Footsteps of a Ghost
Sam Fox peered over his shoulder into the darkness. For a second he thought he saw a movement. A light perhaps, shining just beyond his line of sight. But staring produced no definite image just the grey glow of the blacktop. Afraid of stumbling, Sam returned his gaze to the road ahead.
The steady slap of his Adidas shoes drowned out his uneasy feelings of being followed. His mind bathed in the warmth provided by his legs. He took his pulse and found it satisfactory. His breath was a bit forced so he slowed his pace. It had been a hectic week and in spite of his usual resolve, Sam had been unable to work in any running time. His running addiction was too strong to be neglected for long. With the funeral out of the way, Sam had put on his running gear and headed out into the crisp fall air.
The funeral, Sam thought. That’s probably what had him a little spooked. Everybody expects old people to die. But a seventeen-year-old was another matter. Especially, a next door neighbor who often ran with Sam. Such a waste, he thought. Drunk driver was the police theory. Probably from out of state since they didn’t have any leads. Sam should have been with Chris. They had planned to run together but work got in the way. Chris had even been wearing the warm-up jacket Sam had given him when he was killed.
Sam shook off his morbid thoughts. He concentrated on his stride. He visualized his troubles falling off him like autumn leaves and then being pounded into the ground. One by one they dropped away until he could only hear his footsteps and his breathing. He savored the air like wine. Running had started out as just a health kick but now he ran for moments like these. Times when pain could be forgotten. Times for feeling life roar through his body. Times when he felt so high that everything was forgotten.
Which is how the truck almost hit him. It was his own footsteps that warned him. He could hear nothing else, no whine of tires or growl of engine. The sounds of his feet on the pavement seemed to grow until they sounded like a large bass drums warning him of danger. He whirled and the truck was right there. Its massive bumpers were milli-seconds away from mangling his body.
It was as if time stopped, as though he and the truck were part of a photograph. A still from an old melodrama. Sam’s mind froze but his body reacted by twisting and diving off the road. Branches and thorns ripped his bare arms and legs.
Cursing, heart pounding, Sam rolled to a stop and peered through the bushes in hopes of getting a license number. He saw nothing. The road was deserted and dark. The truck, which had seemed to appear from nowhere, had vanished in the same way. Sam struggled to his feet and up the embankment.
“Asshole!” he screamed.
His voice wavered and cracked. His mouth was dry. Only a moment before, he had been feeling incredible exuberance and now he felt as if he’d seen his own body lying in a grave instead of Chris’s.
Sam stretched his bruised limbs and removed any thorns that he could find in the dim light. There was something about the truck that he felt he should remember; like he should have recognized it. Then he realized that there hadn’t been any lights on the vehicle. That couldn’t be an accident, he thought. It was too dark on this road to drive without lights. The fact that there were few houses (or dogs) and very little night traffic is why he ran here. A vehicle couldn’t travel without lights unless it was on purpose. Unless someone was deliberately trying to sneak up and… kill him.
The thought startled him almost as much as the truck itself. He hadn’t felt that way since the war and yet the sudden rise in paranoia seemed to make things fall into place. Chris’s death made sense if someone had mistaken him for Sam. Death suddenly seemed even closer than it had that afternoon at the funeral. Feelings that Sam thought he’d left behind in combat resurfaced with shivering ease.
Sam kept watch both in front and behind as he half ran, half limped back home. He was relieved to see the light on his porch. He stood in the yard for a few moments doing warm down exercises and catching his breath while moths kamikazeed the light. Sam could smell fresh cut hay from the field next to his property and the familiarity of his surroundings made his escape of the road seem like a dream
Laura was coming down the stairs when he entered the house.
“Hi, Honey,” she said. “I just put the kids to bed. Why don’t you run up and say good…” She paused, startled at his appearance. “What happened?”
“Wasn’t watching where I was going and fell down an embankment.”
