I gripped the steering wheel at ten and two, and glanced at the rearview mirror, as I eased my foot off the accelerator. My car began to slow.
The winter wind blew past, whooshing as it went, blowing leaves across my headlights. But I had the heater on, and it was cozy in the cabin. Just like when I was a kid. The chill of winter couldn’t seep into the car faster than the heater could drive it out.
When I was a kid, and we drove through those woods at night, I would sometimes feel a sudden fright, like frantic fingers had just clutched my heart. It would fade right away. It would happen even if I wasn’t looking out the window. I eventually grew out of it. But I did see some spooky things in the woods. Something with shining yellow eyes blinked at me once. I told my dad right away, and he said it was probably a fox or something, some nocturnal predator hunting for dinner—or breakfast. Then he’d said not to worry. We’d be safe in the car.
Whenever he’d say that we’d be safe in the car, I’d ask if we had enough gas. And Mom would say that we did. And I’d ask what would happen if the car broke down in the middle of the woods. And Dad would say that it was unlikely, but if it did happen, he would go for help, and the rest of us would wait in the car, where it was safe, until help arrived. And then I would ask what would happen if the car broke down and caught fire, and we couldn’t stay inside while we waited for help. And that’s when Dad would reach for the radio and suggest we play a sing-along game.
I remember always breathing in a deep breath when the car passed through the border of the woods, and back onto a concrete highway, home being only fifteen minutes from that border.
My kids were asleep in the back now. So I’d turned off the radio. The drive had been quiet for the past half hour.
I eased off the accelerator and shifted to the right as far as I could without driving off the road. I expected the driver behind me to swerve around me and pass me. It was a two-lane road. A narrow two lanes, and the vehicle behind me was large, but it could make it. It could just squeeze past me.
But the car didn’t pass. It slowed to keep pace with me. The other driver didn’t beep. I didn’t like to gesture at other drivers, but just in case the driver behind me didn’t understand my purpose in slowing down, I waved for them to pass. They should have been able to see me clearly in their high beams.
But they still didn’t pass.
Not too many people took the road we were on. The other driver might have been unfamiliar with the road, and might have preferred following another car, at whatever ridiculously low speed they had to. Maybe they didn’t want to risk overtaking my car and potentially crashing into oncoming traffic. But the road was straight for the most part. And there were no other cars around.
I turned on the radio, and set the volume as low as I could and still hear. But that was no good. It was worse in a way. All it did was interfere with my ability to hear any little sound outside the car.
I looked up at the rearview mirror.
Having another driver around should have made me feel less nervous about driving through the woods at night. Maybe it would have, if it didn’t feel as if the guy was following me.
I decided to turn the radio off, and start speeding up. There was only so fast I could go. The road had a lot of pits and dips. I was just driving a regular sedan. I glanced at the rearview mirror, and at first the car behind me fell away. I took slow breath and blew it out of my mouth. But a few seconds later, the car behind me started speeding up too.
I kept glancing at my rearview mirror as the other car gained on me. I tried to see the driver. All I could see past their high beams was a silhouette. A broad-shouldered person with a collared coat or jacket. A man, with curly hair, maybe.
I hit a dip and the driver side wheels dropped in and hopped out. The car bounced and I kept my hands loosely on the wheel.
I slowed just a little, so I could glance back and check on the kids. I thought that dip would wake them for sure. But they were still dozing. Seat belts on. Neck pillows in place, thankfully. I glanced up through the rear window to see if I could glimpse the driver behind me more clearly.
A pair of eyes was staring right at me.
I gasped and turned around. I pressed slowly on the accelerator, and glanced up at the rearview mirror again. But there was only a silhouette.
I exhaled and shook my head. I must have imagined it. I checked the time. I was still about half an hour away from the end of the woods, where the road opened up onto a four-lane highway, with street lights, and a gas station that was always open. I knew the people who ran the station. I could stop there. Catch my breath. Get some coffee. Home was only fifteen minutes from there. But it felt better telling myself I was only half an hour from…from civilization, I guess.
I reached for the radio dial again, and I noticed that my hands were shaking. I decided to risk waking the kids. I turned the radio up, enough for me to hear—and hopefully get distracted by—a show on my favorite comedy channel I liked. I’d been listening to music, but music wouldn’t be distracting enough. I needed voices, human voices.
I thought the kids would wake with the radio that loud. Part of me hoped they would. But they kept on sleeping. One of them moaned, and the other shifted. But they keep sleeping.
The voices on the radio laughed at how little energy they had because they’d been up too late. They bantered over a personal anecdote, something about one of them witnessing a woman asking for a manager at a supermarket.
The wind picked up. It howled past the car.
The supermarket’s mini-watermelons weren’t small enough to fit in the woman’s hand.
I concentrated on their story.
But I heard something strange on their audio. A whispery hiss. Or some kind of weird echo or distortion. It kept repeating. But it was faint, maybe sounds in the background.
