The Road Trip
“Turn down the goddamned radio,” Lizzie shouted, leaning forward to slap Marcus on the shoulder from the backseat.
“What the hell, man?” Marcus said, barely audible above the Led Zeppelin that was screaming out of the speakers. Robert Plant’s voice ricocheted back and forth off the closed windows of the Dodge Challengers cabin. Reaching with his free hand — the other still holding the cigar wrapper open on his lap — he twisted the volume knob counterclockwise. Turning, he faced the small, pale, spikey-haired girl in the backseat. His own hair, long and disheveled, whipped around his head and draped over his shoulder. “You made me spill the fuckin’ weed, man.”
Lizzie smirked at him, her upper lip almost curled into a snarl, “Good.”
From the driver's seat, Keith reached over and turned the volume knob back up a notch, “How about both of you stop being little bitches? Marcus, finish the blunt already, dude. Lizzie—”, he turned for a moment, flashing his patented I’m just joking smile, “ —just don’t be so Lizzie for a bit, will ya?”
Next to Lizzie in the backseat, Trish leaned her head against the window, feeling the rumble of the road reverberate through her skull and down her neck. Why did I decide coming on this trip was a good idea? she thought. Tilting her head, she looked out the window. At least it was pretty out here. The woods, thick with summer growth, scrolled past in a blur. The further they’d driven into the heart of the country, the more encroaching the woods seemed to have become. Trish had always felt at home in nature — one of her favorite pastimes was taking long, winding hikes through national parks, getting lost amongst the leaves — but as she watched the trees pass by, a sense of anxiety started to creep up her spine. It was as if something was out there in the woods, watching them drive down the old highway, waiting. When the feeling reached the base of her neck, she shivered, lifting her head from the window and turning her attention back to the inside of the car.
“...don’t even know why I came out here with you stoner fucks,” Lizzie was saying as Trish came back to the group.
“Well, probably because you don’t have no other fuckin’ friends at school ‘cause you’re such a bitch,” Marcus said, staring down at his lap as he dropped the last of the weed onto the wrapper.
“Now Marcus,” Keith said, staring forward at the ever continuing highway in front of them, “Lizzie has friends. That weirdo from AP Chem, that other weirdo from band class. Oh, and don’t forget that super goth chick in history class. What’s her name again? Raven, Nighthawk, something fuckin’ weird like that.”
Trish glanced over at Lizzie, watching her ball her fists at her sides, a scowl crossing her face. Marcus laughed from the front seat.
“Salem,” Lizzie said through clenched teeth.
“Ah, yeah! Like the witch trials, that’s right. See Marcus, she’s got tons of friends,” Keith said, “they’re just all too busy sacrificing goats or something to actually do anything fun.”
Keith and Marcus laughed.
Trish watched Lizzie’s fists tighten, her knuckles turning white against the strain, before relaxing and dropping loosely into her lap. She turned, meeting Trish’s eyes. Trish could see the look of defeat on her face, pleading with Trish to help her.
“Guys, what the fuck?” Trish said, finally breaking her silence, “We’re out here to have a nice getaway from everything, not bully everyone. Keith, you’re only ever this much of a dick when Marcus is around anyway. And Marcus, let’s not forget that time you were so stoned you got scared of that duck that was ‘following’ us around the lake, you’re just a big chicken shit who tries to act tough. Don’t worry, we’ll be sure to get you two some time alone later so you can suck each other off or whatever.”
Marcus and Keith both turned to each other for a second, mouths agape as if to reply, but returned to their tasks instead. Next to her, Lizzie let out a soft chuckle.
“Actually, Keith, how about we pull over for a second,” Trish said, “I think we’ve all been stuck in this car too long. Getting some fresh air might be good for us.”
“Yeah, ok,” Keith said, slowing the car and pulling over to the shoulder, “I gotta take a piss anyway.”
As soon as the car came to a stop on the narrow gravel shoulder of the old highway, Lizzie threw open the door and leapt from the seat. Trish watched as she walked behind the car, into the dust cloud kicked up by the tires. From the front seat, Keith turned around.
“Trish, man, she knows we’re just joking around, right?” He asked. Trish could see what looked like genuine concern on his face.
Sighing, Trish rolled her eyes, “There’s a difference between joking around and just being an asshole, ok? She’ll be fine, but still. Cool it.”
Keith’s eyes dropped to the floorboard for a moment before he turned back around, pulling open his door, “Gotcha.”
As he stepped from the car, Trish opened her door as well and slid out. Planting her feet on the rough gravel of the shoulder, she watched as a beige pickup, caked in dirt, flew past them. It was the first car she’d seen in hours. She watched as it trailed off down the, swerving from center line to shoulder in a wide arc. Lucky they didn’t hit us, we’d be basically stranded out here, she thought.
