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It was a typical day at school when I heard that Jessica Braymer had disappeared. That’s not to say that there was anything especially “typical” about Jessica herself. She’d been one of the most beautiful girls in school. She’d been in virtually every organization, her grades were good… she even played the flute. Not that many people really liked her. She, like many other students, was exceedingly “popular,” but not especially well-liked. She was the kind that would smile softly while asking you to buy some pies for the Prom Committee, but then rebuff you in the hallway when you said hello. You know the kind.
It was still shocking, though, when she went missing. Everyone felt bad, especially for her boyfriend, Jake. They’d been dating for several months and it was, after all, really sad that a girl from Addison High should go missing like that. It was whispered about, speculated about… talked to death. Then school let out for the summer.
Nothing was really said about Jessica when school started again. Of course, come autumn someone started a rumor that Jessica’s ghost had been seen out by Jefferson Creek on the Old South Road. No one was terribly surprised by this, mind you. It’s a creepy stretch of highway that runs by the abandoned Carver Place. If a person’s ghost was going to be seen somewhere, that would be the place. The rumor created an interesting little buzz in the school, just in time for Halloween.
Most people poked fun at the rumor because they didn’t want to seem uptight or overly serious. I mean, the whole thing was over six months old. It was basically old news. There’d been no leads; there had been no body. The case was dead and so, probably, was Jessica. How or why was anyone’s guess. Besides, it wasn’t as if anyone was terribly torn up about her disappearance, except Jake, that is. I guess you could say the cheerleading squad was pretty sad too, actually, but only because she’d taken so many years of gymnastics and could do some really cool stunts.
The weeks went by and the whole story about Jefferson Creek reached fever pitch. It was mid-autumn, so, naturally, everyone wanted to go out to the Old South Road after dark and try to get a glimpse of her disembodied spirit. It wasn’t that different from the kids who played “Ghost in the Graveyard” out in Westlawn Cemetery. It was kind of disrespectful, but basically harmless. Besides, we all found it kind of intriguing… especially my friend, Lena.
Lena was something of a “Goth” girl. She didn’t exactly practice witchcraft, but she was fascinated by it. She claimed that she knew how to perform spells and that she had the ability to talk to the dead, but I wasn’t entirely convinced she had any special ability in either discipline. Personally, I suspected that she’d adopted the whole gothic persona just to be different. I’d seen her in action enough times to know that she was one of those people who’d argue with you just so she wouldn’t appear ordinary. You know the kind. They’re always pointing out your short-comings in that slightly condescending way. It didn’t surprise me at all when she said that I was a dead battery when it came to the spirit world (as if she’d know the difference). However, when she suggested that we drive out to Jefferson Creek for a Jessica Braymer séance, I decided to go along, but just for kicks. The idea sounded pretty weird, but it was getting close to Halloween and I thought it might be interesting. Besides, the idea of doing something adventurous that would appall my overly-religious mother was strangely appealing to me. I’m not even sure why.
Word about the séance got around the school almost immediately. People I didn’t even know were coming up to me and either asking to come along or telling me how repulsed and disgusted they were. In truth, I wasn’t even sure how I felt about the whole business myself. I mean, it all sounds great when you’re sitting in the school cafeteria eating cheese sticks and slugging soda telling everybody about it. It’s another thing entirely to be out by the edge of the creek in the moonlight with the smell of dry leaves wafting on the breeze and the sound of water rolling nearby.
Let me be perfectly clear. Jefferson Creek is one of the creepiest places in the state. It is literally out in the middle of nowhere. There are actually stories about people disappearing from the old highway. Many of these unfortunate people have shown up floating downstream near Hoopeston nearly 40 miles away. My mom insists I use an alternate route home when I have to come that way. She always tells me the story of Becky Gilman, a nineteen year old girl from Milton County who was horribly murdered out on the Old South Road a few miles from Jefferson Creek. The body was so terribly mangled that dental records were required to identify her. Even seasoned police officers were unsettled by the horror.
All of these things were floating about in my mind as I sat in the back seat of Lena’s car headed for Jefferson Creek. It was late October and it was quite cool (nearly 45 degrees). It was also very dark (the moon was a mere slit in the night sky). There were, however, a multitude of stars. It had been a clear day and it promised to be a crisp night.
