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  Table of contents Third Issue THE STRAY


Jake Mullen refused to admit to himself that he was hopelessly lost. He’d been driving aimlessly for over an hour, and at the rate things were going, he was beginning to think he’d be trapped in this maze forever. The glowing red fuel gauge hovered dangerously above E. He eyed the needle frantically, watching as it quivered between the lowest notch and that horrible green letter. He’d stopped trusting the road and simply followed the bright glare of his headlights, praying that they’d somehow lead him back to the highway before the engine sputtered. He was too old to be afraid of the dark, but out here, that didn’t mean a damn thing.

It was Jake’s own fault that he was lost, but that was another thing he wouldn’t admit.  If asked, he’d blame his current predicament on Melanie Toms, his girlfriend.  Well, after what’d happened, he didn’t even know if she was his girlfriend anymore, but that was the least of his worries right now.  If he didn’t find his way out of these trees, he’d be stranded in the dark with a dead phone battery and a bleeding left hand.

Jake could hardly remember the past few hours.  His relationship with Melanie had never been perfect love, but tonight it seemed that all the stress lines between them had blown up right in his face.  He couldn’t recall what’d triggered it, but Jake had lapsed into a rage.  Jake Mullen didn’t just get angry like normal people, he literally became the anger.  Restraint and reason disappeared and a drunken, visceral beast stepped out of his subconscious, throwing tantrums and sometimes even tables at whoever happened to be closest.  Had he thrown a table at Melanie?  The thought of putting his hands on her was incomprehensible but darkly familiar, as though it were a nightmare that had somehow become real. On the surface, he was disgusted with himself, but somewhere deep down; a guttural voice told him that the bitch deserved it.

It wasn’t that Jake had a short fuse; he had no fuse at all.  He was a landmine, and when someone accidentally set him off, the explosion was so powerful that it left him utterly dazed.  He’d left Melanie’s house in a hazy spell, and had driven away blindly for half an hour before he realized he had no idea where he was.  Melanie lived way out in what Jake liked to call ‘The Sticks’, and driving out here had always made him nervous, even in complete daylight.  The dirt roads made a labyrinth that was all choked up with trees, and some of the narrow trails weren’t even marked.  Melanie lived on Eyler road, and if he could find it, he could find his way out of here.  It wasn’t working.  Three times he’d come to a dead end, naked tree branches scraping his windows like jagged fingers as he maneuvered a turnaround. For all Jake knew, he was nowhere near Melanie’s house. In fact, he could very well be on the opposite side of the county, circling the same backwater roads over and over.

He slowed when he came to a faded stop sign, took a left, plowed his way down the gravel and made another turn; a right this time.  He figured if he kept alternating like this, he would eventually worm his way back to the highway, or at least a paved road.  The only problem was that all the dirt and trees looked the same, and he couldn’t tell one road from the next.  Houses were few and far between, and there was no way he was getting out of his car to ask for help.  The first time he’d visited Melanie at home, he’d stopped to ask for directions, and a big, sweaty man had burst through the screen door and chased him out of the driveway, yelling after him in Spanish.

The longer he sat there, tensed up against the steering wheel, the more Jake started to feel the after-effects of a tirade he didn’t remember.  His head throbbed with a persistent, blunt ache, like the worst hangover he’d ever had.  There was sweat on his face and in his hair, and it reeked of testosterone and adrenaline.  His right eye twitched like a dying fly, and he was so thirsty that he thought his mouth would rot out of his jaw.  His left arm was painted up to the elbow in red from the gash on his knuckles, and the razor-sharp sting made it impossible for him to turn the wheel without a wince.  In a far recess of his mind, he thought he could hear the sound of breaking glass, overlaid by a feminine shriek…

Just how far had he gone this time?

