By Christopher Pate
“Son of a bitch.” Danny Winston slapped the steering wheel for the umpteenth time since his phone app steered him onto this lonely country road. All he wanted to do was to get to a town, find a hotel, and crash. Instead, his app seemed to be taking him deeper and deeper into nowhere. The battered road wound between dark trees crowding in on the right and left.
To make matters worse, reception suddenly fell off to nothing as he brought the rental car to a slow stop. The map app cheerily chirped, ‘GPS signal lost.’
Danny exited the car, its lights illuminating the heavily cracked asphalt road, as he held his phone up this way and that, vainly attempting to re-acquire a signal. Nothing. Not a signal bar.
“Great. Just great.” He fumed, thumbs punching futilely at the phone. It had been a long drive down from Philidelphia for tomorrow’s job interview. Hell, today’s job interview. It was already nearly 2 a.m. He’d gotten a late start but made good time on the highway, at least at first. Outside D.C., it had gone to complete shit. Bumper to bumper, creeping accordion progress for mile after mile. His frustration built from annoyance to simmering anger to full-blown rage at the glacial progress.
Danny wanted this job badly and knew he had to nail the interview. Too keyed up, he had to make it to his hotel to unwind and rest before the big day, to be on his toes and impress the hiring board. He calmed himself, falling back on the motivational audio he’d listened to part of the way down. The speaker was good and made Danny feel more confident about this move to get a new job. He wasn’t going to be a leaf on the corporate wind. He was going to seize control—was already taking control. Like the speaker said, expect the unexpected and react. There were no challenging surprises that couldn’t be bested. It was all a matter of self-control and taking the initiative.
So, somewhere south of Fredericksburg, he exited the highway to take an alternate route.
At first, the choice seemed right, and he made good progress. The app guided him from one small town to the next, and he lost himself ruminating on potential interview questions and responses. The day waned, and soon the sun was down. The darkness deepened, and he was still a couple hours away from his destination.
And here he was. Wherever that was. He wasn’t even sure if he was still in Virginia or North Carolina. The country all looked alike as far as he was concerned. Danny was a city boy born and bred. All this hot, sticky country was too green, too humid, and too Mayberry for his liking. Almost an alien world compared to the streets of Philly.
“Shit.” He grunted as the phone steadfastly refused to acquire a signal. He looked along the road ahead and back the way he’d come. He had two choices, he figured – keep driving forward or backtrack. He had no idea where he was or what lay ahead, but neither did he have a clear idea of what was behind. When had he passed through the last podunk town? He kicked at the road surface, scattering gravel and little chunks of asphalt. Damn, he had no idea how far back even the last crossroads were.
He almost threw the phone into the trees as his frustration surged again. He stood in the glare of the headlights for long moments staring down the road first in one direction and then the other. No signs. Nothing. Just hulking trees and the depressing song of cicadas and tree frogs that somehow made the clinging darkness feel all the muggier.
“Screw it.” He threw up his hands, tossed his phone on the passenger seat, and slipped behind the wheel again. “No going back, Winston. Keep moving forward. Success is in front of you, not behind. Carpe diem.” He put the car in gear and gunned the motor.
The car lurched, sputtered, and died. The headlights and dashboard went dark.
Stunned, Danny Winston gaped and tried the ignition again. The car refused to make any noise at all. No click. No sobbing cough from the engine. Not a damned thing. The key turned, but nothing happened. The dash remained blank. Not even a stupid check engine light mocked him in the darkness.
Or what should have been darkness.
Danny blinked as he saw his hands lit by a sterile white light cutting into the car. It cast hard shadows, plunging parts of the interior into deep wells of blackness. He blinked once more and looked to his right. Pole-mounted lights illuminated a tall fence. He wasn’t sure how he’d missed the fence. Too focused on his phone, he supposed, but at least there was light. He didn’t like the thought of being stranded here, wherever here was, in smothering gloom.
Numbly, he pulled the keys from the ignition and then re-inserted and turned them as if that would somehow make the car change its mind. Nothing happened. He exited the vehicle, not bothering to close the door. His feet crunched on the weathered pavement as he approached the side of the road, studying the fence. The steamy summer night air clung to his skin. Tree frogs chirped and croaked, and cicadas droned from the darkness.
Black chainlink rose more than ten feet beyond rank weeds lining the road. Double rows of razorwire atop the fence gleamed dully under a line of bright, glaring lights that stood well back from the barrier. The large lamps cast cold white light, pushing back the close, humid night air in a chain of puddles marching out of sight to the right and left. His brows knit as something puzzling about the fence tickled his thoughts. He realized a moment later there were no signs on or near it. None that he could see anyway. He’d seen barriers like this before and knew they boasted no trespassing notices or perhaps something more big government-ish adamantly declaring restricted area or unauthorized entry prohibited, even deadly force authorized to ward off potential intruders. He stepped back and shaded his eyes from the light, peering along the roadside left and right, but made out no marker on or near the fence.
