Estimated reading time — 18 minutes
“How is your relationship with the Harrison boy going?” Asked Sarah’s mother. They were sitting in the front room of their enormous house, sipping herbal tea that had long since gone cold.
“You know, I think I like him,” Sarah said to her mother. “The others loved me, I knew. But they were arrogant. Too confident in themselves. They believed they were the apple of my eye. They weren’t aware that I was the one whom they depended on. But this one, he’s different. He knows his place in this relationship. He would do anything for me, I can tell.
“Would he endure the path for you? It is not an easy road. Many eligible bachelors have trod down that road and been distracted by the terror, or the pain.”
“Should I make him go through that?” Sarah told her. “So many men we have sacrificed to that road. I’m beginning to feel like I will never find a man who can withstand it.”
“You should. I remember when I tested your father, he clung to me like an oyster for weeks afterward.” Sarah’s mother cackled and rested her blind eyes on Sarah. “If you test him, you must remember every step, if you forget to tell him even one rule you will never see him again.”
“Yes, I know, Mother.” replied Sarah.
“How are you planning to get him on the path?” Asked Sarah’s mother.
“I think I’ll invite him to meet you. He hasn’t met you or daddy yet, then I’ll give him directions to our house in the Cold from there.”
“Are you going to do it over Christmas? It would be far less suspicious if you did it at a time when it is typical for families to meet together.”
“I like that idea,” said Sarah “Tell me what happens at the entrance to the path again, I always forget.”
“You must tell him the street doesn’t have a road sign. But also tell him there will be rose petals floating near the entrance, and that the path will be on the right side of the road.” Said Sarah’s mother.
“Allright then, let me get a paper, I’ll write down the rules and double check to make absolutely sure it’s right.”
“We wouldn’t want him to die on the road and join the Cold like all the other men.”
“No, I intend to keep this one as close to me as possible, so I’ll be extra careful with the directions this time.”
Michael was elated. On their last date, Sarah had told him that his parents wanted to meet him and promised to mail him directions to their house. The directions had come a bit later than he expected, and he only just gotten them hours before he was leaving. She told him it took about two hours to get there, so he left 3 hours before dinner to be early and impress them. He checked his breath, packed a few extra sticks of gum, and was off.
He checked the directions, and the first page was basically normal, he read through them and noted that they were mostly taking him towards the forest that only a few people really lived in. But he wasn’t one to judge Sarah’s parents taste in real estate.
The radio he listened to was a news report about someone from a few counties over going missing.
“Alan Breker, a 37 years old man from Mason county, was reported missing two days ago when he didn’t come back from a trip in Pierce County National Reserve. Authorities are calling it a baffling case.
‘We looked on the satellite images and couldn’t even see his car.’”
That was the voice of the Pierce County Sheriff.
“‘But when we changed it to thermal imaging, we saw a deathly cold strip about ten miles long curving into the forest and all the space around it was still 50 degrees.’
“If you have any information regarding the whereabouts of Alan, please contact the proper authorities. In other news…”
It hadn’t snowed that year, so the forest was unusually warm at night for December, but that cold strip was weird. It couldn’t snow in only a line no thicker than an SUV, so why was it so cold? Michael, being a meteorology undergrad, could not think of an explanation.
The ride to the forest was very uneventful, he listened to a radio talk show until he lost focus and only heard mindless babble, so he turned it off and sat in silence for 30 minutes or so before he turned onto the road that passed through the woods. He looked down at the directions and saw the final one on the page.
The road you need to turn down does not have a road sign, but there should be rose petals blowing around near the entrance to the road.
That was unusual, thought Michael. He was just going to have to drive around until he found rose petals. It was dark by now, and Michael switched on his high beams. The road in front of him was dark, and he looked at his watch and car clock, which he had synced. It was 6:23. The sun had gone down by now, and the air was cooling fast. He had 37 minutes until he had to be there, he was making good time. He drove for 5 more minutes, letting the wind blow through his hair through the open window of his Honda. He looked down at the directions and flipped the page over, and laughed a little when he glanced at the first thing on the page.
