Halfway up the ladder, Dave’s left hand began to shake.
“Motherfucker.” He let go of the rung and watched his tar-stained fingers tremble. Dave was nearly 200 pounds of thick bone and carved muscle. But whenever the shaking happened, he felt as weak as a little boy.
“Really gettin’ sick of this shit.”
He climbed the rest of the way up, keeping his left hand near his chest. By the time he reached the roof, the tremors had stopped. For now. He walked along the freshly laid plywood up to the ridge of the house. Sheila sat on a bundle of shingles smoking a cigarette.
“Break time already?”
“Sorry, boss man.” She snuffed out the cigarette between two calloused fingers and then heaved the bundle onto her shoulder. “I blame the scenery. Too tempting to kick back out here, you know?”
Dave smiled and nodded. He plunged a hand into his pocket, rummaged through a collection of wrappers and fished out a Snickers bar. It’d be the third one this morning.
He took a bite and looked out over the sparkling bay side view that the owners of 45 Dockside Road would soon get to enjoy. Across the water, a truck rumbled down a dirt road that traced the ocean’s curves. It’d be passing by in a few minutes, Dave figured, kicking up a giant plume of dust like an asshole if he didn’t slow down.
For decades, logging trucks had been the only vehicles in these woods. Then the tariffs hit in the 1990s and it all ground to a halt. Without all the rigs, the area became a hot spot for campers of all stripes: families, seniors, teens bent on getting hammered. Dave had actually been to more than his fair share of parties out here back in the day. But that was a long time ago. In fact, this was the first time he’d been back to the area since his teenage years.
He took a final chomp of the Snickers as the ladder clanged and skipped. Joe appeared carrying his big-ass boombox so they could listen to the radio. He was a say-nothing kind of guy, so everyone called him Quiet Joe.
He put on one of those stations that blasted garbage techno songs. But Dave didn’t say anything about it. The music kept the two of them working and that was all that mattered.
He carried a roll of tar paper to the edge of the roof and started to lay it out over the plywood. And just as he settled into the flow of work, the full-throated roar of a distant V8 motor punched through the radio beats.
Dave eyed the road, looking down toward where the truck would round a bend and be visible from behind a patch of cedars. But before he saw the truck, he saw something else. Something much closer.
A boy in a blue jacket, maybe around ten, rode his bike smack in the middle of the dusty road. He had probably taken a trail down from one of the nearby campgrounds, since no one was actually living out here yet. Dave’s heart quickened. Soon that truck would bullet around the corner and out of that grove of cedars.
But the boy didn’t seem to realize what would be coming behind him.
The guy’s got to see him. It’s the middle of the day. It’s sunny as shit. He’s gotta see him.
Dave told himself that, and yet, he wasn’t putting down tar paper anymore. He was watching, staring down at the kid below, fists clenched tight.
The boy was closer now, close enough Dave could make out that he was riding an old-school BMX and wearing a pair of headphones.
Shit, he probably can’t hear a thing.
That dark-gray pickup got closer. And louder. “Aw, fuck.” Dave’s gut tightened as he crept to the edge of the roof. Then he shouted: “Hey! Hey Kid!”
But even if the kid could hear him, there was no way his voice would carry over the blasting radio and down to the road.
Guy’s got to fucking see him.
Dave thought about tossing the roll of tar paper or something down to get the kid’s attention, but that might backfire by distracting him at the last minute. After all, Dave didn’t know for sure this guy wasn’t going to slow down. He could be just overreacting.
The truck gained speed. Mechanical thunder tearing up the dirt road. And just then, Silent Joe’s radio cut out. Dave was able to get off a quick “Hey!”, but it didn’t get the boy’s attention before the music kicked back on again.
The song was different this time though. The club beats were replaced by the up-tempo sound of “Take the Money and Run” by the Steve Miller Band.
The kid now rode just a couple hundred feet from the house Dave was working on. Bobbing his head in time with whatever was playing on those headphones.
Joe’s radio blasted louder. The sound seemed crisper too, not like the near-blown speakers that were popping away a few moments earlier. But it wasn’t nearly enough to drown-out the motor that pounded the air.
The guy punched the gas again. The pistons slammed harder, an angry sound like barking rottweilers. And the kid kept riding down the center of the road.
As the namesake chorus of “Take the Money and Run” kicked in, the truck was almost on him. Dave couldn’t make out the model. And the colors were weird: a patchy sorta gray and off-black. And as it got closer, the body looked almost charred. Like it had gotten too close to a fire or something. Dave gripped the side of his head, digging his fingernails into the scalp.
