A blue convertible cruises down the interstate. Beer cans tied to the bumper rattle wildly together in the wind. The “Just Married” bannister that had once been taped to the rear windshield was in a ditch somewhere between the car, and the fifty miles of road behind it. Inside the car the newly-weds, Ashlynn and Robert, sing along to the radio, still wearing their tuxedo and gown. “WHERE ARE WE GOING?!” Ashlynn demands. “I’m your WIFE now! You have to tell me EVERYTHING!” She insists playfully. Robert smiles and shakes his head, not taking his eyes off of the road. The moon and stars are little help to his struggling headlights, they were so dim that he wasn’t sure if they were actually working at times. He tries his best to hide the anxiety of driving blind, no need in scaring Ashlynn. “I told you it’s a surprise.” He says, smiling wider as he envisions his wife’s reaction.
“Can I guess?” She asks. “You’ve guessed a thousand times already, but sure, go ahead.” “Okay.. so you already said it’s not Paris..” “Yepp, can’t drive to Paris.” Ashlynn laughs. “And it’s definitely not Niagara Falls?” “Nope.” “DisneyLand?” “That would have been a good idea.. but nope, not DisneyLand.” Robert replies. “Well I know it isn’t Hawaii, but maybe a beach?” Ashlynn asks. “Not exactly.” Robert replies. “So it’s near the beach? Ashlynn asks. “Beach adjacent.’ Robert quips, smirking.
“You really aren’t going to tell me?” “Do you really want me to?” Ashlynn pauses, thinking to herself for a moment. “No I guess not.” She says as she rests her head on his shoulder. “I’m sure it’s perfect.” Her eyes flutter shut. Finally feeling the exhaustion of the long day she falls asleep, her snoring starts soon after. Robert chuckles to himself, and turns the radio up a touch, he was used to it. He glances to his gps, quickly returning his eyes to the road, repeating the process until he knows for sure that their turn was coming up in five miles.
He turns the radio back down, the noise distracting him, somehow disturbing his vision. He’d already tuned out Ashlynn’s rumbling snores, two years of practice paying off. Four miles. He chuckles to himself as they pass a sign for a place called “Funky Town”. He wouldn’t bother bringing it up to Ashlynn later, she wouldn’t believe him anyway. Three miles. “She has the right idea.” Robert thinks to himself, as he pinches the bottoms of his eye lids, fighting against the urge to pull over and nap on the side of the road.
Two miles. He makes out a sign in the dim light of his high-beams, advertising a gas station, and a handful of motels. Stopping for the night would probably be for the best. They’d get some sleep and be back on the road first thing in the morning. Another 7 hours of driving tops. That could work.. One mile. In the distance Robert sees a huge green mound blocking the upcoming exit ramp. One of the many trees lining the road must have rotted and been pushed over by the wind, sometime not too long ago. It was snapped in thirds by the guardrails, a pile of decaying mulch in the middle, blocking their route. Robert swerves into the fast lane, avoiding the top third of the tree blocking the right lane, luckily there didn’t seem to be anyone else on the road.
Ashlynn is pushed against her door, narrowly avoiding head on contact with the glass of her window. She mumbles something under her breath. Still clearly out, she tucks her arm between her head and the window like an accidental defense mechanism. Robert breathes a sigh of relief, and waits for his gps to reroute them, but it doesn’t, it just goes black. Robert holds in the power button, but nothing happens. He fumbles with a charger, trying to plug in into the gps without careening off of the road. He succeeds, but the gps still doesn’t respond.
“I guess we’ll take the next exit..” He says to himself, frustrated. Ashlynn responds with a sleep-rant about pasta salad and hummingbirds. God he was lucky, despite all of the anxiety and stress, she could still make him laugh, but not too loudly, the show must go on. Then he sees another sign. It isn't metal, not put in by the state, but wooden, put there by.. someone. It reads: “Bed n’ Breakfast! Next right!” A hundred yards from that sign is another that reads: “Free Breakfast! N’ the best apple pie you ever had!” Finally a third much larger sign with paint peeling off, it reads: “Maulvill Orchard/BnB: ENTRANCE”.
Robert wasn’t sure if it was the promise of homemade apple pie in the morning, or the fact that his eyes felt like they were gluing themselves shut, but he turned off of the main road, and down one made up of gravel and dirt. He flips a switch and puts the convertible’s top down as gravel dust begins to blow into the car, covering the black leather in a grey film.
A beautiful two-story cabin sits in the distance awaiting their arrival. They drive between two rows of trees, the reds, and oranges, and yellows of the leaves slowly shower them. Mother nature embracing them on their journey. As the car rolls to a stop in front of the cabin Robert realizes that there are no lights on inside. He checks the time on his phone, 10:34.. dammit. They could at least get some sleep in the car, and apple pie in the morning..
