The Phantom of the Sands: a short story
When I was fifteen and sixteen my father took me on a road trips around Iceland. There were so many places that I fell in love with but what fascinated me the most (beside the mountains) were the dark sands. They looked endless and fascinating, like cold deserts and still to this day when my mind wanders into storytelling mode those sands are never far away.
This story has a bit of a nod towards an old Icelandic ghost story. If you'd like you can read the wikipedia article of that story just click here, it's not a prerequisite to enjoying my story but it is a good straight forward Icelandic ghost story.
This may not be a regular ghost story, my writing rarely seems easily put into genre, though it is a close relative. The story is 3400 words and as always you can download the story as an eBook if you'd rather keep in on your phone for later, just click the image below.
Phantom of the Sands
The fog lay over the sands as if the two had married and were living happily ever after. In the dark the fog turns to an almost invisible fiend. The road straight, with the white lines nearly wiped away all I could see was the dark asphalt and the yellow stick markings by the roadside. They were my only company, friends in the darkness in this place that was so void of people that seeing one would make you jump right out of your own skin, at least during the witching hours.
I wasn’t drunk, though I wished I was. I knew that driving these roads in the dark drunk could be devastating and so I’d kept sober through the reunion with friends I hadn’t met for a really long time. I had to get back to the city though, had to get back to the place that was rid of such old demons, old emotions, old thoughts, old sins. The city only allowed new sins, new mistakes. The city - where nothing old ever seemed to attach itself to your soul never to let go.
I was in a hurry, yet still keeping the unofficial speed limit, which was about 20 km above the official speed limit. And when I noticed a light in the distance I must admit, I got a little surprised. It seemed strange, eerie even, to be meeting someone on the road at this hour, but I told myself it was nothing to think about. I was in a moving car which I was in control over. I didn’t have to stop the car if I didn’t want to. So despite being a woman, I was in control of the situation. How often can you say that at any given moment?
I put my fist between my legs and squeezed with my thighs. It gave me a comfortable feeling of safety, always had, as long as I kept squeezing with my thighs I was calm. My mother called it unladylike, but fuck unladylike I’ve always said.
The fog disfigured the light I realised. Spread it out over the road, making it look like there was a giant with a flashlight running up ahead on a collision course with me. Stories of outlaws and road phantoms suddenly appeared in my mind, like uninvited guests they kept gnawing at me and wouldn’t go away no matter how hard I squeezed my thighs together. As the lights came closer my heart started beating harder and harder, faster and faster until I realised it was just a truck, a late night driver trying to get his goods to its destination before some shop opened or something.
The relief was instant and gratifying. I let go of my fist and pushed a button on the car stereo. Heavy tones of a drum being beaten descended upon me, a hefty guitar solo had me in thrall for a while, or until the singer starter singing. I joined him in the melody, able to give it my all despite my bad singing voice as I wasn’t just alone in the car but seemingly alone in the entire universe. It’s what this land does to you, makes you believe you’re alone in the world, as lonely as the last man on earth. When the chorus came with its onset of new emotions I got startled thinking I saw a movement on the road ahead. It looked like something big, bigger than a fox, could there be horses loose on the sands? It was unthinkable.
I immediately started concentrating on the road and not on the song and I saw that there was something standing there, standing still in the middle of the road, coming closer and closer as my car sped through the deserted landscape. I hit the breaks hard, terrified that the man was already doomed, that there was no way I could break before the car hit the fool. What was a man doing alone on the deserted road in the middle of the night?
As the guitar solo hit its peak for the second time the car stopped. There was no thud. I had closed my eyes, unwilling to see the man killed right before my eyes. As if closing my eyes would change anything about that. As if shutting out the world would make the emotion that came from killing a man milder. As if one would want that…
He was standing there, looking at me with those cold grey eyes. Standing so still that for an instant I thought time had stopped and we were frozen in some odd moment of bizarre confrontation. Then I realised I could move, that time hadn’t stopped and I rushed out of the car and threw myself at him.
“What the hell are you thinking standing in the road in the middle of the night like this?” I shouted at him from the top of my lungs. Fear released in utter anger, anger I hadn’t ever shown, not even to my vilest boyfriends. He just stood there staring at me as I beat his chest with my fists like one of those hotheads from the movies that usually get their hands bent away quite easily. He could have done that, but he didn’t. He just stood there letting me get my outlet. When I realised that all the anger and frustration had run off me like water off a duck I stopped beating the man and looked at him.
“It’s you!” I exclaimed and fell backwards on my ass. The road was more sand than asphalt and I scraped backwards to get away from the man I knew all too well.
“It can’t be you,” I whispered.
“I promised I’d see you again,” he said. “I promised I’d be back and I know how important trust is so here I am. Fulfilling my promise. I promised to take you away from this place, that we’d built a life together.”
He had promised me that. He had promised to come back. Promised that all would be fine, but everything hadn’t been fine. It hadn’t been fine for a long time.
