“At least tell me where the fuck you’re taking me.”
“Scenic route, like I said. Morris Road.”
The shadow forms of rising corn fields bordered the road. In the near distance, visible through the brights, the overarching boughs of the ancient trees seemed to consume the road.
“We’re entering the marsh now.” said Cheryl with stone-faced determination. Whatever light that had existed on the fringes of the road completely disappeared once the trees of the marsh overtook the vehicle. Only in the passing glare of the headlights could Alyssa see the spindly arms of the forest passing by.
“I’ve told you my Morris Road story, right?” Cheryl asked with mischief in her voice, giving Alyssa a sly side-eye.
“Coulda sworn I told you about the men with torches crossing the road, white hoods covering their heads…”
“Ha-ha. You got jokes.”
“Please tell me that you are for real being funny.”
“It was back when I was in high school, right after I got my license actually, me and Demetri were coming back from the truck stop – driving there just to drive there. We take the shortcut to town, take Morris Road. And it was… right around here, right before the bridge over the river. We saw two men carrying flames walking real slow across the road.”
“Okay, Cheryl, honey, we need to turn around right now.”
“And on the other side, through the trees, it looked like the marsh was on fire.”
The car jerked hard to the right, hard enough that it felt for a moment as if the vehicle were rolling on two wheels, as if it would certainly fall roof-first into the rushing black abyss of the marsh.
“Jesus!” Cheryl quick slapped a palm over her mouth as she corrected their course.
Alyssa caught a glimpse of it – demon yellow eyes and massive rack of upward reaching antlers melding in with the branches behind it. The visage of the buck was fleeting as the car sped against the dusty road, everything passing out of the headlights disappearing into a dark cloud behind them.
“We’re almost to the bridge… “
The little hatchback slowed as the road began to curve, the woods before them shaking violently with either wind or hidden beasts. In the lights, Alyssa could see the narrow path grow smaller as rotting wood beams rose from the ground, marking the riverline.
Alyssa felt a heaviness in her chest as the car drew close to the water, the smell of musty earth seeping into the cab of the vehicle from the vents. Compelled by something unknown, she turned her head to scan the unseeable treeline, searching for that which she did not want to find. As they rolled up to the bridge itself, the car slowed to a crawl, the ancient planks groaning as it took on their collective weight.
“Yo, is this bridge even structurally sound?”
“In theory.” Cheryl giggled. “I mean, I’ve never had it break on me.”
“Umm, has it ever?”
“Oh yeah, I mean, historically. It’s been around forever.”
The car stopped in the dead center of the bridge, the sound of snapping and cracking wood carried by the wind in the silence of the night.
“I really hate you right now. Just so you know.”
Cheryl snorted, eyes closed and mouth open with silent laughter.
“Relax.” Cheryl spoke between deep breaths. The car began to crawl forward again. As the wind began to howl, it felt as though the bridge was swaying. “Almost there.”
Hitting solid land again, the hatchback sped up.
“Clearly, you think you’re hilarious.” Alyssa gave Cheryl a futile glare.
“Well lemme ask you this: did Demetri find it funny when that Klu Klux Klan man strolled in front of y’all?”
“No.” Cheryl’s smile dissipated. “He was pretty shook, obviously. As was I, obviously.”
“So why’s it so funny to scare me and make me squirm like that? Maybe you grew up in this good-ole-boy environment and adapted to it, but I haven’t.”
“Okay, okay, sorry.”
“It’s whatever. I just want you know to understand that I don’t really find it funny. That shit ain’t all in the past. If you don’t think people of color still can’t be strung-up and lynched in the year two-thousand-and-eighteen, then you’re living in an alternate reality.”
“Okay! I said I was sorry. I didn’t realize that…”
“What? Didn’t realize what?”
“Didn’t realize that you could be so triggered… “
Cheryl turned to Alyssa, her lips pursed. “That’s not what I meant. I…”
The figure of a man appeared in the headlights, approaching fast within the split second that Cheryl had taken to avert her eyes from the road. But before Cheryl could even touch the brake pedal, the man bounced off the plastic bumper with a muffled thud. By the time Cheryl had brought the car to a skidding, dusty halt, the form of the crumpled body lay at the very edge of the taillights’ glow.
“No, no, no, no, no, no, that did not happen.” Cheryl sat straight-facing forward, fingers gripping tightly onto the steering wheel.
“We gotta see if he’s hurt, gotta call for help.” Whatever remaining alcohol still lingered in Alyssa’s bloodstream had completely dissipated away the moment that man’s body broke upon the nose of the car.
“We can’t. I can’t… I told you already, I’m not exactly sober. If they test me and… I got a scholarship, I can’t lose that.”
“Are you kidding me Cher? You just fucking hit a person.” Alyssa opened the car door, a wall of humid air filling the air-conditioned cab.
“Wait!” Cheryl grabbed at Alyssa’s wrist. “What if it was one of them?”
“One of who?” Alyssa snatched her arm from the other girl.
“Them! The fucking KKK!”
