For good reason, not all paths and trails are marked on every map.
Marko kicked through piles of autumn leaves at the roadside. His parents had refused him a ride, he couldn’t afford the train, and hopping the bus without change didn’t work out. It'd be a three-hour walk back to Moscow.
A car drove behind him. He turned. It didn’t come from the end of the road, but halfway as if it drove out of the forest. He waved his hand, slowly, inspecting the vehicle as it approached and stopped.
Purple stains, like splashes of wet paint, coated the side and dripped onto the asphalt. A bright contrast to the dull white of the car. A cockroach crawled over the passenger door, looping around the handle.
The window rolled down.
“Need a ride?” a man asked.
“Huh?” Marko watched the cockroach go—he’d seen nothing like it. A dark orange shell with white spots, and more than a dozen legs. It crawled from the passenger door to the hood, out of his sight, and he looked up.
“You speak Russian, kid?” the man asked. “Or did I take the wrong path?”
“Yeah,” Marko said, “yeah. I need a ride. Moscow, if you could.”
The man swept his hand, motioning to the passenger door. Marko brushed violet-colored grass off of the seat. He glanced at the quarter empty bottle of vodka in the drink holder and tightened his seatbelt.
The man looked over a map laid out on the dashboard, the paper covered in dashes, twisting lines, and notes in a strange alphabet.
“Moscow…” he said, starting the car. “I know a shortcut. We’ll be there in ten minutes.”
The man laughed. There was alcohol on his breath. They passed by the forest, and Marko tried the button to lower the window. No luck. Waving him down had been a mistake.
“What brings you out here?”
“I'm coming back from my grandparent's house. They live far away. I forgot to ask them for bus money.” Marko tried the window again. “On second thought, sir, I get terrible motion sickness. I wouldn’t want to throw up in your car. You should let me walk.”
“It’s Andrei, kid.” He averted his eyes from the road and onto his map. “Don’t worry. It should only be seven minutes if I turn here…”
“Turn where?” Marko said. “There’s not another exit for-”
Andrei twisted the steering wheel, driving right into the forest. Marko cried out. He brought his arms up, ready for the car to collide with the trees, for the airbag to pop out and cushion him, for his legs to bend and break under the glove box-
It didn’t happen.
They drove onto a dirt path. The surrounding trees faded into nothing. A road sign in a foreign language loomed ahead. Numbers below the letters read 888. The sky, once a clear blue, was now midnight dark, with a full moon. Marko lowered his arms, exhaling.
The headlights switched on and Andrei laughed.
“You thought that was it, huh?”
“Where are we?” Trees faded back into view around him. Palm trees with long, purple leaves. Violet grass. Verdant green rivers. Marko craned his neck, looking out the rear window. He could no longer spot the road sign.
A rust-colored, ringed moon, replaced the silver one from before.
“Did you drug me?” he asked.
“Drug you?” Andrei continued to laugh, his hand tapping against the steering wheel. “With what? It’s a shortcut, that’s all.”
“To where? Where are we?”
“I don’t know. All I can tell you is that it’s much, much faster. A wormhole of sorts. Five more minutes on this path and we should be right outside Moscow like you never left.”
The car rocked over tree roots, the dense forestry extending onto the track. Glowing yellow eyes watched in the shadows. Palm trees blocked out any light from above.
The car’s headlights flickered on and off.
“Happens,” Andrei said, nodding to the radio. The digits on the clock switched at a rapid pace. “Anything electric starts to glitch around now. We should be out of here in a minute or two.”
The headlights flashed off. Darkness. When they flashed on, Marko glimpsed a creature on the path ahead, the size of a dog, slithering along. He could make out its purple skin and its six yellow eyes before the headlights failed again.
“Hey,” he said. “Watch the road.”
Andrei traced his finger on the map. The headlights flashed, the creature standing frozen ahead. Marko shook Andrei’s shoulder, and the man looked up and swerved—too late. The creature let out a high-pitched cry as they crashed into it.
It continued to squeal as Andrei drove on.
He sighed, stopped the car, and opened the driver’s door. “Its claws or teeth or something is stuck in the bumper.” He reached back to grab his vodka. “Come on, help me get it out. If I bring this back to Russia, it’ll destroy the ecosystem.”
Marko stepped out of the car. The acidic air made him wince. He walked over to the hood and stood beside Andrei. The headlights blinked at them, momentarily flashing the fright in the creature’s six yellow eyes, six dilated pupils darting from side to side.
One of the creature’s tentacles, ending in a hooked claw, pierced into the bumper. A second tentacle laid limp, dripping purple blood. A third and fourth flailed with failing strength. The creature let out another screech and Marko flinched, looking away.
“We have to put it out of its misery,” he called.
“Nature will do that for us,” Andrei tipped back the vodka. “We’ll leave it on the road. Take its left side. Grab it by the end of its tentacles and it won’t scratch you.”
The creature wailed as Marko grabbed it. The tentacles, slimy enough that he couldn’t get a proper grip, slipped from his hands. He cut his arm along the creature’s claw, his blood dripping to the ground. He recoiled and shook his wrist.
The wailing continued.
Branches snapped on Andrei’s side, trees shaking and rumbling. The thicket ripped apart as a second creature broke through, the size of the car, all six of its eyes dark red. It brandished its tentacles, cutting through the palm trees. Green phlegm spat out from its jaws as it roared.
The creature stuck in the car's bumper quieted.
Andrei took a swig of vodka, smiling. He pulled a dirty rag from his jacket pocket. He stuck it into the bottle, shook it, and produced a lighter.
“Cheers,” he said.
He flicked the lighter with a click, tipped it to the rag, then tossed the Molotov into the thicket. The bottle exploded into a rising wave of flame. It caught onto the massive creature’s oily skin, turning it into a blazing fireball. Marko squinted against the brightness of the flames while he tore the first creature from the bumper.
Distorted screams echoed through the forest. The two got into the car, and Andrei took a right after a minute’s drive—into another wall of trees, coming out in the woods near a public school. Moscow.
Back to daylight, only twelve minutes from when they left.
“The cut is barely that deep, kid,” Andrei said, stopping the car. “Walk it off.”
“Where were we?” Marko opened the door and stepped out. Fresh air. Green grass. The wailing still echoed in his head. “How did you find these…shortcuts?”
“Don’t know, but you’ve been through it now. Squint the next time you’re walking along the road. You might see things others don’t.”
“I’ll see them like you do?”
“Yeah, and bring a map, too. Draw them out, write them down, ride the unseen paths. You’ll save days of traveling. You might even get addicted to it.”
Marko nodded, taking off. Despite the cut across his arm, he thanked the man—he’d take it over a three-hour walk and sore feet. When he looked back, the car had disappeared back into the forest.
Back to the shortcuts.
- - -
With enough convincing, his parents lent him the car for his next trip. Marko drove down the quiet road, watching the right and narrowing his eyes. The trees split into two in his vision. A pathway opened between them.
It hadn't been there before.
He could save some time traveling through.