All the Open Highways, by Alexis Gunderson

I was seventeen when I got my first ghost.

It goes without saying it was night. I was driving down the state on Highway 59, the two-lane one that’s narrow and desolate and mostly straight and’s had some shoulder work done recently. But back then it hadn’t had, not yet; back then, it was narrower still—nearly claustrophobic, save the empty horizon on the left and the right and in either direction of your tires, and the very occasional jog around some scuffy ditch that collected just enough water in the springtime to lure antelope and rabbits and foxes and skunks to drink. Then to die, to become dumbstruck roadkill when their drunken departure took them too close to the deadly revolutions of the tires on the rare but not rare enough cars. There aren’t that many ditches to jog around, but there’s always plenty of roadkill. Animals can be dumbstruck dead anytime, I guess, not just when drunk off ditchwater. They’re not all that smart, maybe. Or something.

“This is a crap car you’ve got,” the ghost said. It was just there, no pop or preamble or boo. I can’t say I wasn’t scared or anything, but at least I kept the wheel turned straight, didn’t swerve. “I mean, it’s a miracle this thing even runs. And you’re driving it down this road? Ballsy.”

The ghost wasn’t like what I’d’ve expected, had I expected a ghost. I couldn’t see through it, for one, and for another it didn’t look much like any person I’ve ever come across. It was silvery, yeah, maybe that was normal, and it was vaguely human-shaped, but as if from a memory of humanness so old and dusty that basic form was all it could manage.

“Yeah, well,” I think I muttered. “I’m young and reckless—what can I say.”

I don’t think I said this out of guts or cleverness or whatever. I think really, at that moment, the thing was that I agreed. It was a crap car I was driving, and it probably really hadn’t been all that smart for me to take it down Highway 59, at night, alone. I know I made a vow then and there to at least borrow my dad’s car the next time I made that trip, if not to get a job to save up enough for a new ride of my own.

“You want to pull over and hang out?” I think the ghost turned its head to look at me, but I can’t be sure. I don’t remember any face worth noticing. “I can’t go much farther, and it gets lonely out here.”

“Whose ghost are you?” I asked back.

“Someone young and reckless,” the ghost replied. Then it laughed. The sound was hollow and felt full of the black sky whizzing by and enveloping the night outside my car. But it wasn’t threatening. I think it was just the ghost trying to be funny. It was a pretty good joke, for all that the thing must really have been lonely and without many people to practice on.

I won’t lie—I entertained the proposition. Already by then I had developed the habit of stopping when driving down any low-traffic road at night, turning off the car and looking at the stars and marveling at the huge black shadows of mountains butting a horizon that would have seemed too black to set shadows against if you didn’t know where to look. And that summer, when I was seventeen and clueless, the thrill of stopping in the middle of nowhere, in the dark, no one else around for miles, was never not alluring. But that night I had already left too late, was going to get home too long after I had said I would. And really, if I had stopped then, I wouldn’t have been alone. And what’s the point of any of it, if you’re not going to be alone?

So when I opened my mouth, it wasn’t to say yes. I asked instead, “How far can you go?” Then, as consolation, I added, “I can’t stop.”

“Oh,” said the ghost. The hollowness was not disappointed so much as resigned. “Well, only another couple miles. And it’s all right. I didn’t really expect you to.”

I nodded. We sat in silence, then, until the miles were up. When the ghost left, I didn’t even notice, not right away. When I saw the next mile post go by, I remembered to look over to the passenger seat. It was empty. I drove home.

I don’t know if you will believe that I forgot about that ghost for awhile, but I did. It was late when I got home, and I was distracted by my parents’ reactions to my definitional youthful recklessness. My dad simmered silent and disappointed from his chair, my mom lectured up and down the room, half in anger, half in relief I was alive. Then I went to bed, then the next morning was school, and then the very fact of my life overtook my brief encounter with death, or whatever it had been, back on the highway. It wasn’t that the ghost wasn’t interesting, or important, but. I was a teenager. And since it hadn’t really been about me, in the end, I found better things to think about.

My next ghost didn’t come until I was twenty.

I was back on Highway 59, driving home from college for the summer this time. The spring weather had left bigger ponds in more ditches, and for every three rabbits I barely avoided, there was one dead alongside the road. I hadn’t hit any myself, but it was only a matter of time, the numbers they were out in. I was grateful all the antelope I had seen had been grouped on the other side of the ranch fences, maybe looking to cross eventually, but none soon enough to affect me. I had been in the car for nine hours and was feeling a little more than a little loopy.

“I think it’s their religion,” a voice spoke up from beside me. “The rabbits.”

I hate to say that this time I did swerve a little. Barely, but enough to make me curse at myself. I glanced over to the ghost in my passenger seat.

“What?” I asked.

