THE LOST ROAD
A story by
In the space of a second or two, everything changed. In the time it took for a single heartbeat, for one rotation of bicycle pedals, one whoosh! of wind through overhead branches silhouetted against the moonlit sky. One second spent berating herself (Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! You should've paid the damn tickets!) as the image of her beloved pumpkin orange Mini Cooper, looking lonely and forlorn as it sat at the curb in front of the comic book store with one front wheel booted, flashed in her head.
And in the second after that: sheer terror, as it charged out of the darkness, rounding the curve in the two-lane blacktop, massive and powerful and relentless.
Corinne stopped pedaling, stopped breathing. The bike swiftly coasted forward. The sleeves and sash of her black Ninja costume flapped in the breeze, and the thought, I'm going to miss Dad's party, was the only sentence her brain could put together as it fumbled for a logical explanation, or even one that was completely far-fetched.
She wasn't good at suddenness, never had been, but there it was.
There had been darkness, isolation, silence but for the low, metallic sound of the pedals, and then, wham! Something huge and monstrous about to collide with her. Actually, the word “monstrous” never entered her head. The word that did? Monster.
It was the eyes.
Well, really, all of it. The bulk, the speed, the instant acceptance that this was not an animal. Not a normal, earthly, saw-it-on-a-Nat-Geo-special-once kind of animal. Taller than a moose, but not a moose. Broader than a bison, but not a bison. It was a freak of nature. A monstrosity. Yes, a monster.
And those eyes.
Brilliantly glowing. No, shining. Seriously shining. As if someone had opened a lid in it's head, shoved in a few D batteries, and flipped a switch. In those eyes: hunger, eagerness, the thrill of the chase which had not yet even begun. Huge. Round. Inhuman. Utterly lacking in compassion, feeling. All they said (in her mind, at least) was, “I will run you down. You will not escape. You will not survive. I will not be denied.”
It was a rural road, no street lights, but the canopy of thousands of stars, with a three-quarter moon embedded in the sky with them, along with the LED light on the front of her bike, were enough. Enough light to see the fur-covered, muscular legs that propelled the creature; the long, forked tail that whipped back and forth in the air behind it. The height of it, the breadth of that chest, those shoulders. Added to that, the elongated head, the moonlight glinting off of massive fangs. The hwuh! hwuh! of it's breath as it sped up after spying this human ahead of it. The oddly soft sound of the pads of its feet connecting with asphalt, so much of its long fur curled around the bottoms of the feet themselves that it cushioned them.
Corinne snapped out it, squeezed the brake handles so hard that pain shot up both arms, and her senses exploded with ...
The soft thump-thump of the creature's feet drowned out by the shrill scream of the bike's brakes and the rubbery squeal of tires fishtailing and skidding through autumn leaves; the sudden influx of terror that seemed to lodge itself in her throat, as if fear itself had become a physical thing, cutting off her breath; the sight of those glowing eyes coming closer, closer, almost upon her.
God, I'm dead.
Corinne felt an instant pang of regret over the hearts that would break with her death, the things she'd left undone, that damn novella she should've uploaded to Amazon.com this morning — it was the best thing she'd ever written in her brief, self-pubbed life as an author, and it was done, edited, a bazillion drafts written and rewritten. Edited again. It was ready to go. It could have lived on without her.
Most of all, she regretted the idiocy of being out on a dark road, dressed in black clothes, pedaling a borrowed bicycle much faster than she should have, given that she hadn't been on one since junior high, just to avoid being late for her father's Halloween party. She knew he actually hated parties of any kind, and had been roped into it by his newest wife, Cynthia, who'd latched on to him about fine minutes after the ink was dry on the divorce papers from wife #2. They say third time's the charm, but sure as hell not this time.
Corinne wanted to blame her, and could have, to a certain extent (instead of a party, why not let Dad hand out candy, which he enjoyed doing?), but really, it was her own fault. All the hurried pedaling in the world would not have prevented her from being late. She'd diddled around with her laptop for far too long, retweeted way too many cute cat videos on Twitter, read too many blogs. Procrastinating and plain ol' goofing off was her nature. The nature of an artist, her dad called it.
