The county road was a nightmare of potholes and large cracks making me think my car was going to break apart from the impacts. “Kevin,” I said after having to swerve around a section of washed out road, “how long before we merge with the interstate?”
Kevin didn't answer, I glanced over to see him playing on his smartphone. He was scrolling through pictures of sorority women at our school and grinning like a small boy who had just seen his first pair of exposed breasts. I shouldn't have expected anything else, the guy was an obnoxious jerk on his best days. For a second I wondered why I let him in my car much less gave him a ride back to Fort Worth while I drove home down to Galveston for Thanksgiving. That's when I remembered the five one-hundred dollar bills he paid me for the chance to get home. Kevin's family was close to rich while mine wasn't and that money would more than pay for my trip home and back to school.
“Dammit Kevin,” I said louder, “how much longer till we get to the interstate?”
That jarred Kevin away from his college fantasies and back to his one task as navigator. “Yeah, sorry Roger,” he said going through the motions of exiting out the hookup app and bringing up the road map. Seconds ticked by with me looking all round the sides of the road for any sign of civilization.
We were somewhere around the Arizona and New Mexico border but even with a full moon above us it was easier to say our actual location was the middle of nowhere. I took a small comfort in the idea that this was what the country must have looked like a couple of centuries ago. While gas wasn't an issue, if we broke down getting a tow truck and my car repaired would certainly swallow that five-hundred bucks and much more. I had visions of having to drop out of school and getting a crappy job back home like the one my dad still worked.
“Roger Tanner old buddy,” Kevin said in a far too casual manner, “the signal on my phone just dropped out. I can't bring up the road map, we're flying blind.”
I wanted to slap the bastard, and then ask how long it had been since he looked at the map. But that wouldn't have served any useful purpose. Plus, I was the one that told him earlier to look up an alternate route since Interstate-10 had been closed due to a massive multi-vehicle pileup involving several semis, with a couple of them hauling gas. We had heard about the accident over the car's radio and were at least ten miles from the scene when one of the semis hauling gas exploded. The fireball looking uncomfortably like a mushroom cloud.
“It can't be much farther,” Roger said with the confidence of someone use to getting nearly everything handed to him on a silver platter.
That's when one of the tires blew.
It was a small stroke of good luck that I was able to pull off to a wide and level section of ground that would make changing the tire relatively easy. Throw in the light from the moon, I wouldn't have to depend on the easily distracted Kevin to hold the flashlight properly. Another minor blessing was that I had a real spare tire that was in more than decent shape. With a little luck and no surprises, we could back on the road in less than thirty minutes.
Kevin was decent enough to help pull the bags out of the trunk making sure to put them on top of the car's roof instead of the ground where an adventurous rattlesnake might stowaway. After that he reverted to his usual self-absorbed behavior.
“Holy shit, Roger come look at this.” He said right as I was setting the jack underneath the car to change the flat, left rear tire.
'Not now Kevin, I want to get this tire changed,” I responded.
“But Roger, it's a fucking ghost town.” He said with increased excitement.
I stood up to look and sure enough, there were a bunch of buildings silhouetted against the moonlight about a quarter mile off the road. After my eyes adjusted a little more, I could see several turn-offs behind us that lead into the town. It was easy to tell this wasn't some Old West town of saloons, blacksmiths, horses, and gunfighters. It looked way too modern like that, I even spotted the dark outline of an old style gas station complete with abandoned pumps standing a lonely guard against the night.
“I'm going to check it out,” Kevin said before I even had a chance to respond.
I didn't say anything as Kevin ran off into the town. If the idiot disturbed any protective coyotes, irate snakes, or scared illegal immigrants whatever happened was on him. Going back to changing the tire, I fully expected to hear him scream out in surprise or, more than likely, pain. But that's where things got really weird, after the sound of Kevin's footsteps faded away the night went totally quiet.
“Kevin!” I screamed out minutes later after getting the spare tire installed. I stood by the car hoping to see some sign of the jerk but the abandoned town was eerily silent. All I heard was the nighttime breeze, the rustle of desert vegetation, and a few million local insects making noises in an attempt to get laid. By all rights, Kevin should have been making some sort of sound as he rummaged through the modern ruins. We weren't friends by any means but I knew Kevin enough to know it was impossible for him not to make noise. His main purpose in life was to draw attention to himself.
After calling out several more times and and blowing the car horn, I realize something had really gone sideways. After checking my own cell phone and seeing the no signal message, that meant me walking into the town and finding the bastard.
Luckily, I had a decent flashlight with new batteries so I wouldn't be walking into town struggling through the darkness. Throw in the baseball bat that I had left in the trunk after the last pickup game back on campus, and I felt reasonably secure I could handle most situations.
