“So what, were you trying to get with this guy?” Lynne asked after a long silence. They left town about an hour and a half ago and she still felt too high to be driving.
“It’s not like that,” Wesley responded, a little too quickly to be convincing, “He’s only seventeen. I’m not that creepy.”
“So what, then? Were you planning on like, mentoring him or something? Some kind of gay studies program?”
Wesley blustered. He was easily antagonized and Lynne could seldom resist the urge to get him riled up.
“I didn’t have any plans for Braxton, nefarious or otherwise!” Wesley declared, “No matter what his fucked-up parents think, my conscience is clear.”
“At least in this matter?” Lynne suggested.
“Exactly. You know my tastes go for the more experienced. I have no use for some fumbling little virgin who doesn’t even know what he’s doing. Anyways, I think I’m pretty close to patching things up with Andrew. God, I hope this little escapade doesn’t fuck that up.”
“But we’re going through with it anyways,” Lynne grumbled.
She missed her couch and practically lusted for a bowl of macaroni and cheese. Breckenridge and Wesley’s little foundling Braxton were still more than an hour away. An hour, it should be mentioned, of endless pitch-black wilderness and anonymous one-gas-station towns. The last one had a massive anti-choice sculpture courtesy of the local KoC.
“Well it’s the right thing to do,” Wesley said, a touch self-righteously. “It’s my fault he got kicked out.”
“I’d say it’s either his ignorant bible-thumping parents’ fault he got kicked out,” Lynne argued, “or it’s Braxton’s fault for leaving the chat log open on the family computer. Your level of blame is tertiary at best.”
“Well, okay, granted,” Wesley allowed, “but we’ve been over this already and you agreed to help me, so I don’t know why you’re picking a fight about it now.”
“You appealed to my better nature, but now I’m starting to sober up and my worse nature is taking over again.” Lynne sighed, and added, “Sorry for being a bitch. I guess I’m just up past my bedtime.”
“Apology accepted,” Wesley said, “Pending, that is, no further resurgence of Bitch Lynne. Anyways, when we get to Breckenridge we’ll be meeting at Barry’s Nite-Owl. I’ll buy you a patty melt and you can sleep in the back on the way home. How does that sound?”
“Macaroni,” Lynne answered, signifying agreement.
Another lull in the conversation ensued, both parties lost in their thoughts. Two hours ago they were relaxing in the apartment they shared in Legerdemain, watching one of the four or five different movies they put on while getting baked. One frantic phone call by an unwillingly outed acquaintance brought a dramatic divergence to the night’s plan. As far as Lynne was concerned, that plan was to pass out on the couch holding a spoon while the end credits to Anchorman played. But she promised to stop bitching.
It was this highway she hated the most, she decided. KS-77 was the highway to nowhere and nothing. All of this wilderness unnerved her. Her territory was the city, Legerdemain. Sure, it was a sleepy town compared to, say, Kansas City, but it was a college town and there were music and culture and a nightlife and she was happy there. Comfortable.
She had only been to Breckenridge once, as a teenager, with her dad. He was searching, as he so often did, for a replacement part for the Mustang he restored as a hobby. Somehow she got roped into coming along, much like this time.
Her impression of Breckenridge was less than positive. She later told her friends that it was like the ruins of a once-mediocre society. The shops were more often closed down and boarded up than not, and the only businesses that thrived were antique stores. Therefore, it seemed, Breckenridge’s sole viable resource was old people dying and bequeathing their ratty old furniture to the secondhand market. That, and a slaughterhouse. So once again, death.
A signpost emerged. It read:
Holy Oak 2 mi
Breckenridge 50 mi
Apache 119 mi
The gas gauge read three-quarters of a tank, to Lynne’s relief. At least they could make it there and back again without having to stop at any of those spooky little towns for a fill-up. Holy Oak sounded like the exact sort of place at which you might stop out of total desperation and find to be peopled by sinister hillbilly cultist types. She’d been there before.
