Cue the creepy music!
Hey, Earl, our friend here could use a cup of joe.
I found him sleeping in his car out on exit 13.
Sure thing, Sheriff, the man responds, sliding a cup of black coffee across the counter.
What’s your name, friend?
“Jack Whitaker,” I reply. God, my head is groggy.
“Where are you coming from?”
“California.” I reply, “I don’t even remember stopping. The fog was thick as mud though, I remember that.”
“California? That’s swell.”
“Yeah, I guess,”
“Is there any way I can get back to my car? Maybe a taxi or something? My phone doesn’t seem to work out here.”
“Is that your car?” the man says, pointing to a tow truck pulling my car into the garage across the street
“What the hell?”
“Sir?,” I call out as I cross the street. “Why are you towing my car?”
“Sheriff said it wasn’t runnin’.” the driver says
“It was fine. Can you just let it down? I’ll pay you for the tow.”
“Sure friend. Name’s Jonah,” he says smiling.
“Nice to meet you,” I reply, a little annoyed.
The gears of his old truck squeal as he lowers my car to the pavement. This town is straight out of a black and white movie. Technology skipped this old place, but out here in the middle of nowhere, that’s no surprise.
“Nice car. What is it?” the man asks
“‘68 Camaro,” I reply
“Huh, they get fancier every year.”
“You really need to get out more often” I mumble, Hopping in, I turn the key, but nothing happens.
‘Odd, it’s been running fine this whole trip.”
“Probably the alternator stopped charging your battery awhile back,” Jonah replies.
“Ugh. Can you get parts out here?” I ask.
“Old man Saunders has a salvage yard, near my place. Seems like I recently saw something like your car over there. You could check there for parts, otherwise, it’ll be a week or more.”
“I can’t wait a week. I have to be in Savannah on Sunday. I’m getting married.” I reply.
“Nice time of the year to get married,” Jonah responds.
“Only if I can make it on time,” I chuckle. “Is there a phone I can use? I need to call my fiancée and there is like zero cell service here.”
“The diner,” Jonah replies.
“Back again?” The man at the diner counter smiles.
People smile a lot here.
“Jonah said you had a phone I could use?”
“There’s a payphone over by the cigarette machine.”
Not sure you can call it a phone. It is a coin-operated antique.
I deposit a couple of dimes and hear the old-fashioned dial tone.
Here goes nothing.
I dial the number and it rings. It rings again, and then a third. I almost hang up when I hear her voice.
“Jac-- can y-- hear--?” it’s faint and broken.
“Hey Rose, I had some car trouble. I’ll have it fixed and be on the road as soon as I can.”
“Jack, can you-- h-- me?
“Rose, we have a really bad connection. I’ll be there soon. Don’t worry.” I reply.
My feet feel it first, the ground vibration. The dishes throughout the diner rattle together as the vibration turns to a rumble and then a full-blown roar.
“Rose? You still there, I think we’re having an earthquake.” I yell over the discord of rattles, metal cans, and the grumbling ground below me.
A surge of dust and wind blows through the town, the signs outside toss and wave, and then just as quickly as the chaos arrived, it is calm again.
The phone line is dead.
“What the hell was that? You get quakes out here?” I ask Earl, who is busy picking up salt shakers and toppled napkin holders.
“Nah, it’s the military site up in Crook Canyon. Whatever they’re testing up there really packs a punch,” he replies with a smile.
“It feels nuclear to me. That was intense. They still do that kind of testing?.”
“Don’t know,” Earl replies “Top secret I guess.”
I head back across the street.
Hey Jonah? Can I bum a ride to the salvage yard? I can pay you for your time.
No need. I was getting ready to close up anyway.
We drive out into the country for what seems like miles. The further from town we get, the quieter Jonah becomes. He plays with the radio dial until he stops on a familiar song. The mellow country sound brings back memories.
“This was my grandfather’s favorite song,” I comment.
“You got family?” Jonah asks
“My mother lives in Georgia, my dad passed away a couple of years ago.”
“And your girl?” he says
“She is amazing. I’ve been working in Cali, but, this is my final trip. Time to settle down.” I reply
“This is it,” Jonah replies.
We arrive at a farmhouse; the paint is faded and chipped. The place is a mess of weeds and tall grass, the fence in the back is broken.
We pull into the yard, when I notice a woman is staring at me from the upstairs window.
This place is so odd.
“Nice truck you got there in the barn," I say. "Is that all original?”
I glance back at the house, but she is gone.
Jonah smiles. “It’s a Chevrolet 3100, 3 speed,” he replies.
