Out of the Dark and Into the Dark
“Hey.” Martin’s voice from the back seat was quiet, like he thought Ava was asleep. “Do you want me to drive for a while?”
“Martin,” Kate said, “I like you, but you will drive this car over my dead body.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Ava saw Martin nod. “Fair enough.” He tugged off his wire-frame glasses and rubbed at his eyes.
Ava went back to looking out the window, her forehead resting against the glass and bouncing gently when they hit a bump. The radio, turned down low, murmured indecipherably.
The road was dark and winding; they were on one of the little mountains dotting the California-Arizona border. The Mohave range, probably, gently wooded and possessed of only a very few streetlights. They passed sparse little cabins set back from the road, identifiable only by the cookie-cutter light of windows from between the trees. There was an orangish glow just visible through branches: either the moon or some sort of spotlight farther up the mountain. They hadn’t seen another car on the road for twenty minutes.
Ava was fairly confident in Kate’s driving, but it looked disconcertingly like they were plunging into the abyss every time the road curved. Martin hissed through his teeth as they took a particularly sharp turn. He grabbed at the roof handle for support.
“Please, please, please,” Kate said, “don’t be a backseat driver. I will murder you long before we get to Louisiana, and you will deserve it.”
“Sorry,” Martin said. He was gripping the handle so hard the leather creaked. “I can’t help it.”
“My mom’s like that,” Kate said, holding the wheel lightly with both hands, her seat reclined back. The little bobblehead cat on the dashboard looked like it was nodding off to sleep. “She flinches all the time when I drive. I know it’s a reflex thing, but it’s distracting as hell.”
“I’ll control myself.”
“Take a nap,” Kate suggested.
Martin was silent, which Ava took to probably mean he’d rather die.
Dark trees shot past them, blurry pillars with reaching arms. Ava thought of the game she’d played as a child to entertain herself in Aunt Cassie’s car before they’d sold it. There was a friendly creature following along, keeping pace with the car in the dark. She’d imagine it jumping from power line post to power line post, like a frog, sometimes, or like their dog Atlas, or like a man with very long legs.
Movement flashed in the dark beside the car, and Ava sat up straighter. Kate glanced at her.
“Bad dream, boss?”
“No,” Ava said. She watched out the window, nose brushing the glass. It was a very dense darkness, out in the mountains without streetlights. Not perfectly black, because of the headlights and the maybe-moon, but velvety. A dark, dark green curtain thrown over the world. Ava rolled down the window to see better. Cool air washed into the car.
Martin leaned over towards her side window to follow her gaze.
“What is it?” When Ava didn’t answer, he continued, “can we stop and sleep soon? Or else get some coffee?”
“I’m just the chauffeur,” Kate said, drumming her fingers on the wheel. “I don’t call the shots. Ava’s the one being haunted.”
In the shadows beside the car, just out of reach of the headlights, something was running. Keeping pace with the car.
“Do you see that?” Ava was mostly asking Martin, who was hands- and eyes-free in the back seat, but it was Kate who peeked quickly over Ava’s shoulder at the trees.
She hummed. “No. What am I —”
“Kate!” Martin shouted, grabbing the back of her chair. Ava jerked her head towards the road so fast her neck cricked.
There was something in the headlights. Big, gray.
Kate slammed on the brakes and Ava was flung forward with the bobblehead on the dash. The seatbelt tightened and left a stinging mark on her collarbone. She looked up, pushing her hair out of her face, and there was nothing in the road.
For a half second, the blip between seeing and understanding, Ava had thought it was Atlas in the road. Their giant, shaggy dog, who had died with Aunt Cassie on Sunset Avenue.
“Is everyone okay?” Kate asked. She unbuckled herself and turned around to look at Martin. He had the worst of it; he’d hit his head on the back of Kate’s seat and had a small cut on the bridge of his nose from his glasses.
“It’s alright,” he said, rubbing his forehead a little ruefully. “There isn’t much room for an object in motion to remain in motion back here.” His knees were pressed up against Kate’s seat, as they had been for the duration of their nine-hour journey.
“Well,” Kate said, turning back around and sounding either grudging or guilty. “Maybe you can drive sometime. If you’re not hugely concussed.”
“Oh god,” Ava said. “Is he concussed?”
“He might be.” Kate put her seatbelt back on and started cautiously forward again, craning her neck to see into the trees for more canine projectiles.
“He is not,” Martin said, “concussed.”
Ava didn’t think he looked particularly damaged. Actually, he looked happier than he had since they’d left that morning. She had the feeling that he’d been waiting for a disaster and was pleased to have the first one over with minimal injury. Martin offered her a snack-sized bag of pretzels, which she declined.
“That was a wolf, right?” Kate asked. She accelerated slowly to something nearer the speed limit. “We’re agreed that that was a wolf?”
Ava thought it might as well have been. It certainly wasn’t her German Shepherd.
“Are there wolves in California?” she asked.
“No,” Martin said at the same time Kate said, “Yep.”
“There are. Gray wolves.” Kate met his eyes in the rear-view mirror. “Google it.”
“Huh,” Martin said. “Well, it looked big enough.”
Ava was watching out the passenger’s side window again, for the thing running next to them in the dark. She rolled the window back up and checked that the car was locked.
“Call that our third spectral occurrence of the week. Did Cassie have a particular affinity for wolves, by any chance?” Kate asked.
