It was supposed to take people to the train tracks by the river. That’s one of the only things I know for sure.
Supposedly, workers who died on the railroad would rise from their graves and wander around. Or maybe it was the pioneer who lost his wife in a poker game and blew his brains out haunting the place. Or maybe it was the mental patient who escaped an asylum only to be hit by a car and killed, leaving just his bloody hospital nightgown behind. Or maybe it was the kids in the 70s, the ones who played on the tracks until they were obliterated by a screaming train, scattering their ruined body parts for miles.
See, that’s just it. No one really knows why it’s called what it is or what makes the off-limits crumbling roadway so spooky, but anyone who grew up in St. Louis has heard of Zombie Road. It’s one of our very own urban legends, like the guy with the hook for a hand or the mysterious call coming from inside the house, but this one’s special because it’s a real place and regardless of the stories people really did die around here.
The Meramec, the river the road takes you to, they call it “The Bitter Spring”. They say it’s the Native American word that means “River Of Death”. Beside it, those train tracks have taken lives as far back as the 1950s. The teens in the 70s. A mother and child in the 90s. A couple in their early 20s who slipped on the bluff overlooking the river and fell to their doom.
They also say you’re never supposed to go there. So —
“So what the fuck are we doing?” I demanded in a harsh whisper. We weren’t even a few steps down the road before I felt it, the prickling goosebumps on the nape of my neck. The leftover instinct from our cave-dwelling ancestors that says ‘something is very wrong’.
Nicky swung his flashlight back towards me in an impatient, jittery arc.
“C’mon, man, don’t be a pussy. You said you’d always wanted to check this place out. You wanna back out now?”
I looked at the high, craggy hills that surrounded us. It was like the road had cut straight through the land. Trees towered overhead, bare branches reaching like grabby fingers for the blue-black sky. Whiskey had made me brave but now both the buzz and the bravery had worn off.
“Seriously? Just, like, 15 minutes ago you were running your mouth about how this place probably wasn’t even scary.”
“Yeah, well now I’m here—” I waved the beam of my own flashlight around, highlighting the tangle of woods. “—and I’ve changed my mind. It IS scary. Let’s just go back to your place and drink more and order a pizza. Doesn’t pizza sound good?”
“Pussies don’t deserve pizza,” Nicky said grimly, and set off down Zombie Road without me.
I stood there for a moment, skin prickling with goosebumps, thinking about escaped inmates and undead railroad workers and reanimated body parts of teens from the 1970s, and for that moment I considered letting Nicky go alone. Wait in the car until his fool self decided to turn back. Then I thought about the next poker night with our buddies and how Nicky would never let me live it down, how he’d be able to brag and laugh and say that I was a pussy and he explored Zombie Road while I pissed myself in the front seat of his Mustang.
The beam of light caught the back of Nicky’s green hoodie and he turned towards me, grinning.
“I knew you were no pussy, Dave.”
“Keep your voice down,” I said glumly, mad at him for goading me into this and irritated at myself for bringing up Zombie Road in the first place. “There’s probably nothing out here but it’s still private property, I think, and you’re definitely not supposed to be out here after dark. We could get, like, a fine or something.”
Nicky made a spooky, taunting gesture with his fingers.
“Oooo, a FINE or something! Big Brave Dave doesn’t want to get a FINE or something! Jesus, maybe I was wrong after all. No pizza for you.”
I didn’t respond. I was pouting and scanning the treeline above us for movement. It had occurred to me suddenly that Missouri might have cougars in the woods but I didn’t tell Nicky that; it would’ve just given him more ammo.
We walked along in silence for a few minutes before Nicky turned towards me, walking backwards and blinding me with the beam of his flashlight.
“How old were you when you first heard about this place?” he asked. I shrugged, trying to keep an eye on both him and the tree-lined ledges. Nicky had a mean streak in him. Couldn’t put it past him to screw with me while I wasn’t looking.
“Idunno, like, 10? About the time you start hearing the local scary shit. But none of it adds up, it’s not like Lemp Mansion where there’s one story and that’s it. Everybody tells you something different.”
Nicky’s light suddenly faltered. He cut himself off and went down, hard, with a yell.
I broke into a run. When I caught up to him, Nicky was on his ass, one foot sunk deep into what appeared to be a pile of mud. His flashlight had rolled several feet away and cast a ghostly beam towards the continuation of the road behind him.
“What the fuck is that?” I asked, bewildered. Nicky tugged at his foot with both hands around the ankle — no dice. It stayed put.
“Idunno, like a fucking mud puddle or something? Shit, it’s thick, man.” He pulled again.
That sensation spread across the back of my neck again.
“It hasn’t rained in like, a month, right?”
“Who gives a fuck? I don’t wanna lose my shoe, man, help me out.”
It took us almost five minutes to get his foot out of the mud puddle — now that I think about it, maybe it was more like quicksand — and finally succeeded. With a great wet sucking sound, Nicky pulled free… minus one shoe.
“I feel like that’s a bad idea,” I said uneasily, eyes returning to the trees. It seemed like it had gotten darker since we started walking; I could barely see anything beyond them without help of my flashlight.