No, he thought harshly to himself. Nothing fucking happened.  We just argued a little. She sounded mad on the phone; she must’ve brought it up when I got there and we started fighting.  Verbally fighting.  Maybe I got upset and knocked something over but I didn’t touch her I know I didn’t—

Jake’s headlights flashed on something strange up ahead, just outside the black, tangled fringe of the trees.  A dress.  A bright blue dress and a white parasol.  He put his foot on the brake, barely crawling up the road now.  He’d never seen anything so bizarre in his life.  A girl was walking barefoot in the dark with a parasol tilted back over her head.  What?  At first he thought he’d finally gone off the deep end, but the closer he got, the less likely it seemed that the mirage would simply disappear.

Bizarre or not, he was desperate.

He pulled over and stopped at her side, clouding her with dust. He rolled down his window and peered out at her with slit, questioning eyes, but the girl kept her face shielded with her hand until the dirt settled.  The fingers, he noticed, were unnaturally long and thin, almost like vines, and when they fell away, he was struck by a pair of electric-blue spheres so lurid, they appeared to lack pupils.  They looked like two glowing scarabs wedged into her face.  Anyone else would have needed a moment to scoop up their jaw, but Jake Mullen was so hard pressed for time that all he saw was a girl walking alone in the inky black.

“Do you need a ride?” His intentions were honest, but his voice came out dry and lecherous.  The girl only stared at him, blinking; her hands perched delicately around the curved handle of her parasol. Her hair was as pale as her skin and she barely had a nose, her face as smooth as a doll’s.

He asked her again, louder this time.

“Daddy doesn’t like it when I come home late.” Her lips were as thin as a scar and they barely moved with the words.

“I’ll take you home then.   Come on.” Jake’s foot wanted so badly to stomp on the gas and get the hell away from her, but he kept it trained on the brake nonetheless.

She blinked again, mechanical and slow. “Daddy doesn’t like it when I come home late.”

There was something abnormal about that voice; something half human, half machine.  To hell with it, Jake thought.  She’s fucking mental.  But still his foot sat on the brake like a bag of cement.  He needed to atone for what he’d done earlier, whatever it was.  He needed to make sure this girl got home safely.

“Look, I’m lost, all right?  If I take you home, will you tell me how to get back to the highway?” If she was Sunday strolling around at night like that, she had to know her way around.

The girl said nothing this time, merely walking to the backseat and getting inside, as if Jake was her personal chauffeur.  She folded the parasol across her lap and twined her fingers on top, motionless as stone.  Jake craned his neck back at her, baffled.  His sticky, strained face was likely to scare her, but those alien blue eyes suggested that nothing at all was wrong.

“Wouldn’t you rather sit up fr—”

On second thought, he decided he liked her better back there.  She was hard to look at.

“Never mind. Just tell me where to turn.”

He fumbled with the gearshift and his tires trundled forward across the gravel, pushing deeper into that silent howl of darkness.  He surreptitiously adjusted the rearview mirror so he could keep an eye on the girl.  Her still outline reminded him of a mannequin in a display window at the mall, after all the stores have shut down for the night.  Did that eerie human mold ever make the slightest movement when no one was watching?  Did it adjust its scarf or even simply undo the button at its chest?  It was unnerving at best, but the sooner he got rid of her, the sooner he could get back to his shitty apartment in town and fight for his memory under the comfort of lamplight.  In the morning, he would call Melanie and talk her down from whatever had happened, and everything would be all right, or at least as all right as it’d been before.

Jake glanced at the gas gauge again.  It was still suspended in that nervous limbo, but he knew how quickly and deceitfully the needle could slip into emptiness when he didn’t mind it carefully.  The fuel light was already on, glaring out at him from the dashboard like a nagging threat.  He’d begun to believe that his desperate will was the only thing keeping the car in motion.  He eased it to a careful stop, afraid to push it too hard anymore.

“Which way?” A sandy four-way was etched out before them, each road winding away into a tunnel of thick gloom.  At the blurry edge of his headlights, Jake could see a yellow pair of eyes, steady and vigilant. “Hello? Still back there?”