Roll up your window and turn off the radio.
What? Why would that be necessary? Maybe Sarah’s parents disliked anything that looked non-sophisticated. But Michael did it anyway, figuring Sarah knew her parents pretty well to know precisely the method they prefer her boyfriend to arrive.
Oh, Sarah. Michael’s thoughts drifted to her to fill up the silence. Everything about her was perfect. Michael loved her laugh and tried to draw it out of her whenever possible, he loved her seriousness, because it was fun to shatter. He loved her intelligence, as she was clearly smarter than he was, and he didn’t mind her body either.
Michael was snapped out of his imaginations when he saw a pink petal lying on the road in his high beams. And another one floating through the air as gracefully as Sarah herself. This petal, for whatever reason, seemed to stir something inside of him, and he suddenly felt a huge burst of love for Sarah. Such as he had never experienced before. He felt as if he wanted to curl up and die so that Sarah wouldn’t get her shoes dirty as she walked over the street.
Rose petals blew through the air like snowflakes now. Michael almost missed the turn, but he stopped himself as soon as he saw the abrupt direction change. The road was dark and twisted, so Michael had a very limited vision of what was down the bend. He checked his mileage just out of habit.
Michaels was surprised it was so exactly on 13000. But that was soon to change from the drive back to his house. He checked his directions.
Remain at 30 mph on the road unless you feel you must drive faster.
That one at least made sense, thought Michael. He remembered his dad telling him on his first date back in high school that parents like people who don’t speed, but who arrive a bit early anyway. But why would he “feel” that he must drive faster? Why use the word must? It made the sentence sound like a life-or-death situation. He checked the rules again.
I suggest turning on your heating system, you won’t want to take your eyes off the road later. Also, look up at the stars! They’re gorgeous!
Michael took her word for it, he ducked forward and looked up out of his windshield. He immediately forgot all about the heating suggestion, as the sky was so clear, you could see more that stars. You could see dust clouds, nebulas, asteroid belts, along with hundreds of tiny pinpricks of light. There were so many of them, he doubted if all the stars his ancestors had seen put together could even hold a candle to the sheer number of white lights he saw glittering in the sky.
His awe was short-lived, however, as he heard a crunching sound and realized he had missed a turn and was half off the road. He pulled his car back into reverse, feeling very satisfied with himself, and continued along the road. He checked his mileage again.
He had traveled one mile down the dark road.
Keep focused on the road, it gets less like a road and more like the forest from here. Don’t want a wrecked car!
Michael was wondering why these directions weren’t exactly like normal directions. It seemed more like a survival guide than a map. Michael checked his mileage again
At 3 miles, Mike was starting to get wary of something. He sensed something sinister lurking in the trees, watching him closely, but keeping just out of sight. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he stared more intently into the forest. The trees passed by him, not revealing what was watching him, but as he passed, in the corner of his eye, he saw a man.
Michael gave a small yell and slowed his car to a halt. He opened his door and immediately felt the frozen air. His breath was visible and he could feel tiny pinpricks on his skin. Michael walked back ten feet or so to where he had seen the man and looked through the copse of trees. The journey was illuminated by the brilliant stars and somewhat brilliant moon. He looked to the copse where that man was supposed to be, but the man was gone. He had vanished. He checked the forest behind him, and saw the man. Slightly hunched over, standing completely motionless. He was barely visible because he was on the side of the road without any moonlight. But Michael called out to him.
“Hello?” He cried. The figure adjusted it’s head so the limited light reflected off his eyes, creating two glowing pinpricks in the darkness.
“Hello?” Michael cried again. The cold was becoming almost unbearable.
The figure started moving towards him. Slowly at first, his footsteps making soft crunching sounds on the carpet of dead leaves. But then the man started picking up speed. Michael was becoming very frightened at this point, and started to tense his muscles in his legs. The man showed no sign of slowing. He was jogging for Michael at this point. And Michael decided he shouldn’t stay here with this maniac any longer. Michael ran towards his Honda. Opening the door and pressing the gas, all while looking behind him. He didn’t see the man on the road. Had he given up? Or was he still following the car? Michael turned his gaze back towards the road, and gave a terrified yell.
