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I had always made it a point to avoid that isolated stretch of road like the plague. I’d heard so many stories about it, and even though I was certain that most of them were untrue, my disbelief did not squelch my fear of driving it. Urban myths and rumors emerged over the course of many years regarding the Coral Ridge Bypass. There were tales of a deranged feral man that supposedly roamed the area hunting other humans – tales of twin sisters that were killed in an accident decades ago, who would mysteriously appear in front of your car – tales of people vanishing after witnessing things they shouldn’t have seen, and so on.
My friends used to try to get me to ride through the bypass with them. “C’mon, Derek! Don’t be such a baby. Everyone should go through at least once.” They would tease me like that nearly every weekend, but I never relented. Unlike those who were actively seeking the thrill of exploring our local urban legends, I did not willingly wish to travel through the bypass. However, on one rainy night I had no choice as an eighteen wheeler had overturned on Highway 53 and my usual route home was completely closed-off.
I sat in my car watching the flashing red and blue lights a hundred feet ahead. My headlights exposed the metal ribbing on the underside of the semi’s trailer and my windshield wipers kept time, crisp as a metronome. The clock on my dashboard told me it was 1:32 AM. Just a few yards ahead and to my right was the turn-off. The reflective green street sign pointed into a black void in the otherwise dense woods. ‘Coral Ridge Bypass’, it stated, giving me more of the impression of a warning than that of helpful direction.
Turning around and going back the way I’d come was not really an option. If I did that I would have to drive about thirty-five miles out of my way in order to get home. ‘Maybe I can wait it out,’ I thought to myself. But it didn’t take long before I realized how foolish that was. It might take hours to clear the wreck.
A policeman approached me and signaled for me to roll down my window. “You’re going to have to take the bypass,” he said, leaning toward my open window. He was a tall, thin man with sunken blue eyes and dark sideburns. There was transparent cellophane stretched over his trooper’s hat which caused the raindrops to bead up and roll off of it.
“Is there any other way?” I asked.
“Not unless you turn around and backtrack to the interstate. It’s quite a ways further though.” He must have noted the look of concern on my face, so he added, “Don’t worry, son. Those are just stories people tell.”
I thanked him and resigned myself to facing my fears and taking the bypass. He motioned me forward and I slowly turned onto the desolate road. Tall trees towered overhead on both sides. They seemed to lean forward and blend together at the top, creating a tunnel effect. My headlights briefly exposed each massive trunk as I progressed deeper into the woods. I tried to stay focused on the pavement because if my gaze lingered on the woods beside me for too long, the trees took on unnerving shapes. Knotholes became gaping mouths – twisted branches became arms and hands attempting to prevent me from going any deeper – roots became feet, poised to break forth from the soil at any moment and step into my pathway.
I blinked my eyes forcefully to rid my mind of the frightening images. My windshield wipers began to squeak dryly on the window. I had no doubt that it was still raining heavily somewhere overhead, but most of the droplets were unable to penetrate the tree coverage. I dialed the knob back to an intermittent cycle with a much longer pause between swipes.
Every so often there was a break in the trees containing a narrow gravel road that led into the woods. I must have passed four or five of those. Undoubtedly, they were the driveways of reclusive landowners. Some had ‘No Trespassing’ signs posted – others had rusty metal gates across them. They didn’t have to warn me twice. There was no way I was going to take one of those paths, only to be greeted by someone on the front porch of a dilapidated trailer home brandishing a shotgun at me. No sir.
I had never seen so many twists and turns in a road in my entire life. The signs that warned of upcoming hairpin curves were old and barely visible in my headlights. Thankfully though, I could still make them out, since any turn with a speed limit of ten miles per hour had to be taken seriously, lest one drive off the low shoulder and come to rest wheels-up in the ditch.
I had just exited one such turn when my headlights glimpsed a scene that took me by complete surprise. To my right was another gravel drive, and off the road blocking the drive was a van. It appeared to be an older van, a late 1970s model maybe, and it had been cheaply painted in flat-black – probably with spray cans by the look of it. There were no side or rear windows, but the rear access doors were wide open, and there were two men standing at the back. All of the vehicle’s lights were off.
Startled by this scene, I slowed down, initially thinking that someone was having car trouble. The closer I got, I realized that the men were leaned over, struggling with something inside the back of the van. Whatever it was had been wrapped in some sort of tarpaulin or plastic trash bags. A plume of exhaust rose around them as the van idled with a low gurgle.
As I eased past, one of the men looked directly at me. He was thin, and had a full brown beard. He wore a flannel shirt and straw hat, and had a cigarette pressed tightly between his lips. His eyebrows sank as he gave me a look of disgust. The other man was bald, slightly overweight and wore denim overalls. I could not see his face.
