Stranger (Ginger Man 13B)

Charlie heard Maggie talking in exasperated tones, reminding him that this dinner at Rick’s was his idea in the first place and she had reminded him about it yesterday and he’d said OK and she had no intention of showing up on her own. But those were just words coming out of her mouth, and though he knew they were directed at him he was barely conscious of them reaching him, as if there were a transparent wall between he and Maggie, her words struggling to cross the barrier.

He heard himself apologizing, admitting that the evening at Rick’s had been his idea, but that was last week, and — and now it was this week, and things were different, this wasn’t a good night, we can go some other time.

“It’s something that boy said, isn’t it?” The accusation snapped Charlie out of his reverie. “That notebook — ” she was standing now, was pointing down at the notebook Charlie had placed on the makeshift dining table — “that’s the one you got from Mike’s mom, right?”

Charlie turned away from the table, looked squarely at Maggie, her finger still pointing like a dagger at the notebook. Her posture commanded attention, as if it were her instead of Charlie (or more exactly, his parents) who owned this trailer, that he was the guest rather than she. That feeling of being a stranger in his own home disturbed him at first — but a deep breath later, he suddenly felt liberated instead.

Yes, he replied, that was Mike’s notebook. And yes, he had shown it to that boy, Rune. So yes, Rune had said something about what he’d read that had made him change his mind about going to Rick’s that night. But yes, he was sorry.

She had sheathed her dagger finger, but the stern look of disappointment remained on Maggie’s face.

Questions (Ginger Man 13A)

Charlie’s drive back from Rune’s home (nested within a well-manicured subdivision on the other side of town) left him alone with his thoughts. He knew the questions he was now asking himself were absurd, but he also knew he had no choice but to find answers for them. And to get those answers, he knew what he needed to do next, or more exactly, where he needed to go. He drove through the lonesome streets of Bark Bay, the streets paved with wet leaves, with dread determination.

He pulled into his parent’s driveway, and cursed when he saw Maggie’s Subaru parked outside the trailer. She was watching television, greeted him with a smile and a wave when he walked in, her face illuminated by the screen’s glow remaining focused in front of her.

“What is obsession?” There was a tone of impatient urgency to Maggie’s question, seeming to Charlie like she had been waiting all day to ask him. He had removed one arm from his jacket, and stopped, began to respond before being cut off.

“No, not you!” Maggie waved a hand above her head in dismissal. “This contestant!” She leaned forward, listening to the television. “No, not addiction! I can’t believe he got that wrong!” Charlie glanced at the television screen, saw two men and a woman standing behind short booths, small screens in front of each booth showing electronic numbers.

He resumed taking off his coat, began thinking of the excuse he would give Maggie. He heard applause from the television, then a sudden silence.

“How’d your meeting with that boy go?”

Charlie glanced down at the notebook he had placed on the makeshift dining table. He muttered that it went well.

“When you want to leave?” Charlie froze a moment, then remembered that Rick’s party was this evening. He could go, probably should, and leave his mission for another night. But then heard himself asking Maggie if he could skip.

Maggie had turned the television’s sound back on, but swiftly lifted the remote again and turned off the power when she heard Charlie’s request.

Navigation (Ginger Man 12K)

Charlie choose an answer which he hoped would navigate him through the rock-strewn sea channel between Confession and Perjury.

“Only a crazy person would believe Mike’s turned into a Ginger Man. And I don’t consider myself crazy.”

Rune leaned back in his metal chair. Charlie could tell by the teen’s expression that his ship hadn’t yet cleared the channel.

The teen nodded in the direction of the notebook, lying on the table. “So what, exactly, are you planning to do with that?”

Charlie shrugged, and felt he could give the relaxed answers of truth. “Dunno. Mike’s mom said I could keep anything I wanted. ‘Spose I’ll hang onto it, ’till I figger out something.”

