Horror & Dark Fantasy

IntheNightWood-Banner_Final_Lightspeed Oct 2018

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Fiction

Ghost Jeep

We have a ’90s model Jeep Cherokee, green and dirty and banged up so bad only the driver’s side doors open. We don’t have a windshield no more, but we never needed it. We have piles of scratched CDs of pirated albums. We have a system in the back, big speakers booming up and down these cracked country roads like a low flying bomber. We have been sixteen and riding around the same small town since the night we died twenty years ago. There are three of us. We have each other, but every year we lose a little more, until we can’t remember our names.

The town is changing, but we can’t change. We can’t drive down the new highway, can’t go into new stores, can’t pick up new radio stations. But we go to all the old places, even the ones that don’t exist anymore. From their porches rising over thick summer lawns, our old classmates sit outside in the evenings and watch our wrecked Jeep slide up and down the roads. They listen to its shriek of bent metal and thump of bass. Seeing us makes them gloat to be alive. But they never leave the town either, and they are the same as when they were kids. They might as well be ghosts, too.

For weeks, someone new has been watching. A girl waits by the road for us to pass. We don’t see her there in the dark until our lights slide over her. She reminds us of the car that came around a curve and slammed into us, there like a flash of lighting, and then everything we’d hoped for was gone.

The strange girl waves for us to stop, but we have only a few hours of dark left. We take one of us to the house where her boyfriend lived, and she goes around looking in all the windows and yelling through the door. No one lives there now, not after twenty years of hauntings. One of us wants to see the house where his crush once lived, but he doesn’t even get out of the car, just stays parked on the side of the road and looks from his window. People still live in that house, not noticing his shy haunting. After a while, he gets embarrassed and we leave. One of us wants to go to the house where he lived as a kid. But everything is different now, the house chopped up, expanded, remodeled. It isn’t the same place, and he can’t go inside. He walks around the yard and calls to his old dog for hours, until the sky begins to brighten, but that dog is deader than we are.

• • • •

The girl slings a hail of gravel against the side of our Jeep to see if we are solid. It tins against the fenders of the ghost car, falls in our laps and rolls into the floor. We slam on the brakes and stop a few yards past her, the red eyes of our taillights burning on the asphalt and music buzzing like a hornet. She grabs the door handle and pulls, trying to get in.

“Tell us whose kid you are,” we say through the missing windshield. “We’ll tell you every awful thing your parents did.”

“My family just moved here,” the girl says.

“What do people say about us, after twenty years?”

The girl shrugs. “I don’t know.” She tries the door handle again, barely pulling at the metal, and we feel her need run all through us.

One of us slides over to make room and waves for the girl to go around to the other door. She gets in, and we gun the engine. The sun will come up soon, and then we will go wherever we go. New girl or not, we have all our old things to do.

“Tell us who your friends are,” one of us says. “We know about them.”

“I don’t know many people.” She has to shout over the music, the speakers vibrating the backs of our heads. “I guess everyone knows Donnie Rosenbaum. He’s an asshole, though.”

“So was his dad. Who else?”

She names a few more kids she doesn’t like, all of them copies of their parents.

“But who are your friends?” We want to know who she stands next to at lunch, which houses she spends the night at, whether she hangs out at the mall or the theater or the basketball courts. We want to file her away with the people we know so that we can hate her too, tell her that she’s just like everyone else, that we don’t want her in our Jeep. We grind our teeth like a sawmill and wait.

The girl pretends not to hear us, just looks out the window at the passing trees. “So where are we going?” she asks.

“We’re going to skip rocks,” one of us tells her.

We turn off the road and bounce over a cattle guard, riding into someone’s pasture. There’s a clay and gravel track that takes us to what was once a big pond, wide enough for skipping rocks. It’s been drained now, just a dry clay bed cracked and dotted with our white stones. But we can still see the ghost of water. We aim our headlights at the middle of the pond, kill the music, and start looking for skipping stones. We throw rocks and count their skips over the water that isn’t there anymore, finally watching them make their slow drop to settle on the bed.

The girl picks up a rock and throws, but hers falls through the air and tumbles across the ground. She watches us hurl our rocks until we run out. We lean back against the Jeep and don’t know what to do with ourselves, much less her.

The girl walks down into the low place, along the beam of our headlights. We watch her bend and pick up good, flat stones, putting them in her pockets. When she gets far out in the middle where the lights barely reach and her shape becomes murky, we remember the time one of us almost drowned.

We can’t see her anymore. We shout for her to be careful, and for a moment, we all remember how it feels to lose something. Then up she comes, dry and alive and back into our light across the pond, carrying piles of flat rocks in her hands.

There is a flash of headlights, and another car turns down the road and parks beside us. It’s the sheriff’s deputy, and more than we hate anyone else in town, we hate cops. The girl steps closer to one of us, trying to blend in. “Don’t tell him I’m not dead,” she whispers. “I don’t want to go home.”

