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A Luminations Story
Start at the beginning of the Luminations series
Dead. Shot in the head on New Year's Eve, 2005. I know all about that.
Dead. Breast cancer. 1996.
Dead. Car wreck. 1987.
Last seen taking a nose-dive off the Turners Falls Bridge.
Pushed, actually. No body recovered. If he's not dead, he's laying low.
Dead. Drowning. Possibly a suicide.
Or possibly not. Next on the list is Edward McHurley.
Dead. Fatally stabbed during an altercation in the Hillsborough County Jail.
One more. Christina Kenney.
Whereabouts unknown. We also have to worry about Craig Putnam, who operates the legitimate business interests of Christina Kenney and Joe Tuckerman. He could be the key to finding those two. So, which one are we going after first?
I just told you. Bobby Whittaker is dead.
I know. So am I. That doesn't always make a difference.
Chester found considerable humor in discovering the existence of a Facebook group called "I Saw the Ghost Hitchhiker of Mattapoisett Road." But when he got over his amusement and got to work, the results were impressive.
The tricky thing about Facebook is that you can't see someone's profile unless they've made their profile public, which most Facebook users don?t do. So you work your way in the back door. Teenagers take pictures. They tag their pictures. Sooner or later you can usually find some tagged pictures of whoever you're looking for in a publicly accessible photo gallery, because an awful lot of Facebook users don't realize that the photo galleries have separate privacy settings from your profile. So you find photos. Sooner or later, someone is throwing a party at someone's house. They post a bunch of photos to show everyone how drunk they all got, and those photos lead you to photos on other hosting sites. And then someone somewhere decides to hit the geotag option.
Geotag? You've lost me.
Plugs the photo directly into Google Maps. Game over. You get access to the address, even a street view photo of the house. Google the address and you get the landline phone number, which actually exists because these kids live with their parents so they still have a landline.
This is making me glad you're one of the good guys, Chester. Then what?
And then we show up at their front door with a paranormal investigator business card. We drop the name of Ronald Dietrich and his ghost-hunting TV show on the Discovery Channel, and the kid tells us everything we need to know.
It actually took us three tries to find one of the teenagers who had seen the Ghost Hitchhiker. Her name was Louisa Renata, eighteen years old, and given to dressing in black and wearing thick silver jewelry that mixed ankhs with crosses and skulls with angel's wings. Any problem that Louisa's parents had with their daughter getting interviewed by a stranger interested in local ghost lore were quickly dismissed as soon the magic word got spoken: Television. It's good to know some things haven't changed.
We sat down at a tiny table in a tiny, cramped kitchen, and listened to Louisa's story. It was a familiar one. Chester assures me that there's a place on the internet called Snopes where you can read about phantom hitchhikers dating back to before there were cars. They come and go like fashion fads, spread through whisperings in high school locker rooms, and more recently via email forwards, Twitter, and Facebook.
And most of them are just stories. I used to hear ghost stories around the bonfire up at the Farm in Vermont.
The Farm. Where I met Bobby. We never used the word "commune." That was the word the townies would whisper to get the local stores to suddenly close for the day whenever we happened to come into town for supplies.
Chester tells me people look back on that time now with nostalgia.
Peace and love, baby.
Sex and jealousy was more like it, Chester. The farm was a disaster from the start. If we'd done our homework, we would've realized that. It's not like we were the first. We got started in the mid-seventies. We were kids during the Summer of Love. Our big brothers and sisters were the ones at Woodstock. Hell, some of our parents were there. Someone should have told us we weren't ready for the Farm, because we sure as hell weren't.
I got out before it fell apart. I had a couple of good years before Bobby came looking for me, and I tried to steal a new life for us from Richard Harrington's stash of money and secrets. It might have worked. Except that Bobby decided he loved the money more than he loved me (if he ever even had), and why steal when you can cut a deal, right?
So I ended up drowned in concrete while Harrington and Bobby and Christina Kenney and the rest watched. Bobby lived another seven years before that night he drove his Camaro in a straight line on a curving road.
Mattapoisett Road - somewhere between Wareham and New Bedford, Massachusetts - to be exact.
And now I'm just a jilted dead lover, currently in the driver's seat of private investigator Chester Hall's mind, listening to a teenager tell me about the night out on Mattapoisett Road when she met a ghost.
One thing about being dead. You never miss the irony.
"He didn't get in the car. We stopped. We were drunk. Well, my friends were. I was the designated driver, so I'd only had a beer. Or two beers. Cindy and Illiana were wasted and they were like 'Stop! Give him a ride!' And I totally wasn't gonna do it, but I guess I stopped the car to argue with them and then he was right next to the passenger door, and Illiana locked the door, and Cindy stopped yelling to give him a ride and started telling me to just drive."