We turned off the interstate and drove along a frontage road toward the old highway. This country road was like many. It was covered with white-grey patches of pavement, crisscrossed by gravel-filled cracks and weeds. There were also plenty of potholes thrown in for good measure. There was an open field edged with thick trees on our right and the ever-drifting interstate lights moving away at an angle on the left. Eventually, we turned onto the far end of the Old South Road, which was lined closely with trees.
Lena’s headlights pierced the darkness that seemed to be closing in on both sides. I found myself jumping a bit whenever we hit a pothole. It was just so incredibly dark out there in the trees, and we were getting so far away from the glow of civilization.
The houses became further and further apart and street lights disappeared almost completely for miles at a time. The thickness of trees on both sides of the road prevented a person from seeing too far ahead, and the light from a barn or doorstep set far up a gravel lane actually glimmered with a halo of cool menace.
It seemed like we drove for nearly an hour. How did Lena know the way? Was she taking the scenic route? I was about to ask her when she spoke-
“It’s supposed to be right around here,” she said, leaning over the steering wheel, trying to peer into the thick darkness, “We’ve got to be getting close to the turn.”
“Have you ever been out here before?” I asked, afraid to know the answer.
“No, but my sister was once. She’s the one who gave me the directions. It’s really not that hard to get to,” she paused and then added, “she said people used to come out here all the time.”
We hit another pothole and I could hear the rattle of the candles and the flashlights we had brought along for the “adventure” rolling around in the trunk.
“Why?” I asked. I couldn’t imagine anyone going way out there just for kicks.
“Lots of reasons,” she replied, vaguely, “but most people came to see if the legend was true.”
“Legend? What legend?” I queried, intrigued.
“I hope you don’t mean that old Becky Gilman story,” Sandy, my other friend from Civics class added, unimpressed. She’d come along because, like Lena, she was really into fortune telling, ghosts, and the supernatural; the whole idea of a séance fascinated her.
“No, the original story,” Lena answered, “the one that explains why the place is haunted. It’s kind of cool.”
“I didn’t know the creek was haunted,” I commented.
“Me neither,” said Sandy, “Since when does Jefferson Creek have a ghost?”
“Since forever,” Lena answered somewhat sarcastically. She had a way of making every one of your questions sound completely ridiculous.
“Okay, so what’s the story?” I asked.
“Probably just some headless guy that wanders around the place,” Sandy teased.
“No, he’s not headless,” Lena replied, somewhat jokingly, “he’s just some guy who used to live around here a long time ago. It’s a really old story, I guess. My sister said she heard it from her friend’s old neighbor lady. The woman was like 100 years old or something. Only the older people in the area really know the whole story anymore. Even my mom didn’t know very much about it and she’s lived here all of her life.”
“So, what’s the story?” Sandy pressed, impatient to hear about the ghost.
“Supposedly there was this strange guy who used to live out in the woods by himself. Everybody called him Shuffling Joe because he walked with a limp. His foot had some problem so he always leaned to one side when he walked.
“Anyway, one night a couple was driving home from someplace. It was dark and the husband couldn’t see very well. Some people say he was drunk, but I don’t know either way. All I know is, something came out of the woods as he was about to drive over the bridge, and he hit it in the dark.
“At first, the guy wasn’t sure what he’d hit, so he pulled over, jumped out of the car, and began searching around. Eventually, he stumbled on the body of a man. Some say it was Joe. Of course, the guy freaked. He didn’t want to go to jail, so he pushed the body down the embankment into the creek where it floated downstream. Then, he jumped back into the car and told his wife they hit a deer. Soon after, he drove away into the night.
“After that he was never the same. He was always tense, looking over his shoulder. He wouldn’t look into mirrors and he never drove again. In less than a month, he was dead. Supposedly he went totally insane and jumped off a bridge.
