They sped down the latest back road Jesse had turned onto, gravel and dust kicking up in the pickup’s wake.
“Any signal on that thing yet?” he asked Elaine.
“Be patient, dammit. Don’t you think I’d tell you if it was working?”
Jesse growled. “Just let me know when you figure out where the hell we are.”
“At least we haven’t seen any cops.”
He didn’t answer. Bad luck to talk about good luck. Funny how that works. Why not good luck to talk about bad luck? Wouldn’t that be a helluva lot better?
“Hey! I got…” Elaine hesitated. “Shit. Yeah, I got shit. Stupid GPS.”
Jesse kept driving. It was just after two in the afternoon. Five hours after he and Elaine had robbed the only bank in Haskell Canyon. The plan was to get out of Texas, be in Oklahoma before dark. Lie low. Well, that was plan as far as Elaine knew at least. The part she didn’t know about was when Jesse would put a couple of bullets in her. He’d needed a driver, and she’d been good for that, but he wasn’t planning on splitting the take with her.
The plan–the official plan–had gone awry when he’d seen that damned state trooper car about fifteen miles out of Haskell Canyon. He’d turned onto one back road, then another. He kept turning, thinking he was heading north and east each time, figuring eventually they’d hit I-44. But the parade of back roads just led to greater and greater desolation.
Elaine reached across the cab of the truck and turned the volume down on Jesse’s music.
He glanced at her, turned the music back up. “Don’t mess with the music, Elaine. My car, my rules.”
“You’ve got it so damn loud I can’t even think.”
Jesse snorted. “I bet you didn’t mind it loud back when you were my age.”
He noticed the road veering sharply to the right at the last moment and fought to keep tires on pavement. It was a close thing and the growl of the tires against gravel at the edge of the road drowned out whatever reply Elaine had for his retort. He knew she was sensitive about her age, ever since that time he’d commented that she was old enough to be his mother. Man, was that a sore subject…
The road kept curving and twisting. Jesse had no clue what way they were going. Hell, for all he knew, they could be on a road right back into Haskell Canyon. And wouldn’t that be a kick in the ass?
The road twisted around a little hill and finally hit a straightaway. A bit down the road, Jesse saw a cluster of buildings.
“Anything yet?” He asked Elaine, thinking that they had to be getting some kind of coverage this close to a town.
“I said I’d tell you, didn’t I? You just pay attention to the road.”
Jesse didn’t want to have to stop in Nowheresville. People would remember seeing them pass through. But if there wasn’t signal out here, they’d just have to chance it. Long enough to get their bearings. He accelerated on the straight, flat road. The sooner they could get into and out of this place, the happier he’d be.
The truck started to sputter. Jesse checked the dashboard. No lights flashed but something was wrong. He wasn’t getting any response to the gas and the truck was coasting.
A short ways from town the truck shuddered violently and stopped. Jesse tried starting it, but the engine wouldn’t turn over.
“Shit.” Elaine said. “This sucks.”
“Yeah, tell me something I don’t know, Elaine.” He climbed out of the truck. “I’m going into town, see if there’s a mechanic or something. Stay here. Don’t do nothing stupid. Got me?”
She nodded, her lips tight.
He started down the road. The pavement was cracked and bumpy. The town itself was off on a little spur of road, butted up against the base of a hill. Jesse turned onto that bit of asphalt and walked by a sign emblazoned “Welcome to Blackrock. Population 127.” An old Buick, rusty and missing a tire, was parked at the side of the road.
The late-September air was unseasonably hot. He was sweating as he entered town. Everything was still; no one was around. Probably staying inside, keeping out of the heat. He checked his cell phone, but it was as dead as Elaine’s.
Jesse found a gas station, two fuel pumps in front and a little shop in back. There were a couple of cars parked, but no one was in the shop.
“Hello?” he called out, his voice sounding flat. No one replied.
“Goddamn.” A door at the back of the store led to an office, also vacant.
Jesse looked around the store. It was a pretty pathetic place. He rubbed his nose and tried to think of what he might find here that would help get them going again. He browsed the auto aisle–lots more here than in the food aisles–and grabbed fuel injector cleaner and a gas can.
