His boss told him he needed to head down to Indianapolis for a conference. Told him after lunch. Said, “No, wait until three to hit the road.”
“What about traffic?”
“You got time,” said his boss.
Tyler welcomed the chance to escape his wife for the weekend. They’d been married six months, and she would always cling to him the moment he got home from work. Suffocating. Jeez. They had their entire lives to be together. Didn’t she get it? He texted her before leaving, assured her he had his overnight bag in the trunk of his car. She called him immediately, whining about being left behind. He decided to forget his phone, leave it on his desk. He wouldn’t need it in Indy.
In Indy, where Tyler planned to scratch that itch. That one somewhere in the space between him and his wife that she had facilitated.
After crossing the border into Indiana, he stopped at a Pilot in Haggard. His aging Honda had sputtered on I-90. The fuel gauge didn’t always offer an accurate assessment. He gassed up and grabbed a bottle of kombucha. Two men near the coolers—broad-shouldered, plaid shirts, heavy work boots—talked about a state road, Old 55, that ran through the hills near Pawpaw Grove. Said it cut off a forty-minute chunk of I-65. He asked them how to get there. “Veers off regular 55,” said one of them. Rural accent. Must have been local.
The other one, eyes close-set, spoke in a deeper voice: “You best motor through there now.”
Tyler asked what that meant.
“You ain’t familiar with Pawpaw Grove?”
The men laughed. Guessed, though he refused to confirm, he’d come from Chicago. The one who couldn’t fashion a grammatically correct sentence said, “They got happenings in them hills no mortal could ever describe nor want for witness, you follow?”
He did not. He wanted to get to Indy, check into his room at the Ramada and find a pay phone to order an affordable escort. His buddies had offered to buy him one for his bachelor’s party, and taking his uptight father’s advice, he refused. That decision burrowed under his skin and wouldn’t cease asking ‘what if’ questions. The thought of never being with a woman other than his wife again had morphed into a monster of sorts—a regret haunting him, possessing him.
He wouldn’t cheat on Marissa, per se. He’d feel up the girl, maybe let her go down on him. Lay in bed naked with her. Talk about politics, about the idiot president. He thanked the men, paid for his bottle of kombucha and headed for the door.
“Hey,” said the trucker with the deeper voice. “Your tires crunch dirt, you’ve wandered off the proper road. Best backtrack.”
He thanked him again. They must be warning him about the people who lived there—the danger they represented to civilized folks. Growing up in Glencoe, he’d heard horror stories about friends who’d ventured into Indiana to tip cows. They’d encountered all manners of inbred genetic catastrophes, up to and including the Klan. Hard to believe such bile existed a few miles outside the city.
He folded himself into his Honda and rejoined onto I-65, turning up the radio. Static threatened to rob him of the pop songs on The Mix. As he veered onto State Road 55, the signal disappeared. He scanned the horizon for indications of Old 55 and set the radio dial to search. Nothing but religious stations and farm reports. He settled for a preacher spitting about hellfire and brimstone. The sadist’s superstitions reminded him of his father who’d emigrated from Kentucky but never abandoned his primitive beliefs.
Hills decorated with maples and cedars rose in the distance, a little higher than he’d expected. He’d read that a glacier had flattened northern Indiana; this patch of land must have been spared. A wooden sign on the side of the road announced in scrawled, white paint, “Old 55, next left.” A child’s handwriting. Or maybe an adult. Everything he knew about Indiana suggested the entire state had yet to emerge from prehistoric times. An X fashioned from barbed wire had been attached to the bottom of the sign.
Not long after turning onto Old 55, the uneven pavement rose into the shelter of the forest. The sun, melting in the west, poked through branches—through loose, early autumn leaves flickering in a subtle wind. Red, strobing light distracted him. Reminded him of his wife, talking while he watched the Blackhawks on TV. She’d walk into the den demanding attention, knowing he could not multitask. If his focus drifted to the television, she quizzed him, confirmed he’d not heard a word she’d said, got angry, and then pouted until he acquiesced, apologizing for something, frankly, she’d brought upon herself.
