A Spectrum story for Halloween
By Caroline Smith
I’ve never told anyone this story, and I thought I never would. Not because I thought no one would believe me. The life I lead now, too many implausible things happen as standard, to me and the people I work with.
The reason why I’ve never wanted to talk about it is simple. I felt guilty; guilty that I’m still walking around this godforsaken planet and they aren’t. I’d burn up with shame to tell anyone that I was there when it all happened, back then, nearly out of high school. I lost my best pal Johnny Wardynski and his girlfriend Stella, and I couldn’t do a thing to save either of them.
I don’t want to recall that damned awful day, and ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the time I succeed. Most of the time I’m a wise-cracking, smart-mouth hero, Captain Ochre, a loveable rogue, (or so those sweet kick-ass women pilots I work with tell me), saving the world from the big bad alien plague. Before that I was a cop: got my shield and more for busting up the more down-to-earth scum in Washington DC and Chicago. They wanted to chain me to a desk after that – no way – too much time to think.
So I took what the World President offered, and I’ve been doing that ever since – full tilt, putting myself – life and limb – on the line, (just like the other guys I work with - don’t get me wrong, I’m hardly unique in doing so) and off-duty skimming the line of good-sense by bedding one willing woman after another.
Some people might say I’m over-compensating.
Hell, they can say what they like. They don’t have to live with my memories.
The only time it gets hard is right about now.
The ghoul-fest - where we all dress up and try to scare the living daylights out of one another, where we can behave like kids again, confronting all of our deepest, darkest fears. Where we wait for the ghost or vampire or bogeyman to come out of the closet, or up from the dark cellar, or the creaky attic. And, when it doesn’t happen, we breathe a terrified, exhilarated sigh of relief.
Safe, but thrilled anyway.
But sometimes – once in an orange, full, moon – something does happen.
Something that scares you to the very deepest recesses of your soul and shakes your world to pieces, and you’ll never be the same again.
Ironically, maybe that’s why I take some of that over-compensation crap and really go for it, inventing ever more crazy stunts to take my mind off the things that don’t bear thinking about.
Anyway, I’m veering way off track here. Let’s get back to the story.
I was seventeen, less than a year away from graduation at Midvale High, and Mom said if I didn’t buck up I was going to flunk out big-time.
The wind was whistling all around our house that chilly October morning. Wet leaves kept splattering against the window, making Mom look up from sifting flour. She was baking again, and I swear she thought we were a family of fifty-five, not four. Dad was at work, despite it being a Saturday. He was a grade-two engineer at the new auto-works at River Rouge, and he always took overtime whenever it was offered. We were a long way from trailer trash, but college fees cost the earth these days and Mom didn’t want my older brother to get into financial trouble when he started out on his world-shattering career as a lawyer.
I was sitting at the kitchen-counter in sweats, and digging into my bowl of Wheaty-Flakes, just before I went off to my Saturday job, trying to feign nonchalance but mentally biting my nails about broaching the subject of my trip up north, next Halloween weekend.
Johnny Wardynski had called me three days ago, and he had this dumb-but-great idea to go somewhere and chill out, as we figured the neighbourhood was getting wise to our particular brand of Trick or Treat; Mrs Pulaski and Mr Lee still hadn’t forgiven us yet for last year.
I’d spent the odd family vacation on the shores of Lake Huron, but Johnny thought it would be cool to go up to the north Michigan lake-shore, as there was a big Halloween festival on at Traverse City. I wasn’t so sure, I wanted to save all my hard-earned cash for my flying lessons, but Johnny had a way of being persuasive,
Wardynski and I couldn’t have looked less alike if we tried. His shaggy, pale-blonde hair and sea-grey eyes made him look more like a beach-bum from San Diego than someone who hailed from Hamtramck. My mop of brown hair and brown eyes look pedestrian by comparison.
Johnny’s dad, a policeman, had moved across town to Midvale two years ago, and so Johnny ended up in my class at school, and we hit it off straightaways - probably something to do with having the same twisted sense of humour. We made a name for ourselves warp-speed at school as the Dynamic Duo, pranks-a-specialty. Mom thought he was a bad influence on me, and we didn’t just think we’d be friends for life, we knew it.
Mom’s eyes flicked away from the windows and homed in, like she knew at that exact moment what I was thinking, with the uncanny knack all mothers have. She had that look on her face and my stomach must’ve known knew she was going to start on her favourite mantra because it dropped all the way to my knees. Two seconds later my premonition was proved right.
“Richard, I don’t understand what’s going on. If you don’t watch out you’re going to end up working at Delancy’s hardware store for the rest of your life. Is that what you really want?”
I shrugged and continued to eat my breakfast, hoping she would drop it.
“I don’t know where I went wrong with you. I mean, look at Mitch, he’s doing so well. He got wonderful grades this past semester –”
I rolled my eyes. My older brother had reached the giddy pinnacle of his senior year as a law student at Yale, using up all the family money, what little there was, and he never, ever spared me all the details of life in New Haven when he occasionally returned to the family home.
“I’m not Mitch, never was, never will be,” I muttered.
She stopped sifting, and leaned forward across the counter, brushing a strand of hair that had escaped, across one ear.
“You know,” she said in a softer voice, “you’re every bit as clever as he is, but you just don’t apply yourself. Perhaps if you spent less effort on making those silly models and wasting your time sim-flying, you could do every bit as well.”
Oh boy, here we go again, I thought.
“Hey, you married Dad and he doesn’t have a fancy degree,” I shot back, regretting the words almost as soon as they were out of my mouth.
Her eyebrows lowered dangerously, and the softness in her face disappeared.
“Don’t you smart-mouth me, young man! You’re not old enough that I can’t still give you a whack to knock some sense into you.”
I blew out a breath and muttered an apology, annoyed with myself, because that outburst sure wasn’t going to help my case. Still, I figured I might as well get her totally riled at me, so I took a deep breath.
“Mom, I won’t be here next weekend, I’m going up north with Johnny Wardynski.”
Her face fell. “But Mitch is coming over. Why do you suppose I’m baking all these pies?”
