Some people see things that others cannot. Tales of Mystery and Imagination. “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown” (H.P. Lovecraft).

Dennis Etchison: It Only Comes Out at Night

Dennis Etchison



If you leave L.A. by way of San Bernardino, headed for Route 66 and points east, you must cross the Mojave Desert.
Even after Needles and the border, however, there is no relief; the dry air only thins further as the long, relentless climb continues in earnest. Flagstaff is still almost two hundred miles, and Winslow, Gallup and Albuquerque are too many hours away to think of making without food, rest and, mercifully, sleep.
It is like this: the car runs hot, hotter than it ever has before, the plies of the tires expand and contract until the sidewalls begin to shimmy slightly as they spin on over the miserable Arizona roads, giving up a faint odor like burning hair from between the treads, as the windshield colors over with essence of honeybee, wasp, dragonfly, mayfly, June bug, ladybug and the like, and the radiator, clotted with the bodies of countless kamikaze insects, hisses like a moribund lizard in the sun...
All of which means, of course, that if you are traveling that way between May and September, you move by night.
Only by night.
For there are, after all, dawn check-in motels, Do Not Disturb signs for bungalow doorknobs; there are diners for mid-afternoon breakfasts, coffee by the carton; there are 24-hour filling stations bright as dreams—Whiting Brothers, Conoco, Terrible Herbst—their flags as unfamiliar as their names, with ice machines, soda machines, candy machines; and there are the sudden, unexpected Rest Areas, just off the highway, with brick bathrooms and showers and electrical outlets, constructed especially for those who are weary, out of money, behind schedule...

So McClay had had to learn, the hard way.
He slid his hands to the bottom of the steering wheel and peered ahead into the darkness, trying to relax. But the wheel stuck to his fingers like warm candy. Off somewhere to his left, the horizon flickered with pearly luminescence, then faded again to black. This time he did not bother to look. Sometimes, though, he wondered just how far away the lightning was striking; not once during the night had the sound of its thunder reached him here in the car.



In the back seat, his wife moaned.
The trip out had turned all but unbearable for her. Four days it had taken, instead of the expected two-and-a-half; he made a great effort not to think of it, but the memory hung over the car like a thunderhead.
It had been a blur, a fever dream. Once, on the second day, he had been passed by a churning bus, its silver sides blinding him until he noticed a Mexican woman in one of the window seats. She was not looking at him. She was holding a swooning infant to the glass, squeezing water onto its head from a plastic baby bottle to keep it from passing out.
McClay sighed and fingered the buttons on the car radio.
He knew he would get nothing from the AM or FM bands, not out here, but he clicked it on anyway. He left the volume and tone controls down, so as not to wake Evvie. Then he punched the seldom-used middle button, the shortwave band, and raised the gain carefully until he could barely hear the radio over the hum of the tires.
Static.
Slowly he swept the tuner across the bandwidth, but there was only white noise. It reminded him a little of the summer rain yesterday, starting back, the way it had sounded bouncing off the windows.
He was about to give up when he caught a voice, crackling, drifting in and out. He worked the knob like a safecracker, zeroing in on the signal.
A few bars of music. A tone, then the voice again. ". . . Greenwich Mean Time." Then the station ID.
It was the Voice of America Overseas Broadcast.
He grunted disconsolately and killed it.
His wife stirred.
"Why'd you turn it off?" she murmured. "I was listening to that. Good. Program."
"Take it easy," he said, "easy, you're still asleep. We'll be stopping soon."
"...Only comes out at night," he heard her say, and then she was lost again in the blankets.

He pressed the glove compartment, took out one of the Automobile Club guides. It was already clipped open. McClay flipped on the overhead light and drove with one hand, reading over—for the hundredth time?—the list of motels that lay ahead. He knew the list by heart, but seeing the names again reassured him somehow. Besides, it helped to break the monotony.