Alyssa looked to the small and barely writhing figure laying behind them at the road’s muddy border. In the quickness of the moment, it had been difficult to tell what the man was wearing, but he certainly wasn’t wearing a hood.
“Whoever he is, he ain’t dead!” Alyssa swung the door open wide and stepped out, unleashing light and electronic dinging briefly out into the insect chorus of the night. She glanced at the front bumper from her side, wincing at the sight of the crumpled frame and the dark red fluid streaked across the headlight. “Shit.”
She ran to the body, to the still breathing man, blood staining his lower half. As she drew closer, a sickening dread filled Alyssa. The man was indeed wearing some sort of ragged robe, though it was not white but the color of ash.
“Call 9-1-1!” Alyssa yelled toward the idling vehicle. She bent over the crumpled man. Even in the limited light, the man’s skin was a pallid white, shining with fresh perspiration. His eyes flickered open. The man stared in Alyssa’s direction but seemed to be looking not at her but through her, beyond her. Between the sound of her own heart pounding in her ears, the chirping of crickets and toads on all sides, it seemed to Alyssa that the quiet countryside was screaming at her.
“Are… are you okay?” she asked with a voice hardly above a whisper, realizing at once how stupid her question was. She briefly looked back to Cheryl, searching for any indication of movement. As far as she could tell though, Cheryl still sat frozen in place where she had been left, her two-handed grip on the wheel not yet released.
The man below her groaned. “It is awake…” The man’s words were hushed but clear, his gaze now directed toward Alyssa. “Soon it will arise.”
“What? Look, try not to move.” It was then that Alyssa realized that she had been tightly clinging to her phone. Shaking her head, feeling as if her whole being was melting in the inescapable humidity of the night, she tapped out the three numbers on her phone screen and turned her speaker on.
“I shouldn’t have run,” said the man, choking up, “but I was afraid and I shouldn’t have been.” He wasn’t old, maybe around Alyssa’s age or even younger, more of a boy than a man yet.
The call went through with an electronic click.
“Hello… one-one… state… -ergency.” The voice crackled, rising momentarily above the din of the marsh.
“Yes, hello, there was a… we had an accident and there’s a guy, he’s hurt, he’s bleeding. I think we need an ambulance.” Alyssa’s mouth was sticky with lack of saliva.
“…your… -ocation… hello?”
“Hello? We’re out in the marsh… Morris Road, I think.” Alyssa spoke as fast as she could, panickedly searching the blackness around her for any sort of identifying markers. “Hello?” Her phone emitted the crestfallen tone of the call dropping out. Whatever little phone service she had temporarily channeled was now nonexistent. “Shit.” Up the road, the little white hatchback stood quietly humming. Still, the driver sat stone-like staring at the road in front of her.
“Cheryl!” Her yell echoed against the trees. As it died away, Alyssa heard another voice, several voices, shouting in the distance. Dead branches cracked under heavy boots. Snapping her neck toward the opposite side of the road, Alyssa saw beams of white light breaking against the woods. The indistinct voices were calling out, becoming clearer as they grew closer. They were calling out a name on repeat:
Alyssa’s body stiffened, a crawling cold sensation migrating across her skin. The lights grew brighter.
“Thank you.” The boy on the ground raised himself up on an elbow, face shining. “Don’t think I can run now.” He laughed quietly, looking first at his ruined legs and then at Alyssa, his expression containing no pain. “May you also fulfill your place in this world.” He smiled, his eyes gleaming.
“Boy! Get your ass back here!” A man’s voice, booming and large from inside the marsh, so close now, the lights through the trees reaching the road.
“There’s a car, told you there was.” Another voice, smaller, softer. “Might be po-lice.” More dampened speech, close foot scrapes.
“Don’t give a fuck who it is.”
A light shined directly into Alyssa’s face. She ran. In a moment, she was at the car, fumbling for the door handle, throwing herself into the passenger’s side seat.
“Drive!” Alyssa screamed at Cheryl who sat stuck wide-eyed, her colorless face running with dark painted tear tracks.
“What about…?” In the rearview mirror, a small group of figures, light beams emitting from their foreheads, could be seen emerging from the marsh. Some converged upon the stricken young man while others begin sprinting full speed at the stopped hatchback.
Tires spun impotently for an agonizingly long moment on the gravel before the vehicle jerked forward down the road, long enough for the first pursuer to land a heavy open-palmed swat upon the rear windshield. They drove out of the marsh, too fast, around blind corners that Cheryl made on instinct and adrenaline, leaving a dense fog of dust in their wake.
They did not slow after they emerged from the marsh, nor when they began passing the scattered houses dotting the outer limits of town. It was not until they met the traffic light that marked the center of Lamont proper that Cheryl at last took her foot from the accelerator and allowed the vehicle to stop.
“What do we do now?” Cheryl asked after a minute of silence, her voice hoarse.
Alyssa said nothing, staring into the red light. It was all she could to try and purge from her mind the image of the injured boy and his look of absolute gratification.