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Haunted Shadow by Ray Printer Friendly

Nobody ever asked, because why would they? But if you'd asked me about my bar, if you'd asked if it was haunted, I'd tell you that it wasn't haunted any more than any other dive bar. We get our regular happy hour rush, and as the night progresses, the people leave and the shadows stick around.

I call them shadows; I know other bartenders who call them ghosts. If you didn't know better, you might think they were still real people. But you watch them sip their shots and empty their beer bottles, and you can tell. They still have pulses, and they still breathe, but they aren't real anymore, they aren't really alive.

Whatever lives they once had are over now, and the only thing left is the shell…the shadow.

So, yeah, if you asked me if my bar was haunted, I'd tell you that it wasn't haunted any more than any other dive bar.

_______________


It was a slow night, and I had finished with the last of my finals earlier that afternoon. So I was just sort of standing around in a daze, waiting for someone to ask for a drink. When they did, I'd pour it, and then go back to my vegetative state. It had started snowing mid-afternoon, and didn't look like it had plans on stopping any time soon.

It was dark outside--darker than even a wicked night like that warranted. I wouldn't go so far as to say that it was a scary night, but it was definitely unsettling. The world seemed angry, and you could feel it deep down in that part of your being that has hung around since the cavemen, sending out subtle warnings when things just aren't right.

I shivered, and it snapped me out of my daze.

"Yep. It's that kind of night."

His voice surprised me, because I hadn't even noticed him come in. He looked familiar, although I couldn't remember seeing him before.

"Yeah," I said. "What can I get'cha?"

"Gin, on a couple of rocks, if you don't mind."

"Don't mind a bit." I turned to pull a glass from the rack. "So how long were you sitting there?"

"Just a minute."

"Sorry, man--I didn't even notice you come in."

"Happens. Long day?"

I handed him his drink. "Just finished up with final exams today, my brain's a little fried."

He looked around at the people seated in the bar behind him. "No offense, but it kinda looks like everyone in here has a case of the brain fry."

"Ah, they're all right." I never would have thought that I had any sense of loyalty towards my particular bar shadows, but I found myself getting defensive.

"Yeah, yeah, without a doubt. I wasn't trying to be insulting. Hell, I'm right there with 'em." He laughs a wet laugh, like air through a heavily soiled handkerchief, and empties his glass. He taps it on the bar, still grimacing, and nods his head. I pour him more gin, and he continues to nod--this time to indicate his thanks. His face blushes red and then calms down to a rosy, alive color--which is much better than the bloodless pale he was when I first noticed him.

"Just an observation, is all. Hell, me an' Old Ron over there go way back." He points at one of the regulars. I don't know the guy's name, but that isn't unusual--I don't know many of my patrons by name. I know what they look like, I know what they drink. Sometimes, I might know where they work, if it's the kind of guy that bitches about his job. Names aren't essential in the kind of relationship I have with the shadows.

He's in every night. Three fingers of rotgut, and off he goes to a dark corner. He doesn't talk to anyone other than me, and he only talks to me when he's ordering his drink. He isn't a power drinker, but he'll usually empty two or three glasses through the course of a night. Then he'll shuffle out a little before closing time, maybe a little less steady than when he came in, and that's that.

He's wearing the same blank face he wears every time he comes in; the empty eyes that indicate a man trying to erase his memory. Sometimes I wonder why these guys come to the bar to drink instead of staying home and doing it for cheap. This guy, though, you can tell he doesn't like to be left alone with himself. Even in a slow dive bar occupied with lifetime drunks, there's still plenty to distract you. The bell that rings when the door opens, or a song will get started on the old jukebox in the corner, or a bottle rolling off of a table and shattering on the floor, or the murmuring of quiet drunks. There's a lot to distract you, if you want to be distracted; still plenty to keep you from thinking about how you ended up here. But only if you're desperate enough to need it.

"You know Old Ron?"

"Just by drink," I told the stranger.

"Yeah, yeah." He said it quickly and clipped, so it sounded like "yat, yat." He chuckled a small chuckle, no noise, just a smile and a small spasm through his upper body. "I guess you could get to know a man pretty well through his drink, when you work in a place such as this."

I wasn't sure if he meant a bar in general, or a bar like that one--full of old guys drinking away their lives.

"Old Ron, he used to drive truck, way back when. That's how we met."

