Dana Gibbs had been driving too long.
“You two, stop it now!” she raised her voice above what she thought was an acceptable register as her ten year-old son Jackson kicked the back of her seat for the umpteenth time. He’d been engaged in a shouting match for the past ten minutes with his eight year-old sister Zoe who wanted him to turn down the sound on his portable games console. Even though the constant zinging and whooshing noises hadn’t stopped since leaving Nicolson Bay two hours earlier, Dana’s ears had zoned these out preferring to concentrate instead on the faint hum of the tarmac beneath them and the occasional, indifferent interjections of the Sat Nav which rather unhelpfully instructed Dana in a mechanical, female voice to carry on straight ahead. But now, Zoe’s patience had run out and she protested that Jackson should turn the sound down or else.
“Straight ahead for another 6 miles” the Sat Nav lady announced calmly. The pre-recorded, robotic voice was almost a tonic to the goings on in the backseat.
Dana should’ve taken a break and she knew it. That was the message the highways authority was always trying to pump into people. Stop, revive, survive. Whatever. She didn’t have the time. Her husband had forced her to drive for over three hundred miles that long weekend to see his parents while he caught up on work. This despite the fact he knew she didn’t like long drives alone with the kids; indeed, that she hated driving the I 40 at all with all the semitrailers that tore along it at frightening speeds, hurtling up behind her until they filled her rear window, then overtaking, rocking the small family sedan violently as they did, threatening to blow it off the road and into the drainage ditch without so much as noticing. All these things were whirring in Dana’s mind when Zoe exclaimed loudly, “I need to pee.”
“Me too,” Jackson chimed.
Well at least they agreed on something, Dana thought. Though it was hardly the most convenient thing to agree on right now, as they were smack bang in the middle of nowhere.
“Really? But you both went back at the diner.”
“That was hours ago. I’m busting” Zoe replied.
It was true, Dana thought. They’d done well to only start getting restless now. “I can’t stop here, there isn’t enough of a hard shoulder, but let’s see if we can find a place to pull off to the side in a bit.”
“No” protested Zoe. “I’m not peeing by the side of the road.”
“I don’t mind, pull over,” said Jackson.
“It’s different for you, you’re a boy” Zoe was sticking to her guns.
“Don’t be so precious Zoe,” Dana said, surveying the endless, desiccated farmland in its various shades of late-summer brown at either side of the narrow highway. “There are hardly any other cars around.” Dana didn’t really want to take a detour into a small town and delay getting home. Besides, she didn’t know this patch at all.
“That’s not the point. If someone drove past, I’d be embarrassed, but I really need to go,” Zoe was starting to fidget and Jackson finally turned off his games console indicating that he too was ready for a rest stop.
Dana glanced in her rearview mirror and saw a huge truck materialising in the distance. It was just a tiny speck, but within seconds she knew it would be upon her, seemingly just inches from her bumper, then just as suddenly rattling past her in the lane for oncoming traffic, rocking them from side to side like a tiny boat caught in the wake of a passenger liner. Dana had to hold the steering wheel ever harder to steady herself each time this happened, scared she’d careen off the road in the turbulence.
“You see? A truck could come past and see me peeing,” Zoe protested, turning to look out the back window at the oncoming juggernaut.
“They’re going too fast to see you,” Jackson reasoned.
“No. I don’t wanna!” Zoe raised her voice ahead of what Dana sensed may become another row.
With the kids squabbling again in the back seat Dana realised it didn’t seem safe to pull over here anyhow. There was barely any hard shoulder in this section of highway, instead just a narrow drainage ditch between the tarmac and the farmland, and with all the eighteen-wheelers screeching past, she wondered if she too may not prefer to seek the solace of a small town, a place to recuperate after her long hours of driving. Maybe she did need a sit down and a coffee after all, a chance to stretch her legs. She just wasn’t sure where to turn off. Whenever she and her husband, Ralph, drove to her parents-in-laws’ home, he always barrelled straight through this section.
