The mountains that loomed ahead of Warner were quickly denuded of the vibrancy that remained of the fall leaves; leaves that still stubbornly had not fallen. Everyone told him he should’ve flown, but it was costly. He hated flying and besides, the view on his drive was spectacular. Most of the foothill trees had already molted their skin of leaves in preparation for their skeletal winter forms, painted in shades of brown and ash gray.
As the sun set, the mountain range ahead began to slowly fade it’s lines and meld into the darkness of the sky. All around, the world passed in varying hues of purple and navy as the bluegrass state slowly slipped into darkness. Warner thought he might see snow on this trip, but the end of November was probably too early in the season to expect it this far south. Still, he felt the drive had been easy going–the endless maze of reroutes and detours through construction notwithstanding. He’d filled his phone’s memory with audiobooks before he’d set out, but after driving for almost 13 hours, the recorded words had become strange and incomprehensible. For the last hour, he’d been moving north admiring the bark and stone of the mountain foothills with quiet, thoughtful awe.
What would it be like to live out here? He wondered. People always told him he was lucky to live in Florida, but with his home already so full of beauty, he’d never really appreciated it. Would living out here be the same? Kentucky was beautiful, but it too would probably build a patina of tarnish as the novelty fell away with time. He yawned and felt his head bob; never a good sign with so many hours of winding lines through the mountains ahead.
He tried one of the audio books again, but found he still couldn’t understand the strange foreign words of Palahniuk, read to him by a soft woman’s voice:
“I take a turkey.” It said.
“I have money 25 weight why have any but turkey taken I dig. Flesh-tone lumps of rice-a-roni big monster yellow teeth baby plastic netting.”
He sighed and turned the gibberish back off and took a swig from the energy drink that had been resting idly in the cup holder for the last hour. He was too tired to understand it. The book had been translated into hundreds of languages but the language of the sleep-deprived didn’t seem to be one of them.
Clouds shrouded the moon and the world around him slipped further and further into darkness as he drove. He felt a nod again and through his bleary vision saw a sign blinking in the distance.
‘Construction Ahead’ it blinked.
‘Reduced Speed’ it blinked.
‘Next 18 Miles’
‘Speeding Fines Doubled’
He yawned again as the gas light lit and the dashboard chimed. There was an exit before the sign, so he turned on his blinker, preparing to pull off. At the end of the exit ramp was a rusted sign for the gas station directing him to the left.
He drove on the dark forest road for what seemed like miles. Just as he began thinking he might have gone the wrong direction, the gas station appeared in a glow of green light on the other side of a curve. It was set back from the road amidst the naked branches of a dozen trees. It was in a state of disrepair and looked as though no work had been done to update or fix anything since it had been built, 40 or 50 years ago. Still, the lights were on and the sign in the window read ‘Open 24 Hours.’
The inside stank of mildew and most of the goods on the shelves, dust-caked and expired, looked as though they’d sat there for decades. The beverage case held the strangest selection of off-brand energy drinks he’d never heard of: Red Smash, BevJolt and Starchild. The Starchilds had the best label, so he grabbed two of them and took them to the counter.
“I’ll take this and $30 in gas.” He told the clerk; a strange looking woman with pendulous breasts and the wisps of whiskers growing on her chin.
She looked up from the dogeared romance novel she’d been reading with a glare of irritation.
“Which pump?” She asked.
The only one with a car next to it? He glanced out the window, “I think it’s 4.”
“You think or you know?”
He rolled his eyes, held his tongue and paid his total.
After he’d paid and refueled, he set back out on the road in the direction he’d come, popping the tab on one of the off-brand energy drinks and clicking the radio on to see if he could find anything interesting on the airwaves.
The radio hissed to life with a breath of static. He punched the next button over and over finding nothing interesting for several minutes as he headed back to the highway and then finally, he found something. The station had weak signal that flitted in and out as he drove.
“..For giving” Hisss “Make a joyful noise to the” hisssss “all the earth! Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with” hiss “Enter his gates with” hiss “and his courts with praise!” The voice said as the signal waxed and waned.
“Sinners!” The velvety voice of the radio preacher rang, “ungodly men! These savages all” hiss “punished by His righteous hand. Their lives will be taken from them. Stolen. Given to another, more deserving and more faithful! That’s the punishment!”