Just then the front door of the cabin creaks open slowly, and Robert hears the sweet-crackly voice of the elderly owner. “Is anyone there?” She asks. Robert hesitates for a moment, not wanting to startle her. “Yes mam, we wanted to see about getting a room for the night..” Robert yells out of his window for the older woman to hear, but not quite loud enough to wake Ashlynn.
“Business has been a little slow lately so you’re in luck.” She says as she opens the door the rest of the way, revealing a crossbow resting in one arm, arguably too long for a woman of her size and age to operate, but more power to her. The woman is startled by an especially loud growling snore from Ashlynn, her arms instinctually lift the crossbow slightly but still point it toward her red-stained deck boards. “I’m sorry sweety we don’t let dogs stay here, too many cats around.” She says motioning with her bow. Robert hadn’t noticed before, but now he can see multiple lumps of fur spread across the deck, and on its rails, sleeping cats.
He stifles his laughter, trying to hide his smile from the woman. She wasn’t in on the joke, and he didn’t want to accidentally offend her, especially while she was holding a weapon. “Actually it’s just me and my wife. Her CPAP machine is in the trunk.” “Y’all got a machine back there?” She asks quizzically, squinting at the compact car. “It’s not very big.” Robert smiles, she reminds him of his grandmother god rest her soul. “It helps with her sleep apnea.” He says. “Oh yeah I heard of that, doctors said that’s what killed my Arnold. We never had no machine for it.” She says. “I’m sorry to hear that.” Robert responds sincerely. “He wouldn’t have used it anyhow. That man was a mule, strong and stubborn.” She chuckles and briefly closes her eyes, as if she were watching a memory of her late-husband in her head.
“Well.” She says as she comes back to reality. “Y’all come inside whenever you’re ready, I’ma go get your room situated for ya.” She says as she turns back into the doorway. “Thank you mam!” Robert calls after her, not sure if she actually heard him before closing the door on his words. He gently shakes Ashlynn’s shoulder trying to wake her. She grumbles, and stirs, but her eyes don’t open, they just flutter a bit. He leans over her and whispers in her ear. “Lynn.” She wakes with a start, almost headbutting Robert, whose reflexes save him from a sore nose.
“Are we here?” She asks. “Just a romantic pit stop.” Robert says. Ashlynn rubs gunk from her eyes, and wipes her hands on the long folded up gown in her lap. As her vision adjusts she scans their surroundings. “Ohh it’s so pretty.” She says, admiring the rustic charm of the cabin. “Yeah this was a lucky find.” Robert says. “I figured we can stay the night, eat some breakfast in the morning, and still get there tomorrow afternoon.” Robert says. “Where. Are. We. Going?” She asks, jabbing her fingers into Robert’s ribs with each word. “Do you really wanna do this?” He smiles. “Or do you wanna go inside and get some sleep?” “I don’t know what you’re talking about, I’m wide awake now.” Ashlynn leans over and kisses Robert, her hand squeezing his inner thigh. She feels his lips curl up into a smile. She slowly slides her hnd higher and higher up his thigh, he stops her. “Baby, as much as I would love to do this right now, I don’t think the sweet old lady would approve.” He says. “Sweet old lady?” Ashlynn asks. “Yeah I just talked to her, you’ll like her.” He gives her one last little peck, and opens his door. “I’ll grab our stuff, you just try to keep that dress out of the dirt.” Robert says. “Oh I’ll try.” Ashlynn responds as she glances out of her window at what looks to be the forest floor.
They wake in the morning to the sound of birds chirping emanating from a clock on the wall, 8am, Bluejay. Robert rolls out of bed and gets dressed. Ashlynn turns off her machine, and does the same. The smell of bacon and eggs wafts into the room. Followed almost immediately by the sweet aroma of apples and brown sugar. Robert’s stomach growls as he’s reminded of the promise of breakfast and pie.
As Ashl;ynn takes care of business in the master bathroom. Robert pokes around the bedroom, looking at all the knick knacks, and decoration. In the bedside table, where the bible would normally be if it were a motel, was an old worn out copy of “The Inferno”. It was funny in a twisted sort of way, the gesture seemed to say, “Don’t bother with the Bible, just get prepared for where you’re already headed”. A highway to hell indeed.
Robert sees hanging from the center of the ceiling (where a fan would normally be) what seems to be a large spinning mobile. Hanging from which are a dozen dream catchers of varying size and colors. Robert runs the back of his hand through the feathers as they graze by, spinning, almost dancing. He hadn’t noticed them the night before, just like the shelf of porcelain dolls taking up the entire far wall of the room. If he had noticed them he wouldn’t have been able to sleep, despite the dreamcatchers best efforts to help him.
