Some ghost stories rely on shock and surprise. But others can send a chill up your spine, no matter how many times you’ve heard them … or told them…. (More)
Tricks’n’Treats Part II: Ghostly Tingles
This week Morning Feature will enjoy Halloween. Yesterday we started with horror shorts. Today we ask why some ghost stories are enduringly spine-chilling. Tomorrow we’ll ponder why dust bunnies don’t make the monsters under the bed sneeze.
“Can you take me home, please?”
I don’t usually take that road. But traffic was snarled on the interstate and I was happy to take the next exit and the old road that parallels the coast.
In the daytime it’s a pretty drive, at least on this side of the river. Spanish moss seems to drip from old, overhanging oaks. Antebellum homes with broad porches sit at the ends of long driveways with stately, wrought iron gates. The road is straight, with only gentle curves, and there’s almost no traffic on it after dark.
So I didn’t mind the lack of streetlights. Near the river, where the tree cover opens, the Milky Way spilled across the sky. I can’t see that in the city, so I eased off the gas and glanced up in awe.
Maybe that’s why I almost didn’t see her sitting beside the road. She must have turned as I approached. My high beams flashed off the pale skin of her face and I tapped the button to dim them, so as not to blind her.
Her dress was faded. No, it was wet. But it wasn’t raining. I guess that incongruity is what made me stop. I pressed the button to roll down the passenger window and turned on the dome light, so she could see my face as I leaned across. She looked scared enough already and I didn’t want her to give her any more reason to worry.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
Her voice was tiny, almost distant. “Can you take me home, please?”
“Sure,” I said. “Where do you live?”
She looked across the bridge. “About five miles down, on the right.”
I nodded. “I’d be happy to. Climb in.”
Her skirt squished as she sat. “Sorry. Should I … do you have a towel or something?”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “Let’s get you home.”
I knew the air conditioner would feel like ice on her wet clothes, so I turned it off. That made the silence even louder.
For the next few seconds there was only the faint thu-bump of the bridge sections. Then the even fainter crunch of grit under the tires. I asked her name. She said something, but I couldn’t quite hear. It seemed rude to ask her to speak up, so instead I asked if she minded the music. She shook her head.
Her hands shook too, until she clasped her fingers together so tightly her knuckles went white. Her breath tightened as she looked ahead. “It’s just up there. The blue mailbox.”
On this side of the bridge there were no antebellum mansions with broad porches. No long driveways with stately, wrought iron gates. Just tin roofs and yards that were as much weeds as grass.
I pulled onto the shoulder. “Here ya go. Safe and sound.”
She didn’t speak. Barely breathed. She closed her eyes and a tear trickled down her pale cheek. Her jaw trembled.
I knew that look. I’d felt it myself, years ago. Teenagers do stupid things. And so do parents.
“I’m sure it’ll be okay,” I said gently. “No matter what, they’ll be glad you’re safe.”
She nibbled her lip. Her knuckles got impossibly whiter.
“Tell ya what,” I offered. “I’ll go knock on the door. If it doesn’t seem … safe … there’s a teen shelter in the city. They’re good people.”
I didn’t tell her I was speaking from experience. I guess I didn’t have to. After a long moment, she nodded.
I got out and started up the gravel drive. I realized that was a bad idea in even two-inch heels, so I veered over and walked on the grass. Better messy shoes than a sprained ankle.
It’s hard to judge age in men. He might have been an old forty or a young sixty. He didn’t look angry, but he didn’t look exactly thrilled either. I guess no one is when a stranger knocks at their door at, what was it, almost midnight?
“Help you?” he asked.
I nodded. “I picked up your daughter, other side of the bridge. She’s wet. And scared.”
I’m not old, but I’ve seen a lot. Enough to know that look. Enough to recognize the way his breath caught, the way his shoulders sagged, the way his eyes darted over my shoulder toward the car.
“Who is it, sweetie?”
Another voice, from inside. Thin and frail. The man tried to answer and his voice wouldn’t work. His tear ducts did.
It’s easier to judge age in women. When she stood beside him, the lines in his face seemed deeper, more drawn. Not an old forty. A young sixty. Maybe not so young. The girl in the car had his cheeks and her jaw.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” I said. I nodded over my shoulder, toward the car. “It’s … I have your daughter.”
She closed her eyes. Took a deep breath. Shook her head. “Not again.”
“She’s wet and scared,” I said quietly, carefully. “I picked her up–”
“–by the bridge,” she whispered. “By the bridge. In her wet dress.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I said.
He kept looking over my shoulder. She took his trembling hand. Her eyes met mine.
“That’s where she was,” the woman said. “She snuck out to meet Jason. Sat on the bridge. Looking up at the stars, Jason said. Just kissing, he said.”
The man finally found words. Some. “She fell. We … they never….”
“Twenty-three years ago tonight,” she said.
Now I couldn’t find words. Couldn’t find air. Could barely find solid ground.
The woman looked at me. Tried to smile. “Thank you. For … for trying.”
Dewy grass stuck to my shoes as I walked back to my car. My empty car. I turned the A/C back on. Felt its chill in the wet tracks on my cheeks. Forced myself to take a deep breath. And another. Looked up at the Milky Way, spilling across the sky. Rested my hand on the passenger seat as I leaned forward for a better angle.
And felt the moisture on the seat.
But The Vanishing Hitchhiker is told all over the world. It brings tears to my eyes – and a chill to the back of my neck – every time I hear it, or read it, or tell it … or write it.
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