02 Oct Unfamiliar Roads
“Unfamiliar Roads”Written by Queen of the Moths Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available
⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 11 minutes
You know how you’ll sometimes be driving, and it suddenly clicks that you spaced out for most of the trip and don’t recall a chunk of time on the road? That was what happened this morning as I pulled off the freeway and realized that I had no recollection of even leaving the house.
I was supposed to be at work, I thought, but I wasn’t anywhere near the textile company I’d worked at for the past eight years. In fact, I didn’t even recognize my surroundings. It looked like I’d left the city and ended up in an isolated, forest-type area.
The exit took me down an unpaved trail with no markings or any indication of where I was. I looked around for other cars or houses, but I didn’t see anyone else, so I pulled over and got out my cellphone. With how weird the day was already unfolding, I’d been initially afraid that my cell would be dead. Fortunately, it lit up without issue, revealing my lock screen.
I recognized the photo–myself, my brother, and one of his friends–but I didn’t remember taking it. We looked normal at first glance, but the longer I stared at the photo, the more it felt a little…off. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but dread began to eat at me from the back of my mind.
Clearly, something was wrong. I’m not an old man, but I’ve been under a lot of stress recently. I thought maybe I could be experiencing heart or brain issues, like a stroke. Wasn’t confusion part of that? Either way, my head was screwy, so I unlocked my phone to call emergency services.
However, instead of any familiar icons, there were only two apps on my phone with a background image of a list, written in my own handwriting.
- Don’t get out of the car.
- Focus. This is your only shot.
- You only have a few hours. Hurry.
- Ignore any other directions from outside sources.
- Don’t talk to the man in gray.
- Should anyone try to make you stop, DON’T.
- If you start to forget, say his name.
I didn’t know what to make of it, but upon reading it, my right temple began to throb. Something about it felt familiar, but it was like my brain wouldn’t let me access that file.
Important. It felt important. But I couldn’t quite put my finger on it…
Frustrated and a little scared, I tapped on the phone icon. Instead of a dial pad, the phone began ringing like I’d made a call. The connection was weak, full of static, but I could still make out the rhythmic jingle.
It went on for so long that I thought no one would answer, but after a moment, the phone clicked and a woman’s voice came through.
“Hello?” she asked, in a polished, smooth manner that struck me as both proper and erudite.
“H-Hello?” I echoed. “I think I need help. I don’t know where I–”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Stewart,” she said. “There isn’t anything else I can do right now.”
I froze. “Who is this? How do you know my name?”
“I suggest you get some sleep, Mr. Stewart,” the woman said. “I wish I could do more.”
The call ended.
I sat in silence for a long moment, staring down at the phone. After some thought, I hit the phone icon again, but nothing happened. It didn’t even register as if I’d touched it.
That left one more app: a smiley face in the center of the screen. I hesitated, then clicked it.
The screen went dark, but I saw that it was playing an audio file. Initially, all I could hear was static, like with the phone call. But after a moment, a man’s voice cut through.
“…sometimes a clearing. If you don’t get lost. But try to stay focused. It’s easy to lose it. That’s why…”
He sounded so far away. I could hardly make out the rest of what he was saying. I turned the phone’s volume up as far as I could, but it was all so muffled.
“…just like…” a second man said, his voice cutting through more sharply than the first. “That’s the hardest part. So… then you… Daniel…”
The static continued for a moment longer, then the recording ended.
There was a nagging feeling in the back of my mind, like an itch just under the skin.
“Daniel,” I said aloud, contemplatively.
Something inside of me seized and I gasped. So abruptly that it made my heart jump, I had the sudden sense that I was running late. Very late. I needed to get there now. Only I had no idea what the hell I was late for.
Regardless, I tossed the phone aside and started the car. I was moving in an instant, following the trail until it opened up onto a back road. I was on asphalt again, but the path was narrow, trees looming over me as if they may collapse on my vehicle at any moment.
The vegetation was a little snowy here and there, which told me I was much farther out than I’d imagined. I’ve lived in L.A. for years, and you only see snow on the ground when you’ve gone pretty far inland. Not like back home in Illinois. We never had dry winters there.
As I turned a sharp corner, however, the snow had melted away to mud, and the trees above had become so thick that it looked like night time. I turned on my headlights and slowed down.
You only have a few hours.
I hadn’t forgotten that sense of urgency, but I imagined if I crashed into the foliage that I wouldn’t reach my destination any sooner. Thinking about said destination, whatever it was, made my head start throbbing once more.
Up ahead, the road grew impossibly narrow, and I had to slow down even more. The trees were an unusual color–a deep red bark, smooth along the edges like some trunks looked after a forest fire. They looked soft, though. Almost fleshy.
Something twisted in my gut.
“Help!” a woman screamed, running out in front of my vehicle. I slammed on the brakes just in time, skidding until I was inches from striking her.
“Holy fuck!” I gasped, trying to swallow my heart back into my chest.
“Please, help!” the woman said. “There’s been an accident!”