His ears popped, confirming that the road inclined more than it appeared through the windshield. Space between the trees narrowed the higher he ascended. Another hand-painted sign insisted he “SLOE DOWN!” An X composed of intersecting animal bones adorned the jagged post upon which the sign had been nailed.
The trees cleared and shanties built from patchwork aluminum and lumber lined the sides of the road. Steam curled upwards from their sloppy, brick chimneys. Wood, cloth, or stone-made slanted crosses had been nailed near the top of each door.
A shirtless codger in overalls and wading boots—arched and crooked as the chimneys on the shanties—stepped in front of the car, forcing Tyler to stop. The codger made his way around the Honda, slapping the hood twice. He rapped gnarled, purple knuckles against the driver’s window and motioned for Tyler to roll it down. Tyler considered showing him his middle finger and peeling out, not that the Honda would cooperate. The codger smiled. He must have brushed his teeth with soot or maybe baking soda. They stood straight and white as clouds in a rural sky. This hint of hygiene relaxed Tyler enough to oblige the old man’s request. The scent of barbecue, or maybe burning wood, wafted through the opened window.
“I understand your haste, brother,” said the codger. Redneck accent, like the Pilot truckers. Like his uptight father. A little gravel in his voice. Time, or cigarettes, or both. Tyler imagined dueling banjos playing somewhere behind one of the shanties.
“It’d sure be compassionate of you, however, to think about the little ones, might be playing outdoors.” He backed away from the car, glanced left and right, as though expecting something to emerge from the forest. “’Course, most children know better than to be outside this late.”
Tyler wanted to ask: You mean families occupy these shitholes? Instead, he replied, “Early curfew?”
“Anyone knows what’s best,” said the codger, “surely be indoors when the darkness settles. These hills breathe, brother. At night, they hunger.”
Brother. The codger called him brother. Did he not recognize the differences between them? Tyler attended film school at DePaul. He oversaw social media for Boeing. Earned six figures. Lived in a studio on Lakeshore Drive. What did the codger do with his time? Search for crawfish? Did they have those in Indiana? Was that a Southern thing? Didn’t matter. Once you crossed the Illinois border, you were in redneck country straight through Florida. Things didn’t get civilized again, as far as he knew, until you arrived in Cuba.
“So,” he said, already reaching for the button to roll up the window, “I should be, ah, you know, on my way.”
“You going to keep on Old 55, or turn around?”
Turn around? Did the codger brew moonshine? Had he gotten high off his own supply? “I need to be in Indianapolis …” He paused. Had the codger heard of these things called cities? Maybe he’d passed through one during his tour in the Civil War. “I need to be on my way.” Tyler eased the window up and removed his foot from the brake pedal.
The codger said something to him as he passed. Tyler watched him in the rearview, until Old 55 curved, the shanties disappeared, and tall, leaning trees squeezed the road. Dim, violet light struggled to illuminate the land. Tyler turned on his high beams, figuring nobody would approach from the opposite direction. The preacher no longer admonished him from the speakers in the doors. He set the radio to search for another signal. It cycled through the FM and AM dials several times before he took over, stopping on each frequency and finding only static. After turning off the radio, he slowed down. Ahead, the road split. He slapped the steering wheel. The stupid truckers hadn’t said anything about this. The codger hadn’t provided any warning, any advice. Both paths looked identical. I-65 had to be to the west. Best to head in that direction. He steered the car toward thinning daylight.
When he was far enough past the fork to reconsider his decision, the sun vanished. The road deteriorated until pebbles flying in front of the car turned into chunks of dirt. The car sputtered again, this time with a violent jerk. His limited knowledge of automobiles suggested the fuel line had issues. He needed to get out of the hills and find a twenty-four-hour gas station. They had those in Indiana, right? They needed to keep their tractors running, right?
Panic. Stress. His heartbeat, accelerating.
He tried the radio again. Static. He glanced at the empty passenger seat. He wanted to call Marissa, listen to her talk about her day at the hospital. Something he’d dismissed as mundane since his wedding, now an imperative. A part of his own bloodstream, missing. He searched his pockets for his phone. Rifled through his sports coat on the seat next to him. Then he remembered—he’d left it at work. “What the hell were you thinking?” The car stammered. It lurched forward three halting jabs and died.
