Dirty slush splashed from either side of the car. Tracy held a flashlight in her hands. A little wind-up thing. For emergencies.
Miss Green had told Tracy’s second grade class that nothing could travel faster than light, but she silently disagreed in the self-assured way only a seven-year-old can. She held her hand in front of the lens and flicked the light on.
The shadows of her fingers climbed the back of Dad’s seat as the surrounding light hit them. A forest of digits.
“Jeez, Trace,” said Dad. “Trying to blind me?”
She dropped the flashlight, its beam lighting up her boots.
“Sorry.” She snatched it up and turned it off.
The experiment proved her hypothesis, though. Those shadows were faster than the speed of light, if only by a little bit.
Or were they always there? When all was dark, the shadows remained; the light only revealed their hiding spots.
She’d have to do more experiments when they got to Mom’s place.
Tracy stared out the window as the headlights on Dad’s old sedan lit up trees. The beams sent their shadows stretching up through the forest. The woods were dark and weird, on either side of a new road her dad took after the radio squawked about a pile-up on the freeway.
The detour didn’t bother Tracy. A scenic route was better than the fast pace of the freeway, the winding roads better than the monotonous stretch where time became infinity.
She imagined cougars prowling through the woods beside them. Bunnies hopping over branches, nibbling on wild lettuce. She saw bears that weren’t there, hiding in the shadows, ready to jump out and snatch anyone who stopped on the side of the road to change a flat tire. A quick meal to fuel their hibernation. Hibernation was another subject covered by Miss Green. If bears didn’t get enough food before winter, they’d die of cold.
As their car bounced up and down on the back road, Tracy began to fidget.
“How much longer?” she asked.
Dad glanced at her in the rearview mirror.
“It’ll be a while honey. Just go to sleep. I’ll carry you inside when we get to your mom’s.”
“Okay.” She looked out the window again and closed her eyes. She tried to sleep, but no matter how hard she thought of sheep frolicking over fences, she kept getting bounced awake by the bumpy road.
Rubbing her eyes, she poked her older brother in the shoulder. He was in the front seat with earbuds crammed in, an iPad in his lap. He ignored her.
“Robbie…” She reached through the gap between his seat and door to poke him again. “Can I have the iPad now?”
Sighing, he pulled an earbud out. “What?”
“Can I have the iPad?”
“Piss off.” He jammed the earbud back in.
Dad reached over and yanked it back out.
“Don’t talk to your sister like that.”
“Whatever.” Robbie put the earbud back in. When he turned fifteen, it was like he didn’t have to listen to them anymore. Probably because he was mad about Mom and Dad not loving each other.
“It’s okay, Daddy,” she said, “I can wait.”
“I appreciate your patience.” He reached over and shook Robbie’s shoulder. “I’m sure Robbie does too.”
Tracy turned her attention out the window again and, in the side mirror, saw Robbie roll his eyes.
Raindrops rolled down the glass. She pretended they were racing, each drop in a mad dash to reach the rubber at the bottom of the window. It wasn’t as exciting as Roblox, but Tracy imbued the drops with backstories and characters, letting her imagination run wild.
She pitted two fat drops against each other, archrivals from neighboring countries as different from each other as black and white. They started down the window, gravity pulling them down and the wind pulling them towards the trunk of the car. The drops were named after boys at school who sometimes made jokes at her and pulled her hair and sometimes brought her flowers or shared snacks with her. She had her money on the right drop, Michael, but her heart lurched as it paused halfway down and the left drop, Jayce, gained the lead.
Tapping the window, she urged Michael on.
“C’mon,” she whispered under her breath.
Her heart gave another lurch as she noticed the shadow of a man gaining on their car.
Tracy craned her body to get a better look.
He was a black shape almost blending in with the night. His legs spun like the wheel of a bicycle, just a blur beneath his torso. He was far behind them on the road and falling further back every second, but his speed made her jaw drop. She had never seen a person go that fast.
He faded into the darkness, a shadow merging once more with the surrounding black. She straightened forward in her seat. Was that real?
“Daddy,” she said, “how fast are we going?”
“’bout a hundred,” he said, glancing in the rearview. “Why d’you ask?”
“Can a person run that fast?”
He laughed his big belly laugh, a sound that always brought a sense of pride when she was the cause. A smile crept over her face, her fears banished.
“Of course not,” he told her. “Usain Bolt couldn’t keep up with us. We’re practically flying!”
