by Julian Drury
&&&&I-10 West, between Destin and Mobile. The Stranger stood still along the road. He wore a white collared shirt, buttoned down, with khaki pants covering his legs, and a newsboy cap on his head. Green reflective sunglasses rested over his eyes, black gloves covering his hands. A slow burning cigarette hung from the side of his mouth. Sunset was approaching. The clever beasts of nature scrambled about in silence. The squirrels, possums, and raccoons scurried, hiding among the heavy legions of trees. The trees towered in ancient judgement, telling stories among themselves as winds rustled their leaves.
&&&&The headlights of a white mustang glimmered, growing brighter as the sky grew dim. The car pulled over steadily, the passenger-side window rolled down. The Stranger was greeted by the face of the Driver. The Driver had long black hair, a five o’clock shadow on his chin and lip, with a dark-blue V-neck shirt constricting his chest and waist. The Driver seemed cheerful, smiling at the stranger. He turned the music from his radio down, squinting his eyes as he examined the stranger.
&&&&“Need a ride?” the Driver asked.
&&&&“Yes sir,” the Stranger replied.
&&&&“Where you headed?”
&&&&The Driver raised his eyebrows twice. “Hop in,” he said The sky reflected red beams. Flocks of birds sailed their way sporadically through the clouds and into the tree-line. The Stranger focused on the damp smell of the car. Several empty water bottles were below his feet, crunching against the soles of his black shoes.
&&&&“Sorry about that,” the Driver said, referring to the bottles. “I drink a lot of water.”
&&&&“I can see that,” the Stranger replied.
&&&&“Where are you travelling from?”
&&&&“What was in Pensacola?”
&&&&The Driver chuckled. “Hey, you have a sense of humor,” he said cheerfully.
&&&&“A sense, yeah,” the Stranger replied sternly.
&&&&“You a traveler?”
&&&&“Something like that.”
&&&&“You don’t talk much, do you?”
&&&&“Only when I need to.”
&&&&Several abandoned cars rested along a three mile stretch of the highway; two Toyotas, a red Camry and blue Corolla, a white Chevy Impala, and a light-yellow Volkswagen Beetle. The retreating sunlight gleamed off the cars, spreading shadows across the debris. The vehicles seemed lost in time, like mechanical fossils left behind by neglect and tragedy. The Driver gripped his fingers around the steering wheel tightly. The Stranger, meanwhile, glanced his eyes back and forth between the Driver and the road outside, without moving his head. The Driver took notice of this.
&&&&“You see that?” the Driver said, pointing towards the windshield. “A lot of abandoned cars along this highway.”
&&&&“Interesting,” the Stranger replied.
&&&&“Wonder why there are so many?”
&&&&“The country can be dangerous.”
&&&&“You think so? I love the country. Always have.”
&&&&The Stranger withdrew a cigarette from a pack in his shirt pocket.
&&&&“Mind if I smoke?” the Stranger asked.
&&&&“Sure,” the Driver replied. “Just blow the smoke out the window, if you can.”
&&&&The Stranger lit his cigarette. He remained silent for minutes. He removed his sunglasses, breathing into them twice, wiping the green lenses with the bottom edges of his white shirt. The Driver glanced back and forth at the stranger, watching his minuscule actions. Curiosity seemed to besiege him.
&&&&“What’s in Hattiesburg?” the Driver asked.
&&&&“Mississippians,” the Stranger sighed.
&&&&“A people person, I see.”
&&&&“Well, I’ll take you as far as I can.”
&&&&“You seem very evasive,” the Driver asked, tilting his head in curiosity. “There a reason for that?” The Stranger did not reply immediately. “It’s getting dark now,” he said sullenly.
&&&&The Driver smacked his lips. “Yep, sure is,” he said.
&&&&“Some people are scared of the dark.”
&&&&“Have you ever wondered why?
&&&&“I’m not scared. At least, not anymore.”
&&&&“Why is that?”
&&&&“My mother would lock me in a closet when I misbehaved. She was a very strict woman.”
&&&&“Do you like to hunt?” The Stranger paused for a moment, glaring at the Driver with subtle intensity. He pressed his teeth together in his clenched jaws.
&&&&“Why do you ask?” the Stranger said sharply.
&&&&“Just curious,” the Driver replied. “Some people travel to these parts to hunt.”
