The orange disc of the sun had already touched the treetops, slowly sinking into the uneven line of the high horizon. In the distance the birds chirped preparing for sleep, John saw them fluttering from place to place like dancing dots in the darkening sky. The air freshened up, the cool wind brought a leafy smell and a barely discernible scent of pine needles.
John liked this time of day. He sat on a bench and watched the dying shadows. There was something special, mystical in the approaching twilight, and although the man had seen the sunset many times, it was always associated with the mystery of nature. And only when the reddish-orange lighting began to turn gray he put on his Oklahoma baseball cap and got behind the wheel.
The truck slowly pulled out of the parking lot, turning onto the road. It was still light, but that was the moment when the day was replaced by inky darkness very quickly. Before you can blink, it's already night. John was on his way to California, crossing the Appalachian Pass. It was a rather winding serpentine road, with walls of dark trees hung from both sides. The waves of the Blue Ridge could be seen in hazy silhouettes in the misty clouds of the horizon.
With the onset of the evening, the number of cars became less and less, mostly cargo trucks were passing, but no one liked this part of the trail. It was too winding, and in places even unpredictable.
A thick, like jelly, gloom descended on the Appalachians, clinging to the branches of trees. John turned on the headlights, dispelling the gathering darkness ahead. Unlike others, he enjoyed driving at night. He felt a strange satisfaction and calmness, cutting through the sleepy darkness with the wheels of the truck.
The man was about to listen some country music when the yellow headlights snatched two figures from the tenacious paws of the coming mist, standing by the roadside. It was almost impossible to see hitchhikers here, only if someone's car was broken down. But John had time to notice they had huge backpacks. His first desire was to pass by. But he slowed down, the truck drove past the strangers, pouring a fast stream of light over them. A guy and a girl. After seeing them more or less, John still stopped his mechanical monster. In the side mirrors, it was seen how the couple hurried to the truck, obviously afraid that it would rush forward, leaving them on the track in the middle of the night.
“Hi!” The cabin door swung open, a guy was standing outside. He looked tired, grass and small branches covered his clothes, and his right cheek was scratched. “Can you drop us somewhere with phone communication?”
The driver nodded, he didn't like standing in the middle of the road
The travelers got in, slamming the door and cutting off the little world of the cabin from the outside.
“My name is John, I'm going to California. If you want I leave you at the nearest stop. Someone will pick you up. Or I'll take you to California.”
The guy sighed.
“I think the stop will work fine. I'm Mike, and this is Amy.'' He nodded at his companion.
The bags lay on their knees, also scruffy and dusty. The one that belonged to Mike had a small keychain in the form of a lighter.
“Yes. We decided to go along the Trail. But ..we're lost.
“You are too far from the Trail.”
“We …” Amy paused as if pondering something. “We heard children's crying.”
“Well, you know, like a little girl was crying. We went to look and did not notice how we left the path and ... couldn't find the way back.”
“How long have you strayed?” Thin, clouds like the knife edge were flowing on the pale pancake of the Moon.
“Two days. We tried to map out and go to the river, but in the end, we got on this route.”
“This is weird.” It was really strange, and John was willing to swear there was no logic in their words. “The Trail is located south of the pass, if you walked along with the map, you could not get to here.”
“That’s what we’re talking about. But the fact is that we didn’t find the way back. Do you have some water?”
“Oh, yes, of course.” The driver pulled out a bottle of water. “This is the first time I see tourists on this track.”
Amy took a sip and handed the plastic bottle to a friend.
“You were the first who stopped. Two trucks drove up before you, and they did not even slow down.”
John chuckled wryly.
“Nobody wants to pick up passengers here.”
It was completely dark outside. The scanty light of the Moon could not break through the web of clouds.
The man behind the wheel shrugged indistinctly.
“This road has become a bad name, so to speak. Kind of like truckers' tales.”
“Really? What tales?” Mikey felt Amy snuggled against him imperceptibly. He would not mind lying down and pass out for about 12 hours, after an uncomfortable descent his legs burned.
“Various. Not very pleasant.” John replied evasively. He had traveled through this pass for several years and had never seen anything...unusual.
“You’ll see whatever you want after 15 hours of driving."
There was a silence.
“Is your son?” Mike noticed the photo on the windshield. John was with his youngest son, both wearing Oklahoma football team jerseys.
“Yeah, it's Stevie. The last year photo at the junior seasonal game. He was thrilled about Kyler Murray. I am sure this guy will have a great career.”
Mike stared at his new acquaintance in surprise.
“You are confusing something. Murray has been playing for Arizona for five years now."
Now it's John's turn to look at the guy in surprise.
“What d’you mean ....”
“There's a man!” Amy was the first who saw a blurry silhouette by the road.
The figure stood hunching over, motionless, not even making any attempt to stop the approaching truck. Something was wrong with it, they felt it, the hairs on Amy's arm stood on end, a nasty frost ran over her skin. There was no more space in the cab, but the truck slowed down a little. The headlights illuminated the motionless hitchhiker, and the next minute John sharply started accelerating.
In the bright yellow light, saucer-round eyes stared straight at them. They flashed an unnaturally white flare, like a nocturnal animal. At first, both Mike and Amy decided that that was a play of shadows, but in those fractions of a second that the truck passed the man, they saw how he was looking after them, still not moving, only his head turned after the truck. Mike automatically glanced into the mirror and winced. Unnaturally huge eyes stared up at him, glowing in the darkness.