I guess Chester must have figured that dealing with spirits was my specialty. He was keeping quiet, letting me do the talking, and I wasn't completely sure what I should be asking.
"Wait. Go back. Tell me where on the road you were." I'd looked at Mattapoisett Road on Chester's Google map thing. It went on for miles, through most of New Bedford, then into Fairhaven, Mattapoisett, Marion, and Wareham. When I was alive it was a pretty important road. Even when it was just Bobby in the Eighties.
They've built new roads since then. People want to get where they're going faster.
Louisa thought about it. The encounter had happened a year and a half ago, on the way home from a school semi-formal. Well, actually, on the way home from the after-party that had followed a school semi-formal. One that had taken place in the house of some lucky teenager whose parents had taken off to Antigua for the weekend. Not a New Bedford kid. A kid who came from money. From Marion, right on the water. So Luisa and her friends sat up drinking and smoking weed while they looked out at Buzzard's Bay, and they left at about one in the morning, with almost an hour's drive back to New Bedford, where Luisa had invited them to sleep it off at her parent's place.
"Fairhaven, I think," she finally decided. "It was after the bogs."
"Bogs?" I asked.
"You know. Cranberry bogs." She sounded a little exasperated. She wanted to get to the good part, not go over trivial details.
"Will I know these cranberry bogs if I drive out there?" I added a convenient lie to keep up the cover story: "We'll want to do some filming for background shots."
Louisa nodded. "Oh, sure. It's the only place with cranberry bogs on both sides of the road. It was a little bit past that. The road gets curvy and it's all woods there. I think there's a little pond too."
That should be enough to find the place.
Louisa resumed her story. "He was tall and thin. Dressed up. A white tux jacket. I could see he had long hair, but I couldn't really see his face. What's weird is that Illiana should have had a better look from the passenger's seat, but she said she couldn't make his face out either."
"Did he say anything?" I asked.
"No. Just reached for the door handle, but then he stopped. He kinda reached down behind his leg like he was feeling something, and then he pulled his hand back up and looked into his hand. We just all stopped. No one said anything, and he just stared at his hand, like... like forever. And then he turned his hand around toward the car window and we could see it was covered in blood."
Louisa hesitated. She'd told the story dozens of times. It had made her something of a celebrity among her high school friends, but telling it this time was bothering her. She scanned the room and reached over to the counter for a box of tissues. She seemed more surprised at the sight of her tears than anything else.
I just waited. She'd gotten this far. The rest of the story was going to come out.
Louisa sat back down and finished the tale.
"We all screamed. And then he fell down, just like his leg had given out. He fell right next to the car. Cindy was yelling at me to just drive, and Illiana wanted to open the door, and then Cindy was screaming at her not to, and I had my cell out to call 911, and then Illiana threw the door open."
"And?" I asked.
"And he was gone. I mean he fell right there. There was no way he could have gone anywhere. One of us would have seen. He was gone. Like..."
"Yeah. Like he'd never been there. I get it."
Later, after she shared her story, some other friends came forward with reports of a shadowy figure seen walking in the darkness along Mattapoisett Road, and eventually someone decided the whole thing needed to be on Facebook. At last check, the group had 47 members.
I thanked Louisa, told her a few more convenient lies about the prospects of getting her story on television, and then told the same convenient set of lies to her parents on the way out.
I hope Ronald Dietrich never hears about this. The last thing I need is him trying to make that poor kid into his next reality TV star. Anyway, where to now? Mattapoisett Road?
Not yet. I want to know about the girl who was with him in the wreck.
"Oh where, oh where can my baby be?
The Lord took her away from me.
She's gone to heaven, so I've got to be good
So I can see my baby when I leave this world..."
This is not funny, Chester.
I thought you appreciated irony.
Maybe I'd appreciate it better if it were J. Frank Wilson singing it.
I sometimes forget the things you missed. Pearl Jam is classic '90s grunge rock.
Forget appreciating irony. It's enough to make me appreciate being dead.
I was on my way to the public library in Fairhaven, hoping I'd have enough time to dig up some details on the crash in the local paper. I hadn't found much on the internet, but the Fairhaven Journal was out of business as of a year ago, and their records weren't online.
The librarian felt it necessary to instruct me in the use of the dusty microfiche machine that occupied a back corner of the reference section. I didn?t need the lesson, and I ignored her and got to work. If Chester was surprised that I'd spent a fair amount of my time in university libraries in the Seventies, he kept it to himself.
Her name was Laura Easton and she was nineteen when she died. I wasn't surprised. Bobby liked younger women.
But there was a surprise. Laura Easton was engaged. And not to Bobby Whittaker. The guy was named Michael McOwen, and the article mentioned he was serving in the Air Force, stationed at Otis.
I have access to military records. We could track him down.
