I watched through the window as the man who killed me fixed himself a sandwich. He smeared yellow mustard on the bread and piled on layers of pickles, ham and cheese. As he took a bite and closed his eyes in pleasure, I tried to figure out the best way to haunt him.
I had been driving cross-country on my way to San Diego, taking smaller highways and staying in dive motels. Many women would never dream of doing such a thing by themselves, but I had spent my childhood traveling more than I had stayed put. My dad was a travel writer, and he loved taking me along on his adventures. By the time I was twelve, I had spent the night in an igloo, ridden across the desert on a camel, ziplined across countless rain forests and ravines, and snorkeled all over the world.
In college I had started planning trips for friends, and they had always been thrilled with the experiences. When I graduated, I decided to start my own travel business. I offered packages for adventure tourists and eco tourists, or custom itineraries for the traveler who likes a boutique experience. Whatever floats your boat. (And opens your wallet.)
With the advent of the pandemic, my business tanked. Luckily, I had made smart investments and was hoping I could ride this out. In the mean time, I found myself with time on my hands. I couldn’t remember when I had last taken a good, old-fashioned road trip, so I packed my car and set off.
This afternoon I had found myself nodding off at the wheel, so I looked for a place to pull over and have a little nap. I found an out-of-the-way bar and grill that was shut down for the pandemic. It was surrounded by trees and set back a bit from the road, so it was quiet and I was sure no one would bother me there. I pulled into a shady spot at the edge of the lot, cracked the windows and reclined my seat. Within minutes, I was asleep.
I woke about two hours later with a painfully full bladder. Even if I had known where the nearest convenience store was, I probably wouldn’t have been able to make it. I stumbled out of the car and into a stand of trees next to the bar.
As I was zipping my jeans back up, I noticed a candy bar wrapper and an empty medicine box on the ground. I needed to walk around for a few minutes and stretch my legs before I got back on the road. Picking up trash while I walked would give me a little extra exercise. I gathered as much litter as I could carry then went around the back of the bar to look for a Dumpster.
The gravel lot behind the bar was huge, and held a breathtaking array of junk. Stacks of rotting wooden pallets. Rolls of rusting metal fencing. Discarded troughs and barrels partially filled with rain water, mosquitoes swarming above them. An old riding mower that had sunk partially into the earth. A tangle of old fishing gear. A stack of sand bags, some split and leaking. A couple of stained mattresses.
In the middle of it all was an old pickup on cinder blocks. The tailgate was long gone, and the bed was filled with jugs, aerosol cans, and jars filled with some kind of a murky liquid. The whole thing gave off a horrible, acrid smell. Next to the truck was a big pile of blister packs.
A man was sitting in a lawn chair beside the truck, his feet propped on a cooler. His mouth dropped open when he saw me. Then he scowled.
I looked at the empty box in my hand. Cold medicine. I had watched Breaking Bad. I knew what was going on here.
I tried to run, but he was on me before I made it two feet. He dragged me over to a trough and shoved my head under the foul water. Panic surged through my system and I struggled with everything that I had, but I couldn’t get free. The mind does funny things in moments of crisis. Mine drifted away to the last time I had gone snorkeling in Puerto Rico, and how peaceful I had felt under the water.
He held me down until I stopped struggling and my body went limp. He left me there, hanging over the edge of the trough, while he went to rustle up a tarp. Then he rolled me out onto the ground and covered my body.
I was aware of sound first. I heard the cooler open and a beer crack open, followed by gulping. Then pacing and muttering, and footsteps moving to the back of the bar. The door opened with a squeak and banged shut.
After all that exertion, he must have been famished. He needed a sandwich.
When he came back outside, he was drinking directly from a bottle of whiskey. I guess the murder shook him up a little. Dusk had fallen, and a light mounted on the back of the building turned on. He stumbled a little on the way to check on his jars. He picked one up and gave it a vigorous shake.
