This short horror-humor-mash up is to be categorized as an Uber. All characters are created by me, though some of them may remind you of someone.
The story contains some profanity. Readers who are easily offended by bad language may wish to read something other than this story.
All characters depicted, names used, and incidents portrayed in this story are fictitious. No identification with actual persons is intended nor should be inferred. Any resemblance of the characters portrayed to actual persons, living, dead, undead or otherwise is purely coincidental.
The registered trademarks mentioned in this story are © of their respective owners. No infringement of their rights is intended, and no profit is gained.
NOTES FROM THE AUTHOR:
Written: March 2nd - 8th, 2021.
- This is the ninth and penultimate story about Wynne Donohue and Mandy Jalinski. They were introduced in the short story Silent Invasion in the anthology Book Of Chills, Volume 2, and returned in Forever We Must Travel, They Came From The Desert, Home Of The Plum Unlucky, Goblins Galore, Monkey Business, Thunder & Frightening and Valentine's Woes - all stories are available at the website of the Royal Academy of Bards.
- As always, thank you very much for your help, Phineas Redux!
As usual, I'd like to say a great, big THANK YOU to my mates at AUSXIP Talking Xena, especially to the gals and guys in Subtext Central. I really appreciate your support - Thanks, everybody! :D
Description: Wynne Donohue is traveling home to Goldsboro from Shallow Pond, Texas, where she has spent a few days at her Aunt's funeral. Flying was beyond her financial means so she's riding on an intercity bus. At a truck stop literally in the middle of Nowhere, she learns of a local ghost legend that soon turns out to be more fact than fiction…
Nocturnal darkness enshrouded a two-lane State Route that cut through the wide open spaces of southern Nevada. A sign had been put up on the side of the road reminding the ever-hasty travelers of the localized speed limit of twenty-five miles per hour due to the poor condition of the asphalt. The blacktop and the sign next to it seemed to be all that remained of human influence on the world as no evidence of life existed for countless miles in any direction.
Everything remained dark and peaceful until four round headlights appeared on the horizon. The bright cones of light were soon accompanied by a droning hum that rose in volume until an intercity bus painted in silver, white and pale-gray rumbled past the speed limit sign going slightly faster than the recommended tempo. The driver slowed down even further when the large bus reached the stretch of road that had deteriorated the most, but the reduced speed didn't stop the tall vehicle from rocking and rolling on its suspension.
The long-distance bus was only half-full so the passengers each had a row of seats they could use to their heart's delight. The lateness of the hour meant that most were sleeping, but hardly any were able to stay asleep when the vehicle's three axles reached the worst affected sections.
One of those passengers was a denim-clad gal in her mid-forties. Wearing decorated cowboy boots, washed-out jeans and a blue-and-yellow, long-sleeved hoodie sweatshirt that had the words RCR #3 by Wrangler printed on it in the proper fonts, she certainly fit her moniker of The Last Original Cowpoke.
A wool-lined denim jacket that held a pair of sheepskin gloves in one of its pockets took up one of the two empty seats next to her; a zippable dress bag containing her finest set of clothes had been put across the seats so the creasing could be kept to a minimum.
Wynne Donohue's beloved - but greasy, battered and threadbare - low-crowned cowboy hat had been pushed down to cover her eyes. She had been sleeping with her arms crossed over her chest while leaning against the windowsill for the past hour and a half, but the rocking and rolling motions stirred her awake. Acting on instinct and reflex alone, she caught her hat in the nick of time before it could disappear down into the footwell.
She smacked her lips and looked around. The interior lights had been dimmed to allow the passengers a chance of sleeping if they so desired, and many did - or had. Though the man behind the wheel drove the large bus at a bare minimum of speed, the terrible state of the blacktop meant that the passengers were exposed to a great deal of shaking and rattling. A few mumbled complaints were uttered about the driving standards of certain people, but all but those easiest to insult understood the driver had no option but to plow straight through the rough patches that were akin to quarries.
A few minutes later, the road cleared up and it was once more possible to cruise along at the regular limit of sixty-five miles per hour. The passengers soon settled down as the engine's characteristic droning hum returned.
Though Wynne pushed her cowboy hat back down to cover her eyes, she found there was no point to it as the last traces of sleep had been swept away by the small incident. Sitting up straight, she yawned a couple of times before she took her new smartphone to once again look at the photos she had snapped over the course of the past few days.
Her old telephone had finally broken down so she had needed to collect enough nickels and dimes to buy a new one - she had done so by working ten double-shifts over the course of a week hauling fried chicken halfway around the state for the Chicky Kingz takeout parlor. She had worked there for several months already, but even though it was rare for Wynne to keep a job for that length of time, she had to admit it was nice to have a steady income for a change. That the owners forced her to drive a non-General Motors truck was just something she had to live with.
When she had received her new telephone, it had taken a high level of concentration on her part - and five-sixth of a Special Selection Six-Pack of the H.E. Fenwyck Brewery's finest - to get to grips with even the easiest apps pre-installed in the advanced gizmo, but she had finally learned how to operate the camera.
The images she had stored showed plenty of somber-looking people dressed in their Sunday finest. It was only to be expected since funerals tended to take a large toll on everyone's cheerfulness, but there were one or two photos of smiling family members. A few of the speakers had managed surprisingly funny commemorative speeches where they had focused on the positive and comical sides of the late person's life. The funeral had taken place in Shallow Pond, Texas, and it had been for Wynne's aunt Martha Faye Donohue. The spinster and Grand Old Dame had reached ninety-three years of age so, in her own words, it was high time for a change of scenery.
A sense of boredom rolled over Wynne as the age-long journey continued through the dark night. Yawning again, she realized she needed a pick-me-up. With the consumption of beer being strictly prohibited while on the bus, she went for the second-best thing by finding her earphones and mashing them into position.
Her long fingers hesitated above the touch-sensitive buttons as she tried to remember how to get from the telephone's image gallery and over to the list of video files. She made two wrong moves that saw her end up in the calendar and the registry, respectively, but the player she had been looking for suddenly appeared on the display.
Grinning over her success, she scrolled down the list of video clips and various other files and recordings to find the one her main squeeze Mandy Jalinski - the Senior Deputy Sheriff of their home town of Goldsboro, Nevada - had helped her transfer. A tiny bit of fumbling ensued before she tapped on the proper file; soon, the sublime trio of Mike Joy, Buddy Baker and 'Gentleman' Ned Jarrett began to go through the starting line-up of one of the most legendary NASCAR races, the 1998 Daytona 500.
As the recording of the race reached the end two hours and fifty minutes later, the long-distance bus was still traveling through the inky darkness so typical of the Nevadan desert. Wynne dabbed away a few tears of joy from the corners of her eyes before she put away the telephone and the power bank it had been connected to. Though she had watched or listened to that race at least fifty times, it was a firm tradition that she shed a tear during the closing laps, the post-race celebrations and the interview in winner's circle.
The bus drove through a tiny hamlet that bore that exact name - Hamlet, NV - but soon left it behind to return to the wide-open spaces. Over the course of the next hour or so, they went through Kelley, Laurel Creek, Rickenforth Springs and Lansingburg proving they were in fact getting closer to home though it didn't appear that way.
Wynne had been playing 'Identify The Passing Trucks By Their Headlights,' but the traffic had been so scarce she had yet to break into double-digits even after thirty minutes. She needed something else to keep her stimulated so she began to look at the other passengers.
One of them was soon pegged as a traveling salesman as the mustachioed fellow - who was in his mid-fifties - guarded a suitcase similar to one Wynne had been hauling around during her brief spell selling encyclopedias. His old-fashioned soft hat and clothes were well-worn indicating he had been down on his luck recently. He was reading a paperback of some kind, but it seemed he had fallen asleep as the pages hadn't been turned for a while.
A group of four backpackers with long hair, dirty faces and filthy clothes occupied no less than six rows down at the back of the bus. Their huge, cumbersome hiking rucksacks filled two entire rows while the explorers each took up an additional row. Apparently dead-tired, they were all sprawled over the seats fast asleep.
Closer to the front of the bus, a white-haired couple that Wynne could only describe as hippies sat on one of the rows reserved for senior citizens. Both were in their late sixties or early seventies, and they wore loafers, loose jeans and colorful batik T-shirts that were inverted designs of each other's.
A pair of denim jackets covered in peace-badges and other familiar symbols from the 1960s had been used as sun screens earlier in the interminable ride, but they were presently resting across the laps of the elderly hippies. They had already been on the bus when Wynne - in all her denim glory - had got on near Shallow Pond, and they had greeted her like a long-lost kindred spirit. Playing cards to kill time, they frequently dipped into a pouch to snack on brownish nuts.
