Today is Thursday, June 16, 2022, and I don’t know where I am. I’m parked on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, and I’m not even sure this is still Louisiana. I haven’t had a bar of service all day, I’ve been driving for nine hours, and the only thing I want to do is sleep, but I’m afraid to close my eyes. Staring at this screen is only making it worse, but I need the distraction; none of this makes sense.
My house is a thirty minute drive to town if you take the highway, but in any other direction – you can ride the backroads for hours; most aren’t even on the map. When I was younger, Mom would take me riding on summer evenings, and we always found new routes to explore. That’s also how I learned to drive, and after getting my license, I started going more often. Sometimes, I would bring friends, but for the most part it’s something I enjoy doing alone – especially after Mom died; she was killed by a drunk driver six years ago.
I’ve never seen a house or more than a handful of other vehicles out here; it’s perfect for camping. I’ve stayed overnight more times than I can count and always felt perfectly safe; it’s almost like being the only person in the world. The only difference with this trip was that damn tunnel.
Life has been hard lately, and only having one job on the books doesn’t help. There was nothing on this wedding’s menu that could be cooked the day before, so, instead of doing anything productive – I convinced myself to go for a drive… which was clearly a mistake.
There’s a beautiful, crystal-clear pond that became my go-to place for quick trips or days I brought someone along. It’s not very far, and I know every road in between… or thought I did…
Leaving the pond, there should only be two ways to go – back home or further into nowhere – but then I saw a third option! While turning the truck around, I found myself staring at a paved road hidden behind the tree-line. While it’s understandable to miss when driving past – I’ve been to that pond a thousand times and always turn around in the same place; this shouldn’t have been my first time seeing it, but I was too excited to think more of it.
A closer look revealed only shrubs and weeds blocking the way, so I decided to drive straight through. A new path so close to home was too big of a deal to pass up; of course, that feels incredibly ignorant to say now…
I got through the brush easily, and after a mile it cleared up again, but six miles after that – I knew it was time to turn back. That’s when I finally saw the end of the road. Ahead was an overpass with what looked like old train tracks, and what I thought was a dead-end was actually a tunnel running beneath it.
At first, it looked too small to drive through. I only wanted to get my headlights close enough to see inside, but then the road did keep going; I could see daylight at the other end. The tunnel itself was damp, and the air smelled musty, but it was completely empty. When I came out of the other side, the road stretched ahead for miles with occasional turns-off’s on both sides.
It should have been impossible to get lost by going straight; I should have been able to turn around at any point and drive directly back to the pond. I still don’t understand why that isn’t the case…
I had hoped to find a landmark to use on the next visit, but after an hour of nothing but random cut-offs – I realized how late it was and finally turned back. Everything looked exactly the same as far as I could tell; I have no clue where I went wrong, but an hour and a half later I was still cruising with no sign of that tunnel. If anything, I was driving even faster than before; it doesn’t make any damn sense! I drove for another thirty minutes before stopping completely. I had to pee and needed time to think without wondering if I was headed even further away from home.
If I had made even a single turn – I could believe being lost, but the idea of turning back after driving in a straight line felt… unnatural. It would mean hours of retracing my steps only to turn around again when that didn’t work. How many hours would be wasted covering the same ground? But then, there’s no choice because something is obviously wrong! It’s maddening!
I’m still stuck in that hellish thought-loop, but I couldn’t just stay on the side of the road. In the end, I turned around once again – this time going much, much slower. The only way I could imagine getting lost was if the road had split somewhere when I wasn’t paying attention.
I came to a rolling stop at every turn-off and even got out a few times, but there was absolutely no chance I merged off any of them. By the time I made it back to my original stopping point – the sun was starting to set, and my brain fed me whatever I needed to hear to avoid turning back a third time. I figured Mom and I had only been able to spend so much time on the backroads because we took the small, curvy trails that never really led anywhere; now, I was traveling in a straight line – it had to lead somewhere.
All I needed to do was make it to the next town – or maybe not even that far if I could find a spot with cell service – but now it’s almost midnight, and I stopped because the road suddenly ended… or, at least the pavement did. There’s nothing but a long, dusty trail left, and there’s no chance of finding a signal that way; I need to wait for morning and check out some of the cut-offs. Nothing about this—
I wonder if I’ve been reported as missing… I’m sure I have; how could I not be? Surely, the backroads are the first place they’ll look, right? I’m sure it is… Sweet fire-shits, I thought I was going to die last night.
I was lying across the backseat, writing, when I heard something moving around in the forest. I assumed it was an animal until it broke through the tree-line, and the unmistakable sound of a shoes scraping against concrete made me drop the phone.
