* * *Amazon promotional blurb:
"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."
Eleven Miles of Night
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.
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.
“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?”
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.”
* * *
Text entry entitled “The Shaman’s Highway”, from the paranormal website, HauntingsinOhio.com.
“Between the small city of Wagosh, Ohio and the town of John’s Mistake, there lies an eleven-mile section of U.S. Route 68 that locals refer to as ‘the Shaman’s Highway.’ Over the past one hundred years, there have been numerous reports of paranormal phenomena along this roadway. These include unexplained voices and sounds coming from the surrounding woods, and sightings of ghostlike apparitions, hellhounds, and various other unidentified creatures. Near the southern terminus of the Shaman’s Highway, there is a nineteenth-century covered bridge that is believed to be haunted by the spirit of a witch. The witch reportedly lived in the area around the time of the Civil War.
In 1997, a Carey County Sheriff’s Deputy was interviewed by the Columbus Dispatch regarding the road’s reputation. “South of Wagosh, Route 68 drops off into a remote part of the countryside. It’s a section of road that will play games with your imagination if you aren’t careful,” Deputy John Porter stated.
There are several theories that are commonly cited as explanations for the disturbing occurrences. Carey County, Ohio was home to multiple Native American tribes prior to widespread European settlement of the area—most notably the Shawnee. When Route 68 was paved in the early 1930s to accommodate vehicle traffic, workers reported finding Native American artifacts, including arrowheads, shards of clay pottery, and stone amulets. There are also unconfirmed reports of skulls and other human bones being unearthed during the roadwork. This has led to speculation that a Shawnee burial ground may have been located in the area.
Another theory links the strange sightings to rumored satanic cult activity during the 1960s and 1970s. In the mid-1970s there were persistent stories about satanic rituals being carried out in an unspecified part of the woods along the same portion of the highway. These reports, like those of the unearthed human remains and the burial ground, were never confirmed.”
* * *
As Simon Rose finished his description of the Shaman’s Highway and its history, Jason feared that the hint of a repressed smile would show on his face. Jason did not define himself as a coldly rational atheist. To the extent that such matters occurred to him at all, he supposed that he would have acquiesced to the existence of God and the human soul. However, Simon’s story was over the top.
“I sense a skeptic in the room,” Simon said without a trace of resentment. No doubt the ghost-hunter was accustomed to dealing with skeptics.
“Well, I—” Jason began, struggling to decide how honestly he should respond.
“No hemming and hawing,” Simon preempted him. “Just so you know, your belief in the supernatural—or lack thereof—is in no way a prerequisite for your participation in this project, which I’ll outline in detail shortly. For now, I want you to tell me what you think. Be honest.”
“Okay, then,” Jason said. “Here goes: I can accept the idea—in theory, that is—of a wayward spirit, or some sort of residual energy from a past event producing a rapping on a wall, or maybe even traces of an apparition. I can deal with the notion of words being articulated on EVP recordings, and unexplained cold air pockets in rooms where a person was murdered or committed suicide. But dead witches and a who’s who assembly of spirits haunting a highway? And hellhounds? I’m sorry Mr. Rose, but it all strains my sense of credibility. I don’t know exactly what a hellhound is, but it doesn't sound like something that’s likely to exist in the woods of Ohio.”
Simon laughed indulgently, his good humor not yet flagging. “The hellhound,” he said. “Is a universal element in folklore. In one form or another, the creature can be traced all the way back to the Ancient Greek myths. Have you ever heard of the three-headed dog known as Cerberus? The Greeks and the Romans believed that it guarded the gateway to the underworld, and kept those who had crossed the River Styx from escaping back into the world of the living. Multiple iterations on the theme of the hellhound can be found throughout the world, from the Barghest of northern England, to the black cadejo of Latin America.”
“Fair enough,” Jason said. “But hellhounds in Ohio? You’ll pardon me if I say that it all sounds a little bit hard to accept.”
Simon chuckled. “I can see that I don’t have to worry about you being overly credulous. That’s okay. I’ve often found that some of the best ghost hunters are skeptics, anyway. And certainly there would be a problem if you were too eager to believe. But let me tell you now what I have in mind, exactly. Are you physically fit, Jason?”
The question surprised Jason somewhat. “I ran track in high school,” he said. “My event was the two-mile. I went to the state finals my senior year.”
“Excellent,” Simon replied. “Then you would have no trouble walking eleven miles. And an eleven-mile walk is exactly what this project entails. My crew will drop you off just south of Wagosh shortly after dusk on the day of the film project. Then you’ll hike the eleven miles to the end of the Shaman’s Highway. Along the way, you’ll document your findings with notes, video, and whatever sound recordings you can gather.”
“I’ll be walking by myself”? Jason asked. “Without a crew?”
Simon smiled. “I thought you said that you didn't believe in any of this stuff.”
“I’m not scared,” Jason clarified. “What I’m worried about is the video quality. As you know, you can’t shoot a good film without the proper equipment: a professional camcorder with a 64-gigabyte or so hard drive, boom mics, lighting, etc. I can’t carry all of that with me.”
Simon shook his head. “Don't worry about that. What I have in mind is more like an eyewitness video, the sort of thing you see uploaded onto sites like YouTube. I understand going in that the footage you’ll be able to gather will be fragmentary and incomplete. I figure you should be able to carry a prosumer camcorder with you. You’ll need something that has night-vision capabilities, though.”
“My Sony has night vision,” Jason said. “But it’s like you said, ‘prosumer’—not the sort of camcorder that you would ordinarily use for television. The audio is decent but not completely clean. There may be some static. And the hard drive isn’t big enough to record the three to four hours that it will take me to walk eleven miles. I’ll need to be selective about what I capture.”
“That’s fine,” Rose said. “Do what you can. The point here isn’t to generate hours and hours of footage. Film as much as you can. Just get me something. Hopefully something that I can use on the show.”
“I don’t understand, Mr. Rose,” Jason said. “Why are you doing it this way? I mean, I don't want to sound ungrateful, because I am. This is an excellent opportunity for me. But why don't you simply bring in your regular crew, and have them do a walk under full lights, with all the video equipment you need in a pickup truck?”
“An excellent question,” Rose replied. “When I saw those films of yours, I knew right away that you’re a young filmmaker who knows how to identify and ask the proper questions. And so I’ll give you an answer: I filmed the Shaman’s Highway last year with a full crew, and we saw nothing. Just a dark wooded highway that was a little spooky, but completely devoid of any concrete phenomena.”
“So why not have a member of your crew complete the walk solo?”
“It all comes down to manpower, logistics, and scheduling. If you watch our show, it might seem that we function in an ad hoc, random sort of way; but that really isn’t the case. We plan projects out months in advance. Our second attempt at the Shaman’s Highway—what I intend to hire you for—has been on the schedule for nearly nine months. It isn’t the only project on the schedule, though. This week most of my team will be shooting down in Tennessee, investigating a house where a man murdered his wife and two children in 1965. The house is said to be crawling with malevolent presences. So the Shaman’s Highway project, while important, is not at the top of the priority list. I can spare only two crew members for Carey County. One is a pregnant woman; and the other is a somewhat overweight and out-of-shape man who would be unable to complete an eleven-mile walk. You can see, then, Jason, why I want to outsource this job to you: You have the right mix of video and journalistic skills, physical fitness, and, I hope, availability.”
“I should be available,” Jason said. “What is the timing for the project?”
“This weekend. Friday night, in fact. The timing is important because the road is said to be more spiritually active during the full moon. The full moon arrives this Friday night—about a hundred hours from now.”
Jason contemplated the upcoming weekend. What else did he have going on? That reminded him of Molly Russell; and now he had one more reason to accept Simon Rose’s offer—provided that the pay was right, of course.
“Everything sounds good,” Jason said. “I can be available this Friday. I have only one question, really.”
Rose smiled. “Of course you do; and I know what it is: Your compensation as a subcontractor on this project will be $2,000, plus expenses,” Simon said. “The walk itself should take about four hours, with an additional hour for the post-walk interview.”
That’s $400 per hour, Jason thought. It was money that he could definitely use. His financial resources were minimal—a combination of loans and part-time work, and a partial scholarship that he had cobbled together. His parents, despite their declaration of best wishes for his educational endeavors, had been unable to provide him with any financial assistance. The two of them were barely able to take care of themselves, after all.
“That will be satisfactory,” Jason said, recalling again those admonitions against displays of excessive eagerness.
“Excellent,” Simon said. The waitress brought the bill for lunch. Jason reached for his wallet and Simon waved him still. “Lunch is on me,” the semi-famous filmmaker said.
Jason spent the rest of the afternoon in a daze, unable to fully believe his good luck. He even had difficulty concentrating on the content of his three o’clock lecture—which was usually one of his favorites. While the professor droned on, Jason found himself planning his attack on the Shaman’s Highway. He even began a bit of initial research, furtively using the Internet connection on his smart phone. He abandoned this effort when the lecturer abruptly stopped talking and gave him an imperious stare, accompanied by a you’ve-been-caught look. Jason nodded apologetically and returned the phone to his pocket. Real research on the Shaman’s Highway would have to wait until later. The professor harrumphed and resumed his commentary on the impact of citizen journalism on professional filmmaking.
After his three o’clock class, Jason began walking in the direction of his off-campus apartment, a little cubbyhole on Martin Luther King Avenue. The apartment consisted of one main room plus a kitchenette and a bathroom, tucked away in the rear of a partially renovated row house that was at least seventy years old. It was not the best neighborhood. Jason’s car, a creaking, rust-dappled 1997 Ford Taurus, had been broken into on two occasions. The one thing that kept the Taurus free from further break-ins, Jason guessed, was that a car so old would not be expected to contain anything worth stealing. Even inner-city thieves would be able to discern that much.
He was mounting the concrete staircase leading to his apartment when his cell phone began to ring. As he half-expected and half-feared, the number that showed up on the cell phone’s incoming call screen was his mother’s.
“Jason?” his mother asked when he pushed the talk button.
“Sure is. How are you doing, Mom?”
“I’m doing fine, Jason. How about you?”
“Great. Just finishing up the school year.” He focused on making his tone as measured and neutral as possible. He knew that at any second, his mother would subject him to the full barrage of a guilt trip.
“I haven’t heard from you for a while,” she said. And there it was: the guilt trip. So predictable.
“I’ve been sort of busy, Mom. A lot’s been going on. Finals and all.”
