Footsteps in the Dark (Ginger Man 14D)

A hunter, Charlie thought as the sound of footsteps approached in the dark, crushing fallen limbs and leaves on the ground, skik-frump. Yes they were close to the subdivision, any hunter caught in this area would certainly be fined, but if he’d been tracking a deer from deeper in the forest . . .

“Hi there.” Charlie’s call was loud and distinctly human, like he’d been told to do when encountering a hunter in the woods.

skik-frump, then the footsteps stopped suddenly. Charlie held his breath, listening intently, his eyes focused on the darkness in front of him.

skik-frump
skik-frump

The footfalls were much closer. And directly behind him.

A second hunter? Charlie turned sharply, called out again. The footsteps stopped again, and a moment later skik-frump, off to his right, closer still. Whoever was out there was out there was making no attempt to hide their (his?) approach, but seemed intent on not identifying themselves (himself? itself?), or revealing exactly where they were.

“Hey, do me a favor.” Charlie knew he wasn’t hiding the fear in his voice, but if that admission brought this encounter to an end, he was all for it. “Just — say something, OK?”

skik-frump
skik-frump

He guessed the footsteps were only a few feet away now. Charlie squatted down, got down on his knees and searched the ground for a rock, or stick. His hands found a log, a little thicker than a baseball bat, and he picked it up, guessing in the darkness it was two, three feet long. It felt solid in his hands, not rotted. Still on his knees, Charlie held himself still, listened.

skik-frump

Almost on top of him, and behind. Charlie bolted upright, and grabbing the log with both hands, turned and swung violently.

He stumbled, his blow hitting nothing but air. He set his feet for another blow, but he was hit suddenly in the back of his head, and what little light was present in the clearing vanished as he collapsed.

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Explanations (Ginger Man 14C)

Within that plastic carton, Charlie had found the proof he had been seeking, evidence that the odd events of the past week were directly related to each other. But — a Ginger Man? Really? Was that the only explanation for what he’d just discovered, that the story Mike had invented from the gjenganger legend, an animated corpse seeking revenge for its unhappy life, was somehow a premonition (Charlie remembered Mike using that word, had explained its meaning to him)? When his friend had written that description of the Ginger Man in that notebook Charlie had found (and had left in his pickup, dammit), was he predicting what would happen, what was happening now, months after his friend’s death?

“Jesus.” Charlie shook his head, suddenly realizing his scalp felt cold. He reached up, confirmed his suspicion that he was no longer wearing his baseball cap. He looked around the outside, then inside the tent, saw it lying on the canvas bottom. Must have been knocked off as he’d gotten out.

He put the baseball cap back on his head, his uncombed brown hair pushing down and out as he pressed it down. No, there were other explanations — a prank, for instance. Somebody who knew Mike, and had a sick sense of humor. Rune? Yes, that boy seemed to recall the gjenganger legend pretty quickly when Charlie had shown him that notebook. Seemed pretty full of himself, too. But not too strong-willed, Charlie was sure he could get him to confess pretty easy when confronted with the evidence. If he did it, of course. Other explanations . . . no, nobody’d said how long they’d been missing their stuff. Could have been months, before the accident at Pete’s Elbow. Maybe Mike was the one who had gathered all the stuff into this carton, he had been acting strange ever since coming back from college —

A tree branch snapped on the forested ground loudly, behind Charlie and several yards away. He’d spent enough time in the woods to know the sound could not have been made by any deer, even the largest buck, and larger animals (moose, bear) would rarely come this close to a populated area like the Pleasant Hill subdivision. Another snap, then another . . . the volume and spacing of the footfalls was definitely human.

And it was coming straight for Charlie.

The Lost are Found (Ginger Man 14B)

Charlie stumbled out into the clearing, nearly falling onto the carton he had opened in the tent. Enough moonlight had filtered down from the barren tree branches for him to make out its contents.

At the top lay a sweater, green with yellow floral prints. He recognized it immediately as the one Penny had worn to school that day a couple years ago, Jimbo’s meaty arm draped over her shoulder as they walked down the hall, the one Charlie had told Mike about, causing Mike to smirk and say that he told Jimbo which one to choose, which one Penny would like. The same sweater that Penny told Charlie had gone missing. He picked it up, held it up, could smell Penny’s perfume on it.