Standing in the middle of the road, right in the way of his high beams, was a man made of black smoke. His skin writhed and moved like smoke, but it stayed in thick twisting bands that wrapped themselves into the shape of a man. Michael slammed on his brakes, but he was too close. He ran into the man and the smoke passed over his car and out of sight. Michael halted in the middle of the road and checked his rear-view mirrors. He saw no corpses lying strewn by on the road, no blood, no sign that the figure had even been there, but when he looked out his driver’s-side window, his blood turned to ice. There were four smoke-men. Moving towards him slowly, tiptoeing over the twigs and dead leaves that littered the forest floor. Moving slowly, deliberately. Out the passenger side, he could see one nearly gripping the handle for his door.
Michael decided to break the 30 miles per hour rule.
He sped down the path, which now turned to dirt at 50 miles an hour, slowing only to turn. He checked his watch and his car clock. That’s unusual, he thought. Not a minute had passed. It was like time had frozen from the intense cold. Michael realized how freezing it was now. He was fogging up the windows and his breath was freezing in sheets of ice. Michael turned the heat on like Sarah’s instructions had told him to. He looked at the directions and the next step was very frightening.
Don’t listen to the whispers.
Whispers? What whispers? Do the smoke men make them? How is he supposed to drown them out? But Michael obeyed because Sarah told him to. Oh Sarah, how she glowed like a firefly, her body teaching the stars themselves how to shine. Michael wanted so desperately to impress her parents, to make them see how happy she would be if she married him. Michael admitted he was thinking about it. He already had 200 dollars in a section of his budget to buy a ring. But he hadn’t told her. Now, should he go with a traditional proposal, or do something big? This is what he thought about, even as tiny voices began to converse in the back of his head, not loud enough to be understood, but loud enough to be heard. Every time he got curious he would force his thoughts back to marrying Sarah.
The whispers abruptly stopped as soon as the mileage counter clicked over to 13005. Michael looked back at his directions page.
Don’t look at the moon. Whatever you see, keep your eyes forward.
The moon? Michael could only see the halo of the moon over the trees, what was so dangerous about the moon?
Michael continued driving at 25 miles per hour, thinking about Sarah, and what horrors this moon was about to present him. He was gripping his steering wheel so tightly, his knuckles were white. The smoke men still lurking in his mind. Trying to get inside of his car. He could see a few of them very distantly in the forest, and he decided to speed up a little.
On the left side of him, the forest suddenly opened up into a huge lake. The water was still and glassy, and lit up like a torch because of the massive moon. It was ten times bigger than it was normally, and Michael suddenly had the impression that he was closer to it than he normally was, somewhere between the earth and the moon.
But Sarah’s smooth voice entered his mind. Don’t look at the moon. Michael forced his eyes away and gasped. He was about to tumble into the lake. The turn was so sudden that anyone who was looking at the moon would have fallen in. Michael slammed on his brakes and twisted the steering wheel. He felt his tires slide under him as he turned sideways and drifted towards the steep drop-off. But he could feel his wheels slowing down, and friction working to his advantage. He stopped mere inches from the water, which undoubtedly was only warm enough to just barely be liquid. Unless it wasn’t water.
Michael began to slowly move forward again. He decided to save energy and turn off his headlights. The light of the moon was so bright it was all he needed. He began his drive in the very center of the road, and saw the end of the light. The trees ahead grew so thick it was pitch black. Michael approached this imposing archway of darkness and switched his headlights back on. He entered the darkness warily, expecting an army of the smoke men to attack him.
His headlights started flickering. They snapped and popped, but stayed on as adamantly as rocks in the sea refusing the waves permission to break them. He could see smokey gray figures sprinting through the darkness and only barely being visible as the lights came back on. He checked his rear view mirrors and saw many smoke men running through the woods, trying to get away from something, all of them were running across the road and into the forest on the other side. Suddenly there weren’t any more of them. All of them had run and hid in the thick trees.
