Every year in January, Cast of Wonders takes the month off to recharge our batteries, plan the year ahead, and highlight some of our favourite episodes. As part of joining the Escape Artists family, this year we’re pulling out all the stops. We’re running 10 staff pick episodes over the month, each one hosted by a different member of the Cast of Wonders crew.
We hope you enjoy alumnus host and editor Graeme Dunlop’s favorite story from 2015, The Haunted jalopy Races by M. Bennardo and narrated by Alasdair Stuart. The story originally aired March 22, 2015 as Episode 160.
THE HAUNTED JALOPY RACES
by M. Bennardo
It all started when gallant Joe Jones and shiftless Sylvester Sneep agreed to race each other for the hand of pretty Sadie Merriweather. Except that’s not really how it started at all, not the first year anyway, not back in 1938.
Back then, that first year, Joe Jones wasn’t thought especially gallant and Sylvester Sneep wasn’t thought especially shiftless. Sadie Merriweather was indeed thought especially pretty–at least by most of the boys in Rock Falls–but Joe and Sylvester weren’t racing for her hand.
Not even in Rock Falls, not even in 1938, did anybody think that the outcome of a jalopy race could decide the affections of a teenaged girl. Instead, it was purely a matter of honor. Sylvester had felt his pride pricked when Sadie chose Joe over him, and so the challenge for the race had been given. The challenge was well-known among the upper classes at Rock Falls High School, but the rest of the town only got their first inkling of what was happening when the boys revved up their modified flatties at the top of the square pointing out to Falls Bridge down on Five Falls Road, and by then it was too late.
Both Joe and Sylvester were racing Model A’s that they’d refitted themselves with newer, more powerful V8 engines. In fact, they’d done a lot of the work together in the streets outside their parents’ houses. Joe’s Model A was a ’30 Deluxe Roadster Coupe Convertible, and Sylvester’s was a ’28 Tudor Sedan with the top chopped off. They’d lightened the cars by stripping the bumpers, fenders, hoods and headlamps, and Sylvester had put in a smaller windshield and a custom horn that wailed out “Ooogah” at the slightest touch. Meanwhile, Joe had upgraded the tires on his coupe for better traction.
Joe and Sylvester had raced before, but always in a friendly way. As Sadie watched them intently tuning their engines prior to the midnight start of the race, she couldn’t deny that there was a different electricity in the air this time. It was a fine thing to be pretty and bright, and to have turned the heads of two such young men, both looked up to by the rest of the youngsters in town. And it was especially fine to know that after the race, no matter how it went, she’d be driven back home in Joe’s Model A with his arm around her waist.
But that wasn’t to be, for the men of the road crew that inspected Falls Bridge that day after the heavy rains of the past few weeks were all asleep in town. And Joe and Sylvester, in the dark night with their headlamps removed, would never see the sign declaring the bridge closed until they were right on it. And Sadie would never ride in Joe’s Model A again, or feel the warm pressure of his arm against her in the night.
The first anniversary of the fatal jalopy race was another cool, dark night–just like that first year. The ground had been soaked with heavy rains, but now the sky was clear and starry–again, just like that first year. Everyone of course pretended as though they didn’t know what the day was, but Sadie knew it all the same. Just before midnight, when she knew that she’d never be able to fall asleep, she slipped on her shoes and jacket and went out for a mournful solitary walk along Five Falls Road.
On any other night, Sadie might have been afraid. There was a chill in the air, and an eerie silence in the woods along the road. The moon hadn’t risen yet and the leaves of the trees closed in above the road, so it was as though she were encased in a cocoon of darkness. But Sadie didn’t notice any of this. Her mind, that night, was whirling with too many memories and her heart was brimming with too much hurt.
It was an even greater surprise to her then when she heard, from far down the road behind her, back towards the top of the square, a noise that seemed to split the night. She knew it instantly as the revving of hot rod engines, and she turned around trembling to peer down into the darkness. The revving came again, louder, and then changed in pitch. Suddenly, tires squealed on wet pavement and the engines roared unrestrained, but still Sadie could see nothing.
As the sound approached, Sadie’s heart beat more furiously, but still she stood stuck to the middle of the road. It was probably two of Joe and Sylvester’s friends recreating their last race, but somehow Sadie didn’t want to believe that. Somehow she thought she recognized the particular tuning of Joe’s engine–his Ford flathead V8, a phrase of seeming nonsense words that he had made her memorize. Any moment, she expected to see Joe and Sylvester themselves materialize in the darkness before her, racing neck and neck as they had a year ago, their faces intent on the road and their scarves streaming gloriously behind them.
