That Fateful Night...
I've been driving these same back roads for as long as I can remember, glad the autumn season somehow prevents them from looking like the same old thing. Sure, they are the same roads in essence, but the crisp air and vibrant colors are unique to this small slice of the year, making the view unique. I know them better than just about everyone on the planet since I was born in this area and along these streets, and everyone who once knew them better than me are either dead or had moved on, minus a couple of exceptions. But even I had my moments of doubt and concern when this mid-October weather (often miserable and sometimes dangerous) turned the streets into something of a maze thanks to the downed limbs and wet leaves everywhere. Man v. Mother Nature. And if anyone was to ask, Mother Nature doesn't like to play fair, but she often plays to win.
But go on and don't play fair, bitch. Knowing what I could and might get into along such routes prompted my choice to purchase a Jeep Wrangler with the biggest tires I could get away with, 4x4 capability and even a snazzy winch on the nose if it came to that. To be honest, the thing was a tidy beast in one efficient package and the only thing these roads could offer to beat it was a washout tumbling it downstream, and it might get through that if it stops wheels-up. But chances of that aren't there on this particular night. The weather simply sucks, with continual rain coupled with some steady wind and temperatures in the high thirties. Sensible people should be home watching movies or making love near a cozy fire.
Making love wasn't in the cards for me, though. Rikki and the boys were at her Mother's place for the weekend while I had to work late if I was going to see that bonus in my Christmas check. Rikki's mother was struggling with her age stealing her independence, so her good daughter does all she can without seeming as though she’s doing things for her. The two of them were still quite close and the boys liked going there. Nana spoiled them with sweets and offered plenty to do on the small farm, when the weather allowed. When it didn't, she held a sweet Xbox hostage but let them play it all night if they wanted. The old lady didn’t know technology but she sure as hell knew kids.
So I was finally able to escape the firm after dotting a ton of I’s and crossing a fair share of T’s, which meant I was wrapping up a suit allowing an out-of-state company to move in and create a moderate environmental impact. They weren't killing the forests, but simply building a small Distribution Center where land was cheap. It offered several decent jobs and needed modest economic stimulus. They wouldn't be creating much of a nuisance since the place would mainly serve as a cross dock along with making some local deliveries for the neighborhood Mom & Pop’s. Further, they were swiping away an old steel mill that hasn't functioned since before Rikki and I married. That old steel mill was ugly as could be, so, what's the belly-aching?
I felt good about the work I'd done and knew I would be home alone, watching a movie or two and enjoying one or two, or more, from the seasonal stock of Samuel Adams’ Oktoberfest beer. Late morning the next day was supposed to offer a change in the weather after this crap pushes through, with abundant sunshine and highs in the fifties, and then the night with lows in the forties and clear. There would be just a sliver of the moon, and that would be early. We had plans for a small bonfire and then some stargazing out at Nana’s with the awesome telescope I found at an estate sale. The boys were into learning the constellations and Rikki even got caught up in it. Feeling good is what urged me to take this slightly more adventurous route instead of staying on the main roads, which I could do with only adding six more miles. I had a good day at work and could enjoy a rare moment of solitude, so I wanted a change of scenery and a challenge.
The challenge for me wasn't the road but was rumored to be along it. Stories have been circulating for nearly a decade now about the various ghostly apparitions seen along this stretch of Cromwell Hollow Road, mainly at this time of year. Those who relish in such stories go all wide-eyed and animated while telling of the ghost girls either standing along the shoulder or hitching rides, looking almost alive and in distress...until you stop. From there the tales get taller by the moment. Sure, I've lived around here long enough to know there could be some small truth to the myth and legend, but I have a strict habit of keeping those stories to myself rather than blabber like Mr. Welland.
Cromwell Hollow isn't bumpy, rutted, pocked with enormous holes or little more than an old wagon path. No, this is well-maintained and working tar and gravel, redone and cared for nearly every summer. It gets somewhat spongy in the heat and collects tar on tires during the summer, but it's decent and good road. But there isn't a definable shoulder and it’s merely two lanes, one that way and one this way. Breaking down would mean being in the way, which might goad some of these people into helping, but don’t count on it. Along the north side the hill climbs gradually into the trees all the way to the pipeline and the other side is bordered by Ramada Creek. I played in that creek as a boy, hiked and camped in these woods and enjoyed a few memorable moments with Rikki a few years later during warm, sunny hikes.
