16 Mar The Stranger in the Ditch
“The Stranger in the Ditch”Written by Hank Belbin Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 30 minutes
— Anthony Liccione
Dartmoor, England. 1989
The small blotches of blood on his hands had already dried by the time Martin realised he had made a grave mistake. It was under his fingernails. It was in his hair. It was on his shirt. But she had pushed him to do it. She had asked for it. And she got what she deserved. He didn’t think killing her was the mistake, only that he’d wished he wasn’t so impulsive with doing it. Martin knew he should have been more cautious. He knew he should have taken the time to plan it.
But, the problem was, it was so fast and in the heat of the moment that no other thought entered his brain other than shutting her up for good. Something within him practically forced him to do it. He felt as if he was in a euphoric waking dream when he did commit the act. The build-up to killing her was like foreplay. The act itself was the climax. It was all too good to think about anything else.
He had already fled the scene when he realised he was too hasty with the whole thing and that something was not right about the murder. Had she really risen back up from the dead like that? As he drove back out of Dartmoor national park, away from where he had buried her in that rank and dark forest, he knew something was very wrong. So he began mentally running down the list of things he knew he had cleaned down. At the very least, he could ensure that he was thorough with the cleanup.
He was sure that he brushed away his footprints and kicked the dead leaves over them as he left the scene. He was convinced that he snapped the shovel in half and tossed the pieces in opposite directions, far away from each other. He was sure he had covered everything. But still, something whispered to him quietly that it was all wrong. What was it? Was she still alive?
It was a little after midnight, and the rain was coming in hard. Thick black spears of water seemed to roll in horizontally from the wide-open moors. The windscreen wipers were on the highest setting. Still, even then, Martin struggled to see past the unrelenting wall of rain, out at the twilight road ahead. The forest streaked by his window in a blur, all rows of pine trees jutting up into the blackness. Bloody hell, Martin. What have you done? His mind was not entirely his own. Something about the forest all around made him feel on edge, as if something else was in there with him, watching him as he killed her. He couldn’t shake the feeling. He kept on replaying the murder, over and over in his thoughts, and he found it difficult to focus on driving. The road, slick with rain, seemed to endlessly unfurl in front of him as if it were a never-ending river of black tarmac. Martin rubbed his eyes and tried to focus again. You stupid man. You stupid, stupid man. You should’ve thought it through better. You always let your anger get the best of you. What if someone saw you?
The most ironic part about the murder was that he had honestly tried to reconcile with her. They went out to dinner that very night. Not three hours earlier. It was supposed to be their 10th anniversary. Martin had planned to take her away for the weekend so the two could spend all of it together, in each other’s arms, like they used to. As cliched as he thought of it, he imagined that was what he wanted again with his wife. But that didn’t happen. Instead, at dinner, she fell into her usual routine of belittling him, chiding him, mocking him, drinking too much.
Days, weeks, years’ worth of patronising and condescending comments had culminated and spilt over at the dinner table until he could not stand for it anymore. She had ruined their last chance at reconciliation, and she didn’t even realise it. She provoked him and had driven him half to the point of insanity.
Whenever he did think about his wife—in the weeks leading up to their weekend away—he felt as if ants were burrowing and infesting his brain, driving him half-demented. He was dreading going away with her. He felt nauseous and heavy in the stomach as the days drew closer to their check-in. He hated her so much that it burned in his chest. But, after everything they had been through together— deaths in the families, job losses, moving countries, health problems—he did feel a strange sense of loyalty to the woman. In his mind, this night was the last-ditch effort to save what they had together. Although he despised her, he felt as if they could work it out somehow if both grown-ups could lay their cards on the table. Perhaps they could talk like civilised adults for once?
But that didn’t happen. At dinner, when she had finished the second bottle of red wine and told him that she should’ve married his best friend instead of him, well, that was simply too much for Martin to withstand. As he sat across from her at their dinner table, filled with expensive cheese boards and even more expensive wine, he felt his face glowing hot and red with anger. A thick, painful pulsing just behind his eyes almost made him give way to his feelings and reach across the table and strangle the arrogance right out of her, right there and then, in front of everyone in that frankly overpriced Manor house restaurant.
Martin watched furiously as she ranted on and flashed that same entitled and smug smile that drove him twisted with rage. She was laughing at him, not explicitly, but her eyes told him what she truly thought of him. She didn’t care that he had battled to reserve the restaurant six months previously. She didn’t care that he had paid over £500 for the meal. She didn’t even care that she had insulted him so much that night that he almost felt like some small boy in her wake. She was drunk and out of her mind. After deserts, she had resigned herself to propping up her head in her hand and swaying lazily from side to side, smirking at him. He wanted to scream at her. He wanted to wring her neck.
Enough was enough.
He needed to divorce her.
That much was clear. But how could he possibly afford to do that? She had a stake in his home. The mortgage was nowhere near paid off, and there wasn’t a chance in hell he could afford to buy her out. At the table, a groan of tedium escaped him, and he wondered just what he should do about her.
