A delay leaving for a camping trip traumatizes four twenty-somethings.
Night of the Thatcher Worms
"Watch it, Jackson! There's brake lights up ahead!" Ronald shouted from the backseat.
Jackson slammed on the brakes, and his passengers lurched forward.
"Dammit!" Jackson said as he slammed his fist against the steering wheel. "I hoped we wouldn't run into something like this. See Paula, that's why I wanted to leave earlier. We would have missed this accident."
Paula replied from the backseat. "I didn't know we'd hit an accident."
'Yeah, but you were the one that wanted to postpone the time we left by three hours."
"Alright, stop it," Vivian said from the passenger seat. "Look up there. The traffic is being detoured. Once we get past it, we'll be good."
"Damn, I hope so," Jackson said before gazing into the rearview mirror. "Hey, Ronald. See if Google Maps can show us a shortcut to a faster way back to the highway." Jackson wished to get situated at the campsite early before it became too crowded. With their limited space, and now the accident, he wasn't sure if any sites would be available once they arrived.
Everyone remained quiet as music played in the background. Jackson regretted blowing up at Paula earlier, but she'd made them late for other events in the past. There was nothing to do now except wait for his turn to merge onto the exit ramp.
Halfway up the ramp, Jackson said, "Ronald, did you find an alternate path?"
"Yeah, but they're all minor roads. I don't see any town names, but there's a gas station icon on one road."
"If it's got a gas station, we're okay. I can fill up, and we can chow down on some gas station sushi, and get ptomaine poisoning together." Everyone began laughing. "So navigator, which way to the gas station?"
"I don't know but look outside," Ronald said as he scooted forward and pointed to the right side of the road. "They have the detour signs set out with the arrows. If we just follow the other cars, it may be the easiest way."
"But not the quickest way." Jackson retorted. "Where's the turnoff for the gas station?"
"Calm down, Jackson. The park isn't going to run away or anything," Vivian said. He knew she meant well, but his hang-up about being late had resurfaced, and although he was joking about sushi, he'd feel better if he fueled up earlier than later.
"Just keep following traffic, and I'll tell you when to make a left-hand turn," Ronald said. They inched along in a convoy for five minutes before Ronald said, "Okay, Jackson. The turn is coming up. It should be on your left. I think it's behind that big tree up there."
Jackson flipped on his blinker and made the turn onto a dirt road.
"Whoa! Whoa! A dirt road? I don't think so," Vivian said as she gripped her seat and stared straight ahead at a gauntlet of pine trees lining both sides."
"Ronald, are you sure this is the road?" Jackson asked.
"That's what the map shows. We're on the right road. You still want that sushi?" No one laughed, and Jackson felt the tension.
After a while, Jackson said, "Vivian was right. The park isn't moving, so let's explore for a bit. I can get some gas and we can go back and join the convoy. Okay?"
Only music and the sound of the tires on the road could be heard, and Jackson took that as a yes.
Tension remained in the air as they traveled down the dirt road. Sunlight tried to push through the evergreen's branches, but they were met by the heavy hands of the tree's shadows and helped seal the tension within the vehicle. Everyone was so quiet.
Then Jackson rolled down his window halfway and could feel all eyes on him.
"Smells pretty good out there, huh?"
"It does smell good," Paula said. It was the first words she'd uttered since having words with Jackson.
"This road isn't that bad either," Jackson said. "To tell the truth, I thought it would be much bumpier."
"Me, too," Vivian said.
"This is pretty cool. It's a nice day with a pleasant breeze, and the view is amazing. This isn't bad. Once we get to the gas station, we can get out and stretch, use the bathroom, I can pick up some jerky, and then we can head back to the convoy. How much longer before we get to the gas station, Ronald?"
"It says about fifteen minutes. We're close."
Ten minutes later, they crossed an old bridge onto a paved road, and a large, faded billboard displayed Welcome to Thatcherville.
"Thatcherville?" Ronald said. "I don't see that anywhere on the map, even after zooming in."
"Um, Ronald? You didn't lead us into a cult or anything, did you?"
"I can't lead you anyplace I can't see."
Jackson gazed around at the friendly town. It was Mayberry for the 21st century. Those walking along the street spoke to one another or waved. Everyone wore smiles, even if they walked alone. The tallest buildings were only two stories, and the homes were unique, not the cookie cutter kind like big city suburbs. The streets, sidewalks, lawns were well maintained. Places like these don't exist in the real world, Jackson thought.
What really impressed him were the businesses they passed. There was a large supermarket on the left, and a strip mall on the right. Next to it sat a one story motel, and just past that was the gas station. Opposite the gas station, on the other side of the street, was a well-manicured park with plenty of green grass and a playground.
