“The Things We Leave Behind”
Three Rivers, Michigan
When Creepy America was enjoying one of its peaks in popularity, we were interviewed by a magazine reporter. After talking about our daily routine of drive, research, edit, plan, film, edit again, publish, update our platforms, sleep, and repeat, he gave a long whistle. “Wow, that must be stressful, huh?”
“I don’t know about that” Zoey had said. “Creepy America’s never really been stressful. Exhausting? Yes. Dangerous? Often. Scary? All the time. But the whole thing’s such a wonderful adventure that’s it’s never really taken a toll on us.”
I like the way she said it, and I’m repeating it now, because without that context, you won’t understand why we put up with the living hell that was our lives until we finished our second episode.
Two days after I told Zoey I was coming with, I came over to her house to go over her itinerary.
There wasn’t one.
Zoey, in typical Zoey fashion, had spent more time wish-listing cameras and buying forks than she did planning where she was going to go and what she was going to do. I think part of her thought she was just going to get on the road and pull over at whatever stop looked interesting.
That was guaranteed to end in disaster, so I put it on myself to schedule stops, plan rests, and list possible episode topics. Considering that our goal was to hit every single state in the continental U.S., it was a daunting task.
Then, of course, there was the issue of money. We managed to get the now infamous 1989 Winnebago Chieftain at quite a deal; part of it was because Zoey’s uncle sold it to us, and part of it was because it was a 1989 Winnebago Chieftain. Reliable, but not exactly sexy.
We learned pretty quickly that you can’t just buy an R.V. and drive it to lands unknown. There’s a million and one things you need to get just to make the thing functional: propane tanks to heat water and the interior kitchen, surge protectors to make sure the park’s electrical system doesn’t fry everything inside, sewage hoses and connectors for… well, I’m sure you can figure that out. And that doesn’t include all the other little things to make life livable: generators and water filters and wifi boosters.
Add in my ever-increasing budget for food, lodging, and emergencies, and it wasn’t long before it became obvious that the fifty thousand wasn’t going to be enough.
We both did everything we could to save up money. Zoey worked a job at one of the local museums as a guided tour and event coordinator and spent her evenings and weekends doing freelance photo work for weddings and reunions. I got a job as a data entry assistant; it was the only place that was willing to hire me on for only a few months. The pay was good but the work was mind-numbing and the shifts were ten hours at a time. Often times I came home, fell asleep, woke up and went right back to my job.
My parents were less than thrilled to learn that I was putting my degree on hold for an indefinite amount of time while I went gallivanting across America, and they especially didn’t like that I was going to be staying at home while I saved up for said trip; not hard to figure out why. We had some pretty bad fights about it, but in the end they backed off. I don’t think they ever understood, but watching me come home day after day tired and spent to make the journey possible at least let them know that I was serious about it, and that this wasn’t just some passing fancy.
Things were also a little rocky between Zoey and I during this time. It was my job to balance the money and time, allocating those numbers of dollars and days into concrete blocks of finite things. Two weeks in Michigan. Three weeks in West Virginia. 275$ for kitchen appliances, and not a penny more.
That didn’t jive well with Zoey’s limitless free spirit. She kept coming back to me with ads for cameras and microphones. “We need this one” she’d always say. “It’s full frame. It can handle a much higher SPL. This ISO range is necessary if we do any filming at night.” At the time, that was all greek to me, so my only response was a head shake and a firm “no.”
In her defense, she did stop me from making some bad calls. At one point, she stuck the budget in my face and demand I raise the food portion higher than 200 a month. “It’s a road trip, Liam” she pointed out. “Not fucking Auschwitz.”
And that was our life for a while. Weekdays were spent at our jobs. Weekends were spent at one of our houses, planning and prepping. Every waking hour was spent working on something, and we did that for five whole months.
Exhausting? Yes. Stressful? Never.
After we had saved up enough for all our planned expenses and had finished our two weeks notice at both our jobs, we both agreed that we were long-overdue for a night off. We headed off to our local bar and spent the night getting plastered and generally having a good time. I had the worst hangover of my life that morning and we didn’t end up getting ready to leave until late in the afternoon that day.
As I was getting ready to back the R.V. up, Zoey stopped me. “One selfie.”
I rolled my eyes but complied.
As I write this, I’m looking at that picture now, and the memory feels like a lifetime ago. Zoey’s got her arm around me, forcing me closer into the frame. Her check is smushed up against the side of my head, making my hair even more of a mess than usual. I’m doing my best to push her away, but the same smile and twinkle in her eyes is present in mine. We’re ready to begin, to go adventuring, to take on the world if need be.
I wish it had stayed that way.
We both had believed that once we were on the open road, everything was going to work out from there.
It didn’t. What it did was start to get stressful.
It takes a bit of an adjustment period to get used to living with anyone, and that period is doubly problematic if the living space is a cramped R.V. It wasn’t long before the little offences started to add up. Every dish piled in the kitchen sink, every square inch of table space taken over by video cameras, and every bathroom sink mess of neon-colored hair dye grated on my nerves. Zoey favored offences were my instance that the plates needed to stay in specifically organized piles and the trash needed to be sorted in three different bags.