The diametrical contrast to the old hippies sat, oddly enough, on the same row only on the opposite side of the central aisle. Two young men wearing US Air Force uniforms sat on the inner and outer seat while their duffel bags took up every inch of space between them. Wynne knew so little of the Air Force ranks that it wasn't worth mentioning, but she guessed they were fairly new to the service given their fresh faces and the complete lack of ribbons or other types of recognizable bling on their uniforms.
The final passengers in Wynne's field of view had their heads together to debate something. Unlike the peace-loving hippies, the other pair - who were both in their mid-forties - had been engaged in constant bickering ever since getting onto the bus near the Arizona-Nevada state line. They had managed to keep their endless dispute to themselves for the most part, but a few heated words had been hissed at such a volume everyone could hear them. Apparently, the fellow had squandered a lot of money that the lady had wanted to keep for herself.
The tiresome bickering had rolled back and forth like the tide for better part of three hours, and Wynne had had all she could take. Instead of listening to the umpteenth rerun of the same arguments, she mashed her earphones back in to do something far more pleasurable - soon, a ten-minute video she and Mandy had filmed around their trailer park began playing on the display.
Something finally happened when the driver slowed down the large intercity bus five miles north of Lansingburg. Wynne stirred from her semi-slumber and tried to peek out. "Lawrdie," she mumbled to herself as she strained her eyes to pick up any details, "Ah sure do hope them new folks out there ain't gonn' be mo' o' them there sourpusses. Mercy Sakes, them sourpusses who alreddy be on this he' bus is aboudda do mah head in…"
It seemed that several of the others shared a similar outlook upon their fellow passengers because an excited murmur soon rippled through the rows. The excited murmur soon turned into a drawn-out groan when a pair of young, well-dressed people stepped up into the bus and paid the driver.
Though the man and the woman were several years apart, they might as well have been twins as their leather briefcases, neat hair, clean-cut features and exquisite clothing all clearly came from the same source - it pointed at the one thing everyone had dreaded: the new passengers were outreaching missionaries for one of the religious organizations.
Wynne was one of those who groaned. Taking her beloved cowboy hat, she mashed it onto her dark locks and pulled it down to cover her eyes to pretend she was sleeping. Being by her lonesome unlike nearly everyone else on the bus, she knew she would present a juicy opportunity for the missionaries to spread the gospel.
Her self-chosen solitude lasted for all of thirty seconds. When she felt rather than heard someone sitting down to her right, she cursed her legendary bad luck and moved her hat back up now that her cover had been blown. Sure enough, the seat next to her had been taken by the female missionary. The young woman's pearly-white teeth and overly saccharine smile were merely the first of many things that caused a dark shadow to fall over Wynne's face.
"Good evening, Sister. I'm Tiffany Worth and I work for our Lord," the female missionary said in a voice so smooth and unnatural that Wynne instinctively knew that it had to have been created by a vocal coach.
"Howdy. Ah'm Wynne Donohue. Y'all be one o' them there Virgin Towah folks, aintcha…?"
"That's right! I'm glad you're already familiar with our work. Do you have a favorite passage in the Bible?"
Smiling broadly, Tiffany promptly unzipped her leather briefcase and took out a large wad of papers. "Please allow me to read mine for you."
Wynne narrowed her eyes dangerously as she took in the sight of the densely written pages in the young woman's lap. "Haw. Yuh. Okeh… this ain't gonn'-"
"My Mama read this to me every night at bedtime. When I fell asleep, I had the most wonderful dreams of Jesus our Savior-"
"That sure be nice fer ya, but-"
"- and they allowed me to see the glory and understand there was a far greater being than any of us. Here's what Jesus our Savior said when he met the-"
Before the missionary could get started, Wynne moved out her hand with the speed of a striking viper. "Ah be sure he done said plentah, but lemme tell ya som'tin else, there, Tif'ney… Ah ain't all that int'rested, catch mah drift?"
A brief look of being lost for words flashed across Tiffany Worth's eyes, but she had soon regained her composure and her saccharine smile. "Oh, that's fine. Tell me, Sister, are you part of a prayer circle where you live?"
"Ah sure ain't… haw, Ah sapose y'all can say I wus in a prayah circle the othah week now that ya men-shun it. Yuh. It wussen that much of a circle tho' 'cos it wus only me an' mah good buddy Ernie Bradberrah an' mah two dawggies, Blackie an' Goldie… but anyhows."
"That's so nice, Sister!"
"Yuh, Ah wus prayin' perdy dang hard fer the three-car ta win Daytoh-na… it done worked a couple-a years ago, ack-chew-ly. It alllllmost worked ag'in this year, but that dang-blasted yella came out at the wrong moment aftah that there wild an' fiery wreck there. Ah wus jumpin' up an' down on mah couch there fer a while, but then that dog-gone Fohrd done won the whole dang-blasted thing right in front o' that there black numbah three. Ah'm tellin' ya, Ah jus' flopped down like a leakeh balloon… o' course, mah friend Ernie done took ovah in the jumpin', shoutin' and carryin' on department 'cos he be one o' them there Blue Oval fellas. Yuh… it wus fun ta watch 'him freak out, but it jus' wussen the same. Them beers an' pork rinds wus still great, tho'."
A blank stare on Tiffany's face proved she hadn't understood a single word of the lengthy reply; however, her professionalism soon took over and enabled her to recover in a hurry. "That's so wonderful. Would you like to recite the Lord's Prayer with me?" she said and put out her hands.
Wynne chewed on her cheek as she glanced at the outstretched hands; then she looked up at the missionary's expectant face. "Lissen… y'all seem ta be a nih-ce lady an' all, Tif'ney, so Ah'm only gonn' say naw. If ya wussen so nih-ce, Ah woudda said hell naw, but considerin' how nih-ce y'all be, I'mma-gonn' settle fer a simple naw. Yuh?"
Tiffany blinked a couple of times before she nodded and pushed her notes back into the leather briefcase - her saccharine smile had grown a little strained as she got up to find someone else to pester.
"Mah ears sure be thankin' ya," Wynne mumbled as she pulled her hat down and snuggled up into the corner of the seat to catch a few winks.
A short half hour after the people from the Virgin Tower organization had come aboard, the intercity bus reached the city limits sign of Nowhere, NV. Nowhere's odd name was all the one-horse town had going for it, but a clever entrepreneur by the name of Otto Kulick had seen a potential for growth so he had invested plenty of dollars to build one of his Gas 'n Go! truck stops there.
Unfortunately, three decades on from the grand opening, the large complex featuring twenty diesel pumps, several grease pits wide enough for tractor units, a huge cafeteria and finally a forty-bed motel was still the only thing worth mentioning in Nowhere. Though the investment had failed, the small town's odd name had given it a permanent spot in the guide books - as a result, the local Town Council needed to replace the Welcome To Nowhere signs at least once a month because they were stolen on a regular basis.
The bus eventually drove off the State Route and onto the well-lit forecourt of the Gas 'n Go! truck stop. "Ladies and gentlemen," the driver said over the public announcement system, "we'll have a forty-minute stop-over here… in the middle of Nowhere."
Several groans were heard from the passengers as a result of the humorous quip.
"The doors will be locked so it'll be safe to leave your valuables behind. If you're not back when it's time to go, you'll need to wait for the next coach as we won't return for you. Thank you," the driver continued before he turned off the P.A. system that responded with a brief howl and a few scratches through the speakers.
Wynne sat up straight and looked out onto the forecourt. Though it was vastly larger than the Gas 'n Go! where she had spent a few months working as a night attendant several years back, everything seemed very familiar.
Ten or so eighteen-wheelers had lined up on the all-night parking lot so the drivers could get some sleep. Another handful of rigs were busy at the diesel pumps, and the front of a black Mack RS tractor unit of 1970's vintage stuck out of the garage building itself like it had needed some kind of service at the rear.
The three-axled intercity bus moved past the fuel pumps to cross over to the parking zone in front of the cafeteria. Most of the passengers were getting ready to stretch their legs, and they swarmed out of the bus a split second after the driver had opened the pneumatic doors.
Wynne was in less of a hurry so she exited the vehicle last. Stepping down onto the concrete forecourt, she nearly dislocated her jaw when a gigantic yawn snuck up on her unexpectedly. To make sure she didn't come back late, she set the countdown-timer on her new smartphone to thirty-five minutes so she would have plenty of time - it had been the first app she had figured out on her own after discovering that it could show her exactly how much time she had left to prepare her snacks before the NASCAR races would start on TV.
