Month: August 2018

Victoria’s Road

I live in New Jersey – the state known for its “haunted roads.”

Crack open a copy of Weird NJ and you’ll see what I mean. Clinton Road – a body dump site for the Mafia and home of a little ghost boy. Shades of Death Road – where a woman buried her husband’s head and body on opposite sides of the street.

But have you ever heard of Victoria’s Road?

It’s in Warren County, where the congestion of the Jersey suburbs fades out into mountains and trees. It’s easy to miss – just a narrow gap in the thick forest, that you’ll drive right by if you aren’t careful. But if you find it… you’ll see, walking along the side of the road, a woman in a purple dress.

You can ask her one question. Any question.

She will tell you the answer.

I went with my best friend Mira late one summer night. We were parked on the side of the road, overlooking the valley below, to review the “rules.”

Mira handed me the piece of paper, now damp and crumpled. “It was in my pocket all day. Sorry,” she said, through smacks of gum. I rolled my eyes and began to read.

1. You must be the only car on the road. For this reason, go late at night, or early in the morning.

Check. It was 12:45 AM.

2. Your radio must be tuned to 102.2 the entirety of the drive. Turn off all other devices, including your cell phones.

“I don’t think it’s even possible to get that station,” I said, as I turned off my phone. But when Mira gave the dial a spin, it easily landed on 102.2. Static filled the car.

3. Don’t stop your car for any reason other than Victoria. No matter what you see or hear, do not stop.

“Weird,” I said to Mira. She shrugged.

4. DO NOT, under any circumstances, attempt to make a U-Turn or go back the way you came.

“Easy enough,” I said.

I turned back onto the road and rolled down the window. Yellow fireflies danced between the trees; the sounds of crickets filled the air. The breeze was warm and humid. “Are you sure it’s this way?” I asked. The road tilted up, climbing the mountain. In a few minutes, we’d be at the top.

“Positive,” Mira said. “It’s just around the bend, there.”

She was right. Within minutes, a tilted signpost came into view. Faded and cracked, wrapped with vines and foliage.

VICTORIA’S ROAD

I turned on the blinker – despite the road being completely empty – and swung left.

The road was dark. The headlights barely punctured the thick shadows; it was as if we were submerged in murky water. Mira, however, didn’t seem scared at all. She practically vibrated with excitement. “So, if this thing works – which it probably won’t, I know – what are you gonna ask her?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe what college will accept me.”

That was a lie. I knew exactly what I wanted to ask her. Is Dad ever coming back? After he met Linda three years ago… it’s all been missed calls, one-word texts, empty promises. “So, uh, what do you want to ask her?”

“If Sarah McCoffrey likes me. Duh.”

Her?”

“What’s wrong with her?”

“Isn’t she super-Christian? Like Bibles and cross necklaces all the time? Are you sure she’s even –”

Mira stared at me blankly. “Christians can be gay too, Hannah.”

I suddenly felt dumb. “Well, uh, I just assumed –”

My foot hit the brake.

Screeeeeech.

We jolted to a halt.

A deer sauntered across the road. It stopped in the center and turned towards us, its eyes glowing in the headlights. “Oh my gosh, that scared the bejeezus out of me,” Mira said. My heart pounded in my chest.

But then she grew annoyed. “Wait, wait, we’re not supposed to stop! Remember? Rule #3. We’re going to screw it up!”

“What do you want me to do, plow into the deer? We have to wait for it to cross.”

“Fine.”

But as we sat there, the deer didn’t move. It just stood there, in the headlights, watching us. Get out of the way. Come on!

Finally – as if my thoughts willed it – it took a step.

Not towards the woods. A step forward, towards our car. “What’s it doing?” Mira asked. It walked closer, its fur scratching against the hood of the car, until it was just a few feet from my window. It stared at me with those black, glinting eyes.

Then it reared its head –

And rammed against the car.

Thump!

“What the hell?!” I screamed.

