A short story by Pamela Morris.
There was nothing new or challenging about this particular stretch of road under normal circumstances. Ronnie had driven it thousands of times. She knew every curve and straight-away, every section that was rich with deer at dusk, every little dip and bump. No, Route 96 and the few roads that led off it were anything but unfamiliar to her before that night.
Friday the thirteenth had seemed a perfect evening to spend with her cousin Crystal. They were big horror movie fans, especially the old black and white ones. They didn't go for slasher films. They wanted movies that made you sit in mute terror, a piece of popcorn poised for five minutes in front of your open lips; films where the fear crept up on you, just visible in the corner of your eye, growing larger and darker until you had to turn your head, just to make sure. There were no axe-wielding maniacs, no razor blade fingers, no screaming chain saws and no fantastical special effect; just your own imagination to send the shiver up you spine.
With the fresh thoughts of Dorian Gray and the Perry twins, Holland and Niles, drifting around in her brain, Ronnie had headed home just a few minutes before midnight. Fog had rolled in. It steamed off the hot pavement and curled up and around her car as she headed west. Ronnie loved the fog and savored every little gray wisp of it. The thicker and more mysterious it became, the slower she drove and the more she loved it.
Two miles down the road was a cemetery. Ronnie glanced wistfully at it as she passed. How tempting it was to pull over and walk up into the hill of headstones. It was her grandmother’s fault Ronnie was so obsessed with cemeteries and spirits, always dragging her only grand-daughter around on those perfect sunny days to go Cemetery Crawling. Gramma would pack a cooler and picnic basket, load up her cameras and come get Ronnie. While other little girls made mud-pies and went swimming at the creek, her childhood memories centered around talking to marble angels, peering into locked mausoleums and lunching amongst the dead. Ronnie never regretted those days with her grandmother, especially now that Gramma had passed.
Ten miles down the road she entered the small town of Hayworth. She’d met only two other motorists. The gas station stood dark and mute. The streets were deserted. Ronnie turned left at the blinking orange light.
The streetlights yielded to the thickening fog and the darkness of the countryside. Cornfields rose up on waist-high stalks. Hayfields waited in the mist for cutting or baling. Any minute she'd see the detour sign where they were replacing a bridge. Ronnie slowed down even more. The road curved to the left then eased back to the right as it followed the turns of the creek it ran parallel to. The distant strobe made her ease her foot off the gas.
A blinking, almost blinding, sign soon flashed in front of her face. RT 96 DETOUR AHEAD 2 MILES, it screamed. Orange arrows pointed her onward. DETOUR 1 MILE AHEAD. Ronnie slowed to a crawl. The fog was so thick she somehow lost her bearings even though logically she knew exactly where the turn-off was. DETOUR 500 FEET. She applied her brakes, eased into the curve and turned left at the orange sign with the big black arrow, DETOUR.
Still foggy but at least that strange feeling of being completely lost had left. Pushing the gas pedal down a little, Ronnie relaxed her grip on the wheel while keeping her eyes alert for deer and possum and all manner of creatures that came out at night. There were no cemeteries on this back road to tempt her and besides, it was getting late. 12:12 the dashboard clock told her. Friday the thirteenth was over.
She squirmed in her seat, legs starting to ache like she’d been driving for hours instead of only fifteen minutes and her feet were cold. She cranked up the heat. Her hands were cold, sweaty. Every mile another orange sign would appear, DETOUR. She drove on, anxious to be home now. The movies she'd watched earlier were coming back to haunt her. But that was part of the thrill, wasn't it?
Another mile, another sign. But no other cars, not a single one since she'd made the turn back in Hayworth, had met her. Was it possible she was the only one awake at this hour in this place, driving along on this pitch black, back road? Black and white emptiness expanded around her in every direction and her over-active imagination told her anything could happen out here. Her body shuddered despite the heater’s warmth. She was utterly alone and helpless out here. Ronnie’s eyes darted to the dashboard clock again. 12:12 the green numbers told her and she frowned.
