Fantasy Horror Literary Fiction Historical Strange

On the Road with the American Dead

By James Van Pelt
Feb 1, 2019 · 4,147 words · 16 minutes

Steering Wheel Driver Hand

Photo by Landon Martin via Unsplash.

From the author: Some of the country's most beautiful roads crisscross the midwest, long, lonely stretches where a solo driver has plenty of time to think and let the thoughts run idle. And, occasionally, if his mind is right and circumstances line up, he gets to hear a story.

Jeremy Lowe rested his arm on the open window, enjoying vibration and rushing air, solitude, and early evening cornfields.  Engine and tire noise echoed from telephone poles and fence posts, whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. He smiled, tapping the steering wheel in accompaniment.

He liked solitary drives from client to client, sticking to two-lane roads when he could, half his backseat and trunk filled with sales brochures and toner cartridges and copier parts. He liked his window down, even when it grew cold in the fall. He smelled little creeks that ran through shallow gulches, of miles and miles of wild sunflowers along the fields, and bar-b-cue from unseen backyards.  He liked stockyards and political signs, which he’d sometimes stop to photograph.  This morning he’d snapped a shot of a Second Amendment billboard that said, “Turn in Your Arms: the Government will take care of you,” printed over a picture of Indians in headdresses.

Driving was good. It gave him long breaks between actually doing his job. Sometimes he thought he should pull the car over and kick the boxes out and just drive. He thought about copies. What sort of career is about helping people make copies? They should have a machine that makes originals.

On the shoulder ahead, a two-foot tall cross seemed to lean on a brown, fuzzy shape.  Weeds grew around. When he went by, the shape resolved into a teddy bear, and then it was in his rearview mirror.

“That’s mine,” said the girl in the seat beside him.

Jeremy swerved, crossed the opposing lane, fought the steering when the tires dropped into the soft shoulder, then wrestled the car onto the asphalt.  He eased it back into his lane, fingers locked on the wheel, breath wheezing in quick gasps.  The girl sat with her hands in her lap, staring ahead.  She wore blue dungarees over a white tee shirt.  Short, dark hair spilled from the back of a Kansas City Royals baseball cap.  Freckled. Twenty-years old. No makeup.

“It was Lisa’s teddy bear.  Mom couldn’t find mine, but Lisa died when she was five. Lung cancer.  Can you believe cancer in a little kid like that?”

It felt so much like a dream, that Jeremy pried his left hand off the steering wheel to pinch the skin on his right wrist.

“You really should watch the road here,” the girl said, “’cause if something stupid happens, like spilling a soda, you just lose it.”

The girl wore no shoes.  Her toenails were painted pink.

“What are you doing in my car?”  Jeremy couldn’t tell if his heavy breathing came from almost wrecking or the surprise.

“This is the stretch I didn’t get to drive.  That’s my place up there.” She pointed to a dirt road that appeared from over a hill to his left, splitting the corn, and dumping onto the highway.  Corn grew tall on both sides, poking through barbed wire fence, like a shadowed hallway.  The western horizon glowed pink and peach in the fading light but the dirt road going east plunged into the glooming corn.

He looked at her as the road whipped by, but she faded and was gone.

Pulse pounded in his forehead, and he wondered if he was having a stroke or if he’d hallucinated. The wheel felt just as solid beneath his hands, though, and the wind whistled as it always did.

The black soldier in his back seat said, “She was a pretty thing.  Sad though.”

This time Jeremy didn’t swerve.  In the rearview mirror, he could see the man’s dark hair and the sunset’s glow in his eyes. The butt of a long rifle rested on the floor between his feet, canted diagonally toward the other window. He wore a brass-buttoned cloth coat that might have been blue, but dust obscured it. A leather bandolier crossed his chest.

“This thing goes darned fast,” said the man.  He watched the corn sliding by.  He’d said the girl was sad, but Jeremy felt despair rolling off the man in waves. “I don’t remember no crops.  This road shouldn’t be here.”

Jeremy thought about what he knew of local history.  There had been a Civil War fort near Baxter Springs. The town had a nice museum with a display about it.  He’d stopped there several times, studying the paintings and maps while shaking off road weariness, before heading to ailing photocopiers in town. In one of the museum’s corners, a cannon on two spoked wheels pointed out the window. He could imagine its weight behind a horse, pulling it over a rutted path. The metal had been cold beneath his hand and slightly pitted.

