Estimated reading time — 10 minutes
Working late one night, preparing for a court appearance the next morning, I was somewhat taken aback by the sudden breath of the long-forgotten, but supremely familiar scent of the desert air. A phantom smell. I was in Boston, far, far away from the desert back home. Why that particular scent came upon me, I couldn’t say, but it brought back a strong, and disturbing memory.
Back when I was in college, I had a remarkably upsetting experience. I was twenty-four, mostly broke, driving an ancient car that had been passed down to me from several previous owners. I was a good kid, though. I never got into any trouble and when I went home on weekends, I still lived with my parents. They were always glad to have me, even though dad threatened to turn my bedroom into a game room. Plus, free laundry machines and food. In my estimation, there was nothing better than my mom’s homemade macaroni and cheese. There still isn’t.
I did well in my studies and was working toward a degree in social work with a focus on child advocacy. My mother used to say I was born to serve.
The night it happened, I was driving back from school, heading toward home. My drive was about three hours long, and included a very lengthy stretch of desert road. A lonely highway, especially at night. It always creeped me out a little bit, so I typically tried to get through that area before the sun set and left the road in inky blackness. There was not very much to see during the drive anyway – sparse brush dotting the shoulder of the road, sometimes sand skittering across the blacktop, stirred by a whispered breath of air, the occasional car. With the windows down – as they usually were – I could smell the creosote and desert sage. The fragrant dry air was how I knew I was nearly home. I usually had the radio cranked up to deafening levels to distract me from the boredom.
That particular afternoon, I’d gotten a late start, so by the time I got to the desert, the shadows were already drawing long and purple lines over the scrub and rocks and the sun crowned golden on the bluffs ahead. Sitting in my office, I was transported back in time, caught up in the memory the phantom scent brought with it.
I saw the chick walking down the long stretch of road from about a mile away. This desert road, so straight, so freaking boring; I saw her immediately. She was so out of place. A blip on an otherwise empty radar. Even from far off I knew she was a she. I also knew that she wouldn’t be way out here unless there was something wrong. My mind processed all this pretty quickly and I resolved just as quickly that I’d stop to see if I could help. I’m a decent guy, you know? That is, I try to be.
As I got closer, I saw the backpack. Her long, blond hair – in a pony-tail – draped over the pack like a tassel. Hiking boots. From behind, she was something, that was for sure; I couldn’t wait to get a look at her face. Wouldn’t it be great if I rescued a beautiful damsel in distress on a long, desert highway? I killed the radio and started humming “Hotel California.”
I rolled to a stop just in front of her and waited for her to approach; my hands totally visible on the wheel. It was getting dark fast now, so, though the tops of the far-away hills were still kind of bright, it was sort of dim and purplish down on the road. I didn’t want to freak her out by getting out of the car. You know, strange guy, middle of nowhere, long, creepy shadows? Kind of seems like the plot to a bad “B” movie.
Anyway, sure enough, she walked right up to the car…and then right by it, like it wasn’t even there! She just kept going. Same pace. Boots putting distance between her and wherever. She was definitely moving. At that point, I did jump out of my car.
“Hey!” I yelled. “You OK?”
She paused, turned her head around, and looked at me like she was confused. “Yeah. Why?”
“Oh, well…I thought maybe you needed help. You know, like a ride or something?” I said.
“Nope. I’m good. Thanks anyway.” She turned around, pony-tail swinging, and continued hoofing it.
I stood there like an idiot watching her walk away and didn’t know what to do. The desert was super dark at night. Got pretty cold, too, even in the summer. Admittedly, she didn’t seem concerned about her situation. And that backpack looked stuffed full. I guessed she probably had some camping gear in there. Maybe she’d be alright? But, I really didn’t like the idea of just leaving her out here. It bugged me, you know? I jogged a bit to catch up with her.
“You again?” she asked, giving me a sidelong glance. She did not turn her head. She did not stop walking.
“I guess so,” I said.
“What do you want?” she asked.
“Like I said, just thought you might need help. It’s getting dark out. Like, really, really dark. The desert isn’t friendly at night and the next town isn’t for another sixty miles. You sure you don’t need a ride? I promise, I’m not a weirdo.”
“I promise,” she said, mocking my tone, “I’m really OK.”