Dana was contemplating all this when the Sat Nav lady’s measured voice cut in again, “Turn left at Joyce Town in four hundred metres” it said. It was an odd instruction. Dana had programmed it to take her straight back to Durham and that required no turning off for many more miles.
“Joyce Town. What kind of a name is that?” Dana said under her breath.
The Sat Nav never instructed her to turn off a main road unless there was a diversion in place. Perhaps there was one that Dana hadn’t noticed and the Sat Nav was pulling data from live traffic reports and trying to steer her around the affected area. If that was the case, it was cleverer than she’d thought.
“Turn left at Joyce Town in three hundred metres” the Sat Nav lady said again as Dana continued to coast, glancing in her rearview mirror at the approaching truck.
“No, thank you” Dana kept driving.
“Mum, I’m really busting. It hurts,” Zoe’s voice was now tinged with an anxiety that told Dana it was a real need, not just a desire to get out of the car for a while.
They passed a sign reading: “Joyce Town, TURN LEFT, 200 metres”
Dana had never even noticed the sign to Joyce Town in her previous trips, but the sun was now low in the sky directly ahead of them and Dana pulled her visor down to little avail. The juggernaut that had only seconds earlier been a small dot in her rearview mirror was now only metres behind her and she slowed down a little to let it overtake. As it did so, she instinctively clenched her hands tightly against the steering wheel, aware that her heart was beating just a little faster until, in a cloud of dust, the truck was well enough ahead of her to pull back in front of her and hurtle away into the sunset. Its shadow gave her momentary relief from the sun in her eyes, but as soon as it was some way into the distance, the glare was back making it hard to concentrate on the narrow white lines that kept her plastered to the road. How the driver of the truck managed to be unaffected by the sunlight, she didn’t know, but she was now convinced it would be best for her to wait out the sunset in a café-diner somewhere after all.
“Turn left at Joyce Town in 100 metres” the Sat Nav said again in the same, dispassionate voice.
“Joyce Town” Dana repeated the name almost silently before adding, “well, I guess I could do with a coffee. Here we go then.”
The sign at the Joyce Town exit was so small Dana was surprised that the Sat Nav had even picked up on it and she could hardly believe the road she was pulling onto led anywhere at all. The car slid off the highway onto a narrow stretch of tarmac cutting through a series of sun-baked fields. Within a few minutes they arrived at a small junction with three small buildings clustered around it. A slightly larger and more artisanal sign greeted them here with the words “Joyce Town” printed in carefully hand-drawn, curly letters. One of the buildings was a small gas station with a single pump which appeared to be closed. There other two were small farmhouses, one of which had a post office sign outside, but this was also closed and there were no signs of life within. The other looked like someone’s home as it had a small porch with a rocking chair on it. To one side of the gas station was a phone booth. There wasn’t a soul around.
The sun had slipped low on the horizon by now and the early evening light was changing the nature of the landscape from sun-weary to slightly eerie. There was no street-lighting so Dana wasn’t keen to hang around. She guessed that this small cluster of shops must serve no more than a few outlying farmhouses. Perhaps there was some party on at someone’s home and that’s why the area around the main junction was so quiet. She wouldn’t have found it hard to believe if the same person who owned the gas station also operated the post office.
“Well, I can’t see a restroom unfortunately, but you can see there is literally no one here. So go for a pee behind that garage Zoe. I’ll have to wait for my coffee.”
Grateful at least for the privacy, Zoe slipped behind the garage and her brother took himself to the fence line. Dana took her water bottle out of the glove compartment and sipped it wondering again why she had let Ralph talk her into this trip. She would’ve done better to simply get the kids out of the house and to an amusement park for a day, or better still, told him to go to the office to work on the weekend.
“Why is there no one here? Why is the store closed?” Jackson said as he wandered back to the car, gawping at the unnaturally still surroundings.
