Off Road

Around Halloween, when the shops fill up with plastic fangs and pumpkins, I am led to wonder what the point of it all is nowadays.  What is the role of horror in modern life? One aspect of it is, for me, being reminded that no matter how much we feel safe and in control with all our gadgetry and sophistication, the dark is just outside.  I find powerful horror stories to be the ones which remind me of just how fragile this sense of control is, by offering up scenarios that believably transform mundane life into a nightmare.

Here is one such scenario that came to me through real life inspiration, with a small added embellishment for effect!

Carl was in a hurry.  He’d packed the car, and set off for his meeting.  It was just a couple of junctions down the motorway, but as luck would have it his lunch had taken a little longer than expected to eat.  Hammering the accelerator he was making reasonable time, when suddenly the car lost power.  His heart lurched as he thought, ‘Not now. God, please, not now.’  He pressed down with his foot, but the car continued to lose speed. ‘Shit shit shit’ he muttered as he coasted to the inside lane and flashed on the warning lights, before coming to a stop by an SOS phone.  Carl jumped out of the car with bag and scarf, dumped them on some steps by the road, and was about to phone for breakdown assistance when he suddenly thought: ‘Wait a minute.’

He leapt back in the car and tried starting the engine again. Fine. He gunned the engine. Fine. A burst of adrenaline at this stroke of luck, he quickly accelerated off into a traffic opening, and arrived at his destination only a few minutes late. As he parked, and reached for his bag, he froze. The bag. By the… motorway. Fuck. As there was clearly no time to go back with the meeting just about to start, Carl had no choice but to grit his teeth and sit through 3 hours of public speaking, all the while thinking of his wallet, cards and phone sat merrily by the side of the M5.

By the end, he was quite fraught.  He kept telling himself how nobody was likely to stop and pick up the bag.  It was fine.  He just had to go back and get it, if he could only remember where it had been.  He could vaguely remember which junctions it had been between, and that there had been a phone and a bridge in the distance, but not much more. Of course, when he finally left his meeting, it was dark and had started to rain.  He set off, driving a little aggresively, and eventually reached the stretch of the motorway in question.  As he was heading the other way, he knew the bag was on the other side.  Rather than driving all the way to the next junction and doubling back on the other side; which would take a while as it was a particularly long gap between junctions; instead he pulled over.  He hit the warning lights, hopped out of the car, and made his way towards the flyover.  His shoes were ill suited to the gravel and foliage by the tarmac.  He was rushing at first, but after stumbling and nearly twisting his ankle, he slowed to a hasty walk.  It was raining lightly but steadily, and water was soon dripping off his hair and into his face as he started to clamber up the bank.  He tried keeping to the concrete beneath the flyover at first, but on nearly slipping he decided to use the uneven but more reliable grassy surface next to it.  He reached the top, and as he dashed across the bridge he glanced down at the traffic zooming by in the dark.  His car hazards were merrily winking back, and he had a brief vision of some juggernaught ramming into it and smashing it to bits.  When the world stops making sense, the mind starts to go into shock, and crazy things become almost believable.

He clambered over the bridge railing and down the other side, then back along the road being intermittently blinded by the oncoming traffic.  It was hard for his eyes to adjust to the dark in this constant flux of light and shadow, so he shielded his face with an arm like an escaped convict caught in a search-beam.  Eventually he got to the phone, but there was a problem: There were no steps, and definitely no bag.  Unwilling to believe it, he stood for a minute, looking around, before swearing vigorously into the rain and wind.  Of course, there were several bridges across this stretch of the motorway, and it was not the correct one.  He rushed back to the car as quick as he could.  He set off again with that burst of excitement that you get when accelerating off from standstill into traffic in the dark, when it is hard to guage speeds.