“Well, if you’re sure,” I said, doubt lacing my voice.
“I’m sure. See ya,” she said, clearly dismissing me. She kept walking.
I looked back at my car, which was further away than I expected it to be. Did we really go that far? I shrugged my shoulders and jogged – a little more quickly than before – back to my car.
She was pretty, but not in a blow-your-socks-off kind of way. She seemed – hard – somehow. Like she’d been there, you know? Maybe she’d had a hard life. I sat behind the wheel of my car for a couple of minutes mulling things over. Did I leave her out here? Did I shadow her? I mean, it’s not like she wouldn’t know I was there, but it would make me feel better knowing she was safe. But, wow! Another sixty miles to the next town, even at her pace – which was pretty quick – would take forever. This desert was…unsettling at night. Did I take her at her word and just go on?
As I watched, the shadows swallowed her; her form becoming dimmer and dimmer. Finally, she was barely visible, and then not at all. The sun was only just touching the very tips of the hills now and full-dark had taken over the road. I got a serious chill down my spine. I wasn’t afraid, exactly; I’d literally been down this highway before. A lot. But that chill, man. I was definitely a little weirded out, you know? It’s not every day you find a self-aware, determined, clearly capable, blond chick walking down the road in the middle of the desert. I decided to let her be. I needed to get home anyway.
As my car started moving, I began looking for her to appear in my car’s headlights. I drove an older-model Chevrolet. It was really ugly, but it ran like a champ. One headlight pointed straight ahead and kind of up a little, and the other pointed off to the right side of the road. I’d gotten used to the weird blind spots. But when I didn’t see her after driving for five minutes – because, truthfully, I should have seen her; she couldn’t have gotten that far away yet – I started to get concerned again. I drove for another five minutes and still no sign of her.
You know that little voice in your head that tells you something? Trust me, that voice usually has pretty good advice, and yeah, I really should have listened to it that night. I told myself she’d just veered off the road to make camp for the night. I told myself maybe I’d just missed her; my headlights were stupid anyway. I told myself maybe she’d switched sides of the road, so she could see oncoming cars at night. I told myself all manner of things to try to convince myself not to double back to check on her.
But I did.
I turned my rust-bucket on wheels around in the middle of the road, in the middle of the desert, in what felt like the middle of the night, and went back the way I came looking for the lone blonde hiker. While I was driving in the opposite direction, that little voice was literally screaming at me to make another uey and get on home. That voice can be pretty stubborn, but then again, so can I, you know? And I didn’t listen.
When I’d driven for ten or fifteen minutes back the way I’d come, I convinced myself I hadn’t just missed her; she was not there. Damn.
Damn. Damn. Damn.
I’m going to have to track her down.
Why should I even care? Why am I making this MY responsibility? I’m just a regular twenty-four year-old guy. I do not need to take on the world’s responsibilities, you know? But, I’d feel terrible if I got home, went to sleep in my nice safe, warm bed, only to wake up tomorrow morning to news that a girl was found in dead the desert.
After another hasty U-Turn, I was headed back toward home again. I felt better having the nose of my car pointed in the right direction at least. I stopped the car and snagged my cell phone from the passenger seat. There was no signal out here so it was pretty much useless, but it had a flashlight. I activated the little light, which felt like a beacon of hope, and left my car to make a visit to the trunk.
The dark surrounded me like a blanket. Well…actually, that’s not really true. Blankets are warm and comforting, and this darkness was not comforting. I rummaged through the crap in my trunk and unearthed the giant, bright yellow flood light I kept back there, and yanked out two of those triangular emergency reflectors. Once the flood light was on, I deactivated the little flashlight on my cell phone and tucked the phone into my back pocket, slammed the trunk, and set up the reflectors behind my car. I really didn’t want anyone (if anyone came along) to accidentally slam into my car. I figured I was being pretty responsible, you know?
Anyway, I finally turned that giant light toward the desert on the right side of the road and stood there, sweeping the light back and forth. I saw not much more than some low scrubby brush, and a bunch of rocks. It was pretty flat and lifeless. Maybe an occasional cactus or two, but not much else.
Staying where I was, I turned and swept the light across the left side of the road. Nothing.
