The Highway That Leads Beyond the World

by JAMES ULMER

Tyler Connors sat at his kitchen table, ignoring the newspaper spread out before him as he lingered over a second cup of coffee. He stared blankly through the French doors at the June sunlight splashed like gold paint on his unkempt back yard, and when a cardinal landed on the arm of a lawn chair, wings flaring, seeming to stir some fire from the rusty metal, he hardly noticed. Gears turned in his mind and caught, light flickered, and the film of last night’s dream unrolled in black and white before color bled back suddenly into the frame: the grass a brilliant, sunlit green; the darker green of the pines trees lining the fairway; the sky a dome of faultless blue air. The quick, staccato tapping of a woodpecker sounded from the trees, and a blue heron lifted awkwardly, a broken coat hanger, from a nearby pond. To his right, just at the edge of his vision, walked a boy he’d grown up with.

And then, with a suddenness that took his breath away even in remembering, the day went black, as if someone had blown out of the lamp of the sun. His friend was nowhere to be seen. In the distance, the gray shapes of the sand traps surrounding the green showed faintly in the inky dark, the flag a tattered black rag.

A few stars shone coldly above the indistinct shapes of the trees . . .

Pushing back from the table, Tyler stood with a groan and walked to the stove to warm his coffee, then wandered absentmindedly to the French doors to gaze out at the yard. The last of the pink azalea blossoms lay brown-edged on the grass, and a box turtle lumbered deliberately across the patio, the yellow markings an alphabet scrawled across his shell. Strange to think of a message, a warning, arriving in a dream; especially now, as he looked out at such a typical summer morning. The mimosa tree in the back corner of the yard stirred in a breeze. Tyler told himself that the world he knew would go on forever; but then he recalled the black pines holding up their arms for silence, the sense of being drawn up out of the world.

What’s coming, he asked himself, and when?

In the dream, they’d been playing Indian Springs, an open tract on what had once been pasture land—one of a series of public courses the two boys had frequented during their long, shared summers. But just before the world went black, the scene had shifted to a par five cut out of pine forest, a dogleg right that you could reach in two if you shaped your drive around the corner. The ground was familiar, the way the land sloped away to the right—and then he placed it: the seventeenth on a municipal course in Texas, a grand old layout that had once hosted the likes of Hogan and Demaret. The name came back to him: Memorial Park.

Tyler put his empty cup down on the table behind him, swung open a door, and stepped out into the yard. A fierce wind had blown the night before, carrying three shingles off the roof, ripping branches from trees, and littering the grass with broken pine boughs. Tyler continued to turn the dream over in his mind, but after a few minutes the task of clearing the yard, of dragging off the sap-scented branches and piling them at the curb for pick-up, began to divert his attention. Surprised at how much wood had fallen, he gazed up at the enormous, newly-ravaged pines, the thick, heavy trunks, with a fresh sense of menace. What would happen, he wondered, if one of those giants came down on the house?

A red pickup pulled up at the curb, interrupting Tyler’s reverie, and the window on the driver’s side rolled down. Tyler recognized the man behind the wheel, the shock of white hair and the red-faced scowl, though he didn’t know the man’s name.

“You seen that place on the other side of Dudney?” the man wanted to know.

Tyler told him he hadn’t.

“Ain’t nothing left standing but the chimney,” his neighbor informed him. The man nodded past his shoulder, and Tyler turned to observe the pine trees looming over his fragile roof. “Mister, them pine trees ain’t nothing but a death trap. They got shallow roots. Not a damn thing but spit holding them up.”

The man rolled up his window, and Tyler was confronted briefly by his own wan reflection in the glass before the red pickup spun slowly down the street.

Maybe that’s it, he thought. A pine tree would crash through the roof some night in a wind storm, and he’d be killed. But no. His mind reverted to the dream—it had something to do with playing golf, something about the friend he’d known as a boy.