Not Holy Oak specifically, but places like it. Once, stopping by a small town Icey Freez for lunch during a road trip, she found herself to be an object of bizarre fascination. Every man, woman, and child in the building was staring at her and her boyfriend as if they had never in their life seen two such creatures.
In the end, they were too uncomfortable to dine in and ate their burgers and tots in the car. They only began to feel comfortable again once the giant fiberglass Icey Freez Cowboy disappeared from the rearview mirror. She never ate at another Icey Freez again.
“Turn it up! I love this song!” Wesley cried, shocking her from the fog of her thoughts.
They had already passed through Holy Oak and she scarcely noticed. She twisted the volume knob up another four points, a task Wesley could easily have performed on his own. About this, she gave no comment. She calculated that this could be construed as bitchiness, from which she swore to abstain.
The song was “Danger! High Voltage” by Electric Six, a song Lynne also loved. They sang it together, a duet. Before it ended, her megrims and mulligrubs were all but dispelled. Their expedition began to feel like an adventure again.
“Do you remember the first time we heard that song?” Wesley asked, waxing nostalgic.
“God, years ago. It was…” Lynne began.
“Donovan’s Halloween party!”
“Yeah! God, I partied way too hard that night. Do you remember? I couldn’t drink tequila for years after that.”
“Oh right! You-”
“Threw up. Everywhere.” Lynne finished. “I was dressed as the Riddler, you remember? Everyone was doing a Batman thing. I got smashed and went around posing riddles to everyone.”
“Oh yeah, that was obnoxious,” Wesley said, “Eventually they weren’t even riddles. You would just go around saying shit like ‘Riddle me this: Where is the bathroom?’ and ‘Riddle me this: I’m drunk!’”
“Hahaha! Exactly,” Lynne laughed, “I got to feeling sick, so I hunkered down in that room Donovan set up as a chill room with horror movies playing. I was just trying to keep it together, watching some movie-”
“It was Evil Dead 2,” Wesley added, “I remember. A classic.”
“Right,” Lynne said, “Only I didn’t end up watching most of it, because you plunked yourself down on the couch next to me, all ‘Hey Girl!’ and you jostled me enough to put me over the edge.”
“Oh right.” Wesley remembered, “What happened after that? You disappeared for a while.”
“Well, I dashed straight for the bathroom, and wouldn’t you know? There was a line stretching halfway down the hall. So, I dashed toward the open door… and smacked my head on the closed glass screen door I didn’t see.”
“Hahaha, oh fuck,” Wesley said, shaking his head.
“So I threw up a little on my Riddler jacket.”
“Natch,” Wesley said.
“Then I dashed out the door where who else but Donovan was standing.”
“On whom you had a huge crush, if I remember correctly,” Wesley added.
“Yeah.” Lynne grimaced from the memory, “So he asks me something like ‘How are you enjoying the party?’ and I proceed to knit a Cosby sweater all over my pants and shoes. Probably the biggest puke I ever launched. I never spoke to him again.”
“Well, at least you went out with a bang,” Wesley concluded.
“Yeah,” Lynne agreed, distractedly. A pair of headlights appeared behind them and the paranoid fear that said lights might belong to a state trooper entered and clouded her mind. “That’s a silver lining I guess. Do you think that’s a cop?”
“What?” Wesley said, confused.
“Behind us, dingus. Is that a cop?”
“It’s a truck,” Wesley said, glancing through the back glass.
“Cops have trucks sometimes.” Lynne asserted, “It’s the country.”
“No bubble, no brush guard. Uh, the license plate says H0T2TRT. Hot to trot? I’m pretty sure it’s not a cop.” Wesley insisted.
“Cops are hot to trot sometimes,” Lynne smirked.
“Don’t be fatuous, dear. Hmm. It looks like she’s digging around at something on her floorboard. I think it’s a she. Pretty dark.”
“Well if she’s not a cop she needs to quit riding my ass or I’m going to have to do something.”
“Oh god,” Wesley groaned, “No brake checks, okay?”
“Oh, I’m gonna brake check this bitch, you wait and see.”
