I was headed up 195, on my way to an abandoned mining camp to conduct a little business. Never you mind what kind of business. There was a lot of money riding on it, suffice to say.
The scenery wasn't much to look at. It was the middle of nowhere. I'd last passed a house about half an hour back, and it didn't look much like I was going to see another one for a while. Scrub and mountains dominated as far as the eye could see. Here and there, piles of rock loitered around; their bare faces waiting for a bored teenager with a can of spray-paint. It was a bit disturbing to see them so bare. How barren does a place have to get when there's no graffiti? It's unnatural. I put on the gas so I'd get out of their sooner.
I was cruising about eighty or so when the light came on letting me know I was overheating. I pulled over with a curse. I didn't want to be late. It was a time-sensitive deal. If I didn't show, I knew I'd be out—Well, quite a bit.
Like I said, it was in the middle of nowhere. No houses in sight. Just the road, some power lines, and endless desert.
I'd just checked the radiator before I'd left, so I was pretty mad. I mean, what's the point of buying Japanese if it's going to break like American? Precision engineering my ass.
So, I popped the hood and took a look. I didn't see anything in the overflow tank. Carefully, with a rag wrapped around my hand, I opened the radiator cap. Nothing. I put a hand over it. Wasn't even warm. I leaned over to take a look, and damned if I didn't almost get a face full of steam. As it was, my forehead felt cooked. I straightened so fast I banged my head on the hood.
I slammed a fist on the side of the car, and then looked into the radiator, a little more cautiously. Empty. I shined my pen light in. Completely, utterly empty. Figures, I thought. I would spring a leak with a deal in the works.
I pulled out my cell phone to see about getting the meeting changed around, and maybe call a tow truck. No signal. I was so far out that not even the cell towers could reach me. These days, you're never really alone, not so long as you've got your cell phone. You've got the world at your fingertips. I felt like I was missing a part of myself. It's amazing how you come to depend on these new gadgets.
Well, I was about fit to be tied. But I stifled my anger to a dull burning in my stomach, and took stock of my situation. I seemed to have a leak in the radiator. It had been some time since I'd last seen a town. It was just a particularly desolate stretch of highway. I could wait until someone stopped, but lord only knew how long it would be before some good Samaritan passed by. For that matter, I couldn't remember the last time I'd seen anyone else on the road, good or otherwise.
I had a couple of bottles of water for the trip. It wasn't much, and with a bad leak wasn't likely to help for long, but I figured it might let me limp along far enough to get some cell signal. I waited for a bit to let the engine cool down, and then poured both bottles in. I started up the car, and let it idle for a moment before driving off.
I got maybe ten feet before the overheating light came on again.
This time, I let the engine cool before popping the hood. When I opened the radiator, I found it was bone dry, and so was the overflow. I looked down, but there wasn't any water on the ground, either behind or underneath my car. Where had the water gone? I know that the sand soaks water like a sponge, but there wasn't even a damp patch. There was no sign at all the water had ever been in the engine.
I sat in the car for a while and swore.
An hour passed, and then two. I knew now that there was no way I could make the meeting. At that point, I stopped being angry. Hell, the worst had already happened, hadn't it? I'd lost out on the deal. Now it was just a matter of waiting for someone to stop, and then I could hitch a ride to where it was civilized again. I sat back in the seat, my arm hanging out of the window. I figured I might as well take a nap. I put on the emergency lights, leaned back, and shut my eyes.
I woke up suffocating. I flailed around a bit, banged up against the door and the center console, and looked around. For a second, I thought there was something wrong with my eyes. Then I realized it was heat haze. It had to be a hundred and fifty in there. Every breath I took was like to sear my lungs. I managed to fumble the door open, and half-fell, half jumped out of the car. I took deep, sobbing breaths, drinking in the much cooler air outside.
When I felt up to it, I stood. The damned window was up. Had I forgotten…? No, I had it down, dammit. I remembered it being down when I went to sleep. My car didn't have power windows, so I knew I hadn't just leaned on a button.
I swore for a few minutes, and then looked at the sun. It was mid-afternoon at that point. I'd been there for about six, seven hours. That long, and no one had stopped? Sure, it was desolate, but it was a highway. That meant it went from one place important to another. I should've at least seen someone driving by.
