Last Stop: Sneak Peek!


LAST STOP: Horror on Route Thirteen

Ripped from the minds of thirteen authors and compiled David Green, this shared-world anthology of dread will make you never wanting to leave home again.

Authored by the talented:


Holley Cornetto ~ L. T. Emery ~ Peter J. Foote

J.W. Garrett ~ David Green ~ Stephen Herczeg

Abigail Linhardt ~ Beth W. Patterson ~ Lynne Phillips

Austin Shirey ~ Joshua D Taylor ~ V. A. Vazquez ~ Patrick Winters


Releasing October 30, 2021 - Grab your pre-order now for the special price of only $1.99 mybook.to/LastStop


We are so excited to share this story with you we wanted to give you a little preview of what is to come. We hope you enjoy ...


TW: Violence, death, gore, murderous sacrifice, swearing


PROLOGUE

A PLACE YOU’LL NEVER LEAVE

By David Green


You ever heard of it? Route Thirteen?

No, not the one in North Carolina. The real one.

You won’t find it on no map, won’t come across no tourist guides urging you to travel it. Oh no. Not old Route Thirteen. You dig around though, you unearth secrets best left buried, best left forgotten…

But you’re a curious sort. Can tell by that twinkle in your eye. Well, lemme tell you a little ‘bout what you might find.

Our Route Thirteen runs through Idaho; a winding, forgotten dirt road making its way past a one-horse town called Chevron and a canyon of ill-repute named Devil’s Ladder.

Yeah, you heard me. Devil’s Ladder. County’s that kinda place.

Let’s say some Godforsaken urge takes you, makes you drive that road. You’ll come across a place, eventually—it’ll find you when the time’s right, don’t you worry ‘bout that—name of Whiskey Pete’s. Looks like any old bar and motel stranded alongside a road in the middle of nowhere, till you peer a little closer.

I suggest you do, take a real good look at it, then get back in your vehicle, and keep right on truckin’.

Say you don’t.

Say you’ve taken leave of your senses, and you take a stroll inside. I’d put every goddamn thing I own on you meeting this cast of characters:

Con Muldoon, barkeep and grunter extraordinaire.

Lorne W. Peterson, Canadian shop keep, has a name-tag reading ‘Dale’. No one knows why.

Young Joel Masterson… Inspect that one, all’s not what a first glance might tell ya.

Old Melvin Washington. Some say he knew his more famous namesake, not least hisself.

Last, but not least, Stacey Jenkins. Well, the less said about her, the better.

Now. Let’s say you wandered on in there, laid eyes on the folk I just mentioned. You hightail it out of there, and don’t ever think of coming back; don’t stop till your ride’s running on fumes. That’s my advice, given free. Take it or leave it.

It’s the kinda joint where time don’t run straight. Things, places, names, even the goddamn furniture don’t act the way they’re s’pose to. It changes. Twists, like it’s-a molding itself to whatever’s in your noggin’, fitting into memories best left forgotten.

Just like Whiskey Pete’s.

How’d I know about Whiskey Pete’s on Route Thirteen? Now you’re asking the right questions!

Hmm… It’s not a place the unlucky folk who darken its door often leave, and if you’re fortunate to get out, never make the mistake of thinking you escaped. Their reach is long.

No one ever really leaves Whiskey Pete’s…



NIA AND JAMIE

By Patrick Winters

It was 2:07am, and Jamie was getting jittery as hell.

He twisted his head around, glaring out the back window and scanning the street, looking over all the neighboring house-fronts with a wary eye. Households were quiet all along the block, not a single porch light on and nary a glow in any window, where an insomniac or night-owl could be staring out from, taking note of the young man sitting in his car. But darkness keeps secrets well. Maybe someone was watching him—peeking out through a curtain, hiding away in the dark.

He eased back into his seat, staring up to Nia’s second-floor window, urging it to open and for her to come out.

Come on, baby. He was getting so paranoid, even the thoughts in his head were whispering. Where are you?

Jamie forced himself to loosen his death-grip on the steering wheel of his ’77 Aspen. Another minute passed—or several—and he was starting to sweat up a storm.

He ground his teeth and wiped an arm across his forehead. He debated rolling down the window, arguing with himself as to whether the whirring of the glass could wake the neighbors. He finally found the nerve, and put the front windows all the way down. A slight breeze wafted in, cooling and calming him some. Not nearly enough.

They found out. Her folks have got her locked up tight. Daddy probably called his buddies on the force. They’ve got squad cars coming over right now, ready to drag your ass away…

He could hear the echo of their sirens now, ringing through the fear, closing in on him. His hands started wringing the steering wheel again, and that voice in his head grew traitorous. Go. Now. Forget this crazy idea and get the fuck out of Dodge.