Lynne was a notorious brake checker. So far, and against all odds, she had avoided getting rear-ended by a careless tailgater, but Wesley knew her luck would not hold out forever. A lonely highway in the middle of nowhere would be a terrible place for that to happen.
He glanced back again. The truck swerved halfway into the left lane, overcompensated into the rumble strips along the shoulder, and righted itself. The driver’s silhouette jerked and bobbed behind the wheel.
What is she doing? Wesley wondered. He could feel sweat slicking the back of his neck. Wesley always sweated when he was nervous.
“I think she’s drunk or something.” Wesley said, “She’s all over the road. Be careful, Lynne.”
“Where did she even come from?” Lynne asked. “I swear she’s the first vehicle I’ve seen coming this way all night.”
“No idea,” Wesley replied, “you saw her first, remember? Just- I don’t know- keep an eye on her? Oh, hold on…”
As Wesley watched, the truck swerved out into the left lane, revved past them, swerved back to the right, and on into the shoulder, unmindful of the roar of the rumble strips. In the distance, a bridge emerged, which meant the shoulder was about to disappear.
“Slow down, Lynne,” Wesley hissed, “She’s gonna hit that bridge.”
“Fuck,” Lynne whispered, easing off the gas. Her heart started pounding.
Illuminated by Lynne’s headlights, they could see the driver in greater detail. Her movements did not suggest drunkenness, but distress. With one hand on the wheel, she seemed to struggle with something unseen in the cab. Her head jerked from left to right and it almost seemed like she was crying out. What was happening to her?
“I don’t like this,” Lynne said, her voice trembling.
“I don’t eith- Oh shit, here comes the bridge!” Wesley cried, shielding his eyes from the sight.
By a margin so narrow that Lynne and Wesley saw sparks fly from the side of the truck hitting the guardrail, the driver avoided disaster on the bridge. They breathed a sigh of collective relief, though it was clear the danger had not been passed.
The truck was still swerving wildly from left to right, the movements of the driver as erratic as ever. She snatched her hand free from whatever unseen threat harried her and slapped her palm against the back glass. Again. Three times. A bloody, splattered handprint remained on the glass.
“What was that?” Wesley asked, “Is she trying to signal us?”
“Maybe,” Lynne answered, “But what are we supposed to do?”
“I don’t know. Try to keep up with her, but like, stay back.”
“Yeah. Is she bleeding?”
“I don’t think that’s paint on the window,” Wesley answered, “If that’s what you’re asking.”
“Is there something in there? It seems like she’s wrestling with something.”
“I can’t tell.” Wesley frowned, “Maybe she’s just badly injured and trying to get to a hospital. She might just be trying to keep pressure on the wound while she’s driving.”
“I guess,” Lynne allowed, “It’s hard to tell from here.”
They passed another sign. It read:
Clarksville 20 Mi
Breckenridge 30 Mi
Apache 99 Mi
“God,” Lynne cried, “It’s still so far! I just want to be away from that truck and put all this behind me.”
“It’s okay, Lynne,” Wesley consoled, “Look, she made it this far, didn’t she? I’m sure everything is going to be- Fuck!”
Before he could finish the truck swerved violently to the left, ran off into the ditch and slammed into a tree. The sound it made, the crunch of the truck’s front end wrapping itself around the trunk of the tree was dreadful in its finality. It must have been going almost seventy when it ran off the road.
“Oh my God!” Lynne screamed. She sped past the wreck, where black smoke was already beginning to billow from the hood.
“Stop the car! Lynne, you gotta stop the car!” Wesley yelled.
Lynne hit the brakes and the car screeched to a stop. She pulled the car gingerly over into the shoulder, shut it off, and tried to swallow her heart. It was stuck in her throat like a fat lump of steak.
The two of them sat there in the car as the engine ticked softly and the noise and static of the adrenal response scattered all thought and reason. Wesley’s fingers were digging so deeply into his thighs that the nails were biting into his flesh. There was a speck of light just visible in the rearview mirror. The truck’s engine was on fire.
