Saturday, June 23, 2018

THE WASP: a short story

Leo hated summer.
He did not mind the long, humid days of summer. He did not mind the simmering mornings, the sluggish, gnatty evenings, or the scorching afternoons. Nor was he particularly fond of the colder months of the year, with their short, overcast days, chilly rains, and finally their ice and snow.
Leo hated summer because summer was the season of wasps. 
He sat behind the walls of his cubicle at work one day in August, stealing glances out the large, floor-to-ceiling window near his desk. Sure enough: they were there: The distinctive outlines of their tiny bodies were stuck to the glass. There were three of them today. They were no more than an inch long; but their razor-edged stingers could deliver enough venom to paralyze a victim with agony.
Leo rolled his chair forward so he was hidden within his cubicle. If they saw him looking it would only make things worse. You had to stay one step ahead of the wasps, and you could never forget that their microscopic brains thrummed with evil intent. Not for the first time, Leo recalled that old German proverb: “God made the bee, but the Devil made the wasp.”
At noon he removed a brown paper bag from the bottom drawer of his desk. The bag contained a peanut butter sandwich and an apple. Although Leo had been eating peanut butter sandwiches everyday since late May, he was not about to venture out for lunch. Insects were ectotherms, and the hot afternoon hours belonged to them. He would have to leave the building at five o’clock. And that would be risky enough.
As he was about to bite into his sandwich, his boss spoke up behind him:
“Hey, Leo.”
Leo swiveled around and faced his boss. He already knew what this visit was about.
“Anyway, Leo, we’re a little behind. I’m going to need you to pull a Saturday this week.” 
Leo felt his frustration rise but he kept his voice flat. “But I worked last Saturday. And every Saturday last month, too.”
“Yes….And I’m asking you to work this Saturday as well.”
“But I’m the only one in the department who has to work Saturdays. Why is that?”
“Well, Jim’s kids have little league on Saturdays all summer long. Marcy is getting married in October, and she still doesn’t have all her wedding arrangements straight. And Craig—”
“I know,” Leo cut in. “Craig is going out of town with his new girlfriend again.”
“When you think about it, Leo, I’m doing you a favor. I’m giving you something to occupy yourself with while everyone else is busy with a life.”
And then Leo’s boss simply stood there, regarding him with a barely masked expression of disdain. Leo was going to protest further, and say that his boss knew nothing about his life. He simply kept himself to himself, that was all.
But he knew that any argument along that line would merely be answered with more disdain. His boss was likely in league with them. Leo had held this suspicion for months.
“I can count on you, then?” his boss said. When Leo did not respond the boss laughed. “I’ll take that as a yes. Good man. Be a good man, and they won’t have to sting you.”
A lump of ice settled abruptly in Leo’s stomach. “What did you say?
“A figure of speech,” Leo’s boss said dismissively as he departed.
Leo swiveled back around into his cubicle and tried to steady himself. His boss had finally shown his hand. Leo seriously doubted that he was actually one of them. (Leo knew the telltale signs of an insect in human disguise; and so far his boss had shown none of them.) But there could be little doubt that the boss was working closely with the wasps.
After the initial shock wore off, Leo found that he was actually able to take courage from the revelation. The battle lines were being drawn, and some sort of a final showdown was approaching. 
He had been preparing for this showdown his whole life. He decided that he should do something brave to get himself in the proper frame of mind for what lay ahead.
Amy Nelson’s phone number was scribbled on the Post-It pad beside his desk phone. Amy was a blind date that Leo’s cousin had arranged several weeks ago.
During their one “date”, Amy had not seemed to enjoy his company very much. Since then, she had ignored the two messages he had left in her voicemail. It didn’t matter. Women routinely ignored him. For all Leo knew, some of them might be in cahoots with the wasps, too.
He abruptly decided that he would not call Amy again. If she did not have the courtesy to return his calls, then he would not humiliate himself with endless supplications. He tore the top sheet of paper from the Post-It pad—the one that contained her telephone number—and threw it into the wastebasket beneath his desk. Have a nice life, Amy, he thought.
Leo knew that his newfound resolve would likely be temporary. Throwing away a woman’s phone number was one thing—dealing with them was another. 
And it only took one more glance out the window to cast him back into a pit of utter self-doubt.
The window that had previously been occupied by only three wasps was now covered by more than a dozen black, shiny insects. He had never counted more than four of them at this location. 
Despite his fear, Leo felt a certain sense of satisfaction. However the situation played out, it would be over soon. His hands shaking, he finally took the first bite of his sandwich. 
Before Leo shut down his computer later that afternoon he sent the boss a terse email: “Ask someone else to work this Saturday. I’ve got plans.” 
Then he added a final line: “And I’m not afraid of being stung.” 