Jamie strong-armed that thought away, shaking his head. “Fuck that.”

“Fuck what?”

The whisper from his right sent a chill down his spine, and he whipped his head around to see who had discovered him. His dread washed away when he saw it was Nia, looking in at him with a bemused smile on that gorgeous face.

Jamie gave a nervous laugh. “Jeez, babe. You about scared the shit out of me.”

Nia tossed a bulging duffel bag through the window. It smacked against Jamie, and he set it in the backseat as Nia slipped into the passenger’s side. She was careful to ease the door closed, quiet as possible.

“What took you so lo—?”

Jamie’s concern was cut off as Nia slid up to him and kissed him full on the lips. Her embrace instantly worked its magic on him, as only hers ever could. The tension in his muscles eased, his fears crawled back into their dark hideaways, and any doubts of what they planned to do were cast aside, if only for this one serene moment.

This. This feeling between them. This was what they were fighting to keep alive, what they would ensure was theirs, at the cost they were about to pay. And to preserve that blissful bond, the cost was well worth it.

Jamie pulled Nia in closer, holding the kiss a moment longer. When she pulled away, he was left wanting more.

“Sorry I’m late,” she whispered. “I thought I heard dad down in the kitchen. Didn’t want to risk coming out until he was back in bed.”

Jamie set a hand on her forearm, rubbing at it gently. “For a minute there, I was thinking we were done for.”

“No way.” Nia said, setting her hand on his. Jamie found some extra resolve in how steady and gentle that touch was. “We’re just getting started.”

They shared another quick kiss—a peck of reassurance—before Nia slid back and buckled herself in. Jamie started up the car, jaw rigid with renewed anxiety as the engine grumbled to life. He put the car in gear and slowly pulled it away from the curb, keeping his headlights off until the next block.

“Okay,” Jamie sighed, eyes darting about as he drove. “Here we go.”

Nia gave him a small smile of confidence. But as she left behind the only home she’d ever known, Jamie saw that smile fall away, and she looked out to the dark night with uncertainty on her beautiful face.

#

It was the third morning of the young couple’s great escape. So far, so good.

There was no plan. No predetermined routes or timetables to adhere to. The only concrete destination they’d ever had in mind was ‘away,’ and that suited Jamie and Nia just fine, for the time being. Once they’d left their hometown of Astoria behind, they’d headed southeast, saying farewell to the waters of the Pacific, which they’d known and swam in all their young lives. From there, they’d taken Route 30, which could have delivered them all the way to the other side of the country.

But, once they reached the hustle and bustle of Portland, the allure of major routes and highways faded quickly. With their newfound, flexible lease on life, they could take whatever path they wanted, wherever they wanted to take it.

So it was no big decision when Jamie opted to get off US Route 30 and head on down Route Thirteen, which neither of them had ever heard of before.

The traffic dried up, and it looked like it would give them free rein of more back road options. Nia agreed to try some out-of-the-way areas, which held a certain adventurous—even romantic—charm.

They made stops when they needed to, to stretch their legs or grab a quick bite to eat. Something simple and cheap. They’d enough forethought to bring food along for the trip, but it was mostly snacks and junk food. They’d accepted that true, warm meals would be few and far between, at least until they settled down somewhere. Motel rooms would be just as scarce. They could afford one now and again, if conditions were rough, but they figured it would be best to save their money whenever they could manage. With the pleasant spring weather setting in, their nights and days of travel were more than comfortable, and Jamie’s Aspen was roomy enough for them to sleep in. That’s what they’d done every night thus far, pulling off to the side of the road or into abandoned lots in the many towns they passed, one sprawling out in the backseat and the other in the front to catch a few winks—though there was enough room for two in the backseat, at least on certain occasions. It made for a modest home, to say the very least, but they didn’t mind it.

That home carried them across the Oregon-Idaho state line, and Jamie saw the crossing as a cause for celebration. He cranked up the radio, which happened to be playing Around the World by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Nia knew they were one of Jamie’s favorite bands, but his appreciation didn’t match the performance he gave as he started to sing along to the tune. His memory failed him as he mumbled over the rhythm, and what lyrics he could remember were lost to his own laughter as he gyrated and grooved behind the wheel. Nia cracked up alongside him, tears welling in her eyes as she laughed and laughed.

