Mile Marker 13

September’s theme was On The Road.

Synopsis

A night time drive turns into a terrifying journey.

Mile Marker 13

by Ian Williams

An unlit road full of winding turns and brooding hills lay ahead of Danny as he turned off the motorway at 2am. The rain was coming down in dense sheets and visibility had been reduced to less than two car lengths ahead of him. Despite switching his headlights on to full-beam he could barely see a thing.

His journey had started four hours earlier and he still had another three hours to go. Within that time the roads had begun to blur into one long stretch of tarmac. Leaving the main motorway had helped break the monotony for a short while. But soon it became clear that his concentration was waning again.

Turn after turn, he watched as the lines on the road ventured closer to his wheels. They were teasing him, drawing him near, only to push him away again. His grip on the steering wheel tightened each time he fought to stay on the road. It was a dangerous game to play. If he lost just one round, he would end up in a ditch.

The moment his eyelids fell shut for the first time he knew he was in real trouble. He forced them open to see a pair of flashing lights coming straight at him. A truck coming the other way honked at him in anger as he pulled sharply back into his own lane. With the road so wet and slippery he was lucky to find any grip at all. If he had reacted any later he would have found himself picking bits of the truck’s radiator from his face.

“Focus, Danny, focus,” he told himself.

After such a close call he needed to calm down. He rolled down a window, using an archaic plastic handle. No fancy electric windows or eco-boost options for him, just a manual window and the hum of an engine on its last legs to distract his tired mind. His 1975 piece-o-crap was old and loud.

With a fresh, but damp, breeze invading his four-door world he could relax a tiny bit. The air had cleared his tiredness away. He was more alert and able to stay within the lines now. No more veering into the oncoming lane for him.

He reached for the radio and switched it on. To his delight his favourite song was playing. He turned it up and began to hum along. His fingers tapped against the steering wheel in time with the beat. It was nice to have something other than the rain hitting his car roof to listen to. It was a good way of ignoring the overbearing darkness only a few metres ahead of his car too.

For a short while he was happy. Then, at four-minutes-and-twenty-seconds into the song, the radio hissed. The interruption came just as the lead-break was about to start–his favourite part. He had been ready for the air-guitar performance of his life.

“Crying out loud,” he said, twisting the dial and slapping the radio to stop it spitting noise. It was no good, the signal had been lost.

He sat back, annoyed and uncomfortably aware of his isolation. He missed the friendly tones of his music. Now he was stuck staring at the raindrops caught in the beam of his headlights.

His mind settled on a long stretch of road ahead of him. Gone were the short, winding bits. They had become one boring and featureless section of straight tarmac, with only fields and the occasional crossroad to look out for. Extra concentration was needed to stop his car creeping too close to the edge of the road.

Shifting in his seat he found a position that was comfortable for his aching back. He then fiddled with the rear view mirror, wiping a film of moisture that had settled there. With it clear he took a quick look for anyone behind him on the road. In the past hour he had seen one car and a truck, all going the other way. So he expected his view to be empty.

But something was there, something he was terrified to see. A lone man was sitting in the back seat of his car. A pale face stared back at him in the mirror.

Danny leapt to the side so fast that he smacked his head against the doorframe. The car tyres squealed as he automatically slammed his foot hard against the brake pedal. He came to a stop in the middle of the road, his car spread across it sideways.

He spun around in fright to see who was there. But the seat was now empty.

“What the hell was that?” he said, panting and a little shaken.

Had he imagined it? He considered this while the engine hummed and the rain bounced off the roof. The sounds around him, and the damp smell of an approaching storm, helped ease his nerves. Eventually he concluded that his mind was simply playing tricks on him. He had been driving for hours after all, maybe longer than he should have. The tiredness was conspiring against him, that was all.

Turning the steering wheel hard to the left, he brought the car around and cautiously set off again. The sooner he reached the end of his journey the better, he told himself. Yes, he was exhausted, but home was only a few hours away. He would rest once he got there, unless he happened upon a hotel along the way.