&&&&“What people?” The Driver smacked his lips. “I didn’t mean to pry,” he said.
&&&&“Seems like an odd question to ask,” the Stranger replied.
&&&&“You know, you’re a traveler, and I don’t see any bags with you. Travel light?”
&&&&“That’s two questions. What about hunting?” A gas station rested along the road. A sign with a cartoon chicken dressed in overalls stood in its foreground; Cluck’s Gas & Fried Chicken.
&&&&“I have to stop for gas,” the Driver said.
&&&&The Stranger did not reply. He flicked the cindering butt of his cigarette out the window, sucking his front teeth afterward. The Driver pulled into the parking lot quickly, hitting a bump in the concrete. The gas station store was in disrepair. The shingles of the red roof were cracked and disjointed, as if the hammer of a mighty god befell its flimsy arrangement. The glass entrance doors were cracked in the center, with certain advertisements placed around them, as if to mask a hideous deformity.
&&&&The parking lot was riddled with potholes, which were deep enough to give the appearance of bomb craters. The lights above the gas pumps flickered, twitching like mangy animals with an unscratchable itch. The Stranger glanced around. The darkness of night engulfed the surrounding land, casting smothering shadows over the legions of trees along the highway.
&&&&“I’ll be quick,” the Driver said, stepping out of the car.
&&&&“Take your time,” the Stranger replied.
&&&&The Driver walked quickly into the store. The Stranger lit another cigarette, looking around slowly. His eyes suddenly locked onto a white flier pasted on the cracked glass door of the store, between Pepsi and Camel cigarette advertisements. The Stranger grew curious, stepping outside of the car for a moment to get closer look.
&&&&He smoked his cigarette slowly as his eyes scanned the information on the flier. It was a missing persons flier; Amanda Creager, 22, from Pensacola. She had blonde hair, braces covering her smile, and freckles across her cheeks and nose.
&&&&She had been missing for six days, having disappeared between Pensacola and Destin. Two more fliers of similar nature were posted on a garbage can near the entrance and a long stretch of window fogged by stacked 12 packs of Pepsi and Mountain Dew; Tabitha Whatley, 19 from Jacksonville, and Matthew Bodenheimer, 20 from Fort Lauderdale. Tabitha had brown hair, with a bony-cheeked face, with a closed-lip smile.
&&&&Matthew had short black hair, a large bent nose, with a wide, open-mouthed, grin covering his face. The people on the fliers all shared something in common; each disappeared travelling on I-10. The Stranger made his way back to the car. After returning to the passenger seat, he looked around the car carefully.
&&&&He casually opened the glove compartment. He found a series of tools and knives kept in zip-lock bags next to insurance forms, and a series of photographs. The pictures looked as if they were taken recently. They were all random shots. It was as if the subjects, mainly women and young men, did not realize their pictures were being taken. The Stranger realized the setting of the pictures seemed local, surrounded by a forested highway.
&&&&The Stranger noticed an interesting photo in this group. He stared at it intensely, gripping it tightly between his thumb and forefinger. He folded the picture neatly, placing it in his left pants pocket. He placed the other pictures back in the glove compartment. The driver-side door of the mustang opened suddenly. The Driver stepped in, grinning widely as he seated himself. The Stranger finished his cigarette and shut the passenger door.
&&&&“Their pumps are broken,” the Driver said calmly, gripping his hands on the steering wheel.
&&&&“That’s unfortunate,” the Stranger replied.
&&&&“Oh well, there’s other stations.”
&&&&The Stranger sucked his front teeth. “I’m feeling tired,” he said. “I’d like to stop at a motel for the night.”
&&&&The Driver smirked. “Are you sure?” he said. “I don’t mind making the drive.”
&&&&“I’d rather stop at a motel.”
&&&&“Okay, sure thing.” The Driver started the car, pulling out of the gas station parking lot, back onto the road.
&&&&The Driver took notice of the Stranger’s still nature, sitting in exact place without a twitch. The Stranger stared at the winding road through the windshield. Only his cheeks seemed to move. The Stranger bit the inside of his right cheek, near the mouth, pressing down gently with his canine and incisor. He jiggled the skin of his cheek between his teeth, giving the appearance he was chewing on something. Afterward, the Stranger sucked his front teeth quickly. The Driver smirked to himself.
&&&&“Are you from around here?” The Driver asked.
&&&&“No,” the Stranger replied. “Are you?”
