloaded, they drove off, and he suddenly felt vulnerable—he didn’t want to tell his parents what really had transpired on his camping trip, but he didn’t know if the police had contacted them. He dragged his pack and sleeping bag, along with his fishing pole, up the stairs and dropped them on the floor of his room.He went to his window and stared out into the back yard, debating.He didn’t want to lie, but this was a truth both too awful to tell, or to keep.
“I thought you had a good time,” he turned around to see his father standing in the doorway.
“I did.”Part of the time, sort of, if you counted camping in spite of stumbling upon a crime scene. If your camping trip was saved because one of the CSI people knew a place to go.
“Mike, I was there at your birth, I’ve helped your mother raise you.When you’ve had a good time you don’t have that morose look on your face.Something happened, didn’t it?”His father sat on his bed.
Okay, Michael thought, here goes.This will either go over or it won’t.
“We found a dead body, or the skeleton of one.Dewey used his cell and called 911 to tell them what we’d found.”Okay, Dad, what do you make of that?
“Mike.”His father was speechless for a moment, then recovered.“Why didn’t you come back home?”
“Because coming home, coming home was not possible.We wanted to be alone.It got to me, it got to all of us, but we weren’t ready to go back to our families and try to pretend to be, well, normal.We just needed—time.”He looked intently at his father, trying to see if he understood.
His dad put a hand on his shoulder.“Do you want me to tell your mother?”
“No!”he shook his head violently, and his father removed his hand.“I don’t want Mom or Kit to know, but I’m the one who should tell Mom.I’d prefer that Mom didn’t know, because I don’t want something like that to affect her.I’ll tell her, I promise, but not now.I’m having enough trouble dealing with it.”
His father touched his shoulder again—briefly, and left the room.He could count on his dad.Both of them wanted to shelter his mom and his sister from things like this.His mom could handle it, but it would upset her because she’d be upset that this happened to him.It was important to shield Kit from this even though, since turning fourteen, she no longer considered herself a child.
It felt good to take a shower and eat his mother’s cooking.At ten o’clock, his eyes betrayed him and would not stay open.No sooner did he lay his head on his pillow, then he fell into a deep sleep.
He was walking down the road past their campground.It seemed so unnaturally still that he looked up into the trees to see where the birds were.His feet made hardly any noise as he walked on the soft dirt surface of the road.
“Michael”.Someone said his name.He looked to the left and saw a long, shining hank of dark brown hair lying in the bushes.His feet took him, unwilling, over to where the hair lay tumbled on the ground; his eyes followed as he saw a skull attached to the hair, and a skeleton lying with its bones jumbled and out of place.
Slowly the skeleton started to assemble itself, the bones acquiring flesh. He saw Mariah lying, curled up in fetal position, under the bushes where they had found the girl.To his horror she stood up, flesh still forming, and heard her say his name once again as he stood, too horror bound, to turn and run.
“Michael!”Mariah was shaking him awake.“Wake up Michael, you’re having another nightmare.”She put her arms around him and held him tight.
“Oh god, I was dreaming about her, but it was you.You were there, under the bushes where we found her.”
“Michael, it’s over for her now.She’s gone, she’s at rest now because you found her.I saw her spirit leave when you guys found her bones.She was just waiting for someone to find her.”
“How did you know?”Michael’s tone was suspicious.
“I knew the moment you found her, and suddenly I found myself there.It was like you called to me, or something, only you didn’t know it.I didn’t want to see her any more than you and your friends did.The worst part was I knew that it could have been me.But suddenly I knew how much you cared.Michael, you don’tknow...”
“Shhh,” he cut her off, “it’s not important anymore.It’s all in the past.”
They lay on Michael’s bed, holding each other. An awful truth came to Michael--he was starting to understand that he couldn’t keep Mariah with him, no matter how badly he wanted to.The medium, Short Round, they all knew the truth he hadn’t wanted to face.He’d have to find a way to let her go someday.As much as they loved each other, this wasn’t meant to be.She shouldn’t stay earthbound just because of him, and he had no right to try to hold her here.He knew he wasn’t ready to lose her, but he felt a sharp pang of loss for what was to come. He didn’t know when it would happen, and he didn’t want to think about it.But he knew that whenever it was, he wouldn’t be ready.
She stayed until dawn began to break through the curtains.Michael had drifted off to sleep and she touched her cold lips to his forehead before she disappeared.He looked for her when he woke, but she was gone.
He got up out of bed and pulled on his jeans and a t-shirt.No one in the house seemed to be awake, so he opened the front door, being careful not to make too much noise, and ran up the street to the sinister house that sat like a spider hidden behind the trees.
“You can’t have my sister, you bastard,” he said out loud, “I’m going to find a way to free Mariah and her friend, too. I can’t prove to the cops what you did to that girl; but so help me, now that I’ve seen your handiwork I’m going to bring you down.”
He ran home, hoping no one had seen him.He sat on the sofa, his head in his hands, emotions rushing over him.Feelings that were simultaneously determination and dread.An awesome responsibility seemed to be weighing him down.The monster had to be stopped, but he had no idea how.There was a part of him that would have gladly killed him if he could, but that was not in Michael’s nature.
From what he had learned from Mariah, it would be no simple thing for the cops to uncover the monster’s handiwork.For one thing, there were such things as warrants and probable cause.The cops could maybe identify the remains of the girl that he and his friends had found, but how would they know who killed her? Even if he could keep Kit safe, Mariah’s bones would still lie in her grave in his basement, unless he could find a way to free her.
He had thought that turning sixteen would be a passage to the start of adulthood.Sixteen was providing no more answers than fifteen had.He suddenly felt old for his years and wished he had somewhere he could turn for guidance.He realized now that adults did not have all the answers, even if you needed them to in the worst way.In spite of his friends, his parents, Mariah, Michael suddenly felt very alone.