It was his job to be out here tonight. However, it seems he wasn't making the trip alone.
|The temperature fell with the sun. There was only one road in this land of rock and sand-- a lonely trail of black asphalt that wound its way up into the mountains. Walter took a drag from his cigarette. His eyes drifted between the gages and the yellow dotted lines. He willfully ignored the gathering clouds, even as he continued to crank up his own heater. The muffled roar of the engine was Walter's only company as he followed the highway further into the desert.
"Mother Nature forgot to take her meds again," he muttered.
There was an irony to be had in this storm. Here Walter was, driving through a desert with a foot of snow set fall. Weren't deserts supposed to be wastelands that had no water? He shrugged at the thought. Just another day in paradise.
"Relax. You're not on call," someone had assured Walter, "You'll be off before the first flake hits."
Walter shook his head at the memory. It must have been something his wife had said when he was walking out the door this morning. Today was such a busy haze that he couldn't remember where exactly he had heard it.
Now Walter was wondering if she hadn't jinxed him. The snow was beginning to fall, and he was making the four-hour round trip that everyone else had refused. He lit a cigarette and turned on the radio. Static blared into the cab, punctuated by his hand smacking against the power button.
"Not gonna deal with that," he grumbled.
Walter took a drag of his cigarette and stared into the void beyond the headlights. Minute by minute, the mileposts ticked by like little green beacons in the night. The snow began to fall with increasing urgency. It didn't take long for the sun to dip behind the mountains. As it did, it took what little light and heat were left with it.
As time went on, the visibility dropped from miles to just a few yards within the confines of his headlight beams. In this narrow view, a shape appeared in the barpit. Walter was so focused on the road that it almost didn't register. He saw a shadow come and go, a form quickly dismissed as a fence post. Then it clicked. It had a rounded top and stick-like shape that widened out just like...
"That was a person!" Walter blurted out as he shoved the brake pedal to the floor.
Brakes squealed; the cab shuddered, and the engine groaned as he dropped down through the gears. As he slowed, an internal argument raged. He only had two extra seats in the truck and an unknown amount of people with the car. Picking this person up would only leave the one seat. Besides, he was miles from civilization without a house or broken down vehicle in sight-- not that his view extended that far. The snow and the darkness worked together to mask everything but a few yards of road in either direction.
As Walter sat there in the dark, his skin began to crawl. What had been a matter of practicality took a slow and ominous turn. His rearview mirror showed a black silhouette set against the red glow of his taillights. With every passing second, he stared at it with growing intensity. The person was hooded and about average height. He could tell that much. However, there was something else, something almost sinister about them. The person didn't shuffle or turn. In fact, it stood there like a statue, unfazed by the wind. The longer it lingered, the more Walter expected its fingers to turn to claws or to find the person suddenly next to him in the seat. He quietly gulped as he eased off the clutch. Whatever it was, he wasn't going to stick around and find out.
"There ain't nothing here for ya," he muttered.
Walter's eyes were glued to the rearview mirror as the truck crawled back up to speed. The figure disappeared into the snow, and Walter soon found his attention directed solely to the road ahead. The storm was getting worse, with the icy blast forming an impenetrable veil. Walter soon began to feel the steering wheel jerk in his hands. It wasn't much more than a twitch, but it was an omen of things to come, much like the wandering back end. Walter knew this and turned his eyes to the side of the road.
As he guided the truck out of the next pair of curves, he reached over for his gloves. There was a wide spot up ahead, and it was time to put the chains on. The truck lumbered off the road. The world around him stopped, and Walter slipped a yellow reflective vest over his coat.
The airbrakes set, and he dropped into the snow. Armed with a flashlight and tire chains, Walter set to work. At the same time, the snow was even worse than he expected. His jacket had proven itself capable of withstanding the winter elements. However, tonight was an exception. The wind cut through his coat like a knife through hot butter. It found its way down his sleeves and into his collar. The snow on the ground melted against his pants and soaked his shins.
By the time he began working on the first tire, Walter's teeth were already chattering. His face hurt while his fingers soon grew numb in the wind, making even the simplest of tasks difficult. By the time he reached the back tires, the act of laying out the chain netting had turned into an awkward and precarious job.
"Come on… Come on, you piece of--"
Walter's fingers slipped the wrong way. The chain went the other direction, and his feet took off to the right and left, respectively. The asphalt sailed up to meet him as he crashed to the ground. Pain exploded up his back and bounced off the back of his head. The flashlight chased him down, and the truck was plunged into darkness.