&&&&“Sort of,” the Driver said, bobbing his head slightly. “I’m from Tallahassee.”
&&&&“That’s a boring town.”
&&&&“Tell me about it. You from Tallahassee?”
&&&&“No. I’m from Shreveport, Louisiana.”
&&&&“Never been to Shreveport before.”
&&&&“Haven’t lived there in years. I live on the road, these days.”
&&&&The Driver seemed to sense tension. It was the sort of tension that forced short, direct, statements, with a low tone that signaled reservation.
&&&&“You don’t have to be shy around me, you know,” the Driver said.
&&&&“Who says I’m shy?” the Stranger replied. The Driver tilted his head, smirking slightly.
&&&&“You seem shy to me,” the Driver said.
&&&&The Stranger sighed. “I was raised by loud alcoholics,” he said. “I was best seen and not heard.”
&&&&“Did these loud alcoholics abuse you in any way? Forgive me for being so blunt.”
&&&&The stranger paused, clenching his jaws while grinding his teeth.
&&&&“Why does that even interest you?” the Stranger asked.
&&&&“My experience says people raised by loud alcoholics are eventually abused by them,” the Driver replied. The Stranger cracked his knuckles one by one, and afterward his wrists.
&&&&“Where are you headed, exactly?” the Stranger asked.
&&&&“New Orleans,” the Driver replied. “I hear the party is good in that town.”
&&&&“You like to party then.”
&&&&The Driver chuckled. “I guess you can say that,” he said.
&&&&“How far till the next motel?”
&&&&“Shouldn’t be far. I think there’s an old-school motel up the road called Salt Air. I’ve stayed there a couple times. It’s not bad for the price.”
&&&&“Sounds good to me.”
&&&&The Driver tapped his hands twice against the steering wheel. “Mind if I listen to music?” he asked.
&&&&“No,” the stranger replied.
&&&&The Driver turned on his radio with the push of a large black button near the volume controls. The radio station played Zombie by The Cranberries. The Driver tapped his hands to the rhythm of the opening guitar riff. The Stranger glanced carefully at the movements of the Driver’s hands.
&&&&His eyes squinted with each tap of the Driver’s fingers against the steering wheel, drawn by the methodical nature his fingers and palms synchronized with the music.
&&&&He noticed the boniness of the Driver’s fingers. Occasionally he would see the hands as actual bones, as though the Driver was a living skeleton. This distressed him and he ceased glancing at the Driver for a moment, biting the inside of his cheek with his teeth to soothe himself. The Driver hummed the chorus of the song to himself softly.
&&&&The Stranger’s attention suddenly drew toward a blue lodging sign along the highway. A placement for the Salt Air Motel placed in the center. The motel rested near a heavy patch of trees. Its sign held the words Salt Air Scenic Motel in black cursive letters, with a blue and white drawing of a sea breeze beneath it. The doors of each room were painted light blue, the rooves made of charcoal black shingles.
&&&&White support beams were placed between every third room. Dim florescent lights hung outside of each room, covered in clear plastic cases. The parking lot was jagged, its pavement uneven and littered with pebbles. The main office was located at an angular bend at the far right of the parking lot, a flickering green neon sign hanging by a dimly lit window covered in dusty blinds.
&&&&The Driver parked slowly near the main office. He and the Stranger exited the car, one after the other. The door to the office was open. The room was bright. Florescent lights on the ceiling reflected off the smooth white tiles of the floor, as well as the white walls with small cracks in the corners. A heavy smell of pine-scented cleaner smothered the air. An old man with a bald head and untrimmed gray beard, sat behind the front desk. He looked up at the Driver as he approached the desk.
&&&&“What can I do for you?” the old man asked in a thick Southern accent.
&&&&“Just a room for the night,” the Driver replied.
&&&&The old man set the book down. He glanced over at the Stranger, who stood near a rack of travel pamphlets, then back at the Driver.
&&&&“A room for the both of you?” the old man asked in a judgmental tone.
&&&&The Driver smirked. “We’re paying for our own rooms,” he replied.
&&&&The old man smacked his lips. “It’s sixty dollars for a night,” he said.
&&&&“Seems kind of pricey,” the Driver chuckled.
&&&&“Summer rates. Lots of college kids passing through this time of year.”
