01 Feb If the stars look strange, be wary
I was on my way to Canada to see family when the pursuit began.
Thirteen hour drives are no joke. I’ve done eight hour drives more than a few times, so I thought I’d be fine, but the mind starts to fray at six—and I hit that agonized mental exhaustion only to realize I hadn’t even gone halfway yet.
It was 11:54 PM CST when I pulled in to that rest stop; past midnight my time, but just creeping up on it for that region of the world, and anti-noon is a very different thing out in the empty reaches of middle America. Without the omnipresent haze of city light, the star-filled sky was a looming and clawing blanket on my awareness that seemed to possess parallax for the first time I’d ever seen.
As I climbed out of my borrowed family van, stretched, scanned the silent and still darkness, and began walking warily and unsteadily toward the pool of light around the rest stop building, I had the strangest notion that I could sense the different distances of the stars and even see them moving slightly. It was as if someone had hung the pinpoints of light nearly within reach like the dome of a planetarium. I stopped right at the edge of artificial lighting that cut the sidewalk into opposite shades; staring upward, I tried to make sense of what I was seeing.
At 11:57, by my watch, a strange constant warm wind began to flow through the area. Silhouette walls of wood began to whisper and wave, outlined only by eerily close stars that seemed poised to hit the metronome treetops. This prompted me to move; traces of vague fear slithered through the heavy fatigue on my senses, and I entered the rest stop’s pool of electric light.
The dark red sedan rose in the edge of my vision like a bubble emerging from the depths of a lake. It was already dark and silent sitting in a spot at the opposite end of the parking lot, but it startled me with the realization that I was not alone here. I saw nobody on foot, so I figured they were either a maintenance man or already inside. Fixing my hair with a brief slide of my hand, I pushed through the heavy glass doors and into the small pocket of civilization the State built and maintained for drivers just like me. Yeah, there were security cameras over in that corner and a blue-lit phone stand for emergencies. I was fine. This was fine.
The high clock on the wall hit midnight. The lights flickered briefly, and it occurred to me that this edifice of civilized safety could vanish in an instant if the power went out. I froze with my hand on the door to the men’s bathroom and listened. Somewhere in the building, a radio or a phone had become audible, sending out one half of a conversation that was just poor enough in reception and echo so as to be indecipherable. The male voice coming from the phone seemed to be excited and fearful, practically shouting long strings of urgent information to whoever was listening.
I say listening because there was no break in the staticy shouting to indicate anyone was talking back. Was this a radio that someone had left on? Or maybe a cell on speakerphone someone had dropped? If it was a cellphone—who had answered?
Not quite sure why, I began to back slowly out of the building. The glass doors were heavy, but quiet, and I heard the urgent crackling speech fade as each door swung silently shut behind me. Back in the warm constant wind, I walked back to my borrowed family van with a sense of unease I couldn’t shake. Now at a safe distance, I looked back at the rest stop, and that was when I first finally saw it.
It was in the men’s bathroom. That much I knew instantly from the position of the tall frosted window. An idea flashed into my awareness: the driver of the dark red sedan had been on his phone, had entered the men’s bathroom, and had encountered it without warning. Whoever he’d been talking with had probably been frantically shouting over the line ever since.
I nearly fumbled my keys, but got the van turned on and moving despite the vice-like grip of adrenaline on my limbs. No trucks. There were no trucks in the wider parking lot. My phone was dead because I’d forgotten my charger. Shaking. What to do? The next rest stop. Step on the accelerator. The next rest stop would have a blue-lit emergency phone. The rest stops were roughly forty or fifty miles apart. Not long. It wouldn’t be too long.
But what would I say?
What had I seen?
How had I even recognized it as a monster? The creatures I’d always seen in movies were typically of a few different but very clear types—transmorphic like the Thing, smooth and bladed like the Alien, twisted perversions from places like Silent Hill, or animalistic like a werewolf—but the shadow I’d seen had been of something else entirely.