“Oh God. Oh Christ. Shit.” Lynne muttered in a flat, strange voice. “Come on. We have to go.”
“Go?” Wesley asked, not understanding.
“To the truck. What if she’s alive? We gotta help.” Lynne said, with that same flat voice. Her heart was still beating rabbit-fast.
“Yeah. Right. Yeah.” Wesley answered. He didn’t move, not even to pry his fingers from his legs.
“I think I’ve got a first aid kit in the trunk,” Lynne said.
It took her three jabs to make contact with the trunk release button. When she finally got it, she threw open the door and stepped out onto the pavement on wobbly legs. Wesley followed her lead at last.
They circled to the trunk and began the search for the first aid kit. Throwing aside the detritus that collected there, tennis rackets, textbooks, gym clothes, and an old pair of sneakers, they finally found it under a dirty sweatshirt. As a bonus, they found a flashlight with working batteries. Wesley grabbed the light and they set off after the wrecked truck following its bobbing yellow beam.
“Do you hear that?” Wesley asked when they were still about a quarter-mile away. They had finally come to a complete stop nearly a mile from the wreck.
“I’ve heard it for a while now,” Lynne told him. Her mouth was dry. “Your hearing must not be great.”
“It’s not,” Wesley said, distractedly, “Too many loud concerts. It’s screaming, isn’t it?”
“Come on,” Lynne said, picking up the pace.
On this lonely stretch of highway, the moon provided the only source of illumination, and it was nothing more than a token crescent, too narrow to be called a fingernail. Even that was obscured by a thin scum of black clouds. Apart from the paltry glow of the flashlight, the darkness was nearly total.
In this darkness, the woman’s screams filled them both with a sense of doom. It felt like they were alone in the universe with it. With her pain. Downwind of the wreck, their nostrils stung with the stench of oil-rich smoke.
Abruptly, the woman’s screams began to ebb into a tortured sob, broken occasionally by a long and wretched moan. The two of them approached the twisted wreck filled with trepidation and dread. Bright red images of what they might find in the cab flashed in their minds.
“Jesus,” Lynne said, softly, “This is really bad, isn’t it?”
Wesley swallowed thickly and muttered, “Yeah.”
They stood on the shoulder, unable to summon the will to look inside.
“Do you have your phone?” Wesley said at last.
Lynne swore, “No. I left it in the car.”
“I’ve got mine,” Wesley said with some relief. “I’ll call 911. You go check on her.”
“Shit. Okay,” Lynne said. It seemed difficult to speak above a whisper. “Give me the light.”
Wesley handed Lynne the flashlight readily enough and fished the phone out of his pocket. As Lynne trudged through the tall grass toward the truck he dialed the three digits for emergency service.
A dispatcher answered the call, “911, what is your emergency?”
Wesley explained the situation as best he could, glad at least that he remembered the distance from Clarksville he saw on the sign just before the wreck. He was less grateful for the name of the city reminding him of a Monkees song that immediately became stuck in his head. Oh no no no… He shook the thought away. The dispatcher was asking him a question.
“What? Sorry.” He said, sheepishly. Some good he was in an emergency.
“I said,” The dispatcher repeated with no trace of irritation in her voice, “is the victim conscious?”
Wesley looked up, and saw the silhouette of Lynne, circling around the truck and just reaching the cab.
“One second,” He asked the dispatcher.
“Lynne!” He called out, noticing the beam of the flashlight jerk suddenly. From his voice, or the sight in the cab? “Is the victim conscious?”
“She’s gone!” Lynne shouted. “The door’s open! There’s blood everywhere! She’s gone!”
“Lynne says she’s gone,” Wesley told the dispatcher. “She’s not in the truck at all. I can still hear her moaning but I can’t tell where it’s coming from.”
Just as he said this, the moaning abruptly stopped. The ensuing silence seemed a bad omen.
“Was she thrown clear of the wreck?” The dispatcher asked.
“Hold on, I’ll check,” He answered. “Lynne! Shine the flashlight around! Maybe she was thrown clear!”