She knew he would say, “That's ok, I understand, sweetie, it's no big deal,” to her, and he did get it, he really did. He was artistic, too, and had a muse of his own in his head (much more delightful and lighthearted than Corinne's dark and demented muse, whose let's throw some more blood and gore and demons into that novel and, hey, why not burn down an orphanage in chapter two while we're at it? could get to be a bit much at times, even for her). Artsy Dad-the-sculptor knew, because he also lost track of time now and then while creating a new masterpiece. Or new hunk of crap. It varied. Doesn't it always?
Look where all her musing got her this time.
This all went through her head in less than two seconds. Somehow. It wasn't quite the proverbial “life flashing before your eyes,” but that's what it felt like.
A half mile or so back, she'd passed under a bright orange balloon with a Jack O'Lantern face, it's string caught on a tree branch high overhead. With each breeze, it shot upward as if trying desperately to escape. Obviously, it had already done so once. Corinne pictured it slipping from the candy-corn-sticky fingers of a child who'd watched helplessly as it bounced right out the window of the family car, or maybe as he or she lay in a comfy straw pile during a hayride.
For Corinne, it was such a peaceful moment, as she coasted silently beneath it. She smiled and whispered, “Fight it, Jack. Never give up!”
A minute later, that serenity was shattered.
And now, these eyes.
Monster eyes. Glowing, becoming bigger, hurtling toward her.
Her bike was lying flat, her right leg under it as it scraped across the asphalt. She screamed, from both pain and terror, as powerful jaws opened, baring massive fangs and tri-pointed teeth. The huge maw was about to envelop her. The stench was overpowering, nauseating her, so horribly ...
A flash of confusion told her it should smell animal-like, possibly even reeking of the decaying flesh of other helpless victims still in its teeth.
The creature pounced, smashing her helmet into the asphalt, its massive fangs biting into her shoulder, its heavy, clawed paws crushing her ankle, her ribs.
Puffs of hot breath blew in her face. Its mouth was so close to her ear that the loudness of those exhales was surreal.
Corinne begin to fade away; the sharp pain became dull, disconnected, as if the bones and flesh and oozing blood belonged to someone else. She felt lightheaded, oddly tingly.
The creature lifted its head and howled, then defiantly leaned back down, its oddly-soft, cat-like nose right up against hers.
Blackness closed in on her mind. Unconsciousness was so enticing; a place where there was no pain, no fear. But somewhere in the back of her mind the thought, Fight it, never give up! flashed in bright orange text (in Comic Sans font, yet!), blinking on and off like a motel sign. In that second, a blip of energy rose and grew, and her senses sharpened. She felt like herself again, not a victim, not prey, even as glowing eyes loomed inches from hers, and the hiss of monster breaths warmed her ears.
The creature opened its mouth to roar, and she winced at the sound of the horn, so loud, so‒
And screeching; so shrill, it pained her ears.
Not from the creature atop her. Not an organic sound; not a monster announcing its dominance, eager to sate its hunger.
But not the monster. Not a monster at all.
And along with that sound ...
The blast of an air horn.
And the glowing eyes-that-were-not-eyes:
At the same time, the huge, furred body above her vanished, as if it had never been there.
In its place, an 18-wheeler. Not a monster. But a monster of a rig.
No teeth, no tearing, no chomping down. Instead, just as bad: wheels, bumper, grill, unforgiving metal. Her helmet had bounced off the underside of the truck as she slid under it, miraculously missing the wheels and coming out the other side. She and the bike scraped over rough asphalt, bits of gravel, the jagged edge of a small pothole, and plastic pieces of some vehicle's broken tail light.
From the truck driver's perspective? He'd rounded the curve and his headlights splashed across a human being on a bicycle coming toward him — so utterly fragile, and almost certainly doomed. His speeding vehicle was out of control. The truck was going too fast, was overloaded with heavy cargo, and there was so little distance between them.
Panicked and instantly wracked with guilt, he used twelve years of experience and every trick he knew to avoid her, hoping he wouldn't go off the embankment or slam into the upward slope on the other side. But the rig had other ideas and slid sideways at an angle, starting to tip over as it covered the entire road.