My first instinct was to pull over, but as I did so, I remembered the list. How could I have forgotten so quickly? Clearly, I’d written the note for myself for a reason.
The woman looked so distraught. I couldn’t just leave her out here, isolated. There was blood in her hair and on her hands, tears running down her cheeks. She certainly looked like she could have been in an accident, and how could I just drive off when someone needed help?
As I idled there, that nagging feeling returned. I’m not the sort of person to hesitate to help another, but something made me pause–and it wasn’t just the note. The woman was gawking at me, a reasonable expression given the situation and how little I was reacting to it. I glanced at my phone again.
“What kind of accident?” I asked.
The woman started, like she didn’t understand the question.
“What happened? Was it a car accident?” I continued.
“Out in the forest?” I asked. “How did you get your car through these trees?”
Again, the woman stared, before grabbing the hood of my car. “Please! Help me! There’s been an accident!”
“Where has there been an accident?” I shouted, my voice strained with anxiety. This wasn’t right. It just wasn’t right. In that moment, I had never felt so certain that I needed to trust my gut.
“Help!” she said again, though she seemed angrier than before.
I took a breath, then started to go around the woman, maneuvering in the tight space.
“No!” she screamed, slamming her hands on my hood. “No!”
As I passed her, she began striking and kicking the car with surprising force. I glanced over at her to see her eyes had changed. The iris and pupil were gone now, leaving only white. Her hands, still slamming the side of my vehicle, now looked more like mangled claws.
I hit the gas without thinking and nearly collided with some trees ahead. After narrowly missing them, I stopped holding back. Twisting and turning until my heart nearly gave out, I raced through those woods. I had to get out of them. That was all that I knew. I had somewhere to be, right on the other side.
“He’s out of time,” I heard someone say, but far away, like it was in my own head.
I looked around frantically, seeking the source.
“No,” another voice said, just as distant. “Give him another minute. He can do it.”
I swallowed hard and realized I’d started crying at some point. It felt like someone else was driving–not the car, but my body. I was going through the motions, even though none of it was making any sense. I had no reason to believe that I was even going the right way.
I turned another corner and, as if reading my mind, a sign appeared up ahead: DEAD END. TURN AROUND.
I slowed again but didn’t stop, looking for an alternate way to go. That had been another note I’d made for myself. I wasn’t supposed to follow instructions other than the ones I’d written. But what was I supposed to do if there was nowhere else to drive?
I was surrounded by thick trees. The sign in front of me blocked my path, leaving only enough room for me to turn the car around and head back the way I’d come.
“Hey,” a new voice, one I hadn’t heard yet, caught my attention. I glanced at my phone and saw that the smiley face app was still running.
“Do you remember that spot near the lake where we would go camping?” the voice asked. I wasn’t sure if it was a recording or not, but when I didn’t reply, it continued anyway. “I’d like to go back there someday.”
My chest tightened again, and the tears that had been flowing came harder.
I closed my eyes.
“Daniel,” the name appeared on my lips without me having consciously said it. I opened my eyes again, and the road in front of me began to shift.
Oh right. This was where I’d meant to go. I recognized it now.
As the trees gave way to open meadow, I saw them watch me pass from the side of the road. Figures, clustered together in the fields. I couldn’t see their faces, but I could feel their anger. I wasn’t supposed to be here. We all knew that.
“Please, help us!” I heard a voice, a woman on the side of the road, trying to wave me down.
“Don’t leave us!” a little boy cried from the other side, running behind my car as I passed. “Stop!”
Just a little farther. A little farther…
WRONG WAY, the signs along the road said. NO THROUGH TRAFFIC.
I wove around them, catching sight of a rocky area in the distance.
DANGER AHEAD, another sign warned. TURN BACK.
I was starting to remember now. I couldn’t believe I’d forgotten in the first place.
DO NOT ENTER, a final sign said, bold and bright. I glanced up at it as I drove by, breathing through the anxiety. I was almost there.
At the bottom of the hill that would lead me to that rocky area, I saw him standing there. He was dressed from head to toe in formal, gray attire. A suit, a tie, a hat. His shoes looked expensive and polished. His face was the same color as the rest of him with about as much detail.
I tried not to look at him as I passed.
He waved when I grew closer, but I didn’t slow down. I don’t know how he could see me with no eyes, but it wasn’t like anything else made sense here.
I thought perhaps he would run out in front of me like the woman before. I braced myself for it, prepared to quickly drive around him. But he simply stood where he was, still waving as I left him there.
A moment later, he was out of sight, and I breathed out in relief. This, of course, was short-lived as I reached the top of the hill and found the Gray Man seated next to me.
The breath froze in my chest, and I stared right ahead, hands gripping the steering wheel with all of my might. I didn’t look over, but I knew he was facing me.
Down the hill we went, smooth sailing into the next patch of meadow. He was leaning closer now.
I let out a shaky breath as I heard his lips part beside my ear, a wet, slick sound coming from his mouth.
Moist, gurgled words slowly trickled from the gray man’s tongue directly into my ear canal.
