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The Causeway: Fiction by Kenneth James Crist
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Again, A Bike Left: Poem by Rp Verlaine
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Dark Tales from Gent's Pens

Kenneth James Crist: The Causeway

100_ym_s_okeefe_causeway.jpg
Art by Sean O'Keefe 2023

The Causeway

 

by

                                                                 

Kenneth James Crist

 

Peering down into the waters of Lake Ponchartrain, I saw the eyes, looking back at me. It hadn't really dawned on me that we were in trouble, until that point, but I was starting to get a glimmer.

We had been enroute from a family reunion in Findlay, Ohio, to our home in New Orleans. It had been a typical ordeal, full of sniper warfare, drunken accusations, and tears. Why do we always go? I have no good answer. I guess this year it was to show off the big, black Pontiac Bonneville that we could scarce afford, with all of the bills for our son's therapy . We bought it anyway, putting ourselves further in debt than I really care to be.

At the reunion, my mom had gotten into that old rap about how I had married beneath my station in life, and how Jody's family was trailer trash, and no wonder our son was retarded, etc. Our son really isn't retarded. He is autistic—highly intelligent, but locked into a world of his own creation, and unable—or unwilling—to deal with what we perceive to be the real world.

We had left the reunion exhausted and in an ugly mood and I had decided to drive straight through. At three-thirty in the morning, we came at last to the twenty-nine mile Causeway across Lake Ponchartrain, and at about the same time fog was settling in. I reduced my speed, as the wooly, thick gray mass enclosed the car in a cocoon of near-zero visibility.

It was three forty-six by the dashboard clock when the strangeness began. I had become sleepy as we droned along and I was catching myself dozing at the wheel. I kept checking the clock, as it and the odometer were the only references I had as to how much farther we had to go.

First, the clock stopped. It still displayed the time, but it didn't change. It continued to be three forty-six for several minutes, and I thought, "Just what I need. Another repair bill." After several miles, I turned on the dome light just long enough to see my wristwatch: Three forty-six. Well, even a busted clock is right twice a day.

I looked at the odometer, and saw 6049.4 miles. I kept glancing at it, waiting for it to roll up the next tenth, but soon  realized it wasn't working, either. When the car quit, it was almost funny. I mean, hell, it was practically a brand-new car. It shouldn't be breaking down. I coasted into a safety turnout and as I started to reach for the key, the lights faded and we were in total, thick darkness.

Jody stirred and asked, "We home yet?"

"Almost, babe. I'm just gettin' sleepy. I'm gonna stretch my legs and have a smoke." No sense in alarming her.

"Okay." She mumbled and laid her head back, and drifted off.

I opened the car door and stepped out, listening... listening for the sound of traffic coming, the sound of frogs, the slap of water, anything. The loudest thing I could hear was my own breathing. My life passing. I stepped around to the passenger side, dug out my smokes and lit up. There should be an emergency phone close, I thought, and I stepped over to the bridge rail and started walking and looking.

In thirty seconds or less, I found one, but the lamp was out and I had to fumble in the darkness to use it. At first, I merely heard silence. I lit my lighter, looking in the little phone cabinet to see if there was a dial or if it was a direct line. No dial, so somebody should pick up immediately. I jiggled the phone cradle a few times and still got no answer. Great. I'd picked the only non-working phone on the whole damn causeway to break down next to. Then I thought I heard something, very faintly, and I pressed the receiver more tightly to my ear.

"Hello? Hello? Hey, we need help out here!"

There was a return echo of my own voice, but it didn't sound quite right. It was like an imperfect recording, a bad tape. I realized that the other sound I had been hearing was a similar echo of my own breathing. I decided I'd walk a ways and try the next phone back, behind the car.

A quarter mile had never seemed like much distance at all. But alone, wrapped in near-perfect silence, it seemed like quite a hike. In the gloom, I nearly passed right by the next phone. It was suddenly there and I quickly yanked the box open and pulled out the receiver. As I put it to my ear, I heard the echo of my voice, saying, "Hello? Hello? Hey, we need help out here!" The quality had improved, though, since I had heard it a few minutes ago, on the other phone, a quarter mile away. It really sounded like me, now. Almost.