“This is friggin’ weird,” Danny mumbled as he stepped to the road’s edge. The lights stood on poles set ten feet or so inside the fence and arranged so they lit the chainlink and only incidentally bathed the road. Their glare allowed Danny to see nothing beyond.
Then he heard the hum. It was low enough that the cicadas’ blare drowned it out, but in the pause between their dronings, the faint buzzing murmur became evident. Danny blinked. At first, he wasn’t sure if it was the lights buzzing or the fence, but after taking a tentative step closer, he thought it was definitely coming from the fence itself—a low, angry hum that promised pain…and death.
“Jesus,” he breathed out, taking a few hasty, stumbling steps backward and nearly falling on his keister. “Who the hell puts an electric fence up in the middle of nowhere?”
He was talking out loud. A nervous habit he fell into when things began to go sideways. His eyes widened as he glanced nervously up and down the road. He wasn’t much for conspiracy theories, but this was getting to be a little too creepy.
Danny stepped quickly back to the car and tried to start it again. Still nothing.
“Alright, Winston, get your shit together. It’s just a fence. A weird damned fence but still a fence. You’re in control and still have your feet. Start walking.” He scooped up his phone, patted his pocket to be sure he still had his wallet and closed the car door. He had no idea how far the next house or town might be, but he wasn’t staying here. Loose gravel and grit crunched beneath his feet with each step.
Danny took not more than a dozen steps when the lights ahead of him began to go out—one after the other one. His mouth hung open, and his eyes stared as he twisted about to follow the swift cascade of failing lights. In the time it took to turn, the last light visible in the distance winked out. Dead silence followed. Not even the fence’s faint hum cut through the air.
Silence and darkness, thick with hidden menace, dropped like a suffocating cloak. There was no moon, and beneath the net of stars overhead, the road glimmered only dimly between the dark vegetation lining its broken edges.
“Alright, Danny boy,” He sighed to himself as he closed his eyes and breathed deeply. “It’s only the damned dark. There’s nothing there that wasn’t in the light.” He opened his eyes again, and slowly his vision began to adjust. The road became a bit clearer in the starlight, and he made out the looming trees to the left and the dull gleam of razorwire and chainlink to the right. The tree frogs slowly begin their chorus once more, soon joined by the cicadas and crickets. The muggy night resonated with the songs of crawling and slimy things.
“Okay, Danny ol’ boy, just have to find some help, is all. People in the country are friendly and helpful, right? Just use their phone to call a wrecker, get a taxi, rideshare, or whatever the hell one got out in the sticks and get to civilization. You can still make the interview. Tough it out. Move your ass.” The words tumbled over one another as if in a litany past lips gone dry and mouth turned to sand. He started out again. Each footfall crunched harshly in his ears, but he could see the road well enough not to stumble as long as he didn’t move too quickly.
Sure it got dark, but never to the point of this inky murk. Darkness so deep and complete with eyes wide open wasn’t something one raised in a large city frequently experienced, if at all. There were always lights in the city. Neon lights. Street lamps. Headlights. Traffic lights. Light pouring out of apartment windows. Billboards glared. Danny never imagined being out in the wide open countryside could feel so claustrophobic – stifling and oppressive. He picked up his pace.
He took out his phone and thumbed the screen. A low-battery warning glared in the upper corner and drew a hissed curse, but still, he saw no bars. He stumbled. The low light from the screen ruined his night vision, and he had to slow to a shuffle as he blanked the screen, cupping the phone in one hand as he trudged along.
Danny wasn’t sure how much farther he had gone when he realized it was quiet. Dead quiet. Not a croak, chirp, or drone echoed in the darkness. The night creatures seemed to hold their breath, to crouch low and silent. A sudden tension stretched the air drumhead taut. Fear stabbed his guts, and he shuffled to an awkward halt. His gaze was drawn slowly to the faint glimmer of the fence to his right.
Something lurked on the other side of the fence, watching him. He saw nothing in the gloom, but he felt it, sensed the crouching bulk hidden in the deep shadows beyond the fence. Something watched him intently. Danny felt it to his core. A cold sweat abruptly beaded his skin.
The chainlink fence shivered. A cold reptilian sound in the blackness as something brushed or pressed against the barrier. A low rumble followed. A sound Danny felt more in his chest than heard. He took a panicked, involuntary step away from the fence and loose grit ground against the asphalt as his feet skittered. The barrier quaked again, and in the dim starlight, he faintly made out the metal rippling from the fierce impact.
A bird screeched and took flight somewhere beyond the fence line, its panicked cries echoing into the night. The brush inside the fence rustled and crunched, and Danny felt the ground quiver slightly through the soles of his shoes. Something big moved on the other side of the barrier.
Danny retreated a few more steps, shoes scuffling the sand and gravel scattered across the cracked asphalt. The rustling ceased, but a bone-deep rumble shuddered the moist air once more. The growl quaked his flesh. Whatever it was, it was close. Very close. Just on the other side of the fence. He squinted and thought he made out a humped, crouching shape there. It shifted with sure, lethal movements. It was stalking him.