Tracy didn’t know who Usain Bolt was, but she was still smiling as she returned her attention to the window in search of another pairing of raindrops she could imagine racing. As hard as she tried to focus on the water though, she couldn’t help but keep peering back at the darkness the car left behind at a hundred kilometers per hour.
A couple minutes later, her dad’s phone buzzed next to the McDonald’s cup in the cupholder. He took one look at it and sighed.
“Mom,” he told them before accepting the call and putting it on speaker. “Hey Marissa, we’ll probably be another forty minutes. There’s an accident on the freeway so I took a different exit. We’ll get back on at the next one. Shouldn’t slow us down too much.”
“You better not be holding the phone. The fines have doubled this year.” Mom sounded irritated. It was how she usually spoke to Dad.
“You’re on speaker.”
“Hi, kids!” Her cheery words were thick as if coated in fruit syrup. “Did you have fun at Nan’s?”
Tracy leaned forward against the seat belt. “Yeah, Mom! She made those marshmallow squares again!”
“Yummy! Where’s Robbie?”
“He’s watching a movie on the iPad,” Dad explained.
“You shouldn’t let him play on that thing all the time. It’s all he does, either that or his Xbox. Always with his eyes glued to a screen.” The irritation was back in her voice.
Dad drank from his McDonald’s cup, his jaw clenching. Few things made him mad, but Mom’s lectures were top of his list. Every time he had the kids on his own, she had something to say. Silent and easily overlooked, Tracy often overheard.
“There isn’t a whole lot to do on this drive.” He placed the cup back in the holder. “It’s not a big deal.”
“It is a big deal!” No longer irritated, Mom was downright angry.
Tracy turned her head away as her parents started to fight.
“I bet you’re smoking in there with them too,” Mom said, and out of the corner of her eye Tracy saw her dad fingering the pack he kept in his jacket pocket. He left them there though; Dad kept her and Robbie’s lungs smoke free at all times.
They went on like that, back and forth while Tracy turned to the window.
Trees flashed by. Big Christmas trees too big to fit in anything but a giant’s house. Picturing her dad trying to drag one of those gargantuan trees up the stairs to his apartment made her giggle.
The laugh caught in her throat when she saw sudden movement in the trees.
With an eruption of broken branches, the dark figure burst from the forest and continued his chase.
She tracked it and stared open-mouthed out the back window as it followed their car. Its legs pin-wheeled with the same rapid movement as before. It was far enough away that Tracy couldn’t make out the details of its face, but even her near-blind Nan would’ve been able to see the maniacal grin stretching from ear to ear. Tracy couldn’t be sure, but the man looked to be gaining on the car.
They were stuck behind a big semi-truck; going way slower than before.
The man would catch up to them soon. What would he do when he did? Her seven-year-old mind felt the terror of a weak animal cornered by a predator.
“Robbie,” she croaked and was surprised at her voice. It felt like small vibrations on a tight wire and came out puffy and weak.
Her brother continued watching his movie, unaware she had said anything. In the driver’s seat, Dad went on arguing with Mom about something he had let the kids eat. They had once again fallen into their old habit of talking about them as if they weren’t even there.
Tracy didn’t care about their tone. There was a bigger problem and it was gaining on them.
When she turned back around, she saw him, now only a car’s length away. A darkness welled up in her, black and paralyzing. She whimpered, but nobody heard.
The man’s smile was inhuman—wider than she had ever seen. His lips pulled back, displaying huge teeth as big as her textbooks. He panted like a dog but wore a look of joy she had never seen on any animal. His limbs and torso looked as if they had been pulled by horses and stretched with so much force that he became long and slim all over.
He reached toward the car, opening and closing his hands like a child desperately grabbing for a candy bar. Spit dribbled from the corners of his mouth and flew off in trailing streams.
The man—if she could call it a man—had a head round like a basketball, but black as the rest of his body. He wore no clothes but had no private parts. He was an absence of light, a speeding shadow in pursuit of her family. Just yellow, bloodshot eyes and blindingly white teeth held within a nightmare.
Tracy poked Robbie. He brushed her off and continued watching his movie.
“Dad,” she said.
“I’m on the phone, honey.” She usually hated when he brushed her off like that, but now she only felt panic.
“Don’t interrupt, Tracy, you know better than that,” Mom said from the cup holder, not bothering to switch to her syrup voice.
