Roland and Octavia were about halfway down the mountain when raindrops began tapping upon what little fall foliage was left on the trees. The trail became muddy, the rocks and roots slick, which slowed their descent considerably. Now they were on Route 86 heading east toward Wilmington, the heat blasting as Roland eased the car into the darkness ahead. Wet and exhausted, there was nothing that sounded better than some hot food, a cold beer, and dry clothes.
Then, they saw her. She appeared out of the rainy gloom, first as a hazy figure then more clearly as the car approached. The woman's jacket was drenched and her long, gray hair was pulled back in a loose pony tail. Her skin was taut against her face and her cheekbones were pronounced, making her other features appear sunken. She walked slowly, deliberately, and there was an unsteadiness to her gait. She was alone in the cold and the damp, hands stuffed into her pants pockets, head down and shoulders slumped.
“We have to help her," Octavia said, almost robotically. “Roland. You have to stop.”
Roland looked at his friend. She was serious. With a sigh, he slowed down and pulled onto the shoulder of the road. As the woman neared the car, Octavia rolled her window down and leaned out.
“Miss?” she said. “Miss? Can we offer you a ride to Wilmington?”
The old woman stopped near the back door of the car, her eyes staring straight ahead. There was the sound of the heater running, of windshield wipers, and of the tap-tap-tap of rain. Without a word, the woman turned toward the door and opened it. She settled into the back seat and slammed the door. Her eyes shifted left and right in their sockets, looking past the windows and into the darkness beyond.
“Thank you, kind souls,” she replied, her voice like a whisper of wind through dry leaves.
Roland looked at Octavia, whose gaze was fixed straight ahead with eyebrows slightly raised, then he glanced at the rearview mirror. His new traveling companion was sheathed in black, a shadow with the faint vestige of a woman peeking through it. Roland swung the car back onto the road and asked for her name.
“It’s Zoe, dear,” she replied. And then, almost as an afterthought, she repeated it. “Zoe.”
Roland brought the car up to speed, which in the driving rain was only about 40 miles per hour. Mist rose from the Ausable River on their left, and to the right the forest was a black wall, filled with shadows. Octavia was staring into it, trying to make out distinct shapes. She never noticed how much trees and shrubs can look humanoid in the dark. It made her shiver.
“We’re only going to Wilmington, Zoe, but I’m sure we can help you find a ride from there if you need it,” Roland said.
“I just need to get out of the Notch,” Zoe said. “Please, just take me to the other side.”
Indeed, the road was curving and bending toward Wilmington Notch, a spectacular, rugged stretch where cliffs rise above the treetops and the Ausable tumbles past boulders and over falls.
“Do you see?” Octavia suddenly exclaimed, pointing past Roland toward the river. “There are people out there, in the mist! Are they fishing or something? That’s so weird.”
Roland looked and saw dark forms in the grayish cloud, but he couldn’t tell if they were people or just the illusion of human shapes. Behind the river, the massive black presence of a cliff was emerging, a solid, dark thing against an even darker night.
“Roland,” Octavia said. “Roland, look! Up on the cliff…look! There are people crawling down the side of the rock. You see that, right?”
Roland was hesitant to admit it, but as he turned he saw them too. Black silhouettes, a bunch of them, were scrambling head first down the cliff.
“That can’t be possible,” he said, trying to keep his eyes on the road. “I mean, yeah, I see what you’re talking about, but there has to be an explanation. Some kind of trick with the rain or something.”
Then they noticed the humming. Zoe was singing a melody under her breath, and her eyes, which Roland could now make out, were wide open and staring intently out of the window. She sees them too, he thought.
The road wound between rock faces, and as the gorge widened the rain picked up. To the left there was a pull off, and as the periphery of the lights passed it, Octavia and Roland gasped — there were human shapes milling about in the parking area, and as the car passed they seemed to group together and head toward it, wavering and shuffling, thin arms lazily swaying with the motion.
“No, no, no,” Roland said, rubbing his eyes and staring straight ahead. “We’re just tired or something, we’re just exhausted and hungry.”
“Roland?” Octavia said.
“No, not now,” he replied. “We need to keep going.”
“Roland, the road. It’s…moving,” Octavia said.
And there, beneath the glow of the headlights, Roland saw it too. The surface of the road looked like an oil slick and it had a slithering motion, like a snake working its way through tall grass. They were on a straightaway now, and the forest was alive. It was leaning toward them, encroaching upon the road. Up ahead was the bridge over the Wilmington Flume, a surge of whitewater that blasts between two boulders like water from a firehose. Roland hit the brakes and the car slid to a halt — across the bridge, standing shoulder to shoulder, was a line of figures blacker than the night. They had no features, no clothes. They were almost two-dimensional, expressionless and cold.
The rain pelted the car but the sound was muted. They were in a tunnel now, a barren tube that was slowly constricting around them. Roland and Octavia were both staring straight ahead, at the motionless forms. All that remained was the car and the bridge. Nothing else mattered.
Then, in the rearview mirror, Roland saw Zoe's face emerge from the abyss-like shadow of the back seat. She was leaning forward, but it wasn’t to stare at the imposing figures ahead, it was to whisper a single word into Roland’s ear: “Drive.”
Roland noticed that Zoe’s face was bright, her cheeks were rosy, her hair was brown, and her eyes held a glimmer of light that was comforting in the oppressive atmosphere surrounding them. He wanted to comment on how much younger she looked, but instead he pushed the gas pedal down. Roland didn’t hesitate and he didn’t think about it. Instead, he aimed the headlights directly at the row of figures as the needle on the speedometer surged past 60 miles an hour.
The group was silent as they pulled into the parking lot in front of Pourman’s Tap House. From the back of the car came a woman’s voice — youthful, vibrant, and carelessly playful: “Thanks for the ride, guys!”
Roland and Octavia watched as the young woman skipped across the parking lot. She spun once, arms outstretched and face up to the falling rain, before vanishing into the night.
“I think we just saved that woman’s life,” Octavia said. Roland nodded and turned the ignition off.
"Or maybe she just saved ours," he replied.
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