Eve had told the gas station attendant that she’d be back before dawn. The line was usually effective - mostly because people rarely cared enough to protest - but this time it had fallen on nervous ears. She’d wasted valuable time reassuring the thin and sharp-faced older man that there was no need to accompany her, despite the approaching storm. His sour unease, half-hidden beneath an impressively bushy mustache, clung to Eve unpleasantly and trailed after her for several unbearably long minutes.
Her 2005 Toyota Yaris hurtled along the highway at the speed of nearly 50 miles an hour. It was a peaceful drive, only interrupted ever so often by a suspicious noise coming from the engine and by the whistling wind through the crack of her broken car window. Several dozen talismans had unglued from the humidity hanging in the air, and peeled from the sides of the car, fluttering like tiny paper wings beneath the wind. She could only hope that the illusion spells hadn’t also come unstuck: if the state of her car became visible to other people, she’d surely get pulled over sooner rather than later.
Blessedly, the cement that curved ahead remained empty of patrol cars (who likely also had little desire to be out in the forecasted rain). With her foot pressed all the way down onto the accelerator, Eve turned off the highway, and onto a road so narrow it could have been a one-way street. The scent of gasoline faded beneath a cloying, earthy dampness as she took a long, slow inhale. There were no streetlights in this direction and her single functioning headlight bounced in time with the cracked pavement. She was looking to the window; at the darkness whooshing by, and at the plum-black of the mountains indecipherable beneath the cloud blanketed skies. There wasn’t too much further to go now, perhaps another thirty minutes until she reached Freetown. And hopefully a cheap motel.
The state of her hair in the rearview mirror left something to be desired.
It could be worse, Eve considered as she spun the wheel into a wide left turn. Her teeth clacked together as the vehicle passed atop a pothole, jerking upwards jaggedly. At least her clothes were clean. A human body truly required so much upkeep.
As did a car.
The pothole seemed to have done a number on it, because the thing began to clatter and groan with increasing intensity, making its dissatisfaction known.
“Damn it,” Eve muttered, fingers growing tight atop the steering wheel. The engine gave a concerning wheeze below her. Outside, a handful of her paper charms went rushing away with the wind, and the car slowed to a snail’s pace.
Eve guided the thing to one side of the road at a speed hardly faster than a crawl, then came to a sharp and complete stop. There was the lightest sense of movement from a breeze amidst the leaves, just a whispering of sound against the peace of midnight. She sighed, pushing the door open.
It slammed into something metallic. A gray, state-mandated barricade closing off an unpaved dirt road. It led downwards, into the thickly lined woods. Neither seemed frequently used.
“Just my luck,” Eve muttered as she twisted the key and shut the car off. She’d always been rather tall, and contorting her limbs into the appropriate angles to crawl out of the car seat and through the passenger’s side door was a clumsy operation. It creaked as she swung it shut behind her. A faint, charred scent was emanating from the lump of metal, and a thin stream of smoke had begun to come from beneath the hood.
The world was close to pitch black like this, with her car lights off and the empty forest looming above. She should be used to similar situations. She’d driven this pile of junk for nearly seventeen years now, and – well.
This wasn't exactly the first time. So, only slightly disheartened, she swung around to the back of the vehicle, and popped open the trunk. There were dozens of bags, all crammed in next to one another and filled with a decidedly dodgy assortment of items. Eve grabbed her tool belt, slapped haphazardly across the top of them all, buckling it about her waist. She wasn’t dressed for the weather but at least she’d thought to bring a cardigan, which hung limply off her shoulders, ratty with a dozen washes too many. When she turned back, stewing in her displeasure, a pinprick of light had appeared from along the trail and behind the trees.
It bobbed back and forth, an orb of white - not unlike a carried flashlight - sending columns of dusty light shimmering amidst the trunks.
“Oh good,” she said to them, or the sky or the trees - she wasn’t sure - “I was just feeling lonely.” In one fell movement, she jumped the fence and headed in the direction of that glow. “Hey!” She called out. “Can you call a tow truck?” The bobbing orb of light slowed. Then it began to move towards her with renewed intensity, almost as though it were in a rush.
A little wave of thrill rushed along the ground towards her, building beneath her ribs until her heart thumped with increasing speed.
That was hardly the appropriate emotion.
Eve took a slow step backwards, one hand sliding silently and smoothly towards her belt. There was too much darkness to make out the shape veiled behind that orb of light. She sucked air in noisily through her nose, to settle the foreign exhilaration thumping in her chest.
What emerged from the murk was only about three feet tall. It was vaguely humanoid: gray-skinned, with thick hands and feet. From its back sprouted a mess of spikes like a porcupine, and from the front, hung a rather stout stomach. It smiled at her, the face splitting unsettlingly wide. Then it beckoned her forward.
A swoosh of dread fell from the top of Eve’s stomach when against her own will and all better judgment, she took a step towards the thing.
