Turn the Fuck Around
I only left my son alone in the car for a moment. He hit me with his signature gap-toothed smile to let me know that would be alright. I forgot my wallet on the counter. I didn’t need to get pulled over without a license. I rushed inside, grabbed the diaper bag, found his rattle, then stopped to put on a jacket. My mind raced through the prototypical checklist that every parent knows when they plan to go somewhere. By that point, I would have forgotten my keys if they weren’t attached to my belt loop. I turned the deadbolt extra slow so my wife wouldn’t wake up from the click. I avoided cursing at the creaking steps. I sprinted (quietly, if possible) down the driveway to our old hatchback, slipped inside, and we were off.
In and out in under two minutes.
Liam giggled at the winding off ramp for the parkway. I knew what that meant from experience. Usually at this point in our routine, he asked for Baby Bum, or Cocomelon, so I switched on the soundtrack to one of his favorite nursery rhymes and caught myself humming along with the chorus. I took stock of the upcoming day and its stresses. Daycare first, then work, then lunch with clients, then daycare again. I needed to make sure there was enough time in between for some actual sales in between there. We needed money at the time. Not that we don’t still now, but, we did then too. Kids ain’t cheap.
Li fell asleep at some point past exit 66. The snores got to be as routine as the songs. We brought him in to have the former checked (as we did with almost anything) but the doctors claimed kids could only breathe through their mouth when they slept. I stretched out and glanced back to check his breathing, for what must have been the first time in the trip. Liam’s crop of messy black hair moved slowly up and down. I wrapped one finger into his curls and did my best to keep one eye on the road.
Suddenly, second small shape shifted in the third row.
I didn’t recognize it immediately. The jackets and junk back there formed awkward piles which made it tough to see anything. I never managed to keep a car cleaner longer than a week. My son’s toys amplified that problem. For a moment, I assumed that some of it just got caught up in the blast from the air conditioning, or a stray open window. But then it moved again.
“Turn the fuck around.”
My stomach dropped to the gas pedal.
“Don’t look back here.”
The deep, gravelly tone made this all the more unsettling. I didn’t recognize anything about it. He couldn’t have been a local. But he could have been old, young, native to this country or otherwise. I just couldn’t pull any other details.
My foot froze to the pedal.
“Don’t get pulled over.”
My brain took a second to process the commands.
“Don’t be stupid.”
I couldn’t help it.
“Anybody comes to help and everybody dies.”
I only cared about my son.
“Both of you.”
I didn’t care about me.
“Follow the turnpike out to Follaton City.”
I didn’t know the exit and didn’t bother to ask. I must have felt like ignoring this Voice would make it disappear entirely. I can safely admit now that was a very stupid plan. The nursery rhymes played the soundtrack to a very awkward silence. Baa-baa Black Sheep whistled through its last run of the chorus. Lucy Locket was up next. I kept my eyes on the road and our speed just below the limit. I didn’t know what else to do.
“Get in the right lane.”
The Voice coughed and shifted for a second. A nauseating odor wafted from the back row up the front. I covered my mouth and opened the window. I didn’t want him to see me react but I still couldn’t get it out of my nose. I gagged and tried to hold it. I would have worried about Li, but the kid had become a master chef of smells over the preceding month, so maybe he held some immunity. Even still – this one was out of his league.
“Focus on the road.”
Liam whined piteously from the back seat. I knew this nap would run its course soon enough. I needed an excuse to get a better look at the intruder. I grabbed the rattle from my front seat. I turned to hand it back, one eye on the road, one shifted behind, but something strong wrapped sharp nails into my skin and cut deep until my arm started to bleed.
“Turn the fuck around.”
“Don’t look back.”
The rest of the short trip stayed silent for a while. I ran through my options and realized almost all of them ended with my son in the most danger. The radio continued to play. Pop Goes The Weasel was uncomfortable. Ring Around the Rosie felt more appropriate. By the time Down by the Bay hissed through its third or fourth rendition, the Voice coughed to clear its throat.
I turned right at an exit labeled Follaton City. The road dipped down a steep hill, which led to another hill, which led to another. The street sloped and bended at least a dozen times. At a certain point, it felt like we passed below sea level, which would be more than unusual in this part of the country, but far from the strangest part of this trip. I looked for local landmarks or road signs that might have been familiar to me and found none. Again, unusual. I lived nearby my whole life.