But, once they turned the radio down low and the conversation ran sparse again, her mind began to wander. No matter how much she believed in what they were doing, no matter how she told herself it could actually work out for them, the rational, fearful part of her had to throw the insanity of it back up in her face. And though her sight was on the road’s edge, her mind’s eye turned back to the past.

She’d first met Jamie at a party, a little over a year ago. A friend of a friend, and when they’d first been introduced, she was smitten, no doubt. Not head over heels for him—that would come later—but his charms, and how he’d made her laugh that night, made her want to see more of him by the party’s end. Plenty more.

He became a permanent fixture in her young mind, And that fixture became a star she’d wished upon, after the hangouts that followed, and the outright dates, where they became so close so quickly. She wished to be with him, totally and truly, as only those old, classic love stories would allow. Living their lives together as they saw fit.

The trouble was, Nia had been a fresh sixteen at the time of the party, and Jamie had already turned twenty. And considering where the relationship had turned in recent months, there was a name for what their case was.

Their families—specifically, the difference in their races—provided a whole other problem. Jamie was from a working-class white family. His mother had died when he was thirteen, leaving him to raise himself, taking up two jobs by the time he’d finished high school to keep himself afloat. His father had been a hard-nosed dockworker since before Jamie was born, and he didn’t much care about Jamie’s school work, or his jobs, or much of anything else regarding his son. When Nia had broken down and asked how his father would react to him being with a black girl, Jamie had averted his eyes and shrugged, simply saying: “He’d take it or leave it.” And she knew well enough to realize what that meant.

Then there was her family, and therein lay the greater fallout. Her family was higher up in the Astoria chain, so much so that a few small businesses had their last name plastered across spots in the city. And her father had ‘connections’, which were occasionally alluded to by friends and family but never given much elaboration for her understanding. Some in the police, some in other places.

It wasn’t snap-your-fingers-get-your-way kind of clout, but it was clout all the same, and her parents held their good name to a high standard. As good-hearted and community-minded as they often were, they had drawn dividing lines in the sand when it came to dealing with ‘the majority’, as Nia had often heard it put through the years. The idea of her even dating a white man would have been met with her parents’ criticism.

And if they’d even suspected, much less known, about Jamie and just how far their relationship had gone…

The connections would have come out, and Jamie and Nia’s time together would’ve been snuffed. They’d end up the whispered subjects of small town gossip, and Jamie would live the next stint of his life behind bars on a statutory rape charge, if her father pulled enough of those strings.

When Jamie first mentioned the idea of their running away, he’d passed it off as a joke. But she hadn’t laughed, because from the first mention, it held a certain temptation. A temptation that went past the youthful angst of wanting to get away from whatever held your wild soul down.

No, this was something stronger. Truer. And for them to be together—with no more facades, or doubts, or waiting—it would be worth it.

They’d hatched their getaway for about a month, getting things ready, trying to plan for the realities that would hit them on the road. Jamie had a decent amount saved from his jobs, and Nia’s token position at McDonald’s added a little to their collective wallet. They would go wherever they felt like going, do whatever they felt like doing, until they found a place they felt was suitable for them. And once there, they’d settle down. Get an apartment or whatever they could afford, take up any jobs that presented themselves, and make a life that was all their own.

It wouldn’t be easy, by any means, but it would be of their own choice, and that was something.

There were plenty of opportunities ahead of them. Plenty of pitfalls, too. And while their journey thus far had shown nothing but opportunity, Nia wondered when the first pitfall would present itself.

“How you doing over there, sweet cakes?”

Nia snapped out of her thoughts and turned to Jamie. She’d been massaging her knuckles across her lips without realizing it. A habit of hers, whenever she was feeling doubtful.

“Doing fine, sugar lips.” She put her hand in her lap, hoping Jamie didn’t pick up on the tell. “Taking in the view.”

He nodded, looking back to the road with a ponderous expression on his face. “Hey. What did the prostitute say to the potato?”

Nia shook her head and held back a grin. “I have no idea.”

“Idaho.”

She couldn’t hold back the snort that came, and as he chuckled at her, she gave him a punch to the arm.

“God, you’re awful!”

“Awful? Hmm… That German for ‘comic genius’ or something?”

“Or something, for sure.”

Jamie gave her a loving grin and a wink. Nia, still shaking her head, looked out the window again, taking in the scenery for real this time. Eventually, she turned her attention to the radio. She started searching for something else to listen to.

When she happened upon a station playing Blinding Lights by The Weekend, she cranked it up, and it was her turn to serenade Jamie. Both would have agreed she did a better job of it.

