A harrowing adventure for two so young, yet it is not the first nor the last one they will face.
It was getting dark, and the two twelve-year-old friends had been walking down the lonely road all day. There was still no sign of the adobe. Carter was getting worried. They had no flashlight, no matches, and no food. There was just enough daylight left to see that they were coming to an intersection. Stepping into the middle of the intersection Carter blurted out, “Look there!” He pointed to his right down the southbound road. Kat looked and saw an old two-pump gas station.
Behind the pumps, there was a rundown shack with a few patches of white paint still clinging to the front wall. A single large incandescent light bulb at the top of a weathered wooden pole provided the only outside illumination. The pole was located a few feet to the right of the front door, and a wooden bench was positioned between the pole and the door. Above the bench was a sign that read “For Customers Only.” This was the only sign displayed anywhere around the station. There were no ads, posters, not even a brand name or logo on the faded green gas pumps.
The bright light attracted swarms of flying insects. The shadows cast by the large moths that circled the bulb added to the surreal feeling of the lonely place. The only sound heard was a loud electrical hum coming from nowhere in particular.
Approaching the station, the children saw that a light was on in the shop, but they did not see anyone through the doorway or the small window next to the doorway. Stepping up the single wooden step and into the store, the first thing they noticed was the overwhelming smell of body odor and car oil. Dirty wooden shelves covered with cans of car oil, old car parts, and greasy tools lined the walls.
In the middle of the store’s wooden floor, there were a few racks containing bags of potato chips, beef jerky, corn chips, candy, and other familiar snack foods.
There was a sales counter to the left of the doorway. The surface, like everything else that made up the building, was dirty and worn. An old-fashioned manual cash register sat on the counter next to the doorway. On the shelves along the front of the counter were things like candy bars, chewing gum, and small packs of cookies.
Unexpectedly, a man in a dirty beige uniform stood up from behind the counter and slammed his hands on it so hard that it made the partners jump. He leaned forward, glaring at the children with his bloodshot, gray eyes. He had a brown, bushy mustache, a deep cleft in his chin, a bulbous nose, and sun-browned skin with deep acne scars all over his face. He looked to be in his mid-fifties and wore a very unfriendly expression. The name patch over his left pocket simply said, “Owner.”
“What are you kids doing in my station?” the man demanded with a harsh, angry voice.
Carter stepped up to the counter wearing a big, friendly smile and said, “We’ve been walking all day, and we saw your station. We want to buy a few things and eat them on the bench out front.”
The man stared at Carter for an uncomfortable length of time. Carter stared back, still wearing his friendly smile; he was determined not to look down or away. “Do you have any money?” the owner growled.
“Yes; we both have money.”
“Hurry it up then, get what you want and be on your way.”
Carter nodded to the owner and said in a low voice, “Come on, Kat; let’s stay together.” Their footsteps made loud clomping noises as they walked on the wooden floor. Since there were no shopping carts or baskets available, the children had to place their items on the counter as they shopped. They selected a variety of snack foods and were lucky enough to find a very old soft drink cooler in a back corner that contained glass bottles of cola. The cooler was the type that lay horizontally and had a door that lifted.
At one point during their shopping, Kat saw a dead rat on the floor that had been there for so long that a thick layer of dust covered it over. The sight of it made her shudder. She whispered to her partner, “Carter, let’s hurry up. This place is disgusting.”
“I want to check out that rack across from the cooler. I think it has flashlights.” Carter was right about the flashlights. It also had batteries and box matches. It had something else too: black widow spiders crawling through webs that covered the merchandise. “Nice product display. Did we keep the paper bag after we finished the blueberries?”
Kat reached into her back pocket and handed the empty bag to Carter. He put his hand in it and used it like a glove to reach in and get a flashlight, some batteries, and a couple boxes of matches. “I think that about does it. Let’s pay for this stuff,” Carter said with disgust.