“Where do you think you’re going?” he asked in a language I didn’t think that I knew. ”You’re too late. You should turn back now.”
I kept driving like I hadn’t heard him.
“Go now, or you’ll answer to me,” he snarled, low in his voice. ”Go, before I rend your skin from bone.”
Silence passed between us, though the pounding of my heart was deafening in my own ears.
“Look at me!” he snapped. ”Answer me!”
I turned toward the rocky clearing, and he slammed his hands on the windshield hard enough to make it shatter.
I nearly wet myself as pieces of glass flew through the air, covering the dash and seats. It rained down upon me, biting exposed flesh and nearly hitting my eyes. I would have driven off the road right there, but along with the destruction of the windshield, the man had somehow killed the car’s engine as well.
The car came to a stop, steam pouring from beneath the hood. Breathing quick and heavy, I looked around for the Gray Man, waiting for him to appear again.
I brought a shaky hand to the keys and tried to start the car again. Nothing.
Up ahead, I could see my destination. It wasn’t so far.
I tried to start the vehicle once more in vain.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Stewart,” the woman’s voice cut through the silence. “There’s nothing else I can do.”
“No,” I whispered, as the pieces fell into place, connecting before my eyes. “No!”
I stomped my foot on the gas, turning the key again and again until I gave up and slammed my fists against the steering wheel.
“No!” I sobbed, striking it over and over until pain throbbed through both of my arms.
“Time’s up,” the man said from earlier said. “Any longer could be fatal.”
I gazed out at the clearing, clenching my teeth.
Don’t get out of the car.
I unbuckled my seat belt and turned toward the open meadow before me.
Don’t get out of the car.
I was on my feet the second the door was open, running without looking back.
DON’T GET OUT OF THE CAR.
Immediately, they were upon me. I could feel them behind me. Could feel the earth shifting beneath me, trying to absorb me. The air was hot and heavy. Every step took effort, like trying to escape a monster in a nightmare. It was holding me down, swallowing me up.
I could hear beeping. Frantic beeping, echoing all around me. My skin began to split and blood ran down my arms and face, but I didn’t stop.
“Daniel!” I screamed, even as it felt like the words were being torn from my throat. “Daniel!”
They were at my toes now. Their claws were scraping at my back, tearing at my hair and clothing. I was coming apart in their hands.
“Daniel!” I shouted once more, and he was there. Sitting in the clearing, his head down like he couldn’t hear me. I could feel myself slipping away, could feel them winning.
“Daniel, please!” I reached for him, falling to my knees and crawling. The beeping was so loud now that my skull felt like it might burst.
“Daniel…” On my belly, I dragged myself, stretching my fingers as far as I could. He looked up, finally, staring warily. Afraid. Like he’d forgotten too.
“Please,” I croaked, holding out my hand, pleading for him to take it.
For a split second, he didn’t move. Then, the slightest bit of recognition stirred on Daniel’s face. He knew me. He didn’t know how, but he knew me.
Daniel hesitated, then leaned forward and extended his hand to me as well. With the last bit of strength I had left, I lunged for it.
The sound of beeping became one long, flat note, and I was on fire.
My eyes flew open and I flailed in disorientation. As I gasped for air, arching out of the ice water like I’d been reborn, it flooded back to me in waves and crashed inside my skull.
It was a fall. His security harness failed. I’m so sorry, Mr. Stewart.
I reached out frantically, grasping for a stable surface in the darkness.
Head injuries can be difficult. I don’t want to lie to you. With no brain activity for this long, chances aren’t good.
My body screamed to life, fighting the taste of death still rushing through it. Two sets of strong arms grabbed me on either side and lifted me up.
There’s nothing else we can do.
They helped me to my knees as I collapsed on the floor, wrapping me in a towel as I shook violently.
Nothing else we can do.
They braced me as I expelled water from my lungs, heaving and choking.
“Hey, just breathe,” the man closest to me said, rubbing my back briskly.
Marvin Hoff. I remembered now. And Scott Jones, on the other side of me. The one who had told me about Hoff in the first place. The one who’d come here himself years ago, after his daughter’s car accident.
“Come on,” Scott said, patting me between the shoulders. “Get it all out. Breathe.”
As I coughed and wheezed, I could see it on the table where they’d placed it: that framed photo of myself with my brother, and my brother’s friend, Daniel. It was a photo we’d taken a few months after Daniel and I had fallen in love. Still one of my favorites, years later.
“You’re okay,” Hoff said, still patting my back. “You’re gonna be okay.”
“Marvin?” his assistant murmured, holding out a phone. My phone. “It’s the call.”
Marvin nodded and took it from her hand. “Can you speak?” he asked me.
I coughed again, harder than before, then nodded. With a shaking hand, I accepted the phone and put it to my ear.
“Mr. Stewart?” the doctor said in her familiar, polished voice. “We need you to come to the hospital right away.”
I sat up and gripped the phone as tightly as I could in my trembling fingers.
“Why?” I panted. “What happened?”
I could hear the warmth in her voice when she replied.
“Your husband just woke up.”
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available