As the road went on, like an endlessly snaking patch of grey, he thought about the man he had seen in the back seat. Something deep inside, perhaps a primeval fear of the unknown, compelled him to repeatedly look in the rear view mirror, just in case. Was he being silly? He certainly began to think so.

After twenty minutes of thinking it over he managed a smile at how paranoid he was being. A short break in the deluge had even allowed him a moment of peace. But it was short-lived. Soon enough his window again steamed up and he felt the same push of the wind against his car as before. The storm had returned to full strength.

When Danny next peered into his rear view mirror he was disturbed to see the man was back. He sat slumped in the back seat, his head hanging and moving with the sway of the car. It was a terrible fright the first time, now it surprised Danny less. He had already conceded that his tired mind was to blame. It was just something he was imagining.

As he drove on he caught glimpses of his new passenger. Distant lightning gave some detail to the mysterious figure in each short flash of light, before the car was plunged into darkness again.  It was enough for Danny to realise there was something else wrong with what he saw. The man’s skin was a deathly grey, like the colour had physically drained away. He looked ill.

Twisting his neck around, Danny took a look. He was expecting the seat to be empty again, that it was all another moment of confusion. But the man was still there, with eyes as dark as the stormy sky above. Danny tensed up in response, his muscles refusing to move.

“Eyes on the road, Danny Boy,” the man said.

Danny snapped back to the front and stared out the windscreen. He had no idea what to do. There was someone in the back of his car that had not been there moments earlier. His passenger had appeared out of nowhere, coalesced from nothing.

“Don’t worry, Danny Boy, I’m not here to hurt you.” The man’s words were slurred, like he spoke while sipping through a straw.

“I’m not seeing this … I’m not seeing this.” Danny repeated the sentence over and over again. Yet each time he did he could not fully convince himself.

“Now, that’s no way to treat a friendly stranger. I assure you I am here. Would it help if I introduced myself?”

“It’s not real … it’s just in your mind.”

“Listen to me, Danny.” After the man finished his sentence his jaw made a crack sound like he had reset the bone.

While Danny continued to tell himself that there was nothing really behind him, the man went about repositioning himself in his seat. Danny tried his best to ignore the stranger as much as possible. But to his surprise, the man wanted to introduce himself formerly.

“My name is Charlie, Charlie Olsen.”

Danny could barely contain his disgust as a ghostly-white limb was held out for him to shake.

“Please, just leave me alone,” Danny pleaded, his hands squeezing the steering wheel. He had no intention of greeting the man. “I don’t know how you got in my car and I don’t really care. Just tell me what you want.”

Charlie huffed and puffed in frustration. The air that exited his mouth whistled like a small kettle full of boiling water. “Want?” he said as though offended. “I don’t want anything, dear chum. I’m here to help you.”

“Help me with what?”

“We’ll get to that soon enough. Now, be a good old boy and try to keep the car straight for a minute or two.”

Danny went to ask why but was stopped by a foot reaching across to the front passenger seat. Charlie slid into place, his foot much further out in front of him than should be possible. His left hip appeared to be broken, allowing his leg to slip in and out anytime he pleased.

“There, that’s better,” Charlie said, now sitting beside Danny. “Frightfully windy tonight, don’t you think?”

The question took Danny by surprise. Were they really going to chat, like nothing odd was happening at all? He chose not to answer and instead concentrated on the road.

“Are you OK, Danny Boy? If you don’t mind me saying, you don’t look so good.”

“I’m just nervous, that’s all.”

“Nervous? There is nothing to be nervous about.”

Danny shot a look across to his passenger. He saw a middle-aged man sitting there, possibly in his fifties, with thick, black shadows around his sunken eyes. The skin on his face was ashen and pulled tight against the bone, like it had shrivelled in the rain. His thin cheek muscles were full of purple veins.