Ow! Fuck!" he groaned.
Walter stripped off his left glove and cautiously probed the back of his head. He didn't feel any blood, but there was definitely a knot. He would definitely feel… that… Walter froze, his other hand halfway to the flashlight.
An uncanny shiver shot up his spine. Every sense was tuned to the world around him. Through the howling wind, he could make out the rumble of the engine. Between the looming tires, he could make out the glow of the passenger headlight. Behind him, the red light of taillights peeked under the bed. To the left and right, the darkness closed in. Something was wrong. He couldn't see it, but he could feel it. It was there, churning his gut. Dread clawed its way up his throat.
Walter gulped as he reached for the flashlight. As he closed his hand around the light, an awful sense of deja-vu filled his mind. Walter opened his mouth to speak. Yet the words died in his throat as he swept the light from side to side.
"Hello! Anyone there?" he finally forced out.
The words were swept up and smothered by the wind. Walter felt his muscles tense even further in the silence. As he knelt in the darkness, he considered the chains. With the two front tires done, he could make it, couldn't he? A growing sense of fear told him to drop the partially fastened chains. It's not like he was new to driving. Just cut them loose and go. Worst came to worst; he'd bite the bullet and buy replacements. Then again, he was almost done, and...
"And mama didn't raise a coward," he grumbled.
He turned back to the chains and felt something else stir. Maybe it was stubbornness, grim acceptance, or something else. He couldn't say, but his strength shored up. He set the flashlight back on its perch and zeroed in on the offending tire.
"Mama didn't raise a coward--" he wrenched the steel lever down flat against the sidewall of the tire "--Nor did she raise a quitter."
Walter pulled on his second glove and threw himself at the work. The night grew increasingly miserable with every passing moment. Fear lingered in his mind, just behind the numb fingers and tired arms. However, promises of a warm cab and visions of an even more comfortable bed drove him on.
He tightened down the last chain and snatched up the flashlight. As its beam came up, a shadow appeared in Walter's peripheral vision.
He whipped around with balled fists and wide eyes. Yet, there was nothing. Walter pressed his back against the truck and played the light across the open ground. His eyes bore into the darkness as though he could clear the icy veil through willpower alone. Yet, he saw nothing.
"Probably just a deer," he decided.
The answer rang hollow. There was something else out there. Walter knew it in his gut and his head, but now it didn't matter. He was done, and the warmth of the driver's seat was just a few feet away. It was time to go. The bench seat felt just a little softer than usual as Walter settled into it. The glow of the dome light was a little more reassuring. The heater was quick to slow the chattering in his teeth, and soon his fingers were warm enough to grip the steering wheel and gearstick.
Walter got the tow truck back onto the highway and went to light yet another cigarette. It was his last one, and the night wasn't even halfway done yet. He paused as he looked down at the carton. Visions of dark silhouettes and red taillights flashed through his mind. In response, he plucked out the cigarette and tossed the carton.
"This night just keeps getting better and better," he muttered as he lit the stick of tobacco.
The acrid smoke whisked up his nose and billowed out with another deep sigh. With each drag, he tried to push the unease further and further back into his mind. He tried to forget the person in the road and the noise in the brush.
"It's just another call on another night. Ain't nobody out here but me and the snow," he announced.
Walter repeated it several times over the next few minutes. With every passing declaration, shaky whispers were replaced by a deadpan recital. No matter how much he told himself he was imagining things, the uncanny darkness seeped ever-deeper into his mind.
He continued to trudge deeper into the mountains. Ghostly towers of rimrock shot up into the sky on either side of the road. The road slipped between them in a winding path that got more and more narrow the higher he got. By now, many of the corners were blind and far sharper than was immediately apparent. Walter knew these mountains and the roads that went through them intimately. It was for this reason that he picked his way around each corner with exaggerated caution.
Like a phantom in the night, the woman materialized in the headlights. It was between two sets of s-curves that she appeared. Her pale face glowed in the headlights while her hair draped unmoving over her shoulders.
He slammed on the breaks. His wheels ground into the snow and his back end drifted around, defying the sudden stop. The engine howled its protests. The entire truck shuddered as it spun sideways in the road, but it was no use. The woman locked eyes with Walter as she slipped under the front of his truck.