“This used to be a great place.”
There weren’t any other cars on the road. The buildings, few and far between, were boarded and shuttered. My eyes found an uncomfortable position in which they could focus on the winding road and the shape in my rearview peripherals. It was small, almost as small as my son, but the longer I looked, the bigger it grew. The blankets and toys bounced and shifted around the growth.
“Homes, neighborhoods, businesses, schools. You name it. Follaton had everything.”
I gave a little more attention to it. Even that much focus terrified me. Long, sharp, lead cones poked up through my spare blankets. I couldn’t make sense of them at first because I couldn’t see the roots. There was too much shit back there. After a moment, the cones grew, reaching up like weeds until they pushed up against the felt roof and poked right on through the top of the car. Then it became obvious.
The cones were horns.
I tried to act as if nothing happened. That soon proved useless. Two black eyes peaked out from under a tee shirt. I wanted to look away from them and couldn’t. I could feel something holding my gaze in place, like a vice, which is a sensation that was foreign to me then and foreign to me now. I can’t even begin to describe the pain.
“Turn the fuck around.”
My eyes released. I shouted in relief. I couldn’t hold it in any longer. I didn’t want to die, but if there was an option where I could die, and Liam could live, I’d have taken it in an instant. I couldn’t stop watching. The horns continued to grow, and as they did, their owner grumbled and groaned uncomfortably, wheezing and shouting for me to –
“Turn the fuck around.”
as the Follaton City Highway gave way to a dirt road in the woods.
“In two miles, you’re going to make a left.”
My son woke up from his nap. I winced at the familiar stretches and yawns. Without warning, Liam turned around and proclaimed happily, with all of the innocence you’d expect from a boy his age –
The fear evaporated the moment he mentioned my son. I treated the steering wheel like it was the neck of the freak in the backseat. The tips of my fingers turned white. My view started to get hazy. Even still… that transference helped me hold it in just a little longer.
Row, row, row, gently down the stream.
“This left here.”
The dirt road hit a few bumps and the blankets in the back dropped loose. I saw the outline of a childlike face. Gray skin and yellow hair merged in between the horns. Our eyes met again and the Voice smiled without teeth.
“Turn the fuck around.”
The sky started to get dark. My arm continued to bleed and pus. The radio clock read noon. A smattering of clouds gathered together in the distance. Soon the sky opened up with showers. Thunder cracked in the distance. Rain pelted the narrow road. My tires slipped through the mud and wind pushed our light frame back and forth, so I slowed down to get a better grip, but the Voice didn’t like that.
“You haven’t asked what I am.”
We hit a fork in the road after a few miles. I waited for further instruction until the last possible moment. The Voice stayed silent. So I stopped.
“Where do you want to go?” I asked. “Left or right?”
“Granny’s house!” he cheered. “I need to get out.”
The Voice took a moment to unhook his horns from the upholstery in my ceiling. He hesitated even after that. We waited there in the rain, a demon outside deciding our fate, with baby shark providing only minimal background relief. I thought about leaving and gunning it to sixty. I ultimately realized the futility of a chase completely unknown to me. After a moment, he leaned into the passenger seat. I couldn’t bear to look at him, but I could still feel his presence.
“Alright so you’re going to want to take this road straight back to the Turnpike. Don’t turn off anywhere. Don’t stop for anything. Lots of strange folks in these parts. You’d thank me if you knew.”
“And keep an eye on that kid.”
I waited for the footsteps to retreat into the woods. Then I got out of the car and rushed back to check on my son. Liam laughed and flashed me his signature gap tooth smile. He looked just as happy as he did when we left. I thanked God for the miracle of our survival and promised to be better. We were okay. Everything was okay. We would be home soon.
But that giddiness soon turned to tears as my son let out a scream loud enough to wake the dead. It occurred to me that he hadn’t had a bottle in hours. The poor little guy was probably starving. I turned around to fetch him some milk.
The formula and the caps were usually in different bags. The damn locks always get stuck if there’s a bit of moisture trapped on the top. I needed a binky if he rejected the bottle. The trip back home could take awhile. The toys were in another bag down by the floor. I had to stretch just to reach them. I only looked away for a minute. I swear it. Just a second.
But by the time I turned back…
Liam was gone.