“And you snore!” she yelled at me when I left to take a walk and clear my head.
“So do you” I grumbled.
Also not helping was the fact that the first state on our itinerary was Michigan, which is a real baptism by fire for a first road trip. The weather was unpredictable, the pavement was held together by prayers, and the mass of round-abouts, forested back-ways, and brief stretches of road that force you to either merge onto the highway or get right back off at the same exit you were just at was panic inducing for someone who wasn’t too comfortable driving that whale of a vehicle.
Coupled with that was the juggling act we were doing to get everything done; we still had to do “Faces of America”, after all. That took up the majority of our time, and if we weren’t out filming for “Faces”, we were visiting locations for “Creepy America”.
We visited all the places we had on our itinerary: the singing sands of Bete Grise, Paulding and its ghost light, the woods of the lower peninsula where the “Dogman” lurked. In every case, though, something refused to happen. We were left with hours of footage of just nothing. Of course, we had scenes of Zoey narrating at each location, dramatically retelling each legend to the audience. But there was no proof of anything actually happening. After the whole “Worlds of Wonder” incident, it was a huge letdown.
We has several arguments about it. There was enough footage to edit into a whole episode and I wanted to bundle it up and post it, get the ball rolling on the show already. Zoey kept insisting otherwise; it was missing something she couldn’t explain. “It was flat” was the explanation I was often given.
Eventually, we reached a compromise: we would wait two more weeks for something episode-worthy to happen. If nothing did, we would head out and use the footage we had. Zoey didn’t like it, but she agreed we couldn’t wait forever.
I was staring into space, so it took me a second to realize that we were pulling off the highway.
I looked around at the signs as Zoey slowed the vehicle onto the off ramp. “Three Rivers? This isn’t on our itinerary.”
“We need to go to Walmart” she stated.
I frowned. “Why? We’re over budget as it is.”
“We’re out of coffee filters and duct tape, and I need a power strip so that you stop unplugging all my cameras just to charge your phone.” The words were civil enough, but there was a harsh undercurrent to her tone, waiting to pounce on me if I tried to argue with her.
I went back to staring out the window. The silence filled the vehicle as Zoey turned into the parking lot and carefully backed it up into two large spaces.
“Is there anything you need?” she asked as she turned the engine off.
I shrugged. “Oh I’m sure I could think of something. But I’ll wait until our bank account stops hemorrhaging money.”
She narrowed her eyes at me. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“It means we’re over budget and you’re still spending.”
“Do you want our lives to be a living hell? Because that’s what this R.V. will turn into if we can’t get coffee, I promise you.”
“I have no problem with that. I have a problem with you spending almost twenty five bucks on hair dye when you were supposed to be buying food.”
“I was out.”
“Yes, and the Got2B Color Unlimited Aqua Collection plays such a vital role in our lives.”
Zoey shoved one of the cameras into my arms. “Tell you what, why don’t you go film those creepy woods behind the Walmart while I go shopping? We could use them for atmosphere or something.” Her words had that fake sweetness people use when they’re about two seconds away from murder.
I looked over to the collection of dead trees. She was lying, of course. Six days spent looking for the Dogman had given us all the spooky forest shots we would ever need for Creepy America filler. All she really wanted was an excuse to get rid of me for an hour. But I’d also be lying if I said that I wasn’t craving the alone time as well.
I took the camera and opened the R.V. door. “Sounds like a great idea.”
As we walked across the parking lot to our destinations, Zoey and I shot each other some death glares until we were too far away to continue. Once I was alone, traversing around the building, I started muttering to myself.
“Yeah, this was a great idea, Liam. Road trip across America, what could be better? Five months of work for frustration and footage of trees.”
My rant was interrupted by noticing that my footsteps were no longer making the hard sound of shoe on pavement. Realizing I was now in the woods, I booted up the camera and started to record.
The woods were sick and dying, no doubt because of the Walmart nearby. The trees were little more than tall, dark sticks with bare branches stretching out at sharp angles. Under my feet, the yellow grass gave soft crunches with every step. Here and there were a few bushes and shrubs, but they too were husks, piles of brittle twigs that snapped into dry pieces if you did so much as brush up against them.
Everything was unnaturally quiet. There were no animals here to give the wood its normal cheery soundtrack, not even birds. All that was here was dead plants and silence.
My previous anger dried up. I walked along, pointing the camera this way and that, less to get any good shots and more to preserve the farce of the whole excursion. Even so, I couldn’t help feeling… uncomfortable.
Like something was watching me.
There was a snapping sound behind me, and I whirled around to face it. There, for just a split second, was a black shape, right in my peripherals. I moved to track it but once I did, it was gone. Nothing but the dead trees and I in the forest.