Entering the cafeteria, she glanced at the motley collection of people who greeted her. Beyond her fellow passengers who had either made a beeline for the restrooms or had lined up at the counter to buy a few snacks, a handful of dead-tired truckers sat on their own nursing sodas or mugs of coffee. Two waitresses shuffled around the aisles clearing the tables and restocking the ubiquitous reed baskets so nobody would have to go without napkins, salt, pepper or hot sauce.
The line at the counter finally grew shorter so Wynne shuffled over there to check out what was on offer. Her legs had grown stiff after the age-long trip, so she moved like a rodeo rider who had perhaps straddled one bucking bronco too many. It fit her image of the Last Original Cowpoke so she didn't mind - that she had a teeny-tiny problem being around hoofed animals larger than a small pony was another story entirely, and one she preferred to keep to herself.
A waitress came over to the counter at the same time Wynne did. The bespectacled, middle-aged woman wore support stockings, sensible shoes, a hairnet and a smock in Kulick's company colors. She also wore a tad too much make-up, but even the blush on her cheeks, the shaded eyelids and the pinkish lipstick couldn't hide her gray complexion borne from her ninety-hour working week at the Gas 'n Go!
"Howdy, there, ah…" Wynne said and leaned forward to see the name printed on the metal tag the waitress carried on her lapel. "Carla. Ah wus wonderin' if y'all had a mug o' that there hot coffee Ah could buy? An' mebbe a grilled cheese sandwich or som'tin?"
"We sure do, Ma'am," the waitress said and jotted down the order using a pencil. "The coffee pot's right over there. Help yourself," she continued while she pointed the butt of the pencil at a glass coffee maker a bit further down the counter.
"Mercy Sakes, that be the best news Ah done heard all aftahnoon an' evenin', yessirree," Wynne said and took a mug from a tray. The ceramic mug and the plastic tray were still hot from having just come out of the dishwasher which meant everything was most likely free of germs. Grinning, she filled the mug with steaming-hot black coffee and took it back to the central part of the counter.
Right on cue, Carla produced a plate with the freshly nuked grilled-cheese sandwich and began to work the cash register. "That'll be two dollars ninety-five, Ma'am."
"Lawrdie, that there coffee still only a buck-a-mug like that there slogan goes, eh? Why, Ah guess ol' Kulick Junior didden change nuttin' since Ah done worked on the Gas an' Go up in them hills. Keep the change, there, Carla," Wynne said as she put a ten-dollar bill on the counter. The sandwich smelled so good she grabbed it right away. Though the temperature of the cheesy contents were akin to molten lava, she took a big bite out of it at once and gave her jaw muscles a big workout.
"I sure do appreciate it, Ma'am. You're a former colleague?" Carla said as she put the bill into the cash register and took the appropriate change. Once that task had been accomplished, she wiped down the counter using an old rag.
"Yuh… yuh," Wynne said around the large bite. A swig of hot coffee followed soon after to get everything down. Once she had swallowed enough of it to speak, she broke out in a grin. "Ah wus workin' the night shift fer a couple-a months the othah year. Wussen much, but it wus som'tin… yuh?"
"I hear ya. So you're from around here?"
Wynne held off taking the next bite until she had said: "Yup. Goldsborah."
"Right," Carla said before she wiped down the counter a little more. Since she had nothing better to do, she pulled over a tall stool to rest her weary legs. Sitting opposite the frantically chewing and slurping Wynne, Carla waited for the taller woman to come up for air before continuing: "Calamity City, eh? I have a sister living up there. She lied through her teeth when we were younger so I have to take everything she says with a pinch of salt. And, boy-oh-boy, has she told me some crazy things about living there."
Wynne suppressed a grunt. "Weeeellll, we sure do 've had some weird, weird stuff goin' on fer a couple-a years now… that's a dog-gone fact, Carla," she said while she took a brief look at the waitress. The sandwich beckoned, so she returned to it at once.
"It's not like we don't have our own weirdness here, though," Carla said and leaned in toward the eating Wynne like she wanted to stress her next point. "This stretch of the State Route is known as the Haunted Highway," she said in a conspiratorial voice.
"Lawrdie… izzat a fact?"
Carla nodded somberly. "Cross my heart, hope to die. The thirty miles north to Cavanaugh Creek and the difficult section of the Route up in the hills leading to Goldsboro are crawling with ghosts. There are sightings every single night! And sometimes, they even appear inside the overland buses."
"Uh-huh? Yuh… whydahell not?" Wynne mumbled around a bite of sandwich.
Carla nodded again and leaned in even further. After looking left and right to check for eavesdroppers, she spoke in a low voice: "Some poor folks have seen the Butchered Backpacker. Legend has it the fellow he traveled with murdered him over an expensive wristwatch. He's still walking around with an axe or a shovel buried in his back… some say it's buried in his head, but I don't know for sure. I hope I'll never catch sight of him, because all those who do die horribly not long after. I'm not trying to scare you, Ma'am… honest. I just thought you deserved to know the grim truth."
Wynne let out a long groan as she lowered what remained of the excellent grilled-cheese sandwich. To Carla, it may have sounded like worry or even fear, but Wynne had simply foreseen her immediate future. Considering her legendary rotten luck, she had a strong hunch she would be introduced to a little ectoplasm sooner rather than later. "Yuh, Carla, Ah sure be thankin' y'all a whole bunch fer that piece o' upliftin' news right there. Lawrdie, Ah got plentah o' trubbel with them there livin' folks alreddeh. Ah sure as stink on shoot ain't need no dead or undead or whatevah folks anywheah near me, nosirree…"
"Sorry," the waitress said with a grin that proved she perhaps wasn't all that sorry after all.
Sighing, Wynne returned to the sandwich to gobble up the rest. She couldn't help but think back to her own ghostly encounters up in the hills south of Goldsboro - she and Mandy had run across an entire pack of ghosts who had gathered at the Gas 'n Go! gas station for a little after-life partying. A cold shiver trickled down her back when she recalled the creepy stares forever etched onto the faces of the ghosts.
A couple of tired truck drivers entered the cafeteria and walked up to the counter on leaden feet. Carla moved off her tall stool to service the new customers, so Wynne shuffled aside to give them all plenty of space.
Her coffee and sandwich were soon gone, but she still had plenty of time to kill before she needed to be back on the bus. She noticed a familiar blue flickering that could only be produced by one or more television sets down the far end of the cafeteria, so she shuffled down there to check it out.
It turned out to be the TV lounge. The contents fit the name as no less than four old-fashioned cathode-ray tube TVs had been bolted onto the walls - one in each corner. Each TV had a cluster of chairs lined up in front of it, but few were in use at that time of the night.
The TV closest to the cafeteria itself carried an Out Of Order note that had been sticky-taped onto the tube, but the three others were turned on. One had been tuned to Channel 34 that showed a rerun of the late-late show from the previous weekend. The next was apparently only used for promotional purposes since it played an endless loop of short videos made for the Kulick Group. The third and final TV of those that worked showed an old black-and-white horror movie that had to be from the 1950s. It appeared cheap, cheesy and cheerful so Wynne was naturally attracted to it.
Shuffling over there, she sat down on one of the foldable chairs and let herself be entertained by the low-low-low grade special effects and the uneven acting that ranged from wooden to blustery. She only learned the movie's title when Channel 45 broke off for ads after ten minutes or so - she had been watching The Killer Shrews. Comically, the insert graphic for the ad break called it 'The Killer Screws.'
A quick peek at the countdown-clock on her smartphone proved that she didn't have all that much time left. Channel 45 was still showing ads, so she got up and shuffled back out of the TV lounge. A vending machine that offered plenty of sugary snacks called out to her in true Siren-fashion, so she parted with a dollar in exchange for a lemon Twinkie that she put into her jacket's pocket for later.
She had barely turned around when she came to a dead stop. Her eyes slowly grew wider as they took in the horrible, gruesome and just plain frightening sight of the group of beings that had just entered the cafeteria through the glass doors leading to the parking lot.
At that exact moment in time, she wouldn't have minded a bit if Nowhere, Nevada had been visited by sightseeing reptilians from the distant planet of Xelosh, or overrun by squid-like creatures with slimy tentacles and twelve eyes - or even a pack of howling ghosts hell-bent on vengeance against the living for that matter.
