A STOP ALONG THE WAY

 

From the Enter the Abyss short story collection

 

A thick cloud of dust enveloped the Volvo as it raced down the desert road.  The young insurance salesman driving checked his clock and cursed as realization set in.  It was doubtful he could make it home by morning, even if he drove all night, and with how tired he felt, that wasn’t a good option.  The last thing I need is to wake up in a ditch, he told himself.  As if it wasn’t bad enough work kept him away from his wife most of the week, now this corporate trip was going to make him miss the day that they’d set aside just for spending time together.  The meeting had kept him later than expected, and now that the stimulating jolt of several cups of coffee consumed over the course of the night was wearing off, he could already feel his eyelids beginning to sag.

 

Looking at his cell phone, the salesman cursed again.  The battery had gone dead, the one that claimed to last six hours barely holding up for two, making it impossible to even call and say good night, or apologize.  Why didn’t I just call her when I was leaving?  He was bitter, but knew the reason why he hadn’t.  He had thought he could make it home in time.  Making a mental note to pick up a bouquet of roses for the morning, he desperately hoped it would be enough.

 

Slamming his hand against the wheel, he thought of just how mad his wife was going to be.  He could picture her now, setting the table with two plates, and probably candles to set the mood for a sensual celebration.  She would be wearing that dress, the strapless one he thought she looked drop-dead gorgeous in.  The driver shuddered and thought of the grim specter of divorce, or worse of coming home to an empty house with a note telling him goodbye.  She probably thinks that’s what I’d do to her, he thought sadly.  Doesn’t she realize I’m doing this for her?  Doesn’t she know I just want her to be happy, give her the things she always wanted? He shook his head, wishing he could just as easily shake off his uneasy feelings.

 

The salesman cranked up his radio, finding only static for one turn of the dial before stumbling upon a desert station, and mashed his foot down on the pedal, trying to quell his misgivings as he drove headlong into the night, listening intently to the radio program.

 

* * *

 

A shimmering light in the distance caught his attention.  As he approached, the tired man noticed that the glow, which at first he had assumed was a gas station, was in reality a small motel, nestled comfortably by the side of the road.  He found something a little odd about its presence, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, but his weariness made the decision for him, the lure of a warm bed too enticing to give up.  He threw on his blinker, and turned in for the night, stumbling from his car like a zombie, already half asleep.  The old man running the night counter was studying a crumpled skin magazine with the same intensity a law student would study for the Bar.

 

“How you doin’, Sonny?” the clerk said, not appearing particularly pleased to have to pry his eyes from his reading as he fixed the new arrival with a glare that implied, why the hell are you bothering me, pal?  But the motel clerk said only, “Looks like you could use a cold drink and warm bed,” in a harsh stereotypical western movie kind of voice, testament to a lifetime of hard cigarettes and even harder drink.

 

“You said it.  That stretch of road is enough to put anyone to sleep.  And a drink sounds mighty good right about now.  Tomorrow’s gonna be one helluva day.”

 

The old man gave the new arrival an appraising look, his weathered features creasing so deeply, they looked as if they might stick.  “So, you want a room, right?”

 

“Your best.  Name’s Gabriel Carter.  I’ll be paying cash and I’ll need a phone.”

 

“Well, we ain’t got no rooms or no phones,” the clerk said tersely, licking a dry finger and turning the page on his magazine.  Just as Gabriel was about to say something undoubtedly rude, the old man smiled.  “I’m just joshin’ ya.  We got a room open, but it ain’t been cleaned yet.  I’ll get Johnny on it right now.  But we really don’t have no phones.  No service this far out in the desert.  Go’n get a drink while you’re waitin’.  I’ll send someone when yer room’s ready.”  He pointed the way with a gnarled claw of a hand, and added, “Who knows, pardner, play your cards right and maybe you’ll get lucky tonight.”