There was a half-second of euphoric relief as I imagined myself being rescued by a kindly, old farmer before my body went numb with dread. People volunteering with search parties didn’t wander through the woods alone at night – without flashlights! This person hadn’t driven there, either; I would have heard an engine.
I didn’t know what the hell to do; my first instinct was to jump in the driver’s seat and run for it, but then I imagined bullets flying through the windows… It seemed reasonable to think a person skulking through a dark forest would be armed. I wanted my pistol from the glove compartment more than anything, but my arms refused to obey. The footsteps were moving slowly like someone was checking out my truck, and when they turned to walk along the passenger side – my body finally moved.
Without the phone’s light it was too dark to see anything, but as I slowly inched forward – the footsteps paused next to the front, passenger door, and my heart stopped along with them. I hesitated with my hand on the glove compartment’s handle wondering if the light would come on when I realized something that shot chills down my spine. I hadn’t locked the doors after using the bathroom…
Instead of fumbling for the controls, I felt for the knob and gently pushed it down. At the same instant, the dull thud of a locked handle being pulled broke the night’s silence like a gunshot, and there was no further caution in my movements. I ripped open the glove compartment, grabbed my gun and racked one into the chamber as the sound of several footsteps fled back into the forest.
There had been nothing to indicate multiple people were outside, but there was no mistaking it, now; feet were skidding across the pavement as others were already tearing through the thick brush, and I threw myself into the driver’s seat. The headlights came on just in time to reveal the last two figures vanished into the darkness.
I was in tears with relief over the fact I had turned around before parking, and it wasn’t because of forethought but fear; just looking at that long, dirt road made my stomach clench. As for the group of crazies… I don’t know, it might be time to entertain the possibility that I’m the one who’s crazy…
I only caught a quick glimpse as I sped away, but those people resembled terminal cancer patients with animalistic movements. They were sickly thin and hunched over like gorillas but moved with deceptive speed. Thanks to the adrenaline, I was wide-awake and traveling faster than I should have been, but I wanted as much distance between myself and those… people… as possible.
After driving a few miles, my brain slowly began formulating coherent thoughts again. I think it’s safe to say my new friends don’t have motorized transportation, but I drove for almost an hour before stopping. If I didn’t close my eyes, I was going to fall asleep at the wheel, and – if I wreck – I’m dead. There were three hours before dawn, so I set an alarm, passed out, and was somehow still alive when it sounded.
I woke to a foggy morning, and the long road ahead served as a bleak reminder of my situation. Mother Nature called, and I was starving, but luckily there were a few basic supplies in the truck. After eating two power bars, I somehow managed to stick with water instead of downing the bottle of whiskey – and thank goodness, or I wouldn’t have it now!
The shit I’ve seen today is enough to make that gun look mighty appetizing. All goddamn day I kept on driving straight down that same road – the way I should have been going in the first place. I didn’t care if it took twelve hours to find the next town – I wasn’t going to start turning down a bunch of random roads that could take me in circles.
By 9:00, I had seen nothing but trees and grassy clearings. My stomach was growling louder than my music, and I was barely containing my anger when a familiar beeping sent me soaring over the edge. When I finally regained a modicum of control – my throat was raw and my face looked as red as it felt; the gaslight was on, and the possibility of dying out here became very real, very fast.
When I came around the next curve, I thought I was hallucinating. A small gas station suddenly appeared in the distance, but there was no way I had driven farther than yesterday, and I definitely hadn’t passed it without noticing. As I came closer, my heart sank when I realized it was abandoned. There were no other cars, lights, or signs – just old pumps and a dark store.
I parked anyway – just to think for a minute – and continued to be surprised. The building looked like it hadn’t been touched in twenty years, yet the pumps looked as if they were installed last week. I got out to stretch my legs, and the one next to me turned on – including its tv!
It shouldn’t have been possible, but that hardly matters in this place. Whether I was hallucinating or not, I wasn’t going to waste the opportunity. Even more astonishing than the fact it worked was the woman on tv. She was giving a local news and weather report like what you would see at a normal gas station.
“It’s a beautiful, sunny day on the Paved Backroads! The last of the morning’s fog will be clearing up shortly, and we’ll have a high of 98 this afternoon. Those transitioning to Dirt Roads should show due caution as we’ve had significant rise in Stranded sightings. Thank you for choosing Last Stop Station; until next time – safe travels!”
I didn’t understand half of what she said, and there was plenty more I can’t remember. If I find another one, I’m going to have my phone ready to record; thank goodness I have a car charger or I wouldn’t even have that by now.
