Terry lived an hour down the highway from me, out in a rural patch of county. One of those that wasn’t quite farmland territory, but remote enough that folks could have horses behind their slipshod fences, and chickens strutting around freely. He’d just moved there, despite the protests and me and a few of our other friends, who didn’t see why he had to head so far out of the way. His wife had a few things to do with it, I thought. In a moment of transparency last April, Terry had told me that he was hoping the fresh air out in chicken-country would act as some kind of balm to their ailing marriage. I hoped he was right. Terry and I had known each other since grade school, and he was important to me, which meant his marital happiness was similarly important to me.
Still, I couldn’t pretend I hadn’t tried to steer him away from the move. “Weird crap happens out in rural places,” I’d told him, recalling a tale of woe I’d heard about a pest exterminator who’d gone out on a call in a backwoods neighborhood similar to Terry’s new one.
“It was up near Boone, not far from where you’ll be,” I’d told him. “They say the guy came back with a huge chunk bit out of his neck. They say it was a human bite, too. Bit by a person, man.”
“Horseshit,” Terry had said, chuckling through the phone.
The last few times I’d spoken to Terry had been over the phone. We both had to work, and he had his marriage to save, so football nights weren’t a thing we could manage anymore. I missed him. So when he called on Thursday night to invite me down for a barbecue at his new house that weekend, it was all I could do not to jump in the car right then. But I restrained myself until Saturday at six.
Terry had said I didn’t have to bring anything but myself, which I took as instruction to bring two cases of hard lemonade. Some of our other mutual friends were going to the barbecue, too, and one had planned to carpool there with me. However, at the last minute he’d caught a stomach bug by its puke-inducing antennae and backed out, leaving me to ride out the hour to Terry’s alone, which was all right by me.
“You’re sure you know how to get out here?” said Terry as I hopped in my shuddery old Jeep with the lemonade. I’d been on the line with him long enough that pressing his voice against my ear made my cellphone screen hot, and it tried to stick to me as I switched ears.
“Of course I don’t,” I answered, “just the general area. I’ll use the GPS, Terry – it’ll be all right.”
“We-ell,” Terry let out a long-suffering sigh. “We-ell. It’s just, the area’s strange. Are you sure you want to drive?”
“It’ll be all right. What do you mean, the area’s strange? The wild chickens? I promise to watch for chickens.”
“No, brother,” said Terry. “No; I mean that the area’s strange.”
It sounded different as he said it the second time. For some reason I laughed, perhaps because it was all I could do. Terry had never been good at explaining anything. I just told him cheerily that I was out the door, and to look for me a little after seven o’clock.
I had backed myself up by printing off directions to Terry’s address from the internet, and planned to use those as well as the map on my smartphone, just in case. He wasn’t wrong – the area around his new neighborhood was a little strange, full of (from what I could tell from the map) thin, overlapped, curvy roads that either dropped off after 300 feet or didn’t drop off for 300 miles. Several changed names at random spots.
For the first bit of the drive, I set the paper directions aside and used the phone, its little screen sitting in my console cup holder next to an open hard lemonade. I promised myself I’d be responsible with it this time, taking sips few and far between as I drove. I smiled at how angry Terry would be if he knew I was drinking it. I listened to music, too, blasting it to make the hour pass more quickly. According to the phone, only twenty minutes of it was spent on the interstate, the rest involving a two-lane highway and those wind-y, name-changing backroads.
Maybe the music was too loud, or I was air-drumming on the steering wheel too spiritedly, or I’d been looking down to get a swallow of hard lemonade in me, but I missed my exit.
Recalculating route, said the phone, and I choked on my drink and swore.
Where had it been? Exit 68, I remembered from the directions. Missed entirely. I hadn’t seen any “one mile ahead” signs warning me of its approach, either. I got off at 67 instead, then looped around and got back on the freeway in the opposite direction, pointed north. This time, I found exit 68 right where it should have been, between similar exits 67 and 69.
Recalculating route, said the phone again.
Something shot past my field of vision, in the corner of my eye nearest the highway shoulder. I jumped and nearly swerved in my lane. I searched every rearview mirror in confusion, my pulse thudding in my ears for a moment before quieting again. In my right-side mirror I saw a black mound zipping away into the darkness of the highway behind me, illuminated for barely a second by the taillights.
RECALCULATING ROU- I flinched wildly at the automated voice.
“Shut up, shut up!”
It had no reason to recalculate. I did, however, need the next step in my directions. I used the stoplight at the end of the deceleration lane as a chance to attack the phone, picking it up and shaking it. Eventually I closed the GPS map and reopened it, entering Terry’s address a second time. The route lit up in blue, and automated voice began again to tell me which way to go.
