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Tue11212017

Last updateTue, 06 Aug 2013 2am

Monday, 03 October 2011 04:27

Sterling Road

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Two tendrils of light rend the thick fog into three pieces and keep the darkness at bay as we snake a path down the slick road. The trees twist and grimace, slightly darker than the night, waiting, waiting, waiting for us to veer just close enough, but Ben negotiates the road so we remain just out of their sinister reach.

We brought him out here so he could see it.

Condensation clings to the windows in a thousand tiny droplets like hungry parasites.

“It’s still aways down the road,” I tell him, “out past the old paper mill.” The headlights illuminate half a stone’s throw ahead, call up an army of waltzing shadows more than that, and they sachet in and out of the light impishly.

Kenny and I are in the back seat, him wiping penises on the window with his finger, me leaning half up front in the middle. Josh is up front with Ben, his lips stretched wide giving exclusive access to his crooked, corn colored teeth. He hasn’t stopped smiling since we left the house.

“Hey—hey,” Kenny says, pointing with his moist fingertip, “turn it up some.” Phil Collins is on the radio talking about how he can feel it coming in the air tonight, growing louder as Ben twists the volume knob. The wipers clear a fresh space in the glass, and curving white lines come at us by surprise.

“Why won’t you tell me what this thing is,” Ben asks, then he looks over at Josh, who’s not paying attention, two fingers worming around just inside his nostril.

“Don’t wipe those on my shit,” Ben tells him.

“Wipe what?”

“Your damn boogers.”

“They’re not boogers, they’re nose hairs. It makes my eyes water.” And he uproots a few more of the hairs and displays them in the dome light. “See?” Then he presses the dome light off and the darkness takes over again.

There’s the tick-tick-tick of a lighter on the end of a joint clutched between Kenny’s lips. He gets it going and relinquishes it to me. The smoke wrestles with itself and in an instant the air inside the car matches the outside; I surrender the joint to Ben.

“Come on, man,” drag, imprisoned breath, “just tell me,” exhale. Ben passes the joint to Josh. I glance over at Kenny and see one side of his mouth curl upwards into a grin and I say:

“Sorry, dude. You just gotta wait. It’s worth it.”

A couple staccato coughs and Josh is rolling down the window for fresh air. I reach over and take the joint before he adds a new burn hole to Ben’s Swiss-cheese seat and pass it to Kenny. Darts of cold spray flood in through the window and we urge Josh to hurry up with the coughing.

A faded yellow deer sign perforated by .22 bullet holes appears and passes, climbing a steep hill and drop off the other side that bottoms out into a rickety covered bridge. Just before, I look to the side but the fog impedes the view of the water. The bridge’s roof spans over us and catches the drizzle, then we’re out and the Sterling Paper Mill’s silhouette juts out from the shadows the color of dark ink.

“Look at that thing,” Kenny says, then the joint flares bright as he sucks hard, “how old do you think it is?” A river of smoke escapes between his clenched teeth and he starts to pass it forward.

“It’s been abandoned at least fifty years,” Ben says, looking over at the mill. I slide to the right side of the car and roll the window down for a better view. I can barely make out where the roofline has started to sag, and—

“JESUS CHRIST!” and we’re spinning, both of Ben’s hands viced onto the wheel, jerking it helter-skelter left and right while blasting the brake pedal into the floorboard, headlights panning left, right over gnarled hulking trees, and then we’re stopped facing perpendicular to the road, Ben’s hands still clamped to the wheel.

Ben starts casting around for something in every direction, and me: “what?”

“Did you see that? Did you see it?” then he’s patting himself down in a frenzy, checking his seat, between his legs, the floor.

“What are you talking about?” I say. “And what’s wrong?”

“I saw it,” Josh says, leaning his head out the window.

“You did,” Ben says, “you saw it, too?” still furiously searching all around him.

“What was it?” I ask. “What the hell are you doing?”

“Yeah,” Josh says, “did you see it?” looking at Kenny.

