For 2022, I’ve been wanting to write more ‘creature features’ and generally improve my short story writing. My partner got me a Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual for my birthday so I came up with the idea of writing a story every week based on a different creature from that – All There in the (Monster) Manual. Hope you enjoy!
This Week’s Inspiration: Mimic (Duh)
Trigger Warning: Gore
Note: This is the longest ‘short’ story I’ve written for All There in the (Monster) Manual so far by a considerable margin – 12,500 words in total. So, if you would like, I have made it available to download as a MOBI file you can download by clicking here! Totally up to you if you’d like to take advantage, otherwise read on below.
Trapped on an island of rock while the cars keep circling, Kylie and her bandmates were road tripping to their next gig when they were attacked by three strangers who refuse to leave their vehicles. Now it becomes a question of what will get them first, heat and thirst, or the drivers ready to run them down if they try to escape.
“Maybe we should just give up, and go back. Go home,” Ethan said.
Kylie tucked herself into a ball on the passenger seat, knees against her chest. Her phone was plugged into the AUX cord and music played softly from the speakers, quiet so as not to wake the others. Shaking her head vehemently, blonde hair spilled around her face.
“No, we’ve come this far! We’re almost halfway there, it’d take us just about as much time driving back as it would to keep going!”
“Yeah, but we could go straight home. We wouldn’t be paying for hotels, meals, we wouldn’t be putting up with all this bullshit. We could drop Kirk back home or tell him to get a bus.”
Kylie swallowed and shook her head again, not trusting herself to speak. Of course the band’s roadtrip hadn’t been going as planned. They’d set themselves up with gigs stretching from the East Coast to the West and looping back again. So far they’d dealt with club owners not paying them what they’d agreed, hotels that kicked them out for practicing their instruments in the middle of the afternoon, Nazis, perverts, assholes. Someone, at one gig, had smashed their headlamps and they couldn’t travel until the next day, making them late to their next destination. No one had crunched the numbers but they were definitely losing money on the tour. They’d performed in a bar with a single audience member, Ethan called them an audi-ant, not an audience. All of them had caught some kind of gastro bug at one point. One night, Shaye had clearly been roofied and it was only luck that the others noticed and got her back to the hotel room before anything worse happened. And then, at the biggest gig they’d had since setting out, in Texas, the band’s bassist Tommy had tried to stage dive and broken his wrist. The audience had been big but not stage dive big. Tommy had gone home, unable to play, and they should have all given up then but that was when they met Kirk.
Ethan drove, his olive complexion looking pale and eyes shrunken. His mouth hung open, furry moustache clinging to his upper lip. Tired, he practically vibrated thanks to the number of energy drinks he’d downed. Shaye slept on one of the seats behind them, head tossed back and mouth open as she snored. She was stockier than Kylie, with broader shoulders, well muscled arms and thick, chestnut hair. Kirk stretched out at the back of the van behind all the instruments and their equipment, asleep. It wasn’t comfortable back there but they were pretty sure he was wasted on something.
After Tommy broke his wrist, Kylie put a callout to a musician group where their next gig was taking place for a bassist. Kirk could play competently enough, and seemed like a nice guy. He’d dropped a few hints that he didn’t really have anything else going on so they’d invited him along on the rest of the tour. Unfortunately, Kirk was one of those guys who got into rock less for the music and more for the women and drugs. And if he had to pick one of the two, it would be the drugs. The second gig after he’d joined the tour, Ethan found him smoking meth with some locals immediately after they’d wrapped up on stage. When Ethan tried to talk to him about it, Kirk screamed his head off. Somehow he’d talked his way back into the band the next day but things remained tense. None of them were necessarily opposed to a bit of weed, maybe even a little coke or some pills if they seemed safe, but Kirk was up to snort or smoke or shoot anything he could get his hands on. And drugs or not, neither Kylie nor Shaye felt comfortable being alone with him. He hadn’t caused any actual trouble since then though, and the band had been clear about him keeping drugs out of the van or their hotel rooms.
“Oh, look at this asshole coming up behind us,” Ethan said, eyes on one of the van’s side mirrors.
Driving along the desert highway, the band had the road almost entirely to themselves. From time to time they’d seen lights in the distance but it was after midnight and they’d only passed a couple of cars driving in the other direction. Behind them, however, twin headlamps appeared like glowing eyes and rapidly closed the distance. Ethan had the van pushed a little over the speed limit, given the emptiness. The second vehicle appeared and hurtled up behind them so fast they must have been doing double that.
Kylie heard the growl of the other engine grow. Their headlights swelled until they were riding the van’s tail, literally only a few feet from where Kirk was sleeping. Kylie looked in her mirror. Behind the headlamps, she could only make out a vague impression of the vehicle they belonged to. Some kind of muscle car, with a stiff figure behind the steering wheel. Unsure of what else to do, Ethan picked up speed. The van rattled, engine and instruments in the back shaking.
“Let them pass,” Kylie said. “Slow down and let them pass!”
“Okay, yeah, sure.”
Happy to surrender control, Ethan took his foot off the gas and let the van slow. He didn’t touch the brake or the car would have rammed into the back of them for sure. As it was, they roared right up to the van’s back bumper, fell back, and roared up to them again. Kylie started to feel genuinely afraid. The lane going in the other direction remained empty.
Finally, the muscle car pulled sideways into the other lane. They accelerated past Ethan’s side of the van. Kylie still couldn’t make out any details of the driver. They didn’t even glance in the van’s direction.
“Asshole,” Kylie said, but quietly, as if the driver might hear her.
The car swung in front of the van, so close it nearly clipped them. Ethan was forced to brake. It was a muscle car, an old one, red with black racing stripes, beat up and covered in dust. A couple of panels had been replaced and not repainted to match the overall frame. Kylie could see the back of the driver’s head, unmoving. Suddenly, their brake lights flared into bright red rubies.
“Shit!” Ethan hit the brake pedal even harder.
The van lurched, and their instruments and equipment clattered in the rear compartment. Kylie made a small, wordless cry. Shaye’s head snapped forward, her chin hitting her chest, and she woke with a grunting sound. They avoided hitting the muscle car though and both vehicles slowed almost to a stop.
“Wha-, huh?” Shaye groaned.
“Asshole!” Kylie repeated with more feeling.
After brake checking them, the muscle car released its brakes and picked up speed. Ethan kept rolling but didn’t give chase. The muscle car accelerated until it was travelling at its original pace again. Its cherry red lights shrank to pinpricks on the straight stretch of highway.
“What happened?” Shaye blinked sleep out of her eyes.
“Some dickhead came racing up behind us, and then brake checked me,” Ethan said.
“Where are we?”
“Middle of nowhere, a long way to go yet.”
They called out to Kirk but he was still asleep. Ethan looked more awake after the encounter but the adrenaline quickly faded. The lights of the muscle car disappeared. The band were left alone again in the cone of light cast by their headlights.
“See, this is what I’m talking about,” Ethan said finally.
“What is?” Kylie asked.
“Assholes. Assholes everywhere we go, it’s like we can’t catch a break. It’s like this whole roadtrip is cursed.”
“We can’t give up now, we can’t! Not when we’re behind like this, or what was the point? We might as well give up on making it, get rid of our instruments, and get real jobs like our parents wanted.”
“What are you guys talking about?” Shaye asked.
“I was wondering whether it might be time to, you know, cut our losses and go home,” Ethan said.
“Just let us get to California, okay?” Kylie said. “Please, if we do the Cali gigs and everything still sucks, we sell the van and get some cheap flights home.”
