The engine in the Oldsmobile sputtered and clanked and died in a plume of steam and smoke, and left Jake Fischer alone in the dark. He looked at the aftermarket temperature gauge he and his dad had installed just above the steering wheel and saw the needle was deep in the red. His father had warned him about revving the engine too high, but he was in a hurry. “Damn it,” Jake cursed, then looked out the window into the blackness beyond the smoke.
His family had just moved out here, about five miles down County Road 136. The kids at school called this the Dead Road, and when he asked his parents why they would buy a house out here, they had not been forthcoming.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” his father said. “You’re too old to believe that.” Even his mother had giggled at him when he had broached the subject.
Jake thought all this was highly suspect, but now was not the time to think about it. In fact, to think about it right now might be a terrible mistake indeed. Jake, sitting in his crippled car, was about to step out into the blackness, a prospect he was not fond of.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Jake said aloud to himself, a little deeper than his own voice, in an attempt to conjure the reassuring presence of his father. He reached up and turned off the key, removing it from the ignition in the same movement, and was instantly swallowed by the darkness of the night around him. He sat, breathing harder than he planned to admit, until his eyes adjusted.
Gathering his courage, Jake pulled the door handle and stepped out into the night.
“This ain’t so bad,” he said. The moon was bright and washed the landscape in a blue glow that made everything look monochromatic. The shadows were long and black, but he could see the road, and that’s what counted. As for the road itself, it was a narrow gravel track lined with barbed wire fences and trees on each side. Every so often the trees gave way to the wide openness of farmer’s fields and pastures that seemed to go on for miles in either direction.
Jake set off, his sneakers crunching in the gravel. The wind was cold, and he pulled his jacket tighter around him, hands in the pockets. He could see his breath puff out of his mouth in little bursts of white steam. He set a rhythm with his footsteps, and his mind drifted home, where it was warm and bright and people waited for him.
“I told you to watch that accellerator, Jakey,” his dad would say to him. “She’s an old car, and I wasn’t sure how much it could take.” His old man would look at him wearily.
Jake could see his father’s eyes, squinted with the strain of simultaneous worry and relief. He loved his old man. That’s why he’d gone along with the move, no questions asked. His folks had been having trouble something about a woman his dad worked with out at the oil plant in Sherwood. When his folks had proposed to move instead of a divorce, Jake was relieved. Anything was better than the alternative.
The rhythmic crunch of his footfalls had become the soundtrack of his journey, blending with the background so that they were almost imperceptible, so it took him a moment to notice that there was another sound. It seemed to slither through the dirt and rock of the road behind him. Jake stopped, and so the slither. His breath was coming fast now, and he was sweating despite the cold.
Turn around, Jake, he thought, and with a burst of courage, he swung around to face the source of the noise.
The road behind him stretched, empty, in a straight line back to where his car rested, normally red, but tonight, like everything else, bathed in blue and black.
Jake laughed out loud, and heard the trees return it to him as a sharp echo. He sounded crazy.
He was only about a hundred yards from his car, and it felt like he’d been walking for half an hour. Need to stop my mind from wandering, he thought. As his dad always said, Focus is key here, Jakey.
“Should’ve listened,” he grumbled. His heart rate was returning to normal, and now more than fear, he felt ashamed of himself. He turned and kept walking, listening to his footfalls and finding that all was in order.
He was about to emerge from tight tree cover into the first break, overlooking a huge pasture that during the day was full of cows. Who knows what’s out there at night, he thought, this time in the voice of Tim Winkler, a solid brick of a letter jacket clad senior at the high school who, when he found out where Jake lived, had decided to “warn” him in the least comforting way possible. “I’ve heard all kinds of shit has gone down out there.”
“Don’t be an asshole, Tim,” Jake said, slamming his locker door and turning his back.
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Tim yelled at the back of his head. A couple of passers-by had stopped and stared.
Now, as Jake cleared the treeline and saw the moonlit field stretch out before him, he fully expected to see a black shape bounding across the pasture in his direction, snarling and hungry. Instead, he saw cows dotting the landscape. “Get it together,” he said.
He looked back over his shoulder, and thought he could still see his car, though it was a dot in his vision. Progress was being made and he felt better.
There was a rustling sound in the trees ahead of him. It was small, no more than a squirrel would make while darting through the undergrowth, but in the silence of the night it sounded like a gunshot. He turned quickly and stopped again. I’ll never get anywhere at this rate, he thought, grimmacing a little, and kept walking. Scared of the damned trees.
As he crossed the treeline again, the open field now obscured from his view by a line of fairly ancient oaks that gathered on either side of him, he actually felt relieved. The wide open space had begun to feel odd to him. The more you could see the more you knew, and he greatly preferred to stay ignorant. Here in the comforting canopy of overgrowth, you could focus on what was ahead.
What was ahead seemed to be moving.
In the road just ahead, something writhed in the gravel and dirt, pushing it aside as it whipped toward the roadside.
Jake’s brow furrowed, his hands shook a little harder in his jacket pockets, but he refused to stop this time. Just push through, he thought. Probably just a snake or a lizard. In November. Sure.