Kenny shakes his head and I tap his arm. “I didn’t see it either. What did you guys see? Was it a deer?”

Ben shakes his head, then comes up from the floor with the joint. “No, no. Somebody was just walking down this road. Kenny dropped the joint and I went to get it, then when I looked up there was this guy walking and he looked at us, at me—holy Christ I almost hit him.”

“Where is he? Is he still there?”

“I don’t know,” Ben says, “I don’t know.”

“Why don’t we turn around,” Kenny adds, “and see if he’s okay or whatever.”

“Yeah, let’s do that,” Josh says, still grinning. Ben’s breath is thick, uranium, and he nods and puts the car in reverse.

We drive back toward the paper mill, all the way to the bridge and Ben stops. He shakes his head. “He couldn’t have made it this far.”

“Are you sure it was a dude?” Kenny asks. “Like, maybe it was a deer, you know?”

“No.” Head shake. “No, it was a person. He had a leather jacket on. He was smoking a cigarette.”

Surprise.

That was it, but we don’t tell him.

“Wait a minute, what did you say?” I ask.

“The guy,” Bens says, “he was smoking. I saw his leather jacket.”

I sit back in my seat and feign being awestruck.

“What?”

I look at Kenny, Josh. “You guys remember hearing about that guy who got killed out here a long time ago?” I let it simmer.

“Wait, you don’t think it’s—”

“Yes,” I say, cutting Josh off.

“What are you guys talking about?”

Josh is still smiling, but I ignore it. “Ben, you know how we came out here to show you something?” He nods. “Well, we wanted to bring you out here and tell you the story of this guy who got killed out here, only…”

I shift my gaze out the window, see if I can maybe see down to the water yet, and it’s no use.

“Only what?”

“Well…we didn’t think we would actually see it.”

“See what?”

“The damn ghost!”

Ben laughs. “Are you fucking serious here? You really think there’s a stupid ghost? You guys are just fucking with me right? Right?”

I look at the other two. “No.”

“Okay, this has gone on long enough. Let’s just go home,” Ben says, putting the car in drive and enters the bridge.

“Hold on a second. What if this thing is real? I mean, the description I heard in the story matched your description of whatever you saw. Don’t you think that’s weird? And what about how we drove back down the road and we never saw anything. Coincidence?”

“Do you think he may have went into the paper mill?” Josh asks.

“Do you want to go check it out?” Kenny replies. “Do you want to go inside the mill?”

I cut them off before they start arguing, “Hey, alls I’m saying is that we go back and check it out. I mean, what’s it gonna hurt, right?”

Kenny nods. “I think we should do it.”

“Josh?”

Josh agrees.

“Ben?”

He sighs. “Okay. But I think this is retarded.”

And Josh is still smiling.

“All right, let’s get turned around and go back down by the mill.”

Moments later, the mill’s menacing profile appears and Ben slows the vehicle down. We drive past the mill for another mile or so and find nothing but more wet road, fog, and trees.

Ben’s skepticism remains, and he suggests turning back.

“Keep going, dude,” I say.

“This is bullshit,” Ben rebuts. “There’s no damn ghost.”

“But someone was here. You said so yourself.”

“I don’t care. This is lame.”

“All right, suit yourself. But I kinda want to keep going. It can’t hurt, can it?”

“No, it can’t hurt,” Josh adds. “Let’s keep going.” The smile.

A sigh. “Whatever,” Ben says, and the vehicle continues down the dark road.

It’s quiet like the inside of a coffin except for the radio, which has some obscure song by nobody special playing. We pass a few more archaic signs, and for about ten minutes nothing happens.

Kenny smears the penis etchings from the window and says, “Well, I don’t think we’re going to see anything. Has anyone ever been down this road before?”

I wait for the others to respond, and they both shake their heads.

“Wanna see what’s down there?”

Josh and I shrug. “Sure,” I say, “why not?”

Another heavy sigh from Ben, “I’m turning around. This is re-goddamn-diculous. You all aren’t paying for the gas for us to be—”

The leather jacket lurches across the road directly in front of us and disappears into the woods on the other side.

