02 Aug The Legend of Shuffling Joe
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"The Legend of Shuffling Joe"Written by Brenda Ader
Estimated reading time — 30 minutes
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.
I felt somewhat defeated, in spite of the fact that we were heading home. I looked over at Sandy. Her face was turned toward the window opposite me, but I could still make out the square set of her jaw. I’d sat by Sandy all semester, but she’d always seemed so easy-going. That night, her quick wit and sharp retorts had surprised me somewhat… and pleased me a little as well. I hated to admit it, but I liked Sandy’s ability to handle Lena. I’d always been somewhat passive and, as a result, Lena had a tendency to push me around. If Sandy had not come along, I felt sure that we’d have been on our way out to the creek whether I had voiced any misgivings or not.
We started moving backward, out into the road again. I could hear the branches gently scraping the sides of the car as we moved. I rested my head against the window, my eyes staring into the foliage outside.
As we straightened out in the road, I looked up the laneway we’d just left. Fog filled the space where our car had been. Was it my imagination, or was the fog getting thicker? I made slits of my eyes as I stared down the gravel path. Was that a house in the distance? I wondered momentarily if it might be the Old Carver Place. How close had we gotten to Jefferson Creek? We’d never know now.
We moved forward, the windshield an increasingly whiter shade. I could hear Lena swearing a bit under her breath. I began to feel a little afraid. What if we got lost? What would we do?
“Lena, do you have your cell?” I asked, hesitantly.
“Yeah,” she replied, “it’s got a full charge, why?”
“Just curious,” I murmured.
“Let me guess, you’re totally freaked out by this fog, right?” she almost chuckled, “Don’t worry.”
“Well, I don’t know how you can even see in this.”
“It’s not like I have to navigate or anything,” she said with an ounce of condescension, “I mean, it’s a straight shot once you’re off the frontage road.”
“Okay,” I answered, almost ashamed. Sandy didn’t comment. I looked over at her again. Her eyes were closed. She was listening to music through her headphones, tapping her foot and humming some song. She didn’t care either way.
Our steady progress seemed increasingly slow. It felt as if we were moving at a snail’s pace, even though we probably weren’t. I only sensed our movement during the long stretches of widely spaced trees. The fog seemed to thin out in those areas and I could make out the ebony trunks of trees and, occasionally, a lonely farmhouse.
Once, as we were passing through one of these open sections, I could have sworn I saw the outline of a man in the distance. He wore an old hat with a wide brim. He stood very still, watching us as we went by. I couldn’t take my eyes from his silhouette. There was something dark and sinister about his being there alone, with no farmhouse near.
I was shaken deep down, but I said nothing to Lena. God forbid I share another fear with her. I almost said something to Sandy, but she wouldn’t have heard me over her headphones anyway. She was still humming softly, peering out of the window nearest her. What was she looking at, I wondered? Just then, Sandy slowly sat up in her seat and peered out the window meaningfully.
“What’s the matter?” I asked, trying to sound calm.
“We’re turning,” she said, very matter-a-factly, “We’re on a curve. Can you feel it?”
I sat perfectly still for several moments. She kept looking at me, waiting.
“Can you feel it?” she asked again.
“A little,” I replied, unsure.
“I think we’re moving in toward the fog,” she whispered.
“Lena, we didn’t take a curve coming in, did we?” I asked.
“No… it was all a straight shot from the frontage road. There aren’t any curves.”
“So… what’s happening?” Sandy inquired pointedly, “Why are we turning if there aren’t any curves?”
“I don’t know,” the cockiness had gone out of Lena’s voice, “We couldn’t have made a wrong turn. It’s all one direction.”
“Are there any street signs?” Sandy asked.
“None that would help us. It’s not like we’d recognize anything,” Lena snapped back.
We were definitely turning. There was no mistaking it. The road on the left was changing. It wasn’t just endless trees and bushes. It seemed that an embankment was forming far in the distance. It was moving toward us a little at a time.
“Is that the creek over there?” Sandy pointed, afraid, “Because we weren’t anywhere near the water coming in,” there was a little nervous trill in her voice.
“This is crazy,” Lena looked over to her left, “this is just insane. There’s no way the creek can be over there. It’s not possible. The creek runs east and west and we were driving north and south. Now it’s over there on our left. You just turn right off the frontage road and you go straight. I went straight all the way in. I didn’t turn anywhere. You’re supposed to come to an intersection with a big oak tree on the left. The bridge is about 3 miles ahead of that. How can we have just shifted directions? I don’t get it,” she was growing more exasperated the more she spoke, “I don’t get it…”
“Why don’t we just stop for a second and figure this thing out,” Sandy suggested.