“I don’t know. It’s a small town. I guess everyone is at home already.” Dana glanced over at the small house closest to the garage. It looked perfectly still and peaceful. It was almost like they’d arrived in a model village, not a real one. Zoe emerged shortly after from behind the garage.
“Where is everyone?” Zoe asked, not having heard her brother pose the same question moments before.
“Out working their farms I guess, finishing up for the day. Maybe they’re at a gathering at someone’s farm” Dana said this wistfully, almost to herself. What did she know? Maybe the people who ran the tiny garage and the post office had farms further out and only came to this tiny junction in the morning to greet the postman or take a delivery of gasoline. She would have liked that coffee to perk her up, but the sun had slipped well behind the horizon now, leaving only the faint glow of the day, so at least there would be no more risk of glare and the kids had relieved themselves so hopefully they would fall asleep until they got back to the city and give her a quiet drive.
The three of them piled back in the car and Dana did a three-point turn in front of the phone booth, heading back the way she’d come through the junction and back towards the highway. After driving for a few moments and expecting the highway to appear in front of her Dana noticed that the road seemed somehow different. She didn’t recall it taking so long to get from the highway to Joyce Town and the fields, though still the same hues of brown, seemed somehow unfamiliar. Then the Sat Nav lady’s voice interjected unexpectedly.
“Turn left at Joyce Town,” the automated voice instructed.
“Um, no. We’re leaving Joyce Town now, thanks,” Dana said. “It wasn’t quite what it was cracked up to be.”
“Turn left at Joyce Town” the Sat Nav said again somehow managing to sound more demanding in its repetition.
“Argh, great, this thing is broken” Dana reached forward and fumbled around with the touch screen trying to turn it off.
“I’m hungry,” Jackson announced.
“For that, you’ll have to wait” Dana answered, distracted, still focusing on the Sat Nav. “Don’t you have some cookies left?”
“No, we ate them all,” Zoe leant forward against her mother’s seat, poking her head around to watch Dana struggling with the device.
“Turn left at Joyce Town” the Sat Nav said again.
“Damn it,” Dana snapped, only now looking up to find herself once more at the junction that she had driven away from only minutes earlier.
“Mom, weren’t we just here? Did you go the wrong way?” Zoe asked.
“No honey. I … I’m not sure” Dana hesitated. She looked around. No, she wasn’t going crazy. It was indeed the same junction – the one she’d come to when they first turned off the highway and arrived at Joyce Town. She surveyed once more the gas station and telephone booth and the two small houses standing opposite each other, one with the small post office sign out front, this time bathed in near darkness. She must’ve taken the wrong turn at the junction and come around in a loop. She hadn’t been concentrating. She was tired and had been playing with the Sat Nav rather than looking at the road.
“Mom, why did you bring us back here?” Jackson now leant forward, his voice peppered with mild irritation.
“I must’ve gone the wrong way. I’m tired. I’m sorry. We’re going now for real.”
Dana took a deep breath and summoning every ounce of patience she had, once again proceeded through the intersection and slowed her vehicle to a near stop right near the gas station in front of the phone booth. This time, instead of a three-point turn, Dana accelerated gently into a wide, sweeping U-turn, using the whole of the empty street to turn. For the second time, she drove away from Joyce Town. Dusk had now entirely receded into night and a three quarter moon provided the only light as she headed once more for the highway.
“Turn left at Joyce Town” Dana cursed on hearing this instruction yet again as she thought she had managed to turn it off. It really was broken. Rather than try to shut it up again, this time, she ignored it, concentrating hard on the road ahead, trying to make sure she hadn’t accidentally done a loop during her first attempt. Yet within minutes, they arrived back at the very same intersection, this time in total darkness. The sign for “Joyce Town” in its curly lettering was illuminated only by Dana’s headlights.
Dana felt a stab of fear.
“Mommy, what are you doing? You’re scaring me.” Zoe’s voice sounded tiny.
“It’s ok honey, we’re just lost. It’s gonna be fine. Damn this thing.”