"You ought to go over there and keep him company."

"Oh, no--you ain't gettin' rid'a me that easy, young buck." He laughed again, his deep, phlegm-filled laugh, and I decided I didn't like him.

Working in a bar, you run into all kinds of people you don't like, but because you basically pay your rent with the tips they give, you suck it up and give them a smile and a little friendly conversation. You smile and you deal with it, and you hope it pays off. But sometimes you feel something different. Sometimes, you can feel trouble coming and you can tell right where it's coming from, like a cold draft through a cracked window, and you want to be as far from that crack as possible. Because sometimes the entire window will shatter, and anyone around will get cut.

He let his laugh die away as he stared across the bar at me. "You might not believe this, what with how friendly you and me's gettin' along, but old Ron, he ain't ever happy to see me."

"Then maybe you ought to finish your drink and head off, before he does see you."

"No need to get hostile, young fella. There won't be trouble--not here, not tonight. Tell you what: you get me one more drink, put up with my rambling 'till I've drunk it down, and then I'll get out of your hair." He held up his second glass, almost empty, and raised his eyebrows in a question.

Whatever vibe I had been getting from him moments before vanished, and I considered telling him that I wasn't trying to hurry him off, that he could take his time. But just as I opened my mouth, our eyes met. I poured him another drink without saying anything.

"Thank you, sir," he said, tipping his second glass to me and then finishing it off. I took the first two glasses away, and he twirled the ice around in his third.

"Don't mention it."

He dug into his pocket and tossed a couple of wrinkled bills onto the bar--a five and a twenty. "That cover me?"

"And then some."

"Keep the change."

"You sure?"

"About that."

"Thanks." I didn't move to pick up the money.

"Like you said--don't mention it." He took a sip of his drink. A small sip, meaning he planned on being there for a while longer. Unfortunate. "Yep, that Ron, he was a helluva truck driver."

I didn't answer. I'd worked in bars long enough to know when someone wanted to tell a story. Sometimes, I liked hearing their stories, but I didn't want to hear any story this guy had to tell.

"Helluva truck driver. Man could get a tractor-trailer where most couldn't fit a bicycle."

"That's pretty impressive." I kept my voice monotone, not aggressively so, but enough so he'd know I didn't want to hear what he had to say.

"Yessir." One word, quick. He shook his glass a little, watching the ice cubes clank into one another. When he looked up, I knew he had decided to disregard my desire to avoid a story.

He had the look. Doesn't matter who it is, rich or poor, dead-beat drunk or the President of the United States, everybody gets that same look. The look that means they're about to tell a story.

His went:

_______________


Had this friend name of Charlie, Old Ron did. They didn't drive together, per se, but they worked for the same trucking company, and they found themselves on the road at the same time more often than not. Usually, it was at night.

You may not know this, livin' in the city and all, but the road's a lonely place at night. If you ain't busy tryin' not to fall asleep, you're busy tryin' to get your brain to quit tormenting you. Driving back and forth, from one nowhere to another, you have plenty of time to think. Too much, sometimes. Maybe you'd be surprised how quick your mind can turn wicked on you, or maybe you wouldn't, I don't know. Lotta times, those truckers'd get on their CB radios and keep each other talking. Keep each other awake and keep the ghosts away, you know.

Nowadays, you got your cell phones, so it don't matter--you can call up anyone from anywhere when you get tired of your own company. Back then, though, it was different--it was a CB or nothin'. It got to be too much to listen to your own demons, you were stuck listenin' to someone else's. You couldn't just call up your daughter and tell her you loved her, or your dad and tell him you miss 'im. You were stuck with the dregs that were just as bad-off as you, and I'd be lying if I said you didn't sometimes form some kind'a emotional bond with 'em. You talked to whoever was close enough to hear you, and you were thankful for whatever voice answered.

Don't get me wrong--I'm sure there's some good fellas out there, perfectly fine with their own comp'ny. Fellas drive from coast to coast with a smile on their face and a warmth in their soul. But most idn't like that. Most idn't like that at all.

So what old Ron and Charlie would do is, they'd have it to where they left central pretty close to the same time. Pick up their loads, haul ass to Colorado Springs, drop that load, pick up another, and haul ass back. Ten-hour round-trip, night after night after night. Maybe not that long in good weather, or maybe three times that long in awful weather.