Tyler had grown up in an affluent bedroom community of plush lawns and old trees, the streets with names like Covered Bridge Road and Burning Tree Lane. American eagles, cast in iron, clutched their sheaths of arrows and hovered above the eaves of every two-car garage, the new brick homes affecting colonial pedigrees. Tyler had spent his summers, as well as the spring and fall afternoons after school, playing golf. His family wasn’t wealthy, at least not by the standards of the town, so they’d never belonged to a country club. Instead, he’d play on the local municipal courses whose names still evoked a kind of spell: Pinecrest, Maple Shade, Iron Rock, Willowbrook—The Golden Pheasant with its remnant of apple orchard on the back nine blooming in May, dozens of honeybees mining the white blossoms. While the kids at the country club learned to hit high, floating one irons that landed softly and stuck, Tyler was playing a different game, an older game. He hit a low draw like Hogan, designed to cut through the wind and run forever on burned-out summer fairways. It was bump and run, links golf, constant scramble and invention; and years later, long after he’d stopped playing, Tyler would find himself in dreams negotiating some shot, the smell of grass in his nose—cutting an eight iron to hold it against the wind, hitting a stiff-armed wedge that would jump twice and spin back, or punching a closed-faced three iron low enough to keep it under the trees and watching as it skipped and skittered toward the green. He was working in his sleep, struggling to find solutions, to get some complicated set of circumstances in his life to play out right, to post a score.

The green game, so various in its conditions, its textures and weather, had supplied for him an enduring metaphor for invention and creativity.

His partner on these boyhood excursions, more often than not, had been Gordon Willsey. Left-handed, dark-eyed Gordon, the king of the slice, who was stoked if he could break a hundred. The two of them would play all day, starting in the morning as early as they could catch a ride to the course, playing thirty-six or forty-five holes, walking the entire time, talking, until a twilight loud with crickets descended and forced them reluctantly back to the clubhouse, where one of their long-suffering parents would be waiting for them, the single car left in the parking lot—Tyler’s father, perhaps, leaning against the fender of his Chevy and smoking a Camel in the summer dark.

Remembering, Tyler saw the glow of his father’s cigarette, heard his long-dead voice coming out of the night. You boys had enough?

They hadn’t, of course, but it was all they could get.

*

That evening, Tyler sat at the desk in his study, a single lamp casting a yellow glow across the pale blue wall. He lifted the phone from its charger and punched in the number. The phone rang four times, and a voice he recognized came over the line.

“Hey Tyler—that you?”

“Yeah. How’s it going? Got a minute to talk?”

“Sure.”

Gordon sounded surprised. Though they hadn’t seen each other in years, they’d kept in touch by email and occasional phone calls; but it was usually Gordon who contacted Tyler—Tyler who had moved away, whose life had taken a different direction. He could hear that Gordon was pleased that he had made the call for once. Encouraged, Tyler came to the point.

“So,” he said, feeling a little foolish, “want to play some golf?”

Gordon laughed. “Hell yeah, I want to play some golf! But what makes you ask after all these years?”

“I had a dream.”

A pause on the line ensued as Gordon waited for more explanation, but when none was forthcoming, he said, “You had a dream, and now you need to play golf with me?”

“Yes. I think it’s important.”

Gordon didn’t hesitate. “So when do you want to play?”

Tyler was grateful for his old friend’s reaction. Would he have been this willing, he wondered, after more than half a lifetime? He stepped to the window and parted the blinds, looking out at the June twilight settling over the yard, the occasional spark of a firefly flashing out in the dark.

“Well,” Tyler sighed, “I need to buy some clubs, and maybe find a driving range to see if I can still manage to hit the ball. How about Monday? I could pull into Tuscaloosa some time on Sunday afternoon and grab a room somewhere.”

“Monday’s fine. I’ll get us a tee time. But listen, why don’t you just come here? We’ll get reacquainted—have a few drinks, throw some steaks on the grill. I know Annie would love to meet you.”

Somehow, Tyler doubted that she would, but he thanked his old friend and accepted.

*

Tyler knew that the journey was part of the point—maybe the entire point—so he was in no hurry to arrive. For that reason, he avoided the long, soulless stretches of Interstate 20 for what he hoped would be a more revealing route. The street he lived on emptied onto a stretch of two-lane highway where Route 79 and 82 ran concurrently for a mile before 79 swung south for Louisiana and 82 veered east. Tyler had never traveled farther on that road than the nearest town, El Dorado, and he was surprised to discover, tracing the route on his office computer, that 82 continued east for miles, crossing the river and cutting across the Mississippi delta north of Vicksburg before climbing the pine- and red oak-covered hills into Alabama, arriving on the northern edge of Tuscaloosa near Northport, not more than half a mile from Gordon Willsey’s residence. Strange to think that he and his old companion had been linked this entire time by a single stretch of road.

