Fort Worth, Florida
People have never been my strong suit. It was Zoey’s, that’s for sure; she could waltz into a room full of strangers and be completely at ease. When she talked, she always knew just what to say and, more importantly, how to say it. But me? I stumble over my words. I’m never quite certain how my remarks will come across. And as for reading people, forget about it. I have a hard enough time picking up what people think are obvious, much less gaining insight from their body language. I’ve gotten better at it over time, interviewing people regularly for four years will do that to you, but in the end I have to admit that I still suffer from the exact same weakness I’ve always had: people are not my strong suit.
But part of me wonders if I’m really that abnormal. Sometimes I can’t help but question if anyone, Zoey included, really has any ability at all to understand the people around us. Sometimes I think that, similar to the fake reality Archangel uses to hide the real one, we all live in a social Veneer, each of us expecting each other to behave a certain way and subtly preparing the other side to act that role with our words and gestures. We interact with these ‘fake’ others constructed in our heads, instead of the real people underneath, and those who are ‘good with people’ are simply ones that are able to determine their role quickly, or perhaps slip into it more eagerly.
That might just be my cynicism coloring my view of things. Heaven knows I have enough of it nowadays. And believe it or not, I would love to be wrong. I would love to be wrong about so many things. But thinking back on the events of ‘Perfect Strangers’… I’m just not sure I am.
Zoey squinted at the numbers on the paper in front of her, then asked “Liam, how the hell does any of this make sense to you?”
We were driving across the panhandle of Florida. In an effort to stretch out the ever-decreasing budget, we decided to call the state ‘good’ after visiting Fort Worth, instead of driving into the heart of the state like we had originally planned, and were now in the process of cutting straight up and back West, hoping to get somewhere near the Pacific before the money got even tighter.
I looked over from behind the wheel. Zoey had my hand-written budget ledger in her lap, reading, frowning, and occasionally turning the book sideways and upside-down as if that would help her understand the math there. She’d insisted on going through it in order to help me rebalance the money and up to this point, she’d been fairly quiet despite being obviously baffled. Too proud to admit defeat, I guess. But now it sounded like she was getting close to surrender.
“It’s a simple model,” I replied. “The first column is projected costs, the second is allotted money, the third actual costs…”
“You have a whole three pages in here for just fuel!” she interrupted. She flipped to a marked section and began running her finger down a line. “What’s this part? 281, 3.12, 87.68…”
“Those are gas price estimates for different sections of the trip.” I paused. “Come to think of it, I should probably go over those numbers again, now that I’ve gotten a better average than just ten miles per gallon…”
“Wait, sections of the trip?”
“Yeah. The first number’s the mileage to the next stop, then average gas price for that city during that week based on the last four years, then divided by miles per gallon for price…”
“You mean your fuel budget is based on the mileage of each part of the trip individually?”
“I mean, with an additional variance built in just to be on the safe side...”
“And these numbers are based on not only when we fuel, but where we fuel?”
I began to blush. “Well, once you know where to find those figures, it’s not that hard to calculate...”
Zoey held out the ledger at arm’s length, staring at it in wonder. “Liam, it’s stuff like this that make me wonder if you weren’t just grown in a lab.”
“I mean this is all just standard accounting…” I mumbled. My eyes caught a blue sign that read ‘rest stop 2 mi., next rest stop 58 mi.’ “Hey, I’m gonna pull over at this rest stop. Why don’t we switch drivers, and I’ll look at the budget and boil it down to something simpler to comprehend?”
Zoey snorted. “Yeah, sure. And once you’re done with that, you can go and invent time travel or something.” But she didn’t object to me pulling over and using the rest station’s bathroom. People who have had to empty out an RV septic tank rarely do.
“There vending machines there?” Zoey asked, and before I could reply, she added “and before you say anything, 75 cents from my pocket is not going to destroy your lovingly-crafted budget.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Did you honestly expect me to scold you over three quarters?”
“Yes. No. I don’t know.” She rubbed her eyes and groaned. “This money stuff has me all frustrated and stressed. I can see why you’re so grumpy every day.”
I opened my mouth to protest, then decided that it’d be less work to let the statement lie than get into an argument with a baffled and annoyed Zoey, so instead I just said “yeah, looks like they do. Have vending machines, I mean.”
I moved the RV into one of the extra-long spaces designed for vehicles of that length, shut off the engine, and got out. Zoey did so as well, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw her put the small hand-held camcorder up to her face.
I sighed. “Really?”
“What?” she replied.
“It’s just a rest stop.”
