On Huckman Causeway
By Brian Bixby; copyright © 2012 by Brian Bixby
My wife Roxanna and I both knocked around a lot when we were young, in the days before we met. We picked up an assortment of friends. Many reflect aspects of our lives we no longer retain, except in memory. Others have taken far different paths from ours. We see those types of friends rarely, but are still proud to count them among our friends.
The Tollands were among those friends. Bill Tolland and I had done some smuggling when we were both in our twenties. I was living with a girl named Pat, a tall, gorgeous blonde. Well, one of the smuggling jobs went bad, and around the same time Pat and I had a falling out, so I hightailed it out of there. A decade later when I came back, I found Bill had married Pat and they had two kids. Didn’t harm my friendship with either of them.
So, last year, not long after I turned sixty-three, Roxanna and I were staying not far from where the Tollands lived, so we decided to drop by one evening. Bill and Pat looked a bit more careworn than they had four years back, but it’s not as if we weren’t getting older, too. They sat us down, got out the beer, asked how we were doing, and we told them.
Some remark Roxanna made led Bill to say, “Well, the last year has been rather tough for us. To tell you the truth, Ted, we’ve had our troubles.”
Before he could say any more, this child of about ten years old came into the room. She walked up to Pat and said, “Mommy, can you see me to bed?” Pat excused herself, took the child by the hand, and led her out of the room.
I was surprised. Pat was a bit old to have a ten year old, I don’t care what they say about artificial means. I’d often wondered why she’d even had two children, since she had constantly complained that pregnancy had ruined her figure. It hadn’t, by the way.
Bill must have seen my raised eyebrows. He said, “She’s adopted, Ted. In fact, she’s part of the troubles we’ve been having.”
Roxanna, who, I should add in all justice, looks pretty good for being in her sixties as well, chimed in. “She doesn’t look like much of a trouble, Bill.”
Bill gave us a rueful smile. “Well, she’s not. It’s how we got her that’s been the trouble. You two all set on drinks? ’Cause this story will take some time to tell.”
Roxanna and I went to the refrigerator and got new beers, and sat down on the couch in the living room. And then Bill told us the following story. Pat came back midway through the story, but she let him tell it all. Pat was good, that way.
As you know, Ted, I like to go camping. Pat, not so much. So two years ago, I bought one of those big campers. The guy I mostly went camping with was Mike Morris and his wife Michelle. Mike was one of those people who had to have the newest version of everything. Lord knows where he got the money to afford it. But he had it. And when I went to buy the camper, Mike came along, and made me get one with all the fanciest new features, everything from backup cameras to GPS. The next year, Mike bought himself a new car, and it had all the same things and some more besides. I think Internet satellite radio, anti-flip dynamic stabilization, and all sorts of other things you might recognize but were all gobbledygook to me. Never been much of one for technology.
Anyhow, we’ve gone camping, hunting, and fishing in about the same place every year, and began to know the area quite well. We weren’t locals, but we thought of it as our neck of the woods.
This year, we took my camper and Mike’s car. Oh, the camper would fit the four of us, five, actually, because Mike brought along his daughter Jill. Yeah, they were younger than us. Mike was about thirty-eight, Michelle about thirty-two. They’d planned to lodge Jill, who was their only kid, at a relative’s, but the deal had fallen through at the last minute.
The fishing was miserable, the weather poor, but the hunting was great. I’d have thought we’d have the women go stir-crazy and demand to end the trip early, but, no, Michelle and Pat swapped romance novels and Jill watched the TV in the camper. As long as they could get out to go skinny-dipping once a day, they were happy. And it was kind of funny to see how Mike and Michelle doted on Jill, because we’d never seen them with their daughter before.
Well, we had a clear day, finally, and then news that a big storm was on the way, and Mike and I decided to put paid to our holiday. We decided to drive to Johnsville, to the Paradise Motel there. Ever been there? Nah, no reason why you should. It’s in the middle of nowhere. But it’s run by this old retired couple who settled there about a decade ago, about when we started our hunting trips, and they have the best bar and Chinese food for fifty miles around. We stopped by there most years on our way out and way back.
