The thump of rock music blared out of the speakers as the old rusted Chevy navigated an s curve then took a right onto a white rock road. Melissa navigated the old clunker down the back roads as the Eagles belted out tunes from the ancient cassette player.
The road came up to meet the undercarriage as she took a turn a bit too fast, white rock giving way to hard packed dirt. The faint glow of street lights had faded behind her as soon as she left the county pavement. Now the dark coalesced around her, suffocating in its intensity. She clicked on the high beams making a mental note to herself to purchase some new headlamps.
Flying down the dirt road reminded her of those wild teenage nights she had spent out here, drinking, laughing and singing along loudly with the very same cassette tape that now spilled out Hotel California as the car shimmed and swayed down the country lane.
Suddenly a shape appeared in the dull glow of her high beams and the tires squealed in protest as she slammed the brake pedal to the floor and twisted the wheel sharply to the right. Throwing dust everywhere the car skidded off the road, fishtailing as it went. Melissa twisted the wheel again, trying to regain control of the vehicle.
The car thudded to a stop and she sat for a moment, heart pounding in her chest. The Eagles suddenly gone as she switched the radio off and pulled a flashlight from the glove compartment. The door creaked like a gunshot in the sudden silence of the night as she opened it and stepped out to inspect the damage.
Please, she prayed silently, please, please, please tell me I didn’t hit her! She glanced wildly around the road and the field she had stopped in but there was no sign of the child she had just clearly seen standing in the middle of the road.
She stood still for a long minute, her breath coming in ragged gulps, eyes closed, as she fought down the hysteria trying to rise in her chest. When she was sure she could breathe without screaming, she opened her eyes and slowly lowered her body to the ground. Stomach flat on the ground she stared under the car. Relief flooded over her like a waterfall when she saw no limp body under her car. Tears of relief coursed down her cheeks as she regained her footing and dusted herself off.
Taking another deep breath, she turned back to stare at the empty road. If she hadn’t hit her, where had the child gone? It was dark, but not so dark that she doubted what she had seen. There had been a little girl in the road. She took in her surroundings. No houses within sight, no structures at all within sight, in fact. Not that she could see very far. It was so dark that it felt it ought to have substance, texture, like if she reached her arm out, she would feel the solidness of it. She fought back the urge to do just that as the hair on the back of her neck stood up.
The light swung in an arc as she searched the area around her car thoroughly. No girl. She started to second guess herself. Maybe she was seeing things. It was so dark! Maybe she had hallucinated the little girl. People hallucinated sometimes, she told herself.
The light in her hand blinked out. Shaking her head, she lowered herself back into the driver’s seat and pulled the door closed. She said another silent prayer that the car wasn’t damaged as she put it in gear and pulled back onto the road.
The car had come to rest facing the opposite direction she had been heading, so she had to maneuver it back into the correct position by backing up and pulling forward several times. Finally, she was back on the road, putting the car in drive, she headed toward home. As she passed the spot she had originally seen the little girl, the engine sputtered and died. She coasted to a stop cursing out loud.
There was a soft clunk as she popped the hood. She opened door but hesitated to get out. She had driven these back roads hundreds of times in her life, she reflected, so why was a sense of dread crawling up her spine this time? As she listened she realized it was the silence, deep and solid as the darkness. Where were the crickets, the frogs? The normal night sounds of country living?
The only sound she heard was a soft rustling of fabric from the backseat as her eyes lifted in horror to the rearview mirror, a scream stuck in her throat as she made eye contact with the little girl from the road.
The last thing she ever saw was that small, pale arm reaching toward her as a dry, brittle voice whispered, “Stay with me.”