It was the kind of place you never expect to find in the middle of a long night, a bright place with buildings (a building, at least) and cars, other cars drawn off the highway to be together in the protective circle of light.
A Rest Area.
He would have spotted it without the sign. Elevated sodium vapor lighting bathed the scene in an almost peach-colored glow, strikingly different from the cold blue-white sentinels of the Interstate Highway. He had seen other Rest Area signs on the way out, probably even this one. But in daylight the signs had meant nothing more to him than FRONTAGE ROAD or BUSINESS DISTRICT NEXT RIGHT. He wondered if it was the peculiar warmth of light that made the small island of blacktop appear so inviting.
McClay decelerated, downshifted and left Interstate 40.
The car dipped and bumped, and he was aware of the new level of sound from the engine as it geared down for the first time in hours.
He eased in next to a Pontiac Firebird, toed the emergency brake and cut the ignition.
He allowed his eyes to close and his head to sink back into the headrest. At last.
The first thing he noticed was the quiet.
It was deafening. His ears began to ring with the high-pitched whine of a late-night TV test pattern.
The second thing he noticed was a tingling at the tip of his tongue.
It brought to mind a picture of a snake's tongue. Picking up electricity from the air, he thought.
The third was the rustling awake of his wife, in back.
She pulled herself up. "Are we sleeping now? Why are the lights...?"

He saw the outline of her head in the mirror. "It's just a rest stop, hon. I—the car needs a break." Well, it was true, wasn't it? "You want the rest room? There's one back there, see it?"
"Oh my God."
"What's the matter now?"
"Leg's asleep. Listen, are we or are we not going to get a—"
"There's a motel coming up." He didn't say that they wouldn't hit the one he had marked in the book for another couple of hours; he didn't want to argue. He knew she needed the rest—he needed it too, didn't he? "Think I'll have some more of that coffee, though," he said.
"Isn't any more," she yawned.
The door slammed.
Now he was able to recognize the ringing in his ears for what it was: the sound of his own blood. It almost succeeded in replacing the steady drone of the car.
He twisted around, fishing over the back of the seat for the ice chest.
There should be a couple of Cokes left, at least.
His fingers brushed the basket next to the chest, riffling the edges of maps and tour books, by now reshuffled haphazardly over the first-aid kit he had packed himself (tourniquet, forceps, scissors, ammonia inhalants, Merthiolate, triangular bandage, compress, adhesive bandages, tannic acid) and the fire extinguisher, the extra carton of cigarettes, the remainder of a half-gallon of drinking water, the thermos (which Evvie said was empty, and why would she lie?).
He popped the top of a can.
Through the side window he saw Evvie disappearing around the corner of the building. She was wrapped to the gills in her blanket.
He opened the door and slid out, his back aching.
He stood there blankly, the unnatural light washing over him.
He took a long, sweet pull from the can. Then he started walking.

The Firebird was empty.
And the next car, and the next.
Each car he passed looked like the one before it, which seemed crazy until he realized that it must be the work of the light. It cast an even, eerie tan over the baked metal tops, like orange sunlight through air thick with suspended particles. Even the windshields appeared to be filmed over with a thin layer of settled dust. It made him think of country roads, sundowns.
He walked on.
He heard his footsteps echo with surprising clarity, resounding down the staggered line of parked vehicles. Finally it dawned on him (and now he knew how tired he really was) that the cars must actually have people in them—sleeping people. Of course. Well hell, he thought, watching his step, I wouldn't want to wake anyone. The poor devils.
Besides the sound of his footsteps, there was only the distant swish of an occasional, very occasional car on the highway; from here, even that was only a distant hush, growing and then subsiding like waves on a nearby shore.
He reached the end of the line, turned back.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw, or thought he saw, a movement by the building.
It would be Evvie, shuffling back.
He heard the car door slam.
He recalled something he had seen in one of the tourist towns in New Mexico: circling the park—in Taos, that was where they had been—he had glimpsed an ageless Indian, wrapped in typical blanket, ducking out of sight into the doorway of a gift shop; with the blanket over his head that way, the Indian had somehow resembled an Arab, or so it had seemed to him at the time.
He heard another car door slam.
That was the same day—was it only last week?—that she had noticed the locals driving with their headlights on (in honor of something or other, some regional election, perhaps: "'My face speaks for itself,' drawled Herman J. 'Fashio' Trujillo, Candidate for Sheriff"); she had insisted at first that it must be a funeral procession, though for whom she could not guess.

