The Road Less Traveled

In late 2019, the year before the world as we knew it ended, my wife and I took a driving trip to Maine for a few days, the highlight of which (for me, at least) was to take the tour of Derry, offered by SK Tours (which I’d HIGHLY recommend to anyone visiting Maine). The day before we took that tour, we drove north to visit Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor. The story you’re about to read is almost exactly what happened that day, with a minimum of “artistic license” applied.


The Road Less Traveled

by

G.A. Miller

Bob twisted as he settled into the passenger seat of the small sedan, grunting at the sharp pain in his knees and right hip.

“I am so sorry,” Anita said, “Next time we take a road trip, we’re renting a bigger car.”

They’d just explored Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park on the Maine coast, walking the trails at the summit of Cadillac Mountain, exploring a number of scenic lookouts, and all the walking, along with the cold ocean wind, was taking its toll on Bob’s joints.

“Fuck you, Arthur,” he grumbled as he locked his seat belt in place.

“Arthur?”

“Yeah. Arthur Itis, that miserable bastard.”

Anita made a sympathetic sound as she backed out of their spot and began driving slowly toward the road that would bring them down from the summit to the loop road in the park. Her phone was connected to the car and the map was up on the display panel, but the automated female voice advised them that the GPS signal had been lost.

“Coverage is terrible up here,” Bob muttered, “That thing drops the GPS constantly now.”

“I think all the carriers have trouble up here, not just ours.”

“Well, at least we know we just have to get onto Route One and head south, so we can use the road signs instead of the phone. Old school, no sweat.”

Bob realized that as crowded as both the mountain and the harbor trails had been, he’d seen many people using their phones to take pictures, but didn’t recall seeing anyone actually talking on them.

They finally reached the loop road and saw that the park rangers had closed the road heading up, which didn’t surprise them after passing the long line of cars waiting to get to the parking lot as they headed down. Anita took a right and followed the loop road to the park exit, where they saw a sign pointing to Route One.

The GPS had regained signal and had them turn right again, and everything seemed to be in place. The GPS showed them heading back toward the motel, the compass in the dash had them heading due south, even the late afternoon sun was shining brightly in from the passenger side.

As they passed a route sign on the road, Anita shook her head.

“Did that sign say North?”

“I didn’t catch it. What is the compass showing?”

“Compass says south… and so does the GPS.”

“Sun’s on the right, which is west, so everything says we’re heading south. I’ll watch for the next road sign anyway.”

“Are those crows over there?” Anita pointed to her left, and Bob looked past her to the left side where a flock of large black birds were standing, all facing the road.

“They’re pretty big… I think they might be ravens. I believe ravens are bigger than crows, but I’m no expert.”

“They’re all watching… oh damn, we just passed another sign and I didn’t see it.”

“Neither did I. I was checking out those birds, and you’re right. It looked like they were all watching the car as we passed them.”

The bright autumn colors of the trees were beginning to soften as the sun lowered, causing Bob to swing the sun visor over to the side window so he could continue watching for the next road sign. As he did, he caught sight of something moving through the woods, not far from the road.

“Damn, whatever that was, it was big. I’m thinking moose?”

“I don’t know hon; I didn’t see it.”

“If that was a deer, they sure as hell grow them big up here.”

“Look, I see a sign coming.”

“Got it… says North Coastal One? What the hell? GPS still shows us heading south, about eighteen miles to the motel now.”

“Compass says southeast too, but does any of this look familiar to you? Shouldn’t we have reached that town with the shopping plaza by now?”

“Yeah, I’d have thought so. I don’t get it. I can see the electronics being off, especially with all the signal drops, but the sun setting to our right means we have to be heading south unless Maine is in the friggin’ Twilight Zone.”

They drove in nervous silence for a while, passing more signs advising them they were northbound, despite all the other indicators showing south. As they looked around, the GPS said they were less than two miles from the motel, but they were now the only car in either direction on the darkening road, surrounded by deep woods on both sides.

And there were more things moving in those woods now. Large things.

“OK, I vote we turn around and head back… what do you think?” Anita’s voice was strained, her nerves showing. She’d either seen or sensed something being very wrong here.

“I’m with you. I’m positive we’d have at least seen that restaurant from last night by now.”

