The year after I finally graduated college as a super senior, thanks to excessive partying, six missing credits and mononucleosis, I somehow managed to score a job at a small design firm in Whitehall, New York, a town not too far from the state school I'd attended.
Many people hear that I went to school in New York and immediately assume, “Oh, New York City?” Could not be further from the truth. While not quite as endlessly barren of human life as, say, the Dakotas, here's an example for a sense of scale: the trees of upstate New York outnumber the people a few thousand to one. Particularly up by the Adirondacks, where Whitehall is, each town might be fifteen miles apart, with only the sporadic farmer or overgrown trailer in between, and nary a cell tower to be seen. It is a beautiful place, but you are very much alone in it.
The nearest place to go out near Whitehall was about forty minutes away, at the Lake George resort. Forty minutes sounds like a hike, but by Adirondack standards, that's a pretty average drive, unfortunately for my much-loved, much-rusted sedan. So despite the trip, driving out to Lake George was something I did just about every other week. I had a few friends living around there, Alan doing climate research in the 'Dacks and Jim, who we teased for getting stuck as a waiter at the Johnny Angel's. (The Recession was just starting up by this point, and if we'd known the financial straits we'd be in by 2009, we wouldn't have laughed).
It was nice to meet up with them, since they were some of the few friendships I'd maintained since college, and I had no good friends in Whitehall. So we usually spent too much on dinner and a few drinks, and sometimes wandered through the kitschy little resort town, laughing at the overweight families with swarms of bratty, over-tired kids in Lake George Great Escape shirts, or, since it was usually later by the time we got to wandering, the other drunk vacationers with ball caps and Confederate flag t-shirts.
Not trying to turn you off the 'Dacks. They're great, as long as you know who to avoid.
It was after one of these excursions that I had a strange experience, one which has...colored the world for me since. I had drank a few too many beers that night, as we'd gotten sucked into watching the Giants game and I stopped paying attention to what I was downing. By the time the night was winding down and we all began to leave, I wasn't drunk, but was definitely tipsier than I should have been.
At least I was a responsible idiot. I realized that I probably shouldn't be driving, but instead of playing it safe and waiting it out, I decided to not take the highway, but instead take the back way home. I'd take the quiet backwoods roads where I could drive at a safe thirty miles-per-hour and not endanger anyone – and also, not get pulled over.
So, not the greatest decision I've ever made, but certainly not the worst, either (that's another story, and more of a humor article at that). I set off in my clunky sedan out past the last traffic light and down the flat, field-lined road that my GPS advised. The occasional farmhouse or colonial flicked past, but they quickly grew sparser and sparser as I chugged down these backwoods roads by the yellow cone of my headlights. It was still dusk when I started out, but pretty soon the remnants of sun faded and it got pitch dark. A few clouds rolling in obscured the weak moon, and only allowed the occasional patch of stars to peer through. If I tried to walk around outside without a light, it would have been possible, but there would have been a fair bit of falling, tripping, and injury involved.
And that was before I got to the trees. It's not really a thing you notice most times, but when you're slightly drunk and driving these curving roads at night with only the nominally British voice of the GPS for company, you start thinking about how really, the only thing you can see is what your headlights are showing you. There's the grey oil-and-gravel road, the tan trunks of the trees that grow close to you, and then off in the distance, encroaching darkness. The beer couldn't have been helping, but I remember everything feeling very surreal. I was in a little bubble world of light, and nothing outside of it existed anymore.
I'd been driving for about half an hour, and the ETA clock was telling me there was another thirty minutes yet to go (one of a few downsides of going thirty on windy back roads), when the GPS shut down. I thought little of it at first, just got kind of annoyed. It was still plugged in, as I found when I checked, but evidently had just upped and died.
That was fine. I was pretty sure where I was going, and had about half a tank of gas. Eventually, I reached a crossroads and turned right, which seemed to be in keeping with where I thought I was headed. I continued down this for a while, as the trees turned from thinner-leaved ashes and maples to the oppressive night of a hemlock forest which shut out any last vestiges of moonlight.
The road started to get worse, as well. Though the road before hadn't been wildly well-maintained, now potholes started to appear with alarming regularity, shaking me in my car like a ping-pong ball in a blender. I slowed down significantly, but occasionally the road would even up, so I would start to speed up again. Then just as soon as I got over forty, the front wheels would crash back down into another rut.
