The Passenger

The sun had barely reached it’s zenith when Chad decided that it was time to return to civilization.  A tube tent had been his bedroom for the last three days;, a simple wire grate with its ends set on two flat stones over a fire his kitchen, and a nearby stand of bushes his bathroom.  Chad’s food supplies rested in his backpack, which hung from a tree limb by a thin nylon rope; hardly more than a string.  The elevation of the backpack offered protection from bears, and the thin rope protection from the squirrels that could clamber up and down a rope of  thicker caliber.

It was in all ways a comfortable camp and it had given Chad a place to unwind after an academic year of pre-med studies.  Chemistry, microbiology, pharmacology and a half dozen other courses that ended with ‘ology’ had filled his time and tested his intellectual capabilities for the past nine months.  The last few days had allowed him to replace those subjects with hiking, fishing, beginning to read “War and Peace” at last, and sleeping soundly in the tube tent with his head extended outside so that he could watch the stars put on their light show every night.

The camp’s comfort quickly vanished however when Chad, returning from a mountain creek where he had been fishing, discerned from afar two figures lounging in the middle of it.  He had been trying, without success, to fool some unsuspecting trout into thinking that the concoction of threads and ribbons and feathers which hid the hook that was attached to his line would make a good breakfast.  Chad hadn’t cared too much if the trout would bite or not, but in the event that it did, fresh trout would have been a welcome break from eating the freeze dried eggs and oatmeal with dried fruit which now would once again constitute his breakfast.  The fish were uncooperative, and as the sun rose and the best feeding times for the fish passed, Chad decided that it was his own feeding time.  He broke down the thin, segmented backpacking pole, replaced his lure in the fly case in his pocket, and began to walk back to his camp.

He was a good fifty yards from the camp when he saw the two men sitting there.  Some primal instinct warned Chad to not go any further.  He ducked quickly and quietly behind a cluster of boulders and watched as the two men sat on a fallen log at the edge of he camp.  The two men talked but Chad could not hear what was being said.  The way that the two men made themselves at home in his camp conveyed the sense that they considered it their own.  Chad’s aversion to going down into his camp grew with every second that he watched the two men.

One of the men was a burly brute, with shaggy black hair and a large beard.  He wore jeans and a plaid shirt that could barely conceal the size of his upper body.  His companion was a wiry character with short hair, tan pants, a Tee shirt and a down vest.  This second man had a nervous habit of jerking his head first one way, and then the other, swiveling like a monkey’s head, as if looking for approaching enemies up here at 7,500 feet

Chad stayed motionless behind the boulders, straining to hear any of their conversation that might carry in the still, thin air, and trying to convince himself that he was just being paranoid.  To the contrary, the sensation of peril increased and Chad became convinced that nothing good would happen if he arose and entered his desecrated camp.  He now reached down and patted his pocket, where the key to his Yamaha 250 cc off-road bike rested.  A moment of panic swept Chad as he felt pocket knife and fly case but no key, but when he dug his hand into the pocket the reassuring form of the key was felt.

Chad had parked his bike in a copse of trees well away from his camp.  He liked to ride far up into the remote areas of the mountains to establish his camps without the time consuming need of hiking in. He could then begin to enjoy camping with all of its activities, or lack of activities, for the greatest amount of time at the greatest distance from civilization.  Once he had made camp however, Chad did not want to see the bike, as it represented the civilization that he wanted to get away from.  “Yeah, it’s contradictory” he had thought, “but it’s the way I like it.”  Now he was glad that he did it that way.  “I hope that they didn’t see the tracks in the dust” Chad muttered to himself as he worked his way almost silently to where he had stashed the bike.

Chad heaved a big sigh of relief when he arrived at the spot where he had parked his bike and found it untouched.  After a quick look around to make sure that neither of the two men was close by Chad mounted the bike, inserted the key, pushed the starter button and was rolling downhill towards the train before the roar of the motor could begin to echo off of the surrounding bare rock peaks.

Chad’s heart was pounding as he hit the trail and pointed the bike downhill, towards civilization which lay many miles distant.  He looked in the rear view mirror, expecting to see the men running after him.  There was nobody in the mirror however, and with a sigh of relief Chad raised his eyes up, just in time to grab ahold of the brakes and swerve, barely missing the woman who was standing in the trail, right in front of him.  The bike nearly went off the trail and Chad nearly went off the bike.  They both came to a stop upright and the woman came running up to him.

