by R.W. Van Sant
A short horror story in the
Synaptic Overload Anthology
What could cause pure unreasoning terror in a person? A standard Hollywood answer to this question is to have something coming out from behind a dark corner to kill the character with a gruesome medieval weapon or power pool. What if you found yourself in a place without corners? How terrifying would it be if you could see for miles and your friends were dying horribly, yet you could not see the cause nor stop it from happening?
It was another hot day in a very dry year in southern New Mexico, and Jim’s old Toyota suffered from a common local ailment: the broken air conditioner. Waves of heat rose from the highway, distorting the thin grayish road ahead. Even with all the windows rolled down, the burning air was stifling. To make matters worse, the combination of bumpy, ill-maintained road, and rusting suspension combined to increase the roughness of the drive.
Such road conditions were to be expected. White Sands wasn’t on the main highway, and national park roads seldom saw repairs. The U-Haul trailer behind the car bounced wildly every time Jim stepped on the accelerator, causing him to reduce speed again. It was a long, sweltering section of road and he wasn’t going to get through it quickly.
Kayla adjusted the knobs on the radio in search of a station with better reception, the broken aerial made the attempt nearly heroic. She wiped the sweat from her forehead. Her long black hair was slicked wet with it. Even so, she was beautiful as the day Jim met her in his junior year at the University. They had been dating steadily ever since.
She was a sophomore then; but, unlike him, she had no intention of going to college on the five-year plan. The upshot was that they were able to graduate together. One day Jim intended to marry her—if she’d put up with him long enough to get through graduate school, that was.
“How much farther?” Carlos, settled in the back seat, yelled through the wind in his face.
Beside him, Bobbie, Carlos’ longtime girlfriend, fought the wind as it blew her long black hair wildly around the cab. “I’ll never get these tangles out.” She complained.
“Sorry, Bobbie,” Kayla reached into the backpack at her feet and rummaged. “I got an extra hair tie.”
“I think my hair is beyond redemption.” Bobbie lamented.
“It beats dying of heat exhaustion,” Jim offered.
“I’ll help you comb it out when we get to the campsite.” Camping had been Kayla’s idea. During the summer after her junior year, she spent part of the summer with her older brother camping all over the state. She claimed to know of a great place, secluded and private and on their way to Albuquerque. Jim wasn’t about to argue.
“I hope it’s cooler there,” Bobbie said.
“It’ll cool down when the sun goes down, and I promise the view of the stars is worth it,” Kayla said.
A half an hour later, just as the sun was setting, the Toyota reached the off-ramp, heading toward the dunes of white sand. Kayla turned to face her friends in the back seat. “It’s about fifteen minutes down the road.”
“Good, my legs are asleep.” Carlos griped.
“Don’t be a whiner.” Bobbie reprimanded.
The old car bounced down the long washboard dirt road, and Jim slowed down so as not to flip the U-Haul, or lose the transmission. As a result, it took considerably longer than the promised 15 minutes to reach the place where Kayla finally said. “Here, pull off along the edge over there.”
“Do you think the car will be safe here?” Jim asked.
“No one comes down this road. It goes nowhere.”
“No one builds a road to nowhere unless you’re a politician,” Jim commented.
“All right, smart ass, it goes to an old army base. It’s abandoned. No one’s been there for decades. We can take a look if you like. My brother and I looked around when we were here, a bunch of old, dilapidated buildings, probably won’t last the decade.” Kayla pointed toward the dunes. “The place we camped was just over that hill.”
Jim looked around at the rolling dunes that seemed to go on forever. Down the road, a few miles further down, he could make out the tops of buildings just above the cresting white sand. “It’s lovely.”
“Give it a chance.” Kayla kissed him. “Wait till night, there’s no light pollution this far from the cities. You’ll see more stars than you ever knew existed.”
“Well, let’s get to it,” Jim opened the car door and stepped out onto the dirt road. Carlos pushed the seat of the hatchback forward and extricated himself from the back of the car. By the time Jim had the trunk open the girls were standing by the side of the car. “You gonna stand there and look pretty or take some of this?”
“Stand here,” Bobbie said.
“Look pretty,” Kayla added.
“I was asking Carlos,” Jim handed Carlos a tent and took the other from the trunk. “Point the way, pretty one.”
“Over there, between those two dunes.” Kayla pointed. “About a hundred yards or so.”
“Well, we’d better hurry. We’re losing daylight” Carlos walked off into the sand.
“Shall we?” Jim offered his elbow.
