The Sunken Road
by Carter Fell
1. The Funeral Drum
Three days of heavy rain had been followed by two of scorching heat; the sodden fields were steaming, and the dank ditches were fetid with rotting vegetation and the decomposing corpses of small mammals that had perished in flash floods. Gannon leaned against his car, and surveyed the flat Lincolnshire countryside around him, he was just fifteen miles north of Lincoln, and yet he felt that he was in another country. He had driven past vast fields of peas and other horticultural produce; it was all very different from the gently rolling oilseed prairies of his native Bedfordshire.
At the last crossroads, the sign had said Caistor was six miles off. Of course, six miles is usually no distance at all; but when the car's engine had inexplicably died, Gannon had realised that he might be faced with a walk of several hours. Curiously, and rather heart-breakingly, the signal indicator of his mobile phone was on zero. He thought that had to be wrong, there was no way that there could be no signal out here in open country, but he just had to accept it.
A long way across the fields, almost on the horizon, a there was a line of fruit pickers at work. Gannon considered trudging over to them, to seek help and perhaps the use of a phone, but he rejected the idea. It would take a long time and make a mess of his shoes, so he decided to await the passing of another vehicle. Although he had never in his life thumbed a lift, he felt confident that somebody would be sure to stop for him. At that moment, he suddenly realised that no traffic had passed along the road since he had stopped, which was very odd indeed. Still, it could only be a matter of time before someone came along, so he decided to sit in the car and wait.
The car door closed behind him, and he settled himself in his seat. He gazed around, at the narrow road ahead, at the endless empty fields on his left, and at the fruit pickers far away on his right. An immense tiredness came over him; he resisted it as best he could, first by trying to focus his mind on tomorrow's meeting in Caistor, and then by trying to think about seeing his children at the weekend. For just a second, he could clearly visualise the children's faces, but they faded faster than snow on a warm hand. His eyes closed briefly, he forced them open, but was then aware then he was going to nap for a while. Far from napping, he sank swiftly into a fathomless well of sleep, its inky blackness undisturbed by dreams.
When he awoke, it was in a state of total calm, as if all things had passed, and nothing could ever frighten or threaten him again. Enjoying this previously unknown sensation, he did not trouble to open his eyes immediately, but again tried to see his children's faces; the faces would not come, so he allowed his eyelids to rise on the world. His inner peace was then shattered by the realisation that the sun had fallen from the sky, and was gleaming its last on the western horizon; with still no hint of traffic on the road, he faced a long walk in the dark. Over on the eastern horizon, the fruit pickers had vanished; in their place, a thunderstorm flickered malevolently in dark purple clouds, its thunder like the sombre banging of a funeral drum. A sense of unease began to rise in Gannon; a nagging feeling that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He could not account for it, he could not begin to explain it, but as he gazed at the world around him his stomach tightened in a knotted fist of fear. Get away from the car. The thought leapt into his head, unbidden and entirely unwelcome. Get away from the car. He was modern man; his car was his own space that travelled with him, it was his comfort and security, his steel coccoon that he could fill with his own music or his own dark silence. It would be crazy to just abandon it in the middle of nowhere, but the thought was very insistent. Get away from the car; get away from it now. A cold certainty gripped him; he had to get away now, for he would not get another chance. Grabbing his sample case from the passenger seat, he left the vehicle, and set off along the road at a brisk walk. After couple of hundred yards, he stopped, and turned to look at the car. Crouching by the side of the road, it was clearly a disfigurement of the landscape, an ugly metallic cyst on the face of the countryside. He could not return to it now, that would be quite impossible. In fact, he felt quite pleased with himself for having had the good sense to leave it. Turning again, he set his face towards Caistor.
2. Something In The Shadows
Walking at a steady pace, Gannon continued his journey. The storm moved further away, over the horizon; its lightning reflected on the clouds, and its angry muttering came rolling over the fields. No other sound joined the clicking of Gannon's shoes on the roadway, no bird sang, no fox barked; he felt that he must have died in the car, and that this empty road on an empty planet was the hell that he must walk for all eternity. He tried to whistle a tune, and he tried to hum a song, but the emptiness around him was overpowering, and he lapsed into silence.
