Will knew he shouldn’t get into the truck. From the moment the dusty, white, rust-pockmarked pickup skidded to a halt on the Georgia back road, it’d given him bad feelings, and closer inspection only amplified those misgivings.
For one thing, the driver looked like he was wearing something from the ‘creepy weirdo’ aisle of a costume shop–scraggly mustache, greasy hair, white collared shirt covered in multicolored stains. There also happened to be fast food wrappers, soda bottles, and plastic bags piled two feet deep over top of the vehicle’s floor.
But, fact of the matter was that the sun was going down and Will was stuck in the middle of the Georgia countryside, over a thousand miles from home and without a cell phone. If he didn’t take the ride, creepy weirdo or not, he would be sleeping in a roadside ditch that night and wake up the next morning no closer to his destination.
Besides, Will reasoned, the driver might be disgusting, but he hardly looked like a threat. The guywas so frail and emaciated that his shirt looked like it was hanging on a clothes hangar. Will had at least thirty pounds on the guy. Looking up and down the barren country road one more time to see if any other cars were approaching, Will tossed his backpack into the truck bed and hopped inside.
The driver gunned the gas before the door was even fully shut. He cranked the truck up to seventy and kept it there, squirming in his seat as if he had a pressure switch in his ass that would go off if he sat on it for too long. “Name’s Brian.” His smile revealed brown teeth rotted down to stubs like miniature tombstones. “Where ya’ headed?”
“Amicalola Falls, where the Appalachian Trail starts,” Will answered. “I’m going to hike the whole thing. All two thousand miles.”
Brian watched him from the corner of his eye. “Why?”
“Freedom. Adventure,” Will said. He liked the way those words sounded coming out of his mouth–very traveled, very worldly. His spirits were finally lifting again. He’d spent the previous five hours standing on the side of the road in the blazing sun trying to thumb a ride while people flipped him off and howled profanities, or ignored him altogether. Now, the Appalachian Trail was within reach, and his quest was about to begin. Even better than that, he’d finally, truly escaped the clutches of that prison ward that was “home.”
No longer would he have to deal with his alcoholic mother, or with the town bullies who were only growing bigger and drunker and more violent. They meant even less than memories, now, and all those years of feeling trapped by his birthright were finally gone.
He could be anyone he wanted to be, and all that mattered now was what lay ahead. Will grinned as visions of starry mountaintops and campfire conversations with beautiful, green-eyed vagabond girls danced through his head.
Brian squirmed. “You were walking all the way to Amicalola? That’s over twenty miles.”
“I hitched here from Atlanta with a trucker. He dropped me off at the crossroads down the way and said I’d have no problem getting another ride. Boy, was he wrong about that.” Will laughed.
Brian narrowed his eyes and gave him a sideways glance. “You running from the law?”
“You run away from home?”
“I’m nineteen years old,” Will snapped, stopping himself just short of punctuating the sentence with asshole.
An aluminum can popped near Will’s feet. Something stirred within the pile of fast food wrappers. With a frightened hiss Will pulled his feet up onto the seat. “What’s in there?”
Brian glanced down at the floor. “Nothing, man. It’s cool.”
A dirt road branched off into the thick woodlands ahead. Brian snapped the wheel aside and turned onto it with a shrieking of tires. Will watched the main road fade away in a dust cloud behind them as they raced along a primitive drive so narrow that the bushes slapped against the sides of the truck. “This is the way to Amicolola Falls?”
“It’s a back way,” Brian said. He took the road’s sharp twists and turns without braking, wheels skidding over the loose gravel and sending the back of the truck fishtailing.
The vegetation grew thicker. Soon they were driving a forested corridor of snarled picker bushes and magnolia, the uppermost branches of the loblolly pines so choked with kudzu vines that they blocked out what scant light was left from the setting sun.
Something rustled within the trash again. Will folded his legs into his body. “I’m telling you, something’s in there.”
Brian laughed. “Don’t worry, man. It’s nothing.”
Will could not see clearly in the truck’s darkening interior, but as he stared at the place where the trash had moved, he thought he saw something peak up out from under a soda bottle and stay there–as if watching him. He pressed himself as deep into the corner of the vehicle as he could get. “There’s a goddamn rat or something in there.”
“That’s not a rat, man. He’s the one that wanted me to pick you up.”
The garbage shuffled again, and the creature slithered out. It was like an enormous, translucent maggot, big around as a football and twice as long. In the darkness were the faint impressions of a rounded mouth on one end with a cluster of black, unblinking eyes above it. Will shrieked and gripped the door handle.
