Route 71

12 min read

The drive back home was always tedious, the long and straight roads covered in night managed to lull Adam into a dangerously drowsy state. This was one of the reasons why he hated driving home from his parents so late at night. Although, if he left too early then he could be stuck in traffic, jammed in like a salty sardine for over an hour. If he timed it just right, stayed on Route 71 and took the M7 exit, then it wouldn’t take him more than 40 minutes to reach the safety of his apartment. He usually left his parents place around 9pm to avoid driving too late, as well as missing the afternoon traffic. Tonight was different – he had gotten into an argument with his mother over money, mostly the fact that he didn’t have any. It was a topic they danced around for years, each tip toeing and shimmying around the large unsaid thing in the middle of the dining room. At first it was small, a slight annoyance like a mosquito buzzing near your ear every hour – you’d forget about it until it came buzzing back to ruin a perfectly good mood. But now…now it was a hulking thing, a heavy mass of flesh that attached itself to Adam every time he was in his family home. He lugged it around with him to each part of the house, until it wore him down. Some nights, sitting around the dining table with his family, he could feel its tight grip around his chest and his throat. He would gasp in his mother’s face only for her to lower her gaze into the mashed potatoes.

His parents had always wanted him to get married, have a few kids, settle on a solid career, earn enough money to buy a house send his imaginary kids to a decent school. Then he assumed they planned for him to keep working and paying and working and paying until he died from boredom. He understood that they wanted him to have a stable life, a happy life. But what they didn’t understand was that his idea of happiness was vastly different from their own. True happiness would be making his art without worrying about paying bills, a beautiful man to come home to without the cry of children to ruin it, and to never have to have a polite and forced family dinner ever again. He couldn’t tell his family any of that; he had a feeling they knew he wasn’t interested in women or property or children but they feigned ignorance in hopes that Adam would wake up one day a motivated, money hungry heterosexual. He was used to being a disappointment so he didn’t mind crushing this fantasy, but some part of him still feared the confrontation of it, the look of sadness in his mother’s eyes, the void expression in his father’s. So, they cha cha’d and moonwalked around the heavy thing with pleasant conversation until it dragged them all down into their plates.

He wasn’t expecting to get into it with his mother until she made some remark about his not being able to afford an iron for his shirts. He explained that it was linen, and linen has a natural crinkle to it, so he didn’t need an iron. From this one exchange came a whirlwind of heat; the force of it shook them to their core and once they were done there was nothing left but ash and smoke. His mother had finally admitted her knowledge of his sexuality, but once she did, he wished she hadn’t. Her words were full of bitter things that left Adam with a sour taste. The words flew from her mouth with rapid speed, like the bite of a snake hiding in the shadow of the bushes, only making itself known once the fangs sunk into the supple flesh.

“I didn’t ask for this! For a lazy, whining, lost cause for a son! A faggot!”

Her eyes blazed and the last word fell heavy between them; it sat at their feet and festered. His father, who had been weakly pleading for them to stop yelling, was now silent. He looked down at the floor as if he could see the rotting thing, writhing on the new carpet. Adam’s eyes began to water at the edges; he could feel tears threaten to spill over until he blinked his eyes and gulped his sorrow down, leaving only the rage. He walked closer to his mother – she took one step back and faltered in her anger. He leaned in and whispered,

“You have no son.”

It was 11:23 pm exactly when Adam got into his car and started driving home, forward, through the darkness.

*

The dark surrounding the car was unsettling; everywhere you turned, there was only night. No outline of black trees against a faded skyline, no accompanying headlights to illuminate, only darkness. It seemed to be following the car at a steady pace. The weight of it was dense, as if he had driven directly into a black hole. His mind wandered to the crumpled, red, and blotchy face of his mother; she always was a dramatic crier, but her rage was supreme. It couldn’t be easy having a child you didn’t want, just as it wasn’t easy having parents you hated. He used his own anger to push him forward, salty tears blurring his vision until he wiped them away with one hand. He turned the volume up loud, told himself he wouldn’t think about what just happened until he was in the safety of his own bed. Then he would let it all out, and his body ached for it. He continued down the road steadily, shaking his head, as if the physical act of it could erase the bad thoughts.