The distance between Leo and his car seemed to span miles, though he knew he could cover it in a short sprint. 
Leo stood in the glass-enclosed foyer of the office building, oblivious to the five o’clock flow of his coworkers around him. Most people simply stepped around Leo; but there were a few aggravated grunts, and at least one speculative remark about the state of Leo’s sanity.
Leo did not care. His coworkers could afford to be blithe and carefree, their minds occupied by thoughts of evening television programs, and meals with children and spouses. They did not have to concern themselves with the wasps. 
Seeing no sign of his enemies around the front entrance, Leo finally joined the flow and pushed his way through the pneumatic double doors. There were titters and more stares as he bolted free from the crowd, his legs pumping madly until his hand gripped the driver’s side door handle of his car. He yanked open the door (he had left it unlocked) and threw himself inside. Sweat coursed down his ribs inside his shirt and dampened his collar. Leo loosened his tie and exhaled. He closed his eyes and gave himself a few moments to savor this small victory. But his sense of calm well-being did not last for long. He opened his eyes when the buzzing became too loud to ignore.
The windshield was filling up with wasps.
There were more than twenty of them milling about on the glass, only inches from his face. He had beaten them to the car by a narrow margin; he had been in more danger than he had imagined.
Leo fished his keys out of his pocket and started the car. As soon as the engine was running he turned on the windshield wipers. See how they like that, he thought. The wipers initially caused all the wasps to scatter; but they did not go far, swarming and buzzing in a cloud above the hood. Then some of them began to attach themselves to the side windows. Leo looked in the rearview mirror and saw others crawling across the back window.
He drove off; he had been through this before. By the time the car reached the highway, the force of the wind was sufficient to dislodge all of the wasps.