I walked around a bit more, sweeping the camera this way and that, until I heard another snapping sound. The black shape again, moving further into the forest, visible for two seconds before disappearing again. I ran after it. “Hey! Wait…”
I broke through a line of trees and arrived at a clearing. My eyes widen looking at what it contained.
I needed to show this to Zoey.
She was back at the R.V., plugging the cameras into a power strip.
“Well, that was fast” she said.
I gestured over to the woods. “I found something.”
Her expression changed from disappointed to intrigued. Without any more questions, she grabbed a camera and followed me.
“Man, this place is creepy.”
We were at the forest now. Both of us had the cameras out and recording, and I was taking it a lot more seriously this time around, holding it still to my shoulder as we walked through.
“Glad to know that wasn’t just me” I told her.
She nodded. “This place feels… I don’t know, sour? That’s the only way I can think to describe it.”
I thought it over. “No, that’s actually pretty good. ‘Sour’ sums it up perfectly.”
We pushed past the group of trees that preceded the clearing. There, in the center of the woods, was a huge pit filled with garbage. All kinds, ranging from filled trash bags to loose papers, broken plastic toys to candy wrappers. It was clear that this dump had been here for a while; looking closer at some of the items, you could see that age had drained the color from them, giving the pit the palette of a bleached rainbow. From end to end, the thing had to be at least thirty feet long.
Zoey stared at it for a second. “You took me out here to show me an illegal dump?”
“See, I thought that at first too, but look closer” I picked up a stick and poked it into the pit. “You see that?”
She knelt towards the edge. “Ramiro Hermandez, Michigan… is that a driver’s license?”
“That’s not all.” I poked a bit of shiny red and it gave a hollow metallic thump. “I think that’s the back end of a car.”
Zoey looked around for a bit, then picked up a stick for herself. We started to fish around in the pit, turning things over and examining them.
I saw a group of what looked like loops. Curious, I walked around the edge to get closer and saw that they were bags: a purse and two backpacks. I carefully hooked the stick under the handle and pulled them out. They felt heavier than they should be.
“Zoey,” I called out. “These ones have things in them. We should take them back, go through the stuff inside.” I didn’t hear her respond, so I kept talking. “I mean, I don’t know about you, but I’m curious. Most of this stuff looks fine. Why would people throw this out?”
I looked over to her. She was holding up a long green cloth, a dress of some kind, at the end of her stick. There was a dark reddish-brown stain in its center.
“Perhaps because its evidence” she whispered.
The person who answered the phone was very annoyed. She informed me in very blunt words that this sort of call was not what 911 was for; any calls that were not emergencies should have been placed to the local police number. Nevertheless, she told me that she was going to report it. After being on hold for a minute or so, she said that there would be an officer at the scene in about five minutes, and to stay where we were until he came.
“And the next time you’re just reporting something, don’t dial emergency numbers” she told me right before she hung up.
I felt a little embarrassed, so I wanted to make sure that I had evidence of this being suspicious trash, instead of just normal trash. We took out the dress, the driver’s license (which was hard to get; we had to take two sticks and use them like improvised tongs), and a jacket that had some long tears across the arms, and laid them in front of the pit. Then we waited for the police.
It took them almost fifteen minutes, so we spent the time talking, theorizing, and pointing out more strange objects inside. We didn’t mind; we hadn’t gotten along this well in weeks.
Finally, two officers in blue uniforms appeared deeper in the trees and we called over to them to get their attention. At first, they were less than impressed with what they were seeing, but after showing them the collection of torn up clothing we had fished out, as well as pointing out some of the other more suspect looking pieces of garbage, they seemed to straighten up and start conducting themselves more professionally.
The first officer walked away, mumbling some stuff into his radio, while the second questioned us and wrote down notes with our answers. While we were talking, more and more people began to show up. Guys in white vans and full-body coverings, plain clothes detectives, even more street officers. By the time we were finished with our story, the whole place was transformed with yellow police tape and flood lights.
As soon as the officer was finished asking questions, one of the white suited CSI guys came up to the two of us, holding the green dress and torn jacket in two plastic baggies.
“You two touched these?” he asked.
“Yeah, but only with sticks” I said. He nodded and started to write something on the bags with black sharpie, walking away as he did so.
“Hey, do you need these?” I called out, gesturing to the three bags I had fished out and were now laying by my feet. He gave a wave of some kind that I couldn’t translate and dissolved back into the crowd.
“Guess we’re not needed here anymore” Zoey noted.
“Yeah.” I turned to the bags at my feet. “You wanna take these back to the R.V. and go through them?”
She nodded. “I guess you’re thinking the same thing I’m thinking.”
“This looks like the beginning of an episode.”
Zoey picked up the purse and started to head back. I took the two backpacks and held them away from me, trying to keep my grip on them with as little contact as possible.
“We should buy some gloves from the Walmart. And Lysol wipes” I said.
Zoey smirked. “Guess the budget’s not so sacred after all, huh?”
I bit my tongue and kept quiet.