#

Four hours later, they were still on the road. They’d gone a good distance, zipping on through the Payette National Forest and making a single stop in that time, taking advantage of a rest area to relieve themselves and stretch their legs. The mood had been up. More sing-alongs, more ideas of where they’d go and what they’d do when they got there.

So, when Nia started to groan, bracing her hands against her knees, Jamie knew something was up.

“You okay?” he asked.

Her eyes rolled before she squeezed them shut, breathing quickly in and out through her nose. “No,” she said. Then her cheeks bulged, and her throat gave a lurch. “Pull over, please!”

Jamie made certain there was no one behind them—and there wasn’t, just as there hadn’t been for most of the trip down Route Thirteen—then pulled the Aspen over just as Nia threw off her seatbelt. She had the door open and was out of the car before he could even put it in park. When he cut the engine, her composure broke and she vomited.

Jamie got out and made his way around to her, sparing a glance at the flanks of pine surrounding them on either side of the road. Some bird cawed from atop all the green, and the faint trickle of a nearby stream could just barely be heard beneath that. It would’ve been a pleasant enough scene, under different circumstances.

But as Nia retched again, with force, the tranquility was lost.

Jamie paused a couple steps behind her, wanting to comfort her and give her some space at the same time. His own stomach remained steadfast as he saw the muck that was making its way out of her—the snacks she’d eaten here and there today, or what remained.

“It’s okay, baby,” he cooed. “Just let it out. Take deep breaths when you can.”

She let loose again, then righted herself some, spitting and catching her breath. He eased on up to her and set a hand to her back, ready to hold her up if she started to get lightheaded. After another moment of catching her bearings, Nia turned about, revolving slowly, eyes down. She looked embarrassed, or maybe she was still holding back whatever was wrestling in her stomach.

“You okay?”

“Yeah,” she said weakly. “Better, at least.”

“Seemed kind of sudden.”

She shook her head. “Started feeling sick a little bit ago.”

Jamie tried to sound caring, not demeaning. “You should have told me.”

“Sorry.” She reached out a hand to him as they made their way back to the car. “Hoped it would pass.”

“Nothing to be sorry about. Here we go, sweet stuff.”

He helped her ease in before he got back behind the wheel. He shut the door, and they sat there for a moment, relaxing.

“Feeling better?” he asked.

She gave the smallest of reassuring smiles. “Yeah. My stomach’s settled.”

“What do you think brought it on? You been feeling sick at all before now?”

Nia shook her head and set her eyes to the glove compartment, clearing her throat and staying quiet. Jamie wasn’t sure he believed her.

Maybe it’s nerves. Maybe she’s getting doubts and the pressure of this whole thing of ours is literally making her sick to her stomach. Maybe we were wrong, after all.

But he didn’t want to believe that. Couldn’t believe that.

“Maybe it was the fast food from yesterday?” But he shook his head as soon as he said it. “I haven’t been feeling bad though, and we had the same thing.”

Nia shrugged after another moment of mulling things over. “Well, I used to get some motion sickness in the car when I was younger. Sometimes it was pretty bad. But I haven’t had that problem for a long time…”

Jamie thought it over. “Yeah, maybe. We can stop at a pharmacy sometime. See if we find anything for that, just in case. You feel good enough to keep going?”

Nia nodded, but didn’t seem very certain. She still looked dazed and worn out, leaning against the passenger door.

Jamie thought about the most recent miles of their journey, and what to do next. The last town they’d passed through had been a good forty miles back. They’d gone past a spot for a hiking trail just a short while ago, a place called Devil’s Ladder, but there hadn’t been very many other turnoffs or signs of civilization other than that. They seemed to be out in the sticks. Plenty of niches in the woods where they could pull off into and rest, but he wasn’t sure that’s what they needed right now.

“How about we drive a little bit further?” Jamie suggested. “Until we find a town, or a restaurant or something. Somewhere we can go into, rest for a bit. Maybe get something to drink and something to eat, if you feel like it? Then see what you feel like doing from there?”

Nia eased back into her seat, seeming more composed now. “Sure. Sounds good.”

“You sure you’re okay?”

“Yep. I’m good.”

“Because if you hurl on me, I’ll take it personally.”

Nia narrowed her eyes at him as he buckled back up. Then they were back to it.

It seemed that fate was on their side, because it wasn’t very long before an old sign rose up and over the road ahead.

WHISKEY PETE’S

“Here we go,” Jamie said, smacking the wheel. “Looks like we’re in business.”