The policeman grins and walks around our Jeep. “Don’t stop what you’re doing,” he tells us. “I’m just curious. What keeps this thing going?” His fingers feel around for the latch under the hood, and there is something hungry about him. We have nothing at all, but he wants to take it.

The girl throws a stone and breaks the window on his police cruiser. When he turns around, we press close to her, all of us throwing our rocks. He tries to grab one of us, but his hands pass right through. No one can touch us if we don’t want, and we never want.

We get back in our car and turn up the music, sling gravel when we peel out. He pulls onto the road after us, switches on his lights and siren. We smash down old roads with abandon, the car weaving in and out of the ditch, careening through stop signs, driving on the wrong side of the road. He is too worried about staying alive to keep up with us. The girl holds the back of the seat, mouth open, grateful and terrified.

The sun is almost up, and we take the girl toward home.

“I don’t want to go back,” she says. “No one is there anyway.”

“Do you have an aunt or a grandma or something?” We remember having families, places to go.

“They live too far away.”

“You’ll have to make friends with someone at school,” we say. On the porches, with the sun yellowing the edges of the sky, people are still sitting out to watch us and reminisce about their old lives.

“Can’t you be my friends?” she asks, looking at the floor.

“It’s daytime,” we say. “We can’t bring you with us.”

We drop her off and watch her go inside. There are no cars in her driveway, and we worry about her, not used to the feeling. The sun comes up and we evaporate like water. It feels like sleeping, and we are always a little hopeful. But then it’s night again and we’re back, like always.

• • • •

The next night, the girl is waiting for us again. She is soaked with rain, like she’s been standing for hours so she wouldn’t miss us. She opens the door and climbs over one of us to get in. We want something special for her, so we get on the interstate and head to the next town, forty-five minutes away, just like we used to.

“Are people at school mean to you?” we ask. “Because we can haunt them.”

“They aren’t mean,” she says. “But they aren’t nice either. They already had everything they needed before I moved here.”

We’re blowing past cars on the interstate, threading in and out of traffic. She asks where we’re going. “There’s a movie theater and a bowling alley one town over.”

“Didn’t that shut down a long time ago?”

“We live in the past,” we tell her.

When we pull up to the theater, there are no lights and tall lines of grass have fissured the parking lot. The building burned down and was never rebuilt. But rising past the charred walls is the ghost of the building as it was when we were alive.

“Can you see it?” we ask her.

“No,” she says. “It’s just an empty lot.”

One of us digs in the car for a pair of our old sunglasses and gives them to her. When the girl puts them on, the building hangs over her like a cathedral.

Inside, it seems real, like our Jeep. The only tell is that the building smells like burned wood and there is a faint haze of smoke in the air. We take the girl through the deserted lobby and have our pick of the theaters. The movies are old, and we’ve seen them all before. But the girl sits grinning with the decades old projector light on her face. We watch her and feel what she feels, emotions we lost a long time ago and can’t name.

We watch movies all night, then race against the dawn to get her back before we vanish. We wonder if she wanted us to forget, to leave her stranded far from home. With our music rattling shards of glass out of our windows, broken pieces that fall endlessly, the girl leans over the console and asks how we died.

There isn’t much to tell. We were coming around a corner of the road one night, too fast and not paying attention. A girl in a silver SUV wandered onto the wrong side of the road while she adjusted her stereo. When we came around the curve, she hit us like a cannonball. The girl flew through her windshield and landed in the ditch. But her SUV tore a hole through us, smashing the front of our car and throwing us off the road, our Jeep rolling until it was crushed from all sides.

“That’s sad,” the girl says.

“There’s more,” we tell her.

The first person to arrive was the sheriff. The girl in the SUV was his daughter, and everyone in town loved her. People didn’t have any use for us, except as things to push and prod when they were bored. Quick to fight and chronically angry, we were a spectacle for them, just like now. So when the first ambulance came, the sheriff had them take his daughter, even though she was conscious and wasn’t bleeding much. “These three can wait on the next one,” the sheriff said. But that ambulance was forty minutes away, and he knew it. The EMTs and the other cops didn’t say anything. They took his daughter away and left us bleeding in our Jeep. By the time the second ambulance came and the paramedics started pulling us out of the wreckage, we were dead.

“I would have been angry,” she says.

“We are angry. But mostly, we’re hurt.”

On the way back to her house, the girl tries to cheer us up by telling us about new things. New songs. New movies. Wars far away that started before we died, but which we are surprised to learn still haven’t ended, violent visions acting themselves out forever, ghosts like us.

When we drop her off, it’s nearly light, and we are disappearing with the gray disc of the moon. “Tomorrow is the anniversary of the day we died,” we tell her. “Stay home. No matter what, don’t get in the Jeep with us.” She watches us disappear, and we are sad, because we already know what she’s planning.

• • • •

When we reappear, it’s the same summer night that killed us all over again. We are eaten up with it like battery acid. We comb splintered glass out of our hair, touch our broken bones and collapsed chests, feel weightless with all the blood we’ve lost. The Jeep rattles worse than usual, and strange deformations of its body press us tight. One of us riding in the front passenger side twists sideways from the fender curling in against him. The Jeep shouldn’t run, and we shouldn’t be here. The sheriff shouldn’t have left us in the ditch for his daughter. Our parents shouldn’t have moved away and left us alone. Nothing is fair, not living or dead.

