“Oh my God I have to pee,” the squirmy brunette in the driver’s seat said to Violet, trying not to bounce in place. Marnie Sollenson scanned the pitch-black emptiness on the side of the road for the reflective bright green of an exit sign. There were long stretches of highway in Texas where there was nothing to see and nowhere to stop. The miles had long since blurred together and this forsaken area was a far cry from the city-clogged East Coast where they had been only days before. She and her best friend Violet Pritchard had been traveling together for close to ten thousand miles and now they were somewhere east of Dallas and south of Paris.
“I know,” Violet agreed, a hint of impatience in her voice. “Me too. It feels like we haven’t seen a gas station or restaurant in days.”
“I don’t care if I have to pee on the side of the road, the next time we get a chance I’m pulling off,” Marnie said as she stubbed out her cigarette in the ashtray. Violet’s jet-black head streaked with cerulean blue bobbed to the side and she gave Marnie a questioning look that indicated she had no intention of squatting anywhere that didn’t have facilities.
“I’ll hold it,” she replied and it was Marnie’s turn to look disbelieving. “Marnie, seriously? You really don’t expect me to go to the bathroom on the side of the road, do you?” Marnie just smiled.
Three days ago, they’d been in Vermont. Somewhere around mile eighty-five hundred, a pebble hit the driver’s side windshield, creating a tiny divot that was working its way into a crack spreading to the passenger side. Then came the blizzard in the Smoky Mountains where she and Vi were sure they were about to plummet over the side of a cliff. Mustangs were made for sunshine not snowstorms.
Yesterday the car had blown its radiator on the outskirts of Nashville, oozing neon green fluid all over the parking lot where they had stopped for their mid-afternoon snacks. They’d learned the hard way that hunger made them cranky. Luckily, there was a mechanic across the street who carried the part they needed. In the course of conversation, they admitted that they were on a poetry tour, performing in bars and coffee shops across the country. Because he was staying late to help them out, they entertained him with a couple poems. Afterwards, he drove them to the first decent hotel they’d stayed in since the trip began, and made sure that they had gotten back on the road by early afternoon the next day since they were expected in Dallas later on that night.
It was late the same day after finally getting the radiator fixed and there were very few cars left on the road. They tried to distract themselves by singing along to Ani Difranco, but the technique only went so far. Finally, the most beautiful green they had ever seen in their lives appeared on the right. On the corner of the sign was a bright white gas pump.
“Oh thank heaven,” said Violet and Marnie nodded her silent agreement, pressing her right foot closer to the floor.
Marnie maneuvered the car onto the ramp and headed downhill towards the stop sign. She looked in every direction, but the only thing she saw was a dilapidated gas station with plywood nailed over the windows, spray-painted with a bright orange “Closed.” The only light came from a single bulb shining over a small circle of cracked pavement with gnarled weeds growing out of it. She stopped well short of the end of the exit, coming to a complete halt on the left side.
“Ummmm, what should we do now?” Vi asked, the trepidation evident in her shaking tone.
“Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m gonna go pee by the edge of those trees over there,” Marnie proclaimed. To her left was stunted scrub brush that rose up the side of a small incline that led back to the highway. “What’s the big deal? You coming?”
Violet nodded, untucked her legs from beneath her, and began to pull on her sneakers. The eeriness of the landscape invaded the car as Marnie opened the door to step out into the moonless night. She eyed the sharp bristles of the dwarf-like trees that were several feet away and yet felt like they might unhinge themselves from the soil and start to march towards her. She slammed the door and felt her heart pound inside her chest.
Vi’s responding laugh held the fear that Marnie was trying to hide. “Oh, yeah, what’s the big deal?”
Marnie swiveled her body so that she was facing her friend. The other side of the road held the same mangled trees. “If this wasn’t an absolute emergency I wouldn’t step one foot outside of this car. I’d get us back on the highway and keep driving no matter how long it took to find another place. I’m half tempted to use one of those empty soda bottles in the back seat. Since we’re already stopped, I’ll get out first and then you. If either one of us gets grabbed by an axe wielding psycho the other will get the hell out of here as quickly as possible. Deal?”
“Deal.” They pinky swore and Marnie unbuckled her seatbelt.
She took a deep breath and gripped the handle. She stepped out into the heavy, clinging air and hunched down no more than two feet away from the door, eyeing the twisted branches that seemed like they were reaching for her. The interior light and the radio keeping the darkness at bay, she finished her business as soon as she could and jumped back into the car.
“Your turn.” Violet braced herself for the terror, rushed to the other side of the car, and was back inside less than a minute later.
“Alright, get us out of here immediately. I want to be back on the highway before we get swallowed up by something ravenous and deadly.”
“You got it girl,” Marnie replied, shoving the clutch down and grinding the gearshift in the process.
She edged the car to the stop sign, glancing around for the entrance ramp back to the highway. To their left was a small curved overpass covering a tiny two-lane road. To their right, she saw only blacktop and more mutant forest: neither direction looked promising. In front of them, the headlights illuminated a dirt road that ran parallel to the highway and sat to the left of the abandoned gas station. The overhanging branches of the trees that grew on either side of the road created shadows into which the road disappeared. There was no obvious entrance ramp like there should have been.