Although he wasn’t sure if the same could be said for the establishment that came into view. As the road curved into a slight bend, Whiskey Pete’s presented itself with all the fanfare of a blown raspberry. It was, in a sense of character, just there. Functional, at best. A rat trap, at worst. The main building—the bar area—was attached to a modest storefront, and both looked like they’d seen better days, sometime in the previous century. A few gas pumps sat out front, looking equally antiquated. And round the bar’s back was a two-story motel, with a swath of dense forest behind it. Jamie couldn’t speak for the parking of the motel area, as it was out of sight, but the gravel lot of the store and bar was devoid of vehicles.

But their lights were on, and so long as they were serving, the place would suit their needs well enough.

“Be careful parking,” Nia said, as he pulled into the lot. She looked and sounded like she was coming around from her nausea. “Wouldn’t want to ding anybody.”

Jamie grinned at her as he parked. As they got out, he rushed around and kept to Nia’s side, in case the nausea returned or she got dizzy.

The air in Whiskey Pete’s was musty and heavy, clinging and hanging over the couple the moment they entered the joint. Their eyes had to adjust to the dimness of the place, the lighting subpar and casting the room in a haze. It was as modest within as it was without—a small collection of booths and a suitable stretch of bar, a jukebox playing something by Credence Clearwater Revival, if Jamie’s ear for music served him right. Stuffed animal heads on the walls, pool table, restrooms near the back. And not much else. A cozy kind of place, to a certain sort.

Contrary to what the bare lot indicated, there were a few people already inside. A bartender, wiping some glasses at his station; a young man, circling about the pool table and gauging his next shot; and a much older, hunched gentleman sitting and sipping at the bar. Perhaps their cars were parked somewhere around back.

The guy playing pool was the first to acknowledge them. He turned a handsome smile up at them as he paused at a corner, taking the couple in a moment before leaning over and sending the cue ball bouncing.

Jamie and Nia trudged up to the bar, Nia crossing her arms over her stomach and hunching her shoulders in what Jamie took to be a show of uncertainty. He couldn’t blame her. The place didn’t exactly exude an open arms kind of feel.

They stepped up to the bartender, who kept his attention on his glasses. He was a bulky fellow, sporting the kind of heft a retired wrestler or linebacker might have, and was decked out in denim.

“Hey,” Jamie said, easing a hand up to the bar and offering a smile.

It took a moment for the bartender to acknowledge them, and when he did, the look he gave was one of pure indifference. His eyes, oddly enough, were different colors—one green, one blue. It was an outstanding trait that didn’t gel with his working stiff, salt-of-the-earth look.

“Could we get a couple of drinks, please? I’d like a soda. Coke, if you have it. Babe?”

Nia shrugged. “The same, I guess.”

The bartender turned those mismatched eyes to her, giving her a look-over. They hovered on her face for a minute, then turned down to where her arms were crossed over her stomach. His hands slowed, the glass and washcloth in them going still. He stood, absolutely still, his focus on Nia’s abdomen. Then, just when it was about to go from odd to awkward, he glanced back down and went back to his work with a grunt.

“Anything else?”

“Uh, you serve food?”

“I don’t want anything,” Nia added, rather quickly. She shuffled her feet, glancing down as Jamie reconsidered.

“In that case, I think we’re good,” Jamie said, getting out his billfold and handing over some cash. “Just the drinks, please.”

The bartender scooped up the money and popped open the nearby register, giving back the change. “Be right up,” he grumbled.

The pair moved over to a booth, sitting across from each other, Jamie facing the bar and Nia the door. Jamie leaned over the table and whispered: “You okay?”

Nia gave a slight shake of her head, eyes scanning the nooks and crannies of the joint. “This place is kind of creeping me out. Feels like… I don’t know, like the air is pressing in on me. Sort of claustrophobic.”

She glanced over her shoulder and was surprised to see the old man at the bar had half-turned about, sunken eyes set on her. But he wasn’t looking out of curiosity, as one stranger regards another. He was glaring, mouth turned down in a scornful frown, nostrils flaring.

Then he turned back around, shaking his cotton-top head and mumbling something. It sounded like: “General Forrest would roll over in his grave.”

Nia turned back to Jamie. “And the people are so pleasant.”

Jamie reached a hand across to hers, palm-to-palm. “We’ll only stay long enough to finish our drinks and give us time to relax.”

Nia raised her eyebrows in doubt. But if she was about to say anything else, it stayed put as the bartender lumbered into view. He set their sodas down and turned right back about.

“Thank you,” Jamie called to his back. The bartender simply grunted and moved back behind the bar.

The couple started sipping at their drinks, each crinkling their noses at the initial taste. If it was Coke, it didn’t taste like it. Watery as hell and flat. Still, they drank, Nia working hers over quicker than Jamie.

