Estimated reading time — 26 minutes
Joan was not in the mood for the early shift. In a sleepy daze, without much (if any) mindfulness of what she was doing, she clutched her cell phone resting on her nightstand, and, after a few failed tries, dismissed the alarm that had been ceaselessly blaring for five minutes straight. Rather than taking heed of the notice “Low Battery,” she focused instead on the phone’s digital clock and moaned at the realization that it was 4:06 and she had less than an hour to get to work. The phone was playing music: it was her custom to fall asleep to a good song. Reluctantly, she closed out the audio, ripped out her earbuds with a sigh, and slowly stood.
She had to go all the way to the largest city in the state, forty-five miles south of her mostly unfurnished, newly-bought house, located in the deserted backwoods of scenic Nowhere, Southern U.S. She flipped the light switch, winced at the brightness, and got dressed without even shutting the door to her room or turning off the light.
Still not quite awake, Joan, in her uniform of a white T-shirt, shorts, and sandals, ambled as a zombie into the unkempt and wild backyard, which really wasn’t anything more than the far-end of the forest of pines behind it. She stepped into her car—or, rather, the ugly old yellow pick-up truck her parents had dumped on her. It was her brother’s first vehicle, the one he was obliged to hand off when his parents surprised him with the newest model as a graduation gift.
The day she was given the thing, not a year into college, was the day she finally moved out and her parents promptly cut off any and all financial support. They called her “ungrateful,” a word that had been reverberating in her head ever since. And here she was now, no longer able to to afford school, and, because she was one with a thirst for revenge, continually attempting to prove her worth to her parents by making her own living.
It wasn’t really working. She just sat there in the truck, considering this, when a loud rustle of leaves from behind caused her to jump and crank the ignition. She suddenly remembered there was a reason she was even able to procure the house so cheaply: it was located in the worst area imaginable, amid forests and on a pale, cracking, unnamed road that was bumpy the whole way you drove on it. No cars ever came down it, and the two or three other houses on the road, Joan suspected, were probably unoccupied—abandoned, even.
Joan began to ease up a little as she felt the road smooth out beneath her and as she caught sight of the lights of gas stations and fast food restaurants. The moon was in view, perfectly round and seeming to direct her path with its light. In a few more miles, there would be hotels and the tiny mall. And right next to them would be the interstate, and the second she was secure and sailing down it, she’d be free to carelessly daydream until her exit.
But, until then, she was on edge. This was not a safe town to live in. She knew it the second she moved there. She couldn’t afford to live in her hometown (where her few friends were), and her house was the only one on the market both cheap and at a reasonable distance from her associates. Needless to say, she hadn’t made friends at her current location, and didn’t know if she even wanted to. Indeed, she had a habit of “escaping” from the town as often as she could spare her money on gas, going to see friends or to the nearest movie theater or restaurant whenever she saved enough to enjoy such luxuries. Who was she kidding? It was a very lonely existence.
Joan also had trouble with what was perhaps her life’s ultimate goal: finding a husband. She dreamed of one day being whisked away by a handsome man who’d solve all her troubles; though she was attractive and many men flocked to her, none of them stayed. Joan remembered bitterly her failed date with Austin, her coworker. Joan was a lifeguard at a community pool, and she needed to make this drive every day to get there. She hated the job, but it was extremely easy, and the only one she was truly qualified for (a certification wasn’t a degree, but was at least something). Naturally, there were no pools anywhere closer to her house.
In addition to working with Joan during her shift, Austin was also the one who normally worked the early shift she was currently headed to. After having a spat with Joan on their date, he unexpectedly called in sick, and Joan was the only one who was free to cover for him. He probably was trying to avoid seeing her, though Austin was “sick” fairly often, maybe every couple of weeks. He had other excuses for his absences, some of them dumb. He once said, for example, that his dog had evidently mauled someone’s cat, and that the cat’s owner had hounded him about it all morning, not letting him leave for work. Joan’s boss had openly called this story and others like it “bullshit,” but he couldn’t fire Austin anytime soon, not when lifeguards were hard to come by in the fall and winter months. It infuriated her, taking this shift, but she couldn’t refuse. This job was the last leg she had to stand on, and she couldn’t risk being fired.