It was the third time that the car did this that I heard a shuddering clang and crash. Almost immediately, the hot and thick smell of smoke billowed through the vents. Five seconds later, as I rose out of the pothole, there was another clang and my car stammered to a halt, making a whirring noise like a disappointed robot. The smell of smoke intensified, and I quickly shut off my car. The lights faded out.
Retrieving a mini-mag from my glove compartment, I got out of the car. The temperature had dropped about twenty degrees since the sun went down, in true Adirondacks style, and it was getting cold. In a sweatshirt and jeans, I could be more poorly equipped, but I knew if I was going to be stranded for any length, I could risk hypothermia.
The hood released a cloud of smoke as I opened it, and I turned away and coughed, swearing up a storm. Really, of all times for this car to finally kick the bucket, it would be on a random back road, at night, while I was still slightly tipsy (though sobering rapidly). I remember kicking the wheel a few times. After I vented for a bit, I checked the oil and radiator fluid. Both were fine, but now, when I tried to turn the car on at all, it would sputter for a few seconds and fail to start.
Even better, when I tried to call Jim to come get me on my blobby silver flip phone, I realized that there was no cell service where I was. Occasionally the bar would flicker from zero to one, but whenever I tried to place a call, it would just make a burbling, electronic noise like it was mocking my situation.
After another round of cursing, I made a decision. I could wait by the car, but that would rely on someone driving by and offering me a hand, and on a road like this at ten at night, that had to be like winning the lotto. The other option was to walk back the way I had came, but I knew that I hadn't passed a house for at least fifteen minutes that way, which translated to a little under ten miles.
The last option was to walk the way I had been going, and hope I found a house or car or something where I could get a hand. This seemed like the most rational decision, so, locking my car behind me, I set off down the road with my little LED halo to light the way.
Now, I'm an average-sized guy, not buff but neither short nor scrawny. Thanks to a few martial arts classes, I feel able to defend myself, and I'm pretty hard to startle. So I can only imagine walking down that road if I were anyone else, someone who had seen too many horror movies or who didn't feel as secure in themselves as I did. It was pure darkness, completely impenetrable except for my little puddle of too-bright blue light. Also, without the protective enclose of the car around me, the dark huddled much closer, hovering like a vulture over a water-starved coyote, still three days from the edge of the desert. While it helped that I had a plan to stick to, I couldn't help but feel the fluttering of panic in my gut. Particularly as I walked farther and my car disappeared out of sight beyond a turn, it was harder to push away anxious thoughts, like the ones that wondered if this road led anywhere, or just deeper into the woods, or what would happen if my flashlight were to run out of battery.
Later, when recounting this story to my friends, I would leave out the fear I felt here, as well as some later details purely for credulity's sake. But to this day, I've never really felt anything like that again. Sure, a shock or thrill at a scary movie, or a vague and existential dread when I was fired from my job, but never that immediate and completely rational fear for my own survival.
After my watch told me I'd been walking for about twenty minutes (though it felt like much longer), the crappy road came to a T at a much smoother, nicer road, one that was wider and seemed more traveled. Though it was still ungodly dark, I was much happier at this discovery, and turned to the right, clomping along at a more relaxed pace. I'd find a house soon, or someone, and I'd call Jim and have him pick me up. I could stay at his apartment, and get a mechanic to take a look at my car in the morning. Worrying was pretty stupid. The world might look frightening at night, but it was really a pretty safe, sane place.
I trudged down this road for a time, humming to myself for a bit. I stopped the song quickly, though. For some reason I couldn't place, it felt wrong. I was reminded of when I was younger and used to lay in bed at night, terrified of even the tiniest shadows that my nightlight couldn't banish. I'd felt that I had to lie perfectly still for the monsters not to notice me. I couldn't move, could barely breathe, and certainly couldn't shout and call for my parents, or the monsters would know immediately where I was, and come and... I was never really certain what the monsters would do to me. What was more frightening would be the revelation that they existed at all.
Upon having this realization, I noticed something: there was no sound. Or rather, there was, but the usual noise of the woods at night was missing. Apart from the sound of my breath and the crackling of gravel beneath my shoes, the night chorus of crickets, tree frogs, the occasional loon or shrill bat – all that was gone. Instead, there was a faint breeze that stirred the hemlock needles, but nothing else.
That was very strange, and I picked up my pace. There was something unnatural about it, and it reminded me of stories I'd heard about animals predicting earthquakes or tsunamis by fleeing to the high ground before people even noticed the rumbling.
Almost as soon as I noted this, though, from far behind me I heard the crunch of tires, and as I turned, saw the twin glow of rapidly approaching headlights in the distance. I was overjoyed. I began to wave my arms and shout, in total disregard of the cathedral-like silence, and, to my overwhelming relief, the car slowed, coming to a crumbling halt in front of me.