“What’s happened to you?” Danny asked as he studied his passenger’s colourless eyes.

“I’ll let you in on a little secret, my boy,” Charlie replied.

“What’s that?”

“I always disliked driving at night. I find the daytime more suited to long journeys. Which do you prefer?”

“I don’t mind, I guess. Why does it matter?”

“Because these roads are terribly dangerous at night, especially when the heavens have opened. I wouldn’t want to see any harm come to you along the way.”

Danny struggled to tell whether there had been a threat hidden in Charlie’s sentence. He certainly felt threatened by it.

“I’ll be fine,” he said.

“Oh, I’ve no doubt you will, old sport. Although you never can tell what’s just around the corner, can you?”

“What’s your point? Do you want me to slow down?”

“No point, just a friendly warning.” Charlie raised his hands to show he was backing down. “You go as fast as you want. I’m sure anyone coming the other way will just move aside, if necessary.”

When Charlie lowered his hands he placed them both on the dashboard. Only something had changed. Where before he had normal hands, suddenly they had become misshaped and blackened. Two of the knuckles were shattered and one of the fingers was no more than a splinter of bone sticking out at an angle.

Danny was shocked to see the difference appear in the blink of an eye.

“What the hell’s happened to your hands?” he asked.

“Oh, nothing much, just a small accident. Nothing to concern yourself with. Now, tell me, Danny boy, are you married or in a relationship?”

“I don’t want to talk about it. I just want to know why you’re here, that’s all.”

“Please, Danny, don’t avoid the question. Are you married or in a relationship of any kind? I’m simply curious. There must be someone expecting you at home, someone who would miss you if you were gone.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

There was no reply from his passenger this time.

Danny felt his heart speed up as a collection of gruesome images came to him in a flash of panic. He saw his dead body being buried in the middle of nowhere, disposed of like a piece of trash. He saw parts of him rolling around the floor of his car after his body was dismembered. The last was of Charlie’s dead looking face staring down at him, a wide grin stretching his skin.

Was this man really planning on murdering him?

“My girlfriend is waiting for me at home,” Danny said. It was the truth, but he used the information as a plea for his own life. “If I go missing she’ll call the police. You won’t get away with killing me.”

Charlie suddenly slammed his hand against the dashboard. Again his body had changed. His right hand was now completely missing, replaced instead by a mangled stump.

“I’m not going to murder you, my dear friend,” he said, paying no attention to his missing limb. “I only want to talk.”

Danny stared at the raw lump. “Your hand.”

“Yes, terrible, isn’t it?”

“What’s happening to your body?”

“Nothing you need to worry about, just yet anyway.” Charlie clicked his jaw out of place again and pushed it back with his stump. “Do you know, Danny, I don’t think you should be driving. You should rest for a little while. Why don’t I drive for a bit?”

“I’m fine.” Danny struggled to understand why he was replying each time. With the sudden appearance and then the injuries appearing on Charlie’s body, Danny was beginning to convince himself again that it was all in his head. So, was talking to Charlie making his delusion worse? Perhaps it was time to rid himself of this nonsense, once and for all? “You’re not really here. This is all me, all made up by my imagination.”

“Oh come now, we both know that isn’t true. Will a little story convince you perhaps? Would you like that, Danny Boy?”

“Sure, whatever. It’s not like things could get any worse.”

“You are a good sport.”

Charlie twisted in his seat. Except only his top half turned, the rest of him remained sitting straight. Danny peered down at his passenger’s waist and saw a gaping hole in his abdomen. Charlie’s spine made a grinding noise as he repositioned. His injuries were now of a more fatal nature.

“So, one day my family and I were enjoying a lovely trip to the coast. I tell you, we had just the best time. My wife Susan and I were as happy as ever and she was so full of life. We ate out every night, we swam in the sea, I even went fishing for the first time in years. It was just perfect, the entire week.”

Another crack sound interrupted Charlie’s story.

“Blasted shoulder,” he said.

