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.

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.”

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?”