Christmas is a time for ghost stories. Tragedy, lost treasure, and of course, cold dark evenings around the fire. For the third year in a row, I present a ghost story for Christmas. This year, a tale of an old man coming home to the spirits he’s tried to escape. Enjoy!
The Ghost Hunter
I’m on Highway 177 heading north. December 24th, Merry Christmas to you all. Coming back after a decade. Sorry I was gone for so long. The sun is snuffed out by the trees and the clouds hang low. I could reach out my window and my fingers would graze them. The snow has threatened this stretch of Oklahoma for a week. I doubt you could find a single jug of milk or loaf of bread in this state. A scent hits my nose, origin unknown, but it takes me back, a faint whiff of the dust floating in our home. A time machine trip without my hands ever leaving the wheel.
Snow falling now. I left this place, this haunted house, only to find myself in a dozen more. I hated myself for leaving you but God, did I really? Weren’t you there with me, in every wraith, in every creature?
If we were never apart, why does dread eat up my stomach, ravenous as a goddamn coyote?
The snow picks up. Flakes like bonfire ash. They don’t settle on my windshield; they slam with a kamikaze force to impede my vision. No heated windshield in the Oldsmobile, just wipers struggling to keep up and a 50-year-old engine ready to hibernate. But we coast on, don’t we? What else is there to do? Stop? No. You stop, they find you. That’s the beginning of the end, isn’t it?
Despite the sputtering heater and clouded vision, I see the ball roll onto the road ahead of me. It’s small and red, almost glowing amidst the snow and ice. The ball from the Leery place. Is that you, Sadie? That was the summer the Oldsmobile stranded me in Bonham.
A nice couple let me crash for the night, and told me all about the girl who ran through the kitchen and crossed the living room, vanished into the backyard. They matched the kitchen curtains to the dress, yellow with small white flowers dotting them.
They had no kids of their own, and wanted her to feel welcome.
Passed out on the couch, I woke to ice on my chest and a small face looking into mine. I could see through her into the woods beyond the glass door. They never heard her speak, but she whispered to me.
“Time to come home.”
I keep my eyes on the road. If Sadie is there, I hope she’s warm.
A reluctant ghost hunter. I never trespassed into abandoned homes or spent my nights with tape recorders in historic houses. But the unknown is always in the shadows, of every room or acre, waiting for your eyes to settle on it. I crossed the country, one hovel to another, one day-labor gig to another. Calloused hands and a fucked up back. But I always moved on. Worried she would find me, worried she would demand to know why I ran.
There’s a mailbox ahead. Large and ornate, glowing in the headlights. Ah, there it is. No mailbox. Only a figure bent at a 90-degree angle, it faces me and the eyes catch the light and shine back. It stands up straight now, without moving its lower half. The Glow Worm from the Bastrop mines. It followed me home after I spent a night there, before I found the Oldsmobile, before I learned to travel well.
They found the Glow Worm in the mine when they opened a new shaft, a desiccated corpse sitting cross-legged, head down. No clothing, tattoos or markings of any kind. Just legs and arms a little too long, empty eye sockets a little too wide. Long after they dumped the corpse in a river nearby, the same figure stalked the mine. Legs a little too long, arms reaching out further than they should. Eyes, not empty, shining a little too bright.
I thought I shook him in New Mexico. What would he tell me if I stopped?
What would you have him say, Charlotte?
The snow clears and I’m nearing my destination. No GPS, I could never forget. I could find you with my eyes closed, Charlotte. As easily as you always found me. I missed you. I ran and ran but now, nowhere to run. Time to come home.
No sun but the clouds seem bright, illuminated by—what? Trees line the road with only a few breaks for driveways or access to neglected properties. The pine grows tall and there’s a copse of trunks together. They bend, and gradually sink into the woods around them —no, they walk. Massive creatures, bodies hidden in the canopies. No one has ever seen anything but legs vanishing into the forests, nothing other than the parting of trees as the beings moved through.
They’re far from home. Guiding me?
I said goodbye to you long before I buried you. Those last years, you were a husk with a heartbeat, and the first time I heard your voice in my ear, the night after the funeral, I feared the same husk waited in the dark.
Could I ever apologize for 25 years hiding? Running from you and desperately missing you, the you I knew before.
I pull the car over and tap the brakes. Snow crunches. I try to keep from drifting into the ditch. The ’72 Olds is a boat, pea green with a vinyl top acting as a band aid against a helluva rust issue. She’s got me this far.
The unpaved road was white rock on red earth. It didn’t belong and every rain tried to rectify the situation. I can barely follow it, the ditches on either side filled with snow and ice. The car slides. Ahead a dog stumbles into the road. I steer away from it, back to the road. The headlights catch the eyes. It blinks.
A carry-off dog? Don’t usually find them this far south. No, it rises on two legs and moves from my path. Dogman? The creature is gangly and struggles to move, stumbling like a newborn fawn. It shakes its head and moves on. I hear it screaming in the night.
Enough. I turn on the radio and Gram Parsons sings Sin City. She’s near, I’m close now. The snow falls again, gently this time. The road terminates at a small trailer house in a clearing, tall grass broken under the weight of the ice. The porch light is on. I can see an old chevy parked out front. The driver’s door is open.
I turn off the engine. The radio stops but I hear the vocals, warbling and muffled. I open the door and push myself out; my thighs tighten and burn as I stand, and I grip the roof for leverage. All those years catching up with me, the price of slowing down.
Sin City echoes from the air, carried in and around on the same wind that swirls the snow around me. The air is crisp, razor sharp, slices to my bones. I exhale and it echoes like the song. I trudge to the front porch. The door is open wide.
Another scent hits me. Gasoline. I struggle up the steps and stop at the door. Little has changed. I expected dilapidation, fading paint and curling front steps. The same. The same. The same. My God, it’s all the same.
Inside, I see a man swinging a gas can, the last few drops spraying around the room. He drops it with a thud and turns to see me. He sobs and rubs his head.
“I-I don’t know, I just…I had to.”
“I know,” I tell him. “You can go now. It’s okay.”
“I have to.” He sniffs and fishes a lighter from his pocket. “I have to.”
“I know, son. You go on home, now. Rest.”
He lights it. Flames burst and he flees the house. The fire runs across the floor and climbs the walls like a plague of spiders. The heat bears down and I back up to a recliner, free of flames for the moment.
I fall into the chair, but I’m gone before I hit the seat.
I’m standing again, because she’s here. She’s bringing me close and I’m the young man she left and she’s the girl I knew before the monster in her genes devoured her. I see her eyes and there’s life there and I pull her to me. I wrap my arms around her and squeeze. I want to apologize and beg forgiveness for running, for being so scared of her haunting me, so scared of how I felt when she was finally gone.
But the song plays again and not even the roar of flames can subdue it. I don’t feel the flames, only her. We sway in the fire, we waltz as it all becomes ash. The fire will sanctify us and the snow will bury us. God help the ones who build here, let it go to woods and trees, ghosts and things that shouldn’t be.
Let us dance in a darkened wood.