“A Florida rest stop,” she said, giving her voice a mocking, spooky waver. “Who knows what horrors await us?” Grinning, she shrugged. “Besides, people have been asking for a behind-the-scenes look for a while now. This can go in there.”
“People?” I asked. “What people?”
“Y’know, people,” she answered, and strolled into the rest stop. I shook my head and followed.
The rest stop itself was a fairly typical member of its species. It consisted of a large brick area fenced in by a set of floor-to-ceiling windows at the front and the back, glass doors allowing access. On the left was a brick wall with an entrance into the men’s, on the right, the women’s. Two vending machines sat in one corner. The opposite corner had a stand filed with brochures and flyers for local attractions and hotels. A large map of Florida, complete with roads, hung on one wall, and the other had a large TV displaying the Weather Channel. Utilitarian and bland: the ideal decoration style for a municipal building.
It was busy, though. There was an older Asian man staring at the Florida map and muttering to himself, a middle-aged white guy flipping through brochures, and an elderly black lady sitting on a wooden bench in the middle of the room. We paid them no mind as we split off to our separate tasks: Zoey over to the vending machines, and me to the restrooms.
I stepped in, awkwardly shuffled around another man leaving, finished my business, and went to go wash my hands, only discovering after they were well and soaked that the only drying tools here were those ancient blow dryers that sound like a jet engine and have all the power of an asthmatic elephant coughing through its trunk. I pushed the button, left my hands there until it cut off, and pushed the button again. I wasn’t going to leave here with wet hands, or wet jeans, for that matter, and I could already tell that this was going to be one of those moments where pure stubbornness held more sway than common sense.
I had just finished pass three and was going in for four when a sudden outburst stopped me, a collection of barking, whimpering, and yelling so loud and so sudden it almost felt like a physical slap in the face. Crusade against the hand drier forgotten, I walked out to see what it was.
In the center of the room was a furry mass of white and brown, a large St. Bernard dog, with his face buried in the lap of the old woman, huffing, whining, and growling. Behind him, grabbed on tight to his leash, was another woman with the same coffee-colored skin as the elderly one but perhaps thirty years younger, and everyone inside the rest stop was staring at the display.
The younger woman tugged at the line, trying to get the big dog to move back, but it acted as if it didn’t even feel the attempt. “I don’t know, Ma. One minute he’s doing his thing, the next he’s dragging me back here, whining all the way.”
“He’s scared,” the old woman said. “Poor thing. I haven’t seen him this worked up since that alligator tried to take a nap in his dog house.”
“But why?” the other woman asked.
As if on cue, the glass doors swung open and two more people burst into the room: one a little girl, maybe seven, bawling tears and running over to the middle-aged guy, and the other a woman, also middle aged, trying to keep up and looking worried.
“Daddy!” the girl cried, immediately wrapping her arms around the man and burying her face in his shirt.
“Sweetie? Sweetie, what’s wrong?” He looked utterly baffled and afraid.
“M-m-m…” the girl tried. “M-m-mo…”
“I don’t know what came over her,” the woman said, catching up to the pair. “One minute she’s playing on the playground, then she’s screaming and crying. She bolted right over here.”
“Honey, what’s the matter?” the father tried more urgently. “Please. Was it an animal? A person? Did someone try to do something to you?”
“Monster!” the girl suddenly shrieked. “Monster! With big claws and sharp teeth and… an…” she collapsed into his shirt again, wailing, and the father hugged her, expression still one of absolute bewilderment.
I slid over to Zoey. “What’s going on?”
“No clue,” she said. “I was minding my own business and then suddenly… this.”
I glanced from the crying girl to the whimpering dog, then back to Zoey. “This doesn’t look good.”
“Yeah,” she agreed.
“Is your spooky sense telling you anything?” I asked, ‘spooky sense’, being the name I had given to Zoey’s apparent sensitivity to the supernatural.
She scrunched up her face. “No… but outside of the fact that I don’t feel cold, there’s not a whole lot I can give you.”
“C’mon,” I said, and motioned her over to the glass doors with me. I moved to open them, then stopped as the door swung outwards and almost knocked me over as a man stomped in behind it.
“The hell is with the fog?” he grumbled, ignoring me and going over to the TV, stopping in front of it and scowling at the Weather Channel.
I stared at him, then turned back to the glass. Sure enough, fog, thick, rolling clouds of it, now covered the outside so completely you couldn’t even see the cars parked no more than ten feet away in the parking lot.
“There could be anything out there,” I muttered.
Zoey shuddered. “That’s not exactly a comforting thought. What do we do, Liam?”
