I try to live my life without too many regrets. I’ve had highs and lows like everyone else, sure, but I do what I can not to worry too much about what could have happened if I’d made a different choice, if I maybe hadn’t “taken the road less traveled”. I figure everyone makes the best decisions they can with the information they have available to them at the time. Going through all the “what-ifs” is ridiculous, because the only way you would have made a different choice is if you’d had some other detail, which of course you didn’t. Hindsight is perfect, and even then, you can never be sure exactly what the sequence of events might have looked like if you’d gone right instead of left. And yet, there is one choice I made, one road I took, that I just can’t help but wonder how things might have turned out if I’d only done something different.
My job has me move around pretty regularly. I’m not going to get into what I do, that has no bearing on the story. But a couple years ago I was working in Philadelphia and living on the other side of the Delaware River in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. I’m originally from northwestern Pennsylvania and, since this was the closest I’d been to home since I’d moved out to college, I took the chance to go see my parents whenever I could. I knew I’d be moving again before long, and my folks aren’t getting any younger, so I tried to find a weekend every month or so to make the seven hour trip to visit them.
If I’d been thinking about it when I was looking for places to rent, I’d have probably tried to live on the west side of Philadelphia instead of in Jersey to avoid the traffic during rush hour, but by the time I realized it the lease was signed and there wasn’t much I could do. The drive to my hometown was pretty boring, honestly. I’d take the Ben Franklin Bridge across the river, head up I-476 for an hour or so, then a long slog across basically the entire expanse of PA on I-80 before another hour north on I-79 to Erie, Pennsylvania, where I’m from. The only variance in the drive was how long it would take me to get through Philly, because once I got on the 476 extension I could typically predict my ETA within five or ten minutes.
My second summer in Jersey I’d taken two weeks off and planned on spending the second week in Erie. Things changed that first Wednesday, though, because a big storm blew through and knocked out power in a good part of the area where I was living. Dealing with ninety degree heat with no air conditioning wasn’t something I particularly felt like spending the first half of my vacation doing, so after one uncomfortably sweaty night, I let my parents know I’d be heading over a few days early.
In retrospect, I should have left first thing in the morning. But, because I had a couple things to take care of before heading out, by the time I finally got on the road that Thursday it was past lunch time and getting on toward mid-afternoon. For whatever reason the traffic in Philly was particularly heavy, and by the time I finally got through town I was a good hour behind schedule. Still, based on my normal timeline, I figured I’d still be able to make it in early enough to grab a dinner and beer with my dad and brother before cashing in for the night. Two things I hadn’t taken into consideration were the number of other folks that, apparently, had the same idea to get out of town that I did, and the road construction that must have sprung up in the time since my last trip home.
The Interstate Highway system is a heck of a thing. Being able to zip along at 65, 70, or, in some remote places like west Texas even faster than that, makes cross-country automobile travel take a fraction of the hours it would otherwise. I can’t tell you the number of times my folks have reminisced about the days before the interstate, when going to see friends outside of DC would take almost twice as long as it does now. What’s truly remarkable to me, though, is that even though the entire system of highways was built start to finish in a mere thirty-five years, it sure seems like when parts of it go under construction they stay that way forever.
Traffic was uncharacteristically heavy, but moving, and I was making decent time, until I saw the first orange warning signs letting me know that our four lanes were reducing to three. And then two. And then one. Hundreds of cones stretched down the road as far as the eye could see, and see I certainly could as the cars in front of me reached a complete and total standstill. It was one of the worst deadlocks I’ve ever been in. Seriously, I think I moved a mile in an hour. After about three hours my stomach started grumbling. With an exit just ahead, and no end to the traffic jam in sight, I got off and found a diner to grab some dinner. Even if traffic miraculously picked up, I still had a solid five hours of driving ahead of me, so at that point I knew for sure it was going to be pretty late that I was getting in.
After finishing eating, I got back on the road. Things looked like they were picking up for a couple miles, but then I came up to the back end of the jam and was right back to waiting. We were moving a little bit better, I think averaging about five miles an hour at this point, but as the sun started edging toward the horizon I pulled out my phone and started to see if Google Maps could clue me in on any kind of workaround.
It’s a funny thing about human nature: most of us don’t like to sit still. Studies at airports showed people would rather walk farther to baggage claim to get their luggage, even if the total time would have been less if they’d have had a slightly longer wait at planeside. Well, the power of the internet appeared to be in my favor. Though I-80 still showed as a dark red band for another fifty miles or so, there was a southbound county road coming up in a few miles, and a northbound a couple after that, either of which looked like they’d let me bypass the worst of the traffic. Since I’d spent the better part of the day sitting on the road my patience was about worn out, and I opted to take the southbound road even though the app told me it would ultimately take about thirty minutes longer to get to my parents’ house. I just wanted to get moving again and reasoned at this rate it might take me more than the thirty-minute difference to get to the northbound route anyway. And that is a choice that will haunt me until the day I die.
