My girlfriend Sarah and I were driving to this cabin we rented upstate, something like three and half hours north of the city. We got off the Thruway, then we were on this winding mountain highway for a while, and then the last leg of the trip was on one of those two-lane country roads, which we were supposed to stay on for maybe half an hour or so.
It was close to eleven-thirty, and I don’t know if you’ve ever driven up in the country at night, but especially on these back roads, these numbered-routes that don’t even have names, it’s a pretty weird experience if you’re not used to it. We hadn’t passed a single car in what felt like forever, and so it was just us and the increasingly curvy road unfolding ahead. Even with the brights on, it’s not like you could really see anything. Past the windshield, it was like an outward radius of light, giving us a glimpse of the woods on either side of the road.
“Babe … look!” I kept messing around with her, turning off the headlights for barely a second or two before flipping them back on.
“That’s not funny,” she tried not to sound too upset, knowing that if she showed how freaked out she was, she’d only encourage me.
I could tell she was a little freaked out though, because I got kind of freaked out too. The lights would never be off for more than a second, and I made sure the road was fairly straight ahead before I played my trick, but even just for that moment, with my foot still on the gas, I’m telling you, it was pitch blackness, one of those weird sensory depravation experiences that, coupled with the acceleration of the car, it was like my brain didn’t know how to make sense of what was going on.
“Babe …” and yet, I don’t know why, maybe I was bored, maybe I was trying to show off, “Look!” I kept doing it, lights off, lights back on, a couple more times. Still, she’d barely react, just telling me to knock it off, and I’d laugh and laugh, more and more carried away, amused at my own sense of humor.
After the third time, I knew that I was just being a dick, like I was just looking to get some sort of reaction out of her, anything. On the fourth try, I could tell that she was ready to let me have it. The lights went out, she sucked in her breath as if to scream at me to cut it out, but instead of yelling, she calmly told me, “Hey … look.”
I saw it too. Up ahead, two road flares. With the lights out, the two red flames in the distance were the only specks of visibility across the black expanse ahead of us.
I hit the brakes so the car came to a roll. I turned toward Sarah, her face was just barely illuminated by the soft green light of the dashboard. She was staring straight ahead at the slowly approaching red lights on our left side.
“What do you think’s going on here?” I said.
“I have no idea, hey, turn your lights on,” she told me.
I flipped the knob at the tip of the blinker switch and the black ahead of us opened up into that familiar white spotlight of two-lane highway flanked by the woods on either side. The road flares lost most of their shine in the face of my headlights, but as the car drifted past, once the two flares were just a little behind us, I put my foot all the way on the brakes so the car came to a stop.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Well, someone lit those flares, right?”
“Stop it,” she said.
“What?” I said. I was smiling, not because I was trying to be a jerk about it, even though I knew this whole situation had her spooked just a little. I mean, like I said, I was a little spooked too. Late night, backcountry road, two road flares, it could have been creepy. But there was something inside of me, maybe I was trying to act tough in front of her, impress her, I don’t know, I didn’t plan on actually doing anything, but part of me wanted to figure this out, or at least look around a little bit.
I said, “Well, someone must have set those flares up. And they’re still going, so it couldn’t have been that long ago.”
“Can we please just drive?” she said.
“I’m just saying, if you were out here all alone, wouldn’t you want someone else to stop and help?”
“Yeah, OK,” she said sarcastically. “If I needed help on a road, I’d call someone, I wouldn’t get out and light a bunch of road flares. Do you have road flares in your car? Because I don’t.”
“That’s true,” I said, “I don’t have road flares either. But I think you’re supposed to have them. It’s not like a law or anything, but you ever take one of those driver safety courses? I think they’ll tell you it’s a good idea.” Without realizing what I was doing, I started to smile again.
“God, you’re such a jerk,” she said to me, and I said, “OK, I’m sorry, I was just playing around, let’s go.”
But then right as I reached my hand to shift the car back to drive, something hit and bounced off the driver’s side window.
“What was that?” Sarah asked.
“I don’t know,” I told her, “it sounded like it came from the woods, like someone threw something at us.”
“Something like what?”
“I don’t know, it wasn’t a rock, a stick maybe, something not that hard.”
Just then we heard a long sound coming from the woods. It was a wailing, a moaning, something, and we couldn’t really make it out. I put a finger in the air and said, “Shh,” before cutting the engine.
“What the hell?” she said to me in a loud whisper, and I shhed her one more time. “Quiet,” I said.
There were maybe ten or fifteen seconds of silence, and then there it was, the same noise from before. I lowered the window a crack and I could hear it, it was a person, someone in the woods.
“You hear that?” I whispered.
“Yeah, I hear it. Let’s get out of here.”
“No,” I said, “it sounds like whoever’s out there is crying for help. Like heeelp, right?”
“I don’t know, maybe. Maybe we should just call the cops.”
“Yeah OK, but the flares, the crying, maybe someone needs help right now.”
“Come on,” she said, “can we please just …”
And with that I opened up the driver’s side door and stepped out into the night. I looked down to see what had hit our car, it was a stick, maybe a foot long and an inch thick. I picked it up and walked toward the road flares and then I heard Sarah open and close the passenger side door.
“Get back in the car,” I said to her as low as I could. “Are you fucking kidding me? You’re not leaving me here alone, this is fucking crazy.”