Michael saw his radio flicker on. There were soft pops and hisses, no normal stations. The digital readout didn’t actually have a channel number. It was an empty station.
The quiet was shattered by a scream. A scream so loud it caused the car to shake, Michael became suddenly and painfully aware that he didn’t like loud sounds. He was so startled he swerved off the road and hit a tree. It wasn’t a bad collision, and the car was only dented.
The scream stopped, and then emanated a voice. The voice was warped and breathy. The voice of a man, but it was deep, and wet, and slow.
“I’ve seen your mind, Michael. I know your thoughts. I’ve also seen hers. Sarah’s mind.”
Michael didn’t want anything besides himself even touching Sarah, and he felt a hot rage fall over him.
“Do you ever think that maybe she doesn’t love you? Maybe she’s using you for her own purposes? What if she says no when you finally scratch up enough money to buy her that ring? It’s not impossible, isn’t that what happened last time? With Julia?”
Michael’s heart stopped. How did the man in the radio know about Julia? Julia ended their relationship a year and a half ago. He discovered her in his bedroom with another man, and she stole $2000 out of his bank account.
“But I hear you really love Sarah, I hear you’ll do anything for her. So let’s make a deal. I’ll slip $100,000 into her purse, and all you have to do is turn around and go back.”
Michael decided this thing must able to hear him, so he responded.
“I’ll take it up to $200,000.” Said the thing in the radio.
“I’ll make her the sole heiress to a massive fortune, she’ll be practically dripping money out of her porcelain skin. She’ll be wearing dozens of pearls, diamonds, and rubies. Perhaps that’ll be all she is wearing… And all of that happens if you just turn around and get back onto the interstate.”
“No. Sarah wants me to come to her house, and that’s what I’ll do.”
There was a pause here, clearly the thing was thinking.
“Do you know who I am? Do you know what I can do? Don’t you know what I can do to you, to her? I could have her raped! I could have her murdered! I could get her beaten so harshly her exquisite features are permanently altered, her face covered in scars and malformed! I could puncture your gas tank! I could strangle you! TURN AROUND!”
Michael broke the 30 miles per hour rule again.
While he sped down the road, rounding curves and switchbacks, the voice in the radio was screaming. It screamed in a thousand different voices. One minute it was a man, then a woman, than a child, then it was a pig squealing, a goat screaming, and underlying all this was cracks and pops of breaking bones. Squishes of flesh being torn, and thuds of a vicious beating.
The radio turned off, and Michael checked the instructions.
Don’t listen to the voice in the radio
DON’T LOOK BEHIND YOU.
Michael became stiff. The instruction booklet fell to the floor. Why couldn’t he look behind him? What was back there? Was it the man in the radio?
Michael heard a soft sound in his ear. It was whispering. Not loud enough to be understood, but just loud enough to be audible. It was the whispering from before. Sarah had warned him not to listen to it. He tried to shut his ears to the sound, but couldn’t help taking a quick glance in his rear-view mirror. He almost passed out from the shock. There, sitting directly behind him, was a smoke man. It stared longingly out the window, and as soon as Michael saw it, it snapped it’s faceless head towards him. Michael quickly looked away. Wondering if the thing had seen him.
He drove in silence for what seemed like forever. He was moving very slowly, so as to not startle the smoke man in the backseat. He heard the smoke man shift in his seat from time to time, and the temperature seemed to drop even lower now that it was inside his car. Then a noise shattered the silence. It was so unexpected Michael jumped in his seat, accidentally making the car swerve a bit, but righting himself. The sound was his window rolling down. The temperature seemed to drop by 20 degrees in his car as the air outside poured into the car. And Michael dared a peek into his rear-view mirror. The smoke man had left. Michael rolled up the window and pulled up his directions booklet.
Slow down. You will hear the smoke-men screaming, don’t focus on it.
Michael looked ahead at the road. It was very twisted now, even starting to tilt to the side in some places, and on either side of the road was a steep cliff. Michael slowed to a crawl, and he started to drive down the treacherous roadway. He heard the scream of a man. A loud yell, and then another. But all the screams were distinctly male. Some said old words, some spoke different languages, and some were laughing maniacally. It was these that disturbed him the most. They were laughing at the misery all around them.