Getting to the Paradise and Johnsville was a bit of a problem. In between our campground and there was Huckman Swamp. It’s only a few miles wide, the way we were going, but it’s about fifty miles long. On its north end it butts up against the mountains, so there’s no road there. And the road around the south end means going sixty miles when it’s only ten as the crow flies. So we were as pleased as punch to see that the county must have built a road across the swamp since we were last through here, because it was designated Co. Hwy. 213 on the GPS displays in my camper and his car. Thought it was a little funny that my car was two years old and yet showed a road that must have been finished last year, but Mike explained it all to me. The GPS device comes with a subscription, you see, and it keeps the maps updated.
Well, we got a late start, never mind why. We were barely ahead of the storm the whole way to where the road hit the western edge of Huckman Swamp. We traveled down the side of the swamp about five miles and, sure enough, there was the turn-off for Co. Hwy. 213, a spankin’ brand new road to judge from the pavement and the bright yellow line running down the middle of its two lanes. And there was a big new sign, “HUCKMAN CAUSEWAY. AUTOMOBILES ONLY. NO TRUCKS. NO CAMPERS. NO PEDESTRIANS.”
If I had been younger, I would have ignored the sign and turned onto Huckman Causeway. And with the storm directly behind us and catching up fast, I was tempted. But I pulled over and got out of the car and walked over to where Mike had pulled over just behind me.
“Mike,” I said, “I suppose campers are too wide for the causeway. I’ll take the road around the south end of the swamp.”
Mike, I could see, was torn between being loyal to me, and going the same way with me, and not wanting to get caught in the storm. He knew, as I did, that the road around the south end of the swamp was prone to flooding. He looked into the back seat, where his wife and daughter were sleeping, turned back to me, gave me a grin, and said, “If it’s all the same to you, Bill, I’m going to take the causeway.”
“Can’t say I blame you, Mike,” I replied.
“Drive safe. See you and Pat at the Paradise Bar,” he said, and then the window rolled up and he pulled back onto the road and took the turn to the Huckman Causeway.
Pretty soon I was thankful Mike had done so. The storm hit after we had gone only fifteen miles, and the road along the swamp flooded within half an hour. I had to take the camper slowly and carefully, watching in case there was a washout. Pat, here, she kept her eyes glued to the road, too. There were times I just had to stop, because the rain came down so hard that I couldn’t see the road. And I had no desire to drive my camper into Huckman Swamp. I doubt Mike’s car could have made it through the flooding.
It took us six hours to get to Johnsville and the Paradise. We checked in, only to find that the Morrises had not done so. The clerk at the desk could tell us nothing. So Pat and I headed over to the bar. The couple that owns the hotel, bar, and restaurant, the Ostrowskis, usually are behind the bar, and I figured they could tell us something.
We got in and ordered our drinks. Louisa Ostrowski was behind the bar, and after she served us our drinks, I asked her, “Seen the Morrises today?”
She shook her head. “The short fellow who’s usually with you, him and his wife who’s a head taller than him? Mike, isn’t it? Hasn’t been in today. You two were out hunting and got separated, did you?”
I nodded. “More or less. I was driving a camper, and he was driving a car, so when we came to the Huckman Causeway he took it and I went around. Figured he would have got here hours ago.”
Louisa looked at me strangely. “The what? Did you say the Huckman Causeway? Where’s that?”
This was strange, but I plowed ahead. “About five miles south from where the Bartonville Road hits the swamp. According to the GPS, it shoots right across the swamp to route 8. Must be new, because I’d never seen it before.”
Louisa’s look changed from puzzled to cross. “There’s no road there. Get away, Bill Tolland, if you’re going to plague me with stories.”
I tried to tell her I was telling the truth, but she just shooed me away. Pat and I took our drinks to a table and talked it over. The storm was still raging outside. My fear was that, somehow, Mike had still been on the causeway when the storm had hit and been caught by it. He should have been across Huckman Swamp in plenty of time, and it was a brand new road, but what other explanation was there? If he’d been the joking type, I could imagine him setting up a mystery on me, but that wasn’t Mike.
Finally, Pat said to me that I had to go to the police, just in case the Morrises had driven off the causeway. Minutes might count. I went up to the bar and asked Louisa where the nearest police station was and why I wanted to know. She got a troubled look on her face, told me she’d call the deputy sheriff, who was the nearest policeman around, and told me she was sorry if she’d doubted me, seeing how serious I was about this.
Pat ordered another drink. I decided I had best be as sober as possible when the deputy sheriff arrived, so I had coffee.
