Estimated reading time — 12 minutes
The camper van is there again, in the field behind my neighborhood. If I stand on the tips of my toes I can just see it over the tall stucco fence in my backyard – the cream and brown stripes along the side, its darkened windows, its boxy, old-fashioned headlights.
I used to work at a tiny dive of a bar in this tiny dive of a town. The owner of the bar, Jeb, decided to make the establishment’s sign by hand – he fancies himself a craftsman, I suppose. So for a few years now the already dumpy-looking building has boasted a huge plywood sign with nail-gunned-on letters formed from sticks, the kind you would use for kindling. JEB’S PLACE. The man’s name is Jeb. Does it get any more hick than that?
The only real benefit of living in a completely uneventful place where the population is lower than most city high schools is that even as a nineteen year old woman who worked until three in the morning at a bar called “Jeb’s Place”, I could still walk home after a shift, alone, without encountering anything worse than a mangy stray cat.
On one such night, after a particularly riveting shift listening to Frank McInsley recount to me (for the twentieth time this month – I’ve kept track) his woeful tale of bankruptcy and divorce and the “damn, thieving left-wingers… they’re all homos”, I left work as I always did: with a filched can of Budweiser stuffed in my coat pocket and a handful of peanuts wrapped in a festive poinsettia napkin – we used those napkins all year round, which nauseated me.
I have a thing about walking on grass, I don’t like it. I figure people invented sidewalks for a reason and it’s so we don’t have to walk on mushy, unstable ground all the time like in the old days. But on that particular night, clutching my less-than-ideally cold beer, I was feeling restless. On that night, the frozen air expanded in my lungs and left as steam and I could see little crystals of water – not quite big enough to be snowflakes – all around me, glistening like winter, illuminated by our town’s sparse streetlamps – one of which was flickering, about to burn out.
Maybe it was the quickly cracked and drained Budweiser, or maybe it was just that I had heard too many old-timer stories, or maybe just because I was a bored nineteen year old… but on that night, I thought maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to walk on grassy ground, I thought maybe the feeling of the frozen blades crunching beneath my sneakers would be a new, interesting sensation. So I took a different route home than usual – I cut through the field behind my neighborhood.
When this place was a busier center of agriculture – in the fifties, I guess – it had a school. It was a small school, only three hundred kids from kindergarten all the way to grade twelve. But the school had a track and field program, mostly just to keep teenagers out of trouble in a town with nothing much else to do besides exactly that. Shockingly, the track and field program required a field… no problem, plenty of those around these parts. The lucky candidate was the field near an empty gravel pit that would one day – when local farmers fell on hard times and the novelty of post-war wealth had worn off – become a trailer park. ‘Trailer park’, but not in the way most people imagine. To be honest, it’s mostly retired couples living there, you know, people who can’t go up and down stairs anymore. I guess that constitutes most of the town’s population in reality. But I live there too. My parents owned the house when they were alive but… I’ve been on my own ever since their accident several years ago. I don’t have any siblings. Really, I don’t have anyone.
My place is between a blue trailer where a retired schoolteacher, Mack Donoghue, lives with more dogs than he can care for and a brown one where an elderly couple live – Mr. and Mrs. Murphy – who suddenly became weed dealers one day just because it’s an easy way to make money. And no one suspects two crotchety old people of dealing illicit substances to bored adolescents, am I right?
Anyway, the night I took the shortcut home, it was pitch dark; the glow of the streetlights didn’t extend much past the sidewalk, and the moon was just a thin crescent, almost invisible. So while I was enjoying my napkin peanuts and listening to the toes of my sneakers crunching through layers of sparkling frosted grass, I counted my steps… one hundred and twenty, one hundred and twenty one, one hundred and twenty two, one hundred and twenty three… I glanced up to see how far away the back entrance of the trailer park was – the drug dealing seniors must have still been awake, watching late-night television programs maybe, because their windows were all alight.
I looked way up into the tar-like sky, searching for stars. But none were visible. Only that thin crescent moon.