The headlights blinded me, but I thought I could make out the shape of a pickup, a huge black one with a tall cover over the back, the sort that's as tall as the cabin. There came the whir of an electric window rolling down, and a pleasant, male voice asked, “You in a spot of trouble?”
“Yeah, my car broke down a ways back,” I answered over the rumbling engine. “Is there a chance you could give me a ride? Just to a house, or a gas station or something so I can make a call.”
“Not a problem,” the man said. “Hop in shotgun, it's just a quick ride down the road.”
“Thank you,” I gushed, relief never more evident or honest in my voice than right then. I switched off my mini-mag, and, squinting in the blazing headlights, I crossed in front of the truck and hauled myself into the passenger seat. The seat was a good three feet off the ground, and I had to use the step to get me in.
It was pretty dark in the cabin and I was still blinded from the headlights, so I settled myself in by feel for the first few seconds, fumbling for the seat belt. Unable to find it, I gave up and let my eyes adjust. The inside felt clean, but had a weird smell: something foul, something sour with a hint of livestock, but covered over by vanilla air freshener. I thought maybe this was a farming vehicle, though the driver didn't really seem like the farming type.
He was a young guy about my age, definitely not not over thirty, with a clipped, black beard and attentive green eyes. He had fairly handsome features as well: long lashes, a sharply shaped face. He was also dressed nicely, in a cardigan and slacks with designer sunglasses in his hair. I figured he probably didn't live around here; maybe he was a business man at a conference. I knew the resort did some of those. That didn't quite mesh with the faint but cloying livestock smell, but I didn't give it much thought. Static was crackling at almost subliminal levels over the radio, and I wondered why he didn't just shut it off.
“So, car trouble, huh?” the man asked, pulling the truck smoothly forward. “This is a bad spot for it. What brings you out here, anyway?” He asked conversationally, not prying, so I didn't mind giving him the rundown on my problem, though I left out the part about being tipsy, instead claiming that I was just following my GPS.
The man chuckled and nodded sympathetically. “Yeah, I know that feel, man. That's rough. I used to have an old girl like that. Used to nag, nag, nag, and then she'd up and die when we got into the woods.” He flashed a wry grin at me.
I laughed, though I couldn't figure out what kind joke he was trying to make. It sounded a little like he was kidding about a girlfriend, but I assumed he must have been talking about a car. It was a weird joke, though.
“Hah, yeah,” I replied. “So, how about you? Do you live around here?”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said. “I'm native.” He grinned again, and I smiled in response, though a little weaker this time.
“Cool,” I said. “So, uh, what do you do?”
“Oh, some of this and some of that,” he replied, chuckling, as we sped down the road. Gravel pinged against the sides of the truck like drops of rain. “Some salaried, some contracting. You know.” His tone was happily conversational and normal, but I wished I was better able to make some kind of sense out of what he was saying. As in, no. I didn't know.
“So, uh, like, sales?” I asked. The road was still thick hemlocks, though they seemed shorter through the windshield, weighing down on us.
“Sure,” the guy said with a laugh. He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, clicking his several rings against the leather. “Just like that. And you're in design, right?”
I blinked. I couldn't remember telling him I worked for a design firm, but obviously I must have. I definitely didn't know this man, so I had to have said something in my earlier story. It bugged me as I tried to remember. “Uh, yeah,” I said. “Mostly do graphics, formatting... Lots of fixing bad kerning.” I gave a self-conscious snort at my lame joke.
The man, though, laughed uproariously, as if it was a much funnier joke than it was. “Hah! I like you, man,” he said after his outburst. “I like you a lot.”
“Thanks,” I said, though I couldn't honestly return the sentiment. Something about the guy gave me a strange feeling in my gut, a malaise that wasn't quite in keeping with this pretty normal guy. I didn't think of this at the time, but it seemed like he was getting things right but was off by a split second, like someone trying to move a mask of a human face so that it behaved like a person, but had to think about every expression and statement because they couldn't do it intuitively.
“No, really,” the guy said pleasantly. “You seem like a good guy. How's this: why don't you come back to our house? We have a phone you can call from, and the family would like to meet you.”
Alarm bells started to go off in my head, but I didn't understand why. He'd invited me to his house. A little weird, but hospitable. Why was I suddenly freaking out? The static over the radio wasn't any louder than it had been before, but I noticed it more. The buzzing was irritating, and was making it hard to think. Why did he keep it on?