Kat was glad when their shopping was finished because the place was revolting, and the owner stared at them the entire time. After they paid for everything, they only had a couple of nickels left.
Before they left the store, Kat got up enough courage to ask the owner, “Pardon me, sir, do you know if there is an adobe anywhere around here?”
“No. There is no adobe around here. But I warn you, do not go into the old stone house. Do you hear me? Stay out of the old stone house!” the man shouted, spraying the partners with spittle as he raged through blackened teeth. “Now take your stuff and get out of my shop.”
The two travelers gathered their goods into a single shopping bag and headed for the exit. Once outside, Carter sat down on the bench with the shopping bag in his lap.
Kat stood, looking at her partner, and asked, “What are you doing? I don’t want to eat here. This place gives me the creeps, and the bugs around this light are terrible.”
Carter looked at her and said, “I’m tired. We paid for this stuff, and as customers, we can sit on this bench. Now, you can stand there and watch me eat, or you can sit down and join me.” The determined boy reached into the sack and pulled out a bag of potato chips, a cola, and a packet of beef jerky.
It was clear to Kat that Carter was in his stubborn mode, so she sighed in resignation and sat down beside him. “You know, Toby, you can be a real pain sometimes.” Kat called Carter Toby when she wanted to annoy him. Since Carter was already annoyed with the station owner and the way he had treated them, he just ignored her.
Carter was already chewing on a piece of beef jerky by the time Kat got her cola out and opened. She said in a low voice as she opened a small bag of cookies, “I don’t like it here. That man is watching us; he keeps peeking around the door and scowling at us.”
Carter shrugged and said loud enough for the man to hear, “I don’t care. I’m not going to leave until I’m done eating.” Then he took a big gulp of cola and belched defiantly.
“How can you relax and enjoy your food like this? I want to get out of here as soon as possible,” Kat whined, and then she glanced over her shoulder to see if the man was still looking at them. She saw him leaning over the counter and peering out the door. Then he casually moved back out of sight.
As Carter ate his junk-food meal in stoic silence and Kat ate hers in fearful silence, a car drove up to the gas pumps and parked.
As expected, the driver turned off the engine and headlights. The car was dark blue with tinted windows. It was a large luxury model that looked very expensive. The children could not see if there was more than one person in the car, and for several seconds no one emerged from the vehicle. When the owner failed to move out and offer service, the driver began honking his horn. After several loud blasts, the owner stepped into the shop’s doorway. For a time, he just stood looking at the car.
When it appeared that the station owner was not going to tend to his customer, the driver got out of his car and yelled, “What do I have to do to get some service around here?” The driver was a man in his mid-thirties, wearing a dark business suit. He was tall, balding, had a pointed nose, and small, narrow eyes. His face was pale and stern. For a few more long seconds, the owner stared at the customer.
The partners were watching with interest to see what would happen next. Then, they saw something that put a chill down their spines. The station owner smiled a full tooth grin that reminded Carter of a wild beast showing its teeth to its prey before it pounced. It scared Kat so much that she scooted closer to Carter.
The grinning man moved toward his customer. “Fill it up, and wash the windows,” the driver ordered. The owner, still grinning, said in a low, cold voice, “Yes, sir, anything you say.” He took the gas nozzle from the pump and began filling the car.
The children could see that the owner was making the customer uncomfortable. The driver’s attitude seemed more subdued as he introduced himself and tried to be cordial. “My name is Stewborn. I am sorry about being so abrupt. I guess I am a little tired from my business trip. I have been up all day, and I have been on the road two hours heading for home. I am lucky I saw your station. I was almost out of gas, and I have not seen anything except lots of nothing for over an hour now. I still have an eight-hour drive ahead of me. Can you tell me, if I stay on this road heading south, will it take me to Highway 21?”
Mr. Stewborn was obviously getting annoyed again as he asked, “What do you mean no? Do you mean no, you cannot tell me, or no, it will not take me to Highway 21?”