“I see. I see. That’s all right, son. Your father and I want you to focus on your schoolwork. That’s the most important thing at this stage of your life.”
“Thanks for being so understanding.”
“Like you said, though, the school year is coming to a close, and I was wondering if you’ve given any more thought to coming home for the summer. Your room is still open.”
Jason had known even as he answered the phone that this would be the purpose of her call. She had been alternately pestering and cajoling him about this since March.
“Well,” Jason said. “I was actually thinking of staying here in Cincinnati for the summer. I have to give up my off-campus apartment in another week; but one of my buddies has arranged for a place just north of town. There will be four of us, so the rent payments won’t come to much.”
This much was true. Ethan Radloff, one of the guys he had made friends with at UC, had secured a lease on an apartment in the Kenwood section of Cincinnati. Jason had stopped by one afternoon to check the location out. On this first and only visit, he had immediately noticed the apartment complex’s pool, and the half dozen or so twenty-something females sunbathing on its concrete banks. The apartment looked like a winner—at least for summer digs.
“And I was still hoping that you might come home for the summer,” his mother went on. “Remember our old neighbor—Bob Marsh? Well, he’s the news director at WBNS now. I sent him an email the other day, telling him about that film competition you entered. He looked up your films on the Internet, and he was very impressed. He said that he can get you a paid summer internship in the video department at the station, if you’d be interested.”
Jason thought for a moment. He had lined up a summer job working on a landscaping crew. This was about as far removed from the worlds of film production and video journalism as one could possibly get; but the pay was decent and he would get paid for spending the entire summer outdoors.
Still, what his mother was proposing was, in fact, a better opportunity. But that would mean spending the summer in close proximity to his parents and their problems—his father’s alcoholism, and his mother’s inability to deal with his father’s alcoholism.
“I know what you’re thinking,” his mother added hastily. “I know that your last few years of high school were less than pleasant, with your father’s drinking.”
“No,” said Jason. “My last few years of high school were hell. My father was a history teacher at the school I attended, and he was fired for coming to work intoxicated.”
“Your father is really trying,” she said. “He’s been going to AA meetings every week for six months now. He hasn't had so much as a single drink in all that time.”
I’m glad for him, Jason almost said in his most biting tone. Maybe he can manage not to get fired from his next teaching job for coming to work with the smell of Jim Beam on his breath.
But instead Jason said: “That’s good to hear, Mom.”
“And that’s all the more reason why I was hoping you’d be able to come home for the summer, so that we could all be together. Like a real family again. Amy is going to be here.”
This last remark was another predictable form of emotional leverage. His sister, Amy, was also a student at UC. Jason found it impossible not to love Amy, and impossible not to be constantly annoyed by her. Amy was two years younger than him, and yet she persisted in playing the role of the older, more responsible sibling. She had seemingly followed him from Columbus to the University of Cincinnati; and on more than one occasion Jason had flirted with the idea of transferring to another university—just to get away from her.
Of course my sister Amy is going to be there, Jason thought. Amy is majoring in sainthood and minoring in martyrdom. She’ll let you and Dad emotionally leech off her until she’s old enough to collect Social Security.
“It’s just that we would really like to have you here,” his mother said. “And I know that it would mean a lot to your father to have you around.”
“Mom,” Jason said. “You’re forty-five years old and Dad is forty-seven years old. You’re adults. You should be able to handle your own problems. I’m barely into my twenties. Cut me some slack here, okay?”
“I understand,” she said. Jason could sense that his last remark had stung. “And we have had a tendency to sort of dump our problems on you over these last few years.”
I’m glad you at least realize that, Jason wanted to say, but held his tongue.
“Let’s just forget about that,” he said. “I survived. You guys did, too.”
“And now we have a chance to be a family again, to pick up where things left off.”
Jason fumed silently. Could his mother not understand that he didn't want to “pick up where things left off?” He was out of their house now; and he was making a start on an independent life. He didn't want to revisit the sorry dramas of his recently expired adolescence—the late-night screaming matches between his parents, the sinking feeling he sometimes felt during family meals, when he would look across the table at his father and know that his old man was drunk again, counting the bites until he would have his plate cleaned and could excuse himself to the solace of his bedroom.
“Let me get back to you on that, Mom,” Jason said. “But I’ve got to be going now, okay? Someone is waiting for me,” he lied. There was no one waiting for him. But he didn't want to talk to his mother any longer.
The discomforting conversation with his mother over, Jason opened the door of his apartment. As always, the lock required some jiggling. The apartment’s air was tinged with the musty old smells that predictably accompanied cheap studio apartments in the campus district. Students had been living in this tiny space since before he was born—before his parents were born, for that matter. That meant decades of cheap meals being cooked without adequate ventilation, and insufficient housekeeping. Thousands of cigarettes—both the legal as well as the illegal kind. Not to mention all the sex that had probably taken place within these walls.
Then he thought about Molly Russell, and felt himself drifting into another guilt trip—this time a self-inflicted one. He would not go down that path, he decided. Not now.
The green threadbare carpet, the second-hand furniture, and the pockmarked plaster walls all suggested a living quarters where there was nothing of value that would interest a thief. It was an image that Jason took pains to preserve, given the relative likelihood of a break-in in this neighborhood. In the far corner of the main room was a folding card table that appeared to be a way station for laundry, piled as it was with towels, gym clothes, and similar items. This was an artifice that Jason hoped would dissuade a burglar from engaging in further investigation. Walking over to the table, he pushed the stacks of folded laundry aside and removed the item lying beneath the clothing: a silvery MacBook Pro that had cost him about two months worth of a student’s meager wages.
The MacBook Pro was essential for filmmaking. It contained the software that he used to edit and develop digital movie files. It contained Adobe Photoshop for still graphics, Premiere Pro and After Effects for video production, plus several more software programs that modified audio files, and facilitated the burning of professional-quality DVDs.
As he carried the computer to his kitchen table, he savored its heft and reminded himself to handle the MacBook with care. There was a lot of money in this little six-pound package—an investment that he could ill-afford to lose to an accident or a thief.
For his present task, however, he would need nothing but the MacBook’s wireless Internet capabilities. He typed a Google query that included the terms “Shaman’s Highway,” “Carey County,” and “Ohio.” The results included a full page of links to various websites—mostly independently run hobbyist sites. While doing some preliminary research for A Haunting at Travis Books, Jason had learned that most of the supernaturally oriented Internet consisted of such amateur endeavors. Nevertheless, the spirit gurus and weekend ghost hunters were dedicated amateurs, and their websites were often treasure troves of information.
A website called HauntingsinOhio.com contained extensive entries about the eleven-mile section of road, spread out over several pages. A ghost-hunting group based in Columbus had documented their investigation of the Shaman’s Highway on their website as well. Like Simon Rose, they had attacked the road with every available implement of modern technology, including professional video equipment. But the hellhounds and the other spooks had not shown, almost as if they were camera shy. The Columbus ghost hunters had nothing to show for their efforts but some EMF readings that were ambiguous at best.
This would further explain Simon Rose’s plan of sending him on his hike without a backup crew and with minimal equipment. It was almost as if Simon were trying to fool whatever supernatural forces might exist on the Shaman’s Highway into showing themselves.
“They probably didn't show themselves because they don't exist in the first place,” Jason said aloud to himself. While agnostic on the issue of the supernatural’s existence, Jason believed that the lurid tales that showed up on sites like HauntingsinOhio.com were nothing more than urban legends. Certain places were naturally spooky, either because of their history or their isolation. Then all it took was a semi-plausible story and gullible legions of ghost enthusiasts who were eager to believe in this stuff.
The websites (and a few Wikipedia articles that he scanned) told Jason that Carey County, Ohio, had been settled around 1810, mostly by Quakers. The Quakers, though, had not been the first people to inhabit Carey County. In ancient times, Carey County had been part of the Adena Native American culture; and after the Adena came the Shawnee. The Shawnee had been pushed off the land not long after Ohio’s statehood in 1803. When the Indians departed, they left their dead behind. Native American burial sites dotted the area.
Two hundred years later, the county was still mostly rural, and filled with vast, unpeopled swaths of woodlands. There would be farmhouses dating back to the pre-Civil War era, and old churchyards filled with headstones from the nineteenth century. Carey County was the kind of place that was practically begging for a ghost story. Throw in some dark and unverified rumors of cult activity, and you had a locale that made the imagination run wild. But that didn't mean that there was anything in those woods to be concerned about, aside from the occasional black bear or feral dog.
He heard his cell phone ringing. This time it was not his mother, but Molly Russell.
I’d might as well answer it, he thought.
“How are you doing, Molly?”
“Not so well,” she said. “You’ve been avoiding me. Why don’t you just come out and be honest with me, Jason—instead of simply refusing to take my phone calls?”
“Molly,” he said. “You’ve got it all wrong.”
“I don't think so.”
“I’ve been busy. The end of the semester and all.”
“Jason,” she said. “I’ve left you half a dozen messages in the past week. You haven’t returned a single one. Then I saw you on campus the other day, and you turned away from me and walked in the other direction.”
Jason sighed. He knew that this was true. From across one of the university’s main quadrangles, Jason had clearly seen Molly Russell walking in his direction. For a brief second, the two of them had made eye contact, in a moment of mutual recognition. Although the distance separating them had been much too wide for conversation, Molly had partially opened her mouth as if to say something.
And then Jason had turned away from her and begun walking abruptly in another direction.
Why had he done it? He couldn't say, exactly. It had been a nearly involuntary, reflexive reaction.
“Molly,” he said. “I’ve been meaning to call you. I’ve just been busy.”
“Liar!” she said. He could hear the tears in her voice. She was right: He was lying. But he was lying in an attempt to save her feelings, and—he also realized—to spare himself a confrontation with certain aspects of himself. Aspects of himself that he did not like.
“What do you think I am?” she asked. “Someone you can just use and toss away?”
“You went home with me,” he said. “I mean, don’t get me wrong: I like you and all. But I thought it was just a hookup sort of thing. That happens on campus, you know.”
Jason knew that he did not sound very convincing. What had happened between him and Molly was not just another hookup. For going on two years, the two of them had been very close friends. They had met in an anthropology class that both of them had been taking for a general studies requirement.
