Erick lightened his grip on the steering wheel. “All I’m saying is that you can call more often. I missed you at college, and this life you’ve chosen won’t be easy.” A moment passed in silence. Trees whizzed by, but no cars. Theirs was the only vehicle on the highway. “You’re going to be—”
“Dad,” Jane stressed. “Come on. We’ve gone over every bit of this already, including the danger. I’m going into the CIA, and that’s that.” She added, half-whispered, “If they’ll have me.”
Streetlamps pooled yellow glows onto the road, like ponds of light in a 4:00 am mist. The sun was still hours away, but both of them had napped in the backseat as needed. Neither wanted to spend a night at a hotel. They were wide awake, each with their own cheap gas station coffee in their respective cupholders. Erick’s coffee was empty. He almost wanted to stop for more, but that would be yet another unwanted delay. He’d get more when they stopped for breakfast.
Jane relented, “I’ll call whenever I can.”
Erick smiled, glancing over to his daughter. She was all grown up. 22, college graduate, ready for the world. She was also bodyguard certified and boot camp trained, though Erick tried not to think too deeply about that, else—
“As long as you don’t lecture me about my life. Understand?” Jane sipped her coffee. She frowned. It must be cold already. “I might even tell you about some of my crazier days.”
Erick smiled. “I’d like that.” He added, “And of course they’re going to want you!”
“Internships don’t always end in a job offer.”
“And sometimes they do.”
“My record isn’t spotless. I’m not a legacy. I’m only fluent in English.”
“You can speak Russian and Chinese!”
“Mandarin, Dad. And I can barely speak it.”
“That’s more than most! Of course they’ll want you.”
“… I’m scared, Dad.”
Erick nodded, silently.
Jane said, “This is the start of everything it’s… It’s what I’ve wanted for a long time, and I don’t know if I’m going to get the job. I don’t know if I’m good enough.”
“I still think you could have taken that summer elective in China. Immersion has always been the best way to learn a language.”
Jane waved him off. “Taking that semester was never an option. I could have been seen as being compromised by an enemy actor. No. I did it the right way. My record is… mostly spotless.”
“I could’ve gotten those fights purged from your highschool records.”
“It would look weird for the actual black marks to be removed when all other evidence demands I have some marks somewhere.”
“That’s unreasonable— Huh?”
One of the highway lamps was lit all the way from base to tip. Compared to the monotony of the last twenty miles, the light pole was the most conspicuous thing in sight. Erick stared at it as they passed by, not slowing down from eighty miles per hour.
“It’s not unreasonable, Dad. It’s prudent to—”
Eager to change the conversation and feeling that Jane wanted to, too, Erick pointed back toward the light pole. “Did you see that lamp?”
Jane looked back. “Huh.” She stared. The light pole was almost out of sight. “That’s odd.”
Up ahead, two more lamps were thin poles of light instead of the usual light-on-top.
Jane settled back into her seat. “There’s two more?”
“Must be a promotion. Some advertisement.”
They whizzed past the two light poles, one on each side of the highway. They were kinda pretty in an unearthly sort of way, like a waterfall of illumination in the morning mists. But whatever they were for, it wasn’t readily apparent, and the fog was getting thicker. Erick kept his eyes on the road. Jane pulled out her phone. Up ahead, there were more.
Erick said, “There’s more.”
Jane flipped through her phone with one hand, sipping her cold coffee in the other. Erick glanced over. She was googling for an answer. He looked back to the road. Minutes passed. There were a lot more light poles than before.
He said, “A lot more.”
There were more light poles than streetlamps, now. Their forty foot tall glows turned the highway in a diffuse hallway of yellow-white light, fit more for giants than for Jane’s Ford Focus. As he stared, one of the remaining lamps turned into a pole of light. One second it was a lamp, then suddenly the light raced down the pole, illuminating the whole thing.
Maybe they should have spent the night in a hotel. Erick was clearly hallucinating. Maybe he should have let Jane drive when she asked to switch at the last stop.
The car rocked like they hit a rumblestrip on the sides. Jane’s cold coffee went everywhere.
“Jesus Christ, Dad!”
He was already slowing. “I’m still in my lane!” He went slower. Sixty turned to forty. The road got worse as more lamps turned into lightpoles. He slowed to twenty. “What the fuck is happening out there.”
“Just stop, Dad! Fu—” Jane must have seen what he had already seen three times; yet another lamp turned into a light pole. “That’s not right.”
He slowed. Theirs was still the only car on the road, if anyone could call it a road, anymore. It felt like he was driving on gravel, all bumpy and shifty. He stopped the car, and the road probably was gravel, considering the way the car slightly sunk into the ground.
