The road seemed to close in on Natalie as she struggled to keep driving. She sat behind the wheel of a silver mini-van while her nine year old daughter, Kiley, slept in the back seat. They had been travelling for nearly six hours but Nat’s eyes kept glancing nervously at the rear view mirror. Sleep weighed heavily on Natalie’s eyelids. She blinked several times in an attempt to stay awake, but knew it was only a matter of minutes before she passed out completely. She had to find somewhere to stay the night.
Luckily, they seemed to be coming upon a town soon. Interstate signs advertised a few gas station and fast food symbols posted at Exit 273. Welcome to White Springs, it greeted them in big bold letters as she curved right off of the interstate. When the road finally straightened out, Natalie had no idea which direction to go. There was only a red blinking light with a street sign that read Jackson Road. Left or Right? Natalie’s instinct was to find a way to get back on the interstate and drive to the next exit, but who knew how far that would be or if it would even be any better. No. She’d have to take her chances here. Out of habit and though there were no other cars for miles, Natalie flipped down the blinker and turned right, hoping she’d made the right choice.
After passing what seemed like several miles of pastures and crop fields, Natalie finally saw some sign of life. She was disappointed to see that it was just a small run-down gas station off to the side of a four way stop. The only light was a single pole and that didn’t cover much area. In fact, without the headlights on the two very old gas pumps in the center of the tiny lot were barely visible. Natalie pulled into what she could only assume was their single parking spot and shut off the van. She turned around and looked at Kiley, her fragile little body curled up in the seat, eyes closed, face so innocent. That’s when she lost it. Her fingers fumbled with the talisman she wore around her neck and for the first time since they’d left Georgia, Natalie let herself think about everything they'd left and started to cry.
Sometime during the night, Natalie must have fallen asleep, too. She woke to a seriously cramped neck and pounding head. Her eyes felt like they were being pushed out of their sockets, bulging and puffy from the previous nights catharsis. Soft gray light peeked through the windows, letting her know it was still some time before dawn.
She could hear the soft intake of breath as Kiley slept on. No reason to wake her, Nat thought. All she’s going to do is ask questions I don’t have the answers to.
A movement close to the station caught Natalie’s eyes and she sat up straighter to get a better look. Using her palm, Nat rubbed a small circle in the windshield where a thin film had settled over the windows. Standing just to the side of the entrance to the station was a woman. With her back to them, Nat could see the woman was wearing a short flowered dress, its skirt blowing softly in the wind although she herself remained motionless.
Checking once again on the sleeping Kiley, Natalie pushed open the drivers side door and stepped out of the van.
“Hello?” she called out, remaining next to the vehicle. She was met with silence.
“Hello?” she called again, this time a bit louder. Still nothing. A knot started to form in the pit of her stomach as she tentatively approached the figure. Early morning shadows danced across the badly worn asphalt as she crossed the small lot. Natalie swore she saw movement through the battered glass windows of the little store.
A light breeze hit Natalie and brought with it a fetid odor. It reminded her of her childhood; weekends spent fishing with her dad in the Keys. She remembered throwing fish to pelicans that had lined themselves across the posts, patiently waiting as her father cleaned and fileted their fresh catches along the dock. That’s what it smelled like now. The rot and decay of dead fish.
The knot in her belly grew even tighter as she reached up to touch the woman’s shoulder.
“Excuse me,” Nat said, tapping the woman on her right sleeve. That moment changed everything for Natalie. It was as if touching her had activated some sort of switch. The woman growled and spun around, her face full of fury. Eyes like peppermint candies bulged out of their sockets, bloodshot & veiny. For a millisecond Natalie stood in shock transfixed by the state of the woman. The spell broke as the woman ransacked Natalie, knocking her to the pavement. A woosh of air escaped Nat’s lips as she hit the ground, a soft thud echoing in her head when her skull connected with asphalt. The woman landed on top of her, spit and saliva spraying in all directions as her head shook back and forth like some deranged bobblehead.
Natalie instantly reacted, throwing her forearm up and across her attacker’s throat to push her away. She gained enough leeway to raise her knee back and push at the woman’s chest with her tennis shoe. It gave her just the opening she needed to get out from under her. She scrambled backward quickly and shot up to her feet.
Instantly, Natalie swung around to face the van. The look on Kiley’s face would be forever frozen in Nat’s memory, wide-eyed and terrified. She must’ve woken up during the confrontation and climbed into the front seat. She stared out at Natalie from behind the windshield, not sure what to do. Then, her face shifted and she began frantically yelling something that was muffled within the confines of the van. When she realized her mother couldn’t hear her, Kiley started pointing at Natalie. No. Not at Natalie. Behind her.
The thing, no longer a woman, had gotten back up and was again coming after Natalie.
If she ran to the van, it would only heighten the chance that Kiley could get hurt. No. Natalie needed to find a way to keep the mad woman from even noticing Kiley. Her only other option was the gas station itself. The boards had long ago been pried off the windows and doors, jagged fragments of leftover glass still clung to the openings. The entrance itself was completely open, allowing Natalie to slip in, hoping the thing outside would follow her.
What she hadn’t been expecting were the two more tenants inside the run down station. Without thinking, Natalie dashed to the clearest area which happened to be in the very back. Now she was faced with an even bigger problem. She was trapped.
There were only two aisles in the store. Both were mostly bare and covered with what looked like a years worth of dust. Behind her were four clear glass refrigerator doors where the food and drinks had probably been kept cool. That usually meant they opened from behind into a cooler or stock room. It was her only shot.
The other two things had split and each one was heading down a different aisle toward Natalie. She knew she had little to no time left before they reached her. And as if that wasn’t enough, a head of dark brown hair crept its way inside and in stumbled the lady from the parking lot. Natalie thought she was going to gag, the putrid odor was so strong with the trio now all under one small roof. But it was now or never.
She turned around and yanked open one of the cooler doors. The insides had definitely seen better days. Luckily for Natalie, that made it much easier to demolish the rows of plastic shelving.
Although it took mere seconds for Natalie to break open enough space to slide through, it almost wasn’t quick enough. The two bodies closed in on her just as she dove head first through the opening. She felt their grasping fingers through the soles of her shoes and realized how close she’d come. Knowing she wasn’t out of the woods just yet, Nat scrambled to her feet and looked around. She had been right. She was in a small cooler room with a single door on the far wall. Testing her luck, she flung open the door and sighed in relief when she saw it opened into a larger stock room with an emergency EXIT at the back. The long armed handle was smashed and hanging down, making a simple push from the inside enough to escape into the now rising daylight. She rushed back around to the front of the building, careful to ease her way into the wide open. When she saw all was clear, she made a mad dash for the van, ready to get the hell out of there.
When she reached the driver’s side door she yanked on the handle, not expecting it to be locked.