The dashboard gaslight blinked to life and jolted Teddy from the monotony of the white highway lines on Interstate 85. He rubbed his eyes and put his blinker on to get into the right lane, even though it was after 4 a.m. and he hadn’t seen another car in nearly two hours.
As if by divine intervention, a barely visible faded green sign on wobbly legs with the words “GAS NEXT EXIT 1.5 mi” appeared just past mile marker 151.
In another mile, the sign for exit 151 appeared, half hidden behind dense brush. The exit sign, different from all the other ones Teddy had seen thus far on I-85 had no town or road name listed, and instead simply read – “GAS/LODGING.”
He hated getting off the highway in these backwoods, podunk towns. It was always an invitation to get lost or turned around and he hated leaving the comfort and familiarity of the interstate. On the interstate, he knew where he was and he knew where he was headed. But once he got off the interstate, it was anybody’s guess where the fuck he’d end up. It was every man for himself out there.
But he needed gas and there wasn’t a highway rest stop for another 25 miles, so he put his blinker on and drifted into the exit lane, easing his foot down onto the brake as the cruise control clicked off. The tall trees lining the highway as a dark green blur began to come into focus as he slowed, imposing and menacing, looking down over his car like sentinels.
As the exit curved around and doubled back over the interstate, he came to a three-way intersection with two arrows pointing in opposite directions. Teddy took a left towards the gas station and the smooth paved road abruptly gave way to uneven gravel and sharp, jagged rocks. He slowed the car to a near-crawl and gripped the steering wheel tightly as he maneuvered around deep potholes and pulled the car into an old run-down gas station.
There were four pumps, all in use except for one. The cars at the other three pumps sat idly, gas nozzles still sticking out of their tanks and a fine layer of dust covering their front and rear windshields. One of them, a pristine ’72 Chevelle, had three flat tires, giving it a tired and drunken lean.
Four older cars sat in a line outside of a small, nondescript convenience store, which flickered with dim fluorescent light. Teddy pulled up to the only empty pump and shut the engine off, opening the door and gingerly emerging from the car, with one hand still gripping the steering wheel.
After briefly looking around, he closed the door behind him and stuffed his keys into his front left pocket, and headed towards the store.
Inside, a tiny radio that sounded like it was on its last dying breath was blaring a Hank Williams song. The counter was completely bare save for a bell and an old cash register. Behind the counter was a wall full of old packs of Marlboro and Lucky Strike cigarettes.
Teddy reached over and rang the bell once then waited a few seconds. But there was no answer as the Hank Williams song was nearing its end.
He was beginning to grow impatient and began to notice how exhausted he had become. He turned around and walked out of the store, back towards his car. The sky was turning a lighter shade of blue around the trees edges as night started to give way to the morning.
Teddy got into his car and turned the key in the ignition.
Click click click click.
Fear crept into his limbs and he felt a tingle of adrenaline that sent a jolt through his body, instantly awakening him. He gripped the keys with his hand and turned again.
Click click click click.
“You have got to be fucking shitting me,” he muttered to himself before slamming both fists down on the steering wheel in frustration.
There was nothing but silence. Suddenly glad he was too lazy to cancel the AAA membership he’d been meaning to since January, Teddy reached into his pocket and dug out his cell phone. The screen lit up, but his heart sank again when he saw the devastating “No Service” alert in the top left corner.
He opened the car door again, this time not bothering to take the keys out of the ignition. Back in the store, the Hank Williams song had ended and now all Teddy could hear was the faint sound of machinery from a room in the far back corner of the store.
The snarling scream of metal against metal and the unmistakable grinding sound of gears clinking and clanging against each other was digging into his head and jamming up right behind his eyeballs like razor blades.
Behind the counter was an old red rotary phone with a small rectangular piece of paper taped to the side. On it, in smeared blue pen, the words “OUTSIDE CALLS” were scribbled haphazardly.