I made the turnoff and immediately felt my mood improve. The signs alternated limiting my speed between thirty-five and forty miles an hour, but even that seemed like flying compared to the logjam I’d spent the last several hours in. The drive was interesting. The road started a little twisty, with plenty of elevation changes as it curved up and around the hills of central Pennsylvania. It took me on a general southwest diagonal but turned and doubled back on itself enough that for the first thirty minutes or so I got regular views of the stalled traffic on I-80. Pretty soon after that though, just about the time that the sun was just dipping down beneath a couple of the hills in my rearview mirror, the road took a long curving tack and carried me down and away out of sight of the interstate.
Now, something that a lot of people don’t realize is how big of a state Pennsylvania is. Sure, there are plenty of bigger ones, but PA is deceptively big. And it is remote. Isolated. Hell, the translation of the name means “Penn’s woods” after all. The Blair Witch Project didn’t have to embellish that aspect of the state, the fact that you could head into the woods and walk for dozens of miles in any direction without seeing anything like another human being. It’s got a decent number of big cities; Pittsburgh and Philly both have enough of a population to support major sports teams. But away from those centers of development, the Harrisburgs and the Pottsvilles and the Scrantons and what have you, there’s a whole lot of nothing. Nothing, and trees. And dark and lonely road.
Such was the road I was traveling that night, winding through the twists and turns of the Appalachian foothills. I’ve moved around a lot, I mentioned, traveled through most of the continental states anyway. I sometimes used to wonder, when I’d be driving along a patch of asphalt surrounded by only untamed wilderness, what it must have been like to construct such a road. What had it been like before men had intruded with our civilization and our machines? What had lived there? I don’t wonder anymore, not since that night when I went left instead of right.
The way continued to twist, back and forth, up and down. As I wound deeper into the foothills, the trees grew thicker, branches from either side of the road reaching over and almost touching, forming a natural canopy twenty feet up that blocked out much of my view of the sky and the stars above. I drove with my high beams on, because the idea of streetlights had never entered the minds of whoever built this road. The painted lines were old and not well cared for and I found myself gradually straddling the faded double yellow partition running down the middle of the two lanes to keep some distance between myself and the trees that increasingly encroached the pavement’s edge.
I’ve never been a particularly good navigator. My parents used to say it was because I spent my childhood with my nose pushed into a book during car rides, but I personally just think it’s because I’m bad at it. So it was that, despite there was no possible way I could be lost, as there were no other roads that I could have possibly turned onto and gotten off track, that I more and more frequently found myself checking my phone to ensure I was still on the right path. Which is how I almost ran into the other car.
My mind was wandering, thinking about the fact that my signal bars had dropped and remained at zero for the last twenty minutes, and what possible implications that would mean if I should have some kind of emergency. I raised my eyes back to the road after Google Maps confirmed for probably the twentieth time I was still good on my route choice and, after my brain took a beat to process that what I was rapidly approaching was a vehicle stopped in the middle of the lane, slammed my foot on the brake.
I stopped in time, but not by much, with maybe five feet separating my hood from the other car’s rear bumper. My heart was pounding in my chest as adrenaline coursed through my body, but my fear quickly gave way to anger. Seriously, what the hell was this guy doing? Not only was he stopped in the middle of the road, but all his lights were off! If I hadn’t had my high beams on, there was a good chance I wouldn’t have seen him before I was practically on top of him, even if I hadn’t been checking my phone!
I could feel my pulse beating in the vein on the side of my neck. I’m not somebody particularly quick to road rage, and after a couple quick breaths I managed to get ahold of myself. Not wanting to outright alarm anyone that might still be in the vehicle, I shifted into reverse and backed up about twenty feet, popping my hazards on. That’s when I started noticing a few odd things about the stopped car, more than just the fact that the lights were out.
Of course, it was halted directly in the middle of the road, but that wasn’t unreasonable since there wasn’t any shoulder to speak of that the driver could have moved it over to. The strange thing, though, was that all the doors were open, those on the driver’s side even crossing over slightly into the oncoming lane. And on further observation I saw an item dropped out onto the road by the rear driver’s side door, something that appeared to be a child’s stuffed animal.
I considered my options and, after a few seconds, decided that I would have to go against my better judgment to just keep on my merry way and head outside to get a better idea of what was going on. I said earlier my job doesn’t have anything to do with this story, which is mostly true. But before you judge my decisions too harshly, it bears mentioning that I’ve spent some time in the military. An obligation to help people has been drilled into me over the years, and I’d seen enough things while deployed to feel I could handle myself.
And so, I got out of my car but kept it running. I popped the trunk to grab the flashlight I keep there and left my headlights on so I could see what I was doing. I looked up and down the road, hoping to spy signs of other cars approaching, but no luck. “Hello?” I called up to the other car as I cautiously started my approach, circling around to the left toward the middle of the road so I’d be able to get a look inside before I got too close. “Anyone there?”
The beams from my headlights helped some, but there were enough shadows to still obscure the car’s interior. Shining my flashlight, though, easily determined that no one was inside. I moved closer, stooping down by the rear door to pick up the fallen object off the ground. It was a child’s toy, just as I had suspected, a stuffed rabbit with well-worn patches showing signs of frequent love. I frowned. If the folks traveling in the car had hitched a ride with a passerby, they would have taken the rabbit, or the kid would have thrown a conniption.