Once inside his house, Leo obsessed about the structure’s openings. The doors and the windows were shut tight, of course. Nor did he worry about the chimney. After five wasps had worked their way down the chimney a few months ago, Leo had placed an airtight seal across the damper. He would need to remove the seal in November; but by then all the wasps would be killed off by the colder weather.
What he worried about now, as he sat in a lumpy recliner in his living room, were the openings he had missed. He knew that no residential building was completely airtight. If mice could work their way into tiny openings in the walls of houses, then it should be an easy task for wasps. 
He sat still, and listened intently for any sound of buzzing.
Instead he heard the doorbell ring. The doorbell rang twice. Then there was a knocking, scratching sound against the front door.
Leo’s first inclination was to remain silent and let his visitor conclude that no one was home. He wasn’t afraid of any human visitor. He was afraid of opening the door because of the wasps that would be waiting outside.
His visitor, however, wasn’t going away. There were more rings of the doorbell, more knocks and scratching.
“Open the door,” a reedy voice cried from outside. “I know you’re in there.”
Leo tiptoed to the front door and peered through the peephole. His visitor wore dark glasses, an overcoat, and a fedora. He seemed to have some sort of a skin ailment. His cheeks were covered with a scaly covering that reminded Leo of a scab from a particularly nasty burn. 
“I see you in there,” the man said. He brought his face closer to the peephole, giving Leo a close-up view. The man lifted his glasses. 
He had large, compound eyes—just like an insect 
Leo leapt back from the door, and the man taunted him from the front porch.
“Come on, Leo!” the unwanted caller shouted. When he raised his voice, Leo could detect a buzzing tone intermingled in the sounds of the words, so his last utterance came out, “Comz on Leozz…
A man who has taken on the characteristics of a wasp, or a wasp who has taken on the characteristics of a man? Leo wondered. 
Not that this distinction mattered at the moment. The question was little more than academic, in fact. The sharp scraping sounds resumed on the front door. Leo had no trouble imagining the source. The limbs of a wasp were tipped not with hands and feet—but with hooklike structures known as tarsal claws. And how big would these claws be, for a wasp the size of a man?
“You’d better let me in!” the thing shouted. “Or I won’t make this quick!” 
The progression of recent events suddenly became clear to Leo. The wasps had been amassing their strength. They were feeling more confident. Why else would his boss have risked an overt reference to stinging
And then he had sent that terse, defiant email to his boss. Perhaps his boss had taken his revenge by telling them that now was the time. Tonight.
“Just a minute!” Leo shouted. “I’ll be right there!”
Before he opened the door, Leo ducked down the side hall and briefly entered the house’s utility room. Next he went into the kitchen and removed a large ice pick from the drawer beside the stove. He slid the ice pick into the rear loops of his pants, wedging it against his belt.
And then he opened the front door. 
The first thing that struck Leo’s senses was a smell like rotten meat. (Wasps were predatory insects, after all. And what would be suitable prey for a wasp that size?) Then he heard a buzzing that reverberated through the bones in his skull. 
It pushed its way into Leo’s house, leaving him sprawled out on the living room carpet. 
Rapid wing beats blew putrid air down on Leo’s face. It hovered and appraised Leo. Antennae probed the space around its bullet-shaped head. The head tapered to a set of mandibles that looked easily capable of gutting a full-grown man.   
But what terrified Leo most was the stinger. This took the form of a long, black lance at the tip of the creature’s abdomen. As the wasp shifted its position above Leo, it bared the obscenely long stinger. Drops of venom dribbled onto the carpet. 
And then it was just a man again, although a horribly disfigured one that bore the outward signs of its dual nature. The edges of the complex eyes were visible behind the dark glasses. He kept his hands thrust in his pockets, to avoid revealing his claws. An insectile abdomen shifted beneath the tail of the overcoat.
“Well, Leo,” he said in that reedy, high-pitched voice of his. “I would give you a hand; but maybe it would be easier if you helped yourself up.” 
Leo clambered to his feet, noting with relief that the ice pick was still lodged in the loops of his belt. Without asking permission, he walked over to the front door, which was still ajar.
“Don’t try to run,” the intruder warned. “I can easily run you down. Then I’ll disembowel you in your front yard.”
“I’m only shutting the door,” Leo said. Turning back to face the man-wasp, he asked, “What do you want?”
“Well, that should be obvious, don’t you think?” The man smiled, and for a second his jaw turned into the mandible of an insect. “I want to humiliate you. I want to make you beg for your life.”
“And?” Leo said.
“And then I plan to kill you.”
They stood facing each other across the small space of the living room, Leo and the wasp-man. Leo felt prickly gooseflesh break out on his bare arms as a blast of cool air filled the room, flooding out from the air vents. The air conditioner hummed loudly. 