“Calm down, man,” Brian laughed as he began unbuttoning his shirt. The thing slithered onto his lap and plunged its mouth into his stomach. Squirming contentedly, it began to suckle. Faintly visible in the pale light being cast by the odometer were the red, infected marks of previous feedings scattered all over the driver’s exposed torso.
Will reached for the door. He didn’t care how fast they were going, he was going to jump for it. He grabbed the door handle and turned–nothing happened. He tried again. Still nothing. With a panicked growl he rammed his shoulder into the door, but it did not budge and won him only a sharp shiver of pain.
Brian smiled as he stroked and massaged the thing feeding off of him. “Calm down, man. There’s nothing wrong going on. He takes a bit of me, but he gives me a bit of him. You’ll see. It isn’t bad at all.”
“Stop the truck and let me out of here.”
“That’s cool, man. I was scared, too, when I first saw it. It looks weird, doesn’t it? But I tell you it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Everything’s brighter now. I wasn’t too smart before, but I’m real smart, now. That’s how I figured out how to rig up that door so you can only open it from the outside.”
They drove into a clearing and Brian brought the truck to a skidding halt. A dilapidated shack stood in the headlights. The structure leaned precariously to one side, the glass broken out of its windows and the door hanging open on one hinge.
Brian turned the truck off and stepped outside, cradling the maggot in his arms. Leaving the driver’s side door hanging open, he walked around to stand in the headlights and wave Will outside. “Come on, man. It’s your turn.”
“That thing’s not getting anywhere near me.”
Brian shook his head. “This one’s mine. But there’s one for you, too. There’s a bunch of them here in the shanty.”
Something moved just inside the shack’s doorway. Will sat frozen in horrified fascination as another of the creatures slithered out onto the doorstep, the teeth in its circular mouth gleaming in the headlights. It watched him for a moment with its little eyes, and then darted impossibly fast over the ground to disappear beneath the front of the truck.
Will lunged for the driver’s side door. Just as he grabbed hold of the handle to close it, the creature leapt up from the darkness. Its mouth almost found a hold on Will’s chest before the hitchhiker caught it between both hands. He held the creature out at arm’s length as it snapped its teeth furiously and slurped at the air, stinking like ammonia and feces.
“Just let it go,” Brian called. “You’ll see. It’s real nice.”
Will leapt out of the truck with the thing still in his hands. His eyes fixed upon a board jutting outwards from the shack’s wall. He ran for it. The maggot thrashed more desperately in his hands, as if sensing Will’s intentions. He maintained his grip and impaled the thing upon the board. It let out a shrill, insectian scream, convulsed, and went still.
“Ah, man,” Brian said, “that’s not cool.”
Will bolted past the shanty into the woods. He ran through the darkness and the tangled trees. Suddenly the ground disappeared beneath his feet and he found himself falling over the side of a ledge. He dropped several feet before his leg landed neatly between two boulders with a sickening crunch.
The would-be adventurer cried out. Remembering his pursuers, he covered his mouth with his hand to stifle his whimpering. Gagging back the pain, he listened to the Georgia night for sounds of Brian or the creatures. The forest buzzed and hummed with anthropoid life, oblivious to his dilemma.
He began trying to free his leg. Each effort only achieved a new burst of pain, which meant a new struggle to stay quiet. After several futile attempts, he rested. Shortly after that he began to cry.
He wept not for fear of the things following him, though he certainly had not forgotten about that. He cried because he knew he was about to die, and would do so having never known a day of real love or peace in his life.
Will had always told himself that self-pity was the one unallowable weakness of life, but in that moment he was struck by a crushing sense of the world’s injustice. Nineteen years unloved, uncared for, abused and ridiculed and mocked, and now he was going to die. It was as if he had been born to suffer as an end in itself. He felt a bitter hatred towards the world.
Footsteps sounded overhead. Brian appeared, his looming form silhouetted against the stars. “Don’t worry, man. That leg won’t hurt at all pretty soon. Nothing will.”
Another maggot dropped over the side of the ledge and landed heavily on Will’s chest. Will tried to fight it off, but his strength was quickly drained.
With an exhausted sigh, he surrendered. The thing plunged its mouth into his sternum. There was a flash of pain, but it quickly abated. A warm feeling started where the thing had bitten into him, and began to spread throughout his body.
Will relaxed. Soft light encapsulated his mind. The luminescence grew and grew until it filled the forest and then even the night sky. There was comfort, understanding, and acceptance in the light.
Will smiled as it intensified into a splendorous radiance that absorbed everything else around him, and everything else within. Soon, the light was all that was left in the world, and it was beautiful.