No one cared about the spilled coffee.
Every single lamp in range was a light pole.
Jane took off her seat belt as she rolled down her window. She looked down. “We’re on gravel?”
Erick did not open the window to look down. He could already see the gravel.
“Put it in park—”
Erick was way ahead of her. The car was parked, but not off.
“— I’m getting out.” Jane opened the door and stepped outside. She kicked the ground. “This isn’t a highway anymore. I don’t think it ever was." She lifted her phone, the light of the screen glowing in the mist, turning this way and that. “No signal either.”
She said, “Let’s go back.”
Jane slid back into the car. In moments, Erick had the vehicle turned around, his emergency lights flashing in the dark in case someone was coming up behind him. He would have gotten onto the other opposite bound lane if he could, but it wasn’t there. This gravelly road was the only one in sight.
Jane echoed his thoughts, “We’ll have to go slow and hope no one is on this road besides us.”
After five minutes going fifteen miles per hour on the lonely highway, they hit a pothole, crunching the car down and back up before either of them could react.
“Dad! Holy fu—”
“I was watching for potholes!” He slowed down further. “There wasn’t one!”
Jane pointed. “And now there’s lots!”
She was right. The headlights showed a dry, but damaged stone and dirt path. There were a lot of potholes. The car lurched again. Erick controlled it better this time, but he couldn’t stop the car from suddenly veering to the side. He regained control, but slowed the car to a crawl.
He yelled, “Where did they come from!”
“I don’t know!”
One of the light poles blinked out.
They both cursed. The car sputtered, the engine dying as the car dropped into another pothole. Something crunched into the undercarriage. The wheels started to spin in the dirt.
The ground rumbled.
Fog swept in, heavy and dark. Another light pillar blinked out. Black night flooded the area. Another pillar blinked out. Darkness folded around the car like a dangerous friend. The car engine failed, leaving the warm headlights to flicker into the mist. The headlights flickered once, twice. Gone. Erick and Jane Flatt were alone in the darkness, no light save for the flickering of Jane’s smartphone and two utterly inadequate light pillars each more than sixty feet away.
No one spoke.
Erick cracked a joke. “Do you think we’re dead, or—”
He shut up as a swirl of darkness in front of the car became more than that. It became an unseen monster, only known to Erick by a massive upper and lower jaw filled with softly glowing pearly white teeth, each the size of a person. The teeth were too big. The mouth opened too wide. Something flapped in the gloom, like the sails of a ship snapping in a sudden wind. Then the teeth snapped shut, and if not for the shifting darkness, Erick would have thought the monster gone. But it wasn’t gone at all. It was there. Erick couldn’t see it, but it was certainly there. Something rumbled the air; a minor avalanche, or the monster.
Erick cracked another joke. “Are you getting Jurassic Park vibes yet, Jane?”
Jane quietly rolled up her window, muffling the sounds of outside, then whispered, “Dad.”
Both of them utterly focused on the shifting gloom. It moved around the car. It was big. Easily the size of the light poles. It flicked around the vehicle, all at once and soundless, like the shadow of a cloud, flickering the light from the two remaining light poles as it passed. The darkness stilled in the deeper gloom on Erick’s side of the car, watching them.
Erick cracked another joke. “You remember Jurassic Park, right Jane?”
“What’s Jurassic Park?”
The Darkness asked, so Erick answered, “It’s a book and a movie where some people resurrect some dinosaurs and then the dinosaurs eat them because that is what dinosaurs do.”
Jane punched Erick in the shoulder with all the force of a stiff breeze. She had probably meant to hit harder than that. That was understandable. In a more normal situation, he would have rolled down his window to better communicate with the entity. Neither of them were in top form right now.
“Haha! Dinosaurs would do that!”
“It’s a pretty terrifying movie. Jane here saw it when she was eight years old and couldn’t sleep for a month. In her defense, showing that movie to a child was one of my worse ideas.”
“Dad. Please stop talking to the darkness.”
Erick couldn’t help himself with that perfect of a set up. He started singing, “Hello Darkness my old friend~ I've come to talk to you again~...”
The Darkness shifted as Erick ‘sang’. Erick did not sing well. It was a poor rendition of the original. He sang too fast, he did not hit the right highs or hold certain words for as long as he should have. Simon and Garfunkel would be appalled.
But the Darkness seemed interested. Though, what did Erick know? Not much, for sure. He wasn’t eaten yet, though the day was far from over. It hadn’t even truly begun.
Erick's words failed him as he was halfway through the song. The Darkness stirred as silence grew.
“That cannot be the end of the song.”