He left early on Saturday morning. A trace of coolness still lingered in the air, and Tyler was filled with curiosity and anticipation, the bracing awareness that he was on the trail of a mystery. He took Business 82 into El Dorado, then turned left, drove four blocks north to the historical district, and parked in front of the Union County Courthouse, built in 1927 at the height of the oil boom. Across the street, a red Pegasus took flight above the old brick Texaco building, now a Mexican restaurant. Tyler bought a coffee to go at PJ’s, walked the deserted square as morning began to give way to the June heat, then piled into his car, found his way back to the highway, and drove into what was truly, for him, unknown territory.

The road east was a two-lane highway rolling through miles of dense pine forest. Tyler pulled behind a loaded pine lorry he couldn’t pass, and for miles he trailed it, doing forty-five, watching as the red flag tied to the end of the longest log bounced and danced above the pavement in front of him. The road skirted the northern edge of Lake Jack Lee, a cedar-tinted stretch of water loaded, he imagined, with long, sleek catfish and carp, then wound through Crossett, Arkansas, a sleepy Southern town with the damp, pulpy scent of the paper mill hanging in the air. The road veered northeast, then east again, and the forest gave way to miles of flat delta farmland as Tyler began the long approach to the Mississippi River.

Each lone tree he passed, isolated in a field of corn or soybeans, had a hawk at its apex, an occasional iron trellis of sprinklers irrigating the hot fields. As the car moved steadily along, tires humming on the heat-softened macadam, Tyler replayed the silent tape of his dream: the afternoon sun, the day going suddenly black, the barely discernible flag hanging in darkness. What troubled Tyler, the feeling that he couldn’t shake, was his certainty that he was being shown something imminent, something on the horizon that he might be able to avoid if he only saw it in time.

The landscape, brooding on its own, let out a low rumble, an angry blush of purple spreading in the south.

Low on gas, with miles still in front of him, Tyler decided to pull off at the next exit. As luck would have it, he stumbled onto a Shell station within a few blocks of the highway. The place was locked up tight, but the pump accepted his credit card, and he was able to fill the tank. Tyler stood squinting by his Accord, a hand raised to shade his eyes as the sun flashed on the hood. A hundred yards down the rutted, pot-holed road, he spotted what looked like the remnants of a wrought iron fence overgrown with honeysuckle. Curious, Tyler pulled out of the station and headed down the street to investigate. He turned onto a gravel road just wide enough to let his car pass through beneath a dense shadow of moss-draped oaks before he re-emerged in the sun.

As he’d suspected, a cluster of weathered headstones stood inside the rusted fence, obscured in the shade of an enormous old mimosa tree, the feathery pink blooms stirring in the breeze. Though the bush was nowhere in sight, the scent of sweetshrub was unmistakable, the odor heavy and narcotic, drifting in the hot afternoon sun. Exiting his car, Tyler stepped through jimson weed and oxeye daisies as he approached the graves.

On one headstone, the letters nearly erased by years of heat and rain, Tyler made out the words Ezekiel Curry, Son of the Confederacy, born April 7, 1841. Died of his wounds, August 12, 1895. He couldn’t suppress an exclamation of surprise. Ezekiel Curry carried the lead that had burned into him for thirty years before it finally cut him down.

Thunder rumbled again, louder now, closer, the sound like approaching cannon fire. He thought of the ghostly Confederate raiders in the Faulkner novel that appeared to the Reverend Hightower as he sat reading in his garden, riders the old man had imagined all his life that came at last to carry him away.

*

Tyler followed the road south and east as it skirted Lake Chicot, a bend in the river that had silted in, and crossed the Mississippi on an iron trellis bridge before swinging north for Greenville and turning east. The blues museum was already closed in Leland, Mississippi when he arrived on Saturday evening, as indeed most of the town seemed to be; but he found a room in a bed and breakfast in the historical district. The house, originally a Queen Anne with airy, two-story porches, had been remodeled in 1920 to resemble a white-pillared plantation home. The result was an eccentric mix of Victorian and Art Deco touches, high ceilings with chandeliers, wainscoting, and rows of mullioned windows looking out on the shady street in front and Deer Creek in back. The cushions lining the window seats were striped in red and apple green like the hard candy his grandmother had kept in a white porcelain jar in her pantry. Sunlight pooled on the polished oak floor. The darker wood staircase turned at the landing to rise into shadows, and Tyler wondered what was hidden at the top of those stairs. He experienced again what he often felt in old houses: it seemed as if someone had just left the room and listened now from the other side of the silent, shut door.