“Do you see a sign to get back on the highway?” Marnie asked, trying to sound calm.
Violet searched for anything that would lead back to what passed for civilization out here in the middle of nowhere. “I don’t see anything. Maybe try that road in front of us? It’s right next to the highway so maybe it connects further up.”
Marnie edged the car onto the bumpy dirt road, which seemed to close in on them as they crawled forward. She could hear the scraping of the undercarriage with every hole she drove over despite her desperate attempt to avoid them. They weren’t going more than ten miles an hour and time trickled as the road thinned so that the car barely cleared the trees on either side. They couldn’t have gone more than a half-mile when the road became so overgrown that they couldn’t go any farther forward.
“Vi, I’m turning around. This is really freaking me out. Screw it: I’ll just drive back up the exit ramp.”
“I really don’t like this,” Violet squeaked out, drawing her knees up to her chest. She chose that moment to look out her window and into the big black eyes of a Texas Longhorn.
“What is that metal gate doing in the middle of nowhere?” Marnie managed to stutter out.
“Gate? What about the random cow? Big horns, drooling mouth?” Vi shot back.
“Okay, well it’s Texas, they have cows here,” Marnie tried to rationalize. She spun the wheel back and forth, alternated by the up and down motion of the gear shift, moving the car by increments and not nearly fast enough for her liking. There wasn’t enough room to turn the car around and she realized that she’d have to drive in reverse back the way they came. She slung her arm over the passenger seat and turned her head to watch where she was going. There was only one problem. The road was gone. Or more to the point the dirt had grown a jungle that was waiting to swallow them. She turned off the car and glanced around at the hovering forest and the staring Longhorn.
“Why did you turn the car off Marnie? Seriously, I’m not kidding, I’m really scared here.”
Checking her cell phone, she saw that there was no reception and tossed it onto the dashboard in disgust. “Vi I really need you to stay calm.” She tried to keep any inflection from her voice.
“What in the world? Why do I need to stay calm? What the…” and then, glancing over her shoulder, she saw it. “Those trees weren’t there before. There’s no way. Where did the road go?”
“I have no freaking clue. Listen, I’ve got a knife in the bag behind your seat.” Violet arched an eyebrow in surprise, but then clambered over the armrest and ripped open the bag that hid their only weapon.
She brandished the blade. “Got it.” Marnie could see the confidence just holding it gave her. “Okay. What now? We sit here ‘til sunrise and then slash our way back to the highway?”
Screeching metal broke into the conversation. “That was the plan. Something tells me, the plan has changed.” The jiggling of the door handles rattled them. Marnie grabbed Vi’s hand and squeezed it as the doors flew open. “You and me, we’re gonna make it.” They were ripped apart. Thorny vines wrapped around their waists and began to drag them onto the ground.
“Marnie,” Violet screamed as she slashed at the deep green living ropes coming from every direction. There were too many of them. She disappeared from view, leaving Marnie staring into the wide-eyed steer chewing its cud.
Marnie’s nails clutched at the grey cloth seats and then the plastic that lined the base of the door. It cracked and her body crashed to the ground sending a bone shattering pain rippling down her spine. Her chin dragged against the pebbles, blood streaked in her wake. Her jeans protected her legs, but the vines shredded her t-shirt, livid red lines etched into her stomach. She couldn’t help but hear Violet’s hysterical cries mingling with her own. The only other sound was the dinging of the open doors.
In her desperation, she flipped over onto her back and clawed at the thick cords wrapped around her, but it was no use. Her elbow banged into a jagged rock as her body slipped out of the range of the headlights and into the pitch-black night. The ground softened as she hit dry and brittle grass, her raw arms were thankful for the slight change in textures. She twisted and turned, from front to back, tangling the vines, but the fight was fruitless. Her fingernails were raggedy from clutching at every root her ribcage and spine bashed against. She scrambled for purchase for anything she could grasp: the half-dead ferns, weeds, broken stubs of wood, and half buried stones. Nothing worked.
“Vi?” She called out terrified for her friend.
“Marnie,” came the weak reply.
Marnie found herself in a small circle of open space, the ground littered with dried leaves and tiny twigs. The vines lashed her to the scrub brush at the edge and the thorns pressed into her back, clawing at the skin exposed by her now torn jeans. Her shoes had been lost somewhere along the way. Pain ran feverish through her veins. Blood slipped down her torso and the vines absorbed it before it could dampen her hips. Marnie was searching for Vi when she was dragged from under the scrub brush and the vines strapped her next to Marnie.
Vi took a ragged breath. “Are you okay?”
“Define okay? I’m terrified, bruised, scraped, scratched, and I’m pretty sure these vines are lapping up my blood like it’s tea-time in Transylvania. But at least we have each other.” Marnie managed a feeble smile. “At least you still have the knife, which is, granted, clutched in your hand that’s tied to a bush with a brain, but still, you know, bright side.”