He set the sweater aside, looked back down into the carton. The moonlight caught a glimpse of jewelry; Charlie reached down, pulled out the brooch his mother had asked him to look for the other day. The one Mike had helped him pick out for a Mother’s Day present.

There was more. A small electronic device, looked like a music player or some kind personal entertainment device. He reached down to grab it, his thumb hitting a button and a clamshell lid opening. Jimbo had said his CD player was missing — a wedding gift from Mike.

There was something larger, made of wood. Charlie pulled it out, held it up so that it caught as much moonlight as could be managed. The words TREEHOUSE RULES was written in black paint, in Charlie’s handwriting. He’d made that sign for the treehouse he and Mike had built, in the pair of oaks on Charlie’s parents lot. The oaks that would be cut down soon, due to their sudden wilting.

He also saw a small piece of paper, a card really, at the bottom of the carton. He reached down, picked it up, held it up to his face. An appointment reminder card from Dr. Kovacs’ office.

Cartons (Ginger Man 14A)

Charlie hesitated before entering the tent. To revisit the location where he and Mike had spent so much of their childhood together . . . the fact that his friend was dead had never really left his mind the past week as he re-discovered Mike’s stories, re-read them to find out if they could help him make sense of what he and his friends had been experiencing. But standing now in front of Mike’s tent, — the devastating accident, the sudden and violent and most of all, senseless death of his friend, hit him like the runaway car that Mike had rammed into that tree on Pete’s Elbow.

He swallowed, feeling the dryness in his throat. Charlie knew he had come too far, not just physically but emotionally, to turn back now. He drew back the flap of the tent’s opening, bent forward, and shuffled inside.

The interior of the tent smelled damp and mildew-ridden, with a hint of spoiled meat. Exactly as Charlie had remembered. In the darkness he made out the shape of the two plastic cartons Mike had brought to the tent five, six years ago. The one on the right, Charlie strained his eyesight in the dim light and after a moment saw that this was the clear one, and with further concentration he made out its contents, the shapes of comic books and magazines stacked unevenly, like pancakes flipped haphazardly onto a plate. The one on the left, Charlie remembered it being opaque (green, he thought, but there was no way for him to make out colors in the forested darkness). His curiosity suddenly inspired, Charlie crawled over to the container, and opened it. He had no idea what he expected to find — perhaps more comics and magazines, or notebooks.

The interior was pitch black, but Charlie could make out the shape of the objects inside. No way  . . . he grabbed the sides of carton, lifted it an inch above the tent’s canvas floor, lurched forward and pushed it outside. He nearly ripped the tent’s opening as he rushed out, eager to discover whether in the soft moonlight he would be able to verify the contents he thought he had just seen.

Observe

First tournament of the season this morning. It’s been difficult to get to the club consistently, or practice on my own, or even work out regularly since I returned last month, so I’m expecting my results to be as uninspiring as they were before I took my leave in the spring.

Success today will not be measured by wins and losses, or my indicator, or my standing at the end of the tournament. Today is about observation — can  I see anything before it actually happens? Can I analyze what I see and make the correct decision in response? Can I execute that decision?

Tournaments are always a struggle between obsessing over results and learning. At the end of last season, I became too focused on results, allowed that to be the barometer for my success. This season I want to change that focus.

The Clearing (Ginger Man 13G)

Charlie parked his pickup in the small lot next to the park, which was little more than a playground, lit only by a solitary streetlight erected between it and the lot. Charlie exited his pickup, walked into the park, not being surprised at all to find himself alone.

The floor of the playground was covered with a thick layer of wood chips. Charlie walked to the center, turned back to verify nobody was following him. All he saw in the distance were lines of houses in the subdivision, interior lights beaming, looking to Charlie like lamps in the wilderness. He couldn’t see anybody outside; for all he knew, Charlie was alone in the chilly air of this October night.

