NINE/ELEVEN:20 — The Legend-Tripper

Cocaine. Every particle of my body, and every hair in my nostril, cried out for cocaine. 

The drive had been a long one. Each new state looked the same—a bevy of bright lights, empty gas stations, and a series of trees spliced with the occasional sub-division. I had to pull off at a truck stop outside of Memphis to rest my weary bones. An ugly lot lizard pecked at my window. She asked for a buck-a-suck. I started up my car again and headed for the city. 

Memphis is a scary place. To most people, it’s because of the crime. Add in a soundtrack of Memphis rap (the most Satanic sub-genre), and then you have a glimpse of Hell dipped in barbecue sauce and dripping with Hoodoo. Memphis scared me, but for other reasons. 

My fear was found along Interstate 40. The source was a bridge linking Memphis to Arkansas. Months before, a DOT employee had failed to notice a massive crack in one of the bridge’s steel beams. The beam, painted a sickly green, appeared in headlines across the South. The inspector was fired for her shoddy work. Once I learned about it, I had to see it for myself. I gassed up my clunker and drove northeast from Little Rock. I kept in my glove compartment my map and notebook. I cursed a little when I saw that the notebook was almost full. I did not have enough money for a new one. There, on the next-to-last page, I found the address I wanted. I drove all afternoon and night and got in well past midnight. I stopped at a dilapidated city park with a small gravel lot for viewing. I got out my binoculars, adjusted them, and saw the crack. 

The crack was well over an inch in length and looked deep. I scoffed at the uselessness of state employees—how could such an obvious structural hazard go unnoticed for so long? Then again, for months I had traveled across the country looking at one public disaster after another. I’d seen overpass bridges in Chicago held together by white paint, duct tape, and glue; I’d driven across roads in Cincinnati that shifted and vibrated because they were full of sinkholes. I’d been in Texas, where four bridges had cracks bigger and nastier than the one I saw in Memphis that night. 

I made notes by cramping my hand and scribbling in the margins. I used my binoculars to scan the area. I had to, as I needed to see the other signs. All had to be there to know if Memphis was the place or not. Cracked, potentially deadly bridge? Check. An area known for violence and/or occult significance? Yes. Images of smiley faces spray painted nearby? I had to focus for that one. I used my binoculars until my eyes hurt. I could not find any art nearby. I cursed under my breath. That and one more sign were needed.

I put the binoculars away. I slouched against the hood of my car for a few minutes. I lit up an old cigarette from the ash tray and thought about my life. 

My hunt had begun during the pandemic. I lost my job like millions of others. The unemployment benefits were good enough, but the bureaucrats so often overlook the fact that people (especially men) need more things in their life than money. We are not rational, we are not materialists, and we are not widgets. We need purpose. It took hours and hours of rainy days to find my purpose. 

The Mothman. 

First seen on November 15, 1966 by four kids in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, the Mothman was described as a large, possibly ten-foot-tall flying creature with grey flesh and glowing red eyes. From that first sighting, which took place at a disused munitions plant from the Second World War, the Mothman appeared to residents across Point Pleasant for two days. It was seen in fields and on lonely stretches of country road. Eyewitnesses included volunteer firemen, Mason County police officers, and contractors. Decent, working-class types saw the Mothman and reported it. They were mocked, and those still following the creature are mocked. The debunkers claim everything from a sandhill crane to a heron and bad LSD trips. What nobody can deny is that the Silver Bridge collapsed. On December 15, 1967, the Silver Bridge swayed, twisted, and turned in the air above the Ohio River until ultimately it fell into the water. Forty-six people died. Point Pleasant had to learn to live tragedy a year after learning to live with mystery. 

My interest turned into an obsession. I do not know why, and I will never know why. Obsession overlapped with obsession until all the stories became intermixed. A salad bowl of conspiracy. And yet, I knew (and I know) that I was right. More than an extraterrestrial, the Mothman is the Angel of Death. The Greeks called him Thanatos; the Abrahamic religions know him as Azrael. The Mothman is an all-American psychopomp, and I made a decision to find him. Or, at the sake of being more objective, bring him back. 

The first stops were in Florida. The Sunshine State left my cold. I left and started looking elsewhere. As I traveled, my list grew. I knew that the Mothman haunted infrastructure. Then I started learning about the smiley face murder theory. Another psychopomp—a whole lot of college-age males have been found dead near bridges or in rivers near murals depicting the ubiquitous yellow smiley face. Again, bridges were the nexus point. The same held true for the Bunny Man in Fairfax County, Virginia. A haunted tunnel underneath a bridge supposedly lorded over by an escaped lunatic in an Easter bunny outfit. While others saw a story warning Old Dominions about copulating in a lovers’ lane, I saw another manifestation of the Mothman. No smiley face there, though. 