I continued counting my steps… one hundred and twenty four, one hundred and twenty five…
I stopped walking. Something was in the field that didn’t belong there. I could just see its faint outline, not even fifty feet in front of me, directly in my path to the back entrance of the trailer park. A shiver scampered from my tailbone to the base of my neck and lingered like a hot cloth at the back of skull. The inky shape squatting in the field was outlined by the moon’s faint light, creating the silver outline of… a vehicle?
I felt a tightening in my chest and abdomen. I guess it was fear, or apprehension, or something like that. Which is odd, since I don’t really get frightened of things.
I started walking again, more cautiously than before, squinting ahead instead of down at my feet.
I walked closer and closer to the thing in front of me… one hundred and forty two steps, one hundred and forty three, one hundred and forty four…
I could see once I finally got near to the shape in the field that it was indeed a vehicle. The camper van. Just sitting there, in the darkness, apparently abandoned. There didn’t seem to be any tracks in the frosted grass from where it had driven in, no sign that it had been moved there recently, and no indication that anyone had been around – except for a sinking feeling in the core of my torso, and that persistent warmth at the base of my skull insisting, irrationally, I knew, that something wasn’t right, something was… wrong… about that van…
Now, I’ve seen a lot of movies. I mean, maybe not A LOT a lot, but I’ve seen my fair share. So I know how this scene goes. The dumbass character sees something sketchy and checks it out. And the mediocre piano score is banging out in the background and the dumbass on the screen is walking closer and closer to the sketchy thing and breathing heavily the whole time – like a dumbass – and someone in the theatre or the living room or the wherever-you-are-watching-this-horrible-movie inevitably whispers, “Stop! Don’t go over there! Oh, you dumbass.” And that scene always ends the same way and the whole audience or living room party or whatever collectively breathes a frustrated sigh – as if they had no idea that the dumbass character would act… well, like a dumbass.
So, when I became the star dumbass of my own sketchy situation, approaching a sketchy camper van which apparently materialized in the middle of a field in the middle of this shithole of a town… I did what any sane person would do.
I marched right up to that van and I pulled on the handle of the passenger side door.
And luckily for my bimbo-headed self, it was locked.
Regaining my sense of self-preservation rather abruptly, I backed away from the damn thing as if it was electrically charged, dropping all of my stupid napkin peanuts on the ground. Turning to leave, I made a wide loop around the van and pointed myself in the direction of the back entrance to the trailer park, hustling my arse faster than any arse has heretofore been hustled.
I think I held my breath the whole way to my front porch. When I finally released the air trapped in my lungs, it came out like a wheeze, as if I were a pack-a-day smoker. I was shaking and fumbling with my house keys and panting and when I finally got into the house I slammed the door behind me and locked the deadbolt, promising silently to never, ever trust non-sidewalk walking again.
Even then, I knew I was being ridiculous. Nothing had happened to me. I had found a camper in a field in the middle of East Jesus Nowhere in a town where, as I said, kids have nothing to do except get into trouble. If someone was in that van, they were sleeping, or high off their heads on weed from ‘Trailer Park Seniors Incorporated’, or drunk, or some combination.
I took a hot shower and tried to forget about the whole thing, and without too much trouble, I fell asleep. When I woke up the next morning – er, that afternoon – the camper was gone. And to be perfectly fucking honest, I didn’t give it another thought.
For three whole years.
I quit my job at Jeb’s Place only weeks after the incident. I got a college diploma in agriculture (like everyone does around here), and since graduating, I’ve been working as a farm hand at a local feedlot. I’m twenty-two and I haven’t thought diddly squat about that camper van since the night I last saw it.
But just seconds ago, in broad daylight, in the middle of summertime, I came outside to replace the suet in my bird feeder (I have a soft spot for sparrows, alright?) and that’s when I saw it.
The damn thing is there. It’s there in the field and I’m getting that tingly feeling in my spine all over again as if my prey drive is kicking in at the sight of a harmless old camper.
