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The Girl Came Home

The "Vanishing Hitchhiker" Revisited

She did her hair, carefully, slowly, in front of the mirror. She put on her mascara and lipstick equally carefully, dousing herself with a little perfume. On the radio, The Ronettes sang about wanting you to be their baby; it was 1963.

She teased her hair. Soon, the song changed over to an old number by Buddy Holly. “Peggy Sue” it was called. She frowned; she remembered Buddy Holly had been killed in a plane crash, along with Richie Vallens and the Big Bopper. It was a morbid thought to start the evening with, so she pushed it out of her mind.

Soon, Buddy Holly was replaced by Elvis Presley, and she breathed a little sigh, inwardly; everyone knew that guy would never die…

She sprayed her hair again, slipped into her poodle skirt, teased her blouse, and looked at herself in the old, cracked mirror. Yep, she was as pretty as a picture tonight, all ready for her big date to the school dance.

Suddenly, she heard a car pull up out front with a screech. That would be Billy. She was always trying to get him to slow down, be a safer driver. She thought it a miracle he hadn’t managed to kill himself yet.

She went out to the top of the stairs, headed to her mother’s room, said, “I’m going out now, Mom.” She waited; curiously, there was no answer.

She must have fallen asleep, she thought. She decided not to wake her.

She went quietly down the stairs and out the door. It was a cool evening; she was glad she had brought her sweater. The big, rumbling 57 Chevy with the souped-up motor sat idling at the curb. She could see the dark silhouette of Billy behind the wheel.

***

On the car radio, Ozzy Osbourne sang about going off the rails on a crazy train, and that’s just what Will and Seth intended to do tonight.

“We’re gonna score, my man. I can feel it! I feel it! Woo!”

Seth was leaning back in his seat, an open container of beer parked in the crotch of his jeans. Will realized this could get them in a lot of trouble if they got pulled over. But what the heck? Tonight, they would be young and alive, forever!

They pulled up to the place, hearing the music come pounding out of the garage.

“Good thing this place is out in the middle of nowhere,” said Will, pulling from his beer and parking at the curb. The boys stumbled inside, a big guy with long curly hair and buck teeth greeting them at the door.

“Far-out, guys!” he said. He was obviously quite drunk.

Inside, the place was already a mess, people were dancing around to Bruce Springsteen and Madonna. 

Seth said, “Man, this party looks like it’s really happening. Too bad the music stinks!”

Will suddenly pulled a tape cassette of an obscure, new group out of his jean jacket pocket.

“They need to play some of this. It’s called Metallica.”

Someone raced past them into the bathroom, holding their hand over their mouth. They slammed the door. Will and Seth looked at each other with amused grins.

“Dude,” said Will, “They’re gonna hurl!”

They laughed and high-fived.

***

She felt like a little wallflower tonight. All the popular kids were out on the dance floor, and she, big goof, was milling about all alone. What’s worse, the boy she had come with was busy talking to some other girl apparently, and seemed to be totally ignoring her. Jerk. She walked over to the punch bowl, grabbed a glass, half-heartedly, began to sip sweet punch as silent tears rolled down her face.

There was a strange, dark boy watching her, though; she had noticed him standing by himself earlier. My, wasn’t he handsome! A little creepy maybe…but for some reason, she couldn’t help but be drawn to him. Should she go over and talk to him? Oh, she felt so nervous and unsure of herself!

Suddenly, she felt herself moving among the dancers, walking slowly and deliberately over to where he stood, alone.

There was an uncomfortable moment of silence, then,

“Hi! I saw you standing over here alone. Just thought I’d come over and introduce myself.”

She held out her hand. He took it. The band started playing an old number she suddenly recognized as “Teen Angel.”

***

It was past two in the morning when the boys stumbled out of the party. Seth was going to do the driving.

The buck-toothed metalhead with the curly, greasy hair had his arm around Will. He was breathing his nasty drunken breath into his face, telling him what a “cool bro” he was, and how they were all going to have to get together sometime and party. Will shook the creep off, got into the driver’s side of the car, fired up the engine.

Seth got in, breathed a heavy sigh, and said, “Man, that party was really, really lame.”

“Yeah,” Will agreed. “It pretty much sucked, didn’t it? Well, time to go.”

