Barry lowered his voice so his mother wouldn’t hear him over the rumble of the station wagon. “The old man turned to the children inside the car. His eyes gleamed with an unnatural shine. When he held up his hand, it was a bloody stump covered with worms.”
“Ew!” Johnny looked like he was going to puke. Considering Johnny’s tendency to get carsick, and the amount of Halloween candy he’d gorged himself on the night before, Barry shouldn’t have continued, but he couldn’t help himself.
“And do you know what he did with that stump?” He leaned as close to his brother as the seatbelt would allow.
“I don’t want to know! I don’t want to know!” Johnny screamed and covered his ears.
Barry’s mother, Rosa, eyed him in the rearview mirror. “No more ghost stories. They scare him too much.”
Barry dug his fingers into the mustard yellow vinyl of his seat. “But Mama—”
“No buts. End of argument.” She pushed a handful of her chestnut hair out of her eyes and returned her gaze to the road.
Barry crossed his arms and stared out the window. The red and gold of autumn laced the maples and birches framing the winding road. The trees parted for a driveway leading to a secluded, white building. A weathered sign read “Shady Pines Retirement.” From what Barry could see between the trees, the sterile building didn’t look like much of a retirement center.
He glanced at his eight-year-old brother playing with his Herman Munster action figure. Barry scuffed the interior of the door with his Keds. He wished he hadn’t forgotten his Archie comic book at home. The road to town was endless. He sighed.
The station wagon jostled them over a few bumps and rounded a curve. Rosa shrieked. An old man stood in the middle of the road. Rosa slammed on the brakes, swerved across the road, and pulled the car over.
The man had vanished . . . like a ghost.
Rosa flung open the car door and rushed outside, nearly tripping over her avocado-green bell bottoms as she did so. Johnny clutched the plastic Herman Munster toy to his chest, his lips quivering and tears filling his dark eyes. Barry unfastened his seatbelt and scooted closer to Johnny.
Barry ruffled his brother’s black hair. “It’s okay.”
A gust of cool wind tossed leaves into the car through the open door, bringing with it the smell of autumn and decaying plants.
Barry craned his neck to see what his mom was doing. She leaned over a mound of foliage where the old man had apparently fallen, helping him to his feet. The blue striped pajamas and a brown sweater the stranger wore were almost as wrinkled as he was. He tottered forward and Rosa caught him by the elbow.
Johnny dropped Herman on the floor next to his plastic soldiers. “The old man in the story, he was wearing weird clothes, remember?”
“That was just a story.” Barry gave his brother a good-natured punch. “Besides, he wasn’t wearing pajamas. . . .”
Rosa’s hair danced wildly in the wind. She said something, but Barry couldn’t hear her over the rustling leaves. He scooted back to his side of the car, leaning as close to the open door as he could.
“Are you hurt? Did I hit you? Are you all right?” Her voice was unusually high and tremulous.
The old man patted his legs and chest as if checking for broken bones. “Think I’m all right.”
“I really am sorry about this. Are you sure you aren’t hurt? Is there anything I can do for you? Do you need a ride somewhere? To the retirement center?”
“That asylum? Ha! I escaped to take a walk on this beautiful day, and I’m not going to let a little mishap stop me.”
Barry and Johnny exchanged glances. Barry didn’t dare say it, but the man from the story had escaped from an insane asylum. He knew the architecture looked too cold and modern to be a retirement center.
Rosa picked a withered leaf from the old man’s sweater. “You mean they have no idea where you are? They must be worried.”
“Oh, they won’t know the difference. They only check on us when it’s time for meds. You know how much they care about us? They . . . they . . .” He paused and scratched his chin. “Oh, bother. I forgot what I was going to say.” He spit into the bushes. Or it looked like he tried to, anyway.
Barry liked to spit. Spitting was way cool. His papa had taught him lots about spitting. When Papa came home from his business trip, Barry was going to show him how far he could spit.
The old man started to shuffle away.
Rosa placed a hand on his shoulder. “Are you sure you don’t need a ride?”
The man hesitated, rubbing his weathered chin.
Barry listened for the reply from the old man. He hoped his mother wasn’t going to drive this kooky stranger anywhere.
“Maybe down the road a bit,” said the man, nodding in the direction they were headed.
Rosa led him to the passenger side of the station wagon and opened the door. He reached out a shaky hand and patted the door frame and then slowly lowered himself into the seat in front of a horrified Johnny.
