I have been making the same drive back and forth from Hertford, NC to Chesapeake, VA for over five years now. It’s a long, solitary stretch - and over time, things have added up in my mind until it’s like navigating some other dimension. On the drive home last Sunday, a final pin dropped in the silence, and I heard the echo. I wrote this specially for my extra Halloween gift to you all…
by David Niall Wilson
The moon peeked out from behind early evening clouds, a half-crescent of white against shades of violet draining through purple to black. To the right of it, a sequence of clouds resembled a cross, or a man, arms outstretched.
Nickleback rolled from the scratchy speakers in the old Saturn, and Dave sang along.
“This is how you remind me of what I really am…”
A silver Toyota pulled up too close behind. The car hung at his bumper for a few moments, until he averted his eyes and ducked to avoid having to shift the rear-view to night-vision. Then the other driver shifted left to pass. The guy flipped on his brights as he changed lanes, causing a flash of light. Dave cursed, and waited for his vision to clear. He glanced up.
The moon hung a little higher in the sky, almost directly ahead. Half bright, half dark, it gleamed with a back-light glow of luminous promise. Farther to the right, the cloud had shifted to an equal armed cross with a circle at the top and bent at an angle. Beside it, another formation was an elongated, feline eye. The iris and pupil were perfectly formed, and it glared down over the tree line as he took the gentle curve where highway 17 swerved out and around the swamp. Something itched at his mind, but Nickleback had shifted to Uncle Cracker, and he was singing again, the jerk in the Toyota forgotten, and the giant eye in the sky only a minor distraction.
“Give me the beat boys; to free my soul…I want to get lost.”
It felt a little like being lost. The shadows were taller than usual, and storms had painted a different world over the backdrops of sky and road. A sign proclaimed bear crossing, and, as always, he glanced out into the fields and scanned the passing trees, hoping to catch sight of one. One morning, heading the other direction, he’d seen a huge, furred mound lying beside the road that he’d been certain was a bear run afoul of a car, but on the return trip – it was gone. One of many moments where that road had seemed to shift dimensions over a relatively short period of time.
A dead bear would be heavy, and the North Carolina authorities were never quick to remove road kill. It was possible the animal had only been stunned, or that some red neck had stopped with his eight cousins to lift the thing into the bed of a pickup truck and haul it back to the farm, but it didn’t feel that way. The more he thought about it, the less he remembered the exact shape of the lump beside the road. The less certain his memory became, the more possibilities opened up in his imagination – impossibilities, more accurately, but he couldn’t push them aside.
He glanced up. His hand shook on the wheel as he noted the half-moon hanging overhead. Far to his right, the clouds had stretched and elongated and the cross was more a sharp, driving spike hammed into the sky. The eye had disappeared completely but it didn’t ease his mind. It only seemed that whatever had watched the road was now hunkered behind the trees and out of sight. All the colors had shifted again, deep dark greens washing out the purples. He knew the rain would hit once he made it to the bypass. Another forty minutes to home. He gave the tree line a last glance, but saw nothing moving.
The road curved to the right slightly as it rejoined the old highway. On countless previous trips he’d driven that older road, running parallel to the Inter-Coastal Waterway, which stretched all the way to Florida and had its roots firmly in the nation’s historical registers. George Washington had played a hand in its creation. When the last hurricane had ripped through and smashed trees like weak toothpicks, he’d had to follow that road to work. State workers went through with huge chainsaws on trucks. They couldn’t really clear the trees, but they cut them all off even with the edge of the row. It was like driving through some sort of primordial phalanx, gigantic lances turned toward the road.
One morning, shortly after the storm, he’d found deep ruts dug into the side of the asphalt. They must have been caused by some heavy equipment – that’s what he’d told himself. It didn’t ring true. He’d actually stopped the car and gone back to photograph those ruts. When he followed the direction they seemed to point, he saw a line of trees smashed flat. At first, this seemed natural, with the damage from the storm. Then he looked harder. Looking harder on that road was always a mistake.
The trees he’d noticed were broken off pointing away from the waterway, and away from the swamp beyond. All of the damage from the hurricane leaned the same direction. The opposite direction. His skin had prickled and though he kept himself from breaking into a run as he returned to his car, he averted his eyes from the claw marks on the asphalt until the state repaired them, and he never glanced into the broken trees.
He hit the last of the widely spaced stoplights and halted. There was no other traffic. Only the dim glow of lights from nearby towns broke the misty gloom. Before he could think better of it, Dave turned his gaze up to the three quarter moon. His mouth went dry. The road ahead stretched into shadows. The light shifted to green. He pulled slowly away from the stoplight and rolled at a steady fifty-five miles an hour toward the bypass and home.
He rounded the curve and shot under the overpass that dipped off to Elizabeth City. The speed limit was 65 on the bypass, and he breathed a little easier – until he glanced ahead and saw the wall of shadow he knew was the storm. He sped into its mouth and felt the Saturn shudder. He slowed and the car shimmied. He thought he saw dim glowing eyes ahead, then thought they were taillights, then saw nothing. He slowed further, imagined another vehicle roaring up from behind and clutched the wheel too tightly.
Rain pounded the car, and the overworked wipers could barely give him a foot of visibility. The dashed centerline was the only guide he could find, and it made his eyes water staring at it. Something large loomed, and his heart slammed in his chest until he realized it was the second overpass. He slowed and rolled to the side of the road beneath it, pulling as far to the side as he could. The rain cut off like a switch.
The silence was eerie. Even with the hammering rain echoing all around him, it felt like a hole in the universe. There was a roar of sound, and a flash of light. He closed his eyes as a tractor trailer roared past, barely slowing for the storm. His memory flashed on the ruts in the road near the swamp, and he thought of dragons. He opened his eyes and watched as the rain slowed again to a drizzle. Looking carefully behind, he pulled back onto the road. A mile later he spun onto Highway 17 and headed for home.
He concentrated on the road. It seemed like hours, days, maybe years since he’d climbed into the Saturn. Ahead, at last, the road to home opened up on the right. He slowed, turned, and glanced up again. The full moon winked down at him as he passed beneath a canopy of trees and tried not to watch the shadows. Tried to remember which was real and which the dream. Shifted down through layers to life.
He stepped from his car and mounted the steps to home in shadow, deepened by the moonless sky.
—- David Niall Wilson