I did not want to know what those two men were up to, so I sped up a bit and drove on. I could feel my elevated pulse throbbing in my neck and I wanted nothing more than to emerge from the desolate woods and back onto Highway 53.
“How much longer is this road?” I wondered aloud.
It seemed to go on forever, but eventually the trees thinned, the twists and turns straightened out, the rain returned to its prevalence on my windshield, and I saw an intersection ahead with a junction sign for Highway 53 reflecting in my lights. The guardrails lining the wide highway came into view. I breathed a sigh of relief as I slowed at the stop sign then turned right onto 53 and proceeded home.
– – – – –
I slept very lightly that night – if it could even be called sleep at all. It was more like drifting in and out of consciousness, accompanied by the occasional fever dream of the two men struggling with the wrapped object in the back of the van. I repeatedly saw the bearded man scowling at me as I crept past. I must have awoken in a cold sweat at least three times. The last awakening was at 3:54 AM. I remember because I looked over at my alarm clock after hearing the sound outside.
I lay there in bed and listened to the distant peels of thunder and the rain pounding on the roof. The thunder then took on a steady sound as if it was holding an endless note. The longer I listened, the more it dawned on me that it wasn’t thunder at all. What I was hearing was a car engine, except that its sound did not fade into the distance as a passing car’s would have. It seemed as if someone had stopped in front of my house.
I got out of bed and entered the bedroom across the hall, facing the street. At the window, I separated the blinds in a tiny sliver – just enough to peer through with one eye. Beneath the orange glow of the sodium vapor streetlamp was the black van, lights off, idling in the street in front of my house.
Instantly, my heart raced. Even though I was petrified, I watched the van intently. A thousand thoughts went through my head: How had they found me? What exactly had I witnessed in the bypass? What were their intentions toward me? I felt chilled, and my fingers that held the blinds began to tremble. I continued watching until I heard the engine of the van rev slightly as it moved slowly forward. The muffler had corroded past the point of being able to do its job properly, and it was almost as if I could hear each individual cylinder firing as the van continued at a snail’s pace down my street.
I knew they would have to come back past the house in a few seconds since my street ended in a cul-de-sac. I waited, hoping to get a glimpse of their license plate as they passed by. I heard the van before I saw it, then its silhouette appeared out of the shadows, and once again into the street light in front of my house. They slowed, but did not stop. I strained to read the license number, but could not make it out clearly. It’s possible that the plate had been tampered with. Once they were nearly out of sight, the driver turned on the lights. The houses ahead were washed in the yellow headlamps, and two small red taillight circles appeared just before they drove out of sight over the crest of the hill.
And all was quiet.
– – – – –
I dreaded having to drive home from work the following night. Working second shift was bad enough in and of itself, but with the added stress of the incident on Coral Ridge Bypass – and later, in front of my own house – I was terrified of nightfall. I came out of the factory just after 1:00 AM and panned the parking lot with much more scrutiny than normal. Once I deemed it safe, I proceeded to my car.
Highway 53 was wide open, and I pushed notably beyond the speed limit in order to get home and off of that dark stretch of road as quickly as possible. The radio was on, and I had it tuned to a station that was operated by the local public library. I liked it because it was commercial-free. At that time of night they ran a program called “Nightshades” that was mostly somber instrumentals. The host had a calm and soothing voice, and he spoke only a minimum of words between tracks. The show had a reputation for garnering a listenership whose vast majority consisted of people sleeping while radios played softly on their nightstands. Music to induce deep sleep, along with the occasional otherworldly dream.
A beautiful, albeit short, piano piece had just ended. “That track was ‘The Winter of 1539-1540’ and the artist was ‘Goldmund’,” the DJ stated in his smooth, sultry tone. He continued, “And here is a much longer piece with a much darker vibe. The artist is ‘Deathprod’ and the title is ‘Dead People’s Things’.”
At first I scoffed at what I thought was an overtly pretentious title. Until I heard the song.
The droning bass notes rose slowly into audible range and they continued to swell, ebb and flow for the remainder of my commute home. I had never heard such a dark and ominous piece of music before. It was trancelike, and it cast an incredibly disturbing aura over the already unsettling drive home. I should have changed the channel, but I was mesmerized. Along with the fading in and out of the low end there were also swirls of what I can only describe as the sound of ambient hiss inside a large pipe, then even higher-pitched squeals akin to someone playing a saw blade as a musical instrument.
