It’s Christmastime, so I’m continuing my semi-annual tradition of posting a Christmas related story, my yuletide gift to you all.
This story was inspired, in part, by a drive I took recently through a good part of Texas. The roads can be lonely and dark, with barely another vehicle in sight. The moonlight is different, the skyline is a landscape of its own. I do some of my best thinking on the road (and my best storytelling) but my experience in Texas was especially powerful.
I hugged Becca goodbye in front of The Tamale Plant, one of our old haunts back when I lived here. The restaurant closed at 10:00, but Becca and I stood out front, her smoking a cigarette, me balancing awkwardly on the curb, long after they locked the doors and turned out all the lights, laughing and chatting and reminiscing about the good old days. Only back then, I would’ve been smoking, too.
It was warm for December, but that’s Texas for you. Maybe I’d just gotten more used to the cold of Michigan winters. It was hard to believe I’d been away for 5 whole years. So much had happened since then. The Tamale Plant was still the same, though. Best fish tacos this side of Mexico and margaritas the size of slop buckets. It was strange to be back, comparing the things that hadn’t changed a bit with everything that had changed way too much. It’s true what they say, you can’t go home… not that Nacogdoches was home anymore. My parents had sold their house and moved to Austin not long after I left for college. Becca was my only remaining tie to the old homeplace, but there was this lingering feeling between us, like maybe she resented me for getting out, but maybe that was all in my head. A manifestation of the guilt I felt for moving on and leaving my lifelong friend behind in the Texas dust.
“You really sure you wanna drive back all that way in the dark?” Becca asked for the twentieth time, the cherry of her lit cigarette bouncing as she spoke, “I got a perfectly good sofa bed you can crash on, you know.”
“I know.” I reply for the twentieth time, “But mom would be pissed if I wasn’t there first thing in the morning when she starts baking. You know how she is…” I trail off, shrugging. Becca knows alright. She’s always hated my mother.
Becca drops her cigarette onto the sidewalk and crushes it out with her boot. “Ok, then.” she says, hugging me. I hug back, even though the smell of tobacco on her clothes and in her hair almost makes me choke. Did I ever really enjoy smoking?
“It was good to see you.” she says, reminding me again how seldom I make the trip, or even the effort to keep in touch with my old friend. “You, too.” I turn and walk towards my car. Becca stops me by grabbing my wrist.
“Be careful, ok?” she says, “I don’t want you hurt, not if you’re going to be president or something someday.”
“Thanks.” I smile, “I will.” And then I’m on the road again.
I hit the scan button on the radio dial again, cursing myself for going cheap and not getting a rental car equipped with satellite radio. The stations blur by, a preacher yells about hell fire and brimstone, a crooner sings a ballad about a lost love, and a girl band belts out a poppy country tune, all interspersed with static as the car moves from one area of coverage to the next. Finally, I settle on a classical music station that seems to be holding strong just outside of Bryan.
The music is strangely calming, almost meditative. I like driving, or at least I don’t mind it, but it’s especially nice on the long backroads highways of rural Texas. No streetlights, few houses except very close to the cities and towns, and a soft half moon throwing glowing light over the peaceful farmland on either side of the road. I’ve only seen one other vehicle, a semi, this lonely Christmas Eve morning. I’ll probably make it to my parents house before the sun rises, which makes me feel a little sad. I’ve always loved the sunrises here, which just aren’t the same in Michigan.
I’m a little tired, after a flight, a layover, and driving down to see Becca, and our visit at the Tamale Place, but that’s alright. I’ve done it before. Becca and I used to take road trips all the time, to see music in Houston or Dallas and sometimes to the beach. I always drove and I always stayed awake. I’ve never even gotten a speeding ticket, not that I believe that would be possible in the little Korean compact I rented. I’m almost tempted to floor it just to see how fast it can go, but I resist the urge and in a moment it passes.
The radio station fades in and out with increasing regularity. I hit the scan button again and begin counting mile markers as they appear alongside the road. Every now and then I see cows sleeping in their fields and oil derricks churning in the darkness, moonlight glinting on their backs.
The road seems to stretch on forever, a ribbon of grey in the darkness. I start to slip into road hypnosis as the white dashes dart by and the monotony of the journey errodes my focus.
I’m almost on auto pilot, when the car is suddenly stopped fast and completely dead. I snap to attention. The lights are out, even the clock/radio. I didn’t hit anything. There was no impact, the car was just moving at one moment, doing almost 80 miles an hour, and the next, it was still.
I feel my heart begin to race, my blood thundering in my ears as my breath starts hitching in my throat. Did I fall asleep? What happened? I turn the key but it does nothing, not even click. I take a deep beath, trying to force myself calm, and reach for my cellphone. My stomach fills with ice when I see that it’s completely dead, just like the car. How can that be? It’s still hooked into the charger. Maybe there was an EMP or something. Could that have happened? Could it be a terrorist attack or something? I hold down the power button, feeling desperation begin to creep in. My mouth goes dry when it doesn’t respond.
I could try to flag someone down, but it would be a long time before anyone came along. I glance up at the road ahead, and that’s when I see them.
Long, pale forms that seem to glow in the moonlight with bottomless empty holes for eyes and mouths emerge from the woods, cloaked in shadow.
Panic. What the fuck are those things? I turn the key in the ignition again, frantic. I twist it so hard it hurts, but nothing. The things are coming closer, reaching too-long fingers towards me, their shapes contorting, stretching, twisting in the moonlight. They move in quick, halting motions, jerky, like someone removed several frames during playback. Tears run down my face. I bite my lip and taste blood.
They come closer. I press the button to lock the doors but it doesn’t do anything. I sob even though I can barely breath.
I gasp as one of them appears on the other side of my window, moving several yards in a split second. I try to scream, but I can’t. I feel like I’m paralyzed. Warm wetness spreads on the seat beneath me as my bladder lets go.
I shut my eyes, it’s all the control I have over my body. I squeeze them so tight it hurts.
I hear the door open and a sound like nothing I’ve ever heard, like harsh wheezing played backwards, fills the void.
Cold fingers, colder than anything I’ve ever felt, wrap around me, my entire head in one hand, my shoulders in another. They drag me from the car.
Instinct kicks in and I open my mouth, biting down hard on a finger that feels too soft to hold me and as smooth as glass.
A scream like sirens and all goes silent.
I fall to the ground, my shoulder and my knee take the impact. My mouth is full of hot, stinging fluid that tastes like batteries and fire. I choke and gasp as I roll to the side and throw up. I can feel my lower lip and my tongue beginning to dissolve.
I open my eyes. They sting, but I can see. I cannot hear. Around me, there is no one. Nothing. Only the cows and the derricks and the darkness.
The car jolts to life suddenly, headlights flashing on, the overhead light illuminating above me. I imagine the music on the radio is playing again, but I can’t hear it.
Coughing and choking, I feel wet chunks of things that should stay inside me coming out. They splatter on my hands and arms and the pavement, looking black in the pale light of the moon. I am covered in something that glows the color of Christmas lights and makes my skin bubble and blister and ooze.