The owner walked over to a bucket of water that was sitting between the two pumps and pulled out a wet sponge. He began washing the windshield and said, “Head south half a mile, turn east at the first stop sign. The road heading east goes to Highway 21.”
“I see. Thank you for the information,” Mr. Stewborn said, trying with great difficulty to sound polite.
The owner smiled his disturbing smile again as he reached into his back pocket and pulled out a dirty, greasy rag. He began drying off the windshield with it, leaving dirty streaks on the glass. “If I were you,” he said in a mocking tone, “I would turn back and hit the main freeway. It has rest stops, gas stations, and restaurants. If you continue traveling on these country roads, you will never make it home.”
The children did not know if it was the attitude of the owner, the dirty streaks he was making on Stewborn’s windshield, the suggestion that Stewborn head back and take the main freeway, or all three that broke down the businessman’s effort to be civil. “Just do your job, and let me worry about which way I go. Look at what you are doing to my windshield. Stop it! You are streaking it up.”
The owner made a strange pulsing hiss that sounded like it might have been a chuckle. He returned the rag to his back pocket as he stepped over to the gas nozzle. He removed the nozzle and deliberately slopped gas down the side of the car before he hung it back on the side of the pump.
Stewborn took out a white handkerchief and tried to wipe some of the greasy streaks off the driver’s side of the windshield. He talked to himself, loud enough for everyone to hear, the whole time he worked on the streaks. “I do not know why people cannot keep their noses out of my business. Everybody knows what I should do, but they certainly do not know what they should do.”
“I will tell you something else you should do, and if I were you, I would listen to this piece of advice,” said the owner.
“Keep it to yourself. I do not want to hear it. I just want to pay for my gas and get out of this insane asylum.”
“Stay out of the old stone house!” the owner screamed at the top of his lungs.
It was so unexpected and so intense that it took Stewborn totally by surprise. The blood drained from his face. “Yes, yes I will do that. I will avoid the stone house. Thank you for the information,” Stewborn said in a shaky voice. With a trembling hand, he reached for his wallet to pay for the gas.
Carter looked over at Kat and said, “Maybe we can get a ride with that Stewborn fellow. It looks like he’s going to be heading east, and I don’t want to be stuck out here in the middle of nowhere all night.”
“Sounds good, but he doesn’t seem like the type who would pick up two strange kids and give them a ride.”
“Maybe not, but it won’t hurt to ask. Why don’t you stand next to me and look pathetic or something.” Carter looked at Kat and said, “Yeah, like that; that’s good. You look like a whipped puppy.”
“I’m not trying to look pathetic yet,” Kat said indignantly. “I just look the way I feel.”
“Oh,” Carter said. “Well, keep it up.”
Kat wanted to say something snotty, but Carter was already headed toward Stewborn. She hurried to catch up.
Stewborn was handing some bills to the owner as the children approached. “Excuse me, sir, but we couldn’t help overhearing that you are going the same direction we are. We were wondering if you would give us a ride to Highway 21.”
Stewborn had not noticed the children until now, and he did not know what to make of their unexpected appearance. “What … who are you?” he asked as he put his wallet back into his pocket. “What are you kids doing out here? Where are your parents? I do not have time to be bothered. I have to get going.”
“That is right, Stewborn. These children are none of your concern,” the owner said in a belligerent tone. “It is best if you leave them alone and be on your way.”
The owner’s comments surprised and worried the partners. It made them feel uneasy because it seemed as if he did not want them to leave. They began to suspect that he might have plans for them once Stewborn was gone. This thought caused their appeal to have a sense of urgency to it. “Please, sir, we’re stuck out here, and we need to get home. Can you please help us?” Kat pleaded, looking even more weak and desperate than before.
“Are these your children?” Stewborn asked the owner.
“No, I have never seen them before, but they are not yours either, are they? Now get in your car, leave, and forget you ever saw them.”
