As I lay in bed in the dark (click) early hours the preacher man speaks to me over Geiger counter radio crackle (click… click), he tells me if I’m lonely and (click) tired of the silence the dead are always ready to talk, they’re always (click click) so, so hungry and they would love to devour me, too; he shows me the prison down the road like that’s where they live maybe (click… click click), do they congregate there? does the prison (click click) even have a cemetery? I don’t reply to him; instead I bury my face in the pillow and speak to my absent (click) gods, the Sun and Moon, I tell them I will sit in the silence (click click click) as long as it takes for them to answer me because they’re the only ones I want to talk to, not the hungry dead or this creepy preacher ghost-thing, but inside I know I’m afraid if I listen to the dead for too long I won’t be able to stop (click click clickclickclick clickclickclickclickclickclick —).
Are you coming to me?
What urges me to search for you here among the snow and ice? Why do I linger on the side of this dead mountain, straining to catch your voices on the wind, when you could never have been here? This isn’t your story. This isn’t your grave. So why this place, this time, this particular tragedy? Perhaps it is the mystery that draws me, the kinship I feel for those who will forever search in vain for a truth only the dead know. Or perhaps every place touched by death is a link to you, you who are death embodied, you who are ancient beyond comprehension, and those places become an access point or a portal or just another clue on my never ending scavenger hunt. Maybe; perhaps; possibly. At the end of the day all I know for sure is you are one of these mysteries too: a flicker of light at the corner of my eye, a single footstep in the frozen forest, a distant figure in the fog I cannot ever quite reach. Some part of you waits for me here at this bleak crime scene – so I kneel and dig.
Will you find me?
Will you find me?
They say to cross the Bridge of Ghosts you must wear a mask so the specters cannot recognize you and silver bells to disrupt their voices. If you do not wear a mask the spirits will take the form of those you love to lure you over the side. If you do not wear bells they will whisper lies in your ears until you take their words for truth and leap to your death. Even with these protections in place you must walk quickly and never stop until you reach safe earth on the other side. The mask and bells are no guarantee of protection.
No one crosses the Bridge of Ghosts without good reason. It spans a chasm high in the mountains where the wind wails and the cliff faces sharpen the gusts to knives. Nothing grows there. Nothing lives there. Nothing chooses to linger there longer than it must, for to linger is to tempt fate too boldly. Yet it is also said that if you cross the bridge successfully, never succumbing to the ghosts’ illusions or lies, you may at the other end ask them one question which they must answer truthfully. Such a reward has thus lead many, many fools to attempt the pass.
Someone stands now at one end of the bridge and the ghosts swirl hungrily in anticipation, appearing as a white mist which ascends from the valley far below to shroud the bridge and cliffs in wintry half-light. The traveler wears a finely wrought mask of silver with rays like the sun’s with bright little bells tinkling softly from each point. One foot moves to step out onto the bridge; the spirits take up their howling din. They cannot physically touch the man and so they seek to stop him with trickery, yet the mask and bells render the deceptions powerless.
The traveler thus passes through the fog with ease, never faltering, never fearing, and arrives safely at the other side of the bridge. As he removes the mask he speaks to the empty air, “Did you keep your promise?” Behind him a familiar voice answers, “Yes. I have waited long for you.” The traveler turns back to the bridge to find his lover standing upon it with arm extended. “I am here now,” he responds. He steps forward and they join hands; both disappear, leaving behind only the fallen mask.
“You must be Kaylie! Hi!” The grinning young woman who answered the door was not precisely what Kaylie had been expecting. The name Fox Hollow implied uniforms and scowling adults, maybe even servants or something, not some girl in a sweatshirt and yoga pants. “Um.” Kaylie shifted her backpack from one shoulder to the other and managed a wavering smile. “Hi?” She shook the girl’s extended hand and absolutely nothing weird or paranormal or scary happened. Kaylie didn’t know if she was disappointed or relieved.
“I’m Stephanie; I’ll be your group leader this year,” The girl released Kaylie’s hand and stepped back, opening the door wide so the eleven year old could enter. “Come on in. Welcome to Fox Hollow, we’re so excited you’ll be joining us.” As Kaylie stepped over the threshold the draft brought Stephanie’s scent to her and she froze. “Wait,” she did a double take as if Stephanie might have been switched with someone else, “you’re a werewolf?!” The older girl nodded and laughed. “Wow, you have a good nose on you! Yeah, there are five of us here – well, six now that you’re here.” With that she turned and gestured toward a staircase in the front entry of the house. “Come on, I’ll show you your room.”
