©2021 by Sparrow Black
The drive was grueling and long, but what she’d left behind was worse.
“Don’t think about it, Opal. You’ll just start to cry again, and you’re driving. Put some music on, distract yourself.”
It felt strange to talk to herself like that, but the road was empty at this time of night. Nobody would see a lone black-haired woman with silvery gray eyes talking to herself.
Opal leaned forward to turn the radio on, one of those old-fashioned jobs that had long black buttons that stuck out. The kind that you actually had to push in to get to the preset station you wanted. Opal’s travels had taken her far from her home and the preset stations wouldn’t work. There was also a tape deck in the stereo but who owned cassette tapes anymore? With a grim frown on her round face, Opal turned the knob, trying to find anything to listen to.
The 1977 Ford Pinto Wagon that she drove shuddered as her foot pressed down on the pedal to climb a tall hill. The car was old, much older than her, and had little power, but it was all she had when she needed to escape. And escape she had, just in time, too.
A quick glance in the driver’s side mirror showed the road still empty behind her, the only light came from the moon overhead and her taillights. That was good.
The car crested the hill finally, well below the 70 MPH speed limit at 45 MPH, and Opal sighed in relief. For a moment, she’d been afraid the old car would stall out, leaving her stranded in a place she didn’t know, in the middle of rolling hills and valleys. On Halloween night.
That would have just been perfect, she thought, being stuck out there in the wilds with no way to call anyone or to find help. As if her night hadn’t been bad enough already.
“Don’t think about it, Opal. Seriously.” Her voice broke the silence, and she reached down for the radio again. Her thick fingers turned the knob again, stopping when a sound other than static finally came from the speakers. “Nooooo.”
Country music. Just great, she hated country music, but she was getting sleepy, the silence was wearing on her nerves, and even country music was better than the silence.
A distinctive voice sang something about being a highwayman and Opal tried not to roll her eyes. But there was something familiar about that voice, an image of a man with braids came to mind, but before she could pull the name off the tip of her tongue the voice changed. It was a strange song, full of death, and not really much of a comfort to her, but it was sound at least.
A deeper voice, a familiar voice, somebody maybe her father or grandfather had played, sang a song about driving a starship, as the tires continued to roll on the asphalt. The song ended and Opal expected an ad or a station break, but there was only silence as she approached a tunnel in the highway.
The moment she entered the tunnel, lit on each side by soft lights, a new song came on. That same deep voice. A voice that made a shiver run down her spine as the man sang a song about running and…
“No!” Opal cried out, turning the volume button down, but nothing happened. The voice continued to vibrate from the speakers. Then a new thought broke in. The song was playing, even though she was deep in the tunnel now. The station should have faded out, but the man still sang about being cut down and it made Opal afraid.
The Pinto crawled through the tunnel as Opal’s throat began to close, as if she was being strangled, and she gasped for air. Please, not now, she thought as her foot pressed down harder on the gas pedal, not yet.
The end of the tunnel drew closer, and Opal told herself to hold on, she was almost out of the tunnel. She would find a different channel then, something less…damning. Cheerful, maybe.
The night was clear at the entrance of the tunnel, but at the end, the opening that she’d hoped would bring some kind of relief, Opal found a thick fog that the Pinto’s headlights barely penetrated. What was this?
The Pinto slowed as Opal strained to see through the thick gray fog. The fog was too thick, and a new fear crept into Opal’s still strangled throat. What if she hit something? What if she drove off the road and over the mountain the Pinto had barely been able to climb?
“If you’re ever in a situation where visibility is low, honey, look for the stripe on the right side of the road. If you can see that line, then you’re okay.” Her father’s voice, now only a memory, reminded her and Opal relaxed a little, though her hands still gripped the steering wheel tightly.
Opal’s silver eyes slid to the right, looking for that white stripe. Where was it? It had to be there, somewhere. That sensation of being strangled returned, worse, as she desperately looked around for the line, but it was nowhere to be seen.
The car slowed even more, until it was barely crawling, the beams of light on low, but Opal did not see that line. She moved the car further to the right, trying to locate the line that would mean she was in the right lane, that she wasn’t in the middle of the road, about to hit oncoming traffic. It wasn’t there.
