They were found lying along the roadside, teen-aged boys and girls, some singly, others in groups. The only commonality was that all of them looking as if they’d been run down by a car. But how they got there, and what car inflicted the damage, no one could figure out. The police department in Preston, Idaho had been finding dead kids along a deserted stretch of road since the 1950’s, and not once had they found a clue why or how the kids had been killed.
In every case, people had seen the dead kids in town only hours before they were found dead. Then they’d just vanished. Gone as if they’d been beamed up, or stepped through a hole in reality.
Getting to Preston turned out to be a pain in the ass. The ‘dog’ dropped me me off in downtown Boise, but getting from there to Preston turned on a simple stroke of luck. I’d been almost ready to start squatting at the Towne Square shopping mall, but an overheard conversation at a coffee stand got me a seat in the back of a pickup truck passing through my destination.
I arrived the same day another kid was found. Lance Portman had been interested in nothing more dangerous than driving the beat-up Honda Civic ‘road racer’ he’d rebuilt himself. His ‘big dream’ had been getting out of town . Then he’d been found on the side of the road, skull crushed, both legs broken, spine snapped in three places. But no tire tracks, no paint residue in his wounds, no fragments of shattered glass on the pavement, nothing.
I heard all this in the small cafe that was the anchor of daytime life in the tiny burg. If I’d been able to pass as an adult, I could probably heard more in any of the half-dozen bars that lined the single main street. Me, I huddled in a space behind the cafe’s dumpster, watching people go in and out of those establishments. I wasn’t hiding so I could sleep, because I’d already learned the undead don’t need sleep. No, I was just keeping out of the way, watching and waiting to see if I could get some sort of clue about what was killing the local kids.
I stayed there, or wandered Preston, for three days. Then, one evening as the Sun sank behind the Bitterroot’s, I heard the rumbling sound of a big V-8 on a short-pipe exhaust system. I wasn’t the first loud exhaust I’d heard in town. Hell, half the pickup trucks parked along the hopefully-named main drag of Prosperous Way had loud exhausts. In those cases, it was a sign of the owner’s poverty. But this engine had the tightly-timed sound of a precision machine, a piece of hardware lovingly tended by its owner. And it had the hollow, echoing sound I’d begun to recognize as coming from a phantom.
I’d been sitting, slowly sipping a cup of tea, when I heard it. You don’t rush out of a cafe in a small town, not if you don’t want to draw attention to yourself, so before I could make an excuse to leave, whatever had been making the noise had vanished.
The next morning, the siren of the lone police car in town wailed its way out of town to the scene of the latest discoveries. Being a small town, by lunch, the details of what had taken it out of town were common knowledge. Tad Orrman and Becky Richard had been dating for over a year, and folks had seen them walking down Prosperous Way in the late evening light. Then, like all the other dead kids, they’d just disappeared. They’d been found along the same stretch of road, the old highway to Twin Falls, where all the other kids had been found. They were still holding hands, Tad partially atop Becky as if he’d tried to shield her from whatever had run them down.
It was a sad story, but it gave me the final clue I needed to find my prey. After that, I began walking Prosperous Way, hoping to hear the sound of that V-8. But nothing happened. I had a few kind people stop to ask me if I needed a ride, or a place to stay, but not once did I hear what I hoped to. Then Saturday rolled around.
The Sun was going down and the local kids began coming out. Because I had died young, they accepted me as one of their own, even if I wasn’t from the town. Beers discretely appeared, and as the darkness closed in, the first pair of cars arrived. Bets were shouted and accepted, money placed in the hands of a neutral party. A girl stepped out of the small crowd, the cars lined up, engines revved, and to the waving of a scarf, the cars screeched down Prosperous Way in a cloud of tire smoke. Shouts of triumph mixed with groans of loss as the winner was declared, and another pair of cars lined up.
I move through the crowd, listening to the chatter. How much the kids enjoy the weekly races and the thrill of speed. How sad it is that Tad and Becky died. How they’d been there last week, enjoying the spectacle with everyone else. Everyone had expected them to be together forever, and now they’d never have the chance. I kept listening, hoping someone would mention seeing them leave, but no such luck. When I asked, I found out that Lance Portman usually raced, but had been confined to cheering from the sidelines by a blown head gasket the day he’d disappeared.
So I started cheering the races, and I even managed to win a bet on one of the races before the crowd melted away minutes before the police rolled through. It was full night now, and playing a hunch, I started walking along the road towards the edge of town.
I heard that roar again as I passed the last house. One minute there was nothing but the evening chorus of bird song, then the distinct grumbling of a V-8 slowly turning over drown it out. A glance over my shoulder revealed the outline of a classic hot rod rolling towards me. It had once been a ’48 Ford, but someone had done an outstanding job chopping the roof, stripping off the fenders, and ditching the hood. That put the source of the rich growl on proud display: a flat-head eight with a huge filter mounted atop a chromed carb. No doubt to a mortal eye, it would have been a magnificent sight, but my eyes saw nothing but the shadow of what had once been.
As it comes to a stop beside me, the shade of a young man leans out. In form, he wears a denim jacket and white tee shirt, hair slicked down with enough grease to lube his ride. The ghostly face smiles at me. “Hey, bud, need a ride?”
“No, but I’d love a quick spin in that ride of yours. You do the work yourself?”