Charlie'd take off first, and it didn't take long for Ron to catch up. They'd keep each other company on those long drives, and if they wasn't friends from the get-go, they sure did get to be friends. Best friends, I guess you could say. Hell, they did that for fifteen years. You talk to a man for hours on end, night after night, for fifteen years, it's hard not to be best friends. By that time, you probably know each other better than most married couples.

Charlie was quite a bit older than Ron--I guess about seventeen years or so--and he had been driving truck for quite a while longer. He had about a year left before he could retire, and that's when his eyes started goin' bad on him.

He wore his glasses for years, but he was still able to do his job just fine. When his night vision started to go, that was when the real problems started. He had seniority in the company by then, so he talked to dispatch, made up some excuse or another, and got switched to day runs. It was some dull driving when he didn't have Ron to talk to, but that's just how it goes, right? You do what you gotta do.

The company ended up making some cutbacks, though--oh, I guess it would've been three months before he was able to retire. Laid off a lot of people. They tried to give him days as much as possible, but there were some nights that they had to have Charlie work at night.

Three months until retirement, there was no way that he was going to tell them that he couldn't do it. Sure, he'd still get the money he'd dumped into retirement over the years, but there wouldn't be the benefits, you see what I'm sayin'? He had been counting on the health plan, the matched pay, all that. If they found out he couldn't drive, they'd cut him loose and save a bundle. Wouldn't have been entirely legal to do it, but it seems like big business can generally find a way around trivialities like that.

So what Charlie did, he came up with a plan. You might not know it, but when you been driving the exact same set of roads for thirty-plus years, you don't really need to see 'em to keep driving them. What you need to see are the things that change--the variables.

Road work, or a car stalled out to the side of the road, or a deer running across in front of you. Stuff like that. Charlie wasn't so night-blind that he couldn't see at all, he just couldn't see the variables in time to react. He could see a car by the side of the road when he was right up on it, and he could see all those taillights on the back of a rig.

So he came up with this plan where Ron would drive in front--just a half-mile or so--and if there was anything out of the ordinary, any of those variables, he'd give Charlie a holler on the old CB radio.

Maybe not a goodidea, but an idea nonetheless, and what was Ron supposed to do--say no? Imagine that: your best friend of over two decades asks for your help so he can retire with his benefits. You tell him no, you might as well just give 'im a kick in the ass through the poor-house door.

And it was just short term. Three months, you know? Old Ron, he figured he could keep the two of 'em out of trouble for that long.

He did a good job of it, too. In all honesty, there wasn't even that much trouble to keep them out of. "Family of deer up here, Charlie, slow it on down." Or, "Got a car pulled over here on the right, Charlie, let's move on over to the center lane."

Charlie'd slow down and keep his eyes peeled for any deer that felt like boltin' out into the road, or he'd move on over to the center lane to keep some distance between him and the car broke down on the shoulder.

Worked out surprisingly well, really.

But one night, there was an incident.

They were driving along, just like usual, chatting it up about whatever bullshit was on their minds at the times, and the station wagon in front of Ron blew a tire. It started swerving all over the road--you lose your front left tire all the sudden while you're barreling down the highway at eighty miles an hour, it'll play hell with your steering. If that station wagon had blown any other tire, things wouldn't have gone like they did that night, and maybe they wouldn't have gone how they did later, either. I don't know.

Losing a back tire, it'll scare the hell out of a guy, but you can usually keep it under control, ease off the road, and work from there. If it had been the right front, it probably would've pulled him off into the bar-ditch before the driver had time to react.

It was the left front, though, so it pulled him into the middle of the road, where he commenced to swerve all over the damn place. And of course, he was stomping the shit out of his brake pedal.

Ron cuts his wheel and blasts around the station wagon, screaming into his mic that Charlie needs to sharpen up real quick.

"Gotta blow-out, Charlie, guy's all over the road and standing on his brake! Slow down, slow down, slow down!" Ron's already slowing down, his eyes glued to his mirrors, watching the station wagon, and watching Charlie's headlights baring down on the station wagon. "He's on the right, you see him?"

"I think so, but I can't tell where he's at. Sumbitch only got one brake light, I can't tell which side of the road he's on! Where's he at?"

"Just shut up, I'll talk you! Get to the left--it looks like he's easing off to the right. He's almost to the shoulder, you got it?"

"I can't see the…what's he doing?"