“She hated wolves, actually,” Martin said in his teacher voice. Steady. Like he was the authority on the subject.
Ava twisted to look back at him. “She did?”
“Yeah,” he said. “You did, too, when you were little.”
“Yeah. Don’t you remember what happened when you guys adopted Atlas?”
Atlas’s name sent a little jolt through her. It felt tickling, or significant, or a little like when she heard a song and couldn’t remember the title. Ava turned away from him, back to the window.
“I know he freaked me out when I was ten, but that was just because he was huge.”
“It was around the time there were burglaries at the apartment complex. Remember? I slept on your couch a few nights. Cassie went to the shelter and got the biggest dog there, but she almost had to give him away again, you were so scared of him.”
“But why did she specifically hate wolves?” Ava asked.
“I think it was something about Red Riding Hood. She had a picture book when she was little, and someone told her the wolf lived under her bed. Something like that.” He was smiling. Ava could hear it in his voice.
She looked around again. “How do you know that?”
He met her eyes, and the smile slipped, and she heard the accusation in her voice. He pulled off his glasses to rub the lenses with the bottom of his shirt again and wipe at the bit of blood on his nose.
“She told me about it, some time or other. Probably when you got the dog.”
His voice sounded strained, and that bothered Ava more than anything. If she could keep it together when talking about her dead aunt, so could he.
“Thank god!” Kate’s tone was carefully casual. “We’re out of Mount Doom.” The road leveled out flat in front of them, and there were streetlights ahead surrounding a rest stop. A spot-lit billboard advertised an adult superstore at the next exit. She glanced at Ava. “Pee break?”
They took a pee break.
The rest stop was a long concrete parking lot next to a concrete pavilion adorned at two ends by concrete bathrooms. Near the road, a few semis were lined up like beached whales. Everything else was deserted. An unmanned gas station squatted in a corner of the lot.
Kate pumped gas and Martin got out to stretch his legs, walking towards the vending machines and muttering about his back. Ava wandered towards the toilets, watching the tree line as she went. She couldn’t see anything moving. She could barely see the trees. The streetlights didn’t quite reach. It felt like a long, lonely walk across the gray parking lot and through the pavilion, though she was close enough behind Martin that she could probably pelt him with snack-sized pretzels.
The bathroom was disgusting. There was no real door, just an archway into a row of stalls. The tile was covered in toilet paper and other, less sanitary things, and the lights near the door were burned out. One of the mirrors was shattered into a spider-web of cracks and showed her a face with eight eyes. At the far side of the bathroom was a square window at head-height, facing the trees.
Ava walked over into the brighter part of the bathroom and lifted onto her toes to peer out the window. All she saw at first was her reflection. When she squinted, she thought there was something gray outside, lighter than the black all around it. It looked like it was moving, but when she blinked, it was gone. Ava leaned closer.
Something lunged at the window. Something with teeth.
She stumbled back, but when she looked again, there was only a large gray moth beating its wings against the glass. She stood watching it, unwilling to look away, even to lock herself into a stall or walk briskly back to the car.
From somewhere behind her, there was a low growl, like the sound Atlas used to make when the man from 11B walked past their door. She lifted her hand to cover her mouth. She could scream. Martin and Kate were outside. She should scream.
She stood perfectly still.
It was behind her, she thought. The skin on her shoulders crawled. It might be in the pavilion, in the doorway. It might be waiting for her to turn around. It might be hiding in the place where her body blocked the reflection of the bathroom in the window.
There was a smell to it. Like the Los Angeles Zoo, in the enclosures. It was the smell of something meant to be outside coming inside. Wild animal and raw meat.
It was cold in the bathroom; her breath fogged out through her fingers. The moth was gone. There was a strange noise, like something clicking gently against the concrete. Slow, even steps. In the reflection of the window, she saw the shadows in the doorway shift.
It’s behind you, she thought with sudden clarity. It’s behind you.
Ava turned around, and Kate walked into the bathroom.
“Hey,” she said, looking at Ava, at the hand on her mouth. “Are you gonna…” She mimed throwing up.
“Uh,” Ava said, “no.” All she could smell now was ammonia and Kate’s sugar-cookie perfume.
“O-kay,” Kate said, and stepped into a stall. Ava hurried into one of her own, and followed close to Kate as they walked out of the bathroom and back to the car. Martin was waiting, rubbing his eyes. He stuck his glasses back on when he noticed them.
“Do you want to sit in the front?” Ava asked him. He shook his head.
“No. I might try to sleep in the back.”
Kate looked pleased at that, just shy of smug. She unlocked the car and they piled in. Ava pressed down the lock on her door as soon as it was shut.
Kate raised an eyebrow at her and grinned. “Jumpy?” She’d applied fresh purple lipstick in the bathroom in the eight-eyed mirror, and her smile smudged a little of it onto her tooth. Ava set her gaze at the window.
“‘Once more unto the breach,’” Kate said, and put the car in drive. Martin had his head tipped back, glasses held in his lap.
They pulled back onto the road, and Ava watched the rest stop glide past them. Beyond the lights of the parking lot, the forest was a black wall. She counted the streetlights as they passed by. Beneath the last post closest to the trees, crowned in the circle of white light, was a gray shape. Dog or wolf, she couldn’t tell. She didn’t know if it was Atlas, but it turned to look at her just as the car reached the wall of trees and plunged into the dark again.