Desert flats yawned like an abyss on every side facing away from the van. They passed a few other buildings, all dark, and a gas station that looked to be closed for the night. Shaye lulled in and out of sleep but Kylie stayed awake to keep Ethan company.
“Hey, what’s that? Up ahead?”
Movement flittered at the edge of their headlamp beams, to one side of the road. Ethan slowed. The movement resolved itself into a woman around the same age as the rest of them with a hand raised, hitchhiking. She was dressed for walking in hiking boots, outdoorsy clothes, and with a large pack resting on her back.
“Stop, we have to pick her up,” Kylie said.
“Are you sure? What’s she doing out here?” Ethan said.
“We can’t just leave her!”
Ethan braked, passing the hitchhiker but then pulling to the side of the road and slowing to a stop. The hitchhiker didn’t hesitate, adjusting their pack and hurrying to meet the van. She slid the side door open, only pausing a moment to take stock of the van’s inhabitants. Seeing two women and one man, she clearly felt more at ease. She stowed her backpack inside and climbed in after it.
“Thank you so much! I thought I was going to have to sleep out there tonight!” The hitchhiker was their age or a little older, with multicoloured streaks dyed into their brown hair.
“No problem, what were you doing out there? In the middle of nowhere?” Kylie asked.
“I got a ride with some guy, a trucker, at a stop back there. Five minutes later, well, you can probably guess what he wanted. I said no, he argued for a while and then he threw me out! I knew I shouldn’t have gone with him. My name’s Harper, by the way.”
“I’m Kylie, this is Ethan and Shaye.”
“Nice to meet you! I’m not opposed to helping out with some gas money or something, just not helping out, like that, you know? Do you mind me asking where you’re going?”
“We were headed all the way to Parker. The plan was to drive as much as we could, maybe sleep in the van, and check into a hotel when we get there in the morning,” Ethan said.
“I could drive for a little while if you wanted to take a break?” Harper offered.
Ethan hesitated as if about to reject the offer out of hand but he reconsidered. “Maybe, thanks.”
The highway remained empty. Ethan signalled and pulled back onto the road, accelerating quickly. Shaye, in the seat across from Harper, struggled to look awake.
“Where are you trying to go?” Shaye asked.
“Anywhere really, I’m trying to get away from my ex. He’s an abusive piece of shit, I needed to get as far away from him as possible.”
“Sorry to hear that, that sucks.”
“Sorry, I’m oversharing, aren’t I? I’ve been waiting out there for like an hour, thinking I was never going to find another ride tonight! I’ve been going a little crazy.”
“While you were standing there, did you see a red muscle car with, like, black stripes, go flying past?” Ethan asked.
“No, no, I didn’t see anything like that.”
“Hm.” Ethan looked annoyed. “Well, they were going somewhere in a hurry.”
“Hey, if we see somewhere to go to the bathroom, can we stop?” Shaye said. “Next place we see?”
Apart from squatting behind a strand of sagebrush, the options for bathrooms were limited. Ethan kept driving. Harper told them more about herself, her family, how long she’d been hitchhiking for, and about her awful ex. In the very back of the van, Kirk hadn’t woken up and didn’t seem likely to.
“Here we go, here’s a rest stop,” Ethan said.
A single street lamp illuminated the parking lot of a grey cinderblock of a building to the side of the highway. Powerful fluorescents surrounded the building itself, bathing it in a blue-white haze. Outside the circle of light, the desert was swallowed by blackness. No cars waited in the parking lot. Ethan pulled over and drifted to a stop right in front of the building.
“Here we go, looks like they’re open,” Ethan said.
“Got to go!” Shaye said.
Harper followed her. “I’ll come with.”
Kylie unkinked from her position and swung her door open. Her phone was still plugged into the AUX cable and she left it there. The desert’s night air felt surprisingly cool, but dry. With a sore back and a numb butt, Kylie felt glad for the chance to stretch her legs. Ethan got out and stretched as well, pacing beside the van. Shaye and Harper disappeared inside the building.
“Do you think I should wake Kirk? See if he wants to go?” Ethan asked.
“I don’t know, maybe just to see if he’s still alive.”
Ethan circled to the back of the van. The highway remained silent and the desert made little sound, just a few creatures chittering and flapping. The hollow noise as Ethan banged on the van’s rear doors carried a long way. A grumbling came from inside and eventually Kirk tossed one of the doors open. Tall and skinny, he looked half-asleep and aggravated as he ran his hands back over his unevenly shaven head.
“What? What the fuck, man? Are we somewhere?” Kirk slurred.
“We’re at a bathroom, do you want to go?”
“What? No, man, I don’t know.” Kirk sounded drunk, or wasted, and kept rubbing his face.
Ethan looked at Kylie as if frustrated. “I’m going to take a leak.”
Ethan headed to the closest restrooms. Neither Shaye nor Harper had returned and Kylie regarded Kirk awkwardly but their new bassist lapsed back into a sluggish half-sleep. Kylie paced and lingered half a dozen strides from the van. She stomped her feet to get the blood moving.
Suddenly, something growled loudly enough that Kylie jumped. At first she thought it was an animal, a mountain lion or something worse, anything, it could have been anything. As the sound came again, she realised it was an engine kicking over, a motor that was running a little, or a lot, rough. The noise climbed into a snarl and then settled to a threatening rumble. The vehicle must have been parked just outside the light cast by the rest stop. Kylie searched, unable to pinpoint where the sound was coming from. In the quiet of the desert, it bounced around and came from everywhere at once.
A pair of headlamps exploded to life. They weren’t particularly powerful but they made Kylie jump again. The car they belonged to, with the idling engine, was parked a short distance down the highway in the direction they’d been travelling.
“What the hell?” Kylie whispered.
The car lurched forward, crossing the highway and rumbling toward the rest stop. As they pulled into the light, Kylie’s breath stopped in her chest. It was the muscle car that passed them and hounded them aggressively down the road. Kylie recognised the red and black colour scheme, the dings and dents and dust, and the mismatched panels. It prowled toward the entrance of the parking lot. Kylie froze, like a prey animal caught in the gaze of a predator.
Someone touched Kylie on the shoulder and she nearly shrieked. Harper appeared behind her, looking concerned.
“Are you okay?”
“That car, that car, it followed us!”
The muscle car pulled into the parking lot, moving painfully slow. It stopped and reversed into a spot directly across from them. Kylie couldn’t make out any of the driver’s features but they seemed to be alone. A man, Kylie was pretty sure, gripping the wheel and watching them without moving. They didn’t shut off their lights or engine, or open their door, and their stillness took on an eerie quality.
Before Kylie could think of what to do, another set of headlamps appeared down the highway. The car they belonged to slowed and turned into the rest stop as well. Kylie felt a wave of relief. If the guy in the muscle car had been planning anything, more witnesses would surely throw him off. The second car was an old family wagon, really old, from the Seventies or Eighties. Teal in colour, it had those faux wooden panels on the doors and sides which Kylie only associated with old movies.
“Okay, we’re okay,” Kylie said, unsure if she was reassuring Harper or herself.
Dings and dents covered the family wagon as well. Nothing else put it in relation to the muscle car, only their similar ages and conditions. And yet, as the family wagon rolled to a stop directly in the middle of the parking lot’s entrance Kylie got a cold feeling in her stomach. The family wagon’s headlights pinned them from across the lot. Behind the wheel, the driver also looked alone and was weirdly still. Sitting where they were, they cut off the van’s exit back to the highway.
“Ethan! Ethan!” Kylie yelled.
“What?” Ethan returned at that same moment, checking the zip on his fly.
“It’s the car, it’s back! It’s back, and I think they’re together with this other one!”