This time, just in case, I reached over to compare the phone’s directions to the ones on paper. It had begun to get dark. My wrist knocked into my bottle of grown-up lemonade as I reached, tipping the thing and its contents all over the page of printed directions.
Had she heard the things flying from my mouth, my mother might’ve gone home to the Gates of Splendor. But my mother wasn’t there. No one was there. It was only me, a darkening highway, and a page of directions that had nearly dissolved in a lake of flavored alcohol.
The light had turned green. I wouldn’t have noticed, had the car waiting behind me not honked two long, angry honks. Flustered, I left the soaked page where it was, cursing and tapping my phone while turning one-handed onto the long, badly-lit, two-lane highway that began the forty-minute remainder of the trek. Rushed or not, this course of action seemed to sit well with the phone.
For 15 miles, it said, continue on this route.
It occurred to me that even if the phone map failed again, I could call Terry. I had reception, battery, and nothing really to be concerned about. I hadn’t gotten lost yet, I reminded myself with something like a smirk. I drove confidently for ten or twenty minutes, listening through a Rolling Stones album and bemoaning the loss of my lemonade. I checked the phone and jolted.
Continue 26mi, the screen read.
“Buffalo shit-wing! What are you, a charlatan?!”
I talked to myself to lighten the situation, but an uncomfortable feeling had crawled up in me. It perched in my chest and pecked.
I cranked down the radio with an angry jerk. Exiting the blue-lit route, I made the phone-map show me the next road to look for. Billaise Rd, said the direction steps. Twenty-six miles away from me, if I only kept going steadily in the same direction. I sighed and decided the original fifteen-mile estimate had been a glitch. The change in mile number had simply been the map correcting itself. After resuming the route, I noted with narrowed eyes that the Estimated Time of Arrival, usually located at the top of the map, had disappeared.
I drove for several long minutes without the strength to check the phone.
Once I did, I breathed. Continue 19mi.
Ridiculous. It’d been ridiculous to feel like I had for a minute there – so strung out, so stiff at the wheel, almost afraid…
The two-lane highway had gotten to a point where no lights lit it at all. There was nothing but blackness and trees, lines and lines of trees, the dark broken only by my headlights. Continue 10mi, the screen read. I reached to turn the radio up again, realizing suddenly that I’d been riding in near silence.
This time I saw it before it zipped past the car. A black mound, unmoving on the highway shoulder yet racing, shooting out of the darkness as the Jeep rumbled along the narrow road and passed it. The road felt so narrow as I drove past the black thing, my chest constricted again in fear I would hit it. The same as before. It flew by as quickly as it had appeared, and my eyes followed it in the side mirror as it sank out of the taillights’ glow and back into the dark.
It didn’t even strike me until a minute later that it wasn’t, obviously, the same mound as the first. That had been miles ago, back on the interstate. Maybe the black heaps were garbage left behind from road construction. The next time I saw one, I’d flash the high-beams at it, and see if I could tell what on earth it was.
The two-lane road had gotten so dark. Everything in front of me was one color, a sheet of yawning black. The headlights barely penetrated four feet of it. The clock on the car radio glowed green, claiming it was barely ten minutes until seven. I’d told Terry seven o’clock, so surely Billaise Road was coming up soon. I glanced down.
“Oh, my God-!”
Continue 44mi, read the phone screen.
Adrenaline surged through me and I steadied myself, pressing back into my seat and staring at the yawning road ahead. Losing my head behind the wheel would be much more dangerous than being lost. Still, my breath snuck in gasps through my lips instead of through my nostrils.
I fumbled and snatched up the phone, glancing quickly between it and the black road as I dialed Terry.
“Terry,” I hissed, trying in vain to sound even-keeled. “That highway after the exit – how many miles do I stay on it?”
“Good Lord, brother,” my friend answered. His voice lowered and he formed his words slowly. “Shouldn’t you almost be here?”
“I know, man – my map messed up, sorry. How many miles between the interstate and Billaise Road?”
“…What? What are you talking about? You haven’t even found Billaise?”
I gritted my teeth. The cold, uncomfortable feeling had crept back into my chest, hooking itself to my ribs and hanging there. “How many miles, Terry?”
“It’s just six! Six miles from the interstate to Billaise Road.”
My jaw locked. The phone screen burned against my cheek.
“Hello? How far out did you go, man? If you missed the road, why haven’t you turned around? Hello?!”
The phone vibrated. The automated voice broke in over Terry’s frantic one, so loud that I jumped and dropped the thing onto the car floor.
For 96 miles, continue on this route. You will have to walk to your destination.