He’s got to fucking see him. C’mon buddy, slow down!
The truck hit the kid at full speed. His body was sucked under with a moist thud. The truck locked up its brakes and skidded a few dozen feet before twisting sideways and coming to a stop. It left a trail of debris in its wake: a bike seat, a yellow sneaker, a blotch of inky red.
“Fuck! Fuck! Jesus no!” Dave looked away. Then he patted his pockets and realized he didn’t have his phone on him.
“Sheila!” He screamed. “We need to call —”
Dave turned back to the road.
There was nothing there.
He scanned the road up and down, his heart revving out of control. But it was the same old road it had been an hour ago. Nothing different. No debris or tire marks. No boy.
Dave ran trembling hands through his crew-cut hair. Then he rooted through his pockets, digging through a pile of sticky wrappers. But he was already out of Snickers.
Technically, Dave had been sober for 11 months and 17 days. But he was what they called a “dry drunk.”
He’d never really been able to make the mental switch to fully embrace a booze-free life. And the fact that he’d been pretty much white-knuckling it the whole time explained why he still got the shakes. And couldn’t sleep worth shit.
And now, apparently, he was hallucinating too.
But the strangest side-effect of getting sober was the dreams. Quick flashes of random people he only vaguely remembered from his past. All of them long dead.
Like that goth kid in high school who slit his wrists one summer. Or Dave’s Great Aunt Julie, who died of cancer when he was nine. He met her just once or twice his entire life.
And that’s what made it all so damn weird: none of these people were special to him in any way. And yet, they slipped in and out of his dreams like flickering shadows.
Dave’s shrink told him they were connected to his own fear of death. That the dreams were simply a way for his subconscious to process his emotions. Or some bullshit like that.
All these thoughts were milling in his head as he walked into his one-bedroom apartment. He heated up a can of clam chowder, ate it with toast while standing over the kitchen sink, and then collapsed into his duct-taped La-Z-Boy. The hockey game was on, but he barely watched it. His mind was focused only on what he had seen that day. And what it meant.
Dave thought about calling his sponsor and telling him what had happened. Maybe he needed to get on some meds or something. But he didn’t want to hear the same old spiel from ever-so-fucking-happy Dennis: “You need to keep busy, Dave. Get a project or hobby or something else to throw yourself into.”
Dave had done that. He went mountain biking every weekend with AA buddies and had gotten into fly fishing, but none of it helped. Every day, he still imagined the satisfying burn of straight bourbon as it sloshed down his throat.
What really pissed Dave off was that when he went biking or to parties with the other guys, who had all started AA around the same time he did, they seemed genuinely happy. Laughing and yakking over barbecued ribs. Talking about new girlfriends or jobs or other stuff like that.
There certainly wasn’t anyone else with pockets stuffed with sticky wrappers. Or baggy eyes from sleepless nights. None of them were like him, hanging on to sobriety as if it were a slippery trout.
Dave went to bed, knowing he wouldn’t sleep much. After reading a few chapters of a half-ass sci-fi novel, he dozed off for a few hours and dreamt of a faceless boy riding his bike along Bayside Road.
The next morning, Dave picked up Sheila on the way to the job site. She was “between vehicles” again, which was fine. Dave didn’t mind the company, especially on these longer drives. And he got the sense that she didn’t mind either.
They’d talk about the kind of stuff you couldn’t really get into on the roof, where you’re surrounded by young men surging with testosterone and Red Bull. Family. Relationships. Plans for the future. That sort of thing.
Normally the conversation was a pretty balanced give and take. But today, Sheila was in full rant mode about Alex nearly dumping her for “just mentioning” the idea of a threesome. And Dave was happy just to listen.
Once on the roof, they settled into their usual rhythm of work. Quiet Joe showed up 20 minutes later — fucker was always late — and soon the usual club beats were slapping their way out of his broke-ass radio.
The music. The random nasty jokes. The steady thuck, thuck of the nail guns. It all felt so normal. So routine. But it wasn’t.
Dave couldn’t stop glancing down at the road below, playing that horror scene over in his head. The blood. The kid getting sucked under the truck. Thinking about it made his gut tighten and even killed his appetite for another Snickers.
He had to get away from such a clear view of the road, so he decided to check out Sheila’s work on the flashing around the skylight instead. Dave kneeled down to get a better look, just as the radio cut out again.
