Friday, March 21, 2014

New Short Story: "Coming Up the Dark Hill"

Just finished a new short story. Submitted it to a competition for a British short story publication. It's a bold strategy Cotton, let's see if it works out for me. Read if you wish.    

All of a sudden John felt like he had been driving for hours. His legs were sore from staying half-bent for so long, his ass was going numb, and he could almost feel the vertebrae in his lower back shifting and settling slowly downward, layers of sedimentary rock forming in his spine. He turned his head to the right and was mildly surprised to see his girlfriend asleep in the passenger seat. She was certainly his girlfriend, but he realized in the same instant he looked at her that he had no earthly idea where they were. He had no conception of the place they had left, and though it seemed like they had been on the road for hundreds of miles, his mind refused to divulge their destination.
           The yellow headlight beams cut a blurry tunnel through the night. He had a vague sense that they were going home. He was also all of a sudden very nervous that he had just “blacked back in” from being extremely drunk. This explanation would fit the scenario, but he rejected this notion even before it was fully formed as a thought. He knew how he felt after a night of drinking – breathless and wide-eyed, like the dials on his nerve endings had been turned up a few notches. Tonight he simply felt tired and sluggish, but oddly alert. And there was an underlying twanging deep in his chest, something unnatural and startling like a loose guitar string.
           In another blast of recognition, he found the hill up which he was driving to be ruthlessly unchanging: an endless shallow grade. He felt like, rather than driving, he was being pulled along on a slowly ascending roller coaster, always waiting for the stomach-shattering drop. He couldn’t see the crest of the hill through the miles of darkness, but he could picture it. Or rather, he could envision how he would feel when he got there. It would be familiar. Maybe he had been there years ago. It was hard to explain, and he stopped himself from thinking about it..
A low and tumbled stone wall ran along the right side, with a dense wood beyond. Across the oncoming lane, on the left side, the land fell away sharply. Not quite a cliff, but certainly too steep to be called a hill. At the bottom, which seemed like hundreds (and thousands, thought John) of feet below, a network of low, uniform, ranch-style homes stretched into the darkness. The thought that came unbidden to his mind was that these were not real houses. They were toys, or models – a subdivision set in miniature and painted like a movie set – nothing but husks. Shells that could be lifted and crushed in an instant. He saw this neighborhood stretching miles into the distance, far further than he felt he had any right to see, and snapped his eyes back to the road as the twanging in his chest gained a shade more urgency.
           A car was coming towards him. It rolled, propelled by nothing other than gravity, and John had a moment of envy as he imagined all the fuel he was burning by dragging his station wagon up this ungodly long hill. The headlights on the approaching car seemed to be somehow more fogged and opaque than his own – no more than yellow circles in the distance, swinging side to side like the hanging lanterns of some old horse-drawn carraige. John suddenly felt terribly exposed. Even inside his car, with the windows rolled up and someone beside him (albeit asleep), his mind jumped full-speed into the horrors that only the dark road can conjure. Half- and quarter-formed images raced through, barreling into and out of his subconscious before he could get more than an impression of what they represented, traced on his imagination like an underdeveloped photograph. Tales he had heard or read or imagined of unsolved murders, intentional head-on wrecks, and pitch-black, lead-legged chases through tall wet grass. Seconds felt like hours as the car crept towards him, and then it was level, and John felt a bone-deep cold take him for a moment, but then it was gone, and he turned to see what the driver looked like.
           In his deepest inner self, John knew that those stories were crap. Made up by cheap horror writers and perpetuated by paranoid mothers intent on getting their children home before the talk shows ended. So he expected to see nothing more or less frightening in the driver’s side window than a regular person. Perhaps he even expected a slight nod, an acknowledgement of the plight of the night driver, making for home as his wife and family sleep, trusting Dad to keep them safe.
           John only got an instant of a glimpse of the driver of the long black sedan that glided past him, but it was enough. A snarl of yellow teeth hung over the white, decaying lips. A black, wide-brimmed hat somehow cast a shadow over the eyes of the driver despite the absence of streetlights. The unmistakable glint of a bottle winked at John as it made its way to the gruesome mouth. John could almost see the brown toxic fumes sliding through the crack in the driver’s side window. The moment John spent staring into the darkness where the other driver’s eyes should have been lasted hours. And then the car rolled past.
           John’s head refused to return to looking forward as his terror-filled subconscious lurched greedily along, crashing doubly fast into the nightmares that he had kept at bay beforehand. Flicker-fast images of corpses and spinning tires and leering, cartoonish faces broke through his mind in jagged waves. The jangling was back in his chest, leaping at his throat like a caged panther diving for freedom.  He put his foot to the floor and wrenched his neck around to stare straight ahead. His eyes focused on the reflection of the hellish car in his mirror. His heart expanded with terror as he watched the other driver brake momentarily, seemingly coming to a decision. It sank to near his bowels with relief as the stranger in the round, flat hat took his sedan further on down the hill, away from John and his oblivious girlfriend.
