Ghosts & gangsters Meth & monsters Drugs & demons Read the first three chapters below...
Teenage friends Brian and Iggy suddenly find themselves living the ghost stories and urban legends they love one night as they watch a car drive across the moonlit surface of Gray Lake. At the same moment, in the marshes to the north, the battle for dominance over a troubled gang of small town meth dealers begins. For Iggy, the car’s arrival heralds a downward spiral as he dreams of its sometimes lovely, sometimes ghastly occupants chauffeuring him into murky depths. For Brian, it issues in a season of dark love in the form of Maya, a devastatingly beautiful but strangely enigmatic girl he meets on the lake shore.
Soon the mysteries of the ghost car, coupled with the unstable gang members’ obsessions, will drive Brian, Iggy and others toward fateful choices, hurtling headlong into a violent and deadly showdown on the spectral shores of Gray Lake.
Gray Lake by David Bain
“Because Gray Lake is haunted,” Brian said. “I mean think about it. I know at least fifteen Gray Lake ghost stories just off the top of my head.”
“Fifteen?” Iggy lifted his back from the windshield of Brian’s Jeep and propped himself up on his bony elbows, the tendrils of his curly hair twisting about the shoulders of his t-shirt, the ends long enough to still be brushing the glass. The Jeep sat on the skinny ribbon of public access, which was little more than a wide berm. Iggy began counting on his fingers. “Let’s see – Hatchet Man, Little Lost Lucy, crazy Dr. Sallee – who may even have been Hatchet Man – the ghost girl made of fog over in the marsh, what other ones?”
Brian and Iggy were facing Deadman’s Hill, which was infamously steep and high. After descending Deadman’s, Lakeview curved around the contour of the lake. There was a good deal of shallow water and leafy shore shrubbery between them and the hill, which loomed about a football field and a half away.
Brian remained lying on the hood. His athletic frame, white tennis shorts, red polo shirt and close-cropped blonde hair stood in stark contrast to Iggy’s spindly, spider-like body, cut-off jeans, black Misfits skull t-shirt and long, dark, shaggy locks.
“Well, okay, what I’m saying, Ig, is whenever anyone from Green River tells one of those ghost stories – urban legends, I mean - like even the old one about the killer with the hook hand scratching to get into the car where the kids are making out, ever since I was a little kid, people have set that one right here at this spot. Right where we are now. This little strip of sand along the road. You know it didn’t really happen here - as if it really happened anywhere - but there must be three dozen lakes around Green River. So why do they choose this one if it isn’t really haunted?”
“Because it’s a popular make-out spot?”
“People like to say that, but tell me, how many times do we come out here, you, me and Bull, and it’s empty, like it was made just for us. Or it’s just one or two people hanging out, stargazing like you and me, or smoking a cigarette and looking out over the water or something? In fact, have we ever encountered anyone making out here? I’ll tell you something. Back in the bad old days of last semester, back when I wasn’t single, I took Janie out here one Saturday and, dude, there was just too much traffic. We’d get warmed up, all breathy and slurpy-faced – she was a really sloppy kisser - ”
“I wouldn’t have cared. Not in the least. Bring on the sloppy-kissing cheerleaders! You were a fool to dump her, man.”
“Like I need advice from someone who’s never made out here or anywhere else on this planet. Look, my point is that thirty seconds later, every time we got going, we had to stop because we had to see whether or not the headlights on the road would suddenly pull up next to us.”
As if on cue, another car crested the hill far above them.
“So where’s this one going?” Brian asked.
“It’ll go left, into the trailer park.” A car going right would head into the relatively new, more well-to-do waterfront houses of Gray Lake Estates.
“Nah,” Brian said, pausing for a yawn. “It’ll go past us, toward Burr Oak.”
“Left,” Iggy said. “Definitely left.”
The car turned left.
“Damn, how do you do that? I don’t even average one in three but you get, what, maybe ninety percent right?”
Iggy grinned - his thin face skull-like under his cowl of long stringy hair - and stretched out on the hood, reaching into the pocket of his cut-offs. When he pulled his hand out again he held up a crinkly little pin-sized joint that was barely visible in the moonlight.
“I’ve been using a top secret psychotropic substance previously known only to the ancient Atlanteans in order to heighten my already awesome powers of awareness and prognostication.”