“But first I get to ask a few questions, don’t I?” Leo asked. “Isn’t that the way this sort of thing works?”
The wasp man paused to consider this. “Maybe just one.” he finally said. “What do you want to know?”
“I won’t ask exactly what you are,” Leo said. “Or how this is even possible. I’ll only ask the most important question: Why are you here? Why me?”
“Because you invited me here,” the wasp-man said. “You’ve been inviting me—inviting us—all your life.”
“That doesn’t make sense.”
“Sure it does,” the wasp man said. “Think back to grade school. Remember little Jimmy Breslin?”
Of course Leo remembered Jimmy Breslin. Thirty years ago Jimmy Breslin, the class bully, had been the bane of Leo’s existence. 
“Do you remember what Jimmy Breslin used to do to you?” the wasp-man asked. Leo noticed that the wasp-man was metamorphosing back into a full wasp again. The compound eyes were pulsing, growing larger. The dark glasses fell onto the carpet. Its lips shriveled back against its jawbone; and the jawbone dissolved into a set of mandibles. 
Leo didn’t need this creature to tell him about Jimmy Breslin, though. Jimmy Breslin had regularly made Leo walk through piles of dog dung at recess. Then Leo would spend the rest of the day as the butt of his classmates’ jokes: little girls holding their noses and boys making barking sounds like dogs. On several occasions, the teachers had sent Leo home to clean up, and then he had caught hell from his parents, too.
“You took it, Leo,” the wasp-man said. “Like prey should. And we saw you. Oh yes, we did. We had many nests beneath the eaves of your elementary school. Perhaps you noticed them.”
The mandibles of the wasp were moving back and forth now: it was salivating. The overcoat had fallen away and its wings were out.
Leo nodded. He remembered that wasps had been a constant nuisance at the Brantner Street Elementary School during the warmer months. Sometimes they even invaded classrooms, buzzing near the ceiling most of the time, occasionally diving low enough to be threatening. When a wasp was in the room, Leo recalled, it was impossible to focus on anything else.
“Our scouts used to watch you,” the wasp continued. “We’re patient. We knew that one day you’d be easy prey for us. We only had to wait until you were ready.” 
The wasp was partially right, Leo knew. He had submitted when Jimmy Breslin had made him walk through the dog dung. He had submitted many times over the years: too many to count, in fact. 
But the wasp was partially wrong, too. After a lifetime of submission, Leo was tired of being prey. Tired of running from the wasps. 
The air conditioner clattered in the opposite end of the house as a fresh wave of cold air filled the room. Leo wondered how low the temperature had fallen. It was now uncomfortably cold even for him.
And even more uncomfortable for the wasp. The wasp was beginning to slow down. Its wingbeats slowed. The diaphanous structures might have been attached to weights. 
The wasp’s mandibles stopped moving. The wings came to halt.
Now was as good a time as any.
Leo removed the ice pick from his belt and plunged it into the wasp’s thorax. There was an audible crunch as the metal instrument penetrated the hard exoskeleton. Leo pulled out the ice pick and a dark brown liquid began to poor from the hole. 
The wasp let out a shriek of rage that dissolved into a roaring buzz.
And now it was Leo’s turn to do the taunting. He knew it was petty and ultimately pointless; but he could not help himself: “You weren’t expecting that, were you? Do you still think I’m easy prey?”
The wasp summoned a final burst of strength and swung its stinger at Leo. Venom spurted onto the leg of Leo’s pants as the stinger missed his knee by mere inches. Leo sidestepped the stinger and stabbed the wasp again. And again. 
The wasp collapsed onto the carpet, knocking over a floor lamp in the process. The man-sized insect convulsed, emitted a final loud buzz, and was dead.
Leo dropped the ice pick and bent over, his head suddenly woozy with shock. He willed himself to stand up again: I will not pass out. I will not pass out.
When he stood erect again, he noticed that the wasp had changed. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of tiny wasp bodies littered the floor where the single large wasp had fallen. They were all dead, dried husks of exoskeleton. 
First Leo walked into the utility room and adjusted the thermostat back to the temperature it had been before the wasp had arrived. Once back in the living room, Leo dropped to his hands and knees and began methodically pounding the dead wasps to dust with his fists. 
Afterward, he wiped his hands clean on a towel from the bathroom and set about the cleanup. He emptied the vacuum cleaner out three times before the last traces of the wasps were gone.

The sun had begun to set when he was done. It was Friday night, and Leo contemplated the vista of time that stretched out ahead of him. He turned off the air conditioner, opened the windows, and enjoyed the evening breeze, which was cool for a change. Tomorrow was Saturday, and the entire day would be his.

Friday, June 22, 2018

DID YOU SEE HIM? (a short ghost tale)

Not far from where I live, there is a stretch of rural four-lane highway with a reputation. They call it Dead Man’s Curve. Dead Man’s Curve is a section of Ohio Pike that lies between the small towns of Amelia and Bethel. You have to be careful there, as many people have discovered to their peril over the years. 

