He’s been sitting next to me since Ocean Park and 23rd. Sitting in the passenger seat of 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 saw the man from Gary’s exhibition in the truck. Your mind does confusing things when someone appears who shouldn’t be there.
When I saw the man, I wondered for a second if I picked up a hitchhiker. A hitchhiker! No one even uses that word anymore except for Gary. He told me when I got my license 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. So it’s confusing that my mind immediately went there when I saw the man in the passenger seat. He wasn’t looking at me. He was looking straight ahead, like he was along for the ride. Enjoying the radio. Enjoying the slight breeze coming through the open passenger window.
It helped that he wasn’t looking at me. I think if I had looked over and he was staring at me like he did last week at 18th Street Arts, I might’ve gone right off the road and hit people walking on the sidewalk.
When I woke up after I passed out at 18th Street Arts, Uncle 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 asked with an alarm that rattled Gary.
“What man?” He asked so seriously and with such an urgency that I realized there was something like anger in his voice for maybe the first time. At least the first time I’d heard it.
“The man that was walking towards me,” I said as I trembled and tried to sit up.
Gary let me sit up and look around. I was in a back room of some kind. Gary must’ve carried me there. Josh and Harper 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,” Harper said more ominously than I was accustomed to.
Josh said nothing but looked confused.
“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 down.”
I started to get frustrated and then realized Gary was being totally honest and open with me. I could tell he had no idea what I was talking about and was starting to get scared. Uncle Gary being scared was something I couldn’t handle. Not when I was already so scared myself.
I dropped it then and haven’t brought it up again. I felt weak, tired and my stomach hurt once I woke up in that little back room. 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 then deal with it in any real way. Plus, 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 today. And noticed my new companion.
I’m finally home now after driving the rest of the way with my passenger. He never looked over at me once, by the way. I kept a sharp eye on him as I drove and slowly the panic I felt when I first saw him went away. It turned into a general uneasiness. When I pulled into our driveway and hopped out of the truck, I wondered if he would follow me out my side or get out his own side? Why did I think that? This is too weird.
I just walked in the house and I’m so happy to see Gary. I haven’t been this happy to see him in a long time. I think I just almost started crying when I saw him eating a sandwich in the kitchen. Gary notices something is wrong with me right away.
“Josie,” he says with concern in his voice. “Are you OK?”
I look at him for a few seconds 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 just 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, as he sets his half-eaten sandwich down on his plate. “Have you been sleeping all right?”
I hadn’t slept that well since the night of Gary’s show but, 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 have a feeling that changing the subject to our Hawaii trip will make him forget about my problems for the moment.
“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 was right. It worked.
“I get it,” I say, as I start to wash dishes in the sink. I need to occupy myself with something to forget about the passenger who doesn’t look like he followed me into the house.
“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.
“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 all right?” 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 man again catches up with me and my emotions bubble over. I start crying and turn quickly to try and hide it.
“Josie,” Gary says alarmed, putting his hand on my upper arm. “What’s going on? Tell me now. No more games.”
I give up and lean into him and start sobbing on his shoulder. It takes about five minutes to get it all out and I feel much better just letting it all go. I’ve been bottling up my feelings since Gary’s show and the release clears my mind for the first time in almost a week.
“OK, better?” Gary asks as he backs away a bit 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 admit. “I don’t want to tell you.”
“Now you really better tell me,” he says almost 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 impatiently. How can he not know what man I’m talking about?
“The one I saw when I was singing?” I ask him, hoping he will remember.
“Oh that,” he says, 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 tell him as I walk over to the round, two-person cafe table in our small kitchen.
“You didn’t see him,” I explain. “But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t there.”
Gary follows me to the table and sits down. He doesn’t say a word.
“I… I saw him again,” I admit, turning my eyes away from his to the mosaic design on the cafe table.
“What?” Gary says, surprised. “Where?”
“In your truck,” I say, venturing a look at his face. He looks a bit scared.
“My truck?” He asks, even more surprised. “When?”
He starts to look around the kitchen and then out the back window at his light blue truck parked in the driveway.
“Just now, before I got home,” I say. “He rode with me since Ocean Park and 23rd Street. 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 this weird news. It’s not easy to see the results of my story on his face. He is stunned. His mouth is slightly open and his eyes have a glazed-over look. In fact, it doesn’t look like he’s thinking about anything. Or that he’s present with me anymore. His face is just frozen.