Hadn't been 12:12 when she'd made the turn onto the detour and that was a few miles ago. It should be more like 12:20. Ronnie did the old-fashioned thing and tapped on the digital display. What the heck? She touched the button on her cell phone that lay in the passenger's seat. The phone beeped and glowed. 12:12 the display read. An uncomfortable tightness rose in her chest. Ronnie took a deep breath. There was no reason to be spooked. Another sign appeared. DETOUR. Everything was alright. She drove past the bottom of Owl Creek Road that went even deeper into the hills. She knew exactly where she was now. The old house that burned down should be coming up next on the right, then the dumpy trailer park where the murder had taken place about ten years back. After that, more cornfields, the big red barn and the T where she'd turn right, cross the bridge and be back on 96 and less than a mile from town. God, what an imagination she had. The clock must have read 12:02 the first time she looked at it, not 12:12. That's what it was, 12:02, not 12:12. Relax and drive. She was almost home.
She pushed the car up to forty-five but didn't dare go faster, not out here, not in this fog. She started to count the orange signs. One, two, three, four of them slipped in and out of the bright glow of her high beams. 12:12, the dashboard clock snickered. Her foot pressed down on the gas pedal, reaching fifty miles an hour. This was not in the least bit funny anymore. She would get off this God-forsaken piece of road, she'd turn right, cross the bridge, turn left and enter town.
Owl Creek Road passed by to her left. Ronnie slammed on the brakes, gravel grinding under her tires. She turned slightly and looked back. No mistake. There was the road sign… again. Her chest tightened as if she were drowning.. How could this be? She'd gone past Owl Creek Road, what? Three or four detour signs ago. She had, hadn't she? Ronnie tried to think. Were there other roads off to the left that maybe she's mistaken for Owl Creek or maybe someone's long driveway? No. She'd seen the sign. She knew she'd seen that sign. Taking a deep breath, Ronnie peered ahead into the deep, gray darkness. She needed to get a grip. Clearly the fog was disorienting her, making her see things, things like…
She blinked against the shadow outline of a human figure that pulled itself out of the mist. His clothes were black and charred and seemed to trail smoke. His bald head was red, bleeding, scorched. Fragments of hair twisted black against the gray mist. Zombie, her brain screamed. No, a man; an injured man, horribly burnt and stumbling towards here. Shamefully, she leaned away from the window as he came closer, smacked into the driver’s side door with a heavy, dull thud and fell to the ground. The rank stench of burnt flesh gagged Ronnie’s throat.
She peered out and down through the minute droplets of mist until her forehead touched the glass. She couldn’t see anything. He’d fallen too close to the car. Ronnie’s fingers circled the window crank and drew it counter-clockwise. Cold damp slid into the car’s interior.
“Sir?” she called out. “Sir?” Ronnie leaned forward and looked down. The road beside the car was empty. She sat back, heart pounding in her throat. “Damn movies!” she muttered and rolled the window back up as quickly as possible.
Tiny droplets of rain started to spatter on her windshield. Ronnie flipped the wipers on low, looked back at the Owl Creek Road sign again with a shudder and eased back onto the hard surface of the road. Just a couple miles, that's all it was; a couple miles of harmless road. Then why was it taking so damn long? She was driving slower than usual, but for Pete's sake, this section of road was not that long. Rain pelted the windows harder. What a miserable mess this was. Ronnie held the wheel in an iron grip, leaning forward, squinting. DETOUR, the signs read. DETOUR, DETOUR, DETOUR.
The sign post for Owl Creek Road loomed into focus.