They sat for a few minutes, quietly drinking as the jukebox played on, tunes punctuated now and again by the smacking and sinking of balls at the pool table. Occasionally, one of them would glance up and over to the pool player and realize he was returning the look, showing them that same smile every time. Jamie would give a nod in acknowledgement; Nia would just turn back around, focusing on her glass again.

A while later, Jamie felt nature calling and slipped out of the booth. “Need to take care of business.”

“Hurry back,” Nia said quietly.

Jamie gave her a playful salute and made for the restroom. After a cautious knock on the men’s door, he slipped inside, flicking on the nearby light. The joint’s modesty carried over to the restroom; it was small and cramped, with a single toilet, a crud-covered sink and mirror, and a full wastebasket in the corner. Each wall was covered in a combination of filthy smudges and the classic latrinalia.

He stepped up to the porcelain and started going with the flow, looking over the chicken scratch on the walls as he went. Most messages he couldn’t make out, save for one scrawled in large, crooked print over the toilet.

Pete’s got his eye on you.

Unimpressed with the attempt at roadside creepiness, Jamie zipped up and washed his hands. As he stepped back out and headed for their booth, the old man at the bar turned about, lifting a long-nailed hand in admonishment.

“I didn’t fight in the War of Northern Aggression to see such pairings, boy!” he chastised. “You ought to know better and stick to your own!”

Jamie’s disbelief must have been evident as he stared at the old man, processing what he was getting at. Even if this guy was senile enough to believe he’d been a part of the Civil War, Jamie didn’t have to put up with the bullshit he was selling.

“Just mind your beer and your own business, sir,” Jamie said, trying to keep an even tone. The old man sneered at him, but turned away all the same, and Jamie stomped back to the booth.

“What did that guy say to you?” Nia asked, looking concerned.

“Nothing. Just bragging about a date he had with Cleopatra.”

Nia grinned around her glass as she took another drink, and Jamie looked down to the tabletop. They kept on nursing their drinks as Take It Easy by The Eagles started playing, filling Whiskey Pete’s with calming, soft rock vibes.

Eventually, the jukebox went quiet, and so did the sounds at the pool table. The pool player stepped up to their booth, balancing his cue across his shoulders and draping his arms over each end. He had the air of a Roadhouse extra about him, standing there in his cowboy boots, tight jeans, and plain white t-shirt. He must have been in his mid-twenties, though the fluff on his chin and cheeks looked like it belonged on a younger sort who’d just stepped into puberty.

Up close, his sheen of handsomeness lost its luster; in truth, he was somewhat dopey looking, his dark hair fine and hanging loosely about, his teeth yellowed and crooked.

“Hi there,” he said, pleasantly enough.

Jamie returned the greeting, and Nia offered an obliging half-smile.

“I’m Joel. Pleased to meet ya.”

“Same,” Jamie said, not feeling inclined to give him their names in return. Something about the guy led him to believe this conversation was going to be an awkward one. He could feel it.

Joel looked them both over, but his gaze seemed to linger on Nia for a second or two longer. “Where do you and this pretty little miss hail from, if ya don’t mind me asking?”

“Oregon,” Jamie said, the politeness of his smile becoming forced. “Up north.”

“And where ya planning on heading off to?”

“Oh, nowhere in particular. Just driving around, seeing the country, what it has to offer.”

Joel nodded knowingly. “Sort of a vacation, huh?”

Jamie shrugged. “Something like that.”

Joel gave an “mm-hmm” of appreciation and looked back over to Nia. “Fine company to be on vacation with.”

Jamie sighed and glanced at Nia. They shared a look that said, Can you believe this creep? before Jamie worked up a response. “So, are you from around here? Or are you just passing through too?”

Joel turned back to him with a bitter laugh. “Naw, I stick to these parts.” His voice picked up cheer as he faced the bar and spoke louder. “After all, someone has to make this place a little bit interesting!”

The bartender didn’t bother to respond, his attention on the contents of the register, and the old man just flicked a bony hand up in dismissal, without turning around.

Joel deflated a tad at their indifference, but managed to keep some mirth in his tone. “Stubborn bastards would be lost without me.” Then, to Nia: “I’m the only one around here who knows how to have any real fun.”

The conversation faded out after that, but Joel kept his eyes on Nia while she looked down at the table, squirming ever so slightly in her seat. Jamie noticed it and knew he had to act. “Well, it was nice talking to y—”

“You two an item?” Joel cut in, eyes narrowing at them in curiosity.

“Yes,” Jamie answered. His smile had finally gone away. “Yes, we are.”