He had decided not to be afraid, but he gave the spot a wide berth anyway. No sense stepping on something that could bite. The slithering thing had moved to the grass on the right side of the road, so Jake hugged the edge all the way to the left. Just as he passed the spot, he felt something brush the back of his jeans.
This time, Jake let out an audible yelp and jumped ahead, almost tripping but regaining his footing before he went down. “Son of a bitch,” he cursed. His dad hated it when he cursed, and he tried not to do it often. “Who’s there,” he called. He did his best to stand taller and look solid as he spun around in a circle looking for movement.
Of course there is nobody there, he thought. It had probably been a bug or something. In any case, he was losing time.
He started to walk faster until he was nearly jogging. Jake was a marching band kid and had never been athletic. Still, adrenaline can allow you to accomplish surprising feats, and Jake now meant to keep this pace until home.
He came to a turn in the road, still overgrown with massive foliage, and as he gazed down the new stretch that had been hidden from him until just this moment, what he saw made him stop, heart pounding.
The Oldsmobile stood, just as he had left it on the roadside, about thirty yards ahead. He could see the tracks its tires had carved in the dirt. Its windows were still cracked a little because he had forgotten to roll them up all the way before he started walking.
When Jake was finally able to make a sound, he screamed. He screamed long and loud, until all the breath had left his body. He fell to his knees and rolled onto his backside.
When he had stared at the back of his car long enough and read the license plate a few dozen times, he decided to get up. This is not real, he thought. He knew he was wrong, but the idea helped him regain his footing. He walked over to the car, ran his hand along the slick metal of the trunk, up on to the roof, down the glass of the windshield.
This was his car. There was the ding a cart had knocked into the door last summer in the Brookshire Bros. parking lot. The antenna was bent from the time he had locked his keys inside and had attempted to jimmy the lock with it.
I must have blacked out and dreamed the rest of the walk, he thought. That actually made sense. He felt better, and clung to the thought like a drowning man to a life preserver.
He picked up his foot to set out again, and felt his left toe catch on something. He looked down and saw that, while he stood examining his car, something seemed to have laid itself across the top of his foot. He bent down to look. Is that a vine?
From the roadside behind him came a rustling sound in the grass. The one from the dream, he thought. He turned his head and saw something long and thick slithering toward him, it’s dark tip beginning to emerge from the blackness of the grassy roadside onto the blue-white of the sandy gravel road.
“Oh, god,” he said, panic beginning to overtake his thoughts. He attempted to bound forward into a run, but the vine over his left foot held solid and he fell forward, sprawling onto the gravel. He felt raw scratches open up on his palms as he caught himself, but adrenaline kept the pain at bay. He flipped over onto his back, wide-eyed and breathing heavily, and heard his dad. Focus is key here, Jakey, he said in his mind, and Jake’s eyes narrowed.
He kicked hard with his left foot and freed it from the vine, then rolled hard to the right. The vine moved with him, searching to gather another hold on his foot, but not fast enough, and Jake was able to jump back to his feet. He could still see the thick, black tendril creeping further from the grass onto the road, but he ignored it as best he could and turned to run toward his car, leaping onto the hood and scrambling up the windshield to the roof.
Jake stood on top of his car and watched the tendrils of plant matter scour the ground for him. He was slowly beginning to catch his breath and had a moment to realize the asurdity of the situation. What is this? He thought, as he brushed a bug off the back of his neck.
“Guess I’m staying up here until morning,” he said to himself, still not entirely sure what had happened. He felt a tickle and slapped the back of his neck again. “Persistent little shit,” he said, and turned just in time to see the vine that had lowered from the treetop make its move.
David Fischer drove down county road 163 at breakneck speed, throwing rocks in his wake. He hadn’t slept at all, intending to be sitting up in the living room when Jake came home, thinking he had stayed out and gotten drunk with his friends or some other serious but ultimately forgivable offense.
Instead, he had stayed up until he saw the horizon turn a deep shade of purple. He had answered a knock at the door and found Bill Callers, one of the local farmers. “Saw a red car pulled over t’the side of the road about five miles out,” Bill said. “I seen it parked here before, so I wanted to check in on y’all.”
David had thanked the farmer as he felt the panic spill over in his chest. He sprang out the door, nearly knocking old Bill down, and sprinted to his truck, an eighty-something Chevy he had bought as a work truck when they moved out here.
The rear tires on the Chevy loosened their grip on the road as David took a turn too fast, and he sprayed a volley of rock into the trees beside the road. When he had returned the truck to its correct direction, and his attention to the road ahead, he saw the sun glint off the windshield of his son’s Oldsmobile, just a couple hundred yards away.
He jammed his foot onto the accellerator and cleared the distance quickly, stopping nose to nose with the red coupe. He jumped out of the truck, not bothering to close the driver door and began to shout, “Jake!”
There was a soft moan from the trees above him. David looked up and screamed.
“You came,” the broken thing in the tree whispered. It was trying to smile.