“Give me a second to think.” I sat down on one of the wooden benches inside, then turned back to look at the group. “... six, seven, nine, including us…. Zoey, can you make sure they stay inside, just in case?”
“Easier said than done,” she mumbled, but began to walk towards the others.
I pulled out my phone. No service. Part of me thought about calling Zoey back over to see if her phone fared any better, but I decided against it. Mine was usually the more reliable of the two and besides, I had coverage just a second ago, so I had a hunch that everyone else in the rest area would discover the same thing with their own cell.
Which meant that we were isolated.
Perhaps on purpose.
I stared back out to the fog, going over possible explanations. Option one was that this was a huge set of bizarre coincidences, which I didn’t believe. More importantly, operating under that assumption was dangerous. So, onto option two: there was something out there, in the fog: the monster, the thing the girl and the dog had gotten so freaked out about. The question was, is this blanket of mist and the subsequent phone outage a purposeful thing, like the way the thing in the pit threatens us after taking it’s beloved’“orphans’, or was it some strange side effect, like how we had gotten swept away with Sims when the Hotel California came to take him away?
“Move,” someone shouted behind me, and I snapped out of my train of thought. The man who had stepped in front of us earlier, a big guy in a baseball cap and a t-shirt that read “tailgaters will be fertilized!” was in front of Zoey, trying to get around her as she kept shimming into his path.
“You can’t,” she insisted.
She hesitated. “There was an accident in the parking lot. The cop asked us to stay inside while they sort it out.”
“An accident?” the woman with the little girl asked. She craned her neck around, and the girl stopped sniffling in order to see what her mother was so interested in.
“Yeah…” Zoey said, not sounding confident at all. “It’s kind of a bad one.”
A brief flicker of motion appeared in my peripheral vision. I turned to look, but all I saw past the doors were the layers of thick, swirling fog.
“I don’t see any lights,” the middle aged black woman said.
“Maybe you just can’t see them through the fog,” her elderly mother responded.
The first woman rolled her eyes. “You’d still be able to see flashing lights, Ma.”
“Look, everyone just sit still,” Zoey pleaded. “I’m sure the cop will be back in just a second to explain everything.”
A second stir of movement caught my eye, and this time, I did see something. A silhouette of something slinked towards the doors, then darted off to the right. It was there for just a second, but my brain high on adrenaline captured the image perfectly: a gray, human shape, hunched over, arms almost touching the ground, shuffling along with a speed that seemed impossible given its posture. Human shaped…
But definitely not human.
“Zoey…” I whispered.
“This is stupid,” the baseball cap man replied. “Let me get back to my truck.”
Zoey shook her head. “You can’t. The cop…”
“Can talk to me face to face if he wants to keep me cooped up here,” the man snapped. “Now get out of my way!” He took a large step forward, but Zoey scrambled ahead of him, staying in his path.
The creature came back into view. It’s shadow reappeared in the path, moving along in that strange posture, like a hunchbacked Igor in a black and white monster movie. Now I could see more details: long arms, coming down past the knees easily as it moved bent over, strange, curling finger and toe nails, like you would see on a sloth, on the end of each digit, angular bones poking out of emaciated skin.
It began to move faster.
“Zoey…” I hissed.
“Lady if you don’t stop this second, I’ll physically make you,” the man warned.
The creature lunged, and now it was out of the fog. Time slowed as its image became burned into my brain. Pale. Skin as white as sheet paper. Thin, with sharp bones visible beneath, and a multitude of thin red cuts and purple bruises all along its body. Large, oily black eyes, devoid of any other color. Curling brown claws. And a circular, leech-like mouth filled with hundreds of tiny, needle teeth, with a whippy, wormy tongue trailing out of the center.
“Listen,” Zoey protested, “I’m trying to…”
“Zoey!” I shouted, springing to my feet, “the door!”
Zoey turned and saw the thing right as it reached the double glass doors. Without any hesitation, both of us threw out bodies at the doors, bracing up against them as the creature threw his full weight at it, shoving the panes into our shoulder and forcing us to dig our heels in to keep from being bowled over by the force of it.
Chaos erupted behind us. Several people began screaming, individual voices lost in the noise. The little girl began to hysterically shout “the monster, Daddy, the monster!” while the dog began to snarl and growl.
The monster reeled back and shoved, and we braced again. Strange, snot-like liquid smeared off of its skin and onto the few inches of glass separating us from it. It clawed the glass like a crazed animal. Slowly, a small sliver of the doorway began to peel open. It reached a hand through the expanding space…
My eyes widened as I saw it happen. I shouted something incoherent, my heart thudded harder, and a sudden burst of strength surged through my body as I slammed into the door again. It shut on the creature’s outstretched fingers, and after a high-pitched yelp similar to a dog’s panicked cry when you step on its tail and a blur of motion, it retreated into the fog.
