Felton slammed on his brakes, releasing a choir of screeching tires. His SUV stopped abruptly, narrowly missing the car ahead.
“Jesus, Dad!” Ruth yelled. “The hell?”
Felton gripped the steering wheel in an iron grip, feeling his heart pound a mile-a-minute. After a few seconds, he managed to release a sigh of relief. “You okay?”
“Barely. What the hell gives?”
“Language, young lady.”
She scoffed. “Why isn’t anyone moving?”
He squinted ahead, attempting to see through the frost-covered windshield. “Not sure. Thank God for four-wheel drive, huh?”
Ruth groaned, rocking back-and-forth in her seat. “Can we go already? I seriously have to pee.”
“No one’s moving alright. I hope it ain’t too serious. Think I oughta check it out jus’ to make sure though.”
“What? Did you even hear me, Dad?”
“It’ll only be a minute, Ruthy. You see now, I told you to go easy on the Pumpkin Lattes.”
She groaned louder, leaning onto the dashboard, causing her auburn hair to cascade around her head in a twisted bunch.
“You can handle a minute. We’re at least twenty out anyway. Besides, if it becomes too much, you do have the tree line,” he joked.
She quickly shot him a salty glare as he exited with a smile. Outside, he was met with the cool wind of the snowy mountains. It sparked a ripple of swaying trees that extended for miles into the horizon. Felton shivered, propping up his collar.
Ahead, he could hear an angry voice shouting. The vehicle, a fancy Lincoln SUV, had a shattered headlight accented with a smashed front bumper. A foot ahead of it was a red Chevy truck inscribed with a minor dent in its rear. A man stood by the driver window pounding on it.
“Hey, what the f**k is your problem?!” he yelled smacking the glass again. He was clearly not from the area, no doubt a city-fellow. It was like he was peeled right out of a white-collar movie: combed-back slick hair, dark shades, and an overcoat atop a nice suit. “Open the f*****g door!” he went on.
“Everything okay?” Felton spoke-up as he approached.
“Seriously, man?” he shot back, gesturing to his car.
Poor choice of words, Felton thought. “How about we calm down, so we can figure out what happened?”
The man continued to smack the glass. “I’ll tell you what happened: this c**t just ruined a $90,000 car. And she’s gonna pay for it. Every. F*****g. Cent. And. More! I’m gonna sue you into the ground if you don’t open up, you dumb b***h!”
Felton set his jaw. Nothing fueled him more than disrespect to a lady. In most cases, the easiest way to set an a*****e in his place was a quick crack to the jaw, but he thought otherwise; there was no need to add fuel to the fire. Instead Felton slid in-between the suit and the truck.
“Alright, back off. She’ll do what she needs to, but you’re not helpin’ anything. Give us some space. Now.”
The man noted his size difference to Felton, who owned a foot over him and was clearly gifted with more body mass. After a minute of glaring, he reeled out his phone and sauntered away. Felton turned back to the driver in the truck. It was a woman, middle-aged with blond hair. She was tightly gripping the wheel facing ahead like a statue. Her eyes were glossy and her face was paralyzed with grief.
“Ma’am?” Felton tapped on the glass. “Can you roll down the window?”
She remained fixed though. So, Felton tapped a little harder, which seemed to awaken her. The woman turned his way slightly, eyeing him with a blank stare and slowly complied.
“You alright, ma’am?”
She remained silent, opting to simply shake her head.
“Well, are you hurt?”
Again, she shook her head.
“Okay, good. What’s you’re name then?”
“C-Carol,” she finally stammered.
“Nice to meet you, I’m Felton. Now, I’m jus’ tryin’ to find out what happened, is all. Why’d you slam you’re breaks? You lose traction on ‘er?”
“Okay, how ‘bout the engine? It stall on you?”
“My truck’s fine!” she snapped. “I know how to handle it, goddammit.”
“Alright, alright. Jus’ checkin’,” Felton replied with his hands up. “If everything’s so dandy then what happened, you see something on the road or what?”
Instantly, Carol’s eyes flashed, and she slowly nodded.
“What’d you see, a deer?”
“No, I saw…” Tears started welling up in her eyes again. “I saw… a kid. Oh God, I t-think I hit a kid.” She swallowed. “I couldn’t stop in time. I swear to God I tried.”
Felton grimaced. “You’re probably mistak–”
“Just jumped out of nowhere, they did,” the woman interrupted with a quivered lip. A tear rolled downed her cheek. “I-I don’t wanna check… I can’t… P-please don’t make me.”
She was clearly shaken by the ordeal. There was no way a kid could be out in these parts, but Felton nodded solemnly. He figured he indulge her to keep everything calm.
“It’s fine. Jus’ stay put, Carol. I-I’ll check for you.”
Felton swallowed and slowly crouched down. His heart got to pounding again though. Why are my nerves shakin’ to this? he thought. Ain’t nothing gonna be down there.
As he peered underneath, the frigid wind rushed against his face, forcing his eyes to water. He glanced ahead, bracing for a horrid sight. Around the first two tires, he saw nothing – no blood or any evidence pointing to a supposed “body”. He chuckled to himself in relief.
