“It’s the long drives that make life worthwhile,” Damon thought as he geared down and pressed for something a little extra from the out-dated sedan he had borrowed.
“It’s the long drives that allow you to clear your head.”
Damon was in the habit of taking a Sunday night and a long stretch of road and bringing them together in a symphony of thoughts. It was his way of coping. Not coping with anything in particular, just coping with all of those little things that accumulate in the back of one’s head to form a clutter of unfinished thoughts and misunderstood emotions. Things like that missed phone call from a friend that it is too late to get around to now. And like the smile from that girl at the supermarket that may have meant something, you wish meant something, but probably didn’t. Like the late fees on your DVD rentals. That stomach cramp that comes back all too often. And sometimes, when the little things are thought through and the road allows for it, deeper, more pertinent matters.
It was the deeper matters that made tonight’s ‘therapy cruise’, as he had taken to calling them for his own amusement, so urgent and a little faster than usual. The sedan Damon was driving was a bit older and still marked off in miles per hour. In reality he knew exactly how fast he was going, but it still made for the perfect excuse for breaking the speed limit, should he be pulled over by some policeman with no better undertakings on a Sunday night. But this road was seldom patrolled.
The lack of law enforcement on that particular stretch of road was one of the reasons why he frequented it. The other was that he knew every dimly lit inch of it better even than those who built it or are charged with maintaining it do themselves. From where you turn onto it by the entrance of the old disremembered goldmine, around every dark bend with gnarled oak branches drooping lower over the road each year, as if they are slowly but surely moving in to scoop up the few cars that still passed this way; down past the old dried up lakebed that insisted a necessary break from the gloomy forest with its miserable shrubs and twisted, looming trees that unbiasedly blocked out starlight and streetlamp alike; to where it joined the highway again as the forest thinned out and civilisation groped for a foothold again.
Tonight however, Damon was travelling, for the first time, his beloved stretch of forgotten road in the opposite direction. His mind had been stuck on a particular matter for the last three weeks now, and he had to try a new approach. A friend of his, Lawrence, an architectural student in his final year, suggested that when he needs to find that ‘something that just does not fit’ on one of his designs, he often viewed it in a mirror, so as to see it in reverse, from the opposite side. So tonight Damon got on the road from the highway’s side where he normally would have ended his pilgrimage to lucidity.
The experience was more unusual than he expected. Not only did the bends and curves flow in the other direction now (something he had obviously anticipated), but he saw the decrepit old trees from a whole new side, each little forest plant and shrub and rock, illuminated anew by headlights from a long forgotten perspective.
From the panel behind the steering wheel Damon saw the needle of the speedometer rush towards the ninety five mark, as if though they had been long separated friends meeting at an airport after many years. He was not in the habit of driving this fast, but the possible consequences of such speeds did not particularly matter to him as of late. It was not that he was at all suicidal, nor was he even depressed, really. He was just ‘stuck’ and would not mind an escape. Especially an escape from everything, such as offered by the cessation of mortality. Even a brief hospitalisation would take him sufficiently away from everything he could not afford -or find an adequate excuse- to take a break from otherwise.
Still, Damon did not push the aging vehicle past the hundred mark, mainly out of respect for his mother. It was a most prized and sentimental possession of hers, as it was given to her by his father as an anniversary gift. Moving on was not one of her virtues, and this vehicle was more than just a remembrance. It was with great effort that he originally convinced her to let him use it on Sunday nights, rather than his own car that was a lot safer and capable of a bit more speed. But he unashamedly preyed on her sentimentality, and the words “…it is just… I also want to remember them, and this is the car that we used to go to church in on Sundays.” forced the matter into his favour.
It was only a partial lie. He did like to remember his dad and in particular, his baby sister, but unlike his mother he did not dwell on it, did not cling to foolish hope any more. He had moved on. He just preferred this car because of the ‘miles per hour’ excuse and the fact that in this older vehicle, the drive felt a little less controlled and a comfortable amount less safe.
The barren lakebed suddenly appeared without warning on the right side of the road. Damon braked hard but still overshot it by a considerable distance.
“Of course… It is on this side now.” He mumbled to himself, amused by the subtle changes that result from a difference in approach.
He put the car in reverse and pulled off next to the remnant of what he imagined was once a thriving aquatic ecology, before the mine appeared here.
