I drive an old car. It has been with me through high school and college. It has an ashtray, just to give you some perspective. That old Bronco has left me stranded on the road far too many times for me to remember, and I would consistently exhaust all of the allowable towing that my insurance company gave me every month. There was a hole on the footrest of the front passenger side, which was funny but also very embarrassing to drive around in. You could literally see under the car and the street from it.
So when I found out that I had to drive down for my mom’s birthday party, which was supposed to be a surprise my sisters put together, I was more nervous than anything to make that long drive down the highway. It had made it this far, so it had to be able to make it home, I’d just give myself enough time to pull over and shut off the engine every few hours. To give myself even more time, I’d leave even earlier than usual in the morning. That was the plan, at least.
But of course on the night before that I was supposed to make the six hour drive, I couldn’t sleep. It wasn’t excitement. Well, maybe a little. Excitement and fear that I wouldn’t wake up on time. So I finally managed to sleep at around 3am and then kept waking up every half hour or so, since I planned to wake up at 4:30am and be in the car by 5am. Still, it was a huge fail.
My alarm went off when I was already in the kitchen making coffee while trying to think of anything that I may have been forgetting, since I was also planning on hanging out with my family for the rest of the week since I was working from home anyway, all I needed was my laptop, cell phone, chargers, and work papers.
So I got in the cold seat of my car, the cushion of the seat squishing the air out with the sigh that comes naturally out of old cars. I always prayed a little before turning on the engine. Not for making it safely home, but for the darn thing to actually start on the first try. Making engine starting noises in the morning bothered the neighbors –doing so at 5 in the morning would surely get me kicked out of my new apartment.
But the car started, it warmed up for about five minutes before I released the brakes and let the car do its usual roll down the hill with no gas. I normally tried to go down the hill a little more before pumping the squeaky brakes.
Backpack, wallet, computer, cell phone, chargers. Everything was ready to go. Now, I knew the way home pretty well. Highway 95 all the way down and later turning onto the 10 freeway for about half an hour more, but I still turned on the GPS. I still regret that.
Everything went as expected for the first part of the trip, I stopped by McDonald’s for the hashbrowns and more coffee, then waited for the rest area sign to show up along the highway in order for me to use the bathroom. It was still dark outside, though something felt.. Off. I was forgetting something. Finally, I saw the sign. Rest area, next exit.
Two other cars were there when I pulled up. It was always good to see other cars. Rest areas are known for creepy things in the night. Things like robberies, to more sinister things like bodies being found after a murderer decided to dispose of them on the side of the road. If you search for the security footage of rest areas, you’ll find some pretty insane things.
But anyway, I put on my sweater, and ran straight for the bathroom after locking the stubborn doors to my car. As soon as I stepped out of the bathroom, I saw a man in front of me. Short, old, and staring down at my shoes. I tried to find his eyes, but his messy gray hair covered part of his face. He opened his mouth to say something, then paused as he took a breath.
Let me get that for you, he said. Get what? I just said no thank you and walked back to my car, trying not to seem rude. I could feel the sigh of disappointment by my right ear as I walked away, even though he had started to move away from me. I felt terrible, but I didn’t know what he meant and there was no way to take it back.
I got back in my car and sat there, looking out the window toward the bathrooms and vending machines, trying to catch a glimpse of the old man. But he was nowhere to be seen.
After about ten minutes, I set the car on neutral, turned the key, but nothing. The car wasn’t turning on. I panicked a little bit, and to make matters worse, the car started rolling backwards slowly, and I hadn’t realized it until I was almost across the lane where the other parking spaces were, the ones that faced the dark still mountains. I turned the key again only to hear the clicking sound of a dead car battery. I pulled on the emergency brake and the car screeched and jolted to a stop, with my rear window facing the darkness.
I turned back to reach for my bag to get my cell phone when I finally saw the old man’s face. He was right up against the passenger back door window. His hand reaching toward the glass to point right at me as a grim toothless smile grew on his wrinkled face. He was saying something but I couldn’t tell what until it became clear, let me get that for you. Let me get that for you. That’s when I heard another knock on my window. A man and a woman were standing there, asking if I was okay. I looked back toward the old man once more, but he was gone.
The couple could tell that I was nervous, so they took a step back until I finally rolled down my window and told them that my battery had died, that I just needed a jump start. My brother gave me a device to start up the battery whenever this happened, but I never thought to Youtube it to figure out how to use it. It was in the trunk space of the car. I told them about it, but they said that they had one too and they’d go get it. The woman stayed with me though, I think she knew that I was freaking out.
She told me that they were both caretakers of the place, basically a maintenance crew that would keep the place clean as part of the state’s highway program. She said that many cars would get a drained battery, even their own truck when they first started, then her expression changed as she suddenly went quiet.
I asked her if everything was okay, and she said that yeah, that she had just remembered Jeremiah and the stories that she heard over and over about him. The supposed ghost caretaker of the area.