“The rabbits,” the ghost replied. “I can hear them when they run past, when they run across the road. You know, they wait until a car comes. They never cross in the dark.”

“I’d had that theory,” I said, nodding. When you had your high beams on, you could sometimes see the little furry bodies huddled as shadows on the shoulder ahead, only scampering out in front of your bumper at the very last minute.

“They wait. It’s an initiation, I think. To beat the gods and cheat their fate.”

I didn’t think this was the same ghost as before. I couldn’t remember, but I was pretty sure I was thirty or so miles from where I had been the last time. This ghost was smaller, probably. Still silvery, still only a rough representation of human. Just as featureless, but with a maybe dreamier tone in its voice. That tone—I recognized that tone. Half of the kids in my philosophy classes at school sounded like that, discussing the meaning of life and love and death. That’s why I’d left philosophy for archaeology. There were dreamers, and then there were dreamers. I could only stomach the one kind.

“The gods are the cars?” I asked.

“The cars, yes,” said the philosopher ghost. “You can’t see them, but off to the edges, past where the headlights go, whole warrens are gathered, chanting and chattering and urging on the little ones. Cursing the metal gods that fly by. You’d be embarrassed if you heard some of the names they call you. There’s not a creature I hear with so foul a mouth as these rabbits out along the highway.”

“Oh,” I said. I shook my head and blinked fast and hard. I was exhausted. Another rabbit shot across my path. I missed it, barely.

“Do you want to stop and listen to them?” the ghost asked. “The rabbits.”

“I don’t think I could hear them,” I said.

“Oh, I could help you,” the ghost replied. “It isn’t hard. They’re so loud, once you know what to listen for.”

“It’s okay, really,” I said. “I need to get home.”

“Of course.” The ghost nodded, then sighed.

I pinched the back of one hand with the fingers of my other, hard, trying to keep alert. I glanced sidelong at the shiny humanoid in the passenger seat.

“How far can you ride?” I asked. “I met one of you once before; it couldn’t go far.”

“Not far,” the ghost concurred. “Not far at all.”

“How far?” I asked again.

“Three quarters of a mile,” the ghost replied. “That’s it.”

We sat in silence for a moment. The highway bent down into the lee of a hill, and the wind picked up and buffeted the side of my car. Keeping the steering wheel straight became a little like work, and I won’t say I wasn’t grateful. The wind can be dangerous, but it keeps you awake.

“Tell me what they’re saying,” I said to the ghost at last. “Until you can’t stay.”

“The rabbits?” asked the ghost. I nodded. “All right,” the ghost said. And for that brief three quarters of a mile, it told me some of what the pagan rabbits were saying alongside the road. Then the words dried up, and it was gone.

A mile or a dozen later, probability finally caught up with me, and I clipped one of the daredevil animals. Though I knew I was imagining it, I thought I heard the collective outcry of a score of small leporid voices from the shoulder as I barreled onward. I wondered what stories they would tell their hundreds of children about me, about the big blue god that killed their brother. Then I hit the exit to the interstate, and twenty minutes later I was home, passed out on the couch. It would have been so likely for me to dream about the silvery philosopher ghost, and easy for me to tell you that I did, but I didn’t. And when I woke up in the morning and went out looking for a summer job, the second ghost faded from my mind as easily as had the first. They were stuck out there, along their limited stretches of highway, and I wasn’t. I was twenty, and alive, and decidedly not a philosophy major. I had other things to worry about then, other things than the ghosts. And so I moved on.

I got my third ghost the next year. It was winter, and I was on a different highway, but it was just as deserted as 59 always is. I was driving home this time from a friend’s house up in the mountains, from a holiday party that had gone so late it had turned into morning, and then day, and I hadn’t left until late the second afternoon. It was only seven, but it was dark as velvet outside. The moon was new and barely lit the spotty layer of snow on the fields on either side of me. There wasn’t much wind, and I wasn’t much tired. I was actually a little buzzed from all the coffee I’d had that afternoon, and was rolling my fingertips across the wheel in as many rhythmic patterns as I could imagine.

“Can you do a paradiddle?” came a voice all of a sudden. I didn’t even blink; the car stayed on course. The passenger ghost was facing me, this time I remember that. Though I had forgotten about my two previous ghosts up until that moment, the memories came back instantly when I saw the silvery shape sitting beside me. The little moonlight there was glinted off of it, too, just a bit.

Right left right right left right left left right left right right left right left left I tapped out with my thumbs, looking sideways at the ghost. I got through three more sets before I stumbled and my thumbs got confused.

“Not bad,” said the ghost. Then it took up the rhythm on its lap, faster and surer than I would ever be able to do it. The sound was of nothing hitting nothing, of emptiness hitting a void. It was very crisp, for all that. Not what I would have predicted. None of it ever was.

“Impressive,” I said.

“I’ve had time to work on it,” the ghost replied.

I nodded.