He was waiting for the girl to answer when his worst fear came to life: the engine stalled.   The car shut down with a low-pitched whine that to Jake was the sound of quintessential despair, of all his life’s energy leaching out in one long, exhausted wave.  He felt his heart drop like an anvil, his eyes wide and disbelieving.

“Shit…” he whispered hoarsely to himself, clutching the keys with numb fingers and turning them with a cursing prayer.  The engine wheezed and rumbled in its sleep, but refused to come back to life.  He smashed his hands against the steering wheel and yelled. “FUCK!”

The girl said nothing.

Jake’s next impulse was to throw the hood up and make sure that it wasn’t something else; that a belt hadn’t just come loose or something, but the thought of putting his back to that dense black void was enough to make his manhood shrivel.  Besides, he knew what was really wrong.  He’d run out of gas, perhaps the stupidest thing a guy could do besides beat up his girlfriend.  Jake Mullen was zero for two tonight, and just what the hell was he supposed to do now?  For the first time since he was ten years old, Jake thought he was going to cry.

“I’m sorry,” he said bitterly. “Looks like the ride ends here. For both of us.”

The girl said nothing.

Jake wrestled with his seatbelt and whipped around to face her.

“Listen, I get that we’re strangers and everything, but you’re gonna have to help me out here. I need to get to a phone so I can call on a ride.  Sorry I couldn’t get you home.  Now which way is out?”

“Daddy doesn’t like it when I come home late.”

Those repeating words were beginning to scare him.  Not only that, but he felt that familiar, ominous pressure rising in his gut, lighting all his nerves red-hot, making him twitch.

“Is that all you know how to say?  Maybe it’ll do you good to remember that it’s just you and me out here, sweetheart.  I’m going to ask you one more time.  Which way is out?”

As effortlessly as she’d said it before, she said it again: “Daddy doesn’t like—”

And just like that, Jake Mullen was no longer in control.

“GET OUT!” he roared, his face a twisted snarl of fury.  Any trace of his handsomeness was strangled out by the hideous monster that’d pawed its way to center stage, feral and raggedly breathing. The car’s dark interior whirled in and out of focus, red spots fizzled inside his eyes, and his body flooded with nauseous, trembling heat.  The car door shut with a gentle thump and she was gone.

He held the steering wheel in a deadly vice, his ears pulsing and deaf with the rush of hot blood in his skull.  His jaw was tight enough to crack his teeth.  He watched her go with leering eyes.  She wasn’t walking so much as she was drifting away in the white blaze of his headlights, her bare, pristine feet leaving not the smallest trace in the middle of the road.  Just as she was about to pass out of the beacon and get swallowed in that black mouth, she looked back.  She didn’t use any muscles other than those in her neck; only her face turned menacingly toward him.

It was as if she’d torn off her lower jaw.  Her thin lips were flayed open in a scarlet red sickle that stretched from ear to ear; a rotten, wicked smile that cut through the empty space and into Jake like a scythe.  He’d seen that smile before.  It was Melanie’s smile, the one she wore when she wanted to disparage him, to make him feel utterly worthless and inferior not only to her, but to every human being on the planet.  He no longer saw a strange girl in a blue dress, standing barefoot in the road.  It was Melanie, smiling that revolting smile just as she had earlier in the night.  It all became clear to him now. That smile had been the trigger that’d blown his temper sky high.  Jake Mullen was fucking sick of that smile.

He was going to finish what he started.

Jake turned the keys again, infusing every fiber of his confidence and wrath into that swift, jerking motion.  Miraculously, but none to his surprise, the engine roared alive, as vital as it had sounded on the day he drove the car out of the dealership.  He slammed the car into gear and smashed his foot against the gas, the tires screeching and burning hotly enough to turn the sand beneath them into glass.  The car lurched forward at his command, a speeding cage of metal incapable of discerning whether or not a vulnerable body obstructed its path.  It only knew stop and go.