As Kaylie followed Stephanie up to the third floor, she craned her neck to take in as much of her new home as possible. Each landing of the staircase entered into a sort of common room from which hallways full of doors branched. In the first common room two teenage girls were playing checkers while a third sat reading on the floor. None of them looked, well, weird, but Kaylie had to remind herself that she didn’t look weird on the outside either… except on full moons. The checkers girls didn’t look up as Stephanie and Kaylie passed, but the reader did; when she flashed them a smile, she had far more pointy teeth than most humans.
“Your room will be on the third floor,” Stephanie explained as they reached the landing. “You’ll have a roommate every year, but since you’re coming late in the season you’ve already been assigned someone. Her name is Maddy, she’s super nice. I think you guys will love each other.” They passed through the common room and headed down the hallway. Kaylie sneaked quick glances into any of the open doorways, eager to see more of the kids she would be living with. As she passed one open door, though, she caught the gaze of an older teenage girl. She was utterly beautiful – straight platinum hair, flawless pale skin, skinny and fit – but when she caught sight of Kaylie she scowled in disgust and turned away. “Eww,” she could be heard commenting to someone out of sight, “another werewolf? I swear they were way pickier about their students when my mom went here.”
Kaylie stopped dead in her tracks. Stephanie kept walking for a beat or two, then stopped and glanced back at the girl’s queasy face. She sighed and knelt down next to her. “Don’t let Amber get to you,” she said, quiet yet firm. “I promise not all the vampires here are so stuck up. She’s just… old blood. And wants to make sure everyone knows it.” She knuckled Kaylie gently on the arm. “Don’t worry, you’re gonna love it here.” She rose and held out her hand. Normally Kaylie would never hold an adult’s hand – she wasn’t a baby anymore! – but in that moment she needed the firm tether to keep her from falling into fear’s clutches. She gripped Stephanie’s hand and they walked the last stretch to a closed door.
“Maddy,” Stephanie called as she knocked, “your new roomie’s here!” She smiled reassuringly down at Kaylie. Somewhere within the room, a muffled voice called, “Come in!” and Stephanie opened the door. “Maddy,” she introduced them with a flourish, “this is Kaylie. Kaylie, this is Maddy; she’s been here a year now, so she can teach you all the tricks and tips.” She winked at the eager young girl standing in the center of the extremely tidy room. “Take good care of her. But don’t get so excited that you forget your homework, though, okay?”
“Okay, okaaaay,” Maddy bounced on the balls of her feet in anticipation. “Now go, I wanna show her everything!” Laughing, Stephanie gave them both a thumbs-up and headed back downstairs. Maddy turned her attention to Kaylie and tried for what she hoped was a friendly smile. “Hi! I’m so glad you’re finally here. It’ll be nice to have a roommate again.” She turned, then glanced back over her shoulder. “Oh, can you shut the door?”
“Sure,” Kaylie shut the door and followed Maddy into the room. She had always been taught to shake hands with someone you meet, as a sign of respect, so she held out her hand to the other girl. “It’s nice to meet you, Maddy. I’m Kaylie. Um, like Stephanie said, I guess.” Maddy stared down at her proffered hand and for a second Kaylie was sure the girl thought she was totally weird and a loser. Then Maddy held out her own hand – and passed it directly through Kaylie’s, with only a sudden cold shock as evidence of the contact. “Sorry, I can’t shake hands,” Maddy explained with an apologetic smile. “One of those awkward parts about being a ghost.”
“You’re a ghost?” Kaylie realized she had nearly yelled, and forced her voice back to an inside level. “That’s so cool, I’ve always wanted to meet a ghost!” Maddy shook her head. “No way, you’re a werewolf, that’s way cooler!” They argued back and forth until they were both overcome with a serious case of the giggles, and by then it was time for dinner.
In the end, money makes the whole thing almost embarrassingly easy. Money buys his housekeeper’s silence while she diligently washes away the red stains on carpet, bed, and walls. Money secures him a private jet and a wave through customs without so much as a glance into the bag on his shoulder. Money buys an opulent room in a pricey Parisian hotel just blocks from one of the catacomb entrances. And money averts the eyes of the security guard who lets him into the catacombs after dark and then takes a long, long break.
With only a flashlight for illumination, Tanim winds his way through the catacombs, seeking an area where even the bravest tour groups don’t dare explore. He finally comes to a dead-end chamber, its earthen floor untouched by footprints, and here he sets down the bag he has guarded so carefully on his journey.
