Route 44 – David John Wing
We’d heard a few stories along the way, you do. Travel the country as much as my wife and I and you hear all sorts of things, sometimes you see them too.
A few years ago the kids left home. College and work saw them off to different ends of the country and as we’d retired, we thought we’d give travel a go. We’d saved well – the kids, Jane and Mark were successful in their own rights and short of any disasters; our money was ours to do with as we pleased.
We cleared out the house (heirlooms and sentimental items went to storage) and put it on the rental market – then took the cars to the local dealership. We came out well and sporting a beige, 2008 Winnebago. It had everything you could imagine and then some. A short course in truck driving and we were off. No particular direction. Jean was about to turn sixty and I’d passed that mark a little ways back, so we put the motorhome in drive and took a left out the driveway and onto the highway.
The years went by, mostly without incident. We got the occasional flat – one nearly saw us flat too, but Jean always did have quick reactions and we survived to tell the tale. We picked up the occasional hitch-hiker, mostly nice folk – mostly. We saw the landscape change a hundred different ways and then a hundred more. The ‘Winnie’ just kept on ticking. Once in a while we changed the oil, every now and then a sparkplug. Mostly things went fine.
The kids didn’t like the idea of their ‘olds’ hippying around the country, but we made sure to check in whenever we stopped and that calmed them some.
New England was where things changed.
We’d been ‘on the road’ for a few years when I guess my eyes started to play up. I swear I saw them though – birds, giant black ones, must have been twelve/thirteen feet tip to tip, like pterodactyls screeching from the sky. I’d had to swerve to miss them and hit a tree. Jean got a cut on her head and a concussion. The kids begged us to stop travelling, but Jean was adamant. The doctors said it was a cataract in my right eye. It would cause problems from now on and Jean would have to drive at night, I could still see fine in the day.
We spent the next few nights stationary. Despite what she said, I knew Jean was a little nervous. My eyes and my story both disturbed her. She listened attentively, but shy of actually seeing black, flying monsters coming straight for you, it’s difficult to believe on faith, even if that faith is based on a fifty year marriage.
The map placed us not far south of Boston. We drove by the local Walmart and re-stocked the cabinets. The shower needed a new head, the camera a new battery and we were all out of hot-pockets. Jean found me a nice pair of slacks with elastic around the waist. She said it was the new style, but I caught the label that read ‘maternity’ and saw a wry smile on the face of the cashier when I paid. No matter, they were comfy and those hot-pockets needed to go somewhere.
I backed us out of the parking lot and we turned onto route 44 towards Rehoboth.
We’d been travelling for a few miles when the engine started to chug.
“What’s happening?” asked Jean.
I glanced at the display, the gas gauge read zero.
“Uh, technical issue” I replied.
I pulled us off the highway and into a service station nearby. The ‘Winnie’ jerked and threw us to a stop by the pumps. I stepped out to stretch my legs while Jean took advantage of the novelty of peeing in a stationary position, although her sea-legs were well and truly established some years back.
The attendant started the pump and asked me where we were headed.
“Nowhere in particular, just going forward.”
He hummed in agreement. I thought I sensed a little jealously too.
“You know anything about this area?”
I shook my head.
“Na, we’re from California, but we’ve been all over.”
“Not here though.”
“No” I repeated. He was being a little ‘off’, I thought.
The pump hit forty bucks and just kept going.
“Look, you seem nice, so I’m gonna tell ya.”
I cocked my heard, waiting for the local knowledge to flow from his lips.
“Don’t pick anyone up around here.”
“No, I mean it! Just don’t and if something happens, stay in the vehicle. It’s best that way.”
I looked the boy square in the eyes, he was serious so I gave him the slow nod, to show I understood, even though I didn’t and wished the ‘Winnie’ would drink her fill and we could go.
Jean came back from the bathroom and we turned back onto the 44.
“You OK dear?” she asked me, rightly concerned, so I told her about the boy at the service station. She made the “oooo” noise and we laughed.
The weather began to turn. What had started a nice, clear day now threatened rain. The sky paled to grey and the windscreen wipers took over.
“Maybe I should drive?” Jean asked.
I turned and slightly nodded in agreement. It isn’t easy to get old and accept it.
I pulled in; we swapped positions and hit the road again. Taking advantage of the stop, I threw a ‘pocket’ in the microwave and set it to 3 minutes.
The traffic began to thin. Lights only seemed to be heading towards us. Then the Winnie jerked again. I fell against the sofa, luckily and grabbed onto the table top.
“I’m OK, Mark, a flat I think.”
We pulled up off the highway, on a quiet side the high-beams showing with trees and embankments on either side.
