20 August 2017
On a remote country road, heading out to a weekend party, Tobe West and his friends pick up two hitchhikers. It seems like the right thing to do.
No-one could have predicted the freak car accident that is about to change their lives.
Stranded in the middle of nowhere, Tobe and the others are faced with a landscape suddenly unfamiliar, in a universe that has come loose from its moorings. Strange things slither in the woods, and spectral lights hover just off the road. A petrol station, shining brightly in a world otherwise dark and frightening, promises safe haven, but Tobe learns the biggest threat to their survival lies within the very people he’s trying to protect.
As reality breaks down and dangers multiply, Tobe must uncover the hidden agenda of one of the survivors... and keep the rest of them safe from something lurking in the darkness.
Something that is hunting them all.
If they are to survive the night, Tobe must face the horrifying truth—that nothing is as it seems, and that they are all part of a larger plan, part of someone else's unfinished business...
“Ever wondered what it’s all about?”
“Why you’re here? You know, where you fit into it all? The ‘grand scheme’. Your purpose in life.”
“No. Well, maybe sometimes, I guess. I don’t know. Tell me what happened that night.”
“It’s hard to explain.”
“I need to know everything.”
“It’s complicated, but I understand now.”
“Why I’m here. Why you’re here.”
“We’re all part of a larger plan—a divine plan.”
“You’re talking about fate. Destiny. I can’t agree. I believe in free will—we all have a choice.”
Thunder murmured in the distance. Humid night air, laced with the sweet scent of frangipani, clamped over the house like a huge, smothering hand and squeezed through the shutters that ran the length of the verandah. It began to rain.
Leticia glanced at her watch. It was already after nine.
There’s more to it. There has to be.
She leaned closer. “I’m ready to understand,” she said. Her voice was lower now, firmer. “Tell me what happened that night.”
“You don’t know where you’re going, do you?”
Not really a question, more an observation, and Tobe West frowned. Beyond the windshield, the night hung in a violet haze, the sky a dome of moonless indigo. Dark, featureless pines stood in endless rows on both sides of the road, their towering forms crowding the verges. An hour ago, Tobe had been confident, sure of their path, but for the last ten minutes the headlights hadn’t picked up so much as a road sign or a unique landmark. Maybe they should have turned around. “We need to take the next left... I think.”
A snort of impatience rumbled from the back seat.
Tobe ignored it. He knew the house. About two months ago, not long after his cousin Teesh had moved in, he’d paid her a visit. Big and sprawling and overlooking two acres, the split-level had conjured words like ‘ranch’ and ‘homestead’; a modern take on the style favoured by Aunt Mary and Uncle David. With Teesh’s parents out of town for the weekend, she had invited friends for dinner and drinks by the pool. Tobe remembered the impressive home sat at the crown of a long and winding gravel driveway. At night, the narrow entrance would be easy to miss. Out here, with no streetlights, everything was easy to miss.
If I’m late, I’ll miss Lisa.
“We can’t be far,” Tobe said, peering at the three silhouettes in the back seat.
The passenger-seat springs creaked under shifting weight. Tobe glanced at Scottie Cooper, his best mate since primary school and now, at twenty-three, his partner in crime for the better part of fifteen years. Though Tobe was himself several kilos heavier and a few centimetres taller, Scoop’s blue eyes and sandy hair mirrored his own. They could have been brothers. Commonly, they were mistaken as precisely that, and thinking it kind of cool, they rarely corrected the error.
Scottie shrugged, pushed his glasses up his nose and dialled down the radio. Returning his attention to the phone, he thumbed his way to the navigation app. “Reception’s bad out here,” he said. “But give me a moment.”
A snigger floated from the back, and with a smirk, Brad Dawson leaned forward between the front and passenger seats. He jutted his chin at Scottie. “Would it help if I had a crack, Bookworm?” he asked.
Tobe bristled. Ever since Scottie had topped the student rankings at college, Brad had taunted him with the nickname. Tobe wasn’t a fan. “Maybe just once, Brad, you could try reading a book, instead of ridiculing.”
“Comics aren’t books.”