After stopping in the store, buying the gloves and wipes, and getting back, Zoey started setting up cameras. One pointed at me, one pointed at her, and one placed far enough away to record both of us seated at the little booth in the R.V. I sat on one side and put on the gloves.
“Do you want to open them up and talk about them or do you want me to?” Zoey asked.
“You, definitely. You are a lot better at the whole narration thing.”
“Alright then.” Zoey sat down on the other end. She turned to face her camera. “Creepy America footage… possibly. Found stuff in pit, part one.”
She put on a set of gloves, took a few seconds to compose herself, and then turned to face her camera again. “Alright… everybody. Welcome back to Creepy America. We’re here in Michigan, at a Walmart, and we’ve found something strange. It’s a pit, filled with all kinds of trash, but some of it’s… suspicious, to say the least. We found a driver’s license, what we think could be a car, and a dress with potentially some blood on it. We called police and they’re investigating the scene, but we took back some of the unimportant stuff to go through with you guys. With their permission, of course.” She turned to me. “That was permission… right?”
The silence turned awkward.
“Well,” she said, “if we’re not allowed to show this, we just won’t post it. So if you’re seeing this, it must be okay.”
She grabbed the first backpack, a nice black leather messenger bag crusted with light brown dirt, and flipped the front flap open. There was a soft “crack” as the material shifted in a way it hadn’t been shifted for a long time. “So first off, there was this. I can definitely feel something inside. And see. Hold on…”
She reached inside and pulled out a large, black rectangle.
“Is that a laptop?” I asked.
“Yeah.” She flipped it open and hit the power button. Nothing happened. “It’s either dead or broken.”
I stared at it. “We should give that to the police.”
The awkward silence returned.
Zoey carefully placed the computer on the floor and returned to the bag. “There’s something else in here too.” She withdrew a large bundle of papers, flipping through them. “It’s a printed manuscript of some kind. ‘Intellectual Property: the creations of Apex Software will be the intellectual property of Irls…Iriz...’ can’t read that part… ‘while under the designated contracted time.’ There’s a note here, too, in red pencil. ‘Remove, both parties agree’”
“Guess it must have belonged to a lawyer” I noted.
“Well, he was either an OCD nutcase or someone else had his bag after he did.” Zoey took her hand out of the bag again, holding bunches of cheap ballpoint pens, in all different styles, colors, and degrees of brokeness. After holding them out to her camera for a second, she put them and the legal contract away.
Next she picked up the purse. It was a large pleather object colored in a light pastel blue, also crusted over with dirt and mud. She turned it on its side and removed a large bundle of plastic bags, then reached into a side pocket and took out a handful of metal coins, dumping them on the table. I looked over them. Most of them were American, nickels and pennies and whatnot, but I saw a few Canadian coins and one or two things I could only assume to be Pesos.
Zoey was staring into the open bag. “Alright, so I’m not going to take this out, because it’s super gross, but at the bottom of this is a whole lot of cigarette butts and ashes.” She turned to me. “Did this belong to a homeless lady or something?”
I shook my head. “I don’t think so. The lawyer bag had all those broken pens. Seems like someone took these bags and used them to collect trash.”
“Yuck.” She put the purse off to the side and picked up the last bag: a small child’s backpack colored in red and black. After a few moments of struggling, she managed to unzip it and peered inside. “So it looks like there’s the normal stuff in here…” she reached in and pulled out a handful of broken pencils and crayons, showing it the the camera, “...but there’s also another bundle of papers.”
The sound of rustling filled the air as one by one the papers were placed on the table. “Math homework, math homework, english homework…” she held one up to the light. “...this looks like a crayon drawing of a dinosaur in a tiara and a tutu. Very nice, I approve.” She withdrew one last piece, and stopped.
Unlike every other paper, which was wrinkled, dirty, and torn in a few places, this bundle was clean and crisp. Neatly preserved. They were colored yellow and smaller; the jagged edges seemed to suggest they were ripped out a notebook.
“There’s a long message on here.” Zoey stopped for a moment, cleared her throat, and began reading.
“Long ago, when man had not yet fallen to the seductions of civilizations, they knew things that they have since forgotten about. They knew that the spirits were everywhere, in the rocks and the trees and the streams and in the dirt itself. How arrogant the modern mind has grown, to think that humanity is alone in its possession of the soul, that these bundles of flesh and physics were somehow set apart from every other atom in the universe. Is it not more likely that man, rather than being a one-in-a-million oddity, are simply kindred spirits with all they survey? That the soul is universal, and not unique?
Ah, but they had to forget it, didn’t they? For when they became cruel, and began to shape the world to their whim, it was much easier to lie to themselves, to say that they weren’t torturing metal, imprisoning trees, and killing the very earth itself. Easier a lie than live with the guilt of their tyranny. And as their actions became worse, when sand was burned to create glass and the very blood of the earth was used to fuel their abominations, they believed it more and more.
