As the Haunted Hoosier Blog Hop draws near its end, I want to relate something personal.
I wrote a lot when I was young, but gradually gave it up when my college education and career took me to more technical things. Oh, I dabbled with short fiction for myself and friends, did some creative writing in blogs, and even joined a creative writing group at one point. But I never made a habit of writing. My creative energies often went to games and online roleplaying. And I’ll say gaming has made me a better writer in many ways.
But what really brought writing out in me was the death of my uncle Chuck in October 2007. In a week, it’ll be the 5th anniversary. He was a writer his whole life, but rarely showed his stuff to anyone, and was never published. His writing wasn’t even found after his death, and I thought that was one of the most tragic aspects of his death.
I’d heard about National Novel Writing Month for years, but always had reasons not to. That year, it was my self-appointed mission to write a novel in Chuck’s honor, to dedicate it to him, and to make memories of him a part of it in the form of a character nicknamed Gonzo. Hunter S. Thompson was a hero to Chuck.
Anyway, some of the Road Ghosts books are pieces of my life, memories made fictional, enhanced like a tall tale, or refitted entirely to fit the needs of the plot of the book. But one memory from my times with Chuck was taken almost word for word from reality, as best I could recall. It’s another guy’s ghost story, from Anderson, Indiana, it was told when Chuck and I were present. It’s one of the less sensational things in my books, as ghost stories go, but in person, it was powerful, and not just because we’d been drinking. Okay, kind of despite the drinking.
I’m including that little bit as the ghost story within a ghost story, a nugget of pure memory embedded in pure fancy. This short bit is from the third book in my Road Ghosts trilogy, Me and the Devil.
Ralph nodded. He was silent awhile, a faraway look in his eye. “Hmm, you know this place is haunted too, right?”
Brett looked at Gonzo, who shrugged.
“I’ve had weird stuff going on here since I moved in a few years ago. Tod and Jenny lived here last summer, they can tell you.”
Jenny nodded. “I was having an argument with Tod one time, I think it was over paying the gas bill…”
Tod interrupted. “Aw, don’t bring that up again!”
She shook her head. “Let me finish! We were arguing in the kitchen, and the phone flew off the wall and hit the cabinets. By itself!”
Brett wished he hadn’t finished his Raid so quickly. His head was swimming, and he wanted to remember the stories. “Wow. What else?”
“Well,” began Ralph, looking uncomfortable. “Around that time, I started having nightmares. At first, it was just of darkness and feeling trapped. Later dreams, I was a little girl, clinging to my sister in the dark as a monster loomed up at the top of a staircase, the only light came from behind it.”
Everyone was quiet as Ralph talked. He paused to finish his beer. God’s Stereo could be heard inside playing “Bad Moon Rising”. He adjusted his glasses and continued. “Well, anyway everyone joked about those dreams. I wanted to pry out the nails shutting the basement door, but these two didn’t like the idea. One day, we started having sewer problems, and I had to go down there. It was a mess, ankle deep in water, TP and unidentified floating objects, for the most part. But the floor sloped upward toward a crawl space, so it was dry over there.”
Ralph looked like he didn’t want to go further. The L.T. offered his cup of Raid to him. Ralph shook his head and continued.
“Up in the crawl space, I found two doll heads.”
After a long silence, Brett heard The L.T. curse. He turned to look at Tod and Jenny and they were nodding to back up Ralph’s story.
“You’re so full of shit, Ralph,” said Gonzo.
Ralph shrugged and smiled very faintly. “Hey, believe what you like, but I know what happened.”
Hmm that was shorter than I remembered it being. So just for you, I think I’ll add more from the next chapter, when Ralph convinces the drunken crew to follow him to a haunted site.
They followed Ralph and Gonzo down the street, each still carrying their drinks. Tod had to run back to the house to lock up, to preserve God’s Stereo if nothing else. Brett could still hear Creedence playing half a block away.
He hadn’t heard that Ralph was a ghost hunter. If so, this broke some important rules about sobriety… who would believe any ghost stories that involved alcohol? Whatever the mission, though, this wasn’t anything official, he told himself.
They went to the dead end at the end of the street and ducked under some branches. They climbed a small hill, and Brett tripped on a railroad tie, nearly spilling his drink. The tracks led off into the darkness in both directions.
Gonzo looked up and down the railway. “Hey, Ralph, these tracks are abandoned, yeah?”
Ralph didn’t answer, but started off down the tracks to the left. Trees formed a corridor as far as Brett could see. In the moonlight, at least, he could see the ties and roughly where he was going.
“Ten or fifteen years ago,” Ralph said from up ahead, “There was this school, kind of an old one-room schoolhouse that was set up again for gifted kids. A magnet school. But it was really old, from settlers’ days. Anyway, the school was restored and kids were bused in from all over the area. It showed up on the news now and again, if it was a slow news day. There were maybe thirty students, so it was more of a showcase than anything.
“Anyway, they called it the Mounds School, because it was on land that used to belong to the Mound Builder Indians. You know, they made these huge earthworks, no one’s sure what for, or even how they managed it. They lined up with the stars and the Sun like Stonehenge and shit like that. The place had been a park forever, and still was, except for the school.”
Brett thought the story sounded familiar somehow. He thought maybe he’d heard it in Indiana, or maybe even Tennessee. Maybe this was one of the urban legend type ghost stories, he thought. Like every county in Indiana has its very own “screaming bridge” from which lovers had leaped, mothers had dropped their babies, or someone had been struck by a car late at night.