McClay came to the car, stretched a last time, and crawled back in.
Evvie was bundled safely again in the back seat.
He lit a quick cigarette, expecting to hear her voice any second, complaining, demanding that he roll down the windows, at least, and so forth. But, as it turned out, he was able to sit undisturbed as he smoked it down almost to the filter.

Paguate. Bluewater. Thoreau.
He blinked.
Klagetoh. Joseph City. Ash Fork.
He blinked and tried to focus his eyes from the taillights a half-mile ahead to the bug-spattered glass, then back again.
Petrified Forest National Park.
He blinked, refocusing. But it did no good.
A twitch started on the side of his face, close by the corner of his eye.
Rehoboth.
He strained at a road sign, the names and mileages, but instead a seemingly endless list of past and future shops and detours shimmered before his mind's eye.
I've had it, he thought. Now, suddenly, it was catching up with him, the hours of repressed fatigue; he felt a rushing out of something from his chest. No way to make that motel—hell, I can't even remember the name of it now. Check the book. But it doesn't matter. The eyes. Can't control my eyes anymore.
(He had already begun to hallucinate things like tree trunks and cows and Mack trucks speeding toward him on the highway. The cow had been straddling the broken line; in the last few minutes its lowing, deep and regular, had become almost inviting.)
Well, he could try for any motel. Whatever turned up next.
But how much farther would that be?

He ground his teeth together, feeling the pulsing at his temples. He struggled to remember the last sign.
The next town. It might be a mile. Five miles. Fifty.
Think! He said it, he thought it, he didn't know which.
If he could just pull over, pull over right now and lie down for a few minutes—
He seemed to see clear ground ahead. No rocks, no ditch. The shoulder, just ahead.
Without thinking he dropped into neutral and coasted, aiming for it.
The car glided to a stop.
God, he thought.
He forced himself to turn, reach into the back seat.
The lid to the chest was already off. He dipped his fingers into the ice and retrieved two half-melted cubes, lifted them into the front seat and began rubbing them over his forehead.
He let his eyes close, seeing dull lights fire as he daubed at the lids, the rest of his face, the forehead again. As he slipped the ice into his mouth and chewed, it broke apart as easily as snow.
He took a deep breath. He opened his eyes again.
At that moment a huge tanker roared past, slamming an aftershock of air into the side of the car. The car rocked like a boat at sea.
No. It was no good.
So. So he could always turn back, couldn't he? And why not? The Rest Area was only twenty, twenty-five minutes behind him. (Was that all?) He could pull out and hang a U and turn back, just like that. And then sleep. It would be safer there. With luck, Evvie wouldn't even know. An hour's rest, maybe two; that was all he would need.
Unless—was there another Rest Area ahead?
How soon?
He knew that the second wind he felt now wouldn't last, not for more than a few minutes. No, it wasn't worth the chance.

He glanced in the rearview mirror.
Evvie was still down, a lumpen mound of blanket and hair.
Above her body, beyond the rear window, the raised headlights of another monstrous truck, closing ground fast.
He made the decision.
He slid into first and swung out in a wide arc, well ahead of the blast of the truck, and worked up to fourth gear. He was thinking about the warm, friendly lights he had left behind.