This went on for nearly twenty minutes, and by the time it was over I had to snap myself back into reality. I was sitting in my driveway, car still running, headlights splashed harshly against my closed garage door. And I had no recollection of arriving there. A different song played on the radio. I pressed the button on my visor to open the garage door, and then pulled inside. As the door was closing behind me, I caught sight in my rear-view mirror of the black van passing by on the street toward the exit of the neighborhood. ‘Had they been watching me from the cul-de-sac?’ I wondered, ‘Or had they followed me home without my knowledge while I was distracted by that foreboding music?’
Panic overtook me once more. I rushed into the house and made sure all of the doors were locked. My heart did not calm down for the better part of an hour, until I finally had the courage to lie down in bed. I was, once again, in and out of sleep that night with visions of the van and the memory of the droning bass line from that sinister song washing back and forth in my head. It filled me with the sensation of impending doom.
– – – – –
Apparently I looked pretty haggard the next evening at work. A co-worker of mine named Simon approached me in the break room.
“Hey, Derek – you feelin’ alright, man?” he asked.
I looked at him with half-closed, puffy eyes. “Yeah, I’m okay,” I replied, then took a swig of strong coffee.
“You look exhausted. You’ve had to stop the line three times tonight. Normally you’re on top of it.”
“I just haven’t been sleeping well lately, that’s all.”
He gazed at me more intently and raised his eyebrows. I could tell that my explanation wasn’t good enough, so I continued, “I don’t know, Simon. It’s just that I…” I broke off and then tried again, “Do you ever get the feeling that you’re being followed?” As soon as it escaped my lips I regretted saying it. Now Simon was going to think I was losing my mind.
“No. How do you mean, exactly?”
“The other night I was forced to drive through the Coral Ridge Bypass, and there was this really old black van on the side of the road with these two guys loading something in the back-”
Simon interrupted me with a sarcastic laugh.
“Nice try, Derek. I’ve heard this one before. You don’t actually expect me to believe that old legend, do you?” he said.
I gave him a confused look. “What legend?”
Simon’s face changed. “Wait, you’re not joking? You actually saw the black van?” he blurted out. Then in a shocked whisper he added, “I didn’t think that one was real.”
“You’ve heard of it?” I questioned.
“I can’t believe you haven’t!”
I shrugged and shook my head back and forth impatiently, hoping he would get the point and fill me in. He did.
“Supposedly there were these two guys – brothers, I think – that used to ride around in this blacked-out van. This was back in, like, the early eighties. One night they had a little too much to drink, or maybe a little too much to smoke, if you know what I mean, and they hit a man that was jogging. I know, I know, it’s stupid to be out jogging on the bypass, right? But that’s how the story goes.
“Anyway, they took the body with them to get rid of it later, but another lady that was driving by at the time witnessed them packing up the body. They vowed not to let her get away, and they tracked her down and killed her, too.
“And the legend goes that if you see the van when you’re driving through the Coral Ridge Bypass, the guys will come after you, too. And they won’t give up until you’re dead.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “But that happened thirty-some-odd years ago,” I said. “How could they still be out there stalking people today?”
Simon leaned against a snack machine and crossed his arms. He breathed in deeply and exhaled long and slow. Finally, he said, “Derek, those guys are dead. They were killed in a shootout when the police came to arrest them for what they’d done to the jogger and the witness.”
I felt the stress mounting and rubbed my temples. I couldn’t believe my friends had never told me about this one.
Simon glanced at his watch, stood straight up and said, “I gotta get back to work. I seriously hope you’re joking with me, dude.” Then he walked out of the break room.
“I hope YOU are,” was all I could muster after the door had swung shut behind him and the room was empty.
The remainder of my shift was completely unproductive. So much so that my boss actually pulled me off the line and sent me home at 11:00.
My eyes were heavy on the commute home. I switched the radio to a classic rock station since the Nightshades program was only making me sleepier. I felt somewhat more alert after that, so I guess it worked to a degree. There were very few other cars on Highway 53, which allowed me to hum along at a good pace.
Suddenly I was blinded by a bright light in my rear-view mirror. I squinted, but tried my best to focus on the source. I was able to make out two headlights that had just switched on directly behind me. I had no idea how long this vehicle had been following me without lights, but I instantly knew it had to be the van, and I wasn’t about to let them run me down and kill me. I pressed the accelerator and put a bit of distance between us. The van matched my speed and nudged even closer than before.
Suddenly red and blue flashing lights appeared above the headlights, and I muttered a few choice words while I slowed my car to a stop on the side of the road. The cop must have been hiding in the dark on a side road and then pulled out behind me before turning his lights on.
The officer approached my window – the same officer with the hat and sideburns that worked the truck accident scene the other night.