Molly was a business administration major, and the polar opposite of Jason in many ways. But the two of them had hit it off, though not exactly in romantic terms—not at first, anyway. Jason had sensed from the beginning that Molly had a rigidly methodical approach to life. She was the sort of person who had been thinking about her college options and consciously preparing for the SAT since her freshman year of high school. That sort of girl would not come from a dysfunctional family with an alcoholic father.
And sure enough, she had not: Jason soon discovered that Molly’s parents were both CPAs, both type-A high achievers who had raised Molly and her two siblings to be the same. Jason could tell that Molly liked him—as girls from uptight, high-achiever backgrounds often did. His understated good looks and veneer of a carefree nature often appealed to girls from good families who had been too rigidly channeled down the pathways of conventional success. The schtick of being a budding filmmaker completed the image. He projected just the right amount of roguishness. He was outside the lines of upper middle-class respectability that girls like Molly were taught to admire. At the same time, he was not beyond the hope of eventual redemption. With a bit of work and the influence of the right girl, he might still be molded into a sensible accountant or an insurance company executive.
This was exactly what caused him to fear Molly, even as he was drawn to her. He knew that his filmmaking was his first love; and if a relationship with a woman ever forced him to give that up, a part of him would die a slow and agonizing death. Worse yet, torn from his true ambition, he would likely go the way of his father: into some sort of an addiction.
Jason knew that his father had never wanted to be a high school history teacher; he had always wanted to be a novelist. Throughout Jason’s childhood years, the shelves in his father’s study had been filled with back issues of Writer’s Digest, and classic how-to writing books like Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. When Jason was a small child, his dad would disappear into the study every night after dinner, where he typed away on what he hoped would become saleable work. Jason had never learned what sort of novel, exactly, his father was working on. When the subject of his father’s novel came up in conversation between his parents—as it sometimes did—they both referred to it simply as “the novel,” or even more vaguely: “the book.” For all Jason knew, it might have been anything from an espionage tale to a gothic romance (though Jason strongly doubted the latter). He also didn't know how far the work had progressed—if it was sitting in a drawer somewhere, or perhaps on the hard drive of the ancient PC that occupied the desk in the study. His father’s old computer might still be running Windows 95 or 98, for all Jason knew. It also likely contained the stillborn remnants of Randall Kelley’s dream.
After a few years of effort, his father had stopped disappearing into the study at night. Instead he lingered in the family room, grading student term papers while watching TV, or playing with him and Amy. Because that was what married men with families did. They didn't pour themselves into making films or writing books or changing the world. They worked all day at dull but dependable jobs that they either hated or grimly tolerated, and then at night they dedicated their last waking hours to their spouses and children. Some men did fine with that life prescription, and Jason figured that some were even happy with it. But clearly his father had not been cut out for it, or he would not have started drinking within a few years of giving up writing.
Filmmaking was a lot like writing. It was a tournament endeavor in which a small number of players reaped large rewards, and the vast majority subsisted on a steady diet of Chef Boyardee beefaroni and ramen noodles. It wasn't the sort of life that you could chain a woman like Molly to—not until you’d made it.
Achieve your dreams and then get married, he had determined. That means you have to be careful of Molly Russell. Of course, Molly Russell was not exactly corralling him to the altar. At the time he made this resolution, in fact, they had been nothing more than friends. But he knew that he already liked Molly a great deal. That meant that if things progressed beyond the friendship stage with her, he would fall and he would fall hard. Better for now to stick to the vacuous girls, the ones who didn't challenge him and didn't make him even contemplate the possibility of assuming the roles of responsible husband and provider.
One afternoon, as he and Molly were talking over a shared lunch of sandwiches and soft drinks in the university center, Jason had broached the subject of Molly’s long-term plans. This was long before he had slept with her, but long after he realized that he had feelings for her. Jason had wanted to see if he could possibly have his proverbial cake and eat it, too. In the middle of a conversation about cranky professors and term papers, Jason abruptly elicited Molly’s innermost notions of her future. He felt that he needed to know.
“Where do you see yourself in five years?” he asked with mock casualness.
“What is this? A scholarship application? Or maybe a job interview?”
“No, I’m just curious.”
“Have you been in contact with my parents? Did they hire you to check up on me?”
“Not quite. Really, I’m only curious. Are you going to tell me that you haven’t thought about it?”
She sighed, resigned. “Okay. I guess I would see myself working at my career—assuming the economy and the job market improve, of course. I’ll be on the downhill run to thirty by then, not a kid anymore, by any means. So I guess I would see myself married, too. Possibly with a child. Or maybe with one on the way.”
Then she turned away from him, an embarrassed smile on her face.
“What?” he asked.
“You’ve got me all embarrassed.”
“There’s nothing to be embarrassed about.”
“Only the baring of my soul, that’s all.”
“Oh, come on, it isn’t that big of a deal. What’s got you so worked up?”
When she looked at him again, her cheeks were flushed but she was no longer quite so self-conscious. “Nothing. I guess it sounds silly, doesn’t it, having your life planned out to such a degree? It’s true to say that you can never be sure of anything, isn’t it? But if you don’t have a target…”
“Then you have nothing to aim for,” he finished the thought for her.
“Yeah, I guess that’s it,” she said. She laid her hand across his wrist, held it briefly, and then removed it. The gesture told him that Molly was not the only one who saw romantic potential in this thus far platonic friendship. And looking at her across the plastic tabletop, with the buzz of the university center all around them, Jason knew for certain that he wanted Molly Russell. She was pretty, sure—a petite brunette with brown eyes and a teasing smile. But it wasn't only a matter of being pretty. How many girls could you talk to like this, without feeling the need to play head games or go out of your way to impress them? He could talk to Molly as if she were an old friend—which she now was, more or less; and yet they both knew that something more than mere friendship existed here.
And this was exactly why he needed to keep Molly at a distance. Jason liked Molly, but he was in love with the idea of being a filmmaker. This realization gave him what he recognized as a sense of unworthiness—a belief that if he and Molly became more than friends, he would only end up wrecking things for both of them.
He didn't deserve Molly. She should set her sights on someone more solid—a guy who held realistic career plans and a more sober view of his future. A guy who didn't have to worry about repeating the legacy of an alcoholic father who coped poorly with the demands of being a middle-class husband and provider.
And so Jason had decided—more than a little reluctantly—that he would be Molly’s friend and nothing more. For a while he had even believed that this desire for purely platonic interactions was mutual, the unmistakable sexual tension between them notwithstanding. After all, when Molly spoke about being married at some point in the near future (within five years!), nothing about her words or tone had even remotely suggested that he was a likely candidate for the position of Mr. Molly Russell.
But then he had run into her at that party the previous weekend. He hadn’t even known that she would be there. She had caught his glance from across the room, and within a few minutes they were standing close, drawn together as they so often were, and talking in the noisy room with their faces only inches apart.
“I gave up my Friday night for this?” Molly had reflected, casting a disdainful look at a group of boisterous college males on the far side of the room. The young men were assembling a beer bong with great enthusiasm, as if it were some sort of a terribly interesting and important engineering project. “I thought we left this sort of thing behind in high school.”
“Not everyone, apparently,” Jason had said.
A few more minutes of conversation determined that Molly had come to the party alone and unescorted; and a few more minutes of remarks about the low quality of their surroundings convinced them both that the party was definitely not worth an entire Friday evening.
Then one thing led to another. First it was simply a matter of leaving the party. Then it was a matter of where to go so late on a Friday night. In an almost inevitable progression, they found themselves back in his apartment. There was really no place else to go—or so it had seemed to him at the time.
That night was the first time that they had been alone together in a room with a bed. And while this fact alone did not necessarily make sex inevitable, it combined and colluded with the undeniable chemistry that had been building between them for months now.
Such were Jason’s recollections now, as Molly Russell blurted out:
“Jason Kelley, you are one cold son-of-a-bitch.”
I could have told you that, Jason thought but did not say. Had I told you, I might have saved us both a lot of drama.
But he really didn't believe that, did he? When he thought about Molly, he knew that he was being a stubborn fool. He had been a stubborn fool for the past two weeks, ever since Molly had slept with him.
What is it about you, Jason, that makes you run from the people you really should be holding on to?
For now, he would have to chalk it up to his father’s legacy: It was necessary for him to succeed before he allowed others to stake their claim on him—to drag him down. But this was not something that he could explain to Molly.
“Molly, give me a few days, okay? I’ve got something really important that I have to get done. Then I’ll call you—I promise.”
“Don’t bother,” she said in a voice just above a whisper. “I wouldn't want to keep you from something important.”
He realized that his fumbling attempt at an explanation had come out far more callously than he had intended. He began to backtrack, to rephrase himself—and then he realized that he was talking to a dead connection. Molly had terminated the call.
Jason contemplated calling her back, but then thought better of it. Whatever he said right now would only make the situation worse.
Jason was not frequent dreamer. Tonight, however, he dreamed. At some time during the wee hours of the next morning, he found himself back at his family home in Columbus, at the dinner table. His parents were both there; and he could discern that there were others in the room as well, though he was not to know their identities for the time being.
“How did school go today?” his father asked to no one in particular. As had been the case during the worst days of his father’s drinking, he slurred his words and clumsily forked his food into his mouth. He reached out for one of the main serving dishes, and he bumped his water glass with one swaying hand. The glass threatened to overturn. His mother reached out and caught it before it could spill.
Jason started to speak; he was cut off by a sharp glance and terse words from his mother.
“We’re going to have a nice family dinner,” she said.
From within the miniaturized world of the dream, Jason could recall that this was exactly what she had done during those days in which his father had come home from the high school with traces of vodka on his breath—when he had disappeared for hours into his basement study during the evening, only to shuffle up the stairs in an obviously inebriated state.
You’re in denial, Mom! Jason thought furiously. You’ve fooled yourself with your image of us as the perfect family—something from Leave it to Beaver or The Brady Bunch or whatever. You’re so obsessed with what you want us to be, that you either can’t or won’t recognize what we actually are: A family teetering on the edge because of an alcoholic father. How long until he loses his job, Mom, and then what happens—to you, to me, to all of us?
And then he remembered that his father had lost his job teaching history at the high school. He remembered what it had been like to walk through the halls of the school the day after the principal had finally dismissed Mr. Kelley. In the rumor mill that churns beneath the surface of every academic institution, the news of his father’s ignominious firing had already begun to circulate, even before the official announcement was made. That same day, the principal had walked into his homeroom and announced that the school’s World Culture and American Government courses would be taught by a group of rotating subs until the end of the school year.