Lena continued driving for a moment before she saw the wisdom of the suggestion and stopped. We all sat there, listening to the hum of the motor.
“We need to figure this out,” Lena began, “we need to figure out where we are.”
“Are we still on Old South Road?” I asked.
“I’m not sure anymore. Something weird is going on here,” Lena remarked.
“I guess this is probably a bad time to mention that I saw something out in the fog back there, huh?” said Sandy.
“In the trees?” I asked, trying to hold my fear in check, “Where was it?”
“Forget WHERE it was. WHAT was it?” asked Lena, turning around to face us, her eyes wide.
“I don’t remember where, exactly,” she began, looking at me. Had she seen what I’d seen? She didn’t get the chance to answer the questions because I interrupted her-
“I think I may have seen it too. Was it a man?”
“Yes, with a hat on,” she threw in.
“Just standing there, watching us drive by,” I continued, “I wasn’t sure if I actually saw him or not,” I paused for a beat, “But, wait… I saw him over here…” I stopped again, puzzled, “How did you see the same man over there that I saw over here? That can’t be right.”
“Maybe there were two men–” Sandy interrupted, her voice somewhat shaken.
“Okay, you guys are freaking me out. You both need to stop it,” snapped Lena.
“But Lena, if there’s someone wandering around out here–” I argued.
“I don’t care. You need to stop now!” Lena’s voice grew stronger.
“Lena, calm down,” Sandy stated, her tone firm and mildly sarcastic, “Now who’s freaking out?”
“Yes, I’m freaking out,” she spat, “What do you expect me to do? You just told me there was some stranger wandering around out here watching us drive by.”
“It’s probably nothing,” I reasoned.
“Ya, you’re getting yourself all worked up,” Sandy interrupted, “this isn’t helping.”
“Ya know what WOULD help?” she began, her voice thick with sarcasm, “If you two would just SHUT UP!”
Lena hollered the last, slamming her hand against the steering wheel for emphasis.
It was then that the headlights suddenly, and inexplicably, went out.
“Okay, Lena, not funny. So, not funny,” said Sandy.
“Do you really think I’d be pulling a prank right now?!” Lena snapped.
I instinctively hit the door lock at my left. Taking my cue, Lena hit the door lock for all of the doors.
I could hear our breathing. We were all terrified. I could hear the faint sound of Sandy’s headphones, still going, but she shut them off just as I became aware of them.
“It’s not me…” Lena murmured, “I didn’t do it. I swear…”
I don’t know how long we sat there in a kind of suspended animation. We were frozen with disbelief. The question that kept coming back to me was always the same: what were we going to do? It was Sandy who said the question out loud.
“What are we gonna do?”
Lena cleared her throat before speaking:
“First, we’re gonna call my dad and tell him where we are. Then we’re gonna shut off the car and wait here until he comes for us. Deal?”
Since she lived closest and no one could think of a better plan, we decided she was right. She reached into her purse and pulled out her phone. She dialed her number. She didn’t need to tell me that she had no signal. I was expecting that twist. It was the irony of life. How many times did we mindlessly talk on the cell phone when no one cared? Now, when it was imperative that we reach someone, there was no one to be reached.
There was also the problem of location. Suppose we called her dad and even reached him, what then? Where were we? Even we didn’t know. How could we ask someone to come and get us if we didn’t even know our location? It was a quandary.
“What now?” I asked.
“I dunno… we wait ‘til dawn?” Lena whispered, hopefully.
“It’s, like, ten, Lena,” began Sandy, a bit sarcastically, “We can’t just sit here all night. Besides, we’ll have to turn off the car. We’re gonna need gas to get out of here.”
“Yeah,” I began, “maybe we should shut off the car.” It was more of a statement than a question.
Lena was quiet for several moments. I could tell that she was thinking again.
“Okay,” she began, talking her way through the problem, “the lights have gone out. Okay… okay… I need light to drive.”
“There’s your cell phone,” I suggested.
“Yeah, but it doesn’t give off much light. Besides, I don’t especially want to run down the battery using it that way,” she answered.
“Hey, wait! Why don’t we just use your GPS?!” I exclaimed excitedly. The thought had just occurred to me.
“Yeah!” Sandy sat forward suddenly, overcome with new hope.