After dinner, the husband and wife left the restaurant. The waiter watched them go. She threw insults at Martin as he carried her out of the foyer, down the steps, across the carpark to their car, and helped her get into the passenger seat. Martin sighed and wondered why he was even bothering with her. Put her to bed, and divorce her in the morning, when she’s sober, he thought. But that wasn’t enough for him. He had truly wanted to hurt her, that night, more than ever before. It was a sort of retribution for the psychological games she played with him for ten long years.
He put her in the seat and pulled the seatbelt across her, inadvertently smelling her potent sickly perfume in the process. He almost gagged at the stench. Then he raised and shut the door on her before walking around the back of the car, trying to clear his nose of the acidic loathsome scent that smelt like melted plastic bags and compressed burning lemongrass. He hated it so much.
That was the moment that caused Martin to lose control and give into wild impulse. It was that disgusting perfume that set him off. While Sarah was drunkenly playing with the radio—trying to find any song to blindly sign along to—another thought came to Martin, one that gave him a hot rush of excitement. He stopped dead. Martin stood there for a pause in the cold air and entertained it. A thought of an act that was so unspeakable that it almost seemed plausible to him. Could I do it? I mean, no one would miss her. Her parents are both gone, and she’s an only child.
He lurked next to the car, peering in at the drunken woman in the passenger seat, daring himself if he could do it. He had wanted to kill someone for a long time, and who better than her? When he could not think of a good enough reason not to, Martin giddily walked to the boot of the car. He opened it and checked he had the shovel in the boot. He did. It was as if he was on auto-pilot. The notion had taken him over, and there was something else pulling him along now. Maybe that was what he told himself.
Feeling somewhat satisfied that he was about to go through with his impulsive thought, he then sauntered back to the side of the car and got in. He felt a rush of nerves reverberate through his body. His skin began to tinkle. Martin breathed out one long exhalation. Jesus, am I excited about this?
That epiphany turned him on for some reason. The thought of killing someone was far greater than any other thrill. He had fantasised often about stoving someone’s head in with a fire extinguisher because they were rude to him and didn’t hold the door open as he entered. He’d daydreamed about U-turning his car and chasing after that guy who cut him up deliberately and didn’t apologise, running him down, dragging him out of the car, and beating him to death with a tire iron in front of everyone. All of it pales in comparison to that hedonistic thrill that killing his wife could give him. The thought of doing it to her over everyone else jolted a dormant angry fire within him.
Martin was an irrational man. The only real passion he had left was anger. Everything else was a plateau of ambivalence and emptiness. But the thought of murder brought a grin to his face as he sat there next to her.
“What the fuck are you smilin’ at?” Sarah barked drunkenly at Martin, her head rolling from side to side. Her eyes not entirely focusing on anything.
“Nothing. This just my favourite song,” he replied in an icy tone and gestured down to the radio. They sat for a moment. What a perfect fucking backing track. What a song to kill her to…
The waiter who had served them at dinner had noticed the tension between the two as he had brought them their entrees but respectfully chose to pretend he hadn’t. When they did leave, there was one thing that he could not ignore, however.
Their car set off, and the waiter watched it leave and disappear up the road headlong into twilight. The blood-red lights fading into the dark. The moon gibbous and bright above them, a harbinger of something nefarious. He couldn’t explain it, but he just thought that something terrible was going to happen out there tonight.
There was something wrong with the husband and wife, that much was true. He was not concerned with that. Beyond that, he believed that there was something else out there. He often felt it when driving home himself. He had heard the old folk tales of something out there in the woods. Some unexplainable presence stalked the edges of the road. It would trick people and make them wander further into the forest. The Pale God or something? Henry remembered what they all said. ‘Don’t go on the roads when the moon is full. You will be lost…’
Did they say ‘get lost’ or ‘be lost’? I can’t remember… The waiter thought to himself.
He had worked at the restaurant for almost a year now, and he felt it deeply in his stomach every time he stepped out into the night after his shifts. Something about Dartmoor gave him a distinct feeling of unease. There was a heaviness in the night air, and things seemed to be moving between the shadows when the moon was full.
Just before the murder, Martin and Sarah had been driving for about ten minutes. The road was long and dark. To the left was a vast wall of pine trees that made up a part of Believer forest. To the right was an equally impenetrable mass of black trees.
Martin wanted to do it so bad. Like an itch he couldn’t scratch or a hunger he couldn’t satisfy, it overtook his thoughts. Everything pent up inside of him wanted to explode and truly hurt her. He knew the relationship had run its course now, and the idea of even bothering with marriage counselling sickened him more than his wive’s drunken behaviour. But could he do it? Excitement gave way to a rush of panic. His gut was a twisted knot, tense and constantly contracting. He noticed he had started to breathe more heavily at this point but tried not to betray that away to his wife. Martin swallowed hard on the thick, squelching lump in his throat and knew deep down that there was no other way out. He just hated her so goddamn much that he couldn’t bear the thought of another year with her. No. I want her to die. And I want to be the one to do it.