He turned the key. Again. And again. The engine choked, cleared its throat, and wheezed to stillness. He listened for owls, crickets. He’d grown up in Chicago. Beyond rodents in the streets, he’d only encountered wild animals at the Milwaukee zoo during field trips in elementary school. What kind of beasts lurked in the Indiana night? Couldn’t be anything serious. Maybe a rogue cow or pig? Jeez. He wished he’d learned a few useful things at any point in his life. He knew movies and animation software. Nothing else. He squinted, expecting to see bison charge from the darkness. His stupidity amused him, encouraged him to get over his fear. He pulled the lever for the hood beneath the dashboard, slid the key from the ignition, and opened the door. As he walked to the front of the car, leaves on the branches twitched without sound in a wind he felt but could not hear.
Searching for a rationalization, as Marissa would have done, he settled on an unscientific belief that he’d traveled so high in the hills, no animal life survived. This satisfied him long enough to examine the Honda’s guts. Despite his father insisting otherwise, he didn’t take shop in high school. His guidance counselor assured him such classes were for stupid people. The car’s manual sat in the glovebox, still shrink-wrapped. Were Marissa there, she’d have laughed at him for pretending he could diagnose the problem. She would call AAA and suggest he stay in his lane. He remembered, once more, he did not have his phone.
“Damnit!” He closed the hood. This gesture produced the bizarre notion that the cure for the car’s woes lay in the trunk. He opened it with his clicker. He rummaged through his overnight bag, not sure what he hoped to find. He laughed at an unused four-way lug wrench placed in the center of a spare tire with no air in it. Satisfied he could do nothing to get the car running, he closed the trunk. Something moved to his left. “Guess critters do live around here.” He spoke in the noise’s direction, hoping he would frighten it away.
The animal blurred across the road behind him. It stopped and stood on, he assumed, its hind legs, next to a cedar a dozen feet from the end of the Honda. A new sound thundered in his skull: the sound of his heart beating fast enough to jump from his chest. The steady thump-thump rattled his jawbone. Had he packed ibuprofen in his overnight bag? Jeez. He hustled to the driver’s side door and fell into the driver’s seat. He slammed the door and ducked to look in the sideview mirror. He stepped on the brake, lighting up the road behind him.
Something swayed near the trees—something tall. A bear? Wouldn’t it have attacked, or run away? No wolf or coyote could stand like that for as long as this thing had. His heart clack-clack-clacked like an old-fashioned film projector. What would Marissa do? She delivered babies for a living. She believed in data. For a situation like this, she would itemize options. Yes. Yes. Logical, rational thinking. He needed to escape the forest. No telling how cold it might get at night. He could shift the car into neutral and push, but that would put him outside with the animal. Or … or he could trust that the road slanted enough to get the wheels rolling on their own. Tyler returned the key to the ignition and placed his foot on the brake pedal while he switched gears. He removed his foot from the brake quickly, hoping that would compel the car to move. The car jerked and rolled backward. He craned his head so he could watch the rear window and avoid the trees. The road inclined, and the car slowed to a halt. He wanted to cuss, to scream, to beat the steering wheel with his fists. Instead, he closed his eyes, breathing in deeply.
But a sound he’d never heard before demanded his attention. A low, heavy huffing, like a T-Rex clearing its nostrils. He squeezed his chest, believed that would calm his heart. Something to the right of the car grunted—reminded him of living in his father’s house as a young man, fresh out of college. The bastard had put him up in the basement next to the furnace. Every night it fired around 2 o’clock in the morning. The sudden roar from the flame jolted him awake. He tried to figure out how to reprogram it so it would start sooner, leading to an argument and his father’s fascist conclusion that Tyler move out to start his life as an adult.
He lost track of the movement around the car. He’d slumped into the driver’s seat, afraid to peer out into the darkness and catch sight of … what? Jeez. He sat up straight. How could he let his mind wander down the alleys of superstition and paranoia? Such wasteful, primitive investigations belonged to the Jerry Springer crowd, the sort of riffraff he saw pictures of on the Internet, shopping at Walmart in pajamas and slippers.