Zoey and I leaned on the doors, just looking at each other and panting. Slowly, my mind returned to me, and I began to register the sounds of hysteria still emanating from the group beyond.
“”Holy fuck and Mother Mary…” the baseball cap man muttered.
“WHAT WAS THAT?!?” the mother of the young girl shouted. “HAROLD, WHAT WAS THAT?”
“I…” the father stuttered back. “I… I…”
“Ma!” the black woman shouted, followed by loud woofing. She was holding her mother in her arms, the older woman having fainted.
“Hold these for a sec,” I gasped, then hurried over to the janitorial closet near the men’s restroom. It was unlocked, thank heavens, and I fished out a long mop, ran back, and threaded the sturdy pole through the handles.
“Now… what?” Zoey panted.
I paused, letting my breathing get back to normal. “Well, remember what you said before? I do weird, and you do…” I gestured out to the mass of people.
She gave me a brief, annoyed look. “Gee, thanks.”
“No problem. I’m going to check the perimeter while you’re doing that, understand where we’re trapped in.”
“You do that,” she called after me as I began to walk away. She took one more look at the gathered crowd, gave a long, drawn-out sigh, and clambered to the top of a wooden bench.
“Can I have your attention please?” I heard Zoey’s voice cry out as I walked into the men’s restroom again. I began cataloging the room: stalls, sinks, urinals, a small set of squat windows set up high in the wall. I made my way over to those first.
Meanwhile, the voices outside continued to babble.
“Excuse me?” Zoey shouted again. “HEY!” The chatter died down, and she followed it up with a softer “thank you.”
“Who the hell are you?” the baseball cap man shot back.
I had to stand on the ends of my toes to reach the windows. They were small, maybe the size of a car license plate, and set into hinges that let them move a few inches inward, less opening them and more making a space to vent the room if needed. Confident that the thing outside couldn’t use these to sneak in, I closed the few open ones regardless and headed out to the other side of the building.
“My name is Zoey,” she announced, “and that there’s Liam.” I gave a cursory wave as I headed into the women’s restroom.
“He can’t go in there,” someone whispered.
“Bigger problems,” someone whispered back.
“And we,” Zoey interrupted loudly, “are going to fix this, but in order to do that, we need everyone to remain calm and listen to us, okay?”
The women's restroom was the same as the men’s, minus the urinals obviously. More importantly, the walls remained the same, with the only opening to the outside world the same small squat windows. I headed back out.
“You know what that thing is?” the black woman asked. She was still holding her mother, who seemed to be slowly regaining consciousness.
“No,” Zoey admitted, “but we’re used to dealing with this kind of weird. We’ve solved similar things, we’ll do it again.”
“The front doors are the only entrance and exit,” I told her as I walked past to get to the glass front doors. “No one in the stalls either, so everyone’s out here.”
She nodded at me, then turned back to the group. “Like I said, we can fix this, but only if everyone stays calm and does what we say.”
“And why should we trust you?” ball-cap demanded again.
I looked over the glass. It was thick, at least. That was good. It appeared to be similar to the glass I had wailed on with a baseball bat during the “Alone” episode, and that made me feel a bit better. Even with time, tools, and drive to destroy, that stuff had been practically indestructible.
And yet I could see small, hairline cracks around the handles.
Practically indestructible, I thought to myself, but better to not rely on it.
“Holy shit man,” a new voice piped up, “did you not see what just happened? If they hadn’t stopped you from waltzing out there, you’d be dead.”
I turned and studied the group for the first time, trying to imprint the faces into my memory. First, there was the family of three: a small little girl somewhere between six to eight, pale skin, light blond hair, and bright green eyes. She was almost a carbon copy of her mother, a woman with all the same features, but older and taller. The deviation was the father, pale skinned as well, but with dark eyes and a deep brown hair and beard instead.
Then there were the two women with the rich coffee-colored skin. The younger, fifty maybe, had straight jet black hair and wore a business suit and slacks. The older one, eighty at least, had a frizzy grey nest of hair and a lavender dress. Between them, the big St. Bernard sat panting, stopping every so often to look up at one of them and softly whine.
Past that, there just were the individuals. Ball-cap guy and “tailgate fertilizer” was a big dude with peach skin and ginger whiskers. Seated next to him was a bald, hunched over Asian man, bronze face almost impossibly wrinkled, leaning onto his cane for support. And at the back was an olive-skinned man with short black hair, glasses, and an orange polo shirt that read “Geek Squad '' in tiny letters on the breast pocket; the source of the most recent comment, apparently.