Austin was all she could think about as she continued down the long stretch of road she was on. She wondered if she loved him, if he might return to work after he was over the sting of the failed date, and if they would ever go on another, or even see each other ever again. True, he was the irritable type, and somewhat mysterious, but that seemed to only increase her longing for him. All these things swirled in her mind until she realized that the road had become inexplicably darker, with dark forest on either side instead of streetlamps. She became puzzled, thinking that the ramp onto the interstate was surely near. She drove and drove for what seemed like an eternity, craning her neck to find the turn. She nearly slammed on the brakes at the terrifying realization that she had to have missed it.
Joan felt herself begin to panic. She wanted to pull over, try and find a way out of this, but it was as if the truck was moving her, taking her to where she was evidently meant to go tonight, because it sure as hell wasn’t going to be work. Finally, she worked up the nerve to at least slow down to try and get a better idea of where she was. But that was just it. She had no idea. She’d just moved to this town and she never had any desire to explore it; after all, it was remote and dangerous. She’d never investigated past the interstate, which was something she was now beginning to regret. Then again, she’d probably have no better luck had she ventured down this road in daylight. It was unending, quite literally. There seemed no way to get off of it.
She wondered if she should turn around into the other lane, in spite of the road being one-way, but the dim flicker of headlights behind her indicated people, however sparsely, were driving on this road, and she wasn’t about to risk a head-on collision. She also considered pulling over and flagging down the car behind her to ask for directions back, but then thought it foolish. The people would be coming from town, and, judging by the sorts that typically lived in her town, she decided that they probably wouldn’t be the friendliest or most helpful of folks, to put it mildly. She felt for her phone in her pocket, wondering who she might call if she didn’t find a way out of this on her own. She tensed up upon noticing that the needle on her gas gauge was just hovering over “E” and the road continued on and on, as if it led to the edge of the world.
Joan gripped the steering wheel tightly. For some reason, it made her feel safer. She glanced at the dashboard clock, which now read 4:59. The pool definitely wasn’t opening on time today, and, knowing her luck, she’d be fired for negligence. But none of that mattered if she was stuck on this road for God knew how long. Then, as an oasis might appear in a seemingly endless desert, an exit emerged from over the horizon, and Joan, overcome by amazement and relief, took it. She couldn’t care less where it led, so long as she’d be off this godforsaken road.
Her heart pounded as she sledded down the long, winding ramp onto a new road that appeared at least a tad bit more connected to civilization. In the very least, this road had streetlamps and even small motels and a gas station and eateries, though they all looked run-down and didn’t appear to belong to any major chain. Nonetheless, Joan was comforted, but couldn’t help but feel a bit disheartened. It still didn’t seem she was anywhere close to any major, recognizable city. It was as if these buildings and road had discreetly floated down from the sky into a forest, the rest of the world being unaware of their existence.
It was all still so foreign, but, at the very least, here was a place where she could make human contact. She was beginning to brighten at this idea, but then she faltered. Would stopping here at five in the morning be any less dangerous than stopping back where she’d come from? Not trusting the place, she decided to pull into a large parking lot, and parked directly under a towering, rusty streetlamp. The lot seemed to now be nothing more than an expanse of useless asphalt. Its paint had faded and the building that sat upon it was featureless, with its windows and doors boarded up. It troubled her, and she didn’t want to stay long.
She quickly produced her phone, deciding she’d call her brother, who probably loved her more than Mom and Dad ever did. He would be cranky about having to get up so early to rescue her, and might even call her silly and laugh at her for being frightened for nothing. She searched through her contacts and made ready to call his number, but she hesitated. Would her brother even know how to get to her? She knew she certainly wouldn’t be able to tell him the way if she didn’t know where she was. It was no use. She had to find out her location before she could call anyone to come save her. Finally thinking rationally, she went to pull up Google Maps, but before she could get her location, the phone vibrated…and the screen went black.
She just stared at it, thunderstruck at the very expensive, now very useless hunk of plastic she held in her hand. She tried to power it back on, refusing to believe it. She usually charged her phone to 100% before plugging in her earphones and falling asleep to her music. That way, she would have suitable power for at least the first half of the next day. But last night, she’d neglected to charge the phone at all, being as angry as she was at Austin and covering his stupid shift. She slowly slid the phone back into her pocket, defeated. There was no choice now. She had to get out of the truck, find someone who’d help her back home, and hopefully live to tell this tale to someone who cared and would laugh with her about how silly it was. Maybe her parents, if they actually gave two shits about her? Her more-successful-than-she’d-ever-be brother? Her friends, who were slowly drifting away thanks to her move? Or, if she dared dream, a loving husband?