“Oh, shit.” Ethan looked puzzled but not afraid. “Should I go over there?”
“No, of course not! We need to go, we need Shaye!”
Suddenly, there was a third car behind the other two. With the attention on the muscle car and family wagon, it remained invisible until it flashed its lights and rolled casually to a stop in the middle of the highway. A Japanese compact of some kind with a squat, rounded body. While it looked newer and in better condition than the other two, its white paint showed a lot of scratches, transferred paint gouged into the body, and dust thickly layered on its sides. Together, the three cars looked mismatched but somehow related, like they’d all rolled off the same dodgy used car lot together. Kylie couldn’t see a driver through the Japanese compact’s tinted windows.
“What is this?” Ethan laughed a little nervously. “A gang? They’re a pretty weird gang.”
“We need to go,” Kylie repeated. “Get in the van! Shaye!”
Kirk looked up. “Bitch, why are you screaming?”
“What’s up?” Shaye returned from the far side of the restrooms, mindless of any danger.
Without warning, the muscle car exploded forward. Its engine snarled and its front end rose up as if literally bucking onto its back tyres. Kylie, Shaye, and the others all failed to react. The muscle car shrieked across the small parking lot.
The muscle car ploughed into Shaye, grille catching her around the hips and midsection. The driver didn’t hesitate as she was picked up and slammed into the wall of the rest stop. Shaye’s face and upper body flung forward, bouncing off the car’s hood. Her legs and pelvis were caught between the car and the wall, and crushed. Over the engine, Kylie heard a bloodchilling crunch, like someone chewing gravel. The driver, still nothing but a dark shadow, jostled forward and back but kept gripping the wheel.
“No!” Kylie screamed.
The muscle car’s engine gunned. Tyres shrieked on the asphalt and sent up smoke as it continued grinding Shaye mercilessly into the wall, like a boot stepping on an insect. Shaye vomited up a stream of blood, splattering the car’s hood and even its windshield. Ethan started toward the car, reaching for the driver’s door to hit them, to drag them out, to do anything to stop them.
“Ethan!” Kylie screamed, not knowing what yelling his name was meant to achieve.
“Look out!” Harper grabbed Kylie from behind.
The wood panelled family wagon hurtled forward. Its engine wasn’t as powerful from a complete rest as the muscle car but it picked up speed across the parking lot. Harper pulled Kylie backward, out of its path. Close to two tonnes of metal ripped past them, heading toward the van. Kirk, sitting on the ledge of the rear doors, processed what was happening only at the last possible second. He yelped and threw himself backward. Whipping his legs clear, he disappeared inside the van a fraction of a second before the family wagon smashed into where he’d been sitting. The van rocked forward with the impact. Kylie could hear their instruments, their equipment and their luggage all being tossed around inside the van. One of the wagon’s headlights imploded. It backed up, gaining some distance, and hit the van again. The van’s doors swung closed and then crumpled with the blow.
The muscle car pulled away from the building, and Shaye. Shaye collapsed, her legs and lower body broken and twisted. A half-squeezed tube of toothpaste. Blood covered her chin and jawline. Ethan stood by, hesitating. Shaye, however, looked like she was already dead. Her face was unmoving, eyes glassy in the glare of the muscle car’s headlamps.
The muscle car peeled backward, wheels squealing. Pinning Ethan with its lights, the driver gunned its engine again. The stillness and the silence of the desert night had completely shattered. Now it was filled with roaring engines, broken glass, hot metal and shrieking rubber, and too-bright lights. Ethan turned, spotting Kylie and Harper.
“Run! Run!” Ethan yelled.
Ethan took off as if from a set of starting blocks, shooting past the nose of the van. The muscle car lunged once, twice, as if to come after him, but then stayed where it was. The driver almost seemed reluctant to stray too far from Shaye’s body, like a lion guarding a kill. It allowed Ethan to get away instead.
Kylie and Harper had taken shelter behind the van. Seeing Ethan take off, they followed. He continued past the restrooms and kept going, into the desert. The family wagon prowled beside the van as if unsure whether to follow them or to stay.
“Hey, hey! Don’t fucking leave me!”
Kirk threw open the side door of the van and scrambled out, all arms and legs. He must have climbed over the instruments and such, and over the backseat, in order to reach the door. Jumping out, he followed the other three. The driver of the family wagon hit the gas, plunging after him. Meanwhile, the Japanese compact circled around the driveway for the rest stop. It pulled off the side of the road onto the hard packed dirt of the desert. Only the muscle car remained where it was, next to Shaye’s body.
“What is happening?” Kylie screamed.
Behind the rest stop was a large ditch. Its sides were too steep for the cars to handle, they would have to go around. Kylie and the others slid down one side and then scrambled up the other. It was all dry. Ditch or no ditch, they couldn’t shelter where they were. The drivers could plunge down on top of them, or they might have guns.
On the other side of the ditch, desert wastes stretched out ahead of them. Dirt and rock, low, scrubby bushes and no trees to speak of, with a few outcroppings of boulders in the distance. Moonlight bleached everything white as their eyes adjusted, with a chiaroscuro of shadows. Kirk took off ahead of the rest, knees pumping almost to his chest. Ethan hesitated, making sure Kylie was okay. The compact circled, looking for a way around the ditch. The family wagon, having jumped the edge of the parking lot, pulled up hard on the far side of the divide. It reversed backward and also went looking for a way around.
“We need to call the police!” Kylie panted as she ran, thinking of her phone plugged into the AUX back in the van.
“My phone is in my bag!” Harper said, her bag back in the van as well.
“I’ve got it, I’ve got it!” Ethan said.
While running, Ethan fished his phone out of his pocket. Kylie glanced over her shoulder. The lights of the rest stop got further and further away. The muscle car couldn’t be seen, it and Shaye on the far side of the building. The compact and family wagon found their way around the ditch and pursued the group into the desert. Pale fantails of dust kicked up behind their wheels.
“Oh, God! God!” Kylie gasped in prayer.
Running, Ethan struggled to unlock his phone. His fingers were clumsy and he was losing speed, breathing heavily. They all stumbled over runnels in the dirt except for Kirk, who was so far ahead of the others his back almost disappeared in the darkness. Slowing down, Ethan managed to punch in the emergency number and held the phone to his ear. He gestured for the two women to run ahead of him.
“It’s ringing!” Ethan said. “It’s really faint! Hello? Hello, is someone there? Can you hear me?”
The two cars, the wagon and the compact, hurtled across the desert and quickly ate up the distance between them and their chosen victims. Their headlights bounced, indifferent to the damage the uneven desert surface might be doing to their suspensions or undercarriages. Kylie and Harper kept running. They’d lost sight of Kirk. Ethan followed but he was distracted by his phone.
“We need police! Help us, please! There are three cars, they killed someone! They’re chasing us!”
“Ethan, run!” Kylie yelled.
“Can you hear me? Hello? Oh, shit!”
Ethan dropped the hand holding his phone to his hip and picked up speed again. The wagon and compact tore across the desert behind him. Glare from their headlights, one of the family wagon’s lights broken, got bigger and bigger. Ethan tried to catch up with Kylie and Harper but his foot came down in an unseen hole. Ankle twisting, he dropped and fell forward. The phone spiralled from his hand, the glow of the screen tracking through the air before it hit the ground.
“Ethan!” Kylie turned to help him but Harper grabbed her by the arm.
“No! You can’t do anything!” Harper said.