&&&&The Driver withdrew his credit card, handing it to the old man. The man read the card, swiping it in an old credit card machine. The Driver signed a receipt and his name on a sheet of paper. He turned to the Stranger,“Your turn.”
&&&&The Stranger walked up to the front desk. He withdrew three 20-dollar bills from his pocket, gently setting it on the desk. The old man glanced at the black gloves on the Stranger’s hands as the bills were slid toward him.
“Plus, tax,” the old man quipped. The Stranger sighed. He withdrew a 10-dollar bill and replied, “Keep the change.”
“You’ll have to sign in too,” the old man added, sliding a sheet of paper and a pen toward
the Stranger. The Stranger paused for a moment. He picked up the pen, signing the name John Public. The old man chuckled at the signed name.
“I suppose your middle initial is Q,” he said. The Driver and Stranger headed toward their respective rooms.
“I’m in Room 33,” the Driver said as the Stranger continued walking. “Knock if you need
“I’m in 40,” the Stranger replied. The Driver walked toward his room, the Stranger stopping for a moment to watch him enter the room. The Stranger continued his walk, stopping in front of the door of Room 40. He gazed at the door for a moment, feeling a sense of unease about its light blue color. He turned, facing the parking lot, and lit a cigarette. He glanced over at the Driver’s Mustang at the other end of the parking lot, near the main office. He contemplated stealing the car.
&&&&Hot wiring the car would be easy, yet, he knew it was not the right time. There were risks he had to calculate first. The Stranger exhaled a plume of smoke, watching it illuminate off a beam of moonlight hanging over the shingled roof. As he followed the smoke drifting into the air, he noticed a spider web perched in the corner between a support beam and the roof. A small spider rested in its center, surrounded by the carcasses of dead insects. The spider was still, with its legs spread out.
&&&&The carcasses surrounding it seemed to be placed in a synchronized method, not too close, yet not too far, from the spider. Everything was placed perfectly within the web. A subtle noise caught the Stranger’s attention. He looked toward the ground, seeing a stray cat approach him. The cat had yellow eyes and short white fur, save for a small black spot on its forehead. It meowed with a rising tone, low at first, gaining volume as its mouth widened.
&&&&The cat rubbed its body against the Stranger’s leg, continuing its feline speech as it did so. The Stranger stared at the cat for a lengthy moment. The cat purred as it continued rubbing its body against the Stranger’s leg. The Stranger flicked his cigarette into the parking lot, kneeling toward the cat. He slowly petted the cat’s back, stroking it with calm care. Even though he couldn’t feel the cat’s fur through the gloves on his hand, he imagined how soft and even it must have felt.
&&&&He wished he could feel the fur, embrace its softness, its purity. He attempted to remove the glove from his hand. The cat suddenly darted away, across the parking lot toward the tree line. A loud car engine frightened it away, catching the Stranger’s attention as the vehicle pulled into the parking lot. The headlights of a black Corvette shined brightly into the Stranger’s eyes, even with his sunglasses on. The Corvette pulled up two parking spaces away from the Stranger’s room, its loud engine still revving as it parked. A young couple exited the car. The man spoke loudly, while sipping from a bottle of Jack Daniels in his left hand. He passed the bottle to the woman, who also sipped from it. The Stranger watched them with curiosity and agitation.
&&&&The young man and woman their way to the room next to the Stranger’s, staggering as they walked forward. The man smacked the woman’s ass forcefully with his right hand. The woman shrieked playfully, stumbling forward, nearly falling to the ground. In her stumble, the woman dropped the bottle of Jack Daniels. The bottle shattered across the concrete. The Stranger’s nostrils were immediately hit with the burning smell of whiskey.
&&&&The man raised his voice, chastising the woman for dropping the bottle. The woman opened their room door with a key card, grabbing the man by his wrist and pulling him inside the room. The Stranger could hear the man scream at the woman from inside the room, talking down to her for pulling his hand, “Like a kid.”
&&&&The Stranger took a deep breath. He turned, facing the door to his room. He stepped forward, slowly inserting the key card until the light on the lock turned green. He opened the door, feeling a rush of cool air strike his face and neck. He flicked the light switch on, looking around the room. A feeling of staleness passed over him as he noticed the décor. A dark green carpet covered the floor. The walls were bright white, like the color of the main office walls.