Dana was considering her options. Being lost in the dark with two hungry children in the back was almost her worst nightmare.
“Right. Mommy’s going to pull over and get out the real, proper map, OK? Then we’ll know where we are.”
Dana pulled over near the phone booth and shut down the engine. She got out and went to the boot to pull out an old paper road map Ralph had left there as a backup should the Sat Nav ever fail. Back in the passenger seat, she turned on the cabin light and studied it carefully. She couldn’t spot Joyce Town.
“Gees, good one Ralph. Thanks for buying the most up-to-date map you could find. And thanks for not being bothered to take any time off work to go and see your own goddamned parents.”
“Mommy, don’t talk bad about daddy” Zoe rested her head on the shoulder of the driver’s seat.
“I’m sorry honey, mommy’s just stressed.” Dana pulled out her mobile phone only to find there was no reception.
“Damn it” she muttered before taking a deep breath. “It’s okay, though, you know why? Because there’s a pay phone there and mommy has some change and she’s gonna go and make a quick call to daddy who’s home and who has the internet, and he’s gonna tell us how to get out of here because the internet will have an up-to-date map. You stay in the car where I can see you, OK?”
“But mommy, I’m scared.” Zoe’s eyes were wide and Jackson had gone unnaturally quiet.
“You don’t need to be scared honey. It’ll be fine.”
“But where are all the people?” Jackson asked this matter-of-factly, but his question hit Dana like a brick. Where the hell were all the people? Sure, it was a small town. So small it didn’t even appear on Dana’s interstate road map. But there was a gas station, and she could see two farmhouses from where she was even though there were still no lights on in either and no movement coming from within. Stranger still, not a single car had gone past all the times they’d driven into the place.
“Maybe they’re all asleep. Maybe they go to bed early here.” Dana realised how stupid her explanation sounded. She briefly wondered if the people living here were part of some reclusive religious sect who retired at sundown and went about all their business by candlelight. But there were no warm, flickering glows in the empty windows here. It was also unusually silent. There were no familiar animal noises emanating from distant farms. Perhaps the locals were grain farmers, but still, one might expect a farmer to have a dog. Yet no dog bayed at the arrival of the visitors. No farm cat skulked across the road in pursuit of a barn mouse. Not even a barn owl let out a faint hoot in tribute to a new evening’s hunt.
Though she found the whole situation unsettling, Dana forced herself to believe that someone local must’ve been having a party and literally everyone was invited. That’s why not a soul was about in the ‘centre’ of the town if that’s what one could call it.
“Don’t be scared honey” Dana said again, “mommy’s going to call daddy now from that pay phone and she’ll be back in a second. Sit tight.”
Dana made her way over the pay phone, taking a few deep breaths to steady herself. As she pulled open the door to the booth, barely making out the handset in the faded light, a slightly metallic whiff hit her, like rubbed metal. She picked up the receiver and flinched when she felt something sticky on it. “Oh gross,” she whispered, wiping her hand on her pants and then plopping in some coins before dialing her home number.
After a few rings, her husband answered “hello?”
“Ralph it’s me. I’m lost.”
“Hello?” her husband’s voice sounded distant and hollow, like he was speaking to her from the bottom of a tin can.
“Ralph. It’s me, Dana. I’m with the kids in this crazy little joint called Joyce Town – we’re lost. I’m gonna need some directions outta here.”
“Hello? Anybody there?”
“Ralph? Can you here me?”
The phone went dead. A few bits of change clunked out.
“God dammit.” Dana slammed the phone down and wiped her hand again on her trousers. Her fingers still felt moist and she was becoming increasingly agitated and claustrophobic in the tiny, stuffy booth a million miles from home – from anywhere.
She retrieved the change, slotted it in again and dialed once more. Her husband’s voice chimed down the line again just as affably. She spoke first this time.
“Ralph? Can you hear me? It’s me.”
“Yes!” she enjoyed the moment of hope.
