Take the I-87 north from Queensbury, Vermont. Then the 28 up through North Creek. Keep going, if you want to take the route that I did. Keep going, and you’ll pass right through the town that doesn’t exist on any map.
My headlights probed the first of the ramshackle buildings through the smoky dusk. This was no isolated farmhouse or wild hermit hiding from the world. A real town, with shy street signs peaking out from tangled vines and ivy. Looming apartment buildings that might have been abandoned for years, and ramshackle houses that looked as though they were grown from the earth rather than built from it. The place was materializing around me, appearing so suddenly that I couldn’t imagine how I had been blind to it a moment before.
I slowed to a stop as an old man crawled his way across the street. He was huddled against the cold, pausing to leer through my windshield and breathe a frosty fog in my direction. I was growing impatient and was about to honk when he staggered up to the car, clattering his knuckles upon my window.
“Why are you here?”
Perhaps it was just his frail voice breaking in the cold wind, but it seemed as though the strain of panic lay just below the surface. A depressed man, wrought by anxious doubt, screaming at himself in the mirror before pulling a tight smile for the rest of the world to see. That’s what I was looking at outside my window.
“I don’t even know where here is,” I answered him. “Is there a hotel where I can get a room for the night?”
“No hotels.” The old man was turning in a slow circle. I followed his gaze, noticing a growing number of faces framed by faded curtains, watching us from the surrounding buildings.
“A motel then? I’m not picky.”
“No motels. No inns, no beds no breakfasts — nobody stays here.”
More eyes. More faces watching us. Old men standing on the street corner, not bothering to disguise their gaping stares. Doors opening to reveal ancient women who might as well have been the direct descendants of prunes. Wrinkled hands wringing together, bleary eyes straining through their spectacles. Not a soul younger than sixty, and all staring with the horrified fascination of one witnessing a brutal car accident.
My nerves were fireworks, exploding with the undefined tension in the air. I nodded curtly and began to roll up the window when old hands shot through the opening, grabbing me by my collar.
“Take me with you. Don’t leave me here. Please,” he begged, real tears swelling up from the sunken wells of his eyes.
I shoved him back on instinct. The window slid shut, but he wasted no time in clutching the door handle and rattling it with all his might. I would have thought it was dementia if it weren’t for the heavy silence of all those eyes.
“Please! You don’t know what it’s like! Don’t go don’t go don’t go -” and on and on, uselessly pounding his weak flesh upon the metal door, crumpling to the ground beside my car and wailing like an insolent child.
I shifted into drive and put my foot on the gas, but a sudden sharp whistle gave me pause. A policeman had appeared beside me, cropped gray hair and piercing black eyes like a man who remembers the worst of war with warm nostalgia. He roughly pulled the pleading man away from my car before rapping a quick, authoritative burst of knocks on my window.
I rolled down the glass once more, keeping an eye on the discarded man who still trembled with silent, heaving sobs.
“Was this man giving you trouble?” the policeman asked.
I rapidly shook my head. “I was just asking for directions, that’s all,” I said.
“Just stay on this road. It’ll take you right through town and you’ll be on your way,” the policeman said.
“Actually, I was looking for a place to -”
“This road is the one you want,” he repeated. “There’s nothing else for you here, understand?”
The black eyes turned away and I was able to roll my window up once more. The rest of the eyes — those peeking from buildings or glaring from the street — they remained fixed on the scene.
I was only too thankful to be driving again, but I didn’t even make it a block before a scream made me slam to another halt. In the open glow of a street lamp, unmasked before dozens of eyes, I watched the policeman’s baton fall for a second time. Then a third. And a forth — each wet bludgeoning thump accompanied by shrieks of agony.
The old man who had first addressed me was being beaten to a pulp in the middle of the street. The zealous baton alternated with quick, vicious kicks from the policeman’s steel-toed boots. It wasn’t the screams which haunted me though. It was the cold, impassive silence from the policeman. No warning. No threat. Not even sadistic satisfaction. It was just another day for him, another duty.
Those black eyes turned away from the writhing form on the ground. A second later, all the eyes from the entire town seemed to be on me. I stomped the pedal, tearing through the stop sign. Not fast enough to avoid hearing another gut-wrenching scream echo from behind me.
I couldn’t just leave though. It’s my fault what happened. I should have let him in my car immediately, but there was nothing left but to hope I wasn’t too late. I circled around the block, and by the time I got back the eyes had all turned away. Curtains were drawn tight again. Doors were closed. The old man was the only one left, still moaning and whimpering in the street where he’d been left.
