For reasons never understood, even to herself, Alice ran away, but she must overcome her darkest night and fight whatever the darkness sends to reach her light.
By Dalyn Hanson
Over the rolling hills and into the night of endless dark and trees but for the average gleam of headlights, Alice drove ten-and-two to the hum of midnight jazz over her radio. The firefly-laden road twinkled just as the night sky, cloudless and abundant. The subtle song of cicadas rang the night’s forest with their eager tales of joy and woe. The willful wisp of rain-tinged wind whistled its way through her cracked windows as wafts of cedar, pine, and muscadine tickled memories of olden, simpler days on her grandmother’s porch just before a summer shower.
And just as the sky cracked and beaded her windshield with droplets, she wiped a tear from her cheek.
Her rearview caught a flash, and Alice jolted in her seat. She cupped the mirror, jostling it for a clearer view, but what was that? Headlights? Lightning? A kamikaze firefly? She could not see, for the rain obscured her view. Her heart pumped from her chest, an energized, chaotic pace like a jackrabbit on its fourth cup of coffee. The hill’s crest came into clearer view.
Her tires screeched. The darkness took control of her wheel, both inside and out. The road became ice, and every jolt of her steering wheel teetered on belly up in the nearest ditch or a tumble of metal, glass, and rubber. Flashes of herself dangling from her seatbelt, glass pebbles tangled in her hair whilst her car lay like a turtle on its back, terrified her.
With a calm press of her brake, her car came to a complete stop. The rain pitter-pattered her car’s roof as staggered breaths filled her lungs, her white-knuckled hands frozen at ten-and-two. The radio choked on static and could not decide between the eternally calmer jazz or the thump of 80s rock. She clicked the radio dead and swooped her hair back from her face with her shaky hand. She took a moment, collected herself, and twisted to the backseats in a quick snap.
Her breath hastened. Her eyes darted. Her hands clenched.
Her eyes studied the darkness, every inch of nothingness. Her teeth ground. Her imagination raced.
Her imagination crashed just as her car had and brought her back. She clicked her seatbelt free, fed it back into its home, and yanked the door latch.
Ding. Ding. Ding.
The car sprang to life with the overhead lights, a saint amongst the impressive dark. She braved the rain, lighter than she had expected, but nevertheless cold and damp. The moon, full and bright, draped with a thin cloud cloak, smiled upon her with gentle light. Wild winds thrust upon the trees, rustling a language all their own.
Peaceful yet detached.
Burned rubber and rustic metal permeated the air, wafted in on the backs of summer rain and pine. Her driver’s side front tire lay shredded, torn from its rim. A large branch lay unfazed in the road behind. Mother nature had a cruel sense of humor.
Alice reached back inside her car, grabbed her cell phone, and swiped it unlocked. Faintly a bar of service held in the gauge, for this was backcountry. She thumbed through her screen, past her dumb background of a cat, sticking out its tongue, a cute reprieve from its more chaotic tendencies, to her contacts.
There he was.
His name plastered with hearts. She picked at her ring finger. That metal was still so new, but beautiful, perfect, and so glistening in the moonlight, her own diamond in the sky.
Her thumb hovered over his name. A simple tap of the screen, and she could have him on the way with a simple call.
Her thumb froze as droplets dotted her screen. She shook from her malaise, swiped his name away and entered 911. With phone to ear, she listened intently as the ringback warped into dead air: no signal. Her phone smacked the wet asphalt, flipping then twirling like a ballerina before splashing down flat.
Disbelief had moved in, rent free.
Without hesitation, she snatched her phone back from the dark abyss. This could not be real. A nightmare, it had to be. Never she thought that something like this could happen. It was a mistake, and one she could not crawl from.
She sat, chilled wet asphalt against her jeans. Legs tucked in tight, she watched the rain patter the road, so peaceful, so tranquil, and best of all, tears were just another raindrop. She chuckled. Stranded. Desolate. Isolate. And all she could muster was a laugh? It was funny in some cosmic joke sort of way, bad luck from all the bad juju cast into the world. Not that she was bad in any sense, but zooming the backnine roads at this hour, worrying him to death probably was not the best idea. Although she had peeked at a few Christmas presents as a kid and had an extra cookie against her mother’s wishes.