In the instant following his ultimate decision, it appeared to Jake that the girl did not even attempt to get out of the way.  The dark interior voice, no longer in the background but at the very forefront, told him the same thing it always did: the bitch deserved it.

Then there was only impact: as rapid and decisive as a bullet piercing flesh.  He caught a wild glimpse of a human body sprawling upwards in midair, the midsection skewered open by the decorative zombie statue on the front of the hood.  A dusty handprint smeared violently across the windshield as she tried to fight the deadly momentum, the crown of her forehead skimming the roof with a flesh-splitting scrape that sent her somersaulting limply through the air until gravity suddenly forced her skull to the ground with a definitive crunch. Her cyan eyes were flung open in shock, and shattered teeth as bright as pearls glittered jaggedly in a crimson splatter.

The fatal acrobatics were performed in less than a second.

Jake mashed on the brake, his neck whiplashing forward.  He was nearly strangled by the life-saving cushion of his airbag.  He wrestled it out of his face and put the car in reverse.  The girl had landed perhaps twenty feet away from the point of impact, but nonetheless Jake had still heard that final crack of vital bone.  The sound had sent the world veering back to him in a clear, crisp rush that was like breaking through the ice of a frozen pond from beneath the surface.  He was Jake Mullen again, and likewise, he knew the girl was dead.  At that moment of perfect understanding, of coming to grips with the grisly aftermath of cause and effect, his mind quite literally verged on exploding.

He braked a few inches from her mangled body.  His car door came open with a protesting squeak.  Jake kneeled at the body, the bright glow of the brake lights tinting it a hellish shade of red.  She was on her front.  One of her arms was twisted into an impossible corkscrew shape and lay beneath her fleshless chin, palm-up.  Her head was bathed in a dark halo of blood.  Jake thought he could see something watery and gray leaking out from her nostrils, and he hurried to the edge of the road just in time to vomit in a bush.  If he had looked any closer, he would have thrown up his guts.

He took her by the ankles.  Her skin was faultless and cold, almost as if she’d never lived at all, as if she’d really been a mannequin in a display window at the mall.  He dragged her off of the road, wincing at the languid, crumpled sounds her body made as it trailed along the ground.  He backed under the canopy of trees, casting himself into a deeper realm of darkness than he could have imagined possible.  He had to make sure the body was hidden, but he couldn’t lose sight of his car; the only source of light he had.

His back hit the sturdy trunk of a tree and a fresh sheen of sweat surfaced over his brow.  Jake Mullen started to panic.  What if another car came by, saw the blood on the road and his idling vehicle beside it?  He let go of her legs and dropped to the ground, scooping up damp leaves and dirt and tossing it over her body in frantic heaves.  When she was covered as best as his blind eyes could judge, he thrashed his way out of the trees, shoved new dirt over the bloodstain on the road, rubbed out what footprints he could find, and got into his car and sped off.

Jake Mullen was granted his second miracle of the night.  The road led directly to the main highway.  He turned right, not toward town but away from it.  He had no choice but to go far away.  The first order of business was obvious.  He pulled into a deserted Exxon and parked at Pump 2, sighing out long and heavy, as though he’d held his breath the whole way.

He pulled down the overhead mirror, inspecting himself for any obvious signs. His eyes were wild and his hair was wiry from all the sweat, but there wasn’t any blood that didn’t belong to him.  He wiped his face and hands with old fast food napkins that he’d stuffed into the glove compartment, wrestled on his jacket to cover the blood on his arm, then fumbled his anxious body out of the seat and checked his car for blood. It was clean. He jammed his left hand inside his pocket and went inside the store.

The fluorescent lights were harsh against his eyes and skin, making him feel peeled back and exposed.  The paranoia emanated from his body in heavy waves, filling his proximity with nervous, rancid heat.  Could someone tell what he’d done just by looking at him?  He swallowed a dry lump of air, slowly pacing the aisles of junk food, pretending to browse.