“2nd Kansas Colored Infantry,” the soldier said. “Got separated. There’s too much prairie. It looks the same.”

“Why are you here?” Jeremy said. If he pulled over, would the man get out?

“They killed the 3rd Wisconsin band too, you know,” said the soldier. He turned away from the window. “Eleven men. Put swords through them.  Set ‘em on fire.  Even the drummer boy. Not one had a chance to defend himself. He’s the devil, he is. Executes those that surrender. His men too, all devils.”

Jeremy’s gut clenched, and despite the cool wind blowing through the car, sweat trickled down his back. “What do you want?”

What did the soldier want? To go home? Did he have a wife somewhere? Children?

The soldier looked thirty, maybe older. “A clear shot, that’s all I need. Set that devil Quantrill where I can see him.  I’ll say, ‘Remember the drummer boy?’ and I’ll send him to hell.”

And then, like the dungaree girl, the soldier faded.

Jeremy pulled the car to the side of the road.  Set the brake, and sat on the edge of the ditch that ran between him and the corn.  The highway was empty in both directions.  Crickets chirped.  Stalks rustled.  No stars were visible in the dark sky.

After eating dinner at the Baxter Springs Smokehouse, he spent the night at the Baxter Inn, a common stop for him.  The rooms were clean, quiet and inexpensive, but he couldn’t sleep.  He sat cross-legged on his bed, laptop open, searching for Quantrill, a name he vaguely recognized.  Quantrill had deserted the southern army during the Civil War, formed his own guerilla band, roamed through Missouri and eastern Kansas, waging his own battles.  Most of the articles talked about a massacre he led in Lawrence, Kansas, but Jeremy tracked down the Baxter Springs incident easily.  The drummer boy was named Johnny, and he’d been fifteen.  One account said he’d been found pinned to the side of a wagon, hanging from a sword. Another said he’d been burned to death.

In the morning, Jeremy visited his Baxter Springs accounts, replacing worn parts in the copiers, leaving brochures for the new models the company encouraged customers to switch to.  Nothing time consuming. He had plenty of time in the afternoon to shop.

In a dusty car lot, he traded his sedan for a similar one a year newer.  The salesman looked at him curiously as Jeremy wrote the check for the difference.

“It seems like a good car.  My mechanic likes it.  Any particular reason you’re switching?”

Jeremy thought for a second. “It makes funny noises.”

He didn’t prefer the road to Joplin, so instead of heading east into Missouri, and then south to Arkansas and Fayetteville, Jeremy took the longer two-lane, Oklahoma route, deeper into the hilly Ozarks, a pleasant change from the flatlands. He’d picked up a plate of supermarket chicken and a six pack for his cooler.  Before sunset he’d be at the Wolf Creek Park camping ground near the Neosho River.

The woman in a plain, long dress and worn bonnet appeared not long after Jeremy crossed the state line.  He sensed her beside him before he saw her.  He’d been watching the road unwind hypnotically before him, trying to adjust to the slight differences in the new car’s steering and the unfamiliar way his back rested against the seat.  He’d found a half-dozen plastic cocktail stirrers in the glove box that the car dealer had missed.  The idea that a drinker had owned the car first pleased him a little.  He imagined the driver holding the cocktail in one hand while the other draped over the wheel. What was the story? The dealer had asked about his car, but more interesting was why this one had been traded in.  Only fifteen-thousand on the odometer. The engine sounded solid. No wear on the upholstery and no scratches on the paint. Maybe the previous owner heard noises too.

“So,” said Jeremy, “what killed you?”

“I’m not dead,” she said primly, “and it’s rude of you to say so.”

Jeremy tried to relax. It was just a conversation. It wasn’t like he hadn’t already talked to apparitions, although he’d hoped that changing cars would cure the problem.  He thought, It’s not the car; it’s me. 

“I’m pretty sure you are.”

“I’d be at home with Jesus if I was dead,” she said. “The roads would be paved with gold and there would be singing. Maybe you are the dead one.”

Jeremy hadn’t considered that.  If he was dead, yesterday would make more sense.