Beside him, at the dinner table, his sister nudged him.
“You’re going to do right, Jason,” Amy whispered. “You’re going to do what everyone expects of you. What you should do.”
The dream was incredibly lucid—the way it allowed him to maintain a running patter of internal thoughts even as the scene unfolded. It was as if he had been transported back to his high school days, when he and his sister were both still living at home. But it was not completely the same: there was still another, the one that he had not yet identified.
“Jason,” a female voice inquired. “Why haven’t you called me? Why haven’t you come to see me?”
In the midst of the dream he thought of Molly Russell; but this was not Molly Russell’s voice. The words had been spoken by a someone much, much older.
He became aware of a sudden chill in the room. The chairs where his parents were seated moved suddenly apart, as if pushed by unseen hands. Now there was a fifth presence at the table. He tried to look at the presence directly; but each time he tried, the face faded into an indistinct blur.
“Don’t look at me!” it hissed in a raspy, disembodied voice. “Don’t look at me! Not yet!”
He had a sense that the entity was vaguely female; but not female like his mother or his sister. And certainly not female like Molly.
The temperature in the room abruptly dropped again. Jason looked around the table at his father, mother, and sister: Their skin had lost its flesh tone; it bore a waxy, bluish pallor. The three of them were slumped against the backs of their chairs, suspended by the deathly chill that this unseeable creature had somehow caused to descend upon the family dinner table. In the dream, only Jason was awake. He was cold—so cold that he would awaken to find himself shivering in his actual sleep. But the entity wanted him to remain awake and alert within the world of the dream.
Jason was alone now with this unknown entity. He tried to look directly at it and found that he could not. Invisible hands forced his head to one side—so that he could only see it from a peripheral angle. At the same time, he could hear evidence of its presence: He heard the scraping of sharp, heavy fingernails digging their way into the surface of the dining room table.
As is often the case in the worst nightmares, Jason sensed that he would be able to will himself awake. The world of the dream had an undeniable force of its own; but its power was dependent on his remaining asleep.
His shivering growing more intense now, Jason began to push that world away. He was vaguely aware of his body—still shaking but lying in bed. For a few seconds he was half awake and half inside the unconscious realm inhabited by this thing.
“I’ll be waiting for you, Jason,” it said just before the dream world dissolved. “I’ll be waiting for you at the bridge.”
Jason awoke still shivering. A full minute or so would pass before his rigidly tensed muscles finally unclenched.
Sitting up in bed now, Jason shook his head at the experience of the dream—and its disturbing vividness, its resemblance to reality. He had never been much of a dreamer; and nightmares had almost never troubled him—probably not since he had been a little kid.
What the hell was that?
He pushed himself out of bed and walked into the bathroom. Before leaving the bed, he first turned on the lamp on his nightstand. This was something that he usually didn’t bother with when getting up to urinate at night, since the outside streetlights usually kept the room from becoming completely dark. There was always a little bit of light. But that dream—whatever it had been—had been pretty freaky. Definitely unlike anything that he’d ever encountered before.
He stood barefoot on the cold tile floor of the bathroom, emptying his bladder. Again, he asked himself: What the hell was that?
Even now the dream was beginning to fade at the edges, to lose some of its clarity. He recalled something about being back at his parents’ house, his dad drinking and making them all uncomfortable, just like back in the worst of the bad old days. And there had been something else there with the four of them—something that had scared the heck out of him, and turned an unpleasant dream comprised of bad memories into a truly horrific nightmare.
By the time he walked back to his bed, he was convinced that he was not going to be able to figure it out. The dream had probably been something Freudian—his old anxiety over his father’s drinking, manifesting itself as a monster of some sort. That much made sense, when you thought about it: His mother had called him today and tried to pressure him into returning home to Columbus for the summer, and he had dreaded the very idea. Those feelings had remained in his subconscious, and come clawing their way back up during his sleep.
He shivered once again at the vague association of claws. Had the monster in the dream possessed claws?
He couldn't remember, and that was probably for the best. Jason slipped into bed and turned the light out, then almost immediately fell back into the unknowing realm of sleep. When he awoke later that morning, his recollections of the dream were almost completely gone.
It was Wednesday; and Jason had a little more than forty-eight hours to prepare for the trip to Wagosh, Ohio. Two of Simon Rose’s associates would be waiting for him at a Wagosh strip mall at 8:30 p.m. Jason had the directions; and it took him only a few minutes using Google Maps to chart the drive. The town was out in the boonies of Carey County, but it was accessible via I-71, the Interstate that cut diagonally through the state of Ohio in a northeast to southwest line. He would leave shortly after the evening rush hour, and arrive in Wagosh after about ninety minutes of drive time.
He arrived at his apartment in the late afternoon and did some more online reading about the Shaman’s Highway. He found a YouTube video in which a shaky older woman—a woman who claimed to be a psychic—spoke about the spiritual vibes she had received while walking along the road.
“The Shaman’s Highway is not simply haunted,” she said, pulling nervously on a ponytail that looked somehow malapropos on a woman in her sixties. “The Shaman’s Highway is cursed. I felt the presence of many lost spirits there; and some of them were angry and hostile. That road is unlike any haunted location that I have ever visited in the past.”
This video was produced by an amateur ghost-hunting group based in Dayton, Ohio. A member of the group—Dayton-Miami Valley Ghost Hunters, or something like that—was interviewing the trembling psychic, drawing her out about what she had felt. Unable to resist the allure of the Shaman’s Highway’s reputation, this woman had gone for a walk along the eleven-mile section of road. And apparently she had regretted it.
“The entire way,” the psychic went on. “The entire way I could feel something watching me. It was as if there were eyes looking out at me from the trees themselves, things buried in the earth that were still very much attached to and aware of their surroundings.”
One thing was clear to Jason: This woman was not merely a charlatan. She did believe that something—perhaps many things—inhabited the Shaman’s Highway. Her fear was palpable, and several times she had to stop to steady herself.
Jason felt the slightest trace of a chill run up his spine, but he dismissed it. This would be just like Travis Books, he told himself. It might be a little spooky; but nothing there was going to be capable of doing him serious harm. He recalled again how anticlimactic his experience at the supposedly haunted bookstore had been.
His thoughts were interrupted by a sharp series of knocks on the front door of the apartment, the door that opened directly onto the sidewalk and the street. This was nothing unearthly, however: the spooks of the Shaman’s Highway had not shown up early to lay claim to him. He had a very corporeal visitor at his front door.
Jason’s first thought was Molly; but on second thought he did not believe that Molly would show up like this unannounced and uninvited. A part of him would not have been disappointed to see her, though; and he decided that he would have to talk to her before the end of the week—and hopefully find a way to repair the damage. He still did not know what he would tell Molly, because he did not know what he wanted to accomplish with her. He only knew that his feelings for and about Molly tore him in two different directions.
The knocking persisted, and Jason called out, “Just a minute!” It might be one of the neighborhood schoolchildren selling something: Girl Scout cookies or raffle tickets, possibly magazine subscriptions. None of those items appealed to Jason right now.
When he opened the door it was neither Molly Russell nor one of the children who shared his inner-city neighborhood. It was Amy Kelley, his younger sister.
“Amy,” Jason said. He stepped aside and motioned her forward with a dramatic sweep of one hand. “Thanks for calling in advance to announce your visit. I’m not busy or anything! I was just sitting here waiting for you to stop by.”
The sarcasm was either lost on Amy, or else she ignored it. She nodded and walked past him into the apartment, a diminutive girl who shared both of his parents, some of his physical features, and seemingly none of his personality traits. Amy was more like Molly Russell, a type-A personality who was destined to be an accountant or middle manager somewhere, someday. Amy was majoring in business administration.
“You’re evasive on the telephone,” she explained. “You’re a lot easier to nail down in person.”
“And what do you need to nail me down for? I didn't realize you were the authority figure in this relationship. Funny, but most guys I know don’t answer to their little sisters.”
She ignored these barbs and got right to the point. “I came here to talk with you about Mom and Dad.”
Jason sighed. Now he understood: His mother, having struck out in her direct appeals, had decided to enlist the help of Amy. This was Mom calling in the big guns, as no one in the family was quite as persistent and goal-driven as his nineteen-year-old sister.
“What do we need to talk about concerning Mom and Dad?”
She gave him a don’t-be-stupid look and then surveyed the clutter in his apartment. “I’m talking about this summer, of course. And when are you going to clean this place up a little? You live in a pigsty, you know.”
Jason gently put his hands on Amy’s shoulders and pulled her back in his direction. She had been about to investigate the pile of equipment that he had staged in the center of his main living space: an empty backpack, and the equipment and supplies that were going to be loaded into it.
“I’m getting ready for a film project. A paid film project. Have you ever heard of Ghost Hunting with Simon Rose?”
“Maybe,” Amy said, obviously unimpressed. “But I don't believe in that crap for a minute—that ghost hunting stuff, I mean. Anyway, you can tell me about that later. What I want to talk about now is your going home this summer to spend some time with Mom and Dad.”
“I didn't realize that Mom and Dad weren’t capable of taking care of themselves. They’re in their forties, you know—not their eighties.”
“Don't be deliberately obtuse. You know exactly what I’m talking about. Dad has stopped drinking. Finally.”
“You can say that again: ‘Finally.’”
“And I think that in order to show our support, we should both go up there for the summer. Mom tells me that she’s lined up a television station job for you.”
This last sentence confirmed Jason’s suspicions: His mother and his younger sister were indeed in cahoots.
“Actually, I was planning to spend the summer here in Cincinnati. Sorry.”
“Well, I’ve made plans to go to Columbus. I want to show my support for Mom and Dad, now that Dad is doing better.”
“Yes, Amy, you’re pretty close to perfect. You’ve been perfect since the day I met you, which would have been when I was about two.”
“Oh, right—like you can really remember the day Mom and Dad brought me home from the hospital.”
Jason smiled and shook his head. His sister often frustrated him; but she more often than not cheered him up, too.
“Listen, Amy, it’s like this: We’re not kids anymore. I’m twenty-one and you’re nineteen. Mom and Dad screwed us up pretty badly, according to what I remember. Now we’re out of there, and I for one don’t intend to let them screw me up any worse than they already have.”
Amy stepped forward and grabbed his arm, trying to take on the role of the authority figure now. This was another one of her standard maneuvers.
