THE RAIN pounded down on the cab of the truck, the wiper blades furiously working to no avail as my truck crept down the darkened forest road. I felt like I was driving underwater, deep in some forgotten sea. The music on the radio was barely a whisper, as I had the volume turned almost completely down; I held the steering wheel in a viselike grip, trying to see more than ten feet in front of me. The heater was cranked up on high to keep the windows from fogging up, and sweat trickled down the side of my face. I couldn’t tell whether it was from the heat or from the fear tightening my gut. It was probably a combination of both.

Lightning danced across the sky, instantly followed by a peal of thunder that shook the world around me and caused me to yelp involuntarily and duck my head as I took my foot off the gas. My heart leaped into my throat as the thunder rumbled like a cranky dragon awakening from a deep slumber to find his treasure gone.

I had slowed the truck to a near crawl almost ten miles back when the torrential rains began. The two thousand or so miles from Texas had passed pretty well without incident, and I’d made very good time as I traversed hell’s half acre. Now it felt like I was not moving at all, and I could barely make out the road in front of me. No cars passed me coming from the other direction, and nobody came up behind me. I was alone and isolated, as if the rest of the world had disappeared and all that existed was me and my old Chevy truck. Those thoughts didn’t help the panic that was building.

Shall I pull over and wait the rain out? Or keep going until I find a gas station to pull in to?

I didn’t like the situation at all; this was how horror novels started, or some slasher movie. Some maniac wielding a knife or some other sharp weapon would come hurtling out of the woods or maybe appear at Billy Bob’s gas station. You know, one of those rusted old out-of-the-way service stations no one has seen in forever.

The subject of the 1980s and 1990s horror flicks began to flash in my mind as well as each serial killer: Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers… and who could forget the ghost-face killer in Scream? And of course that didn’t account for the demon in The Stand, the ghosts in The Shining, or the werewolf in Silver Bullet. These movies were all part of my personal collection back home, their memory mocking me with sinister ease.

My throat was dry and begging for a drink; my eyes were strained and grainy from staring out into the night as rain sloshed my windshield, and my headlights peered into the darkness in a sad attempt to guide me to my destination.

How do I get myself into these situations?

A few nights ago, I’d been sitting at a campus bar with some of my friends, lamenting the end of the semester, and now here I was, wishing I were back in my dorm room surrounded by my belongings, homework, and familiarity, which were so far away. But that was before receiving the terrible news that flipped my entire world upside down.

Before that phone call, I was a college student ready to take on the world with a killer smile, a hot body, purposefully shaggy, unkempt hair, and a college degree. After the phone call, a visit to the morgue, and seven days of walking around in a stupor barely eating and hardly sleeping, unsure of what I’d signed or who I’d spoken to, I got into my truck and left it all behind me.

Now I was out in butt-fucked who-knows-where trying to reach my estranged aunt’s house, where I would stay for the summer.

With one hand, I removed a Marlboro from its pack, slipped it into my mouth, and lit the end. Sweet nicotine heaven poured in as I placed my hand back on the steering wheel and thumbed the window control. The burn of the drag in my lungs was the only thing on the way from Texas that reminded me I was, in fact, still alive. My head felt stuffed with cotton and my heart felt like a lead balloon. On my way, I’d eaten at fast-food joints, pissed in disgusting gas-station bathrooms (and once on the side of the freeway), and driven relentlessly from point A toward point B. Once, in Nebraska, I stopped only to get a room and passed out on the bed without taking my clothes off.

With the window rolled down midway, a deluge of rain pelted the side of my face, but like with everything else, I didn’t care. My give-a-damn was fucked these days.

I put the cigarette in my right hand so it wouldn’t get wet—addicts do the strangest things to get their fix. Besides, if I was going to die here in the backside of nowhere, either by a terrible car accident or a knife-wielding maniac, I was having a damn cigarette.

The rain coming through the cracked window was cool on my fevered skin, and the air, which carried the smell of the storm and the woods that surrounded me, pushed the smoke from my cigarette away with its fresh, clean fragrance. That air was sweet and again reminded me that I was, in fact, alive.

