The headlights of the blue BMW drilled into the night, illuminating the black tarmac that flowed like a river of madness through the Pennsylvania mountains. A double yellow line split the road lengthwise from Tafton to Mountaintop – 26 miles of harrowing hairpin turns and wild camel humps – a roller coaster ride through old-growth Pennsylvania forests.
Ken kept both hands firmly on the steering wheel – his eyes forward, scanning the shoulder of PA route 390, vigilant for suicidal deer hiding in the darkness between the trees who were more than eager to bound into the path of his speeding vehicle.
He toggled the high beams but they were no match for the darkness that sent it’s fingers through the trees, squeezing the road into a narrow blue tunnel through the woods.
Tanya stared out the passenger window. She shook her head and tossed her bobbed black hair – releasing dim shimmers of blue in response to the cold the dashboard illumination.
“You always do this.” she sniped.
Ken adjusted his jaw from side to side.
“The traffic was stopped. For twenty minutes. I had to get off – I can’t just sit there like that.”
“We’re lost. You have no idea where we are, in a place that we have never been.” She pulled her cell phone from her purse and sighed. ”AND we have no signal. Of course – we have no signal. We’re in the middle of NoSignalVania.”
Ken winced at every word. Tanya’s shrill, nasal voice had evolved into a first class irritant as of late. It was like a million sewing needles stabbing and gouging his eardrums with each sentence. He found himself drifting away during her monologues, staring off into space, dreaming of the days before marriage and wondering how he could have been duped into matrimony all those years ago. How could he not have noticed that sputtering, insidious, acrid tongue? A tongue that found him time and time again musing on just how to tear it out, to cease it’s wagging forever so that he might find peace. Instead, he soldiered on in silence, obedient to the stereotype of the henpecked husband.
“Why are they always doing construction in Pennsylvania. Everywhere you turn, a lane is closed or an exit is under repair. I hate this state.” Tanya shook her head.
“We are not lost. We’re just…temporarily confused.”
Tanya shook her head and scowled. She glanced back at the road. ”Jesus!” She braced her hands on the dashboard and dug her feet hard against the floor of the car.
Ken snapped his gaze back to the road in time to see a deer flash past the headlights. He jammed both feet onto the brake pedal as the car began to skid sideways. Suddenly, another animal, this one thicker with dark gray and black streaks, sprang into the path of the sliding car. It moved like a cat stalking prey, low to the ground and surprisingly agile for its bulk.
There was a moment that seemed an eternity. It was filled with clenched teeth, white knuckles, squealing tires and the smell of burning rubber and hot brake shoes. It swam slowly into focus and then WHAM! The sickening thud of metal hitting flesh and the tinkle of shattered glass broke the spell.
The collision spun the car 90 degrees off the road and into a shallow swale on the right shoulder. Thick ferns and mountain laurel cushioned the car to a shuddering stop.
“Oh my god. Are you OK?” Ken reached over and touched Tanya.
“I think I bit my lip.” She dabbed her mouth and examined the bright red that coated her fingertips. “Yeah, I’m OK, I think.”
“What the hell did we hit?” Ken unbuckled his seatbelt.
“A deer. I think I saw a deer.”
“No, we missed the deer. Something came out of the woods after it. Something bigger like a bear.”
Ken opened his door and circled around to the front of the car. The grill was mangled and steam seeped from under the crumpled hood. The right quarter panel was crushed and the right front tire was rotated at an impossible angle. Thick black goo was smeared across the damaged areas.
“Shit, shit, shit.” Ken kicked at the ferns. ”There goes my insurance.” He turned and looked back down the road. A dark mass lie motionless on the blacktop, partially blocking the right lane.
“I think you hit a bear.” Tanya was standing next to him, dabbing her lip with a tissue. “Way to go Mario”.
“Just call Triple A.” Ken began walking toward the shadowy shape.
Tanya fumbled for her cell phone. “Uh, can’t. No signal. Unbelievable.”
Ken slowed his steps as he neared the carcass. A musty odor, somewhere between cat urine and vinegar, wafted through the night air. Ken recognized more detail in the moonlight. The entire creature was about five feet long and had four legs, the front ones longer than the hind and all four capped with five to six inch glossy black claws that looked as if hewn from obsidian. It appeared to have a small amount of black fur on it’s back which was streaked with dark gray patches that mimicked forest shadows. Overall, Ken thought it vaguely resembled some kind of deformed black bear mixed with a mountain lion. The fur gave way to black velvety skin that concealed sinewy muscles throughout the body of the animal. The shoulders were bulky and the head was elongated and wide, with an odd sloping forehead and two large eyes, shut tight into ten inch slits. A twisted pair of foot long black horns jutted from just behind the creatures large pointed ears. The most astonishing feature, however, was the nightmarish mouth of the beast. It gaped slightly open, and was circled in a row of black teeth on the outside, and rows of similar fangs on the inside. It was as if a shark’s mouth had been turned slightly inside out around the edges and painted gloss black. A black forked tongue lolled from the open mouth, dripping with gooey dark saliva.
“What the hell IS that thing?” Tanya had joined Ken.
“I have no idea. Maybe a bear that was burned or something. But it has horns, I think.
“Bears don’t have horns, moron.” Tanya looked at her phone again. ”How the HELL are we going to get a tow truck.
“We’ll have to walk and get help” Ken looked around at nothing but shadowy forest as far as the eye could see.
“I’ll bet that’s some kind of endangered animal. I’ll bet this dumb-ass state is going to fine us on top of everything.” Tanya started walking back toward the disabled BMW. ”And there’s no WE in this whole walking to find help thing.”
Ken shook his head. ”Seriously? What the hell are are YOU going to do while I’m walking?”
