Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Phantom Hitchhiker by David W Landrum

Musician Sossity Chandler has another encounter with the supernatural in David W Landrum's latest tale.

Rough gig, Sossity Chandler thought as she drove back to the motel. The crowd had been rude, drunk, and she had not been able to win them over. She performed song after song to scant applause, heckling, and, sometimes, boos and catcalls. When she thought things could not get worse, a group of bikers came in. They requested songs like "Born To Be Wild" and "Voodoo Chile," but when Sossity did them on an plugged-in acoustic guitar, minus the velocity of a big amp, they laughed at her.

When she took a break the bartender said she had free unlimited drinks as a perk for performing. She downed two double whiskeys. As she sat alone, she heard an old song she knew from a .45 her Dad owned. It was "Laurie (Strange Things Happen)" by Dickey Lee. The bartender came over to take Sossity's glass.

"Boy that's an oldie," Sossity commented. "My Dad has a copy of it. I haven't heard that song for years."

The bartender smiled. "It's on the system because we have one here."

"One what?"

"A phantom hitchhiker." She smiled and rolled her eyes. "At least that's what some people say. Bernie put it on the loop we play because of that. People like it."

"Ever see her?"

"I think it's a bunch of bull. A lot of people say they've seen her, though. And when they tell their stories, it sounds like they really did run into something weird. These weren't flakey people, either."

She went back up on stage and did numbers by Robert Johnson and Memphis Minnie, which seemed to work a little better. The bikers liked the sexual innuendo of "Gonna Bake My Biscuits," and threw money in the tip jar after she sang it. She found out a little later that they had liked the song for the wrong reasons.

She collected her pay, packed up her guitar, and exited the bar. Two of the bikers were waiting for her by the door.

"Hey, baby. You want to bake some biscuits for us?" one said.

She contemplated an answer, decided sarcasm would not be the way to go, and said, "Not tonight."

"If you're not up for it, you shouldn't advertise."

"I wasn't advertising."

"You sang that song to us."

"To you?" Now was the time for sarcasm, she decided. She laughed. "Don't flatter yourselves." She began to sing: "'I'm gonna lock my door and nail my windows down. / You ought to know by that, don't want no bums around. / I'm gonna bake my biscuits, I'm gonna bake my biscuits, / I'm gonna bake my biscuits, ain't gonna give nobody none.' That's the only part of the song that relates to you."

They were drunk, which ramped up the potential for trouble. Sossity had played enough sleazy bars and clubs, though, to assess the situation and know things were to her advantage. People were still in the parking lot. A few had noticed their confrontation and were watching. Two couples walked out of the bar, saw what was going on, and hurried back in. Moments later, the manager emerged. He eyed the bikers. "Morris, Ned, we don't want no trouble. You boys need to head home."

They gave him hostile looks but saw the other people drawing near. One made an insulting remark about Sossity. The other laughed. They mounted their bikes, revved them, and took off, laughing and making obscene gestures.

"Sorry," the manager said.

"I've dealt with pricks like that before," she told him.

"They're pretty drunk. It might be a good idea for you to take a side road back to the motel. They'll be expecting you to go down Goyer Road to the Day's Inn, since it's the only motel around here - you said you're staying there, right?" She nodded. "They might follow you or try to buzz you," he continued. "If you go left, cut out on River Hollow Lane down that way" - he pointed - "you can get on 80/90 where there's more traffic and State Police post. That'll get you to the Day's Inn. Might be a good idea just for the sake of caution."

She thanked him, got in her car, and turned left out of the parking lot. She found River Hollow Lane about a third of a mile away.

As she turned the corner she noticed a sign announcing that River Hollow Road was a designated a Natural Scenic Drive. Huge trees bounded the road, which went from pavement to gravel to packed dirt within the space of a mile. Stars gleamed in the corridor of sky above, but the massive trees made the road dark - so dark Sossity thought it would overwhelm her headlights. Still, a lightless road was better than playing chicken with two drunken bikers.

She drove on until her headlights fell on someone standing in the lane. Blonde, pale, she gazed blankly ahead, not moving. Sossity brought the car to a jolting stop only a few feet from her. She looked maybe twenty years old. When she did not move or speak, Sossity got out of the car.

"Are you all right?" she asked, approaching the figure.

The girl looked up at her. "Can you give me a ride?" she asked.

Sossity blinked. "Sure I can. I mean" - she looked her. "What are you doing out here?"

"My car broke down."

She saw no car. The girl looked a little spacy too. Of course, Sossity herself felt slightly drunk. Too much whiskey while performing the show at the bar.

"Where is it?"

"Up by the bridge. I started walking this way because it's the shortest route back to town."

This sounded reasonable. At least the girl wasn't stoned on grass or coked to the gills. All the same, she sounded out of it.

"Okay. You're sure you're all right? You're acting like you might be hurt."

"I'm just cold," she answered. They climbed into the car. "Will you take me to One-Eyed Mick's?" the girl asked when they were settled in.

"Sure I can. I just played a gig there. I'm a musician. I think it's closed now, though."

