I have two curses. The first is my accent: in the year of our lord, the current day, I have a vintage My Cousin Vinny-style New Jersey accent. It is as tasteless as it is prominent. The second curse I have is that I find stories. Or maybe stories find me — but either way, it isn’t important. People like to tell me their stories. This has long baffled me; I don’t know why anyone would trust a man with my goofy, quick-dying regional accent. But more simply, I don’t get why people tell me things. I’ve never struck myself as a particularly good listener, or trustworthy. But this keeps happening, somehow.
Last week I ran into a woman from Northern Michigan — who now, mind you, works at an investment bank in New York — and she told me about her experience with a certain native monster that the locals and tribes up north refuse to name. Everyone knows what it is, of course. Even I know what it is. It feeds on families who get snowed in cabins and is tall and pale. A horrid beast. People believe saying its name summons it; who am I to question this? Hell if I want to find out if it actually shows up. Anyway, who knows why she told me this. We were classmates some time ago; she dropped this on me at a class reunion happy hour. We were two of the last people left. Both of us had showed up late. Dumb luck. Nothing else to do, so we sat and talked.
Another person I know told me about the time he rode on a ghost train. One of the ones you hear about in old stories, you know? All pale and white, only shows up late at night when only one person is on the platform, and no one is driving it or riding inside. My pal took it straight from South Bend to Peoria. He made me promise not to tell anyone about the whole affair, too — if it came out he’d get sacked from his job because folks would think he’s lost his marbles. That kind of, uh, infirmity makes you lose a security clearance, you know. It’d be a death sentence for the poor guy: he does something pretty important and secretive in Washington, D.C.. And again: he believes he rode a ghost train. He said the entire time he was onboard, the moon was out of the sky, he could hear a faint screaming, and that tongues of flame shot out of the carriage’s wheels. The look on his face he had when describing all of it was traumatizing. Man clearly didn’t want to have experienced this. But we got to talking and I told him about what I’ve seen and heard, and he said, that if I promised not to tell no one, he had something worse. And this is a good, old friend. I know he isn’t lying.
Maybe the worst story I’ve picked up is from my uncle. Nice guy, good man. A state senator too — works in Trenton half the time because of it. Boring fella aside from that, oddly. He’s a lawyer. Nothing to write home about as far as personality goes.
Anyhow, one day he was driving his Mercedes through the big, deep forests at the bottom of our state. Most people don’t know this, but 1.1 million acres of New Jersey is protected forests. Just big old pine trees that somehow grow out of the sand. They cover about a quarter of the state. Nothing’s down there; the roads that run through them don’t even got lights on them because there’s no power lines. He was driving his big, new, black Mercedes sedan back from Atlantic City one night. Decided to cut through the forest. Well, as he’s driving, he runs over a big branch that was in the middle of the road. It got stuck under his car and was dragging pretty loudly.
Now, he’s on a two lane road. And it’s pitch black because there’s 1.1 million acres of nothing on top of nothing around him, save the pine trees and the sand. The roads are so close to the trees that they don’t even have a full shoulder. But after a bit of hearing the branch bump and drag, he pulls over. The road is so narrow at this point that he has two wheels on the side of his car off the road, in the dirt, but he’s still taking up half the lane.
He throws on his flashers and gets out of the car, walks around to the side near the trees. He gets on his knees and looks under the car. He’s down there, and he’s staring at the branch, and it’s dead quiet all the sudden. No wind, nothing. Just him and the night. Then a voice. A child’s voice.
“Mister? Can you help me?”
My uncle turns his head around and, right behind him, is a little green boy. Green. Kid got green skin. Like grass, my uncle says. Dark green. The kid was barefoot, wearing overalls and nothing else. Had a mop of brown hair on his head. Bluest eyes my uncle ever saw, he says, but otherwise looked just like any normal kid. And my uncle stares at him, and the kid just goes softly:
“I need to get back to St. Martin’s Land.”
The kid pauses.
“Mister, I can’t find my family.”
My uncle turns around, sits himself on the ground, hands at his side, legs out in front of him, and just stares. He stares at the kid, mouth open. The kid is making eye contact with him at this point, too. After a few seconds, the boy just says “Sorry. I won’t bother you again.”. He turns, the walks into the forest, and darkness just starts to cover him like fog. Then he’s gone.
My uncle gets up, hops in the car, and floors it home. He doesn’t tell a lot of people about this whole deal. I get why.