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.
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—tandorichicken 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.
Leaving Louis’s office, it occurred to me that I hadn’t yet taken Keith Conway into consideration, and that yes, he might be a problem.
But had Keith Conway even noticed Diane Parker?
My answer to that question was not long in coming.
“Hey, Stevie!” I heard someone shout.
Speak of the devil. Or Keith Conway. Scant difference between the two.
Keith worked back in the kitchen area. I could see his tall, broad-shouldered frame between the metal shelves that the kitchen crew used to supply the customer service staff with cooked menu items, almost all of them fried.
Keith’s long blond hair was tied back in a hairnet. He was smiling sardonically at me, accenting that dimpled chin of his, which I found ridiculous, but which I had once heard a girl at West Clermont describe as “the likeness of an ancient Greek god.”
This same girl was quite intelligent. (How many high school students, when pushed for a metaphor, go instinctively to classical mythology, after all?) And I would have thought her amply capable of seeing past Keith Conway’s superficial charms. But I still had much to learn—or at least to accept—about such matters.
“Come back here,” Keith said, beckoning to me. He was standing over one of the fryers, tending a batch of the uniformly cut, uniformly cooked French fries that have always been a signature staple of McDonald’s.
I was torn. I should really have proceeded directly to my cash register. But I also wanted to hear what Keith Conway had to say. Ordinarily, I regarded Keith as a noisome presence to be avoided. But now I was in intelligence-gathering mode.
The other two cashiers on duty had been watching me while I was talking to Louis. They were watching me now, too, as I talked to Keith Conway.
“Hey, Steve,” Jenny Tierney said, pulling some coins from her register’s cash tray to give to a customer. “Come on. We’re backing up here.”
Jenny had just graduated from South Clermont High School. I didn’t know her well, and that was fine with me. Jenny had a reputation for being something of a tattletale, a goody-two-shoes who was always telling other people what to do.
But in this instance she wasn’t being unreasonable: I looked out into the dining area and saw that there was, indeed, a line backing up behind both of the two cash registers that were currently in operation.
“I’ll be right there,” I said. And then I stepped around the shelves and back into the kitchen area.
In contemporary parlance, Keith and I were what might be called “frenemies”. We had known each other forever, really—ever since our days of elementary school and tee-ball. But we were like oil and water together, and both of us knew it. We had never come to blows; and we maintained an external pretense of civility. We were teenage boys, however, and that pretense of civility occasionally cracked.
As soon as I walked back into the kitchen area, two of Keith’s sycophants immediately fixed their attention on me, clearly interested in what was about to happen next. Keith was the unofficial leader of the guys in the kitchen on the night shift.
Jonesey, a seventeen year-old who attended South Clermont, diverted his attention from his fryer to fix his gaze on his leader. Jonesey—whose actual name was Albert Jones—would seemingly miss no opportunity to curry favor with Keith.
The other Keith Conway follower, a chubby West Clermont junior named Scott Thomas, was watching and listening, too. He was chopping unions on a metal table near the fryers, but that work was paused as I stepped back into the kitchen.
“How are you doin’, Stevie?” Keith asked.
“Excellent,” I said. “Never better.”
My mother called me Stevie, and that was fine. But when Keith adopted the diminutive form of my name, it was usually because he was about to annoy me.
“I guess you’ve seen the new girl,” Keith said, jumping right to the heart of the matter. “Diane.”
“No,” I said. “I haven’t seen her.” I hadn’t yet, after all.
Keith made a noise with his lips that suggested I was lying. Scott Thomas and Jonesey simpered at their master, and sneered at me.
“Don’t tell me you don’t think she’s cute,” Keith insisted.
“Have you even heard me, Keith? I just got here. I haven’t seen her yet.”
“Well, when you do, you’re going to think she’s cute. And you shouldn’t get your hopes up. That girl is sweet on me, I’m telling you. She’s going to be taking a ride in the Love Machine any day now.”
This prompted much laughter and sniggering from the red-haired Jonesy, as well as the chubby Scott.
Keith drove a black 1971 Trans Am. He constantly referred to it as his “Love Machine”.
And not entirely without reason. Plenty of girls found Keith attractive. Not only was he a big blond guy with an attitude. He occupied a niche between jock and outlaw that was uniquely possible in an environment like Clermont County.
Keith played tight end for the West Clermont football team. He was also fond of smoking weed, and binge drinking. Keith had been arrested at least once for drunk driving. He saw no contradiction between these two modes of behavior.
And many girls—including some otherwise smart ones—found this combination irresistibly appealing.