In the 1800s, Ohio Pike was a major artery along the Ohio River for horse and buggy traffic. Even in the horse and buggy days, that long sloping curve, which later came to be known as Dead Man’s Curve, was a death trap. Although it is difficult to be certain of what really happened back then, I’ve read Internet tales of horse-drawn carriages overturned in foul weather, when the road turned to mud. 

Who knows how many people died on Dead Man’s Curve during the 1800s? And that was before the age of the automobile.

Ohio Pike was paved in the late 1920s. Dead Man’s Curve did not become any less deadly with the advent of the automobile. Quite the contrary, in fact.

Once again, old records are hard to confirm; but I’ve heard stories about dozens of people being killed there in car accidents between the Prohibition and World War II. Talk to some old-timers in the area—there are still a few of them around—and they’ll tell you how they dreaded driving that road late at night, in their Studebakers and Ford Coupes. 

It almost makes you wonder if there’s something about the road that isn’t quite right, isn’t quite natural. And there are stories about that, as well. Some people say that that particular stretch of Ohio Pike, twenty miles east of Cincinnati, is inhabited by some unearthly force—and it always has been. But no one can say for sure.

What we can say for sure is this. In 1969, there was a horrible accident there. Two cars full of teenagers collided, one going east, the other going west. Altogether, five of them perished.

The next year, the Ohio Department of Transportation ordered that the vertical tilt in Dead Man’s Curve be leveled, to make the curve a bit less dangerous. And so for six months the road was closed, and the dropping portion of Dead Man’s Curve was raised. There hasn’t been a slope in Dead Man’s Curve since Richard Nixon was president.

But perhaps it was already too late.

Shortly after that, in the early 1970s, people began seeing the hitchhiker along Dead Man’s Curve. 

The hitchhiker is said to be a slender young man who waits by the side of the road, as if to thumb a ride. His clothing varies according to the particular account; but most people say that he appears to be dressed in a pair of jeans and a dark windbreaker.

And some people slow down, not wanting to leave a person alone on a rural highway at night. Until they see that the hitchhiker has no face. 

But the hitchhiker does more than simply appear. I’ve heard people say that he will leap onto the roof of your vehicle, and remain there for the better part of a mile. Others have claimed that he has run behind their cars at impossibly high speeds. He doesn’t desist until they drive well past the curve. Or so they say. 

Who—or what—is the hitchhiker? Is he the wayward spirit of one of the past victims of Dead Man’s Curve? Or is he, perhaps, one of the primordial spirits that has been rumored to haunt the area around Ohio Pike since the road was used for horse and buggy traffic?

Oh, and there’s one more thing about the hitchhiker of Dead Man’s Curve. He only appears between 12:30 and 1 a.m. If you travel near the curve at any other time, you’ll probably be all right. But if you are brazen enough to drive that route between 12:30 and 1 o’clock in the morning, you might just find an unwanted passenger atop the roof of your car. 

I had heard all the legends. And one night I decided that I had to find out for myself. It wouldn’t be hard to do. Dead Man’s Curve, after all, is only a few short miles from my house.

First I drove the curve coming from the west. I timed my little trip so that I would hit the curve at almost exactly 12:30. I looked at my dashboard clock, glowing in the darkness and saw that the time was 12:32. Right on schedule.

The curve extends for about a quarter of a mile. I drove past it, and sighed in relief when I didn’t see the hitchhiker. But how closely had I been looking? Had I really wanted to see the hitchhiker? I don’t know.

Before I made the drive back, I stopped at an all-night gas station on the other side of the curve, a little ways down Ohio Pike, just outside the town of Bethel. That late at night, there were no customers. 

I bought a bottled soft drink, just to be polite. The night shift attendant was an older man. He asked me what my business was, out driving so late at night. He wasn’t interrogating me, mind you; he was just making conversation.

For some reason, I decided to be completely honest, not knowing what he might say. “I was curious to drive Dead Man’s Curve between 12:30 and 1 a.m,” I said.

He looked at me gravely. “That would not be a wise thing to do,” he said. “Did you see him?” 

It wasn’t necessary for the attendant to clarify whom he meant by “him”. He was talking about the hitchhiker, obviously.

“No,” I said.

The gas station attendant appeared to be relieved. Then he pointed at the clock behind the counter. It read 12:45 AM.

“Tell you what,” he said. “Just to be on the safe side, why don’t you hang out here for another fifteen minutes? Then you won’t be tempting fate.”

“I’ve already tempted fate,” I said. “And nothing happened.” I thanked him for his offer. But the truth was, I wanted to debunk the legend for myself, for once and for all. I hastened out to my car, to drive the curve from the opposite direction.

“I hope you don’t regret your decision,” the gas station attendant said, bidding me farewell. “Be careful.”

“Oh, I will,” I said.

As I was driving back along the curve, there was a moment when I thought I saw something move in the darkness alongside the road. Something roughly the size of a man. 

I tapped the brakes and did a double take. There was nothing there—at least not that I could detect, now that I was seriously looking. 

It was just a deer, I told myself, continuing on. There are a lot of deer in the rural sections of southern Ohio.

But I didn’t hear anything clambering up onto the roof of my car. I glanced in the rearview mirror. I didn’t see the hitchhiker running down the road behind me, at a speed that no man could possibly run.