“I think I’ll grab these.” Kayla grabbed two sleeping bags and handed them to Bobbie. The last two bags she pulled out of the trunk and sauntered off after Carlos, with Bobbie walking beside her.
Jim felt like one of the luckiest man alive as he grabbed the lantern with his free hand and followed. Beyond the gap, between the dunes, was a wide low area surrounded all around by even higher piles of sand. It was a private little nitch, just perfect for a small camp.
“I need to find a bush,” Bobbie announced.
“Good luck. I don’t see anything but sand.” Jim answered.
“It’s a good thing we’re in the world’s largest cat box,” Kayla said. “Let’s go find a place over the hill. Will you be dears and have the tents set up when we get back?” The two women made their way up the rise in the sand.
“When did we become dears?” Carlos asked.
“When we saw their headlights.” Jim dumped the tent and poles out of the bag he was carrying. “Shall we get to it?”
“You’re so whipped.” Carlos grabbed the small-connected poles of the dome tent.
“Yeah, whatever.” Jim spread the first tent out on the sand.
The women reached the top of the dune and looked back toward the men struggling to pitch the tents in the dark. “Over there, that looks like a good place.”
“Don’t think they’ll spy?” Bobbie asked.
“Jim won’t,” Kayla said with confidence.
“Got him trained already, huh?” Bobbie started down the steep incline.
“I just know him.” Kayla followed.
“You’re lucky,” Bobbie said. “I wish I could have that kind of faith in a guy.”
“Not exactly, just no future,” Bobbie said.
“I thought you two were serious,” Kayla said.
“We were steady. I just can’t see myself spending the rest of my life with him. We want different things out of life. I want a career.”
“What does he want?” Kayla asked.
“Just to get along I guess, he’s taken a job working for his father’s company, nice and safe, no risk,” Bobbie said. “I ‘m not ready to settle down, I want to see places. I’m going to take a job offer in San Francisco.”
“Have you told him yet?” Kayla asked.
“We’ve been dating since senior year of high school. How do you break up with someone you’ve been with that long?” Bobbie asked.
“When are you going to break it off?”
“I was thinking of waiting till we’re back in Albuquerque.” She said. “Maybe I’ll give him a call from California.”
“That would be cold,” Kayla said.
“I’ll tell him this week after we’re back home.” Bobbie found a good place then looked back to the dune searching for prying eyes.
Two small dome tents were standing proudly in the sand as the women returned to camp. The men had put all the gear in the tents and were working on a fire pit.
“Don’t we need wood for that?” Kayla smiled.
“I saw some sticks along the road as we drove in. Carlos and I’ll go collect if you two can finish setting up the camp.” Jim said.
“We men, we lug good.” Carlos slumped his shoulders caveman fashion.
“Well go make yourself useful then,” Bobbie said and crawled into a tent followed by Kayla.
“You heard them, let’s get to it.” Jim walked back toward the road.
“I’m coming,” Carlos said. “Need to stop by the car. I want to show you something.”
At the car, he dug through piles of dorm paraphernalia until he found his backpack. He plopped it on the hood of the car, and unzipped the front pocket, pulled out a small ring box and handed it to Jim. “What do you think?”
Jim opened the small box and stared at the diamond ring inside. “Looks expensive.”
“I’ll be paying it off for at least a year.” Carlos took the box and put it into his pocket.
“I thought you two were fighting,” Jim said. “Is now a good time?”
“I think she’s been angry at me because I haven’t been willing to show her how committed I am. I’m ready to show her.”
“Congratulations.” Jim wasn’t sure that his friend understood women as well as he thought he did. “When are you going to ask her?”
“Tonight during the meteor shower. You should consider asking Kayla soon before she decides you’re not serious about her.”
“She knows how I feel.” At least he really hoped she did. Perhaps, he thought, he should discuss marriage with her after they moved into the new place and started graduate school. She had promised to be with him at least that long, and he didn’t feel that she was pushing him in that direction.
The camp was tidy and orderly when the two gatherers returned with armfuls and sticks and twigs that quickly found themselves scattered across the sand much to the ire of the women who’d just cleaned. A few playful scowls and the firewood was soon in a neat pile in the center of the pit.
The fire was small, but it was a warm night, and Kayla had brought sandwiches. The recent graduates ate as they sat upon the sand and looked up upon the multitudes of diamond-like pinpricks in the heaven that shown more clearly than Jim had ever seen. When they finished, he opened a bottle of wine and poured equal portions into the thin plastic cups they bought for the trip.
One long fiery line traced across the night sky. “Here’s to a beautiful night.” Jim toasted. Several more falling stars burned a path into the crystal sky.
