01 Feb Turtle Race
In college I roomed with four other guys in a small house.
It was a weekend in mid-to-late October of our junior year. Cal, the burn-out of our group, had left early Friday afternoon to visit his girlfriend back home. Two of my other roommates had also left after Friday classes for some reason or another. It was just me and Zak left at the house. Zak had been pestering me all afternoon to go to a party with him, but I was still suffering a hangover from the night before. Eventually he gave up, and I settled into a nice night nap.
I was woken up by my phone buzzing against my face. Initially I just threw it on the ground, but it wouldn’t stop buzzing. Someone needed to reach me.
I shambled to my phone – the light was easy to find in the pitch black house. I had to focus my bleary eyes to make out the caller ID: It was Cal’s cell. He never called me from out of town. My attention shifted to the time. It was around 2AM, much later than I’d realized. A sudden pang of worry cut through my grogginess, and I fumbled around for a light switch.
When I finally answered the phone, Cal responded by saying my name as if he’d been surprised I was on the other end. His voice had an unfamiliar softness to it.
I said something like, “Yeah, what’s up?” Cal asked me if I could come pick him up. It wasn’t softness I had heard in his voice, it was nerves.
But I was as annoyed as I was anxious, so I bluntly asked if he’d gotten himself into some kind of dumbass car accident. No, Cal replied. His car was apparently fine. I asked why he needed me to pick him up in the middle of night, then. No real answer, only another plea that I come find him. I had been wanting to make a jab about him being drunk, but something kept stopping me. I’d seen Cal drunk or high hundreds of times before, and the voice over the phone seemed definitively sober.
I reminded Cal that he was four hours away; Why couldn’t his girlfriend or parents or older brother pick him up? He finally explained that he wasn’t at home anymore, that he’d gotten on the road hours ago and was in fact “pretty close” to our university. Then he mentioned something about being in a Denny’s. His voice had started to shake.
Gently, I coaxed him into giving me more information about his exact location. It was a combination Denny’s and gas station off of the interstate Cal drove to get home and back. Fortunately, there was only one business within a 2 hour range that matched Cal’s description. MapQuest estimated it was about an hour’s drive, but I could swing it in 40 minutes. I told Cal I’d be there for him soon – it was difficult to get him to hang up. He made me promise I wouldn’t just “abandon [him] with that thing.” That got my blood back running.
I scribbled some notes for myself, then grabbed a jacket and a water bottle. Just as I was headed for the door, Zak came stumbling into the house. I was desperate for company after that phone call, so I told Zak he needed to get in the car, we were going somewhere. Luckily, Zak happened to be a very agreeable drunk.
About ten miles outside of town, the highway became more or less deserted. Zak was a bit of a closet nerd, so he was happily rambling about Star Wars or LotR or whatever it was he was into at the time. It was a comforting distraction from the fields of black that flanked the road.
My stomach started to drop again as the mile markers counted closer to our destination. I found the off-ramp with no problem, and as soon as I finished my turn, I could make out the bright red lettering of a Denny’s sign in the distance.
I circled around until I found Cal’s car. In the splotchy lot lighting, I gave it a quick inspection. Cal had told the truth – his car looked in the same semi-decent condition as usual. Zak was very excited we were going to a Denny’s.
When we went inside, there was no hostess at the front counter to show us to a table. Zak started strolling into one of the main dining areas, so I meekly followed behind him. There were maybe a few old men scattered around, but the place was close to empty. While I had been scanning the room for Cal, Zak had plopped himself into a booth and was hollering for the waitress. When she finally got over to us, she looked less annoyed than I’d expected.
Before Zak could try to order, I cut in and asked if a guy about our age had been in the restaurant. The waitress nodded and said, “Yeah, you’re buddy’s been waiting for you in the back.” Then she gestured for us to follow her as she showed us to the dining area on the opposite side of the front counter.
The waitress pointed to a somewhat obscured booth in a corner. “He looked so shook up when he came in here,” she said to us quietly, “I’m glad you boys showed up for him.” She told us we were welcome to stay as long as we wanted, and to come find her if we needed anything.
She wasn’t exaggerating about Cal. When we walked up to him he was ashen-faced and dead-eyed, staring down at a plate packed with food, but showing no desire to eat any of it. He didn’t even notice us until Zak haphazardly smacked his arm by way of a hug. I’d figured he’d be excited I finally showed, but his voice was low and monotone as he greeted us and asked if we wanted anything to eat.
The table was filled with food – there must’ve been four or five other dishes besides the one in front of Cal, as well as several beverage cups. I made a lame joke about him being jealous of one of our other roommate’s beer gut. Cal just kinda wanly smiled at that, then explained he had to keep ordering stuff so he wouldn’t feel bad about having sat in the restaurant for 3 hours.
3 hours?, I’d asked with surprise. I’d made the trip out there in well under an hour. Cal shrugged and explained that he hadn’t called me immediately – apparently he was “too freaked out.” I asked what he meant by that.
Cal didn’t answer me right away – his eyes kept glazing over the ceiling. Finally, they stopped to stare at Zak as he dipped a sausage link into a milkshake. He let out a genuine laugh, and we jointly started to rib Zak, who defended his unholy creation with, “You guys are so repressed. Sausage-shake is delicious. Open your minds.”
With the tension broken, Cal started to tell his story.
That evening, he was supposed to have dinner with his girlfriend and her parents. They were meeting her parents at a fairly nice restaurant, and he and his girlfriend began to fight over the quality of his shoes. The fight snowballed from there, and a few hours later he was angry enough to drive all the way back home during the middle of the night.