Slap! Michael jumped and saw a smoky hand on his window. Slap! Another on his rear window. Slap! Right in front of his face on the windshield. Crack! The back window split, but didn’t break entirely. Slap! Michael broke the thirty miles an hour rule for the third time. As he accelerated, the road became less curved, and the trees returned rather than the cliffs. The smoke-men continued to barrage his car, but he was beating them in speed, so most of it was only on the back. They started to fall behind, and then they were far behind, they couldn’t catch up with him, and he lost sight of them around a bend.
The car started making grinding noises and slowing down. The headlights flickered, then went out, which cast the road in eerie blackness. No light penetrated the thick trees, and Michael was alone in the dark in a car that didn’t work. He checked the instructions.
CLOSE YOUR EYES
Keep your eyes closed, and restart the car.
Michael looked up and saw small amounts of motion in the darkness. It was difficult to see, but it was definitely there. Something grey was seething out there. It was swirling and billowing. It looked like smoke. They had surrounded him. There were hundreds of them. Slowly moving closer, compressing him in. Michael shut his eyes tight and fumbled for the key. He felt the hood of the car dip slightly, as if there was a weight on it, and he found the keys. He twisted them hard and pressed the gas. There was a hundred screams as he barreled through the road, and he opened his eyes to see the smoke-men retreating from his headlights as he barreled down the road. He slowed at the curve, then tore down the strip again, hearing the smoke-men slapping his back windows to try and get in. Crack! His read window split like a broken rib. But Michael just kept driving. He could see a smoke-man hanging desperately onto his spoiler, punching his window, but his companions grabbed at him to try and get closer to the car and pulled him down. But suddenly they stopped hitting the car and pulled back. It was like they had given up. Or they were waiting for something bigger and meaner to get him, because they couldn’t. Michael slowed down, and they slowed down. He stopped, and they remained still. He sped up, and they sped up. They kept up a constant 20 feet from the car. Watching Michael. Michael checked his mileage.
He looked up and saw that the figures had moved. They were now lining the path. On both sides of the road, they watched him. He checked his instructions.
I know they are watching you, but just keep driving. They won’t hurt you.
Michael followed his instructions without complaint, but looked at the watch and car clock. 6:23. Not a minute had passed since he had turned onto this godforsaken road, and it had felt like hours. Maybe his clocks were broken? But what are the chances they both break at precisely 6:23?
The figures continued watching him, but he focused on the road. The trees here were high and straight. And the smoke-men seemed to be imitating that, they appeared like they were attempting to stand at military-like attention, but sometimes got antsy and started moving their arms in a happy, almost excited way. Michael glanced at his mileage.
The car gave a lurch and shut off. It started to move of it’s own accord. Michael kept slamming on his brakes, but they were useless as the car was off. The Honda seemed determined to finish, even when it’s engine was off. It increased its speed, hurtling down a straight strip of road. Michael began to see a red light ahead and scrambled for the instructions. His frozen fingers hurt when they moved. He managed to pick up the instructions and look down the list. It was the last one on the page, and there was a single tear stain that ran down the page, and rolled off. She was crying when she wrote this.
SHUT YOUR EYES! PLEASE!
He looked at the red light, and closed his eyes. The cold air was starting to heat up. His fingers were rejoicing at he sudden warmth. Through his eyelids, he could see a soft red light. It was getting scorching hot. His seatbelt was burning him, the leather seats were becoming wet with perspiration, and Michael started to scream. It was the worst pain he had ever experienced. All of his nerves were on overdrive. He was shaking, convulsing, and crying from the pain. He lost all conscious thought but what he knew he had to do, but couldn’t remember why. He clamped his hands over his eyes. He had a curious sensation of his face shifting and moving, and he realized the flesh was melting off his body. The feeling started everywhere. All his skin was falling off him and he heard a voice in his head. It was the same voice. The voice from the radio.
