“True story. In 1969 a musician named Jim Sullivan recorded an album called U.F.O., which featured some strange lyrics. On March 4, 1975, he left Los Angeles alone in his Volkswagen Beetle. The next day he checked into a motel in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, but he never slept there. He was spotted a few hours later at a remote ranch, and he’s never been seen or heard from again. His Volkswagen was found abandoned at the ranch and his guitar was in it.
“The interesting thing is, in his U.F. O. album he talks about long highways, leaving his family behind and being abducted by aliens in the desert.”
Mike paused, glancing at the small group huddled around the bonfire. His voice, booming a minute ago, dropped to a whisper. “They say his lyrics are strangely similar to what happened to him.”
“Creepy,” Meagan shivered, snuggling closer to Jason. The bonfire’s flames leaped and danced, throwing long, flickering shadows across the three couples gathered around it. “Could we please talk about something else?”
“Campfire rules mean no changing the subject.” Jason snaked an arm around her waist. “Everybody has to tell a story, and it has to be true.”
A needle of irritation jabbed her, but it was gone in a instant, dissolved by a glance at the two and a half carat diamond glittering on her finger. Meagan still couldn’t believe Jason had proposed. She shouldn’t whine about a few ghost stories when he had planned this whole night so she could meet his friends.
“I gotta go pee,” said Mike’s girlfriend, Alex, breaking the spell. “Save me a beer.”
What a Barbie doll, Meagan thought, watching Alex glide away from the group. She had a curtain of straight, blonde hair and breasts so large they had to be implants. My God, they’re cantaloupes, Meagan thought uncharitably, then berated herself for being uncharitable. She felt awkward around Jason’s friends, but she wanted them to like her. She was going to marry Jason, and these were the people he had hung out with since high school.
Meagan took stock of the others. Alex’s boyfriend Mike was one of those fraternity types who seemed to attract the best looking girls despite a beer gut blooming over his belt and a smile that could turn on a moment’s notice into a malicious sneer.
Olivia, sitting on the other side of the fire, spoke in a smoky contralto at odds with her petite frame. Nobody seemed to notice that she wasn’t as pretty as Alex. She was too confident and vivacious for people to suspect that she was less than beautiful, and tonight her dark eyes flashed when she said, “I’ve got a true story!”
“Go for it, babe,” said Patrick, Olivia’s boyfriend. He was almost as hot as Jason, but not quite, Meagan thought with satisfaction. Patrick reminded her a little of Chris, except that Chris lacked Patrick’s arrogance.
I’ve got to stop thinking about Chris, she reminded herself, but she couldn’t forget his devastated response to her engagement. Chris, open and readable as a young pup, had shaken his head in dejected misery when she said, “We’ve never been anything but friends. You know that.”
“Pay attention,” Olivia snapped, yanking Meagan’s thoughts away from the boy she had grown up with.
“My story takes place in the early 1940’s, when a 56-year-old World War Two vet named James E. Tetford came home to find that his beloved and much younger wife Pearl had disappeared without a trace,” Olivia began. “Deeply depressed, he became a virtual recluse, only venturing out to visit relatives in a distant Vermont town.
“After one of these visits, he boarded a crowded bus home. Numerous witnesses saw him buy a ticket and get on the bus with his luggage. Some people claimed they spotted him sleeping in his seat. The trip was nonstop, but when the bus reached its destination there was no sign of Tetford. His luggage remained on the bus and a discarded bus timetable was open on his seat. He had vanished in thin air.
“And there’s something even stranger…there was a series of vanishings, people simply disappearing off the face of the earth, in that same area of southwestern Vermont between 1945 and 1950. Tetford was never seen or heard from again.” Olivia paused, her face orange-hued in the fire’s glow. “Where the hell is Alex?” she exclaimed suddenly.
“She gets lost if you put her in a parking lot and spin her around,” Mike said. “Guess I better go find her.” He heaved himself up, crumpled an empty beer can and tossed it toward the flames. “Don’t drink all the beer without me.”
