Updated: Oct 12
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We were a thousand miles from home when the car gave up the ghost.
To be honest, I was surprised we made it as far as we did. My old Nissan had been on life-support for the better part of the last decade. Now that it was dead, I almost felt relief. Like the machine could finally be at peace in the great afterlife parking lot in the sky. Of course, that relief was easily outweighed by the newfound panic of being stranded in the middle of an unfamiliar nowhere.
Jerry was under the hood doing everything short of dark magic in his attempts to get the engine running again while I paced the road with a cell phone over my head, hoping for a single bar of connectivity and feeling about as useful as male nipples. This certainly wasn’t the highlight of our cross-country road trip, but it wasn’t the worst moment either (that particular honor fell upon the roadside “marsupial petting zoo”). To be fair, this was taking my mind off of all those things I’d left back home, which was the entire purpose of this surprise vacation, after all.
That’s what my friends called it--a “surprise vacation.” Their delicate phrasing conjured a much kinder image of what turned out to be a low-key kidnapping. I got home from my overnight shift to find them all waiting for me in my living room, intervention-style. My roommate Jerry--the mastermind behind it all--had two go-bags waiting by the front door and a map plotting our impending road trip to see the Pacific Ocean for the first time in my life.
Jerry had been prone to these spontaneous well-intended (but highly irresponsible) gestures for as long as I’d known him. At least this time he didn’t try to gift me a stray animal he found. Normally, I would simply say “thanks” and shut it down before things got out of hand, but I wasn’t in the proper head space to fight back. I’d just gone through what can only be described as a traumatic event. Some people close to me died, and there was a major “misunderstanding” with the new sheriff (but that’s probably a story best saved for another day).
Suffice to say my friends saw that I was going through a "rough patch" and thought it would be "good medicine" to get me far away from everything for a few days. They made sure my shifts at the gas station were covered until the end of the week, just long enough for things to settle down and go back to “normal.”
I couldn’t blame them for not understanding what was really going on. Hell, I only had a tenuous grasp on it myself. But the doctors assured me everything would be fine now, just as long as I stuck to the plan and took my medicine.
After a few long days filled with tourist traps, roadside attractions, cheap motels, and car farts, it looked like we’d finally reached the end of our adventure. We were a few states shy of the west coast, but low on money and even lower on time. This trip was as close to a success as we were ever likely to get, and the car’s breakdown was the final straw. I decided to give Jerry a few more seconds of vacation before breaking the news to him, which was why I was taking so long looking for cell service when I knew there was none to be found way out here.
When I got back to the car, Jerry popped his head out from under the hood and said, “Okay, try the engine now!”
I turned the key to the sound of stubborn silence.
“Nada,” I announced.
“Really? Fuck-a-doodle. I bypassed the ignition switch. It’s not the battery or the starter. Spark plugs are good. Fuses are good. Wiper blades are new. Blinker fluid is full.”
“Maybe it’s out of gas?” I offered, exhausting the full extent of my vehicular knowledge.
“Nah, it’s still got half a tank.” He slammed the hood shut and said, “Well, I’m gonna go make friends with a tree. When I get back, I’ll start taking the engine apart. In the meantime, you should build a fire and find something to cook. We may be here a while.”
“That plan isn’t going to work.”
“Relax, dude. It’s just an expression. I’m not really making friends with the tree.” He scoffed. “If anything, I’m about to give it a good reason to be mad at me.”
“I meant we can’t set up camp here hoping for a miracle or a friendly passer-by. I mean, what are the odds a good Samaritan would take the same shortcut we did?”
I wasn’t trying to be mean, but he was the one to discover this brilliant “alternate route” between highways over an hour ago, and in that time we hadn’t seen a single car besides our own. Our path had been nothing but acre after acre of farmland and trees... and of course that one enormous house back at the top of the hill.
“Alright,” Jerry relented. “What’s the plan then?”