Danny shuddered when he realised what it was. He checked on his passenger again and saw two bones sticking out of Charlie’s shoulder. The shoulder blade was smashed in two and his left arm hung loosely from the socket.

Rather than say a word, Danny returned to staring at the pouring rain and distant lightning strikes. He was acutely aware that each time he looked to the passenger seat he saw yet more injuries on Charlie’s body. But, strangely, there was never any blood. It seemed that Charlie’s insides were missing.

“Anyway, as I said, we were on holiday and having the time of our lives,” Charlie continued. “And after a very quick week, the quickest I can ever remember, we were heading home. I’d decided, against Susan’s recommendations and my better judgement, to drive through the night. We had a long way to go, over six hours of driving.”

A female voice spoke up from the back seat. “I said we should have gone during the day. But would you listen?”

Danny again found himself automatically shooting a look over his shoulder to the back seat. A red-haired woman with freckles running across her left cheek was now sitting just behind the front passenger seat. The quick glimpse revealed another horribly injured figure, this one charred down the right side.

“Oh, how terribly rude of me,” Charlie said. “Danny, won’t you say hello to my wife, Susan?”

“Please excuse my appearance, Danny. The fire melted almost everything.” Susan spoke without the obvious slurring of her husband’s voice. Instead she could say her words clearly and with perfect pronunciation, even though her lips were black and blistered.

Returning his focus to the road, Danny began to shake nervously. Each time Susan spoke he felt a tingle on the back of his neck, like her lips were only an inch from his skin.

“What the hell is going on?” he said.

Susan shuffled in her seat. “Are you sure he’s OK to drive, Charlie?”

“Oh absolutely,” Charlie replied. “What about you, Danny? These roads are dreadful in the rain. Feel you should stop for a bit?”

“No, I just want to get home and forget about this madness. I wish you two would stop talking to me,” Danny snapped.

In the mirror he could see Susan was shaking her head in a disapproving way. He also saw, as her head went from side to side, that her throat had been cut clean through. When she swallowed, he was disturbed to see inside, where the muscles and tendons were moving.

“Please, Danny, don’t stare, it’s rude,” Charlie said, bringing Danny’s attention back to him. “Now, where was I? Oh yes. Half way through our journey Susan had fallen asleep in the back seat and I was happy to drive in silence. The roads were ever so slippery, weren’t they dear?”

“Oh, very wet indeed.” Susan’s gaze wandered out the window.

Danny could barely contain his shock when he noticed the back of her head was gone. In the dark he saw the silhouette of her skull. Again he returned to staring out the windscreen, if only to give him something else to think about for a moment or two.

“So, there we were, driving through the night, when out of nowhere came a bright light shimmering ahead of me. I did what I could to avoid hitting what was heading toward me, but it was too late. We were tossed through the air and sent sideways into a tree, before landing in a ditch beside the road.”

Charlie turned away for a short while.

Things were slowly coming together in Danny’s troubled mind. There was a story behind Charlie and Susan’s fatal injuries. He doubted his own mind would have hallucinated such details. It had to be real, they had to be there. But they were dead. They were there, but they were dead. It made Danny’s chest hurt just thinking about it.

“Oh, my dear, sweet, Emma,” Charlie continued. “She screamed so loud I thought my eardrums were going to burst.”

“Who’s Emma?” Danny asked to sudden silence. Had Charlie forgotten his wife’s name?

Susan spoke, but she ignored the question entirely. “It’s almost time, Charlie.”

“Wait. So, that’s how you both died, in a car crash?” Danny was finally giving in to the craziness.

“Alas, yes, we died in an accident, just past mile marker thirteen,” Charlie replied. “I was crushed when we hit the tree. Damn near had my arm torn off too. And Susan…”

“It’s OK, Charlie.” Susan then took over. “I was trapped by the front seat as the fire spread. I couldn’t move away as it burnt my face and side.”

