It's one of those long, straight sections of road that feel like they go on forever, an endless line of asphalt, warped and shimmering in the sun, that might just stretch all the way around the world to meet itself again. It's been a while since I saw another car. It's been a while since I saw much of anything.
So I don't worry too much about traffic or people judging me when I stop the car just short of the snake. Its long body is stretched across the road, far enough that I'd have a hard time avoiding it. Far enough that the next person to come through probably wouldn't. It's not like I'm some bleeding heart who can't stand to kill an animal, but I like snakes and I'm not going to run one over if I can help it. Besides, I've been driving for hours and I need to stretch my legs anyway.
The heat hits me like a physical force the instant I open the car door, and I almost close it and retreat back into the safety of my car's air conditioning. I almost close it again when the snake appears, slithering around the front of the car and raising its head off the ground to look at me. It's the biggest rattlesnake I've ever seen, and while I'm not scared of snakes I have the good sense not to mess with them either.
"Think you could give me a lift?" The snakes asks, its soft voice like the hiss of air through a leak, and the only thing that stops me from finally slamming the car door shut this time is that I'd probably take its head off, and if I won't run over a random snake on the highway I'm certainly not about to behead one that just asked for a ride.
"Excuse me?" Maybe this is heatstroke. Does heatstroke cause hallucinations? When was the last time I had anything to drink? There’s a half full bottle of water somewhere in the backseat.
“Just to the next stop is fine. I can’t offer gas money, but I can guarantee a safe journey.”
“Uh.” I hardly know what to do with a regular hitchhiker, much less a serpentine one. But it seems rude to refuse, so I lean over and open the passenger side door and clear some debris from the seat. “Sure. Hop in.” It crosses around to that side, lifting itself up into the car and onto the seat to drape its coils in a comfortable pile.
“Sure thing,” I reply as I take a swig from my water bottle and start up the car again.
The road stretches on ahead of us, asphalt faded to gray and shimmering like water in the distance. Dry red-brown dirt. A cloudless blue sky bleached almost white by the sun. The air conditioning struggles against the heat.
“So. Uh. What do you need a ride for, anyway?” I finally ask, just to break the deafening silence.
“Would you want to stay here?” There’s something odd about the snake’s voice. I heard a pet crow talk once, and it reminds me of that. Of something imitating the sound of a voice without using anything resembling a human mouth or throat. “Nothing wants to stay here.” The empty stretches of cracked road and low, dusty hills where nothing but our car seems to move are proof of that. “It can be hard to get out, though. What about you? What are you heading for?”
“This trip is because my brother’s getting married. I should have just flown, but I hate planes. And rental cars. But right now? There’s a diner up ahead that has the best pie I’ve ever had. So I’m looking forward to that.”
“An excellent goal. And my congratulations to your brother. Oh. This isn’t good.”
I start to slow down, leaning forward to try to see what the snake is talking about, but the road is unchanged. Dry dirt, a dead bush, a few fence posts unconnected to anything.
“No, don’t stop, that’s just what it wants.” The snake’s tail rattles in warning. “Keep going, I’ll open a way for you.”
“What what wants? A way for what?” I try to ask, but my passenger is focused on something else, head raised and swaying rhythmically. I keep driving. The landscape doesn’t change, but the sun is slowly sinking towards the horizon, and the needle on the fuel gauge is slowly dropping.
“We should have gotten to a town by now,” I say. “Or at least a gas station. Another car. Something.” Dusty brown hills. A dead bush. Two orphaned fence posts, leaning at crazy angles. The air conditioning is giving out, and I’m starting to sweat.
“It’s got us caught,” the snakes says. “I can’t break out of the trap. It can’t get to us like this, but we can’t get out. It’ll wait until you run out of gas, probably. It’s good at waiting.”
“And then what?” I really don’t want to know.
“Lot of bones out here.”
“You promised me,” I say, trying to remember the snake’s words. “A safe journey, you said. Getting stuck in some kind of weird loop and eaten isn’t a safe journey.” Sun-baked hills rolling away to nothing. A withered tangle of branches that might have been a bush. A pair of broken fence posts, their shadows stretching longer now.
“I mostly meant things like engine trouble or crashes. Bad weather even. But it’s okay. I can work with this. Just let me think.”
“I’m running out of gas. And it’s getting dark. I do not want to be here after dark.”
“Yeah, probably not. Okay. How about this. You got a weapon on you?”
“Look, I’m gonna be straight with you. I can’t break us out of this. If it was just me, then sure, but I can’t make a hole in the net big enough for both of us, much less a car. But if we catch it off guard, before we’re too tired, we might have a chance. It won’t be expecting that. It’s all about patience, about waiting until its victims can’t fight back anymore.”
“So we take the fight to it.”
“Yep. You got a weapon?”
“I’ve got a crowbar.”
“It’ll have to do. Bring a flashlight if you have one. And the water, too.”
“As a weapon?”
“No, to drink. It’s hot out there.”