“Did you clock that spooky house we passed about a mile ago?”
He laughed. “How could I not? It was so extra.”
He wasn’t wrong. The place stuck out like a pink bikini at a Mormon funeral. Unlike the traditional farmhouses and double-wides that decorated most of our adventure through the backroads of the American south, this place was a certifiable mansion. A mix between Greek revival and Gothic architecture, including spires, columns, and even a widow’s walk. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a gargoyle or two hanging out on the roof, and I would have bet my last dollar the place was haunted. One thing was for certain, it was the sort of place I’d love to avoid at all costs.
“I think we need to go there,” I said, regrettably.
Jerry eagerly agreed. As he relieved himself by the side of the road, I went into the car’s trunk and collected a few necessities for the walk up the hill: a bag of trail mix, bottle of water, and some sunscreen. I wasn’t expecting this to take very long, but “not very long” was exactly enough time for me to burn, and poor preparation had kicked my ass too many times lately.
Jerry must have had a similar thought. He came up next to me and reached under our bags, pulling the baseball bat from its hiding place.
“What’s that for?” I asked.
“Protection. Duh. There could be wolves out there.”
“No, dude. No weapons. I don’t want to show up at a stranger’s home looking any more suspicious than we already do.”
“Oh, good point.” He tossed the bat inside and slammed the trunk shut. I thought we had everything we needed. I thought we were being smart by leaving the weapon behind. In retrospect, it was the first of many bad decisions.
It took half an hour to get to the top of the hill. Another five minutes just to walk up the winding driveway through the meticulously manicured lawn. When we finally reached the enormous double doors, I was too exhausted to even feel nervous anymore. Jerry knocked while I fished (unsuccessfully) for cell reception.
“Who do you think lives here, anyway?” Jerry asked. “Some kind of supervillain? King of the farmer folk? The Munsters?”
“If I had to guess, probably the kind of people whose family used to own people.”
The door opened, and I quickly remembered how to feel nervous again.
“Can I help you?” the old woman croaked in a voice that sounded like paper tearing. She was a little over four feet tall and dressed like a Victorian era doll. With gray hair tied back below a cloth bonnet, bristly nose-hairs, skin the color of canned meat spread, and the thickest pair of wire-frame glasses I’d ever seen magnifying her pupils to the size of quarters. To put it bluntly, she was difficult to look at.
I nearly dropped my phone, but Jerry didn’t even flinch. He just tipped an imaginary hat and said, “Hello there, ma’am. My name is Jerry, and this here is my associate Jack. We hate to be a bother, but our vehicle broke down just up the street and we were wondering if it might be possible to--”
“I wasn’t expecting any more company,” she interrupted. “Are you sure you have the right address?”
Jerry and I shared a look.
“No ma’am,” he said. “I was just saying that our car stopped working out of the blue. We were stranded on the side of the road, and Jack is a nervous Nelly, so we decided--”
“All the guests have been accounted for,” she said, her voice registering somewhere between a creaking door and an angry drill sergeant. “You must check your invitations, please.”
Jerry took a breath and rubbed his hands together. “Is there someone younger we can talk to?”
“Jerry!” I snapped.
“Relax, dude. I don’t even think she can hear us.”
I pushed him out of the way, stepped up to the feeble old woman, and looked into her enormously magnified eyes. “Excuse me,” I said gently. “We need to use your phone, please.”
She tilted her head up, then back down, presumably giving us both the once-over. Then she turned around and said, “Follow me this way to the telephone machine. Local calls only. No long distance, please.”
As she disappeared into the bowels of the ancient manor, I hesitated. A familiar feeling washed over me, one I could neither trust nor ignore. A feeling of dread, and an unshakable sense that something was wrong here. Only this time, it felt stronger. It felt realer. Before I could comprehend what was happening, Jerry had already marched past me into the dark entryway, leaving me all alone with my paranoia.
I took a breath, then plowed ahead after them.
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