In a world populated with over seven billion people, it’s easy to see how some of them go missing. A man might mysteriously not show up for work on Monday, along with one of the more pompous secretaries, a girl might not be in her bed in the morning after a fight with her mother, a husband might find a hastily scribbled note saying goodbye when he comes home from work. We take these disappearances in our stride because we assume they all have logical answers. After all no one really disappears do they?
Jim put his pen down, rubbed his eyes, and laid the final exam paper on top of his done pile. He had just finished editing a stack of exams that nearly reached the ceiling of his small office. Jim taught four classes including Algebra, Pre-algebra and Beginner’s C. It was the Beginner’s C class that took up so much of his time. Tracing the logic errors through pages of hastily hand written code could be very time consuming, not to mention the handwriting itself. Besides, Jim had started late today. Jasmine had held him up for nearly an hour after class, Jasmine was one of those kids who had been told they would ‘go far’ so often, that any poor mark was practically a stain on their character.
Jim locked the door to his office, put his keys in his pocket and hummed as he walked out to his car. As few dead leaves skittered across the deserted parking lot in an early autumn breeze.
Jim unlocked his car, slid into the driving seat, turned his key in the ignition and turned up the radio. He smiled as he listened, recognizing the tune.
‘Why should we spend Saturday night alone when I can call you on the phone?’
Jim tapped the steering wheel with his knuckles as he sang along to the radio. He never got to listen to Country music at home. Becky didn’t like the twang or the hick speak as she called it. It was one of the few things in their marriage that Becky and Jim hadn’t been able to agree on. The only place Jim could get his country on, was driving to and from work. Jim pulled out onto the deserted roads and headed towards the highway and home.
Jim stared out at the curving snake of road that swam ahead of him. His wheels thudded and bumped on the uneven blocks of concrete that made up the road. In front of him the sun bled across the sky, turning the the day’s light a dusky and poisonous orange. Bright spots of bloody gold winked through the trees ahead and struck Jim on the face. Casually, he flipped the sun visor down to block the glare. Half of Jim's mind was focused on Jasmine Harrah and the other half on the road.
Jim had sat with her patiently in his office after school, while Jasmine cried her eyes out. Her father is was going to disown her, she would have to run away from home and live on the street, her plans to get into Harvard as pre med were shattered. Eventually, Jim was able to calm her down and talk to her. Everything he said seemed to make things worse. Telling Jasmine that this was one test at the start of the school year, and that she would be able to make up her grades, had not been the right move. Finally Jim had relented and said he would have a retake and a study session next week. Jasmine had squeezed him into a bear hugs and scream her thanks at the top of her lungs, before blowing out of his office like a whirlwind. As she left, Jim could hear his mental version of Becky saying, ‘Tut Tut Jimmy, you’re too soft you know that?’
A blue Volkswagen bug pulled out in front of Jim and immediately slowed down, forcing Jim to stamp his foot on the break. Jim honked his horn indignantly and cursed at the driver under his breath. A tanned arm clad in a pink business shirt appeared out the bug’s window and waved its middle finger at Jim. Jim rolled his eyes and pulled over into the middle lane. Driving on the pike every day was a truly wonderful experience. Maybe Becky was right, maybe the poorly paying job at Garrett High School wasn't worth the aggravation or the hour and a half long commute every day into the outskirts of Boston. For some reason, public transit had neglected the little school along with the education system. Jim was tempted to find another school. He had received offers from two private schools that were closer and better paying, but when Jim thought about those offers he always remembers the kids. Kids like Jasmine were the reason he went into teaching in the first place. He couldn’t abandon them to Herrington, the science teacher who would take over Jim’s classes if he left. Herrington could barely understand algebra, let alone C programming. If Jim left his class with Herrington, the kids would be doomed.
The blue bug swerved in front of Jim again. Clearly the driver had forgotten his stop and decided to cross three lanes of traffic at once to get home. Jim hit his break and his horn at the same time, his heart jumping into his mouth as the bug skimmed inches in front of him.
“If ya can't fucking drive then stay off the god damned road.” Jim gripped the steering wheel with both hands and clamped his teeth together. “Probably texting or checking his damned Facebook status. There ought to be a law against it, actually there is one isn’t there. Thoughtless fool.” Jim continued to mutter under his breath about the bug, even after it was long gone.
Jim closed his eyes for a second and tried to regain his equanimity. The road was a bad place to lose control of yourself. He slid back into the slow lane and wiped seat from his brow. He checked the road for more crazies and saw a white sedan off in the distance was the only car left on the road.