Jackson pulled next to the farthest pump, and everyone hopped out. He watched as his friends stretched while he topped off the tank. They'd been cooped up in that vehicle for two hours without getting out, and he hoped the stretching would relieve the tension he introduced.
Vivian waved to a little boy who exited the gas station's food mart, and the boy waved back before hopping on his bike. Then the boy pedaled over to Vivian. She bent down and said,
With the same smile, the boy said, "Hello. It's a good day."
Jackson's eyebrows perked up. He didn't expect the boy to reply in that manner, but maybe the boy was being super polite. Nothing wrong with that. Then the boy rode away.
After he finished pumping gas, he noticed no one had entered the food mart by themselves. He walked around the back of the vehicle and asked,
"Are y'all going inside or what?"
"We were waiting for you," Ronald said.
"Oh, okay. Let's go."
Inside, Jackson found the well-lit food mart stocked with a large variety of items for travelers, and although they didn't have sushi, they had hot dogs and nachos. Ronald made a slow turn and wondered why this town wasn't spotted on Ronald's phone. It was a really nice place.
Jackson began shopping as the others went to use the restrooms. The store had a nice variety of jerky, which he adored. Pricey, but worth it. He grabbed large bags of Funyons and Cheetos and placed everything on the counter to pay. Ronald approached from behind while Jackson paid. Then he asked Ronald to hold his bags so he could use the restroom. Ronald obliged, and Jackson took his turn.
When he exited the restroom, he saw his friends chatting with the young male clerk who'd worn a large smile ever since they entered the establishment. It looked innocuous enough. He approached and noticed everyone had purchased something.
"Alright. Ready to get back on the road again?' Then he sang Willie Nelson's classic phrase, " On the road again..."
Vivian turned to him and said, "We have a proposition for you."
With a sideways glance, he asked, "What is it?"
"Look. We probably won't be able to get to the campsite in time to get a suitable spot. We could stay here tonight and try again tomorrow morning since we're already here. It's only a couple of hours away, and that way, we can do what you said, explore. Isn't this a beautiful town?"
"Yes, it's amazing, but do you really want to stay overnight?"
"Come on, Jackson," Paula said. "It was my fault we left so late. I'll even pay for the rooms."
"No, no. It is." Jackson gazed over at the clerk whose smile remained.
"You don't have to."
"I know. I want to."
"Is that okay with everyone?" In tandem, all three said yes. "Then let's do it." Jackson turned to the clerk and asked, "Do you know if there are vacant rooms in the motel over there?"
"I'm sure there is," the clerk said.
"You're welcome. It's a good day."
Jackson knitted his eyebrows before saying. "Yes, it is. Bye."
Upon exiting the food mart, Jackson retrieved his food from Ronald and everyone loaded back into the vehicle. The gas station's parking lot merged with the motel's parking lot.
Stepping inside the motel's lobby, Jackson believed it could have made the cover of a national magazine. Thatcherville was a hidden gem. The middle-aged female receptionist displayed her beautiful face by having her hair pulled back into a ponytail that draped over her shoulder. Once again, there was that big smile.
Jackson stood by while Paula made the reservations. He watched the other's roam around the lobby as they examined, and sometimes touched, the animal furs mounted on the walls. Then he pulled out his phone and opened Google Maps. Just as Ronald said, there was no Thatcherville on the map. He tried the street view, but everything in Thatcherville remained blurred. He returned his phone to his pocket.
"Thank you. It's a good day," Jackson heard the receptionist say.
Paula called everyone over and said, "Okay, here's the room keys for the boys, and I have the room keys for the girls."
"Boys and girls sleeping separately? Really?" Jackson said.
"Only for one night. It won't kill you," Vivian replied.
"Damn," Jackson said as Paula handed everyone their key. "Alright, Ronald, let's go grab the boy's stuff from the trunk. The girls can get their own stuff."
"Don't even try it," Vivian said.
"Just joking," Jackson replied.
Jackson never asked, but upon entering their room, he figured Paula may have spent too much. The rooms were exquisite, with a microwave, a regular coffeemaker, full size beds, a small couch, and a flat screen television, but it was the Keurig coffeemaker that grabbed his attention. After settling in, he and Ronald visited the girl's room where they spent the rest of the night eating, talking, and watching television since everyone became too relaxed to explore the town.
Around eleven that evening, Jackson said,
"Paula, mute the television for a second."
"Just do it for a second." The television went silent, and Jackson listened. "Do you hear that?"
"Yeah. What is that?" Ronald asked.
"It sounds like humming, but it's coming from outside," Paula said.
"But it sounds like a lot of humming. I mean, like multiple people."
Jackson went to the window and pulled the curtain aside. The townspeople were humming and gathering in the park across the street from the gas station. "Hey, come look at this." Everyone rushed toward the window. "I wonder what's up?"
"I don't know, but I don't think I like it," Ronald said.