“Jesus. Okay, go ahead, smoke it if you think you have to. Just don’t let any of it waft my way.” Brian waved a hand in front of his nose as if he were already trying to keep the noxious smoke at bay.
“Where do you get that stuff anyway? Stuckey?”
“Pfft. I mean, look at the source. You want to turn out like him?”
“Hey, you let Stuckey buy beer for you.”
“No, Bull lets him buy beer for us.”
“You wouldn’t have anything to do with Stuckey if it wasn’t for Bull’s football connection?”
“Are you kidding? I know cooler people than Stuckey who are over twenty-one.”
Iggy shrugged. “Listen, dude. You sure I can’t talk you into trying some just this once? Summer’s just begun. No piss tests for you until August at the earliest. This spring you said you would.”
“I lied. Or, well, I’ve reconsidered.” He held out an upraised palm. “Not for me, sorry.” Brian suddenly adopted Iggy’s position, up on his elbows. He looked at Iggy, his eyebrows now in a sharp V.
“Yeah?” Iggy asked, exhaling blue smoke.
“Shh, Ig. You hear that?”
Far back over the top of Deadman’s Hill, away back toward Green River, a loud engine – so distant, and yet already so incredibly loud – was growling toward them.
“Damn,” Iggy said. “Someone needs a new muffler.”
The engine sounded like it had to be just over the top of the hill, though the two boys couldn’t even see the glow of the car’s headlights yet.
“So this loud car,” Brian said. “Which way?”
“I … I don’t know,” Iggy said.
“Come on, weed got your tongue or what? You’re The Prognosticator, man. You’ve got special insights and all. Take a guess.”
“Quit being weird and take a guess!”
“Into Gray Lake Estates.”
“Was that weed really strong or something? Are you so stoned that all logic’s left you? Turn into Gray Lake Estates with an engine like that? No way. In fact, it’s too loud even for the trailer park. Nope, that one’s going to drive right past us and head on into the night toward Burr Oak. Only a true rock-n-roll hell-billy would drive a car like that.”
“No,” Iggy said. “No, I don’t want that car to go past us. I don’t want that thing coming anywhere near us.”
The still-distant engine kicked its growl up another snarling notch as it fought the grade to the crest of the hill.
“Brian, I’m scared. That car, it’s not a normal car.”
Sweet, pungent smoke rolled so thick through the old Nova Menger had chosen for the night that Jim Stuckey could barely see his hand directly in front of his eyes. AC/DC’s “The Jack” off High Voltage was throbbing away on the speakers. Keith Orban and Stuckey had been singing along, their vocals now degenerating into a tangled mix of laughter and mistimed lyrics. Stuckey was sucking at air in between hacking, but-gusting coughs from his last hit. His lungs were burning. In his mind’s eye he could see them pulsing red in his chest, achieving the same bright brick color as his thin flannel shirt.
As he choked down the last cough – maybe his final weed wheeze ever – Stuckey rolled down the window.
Mike Menger, who’d been silent these past several minutes, seemed to form in the driver’s seat like a brooding, wizened, frowning ghost come to stare at them in judgment as the smoke drifted out and cleared. The entire right side of Menger’s face looked slightly melted and slick-smooth from an old burn. The scar extended a short way up past his temple so that Menger’s starkly white hair, which he kept in a military crew that complimented the square set of his jaw, was patchy and sparse on that side. His right eye had a perpetual squint from the same accident, and Stuckey could never tell, in situations such as this, exactly how pissed the chief was.
“If you two braying jackasses really mean to do this, you’d best get to it,” Menger said, dismissing them with a hard glance. He opened the driver’s door and got out. “God damn it! I’ve got a fucking contact buzz, and it’s reminding me why I quit this shit in the first place. It’ll do you dickheads some good if you actually go through with this, if you actually stick with it for the long term. Maybe this business of ours will finally work right for once.” He walked to the rear of the Nova, put the key in the trunk’s lock and turned it.
“That is why we’re doing it, Chief,” Keith said. “Lucidity. To make the business run smoother. To make our lives run smoother. I’ve got a family on the way, man. No more room for fuck-ups.”
“No more fuck-ups. That’ll be the day,” Menger muttered.