“Where could she be?” Meagan shifted nervously, straining to peer into the pitch blackness beyond the bonfire. “She’s been gone a while.”
“Too bad my audience is down by two, because I’ve got a story to top everybody’s,” Patrick announced, apparently unconcerned about Alex. “Maybe I’ll do an encore when they get back.”
“If they get back,” Jason said diabolically, eliciting a poke from Meagan.
“My story is about a small town called Urkhammer, in the state of Iowa.” Patrick lowered his voice as he launched into his tale. “It resembled any other town around the turn of the last century, until people began reporting something very strange. This previously bustling village seemed to be abandoned, all its inhabitants gone.
“People reported that there were rows and rows of houses with no sign of occupants, as if everyone had suddenly been raptured. There were reports in several newspapers, along with anecdotal accounts of the entire town simply evaporating into thin air.
“I was as if…” Patrick paused dramatically… “the town had been absorbed into another dimension. Aerial photos showed an abandoned town with overgrown, untended fields. And here’s the most interesting part…a motorist passing through stopped at a gas station to fill his tank. After he had driven out of town he decided he’d been ripped off, way overcharged, so he tried to return to complain. But when he turned back, he reported never being able to reach the town. It was gone.”
“I think you win the campfire competition. I’ve never heard of a whole town disappearing,” Meagan said.
“On the contrary, there have been at least five towns in the annals of our history that have vanished without a trace.”
“Looks like our companions have vanished without a trace,” Jason interrupted. “Mike was probably so drunk he stumbled into a bear cave, and Alex has probably wandered halfway to Mexico by now.”
“I’ll go find them.” Patrick stood and Olivia sprang up beside him, grabbing his hand. “You’re going nowhere without me.Your sense of direction is as bad as Alex’s.”
“You hear that? The lady insults me. Come along then, I’ve learned it’s better not to argue with Olivia. Whatever I say can and most likely will be used against me.”
The night was strangely quiet with Olivia and Patrick gone. Even the crickets, noisy as a buzzsaw earlier, were silent. “Looks like its just the two of us,” Jason said, agitation undermining his usual self-assurance.
“Why’d you have to insist we leave our cell phones in the car? At least we could have had a flashlight.” Meagan didn’t want to sound snappish, but this whole thing was making her jittery.
“I wanted us to be listening to stories, getting to know each other, not checking our text messages every five minutes. Come on.”
“Where are we going?”
“We’re finding the others. Mike! Alex!” Jason’s shouts stabbed the silence. Meagan clutched his arm, unwilling to let go as the fire sputtered and ebbed behind them. Away from its warmth, night closed in like a cave. Her heart thumped wild and fast, staccato bursts of terror. She made out the ghostly shapes of boulders and trees as she stumbled to keep up with Jason’s strides.
“Slow down, I can hardly see where we’re going.”
Jason ignored her until they reached a boulder looming in the dark like a battleship. He slipped from her grip and vanished behind it.
“Jason?” Meagan’s voice quivered. “Where are you?”
An eerie silence permeated the woods.
“Jason?” Her voice, a tenuous thread, was barely audible.
Lights flashed. Momentarily blinded, caught in the beam of flashlights and flash cameras, Meagan heard their laughter before she saw their faces.
“Gawd, I thought I’d have to stand behind this rock forever,” Alex said.
“She looks like a deer in headlights.” Olivia, laughing, emerged from the dark.
“We got any beer left?” Mike sauntered into view; slapped Jason on the back. “A little initiation,” he said. “It was Jason’s idea.”
But Meagan was scarcely listening. She had removed the glittering diamond, which suddenly seemed an inadequate substitute for the friendship ring Chris had given her in nineth grade. She only hoped Chris would forgive her.
The three campfire tales are true, documented disappearances for which no explanation has ever been found. The rest of the story is a figment of my imagination, told in response to Writing Prompt #25.