Rune nodded, leaned forward. There was a softness in his face as he made eye contact again with Charlie. “Sorry I couldn’t be much more help. Like I said, I didn’t know Mike that well — he only played D&D with our group a couple-few times a year, at most.” He smiled. “But I remember him talking ’bout you. And always having a good thing to say.”

Charlie reached across the table, picked up the notebook. “Thanks. And you’ve been helpful, really.”

They didn’t talk about Mike or the notebook again as Charlie drove Rune back home in his pickup.

Volcano Story (Ginger Man 12J)

“That’s crazy.” Charlie realized he was speaking as much to himself as he was to Rune. “It’s just a story, not real life.”

Just a story.” Rune leaned back in his metal chair, and smirked. “It’s not real.” Rune waved his hands in the air above him and looked about, as if he were directing Charlie’s attention to their surroundings. “Have you ever heard the legends of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes?”

For all Charlie knew, Hawaii was a world away, as far away as heaven. He shook his head.

Rune folded his hands on the table in front of him. “I was in a D&D campaign once where the principle deities were from Hawaii. It sounded interesting, so I took out a book from the library about that mythology. Interesting stuff — Pele’s one of the stronger gods, natural considering how powerful volcanoes are. I’ve got a thing for volcanoes — ” Rune touched his red hair, then stared up at the ceiling as he continued, as if he were reading a teleprompter positioned above Charlie’s head. “Pele was known for being, shall we say, promiscuous — she’d take a lover, who would become a god of an island, and when she’d get tired of him, she’d leave and take up with a younger god.

Rune now looked directly at Charlie. “Know what I read in that library book? The legends said that when Pele left a lover she would go east, away from the setting sun. Funny thing is, scientists have discovered that volcanic activity, the flow of magma under the Hawaiian islands, goes from west to east. The islands on the west have extinct volcanoes, and the only active flow is on the biggest island, the one furthest east. And, couple hundred miles east of that island, they’ve detected another volcano below the ocean’s floor that’ll erupt in a couple hundred years.

“So my point is, the Hawaiians thought they were creating this story about Pele’s sex life, but didn’t know that their story was actually describing how science works.” He tapped his fingertips on the notebook. “So maybe stories are not just stories, and maybe, maybe, the line between stories and the ‘real world’ isn’t always so clear.” Rune looked up at Charlie. “And maybe it’s not so crazy for me to wonder if you’re thinking Mike’s become this ‘Ginger Man.'”

No More Surprises (Ginger Man 12I)

Charlie tapped his fingertips on the table, his prepared lie coming back to him like a delayed check in the mail. “Look, I was just going through some of Mike’s stuff, and I remembered this story about the Ginger Man. Thought it was one of his best, but all I had was this one page in that notebook, and I thought, he musta done something else with that idea. I knew you knew him, and that you liked stories like this, so I was like — ”

“I’d believe you — ” Rune waved his hand dismissively over the top of the table — “if you hadn’t called me last week.”

Charlie blinked, and Rune continued. “You know, it didn’t occur to me until after I’d called you back that day to wonder, why the hell is this guy calling me? I mean, we met once, years ago, to play D&D one afternoon at Mike’s house. Now all a sudden, you call me — I couldn’t remember your friggin’ name — you’re calling me, asking whether I was missing anything or iffin I noticed anything unusual going on. I was too surprised at the time, and by the time I thought how weird it was for you to call me out of the blue like that, I’d actually moved on, to more interesting problems — ” Rune suddenly looked apologetic — “no offense.”

Charlie shook his head. “Nah, no problem.”

“But then you had to go and call me again, yesterday, saying you wanted to show me something Mike had written.” Rune tapped the notebook. “This time you gave me time to get ready, ask you what’s really going on. Now I ‘preciate you paying for pizza and all, but I think you owe me an explanation.” He drew his curly red hair back, glanced down at the notebook, then back up at Charlie. “Or at least an answer to the question that’s coming to me, more and more as you continue being evasive — do you think Mike’s turned into a Ginger Man?”

