Tennessee ghost story of a killer who encounters a strange old man along a dark road after burying his victim. What does this old man know about his crime? Find out in this short story by Andy Hinton.
Although the walk should have been easier without the load, the adrenaline and whisky that had fueled Jason earlier in the night is exhausted, and what energy remains is being used to shiver himself warm. As a result, it takes him half an hour to get back to the car. But time is relative, for what is half an hour in a night that never ends.
Jason leans the shovel against the trunk and reaches into his right pocket for the keys; finding none, he goes to his left pocket and digs deeper. Then he runs both hands through all his pockets and rechecks them again.
“Damn it.” Jason kicks the car, but the sound is muffled by the storm. He is angry enough, cold and worn out enough, to break a window, but he knows he needs the keys to drive home if he is ever to be done with this dreadful deed.
Jason takes the shovel and slings it deep into the ravine hidden in the tree line. He hears it clamor and clink then splash as it bounces through the brush and lands in the water below.
Then Jason begins to walk towards the road, relying on the sporadic whims of a weak flashlight. When all goes dark, Jason continues to stumble, hoping a burst of lightning will illuminate a tire mark for him to follow. And whenever Jason feels that he is on the old roadbed, the flashlight flips on again, just long enough to show him that he has lost his way.
Surrounding Jason is what locals call the river bottom, a vast floodplain of the Tennessee River made up of agricultural fields and intertwining gravel roads. It’s where old men go to sip beer and rednecks go to throw out their trash. It’s where parents teach their children how to drive, and where their children teach each other how to drink, how to fight, how to love.
And it is where people bury bodies that need never to be found, for the river bottom doesn’t give up its dead. Jason is sure that he is not the first to recognize this fact. Locals say that in the river bottom there are more ghosts than people.
The wet clothes hang off Jason’s frame, tugging against his every movement. But despite the cold and the rain, Jason takes solace knowing that in a couple of days all of this, acres and acres, will be underwater, covered with the backwaters of the river. Any traces of this night – his footsteps, his tire marks, the grave – will be buried under a fresh layer of mud.
And as far as the body, a man once known as Randy, he will not be missed. The fact that Randy disappeared without a word to anyone will not surprise those who knew him, for Randy was a man with many enemies.
Jason ponders over this as he walks. “He could’ve have done a lot worst than to get shot by a friend.” Jason knows eventually that if he hadn’t shot him, someone else would have and some of those someone’s wouldn’t have been so nice about it. “It happened so fast he didn’t even know it was coming. Hell, it happened so fast I didn’t even know I was going to do it.”
When Jason reaches the road, he gives up on the flashlight and ambles along, relying on the feel of the gravel to keep him straight. The culmination of cold and despair weighs heavy on him now. And as Jason contemplates all the dead that surround him, of all those who lost their way or someone lost it for them, he wonders if their souls can ever escape this darkness. Jason always thought of hell as a place of fire and heat, but now he knows it can just as well be a land of rain and cold. Then Jason begins to weep, for he realizes that if he was to disappear tonight, the only friend that will miss him is buried in a fresh, shallow grave.
Jason’s stamina, both mental and physical, is gone, and it is only a will to survive that pulls him forward. Ahead, the terrain becomes flooded with light and Jason’s own shadow stands before him, but Jason doesn’t even turn to look for the source. He just continues to march ahead with the devotion of a monk, taking all that falls before him as fate. And it isn’t until a voice from inside the truck asks if he needs a ride that the spell is broken. Had it not been raining, the driver might have even seen tears welling in Jason’s eyes. But these are not tears of gratitude or despair or repentance; these are the tears of one who has witnessed great wonders, for in moments of such desperation, even an old pickup truck seems a vessel of divine nature.
Jason climbs into the dark cab and tries to take in the detail around him. None of the dash lights work, except for those on the radio, which seem to pulsate rhythmically with the ranting of an angry preacher. And behind the wheel is a man, old in an ageless way. The man’s skin is weathered and wrinkled, but his eyes are wild, burned with the knowledge of things that Jason can’t imagine, and hopes he never will.
“It’s a rough night to be walking,” yells the old man trying to make himself heard over the radio.
“Well, it’s not by choice.” Jason studies his surroundings trying to decide how much information to divulge. The truck’s interior is red but upholstered in a fine layer of dust, no doubt accumulated by riding these roads for untold years. And the floor is cluttered with empty beer cans, cigarette butts, and tobacco juice.
“I lost my keys,” continues Jason. “I gotta go back to my house to grab my spare set.” Then Jason notices a couple of bullet casings rolling around at his feet – small caliber, he would guess. But at the sight of them, Jason places his hand into the chest pocket of his coat, checking the location of his own pistol.
At first the old man doesn’t respond, but then he stops the truck and leans forward, staring into the darkness as if there is an image to be made of the rain and the night. The radio cuts out and the only sound are the wipers bouncing back and forth, back and forth, an insatiable rhythm that seems to sync with the beating of Jason’s heart.
“I can get your car a going,” says the old man who seems to be talking to himself as much as he is to Jason.
Jason looks out onto the road but sees nothing and notes it as more evidence that his driver maybe drunk or crazy or both. But he comes to the realization that this old redneck could be his savior; for even if he does get home, he still has to get a ride back down to his car. And if it doesn’t happen till morning, then some farmer could find it and call the police. No, the longer he waits, the more people get involved, the more excuses he will have to make for being down there.
