This story is by Chris McGurl and was part of our 2017 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the Summer Writing Contest stories here.
I’d really rather not talk about that anymore. Can’t I just-
My car went off the road when I saw it, and I think I must have rolled over a few times before, finally, I stopped rolling, with the car lying on its roof. I got scraped pretty badly, but to be honest, I didn’t feel much pain until much later. It was still there when I pried my way out of the wreckage and crawled onto the soggy grass. A shape like blood red drapes that surged and rippled on the cold, misty air like a billowing sheet of jellyfish on heaving seas. It started calling for me then, it reached for me, and I remember starting to scream, but I don’t remember stopping.
This was years ago. I told the first responders about this, the medics, and the police. The police didn’t seem very happy with me, I must have sounded unhinged, shouting and pointing at Herb who was still hovering in the spot I had first seen him. The guys in the ambulance basically ignored me; they must be used to the people they have to pick up jabbering like idiots.
What? Oh – yeah, I know, but that was the first name that popped into my head, and I like the name ‘Herb’. Indulge me, man. I couldn’t do it otherwise. Let me have that, at least, when I’m here, safe.
No one ever speaks to me about Herb anymore. No one ever used to, much, anyway, very few, and never for long. No one ever saw him, no one except for me, and I can’t put him into the right words, even after all these years, even though I see him every day. There are no eyes, and yet I feel a gaze piercing me, like rivulets of acid streaking my body. And there’s a chasm in his center, spreading like a horrible maw, preparing to scream, only – there is no sound. Yeah, I know I said he calls for me.
See? This is what you do, you and your friends. You speak to me about ‘Herb’, wagging your index fingers like air quotation marks openly at first, and later, over the years, only stealthily, under the table or in your laps, when you figure I’m not going to notice. It pisses me off. After a while, I started picking up on how your fingers would twitch inadvertently, like some sort of residual reflex that you can’t suppress, probably aren’t even aware of, triggered by the word ‘Herb’. He was there when those people died, man, he almost got me, too, dammit, this is not –
Ok, ok. You’re right. I’m sorry. But this has been going on for years. And I’m all alone with this.
I’m no psychiatrist, even after all those years of sessions, so I don’t know the exact terms for and order of the individual stages, but I’ve certainly been through all of them. Shock – I guess that was the very first. Fear. Denial. Relief. Curiosity. Fearlessness. Hostility. Resignation. Indifference. I went through them all, some – most – repeatedly. Every single day on my way to work, when I passed the site of the accident, there was Herb, and those goddamn bloody, oily tendrils curled toward me and snapped around my mind. Even on every single non-work day, I would make a point of driving out there, and there he’d be. At some point, the non-work days became every day, when it became clear to everyone that I probably shouldn’t come anymore. He was there when they towed the car wrecks away and piled the bodies into the ambulances, he was there when the seasons changed, at every time of day, in every type of weather, sunshine or heavy rain like when it all started, year in, year out. When the fog was so thick that I could only guess where my own hand was, I could see Herb there at the usual spot, and feel him seeing me.
But let me – I have to – I guess I should mention that Cheryl did actually talk to me about Herb a lot. She felt she had to, probably. Maybe I forced her because at the beginning I was frightened, freaked-out, fascinated. I took Cheryl to work with me for a while, we drove out there quite a lot, and every day, there was Herb, as always, and Cheryl kept asking ‘so where is this thing?’ and that’s when I finally realized she didn’t see him, nobody saw him. Her question stayed the same but the way she asked it changed over time. So, before the relationship eventually fell apart for good, I tried to tone down the rhetoric on Herb and let it phase out of my interactions with others. Or maybe it was just that I phased myself out of interacting with others.
Speaking of Cheryl makes me realize that I left something out. Anger. I was angry a lot at Herb. I’d drive by and give him the finger. I’d get out of the car and throw rocks at him, whatever I’d find. I’d stand on the road where the woman had been crushed on impact or further out in the field where her little girl had died after being tossed from the car. I’d stand there and cuss Herb out for hours. And he’d just hover and take it, in silence – a crimson sheet of stone. And that ‘s pretty much how Cheryl looked, eventually, when I spoke to her about anger. Something in her withered, and didn’t recover.
Wanna know the worst? When I stand there, and those spirally coils wrap around my head, I look down and the little girl has her fingers around my ankle, a sheet of blood trailing her, her pale eyes blindly gaping up at me, her mouth open in a silent scream. I scream, too, man. He’s coming for me. I was there when they died.