The owner, a woman in her forties with rimless glasses and a heavy drawl, recommended a place in town for dinner, and when Tyler returned to the house, letting himself in with a key at the front door, twilight was already deepening over the yard—a pale green sky, blackening trees, fireflies sparking over the dark, glassy expanse of Deer Creek. Exhausted from the long, hot drive, Tyler was soon asleep, but he couldn’t rest. The room he’d taken had three doors leading into it—one from the hall, and one from each of the two adjoining suites. He had barely fallen asleep when the door from the hall flew noiselessly open and a woman—the lady of the house—glided to the foot of the bed. She looked down at him, moonlight flaring on her rimless glasses, and leaned to whisper at his ear.

What on earth are you doing here? she hissed. What can you possibly hope to discover?

Tyler woke with a start. Bullfrogs plucked their bass notes from the creek behind the house. He soon drifted off again, but all night he imagined her circling the room, her eyes erased by light—listening first at one door, then another, trying to get in.

In the morning, fortified by three strong cups of cafĂ© au lait, Tyler followed the tree-lined drive back to Route 82. The road was a four-lane highway now, and he made steady progress through a string of towns—Greenwood, Winona, Starkville, Columbus—crossing into the rolling, forested hills of northern Alabama and reaching Tuscaloosa before four. He had no trouble finding Gordon Willsey’s house, a two-story red-brick home in a shady neighborhood of wide front lawns that reminded Tyler of the town where they’d grown up together. He stepped out of his car and looked around, realizing, as he stood taking in the trimmed hedges and mulched beds of violet and yellow-stained pansies, the sparrows flitting nervously from branch to branch in the green shade of the maples, that his friend had never left the world they’d known as boys. A feeling of nostalgia stole over him, the warm suspicion that nothing had changed in all the years since then, when his mood was unexpectedly altered.

The front door opened and a figure stepped out on the porch. The man was around Tyler’s height, but heavier, especially around the face, the skin flushed from too much sun or too much Scotch—Tyler couldn’t tell which. The man’s dark gray hair was lighter at the temples; he wore a black golf shirt and a pair of pressed khakis.

Tyler and this stranger regarded each other in silence, forty feet between them, forty years. Tyler realized that if he passed this man on the street, he’d walk by without a flicker of recognition. He found himself stealing a glance at the address scrawled on the crumpled piece of paper in his hand, comparing it to the numbers above the door. Only the man’s eyes were familiar, vaguely, a trace of irony appearing in them as his gaze traveled over the visitor in his driveway.

Then the voice reached him across the lawn.

“Hey Tyler, is that really you? You look like you’ve seen a damn ghost!”

As Gordon grinned and came toward him down the steps, Tyler felt a rush of panic—but he fought down the impulse to climb back behind the wheel of his Accord and peel away. Instead, he steadied himself, stepped forward, grasped the hand held toward him, and let himself be ushered inside.

*

Tyler sat across the dining room table from Gordon Willsey as the thick, green-tinted summer darkness pushed up against the windows. A moment earlier, Annie had picked up their plates and silently made an exit, leaving the two of them alone to puzzle out the meaning of Tyler’s dream.

“So that was it?” Gordon asked.

Tyler nodded, turning the stem of his wine glass nervously in his hand. The red liquid caught the light of the dimmed chandelier overhead.

“That was it. Indian Springs turned into Memorial Park. The course went dark, pitch black, and I couldn’t finish the round.”

It hadn’t taken Tyler long after his arrival to grasp how glad his old friend was to see him. Pushing aside his initial panic, he’d spent a good three hours reminiscing, at his host’s insistence, over their junior and senior high school days, the people they’d known and what had happened to them. But there was more to Gordon’s reaction than nostalgia. Tyler felt he could guess the rest. The children from his marriage to Annie (his second marriage) had left home and gone off to college. Gordon had been downsized at the financial firm where he’d worked for most of his career. He’d left with a generous severance package, so now he had an empty house, plenty of money, and time on his hands. Like the privileged protagonist in a John Cheever story, Gordon Willsey’s problems were existential rather than practical. The borders of his world were too narrow, too confining: he was buried alive. More than anything else, he needed a friend, especially if that friend provided glimpses of a larger, more inclusive life.

“So what do you think it means?” Gordon wanted to know.

Tyler shrugged, though he knew damn well what the dream meant. He wondered if Gordon knew, and if he did, whether or not he’d be willing to say. Gordon was clearly interested and willing to play along, but Tyler sensed that his wife was less intrigued. Annie was younger than Gordon, with short blonde hair and broad shoulders that made Tyler suspect she’d been a cheerleader or maybe the captain of her college field hockey team. Her children’s departure had left her feeling exposed. She wasn’t sure she wanted this stranger, a refugee from her husband’s unknown childhood, showing up like this at her home. He’d caught the sideways glances she’d aimed at him when she thought he wasn’t looking.