She was still thinking about all this as her hand went to start the engine, but, as she was about to turn the key, her eyes caught a flicker of movement in her rearview mirror. A shadow dashed across her face. She froze. Then, her survival instincts fully activated, she thrust the truck into drive and sped to the nearest building: a diner across the road.
When she pulled into the diner’s gravel parking lot, she found herself wary to leave the truck, sure there must be a threat outside. What was that she’d see in the rear view mirror? She was shaking, and, to calm herself, reasoned it might have been a stray animal. But…then again…that shadow was awfully big. Then, the inside of the diner suddenly came alive with light, and she was comforted by the sight of an innocent little old lady tottering about inside. The diner, apparently, was opening for breakfast. Joan glanced at the radio clock, which had just switched over to 5:20. She grimaced, truly disturbed by the fact that it was still pitch black, as if dawn had been delayed.
After a few minutes, she finally exited the truck, deciding whatever she’d seen across the street had gone. Nonetheless, she came up to the diner at a very brisk pace and practically ripped the door off its hinges in her anxiousness. The old woman, who’d been sweeping, nearly fell over from surprise.
“I’m sorry!” said Joan hastily. “I didn’t mean to barge in like that. It’s just that I’m lost, and was wondering if you could—?”
“—sit you down with a nice, hot breakfast, sweetheart?” the old woman beamed, speaking in a soothing, mild Southern accent. She tottered up to Joan, smiling and holding menus. Behind her square glasses, her eyes shone with kindness.
Joan suddenly realized just how hungry she was. She hesitated. There really was no rush to get home nor any reason to try to get to work. By now, the lap swimmers who came at five in the morning had all given up on any chance of her coming and had gone home. Soon enough, though, their complaints would reach her boss, and he’d be calling her dead phone and wondering what the hell happened to her. She smiled at the lady, who was already directing her to a table without her even asking for one.
Sitting down, Joan said to the lady: “Thank you very much, ma’am, but I wondered if you had a telephone I could use? I was supposed to be at work, and I should probably call and explain what happened.”
The woman almost looked amused. “Honey,” she laughed, “what need is there for a phone out here? People only come to these parts to get out of ‘em! No one stays for long; they all pass through—and as quick as they can! I don’t know anyone around who bothered to have a telephone put in. I doubt the lines even reach out here.” She snorted and said matter-of-factly: “No service for them newfangled cell-u-lars, neither.” She then took out a pad of paper and clicked a pen, not noticing Joan’s disappointment. “Now what’ll it be, sugar?”
It was a moment before Joan snapped back to her senses, still in dumbfounded disbelief at her luck. “Oh! Just some eggs and coffee,” she said absently, biting her nails. The woman smiled, taking away the menu that Joan never touched and slipping into the kitchen.
Joan rubbed her neck, now stressing that she’d be fired if her boss didn’t get an explanation soon. She simply couldn’t afford for such a thing to happen. She vividly imagined herself groveling to her parents and them laughing at her. There had to be a phone somewhere around here, she assured herself. There had to be a big, civilized town nearby with businesses (and not little self-run businesses like these out in the boonies) that would have phones. There just had to be people out there who didn’t seem like characters in a dream.
“Mavis! You got raccoons again! Swear I saw one scurrying around that yeller truck parked out there!”
The woman burst through the kitchen doors and slammed a mug of coffee onto Joan’s table, spilling half of it. “Really? Dammit, Luke. That’ll be the fourth time this week those little bastards have been around! Sure you don’t know any way to get rid of them?”
Joan looked up from her drink and, for one thrilling moment, it seemed her nightmare had miraculously turned into her ultimate daydream. A tall young man in a leather jacket, boots, and a baseball cap was walking toward her. “Sure I do,” he laughed at Mavis, who was blushing. “What I don’t know is how to keep ‘em from coming back!” He almost immediately turned to face Joan, smiling and resting his hand on her table. “Well, hey there, miss. Haven’t seen you around these parts.”
Joan could hardly speak, she was so overjoyed to see what she thought a beacon in an eternal darkness. “I-I’m not from here, actually,” she managed. “Lost.”
The man gave a goofy smile. “Shoulda known. Never seen a pretty girl like you wanderin’ around here.” He extended a hand and the tight leather of his jacket crackled. “Name’s Luke!” he beamed, and Joan grasped his hand and shook it gratefully.
“I’m Joan,” she said shyly. She tried to explain what had happened without making herself sound like a fool. “I’m just passing through,” she lied. “On the way to work.”
