photo by Neil Lockhart From Dreamstime.com

photo by Neil Lockhart from Dreamstime.com

In the spirit of Halloween and all things dark and creepy, I give you a 1000-word story. Ya’ll know I’m all about Halloween and I’m loving Alabama, too. So, nothing personal here. Now sit back and imagine the dueling banjos from Deliverance….

THE DETOUR

Laurie Woodlaw was ready to begin a new life after a recent divorce. She’d explained her need to start over somewhere without the fear of running into her cheating ex-husband. Her coworkers and neighbors understood. After all, Laurie was a recent transplant and had no relatives in the area. The young couple hadn’t been in town long enough to make any close friends. So, she waved goodbye to her neighbors as she pulled out of the driveway. “God speed!” they yelled before returning their attention to the garden.

She drove through the green, hilly, mountains of the Deep South. Thunder rumbled in the distance and dark clouds gathered overhead. Laurie had hoped the rainstorm would hold off until she found her motel, but she’d managed to miss a turn and found herself winding through a forested, desolate highway.

Giant rain drops began to strike her windshield, slowly at first and then in sheets. Her wipers could not keep up with the downpour. I need to stop and wait for the storm to pass. Is that a gas station up ahead? She leaned forward and peered between quick smears of the wiper. Two gas pumps stood in front of a country store. The structure was set back in a grove between a couple of ancient trees draped with Spanish Moss.

Laurie directed her car towards the dilapidated station. The windows were dark; the front door had been boarded up. Luckily, I don’t need gas. Her tires sloshed through the muddy gravel as she pulled to the side of the  abandoned building.

The radio station faded in and out unable to find a proper frequency so far into the backwoods. Faint chords of a pop song intermingled with increasing static. Manually adjusting the tuner, the only thing that came in clearer was a zealot preacher expounding on eternal damnation for those who refuse to heed all the signs announcing the end of times. Laurie rolled her eyes and snapped off the radio before slumping in her seat to wait for better weather.

The wind picked up and the trees shook with vigor. Gusts thrashed hanging vines and moss, but they stubbornly clung to the trees they strangled. Laurie zipped her sweatshirt due to the rapid drop in temperature.

BAM! BAM!

Laurie jumped; her mouth went dry and pulse sped up. Something had hit the back of her car. She whipped around, but couldn’t see through her foggy back window. A sense of apprehension weighed down her shoulders. I need to get out of here. She whipped around to start the ignition.

Laurie’s heart flung itself at her chest. Fear immobilized her as she stared, mouth agape. A little girl stood at the driver’s side door. Laurie swallowed and used her sleeve to remove the vapor from her window.

Soaking wet, the horribly pale child didn’t move or open her mouth to speak. She glowered, chin downward and eyes unblinking. Where are her parents? Is she lost? The girl’s dark-rimmed eyes bored through her.

Nauseated and shaking, she rolled down the window. “Are you all right? Are you out here all alone?”

The child focused on the rear the car. The fogged window prevented Laurie from seeing if someone stood near the trunk. A crack of thunder preceded a shock of lightning. Laurie’s stomach pitched, bile built up in the back of her throat? “Are you lost? Where are your parents?”

The child pointed behind her car.

Laurie stuck her head out the window to get a better look. “Hello? Is someone there?” she yelled over the storm. Her peripheral vision caught something creeping near her front bumper. Just as she turned to check, a large figure stood upright and rushed at her.

*****

A piercing headache jolted Laurie from sleep. Her eyes snapped open. A trio of people peered down at her. She’d heard of Hill Dwellers before, but had never seen any. No one ever did. They lived deep in the woods and existed without contact from the outside world. She rubbed her eyes trying to wake up from a disturbingly realistic dream. Was I in an accident?

The two men and young girl didn’t vanish when she opened her eyes again. They only came into sharper focus. Laurie’s muddled mind let go of its doubt.

They were real.

She sat upright on a straw pallet. The three onlookers moved back with her sudden movement, but their eyes never left her.

“Pappy…the lady dudn’t talk.”

An older man with a bushy beard scowled. His long, matted hair dripped rain onto his emaciated chest. He pushed the child back using a giant calloused hand. “Shut up, Dissy. Kin’t ya see. She’s not dumb. She’s ascared.”

“She’s sure purdy, aint she pa?”

A younger man wearing coveralls and a stained ball cap smiled revealing a gap between discolored teeth. He wiped his nose with the sleeve of a grungy, checkered flannel shirt.

Laurie scooted back until hitting a rough log wall. Crimson splotches covered the front of her blouse. When she cupped her throbbing forehead, her fingers came away sticky from a bloody gash. “Where am I? Was I in an accident?”

“She talks, pa!” The young girl with crossed eyes touched Laurie’s cheek. “She’s real soft, too.”

“Get outta her, Dissy. You’s always in the way!” The younger man shoved the girl aside so hard she landed on her backside onto the debris-covered dirt floor.

“Who are you?” Laurie swallowed a lump as a vague memory surfaced. “Did you hit me?”

“Now, Miss, don’t git riled-up,” the old man said.

Laurie stood on wobbly legs and took two steps toward the door before he gripped her arm.

“Ain’t no sense in runnin’, Missy. You’ll never get out of the holler by yerself. And yer car’s ‘proly good’n mired in mud at the bottom of Raven Creek by now.” The men chortled.

“Please, let me go.” Laurie’s voice cracked.

The elder spit a stream of tobacco on the floor. “It ain’t all bad. We ain’t plannin’ on hurtin’ nobody—if you’s a clever learner.”

The younger man leaned closer. Laurie drew back and turned her head, but his hot breath still reached her. He cupped her chin, turning her face towards him before pushing a strand of her hair back with his dirty hands. “Yep. You’ll do fine.” He turned to the older man. “I done picked a good ‘un this time.”

“Hope so, Junior.” The old man scratched his head. “You never know.”

Laurie’s heartbeat throbbed in her ears. “I…I…need to go. Please.”

Dissy danced on tiptoes; her sackcloth dress stuck to her bony frame. Her feet were black from the ankle down. She sang, “You’s gonna be my new ma! You’s gonna be my new ma!”

“Now look here, Junior,” the old one said. “Don’t you wear this ‘un out like them others. They’s getting’ a lot harder to hunt fer.”

Laurie’s stomach lurched. “Others?”

“My wives.” Junior smiled.

“There!” Dissy pointed. Between two ten-point antlers, three female human heads were stuffed and mounted.

“They wasn’t up to snuff…but maybe you’ll work out better’n them.”

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