“What was it?” Amy whispered, barely moving her numb lips. “I didn't hallucinate that, did I?”
John was gloomily silent.
“What was it?” Mike repeated, trying to make out something outside the window, but there was the only night, strangely darker ... If it was possible.
“I don’t know,” John said dully, not slowing down. “But I don’t want to check it out. We should leave this part of the road as soon as possible.”
But they had barely passed a quarter of a mile when they spotted another figure. This time it was short as if it were a man of very small stature. Or a child.
“Another one,” Amy whispered as if she feared the creature (she had no doubts that it was not a human) might hear her. This time John did not hit the brakes, but as soon as they approached, they met with iridescent eyes, gleaming in the blackness with mother-of-pearl. It was a boy, 9-10 years old. They could even see a baseball cap hiding straw hair and a plaid shirt. Mike gasped, his heart leaping to his throat.
“This is Dany,” he whispered. “My little brother ... Dany!”
The guy jerked the door handle as if he wanted to jump out.
“Mikey, no!” Amy grabbed his hand, holding it. Suddenly her eyes widened, waves of not just fear, but the real horror splashed in them.
“Oh my goodness...”
Mike followed her gaze and almost pulled away. To the side of them, outside the window, two somethings were rushing on all fours, more like shadows. Their bodies, slightly elongated and narrow, had small heads and disproportionately long limbs. The creatures jumped whole meters along the steep slope, catching up with the truck and looked, looked with their unblinking faceted eyes-balls.
And then they howled, rasped, scratched. Someone tried to open the cabin doors from the outside.
“Give them to us!” Voices whined menacingly. “Give theeem to us! They’re oouuur! Ooouuur!”
John glanced at the flickering shadows, then at the pale companions, and increased the gas as much as possible. His lips were tightly compressed, his hands were gripping the wheel, and he could hear the disgusting grinding of something sharp on metal. They tried to get in.
“My God ... My God,” Amy muttered incessantly, frozen with fear. Suddenly she screamed, drew back hitting John. A pale, bloodless, childlike face, like the full moon, peered straight out the window. Spherical eyes burned like two lanterns.
“Mikeeeeeey!” The creature wailed. The guy did not utter a sound, he stretched out his hand like a bewitched and the glass slowly crawled down.
“Stop!” John shouted. “No!”
“What are you doing?!” The cab was filled with the squeal. “Stop it!”
Amy tried to close the window, but Mike threw her back abruptly.
“Close the damn window!”
The glass had already down by a third, that was enough. A thin hand with long bony fingers seeped inside and grabbed onto Mike's face. Amy screamed with all her might, John cursed, the truck got bogged down, almost skidded. The next minute, Mike was jerked with terrible force, his head hit the glass. From the impact on it, cracks went, but the gap was too small for a human body to pass through it. But that thing pulled the guy out like a sausage from the hot dog. Mike's head cracked, breaking through the blowing hole, the glass finally shattered, ripping off clothes and flesh with its spiked shards. Hot blood and bits of flesh spattered onto the seat and windshield. The girl's scream was mixed with the squeal of tires, she was covered with blood, like cherry juice with pulp.
It dragged Mike along with his bag, leaving behind an empty frame, rags of clothing, and scraps of flesh hanging everywhere.
The truck sped through the night, cutting through the darkness with lonely headlights. John drove at a high speed, trying not to pay attention to the girl's inarticulate muttering. He was shocked after encountering these creatures for the first time. They were busy now because didn’t chase their victims anymore.
Soon the truck passed the saddle and began to move down the road. John had already lost sense of time, only occasionally glancing at the crying Amy. She was so shocked that could hardly think. Finally, lights appeared in the distance. Sheer walls on the sides parted, revealing a wide track, divided by a white dotted line. The pass was left behind
The engine hummed, rumbled, and echoed somewhere under the hood. They began to stop.
“What happened?” Amy babbled, clutching at her blood-soiled backpack.
“Something is wrong with the engine,” John muttered and pulled over. He opened the door, getting out. “It is better to go on foot.”
“What? Now? No, no!”
But the man was already reaching out his hand to her.
“Believe me, these creatures will not go further than the pass. The trail begins half a mile down the road. Someone will pick you up.”
Amy shook her head. There was only night around
“If you stay here you’ll die!”
Her feet touched the asphalt, which seemed foreign and alien to her. John pushed her forward slightly.
“Run, run, and don't look back.”
“What about you?”
And she ran. Into the darkness, breathing in the fresh night air. Time has ceased to matter. Even when she managed to run to the fork, stop the car, and get to the nearest town.
No one believed her, the police did not find John or his truck. Amy was even suspected of killing Mike. But for lack of evidence, all charges against her were dropped. Later, while browsing old articles on the Internet, the girl saw a small posting. It talked about a missing trucker heading to California via the Appalachian crossing. He never reached his destination. In the photo was John in his Oklahoma cap staring at Amy from her laptop screen.
Sometimes she dreamed of a ghostly truck driving out of its parking lot at nightfall. It moved like the dim light in the dense darkness. And sometimes its headlights illuminated the lonely silhouette of the lost tourist with a bag. And the small keychain in the form of a lighter on it.