“What, like something’s gonna bite my arm off or something?” Nicky demanded, twisting to look at me. “Grow up, there’s nothing out—” And for the second time that night he cut himself off.
“What?” I asked, then turned behind me to look further down Zombie Road where Nicky’s eyes were fixed.
In the beam of his flashlight sat a huge owl. If I remember right from all those trips to the zoo, it was a Great Horned Owl, to be exact. Its yellow eyes shone eerily. It was just fucking sitting there in the middle of the road, staring at us.
“Is that an owl?” Nicky said, still up to his elbow in mud. Before I could answer him, a quick scampering movement made us both shriek like girls.
We shut up when we realized it was just a mouse — to be fair, it cast a huge shadow as it scurried past the flashlight — but what happened next made our breath catch in our throats.
The owl sat there, staring intently both at and through us. The mouse kept scuttling straight toward it, like it had no idea what danger it was in.
The mouse stopped when it was about two inches away from the owl. The owl, never moving its gaze, calmly reached out with one hooked claw and pierced the mouse with its talons. In one unnaturally smooth motion, it swallowed the mouse whole.
Then it just sat there.
“The fuck?” Nicky said dumbly.
Before I could agree with his sentiment, another movement caught my attention, behind the trees above us. This one was no mouse.
“Nicky,” I said, keeping my voice very quiet, “we should go.”
I couldn’t see what he was doing but I heard the sloopy-slurping sound of what must’ve been him retrieving his lost shoe.
“The owl is gone, man,” he said in wonder, but I didn’t give a shit about the owl anymore.
“Nicky,” I repeated, “we need to go. NOW.”
“What are you talking about?” he said, but then he saw them too.
On either side of the craggy hills that surrounded us, threaded through the trees in stark silhouette against the night sky, were the shadows of people. Maybe there were 20, maybe there were 50, I don’t know. They lined the hills. They stared down at us.
“That’s not real,” Nicky said in a thin wavering voice that sounded wholly unlike him.
A chorus of high, childlike giggles broke out, echoed through the woods.
“Put your fucking shoe on and let’s go.” I was already walking slowly in the direction that we’d come from. I kept my flashlight trained at the shadow figures as I did so. There was a squelching noise as Nicky did as I asked, putting his shoe back on, and a series of more squelches when he began to follow me.
The farther we walked — slow as not to urge any of the figures into action — the more of them we saw. They didn’t seem to end. There were so many of them.
We just needed to get to the spot where the ledges fell away and opened into the vacant gravel lot where we’d parked, we could make a break for it then. I was thinking how it seemed like it should’ve happened already, we hadn’t really walked that far, when suddenly an unholy shriek cut through the still night air.
A fox, my panicked brain insisted, a lady fox, they do that all the time, they make those screamy sounds sometimes but I knew it wasn’t a fox just like I’d known from the beginning we shouldn’t have gone down this road.
I whirled, jabbing my flashlight around the road to make sure nothing was near us before realizing that I’d taken my eyes off the shadows above. When I couldn’t see anything nearby I jerked the light back towards the treeline.
“My mouth tastes funny,” Nicky said in a strange, heavy voice. I turned to look at him, he was a mess — thick black mud on both hands, covering his right arm and right leg — and there was something on his face.
When I swept the light back over to him, his face lit in brilliant clarity, I saw that he had blood pouring from both nostrils.
“Jesus, Nicky,” I blurted, and could say no more because behind him out of the darkness came lumbering something with long, spindly limbs. It was on all fours and it was moving fast.
Nicky didn’t hear it. He was swaying like a drunk.
“RUN!” I screamed.
I don’t know if Nicky did because then I was gone, legs pumping, flashlight stuttering back and forth like strobe lights in a rave.
I ran for much longer than I should have. I ran until my chest burned and my legs ached. We’d walked less than a mile, I was sure of it, but I kept running because I could hear that thing behind me, breathing heavy, snorting, snarling. Occasionally I’d hear the laughter again, or the fox-scream, or a low muttering rumble of conversation. Sometimes, a train whistle. Once I heard my name wavering through the trees: “Daaaavid. Daaaavid.”
I think that was the worst part, the fact that something knew my name.
It wasn’t until dawn’s first shreds of light began to touch the edges of the sky that I caught a break. Something about lifting the darkness a little, maybe? Suddenly the road didn’t seem endless, I thought I could see the clearing, and as I tumbled out of the forest into the lot I thought I felt something brush against the back of my neck and then—
Then the next thing I remember is the police officers who woke me up.
I’d been found face-down in the gravel, my spent flashlight lying dead beside me. They had to take me home in a squad car because I didn’t have the keys to Nicky’s car and Nicky, well.
I did research after that night. Lots of it. But it doesn’t help. There aren’t any answers. Some people say they saw an owl, too. Or got stuck in mud. Or were surrounded by the shadow people.
What good does that do, in the end?
We’ll never know why Zombie Road is the way it is. If it was one instance of death, or scores, or if it’s just the land itself. But I can tell you this: if you’re ever in St. Louis, you should never go to Zombie Road.
That, I know for sure.