When I was a full mile past Dead Man’s Curve, near my home, I decided that I had debunked the legend.

Or had I? I’ve just been awakened, and it’s 2:34 a.m., according to my bedside clock. 

I parked my car in my garage when I arrived home, like I always do. My garage connects with my house via a door in my kitchen.

I woke up because I heard the horn of my car, blaring repeatedly. Someone is inside my car, pushing the horn over and over again. 

My nearest neighbor lives a half-mile away. (I believe I told you that I live out in the country.) So no one will come to investigate the horn sounding out in the middle of the night. No one is going to summon a police car to my house. 

I suppose I could call the police. But I recently had my landline disconnected to save money. Who needs a landline nowadays, with the constant convenience of cell phones?

Yes, I have a cell phone. But when I returned from my drive, I left my cell phone in the center console of my car.

And the blaring of the horn won’t stop. Whoever is inside my car—inside my garage—will not go away. Somehow I’m certain of that. 

And now I have a decision to make. Will I go out into my garage to confront whoever is there? Or will I lie in bed, and hope that my unwanted passenger—now making his presence known—doesn’t decide to enter the house?

I’ve discovered that the hitchhiker is real, after all. But as I lie here in bed, realizing that the daylight is four hours away, trying to decide what I am going to do next…oh how I wish I still believed that he was just an urban legend. 

ELEVEN MILES OF NIGHT: Chapter 1, Part 2

Nonstop supernatural terror for fans of Stephen King's early novels.

Jason Kelley is a young, struggling filmmaker looking for his first big break. When the semi-famous cable television ghost hunter Simon Rose approaches him about a freelance project, Jason is understandably thrilled. 

He isn’t fazed by the fact that his assignment is a walk down the Shaman’s Highway, an eleven-mile stretch of rural Ohio roadway that is reputed to be haunted by malevolent spirits, hellhounds, and demonic forces. Jason is an agnostic in regard to the supernatural. 

He isn’t prepared for the reality that awaits him on his walk through eleven miles of night—nor the more human violence and heartbreak that he will face along the way.

Grand Taj India Restaurant was located in the Gaslight District of Clifton, the inner-city neighborhood that was home to the University of Cincinnati. They made the short drive in Simon Rose’s car, a sleek red Audi S5 Cabriolet that attracted numerous stares along the way. When Jason made an appreciative remark about the car, Simon seemingly could not help adding, “This is the car I use when I drive in the flyover states. When I’m in California, I drive an R8 GT Spyder.”
Jason had been told numerous times that a display of excessive eagerness was one of the worst mistakes that a young person could make, so he contented himself with small talk during the ride to the restaurant. Once there, they were efficiently seated by a sari-clad hostess; and each of them placed an order for lunch. Simon Rose didn't come to the point until he was digging into his appetizer, a beef-filled pastry called keema samosa
“You entered two films in the competition we talked about,” Simon said. 
“Yes, sir,” Jason said. The first of these, Community Portrait, was a sort of inner-city community immersion film—arguably low-hanging fruit for a student who lived within the confines of the city. The film had been well received in the competition. In retrospect, however, Jason was less than proud of it. Community Portrait, with its preachy script and stilted portrayal of the lives of the urban poor, now struck Jason as sanctimonious and self-serving. He had intended to produce a Film with a Message. He had ended up looking like just another affluent white film student who pesters the residents of the inner city for “material.” 
The second film, A Haunting at Travis Books, was a bit more interesting. A bookstore owner in a nearby Cincinnati neighborhood had complained of paranormal activity. The one-hundred-fifty-year-old building in which Travis Books was housed had a troubled history: Sometime around the First World War, a young woman had apparently hanged herself in the attic. This woman, it seemed, was dead but not yet departed. The bookstore’s owner and a handful of his patrons had reported hearing the creaking sound that a rope makes when it swings back and forth with a heavy object attached to one of its ends. Cold spots suddenly chilled the air without warning, even during the height of summer. Books and other objects would occasionally disappear from the main downstairs store area, only to appear later in one of the bookstore’s back offices. According to the owner, these missing objects sometimes even made their way to the very attic where the long-dead woman had taken her own life. 
Jason had learned of the allegedly haunted bookstore when he read a brief article about the place on one of Cincinnati’s news websites. He had sensed immediately that the bookstore’s owner’s predicament had short film potential. Moreover, he believed that he could take the story itself to another level, one that the local journalist who had written the ho-hum article could never grasp. So he contacted not only the bookstore’s owner, but also a representative of one of the many ghost-hunting organizations in the Cincinnati area. These groups, Jason had heard, were always eager for exposure. 
Jason began A Haunting at Travis Books with a series of interviews with the bookstore’s owner and several customers who were willing to participate. He included a short sketch of the woman who had hung herself—a woman whose name turned out to be Lena Caudwell. But the main portion of the film consisted of an onsite paranormal investigation, complete with EMF readings and EVP recordings.
The results, as Jason had half-expected, were inconclusive; and the tormented spirit of Lena Caudwell failed to oblige him with a dramatic appearance. Nevertheless, Jason knew that he had nailed both the subject matter and the presentation. He had woven a piece of local lore into a compelling human interest story, then combined it with a detailed study of a textbook ghost-hunting investigation. A Haunting at Travis Books contained no irrefutable proof of paranormal activity. But then, no films about the paranormal contained such proof.
“I assume that you were most interested in the second one,” Jason said now. A waitress in a colorful Indian sari brought them their entrees—tandori chicken with naan and saffron rice. 
“Good guess,” Simon said with a smile. “You showed a real intuitive grasp of the subject matter. Tell me, do you have a special interest in the supernatural?”
“Not really,” Jason said honestly. It was tempting to lie; but Jason figured that a man like Simon would be able to instantly spot a response that was sycophantically or opportunistically dishonest. “I have a special interest in making good films.”
“Fair enough,” Simon said, before putting a forkful of tandori chicken into his mouth. “But the project I have in mind for you is—as you might expect—supernatural in nature.”
Jason felt a pleasant tingle of excitement. Rose was finally coming to the point. 
“Have you ever heard of a stretch of road called the Shaman’s Highway? It’s located in Carey County, just a little past Osborn Lake State Park.”
Jason shook his head. “Can’t say as I have. But then, I’m not from around here. I grew up in Columbus. I’ve heard of Wagosh, though. Isn’t that in Carey County?”
“Another good guess,” Simon said. He removed an iPhone from his pocket and manipulated its screen for the better part of a minute. Then he laid the phone down on the tablecloth and scooted it toward Jason. 
The phone’s screen was filled with a Google Maps view that showed a stretch of U.S. Route 68 running south from Wagosh, Ohio. Jason picked out Osborn Lake State Park on the map view, as well as a few small towns lying south of Wagosh. “This is the Shaman’s Highway,” Rose said.
“It looks like a pretty remote area,” Jason observed.
“It is,” Rose said, taking the phone back. “About sixty miles northeast of here. As you probably know, central Ohio is fairly unpopulated to the east of I-71 between Cincinnati and Columbus. The area you would be walking through is rural. Note that I specified that you would have to complete the entire study on foot, for reasons that I shall explain shortly. There are houses and towns along the Shaman’s Highway, but you’d be a long way from the city—a long way from anything resembling a comfortable, brightly lit suburb. And you would be walking at night, through an area with a reputation for paranormal activity. Would that be a problem for you?”
Jason sensed a slight air of baiting in the question. “I’m not afraid of the dark.”
“That’s good, Jason. Mighty good, because a lot of people living in Carey County have been scared by the Shaman’s Highway late at night. And from what I hear, the majority of them were anything but cowards. When my team was conducting its initial research, we spoke to a 38-year-old man who had done two tours of duty in Iraq. He told us that nothing—not even a midnight patrol in Fallujah—had scared him as much as what he saw on that little stretch of U.S. Route 68. Now, are you still interested?”
Jason smiled. “I’m very interested, Mr. Rose. Let’s hear what you have in mind.”