We won't need to. I know how it happened.
Back on the Farm, Bobby never understood that it wasn't his sleeping around that made me angry. Hell, it was supposed to be free love, right? No, the other girls weren't the problem. The problem was him getting upset when I did the same thing. And even worse, his refusal to see that this was a problem.
Bobby was all about free love, as long as that meant he was the one who was free to love. The hypocrisy of his attitude was so fucking obvious that I just figured he'd have to see it eventually. He'd see it and grow up. I left him when that didn't happen quickly enough, but I always believed he'd come around. That was the belief that got me killed.
So I could see how it must have happened. There was a party. The newspaper mentioned that. Bobby had been drinking. The Eighties was when people stopped looking the other way about drunk driving, and stories about drunk driving suddenly started selling newspapers.
I could speculate from there. Laura Easton was at a party with her fianc?Michael McOwen, and the young officer had been drinking. Laura Easton had been drinking too. They fought, probably over some stupid little thing. Maybe he was rude to her, or maybe he was looking at other girls. Whatever. She ditched him. She was pretty, blonde and thin. Bobby always liked that, and he wasn't going to be stopped by some little detail like an engagement ring.
Bobby offered her a ride home. And neither of them ever made it home again.
The librarian was hovering by this time, so I figured it must be just about closing time. I drove back to Wareham, and then over the Bourne Bridge onto Cape Cod. I had a nice dinner of eggs and pancakes at the IHoP by the rotary while I watched the sun go down. Then I drove up to the gate to Otis Air Station (now mostly closed down on account of the lack of a Cold War).
I made a U-turn at the gate and headed back off the Cape, retracing the route that Michael McOwen had driven more than twenty years ago. I was killing time. It may not be true that ghosts always come out after midnight, but I knew we'd do better if we got close to the time of the accident. On that night in 1987, the first cop arrived at the scene at just past 2:00 AM.
I drove past the strip of fast food restaurants and strip malls in Wareham and then cut over to Onsett and hugged the coast. The GPS helped. I crept along the coast, driving through neighborhoods of "summer cottages" that resembled castles glimpsed through wrought-iron gates in stone walls mounted with security cameras. I counted Cadillacs and Mercedes Benzes in the last of the dying light until we came into Marion center with its little coffee shops and homemade ice cream stands. It was a warm night, and the ice cream business was booming with kids down from Boston or up from New York enjoying their first taste of summer vacation.
I picked out the ice cream parlor with the longest line and wasted some more time over a bowl of cookie dough ice cream. I decided that cookie dough ice cream ranked just slightly below the internet among new inventions since the time of my death.
By this time, it was fully dark, and I got back in the car and headed for Mattapoisett Road.
I was retracing two routes now. Michael McOwen had turned around and headed back over the Bourne Bridge to the base, figuring he'd call and apologize to Laura Easton after he'd slept off the hangover. By the time Michael McOwen did sleep off the hangover, his fianc?had been dead for eight hours. I was driving the last road she ever took, and I was driving the route that Louisa Renata and her friends drove the night they saw a ghost.
By the time I got to the cranberry bogs, it was well after midnight and the road was dark and empty. I pulled into the dirt driveway, go out of the car and walked the bog just to get a feel for it. Cranberry bogs are arranged like grids with raised dirt embankments crisscrossing the patchwork of bogs with their drainage ditches and harvesting equipment. The night had turned cold all of a sudden and clouds were moving in fast, obscuring the moonlight. The first few raindrops struck the windshield as I turned around and got back onto Mattapoisett Road.
I drove slowly as the rain picked up. It was getting hard to see anything but woods on either side of the road, which was now winding and curving on a slight downgrade. I was looking for the pond that Louisa had mentioned, and somehow I hadn?t counted on it being hard to see from the road. I was just starting to worry I'd missed it when I remembered the GPS.
I pulled up on the shoulder and touched the screen once to zoom out. There was the pond, a quarter of a mile ahead on the right.
I flicked the turn signal even though I hadn't seen another car on the road in an hour.
I looked up.
Bobby Whittaker was leaning against the hood dressed in a white polyester tux and a goofy grin.
I leaned over and shoved the passenger door open.
Bobby limped over to the door, stumbled, and pulled himself up. I caught a glimpse of a dark stain soaking the back of one pant leg before he closed the door and the light went out.
He turned slowly, and for the first time he saw me.
He screamed and grabbed for the door handle as I instinctively clicked the locks shut. I'd half expected him to just vanish or slip out through the solid door like the phantom he was, but instead the handle rattled once and he shrunk against the door, trapped. Chester had rigged the door so you couldn't unlock it from the inside. Apparently that was a feature to keep your kid from falling out of the car, or at least to prevent the lawsuit that would result from that happening. It was also damned useful for kidnapping, In fact, between that and Google Maps, kidnapping had apparently come a long way in twenty-five years. And I wasn't exactly complaining when I discovered the car door trick worked on the dead as well as the living.