“Sure,” agreed Seth, “let’s hit the road, dude!”

They pulled awkwardly away from the curb, zooming into the night.

***

She sat on the edge of the river, watching the car disappear into the blackness of the water. She was cold, freezing; she realized she was darn lucky to have escaped that watery grave. He had been drinking, of course, and he had been going so fast. When he lost control of the car (swerving to avoid what looked like a stray animal), they had crashed through the wooden guard rails of the old bridge, plummeting into the river below.

She had panicked, had thrashed her way free.

She must have fainted, because she woke up on the river bank, shivering and alone, watching the young boy’s car slip beneath the cold water.

Numb, she soon began to stir. She had to get back home! No one knew what had happened. She had to get home to her mother.

She began to walk up the embankment toward the road. Above her, the moon shown fat and full. She could still hear the squeal of the tires, the crack of the wooden rail…and the sweet strains of “Teen Angel” playing in her head.

She stumbled at the side of the road, lost in the darkness. Up ahead, she fancied she could see the gates of the old cemetery shining in the streetlights. She shuddered.

***

Will and Seth yawned. Seth cranked up the Metallica tape (which, incidentally, was called “No Life Till Leather”) and Seth was rocking out to a song called “Hit the Lights.”

“Man, this tape is really great. I love these guys!”

Will smiled. He felt the lids of his eyes grow heavy. He couldn’t wait to get home and crash. It had been a long, long night.

Suddenly, the headlights of Will’s car fell upon a strange, lonely figure, standing outside the old cemetery gates.

“Whoa! Hey man, do you see what I see?”

Seth stopped thrashing his head and concentrated on the road before them. Up ahead, in a flowing white gown, they saw what looked like a young girl standing on the edge of the road.

“Whoa, dude! A girl! Man, do you think she needs a ride?”

Will said, testily, “Of course she needs a ride! Probably her car broke down coming home from a party, or ran out of gas...or something…”

Will pulled the car up to the side of the road. Seth shivered as he looked out over the darkened cemetery. 

He leaned out the window, asked, “Hey, it’s okay. Hey, we’re cool. You need a ride?”

The lonely figure looked afraid for a moment, and Will thought, She’d have to be crazy to accept a ride from two strange guys in the middle of the night. She must be scared out of her mind!

But then he realized she had no other choice. She suddenly came over to the car, and, without saying a word, opened up the back door on the passenger side, sliding in. She was completely silent, stared straight ahead.

Will and Seth looked at each other as if to say, “Man, this chick is really strange,” before Will took off in a swirl of dust and a peal of rubber.

Seth looked back at the girl. Suddenly, he realized her white gown was a little wet.

“Hey,” he began, “hey, are you cold?”

The girl was quiet for what seemed like the longest time, before she opened up with, “No. I mean, yes. Thank you for the ride, by the way. My name is Penny Jo.”

Seth said, “Well, here, take this jacket.”

He took off his jean jacket, handed it back to the girl. She leaned over and slipped it on.

“Hey, we couldn’t very well leave you stranded out there in the dark alone, could we? What happened? Have a fight with your boyfriend or something?”

Silence.

Then:

“Yeah, a fight with my boyfriend. That was it.”

Will looked over at Seth, rolled his eyes.

“Well, okay, we’re cool. We’ll give you a lift home. Hey, you ever heard of Metallica?”

Will cranked the music. The girl looked frightened for a moment at the sheer volume. Will, sensing this, turned it down, and she said, “I like rock n’ roll a little. I’ve never heard anything that sounded like that, though.”

Suddenly an uncomfortable silence fell upon them. Ahead the miles of country road stretched on into darkness. Will asked, “So where are we taking you? You live pretty close by, right?”

The strange girl was quiet for a moment, then said: “Sure. Matter of fact, my house is just over the hill. On the left. Big old farmhouse.”

“Man,” whistled Seth, “you guys live out in the middle of nowhere.”

They pulled up into the dirt drive of a house that looked a hundred years old.

“Man, is this place abandoned?” asked Will. He suddenly felt an icy tinge of unease grip his belly.

The place looked weathered and rundown, the porch was sagging, the paint was chipped away; the windows were dark, vacant eyes. The yard looked like it needed mowing, and the bushes were overgrown. Will turned off the car, cut the lights, but neither he nor Seth could bring themselves to speak, for some strange reason.

