This story is by Jeanne Vaughn and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
A thick fog loomed heavy in the pitch-black night as Charlie drove his old Ford pickup, along the potholed backroad. Wiping his overstrained eyes, he struggled to make out what lie ahead, shrouded in the bleak whiteness that enveloped them.
Lisa pressed in closer to Charlie’s side placing her warm, soft hand on the back of his neck, gently, methodically kneading his tight muscles – her touch sending a tingling sensation down his spine, his heart reacting with quickening beats beneath his button-down shirt. Under his breath, Charlie cursed the obscure conditions that slowed their progress, delaying his urgent desire to get to their destination.
It was by chance that he had found it, the old abandoned lane that was once a connector between two well-traveled roads. He had been out quail hunting with Red, his faithful Irish Setter, when he came upon it; over-gown with tall grasses and thorn bushes – hidden, yet accessible. It was perfect, he thought. It could be their own private parking spot, but when first taking Lisa there, she was apprehensive.
“I don’t know, Charlie, It’s a little scary, out here in the middle of nowhere,” she said.
“Hey, that’s just the beauty of it, nobody’s here, just look around,” he said.
“I see that perfectly, and that’s exactly what’s giving me the heebie-jeebies. How on earth did you ever find this place?” asked Lisa.
“I call it – My Lucky Day!” he said, a sly grin crossing his youthful face.
After that, the two young lovers were known to slip away from friends when darkness fell, retreating to their spot on that old deserted lane, parking beneath the lone oak tree whose branches brushed wistfully back and forth over the top of the truck when the night winds stirred.
Charlie took a deep breath, letting the air fill his lungs, his hands gripping firmly on the steering wheel, his knuckles white. Gazing out into nothingness, his eyes scanned ahead – searching, searching for the large rock that revealed the entrance to the lane – they should be close, he thought.
“There it is,” said Charlie, pointing through the haze to the boulder.
Charlie turned off the road and onto the abandoned lane. The truck’s tires bounced agilely over the rough and rocky ground surrounding the boulder tossing its passengers to and fro like weightless rag dolls.
Charlie brought the truck to a halt in their usual spot, under the branches of the stately oak. Laying his head against the back of the seat, he exhaled deeply as he gazed out the window, observing the sea of uniform whiteness that surrounded them.
“Look at that,” said Charlie, his pointer finger aimed outside the truck window. We’re invisible! Isn’t it cool?”
Lisa thought about that. Cool wasn’t exactly what she would call it – it was more like something out of a horror movie, the skin on the back of her neck prickled at the thought.
“If you say so,” she said.
The stressful ride had exhausted Charlie, he needed fresh air.
“I think it would do us good to get out of the truck for a bit, take a little walk up the lane, just to stretch our legs,” said Charlie.
Lisa wasn’t a fraidy-cat, but she didn’t like the idea of being away from the truck – not in this remote place. In the truck, at least, they had a remote chance of getting the heck out of Dodge, but on foot – she considered it highly unlikely. She bit her upper lip, deciding to put her edgy feelings aside.
Opening her door, Charlie extended both his hands as Lisa fell into his waiting arms. Taking her delicate, icy hand in his large, clammy one they plodded cautiously down well-worn path. Unable to see her hand in front of her face, she stopped every few steps listening for sounds in the perilous darkness.
“Isn’t this far enough?” she asked.
“Ah, come on now, you know there’s nothing out here to be afraid of,” said Charlie.
“I don’t know, Charlie, tonight seems different. Maybe it’s the fog, but something out there has me all jittery.”
“You’re right it has to be the fog that’s got you all scared,” said Charlie.
“I’ll have you know, I’m not scared, but something could be out there.”
“That’s just crazy, but if you’re that sissy, let’s just head back to the truck – I wouldn’t want the Boogie Man to get you,” said Charlie.
Lisa stuck out her tongue and made a pouty face, Charlie laughed. Hand in hand they walked back to the parked truck. Lisa immediately reached across the seat, pressing the lock button on her door.
“Locking the doors, huh?” said Charlie.
“Better safe than sorry,” she said.
And, you, Mr. Skeptical, need to lock your door, too!”
“Oh, brother! Are you serious?” said Charlie.
“As a heart attack!” she said.
Charlie let out a long exasperated sigh, then pushed down the lock button.
Feeling more at ease, Lisa snuggled close to Charlie, her lips pressing softly, sweetly on his cheek. Her slightest touch burned into his flesh, his heart hammering against his chest like a bass drum. Their two bodies messed together as one, fell down into the seat of that old pickup making it rock with the motion of their bodies.
How much time had passed? Lisa sat straight up in the seat, and glared alarmingly at her watch.
“Charlie! We’ve got to go! I can’t believe it’s almost eleven thirty. We have to leave, now!”
Charlie sat bolt upright, his hair sticking straight up like a porcupine. Turning the key he pumped the gas, the engine turned over once and died, he tried again, same thing. The third time, the engine wouldn’t even turn over.
“Crap, we’re out of gas!” said Charlie.
“What? There’s nobody around here for miles, my parents are going to kill me!”
“Hold on, don’t get so worked up, it’s no big problem, I’ll just go for gas,” said Charlie, reassuringly.
“Leave me here? No way, Jose, I’m coming with you!.”
“I can move faster on my own, and really there’s a house only about a mile that way,” Charlie pointed in the direction ahead of the truck.
“I don’t like this, but I suppose you’re right,” she said..
“Lock the doors, I’ll be back before you know it,” he said.
He kissed her, emerged from the truck and started walking. Lisa watched his every step as he disappeared into the fog.
The night air was beginning to get cool, and the wind was picking up making the tree branches set about their wistful song as they brushed across the top of the truck. Like a metronome, Lisa ticked off the steady tempo: one, two.. one, two.. one, two.. one, two..one, two……… her eyelids growing heavier and heavier as the steady, unvarying tone drown on and on in her head. Drooping, closing – she couldn’t keep her eyes open, try as she may. Eventually, the relentless draw of sleep overtook her, and she let her weary body collapse into the seat.
Suddenly, her eyes flew open, startled by an unfamiliar sound – a heavy thud.. thud.. thud.. thud.. on the top of the truck. The sound swayed in the same rhythmic motion as the brush of the tree branches, but with more intensity, weightier. Lisa sat bolt upright in the seat. Rolling down the window, she probed desperately through the opaque darkness for some sign of Charlie. In the distance she was sure she saw a faint light coming toward the truck. She squinted harder, her eyes searching, searching through the heavy fog. Yes, relieved that she wasn’t hallucinating, there definitely was a light, swaying, swaying, like someone carrying a lantern – it had to be Charlie!
Jumping from the cab of the truck, Lisa started running toward the light. Closer and closer she came, but still, only the dim swinging light was visible through the murk. She called to him.
“Charlie, Charlie,” but there was no answer.
The light kept coming toward her, until only feet before her stood a creature, his gruesome face unlike any she had ever seen. In his large, gnarly hands he held what appeared to be a hangman’s noose.
Panic surged through her body, she turned – running, running back toward the truck. The truck in sight, the creature behind her, the lantern casting its light on the image before her – Charlie’s lifeless body hanging from the tree branch swinging slowly, slowly – back and forth, back and forth over the top of the truck. Lisa let out an excruciating scream, a scream that went unheard.
This has long been an urban legend in a small Tennessee town. As the legend goes: if you dare to drive to that lane on a moonless night, park your car beneath the lone oak, and wait patiently, you might see the swaying light of the lantern – but, beware – it could be coming for you!