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29/10/2018 / Harry Browne

That Eyeless Thing It Lingers by Stephen Brady

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(The winning entry for The Inkslingers Best Halloween Story 2018)

Rural Illinois, 1987

I was driving alone on an old forest road, and it must have been the night before Hallowe’en.
It had been some time since I’d left the highway. And I’d fallen into that daze that comes on the solo driver, mesmerised by the dark and the drone of the engine and the smooth unwinding of the road. A meeting in Fall City had run way over time, and it must have been nigh on midnight. My only thought was for the sight of my front porch, and bed.
I almost didn’t see the hitchhiker.
He was standing at the roadside, his arm held limply out. When my headlights fell across him, he didn’t flinch. I’d passed him before really I registered the sight. And I decided, on a whim, to stop and pick him up.
As a rule I don’t stop for hitchhikers. You hear all kinds of stories. But it was so dark, and cold, and he was all alone. So I hit the brakes, and pulled in about fifty yards ahead.
But when I looked in the rearview mirror, the roadside was deserted. The hitcher was nowhere to be seen. It was like he’d never been there.
Then the back door popped open and he slid in.
“Thanks, man,” he said. “I didn’t think anybody was ever going to come.”
The man in the back seat was young, in his twenties I think. He was unkempt, with long hair and a scrub of beard. He was oddly dressed – he appeared to be wearing flared denim trousers, of the kind you only see on documentaries of the Nixon era. He wore some kind of wooden jewellery around his neck, and a greasy bandana.
“Bless your heart,” he said. “I mean that, buddy. Bless your heart for what you’ve done.”
Beneath all the hair, his skin was very pale. His face wore a vacant, shellshocked expression. He was staring out the window at the trees, not meeting my eyes.
“How long were you waiting there?” I asked.
“A long time, man. I don’t know for sure. Long, long time.” The way he spoke was kind of mechanical, as though his mind was elsewhere.
Well, I had to decide. I couldn’t very well throw him out of the car, having picked him up. It was a chill, windy night, and it could be tomorrow before another vehicle passed this way.
It looked like we were stuck with each other.
All around us, the ancient trees crowded over the road. Branches, like gnarled fingers, rattled in that October wind. And inside the car, the air had grown cold and still. Like water at the bottom of a lake.
“Where’s your stuff?” I asked him.
“Huh?”
“Your stuff. You must have a pack or something.”
“Naw, man.”
“You don’t have any stuff?”
“Lost it.”
“You lost it?”
“Yeah.”
“Where did you lose it?”
“In the woods.”
I turned around and clasped the wheel. Suddenly, I found I wasn’t so sure about all this.
The hitcher said, “Listen man, can we get going? I’d really like to get outa here.”
I eyed him in the rearview.
“Where, uh… where are you headed?”
“Wherever, man. Just get me outta these woods.”
That decided it. I’d take him to the next truckstop, and he could make a phonecall. Do whatever he needed to do. I’d have done my good deed, and I could go home.
“That sounds fine,” I said. “I’m a little edgy, is all. I don’t normally stop for hitchhikers.”
“Well I’m glad you did, man.”
“Alright. Let’s go.”
I pulled away and we headed on up the road.
Once we were moving, I started to feel a bit better. By the time we were back on the highway, I was feeling almost cheerful. It is good, I decided, to be a Samaritan. Good for your soul. I put on the radio, and nothing came out but static.
When I glanced in the rearview, he had turned around and was looking behind us.
“What’s the matter?” I said. “Somebody following you?”
“Naw. Just glad to be outta those woods, man.”
We drove on in silence for a while. I could hear him breathing in the back. Without the radio, the silence weighed heavy on the two of us. Eventually, I decided I would have to break it.
“How long were you in the woods?” I asked him.
He didn’t answer for a minute. I thought he’d might have nodded off. Then he said, “A looong time. I don’t really know, man. A long time.”
“What were you doing in there?”
“I was hiking.”
“Hiking?”
“Yeah. I’m an outdoorsman.”
“Hiking… alone?”
“Naw, man. There was four of us.” I expected him to add to that, but he didn’t.
“… Four of you?” I prompted.
“Yeah. My buddy Nathan and his chick, and some guy she goes to school with. Never saw the dude before.”
“And where are they now?”
“Couldn’t tell ya, man.” He yawned and stretched. “I don’t know what happened to ’em. I don’t guess I’ll see ’em again.”
I found that I was saying things now, without conscious thought. Drawing the conversation to a place that it would not see in the daylight.
“What happened to you all in there?”
“We got separated, man. We went off the trail and camped a couple nights. But then we couldn’t find the trail again. Then we had this big argument about it. It got to be this big hassle. Standing in the trees, middle of nowhere, four of us all yelling. So I said, ‘you know what, you guys are a bunch of assholes. I don’t need this.’ And I got my stuff and I went off on my own.” He was looking out the window at the darkness, and his voice had an air of hypnosis. “And I got lost. Like, real lost, you dig it? I tried to find the trail but I just got deeper in the woods. And it got dark, and I got scared. It was like, I was going in circles. And I thought to myself, ‘I’m gonna die out here.'”
As he spoke, I imagined I could see it, feel it – lost and alone, in the dark of the forest. Poor bastard. No wonder he seemed so shaken up.
“What happened then?” I asked.
“I was lost for three days. Three days, man. Just walking, going outta my mind. I ran out of food, then I ran out of water. It got to be night time again. I was in another part of the forest, where the trees are like ancient. Like nobody’d been there in a hundred years. And I thought, this is it. This is where I check out. I just quit, just put down my pack and lay down on the ground. I guess I must have slept for a while.
“And then I woke up, and it was the middle of the night. I don’t know what woke me up, must have been a sound or something. But I knew, you what I mean, I just knew that somebody else was there. So I stood up and looked around.” He stretched again, and I could hear his joints crack. He released a long, ragged yawn. “And that was when I met her.”
My hands were gripping the wheel like a life preserver. I was suddenly finding it difficult to speak. “Met…? Met who?”
He said, “A woman came out of the trees. She had no eyes and no mouth. She was wearin this real raggedy old dress, and she had long crazy hair. She came out of the trees and she moved toward me. She wasn’t walking, exactly. She didn’t have feet. She was kind of… floating above the ground. But I could see, when she got close, that she wasn’t human. No eyes, no mouth. Just skin and nostrils. She came up to me, and she put her hand around my throat.”
He raised his own hand, and clasped it around his neck. “Like this. She must have had real long fingers, ‘cos it was like they went the whole way around my neck and crossed over on the other side. The woman from the forest, she came up to me and she held me by the throat and I heard her voice, inside my head.”
The car was weaving on the white line. I was full of the clear and certain feeling that I had made a terrible mistake.
“What did she say? The woman in the woods?”
“She asked me if I wanted to live. If I wanted to go home again. I said, yes, I do. So she said she’d let me leave the forest, if I did what she told me to do.”
“… What did she tell you to do?”
His hand came from behind me and closed around my throat. It was not the hand of a human, for his fingers stretched the whole way around my neck and locked on the other side. I looked in the mirror again, and the face I saw had no eyes, no mouth, and black nostrils that curled right around the skull.
The lights went out. The car spun off the highway, through the barrier and smashed into a tree. I did not know, or care, about any of it.
Now I stand on the roadside, my arm stretched out. There is a lost and empty look on my face. I can hear an engine approach in the October night. I just know that someone is going to pick me up. Maybe it will be you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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One Comment

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  1. Roy McCarthy / Oct 30 2018 8:01 pm

    Oh very good. Can’t beat a little ghost story.

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