 

“Thanks,” Gabriel said uneasily, not exactly knowing what the porno-perusing clerk meant by that last comment, but figuring his response was the safest one.  I hope he doesn’t mean with him, Gabriel thought, a sickening quality sinking in his gut, though he couldn’t exactly place why.  He chalked it up to stress and quickly headed off in the direction of the bar, wondering just how such an out-of-the-way place had almost full occupancy.  Maybe AAA gave this place five stars, Gabriel though sarcastically, as he watched in disgust as two small insects scuttled over something that looked unpleasantly juicy on the ground in front of him.  God, I hope that’s not the kind of food they serve here.  But too tired to worry, Gabriel shrugged it off.  He didn’t care about anything anymore, except for getting a drink and going to bed.

 

The bar was virtually deserted, an old couple occupying a small table in the corner, sipping their martinis and reminiscing about days long since past, when politicians were honest and people respected their elders.  It would have been cliché had the pair not been so affectionate with one another, every chance they got, giving a tender touch or a peck on the cheek.  Looks as if collecting Social Security hasn’t slowed those two love birds down, Gabriel thought with a slight tinge of envy.  Hopefully, Rachel and I’ll still be doin’ the horizontal shuffle when we’re that old.

 

The bar was black marble and had seen better days, the dried crust of spilled drinks overflowing from the cracks, and the bartender appearing in no hurry to clean it up. Good to see he’s doing his job, Gabriel thought, then dismissed it.  Just as long as he pours a strong drink.   The man in question was old, ancient in fact, and bore such a close resemblance to the guy who’d checked Gabriel in, that for a minute he thought they might be twins.  Guess all old people do look alike, he thought sardonically.  The bartender casually leaned back against the liquor rack, a look of boredom clinched on his weathered features, as he said, “Pick yer poison, pardner,” a more western movie line never spoken.

 

“Give me a double scotch on the rocks,” Gabriel said as he slumped onto a bar stool.  He downed it in one swallow.  It burned like fire, but the pleasant afterglow made him order another round.  This one went down even smoother, and the third smoother still.  The bartender smiled at him, seemingly impressed with his new customer’s appreciation of alcohol.  Gabriel was already on his fourth round and feeling pretty good when his attention was drawn away from his drinking by a stunning young lady.  She exuded sex as she entered the bar, auburn hair flowing lustrously over silky shoulders and a dress that looked two sizes too small in the bust, leaving little to the imagination.

 

In Gabriel’s blurred perception the new arrival looked very familiar, too familiar.  Struggling with his disbelieving eyes, Gabriel saw, much to his shock and confusion that the woman entering the bar was his wife.  Somehow, someway, she was here.  But how?  It was impossible.  He knew for a fact that his Rachel was at home, probably restlessly asleep in bed.  The pleasant tide of intoxication made it hard for him to think, to make sense of everything, and at the same time soothing some of his misgivings, urging him to just go with the flow.  Never one to argue with good feelings, Gabriel ordered another round, for himself and the lady.  What was the harm? he reasoned. The woman looked so much like Rachel, the narrow jaw line, the unflawed ivory skin, so familiar.  There could be no other explanation.  By the time she reached the bar, gingerly taking the stool next to him, Gabriel squinting and trying to bring her into sharper focus, he had made up his mind.

 

With a wide grin, Gabriel slurred to his companion, “Rachel?”

 

The woman stared intently at him for a moment, obviously puzzled before finally breaking into a coy smile.  “Sorry, hon, but I think you’re mixin’ me up with someone else.  Name’s Crystal.”

 

Hon?  Now that was all wrong.  And since when did his wife talk with a Texas accent?  And use words like hon?   No, that wasn’t like Rachel at all.  But if this was some new kind of role-playing game, like in the skin magazines, well, Gabriel was up for a little fun.  “Well then ‘Crystal.’  I guess you must’ve been in my mind all day, ‘cuz I had you pegged as a Rachel.”  Gabriel didn’t know if what he said made any sense at all, considering he’d just seen her about a minute ago, but right now he was too drunk, too excited, to care.

