They say there’s a ghost hitchhiker out by the rail yard along Highway 87 on the far side of town. They say he’s got red hair and a wicked grin, that if you stop he’ll climb up in your pickup or slide in the backseat of your Rabbit, chat you up for five or ten or twelve miles, and then disappear just before a stray cow or a stone wall or an eighteen wheeler or a 127-car freight train manifests itself out of nothingness to turn you and your vehicle into a blood-soaked scrap metal sundae.
They say it so you’ll avoid Highway 87, so you’ll avoid hitchhikers, drunk driving, drag racing, sex after the prom. They don’t believe, and neither do you, but it doesn’t matter as long as you’re afraid, as long as you’re not sure it can’t be true. They say it so you’ll keep yourself safe.
Kevin never believed.
Kevin didn’t keep himself safe from anything, not fistfights, not drugs, not drag racing, and certainly not sex after the prom. Maybe it was the ghost that killed him, but maybe it was just a cattle transport that blew a tire and flipped on a blind curve an hour before dawn, five months after graduation. Maybe it was just the highway itself, rising from its asphalt sleep, rising out of a land that has always been thirsty for human blood. Maybe, maybe not.
It didn’t matter much to me which it was. A week after he died, I drove out there on my own. I wanted to watch the killer highway in its sleep.
I pulled over a mile from the accident and walked west, my shoes rasping in the gravelly shoulder as I trudged past styrofoam cups, broken beer bottles, husks of old steel-belted tires. For miles around, there was nothing but the sound of cicadas and the tall grass dying. There was nothing to see, and nothing to know. Bad things happen no matter how many ghost stories they tell you, no matter what you do to keep yourself safe.
I waited, arms crossed, watching the grasslands watching me, and when the red-haired ghost-man with the wicked grin walked past with a hitch in his step and a glint in his eye I followed him in silence down to Bunker Creek, down under the highway, under the crumbling, rusting, rotting bridge, down in the dark, where ghost-men are real, where bad things happen to bad girls. He whispered every seductive detail of his gruesome kills in my red hot ears while he led me, naked and willing, to my own particular destruction. The rust flaked from the girders above like a foul snow and I lay with my back in the sharp gravel and I let him and I liked it.
Afterwards I carried the secret of it like a burning coal deep beneath the pit of my stomach, until my stomach couldn’t hide the secret of what I’d done.
They say the baby is Kevin’s, and that it’s no wonder, when you consider how little attention my grandmother paid to her own flesh and blood while she was watching the skies for little green men and Soviet missiles. They say she should’ve put the fear of God in me. God knows, they say, she wasn’t watching what anyone else put in me.
Me, I’m a little beyond all that now. They say the baby is Kevin’s, but I know better. I know where my baby got his wicked grin.
Photo by Wouter Kiel on flickr