Southbound
by Jack Thrift
We’d been in the car almost four hours, and nobody had spoken in a while. I was sitting in the passenger’s seat with my eyes closed
and my arms crossed, losing myself in the hypnotic sweep of arc lights over my eyelids and the metronomic thump-thumps of the
tires over the strutted interstate. The car’s radio, tuned to an alternative-rock station, was slowly losing reception, “Black Hole Sun”
giving way to crunching static. I’d almost passed over into sleep when Heath spoke, and though I didn’t catch his actual words, the
sound of his voice was enough to pull me back into consciousness.
“Huh?” I said, blinking myself awake.
“The car behind us.” He turned off the radio. “See it?”
I wiped the sleep out of my eyes and turned to look, seeing an old Dodge pickup truck – a 1970s model, maybe.
“What about it?” I asked.
“See the right headlight?” Heath said. “It’s a little dimmer than the left one. And it flickers a bit. See that?”
“So?”
“It’s following us.”
I looked again, then smirked at him and said, “Get the hell out of here.”
“I’m serious.”
In the back seat, Steven had roused himself and turned to see what we were looking at. He shifted back around blowing air through
his lips dismissively. “The dude’s not following us,” he said. “He just happens to be going south like we are.”
“No crime in that,” I agreed.
“He was behind us before we took that exit a while back,” Heath said, his eyes on the mirror. “He was back there about the same
distance. When we took that exit, he didn’t follow. We were off the interstate, what, a half hour? And now he’s behind us again?”
“Are you sure he didn’t take the exit, too,” I said.
Heath glanced at me. “Positive.”
“You want to find out if he’s following you?” Steven said. “Take the next exit. See if he takes it, too.”
“Good idea,” I said.
“Plus, I’ve got to take a leak, anyway,” Steven said.
A sign for the next exit came up a minute later. As we approached the ramp, I turned to watch the pickup truck. Though the idea of
anyone wanting to follow us seemed absurd, I found myself becoming nervous. What if the guy followed us off the exit? And what
the hell would we do about it?
Heath put on his blinker and began to slow down, his eyes checking the rearview mirror every few seconds. Steven and I turned to
watch the truck. It seemed to be slowing down, too, keeping a constant distance of about five car-lengths between us. Steven let out a
nervous laugh. Heath eased onto the exit ramp that peeled in a curve off the interstate. We watched the truck. It didn’t take the exit.
Heath let out a long, relieved breath of air. Steven chuckled.
“Okay,” Heath said. “I guess I’m an idiot.”    
“No argument here,” Steven said, and we laughed, the collective air of relief giving us a brief giddiness.
Heath pulled into a gas station on the corner of the first intersection we came to, and before we’d even stopped Steven jumped out
and made for the store so he could piss. I stood beside Heath as he gassed the gar. Heath yawned into his fist and said, “How much
you want to bet he buys a six pack of beer while he’s in there?”
“He’s got the vodka,” I said.
“Nuh-uh, he’s already killed that bottle.”
“You serious?”
“Yep.” He watched the rolling numbers on the gas tank.
“The whole bottle?”
“He’s pretty lit, ’case you hadn’t noticed.”    
For a minute, neither of us said anything. Finally I said, “We need to talk to him.”
Heath said nothing in reply.
“About his drinking,” I said.
“We’ll see,” Heath said.
The gas pump made a thumping noise, and Heath squeezed a few more drops into the tank. He was about to say something else
when Steven strode out of the store, a six-pack of beer dangling from his hand. At the sight of him, Heath gave a mirthless huff of a
laugh and shook his head. He holstered the gas nozzle.
“Hey, give me the keys,” I said. “I want to drive.”
Heath looked for a second as if he wanted to argue about it, then gave a suit-yourself shrug and handed me the keys.                     
Back on the interstate, Steven cracked open one of his beers and took a slurping sip. He offered Heath and me a can, and we
declined. I turned on the radio and fished for a rock station. Our side of the interstate, the southbound side, was relatively deserted.