The car jolted forward, and we sped down the dark road. “What a crazy-ass deer. It must be rabid or something.” Mira shook her head. “Is the car okay? Did it leave a dent?”

“No idea. If it did, Mom’s going to kill me.”

We drove for the next few minutes in silence, save for the crackles of static from the radio. The road continued through the forest, growing even darker and narrower. I don’t like this at all. Maybe we should turn around –

Suddenly, the static on the radio stopped.

But when I looked at the glowing console, it no longer said FM RADIO; it said BLUETOOTH AUDIO, like it usually does when my phone is connected.

“Hannah?”

A man’s voice came through the speakers, cut with static.

“Hannah, hey, you there?”

I gulped. “…Dad? Is that you?”

“Yeah!” He laughed his cheerful, warm laugh. “Sorry to call you so late. But I happen to be driving through Blairstown right now – had a work thing in Philly. Do you want to meet up?”

“Now?” I said.

“Yeah. Where are you? We can meet at that 24-hour diner –”

“I’m with Mira. We’re uh, just on a little adventure.”

“Oh, sounds fun!” He laughed again. “Well, do you want to meet up? I’ll be there in about fifteen minutes.”

I glanced at Mira.

“Yeah, okay.”

Click.

“I’m so sorry, Mira. We’ll have to do this some other time.” I began turning the wheel, to swing left. “I haven’t seen my dad in six months, and we’ve been trying to reach each other –”

Mira thrust her hand into my pocket.

“Hey! What are you –”

She pulled out my phone. “You turned your phone off, remember? It was in the rules.” Her voice began to tremble. “There’s no way that could’ve been your dad, Hannah.”

“But I –”

“Do not, at any point, attempt to turn around. Rule #4, remember?”

I stared out the window. At the disjointed shadows; at the road that disappeared into the black.

And then I continued forward.

Tears burned at my eyes. Hearing his voice again… I shook my head, forcing the thought out of my head. The static faded back in. The road began to dip down, as if we were finally descending the mountain. Wayward branches scraped at the car. I slowly rolled down the window; but the summer air was silent, devoid of crickets, wind, rustling.

And then Mira screamed.

“Watch out!”

A blur of white darted out of the forest. In front of the car. I hit the brakes.

But it was too late.

Thump.

“What was that?” Mira asked, her voice trembling.

“Another deer, maybe.”

But I knew it wasn’t. My entire body felt numb, frozen, paralyzed. I didn’t want to know what was under the car. What had just happened. I wanted to turn around, speed as fast as I could away from this place.

But I forced myself to open the door. Took a shaking step onto the cold asphalt.

The headlights shone into the darkness, motes of dust and debris swirling in the light. The surrounding forest was silent. My heart thrummed in my chest. I stared at the ground as I paced towards the front of the car, waiting for something terrible to come into view.

Nothing here, so far. Maybe I’m okay.

I took another step.

Still nothing.

I took another, rounding the corner.

No.

I crumpled to my knees.

White cloth. Wrinkled, crushed, stained deep red. Patches of pale skin poking out. A tangle of red hair.

I shot to my feet. As soon as Mira’s eyes met mine, she understood. “Oh my God, Hannah –”

I broke into choking sobs. “I didn’t mean to. I didn’t even see her. It’s my fault. I can’t believe –”

My sentence ended in a strangled yelp.

Something grabbed my ankle.

Hard.

It violently tugged. I fell to the ground, screaming. The tar scraped against my chest. The metal bumper hit my head with a sickening thump.

It was pulling me under the car.

And then darkness. Darkness, save for the few inches of light between the dark metal of the car and the pavement. “Help!” I screamed; my voice was muffled, muted, under the car. I thrashed and squirmed, but the grip held tight.

And then Mira’s face appeared.

She grabbed my hand and pulled. “Hannah! Hold on!” she screamed.

