13 Sycamore

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Written to Impress
A haunting tale of a truck driver who is forced, by the ghost of a young girl, to give her a Christian burial.

Submitted: August 25, 2019

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Submitted: August 25, 2019

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13 Sycamore

by Tom Rinkes

She haunts me. She deviled me last night and the night before and the night before that. I’m napping in my truck when I hear a noise and I look up from under the brim of my cap and I see her, short and young with long blond hair and wearing a white nightgown. She looks right at me, right through me, like she knows me and I ought to know her and she keeps saying something over and over, “Thirteen”…I can’t make out the rest. Then she disappears and I wake up cold and clammy. Problem is, I’m not sure if it’s a dream or it’s real, but it keeps happening over and over and I can’t figure out why.

***

My name is Alex Battistone, a truck driver out of Pittsburgh. I run from there to Columbus, Ohio and back. It’s an evening-stretched-into-daylight job that took a while to get used to. All drivers eventually find a good spot to lay their heads for an hour or two and mine was far off the road with a small meadow before a line of maples of oak, maple and cherry trees.

Four mornings a week for a month it gave me comfort; enough to get the job done and go home until the next night. But Monday night, when the fog got so thick I couldn’t see the hood and I couldn’t go any further, I pulled in, shut the truck off and drifted off quickly. When the sunlight through the mist woke me, I saw someone had used their finger to scribe something on the outside glass. “13 SYCAMORE,” was neatly printed for me to see. I don’t know what scared me more—the fact someone snuck up on me or whoever did it knew how to write backward.

I’m a street kid—born and raised in Pittsburgh, North Side. I’ve been in my share of fights and I don’t scare easy, but for some reason I couldn’t make my legs move. This is ridiculous, I thought, someone is playing tricks here and I’ve got to get out and teach them a lesson. As I pulled away and marched around the truck, I caught a glimpse of her hiding behind a big oak tree. I’d had enough of this game so I ran into the woods to catch her and take her to her parents. I tripped over something, and I saw a post with a mailbox on top.

What idiot threw this back here? I thought. There was a name on the mailbox and I cleaned it off with my shirtsleeve, but all that was readable was J. BA…..ONE. About a hundred feet or so behind it was a chimney, foundation walls and a lot of hardened, black dirt. I looked around for her but she was gone again, so I forced myself to walk over there. Standing in the middle of this burned shell of a house I asked myself, Why am I here? What keeps drawing me to this place? Ohio is 225 miles long; surely I could find another spot.

***

Just up the road was the Sunny Boy Café, home of great coffee and fresh donuts, and I stopped there every morning to clean up and fill up. There was an old man there every morning, same table, same chair. He was maybe eighty, wearing old gray pants pulled up past his waist with suspenders for back up, white shirt, wide tie and a Cleveland Browns hat. He sat there drinking tea and all the locals would stop to say hello and catch up on the gossip. I’d always been curious about him. When I paid my tab I asked the waitress,

“Julie, what’s the deal with the old guy?”

She looked at me funny. “Why you ask?”

“I’m just curious about a place I found in the woods, out by that wide spot.”

She motioned me closer so she could whisper in my ear. “His name is Ollie, but it better be Mr. Smithton to you. Anything you want to know about this town or this county, he’s your man. People say he’s a walking, talking encyclopedia.”

I walked up to him with my coffee in one hand and my hat in the other.

“Mr. Smithton,” I said. “Have you got a minute?”

“That all depends, young man.”

“On what?”

“On who you are and what you want.”

I didn’t expect to get the attitude so far from the big cities, but I can play the game with the best of them.

“I’m just a traveling man that stumbled on an old, burned out house in the woods back by the wide spot. I was told you’re the mayor, so to speak. My name is Alex, Alex Battistone.”

He looked straight up at me. “You better go talk to your grandfather about that.”

“I can’t. He died ten years ago.” He dropped his gaze.

“Then go talk to your father, and if you have any more questions come back and see me.”

***

The interview was over, and I headed home with every intention to see my old man. He was sitting in his usual spot—the kitchen—drinking coffee and chain-smoking Camels. He wore the same outfit he did when he worked in the mill—jeans, flannel shirt and scuffed-up boots. The blast furnace had carved lines in his face and hands, but he was still a tough one. I poured a cup, did a little small talk and came out with it.

“Dad, I’ve been taking a break around a little town called Ambridge. Did you ever hear of it?”

“Yeah, I’ve been there once. Dad loaded us all up years ago and went to visit his uncle.”

“Don’t happen to remember his name, do you?”

“Let’s see. It was J-something, John or Jim or…Jacob. Yeah, that’s it, Jacob. Why you asking, Al?”

I had to tread lightly. It was always obvious that he almost worshiped his dad. Pap was a good man, a real stand-up guy, and what was forming in my mind couldn’t involve him.

“There’s this old boy I met at the diner who acted a little funny when I told him my name.

It was like his whole attitude changed.”

Dad hung his head and shook it back and forth a little. “There were always rumors,” he said.

“Rumors about what?”

“That my great-uncle liked the little girls too much, you understand what I’m saying, Al?”