The microwave dinged.
“You have a bite, Dear, I’ll do the manly stuff.”
Jean smiled but said nothing. I grabbed the jack and my windbreaker and stepped into the drizzly rain. It was coming east to west and whipped against my face something nasty. I pulled the hood over my head and grabbed the spare from the back. It was the rear right tyre that had shredded. Must have been a piece of glass or a stray nail somewhere back on the 44. I put the travel light on the road and angled it at the tyre.
The nuts came off slowly. This happened to be the only tire that hadn’t blown since we’d left California, so much so we had a nick name for it.
Jean called from the door, holding the ‘hot-pocket’, minus a few bites.
“How is it?”
I looked up and yelled back over an increasingly vicious wind.
“Its ‘old reliable’, he’s done for.”
Jean let out what I think was a sigh, but it seemed to come from somewhere beyond her and she closed the door. I carried on turning the nuts. The last one dropped and rolled under the wheel arch. I shook my head, put the wrench on the floor and reached under. I couldn’t see anything. I flashed the light around and saw it was all but dead centre, right under the Winnie and a full crawl away.
I huffed and began the shuffle forward.
I’d just about reached the nut when I felt something. Or, I heard it. I can’t be sure. I turned and flashed the light left and right, then all around -nothing.
Crawling back out, I switched out ‘old reliable’ and the spare and tightened the nuts in place. Just as I twisted the last one I saw something in my periphery. My hood fell back in a gust and there he stood, some way beyond the Winnie’s low-beams, just standing there.
He was tall, with a red flannel shirt and an almost red glow around his face. I called out; surprised Jean hadn’t seen him and let me know.
“HEY! You OK?”
“You need a lif…”
I stopped and remembered what the service attendant had said. I’m not usually suspicious or nervous, but something in the weather was having an effect on me.
He started moving towards me.
I rolled the flat towards the door, opened it and shoved the tyre inside, slamming the door shut and locking it.
“What’s going on? I heard you yelling something.”
I jumped into the passenger seat and flicked the low’s to high. The blacktop reflected in the rain, empty.
I thrust my head forward and stared, looking all around – nothing.
“Mark, really, what’s going on?”
I couldn’t help by just stare.
I shook my head.
There was a knock on the door and the pair of us jerked in our seats.
Jean laughed a little and then made to answer it.
Jean looked at me, alarmed.
“I mean it, Jean, Just drive!”
There was another knock at the door.
Jean turned the starter, shoved the Winnie into first and took off.
We’d gotten around fifteen miles down the road when Jean slowed to a stop and turned off the engine.
“What was all that about?”
I just kept staring forward.
I turned towards Jean. She could see the alarm in my eyes and softened her face. I didn’t want to say, but after the birds and the boy at the service station I felt I had no choice. She listened, she always does. I told her about the feeling I had, about the man in the flannel, about the red.
Jean put her hand on my arm. I really think she would never have taken it away if it weren’t for the laugh. It came from behind and then it came from in front and then it was all around. The motor-home began to shake and the lights in the cabin flickered off. Jeans light, reassuring hold on my arm became a desperate clench.
“Mark? What is that?”
I shook my head and stood up. We swapped seats and I turned the starter – nothing, not even a whine. I kept twisting the key until I dreaded the thought I might snap it and stopped. Then the laugh disappeared and fell into the distance. The cabin lights came back on and radio blared into life.
Jean and I damn near shot through the roof. I reached over to turn it off but just as I touched the switch the music stopped and the laughing started again.
It ran all around the cabin, through the speakers and under our skin. My hair shot from my arms and Jean screamed!
I’ve never heard something so natural and terrifying in equal measure.
The high-beams shot forward and there he stood, staring.
His face shone red and his eyes seemed to match.
I frantically twisted and turned the key. Nothing happened, but the speakers grew louder. The laugh began to echo Jean’s scream and I fell back into the seat.
The laughter stopped.
I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He got closer and closer, but I couldn’t see him walking and then came the knock. Jean’s eyes pleaded with me. I turned the starter – nothing.
Don’t ask me why, I don’t know, but I just felt I had to. I stood up and moved towards the door. Jean held my arm for a second and then released it, accepting.
I unlocked it and took a step back. The door clicked and the door swung open slowly. In a moment, there he stood, his beard a vicious red, but almost transparent. I could see the dark world beyond him, and then the door slammed shut.
We awoke some time later. The Winnie sat idling at the side of the road, the motor running and the radio playing. We were alone and nearly one hundred miles further into New England.
I reached over and held Jean as tight as I could. The dawn was beginning to rise when we saw the birds in the distance. Jean wept and so did I.
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