Within a few seconds, I was out. Panting in the darkness. “Hannah, are you okay?” she kept asking, but all I could hear was a ringing in my ears.

Vrrrrrmmm.

We looked up.

The red-haired woman was no longer under the car.

And the car was rolling forward.

“Run!”

The car roared towards us. The mirror glanced off my shoulder. I flew into the forest, branches and trees scraping across my chest. When I finally got back up, the car was already turning around, coming back to finish us off.

“How do we get out of here?” I screamed, nearly out of breath. “I have no idea,” Mira yelled back, several feet from me in the darkness. The headlights flashed across the trunks.

Snap, snap, snap.

The car was half off the road, threatening to follow us into the forest.

“Help!” Mira screamed. “Someone, please!”

A voice, over the roar of the engine, the sounds of our ragged breaths, replied: “Yes?”

We both looked up. There, in the shadows of the trees –

Was a woman wearing a purple dress.

You may ask her one question. One question, only, and she has to answer it. I no longer wanted to ask about my Dad; all of that was gone from my mind. I took a deep breath, and shouted:

“How do we get out of here?”

She smiled, suddenly just a few feet from us. “That’s always the question, isn’t it?” She pointed into the darkness of the woods. “Run that way, until you find the stream. Turn right; in ten minutes you’ll find yourselves on a residential street.”

We didn’t need to be told twice.

We ran through the darkness, the roar of the car fading into the distance. We didn’t stop until we got to the stream; then we turned, like she instructed, until we knocked on the nearest house.

***

The police never found my car. They just tossed our file in with the rest of the strange occurrences on Victoria’s Road.

So, yes. The legend of Victoria’s Road is true. Every person who drives down it gets one question answered. But the question they choose to ask is always the same: “How do I get out of here?”

But that doesn’t mean our other questions went unanswered.

The experience forced us to ask the questions ourselves, to the people who could answer them. In the wake of such terror, asking out the girl you like – or calling up your estranged dad – just doesn’t seem that scary anymore.

We got our answers.

Will you?

Google Street View

Yesterday, I looked up our house on Google Street View.

I wish I didn’t.

The picture showed our little blue A-frame perfectly. The flowerboxes leaning out of the kitchen window, filled with morning glories. The cedar rocking chair. The splotch of brown paint on the steps from when I painted the desk.

But there were two people standing on the porch. Two people I didn’t recognize. Even though their faces were blurred out, I knew they couldn’t be us – we’re Indian, and they were clearly white.

“Who are those people?” my brother, Arjun, asked.

“I have no idea.” I leaned in to the computer screen, squinting at the pixels. “Maybe some of my friends from school?” But I knew that couldn’t be true. They looked like adults: the man and woman were both wearing gray, tailored suits. I don’t know of any 15-year-old that dresses like they work on Wall Street.

“Maybe it’s an old picture,” I said. “Maybe they’re the previous owners.”

But that didn’t seem right, either. First of all, the text in the corner read “Street View – July 2017.” Second, they didn’t seem to just be hanging out and relaxing at their own home. The woman was standing at the corner of the porch, weight on one hip, arms crossed over her chest. The man stood unnaturally straight, as if he were posing for the photo, hands deep in his pockets.

“Maybe it’s photoshopped.”

I turned to him. “Really, Arjun?”

He shrugged. “I dunno. Maybe the photoshopped it purposely. To scare us. To make us move.”

“You really think Google would let someone mess with their photos?”

He shrugged. “All those big companies, and organizations, and celebrities are super corrupt. Like Hillary Clinton. She’s been doing Satanic rituals for years, and she’s the ringleader of –”

I cut him off. “I see. Another conspiracy theory.” Sometimes I think the hospital must’ve messed with his brain all those years ago. Don’t worry, we’ll heal you up, little baby. Let us just upload some crazy theories into your head first.

“It’s not a theory. It’s true.”

“You sound like an idiot.”

“Mom says you shouldn’t call me that, Diya.”