“Joe,” I whispered.
He was pale, still wearing his Guns n’ Roses t-shirt, jeans and black boots. His hair was as I remembered it all those year ago, hanging into his eyes making him push it back from time to time with both hands. His entire being was as I remembered all those years ago.
“You haven’t been easy to find,” he said. “I have been a little disoriented, but I’m glad I found you.” He took my hand and supported me to my feet. I couldn’t do much but stare. Looking at him was like going back in time, going back to the girl I had lost somewhere along the way. The girl who had crumbled when she heard the news of his demise.
I had risen from that. There wasn’t a man on this earth that could keep me down, that meant so much that I’d devote my life to being sorry because he went away, because he died, but my thoughts had drifted towards him again and again through the years as if the ties we shared had been something even time couldn’t break, as if the scars he’d made constantly opened up again into wounds. But I hid those wounds, I hid them well.
And there he was, a dead man walking.
He hadn’t been my boyfriend back then. He had been the best friend of my boyfriend at the time, a guy I hardly remembered the name of anymore. I remembered Joe because he had been the one to gaze into my eyes, telling me that he’d get me away from the misery I was going through, that he’d talk to whatshisface and make it all right. He was someone who touched my soul in a fundamental way, made me laugh, think and feel more than I wanted to realise.
We never kissed. We just seemed to connect on a level that was beyond the normal.
And there he was.
“Joe,” I whimpered. “What happened to you?”
I remembered the day so well. He’d sped off in his car, telling me that he’d get back the next weekend. That he had some things to do and that he needed to make it square with his friend, my then ex-boyfriend who by that time had already fled from the little village. Joe didn’t want to start anything before he got a green light. He never got a green light. Instead he crashed his car somewhere along the way, never knew what hit him they said.
“I’ve been looking for you,” Joe said. “I’ve been looking and I didn’t think I’d find you. It’s so hard to get away from this place. So hard to move beyond this sandy desert.”
I took a step closer to him. I was afraid, but I knew that the man I had known would never do me harm. Whatever apparition this was, if it had anything to do with Joe himself, it would never do me harm. Not knowingly, anyway. And I was willing to risk the devil himself to be able to be close to him for a while, stupid as that may sound.
So I took a step closer and I took a hold of his t-shirt. It was too big for him, always had been. I pulled him to me hesitantly. I just wanted to know if he was really there, if there was a real body attached to this thing I saw. I was half expecting to grasp at thin air, to find that all I had found on this desert road was a figment of my very vivid imagination. A resolution of the mind to make real the lingering hope that everything had been just a dream and that I’d wake up to find him there, waiting for me to wake up to start my life with him and not alone.
I never had a problem being alone. It never bothered me before, truly.
Still I’d never have admitted this secret scar I bore to anyone. I was a woman filled with power of my own being and I would never wait for any man, would never lie down and pine after someone who didn’t want me, or didn’t care enough to get back to me. I would never even pine after a dead man, one who had told me he loved me before he ever even kissed me.
I had wondered somewhere deep down. I had always daydreamed, had carried this impossible hope that keeps you looking into the distance, saying a prayer to a god you hope doesn’t exist.
“I’d like to show you something,” he said and pointed towards the nothingness, into the desert sand where I saw nothing but darkness, fog and endless sands.
“You want to take me into the sands?” I asked. “Away from the road?”
“There is something out there I think you will like,” he said.
I’d heard the story about Garún and her deacon often enough. The deacon who came to get her even after he died. Rode on his horse, after he fell in the river and drowned. The girl escaping going with him into the grave only because she was wearing the one sleeve of her jacket. I knew better than to follow a ghost, but I did it anyway. Joe wasn’t speaking in rhyme or repeating what he said like the phantoms I’d read about usually did. He wasn’t hiding his face or acting particularly strange, though the situation was peculiar, surreal even.
Why did I follow him?
Well, maybe I felt I had nothing to lose. Maybe I felt that he would never do me harm. Maybe I felt that I owed it to him, after all his effort. Maybe it was something else. Maybe I was just stupid.
I got into the car and moved it to make sure it was off the road, on the sand where it wouldn’t be in the way of other cars that happened to pass by in the fog. Then I took my jacket from the backseat and I slammed the door shut, telling him I was ready.
He took my hand, a warm sensation ran through my body, despite the coldness of his hand.
“Joe, what happened to you?” I asked.
“I can’t remember, there was an accident I’m pretty sure.”
“It’s been a very long time.”
“I know,” he said. “I know and I’m sorry.”
I didn’t say anything, just walked by his side, wondering where he was taking me.
We walked for a long time, at first in silence but then we started to reminisce and it was as if he never left. We laughed at the same things and I found myself telling him the story of my life. What happened after he vanished, after he died. We talked and it was like he never left, as if nothing could ever interrupt us again. The wind seemed to whine for us, slowly it sang us a melody the only way it knew how. I was spellbound and would easily have followed him into the cliff, like my ancestors feared was a possibility. Following someone into the mountain was dangerous, you could never return to the land of the living, to the land of humans, forever doomed to be in the dark world of the creatures of the mountain.
