“Listen, the kids are tired, how about I take them home while you go home with your sister when you’re ready?”
Amanda snorted but I caught a glimpse of amusement in her eyes. “Like you’re mister innocence over here, trying to be a good guy,” She replied. But she didn’t object. “Go, you’ve endured my family long enough. I think Audrey’s about to revolt anyway. Do you have Donnie’s cold meds?”
I lifted them from my pocket.
“And did you take some of the leftovers?”
I laughed. “Amanda. I have enough leftovers in the cooler to feed your whole family all over again. We’re fine.”
My wife smiled and kissed my cheek. “Drive safely!” She said.
So with Donnie asleep in the carseat, Alan strapped into his booster with his kiddie tablet, and my oldest Audrey claiming shotgun before placing both headphones into her ears, we headed out.
I don’t mind Amanda’s family. It can be a little exhausting spending Christmas with them. But all the jokes at my expense and sleeping in a tiny room with all our kids jammed in there had all been worth it.
Now time to go home.
The first hour going home was uneventful. The weather wasn’t too bad, only a few snowflakes drifting down. It was quite peaceful, hearing the children softly snore in the backseat while Audrey stared out the window.
Audrey had enjoyed herself the least, but I could understand that. At twelve years old she was in an awkward place when it came to her cousins. The one closest in age to her was sixteen and didn’t want to play with a ‘baby’. When it came to the younger end of the spectrum, they were only five or six. Not really fun for her to play with.
But she trooped through it and now she’d get to go home.
The dashboard clock read 11:48 when I made a turn onto the road I thought would take us onto the freeway home.
Immediately, my eldest jolted. Apparently she’d fallen asleep.
“Dad. You’re going the wrong way.”
I frowned. Had I gone the wrong way? A minute down the road and it turned into a single lane dirt path. Huh. Audrey was correct.
“Sorry sweetheart, try to go back to sleep. When I can find a place to turn around, I will.”
Audrey sat up. “Not sleepy,” She responded, taking out of her headphones. “Are you and mom gonna divorce?”
Ah. That had been on her mind. I gripped the steering wheel tighter. “No, Audrey. We had a few fights, but I think we’re going to come to an agreement,” I said, attempting to reassure the worrying mind of my daughter. I hadn’t even known Audrey had figured out Amanda and I were fighting. We kept it pretty quiet.
Audrey twirled one of her headphone wires. “What’ll happen to us if you split?” She asked.
“We aren’t going to get a divorce, Audrey.” Perhaps I sounded a little snappy, but I was trying to keep an eye on the road. If someone came up the other side or an animal dashed in front of us, it could be lethal. I sighed and gave her a quick look. “I love your mom. And I think she loves me too. But if something else happened and we had to divorce, we’d ask you guys what you thought. And we’d do our best to make it fair for everyone.” Ah, I could finally see a split in the trees ahead. “Hey, I think we found the freeway! Hah, shortcut. We’ll tell your mom about it when we see her…” I trailed off.
Right before we pulled onto the road, there was a green sign. Just a plain, green sign, with three words spray painted in white across it:
‘Wrong Turn Highway.’
Audrey pressed herself against the window and shivered. “Dad?” Her voice was shaking.
I swallowed. “It’s just someone trying to be funny,” I lied. Something was wrong. Something felt very, very wrong.
The four lane highway was in horrendous condition, I was weaving about to avoid potholes and ending up bouncing into other ones. Both Donnie and Alan awoke, Donnie starting to wail. Audrey unbuckled herself and scrambled into the back to soothe her brothers.
The clock on the dash went dead.
I ignored the chill going up my spine and resolved to get the hell off this ‘wrong turn highway’ the moment I could find an exit.
No exits seemed to exist here, even with the other cars. And there were other cars. I recognized some models from the eighties along with limos that were likely once in good condition, now covered in dings. I tried to peer into the other’s but on most there was a thin veil of frost, etching across the glass.
I tossed my phone to the back. “Audrey? Try to call mom. Tell her we’re lost.” I heard Audrey scramble to pick it off the seat.
“Dad? There’s no signal.”
Shit. I smacked my fist against the wheel, accidentally honking the horn.
Several of the cars around me immediately picked up the pace, even the limo’s tires squealed as we were quickly left behind on this stretch of road. Like spooking a herd of deer.
Audrey quietly whimpered from the back seat.
“I know Audrey, I know.”
As a kid, my worst fear was getting lost. The feeling of losing your bearings, not knowing which road to turn on? It was my worst nightmare. One I’d thought I’d shaken off.
Minutes turned into hours. There was no turn offs, no exits. Just the frost and mist billowing up on the sides of the road. I saw cars that were probably decades old, the frost crusting over the entire vehicle except a small place on the windshield for the driver to see through.
I nearly cried when I saw a gas station. I practically gunned it to pull over. My eyes were struggling to stay open and I knew Audrey needed to pee. My heart sank when I pulled up to a pump.