 

“Oh really,” she said in that same cloying way that was overtly sexual.  “Well, I guess in that case, hon, you can call me whatever you want.”

 

Gabriel glanced down at his hand, and, seeing no wedding ring there, felt a tinge of alarm.  A dim part of his mind wondered just where it had wandered off to, but another more dominant part was thankful for its departure, as he and his new lady friend tipped back their drinks.  It just added to the game.  Crystal took notice of his ringless fingers, and scooted a little closer, placing her hand on his leg.

 

“So, cowboy, how long are you plannin’ on stayin’ in this neck of the woods?”  She was actually batting her lashes at him.  Gabriel was sure he’d only seen that in the movies.

 

“For as long as you want, baby.”  Gabriel couldn’t believe the words that were coming out of his mouth, and moreover, he couldn’t believe that she was buying them.  Not just buying them, but gobbling them up.  For the next hour they talked and drank; five shots, turning into six, six into seven, and seven turning into an invitation up to the room.  Crystal’s response was typical of what Gabriel had seen all night, straight to business, all with that soothing croon, “Your room or mine?”

 

* * *

 

It was the scent that woke Gabriel.  Thick and musky, like trash left too long in the sun and his first thought was, Great, I probably puked on her.  His eyes stayed closed, his head throbbing and aching like the ebb and flow of a tidal wave, a hangover in full force.  That’s the last time I’m drinking, among his first thoughts.  Still waking from what seemed to be a dream, all too real and too pleasant to be true, involving a very sexy woman from the Lone Star state who could have been his wife but said that she wasn’t, Gabriel raised his right hand with difficulty, finding his arm clinging tenuously to the sheets.  He didn’t even want to open his eyes.  Yup, I definitely yacked, and from the feel of it, this was a doozy.  He rubbed his temples and found them sticky as well.  What the hell?  With disgust, Gabriel opened his eyes and nearly vomited.

 

What he had at first taken as puke was, in reality, blood.  Lots of it.  Worse, as he turned, he saw, to his horror, that beside him on sheets that were once white lay the still, dead body of a woman.  When Gabriel bent close to examine her, he saw, with growing terror, it was his wife.  But how?!  Rachel was at home, safe, probably enjoying a fried egg for breakfast.  Yet inexplicably she was here as well, her throat slit ear to ear.

 

Gabriel’s head didn’t just ache, it throbbed, his heart beating at a jackhammer pace. How could this have happened?  Panic threatened to overwhelm him as he looked around frantically.  Calm down. Think, dammit.

 

The last thing Gabriel remembered was drinking.  The bar.  The bar downstairs.  He had been enjoying himself, kicking a few back after an extra long day.  He’d drank too much.  Way too much. It can’t be her, Oh God please don’t let it be her.  It just can’t be her.  Gabriel slapped himself, forcing himself to rethink the night through.   The girl.  There was a girl.  That’s right, the one who kept playing games.  What was her name?  Gabriel’s mind reeled, searching for an answer.  Christina? Kristen? Crystal?  Yes, that was it: Crystal.  He’d gone to bed with Crystal.  A little thrill at an out of the way no-tell motel, but now there was this... whatever this was.  “I didn’t kill her!” He said it aloud and with such ferocity he didn’t know who he was trying to convince.  A horrible little voice in the back of his mind kept screaming, “Murderer! You killed her in a drunken rage.  Murderer!”

 

* * *

                                                                                   

A sickening tinge in his gut, Gabriel leaned over the body, examining it.  There was no doubt about it, Gabriel thought, as he stared down at the corpse, coated in so much blood it looked like she had been born with red skin, images of modern artists who drenched their bodies in paint to create their masterpieces coming to mind.  Still, despite the horror of the situation, a rivulet of relief surged through the fear in Gabriel’s mind, as there was no question: it was Crystal.  A deep-seated tremor had burrowed itself into the recesses of Gabriel’s mind ever since he had seen the body, and no matter how inane it seemed, it was still there, the terror that he might have discovered a far more familiar face on the body.  But it was Crystal, definitely Crystal.  The girl who had so closely resembled Rachel in almost every way.  The thought came unbidden, even in bed.

