October, late 2000s. Catawissa, Pennsylvania.
Soundtrack: Les Claypool – What Would Sir George Martin Do?
In the Frozen North, there’s only a couple things you can do after nightfall, and most of them are drugs. The truly daring go to Wal-Mart. NEPA is nothing but broken trains and trees, and when the seasons change and fall comes a-calling, you get that Ned Stark entropy reminder barraging you from every angle. The big freeze is almost here, and everything is about to die.
But me and the band, back in those bad old days, we were chasing down the thanatos far and beyond the Suscon Screamer mythos. The spooky season was upon us, and we were going to spend it unravelling the mysteries of the great beyond. We were going on our very own ghost adventures. Bustin’ made us feel good. We pored over the Weird Pennsylvania coffee table books at Barnes and Noble and identified some likely looking hauntings to either debunk or conclusively prove life after death.
Gather round, little ghouls, and let me tell you the true and terrible tale of Babyghost Hill.
Deep in demon-haunted Catawissa, there’s a gravity hill full of ghosts. Let me explain. If you follow the road down Numidia drive, you’ll come to a gully trapped between two hills. There used to be train tracks down there, and you can still see the rails blanketed under the tarmac. Once upon a time, a bus full of little elementary school kids broke down on the first hill, or maybe the second hill, it wouldn’t matter. The bus rolled down to the lowest point, as wheeled vehicles with government bankrolled brakes are wont to do, and the kids never got a chance to evacuate before the train came. More than thirty children died in that collision, breaking the bus clean in half like a Kit Kat.
The tracks were decommissioned for obvious reasons, in keeping with the demands of thirty grieving families. Numidia Drive hadn’t been a gravity hill before, but now, suddenly, it was. The legends said that the ghosts of all those dead kids still haunt the bottom of that gully, and if you stop your car on the paved-over railroad tracks late at night and shut off all the lights, the spirits will push you and your whole damn car all the way up the hill, to keep you from meeting the same fate as they did.
There were three of us that day, your humble narrator and two colleagues, T and R to protect the innocent and safeguard against any potential supernatural repercussions a la Feardotcom or The Ring. This sheath of anonymity can’t save us from the algorithms, but it might be enough to keep the vengeful dead at bay.
T was a broad fellow with a nose ring and a beard any Tolkienian dwarf would envy. He was the designated pilot of our observation vessel, a powerful green four-door chariot called Gram’s Car.
R was stout, with cokebottle glasses and the kind of 5 o’clock shadow that tends to shows up before noon. He read tarot, and could tell you about the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead, if you asked.
We three piled into Gram’s Car and rode the hour out to Catawissa, which comes from a corruption of the Algonquin word Gattawisi, meaning “Growing fat”. I think we were debating the relevance of the word “assertive” in the song “What Would Sir George Martin Do?” I remembered there were no streetlamps on that desolate stretch of road, and we had to break out my girlfriend’s giant hazard flashlight to make sure had parked over where the tracks had been. This was before the ubiquity of smartphones, so we kept this monstrosity in the trunk of Gram’s Car for emergencies. It was the size of a duffel bag, beige as hell, made of solid plastic with a floodlight in the front and flashing orange emergency lights built into the sides. I think her father worked some sort of construction, or maybe in a mine.
“All right, wait, dude,” T said. “Maybe we shouldn’t turn off the car.”
“Why?” I asked.
“‘cuz Gram’ll be pissed if a bunch of ghosts jack up her car!”
“Gram won’t know.”
“Until she looks in the mirror,” R said. “And sees thirty pairs of little dead kid eyes staring back at her.”
“Aw naw,” T said. “Gram won’t be able to go in reverse, son, she’ll be pissed. She will be way pissed.”
“She can lean out the window,” I said. “Like in Ace Ventura.”
“Yeah, or, we don’t fuck with a bunch of baby ghosts right now,” T said. “I think we passed a Sheetz like… forty minutes ago. We could go get some ice cream or something, I don’t know. Meatballs.”
“We didn’t come out here for meatballs,” I said.
“Yeah, no shit,” R said. “There’s no meatballs out here. There’s nothing out here, except baby ghosts. Shut off the car.”
“What do you think, R?” I asked. “How we doing with the… uh… veil? This ghost real estate?”
“Prime,” he said. “Tons of ’em, probably.”