The darkness was warm and humid despite the slight breeze here in the marshy fens that made up the northern section of Gray Lake. They were lost in the mazes of dirt roads the Department of Natural Resources had blazed through this nature preserve, most of which was nothing but cattails, waist-high rustling grass, boggy soil and marshwater.
The trunk bounced open on its springs with a squeaky thunk. Menger examined the contents and shook his head. “Damn expensive stuff you’re throwing away. We’re supposed to be making money, not tossing it into the swamp.” Menger dug a crumpled pack of Marlboros out of his navy blue work shirt and went about lighting a smoke. The sewed-on patch over his breast said Menger’s Salvage in cursive script. “Why not sell this shit? You’ve each got customers who’d buy it, right?”
“Hey, it’s symbolic, Chief,” Keith said. “This stuff … well, it’ll be a little tough to see Mr. Moyers and the magazines go, but the rest is a dime a dozen. Everyone who’d want it would know where to get it without us. As long as we supply the actual product, they’ll stay happy.”
“If you say so. Symbolic, huh? How about then you get your symbolic thumbs out of your symbolic asses and get to it.” Smoke seeped from Menger’s mouth as he spoke. “We could all be out right now earning symbolic pieces of paper called money.”
Stuckey had walked, limping slightly as always, to the middle of the concrete railing of the small bridge by which they were parked. With careful precision, he placed the bong they’d just used in the direct center. This, he and Keith had agreed, was to be the first ceremonial offering. The bong was about two feet high and had started life as a huge glass beaker Keith had stolen from the science lab back three years ago on his last day in high school. They’d named it “Mr. Moyers” after the square, straight-laced science teacher who’d flunked Stuckey twice. Moyers had also handed Keith a D- “so you won’t have to have an F on your record” almost ten years ago.
Keith and Stuckey unloaded the trunk as Menger sullenly glowered at them. His burn scar seemed to catch the moonlight more than the rest of his skin. The Chief hung back by the car’s trunk, inhaling his Marlboro and sucking down a Budweiser from the case of cans in the back seat. A few minutes later the bridge railing was lined with a dozen bongs, twice that number of pipes – everything from a three-foot long carved peace pipe to a tiny brass one-hitter – boxes of rolling paper, a rolling machine, a set of scales, a stack of posters and several years’ worth of High Times magazine which Keith had bought on E-bay. The posters lay curled face down around the railing, flapping in the breeze, a bong in the shape of an ancient Greek statue of a naked, armless nymph placed on top of them to weigh them down.
“This look like we’re not going through with it?” Stuckey called to Menger from the bridge, and flashed him the finger, just as a joke.
But Menger’s scowl only deepened, looking all the more awful as it twisted his scar. The Chief started walking toward them, still smoking. He pulled the cigarette from his mouth and jabbed it in their direction as he talked. “It’s not going to make one little fuck of a difference, Jim.” Menger rarely used Stuckey’s given name, and when he did it always made Stuckey feel like a child. “My prediction? You’ll make it two weeks tops, probably significantly less than that. Keith might do it, but you won’t, Jim. Something will stress you out – as if you know what the hell stress even is – and that’ll be your excuse. Then you’ll be right back here, or at the haunt, or off in a car somewhere, circlejerking with a bunch of little high school punks, smoke rolling out the windows and your pansy little schoolboy ass will be giggling right along with the lot of them.”
Stuckey’s lips tightened. This time he raised both hands, middle finger extended. “Fuck you, Chief,” was all he said and he held the pose. Keith only looked on, hands in pockets, smiling slightly, waiting to see what happened. He was standing between Stuckey and the boss, but his attention focused on Menger because, he was sure, that’s where the real show would be.
Menger replaced the cigarette and inhaled deeply, leaning his head back and looking to the sky, blowing out the smoke and watching it dissipate into the stars overhead. He met Stuckey’s eyes evenly before answering, the cig bobbing in his mouth as he talked, smoke rolling past his scar and eyes, making him demonic as he spoke. “Fuck me, huh? Fuck me? No, Jim. Fuck you.”
Stuckey hesitated, lowering his fingers slightly, not holding them quite as proudly forward. His hands continued to sink as Menger talked, eventually coming to hang at his sides.