I watched, really watched, as I drove, feeling a sense of exhilaration despite not believing the stupid hype. I wasn't a religious or even spiritual guy, not being raised in some family active in the church, so ghosts were tales reserved for around the campfire while eating hot dogs and marshmallows, along with stories about Sasquatch and, later, our watered down version of the Blair Witch. But tonight I wanted to see one of these hitchers the old men vented about. Tonight, I dared them to show themselves. Tonight, I wanted to be experienced. I turned off the radio and slowed it down a little bit, going slightly slower than necessary despite the horrid weather.
I thought about old man Mr. Welland as he told of his supernatural experiences. He lived along this road and reportedly had seen a few apparitions but of what he said was just the one, same girl. The report did get me looking back and thinking of a similar night, but it didn't take him long to start sounding like a loon, right there in Danny's Diner while others rolled their eyes and smirked.
"There I was," he'd say, "driving my way home as I do every day after work, and then I saw her standing there, thumb out and looking hopeful. She’d be wet and looking cold, but keeping an expression of determination. Now, I knew I should be a better man and stop to help, but I'm almost home and can't offer anything, to be honest. I'm figuring someone else would be along and pick her up. I'm also figuring that's exactly what happened, leading to the whole, awful thing."
His hands would be trembling now as he reached for the coffee everyone knew he'd spiked with some Jack. He'd go on and say, "But not ten seconds would pass and there'd she be again. I just know it's the same girl. Same clothes and hair, but something's different, disheveled. She looked desperate rather than determined this time, frightened and maybe hurt. By then I felt anxious and wanted nothing to do with some problem.”
He’d look to a neighboring table and say, "You tell them, Sam. You've done seen everything I did."
Sam was an older man, older than Welland, but he wouldn't participate. He'd listen but just shake his head when offered to tell what he saw. But he looked, somehow, hurting over it. His lips pursed. His appearance resembled that of old war heroes who couldn’t tell of that one, certain battle.
Welland continued. "I'd drive on by her, praying for her but not feeling brave or ambitious enough to get involved. But even worse was I'd peer in the rearview mirror with a look of sorrow and apology, but I wouldn't see her anywhere. It wasn't until I focused back on the road ahead that I'd see her, but now clearly hurt and even injured. And somehow, I don’t know, out of focus. Her clothes, while the same clothes, would be torn and her hair decorated with dry leaves, mud and, dear God, blood, would somehow gleam. Her thumb wouldn't be out but she'd just stand there watching me as I drove by, leaving a defenseless girl to fend for herself against whatever is doing this to her, just like the coward I clearly am."
I would have to hold back a smile as Welland rambled on, but I couldn't help but to be intrigued.
"As God as my witness I stepped on it and fled as I watched for her in the rearview mirror, but the instant I looked forward she was directly in my line of travel. She was a dead girl; flesh rotted away from the bones and empty eye sockets, her legs merely bones from under her short skirt."
There was more trembling as he said, "I didn't even have time to move to the brake pedal before blazing the truck through her tormented soul, but it just keeps getting worse. In my moment of panic and screaming, she was suddenly right there next to me in the passenger seat looking and smelling like a rancid nightmare, crying out loud and saying, 'why won't anyone help me? Why did he hurt me?', with her face being mostly skull.
"You got to tell them, Sam."
Sam would usually shake his head or get up to leave. Until next time, old man.
"Panic and horror overtook me and only instincts allowed me to get the truck under control. I would be shrieking as I looked to where she was in the seat, but every time she's done this to me, at that time she'd be gone. But I can tell you that next time, and Sam should do the same, next time I'll stop the first time and try to help. But I have yet to see her over the past couple of years. Just breaks the heart, it does.”