Finally, a cheerful face. This is obviously his pride and joy
“My first ride was an old truck,” I say. “I lost the keys, had to hot-wire the darn thing all the time.” I laugh “It didn’t look as good as yours though. Your restoration work is beautiful.”
“I bought it new,” Jonah replies dryly.
“You don’t look that old,” I chuckle, which sours his demeanor again.
Probably should just cut my losses here, before I make things worse.
“Hey if you can direct me to the salvage yard, I can run over and grab the alternator. I know a little about cars,” I say.
“Go through the gap in the trees by the barn. Stay on the path and you’ll be ok.” Jonah responds
Stay on the path and I’ll be ok? Those words seem a little odd.
I head into the woods, following the path as the light dwindles behind me. The trees are massive, the canopy of branches block much of the late-day sun. The sounds of twigs and dried leaves underfoot signal my arrival into this dense quiet. I walk further and hear the cackle of birds echoing high above me. I’m not sure why, but I feel like I shouldn’t be here.
An unexplainable fear touches my stomach.
Shadows move in odd ways as thin beams of light stream through the thick branches high above. It is getting darker as I quicken my pace.
“What is your problem? It’s just some damn birds,” I whisper. “Get ahold of …”
“Wait, what was that?”
My feet cleave to one spot, afraid to make a sound.
I squint in the faint light, just a little way ahead on the path, I swear I saw a hand slide around the tree, but it’s not there now.
“Hello?” I call out, sounding as confident as my thinning voice will allow.
Somewhere in the dark canopy the birds abruptly go to flight. I don’t know what spooked them. It was probably me yelling in the middle of their quiet domain, but it startles me in such a way that I set off sprinting, pushing, and pushing until I burst out into the light of an open field.
I lean forward and take in deep breaths to calm my heart. The warmth of the sun never felt so safe.
After several moments, I regain my composure and start to feel very foolish. Looking back into the mouth of the path, there is nothing but a wooded area.
I really just need to get home, too many months away have taken their toll.
The plateau ahead of me is filled with hundreds of cars, trucks, and even some old military vehicles, mangled and burned.
This is definitely a field of unfortunate stories.
I find a small shack at the far end; the door is open but nobody inside; the place seems abandoned.
“Hello?” my voice echoes through the field “Jonah sent me for a part.”
I wait. Still, there is only silence.
“My luck I’ll find old man Saunders dead out here somewhere,” I mumble.
Then I see it, a red 68 Camero, it looks a lot like mine. It obviously rolled a few times. There is dried blood smeared across the shattered windshield.
“That had to hurt,” I mumble. The hood is missing, but the engine is still pretty intact. “At least I can salvage something good from this misery.”
Back inside the shack, I find an old box of assorted tools, wrenches, and ratchets.
After a bit of muscle, I free the part I need.
Now, I just have to man up and walk back without a few birds sending me running again.
I look at the opening to the forest. It is an easy walk through a beautiful woodland area.
So why am I still clutching this heavy metal wrench?
“Are you going to fight off twigs and branches?” I laugh nervously, knowing there is no way I am going back in there without this wrench.
I begin back into the forest opening, following the path, the dim light of the setting sun makes the path harder to see.
my stomach is sick, something is not right, but I stay focused on the path, one foot in front of the other. The birds are silent, why are they silent? Why am I freaking out?
The thin beams of light that penetrated the forest earlier are now fading wisps. I fumble for my phone, I can use the flashlight, I keep walking trying to find the icon for the flashlight. I need to stay on the path.
Ah there it is, I turn on the flashlight and frantically shine it around me,
I am not on the path, I wasn’t paying attention and I left the path.
I don’t even know where I am, there are trees all around me, the path is nowhere and the sun fails me.
My heart starts to race, I need to figure out where I am.
Stay on the path and I’ll be Ok, but I’m not on the path, I clutch the wrench.
A branch moves, but there is no sound, no it’s not a branch that was a hand, a pale hand, I can see it clearly sliding around the tree.
Each time I shine the light it retreats, but there are more all around me, I have no choice but to move, I start to quicken my pace but in the dark, I keep tripping over roots and rotting logs.
Then I turn to see it, the light of my phone shines against a man. His skin is gray with black veins, his eyes sunken, his mouth gaping and hollow, his body an empty shell. It is grotesque.
He is standing looking at me, just staring at me, not moving. My heart feels like it will stop beating if I don’t move. I scramble to my feet and turn to run but everywhere I shine the light they are motionless, staring at me.
My skin is crawling with fright, I spin around in all directions looking for something, anything and then I see it, a faint line. It is the path, my salvation.
The apparitions are saying something, but their necks are hollowed. They are moving their mouths but there are only tormented sounds.