And suddenly–and suddenly–
And suddenly, that is exactly what she saw. The moon rose down the end of the lane, flooding the road with stark white light. And Sadie saw Joe on the left side, hunched down to reduce the drag from his head, leather cap and goggles shining, his hands gripping the steering wheel tight. And there, to the right, was Sylvester, focusing just as intently on the road, clearly stomping as hard as he could on the accelerator of his Model A.
Both cars roared past Sadie at the same moment and then disappeared in a spray of exhaust down the road towards Falls Bridge. Only this time, the bridge was in good repair. A new one had been built after the fatal wreck a year ago, and Sadie was sure she heard the tires of the two jalopies bouncing with hollow thuds across the close wooden slats of the bridge. Then–they were gone, the sounds of the engines diminishing in the night, fading away and leaving Sadie with ringing in her ears and stinging in her eyes.
But just when Sadie thought that the two racers had disappeared forever, she heard a putter from the road up ahead. Was it? Could it be? Yes, it was gallant Joe Jones, idling in his Model A at the edge of Falls Bridge, with his leather cap and goggles in his hand, his hair sticking up in happy disarray, and the bright grin of victory on his face.
Sadie clapped and jumped up and down. Running towards him in joy, she saw him blow a kiss towards her, and then finally–this time for good–he was gone again.
Sadie couldn’t sleep for an entire week before the second anniversary of the accident, so delirious was she with excitement. She hadn’t intended to tell anybody about the phantom race she had witnessed the year before, but it had come out one night while talking with her best girlfriend. Sadie had sworn her to secrecy, of course, but somehow there were still five young people gathered on the square the night of the second anniversary.
Nobody really believed Sadie’s story, but they were curious enough to come out into the brisk night air to see if there was a hint of anything supernatural. As midnight neared, they started to get a little uneasy–it would be embarrassing and crushing for Sadie when nothing happened. They didn’t want to be there for that, but they didn’t want to leave her alone either.
Sadie never doubted, however. At least she never doubted what she had seen the year before. It had been too visceral and too real–she could recall too many details for it to have been a dream. She did perhaps doubt a little that Joe and Sylvester would return again after another year. Perhaps they’d been given just one more chance to run the race to completion to see who would have won. Perhaps they were resting easy now, six feet down in their mossy, earthy graves.
When they appeared, it was quietly and without any warning. Sadie had been looking at the clock on the courthouse tower, and suddenly Joe’s voice was asking her, “Can you hold this for me?” She looked down and she saw his leather cap in her hands. Then she looked over and saw him fitting the goggles over his eyes as he stood next to his shining Model A hot rod. Sadie immediately forgot all the others with her in the square, and her heart leapt in her breast.
“Oh Joe,” she said.
Gallant Joe Jones looked as handsome as he had on the day of his death. More so, if that was possible. His blond hair glowed silver in the moonlight, and his round cheeks accented his easy, friendly smile. Sadie only wished she could see the gentle blue eyes behind his goggles, but instead Joe reached for the leather cap and started tugging it down over his head.
“I’ll beat him again this year,” said Joe with a smile. “And every year, for you.”
Sylvester Sneep, by contrast, was looking somewhat worse for the wear after two years of death. His face was pale and sallow, with gaunt hollows forming under the sharply jutting bones of his face. His hair was jet black and his eyes were bloodshot. When he caught Sadie looking at him, he flashed her a ghastly smile full of long bone-white teeth. Even his clothes seemed to have darkened.
Looking at Sylvester, Sadie suddenly realized that she had been right to blame him. For the past two years, she had felt in her heart that the terrible accident had been his fault. Why hadn’t he just gracefully bowed out when it became clear that Joe and Sadie loved each other? Why had he insisted on that awful, doomed race to assuage his wounded pride? At first, some people had murmured that Sadie had led both boys on because she liked to see them fight, that she had had her own share of the blame. But she had always told people that Sylvester just would not leave her alone no matter how many times she had told him she wasn’t interested. Looking at Joe and Sylvester side by side again, she was sure that her friends must see things the same way.
The boys were in their cars now, revving their engines. The others all backed away in fear, but Sadie felt herself drawn to Joe.
“I’ll be back at Falls Bridge after I beat him again,” said Joe. Sadie could only beam down at him as she stood between the cars. Sylvester’s Model A suddenly gave a jump and lurched forward a couple of feet. Joe angrily climbed half out of his car. “Hey, watch that crate there!”