Ethan struggled to his feet again and kept running, but it was obvious he couldn’t put too much weight on the ankle he’d just twisted. Limping, he desperately tried to make up some speed but it was no contest for the two automobiles. The family wagon hurtled up behind Ethan. Ethan’s phone lay face up, forgotten, on the ground. The driver ran right over the top of it, one of its wheels crushing the device.
“Ethan, no!” Kylie half-ran, unable to turn away.
The family wagon swung its battered bumper into Ethan’s side, sweeping the legs out from under him. Ethan tumbled across the hood and spiralled, upside down. He let out a wail, cut short as he hit the ground. The wagon passed him and then pulled around a little awkwardly, casting up a wall of dirt and stones.
Dust covering his face, Ethan tried to get back onto his knees. “Please!”
The Japanese compact, white, squat, covered in dirt, shot forward and rammed its grille straight into Ethan’s face. Kylie and Harper could only watch. A starburst of blood splattered the nose of the compact. Ethan was thrown backward and the compact continued right over the top of him. Its bumper and carriage were too low for Ethan to be pulled completely under. Instead, he got caught and was pushed and dragged across the desert floor, over and over, clothes tearing, bones breaking.
“Oh, my God,” Kylie sobbed.
“Come on, run!” Harper said.
Harper dragged Kylie by the arm. There was nothing they could do for Ethan, who was already dead or at least completely unresponsive. Both cars surrounded him. They kept rolling, forward and back, as if toying horribly with the body. The family wagon blocked Kylie’s view. They may have been making sure he was dead without getting out of their cars. Glare reflected off the column of dust rising off the brutal scene. Apart from the engines, the drivers made no noise. No shouts or celebration.
A mound of boulders gathered ahead of Kylie and Harper, stark and smooth in the moonlight. It formed a rare landmark in the flat expanse of the desert. Harper breathed hard and pointed toward it.
“We should hide there.”
Kylie wanted to keep running but she could see Harper was struggling. Besides, there was nowhere to run. No lights, no buildings, just more empty desert. As soon as the cars were done with Ethan, or the muscle car caught up with them, they’d easily run Kylie and Harper down. They wouldn’t want to leave witnesses. The rocks, which at least the cars couldn’t climb, were their only option.
“Oh God, God.”
Kylie and Harper ran to the rocks, which were large and smooth like marbles. They struggled to find handholds and footholds in order to climb the first boulder but helped one another to the top. The mound consisted of a bunch of boulders piled together by natural circumstances. The highest point of the mound was about twice as tall as Kylie. The way the stones fell together, a kind of hollow formed in the middle. Kylie and Harper moved toward the hollow section, to hide, when suddenly a human shape appeared out of the shadows. The moonlight made their face look like a skull. Kirk warded them back, raising one hand in a fist.
“Fuck off! This is my space! This is mine!”
Kylie winced away from Kirk’s fist. “What?”
“This is my place, fuck off! You’ll bring them here!” Kirk said.
“Are you crazy? We’re not going back out there!” Harper said.
“I was here first!”
“We’re not going back out there, asshole!”
“Shut up! You might bring them here,” Harper shushed him, and Kirk dropped his fist and seethed.
Footing in the hollow was uneven and there was hardly room for the three of them. Dead brush, dirt, and bits of faded trash had come to fill the hollow over the years. Kylie and Harper peered back over the boulder they’d just climbed.
The family wagon and the compact separated, both pulling away from where Ethan had gone down. In the distance, in the dark, Kylie couldn’t spot Ethan’s body. She wasn’t sure if she just couldn’t see him or if one of the drivers had actually gotten out and loaded Ethan into their car while they weren’t looking. If so, Kylie wondered what they planned to do with it. From the direction of the rest stop, the muscle car’s headlamps appeared. The same question applied to what the driver of the muscle car had done with Shaye’s body. They probably cleaned it up, Kylie thought. Cleared away the body and the blood so no one would know what had happened.
The three of them, Kylie, Harper and Kirk, had actually made it a good distance from the rest stop while running. Lifting her hand in front of her face, Kylie could cover the building and its surrounding glow with her thumb. The muscle car tore across the desert in their direction. The wagon and compact followed their trail.
“They killed Ethan! They killed Shaye! Why? Why would they do something like that?” Tears streamed down Kylie’s face, as reality set in.
Kylie and Harper ducked. Kirk retreated back into the darkness. The glow of the vehicles’ headlights passed across the boulders. Kylie struggled to breathe. They knew, the drivers knew exactly where the three of them were. They were going to kill them all.
“Here.” Harper found a couple of stones, both about twice the size of her fist, and handed one to Kirk. “Here.”
Harper clearly intended to fight to the end. The drivers didn’t get out of their cars though. Their dark silhouettes could be seen through the windows. The family wagon and the compact moved away and circled the rock formation. The muscle car roared right up to where Kylie and the others were hidden, revving its engine and pinning them with its headlights.
“Come on! Come on, then!” Harper yelled.
The muscle car revved, pulling forward until it almost hit the rocks, and then reversed back. It repeated the action a couple of times but the driver didn’t move. Suddenly, they threw the car into reverse and tore several car lengths backward. It started to prowl around the mound of rocks as well, as if looking for a way to get to them. The other cars, the family wagon and the compact, even further out, did the same. They were like sharks circling their prey. The rocks provided the only place of safety, like a little island in the middle of an ocean of danger.
“What are they doing?” Kylie asked. “Why aren’t they getting out? Why are they staying in their cars?”
“I don’t know.” Harper turned on Kirk. “Hey, you, who were you again?”
“Harper, you got a phone, Kirk?”
Kirk fished a phone out of his pocket. In the moonlight, its screen was almost white with cracks.
“Out of battery,” Kirk grunted.
“Mine is back in my bag,” Harper said.
“Mine-, mine too, it’s in the van,” Kylie said.
The three of them huddled, and watched. Kirk suddenly feared they were going to park out of sight and sneak up on the trio. He pulled himself out of the hollow and climbed up on top of the boulders so he could watch in all directions, staying low. The drivers didn’t get out of their cars though, they just kept circling.
“What are they doing? Why do they just keep driving?” Kylie’s voice started to get shrill and panicked.
“I don’t know, maybe they don’t have guns or any other weapons. Maybe they’re all like, old or disabled or something,” Harper said. “They can’t fight us except with the cars.”
“They’ll come for us, right? I mean, someone will come for us? Ethan called! They must have traced his call!”
“I don’t know, I’m not sure how that works. I think they might only do that on TV.”
Kylie, Harper and Kirk settled into a strange stalemate with the drivers. The three of them hid among the rocks but kept a watchful eye on the vehicles. The cars drove circles around them or occasionally rolled to a stop. The drivers didn’t get out of the cars. No one else came. When Ethan called nine-one-one, either they couldn’t hear him after all or they couldn’t track the call. People did pass by on the highway from time to time but none of them stopped, not even to use the rest stop. They were too far away to be signalled. Perhaps they wondered what those headlights were doing, way out in the desert, but they probably didn’t wonder for long.
Upset about Ethan and Shaye, Kylie curled up in the bottom of the hollow between the boulders and cried. Unbelievably though, sleep found her. She didn’t sleep well but faded in and out throughout the night. Harper and Kirk did the same. Someone kept a lookout at all times but they didn’t do it through any mutual agreement, just each taking a turn on instinct.
“The sun is coming up,” Harper said.
Gradually, the sky lightened and the desert came into being. They’d seen the traffic on the highway getting a little heavier, from almost no one to one or two cars every couple of minutes. The sun’s golden disc peered over the horizon. Under other circumstances, it would have been a great photo opportunity, the beauty of the sky against the sparse landscape of the desert, sand and stone and scrub as far as the eye could see. Kylie and Harper huddled in the hollow of the rocks while Kirk slept on one of the boulders above them.