"I can get in to use the phone."

"I've got my cell if you need to call someone."

"You probably don't have reception here," the girl said. Sossity checked and found she did not. "I know the manager at Mick's. He'll still be there."

"At this time of night?"

Sossity saw the girl glance at the digital numbers on the car's CD player.

"He's always there past 1:00," she said.

"Okay." She glanced over. "Sorry, I didn't get your name."

"Vanessa."

"Vanessa, I'm Sossity."

The girl broke out in a sharp, sudden giggle. "That's a funny name."

"Yeah, it is," she answered. She put the car in gear and drove forward. After a moment Vanessa told her she was driving the wrong way.

"I need to find a place to turn around. This road is too narrow to do a three-point, and the drop-off to the ditch is kind of steep."

After they had driven along in silence for a while, Vanessa started humming.

Sossity had been too tired, too drunk, and too angry about the crowd at One-Eyed Mick's to make the connection with what the bartender had told her, but she recognized the tune Vanessa was humming. Shock and fear ran through her as she glanced over at her passenger. She gave Sossity a blank look, almost a smile. When the initial pulse of fear diminished, a question in Sossity's mind stabilized her.

"Was that 'Laurie' you were humming?"

The girl smiled, trying, Sossity thought, to look a little scary. The toothy smile and narrowing of her eyes, however, produced a comic rather than frightening effect. She did answer.

"So I've met the phantom hitchhiker of Cedar Lake. Yeah, sure. Where are your friends hiding so they can watch you pull one over on the car with the Michigan license plates?"

The young woman next to her suddenly became transparent. Sossity could see through her. A blue-grey outline of her solid body inhabited the passenger side of the seat, remained phantom-like for perhaps thirty seconds, and then transformed back into a solid human form. The girl smiled triumphantly.

"So what's next in the script? I scream? Run the car off the road?"

Vanessa looked back in troubled puzzlement.

"And," Sossity continued, "let's see... oh, yes, you're supposed to ask for my sweater - or I guess my jacket, since I'm not wearing a sweater. I take you to One-Eyed Mick's, you disappear, I go to the graveyard, and there's my jacket on your grave. Right?"

"You're real funny," the girl said, her eyes dark with anger.

"You're even funnier. Did you think I'd be afraid of you because you're a ghost? I'm not afraid of ghosts."

"Stop the car and let me out!"

"Can't you just vanish like Laurie did in the song? You faded out pretty well just a minute ago."

The anger in her eyes intensified but then it drained away. She looked forlorn.

"I can't do that. I want to go now. Stop and let me out on the side of the road."

They were moving at a good clip. Though the road was dirt, traffic had packed it hard and its surface did not hamper speed. Sossity wondered if the girl might try to leap out, but remembered the secure locks her Merkur had. When the vehicle was moving only the driver could unlock the doors.

When she did not reply and did not slow down, the girl looked at her menacingly. "Let me out of this car or you'll be sorry," she hissed.

"Why? What are you going to do? Rattle chains at me? Moan and bellow like Marley did to Scrooge?"

Her reply nonplussed the girl. She started to look frightened.

"Why won't you let me go?"

"I have my reasons. What was your name, again?"

"Vanessa."

"Why are you doing this, Vanessa?"

"Why am I doing this? I don't have any choice. I really am a ghost. But all that stuff about how ghosts can disappear and fly and all that - it isn't true. Well, maybe it is, but I don't know how to do it. I only know how to look transparent." She lapsed into silence then her voice flared up once more. "But I am a ghost. I am. I died ten years ago."

"You're really playing by the script."

"What do you mean by that?"

"You let me pick you up. I'm too drunk to realize you're" - she made her voice deep, hollow, and quavering - "the Phantom Hitchhiker. So you hum the Dickie Lee song in the hope I'll recognize it, make the connection, and get scared."

"How dare you talk to me like that? Don't you have any respect?"

"For what?"

"For the dead."

"How did you die?"

She licked her lips. "I got thrown off the back of a motorcycle. We were riding on this road, down by the bridge. It was slick, first snow of the year and we were going pretty fast. We skidded, and I got thrown off."

"Whiplash off the bike, and splat!"

"You're sick! How can you make fun of me like that?"

"I can do it because you're asking to be made fun of. You're inviting ridicule, Vanessa."

"What do you mean?"

"Why haven't you gone on? You expected me to be afraid of you. I'm not because I've encountered a couple of ghosts - for real, I'm not making this up. Both of them wanted to go on to whatever it is you go on to after you die. But, of course, if you're a ghost something is preventing you from doing that. I helped both of them go to their rest. Is there some reason you haven't gone on?"

She sat in silence. "There must be," she finally said, "but I don't know what it is."

"Yes, you do. Both of the other ghost women I met knew exactly what it was and exactly what they needed to do to go on."

"I'm really not so sure. It has to do with Morris. He was my boyfriend. He was at the handlebars that night. When his emotions get intense - when he's sad or angry, or even when he's really happy, I sense it and then I have to go out and... haunt someone. I don't why that is."

"I do."

"You do?"