I shut the rear door and moved up to the front. I put my hand on the hood and found it was still warm to the touch; that meant it couldn’t have been here terribly long. I slid into the driver’s seat to try and figure out if there were some kind of mechanical issue that would have forced the car to stop, and was startled to find a set of keys still dangling from the ignition. Pressing the brake, I turned the key and the engine started right up, headlights and the dome light in the roof springing to life. Fuel, oil, temperature, battery; all the gauges looked good, not even a check engine light. Curiouser and curiouser.
Then I saw the purse in the passenger seat.
I picked it up, a normal brown shoulder bag, and briefly rummaged around before finding a wallet inside. Everything appeared to be intact, about forty dollars in cash, a couple credit cards, gym membership, Sam’s club card. The driver license named the owner as Mary Walker, a pretty blonde that had just turned thirty the month before. A couple pictures showed Mary in staged poses sitting on a blanket under a tree whose leaves were turned red and yellow, captured in the thrall of autumn. A huge, bearded lumberjack of a man hugged her from behind, a small pony-tailed girl with a goofy, over-exaggerated smile on her lap. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, a shiver running down to the base of my spine. Something was very wrong with this situation.
I put everything back in the purse and returned it to the seat, turned off the car and got out, shutting the driver’s door behind me. I pulled my phone out of my pocket and dialed 911, holding it over my head to try and get a connection with no luck. Cursing softly, I jammed the red ‘end call’ button and moved around to the passenger side of the car. I played my flashlight around and noticed that some of the foliage at the edge of the road was bent and trampled, like someone had walked through it. I didn’t have enough woodcraft to be able to judge how long ago they might have passed, but even then, I couldn’t imagine any scenario for why they would have gone wandering.
Shining my light into the woods, the beam only extended maybe thirty feet through the trees before being effectively swallowed by the greedy blackness. Looking at the flattened foliage, at the stuffed rabbit in my hand, then at that dark trees crowding maliciously, my thoughts teetered back and forth between what I should do.
I made up my mind. I’d been trained to help people. It was hardwired into my system. There was a child somewhere in the woods. I raised my foot to take a step onto the beaten path. And that’s when a white flicker of movement entered the very edge of my flashlight beam.
It was Mary Walker. She was naked and walking stiffly, unnaturally, her arms swaying out of synch with the rest of her body, like a marionette manipulated by an inexperienced puppeteer.
“Hello?” her voice called out. “Anyone there?”
More shapes came into view behind her, shambling along. Here the bearded man who must be Mary’s husband, there her little daughter, owner of the well loved rabbit, both naked, both moving as oddly as their wife and mother. And now I could tell there were more. Many more, their forms indistinct out of the direct light, but so many they caused the darkness to pitch and swell with their odd, staggering passage, their voices a chorus.
“Hello?” they called, “Anyone there?” parroting back the questions I’d asked only a few short minutes ago when I’d approached the abandoned car.
I took a stumbling step back, away from the woods and the approaching automatons, tripping into the Walker’s car. Catching my balance, I involuntarily shone my light up into the pitch recesses of the branches and in doing so could just make out, barely, a sort of darkness crouched hidden in the upper limits, a void even darker than the trees. Was it my imagination, those lines of pure blackness that extended from that concealed mass and seemed to pierce the flesh of Mary Walker, and her kin, and the countless other shapes moving in concert with them?
I sprinted then, back to my car, engine mercifully still running, headlights and hazards flashing welcomingly.
I shifted to reverse, miraculously keeping enough of my head to avoid running off the road as I completed a three-point turn.
I chanced a glance in my rearview mirror. The pale form of Mary Walker stood halted just at the edge of the forest where the trees met the road. One hand was raised, beckoning me to return, or perhaps waving goodbye, her face a mask of confused sadness. I pressed the gas and drove back the way I came. I did not look back again.
The rest of the trip was a fog. At some point after I made it back to the interstate I called my parents, let them know I wouldn’t be getting in until late. I drove on autopilot, the traffic jam having cleared while I was off.
I thought about calling 911, but didn’t. What would I have told them? And to what end? There was no one left to be helped.
I try not to go through life with too many regrets, wondering about ‘what-ifs’. But this one, this choice. What if I had left earlier in the day? What if I hadn’t stopped for dinner? Maybe I would have still gone left. Maybe I would have been there in time to help the Walkers. Maybe I would have been taken by that black thing fishing in the dark.
What if I had gone right? Would I still be ignorantly going through life, unknowing there are other things out there? I try not to think of it too often, but every now and then my thoughts turn to the stuffed rabbit. It wasn’t until I reached my parents’ house that night that I realized I still had it clutched in my hand.
I used to wonder, before men brought our roads and civilization, what was the wilderness like? What lived there? I don’t wonder anymore. I can’t afford to, at least if I don’t want to wake up screaming.
And no matter how bad the traffic, I always stick to the interstate.