“They’re graphic novels,” Brad said. “Anyway, I’m a lover of numbers, not words.”
“I’d have thought programmers would read all the time.”
“Manuals, yeah. But that journalist hokum? Not so much.” To Scottie, he said, “No offence intended, Bookworm. I’m sure you’re a great writer.”
Scottie smiled and said, “Some offence taken.”
Brad feigned shock.
“Behave yourself, Brad,” Sarah Madison said from the shadows of the back seat. She nudged her boyfriend. “Leave Scottie alone; I’m sure he can work the phone without your help. And Scottie? I love your column—that science stuff is fascinating.”
“Thank you,” Scottie said.
Brad laughed and slumped back next to his girlfriend. He looked to the other side, to Scottie’s partner, Rachel Prendergast, but found no ally there. With a shrug, he said, “Just trying to help—your loss, biatches!”
Tobe glanced into the rearview mirror just as Brad saluted with—and then chugged from—the near-empty bottle of Corona in his right hand. In his left was clasped another of these, and with the back of this hand, he brushed at his long-hanging fringe, sweeping it from eyes that had already turned glassy. That Brad was partway drunk was perhaps no surprise; since quitting smoking, he’d filled the void with booze. In truth, Tobe preferred it when the guy was trashed; it made the endless stream of jibes easier to dismiss.
A deliberately obnoxious belch erupted from Brad’s throat, prefacing a babbling, protracted rant about the perils of being lost in the middle of nowhere with inadequate liquor supplies.
With a roll of her eyes, Rachel peered at him over the top of her black-framed glasses. “Really? Maybe you should call a timeout, Dawsy. The adults want to talk.” She spoke in that low, haughty tone she reserved solely for him. “And for Christ’s sake, shove over, give me some space.”
“Whoa... yes ma’am,” Brad said. His legs were indeed spread wide and commanding an inordinate amount of room, and for a moment, they remained so. Eventually, he slid over.
“Now you’re crowding Sarah,” Rachel said.
“Oh come on,” Brad said. He centralised himself. “So tell me, Rach, do you get like that with your students? I mean, all angry and bossy? I feel sorry for the poor buggers.” He took another swig, mulled it over, and said, “But then again, I guess you are kinda sexy when you’re fired up, the way you glare over your glasses. Hot as, baby. I bet the boys love detention.”
“You’d know,” Rachel said, taking the bait. “I imagine you spent plenty of time in detention.”
“Yeah, but I never shared it with a hot teacher.”
Sarah jabbed Brad in the ribs and he yelped. “Cut your flirting,” she said. She poked him a second time for good measure, and then pushed an errant, caramel-blonde wave behind her ear.
Rachel said to Sarah, “Maybe you should find yourself a nice Korean man, someone who’ll show you the respect you deserve.”
Sarah smiled, and played to it. “One or two colleagues do spring to mind...”
“Young, hot medical undergrads?” Rachel said. “Look out, Brad.”
Brad shook his head. “Babe, I’m just having fun,” he said, the words slurred. “You know you’re the apple of my eye, right? And anyway, these guys are picking on me. I’m merely defending myself.”
Sarah gave him another harsh nudge. “Don’t be smart.”
Tobe glanced in the rearview again. “No danger of that,” he said.
Nearly spraying a mouthful of beer, Brad said, “See what I mean?” He guzzled more, this time from both bottles in turn. “Man, you lot are driving me to drink. You should be ashamed of yourselves.”
Tobe stifled a laugh, shook his head. They’d endured Brad for a year now, ever since he’d attached himself to Rachel’s best friend like a bad case of herpes. Tobe still wasn’t sure what Sarah saw in him, but these days, they came as a set.
In an effort to change the course of the conversation—or more likely to curb Brad’s consumption—Sarah snatched the nearest Corona and, in a single swill, drained the remainder. Brad chased her and planted a grossly-exaggerated kiss on her open lips.
“Oh, pleassse,” Rachel said, and stuck a finger down her throat in a mock gag.
Considering this an invitation, Brad spun and made to kiss her, too.
