Part 4 of Everyone a Winner
“Where the hell has she gone now?” Hugh looked at his watch and then the clock on the dashboard for the umpteenth time. Jenny had gone to ask directions to the bank from an old random guy on the street, and then instead of coming back to the car — perched as it was in a no-parking zone — she just took off down the street and around the corner, out of sight. Hugh had no idea where she’d gone. He’d thought about calling her until he spotted that she’d left her phone on the dashboard. He couldn’t even move and properly park the car now, as she would have no idea where he was if she came back.
He switched on the radio. Jazz FM gave him some Miles Davis, but 2:12 on a hot Saturday afternoon wasn’t the time.
He had to keep the engine running, in case a traffic warden showed up — but then he noticed the sign on the post next to the car — 24 parking restriction — ANPR camera in operation.
Bollocks! They didn’t need a warden. They’d probably already issued a ticket!
Just then the passenger door opened and Jenny got in, setting the car rocking.
How the hell did she come from the other direction?
“Found it!” she announced, smiling broadly. Just about everything about Jenny was broad. After she’d had the kids, what had been to Hugh’s perception and his friends’ jealousy a cute little American blonde bombshell had very quickly become… not that anymore.
“There wasn’t even a line, I pretty much walked straight on in there and got my business done, lickety-split! Good job, eh honey?” She prodded him in the arm with a fat red-nailed appendage.
“Yes, good job,” he repeated, swallowing his anger. Twenty-seven years of this had taught him that any show of annoyance was utterly pointless.
“I was so fast, I dunno, I just got the urge to pop into the arcade, and guess what!?”
“I don’t know, what?”
“ I won THIS!” she exulted, pushing something yellow and furry into his face. He drew his head back and tried to focus through his varifocals.
“That’s… that mouse’s dog?” It was plush toy key ring. The dog was covered with shaggy yellow fur, pink tongue lolling, long black ears flapping. “What kind of dog is that supposed to be, anyway?” he said, checking his mirrors and preparing to pull out.
“A cute one! Just like my cute puppy!” she prodded him in the ribs again, making him jump in his seat. The car lurched and stalled, the parking radar beeping.
“Aha, yes. Not while I’m driving, eh?” he said, through mentally-gritted teeth. He restarted the car, checked the mirror again, and pulled out.
They’d driven up that morning to take their youngest, Raelynn, back to university for the new term and now safely delivered, tears shed, used kleenex disposed of, they were on their way south again, hopefully to be back home before dark. Hugh hated driving in the dark, mainly because Jenny hated it so much.
“Right. I need you to navigate me out of here, OK? Can you set up the sat nav again please? We need to find our way back to the motorway.”
“OK, Mr Killjoy Party-pooper! I’ll set it up…”
An hour later, Hugh was going around an increasingly familiar roundabout.
“Are you sure that this the way honey?” said Jenny, unwrapping a chocolate bar. “It looks awful familiar…”
“What did you put in the satnav? Why do we keep coming back here?” He said, hoping around the roundabout again. He had no idea which exit to try — all the roads and place names were local.
“I don’t know honey — you said you wanted the motor way…”
“Did you put in our postcode, or home?” said Hugh, his neck starting to ache as he leaned away from the turn.
“You said motor way!” she said, daintily plopping another piece of chocolate into her mouth.
Hugh sighed, indicated right, and to the annoyance of it seems everyone else on the road, took the next exit and after about a 100 yards, pulled in to the side of the road.
“You better not be mad with me,” said Jenny, staring straight ahead. “I just did what I was told, like a good little girl. Like always.”
Hugh pulled his phone off the magnetic holder. Without bothering to check what she had set it on, he selected home. It immediately told him to turn around.
“OK. No problem. No problem, all sorted. We’re off,” he said, preparing to do a u-turn back to the roundabout.
An hour and a half later, they were on the motorway. It had been a beautiful clear day, unseasonably warm for the time of year, but now the sun was going down, the sky a deepening blue overhead — turning orange through the passenger window.
“How long until we get home now honey?” said Jenny, looking at her fitbit.
Hugh checked the clock on the dash. “Just under two hours I think. We’ll be fine,” he lied.
“It’s almost supper time,” she whined. “If we stop for some supper, we won’t get home until real late. I hate driving at night, you know that.”
You’re not driving thought Hugh.
“If you hadn’t gotten us lost back there we’d be home by now. But I guess it’s all my fault. That’s what you were going to say isn’t it?”
“No. I wasn’t going to say anything. We can stop if you want — or we can keep going and get back sooner. Up to you.”
“Up to me?” she said, mocking. “When has anything ever been up to me? You’re the one who wears the pants in this family — you always make that perfectly clear.”
“All I’m saying is that we can stop for dinner, or keep going and get something when we get ba…”
“We can get something? Meaning I’m going to be slaving in the kitchen until god knows when, and then never sleep for the heartburn. And all because you got us lost.” She turned away from him as far as her bulk would allow, and stared out of the window, her head disappearing behind the white fur lining of her candy-pink parka. Hugh’s usual perfectly relaxed 10 to 2 on the steering wheel had become a white-knuckled death grip.