“Uh, thanks, but I'd rather just get on my way as soon as possible, if it's no trouble,” I replied carefully. As soon as I said it, it hit me. Wait. 'We'? Why had he said 'we'?
“Aw, really? Are you sure?” the guy said. I glanced behind me slightly, looking just with my peripheral vision.
There was a face.
I did a double-take, unable to believe what I had seen. Seated in the backseat of the cabin was not one, but four people. Each was unmoving, still and silent. If you asked me, I couldn't tell you if they were male or female, or anything about what they were wearing, since adrenaline went straight to my brain and short-circuited my memory. Faintly, I remember seeing their chests rise and fall, and maybe I'm making this up, but I'm pretty sure that when they blinked, they all blinked at the same time.
How had I missed them before? I had been half-blind when I got in, and the cabin was large and dark so that they were mostly obscured in shadow, but it chilled me to my core that these unspeaking, unmoving figures had been behind me the whole time I was in the truck, unnoticed and unintroduced.
“Jesus,” I said, half-turning in my seat. “Who are they?”
“Hm?” the man said, and laughed. “Oh, they're just my siblings. Don't worry about them. They're shy.” He said it so unconcernedly that I half-believed him. It made more sense than anything I could think of. His shy siblings. I turned back to the front of the truck, and then spun again to make sure they were still there. They were, still eerily still and staring. I started to feel a roiling fear in my gut, a base instinct that was telling me I needed to leave.
“How much farther until we get to a house?” I asked the guy, my voice weak. We were rolling down the road too fast right now, too quickly for me to jump and not injure myself. Until we slowed, I was trapped.
“Eh, just a minute,” the man said, apparently oblivious to my fear. He smiling winningly at me. “You know, it didn't use to be so lonely up here. In the woods. There used to be hotels, and a lot of them, actually. Beautiful places.”
I stayed half-turned in my seat, one eye on the man and one on the people in the back. If I could call them people. They blinked and breathed, but they didn't seem real. Even as my heart pounded, I found my mind wanting to forget that they existed, and go back to the happy, safe, real world.
“Oh. Hotels? Up here?” I asked, thinking that if I continued the conversation as normal, the man wouldn't … I don't know what I expected him to do, but a visceral sense warned me to avoid it at all costs. “You'd think one would be enough.”
The man gave a breath of laughter. “It's pretty old. Back in the day – and by the day, I mean the turn of the last century – a lot of rich folk would come up here to these sprawling hotels in the mountains, often ones way off the beaten path. And with the transport in those days, well. If it's a hike now, it sure was a hike then. I guess they found nature as peaceful back then as we do now, though, because they built a ton of these things, tricked out with chandeliers and servants... the works.”
“Sounds neat,” I said faintly, settling a little back in my seat. The road was turning from gravel to what looked like logs, laid horizontally across the road and buried in the earth, making a shuddering surface for the truck to cross.
“Yeah,” the guy said. “But then they all closed. Pretty much all of them, one by one. No one really knows why, though you'd better bet there are stories. Some went out of business, some burned, and some just couldn't keep the staff around, but they all shut down.”
“That's...sad,” I said. I started to think that maybe I was wrong to be so paranoid. That's what I was being, really. This guy had been nothing but helpful to me, and I was sure he was conspiring to do something awful. So he had shy siblings. So? He was talking more normally now, anyway. I was overreacting.
The static was really getting on my nerves now, filling my ears and occupying the base of my skull. It felt like it was sitting in my head, a buzzing grey cloud swarming at the back of my neck. It was still subliminally quiet, barely able to hear it, but I couldn't ignore it. Why didn't he turn it off?
I looked to the console, intending to turn it off myself if he wouldn't. It was then I realized that the radio was dark. Usually, there are lights turned on when it was playing, announcing the station and frequency. But there was nothing, and I realized that the radio was off.
Suddenly, I was terrified, and it shook me out of my torpor. I didn't know what was going on, but I didn't care. The sensation that something was wrong took over me, and I knew I had to get out, and get out now. Ahead, the road turned sharply, and the truck would have to slow down for or skid over the mossy logs and into the trees.
The staring eyes of the other passengers looked at me blankly from the rear view mirror.
“Almost there,” the man said pleasantly. I rested one hand on the door handle, the sick feeling of fear rising in me like bile.
The truck slowed. At the corner of the turn, we must have been going about twenty, but I knew that was the slowest we would get to. Before I could think or second guess myself, I threw open the door and fell out.