“SHIT, SHIT—”

“Fuck, did you see that?”

“YES, we all saw it,” I say, amping up the intensity of the situation, then “Jesus, GO, GO, DRIVE man, let’s go!” before any plans could be made otherwise, and Ben guns it.

The car fishtails around a corner and Ben narrowly regains control and the tires whine trying to retain their grip with the road. Kenny slides his ass back and forth in the seat and squeezes the seatback, checking behind us to make sure it’s not following us. Josh’s gaze is fixed to our rear also, this time the smile is nowhere to be found. Ben’s breath is fast, can be heard over the stupid song. I’m looking behind us too, now, because it seems right, and then there’s a piercing scream.

The three of us whip around to see what Ben is screaming at and just ahead on the road the headlights focus on a lone figure, leather jacket, cigarette jutting from a blurred face, blue jeans. A solitary thick finger pokes out from a balled fist and Ben swerves into the oncoming lane. We’re not about to pick this guy up. “Didn’t we just pass him, isn’t he back there?” Josh says.

“Why are we going the wrong way?” Kenny pipes up, “shouldn’t we be going the other way, do we even know what’s down here?”

“Shut up, man,” I say, then to Ben, “just keep driving, dude, there might be another road down here.”

He presses the pedal harder and the engine groans, our heaving still audible over everything else.

We make it past a couple more curves and it’s just trees, trees, and darkness, all masked out by the settling fog and we’re just careening down this damn road nobody’s ever been down before in pitch blackness. This whole time nobody utters a word, just keeps looking maniacally for this dude in the leather jacket, the ghost.

For another couple of miles we cruise, barely in control of ourselves, the vehicle, not knowing where we’re headed or if there’s any way out besides the other way, and Ben slows the vehicle barely to negotiate another curve in the road and we top a hill, and down the other side we can see the bottom, and it’s him, the guy in the jacket, the leather jacket, walking.

All of our breath escapes us and our stomachs climb.

Then Ben is on the accelerator and we’re firing down this hillside like a rocket.

“What the fuck are you doing, man, this is crazy, I think we should just turn around…” Josh yells and I say it too, “what are you doing, Ben? Ben?”

And his face is fixed on the walker, both hands wrapped around the wheel, leaning forward, “I’m gonna get this motherfucker.”

“No! NO! Don’t do it!” I tug hard on his shoulder.

“I’m DOING it! I’ll show this fucker!”

And we all start screaming at him, no, no, no, not to do this, that it’s not what he thinks, it’s not a ghost, and I want Josh to do something, to grab the wheel, but I know we’ll all die if he does, and we’re flying, really flying and the guy is standing there, looming ahead, with his thumb out like before, the cigarette blazing hot red, and we’re zooming in on him like a camera lens, and before you know it he zips closer, closer until there’s no turning back and we’re all screaming at Ben not to because this is all a joke, but the car hones in and the face, the man’s face freezes just before, captured perfectly for that split moment in time that seems like forever, and then his legs rip out from under him and that face mashes into the windshield, and blood spreads out with the cracks, and he rolls, tumbles loudly over the roof and we hear the dull thack of him hitting the road behind us and the car skids around out of control because Ben now rams the brakes down hard and we’re twisting to the right, screaming, and then all of our bodies thrust left, against the side because we come to a stop against a relentless tree trunk.

Nothing but moans and hot mist lifting up from us, the car, and all I can think about is exiting the vehicle, getting to him, to David, because this was not supposed to happen, that maybe I can call ahead to Steve or back to Cory, or Mac, but when I check my phone there is no service out here, on Sterling Road, and this was not supposed to happen, that all we wanted was to create a ghost today, with his leather jacket and cigarette, and the thought that loops in my head is that maybe - just maybe - we did.




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Dan Donche

Dan Donche divides his time, sometimes unsuccessfully, between writing, music, and mma. He lives out of a giant-yet-comfortable backpack, and can be found on Twitter (@dandonche) and the Velvet.

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