           Only then did he realize that his car refused to accelerate. His eyes flickered between the now swiftly-receding taillights of the dead man (He’s not dead I just saw him, how could he be dead, thought John) and the speedometer on his dashboard, now dropping steadily towards zero. His eyes cast a terrified sidelong look in his mirror again, like a drunk driver tailed by the cops, not daring to swivel his head an inch. The black car slalomed serenely down the hill, uncaring and unhurried in its descent.
           The old motor in John’s car coughed and sputtered. John pounded a shaking open palm on the steering wheel and stamped harder on the accelerator, willing it to sink through the floorboards to some unknown level of power. The motor whined higher and higher, gave a final tremendous belch, and then cut out entirely.
           “Dammit fuck!” John screamed to his windshield as he guided the car off the road and into the grassy strip that led up to the stone wall. His girlfriend (bitch all she does is sleep, John thought) slept on, offering not a sound. John’s hands were slick with sweat, his breath slowly returning from a ragged hitch to something approaching a normal rhythm.
           He turned his head again and picked out the taillights of the black sedan. It was a fair way down the hill by now, probably about a thousand yards, but John could still see the two pinpricks of light as clearly as if they were right in front of him. He watched the brake lights come on, then the right blinker start to flicker slowly.
           The sedan was turning, heading for the endless cookie-cutter subdivision across the road and down the incline from John’s broken-down station wagon.
           John relaxed. Despite the late hour and the almost palpable feeling of malevolence emanating from the man in the black hat, things would be fine. He wasn’t worried about being lost – John’s sense of direction was legendary. He was becoming increasingly sure that he and his sleeping girlfriend had come from a party of some kind – he could remember lights and music, happiness and family. Those feelings called to him through the darkness, a beacon from many miles away reaching out its loving arms to pull him back.  
Maybe he had been thinking of other things and his mind had wandered for a few miles during a particularly desolate stretch. It had happened before - John’s job brought him over county and state lines for long stretches on the road, it wasn’t unusual to blank out for a bit (but it was unusual to forget his destination, he had to admit). The jangling was back. He wanted his home, but more importantly, he wanted the crest of this goddamn hill.
He pulled the hood lever and got out. He never had been much of a mechanic, but his cell phone wasn’t getting any reception, and neither was his girlfriend’s which he had stored in the cupholder between the front seats. He closed the driver’s side door gently, though it probably wouldn’t have mattered. She must have had a fair bit to drink, John thought, and again wondered where the hell his damn memory had gone. He wasn’t yet thirty, and he could certainly tell anyone that happened to come by what he had had for lunch that day - it was tunafish on rye. He always had tunafish on rye on Tuesdays.
But why were we at a party if today’s Tues-
Another car door slammed.
John physically jumped.           
The sound had come from far away. Half a mile at least. It had come from the subdivision. The panther made another appearance in John’s throat. He had heard that sound too clearly. It didn’t echo, even in the absolute stillness of the night. It was just a thump, seeming to come from just the other side of the hill across the road. The trees sat limp, the stone wall rolled unbroken for miles in either direction, the only sound was John’s leaping heart and his quickening breath.
Then there was another sound. John, in his infinite optimism, thought it was the wind. A gentle breeze sighing somewhere down in the vast, repeating neighborhood of yellow and brown ranch homes (they’re not really homes) that stretched endlessly under dank orange streetlights. Nothing moved in that network of uniformity.
Then something moved. A black shadow flitted between houses far to the left of John’s view. It was at the bottom of the hill, seven rows deep into the division of unbroken houses. It flashed between the sixth and fifth rows, and the wind noise that wasn’t wind rose. It sounded to John like the roar of a far-off waterfall.
The shadow painted a black streak on the far wall of the fourth, then the third row of houses. John stood motionless at the hood. He glanced at his girlfriend, who was still sleeping restlessly in the front seat.
The shadow flitted again to the second row of houses. In the time it had taken John to take one step around the front driver’s side of his car, the shadow had left its smudge on the walls of seven houses, roiling from deep within the catacombs to burst into the street.
The amber streetlights hundreds and thousands of yards away from John picked out the man in the black hat as clearly as if he had been a Bible salesman at John’s front door. The (dead) man stopped completely and turned his ruined face to John.
It was like looking into a demented kaleidoscope. John’s eyes were locked on the man’s vacant, decaying face. The small head sat low on the neck, shriveled and fallen into the shoulders as if, despite its size, it was too heavy to be held up any longer. A small, still rational part of John’s subconscious recognized that there was no earthly way that he could see this man’s face across such a great distance. But that part of his mind was fighting a losing battle with his senses, which saw the curling sneer exposing horrid, grey teeth and heard the low but unmistakable chuckle that escaped the bony chest contained within that black denim jacket.
