Theo hadn’t meant to run over the raccoons. They’d just come out from nowhere.
It wasn’t entirely his fault, though. The fog was thick as wool, and his old Civic didn’t have the right headlights for the weather. But he had been speeding. And Backstreet Boys’ “Larger Than Life” had been turned up really loud because this was the only time he could play it and no one would overhear.
He’d just rounded the curve by City-on-the-Berm County Park—that sharp turn with all the woods to the right and the steep slope down to Lake Michigan on the left—when bam! Two baby raccoons had come scuttling into his headlights.
Theo hit the brakes and yanked the steering wheel left. But the two raccoons had frozen, eyes latched onto his low beams…
A double thud as his front tires went over them. One for each animal. A few feet after, Theo’s car squealed to a stop.
“Shit, shit, shit,” he breathed to himself, heart hammering. In the dim red glow of his brake lights, he could see two bodies smashed into the road.
His fingers tightened on the steering wheel. “Shit, shit, shit.” He wanted to rewind time by ten seconds. He wanted to shout at the raccoons for trying to cross the street right then. And he wanted to shout at himself for caring so much.
But maybe…maybe they weren’t dead. Maybe if he got them to the emergency clinic on Lost Crow Road, there was still a chance.
With a gentle nudge on the gas, Theo eased the car off the road (three summers of working as a caddy for rich Chicago snots had bought him this Silver Sweetheart). He flicked on his emergency lights and switched off the engine. There were no streetlights around here, and the sun had long since dropped behind Lake Michigan. Each flash of orange light revealed white fog and more white fog.
Even with the low beams still on, he couldn’t see a goddamned thing.
Theo leaned his head on the steering wheel for a moment. His was heart was still pounding too fast, and his whole chest felt tight. Despite his sincerest hope otherwise, he knew the baby raccoons were dead. He’d been doing fifty—almost twice the speed limit on this winding road—and the little guys hadn’t stood a chance.
With a groan at himself and the really shitty thing he’d just done, Theo kicked open the car door. His Nokia buzzed in his fleece pocket, but he ignored it. It was probably just Davis wondering where the beer was.
Theo stepped close to the raccoons. They were definitely dead. There was no way something that flat could still be alive.
His breath plumed out, tendrils of steam made yellow by the emergency lights, and he ran a hand over his hair. Somehow, seeing the bodies up close made him feel guiltier. And helpless. Like he ought to do something.
He glanced at the tree line on his left, searching for a branch to shove the bodies over with. Evergreens and autumn hardwoods spanned for miles that way, but it was impossible to distinguish much in the shadowy fog.
Until his eyes landed on a mangled bush fifteen feet away. Storm damage, Theo guessed. The wind and rain could be wild on the lakeshore.
With another glance at the raccoons—still smashed, still dead, and still his fault—Theo tromped off the road toward the bush. As he pushed aside the intact bush limbs to grab for a fat, broken one, something glittered at the edge of his vision.
He paused. He turned.
A long, slimy thing lay on the ground nearby. Almost like a dead eel, except it was reddish. And speckled with brown. Every flash of the emergency lights made it glisten.
And there was a smell in the air. Like, something rotten. Probably other roadkill, Theo thought. His aunt, the local sheriff, had told him about frogs and squirrels crossing the road lately. Hundreds at a time.
Holding his breath against the stench, Theo grabbed the broken branch and yanked. Two tugs later, he had the branch free—it was sturdy and as long as his arm. Yet as he twisted toward the raccoons, the eel thing moved. And each blip of the lights showed it moving farther away.
Chill bumps ran down Theo’s arms. He’d never been a paranoid guy, but this felt…off.
His phone vibrated.
He flinched, and when the yellow lights blinked again, the eel-thing was out of sight. Theo’s breath whooshed out. He rolled his shoulders and pivoted toward the street. Whatever had been beside the bushes, it was gone, and all those crunching leaves nearby were probably just some animal.
A snake, he told himself, even though he new damned well that no snake would be out in weather this cold. Still, a snake made more sense than anything else, so he went with it.
At the first baby raccoon, Theo warily poked its fur with the branch. No reaction—undeniably dead. And also heavier than he’d expected, what with its whole midsection smashed into the road. After a few harsh shoves, Theo managed to peel it off the pavement.
Again, his phone buzzed. Then again, twice more.
“Fuck off,” he muttered. “The beer will get there when it gets there.” Ever since the fall semester had begun, Theo had become official booze runner for Roberta Hughes Preparatory School. He’d set up a sweet deal with the dude at RaceTrak. In exchange for twenty bucks, that dude would pretend Theo’s license didn’t say 1982 and that he wasn’t selling to a seventeen year old.
Six cases of Natty Lite later, Theo would then drive the beer to Berm, sell them to his fellow RH students at an upcharge of a dollar a can, and then pocket the money in the envelope under his mattress. So far, he’d made almost a thousand bucks, and he wasn’t even halfway into the semester.
After a few more grunts and shoves, Theo got the flat raccoon off the road. Then the second. Two giant blood stains on the pavement were all that remained, looking black in the darkness. A few pieces of unidentifiable body organs glistened when the emergency lights winked.
Grimacing, Theo stepped off the road and tossed the branch. It hit a bush. Dead autumn leaves drifted down.
It was at that exact moment, as Theo wiped off his hands and considered if Kelly’s Bath & Body hand sanitizer was still in the backseat, that a bell rang.
It pealed out, echoing over bare tree branches and riding the lakeshore breeze. A sharp, clear sound, much too close to be from any of the churches in Berm’s downtown.
The hair on Theo’s arms pricked up. On the back of his neck too, and without thinking, his eyes moved to where that weird, glistening snake thing had been.
It hadn’t returned, yet somehow, the smell of rotting flesh was stronger. And the fog—had it gotten thicker? The rustling from before was definitely louder. And it was coming closer too, in a steady crunch of leaves. Like someone was walking this way.
Theo flung a gaze into the enshrouded trees, and sure enough, someone was walking toward him. With each burst of the emergency lights, he could make out a hazy, grayish figure slicing through the fog.
Theo gulped. Why would anyone be here at nine o’clock on a Wednesday?
“Hello?” he shouted. “Are you, uh…are you okay?”
The figure froze, and Theo had the strong sense that he was being scrutinized. Judged.
A second gulp, and this time, Theo lifted his hands and stepped backward. “If you’re not okay, let me know because I’m, uh…I’m leaving now.” He pivoted and bolted for the car. Every paranoid nightmare he’d ever conjured as a kid was searing through his mind.
Ghosts at the window, demons in the closet, murderers under the bed.
In seconds, he was in his driver’s seat, shutting the door, and cursing the lack of power locks on his Silver Sweetheart. He was overreacting—he knew he was…Yet he still couldn’t get his breath to loosen in his throat.
It was, as he revved the engine and his foot hit the gas, that Theo made a really stupid mistake. He glanced into the rearview.
The emergency lights were still flashing, and the figure in the woods was now beside the street. It was a male shape, pale and blurry around the edges. Not as if it had come from the fog, but as if it were made of it.
Flash. It stood there. Flash. Still standing.
Then a third flash, and the figure was gone.