The car wizzes to a stop alongside the road right next to an old building that looks like a railroad station. There is no railroad track in sight, though. The woods stand full-chested and thick against the building’s rear, and the road dips down into a woody hollow and then up again over the crest of the hill. The night is a charcoal sketch crowned by a gray sky; the only relief is a yellow pole light beside the faux railroad station.
“This might be a long ride home,” Clay says, clicking open the driver’s door.
The ladder strapped to the roof of the car sits cock-eyed, drunkenly hanging off toward the right side of the car’s nose.
Clay stands in the open door and loosens the straps holding the front of the ladder onto the roof rack. He yanks the ladder back to the center.
Casey glances at her phone. A little “X” blinks at her from the top corner of her screen. She looks back out the windshield. The car’s lights cut a narrow swath along the edge of the road; weeds dance in the wind, casting shadows against each other, while tree limbs tangle a black frame around the scene. The weeds and underbrush flash multicolored in the wavering shadows– white, orange, burnt-brown, and mustard. A rainy musk blows through the open door as Clay steps down and walks toward the trunk.
A truck whistles past, taillights angry-red as they wink into darkness over the top of the hill.
Clay returns with another strap, its tail flapping against the side of the car. Casey watches him through the sunroof, and his face is stern against the gray sky.
“The highway won’t be fun,” Casey says.
It’s hard to tell if Clay’s frown deepens. “That’s what I’m afraid of.” He ratchets the strap, and the ladder yanks unevenly back and over-corrects to the left.
Not for the first time, Casey wishes they hadn’t come to the middle of nowhere to buy this ladder.
“Do you want me to pull in the other direction as you tighten it?” Casey calls through the sunroof.
Clays frown flexes. “It won’t help.”
Casey taps her phone against her lap and looks back through the windshield. Something catches at the edge of her vision, and she turns. A shadow flashes at the corner of a shed that sits near the edge of the jaundiced pool of light coming from the pole.
The breath catches in Casey’s throat, and she feels her palms go clammy with fright.
Just then a raccoon scurries from the dark beyond the shed, sits for a moment to scratch its face, and then scampers on into the trees.
Casey lets out her breath.
“Are you sure you don’t want any help?” Casey says.
“It’s fine,” Clay grunts, working at the ratchet again, and again, the ladder inches toward the left.
Casey sighs and taps her knee up and down. Something about this weird rail-less railroad station unnerves her. It feels dead and half-decayed in the parchment-paper light. And the way the hills cut them off from view on either side gives Casey a claustrophobic vibe.
Raindrops splash against the windshield, and Casey focuses on them for a moment– the half smiley face they form. In the distance behind them, something steps into the road, just at the edge of the headlights cut. A black leg and shoulder flash out of the trees and then duck back into the shadows. Casey’s focus narrows on the spot and her free hand curls around her door handle.
The end of the strap thunks against the sunroof as Clay continues to struggle. Casey jumps and glances up at him.
“Clay,” she whispers, but doubt blossoms through her like a mushroom cloud, stripping her nerves of all solidity.
Casey searches the treeline on the opposite side of the road. Halfway up the opposing incline, a dark figure walks on the very edge of the light. His clothes seem to suck up all the light, as if he’s just a black void devouring the precious rays as he approaches.
Just then, headlights from a passing car unzip the tip of the hill and pass down into the dip like a searchlight roving. The lights hit the walking figure but don’t seem to illuminate him. His shadow leaps long against the hill and then the car slushes by with a hiss of tires in the rain.
The dark seems complete as the car disappears. For a moment, Casey loses sight of the figure. Her eyes panic, racing over the road. He’s gone.
“I’m almost done,” Clay says, annoyed.
Casey continues scanning the road. Just as Clay steps off the frame of the door, the figure steps out of the woods directly in front of their car.
“Clay!” Casey squeals.
Clay looks at the figure–for a moment, he stands suspended, motionless, bewildered.
“Get in the car!”
But Clay continues to gape.
The figure appears to be nothing but shadow, even in the full glare of the headlights.
“Clay! Get in the car.”
But the figure walks toward them, and Clay remains mesmerized.
Casey scrambles to get her knee over the stick shift, but her long leg gets jammed beside the steering wheel.
The figure crosses over toward the driver’s side.
“Get in the car, Clay! Get in the car!”
But it’s already too late.
© 2021 Katie Baker
Prose Lovers! Like a lot of my writing lately, this story was inspired by events that happened with my boyfriend. Sometimes the situations he gets me into make perfect story fodder. Do any of you Prose Writers and Lovers out there find yourself in the middle of moments where you think: this would make a perfect short story?! Add a little of this, a dash of that– like coming up with a new recipe to enhance the moment. I would love to hear some of your inspirations. Drop a comment. And thank you for liking my posts! 💕- K.