The Question (Ginger Man 15B)

Charlie twisted his head in the direction of the sound. Being suspended upside-down in the dark distorted his vision, like a farsighted man wearing glasses to correct myopia, but he was still able to make out a shape, stepping out of the forest into the clearing. But it was just a shape; Charlie couldn’t make out much more detail than that. And the words he heard from that shape seemed not to so much spoken, but rather to have appeared inside Charlie’s head.

(You know the rules. You have found me, and I cannot let you go — unless you can answer my question.)

Charlie remembered that detail from Mike’s story. The shape remained silent a moment, filling Charlie with dread temporarily as he dangled upside down. But then, it suddenly came to him — yes. He knew not only what the question would be, but what answer he would give.

(Who am I?)

Charlie released his hold on the tree root, let his body swing back to its original location at the center of the clearing. Spinning, he lost track of the shadowy shape a moment, and on locating it again, could not help himself from laughing.

“Nothing.” Charlie wanted to laugh again but suddenly his body erupted in a spasm of tears, salt jelly spilling out of his eyes, down his temples, through his hair, onto the dirt of the forested floor.

He no longer cared about locating the shadowy shape. “You — you think you’re this Ginger Man, from that story Mike made up one time. One of the stories he made up, when we was kids, when the world seemed so big, too big for any of us to understand. He made up that story ‘cuz he was scared, and I liked that story ‘cuz I was scared, too — I just weren’t honest about being scared, like Mike was.”

He pressed his palms on the ground to stop his body from spinning around his suspended ankles. “Mike’s stories were always good, ‘cuz they helped us think about what made us afraid, gave it a name. Those stories, they helped me and Mike grow up.”

Charlie let another spasm of tears pass through. “But — but we ain’t kids no more. We growed up. And Mike, he went to college, but it didn’t work out so he came back, but he weren’t right.” He sniffed loudly, and spit out the phlegm that had congealed down into the roof of his mouth. “And then, then he died. Mike went to that party, and he did stuff he shouldn’t’ve done, and he got in that car and drove too fast and he hit that tree at Pete’s Elbow, and he died.” He thought he saw the shadowy figure again. “HE. FUCKING. DIED.

Charlie spit again, swallowed. “He was my — ” Charlie whimpered, made no attempt to hide his pain — “he was my friend, and he dead. And you — ” he pointed to the spot where he last remembered seeing the shadowy figure — “you’re just — nuthin.”

Charlie let his arms fall loose, the back of his hands hitting the cold dirt. He sobbed uncontrollably, no longer caring what happened next, and not remembering later how long it took for him to lose consciousness again.

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