After refueling I decided to take a look at the store; I was completely out of food and on my last bottle of water. I would have taken anything that wasn’t poisonous, but I was shocked to find water, soups, and canned fruit – simply there for the taking. While those were fully stocked – there were no snack foods, soft drinks, or random accessories. If the can’s sell-by dates weren’t so recent, I would think that stuff had sat there for years.
There was nowhere to cook the soup, no phone and no cash register, either. Everything about that store was just… off, but as strange as it was – I didn’t want to leave; it was nice to finally stretch my legs and to be out of the truck longer than a bathroom break. Unfortunately, I couldn’t afford to waste time hanging out in an abandoned gas station. In the end, I compromised by staying long enough to eat. I tried not to pin my hopes on someone else stopping by, but I found myself watching the road more than I care to admit.
My original idea was to find a makeshift pot and build a fire, but then I remembered some of my camping gear was still in the truck! With my hot-plate – the only hard part was opening the cans with a dull pocket knife.
As expected, no one came, but I couldn’t waste any more time there. At that point, I expected to spend the rest of the day on the road and convinced myself to take some supplies; before I knew it, I’d robbed the place blind, and I hope the police come looking! They won’t, but I can dream.
I felt better with a full meal on my stomach and a truck full of free supplies, but it’s hard to keep a cool head when you’re coming up on your second night of being lost in the middle of nowhere. I eventually drove straight into the sunset until once again being forced into a sudden stop when the pavement ended. The way forward was yet another long, dusty trail, and this one inspired the same cold dread as the last.
Logic told me the weird, pale people couldn’t be way out there, too, but I wasn’t taking any chances. I turned back and drove for another hour before stopping for the night. After eating a can of peaches, I started writing, and now, I can’t stop thinking about that lady on that little tv. She was talking about these roads like they were their own town or something, and I want to hear that part about being stranded again; maybe I’m not the only one who’s had this happen.
Either way, I’ve had enough for one day; I need more than a few hours of sleep. Staying on this road isn’t an option anymore; tomorrow, I’ll need to choose one of the cut-offs.
There’s no question – I’m not in Louisiana anymore; I’m not even in the real world. I met someone this afternoon. I don’t think he’s real; he’s either a hallucination or a demon – I’m just not sure which. I had essentially chosen a cut-off at random when I couldn’t find the gas station again, and twenty miles later there was a man walking along the shoulder.
I was almost too afraid to stop, but he got on his knees in the middle of the road – begging. In the end, I needed someone to talk to more than I cared about the possibility of being murdered. He claims to know a little about what’s going on here, and though his story is completely unbelievable – I can’t come up with an alternative.
He doesn’t know how or why things are the way they are, but he got here by driving through a tunnel just like I did, except he was in Pennsylvania. If he hadn’t told his story first, I wouldn’t have believed him; it sounds too much like my own. The only difference is what happened after he ran out of gas. Since he started a quarter tank – he had no idea anything was wrong yet.
A service station appeared around the next curve – exactly as it had for me – and based on his description it sounds like the same one. The pump’s tv came on, and after a brief weather report, there was another confusing public service announcement.
“…And don’t forget to stock up for tomorrow. As usual, our Stations will be closed for Sunday – no exceptions. Please ensure all persons are cleared from the premises by no later than 11:59PM, and thank you for choosing Last Stop Station; until next time – safe travels!”
After filling his tank, he went inside to find a nearly empty store and only then realized there were no other cars or people in sight. Since the pump worked, he reasoned the store must be open, and worried something may have happened to the clerk. Rob went outside to search for a signal, and when he was unsuccessful – he noticed the store was at the bottom of a steep rise.
There was no trail, but he was able to make it up fairly easily; unfortunately, he still couldn’t get reception. Determined to drive back to town, he made his way down the slope only to find the store and his car gone! He swears he walked in a straight line and found the road easily, but it was empty. If it weren’t for my own experiences these last few days – I couldn’t have believed it, but now I definitely do… Assuming Rob is actually real, of course.
He had no choice but to start walking, and he headed in the direction he believed would take him to town. Several hours later, he still hadn’t seen another car or store, and the sun was beginning to set. That’s when he ran into Bonnie and Clyde… at least, that’s what they called themselves. They were stopped at their own gas station, and Rob ran straight inside to tell his story, but the couple didn’t want to hear it.
