I know this road better than I know myself. I know each of Interstate 85’s 250 odd miles; I know that it takes me an average of 3 hours and 26 minutes to drive west, from Charlotte to Atlanta, and an average of 3 hours and 29 minutes to make the same trip going eastward. I know the price of gas at a dozen stands, and the closing hours of each fast food shack and greasy diner. I know the curves of each low hill and I know each stand of pine and oak trees. I know the stretching dark of the long winter nights and the wet heat of the summer breeze. I know these things well because they are the totality of my existence now.
I know the names of each exit, westward and east. Batesville, Poplar Springs, Spartanburg. They tick through my head as I pass, but the Silver Creek Road exit is never among them. In three years of this endless loop, it has never appeared again. If I ever begin to doubt that it will, then I have nothing left.
The Silver Creek Road exit doesn’t exist on any map, or at least, it no longer does. It may have once, but like the road itself, it has been razed from the earth and from all memory and record. At the beginning, I spent long anxious days poring over old surveying maps and neighborhood planning documents, searching in vain for any sign of the road, or the exit I know I had taken. When there was nothing left in the libraries and city halls to comb through, no meek county official left to interrogate, wide-eyed and frothing, then I began the drive.
I’ve been through two cars, and have burned through my savings and now survive off a stack of rapidly vanishing credit cards. I have no address to receive bills, and no intention of paying, and have been filling my trunk with small plastic gallon jugs of gas, while the cards are still accepted. When this filthy and battered Oldsmobile gives up the ghost at last, I suppose I will have to learn to hitchhike.
I first took the Silver Creek Road exit three summers ago, on that last night that I was with Bobbie. I have in my head just a few frozen frames of that ride left, her black curls bouncing like springs in the evening breeze, her gapped toothed and freckled smile, and the slow summer crossing into night.
We’d made that drive together a dozen times, between our apartment in Atlanta and her brother in Charlotte. There was nothing remarkable that night. We simply ran low on gas and took the first exit we came across. I remember vividly passing beneath the green and sparkling white letters of the exit sign, and onto the sharp curve of the road.
The street turned perpendicular from the light and noise of the highway into inky darkness of the pine trees. Nothing remarkable to separate it from a hundred other country roads, but as the lights of the car penetrated the darkness, a vague and trembling unease passed through me. The tall rustling pines seemed black even under the blue white of the headlamps, and the road began to rapidly degrade, becoming pocked and uneven just a few dozen yards in.
All the roar and glare from the highway seemed swallowed up behind us, and there were no lights ahead of us for as far as we could see. My insides felt tight and knotted, and I turned to Bobbie. She had her skinny legs tucked to her chest and looked at me, quizzically, one eyebrow raised, with a small crooked smile. Her small bravery seemed to dissipate the chill that had been steadily rising in me.
I looked forward to the road, I felt a sudden sharp pressure on my chest. Stretching out in front of the wan light of the headlamps, the road ended. There was a small field of shattered asphalt slabs, and then the forest swallowed up every trace under a blanket of rotting pine needles. Something twinkled brightly between the trees, and I strained to pick it out of the darkness. It was the smooth chrome of a bumper, attached to a pitted and rusting car, completely enclosed by the towering pines.
A wave of panic and disorientation crawled down my scalp and my knuckles went white on the wheel. Bobbie placed her hand on my shoulder and gently squeezed once.
“Cal,” she said, firm and evenly, “we need to turn around now, honey.”
There was a tremulous quality to the last word, as the surreal darkness seemed to further constrict around us. I heard her take a little gasp of air. I began to turn the wheel when I realized how narrow the road had become. It had been two lanes when we started, I was sure of this, but the forest seemed to be pressing against both sides of the car, far to narrow to turn around. Blood pounded in my temples, and I threw the car into reverse. The boughs of the trees scraped against both sides, soft whispering scratches from the needles and the soft thuds of thicker branches.