I turned down the volume, and I heard a whisper.
My hand froze on the volume dial.
I held my breath and listened.
My eyes went wide. The wind moaned past the car.
It was wind. I glanced at the rearview mirror, at the silhouette of the driver in the car just behind me.
It was just the wind.
I cried out, just a little. And took a few gasping breaths in.
I glanced behind me, at the kids. I called their names, as calmly as I could. But I heard the tremble in my voice. I glanced forward at the road, and then back again.
I saw my kids. Just my kids. No one else was in the car.
“Did one of you say something?” I asked aloud, in my normal volume.
The kids were asleep.
I tried to tell myself I was being irrational, jumpy, because I was driving in the woods at night, alone. Sleeping kids didn’t count for comforting company in a situation like that.
I tried to tell myself that the driver behind me was in the same situation. He didn’t have an axe or a gun. He was just driving in the woods at night, alone. So what if it was a big guy? Big guys got scared too. I was scared of him. Maybe he was scared of me. Maybe that’s why he didn’t want me behind him. I shook my head. No one was scared of me. If he was scared, he was probably scared of monsters in the woods.
That’s what I used to be scared of when I was a kid.
Breaking down in the middle of the woods, getting out of the car, and being attacked by something, some creature that fed on blood, that wasn’t scared off by flashlights and my dad’s loud yelling, something that was half-dead, something that ate you while you were still alive—
My shoulders jerked when I heard the whisper again. It had to be the wind moving through some part of the car. It just sounded like a word. It wasn’t really a word. It just sounded like a word.
I turned the radio back on. Middle intensity volume.
I checked the time again. I was fifteen minutes away, just fifteen minutes away from that gas station. I reached for my phone. And glanced at it.
“Just keep going,” I said under my breath. And my hands steadied on the wheel, just a little. “Maybe I should talk. Maybe I should keep talking until I get home. How about that?”
I was talking to no one in particular.
“I don’t mean any harm. I don’t mean that guy any harm. I’m just heading home. That’s all.”
But the closer I was getting to the edge of the woods, the tighter my chest felt. And the shorter my breaths were getting. Because if something was going to happen—if he was going to do something, it would have to happen soon, before we got to that gas station.
Before we got to civilization.
It didn’t come from behind.
But from ahead.
A shape dashed across the road—probably a deer—but I didn’t get a close look. It was bouncy and on four legs. Just an animal. I just glimpsed it. I started braking, and swerving away.
You’re supposed to just hit it, I thought. But instinct was faster than logic, especially when logic was cruel.
There were no guard rails on this road. I turned away from the edge when I realized I was going too far off the road. But it was too late. Turning the steering wheel did nothing.
The front of the car dropped over the side of the road. And we came to a stop.
We hadn’t exactly crashed. But the car jolted as if we had.
The headlights spilled into the woods, into the tangled brambles, and the early winter branches, bare and half-hidden in a fog that was starting to gather.
I looked back at the kids, who were still, somehow, sleeping. They’d been tired after playing with their cousins, but I didn’t think they were tired enough to sleep through a crash—or an almost-crash.
I called out their names, just as I heard a car door slam somewhere ahead on the road.
My heart stopped for a beat as I realized that the car that had been behind us had passed us, and stopped on the road just ahead of us.
Maybe he was coming to see if we were okay. Likely that’s what he was coming to do.
But I couldn’t take any chances.
My car was idling. I put it in reverse and pressed the accelerator slowly.
We didn’t move.
I couldn’t tell.
I couldn’t tell just by looking if the rear wheels were even touching the road.
I thought I felt them grip, but the grip wasn’t strong enough. The wheels weren’t strong enough to pull the heavier part of the car out of the ditch.
I heard his footsteps, crunching in the leaves that the wind had swept onto the road.
The taste of metal filled my mouth, and I realized I had bit my lip until it bled.
I licked the blood away, and tried the accelerator again.
The man wasn’t saying anything. He wasn’t yelling out to me to stop. He wasn’t yelling out to ask if I was okay. Or maybe he was, and I just didn’t hear him over the engine’s revving.
Maybe I didn’t want to hear him.
He probably hadn’t seen the kids. They were too short for their heads to pop above the top of the seat.
Maybe if I got out of the car and got away from the car, he wouldn’t see them. I could lure him away from them. And then I could find out if he was trying to help me or hurt me.
But if he hurt me, if he killed me, and then went to check the car…
I had to stay with them. I had to stay in the car. They were still asleep. And now I prayed they stayed that way.
I turned back to look at them, ready to climb back there and cover their bodies with mine.
I glanced through the rear window.
I saw those eyes staring at me again.
They weren’t the man’s eyes. He was still walking toward us, still coming closer and closer. I only saw his silhouette through the taillights of both cars, through the gathering fog.
These eyes were right outside my window. They stared at me, without blinking.
I stared back.
The cold and the fear made my eyes water, and I blinked.
