On the Way to Hell

For RWJ.

It wasn’t the fog that took him off the road. It wasn’t the lonely street sign beside the entrance ramp either. It was the little boy that stood just inside the tuft of grass that lined the far side of the road.

Dana climbed out of his car, radio still blasting, and walked through the haze of his headlights toward the boy. He was still as stone, a sentinel of the mist for a moment it seemed before he turned his empty eyes up toward Dana. He reared back a second, nothingness staring at him from inside the child. Then he blinked–one of them, at least, though he wasn’t sure in the moment who–and the scene was as normal as before. At least as normal as a little boy beside the road could be on a foggy night.

“What’s wrong?” Dana asked, but the boy shied away when he stepped any closer. “You alright kid?”

The boy stared back at Dana, but now the only thing in his eyes was the fear of a child lost at night. He backed away. Dana cursed as he realised what the boy was doing–then the child ran clear into the faraway fog.

Just then, Dana’s headlights flicked off and his stereo went silence.

“Damn battery,” he muttered, not thinking about what he was doing as he went running off through the fog. He heard the pitter-patter of small feet in the brush and dodged past trees and branches as they poked through the fog right ahead. He kept running, certain he’d catch the boy.

Instead he came to a clearing. On the other side stood an old building still but a blur through the white mist. Dana sighed with relief, certain this was merely the boy’s home, but as he neared it, as he came into its shadow, he realised it was much more than just a house. It was a church.

The door creaked as he pulled it open, but once he stepped inside he couldn’t hear a thing. The air was bright and smoke-scented from the burning candles at the far end; but the fragrant air was heavy and condensed around him like a pillow pulled over the ears of a nightmare-ridden child.

There was a man praying at the far side, almost on fire he looked in front of the wall of candles, and in the dense air, Dana was sure the man hadn’t heard him enter. He walked forward, like wading through water, and when he got closer, he shouted, “I’m Dana Spencer. Did a little boy come in here?”

Dana shut his eyes, stopped in his place. He was certain he’d said something, was positive he’d felt his lips move to make words, but he hadn’t heard himself say nothing. And with the man inattentive just feet in front of him, he was certain now that he hadn’t said a thing.

“Hello?” Dana said, but to him it sounded like he was speaking under water, under a blanket wrapped tight around him. “Hello?”

Nothing.

He put his hands on the man’s shoulder, suddenly conscious of how hot the wall of fire was as his hands came drastically closer to the flames with his innocent movement. The man nodded, though, and turned to face him.

His face was weathered, but it was clear this man had been a priest in his youth, and still was even in his old age.

“I’m Dana Spencer,” he repeated slowly, making sure the man heard him even if he could no longer hear himself. “Did you see a little boy come in here a minute ago?”

The man shook his head and started to turn away.

“Wait,” Dana said, grabbing the man’s shoulder again. “You’ve got to help me. He was just a kid, four or five, maybe six. It’s not safe to be out on a night like this.”

The priest smiled, shrugged. He lifted a hand as equally worn away as his face and pointed to Dana’s left, to a small wooden door at the end of the aisle.

“Thank you,” Dana said as the priest turned back to the candles. “Thank you.”

When he got to the door and pulled it open, he was shocked to find it led back outside. His vision so well adjusted to the brightness of the candles, it seemed darker than before, but he stepped out nonetheless. Through the white haze he could make out the shapes of tailored bushes and carved walkways, of a dark fence with thin spires upon each dark post beyond the bushes.

The deafening heaviness of the air inside remained out here, but with all the fog a new wetness clung to him even further. Dana pulled at his collar, moaning in disgust, but kept walking deeper into the church’s courtyard. The boy was out here, he was certain, though why he felt so compelled to follow him, he couldn’t tell.

It seemed like he’d been in this fog for an hour before he finally saw the figure of the boy through the mist and dashed toward him. But it must’ve been a trick of the light, he realised, since when he got there it was only a stone slab instead. He looked closer, knelt down, saw small words carved into it and read them one by one.

Ricky Tyler
1992-1998

Dana sat there for a moment, reading the tombstone over and over again. “He was six,” he muttered, staring at the years, thinking of the boy. “He was only six.”

It struck him a second later and he thrust himself backward, falling from his loss of balance and landing backside first on the path before hitting one of the stone walls surrounding the bushes. There he stayed and stared.

When Dana went back through the church, it seemed lighter. The old man had knelt down to pray and Dana didn’t bother him. Instead he kept going, not knowing what he’d seen in the fog, not knowing what he’d seen in the courtyard either, and left through the same door he’d come in through.

The fog had thickened while he was inside and he could no longer hear the breaking brush beneath his feet. He could feel the soft vibrato of snapping twigs and crinkling leaves, but no sounds reached his ears through the mist.

When he came out of the trees, was just inside the tuft of grass, he stopped short when he saw Ricky sitting in the car. But it wasn’t his car any longer. It was only a shadowy husk of a shape that once was, wavering like that emptiness he’d seen in the boy’s eyes just before he’d ran away. The ground shook, noiseless, and as the delusion faded white light overcame him. The shock of thunder that followed jarred his ears to ringing and the force of wind that rolled past pushed him to his back like a shell-shocked soldier after a grenade had gone off.

When he came to, his car was gone. In its place, shrapnel and skid marks and a little boy, left smiling at him, spared of his own fate, his destiny, his death.

Dana chuckled when the spectre faded, staring at the mess as he got to his feet. He could hear the morning sounds of nature clear as dawn now, no longer deafened by the sound of the crash before him, and when he got to the heart of the broken glass and broken pieces of his old car, all he could do was shake his head and mutter, “Damn battery.”

End

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