JD had been running the I-80 stretch through Nebraska into Iowa every other week for just a couple months shy of five years. Some would say that it’s the most boring route in the US, mile after mile of flat fields, but JD loved the gentle silence it brought – or so he thought. Everything changed one dark, cool evening in October.
The day started like any other. JD was loaded on time, and on the road with no hiccups by early afternoon. He stopped at his favorite diner in York, filled up and made for Lincoln.
There was a chill in the air; perfect weather for hot coffee and driving. JD preferred the fall over summer while on the road. The day gets dark real early that time of year, clearing out civilian drivers, and the road was mostly his. Every now and then there would be another trucker, though most were already parked for the evening.
JD was in the middle of a really exciting part of his Tom Clancy audio book when it started to skip. The CD player was practically brand new, and he’d researched it extensively before buying and installing it. The junk they sold anymore, there was no telling from internet reviews and so-called expert opinions.
He reached over to try ejecting the disc…
What!? Had he hit something? Instinctively, he flipped on his four-ways and slowed as he pulled to a stop on the soft shoulder.
He sat there sweating, gripping the wheel like it was making to take off. I didn’t even take my eyes off the road, he thought Oh God, it sounded big. Could be a deer, no way its alive now.
He looked in the mirror, there it was on the road, a dark lump. It wasn’t the shape of any animal, not that he could tell…
It couldn’t be, that’s absurd, he chided himself. It’s dark, you don’t know what you’re seeing. Just calm down. There’s nothing out here – no one else on the road. The thoughts raced through his brain, his heart slamming against his ribs like some trapped, wounded creature.
He took a deep breath, changed his duty status, grabbed his flashlight, placed the triangles on the road and headed out to inspect whatever (animal, surely) he’d hit. He half-ran along, sweeping his flashlight back and forth in front of him. His adrenaline pumping, pushing him along, pushing past the crazy what-ifs in his mind. Wait, what the…? He should’ve walked right over the top of the thing (animal) by now.
But the road was clear. Nothing. No blood, no signs of an injury, or accident. Nothing. No animal could have walked away, unscathed, no animal, no matter how big, nothing could’ve. Nothing. He shuddered at the thought.
Maybe he’d misjudged, hadn’t gone far enough. JD trotted forward slower than before, his heart beat now pounding in his ears. Nothing. He stopped and spun slowly on the spot a few times, playing the flashlight in all directions and straining his eyes. Nothing.
He’d ranged about fifty yards from his truck, but he could still see the red lights blinking and hear the engine idling clear as a bell. Maybe he’d shed a part and run it over, sent whatever it was skittering into the tall grass. He decided to walk back, check things over. He’d radio in if he had to,
I didn’t even check my grill, my tires, he scoffed and then chuckled. His laugh was loud and sharp, startling him in the quiet darkness. His jumpiness at this made him laugh again. You’re really losing it, JD, he said to himself, shoulda switched to decaf a littler earlier.
He was almost half way back when he noticed a fog rising up out of the ditch, starting to curl across the road bed. It was moving fast, too. Faster than any fog he had ever seen. It almost seemed to have a strange kind of weight to it, almost like foggy oil, or… Now there you go, spookin’ yourself out again, he mocked.
JD stopped to wonder at the fog for a moment, now blanketing the roadway. He turned toward the moon, but he could no longer see it in the sky; just a pale silver glow where it should have been. It was at that moment that he realized his engine had quit. He wheeled around toward his truck, but the red lights had quit, too. Jeez, now what!?
The hair on his neck began to stand on end. For an instant he felt like a kid again. Those times at night when the house was all quiet and he’d had to pee, when suddenly the shadows in the hallway hide monsters, quick-stepping past his own familiar closet door, certain that a black, glistening, clawed hand was going to shoot out and snatch him all the way down to hell.
He cursed himself for a fool again but walked faster all the same. He would’ve run but for the fog. This damn fog, he cursed. He pointed the flashlight at the ground, found the painted, now aptly-named fog line on the side of road and shuffling his feet along it. He walked and walked and…
Wait, this can’t be! Where’s my truck? This can’t be happening, his head reeling with the absurdity of it all, feeling for his keys and grasping for some rational explanation. Could someone have stolen his truck? Everything, but his keys, was in there, his phone, his wallet, plus a full load!
