Relief in a Paper Cup (Ginger Man 16A)

And then Charlie was opening his eyes, saw that he was lying on a bed, in a big room, that was white, and crowded. There were people moving around, he noticed many of them were dressed like doctors and nurses, and then he recognized where he was, from the time he had taken his uncle to the emergency room at the county hospital.

There was someone sitting in a chair, next to his bed, he couldn’t see but definitely felt someone there. He reached an arm over to draw that person’s attention, and he recognized the sound of Maggie’s voice as she gasped.

She almost knocked the chair over as she rose. A moment later, she was leaning over him.

“Are you OK?” Charlie tried to speak, but found he didn’t have the energy, so he nodded instead.

She pulled a blanket over him. “Some hunters found you in the woods, outside a tent. What the hell were you doing, it was almost freezing last night. If you’d slept inside the tent, you’d’ve been fine.”

There was a small tray elevated over the other side of the bed. A paper cup, a straw protruding through its plastic cover — Charlie reached for it, but Maggie grabbed it first, handed it to him.

“Doctor says you should drink slowly.” If he had the strength or desire to argue with her, he knew it would have done him no good. He drank slowly. “They say you’re just dehydrated, but they want to keep you here a few more hours, just to make sure.” She pulled a phone out of a jacket pocket. “Your parents were here earlier, but they had to go — said I’d call, soon as you came around.”

“Thank you.” Charlie felt his strength returning as soon as the cool and soothing water had painted down his throat. As he drew more liquid from the cup through the straw into his mouth, he reached over and squeezed Maggie’s hand.

She looked down at him and smiled, putting her phone back in her pocket. He could tell she was making no effort to hide her sadness. “You’ve lost your job, you know.”

Charlie nodded. “Kinda figured. I’m sorry. But it’s over now.”

“Promise?” She looked like a child, pleading with a reluctant parent.

He squeezed her hand again. “Promise. Look, Maggie, I’m sorry I put you through all that. I guess I snapped a little, let my imagination run so wild that it got out of control. Never should have done what I did last night.”

“You could have died, Charlie.”

“I know. But it’s over, Maggie. No more wild stories.”

She smiled, leaned over, and kissed him.

A Drive (Ginger Man 15C)

Charlie heard the sound of an engine, so he looked around and saw he was in the front passenger seat of a car he didn’t recognize. He couldn’t see out the windows, but the engine was roaring, and the car was shaking as if it feared that it couldn’t maintain its current speed.

“Hello Charlie.” He looked to his left and saw Mike, smiling sloppily. Charlie remembered Mike looked like that on the night he had died, before he remembered that he hadn’t been with Mike that night.

Hey — hey buddy. You awake? Charlie handed the phone to Mike, said somebody wanted to speak to him.

“Dead people can’t talk on the phone, Charlie.” He took the notebook from Charlie, began writing in it with his golden pen. Mike did not look drunk any more, but the car kept speeding down the road.

No he’s alive, but his skin’s cold, not responding, we gotta call an ambulance. Charlie asked Mike if he was going to turn into a Ginger Man.

“No such thing.” Mike looked like Charlie remembered him from high school, carefree and open. “I mean the Ginger Man was a thing, but a story thing. Gotta be careful with stories, man. You take them too seriously, they become more real than what’s really real.”

The car continued humming down the road. OK, lift him gently. Charlie thanked Mike for the advice, said they should stop now. Mike shook his head. “You know I gotta keep going, right?” Charlie said he understood, even though that wasn’t in his heart. “But you’d better go, buddy.” Mike had that returned-from-college look again. Charlie said OK, opened the door of the car, then turned again to Mike, asked if he was going to be all right. Mike laughed. “You know the story.” Charlie nodded, stepped out of the car, and his world turned black again.

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.

Walking Upside Down (Ginger Man 15A)

Charlie groaned as he regained consciousness, and despite his discomfort sensed immediately that something wasn’t right. His head, it hurt — he remembered being struck from behind, after swinging wildly with the log he’d found. But there was something else; his head felt heavy, it wasn’t the pain, but something else seemed to be pulling him . . . down? His arms, they were heavy too, being pulled down, but . . . they were above his head.

Charlie opened his eyes, saw the same blackness from before he lost consciousness. He lifted his head up to locate the moonlight, and then finally realized what had happened.

His head had scraped over the ground. He moved his legs, felt them bound together at the ankles. He was hanging, suspended from a tree branch or something, there wasn’t enough light for him to make out exactly how.

His arms were free, so he placed his palms on the ground, began walking with his hands. He saw dark shapes all around him, trees he assumed; if he could get to one, climb it with his arms, he might be able to turn himself around, see exactly how he was suspended, figure out a plan for freeing himself.

The shapes on his left seemed closest. Charlie walked with his hands, his pace growing faster as he closed in, just another half a foot — and then the rope (or whatever it was) from which he was hanging stiffened, would yield him no more distance.

He felt a tree root under his right hand. Charlie grabbed it, reached out with his left. He was close, perhaps an inch or two away; he pushed up on the root, reached further with his left, felt his fingertips brush against tree bark —

skik-frump
skik-frump 

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.

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.

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.