The traffic on the motorway soon got worse, and then started to slow to a crawl. The overhead signs indicated 50, then 30. The next sign said Serious incident. Motorway closed between J28 and J31. Please use alternative routes.
Jenny turned to him. “What’s that mean? The motor way is closed? How can you close a goddamn motor way?”
“There’s been an accident or something. We’ll have to come off at the next exit and check the satnav again,” said Hugh.
“This goddamn country. My mother was right. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Don’t go live there, J-doll, she said. It’s a goddamn shitpile, third-world country. Close the freeway? She was right.”
Hugh had never really gotten on with his mother-in-law.
The next exit was a B road, and it seemed that only locals were taking it, the lorries and other travellers hoping that they could wait it out. That was out of the question for Hugh. At least if they were moving in the right direction he could keep Jenny’s mood from getting any worse.
“B4368? Where the hell does that go?” she said.
“We’ll see in a minute,” said Hugh, driving up the slipway into thick dark woods.
After ten minutes, Hugh spotted a lay-by and pulled over. The road was hemmed in on both sides by tall, blue-green trees. Already it was too dark to identify what kind of tree they were. He parked behind a trailer, now closed up, that advertised FULL ENGLISH £4.80! BURGER’S £2! CHIP’S 1.60! Hugh switched on his headlights, revealing the trailer’s splintered, rotten walls, the wheels on their rims. The trailer clearly hadn’t abused any more apostrophes in quite some time.
“Right. Now lets see…” Hugh took his phone off the dash, checked the location and set a new route. He had to force it not to take the motorway until after the closed zone. A route popped up — it would take them through two small villages, eventually looping back on itself to the motorway. It would add another two hours to the journey. But then status updated, and he checked the traffic news. The motorway was closed as a tanker had jackknifed. It would take hours for the police to check the scene of the accident, before clearing the crashed truck and the contents that had spilled across both carriageways.
He decided to be honest. That was the best policy.
Her anger had moved to the next phase. She said nothing, and stared into the dark, her arms folded.
Hugh sighed. “Well, if it gets too late, we could stay over at a B&B or something? Might be nice. It’s a very beautiful part of the country. You are always saying we don’t… go anywhere… much.”
The silent treatment continued. The next phase was the silent tears, and he could see from the reflection in the now fogging passenger window that she wasn’t quite there yet.
Hugh indicated pointlessly, and drove out of the lay-by.
After half an hour, he switched on the radio, but before he could even establish what station it was on, Jenny switched it off. So much for that. It was full dark now, and Hugh had switched the headlights to full beam. Since leaving the motorway they hadn’t seen another soul, in fact, other than the road itself, not a sign of civilisation at all. There were no lights on the road, just cats-eyes down the centre and periodic black and white reflector posts at the sides so he didn’t run off the road. The road was pretty straight, but he was glad at least the few turns were well signposted. The full moon didn’t do much other than turn the tops of the trees to silver.
Presently he glanced over at Jenny. She’d fallen asleep. Well, thank goodness for small mercies!
And just as he was smiling to himself and wondering how much volume on the radio he could get away with, she was awake again.
“Pull over,” she said, thickly. “I’m gonna puke.”
There was nothing indicated as a passing place, just solid trees, but then he saw a break in the palisade of tree trunks and pulled in to the side of the road.
Jenny immediately popped the door open and stumbled into the trees, her pink parka disappearing into the gloom once outside the glow of the car’s lights.
“Jenny?” Hugh called, releasing his seat belt. “You OK? Do you need some help?”
No answer. He switched off the engine, and tried again.
He could hear something, but couldn’t identify what it was.
“Jenny?” he called again, louder this time. “I’m coming!” He opened his door.
“STAY IN THE FUCKING CAR!” Jenny yelled, a roughness in her voice. It sounded a lot louder and closer than he’d expected too. What shook him most was the use of the expletive — Jenny usually never went further than a goddamn, having been brought up in what his mother-in-law described as a god-fearing house.
So… he thought better of it and closed his door again.
“OK!” he shouted. “Let me know if you need any help! There’s a bottle of water in the door pocket here if you want it.”
Hugh put his head back against the headrest. There wasn’t much he could do but wait. For all he knew, she might be doing… other things than just puking. And if he wandered into that scene, he didn’t want to imagine the reaction. Or the scene, for that matter.
He closed his eyes, and almost immediately dozed off.
He was woken with a start by something hitting the windshield, hard.
He blinked and rubbed his eyes, feeling an uncomfortable stiffness in his neck and shoulders. It took a while for his eyes to re-focus and then he saw a thick, red, sticky smear across the windshield. He followed the line of the smear to the corner of the windscreen on his side. It was the remains of what appeared to be a skinned rabbit. It looked like a pretty big rabbit, from the size of the head. The initial shock and revulsion turned to questioning. Where the heck had that come from? Had it been dropped by an owl or a hawk?
