off the map
Amy rode swiftly down the dark road, visor flipped up to see through the misting rain.
Once down the bank, she had passed the point of no return, and there was nowhere to go but forward. Based on what she did know, she was pretty sure she knew the risks, but she would be lying to herself by insisting that she wasn’t afraid. Be careful, a voice in the back of her head warned, You also go to Flathead High. Somehow she knew the Black Van was out to get her, too. And not just because of what school she went to. She couldn’t understand how she knew, yet she didn’t have time to puzzle it out.
In spite of the mounting objections from various corners of her mind, she had a friend to rescue. (Though she had yet to see if he was boyfriend material.) After all, how was Shades supposed to go out with her Saturday night if he was roadkill?
Steeling herself against unknown dangers, she pressed on. With all the rain that had fallen earlier, there were no tracks for her to follow. No clue to where Shades, or the other vehicle, which she had her own strong suspicions about, had gone. At least she hadn’t run into any of John’s hitchhikers. Still, the odds were hardly on her side, she knew she had no serious chance of finding him.
All she could do at each fork in the road was guess, yet she still held to a nagging intuition. The only thing she could think of to compare it to was something that had happened to her during Christmas vacation. The rest of her family had taken a cruise to Hawai’i, but she had come down with a really vicious case of the flu at the last minute and ended up staying behind.
Turned out she was even sicker than she had thought. All of her friends, even Shelly, were also out of town on vacation, so she had ended up home alone for two days. Sick in bed, and having fevered dreams about which she would remember little after the fever finally broke.
That grey December day, she had felt something terribly off about everything around her. The house stood empty, yet for most of the day she did not feel alone. At the height of her fever, it took her an entire hour of lying in bed with her legs crossed before she finally summoned the nerve to go to the bathroom. It was only after her fear of pissing herself finally outweighed her fear of the familiar shadows she was jumping at that she at last took action.
By the time she staggered back to her room, wielding a broom from the bathroom closet, locked her door and crashed in bed, she found a moment to wonder how even a fever could make her so paranoid and delusional. This was nothing like her, yet she sensed a shadow and a threat haunting her most intimate surroundings. In her weakened state, she could only keep her eyes open for so long before falling asleep in spite of herself.
Even by the next day, all she remembered of it was a blur of scary images, a sense of being repeatedly chased and cornered in some surreal game of cat and mouse. Delirium, fear, and desperation. And, at the heart of it all, a constant pressure to just give in, but to what, precisely, she had no idea. Only the premonition that it would be worse than the chase itself.
It was maddening, as if she couldn’t wake up, no matter how real yet unreal it all seemed. Near the end, all she wished for was to make it stop, to just wake up, and she cared less and less about how.
Then, just when she could stand no more, had tired of running, a voice had called out to her. Like the rest of the details, most of it was lost to her waking mind. But she remembered hope, and finding strength enough to break free of this bizarre nightmare.
Of course, Amy had been grateful for this mysterious helping hand, even if she had no idea where that extra strength had come from.
Since then, at least most of the time, she attributed the entire ordeal to the highest fever she had ever had in her life, but at times like this she had to wonder. Something about her search made her think about that day. This entire forest was starting to feel the same way her house had that day, and she kept expecting things to jump out at her. She suspected she had felt a hint of it earlier, but she was too preoccupied looking for Pookie, and dismissed it as just the storm.
Now she wasn’t so sure.
Despite the temptingly simple explanation of a high temperature temporarily short-circuiting her brain, the whole experience had somehow turned her world upside down. She spent the past several months completely lost in her own life, lost in thought, lost in memory. It came and went, but never went away, and now she understood that in recent years, she had drifted with the current too long.
She used to have such wild dreams when she was a kid. In time, a lot of it had slipped away, for it had been longer and longer since she had them, but even now, she was pretty sure he had put in an appearance or two along the way. Had slipped away, and in the waking world, her life had gradually become duller for it. Now she realized that after merely meeting Shades, she secretly hoped those dreams would return. Indeed, she had drifted too long, now it was time to reassert herself, and she was beginning to believe Shades was a part of that. Of getting out of her life. Even before she noticed him, she realized that Shades had always been ready to lend her, as well as anyone else who needed it, a helping hand. But especially her. Though he had his own circle of friends, he had never played the Clique Game, despite the Game trying to play him.
Whatever had befallen him tonight, Shades didn’t deserve it, of that she was certain. On top of that, she told herself, he had made a date with her, and she wasn’t going to let him off the hook that easily. He was one of the nicest guys she’d ever met, and that counted for a lot with her.
