A Fork in the Road

by Sue Simpson

Chain Border

Alison drove home late that night. The dinner party was boring, and the letch she had been seated next to had been in imminent danger of seriously damaging his testicles had she not cried "headache" and run. If he had 'accidentally' run his hand along her thigh just once more…her thoughts tailed off as civilisation petered out on her. She had reached decision time.

She could continue along the well-lit bypass, but it would add another forty miles and half an hour on to her journey time. She eyed her petrol gauge with remorse. Why the hell hadn't she remembered to fill up before she set out that evening? It was hovering threateningly just above the empty mark. How big was the 'reserve' on a Peugeot 405 she wondered.

The other option was to take the short cut through "the Mosses." She shuddered at the thought. It was a fifteen-mile stretch of road, beautiful through daylight hours, but a place of darkness and shadows after nightfall.

Sitting at the fork in the road, all her sensibilities told her to remain on the right hand track that continued along the bypass. The left-hand fork led to…again she shuddered and glanced down to see goosepimples appearing all the way along her forearm despite the car's excellent heater.

None of the locals would dream of having taken the Mosses on at night, but Alison was left with little option. Leaning over, she firmly locked all the car doors, sealing herself against the hostile night. She glanced down at the long-handled kitchen knife that she kept - 'purely as a precaution' - in the driver's door caddy. A highly illegal precaution, but she had always been a strong believer in self-protection. She would be okay.

Indicating left, she turned from sleek black hardcore onto a rough-hewn road that jolted her and made the car groan. The few scattered houses hid their comforting light behind drawn curtains. She imagined the occupants sipping on cocoa by the warmth of their country fires and she felt a deep and intense longing for her warm, safe bed. Soon even the scant houses had dwindled to nothing and the narrow road was blanketed on both sides by dense forest.

The moon was swollen and only about a week away from becoming replete. However, far from giving blessed light, it only served to lengthen the shadows that moved all around her. The moon was bright enough to reveal the night's secrets and her main beam highlighted the skeletal trees either side of the road, behind whose thick trunks anyone or anything could be lurking.

She turned the soft music up good and loud and Bonnie Tyler's 'Holding out for a Hero' made her feel a little better.

"And couldn't we all do with one of those?" she thought as she listened to the throaty lyrics.

Alison began to sing along with the radio cassette, but her voice sounded unnaturally hollow in the car's interior so she shut up and just listened, trying desperately hard not to remember the stories that were pushing to the front of her consciousness, unbidden and unwelcome.

The Mosses were famous for more than the beautiful Stately Home that 'owned' the rich countryside for twenty miles around. It was also renowned as one of the most haunted sites in England.

The story went that late at night, when good people should be safely tucked up in their beds, a lone man walked the Mosses, hoping for a lift. He held out his thumb expectantly to any drivers who were stupid enough to be driving the road at night. There were numerous accounts of people stopping to give the stranger a lift within the first five miles of the run. He would sit silently throughout the journey, his only conversation asking to be dropped off at 'Holker's End.' When the car drew to a halt at the other end, the hitcher would thank them politely for the lift and then vanish before their eyes.

Surely someone must know who he was and how he came to be haunting these parts, but Alison could not - and more to the point did not - want to remember any more of the story.

Picking up speed, she dipped into a downward slope and came roaring up the other side. The speed of the car combined with Bonny's voice making her feel better by the second. Tomorrow she would tease her mates about having met the 'phantom hitcher.'

She almost hit the man as she reached the rise of the hill. There he was, walking along the roadside with his thumb extended, as she flew along the twisty road at a speed in direct contradiction to road safety. She swerved violently to avoid hitting him and the car screamed its complaint as it flew out of control. She allowed the wheel to play out in her hands and the vehicle careered wildly towards the ditch; at the last second before impact she swung sharply right and the car corrected itself. With her heart beating madly in her chest cavity, she gunned the accelerator and shot off into the night.

Only when there was a hundred yards distance between her and the late night hitchhiker did she risk a look in her rear view mirror. The man was looking despondently after the car.

Alison gripped the steering wheel hard between both fists to try and stem the trembling that was threatening to cause another near-accident. The car was again picking up speed and she had left the stranger behind. Still her heart hammered and her temples throbbed with the whoosh of high-pressured blood that had rushed into them. This fuelled an adrenaline rush that was best described as sheer, absolute terror. All she wanted was to get away from here as fast as the car would take her.