“Steve—come on!” I heard Jenny Tierney shout from the cashiers’ area. “We need some help here.”
“I’ve got to get to work, Keith,” I said. “Later.”
“I think you’ve had excitement enough for today,” Jung-Ho said. “Let’s get on to more mundane matters.”
There was the slightest smirk on Jung-Ho’s face. Although Barry did not appear to be under any direct threat for the moment, today he had awakened in a prison cell in the worst country on earth. He had been beaten, threatened with death, and forced to witness the executions of innocent people.
Surely this little pipsqueak doesn’t think that what I’ve gone through today is funny, Barry wondered.
“What mundane matters?” Barry asked.
“I’m talking about your living accommodations, of course. Follow me.”
Jung-Ho stood, and exited the little meeting room. Barry followed, Sgt. Park glaring at him the whole time. They made two right turns, and came to a corridor that had a long row of closed wooden doors on both sides. There were numbers on the doors.
These are like, apartments, Barry thought. Or dorm rooms.
Jung-Ho walked down to the approximate middle of the hall. He indicated the door to his right.
“This is yours Barry. Room number two-two-six.”
Barry followed Jung-ho. (There was nothing else for him to do, after all.) He stood in the hallway, Sgt. Park scowling, as Jung-Ho turned the doorknob and pushed the door open.
“Have a look,” Jung-Ho said, walking in ahead of Barry.
Barry did. The room, currently lit by the gray North Korean sunlight, looked like the North Koreans’ best attempt at reproducing a college dorm room.
The room was much smaller than the master bedroom of his condo in Schaumburg, Illinois. But it was about the same size as the bedroom he had made due with as a kid, in his parents’ home in their Chicago neighborhood of Franklin Park.
There was a bed—a cot, really—in one corner of the room. It was covered with several blankets, with a small, thin pillow at the top.
There was no bureau or chest of drawers. But there were three built-in shelves on one side of the room. The shelves had been loaded with what looked like about a week’s worth of clothes, all copies of the drab clothing he had been given in the prison, after the forced washing. At the near end of the middle shelf Barry could see toiletries: a toothbrush and soap, and a men’s shaving kit.
Jung-Ho walked across the room, and opened a door that Barry had only just now noticed.
“You will have your own lavatory and shower, too, Barry. The commode and the sink both work. The water may not be hot enough for your liking, but it’s not ice-cold, either, most of the time.”
Jung-Ho walked over to the room’s only window.
“From here you have a view of much of the camp. On a good day, you can see all the way to the Taedong River.”
“My vacation in North Korea,” Barry said.
“I think you will find, Barry, that your life will go much better here if you try to make the best of things. I know this isn’t what you had planned. But you are here now, you are not leaving, and your only real option is to work with us. In return, you will be treated fairly, and given an opportunity to contribute to the development of the DPRK.”
“What choice do I have?” Barry said.
But of course, Jung-Ho ignored the question.
“There is an older woman who will take care of your laundry once per week, and do some light cleaning. Her name is Ha-yoon. She does not speak any English, but you should have little need to talk to her.”
“I’m sure that will be the least of my problems.”
“You will eat your meals in the canteen. To get there, you exit the way we came in, and take a right. It’s the big building in the center of the adjacent compound. To the right of the exit.”
Jung-Ho pointed to the clock, an old mechanical type, above the door.
“Dinner is served between six o’clock and six-thirty. Would you like me to come back at dinnertime to show you the way?”
“I think I can find it,” Barry said. He had had enough of Jung-Ho’s company for one day.
“Very well. You are permitted to move more or less freely within the main area of the camp that has been allocated for our foreign friends. There are only a few rules and restrictions. You are to stay away from the fences, and you are not permitted to enter the dorm room of another foreign guest.”
In other words, Barry realized, they don’t want anyone here trying to escape, or gathering privately to plot an escape plan.
“I think I can abide by that,” Barry said.
“All right. You don’t have to worry about alarm clocks here. Everyone is awakened by loudspeaker at five a.m. A light breakfast is served in the canteen between five-thirty and six. At six-thirty tomorrow morning I will be here to pick you up, and take you to your first day of work at the DPRK Tour Agency.”
Jung-Ho left him after that, and he mercifully took Sgt. Park with him.
Barry sat on his cot and assessed his surroundings.
It was all pretty spartan, by North American, Western European, or Japanese standards. But it was livable. Barry had never been in the U.S. Army, but he imagined that these conditions were not far from what a new enlistee might have in boot camp.
