“Rest Stop,” Paul Vogt
It was at hour seven that Tom found himself driving, half asleep in the middle of the night, pondering his existence. It wasn’t the vague existential pondering a Tibetan monk might find himself enjoying. No, Tom was very much “in the now” as he had hours to go before finishing his overnight trek across two states. He prayed for signs of civilization. The last farm he saw was over 100 miles back, and the country road he traveled was unlit and unfamiliar. The low fog dispersing his headlights didn’t help much, and he quickly surmised an irrational plot that made it impossible for him to feel safe pulling over to the side of the road for a quick catnap.
At some point he had entered hill country, and each time he rolled over one of the looming hills his hopes for any variation in the scenery were crushed. He mumbled improvised prayers to whoever was listening to help him find some place where he could stop for a while, maybe get a meal from a good Samaritan, and be on his way renewed for the last leg of his journey.
Someone was listening. As he peaked over the next giant hill, a white light filled his windshield. He could see that the all-encompassing fog actually laid quite low. He was only a couple hundred yards away from a farm with a bright white light sitting at the top of a lonely silo. Given almost any other circumstance, Tom would never have pursued this next step, but he was desperate. He pulled left down the curvy gravel driveway. He didn’t realize how far the farm sat off the road. As he reached the end he realized it would be impossible to back out on his own in the impenetrable darkness.
He got out of the car to get a quick read on the place, but left his door open… just in case. It was an old farm with a house covered in rotting planks. He couldn’t see much of anything in the dilapidated garage. The opening felt more like an entrance to a primordial cave than a simple man-made structure. Each step on the crunchy gravel filled the otherwise silent air around him. Nothing stirred: the wind was dead and there was no sign of a single farm animal. As he approached the house, it hit him.
“Hello.” The sound came from the direction of the garage. Tom jumped back from the porch and couldn’t find words to respond. “S’alright, I won’t bite you.” A match flared to life to light the man’s cigarette. As he brought the flame to his face, Tom saw leathery wrinkles covered by a wiry white beard. The angle of the match’s glow and the shape of the man’s face cast his eyes in a deep shadow that curled Tom’s expression. The match went out and the silhouette of the man disappeared in the concealment of the garage.
Tom instinctively glanced over to his car and noticed that the door was now shut. Alarmed, his eyes flashed back to the man he couldn’t see.
“Looks like you need a stiff drink son, let me finish this.” He took a long drag from his cigarette. “We can go inside for a sit down and something that’ll wake you up.” Tom couldn’t see anything moving in the garage, but smoke was now slowly billowing out into the glare of the silo’s light.
“No, I’ll just get going, you know what they say about drinking and driving…”
“I’ve been waiting for you a long time. Well, not you specifically, but you’ll do,” the man said.
Tom felt a chill go through him and he couldn’t move. He didn’t want to move. He didn’t want to do anything that would move the scene forward. It was a terrible moment to occupy for eternity, but it would be better than any of the possible endings he was imagining.
“I don’t have a mind to harm you at all son, but you’re not leavin’ in that car.” The man made no movement that Tom could see. He slowly reached into his pocket for his keys. They weren’t there. He heard a jingling from the garage and was getting angry. He found courage from somewhere and approached the man as slowly and deliberately as possible. Nothing stirred in that darkness as he pulled his lighter out and ignited it. He found no one in the garage. The car door opened and shut behind him, and the engine turned over.
“I’m sorry to do this to you son, but you don’t know how long it’s been.” He gave it time to sink in before going on. “There really is some whiskey in the house. ‘Make yourself at home.’ That’s what the old bastard that did this to me said as he drove off in my car. It’s a rotten thing, but each one of us’s gotta take our turn. Hope your wait’s not as long as mine was.” With that, the man backed Tom’s car down the driveway and disappeared into the fog.
Tom was disoriented and hesitated before trying to chase down the old man and his car. Tom got to the edge of the driveway before the woods took over and noticed with a shiver how they were shrouded in an impenetrably deep darkness. The car engine had long since gone out of earshot, and Tom looked down in desperation, unable to take another step forward.
At his feet lay an opened pack of Marlboro’s and a unmarked book of matches. He picked them up, walked to the garage, leaned against the wall, and struck a match to light his cigarette. He waited.