Back outside, he pumped a few gallons of gas into the can and dumped the fuel injector cleaner in. The heat and the weight of the gasoline wore him down as he walked out of town. By the time he got to the truck his shirt was soaked and his head was pounding.
“Run into any trouble?” Elaine asked. She was sitting on a large rock a short ways off the road.
Jesse looked at her, sitting there cool and collected. Shit, he should’ve had her go into town. After all, she was the one who bragged about running marathons in her fourth decade.
“Not exactly,” he said.
“It was weird. I didn’t see anyone around, not at the gas station, not anywhere. Like everyone just up and left town.”
He dumped the contents of the can into the gas tank and climbed into the stifling truck cab. “Let’s get going. Staying still like this is making me edgy.”
He tried starting the truck. The engine whirred and groaned, nearly turning over several times, before falling completely silent.
Jesse slammed his hands against the wheel. Pain lanced up his arms. “God. Dammit!” He threw the door open and jumped back out. It almost felt comfortable out there after being inside the truck. Elaine came back to his side of the truck.
“I’m out of ideas. You got any?” he asked her.
“There were cars in town, weren’t there?”
He nodded. “Sure.”
“Well, there you go. We’ll just have to take one of those.”
Damn. Why hadn’t he thought of that? Even if the truck had been fine with the gas, he didn’t have to sweat his way back here. The heat must have been making him stupid.
But not stupid enough to volunteer for a second hike into Blackrock. “Tell you what, how about this time I watch the truck and you go into town?”
She rolled her eyes. “Sure. Why not. You just wait your barely-legal ass here and I’ll go fetch us a car,” she said. She took a few steps and turned around. “Don’t do nothin’ stupid, Jesse. Got me?” She whirled back and took off again without waiting for an answer.
She was gone for hours. From time to time Jesse could just barely see her, down in town, going from building to building. The sun was getting close to the horizon before she returned, not with a car, but on foot.
“Something’s seriously wrong here,” she said after she sat down on her rock. “I didn’t have any trouble finding car keys. You were right, it’s like everyone took off. More like they just vanished. But none of the cars would start. I tried checking the phones, too, and all of them were dead too. The cell phones wouldn’t even turn on.”
They were both silent briefly.
“So what do we do now, Jess?”
He ran his hands over his face, thought, came up blank. “I don’t know. What do you think?”
“Hey, you’re the boss, right?”
“Yeah, but you’re…” he almost said older but caught himself in time to say “pretty damn smart, too.”
“Well, this isn’t exactly my area of expertise.”
Down in the town, a light flickered on. A moment later, another. And then a third. They both watched quietly as several other lights came to life.
“Should we check it out?” Elaine asked.
“Probably just lights on timers.”
He cut her off. “I don’t want to walk there just to see no one’s around. Besides, like you said, something’s wrong here. Cell phones don’t go dead overnight. Sounds like no one’s been there in a while. Let’s rest here tonight, check it out in the morning. If someone’s there to help us then, fine.”
Elaine didn’t answer and he figured she’d seen the sense in what he said. The truck’s cab had cooled a bit with the setting of the sun and Jesse hopped up into it. “How about you take first watch, Elaine? I’ll sleep now, you wake me up in a few hours and we can switch places.”
“Whatever,” she said from outside. Hell, good enough for him. She was getting a real attitude, but he was glad he hadn’t planned on rubbing her out too early. Having someone to watch his back during this part of the getaway was going to be awful handy.
He woke up to Elaine shaking his shoulder.
“I had an idea,” she told him. “Let’s go back into town. Probably no one’s there like you said. But I bet the gas station has maps. We get one, figure out where we are, and see if we can make it somewhere on foot. If we do that now, we can walk while it’s cool. We get to another town, there’s got to be a working car there, and we bring it back here and get our stuff.”
He didn’t like leaving the guns and the money behind. But dragging that stuff along would only slow them down and make them more conspicuous. They weren’t getting anywhere now and they’d be sitting ducks if cops showed up.
Jesse answered by getting out of the truck. He shoved the money bags under the seats, hid the guns, too. Together they headed down the road.