“Are you insane?” she murmured sarcastically, “We’re talking about MY dad, remember? He’s, like, the cheapest guy on earth. My phone’s a dinosaur. Besides, GPS doesn’t do me any good if I can’t even see to drive,” Lena reasoned.
“There goes that idea,” Sandy sulked, sliding back into her former position.
“Well, don’t we have a flashlight in the trunk?” I asked, looking at Sandy, “We could use that, couldn’t we? I mean, it doesn’t solve the GPS problem, but it would give us some light.”
“I assume it has batteries?” Lena challenged, also looking at Sandy in the rearview mirror. It was Sandy’s flashlight.
“Yeah- it would be kinda pointless to bring it if it didn’t work,” she replied. Lena tried not to roll her eyes.
“Okay… okay…” Lena began, psyching herself up, “When did you see that… person?”
“A long way back up the road,” I pointed, “like 10 minutes ago, at least.”
“Yeah,” agreed Sandy, “I saw him a while ago too.”
“Okay,” Lena began, “I’m going to get that flashlight out of the trunk,” Sandy almost broke in to dissuade her, but Lena hissed a bit and kept going, “If I can get that, then we can actually see where we’re going. The risks are worth the payoff. You see that, right?”
We all agreed that she was right. She nodded her head with resolution before speaking again, “Now, I’m going to roll down my window about an inch. I’m going to talk to you the whole time I’m out there. If you don’t hear me…” she swallowed a minute, “something is just… something’s wrong, okay.”
“Do you want one of us to get out with you?” Sandy asked.
“Ya, I mean, one of us could hold the phone so you can see… or something,” I suggested.
“Which one of you wants to volunteer for that job?” Lena asked sarcastically, looking in the rearview mirror.
I hoped Sandy would speak up, but she didn’t. I couldn’t bring myself to volunteer either. The thought of leaving the car terrified me.
“That’s what I thought,” Lena smirked before adding, “It’s probably better this way anyway. If there IS a problem, you’ll need the phone to call for help. It needs to stay in the car. It’s the only one we’ve got. Besides, it’s not as though there’s THAT much stuff in the trunk. I should be able to find that bag without a light.”
We all sat there, quietly, listening to the engine rumbling in the darkness. Lena finally broke the silence by pushing a nearby button and opening the driver’s side window about an inch.
“If something happens, I want you to try calling my dad again. It’s listed under “dad” in my contacts.”
“And if we can’t reach him?” Sandy asked, tentatively.
“I guess you’ll just have to call 911.” Her voice was static, emotionless. It was her way. When situations became too intense, Lena divorced herself from them.
I watched Lena’s features alter as her fear took hold. She swallowed it down like poison. I silently cursed myself for being so cowardly… and for having such a conservative mother. You don’t need a cell phone. That was my mother’s constant refrain. What now, mother? What now? Then again, had I taken my mother’s advice and avoided this “adventure” as she’d suggested, I probably wouldn’t have needed a cell phone in the first place. What now, indeed.
As for Sandy, her phone had broken during the second week of school. It was anyone’s guess as to why she’d never stopped by the store to get it replaced. Now we all sat in Lena’s car with one working phone… sort of.
“I’m gonna count to three and then I’m gonna run out there,” said Lena, reaching down under her seat to pull the trunk release. Then she paused for several moments, gathering her nerve. Finally, she broke the dreadful silence, “One…”
I found myself breathing shallowly, my breath catching in my throat. My heart was pounding so hard that my chest actually hurt.
“Two…” I could see her hand reaching for the door handle. She unlocked the door manually with her other hand, “Three.”
She hesitated for just a moment before jumping out of the car and skittering around to the back. She made small talk while she opened the trunk and dug around inside. It was almost pitch black out there so I knew she would have trouble finding anything. Of course, the fact that Lena took corners like an Indy 500 racer didn’t help either. I was sure everything was slung to one side.
I could hear the sound of her moving stuff around frantically, digging for the light. The car even dipped back as her weight shifted. She must have had to put her knee up on the bumper and stretch her arms into the back of the trunk. The talk grew less and less constant as she searched. I knew we should have just stuffed all of that gear into the back seat like Sandy suggested. All of this was running through my mind.
The sounds slowly died out and her movements became less frantic and searching. Had she found it?
Sandy rolled her window down just a smidge then.
“You need help, Lena?” Sandy called, hesitantly, “Or did you find it okay?”
Lena didn’t answer.
We couldn’t hear anything. It was utterly silent. I looked behind me through the rear window and could see only the trunk cover standing open like a yawning chasm. The blue sheen of it blocked out most of the window and the view of the road behind us… not that we could have seen anything anyway. The darkness was disquieting and the fog obscured anything we might have seen.