I yelled out for Kevin while walking into town hoping his stupid ass would pop up allowing us to get back on the road. But as I reached the first of the buildings, it was clear he was not going to appear. One street over from the edge of town, I hit its main business area. Both the moonlight from above and the beam from my flashlight illuminated numerous faded signs hanging from storefronts. It ran the gambit from what was a mom and pop grocery, a dry cleaning establishment, hardware store, to a pharmacy and all the others businesses you could expect in a small town.
From the old types of soda and gas stations signs still readable, it was evident to me the town had died around the fifties to early sixties. Most of the glass windows had of course long since shattered littering the cracked and overgrown sidewalk with shards. But weirdly, from what I could tell from the beam of my flashlight probing the dark stores, it looked as if everyone just suddenly up and left. The insides of were a mess but it looked like they were still stocked with whatever they were selling back then. This suggested to me that when everyone abandoned the town, they did suddenly and completely. No stragglers stayed behind to loot the fully stocked stores. What worried me even more was that over the years, absolutely no one had come back for any reason.
The thing that was bothering me the most was that I didn't see any sign of animal life in the town. Yes, the town had been abandoned for decades but I didn't see any evidence of stray dogs or cats. There wasn't even evidence of coyotes or rats, animals that would have normally taken full advantage of all the stuff humans leave behind. .
I'm not sure how long I strolled the deserted streets calling out for Kevin. Eventually I drifted into a residential area of modest homes all from the same era as the main street. A few had collapsed over the decades but many still stood in surprisingly good condition. The glass windows were shattered, roofs slowly sinking in on themselves, and doors hanging loose on frames but I had seen worse being renovated and sold for a bundle.
Kevin's excursion into the town had at first just irritated me. Having to leave the car to find his ass had officially pissed me off. Now with no sign of him anywhere, my worry was quickly escalating to cold fear. That was especially the case as I approached the opposite end of town looking at what appeared to be an industrial park. In the moonlight, I saw huge structures in the distance that looked similar to a cement factory back home. Along with that were a multitude of towering mounds beyond the equipment, all of equal height and lined up evenly.
With Kevin having dropped off the face of the earth, I began wondering what my next course of action should be. That's when I heard what I thought was a person shouting back towards the main street. I took off running to the sound not just in hopes of finding Kevin okay, but out of anger since I now figured he had been hiding the entire time and watching me aimlessly wander around.
As I neared whatever was making the screams their intensity increased. They still didn't sound exactly human but at the time I was assuming it was Kevin and that he had stumbled into some real horrendous shit. I don't know how long it took me to find the source of the screams, but I eventually rounded the corner of some building and saw Kevin staggering down the street with things attached to his body.
“Kevin, what the fuck are you doing!” I yelled figuring he was pulling some sort of stunt. A second or two later he fell to the ground allowing me to aim my flashlight at him and get a good look. He was covered in blood and had several spiky looking things attached to his body. My first thought as I approached Kevin was that they looked like some weird form of sea urchins. They were pulsating and expanding like balloons while sinking more of their spikes into his body.
Don't ask me to explain it, but those things were just wrong. Every instinct told me to turn and run, it took a conscious effort to move closer to Kevin. As I moved closer with the beam of my flashlight fixed on Kevin, the things started smoking and emitting a high pitched sound that could have only come from feeling pain. All but one of them dislodged from Kevin's still body, spouted spider-like legs and disappeared into the night. The one that remained, the largest, waited until I was almost within an arms length of Kevin when it popped loose, sprouted legs and charged me.
It must have been dumb luck or that instinctive revulsion I was feeling but I caught it with the bat. I smacked the thing several times busting it like a swollen tick. Red blood and gray goo sprayed out on the ground and in the air with some hitting my face. I could feel the stuff burning my skin but there wasn't time for me to clean up. Kevin started groaning and moving his arms and legs trying get up, and with a lot of lifting from on my part I got the idiot on his feet.
We moved out of the town as fast as possible with me literally feeling the creatures hiding in every dark corner of the deserted town. I honestly believe the moonlight helped keep them at bay allowing Kevin and myself to make it back to the car alive. I looked back once after somehow getting Kevin in the passenger seat and that was when I felt another presence in the darkness. It wasn't the spiky urchin, spider-things, whatever it was was bigger, meaner, and something so wrong on a physical level I could feel it in my soul. The thought that crossed my terrified mind was that if I did somehow catch a glimpse of the thing I would go insane.
Needless to say, I floored the accelerator after getting the car cranked up. I pegged out the speedometer and didn't think about slowing down until I saw the lights of a motel/restaurant/gas station complex sitting right next the interstate.
I slammed on the brakes next the entrance to the gas station after seeing a New Mexico Highway Patrol car parked at a gas pump. The trooper almost pulled his gun on me after I jumped out babbling like a madman. He eventually saw Kevin in the car and sort of understood that he had been attacked and that it was his own blood covering his clothes and body.