Darkness rushed across the land, Gannon was relieved to find a weak moon lighting his path. Trudging along, he looked continually to either side, hoping to see the warm glow of a farmhouse window. It seemed impossible that he had seen no sign of human habitation, but it was so. Worry returned to chew at his nerves, something was terribly wrong, and he had no idea what it was. Slowly, so slowly that he was unable to pinpoint the start of it, he became aware of soft footfalls behind him. He told himself that it could only be an echo of his own footsteps, or that a stray dog was following him; none of which could explain the strength of his reluctance to stop and turn around. He walked on, and the stealthy padding behind him continued, but it seemed to be getting closer.
With his breath coming in short gasps, and his heart hammering, Gannon knew that he would have to turn and face his terror. He whirled around suddenly, so as to surprise himself. But he could see nothing; the road behind was cloaked in deep shadow, a murky darkness too thick to allow the passage of light. There was no reference point, nothing on which his eyes could focus; and yet there was a suggestion of movement.
Gannon stared into the gloom so hard that he could hear the blood whistling in his ears. There was no doubt about it; there was definitely something in the shadows. He pulled his shoulders back, and tried to sound authorative. "Hello? Who's there? Who is that?" Unfortunately his voice came out cracked, squeaky, and unconvincing, even to himself. Still wanting to appear assertive, he slammed his case down onto the roadway; the lid burst open and his samples tumbled out, expanding bolts and cavity fittings flashed in the pale moonlight, rolling in all directions. He stooped to pick them up, realising as he did so that he must have strayed off the main road, for the surface was no longer smooth tarmac, but a coarse and crumbly material he could not identify. His hands scrabbled around, snatching up piece after piece, and throwing them into the case. He thought he heard a sigh, and was trying to determine if he had made the sound himself, when his hands and the samples and the road became invisible; the shadow had enveloped him, he was hooded by darkness.
His first thought was that he had gone totally blind; gasping with terror, he dared to look up, and could still see the murky outlines of the roadside hedgerows ahead, but they were rapidly being obscured by shadow. The case and samples were abandoned as Gannon ran towards the portion of road he could still see; he ran as furiously as a startled rabbit, and would have worshiped the sun as fervently as any Aztec if only it would return to save his world from darkness. Gradually, he emerged into normal moonlight; when he could see his flying feet, he stopped, and leaned forwards with his hands on his knees, gasping for breath. He lifted his head, and groaned when he saw that the road was about to enter a wood; the trees were stark and menacing, their branches looked stretched to receive him. There was no question of looking back along the road, or of waiting for the shadow to catch up with him; Gannon rolled over a low hedge, and set off across the fields.
The sticky soil soon relieved Gannon of his shoes; he carried them for a while, and then threw them aside. His city legs coped poorly with the heavy ground; every step was a major effort. Desperately tired, he was about to sink to his knees and give up, when he noticed the vague outline of a building in the distance. Galvanised by the prospect of a safe haven, he pressed on, but his heart began to sink again as he drew closer, for the building looked as lifeless as a rock. He stopped, and began to wonder why he had left the car; he could not remember the instinct that had driven him from it. But then he persuaded himself that buildings are gregarious things; where there is one, there is quite likely to be another. Hidden by the bulk of the abandoned structure, there could be houses, and people, and the light from a friendly pub spilling out onto a harmless street. With great clarity, he saw himself walking up to the bar of that pub, ordering a pint, and making a joke of how he had lost his shoes. Standing shoeless and dishevelled in that ploughed field, and with a stupid grin on his face, he heard the soft sigh again, and the shadow engulfed him. In darkness so total that he could not see any part of his own form, Gannon ran. Primeval panic fuelled his legs, and suppressed any semblance of thought in his mind; he ran without direction or purpose, stumbling and falling, only to rise and run again. At last he could run no further, he threw himself to the ground, and buried his face in his hands, sobbing and choking. Rolling over to gasp for air, he saw the moon's serene face; the shadow had passed.
