Aloysius dropped the phone in the passenger seat and, being cognizant of his situation, opened the car door to survey exactly where he was. The side-glare of the headlights lit up dense trees running parallel to the highway, although a breach was observed among them, and the crest of an embankment. This prospect set him maneuvering his Saturn. Once its lamps were positioned, he trudged up the slope on foot to investigate.
Scabrous earth crumbled under his shoes, presumably from where train rails and ties were pulled up. A dilapidated billboard pitched forward in the darkness on the downslope, yet hinted at a destination over unpromising miles of asphalt: PE -A-B O P T- UTT -ND MOTEL
Erosion had removed the mileage marker, but Aloysius returned to his car and carefully nudged it over the incline. He continued along this secondary road, and hoped the sign was not leading him astray.
Another unlit billboard loomed. The motorist slowed on nearing it, but his headlights turned up another advertisement succumbed to weather and time. He was immediately on top of a third sign and, sensing it in a similar state, aimed past it. A fourth sign sprang up in short order; he accelerated by it in a dare. Other billboards waited down the straightaway—too many and too close together. He was determined to ignore them, but picked up on something counterintuitive about how the shadows of telephone poles swept across the signage. They were not pushing out from the highway with his headlamps, but inward toward it. Suddenly one dropped across the road—the driver again swerved to avoid crash.
He got out of his car to find the same configuration of road sign, breach, and toppled tree. Past the roadblock lay more weed-buckled blacktop—only ablaze with shards of broken glass, of which Aloysius gave no account. His attention turned constructively to the embankment. It was darker than before: A shadow, with patient purpose, lurked in the woods beyond it. He gathered courage for a confrontation. “Who are you?” he cried into the phone. “What do you want?”
A snapping sound echoed in both the earpiece and branches in front of him. “— - — - - - —”
The trees along the roadside were so closely stitched together that he could do little more than scan up one cracking trunk and down another to pinpoint the precise location of the disturbance. No lateral movement was detected against the tree line, although the same could not be said about the darker limbs against the less-contrasted sky.
He dropped into the car, shifted the gear into reverse, and turned his high beams into the thicket. Climbing out, he stepped forthrightly into the glare and addressed his fear. “Show yourself!”
His shadow, with outstretched arms, was etched into the scenery in a crisscross of light and dark hatches. It seemed natural when another silhouette joined his on the stage. Grasping its half-human form, the provoker spun on his heels to find only straggling leaves twirling in his taillights.
The companion had slithered away, but something equally sinister moved overhead in the branches, barely caught in the light at all. At first Aloysius thought it was a joke, but the impossibility of it swiftly sank in. The grinning head of a horse was suspended in midair—
His cold skin flushed with a shot of blood, and he shrank from the impossible sight.
Then, like sheared timber, a spindly leg and hoofed foot curled down to the ground with an earthshaking thud; it was followed by another. The rest of the creature broke from the treeline to betray its staggering height. It looked spidery among the mostly naked trees, yet had otherwise been perfectly camouflaged. With the deceptive delicateness of a walking stick insect, it navigated the popping branches, articulating its joints in a spellbinding, marionette way. The beast seized on the man’s paralysis to begin flashing, stroboscopically, in and out of its fractured shadow. The luminous bursts dropped down in a shredded curtain, making the creature appear to move slower than it really was. A high-pitched, disembodied screech, reminiscent of rustling cicadas, also accompanied the light show. Its oscillating drone produced a similar time-dragging effect.
The theatrics were intended to disorient, with light and sound bracketing a rapid physical transformation. The monsterís morphing snout lengthened to brandish a mouth full of sickle-shaped, crimson teeth, while its expanding eyes, sallow in color, billowed like fiery bed sheets. It unleashed a bloodcurdling whinny and reared higher to graze the dark canopy crowning its head. Tubular hairs stiffened and retracted, exposing a semi-transparent mantis abdomen that fluoresced in agate shades of emerald, lavender, and deep saffron.
The monsterís display resembled a cuttlefish putting on dazzling paints to hypnotize prey, so much so Aloysius was affected, even enthralled. It appeared ready to pounce, yet continued to change. The patterns in its belly congealed to take on the form of human organs, including a beating heart. The skin, too, grew increasingly opaque; breast-like nodules sprouted.
Aloysius’ fading steps plumbed to find ground. He tripped over dead leaves clawing at his ankles, yet the momentum was enough to send him spinning to the car. A glance through the door glass turned up nothing against the moribund backdrop, although the shrill sound of the beast continued to carry through the forest in a whirling chorus. It revved up only to die away down a rabbit hole: The thing—whatever it had become—was again hidden.
The driver dove into his front seat, dropping the cell phone; it tumbled over the console to disappear in the dark floorboard; static drizzled out of it.