“Now, legend has it that anyone who approaches the Jefferson Creek Bridge by night will have some sort of car trouble. The lights will suddenly go off or the engine will just die, sometimes both,” Lena’s voice grew softer, “Then, while you’re working on your car, or just sitting there, you’ll hear the sound of someone walking toward the car. It’s always someone with a limp. You think it’s help, but it isn’t. It’s Shuffling Joe come to take his revenge on the people who left him to die.”
“So… what does he do?” I asked, somewhat freaked out, but still curious.
“He comes for blood,” Lena purred, enjoying our discomfort, “People say he slits your throat from ear to ear.”
“Ugh, my God,” I whispered, “that’s disgusting.”
“But, I haven’t told you the best part…” she paused for effect, and when she spoke again, her voice was softer and more sinister than usual, “It’s said that he always breaks his victim’s legs before he kills them so that everyone who passes through here will know what it’s like to be a cripple.” She ended with a wicked-sounding snicker.
“Wow… that’s quite a story. I’m not sure I’d share it with people AS you’re driving them out to Jefferson Creek though,” Sandy commented snidely, clearly somewhat annoyed.
“Yeah,” I added, “like we’re not freaked out enough already.”
“It’s not even that bad. You guys just need to relax,” Lena chuckled, not taking us seriously.
“Don’t get me wrong, I think the story’s cool and all,” Sandy amended, “I’m just saying your timing kinda sucks.”
“Whatever,” Lena smirked.
“I’m with Sandy on this one, Lena,” I added, “You probably should have saved that story.”
“I don’t know why you guys are so freaked out. It’s just a story,” Lena sighed, exasperated with us, “It’s not like it’s real or anything.”
“It doesn’t have to be. It’s the fact that we’re out here in the middle of nowhere and you’re talking about cripples who slit people’s throats,” Sandy pointed out.
“Yeah, and it’s not like weird stuff hasn’t happened out here,” I commented, “People have disappeared out by the creek, Lena.”
“You could say that about ANY wooded area,” Lena argued, “My mom used to tell me to stay off Hick’s Road after dark too because some girl was murdered out behind the old armory back in the 60’s.”
“I’d hardly put Hick’s Road in the same category with this one, would you?” Sandy argued, “I mean, let’s get real. The Old South Road has a reputation. Hick’s Road doesn’t. One murder doesn’t give a road a reputation.”
“Yeah,” I added, “and let’s not forget why we’re here right now. One of our classmates supposedly went missing out this way.”
“That was just a rumor,” Lena replied, “Logan Gallager started that business a few weeks ago. Nobody actually knows where Jessica was when she disappeared.”
Sandy sunk down into the back seat, her head at a strange angle. I thought, at first, that she was pouting, but I soon realized that she was thinking. She spoke again after a long pause.
“I probably should have mentioned this before… I don’t know why I didn’t. I guess I didn’t really give it too much thought until now…” she paused again. That was her introduction, “Did you know that I’m friends with Jessica Braymer’s cousin?”
The question was directed at no one in particular.
“You mean Joe Finks?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she replied. I merely shook my head in the darkness, making a sound of denial. She continued a moment later, “Well, Joe and I are pretty close. He’s a good guy. He doesn’t make stuff up. He told me that Jessica may have actually gone out to the creek the night she disappeared,” she paused for a moment, letting this fact sink in. Then, she continued, “She was at Darren Hinkle’s house with Joe and a bunch of other people and they all started playing Truth or Dare. Joe said that somebody dared her to drive out to the Old Carver Place and go up on the porch and knock on the door,” Sandy was quiet for a bit, “He said he didn’t know for sure if anybody actually went out there cuz he had to leave early, but he said there was definitely talk about going. That was the last time he ever saw her.”
Sandy was sullen, almost meditative, watching her hands. Several minutes seemed to pass in silence before she spoke again. Finally, she continued, “I asked some of her friends if it was true, but no one would talk about it, like it was some big secret. It was just weird.”
An uneasy stillness fell over the car. I began to wonder if maybe all of the rumors about Jessica were true. Although I didn’t like her, she was a student in my school and her disappearance was very close to me. I shivered a little, involuntarily. The lull in conversation finally ended when Lena spoke-
“Sounds like Jessica just got what was coming to her. I couldn’t stand her anyway. She always looked down her nose at everybody. Her disappearance didn’t break anybody’s heart, except, maybe, the cheerleading squad’s.”