“Probably someone's grandmother driving to see her daughter in Sweetwater.” Muttered Jim. The woman would be driving about twenty miles an hour below the speed limit and hesitant to make any movement on the road. At least she wasn’t holding up a backlog of traffic today.
Jim found himself passing the sedan a few minutes later. As he looked over, Jim saw he had been mistaken about the gender of the driver. Behind the wheel was an overweight man with a bald head and the kind of disgruntled expression that only people with full dentures can affect. The old man squinted out of his window at Jim as he sped by. Jim didn’t wave, the man was plainly nearly blind and it was probably better for him to keep his eyes on the road.
The music on the radio changed from Florida Georgia Line turned into Take It Easy by the Eagles. Jim knew all the songs this particular radio station played and he sang along with the Eagles as his tires ate up the miles.
‘You may lose and you may win, but you’ll never be here again. Open up, I’m climbin’ in take it eaaaaaasy.’
Jim belted out the last word, his tunless voice clashing horribly with the melody, but no one was around to hear him but himself.
Another splash of light hit Jim in the eyes and he blinked, squinting to search for the culprit. A mile or two down the empty road ahead of him, a car sped along the pavement, perfectly situated between the right hand and center lanes. The car didn’t waver or slowly creep into one lane or another, it stayed exactly over the dotted white line.
Jim furrowed his brow and readjusted his sunglasses to try and cut the occasional glints of sunlight that bounced off the car ahead and into his face. “Well what to do we have here? I’m guessing drunk or half asleep.” The empty passenger seat made no reply. “He’ll probably move over into one lane or another when he realizes where he’s driving.” The passenger seat thought about this carefully and elected to stay silent.
Jim continued to stare at the car ahead of him. His little civic was set to coast at 65 mph and he was sticking to the slow lane since his run in with the blue bug. Should he call the local police? The guy was certainly taking up two lanes, but he wasn’t hurting anyone. The whole road was empty. Hell the guy might be doing it on purpose, he might like the freedom of breaking the rules of the road. Jim bit his lip, thinking. “If I give the police a call, and the guy decided to shift over to one side or the other, I’ll look like a dumbass.” He tapped the plastic barrier between him and the passenger seat and decided to wait and watch. He couldn’t even give a good description of the car anyway. The sun glinting off the metal exterior was obscuring any of the car’s details. In fact, it was hard to tell what the shape of the car was at all. It could be anything from a silver convertible to a relic from the 50s, loaded with chrome on every surface.
Jim glanced at the dashboard clock, another 40 minutes or so to home. The road was oddly deserted even for 7:30 on a Thursday evening. He realized he hadn’t seen another car since the white sedan, and that had been almost 10 minutes ago now.
A crunching booming sound hit Jim, pulling him out of his reverie. He looked up and saw a cloud of smoke obscuring the back of the car he was following. The car slewed left, the rear wheels swinging wide making the car twist so the front was now pointing towards the guard rail.
“Ohmygod we’re gonna crash.” Jim didn’t realize he had spoken out loud. He saw the car speeding towards him, realized that the car was nearly motionless and he was the one racing towards it, and stamped the break again.
Something flew out of the back of the car and landed in the road, rolled and came to a stop a few feet away from Jim’s wildly breaking car. Jim spun the wheel, pushing his car into the breakdown lane just in time to avoid whatever the car had ejected. He hit the break even harder and was thrown forward into the steering wheel as his Civic came to an abrupt stop.
Jim lifted his head away from the wheel slowly, red aurora's bursting in front of his face. He could feel a pulsing weight on his chin and he tasted copper in his mouth. Gingerly he put a hand up to his mashed lower lip and examined the area, at the same time he ran his tongue across his front teeth, making sure they were still all present and accounted for. Jim looked up, seeing a silhouetted figure outlined in fire. His mind flew to thoughts of the devil and reincarnated monsters from the pits of hell. He saw the black beast from the Lord of the Rings movie Becky had loved so much, the one that had come out of the fiery wastes beneath the mines of Moria. That thing, pulled from Tolkien’s darkest imaginings had been called a Balrog.
Jim blinked and shook his pulsing head. There were no such things as Balrogs, that was just a fantasy. He looked at the figure again, seeing it had come several feet closer. The sudden movement made Jim start. Whoever that was had moved damned quickly. Jim saw how he had made his mistake. The figure before him was no hell beast, he just had the sun directly behind him, surrounding him with a red gold glimmer. The part of Jim’s mind that was most in touch with logic and reality accepted this concept. It was just a man silhouetted by sun, no big deal, he would probably come over and look into Jim’s driver’s side window and say, “Hey there fella you alright? Sorry about that, the trunk of my car popped open when I caught a flat.” The rest of Jim’s mind, the part that reminded him to turn on the light when he went down into the basement, thought that Jim’s original diagnosis was correct.