Back on the right side of the road again, I looked at my feet and stepped down about four inches from the pavement onto the rocky desert sand. Taking a deep breath, I said a little prayer that I would find the girl and everything would be fine. We would laugh at my stupidity and I would go on my merry way.
Moving forward, I continued sweeping the flood light slowly back and forth, back and forth. It was so quiet out here. Yeah, there were the occasional sounds of small desert creatures scuttling here and there, but nothing major. I listened pretty carefully, too. I could hear the crunch of my sneakers, but that was about it.
After walking for about ten minutes, I decided I should make a wide arc and return to my car. There just wasn’t anything out here. I turned a little bit and began the route back to my car, swinging the flood light around as I had been.
And then I did see something.
I really only noticed it because it was out of place. A long shape among a bunch of flat nothing. The reach of my flood light was pretty far, and this something – this shape – was at the far end of my light, off to the left.
Keeping the light trained on the shape, I headed in that direction. I was actually feeling pretty hopeful, because it looked like – at least from my distance – a sleeping bag. The chick had bedded down for the night under the stars and among the desert scorpions. (Ugh. Scorpions. I hated those things.)
As I got closer, I realized I was right, it was a sleeping bag. And hope filled my heart when I recognized the blonde hair.
“Hey!” I called, too loudly in the dead quiet.
There was no response. I found it hard to believe she could have fallen asleep already.
“Hey, blonde chick!” I called again. I actually said it that way because I knew it might make her respond to me. Girls really don’t like to be called “chick.” I expected her to respond with her name, at least.
Finally, I was within easy reach and what I saw had my heart beating right out of my chest.
The girl was there. On top of the sleeping bag. Her blonde head propped up on her backpack. At first I thought she really was asleep. Or, at least faking it. She had her hands laced together on her stomach. But when I got right up close, I could see I was totally wrong.
Her face was gone. In its place was only a sticky skull. Skin, eyes, muscle and sinew having been eaten away by desert creatures. Her blonde hair still mostly attached. The effect was horrifying. Her clothes (she was on top of the sleeping bag, not tucked into it) were dirty and torn. I could see where carrion creatures had eaten holes in her body; I could see her right femur. I couldn’t look away. I was simultaneously terrified out of my mind, and morbidly curious.
But finally, I noticed the blood – long since dried – that had pooled in copious amounts underneath her. A giant dark stain on her sleeping bag. The handle of a large hunting knife sticking straight up out of her chest, just under her sternum.
Realizing the truth – and suddenly feeling like a coward; my gorge rising – I ran. Booked it back to my car as fast as I could go. I was so grateful for that giant flood light; I would never have found my car again without it. I think I drove the last sixty miles to town in about twenty minutes. My first stop was at the police station to report what I’d seen.
It was only as the story was coming out of my mouth did I understand what I’d REALLY seen. The girl I’d talked to on the side of the road? The one I worried about enough that I went searching for her? She was the ghost of the body I’d found, covered in blood, in the desert. The officer I’d been talking to watched me carefully – understanding in a second what I’d only just understood myself.
As daylight came – man, that was the longest night of my life – I was in the back of a police car headed out the desert road once again. I had tried to explain to them that I would never be able to find the exact location again; everything looked the same. But they insisted I go along.
After a while, the officer who was driving said to his partner, “Look Mick, look there.” He was pointing at something ahead and off to the left a bit. I craned my neck to see what they saw.
They were looking at two triangular emergency reflectors and some serious skid marks on the asphalt.
I still had the newspaper article somewhere. Jesse Norris, runaway, aged 18, missing for nearly a year, finally discovered in the middle of the desert. Though there wasn’t much to go on, time and elements having washed away any real evidence, it was surmised she’d hitched a ride and was murdered by whomever picked her up. Her parents, at least, had been glad to finally have some closure.
What the newspaper article never mentioned, however, was the means by which she had been found. The officers, and the staff writer for the newspaper, had both decided it was better to leave out the part about her ghost.
She still haunts me. I still see her face, so world-wise and weary, as she spoke to me when I’d offered her a ride. I prefer to remember her like that, instead of the nightmarish skeleton she’d become when I finally found her.
Years later, mom will sometimes call me to report another sighting. Jesse is still hiking that long stretch of desert road.
Credit: Jennifer Shell