The headlights were working but they couldn’t do much to fight the darkness; he couldn’t see more than 2 feet in front of him. He couldn’t help but feel like something was going to pop out in front of the car at any minute – a stray cat or something much larger that he would swerve to miss and crash out into the abyss. He wondered how long it would take before they found his body, surely in the daylight they would see him. As these bleak thoughts lingered, he tried to recall the last time he saw a blue sky, the kind that was baby blue and dotted with white fluffy clouds. The music cut out abruptly and the sound of static filled the car. Adam leant over without taking his eyes off the road to turn the knob to search for an active station. He sat there for what felt like an age, fiddling with the knob, back and forth. Every turn was coming up white noise, the sound became deafening. With one sudden motion of his left hand, he shut the radio off completely. The quiet was worse, all he could hear now was the sound of the car moving forward along the road, tires rolling on cement. In the silence he couldn’t help but replay the events of the night again, but they seemed distant and hazy now, as if he were trying to recollect a dream upon waking. Adam groaned as his lower back began to ache; he shifted in his seat and rolled his neck to the right which resulted in a satisfying crack. He began to hum to distract himself from the pain that was now more than mildly uncomfortable. He needed to stop the car and stretch but there was nowhere for him to pull over on the highway. Now that he thought about it, he realised he hadn’t seen any rest stops for a while. A string of thoughts passed through his brain.

Don’t they usually have rest stops on highways? Driving late at night is pretty dangerous, especially when you’ve been driving for a while, fatigue usually settles in after about 30 minutes. How long have I been driving for?

He looked over towards the dashboard’s digital clock and saw that it had four zeros where the time should be. He quickly glanced around the car to look for his phone but he couldn’t see it; he always left it in the compartment meant for your water bottle or morning coffee, but it wasn’t there. He felt a prickling in his gut, a tension that indicated that there was something altogether not correct about what was happening.

Adam tried to focus but found it difficult; he couldn’t remember which part of the highway he was on. He thought maybe he had missed his exit but there were no signs to tell him what the next exit was. His face pinched into confusion; he should have passed at least half a dozen signs by now but he had seen none. He straightened his back, trying to shift away the pain as his legs and arse began to feel numb. Suddenly the darkness began to feel even more overwhelming than before, slightly more threatening. For a split second the headlights flickered and his heart constricted with fear. He was left with the terrifying thought that they would both blow out and leave him in perpetual darkness until he eventually crashed. There wasn’t even a slither of moon to light his way tonight. His anxiety was mounting and he couldn’t shake that wrong feeling. He glanced in his rear-view mirror and let out a piercing scream.

There was a man sitting in the backseat of the car. He was drenched in shadow and sitting upright on the left-hand side. He turned his body to look in the back seat and the car swerved with his movement. The man he had seen in the mirror only seconds before was now gone. He looked forward and straightened the car, his breathing rapid and his chest heaving from the shock. His eyes darted from the road to the rearview mirror continuously until his breathing slowed and he was sure there was nothing there. He was so exhausted and stressed that he was hallucinating; he desperately needed a rest stop. He tried to open the car window for air but the second he did the smell that wafted through the opening was putrid; the smell of rotting eggs and meat was permeating the car. He choked on the foul stench and shut the window immediately. The tension in his body was mounting, his shoulders bunched up to his ears, his knuckles turning white from the grip on the steering wheel. He tried to control his breathing again, slow breaths in and out, though his exhale was shaky. The venomous encounter with his mother was now a distant memory; the immediate threat had taken over his full attention.

He began to assess his situation rationally to try and calm himself down. What he knew for certain was that he’d been driving for a while – that was evident in the stiffness of his body. He knew that he was driving toward home from his parent’s house but with such low traffic he should have been home sleeping by now. After this had occurred to him, he tried to remember if he had seen any other cars on the road since he began the drive. He hit the steering wheel repeatedly in frustration and screamed through gritted teeth. Every time he tried to recollect anything from tonight his brain felt hazy, as if there was something blocking him from remembering. He breathed out another shaky breath and continued his rational analysis. He knew that he had seen a man in his backseat but that man was no longer there, there was something wrong with the air outside, and his phone was missing. He replayed these facts over and over again, hoping that he would find a link or something would click into place that would help him understand what was happening. The more he thought about it, the less it made sense. His missing phone could have been left in the house when he stormed out, but he was almost certain it was in his jacket pocket when he left because he checked the time. The man in the backseat was probably just a symptom of fatigue mixed with stress. The reason there were no other cars on the road was because it was late at night, or early in the morning, and a week night. No matter how much Adam rationalised his situation, there was still the fact that he couldn’t remember parts of the night and he had lost his bearings of where he was.