“Okay, let's say you’re not dead. What’s the last thing you remember before you appeared in my car?” He was proud of himself for sounding calm, but he wasn’t. His stomach knotted. He wondered what a ghost could do to him.  Nothing, right? They don’t have a solid existence. Unless they startle me into an accident (he remembered how close he’d come to swerving off the road when the dungaree-girl appeared), they’re harmless.  They couldn’t do anything to him, but what did it mean that he was seeing them? The question wasn’t what the ghosts could do, but what did they mean?

“We were putting in stakes,” the woman said. “Thompson, that’s my husband, carved them himself out of a slat from the wagon.  ‘Pound them deep,’ he said to me, “so people will know the land is ours.’ We snuck in a couple weeks early. Thompson told me if we waited, all the good land would be taken. ‘The government doesn’t have that much left for people to claim,’ he said. ‘The frontier is just about gone, but no one’s going to notice the two of us. They’ll just see us here and think we beat them to the spot. We soak the horse like it’s just finished a good run, and when others come, they’ll think we started the same time they did. They’ll keep going. There’s more land beyond the next hill.’”

She looked out the window just like the dungaree girl had done, watching the hills. “They didn’t ride on, though. Two men on horses. They threw the stakes at his feet, dirt still clinging to them, then they shot him where he stood.”

Jeremy felt cold. “Did they shoot you, too?”

The woman pushed hair off her forehead. “I don’t remember. It wasn’t shooting they wanted with me, though. No, I don’t think there was any shooting. I heard other horses in the distance, and wagons crashing along, and shouting; everyone racing for a piece of land. That’s what we were doing, Thompson and me, putting down our stakes. Building something.”

She didn’t fade. She winked out, like a candle, leaving a black smoke that swirled as the wind tore it apart.

Before he reached he campground, a four-year old girl in a swimsuit and swim cap adorned with pink and green plastic flowers appeared next to him, but she cried for ten minutes without speaking, then dissolved into a moist steam.  Twenty miles later, a one-legged man in an old-style navy uniform, the pants for the missing leg pinned neatly at mid-thigh, winked into existence, but he only had time to move his cane between his legs before he was gone.  Jeremy spent the rest of the drive in a continuous flinch. Every passing shadow or flash of reflected light, forced a glance to the empty passenger seat.

He decided that he’d spend the next morning in Siloam Springs in Arkansas, a town he’d driven through without stopping.  Maybe cold calls at new businesses would straighten him out.

Over the years, delivering copy machine supplies and servicing the clients in the Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas area, Jeremy had made road friends: the folks he saw repeatedly, like gas station attendants, waitresses, shop managers and a handful of others.  He might only see them three or four times a year for a few minutes, but he saw them every year.  At the Springdale Pilot truck stop, he talked to Angie, the bottle-blonde, big-bosomed counter clerk who ran the tiny restaurant.

Only a single rig sat in the parking lot, and the restaurant was empty except for the two of them.  Angie gathered up her four grandkids’ pictures she’d spread on the table as she slid into the booth seat across from him.

“Truckers see ghosts all the time,” she said. “It’s not a big deal.”

Jeremy’s jaw dropped.

“No, really,” she continued. “Long haul drivers are chemically enhanced.  It’s the truth,” she continued. “They’re sleep-deprived, coffee-powered junkies and they pop those vitality pacs we sell by the register like M&Ms—they’re mostly caffeine you know. Might as well just take speed and be more honest about it, so ghosts and all sorts of stuff come with the job.”

“They’re hallucinating, you mean.”

“Sometimes they are and sometimes they ain’t.” Angie canted her head to the side, studying him. “You want to share?”

Jeremy shook his head, then nodded.

Angie laughed.  “You know, the wonder is we don’t see more ghosts.  The country should be packed with them, if everyone that dies becomes a ghost that is.  What about Indian ghosts?  Indians lived here for a thousand years before we showed up, and if you think about it, where are the Neanderthals?  So, the ghosts talking to you too?”

“Yes,” Jeremy croaked out. This conversation hadn’t gone in the direction he would have predicted.  He feared she would think he was crazy, so he’d mentioned ghosts as a joke.  “I’ve seen some unbelievable things driving,” he’d said.

She looked out at the highway. A truck flew by. “My husband died on that road, the first one, I mean. Husband number two doesn’t drive much.”

“Sorry to hear that, about your first husband, I mean. I didn’t know.”

Angie wiped her side of the table before gathering his empty plate and extricating herself from the booth. “Too much information. I blabber a bit. Talk of ghosts makes me think of him.”

