It was a desolate stretch of road across the wide, open expanse of empty desert. The most remarkable thing about this part of the highway was a single gnarled tree stripped bare of its leaves, branches reaching up like bony fingers into the clear night sky on the side of the road.
I flicked the ash off my cigarette out of the car window, the embers danced like miniature stars in the dark before winking out of existence behind us. Soft classical music poured from the car’s speakers and I took another drag from my cigarette. It was about 4 A.M. and we were determined to get to Arroyo Hondo by dinner time.
George had been busy writing his novel and working; we hadn’t had any alone time for a year. Sometime before he finished his novel, I snapped at him about not having any time together and we had an argument. We decided it would be best for us to take a week off for a vacation, which meant no work and no emails from anybody.
“How long until we reach Santa Fe, dear?” I asked. The tree, like the embers, faded into the darkness.
“Couple of hours,” George replied. “It’ll be nice to have a warm bed to cuddle up in, wouldn’t it Carl?” We were both dead tired from driving all night.
I nodded and put a hand on his thigh. “I’m looking forward to it. At least we will have barely passable hotel coffee instead of shitty gas station coffee.”
George chuckled as we drove along the empty highway. We passed a rusted and dirty sign telling us the city of Vaughn was twenty miles away. I heard George’s phone beep and I looked incredulously at him.
“That better not be what I think it is,” I glared over at George.
George shrugged and explained, “I’m waiting to hear back from my agent, I can’t afford to miss an email or a call from her.”
“All you do is work! This trip is supposed to allow us to refocus on each other.”
“Carl…” George sighed. “It’s just – what if she calls and I can’t answer, or she emails, and I can’t reply, and I miss a great deal that could launch my career as an author?”
“There will be another opportunity,” I angrily slammed the cigarette butt into the ashtray. “We agreed this trip was for us to spend time together, alone.”
George sighed again and kept driving, shaking his head. He said nothing. I clenched my jaw and gave George another glare before I turned and stared out my window. Why couldn’t he understand? I just want to spend time with him alone, I thought.
The headlights of the car illuminated a solitary candle flickering on the side of the road. I closed my eyes and rested my head against the back of the seat. There was nothing I could say or do when George got like this. I’d just have to stew in silence until he wanted to talk.
I glared out the window and saw thunder clouds suddenly rolling in. The music filled the uncomfortable silence for a few moments before a flash of light and a crack of thunder exploded above our car. A loud high-pitched whine exploded from the speakers. I clutched my ears as the car swerved, and my teeth rattled as the car rumble against the shoulder of the road. My eyes shot open, and I saw George covering his ears. I reached out and flicked off the radio, sending us into a blissful silence punctuated with the staccato of thick, heavy raindrops on the roof. George grabbed the steering wheel and jerked the car back onto the road. He turned on the windshield wipers.
“Jesus! Where did this storm come from?” George rubbed his ears and stared at the radio. “And what the hell was that with the radio?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “Maybe we went out of range of the station?”
“It’s a satellite radio,” George countered with a shake of his head.
I shrugged. “Should we try turning it back on?”
George thought a moment before nodding. “It could’ve just been something caused by the lightning -- electrical interference y’know?” I flicked the radio on and once again classical music spilled from the speakers. “Whatever it was, it was weird. With a capital W.” George said nothing, but I could tell he wasn’t as upset as he was a few moments ago.
We passed a sign that looked brand new, announcing Vaughn was ten miles away. For a brief moment, the headlights illuminated a small child huddled in a dirty yellow raincoat walking along the side of the road. Then the kid was out of the light as the car rocketed down the road.
“There’s a kid out there!”
“I saw him.” George slammed on the brakes and the car lurched to a halt. George looked in the rear view, put the car in reverse and pulled up next to the child and honked to get his attention. The kid jumped and looked around wildly. I rolled down the window and noticed he was a small boy. He kept his hands jammed in his armpits, shivering despite the yellow coat. Mud caked the bottom of his jeans and he squinted in the bright light of the car.
“Hey kid! You need a ride?” I asked.
I could see he was about ten or eleven years old, his face covered in filth. He peered at me, eyes wild and filled with fright and uncertainty. He looked down the road behind us before looking right back at us.
“Uh-uh, my mom said I’m not supposed to get in the car with strangers,” the boy stuttered.
“What are you doing out here so late?” George asked as he leaned over me.
The kid looked down the road again and back up at us. “I’m trying to get away from the bad man.” Thunder rumbled in the distance.
My brow creased. Was this kid kidnapped?
“What’s your name kiddo?” George asked as he looked over his shoulder and down the road.
“Mikey,” the boy replied.
“Mikey, did this bad man hurt you?” George leaned in even more, a sure sign he was becoming concerned. Mikey looked down and held out his hands.
“Yeah…” he said. I saw the bleeding cigarette burns that covered his hands, as well as twin bruises on his wrists. He jammed his hands back into his armpits immediately.
“Jesus!” George exclaimed, “Look Mikey, we want to help you. Where does your mom live?”
“In Vaughn,” he replied gesturing towards the sign.
George looked at him. “Mikey do you know your address?”