I looked around at the glaring desert. Had something happened? Was there a fire off somewhere, closing the roads? Was that really a cloud over that mountain, or was it smoke? Or maybe it wasn't fire. Maybe terrorists had struck LA, and everything was locked down.
I had half convinced myself that World War III had broken out when I started laughing at myself. I was imagining things. I was just a bit overheated, that was all. There probably had been cars going by while I slept. Not everyone's kind enough to stop. They might have thought there was no one in the car, even with the emergency lights on. I just had to wait a bit, and I'd see someone else. Maybe if they saw there was someone with the car, they'd actually stop to make sure I was okay.
So I waited. An hour passed, and then another and a third went to keep them company.
The sun went down, and the road remained deserted.
God, it was dark. No moon, and not even so much as a lonely light in the mountains. Just the dim, sad light of the stars. I could hardly see my hand in front of my face.
I lay back on my hood and looked up at the stars. I'd never seen so many. Heck, there were so many, I had trouble finding any of the constellations. I'm no astronomer, but I can usually pick out the more famous ones. I had a hell of a time finding them, though. I think I found the Big Dipper, but it seemed shaped wrong, with too much of a bend in the handle.
I'd been watching the stars for a bit when I heard something moving in the scrub nearby. At first, I had a wild thought that it might be a person, but the footsteps didn't sound human. I reached in my pocket for my penlight, and fumbled it on.
About fifteen feet away, at the farthest reaches of the dim light's beam, I saw two eyes, about four, maybe five feet above the ground. There was a low, throaty growl.
Carefully, slowly, I turned my penlight off and leaned forward, getting a bit of leverage. Then I threw myself to the other side, swore as I landed on my keys, and then scrambled into the car, slamming the door shut behind me. I locked it for good measure.
I realized then that I'd left the penlight on the ground outside. I considered turning on the interior lights, but decided I didn't want to attract anymore attention from the thing outside.
I heard it approach my car. I heard the faint snuffling as it tested the air. I could see the barest outline outside. It seemed to be more or less canine, but it was too big to be a dog or coyote. Mountain lion? I thought. I knew it wasn't a bear.
It nudged the car, and it shook a bit. Whatever it was, it had some mass. It sniffed the door handles, and stood on its hind legs, its front paws on the back of the car. It was bigger than a man. Then it jumped gracefully to the top of the car. There was a bit of groaning from the chassis, but it held. I heard it curl up, and then its breathing became deep and regular. It had fallen asleep, and I was trapped.
I was too frightened for a long while to do anything but try not to scream.
I went to sleep eventually, though. Scared as I was, I hadn't gotten much sleep in the past few days. Too busy with the deal.
When I woke up, it was early in the morning. I was sore as hell from sleeping in the car seat, and my legs were cramped. I couldn't hear anything from up above, so I supposed that the animal, whatever it had been, was gone. Probably went to hunt something not tinplated.
I was ravenous. I hadn't eaten anything since breakfast the day before. And that'd just been coffee and some uppers. Luckily, I kept jerky in my glove compartment, just in case. Never know when you'll end up somewhere you can't get a decent lunch.
I reached in and screamed. I whipped my hand out, and found that my glovebox was crawling with maggots. They clung to my hand, and I shook desperately to get them off.
I decided I wanted out of the car right then and there, so I chanced opening the door and looking around. Nothing. Just some prints on the ground. Don't ask me what kind they were. Do I look like Grizzly Adams to you? They came from something big, but they could be dinosaur tracks for all I know.
How the hell had maggots gotten into my car? You don't need a degree to know you need flies for maggots, and I think I would've noticed a few dozen flies buzzing around. For that matter, what were they eating? There were way too many for one little package of jerky.
I opened the door, and looked at the wriggling mass. They were covering something, but I didn't want to go poking around them to find out. A dead rat, maybe? It was odd that there wasn't any odor.
I looked around, made sure there wasn't a cop (though for once, I wouldn't have minded if there had been), and got out my cleaning kit. I've had to clean cars out before, though usually long before maggots show up. I made sure the suitcase I'd been taking to the deal was all right (it was), and then set to getting rid of the maggots.
I swept the mass, maggots and all, into a trash bag. Then I carefully got rid of the rest. Nothing in the glove box was salvageable. Looked like something had been rotting in there for a while. Everything was covered in juices and maggots.