“Are you all right? I wish you wouldn’t run in the dark. I’ve asked you a thousand times…”
“I’m okay. I just need a shower. I already told the kids goodnight before I went out.” Sam walked up and kissed her. No sense in worrying her, he thought. It was probably just an accident and he was blowing it out of proportion.
In spite of his injuries, he couldn’t help but look in on the children. Tina and Robby rewarded him with hugs and lured him into telling them a story. One story turned into two and were accompanied by fits of laughter that didn’t stop until Laura ushered him out of the room.
“I swear,” she said. “I don’t know who the worst kid is around here.”
The hot shower felt great in spite of the fact that the water stung his wounds. Laura massaged his tight calves and he found it easy to forget the day’s events and sleep. He slept well but he did dream about the truck and the funeral. He kept trying to see who was in the truck but was unsuccessful. Reliving the funeral, his subconscious replaced the deep blue New Mexico sky with a drab foggy one that seemed more appropriate for the occasion.
The alarm woke him at 5:00. He laid in bed for a while, savoring the warmth of the blankets and Laura’s body. He liked the quiet morning. It gave him a chance to plan and see things more clearly. Thinks like, who would try to kill him. The answer became plain. Teamsters! They’d been picketing his trucking company for weeks. Harassing his drivers and pelting his trucks with eggs.
Sam couldn’t believe that he hadn’t figured it out before, although he was pleased to have found an answer. Now he could figure out a way to deal with it. He got out of bed, sore but happy to have a concrete problem to face. He’d solved many problems while turning Fox Trucking from a two truck operation into an eighty truck line. It was a simple business problem, one in which he had let his anti-union feelings get in the way of common sense. Sam was determined to solve it. Fox Trucking was his legacy for Robby. A lot more than Sam’s father had left him.
At work, Sam waved at the pickets as he drove through the gates. They responded with obscene gestures.
“Get me the Teamster guy on the phone, Sam told his secretary. He had a plan to turn the whole problem into his advantage. “We don’t have a problem,” he said aloud. “We have an opportunity.” It was one way in which he’d built his business.
Sam made his meeting with the union rep brief and to the point.
“You want to unionize my shop, right,” Sam Said.
“So what’s in it for me?”
“An end to the picketing and any other problems.”
“That’s not good enough,” Sam said although sure he knew what those other problems were.
“What else do you want, Mr. Fox?”
“I’m bidding against Peterson Lines for the Albuquerque run. Since he’s not union either it would be a shame for him to get it.”
“And a few ‘accidents’ might tip the balance, Mr. Fox?”
“I think we just might be able to do business,“ Sam said.
By the end of the day, Sam was very pleased with himself. He had, in his usual business manner, killed the proverbial two birds. When he got home, he grabbed Laura and whirled her around.
“Goodness,” she said. “What is it?”
“I just had a great day at work. Now let’s go out and celebrate. I’ve already called the sitter. Now run upstairs and get ready while I see the kids.”
He smiled as he watched her go up the stairs. He felt almost as good as if he’d been running. All his burdens were gone. He played with the children until the babysitter came and then he and his wife went to the country club for dinner. Afterwards, they went to a movie. It was a scary movie that Laura had wanted to see. Sam never understood his wife’s fascination for ghosties and ghoulies, as she called them. She was always reading about or watching something on the supernatural. Normally, he tried to avoid it since he found it dull and stupid but he felt good and he wanted her to be happy too.
It was late when they drove home. There were a few houses on the highway that went past their home and the new moon provided little light.
“How come the Jacksons don’t have any lights on,” Sam asked as they neared their own house.
“Don’t you remember? They left right after the funeral to go to her mother’s place in
California. Too many memories they said. I wouldn’t be surprised if they sold the house.”
“That’s too bad,” Sam said. Then, with a twinge of guilt, he remembered who was responsible for the tragedy.
“What’s that on the porch,” Laura asked.
“I don’t know.”