&&&&A queen-sized bed covered by a maroon comforter rested in the center of the room, a small lamp on an end table on the right-hand side of the bed. A 40-inch TV stood on a withered wooden dresser. A black mini fridge stood between the dresser and a wooden round table. The Stranger’s attention was seized by the large rectangular mirror hanging over the sink in the cubby area at the far end of the room. The Stranger closed the door behind him, walking slowly toward the mirror and sink.
&&&&The Stranger gazed at himself in the mirror. He tried to block out the noise of the young couple arguing next door. He slowly unbuttoned his white shirt, gently dropping it on the floor next to him. His eyes focused intensely on the button-like burn marks across his upper arms and chest. He removed the black gloves from his hands, holding his palms up to the mirror, glaring at the circular burn marks melted into the shriveled skin. The fingers of his right hand touched the button-like burns on his arms and chest, numb as his fingers were to the sensation of touch.
&&&&He lowered his hands onto the sink counter. Anger grew within the Stranger as he gently rubbed his hands against the surface of the sink counter, attempting to gain any form of feeling. He glared at himself in the mirror, paying little attention to the blood stains on his gray muscle shirt. The arguing couple’s voices intensified through the paper-thin walls. The Stranger lifted his hands up quickly. He gazed at the mangled skin of his palms, balling them tightly into shaking fists of pure rage. The Stranger lowered his hands, unstrapping the pistol holster around his waist.
&&&&He walked slowly toward the bed, laying down gently. He removed the .44 revolver
from the holster, setting the holster on the bed next to him, looking at the pistol. After a moment, he placed the pistol gently on his chest. Light from the lamp next to the bed projected a hazy reflection of the Stranger onto the black TV screen across from him. He glanced at his reflection briefly, his focus broken by the sound of intense screaming and thudding in the room behind him. He reached his hand into his pocket, withdrawing the photograph he took from the glove compartment of the Driver’s car.
&&&&His numb hand gripped the photograph tightly between his thumb and forefinger, as his eyes stared intensely at its contents. The screams and thuds grew louder with each passing moment. The Stranger clicked the lamp switch on and off methodically. With each scream and thud that passed, he clicked the switch, as if he were performing a strange ritual. Light followed by darkness continuously. The Stranger performed this ritual again and again. His thoughts constricted his mind as tight as his grip of the picture in his hand. He grinded his teeth with each click of the lamp switch, engulfing himself into the void of the inner dark.
&&&&The sun was at its highest point. Its fiery rays reflected off the Stranger’s sunglasses, magnified through the windshield of the Driver’s Mustang. The Stranger smoked a cigarette slowly, his arm out on the passenger side window. He looked straight ahead through the windshield, focused on the winding highway. Thoughts raced through the Stranger’s mind. He had always focused on precision, making the right move at the right time. Careful action had to be made, only at the perfect moment.
&&&&“So,” the Driver said, breaking the silence. “What are you going to do after I drop you off in Mississippi?”
&&&&The Stranger sighed. “Get some new clothes,” he said.
&&&&The Driver tilted his head in curiosity. “What’s wrong with the clothes you have?” he asked.
&&&&The Driver chuckled. “Did you sleep well last night?”
&&&&“Well enough,” the Stranger replied.
&&&&“I didn’t sleep so well.”
&&&&“Ever have those nights where your mind races a lot? I had one of those last night.
Sometimes I’ll fall asleep, then wake up, and my mind bombards me with random thoughts.”
&&&&“Yeah,” the Driver said with an elevated tone. “Sometimes it’ll be a song, or several songs, stuck in my head. They’ll play repeatedly, jumping from one to the next. Other times I’ll think about a scene from a movie, or several scenes. Then there are times where I think about something from my past, some incident or person that I can’t ever shake from the back of my mind. Last night, I thought about my mom.”
&&&&The Stranger glanced at the Driver without moving his head. He took notice of the Driver’s intense grip on the steering wheel. His fingers were like vise-grips, clamping down as hard as possible, as if trying to choke the wheel into some odd form of submission. The Stranger glanced back toward the winding road.
&&&&“The mom that locked you in closets as a kid,” the Stranger said. The Driver smirked, revealing the edges of his molars.
&&&&“Yeah, that’s right,” the Driver replied. “I thought about how she died.”
&&&&“She died in her sleep, about six years ago. She battled illness all her life. I guess it was just time for her to go, to drift away into that eternal sleep.”