She ran and caught up next to me. We were standing in between the two flares. They were spaced about a car’s length apart, and even though it was impossible to make anything out in this dark, it looked like the trees were a little thinned out, like this might have been a path or a trail or something.
I took my cell phone out and turned on the flashlight, but it didn’t give me any helpful visibility, in fact, with the glow of the white light in my hand, my eyes were having trouble adjusting to the darkness around us.
I put the phone away. I cupped my hands over my mouth and, leaning into the woods, I spoke out in a loud voice, “Hello?”
Almost immediately there was a reply, the same wailing “help” from before. Out of the car, it sounded like the voice was coming from someone not too deep in the woods, maybe the length of a basketball court away.
“Are you hurt? Are you OK?” I called back.
There was no response.
I turned to Sarah and said, “OK, I’m going to go in, and I’ll see if he’s OK, and I’ll be right back.”
She said, “Wait, please, let’s just call the cops, let’s just …”
“Look, you call the cops, you stay here and call 911, see if they can get out here.”
She took her phone out and I took a step into the woods, in between the two road flares. I took the phone out of my pocket and turned the flashlight back on. With the light in my right hand, I took the stick I was holding and stretched my left hand out before me, in case there were any branches I couldn’t see, spider webs, I don’t know.
The further I walked away from the flares, the deeper into the woods I headed, it was like I could feel the darkness envelope me. I was overwhelmed with a sudden fear, like something was just about to jump out at me, or an animal might cross my path.
I made it to where I thought the voice was, I cried out hello again, but there was no response. I walked around in a little circle, I pointed my flashlight behind some trees and out into the distance.
I thought I heard something moving, I could have sworn I felt a gust of air, like something ran past me. But my flashlight didn’t pick anything up.
“Hello?” I tried a few more times, and then I headed back. I figured, I tried. I tried and there was nothing. What more could I have done?
I pointed the flashlight back from where I came and started walking toward the road. About halfway there, I couldn’t see ahead of me, I called out to my girlfriend, I said, “Hey! Did you get a signal?”
There was no answer.
“Sarah!” I called out again, I felt a little panic bubble up from the bottom of my stomach. Maybe she got scared, I thought to myself, maybe she went back to the car. I started running.
“Sarah?” I made it to the road. She wasn’t there. I ran to the car. There was nobody inside. “Sarah?” I called out again, my heart was speeding.
I couldn’t make sense of what happened. Was someone here? Was she taken? Or maybe she was hiding somewhere, maybe this was a little payback for messing with the headlights on the road? “Sarah!” I was frantic now, I started saying things out loud, like, “This isn’t funny! Come on!”
And that’s when I noticed, by the side of the road, there was only one road flare. I walked over to the flare to see if the other one had gone out, but it wasn’t there. There was only one. I still had my flashlight on, and I was looking for something, anything. My phone was getting hot in my hand, and I figured I’d better call for help now while I still had battery.
I went inside the car and dialed 911. The dispatcher told me she was part of a system that covered several counties, and that she needed my location so she could figure out where to send help. I told her I didn’t know. I told her I’m not from around here, and I couldn’t remember what route. She told me to check my maps app, and so I went to the home screen, I brought up the maps app, and while I waited for the location to load, there was a hard smack on the side of the car.
It was just like before, the same sound when we first stopped. I went to roll down my window, but another stick hit the car, this time from the other side.
“Hello?” I could hear the 911 dispatcher still on the phone.
“I just … I think there’s more than one … there’s got to be someone …” I couldn’t figure out what to say, I couldn’t make sense of what was going on. Then something hit the back of the car, it was hard, like a rock, hard enough to make a crack in the glass.
I turned the key in the ignition and flipped on my brights. There was nothing ahead of me.
Another rock hit, this time it sounded like it hit one of the hubcaps. Without thinking, I put the car in drive and hit the gas.
“I’m … someone’s out there in the woods. They took her, they took Sarah, they started attacking me, the car,” I screamed loud enough so hopefully the dispatcher could hear.
I drove ahead, I drove away. My phone lost service a few miles ahead, and ten minutes later, I guess I forgot to turn the flashlight off, my phone was out of juice.
I didn’t know what to do. I made it to the town eventually, I found a gas station, I called the police. They had, what, two cars out there? For an hour? We couldn’t find that flare, I couldn’t locate exactly where we had stopped. I mean, she has to be out there somewhere, right? They said there wasn’t anything more they could do. I tried telling them again about the road flares, about the sticks and stones. They said I could come back in the morning and file a missing persons report.
It was late, like four-thirty in the morning, and I had no choice but to go to the cabin. I never felt so helpless in my life. Hopefully I could charge my phone, and then I’d call her parents, call my friend Pete, he’s a lawyer. Maybe there was something else we could do, someone else to call. State police? I don’t even know.
Without the maps app, I had trouble finding the exit to the cabin. It took a few wrong turns, but I found it after half an hour or so. The sun was going supposed to be up in around twenty minutes, but right then it was still black out. And so I drove slowly up the mountain road, just a little farther until I could see the porch. I couldn’t make it out right away, but right past the sign, there was something visible through the trees. It was a single road flare, lit at an angle and set up right at the base of the driveway. I stopped the car. I couldn’t move. I didn’t know what to do. I sat there for a second, and then … the last thing I remember is a rock smashing through the rear window and nailing me in the back of the head. And then I woke up here, tied up and blindfolded. I have no idea where I am. I can hear that same moaning in the distance, the same wailing from the woods.