I sat frozen, as did Sandy. I could feel her watching me, almost afraid to speak. I turned to her. Her eyes said more than her mouth could have uttered. The fear was plainly written on her features. I, too, was afraid, but I was also wracked with guilt. One of us should have gotten out of the car with Lena. I cursed my lack of courage.
Just as I thought this, Sandy and I’s predicament came back to me with heart-thumping immediacy. If someone (or something) had gotten to Lena, it could get to us as well. Without further consideration, I reached over and locked Lena’s door.
Fear heightened my senses by degrees. I could feel the hum of the motor. I could hear the low crackling of the radio, so low now that no music could be heard. And, through it all, a single question repeated itself in my mind: what had happened to Lena?
I was seized with the desire to open the door and see what might be out there.
I was seized with the desire to climb over the seat and start driving into the blackness.
I was seized with the desire to hunker down in the car, shut off the engine, and wait for the dawn. All of these options seemed both marvelous and terrible.
The first idea had obvious pitfalls. Suppose someone was out there, waiting? Suppose Lena was already history and there was no point in heroics? Suppose a gruesome sight awaited me just beyond the edge of the trunk? The last thought I could not consider.
The second option seemed just as loathsome, though it did present some promise. Suppose I did drive off and we got to safety? That would be wonderful. But, suppose Lena was in trouble? Could I live with myself for abandoning her? It seemed unforgivable.
The last idea was equally cowardly in the end. We’d save fuel, of course, and in the light of dawn we’d be able to see something. But, again, there was the sense that we’d be abandoning Lena.
I finally decided to roll down the window as far as I could and lean out to see if I could get a glimpse of anything beyond the trunk of the car. My eyes had adjusted somewhat to the darkness by then and I felt sure I would be able to make out something in the gloom. This also provided relative safety because I did not actually have to leave the car. I considered grabbing Lena’s cell phone and using the screen as a flashlight, but I could not risk dropping it or, worse yet, having it taken from me. It was, quite literally, our only connection to the world outside. I decided to do the best I could without it.
The sound of the window going down unnerved me. It was like pulling down my blanket in a dark room when I was a child. There was an illusion of safety when the blanket was pulled up. There was the sense that the mix of cotton would save me, but it was a lie. The monster was still out there, waiting under the bed.
I tried to listen, but the hum of the engine seemed unaccountably loud. I looked over at Sandy, about to tell her my plan, but she sat rubbing the back of her hand across her lips over and over again in a repetitive fashion, as though she was on the brink of a breakdown. Her breath was coming in short gasps and she seemed about ready to either scream or cry.
I listened to the sounds of the night for several moments, gathering my nerve, before turning my attention to the task of figuring out how I intended to ease myself out of the window. On the surface it seemed simple enough, but in practice, it became logistically challenging. I finally decided to put my hands on the top of the car and use my feet to push myself up through the window into a sitting position. Thus situated, I felt sure that I would be able to see beyond the trunk’s open lid and possibly manage to get a glimpse of Lena somewhere.
I tried not to think of reasons why Lena may have stopped talking to us, but it was impossible. Perhaps she’d heard a noise a few yards from the car and she’d gone to investigate? Maybe she’d gone silent because she was trying to hear something in the night? Neither of these suggestions was particularly comforting. WHAT had she heard that she needed to investigate? WHY did she need to remain silent?
I could delay my plan no longer. If Lena was in trouble, I’d never forgive myself for dawdling. I already had too many sins to count where Lena was concerned. I glanced across the seat at Sandy. Her hand was still at her lips and her eyes regarded me with ill-disguised terror. I couldn’t allow myself to consider her fears. I had to know if Lena was safe. It was the least I could do.
On the count of three I took a deep breath and pushed myself up. The maneuver was far more awkward than I’d anticipated. My elbow smacked the window frame smartly and my feet slid on the cloth seats of Lena’s car. In the end, I had to content myself with a partial view of what lay beyond the open trunk. However, this did not bother me too much. The idea of being up so high and out of the car so far actually terrified me. Already I felt terribly vulnerable.
I attempted to get a look at our surroundings, but the scene was merely dim. Instead, I did my best to see if I could hear anything. The night was alive with a million, tiny sounds coming from a distance: the bullfrogs groaned, the birds twittered, an owl called from far away. When added to all of this, the constant hum of the motor effectively drowned out any real sounds I might have heard.