“No, no, Jason: You don’t understand. Dad hasn't been drinking for months. Didn't Mom tell you?”
“Mom told me, all right; and I’m very glad that Dad has been working on his personal problems. But I also know that I don’t have any intention of being pulled back into all of that—”
“What do you, mean, ‘pulled back into all of that?’ What are you talking about?”
“Come on, Amy: You know damn well what I’m talking about. All of their drama, of course.”
Amy gave him that look of hers which simultaneously conveyed that she was flabbergasted and horribly disappointed. It was a look that she had perfected sometime around the age of nine or ten, as Jason recalled.
“Jason—what do you think life is, but ‘drama’?” Do you think that you can be part of a family—part of any relationship, without having your share of drama? Do you think that other families don’t have drama?”
Jason knew that Amy had rhetorically trapped him. This fact—and possibly the fact that he did not like the idea of his nineteen-year-old little sister lecturing him on the meaning of life—compelled him to cut the conversation short.
“Look, Amy: I don’t want to argue about this. If you want to spend your summer in Columbus, be my guest. But I intend to keep my distance. I’ll visit a few times, of course, but I need my space.”
There, let her find a way to counter that. How could anyone argue with a man who “needs his space”?
But Amy, it seemed, had an answer for this, too. “You’re only afraid that facing our parents will make you face some weakness in yourself,” she said.
Jason wasn't sure if Amy had read his mind, or if she had merely made a lucky guess. Once again, it wasn't the sort of dressing down that he wanted to receive from his little sister.
“Amy, I’ve really got a lot of work to do.”
“Are you throwing me out?”
“Of course not, Amy. I’d never throw you out. I’m asking you in a polite and loving manner if we could please continue this conversation at a later time. This is the second to last week of the semester, and I’ve got some final studying to do. Not to mention the fact that I have this film project to prepare for, which you seem to be rather dismissive of.”
“Oh, yes,” Amy acknowledged. “Your movie job. Some ghost hunting guy, you say?”
“Not just a ‘ghost hunting guy’, Amy. Simon Rose of Ghost Hunting with Simon Rose. My work is going to appear on television.”
“You don’t say,” Amy said. “Well, if you’re going to stick with this filmmaking thing, I suppose its good that you’re getting some exposure. I know you did well in that film competition.”
For a brief moment, Jason had the feeling that Amy was mildly impressed. But she wasn't likely to admit this in so many words—not after Jason had stymied hers and Mom’s plans regarding the summer.
“Anyway,” she went on. “I’ll let you get back to—whatever it is that you’re doing now. But I want you to think about joining us for the summer. I know it would mean a lot to Mom and Dad. And with that job at the TV station, it isn’t as if your drive to become the next Steven Spielberg will suffer.”
With that she started for the door. On her way out she paused in the threshold. “You’ll give it some thought. Right, Jason?”
As far as Jason was concerned, the matter was already decided; but he knew that Amy would not leave unless he offered her at least a minor concession.
“I will, Amy. I’ll think about it.”
The next day—the day before he walked the Shaman’s Highway—Jason sought out Molly in her usual haunt on the second floor of the Walter E. Langsam Library. The Langsam was the main library on the University of Cincinnati campus. This being the week prior to semester exams, it might have been packed with students cramming for their finals. But the warm weather was too tempting for many. The plaza and the grassy areas near the library overflowed with students who had decided to combine study with sunbathing.
Many of these student sunbathers were young women. As he approached the glass double doors to the library, Jason allowed himself a few glances at the sea of young female legs and exposed midriffs—many already showing the beginnings of a summer tan.
There were so many women out there in the world, and yet Molly was the one who seemed to have a hold on him; and at the same time it seemed that this emotional bond could destroy them both.
Jason did not seriously wonder if Molly would be among the sunbathers. That wasn't her style. She was serious about school, serious about her grades, and she wouldn't attempt to turn a study session into an afternoon of recreation.
Once inside, Jason bounded up the carpeted steps to the second floor of the library. He made a right turn down the wing where Molly’s favorite study cubicle was located. Sure enough, she was there, with her back turned to him, her shoulders and dark hair hunched over a textbook.
“Hey, Molly,” he said, maintaining a respectful distance. Two weeks ago she had been in his bed. He had touched her in the most intimate ways. But now, after all that had happened, it seemed necessary for him to maintain a formal space when addressing her.
She looked up, obviously recognizing the sound of his voice before she turned around.
“Hey,” she said.
Jason walked forward so that he could lean over the front of the cubicle as they spoke, so that she would not have to conduct their conversation turned around at an awkward angle. He could see her hard-set expression; and he knew immediately that this reconciliation—if that was what this was going to be—would be no simple matter.
“How have you been?” he asked.
“Fine. What do you want?”
“I just wanted to talk to you.”
“That’s funny. You haven’t wanted to talk to me for the past two weeks.”
Jason felt his frustration rising. Was she going to spar with him each time she spoke? He had made a mistake, he had treated her poorly; and his presence here was a de facto recognition of that wrong. There was no need for her to make matters worse than they already were, by spurning an obvious olive branch.
“Well, I’m here talking to you now,” he said. His experience with women had taught him that nothing could be served by groveling before them. They didn't respect guys who begged and pleaded. Surely she would be able to see that he was sorry for the way he had treated her. He didn't have to spell it out, did he?
“You’ve ignored me for the past two weeks, but you’re talking to me now. I’m honored, Jason. Really I am.” The sarcasm in her voice was raw and biting. Looking at Molly’s clenched face, her eyes drawn to narrow slits, Jason understood how badly he had wounded her.
Was there any chance that she would simply forget about it? Among his male friends, quarrels and minor transgressions could usually be smoothed over by simple and low-key gestures of reconciliation. Why did women have to be so damned complicated by comparison?
“That’s right,” he said. “I’m talking to you now, though, like we’ve both acknowledged. Look, it was never my intention to hurt your feelings. Hell, Molly, I like you a lot. You know that, I think.”
“I know that you liked me when I was your lunch and beer drinking buddy, Jason. And you liked me well enough to let me help you kill time and blow off some steam in your apartment that night two weeks ago. But you obviously didn't like me well enough to acknowledge me after that, did you?”
“Molly, that isn’t it. I wanted to give you some space.”
“’Give me some space’? Wasn't it pretty clear that I wanted to spend time with you—to be with you? Do you know how humiliating that was that day in the quadrangle, when we made eye contact and you simply turned and walked away? This whole thing about ‘space’: Are you saying that you want to be free to hook up with a different girl every Saturday night? Is that what you’re saying, Jason?”
“No, Molly, that’s not what I’m trying to say.”
“Well then, Jason, what are you trying to say? Are you saying that I entrapped you somehow? Is that what you think?”
“No,” Jason said. This single word of denial came out far more defensively than he had intended. It wasn't a matter of Molly entrapping him. It was far more complicated than that. When a man allowed himself to fall in love, time and the momentum of circumstances had a way of conspiring against him. And then lots of people got hurt. Jason knew this well, having grown up and witnessed the farce of his father’s life. His father might have been a famous novelist—another Dan Brown or Stephen King. But instead he had gotten married and taken a mundane, soul-crushing job teaching high school history. That turn of events had killed his dream and sealed his fate. It had also brought misery on his wife and children.
There was no way that he could explain all this to Molly, though. Nor did he intend to try. It was a part of himself that he was more than a little ashamed of, and therefore defensive about. Molly would never understand, having come from a normal family of textbook high achievers.
If he told her the entire truth, whatever feelings she still had for him would instantly turn to disdain. On the other hand, if he told her nothing she would remain convinced that he was an insensitive jerk.
Neither option was exactly ideal. But he wasn't going to give Molly a Lifetime movie version of his screwed up childhood. That simply wasn't an option.
So instead he said: “I’ll let you get back to your studying, then.” This was an innocuous enough response; but the previous words exchanged between them gave it a subtext: To hell with you, then. And this, of course, was not what Jason intended. He didn’t know how to bridge the gap now—the gap between what he needed to reveal and what he was capable of revealing.
He turned and walked away, and Molly Russell resumed her studying.
It was Friday evening and time to depart. The weather was clear, warm, and sunny. It would be a good night for an eleven-mile walk. Go for a walk, take some video footage, and make some thoughtful commentary. Then collect two thousand dollars. It sounded like a plan.
The shadows were lengthening by the time Jason loaded his backpack full of video-related equipment and other essentials into the back seat of his car. It was after eight o’clock; but the longest day of the year, the summer solstice, was only a few weeks away. He would be driving in at least marginal daylight all the way to Wagosh.
His 1997 Ford Taurus thankfully started. He noticed that the engine was making an odd ticking sound—probably something with the timing belt. It might be a good idea to allocate the money that he would earn from this job toward the purchase of a new vehicle. There were limits to what you could expect from a fifteen-year-old car, after all.
At this hour, the streets in the immediate vicinity of campus were comparatively lonely. Jason drove through a long stretch of inner-city neighborhoods on his way to the I-71 onramp. As he traveled farther away from campus, the neighborhoods became more rundown, and the faces that he saw were distinctly less welcoming. Pedestrians on either side of the street gave him long, vaguely hostile looks—or at least that was what he imagined.
Jason was a relative liberal, politically speaking. Both of his parents habitually voted Democrat—and this was one area in which Jason and his parents were in agreement. He was a progressive from progressive origins. An “Obama 2012” sticker dominated the rear bumper of his car.
Nevertheless, when driving through certain parts of Cincinnati, he felt some racially tinged anxieties that made him feel simultaneously ashamed and defensive. It was a stupid reflex, really, he believed—something that would not have occurred to him in Columbus. But Cincinnati was different.
Eleven years ago, Cincinnati had been the scene of bloody riots, following the fatal shooting of an unarmed African-American man who had fled from police. During four days in April of 2001, rioters in inner-city Cincinnati attacked random passersby and sacked local businesses. It became the worst instance of urban violence in America since the 1992 L.A. riots, exactly nine years earlier.
Like the shooting of the unarmed fugitive that preceded them, the Cincinnati riots had been marked by intense racial overtones. A disproportionate number of the mostly African-American rioters’ victims had been white. Local news stations recorded dozens of interviews of random white residents who were pummeled by mobs that day, their only offense being their presence downtown. Jason had been a kid then; but many of these videos were still available on websites like YouTube.