However, when he scanned further back, he noticed a dark bulge near the far rear tire. Felton recoiled, feeling a knot grow in his stomach. He squinted at it but it was hard to make it out from his angle. The knot tightened when he realized he’d need to get closer to get a better look. In no hurry, he edged his way around to the rear passenger. As he approached the bulge, the wind made another pass, swaying what appeared to be clothing.
“D-dear Lord,” he whispered.
“You s-see anything?” Carol stammered.
Felton ignored her though, crouching down to it. It couldn’t be a kid; it was impossible. It had to be something else – a small animal at worse. Time felt stagnant as he got lower. All the while, his mind attempted to deconstruct the “body” into something else, but he couldn’t shake the original thought: a crushed kid? He slowly extended his hand towards it, feeling every cell in his body object the action until he touched it. Immediately, he flinched, but was then filled with instant reprieve.
“It’s n-not a kid,” he relayed up. “Or an animal…”
He heard Carol exhale; it sounded as if she’d been holding since the beginning. Felton reeled the object from underneath the car and into the light, staring at it with a puzzled look. He carefully brought it over to the driver’s side. Carol noticed it and gave off the same confused expression.
“What is that?” she asked.
He shook his head unable to answer.
It was a strange bale of twigs held loosely together by twine in several areas. Despite being a disheveled heap, it appeared as if it had once formed a shape, but it was hard to tell what now. Admittedly, Felton was more disturbed than confused. This thing didn’t seem like something one would find up in the wilderness, not naturally at least. He quickly tossed it off the road.
The suit from earlier returned. “S**t, I can’t get a f****n’ signal to the cops,” he stated, pocketing his cellphone. “Now, did I see correctly that this chick ruined my car because she ran over a tree?”
“A bushel of twigs to be exact,” Felton corrected him, “and you’re not gonna get anything out here. Passed through here enough times to know.”
The man scoffed. “Great, the f**k are we suppose to do then? Alex Cartfield is a very important man and he has places he needs to be.”
“Who the hell is Alex Cartfield?” Felton asked, setting his jaw again.
“Alex Cartfield is me,” he stated, jabbing a thumb to his chest.
“You always refer to yourself in third-person?”
He scoffed again. “Look, just tell me how we can get a signal out here.”
Felton bit his lip, but answered grudgingly. “There’s a rest stop ten miles out. They got a landline you can use to call the sheriff. You have to go inland a bit but it shouldn’t be too hard to reach.”
“I can probably find it,” Carol chimed-in. “I don’t mind leadin’ if I have to.”
The suit shot a glare her way. “F**k no, I ain’t trusting you to lead Jack-s**t. You can’t even tell the difference between a kid and a f*****g tree.”
She sank into her seat.
“Hey now, ease up” Felton spoke-up. “How about I lead then? I know the layout and I’m headin’ to that spot anyhow. Shouldn’t take no more than thirty minutes if we ride slow.”
The man contemplated the thought and then nodded.
“Smooth Peaches then. Hang tight and let me grab my car.”
The man left for his SUV. Felton was about to follow when Carol held out a hand to him.
“Hey, they got coffee up this place? I’m… a wreck without it.”
“Sure do – Sam’s the keeper. He knows a thing or two ‘bout a good pot. Best brew for miles.”
She smiled. “Cool. And thanks… for stepping in when you did. Not sure what I was gonna do.”
Felton nodded in acknowledgment. Immediately, the chilly wind summoned another shiver from him, prompting him to push forward, catching a glare from the suit as he passed.
As he approached his own SUV, something caught his eye in the distant tree line. He squinted through the white mist and was surprised to see what looked like a figure – a short, child-sized one. It stood unmoving near the edge of the trees seemly staring back at him.
“Hey, do you see—” he said, turning back, but it was obvious that neither would be able to hear him.
He returned to the tree line and immediately his heart dropped. The figure had moved closer. In the second he had looked away, it had managed to jump from its previous location, but it wasn’t just a few feet; it had to have been at least a mile or so. That was impossible though. The hairs on his neck pricked up. Felton soon began to hear faint whispers as if someone spoke just out of earshot. Was someone calling out to him? Again, he checked behind, but it didn’t seem to be from the others.
No, he thought, it’s jus’ the wind playing tricks.
As his eyes fell back on the figure, he noticed it had jumped even closer. At this point, Felton was ready to bolt to his car but his body felt paralyzed, paranoia washing over him like a wave. He started to feel what he could only describe as an emptiness in his stomach, like a cold hollowness expanding within him like the knot in a tree. The voices grew louder with this, seemingly repeating a word but he couldn’t decipher it. Where were they coming from? What was happening to him?
Suddenly, a loud car horn startled him.
“Come on, Dad!” Ruth shouted from the window. “I need to piss!”
Felton blinked for a second, feeling as if he had awoken from a dream. The cold air finally settled back in and he could feel the sting of its kiss lingering across his face as if he’d been bearing it for an hour.
He glanced back at the tree line, but the figure – whatever it was – was gone. Was it ever there? That emptiness – what the hell was that? It felt like… He had no time to dwell on it as Ruth leaned on the horn again. He gave one final scan of the trees and shook the thought away, continuing to the SUV.