Wednesday, December 16, 2015
Headlights in the Fog
I bought a coffee from an automated machine in the lobby. It was too hot to drink and tasted like muddy water, but it was caffeine and God knows I needed it.
My car sat where I'd parked it five days ago. It looked like a woman waiting in the door for her cheating husband who'd been gone three hours longer than he'd said he'd be. I schlepped to the trunk and heaved in my suitcase. At the time I didn't even notice that no one else was going to their car, despite the flight having been booked to maximum.
It was November 12th. Snow wasn't falling yet, but was threatening to. The lights in the parkade glared in my eyes and beyond the lot I could see only blackness. I put the key into the ignition and pulled out, leaving the airport behind and heading west on Highway 348.
Within just a couple of miles I realized I was surrounded on all sides by a dense fog worthy of a John Carpenter movie. I wasn't bugged so much by that as the fact that my headlights were reflecting little back to me other than a swirling wall of white. The street lights were more hindrance than help. I switched to low beams and drove a bit slower than normal.
I still had not realized that I was the only other car on the road.
The fog was thicker than cotton. I could see only a few feet ahead. Passing a streetlight meant momentary light-blindedness. I began to feel disoriented, as if I was driving through clouds.
After a while, the streetlights ended and my own headlights were the only light source around. I turned on the radio, but was met with low-humming static on every station. It only added to the rudderless feeling in my bones. I was a sailor on a tiny skiff adrift in strange, silent waters.
I could see glimpses of landscape here and there beside the road. Open fields with unknown crops, the odd scarecrow, but no houses. No people. No other cars.
For the first time, I realized that I was utterly alone. I have always enjoyed the comforting quiet of chosen solitude. This was not that. This was the quiet of the crypt. There was no movement within the fog, aside from the odd tree waving slightly in the low early winter breeze. I could hear the running of my tires against the asphalt. I could hear the low hiss of the heater. I could hear my own heart beating in my ears. These noises seemed to shout in the stillness.
And then, as if summoned from the ethereal fog, two pinpricks of light sprouted in my rear-view. Seeing them, my heart began to thud more loudly. There is nothing less natural than the feeling of utter isolation except for when that isolation is broken just when you have begun to accept it.
The headlights from behind crept closer. Their approach filled me with an inexplicable terror that gnawed at the edges of my vision, making the world tremor before my eyes. I was suddenly sure that whoever was in that car was following me, had been searching for me, and would hunt me.
An off-ramp became evident in the fog. My rational self surfaced just long enough to remind myself that I was already on the correct road, but...was I? Had I passed endless fields with no houses on the way out to the airport? Were there not streetlights for mile after mile on the correct road? Was I perhaps already lost?
I took the off-ramp.
"If he's not following me, he'll keep going," I whispered to myself. This was pure folly, of course. The driver could live on this road. It was I who had taken the wrong path, but that didn't mean it was the wrong path for everyone.
The lights followed me. To my fevered mind, they were no longer headlights, but malevolent eyes, hunting me through the darkness, glowing their eldritch glow as they searched for me. I kept driving, trying to talk myself into believing that I being ridiculous, but as the headlights grew closer, the more like eyes they seemed.
I turned across the bridge at the head of the off-ramp, taking the other ramp on the far side to turn back toward the airport. Any actual car would never follow me back the way I had come unless it was indeed following me.
And, as I was somehow certain they would, the lights turned with me and headed back the way I had come.
I was the prey. It was the hunter.
A sudden thought rose in my mind. What if the car belonged to a police officer who just wanted to tell me a tail light was out? I didn't think either of my tail lights were, but what if my license plate light was out? This time it was my rational self that knocked that thought down. A police officer doesn't follow you for miles without so much as flashing his red-and-blues or sounding his siren.
Once again I was left with the thought that I was being hunted by an unseen, otherworldly predator.
I was so preoccupied with the lights in my rear-view that I failed to notice that I should be seeing streetlights again by now. I had been driving in the other direction, headed back to the airport, for a good hour before I realized that, aside from my headlights and the ones behind me, there were no other light sources whatsoever. The fog was still thick, but translucent in patches. I still saw nothing but endless fields.
This entire ordeal had gone far enough. I pulled over. As I was now certain it would, the car behind me, if car it was, pulled over as well. I steeled myself, screwing my courage to the sticking point, as the saying goes.
I didn't have a gun. The closest thing I had to a weapon was an 18-inch crescent wrench that was old and rusty. It was laying in my back seat. I picked it up and got out. Viewing the lights from this angle made it clear that they were indeed headlights. The only question now was what sort of person was following me, and why. I conjured up a picture of a faceless man in a long coat with a hood over his face.
Slowly the car began to take shape around the lights. It was rather small. Almost pitiful. It was...it was...
...it was a tiny Honda Civic, painted an almost purplish shade of blue. Seated at the wheel was a thin man with thick horn-rims. He was losing his hair.
"Alright," I said, brandishing my wrench. "Come on out of there!"
Timidly, the man did so. Suddenly I felt in control. I scowled my fiercest scowl and made sure he could still see my wrench.
"Just what in hell do you mean by following me?" I growled.
The man was hardly looking at me. His eyes darted about in the fog. "I...uh..." he said. "I didn't know what else to do!"
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Your car was the only one I've seen in over three hours," he said. His voice was high and tinny. "I don't know where I am...where...where we are. I thought if I didn't let your car out of my sight that maybe...maybe we'd get out of here. Wherever this is."
"Start making sense, moron," I said. I was starting to feel justifiably angry. "We're on Highway 348. You probably came from the airport the same way I did!"
"Airport?" The guy seemed utterly mystified. "There's...there's no airport around here. I was on the road from Kingsport to visit my sister in Bristol. Wait, what highway did you say this was?"
"This isn't Tennessee!" I said. "It's Colorado!"
"Ah...actually," he began, then broke off in a fit of bitter laughter. "I...ha ha...I don't think it's either place. Look around you, friend. Do you think we're still anywhere we should be?"
Until he said this, I had been focused entirely on him. Him and that tiny little car. The fog shifted all about us, and I could see as little as before.
Except...I realized that I could see more now. Both our cars were turned off now. No lights shown around us at all except a thin, wan glow that filtered through the fog like a tea light through a diaphanous curtain. I saw how still everything remained...but then, nothing was still.
Silently, as though walking on pure air, shapes were moving through the fog. Gigantic, monstrous shapes. They writhed and danced in the low light, and what I could see of them made me feel quite certain that they should not exist. They boiled together in obscene movements, never ceasing, never confirming their own eldritch shapes to my unbelieving eyes. I saw a giant being with arms protruding from all sides ushering thousands of smaller versions of itself through the curtain of fog.
I turned to the other man, my former tormentor, now my only friend. "Where are we?" I asked.
He turned and looked into the fog. "I think we both took a wrong turn," he said.
I couldn't help it. I started laughing. I kept laughing even long after I was out of breath to do so.
I laughed like one who knows he is utterly damned.