Another work-in-progress that exceeded a contest’s word count. And, again, until I get around to revising it, here’s the original text, warts and all. Enjoy.
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The wide, empty stretch of Pacific Coast Highway is nestled between the rolling foothills of the Santa Ynez Mountains and the dark and endless abyss of a moonless Pacific. The glow of a distant oil rig a dot on the horizon.
The foothills burn in the steady ticking of a car’s emergency lights. The car is an old gold Chevy set askew across the northbound lanes. Its horn blares across an otherwise still darkness, bouncing off the burning foothills and disappearing across the abyss to the west.
Stuart Mercer, a man of little consequence, sits behind the wheel, his hands wrapped white-knuckle tight around it. Dark circles hang heavy beneath wide, unblinking eyes. Their gaze seized on the bloodied windshield before them. A bloody, dented hood just beyond that.
Stuart sits behind the wheel, still and silent. He raises the lever on the Chevy’s wheel with a clack and the windshield wipers move back and forth—once, twice, three times—smearing the blood and clouding the windshield further.
Stuart lowers the lever once again, another clack, the jingle of keys as he kills the ignition, and then Chevy stops doing much of anything.
From a distance, the entire scene appears to blink in and out of existence. Every action only a brief snapshot. Stuart and the Chevy where they started. An open driver-side door. Stuart standing beside the Chevy. Stuart looking to the foothills, then across the abyss, and back to the foothills. Stuart standing in front of the Chevy, inspecting the dented hood and blood-covered windshield.
A noise, some wet mewling cuts across the still darkness.
Stuart snaps his head back towards the long, dark stretch of highway behind the Chevy. His eyes strain, struggling to adjust to the shifting darkness. Whatever waits for him there in the darkness of the highway, only the darkness stares back.
Stuart takes a step forward, his mind snapping and biting at a new thought with every step after that. A highway patrol vehicle pulling up and asking questions to which Stuart has no answers for—at least answers that won’t just make everything that much worse—like why Stuart smells of piss and cheap beer. (Well, Officer, that’s because I went and pissed myself after getting absolutely shit-faced on cheap beer.) He imagines a dead coyote and a now-orphaned litter of pups crying for Stuart to will their dead mother back to life. Maybe a very pissed off cougar waiting for him, eager to teach him how to properly finish off a kill. Or, hell, maybe he’ll find a chupacabra.
And then he stops, stops walking and thinking and even breathing for a brief moment. His eyes drop down to the asphalt at his feet.
A small, broken child—a rail-thin boy no older than seven or eight—dies a slow, painful death. Choking on his own bile and innards as he blinks in and out of existence in time with the steady ticking of the Chevy’s emergency lights. One eye rolls around in a broken socket. The other is seized on the trembling, silent man standing over him. The dying boy makes a wet, dying sound. Reaching out and touching Stuart with a clawed hand, one attached to an arm that now bends at several unnatural angles.
And that’s when Stuart begins to scream.
As adrenaline floods his system, neurons fire off in his head, pulling back the heavy fog clouding his mind to reveal a series of loosely connected scenes. Fragmented memories of a time from before he found himself on this dark and mostly empty stretch of PCH.
A kitchen, night. A family dinner interrupted by a stubborn boy’s refusal to put away his phone. A bloated man raising his voice, and then his hand at his son. A tired wife unconvincingly pleads with her husband and son to stop, please, just stop. The bloated man takes the boy’s phone. The boy talks back, calling the bloated man something you can’t say on TV. An uncomfortable silence followed soon after by the sharp crack of the bloated man’s hand falling across the boy’s face. More silence. And then the bloated man runs, to where his keys hang on a distant wall, out the door, into his an old, gold Chevy, and then off into the distance.
Fade to a shot of the bloated man sitting in some dark corner of a local bar. An aging woman brings him an open bottle of beer. She refers to him by name when asking what’s on his mind and thinks nothing of it when he slurs a lie about feeling fine. He drinks until his eyes can’t stay open and he no longer recognizes the songs playing on the jukebox but can’t help sing along anyway. And when the bartender cuts him off, he leaves, call her a cunt, and is never asked to hand over his keys.
The drive home is little more than vague sensory information. Cold wind against his skin. A strange warmth running down his leg. Flashing lights, red and green. And the sobering sound of flesh cracking against and bouncing off metal and glass followed by the wet thud a young boy’s body rolling off into the gutter. The shrill shrieking of a terrified mother.
Cut to Stuart already out of his car, sitting in the glow of a lamppost, holding a convulsing, twitching mess of flesh and innards he calls Danny. Blood and brains stain his hands as he cradles his son’s fractured skull. The boy’s dinner comes up and out of his mouth along with the sort of icky, sticky stuff that really should be on the inside instead of the outside. The wet sounds of his scared, dying child’s apology. Stuart says it’s okay, that everything will be okay. That Danny doesn’t have to be sorry because this was his fault. The fault of a broken, drunk bastard who turned out just like his old man. But before he can finish, the boy’s body grows still and heavy.
The world around him is a dull throbbing noise, a pulsing sound of screams and cries from his wife. Neighbors chattering among themselves, calling the police, taking pictures and videos to document the drunken moment a family was ruined.
Stuart rises to his feet, walks back to his car—still running and parked halfway up the curb and across his lawn—and seats himself behind the wheel. He sets the Chevy into reverse, pulls back out the driveway, the car rattling and sparking as its undercarriage strikes against the curb once again. The car rolls back, past Danny’s body, turns and illuminates the neighbors and their homes for a brief moment in the headlights, and then speeds off into the night.
Stuart pilots the stained and battered Chevy north on the Pacific Coast Highway. Brief flashes of a seedy neighborhood in Long Beach. The skyline of downtown LA. The rolling foothills of the Santa Ynez in the distance as he suddenly appears on the far end of Ventura. A moonless sky. The dark abyss of the Pacific to his left. Wet, salty air sticking to his skin. A sharp pain shooting through his chest and down his arm. The screeching of tires. And then nothing at all.
Searing pain radiating up his leg brings Stuart screaming back into the here and now. The twisted dead thing at his feet digs and tears at the flesh on Stuart’s calf, clawed fingers buried down to the second knuckle.
A single word bubbles up, escaping from deep within the dead thing’s belly.
Stuart looks on at the dead thing, it’s flesh hanging off the bone. Bone twisted at strange angles. Jaw hanging crooked on by decaying and tearing strands of sinew, unhinging like a snake.
The wet sound repeats, Daddy.
Stuart desperately pulls at his leg, howls as his flesh stretches taut on the bone and tears away in ribbons. His pant leg and shoes fill with blood as he hobbles away. Away from the dead, rotting thing with Danny’s face and voice and toward the Chevy.
The door slams shut. The cabin of the car floods with red, then darkness, and then red again. The keys jingle and the engine coughs and wheezes.
And then the Earth shifts, the Chevy bouncing and squeaking as the world turns sideways. The sky now off in the distance, just beyond the blood-stained windshield. The highway nowhere to be seen. Only a great darkness in the rear view mirror.
The car sinks with a pulsating rhythm, deeper into the darkness, into the rising maws of a great worm. And as liquid asphalt fills the Chevy’s cabin and all the stars in the sky are swallowed whole by the great worm, Stuart’s final thoughts are of his son. A prayer that his boy might see the light of the stars wherever he’s found himself tonight. Safe from the darkness.