Simultaneously, from the perspective of the bike-riding third year college student/self-pubbed author/daddy's girl with the wickedly freaky imagination? Death-on-wheels had come out of the curve in the road, out of the blackness, almost out of nothingness, it seemed, just there.
And a mind that had always, since back in grade school, created living, breathing beings and hideous creatures out of thin air, and strange situations, and entire new worlds, scribbling or typing them into coherent stories, did the same in that very first second when she was confronted with stunned terror and inevitable death barreling around that curve toward her.
Those horror and Goth and Steampunk and urban fantasy novels and short stories she self-pubbed (which in rare months sold enough copies that she could buy a new flat screen TV, and in most others didn't even bring in enough money to pay, say, traffic tickets) were her passion, and in those seconds when the speeding truck came out of nowhere and filled her view, her mind went to the place she lived so often, where she felt safe, and her muse did what it did best: created a deliciously ravenous monster in Corinne's head, and spilled it out onto the road.
Or just in her mind, her eyes.
Or out on the road. For real. Somehow.
Now, monster had morphed back into merely monstrous: a vehicle that towered over her, it's trailer so long that it seemed to stretch on for miles, the noise so overbearing that it stabbed at her ears and vibrated through her entire body.
As the truck skidded sideways, slowing down but still wobbling as if it hadn't decided whether or not to tip over, Corinne's bicycle finally came to a stop. It's small headlight was smashed.
Her pant leg was shredded, her thigh and calf felt on fire, her ankle was very possibly broken, a rib or two broken or cracked, one shoulder maybe dislocated, elbow throbbing, her heart pounding so hard that each beat was painful, her ears were ringing ... but she was alive.
“Oh my god,” she said, lying on her side on the asphalt, spitting out leaves crammed under her helmet. She moaned with pain as she lifted the bike off her leg.
A few yards away, the truck finally stopped. It had somehow stayed upright.
She turned and stared up at the trailer, so huge, so black in the near-darkness, like a horizontal version of the monolith in the movie 2001. The front of the truck was jammed against the upward slope, a cloud of powdery crushed leaves swirling in the light bleeding around the fender.
An oddly icy pain shot through her head and she closed her eyes for a few seconds, then opened them again.
No more than three feet away, a massive torso covered in long fur blocked her view of the truck (if indeed the vehicle was even there), so close that she could have reached out to touch it and the swishing tail, the long, powerful legs. A huge head with tufted ears turned toward her, eyes blazing as it bared its fangs and its mouth opened wide in a silent roar.
Corinne squeezed her eyes shut, muttering, “Oh, god. Oh, god. No, no, no, no ...”
She waited for ... what? To be eaten? For some fantastical superhero to come to her rescue?
Nothing happened. She opened her eyes and found nothing but the tractor trailer a few yards away, it's engine idling rhythmically now that it was still.
“Holy shit,” she whispered. The smell of diesel instantly tied her to the concept of truck, road, near miss. She wasn't sure which reality to believe.
Was it real? Is it real? Did that creature bleed out of my horror-filled brain via my ears, and onto the road, and take on a life of its own? Did it get pulled back into my imagination? Or is my brain just running a monster movie in my head? Or am I just totally batshit crazy? Damn. Does it matter? Something gigantic and powerful almost squashed me like a bug. But, screw it -- I'm still here. I WON.
The truck driver climbed out and jumped down onto the asphalt, crossing himself and kissing the crucifix hanging from his neck. He was shocked to see that she was still alive, not crushed, not mangled. His vehicle hadn't demolished her.
But he was even more stunned with disbelief when Corinne exclaimed,
"That. Was. AWESOME!"
From her jacket pocket, she pulled a notebook, a pen, and a tiny flashlight shaped like a zombie. Sticking the flashlight in her mouth, she began scribbling madly in her chicken-tracks handwriting, before the emotional high could fade away. And while her throbbing hand and arm still worked.
The driver stared, cell phone in his hand. He knew he had to call the police, but he wasn't sure what to say to the dispatcher. Maybe he'd ask if anyone had escaped from a nearby lunatic asylum.
Corinne looked up at him, took the flashlight out of her mouth, and asked, "What?"
He just stared.
She winced with pain as she shrugged her shoulders and said, simply:
"I'm a writer."
Copyright ©2015 Nik Barnabee