“It’s going to get hot,” Harper said.
The cars all parked in a staggered row not far away during the early hours of the morning. Their headlights were off. As dawn broke, Kylie could make out details of the vehicles again. Dried blood splattered the grille of the Japanese compact where it had slammed into Ethan, amongst the dust and dirt. There looked to be some blood on the bumpers of the family wagon and muscle car as well, like spaghetti sauce staining the corners of a toddler’s mouth, but it could easily be mistaken for mud. The drivers hadn’t moved at all. Only shadows could be seen through the windshields but if they’d slept they’d done so sitting up, still gripping their steering wheels. It was impossible to tell if any of the drivers might be sleeping, or looking away, or staring right at them.
“What are they doing? They’ve just been sitting there all night!” Kylie said. “They can’t just stay in their cars forever!”
“They’ll get hot too, and if they’re driving around or running their air conditioning they’ll be using fuel,” Harper said.
After a few weeks on the road, Kylie was used to snatching sleep where she could in uncomfortable places. After sleeping squeezed into their makeshift shelter, her back and neck weren’t so much sore as wooden and she struggled to move them normally. Hunger and thirst cramped her stomach. Emotionally, she’d gone numb. The deaths of Ethan and Shaye, so raw and so real, so bloody, now seemed like an abstract concept. Kylie felt she should feel worse for them but she’d cried out so much of the initial pain that now those memories felt faraway, and her grief was largely reserved for herself. She, they, were trapped, and regardless of what Harper said about the vehicles running out of fuel there were three of them. One could easily leave and get what they needed while the other two stood guard. They couldn’t let Kylie, Harper and Kirk live after what they’d seen. For whatever reason they wouldn’t leave their cars but they were going to kill the three of them sooner or later, even if it only meant standing by while they suffered and died of thirst over a few days in the desert heat.
Suddenly, the muscle car’s horn let out a sharp, blaring note. Kylie recognised the specific tone from the night before. After a few moments, the other cars joined in. Their howls echoed across the desert.
“What do you want?” Kylie broke and screamed at them. “What do you want?”
Kirk descended from the rocks as the horns finished blaring. He looked worse than either Kylie or Harper, pale and bloodless, and despite the early hour he was squinting and sweating.
“What the fuck?” Kirk said.
“Hey, your phone, you definitely can’t turn it on?” Harper asked.
“Of course not, I fucking tried.”
“Can you take the battery out and blow on it? Is that a thing? Or rub on it for static electricity?”
They fiddled with the phone for a little while but couldn’t get it to switch on. The muscle car lurched to life and drove a circle around the rocks, keeping enough distance that Kylie still couldn’t make out the driver’s features.
“Someone will see the van looking abandoned, they’ll call the police. Someone will come,” Kylie said, trying to find fresh determination.
“Yeah, maybe. We still need to try to signal someone though,” Harper said.
“I need to pee.”
“Well, don’t do it in here.”
Kylie awkwardly climbed the rocks and circled their tiny island. In spite of the circumstances, Kirk watched her with an oily look. Around the other side, she stood on a flat boulder and struggled to get her jeans down. As Kylie forced herself to relax, the muscle car pulled past at a distance. Kylie wanted to flip them off but it seemed like a childish response to their situation. Two deaths. The two people Kylie was closest to in the world, dead. Numb, she finished and hitched her pants back up without really acknowledging the cars at all.
Traffic increased on the highway and they tried to signal it. The drivers weren’t going to shoot them, clearly. Kylie and Harper climbed to the top of the rocks and fanned some of their excess clothing like flags. The cars circled. They were close enough to the highway that a few drivers must have caught glimpses of colour and motion but no one took an interest, no one investigated further. Kylie and Harper started sweating. Kylie felt terribly thirsty and even began to get dizzy after a while.
“I can’t take it anymore, I’ve got to get back to the van!” Kirk said.
They took turns in the hollow between the rocks. Kirk tucked himself into the shade, looking feverish. His pale, sweaty condition only got worse.
“Of course, if we could get back to the van, our phones, we could call someone,” Kylie said.
“I don’t give a shit. I just need to get back to the van.”
Kylie looked closer. Kirk shivered despite the rising heat of the day. His eyes looked both sunken and slightly wild. Of course, his issues with drugs were worse than they’d thought. Kirk wasn’t just tired and thirsty, and stressed, he was in withdrawal for something.
“What did you have in our van, Kirk?”
“Ethan told you not to bring any drugs with you! What did you bring into our van?”
The cars circled. As the sun rose to its highest point, there was nowhere for their targets to hide. Kylie and Harper took stock of their little island, hoping against all logic to find a half-full bottle of water or something, disposed of, forgotten, among all the bits of trash that had made their way into the crevasses between the rocks. Of course, they didn’t find anything to eat or drink and only became weaker for the effort.
“I can’t fucking take this anymore,” Kirk said, sweating and shaking. “I’m doing it. I’m going for it.”
“Are you crazy? You won’t make it, like, a hundred feet!” Harper said.
“I made it this far the first time! Stay here, you’re just going to fucking die.”
Harper went to say more but stopped herself. They weren’t escaping any other way at that moment. Maybe she wanted to see if he could really make it. Or, weighing up the odds, she decided the slim chance of Kirk succeeding was worth gambling his life on. Kirk’s eyes looked unfocused as he climbed over one of the rocks. Like he was seeing whatever had its hooks in him and not the reality of their situation. All three cars circled, the compact driving random loops the furthest out. None of them seemed worried about fuel. Sweat ran down Kirk’s face and he licked it off his upper lip.
“Kirk, don’t do it, they ran Ethan down,” Kylie said.
“Shut up, bitch,” Kirk said. “I can do it.”
Kirk waited until the muscle car drove to the other side of the mound and all three cars looked to be as far away as they were going to get. Bracing himself, he leapt from the rocks and started running. An enormous stretch of flat, dusty ground lay between him and the rest stop, and the highway where cars and trucks kept passing. Kirk’s arms and legs became a blur. Kylie and Harper watched as he sprinted as hard as he could away from them.
Engines roaring, the cars swung around on Kirk. Dust and stones kicked up from their tyres as they gave chase like a pack of wolves. Kirk ran in a straight line, not even glancing over his shoulder.
“He’s not going to make it,” Harper said flatly.
“He needs to move, he needs to swerve!” Kylie said.
Kirk moved fast but he couldn’t beat the vehicles in a straightforward running race. The wagon and the compact lurched but closed in. The muscle car was fastest on the straight path. It thundered ahead, bumper rising. Kylie wouldn’t look away. She studied, in fact, the way the cars moved. Glancing to the highway, she hoped someone out there might at least see what was happening. Sunlight glinted off windshields and chrome but none of them looked close enough to really spot them.
The muscle car slammed into Kirk from behind, tossing him onto its hood. It drove a short distance with him scrambling for purchase and then bucked him off. The car slowed and struggled to turn. Kirk hit the dirt, rolled, and then scrambled on his hands and knees. The family wagon came in from the side and smashed into him. He went under the bumper with a yell, rolling and rolling, battered and broken. He hadn’t even made it halfway to the rest stop.
“They’re distracted, we could run, we could use this,” Harper said.
“We’ll never make it.”
“It’s our only chance!”
Harper climbed out of the hollow, legs a little unsteady. She reached back for Kylie. Taking her hand uncertainly, Kylie crawled out after Harper into the full sun. The glare hurt her eyes.