And then the man began to move.
Faster than anything John had ever seen.
John’s feet were encased in buckets of nearly hardened concrete and his mind began to rip hungrily through the terrors of the last few years. They were all coming true. The man he had thought he’d seen stumbling down the street late one night, the whispers in the darkness that he’d convinced himself were just the wind….
The man wasn’t running so much as gliding. No sounds came from his colorless lips. His feet beat no echo onto the paved streets.
He made the corner, where earlier his long sedan had skated in a 180-degree turn to take the road skirting the subdivision. John stopped mid-step as the concrete around his feet hardened completely. The man stopped too.
He lifted his head. The black hat (fuckingPilgrimhat) slipped back on his head, and he started walking up the hill. Staring directly at John.
Yellow eyes. Black pupils and veined, diseased looking irises; the man’s eyes shone with a sick yellow light that settled dimly into the mist about him. He sped up. Not gradually. All of a sudden the man was rushing towards John at an unearthly speed, devouring the distance between them while John’s mind crashed and flapped through a horror house of his own invention, every door and window in the dark funhouse opening to a dark tunnel with two hungry yellow lights at the end, barrelling towards him out of the blackness. Distance and time ceased to exist. The car door six feet away felt to John as if it never actually existed at all.
The demon bore down on John, hands slowly rising in front of him, and the panther in John’s throat finally found lungs. The scream ripped his chest open but couldn’t force its way out of his mouth, which was shut tight by the same concrete binding his feet. John tried desperately to make any sound because even if no one could hear him he wanted, he needed, to make some noise, to go to whatever godforsaken end barrelled towards him with some final protestation.
But there was no time. The beast was before him, backlit yellow eyes clinched in pleasure and the veins standing corded in his jaundiced neck. Fifty yards, and twenty, and now John closed his eyes and braced for something which he could not fathom and threw an instant’s prayer to something else that he could not truly say he believed in.
Cold, too cold, but still, gloriously clean air jumped into John’s lungs as he gasped for it. His knuckles ached from clutching the down comforter to his chin. His eyes snapped open and took in nothing at first, but then gradually, as his breathing slowed from an express train down to a local, the ceiling of his bedroom came into dim focus in the early morning light.
It was only a dream. Another horrible, soul-shattering dream, and once again John wished that his girlfriend of six years had been with him.
Kristen had died two years ago, after a head-on collision with a drunk driver. She had been coming home from a late-night ice cream run in early July. A two-car crash with no survivors. It was a warm evening, and John was asleep in his parents’ house, home for a summer weekend, oblivious to the fact that his girlfriend’s life was slowly pulsing into the street less than a block away.
He shook the cobwebs from his waking mind. It was almost a nightly routine at this point. The dreams came with alarming regularity. John kept meaning to go to see someone about them, but he knew he couldn’t afford it until he found a new job. Living in his parents’ spare bedroom as a nearly 30-year-old man, John felt the nightmares that had dogged him for the past few years were the least of his problems. Besides, despite the consistency of the (dead) drunkard rolling through his nights, he was convinced that the man couldn’t touch him in whatever hell he now inhabited.
John started the routine that he had developed in order to get back to sleep: he took inventory of his childhood room. It was vaguely comforting that his parents were hosting a dinner party tonight - he could hear the clink of whiskey glasses in the family room and the muted sound of chatting.
He looked to his left and counted the seven swimming trophies he had amassed as a high-school backstroker. He told himself that Kristen’s killer couldn’t reach him here.
He picked out the spines of the seven Harry Potter books that he had read countless times in the bookshelf over the couch on the lefthand wall of his room. He told himself that the man had gotten no more than what he deserved.
He adjusted his gaze and counted the six windowpanes overlooking his parents’ quiet neighborhood. The house lay at the end of a cul-de-sac, and his first-floor room faced the front of the house. Beyond the paved circle of the turnaround, the road sloped gently down into darkness - the streetlights went out automatically at midnight to help people sleep. A single electric candle sat on the windowsill, serving double duty as Christmastime decoration and nightlight. The window was cracked open a bit. That was odd.
As John sat up, he turned his weary gaze one final time, to the old wicker armchair in the far right corner of his room. The one his father would read to him from as a boy.
There was a dark shape sitting in the chair - the shape of a massive teddy bear that John had won for Kristen in a carnival basketball game years ago.
John’s eyelids felt heavy. His room was just as he had left it a few hours ago, and the cool air from the window actually felt refreshing. He leaned back into the pillows and let sleep start to overtake him.
As his consciousness left him, John’s last perceptions found the teddy bear shape in the rocking chair changing. Elongating. The face sagging, somehow, in the half light from the electric candle. The black plastic eyes widening, yellowing, and being shot through with bloody vessels.
A groan escaped John as the (dead) man smirked, raised a nearly empty bottle to his cracked lips, and began to rise from the chair.

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