He angled in next to the Firebird and cut the lights.
He started to reach for a pillow from the back, but why bother? It would probably wake Evvie, anyway.
He wadded up his jacket, jammed it against the passenger armrest, and lay down.
First he crossed his arms over his chest. Then behind his head. Then he gripped his hands between his knees. Then he was on his back again, his hands at his sides, his feet cramped against the opposite door.
His eyes were wide open.
He lay there, watching chain lightning flash on the horizon.
Finally he let out a breath that sounded like all the breaths he had ever taken going out at once, and drew himself up.
He got out and walked over to the rest room.
Inside, white tiles and bare lights. His eyes felt raw, peeled. Finished, he washed his hands but not his face; that would only make sleep more difficult.
Outside again and feeling desperately out of synch, he listened to his shoes falling hollowly on the cement.
"Next week we've got to get organized...."
He said this, he was sure, because he heard his voice coming back to him, though with a peculiar empty resonance. Well, this time tomorrow night he would be home. As unlikely as that seemed now.
He stopped, bent for a drink from the water fountain.

The footsteps did not stop.
Now wait, he thought. I'm pretty far gone, but—
He swallowed, his ears popping.
The footsteps stopped.
Hell, he thought, I've been pushing too hard. We. She. No, it was my fault, my plan this time. To drive nights, sleep days. Just so. As long as you can sleep.
Easy, take it easy.
He started walking again, around the corner and back to the lot.
At the corner, he thought he saw something move at the edge of his vision.
He turned quickly to the right, in time for a fleeting glimpse of something—someone—hurrying out of sight into the shadows.
Well, the other side of the building housed the women's rest room. Maybe it was Evvie.
He glanced toward the car, but it was blocked from view.
He walked on.
Now the parking area resembled an oasis lit by firelight. Or a western camp, the cars rimming the lot on three sides in the manner of wagons gathered against the night.
Strength in numbers, he thought.
Again, each car he passed looked at first like every other. It was the flat light, of course. And of course they were the same cars he had seen a half-hour ago. And the light still gave them a dusty, abandoned look.
He touched a fender.
It was dusty.
But why shouldn't it be? His own car had probably taken on quite a layer of grime after so long on these roads.
He touched the next car, the next.
Each was so dirty that he could have carved his name without scratching the paint.

He had an image of himself passing this way again—God forbid—a year from now, say, and finding the same cars parked here. The same ones.
What if, he wondered tiredly, what if some of these cars had been abandoned? Overheated, exploded, broken down one fine midday and left here by owners who simply never returned? Who would ever know? Did the Highway Patrol, did anyone bother to check? Would an automobile be preserved here for months, years by the elements, like a snakeskin shed beside the highway?
It was a thought, anyway.
His head was buzzing.
He leaned back and inhaled deeply, as deeply as he could at this altitude.
But he did hear something. A faint tapping. It reminded him of running feet, until he noticed the lamp overhead.
There were hundreds of moths beating against the high fixture, their soft bodies tapping as they struck and circled and returned again and again to the lens; the light made their wings translucent.
He took another deep breath and went on to his car.
He could hear it ticking, cooling down, before he got there. Idly he rested a hand on the hood. Warm, of course. The tires? He touched the left front. It was taut, hot as a loaf from the oven. When he took his hand away, the color of the rubber came off on his palm like burned skin.
He reached for the door handle.
A moth fluttered down onto the fender. He flicked it off, his finger leaving a streak on the enamel.
He looked closer and saw a wavy, mottled pattern covering his unwashed car, and then he remembered. The rain, yesterday afternoon. The rain had left blotches in the dust, marking the finish as if with dirty fingerprints.
He glanced over at the next car.
It, too, had the imprint of dried raindrops—but, close up, he saw that the marks were superimposed in layers, over and over again.