No cars. No gas stations. No exits. Just endless dark highway. I hit the next rest stop at 12:54 AM CST, and I jumped out and ran through warm constant wind under those eerily close stars to reach these new heavy glass doors. I froze with my hand on the second handle and turned to look back.
There, close to the middle of the line of car parking spots, was a dark red sedan. Was it the same one? I hadn’t gotten the license plate the first time! But how had they gotten ahead of me? I hadn’t seen a single car on the road. Had they driven past with their lights off somehow?
Different setup inside. It was a similar building, but with more corners. I clung to the brick wall and moved quietly. The high clock hit 1 AM, and the lights flickered briefly. I put my back to brick next to the blue-lit phone and picked it up while watching the closed bathroom doors and the entrance to the vending machine area.
To my surprise, the phone was already active. A male voice said, “Hello?”
I responded with, “Hello?” as well, completely taken off guard.
“Who is th—” he began to say.
“Who is th—“ I said, cutting him off, then stopping myself as I heard his question.
He said, “I—” just before I said, “I—” and I stopped, chilled, as I realized I was hearing my own echo before I even spoke. My fingers clenched white around the phone as I stared at it from an inch away. This couldn’t be real, could it? I needed to be sure. I let the idea spill down toward my mouth.
“Test phrase,” he said.
I bit back the words as soon as I heard my pre-echo.
“Ah, you got me,” the voice said, humored.
My blood ran cold.
Somewhere in the building, that indecipherable voice talking over a radio or speakerphone rose once more, this time desperately shouting for a response. I moved toward the front, but then had a sudden notion—I’d gone that way the last time. I felt hunted, and, if it was really happening, my unknown pursuer would expect that.
I went through the door to the women’s bathroom instead. Hurrying across, I rolled open a small window and slid out into the night.
I shouldn’t have done it, but I had to. I crept along the side of the building and peered around the corner.
It was waiting out front beyond a curve in the sidewalk.
Humanoid. Maybe that’s the type of monster.
But that doesn’t do it justice.
Imagine you could take the moments of a person’s life and make them stand next to one another. Imagine you had a line of children, each older than the last by just a bit; that line becomes a line of teenagers, then adults, then old men, but all the same man. Now imagine yourself standing at the very beginning of that line and looking at all of them superimposed on one another. All visible, all transparent, all in different poses that overlay to form a century-deep blur whose elements you can somehow still tell apart if you stare hard enough.
Now imagine that line starts not at birth, but at death, and the line starts with a corpse and ends with dirt and dust rotted down from ancient bones and maggot-filled flesh.
A ghost? A zombie? An entity from outside of Time? No wonder I couldn’t identify it by a shadow in a frosted window—it was a walking timeline of death and decay bound to a grinning half-rotted skull.
And that grin turned toward me as I stared. A cloud of two centuries of decomposing corpse slowly turned and began stepping in my direction.
I ran. Lucky that my van was parked on this side, I reached it and drove away in a panic, watching my rear-view mirror for the ghastly thing every other second. It just stood and watched me until I could no longer see it in return.
No cars. No gas stations. No exits. Just endless dark highway. With my foot on the accelerator the entire time, more than happy to get a huge speeding ticket if only it meant that I could find a cop, I hit the next rest stop at 1:54 AM CST.
Laughing darkly to myself in confirmation, I hopped out and checked the license plate of the dark red sedan parked in the dead middle of the row of spots. It was different—it was different—but so was the rest stop’s architecture and layout. I’d seen enough Twilight Zones to not fall for it; the only difference was that this was actually happening, and my brain just kept running scenario after scenario trying to understand how this could be explained away.
The bubble of light around the rest stop no longer seemed inviting. I slunk in, gaze darting and alert, and picked up the blue-lit emergency phone. Not hearing a dial tone, I asked, “What do you want?”
My heart sank as that same voice replied, “I’m missing a piece.”
And, indeed, I knew what he meant. There had been one missing moment in the visible timeline of that decaying corpse-entity—the one closest to still alive, the one that most human beings saw only in coffins at funerals. The thing following me was a ghost without a soul; a dead thing that had not yet found a living thing to be a part of.