He turned and walked past the slide, the swings, the wood chips giving way to manicured grass, then a row of wild grass and brush reaching his knees, until finally he reached the edge of the forest. Unlike his experience finding the park, Charlie felt confident that he was going in the right direction as his hands pushed back the low-hanging branches in his way. Of course, he realized — I’m on foot now, not driving; my feet know the way.

He remembered the last time he had visited Mike’s tent, over a year ago, the night before his friend left for college. They were quiet that evening, somber; there was no talk about their future plans, as they both silently realized that after fifteen years of friendship their futures were about to take them down very different paths.

Charlie remembered thinking there was one thing he needed to know on this night of ending. So he asked Mike if he ever believed all that stuff he wrote about, vampires and werewolves, those kind of things (he remembered, pulling a vine that had stuck on his leg). Mike had shrugged, inhaling again on the joint Charlie had passed him. “Yeah, until I was about ten. Then I asked my dad about it one night, and he just laughed.” He’d almost sounded bitter at the memory, as he passed the joint back to Charlie.

So why’d you keep writing the stories, Charlie’d asked. “Don’t know. In a way, they just seemed so real.” Charlie nearly tripped over a fallen log in the darkness, but kept walking into the growing darkness. Like–psychologically real, like these monsters represent our fears somehow (Charlie had read about that in a magazine).

Mike had stood up then, his lean body pacing in the dark wood around his tent. “Nah, not like that. I mean, like there’s things we don’t know about, but we know are out there. Superstition, I guess you call it. Things that don’t make sense. So you go looking for answers. That goes on all the time, things happen to you which you can’t explain, so you make up some explanation which makes it all make sense. Human nature, I guess. Well, back then, coming up with all these monster stories made the world make sense. You hear a bump in the night–it’s a monster stalking outside your window. You’re suddenly afraid–you can sense it out there, waiting for you to drop your guard.”

But you knew they were just stories, right? His foot splashed into a narrow stream — Charlie remembered filling a canteen here, must’ve been twelve at the time.

“Well, that don’t make no difference, really. Because all you got are these random events, and this story which explains them all–so you tend to believe the story, even though your know it can’t be true. That’s what makes the story so good–it’s not real, but it’s realer than anything else you have.”

Off to his left — yes, Charlie saw the underbrush and tree limbs giving way. Well, you’re stories were pretty good, Mike.

“Yeah. I liked coming up with them. You know–”

With a final dismissive push from the trees, Charlie stepped into the clearing. Erected between two trees, just as he remembered, was Mike’s tent.

“–sometimes I think back on them, and I kinda wish they were real. Know it sounds weird, but those stories always seemed better than real life.”

Finding the Park (Ginger Man 13F)

Charlie stepped into his pickup, turned on the engine and turned the vehicle tightly to the left, an abrupt u-turn away from the flaming building that had once been Jack’s Joint. It only then occurred to him that Maggie had come with him that evening, that she had let him leave without asking how she was getting back to his place. But that was her point, Charlie realized; she was merely acknowledging that he had abandoned her, now physically instead of just emotionally.

He sped the pickup through the town of Bark Bay, the streets nearly empty in the early evening. Down River Street, left on Courier, over the bridge, three miles then a right on County Road 8, second left into the Pleasant Hill subdivision.

He approached Mike’s old house, where he had found the notebook that now lay on the passenger seat. He slowed, considered stopping, check how his mother was doing. And remind her of her dead son . . . he accelerated, there was no reason for him to stop, nothing there he needed to find, no comfort he could provide.

The community park — Charlie couldn’t remember the name, but he and Mike had played as kids in the small playground maintained by the subdivision. He remembered them walking in this direction, then walking left, so he drove his pickup down the first street on the left. He followed the road as it curved to the right, and to the right, and to the right  . . . when he recognized the basketball hoop as the one he had passed earlier, he continued, finishing the looping road a second time until he got back to the road where he’d entered.

Three more false turns later, and Charlie finally came across a sign with an arrow pointing in the direction of the community park. The sign sparked a dusty memory, and the next time he turned left he knew he was finally heading in the right direction.