In fact, everything seemed to cut out. The booming waves. The chirping birds. All of it.
And then, just like yesterday, that song came on. Loud and crisp and clear.
“Go on…take the money and run.” Dave half-mumbled, half-whispered the chorus without thinking. Then he snapped back to reality.
Even if Quiet Joe had switched the stations, what were the odds he stumbled onto the exact same song as before?
Dave called out: “Hey Joe, does that thing actually play MP3s or —”
He trailed off as his vision tracked across the bay. In the distance, a gray pickup tore down the road. Behind it, a rolling cloud of dust.
Dave froze, eyes fastened on the vehicle as it sped around the grove of cedars and arbutus trees.
This can’t be happening again. Why am I seeing this shit?
At first, Dave thought he could just walk away. Climb down the opposite side of the roof and sit in the woods for 20 minutes or so until it was over.
But he couldn’t. He had to watch. The whole thing sucked him in with a kind of sick fascination he couldn’t explain. The urge to see it all unfold again was even stronger than his urge to drink. And that was the scariest part of all.
Dave shuffled down toward the edge of the roof for a better view. His stomach twisted so tight it turned his legs to putty, but he kept his eyes on the cedar grove. And he waited.
Then, as if he dropped out of the sky, the boy pedaled his BMX down the middle of the road. Just like last time.
Dave knew it couldn’t be real. And even though his heart felt like a paint shaker, he still watched. Watched it all unfold, once again.
The blood and debris.
But this time, Dave didn’t look away. The truck hit the brakes after impact, skidding across the road and dragging the boy and his mangled bicycle beneath it. He got a better look at the vehicle this time. Molting patches of gray and white covered the roof and door panels, like it had just driven out of a furnace. The windows were black with soot. He could even smell burnt plastic and rubber.
A man got out of the truck, slowly. He wore a flannel jacket and a black and yellow ball cap.
“Dave? What’s up with the flashing?” Sheila’s voice was distant. Like hearing someone yell at you while your head is under water. The music drowned out everything.
At first, the guy just stood there. And then he began to punch the door panel. Rapid, maniacal blows.
“Dave! Hey Dave!” Sheila’s hand on his shoulder made him jump.
He spun around toward Sheila on instinct, just for a second, then looked back down at the road.
Gone. Everything was gone. No blood, no debris, no trace of the burned-out pickup
“Whoa, you okay Dave? You’re white as fuck, like you’ve seen a ghost or some shit.”
Dave rubbed his forehead. “Yeah…I’m fine. Just you know, hard day.”
Something in Sheila’s expression made him think she didn’t believe him. But she played the part anyway, offering a simple: “OK, sure.”
“The flashing, right? Let’s check it out,” said Dave. And they walked over to the skylight.
He went through the motions of finishing the job that day. Nailing the last shingles, helping clean the site. The whole time, Dave said hardly a word to anyone. His mind kept replaying the crash over and over again.
Well, that and Sheila’s comment about him seeing a ghost. It was an explanation he hadn’t really thought of before.
On the ride home, he hoped he could avoid talking about what happened. But Sheila made it clear she wouldn’t be carrying the conversation again.
“So I’m gonna start calling you Quiet Dave if you keep this up.”
Dave smiled. “Yeah, I just got stuff on my mind.”
“Yeah, but what kind of stuff? We got like 30 minutes worth of driving still and I can’t take this silence bullshit. What are you thinking about?”
Sheila flashed him that crooked smile of hers. She only did that when they were driving together and Dave could never tell if she meant it as flirting or not.
“I dunno…just, things have been weird lately.”
“Ah, yeah? I know quite a bit about weird things.” She smiled and flicked her doubled-pierced tongue like a lizard.
Dave chuckled. “I guess you do.”
“C’mon, lay it on me, boss man. What were you staring at? On the roof earlier?”
Dave shifted in his seat. “I dunno. It’s just…at first I thought I was losing it and seeing shit, like all this sobriety was finally getting to me. But now, I’m not sure what I saw.”
“What do you think you saw?”
Dave opened his mouth and was about to tell her, but then he just shrugged. “It’s…just weird. I saw something I can’t really explain. It’s gotta be a sobriety side-effect or something.”
“Ok, got it.” Sheila was quiet for a moment. “You know, I think there’s always going to be shit we can’t explain. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to explain it. Just, the answer may not be so obvious, you know?”