Her right foot moved, over to the brake, ready to bring the car to a halt. But what if someone came up behind her, plowed right into the backend of the Pinto? An impression of fiery death drew her foot back to the gas pedal, despite her fear of being too far over.
The fog seemed to grow thicker, until she could barely see the front of the car, much less the headlights. Opal kept going, certain that if she collided with anyone, or anything, head-on, then the collision wouldn’t be as bad as being hit from behind.
Finally, she caught a glimpse of it, a faint line that became stronger as the fog cleared enough that she could see the front of the car again. Relief made her shake, but she wasn’t through this yet.
What a lousy way to spend Halloween, she thought for a brief moment. She’d had such wonderful plans, beautiful plans for this very special night, her favorite night of the year. There was supposed to be a haunted house, then a party she’d heard about, but the night had come to a very sudden halt at the haunted house.
Don’t think about that, she reminded herself. Pay attention to the road.
“Focus,” she said out loud.
A smell began to fill the car as she drove further into the fog. Was that…?
Opal frowned, her fingers reaching for the climate controls, sliding the shifter that would recycle the air in the car instead of drawing it in from outside. As she sat back, her eyes caught a faint glow through the fog. A gas station, perhaps? Maybe a café, where she could wait this fog out?
A flick of her finger turned on the indicator and Opal followed that beautiful white line to the exit. When she put the car in park and turned the ignition off, Opal sighed out her relief. Stopping probably wasn’t a good idea, but this fog was bad. And that smell of smoke was stronger, she decided as she got out of the car, keys in hand. Fog and smoke, what a combination.
Bright lights lit up the gas station that luckily had a small café attached to it. Opal walked into the shop part, smiled at the male attendant there, and headed back to the café. A sign told her to seat herself, so she slid into a booth, pushing the table part away a little. She wasn’t morbidly obese, but she hadn’t skipped any meals. Plus, there was something awful about being trapped in a booth with a table in front of you like that.
Why couldn’t places have regular chairs and tables, she wondered as a red-headed waitress dressed in jeans and a black t-shirt came over to wait on Opal. The pretty woman’s face, barely lined with age, went from a smile to a frown as she came closer to Opal.
“Honey, are you okay?” The woman asked and Opal looked at her, confused. The tag pinned to her shirt said Hel, which Opal thought was strange, but maybe it was short for Helen? Who knew? Who cared, really?
“I’m fine, why?” Opal asked, noting how pale the woman was now, how the blue of her eyes seemed unnaturally shiny. What was that about?
“Well, I thought you were just dressed for Halloween, but honey, you’ve got blood in your hair.” Hel pointed a pen at Opal’s head, her face coming closer to Opal’s. “It’s dripping down your face.”
Opal brushed a hand against her face, feeling nothing, but when she looked down, her hand was covered in blood.
“Excuse me, I need to go to the bathroom.” Opal pushed out of the booth, scurrying quickly to the blue sign overhead that read ‘bathrooms’.
“Sure, come on back when you’re ready.”
A gasp left her throat when she saw herself in the mirror over the white sink in the bathroom big enough for one person at a time. Her hair was soaked in blood, Hel hadn’t been wrong about that. Opal brushed her hands through her hair tentatively, searching for an injury, but there was nothing. She felt no cuts, not even a bruise. But even her face was covered in the blood.
She grabbed paper towels from the holder on the wall, wet down a crumpled bunch, and began to swipe at her face. The blood smeared but adding soap from the dispenser seemed to help. Opal washed and washed at her face, but there was no way to get it all out of her hair. Not without a shower.
What the heck had happened to her? Opal stared into her own gray eyes, thinking back to when she’d left the house. The haunted house was one of those horror-ride kind of things, where a guide took you through to be terrified into screaming every time a plastic knife came out at you from nowhere or a plastic snake fell on you from the ceiling.
There’d been a billboard advertising the event and Opal had decided to go. She’d even gone out of her way to get a costume to wear, choosing one that suited her profession. Kind of.
She’d gone to the house alone, but that was okay. She liked her own company, and everything had been fine until that man…that man that…Don’t think about it, Opal.