At some point, he pulled over by the side of the road and just sat there for a pause, looking out ahead at the gloomy road and the night sky above. Sarah straightened up from her drunken stupor and scowled at Martin. “Why the fuck have we stopped here?” she muttered.
He took a moment to compose himself, then, “I need a piss,” he whispered through tight lips.
“Hurry up,” Sarah mumbled and leaned her head against the window again. Martin looked across at her and felt like berating her. But he knew now at this stage that anything meaningful he did have to say would be utterly wasted anyway.
He climbed out of the car and went to the boot. It opened, and the black rectangle of the boot made him briefly imagine the shape of a coffin. He reached in and produced the shovel and then went down into the woods, hiding the shovel by his side as he did. Then something else happened, something that should have made Martin turn around and get back into his car, forget it all and just leave her in the morning. Martin could have sworn he heard a voice coming from further in as he navigated down into the trees. A rush of wind that sounded a lot like, “Dooooooo iiiiiitt…”
He stood there for a beat and wondered whether he had heard it correctly. The voice dissipated again like the stir of autumn leaves. He shook it from his thoughts and continued.
After about five minutes, Sarah had noticed that her husband had not come back yet. She awoke in a daze, feeling groggy and pale. She looked around and tried peering out of the window into the forest. It was deep and gloomy in there. Shadows and branches everywhere. The moon’s hollow glow seemed to create more layers of shadows than what were truly there. She began to wonder if he did go in there or if something had happened to him. Where is that asshole? She thought to herself. Sarah scoffed and prepared to step out into the freezing night air to find Martin.
“Making me do this shit,” she muttered to herself as she closed the car door, rolling her eyes as she did. The headlights remained on, casting two dull beams of amber ahead of the car. She turned and began stepping carefully down the bank from the road and eventually into the forest. Somewhere in there, an owl was howling lowly. She moved forward, almost stumbling over rotten branches and heaps of squelching moss. It was colder in there than it was up by the car. Her breaths came out in thick white plums.
“Martin?” she called out. “Where the hell are you?”
“I’m here,” Martin called back from up ahead after a pause. “I got lost…”
Then there was a long silence.
Sarah looked forward, squinting into the darkness, trying to penetrate the forest’s black trees. Martin’s voice was almost like an echo. It seemed to be coming from much further in the woods. Too far to be Martin.
“Where?” Sarah eventually replied. But there was no response. Sarah suddenly felt on edge, like a rush of cold wind had just whistled through her body. She felt as if something was watching her.
“Here,” Martin replied, seemingly behind her now.
She turned around to look up at the car, not twenty feet away from her. It was more to reassure herself that the vehicle was not as far away from her as she thought. Sarah walked in a little further. Of all the places she could’ve been, she was there, in that dark sprawl of trees, trying to find the husband that she never should have married. The whole situation angered her. She moved forward about ten metres.
“Where?” She asked,
At least twenty minutes had gone by in Sarah’s mind before she decided to head back.
“Martin!” she bellowed. “I’m leaving. I’m taking your fucking car and I’m leaving! I’m not waiting out here for you, you piece of shit,” she yelled in the darkness. There was no response. The silence widened around her. All she heard was the howling of that owl somewhere. Sarah shook her head in anger and prepared to leave. She took a step back and started walking back to the car.
Only now it was gone. She couldn’t see its glowing headlights anymore. She couldn’t even make out the road or the edge of the forest. It was like the trees had closed in. All she saw was the same impenetrable wall of trees that seemed to rear up all around her. Her shoulders dropped, and she sighed.
Am I lost? I only went 50 steps!
Sarah grumbled in frustration and tried to recall any memorable landmarks she might have passed. A fallen tree, a small creek, a road sign, anything that would point her in the right direction. The prospect of her being lost had sobered her up considerably. She started to walk, but she didn’t know in what direction, calling out to Martin as she did. There was still no reply from him. After what felt like five more minutes of walking, she decided she needed a cigarette. She reached into her purse. She pulled out a pack of Mayfair cigarettes and lit one up. After one big exhalation of the carcinogenic smoke, she glanced further into the forest.
At some point, Martin came from behind one of the trees towards her. His heart thundering in his chest. Cold glee and excitement shooting all through his body. He was grinning to himself in the dark. He moved slowly to the back of Sarah. He could see the cigarette smoke rising from her. Martin stepped forward until he could smell that disgusting cheap perfume that she always wore along with the stench of the cigarette smoke. It made him gag. It made him hate her even more. Fucking cheap bitch.
She was too busy taking another drag of her cigarette to notice him. Goodbye Sarah, Martin thought to himself as he raised the shovel high.
The shovel came down hard, like an axe, hitting the back of Sarah’s skull with an awful hollow crack. She didn’t make a sound. Her legs simply buckled like a newborn fawn, and she slumped down into the grey mud. Not so much as a muted yelp to mark her passage from being alive and a pain in the ass to stone-cold dead.