“I am utterly terrified and cannot remember the rest.”
“…Take care, then.”
The world split somehow.
The darkness and the Darkness were gone, replaced by fluffy white clouds, a bright, bright sun overhead, and a sudden, whistling drop.
- - -
Red and yellow fast food wrappers hovered through the air. A plaid pillow and an afghan blanket floated above the back seat, while a D&D guidebook held half open, hiding amid the fabrics. The horizon continued to tilt. Gravity was a lost constant, and all Erick could think about were those zero-g plane rides that they used to acclimate astronauts to weightlessness. He always wanted to go on one of those flights.
He looked to Jane. She wasn’t wearing her seatbelt. She was currently floating above her seat, her face pressed against the ceiling.
With the elegance of a freight train passing through a busy neighborhood, Jane announced to the world:
She ripped at the seat, holding herself down. Fat lot of good it did her. They were spinning and everything was pulling in odd directions.
She announced, “FUCKING HELL WHAT THE FUCK!”
“Are we dead yet?” Erick asked. “Please let me know when it’s over, if you could please.”
Jane’s eyes blazed as she locked sight on her father. Erick knew that look. He was in Deep Shit, and Jane was going to Get Him Out. Well. Better to roll with these sorts of punches. She let out a stream of curses as she tried to unbuckle him from his seat, the curses getting louder as the world continued to tumble.
And then she was stuck to her side of the car, out of her seat, pressing against her door via the spinning of the car. Erick would have been stuck to his door, too, if not for his seatbelt mostly holding him down.
She yelled, “Take off your seatbelt! We could survive a fall, but we won’t survive a crash!”
Erick fumbled with his seatbelt. It was locked in tight. This was a problem.
He really should be more terrified right now.
But he wasn’t.
“I love you, Jane. You be good now.”
Ah. That pissed her right off. That was probably not the Right Thing To Do.
She reached out from her seat on her door like they weren’t in some sort of gravity-based carnival ride from hell. She swiped the knife she kept in the passenger door pocket through Erick’s seatbelt. Erick thought he told her to put that somewhere safer. Good thing she didn’t listen to him.
Erick crashed completely into his door, then kept going. The door had opened somehow. Or maybe the glass broke and he slipped through. He was a bit bloody and—
HOLY SHIT THERE’S THE GROUND.
He promptly flipped back over.
The sky was a much better sight. So blue. So big. So nice.
Falling through the sky does not sound like being in a hurricane, though Erick himself would have made that comparison had he never experienced today’s impromptu skydive. He had been in a hurricane years ago when he went to Florida to help with a hurricane relief effort and promptly got stuck in a second hurricane. This did not sound like that. This was a thousand times worse.
In a sudden rush of disapproval from his beleaguered digestive tract, there went his midnight snack and accompanying coffee, spewing out across the sky with all the grace of a hurggleurkurk and a uhghuuuuooospat.
He felt much better after that. Less on his mind. Less in his body. He had probably pissed himself somewhere in all that, too, but who keeps track of those sorts of things? Certainly not Erick.
With the grace of a drunk cat, he threw an arm out, trying to steady himself on the wind. It was all kind of intuitive. Kinda like holding your hand out of a moving vehicle, feeling the air. With a second hand thrown wide and a bit of control—
Jane was rocketing right toward him, arms at her sides, face forward, eyes squinting from the wind. She brushed into him, and suddenly he was a squid, latching onto his daughter for dear life. She was obviously more skilled at this whole skydiving thing than he knew. She must have done this before. Well, maybe not this exactly. But she had done a lot of dangerous things in her life! It was entirely possible that one of her crazier friends had her practice skydiving in a falling vehicle.
Crazier things had happened!
He looked up. The car wasn’t there.
He really didn’t want to look down again.
Jane yelled, but it was barely more than a whisper compared to the wind.
He yelled, “What!”
She yelled in his ear, “Keep yourself flat! Don’t watch! Don’t land on your head!”
He screamed, “I’m sorry you didn’t get to work for the CIA! I should have been more supportive!”
She said something, but it was too quiet to hear.
She separated from him. He scrambled to get back to her, but it was too late. The ground was vast and unrelenting. It was time to meet his maker.
A second before they hit, there was a chime and the beginning of a long series of messages, all expressing themselves through floating blue boxes that may or may not have been floating in front of his eyes, or possibly only in his head. Making sense of such a thing was beyond him at this point in time.
Unknown Entity detected!
We see you!
Initializing mana integration…
Bio: The writer of Ar'Kendrithyst! If you want to support the story, there's either patreon, or https://ko-fi.com/arcs33454