“Told you so.” Kayla leaned back into his arms and pointed up toward another cluster of incoming space rocks burning their way spectacularly into the atmosphere. The show seemed to go on forever, some burned quickly, but a few went almost all the way across the sky, and one emitted all the colors of the rainbow as it shot toward the horizon.
“I cannot remember a more beautiful sight.” Carlos reached into his pocket and pulled out a box.” Except perhaps for you.” He handed it to Bobbie.
“What’s this?” She stared at the box.
“Open it.” Carlos coaxed.
“I don’t think…” Bobbie stammered.
“Please.” Kayla watched with apprehension. There was no way he could be doing what it looked like. Surely, he must have some sense that the relationship was over, or at the very least in trouble. Bobbie opened the box. The light of the full moon glinted off the diamond and gold.
“Will you marry me?” Carlos went down on one knee before her.
“I… Carlos… no.” Bobbie dropped the box and stood up, backing away from the kneeling man.
“Bobbie?” Carlos was stunned.
“I can’t.” She turned and walked up the sand embankment and over the crest of the dune.
“Bobbie, wait.” Carlos stood and followed her.
“Ouch!” Jim said. Kayla had her eyes shut tight against the scene. “It’s okay, they’re gone.”
“I just don’t like to watch train wrecks.”
“Bobbie!” The frantic scream of Carlos echoed across the desert. It wasn’t the heart wrenching ‘Stella’ type of scream the couple expected to hear, it was a cry of terror and pain. Jim and Kayla were on their feet and scampering up the sand dune. “Bobbie! No!” Carlos’ cries carried on the night air.
From the top of the dune, Jim and Kayla could see Carlos, but not his companion. The moon shone clear and bright. From their vantage point, they could see clearly for several hundred yards, but there was no sign of Bobbie. Carlos, glistening wet in the pale light, was on all fours feeling around a patch of dark sand.
“Where’s Bobbie?” Kayla cried.
“I don’t know.” Carlos’ voice broke as he yelled. “I could hear her choking, but I can’t find her. Bobbie! Oh, God, the grounds wet.”
Jim ran to Carlos and knelt down to feel the sand. “Blood.”
“No, there’s too much.” Carlos stood up. Jim could see the red fluid that covered his friend from head-to-toe clearly under the bright glare of the moon.
Kayla backed up tripping in the sand and almost falling. “You killed her!”
“No… I.” Carlos turned to scan the sand. “Bobbie!”
“She was going to leave him.”
“Kayla,” Jim’s mind struggled to make sense of everything. “He couldn’t have.”
“She told me.”
“No.” Carlos slumped to his knees in the wet sand.
“There was no time,” Jim said.
“He killed her.” Kayla turned and ran down the dune toward the camp.
“Stay here,” Jim told Carlos who was now lost in sobs. “I’ll be back we’ll figure this out.” He ran after Kayla. When he reached the top of the dune, he heard a gurgling, gagging sound. When he turned to investigate, Carlos was gone. Jim looked across the moonlit sands. He could see every weed that struggled toward the air, but no Carlos. The only sign of him was a second glistening dark patch where he had been kneeling, another pool of blood. “Run Kayla!”
She had already reached the camp and crawling into a tent. When Jim reached the camp, she emerged with a gun. “Where is he?”
“He… He’s dead, I think.” Jim was out of breath, and his adrenaline was pumping so hard it made it hard to speak.
“You didn’t…?” She started.
“No,” Jim fell in front of the tent.
“I’m going to make sure.” Kayla started up the dune.
“No!” Jim grabbed her arm and pulled. “The car, we have to get out of here.”
“Bobbie might still be alive; she may need help.” She protested.
“They’re both dead.” He panted. “Both. Two pools of blood now — two. Something got them. Get to the car and run.”
“I don’t understand.” Kayla raised the gun and scanned the horizon.
“It might be in the sand.” He pulled harder until he felt her running with him away from the tent, the fire pit, and their dead friends. It killed quick and without warning.
The sand beneath their feet shifted, slowing them down as they ran. Above them, the fire continued to streak across the sky. Jim fumbled through his genes pockets for the keys. They needed to get into the car as quickly as possible. They needed to get off the sand.
If something was in the sand, the sound of their running could very well draw its attention straight to them. Jim didn’t dare to look back to see if they were being chased. The keys were in his hand as they reached the road. Then he tripped and fell hitting the hard-packed dirt with enough force to break his wrist. The keys flew from his hands and slid beneath the car.