Over his shoulder, a pair of headlights flickered their way through the winding darkness of the stoic trees, distant tires clinging to the blacktop, hissed through the curves like a mechanized serpent as the vehicle neared.
“Looks like someone just caught a lucky break.” Tanya stood, hands on hips, a smirk writhing across her red lips.
Ken ran toward the approaching vehicle, arms waving. Blinded by the headlights, he could make out the dark shape of a late model pick-up truck, slowing to a stop before the motionless body of the strange creature.
“Hey, hey!” Ken waved his arms. ”We hit something and we need help.”
The driver opened the door and stepped out. He walked past Ken in a flurry of flannel, scraggly beard and greasy hair, eyes fixed on the creature in the road, the scents of sweat, tobacco and body odor swirled about him in the night air.
“Hey, thanks for stopping, we…” Ken put his hand on the stranger’s shoulder.
The truck driver spun and pushed Ken away. ”Nacht Teufel!” He hissed through broken teeth and began to back away toward his truck.
“What?” Ken stumbled forward. “Hey, what the hell? Where are you going?”
“Ein Junge Nacht Teufeufel!’, shouted the bearded stranger as he climbed back into his truck and gunned it in reverse.
“No, no, no!” Ken sprinted after the truck as it sped away into the darkness. He waved his arms and shouted until the tail lights disappeared into the night. He hung his head and slowly turned back toward his wife.
“What the hell was that?” Tanya raised her arms, palms toward the sky. ”Did he not speak English? Why didn’t you stop him?”
“I don’t get it. How could he just leave us here?” Ken shook his head.
“I’m going to take a nap in the car. Good luck on your walk.” Tanya turned and headed back to the car.
“Seriously? You’re gonna sleep while I walk alone on this ridiculous road? In the middle of the night?” Ken spread his ams wide in disbelief.
“Good luck.” Tanya climbed into the back seat of the disabled BMW and slammed the door.
Ken stood motionless, mouth open. And then he heard it. Low at first, but growing slowly louder. A low growl rattled from the carcass on the road behind him. He turned around and his legs buckled.
The creature’s claws made a rasping sound as they scraped the blacktop. The eyes were wide open, luminous and green, and as big as pie plates with no visible pupils – just two organic headlights glowing in the thick night. Slowly, it struggled upright, tilted its chin into the night air and began to howl. It was low and mournful at first but built quickly to an ear shattering crescendo that echoed through the black forest.
Ken clamped his hands over his ears and gathered his legs beneath him. Gingerly, to avoid drawing attention to himself, he began to step backwards toward the safety of his car. After a few steps he turned and broke into a run – his shoes clacking on the hard surface of the road.
The creature howled again and Ken quickened his pace. Behind him, he could hear claws scuffling on the blacktop as it tried to regain it’s senses. He reached the car, grabbed the door handle and yanked. It was locked. He pounded on the window. Inside, Tanya shook her head and extended her middle finger.
“Unlock it!” he yelled. Tanya extended both middle fingers and lounged back down on the back seat.
“C’mon!” Ken bellowed and beat his fists bloody on the window until he was out of breath. He paused and looked past the car into the dark forest. Everything had gone silent. All the katydids and crickets and tree frogs were suddenly mute. The night seemed somehow darker as the soft rustle of the grass and the wind in the leaves coaxed a pair of giant luminous green eyes from between the trees. Ken’s blood ran cold and he felt light headed. Slowly, a second creature, identical to but about twice the size of the injured one behind him, emerged from the shadows directly across the road from his disabled beamer. It moved with careful determination, barely making a sound in the forest night, confirming it’s status as an evolved nocturnal predator.
Ken dropped to his knees and hid behind the car. His heart pounded in his temples and his hand rested on his thighs where he felt something solid. He fumbled in his pocket and pulled his cell phone and 2 receipts free before finding his car keys. Warily, he stood back up and peered over the car. The creature was gone. He turned and looked behind him.
The larger creature was now tending to the injured smaller one, nuzzling and grooming it’s wounds with a giant black forked tongue. Short chirps and whimpers drifted through the dark air as mother creature cared for her child.
Ken fumbled with his keys and dropped them, tinkling into the thick ferns. ”Shit!” He bent down and began to rummage his fingers through the thick foliage. Suddenly, he felt warm air on his neck and that acrid smell from before. Before he could turn, giant, powerful jaws clamped around his torso, and bore down with unbelievable force. His head felt as if it would burst from the mounting pressure. He felt his ribs snap and the blinding burn of his flesh tearing beneath the black razor teeth of the beast. He was lifted above the car, sideways, his head slightly lower than his legs, which he could no longer feel as the pressure continued to increase to impossible levels. He felt gushes of warm blood running up his back and coursing along his neck and chin. His head swam – the pain was blinding and mounted to a crescendo of cracking bones and rending flesh followed by swirling blackness as he lost consciousness.
And then Ken was hovering above the entire scene. He could see his limp body in the creature’s massive jaws, like a rag doll, flopping as the creature began to thrash from side to side. After a few flicks, his body split in two, blood and entrails spilling onto the tarmac. But Ken felt at peace. There was no pain. In fact, no feeling at all. He looked down upon the creatures as they milled around the disabled vehicle. Far away, he could hear his wife’s shrill screams as the mother creature pried the car doors open with giant black claws.
A white light opened up above him, drenching the night in a glorious glow of salvation. It washed his floating spirit in joy and redemption and mitigated all earthly sounds and images, beckoning his weary soul to eternal bliss.
A feeling of unprecedented warmth and contentment flooded through Ken’s being. He grinned and dove headfirst into the light, delighted by the realization that he was finally free of his wife’s acrid tongue forever.