Sylvester turned his awful face on Joe. “Are you gonna sit there all night just wagging your lips?”
Joe looked up at Sadie earnestly. She longed to reach out and raise his goggles. “Will you drop the handkerchief?” he asked.
But before Sadie had a chance to answer, the courthouse clock began to strike midnight. “We don’t need no handkerchief!” shouted Sylvester, jamming his foot down on the accelerator. Joe, suddenly serious, shifted his own car into gear, and roared out almost at the same time. As Sadie watched them go, she could see them, once again neck and neck, tearing down the road. Then all at once, she was chasing after, as fast as she could run, down Five Falls Road into the dark crisp night.
The others must have been too astonished to move, for Sadie ran down the road alone. Again, the night was uncannily dark and silent–even the sound of the roaring engines had gone. But as she neared Falls Bridge, she thought she saw in the moonlight–yes! She did see him! There was gallant Joe Jones again, sitting in his roadster on the bridge, waiting for her with calm confidence and open arms. But again, before she could reach him, he had vanished into the still night air.
Year after year, when the anniversary of the accident arrived, Sadie waited for midnight at the place where Five Falls Road met the top of the town square. And year after year, a growing crowd of curiosity-seekers waited for the sudden arrival of the phantom racers and the start of their ghostly race.
Every year, Joe Jones seemed to grow more gallant. And every year, Sylvester Sneep seemed to grow more shiftless. As the tale of the first fatal race was told and retold over the years, the events just naturally seemed to take on the cast that Sadie had long given them. And, seemingly to reinforce the idea, Joe Jones appeared more handsome, brave, and angelic with every passing year, while Sylvester Sneep looked darker, grimmer, and uglier. Soon, it was impossible to believe any other version of events–nobody could imagine that a girl like Sadie could ever have encouraged the attentions of a skull-headed monster like the shiftless Sylvester Sneep.
Or almost nobody. Sylvester’s family showed up, along with most of the rest of the town, for the fourth anniversary of the accident. By then, they could barely recognize Sylvester anymore. His face had taken on the appearance of a ghoulish grinning death’s head with dull red eyes and weird white skin. Sylvester’s parents never returned to any of the phantom races after that, but his kid brother, Simon–who had only been ten when Sylvester died, the perfect age to be stricken with hero worship–couldn’t tear himself away. Year after year, he came and burned with rage at what the lies the townspeople told were doing to the memory of his once-vital brother.
Every year, Sadie wanted to ask Joe to remove his goggles so she could see his eyes, but every year she found herself somehow too shy and nervous. It wasn’t that she was afraid that his eyes would turn out to be as red and hollow as Sylvester’s were–or so she told herself. But each year she promised herself she would ask him, and each year she went home again without seeing those blue orbs–and without catching up to the car her gallant Joe drove before he disappeared.
All through the terrible war that soon gripped the world, Sadie came to meet Joe again on the anniversary of his death. So too did Simon come to watch the changes rendered to his brother by time. The curious crowds drifted away some during the war, when reminders of death weren’t so welcome or hard to come by anymore. Too many families had white stars pasted in their windows, and too many of them turned to gold before the war had ended.
It was on the seventh anniversary of the accident, at the end of September in 1945, that Sadie found herself almost alone again on the town square. The war had ended just weeks ago, but people were still too pensive yet to want another reminder of the dead boys who had used to live in their town. Only a handful of people stood at the head of Five Falls Road at the top of the square that night that year.
Sadie herself was twenty-five now. She was long out of high school, and many of her friends from those years had married and started families of their own. Many of the boys had gone off to war–just as Joe and Sylvester likely would have done. Some who had been in Europe had already returned–quieter, more serious, and often with a haunted look. Those who had been in the Pacific were still away. Even though the war was over, nothing as yet felt normal again.
Still, it was this year, in the strange post-war quiet, that Sadie finally worked up the nerve to ask Joe to take off his goggles. He just smiled his rogue’s smile and said, “I thought you’d never ask.”
Then Sadie found herself staring into the deepest, calmest, bluest eyes she had ever seen. They were even more beautiful than she remembered his in life, suffused now as they were with a soft angelic light. Looking into those eyes was like looking into a tranquil future where everything was going to be perfectly fine again.
Then hideous Sylvester leaned on the horn of his souped-up Model A, and the moment was broken. “Gotta go,” said Joe, just barely strapping the goggles over his eyes before he and Sylvester were off once more, tearing into the night at breakneck speeds. But when Sadie reached Falls Bridge that night, she knew it would be the last time she would arrive just in time to see him dissolve into mist. Next year, she would wait for him there. Next year, she would go with him when he vanished, his arm pressed tight around her waist.