Dave nodded. It was just an automatic response, since he didn’t really get what she meant by all that. But as they kept driving, his mind started to wander.
He pulled up in front of Sheila’s house.
“Alright, I’ll see you Monday. We’ll be onto the next house then,” Dave said.
“OK, cool. And try to relax, Dave, I know this shit’s been hard for you. And lemme know if you ever need to talk, OK?” Sheila hesitated a second before popping open her door, which made Dave think she was about to hug him. She didn’t.
“Thanks, I will.” Dave said. “Say hi to Alex for me.”
Dave didn’t stop to pick up extra Snickers on the way home. He had other things on his mind.
At around midnight, Dave rubbed his screen-fried eyes and took a deep breath. He’d been sitting in his chair for hours, with the Macbook on his lap and his feet up on the coffee table. An empty bowl of clam chowder near his left foot, three unopened Snickers near his right foot.
After Googling things like “haunted roads” and “seeing ghosts” all night, he finally felt he was getting closer to an answer. One guy at the University of Edinburgh wrote a paper about “residual energy” and how a traumatic event can make a place haunted. This energy was like an imprint on the world that the dead left behind, causing the same horrific event to be played out over and over again. Dave thought it sounded a lot like what he had experienced.
He also read about how some people are more “sensitive” to this residual energy, which meant they could see and hear things that others couldn’t. That made Dave chuckle.
“Well look at me, the sensitive type.”
He wondered if that might also make him more likely to dream about the dead, too.
Dave spent another half-hour trying to find any mention of a fatal accident along Dockside Road, but nothing turned up. He figured that just meant an accident hadn’t happened there recently, since the local paper’s online archives didn’t even go back a full decade.
Dave snapped his laptop shut and groaned as he stood up. He barely felt the urge to drink the entire time he was researching this stuff. The cravings were definitely still there though, just easier to ignore. But as he walked toward his bedroom, the need for alcohol came rushing back at full force. And as usual, he fought it off with a few giant mouthfuls of caramel and peanuts.
Maybe always-fucking-happy Dennis was right: he did need to focus on something. But that something wasn’t fishing or biking — it was ghost hunting.
Dave’s mind was pumping away with questions when he finally laid down for the night. Could he really have some kind of psychic ability? If so, what does that mean? Is he supposed to help the boy somehow?
Dave didn’t expect to get more than an hour or two of sleep with all those thoughts banging around in his skull. But he did.
He slept almost until 10 a.m., the longest rest of his post-alcohol life. Powered by this new-found energy, he was out the door and driving within 15 minutes, eager to get to the worksite before noon. Dave cranked the radio and tapped his fingers against the steering wheel.
He smiled big and drove fast, feeling the sort of euphoria he used to get just before having a drink. That 30 minutes of pulsing anticipation before he opened the door, threw his coat on a chair, and took those first long, satisfying gulps from an icy beer can.
He pulled his truck into the freshly paved driveway of the mini-mansion his crew had just finished up. He got out and looked up at the cloud-covered sky that had been bright blue just the day before. And then lowered his gaze onto the road across the bay.
Without the blasting radio and constant hammering of the job, the area was peaceful. Just the call of gulls and the rhythmic smack of the ocean hitting the shore. Dave paced along the road for an hour or so, pausing only to eat a Snickers. And as his mind drifted, he kept thinking about Sheila: the shiny double studs in her tongue, that almost-flirty smile she flashed him in the truck.
The rumble of a distant motor killed the quiet. Dave didn’t even have to look across the bay: he knew what was coming. He could feel it.
He walked to the edge of the road and looked down toward the cedar grove. The gray pickup truck was barreling along the coast.
The kid appeared next, right on schedule.
Dave stared hard at the boy as he rode closer. His head bobbing to whatever flowed from his headphones. But no matter how close he got, Dave couldn’t make out the kid’s face. It remained blurry, like he was still fifty feet away.
“Hello!” Dave shouted as the boy pedaled past him, knowing he probably wouldn’t answer. But it was worth a shot. “Can you hear —”
A mechanical snarl punched the air. Dave leapt back as the truck slammed into the boy. It veered to the right and then skidded sideways, finally stopping diagonally across the road with the passenger side facing Dave.
A bike seat rolled just inches away from his feet. Drops of blood peppered the dirt like ugly polka dots. And a small yellow running shoe, dirty and mangled, lay in the middle of the road. Dave looked over at the truck and could see a thin arm, bent at an impossible angle, poking out from behind the wheel well.