&&&&The Stranger grew curious at the Driver’s tone. His voice seemed so calm, rational. There was no hint of remorse or grief of any kind. It was clinical, the kind of voice a doctor would speak with when writing a prescription.
&&&&“Some believe that you don’t sleep after death,” the Stranger said sullenly.
&&&&“Is that so?” the Driver asked.
&&&&“Some believe that death is eternal insomnia. Your spirit wanders aimlessly, looking for that beautiful sleep that never comes. Kind of like driving on this highway. The road winds on forever and ever, always still, never changing. Yet, we continue to drive down the road, knowing no end will ever come.”
&&&&“Seems stupid to me. Why would anyone drive down a road with no end to it?”
&&&&“Because it’s our nature. We are the low-rung animals of eternity, searching for what we’ll never find, hunting for the prey that will always elude us. The closer we think we get, the farther it runs away from us.”
&&&&The Driver did not reply. He smirked slightly, bobbing his head as if he understood what the Stranger was saying. He suddenly slammed on the breaks of the car. There was a low thump as the tires screeched against the pavement. The car came to a stop. The Stranger composed himself, glancing over at the Driver.
&&&&“What happened?” the Stranger asked.
&&&&The Driver took a deep breath. “There was something in the road,” he said. “I think I hit it.”
&&&&The Stranger slowly exited the car. He turned, looking behind the car. A small animal lied still a few feet away. The Driver exited the car as well, watching the Stranger walk slowly toward the still creature. The Stranger stood over the animal, staring at it in a moment of ominous silence. He recognized the animal lying on the road; a white cat with a small black spot on its forehead. The cat was splayed out vertically, its eyes closed, with a crushed chest. The Stranger kneeled over the cat, gently placing his gloved hand over the cat’s head. He held his hand in place for a lengthy moment, staring at the lifeless animal with a look of stale regret.
&&&&“I think we should get going,” the Driver said. “Someone will come along and clean it up.”
&&&&The Stranger raised his head, glancing back at the Driver. He gently scooped up the cat in his hands, standing up slowly as he walked toward the tree line.
&&&&“Where are you going?” the Driver asked with a tone of confusion.
&&&&“I’ll be back in a moment,” the Stranger replied sternly.
&&&&“It’s just roadkill,” the Driver added, raising his hands in annoyance. “Cats are a dime a dozen!”
&&&&The Stranger did not reply. He walked steadily through the tree line, into a thicket of trees. He took slow steps, navigating through the tree trunks like a ferryman crossing a foggy river. The Stranger stopped in a small clearing, the trees surrounding him in a near-perfect circle. He slowly kneeled, placing the cat in the center of the clearing, on top of a pile of dead leaves and brown pine needles. The air was silent, the wind still, with a musty smell of damp leaves drifting about.
&&&&The Stranger gazed at the stillness of the cat. He stood up slowly, taking a deep breath. A sudden gust of wind blew through the clearing. The branches and leaves of the surrounding trees rustled as the wind sailed through them, waving to each other in a sorrowful dance. The Stranger glanced around the rustling trees, breathing slowly. He looked down at the cat one final time.
&&&&“Your journey doesn’t end here,” the Stranger said in a low tone. “Tell his story,” he said to the trees. The Driver, leaning against his car, turned his head, seeing the Stranger emerge slowly from the tree line. He smirked slightly, watching the Stranger approach the passenger side door.
&&&&“Did you give it a proper burial?” the Driver asked flippantly.
&&&&The Stranger did not reply. He opened the passenger side door, taking his seat, slamming the door behind him as he sat. The Driver shrugged, starting the car. He glanced at the Stranger for a moment. The Stranger cracked his knuckles, sucking his front teeth afterward. He lit a cigarette. The Driver hit the gas pedal, continuing the drive down the highway.
&&&&The bright rays of the sun began to dim, lowering itself from its high point in the sky. Pinkish-red light spread across the clouds as sunset engulfed the land. The Stranger bit the inside of his cheek periodically. His mind was in deep thought as. He watched the seemingly endless pull of the road, winding on without any sign of life except for the legions of trees surrounding it. He placed his hand over his shirt pocket, holding it in place for a moment.
&&&&His introspection forced him to carefully consider his chances. The Stranger believed he had to make the first strike.
&&&&“This is the longest stretch of highway I’ve ever seen,” the Driver said. “I haven’t seen any exit signs so far. Have you?”
