Sobbing on the Shoulder

The cold wind whistled through the girl’s hair as she slammed off her music and opened the door to the car with a disgruntled little sigh.   Ellie shivered a little as she stepped out and waved her phone in the air for a signal, glancing disparagingly at the flat front tire of her little Subaru hatchback.  Back a little ways over the road she could see the glimmer of broken glass on the pavement in the faint moonlight that seeped through the treetops, and pulling an impatient little face she walked onto the bit of road ahead of her lit up by her headlights and glanced down again at her phone. 

Still no signal. 

Off the shoulder on the right a benighted squirrel smirked at her, rolling its puny, shining round eyeballs and turning to scamper up a tree, its claws rasping on the bark.  She smiled at it hesitantly for a moment, trying to build up the gumption to decide to try and change the tire herself.  It was hardly likely that anyone else would drive by at this hour of night, and if they did she wasn’t quite sure about stopping a random stranger to ask for help anyways.  She was starting to wish she didn’t work at a restaurant quite so far from her parents’ subdivision and didn’t get back quite so late.

But she could do it.  Ellie heaved a reluctant sigh and looked down at her small white hands. 

Fun.

She flipped the phone flashlight on and walked towards the trunk.  She had just laid her finger on the fob when something caught the light on the road behind her – it was the busted glass strewn across the pavement, but something was mixed in with it, just tinting it… red?  She peered over to take a closer look and then turned away and decided against it.  Whatever it was she’d rather not know. 

A slight but distinct click behind her made her jump and glance around hurriedly.   Slowly, Ellie made her way back to the front door of the Subaru, her back to the car, gazing around warily.  She felt the handle in her grasp and jumped in hastily, locking all the doors behind her and shivering slightly.

“Don’t be silly, Ellie,” she breathed out loud, once she was again in the relative safety of her car – careful to say it loudly enough not to scare herself more, but not so loudly that she’d feel like she was trying to pretend she wasn’t alone.  She flipped on the light and put in her earbuds, turning her music up about as loud as it could go and decided regretfully to wait it out until morning or till she got a signal, whichever came first.  Her parents would be worried for sure, but they sometimes were in bed before she came home and she hoped they wouldn’t know until morning, and she could make it back before they got too desperate.  She settled back comfortably against the side of her car to try to doze off, or at least to enjoy her music in that half dozed-off state which is the waking Elysium of the exhausted human frame and both tired out mental and physical powers, when a shifting shadow across the road caught her incautious eye and gave her heart a thump.   She had meant to keep her eyes steadily inside the warm, lit car, but it wouldn’t do now to tell them that.  She shrunk back into herself and reached up a hand to quickly flip the light off, but the darkness only made the shadowy world surrounding her worse, and she crawled over into the back seats in a vain endeavor to conceal it from her view, and pulled up a sleeve to try to do something sensible and check her watch, forgetting that she clutched her phone in the other hand.  It was only 9:30.  Still, the faint ticking somehow afforded her some little comfort, and she calmed her heartbeat and breathing, setting them to the rhythm of the little watch.

Suddenly the ticking stopped.  Ellie grabbed her phone and shone the light on her wrist.  The watch’s hands had stopped with the noise and her breath had almost stopped with it, and now the sound of her pounding heart was all that broke the silence of the night.  In a flurry she laid her hand on the back of the seat and vaulted over into the trunk, still grasping the phone in her other hand, determined there to set up a last stand against the foolish fancies of the night.

She puckered her brow in confusion.  She felt something cold and clammy below her where the bottom of the trunk should have been.  Something lay beneath her, huddled up in a heap.

Cold.  Large.  Lifeless.

A scream broke out into the night air and Ellie tumbled out of the car in unreasoning terror.  The earphones had ripped out of her phone now, and the music, blaring for a moment into the night air, lent her half a second’s courage as she leant back quivering against the door she’d just slammed closed behind her, her hand trembling uncontrollably on the handgrip.  She fumbled with the key fob as her mind raced agonizingly through the options open to her, but she could only see one thing possible.  She backed away slowly, locking the car three times in succession before turning around and fleeing down the road as fast as her legs could carry her, panting with painful effort, her only goal to get as far away from the car and its awful cargo as she possibly could.