Marnie struggled against her living restraints. She was just about to beg Vi to help her come up with a brilliant escape plan when she noticed a single skinny, naked tree, shaped like a lollipop, and filled to the brim with unusually silent grackles: every beady pair of eyes trained on them. As one, the plague of grackles released their hold on the tree and erupted in mocking shrieks. The branches extended, reaching across the empty space. They were thirsty now. They slithered along the ground and up the legs of Marnie and Vi. The vines gave way as the branches wound around their limbs. Marnie felt the sharpened points pierce and weave their way through her right thigh, curl around and burrow just above her left hip. Her body let out a guttural shriek. She couldn’t help it. The branches continued their raging, ripping path up her body, ending when the shoved their way through the back of her hand, tearing through the center of her palm.
Tiny twigs sprouted from the branches and veins appeared as the tree began to drain the life from the two girls. They watched in terrified awe as the tree used their blood to breathe life into its blooming leaves. One second it was as bare as an oak in January and the next it was growing into the dark green of deep summer before their eyes. The grass beneath it sprung bright red roses from the soil. The vegetation that surrounded the tree followed suit. Marnie watched as Vi’s head lolled down as the blood loss began to take affect and the knife fell to the ground, useless.
“Awwww hell no,” Marnie exclaimed. “We are not going out like this. I’m not going to be a juice box for some vampire forest. I think I have an idea.” She noticed the shiny silver of the Bic lighter in her left pocket of her jeans.
She began to wiggle her hand, shredding the skin and creating a bigger hole. The pain wracked her body, but she refused to give up. She would save them. After several excruciating minutes, she succeeded in freeing one tattered hand. Her fingers barely worked, but she got the lighter out of her pocket. Though slick with blood, she finally lit the flame and held it to one of the branches wrapped around her waist, scorching her own skin in the process. A primal howl echoed as the tree carved up their skin as it withdrew back into itself. The vines still clung fast, but Vi’s upper body was free.
“Get the knife,” Marnie commanded Vi who flung herself at the knife that lay at her feet. She picked it up and began sawing at the vines and the night filled with shrieks. Marnie copied the movement, bending down, flicking the flame repeatedly into life, and setting the dead leaves afire. The vines released them and they collapsed, their hands and knees so battered that they had barely enough strength to keep them upright.
Marnie crawled over to Vi and threw her arms around the body of her best friend. “Make a pile,” she gasped out.
Vi looked confused until Marnie began to gather leaves and sticks and twigs together into tiny mounds. Vi worked alongside her. The vines began to edge their way back towards the girls, tentative this time, but it was too late for the evil hidden at the side of I-30, east of Dallas and south of Paris. Marnie lit several of the well-built piles on fire. The two of them watched long enough to make sure that they caught and spread. Then they joined hands and sped back, following the broken path back to the Mustang that had taken them so far from home. The dinging of the car door was barely audible above the growing fire, but the path to the highway was clear and the Longhorn was gone. Marnie wondered briefly if it was standing sentinel for the bloody forest, but it was a consideration for another day. One when the sun was shining and there wasn’t a tree or a vine in sight. She slammed the car into gear and roared it off the dirt road and back onto the blacktop, the rearview mirror filled with orange and red flames.
Neither of them turned on the radio, nor did they speak until they reached the next exit. There on the side of the road was a Denny’s, the bright, shining lights offering safety from the shadows. They slowed down long enough to consider stopping despite their bloody, tattered appearance.
“Marnie, I’m starving and I wouldn’t mind getting cleaned up.” Vi’s pleading made the decision easy.
“It’s just too bad we couldn’t have waited a bit longer to pee. Woulda saved us a whole bunch of trauma and future therapy.” Marnie pulled into the parking space directly in front of a single tree and turned off the car. They grabbed their bags and limped into the dingy yellowing restaurant.
A wary waitress greeted them. She pointed the way to the restrooms where they got cleaned up and changed their filthy clothes. Once they were seated in the cracked plastic leather booth they both broke into hysterical laughter. There was nothing particularly funny, but the laughed until the tears streamed down their cheeks. Once they settled down, they drank bitter coffee and shoveled food into their weakened bodies.
They finished up, paid their bill, and pushed through the double doors out into the night. The tree in front of the Mustang was filled with grackles.
“Vi,” Marnie began, grabbing her friend’s hand, “we need to get back in the car and away from here.” The branches of the tree elongated and inched towards them. “RUN!”
They sprinted and ripped open the car doors, slamming them shut as Marnie shoved the key into the ignition. The engine turned over, but didn’t catch. The branches punched into the hood and wound into the heart of the car. The air shimmered around the two girls and Marnie felt blood dripping down her torso. Pain seethed through every inch of her frame. Her vision dimmed and flickered. They were no longer outside of a Denny’s. They were back in the forest.
“Vi? Vi….can you hear me?” Her voice came out weak and broken. She turned to see her friend’s head hanging down, unmoving. Marnie glanced down and saw the silver of her Bic still tucked in her pocket, her hand still impaled. The Longhorn wandered into the center of it all and bent its head to dine on the vibrant grass. The last thing Marnie saw was the plague of grackles, landing once again on the tree, as they plunged their beaks into the branches.