Jim stared at the figure as it came closer. His heart was still hammering in his chest. Two near crashes in less than half an hour, that was bad luck. The idea of car a car crash made him remember the old man in the white Sedan. He was probably a couple of miles behind Jim, but even at the sedan’s sedate pace, he would get here soon. Jim wondered if the old man would be able to see the car across the highway and be able to stop in time. Based on the way he had to squint when he looked over at Jim’s car, it didn’t seem likely.
Jim rolled the driver’s side window down and stuck his head out to tell the driver to move his car as soon as possible, or he would be in danger of another accident. What he saw made the back of his throat dry up almost instantaneously. The world outside his car had changed, he was no longer looking at a rolling green forest dotted with occasional advertisement for McDonald’s and Dunkin Donuts, the landscape had changed. The highway was there, and it continued to stretch out into the horizon, but there was something horribly wrong with it. The asphalt had turned a dark blue color that reminded Jim of deep pools where dark things might lie hidden from humanity. As he looked out past the two cars and along the road, it seemed to change, at one moment turning slowly right until it was hidden from view by perspective and then turning left. The image made Jim’s head swim and he suddenly felt car sick, something he hadn’t felt in more years than he could remember. The trees on the sides of the road were wrong too, it was as if they no longer conformed to the laws of physics, the branches and leaves stuck out in all directions, some pointing down, and Jim could swear that the moment he looked away from a tree it would twist and change as if he were looking through a fisheye lense. Worst of all was the sky, it loomed above all, empty of clouds but heavy and bloated with some obscene weight. Jim thought that if he reached up and pressed a finger into that deadly blue emptiness, he could tear a hole in it that would rip and spread, bringing a host of monsters and unholy beasts down upon him.
Gravel crunched on the ground in front of Jim and he whipped his head towards the sound, remembering the driver again. What Jim saw made him think that the sky had already dropped a monster into this reality. The driver was tall, inhumanly tall, perhaps 8 or 9 feet of black body that stretched upwards, defying the eye. He wore black cowboy boots, shining with a sick oily sheen that Jim didn’t want to look at, and a black suit with a bolo neck tie tied around a neck that was far too narrow. The bolo was clasped with a pendant in the shape of a cow’s skull, but it was no cow skull Jim had ever seen before. It was stretched and staring, huge empty eye sockets and a yawning screaming mouth.
As Jim watched, the part of the driver’s body he was looking at stayed solid, moving inexorably forward, while the rest of him twisted and changed in Jim’s peripheral vision as if the man were a wax dummy melting in some tremendous heat. Every time Jim tried to isolate the twisting bubbling changes to the man’s features, they solidified, allowing the rest of the body Jim wasn’t staring at, to change and bend. Jim could feel his head splitting from the inside, he couldn't be seeing what he was seeing, it simply wasn’t possible.
A dread filled Jim, rising from his toes up to his stomach and prickling the hairs on the back of his neck as it ran upwards to his head. Jim pulled himself back inside the car and bent over to barrier between the driver’s seat and the passenger’s. For a moment he struggled, trying to hold his lunch down. It was a close thing, Jim could almost taste the cheeseburger and pickle trying to worm their way back up his throat. The rank smell of half digested vinegar filled his nostrils and he had to suck in air to keep himself from losing it.
Jim came back to a sitting position and stared out the windows again, expecting to see the monster in the black suit staring in at him, his too large body bent over at the middle of the chest instead of the waste, an unimaginable face peering in at him, bulging eyes staring at Jim, eating him up with every second they watched.
When Jim looked around his first thought was, “Oh thank god, it was just my imagination. None of that was real.” The road had returned to its grey, pitted, normal self, the trees, though beginning to brown and wither, were normal trees and there was a sign off in the distance, along the solid and unchanging road, that advertised for Motel 8.
Jim heard a click and looked over to see his car door opening. His mouth dropped and he stared from the bloated pregnant sky he saw out his window to the normal one he saw through the windshield. Somehow the world seen through the blue tint on the top of Jim’s front windscreen was a different one to the world that was crawling into his driver’s seat.