"Just stay in the far left. He's just stopping in the road, not pulling onto the shoulder or anything, so just oh shit! Get to the center, Charlie, center lane right fucking now!"

All this conversation occurred in matter of seconds, you see--just bam bam bam. And what happened was, just as Charlie was easing into that left lane, some kid in a little hatchback had swerved around, was gonna pass him real quick. Charlie was so focused on the station wagon, he didn't even notice the new set of headlights in his mirror, and he almost crushed that kid into the concrete highway divider. He managed to cut back in time, slam his brakes, and swerve around the station wagon in the middle, but it was a near miss, and left everyone involved pretty shook up.

The guy in the station wagon finally managed to get off the road, and Ron and Charlie pulled off and made sure he was okay until the cops showed up. The kid that had almost been killed, he never even slowed down.

Ron and Charlie finished their run without any more problems, but when they got back to dispatch, Ron pulled Charlie aside.

"I can't do this anymore," he said to him. Charlie right away started in about how it was only for a couple more weeks. "Charlie, listen to me! Listen to yourself, for Heaven sakes! We could'a killed that kid in the Escort tonight. Hell, we could've killed the guy in the station wagon, for that matter. I know your retirement's important, I know it is, but you want to have to live with that, that you killed a man for health insurance? Because I sure as hell don't."

"What am I supposed to do, Ron? It's not just health insurance--it's all of it. I can't get by if I lose this. I'm not talkin' I can't get a new pickup, or take vacations, or go out to eat. I can't survive. I'll get another job--you know I ain't afraid of work--but what happens when I can't do that anymore? What happens when my body breaks down and I can't afford to fix it? What then?"

"I don't know. But here's a question for you: what happens if we kill someone? They'll find out you can't see, Charlie. They'll probably find out what we've been doing. We'll get all the benefits we want in prison. That how you want to spend your golden years? Locked up?"

Charlie didn't have anything to say to that--just stood there starin' at the ground.

"Switch with whoever's driving days, man. Everybody likes you--they might bitch and moan about it, but they'd do it for you. You've only got a few weeks left. You can't get somebody to fill in for you, call in sick. Hell, you got enough sick days built up, you could probably take the next three weeks off."

"You know that's grounds for getting fired."

"I was just making a point. We don't have to keep doing this for you to make it out with your benefits. There're better ways. Safer ways."

Charlie looked up from the ground. "Yeah. Yeah, you're right. Sorry, Ron. I just…I'm so close, you know? And it feels like it could get yanked out from under me at any time, like I got a noose around my neck and I'm standin' on a broken chair."

Ron clapped him on the shoulder. "It'll be okay, buddy. Just a little bit longer--we'll get you through it."

"Thanks, Ron. You're a good friend."

"Hell, yeah, I am. Now let's get out of here--I'm freezing my nuts off."

The weeks shrank down to days, and it worked just like Ron said it would. Charlie was able to convince somebody to switch schedules with him most times--only once did he have to call in sick to keep from driving at night.

Things was goin' well.

'Course, if they had kept on going well, I wouldn't be telling you this story right now, would I?

_______________


"Notice your drink's pretty much gone there, partner," I told the stranger. "If I remember correctly, that was your cue to call it a night."

He laughed his wet laugh, and tossed back whatever was left in his glass--mostly melted ice. He nodded his head as he chewed the ice.

"Yep," he said, that phlegm-net of laughter still hanging in his throat, "Yep, that was our deal, all right. Aren't you curious, though, about what happened?"

"Not a bit," I told him. And it was the truth. One thing I'd learned in my four years of working in that bar was that the stories you heard, they weren't worth it. The curiosity might be there at first, but the misery quickly overwhelmed it. You might wonder about a story some night, when you were deep in your own cups, and your thoughts were reckless and untamed. You might think, "What was the rest of that guy's story?"

But it wasn't worth it. I learned that early on, and my desire to know the stories of my patrons had died long ago.

Another one of those laughs, along with a smile that caused goosebumps to rise on my arms. "Tell ya what: if you won't hear me out for the sake of the story, will you at least hear me out for the sake of hard currency?"

He fished around in his pocket for a moment, and removed two more crumpled twenty dollar bills.

"Two more drinks, my friend," he said. "I'll pay this for two more drinks."