&&&&“No, I haven’t,” the Stranger replied.
&&&&“I wonder why there aren’t any other cars around too.”
&&&&“Yes, I wonder.”
&&&&The Driver chuckled. “Those alcoholics must’ve really abused you harshly.”
&&&&The Stranger paused. His eyes slowly glanced at the Driver, a rigid scowl clawing its way across his face.
&&&&“I’m sorry?” the Stranger asked sternly.
&&&&“The ones that raised you,” the Driver replied with a smirk. “You’re so non-conversational. You’re straightforward, only having something to say when you want to say it. It’s kind of chilling. It’s like you’re all thought and no voice. You must’ve been abused badly.”
&&&&“Maybe, maybe not.”
&&&&“Oh, I’m sure of it.”
&&&&“If you say so. You seem excited to learn about my past, my possible pain. That tells me a lot about you.”
&&&&The Stranger flicked his cigarette out of the open window next to him and took a deepbreath.
&&&&“I’ll humor you,” the Stranger said. “Let’s say there was an orphaned boy who was
adopted by, who he thought, was a loving family. Let’s say this family loved to drink, I mean really loved to drink. Let’s also say, for the sake of assumption, this family had unorthodox means of punishment. Like good Christians, they would whip the boy with a raw tree branch. When that wasn’t enough, they’d put out lit cigarettes on the boy’s chest and upper arms. Then, one day, when the boy brought a stray cat home, the family decided to kill the cat. Not only that, but as more punishment to the boy, the family turned on the electric stove burners at full heat. The family took the boy’s hands, pressing them against the burners as hard as they could. The boy suffered a lot of pain, losing consciousness after the smell of his own burning flesh rushed into his nose. From that point on, the boy lost all sense of touch in his hands, wearing gloves for the rest of his life. This cycle of torment continued until the boy grew up, killing the family with a forty-four pistol. He then ran away into the wilderness. Now he wanders forever, like a
disembodied spirit, trapped in the void of that eternal insomnia, seeking that long rest he knows he will never find.”
&&&&The Driver did not reply immediately. He held a look on his face of intrigue, rather than disgust. He seemed morbidly fascinated, like the kind of fascination that comes when children find a dead carcass of an unknown animal. A grin slowly grew across the Driver’s face as he soaked in everything the Stranger said. His grin coincided with the onset of dusk, the collapse of the sun, and the rise of the darkness of night.
“I’d say that qualifies as abuse,” the Driver said with a chuckle.
“I’m sure you would say that,” the Stranger replied.
&&&&The Stranger finished contemplating. He believed, as darkness set in perfectly across the lifeless land, that the moment was the right time to strike. It was time to reveal what he knew about the Driver.
&&&&“Tell me,” the Stranger said. “Do you consider yourself a good photographer?”
The Driver chuckled at the Stranger’s question. “Say that again?” the Driver asked.
&&&&“You have a good eye behind a camera.”
&&&&The Stranger revealed the photograph he took from the glove compartment, withdrawing it from his shirt pocket. The Driver glanced at the picture, a wide grin reemerging across his face. It was a picture of the Stranger, catching a ride in the back of a gray Ford pickup truck along the highway.
&&&&“Do you know who I am?” the Stranger asked, removing his sunglasses.
&&&&“Yes, I do,” the Driver replied. “Do you know who I am?”
&&&&“Yes, I do.”
&&&&“You’re very calm.”
&&&&“Is there a reason I shouldn’t be?”
&&&&“Maybe, maybe not. People like us don’t scare easy, I guess.”
&&&&The Stranger silently gripped his right hand onto the pistol holstered under his white shirt.
&&&&“How long have you been watching me?” the Stranger asked.
&&&&“Since I first saw you hitching rides near Destin,” the Driver replied. “You started leaving your mark pretty quick. Didn’t take long to notice the intrusion.”
&&&&“Intrusion?” the Stranger asked.
&&&&“Yeah, that’s right. That’s not the only picture I have of you.”
&&&&“Do you? I mean, you’ve been saying that a lot and I’m not sure I believe you.”
&&&&“This is a pretty good spot. Open range, no witnesses.”
&&&&The Driver smacked his lips. “You know, I don’t get you,” he said. “Most killing is easy to understand. We seize opportunities when we get them. You, on the other hand; you let some of your prey go. You seem so selective, so careful, about the life you take. I just don’t get it.”