When her husband showed up with the jumper cables, he jokingly said: Jeremiah all over again, huh? As he looked at the woman, who then looked back at me. Did she tell you the story? He asked me, as he opened up the hood of the car and plugged in the cables, something he appeared to have done many times before.
The ghost caretaker, right? He asked me to turn the key and the engine started. I then stepped out of the car to properly close the hood of the car, since it had a certain way you had to shut it. The man pushed down on it, but it wouldn’t click. I finally managed to close it.
Then, clear as day, we all heard a voice even over the sound of my engine. The woman hushed the man when he tried saying “see what I mean?” as she pointed her flashlight toward the back wheel of the car.
We turned around toward the hills. We couldn’t see much even, but just as she pointed the light away, we all noticed it.
A tiny shadow off by the parking spot next to mine. The same voice:
Let me get that for you.
I used to live in an apartment complex when I was a little kid. We didn’t have a lot of money but I didn’t know it and I had a good time. I had a bunch of friends there, right in my building, and even more on the building next door. We had a little bit of a club going, our complex versus the other. That’s how we chose teams for kickball and soccer.
They had torn down, or were tearing down, one of the buildings across the street from us to build another one. That’s what the rumor was anyway. It was awesome. A place with a fenced concrete area and a small field with a picnic table. Right in the middle, there was a small room, which I assume was the place where the maintenance people put the lawnmowers and cleaning supplies, but they had left the door unlocked, with stuff still in it.
My friend Mike and I walked there once on our way home from school. From what I remember, it had dried up tall grass between some of the concrete sidewalks, lots of those acorn-looking things, like crunchy dried up seeds given off by the trees, along with the dark shade that came because of the low-hanging branches. Our little visit didn’t last very long, though.
Mike and I walked to the main courtyard of the complex, through the windows we could see the light coming from the other side of the dark empty rooms. Even then I remember the feeling of being somewhere that had at one point been full of life, with an earlier generation of children that played with each other after lunch right there, by the benches. Maybe getting yelled at by their moms through the window to come back to finish our homework.
When I found the maintenance shed, Mike was over by the an area under the concrete stairs, a bit of a hidden corner of the complex where the mailboxes were. The whole mailbox assembly was wide open, the faded out numbers leaning forward and toward the ground. As soon as I pushed the door open to the shed, I heard Mike trip over something with a loud crash of metal hitting the ground and then Mike’s rushed footsteps toward the side of the complex, crunching over the dried up pods and seeds from the trees. Then I heard another grunt.
I took off running after Mike, trying to look over to the mailboxes, but only caught a glimpse of the torn down mailbox and a dark figure standing by the corner, looking either right at me or directly into the wall.
I didn’t see Mike until after we all ate at home and some of the other kids were wandering around the front of the neighboring complex. Mike was sitting around waiting for me and stood up when he saw me. He had a bandage over his right knee. He waited for me to ask him about what had happened, but I could tell he was embarrassed about it. Then he started explaining.
Someone had pulled him back from the hood of his sweater as he held on to the mailbox until it broke and he fell to the floor, the frame of the box landing on top of his knee. That’s when he got up and ran away.
Time passed and as usual, we kept playing out in our own buildings until some of the other kids started talking about going to play across the street, that they had a basketball hoop and that there was nobody there. I didn’t remember a basketball court, but going as a group felt a little safer than only two of us going, but I still didn’t want to go. Mike wasn’t allowed to go there, at least that’s what he said to us, and I also said that my mom also said I couldn’t go and everyone, about six or seven kids went across the street. Mike and I felt so mature, doing the right thing of not going, so we stayed out by the sidewalk in case anybody needed help and we’d be on standby.
About half an hour had passed when we heard a scream and the nervous laughter of everybody, running toward the side of the complex. One of them tripped on the parking lot because of all the loose pebbles and rocks, but the rest kept running. Even then, I knew something was wrong. Steven, the kid who fell, got back up and started yelling, pointing back at the apartment complex and trying to get the attention of everyone else. Another kid stopped and tried to stop everyone else, but it was no use. They ran right across the street, laughing and trying to decipher what Steven was trying to say.
Mike was already gone, he ran straight to his apartment door to get his dad, who came out and ran across the street to talk to Steven and sat him down by the sidewalk. It’s tough to remember everything in order, but Mike went back to his apartment and then the police showed up. I remember the image of one of the kids being carried to the police car with a bloodied foot. All I knew about him was that he had moved in recently and he had gotten a basketball for Christmas. According to Steven, everyone started running when a tall man in black clothes started walking slowly toward them by the basketball hoop. All of the kids screamed, the ball bounced away toward the dried up bushes, but the new kid did not want to leave it behind and ran back to get it. Steven tried to convince him to just run.
Ever since, nobody dared to go back into that empty building. Mike and I would hang out by the planters in the front of our building, talking about things and kicking a soccer ball around waiting for the other kids to stop by. It was some time in the summer when we all got another scare, Mike saw me come up to the garden in the front of the building when he waved at me to come quickly, and then he pointed toward the planter. Right there, in plain sight, was an old dried up basketball.