“Please mister, get me out of here.  Oh, please, don’t leave me here alone” she said.  There was a quiver in her voice and tears ran down through the dirt on her face.  The thought that she might be with the two men flickered through Chad’s mind but he quickly discarded it.  The tears, the voice, the torn blouse and pants askew, and particularly her shoeless feet in the rough terrain convinced Chad that this girl was in trouble.

“OK.  Climb on the back” he said.  The girl quickly straddled the back of the bike’s seat and locked her arms around his waist.  Chad fired up the bike once again and they began to roll, this time at a more measured rate of speed, down the trail.

“What are you doing out here without shoes?” Chad asked over his shoulder, but the roar of the motorcycle’s engine combined with the wind whistling past their heads must have made it hard for her to hear, for she didn’t answer him.  She kept her grip around Chad’s waist and her head buried against his shoulders at the base of his neck.  After a few more tries at conversation Chad gave up and focused on getting hem both out of the forest.

After they had passed over several miles of trail, and were not very far from the parking lot at the National Forest campground that was the trailhead, Chad became aware of the girl tapping him on the shoulder.  He looked over his right shoulder and saw her arm extended, index finger pointing to a small trail – barely a path, really – leading to the right off of the main trail.  Chad was tempted to say “Aw, hell no.  I’m not going up there,” but by some impulse that he could never later explain he agreed, and turned off of the trail and up the path.

They didn’t go far.  Not two hundred yards up the path a small clearing in the trees opened up on the left.  There was a small pond at the far edge of this clearing and a two foot or so boulder resting in the middle.  “Stop here, please” the girl shouted in his ear.  Chad pulled over and brought the bike to a stop.  He did not, however, turn off the ignition.  The girl dismounted quickly and walked over to the rock, upon which she sat down.

Chad extended the bike’s kick stand and followed the girl.  She was seated on the rock, and as he approached he asked “Do you live around here?”

“Live around here?’  The girl repeated his question in a dreamy voice.  “No, I don’t live around here.  I don’t live – – around here.”

“Then what are we doing here”  Chad asked.

“I am looking for Cindy.  I know that she is close to us.  We are camping a little further up the road, but I know that she is here.”

“Camped?  You have a camp up there?  Well come on.  I’ll take you up there.  Cindy is probably up there.  We should get you both out of the forest.  It’s not safe here today”

“No, Cindy is here.” the girl said in a soft, dull voice once again.

Chad looked around and saw nobody, nor sign that anybody had been anywhere near there for quite a while.  “Look miss, I think you need some help.  Let’s go down the trail the rest of the way.  The rangers there can help you to find Cindy and get you some medical attention.  I want to help you, and maybe help Cindy too.  I think we’ve both had enough craziness out here for one day, and I want to get to the rangers and report those two goons who took over my camp back up the mountain and go home.”

“Two goons?” the woman said, her voice rising slightly and her already pale face blanching further under the tear-streaked dirt on her forehead and cheeks.  “Oh, two men!  I must go.  Please, I must go.”

“OK.  I’ll get the bike and come back for you” Chad said as he turned and trotted back to where the bike stood on its stand, idling.  Upon arrival Chad straddled the seat, gave it some gas and put the bike into gear.  He came about and looked towards the rock in the middle of the clearing, but to his amazement there was nobody there.  The boulder lay in its place in the middle of the glade but there was nobody to be seen there or anywhere else.

“Miss!”  Chad yelled.  There was no reply.  He turned off the bike motor and yelled again, “Miss!”

There was nothing but silence in response to his call.  He could hear the rustle of the leaves in the soft breeze that was blowing down off of the mountaintops and the gurgle of the stream which fed the pond across the clearing, but as he listened he also noticed the absence of any sound that might have been produce by any living creature other than the brush and trees.  There were no chirps of wren or squawk of bluejay, no hum of fly or bee.  The place was silent, and that silence was so profound that it raised the hair on the back of Chad’s neck and caused the sweat to once again begin to bead on his forehead and neck.

“To hell with this” Chad growled as fear once again rose up from his chest and settled in his  throat.  He twisted the handle to pour on the gas, and the rear tire sent a rooster tail of dirt and grass flying into the air behind him as he sped across the clearing, down the path and finally onto the trail that led him to civilization, now only a mile or two away.

