By Peter Emmett Naughton
There was a stretch of I-55 out past Rockport that was constantly plagued by potholes, some of them so large they practically qualified as craters. It didn’t matter how many times the road crews came out to patch them: by late October, the blacktop would start to swell from the rain, and by mid-January, you’d see the first splits begin to appear like chapped lips cracking in the cold. When winter finally gave way to spring, the interstate looked like it had been used for target practice at an artillery range.
Doug was intimately familiar with this treacherous piece of asphalt and had driven over it enough times to know that it wasn’t something to be taken lightly. The box truck he usually drove on delivery runs had industrial tires and a heavy-duty suspension that helped mitigate the worst of it, but on this day, he was driving his personal vehicle, an ’89 Chevy Caprice that might as well have been a matchbox car compared to the GMC.
As he came around a curve, Doug spied the first of the potholes, this one little more than a divot, and he let it pass harmlessly underneath him while keeping an eye out for what he knew lay ahead. Over the next few miles, he cruised over several more holes and swerved around a particularly nasty one, quickly veering back to avoid hitting a piece of debris on the shoulder of the road.
“Nearly halfway there,” Doug muttered to himself.
The next batch of holes was clustered together and covered both lanes, making it impossible to avoid them all. Doug gripped the wheel as his right front and rear tires hit two of the holes with a loud thunk that made him wince. The car stayed steady in the lane and seemed to be okay, but he was afraid that the rims might have been dented. He was able to coast over or skirt around the next series of holes and was nearly out of the woods, but he knew something big was waiting for him near the end. He’d seen it last month in the truck. It had been the only thing big enough to force him to slow the truck down, a hole so large it could’ve doubled as a kiddie pool. Now, he glimpsed the edge of it looming in front of him and decelerated to a crawl, edging the Chevy onto the shoulder as far as he could and checking his rearview mirror to make sure no one was coming up behind him.
Thankfully, the traffic was light and there were no cars in the immediate vicinity as far as he could see. There was just enough room to make it around the outer rim of the hole without the side of his car scraping the guardrail. He inched along on the shoulder for what seemed like an eternity and had just started back into the right lane when he heard it.
The sound reminded him of the time he had ridden his bike to the store to pick up a few things for his mother and on the way back had hit a patch of loose gravel. The bike had skidded out from under him and the plastic grocery bag that had been hanging from his handlebars had been crushed under his ribs and right hip. There had been a noise at the moment of impact, a kind of sickly squelching sound as the lettuce, tomatoes, and container of cottage cheese he’d been carrying had been obliterated between his body and the pavement.
This noise was like that, but there was something else, something that had slipped away before he was able to decipher it. The sound had come from somewhere underneath him. He hadn’t seen anything in front of him other than a few fragments of miscellaneous debris, none of which had been large enough to scrape the bottom of his car and produce that awful sound.
Doug threw the Caprice into park and put on his emergency blinkers. He gave a quick glance over his shoulder to make sure that it was still clear and opened his door, carefully avoiding the pothole; it looked so black and bottomless to him that it might have been a well or the entrance to some subterranean lair filled with Morlocks or Sleestaks. He checked the front of his car on the driver’s side and then slowly made his way around the hood, looking for any indication that he’d struck something, but even the thin layer of dirt that coated the bumper appeared to be completely undisturbed. The passenger side doors and rear bumper similarly showed no signs that his car had hit anything, and coming back around to the other side, he started to wonder whether he had simply imagined the whole thing. Then he stopped.
It was hanging from a jagged shard of rust that was jutting out from underneath the rocker panel on the rear driver’s side door, a scrap of what looked like fabric that might have come from a lost handkerchief or a headscarf that had blown away in the wind. Doug knew that it wasn’t a handkerchief or a scarf. The color was a vibrant shade of red that stood out even in the pale rays of early morning; it shined in the hazy sunlight, glittering with a kind of slick iridescence that made him certain that whatever it had come from had once been alive. He bent down and looked underneath the car and was able to make out a small shape in the gloom.
Doug was sure that, whatever it was, he couldn’t possibly have been the one to kill it. He’d barely gone above an idle maneuvering around the pothole, and he hadn’t felt anything other than asphalt under his tires. The thing had to have already been there and he just hadn’t noticed it. He’d been paying attention to that pit in the road, and if whatever it was hadn’t snagged on the disintegrating undercarriage of his car, he wouldn’t have even known it existed.
The form appeared to be a bit larger than your average raccoon or skunk, though it was impossible to tell what he was actually looking at without shinning a light on it and Doug definitely didn’t want to do that. Just being near that fragment of gore and the thing it had come from made him want to void the contents of his stomach all over the blacktop. He stood up and climbed back into his car. When he checked his side-view mirror for traffic, he caught sight of the thing, dangling there like some vulgar appendage, and quickly shifted his gaze back to the windshield.
He put on his turn signal and merged back onto the interstate with his eyes firmly focused on the road in front of him.
Doug managed to make his delivery window despite his unexpected and rather unpleasant delay and had just gotten back onto the highway when he felt his eyelids begin to droop. This trip had been a last minute emergency run necessitated by an inventory error at the warehouse, and it had been slotted into his schedule during the time in which he usually had been resting up for his next long haul. The truth was that he probably shouldn’t have agreed to it, but there was no way he could turn down the money. His mother had passed away six months earlier, and the bills from her stay in hospice were still rolling in. He felt guilty that he hadn’t been able to set her up somewhere nicer, though even the place he’d found had cost a small fortune.