The cheap gin he was drinking ran four bucks a shot, so I would be making thirty two dollars just to listen to him.

I took down another two glasses, filled them with ice, and poured the drinks. Generally, I would have waited until he finished one to get him a fresh one, but I wanted to make sure he got my message.

I slid all the money from the bar top as I pushed his two drinks towards him.

"Thank you kindly," he said, and drained one of the glasses. He pushed the glass back to me in an identical manner, his eyes on mine. Showing me that he didn't give a shit about my message. "Throw a little money in there, it's amazing what that changes, right? We don't like to think we'll disallow our good thoughts for a buck, but that's how it tends to work out."

I shrugged, because I was suddenly ashamed of myself, and I couldn't think of anything else to do. It was a gesture meant to show him that I didn't care, that he hadn't gotten to me. There was a lie in that gesture, and we both knew it.

He shrugged back. "Just an observation that makes a good lead-in to the next part," he said. And then he continued:

_______________


Money, that's what was drivin' Charlie that night. Money and fear.

I reckon I could say the same things were drivin' Old Ron. Fear for his friend, fear for his own self. And money.

Y'see, here's what had happened: Charlie got called out in the middle of the night, and when he tried to beg off sick, they told him he needed to get his old ass to work or kiss his job goodbye. Three days left, and those were the cards life dealt 'im.

Dispatch even told him if he covered this load, he'd be able to take the next two days off, tell the magical world of freight-hauling to pucker up and plant one on his ass, and he'd never have to climb behind the wheel again.

Money and fear, that's what made him pick up his phone and dial the familiar number. That's what made him not only ask, not only beg, not only demand his best friend lead him down the road that night. That's what made him blackmail Old Ron. That's what made him bribe his closest friend to take a risk that neither of 'em were comf'tible with.

Money and fear, that's why old Ron did it, cursing his buddy, tellin' Charlie if he made him do this, he could consider their friendship over. And when Charlie said if that's how it's gotta be, then that's how it's gotta be, Ron cursed some more. But he got dressed, and he climbed into his beat-down old Chevy, and he went to play the blind man's dog one last time.

Charlie didn't want to force his friend's hand, not anymore than he wanted his hand forced by dispatch. But all he could think about was matched funds and benefits, and all he could hear was all that bein' flushed down the commode if he didn't do what he was ordered.

And what was Ron thinking about, as he maneuvered down familiar dark streets? He was thinking about how Charlie had threatened to spill the beans, and how he didn't sound like he was bluffin', not one bit.

"Ronnie, I don't want to do this," Charlie had said, "You know I don't. I don't want to haul this load, and I don't want to ask you to help me. But I'm too close, man, don't you see that?"

"I see a load of horse shit, is what I see. You don't want to do it, then don't do it."

"You just want me to throw it all away? Everything I've worked for, all these years?"

"I know it's not easy, Charlie, but it's the right thing."

"The right thing? How 'bout if it was your life about to go down the shitter? Think it'd be just as easy as the right thing to do?"

"I'd like to think so, yeah."

"Then how about this? You can help me, and I'll give you a thousand of the dollars from my retirement fund. Or you can refuse, I can tell them about all the trips you fronted for me, and then both our futures can be thrown to the wind."

"You wouldn't do that."

"The hell I wouldn't," Charlie said, and old Ron, he knew it was stone cold truth. "Not so easy when it's your own future on the line, is it?"

"You make me do this, we call our friendship over, you know that, right?"

"If that's how it's gotta be, then that's how it's gotta be."

"You're a real sonuvabitch, you know that?"

"I wish I didn't have to be, I truly do. See you in half an hour."

And that's how it came to be that a rusty old Chevy was rollin' into the night, just ahead of damn near forty tons of eighteen-wheeler and crated-up bathroom fittings.

"Awful quiet up there." Charlie blinked hard, hoping it would help the shadows form shapes, knowing it wouldn't help a bit.

"Don't feel much like talkin'," Ron said, and that was about all the conversation they had, as they barreled through the night.

It was one of those gray nights, where it ain't exactly foggy, but everything seems dull, and just a little hazy. Perfect for sippin' coffee and lookin' out the window from the comfort of your living room. Not so perfect when you're tryin'ta guide tons of blind semi down the highway, if ya know what I mean.

Even though they was pissed at each other, they was still a team, and they made it to the city just fine. Not much of note happened on the trip--a couple deer, a bit of highway construction, but nothing too worrisome.