Dark Road (Ginger Man 13E)

Charlie kept his eyes focused on his pickup, his hearing attuned to the crunch of gravel under his feet giving way to the silent hardness of the street; he knew Maggie was following him, but her words sounded like the buzzing of a bothersome fly. He reached his vehicle, put a meaty hand on the driver’s side door handle — and stopped when Maggie’s hand slammed on the metal.

Her eyes were filled with defiant worry, like a man pulling on a jacket before heading out into a storm. “Just tell me what you’re planning on doing.”

For a moment, Charlie thought of saying that he didn’t know, wasn’t sure, where he was going. But as he looked into the caring harshness of Maggie’s face, he knew she’d be able to detect any lie that he told, and would call him out on it before he’d finish the sentence. No, he couldn’t lie to her — and, he also realized, he had no desire to tell her any more lies.

Which didn’t necessarily mean telling her the whole truth. “It ends tonight, Maggie. All this acting crazy I’ve been doing, thinking about Mike’s stories — this ‘Ginger Man’ he came up with — it’s like I took a wrong turn, started going down this dark road, but I see lights up ahead, and I know that the right thing to do is keep going.”

He put a hand on her shoulder. “Just — let me go a little further. I promise, won’t do nothing stupid. But I gotta go to the end of the road. And when I’m done, I’m done.”

He could tell by the look on her face that she neither agreed with nor even quite understood what he’d just said. A moment later, she blinked, and removed her hand from the pickup. “Just — be careful.” She walked away slowly, shaking her head.

Accusation (Ginger Man 13D)

They had arrived just after the fire engine had arrived. Men and women in black and yellow uniforms ran around the perimeter of the enflamed building that had once been Jack’s Joint. A few dozen people were gathered in the parking lot, their faces sweaty from the heat of the blaze which held their attention as if they were moths.

Charlie parked the pickup on the street, exited with Maggie and walked towards the transfixed crowd. A body at the front of the crowd turned as Charlie approached. The flames in front of them seemed to absorb all light in the area, everyone in the crowd seemed like a silhouette, dark and featureless. The silhouette that had been in front worked its way to the back of the crowd, and not until it was almost next to him did Charlie recognize the shape of the body.

Jack’s face was dark and full of accusation. “Well, if you ask me, it was that Ginger Man you was talking about that done this.” He pointed with his thumb behind him, in the direction of his ruined bar.

Charlie heard Maggie telling Jack they were so sorry, as he stared blankly at the blaze. Acts of vandalism and theft are common among Ginger Men.

Jack half-turned, pointed now with his index finger rather than his thumb. Charlie noticed the dirty white towel was still draped over his left shoulder. “I ‘member you saying I ‘uz gonna regret saying what I said about your friend the other night. So you wouldn’t happen to know anything ’bout what happened, would ya?”

Charlie heard Maggie’s tone change to defiance. This spirit haunts the living for the sole purpose of making others — especially those closest to the person when living — as miserable as possible.

He felt Maggie patting, almost hitting him on the back, telling him to explain he’d been at the Pizza Place with Rune that evening. Jack continued glaring silently at him like a gargoyle.

“Let’s go.” Charlie didn’t both acknowledging Jack as he turned and left, didn’t really care whether Maggie followed as he hustled back to his pickup, inchoate words of anger from Jack ringing in his ears.

Silent News (Ginger Man 13C)

“They’re just stories.” Maggie’s voice was soft but resolute, like a doctor describing an unfavorable diagnosis. “But you’ve got it in your head — I don’t know, maybe you really do think they’re real. But whatever it is, it’s affecting everything you do. You’re not eating right, not showing up for work, you’re not meeting with your family . . . spending too much time at Jack’s Joint — ”

bur-REEET. Standing closest to the phone lying amidst a clutter of socks and boots in the corner of the trailer’s living area, Charlie reached down and picked up the receiver.

A curt greeting, then a look of worry spread silently across his face as he listened.

“What’s wrong?” Maggie sounded torn between annoyance and concern.

“All right.” Charlie squatted, slammed the received back down on the phone, stood up quickly. A quick explanation and he hustled out of the trailer, followed by a disbelieving Maggie.

Five minutes into their drive in his pickup, they saw orange on the horizon.