“Shame,” Joel sighed, shaking his head and focusing on Nia again. “What I wouldn’t give to know a sweet, young thing like you a little better. And if only ya knew me a little better too! Might just be able to tempt ya away from your strapping sweetie-pie here.” Then, towards the bar: “I’ve wooed more than a couple of fine girlies in my time, haven’t I, fellas?”

The bartender finally looked up, sneering and shouting: “JOEL, SHUT YOUR GODDAMN HOLE!”

Joel shifted his feet, looking wounded. Taking advantage of his silence, Jamie spoke up. “Look, man, we’d like to be left alone now. Okay?”

The cue slipped from Joel’s shoulders as he turned around, holding the stick at his side. “I’m just trying to be friendly,” he said to Jamie matter-of-factly. Then, back to Nia: “Hell, you can’t blame me. Never had a chance to be…friendly…with a colored girl before. I’m curious what it’s like.”

Nia looked up at him in disgust, and he grinned back at her. As Jamie shot up out of his seat, Joel turned the grin on him.

“Fuck off, asshole,” Jamie grumbled. His jaw went rigid, and his fists clenched at his sides as he stared Joel down. But the crude creep rose to the challenge.

“And what’ll you do if I don’t, hero?”

“I’ll shove that cue down your throat and make you swallow every one of those crooked fucking teeth!”

Joel’s show of mockery crumbled after that, and he glared at Jamie with utter hatred. He made to step forward, and Jamie the same, but Nia was quicker than both. She slipped out of the booth and got between them, grabbing hold of Jamie’s arm and trying to drag him towards the door. “Let’s go, Jamie!” she begged. “Let’s just go!”

He struggled against her for a moment, but slowly gave in, walking backwards and keeping Joel in his sights. Joel, meanwhile, stayed put, wringing his pool cue in his hands and watching them go.

“Drive safe, shithead!” he hollered as they went out the door.

They got back into their car in silence. Jamie broke it when he slammed his door shut and smacked the steering wheel. “Asswipe!”

Nia sighed and rubbed her temples as Jamie sat there a moment longer, letting his anger die out. “I’m sorry,” he eventually said. “I’m sorry for suggesting we stop here and I’m sorry for what he said to you.”

“It’s okay.” She set to putting her seatbelt back on, eyes downcast. “Let’s just forget about it and move on.”

Jamie cocked his head and looked out the window, up to the sky above. Only a few golden streaks still arced across the cloudy heavens; night was setting in, and it would be dark within the hour. “Do you want to stay at the motel around back tonight?”

“No,” Nia said, with certainty. “I don’t want to be around this place or these people any longer.”

Jamie had to agree with her, and he checked the gas gauge after starting the car up. They’d refilled the tank in the last town they’d passed through, and they were still good for a fair stretch of travel. The trouble was, he didn’t much feel like being on the road anymore tonight.

“How about we double back?” he suggested. “I saw plenty of places around that ‘Devil’s Ladder’ turn-off where we could pull off into the woods. Call it an early night and sleep in the car again?”

Nia nodded. “Works for me.”

Jamie resisted the urge to flip off Whiskey Pete’s as he put the car in reverse, opting instead to just get away from the place as quickly as he could. They got back on the road and gratefully left the joint behind, retracing the miles back to Devil’s Ladder. They went past the trail’s parking area once more, and after going a little further, Jamie pulled off and slipped the Aspen into a suitable niche in the woods, guiding the car along and bringing it to rest far enough into the trees that they’d be out of sight from the road.

He shut the car off and leaned back. “How about you take the backseat tonight?”

Nia nodded appreciatively and got out, slipping into the back and resting herself against the opposite door, facing Jamie. She set her hand over the front seat, and he took it in his.

“Sorry again for what happened back there. You feeling any better, at least?”

She gave him a tired smile. “Don’t worry about it. That’s the beauty of being on the road. You can drive away from anything. And yeah, I’m feeling better.”

“I love you, you know.”

“Yup. I love you too.”

With that, the mood started to change, and they chatted and laughed well past nightfall before sprawling out and wishing each other good night.

#

It was the chill that brought Jamie out of sleep. A breeze wafted over his skin and nudged him awake.

He sat up, rubbing his eyes, and looked for the chill’s source. It came from the open back passenger door of the car.

Nia was nowhere in sight.

“Nia?” he called out, glancing out the windows and into the night. But whichever way he looked, she was nowhere to be found. Had she gotten out to go to the bathroom?

Concern beat back his lingering weariness, and Jamie groaned as he got out of the car.

“Nia?” he called again, more forcefully this time.