Then:

“Man, do you feel it?” asked Will.

Seth gulped, said, “Yeah man, like creeping creepy creepiness.”

“My skin just broke out into gooseflesh… Hey!”

Suddenly, the back door was thrust open, and the girl seemed to run out of the car in a panic.

“What the?”

Will and Seth got out. Penny Jo seemed to have run into the bushes; at least, that was the last Will and Seth thought they saw of her.

A funny white mist seemed to be swirling up from the ground.

“Where in the hell did she go?” asked Will. “And why is it so foggy all of a sudden?”

It also seemed strangely cold, and the two boys gulped down the fear in their bellies as they climbed the rickety steps to the front porch. They peeped through the large picture window to the right. It was covered by a filmy sash, but seemed to be reflecting the faint glow of a lamp. They could see, dimly, what seemed to be the silhouette of an old woman sitting in a rocker. With growing fear, Will knocked. Seth waited, feeling goosepimples break out across his arms

They could hear the creaking of the floorboards as the old woman got up from her rocker and, shuffling heavily in the darkness, came to the front door. The old door swung open with an eerie creak, and the old woman was suddenly before them, looking sinister and mysterious in the night.

There was an uncomfortable silence before Will said, “Thank goodness you were home! At first, I didn’t think anybody still lived here.”

The old woman said nothing.

Confused, Will stammered on.

“We, uh, your daughter, I guess... Maybe your grandaughter…anyway, some girl stopped us for a lift. Said she lived here but, uh, now she seems to have vanished.”

Will suddenly realized how crazy it all seemed, but the old woman (who, Will thought, really shouldn’t answer the door at this ungodly hour, especially not for two young punks) smiled with the strangest, saddest expression Will thought he had ever seen. Her eyes seemed mysterious and far away.

“I knew this would happen. It happens every year at this time. She always returns home.”

Will said, “I’m confused. What are you talking about? I mean, who is this girl?”

The old woman smiled tolerantly, said, “Oh, she lives here, young man. Or did once, twenty years ago. The girl you picked up by the cemetery is my daughter. Every year, on the anniversary of her death, she tries to hitch a ride home. She hasn’t given up yet, apparently.”

Will felt his heart begin to hammer in his chest, and Seth seemed as if he were lost. Both boys suddenly stirred in shock.

“On the anniversary…” began Will.

“Of her…death?” finished Seth.

“Yes.” said the old woman, “coming home from a dance, on this very night, twenty years ago, the car she was in ran off the road and into the river. She drowned. They fished her body out the next day. Don’t believe me? She’s buried in the cemetery you picked her up in front of. Go and find the headstone. You’ll believe. Now, if you boys will excuse me, it’s very late.”

***

Later, Will and Seth went back to the cemetery. They played “The Trooper” by Iron Maiden on the radio, to try and bolster their courage, but Seth joked they should probably play something by Mercyful Fate instead.

They walked through the run-to-riot bone yard, up and down little dips and crannies, their sneakers sinking into the soft earth. Some of the headstones were quite old and weathered; impossible to read. A few had been tipped over by vandals. Plastic flowers and weird memorials were scattered here and there. 

Finally, Seth said, “Hey! Look at that!”

They both walked up to a marker in the rear of the place, close to the wrought-iron fence that abutted an old field. Seth stooped down.

“Hey look at what’s behind the stone.”

His blood ran cold. He bent and picked up the curled denim jacket that was lying on the dewy ground.

With trembling fingers, he held it up to his nose.

“It smells like perfume,” Seth said, his voice trembling a little. Will put his hands in his pockets. Somewhere a lonely dog howled.

On the gravestone, the inscription read:

Penny Jo Skaggs
1945-1963
R.I.P.

“I-I still can’t believe I’m seeing it!” said Seth.

“You know, man, I think maybe I’ve picked up my last hitchhiker. What do you think?” Will asked.

But Seth didn’t answer him. He threw his old denim jacket back down on the ground, and started to slowly walk back to the car. After that, people noticed the boys didn’t hang around together much anymore.

Scary Urban Legends by Tom Baker. Illustrated by John C. Eng