On the other side of the median, a dense mix of cars and eighteen-wheelers barreled by, everyone heading north tonight, as if they
knew something we didn’t. In the rearview mirror, I saw a pinpoint of light appear, a faraway car. As I was staring at it, a few rogue
raindrops hit our windshield. Then more came down. I flicked on the windshield wipers, and seconds later the leading edge of a
downpour swept over us, raindrops pummeling the hood and roof. I looked in the rearview mirror: the tiny light had split into two
distinct headlights. Heath flipped through my CD folder. Steven released a belch that filled the car with the stench of regurgitated
beer. The car – no, truck – was coming up fast. The radio station disintegrated into static once again. I turned it off and checked
behind us again. The truck’s right headlight flickered.
“Fucking hell,” I said.
*     *     *
We’d been on the road since eight in the evening, heading south for a wedding. My ex-girlfriend Lucy was the bride-to-be. She and I
had dated a while back until I’d lost my head on weed and Jim Beam and cheated on her with one of her best friends. That had been
years ago. She’d forgiven me and moved on, found a guy named Roger who treated her far better than I ever had. Good for her,
right? Except I flooded with rage every time I thought about the two of them together. Roger had been a friend of mine – he still was,
actually. And he was one of the only truly decent guys I knew. Lucy’s Prince Charming. Their finding each other was like the cheesy
end of a romantic-comedy flick. And me, I was the lousy douche bag ex-boyfriend who doesn’t know how good he has it until after
his girl breaks up with him.
I’d been thinking about Lucy during most of our road trip. Wondering if I had the nerve to tell her I was still crazy about her and that
I wanted her back, and knowing how selfish and inappropriate that would be. But I’d stopped thinking about her now. Because the
goddamned truck was behind us again.       
“What’s wrong?” Heath asked me.
Looking at the rearview mirror, I said, “Our friend’s back.”
He turned around and echoed my previous sentiment: “Fucking hell.”
“Is it him?” Steven turned around, too.
“It’s him,” I said.
“But he didn’t follow us off the exit,” Steven said. There was a desperate quality to his voice that I’d never heard out of him. “You
saw it. He went right on by.”
“He must have pulled over on the shoulder after we took the exit,” Heath said. “Did we pass anybody on the shoulder after we got
back on the interstate?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Think.”
“I don’t know,” I said, more forcefully. “I don’t think so.”
“Christ,” Heath said. “This is weird.”
I filled my lungs with air and slowly blew it out. The rain had already passed, and the windshield wipers squeaked over the dry glass. I
switched them off. In the rearview mirror, the truck had resumed its previous position, tailing us at its steady distance.
“Okay, let’s not freak out,” I said. “We don’t know for a fact he’s following us.”         
“I’m thinking we do,” Heath said. “The second time I saw him behind us, I could call it a coincidence. But a third time?”
I kept my eyes more on the rearview mirror than on the road ahead. Another exit ramp drifted up on the right, and I drove by it.
“What about this?” I said. “What if we just pull over?”     
Heath glanced at me. “What do you mean?”
“Pull over to the shoulder,” I said. “See if he pulls up behind us or keeps going.”
“What’re you, nuts?” Heath asked.
“If he pulls in behind us, I’ll floor it, get us out of there,” I said. “And we’ll know for a fact he’s following us. But if he drives past us,
we can pull up behind him.”
“Turn the tables on his ass,” Steven said. “Get his plate number and shit.”
“There you go,” I said.
“This is stupid.” Heath pulled out his cell phone.
“What are you doing?” Steven asked.
“I’m calling the cops. We’ll get to the bottom of this right now.”
“What are you gonna tell them?” Steven asked, his voice thick with ridicule.
“That we’re being followed and we’d appreciate if they’d pull this asshole over and find out what he wants.”
Steven grabbed his shoulder. “Dude, you can’t do that.”
Heath jerked away and opened his phone, and its glowing display threw a wan light on his face.
“Hold on, Heath,” I said. I looked at Steven in the mirror. “Why can’t he call the cops?”
Steven opened his mouth, but no sound came out. He closed it and shook his head.
“Steven,” Heath said. “Why can’t I call the cops?”
Finally he spoke, doing so with a resigned sigh: “Okay, I’m gonna tell you guys something, but don’t freak out.”