I knocked over a stack of old paint cans on the other side of the lot. The clatter made him jump and drop the jar, which shattered in the pickup bed. His gaze whipped to the tarp, but the lump of a body was still underneath it.
He walked over to the paint cans scattered on the ground, but there was no obvious reason they had toppled. He couldn’t see me. Back at the pickup, he cursed as he surveyed the damage. He took another long drink from the whiskey bottle then went back inside, returning a few minutes later with rags and a little whisk broom. He was clumsy as he cleaned, nearly knocking over another jar.
“Why?” I whispered.
His head shot up and he looked at the tarp, but the sound hadn’t come from there.
“Why?” I said, a little louder. My voice was coming from a pile of tires near the paint cans. “Why did you have to kill me? I wasn’t ready to die.” I started to cry.
“I’m sorry! I didn’t want to!” he said, stumbling toward the tires.
From behind a stack of pallets near the woods, something white and diaphanous rose slowly into the air. It hovered, then shot away into the trees. He gave a little shriek and started to hyperventilate.
The light on the back of the building blinked off, plunging the space into darkness. I could hear him gasping and whimpering as he stumbled around. I hoped that he would fall and crack his head open, but no such luck. He managed to find his phone and fumbled the flashlight app on. He spun in a fast circle, looking for my ghost.
I rustled the tarp, just a little bit. He couldn’t hear it over his panicked breathing, so I had to do it again, louder.
He crept up on the noise, his hand holding the phone shaking badly, making shadows jump around. Taking a deep breath to steel himself, he peeled back the tarp, revealing the sand bags and random junk I had used to make a body shape.
“There’s no such thing as ghosts, Dumbass,” I said, from behind him.
He spun around and I shot him in the chest with the spear gun I had retrieved from the trunk of my car. He took a step back and tripped over one of the sand bags, going down hard, his phone skittering away. I picked it up and pointed the light at him. He was clutching the spear, and his mouth opened and closed like a fish.
“How?” he wheezed.
“How did I not drown? I’m a free diver. I can hold my breath for seven minutes.”
More like six and a half, but he wouldn’t know the difference. An ex-boyfriend had introduced me to spear fishing, and I was immediately hooked. Since some places don’t allow scuba equipment while spear fishing, we both learned to free dive. He hated it, and panicked every time we went down. I have never been the panicky type. I ended up dumping the boyfriend and keeping the sport.
Even in the dark, blinded by a flashlight phone, I was a good shot. Blood was oozing from the wound, and the man’s breath rattled in his chest. He was chalk white, and his eyes had drifted shut. I forced myself to step on his chest and pull the spear loose. He grunted, and the blood began to flow more freely. He wouldn’t last long. I felt queasy, but since I had no interest in sticking around and explaining all this to the authorities, I couldn’t leave evidence behind. I would have to figure out a place to dispose of the spear somewhere further down the highway.
The janky light mounted on the back of the building wasn’t hardwired. I plugged it back into the outlet, and the lot was once again flooded with light. After shutting off the flashlight, I wiped my fingerprints from the phone and laid it on the cooler. Then I rooted around in the stack of tires and found my phone, taking a moment to erase the recording I had made.
The last bit of evidence was the piece of ragged plastic sheeting I had tied to fishing line to make a “ghost.” I tried to reel the thing back in but it was tangled in the trees, so I followed the line to the edge of the lot and cut it with a jagged piece of metal I found on the ground. The plastic just looked like a bit of trash. Even if someone found it, they wouldn’t know what it was.
I was filthy. At my car, I stripped off my clothes and put them in a plastic grocery bag. The baby wipes I always carried when I traveled were on the front seat. With a combination of wipes and hand sanitizer, I cleaned myself up as best I could. Fresh clothes made me feel marginally better, too. My meager efforts would have to do until I could manage a long, hot shower.
I felt like I could drive all night, but I was still wired from adrenaline. The crash would come soon. Hopefully, I would be able to put several miles between me and this place before I’d have to find a motel or a rest stop.
Pulling up a map on my phone, I got back on the road.