Still, the Mound Builders had spanned a large area. Brett had also heard that in addition to astronomical correlations, the locations of the earthworks fell along other lines. The supposed lines of power called “ley lines”, along which metaphysical energy was supposed to flow. He and Lizzie had visited Mounds State Park up near Anderson so she could experience the lines. He remembered watching her dangling crystal pendulums at various points in the park until she found just the right spot. She’d sat there for the better part of an hour, meditating. He remembered being glad he brought a book with him.
The trees parted to reveal a tributary river, maybe a hundred feet across. The tracks continued on over the river, carried by an iron suspension bridge. Ralph continued walking, stepping easily from one tie to another as he talked.
Brett saw Gonzo hesitate. He looked back at the others behind him and swore. He drank deeply from his Moose cup and started across, staring at his feet as he stepped less certainly onto the bridge.
Brett was next. He could see between the ties, down the steep embankment. He could hear the water rushing and splashing on the rocks on the bank thirty feet below. He took a step onto the first tie, then to the next, hoping to get a rhythm going so he wouldn’t have to think about it.
He heard The L.T. and Tod arguing behind them. He heard Jenny say out loud, “no fucking way, Tod. Ralph’s nuts, let’s go.”
Brett glanced back to see Jenny towing Tod the Rod back the way they’d come. The L.T. gave him a little salute with his big cup and came after. Brett looked back forward his head spun enough to make him lose his bearings for a moment. Which way was really forward if everything was doing a slow orbit around him?
Brett’s right foot stepped out onto air. He started to pitch forward. He felt himself falling, his left foot still on the tie immediately behind. He was already too far off balance to throw himself back, and Gonzo was a few ties ahead, so he had nothing to push off of in that direction.
He was sure he was going to end up falling into the river below when he heard a yell and felt a thump and felt his belt pull hard into his gut.
Enough to steady his balance and get both feet on the same tie. He thrashed and threw his weight backward. His cup sloshed and the drink splashed. His back bumped into The L.T.’s head. The L.T. let go his belt, letting out a whooping yell.
Brett stood up with great care, ignoring the spinning. He saw Gonzo and Ralph turn around at The L.T.’s yell. When he saw the looks on their faces, Brett could feel the foolish grin spread across his face. “Hey thanks-“
“Dude. Don’t turn around. Thank me later,” said The L.T. quietly behind him. “Let’s go.”
Brett took a swig of what was left in his cup, drew in a deep breath and stepped to the next tie.
“Thought I might be dead there for a moment,” said Brett as he reached the middle of the bridge. He was very aware of a cool wind coming down the river’s course. He saw traces of mist chasing along with it. It made him feel like he was walking diagonally. He had to look up at Gonzo’s back to right himself.
“S’okay. Ever think about dying?”
“Huh? Yeah just then, that’s what I mean.”
“Naw, not just then. I mean, what if a train came along now, like in that movie with River Phoenix? Except we’re drunk, and trains don’t go that slow.” The L.T.’s voice held a nervous edge that Brett didn’t like.
“Uh. Yeah. Why, do you hear something?” Brett started counting ties to keep his focus. One. Two. Three. Four.
“Maybe. Don’t look back, but what if there was a light in the distance, heading our way? Would you be okay if that was it? I think I would. I’ve had a good life, you know?”
Brett almost turned around to see if The L.T. was serious. To see if there really was a light behind them, gaining on them fast. He couldn’t help breathing faster, felt his heart beat harder. He had to keep counting. Twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen. Was that a train whistle?
“Um, actually, I’m hoping my best years are ahead of me, man,” said Brett. Sixteen. Seventeen. Eighteen. He glanced up and cried out in surprise as Gonzo was right in front of him.
The big guy grabbed his shoulders, grinning into his face and pulled him off the track to one side on to slightly sloping ground. Brett cheered and made a show of actually getting down on the ground to kiss the dirt. It wasn’t as good an idea as it seemed, and he wiped the dirt on his sleeve.
He looked up in time to see The L.T. stumble on the rail close to him. Brett had to move a hand quickly to keep The L.T. from stomping it with his boot. He looked up and they traded grins and laughed.
“Had you going, didn’t I?” said The L.T.
Brett pulled himself up and dusted off his knees. He looked back across the bridge. It was dark as far as he could see. “Maybe. Hey you know what?”
“Looks like we all still have our beverages!” Brett raised his in a sloshing toast. Gonzo looked at the Moose cup as though it was a wondrous discovery and joined Brett and The L.T. in the toast. They each drank down what was left in the big cups. Gonzo made a show of carefully hiding his cup in some bushes near the end of the bridge. Brett and The L.T. followed his example. They could pick them up on the way back.
So this second bit, taken from Chapter 5 of Me and the Devil, is a mix of two different real events in my past. Crossing the railroad bridge with Moose cups full of rum and coke really happened, just somewhere else with someone else. The drunken mission to look for the old schoolhouse really happened too, though I may not recall the actual story the real life version of Ralph told… it’s been over twenty years, and I was a little impaired at the time.
Of course, I go over the top with it after this point, when they get to the schoolhouse… it becomes more what I imagined would happen. In reality? We got spooked and hurried back to “Ralph’s” house.
Hope you’ve enjoyed these excerpts, and the Blog Hop in general.