“I should let you go anyway,” Dad said. “We’ve still got a while to go.”
“Whatever. Just don’t let them drink any soda. There’s no helping you, but I will not let them balloon up like you did.”
“Love you kids!”
Tracy stared at the man.
He met her eyes, jubilant as he held her in his gaze. His breath billowed from between big, clenched teeth. He was almost within arm’s reach. If she rolled her window down, Tracy would smell his breath. It would smell like the box she had placed in the ground when her gerbil passed away.
He was alongside the rear corner panel of Todd’s sedan when his arm reached toward Tracy’s door handle. She frantically fumbled the lock, confirming the door secure.
He would get in anyway.
Closing her eyes and covering her head, Tracy waited for the sound of ripping metal and speeding wind. Instead, she heard her dad’s phone beep as he hung up. The car surged ahead.
When she opened her eyes, they were passing the semi and leaving the shadow creature in their dust.
“Henry is taking your mom on a surprise trip to Bellingham, so you kids get to spend the week with your old man.” Dad put his turn signal on after the semi-truck flashed its lights indicating that it was safe to get back into the lane. He turned the wheel and gently crossed over the broken line separating eastbound traffic from westbound.
Tracy looked out of the back window, and the truck driver saw her pale face. He gave her a casual wave. She turned back around.
“What?” In her come down from her panic she had forgotten her manners. “Sorry—pardon me.” Dad wasn’t as strict on the please and thank-you’s, but Mom hated it, so she tried to keep in the habit.
“You’re going to be staying with me this week!”
She brightened up at this and brushed away thoughts of the slender shadow-man. At any rate, they were getting further and further away with every kilometer, and she no longer considered him a threat. Not for them anyway. She felt bad for the truck driver who he would undoubtedly target next.
Maybe not though. Maybe he was just after little girls. Tracy knew there were people always after little girls; Mom had drilled stranger danger into her head since she could talk.
“Yay!” She clapped her hands together. Dad looked back at her in the rearview mirror and smiled.
“Good,” Robbie said, wrapping up his earbuds. “Henry’s a dildo.”
Dad slapped Robbie lightly on the thigh. “Don’t talk like that. Your mom loves him. You should respect him.” He didn’t seem to mean what he said.
Robbie passed her the iPad from between the two front seats. She thanked him before opening the Candy Crush app.
“Are we going to go straight to your place?” Robbie asked Dad, pulling his phone out.
“Well, you’ll need more clothes, so we’ll go to your mom’s first. Pack a couple bags and send the two newlyweds off with some well wishes.”
“Ugh,” Robbie said, “Do we have to? Why can’t we just wear what we’re wearing now?”
“I don’t want to smell your butt for the next week,” Dad replied.
“Come on, I can turn my underwear inside out, backwards, backwards and inside out. That’s like four days of use. I can go commando the last couple days, no problem.”
“Never go commando in jeans, kid. If I only teach you one thing, it should be that.” He looked over with a serious expression. “You really don’t like Henry, do you?”
“It’s not just him,” said Robbie. “It’s Mom too, the way she is around him. She looks at him with these stupid eyes and they have these stupid in-jokes. You try to talk to her, and she just treats you like a kid. Like anything we say is just ‘cute’ or whatever. It’s annoying.”
“Ah,” Dad replied. “She hasn’t looked at me with those stupid eyes in a long, long time.”
“Gross, I don’t want to hear about it.” Robbie cringed, but Tracy could tell he was just pretending.
Dad shared a laugh with Robbie. It made Tracy happy. They didn’t laugh together all that often.
She liked Dad way, way better than tall, well-built Henry with the good job. Dad felt bad about his belly. It worried Tracy, too. Mom said soda and cigarettes took down greater men than he.
Tracy looked forward to him quitting in the coming New Year. He would be around for them. He wouldn’t let them be raised by a dildo.
“At least he doesn’t beat you,” Dad said.
“You don’t beat me,” Robbie replied.
“I beat you in Madden.”
Robbie laughed again. “Yeah right. We’ll see about that old man. I’m packing the Xbox when we get home. To Mom’s, I mean.”
“You’re on, bub.” He was looking at Robbie and smiling when the bang came.
It stunned Tracy and pulled her out of her game. She dropped the iPad. It slid onto the floor as the car began to shake and pull to the left.
“Shit,” Dad exclaimed and pulled off onto the shoulder. Tracy sat in horror, the image of the shadow appearing in her mind. The desire in his eyes, the lust in his grin.