Clyde held Rob at gunpoint while Bonnie loaded their van; the couple wouldn’t give him a ride, but the man was willing to answer a few questions while he waited. Based on what this guy told Rob, there are three stages to the Backroads – each more dangerous than the last. The Paved Streets are the outskirts and make up Stage 1. The Dirt Roads are Stage 2 and lead deeper into the maze – while Stage 3 is tire tracks in the grass, and the heart of the maze. The entrance can be found almost anywhere in the world if you venture deep enough into nowhere, but the exit can only be found in Stage 3.
Gas Stations only appear when a vehicle is low on fuel, and they disappear the moment you leave. Had Rob climbed the hill before filling his tank – he would still have a car. Thank goodness I have the camping gear, or I would have made the same mistake when trying to heat my soup.
The only exception to this rule is Sunday; if you run out of fuel while the store is closed – you’ll have to sit there until it reopens. Anything that was inside when it disappeared will still be there except for people. We don’t know what happens to them, but Clyde said there used to be four people in their group. The other two decided to see where the place went when it disappeared, but when it came back – only their bags and clothes were left behind.
The stores supposedly have beer and junk food in Stage 2, and that alone has me interested. I finished my whisky last night, and I don’t think I can handle this place sober. I would already be on my way now if it wasn’t past midnight.
Compared to the last two stages, the Paved Streets are fairly safe until the transition to dirt; that’s where the Stranded like to lurk and what Rob was on his way to becoming before I found him. The ones who lose their vehicles can’t make gas stations appear and eventually turn to the forest for shelter; they hide deep in the dark woods during the day, and only come out at night. The lucky are able to join an existing group or form their own. They need enough members to ambush travelers, but not too many to feed. Those who are rejected get eaten, and those who try to survive alone – starve. Eventually, they begin to look like the ones I saw, and had I been asleep with my doors unlocked – I would have become their dinner.
As for Stage 2 itself, Rob only knows that something hunts the roads at night, and when he asked Clyde about the final Stage, the man went white as a sheet and refused to answer any more questions. As the couple got back into their vehicle, they apologized for their drastic behavior stating they simply couldn’t risk taking on a stranger. Rob is bitter about it, but I don’t blame them. If I hadn’t been alone and desperate, I would never have stopped.
From what it sounds like, people try to find the exit in Stage 3 and the ones who survive the failure resolve to a life on the Paved Streets. I’ve been thinking about it all evening, and I would rather die than live the rest of my life out here. The fact I don’t want to spend six days a week inside a gas station upset Rob pretty bad. We argued for three solid hours until I pretended to agree with him. He repeated his same argument with slightly different wording like I was simply too stupid to understand; I was sick of it, but more importantly, I was starting to suspect Rob would crack me over the head and steal the truck if he didn’t get his way.
Since the Stations will be closed tomorrow, I made sure to run out of gas this evening. I told Rob three times to let me get my phone ready before he got out, but the bastard didn’t listen. Before I could put the truck into park, he jumped out and rushed into the store. I heard the tv start the second his door was open, but he was completely oblivious. I panicked and missed whatever it was saying while fumbling with my phone. The only part I got recorded was the, “…until next time, safe travels” bullshit.
I’m grateful for the information Rob has shared, but I’ve decided to go ahead alone. I wish I would have thought to leave him at the Station this evening, but I can’t waste another day waiting for them to reopen; I don’t feel safe sleeping while he’s around. Tomorrow morning, when he uses the bathroom, I’ll just… drive away… I don’t know what else to do.
For now, he’s either asleep in the backseat or really good at fake snoring. My instincts are screaming for me to stay awake, but I feel like someone poured salt into my eyes, and staring at this screen is only making them worse. I need to find another way to keep myself up.
Rob is dead; I was right about that bastard. Have you ever noticed how crazy ideas sound less crazy in the dark? I kept imagining Rob in the backseat – awake and waiting for me to fall asleep; then, he would sit up, put his belt around my neck, and pull. It bothered me so much, I decided to retrieve my gun. I kept it beneath my leg until dawn and tucked it into my waistband when it was finally time for breakfast.
Rob snored the entire night; as I entered the forest to relieve myself, I was feeling fairly foolish. ‘No shit the man is afraid of going deeper into this hellhole! If I’m this terrified – how must he feel after what he’s been through? I’m the monster – walking around with a gun and planning to leave a man for dead just because he disagreed with me!’
I was fully convinced to abandon my cruel plan until I returned to see Rob in the driver’s seat. The passenger window was down so I had a perfect view of him from the tree-line; he was frantically searching for the keys which were tucked securely into my pocket. I didn’t know what he might do if confronted, so I made plenty of noise coming through the last of the brush.