She tried her phone again: nothing. She tried again: weak signal. Again, dead tones. She stood, yanked back her arm to throw, and stopped herself. She clutched her phone.
She took in the country air.
She closed her eyes
She stopped fidgeting with her ring.
Her heart steadied.
The rain pecked her skin.
Her eyes opened.
Her car dinged for attention, headlights shooting into the distance, alive with its overhead lights. Alice leaned inside. She clicked on her hazard lights. If she was to be stranded, tireless in the backwoods, she too would be tireless.
She did not know cars. That was his forte, and she was as illiterate with them as piecing a jigsaw puzzle together blindfolded. Though the movies made it seem easy, right? Or at least where or how to start. She would need a jack to raise the car, that plus sign wrench thing (also known as a lug wrench), and her spare, all kept in the trunk. She popped it from the fob on her dangling keys. She popped them out too from the ignition, for the last things she needed was to lock herself out. At her trunk, she tossed aside her junk: plastic grocery bags, books, blankets, and even an old Styrofoam cooler from one of their lake excursions. The cooler had become a storage for fish rather than drinks, like she intended, but it was useful nonetheless.
She pulled up the false bottom of her trunk to the space underneath: spare, jack, and the lug wrench all tucked away nice and neat under the—
The wrench was gone.
Alice yanked the spare, no matter the heft, from the trunk and then the jack. The wrench was nowhere to be found. She slammed the trunk. She tussled her hair as she paced herself calm to the woods where she screamed into the silent night, and the woods screamed back with howls of night. Wolves most definitely of a pack, their howls rolled over the hills and spindled through the trees like wind. Flickers dotted the foliage at the tree’s roots: eyes among the dark or fireflies being jerks?
She rummaged through her trunk, tossing most of everything to the wet asphalt, yet still no wrench.
She was so close.
Her hazards lights taunted her. Her spare lay alongside the jack, probably the happiest she had ever been to see a jack not followed by Daniel’s. She sunk into the driver’s seat as the rainfall weakened. Her hazards flashed their yellow glow as she tried her phone one more useless time. Against her better judgement, she thumbed for his name in her contacts. His name alone was a comfort, and because she was such a glutton for punishment, began thumbing through photos. Halcyon days at the beach, her sister’s wedding, and even out camping where she had to save him from a mouse.
The hazard lights coated her in clean light. She clicked them off.
There were pictures taken proper and others not so much, ones with her hair a mess with her glasses on that time he had grabbed her phone. That was a good day. There were ones where he had burnt breakfast in a glorious attempt for breakfast in bed. Nevertheless, that was a good day. Another of him and her, prim and proper, dolled up for someone’s party, with him on a knee.
This was such a mistake.
Why? Why run? Why drive to nowhere, break down, and long for another night cuddled tight with him and a movie? She hated herself for such a dumb, impulsive escape. What was she running from? Why was she running at all? She had not even given him an answer.
The hazards flashed and flickered her tear-streaked face. She squinted at the bright neon.
She thumbed through pictures of goofy animals that he had sent her in an attempt to cheer her up on not so good days. Light brightened her face.
Her eyes jumped from her phone as she glanced back at the hazard switch. She leapt from the driver’s seat. Was it fireflies? Was it lightning? Was it a car? Please be someone. Anyone.
In that moment, staring down the dark road, moon at her back, she saw it: the light in her mirror.
Happy Hills Mart: Tire and Lube.
A large neon sign bearing those sweet words stuck out from the trees. Blue and white neon flickered from the mist, abuzz with winged bugs.
In pure and utter anxiety-fueled alleviation, she grabbed her purse, locked her doors, and rushed onwards towards the mart. Her steps smacked the wet pavement in her desperate dash to the auto shop. There had to be someone there or at least a phone. The neon sign crept closer. It had been forever since she had walked like this, much less of any actual cardio, but she pushed. Calves on fire, sides sore, and lungs breathless, she marched on. Her purse had become a cinder block. Inches became feet, and feet became yards. She held her chest as her breaths came more frequently, even painfully. The rain had stopped but a mist, catching the neon light like morning dew in a spider’s web.