Teddy picked up the phone and put it to his ear, breathing a deep sigh of relief when he heard the familiar dial tone. He opened his wallet and pulled out his AAA membership card to read the phone number. He turned each digit slowly, making sure to get the number right. He’d used a rotary phone maybe once in his life; until this moment, the experience had seemed about as useful as a VCR or telegraph.
After he dialed the last number, he waited for what seemed like an eternity. A female voice with a soft Southern accent came on the line: “The number you’ve dialed is not in service, please dial 0 for operator assistance.”
Thinking that he may have spun one of the numbers incorrectly, he redialed – this time even slower, but the result was the same.
He thought momentarily about dialing 9-1-1, but then thought that this probably wouldn’t be considered an emergency. Instead, he dialed 0 and waited for the operator.
After a few moments, a woman with a gravelly voice which suggested years of heavy smoking came on the line.
“Operator, how may I help you?”
“Hi, my car broke down and I’m wondering if you have the number for a nearby tow truck service.”
“Sure sir, may I ask where you’re located?”
“I’m at a gas station right off of exit 151 on I-85 just north of Athens. The sign says it’s open and all of the lights are on, but nobody is here.”
There was a pause on the other end of the line and Teddy could hear her say something to another person in the room, but he couldn’t quite make out what it was.
“I’m sorry sir, but could you repeat your location?”
“Exit 151. Interstate 85 in Georgia. North of Athens.”
“I’m sorry sir, but you must be mistaken, that exit number doesn’t exist on Interstate 85. Are you sure you have the right number?”
He tried to picture the sign that he’d seen on the side of the interstate just before he pulled off the exit. He dug as deep as he could into his lagging, road-weary mind and the number 151 was all he could come up with. That had to be it. But how?
“Sir, are you still on the line? Please make sure that door stays closed. Do you hear me? Whatever you do, make sure you don’t open that door. I hear something in the background and it sounds like it’s coming from the room behind–” then the line went dead.
The last word she spoke rang out like a gunshot in Teddy’s skull and continued to rattle around as he tried to process exactly what she just said. At first, he thought he may have misheard or, maybe she misunderstood what he was talking about.
Without saying another word, Teddy placed the phone back in its cradle and slowly backed away from it. The sound from the room in the back of the store was beginning to get louder, and the door that was closed before now stood wide open, giving way to complete darkness that lay beyond it.
The noise was what Teddy imagined a jet engine would sound like if someone threw a bag full of knives into it. He took three steps towards the door and stopped. With every step he took, the sound seemed to get louder and more menacing. It filled his head completely until there was no room left for anything else, even his thoughts.
He found that half of him was wishing he’d never left the interstate and the comfort and security of those white lines that stretched on forever. The other half was pulling him towards that open door though. Suddenly, he found himself being drawn to the chaos that awaited him on the other side of that threshold.
Soon, he was standing in the doorway staring down the blackness that stretched out before him. He felt a change in the air around him — it was thicker and more humid, like a wet blanket had been draped over him.
Something else had changed too. The sound was now more primal. The gnashing of razor sharp teeth and the sound of blood-curdling screams; human screams. It was clear that whatever or whoever was in that room wanted him inside.
So he went.
He closed his eyes and stepped into the doorway, feeling the darkness envelope him on all sides. He continued on slowly towards the sound that now felt like it was directly in front of him.
A sudden sense of calm, amidst the ear-rattling sound of teeth and metal and tearing flesh, washed over him as he took another step. It was all so clear to him now; this was where he belonged. When he opened his eyes again, he turned around to look at the doorway behind him.
In the vacant store that he had just been in alone only moments ago, the bright fluorescent lights bounced off of the gleaming white counters and tile floors.
Outside it was daytime. Inside, a crowd of people stood in front of the door, staring back at Teddy. They were screaming, but their mouths were closed, their faces expressionless.
Or maybe it was him that was doing the screaming. He couldn’t tell.
He figured he should flash them a smile anyway, let them know that everything was okay. He thought it was the polite thing to do.
Then came the teeth.
For more from Rob…