“Do you have any idea how quickly things burn when in a confined space, Danny?” Charlie asked. “A burning car is like an oven, roasting everything inside, human and fabric alike.”

Danny had to speak, if only to stop the horrific descriptions of their deaths. “Why are you telling me this?”

“Because I want you to understand what happened to us.” Charlie offered his fingerless stump to his wife, who took it instantly.

“But if you’re dead then how can I see you? Are you ghosts?”

Charlie turned to his wife and tried to smile. Only the left side of his face could manage it this time, the other side appeared unable to move. “I guess you could say that,” he said.

“When did you die? Was it recently?”

Again Charlie looked to his wife. They were not yet willing to share everything.

“Time isn’t something that carries across to the other side, you have to understand. Cause and effect are lost as soon as the brain stops,” Charlie said.

Susan spoke up after that. “Charlie, you’re confusing the poor lad.” She leant forward in her seat and unintentionally rested her chin on Danny’s shoulder. Her burning hot breath tickled his neck.

“This is crazy,” Danny protested, turning sharply to look directly into Charlie’s one good eye. The other was now nothing more than a pulpy mess. “I still don’t believe any of this can be real. Whatever this is it isn’t funny anymore, understand? Now leave me alone.”

A heavy breath escaped Charlie’s angled mouth. “I must say, Danny, I am a little disappointed in you.”

“Time to hurry things along, Charlie,” Susan said gently. She placed her burnt right hand on her husband’s good shoulder.

“Of course, my sweet.” Charlie changed his tone and spoke softer than before. “Would you like to meet our precious little daughter, Danny? Emma was there that night too.”

Danny’s heart nearly stopped at the mention of a daughter. After the shock of seeing the state of the adults, he was unsure if he could cope with seeing their little Emma too. Finding out that she had also been in the crash was a devastating blow.

If he was imagining all of this then he needed serious psychiatric help.

“No, please, I don’t want to see her,” Danny said.

“Nonsense, Daniel.” Charlie patted Danny on the arm. He left a wet patch behind, one a deep crimson shade.

“Yes, Danny, you simply must meet Emma,” Susan also chimed in with.

“No, I’ve told you already, do not, under any circumstances show me your daughter’s disfigured remains. Do you understand me?” Danny tried his best to hide his despair. He was ready to leap out of the car, to the rain-soaked road speeding beneath him, if they showed him their daughter.

“We won’t take no for an answer, Danny.” Susan was adamant.

Before Danny could refuse again he heard a young, fragile sounding voice coming from the back seat. He locked his eyes on the road and dare not turn his head even a little.

“Ah, there you are, Darling,” Charlie said. “Emma, say hello to Daniel.”

“Please,” Danny interrupted. “Please, stop this.”

“Stop what?”

“This, what you’re doing. I can’t do it, I can’t.”

“You don’t have to do anything, Danny Boy. Just look at her.”

Danny’s eyes began to well up at the thought of what now sat directly behind him.

“I want you to look at her.” Charlie’s voice was full of something new this time: anger.

“I won’t do it, I can’t.” Danny had to ask something, something he feared he already knew the answer to. “Just tell me, did she escape the fire?”

He inadvertently looked in the rear view mirror to get his answer. Susan was brushing her daughter’s hair, which was attached to a loose piece of scalp that hung by Emma’s ear. He clamped his eyes into the centre of his vision after that, unwilling to let them venture toward the mirror again.

“Danny,” Charlie insisted, bashing his stump against the dashboard in rage. “Look … at … my … daughter. Look at her!”

Danny stared ahead.

“Either you look at what has become of my daughter, of my precious little Emma, or I’ll run us off this road.” Charlie sounded furious now.

“Why are you doing this to me?” Danny whimpered.

“Because you need to see what happens.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I haven’t done anything to deserve this.”

Charlie held Danny’s gaze with his only open eye–the other was still a swollen mess. “You’re driving a giant lump of metal in the dark, with barely a minute left until you fall asleep at the wheel. Do you know how many people die each year because they were too tired to be driving? Well I do. My family were one of the casualties.”