I gently bring the car to a stop, pulling off to the side of the empty road. I step out, back into the desert heat and the orange light of late afternoon. The snake slides to the ground behind me, and I close the door. With the water bottle, crowbar, and a small flashlight thrown into a bag, I follow the snake off the road, between the two fence posts, and into the desert.
“Do you know where you’re going?”
“Center of the web seems like the best place to look for the spider.” I decide not to mention how many spiders wait at the edges of their webs.
Something crunches under my shoe, and I look down to see the skeleton of what was once a bird. Now that I look, there are other bones scattered around. Most are from small animals, but one pile is so big it must have come from a cow, and another is all too familiar.
“Those are human bones.”
“You thought you were the first human to wander into its trap?”
“People would notice. If people just started disappearing, someone would come looking.”
“Maybe,” is all it says.
After a few moments, I ask, “Why are you doing this?”
The snake stops. “Ah. I suppose you’re worried I’ve lured you out here. That I’m going to kill you, or I’m on the side of the thing that is.”
“Well. That’s fair. But you’ve trusted me this far, so just trust me a little farther. I promised you a safe journey, didn’t I? We’re both going to get out of this forsaken place. We’ll get out and have a slice of the best pie you’ve ever had. Just get that crowbar ready. We’re here.”
It’s just a hole in the hillside, framed with wood beams thicker around than my waist and so old I’m amazed they’re still holding together. The fading light ends at the threshold, and I can’t see inside. “It looks like an old mine.”
“Probably was. I doubt it would have dug this itself. It’s not the sort to create anything new. You ready?”
“No,” I say. I wipe the sweat off my face, take a deep breath, and arm myself with the flashlight and crowbar.
“That’s the spirit. Let’s go bludgeon a monster.”
The tunnel is barely tall enough for me to stand upright, and the flashlight shines on rough stone walls and decaying timbers. More tumbled pieces of stone and wood litter the floor. And bone. Everywhere there are fragments of bone. Every sound rings loud in the silence: my breath and footsteps, the shifting of debris underfoot and the soft sound of the snake’s scales sliding over dirt and stone. The passage slopes downward, and we’ve already left the daylight behind. It’s cooler here, the air filled with the dry, musty smell of dirt. After the piles of bones, I had expected the reek of decay, but somehow this is worse. We pass a caved-in side corridor to the right, and the beam of the flashlight plays over another opening ahead, this one on the left. The rattle of the snake’s tail is my only warning.
It bursts out of the side passage, a confusion of teeth and slashing claws, but the snake strikes. It’s all the distraction I need to bring the crowbar down on the thing’s head. It turns towards me with a snarl and I smash its face this time, smash and keep smashing until it hasn’t been trying to move for a while and the snake tells me, gently, “You can stop now.”
I stand there panting in the cool darkness of the cave, sweat pouring down my face and back. Slowly, I raise my hand, let the flashlight beam reveal the thing I have killed.
It’s the size of a man, but it looks more like a coyote decided to give bipedalism a try. There’s something not right about its long, thin, almost skeletal limbs, something nearly human but not quite. Its sparse fur is interrupted by bald spots and scaly patches in no discernible pattern, and its impractically long claws are uneven and mismatched. There’s not much left of its head but broken skull and fur, yet there’s no blood. The whole body is dried out, as if it’s already been dead a long time.
“Is that it?” I ask the snake.
“Looks pretty dead to me.”
“But. Just a crowbar?”
“You’d be surprised how often the direct approach works. ’S why humans are everywhere and this thing was hiding in a cave. But just in case we should probably go now.”
I leave the crowbar behind with the thing’s corpse and try not to look at the scattered bones as I follow the snake out of the mine. Too many of them look human. Beyond the entrance, I sit on a rock in the setting sun and drink the last of my water, setting some down in the cap for the snake. By the time we get back to the car, the first star has appeared in the sky.
“Are things like that common?” I ask as we drive away from the two fenceposts for the last time.
“No. But they’re out there. Don’t look so worried. Humans are worse anyway, or they can be.”
“Thanks, that makes me feel so much better.”
Our headlights race over the cracked road and the slowly changing landscape as the stars appear and the moon rises. It’s late by the time we get to the cluster of buildings that might pass for a town, but the diner is still open. I have a chicken sandwich, a tall glass of ice-cold water, and the best piece of pie I’ve ever tasted. When I’m done, I get a second one to go. “For a friend,” I tell the waitress.
I find the snake sprawled across a sun warmed rock on the edge of the lights. I set the pie down beside him.
“I don’t know if snakes that can talk can eat pie too, but thanks for the help. I hope you like it here better than where you came from.” I stand there for a moment, staring out into the darkness. “No offense, but I hope I never see you again.”
Short one crowbar and a little bit of my trust in the nature of reality, I get into my car. I drive through the moonlight with the radio for company, a hiss of static interspersed with occasional voices or snatches of music, and don’t stop until I’ve left those desert hills behind.