The lights were all out inside of the building. I got out of the car and walked to the front door, pulling it open. A rush of cold air whistled through my hair.
Audrey was behind me, wrapping her arms around herself. That hoodie wasn’t thick enough to keep her warm.
“This isn’t normal, is it?” Audrey speak for ‘this isn’t something humans can remotely understand.’ I walked into the gas station. The shelves had some goodies, I grabbed a few bags of potato chips. Alan loved chips. It might take his mind off of the drive.
“I… I don’t know, Audrey.” A dad’s supposed to know how to do this. How to respond to any situation. “I really don’t know. Has my phone gotten any signal?”
“Nope.” She huffed as she walked to where the women’s bathroom was. “No bars. Battery’s not dead yet. I’ll keep checking on it, you focus on driving.” She pushed open the door… and screamed.
I dropped the chips and ran to her side but Audrey slammed the door shut and pushed me back.
“Car! Back to the car! Go go go!”
I had no idea what she saw, but I saw a wet patch on the crotch of Audrey’s jeans and I wasn’t about to ask. We bolted outside, and Audrey made a strangled sound.
“Dad! The car! The door, ohgod, ALAN! DONNIE!”
The side door had been slid open, just enough for a child to get out. I nearly ran into the car in my hurry to get there, looking inside.
Donnie was asleep in his carseat. But Alan’s tablet sat in his booster, the screen cracked and flashing distorted colors.
I felt the ground give out from under me as I sank to my knees. I couldn’t stand. I couldn’t breathe.
Audrey swallowed and looked down. “Dad… there’s… there’s blood.”
There was blood. The kind of blood that came from someone being dragged. And it led into the mist filled forest.
It had been two weeks since I lost Alan. Two weeks since we got trapped on Wrong Turn Highway. All I could think of was how to tell my wife I lost our son.
I’d always imagined what it’d be like to teach Audrey how to drive. She would be fifteen, sixteen. Cranky because she couldn’t get it right on the first try. Freaking out when I’d make her learn how to use a stick shift, complaining that ‘no one uses stick anymore, dad!’
Instead, I got no backtalk. Maybe the occasional sound of frustration trying to avoid the fucking potholes. But she was focused on learning, not on sassing me and getting stuck on the little things. And whadya know, she got it down fast. It helped there was never any turns, or parking. Just driving. Never stop driving.
Never ran out of gas, the phones never died. But I had bigger things to worry about.
I pressed my hand against Donnie’s cheek, it burned to the touch. I carefully measured out more cold medicine and pressed it to his lips. He whined as it went down his throat but he didn’t struggle anymore. I didn’t take that as a good thing.
“Dad. Donnie doesn’t have a cold, does he.”
Audrey was focused on the road, her scrawny hands clutching to the steering wheel. She never told me what she saw in the bathroom. I didn’t want her to. Not after what happened to Alan.
I pressed my lips to Donnie’s hot forehead. “I don’t know. I’m not a doctor. That’s mom, remember?” I tried to joke.
“But will Donnie die?”
I didn’t know how to respond to that. Audrey turned her head back, her eyes filled with tears. “Dad. Please be honest,” She whispered.
I looked back at my son. My son who I could do nothing for but scavenge cold medicine from the few gas stations on Wrong Turn Highway and give him water.
“I don’t know. But there’s nothing more I can do for him. Except hope.”
Hope doesn’t keep a fevered six month old alive.
I was driving when Audrey gasped.
“Dad! Dad, he’s… he’s stopped breathing! DONNIE! NO!”
I hit the brakes, they squealed so loudly I felt my ears popped. I pulled over to the side of the road and jumped into the backseat.
Audrey had gotten him unbuckled and pulled him into her arms, tears streaking down her face. “I… I was just holding his hand, he’d looked tired, and then he… Donnie! I’m sorry!” She wailed, clutching her baby brother to her chest and rocking him back and forth.
I felt nothing. I felt tired, and cold. Memories flashed through my head of taking Donnie home from the hospital. How Alan chattered about he’s the ‘big brother now!’ and how Audrey smiled and admitted how he was ‘kinda cute’.
I felt numb.
“Audrey…” I set a hand on my daughter’s back. “… We need to take care of him.”
We waited in silence for a few minutes before I opened the car door. I took my son from my daughter’s hands, his body limp and starting to finally cool off after weeks of fevers. I walked onto the side of the road, nearing the forest.
I saw eyes. Yellow eyes, peeking out from the dark brambles. I felt my stomach twist as I gently laid Donnie down, folding his arms on his chest. I wished for flowers. Flowers to rest on his chest, to hold onto. He looked like he was just asleep.
I looked up at the things in the bushes before taking a step back.
Black tendrils of what looked like smoke leaked from the bushes, slowly wrapping around Donnie, cocooning him until I couldn’t see him any longer. Then they pulled his body back and Donnie was gone, leaving only a patch of bloody grass behind.