As he calmed his mind, the rustling outside simmered. Still, no crickets—no comforting, nighttime chirping. But autumn loomed. The temperature lowered with the absence of the sun. Hoping to hear summer noises didn’t make sense. In fact, nothing he’d experienced in the last few minutes could be called rational. He concluded he’d hallucinated everything. He’d allowed lesser thought processes to infiltrate and experienced the inevitable consequence: delusion. He kept the battery on as he fiddled with the radio, listening to several seconds of static on each channel before moving on. This comforted him.
A hiss loitered beneath the static, loud enough to notice, but not enough to overpower the dominating, fuzzy hum. It swooped from one side of the car to the other. He dismissed it until he heard it on three successive stations. He stopped on the fourth and listened. Like a snake, trying to speak. Wet tones, whipping left and right, their sharp ends making no mystery of their intentions:
These were warnings.
Not the gestures of polite concern offered by the Pilot truckers or even the codger. Something didn’t want him here. He turned off the radio and smacked himself in his face. What would Marissa have made of his behavior? She would have laughed. Not in a cruel way. She would have explained in gentle, sympathetic words, how being in an unfamiliar place in the dark triggered his imagination. He closed his eyes and practiced abdominal breathing, something Marissa taught him to remedy his occasional panic attacks. His heartbeat eased to a steady tempo. He put on his sports jacket. If no other vehicle rumbled down the dirt road before sunrise, he’d have to weather a frigid night.
High-pitched cracks, like a string of fireworks, echoed outside the car. A half a mile ahead, trees collapsed. The land rumbled, rocked the car hard enough to lift him off the driver’s seat. He grabbed the steering wheel as though that might allow him to regain control or prevent further disturbance. The world shook to the rhythm of something heavy stomping through the forest.
“It’s not real. It’s just my …” A batch of trees crashed in front of the car. A dark form sidled into view: no discernible shape. A blob of pitch black disrupting the blue darkness. Tyler sank into his seat once more. He’d read that terror could cause people to soil themselves. To the contrary, every path in his body now constricted.
The beast loped toward the ground. Its spine must have been composed of jelly: it flattened, like a snake, and wove into the forest on the other side of the road. Tyler assumed, hoped, it would venture further east. The pattering of lesser animals scattering on all sides of the car snuffed his optimism. Soon, only the unsettling music of trees splintering, and tumbling remained. The closer the beast slithered, the farther down Tyler ducked in the car. When trees toppled to his left, he folded himself and leaned over to the right. Cupholders and storage space between the seats dug into his side. He told himself to be tough, to deal with it.
The hissing noise he’d heard on the radio now surrounded the car. He assumed it came from the beast. It increased until it sounded as though the beast rested directly next to the driver’s door. An opaque fog painted the windows. He put his hands over his ears, remembered doing the same as a child when a thunderstorm tore through Glencoe. He’d called for his father and the bastard had shouted back, “Don’t be a pussy!”
Something tapped the driver’s door. Gentle, at first. A pause. Then harder, more insistent. Tyler started to speak, mutter something about … God. He stopped himself midway. He would not resort to praying to magical people in the sky. Another voice in his head, however, cut in: Can you pretend this thing outside isn’t real? What made him think, the new voice demanded, he had any idea how the universe operated? Again, he reminded himself he had trained to do nothing useful and with that training came no science—empirical, metaphysical, or otherwise. He’d taken one course in existentialism in college and that, he believed, satisfied and eliminated his spiritual curiosity.
The car tilted to the right as the beast nudged it. Tyler grabbed the bottom of the passenger seat, and the beast’s breathing faded for a moment. But when it returned, it intensified. The beast hit the car hard enough to rock it off the driver’s side wheels. “Oh … shit….”