The combined strength of the eight-strong group of well-dressed men and women from the Virgin Tower religious organization trumped every single space alien, ghost, cannibal zombie, fluorescent-green goblin or forty-foot gorilla-creature that Wynne had ever come into contact with. She didn't even doubt the missionaries would trump bloodsucking vampires, Killer Shrews, Gila Monsters or the family of long-haired forest creatures that consisted of uncle Bigfoot and his distant relatives cousin Sasquatch and ol' Yeti.
And then her telephone started ringing. Right on cue, eight missionary heads were turned in her direction; eight pairs of missionary eyes sized her up in a matter of seconds, and it didn't take long for the group to begin to move toward her in a most threatening fashion.
Yelping, Wynne spun around on her heel and took off in a hurry. She ran past the TV lounge, another lounge that offered pool and ping-pong tables, an exercise room and several storage rooms before she reached the entrance to the restrooms. She came to a halt and peeked around the corner; things were going well for a change as she seemed to have lost her saintly pursuers. Then her telephone started ringing again.
"Lawwwwwwwwr-die!" she cried as she was once more targeted by the unstoppable Termination Force. The only way out was through, so she dove into the restrooms and made a beeline for the Ladies'.
Once she was safely locked into one of the stalls, she reached for her telephone to check out the identity of the caller who had nearly sold her up the proverbial river. She had already assembled a string of imaginative curses and moans when she noticed the caller-ID said 'Mandy'. Instead of complaining, she tapped the appropriate spot on the display to listen to the voice message her sweetheart had left behind.
'Hi, honey! I miss you! I'm on speed trap duty with Barry… and he's doing his worst to suffocate me with his damn cigarettes. I just wanted to hear your voice, but I guess you're busy. Talk to you later!'
"Awwww," Wynne said and took off her cowboy hat to have room for the grin that spread over her features. She was about to call back when she heard the door to the restrooms being opened. Instead of calling, she quickly turned down the volume of her telephone so it wouldn't betray her again.
After a little splishing-splashing in the next stall, the Ladies' room soon grew silent once more. Wynne let out a sigh of relief as she turned the volume back up. A single glance at the countdown-clock proved she had very little time left before the bus would leave the Gas 'n Go!
Holding her breath, she opened the door to the stall and peeked out.
Two minutes later, she waved a hurried see-ya to Carla before she flew out of the cafeteria, ran across the forecourt and climbed up into the intercity bus where her denim-clad rear was soon planted in the appropriate seat next to her zippable dress bag.
The driver had been busy giving the windshield and the four headlights a thorough wash-job using a brush attached to a long pole, but he soon put the tools into the cargo hold of the bus before he climbed aboard and got behind the wheel. After checking his wristwatch, he twisted the ignition key and pressed the starter button. The diesel engine soon came to life with a throaty rumble that eventually leveled out into its regular hum.
Wynne counted the number of passengers she could see. The only ones who hadn't yet returned were Tiffany Worth and the other missionary who had joined them further south at Lansingburg.
It seemed the travelling salesman could read Wynne's mind, because he got up from his seat and shuffled along the central aisle to get to the driver: "Hey, Mister… couldn't we persuade you to leave just a little early so those Tower folks kinda-sorta-accidentally missed the bus?"
"Oh, I'm afraid that won't work, Sir," the driver said while sporting a grin.
Shrugging, the salesman returned to his seat; before he sat down, he and Wynne shared a look that made it clear they were on the same page.
Wynne let out a dark chuckle and concentrated on settling into her seat instead of getting her hopes up too high. Sure enough, two minutes later, both missionaries entered the bus and found their original seats as the last passengers.
Up front, the driver released the air brakes and allowed the large bus to trickle across the concrete forecourt and back onto the two-lane State Route. As the speed gradually increased to match the local limit for heavy vehicles, the lights of the Gas 'n Go! truck stop faded behind them - and the stretch of road known as the Haunted Highway lay ahead.
The next twenty-five minutes went by without dramas, trouble or incidents of the living, dead or undead kind, but it was too good to last. Wynne had been leaning against the side of the seat trying to catch a few winks, but the bus slowing down and eventually coming to a halt stirred her awake once more.
Two new passengers came aboard; two men. That wasn't unusual in itself, but the fact that they wore traditional Western garb was. Wynne scratched her cheek and then her neck. She figured there was a remote possibility the two fellows were re-enactors en route to a rodeo or a Western show further north, but it was a strange time of the day to be doing so - and in full costume, no less.
As the bus resumed its endless journey north, Wynne shuffled around in her seat to see a little better. Everyone who had been there before the rest stop at Nowhere was still present, even the bickering couple, but the rear seat was suddenly occupied by a young boy who minded his own business while playing with a stuffed, long-eared teddy bear. Wynne scratched her hair again. The kid hadn't been there when she had returned to the bus at the Gas 'n Go!, and nobody had flagged it down since the truck stop except for the two Western re-enactors.
She briefly turned around to look out of the window; as she turned back to look behind her, the boy and his teddy bear had vanished. "Lawrdie… he' we go ag'in. Welcome ta Wynne's Wondahful Wohr-ld o' plum Wackiness…" she mumbled to herself as she rolled her eyes over the painful predictability of the situation. "Mercy Sakes, we ain't even made it half an hour onta that there Haunted Highway an' da shit's hittin' da fan alreddeh! What's next? Them Killer Shrews gonn' pop up an' dunk us in hawt sauce?"
Turning around once more, the words got stuck in her throat when she happened to clap eyes on a peculiar figure standing at the side of the road. It appeared to be a bearded man in his early twenties who was dressed in ankle boots, cargo pants and a flannel shirt. His accessories were the typical items popular among hikers: a large backpack with a metal framework so it would be rigid, a rolled-up tent that had been attached to the top of the backpack, a pair of sturdy gloves that hung from his belt, and finally a foldable spade perfect for digging trenches and waste pits - of course, it was somewhat unusual to have the entire metal part of the spade buried in his skull, but at least it would leave his hands free to put up the tent.
Wynne stared and stared and stared and stared at the odd figure as the intercity bus drove past him. To add another layer of surrealism to the whole deal, the spade-wearing fellow seemed to recognize Wynne - he broke out in a wide grin and sent her a huge, greatly enthusiastic thumbs-up.
"Yuh, Ah wus afraid som'tin like that wus gonn' happen…" Wynne said out loud as the figure disappeared into the darkness behind them. She looked around to see if anyone else had spotted the creepy fellow, but the bickering couple and the Air Force soldiers ahead and the four backpackers behind her were all fast asleep. The missionaries were engaged in Bible-studies, the old hippies were lost to the world after sharing a few more of the brown snacks, the travelling salesman snored loudly as well, and the two Western re-enactors had vanished without a trace.
After smacking a palm against her forehead in despair, Wynne moved on autopilot and dug into her jacket pocket for one of the cans of H.E. Fenwyck's finest she always kept there. She let out a dark grunt when all she found was the lemon Twinkie.
The high-quality, if somewhat hefty, grilled-cheese sandwich she'd had at the Gas 'n Go! continued to take up too much space down in her tummy to eat more, so she left the Twinkie in reserve for later - she had a hunch she had yet to experience the worst the Haunted Highway could throw at her.
To do something positive for a change, she dug into her other pocket to find her new smartphone. After listening to Mandy's brief message a couple of times, she swiped a little here and tapped a little there to finally return her sweetheart's call. The attempt went directly to Mandy's voice mail which meant she had turned off her telephone - in turn, that typically meant that Sheriff Rains was too close for comfort.
Wynne grunted as she peeked out of the window once more. "Lawrdie, howindahell can that nasteh ol' Artie Rains stay in office aftah that there stinkeh shit he done pulled in Feb-oo-ary… Ah jus' don't get it," she mumbled to herself. "Eh. Mebbe Ah ain't saposed ta get it. Mebbe Ah jus' oughtta try mah ol' friend Ernie instead," she continued before she found Ernest 'Ernie' Bradberry's number in the registry.
'Hiya, Wynne,' Ernie's disembodied voice soon said into Wynne's ear.
Grinning, Wynne held the telephone up to her ear while she shuffled around to make herself comfortable on the seat. "Howdy, ya ol' sombitch! What's cookin'?"
'Damn, are you in Cavanaugh Creek already? Did I forget the time… lemme see… no, it's only twenty past midnight. I'm gonna pick you up at the bus depot around one-thirty like we agreed upon, so… is somethin' wrong?'
"Naw, there sure ain't nuttin' wrong he', Ernie. Well, not unless ya count seein' that there Butch'ad Backpackah or whatevah that fella's name wus. Ah done clapped eyes on 'im not five minutes ago. Yuh."