 

Gabriel broke down sobbing, his bloodstained hands covering his eyes.  What the hell is going on here?  He had very little time to ponder his predicament, or think of just what to do about it, as a knock at the door threw him further off balance.  What’ll they think if they see this?  Gabriel felt the full onset of panic.  He shuddered to imagine what someone would think if they walked in right now.  Think, Gabriel, think.  A bloody knife sat beside the body on the bed, the implement of the crime seeming to mock him.

 

The knock was repeated again, more vigorously this time.  Gabriel wanted nothing more than to just curl up under the covers like he used to do as a child, and wish the bad dream would go away, until it finally did.  “Go away!”  Gabriel shouted vehemently but the knocking didn’t stop.  “Look, I’m busy!  Leave me alone! Come back later.”  The handle rattled as someone outside tried to enter.

 

“Room Service,” came the reply.

 

“Go away.  I don’t want any room service.  Stay out!”  Gabriel shouted emphatically.  But the door lock rattled ominously.  Seeing this astounding event unfolding before his eyes like a scene out of some horror story, Gabriel ran toward the door.  “Leave me alone.  For God’s sake, just go away!”  He felt pressure on the door, as the lock buckled and gave. Suddenly he was thrown back, landing on the ground with a painful thud, as the door was flung wide open.  A scream came when he saw what lurked behind it.  A minute ago he would have thought that the worst possible scenario would involve an astounded and upset housekeeper growing frantic while he tried to talk his way out of a hole, but nothing could have prepared him for what he saw.

 

The old man from the front desk stood hunched in the entryway, a look of pleasure etched on his weathered features.  Gabriel opened his mouth, trying to form words, but none came.  The clerk was getting closer now, and there was something terrible in his eyes, something delighted.  His gaze swept immediately to the bed and the horrible scene there, actually licking his cracked and dry lips as he spoke. “Well, partner, looks as if you got real lucky last night, don’t it?”  Gabriel recoiled.  “Now we can’t just have all our clientele windin’ up dead now can we?  Gotta be doin’ somethin’ ‘bout that.  Settin’ a right good example...” 

 

Any response Gabriel might have mustered died in his throat as the old man withdrew a hand from behind his back, revealing a well-used ax, coated with dried blood.  With murderous intent he hefted the blade, slamming it down at Gabriel.  Luck and instinct saved him, barely, the disbelieving traveler rolling out of the way just as the blade smashed into the floor, the swing so powerful that the ax head became imbedded in the wood.  That could have been me, a rational corner of Gabriel’s mind screamed.

 

Gabriel backed up, still crawling, each scuttling movement seeming agonizingly slow.  He hit the bed with his back, and scrambled up onto it, trying to put as much distance between himself and the obviously psychotic clerk as possible.  As he fought with the bloody sheets, desperately looking for some kind way out of there, Gabriel jumped as he felt a hand grasp at his chest.

 

Gabriel screamed when he saw that the hand was Crystal’s.  There was only sadness in her eyes, deep wells filled with loss. “Why, why did you let this happen...?”

 

Gabriel, praying devoutly for this nightmare to end, searched around for something, anything, to defend himself.  He pulled the reaching arms away, as Crystal continued to wail.  Seeing a faint glint of steel, Gabriel lunged for it, and grasped hold of a knife, disgust filling him as he realized just what knife he held.

 

But instinct guided Gabriel and he didn’t think twice as he sprang from the bed at the old man who was still trying to free his weapon.  Gabriel wielded the blade at the clerk’s exposed neck, slashing, feeling the sickening give as the knife sunk into the collar bone and beyond, driving the blade down to the hilt.  The clerk sputtered and coughed, a thin hail of blood that looked like some kind of broken drinking fountain shooting into the air, soaking Gabriel’s hand.