The story would be taller and more colorful depending on the crowd demographics, and old Sam would seem more dramatic in his head shaking or sudden departure. Such performances led some to believe these two were in cahoots, but they stated they'd swear on your mother's bible it was the truth. I’m not swearing to one damned thing.
As I rolled on and dodged the dead limbs, I couldn't help but to wonder why it was just those two old fools who see her. Why just these two sorry, broken down old fools, when gobs of people drive through here, seeing nothing but the occasional deer and Welland’s wandering Gordon Setter? Is it because they go by so often, what with living out here?
It's because the whole story is hogwash. That's what I told myself as I eased along, nonetheless keeping my eyes peeled for some hapless girl lost in crazy weather like this. Hell, anyone caught in this could be overcome by exposure quickly. The weather was horrible with just the temperature and time of night let alone the relentless rain and wind. Being caught out in this could easily be deadly, which was a good reason I was careful in my driving. Rikki and the boys wouldn't know until well into tomorrow if I didn't make it home.
But I wanted to really know if those entrancing stories carried any merit. Sure, they were two old men with little more to do than regale in their touch with the supernatural, but they had something to point at with some truth. They sometimes seemed truthful, but it could be the Jack along with decades of practice. Everyone knows old men love to tell tall tales to an audience. But as I pointed out, I've been along this way innumerable times over my few decades living here. I knew a few things, too.
Mainly, I knew I wanted to get home and watch one of the latest comic book movies that got by me, all the while enjoying a few Sam's. I was tempted to turn the volume of the radio back up and...
"Mary, Mother of God."
The girl didn't appear ghostly, at least as far as I expected a ghost to appear, but somehow lacking in the proper amount of color. I imagined a glowing apparition floating a bit off from the ground, but she appeared rather normal other than somewhat unaffected by the weather. She had her thumb out and looked my way with a need to really get going.
It's really, truly her, I thought as I slowed to see her better. I knew it was her for more reasons than just Welland's rambling, but why I knew only amazed me more. Regardless, that's the infamous ghost he's been going on about for all these years. My pulse quickened and I even shook my head in disbelief as I drove by, slightly distracted by the standing hair on my arms and her short, short plaid skirt.
I promised myself I wouldn't stop right away if I actually saw this legendary figure. I wanted to ensure she would show up again, well ahead of me, looking even worse for wear, just like Welland claimed. And, by God, there she was, just as Welland had described, looking disheveled and anxious. My mouth has hanging open and I found myself struggling to control the shakes. I pursed my lips at the first sign of my teeth chattering. There was still a large part of me in utter surprise.
As I said before, I'm not one to readily believe in such things as ghosts, but this stunned my beliefs, leaving me confused about most every belief I possessed. With that in mind, I had also always believed that should ghosts be proven real, they really cannot be anything more than disembodied people who are but shadows of who they are and were. Other than the shock of the unknown, what is there to fear? Hollywood makes them frightening, replete with special powers and nefarious abilities. I was always sure they'd still be who they were, good or bad, sharp or dull, not the pathetic demons seen in the Paranormal Activity movies.
And this was just a lost, wayward girl in the middle of nowhere. Despite my nerves, I slowed down to the second appearance of her, reached across and pushed open the passenger door. Seeing her without the filter of the wet windows caused me jaw to go slack, since directly she truly looked, well, projected. I couldn’t help but to look at her because I couldn’t help but to look through her. Why I thought about Welland and them I don’t know, but my mind considered passing on to them whatever might go on over the next several moments. For just a moment, mind you.
After all, what or who was about to get in? Would she get in or completely disappear without a trace? Would she fly around me screaming in some ghastly sound designed to make me soil myself and die of heart failure? Would she levitate the Jeep and hurl me into the Ramada Creek? Would I be an addition to the legends as told by Welland and old Sam? I barely noticed the Jeep in the creek…
Actually, she accepted the offer of an open door offered by a strange, unknown man along a rural road when nobody else was around. Didn't her mother warn her of this when she was a living little girl? She merely got in and sat down, not saying anything but looked ahead into the rain. She didn’t even acknowledge me being there; she just placed her palms on her smooth thighs and looked ahead.