Then I felt like an ace jerk, but I couldn’t face Mitch’s gloating.
No, I needed some space.
“It’s all planned, we’re going,” I said in a firm, flat voice.
She shook her head. “I just don’t understand you any more, Richard. But your dad and I always promised we wouldn’t run either of your lives, so I guess you’ll have to find out things the hard way.”
Pleased and a little surprised that she hadn’t made more of an argument of it, I ran upstairs to collect my things for work. I still felt kind of bad for upsetting her, but I’d meant what I said about Dad. He was so different from her, a hands-on Joe, who liked making things. I guess I took after him, never happier than when I was tinkering with an old motorcycle, or making my models from scratch in polycarbonate and balsa. Mom had never gone to college, but she was naturally clever-clever, one of those people who could figure out what Einstein’s theories meant, for crying out loud, and when she wasn’t cooking and baking and sewing, she had her head buried in a book.
I threw on my old denim jacket and, just before leaving my room, I couldn’t resist fixing the last piece onto my latest model. All it needed was some black and silver paint and the logo of the World Army Air Force to make the sleek little jet come alive.
I grinned. One day I was going to fly one. I knew that too.
“Man, what do you mean all the motels are full?” I ranted at Wardynski down the vid-phone.
“That big Halloween festival must be attracting a lot of people. All the cheap rooms are gone, there’s only a couple in Glen Arbor or Glen Lake left.” And then he quoted a price that made my toes curl.
“No way, Johnny – I can’t afford that, even if you are paying half. We’ll just have to cancel or sleep in back of the car.”
“Wait a minute, I got something here on the ‘net. Shifting Sands Motel – hey, the price is good, twenty-five bucks for a room, twin doubles. Availability page says they still have some vacancies.”
“Where is it?”
“Town of the same name - little place, I guess, they only have the one motel.”
Shifting Sands – I figured it wasn’t an unusual name for somewhere along the north-western shores of Lake Michigan, where the dunes sometimes topped four hundred feet high in places.
“That’s pretty cheap alright,” I replied. “They must have ghosts running around the corridors scaring the guests.”
“Hey, if it had ghosts it’d be ten times the price. Every loon in the State would be running up there!”
“Well, let’s go for it,” I said. The weekend was coming up fast, and it was too cold to camp out.
Partly out of guilt I tried to knuckle down to some homework the next few nights, especially since Mom didn’t say another word about my trip. But, boy, it was hard and I felt my eyes glazing over at my math problems. I mean, what was the point of being able to integrate trigonometric functions or factorise a quadratic trinomial? How was that gonna help me fly a jet?
Finally the weekend came around, and I picked Johnny up at his place, only a hundred yards down the street, we were neighbours after all. Ted Wardynski was at the bottom of the driveway picking up his mail, in his snappy blue policeman’s uniform, and he gave me a wave as I drove past him in my ageing blue Futura. I parked and honked, and then Johnny came out of the house.
He wasn’t alone.
I hadn’t seen Stella Martinez in six weeks, but it could have been six years from the way she’d changed since coming back from her maternal aunt’s in Crete. She’d always been a looker, courtesy of all the best physical attributes of her Greek and Spanish heritage, but now - oh man!
She was one hot tamale, designed to stop eighteen-wheelers in their tracks. She stood there in shaved-off jeans and a skinny pink tank-top that showed her flat, bare, honey-coloured midriff, as if it was the middle of summer, for crying out loud. I stared dumbfounded at her, and she gave me a sassy look and licked her lips, like I was some popsicle she wanted to eat. I swallowed hard and felt my back prickle with sweat.
I decided to get riled instead, so I dragged Johnny away for two seconds, and hissed low in his ear. “What’s the deal? I thought this was a ‘boys only’ trip: you, me, and a crate of beers, all the way to Lake Michigan?”
He had the good grace to look apologetic. “Uh, sorry, man, but she just got back off the flight yesterday, and she insisted she couldn’t bear to be without me for another day.”
“Yeah, right, more like the other way around, Wardynski. I can’t afford to rent another room just so you can canoodle with Ms Aphrodite over there.”
“Hey, I promise, we’ll keep our hands off each other, just for you,” he said, equally low. As if I was supposed to believe that.
“She’s gonna catch her death wearing that,” I commented, nodding my head in Stella’s direction.
Johnny held up a floor-length afghan – coat, not hound – and grinned. “Yeah, Mamma Martinez said the same thing, just before we left. Came barrelling out behind Stella clutching this, and there was a lot of Mediterranean arm waving and shouting between the two of them. I didn’t catch any of it, mostly because most of it was in fast-forward Greek, but I’ll bet there was something in it about not disgracing the family name and coming back pregnant.” He slapped me on the shoulder, “She felt better when I said you were coming along too.”
Yeah, better than contraception. I didn’t think Mamma Martinez was that stupid.
I got back in the car and watched Stella sashay across the driveway. She got in, edging up just a bit too close for my liking and waved her bag at me, some frothy confection with a gold tag saying Lucci on it. Didn’t recognise the make, but then my mom wasn’t in the habit of buying herself designer stuff, she was more your ‘50%-off-sales-at-Hudson’s’ kind of woman.
“Hi there, Ricky.” she said, flashing her inch-long eyelashes at me again. She pronounced it Rickee and I swear she did it on purpose just to yank my chain – and she always succeeded.
Johnny followed her, slamming the door shut.
“Okay, Rick, let’s hit the wide open road,” he said with a happy grin.
Stella sidled back next to him.
“You boys behave yourself,” Ted Wardynski warned us, with a half-serious half-teasing look in his eyes.
“We will Pop, don’t worry,” Johnny yelled back.
I hit the gas pedal.
We motored up I-75, cut across the state at Bay City onto Highway Ten and stopped to fill up with grease at a Taco Bell in Clare. I took in lungfuls of the air as we got out of the truck; it felt totally different from the stuff in Detroit, where it was always heavy with traffic fumes and industry. It felt sparkling, like breathing in champagne, I guess, though I’d never had any to judge by. The sky was the colour of cornflowers and wispy clouds trailed across it, like hawk’s feathers.
