Incident on Miller Church Road
A snake coiled its way around Ellison’s spine and started to squeeze, sending shivers up his back. His breath rose on the cold autumn air like a spirit leaving his body. Frozen in place, he smiled at the shudder coursing through his body. This was what he’d hoped for.
He’d spent weeks sitting in front of his laptop. The stark blank page glowed on the monitor, begging to be filled with a story. Go ahead, the hum of it’s fan whispered, write another ‘Voice in the Fog’. That one had sold for eight hundred, his highest paying story to date. Success seemed to have dammed something up in his brain though. The steady flow of ideas dried up and anything that trickled in had either been done to death or didn’t inspire him at all. Now, the fan’s whisper was more of a his and the cursor in the page’s top left corner blinked in and out of existence impatiently. But no words would grace his presence.
Everything ate away at his nerves tonight. Every drop from the leaking faucet in the bathroom was a pang of irritation. When the temperature dropped below seventy in the house the heat would roar to life, breaking any concentration he collected. Even the gurgling of his coffeemaker grated at his mind. Ellison closed his eyes and took a deep breath, hoping to drown out the distractions.
For a moment it worked. But, when he opened his eyes, he saw a pile of bills sitting next to the computer. Most were final notices. On the screen, his word processor assigned his work-not-in-progress the mocking label of Untitled 1. Staring at it, he couldn’t help but feel like Jack Torrence in The Shining. Only, not even the ‘All work and no play’ line would come to him. He nearly ripped the laptop off the table and slug it across the kitchen.
Knowing he couldn’t afford another one he shot up from the chair instead, toppling it over behind him, and stormed to the counter. Yanking the pot out of the coffeemaker, he filled his travel mug and wrenched the lid onto it, not bothering with cream or sugar. Stomping his feet into a pair of loafers, he threw a jacket around his shoulders and raged out into the night.
The storm door slammed shut behind him. Crisp November breeze slapped him in the face, deflating the sails of his anger. Way to go dumbass. His inner critic, it seemed, had finally decided to make a appearance. Thirty-two years old and you can still throw a tantrum like a toddler.
For a moment he considered returning to the table and sitting down. Maybe that brief explosion of anger was what he’d needed to get out of his slump. Ellison raised the coffee to his lips and took a sip to combat the cold.
Miller Church Road sprawled through the Maryland countryside before him, a narrow two-lane highway running through Mennonite farmland near the Pennsylvania border. He dismissed his thought of writing tonight and decided to take a walk anyway, hoping it might jog his imagination. Ellison stepped off the porch of his farmhouse, two months past due on its rent, and turned down the road. Gazing down the dark country road, he took a deep breath and started walking.
Above, the moon was full as a mother’s belly. You’ll have to change that, his inner critic decided. Too cliché. Still, it cast an opalescent sheen over the world that reminded the writer of gothic romances filled with ghosts and magic. ‘Luna’s Light’. A woman gives birth to a shadow that consumes the world.
The breeze picked up some and Ellison found himself squinting against the grit blowing at his face from the cornfields on the road’s western bank. Maybe a more Stephen King type story about an unnatural wind that strips flesh from the bones of anyone caught in it.
From the thickets of wood lining on his left an owl cried its unsettling lament of whooo. His inner critic even found an idea for that. What about a modern take on Poe’s theme of madness? A hit-and-run on a dark country road. As the police search for clues, the killer is followed by a blind owl shrieking ‘WHOOO… WHOOO…’
Ellison grew excited. Not one, but three story ideas. They weren’t bad ideas either. If done right any one of them could bring another eight hundred dollar paycheck. Part of him wanted to turn back and put them to use immediately. He pushed the urge away though. His walk had only just begun and already produced three solid ideas. At this rate, his imagination and inner critic might keep him busy for a year.
Cast in the moon’s eerie glow, Miller Church Road stretched out before him. Shadows, cast by the withered cornstalks and skeletal branches, crisscrossed the black asphalt. Wind blew over the hills, creating a hollow moan as it passed over the dips between them. A creeping mist rose on either side, working its way ever closer to the road like a wave that refused to return to the sea. The owl, hidden somewhere in the trees, had gone silent… as though some unseen presence had strangled it from existence.
