(A horror story about travel.)
“You never know what’s sharing the road with you after dark,” Dad said as he gave me my first driving lesson. “Whenever you’re driving alone on an empty road, pay attention to what you pass — even if it’s just something you notice for half a second out of the corner of your eye or just out of the range of your headlights. Because even if you’re not looking at it, you can be damn sure it’s looking at you.”
He died in a car accident a number of years later. It happened just after midnight, on an empty road, in the middle of nowhere. The software in the truck notified his dispatcher that there’d been a crash. By the time the sheriff and paramedics arrived, he was long dead.
The official report indicated he died as the result of injuries sustained when his tractor trailer skidded off the road and struck a bridge abutment at forty miles per hour. What they neglected to mention was the damage to the truck was nowhere near enough to do what the supposed crash did to my father. In images that still haunt me twenty years later, I recall what he looked like on that slab in the coroner’s office.
It was like he’d been attacked by a wild animal.
Like he’d been half eaten.
The words of advice Dad gave me during that driving lesson never seemed more relevant. Something had gotten him. He wasn’t paying attention and something was able to take advantage.
Nowadays, I only drive at night if it’s an absolute necessity. And I’m vigilant. Especially now that I’ve been paying attention, not just to the nighttime conditions, but to what I see during the day.
Find a stretch of well-used, poorly-maintained road. One of the ones that haven’t had a trash crew come by for weeks or months. Take a walk.
Among the bottles of piss and McDonald’s wrappers and used condoms, you’ll find hard pieces of what you’ll initially pass off as gravel or broken glass. Give them a closer look. They’re more than just rock or refuse.
The widest parts all have brownish crimson edges. If you look down closer, inside the thing, you’ll see a line of similar color. I dare you to say it doesn’t look like a vein.
Bring one of them to the pavement. Try not to get hit by a car. When the coast is clear, put the sharper end of the thing inside one of the scratches you’ll no doubt find scoring the surface of the road. They’re not very deep, but they’re numerous.
The piece fits perfectly, doesn’t it?
I’ve been to almost every state in the union. I’ve investigated highways spanning cities, avenues connecting towns, and streets passing through the middle of nowhere. Every one of them has those objects and those scratches. Some have more, some have fewer.
Last night, I was in a taxi on my way from the airport to my hotel in downtown Boise. I was holding one of the things in my palm, absently feeling it and telling myself it wasn’t what I knew it had to be.
The driver stopped at a stoplight and I glanced out the window toward nothing in particular. Then I picked up motion far in the corner of my eye, outside the illumination of the streetlamp. I didn’t turn my head. I stared straight ahead, watching the movement in my peripheral vision.
Something long and articulated crept up to the side of the taxi. It moved like a centipede, but was as tall as a dog. I heard it, too. The sound was low – barely within my range of hearing. Had I not been tuned in on its presence, I wouldn’t have noticed it at all. It was the scratching sound of its sharp feet traversing the pavement.
I fingered the piece in my hand and held my breath.
The light turned green and my driver began his slow acceleration. Right as he did, I whirled my head toward the creature on my left. It was a foot away. I stared at its face — no fewer than twenty black, compound eyes above a set of chitinous pincers and a gaping maw filled with innumerable teeth.
The moment our eyes met, it slunk back into the darkness. But not before I heard one of its claws on the door.
At the hotel, I thanked the driver, tipped him, and advised him to be careful.
“Buddy, these are some of the safest roads in the country,” he laughed. “But thanks for looking out!”
I nodded and closed the door. A long line of paint was missing. I pressed the object I’d been carrying against the scratch. It fit. Just like I knew it would.