I joined Johnny and Stella to walk around to the restaurant entrance when suddenly the calm was shattered by the sound of man-made thunder, and I instantly scanned the sky, looking for the military jet streaking across the blue. Spellbound, I followed it as far as I could, a lump in my throat, until it was a black speck in the distance. I felt a playful punch on my shoulder and turned to see Johnny grinning at me.
“You look like someone who just lost the winning lottery ticket – you wishing you were up there in that thing, Fly-boy?”
“Yep, I’d give up the Lions winning the Superbowl for the chance to zip one of those babies across the open sky.”
Wardynski gave me a funny look and I guess he had no idea what I was talking about, so I tried to describe the feeling of being up in the air, even if it was only in some little two-seater – with the feel of the controls in your hands – the whole sky around you - the closest thing to wearing wings. He gave me a cock-eyed grin.
“You’re plane-drunk, you know that?”
“Hooked, I admit it. But my instructor told me I’m a natural. He said I should go for it, joining the World Army Air Force, I mean.”
“No kidding? Wow, I didn’t realise you were that far gone. No military life for me, I don’t fancy being sent to some strange country with crap plumbing and weird food. Anyway, I’m starving, so stop staring at the ceiling and let’s go eat.”
Just before we set off again I went to the rest-room. When I came out my breath hitched as I saw Stella blocking my way, just next to the ladies bathroom.
Before I could sidle out, she curled up to me like a cat, her long hair, like ringlets of whipped chocolate, brushing my cheek. She touched me on the chest, just below my Adam’s apple. My stomach dropped to my knees and my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth as her finger traced a feathery path of fire across my collarbone.
“My, Ricky, you’ve grown some – again – and you’ve filled out nicely since I’ve been away. Looks like Johnny has some competition.”
She had to remind me. I was what they call a ‘late-bloomer,’ a skinny runt in his early teens, who’d suddenly shot up when he was beginning to despair he’d ever grow beyond the Robin-the-Boy-Wonder stage. She smiled at me, her tongue poking through her teeth, and her finger resumed its path, skimming over my shirt and down across my stomach, “And you’ve been working out too, I like it.” She moved even closer to me – if that was possible – while my heart-rate rocketed. “T-Rick or Treat…” she breathed huskily. “Same thing…I think.”
I finally hauled my tongue off my teeth and found my voice, pulling her hand away at the same time. “Jesus, lay off, Stella, willya? Let’s get something straight. You’re Johnny’s girl, Johnny’s my best friend, so – no way, okay?”
“Don’t get your pants in a twist,” she said, and her eyes crinkled up with laughter. “I don’t mind you both sharing me.”
She turned on a spiked heel and I tried not to watch her swaying behind as she waltzed off back to Johnny. I could feel my face flush, cursed my hormones silently and wondered if I’d survive this trip with my sanity intact.
We hit the road again and the miles rolled by to the hard, blunt, tones of Sheryl Crow on the classic oldies channel. The sun was diving into a molten sky when we finally rolled into Shifting Sands. As I passed the city limits sign, which was scrawled through with a jagged red line – graffiti probably – and I got a prickle all the way from my scalp to my toes and my fingers jerked involuntarily on the wheel. I figured I must have been more tired than I thought.
“Oh boy,” Johnny said. “The main drag doesn’t have much going for it.”
He had a point. There was a sign for Ham’s Friendly Tavern – the Lakefront Store – and several clapboard houses. A couple in their fifties raked their yard of leaves, and stared up at us as we passed, as if they were thinking: ‘yup - strangers in town’. A collie-mix mutt with a torn left ear, lifted a leg at a streetlight and looked at me as if to say, “It’s my patch, mister, I’ll do what I like’.
“Well, there sure isn’t a lot of Halloween joy going on in this place,” I agreed. “Unless you count that pile of half-chewed pumpkins back there.”
“If I knew you were going to bring me to a dump like this, I would have stayed at home,” Stella whined between us.
Yeah, maybe that would have been a good idea, I thought.
The Shifting Sands Inn was the last building before the lakeshore; obviously the franchises didn’t get this far up onto Lake Michigan. I parked the Futura in the lot and stared in the mirror at the ochre-coloured sand, and the line of fire-lit water beyond the edge of the two-storey motel block.
I jumped out of the truck. “You guys wait here. I’ll get the key.”
“No rush,” Johnny waved a hand.
I’ll bet, I thought.
Instead of going immediately to reception I tramped across the lot to the beach, and watched the fire dim on the lake as the sun finally dipped below the horizon. I scanned around and saw the beach slope upwards towards the rolling dunes to my right. They weren’t high, I guess, not like some I heard of, like Sleeping Bear, a little further south, but they were pretty. I dragged my eyes away from the scenery and walked into the lobby. The carpet had seen better days, but the big vending machine looked like a good bet for a late-night attack of the munchies.
The guy at the desk did a good impression of a weasel, although he was friendly enough. “Yeah, here you are,” he said, consulting his terminal. He handed me a magnetic-key. “I guess you’ll be going across to Traverse City, for the big party?”
“Better have some food before you go, you might have trouble getting a table there, if you haven’t booked.”
I hadn’t really thought about it, but I figured he was probably right.
When I returned to the truck, Johnny and Stella were necking big-time. I coughed loudly and Johnny had the good grace to blush. Stella didn’t – just looked at me with those come-hither doe-eyes, long enough to be sure I knew what I was missing. I sighed as I reached between them to the back of the truck for the holdall, complete with my change of underwear and toothbrush.
I switched on the light to Room 109 – which the glare revealed in all its tawdry glory: two twin-double beds, with crimson polyester spreads that were faded and brown marked, just like the dark-green, industrial strength carpet. As Johnny and Stella followed me in, I checked out the bathroom. It wasn’t any better and smelled of Clorox and the mildew on the shower curtain.
After I flushed the cistern I popped my head out, and somehow wasn’t surprised to find that my two roommates were in another clinch on their side of the room. My mouth went dry again; neither of them seemed to be aware that I was there, lost in their lust-induced haze. I stared transfixed as I watched Stella’s long fingernails sliding over the crotch of Johnny’s jeans.