As if on cue, the moon came out from behind the clouds a second later. Silver outlined each tree and bush. Looking around, I strained to see something in the foggy obscurity. I found that I could make out the shapes of trees, but not much else. I leaned back further on the windowsill, trying to see beyond the open lid of the trunk, but I was met with only darkness.
My lips tried to form Lena’s name. I wanted to call out to her… I wanted to… but I found that I couldn’t bring myself to say the words. A tiny voice in the very furthest reaches of my consciousness was whispering to me insistently that it was best if I remained silent.
I exhaled suddenly, unaware that I’d been holding my breath. A frustration was mounting in me. I wanted to know… where was Lena? More than anything I wanted Lena to casually appear from the back end of the car as though nothing was wrong, the flashlight in her hand. But she did not appear. She did not appear and she made no sound… none, that is, except the dragging.
I became slowly conscious that just above the hum of the motor, a little ways off, there was something moving… moving this way. It sounded like footsteps, but there was something not quite right about them. I listened intently, trying to better hear what was approaching. But, no matter how I strained, I was as perplexed as ever.
Step… drag. Step… .drag. Step… drag.
My breath became shaky as my heart began pounding even more incessantly in my chest. I looked this way and that, trying to catch a glimpse of what it was that was making the sound.
Step… drag. Step… .drag. Step… drag.
As panic gripped me, I wrestled my way back into the car, hurriedly rolling up my window. Automatically, I scanned all four doors and noted that all of the locks were engaged.
“My God,” Sandy’s voice came out of the shadows, little more than a broken whisper, “What is that?”
Her eyes were frightened. She scanned all of the windows in quick succession, trying to see everything at once.
“You don’t think–” she began again, but didn’t finish.
At first, I was somewhat bewildered by her words, but, little by little, they worked their way into my consciousness. You don’t think… what don’t I think? And, just like that, I knew.
“That’s just a story, Sandy,” my voice sounded small and unconvincing in my ears.
“Stop pretending,” she said, her tone controlled, but shaky, “You know what it is.…”
“Sandy, stop that,” I tried to sound strong, brave, but I knew better. I sounded as broken and terrified as she, “We’re going to have to stay calm.”
“Stay calm? You’re joking, right?” she snapped, “Next you’re going to tell me it’s nothing, even though you know that’s a lie,” she finished by laughing hollowly, “Yeah… I’m sure it’s nothing… nothing but that creep… the one who goes around slitting people’s throats after he breaks their legs.”
“Don’t talk like that,” I replied, my words shaky. I had to keep it together. I could not fall apart, “We don’t know–”
“You don’t think so?” she interrupted, her voice a sarcastic whisper, “What about Lena? Where is she? Huh? We’re going to have to do something. We can’t just sit here…” there was a long pause as though she were considering something. Then, she added, “If we wait much longer,” she took a deep breath, steadying herself, “we’re not going to get out of here.”
“Stop talking like that,” I snapped automatically. My tone was far louder than I’d meant it to be, but I couldn’t listen to her anymore.
“Deep down, you know I’m right. He came for Lena and now he’s going to come for us.”
“Don’t–” I could feel my own hysteria rising.
“Shhhhh,” she interrupted me, an odd expression marring her features, “Do ya hear that?”
I listened. All of a sudden, everything was very still. The movement outside had stopped. This should have comforted me, but it was somehow more terrible than the noises I’d heard before. We both looked at each other. Sandy sat quietly, her mouth open slightly as she concentrated.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” Sandy whispered, “but I know we gotta get out of here.”
“But… what about–?” I protested.
Sandy merely looked at me. Her thoughts were clearly written on her face: we couldn’t consider Lena anymore.
I caught a glimpse of myself in the rearview mirror. My expression was drawn tightly; my skin was pale and hollow. We sat, immobile, for several moments. Indeed, it was so still that I’d almost forgotten that anything existed outside of the car.
The scream that shattered the eerie silence was deafening and terrifying, even more so when I realized that the noise had come from my own mouth. The trunk lid had slammed shut with an odious thud. Instinctively, we both turned to look out of the back window. We gazed, transfixed, at the ghostly darkness and the eerie fog. I felt tears forming at the edges of my eyes. I was silently grateful for Sandy’s presence, if only because she allowed me to face the ugliness of the situation with a companion. We waited what seemed like an eternity for something to happen next, and then it came.
Step… drag. Step… drag. Step… drag.
I grabbed Sandy’s arm in a frenzy, my fingers twisting her skin and the fabric of her shirt together mercilessly. She winced, but I was beyond noticing.