We waited him out. He sighed and collapsed inwardly a bit.
“We’re in Georgia right now, right?” he asked.
“That’s right,” I said.
“Then we can’t call the cops.”
I was losing my patience. “Why not?”
“Because…Shit. I should have told you guys this.”
“What,” Heath and I said together, in exasperation.
“I have a warrant in Georgia .”   
“Come again?” I said.
“A warrant,” he said. “It’s a long story.”
“I want to hear it,” Heath said. “Length is no issue.”
Steven tipped his beer to his lips, and I heard four swallows. He belched and winced, then said, “A year ago I went to Atlanta to watch
my brother’s band play in some downtown club. There were some guys there, one in particular, who were acting like assholes. I’d had
maybe a little too much to drink – ”
“Shocker,” Heath said.
“Do you want to hear this or not?”
“Go on,” I said.
“And I got in a little tussle with the guy, and…long story short, we both got arrested. I was released the next day on my own
something-or-other.”
“Recognizance,” Heath said. “Christ, Steven.”
“Right, that thing.”       
“You’re making this up,” Heath said.
“Dude, I swear.” He raised his right hand. “It totally happened.”
“What were you charged with?” I asked.
“Assault.”
“Is that a misdemeanor or a felony?”
“Uh…a misdemeanor.”
I looked at him in the mirror. He was sitting straight up, hands around the beer in his lap. The motion of the car made him rock
slightly, and each time we passed beneath an arc light, the shadows on his face stretched and slanted.
“How come you never told us this?” I asked.         
“I wanted to forget it ever happened.”
“Okay, you said that was a year ago?” Heath said. “So what? Why do you have a warrant?”
“Because I never showed up for my court date.”
This put Heath and me in a silence.
“Wow, Steven,” I said. “Holy shit.”
“I figured if I kept clear of Georgia , I’d be cool.”
Heath said, “But you’re in Georgia now, dumbass.”
“Hey, Heath? That’s fucked up, man. Totally unnecessary. Any anyways, I figured we’d only be here as long as it took to drive from
one state line to the other, you know? I guess it was, like, a calculated risk.”
I stared straight ahead. Something in Steven’s story didn’t add up, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
Heath shook his head, then turned to me. “How long you think we’ve been in Georgia ?”
“A couple hours,” I said and shrugged.
“We passed Atlanta , I know that.”
“We’re coming up on Macon .”
“How far’s the Florida line?”
“Another couple hours,” I said.
“Damn,” Heath said.
“Okay, so we wait a couple hours,” Steven said. “Cross the state line, and then, if he’s still back there, call the cops.”
After a moment, Heath said, “You could give the cops a fake name, Steven. Hell, you don’t have to say anything. Let me and Paul do
all the talking.”
“They might want us to sign a statement,” Steven said. “I can’t sign a statement with a false name. I’m pretty sure that’s a crime right
there.”
We were silent for a while. Then Heath spoke: “Can either of you think of a reason someone would want to follow us?”
“No,” Steven and I said, simultaneously.
“Steven?” Heath said. “You can’t think of anything? No skeletons in the closet? No chicks with psycho boyfriends you hooked up
with recently?”
“I said no,” he said. “Why do you have to ask me twice?”
“Because you’re the one who’s always getting into trouble.”
Steven punched the back of Heath’s seat. “Screw you, man.”
I glanced at the mirror. The truck maintained its distance so precisely I might have been towing it with a chain. An idea occurred to
me. I began pressing my foot against the gas pedal, giving it some juice. I’d been going about seventy-five, and now the needle was
climbing. It swung past eighty, eighty-five…
“What are you doing?” Heath asked.
Ninety...
“I’m not sure,” I said.
The truck dropped back at first, but then it sped up to match my pace. What did that prove? Nothing much, I decided. So I tried
something else.
I lifted my foot, and the needle reversed its movement.
“Don’t slow down,” Heath said. “I think slowing down’s a bad idea.”
With my foot off the gas, our speed dropped quickly. Within ten seconds I was down to fifty-five miles an hour.
The truck swelled in the mirror at first, and then the driver adjusted, dropping back into position.