I write this to you, the thing in the pit, not as an excuse for my kind, but as an explanation. I have seen you, wandering when you think no one else is there, collecting the casualties. I have seen your confusion at their chaos, trying to understand the reason for such suffering. Here is why they do so: they have grown arrogant and blind and no longer see the pain they cause. This is why you see so much disfigurement. This is why you see so many orphans. This is why they throw things away like refuse; they believe it is.
So go forth, thing in the pit. Know that, in a world full of torment, you provide comfort for the downtrodden. Your mission is holy. Your cause is just. Do not fear them: the bullets of the wicked will never harm you. And should you feel remorse, or doubt, or begin to falter, remember their sins. They torture because they believe they are special. Do not reaffirm that belief.”
A deep quiet filled the vehicle. Neither of us spoke.
“Well…” Zoey said, breaking the spell, “that was disturbing. Good call on bringing this stuff back to go through. Better than that stupid Dogman, that’s for sure.”
Zoey and I put everything back and cleaned the table. The bags with their contents were placed by the R.V. door; we weren’t sure if the police would want the other items we found, but we figured we should at least give them the chance to say so.
By the time we had finished doing all that, it was almost ten at night. We both decided it was too late to get back on the road, so that meant that we were going to crash in the parking lot for the night. Perks of having an R.V.
Unfortunately, we were parked right under a light, and I was having trouble ignoring the glare when combined with the stiffness of the couch. The R.V. only came with one mattress, which was wide but not quite wide enough (something I was really wishing we had realized when we bought the thing), and we both decided it would be too weird sleeping that close to each other. That meant trading off the couch every other week. It was uncomfortable, but bearable. Usually. But apparently the couch and the streetlight were too much strain for my body to deal with at once and I was unable to drift off to sleep.
I tossed and turned, then sighed. Zoey was in the bedroom, snoring away happily. I got up, carefully stepped around in order not to make too much noise, located the keys on the table, slipped into the driver’s seat and turned the engine on. Then I waited to see if Zoey would wake up.
Uninterrupted snoring. Success.
I slowly drove the vehicle a few spaces further up, parking it out of the immediate glare of lights.
I shut the engine off and sat back, pleased with myself.
There was movement over by the woods.
I jolted up and stared, trying to find the shape that startled me.
I shook my head and chalked it up to my lack of sleep. Then I flopped back on the couch and passed out.
“Wake up Liam!”
I slowly opened my eyes, struggling with every centimeter. Above my head was Zoey, fully dressed and pissed off.
“Did you move the R.V. last night?”
“Umm…” I thought for a second. “Yeah, why?”
“Did you leave the headlights on?”
I sat up and looked at her. “No.”
That answer only seemed to make her angrier. “Then did you leave something else on? The inside lights, maybe?”
“No, I didn’t. Why are you asking?” I got up and started rummaging through my bag to replace the pajamas I was currently in.
She crossed her arms. “Because our battery is dead, that’s why.”
“What?” I grabbed the keys and sat in the driver’s seat, inserting them and turning. The R.V. refused to do anything, no choking, no failing to catch. Just turned key and no response.
Zoey looked at me expectantly.
“Well…” I said. “Definitely looks like a dead battery.”
“What did you do?” she demanded.
“Me? I didn’t do anything! Why do you think it was me?”
“Because you were the one who moved the car last night!”
“Yeah, but I didn’t leave anything on. What about you? Was it something you did?”
“Don’t try to pin this on me!” she stormed to the back of the vehicle. I followed, but stopped when I noticed one of the cameras had its little red LED lit up.
“Are you… recording this?” I asked.
“Huh?” She turned around, saw the camera, and her demeanor softened just a tiny bit. “No! At least, not on purpose. I saw what happened to the Walmart, and I wanted to film it. I tried moving the R.V. closer to get a better shot, and that’s when I had to wake you up.”
I picked up the camera and brought it to the front. Through the windshield I could see a small crowd gathered around the outside of the building, with a few cop cars parked nearby. There was some kind of black mass on the bricks. I pointed the camera at the mass and zoomed in to get a better view of it.
It was a message written in big, bold letters: GIVE THEM BACK.
“Is there any sooner you could get out here?” I heard Zoey ask behind me, “No, I understand. Alright, fine. Thank you.” She put her phone away and glared at me. “Got a mechanic to come out, but he’s not going to be here until almost eight. Looks like we’re stuck here for another night. So thanks a lot.”
“I didn’t do it!” I protested.
She ignored me and went over to the small coffee machine and pressed a few buttons. She waited for a few seconds and then emitted a loud groan. “Of course, no power. This is going to be one long fucking day.”
Zoey was right. It was one long fucking day.
We spent much of it as far away from each other as possible. When Zoey was there, I left. When I came back, Zoey left. We seemed to have come to some unspoken truce to stay away from each other, lest more fighting erupt.
I spent a good deal of time walking around the store, but when that got boring, I took to hanging around the police officers. After explaining that I had found the pit in the woods, they tolerated my presence as best they could.
At one point, I brought them the bags we had. “There’s a laptop in the messenger bag, and there’s some papers in the kid’s bag.” The cop nodded and took them both.