Menger methodically removed his cigarette, once more gesturing with it as he continued. “Fuck you because you think pot’s the problem. Fuck you because you think everything’s gonna be just hunky-dory after today. Fuck you because you think this somehow makes you better than me because I didn’t give it up until I was so much older than you are now. What pecker-headed bullshit! Fuck you because you think this pathetic little display actually makes some kind of difference, makes you a frickin’ Narcotics Anonymous grad or something. Fuck you because you think now, because of this, you’ll get a real job, a real girlfriend, any friends but me and this little tattooed nit here. Fuck you because you think this little gesture gets you a real life. Like the world fucking owes it to you now. No, Jim. I know who and what I am and who and what I’ve been. And I know exactly who and exactly what you are, too. You’re just a confused little snotnosed chump, Jim, a poser, a wannabe, a kid, likes to find a crutch, make money from the crutch, then say the crutch is the problem. No, Jim, fuck you, man.”
Menger reinserted the cigarette and stalked the rest of the way across the pavement of the bridge, past Keith, until he was face-to-face with Stuckey.
“But hey,” Menger said, smoke from the stub of the cigarette smoldering past his squinted eye. “If you’re serious about this, let me be the first.” Menger reached out and with the tip of his index finger he made glass-to-skin contact with Mr. Moyers. The glass made a gravelly sound as it slid along the cement railing. There was an endless second of free-fall in which the black swampwater below the bridge gurgled, then the beaker splashed and shattered against an array of small rocks just below the surface. Two ducks squawked in the distance and their silhouettes flew off into the night.
There was a beat of silence again, then Keith gave a roar and charged to the railing, starting to knock paraphernalia off into the trickling morass. Stuckey glared into Menger’s scarred face a moment longer, then joined Keith, though his cheering was forced as he hurled a pipe into the swamp with all the strength he could muster.
The car kept coming, kept roaring, though not even its headlights were anywhere in sight.
The cool, slightly fetid lake air curling in around them carried hints of the drive-through fried chicken they’d gorged on earlier in the jeep. The greasy, meaty odor combined with the amplified snarl of the approaching engine made Brian imagine a ravenous, cartoonish amalgam of car and carnivore: a razor-toothed, slobber-slathered maw instead of grillwork; furry wheels with sharp claws all along their circumference digging into the macadam and churning it up, spitting a chunky dust devil plume of pavement in its wake; murderous black eye slits in the feral, yellow-glowing headlights; a flailing, whiplike tail instead of an antenna rising over the trunk, madly lashing the air behind the car as it ate up the miles and bore down on them.
But Iggy’s imagination was obviously going in a much different direction. His tight-faced look of concern was genuine. Brian smirked to himself. His geeky little buddy was spooked. It was the paranoia that came with weed – another reason Brian had decided not to try it. Not that he really blamed Iggy – the engine really was getting horrendously loud, and they still couldn’t see any headlights. But it had been true in elementary school and it was still true now – Brian never missed an opportunity to screw with Iggy’s head.
“Okay,” Brian said. “Then we’ll split the difference between that car turning off Deadman’s Hill and it driving past us. I predict that car -” Brian held his fist to his forehead as if he were fiercely concentrating “- will stop right here at the public access.”
They’d played this game since they’d learned to drive last summer, before junior year, but neither of them had ever predicted this option before.
“Jesus, no!” Iggy sprang up off his butt and off the Jeep, bounding onto his tattered sneakers and turning back to implore Brian. He made a slash in the air with his skinny right arm. “No! Do not let it stop here! Seriously, we don’t want that car stopping here!”
Brian hesitated. “Ig, it’s a game.”
“Please, Brian, make it do something else. Don’t let it stop here.”
“What, with my psychic powers or something? I didn’t smoke any weed, remember? Why don’t you use your special powers, Indica Man, you’re all clairvoyant and telepathic and mystic these days.”
“Just say it’ll do something else, okay?”
Brian shrugged. “Okay, it’ll do something else.” Still perched on his elbows on his Jeep hood, Brian twiddled his fingers in the general direction of the hill, as if he were a wizard lazily casting a spell. Brian saw the tension slip from his friend’s muscles even as the growling reached a fever pitch and a glow finally backlit the crest of Deadman’s Hill. Brian couldn’t help but laugh.