A moment later, her runaway train of thought was derailed by what had to be the brightest flash of lightning she had ever seen. On its heels came a subsonic wave that jolted the very handlebars of her ride. She slowed to a halt, at a total loss. That strobe of light had startled her, reminding her of the probabilities she was challenging with every choice, that what she really needed was some kind of confirmation.
Amy found the answer to her unasked question square in the circles of her headlights.
At the next bend in the road was a familiar motorcycle lying in the ditch. Farther down the way, barely illuminated by her headlights’ beams, was a severely leaning tree, so young and skinny to have met such an unnatural fate, looking as if it had been struck with considerable force. Even as she sat there idling, she realized that she had been so engrossed in her worries, she might have ridden right past this important clue without even noticing.
At least now she knew she was on the right track. A quick look around revealed no one about, so she called out several times. When she received no reply, it only increased her suspicions. If Shades was on foot, and especially if he was injured, she knew he couldn’t have gone too far. So she took off again, hoping to catch up before it was too late.
She wasn’t sure what she might be too late for, but if it involved this Black Van business, she knew she couldn’t afford to be.
A couple turns later, the air started shimmering around her. Too shocked to brake, she rode for several more seconds as the air wavered from dark to light. Then stayed, the dark and trees and misting rain replaced by broad daylight, wide open terrain, and a clear blue sky.
The old logging road replaced by a two-lane strip of pavement.
When, a few seconds later, the idea finally occurred to her to hit the brakes, she stopped in the middle of the road. She was nearly blinded by the abrupt change of lighting, and so startled she had nearly swerved into the other lane trying to “avoid” whatever had just happened. Where she was once on a dirt road in the mountains, she was now sitting in the middle of a highway on some arid plain, surrounded for fathomless miles by scrub and mesas and emptiness.
Still blinking away the brightness, she took in the scene before her. At first, she was positive she must be hallucinating, but even as she sat there, she could feel dry heat pounding down on her, shimmering back up from the asphalt. Only a trace of pungent forest scent clung to her damp jacket, otherwise all she smelled was dry, windswept, sun-baked. Nothing at all like the Flathead Valley.
She knew, just knew, she was in another world.
Though a part of her insisted that she had merely been transported somehow to another part of her own world, there was also this gut feeling. That no matter how far down that road she drove, she would never find anyplace she had even heard of. Feeling for all the world like she was trapped in one of her dad’s old sci-fi flicks, her mind started piecing together all of the strange phenomena that had intruded into her everyday life in the past couple hours.
Thinking quickly, Amy turned around, heedless of which lane was which. Fortunately, the road was deserted in both directions for miles, so she doubled back as close to her point of entry as she could figure. If she had somehow crossed into another dimension or something, she didn’t want to stay on this side for long.
Ultimately, her back-and-forth passes were of no avail. After crisscrossing the entire width of both lanes, she finally gave up. Whatever way she had passed was now clearly closed to her.
“I don’t believe this…” Amy muttered, stopping in the middle of the road again. Perhaps the universe did have a sense of irony. Remembering all the things she had said only hours ago, mostly to irritate Chris Nimrod, later to break the ice with Shades, every word now mocking her. Remembering something Shades had said earlier, some quip about his aunt’s old family joke, about how things that get lost end up in the Twilight Zone, she said, to whatever gods might be listening, “I take it all back…”
Myriad questions swirled through her head, and she had no answers to any of them. Where? Why? How? Was this happening all over Lakeside? What was going on? What would Shades think when he finds himself stood-up at the show tomorrow night? Was he even still there to be stood up? She fought down panic, finally settling for a buzzing undertone of anxiety.
Amy dug in one coat pocket, producing a pair of mirrorized sunglasses. She had originally bought them after she talked to Shades, a sleeker version of his style, just for fun. Now they were the only way to see what she was doing against the glare without squinting, which was already starting to give her a headache.
Ahead of her she saw a road sign, green and white and hauntingly familiar by design.
“Ashton, 86... Coyote Downs, 108…”
And another a short way beyond it, advertising Scenic Naz-Nak Mesa.
She wondered if perhaps Shades had ended up here as well. If anyone here might have a clue about what was going on. If there was any chance of getting back. She still harbored some hope that she was in her own world, but for some reason she doubted it. Something about this place felt different, the light was different, the air even smelled different.
With as much decisiveness as she could manage, Amy concluded that all sitting in the middle of the road would get her was run over, she turned the ignition and set out again. Eighty-six miles to Ashton— wherever the hell that was— eighty-six miles of desert highway to some answers, she hoped.
She knew, just knew, she was in trouble. In spite of all of the pavement running for eternity in both directions, she understood that she was past that proverbial point where the blacktop ends. All on her own. Shades may very well have ended up here, too, and if he was, she was determined to find him.
Either way, she felt she had a long road ahead of her…