'Ah… okay? Tell me… didya happen to drink another of those fermented beers we found last weekend, Wynne?'
"Naw! Naw, Ah didden, friend. Ah ain't been drinkin' nuttin' 'cos everythin' but coffee or them sodas is pro-hibby-ted he' on da bus, dontchaknow. Why, Ah think them bussin' folks might got a rule ag'inst blowin' chewin' gum bubbles or som'tin… they be kinda strict on them things."
'I'm sure they are… what was that with the Butchered Back-'
"Yuh, Ah done saw him, awright. He got one o' them there spades stuck in his noggin an' all. Kinda freaky-lookin' if ya know what Ah mean… we drove past 'im."
'Ah… I see. Okay.'
"Yuh. We be on that there Haunted Highway now… an' Ah alreddeh done seen me a buncha weird stuff right he' on da bus. Ah mean, a couple-a cowpokes came aboard but they vamoosed. An' then Ah saw a li'l kid on the back seat playin' with one o' them there teddah bears, but he done vamoosed as well. Y'know, Ah wus reminded o' that day an' evenin' las' year when that there dimen-shun-zappin'-thing happened in Goldsborah… 'membah? It wus weird an' only gettin' weirdah."
'My gut remembers when you used it as a cushion, Wynne!' Ernie said and broke out in a laugh.
"Yuh, sorry 'bout that, Ernie… anyhows. Wotcha been doin' this he' fih-ne evenin'?"
'I played a little poker with Diego and Frank… wasn't much of a game, though. Then I nuked myself a can of baked beans and a wiener for supper and watched a little of the 'ninety-three Southern Five-hundred. That was a great race-'
"The hell it wus! The Valv-ah-line Thundahbihrd won!"
Ernie's wide and undoubtedly cheesy grin almost had enough strength to come through the connection and end up all over Wynne's display. 'Like I said, Wynne… it was a great race! Tomorrow I'm gonna help Brenda Travers dig a beer-pit behind their trailer. She's the beer-drinker in that little family… ain't that funny?'
"Yuh… Vaughn's more of a stick-in-the-mud kinda guy than Ah done expected. Me an' Mandy 'r havin' 'em ovah next Sattahrday aftahnoon fer a li'l coffee an' cookies an' stuff. O-yuh, Ah need'a buy some o' them there diet sodas. Hate 'em with a pas-shun, but Vaughn chugs 'em down fastah than Ah can drink a Dubbel Zerah."
'Which says a helluva lot…'
"Yuh, it does… anyhows, Ah be seein' ya in jus' ovah an hour at that there bus sta-shun in Cavannaw Creek, yuh? Uh… wouldya mind bringin' one or two… or mebbe three… o' them there-"
'I've already put a Fenwyck Premium Selection six-pack in the truck, Wynne.'
"Dang, Ernie! That's why Ah considah ya mah best pal an' all… Lawrdie, ya sure know how ta please a woman! Bye!"
A loud splutter and a croaking 'Jeez, Wynne! Now I got beer all over my phone!' just had time to come through the connection before Wynne tapped on the Hook icon to finish the conversation. Giggling out loud over her cheeky exit line, she slipped the telephone into her pocket and snuggled down once more.
The cowboy hat was soon pulled low; then she closed her eyes to shut out the bizarre world she always seemed to find herself in.
The world around her began a metamorphosis into something far spookier than regular reality. Developing slowly at first, the creepy proceedings inside the intercity bus soon upped the tempo until it reached an all-out crescendo. Ghostly passengers appeared, then disappeared, then re-appeared on another row - some of them were even there twice at the same time like they were part of a twisted, otherworldly science experiment.
The boy with the long-eared teddy bear suddenly appeared right next to Wynne which made her jump in her seat. He was only there for less than twenty seconds before he vanished, but just as Wynne tried to pat down the seat to figure out what in the world was going on, another ghost appeared directly on top of her arm. That it was a hairy and somewhat portly fellow wearing sandals, a white toga, a laurel wreath and very little else didn't exactly endear him to her.
More ghosts appeared and disappeared. Ethereal laughter, weeping and screaming echoed through the bus from countless dimensions at once. A headless ghost suddenly ran through the central aisle flailing his arms like he was searching for the missing member. Another ghost thumbed his nose at Wynne - which she considered rather rude in itself - before he spun around, dropped his britches and mooned her.
Wynne tried to kick the jiggling-wiggling mooner's ectoplasm out of the bus for disturbing the peace and for indecent exposure, but she literally missed by a dimension as he had already disappeared by the time her boot reached where the rear cheeks had been.
"Lawwwwwwwwwwwwr-die!" she cried at the top of her lungs. "This he' be theeee worst an' most insay-ne pile o' bull dung Ah evah done smelled or fell inta! Why dontcha scram back ta yer own dimen-shuns, ya no-good, low-down, dirty-rotten sons-a-skunks! Buncha dead weirdos is what ya is! Why, Ah oughtta complain to somebodda! Ain't sure who, there, exactleh, but somebodda gonn' hear 'bout this!"
To add insult to fury, the mooner ghost returned. Wynne jumped to her feet and tried to grab hold of his collar - she wasn't about to move her hands lower - but she was literally unable to get a grip. Ultimately, he mooned her again before he disappeared.
"This! He'! Be! In! Say-ne! Insay-ne, Ah'm tellin' ya! Insay-ne!" she cried as a trio of ghostly children zipped past her long legs - one went past her on her left side, the next moved to her right and the final one simply ran straight through her like she was the ghost and not one of the living. "Ooooh, dat tickles! Why, ya li'l brat!" she cried while she squirmed hard to get the eerie sensation off her.
She came to an abrupt halt when she happened to look through the windows and onto the shoulder of the State Route. The Butchered Backpacker appeared once again in all his mutilated glory. He greeted her for a second time, but unlike the first such instance, the new wave made her think he was trying to catch her attention rather than simply being a polite ghost.
"Did y'all see that? It wus that there Butch'ad Backpackah fella ag'in…" she cried as she spun around to look at her fellow passengers who all sat like marble statues. "Whaddindahell's wrong with you people?! Cantcha see we be up ta our eyeballs in trubbel he'? Ah mean, Mercy Sakes, we be havin' all kinds-a ghostly shit goin' on in he' an' you folks jus' be sittin' there like y'all alreddeh… be… dead… or… som'tin-"
Suddenly realizing what she had said, Wynne took a hurried step backward and clamped both hands down onto her cowboy hat so it wouldn't fly off on its own. "Aw… aw… awwwwwwwwwww-shitttt! Whydahell do them things always happen ta me?! Ah don't bah-lieve this he' shit! This ain't funny no mo'! Will ya lissen ta me… this he' shit ain't funneh no mo'…"
"Ain't funneh… ain't funneh no mo'…" Wynne continued in a mumble. After yawning wide and smacking her lips, she slowly came back from the land of Nod. When all her faculties were pointed in the same direction, she jerked upright and whipped her head around in a frenzy.
Everything seemed normal. The old hippies were still munching on the brown snacks, the missionaries were still reading their Bibles, the bickering couple were still engaged in merry arguing, and the two soldiers were playing games on their telephones. Better still, there were no ghosts anywhere.
"Lawwwwwr-die," she croaked as she fell back against the seat. "Sombitch… Ah musta dozed off or som'tin… Snakes Alive, Ah need'a beer like Ah ain't nevah needed one befo'… but Ah ain't got no dang-blasted beer, dog-gone'it!"
Remembering the lemon Twinkie, she reached into her jacket pocket, took the small plastic bag and tore it open at once. Soon, she munched on the artificial snack while staring at her fellow passengers in a most determined fashion to make sure they were actually there - not to mention alive.
By sheer miracle, the next twenty minutes passed without further supernatural dramas, but Wynne continued to keep a keen eye on her fellow passengers just in case. Her lemon Twinkie had only made her thirstier so she licked her lips constantly while trying not to think of creamy suds, golden bodies and rich taste.
As she sat there with little to do and even less to look at, she couldn't help but reminisce about the non-stop weirdness she had been smack-bang in the middle of since she had been knee-high to her dad's 1976 Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Even apart from all the freakish goings-on that had plagued her, Mandy and the rest of the residents of Goldsboro for the past decade, she could remember many such situations from her childhood and adolescence.