“Can you two come up for some air long enough to get some food?” I broke up their fun, irritated and hating the whining note in my voice – but if this was what I had to look forward to for the next 24 hours, I was going to get really cross. I wasn’t – or hoped I wasn’t – that much of a voyeur. “You’ve both sat pretty while I did all the hard work driving up here.”
“Sorry, Rick,” Johnny laughed. “Dinner’s on us, okay?”
“Oh, look at that moon,” Stella said in a sort of hushed tone, as we drove along the main street towards the diner we saw on the way in. I followed her pointing finger and saw it hanging low in the now-dark sky like a great, bloated orange.
A full moon - just perfect for Halloween.
And for some dumb reason, I felt a shiver trickle all the way down my spine.
Ham’s Friendly Tavern didn’t look all that welcoming at first glance. It was dark and smoky and smelled of fried fish and beer. We got a few curious but not unfriendly stares from the few occupants at the bar, and I felt their eyes following me all the way to one of the circular wood tables. We sat for a few long minutes before a heavy-hipped waitress in her forties finally sauntered up.
“Evening folks, are you staying for dinner?”
We nodded. “Be right back,” she said, and disappeared again. I let my eyes roam around the restaurant. It wasn’t as bad I’d thought on first impression. One of the guys at the wooden bar even nodded at me when I caught his eye. I noticed an old woman, sitting well away from the others at the end of the counter; she looked shapeless with layers of clothing, and her head was head bent low over a half-full glass.
I didn’t know all that much about the places up here in this neck of the woods, but I’d always understood they were pretty damn prosperous, with all the natural scenery and tourism – hell, the prices for those rooms in Glen Arbor was evidence of that – but Shifting Sands looked like a place that had somehow missed out on the tourist boom.
Still, it was late in the season – or maybe the locals just preferred it that way. There was something to be said for keeping your town for yourselves, the way you liked it, free of hordes of out-of-towners, tacky gift shops and too-expensive restaurants.
Our waitress returned and slapped down silverware and big, chunky water glasses and immediately started intoning the specials. Stella chose the orange roughy with rice, and Johnny and I stuck with cholesterol, and had double cheeseburgers and fries.
“So, what do you folks do for Halloween around here?” Johnny said breezily. From the corner of my eye I caught several heads at the bar zeroing in on our table and I mentally cursed Wardynski’s big mouth.
The waitress barely stopped scribbling. “Oh, the kids do a little trick and treating round the houses, the usual. We don’t go in for fancy organized stuff like those folks in Traverse City. You want ketchup or hot sauce on your cheeseburger?”
I answered quickly, to cut Johnny off as much as anything. We’d wear out our welcome pretty quickly if we started giving the impression we were big-city smart-asses.
The food arrived not long after, and it wasn’t bad at all. We were on our second refills of Mountain Dew when a cracked voice beside my ear made my head jerk around.
“You don’t want to look for things you don’t understand.”
It was the old woman from the bar. Close up now I saw her skin; wrinkled like dried cherries, with a hard-drinker’s nose – swollen and shiny.
“Huh - we don’t, I mean – ” I mumbled in surprise.
She gave me a gap-tooth leer that I guess passed for a smile, and then, suddenly, painfully, she gripped my forearm and I nearly yelped as her yellowish claws-for-nails dug into the flesh of my forearm. She stank of cats-pee and liquor and I shut my mouth and nose, trying to keep my dinner down in my stomach, where it belonged.
“Don’t go out onto the dunes in the dark, especially not tonight,” she hissed conspiratorially, although the whole room could probably hear her. “Bad things happen to people there, I know, so you listen to old Betty. I didn’t always look like this, used to look like her,” she jerked her head in Stella’s direction. “That’s before I lost my husband up there – my poor Frank.”
My eyes swivelled for a second and saw Stella looking like she’d swallowed a lemon sideways. Then old Betty dug her nails in harder and I leant unwillingly towards her as she dragged me closer. My ears were starting to sing with lack of oxygen, so I gave up and dragged in a heaving gulp of that rank air.
“Sure, sure,” I mumbled, nodding my head furiously, anything to make her let me go, and so I could tear my eyes away from the lunacy dancing in her wet irises. Thankfully she dropped my arm and I rubbed it, seeing the red weals she’d left there even in the gloom.
“Why can’t we go out there, especially tonight?” Johnny demanded, “Are they haunted or something?”
There was an uncloaked excitement in his voice. For some odd reason I just felt a chill in my gut. There was something about the old woman’s voice that echoed with some awful and painful event, and I kept seeing the crazy gleam in her eyes like the after-burn from a light bulb, after looking at it for too long.
And since when had Johnny developed a taste for the paranormal?
She backed off, shaking her head, and mumbled to herself, and I caught her words: “They tell me I’m crazy, but I know what I saw!” Then her rheumy eyes lifted to us again. “Just stay away from there y’hear? Stay the hell away – for evil spirits will be there tonight! ”
She backed all the way out of the door, and then she was gone, and Stella blew out a breath, shaking her curls. “What an old fossil!” she said, “Is she for real? And did she smell bad, or what?”
I sat breathless for a moment myself, when another dark shadow loomed over the table again. It was a guy in his late forties, wearing the uniform of a deputy-sheriff. I gulped, hoping that I didn’t have the guilty look of a minor with an illegal stash of beer in his motel room. He tipped his hat to Stella and gave us all a tight-lipped smile.
“Evening, folks, my name’s Deputy Sawyer; sorry, about that little scene.” He looked directly at me, then down at my arm. “I hope she didn’t hurt you.”
“No, it’s fine,” I replied quickly, although I still felt the adrenaline in my veins in her wake. “Is she – that old lady okay?”
He nodded. “Old Betty’s a little crazy in the head, but she’s mostly harmless. I don’t know what came over her tonight. Mind you, we don’t get many strangers in town.”
I’m not surprised, I thought.
“She said she lost her husband –” I began.
He nodded. “It was out on the dunes, years ago, on a night like this.”
“You mean – full moon, Halloween?” Johnny cut in.
His eyes swivelled onto Wardynski like gun-sights and he gave him a curt nod.