Our university was out in the sticks. The route you have to take between there and Cal’s hometown is mostly two-lane country highway. Cal was, as expected, speeding. It’s a lonely stretch of road, and past 9 o’clock, typically the only other vehicles you have worry about sharing it with are semis. A single truck is simple enough to bypass, but god help you if you get stuck between two trying pass each other – a turtle race, I think the slang goes. And that is exactly the situation Cal sped himself into.
Two semis had been driving bumper-to-bumper in the right-hand lane as Cal approached them on the left. He practically had to slam on his brakes when the trailing truck suddenly cut over into his lane in order to pass the first truck. Pissed off, Cal started to tailgate the semi in front of him as it unhurriedly moved to pass the semi to the right.
Personally, I try to never put myself and my car in this kind of position – I hate tight spaces, and it’s horribly claustrophobic to be stuck between the edge of the road and two 40 ton steel walls. Cal, however, has never been known for wisdom and prudence. While he was raging at the slow semi in front of him, he hadn’t noticed another vehicle enter the highway. Suddenly, there was an impatient SUV tailgating him. Cal was fully locked in between three cars.
At this point, Cal explained, he started to get a real ominous feeling. It seemed like the truck in front of him was making no headway against the truck on the right. The SUV just kept getting closer and closer, until Cal swears it within a foot of his own bumper. In response, Cal kept getting closer to the rear of the semi, coming roughly within 10 feet. He said he was this close to just laying on the horn when the SUV began to let up a bit. With thoroughly shot nerves, Cal said he tried concentrate on what little road he had in front of him. That’s when he saw something move underneath the bed of the semi.
It was a only brief shadow against the beams of his headlights, but the movement was sudden enough to startle Cal. He said at first he thought he was just being jumpy or succumbing to that trucker’s fatigue where they start seeing little gnomes by the sides of the road. The head that popped down iced both explanations.
Cal almost swerved off the road. It had a humanoid face, apparently, with maybe a toddler-sized head, leathery and hairless. It’s mouth was gaping, but not as if to scream or bite or eat – Cal says that was the way it always set. I asked him how he knew that. “Because,” he answered, “I had to stare at that goddamned thing for a million fucking hours.”
In a literal sense he was, naturally, exaggerating, but I can only imagine how time would’ve dragged on trapped between an untimely death and “that goddamned thing.” Cal says after his initial shock, he was frozen in disbelief, losing all sense of time or place, just staring at the thing’s shaded eye sockets. At last his trance was broken when the thing started forward, crawling upside down against the underbelly of the truck. As it moved closer Cal could make out the gnarly limbs heaving it along, which he described as like bat wings with no webbing. When it finally reached the end of the trailer bed, three long, hooked digits curled around the underride bar.
By then, Cal had broken down into full-blown hysteria. His foot hovered over the brake pedal, ready for a swift disengagement, goddamned the consequences. He was this close on stomping down as the thing pulled its head forward from beneath the underride bar, revealing its features in direct illumination. It’s eyes were large and completely black, and Cal could see stubby, sporadic teeth within its hanging mouth. The thing then began wrapping its whole body around the underride bar, until it was suspended like a sloth. Once it had secured itself, it began slowly extending those hooked digits towards the hood of the car.
Cal says it was never in range to reach him, but still, that was his breaking point. He freaked out – began wailing on the horn, flashing his brights, turning on his hazards. The SUV, he says, seemed to respond almost as if in a panic, easing abruptly on Cal’s tail. Within seconds both cars were positioned safely behind the semis. It was just then that the semi Cal had been following finally passed the first and shifted over into the right lane.
The SUV made quick work of passing Cal. He was glad to see it go. Alone on the road again, he pulled off to the shoulder to finish hyperventilating in peace.
As Cal finished, I was at a loss for what to say. He seemed so shaken and spoke in such uncharacteristic earnest, I was inclined to believe him. But the whole thing sounded so bizarre. Fortunately, Zak cut-in with, “Dude, that’s fucked up.”
Cal laughed, somewhat feigned, and replied, “Yeah, it was.”
I could put together the rest of Cal’s ordeal on my own. Still stricken, he must have gotten off on the first exit he came across, then pulled into the first restaurant he saw. He waited it out a couple of hours, realized he was too terrified to drive, then called me to pick him up.
Whether “the thing” was real or not, my friend’s fear certainly was, and I was eager to get him home. The problem was that we had two cars and only one driver (I certainly wasn’t going to let Zak get behind the wheel until at least another six hours and a decent nap). Cal balked when I suggested we’d have to leave his car in the Denny’s parking lot until the next afternoon. Too tired to get irritated, I grabbed hold of the first idea that came to me and went with it.
Out in the filling station portion, I tepidly approached an elderly couple in a busted-looking Chevy. I asked which direction they were headed. Same direction as our university, it worked out. I gave a bare-bones run-down of our predicament, glazing over Cal’s demon sighting with “had a bad incident,” then offered them $200 I didn’t have for one of them to drive Cal’s car back to our house. They exchanged a look, then the husband offered to commandeer the car for free, as I had hoped.
The whole operation was risky and, honestly, pretty stupid, but it worked. The old man followed us in Cal’s car, no funny business, and his wife in turn trailed him in their Chevy. He neatly parked the car in the spot next to mine, and I approached him as Zak shouted his gratitude from our doorway. I was about to start in on another round of profusely thanking him, when he waved his hand and said there was no need.
Feeling at ease again, I tried to strike up some perfunctory small talk before I just up and left the old man. I found out that he and his wife were retired, and that they shared a lifelong love of road trips. At the time, they were traversing the entire continental U.S.A., from sea to shining sea. The conversation trailed off, and I took Cal’s keys and turned to leave, when the man started to speak again. He asked about Cal, or as he put it, “your friend who was all shook up.” He wanted to make sure he was okay.
I’m sure he’ll be fine, I answered.
“Good, good. It’s always a trip, the first time you see one of them.”