The truck skidded to a stop sideways in the road. Walter threw open the door and bailed out, barely remembering to set the brake and click on the hazard lights as he went. In one hand was a flashlight, while his phone was in the other. He sprinted back down the center of the road with reckless abandon. Fear and confusion made his head spin as he bounded, slipped, stumbled, and trudged his way through the ice and snow.
She was dead. Walter was sure of that. Getting hit by the truck would've been enough to shatter just about every bone in her body. She would've slipped between the wheels, but the blow to the back of the head would've also been enough to seal matters. All that was left now was finding her, finding the corresponding mile marker, and hoping there was enough signal to call 911.
"Shit… shit… shit… I didn't-- How…."
Walter's racing thoughts collided with reality as he found the start of his skid marks. Already, the tread marks were disappearing under a layer of fresh powder. However, the deep, semi-circular scar his truck had left in the ice couldn't be missed. There was just one problem.
"Now, where in the hell did you go?" he demanded.
Even as he spoke, a glimmer of hope stirred in his mind. Had he just been seeing things? Was it a trick of the eyes, the product of a tired mind? There was nobody and no blood trail to suggest that he had dragged her along in the undercarriage. Walter stared at the ground where the woman had been standing. A few seconds later, he looked up and around. There was no one and nothing but the distant glow of the truck lights.
The words drifted on the wind, almost like someone was whispering in his ear. Walter froze, unsure if he had actually heard it or not.
"Walter, it's time to come home."
The words were louder. Walter knew that voice from anywhere. His heart began to pound in his ears. His eyes turned to the truck. Walter cautiously put one foot in front of the other, half expecting a hand to drag him into the darkness. One second passed. He took another step. Another second passed, and he took the third step. That voice may have been familiar, but it was not welcome.
"Walt, please… Come with me."
His head began to spin again. Walter staggered forward with hurried steps. He must've hit his head harder than he thought earlier.
"What're you doing here?" he blurted out.
Walter's mouth moved faster than his brain. His breathing grew shallow and quick. His body demanded air that his lungs couldn't provide. It had to be a trick-- a very cruel and unusual trick.
"I'm dead. Don't you remember?" the voice called out.
It was a soft, almost silky voice laced with sorrow.
"No!" Walter shouted.
He began to violently shake his head as he sprinted for the truck. This wasn't happening. It couldn't be. The shadows shifted again, and the woman appeared in the mist again. She faded in and out of view like a wisp of smoke.
"Walter, please. Don't make me stay here," she pleaded, "I've been so alone."
In the back of his mind, the memories began to stir. The sirens and shouts. It was muffled, almost dreamlike, but it was there. Walter careened off the passenger fender and pulled himself around the front of the truck. Through the spots in his eyes, he caught sight of a single wooden cross. The pale, white cross was half-buried in snow and twisted by the elements. Walter couldn't explain what it was, but something compelled him to approach it. There was something familiar about that cross… about this place and this night. Carved into the wood were two simple words.
Walter felt the air forced from his lungs He remembered the yelling and the snow. The knife and the blood coupled with sirens and twisted metal to complete the picture. He opened his mouth to scream but no sound came out.
"I've missed you so much, dear."
Walter whipped around. His heart lept into his throat as the woman stared him down. Her blue eyes had been reduced to dead, silver dots while a cruel smile painted her face.
"I-- I remember… You tried to kill me," Walter stammered.
He pointed an accusatory finger at the woman. Inside, his mind threatened to completely break on him. What was happening? In a flash of adrenaline-induced clarity, he remembered it all. Yet, nothing was adding up. The words from the house echoed in his mind. He had never remarried after the crash. The phone call today. The person had said her car had died at milepost 187. This was 186. How had he not remembered sooner and realized where he was? Now at the end, it was so obvious.
"And you left me here to rot," Shelly hissed.
As she spoke, her fingers slowly twisted themselves out into long jagged claws. She took a step forward. Walter mirrored it with a step back. His face paled as it all finished falling into place. This night, the call, everything… It had all been one last, fatal lie.
Shelly took a step forward. In life, Walter had been disgusted and angry with her, but only a little scared of her. Now, on this road, the fear glued him in place. His mind screamed for action, but his body couldn’t comply. It was frozen by fear and crippled by indecision. Shelly’s next words rolled off her lips with a predatory smile.
“When I said I wouldn’t let you leave me, I meant it.”