Once it was done, Martin stood over her dead body, glancing down at the crumpled heap that was his wife. The flush of excitement left him, drained from him and left a hollow space where it once was. He almost didn’t believe it was all over so easily. But it was. She was gone. And there was something different about it from what he expected. It was empty, lacking a conclusion somehow. She was laying there, in the dirt and bracken; her black-satin dress now stained with smears of greyish mud. And all he could think about was how something was condemning about the way she fell, almost as if she was ready to die. He didn’t feel what he expected to feel. It all just felt… shallow.
He leered over her. Her eyes were wide open, looking back up at him from the dirt. The dull accusing stare from her lifeless eyes said it all. It was as if she was still there, inside that head. Chastising him still. Her face was porcelain white. A pool of something black and slick had started to seep out from behind her head. But she continued to stare at Martin.
“You fucking coward,” his wife’s voice echoed in his head. He heard it as clear as glass as he looked down at her face. “I always said you weren’t a real man. I was right. Well, look at you now. You coward. Oh, and by the way, I fucked Paul…”
Martin stared down at her until he could bear it no more. He knew that she had cheated on him. But he was willing to forgive that; he was ready to forgive her for everything if she just would’ve been more appreciative of him. But it was too late for both of them now. He had killed her. The panic set in.
The trees stirred all around him—their swaying in the wind manifesting as a peal of demonic laughter. And Martin had the distinct sensation that he was being watched somehow. He felt the hot glare of its stare on his back like he was a lone deer in the sights of a stalking predator.
He set to work digging a grave near her body. It was a frenzied dig. It took nearly half an hour. Once it was done, he rolled her into the ditch, undignified, and started throwing the mud back over her. Then he snapped the shovel against a tree and tossed it in different directions. It was only once he scrabbled back up the bank and climbed back into the car that he noticed the bloodstains on his hands. That was when the dreadfully thick slab slid over his stomach and told him that it was all wrong. He would be caught and his job, his house, everything would be all over. For a moment he rested his head against the steering wheel and tried to stop himself from sobbing at his mistake. He sat in the car and held his keys lightly.
As he contemplated his options, something tugged his gaze back to the trees.
He looked left, back into that endless forest that inspired nothing but cold hard dread.
The rain had started to come in, thick and heavy, like a bad omen or a portent of all things evil. The constant hammering of it against the roof made Martin feel strangely claustrophobic. But it was when he looked into the forest once more that made his heart leap up into his throat. In between the rain, he was sure that he saw his wife standing there, deep in the trees, looking back at him. Her pale white face barely indistinguishable in the gloom. She didn’t move; she just looked at him.
“Cooooome baaackk hereee, my loveeeee,” she whispered and grinned.
He simply looked forward again and refused to believe what he saw. He slammed the car into gear and sped away, kicking up clumps of dirt and flints as he did.
All of that was earlier. In the past. Martin was now driving back to the bed and breakfast alone. He continued to drive through the interminably gloomy weather, trying to put it all out of his mind. But he couldn’t. Something was very wrong and he didn’t know what. It must have been a trick of the rain, shadows reflecting off trees, tiredness? Martin was positive that what he had seen was not real. Still, all the same, he could not deny how perfectly identical the apparition was to his dead wife. The notion made him shudder with fear. What was that? No matter. Just keep driving.
He did. It was two hours since he had killed her, almost three since they’d left the restaurant together, but most disturbingly, it was at least an hour since Martin realised he should have made it back to Two Bridges by now. After all, it was only a few miles down the road from where he had buried her. He ignored that realisation and tried to focus on driving again. I may have driven in the wrong direction, he reassured himself. Probably. I’ll just turn around in the next town and go from there…
He drove and drove. Another fifteen minutes went by.
And that’s when the last thing Martin needed to happen happened. Without warning nor prelude, the revs of his car suddenly dropped and the car cut off completely before it rolled to a stop. It came to a halt in an abutment.
“What the bloody hell is this now?” Martin grumbled as he watched the lights of his dashboard fade into blackness. “Fuck sake!” he then shouted after the car refused to start again. He smacked the steering wheel and just sat there for a moment, looking out at the bleak domed moors.
He tried to start the car again, but it refused. Not even the sounds of ignition could be heard when he twisted the key. Martin rubbed his tired face and prepared to step out into the rain to look at the engine. This is not what I need.
Martin lifted the bonnet catch under his seat, and the bonnet popped up. Then he turned up the collar of his shirt and stepped out to have a look under it. He walked to the front of the car and leaned in under the bonnet. It was dark, and he knew he needed a torch. He had one in his boot. Martin continued to feel around under the bonnet for a couple of minutes. He thought about how he could get the car back, or maybe if he should abandon it. As he was thinking of what to do, suddenly, a low and gruff voice emanated from behind him.
“Seems you’re ‘aving trouble ‘ere,” it said. Martin shot up and darted around to face where it had come from. The last thing he expected was another soul to be out on the roads in this weather. He looked and squinted in the semi-black. And there, standing in the rain, he saw a person. Ten feet away from him was this mountain of a man. At least seven feet tall.
“Jesus! You scared me,” Martin said. There was no response.