“Whatever. It’s not photoshopped.”

“Okay, then what do you think it is?”

I stared at the photo. Those two people… they looked familiar, almost. Something about them – their gray suits, their matching silver shoes – rung a bell. “I don’t know,” I said, finally.

Arjun eventually returned to his room – probably to tweet some more conspiracy theories to his 51 followers. How they let a 13-year-old own a Twitter account is beyond me. I went back to my homework. At least, I tried to. Every few minutes, my eyes tore away from the algebra textbook and back to the photo.

Where had I seen them before?

***

Friday went by at a snail’s pace. Between getting a C+ on a quiz and nearly falling asleep in History, I forgot all about the weird Street View image. After school, I grabbed a yogurt and headed straight for my room.

But I froze when my eyes fell on a picture, hanging next to the stairs.

It was a photo of Arjun and me. My mom had taken it when we visited Philadelphia a few years ago. Arjun was holding some sort of toy helicopter; I was wearing weird floral jeans and sparkly hair clips. But there, behind us, were two people.

Two people wearing gray suits and silver shoes.

I grabbed the framed picture off the wall, brought it up to my face. A blonde woman, arms crossed over her chest; a dark-haired man, hands in his pockets. Their faces weren’t blurred out in this one, but they were wearing dark sunglasses.

“Mom?” I called, heading back into the kitchen. “Do you remember taking this picture? In Philadelphia?”

“Oh yeah, sure,” she replied, through chops of broccoli. “Why?”

“Who are those people behind us?”

Mom took the photo and brought it close to her face. Her eyes were calm, searching… and then, suddenly, they widened. “Just random people,” she said, brusquely.

“But I saw them –”

“Shouldn’t you be doing your homework?” she snapped.

“It’s Friday, Mom.”

“But your grades aren’t good.” She didn’t give the photo back to me; instead, she set it down on the counter. “You should be studying, not inspecting old family photos.”

I turned around and ran up the stairs. That stung… a lot. Usually Mom treats me like I’m made of glass – always praising me, hugging me, telling me how wonderful I am. Yelling at Arjun, sure – but me? It was out of character, to say the least.

I plopped down in front of the computer, typed in maps.google.com. I should be planning my 16th birthday party. It’s only two weeks away. Or on Facebook, checking if Bria Pierce dumped Chad yet.

But I wasn’t. I was here, on Google Maps, staring at them. The gray suits, the silver shoes, the faces that were blurred into blobs of unidentifiable flesh.

Then, on a whim, I typed in a different address. __ Roxanne Ct. Our old address. The house we’d lived in before moving here.

The image loaded.

There, in the front yard, stood two figures.

Wearing gray suits.

What?! I zoomed in, staring at the screen. Wisps of blonde hair fell on the shoulders of the woman. The man held his hands in his pockets. They both stood there in the front lawn, in plain sight, as if nothing was amiss. The text read “Street View – May 2012.”

When we’d lived there.

My hands trembled against the keyboard. My heart pounded in my chest. But I forced myself to type a third address: __ 6th St. The tiny “starter house” we’d lived in several years ago.

The image loaded. A cute, white ranch with 2 windows in front, a carpet of fluorescent-green grass, and a cracked cobblestone walkway appeared.

The porch was empty.

I breathed a sigh of relief. They weren’t there. No one standing on the lawn, in the driveway, or anywhere around the house. If it those people were following us, they’d be here, too. I took slow, deep breaths, calming my racing heart.

I was about to click away, when something caught my eye.

Something in the window.

I zoomed in. The window was dark, cut by white lines separating the glass into panes. But in the lower right pane – there was something there. Pale, pressed up against the glass.

I zoomed in again.

It was a face.

Fear coursed through my veins. I slammed the laptop shut, leapt out of my chair. And then I did what any terrified teenager would do.

I ran downstairs to Mom. “Mom!” I called, fear trembling my voice. “Mom –”

I stopped.