"I most certainly do. I don't know it from my experience with ghosts. I know from girlfriends who've cried on my shoulders."

"About what?"

"About boyfriends who beat them, fucked them when they didn't want it, exploited them, insulted then, took their money - you're the first I met who was actually killed by a boyfriend - no, I take that back. Both the ghost girls I met were done in by the men in their lives. My friends, though, wouldn't give their guys the shove over the cliff they deserved. They kept letting them exploit and abuse them."

"I'm not doing that. I can't be."

"Hell if you're not. You most certainly can do it and are doing it."

"How?"

"By this silly little show you call 'haunting.' You're doing it for him."

"I'm not doing it for him," she shouted.

Sossity said nothing. Vanessa began to cry. Up ahead, Sossity saw the lights of an oncoming vehicle.

"Let me out," Vanessa demanded. "Stop and let me out of this car. Please."

"No. You need to face up, Vanessa. Time to stop wandering the earth and doing your silly little ghost act so you can stay vaguely connected with your boyfriend."

The oncoming vehicle drew closer. Sossity noticed it had a headlight out. Then realization slapped her. It was a motorcycle. It bore straight toward her.

"Jesus!" she shouted as it loomed up, bright, the noise of it sounding in the quiet night air. She cut over to avoid the oncoming bike. Her car skidded off the road and into the ditch.

Vanessa screamed. "It's him. It's Morris."

Sossity tried to back out. The car remained stuck in the ditch. She got her cell phone. Still no reception. She could see the light of the motorcycle coming from the other direction. He had turned around and was coming toward them. Sossity locked her eyes on Vanessa.

"Get out," she ordered.

"Out?" The girl looked terror-stricken.

"If he sees you, he'll stop. He'll leave. You'll scare him off."

"I can't!"

"You can. Vanessa, this is it."

"What?"

"What you have to do to go on. You need to snap the attachment. You can do that by protecting me. Your boyfriend and I got in a little tiff back at One-Eyed Mick's. I pissed him off. You probably felt his anger and wanted to get near him. Now you need to do what's right."

She wept.

"What did he do to you, Vanessa? Beat you up? Take your money? Expect you to go down for his friends when they got together for parties?"

She put her hands over her ears. "Shut up! Stop it! I won't."

"You're still doing all that."

The light was bright in the car now. Sossity unlocked the doors to the Merkur. Vanessa sat completely still a moment and then leaped forward and opened the passenger door. She fell into the ditch, climbed out, dirty water sloshing, straining her pale legs and arms, and leaped into the road just as the motorcycle bore down on Sossity's car. Sossity heard the astonished shout of a male voice and saw the motorcycle skid left. Light from its headlamp suffused Vanessa's body. In that second, she confirmed the man named Morris was the same one who had asked her if she wanted to bake biscuits with him and his friend. His bike swerved, launched through the air, and hit the bank of the ditch with a roar. The sound of metal tearing screeched in the silence of the wood. Thrown from the bike, Morris slammed against a thick oak tree, bounded off with an agonized scream, and splashed into the muddy water of the ditch.

Quiet returned. Sossity climbed out into the chilly air of morning. She could hear Morris's sobs and groans. She turned to Vanessa, who stood there, silent but not hostile, looking down at him. She looked up at Sossity. Her face looked calm and resolved.

"He's alive," Sossity said.

"I'll leave it to you to decide what you want to do. I need to go." Sossity nodded. Vanessa shivered. "Can I wrap myself in your coat? I'm really cold."

Vanessa had on a very short denim skirt and a sleeveless white top. It was late and chilly. Sossity absent-mindedly handed her jacket to Vanessa, who put it on with what seemed like an ironic smile.

"Thanks," she said.

Morris screamed and cried for help. Sossity glanced over at him. When she turned back Vanessa was gone.

She walked to where Morris lay. Blood soaked hair and his clothing. His left leg from the shin up pointed at a 90° angle to the rest of his body. Sobbing and pleading for help, he looked up and recognized her. Fear shone in his eyes.

She tried her cell. Still no reception. As she folded it up, the lights of a car appeared. Sossity walked out to flag it down.



Morris Gatling's left leg had to be amputated. Sossity made a statement to the police, leaving out any mention of Vanessa. Several people told police about Morris's threats to her. His biker friend said he had suggested they find the blues-singing woman and play chicken with her, but he had refused. The police took her phone number and said if she needed to testify in court, they would contact her.

She played two gigs the next day at a town about ten miles away. That night, she got on the internet and found Vanessa's obituary.

At dusk Sossity drove to the cemetery the obituary had listed. Shadows lengthened. Mist rose form the moist earth. She located Vanessa's grave and read the simple inscription on the stone: VANESSA LYNN MCFADDEN 1962 -1983. On top of the monument, neatly folded (the marker that had enabled her to find the gravesite with so little trouble) lay her jacket.

2 comments:

  1. Well done. Nice touch with the jacket at the end. And the underlying message of abuse is very relevant.

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  2. I loved Sossity's no-nonsense handling of Vanessa. What a rewarding story!

    ReplyDelete