The sensation washed over him halfway between home and the stop sign where he would turn around. Something was watching him from the woods… cold lifeless eyes of whatever had silenced the owl. He stopped. And waited.
Nothing happened. No ghoul came staggering out of the woods hungry for his flesh. No seductive vampire emerged rubbing her bare milky breasts luring him to a lustful eternity. No phantom appeared to wrap its hoarfrosted hands around his throat. Nothing… even the wind had died.
The smile that played across his lips was equal parts childlike giddiness at being frightened by an imaginary creature in the night and anticipation. An experience just like this was the inspiration for Voice in the Fog.
Ellison resumed walking while playing with a title in his mind. He liked having a working title, finding it helped set a mood, before getting to the writing. The process was a back and forth with his inner critic.
“Eyes in the Dark,” the writer said aloud.
No. To many cliché images. And you don’t want it sounding like a sequel or, God forbid, a prequel to ‘Voices’.
“Good points. How about… Incident on Miller Church Road?”
The critic in him was silent, as though mulling it over, looking for any flaw. Finally, it nodded its agreement.
Ellison wandered along the side of the road, allowing the cold air to clear his thoughts so his imagination could have free reign. The mist had closed in around him completely, shimmering with the moon’s pale light. Is swirled around his feet as each step he took echoed in the darkness, breaking the strange silence that settled over the countryside.
The feeling of those eyes watching him returned. Only this time from the field, slipping between the stalks. Despite the wind’s death the corn rustled. Instinctively, the writer jerked his head in the direction of the field. The snake at the base of his spine started twisting its way up and holding him patralysed.
Nothing had passed in front of him. That meant it had to have crossed behind. Even worse, what if the thing prowling in the woods wasn’t alone? The thought made his blood turn to ice.
Don’t be stupid! There are no ghosts, goblins, ghouls, or anything else! Keep walking! Then go home and put your imagination down on paper, not a warm stream down the leg of your pants!
Deep down, Ellison knew his critic was right. When was the last time he’d watched a story about some stalking horror killing a traveler along a country road? Never. But not even the critic in him could deny that patients do escape mental hospitals, the nearest being not even ten miles away.
Oh for fuck’s sake! Turn around and go home then! Go hide under your blanket like a child! Then you can wake up tomorrow feeling like an idiot!
More red from self-shame than cold, the writer willed movement into his legs. The stop sign wasn’t far and he would feel stupid if he didn’t finish his walk because of some childish daydream. The hair still stood on the back of his neck and, regardless of how ashamed he felt, he had to force himself to slow his pace.
He reached the sign and paused, chuckling to himself at his own immaturity. Raising his mug, he took a long guzzle of his coffee. Ellison turned and started back toward his home where a near full pot of coffee and an impatient laptop waited. Repeating those reasons in his mind, he walked, telling himself that’s why his legs here moving so quickly now. He tried to ignore the eyes boring into his back.
His hand was too shaky to drink anymore coffee. Maybe he’d forgo the rest of it for something stronger once he was home, safely locked inside… once whatever owned those eyes was safely locked out.
A snap stabbed through the night and repeated through the darkness. Its echo was the ghost of a sound that never should have been.
It could have been anything… a weak branch breaking loose from its parent tree. But for all Ellison knew it was bone, the skull of the owl being crunched open so the thing that caught it could suck at the gray matter as the blood seeped through its rotting lips.
He expected his inner critic to shout at him some more. It was silent though, as dead as the owl in the woods. The writer was alone on cold dark Miller Church Road.
It felt like the eyes lingered on him from every inch of darkness lining the road, his deepest fears exposed to them. He kept recalling something he’d heard a cop say on TV once that, if it felt like you were being watched that you probably were. He kept to the center of the road. Somewhere, that thing devouring the owl waited for the lonely writer to veer too close to the edge.
His feet and legs ached, but he forced them to keep moving… until he saw it.
In a dip between two hills on the road, next to a sign warning of sharp curved, it appeared. The moon directly over the little valley lit it with strange luminance. It passed across the road silently, nothing more than a shadow floating over the road from the trees to the corn. It was only a glimpse, but it was there.
The snake reached the top of his spine and tightened. With violent accuracy it lashed out, sinking its salivating fangs into his heart. A desperate thought clawed through the tissue of his mind. He needed to hide.