He switched on the windscreen wash and wipers, but the rabbit was too heavy and the motors just whined in protest. He opened his door and taking a few tissues from the box in the seat well, quickly grabbed the bunny’s corpse and dislodged it. It slid sideways off the bonnet and landed next to the wheel. Some of the gore had soaked through the tissues, and so he quickly threw those out too, taking the water from the door pocket and washing his hands, thinking he better leave some for Jenny.
Where was Jenny? Shouldn’t she have been back by now? He closed his door again and used the windscreen wash. At first it just spread the mess, but eventually it cleared and he could see…
Two red eyes, staring at him from the trees. He jumped in his seat. Were they really eyes? Just an animal, picked out in the headlights, possibly a deer. He hit the horn. The eyes stayed where they were.
“Jenny?” he called again as loud as he could, looking out of the open passenger door, whilst periodically looking back at his visitor. “Jenny?”
The eyes moved.
He hit the horn again three times, and then leaned on it for a good ten seconds. The eyes disappeared.
“JENNY? Where ARE you? We’ve got to go!”
He could hear something now. Snarling — a deep rumbling growl that the could feel in his guts — waking in him a fear so immediate, so profound, it must have been instinctual.
Jenny be damned, he leaned over immediately and slammed and locked the passenger door.
He pressed the horn again, this time even the repeated blasts seemed to stutter. He could feel the blood pounding in his head. His back slicked with cold sweat, soaking his shirt.
The eyes appeared again, closer, just off to the left of the car. He could see something of a shape now, framing the eyes — a snout, and two pointed ears. Some kind of huge dog?
“Jenny,” he said to himself, “where the hell are you?”
Suddenly the whole car rocked as something hit the roof, denting the metal.
“Oh SHIT!” he said, almost wetting himself. He started the car. He could hear claws, scraping, slipping, trying to find purchase on he metal above his head. Perhaps he could get it to fall off? He put his foot hard on the clutch and put the car in gear, revving the engine. Then all at once he released the handbrake and clutch together. The engine roared and the car lurched forward. Hugh’s head bounced off the headrest and then just as suddenly bounced off the steering wheel, as the car rolled over something and came to rest, the engine revving madly.
Hugh rubbed the lump that was now forming on his forehead. Somehow the front of the car was pointing up at a low angle, the headlights illuminating the lower branches of what he could see were enormous pine trees. The front wheels were no longer in contact with the ground. He tried to rock the car back and forth just from his seat, but it did nothing. He switched off the engine.
Now all he could hear was the engine ticking as it cooled — and his own breathing. There wasn’t another sound. Had the dog fallen off the car? Had he run over it? He gingerly looked out of the windows and in the mirror. There was nothing there — the red tail lights just illuminating what remained of the exhaust fumes.
Then — something was there. A shape, stumbling in the dissipating smoke. A human shape?
“Jenny?” he opened his door and got out, falling immediately to the ground on all fours. The ground was further away than it should have been. He could see now that the car had hit and mounted a fallen tree.
Hugh could still see something moving back there, about twenty yards away. He struggled to his feet and staggered forward, supporting himself for the first few steps by leaning against the car. The damage to the car roof was extensive. Whatever had been up there had been big — really big. No dog could have left a dent like that.
“Jenny?” he called again, very aware that whatever it was was still out there, and perhaps even angrier than before.
It wasn’t Jenny. The thing stood up on its hind legs, a dark furry body, the fur and patches of skin now blood red from the car lights. It was big, heavy, and appeared to have rags of material clinging to it in places. It had a large though short snout and a gaping mouth, revealing the shiny red ivory of its fangs as it snarled — that low, menacing growl that seemed to come from everywhere, resonating in Hugh’s chest. The eyes were pits of red fire. It took a step forward, its front legs ending in massive taloned paws that in Hugh’s fevered brain looked something like a hideous perversion of human hands.
“Oh, oh god!” Hugh staggered backwards, tripping over his feet and landing hard on his back. He tried to crawl away backwards, but the thing came on, cocking its massive head this way and that, studying him.
Hugh wet himself, the warm then rapidly cooling stain darkening his jeans.
“YOU filthy ANIMAL!” it growled, recoiling from the ammonia smell.
“W…what…?” Hugh stammered.
The thing leapt on him, driving his body into the dirt with its massive bulk. The thick claws went through his shoulders, pinning him, as its back legs came up driving into his abdomen and then in one rapid powerful motion disembowelling him. Hugh screamed piteously, trying to turn his head away from the hot stinking breath and drool dripping into his face.
It plunged its muzzle into his throat, biting down, crunching bone, sinew and muscle. His arteries exploded, fountaining hot black blood into the beast’s mouth and over its face. With one sickening twist, Hugh’s head came off and rolled to one side, the bespectacled eyes still blinking.
The creature lapped at the hot blood until Hugh’s heart stopped. It swallowed and licked its lips and fangs with a long grey-pink tongue.
With one massive paw it rolled Hugh’s head back towards it, and stared right into his dead eyes.
“I TOLD you I don’t LIKE travelling AT NIGHT!”