I swore madly and tried to fish for the phone, but ducking down to grab it while driving was impossible. It had landed between the gas pedal and brake, its lifeless voice repeating at me that You will have to walk to your destination. Finally, checking my shoulder with a jerk and seeing no headlights behind me, I swerved to the road shoulder as the Jeep rumbled and rattled to a stop. I idled there with my head in my hands, taking several deep breaths before reaching down, grabbing the phone, and looking once more at the map screen.
In 600 feet, the destination is on your right.
I stared, motionless, my brow furrowed in anger and disbelief as I looked up. The darkness was much too thick to see six hundred feet ahead of me. Reluctantly I began to ease off the brake, and the Jeep rolled slowly along the shoulder as the phone flashed. 550ft. 400ft. 250ft. 100ft.
Simply, almost obediently, it appeared. A small mound of black mass crept out of the dark ahead of me. A motionless clump on the right side of the shoulder, seeming so close to the road I could hit it. The brakes squealed as I jerked to a stop. The idling rattle of the car seemed to move more than my own pulse. I stared into the thing, searching for its shape. Black. Only black. Every part of me grew frigid and still.
Gradually I forced one of my hands to move. It felt like breaking through a shell of ice on my skin when my fingers twitched, finding the lever that turned on the high-beams. With a forceful click, they flashed onto the thing, blanching the pavement around it.
The thing did not change. The thing was black. It had no features, but I thought I could see more of a shape, parts of the mound that were separate mounds, almost like-
The phone’s voice crackled and whined through the car, infinitely louder than before. It made my ears ring, and I slapped my hands over them.
THE DESTINATION IS ON YOUR RIGHT
When I looked again through the windshield, the black heap had risen up, standing.
The car screeched as it clambered fully back onto the road. I stomped the gas pedal nearly to the floor and gripped the wheel with both hands, either breathing hard or screaming to myself, I couldn’t tell. I looked only at the endless tunnel of coming dark, the only thing visible a four-foot stretch of road, road, road, always the unchanging road.
And then I saw the sign, gleaming white and green: BILLAISE RD. The Jeep almost tipped onto two tires as I ripped the wheel to one side, the force of the turn pressing my body into my door. I could smell burned rubber. The ringing in my ears hadn’t stopped. In the corner of my eye on the right side of the shoulder I saw a black mass, standing, shaking. If it had shoulders, it was shaking them. Violently, rapidly. It flashed by the car as I drove, over seventy miles per hour now, approaching eighty. The phone said in its monotonous voice to turn left. Then right. The roads changed names. I tore the phone from the console and dialed.
“Where are you, man?! You’re scaring me! I shouldn’t have let you drive alone, it’s way too soon. God, you’re scaring the shit out of me!”
“IT’S HERE. EVERYWHERE. IT’S HERE ON THE ROAD.”
The black heap flew by the passenger-side window for the hundredth time. For the hundredth mile.
“What? What’s on the road?!”
“HAVE TO WALK.”
Black thing. Flying by the window. Over and over and over and over and over.
So close I could hit it.
It was standing again, shaking everywhere, shaking at me. It had no face at all, but maybe arms. I saw one of the arms lift, in fact, just as the Jeep careened and rumbled off the road, down the shoulder, into the bushes in front of the trees. I heard the cases of hard lemonade shatter, and for a split second I thought it was the lemonade soaking my face. When I touched my fingers to it, I knew it was much too sticky and warm and thick.
The phone had flown forward, knocked from my hand, and landed askew on the dashboard. Bits of shattered glass from the bottles surrounded it. The Jeep was alright, I thought. I’d smacked my nose on the steering wheel. Faulty airbag, apparently. I groaned, and the phone spoke to me once more.
You will have to walk to your destination.
I shoved open the car door. The pain in my nose was incredible, and snot and tears mixed with the slick coat of blood on my face. I did not take the phone. I did not need the directions. I crept back up the highway shoulder on all fours, slinking along until I found my spot there. I couldn’t stop shaking, sobbing, swimming in pain and confusion and darkness.
Of course I didn’t mean to do anything so terrible. I never meant to do that. I was so scared and confused, and everything was dark. Everything was so dark, Terry. I drove off because it was dark. I was so scared of what they would do to me. They'd have put me away.
I sat down on the highway shoulder and pulled by knees to my chest, bowing my bloodied face to them. I curled there in my black heap. Sometimes I shook, and sometimes I didn’t move. Shapeless. A void. Headlights appeared around the curve of the road, distant but coming fast. They flew past me in a roar, so bright, so close. Close enough to hit me. I saw the car swerve treacherously, then align again as the driver steadied himself, searching his rearview mirrors for me.
He would not see me. It was too dark.