what i learned about ghosts off route 64 | richard newby
America is haunted, but not in the way I’d expected it to be. I was a kid when I first began to realize this, when I first slipped off the security blanket of ignorance my parents and private education had cloaked me in. I got my first real look at the truth on the day Bradley Mason roped me and my brother, Randy, into his talk of dead kids, and ghosts after school. We’d been standing on the blacktop of the playground, waiting for our parents to pick us up. I remember my brother kept eyeing the kids on the swings and jungle gym and I could tell he wanted to join them, but he was ten and he knew those days were behind him. I couldn’t blame him for looking though. Part of me had wanted to go over there too, hang five inches off the ground with my mulch studded socks wrapped around the monkey bars. Even now, years later, when I take my kids to the playground I find myself wishing I could join them. It’s in our nature to hold onto things, even things we’ve told ourselves we’ve left behind.
Bradley was talking but I had stopped hearing him. I spotted Lindsey Washington. She stood at the edge of a circle of seventh grade girls from our class, their pleated skirts a couple inches higher than they should’ve been according to school regulations. She waved at me and I smiled back. She was new, transferred from a public school after Christmas break. Her father worked for mine at one of our car dealerships, though I don’t think they had ever met. I’d told my father that Lindsey’s dad was a salesman for our eastside branch and he’d asked me how he could afford to send her to my school on his salary. I’d told him I didn’t know, but honestly I didn’t care. He’d laughed and said he knew what his salesmen were paid and it wasn’t enough to make a dent in tuition. Then he’d said something about her getting some special scholarship to help the school’s public image. Public image was an expression my dad threw around a lot and now I often wondered if anyone had ever talked to him about his.
“Guys, guys just listen to me for a second.” Bradley snapped his fingers in my face, drawing my eyes back to him. “Stop making eyes at Lindsey.” His voice cracked when he spoke. Girls thought it was endearing then, but as it went on for the next five years it became less so.
“Sorry. What?” I nudged my brother and he turned around.
Bradley rolled his eyes. “Eddie Chandler said-”
“Who?” I asked.
I shook my head.
“He’s on the lacrosse team.”
I shook my head again.
“It doesn’t matter. Listen, you know Burman’s bus, the one that’s parked out on the field off Route 64?”
“Sure,” I said. Mr. Burman used to drive one of the school buses, the one that I used to take on days my father got off late and my mother was having extended lunch dates with friends. Mr. Burman was a big guy, big all over like the doctor had stretched him out and pumped him full of something on the day he was born. He walked with a stiff, slumped shuffle, an old injury from a dog bite I’d heard. When he spoke he took long pauses in between his words, and all of his sentences ended up sounding like questions even when they weren’t meant to be: The weather, lookin’ pretty good today? Some of the other kids used to make fun of him, call him Frankenstein, retard, or dumbass behind his back, just loud enough so he could hear. They said he was mean, but he’d never been mean to me. I’d been the last stop on his route and he would always drop me off in front of my house instead of making me get off at my stop five blocks back.
He’d gotten fired. Some of the kids said that he tried to run down one of the seventh graders in the parking lot. Others said he made a third grade girl jump off the bus while it was still moving. I knew the truth. He was fired for skipping Nick Ellsworth’s stop after Nick had called him a name far worse than any of the others. I wasn’t surprised that Nick had said it. Nick had bragged once, after basketball practice, that he was free to use any word he wanted because words were just words. They couldn’t be good or bad, only people could be. It had been Burman who’d been left the bad guy.
There always has to be a bad guy. It’s not in the Constitution, but it might as well be. When I’m at the playground with my kids I watch how they play with each other when it’s just the two of them. I watch their play fights, their stick sword battles of brother against sister in an epic duel to rule the multi-colored castle. I watch them and I laugh, because it’s harmless fun. Sometimes their friend Michael comes along with us. I watch them then too. I watch how their play fights change, no longer a battle of brother against sister, but brother and sister united against Michael, always. Michael never seems to mind; he laughs and swings his stick sword, happy to be there. And when it’s time for the villain to be executed as villains must be, he accepts his fate, acknowledging the white knights cause to return the kingdom to glory. Once after we’d left the playground and I’d dropped Michael back off at his house I asked my kids why Michael was always the bad guy. They’d laughed and looked at me with their oh daddy eyes as if to say “who else could he be?”