Everyone turned to look at him.
“I mean it’s true.” He shuffled from one foot to the other. “They stopped him from walking out there and meeting… whatever the hell that thing was. And call me crazy, but I don’t really think it looked friendly.”
They seemed to collectively consider this, then turned back to Zoey.
Zoey stared at the man. “What’s your name?”
“M-me?” he stammered. He took off his glasses and began to polish them on his shirt. “My name’s Jim.”
“Alright Jim,” Zoey said. “What about you?” she asked the man in the baseball cap.
“Dale,” he grumbled, and as Zoey’s eyes traveled the room, one by one they gave their names.
“”Harold,” the father said.
“M...Marissa,” the mother said.
“Ada!” the girl cried.
“Kathy,” the younger black woman said.
“Ruth,” her mother followed.
“Mr. Yang,” the Asian man declared, rounding out the group.
“Alright,” Zoey said. “Now, in order to get out of this, we need you all to stay inside. Nobody goes outside, no matter what. Stay in this common area where we can keep an eye on you. If you do have to use the bathrooms, take someone with you to wait outside the stalls while you finish. And above all, keep your cool. That’s the best way to stay safe right now.” She turned to me to see if I had anything to add. I started to shake my head, then paused.
“Does anyone have any signal on their phones right now?” I asked.
I got a round of dull looks, then everyone pulled out their phones. A chorus of ‘no’s responded.
“Keep an eye on that,” I said. “If you do get a signal, let me know, then call 911 right away.”
Whispers began to circulate around the room as Zoey hopped off of the bench. “Do you really think that any cops are going to believe this story?”
“No, but I think that there’s a chance that kind of call might catch Archangel’s attention.” Zoey grimaced, and I raised my hands. “I don’t like them any more than you, but if we can get the help…”
“Yea,h yeah, I know,” Zoey replied. “So now that the people are finished, what are we going to do about the weird?”
“I have no idea,” I said, looking at the swirling fog outside. “I don’t even know what this specific weird is.”
“So spitball at me until you come up with something plausible.” Zoey said, sitting down on a nearby bench.
“Well,” I began, “right now I’m debating how intelligent this thing is. If it meant to trap us, it did a pretty good job. No cell signal means no cry for help, and with that fog out there, there’s no way we can try to get back to our cars. With that kind of visibility, it could pick us off one by one before we realize it.”
“That sounds pretty smart.”
“It does. But on the other hand, that thing did look pretty feral. There’s a chance it could just be some strange side-effect the thing has, like how we both got dragged into the Hotel California even though it only came for Sims. Plus, there’s the fact that we could have fallen into one of those secret space pockets again and that’s why this stuff is here, which could mean that we’re stranded here forever.”
“One problem at a time,” Zoey said. “Anything else you can figure out about the thing outside?”
“Yeah.” I swallowed. “It’s definitely hunting us.”
Zoey fidgeted. “Are you sure?”
“Yes. The way it was moving, head low, stalking, and then how it charged for the doors… this thing isn’t some stray, neutral piece of strange that just happened to drift in, like the others. This thing is an actively hunting predator, and right now, we’re the prey.”
“When you say ‘us’, do you mean everyone in here or…” She glanced around and lowered her voice, “...do you mean ‘us’ us?”
I thought back to the bunny man, fuming at us on the edge of the church parking lot. I’ll tell the Parthenon, old and new. There will be no mercy for warlocks who ally themselves with the god of light.
“I don’t know.” I gave a slightly spiteful chuckle. “Man, our lives are really fifty shades of screwed up if we need to start asking ourselves that.”
“So what?” Zoey said with a shrug. “If all they can do is send that skinny little bitch at us, I think we’ll be fine. It’s ten times less scary than Red Eyes, and we sent that thing packing.”
“I think the fact that we have that benchmark to compare to proves my point,” I mumbled, but the comment did make me feel better.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw four figures approaching us, ball-cap, no Dale, I reminded myself, use the names, Jim, Kathy, and Harold.
“Hey,” Zoey said. “You guys doing alright?”
“Well as we can be, I guess,” Harold replied. “Marissa’s pretty shaken up.”
Zoey nodded. “Can’t say I blame her. Is there anything I can help you with?”
They stirred nervously. Finally, Jim asked “You said you’ve dealt with this thing before?”
“Not this one,” I said.
“Specifically,” Zoey added quickly. “We deal with weird a lot though.”