“Catacombs? Really? That’s hardly creative; you could have just left me in a cemetery back home,” Tanim pointedly keeps his gaze lowered, refusing to glance in the direction of the lazy, mocking voice. Instead, he opens his bag and begins unloading its contents, setting each white bone on the ground with care. Over his shoulder he replies in a similarly mocking tone, “What better place to hide human bones than in plain sight among thousands of their fellows?” Withdrawing the last bone, a lovingly preserved skull, Tanim finally turns to his companion. “Besides, you’ll have company here. You can bother the other ghosts and scare tourists. I’m sure you’ll like that.”
From the entrance of the little chamber, Daren frowns and crosses his arms. “I much prefer haunting you, darling. These past few weeks have been quite enjoyable for me.”
“Yes,” Tanim sighs, setting down the skull, “so I know. But no more. If you won’t stay dead, you can at least stay away from me.” He glances around as if taking one last look at his lover’s final resting place. “I suppose this is goodbye for a second time, then.” He sneers at the specter. “And the last time.”
“Not so fast,” Daren holds up one white hand and takes a step into the chamber. His arrogant mouth curls in a sly smile, half teasing and half pouting. “Wouldn’t you like to stay a while? Reminisce about old times?”
“Not particularly,” Tanim scowls, impatient to be away but refusing to leave Daren with the last word. “I’ll be glad to leave those old times behind me – along with you, beloved.” The word is uttered like a curse or a slur, stripped of all the love and affection with which it was once spoken. Daren only laughs. “Oh, I don’t think so,” he taunts, grinning as another step brings him closer to Tanim. “See, because you took my life, I have the ability to haunt you, to torment you however I like – yet I can’t touch you. Incorporeality can be so frustrating. But this place…” He gestures to encompass the whole of the catacombs, arm outstretched as if to touch the walls themselves. “There’s more power in these tunnels than you can possibly imagine. Bringing me here was a very, very bad idea.” Daren’s fingers brush the brown bones cemented in the wall; dust and dirt crumble away at his touch, but Tanim doesn’t notice this crucial detail. “So won’t you stay a little longer, my love? Even for just one last kiss?”
The ghost closes the distance between them, one hand snaking around Tanim’s waist, the other cupping his face. Tanim tries to pull away but it’s too late, and Daren’s grip is like iron. Then the hand on his cheek slides into his hair and drags his head to the side, and the mouth that bends to his bared neck is very wide and full of teeth.
– – –
The body isn’t discovered for several days, not until the local cataphiles hold another rave deep within the tunnels. At first they mistake it for a prank; after all, you’re clearly supposed to think the skull with its wide red grin was the cause of the ragged hole in the dead man’s throat, and how exactly could that happen? On closer inspection, however, the body’s decomposition appears quite real and the skull is markedly fresher than the ones which shape the catacomb walls. Unfortunately, by the time the police are finally summoned the scene has been contaminated beyond recognition. There’s no way to tell which set of footprints belongs to the murderer, and the officers refuse to believe the drunk, spooked teenagers when they swear only one set of footprints led to the body, and none away.
They say spirits cannot cross running water; so what happens if someone dies in between? What if some person still closer to boy than man, desperately fleeing a life he escaped once and to which he won’t let himself be dragged back, plunges into the river? The river that crashes forth from the mountains, tumbles through the foothills, and slips with placid power through the town where this not-boy, not-man came of age? What if he relinquishes himself eagerly to the black water’s undertow just as his pursuer, this one more man than boy but still young enough to think love can fix anything, reaches the edge of the sandy bank? What if something happens – maybe he dives purposefully, maybe he slips, maybe the bank gives way under his weight – and suddenly the river has claimed two lives, washing the empty bodies far downstream from where they met their end? What if all this happened in the span of a breath; what would become of these doomed spirits? Trapped within the very water they cannot cross, would they be fated to remain in the river itself, caught forever within the icy current? Would their voices cry out in the thunder of the rapids, unable to ever find the peace they were also denied in life?
Don’t tell me what happened to Amelia Earhart, D. B. Cooper, or the crew of the Mary Celeste. I don’t want to know.
Don’t explain why there are stairs in the middle of nowhere or plane-hungry triangles out at sea, rows of lights in the sky or holy faces appearing in rock, plaster, linoleum, clouds. I don’t want to know.
Don’t try to convince me The Wreck of the Titan was just some crazy coincidence or that famous black and white picture just a grainy snapshot of a floating log. Let some of the mysteries remain.
Let people disappear without a trace; let the wilderness swallow up whole ships, planes, settler communities, and leave behind only a word carved into a tree to prove they ever existed.
Let Tutankhamen’s curse sleep in infamy. Let the Chupacabra skulk through Mexican jungles. Let the Flying Dutchman live to haunt another day.
Is it so bad, not to know the truth?