The lakebed was surprisingly round, looking almost man made, and quite large, with a diameter of about a hundred and fifty, maybe a hundred and seventy meters, Damon guessed. All around the edge willow trees were growing, dangling their long, slender branches on the fine grey sand below. A couple of stones and rocks were scattered in and around the centre, as gravity’s eternal and unyielding call inevitably pulled and encouraged them ever lower into the depths of the bed, ever closer to that central point where the indentation left by the now long gone mass of water was at its deepest. It was the only part of this forested area where the stars were visible. The only illuminated part of a forest described by legends, grandmothers and schoolchildren as ‘haunted’. But then, all woodland areas where the trees block out all light and the surrounding vegetation is more grey than green will inevitably become the object of supernatural speculation.
Stories of hauntings, of ghosts and ghouls and monsters and madmen did not deter Damon. He knew that the sounds of howls were just the calls of normal, natural animals found in many forests in the world. That the ‘whispers of dead children’ near the lakebed was just the sound the willows made when the wind moved through them. That the only ‘humanoid tracks’ to be found in the entire area were those made by him and the occasional ranger, and the faint odour of rotting flesh was obviously due to the remnants of whatever the mine used to dump in here decades ago.
When he reached the centre of the lakebed, Damon sat down and took a little wooden box out of his pocket. He looked up at the stars for a while and then with his eyes closed, remembered some old nursery rhymes on the subject.
“I know what you are, you twinkly bastards” he said to the sky in a deep voice laden with sarcasm, “and there will be no wishing anymore either!”
From the wooden box he removed a small plastic bag filled with gritty flakes of green, some papers and a box of matches. He was not really fond of smoking marijuana, didn’t even particularly like the way it made him feel, he just did it for the sake of doing it. Not for rebellion, or to get away, just because he desperately needed at least one thing about him, one aspect of his persona, to not be perfect.
From his short, dark, neatly cut and combed hair, to his perfectly kept and cleaned finger nails, everything about him was as it should be. His eyes, a flawless single shade of olive green, his nose, jaw, in fact, his entire body was a boring shade of as-it-should-be. Six foot, no more, no less, muscular and limber. At school he excelled at every sport he played. His grades were good enough to get him into any university he wished, his friends varied and without criminal records or dubious lifestyles. Nothing was out of place about him. Nothing was interesting.
As Damon lit up the thin white stick between his fingers and inhaled deeply with his head thrown back, he saw a brief white line being drawn across Orion’s chest by a shooting star.
“Still not going to make a wish” he answered, sending his words to the stars on a cloud of white vapours.
From the edge of the lakebed came the now familiar sound of the wind through the whips and branches of the willows. As a child this curious hissing sound, along with the legends created around them, set his teeth on edge and riddled his flesh with a million little projections as his hair seemed to want to take off from his body. Now, however, in his maturity he had almost entirely lost all fears based on superstitions and missbeliefs. Rather, these days, the desperate whispers of long forgotten and made up children drifted towards him only to cool the hot summer night’s air and heighten the hint of sulphur (or whatever it was) in his nostrils.
“So cruel to make up stories about murdered children when some people actual- “
Damon stopped his star flung statement mid mutter in a vain attempt to avoid the memories that were soon to follow. He did not stop himself soon enough though, as the face of Misha, he’s younger sibling, crystallised into a painfully perfect picture in front of him.
“Another reason why I hate this shit” he muttered miserably has he drove the half-smoked plight against perfection he had so painstaking rolled earlier, deep into the coarse sand of the lakebed.
Often when he smoked it he had such vivid memories of the one thing he was better off forgetting. He would see his sister, her green eyes filled with excitement and the usual hint of taunting, her hand firmly clasped in those of their father. Her yellow dress, such a bright colour not entirely suited for the purpose of bird watching, already had muddy hand marks down the sides and violently contrasted her long black hair. And his father-
Damon promptly got up and carefully, with a swipe of his foot, concealed the place where he buried his sins, lest they be found out and somehow linked to him and reported to his already emotionally exhausted mother. Out here in this unobtrusive mountain town even murder was looked on less harshly than drug use, regardless of the kind of drug in question.
Damon started making his way up the side of the deep lakebed and away from the memory of his father. He was about halfway up and out when a small rock came rolling right past him, down into the depths of the bed. He immediately froze and stared straight ahead, a sudden chill gripping his chest as he tried to make out if there was someone there, lurking on the outskirts beneath the shadows of the willow trees. A moment passed, and then another, and soon reason returned and he figured that judging by the amount of rocks and stones at the bottom, they must roll down the hill quite frequently and of their own volition. Being satisfied with this logical supposition, Damon started up and out and away again, but still an inkling of cold, anxious apprehension lingered and he strained both eyes and ears for any evidence of a potential witness to his noxious habit. It was then that he realised that the willows had gone deathly quiet. As if the wind was holding breath with him, the breeze had suddenly disappeared, leaving only the heat and the rotting stench behind.