The sound of his tires hitting the rumble strips on the side of the road jolted Doug awake, and he quickly steered the Chevy back into the center of the lane. As much as he wanted to be back home, he knew that he’d end up in a ditch if he didn’t get off the road soon. He needed to rest, at least for a couple of hours. Lots of drivers in these situations avoided motels, preferring to bunk in their rigs to save money, but for him, the promise of an actual bed versus sleeping in the cab of his truck, or in this case the neck-cramping, spine-warping confines of his Caprice, wasn’t even a choice. Over the years, he’d built up a list of reputable establishments along his various routes; none of them were going to give the Four Seasons a run for its money, but they were all reasonably priced and well maintained.
He put on his turn signal and got off at the next exit. The Shady Oaks Motor Lodge was just a couple miles up the road, and if he was lucky, Doreen would be working the front desk. She’d always been nice to him, and not just in the perfunctory way her job demanded. This was not something he was particularly accustomed to, especially not from someone half his age. He’d had terrible acne as a teenager that had left his face permanently pockmarked and pitted. After graduation, he’d gotten a job working with a landscaping crew and had let himself go tan, hoping that the change in skin tone would help mask the worst of his scars. In winter, he supplemented this with regular visits to the tanning salon. The plan had worked fairly well, especially early on, but years of UV exposure had left him with a face that resembled worn saddle leather, though he still preferred it to how it had been before. Most people treated him fine up front, but he’d heard his fair share of whispers and snickers over the years from folks who had assumed his hearing was as rundown as the rest of him. Finding someone like Doreen who actually took the time to talk to him outside of work was something of a rarity.
There was only a handful of other cars present when Doug pulled into the parking lot, and he snagged a spot near the front door and stepped out onto the crushed gravel. As he exited the Chevy, he tried not to let his gaze wander down to the thing hanging from his car but found himself unable to resist. An involuntary shudder ran up along his spine and settled in his shoulders, causing him to rub at the side of his neck. Its color still showed no signs that it had darkened or faded, shimmering in the sun just as it had before, almost seeming to pulse in the light.
Doug turned his attention to the motel entrance and quickly made his way inside, forcing himself not to glance back at the car.
“Hey there, stranger. Long time,” Doreen said, and smiled at Doug as he crossed the lobby.
The way she smiled at him made him feel like a much younger man, but he knew enough not to trust that momentary jolt of euphoria.
“How are you doing, darlin’?” he asked.
“Eh, can’t complain. No one would listen if I did, right?”
“You say that now, but I bet you wouldn’t make it through twenty minutes of my jawing.”
“Same old Doug.”
“Same, only older.”
“So what brings you to my neck of the woods?”
“Had to do a last minute emergency delivery. Actually brought the Chevy this time.”
“What was so important?”
“Hell if I know. They don’t ever tell me what I’m hauling, just where it’s going and when it has to be there.”
“You’ve never snuck a peek?”
“Guess I ain’t the curious sort.”
“I’d go absolutely crazy not knowing.”
“There was one time where I had a crate topple over in the back of the truck and the lid came off.”
“What was in it?”
“Whole mess of electric toothbrushes.”
“Well, that’s not very exciting.”
“What were you expecting? Gold bars? A Russian spy satellite?”
“Something better than toothbrushes.”
“That’s why I don’t have the urge to look. Anything I can imagine is bound to be more interesting than what’s actually in there. Also, I’d like to hold on to my job.”
“How’s your mom doing?”
“She passed… Back in November.”
“Oh, Doug, I’m so sorry.”
“It was peaceful. She wasn’t in any pain when she went. About all you can ask, I suppose.”
“Are you okay?”
“Sometimes, I forget she’s gone. I’ll go to call her up, and then I’ll see the program from the funeral lying on the coffee table and remember.”
“Do you still have Stevie?”
“He’s swimming in his bowl at home without a care in the world. I swear that bastard has to be at least a hundred in fish years.”
“I bet the two of you sit around complaining about those damn kids running all over the neighborhood,” Doreen said, and gave a little snort of laughter.
“You trying to say I’m old?”
“My grandma always says you’re as young as you feel.”
“Well, shit, if that’s the case, then I’m fucking ancient.”
Doreen snorted again, and it made Doug bust up. Soon, they were both clutching their sides and Doug had tears streaming down his face. From a door just to the left of the reception desk, a man in a dark green blazer and khakis entered. “Is everything all right in here, Doreen?” he asked stiffly.
“Everything’s fine, Mr. Bramley,” Doreen said, trying to hide her smile as she quickly handed Doug a room key from the pegboard behind her.
Bramley asked, “Is there anything else we can do for you, Mister…?”
“Is there anything else we can do for you, Mr. Colvin?”
“I think I’m good. Thanks again, Doreen. Always a pleasure.”
“You’re very welcome, Mr. Colvin,” Doreen said, and gave Doug an exaggerated smile.
Doug smiled back and quickly turned and headed out the door before he burst out laughing again. He looked at the key and saw that his room was on the opposite end from the entrance. He knew it made sense to move his car, but the thought of being close to that thing even for a few minutes made his skin itch. Instead, he popped the trunk and grabbed the duffel bag he always brought with him on delivery runs, making sure that his eyes didn’t wander as he walked the lot searching for door thirty-seven.
He felt silly being so squeamish about the thing. It wasn’t as though he’d never come across roadkill before. Hell, over the years he’d probably seen just about every critter imaginable out on the interstate, and most had been in less than pristine condition when he’d encountered them. There was just something about that shadowy form lying there under his car that made him uneasy. Whenever he replayed the event in his head, the whole scene felt off to him, like the thing hadn’t actually been there in the road at all and had instead materialized when he’d passed over it.
