There was a red thing in the distance. In the wood beside the road. Bits of flat red between the tree trunks. Not moving. Big as maybe, a house. They'd be there in a moment and then they'd see if that's where they were going.
The girl said, "That was a dead woman driving that Prius. The blue one."
"The car we just passed. I saw it. Her mouth was open the way dead people get before their skulls pop through their skin."
"Probably just old."
"She wasn't moving. I swear. I watched her the whole time. Maybe the electricity keeps her alive."
"How'd she get in the car in the first place?" said the boy.
"Somebody put her there. Like some mortuary guys just take these dead bodies and put them in electric cars and they come to life from the electricity so they drive around."
"Why would anyone do that?"
"Just for fun."
"Kind of an expensive way to have fun, having to buy a Prius for every dead guy you come across. There's a waiting list for those, you know."
"What's that red thing? Is that it? It's like that Clint Eastwood movie where they painted all the houses in blood."
The boy said, "It wasn't blood. It was just red paint to scare the outlaws. I've been looking at that thing for the past quarter mile." He slowed the car and looked at his GPS as they passed. They weren't even close. Five miles to go.
"It's a just a dirt mover," said the girl. She settled back in the seat.
They passed the construction zone. The boy sped up.
Then the girl said, "Maybe she was an alien."
"The old lady in the car. Aliens disguise themselves as humans. They're all around. They do their observing and we hardly know they're there."
"I thought aliens were small and gray and had no mouths."
"Shows what you know."
"What movie are you talking about, then?"
"It's not in a movie. It's in a book. The one about the aliens that take those old people out of bed and do medical experiments on them."
"You actually read a book?"
The girl balled a fist and punched at the boy's arm. He squirmed without letting go of the steering wheel, and she missed. She said, "You don't read any books or watch any good movies so you're totally unprepared. You think I'm an idiot but you're the one who's clueless."
The boy complained, then said, "I don't think you're an idiot. It's just that I've been with you for two years and you never once read a single book. Not even a trashy beach novel."
"Shows what you know," she replied. "I read a lot of books when you're not looking."
"When is that?"
"When you're at work. Sometimes when you're sleeping I get up and read a book."
The boy raised his eyebrows but did not take his eyes off the road.
"How come I never see..." he said, and the GPS interrupted him.
"NOW - MAKE A LEFT TURN AT DESTINATION."
He turned into the driveway. They checked the address. They gathered their backpacks.
There was no answer at the front door so they went around to the back. The old lady was hanging clothes on a line. The young people had never seen anyone hanging clothes outside on a rope. The girl whispered she thought it was some sort of exorcism of textile.
"Her clothes may be possessed."
"That's a rug," said the boy.
The girl called out, "Mrs. Warner? We're from the N-J-G-H-S."
The lady pinned up a towel.
"Which high school? You've already been here. I bought the magazines from the other kid so the answer is, 'no.' I don't need any more. Can barely see my own feet with these god-damned glasses and I don't have a parrot so I don't need any more newspaper."
"It's not a high school," said the girl, "It's the New Jersey Ghost Hunter's Society."
The old lady pushed her thick glasses up to the bridge of her nose and examined the young people in front of her. Then she said, "No - you neither. Already been here."
She grabbed her plastic laundry basket and headed for the back door of her house. The boy and girl followed.
The boy said, "That wasn't us. That was the GHoNJ. The Ghost Hunters of New Jersey. Completely different organization, funded by advertisements. Didn't you see the grocery store logo on their equipment? We're not funded by any large commercial concerns."
"We're completely independent," the girl said, grabbing at the handle of the aluminum screen door to open it for the old woman. "We're totally unfunded."
"Except for her baby-sitting money and I work at Home Depot but they don't sponsor us."
The woman swatted at the girl's hand. "Leave that alone. Don't you kids have anything better to do?"
"We're here to help," said the boy.
"No really," said the girl. "We can help."
The woman said, "With what? The last time you kids were here you kept me up till 4 in the morning taking flash pictures of the walls and screaming. Scared the bejeezus out of Caesar." She motioned to an old yellow lab who was chained to a decrepit dog house in the yard. "He had loose bowels for a week. Now scram. Skeedaddle."
"We heard about that. That was the GHoNJ," said the boy. "They're totally untrained and unprofessional. We can only offer our apologies for our unfortunate colleagues. We represent the NJGHS, and professionalism is our mission statement."
The girl pulled open the screen door for the woman, who stepped inside and continued into the house without further comment. The girl let go of the door and it closed on its spring. The young people stood on the small concrete step staring through the screen.
After half a minute the girl said, "Should we go in?"
"We haven't been invited. That's like, rule number seven."
"Screw rule seven," said the girl. She went inside and called for the lady. The boy followed fiddling with his digital recorder. It wouldn't turn on.
He bumped into the girl who was standing still in the hallway.
"Move," he said.
She said, "Woah."
He looked up and saw the interior of the abandoned house. The walls were covered with grafitti. The floor littered with bottles and empty food wrappers and the place stunk of urine.
"What a slob," the boy said. "No accounting for the way some people live."
"No. Woah," said the girl.
"What's wrong with you?" The boy went into the living room, then looked down the hallway of the small ranch house. "Mrs. Warner?"
"She's not here," said the girl. "Well, actually she is here, but she's not here."
"Mrs. Warner. If we could just get your permission to stay the night. We just want some pictures. And of course we want to do the EVP thing, but that doesn't make any noise." The boy poked his head into each of the bedrooms as moved down the hallway. Each room was more of a disaster than the last. Stained mattresses. Cigarette butts. Crumpled snack wrappers. Empty glassine envelopes. Broken windows. Everywhere the stench of sewage and burned rubber.
He turned to go back to the living room and bumped into the girl again.
"Can you please watch where you're going?" he said.
"I think that was it," she said.
"What was what?"
"That was the ghost."
"What movie are you thinking this is from?"
"You're an idiot," she said.
"Ok, so it's a disgusting place. But I can handle it for the night, can't you? Let's just find Mrs. Warner and get her permission. She's probably in the washroom with the clothes."
"We already went through the washroom. When we came in the back door."
The boy was about to complain some more. Then he didn't.
He said, "That's stupid."
The girl screamed at the top of her lungs, "Mrs. Warner! Caesar!"
The dog barked in the back yard. There was no sign of the old lady.
The girl said, "See?"
The boy went back to the car and got into the driver's seat. The girl stopped to pet the dog, then joined him in the car.
"This is stupid," the boy said.
"I think that was it."
"We didn't get any evidence."
"Where are the clothes on that rope?" said the boy. His eyes began to tear. "Where is that rope?"
"Don't cry on me," the girl said.
"This is really stupid. Is the dog real, at least?"
"I think it's the neighbor's dog."
"We didn't get any evidence." The boy's chin quivered.
"Nope," said the girl. "Why are you crying?"
"This is so stupid. It's not supposed to be this way." A tear ran down his cheek.
"I can't believe you're crying. Are you sad about that old lady?"
"I'm not sad," he said, now barely able to speak.
"I thought she was real," he said, his voice now a frog's croak.
"Me too. You don't see me crying about it."
"...it's supposed to be...night...white figures...voices..."
"Why are you so upset?" said the girl. She put her hand on his arm and leaned her forehead on his shoulder. She could feel him shaking.
And when she looked at him, she saw him staring at her as if about to scream.
He said, "I don't know...what if... Is this real? Oh god..."
He got out of the car and ran away into the wood beyond the houses.
The girl started to follow him but stopped after a few steps.
She had read this in a book.