There was nothing Danny could say in response. He had been fighting fatigue just before his passengers arrived. Maybe he was still overtired? Was this all his body’s way of telling him to stop and rest?

“It’s time, Danny,” Charlie said.

“Time for what?”

“Oh, my dear, dear Danny. It’s time for us to go.”

Charlie then offered his stump for Susan and his daughter to take. Danny caught site of a tiny arm reaching across that was burnt to a crisp. He held back his tears as his three passengers held each other. He focused as much as he could on the road.

But as the car became quiet, Danny slowly felt something else overrun his grief. His eyelids were becoming heavy again.

“Bye, Danny,” Emma said, ripping a hole in Danny’s heart.

When his eyes closed he instantly forced them open again. His body went into a violent spasm as he brought himself back to the road in time to see a sign hurtling toward his car. He swerved to miss it but had again crossed lanes.

He saw the car coming the other way a split second before he hit it. With his car straddling the middle of the road like a vehicle twice its size, there was nowhere for either of them to go. They came together in one massively violent crunch. The other car was sent spinning away. It then flipped over and rolled into a nearby tree, before coming to rest in a ditch at the side of the road.

Danny’s car was too old for the more common safety features that others took for granted. He had no airbag or seatbelts to stop him flying out the car as his door was ripped away. While he landed heavily on the tarmac a few metres away, his car carried on by itself. Eventually it slid off the road, the horn stuck on and calling out into the night.

Dazed and in a huge amount of pain, Danny staggered to his feet. He cradled his arm, which was broken in four places. The crash had happened so fast that his mind refused to accept it had really happened at all.

He wandered through the storm. Light ahead guided him on, drawing him to a warm place just to the side of the road. By now his clothes were drenched and the wind was lashing ferociously at his skin, making him shiver. He wanted to get to the bright, warm area. He needed to get there.

The conversation he had been having moments earlier seemed like a lifetime ago now.

He walked to the ditch and slid himself down the muddy bank. Once back at his own car he peered in through the buckled window frame. The car was empty. Charlie, Susan and little Emma were nowhere to be seen.

Nearby, the car he had hit was upside down and engulfed by fierce flames. Something had punctured the petrol tank, which leaked a steady flow of fuel that pooled around the car. The flames reflected in the puddles of petrol like night-time rainbows.

Danny silently stared into the dancing flames.

“Hello? Is anyone there?” he called.

He limped through the thick mud, which was as much petrol as dirt, and headed toward the car. Once he was there he dropped to his knees and fought against the smoke to see inside. All he saw was one body halfway through the windscreen. He reached in and lifted the man’s head.

Danny’s heart stuttered as he stared down at the face.

It was Charlie. His shoulder blade was broken and sticking out, just like before. One of his eyes was swollen shut and his only remaining hand was missing most of the fingers. There was a large hole in his abdomen too, which was gushing blood almost as fast as the car was losing fuel. The lower half of his body was pinned against the dashboard.

The injuries matched. It was definitely him. Which meant…

“Oh God, no, no, please, no.”

There was nothing Danny could do. The flames were too strong. Each time he tried to get close he was forced back by the intense heat. Smoke poured out the windows like waves breaching a seawall. It invaded his lungs, stuck to his skin and stung his eyes. He could see the seats blistering and bubbling as they melted, and could hear the metal warping.

“I’m sorry,” he screamed at the stormy sky. “Charlie, Susan, Emma, please forgive me, please!” He laid down on the ground and let the heavy raindrops splash upon his face, sobbing loudly while the water cleaned the dirt from his skin.

Danny remained with the burning car for an hour-and-a-half. He waited while another car arrived, then watched as the stranger made a call to the emergency services. He ignored the man’s desperate attempt to fight the flames. When the man told the ambulance crew where they were, Danny cried.

The accident had happened by Mile Marker Thirteen.