Way Out in the Sticks
Mud Splash Road was not just in the sticks. It was way past the sticks. The
road went from paved to pebbled about twenty minutes after getting off the
highway at Exit 237.
“The moon couldn’t even find this place,” Charlene said out loud as her Toyota Corolla shook and sputtered across the uneven terrain. The radio stations she had set on her tuner were nothing but a wash of static. To make matters worse, she just smoked the last cigarette in her pack of Newport cigarettes. Charlene hoped against hope that just there was one hiding in some forgotten corner of the pack, but alas, nothing.
She tried to call Peggy but that great big satellite in the sky probably had no clue about forgotten paths like Mud Splash Road. If she could get a hold of Peggy, who was probably sitting next to her date in a crowded Saturday night movie theater, she would bitch her out to high heaven. I should never have answered my phone. I should never have agreed to drop off these damn keys she thought as she slammed her cell phone on the passenger seat.
It would be another ten minutes before Charlene would see the house sticking out of the woods. Even in this pitch-dark Eastern Kentucky night, the white brick of the house illuminated itself throughout the dense trees. As she drove towards the direction of this behemoth abode Charlene spotted the entranceway out of the corner of her eye and backed up the Corolla. Plowing down a trail of Weeping Willows had created a driveway. The width of the path was edgy at best and made the thin trail seem like an unfinished jigsaw puzzle. Twigs brushed and scraped against the car. Charlene squinted as if they were flicking at her eyes. The house was getting closer or it least it seemed to be; the path twisted and turned with no sense of order or urgency.
Charlene reached into her pocket and felt the spare set of keys that she was to drop off in the mailbox. Peggy told her that if she did this deed, she would put a good word in for her at the real estate agency. Charlene wondered if Peggy was really on a date or if she just didn’t want to deal with driving out to this place. Who would want to buy a house this far from civilization? Someone looking to burn it down and build subdivisions Charlene thought as she put the Corolla in park.
The house must have been built around the turn of the century. It had the old Southern money vibe going on. The porch wrapped around the entire house and there was an old fashioned rocking bench parked next to the double doors of the front entrance. Charlene strained her neck when she looked up to search for the roof. The home was four stories tall and large picture windows covered in drapes adorned each floor facing Charlene, like a court of strangers staring right at her.
At one time it must have been a beautiful home full of southern belles and dignified gentleman frolicking about. Maybe it wasn’t that way but the house just gave that feel out. Charlene walked up the tired wooden stairs, a rush of anxiety emerging with each creaking scream that accompanied her every step. The only sound was the crickets chirping away and the occasional rumblings of some deer or possum. Her eyes spotted a mail slot right beside the front entrance. Reaching into her pocket, Charlene pulled out the spare set of keys and dropped them in the mail slot with the speed of someone eager to be relived of having finished an undesirable favor. The mail slot gave off a loud slap as the keys slid down and the cover flapped shut.
Charlene rushed down the steps and got in her car. She was expecting the engine to stall as would be customary in such an obligatory horror movie situation. But the car started without a hitch.
“God bless Toyotas,” Charlene said aloud as she backed the car up and faced the twisted pathway back towards civilization.
She tried to text Peggy that the deal was done but the big eye in the sky had yet to notice her and her nonexistent signal. She had little hope for it anyway. As she reached the final turn that lead back to the stone and pebble road she stepped slowly on the brakes and decided to give one last look at the house from another time nestled in the middle of nowhere.
Her eyes grew wide when she saw a light on that brightened the drapes covering the picture window on the fourth floor. Charlene squinted as what she thought was a shadow standing behind the drapes but she couldn't quite make out the shape.
“I’m getting the fuck out of here,” she said aloud as her hands instinctively turned the volume down on the white noise humming out of her speakers and pounded her right foot down hard on the gas pedal.
The little four-cylinder engine revved with a necessity it probably never thought it had as Charlene steered her way across the bumps and skids that naturally erupted by going balls out down a dusty back road. Her nerves were a tight ball of jolted energy and fear. Charlene flipped her rearview mirror off center to avoid looking back. Don’t look back there Char. Do no look back.
