A deep groan rumbled through the night, and my stomach tied itself in a knot. She’s going to kill me. For good measure, I turned the key one last time, but the car still wouldn’t start. It just made that unhealthy groaning sound before falling utterly quiet.
I gave myself a moment to calm down and think. I was stranded. The car—her car—had veered off the road and flattened its front end against a tree. I hadn’t sustained any injuries, save for a bruise on my forehead, so I wasn’t in any real danger.
You sure about that?
Shaking off the chill, I reached for my phone and called my girlfriend. “Got some bad news, I’m afraid.”
Her voice informed me that her mind had jumped to the worst conclusion. “What?”
“I got in a bit of an accident. I’m fine, but I think your car’s totaled.”
There was silence while she absorbed the news. “You’re not hurt at all?”
“No, just a small bruise.”
More silence. “You wrecked my car?”
“Sorry. Think you could borrow your dad’s and come pick me up?”
I could feel her fuming on the other end, but she said, “Sure. Where are you?”
“Asher?” she repeated.
“Yeah. There was a bridge out. Had to take a detour. I think I remember how I got here, so if you stay on the phone I can try to walk you through it.”
“Alright. Let me get the keys from my dad, and I’ll call you back once I’m in the car.”
The call ended and I sat back to wait. I thought of opening the door for some fresh air, but decided against it. I was still too shaken up, and being enclosed made me feel safer. The quiet of the woods that engulfed Asher Road unnerved me. There were no insect noises, no rustle of leaves. The only movement was the faint trace of mist leaking from under the trees and flowing down the road.
I jumped when my phone rang.
“I’m on my way,” my girlfriend said. “Where’s the detour start?”
“The turnoff was right before the bridge,” I answered. “You can’t miss it.”
“So how’d it happen?”
“No,” she replied angrily. “The accident! Was it an animal?”
“I guess it was. Didn’t get a good look at it. It was foggy and I veered pretty quickly. I didn’t hit it, whatever it was, so it’s long gone by now. Let me know when you reach the bridge.”
“Should be there in a couple minutes.”
Neither of us said anything for a while. I stared through the windshield at the tree that had cut my drive short. Both my headlights had been smashed, so it was just a black pillar stationed immovably in front of me. I glanced briefly in the rearview mirror, but didn’t let my eyes linger there.
“Okay, I’m approaching the bridge.”
“You want to turn right just before the bridge,” I instructed. “After that, keep going straight until you—”
“Wait a second,” she interrupted. “You said right?”
“But the guy here is pointing me straight ahead.”
“Guy? What guy? There wasn’t anyone there when I came through.”
“Well, there’s a guy here now, and he’s pointing straight ahead.”
“Ignore him. You can’t go straight; the bridge is out. You need to go right.”
“Are you sure? He seems pretty adamant.”
I rolled my eyes. “I went right at the bridge. There was a detour sign and everything. If you want to find me, you have to turn right.”
“Okay, okay, I’m turning right. Wow, but he looks angry.”
“Don’t worry about him. Now, you want to keep going straight until you get into some thick trees. I think it’ll be about five minutes.”
She didn’t answer right away, so I wanted to make sure she’d heard me. “You got that?”
Five minutes came and went without any further communication. I thought she might be driving slowly because of the dark, so I gave her a couple more minutes before asking, “Are you to the woods yet?”
“No,” she said. “Still driving through farm fields.”
I frowned. I thought that long stretch through the fields couldn’t have taken me more than five minutes, but maybe I’d been distracted. It wasn’t like I was super familiar with the area.
“I just realized something about that guy back by the bridge,” my girlfriend said. “He wasn’t dressed like a road worker. No vest or hat or anything.”
“Probably just some nut trying to mess with drivers,” I replied. “He probably hid the detour sign.”
“Yeah, you’re right.”
It was another three minutes before she said she’d reached the trees. “Finally,” I said. “Now slow down, because the next turn is easy to miss. It’s a one-lane road branching off to the left; that’s Asher. If you haven’t seen it after…” I paused, trying to calculate how long it had taken me to reach the narrow offshoot. I thought it had been just a couple minutes, but after my last miscalculation I wasn’t so sure. “…eight minutes. Any longer than that and you’ve probably overshot.”