"Ah, come on, Ronald. Maybe it's a town tradition or something. Let's go check it out," replied Vivian.
"Hey, they might not want us there."
"We won't know unless we try. Come on." Vivian replied before heading for the door, with the others following behind.
The last time Jackson had ever seen people gather like this was in the cartoon The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. None of the townspeople spoke to one another, and no one smiled. They hummed and walked toward the park like zombies, with the only show of emotion being family members grasping each other's hands. Now, Jackson thought he understood why this place didn't appear on the map.
They watched the townspeople cease humming and join hands to make three distinct circles, and they approached the closest one to see what was happening inside. Three people stepped toward the center of each circle, then turned around and walked halfway back. Seconds later, their bodies began to convulse as they stood. Jackson was sure vomit wasn't too far behind.
All three dropped to their knees as the convulsions became more violent. Their spines arched, forcing them on all fours. Each person heaved as if they wanted to expel their insides. Then each made a final arch, and a loud garbled sound emerged from all three circles.
Jackson's eyes popped as a black, eel-like object protruded from their mouths. He heard the people's jaws crack as they continued heaving until it was out. The streetlights glistened off the thick, slimy eels as they squirmed on the ground, while the three people lay still, presumably dead.
Then Jackson watched the little boy, who had spoken to Paula earlier, step toward one of the wiggling eels, grasp it with both hands, and pick it up. The other two within the circle did the same thing. Everyone remained quiet as each held up their eel as it wriggled and squirmed.
Then each bit into their eel and tore away its flesh. The thing's bodily fluids dripped from their chins as they chewed.
Each person returned to the circle and handed the eel to another person. That person took a bite and handed it to the next person. After each took a bite, they never wiped their mouths and turned to leave the circle. It was the most sickening display he'd ever seen, but what disgusted him more was that no one turned it down. Not even the kids.
Jackson spotted the hotel receptionist returning to the hotel and was ready to have a frank discussion with her. Ronald held his mouth, while Paula buried her head in Vivian's shoulder. Jackson whispered, "Let's get out of here." They all turned and walked back as if one of the townspeople. The group headed toward the girl's room before Jackson said, "Wait. Let see if the receptionist is there. I want to know what the hell that was."
"Man, I'm not that curious. I'm ready to get out of this town," Ronald said.
"Hey, wait a minute. Y'all wanted to stay here overnight, alright? So, if we're doing this, I want to know what's going on so I don't wake up dead." He stormed off toward the office and could hear the other's following.
He opened the door and spotted the receptionist cleaning off her mouth, but she didn't look any different. He slowed down and approached the desk, trying to remain civilized. He had no idea what to ask her.
At the desk, he smiled and asked, "Did you see what happened in the park?"
"Of course." She kept her head down while her tone remained nonchalant.
"Did you participate?"
"Of course. Everyone in town participates."
The easiness of her voice struck a nerve, and he demanded, "Participate in fucking what? What the hell is taking place in this town?"
She stopped what she was doing and smiled. "Tonight was Thatcher Night, and one of the town's rare times we get to eat the delicacy."
"That eel-like thing that sprung from those people's bodies is considered a delicacy?"
"Oh, yes. During the night of the spring solstice, which is tonight, they select nine people to feed the rest. Anyone who has consumed the delicacy during past spring solstices can be selected, and it's an extraordinary honor."
"Who selects the people?"
"What the hell is the Thatcher?"
"That's what you call that eel-like thing." She maintained her smile.
"How can it select someone?"
"You find out when you're in the circle. It's a calling from inside I'm told. I can't wait until I'm called."
Vivian asked, "Don't you get sick from eating that thing?"
The receptionist turned with a smile and answered, "No. Just the opposite. No one in town can ever get sick because a baby Thatcher lives in everyone's stomach. Death comes when we are selected. The Thatcher knows how many to select to keep the population steady,"
"Why don't people just leave?" Paula asked.
"They can't. No one wants to leave Thatcherville once they've tasted the Thatcher."
Jackson stepped back and said, "I'll tell you what. We didn't take a bite out of the Thatcher, so we're getting the hell outta here. Come on, y'all"
"But you already paid for your rooms."
Paula turned and said, "Keep it. We don't need this."
Everyone jogged back to their rooms, grabbed their gear, and loaded it into Jackson's vehicle. He couldn't believe people still straggled home after eating that thing. A beautiful town with such a dark secret doesn't need to be on a map. Then he had a chilling thought, right before leaving the parking lot.
He turned and said, "Do you know, if they wanted to, they could have kidnapped us and kept us here?"
"Shut up!" Vivian said. "Drive back toward the detour. I want to get the fuck outta here. These people are sick."
"I agree. Let's do this." Jackson punched the gas, forcing his tires to squeal as he got back onto the pavement and out of the nightmare in Thatcherville.