Martin had barely made him out because he was not moving. This giant just stood motionless in the embankment, half in the tall grass. He wore an oversized green waxed trench coat that stretched down to his knees. Poking out from the bottom of the coat were wellies that crawled up to the top of the man’s shines. They were caked in thick and greyish mud and gave off the sharp odour of a marsh. He was wide. His posture and proportions seemed to belong to that of a bear rather than a man; a giant bear, standing on its hind legs, looking down at Martin in the threnody of rain. He had huge rotund shoulders, a great bulging belly, and legs like tree trunks. Next to him, by the side of the rut, was a big military-looking trunk encased in faded black leather and wooden corners. It was more of a foot-locker than anything else. One which looked like it came from a few centuries back.
The man had been out there, all this time, in the rain, dragging this trunk around with him wherever he went. He had come from those deep dark woods behind and dragged that thing with him. And that fact unnerved Martin. A large cast-iron padlock hung from the centre of it. Martin looked up at him. The giant’s face was obscured by the low-rimmed cowboy hat that he was wearing. In the rim was a large pheasant’s feather poking up and back from the hat. Martin could only make out the bottom of his face. It was a strangely angular face.
“Didn’t intent on scaring you,” the man said. His jaw was puffed out and too wide, so wide that Martin couldn’t tell where his neck ended and his jaw started. Yet his cheekbones were high and jagged. He had scraggly hair all over his cheeks, and his lips were curiously missing. Instead, there was just a thin black slit for a mouth. His skin was pale and sickly looking. It reminded him of his dead wife’s face.
The giant leered over Martin, and that mouth of his seemed to draw back with anticipation as if it was licking its lips with hunger, or sucking in air, or analysing Martin’s scent, like some wretched basilisk. The man continued looking down at Martin.
“Who are you?” Martin asked meekly, trying to conceal the sheer panic in his voice.
“I live here,” the giant replied casually. The voice was low and metallic. As if the vocals cords he used to produce the sound were not entirely organs of a human. He then looked past Martin at the car. The bonnet was open, and the hazard lights were flashing steadily in the downpour.
“Broken down, sir?” the giant asked in a horribly thick West-Country accent. Martin hesitated and then just nodded, unsure of what to say next. All he could think was where this giant had even come from.
“Suppose I could fix it for ye?” the stranger said. Martin quivered. The harsh voice seemed to travel through him; it vibrated inside Martin’s skull whenever this man spoke. “If’in you got’s the tools to fix it?” The man continued.
Martin knew that he could not be found by police on this desolate road now. There were stains all over him that he needed rid of. He was a walking crime scene. He knew he had to get somewhere safe and clean up. If he was caught, then it wouldn’t take all that long for his story to fall apart in front of him. He needed solitude, safety, somewhere he could get his alibi straight, get his head straight too. After everything that had happened to him tonight, he needed refuge.
Martin looked up towards the towering behemoth of the man standing before him. The great waxed coat was like a tent that had somehow developed legs and began wandering through the marshlands.
Martin nodded. “Um, yeah, sure. I think it’s something to do with the gasket. The coolant must’ve burnt out and fried the goddamn spark plugs somehow. I can get an ignition, but it just isn’t catching, is all,” Martin said politely.
Martin just nodded, desperate to get out of the situation more than anything. “The tool kit is in the boot,” he said. “I’ll grab it.”
The two walked to the rear of the car, and Martin opened the boot. He reached in and pulled out the toolbox stuffed in with everything someone would need in an emergency breakdown. It contained a torque wrench, a spanner kit, tow rope, everything.
Martin pushed the thoughts of his dead wife out of his head and handed the stranger the box. The stranger took it from his grasp, and, immediately, Martin felt the raw strength of the giant before him. The clasp of his hand over Martin’s as he took the box from his was almost mechanical, vice-like. It squeezed Martin’s hand until he winced in pain and drew his hand back apologetically. The giant did not notice, either that or he respectfully pretended he had not. The pair of them then navigated towards the front of the dead car. Martin afforded himself a look forward, towards the row of black pine trees ahead. All around Martin, he felt the slow creeping-in of his prosecution. The haunting forest seemed to produce the voice of his dead wife all over again.
”You fucking coward,” the motionless black pine trees jibbed to him. “I fucked Paul, by the way.”
Martin shook his head and tried to concentrate on what he needed to do. Jesus, Martin, just get out of this mess you’ve created for yourself. But he couldn’t. He knew, somewhere out there in that darkened wood, his dead wife laid. And he put her there. It was as if the preverbal net was closing in around him. The longer he stayed on this road, with this mysterious stranger and those blood-soaked hands, the sooner he would see the inside of the cell. He needed to get off this foul stretch of road immediately.
“You service this automobile often?” the monolith asked.
“Pretty frequently,” Martin replied, wrapping his arms around his chest to keep the warmth in. The night air was cold and wretched against his bones. Everything was wet and biting.
The giant leaned down under the bonnet and inspected the engine. Martin waited. The rain was beginning to roll down his back, under his collar, and frustration had started to make him fidget. He thought about hurrying the stranger up but soon changed his mind.