Doug shook the thought away and continued to scan the numbers on the doors until he finally found the one he was looking for.
The room was just as he remembered it. Carpeting that had once been deep and plush now ground down by years of foot traffic to a flat, lifeless nap in a burnt orange color that was so old it had started to become fashionable again. The dresser and nightstand were covered with scrapes and dings, and the table that held the television had an odd pattern of wear on its top that looked like someone had taken a cheese grater to the thing.
What Shady Oaks lacked in aesthetic beauty, it more than made up for in cleanliness and affordability, which were the only things Doug cared about when looking for somewhere to lay his head. He pulled the comforter down and sat on the edge of the bed. The laces on his shoes had worked themselves loose during the drive, and he was able to kick them off easily, watching with amusement as they arced in the air and landed with a soft thud next to the dresser.
Doug took off his shirt and started unbuckling his pants, but then thought better of it. He needed some rest, but he still had to make it home by five this evening to check in with his boss and prep for his next run. Just a couple hours, three at the most, and then he needed to be back on the road. He swung his legs up onto the mattress and pulled the sheet over himself. The fabric felt cool against his skin and had a pleasant floral scent to it from the detergent.
He should ring Doreen and order a wake-up call, just in case.
That was the last thought Doug had before he closed his eyes and oblivion overtook him.
When he woke, the room was dark, and for a fleeting moment, Doug assumed that it was simply the curtains blocking out the sunlight. It wasn’t until he craned his neck over to the clock on the bedside table that he saw it was 6:42.
“Shit!” he said, and scrambled out of bed.
It seemed impossible to him, but he’d somehow been out for almost ten hours. The sleep had been a deep, dreamless one that felt more like being sedated or being unconscious. He had no memory of anything after putting his head on the pillow. It was as if he had blinked and the sun had mysteriously vanished.
That hanging scrap of red came to him again, unbidden, filling his head like a fog. Suddenly, he felt dizzy and had to steady himself on the TV stand.
He sat down on the end of the bed and put his head between his knees until the feeling passed. Doug wasn’t sure what was happening to him, but he didn’t have time to dwell on it. He needed to call into work and explain things. He’d worked for the company for nearly seven years and in that time had never called in sick or missed a delivery and had seldom been late. There was a payphone out by the vending machines. Doug had long been laughed at and chastised by his fellow truckers for not carrying a cell phone, but he viewed it as a needless expense. There was a CB radio in his cab for status updates from dispatch and emergencies and he didn’t have a wife or girlfriend to check in with, so he simply didn’t see the point. Besides, he preferred to have his talks face-to-face. That was one of the things he liked about Doreen. Unlike other members of her generation that Doug had encountered, she knew how to hold down her end of a conversation; she didn’t speak in that ridiculous abbreviated slang he had overheard younger folks using or feel the need to constantly bombard him with some inanity from the internet.
Doug stood up from the bed, and the room wavered in front of him. At first, he thought he might need to sit back down again, but after a few moments, the dizzy sensation abated and everything snapped into focus. He put on his shirt, retrieved his shoes from beside the dresser, and grabbed his room key off the nightstand. The moon was shrouded behind clouds, and the formerly balmy breeze had turned bitter. Doug rubbed his arms for warmth and wished that he’d brought along a jacket.
The phone was around the corner from his room, straddled between a squat icemaker and a soda machine. It was rare to find a payphone in the wild these days, and this one had seen its share of abuse. The receiver was mummified in coils of duct tape and the pound and star keys had been pried off the number pad, but when he put the handset to his ear, there was a dial tone, though it was faint and crackled with static. He dropped two quarters into the slot at the top and punched in the number for the company’s home office.
“Renault Shipping. This is Mitch.”
“Hey, Mitch. It’s Doug.”
“Dougie, where the hell you at, man?”
“I had some car trouble and needed to make a pit stop.”
“Yeah, everything’s fine, just took longer than I expected.”
“You know Mike has you scheduled for that Toledo run.”
“That’s why I’m calling. Tell him everything’s still on for tomorrow. I’ll prep tonight when I get in.”
“So where are you?”
“A little motel near the drop spot. I’ll be heading out soon.”
“You’re gonna be getting in pretty late. You sure you can still make the run?”
“Yeah, I got some rest down here waiting for the repair. No need to worry.”
“All right, man. I’ll let Mike know the deal. Safe traveling, Dougie.”
“Thanks, Mitch. See ya soon.”
Doug hung up the phone and thought about the lie he’d just told. It wasn’t that the fib about the repair really bothered him; it was that he’d felt the need to tell it because of how the truth would make him sound. He fished around in his pocket for more change but came up empty. He opened his wallet and found four singles that all looked as though they’d been through the laundry. The only other bill he had was a twenty. He put his wallet away and started toward the lobby.
“And here I thought you’d left without saying goodbye,” Doreen said. “I was all ready to be mad at you the next time you came in.”
“I overslept, and now, I’m later than a white rabbit in Wonderland.”
“You gonna be in trouble?”
“My boss is a pretty understanding guy, but I do need to get my butt in gear. I actually came looking for change for the vending machine. And to say goodbye, of course.”
“Nice save,” Doreen said, and gave Doug a sarcastic grin. “Need a little caffeine for the road?”
“Yeah. Despite my little Rip Van Winkle act, I still feel like I’ve got lead weights in my legs.”
“That always happens to me when I oversleep. Something about your circadian rhythm being out of whack. I usually feel back to normal in a day or two.”