The situation grew even worse in Cincinnati when the police, in response to withering public scrutiny over the shooting of the unarmed man, reduced their presence in some of the city’s worst neighborhoods. For years afterward, Cincinnati’s violent crime rate had spiked, and sections of the city became virtual no-man’s lands of drug and gang activity.
As Jason drove toward the interstate onramp, all that was more than a decade in the past; but the quality of life and race relations in the city had been permanently changed, or so Jason had been told. Sometimes it certainly did seem that way. On this Friday evening, when most of the university-related traffic was long departed, an outsider could feel lonely and vulnerable in neighborhoods such as this.
At one stoplight, a group of young men around his age loitered at the intersection. Jason kept his head forward, not wanting to make eye contact. One of them made a taunt: nothing serious, really, just a probe to see if he could be goaded.
Yeah, I’m a skinny white boy, Jason thought, answering the insult in his head. What of it?
He stepped on the accelerator when the light turned green, with the thought that the Shaman’s Highway would probably be a lot safer than the streets of the city that he called home.
He headed north on I-71, and within thirty minutes the city fell away and was replaced by countryside. Ohio was mostly farm country outside the major metropolitan areas. On both sides of the six-lane highway, the urban sprawl of suburban Cincinnati had dissolved into cultivated corn and soybean fields, barns, and empty meadows. And farther back in the distance were woods. Acres and acres of woods, a vast and seemingly closed territory that faded into the twilight horizon.
An hour later he reached the Wagosh exit off I-71. It was not yet full dark, though dark was rapidly approaching. The first evening star—actually the planet Venus—was already visible in the burnt sienna sky. At the end of the exit ramp he turned right, toward the east, and followed the two-lane highway into Wagosh. This road was Route 68; but he was still well north of the Shaman’s Highway. The Shaman’s Highway began just south of town, on the far side of Wagosh.
Wagosh was technically categorized as a small city, but Jason would have described it as a large small town, if there even was such a classification. There were a few small factories on the north side of the burg, a few apartment complexes, and the usual gamut of fast-food restaurants: Burger King, Wendy’s, McDonalds and Pizza Hut.
As previously arranged, Simon Rose’s people were waiting for him in the parking lot of the Walmart. This particular outpost of Sam Walton’s retail empire was located in a middling strip mall, which was probably the main shopping venue for local residents. Jason spotted the ghost hunters right away based on Simon’s description of the pair. It helped that the parking lot was mostly empty. Even in Wagosh, there were better things to do on a Friday night than hit the local Walmart, apparently.
Jason saw a woman with long brown hair tied back in a ponytail, and a man who weighed perhaps three hundred pounds. The man was seated behind the wheel of their vehicle, but his heavy cheeks and jowls betrayed his weight. Jason knew from his discussion with Simon that their names were Gary Cook and Anne Teagarden. Both were regular members of Simon’s staff. Jason had looked up a few episodes of Ghost Hunting with Simon Rose on the Internet over the past few days. He thought he remembered at least one segment that included the woman.
As Jason pulled his car into the space beside their Toyota pickup truck, he got a better look at them. The man had a florid complexion, curly reddish hair, and a little mustache that reminded Jason of a caterpillar. The woman seemed to be in her mid-thirties. She smiled and waved.
They both stepped out the pickup truck and introduced themselves. As Simon Rose had noted, Anne Teagarden was quite pregnant. Jason was not an expert on these matters, but he guessed that she was within weeks of giving birth.
“Are you ready?” Gary Cook asked. “Ready for the Shaman’s Highway?”
“I think so,” Jason replied gamely, shaking their hands.
“If not for David Junior,” Anne said, “I’d be making this walk with you—or instead of you.”
Jason assumed that David Junior must refer to the protuberance in her abdomen; and that would make David Senior her husband or significant other.
“I’m not pregnant,” Gary said. “I just like to eat.” He patted his considerable girth.
Well, thought Jason. He is obese, but at least he has a sense of humor about it.
The man handed Jason one of his business cards. The card read: “Gary Cook, Senior Creative Consultant, Ghost Hunting with Simon Rose.” The card also contained Gary’s cell phone number and email address, along with the show’s logo: A cartoon caricature of Simon Rose surrounded by a trio of equally caricatured ghosts.
“Here’s mine, too,” Anne said. Anne’s card was more or less identical; she was also a senior creative consultant.
“Tell you what,” Gary said. “I know you’ve been on the road for a while, but why don’t you rendezvous with us on the other side of town? There’s a little place called the Country Creamery. Classic small-town ice cream and hot dog shop. The Country Creamery is located right on the northern edge of the Shaman’s Highway. You’ll be able to start your walk from there.”
“I’ll ride with you, Jason,” Anne said. “I know exactly where we’re going. And I’ve been stuck with Gary all day.”
“Very funny, Anne,” Gary said. Jason could tell that there was absolutely no malice in this exchange. Gary and Anne had likely worked together for years. This mutual ribbing was a way of passing the time. “But that isn’t a half bad idea. No sense in risking your getting lost, Jason.”
Jason didn't think that he would have had difficulty driving a few miles and finding an ice cream shop by himself; but he did not protest. Anne Teagarden seemed to be pleasant enough, anyway. Jason opened the front passenger side door of the Taurus and said: “Welcome aboard. My car has one hundred and fifteen thousand miles on the odometer. It should have enough life left to get us to this Country Creamery, though.”
Laughing at Jason’s corny joke, Anne took her place in the passenger seat. Jason started up the Taurus and began to follow Gary in the pickup truck. The truck headed for the main exit of the strip mall, its taillights flaring in the gathering gloom of dusk. The truck proceeded to make a right turn onto Route 68, Main Street in Wagosh.
“Tell me, Jason,” Anne said. “Do you believe in ghosts? In the supernatural?”
The question should not have been completely unexpected; but Jason was somewhat taken aback. He had anticipated a smattering of small talk during the short ride, the level of conversation that was common at parties and on first dates. But Anne seemed interested in probing his innermost beliefs. Perhaps that’s common among these ghost-hunting types, Jason thought. Maybe that’s just their way.
“I’m not sure,” Jason said honestly. Then, turning the question around: “Do you?”
Anne smiled and looked out the window at the small-town view. About fifteen or twenty minutes of discernable daylight remained; and the outlines of Wagosh were still visible. They were coming up on the town proper. This would be the older part of Wagosh, the section that had existed prior to the more recently built fast food restaurants and the strip mall.
“For many years I didn’t,” Anne said. “But then when I was in high school, shortly after my sixteenth birthday, my family moved into a house in Pittsburg that changed my mind about all that.”
“Let me guess,” Jason said. “That house was haunted.” Jason hoped that his remark did not sound too flippant; but this storyline did seem somewhat predictable.
“Not exactly,” Anne said. “But there was a ghost in the area.”
“A ghost ‘in the area’?”
“Yes. And that ghost seemed to take a special interest in me—at least for a while.”
“I’m listening,” Jason said. “Please go on.” He was driving through the middle of Wagosh now. On the right side of the road was a historic-looking building called “The Malloy Theater.” The front of the theater was lit up by an old-fashioned marquee sign.
“Well,” Anne continued. “Sometimes during the night, I would have this feeling that there was a presence under my bed. Have you ever had that feeling at night?”
“Sure,” Jason allowed. “I guess everybody does, from time to time. It isn’t something I’ve really thought about much since I was a kid, though.”
“Yeah, I dismissed the feeling, too. At first, anyway. After all, I was a junior in high school, and this was the middle of the nineteen-nineties. I was no heroine in some gothic ghost story. I told myself that it was only my imagination.
“But then,” Anne seemed to hesitate just a bit. Jason inadvertently glanced down in the near darkness of the car, and he noticed that gooseflesh had broken out on Anne’s arms. “Then I started to hear someone whispering my name at night. And then there was the voice coming from directly beneath my bed.”
“Okay,” Jason said. “You’ve got my attention.” Jason had experienced the occasional feeling of being watched by an unseen presence. That was part of living alone, he had learned. Sometimes when you were by yourself, the heebie-jeebies were bound to get the best of you. But he had never heard voices. That would be something new for him—and most unwelcome.
“It got my attention, too,” Anne continued. “But believe it or not, it also got to be a little annoying. I mean, every night I would fall asleep, and then I would be awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of somebody whispering my name—someone who seemed to be just beneath my bed.”
“Did you ever take a look? That would have cleared things up.”
“I’m getting to that. For a long time I was afraid to look, and a part of me was hoping that it would simply go away—that the voice was only my imagination. But then one night I’d come home from some party and I’d had a bit too much to drink. The room was spinning, and I felt like I was going to throw up at any moment. You know what I mean?”
“Oh, yeah,” Jason said, recalling some of his high school drinking binges. The aftermath—the vomiting and the headaches—was always the worst part.
“I decided that enough was enough, that I wasn't going to let this thing torment me anymore. And it would probably be true to say that the alcohol had given me a bit of what some people refer to as Irish courage.”
“Hey, the Kelleys originally came from Ireland, I think.”
“No offense intended, Jason.”
“None taken. So anyway—excuse me for interrupting. What happened?”
“So that night I looked down, and I could see the outlines of a man lying there on the floor of my bedroom.”
“You saw a man lying on your bedroom floor?” Jason repeated.
“It wasn't really a man,” Anne said. “More like a pool of shadow in the shape of a man. That’s the best way I can describe it. But where the head of the man would be, I could see a mouth, and I could see two eyes. And when I looked down there, the eyes opened, and the mouth opened, too. That thing was smiling at me, and not in a friendly way.”
Jason felt a little shiver go up his spine. It was a creepy enough story. If it was true…
“So what did you do?”
“As you might expect, I couldn't sleep. Who could, after that? But I must have passed out eventually, given all that I had to drink that night. When I woke up it was morning, and daylight. I went out to the family breakfast table and announced to my parents that there was a spiritual presence in my bedroom.”
“Whoa. You just blurted that out? ‘There’s a spiritual presence in my bedroom’?” Jason paused for a brief moment, hoping that Anne was not offended. When she smiled at his remark, he continued. “And what did they say? Excuse me for saying this, Anne; but most parents would think their kid was a little crazy if he or she said something like that.”
“I know, I know. But my parents were quite supportive. You see, I wasn't the only one who sensed that something was amiss in my bedroom. It turned out that my mother had experienced some uncomfortable feelings herself when she’d entered my room to put away laundry. She’d never seen or heard anything concrete, mind you; but she’d had this odd sensation that something was watching her—just like you acknowledged feeling sometimes when you’re alone. When I told my parents what I’d seen and heard, my mom spoke up right away. She took my side and I didn't feel foolish at all. Then my parents agreed to let me sleep on the living room couch until my bedroom could be cleansed.”