&&&&The Stranger chuckled, morbidly. “Not all prey needs to be killed,” he said. “Prey only needs to die if there’s a reason for it to die. Otherwise, there’s no challenge, no sense of fulfillment. Killing grows dull if you abuse its power.”
&&&&The Driver laughed loudly. “So, you’re one of those moralistic types?” he said. “Got to have a method to your murder, eh?”
&&&&“I just believe in savoring the hunt. I’ve seen what you leave behind too. Really messy. All mess and no passion, no care. It’s easy to kill. What isn’t easy is waiting for the right kill.”
&&&&“If you say so,” the Driver said with a chuckle.
&&&&“You feel pretty clever now, I bet. Was I more than what you bargained for?”
&&&&“I could ask you the same thing. I bet you thought I was going to be easy prey, like the other ones.”
&&&&“None of my prey is easy. Besides, I knew you would be a challenge. Now, here we are. Two great legends, facing off at last. It’s the beginning and end, the sum of all our work put to the ultimate test. From the moment I looked into your eyes, I knew. I didn’t have to follow you or take your picture. I can see you, and what’s in your mind. That’s what makes me the better hunter.”
&&&&The Driver did not reply immediately. His eyebrows sunk low, while he subtly twisted his neck about, attempting to crack it. The Stranger smirked, withdrawing another cigarette. He offered one to the Driver. The Driver smacked his lips, taking the last cigarette from the crumpled pack in the Stranger’s hand. The Stranger lit both cigarettes.
&&&&For a few moments, silence smothered the air in the car. The Stranger glanced at the stars in the sky. They resembled white ants, banding together, struggling for survival across a black sea which does not move or kill. Time no longer existed, only the road.
&&&&“The number one rule about hunting; don’t hunt on someone else’s territory,” the Driver said.
&&&&“It’s not yours anymore,” the Stranger replied.
&&&&“It will always be mine.”
&&&&“No, it won’t.”
&&&&“You won’t claim this territory as your own.”
&&&&The Stranger chuckled. “You’re probably right,” he said. “This is our legend, our
collective tale writing itself. We are two hunters who have different means of snaring our prey. You pick people up, and I take the ride. You offer feigned generosity. I take advantage of feigned generosity. It’s a delicate system, like a spiderweb. As delicate as it is, it’s also perfect. We are the hunters that everyone fears, predators fueled by the toxic world that bred us. This land, this territory, will be remembered by our great battle tonight.”
&&&&The Driver looked at the stranger, smirking. The Stranger maintained his glare on him. He knew he could not simply hold the Driver at gunpoint, forcing him into a panicked submission, before killing him. This time, things were different.
&&&&The Stranger glanced at the speedometer, the dial reaching 80 miles per hour. He took a deep breath, looking out of the window next to him. The shining eyes of a fawn pierced through the darkness, trotting across a muddied ridge, vanishing into the tree line.
“You should’ve killed me when you had the chance,” the Driver said.
“Perhaps,” the Stranger replied with a shrug. “It was meant to be this way. A clash of the
gods, written in the annals of stars above us. Eons of cosmic force coming to pass, at long last. The trees will tell our stories for eternity.”
“This should be fun then.”
“Our battle will stretch on forever, as never ending as the road. We are the spirits trapped in insomnia. Only one of us will reach that final rest. There can be no other gods but one. Only one can be king.”
&&&&The Driver’s face was overtaken by a wide grin. “Long live the king,” he said. The drive into darkness continued. The air outside howled against the car. The sound resembled the cries of moaning spirits, lost in the limbo of their deaths, calling out for the living to hear them out one last time. The half-moon in the sky soon withdrew behind the black wings of the clouds.
&&&&The Driver and the Stranger locked eyes. The sounds of their pistols cocking were matched by the mutual image of gun barrels staring down the two eternal predators along I-10 West, between Destin and Mobile.
Artist: Blue Honey
Julian Drury is a writer and native of New Orleans. His work has appeared online for Quail Bell Magazine, Danse Macabre, Bewildering Stories, Animal: A Beast of a Literary Magazine, and the Eunoia Review. His work has also appeared in print for several chapbooks for Rainfall Records and Books, as well as the science-fiction anthology Night Lights by Geminid Press LLC. He spends much of his time writing and taking care of his two dogs.