“Christ, I hope it doesn’t take that long. I don’t want to drive to Toledo feeling like this.”
“You better stock up then,” Doreen said, and pressed a button on the register in front of her. The drawer beneath it slid out, and she scooped up a handful of quarters and dropped them into Doug’s shirt pocket.
Doug reached for his wallet.
“This one’s on me,” she said.
“Oh, no, you don’t have to do that.”
“I know I don’t.” She smiled. “You have yourself a good trip, and you can take me to lunch the next time you’re in town and fill me in on all your latest adventures.”
“If you can still stand listening to an old fart like me.”
“I think I can manage to pull myself away from all the scintillating discussions with Bramley about rug deodorizers and floral arrangements for the front desk,” Doreen said, and they both laughed.
“Thanks again,” Doug said, tapping his shirt pocket.
“Have fun in Toledo.”
“No one has fun in Toledo.”
“That’s because I’ve never been there.”
Doug started to say something about taking her along, but he stopped himself. He didn’t want to be that guy: that pathetic, middle-aged schlub still clinging to his youth like a drowning man with a life preserver. He already worried that he was sometimes too chummy with her and thought that anyone seeing them together at lunch would assume she was his daughter or maybe even his granddaughter.
He smiled at Doreen. “I’ll see you around, kiddo.”
“Sure thing, old-timer.”
They both laughed again as Doug waved goodbye and headed out the door.
Doug had wanted to remove the awful thing affixed to his car before leaving the motel, but he was still barely able to bring himself to even look at it and had made a point of keeping his eyes level as he’d loaded his bag back into the trunk.
He had reentered the notorious stretch of I-55 a couple miles back, but so far, the road on the westbound side had been relatively clear compared to its eastbound sibling. Still, he knew to be on alert and keep his eyes peeled for signs of trouble, which often hid at night in pockets of shadow created by the light from the overhead streetlamps.
The scene from earlier that day came back to him without warning.
At the time, he’d assumed that he hadn’t actually struck the animal, that he’d only grazed the remains, but now, he wasn’t so sure. That hideous sound didn’t seem like something that could have come from merely passing over the thing. And what about the other part? That whisper buried underneath the noise that had almost sounded like a sigh?
But even if that was what had happened, it wasn’t as though he’d hit it on purpose. He hadn’t even seen the thing, much less been able to avoid it.
The whole ordeal had wormed its way inside his head, leaving him feeling dazed and disconnected from everything around him. He needed to find a way to rid himself of that damnable scrap of gore. One of those full-service cleaning places would work. They’d probably think he was daft getting a rusted-out hulk like his Chevy detailed, but that didn’t matter to him so long as it was done. He’d have to wait until after his trip to Toledo, but that was fine since he’d be in the truck for that run.
Doug didn’t notice the pothole until he was almost on top of it.
He whipped his head over his shoulder to make sure the road was clear and then turned the wheel hard to the right, veering into the next lane with only a second to spare. Two more holes followed in quick succession, but they were both small and passed harmlessly under the Chevy. He could see something on the road up ahead, though it was difficult to tell what it was from this distance. Doug’s first thought was that an eighteen-wheeler had blown a tire, maybe even a couple of them, and that these were the remnants. He started mentally plotting a path through the debris, but as he got closer, the objects began to take on a greater dimension and his eyes suddenly grew wide.
They were scattered across the asphalt, black amorphous mounds that seemed to swallow the light even as the Caprice’s high beams bore down on them. He slowed further, still searching for the best way through, and thought of stopping, but he worried that he risked being rear-ended.
It was then that Doug realized he was completely alone on the road.
There had been other motorists with him earlier, he was sure of it, but now, he could see no taillights ahead of him and, when he looked in his rearview mirror, there was nothing except empty highway.
The Chevy approached the first of the things on his left, and he drifted over slightly to skirt around it. He quickly steered back the other way to dodge a trio of them on his right, but that maneuver put him in line with another directly in front of him and there was no time to avoid this one.
A moment before he struck it, Doug was sure that he saw it twitch, and then he heard that awful sound.
Doug had to suppress the impulse to pull his hands from the steering wheel and plug his ears against it. Another of the shapes was in his path and he had just enough time to slide over so that it passed under him, but as it did, he saw that spasm of movement and heard that sound again. Up ahead, the forms were clustered closer together, seeming to become denser and denser as the road stretched on. He maneuvered the Chevy over to the breakdown lane to avoid the next grouping before being forced back by another batch.
He could see a staggered line of the obsidian things up ahead that stretched the entire width of the interstate, and Doug thought again of stopping. With the roads completely devoid of other vehicles, it seemed like a safe proposition, at least for the moment, but without a phone or the CB from his rig, he wasn’t sure how he would get help. He let the Chevy idle toward the line, and when he got within a few feet of the shapes, he saw them all begin to move simultaneously. They pulsed and shuddered in a kind of synchronized convulsion, and then one of them exploded.
A fine spray of crimson covered the bottom of his windshield, and Doug had to clamp a hand over his mouth to stop himself from screaming. He slammed on his brakes as those formless creatures began bursting all around him, covering the Caprice in a shower of blood.
A wave of dizziness hit him, and he could feel himself slipping away again. He closed his eyes and focused on his breathing as he struggled to remain conscious. Doug sat there in the dark listening to the ebb and flow of his respiration for what felt like hours.
When he finally opened his eyes, he found himself staring at his shoes, which were lying on their sides underneath the television stand.
Doug bolted upright in bed with his heart thudding hard against his chest.
