Our trip to Vermont was not going as planned.
Instead of spending the night in a quaint little bed-and-breakfast, like I’d hoped, we were sleeping in the car. On a desolate road in the middle of East Jabib. On one of the coldest nights of the year.
“I just didn’t think—”
“That hotels would be booked solid on the Saturday after Christmas?” I snapped.
“Nicole, come on. This was supposed to be fun.”
No, you idiot. This was supposed to be a last-ditch attempt to save our marriage.
“Look, we’ll sleep here in the car, and in the morning we’ll get one of those mushroom omelets you like at the diner in town.” He leaned the seat back, hitting me squarely in the elbow. “Goodnight, Nicole. I love you.”
I mumbled a response. Then I lay across the backseat, pulled the covers over me, and stared out the window.
If I wasn’t so mad at him, I might’ve enjoyed it. We were parked on a narrow road, smack-dab in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by forest and the stars. In the distance, five amber lights glowed, all in a line—probably streetlights from the town.
There weren’t five.
There were six.
Huh, that’s odd. I could’ve sworn there were only five.
I shrugged, lay my head on the armrest, and closed my eyes.
I jolted awake.
The crick in my neck ached. The car was freezing cold. All was quiet, save for the sporadic hoots of an owl and Brandon’s snores.
Oh, sure, he was sleeping peacefully.
I glanced out the window. It was totally dark outside; the amber lights had been turned off. That’s weird. Usually streetlights stay on—don’t they? I thought. Or maybe sometimes they go off… oh, I don’t know. I reached for my water bottle, in the cup holder up front.
Through the windshield, there they were—the seven amber lights, shining even more brightly than before.
I glanced back to my window. Pitch black. To the windshield. Lights on. Back and forth, over and over, but it was clear. The lights were on.
Why couldn’t I see them through my window?
I leaned in close. No—there was some light coming in, through the top and upper corners of the window. But the middle was still black—a dark silhouette, that looked kind of like…
No, there was no way.
But then I blinked—
And it moved.
I jumped back. “Brandon!”
He snorted, and mumbled “what?”
“There’s someone out there!”
“Probably just a raccoon…”
“No, Brandon, this is serious! Turn on the car!”
“Okay, okay, easy!” I heard the click of the keys, the rumble of the engine. The headlights blinked on, flashing the forest with white light. I pointed to the window. “Brandon, look, someone is—”
“I don’t see anything.”
I turned to the window, ready to shout him down—
Nobody was there.
I began to laugh—a nervous laugh of relief. “Oh, I can’t believe that. I actually thought someone was standing at the window, staring in. I must have been dreaming! Oh, what a…”
The car lurched forward.
“Uh, Brandon? What are you doing?”
“We’ve got to get out of here,” he said, his voice shaking.
“What are you talking about?”
“Look at the window, Nicole!” he yelled.
There, in the middle of the window, was a patch of fog.
Not on the rest of the glass. Just in one, small, circular area.
Almost as if —
Someone had fogged it up with their breath.
“No, no, no…” Shaking, I climbed into the passenger seat.
We shot down the dark road. The shadows rolled across the trees, across the deep footprints in the snow. And the amber lights seemed brighter, closer—were we driving towards them? There were more of them, too… at least a dozen.
“Don’t worry,” Brandon said. “Whoever’s out there—I’ll protect you.”
The anger bubbled up. And suddenly, the reason I couldn’t stand him anymore—the reason our marriage was failing, that I had buried deep inside myself—shot out. “You’ll protect me? Like you protected me on 4th Avenue?”
“Are you still mad about that?”
“Of course I’m still mad about it. You ran, Brandon. There was a gun against my ribs—I thought I was going to die—and you. Ran. Away.”
“I was getting help.”
“And what if he shot me, huh? You would’ve just let me bleed out on the sidewalk, alone?” There were at least twenty of the lights now—some so bright, they looked as if they’d cross the forest’s threshold any second.
But if they were streetlamps…
How come I didn’t see any roads?
“But he didn’t shoot. And he wasn’t going to.” Brandon took a deep breath in through his nostrils. “You know, it was your fault for wearing one of those expensive Kate-whatever purses! That’s the whole reason he targeted us!”
“Really, Brandon? You’re going to blame me for being mugged?! You were a coward, and you know it!”
“I wasn’t a coward, I was just being logical—”
The car screeched to a stop.
A branch lay straight across the road. Or—it was more like a small tree, that someone had ripped straight out of the ground.
My heart stopped. “They blocked us in?!”
Brandon jerked the steering wheel, and started to turn the car around—
Two people had come out of the forest, and were standing behind the car. Each one was holding a pole, and at the top there was something orange, light, flickering —
“Are those… jack o’lanterns?” Brandon said.
To call them jack o’lanterns was an understatement. Atop the poles were fleshy orange things, carved with faces, but they were far scarier than any jack o’lanterns I had ever seen. One had the face of a man, contorted in pain, mouth wide open in a scream. The other was even worse: a grinning woman, with pointed teeth and flickering yellow eyes.
They weren’t streetlamps at all.
The two figures marched forward, towards the car. As I glanced at the forest, I saw more of the amber lights coming towards us, shining through the tangled trees. Several… dozens… no, many more than that. Some far away, just orange dots among the murky shadows; others right upon us, floating over the asphalt. And some dark figures, slithering through the underbrush, not holding a lantern of any sort.
“Just drive over it!”
“No. We’ll get a flat. Then we’ll really be stuck.” He unclicked his seatbelt. “I’m going out there.”
“Are you insane?!” I screamed. The low hum of a chant came through the windows, muffled and low. “There are dozens—maybe hundreds—”
“I got to prove to you I’m not a coward, though,” he said, with a sad smile.
He stepped out into the darkness. As soon as he did, the figures froze. They seemed to stare at him, heads tilting towards him, though I couldn’t make out their faces in the dim light.
He grabbed the base of the branch, and tugged on it with all his might. It slid towards him, opening up a small spot of road.
That’s when something like a shiver rippled through the crowd. And then, all at once, they started racing towards him.
“No,” I screamed, pounding the glass.
“Go!” Brandon yelled. They were closing in—just a few feet from him, now. “Drive!”
I shook my head.
“Nicole, please!” One of the men grabbed him by the shoulders, and pulled him towards the darkness. A few more paced towards the car, their jack o’lanterns floating inches from the window.
No—not jack o’lanterns.
Or, at least—
Not the kind made out of pumpkins.
“Drive!” Brandon screamed, as they pulled him into the forest.
I jumped into the driver’s seat, and put my foot to the floor.
We buried an empty casket.
They never found the body. And sometimes I think it’s better that way. Something tells me that the body wouldn’t have been… recognizable. And seeing the man I love, broken up like that, would break my heart all over again.
And if he’s still alive…
Well, that means he became one of them.
And that’s even worse.
So, please, take it from me. If you’re driving on a desolate, wooded road, and you see some orange lights through the trees—
Say a prayer for Brandon Wright.
Then get the hell out of there.