The squirming, deadly sky and the logic defying trees that Jim saw out his passenger door, were suddenly blotted out by a looming wall of black. Jim let out a little scream as an arm, the length and width of a broom handle reached in towards him. The arm had too many elbows, and they seemed to shift along the bone. A cold weight wrapped around Jim’s shoulder and Jim felt his left side go numb. There was something leaching into his skin from the sickening, deadly touch of the driver’s hand. Jim batted at the long, spider like fingers that wrapped all the way around his arm, trying to pull them off. As soon as his fingers touched the driver’s flesh, his hand went numb. The numbness was filling his whole body and Jim’s head fell forward onto his chest as his neck muscles stopped functioning. A scream of atavistic terror died in his throat.
The dead white hand pulled Jim out of his front seat and onto the midnight blue pavement. The concrete felt wet and clawing on Jim’s neck and he tried to squirm away from it but his whole body was immobile. The black suited creature shoved him casually further into the road. As his head rolled on it’s boneless axis, he caught a panoramic view of the sick and deadly world around him and the shriveled, abused thing that had come out of the driver’s car.
Jim registered the curled fetal position, the skin that had mummified and shrunk until it clung to the dead thing like crumpled brown paper. Most of all, Jim looked into the thing’s frozen screaming face and saw his own fate mirrored in those dried out, hollow sockets.
The body lay a few feet behind Jim’s Civic’s bumper. He could see a striped grey and white halter top dangling on the emaciated corpse and a pair of faded denim shorts that looked far too big on those sticklike legs. On each side of the mummy’s skull were blonde pigtails, held in place by fluffy pink scrunchies that had lost none of their coloring over the endless years they must have held her hair in place. When was the last time Jim had seen scrunchies? The thought made his mouth go dry and he discovered he could scream after all. Jim was shoved into a tight dark place in the rear of the driver’s car and he felt noisome suckers attach themselves to his body, puncturing his tweed suit jacket. They burrowed into his skin, sending out electric shocks of pain throughout his body. He could feel others crawling under his clothes and slithering over his skin towards fresh, unbroken flesh.
As the driver closed the lid of the car, Jim saw two tube like strands of wire crawl up over his chest and towards his head. He strained to move his arms in front of his face, but the paralysis and the dozens of sucker wires held him back. Everything was dark, but he could feel the wires worming their way over his chin and up towards his nose. Jim let out a piercing scream as his drugged mind registered where they were heading. He could already feel the attached wires sucking the life out of him as the two wires on his face sliced open his tightly clenched eyelids and dug into his eyes.
Henry Dearborn nearly missed the car pulled off to the side of the road as he came around the long curve in the Pike. His tinnitus was getting really bad, Dolores kept telling him to ‘Weah ya damned glasses Hank. Do you ya wanna cause an accident?’ Hank would invariably flap his hands at his wife and say ‘Shua, shua whadeva.’ and go back to reading his paper when she did this. Now though, he remembered all of those scoldings and felt a twinge of guilt.
Why had that car been pulled off the side of the road anyway? It looked like it belonged to that suited fella who passed him a couple of minutes back. Maybe the guy was taking a piss, damned fool if he was, the staties would come by and arrest him for indecent exposure or some such thing. Hank thought he had seen something sitting by the rear of the car as he swerved around it, something large and brown. Was the guy checking a flat?
Hank glanced back in his rearview mirror, he could see the little civic disappearing into the distance behind him, but no brown thing sitting by the car’s bumper. Maybe it was a passing tumbleweed or something. Did you get tumbleweeds in Massachusetts? Hank didn’t know or care. All he knew was that he and Dolores wanted to move down to Florida, Massachusetts was too cold and too filled with crazy young folk.
A sign appeared in front of Hank as he carefully pulled back into the slow lane, his speed now closer to 40 than to 65. Sweetwater 1 mile. Thank god, he could get off this god forsaken highway and see Dolores. If she knew how close he had come to buying it this evening, she would never let him hear the end of it.
Behind Henry, a few feet in front of the idling civic, a wavering heat haze blew away in the early evening breeze, taking with it a pile of brown ash that coated a spot of road a few feet away from the Civic’s bumper. A few flecks of the brown stuff were caught in the slight breeze and blew up against the side of the car. For a moment, the fleck of brown stuff looked like a fingernail, heavily coated with lime green nail polish. Then it was gone, whisked away down the highway, turning over and over along with a few early fall leaves.
Six years later, Mary Henderson put up a hand to block the sun glare from the car ahead of her. She narrowed her eyes as she stared. Why was the guy driving in the middle of two lanes?