My unwelcome passenger has been sitting next to me since Ocean Park and 23rd. Sitting next to me in Gary’s light blue pick-up truck as I drive home. He could’ve been there longer than 23rd Street but that’s when I first noticed him.
I jumped and swerved when I first saw him. It took me a few minutes to recognize who he was. That he wasn’t actually a man but more of a translucent thing. Your mind does confusing things when someone appears who couldn’t or shouldn’t be there.
When I first saw the man, I wondered for a second if I picked up a hitchhiker.
Does anyone even use that word anymore? One of the first things Gary told me when I got my license was to never pick up hitchhikers. I laughed at first because I thought he was kidding.
“What’s a hitchhiker?” I asked him.
He patiently explained.
But I’ve never picked up a hitchhiker and I never would. That’s where my confused mind went when I saw the thing in the passenger seat though.
Luckily, the thing didn’t look at me. He looked straight ahead, like he’s a normal passenger along for the ride. Enjoying the radio. Enjoying the slight breeze coming through the open window.
It helped that he didn’t look at me. I think if I had looked over and saw it staring at me that I might’ve gone right off the road and hit people walking on the sidewalk. I might’ve even passed out like I did last time I saw him at 18th Street Arts.
It’s the same thing… or guy. I can tell from the brown suit and bow tie. He’s following me, or something.
After my first meeting with this thing, I woke up in a back room at 18th Street Arts. Gary was holding me. All I could see was his face and his long brown hair hanging down in my face.
“Where’s the man?” I exclaimed with a fear in my voice that must’ve rattled Gary.
“What man?” He asked so seriously and with such an urgency that I realized there was something like anger in his voice.
I’m not accustomed to Gary every being angry.
“The man that was walking towards me,” I said as I trembled and tried to sit up.
Gary helped me sit up and look around. I was in a storage room of some kind with white and brown packing boxes littering the floor. Gary must’ve carried me there. Danny and Johanna were sitting on plastic folding chairs up against a wall. They both looked scared.
“Josie, there were lots of men there,” Gary said as I looked around the small storage room. “But no one walked towards you or approached you. You finished the song and just fell to the ground.”
“You scared us, Josie,” Johanna said more seriously than I think I’ve heard her speak before.
Danny looked pale and stayed silent.
“There was a man, Gary,” I pleaded with him. “He was. He was hanging in the back corner, close to ‘Stormwatch.’ Didn’t you see him?”
Gary just stared at me.
“Hanging? Josie,” he said carefully. “No one was by ‘Stormwatch’ when you were singing. Everyone there, everyone, was watching you sing in the main room. And no one approached you. No one moved until you fell.”
I started to get frustrated but I realized Gary was being totally honest and open with me. I could tell he had no idea what I was talking about and was scared. Uncle Gary being scared was something I couldn’t handle. Not when I was already so scared myself.
I dropped it then and hadn’t brought it up again. I felt weak, tired and my stomach hurt terribly. I just wanted to go home.
Since that night, Gary has made my passing out a little joke. It’s not really that funny to pass out, but I guess it’s easier for us to joke about it than deal with it in any real way.
I’ve been mostly fine since that night. It took a day or two for me to feel like myself and I had to call in sick to Kava Kava one day. Things were starting to get back to normal until I hit Ocean Park and 23rd Street. And noticed my new companion.
I just pulled into the driveway and I’m not sure if Gary is home. I desperately hope he is. I jump out of the truck quickly, and say a little prayer that the thing in the passenger seat won’t follow me.
I walk into the house and haven’t been that happy to see Gary in a long time. Seeing him in the kitchen eating a sandwich almost makes me burst into tears. Gary notices something is wrong right away.
“Josie,” he says with concern in his voice. “Are you OK?”
I look at him for a few seconds and I am contemplating whether I should tell him about the passenger. I decide not to. No one believed me at 18th Street Arts when I told them about the man hanging in the corner. I don’t feel like bringing it up again.
“Yeah, I’m ok,” I say, trying to force a smile. “Just happy to see you.”
“You look tired,” he says, setting his half-eaten sandwich down on his plate. “Have you been sleeping alright?”
I haven’t slept that well since the night of Gary’s show but again, I don’t want to get into why.
“I am tired,” I admit. “I’ve got a lot on my mind with our trip coming up.”
I am hoping that changing the subject to our trip to Hawaii will make him forget to worry about me for a minute.