She gave her fellow passengers a final check before she snuggled down against the windowsill. Closing her eyes, she went on a small tour down memory lane of the remarkable, and certainly colorful, life of Wynne Donohue, Trouble-Magnet Extraordinaire. Something began to tickle her ear even before she had started, but she swatted the fly away with an annoyed gesture.
The UFO with the Q-Tip-like space creatures that she and Mandy had encountered in the desert hadn't even been her first alien sighting. During one of the notorious Texas heatwaves in the early 1980s - when she had been a tender six-year-old - she had been sleeping in her tree house high above the front lawn when she had noticed seven strange lights in the sky. Changing size and luminescence, the slow-moving lights had gone through various geometrical shapes like triangles, boxes and even rhombuses until they found one to their liking: the lights formed a perfect arrow-head formation that remained until they had moved below the horizon.
Tickle. Tickle. Swat.
The rest of that special evening had gone by without incident, but she had been stirred awake during the dark hours by hearing the leaves rustling somewhere above her. A moment later, tremors had rippled through the tree trunk like someone climbed the square steps hammered into the wood, but nobody was there when she looked down. There had been a vile smell lingering in the air that she couldn't identify at the time, but that she discovered years later was a combination of hot metal and sulfur - of course, not a soul believed her the following morning and she had pushed it all to the back of her young mind.
Tickle, tickle. Swat. Tickle. Tickle. Swat.
Later, in her teen years, she had been stalked by a shadow for several days - just the shadow, not any kind of being it could belong to. Her creepy companion had driven her to the brink of madness until she had connected the dots and realized it had to be a lost soul that had attached itself to her after she and a few friends had spent an entire night at the local cemetery on a dare. Returning to the cemetery at the stroke of midnight had solved the problem: her shadow had left her never to return.
Tickle-tickle. Tickle. Swat. Tickle-tickle! Growling, Wynne performed a wild swat at the annoying fly - it seemed to help.
She'd had more than enough on her plate in her late teens and early twenties to have time to mess around with supernatural forces, but they hadn't forgotten about Wynne Donohue. One night not long after her twenty-fourth birthday, the floodgates had burst open and critters, creepies, spooks, specters, ghouls, geists and assorted other denizens of the Otherworld had invaded the small Texas town she and her family had lived in - it had taken the living residents a full week to clean up the mess. By then, Wynne had had enough and moved as far away as possible to make sure the Other Side would lose track of her.
Tickle! Tickle! Swat! Tickle! Swat! Tickle-tick-tick-tickle!
"Awww, dat does it! Ah'mma-gonn' getcha but good, there, Mista Fly! Ya pesky, li'l sombitch!" Wynne growled and finally looked around for her buzzing tormentor. She did in fact have something in the seat next to her, but it wasn't of the flying kind - nor was it Tiffany Worth or the other missionary from the Virgin Tower organization, or indeed anyone else among the passengers.
The words got stuck in Wynne's throat when she clapped eyes on the jeans, the flannel shirt, the backpack and the spade that continued to stick out of the Butchered Backpacker's skull - it had been the spade's wooden handle that had tickled her ear and hair. "Whut… in… da… wohhhhhhh-rld?" she croaked before she rubbed her eyes.
"Hiya, Wynne!" the dead man said in a perversely cheery voice - that the movement of his lips didn't match the sounds coming out was only typical.
"Howdy, there, Butch… Ah'm dreamin' ag'in, ain't Ah?"
"Nope! Not this time."
Wynne promptly pinched herself to check - sure enough, she felt the pain loud and clear. "Lawwwwwwwwwr-die… Ah ain't reddy ta go ta mah grave, son! Ah got plentah of beers ta chug an' races ta watch… an' Ah sure ain't done kissin' mah sweet, li'l De-per-ty, neithah!"
The Butchered Backpacker chuckled and waved his hand dismissively. "Oh, don't pay any attention to that. That's only what the PR department came up with. We're really not that bad. Honest."
"We're here to whip up a little storm, Wynne… so hang on!"
From one moment to the next, the backpacker vanished only to be replaced by a colorful menagerie of ghostly visitors. Unlike the first time - that had only been a dream - the other passengers of the long-distance bus were now introduced to the best and worst of the Otherworld. Wynne jumped to her feet to warn her fellow passengers of the impending dangers, but her cry was drowned out by those that came from everyone else.
Dogs soon chased cats down the aisle; a flock of geese flew through the upper section of the bus, and an old-fashioned cowboy galloped in the other direction atop a steed with flaming eyes and a swooshing mane. A shoal of fish that appeared to be salmon swam upstream to get to the driver's compartment up front, but their task was made difficult by the grizzly bear who tried to snatch them out of the air. The ghostly bear itself caused plenty of screaming among the living in the bus, but it didn't appreciate the noise and promptly disappeared. In its stead, a flock of seagulls shrieked loudly to show they could make plenty of noise too.
While the rucksacks of the four filthy backpackers were emptied out the messy way by unseen forces, the old hippies broke down in manic laughing fits that were no doubt aided by the contents of the brownish snacks they had been eating all evening. The travelling salesman hid behind his large suitcase containing samples until he realized the apparitions weren't threatening as such - then he joined the hippies in laughing.
The bickering couple blamed each other for the ghostly invasion; they made sure that everyone else got a piece of the argument by yelling at the top of their lungs. The two Air Force men seemed to be at a loss of what to do against such intangible opponents, but the Virgin Tower missionaries jumped into action by performing religious gestures and chanting exorcisms and random Biblical quotes that were supposed to defeat the cheeky spirits or at least negate their presence.
Wynne stood in the middle of all that with her hands clamped down onto her battered cowboy hat so nobody dead or alive could be tempted to steal it. Her eyes were wider than ever as she took in the sights: after the first wave of animal specters had been and gone, it was time for an ex-human invasion force.
Ghostly passengers popped up at random here, there and everywhere - they always teased those of the living they were closest to before vanishing again. They performed handstands, pirouettes, flips and other artistic tricks that would have drawn plenty of oooooh's and ahhhhhh's had they been performed at a vaudeville or in a circus. Now, they just drew plenty of terrified screaming, manic laughing and religious chants that had zero effect on any of them.
It nearly turned dangerous after all when a semi-undressed, pole-dancing ghost suddenly appeared sitting on the driver's lap. The man behind the wheel yelped at the sight - or sights - and promptly buried his face in his hands. Not a second later, the bus jerked left, veered off-course and went straight for the hard shoulder and the uneven desert floor beyond it.
Wynne yelped as well as she was thrown off balance. She ended up clear across the central aisle where she fell into a precarious half-sitting, half-lying position that proved difficult to get out of in a hurry. After much cussing, she stuck her head between the next seats to yell: "Hit them brakes, pardner! We's gonn' be eatin' grit fer a month if ya don't! Dad-gummit!"
The driver responded at once and stood on the brake pedal. It was a good reaction in theory, but transforming it to reality turned out to be lacking as the hard stop caused everyone to jerk around all over again. Wynne bumped down into the footwell where she let out an emphatic: "Owch, mah buhtt! Sombitch! An' Ah done los' mah dog-gone hat, too!"
As the bus came to a rocking halt just feet from the edge of the desert, Tiffany Worth, the female Virgin Tower missionary, jumped out of her seat and held up her Bible. "In the blessed name of Our Lord, I command you evil entities to return to your hellish origins forthwith and remain shackled there until Our Lord grants you salvation!" she cried loud enough for everyone to hear.
The dancing ghosts did in fact stop to look at the woman and the Holy Book. One or two shrugged and disappeared, but they were soon replaced by other cheerful spirits. The rest remained and quickly resumed their artistic stage show.
Grunting, the missionary held up the Bible once more and took a deep breath to repeat the message: "In the name of Our Lord-"
"Fer cryin' out loud!" Wynne roared as she finally got back on her booted feet. Her hat had made its own way out into the central aisle, so she picked it up and plonked it onto her dark locks. "Whaddindahell is dat bull-hickey lang-witch y'all be spewin'? Y'all bettah lissen an' lissen hard, Tif'ney. Numbah one, them folks he' ain't evil! They be he' ta be havin' a good
tih-me… that there butch'ad backpackah fella done tole me so."
"Numbah two, ain't none o' that there fancy talkin' gonn' work a dang toot! What, ya think them spirits he' be high-falootin' scholars or somebodda? They be reg'lar folks like me an' you… well, like me, anyhows. If ya wanna get rid of 'em, jus' tell 'em ta scram! Naw, save yer breath. Ah'mma-gonn' do it… 'cept Ah'mma-gonn' ask 'em politeleh!"
"Ma'am, I protest! You are interfering with an official exorcism!" the missionary shrieked while she stomped her foot onto the floor.