“License and registration,” he commanded, dryly. There was a look of recognition in his eyes when he took the documents from me. “You’re out here quite often late at night, huh?”
“Yes sir, I work second shift at the cannery,” I said, pointing over my shoulder.
He gave the hint of a nod, but said nothing further about my job. He was busy writing on a clipboard. After a moment he asked, “In a hurry to get home tonight, son?”
I wanted to blurt out the whole thing – to tell him about my sighting the other night, about the van that I thought might be stalking me, about how I thought I was in imminent danger and needed his help. But I knew it would sound crazy. Not to mention, nothing threatening had actually happened yet. There would be nothing he could do.
“Yeah, I’m a little tired,” was my only reply.
He spent a few more minutes back in his cruiser before returning to my window and letting me off with a warning and a promise to drive safely. After he pulled out from behind me, I let out a sigh of relief and eased back onto the highway. I took it easy the rest of the way home.
I topped the hill on my street, and as I approached my house, a wave of fear washed over me. The black van was backed into my driveway, all the way up against the garage door, lights off, just waiting for me. My heartbeat quickened as I passed up my house and headed toward the cul-de-sac, hoping that I could get turned around before they blocked me in.
I kept watch over my shoulder and in my mirrors while I swung the car around at the end of my street. I sped up and looked over at the van as I approached my house again. The van’s headlights switched on just as I passed my driveway, and I saw it lunge forward. It turned onto the street behind me and I pressed the accelerator further down just before cresting the hill.
The van closed in on me as I cut corners and navigated the turns in my neighborhood with reckless abandon. I darted out onto Highway 53, narrowly missing the wooden fence at the subdivision’s entrance. The van barreled along right behind me. My speedometer needle reached uncharted territory in the straight-aways of the highway. I hoped with everything in me that Officer Sideburns was still patrolling this stretch. My heart sank when I passed the spot where he’d pulled me over just moments earlier and there was no sign of him.
I checked the rear-view mirror constantly. At one point, and for no apparent reason, the headlights began to fade into the distance. Soon they were merely two small yellow dots on the horizon. I eased up on the pedal and coasted to a much more comfortable cruising speed. With the threat out of the way for the time being, my thoughts turned to my next steps. I had no idea where I was going to go from here – home was not safe. And how would I ever escape these guys if what Simon told me was true? And if they were, in fact, ghosts, could they really harm me? There were so many unknowns and the more I thought about it, the angrier I became. I didn’t ask for any of this. I didn’t even want to drive through the bypass in the first place.
As I rounded a long sweeping curve several minutes later, I was jolted out of my thoughts by the sight of the van parked across the road, blocking both lanes, headlights pointed into the tree line on my left. I mashed the brake pedal. The car nose-dived and skidded to a halt about twenty feet away from the van. I could hear the choppy idle of its massive engine. I had no idea how they’d gotten around me so quickly. Either they knew another shortcut, or they really were supernatural beings.
The van began moving forward slowly and straightened up to face me directly. As they drew closer I knew that I didn’t have time to turn around in order to go back the other way. My only chance at escape was the narrow road that entered the break in the tree line just off to my left – the Coral Ridge Bypass. It’s almost as if they were forcing me to go back there. Before I could give myself time to second-guess the decision, I sped off onto the bypass. The van followed close behind.
I traveled at an uncomfortably fast pace. I was in no way familiar enough with the bypass to anticipate all of its dangerous twists and turns. The ghosts in the van had the definite advantage in that department – this was their home turf. Because of that, they were never more than a few feet behind me, headlights illuminating my car’s interior and blinding me in the mirrors.
The tree trunks were a blur. I had no time to see the twisted faces and gnarled arms hidden within them. I sped on, over small hills and valleys, through tight curves and broad ones. A couple times my tires left the pavement and kicked up dirt and gravel. Eventually, my luck ran out when I barreled into an insanely sharp hairpin turn. I could not slow down fast enough and my sweaty hands clenched the steering wheel tightly as I skidded off into the embankment.
My car came to rest at a forty-five degree angle, its passenger side tires off in the ditch. I took a quick mental inventory and determined that I was okay. I didn’t feel pain anywhere – no blood had escaped me, as far as I could tell. My engine had cut off, but my headlights still shone brightly into a pile of dead leaves and overgrown brush.
In my mirror the headlights of the van shone brightly. It idled motionless directly behind me. I frantically searched my car for some sort of makeshift weapon. I had a tire iron, but naturally, it was in the trunk. I was rummaging through the glove box for a flashlight when the window next to me was shattered violently by the man in the straw hat who was wielding a large metal crowbar. Shards of glass sprayed my head, neck and shoulders. Before I could react, the man reached inside, pulled up the door lock, yanked my door open, and pulled me out of the car by my left arm.