Chad finally pulled into the parking lot at the trailhead and rolled over to the ranger station which stood beside it.  He rolled his bike to the station, shut off the engine, mounted the steps and crossed a wooden porch to where a customer service window was open.  The ranger behind the window smiled and said “How can I help you?”

Chad told him about the girl, saying that he feared she was in trouble.  The ranger listened in silence, and when Chad was finished he called for a second ranger to come over to the window with him.  “He’s seen Julia” he said as the second ranger approached.

“Julia?” Chad asked.  “You know her name?”

“Probably” the second ranger answered.  “Torn blouse?  Pants messed up?  Dirty face?  Wanting help getting out of the forest?”

“Yeah”  Chad said.  “What the hell is this?  What kind of freak show is going on here?”  Chad was beginning to feel anger replace the fear and confusion that had filled his day so far.  Was this some sort of monstrous joke that the locals enjoyed playing on visitors?

“Julia was a girl who went camping in those mountains with a friend two years back.  They were gone longer than they said that they would be, and when we went in to look for them we found her body about five miles up the trail, raped and strangled.  She’s been appearing to people ever since.”

An icy shiver crawled down Chad’s spine as he digested what had just been told to him.  “You’re shitting me, right?”  he asked.

“Nope” the ranger replied.  “I wouldn’t tell you such a wild-ass story if it wasn’t true.  We aren’t up here to monkey with the customers.  What I’ve just said is God’s truth.  I can give you a list of people who have seen the lady, and it isn’t a short one.  You’re the first one who has spent that much time with her though; who’s given her a ride.”

Chad stood still in front of the window, feet rooted to the porch and jaw hanging agape.  At last he regained his voice.

“So you’re telling me that I rode down that mountain with a ghost on my bike?  That’s bull shit.  She was as solid as you and me.  I felt her arms holding onto me and her head on my back.  I know when a person is riding on a bike with me.  She talked – a little anyway – and she pointed to where she wanted to go up a path.  Then she made me stop and said her friend was there, but I didn’t see anybody.  Then, when I turned my back she disappeared.  But she was friggin solid man.  She was friggin real!”

As Chad told this story the rangers’ interest picked up considerably.  At length one said “She guided you somewhere?”

“Yes” Chad replied.  “She took me to a clearing and said that her friend Cindy was there.  But there was nobody there.  And since I had split from my camp earlier because two sketchy-looking dudes had moved in on me while I was fishing – oh, I forgot to tell you all about that shit.  Two rough looking characters came into my camp while I was fishing and I really, and I mean really, didn’t like their look, so I left my gear and started down the trail.  Right then’s when I almost ran into the girl.”

The two rangers looked at each other for a moment, and then back at Chad.  At last one of them said “Would you be so kind as to come inside for a moment?” while the other was reaching for the telephone on the desk.

Six months later Chad was reading about the trial.  He had taken investigators to the clearing, where they had found the body of a murdered woman beside the stone that his rider had sat on.  The body turned out to be that of Cindy, the other camper.  Along with the body, forensic evidence was found that tied the murder to Robert and Leroy Paige, brothers who’d had minor brushes with the law and spent much of their time in a cabin a few miles away from the clearing where the murdered girl was found.  These two were the same men who had invaded Chad’s camp on that memorable day.

At length the two confessed to the crimes.  They explained that they raped and killed Cindy and buried her on the spot, and then took Julia further up the trail and repeated their crimes.  They were nearly seen by approaching hunters however and didn’t have time to bury Julia.  They expressed no remorse for their acts and were sentenced to life in prison.  Leroy committed suicide shortly after he arrived at one big, cold maximum security prison, and Robert sits snugly in another, never to see the free light of day again.

As to the girl?  She’s not been seen by anybody since the body of her friend was found and her killers were put away.  Chad decided that there was no point in returning to his camp to recover the gear that he had left.  It had probably been stolen, he reasoned, and even if it had not been it would be in poor repair by the time he could get back to it.  The truth however is that you couldn’t have lured Chad back up that trail for all of the money in the world

Ghost Story

I love a good ghost story, and good ghost stories are never hard to find,  Hawthorne, Irving, Poe, Lovecraft and King have thrilled and chilled me many times over the years. Cinema too has made contributions to satiate my appetite for a good scare or laugh. “Poltergeist”, “Ghostbusters”, “The House on Haunted Hill” (Vincent Price version, of course) and “Ghost” have alternately made me laugh or slump down and peek over the seat in front of me at the theater. Naturally the best ghost story is the one told around the campfire, especially if one is a 12 year old boy seated with a dozen or so friends while an experienced yarn spinner makes it seem like the ghost could be standing right behind any one of us, or all of us, at that very moment. As good as any story is however, the edge is always blunted ever so slightly by the fact that we don’t believe in ghosts, or if we do it is only in the most ethereal and abstract sense of the word. That is what makes this ghost story different.