Gordon picked up the thread.

“Do you really think dreams mean anything? Some people say they’re just matrixing—the mind recycling images from the day, trying to force a pattern on chaos.”

“Some dreams are like that,” Tyler agreed, “and what they make you feel is a mild anxiety, as if you were looking for something that you can’t quite find, can’t put your finger on. But other dreams are deeper.”

“You think they can predict the future?”

“In some cases, yes. I think the unconscious mind, visually and verbally, is an outrageous punster. It encodes messages in symbols and double meanings. That’s the only way it can communicate: by indirection. We get the full picture later,” he smiled, “when we review the film.”

“Okay,” Gordon nodded. “Fine. So what’s the message?”

The breath of the air conditioning stopped, and Tyler heard the raspy pulse of the crickets measuring out the night beyond the window. He glanced across the table at his companion, at the face that seemed to float and shift its outline in the dim glow of the chandelier. Somewhere under the lines, the pull of the years, was the face of the boy he had first met half a century ago. The realization washed over him unexpectedly in a cold wave.

“A spring turns to a memorial,” Tyler replied. “Everything goes dark on the seventeenth, and I never reach the eighteenth.”

“Those are dates—years.”

“Right,” Tyler said. He hadn’t taken his eyes from Gordon’s face. So he does know!

Tyler laughed.

“What could possibly be funny about that?” Willsey wanted to know.

“I just now caught another layer. There’s a pun on your name. When I come to visit, I will see.”

“See what?”

Tyler went light-headed, as if his scalp had been lifted from the top of his skull. He felt like a sailor lost for days on a sea of jagged ice floes, and suddenly, from behind a mountain of fog and snow, a ghost ship passed across his bow. He saw the ragged sails and the empty, frozen deck. He smelled the cold.

“I guess we’ll find out tomorrow,” he replied.

*

Rags of fog drifted out of the trees as they sped around a bend and entered a grove of red oaks. Tyler, slumped in the passenger seat, drank the last of the coffee he’d picked up at the Stop and Go and watched a raccoon high-step like a rabid, hunchbacked cat across the road in front of them. They passed a sign for Moundville State Park, and Gordon, watching Tyler sideways from behind the wheel, informed him that part of the back nine skirted the park.

The mounds that gave the site its name were all that remained of what had been one of the largest Native American cities east of the Mississippi River. Like the jungle cities of the Maya, the site had been abandoned suddenly, and the people, twenty thousand strong, had simply walked off into the forest, leaving the empty streets and buildings behind.

Squinting into the rising sun, Gordon slowed down and swung left into the parking lot, his tires crunching on loose gravel. The two of them exited Gordon’s SUV and stood taking in the view: fairways climbed the hillside, each one a green highway winding through the darker trees, the white patches of sand traps gleaming in the rising light. Tyler breathed in the sweet smell of freshly cut grass, heard the familiar, distant drone of a mower. It was Monday morning, and they seemed to have the place to themselves. He threw the strap of his golf bag over one shoulder and, following Gordon’s lead, made his way to the brick and white-pillared clubhouse.

The first tee stood elevated above a winding creek fringed with cattails. Tyler smiled to himself. There were only a hundred and fifty yards of carry in order to reach dry land, and most players can hit an eight iron that far; but to require that shot on the first swing, before you’ve even had a chance to warm up, was a challenging test of nerves. Gordon hit a three wood just past the corner of the dogleg, hugging the left side of the fairway to leave himself the shortest distance to the green—a perfect shot. Tyler drew his four wood from his bag, a club he’d always felt confident with, took a few hard cuts to loosen up, and teed up his ball. The shot faded a bit, but it reached the turn and stayed on the short grass. He saw the white ball gleaming on the distant fairway.

Game on, he thought.

The next few holes, however, were less encouraging. Tyler remembered how to play, of course, but he was so badly out of practice that his execution stumbled clumsily behind his intentions. When he walked off the sixth green, he was seven over par, and if it hadn’t been for a few clutch putts, it might’ve been far worse. But then, on the seventh hole, his swing seemed to drop unexpectedly into its old groove, and the lessons of all those summer days forty years ago returned. He envisioned a shot and it happened: it felt like ventriloquism, as if someone much better than he played the game through him. He parred the seventh, eighth and ninth and made the turn at forty-three, then parred the first six holes of the back nine.