“Hello? Dana is that you? Hello? Anybody there?”
“Hello Ralph, yes it’s me…”
The phone went dead again. This time, her change did not come out. She foraged in her pocket but found no more. She only had her credit card and it was a change only phone from what she could make out in the dark.
“Shit, shit, shit.” Her temples were pulsating slightly and her cheeks felt flushed, but she had to remain calm for the children. They’d just have to try again to make an exit from this town on their own, unaided by maps or Sat Navs or her husband’s directions or the internet. Or, and this was the worst case scenario, wait it out in the car for a while, until the residents finally returned from their party and could offer some assistance.
Before she could collect herself enough to turn back towards her car, lights flashed on behind her, plunging the phone booth into a blinding brightness. Spinning around she saw her headlights on full beam and her two children – who had clambered over into the driver’s seat – gesticulating wildly at her. She couldn’t make out what was wrong, but her hand was already against the door of the booth, her body pushing it open. Again, she felt the same stickiness she had felt on the receiver, but it was worse this time – it was wet. Lifting her hand to her face she was overcome by the unmistakable scent of iron rushing into her nostrils. Looking down at her hand and the handle of the phone booth both of which she could now clearly see, thanks to the beam of light from her own headlights, that the whole phone booth was totally covered in blood. Both its glass walls were plastered with palm prints and smear marks in what looked like red paint. Now, she could see that fingers had tried to punch in numbers on the keypad, hands had reached out grabbing at walls, trying desperately to steady themselves but had failed, instead sliding down them leaving long ochre trails and several large pools of bright red liquid coagulated on the floor beneath her and on the ground immediately outside.
Dana’s body was moving before she’d instructed it to. She was racing towards her children, adrenaline and instinct her only driving forces. The children were now honking the horn over and over and gesturing wide-eyed to a space in the darkness directly in front of the car, only inches outside the reach of its lights. There, on the edge of the shadows stood a figure in the shape of a tall, heavy-set man. The only part of him Dana could see clearly was his left hand as this was within the circumference of her headlights. In it, he held a gleaming, glinting piece of metal – a meat cleaver.
Making a dash for the driver’s seat of her car, her peripheral vision told her the figure was unmoving. Her hand outstretched to the driver’s door handle, she could see the man remained immobile at the very farthest edge of her headlights’ reach. Gripping the handle she could again feel the stickiness of the blood which had now transferred from her hand to her car door. Her hand slipped off the handle. She tried again. It didn’t open. The kids had locked it. She thought she was crying out to them but she wasn’t sure as she couldn’t hear herself. There was only a ringing in her ears and the sound of her heart thumping. She pointed with her bloodied hands for the kids to unlock the doors. They were scrambling to obey her. A stolen glance at the figure was cold comfort – he was still unmoving. He was just standing there as if in a trance, watching the commotion unfold before him. Silently enjoying it. The handle finally responded, the door opened and Dana dived in to the cabin, locking the doors again behind her. She was now desperately trying to start the car. The children fell silent in the back. The engine rasped and coughed but wouldn’t start. It felt like an eternity she was doing this. The man’s left hand and the cleaver were still visible whenever she stole covert glances. But most importantly, they were still. Finally, her engine wheezed into action.
Only then, did the figure begin to approach, stepping into her field of vision, filling it with the stuff of nightmares. The figure, certainly a man, was wearing a white mask with no features on it other than slits for his eyes, mouth and nostrils. His clothing appeared to be all black and he was wearing heavy boots. He stood in the light about ten feet away from her for a few seconds, proudly brandishing his cleaver. Then, suddenly, he marched towards the car, lifting the cleaver up above his head, almost swinging it around him, then bringing it down in a heavy blow on her bonnet.
The children screeched. Dana’s breath halted. The car was now responding to her commands, her foot was on the pedal, her hand on the gearstick and she was reversing fast.
“Turn left at Joyce Town.” The Sat Nav started up again like a psychopathic automaton.