My friend Dennis grew up with me in San Diego. Dennis was a few years older than me and a few years younger than my brother, so he was a sort of bridge between our two age groups. I looked up to Dennis quite a bit as a kid. Dennis, being older, was connected to thoughts and experiences beyond my years, plus he was a gateway into my brother’s circle of friends who were older and more experienced yet. Dennis thought of himself as a realist; a modern man of science and rationalism who dealt with the real world that he could touch, smell, hear, taste and see. Dennis did not believe in ghosts.  Dennis was drafted into the army a year after I joined, so we were soldiers at the same time and and were actually stationed rather close to each other in Vietnam although we didn’t know this at the time. We were discharged at about the same time and spent the first year of our restored civilian life hanging out together at taverns or friends’ houses, or just kicking around San Diego in various states of conventional or altered consciousness. But not once did Dennis, nor I for that matter, see a ghost.

At the end of that year Dennis met Annette, and after a whirlwind romance they got married. Annette was a student at Mesa Community College in San Diego, studying to become a radiology technologist. She was usually very level-headed which made me wonder how she ever got hooked up with a wild and free spirited person like Dennis. Actually, that was not fair. I knew Annette first and developed a friendship with her that I hoped would develop into something a good deal more serious. I introduced Annette to Dennis one day and the chemistry was obvious and immediate, which for the first time ever put a strain on our friendship.  Dennis took the initiative in that situation and offered to sever his relationship with Annette to preserve our friendship, and although I knew that he would do nothing of the sort I appreciated his expression of commitment to our friendship and we buried the hatchet with a sense of relief on both of our parts.

The wedding took place in June after the semester was over, and using what remained of Dennis’ savings and severance pay from the Army and Annette’s small nest egg they embarked on a tour of the nation in a pickup truck with a camper that they borrowed from Dennis’ dad. They meandered across the Southwest and Texas, through the deep South, up the Eastern Seaboard, and back from New England through the Midwest, across the Plains and the Rockies, through Utah and back home. Upon their return Dennis and Annette told stories of Mexican food and fire ants and civil war battlefields and tiny black flies that bite like pit bulls and a million other experiences which which they encountered on their trip.

A few weeks after their return Annette resumed her studies while Dennis began his own on the G.I. Bill. He was a smart guy and pretty good at the business of being a student, so when I walked over one day to the small house which they rented from Annette’s parents he was sufficiently caught up with his studies to put down his pen and close his books and have a brew with me. We were actually well into our second six-pack when Dennis grew quiet. I gabbled on for a while until I became aware of his changed mood. I had known Dennis long enough to know that he was wrestling with something more than the usual shucking and jiving that typified the banter of our long and warm friendship. I sat back in my chair and averted my gaze out a window, pretending that I was watching a neighbor who was cutting back a honeysuckle that was threatening to take over the chain link fence that separated their yards, but really I was giving space to Dennis so that he could decide whether to tell me what was bothering him or not. Finally he said “Glenn, I haven’t told you all of the things that we saw on our trip.” I looked at him but said nothing while he continued to gather his thoughts. “There’s something else I’d like to tell you about, but I don’t know if you’ll think I’m crazy or stoned.”

“I already know that you’re crazy, and if you’re stoned you’ve been holding out” I replied, trying to lighten the moment. I saw immediately that my attempt was ill-timed and added  “Still, if you want to tell me something I’ll give it an honest listen.”  “OK,” he said, and after pausing for a minute or two more he drew in a breath and said “Here goes.” He then proceeded to tell me the following story.

After traveling for almost two months Dennis and Annette’s path back to San Diego took them through central and southwest Utah. The roads were all two-lane and there would be seemingly endless miles and hours between settlements of any kind, and as the sun began to drop towards the western horizon they pulled onto a dirt side road and parked about a hundred yards up that road in a wide, clear, flat area which had apparently seen such service in the past, judging by the evidence of an old campfire near the middle of the clearing.

