Evan had no idea what to make of Hugh’s advice. Did Hugh think that he was some kind of a child? This sounded like the sort of thing his mother would have said years ago—on the few occasions when his mother actually noticed his existence. She would have told him to stay close while they were out at the shopping mall—not to stray away from her protection. But why would his colleague say something like that now? He might be the youngster on the team, relatively speaking, but he was still an adult.
“What the heck are you getting at Hugh? Would you care to elaborate?”
Hugh gave him another pause, as if weighing whether or not he should reveal some crucial but sensitive bit of information. Then he was suddenly distracted by something behind Evan’s shoulder, toward the main entrance of the McDonald’s.
“Amanda’s back,” Hugh muttered discreetly, in a barely audible voice.
Amanda’s sudden reappearance meant that the explanation of Hugh’s cryptic advice would have to wait. Amanda took her seat at the table, her bad mood palpable. What was just as obvious, though, was the fact that she was attempting to hide it. The managers at Merlesoft all maintained a constant front of rah-rah-rah enthusiasm. That was part of the corporate culture. Amanda would not allow a breakup with a boyfriend to put a crack in that all-important managerial veneer—not if she could help it.
“Well, guys, are you ready to get going?” she said with a forced camaraderie that none of them felt. She sipped her coffee and stood up again. Evan permitted himself a discreet glance at her figure. Although she was ten years his senior, and the bane of his existence most days, he had to admit that Amanda Kearns, sales manager at Merlesoft Software Systems, was hot. She was about 5’10”—almost Evan’s height, and she had the long, lanky build of a former athlete.
Evan vaguely recalled her mentioning, in a rare moment of actual human conversation, that she had competed in the hurdles event in high school and college track. She was in good shape for a thirty-five year-old, you had to give her that. (Certainly she was in better shape than Hugh, who was in his forties; but Hugh’s health problems put him in a whole separate category.) Amanda wore her hair long, her one concession to un-corporate femininity. Most of the female heavy hitters at Merlesoft preferred short hairstyles that bordered on androgynous. But not Amanda. She was all woman.
You want her, Evan, he thought to himself. That’s part of why you despise her so. And you’re angry because she sees you as a subordinate, not as a man.
Evan realized that his feelings toward Amanda were at least a little bit complicated. Truth be told, he was mildly resentful at being bossed around by a woman that he found attractive. That somehow added insult to injury. Moreover, his professional subordination to her made any sort of a relationship—even a brief hookup—all but impossible.
But there was also the fact that Amanda did seem to enjoy riding him—and not in the way that he would have preferred.
Evan and Hugh both nodded, the latter’s mention of the office complex called Lakeview Towers temporarily forgotten—at least by Evan. Whatever Hugh was going to caution him about, it couldn’t have been that important in the big scheme of things. It certainly wasn’t anyone’s priority.
Evan began to steel himself for the professional trial that lay directly ahead. Merlesoft’s annual performance review season was only one month away. Whatever he pulled off successfully (or screwed up) today would have a significant impact on the ratings that Amanda would assign him in October.
Evan dreaded his upcoming performance review even more than he dreaded the “do or die” meeting with the important, persnickety clients at Rich, Litchfield, and Baker. A great deal was hanging on this morning’s sales presentation.
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 Jason 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.