The giant tinkered around under it in the dark. He felt the components with his giant, shovel-like hands and sniffed at various aspects of the engine. Then he rose from under the bonnet after a few minutes. The pair just stood there in the torrential downpour for a beat, both looking at each other. It was hard to make out in the darkness, but Martin could’ve sworn that the giant was smirking. His face seemed to twitch with ardour as he looked down at the unfortunate traveller.
“Supposing I can fix this automobile for ye, what’s it worth to me?” the giant said glibly.
“Um, what do you want? I’ve got money,” Martin replied.
“Where be to?”
“Where are you going? A lift in’a town would suffice, I reckon. I been out here so long I cain’t ‘member my own name.”
“Town? What town? Princetown?”
“Yes, sir. Princetown is ‘bout five miles down ‘ere,” he said as he pointed down the road. “It’s on your way.”
“On my way to what?” Martin asked with a distinctly perturbed tone in his voice. How does he know I’m heading in that direction? On my way to where?
The giant then looked forward to the inky blackness. “Will ye take me, if’in I fix yer car?”
Martin cooled slightly. “Okay, yeah, sure. Deal,” he sighed.
“Gurt lush!” The giant said. He grinned and set to work under the bonnet again. Martin waited next to him. There was a lot of grunting and spitting coming from the man; strange noises that sounded like a deer snorting. Along with them, a spanner squeaked as it tightened something. Martin shook his head in dismay and silently pleaded with whatever God he could think of to get him out of this mess. Something, anything, to get him safe…
Sometime later and the giant had managed to get the thing alive again. He told Martin to climb in and try the ignition. He did. Martin twisted the key and, as if it was a brand new car, it growled into motion. Martin laughed. His ride to freedom was so close now.
“You did it. Sir, you are my saviour,” Martin said giddily. He looked up from the dashboard, forward, out at the man standing in the rain. The giant had closed the bonnet and was now just looking at Martin through the windscreen, grinning to himself sardonically. It was hard to remark for definite, given the interminable shroud of rain, but Martin insisted that he saw the man’s eyes twinkling unnaturally. Hints of iron-grey that appeared to be illuminated slightly. His eyes seemed to capture the waning of the moon above.
Suddenly Martin thought about leaving this stranger behind. Something was very wrong with him and Martin felt it, he just could not figure what exactly it was. But it was too late anyway,
The giant had sauntered to the passenger side and climbed in before Martin could make the decision. The car heaved and groaned at the sudden extra weight on its suspension. Joins in the frame seemed to squirm under the tremendous bulk of the stranger. The stranger didn’t say anything as he wriggled into position. He simply looked ahead, wrapping his massive arms around the trunk sitting in his lap; hugging it almost. Now, more than any time previously, Martin noticed the incredibly loathsome stench radiating from the giant. It was beyond stench. It was a sharp, earthy odour that smelt a lot like compost but harsher. It smelt like decaying flesh, gone-off ale, vinegar, onions, all combined with the unmistakable odour of some wretched marshlands. The smell almost made him gag. Without the rain obscuring his features now, Martin could see just how alien and incredibly ugly this mysterious man was. His skin was sallow and sickly looking. His eyes were too far apart and were unnaturally large, even for the size of the man’s elongated skull. They looked like two giant hawk’s eyes wedged into a misshapen and ill skull that looked more like something attempting to mimic a human’s characteristics than be a specimen of them.
Martin sighed once more, put the man’s goatish appearance down to possible inbreeding, and put the car into gear. Of all the goddamn nights to breakdown, it had to be this one! He gritted his teeth and tried not to give in to the anger swelling inside of him. No matter. You’re on the move now. Just get back, clean up, and forget about this whole thing. Drop this man off down the road from your accommodation and do not give him any details about yourself, Martin.
The pair sat in silence as the car chugged along through the endlessly expanding rain—a constant blur of dark trees and boundless moors half-numbed Martin’s concentration. There was something almost monotonous about the endlessness of it all. He was away with his thoughts anyway. If only Sarah would have just stopped drinking and at least tried to listen to me, he thought to himself. No, forget it, Martin. Forget her. She was a bitch, and now she’s a dead bitch. But what’s the plan? What the hell is my story going to be? Good question.
At some point, the giant snapped Martin out of his pondering when he made an incredibly presumptuous statement. “Strange time to be out here on your own,” the giant muttered in that same awful West-country accent. “Mooost folks like to stay near pubs’ n’ such when the weather’s like she is…”
“I could say the same thing for you.” Martin retorted calmly after a long pause. “Strange time for you to be walking around with that thing.” Martin gestured to the trunk. The giant merely smiled in acknowledgement as he looked forward and caressed his footlocker with an odd sort of affection. Martin shook his head and decided to not indulge the man in conversation. He didn’t need to know any details about this man, nor he Martin. The less he knew, the easier it would be for Martin to keep his story straight. There was manoeuvrability in a tale so vague and ambiguous as his. He could’ve left his wife at the restaurant. They could’ve argued, and he dropped her off at a hotel. Who knew? No one. And Martin wanted to keep it that way. He had to. No details. No pertinent facts.