His shirt was partially unbuttoned and clung to his back in sticky, sweaty patches. The right leg of his pants was hitched up above the knee, and both of his socks were dangling from the ends of his feet like flippers.
Despite being completely confused and disheveled, he was relieved to find himself once again surrounded by a sea of burnt orange. The clock on the bedside table read 8:27. There was a Coke can sitting beside it, and when Doug picked it up, he found it half full and still cool to the touch.
Had he gone back to the room to pack up and somehow fallen asleep?
It seemed a fairly reasonable explanation, though he supposed anything would seem reasonable after waking from that wretched nightmare. He’d been tired, was still tired truth be told, but it seemed strange that he would have no memory of lying down on the bed and taking off his shoes. Doug crossed the room to the window and pulled back the curtain. He could see his Chevy at the other end of the lot, and it was blessedly free of blood, or nearly free of it anyway. The bloody scrap was completely obscured from his view on the opposite side of the car, but he knew it was there.
He’d deal with that damn thing soon enough, but for now, he had to get back home or he wouldn’t have a job waiting for him when he got there. He straightened out his shirt and pants and put his shoes back on, then quickly gathered up his things and threw them into the duffel bag before heading to the lobby.
“Hey. Didn’t expect to see you still here,” Doreen said.
“Yeah. Me neither.”
“To be honest, I’m not exactly sure. I guess I must’ve konked out when I went to grab my stuff, but I’ll be damned if I can remember.”
“If you’re really that beat, maybe you should just stay the night and head out in the morning.”
“Would if I could, but I’ve got that Toledo run and I’m already way behind schedule. Don’t want them kicking my wrinkled ass to the curb over this.”
“Did you at least get some caffeine?”
“Apparently not enough. I’ll grab a coffee somewhere before I hit the interstate.”
“If you give me a minute, I can save you a stop.”
“I don’t want to impose on you again.”
“Trust me. You’re doing me a favor. I need an excuse to stretch my legs.”
“Thanks, Doreen. I really appreciate it.”
“No problem. Be back in a sec.”
Doreen disappeared through the side door and returned a few minutes later with a large stainless steel thermos that reminded Doug of the one his father had used to take to work.
“Jesus, where did you find that thing?”
“Been here since I started. Probably older than I am.”
“Pretty sure it’s older than both of us.”
“Wow, a genuine relic.”
“I’m just teasing, “Doreen said, and handed Doug the thermos. “You sure you’re okay to drive?”
“Yeah, I’ll be fine.”
“All right. Just promise me you’ll pull off to the side of the road if you need to. Being unemployed is a whole lot better than being hospitalized or dead.”
“I promise I’ll be careful.”
Doug opened all four windows to let in the chilly night air and took another slug from Doreen’s thermos, trying desperately to alleviate the exhaustion that seemed to have taken up a permanent residence inside his body. He pictured it as a tiny man wearing a stained t-shirt and boxer shorts, lounging around on the living room sofa like an unwanted houseguest who refused to leave no matter how many hints Doug dropped.
His reflection in the rearview mirror showed the pair of his severely bloodshot eyes staring back at him.
He slapped himself hard across the cheek. The stinging sensation lingered there for a moment, and then he felt a wave of intense heat quickly spread across the surface of his skin. It was enough of a jolt to shake him out of his stupor, but he knew that it wouldn’t last. At least there were a few cars on the road with him this time, which made him reasonably assured that he was still in the waking world and hadn’t slipped into another nightmare.
He hadn’t had a dream like that since he’d been a kid. Back then, all his dreams had been these startlingly vivid things that in some ways had felt more real to him than his actual life. He’d made the mistake of telling his mother about them when he was nine, and she’d sent him to a shrink that had prescribed him medication designed to treat night terrors, though Doug was pretty sure all it had done was knock him out so that he hadn’t dreamt at all. Even after he’d stopped taking the drug in his late teens, the dreams had never returned. Not until tonight, it seemed.
Doug shook his head and blinked several times in rapid succession. He had started to drift off and hadn’t even realized it. He took another long pull from the thermos, checked his mirrors, and saw that there were no longer any other vehicles around him.
It didn’t mean anything, he decided. The interstate was always half deserted this time of night.
The statement was perfectly true, and Doug could remember plenty of instances when he’d driven alone for miles on this road and others like it where the traffic evaporated to almost nothing after the evening rush hour had ended.
It might have been the truth, but it didn’t make him feel any better. He started frantically searching the road for other cars and for those obsidian things he was sure would appear at any moment. He saw neither of them but noticed that he’d just passed mile marker twenty-three and hadn’t yet reached the place where they’d first appeared. Doug didn’t want to face it again—couldn’t stand to see whatever might be waiting for him this time. He could get off the interstate and navigate around it using surface streets and then jump back on after he was past that stretch; the delay would be minimal, and he’d be through with it.
He flipped on his turn signal, even though there was no one there to signal to, and took the next exit.
This is good, Doug thought. I can top off my tank, stretch my legs for a bit, and get some more coffee. I’ll avoid the whole mess and be back on track in a few miles.
The spot he’d exited at was one he knew well. Its main attraction was a truck stop that had been there for years, a place called Baxter’s Last Resort that he visited nearly every time he was out this way. He’d only skipped it on his way in because of the incident with his car. Doug halted the thought there, refusing to let his mind wander back to that moment. He pulled into an empty slot in the vast ocean of a parking lot, deciding to get his caffeine fix first and fuel up on his way out.