He clicked the radio off and in the same motion, turned on the heater. The temperature outside had dropped considerably after sunset and the artificial warmth was a welcome addition as he navigated back to the on-ramp to continue the trip north. As the lights of his car swept along the road, they cast a pale glow on what used to be the merge lane of the highway. Warner didn’t see any notice about it when exiting, but he was dismayed to find there would be no reentry here. To his right was the ramp that he’d originally turned off on; to his left was the return ramp, or what remained of it. It was torn up, jackhammered to rubble and reduced to the turned earth beneath. Under construction and blocked off with diagonally striped barricades; marked with a detour sign that pointed him onward and past. He sighed in frustrated irritation, coming to terms that he was going to be late to the family reunion in Ohio. If he hadn’t been so cheap he would have flown and already been wrapped in the warm blankets of his hotel room. Instead, Warner had spent hours on the road and made the mistake of stopping here, in the middle of god-knows-where, and now heading miles out of his way.
As he followed the detour signs, the painted white lines traced a path further and further away from the highway. He found himself passing through a tunnel of trees lining the road like malevolent shadows with jagged arms. Arms that seemed to reach for him–aggressive silhouettes that he instantly harbored an irrational fear of. Ahead, another detour sign pointed him left and he followed it down another road that invoked the same eerie nightmarish thoughts.
He picked up speed. That was when it happened. Something the size of a large beach ball but unidentifiable and much harder and blood-filled slammed into his windshield, leaving a massive crack and a smear of red on the passenger side. The stillness of the night was rendered asunder by the sound of squealing tires. The car fishtailed and went off onto the grassy shoulder where he sat, hyperventilating in shock, still gripping the steering wheel with white knuckles. Time seemed to slow to a crawl as he collected himself. He’d hit an animal, but what animal? He felt his stomach churn as he undid his belt and got out of the car, leaving the door open wide as he stepped out into the dark.
He crossed behind the car and into the red-lit world that lay beyond his taillights. A faint breeze crept beneath his skin, chilling him to the bone and stirring to life the leaves in the trees and those scattered around him on the ground. There, on the pavement before him, a trail of blood ended in a puddle… but there was no animal there that he could see. Something rustled in the tall grass at the side of the road. He found it so unnerving that he abandoned his search and returned to the car, quickly getting back inside.
At the time, he was happy he hadn’t killed it, whatever it was. This feeling of relief didn’t last.
With his foot on the break, the red-washed world behind him intensified as he restarted the car. He saw the animal rushing towards him in the mirror… closer than it appeared. Frozen in shock he didn’t move his foot to the gas until the thing, feathered and round, leapt onto the trunk. It wasn’t until it began beating on the back window that he recognized it by its beak. Its horrid massive beak as it pecked and slammed it’s feathery mass against the window. A turkey… except he realized it was no longer smashing its body against the glass with its mass as it had been moments before. It had suddenly began to beat against the window with a pair of malformed oddly human hands. Warner’s eyes grew wide and wild as he slammed on the gas pedal, watching it roll backward and off, hitting the ground behind him with a sickening splat.
“What the hell, what the hell…” Warner began muttering to himself as the car gained speed. Then the second, and third, and fourth turkeys pelted the windshield in succession, but these were just as strange as the first. He could have sworn that one had a human nose; another, small feet like those which belonged to a baby; and yet another had barely any feathers at all… a round, humanoid torso with an impressive wingspan. In his haste to escape, he did not see the detour sign as it directed his next turn. He continued onward down the dark road, the glass of the windshield covered in blood and a roadmap of interconnected shatters. Feathers vibrated wildly, stuck beneath the wipers, as the car picked up speed.
Another of these strange birds hit his vehicle. Teeth this time. And then another, and another… with human eyes and lips, respectively.
He hadn’t expected the road to end the way it did… abruptly halted by a guardrail marked with reflective yellow chevrons. He almost hit it, but he’d mashed the brake pedal and turned the wheel at the last moment, spinning safely clear of it by narrow inches. He sat there for a moment hyperventilating, but the respite was short lived, for down the road from where he’d come, he could see nearly a dozen of the things advancing at a run he wouldn’t have thought possible if he hadn’t been seeing it with his own eyes.