The trees rustled in blackness. Breezes carried hope that fueled her spirit. Seized by light, she followed her beacon to salvation, just as moths to their flame, blinded by the bright and swathed in warmth and happiness. A calm transfixed the emptiness. And there she was.
Between the neon and her lightless car, where only darkness held, she stood transfixed, caught betwixt dark and light, where shadows play tricks in the twilight. Crosswinds kicked up its shadows, dancing dark silhouettes among willful winds that weaved echoes of the moon and its lingering beast. Swift through the brush, a rush, caught only by her ears. The moon’s call. A sharp howl, tapered by only the wind, struck her cold. Icy tendrils crawled her back as golden eyes crept with a macabre saunter. Fireflies had faded as if every star had vanished from the sky, and two golden eyes lingered in their stead. Moist breath draped her neck, eager for a full belly. Hunger pangs rumbled for attention from deepened bowel. The moon growled in famine, and its jaws parted wide to swallow her whole. Inch by inch, its mighty jowls ratcheted open, closer and closer.
The door’s chime snapped her free.
The deadbolt locked her safe.
Flight had overtaken fight, and flight she had, her feet light as feathers and calves burning from frantic exertion. She peeked from the dirty glass door to the now larger neon sign, hanging overhead. The blue and white held dominion above the station with its light cast over the pumps and parking lot like a divine haven over the twisted darkness, lingering just beyond the light’s edge. All was calm in this square among the dark.
The mart was a tiny place with not much more than a crummy drink fountain of off-brand sodas, candy bars from an undetermined decade, and a dust-caked register as old as dinosaurs. Bleeding white fluorescents doused the merchandise and the room in plastic sunlight. Every object held a toy-ish plasticity, but what, under such light, would not? The coolers clunked with aged enthusiasm, their contents frozen beyond need. Iced layers left them in disrepair as their own ice smothered them. A deep earthy musk – motor oil – leached in from the connecting door to the garage. Not a soul stood behind the counter, filled with countless auto magazines, many older than herself. She scanned over the magazines to behind the counter and the piles of junk that littered the limited space. A rustic silver bell sat atop the counter. She lifted a finger.
Tonk. Tonk. Tonk.
The bell’s ring had rusted away.
A fan spun lazily. The ribbons attached hardly gave more than a flutter under the weak gust. Promo posters for motor oil, snacks, and gasoline were slathered on the walls, some ripped, some torn. Stacked like nicotine masonry, a cigarette smorgashborg hung at the farthest wall, and just underneath the cancer castle, sat an old rotary phone.
She jumped for it.
How did these phones work again? Spin the dial, hit the lever, let it spin back, and then repeat for each number. Those old pawn shows she binged had finally paid their due. The numbers came slowly with each spin, but she was all too preoccupied by the phone itself. With the last digit spinning into place, the line crackled. Was this it? She could see the blue lights smothering this place and him, knight in shining armor, running inside to sweep her away from this dusty dark abyss. She would hug him and never let go again.
The connection crackled. A ringback never came or the blue lights or him. She slammed the phone down, found the cables at its back, and followed them through the junk and trash to a jagged end, most likely chewed through by a rat.
This was okay.
Nearby, she tried the door to the garage. Motor oil fumes choked her as she tried to force it open. That greasy earthy smell would stick in her lungs forever, and for the door to be jammed shut was just perfect. This store was bound to have those lug wrenches on a shelf somewhere. She jumped back over the junk to the aisles: one of snacks, one of medicines, one of amenities, and finally one of hardware. Duct tape, funnels, air fresheners, wiper blades, oils, cleaners, screwdrivers, caps, light bulbs, fuses, wrenches, lighters, aerosols, and even ashtrays loaded the—
Was that? She doubled back and could not believe her eyes, for the night had already played too many tricks. The lug wrench, albeit rusted, hung just ahead, stuck in behind a steering wheel. She yanked the wrench from the shelf with absolute jubilation, so much that she nearly dashed from the mart, but what of that beast? She hesitated, stepped back to the counter, and grabbed something extra special for the beast but not before slapping a crisp twenty onto the counter.
Back to the hornet’s nest, or had she ever left?