These accommodations, basic as they were, were no doubt better than what the average citizen of this country had. Jung-Ho had been truthful about that much.
They wanted to keep him cowed, but they were also perceptive enough to realize that a native of the US—of any normal country, really—would only do so much under conditions of constant abject terror and extreme privation.
They wanted him to perform at a high level, with the full knowledge that any sign of defiance would be met with immediate, brutal retribution.
The carrot and the stick.
The carrot was a combination of food and housing that most North Koreans would kill for.
And the stick?
Well, that was obvious, wasn’t it? They had shown him the stick back in the courtyard of that repurposed Japanese prison.
And someday, they would be done with him. Then he would meet the same fate as those prisoners on the firing line.
They would put a bullet in his head, and bury him in a pit somewhere. Or toss his corpse in an incinerator. Barry knew that North Korea was a desperately poor country that had virtually no conventional economy. But the one thing the country made in abundance was corpses.
Barry thought about his plans to eat lunch with Tessa and Ryan this Saturday. It was safe to say that given his current circumstances, that lunch date wasn’t going to happen.
What would his family think when they realized that he hadn’t returned from Japan? Because he had screwed up his marriage, he had already been a far from ideal father for Ryan and Tessa.
And now this.
I want to kill them, Barry thought, picturing Jung-Ho’s smug smirks, and Sgt. Park’s boorish grimaces.
I’m going to escape from here, he silently assured himself. I don’t know how yet. But I’m going to get out of here. If I have to die trying.
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.
At first Jung-Ho said nothing, so Barry rephrased and qualified the question.
“What do you people want from me? I have some money, but it’s all back in the United States. And it isn’t very much money—at least it wouldn’t be much to a national government—not even yours. You people probably spent more money getting me here than I could possibly give you. I suppose you could pressure the American government for some concessions in return for my release, but the current American administration isn’t exactly known for its love of compromise.”
“I already told you, Barry, we don’t want money from you. Nor do we want to use you as a…bargaining chip.”
“I’m confused then,” Barry said. “Very confused.”
“The Democratic People’s Republic is surrounded by enemies. There are many nations on earth that want to see our downfall. Nevertheless, our Supreme Leader works tirelessly for our peaceful development.”
Barry wanted to interrupt. He knew, however, that the North Koreans took their national propaganda as a kind of catechism. They were worse than religious fanatics.
Let him get to the point, Barry thought. He will eventually.
“Our country therefore liberates the labor of certain foreigners with specialized skills,” Jung-Ho said, “to use for a higher purpose.”
Now Barry sensed a connection to his presence here—sort of.
“You mean that you kidnap foreigners and force them to work for your government?”
“We don’t kidnap them, Barry. We liberate them. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is the most perfect, most wonderful nation on earth. For seventy years, we have been blessed to receive the guidance of the Kims. Kim il-Sung, our Eternal Leader, Kim Jong-il, our Great Leader, and Kim Jung-un, our present, Supreme Leader.”
“All fine and good, Jung-Ho,” Barry said. “But what could you people possibly want from me? I’m not a nuclear physicist or a germ warfare biologist. I’ve never been in the military. Hell, I wasn’t even in the Boy Scouts.”
“We didn’t liberate you to work on our weapons systems, Barry. You’re here because of your work as a marketing consultant.”
“You’re kidding me.” Barry said.
“Oh, I assure you, Barry: This is no joke. That much, at least, we should be able to agree on.”
Barry sat there, looking at Jung-Ho incredulously.
“Why?” he asked. “You don’t even have a market economy here. Everything in North Korea is done on a command-and-control basis. Like the USSR or China used to be, about thirty or forty years ago. What could you people possibly want with a marketing consultant? You don’t even do any marketing.”
“You are partially right,” Jung-Ho said. “Internally, our country is free of the wasteful competition that characterizes capitalist economies. But the rest of the world is not as developed or enlightened as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. We are therefore forced to deal with the outside world…on their own terms. Most of all, we have a need for hard currency.”
“But you have nothing to sell,” Barry said, sounding harsh—and not caring. “You don’t even make enough food and goods for your own people. And you think you’re going to somehow compete in the international marketplace? With what? That shoddy SUV we rode here in?”
“That,” Jung-Ho said, “is in the future. We are aware of our present limitations. As I said, our country has been set back by the aggressions of the American imperialists and their running dog lackeys.”
Barry grunted impatiently. He was sick of this game. He felt a sudden urge to lunge across the table, and strangle Jung-Ho with his bare hands.