The sound of the car moving and the engine humming began to seem louder and louder in his ears until it was all he could hear. A sudden blast of noise made him yelp and swerve on the road, the radio that wasn’t working before was now blasting an 80’s classic through the speakers. It ended as quickly as it began and Adam was left in silence again, the sound of his rapid heartbeat was all he could hear now, throbbing in his chest and ears. His breathing was deep and uneven as he started to cry, to sob. He knew that something bad was happening but he didn’t know what; a malignant sense of dread clung to the air. He was convinced that he’d been driving on the same stretch of road for hours now. Time itself seemed to fall away and he had no idea where he was.

Quite suddenly, from the corner of his eye he saw headlights in his rearview mirror. He felt a sense of relief. He started to beep his horn to get the driver’s attention – he held his hand down so that it made one long sound, then took a deep breath in and opened the window to wave his hand out to the driver. He tried not to breathe in the fetid stink but it was determined to assail him. The other car kept its pace and didn’t seem to be slowing down; it was one lane over and became almost parallel to his car. Adam continued to beep furiously and wave his hands out at the man driving, as he looked closer, he felt his whole body grow cold and the hair on his arms stood on end. He squinted his eyes and stared at the profile of the man and couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing. The man driving looked exactly like him, the car was the same model and colour, the man was even wearing the same crumpled linen shirt. His hands began to tremble against the steering wheel and his breath came out rapid and shaky. He tried to keep his car straight but kept veering from left to right. He knew, without a doubt, that the man driving was Adam. He watched the car in amazement until something caught his eye, a shape moved in the backseat. A dark and shadowy figure was sitting in the back diagonal to the driver’s seat. Adam began to scream out to himself to stop the car or turn around but his twin didn’t flinch. He looked on uselessly as the shadowy figure began to move, it shifted along the back seat until the figure was right behind the driver. A flash of light illuminated the figure’s face for a split second and Adam let out a scream he didn’t think was possible, it was unlike any creature in any horror movie he had ever seen. It had slimy skin that glinted in the blue light of the dashboard, which led to two large red eyes. The worst part was its mouth, a monstrous row of teeth that took over most of its face, and it was grinning at him. Tears began to stream down his face, he wailed for it to stop but continued to watch as the creature lunged a clawed hand forward to strike Adam’s copy in the jugular. The creature’s sharp talon plunged into his neck, they struggled for a moment before the car abruptly veered off into the darkness until he heard a violent collision of metal against cement. The car hit the barricade and was left there in the darkness. Adam understood what was coming, he heard a slow breathing from behind him in the dark; he dared not look. He could smell the foul odour that had been outside the car now inside of it. In an instant the claw he was waiting for had inserted itself in his neck, his eyes bulged as his hands flew from the wheel to his wound, instinctively trying to extract what was killing him. His breathing became impossible and he realised he was choking on his own blood. The car began to veer slowly to the right as he struggled to free himself from the creature. A scaly arm lunged outward and grabbed the wheel, jerking it to the right. Adam watched as his car accelerated and drove head first into the cement barricade. The sound echoed throughout the vast black atmosphere, then, absolute silence.

In an instant Adam was gone. The next morning all the police would find was a crumpled car with no driver, a blood-stained seat and the lingering smell of rotted meat.

Written by Elena Kaloudis

My writing holds fear up to the light and examines it. It pulls back the translucent veil that separates chosen reality from what is hidden and asks the fundamental questions; Do you see yourself in this? Are you afraid? Why? I have always been fascinated by fear and horror, the psychological and fantastical elements to a scary story that stick like superglue. My stories keep you guessing, they allude and tease, they horrify and delight. Most of all, they hand you your fears and tell you it’s okay to look at them, to cry about them, and sometimes to laugh at them.

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