“Weird like this?” Kathy asked.
“You bet.” Zoey smiled. “Any of you heard of a webshow called ‘Creepy America?’”
They all shook their heads.
“Pity. Look it up when you get home.” She waved her camcorder. “Point is, we investigate this kind of stuff.”
Harold frowned. “So you knew this was here? There was a history in the area, or sightings, or whatever?”
“No, not really. Sometimes we find the weird, sometimes the weird finds you.”
Zoey was beginning to look uncomfortable, so I jumped in. “We’ve handled creatures like this before, though. Give us some time and we’ll figure out how to get rid of it.”
“Well that’s why we’re here,” Jim said. I stared at him, and he looked down and began to polish his glasses again. “We were talking and we decided that we wanted to ask if you guys wanted any help.”
Zoey blinked. “Help?”
“Is that thing dangerous?” Harold asked.
Zoey hesitated. “Well…”
“Yes,” I answered.
“Then it’s threatening my wife and child.” Harold’s mouth turned into a scowl. “And I’m not just going to sit around while it does.”
“Same with me and my mother,” Kathy said. “In fact, we all feel similarly.”
I leaned over, looking at the others at the back of the room. “What about them?”
Jim grimaced. “They’re… less eager.”
“Well thank you,” I said. “I’ll let you guys know when I think of something.”
“Why don’t we just attack it?” Dale blurted out.
We all turned to look at him.
“Are you nuts?” Jim asked.
“I don’t care how freaky it looks,” he replied. “We go out there, it’s six against one.”
“But the fog…” I began.
Dale rolled his eyes. “Well obviously we don’t split up. Move as a group. Wail on it if it tries anything. If not, there’s the chance one of us could get their car and go get help.”
I thought about it. I had to admit, it was tempting. The thing wasn’t superhuman, after all; Zoey and I had won our little tug-of-war against it. And math was math. Six against one was good odds no matter how you stacked it.
But it had also tried to force its way in after it had seen that all of us were inside. Even if it wasn’t hiding a trick up its sleeve, that level of ferocity could get someone seriously hurt, even dead, before we had a chance to return the favor.
“No,” I shook my head. “It’s still too risky.”
“And who put you in charge?” Dale demanded.
Jim chuckled nervously. “They’re just trying to…”
“Fuck what they’re trying to do!” Dale shouted. The other group was now looking over at us. “I was fighting Viet Cong before you were born, boy. I’m not going to let some fucking pasty freak of nature make me…”
“Dale,” Zoey shouted. “Dale!”
He stopped and turned to her.
“No one’s doubting your courage,” she said, “or your ability to kick ass. And if it comes to that, you’ll be the first to know. But we need to make sure we know what we’re dealing with before we go guns blazing.”
“What we’re dealing with…?” He shook his head. “You saw that thing. It’s just a rabid animal.”
“Maybe,” I said. They looked at me and I returned the gaze. “Have you thought about where that fog came from, or why none of our phones have signal?”
A look of dread crossed over Kathy’s face. “Shit.”
“Exactly. I’m not saying it’s off the table, but we need to make sure that we know what exactly this thing is capable of before we try anything like that.” I returned to staring at the fog outside.
Harold cleared his throat. “So, uh… what do we do?”
“Go back to the others,” Zoey said. “Keep them calm. If we need more help, we’ll let you know, but right now, that’ll help us more than anything.”
The group stood there for a moment, then began to awkwardly shuffle away.
“Wait,” I said. “Jim!”
Jim looked at me, then headed back.
“Do you know how someone would jam cell phone signals?” I asked.
He looked at me, confused, then saw the “Geek Squad” logo on his shirt and blushed. “Listen man, I just go around rebooting computers for old people.”
“Can you give me anything?” I insisted.
He hesitated. “Well… I mean, there are jammers out there. They’re illegal, but I’m sure you could get your hands on one if you really wanted to. Other than that, there’s tin foil or…” he looked to the ceiling and frowned.
I looked up as well. Large sheets of painted brown aluminum lined the space above.
“Or metal roofs,” I finished.
I sighed. “Alright, thanks.”
He walked off, and Zoey slid next to me. “Guess we should settle in. Looks like we might be here a while.”
An hour passed in that small, claustrophobic rest area. The fog refused to clear. The thing outside could be seen, doing it’s strange hunched walk, but it didn’t try to rush the doors again. The people inside with us huddled in nervous, whispering groups.
And so the standoff continued with no end in sight.