“Please, sir, don’t leave us here. We really do need a ride, and I doubt we will be seeing another car out here anytime soon.” Carter had enough genuine fear and urgency in his voice to convince most caring people that their need was genuine. Nevertheless, people’s pain or need of help was not what moved Stewborn. His arrogance and pride were the things that motivated him. He was not about to let some dirty backwoods gas station worker tell him what he could and could not do.
“Very well, go get in the backseat, and be sure you buckle your seatbelts,” said Stewborn as he shot a defiant look at the owner. “Thank you, sir. Thank you very much,” the partners said as they hurried into the car.
“Suit yourself,” the station owner said with a look of satisfaction on his face. That look annoyed Stewborn because it gave him the feeling that he had just been manipulated. Stewborn got into his car and slammed the door. He started the engine and revved it as he gripped the steering wheel so tight that his hands where white as bones.
Stewborn was reaching for the gearshift when there was a knock at his side window. He looked and saw the station owner bent over, peering in at him. The driver rolled his window down about two inches and snarled, “What?”
“Stay out of the old stone house,” the owner ordered. Then, looking at the children in the backseat, he yelled, “Do you hear me? Stay out of the old stone house!” The man’s eyes were bulging, and he had little bits of foam in the corners of his mouth. He looked and sounded quite mad.
“You are crazy!” Stewborn yelled as he sped out of the station.
The children turned and looked out the rear window. They saw the owner standing in a cloud of dust, pointing at them, and yelling, “Stay out of the old stone house!”
For the next several minutes, Stewborn ranted about the station owner and the terrible service he received. “I have never been treated with such disrespect and outright rudeness as I was by that gas man. Lucky for him I was in a hurry, or I would have given him a piece of my mind. I cannot believe the arrogance of that bumpkin. How dare he tell a man like me what I should and should not do. And that terrible service he gave me. He put streaks all over my windshield, and he splashed gas on the side of my car. And what was all that nonsense about some old stone house?”
“He said that we should not go into the old stone house,” Kat offered.
Stewborn turned and looked into the backseat with a questioning look. It was as though he had forgotten that he had a pair of travelers with him. He seemed to remember his circumstance and turned back to watch the road as he said, “Well, I have no intention of going into any house, stone or otherwise, until I get home.” He seemed to calm down a little, and for a time, the three travelers rode in silence.
There was not much to see because it was dark. The glow of the dashboard instruments gave an eerie green cast to everything in the car. Though it had long since lost its new car smell, the interior was so clean that it looked like it had just been driven off the showroom floor. The leather seats were dark brown, and the carpeting was black. The interior trim and dashboard were made of hardwood. It occurred to Carter that most people who had just picked up two strange children in the middle of nowhere would be concerned about the details of their situation. Yet, as Stewborn began to carry on again, it became clear that he was not even curious about them. He was a completely self-obsessed individual full of inner turmoil.
With a snort of contempt, Stewborn started a new rant. “I called my wife just before I checked out of my hotel to let her know that I was on my way home, and she starts in on me, ‘Why not stay the night and get a fresh start in the morning?’ I let her have it. I said,‘How dare you suggest that I stay another night in this flea trap of a hotel.’ I told her that if she liked being away from me so much that she could just move out. Then she starts to cry and says she was just concerned for my safety. She said that she worries about me driving at night. Well, I do not believe that for one minute. She must think I am a total idiot. I know what she is up too. She is not kidding anybody, especially me.”
The children did not understand what he was trying to say, but they were not going to ask. At this point, they decided to say as little as possible.
“Then,” Stewborn continued, “as I am checking out of the ‘Flea Trap Inn’ (That is what they should have named it.), I ask the manager the best way to get to Highway 21. He starts in with, ‘You would be better off taking the main freeway because of the rest stops and conveniences.’ Then he goes on and on about how the roads to Highway 21 are country roads, and there are not many places to get gas, and if I breakdown I will have a hard time getting help, and blah, blah, blah. Believe me. I gave him a piece of my mind. I told him to mind his own business and just tell me what I wanted to know or else I would report him to the company that owns this flea infested hole-in-the-wall. He finally told me what I wanted to know, but he got me so frustrated that I forgot to gas up before I left town. After two hours, I was just about out of gas when I finally saw that station where I picked up you kids.”