Three years. And that thing shows up looking just how it did the night I first saw it.
The window in my bedroom is open and I can hear the TV from outside, “… In other news, the grandson of a former Rebel Telephones engineer discovered new evidence yesterday that might be able to solve a forty-five year old mystery involving the bizarre death of a young woman…”
I reason with myself that nothing bad can happen in broad daylight. So I finish replacing the suet and hoist myself over the stucco fence as the news anchor’s voice drifts from my room, “… pages contain evidence that the cellphone company was conducting unique experiments…”
Forgetting all inhibitions about non-sidewalk travel, I start walking toward the van.
As I’m moving toward that ridiculous vehicle, I ignore every inch of my body that’s begging me to turn back. My heart is pounding. My temple is sweating. I wipe my palms on my cut-off jean shorts, feeling the lump of my phone my pocket. As I get closer to the thing, I can see the make and model – details I couldn’t grasp in the darkness three years ago – it’s a Dodge Tradesman from the 70s. A totally generic holiday vehicle for a totally generic middle-income family.
It is completely unthreatening, and yet I’m terrified.
The weather is warm, almost hot, but I’m shivering.
I make a wide circle around the front of the Tradesman, keeping my eyes on the tacky floral curtains in its windows, tracing almost my exact path, but in reverse, of the night I walked home from Jeb’s Place three years ago. I’m directly in front of the passenger side door, and no one seems to be in the vehicle, so I step forward.
I look down and move my foot away from whatever I stepped on. There, nestled into the grass right next to the van, is a small pile of peanuts and a crumpled poinsettia napkin. Just like what I was carrying the night of my first encounter.
I bend down and take a few of the crushed peanuts into my sweating palm. This doesn’t make any sense. Surely these can’t have been in the field for three years? I lift up the napkin to get a better look… and the stupid poinsettia is in almost perfect condition. As if only moments ago, I swiped it from a table at Jeb’s. My sense of fear is momentarily replaced by pure confusion as I let the napkin and the peanuts drop from my hands.
Compelled by some ridiculous urge, maybe curiosity, I reach for the passenger door handle, inwardly hoping to find it locked, just like that night three years ago.
But the door opens and swings wide. I expect a creaking sound, or some indication that the van is as old as I think it is, but the hinges function with ease and near silence. The smell of the interior drifts into my nostrils – leather, polished wood detailing… oranges? My palms begin to sweat even more heavily.
Without thinking, almost as if out of some absurd habit, I crawl into the passenger seat. The leather of the seat squeaks against the exposed skin of my thighs.
A sharp breath tickles the back of my neck.
I whip my head around to face the open back of the van. But there’s nothing and no one there.
Realizing it was probably just a breeze coming in from outside, I pull the door closed. It is utterly silent in the van. I can’t even hear my own breathing, but I can feel my heart pulsing in my ears. It should be stifling in the closed vehicle, but the temperature is comfortable.
Then, I feel a breath on the back of my neck again.
I whirl around once more, on high alert – there’s no possibility it was a breeze. No windows are open. The curtains aren’t fluttering. I rise from the passenger seat, ducking to keep from bumping my head, and I step into the back portion of the van. There’s a tiny kitchenette, with a table. And a closed closet-sized room that’s probably a portable bathroom.
Suddenly, inexplicably, the van lurches and I fall to my knees. Scrambling back to the front, I try to wrench open the passenger door but it’s stuck. I crawl over and try the driver’s side, but it’s stuck too. The locks are in the unlocked position… this doesn’t make any sense, why won’t they open?
The van gives another lurch and I’m thrown into the upright back of the driver’s seat. Clutching to the old-fashioned steering wheel for balance, the van continues to lurch back and forth like it’s being rocked by a large force from behind. The windows are darkening like the sunset on fast-forward. The van is shaking, shuddering…. lurching, almost tipping over… and a buzzing pressure is shoving in on my eardrums… I feel a warm trickle slip down the side of my face from my left ear.
