On a wet night in October of 1999, a beautiful family of five drove deep into the woods where I-95 meets White Valley. They were on vacation for the weekend. Mr. Pinto was a scientist. His wife was a teacher. The kids wanted to go on the haunted hayride, just a few miles outside of town, but the storm made it hard to see, and the hills made it hard to drive. The dips came up and down at you one after the other, and while that might be well and good for country folk, it’s a trip for kids from the city.
Something big darted out in front of the road. Dad hit the gas when he should have gone for the breaks. The tires slipped. The sedan flipped. They tumbled down the hill five, six, seven times. The car crash landed in a heap of twisted metal just outside the Falls.
Miraculously, the family survived the initial impact. But only one of them made it out of the woods that night.
The disappearance of the Pinto family haunted our little podunk town for the better part of the last few decades. Security companies made a fortune. The cops padded their staff tenfold. Children walked in pairs, never past sunset, never past that street, and parents locked their doors as soon as they got inside. That feeling of safety and security in the ‘burbs all but evaporated. Still no one suffered more than the family’s sole survivor.
Michael Pinto was just a kid at the time. He told the truth as plainly as he remembered it. The cops just didn’t buy it. How could they? A doctor said Mike’s mind wasn’t right, and would never be quite right, given all the trauma he sustained. The investigation stalled, sputtered, and spit out. The department put the case on hold without a single suspect named.
Time passed. Details mixed in with conjecture. Truth became legend and the locals resorted to gossip. The topic itself became contentious, depending on viewpoints or religious affiliation, and over time the actual victims got lost in the story. So did Mike.
I found him as a friend sometime in between.
“The thing that always gets me about that night,” he used to say. “The rain came at us like a motherfucker.”
Mr. Pinto made it clear from the get-go that he wanted to turn back. Mike’s Dad was a worry wart. The type of guy that had to white knuckle the clothing hangers anytime he drove over a bridge. Now there he was, out in a storm, in the middle of nowhere, without a light, without a map, compass, or half a fuckin clue on where to turn. You could almost feel the tension in that car.
“Dad didn’t like to be agitated.”
Mrs. Pinto was in his ear trying to cheer him up. Mike’s mom was a chipper little thing. I suppose she had to be by trade. Talking a child out of a tantrum isn’t much different than a man in the throes of road rage. She knew all the buttons to press to keep that family flying towards wholesome memories.
“I just remember Mom saying, you know, ‘the storm will clear’ and ‘the kids won’t want to miss this’ but truth be told, we couldn’t give a shit,” Mike told me. “My mom just couldn’t live with herself if she didn’t get us on a hayride for Halloween, you know? She was that type. Had to capture the Kodak moment. And we were going home the next day.”
The two older boys fought on either side of him in the back seat. Frank was twelve. Tyler was ten. One stole something from the other and the other insisted he needed it back. Mrs. Pinto hummed the lyrics to some Pop song on the radio. Mr. Pinto turned around to squash the beef.
“And that’s when I saw it,” Mike murmured. “Right there in the headlights.”
The crash seemed to happen in slow motion. One moment, Mike is staring into dark, red eyes attached to a shrouded figure in the road that seems far too big to be anything natural. In the next, his whole world turns upside down.
“We all wore seatbelts,” Mike snickered. “Mom wouldn’t have let us leave the driveway without them. So even though the car flipped over and over, over and over, we stayed put in our seats.”
The car came to a rest, upright, about twenty feet from the drop at Tanner Falls. The group was spooked but thankful. A cursory check from Mom and Dad revealed nothing but a few cuts and bruises. Tyler smacked his head. Mrs. Pinto grazed her hand. Mike thought he twisted his ankle. But nobody seemed seriously hurt.
“We couldn’t believe we were fine,” Mike laughed piteously. “After that settled down, Dad started ranting about the thing in the road, and Mom was giving him the business, you know, he needs to be more careful and he’s damn lucky we’re alive.”
Mike always took a deep breath at this point in the story. It got fucking weird here. Weird enough to lose the cops. He acknowledged as much.