It took all I had to ask the next question. I inhaled deeply and took a long gulp of coffee.

“Dad, do you remember where he lived?”

“In a big house in the woods. I can’t remember the address, but the street name was some kind of tree, I just can’t remember which one.”

I felt sick and weak.

“What’s the matter with you boy? You look like you’re coming down with something.”

“Nah, Dad, I’m all right. I’ve just been putting in a lot of hours lately, and it’s catching up to me.” But I had one more question to ask. “What did Pap think of this guy?”

“Not much, I gather. The way I remember it, one of Dad’s nieces was sitting on Uncle Jake’s lap and, for some reason, he got fired up about it and took Uncle Jake back behind the house. They started yelling and arguing at each other, and Dad rounded me and Mom up and we went back to the motel.”

“Did any of you go back?” I asked.

“No, no…Lord no. The way your Pap talked about him during the ride back, that relationship was over, no doubt.”

“So, he drove home and never went back, right?”

“Well, not right away. We’d already paid for the room so we spent the night. In the morning Dad said he was going to that diner to get some coffee and orange juice, but he came back empty handed.”

My old man was always tight-lipped about his family, and now I know why, but I had him on roll so I kept asking questions. “Why? That place has been open twenty-four-seven for years.”

“He said it was closed. Mom didn’t have time to argue with him about it ‘cause he rushed us out of the room and into the car. Then he almost hit a fire truck as he peeled out of the parking lot. It had lights and sirens on; I guess he just didn’t see it. Anyway, Mom chewed him out, he settled down and we had a nice ride home. And that’s about it.”

It all came together; the girl, the house, Ollie, everything. Dad still didn’t have a clue, and I was thankful for that. In my heart I knew what my grandfather did, yet for some reason I didn’t feel a bit bad about it.

***

 I made my run, said my goodbyes to the dock guys in Columbus, and headed east. I went through Ambridge, past my spot, and camped out behind the diner. At daybreak I went inside to clean up, and as I came out of the men’s room Julie motioned for me to look left. At his table sat Ollie, a cup of coffee and two chocolate donuts—my usual.

“Breakfast’s on Ollie,” she said. And might I add she was very easy on the eye. There’s something special about a blue-eyed redhead with a pretty smile that can charm the stress out of any man, young or old. I sat across from him not knowing what to do or say, and then he broke the ice.

“Her name is Lucinda Evans.”

“Is that supposed to mean something to me?” The wise guy in me slipped out before I could catch it. His shoulders reared back and he stared at me like my old man used to; to freeze me when I was young and screwing up.

“Maybe…maybe not, but it means a lot to her mother. Poor little thing’s been missing some fifty years now. And she was such a delight to her family, short and petite with long blonde hair and a charming manner. The Sheriff said she was last seen with your uncle, or is it great-uncle, but he couldn’t prove anything, and the locals say they see her sometimes out on this road; walking along in her nightgown and then she ducks into the woods. We never did find her body, and all her family wants is to give her a proper Christian burial. We gave your relative one after the firemen got him out, which is more than he deserved.”

“Olli…Mr. Smithton,” I began. “I know what needs to be done. I know what I’ve got to do to make it right. But I don’t know how to without hurting my dad. It would break his heart if he found out what his dad did. Sir, you’re a wise man, and I need some help.”

He leaned back in his chair, placed his thumbs inside his suspenders and gave it a long thought. “Well…let’s see. I hear all good truck drivers keep a shovel and a few bags of sand handy, just in case they get stuck in the mud or snow. Any truth to that?”

“Yeah, I carry all that in my utility box.”

He rose slowly, placing his frailness on his cane and a hand on my shoulder.

“Do what you’ve got to do, Alex, do it today. When you find her, don’t call the police.

Call me first, and don’t forget your napkin. Good luck, son.” He patted me on my shoulder and left.

***

I parked, grabbed my shovel from the toolbox, and walked slow into the woods. I walked behind the oak tree where I last saw her and noticed a little squirrel about ten feet away. Now I’m a city boy, and I don’t know much about forest creatures and such, but this animal should be running, and it’s not. I moved closer and it didn’t. When I was two paces away it let out a screech, jumped in the air, and fled.

I put my scooper on the tiny footprints and raised my left foot. And I dug and I sweat and I dug some more. I used that tool to take all my frustrations out on God’s brown earth and I attacked it like a trapped coal miner searching for new air and then I heard it; the dull thud it made when it hit that bone, and then I knew it was all true. I sat on my knees and did something I hadn’t done in years because I’m only twenty-four and I knew I’d have to live with that sound the rest of my life, and I felt ashamed of my people. I pulled the napkin from my pocket to wipe my eyes and I saw them: three numbers, a dash and four more. I left my shovel in the shallow grave and walked away.

***

 To this day, I still don’t know what it was that appeared to me that first time. Call it a ghost, or an apparition, or an angel of justice—I don’t know and I don’t care. All I know is that it’s over and the next time I shut down for a nap, I will be surrounded by concrete.

 

 

 

 


© Copyright 2020 Tom Rinkes. All rights reserved.

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