 

“Mr. Donnelly, can you confirm the identity of the man in front of you?”

I had stared up at the screen in the white room as a woman in a lab coat pulled away the sheet.

The city morgue smelled like antiseptic and something else. Something right underneath the smell of disinfectant. Something sticky and sweet and old that was impossible to wash off even as, hours later, I sat inside the shower with my arms wrapped around my knees. I could still smell it.

“Yes.”

The man standing next to me nodded and spoke into a microphone. The woman in the white room put the sheet back and went to the next table. She pulled the second sheet back.

“And her?”

The shock of seeing her face caused me to turn mine away and squeeze my eyes shut. I nodded quickly.

“Yes?” he prompted.

An involuntary sob escaped my lips, but I nodded furiously and gritted my teeth against it. “Yes. Yes. It’s her.”

 

Another lightning flash lit the sky and I nearly jumped out of my seat as the world around me instantly turned a brilliant white but then disappeared. Thunder pealed again, this time closer and louder than before, and I knew the storm wasn’t going to let up soon. I had to pull over or I was going to end up crashing into a tree. Game over. No law school for me.

The idea was disgustingly and seductively appealing. Suicide, I mean.

I could just hit the gas and my truck would rocket forward. I would stay on the road for a moment, maybe make Marty McFly’s 88 mph before I slammed headlong into the thick trunk of a tree and ended it all. And then I wouldn’t have to deal with this. I wouldn’t have to go meet this lady who said she is my father’s sister. I wouldn’t feel like a zombie, wouldn’t need to be alone in the world anymore. I could join my parents, and we could sail off into heaven together.

Or hell.

Or nothing, if the atheists are right.

My luck, all I’d do was break my legs, or snap my spine, and be in agony until someone showed up and untangled my ruined body from behind my steering wheel. Or better yet, I’d die, but because my truck caught fire and I was pinned. I’d slowly be burned to death.

I carefully pulled off to the side of the road and turned on my emergency flashers to hopefully avoid getting creamed by a passerby. Yet, somewhere deep inside, I didn’t think anyone would be traveling down this road tonight.

I hoped more than anything that I was wrong.

I put the truck in park, engine running. The wiper blades slapped furiously, like a drowning man trying to hail a lifeguard at a beach. I took one last drag of my cigarette, flicked it out into the night, and rolled up my window. The left side of me was rain-soaked, and I shivered from the cool air I’d allowed in from the window, but it was soon replaced by the heat coming out of the register. I looked at the radio clock for the time, and it was only nine thirty at night. Still pretty early, but the storm cut out all ambient light except for the occasional flash of lightning. I leaned back into the seat and let the warm leather embrace my aching back as I laid my head against the headrest.

“Damn,” I whispered.

I checked my phone for missed calls or messages, but there was no signal. So now I was not only stranded in the middle of nowhere, I had no way to call for help should I get attacked by Cletus the knife-wielding drifter. The rain pounded relentlessly on the cab of my truck. It began to have a lulling effect on me, and my eyes grew heavy. Trying to keep myself awake, I began to thumb through the radio stations. Not too many were available out here in the middle of butt-fucked who-knows-where, except one country music and another with a lone preacher saying, “We must have revival in this land!” I decided against both.

“This was a mistake,” I said out loud as I wiped the nervous, clammy sweat from my brow.

I didn’t even know this lady, and all of a sudden, she came out of the blue now that Mom and Dad were gone?

“This is nuts, Daniel,” I whispered as the anxiety threatened to take over.

Lightning danced outside as if replying to my words, and the thunder shouted its amen almost instantly. Yet something caught my attention out of the corner of my eye. I thought I saw movement along the tree line as the world lit up like fire. I sat bolt upright in my seat, peering out into the rain-soaked darkness. I didn’t realize I was holding my breath until my chest began to hurt and my temples began to ache. I let it out in a slow manner, as if my exhale would alert whatever ghoul or ghost or serial killer was lurking inside the shadows of those woods.