Harper scrambled down the side of the rocks with Kylie following. Their feet hit the desert floor. Kylie’s legs felt weak and watery. All three cars surrounded Kirk on the ground, and they ploughed into him repeatedly. Two of the cars accidentally knocked into one another but the drivers didn’t seem to care. They were intent on Kirk, their heads not even turning to look at the rocks.
“What are they doing to him? God,” Kylie said.
Taking it in turns, the three vehicles ran Kirk over repeatedly and pummelled his body into the dirt. He had to be dead already, he had to be. Even at a distance, over the sound of the engines, they heard bones break. Tyres churned on top of the body and ripped up clothing and skin. Blood and gore began to stick to their treads. Kylie, struggling to break into a full run, felt her gorge rise. It might have been better that she had no food and little liquid in her system or else she’d be sick.
“Hurry!” Harper said.
The two of them didn’t head for the rest stop, since that would have taken them directly past the cars. Instead they angled toward a random point on the highway. Kylie felt terrible using Kirk’s death as a distraction but they had no other choice. Kylie picked up speed and the pair ran flat out toward the road.
The muscle car’s engine revved. The other two cars seemed preoccupied, running Kirk over and over and crushing him into the ground, but the muscle car tore backwards all of a sudden. It swung around in a half-circle and pointed itself at Kylie and Harper. The two young women staggered to a stop.
“Shit!” Harper said. “Back, back!”
There was no way the two of them could make it to the highway. Already the muscle car moved to cut them off. Kylie and Harper reversed and sprinted back the way they’d come, toward the rocks. Horn honking, the muscle car hurtled after them. It was like a sheepdog, nipping at the heels of a couple of sheep. Fortunately, the two women had enough of a headstart and the muscle car lost enough momentum on turns that they made it back to the rocks. Kylie took a flying leap at the nearest boulder. Skinning her palms, she scrambled up and off the ground to a point of safety. Harper joined her and grabbed one of the rocks she’d lined up as armaments in case the drivers got out of their cars and tried to grab them the night before.
“Fuck you!” Harper pitched the rock at the muscle car as the car braked, nearly coming into contact with the boulders.
The rock sailed through the air and came down on the muscle car’s windshield right in front of the driver. The glass fractured, turning white. The driver, however, didn’t even flinch as he threw the car in reverse and hurtled backward.
Watching, Kylie noted, really noticing for the first time, just how the driver never seemed to move. They never let go of the wheel or tilted their head or turned in their seat at all. The spiderweb crack further obscured the windshield’s visibility but the car was close enough that Kylie got her first good look at the driver. After reversing a short distance, the car lunged forward again. The horn blared. Throughout all of it, the driver’s hands didn’t move from their ten-and-two position. Didn’t touch the gear stick or the horn. Their only movements were a stiff rocking motion along with the movement of the vehicle. Their features were just as still, painted on Kylie realised as she got her first good look at their face. Their hair was plastic, stiff and unmoving. Their hands, unable to actually grip the steering wheel, were attached to it with cable ties or something similar.
“Oh, my God, they’re mannequins! They’re not real! They’re not real!” Kylie said.
“What?” Harper looked at Kylie in total confusion.
“Look! Look, there’s no one in the car! There’s no one in the fucking car! They’re not real!”
The muscle car pulled backward again, and then roared in a tight circle around the boulders like they’d been doing all morning. Dust filled the air. The car seemed angry, frustrated, like a predator denied its prey. The car itself was angry. Now that she’d seen it, Kylie couldn’t unsee it and her mind pulled in all the details it could. The mannequin, sitting upright in the driver’s seat, looked as old and battered as the muscle car itself. Its features had cracked and faded in the sun, as had its generic flannel shirt, as if it had been sitting in the front of the car for a long, long time. Its hair, brown, parted sideways, was moulded to its head. The hands, as she’d seen, were secured to the wheel with cable ties and the arms looked disjointed as if someone had to pull them out of their shoulder sockets and leave them dangling loosely inside their sleeves to make the angles work.
“They’re not-, no, that’s not-,” Harper stopped and started. “That’s a mask, he’s wearing a mask or something.”
“It’s not! Look at it, look at its hands! It’s a mannequin!”
Kylie looked over at the other two vehicles. They pulled backward from where Kirk had gone down. All that was left of Kirk was a greasy smear. None of their doors had been opened to pull Kirk’s body inside, he’d just disappeared. Blood smeared the wagon and the compact’s grilles. What was left reminded Kylie of a gazelle eaten, bones and all, by a pack of lions.
“They ate him, oh, my God. That’s what happened to Ethan, and Shaye. They ate them! They look like cars but they’re not! They’re some kind of-, things!”
Kylie could see it now. The drivers of the family wagon and the Japanese compact were similarly fake. Behind the wheel of the wagon was another mannequin, its arms also disjointed. In the front of the Japanese car, the stand-in for their driver was even less convincing. What looked like a half-inflated sexdoll flopped loosely around in the seat, Kylie had to squint through the heavily tinted windows to make it out. Clothes hung limply off its shoulders, hands seemingly taped to the wheel. Harper’s mouth hung open, making her ironically resemble the deflating sexdoll. The more she watched, the less ability she had to deny what Kylie had first seen.
“Maybe, maybe they’re like drones?” Harper said. “You know, remote controlled?”
“How? From where?” Kylie said. “No, they ate Kirk, look, they ate him! They must have eaten Ethan and Shaye too. They don’t need to worry about fuel, they look like cars but I think they’re some kind of animals!”
The cars, creatures, whatever they were, prowled around the boulders. Kylie and Harper puzzled it over, trying to wrap their brains around the new reality. In a practical sense, it answered the question as to why the drivers wouldn’t get out of their cars. Why Kylie and Harper remained safe on their little island. But so many more questions arose. And the core reality of their situation remained unchanged. The two of them were trapped, they had no immediate means of escape, and they would either die from being run over if they tried to run or from thirst and exposure if they stayed.
“What are they?” Harper said.
“I don’t know.”
“You ever hear that urban legend about gangs that would drive around with their high beams on, or they’d flash their headlights at oncoming cars? And if the cars flashed them back, they’d track them down and kill them?”
“Yeah, I’ve heard that, as a story.”
“People disappear on the highways all the time, right? Like people go missing, driving or hitchhiking across America, all the time. Trust me, I know, I was out there and people kept telling me every time they picked me up. What if things like these, things, are part of the reason? What if they just eat people up so they’re never found?”
“Maybe, I don’t know.”
“Where did they come from? What are they, you know?”
“If hitchhiking was so dangerous, why were you out there?”
Kylie suddenly turned a suspicious look toward Harper. They’d picked her up right before this all started happening. Standing next to the road, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night.
“I told you, my ex-boyfriend, I was getting away from him.”
“Yeah, but you could take a bus. You could do something less dangerous than hitchhiking.”
Harper looked at Kylie with anger, frustration and sadness. “He controlled all my money, I didn’t have anything. You don’t know. I could either leave, hitchhike, and maybe become another statistic, another missing person out on the road. Or I could stay, and become another statistic sooner or later with him.”
Kylie didn’t push any further. Harper seemed genuine, and if she really was with the cars she could have given Kylie up or tripped her when they were running away last night.
A throbbing ache formed slowly behind Kylie’s eyes as the afternoon lengthened. Dehydration made her dizzy. Her lips became chapped. Kylie started to think irrationally, wishing she’d had water instead of beer the night before. Wishing she’d stocked up on sports drinks and bottles of water at their last pitstop, as if these things would make all the difference now. Harper also looked thirsty and exhausted.