Why This One of Many (Ginger Man 12H)

Charlie demonstrated without a shadow of a doubt that he was not very good at responding to surprise questions. As he stammered out his wells and you sees and uhs, Rune looked down at the notebook, and began flipping through its pages.

“There’s a lot of different stories in here.” Rune rested his hand on a page, and read. “‘The Newlywed.’ Looks like it starts with  . . . a guy watching his girlfriend sleep.” Rune looked up, wiping his wavy red hair from his brow. “There’s more here, lots more. Was this the only notebook of Mike’s that you found?”

Charlie shook his head, silent and quiet, like a reluctant defendant responding to a prosecutor’s questioning.

Rune flipped back in the notebook until he found the page with the Ginger Man description, then leaned forward across the table. “So out of all the stories you found that Mike had written — you found this one page, in the middle of this notebook, a page that’s not marked in any special way. Seems to me it’s more likely you were looking for this page.”

“It was a good story,” Charlie blurted. “One of Mike’s best — ”

“So good, you felt compelled to buy me dinner and show it to me?”

“I thought you’d — ”

“There’s something you’re not telling me.” Charlie was surprised by the resolve he saw in the face across the table. Rune was several years younger, in school, still a kid really. But it didn’t seem like he was talking to a child now. “Look, I’m not mad or anything. I just — ” Rune’s face softened — “Mike was my friend, too. Wasn’t as close as you too were, but when he . . . the accident, it bothered me too. And I gotta feeling that the only reason your paying for this pizza here tonight, is that there’s something really bothering you about what happened to Mike.” Rune tapped the notebook page. “And that something has to do with this story about the Ginger Man.”

More

Felt good to take the summer off from fencing, but feel much better about getting back to the club. Needed to step back from the frustration I was feeling in the spring, wait for my appetite to return. Charged into an open floor night at the start of the month, took my first group lesson this evening. Thinking about private lessons from coach. First tournament of the fall is a week from Saturday; gonna get my butt kicked.

Need to adjust my focus, what I’m looking to get out of this sport. If this is about wins and losses, indicators, pool rankings, USFA ratings –it’s going to be another frustrating season. Seems to me there’s more that this sport has to offer, things it’s able to teach me if I just broaden my perspective. This sport fascinates me, and I got back after three decades away to discover why fencing never lost its appeal to me, why quitting always felt like tossing away the phone number of a good friend, someone who knew me better than I did. It’s that more that I want to strive for this season, not on achievement, or advancement.

Gjenganger (Ginger Man 12G)

Rune turned his smartphone over in his hand so that the screen looked at Charlie, sitting across the green Formica table.

“Gjenganger.” Charlie could not make out the words on the screen, but assumed Rune was talking about what he had found on his smartphone. “It’s an undead creature, from Scandinavian folklore. Mike was really into the Nordic stuff — we did this D&D campaign where we were fighting all these undead, and out of the blue Mike asked me if I’d heard of gjengangers. When I said I didn’t, he showed me this.”

Charlie pointed to smartphone. “Can I see?” Rune handed the device across the table, and Charlie scanned the words while Rune took a few quick bites of pizza.

A moment later, Charlie looked up. “Says here these things were like vampires.”

Rune shrugged. “In early traditions, yeah. But later, they’re more like this ‘Ginger Man,’ more of an avenging poltergeist than a monster.” Rune tapped his left index finger on the notebook that Charlie had brought.

“How you pronounce that again?”

Rune jutted his chin forward. “Gin — gan — ger.”

“Huh.” Charlie scratched his bearded chin. “Does sound a little like ‘ginger.'”

Rune pointed his right index finger at Charlie, the left pointing down at the notebook again. “Exactly! Knowing what I knew about Mike, I think he was creating his own version of this legend.”

“Huh.” Charlie handed the smartphone back to Rune. “Really appreciate this. This helps me, a lot.”

Rune smiled. “No problem. So — ” the sudden sharpness of Rune’s tone caught Charlie’s complete attention — “you mind helping me out a little?” Rune took another bite of pizza.

Charlie shrugged. “Sure.”