Rachel’s face wrinkled in disgust and she punched him in the arm, causing him to reel away with a howl. “Oh my God, Dawsy, you reek!” she said. “You’re breathing noxious fumes all over the place.”
Scottie chuckled and tossed Rachel a wink over his shoulder. Tobe turned around, thinking the whole thing hilarious. When he twisted forward again, his heart skipped a beat.
Caught in the beams of his headlights were two figures standing on the road’s narrow shoulder, right in the van’s path.
Tobe swerved hard to miss them. Tyres squealed, and the van shot across the centre line and up and over a curving rise. Someone screamed. Tobe cried out, jammed on the brakes. The van veered to the shoulder, where it skated across loose gravel and ground to a halt.
Tobe’s heart thudded. “Sorry... I didn’t see them... they appeared out of nowhere!” he said. On reflection, Tobe decided the figures may not have been merely standing there, but perhaps walking, and may also have turned at the last moment to the oncoming headlights, thumbs out. Were they hitchhikers?
“It was a guy and a girl, wasn’t it?”
“I think so. Hikers, maybe. They had backpacks.”
Twisting in his seat, Tobe peered out the van’s grimy rear window, where a veil of swirling dust was only now dissipating. His foot was still on the brake pedal. Through the glass, thin-boled pines washed in red plotted the dip and curve of the road. While the cloudless sky was veritably littered with stars, the heavens offered little by way of illumination, and Tobe’s eyes strained into the crimson. The two figures were nowhere to be seen.
“They were walking this way, weren’t they?” Rachel said, sounding short of breath, craning her neck to see out the rear. “Where are they?”
“Climbing the hill,” Sarah answered.
Still shaking, Tobe’s shock waned, then swelled and morphed into anger. “They were too far over,” he said, his voice unsteady. “Too far onto the road. Who walks that far over? They nearly got themselves killed.” Lines of sweat—as much a product of his emotions as they were of the night’s humid summer heat—dripped into his eyes. He wiped at the stinging needles, cranked the air-con, and looked over his shoulder again. No sign of the couple. By now, they should have crested the rise.
Maybe he’d imagined them.
He dismissed the thought as quickly as it came. Nonsense. Everyone else had seen them, too.
“Maybe they’re hurt,” Sarah said. “Did we hit them? We need to go back, make sure they’re okay.”
“You’re kidding, right?” Brad blurted, likely more forcefully than intended. “There’s no need to go back, Sarah. We didn’t hit them. Let’s just get out of here, hey? Get to this damn party.”
Sarah pressed. “They may need help, even if we didn’t hit them.”
“We definitely didn’t hit them,” Tobe said.
“Regardless, it’s the right thing to do,” Sarah said. “We’re obliged to check, offer them a lift. We’ve got plenty of room.”
Brad snorted. “Babe, seriously... are you crazy? You know you don’t pick up hitchhikers, right? It’s like the first rule of driving and shit.”
Sarah’s mouth worked soundlessly, as though Brad’s slurred words were in a foreign language.
Rachel said to her, “As much as it pains me to admit it, Brad’s right. I’m not comfortable with strangers in the van.”
Mouth ajar, Sarah looked to each of them, searching for allies. Her eyes settled on Tobe, but he was unable to hold her gaze. He agreed with the others. He was certain he’d managed to evade the couple—knew he had, thank God—and if the two of them needed assistance, he was equally certain they would already have phoned for it. Following such a call, it made sense to stay put until help arrived. Everyone knew you didn’t walk away. That they were hiking along the shoulder meant they were probably out doing exactly that—hiking, for Christ’s sake. That’s why they had been wearing packs. And if they were hikers, or backpackers, like he’d thought them to be all along, then at worst, they were simply out here trying to bum a lift.
There’ll be another car along soon. They can bum a lift from them.
Tobe was raising his foot from the brake pedal when two silhouettes appeared about twenty to thirty metres behind them, just beyond the range of the crimson-tinted light, the tops of their heads rising above the hill crest, their torsos following. Judging by their physique, one was indeed likely male, the other female. Beyond this, no detail was discernible. Upon seeing the van, the couple broke into a jog and ran down the asphalt towards them.
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