“What happened?” I asked, curious in spite of myself.
The deputy hesitated. Then he said, “Her…husband…He disappeared without a trace up there, no body found, nothing.”
Johnny dropped his voice lower, almost to a whisper. “Did she – like was it her who –”
Sawyer threw another curt stare his way. “I don’t like what I think you’re implying, young man, and the answer is no. I don’t think it’s any of your business in any case.”
He saw the surprise on our faces and evidently thought better of his abrupt manner. “The wind’s always shifting the sand around on the dunes and some areas can become unstable. It’s possible they hit a patch of dry quicksand that night – wouldn’t have lasted long if that happened.”
Hence the name of the town, I thought.
“Oh my God, that poor old lady,” Stella said, and there was now sympathy in her voice.
“But she doesn’t think that’s what killed him, does she?” I blurted out before my brain could stop my mouth.
His brow furrowed. “It was a tragedy; that can do funny things to a person’s mind.”
“She muttered something to us about bad spirits,” Johnny pressed. “What did she mean?”
The deputy stayed silent for a moment, and his body-language suggested to me that he sort of wished we hadn’t strayed into his neck of the woods, asking awkward questions.
“Betty’s part Ojibway,” he answered finally. “I guess her people have their tales of monsters and bogeymen just like we do. But the truth is sometimes a lot simpler, even if it’s not as dramatic. But she’s right about one thing, those dunes can be dangerous. I’d advise against any of you going up there, if you’re that way inclined.”
Johnny and I flicked glances at one another. The Deputy wasn’t going to tell us any more, that much was for sure, and it wasn’t a good idea to press a law-enforcement officer.
“So,” Deputy Sawyer continued, “are you staying here long?”
“Just tonight,” Johnny replied.
He didn’t answer that, but we could see him say ‘good’ in his head. He nodded, tipped his hat to Stella again, and gave Johnny and me a stern stare. “Well, have a good time in our small town, and remember, those dunes can be unsafe, best to stay away from them in the dark.” With that he left us, saying goodbyes to the other locals at the bar.
The waitress returned with the check, and we paid up, glad to leave the claustrophobic interior of Ham’s Friendly Tavern.
Once outside, Johnny whistled. “I get the impression the Deputy wasn’t telling us everything.”
I nodded. My curiosity was itching to know what really happened to cause old Betty to hit the bottle big-time and believe in tales about evil spirits. And yet, at the same time I felt reluctant. Okay, I’m the first to admit I’d never really believed in all that mumbo-jumbo either – most of the time I just liked scaring everyone else with it. But there was something in that old gal’s eyes that had gotten to me. But I sure as hell wasn’t about to admit to that to either Wardynski or Stella, especially not Stella.
“Maybe we could find her – and get it from the horse’s mouth,” Johnny suggested.
Stella made a face. “Eeww, I don’t think I could stand the smell.”
“She seemed pretty drunk back there,” I argued. “I’m not sure we’d get anything intelligible from her, that’s assuming we even knew where to start looking for her, and the deputy and those other locals might not take too kindly to us harassing her. They seem to tolerate her, however much of a gin-soak she is.”
“Well, why don’t we ask the desk-clerk back at the motel?” Johnny countered.
“I guess we could.” I replied, knowing full well that once Wardynski had the bit between his teeth there was no stopping him.
And then something occurred to me. The deputy said – they.
When we returned to the motel the desk-clerk was still there, his feet up on the desk and his eyes riveted on a small holo-viewer. We caught flashes of writhing naked bodies before he dropped his feet to the floor and swivelled the show away from our prying, juvenile eyes. He gave us a pasted-on smile, displaying nicotine-stained teeth.
“Anything I can do for you folks?”
“Yeah,” Johnny said, diving right in, no ceremonies. “We bumped into a little old Native lady called Betty, in Ham’s Friendly Tavern. She started ranting at us, telling us we should stay away from the dunes, because her husband died up there one Halloween’s night. He drowned in quicksand, or so the Deputy said.”
His weasel eyes narrowed for a moment. “So?”
“Uh, well, she mentioned evil spirits, and we thought you might know something about what she meant…” Johnny finished.
The guy’s eyes slid over to Stella, then onto me, and a wicked gleam entered his eyes. “Did you now? Well, what’s it worth for me to tell you?”
I thought about my crate of beer, but after a mad moment I didn’t think that was a good idea, I wasn’t supposed to have it, after all.
Then Stella sashayed forward closer to the desk, twirling a long, curly strand of her hair around her index finger and flashing him a brilliant smile.
“We’d really appreciate if you told us, I mean, we’ve come all the way from Detroit and we’d just love to hear a real ghost story!”
I saw him run his gaze all the way from the top of her head down to her exposed belly-button, and I could almost hear the gears turning in his mind. That girl had no shame and no scruples, but she was doing better than Wardynski and me because the clerk leant forward with a quick glance around the empty lobby, as if he didn’t want anyone to hear what he had to stay. I caught a whiff of stale sweat and chicken chop suey, and almost lost my dinner for a second time.
“If I tell you, you keep quiet about it, understand? There’s some folks here wouldn’t take kindly to me telling strangers.”
We all nodded.
“Well, Betty and her husband weren’t the only ones up on the dune that night.”
I exchanged surprised glances with the others.
“Nope, Frank was having an affair, with a young waitress who worked in Ham’s. From what I gather from the local gossip, the two of them went up onto the dunes; Halloween’s night, full moon and all.” He stopped to tap his nose and give us a knowing leer. “I guess they wanted to be one with nature. That was old Frank, a bit of a sweet-talker and an exhibitionist, you understand?”
I wasn’t sure I did. This began to sound more like that old TV series, ‘Twin Peaks’ by the minute.
“Anyway, short of it is, Betty followed them, and I guess she caught them in the act. Then, after that, her story gets a bit crazy. Hell, she went crazy, I guess any woman would, finding her husband poking –”
“She wasn’t accused of murdering them, was she?” I interrupted him.
“Hell, no, they believed mostly what she said, about what she saw, them being swallowed up by the sand. Been known to happen I guess, or so I read in the local papers afterwards.”