To Simon Sneep the end of the war meant that metal and rubber and fuel weren’t rationed anymore. He’d been ten when his brother had built a ferocious hot rod out of the junked up Model A. The year after the war ended, Simon was eighteen himself, and itching to build his own.
Simon had come into possession of a run-down Deuce coupe–a 1932 Ford Model B that had been designed to fit the same V-8 flathead engine that Sylvester and Joe had jammed into their retrofitted Model A’s. But with the hot rodder’s eye to excess, Simon wasn’t content until he dropped a Lincoln H-series with 12 cylinders of pulling power into the chassis. Then he removed the fenders, bumpers, and hood, and painted orange flames along the original navy blue body. After taking his car out for a few runs on the abandoned airstrip outside of Rock Creek, he knew his car could beat either Joe or Sylvester’s crate in a dead run any night, wet or dry.
That year was the first year that Sadie didn’t show up in the town square to watch the phantom racers arrive. More of the townsfolk had returned that year–the war already fading in their memories–and her absence caused a general stir. Nobody knew that she had installed herself at Falls Bridge so as to be on hand when Joe made his victory lap back over the bridge.
But any thought of Sadie was soon forgotten when Simon arrived in his hot rod. He’d kept the car a secret–working on it only in the garage with the door down. Everyone immediately asked if he intended to join the race, but Simon simply sat silent. His eyes had been tinged by rage for so long that nobody even noticed it any more.
When Joe and Sylvester arrived, they both gave Simon’s car the respect it deserved. It was only when Sylvester asked if he could take it for a ride that a troubled look seemed to cross Joe’s face. “You don’t mind, do you?” asked Sylvester, the skin pulling back from his skeleton grin. “You don’t mind me taking my kid brother’s crate for a spin?”
Joe only looked pale for the first time since his death, and lined his Model A up at the starting line against the Deuce coupe. As soon as the clock struck midnight, both cars shot forward and the night was shaken with the rattle of sputter of two engines pushed to the maximum.
From where Sadie was watching near Falls Bridge, the two cars seemed to leap out of thin air like panthers on the prowl. She barely even heard their approach before the hot wall of the gasoline-smelling exhaust struck her full on, and then they were gone again–bouncing over Falls Bridge with machine gun sounds. From where she’d been standing, she could have sworn that it was Sylvester’s gaunt, pale head and thin, bony arm that had half-risen triumphantly out of the car in the lead. But of course, that couldn’t be true. It had never been true before.
After disappearing down the road, they seemed to have been gone for a long time. After a few long minutes, Sadie ventured out onto the bridge, calling softly into the night. “Joe?” she called. “Joe, where are you? I’m here!”
Then she shivered, for somewhere far away, carried on the wind, she heard the sound of Sylvester’s custom horn. Simon had faithfully installed the very same horn salvaged from the wreck in his hot rod, and now the “Ooogah” was drifting faintly on the breeze. Twice, three, four times–the horn sounded. Then suddenly, quite near, there was the unmistakable rev of a 12-cylinder engine, a spray of gravel, and the sound of Sylvester’s voice.
“I ain’t Joe,” he said, the dull red of his eyes now glowing in his victory. “But I’m here, honey!” With that, he pulled Sadie into the Deuce coupe, slipped the car into gear, stomped the accelerator, and disappeared for the last time into the chill September night.
About the Author
Matthew Bennardo lives in Ohio. He co-edited the science-fiction anthology Machine of Death, which was a #1 bestseller on Amazon in 2010.
About the Narrator
Alasdair Stuart is a professional enthusiast, pop culture analyst, and writer. He is a Hugo Finalist for Best Fan Writer, and a British Fantasy Society Best Non-fiction finalist for his weekly pop culture newsletter The Full Lid.
His nonfiction can be found at numerous genre and pop culture venues, including regular columns at the Hugo Award-winning Ditch Diggers and Fox Spirit Books. His game writing includes ENie-nominated work on the Doctor Who RPG and After The War from Genesis of Legend.
He co-owns the Escape Artists Podcast Network and hosts their horror podcast, PseudoPod, along with the Hugo Award nominated science fiction podcast, Escape Pod. He is a frequent guest and presenter on podcasts, with voice acting credits including the 2019 AudioVerse Award-winning The Magnus Archives.
His second collection of expanded essays from PseudoPod, The PseudoPod Tapes Volume 2: Approach with Caution, is available from Fox Spirit Books.