His voice was rough and gravely. “This car is a real beauty. In mint condition, too. Haven’t seen one of these in years.”
Barry rolled his eyes. Obviously, the old man didn’t get out much. Their car wasn’t any different from anyone else’s. Then again, he probably was senile.
The stranger was still fumbling with his seatbelt as Rosa climbed into the driver’s side and looked back at Barry and Johnny. “Behave,” she mouthed.
A squeak escaped Johnny’s lips.
The old man still couldn’t get his seatbelt to buckle. Rosa helped him.
“Thank you, dear,” he said.
“Call me Rosa.”
“Rosa, what a lovely name. I knew a Rosa once. . . . Lovely name. Did I already say that?”
She nodded toward the backseat as she put the car into drive. “And these are my sons. Barry and Johnny.”
“Oh!” The old man turned as best he could in his seat and squinted at them. He fumbled for his glasses with his left hand and put them on. Both lenses were cracked.
“What would you like us to call you?” Rosa asked.
“Oh, ah . . .” The old man returned the glasses to his pocket with a shaking hand. “What is my name? I’m, uh, I’m . . .”
Johnny’s voice was just barely audible over the hum of the engine and the crunch of tires rolling over gravel. “He wouldn’t tell them his name. Remember?”
Barry stared out the window at the blur of gold and red, pretending he hadn’t heard his brother. The story couldn’t be true. If it was . . . they were all as good as dead.
“Recently, they started calling me Don Juan, of all things. As handsome as I am, I can hardly claim such a title.” He chuckled.
“Don? Like Donald?” Johnny’s eyes widened.
Rosa’s red lips curved into an amused smile in the reflection of her rearview mirror. “No, honey. Not like Daddy’s name. Don is a title, like ‘sir.’” She patted the old man’s arm. “We’ll just call you Mr. Juan, if you don’t mind.”
Barry knew Juan was a Spanish name, but the stranger didn’t look Hispanic; he just looked old. Then again, Barry’s papa was always saying no one thought their family looked like they had Mexican ancestry, either. Appearance wasn’t everything . . . just like with the hitchhiker in the story. The hitchhiker had been a nice, old man, too, gaining their sympathy and trust before . . .
The old man asked, “So you live past the nursing home? I used to live out there some years ago before all those houses were condemned.”
“We live in a new house. My husband and I just bought it a year ago.”
Johnny tugged at Barry’s sleeve. “He knows where we live now.”
Barry rolled his eyes, trying to act brave for his brother’s sake. “He doesn’t have our address.” Still, he felt queasy, and he knew it was from more than the bumps in the road.
“My dear, Rosa, why aren’t you wearing your seatbelt?” Mr. Juan wagged a finger at her. He used his left hand. When the old man had gotten into the car, scratched his chin, fumbled with his seatbelt . . . it had all been with his left hand. The hitchhiker in the story had lost his right hand. . . .
Rosa gave a nervous laugh. Barry looked down. He’d forgotten to buckle his seatbelt. And Johnny, as usual, had unbuckled his, too.
“You go to the trouble of helping me with my seatbelt and you don’t even wear your own.” Mr. Juan looked over his shoulder at Barry and Johnny and shook his head. “They aren’t wearing theirs, either. I insist you pull over right now and buckle your seatbelts. This is a dangerous road. Seatbelts save people’s lives. It’s the law for a reason. Seatbelts would have saved my family’s lives if they’d . . .” He choked up and turned his face away.
Rosa fastened her belt with one hand while she held the steering wheel with the other. Barry helped Johnny, then clicked his own into place.
“My husband always reminds me to use my seatbelt,” Rosa said.
“Good.” There was a fierce edge to Mr. Juan’s voice.
Johnny whimpered, “Now that our seatbelts are on, he’s going to roast us alive and the seatbelts will jam closed and—” His voice rose in agitation. “We won’t be able to get away from the flames of Hell.”
The old man turned his head and squinted at Johnny, who squirmed under his gaze.
Barry shook his head. With an imagination like Johnny’s, it was no wonder he wet the bed at night. Barry promised himself he was going to lay off telling Johnny ghost stories for a while. Still, that didn’t solve their current problem. It seemed the hitchhiker from their dad’s story was sitting in their car.