“Thought you said you was lost?” Luke pointed out.
She reddened. “True,” she admitted. “I’m a little turned around.”
“If anybody come out here, he sho nuff ain’t headed in the right direction,” Luke explained, almost gravely. “Only reason I’m here is ‘cause I come every morning for Mavis’s cooking, usually after hunting.” He laughed. “Much better than Momma’s cooking ever was.”
Joan perked up. Mavis, who’d gone to fry some eggs, came to serve her, but she didn’t even notice. “So, you’re from around here? I-I mean, there’s a town nearby, with phones?”
Luke cocked his head in confused amusement. “What, girl? You ain’t never seen no phone or town before?”
The rational part of Joan’s brain kicked in. This guy, while a contender for Mr. Husband, could more importantly help her get out of this mess. “Please,” she entreated, “you’ll have to let me follow you into town. If I could just use your phone, if-if I could just get some directions back home, I could—”
“Whoa, slow down, girl!” Luke said, holding up his hands. “Now, where is it you’re from?”
He told her, but, not surprisingly, he’d never heard of it.
“Not at all?” she asked desperately. “Not even what direction I’d go in to get back?”
Mavis came up to her and patted her on the shoulder. “Now, now, sugar. Don’t you worry. My momma always told me: ‘Long as you still in the country, you ain’t lost.’”
This idea, though it wasn’t very true, comforted Joan. Mavis added: “Now, to get yourself out of this mess, why don’t you go with good ol’ Luke into town?”
“We could get on my phone or my laptop and look you up directions,” Luke said gently.
Joan considered it. Judging by his good looks alone, Luke seemed trustworthy to her. But she’d been quick to trust good looks many times before, and it always landed her in trouble. Then again, Mavis seemed to be a genuine, caring woman, and if she trusted Luke, why shouldn’t Joan? Mavis seemed to know him well, seeing as he came into this diner every morning. Joan sighed, knowing she couldn’t not go to Luke’s town. She had no phone, and thus no way of knowing where she was nor calling anyone for help. And even if she found someone around here with a phone she could borrow, it wouldn’t get service, as Mavis had said.
Finally, she said to Luke: “All right, I’ll just follow you to your place, then?”
Luke smiled and winked, instructing her in an overly happy tone: “Yeah, pretty girl. Follow me, you’ll be all right!”
She felt a tad bit uneasy about all this, but what other choice did she have? She and Luke walked side by side, Mavis waving at them as they left. “Eggs on me, sweetheart! Good luck to you, sugar!” she said, and Joan looked back at her one last time to give her a thankful smile in return.
Outside, dawn finally seemed to be breaking, though it was still plenty dark. “I really appreciate this,” Joan said, and Luke just kept grinning and saying “It’s all right, pretty little thing. It’s all right.” She ignored him and got into her truck. Once his truck was in position to leave, waiting on her, she cranked the engine. Nothing. She tried again…and again. She glanced up, seeing Luke was tentatively rolling out. She then saw her fuel gauge. The needle was below “E,” and wasn’t moving.
She didn’t even feel deterred. At this point, she expected something like this to happen. She got out and Luke rolled down his windows when she came up to the side of his truck. “What’s wrong?” he asked, and he looked truly concerned.
“I’m out of gas,” said Joan hopelessly.
Luke was quick to make light of it. “No worries, pretty thing!” he said cheerfully. “I have a gas can up at the apartment. Why not hop in with me and once we find out where you need to be headed, we can fill your truck up and send you on your way.”
Joan gulped. Getting into the same truck as Luke was something she’d intentionally avoided by suggesting she follow from behind. After all, she didn’t really know him, and he could take her anywhere and do anything to her once he had her. She felt like she was submitting herself to a kidnapping, but, again, what other plan was there? Her emotions stirred, and she quickly decided that she could accept Luke as her prince charming come to the rescue. Without reservation, she climbed into the truck.
Not surprisingly, Luke’s apartment, along with the rest of civilized society, lay far out from the diner. After driving miles down the main road, which deteriorated into near-rubble as they went farther along, they came to the edge of the encircling forest. It was as if the road pavers had simply given up their work that day and had let nature consume where the road would lead next. Joan’s heart pounded as she wondered if Luke had purposely taken them to a dead end, but then he turned down a small dirt road hidden away behind the trees.
“It’s the only way I know of to get to that diner,” Luke explained. “Found it when I was out hunting one day.” With curiosity, he asked Joan: “By the way, how’d you manage to get yourself over in those parts?”