I nudged the brakes. We slowed down to thirty in a few seconds. Again the truck adjusted. It didn’t pull around us, as it would have
done had it not been following us.
I started pulling onto the shoulder but didn’t get far before Heath’s hand jumped to the wheel and pushed us back to the road.
“What the hell?” I shouted at him. My heart was beating in my throat.
“We can’t pull over,” Heath said. “We know he’s following us now.”
“So what do we do?” Steven asked in a quaking voice.
I considered our options, certain an obvious solution to our problem existed and would jump out at me if only I could manage to
calm my addled brain. I shook my head, as if to clear it.
“Screw it, let’s call 911,” I said. I looked over my shoulder at Steven and said, “Sorry, bud. You’re just going to have to gut it out.”
Steven shook his head and crossed his arms stiffly over his chest, looking out the side window.
Heath flipped open his phone, punched buttons on the keypad, and put the phone to his ear. For a few seconds he sat motionless,
and then winced and ducked sideways, away from the phone.     
“What is it?” I asked.
“Weird signal or something, I don’t know. Try your phone.”
I pulled my cell phone from my pocket and dialed 911. I listened, waiting for the rings. At first there was nothing. Then there was a
screeching sound, like metal siding tearing in two. I looked at the phone’s display and saw that I had four out of five reception bars.
More than enough reception. So what the hell?
“What happened?” Heath asked.
“Same thing. Weird signal.”
“Steven, try your phone,” Heath said.
“I didn’t bring it.”
“Shit,” I said, wondering if Steven was lying.
“Goddamn it, what does this asshole want?” Heath said, casting a look behind us.
“I wish Roger was here,” Steven said. “You know? He’d know what to do.”
At these words, my hands squeezed the steering wheel until it seemed my knuckles would tear through the skin. He was right, though.
Roger – Lucy’s fiancé, the man whose wedding we were driving to – was brilliant in tricky situations. He’d have already figured this
out. We’d be laughing about it by now, the whole bizarre incident behind us.
“Wait a second.” Heath looked at me. “Turn on the radio.”
“Why?”
He turned it on himself; static came through the speakers. He flipped through the channels and found nothing but the same
crunching drone.
“What’re you doing?” I asked, annoyed that he’d be messing with the radio when we had a pressing problem at hand.
“Listen to it.” He turned up the volume.
I shook my head in frustration – but then I heard it. A noise behind the static. A sound like the screech and whine of sheet metal
bending and twisting and tearing.
“Oh, Jesus,” I said.
“You hear it?”
“What?” Steven appeared between our seats. “What is it?”
“Is it what you heard coming through your cell phone?” Heath asked.
I hesitated, then nodded.
“What the fuck is going on?” Steven demanded. “Tell me.”
“Nothing,” I told him, and snapped the radio off.
Heath pinched the bridge of his nose, making his glasses rise to his forehead. “Oh, man, wait. Hold on. You notice how we seemed to
lose reception on the radio when the truck came up behind us?”
“No,” I said, though I did notice – or, rather, I did now, on reflection. He was right.
“What’s that mean?” Steven asked, his voice laden with panic. “Hey, guys? What’s that mean?”
“Nothing,” I said.
“Nothing, hell,” Heath said. “And it’s messing with our cell phones, too.”
“Maybe he’s got, like, something to block the signals,” I said.
“Oh, man,” Steven said. I saw him rocking at the waist and running his fingers through his hair.
“Take it easy, Steven,” I said. “We’ll figure this out.”
I glanced at the rearview mirror. Nothing had changed. Why was this guy messing with us? Maybe he didn’t actually mean us harm,
maybe there was an innocent explanation... But then, no, I couldn’t believe that. There was something in all this that left me with a
nauseating feeling of foreboding, as if the truck were emitting waves of menace at us.
Then I had a thought.
An exit was already coming up on the right. I flipped up the right blinker and watched the truck in the rearview mirror as I took my
foot off the accelerator.
“Why’re you slowing down?” Heath asked.
“What do we know about this guy?” I said. “He doesn’t follow us when we exit the interstate, right? He finds us somehow when we
get back on – I don’t know how, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is he doesn’t follow.”
“So we get off,” Heath said, nodding.