"Izzat a fact? Well, ain't dat too dang bad, Tif'ney! Y'all can getcha fifteen minutes o' fame some othah tih-me. Siddown an' keep quiet!" Wynne barked as she pointed at the row of seats the missionary had come from. "Hey! Hey, Mista Butch or whatevah ya momma named ya! Ah need'a word with y'all!"
The Butchered Backpacker promptly appeared, trench spade and all. It drew plenty of wild screams from the other passengers, but Wynne just slammed her hands onto her hips and let out a short-tempered growl. "Aintcha had 'bout all the fun y'all can handle fer one evenin'? Ah sure have, an' so have them othah folks he'. Whaddayasay, Mista? How 'bout we called it a night? Y'all can go haunt the next coach or whatevah. Jus' get outta mah hair! Pah-leese!"
"Okay," the backpacker said and performed a one-shouldered shrug. He turned to his fellow specters who seemed to agree though none of them spoke - a second later, they were gone like they hadn't been there at all. The backpacker stayed for a few seconds longer; his parting salute was a cheeky "See ya around, Wynne!"
"Yuh… yuh, Ah'll bet," Wynne mumbled as she looked around the bus to make sure they had really been left alone.
One after the other, the passengers began to clap at Wynne who just grinned as she made her way back to her own seat. The two missionaries were too grumpy and insulted to acknowledge Wynne's efforts so they remained passive save for flashing a few Evil Eyes in the direction of the denim-clad woman.
Sitting down, the grin froze on Wynne's face when she happened to look outside into the dark night. The Butchered Backpacker stood at the side of the two-lane blacktop with his backpack, his tent-roll and his curious, spade-shaped headwear. He waved at her and gave her a thumbs-up. To be polite and to thank him for leaving so swiftly, she took off her cowboy hat and waved back in time-honored fashion.
The bus driver soon had the large vehicle pointed in the proper direction; he took off at slow speed to make sure nothing had been damaged in the hard stop. While that took place, Wynne leaned against the backrest and shook her head seventeen times in a row at the insane goings-on she always wound up in.
The remote desert town of Goldsboro was too small and too far off the beaten path for any of the intercity bus operators to have routes there - the closest stop for the passengers arriving from the south was the enormous bus depot near the campus of Cavanaugh Creek's renowned engineering college. The bus had already spent five minutes driving on the wide streets of the rapidly expanding city before Wynne began to collect the empty wrappers and various other waste knick-knacks that always seemed to pile up during any kind of longer ride.
Her dress bag containing her fine set of Sunday clothes had made it through the ghostly ordeal unscathed, and the extra travel bag she had stuffed under the seat was in good condition as well. In addition to indispensable items like spare socks and undies, it held a few random bits and bobs like a second power bank for the telephone, the factory-supplied charger and finally a cheap paperback titled Sarah's Choice that had been unable to hold her interest after it didn't go in the direction she had expected.
As the bus reached the depot, she scooted out to the edge of the row of seats to be ready. Everyone's eyes were on her just in case more ghosts appeared in her vicinity, but she was so used to being gawked at she hardly even noticed.
"Ladies and gentlemen," the driver said over the public announcement system, "we've arrived in Cavanaugh Creek. We'll spend five minutes here at the central depot before we continue onto Jarrod City and North Greenville. Please only use the exit at the front of the coach. Thank you."
Wynne got up and swung the travel bag over her shoulder. The dress bag followed before she shuffled along the central aisle to get to the forward exit - behind her, the four backpackers lined up in a row like goslings to a mother goose. She nodded a goodbye to the old hippies and the travelling salesman as she went past them. The soldiers had fallen asleep and the bickering couple held little interest for her so she ignored them.
Much to Wynne's unbridled horror, Tiffany Worth and her colleague were also getting off at the stop. They only gave her a cold shoulder so she returned the favor. Stepping off the warm bus for the first time since Nowhere, she needed to zip her lined denim jacket all the way up as the nightly chill seeped past her hoodie and into her skin almost at once.
The bus depot was well-lit by numerous LED lamp posts, but there was no sight of Ernie Bradberry or his easily recognizable Ford F350 Super Duty custom truck. The entire area was flat as a pancake - save for the lamp posts - so there was nowhere for the large truck to hide.
A waiting hall featuring elegant glass walls and plenty of white tiles had been built not too far from where Wynne had stepped off the bus, but she chose to remain out in the open since the handful of people who were already in there didn't look like someone she'd appreciate being near.
Sighing, she shuffled back and forth to remain warm. "Yuh… figgers… ol' Ernie prolly done fergot all 'bout li'l ol' me," she mumbled to herself as she scratched her neck. "Lawrdie, an' he said he wus gonn' bring some beer… aw, darn'it. Ah sure do coulda swilled-down one o' them there-"
She stopped mumbling to herself when she noticed the two missionaries staring at her like she was some kind of imbecile. The well-dressed people also seemed to wait for someone to come and pick them up; the man continued to read the Bible, but Tiffany had put hers away to have more time to shoot Evil Eyes at Wynne.
The rude staring continued at unabated strength, so Wynne spun around on her heel and walked further along the platform-like stretch of the bus depot to obtain some privacy.
Five minutes later, Wynne's patience had grown wafer-thin. Not only did Ernie continue to be annoyingly absent, the missionaries continued to be annoyingly present. Tiffany Worth hadn't stopped staring and mouthing various biblical quotes at Wynne, and she had even held up her Holy Book and Crucifix like she pretended to be a long-lost relative of the famed vampire hunter Van Helsing.
Wynne tried to remain cool, calm and collected, but when her efforts to call Ernie to ask where he was fizzled out - she could only reach his voice mail - she'd had enough of the staring and stomped over to the two missionaries. "Lemme tell ya som'tin, there, Tif'ney… Ah don't parti-cah-larlee 'preciate bein' stared at this hard, yuh? So whydahell dontcha tell me face ta face whaddindahell kinda burr crept up yer shorts an' stayed there? 'Cos, dang, this he' silent starin' is workin' like a cheese gratah on mah good mood, catch mah drift?"
Tiffany's only reply was to hold her Crucifix higher like it would help stave off her opponent; if she'd had access to holy water or even a few cloves of garlic, she would most likely have used them as well.
"Yuh-huh, it sure wus nice talkin' ta ya," Wynne growled and stomped away from the missionaries once more so she wouldn't say or do anything she'd regret. By the time she reached the far end of the platform, she happened to notice a familiar white-and-gold Dodge Durango make a right-hand turn into the bus depot.
The vehicle from the MacLean County Sheriff's Department soon drove across the lanes that were otherwise off-limits for anything but the large intercity buses. It moved slowly around the vast depot like the driver was looking for something - or someone. When The Last Original Cowpoke was located on the passenger platform, all the Durango's emergency lights flashed twice to utter a non-verbal Howdy!
"Snakes Alive… can it be? Lawwwwwrdie! Why, Ah do bah-lieve that there might be…" Wynne said and hurried over to the Durango once it had come to a stop. After swinging the travel bag off her shoulder so she had a hand free, she yanked the passenger-side door open to take a look at the driver. "Yeeeeee-hawwwwwwwwwwwwww! If it ain't mah sweet, li'l de-per-ty Mandy! Awright! Lawrdie, y'all sure be a sight fer sore asses, lemme tell ya! Holy shittt, it's so frickin' wondahful to see ya ag'in! Ah done missed ya som'tin fierce, there, darlin'!"
After getting such an enthusiastic reception, Senior Deputy Sheriff Mandy Jalinski could only lean her head back and let out a loud laugh. "I've missed you too, hon… so have the girls. They're so hyped for your return I couldn't even take them along!"
"Awwww! Yuh-yuh-yuh, Ah can't wait ta dish out a li'l dawggie lurrrrve! Lemme put mah lugg-itch inta the back an' all. Yessir, them dawggies gonn' get a fur-rubbin' they ain't nevah gonn' ferget-"
When someone tapped Wynne hard on the shoulder, she moved back out of the Dodge Durango to see what in the world was going on. Instead of the Butchered Backpacker - or the mooning ghost - returning for a little more ethereal cheekiness, the tapper turned out to be Tiffany Worth whose face had contorted into an unbearably smug mask that simply cried 'holier-than-thou.' "Sow the wind and reap the storm! Our Lord the Great Shepherd has swung his Scythe of Righteousness! You have been struck down, Sinner! I'm sure you're some kind of escaped felon or worse! Enjoy your time behind bars!"