“No problem.” Another truck passed the restaurant, kicking dust in its wake. “You sell electronics in the store, don’t you?”

“Yep. Radar detectors. CB sets. Even got some of those gaming doodads the kids like.”

“How about noise suppressing headphones?”

Angie crossed her arms. “You think if you can’t hear them, they’ll go away?”

Jeremy shrugged.

The headphones felt bulky and awkward, but they did quiet sound.  Even if he didn’t have them plugged into his music, when he turned on the noise cancelling function, engine, wind, even the radio muted to almost nothing, but the apparitions kept coming. First, a young farmer, wearing overalls and a red flannel shirt, then a woman in a summer dress, then a nurse, and then an old man in a business suit. Jeremy tried not to look at them. He turned up the music and focused on the road.  The old man, though, was persistent.  When he waved his hand in front of Jeremy’s face, Jeremy pulled the headphones off.

“Can’t you see that I don’t want to talk? When someone’s wearing headphones, they don’t want to talk.”

The old man said, “I thought they were funny-looking earmuffs.”

Suddenly Jeremy realized ghosts weren’t scary; they were annoying. “Look, when a guy is traveling alone on the road like I do, he doesn’t want company. If he did, he’d pull over and pick up a hitchhiker, a living one.”

The old man straightened his tie. “Do you know what the number one cause of single-driver, single-car accidents is?”

Jeremy glanced at the man. He wasn’t a very good judge of fashion, and men’s business suits from the 50s or 60s didn’t look that different from modern ones to his eye, so how long had this guy been a ghost? What did he know about car accidents?

“Going to sleep?”

 “Nope,” said the old man. “That’s number three.  The number-two cause is a stinging insect. Turns out that people freak out if there’s a bee in the car. The number one cause is a ghost who is pissed off because the driver ignores him.”

“What do you want? I’ve been asking every ghost between here and Baxter Springs what they want, and they won’t say. Why are you appearing in my car?”

“Not just your car.  Ghosts are everywhere, but not everyone sees them. Well, the ones who see us and crash see us, but not all of the rest.”

“Why me and why now?  I’ve been driving for twenty years ghost-free.”

“Why do you think?”

That’s all Jeremy had been mulling over since the barefooted girl with pink toenails warned him to watch the road. What if a person saw ghosts before he died? He wouldn’t have a chance to tell many people about it before the last chance was gone, so the stories wouldn’t leak out. Or what if the ghost who didn’t think she was dead was right, and he was a ghost too? Maybe he’d been a haunt to Angie at the truck stop, or maybe Angie was also a ghost. If two ghosts met, would they recognize that there were both ghosts? The idea of ghosts unintentionally haunting each other made him grin.

“Glad you’re enjoying yourself,” said the old man.

“How does it work? Do you have a range, like a radio signal? Are you tied to the place you died?”

The old man looked at him curiously. “Someone’s in your car who has crossed into the great mystery, proving there is an afterlife, and those are the questions you ask?”

But he vanished before Jeremy replied.

Jeremy pulled the car into the next rest stop. He liked Arkansas rest areas. Most were well-maintained and pleasant places for a leisurely lunch or for a quiet nap. Today, though, he didn’t relax. He’d stored cases of replacement copier toner in the trunk along with his tool kits. By emptying the trunk, he was able to fill the passenger seat and the space in the back where the Civil War soldier had appeared.  As he merged onto the highway, the fact that there wasn’t a person-sized area left empty in the car pleased him.

But the old man started talking from within the boxes piled to Jeremy’s right before he’d driven two miles. “Interesting idea, son. If you were wearing those headphones, you wouldn’t know I was here at all until I did this.”

A hand reached through the unbroken cardboard and covered Jeremy’s eyes.

“Stop it!” yelled Jeremy. He ducked below the hand to see that the car had swerved across the center line.  The other lane was empty.

“Wouldn’t bother me if we crashed,” said the ghost. “Kind of exciting, to tell the truth, but I don’t like sitting in a box.”

Five miles later, after Jeremy had stopped and thrown the boxes sloppily into the back, the ghost sat silently as Jeremy merged onto the highway.  Low hills, covered with the tired green of late summer rose away from them on either side. Finally, Jeremy said, “Look, I wasn’t trying to be rude. It’s just that you make me nervous, being dead and all.”