“Why are we stopping, Daddy?” she asked him. She turned in her seat and looked out the back again. The road stretched out far behind them.
No one there.
Moonlight gleamed off the wet asphalt. Dense trees stood on either side of them, trapping them and making Tracy feel like she was in the bottom of a canyon as rain filled it up. If they stood still, the shadow would reach them.
“Just a flat tire, hon. We’ll have it changed in a jiff. Robbie, give me a hand and grab the spare from the trunk.” The guys opened their respective doors and got out, Dad bending to pull the latch that popped the trunk. “Sit tight. We’ll be rolling real soon.”
“No Daddy, we need to go!” Her words were only halfway out when her father closed the door and walked back to the trunk. He pulled a black bag from within, and she heard his muffled voice ask if Robbie could handle the tire. Through the glass she thought she heard Robbie say, “Piece of cake,” but couldn’t be sure. Her heart was beating so fast she could hear it, dull in her ear. Her mouth tasted like metal. She double checked the locks.
When the car lifted from the driver’s side, she let out a small squeal.
He’s gone, she thought, we’ve been past him for a long time now. He probably went after the truck driver anyway. It was a guilty thought, but she shook it off. If he had to go after someone, she was glad to be spared.
Metal scraped on metal, the sound of her dad taking the popped tire off the car.
It wouldn’t be like changing a bike tire; it would be slower.
She shook that thought off, too. It wouldn’t be. Yes, a car was bigger and more complicated than the Raleigh she had at home, but it didn’t have a chain to fuss with. Dad would have it fixed in no time.
Tracy twisted in her seat as her dad got to his feet.
Robbie took the spare out of the trunk and rolled it along the road.
She twisted back to watch Dad as he put his hands on his lower back and stretched his belly out. The tiny pops in his spine could be heard even through the rolled-up windows.
“Got it?” He asked Robbie.
Before receiving an answer, the shadow tore through Dad’s body and sent it tumbling into the middle of the road.
Tracy screamed and fumbled at her seatbelt as the shadow continued off in the direction they were heading.
Robbie shouted for Dad and ran into the road.
Tracy bounded out her door and after him.
“Dad!” Robbie repeated as he fell to his knees at the body of their father.
Dad was sprawled on his back, arms and legs stuck out like a starfish. His face and skin were rubbed raw from the road. He stared up at the stars, blinking with confusion. When he tried to talk, blood wept from the corners of his mouth.
“Wa fuh—” he said before coughing. Dark flecks of blood flew out and speckled Robbie’s face.
“We need to get back in the car, Robbie!” Tracy tugged his sleeve, trying to pull him away from their father, but he was too heavy. “It’s going to come back!”
“What was it? A motorcycle? Where were its fucking lights?” He was hysterical.
“It’s not, Robbie, it’s a monster! Please!” She was crying. Runners of snot ran down her face. She didn’t care, they needed to go. They needed to get back to the car.
“I need to get Dad out of the road. It’s not safe here.” He was crying too, but he wiped at his eyes with his arm and grabbed their dad by the hand.
When he pulled, a large gash opened along his torso. Tracy and her brother were treated to the sight of his organs desperately trying to keep him alive. Twitching hoses covered in yellow and red. Ribs so white where they weren’t covered in blood. Two big, purple balloons, shuddering as they failed to fill.
Their father let out a bloodcurdling scream. Robbie let go of the arm. He sat down hard and began to sob between his knees.
“Please!” Tracy screamed. Her head hurt like it was full of gravel, grinding and pushing on her skull.
She looked in the direction the shadow had run off in and saw it far away where the road climbed to a hill.
He stood at the top. His legs had stopped pin-wheeling. They were splayed wide, and he was silhouetted in the moonlight. He was way too long.
He seemed to stretch even longer before her eyes. One arm lifted high into the air and began to wave like a childhood friend greeting another from across the street. They were jerky movements, full of clumsy energy.
His body tilted forward. His legs moved. Slow at first but increasing to that same blur she had seen from in the car.
“It’s coming back, Robbie,” she said. “We need to get off the road.”
“No.” Her brother had seen the shadow with its mocking wave. Robbie wiped at his nose and rose shakily to his feet. “That asshole killed our dad. He killed our dad!”