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

ELEVEN MILES OF NIGHT: Chapter 1, Part 1

Nonstop supernatural terror for fans of Stephen King's early novels.

Jason Kelley is a young, struggling filmmaker looking for his first big break. When the semi-famous cable television ghost hunter Simon Rose approaches him about a freelance project, Jason is understandably thrilled. 

He isn’t fazed by the fact that his assignment is a walk down the Shaman’s Highway, an eleven-mile stretch of rural Ohio roadway that is reputed to be haunted by malevolent spirits, hellhounds, and demonic forces. Jason is an agnostic in regard to the supernatural. 

He isn’t prepared for the reality that awaits him on his walk through eleven miles of night—nor the more human violence and heartbreak that he will face along the way.

Four days earlier…

The portly, fortysomething stranger hailed Jason Kelley in the corridor of the University of Cincinnati’s Old Chemistry Hall, just as the latter was exiting Video Journalism 201. And Jason, oblivious, walked right by the unknown man without even slowing down.
Jason’s thoughts were still lost in the lecture that had just ended. The professor who taught Video Journalism 201, Dr. Reinhold, was a transplanted Californian, a PhD who had worked for a time with Universal Studios. Dr. Reinhold had feverishly lectured the class through the end of the hour, even though it was the last week of classes, and everyone was feeling lazy in the early June heat. That was Dr. Reinhold for you: He was passionate about his subject matter, unlike so many other profs, whom you could tell were only going through the motions. 
But school was not the only thing on Jason’s mind; and he immediately began to daydream about other matters. (This was why he did not hear when the stranger addressed him by name a second time amid the hum of the crowded university hallway.
Jason was daydreaming about Molly Russell. Molly was a coed who on one night several weekends ago had quite unexpectedly spent the night in his apartment. Thoughts of Molly simultaneously stirred feelings of deep longing and unease. Jason was aware of the paradoxical and contradictory nature of this combination of feelings, and was wondering how it could be so.
Jason was thinking about the way he had treated Molly since their encounter, and feeling guilty about it. Jason knew that he had been a bit of an insensitive jerk lately. He was also thinking about his mother and father; that meant even more feelings of guilt. 
And his sister, Amy—no, he didn't even want to think about Amy now.
Jason was about to walk around the corner of the hallway—the one that led to the main exit—when the stranger called out yet again.
Jason Kelley! Excuse me!
This time the sound of his own name snapped him out of his reverie. Jason stopped, turned around, and saw the source of the voice: an older man who looked somewhat out of place in the swirl of late teen and early twentysomething students.
“Hello?” Jason responded. Jason knew immediately that he had seen this man somewhere on television—or perhaps on the Internet. Jason was barely twenty-one years old, and he could count his middle-aged acquaintances on two hands—not including professors and relatives. This man, who was balding and had flecks of gray in his beard, was neither of the above.
“I thought you were going to keep walking,” the man went on. “I was beginning to wonder if I was going to have to run you down and tackle you.” These words were phrased as an offhand joke; but Jason could detect a slight ripple of irritation beneath the observation. This was obviously not a man who was used to being ignored.
“You are Jason Kelley, aren’t you?” the stranger said, when Jason continued to look confused. 
“I am,” Jason said neutrally. “And you are—”
Where have I seen this guy before? Somewhere, I’m sure. But I have no idea where.
“Ah,” the man said. “Allow me to introduce myself.” Clearly he had expected Jason to recognize him on sight; so he was obviously some sort of a celebrity—albeit a minor one, in all likelihood. 
“Thank you.”
“My name is Simon Rose. Does that name ring a bell?”
Simon Rose! Now Jason got it: 
“It sure does,” Jason said, brightening. “Of course I recognize you: Ghost Hunting with Simon Rose.”
“Guilty as charged,” Simon Rose said. He removed a business card from his shirt pocket and handed it to Jason. The business card contained Rose’s contact information, plus a little logo that featured a stylized cartoon ghost. “And I know this is strange, approaching you like this, but Dr. Hoffman said that I could find you here. With this being the last week of school and all, I wanted to make sure that I caught up with you before you took off for the summer.”
Jason nodded, his excitement growing. Now this was starting to make sense. Dr. Hoffman was his academic advisor. And this was indeed one of his last classes of the school year. He would be exiting his campus apartment in a matter of days, though his residence during the summer was still a contentious issue. That made him think of his parents again, and he quickly stifled those unpleasant thoughts. This was Simon Rose who had sought him out. Simon Rose of Ghost Hunting with Simon Rose.
Students milled about them, their pace and conversations buoyed by early June levity. A warm summer breeze swept into the corridor through a set of metallic doors that were propped open to allow a flux of students in both directions. To Jason’s surprise, no one else seemed to recognize Simon Rose, either. Cable television and the Internet had minted a lot of second-tier celebrities in recent years, Jason knew. 
Simon Rose’s domain was cable TV. Ghost Hunting with Simon Rose was a regular staple on the Biography Channel—or possibly TLC. (Jason couldn't remember which one for sure.) And, of course, both authorized and pirated clips of the show could be found throughout the Internet.
“I was very impressed with those two short films you entered in the Southern Ohio Regional Scholastic Film Competition last month,” Simon said. “No—I didn't attend the actual event; but I saw them on the Internet. You’ve got real talent, Jason. Now, I have a proposition for you. Would you, by chance, be free for lunch so that we might discuss it?”
“Absolutely,” Jason said. His next class was not until the late afternoon. And he would have gladly skipped it anyway. It wasn't everyday that a man like Simon Rose paid a personal visit to an Electronic Media major at a public university in Ohio.
“Perfect,” Rose said. “How does Indian sound?”