 

Gabriel didn’t hesitate, using adrenaline-infused strength to work the clerk’s imbedded ax free from the floor.  He didn’t know what was waiting between himself and his car, but he didn’t feel like taking any chances.  Soon finding himself in the hallway, he cursed.  It looked so unfamiliar and was uncannily dark.  He couldn’t exactly remember how he’d gotten to the room last night, let alone what came after, so Gabriel had no clue about his location, but he felt confident.  How big could an out-of-the-way motel be?  Still, after everything unbelievable that had happened so far, Gabriel couldn’t feel too sure about the situation.  One way’s as good as another.

 

Strangely, as he ran, Gabriel found himself immured in a sense of déjà vu, reminded of a time when he was twelve and had thought it so much fun to ditch his brother in a funhouse, constantly running through the dark, listening to his sibling’s cries for help.  An attendant had finally come to rescue his brother and Gabriel desperately wished someone, anyone, would step in and help him now.

 

He took a right around a corner only to find that the hall seemed to stretch impossibly into darkness.  What the...  His thoughts were cut off by a sound from behind, one that sounded very much like footsteps. Gabriel did the only thing he could do: he ran.

 

Gabriel’s breath came hard as he stumbled into the shadows, the footfalls behind him coming closer.  Gabriel couldn’t bear the thought of checking over his shoulder, as the darkness that filled the hallway seemed to deepen and engulf him.  Strangely the farther he ran, the farther he seemed from the end, and whatever was following was rapidly approaching.

 

A voice from behind caused Gabriel to scream, one from the impossibly long end of the hall.  “Don’t run, pardner!  Ain’t nowhere you can go.  You gotta know that we’re the law ‘round here and you gotta pay the piper.”  It was unmistakably the clerk’s voice.  Gabriel cursed in desperation, stopping dead in his tracks.  Running wasn’t getting him anywhere.  Impenetrable darkness surrounded him, casting him into a world of shadow.  Then instantly it was pitch black.

 

Gabriel was out of ideas and out of time, with nowhere to go in this horrible indoor night.  Think.  His heart pounded, his pulse raced.  As he hefted the ax over his shoulder, preparing to make a final valiant stand, a faint shimmer so small Gabriel had missed it at first glance, caught his eye.  It was rectangular, the outline of light behind a door, penetrating the darkness.  It’s still a hall.  No matter how it’s been twisted, it’s still a hall.  Gabriel felt a slight sliver of hope.  There was a chance.

 

In the complete blackness, Gabriel groped for a handle, fearing a clammy old hand grabbing him at any second, as he searched.  Finally he grasped the knob, turning it desperately, only to find it locked.  He drew the ax back and slammed it into where the door appeared to be, feeling it barely shudder under the force of the blow.  Why does it have to be so damn strong?  What is this Fort Knox?  He could feel the hair on his neck rising as an inhuman cold seemed to permeate his skin.  Gabriel slammed the ax again and this time the door gave a little, bits of wood exploding in a spray of chips and splinters.  A gnarled hand clawed at him from the shadows as Gabriel swung one more time.  The door shattered, splitting in half and Gabriel jumped through without hesitation.

 

Gabriel landed hard, but barely felt it, and instantly he was up and running.  The scared traveler found he had somehow made his way back into the foyer, and that sliver of hope grew like an ember in a fireplace.  He knew he could make it.

 

“Now you didn’t think we’d let’cha go that easy, did ya pardner?”  It was the bartender and he was blocking the door.  The grim early light of morning glowed mockingly over the old man’s shoulder.  The man rested one hand on a tarnished revolver, a six-shooter, sitting loosely in its holster.  Gabriel grunted, this time not in horror, but in anger.  He’d come too far just to be thwarted now.  The bartender’s eyes positively gleamed.  The old man was enjoying this.  “Now what we have here, pardner, is a good old-fashioned showdown.  You don’t have yer gun so I guess that puts you at a disadvantage.”  He smiled, showing yellow teeth.