“Our house is right there next to the highway,” Mikey replied. “You won’t miss it.”
George nodded. “I’m George and this is Carl. Come on, get in we’ll take you home and then we can get the police to help catch the bad man.”
I gave Mikey a reassuring smile, and he shifted uncomfortably for a moment, weighing his options. He nodded.
“Okay,” he said as he walked up to the car.
George popped the locks and Mikey climbed into the backseat. I became intensely aware that he smelled of motor oil and brake fluid. He carefully buckled in and we drove on. We didn’t have a towel for the boy to wipe his face with, but we did have napkins. I dug a few out of a greasy fast food bag. I twisted in my seat to look at Mikey. He was looking out the window absentmindedly.
“Do you know what the bad man looks like?” I asked as I handed him napkins.
“Yeah, he’s tall. The tallest man I’ve ever seen.” Mikey took the napkins and wiped his face, and I saw the back of his hand was caked in filth and blood with the cigarette burns standing out like beacons. As Mikey continued, I dug around the glove compartment looking for some gauze to cover his wounds. “He wears a black sweater that comes up to his chin and is totally bald. He’s got a beard and wears thick glasses.” No luck on the gauze. Poor kid. Mikey began to pick at a thread on his yellow coat before taking it off. “I also saw his van when I was running away. It’s all black, with a white stuffed horsey tied to the front. I hid under it for a little while and ripped something off, but I don’t really want to talk about it.”
I looked to George nervously. He merely shrugged. George was better with kids -- his book was a kid’s book after all.
“Do you have a favorite sport?” George asked. I was grateful for the change in subject.
“Yeah!” Mikey bounced in his seat, ears perked. “I like football! When I grow up, I want to be the best football player ever. It’s why I was able to run so far so fast.”
George chuckled and smiled. “You did a great job, Mikey. I’ll bet you’ll be the best football player ever. Who is your favorite team?”
“I like the Baltimore Ravens,” he answered. “Mostly ‘cuz I think their mascot is cool.”
George smiled. “They are pretty cool,” he said with a nod. “What’s your favorite flavor of ice cream?”
Mikey thought hard on that. “I like chocolate the best.”
He smiled at George and I looked at him. His phone chimed again. I frowned as George reached for it, but he checked himself.
“Sweetheart…” I began.
He looked at me with a shake of his head. It was clear he didn’t want to talk about it in front of Mikey. I sighed and leaned against my door. Another flash of light. Another crack of thunder. Another sharp, high-pitched whine. I winced and turned the radio off. It wasn’t as bad as before, but I decided it best to leave the radio off for now.
I looked in the rearview mirror and saw Mikey didn’t even seem to notice the whine. More importantly, I saw a pair of headlights were coming up from behind. Where had they come from? I wondered.
George didn’t seem to notice. “You alright back there?” he asked Mikey.
“Mhm,” Mikey responded detachedly. “I’m okay, Mister George.”
George smiled and turned his attention back to the road and the growing lights of the city. It was a small one-horse, one road, type of town, that much we could tell. Mikey wasn’t wrong when he said we wouldn’t miss his house. The rain started to get worse, the thunder and lightning more frequent.
I glanced back at him and smiled, then frowned when I saw the car behind gaining on us. It was a black van with a dirty white stuffed horse tied to the grill. The van’s headlights were filthy and vaguely reminded me of two menacing eyes in the rainy dark. “George,” I said, nodding to the mirror. He looked at me then the mirror and nodded.
“I know,” he said softly. “He’s been there for about a minute.”
I opened my mouth to say something, but suddenly the car was jolted forward as the van rammed into us. Mikey screamed.
“Hold on!” George shouted as he slammed his foot on the gas.
I jerked back, and Mikey whimpered. The van picked up speed and crashed into us again. A blast of thunder split the air as my head slammed on the dashboard and I heard a thump behind me. Despite his seat belt, Mikey must have crashed into the back of my seat. The car swerved off the road and there was a sickening screech of metal on metal as we careened through a guard rail. We hit a ditch and stopped. Everything was silent there was no rain, no thunder. I looked up, and felt a thick wetness creeping down from my forehead. I touched it and saw blood. I looked back at the road and saw the van was nowhere in sight.
“Mikey?” I called. “George?” I heard George groan next to me and looked at him. There was a huge cut on his forehead, but he was breathing. I looked in the backseat. Mikey wasn’t there. The door was closed, the windows unbroken. The only indication Mikey was ever in our car was the small, wet yellow raincoat thrown across the seat, and the buckled seat belt. The small boy had vanished like he was never there.
I crawled out of the car and put a hand on it to steady myself, trying to catch my breath. I expected there to be mud, but the ground was as dry as ever. I remembered I needed to check on George. I rushed to George’s side and pulled the door open. “George, tell me you’re alright, sweetheart.”
“I’m fine, is Mikey okay?” He looked at me bleary eyed.
“I… don’t know,” I replied, “He’s… not in the car.”
“What do you mean he’s not in the car! He was just there a moment ago!”
“He’s not,” I said, gesturing to the empty back seat.
“Maybe he went out a window?” George said hopefully. I shook my head.