“I think-” Lynne began. She was cut off by a long and terrible shriek coming from somewhere in the woods.
In his shock at the sudden sound, Wesley’s grip slipped and he dropped the phone. Though he made a grab for it in midair, all he managed to do was knock it harder into the pavement. The screen shattered, flashed, and went black.
“Oh no, no, no,” Wesley cried as he snatched the phone from the ground. He pressed the home key again and again, but it was clear the phone would not start. Tears of panic and frustration stung at his eyes, followed by a blinding light. Lynne was back, shining the flashlight carelessly into his face. He shielded his eyes from the light until she swung it away from him at last.
“My phone is bricked!” He moaned, “I dropped it.”
The scream went on and on, accompanied by a strange crackling, grinding sound. The grinding sound was somehow worse than her terrible screams.
“What is that?!” Wesley cried.
“I don’t know,” Lynne answered, frantically, “It’s coming from the woods. The grass was- blood! Blood everywhere! The grass was matted. It looked like- She’s in the woods!”
“She was thrown into the woods?” Wesley asked.
“Dragged! Looked like- Fuck, I don’t know. Did you call 911?”
“I told them where we were. She said we should stay where we are.”
Even in the dim light, Wesley could see the terror in her face. She said, “No! I can’t stay here. Wes, do you hear that sound? It sounds- No! No, we have to get out of here. The ambulance knows where to go. Let’s get out of here, okay?”
Wesley stared out into the woods as Lynne swept the beam of the flashlight back and forth. All he determined was that he would not, under any circumstance, venture into that dense growth to search for the source of the screaming. The decision he made was perhaps not the most heroic, but it was the only one he could make.
He said, “Let’s go back to the car. There’s nothing we can do. We don’t want to be here when the cops show anyways. I’m sure we reek of weed. Especially after hot-boxing in the car when we started. They’ll probably think we caused the accident.”
Lynne nodded gratefully and measurably more calmly she said, “I don’t think it’s safe to be this close to the truck. What if it explodes?”
“Yeah. I have no idea. It could. Come on.”
Armed with these flimsy excuses to mask the real fears they held, Lynne and Wesley set out for their car at a fast walk.
“What do we do now?” Lynne asked after a few minutes.
“Leave.” Wesley answered.
“Leave where? Back home?” Lynne asked, hopefully.
“We’re much closer to Breckenridge than home. I say we grab Braxton like we planned and then get a cheap motel room for the night. Neither of us are fit to drive another couple of hours.”
This was not the answer Lynne hoped for, but she couldn’t argue with the logic.
“Okay,” She said, “but you’re driving. I feel-”
Lynne was interrupted by a thunderous CRUNCH! emanating from somewhere ahead of them.
“What was-” Wesley began.
“The car!” Lynne cried.
The two of them broke into a sprint, both of them believing the ambulance accidentally hit the car, despite the fact that it was parked on the opposite shoulder. What they found instead baffled them both.
“What!?” They cried in unison.
It looked like an enormous boulder had fallen from above and crushed the car, caving in the roof entirely. There was only one problem with this theory. No boulder. As Lynne swept the flashlight’s beam over the car and the surrounding area, she could find no clue of how this latest catastrophe had occurred.
Lynne burst into tears, wailing, “What do we do now?”
Wesley, feeling close to tears himself, answered, “I guess we’re waiting for the ambulance. Nothing else we can do.”
“Out here?! Alone?” Lynne cried.
Wesley opened his mouth to answer, but something else answered for him. Something on the edge of the woods spoke to them in a bizarre, inhuman voice. It sounded much more like speech than the cry of an animal, and yet unlike anything they had ever heard before. It gibbered and squeaked in some rapid-fire and wholly foreign tongue. Lynne shone the flashlight toward the source of the voice and screamed.
She only saw it for a moment before it skittered away into the weeds and brush, but she saw enough to know for certain it was no animal. Under different circumstances, she might have laughed at the only comparison she could draw between that- thing- and anything she had ever seen before. She didn’t feel like laughing, however. She felt like some fundamental understanding of reality had just been torn away from her. She looked at Wesley and saw that he felt the same.