As the sun fell toward the horizon, the air cooled. The desert was cold at night so Kylie and Harper huddled together for warmth. Traffic slowed on the highway to almost nothing. The cars kept circling, flipping their headlamps on and off. It was obvious by now that the living vehicles didn’t care about fuel. They ran off meat and blood like predators, not gasoline.
“We’re stuck here, we’re going to die.” Harper whispered, her face nothing but a shadow in the darkness.
“Tomorrow, at dawn, we make a run for it.”
“We saw how that worked out for your friend, Kirk.”
“He just ran in a straight line, and there was just one of him. I’ve been watching them.”
“Watching for what?”
“They’re cars, I mean, they’re some kind of animals too, but they’re cars and they’re old and have car problems. The muscle car is fast, it accelerates really fast in a straight line but it can’t turn for shit. It’s awkward when it turns, I think if you threw yourself sideways when it’s coming up behind you it wouldn’t be able to adjust in time. The family car with the fake wood on the sides, it turns pretty good when it goes right but whenever it turns left it goes in this big circle. If you stay left, it can’t adjust. And the white car, it doesn’t accelerate properly. It can handle okay, but it keeps jolting and slipping gears when it accelerates. Plus it’s lower to the ground, it doesn’t handle the ruts and holes as well as the other two.”
“Wow, you really have been watching. But what do you mean about there being two of us? You want us to split up?”
“If we split up, they split up as well. One of us, one of us might get killed but maybe the other one, with only one car chasing, maybe they can make it as far as the highway.”
“That’s pretty ruthless.”
“Like you weren’t ruthless when you said we could use Kirk’s death as a distraction?”
“Yeah, okay, but why dawn?”
“Just before dawn, I don’t know if these things sleep but it seemed like they were at their least active at that time this morning. Plus, there’s almost no cars overnight but things start to pick up around dawn. We’d be better off trying to flag someone down than trying to get to the van.”
“Okay, tell me what you thought their weaknesses were again?”
Kylie and Harper huddled in the hollow through the night. Since they’d discovered the cars’ drivers were all fake, they didn’t have to worry about them getting out of the vehicles and coming for them. One or both of them still stayed awake throughout most of the night though. Semiconscious, thirsty, sickly with hunger and dehydration. They conserved as much strength as they could for the morning.
Throughout the night, the cars kept prowling. They almost seemed impatient. Occasionally they would drive up to the section of rocks where they knew the two women were hidden and blare their horns, waking Kylie and Harper or making them jump.
Night seemed to last a week, and yet before they knew it the desert began to take on shape and form. Sunlight filtered over the horizon. Kylie forced herself to her feet. Her hips, her shoulders, her back and neck all felt painfully stiff. Stretching, she did her best to limber up. Harper woke up and did the same, although it was difficult for the two of them in the narrow space. Worse than stiff, or thirsty or headachey, Kylie felt terribly weak. Her body felt unnaturally heavy. She imagined lifting a rock, or her guitar, and couldn’t, it just felt like such a thing would be an incredible burden in her current state. She measured the distance to the rest stop and the highway. It, too, looked unimaginably far to run even without being chased. Kylie just had to hope she found the strength once they left the safety of their little island.
“Where are they?” Harper said.
“Over there.” Kylie inclined her head toward the cars, all parked in a staggered row and quiet for the time being. “They’re not moving, maybe they really are asleep?”
The two of them moved as quietly as possible, climbing out of the hollow and over boulders. Fortunately, the cars were all on the opposite side of the rocks from the highway. Kylie and Harper planned to jump down and keep the rocks between them and the cars’ line of sight for as long as they could.
“Are you ready?” Harper whispered.
“Yes, just, keep the rocks between us and the cars until they wake up. If they wake up. After that, we split up.”
Breathing deeply, they slipped down the side of one boulder. Kylie heard the soles of her sneakers land with a crunch. Unable to stop herself, Kylie froze and waited but there was no reaction from the cars. Heart thundering, Kylie was surprised to find most of her feelings of weakness had fled. Her body was ready to run.
Reaching out to touch one another for reassurance, Kylie and Harper took off across the desert wastes. They headed for the black strip of the highway. In the distance, at the limit of the horizon, Kylie saw headlights beginning to form. They jogged, not moving as fast as they could yet in a bid to stay quiet.
Kylie and Harper got further than they expected across the half-lit desert, almost as far as Kirk had gotten before he was run down. Kylie started to think they might actually reach the road or the rest stop without the cars waking. And then she heard the muscle car’s engine rumble to life. Its headlamps flicked on, cutting through the predawn gloom. The sound of its honk echoed in the silence. Headlights came to life on the family wagon and the Japanese compact as well, and their engines snarled as they also awoke.
“Go, go, run!” Kylie yelled.
Kylie and Harper split up, and both started running as hard as they could. Of the three cars, the muscle car was naturally first off the mark. Its treads ripped up the dust, spilling a cloud behind it. In the east, the sky turned purple and peach as the skirt of the sun teased the mountaintops. The wagon followed and the compact lurched, gears grinding as it struggled to find speed.
Kylie felt the impact of the ground through the soles of her sneakers with each stride. Muscles in her legs trembled. After a day and a half with little movement, no water, no food, baking in the sun, her body threatened to give out. Kylie pushed through it. She pushed through the aches and threats of a cramp, and felt the rhythm of her blood increase. She forced air into her lungs, ignoring the dry rasp in her throat. The divide between Kylie and Harper widened, so they wouldn’t be caught together. Both kept roughly the same pace but Harper veered more toward the rest stop. Kylie aimed herself at a random point on the highway.
Risking a glance over her shoulder, Kylie saw the muscle car tearing toward her. Fast, too fast, she was insane to think she could beat this thing in a race even with a head start, even with a couple of sneaky observations up her sleeve. From a cold start, it moved up to ten miles an hour, twenty, thirty, fifty, it ate up the desert even as ruts in the ground made it bounce and jolt. Kylie was still closer to the mound of rocks than she was to the highway.
Meanwhile, the family wagon and the compact pared off toward Harper. They, too, bounded over the uneven ground. Kylie and Harper had known that would be the way things would go. One of them would attract one car, the other would attract two and the one who attracted two would have that much more difficulty getting away. Kylie felt bad for Harper but was more concerned with herself at that moment.
On the highway, Kylie could see the headlights growing in the distance. They were still a couple of minutes away, too far away to help her. Behind her, she heard the muscle car snarling, wheels crunching. Her own advice went through her head, that the muscle car didn’t turn well. But if she tried to veer away too soon, the muscle car would easily adjust and still catch her. She waited, waited, until the last possible second, running completely flat out. Suddenly, she threw herself sideways with no attempt at preservation other than avoiding the car. Kylie thought she felt the edge of the muscle car’s bumper brush her jeans. The car shredded past her. She hit the ground, rolling, and scrambled to get back on her feet. The muscle car swerved, trying to clip her, and missed.
Ignoring pain in her knees, her skinned palms, Kylie threw herself upright. The muscle car spun but Kylie stayed right behind its tail. Finally, it reversed and nearly caught her before she leapt sideways. The muscle car came to an awkward stop. Kylie broke out into a run again toward the highway. The road remained a streak of featureless black as dawn brought the world more and more into focus. Distantly, Kylie was aware of Harper keeping ahead of the other two cars as she ran toward the rest stop.
The distant headlights on the highway resolved themselves into a large truck. A tanker, towing a huge, silvery, pill-shaped container of what was probably fuel. They were still a good distance down the highway but if Kylie got close enough they might at least bear witness to what was happening.