 

I stood in the fog for a few minutes, thinking about what I should do next. The total lack of any other traffic was very disturbing. The causeway connected Interstate 10 and Interstate 12, and it should have been busy with truck rigs, even at this hour. I struck my lighter, to look and see how long we'd been stranded here. With a shock, I realized that my watch still read the same as it did just before the car stalled: 3:46 A.M. This simply could not be, I thought, and I examined it more closely. The colon that separated hours from minutes was still. It should have been blinking on and off, once each second. Something had put my watch in stasis, and the dashboard clock in the Bonneville, as well. Was that same phenomenon affecting the phones? Did it also cause the car to quit?

I started hoofing it back to the car, where the two most important people in my life were still asleep. As I got in, I could just make out the shape of my wife in the right seat.

"Were you calling for help?" she asked quietly.

"I tried two of the emergency phones. They don't work."

"Did you try the cell phone?"

Christ! I'd forgotten the cell phone! I'd only had it a few days, a little perk given to me by my office. Since we were going out of town and I didn't want it stolen, I'd put it in the trunk. Grinning sheepishly in the darkness, I said, "Actually, I forgot all about it."

For once, Jody didn't have anything shrill or nasty to say. Maybe her supply had exhausted itself at the reunion. I slipped out of the car, fumbled with the keys, opened the trunk and groped around for a minute, finally finding the cell phone. Hit the switch and was rewarded with a lighted keypad. Dialed 911 and put it to my ear. Then incredibly, I heard my own voice saying, "Hello? Hello? Hey, we need help out here!"

I jerked the offending instrument away from my ear, and my mouth was hanging open, breathing in acres of thick, fishy-smelling fog as I stared at it in disbelief. From it came my own voice again, as it repeated, "Hello? Hello? Hey, we need help out here!" Then the lighted keypad faded and went out.

I got myself under control after a few minutes. How could my own voice be captured by a cell phone minutes after I had talked on the emergency phone? It had scared the shit out of me, pure and simple. I walked back around to the driver's door, opened up and slid inside.

"Are they coming?" Jody asked.

"Most definitely." I answered, although at the time I had no idea who they were.

 

I sat in the car for a few moments, gathering my wits and thinking about our situation. Sooner or later, someone would have to come along and I would hear them well before they came out of the fog. I should be able to flag someone down. Then I remembered the flares.

I had road flares, three of them, in a kit in the trunk. Once again, I slid out of the car and went around to the trunk. I hauled out my lighter and quickly found the kit and extracted the flares. Now, I would just need to stay outside the car, listen for the vehicle that was bound to come soon, and lay a flare path on the road to indicate trouble. I stepped over to the railing, listening to the slap of water from below, stuck a cigarette in my mouth and snapped my lighter. When I had it going, I leaned on the rail, looking out into the night.

As I smoked, my gaze wandered downward and I saw something move directly below me. I focused on the water, dimly realizing that there was little or no fog under the bridge, and that was when I saw the eyes. At first, I did not recognize them as eyes. They looked like thousands of tiny red points of light and I thought perhaps they were some type of phosphorescent creatures, glowing to attract mates, or food. Then they blinked. It was as though they were "doing the wave", that is, their eyes closed, then reopened, in a solid movement, sweeping from my left to my right, taking a few seconds to cross the massed thousands that were directly below me, under the causeway.

I stepped back from the rail in confusion, then turned and walked about fifty feet from the car and looked over again. The water was at first perfectly black, but then I saw a pair of red eyes, then another, then thirty, then hundreds and thousands. They assembled beneath my position, a rapt audience waiting for me to perform.

I reached a shaking hand to my back pocket and withdrew one of the road flares, briskly pulling the tab and squinting against the glare as it burst into pinkish, reddish fire. If Hell really burns, it is probably the color of road flares.

I held the flare aloft, out over the bridge rail and I leaned out to better examine the creatures below. Now I saw no eyes, but on the piling directly below me, I saw a slick, black mass oozing back into the water and even as I watched, the gray concrete began to reappear. They had been halfway up the bridge pier. They had been coming up to the deck, to the roadway!

I stood rooted to the spot, watching the calm surface of the lake, until the flare burned too far down for me to hold it any longer. I laid it on the rail, and retreated to the car. When I got in, I locked the doors and Jody asked from the darkness, "What is it? What did you see?"

"I'm not sure. Something in the lake, watching me."

"Oh, yeah. Right." she said, sarcasm making her sound tired.

"I think we may be in trouble." I said.

"Well, hell, yes, we're in trouble," she said, "I'd like very much to get home. Is there any reason why we seem to have no traffic at all, here?"