“Gary?” I ask nervously. “Gary?” I say again.
“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, unsure of how he’ll respond.
“I do, Josie,” he says. “You’re not a liar. I believe you’re speaking your truth.”
I breathe a massive sigh of relief.
“Oh, thank you, Gary,” I say, nearly crying again. “You can’t believe 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 is still looking at me with no 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 neither of us understands. You’ll need to learn how to deal with it.”
“Another gift?” I ask, more confused than ever. I think for a few seconds. “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, to my surprise. “And you can’t walk around being scared and confused all of 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 and is clearly all in on me seeing this man. Second, he believes I am going to see other things? This has gone from scary to weird to nearly insane.
“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’re 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 say. “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. “What condition?”
“Well, I don’t know what to call it,” Gary says. “But your grandma, she… she saw things too. Talked to things.”
“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 when I got older, people would thank me. They’d tell me that Tutu helped them. Helped release their loved ones who were trapped in our world.”
“What? Why didn’t anybody ever tell me?” I ask, completely shocked. 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. Besides, it didn’t matter anymore. They’re all gone.”
I can tell those words hurt Gary to say: they’re all gone. He means his parents and my mom. He feels like the only one left of his family. And I realize for the first time how strong he had to have been to survive all by himself and then help me to survive.
I reach across the table and place my hand on top of his.
“I’m sorry Anakala,” I say, invoking the Hawaiian term for uncle that I haven’t called him since before mom died when I was a girl.
“I’m still here,” I tell him. “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 start to say, and then I stop. I am frozen with fear.
The man, my passenger, my new companion, whatever you want to call him, is standing just behind Gary. Staring into my eyes.
“Josie,” Gary says, alarmed as he grips my hand tighter.
“He’s here, Gary,” I say, staring beyond him.
Gary turns to look behind him.
“Where, Josie?” He whispers, standing up and pushing the chair out from behind him.
“Right where you were sitting,” I say, still frozen with fear from my seat at the table.
We are in silent stillness as the man stares at me for several minutes. Neither of us knows what to do. The man just keeps staring. I know it sounds strange, but I can’t make out what his clothes look like. They’re just sort of a blob of swirling gray, but his face is clear. It’s a white man with light-colored hair and light eyes. It’s hard to tell how old he is but he’s not an old man. Maybe older than Gary?
“Josie,” Gary says softly, distracting me from studying the man’s face. “Sing.”
“What?” I say, my eyes locked on the man.
“Sing, Josie,” he says again. “Like you do at the beach.”
“Gary, I can’t,” I tell him.
“Yes you can, Josie,” he says strongly. “Sing.”
I break from staring at the man and look over at Gary who’s taller than the old white refrigerator in the corner of the kitchen. I continue staring at him and agree that somehow singing makes sense. I have no idea why though.
“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 sing.
I keep staring at Gary. I won’t dare look over at the man again, who I know is still there. I can’t look at him and sing. 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 and sing louder.
“I’m buried alive, oh yeah, in the blues. I’m buried alive, somebody help me, in the blues.”
Then I hear a “whoosh” sound and see movement out of the corner of my eye. Before I can stop singing and move, the man rushes at me. I feel a punch right in the middle of my body, above my stomach but below my chest.
I double over and fall to the ground, the air knocked out of me by the blow.
“Josie!” I hear Gary yell.
But I can’t attend to his alarm. Can’t tell him I’m OK because I can’t catch my breath. I’m laying here 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. My lungs are locked up, my throat sewn shut.
“Josie!” Gary yells again and he sounds farther away this time. He grabs me by the shoulders and sits me up. He starts clapping 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’s feeling.
Then I catch it. Not the man. My breath. I heave in a giant gust of air. My head is spinning. The room is spinning. Gary claps me on the back again and I start coughing uncontrollably.
“That’s it, Josie!” He yells.
Gary sounds closer now.
“You’re getting air! Keep breathing,” he says, relieved.
I cough and take in another gulp of air. My throat burns and my lungs ache. But Gary is right, I’m breathing again. I take in three more big gulps of air and the room stops spinning. I dare to look around, and the man is gone.