Keith, standing in front of her, raised a hand to the sky, his middle finger jutting proudly from his fist, and shouted, “ASSHOLE!” He turned and gave Trish a look which seemed to say I sure showed them, didn’t I? She rolled her eyes at him. He furrowed his brow and glanced down before heading off to the other side of the highway.
Trish closed her door, the dull thud bouncing down the road, and took a deep breath. The air was clean, filled with the smell of pine needles and dirt. A light breeze blew through the trees, giving the woods a distant murmur of conversation. Serene yet unsettling. She turned and made her way toward the back of the car as well, the gravel crunching under her feet. She spotted Lizzie, a fair bit down the shoulder, leaning up against a tree, her black outfit standing out against the browns and greens of the forest behind her. As she made her way down the dusty lane, Trish looked out into the woods. The trees seemed densely packed and impenetrable while driving past, but now she could see that there was a fair amount of space. The underbrush was thick, covering the floor of the woods with a brown-green carpet of leaves and vines. The branches rustled in the wind, giving the entire area a sense of movement, slow and rhythmic.
As Trish approached Lizzie, she slowed her steps, “Hey girl, you ok?”
Lizzie looked up, dark lines of mascara running down her face. She shook her head.
“Oh—oh Lizzie,” was all Trish could say, moving forward and wrapping her arms around her. Lizzie returned the hug tightly and began sobbing into her shoulder.
“Everytime...they always...too far...”
Trish squeezed her, rubbing a hand across her back, “I know, I know. It doesn’t mean much but Keith kinda apologized. I basically told him to shove it.”
From between the jagged sobs and muffled by Trish’s shoulder, Lizzie said, “Fuck...Keith…”
Trish smiled and gave her another tight squeeze before taking her by the shoulders and pushing her away. She met Lizzie’s eyes and nodded, “He’s a major dick, and always worse when Marcus is around, but let’s try and not let him ruin our fun. Stay here for a sec, I’m gonna run back to the car and grab a few napkins to help get you cleaned up.”
Lizzie nodded. She tried to take a deep breath but it was split by one last jerking sob. She leaned against the tree once again and finally managed a full breath.
“Thanks Trish,” she said quietly.
“No problem babe, I’ll be right back,” Trish said, turning and walking briskly back to the car.
On her way back, she noticed Keith across the road, facing into the woods with legs splayed, his orange polo shining in the sunlight like a hunter during deer season. Why is it always the douchebags? she thought as she approached the car. Shaking her head, she turned her attention to the car. Marcus’s door was open, but his silhouette was still visible through the back window. He must have had to clean all the weed crumbs off his pants. Rounding the rear of the car on the passenger side, Trish slowed and lightened her steps, making as little noise as possible.
Her hand hit the back window, palm open, “Hey dickbag, did you finish the blunt yet or what?”
Through the rear passenger window, Trish didn’t see a reaction from him. That was odd for Marcus — if he got scared of a duck on a lake, an unexpected slap should have sent him running. Trish smiled at the thought, taking a step closer to his open door and leaning down.
“Hello? Marcus? Did you pass o—”
She stopped, her throat clamping down on the words with a vice like grip. In the passenger seat, Marcus sat upright, covered in what Trish’s brain first told her was red paint, or ketchup. Quickly, she realized it was blood. The source of the artistic mess was a crudely fashioned cross, made from two slightly crooked branches bound by a thin piece of twine in an X where they overlapped. The cross had been embedded into Marcus’s neck, deep enough that the arms sat flush against his throat.
As the sound fluttered off into the woods, a voice from far away called out.
“Trish?” It asked.
Blinking to clear her panic stricken mind, she recognized it. Keith.
“Keith! Oh my god Keith, get over here! Call 9-1-1!”
Far away, Trish heard the rustle of grass and underbrush, floating across the highway. At the same time, another sound crept into her consciousness, a light rumbling sound that she wasn’t able to place. Her eyes were locked on Marcus. She’d seen movies with death in them, tons of movies, but there was a feeling when you saw a dead body in person. Shock, she assumed, that’s what the feeling is, it has to be shock.
With great effort, she wrenched her eyes from the bloodied corpse of their weed smoking friend. Her whole body felt heavy, transported to the bottom of the ocean, but the rustle of brush — and the other, deep grumble — came rushing back to her ears from across the road, reminding her where she was. As she staggered back from the passenger door, her brain finally placed the other mysterious sound. An engine.
She jerked her head up, looking across the top of the car, spotting Keith’s orange shirt emerging from the dense brush of the far side of the highway. She saw movement from the corner of her eye. When she turned to face it, she saw the same beige pickup truck from earlier. It was racing down the road, the rumble of the engine now a roar as it approached. Trish shot her hands into the air.
“Keith, watch out!”
Across the road, Keith stumbled at the lip of the highway, leg twisted in a vine from the groundcover. Throwing his hands out in front of him to catch the fall that was about to happen, he looked up, meeting Trish’s eyes.
That’s when the truck hit.