“What if another car comes while we’re sitting in the middle of the road with all our lights off like a bunch of damn fools?” T demanded. “Gram would be way more pissed if we got her car haunted, then totaled it.”
“Couldn’t happen,” I explained. “The ghosts will push Gram’s car out of harm’s way. Right up the hill.”
“Dude, what if the other car is also coming from that direction!”
R and I looked at each other. I shrugged.
“Maybe they’ll race,” R said.
“We came all this way,” I said. “Let’s bust ’em. We’re here to bust ’em.”
“Aw, son,” T mumbled again, but killed the engine.
The silence was incredible. The country road silence was compounded by the late October silence and the silence you get from being in an enclosed car. For a moment, nothing happened.
“Myth busted,” I said. “Ghosts are fake. When we die, we cease to be. Owned.”
We used to say “owned” back then. It was a different time.
“It’s got to be in neutral,” R said.
T muttered something and cranked the shifter, and then we all started groaning in alarm as the car rumbled into motion.
“No way dude!” T said. “Naw! The baby ghosts got us!”
“They got our backs,” R said.
“This seems pretty fast,” I said. “Little kids probably can’t run this fast.”
“They fly!” T wailed. “Babyghosts fly, son!”
“It’s not that fast,” R said.
“How many horsepower you think 30 babyghosts translates to?” I asked.
“It’s not that fast! You wanna get out?”
I did. I did wanna get out.
R and I leaped out of Gram’s car and ran alongside it, discernibly uphill enough for it to kill my knees.
“Don’t leave me in Gram’s haunted car!” T yelled. “Aw, naw, son! Naw!”
Maybe babyghosts could have run that fast. I fell back a bit to run alongside them, but I didn’t see anything around the trunk. The car rumbled and roared its way up the hill, then slowed to a very gentle stop at the peak.
“Might be downhill,” R said to me.
“I don’t know, man,” I wheezed. “Running uphill really sucks. That sucked more than it would have on like, level ground.”
“Get in the car!” T yelled. “I’m not tryna sit in here with a bunch of god– damned — baby ghosts!”
We thanked the babyghosts for their assistance and returned to our rightful place in Gram’s car, then tried to start the engine.
It wouldn’t turn over.
“You pissed them off,” T said. “You were back there fartin’ around behind the car and they found out that there’s no bus and now they’re gonna kill us, dude. This is just like when your brother summoned the fire god from the Necronomicon and then your car battery exploded!”
There were shades of similarity, I admit. A few months earlier, my brother brought the Simon Necronomicon to a bonfire we had in the woods by the airport and tried to summon Innani, the god of fire. It didn’t seem to work, but the next day the terminals in my old Volkswagen Jetta caught on fire. We never established conclusively if my little brother was a warlock.
T cranked the engine again and Gram’s car sputtered to life. We all looked at each other and sighed with relief, then we got the hell out of there.
On the ride back to the Frozen North proper, we debated what the data meant. R maintained it could have been an optical illusion. I admitted that it was possible, but I was running 15 miles a week at the time, and it had looked and felt like uphill to me. T insisted there was no such thing as babyghosts, and they absolutely now haunted Gram’s rear view mirror.
We pulled into one of our own familiar haunts, an Exxon on 315 next to the dread Arby’s.
“You talked me into the ice cream,” I said. “Maybe a milkshake. They got one of those milkshake mixers here?”
“Yo,” R said. “Look at this.”
He was standing behind the car, looking down at the rear bumper. He pointed to the caked-on road grime. It took me a moment to see what he meant.
Tiny handprints were all over the bumper, clean little five-finger smudges on the dusty dark green paint.
“No way,” T murmured.
I held my hand out to compare, and it was easily twice the size of those little prints. They did the same, and it wasn’t even close. They didn’t belong to us.
“Does Gram takes this car around kids?” I asked.
“Dude, Gram hasn’t driven this car in like four years. That’s why we smoke in it all the time.”
“Have… you taken this car around kids?”
“I don’t know any kids, son!”
The three of us stood behind the car, staring at the dozens of little hand marks on the bumper and trunk, our own fingers outstretched.
“Babyghost Hill confirmed,” I said.
It wouldn’t be our last paranormal investigation, or our last confirm. Stay tuned for more spine-tingling Coalcracker Goosebumps.