“I would appreciate any help you could give me,” says Jason.
Jason knows if he gets the car out now, then the only witnesses will be Randy’s body and the old man and as soon as this awareness comes to Jason, he stops his mind, fearful of what scheme will unfold, fearful of what he knows he is capable of doing.
The old man turns the truck around and heads back into the heart of the river bottom.
The water is starting to gather now, and Jason wonders if his car will make it out. If it gets stuck in the mud then maybe he would be better off reporting the car stolen. But then there is the old man who knows his story.
“Are you good at hotwiring cars?” asks Jason, trying to change the direction of his thoughts.
“I didn’t say anything about hot-wiring. I got some ways about me – gifts some might call them.” The old man gave Jason a sidelong smirk. “I’m not going to help you start your car; I’m going to help you find your keys.”
Jason cannot reply; he can’t even breathe. All he can do is clear his mind and guard his thoughts, knowing that any action he takes will have to be without a plan.
There is no marker to note the old roadbed where Jason left his car. Jason doesn’t tell the old man where to turn, and the old man doesn’t ask. He just pulls off the gravel and drives along the edge of the field.
The large puddles that Jason had driven through earlier have begun to turn into small ponds. The old man dodges some and drives through others, sending great waves in either direction like a prophet parting the waters.
They come to a stop when the truck’s headlights reflect onto the grill of the abandoned car. The old man reaches for an old green poncho, stored under the seat and slips it on as he steps into the storm.
“You know we don’t have to do this right now,” says Jason as he scrambles out of the truck. “Maybe we should come back when it’s not raining.”
But the old man is silent. He has a hood over his head and his back to Jason, so perhaps the old man can’t hear. Or perhaps his mind in a trance, for the old man’s hands are spread on the car and his eyes tilt toward a sky besieged by lightning.
The old man’s body becomes rigid and clinched, and Jason wonders if he is receiving some kind of ground shock. But then the old man relaxes and turns towards Jason. “I know where your keys are.” And without taking a flashlight or waiting on Jason, the old man walks away.
Jason starts to tell him he is headed in the wrong direction but then thinks better of it. So instead he just grins and watches the old man disappear into the woods, wandering away from the field where body is buried. Then Jason chastises himself for being so paranoid. “The crazier this man seems, the less likely anyone would ever believe him.”
The flashlight now seems to be working and Jason uses it to trail the old man through the privet and briars and muscadine vines. When Jason gets to the bottom of the draw, the old man is knee deep in the water, bent over, feeling through the muck and mire below.
“You’re going to grab a hold a cottonmouth or a snapping turtle if you’re not careful,” yells Jason, half hopeful that the old man’s death will be of his own doing. “Let’s get out of here before this storm gets any worse.”
The old man doesn’t reply but stops and yanks at something under the water. “I found it.”
“My keys?” asks Jason, now more confused than humored by the old man’s actions.
“No,” smiles the old man. “I found what we need to get your keys,” and he hoists the shovel into the air and begins to laugh.
Jason falls backwards, landing on his butt with his legs spread like a child who falters after taking his first steps. The old man strides past him, shovel in hand, and begins walking on the path Jason had blazed earlier that evening to the far edge of the field.
“If the old man knows of the shovel,” thinks Jason, “then he knows of the body. If he knows of the body, then he also knows of the murder.”
Jason pursues the old man, not speaking, not acting, just observing as one does in a dream.
As they make their way through the cocklebur and crop remnants Jason has to high step through the mud at a painful pace to keep up. But the hooded figure glides across the field, never sinking into the earth or even leaving a footprint.
When Jason arrives at the grave, the old man is standing over the wet mound of dirt. The poncho hides all of his features except for the hands- one of which is holding the shovel, while the other points to the Earth. “Your keys are down there.”
“You found them,” says Jason, “Why don’t you dig them up?”
“This ain’t my doing, son. Under this dirt lies your salvation or your damnation. It’s up to you to decide.”
For a moment, neither man moves, and the flash of lightening is the only indicator marking the passage of time. But then Jason trades the flashlight for the shovel and begins to dig. The soil is loose but heavy from the rain, and at times, he seems to be moving more water than dirt. But it is also soft, so soft that when Jason hits the body, it is the firmness of it that makes him stop.
The old man points the flashlight into the hole, illuminating the face of a young man whose head is mangled from a bullet. “You’ll find your keys beside his right arm.”
Jason throws the shovel out of the way and digs through the dirt with his bare hands till he feels the keys filter through his fingers. Then he looks up, staring into the beam of light.
“Do what you must,” says the old man, “but your destiny is your doing.”
Jason reaches into his coat to draw the pistol, but it never leaves his chest pocket. His fingers are cold and wet and muddy, and Jason doesn’t realize he is squeezing the trigger until he is knocked backwards, his own lungs torn apart and his legs unable to move.
Over the pounding of the rain and the ringing in his ears, Jason hears the laugh of the old man. But when he tries to look for him, Jason is hit in the face with a shovel load of mud.
A farmer finds the car two weeks later, once the river is back into its banks. The police run the tags and say it is the vehicle of one of the missing young men. The official report speculates that the men had probably wandered off and died of exposure before the river rose. The police say that the bodies might show up downstream or lodged in some brush, but probably not. The river bottom rarely gives up its dead.