I’m so dizzy, and my lungs can’t seem to grab air, like my ribs are collapsing. I’m trying to scream but all I can do is open my mouth and struggle to inhale. I try to open my hands to try the door again, but I can’t concentrate, I’m blind with panic, and my fingers won’t open, they’re stuck clutching the steering wheel and my knuckles are turning white. I feel like I’m being pushed into the seat and I’m squeezing the steering wheel so hard… so hard that I can’t… I can feel the tiny bones in each of my fingers stressing. There’s a great pressure on my hands, and my head, and everywhere… My kneecaps feel like they’re being jammed into my shins. I have to stop squeezing the steering wheel or else –
I can’t scream, I can’t make even a sound, as the pointer finger knuckle of my right hand abruptly snaps and bursts through the skin. The ring finger follows with a tiny burst of a blood vessel. Something in my left ear explodes. There’s a crunch and a snap somewhere near my right knee. I can feel the burning, numbing pain spreading through every part of me… My vision goes red. And the van is still shuddering, lunging forth and back.
There’s a final, violent thrust of the van and a great sizzling pressure over my whole body and then…
* * *
CHANNEL FIVE MORNING NEWS JULY 20th, 2016:
“In other news, the grandson of a former Rebel Telephones engineer discovered new evidence yesterday that might be able to solve a forty-five year old mystery involving the death of a young woman, here’s Melanie Reynolds with the details.”
“Thank you, Jackie. In March of 1971, the body of a woman in her early 20s was discovered near the Rebel Laboratories building in New York. A positive ID was never secured for the woman, and no missing person reports were filed that matched her description. She had severe injuries on her hands and she seemed to have died of a massive brain hemorrhage. Even more mysterious was her clothing, which was made of materials that forensic experts at the time could not identify. While the woman’s death was ruled ‘suspicious’, no suspects were ever arrested in connection with the incident. Then yesterday morning Ben Matthews found a journal that his grandfather had kept during his employment at Rebel in the 1970s. The journal’s pages contain evidence that the telephone company had been conducting unique experiments in fields such as teleportation and time travel which seemed to involve the use, in some capacity, of a Dodge Tradesman camper van… Yes, you heard that correctly. Time travel experiments with a camper van. Some speculate that such experiments could account for Rebel’s sudden declaration of bankruptcy in the early 1980s. A source tells us that one portion of the journal reads, ‘The woman was dead when she arrived in The Tradesman,’ and that it mentions ‘a strange device in the woman’s pocket’ which ‘resembled a telephone’. Although we cannot be sure if the woman mentioned in the journal and the woman found near the Rebel building are the same, we can be certain from the content of the pages that the company was experimenting with more than mobile phone development, and police say they will be conducting a full investigation of the claims made in the book.
Although former Motorola engineer Martin Cooper is credited with the successful development of the first mobile phone in 1973, it is well known that workers at Rebel were developing similar technologies during the same time, and that information and blueprints often leaked between the two companies. Some theories are already circulating which try to link the mysterious woman in the journal and her ‘strange device’ to Rebel’s attempts at mobile phone development. Back to you Jackie.”
“Thank you, Melanie. Sounds like something out of a science fiction movie, ha, ha! Now, over to Cal Menken for sports…”
* * *
Mack Donoghue was walking his dogs in the field behind his neighborhood when Ginger, the tiny spaniel he had adopted just a week earlier, sprinted off and snuffled eagerly at something in the grass. Frightened by recent stories of dog poisonings, Mack jogged over shouting, “No, Ginger! Drop it! Don’t eat whatever that is!” But when he got to where she had been snuffling, he found only a small pile of peanuts and a slobbery poinsettia napkin.
“Damn litterers,” Mack muttered. He pulled Ginger away by her collar and shooed the other dogs from the garbage as well.
Then he continued on his peaceful summer walk, reveling in the uneventfulness of his quaint little town.
Credit: Emerald Lee