Carter was nervous about asking the man anything, but his curiosity got the better of him. “Mr. Stewborn, I hope you don’t mind me asking, but why is Highway 21 better than the main freeway?”
Stewborn seemed almost normal as he answered, “No, I do not mind. You are a young boy, and the only way you are going to learn is by asking the right people questions. The reason I am taking this route is that it is thirty miles closer to my hometown than the main freeway, and I am in a hurry to get home. It has been a long, tiring trip, and I just want to get back to the comforts of my own place.”
Encouraged by Stewborn’s attitude, Carter continued to probe. “I don’t mean to sound stupid, but it seems to me that since you can drive faster on the freeway than on these two lane country roads, you should be able to make better time taking the main freeway, even though it’s a little longer.”
The driver’s attitude became cold, and his tone condescending as he answered, “It seems to me that someone your age should be able to grasp the simple concept that if one way is shorter than another, then there is less distance to travel.”
Carter just wrinkled his brow and looked at Kat to see her reaction. She returned his look and shrugged. Then, with a slight shake of her head, she signaled him to say no more.
“Well, what do we have here?” Stewborn said as he looked into his rearview mirror. The children turned to look out the back window and saw a pair of bright headlights off in the distance. “That is the first vehicle I have seen in over an hour, and it is moving up fast,” Stewborn observed. The partners continued watching the lights as they drew rapidly closer. Finally, the lights were so close that the brightness hurt their eyes. When the vehicle was close enough to pull around and pass Stewborn, it just kept inching closer and closer to his car.
Stewborn was becoming agitated again. The vehicle was so close and the lights were so bright that he was having a hard time seeing. “Why does he not dim those lights and go around? Is this whole area filled with lunatics?” Stewborn honked his horn, rolled down his window, and motioned with his arm for the car to pass. “Come on, you nut; pass,” he growled.
Kat and Carter ducked down below the window. They were becoming increasingly fearful as the bright lights inched closer. “Do something, Carter,” Kat pleaded.
“What do you expect me to do? We’re moving too fast to jump out, and Mr. Stewborn doesn’t seem to be the type of person to take suggestions.”
Before the boy could say more, their car started slowing down. They sat up and Kat asked, “Are we stopping?”
Stewborn ignored her question, yet it was obvious that he was slowing the car. “Come on … go around … go around!” Stewborn was saying through gritted teeth as he continued slowing. Yet, no matter how much he slowed, the lights stayed the same few inches from the rear of his car. Finally, Stewborn pulled off the road and turned off the engine. The vehicle behind him came to a stop, but it did not pull off the road. It just sat, idling in the right lane to the rear of Stewborn’s car. For a time, the two vehicles stayed in this position. “What is this maniac doing? Why will he not go around? Well, that does it. I am going to see what he wants,” Stewborn growled as he reached for the door handle.
“No!” Kat squealed. “Please don’t go out there and leave us alone. He might want you to get out of the car so he can run you down. As long as you stay in the car, you’re safe.”
“I do not care,” Stewborn bellowed. “I have had enough of this whole trip!”
He pulled the handle, and just as the car door opened, Carter yelled, “Wait, he’s moving again.”
