The man in the orange vest held up his stop sign and motioned my car over to the side of the two-lane forest road. It was after midnight on a Sunday. There were no other workers, no construction vehicles, no orange traffic cones. There was just the man, standing in the middle of Route 322 with his sign held high. He wore mud-streaked jeans and a filthy white t-shirt stretched taut over his protruding belly, with one of those reflective vests that seemed to shimmer in the glow of my headlights. The stubbled goatee around his mouth was pure black, an unnatural color that looked like he had dyed his facial hair with shoe polish.
The blacktop behind the man was torn up, with a deep, jagged trench dug horizontally across the road. At first, I was grateful that the guy had stopped me—if I had hit that trench at the speed I was going, I probably would have blown out my tires and left an axle behind as a souvenir. It wasn’t until I had already steered onto the narrow shoulder and rolled to a stop that I began to realize how risky it was for me to pull over. I was a woman driving by myself down a deserted highway in the middle of the night, in the middle of the woods, in the middle of nowhere. I was completely and utterly alone.
The man’s jaw churned as he chewed a thick wad of what I assumed to be tobacco. He spat a stream of dark saliva onto the ground, then lowered his stop sign and began trudging toward my car. As he drew closer, his features came into clearer focus. He had an angular face with an outsized jaw and a broad, flat chin. He wasn’t handsome, though. He was far too messy.
He gave me what was intended to be a smile, but it was more like the expression of a terrified primate: lips drawn back, teeth bared, gums exposed. I tried to suppress a gasp of horror at the sight. His teeth were … wrong. He had no incisors, no canines. Instead, his entire mouth was filled top to bottom and front to back with thick, heavily ridged molars. Watery black saliva slicked his teeth and gums. A drop spilled over his lip and dribbled down his chin. He made no effort to wipe it away.
A heavy lump of fear lodged in my throat as my unease escalated into actual concern. My heart thudded inside my chest like a toddler kicking the back of an airplane seat during a tantrum. I had seen news reports about this: a man pretends to be a construction worker to get a woman to pull over, then he and his accomplices break into the car to beat her and rob her. Or worse.
Just to be safe, I locked the doors, then checked my mirrors to see if anyone was sneaking up from behind or beside the car. There was no one around, but that didn’t make me feel any better—being alone with the guy on a dark road was somehow worse.
I considered hitting the accelerator and blowing past him, but the state of the road made that impossible. The trench spanned both lanes from shoulder to shoulder, at least two feet wide and deep enough that I couldn’t see the bottom. To make matters worse, the highway was bordered on both sides by guardrails. There was no room for me to steer around the trench. The road was, for all intents and purposes, impassable.
That was good though, wasn’t it? If the man was only posing as a construction worker to set me up for an attack, the road wouldn’t be torn up like that. There was obviously some actual roadwork being done. And yet, there were no other workers, no equipment, no tools.
Or lights, I realized. There are no goddamned lights.
Nighttime construction was usually accompanied by a roaring generator powering giant floodlights that lit up the area like a football stadium. But in this case, the road was eerily quiet and completely dark. The only light other than my headlights came from a thin sliver of moon that was barely visible behind a thick bank of clouds. The man was working in near total darkness.
He stopped next to my car and rapped on my window with one knuckle: a quick, polite double-tap. I lowered the glass an inch, just enough to hear him speak.
“Sorry, ma’am,” he said through clenched teeth. “Road’s closed for tonight.” Something in his mouth crunched like he was chewing on ice cubes. He swallowed, then pursed his lips and spat another stream of dark liquid onto the road beside my car.
“Closed? Like, completely closed?”
It didn’t make sense. I had just traveled the road in the opposite direction an hour before, headed to my elderly father’s trailer to fill up his pill box with meds for the week. Even if the construction had started after I passed, why had I been allowed back onto the road in the opposite direction? There should have at least been some signs warning of construction ahead. Had I missed them? It had been a long day, with a double shift at the diner before the hour-long drive to my dad’s place—maybe I had dozed off?
“Completely closed,” the man acknowledged. “I’m afraid you’ll have to go back the way you came.”
“I can’t do that. I have to get home.”
“Can’t?” The man arched an eyebrow. “Or won’t?”
That’s an odd question. It was the kind of question my father used to ask when I told him I couldn’t do my chores. He’d hook his fingers under his belt buckle, glaring at me while breathing slowly through his nostrils. The implied threat was enough to get me to admit that, actually, I could do it. And I would, right away.