I mean, sure, but in this fog, not even with the best of lights, he thought, this fog, it’s got my mind all turned around. I just haven’t walked far enough, that’s all. Get it together JD, he urged himself, and continued along the edge of the road.
He barely made it fifty feet before the line on the road disappeared. For a moment he wondered if the fog could actually be that thick, but then he realized that in his terror he’d lost the road entirely. His boots were crunching on dirt and rustling through grass. He stopped dead, staring at his feet, his horror growing. Trying, and totally failing to master himself, after what seemed like an age he mustered enough will to look up.
JD was standing in the middle of the woods. The woods?! What woods, which woods?! This isn’t, can’t be real, his voice screamed inside his head as he turned to run back onto the road. But there were only more woods. Pressing in from all around him.
Before he knew it, JD was on his knees, his hands clasped over his mouth, holding back screams. The world seemed to be spinning around him. He couldn’t catch his breath, couldn’t slow down his panicked heart.
JD fell back onto the ground, sitting, still clutching his head and waiting for it all to make sense somehow, waiting for he knew not what. He was lost in thought, when he heard a familiar, trilling whisper.
Is that? Yes, it is! It sounds like traffic, lots of traffic.
He almost cried from relief at this ray of hope. He scrambled to his feet, crouched low, and held his breath as he searched for its direction, willing his heart to stop hammering against his eardrums. He had it, yes, and it sounded close. He snatched for his flashlight and started ambling in the direction of the traffic-sound, stumbling occasionally as his boots dragged over rocks obscured the fall of autumn leaves.
He weaved in and out and around trees, over fallen branches and rocky ground. He let go of trying to figure out how all this could be. He just wanted out of these woods. He wanted to flag down someone and get to a phone. He just wanted to move on, find a bed, end this day and start another.
The sound of traffic was really loud now. Should people be driving this fast in these conditions? He should be hitting the road soon. Then he heard thudding,
No, wait, he thought, its hooves (animals), running.
It sounded like it was all around him, coming at him, fast. He ran, jumping over obstacles and yelling at the top of his lungs. He ran like his life depended on it.
He could hear them (the ANIMALS!) closing in, running at him from everywhere. It sounded like a whole heard of them, and then he was falling. He had tripped over, no, onto something. He landed hard on his face and hands. Hard onto…
Pavement! Oh God, its pavement!
JD pushed himself up, the flashlight was rolling across the ground a few feet away. He lunged for it, then spun around to face his pursuers, but nothing. Nothing. No woods, no noises, no traffic, just the dark road and a few hundred feet away, was a truck parked and running at idle with the four-ways flashing away.
JD didn’t stop to marvel at this miracle, he ran. He slowed as he approached, shining the light all around. Nothing. He checked the grill, nothing. He unlocked his door and climbed in. He grabbed his phone to call dispatch.
What do I say? How do I explain everything that just happened? God, how long was I even gone? He looked at the time — no more than a minute had passed since he had first stopped. This can’t be! You’re a mess, you must have misread the time.
He checked his e-log, but it had him still driving. I could’ve sworn… Then he caught sight of his triangle kit on the floorboard, unopened.
Could It all have been some crazy dream? No way, he thought, no way I fell asleep. But how then…
JD knew one thing for sure, he wasn’t planning on sticking around any longer. He needed to get somewhere, somewhere with people. And lights, lots of lights.
He caught himself muttering a prayer as he punched into first gear, though he wasn’t a man of faith. At least he’d never been until now. No such thing as an atheist in a foxhole, he chuckled to himself.
He was already feeling better as his truck reached the speed limit. He was actually feeling really good, giddy in fact. He began to laugh, a little nervously at first, and then his nerves broke, and he began to sob with relief. And then he broke his vocal chords screaming as the black, chitinous hands shot through the privacy curtains, and the steel-hard claws snagged him by the shoulder and ripped him from his seat…