Rune nodded, swallowed, took a quick gulp of soda, his red tumbler splashing down on the puddle of condensation that had formed on the table. “Mind telling me what’s got you so interested in this Ginger Man?”

What Mike Wrote (Ginger Man 12F)

Rune took the notebook from Charlie, and clutching its sides with both hands drew it to his face as he read:

GINGER MAN

A Ginger Man is the spirit of a person whose life has been unhappy. Unlike a Ghost, though, there is nothing a Ginger Man can do to make up for life’s miseries. Therefore, this spirit haunts the living for the sole purpose of making others — especially those closest to the person when living — as miserable as possible.

The body of a Ginger Man is dead, and is animated by the dead person’s spirit. But they are not like Zombies, because they can’t be controlled by another person. Ginger Men do not seek to do physical harm, unless they are threatened. They rely rather on scarring and harassing their victims. Acts of vandalism and theft are common among Ginger Men.

A Ginger Man’s greatest weapons are stealth and surprise, and their greatest fear is that they will be discovered. If seen by a living person, a Ginger Man will capture them before they can tell anyone else. The Ginger Man will ask the captured person a question. If this question is not answered correctly, the person will be killed; but if the captured person answer’s the Ginger Man’s question correctly, the Ginger Man’s spirit will be released from its misery.

Rune lowered the notebook onto the green Formica table as he looked up at Charlie, who was studying his face intently, his hands folded on the table in front of him. Rune tapped the notebook page. “You said Mike wrote this?” Charlie nodded. “Hmm.” Rune rubbed his clean-shaven chin, then nodded. “You know, I might just know where he got this from. Excuse me a minute?”

“Sure.” Charlie felt he had no choice but to walk down the path where this boy was taking him. Rune shifted his weight on the metal chair, which skrinched along the tiled floor of the Pizza Place, and took his smartphone from his pocket.

Their waitress came back with their pizza. Charlie placed a slice on two plates, handed one over to Rune, who was far too busy tapping on and reading his smartphone to notice. “Mind if I get started?” Seeing that Rune was ignoring him, Charlie started eating, and was half-way done with his slice when Rune looked up at him.

Comfort Zone (Ginger Man 12E)

“I really didn’t know Mike that well.” Shifting his weight in a thin metal chair, Rune leaned back across the green Formica table from Charlie, and ran the fingers of his right hand back through his red curly hair. “I mean, sometimes he’d play D&D with us, but it wasn’t like he was in to it.”

“Seemed to be into it, that time we played.” Charlie had his hands folded on top of a notebook he had placed on the table.

Rune’s eyes widened. “The Swamp of Il-Ryun!” For the first time since Charlie had met the boy that afternoon during the fencing practice, Rune seemed comfortable, happy. “I really liked that campaign. Wish Mike had stayed with it — ” he looked up suddenly, his face apologetic — “you too, of course.”

A waitress came with a cola in a red plastic tumbler for Rune, a beer in a clear plastic mug for Charlie. “Mike didn’t play, after that day?”

Rune drank from his tumbler, set it down. “Nah. Called him a few times, but every time I said we were playing, he’d have some excuse.” He rubbed his chin, then pointed across the table at Charlie. “Know what I think it was? He didn’t like going some place unless he knew the people there, or brought along someone he knew.” He raised his hands above the table and pressed down, as if he was there were an invisible dome. “Mike had this comfort zone, see, and he didn’t like stepping outside it.”

Charlie waved a hand across the table, as if sweeping away the invisible dome. “Mind if I show you that thing I told you about, over the phone?” Rune tilted his head sideways, as Charlie picked up the notebook. “Mike had a ton of these. Had a few he give me, but his mom found a ton more, in his room.” Charlie began leafing through the pages of the notebook, then stopped, folding the back of the notebook against the front cover. “I was looking through one of them — and I found this.”

Charlie handed the notebook across the table, turning it so the writing faced Rune, who looked at it with curiosity before taking the notebook from Charlie.