I decided to ignore the man’s question. “How long until it’s fixed?”
“We’ve got a lot of work to do. Could be a while.”
“Who’s we?” I leaned forward over the steering wheel, peering through the windshield into the darkness. “Seems like it’s just you.”
The man looked at me with a steady gaze. “Ma’am … It would be best if you went home.”
“I’m trying,” I said, irritation creeping into my voice. “My home’s that way.” I pointed down the road ahead of my car.
“Not that home. Home home.”
A tense knot formed in my stomach as I narrowed my eyes and peered at the man’s face. It looked vaguely familiar, but I wasn’t sure why. “Do I know you?”
“I don’t believe so.”
“Then how do you know where my home is?”
The man let out an exasperated sigh. He looked over at the trench, then back at me. He spat again. “Look,” he said, his patience waning. “Go check your Daddy’s pills, okay? Make sure you’ve done ’em right.”
My mouth suddenly felt bone dry. I swallowed hard. My fingers gripped the steering wheel so tightly that I felt like it might bend in my hands. “You know my father?” I rasped.
“No, ma’am. And I don’t think I want to after what he did.”
I stared at him for a second, my brow knotted in confusion. Then a wave of realization sent a bloom of heat washing over my face. “Delilah,” I said out loud. That bitch.
“My sister, Delilah. She put you up to this, didn’t she?”
I didn’t know why Delilah would play such as cruel trick on me, but it wouldn’t have been out of character. She knew how much I hated spending even a spare second at my father’s place—she would find it hilarious if I was forced to turn around and go back. Route 322 was the only way to travel between his place and mine short of a helicopter ride, so she would have known I would encounter the construction worker on my way home.
But then I thought again about the trench dug across the road. That wasn’t just a prank. It was real. Would she have gone so far as to have someone tear up the highway as a joke? Of course not. She didn’t even have a job, let alone the smarts and resources to pull off something like that.
While I struggled to understand how and why my sister had set me up, the man leaned closer to the window until his face was only inches from the glass. My muscles tensed. I shot a glance at the passenger side seat, looking for my purse. I had a can of pepper spray stashed in the front pocket, but the bag was too far out of reach for me to get to it easily.
The man spoke again. His voice was almost a whisper. “Your father’s not sorry,” he breathed. The stench of hot tar streamed into the car. “He’ll never be sorry.”
The truth of his words hit me in the gut like a cannonball. I felt a sob swell in my chest. My eyes burned with the sting of hot tears. At that moment, it didn’t matter to me who the man was or how he knew what he knew. All that mattered was that he was right.
“No,” I agreed. My voice was barely audible. “Never.”
The man straightened up, his tone returning to normal. “Go on back. Check his pills. Get ’em right this time.” Then he turned and headed down the road toward the construction site, calling over his shoulder as he walked. “Road’ll be clear once you do.”
I sat in stunned silence, watching as the man dropped inside the jagged trench. It was deep enough that only his head and shoulders were visible above the road. He broke off a piece of the asphalt the size of a dinner roll, shoved it in his mouth, and began to chew. Even from a distance, I could hear the sickening crunch and grind of his teeth pulverizing the asphalt into grit. Pebbles of broken blacktop clung to his lips. Long tendrils of black spit spilled from the corners of his mouth and dripped down his chin like crude oil.
The man swallowed, then broke off another piece of the road. As he lifted it to his lips, he seemed to sense I was still watching him. He turned and smiled that grotesque, molar-filled smile, then lifted his hand in a silent goodbye. His palm was unnaturally wide, with short pink fingers tipped with long, curving, yellowed claws, each as long as my index finger. They weren’t the hands of a man—they were the hands of a mole. Hands designed for digging. For burrowing. For tunneling.
The sight of that horrific appendage finally spurred me into action. I swung the car in a wide U-turn, then stomped my foot on the gas. The tires spun on the pavement, spitting out a cloud of gravel and dust before catching hold of the road. As the car lurched forward, I risked one more look in the rearview mirror. The road behind me was illuminated in hellish shades of red by the taillights. In the darkness, the man’s pupils were as wide and black as the night itself.