“What about the purse?” the other one asked.
“Umm… plastic bags, coins, and cigarette butts.”
“Yech. We don’t want that one.”
I dropped it back to my side. “So what should I do with it?”
“Throw it away, obviously.”
I looked around for a bit, then started to head over to the garbage bin by the front of the store.
“Uh-uh” he said. I looked over to the cop. “We’re not letting this place collect any trash until we’ve investigated this illegal dumping complaint. In fact…” he turned to his partner, “wasn’t that supposed to be removed? Or at least taped off?” The other one nodded and made his way into the store.
“So, what do I do with this then?” I asked, holding the purse up.
“Throw it away somewhere else. Shit kid, do I have to do all your thinking?”
I decided that was as good a time to leave as any. The purse ended up back in the R.V.
The mechanic came by around 8:30, which did little to lighten Zoey’s mood. When he got to the hood and popped it open, there was an instant look of recognition on his face.
“Well there’s your problem.” he said, pointing at the battery and chuckling a bit. “The cable’s aren’t even connected to it!” He messed around with the inside, then called out “Okay, try it now!”
Zoey turned the key and it started right back up.
“What? How did that happen?” I asked.
He raised an eyebrow at me. “You didn’t open this thing up and mess around in there?”
“Well, maybe they got shaken loose or something.” He didn’t sound too confident in his theory, though.
He was a nice enough guy and told us he wasn’t going to charge us since he didn’t actually fix anything, which was something I thanked him for over and over. But once again, it was too late to depart to our next destination, so another Walmart crash it was.
I crawled into my couch and covered myself with a blanket. I could feel myself drifting off when
I heard a noise outside.
I sat up and listened. It was a strange, soft thumping, a kind of “shump, shump, shump” sound. It reminded me of someone whacking a beanbag chair against a wall. We were in a Walmart parking lot, so who knows? Maybe that’s exactly what it was.
I laid back down and tried to fall asleep.
“Shump, shump, shump”
There was the sound again, but this time it sounded much closer. My eyes shot open and I held my breath, straining my ears to hear it again.
I was about ready to dismiss it again when the R.V. gave a moaning creak. I felt the entire front half of the vehicle lift in the air, making things slide off of surfaces and fall. Suddenly, the whole thing dropped with a resounding “CRASH!” Things flew everywhere, the suspension screamed in pain. I fell off the couch and rolled backwards, feeling bruises form in the process.
Zoey came staggering out of the bedroom, dressed in pajamas and eyes wide with shock. “What the hell is…?” Before she could finish, the R.V. lifted again, this time dropping much faster with a heavier “CRASH”. The R.V. bounced a couple of times, bobbing up and down. I could hear things breaking in the cabinets. Zoey fell backwards.
I scrambled over to her. “Are you hurt?”
She shook her head. “No, I’m fine.”
She nodded, fear plastered on her face. I moved to the front of the R.V., jammed the keys into the ignition, and flipped the headlights on, hoping to illuminate our attacker. Instead, the lights just revealed a message written in an oozing, tar-like black substance smeared onto our windshield:
GIVE THEM BACK
The police showed up much faster this time around: less than two minutes. I’m sure part of that had to do with somebody using the emergency line to report an actual emergency, but I also think that they were some cops nearby waiting. Hard to imagine them not, given all the weirdness that kept happening over there.
Despite the faster response, though, it felt like an eternity. The seconds were agonizing, spent cowering inside the vehicle, waiting for the assault to continue.
But it didn’t.
The only thing that came was a knock at the door announcing the arrival of the officers. We screamed at it regardless.
After calming us down, they took a look at the scene. Once they had concluded that whoever had done this was gone, they offered to stay in the parking lot with us until morning to make sure he didn’t come back. We happily agreed.
With the cop car right outside the window, we drifted apart and tried to get back to our nighttime routine. I laid back down on the couch, staring up at the ceiling. My eyes weren’t even trying to close.
I stayed like this for about fifteen minutes until I heard the door to Zoey’s bedroom open.
“Liam?” she asked.
“Yeah?” I replied.
“I don’t think I can fall asleep.”
“Same here.” I sat up.
A few seconds passed of us just staring at each other in silence.
“Coffee?” I asked.
She smiled. “Sounds good.”
I started up the little machine while Zoey picked up the various odds and ends that had been knocked over in the attack. Once we had a few moments of sitting in the little booth and sipping the hot liquid, we booted up one of the cameras and described what had happened, showing the message in black on our windshield and the cop car outside. We sat back down and, camera still rolling, discussed the events with each other.
“Those notes, that weird rant about humans destroying the earth or something, that’s what this is all about, right?” Zoey said, holding the white mug in her hands.
I nodded. “It certainly seems like.”
She shuddered. “What the hell was that thing talking about, anyway?”
“Animism, I think.”