Baxter’s was one of those places that reveled in its stasis. The décor hadn’t been updated in decades, aside from some minor repair work and the occasional coat of paint on the walls. The tables were covered in white-and-blue checkered oilcloths that reminded Doug of his grandmother’s kitchen table. He took a seat at the lunch counter next to a man wearing a cowboy hat so large it was almost comical and made the man’s head appear miniscule in comparison. It looked like the kind of thing they gave out as a prize at carnivals, but instead of being made from foam rubber, the hat was covered in a fine gray felt.
When Doug’s coffee cup was empty, he caught the attention of the waitress behind the counter and held it up.
“Nice hat,” he said, the thought slipping from his head to his mouth before he had a chance to stop it.
“You don’t think it’s too big?” the man asked.
Doug paused for a moment and considered. “It might be on some, but it suits you.”
“My ex-wife thought it was too big. Said it made me look like a rodeo clown.”
“That why she’s your ex?”
The waitress came over and filled Doug’s coffee cup. “Anything else I can get for you?”
“Not right now. Thanks.”
“How about you?” the waitress asked the man next.
The man in the cowboy hat shook his head; he waited until the waitress left before continuing to talk, keeping his eyes turned down toward the counter like he was addressing the half-eaten slice of pie in front of him rather than Doug. “I found her in bed with my best friend. Came home early from a business trip, and there they were, lying naked next to each other.”
Doug looked over at the man, but he kept gazing into his plate.
“When I caught them, they didn’t do anything,” the man said. “There wasn’t any screaming and hollering or crying and pleading. No sound at all. We just stared at one another until I eventually turned around and left. Never went back to my house or saw either of them again.”
“That’s a hell of a story,” Doug said, unsure of what else to say.
“At least I still have my hat,” the man said, and took a bite of pie.
“You’re a real glass-half-full kinda guy, aren’t you?”
“I suppose so,” he said. “Good pie, by the way. You should have some.”
“Is it strawberry or cherry?”
“I might have to take you up on that. Haven’t had a piece of rhubarb pie in years.” Doug signaled the waitress again. “Could you fill this up with regular for me?” Doug asked, handing her his large metal thermos.
“No problem. Will that be it for ya then?”
“I’d also like a piece of the rhubarb pie.”
“You’re in luck. We’ve got one slice left.”
“Guess my stars finally lined up.”
“It’ll be a minute for the coffee. We just started brewing a new pot. I’ll be right back with the pie.”
“Thanks a million.”
“Sure thing, hon.” The waitress headed back toward the kitchen.
Doug turned to the man in the Stetson. “You mind if I ask you something?”
The man put another forkful of pie into his mouth and shook his head.
“You said you never went back to your house after you found your wife and your friend…together.” Doug took a sip from his cup. “How did you get your stuff? Did she ship it to you or something?”
The man wiped at the corner of his mouth with a napkin and tipped his hat back on his head. “I just let it go. Didn’t care that much about most of it and wasn’t particularly interested in contacting my wife to get it back. It was easier to pretend that it never existed.”
“So all of your personal possessions, your clothes, books, records—you just let her keep all that?”
The man nodded.
“Wow. You are a far more understanding fella than I would’ve been in that situation.”
“It’s not as bad as it sounds. And like I said, at least I got to keep my hat.”
“That you did,” Doug said with a convivial chuckle.
“Besides,” the man said. “They got what was coming to them.”
“What do you mean?”
“I made sure that they understood my feelings over the matter.”
“I thought you said you never saw your wife or your friend again.”
“I didn’t,” the man said. “But I had someone pay them a visit.”
Doug stared at the man.
“In the paper, it said that the couple discovered in a cabin up near Bear Ridge couldn’t be positively identified because of the condition they were in, but I knew who they were.”
“…Why are you telling me this?”
The man pointed to the waitress who had returned with Doug’s pie.
“Uh, thanks,” Doug said.
“My pleasure darlin’,” the waitress said, and turned toward a trio of men who had just sat down at the other end of the counter.
“Try that pie. Best rhubarb in the county. Maybe even the whole state,” the man said, and gave an encouraging little nod that caused the enormous hat to shift forward, completely obscuring his forehead.
Doug scooped up a forkful of pie and examined it. The filling was not the pink he’d expected, but something much darker.
“Go on now,” the man said.
Doug hesitated, suddenly realizing that he no longer wanted the pie, that what he wanted was to run from this place as fast as he could, but instead of fleeing, he put the fork into his mouth and closed his lips around the tines so that he extracted every last morsel. The taste in his mouth was instantly recognizable: bitter copper like an old penny resting on his tongue mingled with the flavor of musty, ripe meat. Doug spat, and the crimson gobbet of pie hit the lunch counter with a splat and skidded off the opposite side, leaving a snail trail of blood behind it.
Doug looked down at his plate, and this time, he didn’t try to stifle the scream that came out.
There, sitting where the wedge-shaped slice of pie had been, was the abomination from his car. The scrap of scarlet was draped over something that bulged on his plate, and before he turned his face away from it, he was sure that he had seen the digits of a tiny, deformed hand protruding from the edge.
“What’d I tell you!” the man said, clapping a hand on Doug’s back. “Best in the whole damn state!”
Doug looked over at the man and saw that the brim of the Stetson now covered his eyes, as though the hat were slowly devouring his skull within its cavernous confines. The man’s strong fingers grabbed Doug’s shoulder, their grip tight, and Doug lurched forward to wrench himself free from the man’s grasp, causing him to sprawl onto the floor. The man extended a hand to him, but Doug scrabbled backward away from him and got to his feet. The assembled diners were staring at him now, their eyes all vacant mirrors and their mouths slack.