While I was staring at the glass doors, trying to come up with a plan or even just make up my mind about what was happening, Zoey traversed the rest stop, alternating between conversing with me and engaging with the rest of the group, keeping the calm alive as best she could. I barely realized that was what she was doing; I was so focused on trying to figure out some way out of this mess.
And failing miserably. This thing, this problem, it existed in a vacuum. Every other time, there was something, some location, some thing, some random piece of information, that I could trace back to the source. From there, the conclusions could come. But this time, there was nothing, and there was no way to find that magic bullet I depended upon so much.
Well, there was one way…
I looked outside, into the mists, then shook my head. No. Too dangerous.
And if that’s the only way forward? my mind asked back.
“Hungry?” I looked up to see Zoey offering a small bag of peanuts in my direction.
“Kind of,” I admitted, taking the bag. “Wanna split them?”
“No thanks,” she said, withdrawing an identical bag from her own pocket. “Got my own. Plus, Dale helped me break the vending machines, so we got some options.”
I turned and looked. Sure enough, both the snack and the drinks machine doors were wide open, exposing their contents, and Ada was busy grabbing as many candy bars as she could hold.
“I think the state of Florida might take offense to your actions,” I said.
“It’s their shitty rest stop,” Zoey replied. “Least they can do is feed us while we’re stuck here.”
“Mmmph.” I watched Ada run off, hiding her spoils behind her back as she rejoined her parents. Harold had Marissa in a tight side hug, clutching the woman as she stared into space. Neither seemed to notice their daughter’s ill-gotten loot.
“How are the others?” I asked.
“Alright, for the time being.” Zoey replied. “They’re mostly just in shock, I think. Even our squad of volunteers just seem to be… waiting, for it to be over.” She leaned in and lowered her voice. “But it won’t last forever. If we don’t do something soon, we could have some problems on our hands.”
“I know, I know.” I put my hands in my face and groaned.
Zoey put a hand on my shoulder. “Hey, it’s okay. We just need to…”
“DALE!” someone shrieked.
I jolted up. Dale was in front of the doors, removing the mop handle.
“I’m done hiding,” he muttered. “You hide if you want, but I’m sick of it.”
“Dale, no,” Zoey commanded. “You don’t know what that thing is capable of.”
“And how do you suggest we find out?” he shot back. “Sit here until it mails us a list? Wait for it to die of boredom, then dissect the corpse?”
“Dale…” Zoey turned to me, eyes pleading for help.
I didn’t say anything for a while. I began to feel the weight of everyone’s eyes on me.
“Do you really think you have a chance?” I finally said.
Zoey turned pale. “Liam!”
“I do,” Dale replied, ignoring her. “This ain’t my first rodeo kid. Not by a long shot.”
“No!” Zoey insisted. “We are not considering this!”
“Says who?” someone else shouted. It was Kathy. “He’s right, you know. We can’t just sit here forever!”
“And what right do you have to stop him?” This time it was Harold, letting go of Marissa to address the group properly. “He’s going of his own accord. This is his decision.”
“No!” Zoey stomped her foot. She was… quivering. I’d never seen her like this before.
“And how are you going to stop me?” Dale challenged. “Lock me in a stall? Tie me up with candy wrappers?”
“Zoey,” I said softly, taking her hands and forcing her to face me. “It’s okay.”
“No,” she said. “Not like Greg. Or Sims. Or Tim. No more.”
“I agree,” I whispered. “No more victims.”
She looked at me, hopefully.
“Dale’s not a victim, though,” I continued. “He has a choice. He knows what he’s walking into. And that gives him the chance the others didn’t. And… and Harold’s right, Zoey. If he wants to go, we have to let him. But if we sit here and shelter him just because of what might happen... then all we are is Archangel.”
Zoey’s face squirmed. Finally, she murmured “all right.”
I walked over to Dale. “We’re putting that mop back as soon as you step outside. I’ll be here, waiting at the doors. If that thing’s too strong, if something goes wrong for any reason, run back here as fast as you can.”
Dale nodded, then handed the mop to me. “I’m going for my truck. If I get to it without meeting that thing, I’ll blare my horn. That’ll be my way of telling you that I’m driving off to go get help. Otherwise, I’ll see you back here.”
“Good luck,” I muttered, holding the door open. Dale stepped out and I shut it quickly, threading the long stick through the handles. He turned back, nodded, and walked off into the mists. After only a few steps, his features faded into a monotone silhouette before it too vanished into the rest of the gray.
The silence became deafening.
Jim cleared his throat. “Maybe it…”
A shrill, inhuman shriek pierced the air, loud enough to make my ears ring. Following it were the sounds of heavy footsteps, excited running towards the center of the path.