The muscle car screamed around, gaining speed and trying to swerve into Kylie from the side. Seeing no other option, Kylie jumped and went boneless, throwing herself onto the hood of the car. She slid and slammed against the windshield. The wind was knocked out of her but the car hadn’t been travelling fast enough for the impact to seriously injure her. Although the car hadn’t been running very long since dawn broke the hood felt hot, like a living animal. Behind the cracked glass, the car’s mannequin driver regarded Kylie with empty eyes and a vacant smile.
Kylie scrambled for a handhold as the car picked up speed and swerved, trying to throw her off. Its horn blared. Kylie reached out and grabbed the side of the windshield, and she pushed herself against the glass.
“Fuck you! Fuck you, whatever you are! You won’t get me!”
The muscle car’s engine roared. It pulled suddenly sideways, almost going up on two wheels. Kylie’s hands ripped free and she flew off the hood. The ground rushed up and smashed her, hammering her flat, and she rolled over and over with the momentum.
Body flagging, Kylie struggled upright. Blood poured from a gash on one of her arms, her clothes and skin torn. She found herself almost within reach of the highway after the short, mad flight on the muscle car’s hood. The muscle car pulled around. Engine snarling, it flung itself at Kylie again.
Running alongside the highway was a narrow ditch, possibly attached to the much larger ditch behind the rest stop. It was shallow, and thin, only large enough for Kylie to squeeze herself into. Scrambling forward, Kylie rolled and jammed herself into the ditch moments before the car fell on top of her.
Tyres skimmed across the top of the ditch. Kylie felt spinning rubber burn her legs through her jeans, and cried out. Another wheel narrowly missed crushing her head. The car rolled its body back and forth over the ditch. Its howling engine filled Kylie’s ears, deafening her. She couldn’t even hear herself screaming. It was dark beneath the undercarriage, too dark for her to make out the underside of the engine, but Kylie got impressions of something that didn’t belong on a real car. Impressions of a mouth, of threshing teeth, insectile mandibles, of jagged and razor sharp metal and machinery, but only in glimpses and shadow.
Groping above her head, Kylie found a chunk of rock about the size of a house brick. She screamed and shoved it upwards, past the slashing fangs and into that terrible gullet. Something like a small explosion happened inside the car. It reeled backward, choking, and pulled away. Dawn light fell on Kylie again.
With a hollow bellow, a truck’s horn echoed along the highway. The tanker bore down the long, straight stretch of asphalt. It was impossible to say whether they had spotted Kylie but certainly they’d noticed the muscle car driving erratically by the side of the road and they laid on the horn as a warning not to do anything stupid. The truck was big enough to escape the cars without them being able to stop it. Kylie jumped up and threw her arms over her head. Almost without thinking, she ran into the road.
“Stop! Hey, stop! Please!”
The truck didn’t slow down, not right away. Its horn sounded again. The vehicle grew rapidly, filling the road like a runaway train. Kylie suddenly worried the truck would be like them, like the living cars, but through the windshield she could see the shadow of the driver moving. Finally, its brakes squealed. The truck began to slow down but it was coming in too fast and wouldn’t stop before it hit her if she didn’t get out of the way.
Kylie went to run clear but was distracted by a sense of movement behind her. The driver of the truck gestured wildly. Kylie turned. The muscle car remained by the side of the road but coming up diagonally behind it was a blur of white. The Japanese compact bounced over dirt, and the narrow roadside ditch, and hurtled toward her.
Snapping out of her paralysis, Kylie broke into a brief run and threw herself sideways. The truck’s brakes screamed even louder but it couldn’t come to a stop without jackknifing. Ignoring everything else, the compact zeroed in on its prey. In doing so, it pulled in front of the truck and the truck ploughed right into it.
The compact exploded. There was no flame, no orange fireball, but the impact of the truck completely ripped it apart. Glass disintegrated. White panels crumpled and scattered like bits of paper. Splitting apart, sections of the interior burst into the open air. What remained was carried along on the front of the truck as it shrieked to a stop, streaming wreckage and fluids.
Cowering, covering her head, Kylie crawled to the far side of the road. Debris rained down around her, somehow leaving her unharmed. A wheel bounded past, attached to part of an axle and shocks. The truck finally shuddered to a complete halt, what remained of the compact wrapped around its front.
Across the highway, the muscle car paused, rumbling. It and Kylie simply regarded one another for several moments. With another growling engine noise, the family wagon with the faux wood panelled sides appeared behind the muscle car from the direction of the rest stop. Empty windshields stared in her direction.
Kicking up a cloud of dust, the muscle car tore around in a half-circle and rejoined the highway. Wheels spinning, the wagon followed it. Maybe the cars were too worried about witnesses, maybe they were scared. For their own reasons, they ignored Kylie and shot off down the road. In less than a minute, both of them were dwindling to mere gleams of metal in the distance.
“What the fuck?” The truck driver climbed out of his vehicle’s cabin, unhurt but shocked. “What?”
“Kylie! Kylie!” Another voice carried on the dawn breeze.
Painfully, Kylie climbed to her feet. She was stunned to see Harper running over, circling the truck and the wreckage. Kylie had lost track of Harper while trying to escape the muscle car, and was surprised and elated to see her alive. Although realistically they barely knew one another, both ran and threw themselves into one another’s arms.
“How?” Kylie asked.
“I remembered what you said, about their weaknesses, and I made it to the drainage ditch!”
“What do we do now?”
The highway was closed in both directions. Directing traffic around the collision wasn’t really an option so investigators hurried to catalogue the scene in the rising heat of the day before it could be cleared. Kylie and Harper were fed and given water. They couldn’t return to the van, it was now evidence, so they sat in the back of one of the emergency vehicles with its air conditioner blasting. The whole area around the rest stop, the wastes, and the section of road where the compact had been destroyed was a hive of focused activity.
“We still haven’t found the body of the driver,” one of the highway officers said to her superior as she returned to a command post nearby. “Just what looks like some kind of-, inflatable sexdoll that was strapped in the driver’s seat, like some kind of joke.”
“I told you, you won’t find anything,” Kylie said. “There was no one in the cars. They were alive, no one was driving them!”
“You’ve been through quite a shock. Don’t worry, we’ll give you some time before you make your statement,” another officer said.
“Thank you, sir, yes, it was quite a shock.” Harper hadn’t wanted to tell the police the truth, knowing how crazy it sounded, but Kylie didn’t care anymore.
“How will we get home?” Kylie said. “I just want to go home.”
“I’m sure we can arrange for someone to drive you.”
Ranks of traffic built up on either end of the barricaded area. They vented their anger from time to time with blaring horns. The truck remained where it had come to a stop, pieces of the Japanese compact scattered around it. Kylie couldn’t help but wonder how many more of them were out there. How many of those creatures existed, and whether there might be more things they disguised themselves as. The others were dead, for now she was safe but she would never drive or walk by a roadside without looking over her shoulder again. A horn blared and she jumped, spilling water down the back of her fingers.
Sean: Jesus Christ this one turned out longer than I intended. Over 12,500 words. I consider my minimum average for a novel length work to be 80,000 so that’s a significant chunk, and I in no way intended for it to be that long. There’s a quote from Stephen King, (which I can’t find to copy / paste right now) something to the effect of “Every short story wants to be a novel, and every novel wants to be a thousand pages long” – which is something I feel often and deeply. The first draft of this story incidentally was actually longer with additional scenes, lest you think I don’t actually edit anything.
Thanks for reading this far! Hope you enjoyed the ride. Keep your eyes on the website for more and check out what I’m putting down on Facebook, Twitter and Reddit if you’re so inclined.
Next Week’s Inspiration: Werewolf
Thanks a heap, really appreciate that!
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