“I told you to turn around. I told you I would bathe Sarah in riches if you did. But now you are burning. How does that feel? I could pick the flesh of your body off the ground and make you eat it, because you didn’t follow a simple instruction. But I am merciful. I will allow you to survive if only you open your eyes and look at me.”
Michael could not speak, the pain was too intense. But an image came into his mind. The image was Sarah. And Sarah was smiling. This brief picture of her was all he needed. He knew that this monster was a liar. He wouldn’t give Sarah so much as a dime. But this pain would kill him, that much he knew. And he accepted death. Tears streamed down his bloody and blistered face, and he laid down to die.
“You surely will die if you do not allow me to save you.” It said. But it’s voice was different now. It was harsher, more gravelly. And deepening, becoming more of a growl than of a voice.
“N-n-no.” Michael croaked out a weak reply.
“You choose to sacrifice yourself for nothing, die and lose the chance to be with Sarah?”
“I will not die. You do not speak the truth.” Michael’s voice cracked and his throat exploded with pain. He felt a wet sensation flowing down his neck, but it didn’t feel like his neck anymore. It felt like a mass of ruined strings, snapping like ropes being burned.
“OPEN YOUR EYES!” Yelled the monster
Michael felt a hand grip his neck and squeeze. Another hand grabbed his hands that were covering his eyes and pulled. But Michael resisted. He kept his hands on his face until the monster’s strength began to lift them off. A red light pierced his eyelids, even with them shut tight.
But with a deep, demonic yell, the pain vanished. The man in the radio spoke no more, and the red light was replaced with a peaceful deep blue-black. Perhaps he had died. Perhaps he was saved. But that was too good to imagine. He simply relaxed in the blissful silence. The air was cold again, but not as cold as it had been. It was a bit cooler than room temperature. Then a sound broke the silence. It was a faint sound. The sound of footsteps on gravel. They were faster footsteps. The owner of the feet was jogging. The sound was getting closer. Michael pressed his hands harder against his eyelids, tears sliding down his cheeks. He wanted to die, he didn’t want anymore pain. No more driving. No more smoke-men. No more living.
He heard the door of his car open. And he knew what would happen. A smoke-man would do it. But the smoke-man didn’t smell like smoke. It smelled like perfume. And the lips that pressed against his didn’t feel like smoke. But no… It couldn’t be Sarah. This had to be a trick. It was the man in the radio pretending to be her. Or using her corpse to try and get him to open his eyes.
“Michael. You can open your eyes now.” Said Sarah’s silken, smooth voice.
“No,” he croaked out. “This is a trick. It’s not you. I won’t open them.”
“My parents won’t be very pleased if you cover your eyes the whole time.” She said. “Look, you don’t have to look at me, just look at your watch.”
Michael heard Sarah pulling herself out of his car. He lifted his left hand and immediately noticed that the flesh of his hand was perfectly intact. The light blinded his eyes, they had become so used to the darkness. It was a yellow light. The kind from light bulbs. Through his tears, it was nearly impossible to see his watch, but he pulled his hand close to see.
Time was moving again. He lifted his right hand and looked at his car clock.
He dared to sneak a look. He peeked over the ends of his shoes to see a pair of dark jeans and the bottom of a white blouse. He lifted his head farther to see the ends of beautifully curled golden hair. And he sat up. Now in the passenger seat. But he could see Sarah’s warm smiling face looking back at him.
Michael practically exploded out of his car and grabbed her. He pulled her into an embrace that would crack ribs if she hadn’t have been prepared for it. He put his hand on the back of her head and kissed her. Tears streamed down his face still, but they were tears of the purest joy. Michael heard a harsh cackling coming from behind him, and from his tear-restricted vision he saw lush gardens and a rich-looking mansion. In the high archway that led to the door stood a couple. The laughing one was in a wheelchair, and had long stringy gray hairs. The other was an old man, staring at the couple. His hands in his pockets, staring very sympathetically at Michael.
Michael laughed to himself and pulled Sarah into a kiss again. Hoping that this one would never end.