The smile takes on a different aspect, not the friendly guy out for an evening drive, but a predator smiling in anticipation of its next meal. “Yeah, you could say that. Climb in and we’ll take a drive out to Deadman’s Curve and back, give you a chance to get a feel for what this baby can really do.”
“Sure, sounds great.”
I go around the phantom hotrod and slide into the passengers seat. I’m so low I feel as if I’m sitting on the ground, but before I can take in the feeling of the seat, the engine’s roar drowns out all thought. Outside, the fence posts are a blur and the telephone pole flash past like they’re part of a picket fence. For all the speed, there is no feeling of acceleration. I feel no pressure shoving me back in the seat, and even with the window down, no wind rushes in.
“Pretty fast, isn’t it?”
I glance at the specter beside me and what I see now is not human. The neatly combed hair has been peeled back, scalp and all, to form a bloody mess hanging off the bare skull. The face is a smashed mask of its former appearance, the eyes glare at me above a toothless smile made hideous by skin hanging off a jaw held in place by the tattered remains of tendons.
Then the world outside seems to freeze. The fence post that had passed so fast they almost disappear are now fixed in place. I hear my door pop open without me touching it and the eyes staring at me flare with a hellish inner light as the mouth opens to release a demented cackle.
“Go on, run! Run as fast as you can. If you’re fast enough, you might even manage to get away.”
I let myself smile. “No, I won’t. I know you want me to run so you can kill me with this car. Is that how you died? Did someone chase you down?”
The light fades, the smile that had been calculated to frighten is replaced by a frown. “What do you mean?”
I sweep my hand to take in the scene beyond the ghostly front window. “You died somewhere around here, didn’t you? A car struck and killed you, this car to be precise. Ever since that day, you’ve been fixed on getting vengeance, aiming you anger at the kids who race their cars and the ones who stand around enjoying it all. You bring them here, where you died, so they can experience what you felt before you died.”
The ghostly driver takes his hands off the wheel and tries to push me out the open door, but his hands pass through my undead flesh. He tries again, to no effect. Now I can see his fear, in his bulging eyes, in the shaking of his hands. I grab his wrists and shove him back as if he weighed nothing, which to me he does. He fixes me with a stare, the look of a rabbit cornered by a coyote or a bird before the snake that will soon eat it.
“What are you?” The voice, so intimidating before, is now that of a young boy facing an unimaginable terror.
“I’m dead, like you. Like you, I couldn’t let go of my old life, I couldn’t accept that I had lost my future. The only difference between us is that I wasn’t killed by a human, I was killed by a spirit. When I came back, my only desire was to kill the…the thing that had killed me. When I finally strangled it, and that monster left the mortal plane, I’d hoped I would be free. But here I am.”
There was a long moments silence, then the whisper of the voice I’d heard before comes from a shape grown vaguer than ever. “Did they find you? Did someone come for you, take you home and bury you?”
Was that the thing that drove this poor spirit, being abandoned along a roadside? “Yes, a friend of mine found me. I felt sorry for him, finding the mess that spirit had left of my body scatter around that terrible room. Didn’t anyone find you?”
“No, no one ever came for me.” The car fades away, leaving me standing on the shoulder of the battered blacktop road with the shade of a young and lonely man. He lifts an arm to point towards a massive thicket of raspberry brambles growing in the fence line of a pasture that stretches out of sight in every direction. “I was walking home out to my family’s farm, when I heard them. Two cars, the roadster I was, and another much like it. They were driving fast, the other car trying to pass the roadsters. It swung back and forth across the road, trying to keep the other car from passing it. I thought it was thrilling, the way they were racing along, then the roadster swung wide again, right at me.” The arm dropped, and I hear a sob like the wind itself feels this boy’s grief. “They never even slowed down. He had to have seen me, and he didn’t even stop to check on me, he didn’t call anyone. He…both of them, left me lying under those raspberries like I was road kill. No one came looking for me, not my family, not my friends, nobody. So I swore I’d make them pay, and I have! They used to race down this piece of road, but I killed enough of them that they started to fear it. So they moved into town and hoped I wouldn’t find them. But I did!”
“But you never found the people who killed you, did you?”
The anger seemed to be feeding the spirit, making it more solid. My question is like a breeze blown into a bank of smoke, fading the figure in front of me to little more than an outline. “No, I never did.”
“You never will, and you know that, don’t you?”
“But I can make their kids pay!”
The form began to solidify again, and I knew I had to play my final card. “But do you know the kids you kill are the kids of the people who killed you? And if they aren’t, what about their parents? Do you want them to suffer like yours did? Is that fair?”
The form fades again, and I walk through tall grass to press aside the brambles with my unfeeling hands. I see no remains, but when I scuff aside the debris, a hint of white tells me the bones are not buried deep. I look back to see a figure so faint it might not be there at all. “I won’t dig you out. I’ll tell the police you’re here so they can come and take proper care of you. Who were you, so I can tell your family you’re coming home?”
“I was James Patrick O’Hearity. Dad died when I was in grade school. Mom…she can’t be alive anymore, it was so long ago. My little sister should still be alive. Tell her I’m sorry for leaving her alone.”
“I will, I promise. Rest now, James, you’re going to go home at last.”
The shape gives a final shimmer, and as it fades, I hear the lost soul of a long-dead boy ask me a question I don’t want to answer. “Thank you, but who are you?”
“Someone condemned to walk the Earth for eternity, it seems. But once, I was George Ishkowa, and I wish I could find a way to follow you. Goodbye James, until I find my own freedom.”