And the eyes were gone.
The approaching footsteps abruptly stopped.
I tried to peer through the fog.
The footsteps started again, but they were now getting farther away. The silhouette was fading into the fog. The footsteps went faster and faster, as if the man were running away.
I heard a car door open and slam shut. I heard an engine started up. The other car drove off, tore off.
That was it.
I wasn’t going to wait for him to change his mind and come back.
I sniffed and rubbed my nose. I stroked the dashboard of my car with a shaky hand.
“Come on, now,” I said. “Get us out of here, please. Get us home safe.”
I tried again, slowly, slowly, pushing down on the accelerator.
We didn’t budge.
I put the car in neutral.
I would get out and push. And if I wasn’t strong enough, I’d wake the kids. And if we weren’t strong enough together, I’d grab our jackets and a flashlight, and I’d walk us out of the woods. We’d call someone for help as soon as we got a signal. And if we saw something or someone scary, I’d push the kids into the forest, and we’d hide.
But I wouldn’t just sit there.
I braced myself and reached for the door handle.
Something slammed onto the trunk.
I jerked and my hand returned to the wheel.
The car lurched backwards. The front wheels rolled out of the ditch.
I glanced at the rearview mirror, knowing what I would see.
But there was nothing there. I started reversing, slowly, in case I hit something.
But the car moved back smoothly.
I straightened out and started forward again, slowly.
I kept glancing at the rearview mirror, expecting to see something.
But I didn’t.
I glanced at the kids.
They were still sleeping.
Suddenly, I panicked. I stopped the car. I reached back to them, felt for their pulses. One of them slapped my hand away in his sleep.
They were alive.
I drove onward again, hands shaking.
Onward meant I might encounter that other driver again.
“But why would he be waiting for me?” I asked myself. He would have expected that I was still stuck in that ditch. He had no reason to believe otherwise.
Whether he meant to help me or to hurt me, he had changed his mind. Something had spooked him.
Something, or someone.
I tried making a call as we got closer to the edge of the woods. The call didn’t go through until we were just a few minutes past the tree line.
I dared to glance behind me one more time, bracing myself to see a pair of eyes staring, or a sinister silhouette. But I only saw the trees. Nothing unsettling at all. Not even some predator’s eyes flashing in the darkness.
I heard groggy moans in the back seat.
A high quiet voice asked, “Are we home?”
We made it home. The whole way, I was glancing around for that other car. I’d memorized the license plate and the make and model. But I didn’t see it.
My mom met us in the driveway. We’d taken longer than she’d expected. I got out of the car and started helping the kids out. They were half-awake. I wouldn’t have to carry them.
“What happened?” my mother asked.
I looked over at her. She was standing at the rear of the car. She had her hand over her mouth, staring at my trunk.
I stepped toward her, and followed her gaze.
There were three large scrapes that ended in ragged punctures that went straight through the trunk. A broken branch hung from one of the punctures.
I corralled everyone inside and asked my mom to put on some coffee. I wasn’t planning on sleeping that night.
After putting the kids to bed, and peering out the window a couple of times, I told my mom what happened. I tried to dismiss my fears about the other driver. But my mom told me I was right to listen to my instincts. I told her about the whisper I thought I heard, the eyes staring at me through the rear window. I told her about the deer, or whatever it was, and how the front of the car dipped over the side of the road. I told her how I got out of the ditch.
I thought she would warn me not to swerve next time, or to start carrying my own axe in the trunk. Or maybe she would smile and hug my shoulders with one arm, tell me she was glad I was safe, and that she would check on her grandchildren one more time before heading to bed.
Or maybe this would be one of those times when she got scared, and started calling people and disseminating the other driver’s license plate to find out for sure it he was harmless or murderous.
But she didn’t do any of those things. As I told the story, her eyes started to shimmer, and her mouth turned down.
“Mom? You okay? We got home safe. It’s all right.” I reached over and put my hand over hers, giving it a pat. “Sorry, I scared you.”
A tear dropped from one of her eyes, and she wiped it away with a sad smile.
“She fled into the woods,” my mother said, “with her children.” She took a sip of her coffee. “But she wasn’t fast enough. She knew she wasn’t. So she stopped, and knelt down and told her children to hide. And to wait until they couldn’t hear her footsteps anymore. And then, they should run.”
My mom gulped and shook her head. “In every version of the story that I prefer, the kids made it out of that forest alive. She never did. But she made sure they did.”
I had started to gape. I clamped my mouth shut, and smiled the goofiest smile I could muster at the moment, hoping to cheer her or amuse, or relieve her, just a little. “So…you’re saying this ghost mother came out of the woods, chased off the bad guy, and pulled my car out of a ditch?”
My mom raised her brows.
“Then, I will have to go back there—in the daytime—to thank her for making sure my kids got out of the woods alive.”
My mom reached out to me and held my face in both her hands. “So will I.”
Copyright © 2020 Nila L. Patel