Dale gave an incoherent shout, returning the challenge. Unseen, the battle raged, both sides uttering cries of rage and exclamations of pain. Dale would yell, the beast would do it’s strange dog whine. The thing would hiss, and Dale would scream back pain.
Inside, the group added their own commentary. Marissa whimpered. The dog barked. Ada outright bawled, slightly muffled from inside of her father’s shirt. I heard old woman Ruth reciting “the Lord is my shepherd” over and over and over again.
For five minutes, the fighting went on for an eternity.
Then, as suddenly as the whole commotion began, it stopped, as if someone had just turned off a speaker. Calm and silence once more dominated the fog.
I stepped up to the doors, squinting in an attempt to see something.
There was a loud THUNK and I whirled back five feet. Dale was standing there, bloody and torn from head to toe. Fresh cuts were all over his body, torn past the shirt and into his flesh. He breathed rapidly and fixed me with a wild gaze.
“Let me in,” he panted. “Fuck Liam, you were right. It’s too strong. Let me in.”
I startled, then scrambled back up to the doors. Right as I was about to withdraw the mop from the handles, I felt a hand grasp my elbow.
It was Zoey. She looked me in the eyes and whispered “no.”
Dale looked at her, then back to me. “What are you waiting for? I only wounded it. It’ll be back any second!”
“No,” Zoey repeated.
“What do you mean no?” I whispered back.
Her eyes slid off of me and fixed themselves to the figure beyond. “That’s not Dale.”
“What are you doing?” Harold cried from behind me. “Open the doors, damn it!” More voices joined in, the whole crowd of people behind us shouting to let him in.
“How do you know?” I asked Zoey.
Still looking at the person beyond, face pale, she simply breathed “hunch.”
Dale, maybe Dale, whipped back and looked at something in the fog. “Shit, it’s coming back.” He pounded on the doors. “Hurry!”
And I could see a shape in the fog.
But Zoey refused to stop holding my elbow.
I was torn. I didn’t know what to do. I could see the absolute terror in Dale’s face. I could see the dread in Zoey’s face as she stared at maybe Dale. The voices behind me were louder. Ruth was pleading with me. Mr. Yang was calling me a coward.
The fog shape stumbled a bit closer.
I blinked. Stumbled?
“If you won’t do it, I will.” There was another mass at my elbow, this one trying to push me away and get to the mop. It was Mr. Yang. “Get out of…”
A strange, gurgling rattle pierced the noise. Slowly, we each turned to look.
It was Dale. Another Dale. The real Dale. He was stumbling towards us, eyes bulging like a stunned fish reeled out of water and thrown onto land. One hand was clasped tight to his throat. Crimson flooded from behind it, between the fingers, down the hand, staining his front dark with blood. His tongue moved, and he gave another gurgling death rattle.
He took another step, stared at his double with that shocked fish stare, and collapsed dead on the ground.
The first Dale, the fake Dale, watched this display, then turned back to us. His eyes were furious…
...and his teeth were needle thin and sharp.
I let go of the mop and pressed my weight against the doors just in time for the thing to shriek with rage and slam the glass again. Its flesh rippled, like jello being struck with a stick, and patches of Dale reverted back to the angular, scratched albino flesh. The doors buckled. Zoey shoved against the door next to me, Mr. Yang too, I noticed with some surprise, and the three of us held fast as another shove, this one more forceful, hit the doors, flesh now rippling back to that horrible, true form we had seen from the first attack. Each of us stumbled a step backwards with the motion. The mop handle gave a soft crack and bent itself at the slightest angle.
“Harold!” I shouted. “Jim!”
Two more figures joined me at my right and left and, together, the five of us posted up to the doors, digging our heels in and putting every ounce of muscle behind our pose. The creature reeled back, SLAMed again, reeled back, SLAM SLAM SLAMed again, but this time, it held. The doors did not move. The mop handle did not buckle a second time.
More pounding came at the door, but they had diminished in strength. This was less a coordinated assault and more a tantrum motion, vented frustration. There was a snarl, more ferocious and primal than any I had ever heard before, and suddenly the creature was gone, shuffle-hunched back into the fog and back out of our sight.
We held at the door for a few more moments to make sure this wasn’t a ruse, but when two minutes had passed without a new attack, we slowly moved away from the doors. I moved the mop, putting the door’s middle over a new, undamaged section of the handle, then breathed a sigh of relief.
“IT FUCKING SHAPESHIFTS?!”
I turned around. Kathy had her hands in her hair, practically tearing out clumps. Her eyes were almost mad with fear.