“C’mere,” it said, in a voice that was thin like a child’s. There was an unfamiliar, joyful smile spreading on her lips as she complied. It was accompanied by a small, alarmed cry that promptly cut off. Eve’s face went slack, eyes glazing over, an utter contrast to the surge of adrenaline that had begun to surge through her veins. There was nothing she wanted less than to follow this nightmarish thing into the woods.
And yet she did.
Her breathing had begun to come in short, sudden gasps, stumbling through a thick carpet of autumn leaves, damp with rot. Eve was hardly aware of time passing, measuring it through her falling footsteps, strangely urgent. The desire to move, walk, to leap was so strong that her vision went spotty with it. It soaked down to her marrow, and even though she knew it was artificial, the euphoric joy was beginning to grow more difficult to block out.
They reached a ledge. Eve locked her knees, slamming her back against a shelf of cool, gray stone.
The creature paused, looking back at her with expectant, red-shot eyes.
Did it mean for her to jump?
When Eve did not comply, that eerie, pale forehead creased with frustration.
“Ee wanch chu,” it crowed. Those fingers, long and spindly, bent in a come hither motion. Eve reached for her belt. Her gun lay there, heavy and loaded and warm from her skin.
She took a step forward.
That alien excitement built, crashing against her heart and scattering like waves against a cliff. She drew. The bullet rotated in the chamber.
With the weightiness of a bag of sand, the stumpy creature fell, unmoving, to the ground.
Eve shuddered as the presence against her consciousness slid smoothly through several emotions all at once - the thrill fading to terror, then into a steady and calm disbelief.
Her feet carried her forward on autopilot more than anything else, finger still on the lever of her handgun. She hadn’t killed the beast, but she wasn’t a good enough shot for that anyways. She had only meant to make it easier. A little glimmer of the creature’s emotions still hovered at the edges of her consciousness, but they were fainter now, less all-consuming.
“You want me, huh?” Eve’s finger dropped. A second gunshot rang out. More disbelief. A pause, then only her own steady heartbeat and quiet fear remained. “You can get in line on the other side.”
For a very long time, she only stood, still and silent, looking purposefully away. Somewhere an owl hooted, and the pain of Eve’s bruised ankles slowly leaked back into her awareness, until she blinked, shaking herself from the stupor. From the main road above came a roaring motor and a flash of headbeams. They passed without stopping.
No trace of the body remained. Not that Eve had expected one.
She’d left her phone in the trunk. There was a shake in her legs from how swiftly she’d descended, making the climb back up daunting. Even for a superstitious county like this one, the creature had been stronger than the usual beasts that bled through from behind The Divide. Perhaps it had harassed enough humans for rumors to have spread. Awareness would have given it power.
Eve grunted, feet sinking and sliding along the plush carpet of dead leaves as she began to hike back up. Without the rest of her tools, she’d only temporarily solved the problem. So long as it lived in the lives of men, haunted their dreams and memories, it would soon regain the strength it needed to peel open the barrier enough to slip into this dimension once again. Eve reached the top of the trail and spared a half-hearted glance down at the now-empty forest. A temporary solution is better than none at all, she tried to reassure herself. At least she’d bought some time.
Fervently, she fought to ignore how many of these beasts there’d been of late.
Her trusty Toyota sat, unmoving, just where she’d left it. She slid back in rather swiftly, shoving her key into the ignition and giving the dashboard a solid thump with the back of her hand. Something sparked. It stuttered, belched out a cloud of gray smoke, and started reluctantly back up.
And to think that just that morning, she had decided that it was just about time to throw the car out in its entirety. Who else in this forsaken world would be there in her time of need like this?
With her mood greatly improved, Eve pulled back onto the road, reaching for the radio. Heartless Empire by Broken Bells crept through her grainy speakers. There was a tear in her pants, and gunpowder on her shirt, but it wasn’t so bad, really. Sure, she was exhausted, and her clothes were ruined, but she was still alive.
Not that Eve would ever allow herself to die in any way that could give those accursed beings any sense of satisfaction. She’d lost enough to them.
Accelerating, Eve merged back onto the highway.
In the distance, a flash of lightning lit up the sky and gave the road a bluish sheen. It was just bright enough to reveal a sudden figure.
They were mid-stride across the road and wearing a neatly tailored black suit.
Eve swerved, harshly, sending the car into a tailspin. A scream left her throat, sharp and raw, mixing muddily with the sound of tires skidding.
The problem, Eve thought, hunched over and heaving, was that when you cursed at the divine they often took it personally.
She shoved the car in park and scrambled her way out of it for the second time that night, leaving the engine running and her headlight illuminating the damp, shimmering asphalt. Was there any sort of remotely sensible explanation for someone to be wandering an interstate in the face of an approaching storm?
Eve braced herself, expecting a wave of hurt, of pain, of terror. Instead she found only her own guilty anxiety, mixing with a roll of thunder still several miles out.
The man, curled up beneath the light of her single, wavering headbeam, let out a low groan and mumbled something incomprehensible.
Eve tiptoed towards him. “Are you alright?”
She was answered by a string of curses, and then an angry, husky voice. “Watch where you’re driving that shitbox.”