He realised that the SOS phones were spaced pretty evenly with a pair on the other side of the motorway.  The next bridge and phone soon loomed into the view of the headlights, barely visible through the sweeping wiper blades and misting up windscreen, and once again he pulled over.  This time as he got on top of the bridge, he could tell it still wasn’t the right one, and simply turned back again.  As he walked back, he almost lost his balance on the slope and got momentarily tangled in some brambles.  At that point he realised that if something did happen he would be in trouble without his phone, and so resolved to take the emergency car phone with him at the next bridge.

This happened another time before he finally got the right bridge.  It was a big one, and as luck would have it he almost missed it as he was impatiently overtaking at the time.  It left him a long walk back to the bridge.  He was wishing he had just gone ahead and doubled back on the other side of the motorway given that he had been climbing up and down banks and bridges for about an hour.  His shoes were literally squelching with water at each step.  By this point he had settled into a bloody-minded resolve to do this thing, no matter how long it took.  He recognised it was the right place when he spotted the steps and what looked like his bag in the occasional flashes of headlights on the other side.  He had a brief whim to just dash across the tarmac directly, but a little voice told him that distances and speeds in the dark would be fatally difficult to calculate.  He set off the long way on foot again, and up the embankment.  As he clambered up, he realised that this bridge was very old compared to the others which had a more modern construction.  It was also much larger, and in a state of some disrepair.  Suddenly feeling very alone and exposed, away from the bustle of the passing cars and in the shelter of the bridge, he remembered his forgotten vow to take the car phone with him. Again, fuckity fuck.  The car was about 100 metres away from the bridge, and with his bag almost within his grasp he decided to keep on going.

He reached the top, and found it to be some disused relic of a past road.  The tarmac was heavily pot-holed, with grass pushing its way through large cracks in the surface.  Not a soul was in sight, and the horizon was a dull orange glow from the nearby town. Carl stepped carefully as there were some big puddles which were hard to spot in the pitch black.  He hastened down the other side, to the sounds of rushing traffic, and soon came to the steps.  He had never been so relieved and overjoyed to find a set of concrete steps in his life.  He whooped with joy, shouting ‘Got you, you fucker!’ as he grabbed his bag and sodden scarf.  As he walked back up the slope, he tried wiping his face dry with the scarf, but it was already too wet.  As he returned across the bridge, the motorway sounds dulled and distant below, he became acutely aware of his footsteps.

His hard heels were clacking away on the bridge with an uncomfortable echo which recalled his solitude.  His brain began to play tricks, and the shadows of the windblown trees started to look creepy.  He scaled the railing with an accomplished leg-over manoeuvre thanks to his height, and almost fell as the embankment dropped away faster than he remembered.  He managed to clamber along and drop to the ground with just a minor scrape and moment of heart stopping panic. Carl gingerly picked his way down the slope, waiting for bursts of distant headlight to guide his path, and pausing silently when the darkness returned.  As he waited during a particularly long interval, in the silent dryness of the bridge’s shelter, he heard a strange noise.  A giggling.  His heart stopped.  He froze, muscles unwilling to move as he heard a scraping noise, scratching its way slowly across concrete right behind him.  He span around, pulse racing, just as car lights flashed again in the gloom.

A scream is stifled by the roar of a lorry.  From a distance, had anyone been watching, they would have seen a human body stumble and fall backwards down the slope.  A humanoid but grotesquely distorted form leaps on top of it, limbs too long and head too big to be normal.  There is a flailing struggle of limbs, then darkness.  At the next flash of light, the thing is crouched and hitting something soft on the ground with a rock or possibly a fist.  Darkness again.  At the next burst of illumination, both forms are gone, as if nothing was ever there.  In the road the contents of a bag have spilled and rolled under the oncoming traffic.  A phone shatters beneath a wheel.


The police stopped to investigate the car parked with hazards by the side of the M5.  On searching the vicinity the police discovered some personal items belonging to the driver, and traces of blood and hair.  The owner is still missing, and has yet to be located.  Old records tell curious tales of other disappearances near the old toll bridge, but there is plenty of other work to keep the police busy.  The stream of humanity moves on, but on the banks ancient fishers of men still cast their nets.  Even though we have forgotten them, they have not forgotten us.