“And take the back roads to Florida . Where we can call the cops.”
Heath shrugged. “Do it.”
The exit materialized on the right, the sign for it swimming up in our headlights with a spectral green glow, and I pulled off. I
squeezed the steering wheel. The three of us watched the truck. For a second I was sure he was going to follow us. I pictured the
headlights swinging our way. But the truck stayed course on the interstate. And the three of us let out a collective sigh.
The interstate exit brought us to a crossroads, with a convenience store on one corner. We pulled in and I jumped out and bought a
map. Over the engine hood, Heath opened the map, and we bent over it, Heath tracing our position.
“Here we are,” he said, tapping a point on the map where a blue squiggly line branched off the interstate from our position. The road
it represented meandered south, eventually hooking up with a state highway a little north of Tifton, after which it moved in a fairly
straight shot to the Florida line. “It’s going to take longer to get there than the interstate would,” he said.
“Small price,” I said.
I continued driving. The road curved through rolling pastureland, populated by dark, bovine shapes. Then the road cut into a forest
of pines in which a thick fog had settled, blotting out all but a small slice of road ahead and the vague, spoke-like shapes of pine trees
to either side.
We drove and drove. After a while it occurred to me that we hadn’t seen a house or intersection or gas station in at least an hour. Or,
for that matter, a single other car besides the truck behind us.
“Maybe we should check the map,” I said. “Something isn’t right.”
I pulled over to the side and parked. We looked at the map. Heath tried to pinpoint our locations, but there was a problem. We
couldn’t find the road we were on. We could find the point where we’d turned off the interstate, but we couldn’t find the road. As if it
had been a string that blew away.
“We could turn around,” I said. “Go back and find the interstate.”
“No way,” Heath said. “We’ve driven this far, there’s got to be a gas station or something coming up.”
Steven seemed to agree, which meant I was outvoted. So I continued driving us through the fog and the black trees, and after a while
I noticed that Steven had grown uncharacteristically silent. I thought back on our friendship, reflecting that his drinking had gotten out
of control…well, about a year ago.
“Hey, Steven,” I said, “when was it you say it was you got charged with assault?”
“Why?” he asked.
“Just curious.”
“I don’t know. A year ago.”
“When it happened, did you get your mug shot taken?”
“Yeah. I guess. Why?”
“Did you get fingerprinted?”
“Uh…”
“How long were you in jail?”
Heath looked at me. “What’s with these questions?”
“Yeah, man, what’s the difference?” Steven said.
“You say you got charged with a misdemeanor,” I said. “And you never showed up for your court date? You would have gotten a slap
on the wrist, Steven. It wouldn’t have been a big deal.”
“What are you getting at?” he asked.
“I don’t believe your story,” I said.
It was then that something caught my attention in the rearview mirror. A pair of headlights. I couldn’t make out anything specific
about the vehicle yet. But an icy dread shot through me nonetheless.
“What really happened, Steven?” I asked.
“I told you.”
“No, I mean it. What happened?”
Heath looked back and forth between the two of us. He said, “You better start talking, Steven.”
For a full minute, Steven said nothing. The headlights in the rearview mirror grew larger, and Heath and Steven turned to look at the
car – pickup truck, actually. With its right headlight flickering. Heath groaned. Steven’s jaw dropped.
“Oh, my God,” Steven said. He bent forward and pressed his face into his hands.
“Steven,” I said. “Talk to me. What are you holding back?”
“I don’t know what to tell you,” he said.
“Tell the truth,” Heath said.
“There was no fight, was there?” I asked him. “No arrest, no assault charge?”
He shook his head. In a tiny voice: “Something else.”
We waited for him to continue. He drew a deep breath and went on.
“I came to Georgia a year ago to go to a party,” he said. “The biggest party of the year. That’s what everyone said. A party out in a
field. Tons of kegs, as much liquor as you could want. Sorority girls.” He blew out a breath. “I drove home drunk. I was on a bridge
and there was a car coming toward me. I didn’t see it; I was lighting a cigarette. The car swerved but I still hit it on the side. Or grazed
it, kind of. Anyway, it went over the bridge.” He paused. “I don’t know if they survived or not. I just got out of there.”