Well, there was only one way to find out for sure, and he and Johnny would both feel better when they knew that Mr. Juan wasn’t a ghost—or they’d have to figure out what to do if the old man was.
Barry craned his neck, trying to get a good view of the man’s right hand. But Barry’s seatbelt constricted his movements. He hated to do this to Johnny, but there was no other alternative. “Peek around the corner and try to see his hand.”
Johnny hesitated, and it wasn’t until Barry kicked him that he peered into the crack between the seat and side of the car. Johnny shook his head. “His sleeve is covering it up.”
“So where do you want us to drop you off? The community center? The store?” Rosa asked.
“Nope, I don’t want to go into town. I need to go to . . . where was it? Oh, yes, the cemetery. It’s about another mile down the road.”
Johnny’s breath came in rapid, little pants. “He said he needs to go to the cemetery.”
Rosa eyed Johnny in the rearview mirror with her sternest glare. “I didn’t even know there was a cemetery.”
Johnny suddenly burst out, “I don’t want to go! He’ll lure us in and cover us with worms and use our blood to make spaghetti sauce.”
If Johnny had said this under any other circumstance, Barry would have laughed. But as it was, he was afraid this might actually come true.
“What are you talking about?” Mr. Juan asked.
“Johnny, stop it. He’s not a ghost.” Rosa’s bronze cheeks flushed. “I’m sorry, sir. Barry has been telling him ghost stories.”
“Ghost stories?” Mr. Juan’s lips curled into a smile.
Barry cleared his throat. “Are you . . . you’re, um, are you . . . ?”
“The Hitchhiker?” Johnny finished with a squeak.
“The Hitchhiker, eh? You know that one? He’s an old man, a haunted man, half man and half ghost. He was a . . .” He paused and scratched his chin as if he couldn’t remember. Again, he used his left hand.
“A salesman.” Johnny’s voice trembled.
“Yes, that’s right.” Mr. Juan turned toward them. “He was a traveling salesman, selling vacuum cleaners. But he accidentally walked in on a Mafia meeting and they thought he was a spy from a rival group of Sicilians. They tortured him; ripped off his fingernails, nearly drowned him in a vat of spaghetti sauce—did everything they could think of to get him to admit who he worked for. But all he would say was, “Royal Appliance Manufacturing.”
“The mobsters chained him to a post. His left . . .” He lifted his left hand and shook his head. “No, right hand—they put the right hand in an iron shackle and laughed as he tried to free himself. Then they left him for a while. But they didn’t expect he’d chew off his hand to get away.”
Barry had always laughed at this part of the story. It really was too incredible to believe, but the way the old man told the tale, Barry couldn’t help shuddering.
“After the police found him and the hospital discharged him, he might have led a normal life if his family had been at home waiting for him. But the doctor had to break the news to him. They were dead. Died in a car accident. The man went berserk after that.
“He was supposed to be transported to an insane asylum, but something went wrong. The driver of the vehicle was found dead, still in his seat. Covered with worms. There was no trace of the man. Word is, he hitchhikes with his victims, gains their sympathy while he learns vital information about them, their names, where they live . . . that they’re all alone at night. Some say he haunts this very road. The same road where he used to live.”
Rosa gave a nervous laugh.
Mr. Juan had said he’d lived back on this road years ago. His family had died in a car accident. He never did deny being the Hitchhiker when Johnny had asked.
The old man raised his right arm. The dark sweater covered his hand, or what might have been a hand. It quivered and wiggled inside as if there were worms covering a bloody stump.
Barry’s heart pounded so hard he felt like it would burst. Mr. Juan smiled a wicked smile as he slowly pulled back the sweater.
Barry and Johnny both screamed.
Rosa laughed. It was just a hand; wrinkled and arthritic. Barry’s face felt hot. He glanced at Johnny’s pants to make sure he hadn’t peed himself. Fortunately, he hadn’t.
The old man took off his sweater, still chuckling.
Barry shook his head and smiled. “That was a good one.”
Mr. Juan told the story as good as his dad. Maybe even better.
The old man asked, “Have you ever met a ghost before?”
“No,” Barry said. Johnny shook his head.
“Well, how do you know they’re all bad? They can’t all be like the Hitchhiker.”
“That’s probably true,” Rosa said.
“Oh, this is it,” Mr. Juan said, pointing to a leaf-covered driveway on the right.
Rosa pulled in. A closed gate blocked their path.