“Was that…” She began.
“It looked like a little man with a beard,” Wesley said uncertainly, “I only saw it for half a second, but it walked on two legs and had a beard. It almost looked like…”
“Jesus,” Lynne said, darting the flashlight anxiously from side to side, scanning the trees. “This is so fucked up. We’re stranded in the middle of nowhere and we’re being stalked by a garden gnome.”
“This is bad.” Wesley said, trying to look everywhere at once, “You were right, we need to get out of here. Whatever that thing was, it couldn’t have crushed our car on its own, right?”
Lynne burst out in rueful laughter. “Get out of here? How? Do you want to run all the way back to Holy Oak? I know, let’s call a cab on that goddamned phone you broke!”
“Don’t be shitty, all right?” Wesley hissed, “It was an accident! Look, someone has to pass by eventually. We’ll just flag them down and hitch a ride.”
“When’s that going to happen? The only car I’ve seen on the road in ages crashed into a tree! No one comes through here in the middle of the night. It could be hours before anyone comes through and in the meanwhile we’re sitting- Fuck!”
Lynne’s words were cut off by a blunt impact and a sharp pain in the side of her head. She clutched at the injury and her fingers came back bloody.
“What was that?” Wesley asked frantically.
Lynne trained her flashlight at their feet and found the culprit.
“A rock! Someone threw a rock at me!” She said.
A terribly familiar sound emanated from just beyond the treeline: The squeals and gibbers of what must have been dozens of the gnome creatures.
“They’re all around us!” Lynne cried.
“What do you want?!” Wesley called out into the darkness.
By way of response, the things hiding in the brush launched a salvo of stones, some of which bounced off the pavement and the ruined car, but many of them found their mark. Shielding their face from the volley, Lynne and Wesley did the only thing they could: They ran. The stones continued to rain down upon them from either side of the road.
Before they had gotten far they could hear an enormous, splintery crashing sound in the distance.
“Did the truck- Ow!” Wesley began, struck in the back of the head by another stone, “Did the truck explode?”
“Ah dammit!” Lynne cried, taking a stone in the right elbow. She narrowly avoided dropping the flashlight. “I don’t think so- ah! It didn’t sound like a truck blowing up, did it?”
“No- Ha! Missed me you bastards!” Wesley answered as a stone buzzed past his ear, “But what else can it be?! Ah Fuck!”
As Wesley nursed his most recent injury, Lynne pulled ahead and called back, “Just keep running!”
Wesley forced himself to match her speed, running now at a dead sprint. Though their increased pace did little to help them avoid getting pelted by stones, it allowed them to find satisfaction to their curiosity all the faster. The revelation, however, brought them no comfort.
Just beyond the crashed truck, their escape was stymied by an impossible roadblock. The very ground seemed to swell up from the treeline, spilling earth, rock, and several trees across the road. The top of the wreckage towered far over their heads. As an unexpected mercy, the gnome creatures seemed to stay their attack while Lynne and Wesley considered their options.
“I think we can climb over it,” Wesley said.
Lynne glanced behind them, scanning for any sign of movement or malice. The silence discomfited her.
“Bad idea.” She said at last. “It’ll take me forever to get to the top, and if I don’t fall off on my own those damned things could pick us off easily. It’s a bad idea.”
“What else can we do?” Wesley asked.
Lynne glanced toward the tree line, and said, “I think we can just go around it, don’t you?”
Wesley started, “You mean through the woods? No way. No way in hell. I’m going over.”
Wesley had no sooner found a handhold and began to scale the blockade when they heard a creaking sound from far above. Lynne trained the flashlight toward the origin of the sound and moaned.
Staring down at them at the top of the heap were several of the gnome creatures. This time the beings did not cringe away from the light and she saw they were far from the kindly bearded little people of legend. The things that glared down at them were hunched and spindly-legged, with long fingers ending in thick, ragged nails. Their flesh was filthy and mottled, and on their faces, they seemed to wear masks of wood and a beard-like fringe of moss. From their hollow eye holes and the hinged splintery mouthpiece emitted an ethereal green glow.