Doug cautiously made his way over to the front door, making sure that no one, especially the man in the hat, was following him.
It was nearly pitch black outside. The overhead lights were turned off, the only illumination coming from a moon half hidden behind clouds. It took Doug a while to locate his Chevy in the lot, and the entire time, he was sure that the man in the Stetson and the other diners were going to come rushing out of Baxter’s and drag him off into the dark. He fumbled with his keys for several moments until he finally found the right one and guided it into the lock.
The dome light in his car didn’t turn on when he opened the door and he was sure that the battery was dead, but the engine turned over with no hesitation. Doug flipped the switch for his headlights, but both the high and low beams did nothing.
He couldn’t possibly drive like this. He wasn’t even sure he could get out of the lot, much less back onto the road—but he didn’t want to stay here a second longer, so he found himself putting the car into gear as he carefully pulled out of the parking space.
Doug used what little light there was glinting off windows and the chrome of the big-rigs to keep him clear of obstacles, but the longer he drove, the farther away everything seemed to be getting, the darkness growing deeper and deeper as he wended his way toward the end of the lot.
Soon, even the scant light from the moon had vanished. Blackness gradually seeped its way into the car, filling it like smoke.
Doug searched for any sign of the road ahead, but it was like trying to navigate in the middle of an ocean at midnight with no beacon or North Star to guide him. It grew deeper and darker until he couldn’t see his hands on the steering wheel—couldn’t hear the asphalt under his tires—couldn’t feel the seat behind his back—
The clock on the bedside table read 11:15.
None of this seemed real to him anymore, and he wondered if he was actually in his bed at home, twisting around in the sheets, trying to wake up from this parade of lunacy.
He sluggishly crawled out from under the comforter and stumbled over to the motel bathroom. With all the caffeine he’d ingested, he should’ve been wide awake and should have had to piss like a racehorse, but he felt utterly exhausted and his bladder was empty.
Didn’t that mean something? Wasn’t it proof that the horrors he’d experienced had to be fictions created by his fevered brain battling through some interminable bout of REM sleep?
He wanted it to be true, but he could still see those shapes on the road and taste that acrid tang on his tongue. What he needed was an anchor. Some confirmation of what was real that he could use to start piecing things together.
Doug straightened his hair in the bathroom mirror, tucked his shirt back in, and headed out toward the lobby.
“We have got to stop meeting like this,” Doreen said. “Seriously, though, what are you still doing here?”
“I wish I knew,” Doug said.
“Don’t get me wrong—I’m glad you decided to stay. I was really worried about you out there with as tired as you looked the last time I saw you.”
“So you didn’t see me leave then? Didn’t notice my car pulling out of the lot?”
“No, I don’t think so, but I wasn’t really looking. Are you all right?”
“Honestly, I’m not sure how to answer that. Everything’s all jumbled up in my head, and I can’t tell what the hell is really happening anymore.”
“Sounds to me like you’re just drained. Things will be better in the morning.”
“That’s another thing. Every time I wake up, I feel even more exhausted than I did before.”
“It’s probably all the interrupted cycles. You need to let yourself get a full night’s rest to reset your clock. Circadian rhythms, remember?”
“Maybe you’re right,” Doug said, rubbing his sore eyes with the heels of his hands. “But I don’t know how I’m gonna do that if I keep having these dreams.”
“What are they about?”
“Trust me. You don’t want to know.”
“Afraid you’ll offend my delicate sensibilities? Seriously, dude. Spill it.”
“I had an incident during my delivery run this morning. I rolled over something with my car.”
“What was it?”
“Not sure. Raccoon. Possum maybe. Might’ve even been a small dog. I couldn’t tell, and I wasn’t really in the mood to investigate at the time.”
“Oh, God. That sounds awful.”
“I wasn’t the one who killed it—at least I don’t think I was. But it left something behind, a piece of fur or skin that got caught on my car and I swear… It feels like the thing is still alive somehow.”
“I may have spoken too soon about my sensibilities.”
“I can’t even bring myself to get close enough to the thing to remove it, and ever since then, I’ve been having these nightmares that—”
“Doreen,” Bramley interrupted as he stepped out from the office, “have you restocked the toiletries in the women’s restroom?”
“I was just about to, Mr. Bramley.”
“You should have done so already.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Bramley. I’ll do it right now.”
“Maybe you should spend a little more time seeing to your duties and a little less time fraternizing with the guests.”
“Why don’t you take it easy,” Doug said.
“We value you as a customer, Mr. Colvin, but I’d appreciate it if you’d leave the management of this establishment and its employees to me.”
“Listen, I’m the one who came in and started talking to Doreen, so if anyone’s to blame, it’s me.”
“Be that as it may, the personnel here at Shady Oaks are expected to conduct themselves in a professional manner and see to their work in a timely fashion. Assisting our guests is obviously of the utmost importance, but that does not excuse a staff member from—”
The last word that came out of Bramley’s mouth sounded like a strangled cough. He swayed on his feet, and Doug watched in horror as Bramley’s eyes rolled back in his head, leaving only the whites visible. He fell forward and slumped over the front desk with his green blazer riding up his back and the wooden handle of a large kitchen knife protruding from the base of his skull.
“God, I thought that asshole would never shut up,” Doreen said with a satisfied smirk.
“Jesus—Doreen—what did you do?”
“What I’ve wanted to do for years. Thanks for distracting him for me.”
“We have to call the police!”
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea, Douglas,” Doreen said, taking a step toward Doug.