The broccoli lay strewn over the kitchen island, half-chopped. The faucet dripped; the napkins lay on the floor. “Mom?”

“We’re in here.” My mom’s voice. Weak. Trembling.

We’re? Oh, no, no. The two gray suits – were they here? Holding my mom hostage? I ran into the family room, my heart pounding.

But it wasn’t them.

It was Dad.

“Dad? Aren’t you… supposed to be at work?” I said. I glanced from the grim expression on his face, to the tears staining Mom’s cheeks. “What happened? Oh my God, did Grandma –”

“Grandma’s fine,” Dad said.

I stared at them.

“We need to talk to you,” Mom said, her voice broken with sobs. “About something… something we did a long time ago.”

I sat down on the ottoman, a heavy weight settling in my chest.

“Do you remember when Arjun was very sick in the hospital? When you were about six?” Dad asked, folding his hands in his lap.

That’s random. But I nodded. The hospital… the red-haired nurse who gave me a lollipop… the vending machine that had the vanilla wafers… It was all fuzzy, distorted and blurred through the lens of time.

At the time, I was too young to understand exactly what was going on with Arjun. But I was old enough to know my brother was very sick, and that my parents were miserable.

“You remember how suddenly he recovered, right?” Dad said, his tone falling from explanatory to miserable. “The doctors couldn’t explain it. Said it was a miracle. Do you remember what we told you?”

“Two angels came down straight from heaven, touched his chest, and healed his lungs.” I repeated mechanically. They must’ve told me that story hundreds of times.

“There was some truth in it. We were approached in the hospital by two people, claiming they could heal Arjun.” He averted my eyes. “For a price. We told them we were fine with whatever price they wanted. If we didn’t have the money, we’d take out loans. We’d pay them back for the rest of our lives if we had to.”

“Two people… wearing gray suits?”

He nodded. “After they healed him, they told us the price. They didn’t want money.” Dad’s voice shuddered, and he looked me in the eye. “They wanted you.”

My heart stopped. “Me?”

“They told us they’d come back for you,” Mom finally said, her eyes wet with tears. “That they’d take you on your sixteenth birthday.”

“But my birthday’s in two weeks.”

She nodded.

“What do you mean, ‘take me’? What are they going to do to me?”

Mom and Dad looked at each other, uncomfortably. “We have no idea,” Dad said, finally breaking the silence.

“We never would have done it if we knew,” Mom said, her voice muffled through a tissue. “I promise that. We love you, Diya, and never wanted to –”

“We thought we could escape them,” Dad broke in, cutting her off. “We’d just move into the middle of nowhere. Change our names, maybe. How could they find us after that? But they always did.”

They’d found us at every house we’ve ever lived in. Street View confirmed that.

Mom got up, and pulled an old photo album off the bookshelf. Wordlessly, she dropped it in my lap. “They follow us, wherever we go.”

I flipped it open.

Arjun and I eating ice cream at Cold Stone. At the next table, with their backs to us, two people sharing a milkshake.

Two people in gray suits.

Arjun and I at the lake, hitting each other with pool noodles. In the distance, near the woods, two gray figures. Watching.

Arjun and I at the carnival. In the background, lit by the red-and-white lights of the dragon rollercoaster, they stood. Wearing sunglasses, despite the darkness.

They were always following. Watching. Waiting.

There was nowhere I could hide.

“So that’s it? They’re just going to… take me… in two weeks?”

My parents looked at each other, tears in their eyes. And then they nodded.

We hugged and cried for a long time. Then I went up to my room, turned on the computer, and opened a new tab.

Not Google Maps.

Google.

I began to type, my fingers flying across the keyboard. Guns. Bombs. Mace. Tasers. Weapons of any and every kind. How to buy. Where to purchase. Expedited shipping? Yes. I’ve only got two weeks, after all.

They may be coming for me.

But I will not go gently into that good night.

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