As he made his way past the edge of the lakebed and under the willows, the branches seemed to cling to him, as if trying to keep him from reaching his car. The whispering of the wind through the leaves had suddenly started up again, and now, as he was under the tree it seemed that the whispers filled his head and echoed through the inside of his skull. The dim light from the streetlamp above did nothing to remove the darkness and as he finally escaped the thin whips hanging from the trees and caught sight of his car the whispering instantly ceased.
Having decided to write his current stock of weed off as a ‘bad batch’, Damon gathered his composure and made for the car at a rapid, nervous pace. As he fingered the unlock button on the remote the car’s indicators flashed on briefly, and in a cold shocking instant he saw, illuminated by the dim orange light from the indicators, a figure standing on the opposite side of the road.
It was not exactly the shape of a man, but possessed the same form; A head, torso, two arms and legs. The head, however, seemed too small, almost perfectly spherical and devoid of any feature that would define it as human. No eyes, no nose, no ears to be perceived, just a deep and vacuous darkness where eyes and mouth should have been. This horrid head was set on a neck that seemed too thin and long to support it and led down to broad shoulders that dangled from them thin, blue-ish arms that ended abruptly without hands, but instead had at their extremities several long, white and sharp protrusions, almost like thorns or fangs. The lower part of the torso was bulbous and had various lumps and protrusions that moved around as if a throng of unborn children were desperately trying to escape from their long dead mother’s wretched womb. Underneath the writhing mass were legs as thin as the neck and arms, yet they did not end in feet. Rather it seemed more like two snake-like streams defying gravity and slowly flowing up towards the body from a thick, viscous puddle of grey sludge that had formed below it on the ground and somewhat solidifying as it joined with the waist. A faint scent, almost like sweet vinegar came drifting from that being and, inside Damon’s nostrils, it coalesced with the musky sulphurous smell of the lake. In his head the whispers of the wind through the trees suddenly turned into what sounded like the inconceivably distant, helpless screams of a thousand men being dragged across an endless bed of burning coals.
When the lights flashed on a second later the figure had disappeared, along with the smell and the wails. As much as he wanted to attribute what he had just seen to the hallucinogenic effects of the drugs, there was a chilling veracity about the experience. Frozen in a fear that he had not known since childhood, he stared into the darkness as a cold sweat formed on his hands and back. He tried to move towards the car, but his legs were locked in place. To move closer to the car meant moving closer to… that shape.
For what felt like an eternity Damon stood, just staring into the impenetrable darkness of the forest on the other side of the road. When the horrid feeling of terror had finally abated, he started slowly moving towards the car, not taking his eyes off of the spot where a man-like figure had appeared and disappeared right before him just a few moments, or hours earlier. When he got to the driver’s side door he reached for the handle and lifted it. When the door did not open he tugged a little harder, still entrance to the vehicle, and safety, and maybe sanity, was denied him. He glanced down and saw that the door was still locked. But how could this be? Had he not unlocked it moments ago? Was it not the indicator lights confirming the unlocking of the door that summoned that horrid apparition he was still unable to unperceive? Damon slid his thumb over the unlock button again, but froze before he could push it. What if it appears again? What if it stays this time? What if this time a single press of a button would reveal to him what it really is?
Having mustered every last spot of courage he had left, he pressed the button again, the lights flashing yellow into the dreaded forest twice more… revealing no misshapen man by the road. He quickly opened the door and shot into the car. The key found the ignition switch instantly and the car roared to life.
When he finally regained his clarity the frigid beads of sweat had completely soaked his shirt in a vivid contrast with the dust storm in his throat. With every blink of his eyes there flashed before him the apparition of an otherworldly figure. A figure not of flesh, not rigid like a man, and seemingly not subject to the laws of nature. A thing he knew couldn’t be real. Shouldn’t be real.
It was only on the last stretch of the deserted road, as he was approaching the abandoned mine, that he started to question the actuality of that terrible vision. “It may have been a delusion” he unconvincingly mumbled through a parched mouth. He tried to swallow, to get the dry burning out of his mouth, but to no avail.
Damon slowed down somewhat, noticing that in his desperation to get as far away from the sight that will no doubt haunt him for weeks, if not months to come, he had pushed his mom’s car a bit too hard and it was starting to heat up somewhat. And then a second vision appeared before him. This time clear as day in the high beams of the old sedan. There was no doubt in his mind that this time it was real. This time it was familiar. He knew exactly what it was and the consequences it spelled out for him. Damon blinked once as he accepted the reality of the shape of the creature that was no more than half a meter away from his speeding vehicle.