Feeling around in the pocket of the aqua blue Nurse Ratched costume she wore, minus the nurse’s cap, Opal found a hair tie and wrapped her hair up into a bun. Maybe Hel wouldn’t stare at her now. Swiping at a trace of blood around her neck, Opal ignored the spatters of blood on the uniform. They were just part of the costume, she told herself, and went back out to pick up the menu.
Hel was nowhere in sight, but Opal knew she’d be back. It wasn’t like she had any other patrons to wait on, Opal was the only other person in the café.
Opal stared at the menu, but the dishes on offer only served to confuse her more. Bread soaked in wine? Salt and bread? Nuts and fruits? A bowl of oatmeal? The drinks list wasn’t much better. Mead, wine, or beer. No juice, water or even soda pop was listed, just alcoholic beverages.
“Made a decision?” Hel asked as she appeared once again at Opal’s table.
Opal jumped, surprised by the woman’s sudden appearance.
“Um, can I have a bowl of oatmeal with some toast?” Opal asked, knowing she wouldn’t eat any of it, she wasn’t hungry. “And would it be possible to get a glass of water?”
“Sure on the oatmeal and toast, no can do on the water. I could bring you a cup of mead.”
“But, I’m driving.” Opal protested, her protest coming to a halt when Hel just laughed and shook her head.
“Honey, that fog is only going to turn to smoke the further down the mountain you go. Then fire. You can’t drive while the fire is burning. You aren’t going anywhere for a while. Just enjoy the mead, and relax.” Hel turned on a combat-booted foot and walked away from Opal.
Opal had wanted to ask what fire, but Hel, her hair in braid down her back, walked on, away from Opal.
Perturbed, but not sure what else to do, Opal looked out of the window. The dark brown Pinto sat there, waiting on her to come back to it. Confusion rattled her again. Whose car was that? And how did she get the keys?
“Here you go, Opal, enjoy that while I heat up your oatmeal. Do you want honey in it?”
“No, thank you.” Opal answered softly, her eyes still on the car.
Memories from the night began to intrude as Opal reached for the mead, screams, moans of agony, the sounds of a knife plunging into skin and bone playing over and over again. And then, the rattling sigh of…death. A sigh that brushed against her cheek.
What the heck?
Opal sat up straighter in the booth, looking around, certain someone had just breathed on her.
“What is it, Opal?” Hel asked, her pale skin luminescent, her eyes glowing like two blue lightbulbs in her face.
“What happened to me?” Opal asked, her eyes brimming with tears of fear, her pulse racing.
“Oh, it’s not what happened to you, sweetheart. It’s what you did to others.” Hel said softly, sliding into the booth on the other side of the table. “For years you’ve traveled the country, leaving only bodies behind. You made a mistake this time. A little whoopsie as you left that haunted house, which is most definitely for-real haunted now.”
“I don’t understand,” Opal spit out. “What are you talking about? I’m not a killer.”
“Oh, but you are, my lovely, and so much killing too. It’s a pity you tripped over that man’s hand as you walked down the stairs, knife in hand. It went in right here,” Hel pointed at Opal’s chest, where a large patch of blood stained the uniform, and Opal saw a cut in the material. “Right into your own heart.”
The memories came to life then, the man that called her a fat ass, the man that didn’t know she’d hidden a hunting knife in her pocket. The man that soon found the blade of that knife right between his ribs. And the others, the men and women she’d hunted down in that house one by one until only the sound of dripping blood broke the silence.
Hel’s eyes opened wider, clearly delighted. “It’s lucky you died tonight, I have to say.”
Opal watched Hel’s face, a twisted look of glee on the other woman’s face now, twisted with some awful pleasure that made Opal cringe back, afraid of the woman suddenly.
“If you’d died any other night, you wouldn’t be able to take this lovely little road-trip through hell every year. You’d be stuck in oblivion, a black void of nothing, but dying on Halloween is special. Oh, and once a year, you’ll be able to go back to the house and relive your final moments. Take this little road-trip all over again. Over and over again. Isn’t it wonderful?”
Opal stared at the woman, understanding dawning. That wasn’t her car, she wasn’t on the run from some horrible monster. She was the monster. And this was the road trip through hell.
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