The headlights of the car flashed on an image of a bundle on the porch as the car swung into the driveway. Sam stopped the car short of the garage and got out to investigate. It was Ralph, the kids’ dog. From the cut on the head and the twisted back leg, Sam guessed that he’d been hit on the road and then crawled home and died.
“Oh, no!” Laura said. She put her arm on Sam’s shoulder. “The children will be heartbroken. But how did he get out of the kennel?”
“I forgot to tell the babysitter about the kennel. She probably just let him out. Look, I’ll take care of him. Don’t say anything to the kids. It’s best that they just think he got lost. I’ll buy them another dog in a week or two.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. Now go in and take care of the sitter.”
Sam got a flashlight out of the car. He carried Ralph to the back corner of the property and buried him. Then he went into the house, cleaned up and went to bed. He was tired and fell asleep quickly. In his dreams, he was chased by the truck. There was something familiar about the driver but Sam couldn’t figure it out. He woke up several times trying to discover what. By 4:30, he decided to give up on sleep. What he really needed, he thought, was a good workout.
He quietly got up and put on his sweats. He did his warm-ups in the living room and then went out. It was still very dark but the horizon was greying. Sam took a few deep breaths and then started out. The air was cold and smelled of hay. Sam headed east, stumbling slightly as he crossed the gravel shoulder of the highway. There was only one house for five miles. He’d run out and back again and then home for breakfast.
The sounds of the night had stilled but had not been replaced by the sounds of the day. The meadowlarks had not flown south yet and Sam hoped he’d hear one when the sun came up. The eastern sky was beginning to glow as Sam settled into his rhythm. The thud of his shoes and his heart seemed to match and blend into an easy melody.
Sam could never decide which he liked best, running at night or running in the early morning. One was a great way to end the problems of the day. The other was a great way to get a jump on problems. He had always liked running even in the Army. And after a few years of watching his waistline deteriorate it seemed like a good way to get back in shape. But it had turned out to be more than just physical exercise. It was a way to escape worries, problems, guilt, or anything that happened to be bothering him. After five or ten miles, he would return home, his troubles left somewhere on the road.
The sun was visible and he was almost at his turnaround point when the sound of his footsteps warned him again. The sound of his feet on the road seemed to grow in volume like the sound of a dripping faucet torturing an insomniac. Sam turned.
“No,” he said, “it can’t be.”
There was enough light for him to see both the truck and the driver this time. He was so startled by the driver’s face that he almost forgot to jump out of the way. The truck roared past and the wave of displaced air sent a chill through Sam’s body. He stared at the truck as it disappeared around the curve. On the back, in sloppy white letters, was the name Laura. It was an Army deuce and a half; the same truck that Sam had driven in the war.
“It’s impossible,” Sam said to himself. He began trying to rationalize what he’d seen. There’s a picture of that truck on my office wall, he thought. Anybody could have seen it. He began running back home, all the while keeping an eye over his shoulder and trying to make sense out of what he’d experienced. Someone was trying to get him. Either kill him or drive him crazy. And they’d repainted an Army surplus truck. That had to be it. But what about the driver, he asked himself. Sam shook his head and tried to banish the driver’s face from his mind. He had succeeded in forgetting once before, many years ago, in a far off country. But this time he couldn’t.
Sam didn’t bother to warm down. He entered his house still breathing hard from his run.
“Hi, Honey,” Laura said. “What’s the matter?” she said when he didn’t respond. “You’re as pale as a ghost.”
Sam was surprised by the reference.
“Nothing,” he said. He tried to sound normal. “I just pushed myself too hard today.”
“Well, breakfast is ready when you are.”
Sam nodded and went upstairs. He took a quick shower, dressed and came back downstairs. The children were already seated. Sam attempted a smile and sat down.
“Who wants to go to the zoo tomorrow?” he asked.
“ME! ME! came the reply.
“Okay,” he said. He tried to be cheerful and joked throughout the meal. He seemed to fool the children, but not Laura.
“I don’t know about the zoo,” she said. “I think you’re coming down with something. You’re still pale and you hardly touched your food.”