Still, despite all my travels, I could never find the right place. I came close in West Memphis when I toured the site where Steve Edward Branch, Christopher Mark Byers, and James Michael Moore were stripped down and cut up by suspected Satanists. I found a bridge near the murder site, plus, after overturning and kicking a few rocks, I found a smiley face inked in Sharpie. All the ingredients were there except the last one. Dejected, I drove to Little Rock and then back across to Memphis the next day. 

I smoked until the ash burned my fingers. I leaned against the hood until my ass fell asleep. I wanted to sleep but knew better than to snooze in a parked car in a wooded area in Memphis. I needed somewhere with walls, so, after leaving the cracked bridge on I-40 to its fate, I headed for downtown. Much like Detroit, economically devastated Memphis is crawling with abandoned houses. Breaking into an empty house saves money but puts one at risk of stumbling into a stash house. I drove around until four looking for the perfect spot—far away from living residents, but not so isolated as to be a hunting ground for a psycho killer. Hunting after death makes one paranoid, so I did not take chances. 

Luckily, I found a duplex full of rotten wood in South Memphis. All it took was a few pulls with my chisel and I was inside. I unfurled my sleeping bag, placed the bulky Hi-Point C9 next to my head, and fell asleep to the sounds of scurrying ants.

I woke up the next afternoon. I felt foggy—the type of foggy that can only be cured with a strong cup of coffee. I put my gear away in my car and drove to the nearest Denny’s. 

Warriors of the road learn to trust certain establishments. After so many months driving around the Southeast, Midwest, and Mid-Atlantic, I learned to love Denny’s. Denny’s gets a bad rap for substandard food, but a cheap and filling meal is all anybody needs. I strolled in stinky and ordered black coffee with one side of pancakes and another of buttermilk biscuits. Ordering sides instead of a full meal is a smart way of saving money, like ordering water with lemon and using the complimentary sugar packets to make lemonade. 

After my food arrived, I asked the waitress for a USA Today. I was back in West Memphis and knew that Denny’s also provided free USA Today newspapers. I took my time savoring every bite and sip. In my world, there is no such thing as seconds. Everything counts. I read the paper mindlessly. There was nothing to care about. Politics means nothing when you’re on the cusp of discovering the truth about the afterlife. I put away all the talk about the president, Congress, and another war in the Middle East. I flipped to the regional section. I scrolled through the states. 

I stopped in Ohio. 

…the Athens County Sheriff’s Department is currently asking the community to provide tips on the whereabouts of missing Ohio University student Roger Bryden, 19. Bryden went missing after attending a Halloween party at The Crystal. Although the family has admitted that Bryden has a history of psychological counseling (owing to his brother’s suicide in 2018), they do not believe that Bryden is suicidal. If you have any information, please contact the Athens County Sheriff’s Department at 704…

There it was—a major hit. Every sense tingled, and my heart went aflutter. I tucked my food and coffee away in a rush. I put “Athens, Ohio” into the GPS on my phone and started off down another highway. Thinking played little to no role at all in my decision. Everything was wired to follow the Mothman, and the Mothman was in Athens, Ohio. 

Ten hours of endless highway later and I was in Athens. Athens is a college town, and the college kids are known to party hard. Athens is also something of a folk legend, too. The town has a reputation as one of the most haunted in the country, if not the world. There is no more obvious sign of Athens’s diabolism than the fact that if one draws a line connecting the town’s five cemeteries, a pentagram appears. Simms Cemetery, which forms the pentagram’s point, is more supernaturally active than some medieval castles or Asian prison camps. On top of this, Athens sports The Ridges (a haunted lunatic asylum) and an entire college campus crawling with specters. It was the type of town that drew in psychopomps. It took me less than a minute after crossing the town line to realize that my mission was ending. The knowledge gave me an unexpected erection. 

I found my notebook and began ticking off all the signs. Infrastructure. I needed to find a bridge. Despite being exhausted from lack of sleep, I began hunting after every bridge, overpass, and underpass. The first was the scenic Blackwood Covered Bridge. It had nothing, not even regular graffiti. The same was true for the Garden Hill Road Bridge, although, since it was abandoned and in the middle of a forest, it gave off paranormal vibrations. Other bridges came and went. All forgettable. 

Then, after the sun had set, I found the Skunk Run Bridge. Once part of the B&O Railroad, the Skunk Run Bridge met the first qualification: I found it abandoned. A pitiful stream of brackish water ran through it. That was the second sign. Using the light from my cell phone, I started searching. The darkened interior of the bridge revealed a tapestry of graffiti once illuminated. I saw too many pot leaves, and even more references to sex. I learned that Sheila sucked cock, and that Chris and Ryan were gay lovers who ate ass every weekend behind the football field. There were phone numbers, even the classic 867-5309. The only thing that troubled me were the pentagrams and blood-red demons. 