Anita pulled to the side of the now empty road and checked all around. Not another vehicle in sight, so she began making a U turn and stopped abruptly.

“What the hell?” she exclaimed.

The road behind them was now littered with ravens, all watching their car. It seemed like they didn’t want them to turn around. Bob looked out the window to his right and spoke very calmly, hiding the tension in his voice as best he could.

“Honey, go on ahead and turn back now, right now. If those damned birds don’t move out of the way, just run them over. We need to get the hell out of here.”

As she gunned the gas and steered back the way they’d come, the ravens took to the air squawking angrily. Bob kept tilting his head to look behind them through the side mirror on his door.

“What are you looking for? Did I hit any of the birds?”

“No, not that. Remember that big thing I saw in the woods a little while ago?”

“Yeah, what about it?”

“Well, I saw it up ahead when you pulled over, like it was waiting for us.”

“Honey, I’ve been doing over seventy miles an hour. It can’t move that fast.”

“I know that. And I also know a moose can’t stand upright on its rear legs either, but that son of a bitch was, whatever the hell it is. We seriously need to get away from this fucking place NOW!”

Anita’s face tightened into a grimace as she pushed the car up over eighty on the straight road, the setting sun now on her side. Her knuckles were white where she gripped the wheel, guiding them smoothly back and away from those woods.

The signs now said South, but they didn’t relax until they began seeing places they remembered passing on the way up in the morning. They eventually passed their motel and headed into town to have dinner. They parked in a small lot next to the restaurant and walked to the entrance where Bob opened the door for Anita and glanced back at the car as she stepped inside.

The single raven standing behind their car watched them silently, the breeze from the shore ruffling its feathers.

THE END

Karma

(Publilshed on The Horror Tree, 3/28/21)

Image Credit – Trembling With Fear

Max Baker tapped his Cuban cigar gently against the lead crystal ashtray on his desk, knocking the ash off the end, but his eyes never left the huge flat screen on the wall displaying his stock activity in real time.

He’d made arrangements to have multiple sales execute simultaneously on this day, a coordinated move to separate the divisions of the company he sat on the board of because those parts were worth significantly more than the whole.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Max Baker preferred to remain behind the scenes, never granting interviews or requests from reporters. He’d built his empire on transactions that met all legal criteria, but left any vestige of ethics far behind.

His critics often said he was the most soulless individual they’d ever met, a viewpoint he didn’t bother to debate.

He smiled then, a predatory grin, as the sale executed and the red lines on the board that represented his holdings spiked upward. This sale would multiply his investments, albeit ultimately resulting in the company’s collapse, causing hundreds, possibly thousands of employees to lose their jobs and health benefits during the height of a global pandemic, but that fallout never crossed his mind.

Those spiking lines were all that mattered. The rest of it, collateral damage, a part of doing business.

He’d invested his time and resources in this project over the past three years, first rising to a majority seat on the board, then imposing Draconian measures to improve the fiscal appearance of the company to investors, raising its market value to the offshore interests looking to step in, all the while planning to sell it off in pieces, funneling massive profits into his own pocket. He’d decided not to wait any longer, choosing to execute before the idiot in office collapsed, triggering an immediate reaction on the Street.

“Strike while the iron is hot, Max,” he murmured before taking another deep drag on his Cuban, “that’s always been the way to win.”

He turned his head slightly to exhale a huge plume of gray smoke, not wanting to obscure his view of the screen, but as the smoke cleared, he saw a small boy standing in front of the long leather sofa on the side of his office.

The boy couldn’t have been more than five or six years old, blonde hair in a bowl cut, a red T shirt over blue jeans and untied black sneakers on his small feet. What struck Max were the boy’s eyes, very light, ice blue, like those of a Husky, fixed on Max without blinking.

“Hey kid, who the hell are you?” he bellowed, “How’d you get in here? Go on, get the hell out, go back where you came from.”

Whoever sired this little bastard is out of a job before lunch, Max thought to himself.

The boy remained silent, his mouth slowly curling upward into a smile that never reached his eyes. They remained locked on Max; the icy stare made eerily sinister by his complete, unblinking silence. Something stirred, moving behind his sofa just then and two large animals of some sort walked out and flanked the boy on either side.