"I've been trying to figure that out," I said, "and I think it has something to do with time flow."

"Time flow."

"Yeah."

"You lost me."

"Well, the clock on the dash was on the same time for several minutes before the car died, and my watch has read 3:46 for all the time we've been here."

"Something's stopping time?"

"It would appear so."

"Bullshit! You just do something to get us out of here, mister!" she was beginning to get shrill.

"Ease off a little, hon. Let's not wake up Seth, okay?"

"Why? Don't want to deal with your son?"

"Jody..."

"Don't Jody me, goddamn it! You know you resent the hell out of him for screwing up your life and causing you the inconvenience-"

I reached over and placed my hand gently over her mouth to still her and she started to push my hand away, then she looked where I was looking, at the tiny red eyes pouring over the bridge rail, right next to the car.

"What...what is that? Tim?"

"Shhh! Be quiet. I don't know what it is. It's what I saw in the lake."

"Are those eyes?"

"Yes."

"Is it like crabs or something?"

"No."

"Well, what is it?"

"I don't know."

"You didn't see them?"

"Yeah, I did. But I don't know what they are."

"What did it look like?"

"Just those eyes, in a black shiny mass, slick looking, like soft jelly..."

"Stop."

"Well, you asked..."

Just then, the right front tire went flat with a hiss, and Jody screamed, waking Seth.

I listened to her as she took in breath for another scream, and I said, "Stop it! Jody, that won't help! You're only going to scare Seth!"

"It's coming for us! We're gonna die!"

I could find no fault with her reasoning as I frantically twisted the ignition key one more time. I knew that it wouldn't start, but I was scared beyond rational thought and was thinking only of escape. I turned the ignition switch again and again, as though I could wish the car to start.

Glancing to my right, past my wife, I could still see the blackness, speckled with red eyes, sliding over the bridge rail, moving more quickly now, almost eagerly, to surround the car.

The left front tire let go with a bang, the car settled on my side. Jody screamed again and then did something I had never heard her do before: she lapsed into praying.

I looked out at the ground on my side of the car and realized it was slick and black and moving. The car was completely surrounded and the red eyes were sparkling almost gleefully, as the attack began to build momentum.

From the corner of my eye, I saw movement and my vision snapped back to the end of the hood, where a thin layer of black was flowing up over the metal. Steam or smoke appeared to be rising from the mass. As I watched it move closer to the windshield, I realized that it was dissolving the paint on the car's finish. Jody interrupted her Rosary long enough to open her eyes, take one look around, and begin screaming again.

From the back seat came an accompanying wail of anguish. Now Seth was wide awake and scared, too. He was yelling in response to Jody's screams as she became more frantic.

As the mass of black nastiness approached the windshield, I remembered the lighter gripped tightly in my hand. I flipped it open and struck the spark wheel and I was rewarded with a good, steady flame.

I waved the lighter at the inside of the windshield glass and watched as the mass retreated from the light. I now could clearly see bare, shiny steel where only moments ago there had been glossy black baked-on paint. If they could do that to auto paint, I thought, they'd make short work of us.

I had no sooner completed the thought than the right rear tire deflated with a hooting sound like a New Year's noisemaker.

"God, Tim, do something!"

"What? What can I do? I'm open here. Give me some suggestions!"

"I don't know, but they're gonna get us!"

The lighter was growing hot in my hand and I knew it wouldn't be long before I would have to close it and let it cool, or find a way to hold it until it ran out of fuel.

"Where are the rest of the flares?"

They were in my back pocket. "Here! Right here. But I can't light one in here. Hell, it'll set the car on fire."

"Can you light one quick, and toss it out on the ground?"

"I can maybe do better than that," I said, "I can try to land it on the hood or the top."

I started to light one of the flares and suddenly froze. "Shit!"

"What?" she asked, her voice rising again.

"I won't be able to get the window down. They're power windows."

"You'll have to open the door."

I lit the flare and sparks started cascading onto the seats and my clothing. In seconds I was able to quickly crack the door and wave the flare down toward the pavement, driving the mass back until I could reach up over the top of the car. I laid the flare as far out into the center of the roof as I could reach and pulled my arm back in and slammed the door.

Now there was bright hell-light all around the car and the mass had retreated far enough into the fog that it was invisible. I listened to the hiss of the burning flare, knowing I could do this trick only one more time and then we were history.