"Buh… y'all be talkin' ta me? Why… Ah reckon ya is talkin' ta me since there ain't nobodda else around these he' parts! Lawrdie, thanks fer showin' yer true self, there, nih-ce lady," Wynne said and tipped her hat. "An' yup, Ah do bah-lieve Ah'mma-gonn' enjoy mah time behind bars… speshu-ally that there Bar an' Grill up in Goldsborah, dontchaknow. Ol' Moira's burgahs are jus' theee best slabs o' beef y'all can buy anywheah in Nevahdah. Yessir. Or mebbe that wussen whatcha wus tryin' ta say?"
The missionary looked like she was on the brink of a coronary - her face lost all color save for her cheeks that exploded in a deep burgundy. Unable to speak, she spun around and stormed back to her companion to have a safe haven in the proverbial storm.
Wynne let out a dark grunt as she opened the Durango's rear door to put her two bags in the back. "Ya know, darlin'," she said over the top of the seats, "there be times where Ah reckon that all them ghouls we done met ain't got nuttin' on them livin' folks. Nosirree… there be plentah o' weird, weird livin' folks out there. Aw, ta hell with 'em. Les'go home. Uh… Ernie done said ovah the phone he wus gonn' bring a Fenwyck Premium Selec-shun with 'im… ya woudden happen ta-"
"No, I'm sorry, Wynne," Mandy said as she started the Durango. "I was on speed trap duty up in the hills south of Goldsboro when Ernie called me. He said that Bernadine had paid him a surprise visit so he wouldn't be able to come down here after all."
"But whydahell didden that there Mista Bradberrah jus' tell me instead o' you? Lawrdie, Ah coulda found a convenience stoah or som'tin an' bought mahself some beer," Wynne said as she climbed aboard the four-by-four from the Sheriff's Department.
Turning toward Mandy while holding out her arms, Wynne had soon wrapped herself around the senior deputy's compact, athletic body for the first time in a short week - and that was far, far too long. After the glorious hug came the glorious kissing; they finished off by staying close and rubbing each other's arms and backs.
They couldn't stay there forever, so Wynne stole another little kiss before she slipped over onto the right-hand side seat and reached for the seat belt. "Ah'mma-gonn' have a word with that there Ernie Bradberrah fella come mornin'," she said as she clicked the belt in place. "Huh, or mebbe tomorrah aftahnoon 'cos when he an' that there Rev'rend get bizzy, watch out!"
Mandy chuckled as she left the curb and crossed over the numerous bus lanes. They soon reached one of the larger streets where they moved into the scarce traffic. "At least we have the perfect birthday gift for him this year. Sound-dampening material for his trailer. I think the Tooleys and the Travers' wouldn't mind adding a few dollars to the pool either."
"Y'all got a point there, de-per-ty… them nih-ce folks bein' closer an' all… yuh. But that's fer later," Wynne said and took off her cowboy hat to wipe her brow. "Ah sure am gladda' see ya. Lawrdie, this he' trip done kicked mah buhtt. Evah heard of a local legend known as the Butch'ad Backpackah?"
"Hmmm… no, but I'll bet it's related to the Vanishing Hitchhiker, the Grizzled Prospector and all those ghost stories from the desert. Right?"
"Haw, that would be a yes an' a no, De-per-ty. Mos'ly yes," Wynne said and scratched an eyebrow. "That there Butch'ad Backpackah ain't so bad a charactah even if he is wearin' a spade fer a hat."
"Shoot, De-per-ty Mandy, it be one o' them there looooong stories," Wynne said and held out her hands to illustrate how long the story actually was.
"Right… when aren't they?"
Wynne couldn't counter that, so she just broke out in a lop-sided grin. "Uh… yuh. Ah'mma-gonn' tell ya all 'bout it latah. Ovah a beer or two. Or three. Anyhows. Anythin' interestin' or excitin' happenin' in Goldsborah while I wus away?"
Mandy shook her head and let out a short, non-committal sound. "Not really. We had a DUI yesterday… he's still sobering up in Holding Cell one. Barry had his nicotine chewing gum go down the wrong pipe. He was able to cough it up without anyone having to do the Heimlich on him."
"Haw, that sure does sound like Mista Sixty-Cigs, awright! Who'd'ha thunk he'd evah get an even nastiah habit than that there stinkeh tabaccah he be smokin'… Lawrdie."
"Isn't that the truth. How was Texas?"
"Aw, perdy much the same as evah, darlin'. Them hats wus big an' the belt buckles wus even biggah. Yuh. We went ta four church services in three days. Nuttin' unusual there. Ah guess ev'rybodda wus like they always wus… an' that means they wus a li'l screwy. Speshually mah Uncle Chuck. He done said he wus Teddy Roosevelt. Yuh. But dat don't make no sense 'cos he ain't sittin' in no wheelchaiah or nuttin'."
"No, that was the other Roosevelt… that was FDR."
"Yuh? Then Ah ain't got no dang-blasted clue whut mah Uncle Chuck meant when he done tole me that. Anyhows. Oh, an' we hadda lissen ta Acheh Breakeh Heart a buncha times in a row… seven times, Ah reckon… when some folks wanted ta do a li'l line dancin'-"
"At a funeral?!"
"Well, yuh, it's Texas… an' mah Aunt Martha Faye wus a spirited ol' gal who sure could swing them skirts around so it wussen realleh weird or nuttin'. But anyhows, that there food at the ack-shual funeral there wus great an' plentiful."
"Yuh," Wynne said and fell quiet. A short mile went by in silence before she let out a grunt and furrowed her brow. "Jus' befo' Ah left ta catch mah bus, the lawyer-fella mah aunt used done tole me they wus gonn' contact me regardin' som'tin in her las' will an' testament. Ain't got no clue what that might be about. Nobodda Ah spoke ta knew nuttin' about me bein' men-shunned in the will, so… Aunt Martha Faye wussen one o' them there hoarders as such, but she sure liked ta collect a whole buncha stuff. Lawrdie, her attic an' cellar 'r crammed full-a old sea-chests an' that kinda stuff. Buncha dresses from way back when. All them kinda things, ya know."
"Maybe she's left you a million dollars?" Mandy said and reached across to rub Wynne's long thigh.
"Haw! That'll be the day…"
"Let's see what happens," Mandy continued as she pulled the Durango to a halt at the last red light in Cavanaugh Creek. On the far side of the intersection, the State Route pointed to the dark desert; there, it would continue on for miles and miles - going up hill, down dale and through plenty of dangerous curves - until it went past the trailer park where they lived.
The traffic lights soon changed to green to provide the police vehicle with a clear path out of Cavanaugh Creek. Mandy responded by accelerating, and the Durango was quickly underway once more.
"Perdy sure it ain't gonn' be no million bucks or nuttin' tho' that would be nih-ce fer sure," Wynne said and took off her cowboy hat to have room for the yawn that threatened to dislocate her jaw. The hat returned to her locks after she had smacked her lips several times. "Ah ain't gettin' mah hopes up too high 'bout nuttin'. Even if Ah do end up inheritin' some, it's prolly jus' gonn' be some old junk or som'tin. Mebbe we could get rid of it at a flea market or swap meet or som'tin. There gonn' be a tail-gate swap meet out at that there Thundah Park in three weeks' tih-me."
As Wynne smacked her lips once more, she happened to look out into the dark night - at that exact moment, the Dodge Durango zoomed past a figure standing at the side of the road. She nearly choked on her tongue as she caught a glimpse of the familiar figure. "Lawwwwwrdie! Didya see that fella there, De-per-ty?! At the side o' the road, there! Jus' now!"
"No?" Mandy said and applied the brakes in case someone needed assistance.
Wynne craned her neck to look into the mirror on the door. Whatever she did, she was unable to see what she thought she had seen. After a short while, she shook her head. "Naw. It wus nuttin'. Mercy Sakes, this he' trip got me spooked so bad mah backbone done turned inta' bowl-o' jell-o, lemme tell ya… hit the loud pedal, De-per-ty Mandy! We gotta get home ta them dawggies fer a li'l rubbin' befo' they tear our trailah apart, yessir!"
Chuckling at her partner's inimitable style, Mandy once more set off for the trailer park. As the Dodge Durango moved into the night, the Butchered Backpacker reappeared at the side of the road.
He seemed to jot down a quick note in a notepad before he yanked the trench spade out of his skull and waved it high in the air as a parting salute. Once the SUV's taillights were out of sight, he inserted the spade once more and shuffled off to find some other poor traveler that he could scare witless…
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