The night air was unsettlingly silent. Hearing a coyote or something would have been unnerving, too. But as the silence continued, Jesse thought he’d welcome a distant yowl, just to know there was something alive out there.
They entered town. Some lights shone, but there were no signs of life. Automated lights, just as he’d thought. If this town had been vacant as long as he thought it might have been, one day those would burn out and Blackrock would go completely dark.
One of the streetlights gave enough light inside the gas station that Elaine was able to find a map. She brought it outside, looked it over.
“Found it,” she said after a minute.
“Where we at?”
“Middle of freakin’ nowhere, near the center of the state.”
“Closest town is about fifteen miles from here.”
They could make fifteen miles on foot before dawn if they got moving. Maybe there was a chance yet. Lift another car, drive back. But not too close. Switch the plates and–woo hoo hoo–take the money and run.
“Let’s do this,” he said. “Which way?”
She pointed away from where his truck sat. Jesse headed off down the short bit of road back towards the main road, Elaine following behind him.
Before long, the back side of the “Welcome to Blackrock” sign loomed ahead. “Thanks For Visiting Blackrock!” it said. “Come Back Soon!”
The air felt thick and Jesse had trouble catching his breath. With each step he took, the feeling mounted. He slowed to a walk but even that took great effort, like walking through hip-deep snow when he was a little kid back in South Dakota.
“Everything okay, Jesse?” Elaine asked from behind him.
He shook his head, tried to keep moving forward. A wave of nausea flowed over him and he fell to the ground. He rolled over, saw Elaine crouched down, watching him closely. He crawled towards her. There was no resistance here.
“What’s going on, Jess?”
He pulled himself to his feet. “I don’t know. Something’s wrong with me. I couldn’t breathe, felt sick. I don’t feel too bad now. Just give me a minute…”
Jesse collected himself, took several deep breaths, and nodded. “Probably just stress. Let’s go.”
Only a few seconds were needed to convince Jesse that it wasn’t stress causing his difficulty. Each step he took down the road brought back the nausea and shortness of breath. He stopped and turned away before he was forced to the ground again.
Elaine took a few steps forward. He watched her struggle, just as he had done.
“Maybe it’s something in the air here?” she said.
“Dunno. Let’s try going that way,” he pointed off the road, towards distant mountains. “See if we can go around whatever’s stopping us.”
They tried several different approaches. Nothing worked. Every time they tried to leave the town, they were held back.
Jesse slumped down to the ground by the dead Buick.
“Just gonna give up?” Elaine asked him.
“I don’t know what else to try. The cars are dead, you said. Something’s keeping us from leaving town on foot. Unless you’re thinking we’re going to sprout wings and fly, then it sure looks to me like we’re stuck.”
She bit her lip, looked around. “Let’s check the houses again, see if we can find anything useful.”
Jesse stayed on the ground, lost in his thoughts.
“Get up, dammit! We’re not gonna figure anything out sitting here.” Elaine turned and walked back towards Blackrock. Reluctantly, Jesse stood up and followed her.
“We’ll check all the buildings. You take this side of the street”–she pointed left–“and I’ll check the other.”
It seemed like a big waste of time to Jesse, but he didn’t have a better idea. Hell, he hadn’t had a good idea in months. Even robbing that bank, something which had seemed like it had gone off fine at first…
He went through the buildings one by one, not sure what he was looking for. His cell phone, otherwise useless, did work as a mediocre flashlight so he wasn’t stumbling around in near-darkness.
Jesse nearly passed up a particularly ramshackle building, but if he was going to go through this pointless mission, he might as well do it up right. He climbed the steps of its porch, each letting loose a pained creak when his weight fell upon it.
The interior of this house was as discouraging as its exterior. Clutter was everywhere, stacks of books and papers reaching towards the ceiling. He would have left right away, despairing of finding anything helpful in the mess. But he noticed one thing here he hadn’t seen in any of the other houses. A pair of suitcases sat near the front door. A quick heft of each showed they were full. Someone had been ready to leave Blackrock.