Stewborn closed the door, looked over his shoulder, and saw that the headlights were moving very slowly. As the vehicle pulled along side of the luxury car, it became clear that the bright headlights belonged to an old, black pickup truck. The cab was dark until it pulled alongside the car. As the passengers of the parked car strained to see who was driving the pickup, the truck’s cabin light came on and revealed the owner of the gas station sitting behind the wheel. He reached over and rolled down his window. Stewborn was furious, and he was ready to let the owner have it with “both barrels.” However, before he could get his first word out, something stopped him. The owner let out with a blood-chilling scream that sent a stab of terror through all three passengers in the car. They froze, gasping in shock. The scream went on for several seconds, and then it abruptly stopped. The station owner lifted a trembling bony hand and pointed at Stewborn as he said, “Do not go into the old stone house.” After a brief pause, he started to chant, “Do not go into the old stone house. Do not go into the old stone house.” Each time he said it, he said it louder and faster. It was a truly frightening spectacle. As he continued, he seemed to become more maniacal.
Kat put her hands over her ears and yelled, “Stop it! Stop it!” Carter put a trembling arm around her shoulders and tried to calm her.
Finally, the chanting grew into a hideous laugh full of insanity that continued as the station owner turned the old pickup around and sped off back the way he came.
Kat lost her battle with holding back her tears and sobbed. “What are we doing in this place? I should be home in my bed. I don’t know if I can take any more of this.” Carter patted her back and tried to reassure her that they were going to be okay.
Stewborn ignored the children and just sat for a few moments trying to calm himself. When he finally tried to restart the car, nothing happened. The engine did not turnover, and the dash lights remained dark. The car was dead. “Oh, this is great! I am stuck out in the middle of nowhere with a raving lunatic running around loose and a couple of blubbering kids in the back seat of my car. This is just peachy. I cannot wait to see what happens next.”
Kat finally got a hold of herself, and Carter stopped shaking by the time Stewborn tried to restart the car, but when it failed to start, their anxiety flared up again. “What’s the matter with the car? Why won’t it start? Do something! We have to get out of here now! The owner may come back, and who knows what he’ll do,” Kat said on the verge of hysterics. “Yes, can’t you do something?” Carter asked in a shaky voice.
It was so dark in the car that the three could only see shadowy outlines of each other. Stewborn turned toward the backseat and said, “And what, exactly, do you suppose I can do? I do not know anything about cars. I do not have any tools, and I do not have a flashlight.
Before Carter could tell Stewborn that he had a flashlight, Kat said, “We’re parked in front of a house; look.” She pointed to a dimly moonlit outline of a small building about thirty feet from her side of the car. “Maybe there’s someone home who can help us. Perhaps they have a phone.”
Carter and Stewborn strained to see the building. “I see it,” said Carter.
“Yes, I see it too,” said Stewborn. “It is so dark that I cannot make out very much. I wish I had a flashlight.”
“I have a flashlight,” Carter said. “I also have some matches.”
Stewborn looked at the dark outline of the boy and said, “Why did you not say so before? Never mind. We need to go see if anyone is home.”
Carter took out his flashlight and offered it to Stewborn, but the man said, “No, you keep it. We are all going to go up to the door.”
Carter was concerned about Kat because he knew she was still afraid. He did not want to admit it, but he was shaken up as well. “I think Kat and I should stay in the car. You can use the flashlight and see if anyone’s home.”
“If there is someone home, they will feel much better about helping us if they see I have children with me. No one wants to open his or her door to a strange man at night.”
“He’s right, Kat; we better go too. Do you think you can handle it?” Carter asked with genuine concern in his voice.
The question cut right to the girl’s pride. The realization that she was the only one crying and that she was being treated like a weak, emotional girl made her embarrassed and angry. “Of course I can. If you can do it, I can do it,” she said peevishly. “Come on; let’s stop wasting time and check this place out.”
As soon as the partners exited the car, Carter turned on his flashlight and took a quick scan of their surroundings. Stewborn was out of the car by the time Carter focused the light on the building. A cold chill ran down his spine as he saw that the building was a stone house.
This story is an excerpt from the novel, Beyond the Dead Forest. To read the rest of this story, you can purchase the book on most online stores.fantasy, action adventure, religion and spirituality, children, kids, young adult, action, horror, dark, christian, values, church, spooky, thrilling, YA, scary, dark, good vs. evil, fun, mysterious, bizarre