The car bounced on its shocks, wobbled left and right. This happened five more times, threatening to roll the Honda onto its roof. A spate of calm followed again. Tyler opened his eyes. The driver’s side window remained fogged, the beast’s breath wrapping around the car. Could it bite into the frame of the Honda? Thrash the tires? Every nerve in Tyler’s body tightened. His bones ached to escape his flesh. The car tipped again, far enough for him to see the ground through the passenger window, and finally, he spoke to the imaginary person in the sky. “Dear God, please …” Instead of scolding himself for summoning the insurance of the uneducated, the poor, and his father, he recalled the signs leading to Old 55, the symbols on the doors of the shanties in the pathetic settlement. He held his fingers to the window in the shape of an X. The beast slammed into the car again still, lifting all four tires off the ground. Tyler’s head bounced off the passenger seat when the Honda landed.
He felt the space between the front and backseats. It would be tight. He stumbled into the backseat and fumbled his fingers around the top of it for a lever. He pulled it, and the seat folded down. He jammed his hands into the trunk area, clawing for the flat spare tire and the lug wrench. The weight of the cold metal made it feel like a weapon.
As the car took another hit from outside, raised off the ground and slid closer to the trees, Tyler held the lug wrench against the driver’s side rear window, angled it in the shape of an X. Now, the beast halted. Dirt and pebbles pinged off the Honda, and a resonating growl infected the night air. Tyler wanted to laugh, to call the beast gullible. He wanted to tell it the symbol meant nothing. He wanted to lecture it the way he’d been lectured in his existentialism class. Religion and its runes only served to bring comfort in the absence of the sun—its warmth, its natural light.
The beast slithered away toward the other side of the road and into the forest. The racket of trees falling to the earth grew distant. Tyler kept his hand raised, holding the lug wrench to the window. He said, “Let me get through this,” pretending he knew not to whom he spoke. If only Marissa were there, she’d assure him it had been coincidence. The beast had tired, surrendered. Nothing more. As he slept to hasten the sun’s return, he remembered his wedding: his wife tearing up during their vows, the gratitude he’d felt for having found a woman who tolerated him. He recalled being at the altar and feeling that refusing his friends’ offer to buy him a call girl the night before had been the best decision he’d ever made. How stupid had he been, thinking he’d hire an escort in Indy? Had it not been near freezing, he would have wept. Promising the cosmos that he’d never consider cheating on his wife again, Tyler dozed off.
He awoke when his hand let go of the lug wrench, and the heavy metal fell onto his shoulder. Blood-red beams of light barged through the trees. Tyler’s legs never found a suitable position during the night, and they—along with his lower back—announced dissatisfaction, pooling swamps of pain throughout his body as he sat. Lifting his head to peer through the bottom of the window, he scanned the ground around the driver’s side. No sign of the beast. Doing his best not to shake the car as he moved, he checked the other side; just birds and small creatures skipping across twigs and leaves. He forced himself into the driver’s seat and tried the engine. It cranked a few times before wheezing and dying. “Damnit.” He slapped the steering wheel.
The road ahead vanished in a curtain of mist. No telling what might be waiting for him up ahead. But maybe the codger or one of his neighbors had a phone. Unlikely, he figured. They appeared to be stuck in the Civil War era. He’d have to return to the road leading to Old 55 and flag someone down. As he stepped out of the car, surmising the fresh dents in the driver’s side doors, he suddenly realized the conference in Indy meant little. The beast had battered craters into the Honda’s exterior: There was no relegating its existence to the imagination. Something lurked on Old 55, and It loathed visitors.
Tyler put the vehicle in neutral and pulled the steering wheel, using his shoulder to get the car turning in a circle. Once the car was aimed in the direction he’d come from, he pushed until the road tilted downward enough to build momentum. He sat behind the wheel, driver’s side door still open, and glided back toward the world in which he belonged.
ALEC CIZAK is a writer and filmmaker from Indiana. His novel, Cool It Down, will be published by ABC Group Documentation in 2021. He is also the editor of the fiction digest, Pulp Modern.
DENNY E. MARSHALL has had art, poetry, and fiction published. Some recent credits include cover art for Dreams & Nightmares #116 Sept. 2020 and poetry in Scifaikuest August 2020. This year, his website is celebrating 20 years on the web. In 2020, his artwork is for sale for the first time. The link is on his website @ www.dennymarshall.com.