The moon had swallowed the asphalt, but with her wrench in tow, she had not a worry but that beast. Ready and vigilant, she held her weapons against the dark. Trees swirled like darkened clouds with elongated faces warping, bending, and twisting into monstrous forms, armed with piercing fangs and callous eyes. The darkness enveloped her. The Ice Queen’s fingers had the wild wind. She braced herself from the chill, but on she marched, her car dead ahead. The forest grumbled, disturbed: Trespasser! Trespasser! The leaves rustled, for their champion had awoken.
Alice held her weapons ready for that beast, ready for the terror to entrench its talons in her chest, for she would not be running. The dark held its fortress as the light of the Happy Hills sign faded with each step. Once again she stood at the apex, a side to light among a side to the dark. Her car lay with that darkened side, void of light. She regretted not leaving the hazards on. A beacon would have sufficed, but she marched on. Her legs burned. Her arms tired. The wrench was twice as heavy, and her purse once again became a cinder block, but she marched on. The moon was her compass, guiding her, but it had secrets.
The frosted winds whipped shadows to life. With unearthly speed, the faceless shadows erupted from the trees, zooming out and into the forest like blackened wind. The moon watched unimpressed as it judged the shadow’s game. The trees cheered its champion as it lent its form, the faces from the trees now free among the ground. Terror rode the blackened wind like a pale horse. Galloping shadows surrounded the road, circling Alice like vultures honing their next meal. The trees growled, hungry. The wind howled, angry. And the beast snarled, awakened.
From the brush, deathly paws crept. A wolf snuck from the forest, golden eyes locked on her. Fur black as oil and flowing like dark smoke, it positioned itself at the center of the road, drooling from brandished teeth.
Alice was cautious. She eyed the beast. The wolf leapt. The moonlight hit Alice’s back. Her weapons were ready: flares. She struck. A fire geyser erupted. She tripped. On what? The branch that had flattened her tire. Her sparks rolled out of sight. She reached for another. A dud. The wolf lunged. She struck. Flames caught the beast’s eyes. It vanished into the trees. Alice collected herself and ran. Her car was feet away. Something caught her. The wolf clamped onto her purse. She pulled. It pulled. Her purse exploded, contents scattered. The wolf slung her purse. Alice locked herself inside.
The wolf snapped at her window, paws on glass. Frantic. Saliva splashed the window. Glass cracked. Her keys. Were they in her purse? No. Her pocket. The panic button. Her car sprung to life. Loud. Bright. Alert. The wolf was gone.
Alice watched from the window, streaked with cracks and scratches. Was it safe? Her car blared into the nothingness.
Moments later, her car silent, she crept, thumb on the panic button. She placed the jack, raised her car, and used her newfound wrench on the lugs. A quick swap of tires, and her car was once again drivable.
She glanced into the blackness ready for that wolf to show that monstrous face. The brush rustled. Her eyes snapped to the sound. No hesitation, she locked herself inside. She paused as her keys went for the ignition. She had won. The tire had not, nor the missing wrench, or even the wolf. She held her head high, started her car, and three-point-turned back the way she had came. Her brakes squealed as she stopped. With a quick throw, she tossed the branch from the road.
As the night air once again filled her car, the mart came and went, shrinking in her rearview. What was that? From her rearview, she watched as the wolf sat center road, panting calmly before blowing away in the wind. Alice smiled.
Sunlight peeked over those happy hills back to him, and her diamond caught the sun’s light in frayed rainbows as she drove ten-and-two.
Her phone beeped to life as her notifications flooded in. Without a second thought, she tapped his name, put the phone to her ear, and listened.
The line crackled.
“Where have you—”
“Yes! A million times yes.”
She could feel his smile through the phone.
“Come home, baby.”
And she drove, off into her sunrise.
Dalyn Hanson is a Southerner born in Georgia and raised in Alabama, which is where he currently resides. Dalyn received a Bachelor’s in Fine Arts from Full Sail University and was granted a Course Director Award for Mystery, Horror and Suspense. Never one to run from ideas, he writes on a daily basis, crafting tales of strife, and enjoys watching his characters develop and blossom as they overcome and define themselves.
“Carpe Diem” was selected for our “Separation” theme about feeling disconnected. Read the rest of the stories related to this theme here.