At the very edge of one wall, near the water’s edge, I saw it. A simple, yellow smiley face. I kept looking and found more. Some were yellow, while others were green and blue. In total, I counted thirteen smiley faces. An unsettling number. So far, I had found three signs. 

The fourth, the horrible fourth, caused me to panic. Cold sweat mixed with a rising heartbeat. As much as I wanted the journey to end, I did not want to find the fourth sign. Too bad; I found it anyway. 

The bluish light from my phone caught the black mass slouched between the bridge’s wall and the river. I moved closer. My legs shook with each step, but still I moved forward. It was a body. One touch and I found that it was a cold body. A dead body. It was a young male. There was no way for me to know that it was Roger Bryden, so I assumed. Despite being enraptured, I remained sane enough to know not to leave my fingerprints all over the body. Still, the curiosity was palpable. It had to be Bryden, I thought, and there was no way the authorities could claim suicide, even though I did find any fatal wounds or clear signs of an attack. Unless Bryden had starved himself by crawling in a hole and dying, somebody had dragged him down to the water and into the bridge. 

That was sign four. It was the first time since beginning my journey that I had reached sign four. Sign five was not a sign at all but a sigil. It required action on my part. The shaking went from my legs to the rest of my body. It did not want to do it, for to do it would cause pain. And yet the pain of not knowing would hurt more. I reached a decision and committed. 

I put my phone aside and entered full darkness.  I reached into my bruised and dusty backpack and pulled out a mirror. It was small. It fit in the palm of my hand. I placed the mirror on a bed of rocks. To the sounds of the river, I pulled out a pocket knife and cut my thumb. The pain went from hot and sharp to mostly numb in seconds. I blocked most of it out by focusing on my task. On the surface of the mirror, I drew the sigil. I started with the forewings, moved onto the hindwings, and then the thorax. I kept painting until I finished with the most important part—the compound eye. 

I finished and let myself be taken in by the darkness. The night was cool, but it began cooling off at a rapid pace. It went from cool to cold. The shivers came, but I ignored them. I focused all of my senses and waited for what I had long expected. I waited to hear the distinctive sound of wings flapping. 

But there was nothing. Nothing at all. 

I waited for an hour in the frigid darkness. Still nothing. 

Almost a year of endless traveling for nothing. All the days wasted on the road. All the parties missed, all the resumes never sent, all the girls never dated. I had given so much to get absolutely nothing in return. I was beyond disgusted. I was, for the first time in my life, despondent. 

The pocketknife, with its sharp and oily blade, beckoned. “Come and let me drink,” I heard it say. I was already bleeding; why not join poor Roger Bryden? Skunk Run Bridge could hold two bodies without a problem. What was the point in going on? All that was left was an apartment in Florida. Going back there felt like a major retreat. Such defeats can never be overcome. I opened the knife again.

Then, out of the darkness, one last rational thought struck me. Light. Moths are attracted to light. Although I knew that the Mothman was not a real moth, but rather the Angel of Death in disguise, I considered it worthwhile to see if the disguise had the same weaknesses as its earthly counterpart. I thumbed my phone back to life. A few scrolls and I found the flashlight. The appearance of light unnerved me after so long in the darkness. I jumped and dropped the cellphone. I picked it up and centered the light again.

A blast of cold air struck me in the face. At the edge of the air was something else—the tip of a wing that brushed my nose. Panicked, I spun around. The cellphone light followed each jerky motion. More cold wind rushed past me. Another wingtip traced its outline along my ear. I kept searching but saw nothing. 

When the wind stopped, everything in the tunnel became still. Even the water stopped moving. There, in the spot where the water and rocks met the bridge wall, the black mass moved. It sat up and then stood up. A few groaning movements and it came into the light. 

It was Roger Bryden. 

The cellphone light showed me what I had missed earlier. Namely, the tell-tale signs of ligature marks around his throat and wrist. He had been strangled to death, and yet there he stood facing me. 

He was not alone. A large shape, blacker than the night around it, hovered behind Roger Bryden. Like a puppet master, it made the corpse’s head and arms move. Even in the faltering light, I could see the outlines of black talons and wings. 

Roger Bryden, with lusterless eyes encased in a fish white face, saw me, and made a single motion. He made a gun with his fingers and simulated suicide. He then pointed back at me. 

I ran out of the tunnel. I ran until I reached my car. I drove until I reached Florida. Now, after weeks, I get it. I understand the message. 

The Hi-Point wants to talk to me. I have to go now.

— Arbogast is a poet with a blog. You can purchase his new poetry collection, “Nocturnes”, here