"No! Damn it! What the hell is going on?!" Ronnie slammed her foot down on the accelerator. She was not going to take the chance of seeing that burned up man again, too. It wasn't the wisest thing to do but she did it. She just wanted to escape. Rain pelted the windshield so hard she thought the glass would break. The fog twisted and thickened in bursts. The darkness grew even darker. One, two, three, four detour signs pointed her forward. Going. She was going. She was going to outrun this thing. If she drove fast enough, she'd get to it and everything would be fine.
Owl Creek Road.
Ronnie screamed in rage and screeched to a halt in almost the exact same spot she'd stopped before. She had stopped before, right? Slipping the car into park, Ronnie let the engine idle. She had to think. She'd had two glasses of wine over the course of five hours, surely she wasn't drunk! She hadn't even gotten a good buzz and her last drink had been plain ginger ale. No, she wasn't drunk. Was she passed out in Crystal's spare room? Maybe she should turn around and go back to Crystal's. Maybe something was wrong there. Maybe she was calling out to her. They were cousins after all and cousin's can have psychic links just like twins, can't they? Yes. That's what it was. Crystal needed her. She'd go back to Cyrstal's and check on her. If everything was fine, no harm done. Ronnie bet cousin Crys would even let her spend the night in that spare room so she didn't have to drive back again in this pouring rain and fog. That's what she'd do, Ronnie decided.
The car was slipped back into gear and Ronnie turned it around. This would all be over with soon. Crystal understood the macabre. She'd not think Ronnie was too crazy when she came knocking on the door again at what should be 12:30, though the stupid clock on the dash continued to insist it was 12:12. The fog and damp had probably messed up the electric or something in there. "Yeah, moron, that's why your cell phone still says the same thing, right?" Ronnie reached over and shut the phone off.
Owl Creek Road slid away into the darkness and Ronnie heaved a sigh of relief. It was going to be okay now. It was just a few miles back to Route 96 where this whole nightmare had started. Once she was off this detour everything would be peachy. She turned on the radio, fiddled with the buttons, got nothing but static and shut it off again. Yes, the problem with the clock was the same problem with the radio and her cell phone, electrical interference. She hummed to herself instead.
Yes, look, here is the dip in the road just before the little bridge of the stream. And here is the section of road where the woods came right up next to the pavement. Ahead on the right was the house where the man had fallen out of the tree and broke his leg. Yes, this was all familiar. She could already see the flashing light that had nearly blinded her earlier.
DETOUR! The letters pulsed as she approached them from the front instead of the back. DETOUR! Pointing her to the left, towards the road she was trying to escape. Her car rolled to a hopeless stop as she stared at the looming sign. “But, I turned around,” she whispered. “I turned around and…” Frustration and fear spilled from her eyes and spattered on the front of her jacket. Hands shaking and brain nearly numb, she put the car in park, too afraid to drive, too afraid to move one more inch forward or back.
She wiped her eyes when the tears finally stopped and blew her nose, then pinched the bridge of her nose with the tips of her icy fingertips, trying to shake free of this confusion and terror. It was like a band of cold steel wrapped around her chest, crushing her lungs and squeezing her heart into submission.
Her hands and arms felt cold and stiff. Her body was barely her own as she shifted the car into drive and let the automatic transmission pull her forward, back into the fog, towards what she hoped would eventually be home. Ronnie looked at her fingers gripping the wheel. Her knuckles were bone white and her flesh an unhealthy pallor. She'd never realized before how much her hands looked like her grandmother's. Only Ronnie was holding a steering wheel and her grandmother's hands were permanently wrapped around a Rosary.
"Have to keep going," she said to herself. "Can't just sit here until morning… have to keep going." She closed her eyes against the idea, against the detour sign and all the other signs she knew would follow it.
Red, white and blue lights bounced off the windshields of the half-dozen cars parked alongside the road as the ambulance rolled away into the last swirls of lingering morning fog. There was no need for the driver to turn on the siren. The woman had been dead for at least six hours. Fell asleep at the wheel, the police reckoned. Worse part about the whole thing had been prying her rigid fingers off the steering wheel.