“Damn.” Jim grabbed Kayla with his good arm and flung her onto the hood of the car. “Stay up here.”
“Be careful,” Her eyes strained to perceive any change in the sand as Jim crawled under the car for his keys.
“Got them.” Jim was up and quickly had the car doors opened. She jumped down from the hood and into the car. Both doors slammed and locked. Jim put the keys in the ignition and turned. The starter whined, but the car didn’t start.
“What’s wrong?” Kayla was near tears.
“I don’t know.” He tried again. This time the sound was weaker. “The battery is dying.” He hit the dashboard.
“We can try to get to the base. There are buildings. We can hide there; barricade ourselves inside.” Kayla said. “It’s not far.”
“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” Jim said.
“Why not?” Kayla had been there; she could find her way around. “The dirt is solid on the road. Whatever it was can’t come up from hard dirt?”
“We don’t know that. We don’t know anything. Something killed Bobbie and Carlos, reduced them to bloody pools in a second. I didn’t see a thing. It’s not natural. The base could be where it’s coming from.” Jim said.
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s not abandoned.” Jim said. “They could be doing secret weapons research.”
“A weapon killed them?”
“Or a genetically engineered something got loose. Whatever, I feel safer with a lot of metal and glass between it and us. Until the sun comes up, were safer in the car.”
“We try to push start the car and get the hell out of here. If it doesn’t start, we walk to the highway. I think we can make it there by sundown tomorrow.” Jim could hardly see the shooting stars through his dirty windshield. “If it’s an animal, it might hunt only at night, if not I don’t think the government would risk using such a horrible weapon in daylight.”
“Are you sure?” she asked.
“No,” he said.” But it’s all I got.”
“Well, then, I’m with you. In the morning we’ll start the car, get to the next town, and report this.” She said. “I’m sorry I got you into this.”
“How could you have known?” How could anyone have known about this, it was unreal, and he doubted that the police would believe them, even if they made it to town. “Nothing to do now, but wait for the sun.”
“Try to rest,” she suggested. “I’ll keep watch.”
“I love you.” Jim kissed her. She snuggled as close to him as the seats would allow. “I don’t think I’ll get any sleep at all tonight.”
“I love you too,” she said. They sat there in the car too afraid even to crack the windows to improve the stuffy air they were breathing. Eventually, the excitement and terror gave way to exhaustion and Kayla fell into an uneasy sleep resting her head on Jim’s shoulder.
Kayla awoke when she fell over onto the driver’s seat. There was a strange taste in her mouth, salty like rare meat. Her first solid perception was that Jim was gone. She sat up in her seat, her heart racing in fear. He left her. The interior of the car was wet and sticky. She fumbled for Jim’s car door. It was still locked. The windows covered with the ichors made it difficult to see out. Her hand fumbled for the light switch.
As the cab’s dim light flooded the small orifice, she could see that the entire car was covered in blood. In the seat next to her, Jim’s clothing lay in a pool of his life’s fluid.
Kayla screamed and fought to unlock the car. Her clothing was saturated with blood making it difficult to grip the door handle. It opened with a hard shove, and she fell onto the hard-packed road. Dirt caked to the blood that covered her and soaked through her hair, Jim’s blood.
Her voice grew hoarse from shrieking, but she couldn’t stop herself. She had to get away, she ran down the road stopping only long enough to remove the blood-saturated clothing that stuck to her body.
The sun rose and traced its course across the sky as Kayla stumbled down the dirt road devoid of voice and emotions. A man with a fruit truck driving the main road found her shortly before evening. She was babbling and wearing only dried blood and sand. He took her to the police station.
Some hours later, a county deputy returned to the station, took off his hat and fell into the chair before the sheriff’s desk. “It was the most horrific sight I’d ever seen. Somehow she drained all the blood out of three people.”
“When the coroner examines the bodies, we’ll have a better idea of how she did it.” the sheriff said.
“There were no bodies. Just blood and clothing.” the deputy said.
“She had to have buried them in the sand.” The sheriff said.
“I saw the tracks from the car to their campsite, and to the site of a secondary site a hundred yards away, but none leading away.” the deputy said. “We’ll have to call in the state police to search the area. “It’d be easier if we could get her to tell us where she hid them.”
“The doctor checked her out a while ago.” The sheriff said. “He doesn’t believe she’ll be able to give us any useful information. She’s catatonic.”
“I’ll call Susan.” The deputy said. “Looks like we’re in for overtime.”
“After you tell your wife, give the state troopers a call, we’ll need them here in the morning.” The sheriff slumped into his chair and wondered why he ever ran for office.