He needed an escape and then he saw it, a dark gravel path off to his right. He gunned the engine as the rock crunched angrily beneath his tires. This path too, ended abruptly: this time with an aged mid-century colonial, framed on one side by a topple down chimney that had half separated away from its moorings in a precarious lean. The windows were dark. He got out, leaving the car running for there was no time to be wasted, and making a mad dash for the door, hoping that the house was as empty as it seemed to be. Sure enough the structure’s door hung ajar, inviting him into its dark depths. He slammed it behind him.
The house was fully furnished and every surface was caked in a decade of dust. He quickly set about barricading the windows and the door, upending couches and chairs, turning the coffee table on its side and sliding a heavy grandfather clock across the entrance. He sealed off the room from the rest of the house, blocking the hallway with a massive full-sized mirror that he pulled from the wall. In the distance, their haunting chortles and squalls called their approach to him. He hoped that his hasty barricades would be enough.
When the first of them battered itself against the barred door, he let out a terrified scream.
“What in God’s name is happening?” He shouted to the ceiling. There was another harsh thud against the door and they began battering at the windows. “Let me be! Go away please?!”
Then, as quickly as it began, the pounding at the entrance stopped. The birds hadn’t gone. It seemed they had, in abrupt unison, calmed and began to pace in a wide oval on the front porch.
Warner stole a glance outside, peering between the window frame and a credenza that had been hastily shoved to block a window. Outside the things (he refused to believe they were turkeys at all) made a small circular parade of unholy mockery. Nearly a dozen of the fowl strutted just beyond the window, some on humanoid feet, others with hands, still others with hairy legs and thin, featherless torsos.
“Why?!” He shouted at them.
And to his surprise, a number of them repeated the question back to him, with hoarse unpracticed voices: “Why?!” They said.
He covered his face and with a horrified gasp and stepped away from the window.
“Oh God,” he said, muttering, “leave me alone, please?”
And a number of them replied at once, in unified voices all with the same timber and depth. Their voices cracked, and harsh, and awkward, “Let. Me. In. Please.”
It was so unnerving that Warner felt the urge to puke. “God!” He said. “I should be in Ohio. Not here. Why didn’t I fly? I should’ve flown!”
And the strange birds outside repeated: “Ohio. Ohio. Not here.”
He looked out the window again and began to desperately shout at them. “What do you want? Why me? Why is this happening!?”
And the strange birds outside repeated: “Why. Why. Why.” Followed by: “Let. Me. In. Please.”
Warner backed away again, to the center of the room, and began to sob.
The strange birds outside repeated it back to him: the pathetic sound of him crying in the dark.
As the night wore on they continued to taunt him, and their steps grew heavier and harsher with each passing hour. Somewhere around 3am, he heard something against the glass. Not the battering of wings, like he’d heard before. This sound was soft and patient, like the tapping of fingers.
“Let. Me. In. Please.” A voice, Warner’s own voice like a quiet recording played out of order, spoke the words again. The thing at the window was whispering from the opposite side of the glass. He stood to peer out once more, and this time, peering back at him was his own face, gazing through his own eyes. All of the turkeys had grown considerably and each one had begun to look more and more like him as the hours had passed. Some were helping others pluck errant feathers here and there, adding them to the growing pile on the planks of wood that made up the porch. Warner’s naked facsimile smiled and whispered a breathy “Me. Me. Please. Me.” before backing away and down the steps. He watched in disbelief as several of them piled into his car and drove away.
He remained inside of the abandoned house until morning came, dumbfounded and quietly crying. They seemed to have all gone, the ones who took his car and the ones who remained, slowly tapering away and into the night.
At daybreak he mustered the courage to step outside. He pulled the heavy grandfather clock away from the door and slowly swung it open.
He was unaware that two remained behind, one on either side of the doorway. Each not fully morphed into their final forms. Each with a sharp, hooked beak remaining on their all-but human faces. As he stepped outside, they pounced on him, tearing through the soft fabric of his shirt and the soft flesh of his belly. Before he succumbed to the blood loss, as they began to rip the coil of intestines from his gut with their beaks, he could have sworn they said something… It sounded like: “Should’ve. Flown.”