“Maybe,” Sam conceded. He didn’t want to argue. “I’ve got to go.” He kissed Laura and the kids and left.
When he got to work, the first thing he did was call the union representative.
“What’s the big idea?” Sam said.
“What do you mean?”
“I thought we had a deal.”
“We do. Is there some problem, Mr. Fox?”
“If anything happens to me, the whole thing’s off.
“I don’t understand, Mr. Fox.”
“Nothing,” Sam said. “Just forget it. When will the pickets be gone?”
“Oh! So that’s what’s troubling you. As soon as the agreement is signed they’ll leave. Some of them have already gone to work on the other part of our deal. Is there anything else?”
“No,” Sam said and he hung up. He didn’t care about the pickets. He realized by the man’s tone of voice that he knew nothing about the truck. Sam spent the rest of the day listing his enemies and trying to forget a face that would not leave him alone.
When he got home, he fixed himself a drink and settled in front of the TV. There was no one else home and he welcomed the chance to lose himself in the mindless blare of the set; to forget all else. To not have to pretend that everything was all right. That everything was normal.
Three drinks and several hours later, Sam realized that it was dark and his family was still not home. He peeked out the window and right on cue, a pair of headlights turned into the driveway. Only it wasn’t his car, it was a policeman. Frantically, Sam turned on the light and opened the door. He was relieved to see Laura and the children coming up the sidewalk.
“What happened?” he asked.
“It was just awful,” Laura said as she hugged him. “We were coming back from looking for Ralph and a truck; I don’t know how he managed to sneak up on me like that…although it was getting dark. At any rate, this big truck ran us right off the road. If I hadn’t have seem him, he would have run right over us.”
“Thank God you’re all right,” Sam said. His hands grew cold and his heartbeat became faster. He did not have to ask what the truck looked like. Numbly, he helped the children with their coats. While Laura heated some frozen dinners, Sam gave the children their baths.
“Read us a story,” they yelled after they had eaten and Sam was putting them to bed.
“A ghost story,” Robby said.
“No,” Sam said in a voice that was louder than he intended. “Not tonight.” Instead, he read some Shel Silverstein poems. Then he gave them lingering hugs, a quick kiss and turned out the lights. He and his wife decided to go to bed early. Sam held Laura close and gently rocked her to sleep. When she rolled out of his grasp, he turned over and tried to go to sleep himself. It was a futile task. The face from his past haunted him.
It had been a stupid dare trying to see how close he could get to the peasants on the road. At nineteen, it seemed like a game to Sam watching the people frantically diving into ditches. Only the boy with the face didn’t make it. Sam could still see the gash in the boy’s head from the bumper and the blood seeping into the already crimson earth of the dirt road. The mother screamed and yelled. But the worst was an old woman, perhaps the boy’s grandmother, pointing silently at him and fingering a little leather bag that hung around her neck . The crowd was ugly and it was only by the grace of an automatic weapon that they escaped without harm. Or had they, he now wondered.
The deaths of his neighbor and his dog along with the close call of his family worried him more than ever. And then his business mind offered a solution. It was simple, he thought. A debt was owed and it must be paid. The idea seemed so easy and it gave him the peace to rise and greet the dawn when it finally came. He donned his running gear, kissed his wife and peeked in on the kids.
He ran down the road which he knew so well with an easy deliberate speed. The sound of his footsteps seemed the only noise in the grey morning. Unlike his usual jaunts, this one seemed to add problems with each step instead of subtracting them. How would his family take it, he thought. The whole thing was ridiculous. It was all in his head. Why, even if there were anything to it, would someone or something want revenge after all these years? After he’d established his family and his business, after he’d built a future for himself. A future that the peasant boy never had a chance to see.
The sound of his footsteps began growing louder. Sam thought he could hear the truck engine but the noise of his feet drowned out all other sounds. Sam Fox raised his arms, said good-bye to his family and met his past head-on.