“No sooner than she finished her sentence, something big reached into the car, and ripped my mother out of it.”
His memory hasn’t changed since that night.
“Like a fucking kid playing with a Hess truck, you know? One second she’s here, the next she’s gone. It happened so fast that nobody even got a chance to see what took her.”
The only evidence of Mrs. Pinto’s departure was a body shaped hole in the roof. A hole the police claimed to be caused in the crash.
“My dad got out of the car. He said he saw somebody in the road. My older brothers screamed for him to stay put. I know… I know I started crying. But Dad didn’t listen. It was like he was in a trance or something. He just got out and walked back towards Lazarus Street.”
The three brothers followed him.
“We were looking for my mother, and at the same time tracking my father, and we could hear somebody talking, a woman’s voice, and we thought ‘oh that must be Mom.’”
The boys rushed up the ravine. They climbed up onto the road. And they saw something that stopped the three of them dead in their tracks.
“Standing in the road was this old woman in a white dress. She wasn’t doing anything. Just standing there. And my father walked right up to her. No hesitation or anything. Like she was an old friend.”
Little did he know.
“Tyler asked ‘what the fuck’ and Dad said ‘watch your mouth in front of nan.’”
Mike’s grandmother died fifteen years earlier.
“And then the sick old lady smiled. But there weren’t any teeth. Just a fuckin’ nub of gums and shit, you know? Anyway, my dad loved it. He ran right up to her. She wrapped her arms around him. Thin arms. Like little twigs. One of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen in my life. And at this point, my mind can’t comprehend what’s happening, because we never even met my grandmother. She’d been dead since before we were born.”
My parents went to her funeral.
“She opened her hands. She had these wolverine-like fingernails. Real long, like they’d been growing ever since she died. She smiled at us with those gummy fuckin’ lips. Then she stuck a nail in my dad’s neck. Cut through it like butter.”
The boys scattered. Tyler ran screaming to the other side of the road. But the woman was spry. She snatched him up in her white dress and sent the other two boys reeling towards the car.
“Frank grabbed my shirt and half-dragged me back down the ravine. The rain and the dark and the screaming… we fell more than we ran.”
The pair collided with a tree about ten feet from the car. They tried to get their bearings before footsteps sent them scrambling. Mike looked up. Standing in between them and salvation was a man built like a boulder.
“He was huge. At least 6’5. He had this red checkered jacket that looked so familiar to me at the time but didn’t click until days later. My mom’s dad had one just like it. She kept it around after he passed.”
Frank ran for the car first.
“The old man didn’t like that. He took Frank’s head and palmed it like a basketball. My brother went limp. I tried to fight back. I charged at him. I can remember that stupid grin on that big ogre’s face. I wanted to punch that grin off his face so fucking bad. Like he didn’t belong here, you know, I could feel it, deep inside my bones. But something big hit me, right here.”
Mike points to a scar on his head.
“Everything went black after that.”
Mike woke up next to his parents’ beat up sedan. He found the keys still inside. He didn’t find the courage to try the engine until about an hour later (‘the noise’, he said, ‘could have brought them back’). When he did, he couldn’t believe that the damn thing still started. He took the ravine back up to Lazarus Street. He followed it back to the hotel. The rain had died down by then. The police arrived only moments after.
The largest search party in White Valley’s history turned up nothing but broken tail lights.
“It was like somebody or something reached up and snatched them from Earth.”
Mike struggled with guilt over what happened for years. Beyond the gossip, beyond the whispers and accusations and police interviews that all ended with the same rampant and wide ranging speculation… he knew the truth. Most of it.
“I just never knew why they left me behind.”
On a recent anniversary of their death – Mike and I agreed to set up a makeshift memorial to the Pintos. A burial of sorts. A way to put the past where it truly belongs. I thought it would help him finally process their deaths. But when he didn’t show up that evening, and didn’t answer my calls, I filed a missing person’s report. The cops tracked his phone a couple days later.
The search revealed a solitary ping from the night in question.
The signal traced back to Lazarus Street.