The surrounding country was covered with a moderately thick growth of sagebrush, Apache plume, mountain mahogany and Brigham tea among other hardy and drought resistant species. After unpacking some chairs and building a new fire over the remains of the old one Dennis heated up some soup and made sandwiches from supplies in their cooler. By the time that they had eaten their supper, cleaned up and sipped a couple of beers, the sun had sunk below the horizon. As the last glowing line of daylight was disappearing into the inky blackness they threw dirt onto the dying embers of their fire and crawled into the camper to get a well-deserved rest. They planned on spending the next night in central Arizona and wanted to be well rested when they resumed their trip on the morrow.

Dennis quickly fell fast asleep, he told me, and began to dream. In his dream he heard some noise coming from outside the camper. The noise sounded like drumming and human voices, but the voices were not speaking words, but rather vocalizations; hoots, yips, rising and falling wordless chants repeating the same sounds in varying order. Dennis could see a glow through the window in the door of the camper and arose from under his blankets to see what was going on outside. When he got to the window he looked out and saw what looked like Native Americans singing and dancing around what was now a brightly flaring campfire. The Indians were dressed in buckskins and were alternately shuffling, high-stepping, twirling and swooping in a circle around that fire to the beat of a drummer or drummers who could not be seen from the camper window. After they had been watching for what seemed to be only a minute or two one of the dancers, carrying a feather fan and a rattle which seemed to be made of a turtle shell attached to the foreleg of a deer, detached himself from the circle and began to walk towards the camper. Dennis withdrew from the window and retreated to the back of the camper, and when the dancer looked through the window and directly at him he awoke with a jolt.

Dennis lay there for a minute, hoping that the violent start with which he awoke would not disturb Annette’s slumber, but when he had a minute to get his heart rate back under one hundred peats per minute he moved a bit. Annette then moved too and whispered “are you awake”?  “Yes” he replied. I just had a really frightening dream. I hope that I didn’t wake you up.” “I had a bad dream too” Annette said, and began to recount her dream to him. Not thirty seconds passed before Dennis realized that they had shared the same dream. Both he and Annette looked back at the camper window and saw a glow. Moving together slowly and silently they approached the window and peeked furtively around the edge from each side. Outside, where they had left a cold bed of dirt-covered ashes, was a brightly burning campfire.

Neither Dennis nor Annette said a word. They were already mostly dressed so they threw on their shoes, erupted out of the camper, and threw their gear inside without the least care for where it landed. Dennis fired up the engine as Annette buckled up her belt and they raced up that dirt road leaving a cloud of dust in the air and two streaks of rubber on the asphalt when they reached that lonely stretch of U.S Highway, which was no minor feat for an old pickup with a camper on the back. “We probably went a hundred miles before I looked in the rear-view mirror” said Dennis, which I guessed was an overstatement but I was too entranced by his story to point that out. “We were going through Flagstaff when the dawn began to show in the east and we only stopped to get gas, use the bathroom, and get snacks to eat while we drove straight through to home.”

I sat there for a couple of minutes, trying to digest what I had just heard.  As I mentioned earlier, I love a good ghost story but I never took them to be more than just that. I had read Carlos Castaneda’s books about Don Juan and separate realities and all of that and wished rather than believed that any of it was real. In fact, I was quite the atheist at that time and not inclined to believe in anything that I could not verify with my five senses.  Nevertheless, I knew Dennis to be not at all unlike myself, and to hear this story from him, reluctantly told, was a powerful proof that he believed every word of it.

“And Annette would agree with this story” I asked? “If she would talk about it: Yes. She told me that she had no intention of discussing our experience with anyone, but I don’t mind if you ask her, and I really don’t think that she would mind you asking. Just don’t expect her to say much.”

In the end I did not ask Annette about it. I knew Dennis as well as I have ever known anyone and there was no doubt in my mind that he told me what he unshakably believes that he saw. Later I mentioned to Annette that Dennis had told me the story and that I didn’t need for her to comment; I only wanted her to know that I had come to believe what Dennis told me had really happened. Annette placed her hand on my forearm and merely said “Thank You.”

And so, if you were to ask me if I believe in ghost stories, and if I read those books and watch those movies with a different set of plausibility filters, my answer would be an unqualified “yes”.