His heart hammered against his chest. Seeing it from two-stories up is one thing, but watching such a sick scene unfold right in front of you is another. It added a level of gruesome detail he wasn’t prepared for.
He took a few shaky steps toward the vehicle, his eyes on the cab the whole time. Dave made a conscious effort not to glance down at what was left of the boy beneath the wheels.
The blackened passenger windows were beer-bottle opaque, far too caked with soot to see anything inside. But he did hear something. Music. The driver-side door popped open on the opposite side of the truck, freeing the twangy chorus of “Take the Money and Run.” Loud and crisp and clear. Just for a moment.
The song cut out mid-sentence. And then the door snapped shut. A few shuffling footsteps. A young man’s voice: “What did I do? What did I FUCKING do!”
And then sobbing, followed by the quiet words: “I’m so sorry.”
Dave held his breath and kept still, his ears strained to pick up any shred of sound.
Whatever was on the other side of the truck didn’t know Dave was there. Maybe it couldn’t know. Dave thought back to the stuff he read about spectral energy and scenes repeating themselves, caught in an endless loop of pain and shock. And he wondered what his role was in all of this.
OK, time to do this. Now or never.
With clenched fists and teeth clamped-tight, Dave walked around the back of the truck to finally get a look at who the driver was. The man in the flannel jacket had his head pressed against the side of the vehicle. His hands gripped the roof so tight they were turning white. The guy was breathing rapidly too, like his heart was about to burst.
Just inches away, the boy’s legs stuck out from beneath the truck. His blue jeans were splattered with blood and his shoe was missing.
“Fuck! Fuck no!” The man yelled.
Dave crept a little closer. This shit ain’t real, just energy. He told himself that over and over, but he knew it was a lie. This was real. It had happened before. And for whatever reason, something wanted Dave to see it happen again.
“Fuck!” The man screamed one last time before punching the truck again. Then he turned toward Dave.
Dave stumbled backward, nearly tripping over the rocks behind him. He could hardly remember what he looked like as a teenager. But he sure as hell knew his own face staring back at him.
His own panicked, tear-streaked face.
“What the fuck is this?” But Dave knew what it was. Or at least, he was starting to realize it.
Tears slipped down his cheeks as the memories came flooding back. Not clear memories; more like random bits of footage spliced together.
Drinking and doing coke at a campsite during his grad party.
Making out with the girl with the tongue piercing at sunrise.
Fighting with his equally drunk girlfriend when she caught them going at it.
And then the drive. The angry, booze-fueled drive.
All those parts were just busted up scenes, each one giving him only enough details to piece it all together. But one long-lost-memory played out in his head like a movie. Vivid and unfiltered.
Dave remembered seeing the kid on the road at the last minute.
Feeling the thud as he ran him over.
He remembered the Steve Miller Band blasting as he locked up his brakes. The sense of panic that shredded his stomach like a hungry pitbull. The overwhelming urge to run.
Dave could tell himself he was high and drunk. He could say he was a dumb teen and wasn’t thinking clearly when he fled the scene. If only it had ended there. The memory that hurt the most was seeing that little boy’s leg sticking out from beneath his truck.
And then watching it bend slowly at the knee, dragging blood-speckled denim through the dirt. Faint gurgling drifted out from beneath the undercarriage.
Dave still drove away.
That memory chipped away at his soul. Made him feel less than human.
Everything that happened after Dave took off was a series of fuzzy flashes.
He remembered watching his truck burn that night and feeling the smoke sting his lungs. The long walk back to the highway to hitch a ride. The case of beer he bought when he finally made it home.
Dave collapsed onto the dirt road and stared across the bay. He played everything over and over again in his head. Tormenting himself with each flickering, gut-tearing scene.
Both his hands shook so badly it took him three tries to pull his phone out of his pocket.
He watched the black screen quiver in his trembling palm. Then Dave wiped his eyes with his sleeve and tried to steady his hand long enough to use the keypad. He only needed to tap three numbers.
“911, what is your emergency?”
“Yes, I um. I need to report a hit and run.”
And for the first time in 12 years, Dave didn’t want a drink.
This story previously appeared in Night Terrors Vol. 3
Edited by Marie Ginga
Dustin Walker is Canadian writer of horror, crime and comedy. His work has recently appeared in Shotgun Honey, Rock and a Hard Place and on the No-Sleep Podcast. He also took first place in Flash Fiction Magazine's quarterly writing contest. You can find him on Twitter at Dustin Walker.