The sub-audible snarl came again, and the fence convulsed as a tremendous weight hit the barrier, stressing the metal. The links rippled up and down the line, slapping at the poles.
He stifled a moan and began to run. His shoes slapped the uneven pavement and his breath sawed in great gasps. His toe caught on a piece of broken asphalt, and he stumbled. Pain lanced through his ankle, and he bit off the scream that followed, staggering along.
The phone, all but forgotten yet still clutched near his chest, suddenly lit up and chirped cheerily, announcing, ‘GPS signal re-acquired.’ The awakened screen floodlighted Danny’s shocked features where he froze in the middle of the road.
A deep, bellowing roar shuddered the thick night air – a hot, liquid, rolling furor. Raw and primal.
The sound jellied Danny’s bowels and made his legs go ropey. The brazen predatory peal trampled and bludgeoned its way through the reeling reason centers of his brain. Logic winked out like a candle in a hurricane gale. The primitive parts of his brain, the ancient animal remnants, screamed out. Run! No! Find a weapon! Fight! No! Freeze! Don’t move! All tumbled over each other and collided, making him hesitate. Adrenalin surged as his heart hammered, his lungs hyperventilated, and blood crashed like titanic waves in his ears as his body took the reigns and readied for life or death exertion.
“Ohshitohshitohshit.” He babbled as he turned after an eon’s hesitation, hobbling and jerking a dozen steps or more despite the stabbing pain in his ankle before he tripped again and went down hard. His palms took the blunt, and he felt rocks and dirt grind into the scraped, torn flesh. A hot, coppery odor hit his nose. He was bleeding, and his hands felt as if they were on fire.
The fence quaked again as something hit it harder than ever. Metal shrieked as it tore.
He cast a panicked glance back over his shoulder and caught sight of a hulking, hunched shadow beyond the fence. Something huge. Poised and bunched violence ready to explode. The very air seemed to tremble with barely suppressed red violence. Branches snapped, and the earth trembled as the thing moved closer, pacing him. A sour odor met his nostrils and made him gag – musky, unpleasant, and thickly underlaid with the stink of rotting flesh and decaying blood. His lizard brain screamed up from the base of his skull, ‘Predator! Hunter! Killer! Eater of flesh!’
Danny Winston pissed himself where he lay on the road.
He flailed his arms out over the weathered pavement, dragging himself on elbows and forearms, heedless of the rocks and gravel tearing through his shirt and skin. He pushed and kicked with his good foot, dragging his bad ankle, hissing and gasping in pain.
Another bellow tore through the night, and the fence undulated in the silvery, cold starlight. He whimpered and crawled. Metal pinged off the asphalt, and he realized with an awful clarity amid the chaos reigning inside his head the pole ties were giving way, sprung free to scythe through the sticky night.
The next furious roar seemed almost triumphant as the fence wobbled and heaved wildly. The ground thumped and quaked beneath Danny as he tried to crawl faster, forearms and elbows slamming against the asphalt, his lips mewling in helpless fright as he left a trail of smeared blood and piss behind.
He knew the fence would fail, links parting with sharp metallic shrieks, and whatever monstrous thing hungered for him would surge from the darkness to rip bloody flesh from bone.
Danny closed his eyes and breathed out a whimpering prayer.
A harsh snap cracked through the air – an angry electric sound and the deep hum returned. One by one, just as they’d gone off, the lights returned, bathing Danny, the road, and the fence in harsh white light.
Fat, hissing sparks arced along the fence, and a pained, angry snarl made the night air tremble.
Dazed and confused, he blinked and shielded his eyes as the lamps surged back to their full brilliance. He squinted and saw deep bulges in the fence wire. Some of the links dangled loosely.
Something slunk heavily through the underbrush deeper into the darkness, away from the lights on the other side of the fence. The rumble came again, followed by a frustrated growl. The raw predatory noises carried all the threat and promise of fangs, claws, and powerful sinew only denied by seconds. Danny felt the unseen menace glaring at him from the shadows. Shadows separated from where he lay only by a battered fence and a chain of lights.
Then the creature turned, lumbering sullenly and noisily away through tangled trees and brush. The sound of its passage died out slowly. A last resentful roar, like distant thunder, echoed from the deep, unknown darkness beyond the fence.
All became silent once more but for the fence’s steady hum. After several moments, the insects and frogs returned, taking up their buzzing, trilling songs as if nothing had occurred. The summer night returned to its hot, sticky, lethargy.
On a lonely country road, Danny Winston sobbed uncontrollably and began the long, slow crawl back toward his car.
About the author: Christopher Pate was born in a small rural Ohio farming town and currently lives with his wife, daughter, and dog in coastal Virginia. He was short-listed in The Write Practice’s Spring 2022 Writing Contest and has previously been published at Short Fiction Break.
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