Joan really didn’t have a clue herself. She told the whole story of how she needed to cover the early shift and how she’d missed her turn onto the interstate. Luke again asked where she was from, and, again, when she told him, he just shook his head in utter confusion. “Well,” he said, “I reckon people got to come by that little patch of nowhere somehow. I’ve seen one or two characters come down to the diner—always shook up—but once they leave, they never come back.” He laughed. “I’m Mavis’s one and only regular, you know.”
“And how did Mavis get there?” Joan asked.
Luke took a deep breath, then sputtered out his mouth, at a loss for an answer. “Been there as long as I’ve been coming. Never talks about home, never seems to leave. I once stayed at that diner till midnight or so to see when her shift ended, and it was like she just had no intention of going, just talking and talking to me till I got tired and went. Never see any car of hers parked out there neither.”
Joan shuddered, positive that Mavis wasn’t at that diner by choice—that something or someone had trapped her there, despite her cheerful demeanor suggesting otherwise. This thought soon left her as the sun (thank God) was at last beginning to rise from behind the trees as they tumbled out from the dirt road and onto a newly-paved street. Straight ahead was a tall wrought-iron gate which led directly into Luke’s apartment complex. Joan felt uneasy at witnessing yet more isolation (this complex was, like everywhere else she’d been lately, out in a secluded location, enclosed by trees). Regardless, the place looked clean, newly-built, and safe, and as Luke politely opened the passenger’s door for her when they parked, she smiled. And it became less and less likely that Luke meant her any harm, even as they were silently walking up a flight of stairs to the door that led into his apartment. She didn’t like how everything was so quiet and still, as if Luke was the only one who lived here (well, she reasoned to calm herself, it was just the break of dawn. Who would be awake?). She watched as he gripped the knob and turned the key, and Joan was then met with the third human face she’d encounter on this unplanned excursion.
“Don’t mind Curtis,” Luke said apologetically as he went into another room and left her alone with him. She could hear Luke rummaging around, searching for the gas can.
Curtis, a thin, pale young man with long black hair, was sitting on the couch. In his lap was an open laptop glowing in the dimly-lit room. He’d been typing vigorously on it until he met Joan’s eyes. He stared hard at her with a countenance difficult for her to ascertain. His face had become pained, scrunched-up, almost like he was concerned or about to vomit.
“Hi,” said Joan with sincere kindness, though she made sure to keep a good distance.
He seemed to ease up at the sound of her voice, cracking a very large smile. “Hi,” he said, practically under his breath. Face relaxing, he asked: “And who might you be, miss?”
Joan grinned. Curtis’s voice was smooth, but not threatening or cold in the least. It also lacked the Southern accent of the others she’d met, which was refreshing. “My name’s Joan,” she introduced. “Sorry to just barge in. I’m lost, you see, and out of gas. Luke was just bringing me by to get his gas can—”
Curtis started laughing a wheezy, high-pitched laugh which was so garbled it sounded as if he were making it below the surface of a murky lake. “Oh!” he said, now hiccupping from his uncontrollable laughter. “I thought you were another one of his girls.” He suddenly stopped laughing, his voice becoming very quiet, almost shy. “He always brings them by, you know.”
Joan felt her whole body stiffen. She definitely didn’t like what she’d just been told. But before she could ask Curtis more, Luke came rolling in with a satisfied smile on his face. “Found it!” he said, holding up the gas can. “Sorry I took so long. Damn thing was buried under all my shit.” He was reaching for the door, and Joan was about to follow him out, when he abruptly turned to Curtis as if it were an obligation. Curtis peered up at him darkly, as if this was something regular that he deeply resented.
“What ya up to, Curtis?” asked Luke loudly in a mocking sort of way. “Still squatchin’ on the web?”
“Yes, if you must know,” Curtis answered. In an almost professional voice, he said: “Hunters and trackers from all over the world are posting daily about setting their sights around here. I wouldn’t doubt it if we had a colony of them. They love areas like this. In fact, I read this very interesting article today—”
“Ain’t no sasquatch, Curtis!” Luke shouted at him. “Would’ve killed one by now, if there was!” And without even so much as a “good-bye,” he slammed the door in Curtis’s face.
Luke was hurrying down the stairs, but Joan was stuck to the spot, almost wanting to go back in and apologize for Luke. He was at the foot of the stairs, beckoning her to come on. She wasn’t quite sure if she wanted to. She finally tentatively started to descend the stairs. “Kind of harsh, don’t you think?” she said flatly.