I stared vacantly at the road as I drove back up Route 322, my mind fully occupied with trying to comprehend what the fuck had just happened. It was like a crazy hallucination, the kind of thing you experience in a dream and try to piece together into a narrative after the fact. There was a construction worker, and he was eating the road, and then he told me about my father, and he had mole hands, and …
I pushed the images out of my head and focused on where I was headed: back to my father’s trailer. I hadn’t seen my dad in nearly three decades … until my half-sister Delilah called two weeks earlier. She told me she was moving to Alabama with her new boyfriend and that someone needed to assume responsibility for my father’s care once she was gone. He required a pharmacy’s worth of meds, multiple times a day: heart medicine, kidney medicine, aspirin, anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, sleeping pills, painkillers. He couldn’t be trusted to figure out which meds to take when—the wrong combination at the wrong times could kill him. So, it fell upon me to help.
At first, I said, “hell no.” I couldn’t imagine returning to that place. I ran away so I didn’t need to face the truth about what had happened between those walls—going back would just unearth memories I had long since buried. But Delilah persisted, and eventually, I gave in. I felt some perverse sense of responsibility that I couldn’t explain. The man was my father, after all. He was aging, decrepit, senile, a pathetic shell of his former self. He wasn’t the same man who had done those horrible things when I was a child.
I wasn’t even sure he would recognize me after thirty-plus years away. But he did. I could tell by the way his fists clenched in that old, familiar way. It was sense memory, like how an elderly ballerina whose mind is ravaged by Alzheimer’s still remembers her dance movements when someone plays Swan Lake for her.
He remembered me. He remembered everything. And so did I.
I thought about the night I ran away. About the curl of my father’s lip, the cruelty in his eyes, the smell of whiskey on his breath. About the bruises on my arms, my thighs, my throat. About the smack of the screen door against the side of the trailer as I stumbled into the yard, bleeding from my broken mouth, and ran until I couldn’t run anymore. I was fifteen.
Now, all I could think about were his pills. White pills, pink pills, yellow pills, green pills, each carefully portioned into a plastic box sectioned by days of the week and times of the day—morning, noon, evening, night—a system designed to ensure that the right ones were taken at the right times. I thought about how nervous I had been that I would get it wrong, about what would happen to my father if I did. He didn’t know what pills he was supposed to take; he just popped them into his mouth and dry-swallowed them without a second thought.
The yellow pills were painkillers. Opioids. Delilah said to give him one in the morning and one at night. Any more than that, and he could get addicted. He could overdose.
He could die.
When I finally arrived back at the trailer, I let myself in with the key Delilah had left me. The smell of stale beer and fresh urine attacked my nostrils as I entered. I could hear my father’s ripsaw snoring coming from his bedroom. Using the dim glow of my smartphone screen to light my way, I crept into his kitchen and opened the cabinet where the pill bottles were stored. The opioids were in the front, right where I left them. I twisted off the cap and poured a handful into my palm. Then I popped open the pill box, dumped out the other pills I had so carefully portioned, and replaced them with as many yellow pills as the box could hold.
There were no construction signs on the drive back from my father’s place to my apartment. I hadn’t missed them. I hadn’t dozed. They simply didn’t exist. There was no construction, no trench torn through the asphalt. The road to home—my home—was open and clear, just like the man had promised.
As I passed the stretch of highway where the construction worker had stopped me, my thoughts again turned back to the night I ran away.
I thought about the freezing December air biting into my tear-streaked face as I sprinted through the woods, muscles spasming and teeth chattering. I wanted to keep running, but the cold was too much. Eventually, I gave up. Sitting against the snow-covered trunk of a fallen tree, I closed my eyes and drifted off into unconsciousness.
Sometime later, I awoke in total darkness, certain that I had died. I was covered in dirt, buried in a layer of warm earth and a heavy blanket of leaves. I reached out my hands, a hail of loose earth dropping onto my face as I scraped my nails frantically against the soil. I was in a grave, I thought, a shallow grave. But I wasn't dead. I was awake. I was alive.
I rolled over onto my stomach and lifted my head. A dim shaft of light was streaming ahead of me. That’s when I realized that I wasn't in a grave.
I was in a tunnel.
Belly-crawling toward the light, I emerged onto an embankment beside Route 322 and flagged down a passing truck for a ride. I had no idea how I had ended up in the tunnel, but I was sure that the shelter had saved me from freezing to death overnight. And that I hadn't crawled in there myself. The thought should have been scary, but it wasn't. I felt loved. Protected.
As the truck pulled onto the road, I glanced back at the tunnel one last time, and the breath caught in my throat. A pair of eyes were staring back at me from deep in the shadows—eyes as wide and black as the night itself.
© 2022 Warren Benedetto