She tried to run, but her sobbing breath caught in her throat, and she thought she would choke if she did not stop.   She had not gone half a mile down the road when she sunk down onto the pavement, unable to restrain the involuntary sobs which welled up to relieve the sickening horror that had set in her stomach. 

Suddenly a light blared out on the road behind her.  She was possessed by an irrational fear.  The screeching tires sounded like the crack of doom to Ellie, and anything, even the forest peopled with all its terrors, seemed a million times a better way to die than to be dragged back to that car behind her.  She dashed into the woods, going anywhere, everywhere, rather than back towards the road and the cold, limp body in the car. 

The forest around her seemed pervaded with hooting and rasping and scurrying, and she was most decidedly lost in its depths, her teeth rattling, though it was hardly cold beneath the forest trees, when suddenly a shot rang out in the darkness, not a hundred yards from where she stood. 

She screamed.

“Ellie?  Ellie Fanning?”

A cheery voice broke through the night air.

“Is that you?  What on earth are you doing out here at this time of night?”  And a flashlight flickered on and towards her. 

“Jordan?!” she exclaimed, breathlessly, at the sound of the neighbor boy’s voice, clasping him violently the moment he came within reach.

“Well that’s some welcome,” laughed the boy merrily.  “Never known you to care for me so much before.  I come out here hunting,” he said, waving his hand at the bird he had just shot (and probably lost) somewhere in the dark forest.  “But what on earth are you doing out here?”

“I- I- my tire burst,” she said, confusedly.

She swallowed.

“Well, come on.  I’ll fix it, never you mind,” said Jordan encouragingly.  “What’s the matter with you?  You’re shaking.  What’d you come out into the forest for?”

“I-I got scared,” she whispered, so low he could barely hear her as he started her back towards the road.  Ellie shrunk back a little and grasped him tighter, but he didn’t seem to notice.

“That doesn’t make sense,” he laughed.  

Suddenly she stopped.  A midnight mist was creeping up at them through the undergrowth.

“Did you hear something?”

He stopped to listen.  “It’s a weird forest,” he said under his breath.

“Shh, be quiet!” she breathed agonizingly.

“It’s them,” mouthed the boy in a ghostly whisper.

“Whenever I’m out here by myself, I hear them.   They talk to each other, not to me – in a language I don’t understand.  They live … in the trees.  That rustling noise in the branches, that’s how you know they’re out hunting.  You can hear it right before they rip their claws into their prey.  They hear everything – even the breaking twigs. They- they’re always watching.  Not from close.  It’s just that, I can’t always see them- oh, there’s one.”

“Stupid owls.”

He laughed, and shone the flashlight into her frightened face.

“You really are scared, aren’t you?”

She nodded.  Her teeth were chattering.  

“You know, ghosts aren’t real,” Jordan smiled.

“But dead people are,” she whispered.

He raised an eyebrow in the dark. 

“You know, I was walking home from school the other day and I found a cell phone lying on the ground,” he commented, randomly.  “It was the strangest thing.  As soon as I picked it up, it started ringing.  The caller ID said ‘Jordan Atwood.’”

“W-what did you do?” Ellie forced herself to say.

“Tossed it in the river and pretended it never happened,” he said, grinning. 

His flashlight flickered and went out. 

“That’s odd,” he said, shaking it and shrugging.

“I- I just want to go home…” a little voice whimpered in the dark.

They made their way back to the road and down to where Ellie’s car sat stopped on the edge.  Ellie’s nerve had revived a little with the boy’s constant chatter, but at the sight of the car it all faded away and she was shaking worse than ever. 

The sounds of the forest seemed to grow louder and louder into a deafening roar, and she shrunk behind Jordan, her heart pounding wildly as he scanned the tire, nodding knowingly and made his way towards the trunk.

What could she do?  There seemed to be nothing but to die on the spot.

Something caught her eye.

Something was different.

There was a line of red from the glass on the road to just behind the trunk of her car. 

“Jordan, please – I don’t know how to say this,” she was trembling like an aspen leaf.

“Oh, don’t you worry, Ellie,” he said.  “Here, pass me the keys.” 

He took the key fob out of her hands and popped the trunk open. 

Ellie screamed.  A terrified, petrifying scream.

It was empty.

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