“Mostly?” I answered quick-fire.
He turned his eyes onto me, and he sniffed and smeared his palm over his nose, playing for time, figuring out whether he wanted to answer three snooping, smart-ass teenagers.
“You might not want to know what old Betty said she saw.”
Johnny and Stella nodded their heads vigorously, but for some reason my heart had started a slow thump against my chest.
For a moment the wicked gleam disappeared and a solemn look changed his face. He took a deep breath.
“She said – the sand ate them.”
I hit the light-switch to our room, dumped the case of beer on my bed and followed it, grabbing for the remote only to find out it was nailed to the bedside cabinet slotted between the beds. I swivelled it towards the tele-viewer on the wall and the room was filled with the sounds of gunshots, shouting and squealing tyres from ‘America’s Most Wanted’.
“Oh this story is too cool!” Johnny said as he took the other bed with Stella. “Who needs Traverse City, huh?”
I gave an evasive grunt in reply, opening three bottles of beer with the help of my trusty Swiss army knife. I passed two of them across to Johnny and sat back against the headboard. The room was a dump, but, for some reason, it felt infinitely preferable to going out into the darkness of Shifting Sands and meeting whatever fate crossed the path of old Betty’s other half and his girlfriend. I wondered why I was backing off, not like me at all, but then it wasn’t like Johnny to go chasing after ghosts either.
“You heard what the deputy said, the sands are unstable,” I argued.
“Yeah, well what’s the likelihood of that happening again? You ever heard of people disappearing into dry sand anyway? Hell, if that was the case there’d be no one hiking around those big dunes down at Sleeping Bear.”
“Well, maybe there’s something about the type of sand here,” I argued. “All sand isn’t alike, you know.”
“So says Mister Geologist,” Johnny retorted. “Since when did you get so smart?”
“Hey, just because I don’t see the point in doing calculus doesn’t mean I’m an idiot.”
“Okay, fine, you’re a genius.” He leaned over to me and I saw mischief in his eyes. “Come on,” he insisted. “I think we should go on up there and see if we can find any evil spirits.”
I took a pull on the bottle. “I just don’t fancy getting wet sand in my underwear. If you two want to go play ‘hunt the spook’, that’s fine with me, go.”
“It’s Halloween, Rick, what happened to the other half of the Dynamic Duo, no practical joke too big or too small?”
“I think Ricky is a leetle bit of a scaredy-cat!” Stella said, in that dumb exaggerated accent she put on sometimes.
Annoyed, I took another pull on my beer, wondering the same thing. Finally I said, “There’s just something about this place that’s beginning to give me the creeps.”
“Well, I don’t believe in any of that nonsense,” Stella said, snuggling close to Johnny. “I’m a brave girl. I’ll come with you, sweetie.”
Yeah, I knew exactly what was on Stella’s mind, but she’d better be wearing the afghan if she didn’t want to freeze her butt off. And then I thought about Frank and Betty’s love-triangle, and cold fingers trailed along my back.
Johnny hauled himself off the bed, and grabbed a couple of bottles of beer, and Stella followed, grabbing her coat. “Okay, suit yourself, Fly-boy,” he said. “You watch TV while we have some fun; just don’t drink all the beer, okay?”
“Uh-huh,” I muttered darkly, as I watched them exit the room. Stella turned around and blew me a kiss.
Fifteen minutes and another beer later, I was still smarting at her suggestion that I was a coward. Damn, but she could push my buttons. I smacked my forehead with disgust, zapped ‘America’s Most Wanted’, and pulled on my jacket. Slipping another couple of bottles into my pockets, I followed them out of the door.
I quickly lost the glare of the arc-lights in the parking lot, as I stepped across the concrete and onto the beach. I squinted at the rise to my right. The moon was higher and smaller now, the orange changed to cold, bright, white. Its light cast a fluorescent glow onto the lake and turned the sand silver. I didn’t see any sign of Stella or Wardynski; they sure must have hot-footed it across to the dunes.
I frowned. I’d half expected them to be rolling in the sand making-out six feet from the doorway, once they were alone. Those smart professors who think it’s only guys who think about it every sixty seconds, obviously never met Stella Martinez. I still felt sore at Johnny for bringing her along, her presence both irritated and distracted me, and this trip hadn’t turned out like we’d planned at all.
I stood still for a moment and looked out across the vast expanse of water, scuffing the sand with one foot, and watching the wavelets of the lake slap against the edge of the shore. My face and body felt pleasantly numb from the effects of the alcohol and I closed my eyes, swaying a little in the silence and the chill air in my nostrils. Finally I turned away and started walking along the sand.
I reached the start of the path leading up to the top of the dune ridge. A big wooden sign, staked into the sand said: DANGER – UNSTABLE SAND. I hesitated for a moment, thinking about the crazy tale of the sand eating people, and hot on its heels came Stella’s voice in my head – taunting me.
Come on, Fraser, I thought to myself, stop behaving like a kid wet behind the ears. Say it again – you don’t believe in ghosts, ghouls or evil spirits.
I started heading up the slope, but my sneakers slipped in the fine sand and I had to grab handfuls of dune grasses to help my passage. I couldn’t imagine how Stella had managed in those stilettos of hers, unless she’d taken them off.
Finally I cleared the ridge where the dunes flattened out and heard the rustling from a small group of cottonwoods, in the breeze that rippled over the ridge from the direction of the lake. Apart from the stand of trees, there was nothing but sand. A series of rolling depressions that went on and on. I felt like I’d stumbled onto the set of ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, and wouldn’t have been surprised to see a troop of camels come plodding across it. I started picking my way gingerly over the dune, half-expecting with every step that the sand might give way without warning and I’d be up to my neck in it – or worse.
I couldn’t see any sign of Johnny and Stella, so I called out, just to give them fair warning I was coming.
No reply, so I trudged on some more, into yet another sand bowl.
Then suddenly, without warning, I heard a high pitched scream.
It jagged through me like a knife through my guts.
I started running towards the sound of that cry, all my convictions about how I didn’t believe in evil spirits falling away with every foot I plunged into the deep sand.