With no time to locate the device, the Saturn propelled off the scant shoulder. Aloysius shot up the embankment and sped away, exhaling only when his tires found blacktop and the line of the dark road. The static leapt from car, flittering in the whizzing-by telephone poles; one bowed like a leg. He was hurling by it when the form of a knee banged against the rear passenger door. Glancing in the rearview mirror, nothing emerged along the road to follow him, although the struck door bumped on its hinges.
The cursed highway threw up another billboard. This one was bright and legible: PEEK-A-BOO PUTT-PUTT HALF MILE
He looked over his shoulder to see the signage shrink away, and realized a draft from the loose door kicked up ashes in the backseat and sucked them out the gap.
Unable to account for his panic, he pulled off the road to arrest the hemorrhage. The suitcase had unclasped in the backseat and shifted forward into the floorboard. Cinders were hurriedly scooped into the urn, but it was taking too long. The motorist looked up on hearing the squeal of swerving tires—the ungodly scream crawled down the trees. He saw nothing until the Cadillac ambulance blindsided him with a flash of red light. The lit interior flushed out its passengers, all of whom wore ghoulish masks. Flesh blurred under a veiny membrane of blood before all the lights blinked out in the distance.
The shrouded vehicle peeled away with marked acceleration, and Aloysius, wrenched to his spine, returned to the driver’s seat. He poked in the floorboard for the phone, but fear as much as frustration forced him to abandon his search in favor of a need to keep moving.
The unraveling road was empty, and the timid reach of his headlights gave him the barest of heads-up. He halved the remaining distance to his uncertain destination, and then halved the distance again: Zeno’s Paradox had grown legs to pace his car. Still, the terrified man kept to his torpid pace in anticipation of more signs (and in hope of making his car as un-tempting a target as possible).
A whittled down shape of the ambulance emerged ahead and dashed this hope. It floated as a little ghostly ball on the bleak patch of road, clearly hanging back in a scheme; Aloysius’ car sank into the asphalt, defecating.
The Cadyís distance stayed fixed in a torturous taunt, like a tombstone bobbing from the end of a stick. It occasionally weaved in the black current, but then convulsed before slowing. It all but stopped, and for a fleeting second appeared vaporous; this was only a plume of smoke puffing out its tailpipe.
In a hiccup, the Cadillac tore away with another whine of tire, though what Aloysius thought was a cloud of exhaust was a dress—a wedding dress—blowing down the road to meet him. Just as his headlights caught the full whiteness of it, it took on the contours of a body crouching in his lane! The mumbling man jammed the brakes, but the gown was already under the front tires. The blow sent a blood-curdling tremor through the car’s chassis, and when the driver dared to peek behind him, the red-tinged dress rolled away down the pavement like a trampled carcass. It did not dim with the receding blacktop, but continued to glow brightly as a fire. Rising in a gust, it stiffened again with human form before scrambling down a crossroad. The crest of a hill cut off view of it, but the branches of surrounding trees, like luminous capillary veins, marked the dress’ progress.
The brakes were still not responding—and now the steering wheel did not work. The expanse beyond the dark shoulders was alive with a menacing choreography: Trees in the foreground appeared motionless, moving in lockstep with the car, while trees further away, against expectation, scurried like tumbleweed. A dilapidated barn erupted with a splatter of bug guts across the windshield. Whitewashed words dripped from its roof, and proclaimed: PEEK-A-BOO PUTT-PUTT NEXT EXIT
The rearview mirror was again braved—the barn had darkened to a speck. In the high corn beyond it, the glowing dress-like apparition had become a wobbly globe. It traveled in the same direction as his car, on a byway that paralleled his. The form was quickly dead even with his Saturn and mirroring its every fluctuation in speed. Its presence on the sparse landscape felt more like a candle flame reflected on the car window than an object in space.
Aloysius stared down the empty highway in a desperate attempt to ignore it, but sensed the form was getting closer, as the two routes were about to merge. Then, with absolute clarity, he realized—whatever it was—it was flying like a plane toward him. He jumped away from the door and screamed, “Jesus Christ! Save me!”
The headless, limbless torso of a woman crashed into the side of the car with a bone-shattering smack. White buttocks smashed hard against the window, making the glass explode with hairline fissures: The body exerted tremendous force on the shimmying vehicle.
Horrified, the motorist watched the fold at the ass widen. Fogging breath escaped the gap to reveal wet teeth—blood trailed away over blackened gums to pool at the doorframe. He babbled incoherently, craning his head to take in a huge piercing eye wedged between the stub of an arm and a hip crest. The monster stared through a backseat window! The remainder of its form morphed into long spidery legs in the taillights, which galloped to keep up.
Someone was abruptly at Aloysius’ side in the passenger seat… T H U M P ! T H U M P !
The car veered into the surreal scenery, and one after the other, hard, burning surfaces collapsed into a place too small and immediate for his body to follow.
Chapter Twenty-nine/ Back/ Contents Page
Copyright © 2007 Michael Teague. All rights reserved.