Old Ron, he pulled off into a gas station a couple blocks away from the terminal, and while Charlie dropped his trailer and hooked up to another, Ron grabbed himself a new jug of coffee and hit the can to drain out the one he'd drunk down on the trip there.

Charlie pulled out of the lot and the beat-down Chevy pulled out just in front of him as he began his return trip.

"I'm really sorry it had to go down like this," Charlie said, as they climbed the ramp back up to the interstate.

"Didn't have to, Charlie. You made it like this."

Charlie realized there was no chance for forgiveness, so he fell silent and tried to his best to see into the night.

Life has a way of screwin' a guy in the meanest way possible, you ever notice that? It'll give you just enough so that you think everything's gonna work out okay, and then it pulls the leash up short, and you end up tumble-ass backwards, chokin' on any hope you thought you had.

That's how it was for the boys, that night. They was about halfway home, the fog had lifted, and the roads were mostly empty. Old Ron had just started to allow to himself that they might make it through this thing, after all.

And that's when they drove full-on into the shitstorm.

Old Ron topped a hill and damn near ended his part of the story, right there, by smashing into several tons of parked highway equipment. They were supposed to have all sorts of warning signs and flashing lights around, but the lights were all busted, and the bright orange signs had all been tipped over.

Old Ron wasn't so old that his driving reflexes had slowed on him, though. He cut the wheel hard enough avoid the construction equipment, but not so hard that he flipped his Chevy. He reached for his CB with one hand, and he used the other to hold the pick-up under control.

But before he could radio back to Charlie, he had to drop the mic and swerve in the other direction. Drivin' reflexes or not, there's only so much you're capable of, and the second car had pushed Old Ron and his Chevy past their limits.

The fog had made the road just slick enough that the truck began to skid sideways, but not enough to keep it going that way--his tires caught asphalt a split second later, and suddenly the road was beside him instead of under him. He had just enough time to think, "Another damn station wagon," and then he felt the sick feeling you only get when gravity betrays you.

Pain tore through him, and shattered glass and twisted metal hit him from every side. He felt bones break: ribs; his arm; his leg, as the steering wheel crushed down on it. And even as he screamed in pain, even as his Chevy slid down the highway on its roof, Old Ron focused his eyes on that CB mic, and focused his thoughts on the family in that station wagon.

The dome light in the car wasn't on, but his headlights had shown him enough in the short time he'd seen the wagon: a child peering out the back window, a man reaching into the car to guide a woman out. Ron wasn't sure exactly what the situation was, and he wasn't concerned about it. If he'd been thinking straight, instead of while he was shooting down the highway upside-down with a bunch of broke bones, he probably would have guessed that the lady was car sick--he'd seen situations similar to this countless times. Family road trip, drivin' through the night to get to grandma's, and maybe the lady eats a little too much fast food, or the road's too bumpy or twisty, and next thing the driver knows, he's helping her out to empty her stomach on the side of the road.

Old Ron wasn't thinking about none of that, though--he was just thinking about how he had to keep Charlie from hitting that family.

"Stay outta the left lane, Charlie," he groaned into the mic. He had tried to yell, but his battered lungs were having none of it. He wanted to warn Charlie about the construction equipment in the right lane, too; and of course he wanted to warn him about his own Chevy, helpless as an upturned turtle, in the center lane.

But he didn't have enough air, so he had to go with the priority. "Stay out of the left lane, whatever you do!" This time he managed to say it with some volume.

"What's going on?" Charlie asked. Old Ron watched as the approaching headlights moved away from the middle lane into the far right.

"No," Ron said, but that was as far as he got.

Charlie smashed into the construction vehicles, pushing them a few yards as his own trailer crushed into the cab, crumpling it like a soda can. There was an explosion, bright light and heat engulfing the highway, accompanied by screaming metal.

Ron tried to shield his eyes, but the pain kept him from moving his arm, and he saw as the trailer flipped into the opposite lane--away from the family in the station wagon.

That was all he could handle, and despite everything, he thanked God for keeping the family safe, just before the blackness sucked 'im down.

This ain't what you'd call a happy story, I think we both get that. But if it'd stood like that, maybe Old Ron could have pulled himself back together, figured out what to do with his life, other'n sitting in some bar with a shot glass full of cheap whiskey, waiting for his timer to ding.