“Here is good. The gate’s rusty but I’ve gotten it to open a foot or two before.”
“Are you sure?” Rosa asked.
“I wouldn’t miss this date for anything. It’s the anniversary.” A sad smile laced his lips.
Barry wondered if this was the anniversary of Mr. Juan’s death.
Mr. Juan fumbled with his seatbelt. Rosa got out of the car to help him with the door.
He wagged a finger at the boys. “Now don’t forget your seatbelts.”
They nodded and waved.
Rosa slid back into her seat and turned the car around. Johnny pointed to the front seat. “Look.”
The old man had left his brown sweater.
“Oh, dear,” Rosa said. She stopped the car. The man was already gone.
Barry crossed his arms. “See, that’s what always happens in ghost stories.”
“We’ll pick him up on our way back from town and give it to him then.” Rosa started the car down the road again.
Barry shook his head. “He won’t be there when we go back. In stories, spirits never—”
“Honestly, you two are obsessed with ghosts!” she said.
Barry shrugged. “I didn’t say he was a bad ghost. But today is the day when the veil between worlds is the thinnest, right? Dia de los Muertos? That means the dead can—”
“Today is not the Day of the Dead. That’s tomorrow. Today is Dia de los Angelitos, the Day of the Little Angels and children. So maybe he’s not a ghost; maybe he’s an angel.”
It was just like their mom to say something like that.
Even Johnny sighed in exasperation. “Mama, that is so lame.”
Barry ruffled Johnny’s hair. Barry looked back, not expecting to see the old man. He didn’t think Mr. Juan was a ghost or angel, and certainly not the Hitchhiker. But it was odd how Mr. Don Juan knew a story that Barry would have sworn his dad had made up. The old man had said he’d known a Rosa once . . . before she’d died in a car accident with his family?
As Barry looked at his brother, he finally understood and shivered. His mom was right about Dia de los Angelitos. There was a reason this day, this car ride felt as though it had taken forever.
The old man’s name wasn’t Don Juan. It was Donald . . . his dad’s name.
But how was that possible? He wasn’t a ghost. He was an old man. Which left one possibility. Barry didn’t want to consider it. He didn’t want it to be true. And yet, it made sense.
Donald Fuentes shuffled past the gate, headed right, and followed the path to the graves he wished to visit. After half an hour of searching, he realized he should have taken a left. He went back to the gate and started over. His memory wasn’t what it used to be. Nor were his eyes. Or ears. But he usually managed to figure things out after a while.
The graveyard was bigger than he remembered. It was twilight when he found their tombstones. He slowly lowered himself to the yellow, leaf-covered ground. He brushed the leaves from his wife’s tombstone.
Rosalita Carmen Maria Fuentes
Loving daughter, mother, wife
January 14, 1935–November 1, 1968
He stroked the engraved words with a weathered hand. Tears blurred his vision. He emptied his pockets of the gifts he’d brought them: the pieces of candy, the slightly rumpled marigold, and a small candle. He caressed one of the two smaller headstones next to Rosa’s grave. He couldn’t read them with the tears spilling down his face, but he knew what they said.
Jonathan Oscar Fuentes
March 23, 1960–November 1, 1968
Barry Donald Fuentes
September 16, 1958–November 1, 1968
What Donald would give to tell them that he loved them once again.
The autumn breeze ruffled his clothes and chilled his skin. Donald looked down at himself, realizing he was in his pajamas. He shook his head. He hadn’t even dressed himself today? And where was his sweater?
Warmth fell over his shoulders. He looked up. Rosa stood there, draping the sweater over him. The two boys . . . his two boys, sat in the station wagon behind him.
“Come on,” she said, helping him to his feet. “It’s time for us to go home. Together.”
Sarina Dorie has sold over 100 short stories to markets like Daily Science Fiction, Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Orson Scott Card’s IGMS, Cosmos, and Sword and Laser. Her stories and published novels have won humor and Romance Writer of America awards. Her steampunk romance series, The Memory Thief and her collections, Fairies, Robots and Unicorns—Oh My! and Ghosts, Werewolves and Zombies—Oh My! are available on Amazon.
By day, Sarina is a public school art teacher, artist, belly dance performer and instructor, copy editor, fashion designer, event organizer and probably a few other things. By night, she writes. As you might imagine, this leaves little time for sleep.
You can find info about her short stories and novels on her website: www.sarinadorie.com