When I made it to the truck, he was opening a can of fruit like he hadn’t just been trying to leave me behind. I made soup, but avoided taking anything vital out of the truck. I planned to leave him some food and water, but I was ready to take off as soon as he stepped away… Only, he didn’t go; we were both waiting for the other to let down their guard, but Rob lost patience.
He revealed the crowbar he’d stashed nearby and calmly explained I would be staying behind since, “I’m determined to kill myself anyway.” My mind went blank; it’s one thing to imagine it, but it’s nothing like reality. I was calm and steady as I told him to take the truck; I even threw the keys to him. There was no thought behind it – only instinct. When he turned to walk away, I drew my weapon and fired without warning. The first shot went into the center of his back, and he made a horrible sound as he fell.
I hurried closer but hesitated before making the final shot. Part of me wanted him to fully understand what happened. When he began coughing out blood, I ended his suffering with one more to the head. At least he won’t become one of the Stranded now…
I thought it would feel different – like it would change me – but this place had already done that. I don’t care that Rob is dead; I only did what was necessary to survive. The funny thing is – he was right. We should have stayed on the nice, Paved Streets where it was safe; there’s much worse things out here than death.
After leaving Rob’s corpse behind, it took five hours to find the next Dirt Road. It was a long, miserable day, but – just to be safe – I turned back to waste some gas. My heart was set on getting into a Station with beer at midnight.
I didn’t know what kind of trouble I was going into, and honestly, I didn’t care. At 12:03, I drove onto the Dirt Road, and my high beams revealed a horde of Stranded behind the tree-line; I didn’t slow down, and they didn’t come out. They only want easy targets. Unfortunately, I miscalculated how quickly the gas light would turn on.
Less than twenty minutes later, I was still going when a loud roar rattled my windows followed by the shrill cry of captured prey. Reality began to set in as I realized how foolish my plan had been. Moments later, a low rumble of thunder sounded, and only when it was joined by the violent cracks of breaking limbs did I understand it wasn’t thunder after all. Whatever hunts these roads at night found me.
I heard it break through the tree-line but couldn’t force myself to look in the mirror; I knew it would be game over if I did. The roads are much smaller in Stage 2, meaning I had to drive slower. My full focus was on navigating the curvy roads as quickly as possible without losing control; I didn’t even hear the low fuel light, but when that bright, beautiful gas station appeared around the next bend – I almost crashed into the pump.
Parking as close to the door as possible, I threw myself from the truck without even turning off the engine. I was inside and under the counter for a solid ten minutes before realizing everything had gone quiet. Very carefully, I crawled to a window and peered outside. It looked like several Stranded had been fused together to form this thing. Only its head was visible in the Station lights; the rest was thankfully concealed in a sea of darkness. Its shape was far smaller than expected after hearing the sounds it made, but its face was the most grotesque thing I’ve ever seen; its mouth was lost beneath masses of pasty, white skin that looked like pure scar tissue, and I can’t get the look of its single, glassy eye out of my mind. There was only a gaping, black hole left where the other used to be. Apparently the Stations work as safe zones; I knew it saw me, but it didn’t come any closer.
After vomiting, I worked up the courage to test my theory and stepped outside to turn off the truck; the figure still didn’t move. That made me feel safe enough to finally look around the store. I helped myself to a six-pack of Coors and Cheetos and tore through the junk food like a death-row inmate; I’m not ashamed to admit I’m fairly drunk.
I wonder if it’s possible to fill up with just enough gas to be on empty before nightfall… That may be my only chance to make it to Stage 3; there’s no way I could have outran that thing all night. Hell, that’s a brilliant idea! If it works – I could use that strategy the whole way home; it would give me an entire week to search before the store is closed again! Holy shit! I finally see a light at the end of this miserable tunnel; I’m going to get a very good night’s sleep and hit the road at first light!
I guess I dropped the ball on keeping a record of my time in the Backroads, but… too bad. No one will ever see this anyway, and this has been the worst week of my life. The things I’ve had to do to survive are unspeakable; I only opened this to say I’m quitting. If someone finds this one day, great; if not, I don’t really care.
My plan to only fill half the tank worked great, but it took three days to find a grass trail; once I did – I never dreamed I would survive long enough to find another store, but now that I have – I’m not leaving; the creatures in this stage don’t give a damn if it’s night or day – they’re hungry. I would rather face the devil himself than walk out that door again; there are things out here that make the one-eyed monster look like a kitten – I’m done!
Today is Saturday, and it’s almost midnight; I’m going to hit upload even though I know it won’t work, but – just in case – my name was Jesse Palmer. Fuck the Backroads.
Credit: Page Turner
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