“What the fuck is this now?” Max whispered, gaping at the creatures.

These were nothing like any breed of dog or other kind of animal Max had ever seen before. Ears pressed flat back against broad heads, narrow slits for eyes and enormous jaws filled with large, thick teeth beneath a wide snout. Their short haired, jet-black bodies were very muscular, more so than he’d ever seen on an animal, and their paws all seemed to have only three toes, each sprouting a massive talon at the end. These things had no tails and their wide shoulders stood nearly as high as the boy’s head.

Max turned his chair slowly, very aware that his massive oak desk had no modesty panel on it and the boy would see any motion clearly. He always kept a loaded Beretta in the upper right-hand drawer of his desk, just out of his reach at the moment, and wanted to get to it without drawing undue attention. Whatever the hell these things were, their purpose was clear.

These things were killing machines.

As he moved, the… thing on the boy’s left growled, a deep rumble filled with barely restrained menace as the talons on its front paws dug into the hardwood flooring. Max froze in fear at the sound, not even reacting when he voided his bladder.

The boy opened his mouth then, speaking just one word, very softly.

“Karma.”

The beast on the left bolted first, racing under the desk and sinking its massive jaws into Max’s right thigh. It bit down with enough force to shatter the femur as it shredded Max’s femoral artery, the blood fountaining out onto the beast’s head and shoulders. When Max threw his head back to scream out in agony while flailing in vain to reach the drawer, the second beast leaped easily onto his desk, tilted its head and clamped down savagely onto Max’s fully exposed throat. The bite tore through both carotid arteries before increasing in force, crushing his larynx, trachea and jugular into little more than ground meat.

The force of the arterial spurts seemed to drive both creatures berserk, their blood lust driving their frenzied attacks wilder by the moment. Max’s mangled, dead body slipped down off his chair onto the floor, where the two beasts tore into him with renewed vigor, as the little boy quietly watched the carnage unfold before him.

The beasts shook their heads violently, tearing off chunks of flesh and devouring them entirely as they made their way to the entrails within, ravenous in their quest.

The boy smiled again, but this one was clearly genuine, his eyes sparkling with enthusiasm as the hellhounds did precisely what they’d been summoned to do.

THE END

Renewal Ceremony

Catherine went to the edge of the small patio and waved at the guests milling about and chatting in small groups to head on up and take their places.

The ceremony was about to begin.

As the small group formed a semicircle on the square patio, the warm, humid air settled on them like a shroud. A breeze would have been more than welcome, but the late June air was perfectly still, the large metal wind chime hanging straight down at the edge of the patio.

The officiant smiled at the group and gestured to Catherine and Joseph as she began.

“Family and friends alike, we are all gathered here to join Catherine and Joseph as they renew their vows and reaffirm the bond that they share together. Before we begin, let us observe a moment of silence for those who cannot be here with us today”

As she bowed her head, the clapper in the wind chime struck the side just once, tolling clearly throughout the yard. A number of bowed heads lifted just then, looking at the chime and wondering how it rang with absolutely no breeze to account for any movement.

At that moment, a rush of cold air blew outward from behind them, the refreshing air moving swiftly over the group, off the patio toward the trees beyond the manicured lawn. Heads turned, wondering who’d opened the sliding glass doors, allowing the conditioned air from the house to come out.

The doors were firmly closed, the kitchen behind them completely empty.

Patsy, the family’s Labrador Retriever, whined softly just then, lying on the grass beside the patio, her gaze fixed on the trees beyond the lawn as the officiant continued the renewal ceremony with no further… occurrences.

Those guests using their cell phones to record the ceremony wouldn’t realize until later that all their screens went pure white just before the chime sounded, turning back to normal mere seconds later. The audio was unchanged, that chime perfectly clear during the whiteout period.

At the completion of the readings, Catherine and Joseph kissed as the group burst into cheers and applause, raising their champagne glasses to the couple. Catherine rested her head on Joseph’s chest and gazed out at the trees, her irises now a light amber surrounding deep red pupils.

Her renewal was now complete. She closed her eyes, sighed deeply and turned to her guests, her eyes back to their normal brown color.