Jesse pressed on through the house. A room near the back held a large desk, bookshelves crammed full, and still more piles of papers. He swung his cell phone back and forth, examining the room. In one corner stood an oddly-grotesque statue, carved in dark wood, of a figure that seemed half-man and half-thing. He quickly looked away from it.
A book sat open atop the desk. It looked old, with those peculiarly-printed letters that he associated with the falling-apart bibles in the Lutheran churches he and his mother had frequented back in the Dakotas. Back when those churches’ free meals were all either of them had to eat.
An illustration on one of the pages the book was open to, echoed the lines of the statue, and gave Jesse a chill. The other page had blocks of text with curious headings like “Summoning the Vile” and “Parting the Barrier.” Penciled notations were in what remained of the margins of the tattered pages. “The Vile feed at midnight” read one note. “Do this when they are distracted” read another, by the “Parting the Barrier” heading.
What the hell? He flipped to the book’s cover. One word stood out to him on the cover–“Grimoire.” He remembered that word from a book a friend had lent him when he and his mom first moved to Texas. The kid turned out to be a real freakazoid…
Jesse sat in the chair by the desk. Someone had been planning to leave town. Someone who had a grimoire. A spell book. And that book talked about how to “part” a barrier. And there certainly was a barrier between him and freedom now.
He felt dizzy, thinking these thoughts. Magic wasn’t real. But he also couldn’t explain what force was keeping him stuck in Blackrock.
What the hell. Like he had anything to lose. Jesse tugged at the page. It didn’t come free at first. He pulled with more force. It came loose abruptly in his hand, tearing with a sound like a long-retained sigh. He shoved it in his pocket, gave the house a quick further glance, then headed outside.
No way he was showing this to Elaine. First, he’d seem like a stupid kid claiming that magic would help them get out of this mess. Second. Well. If it did work, then he’d be out and she’d be stuck and he wouldn’t even need to worry about shooting her later. Maybe the Vile would take care of her for him.
He hurried to the edge of town, stopping only long enough to grab his own map from the gas station. He stopped when he felt the first hints of nausea. Feeling incredibly foolish, he began to read the words from the page. They were unfamiliar words, not any English–or for that matter, any German–he had ever seen. Still, they seemed to flow easily off his tongue.
A sharp pain took his breath away, halted his words. He crumpled to the ground, eyes filling with tears. He reached one hand back to the source of the pain and drew it back, bright with blood.
“I had to see if you’d do it, Jess.” Elaine’s voice. He twisted his neck, saw her standing nearby. She held a knife in one hand, a paper in the other. “Before I could walk out of this town with you, I had to know if you’d try to screw me over. When you get to be my age, you get kind of careful.”
He heard her start to utter the same words he had been speaking moments before. As she came to a close, Jesse felt prickling on his skin, like before a lightning strike. She looked up, around, then walked forward. Hesitantly at first, then with more confidence. She was clearly past the place where they had been stopped before.
It had worked for her. He knew he had to try again, wounded or not. He couldn’t stay here. The Vile feed at midnight.
He got to his knees and started reading again.
“Don’t bother,” Elaine said. “I tore off the final words when I was in the house this afternoon.” He looked at her, scant yards away, but untouchable. “You were a liability anyway with your face being the one on the security camera, your truck being the one people might have seen. I gave you a chance to screw me over and when you took it I knew I’d just have to be quit of you.”
Bells in the church tower began to ring. One… two… three… A terrible, inhuman cry came from somewhere close, something fierce, something hungry. Four… five… six…
Elaine ran down the road. Seven… eight… nine… Jesse got to his feet. He looked around, feeling faint, trying not to fall back to the ground. He didn’t see anything, but the horrible screaming continued. Ten… eleven… twelve.
The Vile fed at midnight.
Copyright © 2013 Michael Haynes
Michael Haynes lives in Central Ohio where he helps keep IT systems running for a large corporation during the day and puts his characters through the wringer by night. An ardent short story reader and writer, Michael had over 20 stories accepted for publication during 2012 by venues such as Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Daily Science Fiction, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. His website is http://michaelhaynes.info and you can find him on Twitter @mohio73.