Ashlynn comes out the bathroom, and notices Robert “admiring” the dolls. “Maybe we can get some for our bedroom at home.” She says jokingly. “No way in hell..” Robert replies, shuddering at the thought. Seeing that he was still entranced, or perhaps stricken with fear, Ashlynn grabs him by the ribs and shouts. He jumps, catching his balance on the shelf, coming eye to eye with one of the creepier dolls. It’s eyes, two little black marbles, it’s porcelain skin polished so well it reflects the room, and the dark orange dress it wears looks like fire.
Robert wastes no time collecting his things. As they descend the staircase with their things they are greeted by the sweet old woman. “Ah you’re both up! Thought I might have to ring the breakfast bell!” She exclaims, splitting at the seams with energy. “We have coffee, juice, milk, tea, water, toast, bacon, eggs, scrapple, muffins, and of course, apple pie!” She exclaims once more, somehow not out of breath.
It smells delicious, the couple agrees as they thank her. By the time they finish their banquet more than half of the food still remains. She insists that she packs them both up to-go bags so they can enjoy the food later on their drive. They graciously accept her offer. “That was the best apple pie I’ve ever had.” Robert tells her. “Oh thank you dear, old, old recipe. The secret is in the apples.” She replies. “Speaking of which let me show you two the orchard, you can pick as many as you can fit in that car of yours, on the house! Consider it a wedding present!” She says, smiling wide. “That’s so nice thank you!” Ashlynn replies. “Do we have time hun?” She asks Robert. “Yeah, yeah of course let’s do it.” He replies. “Wonderful!” The woman exclaims, clapping her wrinkled hands together.
An hour passes, and Robert sits down on the ground, his basket filled to the brim, at least twenty apples. He rubs his feet through his shoe, groaning in pain. “You okay?” Ashlynn asks him. “Yeah I’m fine my feet are just killing me for some reason.” He replies. “You wanna head back? I don’t think I can carry anymore, this basket is getting too heavy.” She says.
He doesn’t answer her, he takes off his shoes and socks revealing root-like tendrils growing all over his feet. “What the fuck..” He utters, breathless and terrified. The roots grow, and extend from his feet into the ground, planting him in place. “Oh my god!” Ashlynn screams, grabbing him, as if that would do any good. Then, she howls in pain as the same kind of roots rip through the soles of her shoes and plant her beside him.
They become bound to each other as bark quickly spreads up their legs, stopping only momentarily at their torsos. The once bright red apples in their baskets turn an oozing, decaying black. Then the rot falls away and in the apples’ place are baskets full of bloody human hearts.
The old woman steps out from behind one of the trees, chomps loudly into a light green apple, and chews it up mouth agape in a huge toothy smile. “Hey! What’s happening?! What the fuck is this?!” Robert demands. The old woman approaches them, a dozen cats trailing behind her. “This is what ya get.” The old woman no longer sounded sweet, her demeanor was something sinister. “This is what we get for what?!” Ashlynn screams. “For killin’ yourselves..” the woman grins. “We didn’t kill ourselves! What the fuck are you talking about?!” Robert shouts. “Yeah ya did.. Your wife chose to sleep. You chose to stare at your gps, and you ran into that fallen tree.” The “woman” says. “I.. I missed the tree.. I swerved..” Robert mutters. “Nope. You hit it. You both died, I mean they worked on you for a bit, but you were obvious goners.” “I don’t believe you..” Ashlynn says under her breath. “Well believe it or not, I don’t care, you’ll have plenty of time to mull things over.” “Even if it’s true, if we did.. die. We didn’t kill ourselves!” Robert yells.
“If you put a gun in your mouth and pull the trigger, you think it’s the gun or the bullet that kills ya? No, just like that tree, or your fancy car, or the street didn’t kill ya. What killed ya was your choices.. that, you naive newborn, is suicide.. welcome to hell.” The woman says as she backs away, her form changing into a leathery bat-like creature, as do the bodies of the cats around her. That’s it, the last thing either of them will ever see. As the bark moves its way up their chests to their necks, Ashlynn asks, “Where were we going?” To which Robert replies, “You were right.. it was DisneyLand..” “That would have been perfect..” She mutters as the bark encases their once youthful faces.
Although they were now covered in rough bark head-to-toe, they feel everything as if it were still flesh and bone, as if each branch was a new arm, each leaf a finger, each apple, a fresh new heart waiting to be plucked from them. This was their new future, their existence. Tearing and ripping, stabbing and peeling. Burning and rotting. The couple screams internally from the mouths that no longer exist as the harpies tear into them. Breaking limbs that regrow in seconds, cutting into what would have been their legs with sharpened blades, and worms bore through their many hearts.
Despite the agony, despite the promise of an endless torture, they both found solace in a single fact.. they wouldn’t just feel the pain and torment, they would be able to feel each other’s embrace. They would be together.. forever..