Although we shared Lena’s feelings on a certain level, they seemed harsh coming right after Sandy’s story. We didn’t say anything for several moments. It was our way of letting Lena know she’d gone too far.
When Sandy spoke again, her tone was serious, matter-of-fact:
“It doesn’t matter, Lena. I don’t plan on getting out of this car tonight. I’m just telling you.”
“Whatever,” was Lena’s icy reply. Then there was a long pause before her eyes turned to me in the rearview mirror, “What about you? Are you getting out?”
There was impatience in her voice. It was clear that she was testing me.
“I don’t know,” was my answer, “I’ll have to see the place. If it’s totally weird…” I trailed off.
“Well, if neither of you is getting out, there’s really no point in any of this, is there?” she sighed, exasperated.
“You know, Lena, this was your idea,” Sandy shot back, “and you never mentioned any of that legend crap before we agreed to come out here with you.”
“Well, you never mentioned that stuff about Jessica playing Truth or Dare before I agreed to come out here with you,” she challenged, “I’m still gonna go through with it.”
“Well, I’m not you,” Sandy answered evenly.
“Ya know, I thought you’d be into this kinda thing, seeing as you’re all “witchy” and whatnot,” argued Lena, “I mean, you act like you’re all into this fortune telling and Ouija Board stuff. I figured you’d dig it,” Lena smirked in the rearview mirror.
“I do dig it,” Sandy replied, “I just don’t especially want to drive out into the middle of nowhere and wait for some psycho to slash my throat open. Sorry if that’s not my thing.”
“Like that would even happen,” Lena sighed briefly before adding savagely, “Ya know what I think? I think you don’t want to do this séance thing anymore because you’re not really the “expert” you pretend to be. I think you’re really just a fake, and you’re terrified somebody might find out.”
“Did you seriously just call me a fake?” Sandy spat, “Well, you’re nothing but a hypocrite.”
“At least I’m not all skittish about some stupid legend. You guys are a bunch of babies.”
“We’re not babies. We just happen to have a little more common sense than you do, apparently,” Sandy returned, “I mean, in case you hadn’t noticed, we’re not exactly sitting in somebody’s kitchen looking at some Tarot cards, Lena. We’re out here in the woods on a dark road where a girl we both know probably went missing. If you’re NOT a little bothered by all this, I’d say it’s YOU who’s got the problem,” Sandy finished, defensively.
“Whatever…” sighed Lena, rolling her eyes sarcastically, “I’m gonna find some place to turn around… since I’m the only one who actually wants to do this.”
“Don’t let us stop you. We’ll wait in the car for you if you’d like,” Sandy smiled, almost daring Lena to get out of the car alone.
“What? And have a séance by myself? Oh, that’s brilliant, Sandy,” Lena answered back.
“Ya, why not?” pursued Sandy, “It’s not like you couldn’t do it alone.”
“And you’d know that because you’re such an expert, right?” Lena said snidely.
“Oh, but I’m not an expert, remember?” Sandy returned.
“Knock it off you two,” I sighed. I hated all of the bickering. I just wanted to go home.
The slit of moon was lost from view as the canopy of dead leaves grew thicker overhead. The sound of twigs snapping beneath the tires grew increasingly common as we drove along the old country road. The headlights did little to cut the darkness.
We were nearing water because a filmy fog began to cling to the ghostly trunks of trees outside to our left. Misty billows skirted out ahead as the gleam of the headlights floated before us in the night.
Finally, we came upon a small laneway where we could turn around. We pulled in, leaves brushing the sides of the car. We pulled in just far enough to be off of the road.
“You guys sure you want to go back?” she asked, barely hopeful.
There was still a part of me that was curious, but it was the kind of curiosity that wanted daylight and sunshine rather than fog and darkness.
“I’m sure,” I answered softly, hoping my answer wouldn’t upset Lena further. Sandy had no such qualms.
“I want to get the heck out of here. This whole place gives me the creeps,” she replied.
“Okay,” Lena sighed sharply, putting the car in reverse.