And then Sgt. Park would shoot him. No—for now, at least, he had to keep this man talking—had to figure out what they wanted from him.
“I still don’t understand what you want from me, Jung-Ho. Please go on.”
“We cannot yet sell cars and computers and refrigerators on the international market,” Jung-Ho said. “But even the Americans have not taken our beautiful country away from us. One of the sectors that the Supreme Leader is most interested in developing is tourism. And that, Barry Lawson, is why you are here. You are going to create a plan for marketing the DPRK as the world’s premier tourist destination.”
Despite the already overwhelming nature of the present circumstances, Barry found himself, well…flabbergasted.
Was this guy kidding? Barry wondered. In the back of his mind, he dared to hope that all of this might be some grand practical joke, perhaps staged by Nagase and Sato, or some of his buddies back home in Chicago.
But he knew with certainty that this was all deadly real. The firing line in the courtyard had proven that.
Nevertheless, this struck Barry as pure fantasy.
“Jung-Ho,” Barry said, as gently as he could. That will never work. Your country is an international pariah—an outcast. Americans can’t even come here.”
Jung-Ho made a short, bitter laugh in reply. “You Americans always assume that your country is the center of the world. Many people from many countries visit the DPRK every year. We want more foreign visitors. And we understand that in order to achieve this, we must learn how to market our country abroad. This is where you come in, Barry Lawson.”
“Even I can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear,” Barry said.
The idiom apparently went over Jung-Ho’s head. He gave Barry a puzzled look.
“That might be difficult, Jung-Ho,” Barry said. “That’s what I’m saying.” Then he added: “Even if I was inclined to help you.”
Jung-Ho shook his head. “Not so difficult. Our country has an abundance of natural resources. On the border between China and the DPRK is a crater lake called Heaven Lake. It is one of the most beautiful places in the world, Barry. Have you ever heard of it?”
“No,” Barry admitted. “I haven’t.” Barry knew nothing of the geography of North Korea—save that it was north of South Korea, and that the capital city was Pyongyang.
“You haven’t heard of it because we haven’t yet succeeded in telling the people of the world about all that we have to share: Not just our natural treasures, but also the glorious national buildings and monuments that have been constructed under the leadership of our Eternal Leader, our Great Leader, and our Supreme Leader.”
Barry shook his head. They had kidnapped him from Japan—for this?
Barry knew better than to protest further. In his mind, he was already playing the long game. These people wanted something from him. For the time being, that was keeping him alive.
“In exchangefor your cooperation,” Jung-Ho said, “you will live a comfortable life here. Much better than almost all of the North Korea population.”
I was living just fine before I came here, Barry thought, but did not say. He knew that little could be gained by goading his captors.
“There are other foreigners here,” Jung-Ho continued. His tone suggested that he really did want to sell the whole idea to Barry. “You will be able to mix freely with them at certain times. There are rules here, but this is not a prison camp. This is a camp for foreign friends of the DPRK, who are here voluntarily.”
“‘Voluntarily’?” Barry said. “And if I walked out the front gate?”
“You cannot walk out the front gate,” Jung-Ho said. “As you saw when we entered, it is locked, and there is a guard there—for your safety.”
“Suppose I find a way.”
“In that case, Barry, you would be subject to punishment. As I said, there are rules here.”
Finally they reachedthe top of the stairs. They walked Barry down a concrete hallway. Jung-Ho told him to turn left into an open doorway. He did.
The room looked much like a meeting room in Japan. There was a window with translucent glass that admitted light, but the window did not permit any real view of the outside.
There were no pictures on the wall, save one small portrait of Kim Jong-un, the current dictator of the country.
There was a small table with four chairs. Jung-Ho gestured for Barry to sit. Jung-Ho sat across the table from him.
Sgt. Park remained standing in the doorway. The big man looked anxious to administer another beating.
“You don’t like Sgt. Park very much, do you?” Jung-Ho asked.
“I don’t like any of you,” Barry said honestly. “You’ve kidnapped me and brought me here unlawfully. I’m cooperating only under duress. But to answer your question: No, I don’t care for men who beat me with clubs. Would you?”
Jung-Ho ignored all of the questions in what Barry had just said—both implied and explicit. Instead, he posed another question.
“Are you familiar with Panmunjom?” Jung-Ho asked.
“No,” Barry said. “I must have missed that section of the tour book.”
Once again, Jung-Ho let the sarcasm pass.
“Panmunjom is located on the DMZ. The Demilitarized Zone, the so-called JSA, Joint Security Area, or Truce Village. Surely you’ve seen photos of it.”
