The night air had the crispness of the first day with an autumn breeze after so many warm and humid days of summer, the kind that cuts through skin and is felt as a chill deep down in bones. But the season was winter, and the road was lined with fields of broken brown corn stalks like bones in the night, the darkness making them invisible from the car.
Victor was driving, his eyes outlined with red from staring at long country roads and sleep deprivation. Dani sat in the passenger seat staring out the window, imagining what the world would look like if she could see in the pitch-black. The darkness pressed down on them as they both noticed the absolute contrast of golden lights in distance. Unconsciously, Victor sped up, anxious to escape the insecurity of not knowing what lay in the surrounding shadows.
Coming upon the neat columns of familiar lights on each side of the road, they simultaneously released the breath they hadn’t noticed they’d been holding. The quiet whisper of air leaving lungs sounded harsh and raspy in the painful silence that had been lingering between them for hours. They looked at each other and away again, the armrests acting like a barrier, separating the car into two halves.
Victor’s eyes relaxed, not having to strain to see in the cones of light his headlights gave off. He wondered why their problems couldn’t be solved as simply as lights illuminating a dark road.
She had been bored out of her mind for hours. The car had become a prison cell, boxing her in, barring her from the outside with a cellmate who refused to talk to her. With the coming of the light, she was relieved to see a little farther out of the window. Cornfields had been filling her vision for hours, so instead she examined the lights. Victor had driven up to the lights so quickly that the poles flew by, but he had slowed down, reluctant for the illuminated road to end, savoring the gift of light.
Dani had grown up in the suburbs and was used to skinny metal streetlights, so the irregularly-shaped poles were new to her, and she assumed they were normal for the country. The first thing she realized was that the lights were not electric, but threw flickering shadows on the road. She concentrated on one of the lights the car was slowly approaching and discovered they were in fact lanterns, suspended poles with hooks around the top, like a shepherd’s staff. She traced the pole downward, trying to decipher why the shape was not skinny and straight the whole way down to the ground. Slowly, the car and pole became level.
“What?” Victor slammed on the brake, tires squealing replacing her yell. The sound of her scream had pierced the long silence, leaving a ringing in his ears. Tears were streaming down her face and her lips were moving, but only whimpering emerged. “What? What is it?” Her words were still incomprehensible and he was starting to lose his patience. He grabbed her tear-streaked face and forcing her to face him. “What is it?” he said more quietly, but his tone was harsh. She took no notice, gasping, “Drive! Just Drive!”
He was going so slowly she became desperate. Now she was pleading between bouts of crying, “Please Victor, please drive faster.”
“Not until you tell me what’s going on.”
“P-p-eople. Th-there are people out there,” she whispered and everything that had been precariously resting within exploded out of her. She started screaming hysterically, her whole body shaking with sobs.
He stared at her in shock. Fifteen hours of driving and three hours of sleep the past two days had slowed his reaction time, but when his emotions arrived, they were a tremendous force that consumed him.
He stopped the car.
Victor rolled down the window and eyed the man closest to him. The chill that ran up and down his spine like a cold wind should have been enough warning, but somewhere in between the third gas station and the twentieth dead corn field, malice stepped into his heart.
Like all of the others he was garbed in a black cloak that covered his entire body. The shadows cast from his lantern played under his hood, suggesting the outline of a face. Hidden hands beneath long sleeves grasped the pole.
“Hey. You know there’s no point in you guys being out here. People have things called headlights. Nobody needs you.” The man’s hood fluttered in the chill air, but he did not move. Victor stared, fury pulsing through his veins, when a pounding penetrated his trance. The sound seemed far away at first, then slowly, as if waking from a dream, he realized the noise was close to him. He broke his gaze and looked into the car at Dani, who was pounding her fist upon the side of the door.
Victor rolled up the window muttering “freaks.” He put his foot down hard on the gas, making the tires scream. His skin prickled as series of what-ifs crawled across his body, all the harm the men could have caused while they were stopped.
Only thirty seconds had passed when all the lights went out at once.
Purple afterimages burned in his retina. Dani stopped crying, but moaned a sick sound of agony. The wheel was moist beneath his hands, but his whole body was so cold he felt numb. The electric headlights of his car seemed tiny and he searched the road for signs of the men rushing at him or throwing things at the car.
His mind began use logic to try and reason with fear. The faster something is moving, the harder the object is to hit. He thrust down on the accelerator until pedal was touching the floorboards. The engine was whining after a minute of full power and the woman had stopped shaking enough to look up at him.
She watched the sweat pour down his face, moistening his shirt. He sat with a back unnaturally straight, and his knuckles were gripping the wheel so hard they were white; his arms were trembling. She opened her mouth to say, “Maybe you should slow down a little,” when the road stopped.
Before he had even taken his foot off of the accelerator, they had covered the ten feet of ground before the cliff. As the car drove off the edge, the light from the headlights was lost in the empty air before them. Victor’s eyes raced to his rear-view mirror as the flash of the lights bursting back on caught his attention. They illuminated the almost ninety degree turn that he had missed. He turned his head to look out the back window as the car dropped into darkness, but all he could see were the stars above them.