“Animism” I took another long sip before continuing. “It’s how ancient people viewed the world. Like, caveman ancient. They thought that everything was alive, that all the mountains and trees and clouds had minds of their own, and that they had to be respected or else they’d be wrathful.”
“I certainly hope that’s not the case” Zoey said, looking around the R.V. “Can you imagine how pissed they’d all be today?”
We both fell silent.
“Zoey,” I stopped for a moment, trying to make sure the words came out right, “I’m sorry for getting angry with you earlier. I know I can get… anal, about a lot of stuff, and I want to appologize that it came out that way.”
She sighed. “It’s alright. I know you’re just worried about the money and everything, and I’m sure I’m not always the easiest person to live with. Besides, you did kind of have a point.”
“So we’re cool?”
She rolled her eyes. “Of course we’re cool. It’s going to take a lot more than you acting dumb once in a while to screw things up between us. Otherwise we’d have stopped being friends a long time ago.”
I smiled, then looked at my empty coffee cup. “I need to pee.” I got up and moved over to our small bathroom, then cursed when I saw the glimmer of water still inside the toilet bowl.
“What is it?” Zoey called after me.
“The water tank is full.”
She groaned. “How? We just emptied that thing.”
“Guess that’s what happens when you camp out at a parking lot too long.” I looked outside, towards the lights of the 24-hour Walmart. “I guess…” I swallowed. “I guess I’ll have to use the store bathroom.”
Zoey’s eyes went wide. “You’re not going out there by yourself, are you?”
“No, I’ll ask one of the officers to walk me over there.”
“And leave me alone?”
I shrugged. “I guess you can come along if you want.”
She stared at me for a second, then said, “Alright, just let me get my jacket.”
As she left to go to her room, I stood up and opened the door to the R.V., not yet stepping outside. I got my phone out and tapped the flashlight on it, letting the white light cut into the darkness of the night,
What I saw stopped me cold.
The police car outside the R.V. was empty, door hanging wide open and abandoned. Neither officer was anywhere in sight. And written on the ground, in more of that cursed tar, was another message:
THEN I’LL JUST TAKE THEM BACK BY FORCE
I turned the light to illuminate in front of the R.V., and there was a… thing. I can’t call it a man, or a robot, the only word that fits it is ‘thing’. It was tall, almost six feet, and large, built like a football player or a bodybuilder. But instead of flesh and blood, it was made out of garbage. Shiny black trash bags covered its surface like skin, the limbs looking as thick and solid as tree trunks. Bungee cables and tattered ropes criss-crossed the entirety of its body, further giving the arms and legs their bulging definition. Over its head was a white shopping bag, draped like some kind of hood, and where the face should be there was only a thick, oozing black sludge, slowly dripping down onto its chest.
It stood about ten feet away, not moving. Even with the lack of body language, I could feel the murderous rage roll off of it like a tidal wave.
Panic began to set in. Whatever this thing was, it was here, and there were no police, no anything to stop it. It wanted something from us, and it was pretty obvious what it was.
I crouched down a bit and curled my hands around the handle of the blue purse.
It’s face followed my movements, like a hawk watching a mouse.
But why the hostility? It was just trash. But according to the paper…
“Orphans” I whispered to the thing. “That’s what the notes called it. That’s how you see them, isn’t it?”
It didn’t move.
Footsteps sounded behind me. Zoey stepped out, in pajamas and a hoodie, camera in hand. When she saw me staring, she pointed the camera over to where my flashlight was pointed and gasped.
“Liam…” she said.
“Yeah.” I could only croak back.
The thing took a few slow steps towards us. I recognized the sound, the “schump, shump, shump” of the filled bags hitting the pavement.
“We’re going to run for the forest.” I told her. “We need to make it back to that pit of trash. So when I say run, we run as fast as we can, okay? No looking back.”
She nodded, her face pale.
The thing continued to get closer. It couldn’t be more than ten feet away now.
“Run” I whispered.
We took off. I heard the thing accelerate to match our speed, the schumps now turning into loud PLOKs as the strange creature’s legs slapped the ground. The pavement was flat and there were no cars, so we managed to gain ground on it, hearing the footsteps getting softer. But once we hit the forest, fatigue set in. My lungs burned, my feet got harder and harder to lift off the ground, making me trip over all kinds of roots and branches. The uneven surface forced me to slow my pace as I weaved past the trees. Zoey was slowing down, too; she was just right behind me, and behind both of us, getting louder and louder with each second were the creature’s footsteps, literally shaking the ground as he ran.
I pushed through the pain and managed to get back into the clearing. I swung my phone around to shine light into the pit. Sure enough, there were the items previously removed. The green dress. The jacket. The backpacks. But now they were encased in plastic bags with red labels reading ‘EVIDENCE’. And to confirm my worst suspicions, there in the light I saw the blue cap of a police officer, now stained dark with still fresh blood.
It took them back. With force. I could only assume that it took its time with us to make us suffer, as payback for leading everyone else to this pit.