I stopped the car and wasted no time in leaping out. His decrepit frame was so emaciated that I had no trouble lifting him into the backseat. He was still alive — barely — although there was a catching rattle in his chest when he breathed and it looked like a few of his ribs had caved in. One of his eyes fluttered open for a moment.
“Please.” He had to spit blood between words. “Don’t stop. No matter what you see, don’t stop until the last house is gone.”
I had no intention of staying any longer than I had to. The first curtains were just flitting open again, but I was already back on the road. I braced myself against the impending sound of sirens and the inevitable chase that never came. I didn’t see a single other car on the road as I glided through the eerie twilight.
The only sign of life was the regular beat of windows. At each block, a new set would snap open with mechanical precision. Old heads like cuckoo birds sprang out in unison. Next the windows from the previous block would slam shut, continuing the steady rhythm like the incessant pounding of drums.
The rhythm didn’t change, block after block, but gradually the faces peering out did. The further I went, the older the inhabitants became, shrinking and decaying into loose folds of yellowed skin. Then this too gave way, until presently I found myself being watched by faces so ravaged by time that I could clearly see bleached bone and hollow sockets turning as I sped along the road. Even the buildings here were in various stages of collapse and calamitous ruin, almost as though I was driving through the inexorable span of years.
The houses were just beginning to thin and give way to the wholesome shelter of trees when I glanced behind at my passenger. The shock forced me to slam my foot on the breaks, barely avoiding swerving off the road entirely.
The gradual decay of the town was mirrored on my companion. Sagging flesh had dripped from his frame entirely, and the solemn skull behind me was preposterously balanced on a heap of splintered and broken bones — ancient wounds which had never healed.
“Don’t stop, not yet.” Words like trickling dust escaped the skull.
But I had already stopped. And the longer I ruminated on that unavoidable fact, the longer I remained frozen in static terror of what was to come.
The rhythm like the pounding of drums had returned. Windows, doors, opening and slamming, then opening again to unleash the remaining denizens that time had forgot. Lurching, shambling, and then springing to life with blasphemous vitality, the inhabitants of this charnel realm were closing around my car. Ragged skin fluttered in an unfelt breeze and white talons of bone raked the ground to pull them ever closer. Vacuous stares fixated upon me, and always always that infernal drumming which mounted into the crescendo of a macabre hymn.
“Take us with you!” A lone shriek at first, but quickly taken up by the rest. “Don’t leave us here!”
The engine lamented my efforts to start the car again. A tense rattle, then a sickening crunch like the mashing of rusted machinery. Had it aged with my passage as well? Had I? There was no time to stop and think. I leapt into the open night, brisk air heaving in my lungs as I scrambled up the hill toward the woods.
Drumming, drumming, ferocious and wild in intensity yet retaining its unerring rhythm. I had the oddest sensation that I was listening to my own pulse, and as I pushed myself harder and faster I could hear the drumming keep pace with my racing heart. It didn’t matter though, nothing mattered except the last lonely house which I was swiftly growing level with and the figure which was emerging to greet me.
The policeman, baton in hand, gray-haired and stern and living as I had seen him last. The baton was tapping along with the impatient drums, and as I drew level I could feel the hesitancy in my pursuers.
“Still looking for directions?” he asked, a coy smile playing around the corner of his mouth.
“No sir.” I wanted to say so much more, but that was all the breath I had at the time.
“Just passing through, are you?”
“Need a ride?” His smile was growing. I didn’t like how many teeth it showed.
The drums had stopped. The crowd had stopped. My car started somewhere behind me in the darkness. A flash of confusion passed the policeman’s face. I liked that considerably more than the teeth.
“Don’t you dare -”
But I was already running. Back down the hill, back toward my car. The pounding of the policeman’s feet behind me, but it was so quiet compared to the resounding drums a moment before. The uncertain crowd parted at the policeman’s thundering approach, but I was practically flying now.
My car never went below 10 miles an hour, but the passenger door was open and I launched myself inside. The slam of the door behind me was the first beat in the resuming drums. All at once the crowd was screaming again, drowning out the shouts and the threats from the pursuing policeman. Mounting and mounting back into that hellish cacophony, and then just as swiftly dwindling back to nothing as the engine celebrated its triumph.
The old man in my car, or what was left of him — he drove me to safety that night. It’s almost morning now and we still haven’t stopped, but just as soon as I work up the courage, I’m going to have a whole lot of questions to ask him.
I think I’ll start by asking the name of that town.