“This road is really bad.”
“Like it hasn’t been used in years. Lots of potholes. There’s even grass growing up through the cracks.”
I didn’t remember driving through a stretch like that, but over the phone I could hear the rattle of her dad’s car as she navigated the bumps and pits. Had she already passed the turnoff onto Asher? Had she made a wrong turn somewhere else? Or was my memory just that bad? Uncertainty kept me from raising any of my concerns, instead simply cautioning, “Drive carefully.”
Another stretch of silence began. I started wondering how much my accident would cost. My girlfriend’s car was beyond saving, so it depended on how expensive a replacement she wanted. I’d have to pay for it, of course. Even if she didn’t force me to, common courtesy would make me.
My eye twitched toward something just beyond the range of my vision. For a moment my heartrate burst through the stratosphere and I found myself plastered to my seat in a cold panic. It’s back! I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t help myself. My gaze slowly drifted to the rearview mirror.
Nothing. Just the black of Asher Road yawning behind me.
A small shriek from my girlfriend reminded me that I was still connected to her through the phone. “What is it?” I asked frantically.
“Sorry,” she replied. “An animal just crossed the road. Startled me.”
“Careful. The last thing we need is for both of us to be stranded out here.”
“Hey, what kind of animal did you say you almost hit?”
“I said I didn’t know. Why? What did you see?”
“I’m…not sure. It was moving too fast. Light-colored, long legs, very skinny. That’s all I can remember.”
“You must be getting close to the turnoff by now. Keep your eyes peeled.”
“Actually, I’ve passed a whole bunch of roads. None of the signs said Asher, though.”
Alarms rang in my head. Of this I was absolutely certain: Asher was the first intersection I’d encountered after entering the woods. The first and only. “Turn around,” I ordered. “You’ve gone too far.”
“But I’ve been paying close attention. There hasn’t been an Asher Road yet. Did it not have a sign?”
It must have. How else could I have known what to call it? “Just turn around and drive very slowly. And remember, on your way back it will be a right turn. Should be the first one you passed on your way in.”
I listened to her rattle back the way she’d come. “This is weird,” she said. “I’m not seeing any of the other roads. I’m serious, I must’ve passed half a dozen on my way through the first time.”
I couldn’t believe this. The entire trip had been one inconsistency after another, and I was sick of it. I rehearsed the directions again in my head, trying to figure out where one of us could’ve gone wrong. If she got lost, we’d be in big trouble. We’d have to call her dad, and then he might get lost—
The car shook as something thumped on top of it. I nearly dropped my phone as I instinctively gripped the steering wheel. The car roof groaned. A weight was shifting up there, settling down. Now and then there was a hard tap that made me think of acorns falling—no, not acorns. Something else, something sharper.
“I’m almost out of the forest,” my girlfriend said. “There’s a turnoff here. No sign, but it’s the only one, so I’m taking it. How far down Asher are you?”
I didn’t want to answer, not with whatever-it-was on top of the car where it could hear me. I pulled the phone close to my mouth and whispered, “Just a few miles.”
I prayed she’d get here soon and scare off the thing overhead. It was still moving around up there, scratching and shifting like a restless dog. I wondered if the car horn still worked. Maybe that would frighten it away.
My hand was over the horn when I heard my girlfriend’s voice again. “Hey, I see you! Finally. Alright, I’m hanging up now.”
And the line went dead.
I looked around in alarm. I didn’t see headlights. I couldn’t hear the growl of an engine. Asher Road was as still and dark and quiet as it had always been. Well, quiet except for my unseen companion.
The car roof groaned, as if the weight on it had doubled. There was a scraping sound near the driver’s window, and in the corner of my eye I caught the first hints of something sliding down into view.
I turned my head away and squeezed my eyes shut. On the movie screen of my eyelids I saw the accident play out again and again: me hurtling through the night. Something darting out from the trees. Long, spindly limbs propelling an emaciated form, glowing pale in the glare of my headlights. I swerved to avoid it and hit the tree, but not before the creature turned and revealed its face—its disturbingly human-like face. In an instant it was gone, and my world was one of crashing and a throbbing pain in my forehead.
Who had my girlfriend seen? Who was she helping right now?
The glass to my left creaked and cracked like thawing ice. I refused to look.