I divert from Highway 33, turning sharply right onto Creek Road before I could change my mind. Flashing police lights left my rearview mirror. A big accident diverted traffic from Santa Barbara to Santa Paula through Highway 33. A right pain in the ass to take that road home, and the thought of sharing the road with irate, late-night drivers isn’t something I particularly wanted to do at one in the morning.
Most Ojai people are asleep, and the only people on the road were diverted like me. I’ve been through this backroad once before when I attended the wine festival. It’s a dark, twisting road nestled in the mountains. Unlike most highways this road has no streetlights. I don’t know much about this area except that Johnny Cash used to live in Casitas Springs, and several A-List Actors owned entire mountainsides and second homes in this little Shangri-La.
Houses dot the right side of the road, although few left their porch lights on. My hands grip the steering wheel tightly, just as I always do when I don’t know where I’m going. A brown sign looms into view: Camp Comfort. The skeleton of a playground flashes dully as I pass by. Sure doesn’t look too comfortable to me.
A horrible popping sound followed by a grinding noise makes another expletive fly from my lips. A light flickers on my dashboard, an orange light indicating that my tire pressure just blew out. My car slows to a stop. Muttering an expletive, I turn off my car and get out to look at the damage. Something totally shredded my two front tires, and the back tires didn’t look so good either. Wonderful. The road turns into a bend, and some speeding idiot could hit me. I had to get my car off the bridge.
A hot, dry wind blows through the oak trees. My cell phone light illuminates the red-rusty bridge. I lean over the side of the bridge and see nothing but hard, clay earth covered in yellow grass. What if a hobo was hiding in the dry creek bed?
My cell phone’s about to go. Of course, it is. I punch in the number on my Triple A card.
“Where are you?” the operator asks.
“On Creek Road near….uh….” I look back and squint at the sign. “Camp Comfort. On the bridge.”
“Can you move your car off the bridge?” she asked.
“Two of my tires blew out.”
“I’ll call the sheriff. The police station is only ten minutes from where you are. They’ll make sure no one hits you.” She spoke with someone softly before turning her attention back to me. “The accident on the 33 will cause some delays getting our truck to you. Several fatalities.”
Maybe it isn’t so bad as it could be. People just died, and here I was complaining about a couple of flat tires. At least here I didn’t have to see the bodies covered up with a white sheet, or smashed cars that remind me accidents could happen to anyone.
It’s always that kind of luck: whenever your tires blow out it’s never in broad daylight. Oh no. gotta be on a dark road. I lean against my car door, digging into my purse to see if I have any juice left in my external phone battery.
An overwhelming, putrid smell wafts over me. Like charred flesh, a steak left on a grill for far too long. The smell of smoke ignites memories of the last wildfire in Ventura County. How ash fell from the sky and I could stay home from school. A snow day for Californians. My car floods with light. Maybe one of the nearby campers started a fire? In this heat? Or was that my car —
A man stands in front of my car. Bits of charred, black flesh falls off in flakes from his body. His clothes melted into his skin. It seemed as if there was nothing left to burn, but somehow the flames keep burning fiercely. The hot wind careens through the road as we stare at one another. Stare? How can he stare with those droopy, empty eye sockets?
I turn around and run towards Camp Comfort. Blood pounds in my ears as I run, the flames searing light into the back of my eyelids. The burning man grabs the back of my hoodie and yanks me backwards. Gravel digs into my cheek as my feet give out from underneath me, the concrete leaving a long, wide scrape on my face. I roll over, a searing pain burning into the nape of my neck and my hood smoldering. The burning man stretches his hand towards me. Finishing the job, he seems to say.
Adrenaline rushes through me as I push myself to my feet and launch myself into the surrounding oak trees. Rocks tumble as I scramble up the hill, desperate to get away from the burning man, who followed me. I grabbed at a nearby oak tree, dead leaves showering me as its branches groaned.
One step on the dead grass and the mountainside would ignite. There’s no way to escape. I couldn’t run in the dark, and a wildfire would burn faster than I could run.
Flashing lights suddenly flood the area. When I blink the burning man is gone, frightened by the wailing sirens. A sheriff steps out of the car, his brow furrowing as he looks at the abandoned car.
I let go of the tree and slide down the hill, stumbling as my feet hit the road.
“You all right, Ma’am?” the copy asks, studying my face.
The sheriff is one of those small-town guys, that one police officer who’d let you off with a warning if he caught you speeding. His buddies stomp on the smoldering grass, shouting at one another to call a fire truck.
“There’s a man!” I cry out, stabbing a finger towards the bridge. “On fire!”
“Ma’am, we have a tow truck coming,” the cop said. “Everything will be fine.”
“You should find him!”
My arms tingled. I’ve never seen anything quite like it in my life. What the hell was that?
“You’re not from around here, are you?” The cop leans in close, conspiratorially, as I feel as though I’m back in high school, exchanging ghost stories over stolen beers. “You saw the Char Man.”
“The Char Man?”
“Guy burned to death in the 40’s during a wildfire, and now he haunts this bridge.”
I look at the bridge. The policemen were examining my tires. I wonder if they too saw the Char Man before he disappeared?
Well, I know never to take that backroad again. If you’re ever driving down Creek Road late at night, never stop on the bridge over the San Antonio Creekbed near Camp Comfort. Else the Char Man will get you.