The deputy sheriff showed up about forty-five minutes later. Big guy, tall, big bones, big muscles, looked to be about forty, introduced himself as Stan Smith, and asked me to be quick about it, as he had quite a few problems to attend to. He listened to my story, frowning the whole time, not saying a word. Then he got up, went over to talk with Louisa for a minute, and came back.
He sat down, looked at the both of us as if he didn’t know what to make of us, and then said, “Louisa vouches for you, and says she knows this other couple as well. So I’m going to ask you only once, because if you lie to me and I spend time on this and it turns out to be a joke, I’ll have taken time away from real problems, and I’ll see you get put in jail for a false report. So, are you telling me the truth?”
I didn’t like the sound of this. But what could I say different? So I said to him, “What I’ve told you is true. I suppose Mike could have gotten it into his head to go somewhere else and not tell us, but I don’t think it very damn likely. All’s I can figure is he must have broken down on the causeway. Or something else held him up. And I’m reporting it because I don’t want to see a friend and his family in trouble because I didn’t.”
Deputy Sheriff Smith shook his head. “There is no Huckman Causeway.”
What he said made no sense, so I tried to make sense of it. “But I saw it. You mean it’s been washed away by the storm?”
He gave a sharp laugh. “Yeah, washed away by a storm . . . in 1978. Closed twenty years earlier not long after it opened when it began sinking into the swamp. Shoddy construction job. Your friend was a bit late to try to take a ride on it. Wonder he could even find the trace of the old road.”
The looks on our faces must have said something to him, because he said, “Still sticking to your story?”
I was so taken aback that I couldn’t answer. It was Pat who said to Smith, “We saw what we saw, Sheriff. I don’t know how, but there was a newly paved road there. The Morrises took it.”
Smith shook his head, stood up. “I’ll report this, and do what I can. In the storm it won’t be much.” He prepared to go.
Pat was baffled. So was I. She said to him, “Sheriff, if you don’t believe us, why are you willing to help?”
Smith gave her a long, thoughtful look. “Ma’am, I don’t know what to believe. But I’ll tell you this: I don’t think you’ll ever see your friends again.”
He was right. We never saw Mike or Michelle, ever again, living or dead.
Bill had stopped speaking. He looked tired. Pat had pulled up a chair beside him, and was patting his hand in a comforting fashion.
It had been an abrupt stop to the story. Roxanna and I sat there on the couch, not knowing quite what to say. It was Roxanna who finally broke the silence. “So they drove onto a road that didn’t exist any more and vanished into thin air?”
Bill shook his head. “Maybe. Not quite. You see, the storm kept up for another day. The day after, the state sent a helicopter over the region to assess the damage from the storm, which had been a bad one. The helicopter reported that there was a half-submerged car in Huckman Swamp. It was a mile from the eastern edge of the swamp, on the path of the old causeway. Smith, God bless him, went out in a boat, easy enough to do while the swamp was so flooded. There was nobody in the car, except for Jill, and she was unconscious. Probably would have died if she’d spent another night out there. They got her to the hospital, got her fixed up. When she woke up, she couldn’t tell us a thing. She’d been asleep when Mike turned off onto the causeway, and apparently had not woken up again until she was rescued.
“Smith thought he saw Mike’s and Michelle’s coats in the car, but it sank into the swamp before he ever got back to it, so he can’t say for sure. Can’t imagine them leaving the car in that weather without their coats. Can’t imagine them abandoning their daughter. Maybe one tried to swim for help, and then the other, and both were lost.
“But, skipping that we saw the causeway road that time, there’s two problems with any explanation. First, how did the car get there? It’s two miles from the western end of the swamp, and a mile from the eastern, and the causeway really is gone. Was the causeway real enough that Mike could drive on it for two miles, and then for some reason it went away?
“The other problem is the GPS. The causeway was on the maps in both Mike’s car and the camper. And I think they were different makes. I went to look at the GPS in the camper again that evening, after we’d talked to Smith. The causeway wasn’t there any more. Gave me the horrors at the time. Sent me back into the bar for a double. I don’t know. Maybe it had been introduced by one automatic update, and deleted by another. Maybe it was only there as long as the causeway seemed to be there.
“We kind of felt responsible for Jill, and she has no close kin, so we’ve adopted her. She still doesn’t remember anything. But she’s scared of bridges and lakes.”