They chattered and shrieked down at Wesley and Lynne, hammering upon the wood with their gnarled fists. Despite their strange language, their intention was clear: No climbing. The pair backed away from the roadblock, intending to turn tail and run the other way.
This plan, however, was similarly obstructed. More than a dozen of the creatures had amassed in a rough semi-circle behind them while they were distracted by the blockade. Each of them was carrying a crude, though wicked-looking, spear of wood and flint. They began to squeal and gibber, beating the butt of their spears against the pavement. The light behind their masks glowed fiercely, seemingly in anticipation.
“Oh Christ… Oh Christ… Oh Christ…” Lynne muttered. She could not will herself to move.
Wesley held her, as much for his own comfort as hers. Slowly the gnome creatures began to advance upon them. The gnomes above them scrambled down through the fallen trees with the practiced ease of Capuchin monkeys. The sight of their rapid approach broke the spell for Lynne.
“Run!” She screamed, dragging Wesley by the wrist. They ran in the only direction open to them, through the blood-splashed gap in the brush beyond the truck. The darkness and the forest swallowed them whole.
Any notion of circling around the blockade was lost once in the woods. Lynne and Wesley’s destination was in the general direction of “away.” All around them they could see the eldritch glow of the gnome creatures and the sound of their twisted speech echoed through the trees.
The old-growth pressed in claustrophobically against them as they tore through the underbrush, weeds and branches slashing at their flesh and clawing at their eyes. At last, they stumbled onto a deer path, offering at least minimally easier progress. The gnome creatures had no trouble traversing the woods, though they seemed satisfied to keep their distance. Perhaps they were relishing the chase.
Lynne and Wesley, for their part, were pushing on through adrenaline alone. Neither of them were suited to the task at hand and the threat of fatigue was setting in. The air they drew into their lungs and their sorely tested muscles burned. They hardly noticed the bleeding scratches, no more than they realized the gnome creatures were leading them as expertly as a cowboy drives cattle.
In the darkness and in their panic, they also failed to notice the ground fall out from under them until it was far too late.
What they took to be a clearing in the trees was, in fact, a steep drop into a valley below. The embankment was studded with knots of thick tree roots and rough outcroppings of stones, and in the darkness, Lynne and Wesley found it nearly impossible to avoid them. Somewhere along the way, a nasty jolt knocked the flashlight from Lynne’s hand, and they watched it tumble down the slope with a terrible feeling of loss. It seemed to fall for a very long time. The bulb winked out before it stopped.
When they finally hit the bottom it was so dark and they were so dazed by the fall, neither felt entirely sure they were still conscious until they heard the chanting. It had a rhythmic quality, though a strange and alien one, like an unfamiliar song sung in a foreign language and played backward. Along with this sound was a ubiquitous susurrus, like a sudden wind. It was the sound of innumerable beings moving through the heavy brush or swinging through the trees, singing all the while in that bizarre foreign tongue.
Lynne could hear Wesley moaning some distance away and she crawled toward the sound with limbs and spine that felt badly used and uncooperative. She became suddenly aware of the wounds she had sustained both in the fall and in the chase. The bruises, scratches and outright lacerations that covered her seemed to sing in unison with the unearthly chorus. She wept silently, though this she noticed not at all.
Wesley groaned up at a lightless sky. During the fall he slammed his head into a rock. He thought his vision might have been blurring, but with nothing to see he could not be sure. Experimentally he attempted to raise his head, until a wave of dizziness forbade it. He was still lucid enough to be glad the rock was not any sharper. He was not quite lucid enough to fear the fate coming to him in droves.
So it was that Lynne saw them first. Her first observation was that she could now see the squirming, moaning silhouette of Wesley, and thought for a moment that her eyes had finally adjusted to the darkness. Perhaps it had, to some degree, but she realized the light had a greenish tint to it, and finally she looked up at her surroundings.