But life wasn't content with letting Ron save a family and live out the rest of the days trying to figure out how to deal with the fact he'd gotten his best friend killed because of it.

You see, there was this old boy named Riley Jones. Handsome fella, clean-cut with a nice smile. Kind'a guy you trusted just by looking at him; you know the type--hell, you are the type.

Riley Jones was a hitchhiker, but he didn't have no interest in getting anywhere. His interests leaned to the more violent side of highway life. People would pick him up, comforted by his nice smile and his innocent face, and he'd tell them all about how he was trying to get home to his mama. She was sick, you see, and any money he spent on bus fare would mean money he couldn't spend on medicine. He was gonna take a semester away from school--don't worry, though, he was heading back to get an education just as soon as his mama was better--and get a job to help out with some bills and such.

That was the story of Riley Jones, and he enjoyed telling it to everyone who picked him up. Not as much as he enjoyed killing them, though. There was nothing he enjoyed more than that.

They ended up catching him--not the night that Old Ron got Charlie killed, though. Nope, that'd be at least something. Riley Jones got away with murder, that night. By the time the cops arrived to investigate the two car accidents on that lonely highway, Riley had already killed the woman and the child--the father was dead before Old Ron showed up and caused such a ruckus--and had escaped out into the night. In fact, the wrecks actually bought him some time to hot-foot it out of there.

They did catch him later, though--he tried his tricks on a college girl who was a little too versed in protecting herself from innocent-looking college boys, and she shot him in the gut with the itty-bitty twenty-two her daddy had given her on the day he sent her off to school. She kept it in her purse, despite the fact that that kind of thing is highly illegal. When the police showed up to the scene, they conveniently overlooked her concealed weapon, seeing as how she had just gut-shot an interstate serial killer who wanted to confess all of his crimes before heading into the great beyond.

So instead of sacrificing his friend to save a family, Old Ron had to content himself with the fact that he'd killed his friend and helped a serial killer escape.

_______________


"Nice story," I said, trying to convey as much sarcasm and disgust as I could. "But it's bullshit."

"Why's that?" He lifted his glass and took a drink, careful not to drain the last of the liquid--he wasn't quite ready to leave.

"Because you weren't there. How would you know any of that? Charlie's dead, and I seriously doubt that Old Ron would ever tell anyone that story, if it was the truth."

"Let me answer you question with another. Do you think your bar is haunted?"

"Not any more haunted than any other dive bar," I said, not believing it any more than I did when I told myself the same thing at the end of especially trying shifts.

He smiled his unsettling smile, gulped down the last of his drink, and tossed another five onto the bar. "Nice answer," he said, "But it's bullshit."

He stood up before I could think of any clever retort, and made his way to the door, slowing only once, to look over at the patron I'd come to know as Old Ron during the course of the night.

The stranger smiled again, and it was more than unsettling, that time. It was a spiteful, hateful smile, and one of victory. "Old Ron's not ever happy to see me, but every once in awhile, nights like tonight, I like to make an appearance, just to remind him." And then he was out the door and into the night.

Do I think it was the ghost of Charlie, coming in to tell me his story? I don't. I've never been a superstitious kind of guy, and even if I was, something about that idea just never sat right.

Honestly, I don't think back to that night, much; that wicked winter night, when the world felt wrong and a stranger I never knew, but who seemed familiar, came in and told me a story I didn't want to hear. But when I do, I tell myself it was just some crazy old drunk who had nothing better to than come in and screw with the college kid behind the bar.

Sometimes, I'm able to believe it. Sometimes, I'm able to tell myself that there was no way I could have remembered his face. It had been, what--six years? When I was researching a case, and happened across an article about a serial killer in Colorado. Good looking kid, with a smile that tried to win your heart over, even as you read about the horrible things he did.

Sometimes, I'm able to tell myself that it's just my imagination: a drunk's story poured into my brain along with a news story, and mixed hard around like a shaken martini.

But there are other times, when the night is too dark to be natural, the air is too cold and cruel, and nothing can warm you, when I think about that stranger, and I believe his story, and I believe that he was the man I saw in that news story years later.

He didn't look innocent when I met him--whatever happened to him after he died had rotted that charming smile. But it was the same man, coming in to haunt an old drunk who was just trying to forget, and a young bartender who was just trying to get through law school.


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