She put her foot on the clutch and drove it to the floor, ramming the car from second into third. The gears ground nosily and refused to align. Keeping the clutch depressed she tried again and still they refused to connect with the correct slot on the gearbox. The seconds passed and the engine screamed as if in agony, beginning to lose speed and making the car lurch along the road. Panicking, Alison tried to take the stick to the fourth position. It wouldn't mesh in that gear either.

She tried to get a grip on her mounting hysteria. The sensible thing would be to put the car back into second gear, build up a little more speed and then gently try to engage third again. She had probably, she reasoned, just missed the correct position in her panic.

Desperately, she went through every gear position on the box, but the car wouldn't engage in any of them. Slowly the Peugeot ground to a halt in a rut at the side of the road. The engine died, Bonny was cut off in her warblings and blackness filled the car as the lights flickered once and then also left her alone in the darkness.

"Okay, okay, stay calm, it'll be all right," she told herself. "Just let the car rest for one minute and then we'll try again."

Slowly, and more as a relaxation exercise than a measurement of time, she counted to sixty. The she turned the key in the ignition; the car roared into life and Bonny resumed where she had left off. The sudden noise in the total stillness made Alison start violently, and she turned the music off with an irritated "tut."

"What now? Oh Jesus Christ what now? Don't do this to me."

She glanced in the rear view mirror; the road behind was lit by the heavy moon and she saw a shadow walking briskly towards her out of the darkness. In that moment Alison knew the true meaning of the word "fear."

With eyes glued to the mirror, Alison watched her tormentor moving ever closer.

He was level with the rear of the car. Alison wished she could ram the car into reverse and back right into him, but she had tried getting reverse gear and like all the others it wouldn't have it.

She watched as a silver-lit hand reached out to knock on the driver's window.

"Are you all right love? Do you need any help? What's the problem?"

"Go away," Alison screamed. "Don't come near me."

"Hey, hey, easy, it's okay. I promise I'm not going to hurt you, even if you did almost kill me back there," he finished on a gentle laugh. "I know a bit about cars. Why don't you let me take a look for you?"

He seemed real enough, and from what she could see he posed no threat. He looked to be early twenties, possibly even younger. Even though the moonlight and shadows eerily distorted his face he had pleasant features. Still, Alison's nerves were in ragged tatters and she was beyond reason or persuasion.

"Please. Please just go away and leave me alone." She was sobbing uncontrollably; all her previous gumption about self-protection had flown away like a bat in the night, and the last word tailed into a wail that chilled the blood and pitched to an almost screaming hysterical crescendo. She lapsed into a terrified moan and began to rock backwards and forwards on her seat, tears streaming down her cheeks.

"Lady listen, I know what you're thinking." He laughed softly and she could hardly hear him through the closed window. "I'm not the Phantom Hitcher you know. I'm just a college student who was out with my mates and missed the last bus home. I tell you lady, I have been crapping it walking along here alone. I was so relieved when you came past; well, until you tried to mow me down that is." Again the warm little chuckle.

She found herself giving a wan smile through the tears, but still her mind was shutting down on her and all she knew was that she was more scared than she had ever been in her entire life. What if he wasn't a ghost? What if he was a serial killer? She had seen the film 'Hitcher.' All kinds of scenarios ran through her mind; not one of them played scenes of a helpful young man sorting her car out for her, and then to their mutual benefit escorting her to the end of this nightmare road.

"Listen love," he continued, "I can't just walk off and leave you like this, it's not safe. Why don't I have a look under the bonnet and see if I can locate the problem? I heard the gearbox giving you trouble and I have an idea what it might be. Look, you don't even have to open the window, just release the bonnet catch for me please."

Alison couldn't think, she was confused and her terror was numbing her thoughts; all she wanted to do was curl up on her seat and go to sleep. The rational nurse in her told her sternly that she was lapsing into shock and needed to get a grip on her senses. "But what if it's just a ruse to get under the bonnet and disable the car?" she thought. "What then?" The fact that the car was already very much disabled fail to compute; she was beyond reason and logic.