Tracy looked to the man who had carried her on his shoulders for every parade and saw that he was no longer breathing. He looked up at the sky as if waiting for the hand of God to reach down and pull him up to heaven.
It was too much. She fell to her knees and wailed as her brother staggered in front of Dad in a protective stance.
“Get in the car, Trace.”
She looked up but couldn’t find the strength to stand.
“Robbie,” she whispered.
The shadow sprinted toward them with inhuman speed. A whine on the wind, high and full of tension. It sounded like a dog being held back from a big meaty bone.
There was no leash on the shadow though, and it came.
It squealed like an overtaxed engine. The noise tore apart the night.
Robbie roared, his jaw dropping and his clenched fists shaking at his sides. It was primal and full of strength Tracy had never seen in him.
Over the sounds the two made, an enormous horn blared. It sounded like a foghorn, but they weren’t near any oceans.
The truck, Tracy thought and stood.
“Robbie!” she shouted, but her little voice was drowned out by the truck’s loud warning. Fortunately, the lights from the cab washed over him, and he understood what was happening.
He juked towards the car and sprinted away from their dad’s body.
Robbie wasn’t as fast as the shadow that had followed them from God knows where, but he was fast enough. He cleared the path of the truck.
Tracy heard the squeal of its brakes. The wheels locked up, but the weight of the semi pushed it forward.
It flattened the shadow as it turned towards her and her brother. As the last wheel rolled over the figure, it caught it and dragged the shadow along the road.
Steam rose from the slushy road. The engine of the truck ticked.
They stood by the car and looked at their dad in the brake lights of the truck. The red of the lights washed over the blood making it look lighter. The red of a candy apple.
The man who had waved at Tracy from the cab of the truck opened the door and almost fell out. He was small, frantic, almost vibrating. His head was as bald as that of the creature, though shinier. He tripped as he rushed forward to the body of their dad.
“Oh God,” he said, over and over. He thought he hit Dad.
He hit something, Tracy thought as the truck driver called 911.
In his haste to get help, he had forgotten that there were two kids in the car with Dad. Tracy didn’t mind. She didn’t want to deal with him just then.
The flashlight was in the backseat where she dropped it. Tracy grabbed it, then walked toward the back of the semi-truck.
“Where are you going?” Robbie asked, scrambling after her.
“It needs to be dead.” She flicked the light on and aimed it in front of her. They both examined what was pinned to the ground.
The figure stared up at Tracy from beneath the tire. It was rubbed raw with bits of black, smoldering pieces ripped off and strewn along the road.
It knew what it had done.
It knew she would spend the next month—year—crying over the loss of her father. She would no longer be able to go to him with her many curiosities about the world, would receive no comfort for her hurts and hear no corny dad jokes.
The shadow showed tremendous joy at tearing apart her father. From under the big wheel his smile stretched even wider. It reached grotesquely around the back of his round head until a creaking came from within its thin throat.
“What’s it doing?” Robbie asked, sounding like a small child instead of a teenager on the brink of manhood.
“It’s laughing.” The beam of her flashlight flickered. It was an emergency light, recharged by turning the crank on the side. Tracy didn’t have the energy to do it.
The shadow’s arms stretched out towards her. It opened and closed its long fingers like a child trying to grasp something it felt it deserved.
Tracy took a step back, repulsed by the creature. It oozed dark, wet liquid from where bits of its flesh were worn away by the asphalt. It looked like oil, like some natural slime a snake would secrete.
Are snakes slimy? She didn’t know. She couldn’t ask her dad.
“Robbie, are snakes slimy?”
When she looked to him for an answer, he was gone.
“Robbie?” She spun in a circle, searching for him.
Robbie was on the other side of a smashed concrete divider. When he came back over it, he held a large, heavy slab of stone. He hefted it high as he came closer to the thing trapped under the semi truck’s wheel.
The flashlight went dark.
The creature kept laughing. Light revealed shadows; it did not destroy them.
Somewhere in the forest, bears prepared for the upcoming winter.
This story previously appeared in Hellbound Books, Shopping List Anthology, April 2017.
Edited by Marie Ginga
CHRISTOPHER O‘HALLORAN (he/him) is a milk-slinging, Canadian actor-turned-author with work published or forthcoming from Kaleidotrope, No Sleep Podcast, Cosmic Horror Monthly, Hellbound Books, and others. Follow him on Twitter @BungleInfernal or visit COauthor.ca for stories, reviews, and updates on upcoming novels.