“Yeah, me too,” he says, picking back up his sandwich. “I have a commission I have to finish before we leave next week. I’m gonna make it but the pressure’s on.”
“I get it,” I say, starting to wash dishes in the sink.
I need to occupy myself with something to forget about the passenger thing.
“The coffee shop has been so busy,” I say as I clean an already clean plate. “The tourists are back so it’s getting crazy again.”
Gary finishes his sandwich and carries his plate over to me at the sink.
“I’m gonna go out back and do some more work on that piece,” he says absently.
No dad jokes means Gary is unusually stressed. I can relate.
“You gonna be alright?” He asks, waiting for me to look him in the eyes.
When I stop and look him in the eyes, the weight of seeing the thing in the car catches up with me and my emotions bubble over. I start crying but turn quickly to try and hide it.
“Josie,” Gary says, alarmed, while putting his hand on my upper arm. “What is going on? Tell me now. No more games.”
I lean into him and start sobbing on his shoulder. It takes about five minutes to get it all out and I feel much better letting it all go. I think I’ve been bottling up my feelings since Gary’s show. The release of tears clears my mind for this first time in almost a week.
“Alright, better now?” Gary asks as he backs away to look me in the eyes again.
“Yes,” I nod, wiping tears from my cheeks.
“Now that you got that out, can you tell me what’s going on?” He asks.
I can tell he won’t take no for an answer.
“I feel like a freak, Gary,” I say. “I don’t want to tell you.”
“Now you better tell me,” he says sternly. “Did someone hurt you?”
“No, it’s nothing like that,” I say. “It’s about that man.”
“That man?” He asks, completely confused. “What man?”
“The man from 18th Street,” I say with a bit of impatience.
How can he not know what man I am talking about?
“The one I saw when I was singing?” I say angrily.
“Oh that,” he says, with relief in his voice.
He starts to smile a bit and I see the real Gary creeping back in.
“You still thinking about that?” He asks. “I told you no one was there.”
“I know, Gary,” I say with frustration as I walk over to the round, cafe table in our small kitchen.
“You didn’t see him, Gary,” I say. “But that doesn’t mean no one was there.”
He follows me to the table and sits down silently.
“I saw him again,” I admit, turning my eyes away from his to the mosaic design on the table we’ve eaten at hundreds of times.
I notice the blue details on the edges of the design for what seem like the first time.
“What,” Gary asks, surprised. “Where?”
“In your truck,” I say, venturing to take a look at his face.
He looks scared.
“My truck?” He asks, even more surprised. “When?”
He starts to look around and then out the back window at his truck parked in the driveway.
“Just now, before I got home,” I say. “He rode with me since Ocean Park and 23rd. He just sat there in the passenger seat. He didn’t even look at me. Just rode with me all the way here.”
I look up again to see how Gary is receiving the news. He is stunned. His mouth is slightly open, and his eyes have a glazed-over look. It doesn’t look like he’s thinking about anything. In fact, it looks like he can’t hear anything anymore. His face is frozen.
“Gary?” I ask nervously.
“Gary?” I repeat.
“Yes, Josie,” he says, almost annoyed at my persistence. “I’m here. Sorry, I’m thinking.”
“About what?” I ask.
“About what you said happened at 18th Street last week,” he replies. “I’m trying to understand what’s going on.”
“You believe me now?” I ask.
“I do, Josie,” he says. “You’re not a liar. I believe you’re speaking your truth.”
I breathe out a cleansing sigh of relief.
“Oh, thank you, Gary,” I say, nearly crying again. “You can’t imagine what’s it like when no one believes you. I saw that man twice now. And he was as real to me as you are.”
Gary looks at me with a blank expression.
“What, Gary?” I ask. “You still believe me, right?”
“Yes, yes,” he says, nodding in agreement. “I need to take you to see someone. But I have to figure out who. With mom and dad gone, it’s hard to know where to go. They’d know how to help you. I’m not sure I do.”
“Help me?” I ask. “What do you mean?
“I think you have a gift, Josie,” he says. “I think you have a gift that neither of us understand. You’ll need to learn how to deal with it.”
“Another gift?” I ask, more confused than ever. “What do you mean, learn to deal with it?”
“I mean, I don’t think this is the last man or woman or thing you’re going to see,” he says. “And you can’t walk around being scared and confused all the time. You’re seeing this man because he thinks you can help him. You must be able to, but I don’t know how and I don’t think you do either.”