He leaned against the door and covered his eyes with his hand. I heard a couple of sniffs.
“What kind of car was it?” I asked.
“I don’t remember,” he said.
“Was it a pickup truck?” Heath asked.
“You have to understand, man, I didn’t want to just leave them there. But what was I going to do? I was drunk.”
“Answer the fucking question,” I said.
“Yeah, I think so.  I didn’t get a good look at it because its headlights were in my eyes. But I do remember that one of the headlights
didn’t work too good. That it kind of flickered.”
“So what the hell are you saying?” Heath asked. “I don’t understand…”
“I’m sorry, guys,” he said, and erupted into sobs.
“What do we do?” I asked.
Heath tilted his head back. “We could pull over. See what he wants.”
“No,” Steven said, lurching forward between our seats. “Please, no. Don’t do that.”
I told him I wouldn’t. And I continued to drive. We continued to encounter no intersections, no gas stations. No other cars. After a
while, I began to suspect that I’d crossed over into a place that perhaps didn’t exist on any map. It was just a feeling. But I couldn’t
shake it. And I kept my foot on the accelerator, because what other option did I have?
By and by, the needle on the gas gauge drifted leftward. By the time it pointed to Empty, I figured we’d been driving on this nowhere
road at least six hours. The sun should have peeked up on the horizon, but everything remained drenched in darkness and fog.
My hope ran out with the gas, Heath’s car shuddering as the last fumes in the tank dispersed into the ether. I pulled to a stop at the
gravel shoulder.
The pickup truck stopped directly behind us. Its front tires kicked up enough dust to suffuse its headlights with a milky glow.
“Should we run?” Heath asked me desperately, his hand on the door handle.
I couldn’t answer him, transfixed as I was with the scene behind us. Steven had turned around and gone as stiff as I was. In the
rearview mirror, I watched as the truck’s driver’s side door opened. A man’s boot hit the ground, and then the rest of the man came
out. He was tall and nothing but a silhouette, moving slowly toward us. Steven panicked, worked the door handle, realized it was
locked, tried to unlock it…The lock wouldn’t budge.
The driver appeared by my window. I didn’t look at him. He rapped lightly on the glass. I forced down a swallow and cranked the
window down. Freezing air came in.
“Stee-ven,” said the man in a whisper as dry as paper ashes.
Without looking at him, I shook my head to tell him no, I wasn’t Steven. I couldn’t bring myself to look at his face, and instead my
eyes fell on a sight so incomprehensibly horrible that it seized my insides and triggered my bladder to release. It was a little girl,
standing beside the man. Her skin was as pale as the fog, and a greenish mold covered much of her jaw and hairline. Her eyes were a
dull white, with neither iris nor pupil. She was holding the man’s hand. With her other hand, she was pointing at the back seat. Pointing
and grinning.
“He’s the one,” she said.          
The driver shuffled sideways and opened the back door. Steven scrambled to the other side, yelling, “Don’t let him get me, don’t let
him – ”
The man leaned in and grabbed Steven’s foot and ripped him out of the car. Steven screamed and clawed. I did nothing, just sat
there, didn’t move a muscle. In front of the car, illuminated by the headlights, the man dragged Steven to the side of the road. I
caught a glimpse of Steven’s eyes, practically bugging out of their sockets. He clawed furrows into the gravel of the shoulder and
raised smoky plumes of dust. The little girl followed a few steps behind. The three of them disappeared in the pines. Steven’s screams
grew in intensity, then stopped.
I don’t know how long Heath and I sat there, stock still and silent. It seemed like an hour, but surely it was less than that. Gradually,
my senses crept back and my overcharged blood slackened, so that finally I was able to bring myself to move. I stepped out of the car.
It was freezing outside. This was not summer air. And everything was far too still for my liking. Where were the crickets? Where, for
that matter, was the moon? The fog was omnipresent. Stepping forward, I had the impression that nothing existed outside of this fog,
that this world created itself out of thin air as I progressed through it.
I heard the car door open and close. Heath joined my side. We continued pushing onward, though I think we both knew by this point
that we were gone forever from the world we’d once known.