Minutes went by. Too many of them. As the tense silence slid over the pair again, Martin could not help but think about how long he had been driving on the same road. It felt like at least an hour. But that was impossible. He had barely seen a road sign since he left the manor house with his wife. Come on, how long is this bloody road? Still, the road just kept on coming—an unending stream. The rain, the forest, the gloom all seemed to repeat itself repeatedly with the homogeny of a hamster’s wheel that he felt he was running on. Martin exhaled a groan of tedium.
“I thought you said Princetown was about five miles down this road?” he asked, trying his hardest not to betray his frustration to this creepy man. The giant did not reply for a good few seconds. Instead, he shuffled around in the seat to get himself more comfortable. “Well?” Martin pressed.
“It is down this road,” the giant finally replied. “… It won’t be much longer now, I don’t think.”
The response was not enough for Martin. He gripped this steering wheel tightly, so tight that his hands went white. Then he reminded himself he must remain calm. He thought of the axe he kept in the footwell of his driver’s seat. He thought of the screwdriver in the glove compartment. What’s the difference between one and two murders? Maybe I should just kill this guy too?
He was prone to angry outbursts. He would be the first to admit that. But he was trying to control them. No. Just keep calm until you’re rid of him.
Martin glanced down at the heavy, dark trunk in the lap of the giant. He started to wonder what could be in there.
“What’s in the trunk?” Martin asked, doing his best to sound gregarious and casual.
“Ere, particulars and such I have collected back-along.”
“Oh… like possessions?”
The giant didn’t reply.
“Can I see?” Martin pressed after a short and uncomfortable pause, just the sounds of the windscreen wipers sweeping from left to right, beating off the heavy rain.
“Do you want to see?” The stranger said in a flat, hoarse tone.
“I think maybe you should.”
“I should?” He replied with a hint of confrontation in his peculiar voice.
“Seeing as I am giving you a lift into town, and you’re making me very nervous. It’s strange that you were right there on the road when I broke down. How do I know you didn’t set that up? How do I know you’re not some axe murderer?”
“And how do I know you’re not either?” The giant replied nonchalantly.
“All I’m saying is it’s strange for someone like you to be walking around in this weather, carrying that thing. Are you a homeless man? An off-grid type?”
“I believe I told you I live here.”
“That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, though, seeing as I haven’t seen a house anywhere around here the whole time. So, if you please, show me…”
The giant stroked his trunk and just looked down at it. “You know how many souls I’ve come across?”
Martin cocked his head. “What?”
“… They all want the same thing,” the behemoth replied, still smiling to himself.
Martin sneered and glared across that the giant. The giant did not respond to his accusing glare. Martin then drew his gaze downwards towards the footwell that accommodated the giant’s massive dinosaur-like feet, and there he saw it. Martin gasped when he did, and the stranger noticed. It was when Martin spotted something wriggling and writhing out of the bottom of the man’s trousers that he knew he needed to get rid of this stranger right away. There was something oozing and black that was slithering around stealthily from the man’s ankles, exploring the environment with the cautiousness of a woodland critter. The car was dark and Martin couldn’t be sure what he saw was truly there, but in the twilight, he caught a glimpse of a sheen of something wet and slippery down by the man’s legs. Martin then drew his glance over the giant’s chest. The giant’s whole body seemed to be teeming and wriggling under the clothes with tentacles or some manner of worms as if roused by something.
Martin could no longer hide his terror. He took a second to think of what to do next, then, before his brain had even processed a response, he slammed on the brakes. The car screeched and slid to a halt in the rain.
“Okay. Enough. You either tell me who you are or get the fuck out of my car,” Martin snapped.
The giant slowly craned his head right to face Martin. “You want to know?” The giant asked, wiping away a tiny string of dribble from his mouth.
“Yes!” Martin bellowed. “I want to know you haven’t got a fuckin’ body in there or something. And I want to know what you have under your coat!”
The giant flashed his sharp white teeth for the first time. They looked like a row of stained daggers.
“I’ll tell ye, if’n ye tell me something… I think you were up to no good tonight when I found you,” he hissed at Martin. “I believe that is blood on your collar, sir. I believe you have left your baggage in the dirt back-along.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” Martin replied, trying desperately not to betray his inner fear to the giant. How the hell could he know? ”Were you watching me?” Martin asked, not sure if he wanted an answer.
The pair glared at each other. The giant smiled menacingly. This stranger somehow knew Martin had done something nasty tonight. Was he in that forest too? Martin began to regret pushing this stranger so much. All he wanted to do was get back safely. But things were not going his way this night.
“If you want me to put your mind at rest, then I shall. Here, I’ll show you,” the giant said.
The giant unlocked the cast iron padlock. He gently lifted the lid from the chest. Martin stared at the stranger with bemusement, then he heard it. His face dropped into disbelief when the voice came from within.