The front right tire of the Toyota took the worst of a deep hole that Charlene told herself to look out for on the way back when her heart wasn't trying to escape her chest. She pressed hard on the gas pedal but she knew it was useless. The tire was flat and the rim was most likely completely bent out of whack. She immediately thought of the Triple A card in her wallet, but her brain reminded her that she was stuck in the blind spot of every major cell phone companies 4G reach.
The rhythm of the crickets chirping matched the beat of her heart. The stillness of the country night blanketed everything with opaque shades of darkness. Charlene felt the urge to look behind her. She wanted to see the house as still and dark as it was when she drove up the winding entrance. But she knew she saw a light shining on the fourth floor and someone or something staring out of it. She did not need to look at her trembling fingers to know for certain that she had never been so scared in her life.
“Charlene, get it together. Don’t cramp out. Not now,” she said to herself as uncontrolled tears splashed her cheeks. “Someone was inside and is probably freaking out themselves. They are wondering who this strange woman is who dropped something off in their mailbox and took off so late at night. This is not some horror story, this is real life and I just got scared. Maybe they called the cops. I hope they did.” S
She grabbed a piece of Juicy Fruit from the middle console. She chewed relentlessly until the flavor was gone and immediately put another piece in her mouth. Her rigid chomping of the gum accompanied the crickets as they conducted their monotone symphony.
Charlene debated walking down dark country roads until she could get a signal on her cell. Don’t get off the boat. Never get off the boat.But this wasn’t Cambodia or the Pacific. She was in America, just outside her home base and she would just have to hike it. She thought she would be better off retracing her turns out of here. Deep down she knew she was never good with directions, but staying in the car was pointless.
She unbuckled her seat belt as her eyes picked up a sound, faint and in the distance. She didn’t want to make out what she thought she was hearing but it was so noticeable, so universal: the clip-clop of footsteps pressing on and off dirty stones. The steps were getting closer and she turned around instinctively to gauge how close they were. Her eyes caught the dramatic glow of the house in the brief distance. All the lights were on, each floor illuminated with white gusts of radiance. Her eyes fell on the shadow looking out from the fourth floor window. Emerging in the dark foreground, the footsteps began to become more hurried and clear. Accompanying the steps was a breathing now, sharp and wispy.
Charlene instinctively got in the fetal position along the side of the Corolla and scrunched her face, bracing for the expected punch. Her nerves pressed hard against her joints. Her abdomen twisted as panic turned her own breathing into a stuttering whimper. The footsteps stopped just short of a yard from her, but the nasally breathing continued. Black smoke surrounded Charlene’s face, wiggling its way slowly up her nostrils and into her eyes. The crickets were no longer chirping and the air stood stiff as all sound vanished. The smoke crept over Charlene, engulfing her body and lifting it in the air, until she disintegrated into opaque shards of nothingness.
The following morning Peggy got a call from the contractor saying there weren’t any keys in the mailbox. She left the bed of her previous night’s date and gathered her things leaving her number on a coupon for razor blades. On her drive out to 727 Mud Splash Road, she tried to reach Charlene unsuccessfully. She wouldn’t pull a bitch move. She’s not the type.
Peggy pulled her Sentra into the directionless driveway and made her way to the front of the house. The contractor was sitting on the porch steps and raising his phone up in the air searching for a signal. She took out a spare key from the office, unlocked the heavy rustic front door and they walked into the house.
The first floor was completely gutted. Dusty drapes hung from the windows. A forgotten fireplace and a few mirrors lying on their sides adorned the wide-open living room. The stairs didn’t begin on the first floor, but about twenty feet up where the second floor began. The wood creaked above their heads as Peggy strained to see that the stairs cut off creating a moment of emptiness before continuing onto the fourth and final floor.
“Can just imagine the shape of those rooms up there?” the contractor said.