When the flare began to sputter and its light started to die, I reluctantly lit the last one.

I pulled the tab, and opened the car door again and set it on the top. Now we had just the amount of time it would take for the flare to burn, then we were meat for these things, whatever they were.

As we waited out our time I began thinking back over my life and I realized that my years with Jody and Seth, in spite of all our problems, were the best years of my life. I mused on my life and our relationship until the last flare went out.

Soon, the red eyes were back, staring in greedily at us. Jody had started screaming again, only now I held her and told her to keep her eyes closed. I continued to watch, though, and soon the windows of the car were completely covered.  

Seth was becoming more agitated and he was yelling long streams of meaningless gibberish. It just went on and on and it truly got on my nerves until, after he'd been doing this for several minutes, I realized that the mass outside wasn't making any more progress. It had stopped. I got the distinct impression that it was listening.

Seth kept babbling away, now with his volume up, yelling his nonsense words, and I realized that it all sounded different. I had never heard these particular sounds before from Seth and the more I listened, the more I began to notice that it was one phrase repeated over and over. Soon, the mass began to ease back down the glass, as if in retreat, and then the car suddenly filled with pulsing red and blue light. Jody started to freak again, but I hushed her and told her it was all right. It was the Highway Patrol.

 

The Pontiac had to be towed. The two Troopers were amazed at the condition of the Bonneville. They had never seen anything like it and neither had I. They had seen the blackness rapidly retreating from our car as they pulled up.

Why they had even been allowed that close was something I could not understand. After our rescue, I looked at my watch and it was running right on time. The time we had spent trapped there on the Causeway was time that we just lost, somehow. I couldn't understand why the Trooper's car would run, and what had broken the spell of the time-suspension thing, if that term is not too inaccurate.

Now I believe it was Seth. I think that on some level that we can't understand, Seth was able to communicate with them and that he drove them back.

It's been almost two months since the Causeway, but it is far from over. The insurance company replaced the car. They said it was not salvageable and with no argument bought me a new one. I think someone wanted it. Maybe it's being held as evidence. I don't know.

One night last week I started thinking about possible ways the black mass could get to my house. The Department of Public Works assures me that there are no direct sewage runs out to Lake Ponchartrain, that don't go through a treatment plant. But there are the storm sewers.

Three nights ago, the telephone rang and when I answered it, I heard my own voice, very clearly, saying, "Hello? Hello? Hey, we need help out here!" I haven't mentioned that to Jody.

We came home from an evening out tonight and sent the babysitter home. As I got ready for bed, I went into the bathroom and I smelled that close, cloying, fishy smell. When I picked up the lid of the stool, there was a black scum in the water. I flushed it, and I haven't said anything to Jody about that, either.

Seth has been sleeping in our room, ever since the Causeway, and I think that's a good idea.

 

Published on Skin and Bones website, 1999






Kenneth James Crist is Editor of Black Petals Magazine and is on staff at Yellow Mama ezine. He has been a published writer since 1998, having had almost two hundred short stories and poems in venues ranging from Skin and Bones and The Edge-Tales of Suspense to Kudzu Monthly. He is particularly fond of supernatural biker stories. He reads everything he can get his hands on, not just in horror or sci-fi, but in mystery, hardboiled, biographies, westerns and adventure tales. He retired from the Wichita, Kansas police department in 1992 and from the security department at Wesley Medical Center in Wichita in 2016. Now 75, he is an avid motorcyclist and handgun shooter. He is active in the American Legion Riders and the Patriot Guard, helping to honor and look after our military. He is also a volunteer driver for the American Red Cross, Midway Kansas Chapter. He is the owner of Fossil Publications, a desktop publishing venture that seems incapable of making any money at all. His zombie book, Groaning for Burial, has been released by Hekate Publishing in Kindle format and paperback late this year. On June the ninth, 2018, he did his first (and last) parachute jump and crossed that shit off his bucket list.




Sean O’Keefe is an artist and writer living in Roselle Park, NJ. Sean attended Syracuse University where he earned his BFA in Illustration. After graduation, Sean moved to New York City where he spent time working in restaurants and galleries while pursuing various artistic opportunities. After the birth of his children, Sean and family move to Roselle Park in 2015. He actively participates in exhibitions and art fairs around  New Jersey, and is continuing to develop his voice as a writer. His work can be found online at www.justseanart.com and @justseanart on Instagram.

In Association with Black Petals & Fossil Publications 2023