“Whyyyy the fuuuuck have weeee stoppedddd here?” Sarah’s low voice emanated from the pit of the trunk.
“Sarah?” Martin asked, completely aghast. He looked at the giant for a moment, then down to the mysterious chest on the giant’s lap.
“She’s waiting for you,” the giant said callously. A strange-smelling vapour rose from the trunk. The vapour smelt like seaweed and something else. Almost sulphuric, acrid.
Martin frowned and put his head up over the trunk. When he did, his face went wide with terror. His eyes smouldered with horror. What was inside was indescribable. No known words could ever explain the numbing terror that swirled in the pit of that awful chest. It was something beyond any mortal realm. It was something eternal. It was death—a mass of churning pallid clouds within. Every conceivable phantasm and monstrous abomination reached up from the trunk to pull Martin in. Martin screamed, but no noise escaped his throat. What came out instead was a silent expression of utter fear, like a yelp without sound.
The giant remained still and watched. His eyes blazed steel grey. Behind the glow, twinkling lights that looked like black stars swirled around in his irises.
“I am he who eats the souls of all life,” the giant growled slowly. His mouth drew back, and his voice began to come out like the hiss of a vile snake. “I live here. I’ve always lived here. I am the first one. And I shall reave your soul and feast on it forever. As I have done so to all the sons and daughters of man. Then you will know my true name…”
When Martin’s car was found the next day, half-sunken in a ditch, the local detective was almost sick right there on the spot. He was so disturbed to his core and wholly unnerved by what he found inside the car that he could scarcely produce his notepad. It wasn’t how the car was found that alarmed him. It wasn’t the fact that the passenger’s side door was half-ajar, and the hazard lights were still pulsing nervously in the morning mist that bothered him either. It wasn’t even the fact that he could not find any footprints leading away from the crash, nor find a body. It was when detective Marshall leaned down and reluctantly poked his head inside the car to inspect it that he began to feel sick and silently fearful of what lay before him. Something he was not prepared to see, nor fit for any man to look upon, was what truly put the fear in him.
The driver’s seat was covered entirely in blood. But not a kind of blood that the detective had ever seen before—and he’d seen plenty of it in his time. It was the way that the blood had seemed to be blackened and gloopy, taking on the form of lava or a type of tar, that made his heart pound in his ribcage. A thick and dark ichor that looked wholly unnatural. The blood on the seat smouldered and bubbled like it was a saucer of gravy resting on an over-heating hob. A heavy and sharp smell drifted from the steaming remains. The imprint of the body was almost perfectly formed.
On the steering wheel were two distinct imprints of hands gripping tightly, as if panicked by something. The impression was carved into the steering wheel with that same gloopy blood that looked more like black paint than anything else. The detective thought to himself that whoever the driver was, he never left the car, never left the driving seat.
The detective quietly thought about how that was possible. But where is the body? And then he saw what remained. There, in the middle of the seat, floating in the bubbling primordial ooze, were two rows of perfectly preserved adult teeth spaced a centimetre apart from each other. Both rows were in a straight line, running parallel to each other. Detective Marshal looked at them and felt something hot and acidic lurch up from his throat. He stopped himself from vomiting and stepped away from the car, his face pale and wet in the misty morning rain. How was that possible? He wrestled with not being sick and trying to answer that question at the same time. But deep down, he already knew how. Something dark whispered to him that this was beyond any ordinary disappearance. He recognised the hallmarks of the legend. Everyone in the area knew about it.
‘Don’t go on the roads when the moon is full. You will be lost…’
“The thing in the forest… It’s real,” he whispered out loud. “The Pale Man…”
Later that day, the wreckage was towed away for forensic analysis, and detective Marshall would have his first of many sleepless nights to come. The forensic reports came back. Neither the blood nor the teeth matched up with any database. Yet the car was registered to Martin Tailor. The reservations at both the restaurant and bed and breakfast confirmed they were in the area at the time. Henry, the waiter of the restaurant, testified that he saw the pair that very night. And yet Martin, along with Sarah Tailor, simply disappeared. There was nothing else to find.
No one, not even the detective, not even the missing man’s family, has ever been able to explain just what happened to Martin nor what caused him to crash that night. All that is known now is that they disappeared and how both of them did defy all laws of nature.
As the years passed by, the memory of the unspeakable incident remained strong to the local folk. Whisperings and tales gave way to strange superstitions. Drivers of other cars would shudder and grip the steering wheel nervously as they all passed the hallowed and black spot where Martin Tailor and his wife disappeared that rainy night in November long ago.
They all felt it, the ghostly presence of something unseen and malevolent, lingering in the forest next to the main road, palpable and icy in their spines. The unconscious fear of the unknown crawling over them like a thick and dark blanket. It was believed to be something not entirely human, but something totally other—something that stretched back through the aeons, back to the start of the universe. Martin and his wife were not the first to vanish on that gloomy and lonesome road, and for as long as other travellers used that road, they would not be the last.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None AvailableCraig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
🔔 More stories from author: Hank BelbinPublisher's Notes: N/A Author's Notes: N/A
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