There was a break in the engine growl that sounded like – no, it couldn’t have been – it sounded like a burp or a hiccup with a slightly high-pitched squeal to it. It had sounded … almost organic. It had been a backfire, of course – what else could it have been? – but now unquestionably inorganic headlights peered over the hilltop, casting their beams high over the boys’ heads and cleanly slicing the air between the thin strip of shore and the brilliant starspray of the galaxy above.
The shadows of the treetops seemed to blur and smudge and drip and run as the growling car began its descent, and in the suddenly Dali-esque shadowscape of the lake, Brian had a vision of the night transformed, embodied into a woman or girl: The willows and slightly swaying pines were the dark length of her hair, ruffled by the breeze; the flashing silver maples gently twinkling black-white-black in the yellow headlight beams were the flash of her eyes; the road was the curve of her smile. And the lake itself, he now realized, was her mind, the depths of her being, everything behind the shadowy, shifting, flickery mask of her beautiful face … everything he could never truly know about her. He thought of the old poem from English class – “She walks in beauty, like the night.” How did the rest go?
All of this in a flash. Then her image faded back into the night and he couldn’t retain or recall the picture, though he still wanted to.
The shadows solidified as the car eased down to the bottom of Deadman’s Hill - but Brian found himself now agreeing with Iggy, pushing at the car with his thoughts, willing a separate wish on every separate star in the Milky Way above that this fierce, growling engine and whatever darkness it carried wouldn’t stop here on the public access.
And it didn’t stop at the access.
Nor did it drive by.
Brian knew Deadman’s Hill well. He ran seven miles almost every day that weather permitted – he used a treadmill when it didn’t – and his turn-around point was just beyond this beach, as Lakeview turned off toward Burr Oak on another hill behind them. If you went straight at the bottom of Deadman’s Hill instead of following the curve of the road, you’d run smack-dab into an ancient, gargantuan oak that thrust up out of the tangle of lower vegetation. He could picture it clearly - a heart containing the words “Bill & Mary” was carved deep into its trunk. He wondered each morning who those long-ago lovers might have been. The car was heading for the oak as if that lovers’ heart were its target. He and Iggy had watched hundreds of sets of headlights ease into the curve before the oak as they made their way past the public access. The shadows thrown by the headlights of the supernaturally loud car - including the shadow of the big oak - were wrong.
Iggy saw it too; Brian could see his friend’s shoulder muscles cringe at exactly the point when he expected a collision with the oak.
And then the oak’s shadow was gone. The only shadows now were of the scrub between the two of them and the big tree. It looked for all the world as if the car had driven through the gigantic trunk.
And still the car roared forward, its engine grumbling, sputtering and echoing out across the lake, its headlights cruising directly over the water now, illuminating curls of steam that were rising up off the surface. The twin headlights burned into the boys’ retinas, bearing down on them now, headed straight for them, lights large as wrecking balls, seeming to fill their minds with their blinding bright, the boys’ fear melding with the engine’s animal growl.
Straight for them. Feet away, almost to the shore.
And then the headlights and the engine simultaneously cut off.
The engine didn’t chug to a stop. The headlights didn’t fade. It was sudden and final and without question, like an ax thwacking into wood or a prison cell door slamming shut. The car – its engine, its lights – had been there, out over the water, headed directly toward Iggy and Brian. A collision had been imminent as they’d stood there, paralyzed with fear.
And then it was gone.
Brian was still on the Jeep hood, lying prone, but his muscles weren’t responding to any command. He found his fingers had attempted to claw into the hood. He saw Iggy was still standing, rooted to the sand, palms spread at his sides as if he were a gunslinger getting ready to draw. Iggy’s knees were bent – the gunslinger was also ready to flee – but he was staring fixedly at the spot where the car had been, apparently unwilling to turn away should the spectral vehicle suddenly reappear.
“Ummm,” Brian heard himself say. “I think we should maybe leave.”
“Right,” Iggy said, but neither of them moved at all for a second. They could hear the small, lapping waves reaching the shore and, it seemed, the wind touching each individual twig and leaf in the vegetation.
In the next instant, they were both scrambling for their seats in the Jeep. ***