“We were Baptists, and Baptists usually adhere to a strict prohibition against anything that seems like New Age spiritualism or necromancy. All of that stuff is too closely related to witchcraft, you know; and fundamentalist Christians don’t make any distinctions between so-called “white magic” like Wicca, and outright devil worship.”
“I believe that anything of that variety is potentially dangerous, because it opens doors that are better left closed. But that's another discussion best left for another time. My parents did agree to contact a woman who advertised herself as a ‘Christian spiritualist.’ She conducted a cleansing ceremony in my bedroom.”
“And then what happened?”
“Then the presence under my bed went away. I never heard from it or saw it again.”
“So that was it? The end?”
“Not entirely. Shortly thereafter, another young woman who lived a few houses down—a girl of fifteen or sixteen—started experiencing similar problems. She awoke to the sound of her name being called out, and she turned over to see a manlike shape on the floor beside her bed. I didn't find out about this until years later, and no, I don’t know if her family ever managed to rid themselves of the entity.”
“Whoa,” Jason said. “You call it ‘the entity.’ That sounds pretty generic. Do you have any idea what it actually was? If it existed, that is.”
Anne smiled good-naturedly at Jason’s little jab of skepticism. “At the time, I had no idea. But a few years later, the Internet came along, and I was able to research the history of the neighborhood: In the nineteen fifties, it turns out, a man on our street had been accused in the abductions and disappearances of several young women in the area. Apparently he knew that it was only a matter of time until he was arrested, and he had no intention of spending the rest of his life in jail or going to the electric chair. So this man killed himself in his basement one night with a shotgun blast to the head. And after that the disappearances stopped, so everyone assumed that he was the one who had abducted the women.”
“Was that the house your family bought?” Jason asked, thinking that this would make the story a bit too tidy and convenient. “The man killed himself in the basement of the house where you lived?”
“No. The man who killed himself—the supposed child abductor and probable murderer—his house was demolished shortly after his suicide. No one would have wanted to live in it after that. From what I could determine, the house went back to the bank for a few years, and then the bank sold the property to a land speculator who bulldozed the residence. And by the end of the fifties, the other houses in the old neighborhood had mostly been abandoned or torn down, too. These were really old structures, I think, houses built all the way back in the nineteenth century. For a few years, the whole neighborhood became one large vacant lot, no doubt overgrown with weeds and the subject of many adolescent ghost stories.
“However, old ghost stories are eventually forgotten, and a large patch of residential land won’t stay vacant forever. That’s an economic vacuum. So during the early nineteen seventies, a new housing development was built atop the old neighborhood. And one of the houses in that development was the one my parents purchased in nineteen ninety-four, some forty years after the original events that made the place cursed.”
“So you believe that the place definitely was cursed—or haunted?” Jason asked. Perhaps opportunely, it was time for this conversation to draw to a close. Gary pulled the ghost hunters’ truck into the parking lot of a small establishment that could only be the Country Creamery, though Jason could not yet see the sign.
“I know what I heard all those nights long ago, when I was a sixteen year-old girl,” Anne said. “And I know what I saw that one particular night, and the evidence I later found about the history of that neighborhood. So yes, Jason, I do believe that some places are both cursed and haunted. Some people can accept that idea on faith, and others can’t. But once you’ve seen and heard for yourself, there’s no turning back.”
Jason nodded neutrally and pulled his car into a space at the rear of the Country Creamery’s parking lot. The establishment was a small cinder block building that might previously have been a garage or a small store. There were two customer service windows that opened to the parking lot, where a pair of teenage girls were taking orders. Above them was a large sign that bore the name of the establishment in stylized letters, and a stenciled relief of a cartoon cow and a bucolic-looking barn and country scene. Jason and Anne stepped out of the Taurus to greet Gary. Jason retrieved his backpack from the back seat.
“We can drive your car down to the destination point if you’d like,” Gary offered. “Or we can give you a ride back here to pick it up afterward. Your choice.”
Jason had no real qualms about entrusting his 1997 Ford Taurus to these two. It would be safer with them than it would be if left unattended in this parking lot. Also, Jason knew that he was going to be tired at the end of his walk tonight. No sense in backtracking the eleven miles.
He handed the key fob of the Taurus over to Gary. “If you’re not afraid of driving it, I’ll take you up on that,” he said. Then Anne took the key from Gary’s hand.
“I’ve seen him drive it,” she said with a smile. “I know how the car handles. Jason, your car will be safe with me.”
They were standing there in the parking lot, and it occurred to Jason that it was now dark, more or less. There wasn't much for the three of them to do, unless they were interested in grabbing a milkshake or a banana split from the Country Creamery.
Apparently coming to the same set of conclusions, Gary looked at his watch. “It’s 10:00 p.m.,” he said, brushing away a gnat that was darting about the timepiece’s glowing surface. “And full dark. You can go ahead and get started now, if you’re ready.”
An interesting question. Was he ready? From where Jason stood, he could peer past the people in the parking lot and the little bubble of light formed by the Country Creamery. He could see partway down the road, where no lights could be seen, and the shadows thickened beyond a stone’s throw. Even from this distance, it was clear that the Shaman’s Highway led into the wilderness, comparatively speaking. Jason had always lived in the city or the suburbs. He had never been in the woods at night. Not real woods.
But nevertheless, he was ready. This would be an adventure, not to mention an interesting and lucrative filmmaking opportunity.
“I’m ready,” Jason said.
“Very good, then.” Gary clapped his hands together. “I’m going to pack up the truck and head down the road to John’s Mistake. Anne will drive your car. We’ll be waiting for you at Fran’s Pancake Hut. It’s a little greasy spoon located just inside the town proper. If you make it into town, you won’t be able to miss it.”
“What do you mean: ‘If I make it into town?’” Jason asked wryly. Was this man trying to mess with his head? There was no reason to think that he wouldn't reach his destination, after all.
Gary paused for a moment to reflect on what he had said. “Sorry. I’m sure you’ll be fine. It’s just that this highway… well, it’s supposed to be a very active location, paranormally speaking. In preparation for our filming attempt last year, we hired a psychic from Columbus to ride down this stretch of road with us. We wanted her to walk around at various locations and give us her impressions. She didn't even make it three miles before she told us to turn the truck around. She said that whatever was here was ‘very intense and very evil.’ Those were her exact words.”
Jason laughed. “So what about her fee?”
“She waived it,” Gary said. “She couldn't even stand riding down the Shaman’s Highway in a vehicle. She wasn't about to get out of the truck and walk around. And this was in full daylight, mind you, on a sunny afternoon in early summer. So here’s what I’m getting at: If you walk a mile or two and you discover that this place is too much for you, you can double-time it back to the Country Creamery here and give us a call. We’ll bring your car back, you can cancel the job, and life goes on. No hard feelings.”
“I’m sure you’ll be fine,” Anne Teagarden said, waving Gary silent. “A psychic is someone who is extremely sensitive to any sort of paranormal phenomenon, Jason. A really sensitive psychic will go bonkers at a location where a normal person might lay down and go to sleep without the slightest of qualms.”
That could be because psychics are probably self-deluded frauds who are peddling nothing but hokum, Jason thought, but did not say. He also wanted to ask her how that analysis jibed with her tale of the thing that spoke to her from the floor of her bedroom all those years ago. Anne had made no claim of being a psychic. Yet clearly she believed that she had experienced something genuinely supernatural. How did that fit into the theory that only psychics and electronic devices could detect the presence of ghosts? What about that ghost on your bedroom floor, Anne, Jason wanted to say. He had the feeling, however, that this story was something she regarded as highly personal in nature. It had been told to him in confidence; and she would not appreciate him speaking of it lightly, or with even measured skepticism.
“Anyway,” Gary said. “We’ll be waiting for you. Take your time, and get all the footage you can. We’ve brought our laptops, and we’re going to be working on some material for an upcoming episode of the show while you’re on your long walk. If you get into a jam—if you get a snakebite or you twist your ankle or anything, you can give us a call. My cell phone number is on my business card.”
“Maybe we should tell you,” Anne added. “That the cell phone coverage along the Shaman’s Highway tends to be kind of spotty.”
“I guess I’d better watch out for the snakes, then.”
“There won’t be any snakes,” Anne said encouragingly. “Don't worry.”
“I’m not worried,” Jason replied. And really, he wasn't: Not yet, anyway. He was standing in the parking lot of an ice cream shop, for goodness sake. It was impossible to believe in the supernatural while you were only a few yards away from a promotional sign that read, “Cool off with our Summer Raspberry Blizzard!”
“Of course you’re not,” Anne said. “But as Gary advised, you would do well to keep in mind that the Shaman’s Highway does have a reputation for being a scary place. You’re going to be walking eleven miles through a sparsely populated area after dark. Trust me, you’re going to get spooked before you reach the end. You might even see something that outright scares you.”
Jason wasn't sure how he should react to these assertions. He had already stated that he was unafraid; it would be bad form to display too much bravado. Once again he found himself walking one of those difficult lines that were so often necessary in the presence of older people. He was an adult; but he knew that his membership in the club of adulthood was as yet new and, some would say, even provisional. He was barely old enough to legally walk into a bar and order a beer in the State of Ohio, after all. (Not that drinking much appealed to him, after witnessing the mess that a fondness for alcohol had made of his father’s teaching career and life in general.)
Simon Rose—a rather large player in the world of second-tier cable television—had demonstrated a certain level of confidence in him. Yet he detected a muted trace of condescension in this last-minute pep talk. Did Anne and Gary expect him to back out of the whole affair, now that it was time to actually walk down the Shaman’s Highway?
“We’re supposed to be encouraging him,” Gary cut in, perhaps sensing what Jason had sensed. “I’m not going to lie to you, Jason: This road scares me, but I’m sure there’s nothing here that you can’t survive.”
“Thanks,” Jason said, suddenly eager to get moving. He didn't want to talk to these two people any longer. He had been feeling buoyant and confident. They were trying to psyche him out; and if he stayed here much longer they might succeed.
“Well, then,” Gary said. “Without further ado.”