She brought a coldness into the vehicle unlike anything I could have anticipated. It was cold enough out there but what she emanated was like the vapor from dry ice dropped in a bucket of water. The smell of her was more than damp, though, with a hint of mildew and old meat left out. She could have been mistaken for someone who tumbled down the hill to our left and then was pinned under a dead tree for two days or so. But you know what? Too bad.
"Don't you realize how dangerous it is to get in a car with a stranger? Anyway, where are you going?"
Again, she said or did nothing. As though I wasn’t in this picture.
Now that she was this close I could see she wasn't what one would call truly there. Like the flickering special effects I've seen in some movies, such as the ones I hoped to watch later, she changed appearance with the passing moments, from decayed dead chick to a full and pretty young girl who suddenly realized things just got out of hand. It was as though these were transitions occurring in some old-style motion picture creation in the days of Chaplin or earlier. Modern horror flicks seemingly adore these effects and now I think I know why. I wondered what they knew.
"Since I'm helping you out, why don't you help me out?" I whispered as I reached over and gently caressed her thighs.
The sensation of touching her distracted me from the moment. For an instant I could feel the smooth, quivering skin of a frightened and exceedingly alluring teen, and then in an instant too short to be any genuine passing of time I felt the roughened bone of her femur as well as the latent flesh that somehow clung to home. Sure, I still grabbed her bony, frigid hand and forced it directly to my crotch (habits being what they are) but the surreal nature of the moment made me question my sanity, no, my state of consciousness. Am I really awake? Is this some whacky dream?
"Come on, now. You know what this is, girl. It's what you are and what you wanted and you know it. Now come on and show me something."
My jaw clenched as I simultaneously felt for a firm, small breast and then found crusted, dead and decayed ribs crawling with who-knows-what. I was both disgusted and thrilled all together, feeling her hand jerk away from my manhood as fingers broke away and slipped to the seat between my legs.
"Maybe you just need some convincing," is what I said as I tangled my fingers into her skull's sparse hair that was momentarily shining with a pretty sheen and a pink ribbon and then almost entirely gone as my nails clung to flesh peeling away like old wallpaper.
I forced her face to mine as per custom and snaked my tongue into her frigid mouth, glaring into her frightened/absent eyes. The sickening feel of being at the very edge of her dimension and mine shocked me and it was warm and awesome but then as though I licked that dry ice before dropping it in the bucket, all instantaneously. Her brown eyes were both pleading and then gone, and I could see a fascinating account of what her existence was like as though no time passed but it was all there to be known, from a childhood fearing her uncle to the seasons passing as her body experienced nature's heartless wrath on her corporeal form.
And then before I could get anything out of this, like the wisps of vapor rising from the bubbling bucket filled with tepid water and a chunk of dry ice, she simply disappeared, giving me a scant few seconds at most to catch up to what was happening. There was a slight smoky sensation and then a rush of warm air from the vents of the Jeep, but nothing but me and my tumescence.
"Where the Hell did you...?"
And then there she was, looking pretty and sullen with being in a situation of helplessness, with her thumb out, just a few feet ahead of the hood and thumbing it on the side of the road. She acted as though my presence was not there even when I slammed the heel of my hand on the horn. But when I opened my door and stepped out to protest, she acknowledged me then. Somehow I finally had her attention.
More than a feeling of words than actual audio, I heard from her, "Haven't you done enough? Can't you just please let me go and leave me alone?"
And then a wisp of that chilly vapor and she was gone, leaving me to hear only the rain tapping on the scenery as well as the purr of the idling Jeep. But I was going to have the last word.
"You're nothing but a cocktease and a worthless bitch, and you got what you deserved! You got exactly what you had coming to you! I know it and you know it!”
Angrily, I climbed back into the Jeep that I was proud of and pushed it into gear, trying to simmer down my excitement and adrenaline rush. I rolled but a few yards and then got out again and looked for her, but she was nowhere to be seen. Pissed, I sat back down and drove home knowing she was nothing more than the simpering whore just like she always was, all those many and long years ago.