Now it’s my turn to be stunned. For one, Gary believes me. Second, he believes more things will come after him. This seems like a big jump to me.
“Gary, why do you think I’m going to see others like the man?” I ask. “Maybe it’s just this one guy and he’ll just go away.”
“I don’t think so, Josie,” he says, shaking his head. “You are going to keep seeing him until you figure out how to help him. And once he’s gone, another will come in his place.”
“Gary!” I exclaim. “Why are you saying this? You’re scaring me!”
“I’m sorry, I’m not trying to scare you,” he says. “I guess you could say this condition runs in our family.”
“Condition?” I ask, perplexed. “What condition?”
“Well, I don’t know what to call it,” Gary says. “But your grandma, she… she saw things, too.”
“Tutu?” I ask, recalling the traditional name I grew up calling my mom’s mother.
“Yes, my mom,” Gary says. “I grew up with it, Josie. I didn’t believe it when I was little. I thought tutu was crazy when she talked to people I couldn’t see. But as I got older, people told me that tutu helped them. Helped release their loved ones who were trapped in our world.”
“Why didn’t anybody ever tell me?” I ask. I can’t believe what I’m hearing.
“Who would tell you Josie?” Gary asks. “You were so young when they all passed on. Only I could’ve told you and I didn’t want to scare you. It didn’t matter anymore anyway. They’re all gone.”
I can tell those last words hurt Gary to say. He and I are the only ones left in our family. And I realize for the first time how strong he had to be to survive, and help me survive.
I reach across the table and place my hand on top of his.
“I’m sorry Gary,” I say. “I’m still here. You aren’t alone. I’m not a little girl anymore.”
“I know, Josie,” he says, holding my hand in his. “I just don’t know how to help you. I feel helpless.”
“I understand,” I say.
Then I stop speaking. I’m frozen with fear.
The man, or thing. My passenger. My new companion, is standing behind Gary. Staring into my eyes.
“Josie,” Gary says, alarmed and gripping my hand tighter.
“He’s here, Gary,” I say, staring beyond him.
Gary turns to look behind him.
“Where, Josie?” He asks, standing up and pushing the chair out from behind him.
“Right behind you,” I say, still frozen with fear.
Gary and I sit there for a minute in silence as the man continues to stare at me. He’s smiling that rotten-toothed grin and I realize I can smell him again.
“Josie,” Gary says softly. “Sing.”
“What?” I ask, my eyes locked on the man.
“Sing, Josie,” he repeats. “Like you do at the beach.”
“Gary, I can’t,” I tell him, bothered at the suggestion.
“Yes you can, Josie,” he says strongly. “Sing.”
I break from staring at the man and look over at Gary who stands taller than the old white refrigerator in the corner. I stare at him and begin to sing.
“All caught up in a landslide, bad luck pressing in from all sides. Just got knocked off of my easy ride. Buried alive in the blues.”
I stare at Gary as I sing. I don’t dare look over at the man. Gary looks back at me expressionless, but nods his head to keep me going.
“Sunday morning everybody’s in bed. I’m on the street, I’m talking out of my head. This dumb brick wall ain’t heard a word that I’ve said. I’m buried alive in the blues.”
I start to lose myself in the song and throw my head back.
“I’m buried alive, oh yeah, in the blues. I’m buried alive, somebody help me, in the blues.”
I hear a “whoosh” sound and see movement out of the corner of my eye. Before I can stop singing, the man rushes at me and I feel a punch right in the middle of my body, above my stomach and below my chest.
I double over and fall to the ground, the air knocked out of me by the blow.
“Josie!” Gary yells.
But I can’t attend to his alarm. Can’t tell him I am OK because I can’t catch my breath. I lay there on the white linoleum floor with light yellow flowers desperately trying to catch my breath. I try to breathe in but no air will come. It’s like my lungs are locked up, my throat sewn shut.
“Josie!” Gary yells again, grabbing me by the shoulders and sitting me up. He claps me on the back hard.
“Josie!” He cries out again, with so much desperation in his voice, I can barely handle the pain I know he is feeling.
Then I catch it. My breath that is. I heave in a giant rush of air. My head is spinning. Gary claps me on the back again and I begin to cough uncontrollably.
“That’s it, Josie!” He yells. “You’re getting air. Keep breathing.”
I cough and take in another gulp of air. My throat burns and lungs ache. But Gary is right, I can breathe again. I take in three more big gulps of air and the room stops spinning for a moment. I dare to look around the room, and see the man is gone.