I blinked, and the ground was coming to meet me like a fist to the face. My ankle turned on the logs and I crashed to all fours, jamming my wrists on the wood and then rolling into the weeds. The brake lights of the truck turned everything a gory red as I scrambled to my feet, my wrists and knees screaming.
“Hey! Wait!” I heard the guy shout, his voice rough with static, but I was already taking off into the woods, shoving my way through the undergrowth and stumbling over rocks. “Don't you want to make a call? Don't you want to see our house?”
I kept running. When I couldn't see any more, I turned on my flashlight, though I worried that the man would see the light through the trees. I didn't know why I was so afraid, but I knew that I had to keep running: that if I stopped for a minute, they would catch up. Not him. Them. The rocks grew thicker, meaning the trees and brambles grew sparser. Pure adrenaline allowed me to run over the stones, leaping from mica-studded granite to mica-studded granite without breaking my ankles. It was a miracle I didn't.
It was also a miracle I ended up in an old quarry, a clearing with a big wall carved out of a hill to one side, and a gated road to the other. Later, in a more reasonable state of mind, I thought about how all rights I should have gotten irreparably lost in the Adirondack woods, but at the time I thought of nothing except the need to keep running. I hopped the metal gate and raced down the rutted road for what felt like miles, though my sense of time was shot to hell. My breath burned and my heart felt ready to spring from my chest like a bloodier cartoon romance, but I only slowed when I reached a main (asphalt paved!) road and saw the bright fluorescent glow of a gas station.
I don't think I've ever been more relieved than I was in that moment, and I'm not sure I ever will be again. Frankly, I hope I never need to be. I took huge, gasping breaths as I entered the pool of light, and the flashing “NYS LOTTO” sign might as well have been a pat on the shoulder from an angel, saying, “You're safe.”
Inside the station, the attendant, a sour-looking man with a neck tattoo and a lump of chewing tobacco wedged in his cheek, grudgingly let me use the phone after I explained the problem and underwent a full minute of his disgruntled staring and stomach-turning sucking noises. I got in touch with one of the friends I'd had dinner with, and after some downplaying and laughing, they agreed to pick me up at the gas station. Not once to either Jim or the gas station clerk did I mention the black pickup, or its mysterious occupants.
Why? Because I had started to question my own story. Why was it so terrifying as I seemed to think it was? What could I tell anyone that would make them understand why I had to jump out of a moving car to escape those...people? Had the people in the backseat even existed, or had I invented them? The more I thought about them, the less I remembered about them: gender, clothing, race, none of it remained in my mind, if it had ever been there at all.
And honestly, I do wonder why I was so afraid. There was nothing obviously threatening about those people, the driver or his staring passengers. They didn't have a gun or weapon, said nothing aggressive, and made no dangerous gestures. All I had was a feeling of something off.
Maybe my subconscious noticed some tiny detail, a little scrap of something that tipped it off. A speck of blood, or a clue that it perceived but didn't tell my conscious self, and that's why I was possessed to get out of that car and run through the pitch black woods. I just don't know.
So why am I telling you this, if I think I imagined it? Well, the reason is this. While I leaned against the soda machine, looking out at the lot through the red neon of the lotto sign, the attendant was resting his tanned forearms on the counter and staring at me, giving me a cold and knowing look. I pretended not to notice his gaze, but eventually it grew to be too irritating, particularly in my strung-out state of mind.
Eventually, I snapped at him. “You need something?”
He stared steadily at me for another long moment, moving the lump of tobacco around inside of his lip. Then he spoke.“You saw something else, didn't cha?”
I glanced his way and then back, and shrugged.
“You did, didn't cha,” the attendant said. “Happens sometimes, around here.”
I looked at him again, and frowned. “Are you... Do you know what that was? There was a truck with people-” But the attendant held up a hand.
“I don't want to hear about it. And trust me, neither do you. Better for both of us if we both stay far away from that place. That...side of things.”
I didn't know what place he was talking about, but in that moment, I found really didn't want to know. I said nothing else until Jim arrived, and then got the hell out of there.
Since then, this memory has gotten filed in that side room of your mind where you put all the stuff that doesn't fit into your understandable, peaceful idea of the world. And frankly, I'm content for this memory to stay there. Sometimes I wonder what I would have learned if I had asked the attendant “what place?” Would this all have made sense? Would I have gotten a satisfactory explanation, something normal and sane? Or would it have roped me into something even worse, that side of the world that I got a lurid glimpse into?
I don't know. But for once, I think I made the right choice.