“I suppose so,” Barry allowed. He had, indeed, seen photos of the Truce Village at the DMZ. It was a narrow conglomeration of buildings, where small numbers of lightly armed soldiers from North Korea stood only yards apart from soldiers of South Korea and the United States.
Barry also knew that this was a remnant from the still unsettled Korean conflict. It was here that the two technically-still-at-war sides carried out negotiations—as they had been since the early 1950s.
“Park was stationed at Panmunjom for a number of years,” Jung-Ho went on. “We always send our largest men there. So do the American imperialists and their lackeys in the South. I believe the rule for the American side is that soldiers have to be at least six feet tall. We try to match the same standards. But while it isn’t hard to find a six-feet tall American, it is much more difficult here. As you probably know, foreign aggression and trade embargoes have made food scarce, and lowered nutritional standards. That means that people in the DPRK are shorter, as a rule. Sergeant Park, therefore, was a natural choice for an assignment at Panmunjom. But he’s been here at the Yang-Suk Foreign Friends Camp for two years.”
Barry was struck by the surreal nature of all this. Less than an hour ago, he had been in the horrible courtyard, moments away from execution. Now Jung-Ho was having a civil, if ideologically tainted, conversation with him. As if he really was a foreign friend.
This is all staged, Barry reminded himself.
Barry heard the sound of someone pushing a wheeled cart in the hallway outside. Sgt. Park stepped aside. An older woman, wearing plain civilian dress, entered with a cart bearing a plate full of rice, and what looked like pickled vegetables. There was also a glass pitcher full of water, and a drinking glass.
Barry’s stomach growled at the sight of the food. He suddenly wanted the water very badly, too.
“You must be hungry,” Jung-Ho said. “And thirsty.”
Barry knew that he was both famished and dehydrated. He wanted to tell Jung-Ho to go to hell, and to take his food and water with him. He wanted to refuse even this modest nourishment from the North Korean regime.
He knew, though, that he was dramatically weakened, and a hunger strike wasn’t going to get him out of here. North Korea wasn’t the kind of place where hunger strikes were effective. The regime had already placed most of the country on an involuntary hunger strike.
The woman placed the food and water before Barry, along with a pair of chopsticks.
The water didn’t look completely clean. It also appeared to be room temperature. But if it didn’t kill him or give him dysentery, it would quench the aching thirst that now tormented him—a thirst that he had mostly ignored until now, having been shocked and awed by so much else.
Barry took a closer look at the items before him. The food was rice and pickled vegetables, just as he had thought. Plain, with perhaps a minimal dash of spice. A far cry from the fare served at the Ichiryu Hotel Restaurant.
“Can you use chopsticks?” Jung-Ho asked. “If not—”
“Chopsticks are fine,” Barry said, picking up the two wooden sticks. He positioned them in his right hand, which was suddenly shaking.
Jung-Ho said something to the woman. She left with her cart.
“Don’t eat too fast,” Jung Ho told Barry. “Or you’ll be sick. You haven’t eaten since your dinner in Osaka.”
“How much time has past since I was in Osaka?” Barry asked.
“About forty-eight hours.”
Forty-eight hours. He had missed his flight, of course. By now, Tessa and Ryan were probably wondering about him. Nagase and Sato were anxiously looking for those emails he’d promised.
Barry knew that right now he needed to get this food and water inside him.
He ate and drank, barely tasting any of it. All the while, he tried to figure a way out of this mess.
He couldn’t think of any—not yet, at least.
“How is the food?” Jung-Ho asked.
“The food is fine,” Barry said.
“Would you like anything else? We don’t have much—but I could order some tea for you, if you’d like.”
Now it was Barry’s turn to selectively ignore what was said. He was tired of this game. He swallowed the last bite of rice, and drank the last of the water in his glass. Then he spoke.
“I want some answers,” he said. “I want to know why I’m here, what you people want from me, and when I’m going home.”
Today a regular reader of this blog asked me for my opinion about Wattpad, and whether I would ever consider posting any content there.
To cut right to the chase: I have nothing against Wattpad, but my content would be a bad fit on the site.
I’ve visited Wattpad. (I even have a member login.) Everything on Wattpad seems to be written for teenagers by teenagers–especially teenage girls.
I think it’s great that the younger generation is taking an active interest in storytelling (as opposed to the mind-numbing white noise of social media), and that they have an online place to practice their skills, and display their work.
I also think it’s best if people my age stay away from there. I graduated from high school 33 years ago, after all.
The writer should know his place; and my place isn’t Wattpad.