I heard it again - a long, high-pitched wail that shattered the night.
It was coming from the next ridge of sand, heading towards another low depression in the dunes.
“Stella! Johnny!” I screamed out, my legs shaking with adrenaline.
My feet slipped and slid, I practically vaulted the last few yards, silently swearing a blue streak.
And then I heard it –
My fright was washed away and left a cold fizzing in my brain.
“Wardynski, you better get your butt out here or you’re a dead man!” I shouted through clenched teeth.
Johnny stood up from behind the sandy ridge, brushing sand off his jeans and bent almost double with laughter. Stella followed him, hanging onto his arm.
“Oh man, you should see your face!”
“Ricky got a little fright!” Stella sang, waving her stilettos at me.
“Yeah, yeah, hilarious,” I retorted – annoyed as hell that I’d fallen for one of my own stupid tricks. I was thinking this town was really getting to me, and the knowledge of it made me feel twice as dumb.
They staggered over to me, still chuckling. Johnny clapped a hand on my shoulder. “Sorry, Rick, we just couldn’t resist it! You gotta admit, it was funny - you were spooked big-time, and you’re just mad you didn’t think of it first! You must be losing your touch!”
Stella linked one slim arm through mine, sliding up close, and her proximity set up that familiar confusing mix of annoyance and sheer horniness. I grit my teeth and disengaged her arm, waving her away with a black look on my face. “I dropped my beers chasing after you guys. And I’m fed up with playing gooseberry.”
She pouted at me and crossed her arms.
“Aww, don’t get mad, Rick,” Johnny said, still laughing. “We’re only having fun. You still remember that, don’tcha?
Thoughts of revenge burned in my brain. “Oh, sure I do,” I replied, casually. “But I meant what I said; this threesome’s got kind of tiring, so I’m going to leave you both to do whatever it is you wanna get up to.”
I turned and plodded back the way I came, and I heard Johnny call me back – that he was sorry – and then Stella’s voice, lower but still loud enough to carry back to me in the still air. “Oh, don’t mind him, sweetie.”
I didn’t turn around, but from the sudden silence that followed I had a pretty good idea she’d got him in a another clinch to stop him trying to persuade me to return. I trudged some ways off, well out of their view, and hunkered down in the sand on my back. I stared up at the full moon – and waited for them to do what came naturally.
Finally I turned over and began to crawl on my belly - snake-like – towards them. As I slithered up onto the ridge of the dune I could hear Stella making small whimpering noises, and then I heard a male groan, low and husky.
I stopped, rolling onto my back again, and my breath came out in a soft sound.
Here I was – ready to catch them in the act and spoil their fun – but something stopped me. Embarrassment – envy? Hell – I don’t know. Instead I slid back down the sand, my heart thumping, trying to shut out those heated sounds.
I felt my face turn hot and my groin turn hard as wood.
I imagined Stella on top of me, doing whatever she was doing that made Wardynski utter those moaning sounds. And then, I heard her voice, her breath coming out short and gasping in the chill air.
“Please… yes… yes… ah… ahhh… oh yes.”
If she didn’t stop I was going to explode.
I lay there, sunk in a misery of physical arousal until thankfully, finally I heard a long drawn out cry - his and hers - together, rising into the air.
All I could hear was the sound of my own laboured breathing.
I waited until my face cooled and the ache in my groin faded. I needed to get back to the room and have a cold shower, or something.
Leave them to enjoy the afterglow.
Then a bizarre thought jagged through my mind.
This is what Betty was doing that night.
Watching her husband make love to another woman.
I felt queasy then, at both that thought and the fact I’d been turned on while my best pal made love to his girl. So much for my belief I was no voyeur. My sick feeling was made worse when my thoughts drifted onto the inevitable – Frank’s demise out here on these very same sands.
No, this is nuts! Get a grip, man, this isn’t a B- horror movie!
As I made to get up, I heard a noise.
It was weird – sort of like a sucking sound.
And it was followed by another noise – as if the sand was moving in a giant wave – right below me – where Johnny and Stella lay on the sand, sated with one another.
A shrill cry made my blood freeze all the way to my toes.
My immediate reaction was utter disbelief. I thought: Shit, they knew I was here all the time and they’re trying it on again!
But something in my befuddled brain told me there was a whole different tone in that cry from the first one. There was real fear in this sound.
There was another screech – then two more in quick succession – then Johnny’s voice at last:
“Help! For God’s sake help!”
I tried to scramble back up the sand, but – and this was crazy – the slope seemed to have got steeper, the ridge rearing up like the crest of a wave.
God-in-freaking-heaven – it was like the sand was alive!
I couldn’t get my footing and as I struggled I heard Johnny and Stella shrieking – cries of terror that sliced through me.
“Aaaa – hhhh – gnnn.”
And then I heard snapping and popping and scrunching sounds amidst the screaming and the grating sound of sand against sand.
I somehow hauled myself over that writhing ridge of sand to look into the sand bowl, and all the while an atavistic terror gripped me – I didn’t want to see what was making those sounds - or why.
I tried to make sense of what I saw before me.
There was sand flying everywhere – and as I squinted I saw the sand-bowl churning and heaving – and the noise – I still can’t to this day describe it – like a mixture of sucking and roaring, as if there was some wild beast within it. I saw a column of sand spew up into the sky like a fountain and spread like a wave.
And within the whirling flying sand – I could see gobs of pale glistening stuff flying through the air together with bits of shredded fabric and blue jean.
A chunk of the glistening, black-coated stuff hit me in the face, bounced off and dropped at my feet. I stared at it for a few seconds and then realised with sick horror what it was.
That coating wasn’t black.
It was red.
I was staring at a bit of someone’s flesh.
Betty said the sand ate them.
Acid bile filled my throat and I retched, my body arcing forward with the involuntary movement, and beer and half-digested hamburger splattered on the sand. Blinded with shock, I hit the ground, and rolled, arm over foot, spilling down the slope, until I came to a halt.