3. The Sunken Road
Sitting up, Gannon saw that he was now much closer to the building, and he almost cried with joy to see a flickering light there; he rose to his feet, and started towards it. As he drew closer, the outlines of the building sharpened before him. It was a tall oblong structure of forbidding appearance; he was disturbed to realise that the flickering light was a candle burning behind a barred window. On the same level as the candle, more barred windows came into sight, and below that level were another two identical rows.
A sound came to his ears that stopped him in his tracks, it was a sharp crack followed by a woman's scream; this was repeated over and again. There was only one interpretation he could place on those sounds, but it was a conclusion he did not want to reach. Silence fell after a dozen or more cracks and screams; sick at heart, and with the most terrible forebodings, Gannon resumed his progress, but very cautiously now, for he was determined to find out the cause of the screams before revealing his presence. Edging forward, he came to a low hedge; he dropped to his hands and knees, and warily pushed his head through. He was looking down on a section of sunken road, narrow and rutted. The further end, nearest the looming building, was tree-covered and deep in shadow, the end nearest to Gannon was well illuminated by the moon. From the darkness came a new and unrecognisable sound, a creaking and groaning, a squeaking and moaning that suggested the souls of the damned complaining of their plight. Gannon's bowels opened, he felt his warm filth spreading out into his underwear. Paralysed by fear, he dreaded the horror that would emerge, but could not look away. Slowly, a row of semi-naked women materialised in the half-light at the edge of the shadow; advancing towards Gannon's position, and swaying from side to side as they went. The women were gripping a bar that extended for almost the width of the road; chains from the bar were attached to a four-wheeled cart. Sat high on the cart was the driver of the wretched creatures, a thin man wearing tight britches, a black velvet waistcoat, and a top hat; he was humming 'A Handful Of Laurel'.
Each of the women had straggly, greasy hair; wild eyes that stared out over gaunt cheekbones dominated their pale faces. Long filthy skirts had bony bare feet poking out beneath ragged hems; they were naked from the waist up, but as they passed underneath Gannon, it was obvious to him that there was no overtly sexual purpose to their exposed torsos. The driver nursed a cat-o-nine-tails on his lap, and the women's bodies testified that he was accustomed to using it; ropey scar tissue lay across their backs like frozen snakes.
In the back of the cart was the unmistakable figure of a corpse. Whereas all the other figures in the tableaux were so grimy as to suggest that they could never have been clean, the winding-sheets on the corpse were intensely white, and appeared almost luminous in the moonlight. When the cart was under Gannon, it creaked to a halt; one of the women had collapsed, she lay curled under the bar, her eyes wide open and her mouth gaping. At his leisure, the driver climbed down from the cart, and shook out the tails of the cat. He strolled to his row of skeletal human ponies, and casually grasped the fallen woman's hair with his left hand. He lifted her head with a fatherly gentleness, then he swung the cat as if trying to cut her in half with it; she screamed dreadfully as the tails sliced into her back, an expression of agony to make a statue weep. Blood spurted immediately; it splashed onto the driver's face as he lashed her again. Then the driver dropped the cat at his feet, and used both hands to haul the woman upright. As he did so, he noticed Gannon's ashen face in the hedge above. With a studied nonchalance, the driver picked up the cat, coiled its tails, and lobbed it over the women's heads onto the cart. He pulled a coaching pistol from under his waistcoat, and walked over to stand directly under Gannon's position. As the driver looked up at him, Gannon could see the puzzled expression on his pockmarked weasel face. He heard the click of the cock being drawn back, and then he saw the driver lift his arm and level the pistol at him.
There was only one straw for Gannon to clutch at. "You're not real, you can't be. I'm dreaming this. You are not real," he blurted out.
The driver gave that observation a moment's thought, before replying, "Oh, yes I am." And then he fired into Gannon's face.