The Firebird had been through a great many rains.
He touched the hood.
Cold.
He removed his hand, and a dead moth clung to his thumb. He tried to brush it off on the hood, but other moth bodies stuck in its place. Then he saw countless shriveled, mummified moths pasted over the hood and top like peeling chips of paint. His fingers were coated with the powder from their wings.
He looked up.
High above, backed by banks of roiling cumulus clouds, the swarm of moths vibrated about the bright, protective light.
So the Firebird had been here a very long time.
He wanted to forget it, to let it go. He wanted to get back in the car. He wanted to lie down, lock it out, everything. He wanted to go to sleep and wake up in Los Angeles.
He couldn't.
He inched around the Firebird until he was facing the line of cars. He hesitated a beat, then started moving.
A LeSabre.
A Cougar.
A Chevy van.
A Corvair.
A Ford.
A Mustang.
And every one was overlaid with grit.
He paused by the Mustang. Once—how long ago?—it had been a luminous candy-apple red; probably belonged to a teenager. Now the windshield was opaque, the body dulled to a peculiar shade he could not quite place.
Feeling like a voyeur at a drive-in movie theater, McClay crept to the driver's window.
Dimly he perceived two large outlines in the front seat.
He raised his hand.
Wait.
What if there were two people sitting there on the other side of the window, watching him?

He put it out of his mind. Using three fingers, he cut a swath through the scum on the glass and pressed close.
The shapes were there. Two headrests.
He started to pull away.
And happened to glance into the back seat.
He saw a long, uneven form.
A leg, the back of a thigh. Blond hair, streaked with shadows. The collar of a coat.
And, delicate and silvery, a spiderweb, spun between the hair and collar.
He jumped back.
His leg struck the old Ford. He spun around, his arms straight. The blood was pounding in his ears.
He rubbed out a spot on the window of the Ford and scanned the inside.
The figure of a man, slumped on the front seat.
The man's head lay on a jacket. No, it was not a jacket. It was a large, formless stain. In the filtered light, McClay could see that it had dried to a dark brown.
It came from the man's mouth.
No, not from the mouth.
The throat had a long, thin slash across it, reaching nearly to the ear.
He stood there stiffly, his back almost arched, his eyes jerking, trying to close, trying not to close. The lot, the even light reflecting thinly from each windshield, the Corvair, the van, the Cougar, the LeSabre, the suggestion of a shape within each one.
The pulse in his ears muffled and finally blotted out the distant gearing of a truck up on the highway, the death-rattle of the moths against the seductive lights.
He reeled.
He seemed to be hearing again the breaking open of doors and the scurrying of padded feet across paved spaces.
He remembered the first time. He remembered the sound of a second door slamming in a place where no new car but his own had arrived.

Or—had it been the door to his car slamming a second time, after Evvie had gotten back in?
If so, how? Why?
And there had been the sight of someone moving, trying to slip away.
And for some reason now he remembered the Indian in the tourist town, slipping out of sight in the doorway of that gift shop. He held his eyelids down until he saw the shop again, the window full of kachinas and tin gods and tapestries woven in a secret language.
At last he remembered it clearly: the Indian had not been entering the store. He had been stealing away.
McClay did not understand what it meant, but he opened his eyes, as if for the first time in centuries, and began to run toward his car.
If I could only catch my goddamn breath, he thought.
He tried to hold on. He tried not to think of her, of what might have happened the first time, of what he may have been carrying in the back seat ever since.
He had to find out.
He fought his way back to the car, against a rising tide of fear he could not stem.
He told himself to think of other things, of things he knew he could control: mileages and motel bills, time zones and weather reports, spare tires and flares and tubeless repair tools, hydraulic jack and Windex and paper towels and tire iron and socket wrench and waffle cushion and traveler's checks and credit cards and Dopp Kit (toothbrush and paste, deodorant, shaver, safety blade, brushless cream) and sunglasses and Sight Savers and teargas pen and fiber-tip pens and portable radio and alkaline batteries and fire extinguisher and desert water bag and tire gauge and motor oil and his moneybelt with identification sealed in plastic—
In the back of his car, under the quilt, nothing moved, not even when he finally lost his control and his mind in a thick, warm scream.

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