I took the whole bag of it and tossed it a dozen yards or so off the road. Then I went back in and sat for a while. I would have sold my soul to be able to run the air conditioner. It was still pretty early, but it was going to get hot soon.
I made a bit of a tent, using a tarp from the trunk, stretched from the top of the car to the ground. It wasn't much, but at least it was shade. I also took out a gun I kept under the spare tire. I was going to be prepared when night fell.
I kept an ear open for cars, but still didn't hear any. I was beginning to think maybe it really was World War III. No highway is ever that deserted. Not in this day and age.
I began to notice other oddities. I hadn't seen any birds. No little songbirds, no ravens, no hawks. Buzzards are usually a bad sign, but I would have welcomed a buzzard by that point. Not even any insects, no ants or beetles. No signs of life except for the maggots and the creature in the night.
I was really wishing I hadn't poured those water bottles into the radiator. I was starting to get thirsty enough I hardly remembered that I was hungry.
I gradually became aware of a buzzing sound. At first, I thought it might be some of the missing flies, but then I realized the buzzing was coming from every direction. I looked around, and couldn't spot it. I moved my head, but it didn't change. The buzzing was in my head.
I chalked it up to thirst. I knew something was wrong, of course, but I wasn't sure what, and didn't care to speculate.
I decided at this point that if anyone did pass, they were going to stop, come hell or high water. So I took my car, put it in neutral, and pushed it so it lay across the road.
I set the tarp back up and sat for a while, listening to the buzzing. It seemed to get louder with time, though it might just be I was more focused on it.
While moving the car, I'd found the penlight. It was on the roof, chewed up like an old stick, settled in a slight dip where the creature had made its bed. This was a Maglight, with a metal skin, and I would've sworn nothing short of a crocodile could've made a bite mark on it. I was starting to really hate that thing.
It was late afternoon when the clouds came over the mountains. I watched their slow, steady progress greedily, and in the evening, when I smelled new rain in the distance, I damn near cheered.
It was almost dark when the clouds reached overhead. I stood, my hands upraised, waiting for the first drops to fall—when I heard something growling in the bushes.
I threw myself into the car again, and this time the thing slammed against the door, growling at me. I got a better look at it this time. Its fur was dark brown, and its body was more like a wolf's than a mountain lion. But its legs were too thick for that, and it had more massive jaws than any wolf ever born. It glared at me through the window, and I could almost swear it had a human's eye.
It climbed up onto the roof again. Shortly after, the rain started. All the water I needed, just out of reach.
It was a long and miserable night.
When I woke up in the morning, I didn't hear the creature. I carefully rolled down the window a hair, and then opened the door a crack. I finally stepped outside, and found the monster was gone.
So was the water. It couldn't have been more than seven in the morning, but the ground was already as dry as a bone. So was my car, even in the depression caused by the creature's weight. I would have cried, if I could have spared the tears. The buzzing was worse than ever.
I sank to my hands and knees on the ground, and it was then that I noticed something. My car was shorter than it had been. The bottom of the frame was nearly level with the ground.
At first I thought the tires were flat, on top of everything else, but then I noticed that they were sunk into the asphalt. Then I noticed something else. My hands were wet. I looked at them, thinking that maybe the asphalt had kept some of the water.
It was blood. The skin on the palms of my hands was gone. I stumbled away from the road, and looked at my shoes. The soles were no more than half as thick as they'd been. The knees of my jeans were frayed and thin.
The car sank a bit lower into the asphalt. I didn't watch anymore. I just ran. I stumbled over bushes, fell into arroyos, tripped on rocks, but I kept going, and never looked back. I wrapped my hands as I went, to stop the bleeding.
They found me, three days after I'd started out, wandering in the middle of the desert. I was half-dead, they tell me, raving about monsters, asphalt, and water. They chalked it up to dehydration.
But I know better. I can still hear the beast growling; can still feel the squirm of maggots on my hand. And I never scraped the skin off of my hands on any rocks. The skin was peeled away, or maybe melted.
They never found the car, and they never will, either. It's gone, gone into whatever piece of hell I found myself in. I don't care. Let them have it. I'm staying out of there. I'll take the city, thank you.