I can make out two words.
I sprint to the path, the bouncing light from my phone reflects through the trees. My mind is on fire, they are still everywhere. I swing the wrench wildly in every direction.
“Get away from me!” I scream
The unison of voices screech in a repetitive, high-pitched chatter.
I can see through the forest opening, the faint light of the setting sun. I’m almost there.
I burst out into the farmyard, stumbling forward, my hands are shaking wildly, my grip on the wrench is so tight my fingers are numb.
I drop to my knees, gasping for air. I look up to see Jonah standing over me, smiling.
“I told you to stay on the path.”
“What the fuck were those things?” I spit.
“Lots of people have died up on the highway, seems they all find their way here,” Jonah responds, “the woods are their final resting place, I reckon.”
“What are you talking about, that’s messed up.”
“Why would you have sent me in there?”
“I told you to stay on the path, didn’t I? You forget somethin'?” he says coyly.
“Shit, the alternator. I must have dropped it somewhere in the woods.”
“I wouldn’t go back in there tonight,” He replies, “you should wait ‘til the sun is up.”
“Why don’t you stay for dinner?” He says.
“Dinner? I need to get the hell outta here. How much for your truck? I’ll pay you whatever you want.”
“She’s not for sale,” Jonah says as some of his hair falls out onto the ground
“W-what is happening to you?” I ask
“You should stay …”
His skin flakes and falls with the rest of his hair
“... for dinner”
I stand, gripping the wrench.
“I don’t know what you are, or what this place is but I am not staying here.”
Jonah’s face protrudes forward as rows of jagged teeth push their way through his bloody gums.
“You should stay.” he screeches.
His back humps and cracks open as spindled spider legs unfurl, lifting him into the air.
I run, but he is faster than I am and catches my leg, sending me tumbling.
Swinging the wrench, I break off one of his thin legs, another unfolds in its place.
I sprint to the truck, leaping inside I shut the door as he slams the outside, his teeth scraping against the window. I pull the ignition wires; I can do this, my mind is panicking. Focus Jack, focus, you’ve done this a thousand times.
The creature climbs on the hood, rocking the truck. It is trying to break the windshield, then a crackle of spark, and the engine fires up.
I drop the gear and floor it, sending the creature rolling across the lawn. I turn onto the dirt road, slide sideways, and barrel towards the distant light. It is the setting sun. I need to get out of this place, beyond the forest, out in the light.
Behind me the creature is leaping from tree to tree, gaining ground it lands on the bed of the truck. It is massive now. The weight bounces the truck sideways; the spider legs poke at the windows, the sharp points puncture splinters into the glass as I push the truck to its limits.
The light is getting closer, but the window shatters behind me and sharp points dig into my neck and spine, so many needles, the pain is excruciating.
Then I see them, the specters from the forest, there are thousands standing on the road ahead of me, their dead faces reflected back in the headlights.
My body weakens as the creature punctures more of my skin. I push the pedal with all that I have left; I plow into them and they dissolve into a mist around me. The creature suddenly screams and pulls back its tendrils. The specters are viciously tearing at the creature, devouring it faster than it can fight them off.
They slash at it while it clings to the truck traveling with me through the thick of them. More and more rip at it until it finally lets go and tumbles back disappearing into the pitch black of the forest behind me.
My brain is failing, I feel so weak, but I made it to the light. I laugh wildly as the truck roars out into the glaring bright of day.
And I lose consciousness.
I squint at the light. My eyes adjust, and I see Rose, her beautiful smile, I can see she has been crying.
“Rose?” I utter. It is difficult to speak with a breathing tube.
“Jack?” she says “can you hear me?” she sobs.
“Wha, what happened?”
‘You were in an accident, you must have fallen asleep, you rolled your car out on the highway, you died on the way to the hospital. They revived you, it was touch and go for days.
“I love you, Rose.” is all I can whisper.
3 months later.
I drive slowly through the abandoned town, off of exit 13. They boarded the buildings up. The years have not been kind. The diner sign hangs broken and tilted.
An elderly woman sits alone on her porch.
“Hello?” I call from her rickety fence.
“You lived here long?” I ask.
She eyes me over.
‘You seen it, haven’t you? That thing they let loose in Crook Cavern.”
“Lots of folks disappeared that day,” she says.
“Why are you still here? If you die in this place, it will take you back to that day, it will trap your soul here.”
“My sister married Jonah before the taking. I want to see her, one more time.”
“She is waiting, at the farmhouse,” I reply.
As I drive out of town, my grandfather’s favorite song begins to play on the radio.
I turn it off.