“It’s kind of dark to be driving this road, isn’t it?” the ghost asked. It was still patting out the paradiddle.

“Well, maybe. But I’m not tired.”

“No,” the ghost said. “Of course not.” It was quiet for a moment, the only sound the percussive hush of its tapping. Then, “But there is a lot of ice out here.”

I slowed some. I knew there was ice, and I was watching for it, but it was true I was maybe going a little fast for the conditions.

“What do you do out here?” I asked, when the speedometer settled on a safer score.

“I don’t know,” replied the ghost. It stopped playing. “I don’t really pay attention. Unless I meet someone.”

“Someone like me?” I asked. The ghost, I think, nodded. “You talk to everyone who drives by?”

“Not everyone sees me,” the ghost said. It sounded sad.

“Yeah,” I said. “Not everyone sees me, either.” The coffee buzz was softening.

“You’re human,” the ghost replied. “You’re people. People see people. If you dropped into someone’s car, they would notice.”

I shrugged. It was probably right. But I don’t know how I would just drop into someone’s car, not like a ghost could.

“So what do you do if they don’t see you?” I asked.

Right left right right left right left left right left right right, the ghost tapped out.

“I practice.”

“Ah.”

I said nothing for a moment, listened to the ghost’s renewed playing.

“Who were you?” I asked, at last.

“I don’t remember,” the ghost said. It folded its arms, almost defensive. I missed the weird sound of its percussion. “I don’t think anyone.”

“You had to be someone,” I said. The ghost was silent. “When did you get here?” I tried.

“I don’t remember,” the ghost repeated. “I think I’ve been here always.”

“That doesn’t seem right,” I said. I looked along the shoulder for one of those white crosses, the ones that meant a car accident had occurred at some point in the past, the ones that meant a family was missing a part of itself. I didn’t see anything. I wondered how long ago this person had turned into a ghost, if maybe it hadn’t even been a car wreck. Maybe it was the ghost of a pioneer, one of those who died of smallpox like in that Oregon Trail computer game. Or maybe it was just a hitchhiker, someone nobody would know to miss.

“You want to stop and explore?” the ghost asked. “I’d like to see what there is along here, to see it and remember it.”

“You need someone for that,” I said. Not a question. I was understanding that the ghosts didn’t exist outside my influence. I wondered what that meant. How real did that make them?

“Yes,” the ghost said. “I need someone for that. Do you want to?”

I considered it. It was below zero outside, the sun down and the atmosphere thin as thin at this elevation, but I had the good coat I had brought for the night in the mountains, and exploring the highway with a ghost sounded like an adventure. But I still had two hours to drive, and my cousins had come in from out of town to visit and were expecting me. We were going to a late movie, one of the holiday releases with big stars pretending to be relatives of Santa for a laugh.

“I can’t,” I said. “I would, I really would. But I’m kind of in a hurry.”

“Yes,” the ghost nodded. “I know.”

“I think,” I began, feeling guilty I would be sending my ghost back to the ether so soon, “that my friends will be driving down the mountain tomorrow. At least three cars, too.” I glanced over to the solid, vague shape. “Maybe they’re, um, seers.”

“Maybe,” the ghost said.

“How much farther do you have?” I asked. We passed a green marker.

“Two more miles,” the ghost said. “I have two more miles.”

“You have better range than ones I’ve met before,” I said. The ghost shrugged. An approximation of a shrug. A nothing of a shrug. I slowed down by half; I could afford the couple extra minutes. “Duet?” I asked.

“Really?” The ghost’s surprise was genuine. “I mean, sure. That would be nice.” It counted me in, slow enough that I could follow, and we played the paradiddle together. A mile and some later, the only sound in the car was that of my own thumbs tapping against the wheel, and I stopped. It was the longest I’d ever held the rhythm. I hoped the ghost would find my friends the next day, and this time, even after I got home, I didn’t quite forget.

After that, I got a ghost every third or fourth drive I took on those night highways. The longest one ever lasted was fifteen miles, and we played a word game that the ghost kept winning before it disappeared. The shortest one was less than an eighth of a mile. It just popped in, shouted in surprise, and popped back out. I kind of think it was newer to the business than the rest. Maybe the longer the ghosts are ghosts, the farther they can travel. Maybe. In any case, though they always asked, I never stopped to spend time with them. I just drove on until they fell away.

I haven’t told anyone about my ghosts. I don’t know who else gets them, for one thing, I guess, but mostly I like that they are mine. That they’re a part of my life that I don’t have to share with anybody. Being dead is such an intimate thing, I think, and so are those long drives. Maybe that is why they only show up there. I haven’t seen them anywhere else. I went walking along the highway just outside town, once, early in the morning when it was still dark, but there was less traffic than even at night. I kind of hoped I would get a ghost to walk beside me, that we could talk for longer than two, four, ten minutes. But nothing happened. I don’t suppose that means it couldn’t. It just didn’t.