Gary climbed into the pickup truck and started the ignition. Anne gave him a final little smile of encouragement and bravely stepped into the driver’s seat of his Taurus. Jason was relieved to see that there was plenty of clearance between her pregnant abdomen and the car’s steering wheel.
They both gave him a little wave as they departed. Jason watched the pickup truck, and then his own car, move forward and pause at the edge of the parking lot, the turn signals of both vehicles blinking. They turned right onto Route 68; the Ford Taurus’s engine pinged and knocked while it gained speed.
Jason stood there and watched the red taillights move farther away into the distance. Then both vehicles rounded a bend in the road and the taillights were gone.
Now it was his turn to follow them, albeit at a much slower pace, and without the safety that a moving vehicle’s speed and isolation would bring.
That was no way to think about matters, though, was it? He had to be careful, or else he would psyche himself out.
I’ll be walking down the very same road that they are driving down right now, Jason thought. That was one realization to banish any misgivings he might have about this walk: He would simply be retracing the route of the Toyota truck and his Taurus. He had no doubt that within a half hour Anne and Gary would be sitting in the all-night pancake restaurant in John’s Mistake. They weren’t going to fall victim to hellhounds or demonic witches, or the ghosts of long-dead Shawnees. And neither would he.
“The sooner you start, the sooner you get there,” Jason whispered to himself. He shouldered his backpack and moved carefully forward, being careful to avoid a carload of teenagers that was pulling into the Country Creamery. “You goin’ hikin’, man?” one of them shouted out the window—the boy was not trying to be threatening; he was simply reveling in his freedom to be an unoriginal smartass. The youth was not much younger than Jason, truth be told. In the same car was another boy of roughly the same age and two young women. The young women were attractive in a country-girl sort of way.
There was a significance here beyond the boy’s shouted remark, or the prettiness of the two girls: The four locals had arrived along Route 68 from the south. This meant that at least part of their journey would have carried them through the Shaman’s Highway.
You see, Jason thought. These kids obviously aren’t afraid of that road. Why should I be?
It was a good argument, and a solid one to bear in mind as he began his journey in earnest. He walked up to the road and—after checking for headlights in both directions—crossed over to the far side, so that he would be walking against the flow of oncoming traffic.
Jason looked south, down the expanse of Route 68, into the Shaman’s Highway. The asphalt of the two-lane road gleamed in the moonlight. He stopped to make a short video segment with the camcorder.
“I am now leaving the town of Wagosh, Ohio,” he said. There didn't seem to be much else to say. But he needed to say something more. “Into the Shaman’s Highway,” he added. “I’m going to find out now if all of the legends about this road are true.”
He returned the camcorder to his backpack as he walked; there was nothing worth filming here. If there were real phenomena on this route, he would almost certainly find them farther down the road, deeper inside the Shaman’s Highway. There wouldn't be any demons or boogeymen within shouting distance of the Country Creamery.
Then he saw a swirl of dark shapes on the roadway, and for a moment he thought that he had encountered his first supernatural entity—barely two minutes into his walk. But a closer inspection and few more paces forward revealed the shapes to be crows. They were picking over the remains of some small creature that had found itself in the middle of the road at the wrong time; and now its flattened body had become offal for these scavenger birds of prey.
He passed the metal highway sign that indicated the border of Wagosh proper. Off to one side he saw a water tower, its white girth faintly glowing in the moonlight. The town’s name was stenciled across the surface of the water tower in black lettering. A handful of stars could be seen dimly in the sky above the tower, their brilliance diminished by traces of illumination from the nearby town and the full moon.
This was the last outpost of Wagosh, and the comfort and safety it provided. From here on, there would be scattered human habitation, but he had passed the last threshold of real, honest-to-goodness urban settlement. There would be no more ice cream shops and Walmarts, no more brightly lit storefronts where he would be sure to find fellow human beings in considerable numbers. From here on out the only people would be those who resided in lonely farmhouses set back from the road; and even those would be few and far between—at least until he reached John’s Mistake. Wagosh was not much; but it was at least a place of electric lights and people—plenty of people. And Wagosh was now behind him.
This time last week, he had barely known that Wagosh existed. Over the intervening space of days he had become a minor expert in the town and its history. While doing his online research, he had learned that wagosh was a Shawnee word—“fox” in the Native American language. Upon acquiring this informational tidbit, he had then proceeded to research the Shawnee language in more depth. (That was always the way Internet searches seemed to work: You researched one thing, and before long you were researching a half dozen tangentially related things.)
The language that had given this town its name was a linguistic dinosaur. A member of the Algonquin family of languages, Shawnee had once been spoken throughout Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia. (Or rather in the lands that would become these states; the Shawnee themselves recognized no such distinctions, of course.) Jason had never met a Shawnee speaker, and there was a reason for that: Today the language was practically extinct, fluent speakers of this Native American tongue now numbering no more than a few hundred. The Shawnee had lost their fight against the whites in the early nineteenth century, and it had been all downhill for them and their language and culture after that. Today the remnants of the tribe were scattered throughout the Midwest; pockets of them still lived in Ohio, where they had more or less assimilated. Some also lived in Oklahoma, to where they had been transferred by the Indian Removal Act of 1830, a law that had been signed by President Andrew Jackson.
While he had been thinking about the Shawnee and President Jackson, the trees on either side of him had changed. The land at the immediate southern edge of Wagosh had been a belt of cleared high grass meadows rimmed with pockets of undergrowth. Now—still less than a mile into his walk—the landscape had abruptly changed. He was in the woods now—the real woods. On both sides of him were massive trees—towering oaks and hickories, he supposed; the exact species were all but impossible to discern in the dark. Some of these would have been saplings when Andrew Jackson was President. He felt suddenly small, placed here among these trees that had sprung up a hundred years or more before his birth.
In the moonlight the bark of the trees nearest to the road was the color of ash. The tree trunks glowed ever so slightly. There was not much visibility farther back into the woods. Perhaps it would not be a good idea to tempt his surroundings by scanning the undergrowth too closely. Amid the shadows, his eyes could play tricks on him.
He removed the camcorder from his backpack again and took a short bit of footage, but there was nothing here but trees. “I am now fully inside the Shaman’s Highway,” he said, and that sounded more than a little inane—nothing that was going to impress any cable television audience. The camcorder’s night vision allowed him to see farther back into the woods: He scanned the white-green glowing trunks for any signs of movement. There were none, though; and redundant footage of this spot seemed like a waste of space on the camcorder’s limited hard drive. He clicked the camcorder’s on/off toggle button and returned it to his backpack.
Jason stared up into the treetops. The moon was not visible here, though its light lent a degree of illumination to the canopy overhead. This place felt ancient, and yes—more than a little eerie. But was it going to be filmworthy? That was the question.
He whirled to his left as a branch snapped somewhere. He stared back into the inscrutable maze of trees. It was seriously dark now. He could see nothing unless he resorted to the night vision camcorder or his flashlight, both of which were now stowed in his backpack. He stopped and listened.
If someone were walking toward me through those woods, they would be practically on top of me before I would even be able to see them, Jason thought.
He paused on the roadway, straining his ears for any telltale sound—a discernable footstep or another indication of sentient activity. To his relief, there were no more sounds—no footsteps or low growls. And thankfully no breathing. It had probably been nothing more than a raccoon or a possum. These woods would be full of such creatures. There would also be shrews, field mice, and probably bats as well. None of these animals would present any threat. When had a person ever been killed by a rampaging possum or a field mouse, after all?
What about the Shawnee, though? If there were any Shawnee spirits in these woods, one could bet that they would not be disposed to be friendly to a lone white interloper with a backpack full of twenty-first century technology. Am I walking into a Native American burial ground? he wondered. Do the bones of long-dead Shawnee warriors lie on either side of me?
But so what? What if I am walking through a Native American boneyard? he countered to himself. According to the online material about the Shaman’s Highway, the Shawnee burial ground comprised only one theory that purported to explain this area’s paranormal activity. Another theory cited a satanic cult of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Long-ago teens and early twentysomethings who had smoked weed and chanted at the spirits of the great black beyond. Had devil-worshipping hippies once performed unspeakable rites in these woods? Had they summoned something truly horrible from another world?
Stop it, he corrected himself. You don't even buy into that stuff.
Or to be more precise, you’re an agnostic, right? You don’t know exactly what you buy into.
Keep walking, he told himself.
The overhead tree branches eventually receded; he reached a place where the forest was set back from the road again. There was still nothing that warranted the camcorder, but he did stop to snap a few photos with his iPhone; the landscape was quite visible now in the moonlight. Then he activated the iPhone’s voice memo function and spoke into the microphone. “I am well into the Shaman’s Highway. So far I don’t see anything but a lot of woods. Lots and lots of woods.”
He arrived at the top of a hill, and he heard the sound of water running from the far side of the road. After looking in both directions for headlights, he crossed the pavement and looked down into the valley on the other side.
A shaft of moonlight illuminated a shallow creek that cut a winding path through the forest floor. The damp rocks of the creek and the muddy banks glistened. Jason noticed a large boulder on the near bank, and a forest floor strewn with poison ivy plants and the fallen leaves of past summers.
Something moved through the leafy, decaying carpet. Jason felt his heart lurch into his throat. Then he realized that it was only a snake—but it was a large one. The black reptile looked to be about two feet in length. It cut a sinuous path through the fallen leaves. It was no doubt looking for prey. Perhaps it was hunting one of the small mammals that had earlier startled him.
He recalled Gary’s remark about the possibility of a snakebite. Having grown up in the suburbs, Jason was no amateur zoologist; but to the best of his knowledge poisonous snakes weren’t a major threat in Ohio. The reptile slithering near the creek was probably a non-venomous rat snake or a blacksnake.
Then he recalled what he had learned in the Introduction to Theology class that he had taken to fulfill a general studies requirement: In most of the world’s major religions, the serpent was regarded as an agent of evil. In the Book of Genesis, Satan made his first appearance in the form of a snake.
Stop it, he thought. You’re out in the middle of the woods, in an unfamiliar environment. You are going to see and hear things that you aren’t accustomed to. That’s par for the course in any new environment. He knew that the snake was nothing more than a reptile, and its presence a natural occurrence in the woods at night.
It’s only the atmosphere here, he resolved. That snake is probably the most dangerous thing in these woods; and it’s essentially harmless, I’d bet.
The snake disappeared beneath a clump of tangled foliage. Jason sighed and returned to the road.
End of excerpt