Each step felt labored as he trudged into the woods. Every time his foot came down on a crunchy patch of leaves or a brittle twig the snake would fit a little more of his heart into its mouth. Every echo made him cringe, certain her would attract its attention. Low branches reached out, grasping at him like bone-clawed hands. Occasionally his foot would find a slippery patch of leaves and he’d have to catch his balance.
His breath was heavy and his pulse felt like it would wear a hole through his chest. Ne needed to rest, to collect himself.
As quietly as he could manage, be crouched behind a tangle of brush and vine. The ground was hard, frozen through with a slick coating of frost over the dirt, leaves, and roots. Behind a gnarled sanctuary he waited.
Ellison’s breathing started to slow. Each exhale danced in the night before him. His pulse calmed and, without rushing through his ears, he could listen carefully into the night. There was silence. The cold dead silence of a freshly covered grave shrouding the entire landscape.
Carefully, afraid to make even the smallest sound, he inched his way around the bramble to get a better view of the road. The mist now rose into a thin fog drifting between the tree trunks, beams of pallid moonlight streaked through it. Miller Church Road seemed empty. But he’d thought he was only imagining things too. Crawling, he slowly made his way back to the pavement. If he could make it to the road he could run the rest of the way home.
He moved slowly, not daring to take his eyes off the goal. Jagged stones and pointed sticks dug into his palms and knees.
A piercing crack came from under him. He drew a breath in to stifle the curse poised on his lips. Warmth spread under his hand as the stick settled back to the ground. Shaking, he lifted his hand to inspect. Blood trickled between his fingers and down his upturned wrist.
Gingerly, he pushed his wounded hand back to the ground with a wince and turned his gaze back to the foggy road.
He crawled slower then, taking the journey an inch at a time. A slight rustle in the trees announced its coming. The serpent slipped the rest of its freakishly stretched mouth over what remained of his heart and plunged straight at his stomach. Hot piss spread in the crotch of his jeans and instantly went cold in the November night.
He fought panic, hurriedly trying to think about what to do. GET HOME! He was only a quarter mile from the house. Maybe, if he ran, he could beat it to the house. Not on the road though. Too exposed. Through the woods.
Grimacing at the pain in his hand, he pushed himself up slowly. With a deep breath, he tried as best he could to steel himself against the fear… against the snake devouring him from inside… from the thing stalking him on Miller Church Road. Ellison tore off from a dead stop.
Trees blurred past him like wraiths in the mist-cloaked night. Their branches clutched at his clothing and whipped at his face. Dozens of small scrapes seeped droplets of crimson from any bit of exposed flesh. One caught him in the eye, blinding it. Blood ran down his face like tears on that side. He wondered if the branch had popped it or ripped it out. It didn’t matter, none of it did. Between the remaining ranks of wraith-like trunks he could see the light of his rented farmhouse.
I’m going to make it!
Branches scratched at each other behind him. A strange whisper hissed in the foggy air. Ellison could feel it, a presence just behind him that seemed to have a gravity all to its own, pulling at him.
Madness came over him, the curiosity of a writer. He needed to see it, needed to know what this thing looked like. Just a glance, that’s all he needed. Without stopping, he turned his head to peek over his shoulder.
There was emptiness, nothing but the woods and night. But he could feel it still.
Something grabbed his foot and then he was falling. “FUCK!”
It had grabbed him. And he was falling out of control. He tried to put his hands down to break the fall, but it was too late. A quick sharp pain spiked into the front of his head and jolted through his body with a spasm. Then there was darkness.
Ellison lay face down just inside the trees. A slow pool of blood spread over the ground beneath his head, thawing and soaking into the frozen ground. Fragments of skull and brain littered its otherwise smooth sheen glistening under the moon. His nose was pressed against the rock he’d struck and one fine edge dug into his forehead like a cleaver. He was still, gazing straight down with cold dead eyes.
Above, an owl soared from branch to branch causing them to scrape against each other. It swallowed down the last of the mouse it had swooped across into the corn to catch then let out a satisfied whooo. It regarded the still man on the ground a moment with an oddly twisted head and then decided to leave for a different perch. Each flap of its wings sent a strange whisper hissing into the night.