Bobbie held her hand on my knee, calming and reassuring even as panic threatened to overwhelm me. I could see the highway moments later, a thin cloud of hazy illumination over the rise behind us, and the forest seemed to part like curtain. Bobbie released her held breath and giggled softly, and I felt a wave of elation wash over me. I turned to her to share relieved smiles, and I locked with her dark eyes when the siren sounded, once and sharp in the silence, and bright blue and red strobes flashed through window.
The police cruiser was parked in the center of the road, crouched low and silent like a predator. The familiar red and blue flicker bathed the street in weird crooked shadows. As I turned off the engine, there was the slam of a car door and I could hear the heavy thud of boots on the road, pacing towards us.
The comforting normalcy of the sight of a police officer began to drain away as he approached in the dark. He carried no flashlight, and I saw his gloved hands hanging straight at his sides in the side mirror as he walked towards me. He was dressed in thick winter wear, with his high collar turned up, and his hat pulled low. He approached the window, and as he leaned straight from the waist to fix his black and beady eyes on mine, I realized just how thin and tall he was.
“License and Registration.” His voice was muffled and thick with a strange and choked drawl, almost unintelligible, and his lips seemed to move in manner counter to the shape of his words. The summer night air around him seemed to grow even warmer. There were no sounds, no wind in the pines, no chirp of insects.
I was mesmerized by the strangeness of what seemed, for all the world, to be an absurd imitation of a man. For the second time in as many minutes, I wondered fleetingly if I was dreaming. I could see now that he had no badge, and was simply dressed in unremarkable black clothes.
The overwhelming fog of dread and panic seemed to condense all at once around me, and singular animal command to flee, at once, drove my hands forward towards the keys.
He was quicker. One black gloved fist slammed into my temple, and a shower of stars exploded over my left eye, and the world tipped sideways.
I remember him dragging me from the car, the shocking heat in his grasp seeming almost to burn. I remember hearing Bobbie’s screams and seeing in dizzy glimpses her brief flight, before being swept into those inhumanly long and slender arms. One glove came off in the struggle and I saw the pale white hand, like an immense knobby spider, each leg tipped with a black and curved talon. The world swam around me, wild and burning, and I struggled to move my limbs.
Bobbie was limp in his arms as he approached me again, and I struggled weakly to my feet. Our eyes met in the red and blue strobe; he looked nothing like a man now, his once pale mockery of humanity was stretching and distending away into some unthinkable shape. He did a very human thing then, and smiled, lips peeling back to reveal rows of thin white needles.
I was running before I knew it, bolting dizzy and weaving down the road. I was vaulting across the shoulder of the highway when my rational mind clawed it’s way to the surface. Coward! it screeched at me. My legs shuddered to stop, and sudden painful guilt flooded my lungs like fluid and stole my breath. Bobbie’s face loomed in my vision and I felt a profound and clear shame pressing down on me.
That’s when the car struck me, sliding on locked and screeching tires. I was tossed into the concrete median, striking the back of my skull. I woke up three days later, wrapped in plaster and flooded with morphine.
Gaffney, Blacksburg, Kings Mountain. The exits pass by, each one decreasing the chance of seeing Silver Creek Road exit on this go around. It was impossible to accept in those first few days of maddening research that Silver Creek Road had simply vanished, and so I made the drive myself, carefully reading each sign. When it failed to manifest itself, I made the drive again, this time at night. And then again.
Sometimes there’s a zen-like quality to the repetition, the familiar patterns of predictability and order. The immutable order of the land, the locked procession of towns and trees is comforting as it continues to grind my hope away like a millstone. Most days, I can believe and accept that Bobbie is gone. There is always that shadow of doubt, that crystalline thread of hope, but it feels hollow in my hands now.
There is one thing I must believe: if it appeared to us once, it will to me again. And if I can find it, that pale horror in a man’s skin, I will kill it. If the bullets fail, I need only a few moments to ignite the trunk’s cargo, and to lure murdering thing to the me.
I swear to the stars, I will never stop looking.
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