Luke’s face fell, like most men’s do, at the horrific realization that he’d done something a girl found unimpressive. “Oh, don’t worry too much about Curtis,” he said defensively as he let her into his truck. He got in and cranked the engine. “He’s a bit of a weirdo, and not someone I’d trust. He stays up all night most nights, lookin’ up junk about bigfoots.”
Joan nearly guffawed at this, but stopped herself. “Still,” she said. “No reason to bully people, even if they’re a bit weird.”
Luke cringed. “But Curtis,” he said, almost disgustedly. “Let’s just say I wouldn’t be living with him if I could afford it.” Looking at Joan out of the corner of his eyes, he said, very seriously: “Sorry I left you alone with him. Wouldn’t have had I not been caught up in getting the gas can. We share that laptop too, unfortunately. Gonna have to come back to print you some directions.”
Joan wasn’t quite sure what to think of Luke’s unnervingly serious tone. He definitely didn’t seem bright, so he certainly couldn’t have been that good of a liar. He almost sounded afraid of Curtis, as if he were dangerous. She pondered this as they climbed up the bumpy dirt road and zipped through the forest in the dim glow of the morning sun. They stumbled onto the cracking, pale tar road that led back to the diner and the gas station which were nearby. It all looked so calm in the daylight, Joan thought. Barren, yes, but not threatening as it was a few hours ago.
Luke had his sights set on the gas station adjacent to the diner, for he once filled up there (“Uh, or at least I think I did.”). Joan wasn’t confident. Like everything else around, the station looked abandoned, disheveled, as though some destructive storm had blown past it. As the station approached, Luke squinted, also noticing that it looked torn apart (in a very literal sense, even). “I swear,” he said, “it wasn’t like that a while ago. I swear I filled up there, last week maybe.”
It all gave Joan a weird vibe. She suddenly felt unsafe again. She tried to remember the gas station as it appeared in the dark, but those memories, though they were made not long ago, were blurred by her mad haste to evade whatever had been stalking her in that parking lot. It seemed like the place had been completely intact when she barged into the diner, but there wasn’t any way to be sure. And then Mavis had been attending to her…and Luke came in to tell her she had…raccoons.
Joan felt the truck brake to a sudden halt. She’d been looking at her feet, thinking, and when she looked back up, she expected to be in front of the gas station. But they weren’t. They were in the gravel parking lot of the diner. Joan shot Luke a confused glance, but before she could ask what was going on, he forced the driver door open and sped off. She unbuckled, getting out to see what the matter was. She ran to him as he pulled the diner’s door open and sprinted inside. “Luke!” she yelled after him. But then she stopped in her tracks and saw what his commotion had been about.
The inside of the diner, she could see through the windows, looked like it had been hit by a whirlwind. The lights were swinging from their cords, flickering. Joan quickly ran inside, to find Luke wading through the destruction, calling for Mavis with a trembling, fearful voice. “I can’t find her anywhere!” he told Joan frantically. “Where the hell could she have gone?”
Joan felt sick. She thought her nightmare was over, but it was only just beginning. She took in the soul-crushing sights of the table she’d sat at, now overturned and thrown into the middle of the room…covered in a large, dark stain she hoped was from the coffee Mavis had slammed down (though it was awfully red). They looked at the kitchen. On the greasy grill were the charred remnants of a skillet which was billowing black smoke (Luke quickly turned the grill off before a fire broke out). The coffee maker was overflowing, and then the coffeepot, being overfull, turned over, sending a stream of boiling water to the floor, sizzling. It then rolled off the counter and landed with a crash loud enough to make Joan yelp.
“We-We have to call the cops,” she said, holding her hand to her heart in panic.
“Can’t,” said Luke woefully. “At least not here. No lines, no service, remember?”
Joan felt the strong urge to cry, but ignored it. “Okay,” she said imperatively, “let’s fill up my truck and go to your place to make the call.”
“Girl, there’s no filling it up next door, now is there? Did you see the place? It’s as bad as in here!”
This was Joan’s limit. It looked like she would never go home. Tears began welling up in her eyes and Luke noticed. Sympathetically, he came up and wrapped his arm around her. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Listen, I was swishin’ around that gas can, and there’s still some in it. Won’t be enough to get you home, but will get ya to my place at least.”
Joan sniffed. Pressing herself into Luke’s chest, she felt comforted. She didn’t want to leave him.