Nick had to walk home from the bus depot alone after Burman skipped his stop and refused to let him off at any of the others. Nick’s life had been endangered, his wallet stolen and his wrist sprained, after a walk through a bad neighborhood, at least that’s what he and his parents claimed. Mr. Burman had been let go with one of the old outdated buses and a tiny severance for twenty plus years of service. But his firing hadn’t been enough for the Ellsworths. They sued and Burman lost. After the bank had taken his house, he’d rented a patch of land off Route 64 and started living out of his bus. A little while after that Nick Ellsworth disappeared. The story around school was that Burman got to him, but there was no evidence. Schoolyard gossip didn’t need evidence; Burman was as good as guilty.
“Eddie said he saw a ghost wandering around the bus last Friday at midnight,” Bradley continued. “He said it looked like a kid. Maybe Nick, he wasn’t sure.”
“What was Eddie doing there at midnight?” Randy asked.
Bradley shot him a look.
“Shut it Randy,” I said. He’d made a good point, but he was still two years younger than us so I couldn’t let him think he was too smart.
“I think we should check it out for ourselves,” Bradley said.
“We probably won’t see anything,” I said. “Let’s leave it alone.”
“Maybe he’s got a bunch of missing kids out there.”
“What makes you think that?” I asked. “People disappear. It doesn’t mean he did it. Nick was a shitty guy. What about those tenth graders he used to buy weed from? Why does it have to be Burman?”
Bradley shrugged. “Think about it. After what Nick said, he probably snapped. He just couldn’t control himself y’know? Like a wild animal or something.”
“You really think Nick was the first person to call him that? Come on, man, he was pissed sure, but he wouldn’t kill anyone, not for that.”
Bradley tapped the side of his temple. “He’s crazy, man, real violent. You know his leg? I heard he got shot because of some gang he used to be in when he was younger.”
“It’s because of a dog bite,” I said.
“That’s just what the school people want you to think. They can’t just advertise that they hire gang members.” He craned his neck to look over the fence surrounding the playground. “I think my mom’s here. I’ll call you tonight, give you the plan.”
“Fine,” I said. I looked out over the fence to see if I saw my dad but I didn’t. My eyes caught Lindsey again. She had made her way into the circle of girls now. Natalie Blumson turned to her and asked her something. Lindsey nodded. Natalie ran her fingers through Lindsey’s braids. Natalie said something and smiled. A few of the other girls laughed. Lindsey laughed too. I remember it well because while her mouth made the motions of laughter there wasn’t any pleasure on her face. At that moment I thought it had been sadness I saw in her eyes. Later I realized they were eyes that had seen ghosts, seen ghosts and reluctantly accepted them.
We stood on the side of the road and looked out at the faded yellow bus that sat in a tangle of tall grass. The night air was chilly but with the slight hint of sweetness that came with approaching spring. I’d told my parents that me and Randy were spending the night at Bradley’s. That hadn’t been a lie. What I didn’t tell them was that Bradley’s older sister, Janet, was going to drop us off on the side of Route 64. Janet had taken some convincing. She was sixteen which of course meant she had important plans with friends. Reluctantly, Bradley and I had given her $20 apiece. Randy, who still spent his money on action figures, had put in $7 and some change. That hadn’t been nearly enough so Janet told Bradley that he was indefinitely indebted to her. Bradley agreed, not fully understanding what the word indefinitely meant (though if I remember correctly the word had been on our vocab test a little while before all this). When we’d gotten to Route 64, I’d asked Janet if she wanted to come with us.
“No way. It’s fricking disgusting out there. Don’t get killed. And don’t take too long.”
“You scared?” Bradley had asked.
“No, I just don’t want to be out here. It’s so fricking ghetto. Someone will probably see me and think I trying to pick up something,” she’d said.
“We won’t be long,” I’d said.