I lay there for long minutes, shaking like I had a fever, tears burning my eyes, and only then I became dimly aware that the sucking and roaring sound had vanished and everything was still again. Heaving great gulps of air into my sore lungs, I dragged myself over the edge of the bowl once more and shook my head in disbelief.
The sand was dormant – as if nothing had ever happened.
But Stella and Johnny had vanished.
Choking with another bout of tears I staggered into the depression. Not thinking – and not caring – that whatever was in there, whatever evil monstrosity that could tear people apart and make them disappear – might take me next.
I clawed frantically at the sand, scrabbling and digging until my fingers were scraped raw and bleeding. I dug until I collapsed with despair and exhaustion, but I couldn’t find a trace of either Johnny or Stella.
Somehow I staggered back across the dunes and into town. I had no idea where Deputy Sawyer’s office was so I made straight for Ham’s Friendly Tavern. I took a seat in the corner of the diner while the barman called the deputy. He arrived not long afterwards and gave me a pointed look, noting the smears of vomit and dried sand on my denim jacket and hair, and no doubt catching a whiff of alcohol.
“Where are your two friends?” he asked, with that uncanny sixth-sense all law enforcement agents seem to have, and when he saw the haunted look in my eyes he took me firmly by the arm and led me away towards the privacy of his office.
On the way there my mind kept replaying the horror of what I’d witnessed, what I thought I’d seen, and as I tried to figure out what I was going to say to him I began to question my own sanity.
But some core of integrity inside me made me tell the truth of what I saw, and I blurted it all out, in a low cracked-with-pain voice. He let me jabber, regarding me with an inscrutable look on his face.
I stopped at last, drained with the telling, and he continued to stare at me for a few moments, and I got the distinct impression – even in my distraught state – that he had the look of a man whose worst nightmare had come back to haunt him.
“Are you going to find out what that thing is?” I said. My shakes had finally subsided and a cold resolve was setting like concrete in its place. “It has to be stopped.”
He dropped his eyes to stare at the floor at my feet for a long minute, and then he blew out a long breath. At last his eyes came back up to meet mine, and there was a new resoluteness there.
“It was quicksand, that’s what killed them.”
I stared back at him, dumbfounded.
“I told you the dunes were dangerous,” he continued. “You didn’t listen to me, and you and your friends obviously ignored the warning signs.”
“But what I’ve just sa–”
“And you’ve been drinking, young man; I could lock you up right now and throw away the key.”
Translation: I know you’re telling the truth, but if this gets out we’ll all be locked up in the asylum.
“There’ll have to be an inquest, of course, and this time we’ll definitely have to close the dunes. The only trouble is – doing that might actually have the opposite effect and bring even more people up here. You see why we wanted to play all of this down?”
“You knew this might happen again – and you did nothing about it?” I could barely keep the anger from my voice.
He frowned, and I regretted my outburst. He looked like a man with a huge weight on his shoulders. “What would you do – against something like this? An evil Manitou that devours flesh but has no substance itself?”
My mouth opened, and then shut again. In honesty – I had no answer.
“I have a little Chippewa blood in me too,” he said at last. “But the rest of me refused to believe there was a shred of truth in what Betty said she’d witnessed. And as the years passed, and nothing happened again, I became more convinced that was the case.”
“Why didn’t it take – me?” I asked, and I heard the crack in my voice again, and struggled to get it under control.
He shook his head. “I don’t know. Perhaps the sexual act was – is – a trigger…maybe once it had – fed, you were no longer of any interest to it. Perhaps that was the same reason that Betty survived.” He sighed again. “There are some things in this world that defy rational explanation. Just thank God you’re still alive.”
My best friend and his girl had been turned into mincemeat and then they vanished into thin air. I figured I’d have nightmares for the rest of my life.
I stood in the cold, wet cemetery in Midvale a week later, and watched Officer Ted Wardynski and his ex-wife say goodbye to their boy. I couldn’t look them in the eye. Johnny’s dad had nothing but sympathy for me, and I burned up with shame at his misplaced concern; but his mom made up for it, she mouthed some heart-felt stuff at me that ramped up my guilt to the max.
The inquest was almost as bad, having to relive that awful night day after day; people with fancy titles and degrees taking the stand to give their version of what might have happened. When it was my turn – the star witness – my legs shook as I walked the short distance to face the court. The only face that wasn’t out of focus was Mamma Martinez’s, her almost black eyes boring into mine
It wasn’t much of a surprise that they didn’t have a lot of faith in my statement, especially after the coroner let it slip to the court that I’d been drinking. I guess I couldn’t blame them, in the cold light of day, it all felt surreal and distant – like some bad dream. But I still felt shock and the burn of betrayal when Deputy Sawyer stood up and spoke. He didn’t lie exactly; he was just – economical with the truth. I sat on the bench in the court with my fists clenched, wanting to shout at him – this isn’t what happened – we talked about it and you know it isn’t.
Although it wasn’t obvious to me at the time, I believe that the tragedy sowed a seed in me, something that would grow over time; that I wouldn’t stand by and let evil win, in whatever guise it showed itself - of this earth, or not.
I hated it at that moment – the real horror of what had happened being swept under the carpet. But now, in hindsight, I understand that while the truth might very well be out there, it isn’t necessarily the wisest option for every Tom, Dick or Jane to know about it. Life isn’t always coloured black and white the way we perceive it in our youth. And the deputy was also right about another thing – there are things that defy rational explanation. I see it every day I do my job.
So you see, sometimes the bogeyman does come out of the darkness – and bad things happen.
And the worst thing is….
You just have to live with them.
It’s taken a while, but I think I’m finally beginning to expiate for the sin I felt I’d committed that Halloween’s night – not doing more to save Johnny and Stella.
I’d like to thank Marion Woods and Chris Bishop for their usual sterling work in reviewing this story, and to Siobhan Zettler for ensuring that my North American speech patterns were on the mark, and for her insightful comments on the story. Any resultant mistakes and omissions in the text are entirely mine.
Thanks also to Sue Stanhope for providing me with a lovely phrase. Sue…you know which one it is…!!
The character of Captain Ochre from Captain Scarlet and The Mysterons is © ITC/Polygram/Carlton Entertainment.
Caroline Smith 2006