I heard Zoey cry out and I turned around. From the dim light of the surrounding buildings, I could see her, sprawled onto the ground, arms raised in front of her face in a panicked attempt to defend herself. Above her was the thing, grabbing onto her shirt with one arm and other reeled back, ready to deliver what had to be a fatal blow from such a massive creature. I could read the viciousness in that pose as clearly as I could see the fear on Zoey’s face.
“HEY!” I yelled at it.
It paused, then turned its head to face me.
I held up the blue purse in front of my face. Underneath, I dangeled a cheap plastic lighter. The flame was lit and flickering. “Let. Her. Go.” I growled “or I swear, I will light this thing on fire in front of all the others. Those orphans can watch one of their own burn.”
The creature stared at me, then at Zoey, then back to me. Finally, I saw him turn to look at the pit behind me, and a strange weariness fell into his shoulders. He dropped Zoey, causing her to fall onto the ground with a small “thud”. Then he walked up to me, no more than three feet away.
“Good.” I let the lighter flame go out, but I still hovered it near the bag, wary of movements. “I assume that since you did that, you can understand me.”
It gave a long, slow nod.
“Then let me make a deal with you. Let us go, let us leave here and never come back, and I’ll give you the bag.”
The creature looked at me, then at the bag, then back to me.
“Oh no,” I said, “you have to promise me first. Promise me that you’ll leave us alone, in front of the others.”
It looked over to the pit again, then turned back to me and gave me another nod.
“Alright.” I held the bag out in front of me, shaking as I did so. It snatched it away and opened it up, staring into it for a long time. Satisfied, it crouched down and gingerly placed it back into the pit, doing with such a careful steadiness it almost looked like it was placing a child back in a crib. Then, standing up, it lowered itself inside. It moved towards the center, and, as it did so, the thing slowly came apart. Keeping my flashlight over it, I saw it leave pieces of itself behind, resting on the surface, but it did so an inch with each step, giving it less the appearance of coming undone and more like a man wading into the ocean, the water rising further and further upwards as he went deeper. Once it reached the center, only it’s head was still upright, and then the bag deflated, slowly floating back down as if it was only ever just a simple shopping bag.
As it did so, Zoey walked up to me, holding the camera to record the strange scene. Once it was over, she turned to me and nodded.
Without a word, we walked back to the parking lot.
Exhausted, we both passed out when we got back to the R.V. When we woke up, it was close to noon. The empty police car was gone, and the parking lot was full of its usual clientele. Life continued as it always had at the Walmart.
We bought some cleaning supplies from the store and spent a couple of hours trying to remove the sticky tar from the windshield. It was stubborn, but eventually it was all gone. We both expected something to happen, for an officer or a detective or even a federal agent of some kind to stop by, question us and maybe even arrest us. But none did.
I tuned our radio to the local news, and even spent some time surfing the web trying to find someone talking about what had happened. Frustrated, I even dialed the local police number.
“Hello, Three Rivers Police?” a familiar voice answered.
“Um, hi.” I said.
“Oh, glad to see someone finally figured out which numbers to use when.”
“Yeah, well…” I stumbled over my words for a second. “I’m just trying to find out what happened to that pit we reported earlier.”
“Don’t worry sir, we’ve charged the owners with illegal dumping. They’ll be paying the bill when we clean it up.”
“But what about the suspicious items?”
“Yeah, you had them tested.”
“Oh, those. Came back clean. Look, sir, if you don’t have anything to report…”
“And.. the officers, last night? Did they come back? Where are they right now? Hello?
The phone gave me a dial tone. I sighed and put it away.
Well, I thought to myself, I guess that’s that. To the rest of the outside world, nothing happened last night.
That, more than anything else, made me uneasy.
We killed a few more hours by recording an outro to the events that happened. Zoey sat in front of the camera, dramatically recounting all the little pieces of trash and trinkets we encounter in our day-to-day lives.
“So the next time you throw away a broken pen, or toss a candy wrapper out your car window, just remember what you saw here, and be careful. After all, who knows what happens to the things we leave behind?”
I still internally cringe whenever I think about that line. Our scripted writing came a long way since the beginning of the show, no doubt about that.
Once that was finished, we were ready to finally start the R.V. up and head out. But we spent a few moments just sitting in the seats, not saying anything.
“We need to ignore the research topics” Zoey declared, breaking the silence.
I stared at her, confused.
“Well…” she continued, “think about it. We spent all that time, tracking down all those urban legends, and we don’t get anything. But here, behind the Walmart, of all places, we find something. Something it looks like no one else saw. And correct me if I’m wrong, but the ‘Worlds of Wonder’ painting was the exact same way.”
I shook my head. “No, you’re right. I couldn’t find anything on those paintings.”
She nodded. “And if that’s true, we’re not going to find the spooky stuff by following where everyone else has gone. We need to beat our own path. That’s where the real things are.”
There were a few more moments of silence. “How much do you think we can find?” I asked.
“We found those by accident. If we look for them, I’m sure we’ll find more than we know what to do with” she said with an excited grin.
How prophetic she could be sometimes.