But something happened on the sixteenth hole that began to draw him from his trance.

Tyler knew that if he could par this hole and the next two, he could still manage to break eighty.

He smashed a long, straight drive off the sixteenth tee. Approaching his ball in the fairway, he planned out his next shot, imagining the ball climbing into the blue summer air, floating over the traps, landing softly on the green. He drew his five iron from the bag, lowered his clubs to the ground, and stood behind the ball to picture its flight, when a deer, an enormous buck, stepped out of the trees to his left. The animal froze, not twenty feet away, antlers branching from its head, so close that Tyler could hear its ragged breathing. After a moment, unperturbed, the buck calmly lowered its crown and began cropping the grass at the edge of the rough. It did not turn and bound off into the trees as Tyler would’ve expected, its white tail waving like a flag of surrender—perhaps, Tyler thought irrationally, because there was no heartbeat, no warm predatory blood moving to alarm the animal. With a cold stab of fear, he wondered if he was dead already.

Gordon walked up behind him, and the deer leapt away into the brush.

“You all right?”

Tyler cut his eyes at him. “Yeah.”

He hit the shot quickly, his focus gone, and the ball landed short and buried itself in the sand. It took two shots to escape the trap, and Tyler had to curl in a twelve-foot putt to salvage bogey. He walked through pine-shadow to the seventeenth tee, his companion an ominous, silent presence behind him. Tyler drew his driver from the bag, removed the head cover, and dropped his clubs by the blue tee markers. A heron glided past overhead, its shadow trailing after it over the clipped, immaculate grass.

Gordon spoke up behind him. “This one’s a dogleg right, a par five. If you can manage to cut the corner, you can get home in two.”

Hearing those words, Tyler went cold to the bone: it seemed as if the warm June afternoon had tumbled suddenly into March. He couldn’t stop his hands from shaking. Tyler swung his driver savagely twice, three times, looking for his lost focus, for a spark of warmth, then pulled himself together enough to shape a high, hard fade around the corner. He breathed deeply, then stepped back, waiting for Gordon to tee it up, but his companion simply stared at him, a barely repressed hilarity lighting his eyes.

“Aren’t you going to play?”

Gordon shook his head.

Tyler swung his bag over one shoulder and started down the fairway, confused, his friend three paces behind him.

Somewhere, unnoticed at the time by either of them, they had crossed a line: they were not in the known world anymore, and Gordon was no longer himself. He walked along, a gallery of one, his eyes fixed on Tyler’s back. Shoving away his uneasiness, Tyler struggled to narrow his thoughts to something he could grasp: if he could get home in two, or close, he could make birdie and still come in under eighty. He told himself it was not too late: the day wasn’t over yet. The ball was sitting up in the fairway, so he pulled his driver from the bag. He stepped behind the ball, envisioning the shot climbing, rocketing toward the green, when movement from the corner of his eye made him turn.

Gordon walked toward him, smiling, a cold light in his eyes. Tyler returned that stare with a mixture of awe and curiosity. Was there anything left, in that grinning stranger, of the steadfast friend he’d known all those years ago? Head down, Gordon glared at him from the tops of his eyes.

Tyler felt the familiar panic rush over him again. Then the day went dark, and he found himself alone. Gordon Willsey was nowhere to be seen, and Tyler could make out, dimly in the night, the rows of black pines lining the fairway. The crickets stopped as suddenly as they’d begun, and he heard whispering, glimpsed figures moving stealthily behind the rows of black pines. Then he realized with a shock that the pines were the figures, and they seemed to draw nearer—the thin dark presences watching solemnly, debating in hushed tones as he kept to the center of the fairway, trying to keep his distance. He understood implicitly that there would be no going back.

Tyler knew then that all those shimmering summer mornings and luminous dusks turning the still ponds silver had actually been a rehearsal, a preparation. But a preparation for what? The stars spread out in a kind of map overhead. He left his clubs lying where he’d dropped them, uncertain, his hope a faint ember, and began walking east.

JAMES ULMER’s collection of ghost stories, The Fire Doll, published in 2017, was awarded the George Garrett Fiction Prize from Texas Review Press. A previous collection, The Secret Life, was published by Halcyon Press in 2012. Ulmer’s poetry and fiction have appeared in The New Yorker, The North American Review, The Missouri Review, Crazyhorse, New Letters, The Antioch Review, and elsewhere. He is currently Professor of English and Chair of the Department of English and Foreign Languages at Southern Arkansas University.