I asked the question burning at the forefront of my mind: “Why me?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” it laughed. “I’m your future.”
“No.” The phone began to creak under the force of my squeezing hand.
“Yes. Did you think you were going to live forever?”
“I’m not dead yet!” I screamed into the receiver.
The voice on the other end paused before asking, “Am I early? Oh my. What time is it by your clock?”
I looked up at the high clock on the wall. “2:05 AM.”
“Shit. That’s right. We’re on a road trip. I’ve got the wrong time zone!”
Its words initially brought me a spark of hope, but then I grew suspicious. “What do you mean? When were you supposed to come?”
“We were supposed to die at 12:54 AM,” the entity breathed, very concerned. “We fell asleep while driving and suffered a fatal crash.”
“This is CST!” I shouted half-hopefully and half-angrily. “You came an hour early! No way I’d fall asleep after that adrenaline rush!”
“So I’m your ghost, yet you didn’t die,” the other continued. “Because I showed up an hour early… we should meet and talk about what to do.”
While it seemed distracted, I dropped the phone and made a dash out the heavy glass doors and toward my van. It turned and tried to give chase, but I’d chosen the perfect moment. The van roared to life and the headlights seared fire across its path.
No cars. No gas stations. No exits. Just endless dark highway. I hit the next rest stop at 2:54 AM CST, already darkly bitter about what I was to find.
The dark red sedan was now nearly on the other end of the parking lot from where it had started.
I didn’t stop. I blew right on through.
The radio crackled, and his voice came through on the static: “I can’t let you go. You know that, right?”
“Go to hell!” I slammed my hand down on the radio button.
No cars. No gas stations. No exits. Just endless dark highway. I hit the next rest stop at 3:54 AM CST with my gas tank nearly on empty and the sky showing zero signs of dawn. In this latest lot, the dark red sedan was at the farthest possible spot.
There was no more running. My gas tank wouldn’t take me to the next stop. I’d had ample time to think about that, however, and I eyed the dark red sedan that was somehow part of this mysterious battle of will.
The two centuries of progressively decaying corpse was waiting right there in the rest stop’s light—and began stepping toward me.
I picked up a rock and smashed the window of the dark red sedan.
As I cleared away glass and reached down to open the passenger side door, the radio inside lit up and said, “Do you know what will happen if you do escape? I won’t lie. Reality will pop like a punctured balloon. Have you ever heard of a ghost without a dead human being to go with it? It’s never happened before. Time will… unzip.”
I climbed in and began reaching around in near-total darkness looking for keys. The trash-filled car stank horribly, and I found myself fighting exhaustion, nausea, and darkness to stay focused. By the time I realized the keys were already in the ignition, the creature was right outside the broken window, and I turned the car on and tried to dive down to reach the gas pedal with my hand.
But I didn’t get there. Part of the piles of trash turned out to be a man reclining in the driver’s seat, and part of the smell turned out to be coming from his bloated body.
Not my ghost. This man had died in his dark red sedan some time ago—not my ghost! It grasped my pant leg through the window and I felt my jeans disintegrate up to my knee.
Scrambling forward over his strangely moist putrefying bag of flesh, I pushed the opposite door open and rolled out onto the sidewalk. The unbound ghost crawled through the car after me—but vanished with an elated fading scream as it fell into temporal contact with its proper host.
It hadn’t cared. It just wanted a host; any host.
It had lied.
With time properly bound once more and the universe zipped together correctly, the Sun rose not too long after.
I was not going to die; at least, not today.
But as I changed my route and checked into a hotel to avoid falling asleep on the drive, I had to wonder: that particular ghost had lied. Was mine still out there waiting for me? That had been a very specific story the entity had told. What if that had really been my intended fate? What if I would have died if not for the accidental intervention of someone else’s ghost?
It’s a strange feeling, but tonight the stars again feel oddly close…