Ambulances were called and Kevin and I were rushed to a nearby hospital. Kevin regain consciousness in the emergency room and told about how he was lurking around the deserted town when the creatures crawled out of the darkness and attacked him. I was in another exam room being cleaned up and treated for what the nurses were calling minor chemical burns on my face, arms, and hands.
Kevin was coherent for close to an hour with the cops naturally not believing what either of us were saying. That's when the first blood tests started coming back with the doctor in charge of the emergency room screaming about contamination and lockdown procedures. Shit really got weird when the exam rooms Kevin and I were sealed off with a huge plastic sheets. Next to arrive hours later were guys in hazmat suits, who didn't say one word to me but took dozens of blood, skin, and urine samples.
At some point I heard Kevin begin to scream, far worse than back in the ghost town with the creatures attached to his body. The plastic sheets enclosing my exam room were opaque, so I couldn't really see the commotion outside but it was clearly panic. Kevin's screams were getting worse but there were others outside yelling as well, their words unintelligible. It all ended with the sound of something being sprayed in Kevin's room. I have no idea what was but it dropped the temperature all through the emergency department.
At the same time, a nurse wearing a hazmat suit came into my room with extra blankets and dozens of pills and liquids for me to drink. She didn't answer any of my questions but I had the eerie feeling my own life was in question. Figuring only time would decide my fate, I quieted down and began a long wait.
Guessing here, but from the clock on the wall in my room most activity died down early the next morning. I could still see figures moving around on the other side of the plastic covering the entrance, but I had no idea what they were doing. The clock said it was noontime when three hazmat-wearing individuals started talking in front of what had become my medical jail cell. The one that finally came in was my nurse, wearing a smile and carrying a huge hypodermic.
“We're going on a little trip and this will help you relax,” she said before jamming it in my arm pushing the plunger down. Just seconds later everything black with me wondering if I would ever wake up.
I did wake up, in my own bed in my parents' house in Galveston, Texas. Feeling extremely groggy and weak, I slowly stand up and notice someone had taken my hospital gown and dressed me in jeans and t-shirt. Somehow I stumbled downstairs to the living room and find a strange man sitting calmly in my dad's chair next the fireplace.
“Hello Mr. Tanner,” he said, “I'm glad you you're awake because we need to talk.” The stranger was a rail thin, balding man wearing a suit that looked twenty or more years out of date. The best description of the guy was that he looked like a substitute math teacher I once had in high school. A humble guy who did his best not to be overwhelmed by a class of rednecks and jocks whose math needs would never go much beyond counting on their fingers and toes. The individual sitting in my dad's chair was nothing like that, he exuded an unspoken authority like it was his birthright.
“Where's my mom and dad?” I ask worried the man had done something to them. It didn't take a conspiracy nut to realize Kevin and I had stumbled into some extremely weird shit that might effect them.
“They're fine, in fact we've already talked and they have graciously left the house for awhile so we can come to an understanding. I'm about to make you an offer that will be extremely beneficial to the both of us.” The guy said smiling in a way that wasn't threatening, but did have undertones suggesting he wouldn't stand for anything less than full agreement.
“What is your offer?” I asked trying to hide my fear.
“My organization,” he began, “will pay for your entire college education, payoff your parents' mortgage, and make arrangements allowing your father to retire early if you agree to never speak of what happened in the desert.”
That was thirty years ago and I kept the agreement. I was told never to speak of the incident to anyone at all until the day I died. That I would be monitored and would be “disappeared” if I broke the arrangement. That individual did keep his word about paying for my college, my parents' mortgage, my dad's retirement and health insurance until the day he died. My silence bought the elimination of all financial worries allowing my parents years of happiness. At the end of our talk, I was allowed to ask about Kevin and what his family had been told.
The stranger said Kevin's parents were told that we had strayed onto a badly marked military road and gotten into an accident. That the details would have to remain classified but that Kevin had foolishly wandered away from the car and into an area with decades-old underground chemical weapon bunkers. That some of the containers had decayed and began leaking, contaminating the surrounding desert. The man unconvincingly said Kevin's family were given his cremated remains but I have my doubts.
My life after the incident could have been considered successful, if not happy. I finished college, got a great job and married a beautiful woman. But deep down it all felt wrong, that I was playing a scripted part, not a genuine life. Maybe I have survivor's guilt, or that I'm hung up and never having my questions about the events in the abandoned town and in the hospital answered.
Whatever the case, after my daughter died of cancer last year, my sham of a life fell utterly apart. First to go was my wife, she ran off with another guy but not before telling me she never felt I was truly present, that I always seemed distant. Next was my job, After climbing the corporate ladder for years, a changing business model saw my job evaporated like mist in a breeze.
That's when the dreams began, of me walking the streets of that abandoned town back before whatever cataclysm descended. Back when it was filled with people going about their happy lives. So I'm leaving everything behind and heading west to find it again. What's really funny, my last dream was about that dark specter I felt after forcing Kevin into the car. I know what it is now, somehow it was me.