“Why don’t we get your truck out to my place so it ain’t sittin’ out here where the…well, the somethin’ that got the gas station and the diner won’t get to it? Then, we can go in my truck into town, fill up the gas can, get you filled up, get you directions, and get you on your way.”
Joan wrapped her arms around Luke and held him in a close hug. He hugged her back. There was nothing that could go wrong in the plan he just proposed (at least not that she could foresee). And yet, she couldn’t help but procrastinate, to just stand there in Luke’s arms and wonder if she’d ever see him again once she was gone. He was better than her lonely home or distant family or friends would ever be. “Actually,” she said. “I think I’ll just stay the night with you.”
He let go of her. Uncertainly, he said: “Well, I personally wouldn’t mind, but Curtis—”
“Luke, please! It’s just I’m hungry and tired and Mavis has gone missing—I couldn’t possibly go without one of us calling the cops. I need to at least know that people are looking for her!”
Luke considered it, then sighed. “I’m worried about her too, pretty girl,” he admitted. “And you have been out late and haven’t eaten a thing, have you?” He made to leave the diner, beckoning Joan to join him. He then tipped what little gas was left in the can into Joan’s truck. It was just enough for her to follow him back to his apartment. When she parked, the needle was again below “E,” and she doubted highly that the truck would start again if she tried. Stepping out, she heard a sudden, loud creak, followed by a crash. Looking behind her, she saw that the tailgate had come unhinged, from a rusted bolt, no doubt. Piece of junk, she thought, and she slammed it back into place and climbed the stairs to Luke’s apartment without a second thought.
Luke opened the door for them and Joan was curious to see that Curtis was not on the couch. He left his laptop behind, shut and thrown carelessly to one side. “Where’s Curtis?” she couldn’t help but ask, thinking cautiously that whatever got Mavis had made a stop here too.
“Out,” Luke said uncaringly. “With his freaky friends, talkin’ ‘bout bigfoots, probably.” He pulled out his phone and dialed 911 to report Mavis’s disappearance, and Joan hardly listened to him as he spoke, describing the scene they’d stumbled upon and trying with great difficulty to explain how to get to the diner. From how long he talked, it seemed like he and the operator were getting nowhere.
Finally, he hung up, and, to Joan’s confusion, was making his way to the door. “She said she dispatched cops here so they could follow me to the diner,” he explained. Says they should be here in two minutes tops. He opened the door. “Might take a while. Curtis doesn’t get back till night—eleven, usually. Till then, help yourself to any food in the fridge or get a nap.” And with that, he shut the door behind him, locked it, and then relocked it for good measure, before finally descending the stairs.
Joan waited until she could no longer hear his footfalls down the steps, then set on finding a place to sleep. She considered the couch, but then her eyes caught the door to Luke’s bedroom. The thought of being in that bed with him on top of her was arousing enough to draw her in. She collapsed onto the bed. On Luke’s nightstand lay an iPod and a pair of earphones. Perfect. Smiling and satisfied, she snuggled under the covers. She’d picked a very loud, very romantic pop song for herself, which blasted in her ears as she sank into a peaceful slumber.
Hours later, the iPod had died, and there sounded a faint thud and rapid pattering that pulled Joan into consciousness (she was, as it goes without saying, a light sleeper without her music). She’d been out cold, but hadn’t any idea of how long. Turning her head to face Luke’s window, she found it was now dark out. She started to lift herself up, but paused when her nose caught a very coppery, musky smell hanging in the air that was so thick it was unbearable.
Confused, Joan stepped out of bed. Her confusion quickly turned to a deep sense of dread as she approached the bedroom door. The smell got stronger as she came closer. Outside, she’d find what it was. Standing in the doorframe to Luke’s bedroom, she saw to her bewilderment that the door to the apartment was wide open, swinging in the strong, cold wind outside. Luke was standing in the doorway, sickly-looking and shivering, staring with horror at the floor.
Heart pounding, eyes bulging, Joan, unable to say anything, glanced down, and what she saw made her jump and scream a terrible, high-pitched shriek. There, in a growing pool of blood, was what was left of Curtis. He had been nearly split in half just above the waist with a very crooked, deep cut. His entrails spilled out into a messy pile beside him. He’d been scalped, his skull exposed and cracked, with blood and meat issuing forth. His scalp and the hair attached was bloody and plastered to the wall and was dropping slowly as if it had been flung there. His left arm had been violently ripped off, it seemed, and his legs were twisted into unnatural positions.