“We’ll explain what happened,” he placated. “Tell them that he attacked you. That it was self-defense.”
“Aw, that’s awful sweet, Dougie, you being willing to perjure yourself for me and all. But it’s gonna be a pretty tough sell considering that neither you nor I has a scratch on us.”
Doug hadn’t thought about that; he couldn’t really think of anything right now his head was spinning so fast.
“Oh, I know,” Doreen said. “Maybe we should rough each other up a bit so our story plays better with the cops. Why don’t you go first? Give me a little love tap.” Doreen pointed to her left cheek.
“I’m not going to hit you.”
“C’mon! It’ll be fun!”
“Fun? Doreen, that’s sick.”
“Now, Douglas, don’t be that way. There’s no need to pretend with me. I know the kind of things men think about when they look at me. And I’m sure we can both agree that a little rough-and-tumble is far from the most devilish thing on most fellas’ minds.”
“We’ve been friends a long time now, Doreen, and I’m old enough to be your father.”
“What kind of feelings does that stir up for ya? Pictured any Daddy-Daughter Date Night scenarios between us?”
“Doreen, stop, please…”
“It’s okay, Dougie,” Doreen said, taking another step in his direction. Doug retreated. “We can start with knocking each other around and see where things go from there,” she said, stepping again.
“Stop saying that. This isn’t you, Doreen. This isn’t real.”
“Maybe you’ve just never known the real me. Maybe I’m not that dopey little doe-eyed girl you’ve slobbered over all these years like some old, love-sick dog.”
“You’re not her.”
“Only one way to be sure,” Doreen said, and went back to dislodge the knife from Bramley’s skull.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m showing you the real me, Dougie. Showing you what’s on the inside.” In one smooth motion, she took the tip of the blade and traced it from the top of her forehead to the hollow just below her throat.
At first, it was just a single bead of blood dividing her face in half as it made its way down toward her chin, but that bead quickly turned into a trickle. Soon, there were rivulets of red streaming down Doreen’s face as she pointed at Doug and laughed.
Doug staggered backward and tripped over the leg of a coffee table, landing on his ass. He turned himself over and scrambled to his feet, hurtling through the lobby entrance without looking back.
This couldn’t be happening. It had to be another dream—or maybe it was all the same dream and he really was at home in his room and had never left.
When he’d had these kinds of lucid dreams as a kid, even though he knew on some level that he was dreaming, he’d never been able to use that knowledge to force himself awake. In fact, being aware that he was in the middle of a nightmare had only made it worse. He recalled one particularly nasty dream where he’d been running through a field of prairie grass at night. Something had been chasing him, something he hadn’t been able to see, and he’d been terrified of it catching him. He’d run and run through that endless field for what had felt like days until finally he’d come to the edge of a sheer rock face. Looking down, he hadn’t been able to see the bottom.
He’d heard the thing behind him drawing near, and he’d known he hadn’t had much time, so he had done the only thing he could’ve and had simply stepped off into the black.
When he’d awoken, the sheets on his bed had been soaked through and he’d been covered in a sheen of sweat, though he’d never discovered what had waited for him at the bottom of that cliff.
It had been a long time since those childhood dreams and he wasn’t sure what would happen to him if he walked off that ledge again, but he knew that this had to end. He didn’t want to see those shapes in the road anymore, didn’t want to see the man in the Stetson or those dead-eyed diners at the truck stop.
Most of all, he wanted to forget what had happened with Doreen. He couldn’t bear living with the image of what she’d done to Bramley and to herself or stand the sound of that awful laughter still echoing inside his head—
Doug gathered up his things from his room and packed them neatly away into his duffel bag. He took a last look at himself in the bathroom mirror, straightened the collar of his shirt, combed his fingers through his hair until it had regained some semblance of order, and splashed cold water on his face. He turned off the light and locked the door behind him, leaving the key on the window ledge outside his room. The night air was cold but pleasant as he crossed the lot to his Chevy and loaded the duffel into the trunk.
He looked down at the crimson scrap hanging from his car, forcing himself not to turn away. It still appeared as fresh as when he’d first glimpsed it, glistening in the glow of the moon like a thing alive. He crouched down next to it and took a deep breath, steeling himself for what he was about to do. His hands trembled slightly, but he still managed to grab hold of it on his first attempt. It came away with little effort.
Doug was surprised to find that it didn’t feel leathery or damp like he’d expected, but was instead soft and smooth like the bottom of a newborn’s foot. He ran the flesh between his fingers, admiring its suppleness despite still being repulsed by the object.
Doug came back around to the rear of the car and squatted on his haunches. He folded one end of the skin so that it formed a point and carefully guided it into the opening of the exhaust pipe, then fed in the rest of the scrap until it completely filled the space, forming a seal.
He climbed into the car and shut the door, checking to see that all the windows were rolled up before turning the key in the ignition.
He was finally ready to find out what lay at the bottom of the cliff.
The last thing he saw before his eyelids grew too heavy to keep them open was the digital display of the stereo in the dashboard.
The clock in the Caprice read 11:52. He had almost made it to midnight.
As he slowly slipped from consciousness, Doug wondered whether he’d wake up this time.
And if he did, where would he find himself.
And what would be waiting for him.
Peter Emmett Naughton first fell into fiction penning stories to amuse his grammar-school classmates, which helped him overcome his shyness but resulted in very few completed homework assignments. He was raised and currently resides in the Chicagoland suburbs, and his writing has appeared in various publications including Sanitarium, Graze, Cemetery Moon, and Apiary. You can visit him online at ravenpen.wixsite.com/authorsite.
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