“What’s happening?” I said through ragged breaths. Then, more hysterically, “What’s happening?!”
Step… drag. Step… drag. Step… drag.
He was getting closer. I knew that. I tried not to look through the windows, to keep my eyes on Sandy and away from the road, but my resolve was short-lived. Eventually, my curiosity proved unbearable and I found myself gazing through the windshield once more. There, out in the fog, my eyes made out the shadowy silhouette of a man. His shoulders were slumped and he wore an old hat. He did not move. He just stood there waiting… watching.
Sandy didn’t look, she didn’t need to. Overcome with terror, she skirted between the pilot seats and took hold of the steering wheel. I screamed at her to stop, fearful of what might happen next in her panic, but she would not listen.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m not going to just sit here and wait for some maniac to slit my throat. I’m getting outta here!” she screamed.
I wanted to say something logical, something reasonable, but my mind had gone completely blank. On some primal level, I knew Sandy was right. As crazy and nonsensical as everything seemed, Sandy was doing the most sane thing she could do.
Her hand found the gear shift and her foot found the accelerator. She took off at break-neck speed, the car careening wildly down the dark road. Instinctively, I grabbed the nearby seatbelt and snapped it into place. I doubted it would do much good, but I figured it couldn’t hurt.
“We shouldn’t have come here… I knew we shouldn’t have come here,” she murmured as she drove.
Up ahead, in the cool fog, it rose out of the mist. It was the bridge over Jefferson Creek. The old concrete bridge seemed ripped from another time, another place, not unlike a castle winding its way out of dense forest on a tall hill. I’d known we were close. I’d known, and yet its appearance still managed to send a deep chill into my stomach.
Somehow we’d managed to change directions again. We were no longer riding parallel to the creek, but driving perpendicular to it. We were heading straight for the bridge. I heard the tires squeal savagely as we took a curve in the road at incredible speed. I felt the car sliding sideways. Impact was imminent.
The last images I remember were the movement of the car, the limitless gloom wrapped in eerie fog, and the blurred shadow of a man standing at the edge of the bridge… waiting…
I woke to the sight of spinning emergency lights. I was still in the car, buckled in. My first thought was for Sandy, but when I looked in the front seat, I couldn’t see her. We’d hit one side of the bridge, hard.
I was startled by the face of a paramedic next to the glass. His flashlight was blinding. I couldn’t think of how they’d gotten there, who’d alerted them. All I knew was that they were all there. The ambulance, the fire trucks, the police cars. The bridge seemed alive with dizzying shades of red and blue.
In a daze, I found myself opening the door.
“Whoa,” admonished the paramedic, “we haven’t looked you over yet. Don’t move.”
I felt gutted. I vaguely listened as he asked me standard questions: what happened? Can you hear me? Follow my finger. Do you feel pain anywhere? Does this hurt? How about this? What were you guys doing out here?
“How did you…?” I began, still groggy and confused.
“Onstar,” the paramedic replied matter-a-factly, “Their emergency services got a remote sensor indication that you’d been in a crash. They contacted us right away.”
Instinctively, I glanced at the dashboard looking for some indication of a remote sensoring system. The paramedic must have read my mind because, a moment later, he leaned in, pointing.
“See? Right there,” he was pointing at the rearview mirror, “see that button there that says SOS?” I nodded half-heartedly, “That’s the button you push if you need help. Sometimes people can’t push the button because they’re hurt. That’s when the automatic sensor deploys.”
“Oh,” it was all I could think to say. A moment later, he turned away and went back to the ambulance.
I attempted to stand up, to try to walk, but I collapsed again. I made my way through the numerous emergency personal, trying to ask about Sandy and Lena, but whenever I brought up the others, they told me to rest, to go sit down. Why wouldn’t they answer me?
It was some time later when I learned the truth. Sandy, not belted, had been thrown from the vehicle. She was killed on impact, her legs smashed. Lena… Lena had been with us all along… in the trunk. She’d been folded like a pretzel, legs destroyed. I thought back to when she’d put her weight on the back of the car, leaning into the trunk. Is that when he’d grabbed her? I couldn’t know.
I, alone, survived. I’m not sure why. Maybe Lena was right. Maybe I am a dead battery where the spirit world is concerned. I don’t care. I have no desire to talk to spirits anymore.
Jessica? No, she’s never been found, but I suspect she’s out there like the others. Out there by Jefferson Creek… out there in the endless night with Shuffling Joe.
CREDIT: Brenda Ader
🔔 More stories from author: Brenda Ader
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