I would gladly have followed him. It was as if my soul had been searching for his ever since I lost him, before he was ever mine at all. Ever since then searching for the same thing, that sensation of unity in a single glance. Forever searching for something that I intellectually thought was just a figment of societies imagination, something conjured up to keep women in check. *True love, my ass, I meet my true love every night at the pub* had been my motto for years, while I secretly stuck my fist between my thighs and pined. Grieving that thing that never was while simultaneously convincing myself that I actually really didn’t need companionship. I was good on my own, and I was.
“I think I’m going insane, Joe,” I told him. “I think I finally lost it.”
He looked at me and shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t think you have,” he said. “I think you’re just afraid to let go.”
“Let go of what?” I asked.
“Let go of the anger, the feeling that you have to make it on your own, no matter what. So intent on making sure everyone knows that you are the real deal and that you can do anything you set your mind to. That you don’t need any man by your side telling you what to do.” He smiled at me as he said this. It was eerie, as if he’d been with me all those years, looking over my shoulders, seeing me react to the people around me. Or maybe he was just in my head, reading my mind. It wouldn’t have been stranger than holding the hand of a man that had been dead for more than fifteen years.
“You don’t you know,” he added.
After at least an hours walk he pointed ahead of us. There was something out there in the fog. Something seemed to be glimmering in the night. The fog slowly lifted, vanished as if it never existed in the first place and above us we saw stars being born and the moon. The moon full, bursting like a woman giving birth.
“What is this place?” I asked him.
“It’s magical,” he said and we wandered ahead.
There was a little lake on the sand, and a creek by which a whole field of white flowers grew. I couldn’t name them for the life of me, but it was pretty. By the side of the flowers there was a large stone, or a small cliff, dark with sharp edges. He let me there, picked one of the flowers and gave it to me.
“Will you come with me?” he asked.
“I’m right here,” I said.
“Will you?” he asked.
“Why don’t you do what you promised you would do as soon as you got permission from Einar, who by the way is married now with five kids”.
“Is he happy?”
“Does anyone with five kids have the time to be happy?” I grinned.
Joe walked up to me, put his arm on my shoulder and looked into my eyes. “You have changed,” he said, “I like who you are now.”
It was the single kindest thing anyone had ever said to me and instead of waiting for him to do what I had been hoping for I leaned forward and I kissed him on his cold lips. It was careful at first, but as I realised that this was really him and not just a figment of my imagination, or a ghost trapping me in its odd ethereal world, but actually the real deal, the kiss became more and more heated. He pulled me close and as we stood there by the strange lake in the sand I felt his body become warm and full of life. And as I put my hands underneath his old shirt, feeling his chest with my fingers, flashes of memories came to me. Memories that weren’t there to begin with but were still all mine, they belonged to me and to him. It was all made true as I stood there kissing him.
To me came memories of our life together. Memories of him gazing into my eyes as he got back from his trip and then kissed me for the first time. The way he looked when we got married. Memories of his touch on my shoulder as he helplessly watched me push out a baby girl. The girl had his eyes, his nose and his chin. Memories of the house we lived in, memories of countless mornings were he drearily hung over his cup of coffee as I handed him a toast with eggs. Memories of him cooking lasagna on my birthdays. Memories of our giggling kid running in the living room as he chased her, tickled her. Memories of a thousand kisses, of a thousand hugs, of a thousand nights were I couldn’t get enough of him. Memories of fights that were too hurtful for any words ever to be exchanged between us again, and then memories of speaking up, saying the difficult words because anything else was unthinkable. Memories of him and of me, of our life together.
The life we hadn’t had. The one we’d lost, the life we had missed out on all came to me in an instant as I felt his kiss become familiar to me. Felt his warm hands on my body, pulling my shirt out of my pants, stroking his gentle hand over my skin, finding that spot on my back that is so sensitive to his touch. We fell into the bed of flowers and made love there, like we had done a thousand times before and when we were finished we walked back to the car hand in hand.
It wasn’t a long drive back to the city with him by my side. We talked of little Loa and how bad she was doing in her biology class. We talked about going to Spain later in the summer and about renovating the kitchen. We talked about a lot of things. And when we got home we fell asleep in our bed, and each night I dream that he isn’t here by my side. That he has vanished again into thin air and left me all alone and each morning I wake up, feeling his hand in mine.
Those sands, they are pure magic. In the end I guess it wasn’t he who took me away, but I who got him away from whatever phantom land he belonged to all those years. It feels invigorating having a partner in crime, a life companion, a soulmate even, equal before nature and before whatever god there may or may not be, each with our own set of secrets, talents and love for life.
The desert sands are made of magic.