Last week, I went for a drive. My family was out of town on vacation, I had stayed home to work. I didn’t have anywhere to be the next morning, so I just picked a direction and drove. I figured I would maybe go an hour or so, then turn back. I was hoping for a ghost. I wanted the company.

Forty miles or so into my trip, my last ghost appeared. It was such a familiar experience at this point that it was almost comforting when the hollow voice came from nowhere beside me. I never even thought of flinching; I just smiled.

“This is a much nicer car,” the ghost said. “Than last time, I mean.”

That startled me. I shot a glance to the side, searching for something familiar. Which was silly. Of course the ghost was familiar, thick and silvery and only maybe human. They all looked the same. But—

“Last time?” I asked.

“You had a crap car then,” the ghost said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it had broken down before you even got home.”

It sounded sarcastic. I got defensive.

“That car lasted me through high school,” I said. I paused. “And then it broke down.”

The ghost laughed, cavernous and spooky.

“You’ve come a long way,” I said. We weren’t even on Highway 59. Most of my theories about how these ghosts worked were flying out the window. My first-last ghost shrugged. Amazing how noncommittal these dead are.

“It looks the same to me,” it said. “You’ve come a long way, too.” Then it reached out and brushed at my hair. I shivered. It was the first time a ghost had ever crossed the boundary between passenger and driver, let alone touched me. Its hand was hot, like steam. Another shocker.

“Yeah, yeah,” I said, recovering. “Gray hair. You and my grandkids, both. I’m old, get over it.”

“But alive,” said the ghost. I couldn’t argue. “So, you want to pull over and hang out? We never did, back before.”

I was silent. All these years, I had said no. And each time, I had given an excuse, a reason. And they were good reasons. But in the back of my mind, I knew I was saying no because I was afraid of what might happen if I did stop and get out. And the more the ghosts asked, the more that I felt a pattern, and the more nervous it made me that stopping might be a trap. I loved my ghosts, but I was still scared of them. But now, this time? I realized then that I had gotten in the car with the intention of saying yes. I had not only hoped for a ghost, but hoped for an invitation.

“Yeah,” I said, finally. “Yes, I would like that.”

The ghost was quiet in a pleased way. I tried not to let that deter me. A turnout came up, and I slowed and pulled into it.

We were silent for several moments.

“So, what do you want to do?” I asked, when the ghost said nothing.

“I don’t really know,” the ghost answered. “No one’s ever stopped for me before.”

“Really?” Yet one more surprise. Even though I didn’t know which of my friends might have gotten ghosts, I had always known that other people did, in part. The ghosts talked about others they had met, even if never in much detail. I guess I just assumed that at some point somebody must have stopped for them, even if I hadn’t. I wasn’t very adventurous compared to many, after all.

“Yeah,” the ghost said. “First time.”

“Huh,” I replied. “Well.”

There was more silence. Finally, I began talking. I told the ghost everything that had happened to me since we first met. I told it about my first dig in the Urals, about the Altai tomb my team discovered. I told it about the birth of my first child, and the death of my first dog. I told it about my vacations to London and Paris and Nashville. I told it about the book I was writing. I talked for hours, occasionally stopping to ask if it wanted to talk, instead. But each time, my ghost just shook its head and urged me on.

“I find I like listening,” it said, which made a kind of sense, even if I was curious for its own stories. But I kept talking, and soon I could see the slight lightening of the sky that forewarned the sun’s arrival. I looked to my ghost, worried it wouldn’t stay. I had never seen one during the day, after all. But it didn’t even glance at the sky. Or turn its head, which would be my only way of knowing it was looking at anything else. Its blank face stayed directed at me, so I kept talking.

Finally, the sun crested the horizon, right behind the ghost; day couldn’t be held back forever. I stopped whatever story I was telling and held my breath.

“Thank you,” said the ghost, firmly. “That was kind. That was perfect.”

Then, with the sun shining through the window at its back, the vaguely human shape expanded and shone and blinded me before snapping out of existence, extinguishing like so many dead stars. As the glare faded, I heard a voice say, “And I’m glad you got a new car.”

And then the ghost was gone. Gone for good, though how I knew that was a mystery. I just knew that something had happened there in my car, and that the ghost, my first-last ghost, had moved on.

I stayed in that turnout for another hour, watching the sun rise and the life in the fields start up. I watched rabbits hop through the prairie grass, feigning oblivion to the big black god in their midst, waiting until darkness came back and their rites could begin again. I played out a paradiddle on the steering wheel. Then I turned the ignition, and drove home.

 

Alexis Gunderson is a freelance TV critic and audiobibliophile. She grew up driving the open highways of Wyoming, but now lives in Maryland. She still thinks rabbits have a secret religion. 

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