“What do you plan to do with this place?" Peggy asked as she felt her skin crawl a bit as she thought of Charlene.
“Don’t know what the buyer wants, but I’m going to gut the hell out of it,” he said. “Looks like somebody already got to a good start so it’ll take my crew and me a day and a half to knock this place down. Less maybe. I’m going to walk around outside and try to get a damn signal. That’s the thing about these out of the way mansions; the world got up ran away from them.”
Peggy looked at her cell and saw no bars where her signal would have been present. Her hope was to get a few miles back towards town where she could reach Charlene and find out what happened. She wasn’t pissed about the keys; she just wanted to know that her friend was all right.
Peggy left the old Southern house and made her way back through the jigsaw entrance. She eyed the broken trail always on the look out for dips and uneven ground. Did I tell her about the bumpy ride? Peggy slowly navigated the Sentra around a steep hole in the ground as something with a silver glow caught her eye. She put the car in park and stepped out to see a few scraps of Juicy Fruit wrappers embedded in the dirt. Charlene’s, they have to be hers. She buys the shit every morning and needs a new pack by lunch.
Peggy knelt down and picked up one of the wrappers. She could make out the skid marks of a tire resting alongside the wrappers, but there was no car to be found. An uneasy feeling that had awoken the moment she turned into the entrance became heightened, her woman’s intuition screaming at her that something was terribly wrong. From behind her she heard the contractor yelling in a suffocating tone. Peggy turned her head around to see the contractor, who was so desperately searching for a cell phone signal, being lifted up and enveloped by a thick black smoke. He was at least fifteen feet in the air as the smoke covered his body until there was no body left to be seen.
Peggy got in her Sentra without hesitation, her body moving frantically to the beat of self-preservation as her mind scrambled trying to make sense of what she had just seen. She twisted and turned the steering wheel trying to make her way out of the maze-like path leading to the flat stone road.
Even in her terror she noticed that outside of her engine running, no sound could be heard. It was as if the world turned into a silent movie. She checked her rearview mirror and saw that the smoke was following her. It crept behind the Sentra and was steadily gaining. When she spun the wheel to deal with the next twisting turn she saw the smoke coming to meet her head on. Peggy slammed on the brakes as her heart sputtered and her chin shook like a catfish struggling for air on the stern of some vacation boat.
The smoke was coming at her, quick and silent. Peggy knew she had to run: it was the only choice. She left her Sentra with the keys dangling from the starter and ran through the thick brush that created the distorted path, scraping her cheeks, shoulders and legs against an army of wicked branches. The smoke was following her and gaining speed. Peggy screamed but there was no echo. She made her way out of the dense wooden path and saw that three-fourths of the world as she knew it, as far as her eye could see, was covered in black smoke. In the distance about ten yards away was a small lake resting to the left of the house.
Without thinking she ran towards the water just as the smoke reached the back of her long auburn hair. If there was ever such thing as a leap of faith it was being done at this moment. Peggy’s survival instincts didn’t seem to care or were not cognizant at the moment that she did not know how to swim. Her body crashed into the water as the smoke surrounded the whole lake. Peggy went underneath the once calm waters and panic swept over her. Her arms pushed through the ceiling of the water as her head popped up struggling for air. She was hyperventilating, thrashing about madly as the smoke engulfed the perimeter of the lake and seemed to watch her. It did not creep into the water, but just waited as Peggy gasped for air, her head coming up and then bobbing down over and over again. There was no wind or birds to be heard, just a thick blanket of silence as Peggy looked at the old Southern home and noticed a familiar figure staring at her from the fourth floor window. Before her legs gave out and the water dragged her to the bottom of the lake, Peggy burst out one last word before she would die.
“ Charlene! Help me!” she gurgled out.
The figure in the window pointed at her and then disappeared. The smoke that surrounded the lake lazily departed and vanished as Peggy’s body was forced down to the bottom of the lake. The chirping of birds returned as a gust of wind caused a murder of crows to depart their nests and fly across the white and blue tinted sky overhead.