Hundreds. Hundreds of ghastly, illuminated faces stared at them from every direction, including directly overhead. The trees surrounding the valley, which as near as she could tell was teardrop shaped, formed an almost perfect canopy. Their chanting had grown almost deafening. The glow of their faces reflected on the water like the stars of some distant universe. She could see now that a small lake filled much of the valley, and they had landed on a narrow wedge of shore.
Wesley, who found in time that he could prop himself up on his elbows, made much the same observations, and an immediate association left him coldly terrified. When he was just a small child, maybe four, he noticed several odd little pits in his yard, all about an inch deep and as big around as a silver dollar.
As he watched, a passing ant tumbled into one of the pits. Once inside, it could not climb out again. The grains of dirt were too steep and finely ground for its tiny legs to find purchase. Finally, in exhaustion perhaps, it fell to the bottom of the pit. A larger insect sprung from the dirt and captured the hapless ant in long mandibles. They both disappeared below the surface.
The four year old Wesley bawled in the dirt, aware for the first time that creatures preyed on other creatures. Not even his older brother could comfort him, explaining that such a bug was called an Antlion. He hadn’t thought about that time in many years, but it came rushing back to him when he saw himself there inside the Antlion’s trap. And the hell of it was…
“They were leading us here,” He whispered. It was Lynne’s turn to cling to him. “All this time, they were leading us here.”
Lynne gasped. She could see that it was true. At the shoreline was the bloody remains of the woman from the truck. She had been nearly picked clean by those terrible creatures, those gnome things. Could these wretched things really be the tiny men in the old stories? In the phantasmagorical glow she could see their bearded mask-faces and she wondered.
“Look!” Wesley hissed and directed her attention to the lake. The lake was no longer illuminated by reflection alone. There seemed to be a vast source of that same eldritch light from deep within, and it grew brighter by the moment.
“It’s coming,” Wesley whispered, wide-eyed and paralyzed, feeling like the ant when it felt the loose earth shifting under its feet. Doomed.
“What?” Lynne hissed back, “What’s coming?”
Before Wesley could answer, a massive shape breached the surface of the water. It was a roughly oblong shape like stone deeply furred with moss. An Island? She wondered though she knew in her heart it was not so. The shape continued to rise.
Two orbs of light appeared above the surface, embedded in the ever-rising form, dripping and casting fish and frogs into the murk as it emerged. The light, directed upon them, was nearly blinding. The form rose still. The gnomes grew frantic and reverent in their endless chanting. They rattled their spears and stomped their feet, howled and gibbered in perfect unison.
As it rose ever higher from the surface of the lake the shape resolved itself into a face, radiating light and beaming its malevolent countenance upon them. The gnome’s masks seemed to be a crude imitation of the enormous being’s face, though it seemed far more ancient and wizened, impossibly old. Ten crooked branches breached the surface and curled into the muddy shore, the thing’s hands.
“What is it?” Lynne cried, her voice quavering and barely audible over the chanting of the gnomes. “What is that thing, Wes?”
Wesley’s response was harder still to make out, small and awed. He told her, “It’s the God of the Forest. It’s the Antlion.”
Lynne barely heard him. She had already sprung to her feet and was attempting to scale the steep grade of the embankment, though her feet seemed unable to find any purchase. Still, she tried, mindlessly scrambling against the slick, granular surface. Somewhere in the distance, she could hear Wesley scream and moan, a melange of agony and fright. Suddenly, silence.
She had not yet managed to scale the first six feet of the embankment when she felt the shadow fall over her, a shadow dripping with frigid lake water and black muck.
Hours later, when rescue crews finally cleared the trees enough so they could pass through, Lynne’s car was gone. The wrecked truck was still wrapped around the tree, though they found no trace of the woman who crashed it. The splatters of blood had disappeared from the weeds and the opening in the undergrowth could no longer be distinguished from the vegetation surrounding it.
No trace of Lynne, Wesley, or the woman from the truck was ever found.