We blast our music and tear up the roads. The girl stands by her driveway and throws rocks at us, but we don’t stop. When we come back down her road, she is standing in the middle of the highway. We want to blast right through her, empty as air, but the Jeep slows down. We don’t have control of the car anymore, and this night will end like it always has. The girl climbs in.

“Where are we going?” She only sounds a little afraid.

“Don’t act like you don’t know,” one of us tells her.

The Jeep slices down that old curve, back and forth. People watch us from their houses, but they know what day it is, and don’t dare get on the road. Our tires slip into the ditch for a moment, touch dirt and grass, pull back up onto the highway. The horn blares over the music. Any time the Jeep slows to make a turn, we push the girl toward the door. “Get out. Please go.”

“I want to be one of you,” she says.

We have a tank that never runs out of gas. We have miles of curving highway and hours of night. We have everyone we care about in the Jeep with us. We have this bad thing that happened to us a long time ago, and we pick at it like a scab, looking at it again and again from every angle, and we will never be satisfied with how it ends.

The engine roars like an animal, and the Jeep goes faster and faster along the curve. A pair of headlights appear, disappear, appear, disappear way down the road. We meet the car around the same curve, and our ghost Jeep and ghost bodies glide through it without leaving a scratch. That’s how it’s always happened before, smashing into a car and throwing ourselves into the ditch again, leaving whatever person we hit alive and confused and unhurt.

But that was before we picked up a living girl. When our Jeep sweeps through the car, the girl smashes through the windshield, bounces through the cab, and exits the back glass, hitting a bank of dirt hard enough to leave an indentation, a dark-haired teenage comet falling to ground.

The car stops on the side of the road and the driver calls someone on his cellphone. “I think I hit a deer,” he says. “I’m fine. Everything is fine.”

Our Jeep is tossed into the ditch like always. We climb from the wreckage and check on the girl. She breathes shallow, is lying there wrong, like people aren’t supposed to lie. Her hair is over her face, and we’re afraid to touch her.

One of us runs to the man on his phone. “Call an ambulance,” we tell him.

“I know you,” he says. “The ghost kids. You hurt my car. Why call an ambulance? You’re already dead.”

We try to explain, but he is nervous and drives away. We are alone with the girl.

The Jeep is satisfied after having relived the crash, and we can take it where we need again. We load the girl into the back seat, our palms like air on her twisted back, and drive fast for the hospital. We would try CPR, but we have no breath to give.

The hospital was built after we died, so we can’t go inside. We leave the girl in the grass, as close as we can get to it, and shout for help. A couple of nurses smoking outside the door see us, put out their cigarettes, and walk back in. We know them. They went to school with us. Walking around the hospital and looking in all the windows, we see that it’s full of people we know. Here they are, the whole damn town that failed us.

The girl lies like a stone on the grass, our Jeep shivering beside her. We circle the hospital and scream at all the windows, like we have so many times before.

Through one window, we see the sheriff’s daughter. She’s a doctor now. Deep in her heart, we know there’s lodged a piece of guilt thick as window glass, and she works doubles every day, trying to pull it out. When she sees us, she starts to cry. Some nights, we follow her all over town, giving her no peace and not letting her forget for a second why she is alive.

We shout for her to save the girl.

She can’t hear us through the glass, and she doesn’t understand. Like always, she mouths, “It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t want this.”

“Stop defending yourself,” we shout. We’re afraid we will lose the girl, like we’ve lost everything except our twenty-year-long grudge. “Help her,” we mouth.

She is looking at us, but she doesn’t understand. We float in the light and make promises. “We will forgive you for living instead of us. We will stop haunting you, if we can. Just this once,” we beg the doctor, the people we grew up with, their sons and daughters. “Just this once, hear us.”

The sheriff’s daughter can tell something is different. She leaves her office and starts down the hall. We see her through the hospital doors, coming down the long hallway to meet us. The nurses try to stop her, telling her that she doesn’t have anything to apologize for. She pushes through them and walks out the door.

We open our mouths and hover around the girl. But dawn has come, and the light breaks us apart like droplets of dew. She walks up to us with hands out, ready to listen. We vanish, for once wanting only to stay.

Micah Dean Hicks

Micah Dean Hicks’s debut novel Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones is forthcoming in 2019 from John Joseph Adams Books. His story collection Electricity and Other Dreams—a book of dark fairy tales and bizarre fables—won the 2012 New American Fiction Prize. He won the 2014 Calvino Prize judged by Robert Coover, the 2016 Arts and Letters Prize judged by Kate Christensen, and the 2015 Wabash Prize judged by Kelly Link. His stories and essays have appeared in dozens of magazines ranging from The New York Times to The Kenyon Review. Hicks teaches creative writing at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. You can find him on Twitter at @MicahDeanHicks and on the web at micahdeanhicks.com.