“I-I knew it!” Joan yelled, pointing a quivering, accusatory finger at the horrorstricken Luke. “How could I have been so stupid? I knew I couldn’t trust you!”
“Joan!” Luke cried to her as she fled past him. She was flying down the stairs and Luke was chasing after her. “Joan! No! You think I killed him? You think I did that?” He grabbed her and she struggled fiercely. “Joan, you’ve got to listen!” he pled. “As soon as I got done with the cops, I came home and saw Curtis got here before I did. I meant to get here sooner so this wouldn’t happen, but the cops had all sorts of questions about the diner and Mavis. Anyway, he was going in, laughin’, like he was fixin’ to do somethin’ to ya.”
“You’re blaming this all on him?” shrieked a repulsed Joan as she continued to fight. “What? Killing him wasn’t enough?”
“Joan, listen! I tried to tell ya Curtis wasn’t any good. He ain’t got no girls in that sasquatch club of his. You was probably the first live woman he’d seen since his momma. No way he’d pass you up!”
“Oh, that’s rich! What about all the girls you always have over? He told me everything, Luke! Now, let go, you freak! I can’t believe I ever trusted you!”
He ignored her, looking confused, but continued imperatively: “He was goin’ in and snickerin’ like he does, when all of a sudden somethin’ came up behind me, quiet-like. Curtis got real excited, chased after it. Fool was pullin’ out his phone to take pictures.”
Joan relaxed, but only slightly. “Pictures?” she sputtered, now more scared than angry. “Pictures of-of what?”
“I don’t know! But we need to get out of here, Joan! Whatever it is, it didn’t like the flashes from that dumbass Curtis’s phone, that’s for sure! Curtis tried to run to safety in the apartment, but it caught him in there and did that number on him. Don’t know if he knew you was in there too, but he ran off when he heard me runnin’ up the steps!”
Joan couldn’t bear to hear anymore. She tore her arm away from Luke and sprinted to her truck, ignoring his pleas for her to come back. She fumbled for her keys, but dropped them and fell backward upon seeing a tall, thin, hairy being emerge from the bed of her truck and tower over her. Its eyes were as big as tennis balls, perfectly round, staring down at Joan and glowing yellow. Its snout was like that of a dog’s and was drooling. In its wide mouth were rows of sharp, perfectly white teeth that shone in the light of the full moon. Its hair was gray and sparse, only barely covering its skeletal body. Its head was bald and round, shaped almost like a man’s. It reached down, snagging Joan in its massive paws as she screamed for help. With wide leaps, the monster glided away, leaving Luke standing there, petrified and helpless. Joan fought, trying to escape and run back to him.
The pretty girl flew through the woods as if being pulled through the scariest parts of her psyche that she never wished to visit. She heard nothing but the monster’s breathing and the violent rush of the wind. She could see nothing but the vague, swirling images of trees rushing past her eyes, which, in the dark, appeared as no more than shadowy figures caught up in a deranged, mocking dance which celebrated her being finally brought to her doom—phantoms whose shapes reminded her of her parents, brother, friends, and, for some reason, Austin especially, whose presence seemed to emanate throughout these woods she’d tried so hard to conquer—the woods he’d managed to trap her in, by happening to be somewhere else when he should’ve been at his shift.
After carrying her through everything—past the ruined diner and gas station and the houses in her neighborhood and all else in its path of destruction—the creature stopped and settled in a small clearing in the forest, somewhere that Joan felt was oddly familiar. The monster sat and held Joan tightly in its arms, squeezing her and resting its wet, hairy chin on her head. Shaking to the point of convulsion, Joan’s terrified eyes darted this way and that in desperation until finally looking up and seeing that her own house was right in front of them, her bedroom window (and everything that could be seen through it) perfectly visible from this angle. She’d made it home.
The creature held her closer, bright yellow eyes fixed on the window and the lighted room within as if he was used to staring at it and had been staring at it like this for many, many nights before, just…waiting.
But now he didn’t have to wait anymore. Joan whimpered, cried, and he held her closer and sighed with deep satisfaction, sending a wind of hot breath cascading down her neck. And she begged and begged to anyone who might hear her that she just be able to go back to that room which was streaming its tantalizing light from that window and making the thing’s eyes shimmer.
But she’d only be able to stare at that light, which she’d so thoughtlessly left on when she went to go to work, and that would be the last thing she saw for the rest of this night, until, at last, it (and she) went out.
Credit: Ben Fuller