No one will know as long as you don’t break down and lose it right here, buddy.

 He stopped dead, unable to process the sheer, hopeless reality that once he left this dirty gas station, he could never look back. The world around him suddenly felt wrong, composed of false angles and obscure shapes, of bitter smells and unpleasant textures.  It all hurt; it all pressed down on him like a collapsing skyscraper, burying him deeper and deeper into the inky, fetid corners of his psychopathic mind.  His nose was shoved hard into the foul truth, and he breathed it in with one slow, shaky inhalation. 

Jake Mullen was a killer.

Dreamlike, he started grabbing bags of chips and candy bars, not caring if he liked them or not, and paid the hunched man at the counter.  Jake guessed that he probably had about two hundred dollars in his bank account.  It was enough, at least, to fill up his empty gas tank.

In the surreal hours that followed, Jake mentally cast his old life out the window and onto the oily tarmac of the interstate.  He no longer had a name, a mother, an apartment, or a girlfriend.  He no longer had a history.  He was just a moving speck of life, trapped here by gravity, and he fucking hated the world.

He’d never felt so alive, and yet he wished he’d never been born at all.

The dawn was peeking in from the eastern fringe of the sky when Jake got on an exit ramp and checked in to the nearest, cheapest motel he could find.  He carried himself and nothing else to the second floor, collapsed onto the musty sheets, and slept like the dead.

But he didn’t sleep for long.

It couldn’t have been later than 8 A.M. when he jolted awake with a sudden, throat-tearing gasp.

The parasol.  The parasol was still in his backseat.

He negotiated the stairs in two breakneck leaps and burst through the front door, bleary-eyed and barefoot.  The parking lot was sleepy, littered with glinting aluminum cans and choked with weeds.  Just beyond was the low, busy hum of morning traffic, and even farther yet was a spaghetti tangle of bustling overpasses.  It was roadside paradise.  Jake’s car was only one of four in the lot.  He shoved his face against the backseat window, tenting his hands to cut the glare.  His jaw unhinged itself, bewildered.

The parasol was gone.

He tried door. It was locked. He tried the others.  All locked.  The impact reel played back in his mind, over and over again.  She hadn’t been holding the parasol.  It was the strangest part of her whole ensemble, and Jake couldn’t believe he’d missed it.  She’d left it in the backseat, but now it wasn’t there.

Had she left it on purpose?

No way. Just no way.  He viciously scrubbed his face with his hands, bitten by his own stubble as he fought for a grip on himself that wouldn’t hold.  When he looked up at last, the looming image on the highway median made Jake lose any grip he’d ever had, and for good.

A dress.  A bright blue dress and a white parasol.

She served no purpose but to wander, but now she’d found someone to follow; someone to keep her in line when she drifted too far from where she belonged.  She’d found her master.

There was not a mark on her anywhere, but she kept them tallied underneath.

Jake drove home in a stupor.  The only thought that crossed his mind the entire way was the sound of that skull-splitting crack. And he knew, despite the stark conclusiveness of that sound, that his nightmare wasn’t over. He knew that she was following him the whole time, waiting to be punished again, waiting for the monster inside him to unleash on her once more.

Didn’t she deserve it?  The voice inside him failed to answer, if it was even there at all anymore.

He unlocked the door to his apartment, sat down in the kitchen doorway, and dialed Melanie with the corded phone in his lap.  At the sound of her voice, bright and alive, Jake Mullen burst into tears.

On the other end of the line, her left eye black and swollen, Melanie Toms smiled that flayed, scarlet smile.





Jessica Bowers is a college freshman living in Claxton, Georgia. She plans to start college in the fall, majoring in biology and minoring in creative writing. Her inspirations are Mary Shelley, Aldous Huxley, and of course, Stephen King. Writing has become a big part of her and she wishes to keep it alive in her adult life. Jessica’s story, The Uglylights, appears in the June 2013 issue of HelloHorror.

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