Wednesday, June 6, 2018



a corporate conspiracy thriller


Donnie Brady and I were both standing before the mirror in the men’s room on the third floor of the Thomas-Smithfield Electronics headquarters building. I was doing my best to ignore his presence, but I knew that he wasn't going to let me off that easy.
“So,” he began, “All that sucking up you’ve been doing has finally paid off.”
Donnie was about my age, give or take a year or two. We were both in our early thirties. The main difference between us was our relative sizes. I was five-ten and weighed maybe a hundred and sixty pounds soaking wet. Donnie was six feet, three inches tall. His frequent gym workouts were apparent even beneath the white fabric of his button-down oxford shirt. He usually left the top button of his shirt unbuttoned and worse his tie loose. His neck was that thick.
“I’ll take that as a congratulations on my promotion,” I replied. Truth be told, Donnie Brady made me more than a little uneasy—even before everything happened. He had always given off the aura of a hoodlum in business attire. But I wasn't going to back down; I was determined not to let him rattle my cage.
Donnie noisily expelled a puff of air out through his lips, a universal expression of sarcasm. 
“More like you’re just a big suck-up,” he said. He stopped checking his hair (although he was often disheveled, he was simultaneously vain about his appearance), and took a step closer to me. 
Donnie now towered over me, and I couldn't ignore the disparities in our heights, sizes, and physical strengths. I had thought that concerns about bullies were twenty years behind me, in the distant memories of junior high. Well, you just never know what aspects of childhood are going to come back to bite you in early middle age, do you?
I was still determined to hold my ground. “If you’ve got a problem with it, Donnie, talk to Sid Harper. Or talk to HR if you want to. Hell, I don’t care. You’d think I’d been promoted to president of the company. It’s a grade promotion. That’s all.”
Donnie was miffed because I had recently been promoted to senior buyer. This was, as I’d reminded him, a very low-key grade promotion. But it came with a modest bump in pay, and eventually it might mean a marginal level of authority. The promotion had been decided immediately prior to the company’s Christmas/year-end break; and it had gone into effect a week ago, the first week of the new year. 
I won't lie: I was more than a little happy to get the promotion. It was a small bright spot in what had otherwise been a depressing phase of my life. I had been downsized (or “right-sized”, or whatever they call it) out of my last job two years ago, about the time that my marriage had imploded. I was now living in Cincinnati, Ohio, and my ex-wife and daughter were living an hour away, in Dayton. 
Thomas-Smithfield was a snake pit of a company in many ways. There had been a series of upper-management shakeups; and the average employee didn't seem to be particularly happy. Well, I guess they call it “work” for a reason, right? Since joining the company barely a year ago, I had done my best to buckle down and work hard. Sid Harper, the manager over our purchasing group, had recognized and acknowledged my efforts. The grade promotion had been his idea. 
“You haven't been here as long as either Bethany or me,” Donnie said. “And you’re the one that gets the grade promotion. Explain to me how that happens.”
I was going to tell Donnie that it might have something to do with all the time he spent checking ESPN and on the Internet. Or maybe it was all the time that he and Bethany spent sneaking around, making out and fooling around in one of their cars during work hours. 
But mentioning those things might be going a bridge too far. I didn't want to escalate matters. I wasn't actively afraid of Donnie. But I avoided being alone with him when I could. I didn't know if he was capable of real violence. But I knew, even then, that he wouldn't be above keying the side of my vehicle in the company parking lot. 
“Like I said,” I told him, “I don’t decide who gets promoted. You got a problem with it, talk to HR or Sid.”
I turned to leave the men’s room. Donnie turned around, too. He stepped ahead of me, and cut me off, blocking my path to the exit.
“Maybe I’ve got a problem with you,” he said, throwing down the gauntlet. 
“I’ve got work to do,” I muttered. I brushed by him. It was then that I got a full sense of his height and strength. He didn't yield at all, and I had to squeeze myself between him and the wall.
But at least I didn't back down. I passed through the swinging restroom door and stepped out into the main office area, relieved to find that Donnie hadn't followed me, at least. 
I know what you’re thinking: Why didn't I go to HR about Donnie? Thomas-Smithfield, like every company in the litigious twenty-first century, had a lengthy and explicit set of policies that forbade all forms of bullying and harassment, or “hostile work environment”, in human resources parlance. 
The simple truth was that I didn't want to be wuss. My manhood had already been challenged by my unwanted divorce, and I wasn't going to let Donnie Brady humiliate me further—even if it meant getting my ass kicked one day in the parking lot after work.
How far was Donnie Brady prepared to go? I had no idea then. But I would soon find out. 

ELEVEN MILES OF NIGHT: Preface: The Bridge

Nonstop supernatural terror for fans of Stephen King's early novels.

Jason Kelley is a young, struggling filmmaker looking for his first big break. When the semi-famous cable television ghost hunter Simon Rose approaches him about a freelance project, Jason is understandably thrilled. 

He isn’t fazed by the fact that his assignment is a walk down the Shaman’s Highway, an eleven-mile stretch of rural Ohio roadway that is reputed to be haunted by malevolent spirits, hellhounds, and demonic forces. Jason is an agnostic in regard to the supernatural. 

He isn’t prepared for the reality that awaits him on his walk through eleven miles of night—nor the more human violence and heartbreak that he will face along the way.

Preface: The Bridge

He stepped into the darkness of the covered bridge and told himself: Only a few more miles to go, if only your nerves and your sanity hold out, that is. 
The inside of the bridge’s enclosure smelled of mold, mildew, and the unseen waters that ran beneath it. It had the dank, black feeling of the bottom of a well. 
As he placed one foot down on the first creaking plank of the bridge, he half-remembered a nightmare: a dream of an evil presence that was vaguely female—or no, that pretended to be female. She (it?) might be a ghost or possibly something much worse. And she was lying in wait for him, like the evil witch in the children’s story, Hansel and Gretel
He took another step into the all-consuming darkness. The wood creaked again, practically groaned this time. She’s waiting for you, he thought. Whatever she (or it) is, you’ll find out before you reach the other side of this bridge.
Now why would the sound of that creaking wood trigger such thoughts?
Then he remembered: Because she had told him that she would be waiting for him here. At the bridge.
He looked ahead and saw the moonlit pavement of the open road not a stone’s throw away. He could not go back now. Even worse things were waiting on the road behind him. He had to move forward.
Just walk, he thought. Take some long strides and you’ll be out of here in no time. 
And so he walked, observing how narrow the bridge was, and reflecting that surely two cars coming from opposite directions could not pass through here at the same time. 
The wood beneath his feet continued to creak, but that was nothing to worry about. The bridge supported the weight of cars, after all.
He heard a sound above him, from the rafters of the enclosure. It was like a hiss, like air escaping from a poorly tied balloon. Then he heard another sound: the sound of weight shifting, of something moving around up there.
Don’t look. Just keeping walking. If you look up there, what you see will drive you mad, even more so than the other things you’ve seen this night. 
He was now in the middle of the bridge; the open, starry sky and the solid pavement were only a few paces away. He could make it in a short dash.
The thing above him seemed to sense his impending flight. He heard it scratch against the wood overhead.
And now he had the feeling that he must look upward and confront it—that this was the central task that he had set out tonight to face. It would also be true to say that the malevolent presence aroused his darkest curiosity. Like Lot’s wife fleeing from the burning wreckage of Sodom, he felt compelled to see the worst, and suffer the consequences.
Slowly and deliberately, he stopped his forward trek, steeled himself, and looked up into the rafters of the covered bridge.