Still no answer. Peer as he did into the trees and around the nearby bushes, he couldn’t spot her. That was when the fear really set in.

“Nia?”

Why wasn’t she answering? How could she have gotten so far away from the car that she couldn’t hear him?

He gave another call and then listened to the night, hearing nothing but the wind in the pines and the murmur of insects. Then, muffled yet discernible, he heard a woman’s cry of fear, somewhere off in the distance.

“Nia, I’m coming!” Jamie shouted, and he hauled ass into the woods without a second thought, trying to pinpoint where the call had come from.

His heart pounded in his chest as he ran, hitching worrisome breaths with every step. The woods stretched on before him. She could have been anywhere out there, hurt and lost and needing him. Another quick and wordless call came from somewhere ahead and to the right, and he followed it. He kept calling for her, hoping for a clarification of direction, but all he ever got back was a sporadic shout, steadily growing louder.

He went deeper into the woods, the road and the Aspen now completely out of sight behind him, and he kept on going. The darkness played tricks on his troubled mind, casting shadows that moved and distracted, repeatedly making him question if that might have been Nia stumbling around just ahead of him or another trick of the light.

As he went, the trees he passed seemed to become more gnarled, more ancient, stretching up high like silent, black giants, mocking the fearful little man scurrying about their feet. Here and there, marring their bark, were unsightly scratches made by some great animal’s massive claws. Then there were the noises that started to strike up: grunts and chattering that came scattered from the woods, calls of creatures he couldn’t place, as though some strange menagerie lay just out of sight, stirred to action by his intrusive presence. In his ears, the sounds mocked him.

Then another cry came—one of great, drawn out agony—and it made Jamie’s blood run cold to hear it.

“Nia!”

He made for the sound, which came from a few yards ahead, where the flickering light of fires could be seen through the trees. As he drew closer, the flames grew more pronounced, and he came to realize that they were torches, and they were being held by darkly clothed figures.

Launching himself into a small clearing, Jamie came across a scene that made him stop short.

Before him were a dozen or so people, dressed in black robes that caught and reflected the moonlight and the glow of their torches. They stood in a circular pattern with their arms aloft, chanting words that he couldn’t make out, faces hidden beneath the hoods draped over their heads. Another of their number kneeled in their center, hands working at something that lay stretched out before them.

That something was Nia, lying still upon the ground, lips parted, eyes open, unblinking. Unfeeling. Her shirt had been pulled up, her belly exposed and cut wide open, blood pouring from the wound as the robed person hanging over her rooted through her stomach. The ceremonial knife they had used to kill her lay in the dirt beside her head.

Tears came to Jamie’s eyes. Try as he might, he could neither reconcile nor bring reason to the horrific sight before him. His chest seemed to cave in of its own accord as grief befell him, and he struggled to breathe under the terrible pressure.

Then, rooted in his terror, he watched as the robed figure pulled their hands out of Nia, tearing away something that had been inside her. They held it aloft in twisted reverence, cradling it in their palm for the gathering to see.

At first, it looked like an organ of some sort, soaked in scarlet and bending like a mass of tissue in the killer’s hands. But it had a distinct shape to it: small and curved, with tiny nubs sticking out of the main mass, and a pronounced swelling at its top. Almost like a…

As realization dawned on him, Jamie’s lips pulled back in a mixture of rage and disgust. His tears flowed freely as he screamed out his awful sorrow, and his body shook from loss.

As determination came back to his limbs, he rushed forward, charging at the chanting congregation with murder in his heart.

The robed figures turned on him as he rushed the first of them, flinging a fist that cracked into the person’s skull, sending them to the ground. As he made for the next in line, two others darted forward, hands reaching out to restrain him. He put up a fight to stay out of their clutches, but despite his efforts, his flailing arms and legs were caught, and he was brought to ground by the strange group.

They held him fast, despite his thrashing and his curses, and made way for the leader of the ritual, who approached with the knife in their bloodied hand.

Jamie spat and struggled as the figure kneeled beside him, but he couldn’t stop the blade from piercing his chest. Pain followed, and his body went stiff all over. As he choked on his agony, as his vision started to swim, the robed figures let him go and rose to their feet, parting and swaying as they took up their chanting once more.

Jamie gasped for air as he turned his head, looking over to where Nia lay. A memory played out in his mind, of lying on the ground beside her on one of their secret evenings, laughing together and staring up at the stars, of talking about their great escape and what all could lie ahead of them when they were finally together, on their own and free.

He remembered her smile, which he’d loved so much.

And as he took his last breath, he hoped that he might see it again sometime, in a kinder world.



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