Another flash and my eyes locked on a pair of yellow eyes staring at me from the place where I saw them before. Not a ghost or a killer—a wolf.

Standing about twenty feet away, a huge, magnificent wolf was watching me with an oddly disconcerting amount of intelligence in its eyes, head hung low. Its gray-and-white fur was gorgeous and oddly dry-looking. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Instead of fading into the darkness, it began to walk forward into the headlights of my car. The beast never took its eyes off mine. Like it was staring into my soul.

My heart began to hammer and my breathing quickly picked up. My hands went back to the steering wheel and clamped down again, as white-knuckled as before. A chill passed through me, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up straight. As if the wolf could sense my distress, it stopped and gave me a wicked grin.

“You know I can see you, don’t you?” I whispered aloud. “You know I am afraid.”

The wolf, in response, tilted its giant head up toward the rain and gave out a chilling howl as if to confirm that. “Why, yes, I do know, dear boy. What do you think I’m doing here? You wanted to die? Step out of the truck, and I’ll gladly make your dreams come true.”

The blood ran cold in my veins as another chill passed through me, from the top of my head to the soles of my feet, at the thought of such a grisly end. Stepping out of the truck, walking forward, the beast suddenly lunging, and its friends coming out from the trees to help it dine on a young man who tasted like sweat and cigarettes and a thousand miles of bad road.

I suddenly decided that staying alive wasn’t so bad after all. But the lightning danced across the sky in giant arcs, illuminating the night, and just as fast as it had appeared, the wolf was gone.

I looked left and right into the torrential downpour but couldn’t see anything. I couldn’t have been paying attention, because suddenly a pair of headlights appeared behind me. Red and blue lights began to flash, and I let out a huge sigh of relief. I sat back in my seat and waited. A rap at my window, so I lowered it to find a cop in a rain slicker.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m all right. I just pulled over to keep from getting into an accident.”

The police officer was tall and fairly young—no more than thirty, I supposed. He asked for my driver’s license and insurance paperwork, and I promptly handed him both. As he headed back to his patrol car to do whatever police officers do with those things, my eyes went immediately back to the front of the truck, and I suddenly wished I’d warned the officer about the wolf. Just a few minutes passed by, and then he rapped on my window again.

“Where are you headed?” he asked as he handed me back my things.

“I’m headed to my aunt’s house just outside of Portland. A town called Emerson. I’m staying at her home this summer.” I was going there to meet the only surviving member of my family now that both my parents were gone. I wasn’t going to divulge that much information to him, though.

“You’re Carol Donnelly’s nephew?” His eyes grew wide and he stepped back.

“Yeah, that’s my aunt.” His reaction surprised me. Well, I guessed if you were a rich spinster lady who had a house large enough to be referred to as an estate, then she could have possibly achieved celebrity status, especially in a small town.

“Well, then, Danny”—my name is Daniel, and I loathed anyone calling me Danny, but I let it slide—“I’m Sheriff Davis, and I know exactly where your aunt lives. I can escort you to her house to make sure you get there all right if you’d like.” The surprise left his face as he eased into a smile. I didn’t want to let him go now that he was here, and the chance to be escorted safely to my destination was an offer I didn’t want to pass up.

“Sure, man, that’d be great.”

He nodded and pointed up the road. “It’s going to be about another fifteen to twenty minutes that way. I’ll drive slow and keep my lights on for you, and you follow close behind. The rain is letting up, so we shouldn’t run into any trouble. I’ll get you there safe and sound.”

My eyes jerked up to his as he said the very last part. He was watching me intently.

It seemed like I was looking at his face for the first time. Handsome, chiseled, and defined. His nose was very prominent but not unattractive. It suited him; he almost had the look of a Roman general. His eyes were large and his lips full.

He flashed a comforting grin at me, and I couldn’t help but smile back. That smile instantly disarmed me.

He’s the killer, I thought. He’s going to lure you into the woods, and there he’ll—

Shut up!

“Sounds great, sure. I’ll follow right behind you.”