George slumped down in his seat and stared dejectedly out cracked windshield. “He has to be here somewhere,” George straightened his back and scanned the road. “Maybe the man in the van got him again?”
I looked up and down the bone-dry road, my eyes straining in the dark for any hint of car lights. “I don’t see the van.”
“Damn it Carl, that’s not possible,” George crawled from the wreckage and ran to the road. When he didn’t see the van, he shouted, “Cars don’t vanish. People don’t vanish. Not like that. And what about the rain? Where’s the mud? Why is the road dry?”
I shrugged my shoulders, at a loss for the phantom rain. “Do you see them anywhere?” I stomped over to him and the highway.
“No.” George pulled out his phone.
“Now is not the time to be checking your email,” I reached for his phone.
“I was checking for reception, Carl,” George sneered as he pulled his phone away. When I stopped reaching for it, he showed me the screen.
“No bars?” I was stunned. “But, you just got an email not too long ago.”
“It is weird as hell,” George pocketed his phone angrily. He put his hand over his face and groaned. “Look -- babe. I’m sorry. I know this trip was for us to spend some time together and I … haven’t been entirely good at that.” He kicked a rock and I watched him, my jaw tightening. “I’m just excited for my book to come out y’know?”
I sighed and remembered how he dealt with Mikey in the car. George was always good with kids, and writing was his passion. Who was I to take something that important from him? “I’m sorry sweetheart -- I’ve been too hard on you.” I relaxed my jaw and looked out at the city lights just a few more miles away.
“I understand -- let’s talk about this later okay? Right now, I think we need to focus on finding Mikey and getting our car fixed.” George embraced me, and I held him tightly.
“The town is only a few more miles away,” I pulled back and pointed down the highway. “We can organize a search party and try to find him, and hopefully find a mechanic.”
George nodded and walked away from the wreckage. It looked salvageable, but we were going to need a tow truck to get it out of there. We walked for about two hours to the city, and by the time we got there, the sun already started to rise. In the cold, grey, dawn light George spotted a man in a pair of denim overalls.
“Hey! Mister!” George shouted and waved his arms. The man turned to us. He was an older man, skin like worn out leather, freckles dotting his cheeks like splotches of ink.
“How can I help you, son?” he asked with a Southwestern drawl that made every word seem to lounge on the tip of a lazy tongue. He had a friendly smile on his face.
“My husband and I picked up a kid about ten miles away and we got run off the road by some crazy guy in a black van,” George explained. The old man’s smile turned to a frown.
“Where’s the kid?” he asked.
“We don’t know,” George explained, “We were kinda hoping you could help us find him. He seems to be from around here. He said his name was Mikey.”
The old man’s face went pale as a sheet. “Can’t be. Lil’ Mikey’s been dead for about three months.”
Now it was George who frowned. “No. He hasn’t,” he argued, “We just picked him up. He was wearing a yellow coat.”
The old man shook his head. “Son, I don’t know what kind of sick game you’re playing at, but the boy was found dead about fifteen miles away. There’s a candle marking the spot. Some sicko tortured him – burned his hands with cigarettes. Doc says he died of exposure after escaping.”
I looked at George and he looked back at me. “That’s what the boy said happened,” I explained, “We saw his hands. He even described the man who did it to him. Tall, bald, and in a black sweater. The car that drove us off the road was a big black van with a white horse tied to it.”
The old man scratched his head. “I do remember a van like that coming into town every few weeks, and the man who was driving it also matched your description. But here’s the thing. He was involved in a fatal crash the night before Lil’ Mikey was found. Took out our ten-mile sign when he lost control of his van. Flipped into a ditch and he was thrown from it to his death.”
“Any idea what caused him to lose control?” I had my suspicions but wanted to hear it myself.
The man nodded. “Yeah, looks like somebody ripped or cut his brake line.” George and I looked at each other in disbelief.
I turned my attention back to the old man. “Did you know him?”
The old man nodded. “Not personally, he was one of the guys who lives out in the desert. We saw some weird shit in his house – hundreds of cigarette butts discarded next to two sets of half unlocked handcuffs. When we found Lil’ Mikey with all those cigarette burns on his hands… we put two and two together.”
George shook his head and muttered “Jesus.”
The old man sighed. “You say you got run off the road by a van after picking up a kid in a yellow raincoat?” He looked out across the empty stretch of the desert just outside the city limits. “I believe it. I’ve seen some things out in the desert that I can’t explain. Lights in the sky, wailing women. Once I even saw a car that I thought had already left town drive through here a second time.” He turned back to us and asked, “Where’s your car? I’ve got a tow truck and run the local repair garage.”
“About five miles the way we came,” I gestured down the highway. “Do you want us to go with you?”
The old man nodded. “Yeah, may as well. That way I can tell you the bill then and there.” We climbed into his tow truck and he drove us back out to the wreck, where he pulled the car from the ditch. It wasn’t too badly damaged, but it would need some repair. The man said it was going to be a couple hundred dollars at most. As he was hooking up the car, I stopped him.
“I want to check something,” I said as I headed to the backdoor. I opened the door Mikey entered and looked inside. It was just as I thought, there was no yellow raincoat thrown over the seat.