The ghost considered him but didn’t speak.

“I don’t know the etiquette,” Jeremy offered.

He steered the car through a long curve. To his left, a tree-covered slope stretched into a valley. At the bottom, silver glimpses of a stream peeked through the gaps.  On the other side, limestone boulders marked the grassy hill.

The old man said, “It’s about memory and mortality, and maybe about Odysseus and Gilgamesh.”

“Ok,” said Jeremy, “I’ll bite. What’s Odysseus have to do with you?”

“Pretty country out here, don’t you think?  Forests and stone and water. I used to hike these hills. See that little road coming up? Take it.”

The two-lane highway curved right.  A narrow, dirt path, barely wide enough for the car cut away from the asphalt and wound to the tree line below.  Jeremy slowed, then turned onto the trail. A line of weeds in the middle brushed against the undercarriage. Once they were into the trees, undergrowth hemmed them in on both sides.  He wondered if there was a spot where he would be able to turn around, or if he’d have to back out.

“Where we going?”

The ghost rolled his window down, Jeremy noted with interest. Ghosts could move physical objects! He felt like he’d discovered one of the universe’s secrets.

“Of all the people in the world, Odysseus and Gilgamesh are still remembered. People tell their stories.”

Jeremy nursed the vehicle through a muddy spot. Now, this far from the highway, pleasant, green forest smells flooded the car.

“Not much farther,” said the ghost.  “Everyone has stories, son. But for most of us, nearly every, single, blessed one, when we die, the stories fade. Not Gilgamesh, though.  Not Odysseus.  Ah, we’re here.”

The forest opened.  Jeremy stopped the car.  A blackened ring of rocks near the tree line showed that people had camped there, although not recently.  After the forest shade, the pasture seemed to glow with color. Knee-high flowers, orange in the middle and yellow at the edge blanketed the ground. Jeremy had never seen so many. They were common in patches on the highway’s shoulder. Firewheel, he thought they were called.

“I stood here,” said the ghost, looking through the windshield.  “Before the highway was paved, when I was twenty. Been walking all day along that road. Not one car came by, but I didn’t mind.  I was young and I had food in my bindle.  Strong legs then.  Toward dusk, so I hiked down this trail, the end of a beautiful day, maybe the most beautiful day I’d ever seen. Reached this spot where we’re sitting, sun cutting across it like god’s hand.  Smelled the stream, but when I stepped into this clearing, a herd of deer stood here, and like a choir, like a congregation, they stopped eating, raised their heads up and looked at me. There must have been a hundred of them meeting me eye for eye. That’s an image that stayed with me my whole life.”

Jeremy tried the picture what the old man described, what he clearly was seeing this second in his memory, and he almost could.

“Gilgamesh isn’t a ghost, son. Neither is Odysseus. They can rest as long as their stories aren’t lost. But most everyone else . . .”

“You have to tell your stories?”

“Such as they are. When we’re done, that’s all we have. That’s all you have. Everyone is a story.”

“But why me?”

“It could be anyone,” said the ghost. “It frequently is.”

Then Jeremy sat alone in the car. A breeze stirred the Firewheel pasture into ripples like embers floating on the ocean, like shivers on the fluorescent sea of time.

Having resupplied his last customer, Jeremy drove toward company headquarters in Atlanta. He stuck to the back roads and the smaller towns: Stuttgart, then DeWitt. He might go the long way around to catch Clarksdale. Maybe he’d stop at the Dale Bumpers White River National Wildlife Refuge, sit lakeside, watch the sunrise.

He’d watch the sunrise, the way light sheened across the water, the way it changed second by second until the sun fully spilled upon it, the way leaves whispered in the morning breeze, how he could turn his head and the sounds would change, and he would think about how important the moment was, how irreplaceable, and how no one would ever know how he’d been there after he was gone, unless the story was told and remembered.

But mostly he kept his window down and the seat beside him empty. He let the wind blow through the car, listened to the road’s gentle roar, and he welcomed, whenever they came, the occasional ghost. Some told their stories. Some just sat. And every once in a while, when Jeremy stopped to shake road weariness from his legs or to resupply his customers, he’d talk to the waitress or the stock boy or the office manager or the purchasing agent, and he’d share what he’d heard from the lonely dead, so they wouldn’t disappear, so they wouldn’t be forgotten.

This story originally appeared in Black Static.

James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."