In a moment, Trish watched as the front of the truck engulfed Keith, sending an explosion of fine red mist into the air like a gruesome firework. It spattered the hood and windshield. The front grill bowed outward, shards of glass exploding from the headlights with the force of the impact. Keith’s body disappeared out of view. A moment later, clouds of blue-tinted smoke billowed from the tires and the smell of burning rubber wafted across the road as the truck screeched to a halt. Trish watched everything unfold in slow motion. Her left leg buckled and she stumbled once again, leaning forward to catch herself with the roof of the car. Her hands hit the roof of the car as another scream rang out across the road.
Turning, she spotted Lizzie collapsed to her knees a few feet from the rear of the car, eyes wide and mouth agape, staring at the scene on the road. Her head turned slowly and she locked eyes with Trish. Everything rushed back in a split second. Trish’s survival instinct took over. Pushing away from the car, she took three quick steps toward Lizzie, bending down to grab her by the arm.
“We have to go now!” She yelled.
As she did, she glanced up at the truck, now sitting half off the road, idling ominously. The driver’s door opened and a skinny twig of a man leapt out, followed by another, slightly bigger one. They both stopped, staring at her, hands on their hips. As Trish looked them over, she felt her skin break out in goosebumps.
Both men were younger, no more than 20 years old, clothed only in loose-fitting denim overalls covered in an assortment of stains. Their bare feet were dark with dirt. Their upper bodies, bare except for the shoulder straps of the overalls, were muscular and well tanned, yet equally as dirty as their feet. On top of their heads sat two tumbleweeds of hair, matted and tangled, one dirty brown and one red. The most frightening feature, Trish thought, were their faces. They both stood staring at her, eyes wide and bloodshot, teeth clenched together in the type of smile one makes mockingly when being forced. Their teeth were dark, almost black, stained from who knows what. As Trish stared at the men and they stared back, the red head — the bigger of the two — finally spoke.
“Wooo, we done good!”
The skinny one turned, slapping the other on the chest, the sharp smack of flesh against flesh cutting across the road.
“We did done good, hell yeah we did,” he said, turning back to face the women, “and now we gots ta collect us them others. Pap gon be happy wit us tonight, ayeaup.”
He took a step toward them, which was enough to break the confusion that was locking Trish in place. She squeezed Lizzie’s arm hard and turned towards the woods behind them. Lizzie was up to her feet in a flash, a skitter of gravel coming from under her shoes. They sprinted, leaping down the small incline where the shoulder fell off into the woods and heading into the trees. This side of the road was much less densely packed with underbrush than the other, and they easily found their way through the trunks and branches. Behind them, Trish heard a shout, high pitched and piercing, almost inhuman. As it tapered off, it was followed by another, slightly deeper but with the same rhythm to it. The sound sent a chill up Trish’s spine. She glanced over, catching Lizzie’s eyes as they dodged past another tree. Her face was full of fear. Trish could only assume hers was as well.
After 10 minutes of weaving between branches and making unexpected turns through the forest, Trish grabbed Lizzie’s arm once again, slowing the pace. They were both panting, yet trying to be as quiet as possible. Stopping next to a large fallen pine, they crouched behind it, listening. Between the heavy breathing and the throbbing of her heart, Trish couldn’t make out any other sounds. She looked at Lizzie, who was holding a hand over her own mouth, sharp breaths hissing through her nostrils. They sat, trying to control their breathing and listening for anything approaching. After a minute, as Trish’s breathing came under control, they still heard nothing.
“Do you think we lost them?” Trish whispered.
Lizzie continued to stare, mouth covered, eyes wide with fear.
Trish leaned forward, peeking her head above the log they were crouched behind, scanning the woods in front of them. Although the sun was still high in the sky, the shadows in the forest were deep, the wind in the branches above them creating a dance of movement. However, in that movement she didn’t spot any overall wearing murderers out for...what were they out for exactly? Why them? What did they want, where were they from? Questions began to race through Trish’s mind. She shook her head, trying to clear them away. Now was not the time to dissect the mystery, now was the time to escape.
Trish brought her legs up under her in a crouch, turning and looking in all directions. After their frantic run through the woods, she’d lost sight of the road. Surrounded by trees in all directions, she wasn’t sure what way escape actually was. Even if they made it to the road, would that be salvation, or would there just be more, waiting for them? Her blood ran cold at the thought but she took a deep breath, looking down at Lizzie once again, re-centering herself. She had to be strong if they wanted to get out of this. Decisive. Someone needed to take control.
Reaching down, she took Lizzie’s free hand and pulled her to her feet. Slowly, Trish pulled her to the left, bent over, moving slow and cautiously across the soft ground of the forest floor. As they started moving, a high pitched scream broke the silence, echoing back and forth between the trees, making it hard to determine where it was coming from. To Trish, it sounded far away, definitely enough distance that they could make an unseen escape. As the scream faded out through the trees, another rang out. Then another. Then another.