"Come on lady, help me to help both of us will you? I think I can sort this out in a couple of minutes and then both of us can get away from this hellhole. It's bloody cold out here, and I don't know about me scaring you, but you seem pretty scary yourself right at this moment." The man - who now appeared little more than a boy - gave his customary laugh, and Alison felt the first stirrings of sanity returning to her fuddled mind.

Without giving her subconscious permission to proceed, she watched herself as she leaned forward in her seat and released the bonnet catch.

"Good girl" the man cooed, as though talking to a distraught child. "We'll soon have this sorted and then you can be on your way."

Alison noticed that he said "you," and for the first time she thought that maybe she would get out of this alive.

"I'm Jack by the way. Do you have a torch?"

"Ah, see, here we go, this is where he fools me into opening the door and then rapes and murders me." Her head was off on its macabre trip again, but the logical part of her mind still wanted to get home before sunrise and so she reached into the opposite door caddy and pulled out the torch.

"Move slowly away from the car," she ordered, in a voice that was cold and succinct.

He backed up with his hands held out in front of him to show that he wasn't concealing any weapons. Quickly, Alison wound down the window and threw the torch at his feet. She tried to wind it back up again, but in her hurry the handle wouldn't turn and valuable seconds were lost before the window began to rise and lock her into a cocoon of relative safety. 'He could have jumped you then,' she told herself. 'If he had wanted to harm you that was the ideal opportunity to do it.' She managed a weak smile. "Thank-you," she muttered. The man nodded and she felt as though some level of trust had just been sanctioned between them.

The man disappeared under the bonnet of the car. She heard him swear softly to himself once but the only other sounds were of things being prodded and pulled.

Less than two minutes later he re-appeared with a huge grin on his face. "Thought so, linkage," he said cryptically.

Alison looked puzzled, a look that must have been clear even through the steamy window.

"It's nothing," he said in explanation, "I can have it fixed in two seconds, but we do have a problem, a small but vital piece of wiring called the linkage has fallen off the car and it's not going anywhere without it. Still, it can't be far away, I'll go back up the road to where you skidded and see if I can find it. Want to get out and help me look?"

Alison stiffened.

"Joke, joke. It's okay, I won't be long. I know this is a redundant statement but stay in the car, keep the doors locked and don't open them to anyone before I return."

Alison nodded and the man strode off briskly up the road, shining the torch from side to side as he walked; soon he had rounded the corner and disappeared from sight and Alison felt very, very alone.

True to his word the man was soon back, his grin when he came into view told Alison that he had been successful and she felt a wave of sheer relief wash over her. The renegade piece of tubing was soon fixed back into position, and at his request she fired the car up and put it into gear. Talking through the tightly closed window was proving difficult, but she followed his instruction and put the car through a complete gear test and it slid into each perfectly.

The tears - which had dried up some time ago to be left with a total numbness - returned afresh and Alison repeated "Thank-you," over and over again.

"Listen love, the best thanks you could give me would be to give me a lift to the end of the road. I won't trouble you to take me out of your way. Do you think you could trust me just a little? I know you're scared Honey, and with good reason out on this road in the middle of the night; but I promise you I mean you no harm."

Alison felt detached as she leaned across the seat and opened the passenger side door.

The stranger climbed in.

"Thank you so much. As I said before, I'm Jack. Pleased to meet you."

He held out his hand and Alison stared at it, making no movement. After a couple of seconds he gave up and touched her in a friendly gesture of 'comradeship-in-adversity' on the arm.

Alison couldn't really remember what happened next. Suddenly in that second, her mind caved in. All she knew was that there was a man in her car who was going to kill her.

"Don't touch me!" she screamed at the top of her lungs.

The knife came alive in her hand and she thrust it time and again through the air and into its target. So much blood, she remembered. So, so much blood.

~*~

The party had been boring, and Alison had made her excuses and escaped rather than suffer the torture of staying the night as planned. She sat at the fork in the road trying to make a decision. Her petrol was awfully low…she clicked her indicator left. The run down Holker Mosses was lovely at night; she always found it quiet and relaxing and the moonlight made it all so romantic looking.

Four miles up ahead the young lad, returning home from a night at the pub, hoped desperately to hitch a lift off some kind stranger.

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