"Now I know what a ghost looks like when it looks like it's seen a ghost. Long time, Bobby. How's it been?"
He relaxed a little. He must have remembered he was already dead. What could I do to him?
"Hey, Mattie. You look good. You look real good."
Wait. He can see you?
Yes. He sees me as I am. Or as I was, at least.
"So, Bobby. You gonna tell me about it?" I asked. I was speaking in my own voice. Chester's wasn't necessary to talk to Bobby. It was nice to hear the sound of my voice, and I remembered singing by the fire up in Vermont while Bobby strummed his guitar and the air smelled like dry leaves and pine trees and cigarettes.
"I'd rather talk about us." He flashed that easy smile that he could fake when he'd been caught at something.
"I know," I said. "You'd rather not tell me about how you died, but you have to. You're compelled. I know how it works."
He hung his head. "I'll show you."
Suddenly we were moving. I slammed into the car door as we took a curve too fast, and Laura was screaming for Bobby to slow down, and I knew Bobby wouldn't because Bobby was out to impress this girl. Besides, I could smell the liquor all over him. The dirt road to the cranberry bog had one electric lantern flickering yellow on a post in the darkness and it turned into a shooting star was we sped past it and the rain started to hit the windshield.
There was a single flash of lightning. I liked to count for the thunder when the lightning flashed over Lake Memphremagog during that last summer with Bobby in Vermont.
I started to count.
The car hit the downpour like a wall at the count of two as the curve in the road just before the lake flashed in the headlights, a blur of yellow and black arrows posted along the guardrail.
Bobby lost control of the car at three.
Laura started to scream before I got to four and the thunder never came.
They weren't wearing seatbelts. I saw what Bobby saw, so I didn't actually see the crash.
Bobby had gone through the windshield and landed in some swampy ground thick with reeds by the pond. The lucky son of a bitch wasn't badly hurt.
Laura wasn't so lucky. She'd been bounced around inside the car and she could feel all of the places that were ripped and broken inside of her.
Bobby got up, staggered over to the wreck. Laura's legs were pinned inside, and there were small flames now, licking around under the crumpled hood and making thick steam from the downpour.
She reached toward the broken window where he stood. He stepped back. It was the heat. He would have told them it was the heat of the fire that drove him back. Bobby was the kind of coward who feared, more than anything else, being exposed as a coward.
Laura took the ring from her hand and reached up to the cracked remnants of the window, holding the ring out to Bobby.
Bobby took another step backward, and then one more. Then he turned his back on the wreck, and he might have ended up surviving to tell his story to the police if the gas tank hadn't exploded at that moment.
Watching Bobby bleed to death after shrapnel severed his spinal cord and his femoral artery was anticlimactic.
I faded into darkness as Bobby's life faded out, and opened my eyes in the driver's seat of Chester's car.
I got out of the car and walked around to the trunk.
"What are you doing?" Bobby was beside me, but I wasn't in the mood to talk.
I had work to do.
Chester had loaded the trunk with every piece of equipment that he thought might come in handy for investigating a twenty-year old crime scene.
It took two soaking hours with a mag-light and the best metal detector on the market to find Laura Easton's engagement ring.
Bobby watched it all, trying to make small talk, trying to chat about the happy times. He even tried to tell me he was sorry for "how it all ended."
I held up the ring.
"That's exactly the problem, Bobby. It hasn't ended."
I started walking.
"What are you doing, babe? Hey, I just wanna know what's going on, okay?" He was the old Bobby. Making deals.
I walked. He got angry.
"I'm talking to you, bitch! What are you doing?"
Then he started to get scared.
"Wait! You haven't told me about you! You're compelled, too! Tell me how you died!"
I turned with my back to the pond. He was screaming but the sound was fading. It was like I'd figured. He was tied to the site of his death. He had no power here. Besides, I might be compelled to relive my last moments for some other spirit, but not for Bobby.
What are you doing, Mattie?
What I can, Chester.
I looked at Bobby, who had mostly blended with the shadows.
"I was beaten, thrown into a hole, and buried in cement, Bobby. You don't get to relive that in my memory. You were there. Relive it in your own memory. You're gonna have plenty of fucking time to do it."
I threw the ring over my shoulder into the blackness of the lake, and by the time Bobby stopped screaming his cries had faded to a whisper downed out by the sound of the rain.
It was a few months later when I discovered a new story of the Phantom Hitchhiker of Mattapoisett Road posted to the Facebook group. It wasn't the last. That road was going to be haunted for a very long time to come.
Story and image by Rick Silva, Copyright 2009