I was thrown out onto the street and I lay there breathing heavily as the man stood over me, crowbar readied to pummel my face at any moment. The large, bald man joined him. All I could see where their dark figures silhouetted by the van’s headlights. Aside from the van’s rumbling engine, all was quiet for a moment. The one with the straw hat threw a cigarette onto the pavement and ground it with his boot.
As terrified as I was, the only thing my mind could think at that time was, ‘These guys are not ghosts. They’re as real as I am.’ Which led me to the fact that Simon had apparently made up the legend on the spot based on what I told him I saw out here.
“That little prick!” I said out loud, but not intending to.
“What did you say to me?” the straw hat guy demanded. I chose not to repeat it.
He took a step forward so that he was lumbering over me with the metal bar suspended above my head. “How much did you see the other night?” he barked.
“I didn’t see anything. Just that you were pulled off to the side of the road,” I managed to say between gasps. After a moment I added, “How did you find me?”
“Let’s just say I have enough connections to trace a license plate,” he said. The man in the straw hat looked over at the bald guy, as if seeking approval to beat me senseless.
“He could be telling the truth,” the bald man declared matter-of-factly. Then, after thinking over what they’d already done to me, he said, “but we’ve got to finish what we’ve started.”
Straw Hat Man lunged forward and raised the crowbar high overhead. I rolled quickly to my right and the bar landed just behind my back, sparking as it struck the pavement with a loud clang. During the moment that he attempted to reset his swing, I was able to scramble to my knees, then my feet, and run into the coverage of the dense trees.
I made my way deeper into the woods and stopped behind a wide tree trunk. I peered back in the direction of the van. The two men were still standing in the beams of the headlights, yelling and arguing with one another. I tried to remain as quiet as possible. I could not make out everything that was said, but I was able to gather enough of their words to determine that what they’d been involved in recently included the elimination of several witnesses that were threatening to expose their meth ring.
Suddenly there was a rustling of movement in the foliage off to my right. I stood still as a statue and listened in that direction. The movement became more pronounced and frantic until finally I saw a figure burst out from the tree line and into the street where the van was parked. The two men immediately stopped arguing and turned to face the beast.
At first I could not make out exactly what it was since the creature approached the men on all fours. It had the appearance of a crouched-over man, but it moved much too quickly on its hands and feet to be entirely human. It had an immense amount of facial hair – so much that it was difficult to make out any distinct features of the face. When the beast stood upright to confront the men, that’s when I knew that I was seeing the famed feral man. He was tall and incredibly muscular. It was hard to be certain from my vantage point, but it appeared that he wore no clothing.
The deranged man pounced onto the criminal with the straw hat and crowbar first. The bald one took a few steps backward and watched helplessly. The metal bar clanged against the pavement and its echo rang out into the woods. I heard cries of torment the likes of which I never want to hear again. Soon the man’s body lay limp in the road and his straw hat came to rest atop a pool of blood a few feet in front of him.
The creature turned its attention to the bald guy, who was attempting to enter the driver’s door of the running van. It was of no use as the wild man grabbed his left arm so hard that I can only assume, based on the scream, that his shoulder was dislocated. But the screams were short-lived. After several more seconds of clawing and tearing, the large man collapsed to the ground.
With his fresh kills completed, the feral man grabbed one of the bald man’s ankles in his left hand, then he took one of the other man’s ankles in his right. He dragged the corpses off of the street and disappeared into the thick, dark woods, leaving two streaks of red on the pavement. I didn’t want to think about what he was going to do with the bodies. I stood in my wooded hiding place for what seemed an eternity with my pulse in my throat and an acidic taste in my mouth. The only sound was the low rumble of the van’s engine still idling.
I knew that my car was incapacitated, so after enough time had passed that I felt safe enough to emerge from the woods, I made my way to the van, got into the driver’s seat, and headed directly for the police station. In the cargo area behind me was a pile of large black plastic bags filled with things I didn’t want to see. The smell was so unbearable I wanted to vomit. Tears filled my eyes, and I wasn’t sure if it was due to the air inside the van, or because of what I had just experienced.
I began trying to piece together a story that the police would readily believe. I feared they would dismiss me as crazy if I attempted to convince them that I knew at least one of the legends of the Coral Ridge Bypass to be true. I had seen him with my own eyes. I also hoped they didn’t try to place the blame on me for whatever brutal atrocities were contained in the back of the van. But those things could all be dealt with in due time. For the time being I was just glad to be alive, and I couldn’t wait for the bypass to empty back out onto Highway 53.