Note: This is the third installment of a ghost story. It’s not meant to be read by itself. If you’d care to start at the beginning, click here.
The woods is never completely empty. Even when you think you’re alone, you’re not; there’s always something watching. It might even be a predator; there’s coyotes and foxes out there, and every now and then someone spots a lynx. Even if not, there’s the birds and deer, rabbits and squirrels, and a teeming host of insects that you’ll never see — because they stay alive by hiding.
But whatever it is that’s watching, sometimes you can feel the eyes resting on you, tracking, measuring, making plans in which you’re either prospective dinner or diner. The old-timers say sometimes it’s not animals; it’s something called the spirit of the woods, maybe even the trees, old and patient and waiting for you to finally go away and let them grow in peace. But whatever it is, it’s always watching.
It was watching now.
This trip had seemed like a no-brainer in class. Most everyone had chosen to do a research project in the library, either transcribing hours of old reel-to-reel tapes or tracking down someone else’s transcription and trying to find a story in it. Dry and tedious; he was falling asleep just thinking about it.
But this sounded exciting! Ghost hunters at midnight, and never mind that there was no such thing. A bunch of kooks, sure, but they’d be sitting around telling ghost stories in a graveyard of all places. And best of all, he’d only need to write one page!
And where was this town, this Myra? He’d tried to find it on Google, but he got nothing aside from the name and a hollow dot on the map. Except for that link to a telephone prank, obvious now it had been pointed out to him. Call a funeral home and ask for Myra Mainz. My remains. Funny… or not.
The sign-up sheet had offered $20 for the driver, and that too was a Godsend. Ten for the tank, ten for profit. Not much of a map, just a pencilled sketch on copy paper… Jake frowned, then dug it out of his pocket, handing it to Sue. “Here, take a look at this. I think… I think I may have taken a wrong turn back there after all.”
They were moving through an area with nothing but marsh on either side, a tiny glint of open water visible in the backwash of the headlights. The road was now a causeway, higher still than it had been, but it ran on straight for miles, just as if someone had used a ruler. For the first time in half an hour, there was the light of an oncoming car up ahead; it must have been a mile or more, and there was a blur of mist. Wonder where they’re coming from, he thought. Maybe it’s the ghost hunters.
“I can’t see,” said Sue, and Clarice handed up her phone. The bright light was blinding, and Jake braked, blinking furiously, to visions of driving off the embankment and nosediving into the muck. A horn sounded in the distance; Jake squinted. It was the oncoming car, a lot closer. They must be moving pretty fast, he thought, and then it was on them.
A blast of horn, a massive rumble, and a huge shape blasted past them in the dark, maybe six inches away from the car door. It was deafening, overwhelming, and Jake could feel the car sliding away in the wind of its passage. There was a loud Pop! and then it was past, red taillights visible in the rear-view over the startled faces of his passengers, a tractor-trailer loaded with tree trunks. Pulp truck, he thought numbly.
“Mirror,” said Mike from the back. Even he sounded shaken.
“I think it broke your mirror.”
And it had; looking out, Jake could see a shattered stump where his driver’s side mirror had been. Two thoughts warred in his mind; Closer than six inches was battling That’ll cost more than twenty bucks for his attention. Jake shook himself, then looked at the road ahead. The car was closer to the center than it should have been. He started it rolling again, drifting into the proper lane. Clarice, who had been blessedly silent for a few miles, started up again, slightly incoherent this time but making up for it by being both faster and higher in pitch. Sue was muttering over the map, but he couldn’t hear. “Hush,” he said to Clarice; she ignored him. “Hush it, dammit!” he snapped; she stopped mid-word, startled into silence. “Sue, what do you see?”
“Well, we… uh, we made a wrong turn back there, but it’s not so bad,” she said. “We should have gone straight at the crossing; there must have been a road we couldn’t see. But the Myra road turns off, kinda loops around and comes back out on this one a lot closer to where we are now. It should be on our left somewhere, but…”
“But?” Jake tried but couldn’t keep the tension out of his voice. He was shaking a little; the truck had badly startled him, and the reality of the broken mirror was just starting to make itself known in the pit of his stomach. A lot closer than six inches. He tasted bile, bitter in the back of his throat, swallowed. It didn’t help.
Sue was staring. “But I don’t know if we’ve gone past it or not. Clarice, does this phone have a map?”
“Uh… yeah, let me see it.”
No reception. No surprise. They tried Mike’s phone too and got the same result. In the end they had to stop the car, and Jake got out, holding Clarice’s phone over his head. One bar was the best he could manage, but it was enough; he looked at the screen glumly, then got back in. At least the fresh air had helped, though his mouth still tasted bitter.
He started to turn the car around, only thinking about halfway through that this wasn’t the brightest idea ever, not on an elevated causeway through a swamp in a car missing its side mirror, not when pulp trucks came roaring through at Mach Ten or whatever. But the little compact made it around without sliding off, and they started back the way they had come. I really love this car.
The next installment is up; you can access Part Four by clicking this link. Or you can turn back while you still can; we won’t blame you.
Image credit: Junior Libby, by way of PublicDomainPictures.net