“Fine.” She’d sat idling on the berm while me, Randy, and Bradley made our way down the steep grassy slope that led to Burman’s bus.
When Janet turned off her car lights, we were left in darkness. Hip-hop music was thrumming from inside Janet’s car and I hoped it wasn’t loud enough to alert Burman. The tall grass left dark patches on the front of my jeans. We drew closer to the bus. The black letters on its side had faded. The yellow paint stood out in the darkness like a giant, sour caution sign. I thought I saw a glint of red on the fender but I couldn’t be certain.
“What if he sees us?” Randy asked.
Bradley grinned and drew a finger across his throat.
Beyond the bus was a thick patch of woods. Despite my disbelief that Burman was responsible for any disappearances, I couldn’t help but wonder if Nick was buried somewhere in there. I wiped the palms of my hands against the dewy stains on my jeans.
When we were a few feet away from the bus I crouched down low. I peered into the windows but I could see nothing but blackness inside.
“There’s something moving around in there,” Bradley said.
I looked at the bus doors. They were open, just a crack.
Bradley felt around in the grass and picked up a dirt clod. He threw it at the window and it hit with a dull thud. Randy looked at me, I could see his eyes were growing damp. I raised my finger to my lips. We all got down on our stomachs; the wet ground was cold against my skin. Bradley grinned, picked up another clod and threw it at another window. There was no sound from inside.
“I want to go,” Randy whispered.
“Shut it,” I said.
We got to our feet again. Bradley slipped his fingers between the crack in the bus doors and pulled them open. The metal hinges sang out, freeing the stale air trapped inside. Randy was the first to notice the smell. He sniffed and looked at me. I’ll never forget that smell. It was heavy and gassy, the smell of something that had burst to give birth to something rotten.
“Hello,” I said. The sound of my voice surprised me, it sounded too soft and high. I cleared my throat. “Hello,” I said again, this time trying to sound in control.
Bradley took his flashlight off his belt and shone it into the bus, illuminating worn seats with white stuffing struggling against the brown seat covers around it. I’d half expected to see rows of dead ghostly children sitting calmly and staring back at us. But there was only one figure. Sitting in the back of the bus was Mr. Burman. His eyes were wide open, bulging, as if he was straining to see something no one else could. His mouth was slack, his tongue swollen and stiff. A thick rope was wrapped around his neck, its end laid limply on his body, a shape that vaguely resembled a question mark. A piece of paper rested on his chest and I could see the word written on it, big and menacing in the darkness. It was just a word, the same one Nick had called Burman; the one he said wasn’t bad, just a word. But there in that stifling heat and darkness, it looked bad to me, written there like an epitaph, an unjust summary of a person. Something small crawled near the corner of Burman’s staring eye before flying off. I wanted so badly for him to move, but he never did.
When I think back on that night now and I look at my own kids I sometimes wish the story had ended differently. Occasionally I have the urge to misremember, to throw the security blanket back on and draw my children under it. But as much as I may wish differently, the story of that night on Route 64 will never be one I’ll tell around a campfire. There had been no creaking sound, no gust of wind to feed my imagination for months, to make me believe I had seen something extraordinary. There had been no transparent figure to haunt my dreams. Nick Ellsworth was never found and no evidence ever pointed to Burman. There had been no justifiable reason why life had chosen Mr. Burman to make a monster of. There had only been an old man who’d died alone in the back of his bus in a field off Route 64. That was the story I was left to explain to my children. Mr. Burman, like too many others, had been killed by the ghosts of something thought to be behind us, the ghosts no child ever sought out but were visited by anyway.
Richard Newby is a writer from Columbus, Ohio. He earned his BA in English, Film Studies, and Popular Culture Studies from The Ohio State University and his MFA in Creative Writing from Adelphi University. He draws his writing inspiration from film and graphic novels as well as traditional literature and is interested in the interconnectivity between media and writing. His articles on film, television, comics, and music can be found at the international film website, http://www.audienceseverywhere.net/author/richard-newby/ and his blog http://newbyfadeto.blogspot.com/ You can follow him on Twitter @RICHARDLNEWBY
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