“Goddammit.” Dana shrilled.
“Turn left at Joyce Town”
Another clunk of the cleaver against the body of her vehicle rocked it violently as she spun the car around and changed gears then began accelerating for the third time away from Joyce Town, the crazed, cleaver-wielding figure in close pursuit on foot. He was walking, not running, but somehow seemed to be keeping up with them anyway with long, easy strides.
Dana had leveled out now and was now pressing her foot down on the accelerator as far as it would go. She was speeding away from Joyce Town and within seconds, the hulking form began to fade to a speck in her rearview mirror. She took the first turn in the road wildly, then another and another. She was driving like a mad woman not understanding how she still had the vehicle under control but somehow it clung to the road.
“Turn left at Joyce Town” the Sat Nav said again and this time, Dana thumped it so hard with her bare hand that it came off the dashboard and hung from its wiring. Her hand throbbed so hard she winced.
“Joyce Town, Joyce Town, Joyce Town” the electronic voice teased. Another, final wallop that left Dana’s hand warm and wet and pulsating finally made the machine fall silent.
It felt like hours, but it must be have been only seconds until Dana saw a truck thunder across the path in front of her. It was the highway. It had to be the highway. She didn’t even slow down to take the turn. Madness yes, but she didn’t. Rather she swerved onto it at terrifying speed, not giving way, not even looking, not knowing if another juggernaut would hurtle into her and wipe them out – just hoping it wouldn’t. Thank God there was no one coming. And now she was on the highway, straightening out onto that long, seemingly endless road dominated by eighteen-wheelers traveling at tremendous speeds, and she’d never been so happy to see it in her life. She could see the tail-lights of the truck that had crossed ahead of her, letting her know she was finally out of Joyce Town. She kept her eyes glued to those lights, happy to see any link to the civilization she was now heading towards.
She was speeding and she knew it, but she was desperate to keep up with that truck ahead of her – the only other vehicle she could see, but at that speed, and with her adrenaline now waning, she could no longer follow the two straight white lines, and after a couple of hundred metres, her concentration slipped and she careered off the highway and into a ditch at the side of the road.
The next thing she remembered was the light shining in her eyes.
“Ma’am. Ma’am, you’re alright. You’re OK.”
It wasn’t the man with the cleaver. It was a police officer and his torch was directed in her eyes. She grimaced and he diverted the light away.
“My kids…” Dana attempted to turn her neck to look for her children and a sharp pain shot up her spine.
“It’s OK ma’am. Your kids are fine. They’re out of the vehicle already. They’re uninjured. Thank God for seatbelts huh? We’re going to get you out too we just need to cut you free. You’re kinda stuck in there. How you feeling ma’am? Talk to me. Tell me, can you feel your legs?”
“Yes, I can feel my legs, but my kids…” Dana tried to curl her toes, feeling another shooting pain run up her thigh.
“They’re fine ma’am. They’re out here with my colleague waiting for us to get your free. I promise.”
She grimaced again as she twisted her neck, still trying in vain to catch a glimpse of Jackson and Zoe, to be sure that what the police officer was telling her was true, that they were unharmed.
“Just a bit of whiplash. You’ll be fine. You’re damned lucky ma’am. Could’ve been much worse coming off the road like that.”
The memory of the man in the mask with the cleaver was like a strange dream. Perhaps it had been. A hallucination? The product of being too long on the road, not enough liquids, not enough rest?
“I’m sorry. I needed a break. I should’ve had a break. I tried to stop at Joyce Town but…” Dana’s voice trailed off.
“Well ma’am, I’d say you’re pretty lucky ‘bout that too. Cause if you’d had a break back there, things could’ve been a lot worse. ‘Bout twelve miles up the road some farm kid turned all crazy and killed damn near every living creature in his village – down to the last chicken. It’s a good thing you didn’t stop.”
“Turn left at Joyce Town” Dana said mechanically then promptly fainted.