 

Gabriel didn’t hesitate, even as the self-fashioned gunslinger continued on, “Now what we’re going to do is...”   He never finished as Gabriel’s ax took him in side of the head with a sickening crunch.  It happened so fast, without warning, that the bartender never had time to react.  He was dead before he hit the ground.  Gabriel had seen too many resurrections for one day, so he didn’t stick around, fumbling desperately for his keys as he ran, praying he’d had the foresight to hold onto them last night.  A moment of panic gripped him as he felt his front pocket and came up empty, but upon reaching his car, he found them buried deep in a back pocket.

 

Gabriel fired up the ignition.  The engine thankfully turned over, a purring whir the sweetest sound Gabriel ever heard in his life.  He threw the car into first gear and drove like a madman, never slowing, even after the motel had long since faded from the dim reflection of his rearview.  He didn’t stop until he made it home to the loving embrace of his wife, who had been worried sick.  He’d had several hours to make up a plausible excuse to assuage his wife’s anger and fear over why he hadn’t come home.  Not even sure himself exactly what had happened at that little out-of-the-way place, but knowing that even on the slim chance anyone would believe him, he didn’t want to ever relive those terrible memories again.  Instead he buried all thoughts of that little slice of hell in the far recesses of his mind, and never mentioned his experiences at the motel to anyone…ever.

 

* * *

 

Back at the motel, the being who had worn the skin of a clerk, now an androgynous flickering shape with no discernable semblance of form, communicated with another equally enigmatic figure.  The pair would have been of great interest to UFO enthusiasts the world over, because it was obvious that the two were not of this Earth.  They calmly discussed the matter of Gabriel, traveler on his way home, as if it were nothing more than a casual antidote, or a blurb in the morning news.  “This one was by far the best, the most resourceful.”

 

“Yes,” replied the other.

 

“You do know I hate this.”

 

A small portable television played an old black and white Western movie while the pair watched intensely.

 

“It’s a dreadful necessity.  Watch this now.  The one called Duke will take both of them down.”  On the screen, the gruff, lovable, John Wayne shot and killed two of the roughest toughest outlaws west of the Mississippi.  After the hoodlums lay dead in a dusty desert street, never to see the sunrise again, the conversation continued.

 

“Do you think the Council will be pleased with our results?”

 

“No.  That human Gabriel in particular.  If he is any indication of the rest of humanity, we may have a harder task ahead of us yet.  On the television they seem utterly expendable, but in person...

 

“It might be far more difficult than we have anticipated.  Far more difficult...” Before his companion could respond, their conversation halted as they heard a car pull up outside.  “Prepare your guise and get the room ready, we’re about to have more company...”

 

* * *

 

The young insurance salesman snapped off the radio in his Volvo with a mild shudder, his heart beating just a little too fast.  I can’t believe they actually play that scary stuff on the radio, he thought as a cold shiver raced down his spine.  He still couldn’t believe that he’d found the “Haunting Radio Show” so eerie that he passed up a little diner in the old motel on Route 7, even though he was starving.  He wasn’t about to take any chances with old motels in out-of-the-way places.  But Kyle, the salesman, had to admit one thing, the “Haunting Radio Show” had kept him entertained and awake on the drive home.  And that part about the wife... The bright lights of the city were already on the horizon as he continued on at his hurried pace.  It seemed almost as if he had done the impossible, making it home in less than four hours.  He’d never done it that fast or that exhausted before.  I still can’t believe I made it.  Kyle said a little prayer of thanks under his breath, glancing up at the seemingly infinite sky littered with stars and wondered if aliens really did ever visit this planet.  Then he pushed the notion aside, envisioning far more pleasant things here on Earth. With warm thoughts of his bed and his wife, Kyle sped off into the city, leaving the lonely night behind.