A flashing arrow was the first sign of life they had seen in over a hundred miles. The orange bulbs glowed in bright contrast to the moonless dark night. This desolate stretch of interstate across the Midwest was quickly becoming the worst part of their road trip. They had committed to following the infamous ‘Loneliest Road’ across the country this summer, before college started. They had hoped for adventure, but instead it had been an eternal run of forest and farm land, dotted with the occasional run down gas station. It had only been his turn to drive for a few hours and Jay was already exhausted. He flipped on the turn signal, more out of habit than necessity on the abandoned highway, and adjusted the car’s course as the arrow directed.
“Detour…” he mumbled, “for what?”
Looking past the sign, he could see no other indicators of construction. Still, he dutifully veered from the highway and onto the exit. Rolling to a stop at the empty intersection, he peered up and down both sides of the road for more signage, but found nothing in the darkness. Sighing, he unplugged his phone and held it up to the window, hoping for a signal. The X remained unwavering over his connection icon, just as it had been since they left the last deserted rest station.
“Elle, wake up.” He rubbed his girlfriend’s arm, rousing her from a drooly, snoring sleep. She sat up, her brown hair a tangled mass over dazed brown eyes.
“Wha – what’s wrong?” She looked from window to window and then at Jay. He felt guilty for waking her up, she had driven all day without incident while he slept.
“We’re lost,” he admitted, “and still no signal on the phones.”
Elle rubbed the sleep from her eyes and tried to stretch the discomfort from her cramped muscles. Car sleep was not good sleep.
“Well where are we now?”
Jay shrugged, “Dunno. Interstate was closed off with an arrow and a sign to detour. I don’t see anything else though.”
Elle, now fully awake, looked up and down the road. It was pitch black in both directions.
“Let’s go left? Drive for a few and if there’s nothing, we’ll come back and try the other way.”
Jay nodded, signaled, and turned.
They rode together in silence, looking for any signs of civilization along the pockmarked road, but saw only the occasional glare of an animal’s eyes from the overgrown ditch. Jay flipped the headlights on high. They cast an eerie glow through the tall rows of corn as they passed.
He tried to keep his tired eyes focused on the road, but Elle’s fidgeting in the passenger seat made it obvious she was growing increasingly nervous. He glanced at her. An object reflected in the headlights as it slammed into the windshield. Elle gripped the dash and screamed as he pressed his foot down hard on the brake. The tires squealed in protest as the car fish tailed before coming to a stop across both lanes. For a moment they were both completely still as they tried to catch their breath.
“What was that?” Jay asked, thoroughly shaken.
“I don’t know,” Elle’s voice cracked as she neared tears. She pressed her hands flat on either side of her face as if trying to hold herself together. “Go check?”
Jay furrowed his brow at the suggestion but then nodded. He released his grip on the steering wheel, turned on the emergency flashers and stepped into the humid Midwestern night.
In spite of the dampness the air was cool and Jay shivered as he stepped cautiously around to the rear of the car. He swept his phone’s flashlight from side to side. It didn’t take long before a glint on the shoulder a few feet away caught his eye. Elle leaned on the center console between the front seats of the car, staring through the rear windshield. He turned back to look at her, offered a less than confident wave, and then stepped toward the shoulder.
“Huh, that’s weird.” He mumbled as he knelt down to get a closer look at the object reflecting back in the light. It was certainly out of place along the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. Jay peered at it a moment before turning back to the car. Elle’s silhouette was no longer visible between the seats.
“Some lookout you are,” he said as he pulled the driver’s side door open. “I found it,” he plopped into his seat, “but can’t figure out how it flew across the–” Jay stopped. Elle was gone.
He leapt from the car and looked frantically up and down the road, his stomach knotted with anxiety.
“Elle?” He cried out into the night, “Elle!” but only the cicadas replied. He forced himself to heave a deep breath as he tried to shake off an impending panic attack. It was then that Jay heard the unmistakable rustle and crack as something moved through the field. His heart raced as his eyes followed the beam of the car’s headlights through the haze of dust motes drifting listlessly around the corn stalks.
“Jay!” Elle screamed from deep in the dark far beyond the headlight’s reach. The rough hands dragging her through the field had slipped just long enough for her to cry out. She kicked hard against the massive man, implementing every self defense tactic she knew, but it had no effect. He pulled her further away into the night.
Jay took off like a shot into the corn and toward the sound of Elle’s anguished scream. After only a few feet he was covered in spider’s webs and tiny stinging cuts from the sharp ribbon like leaves of the corn stalks slicing past him as he ran. The clods of dirt and uneven ground threatened to take him down at any moment, but Jay pressed on in a straightforward path through the field. Winded, he paused and tried to listen for Elle over the explosive drumming of his heart. The dark pressed in around him, filled with unfamiliar sounds made ominous by the night. For a moment he almost lost his nerve. Then he spotted it. A small, flickering light a few yards away. Carefully, Jay picked his way through the remainder of the crop toward the light’s source. As he neared it, the corn field gave way to the knee high grass of an overgrown yard, and just beyond, the sloping roof line of an unkempt house. At the door was a porch light that buzzed and flashed as if it were to go out at any moment, and plunge everything into the unforgiving night.
Within the house, Elle sat with her knees pulled to her chest in an empty room, on a splintered wood floor. Her body tensed in anticipation as the man who had dragged her here loomed over her. He leaned down inches from her face and threatened through yellowed broken teeth, “Don’t move.” To Elle’s horror and relief, he turned and left the room. This was her chance.
“Now!” she whispered forcefully, willing herself to action. She darted from the room into the dark narrow hallway and froze. Wisps of white robes were shuffling at the other end of the hall, passing by the door in which the man had brought her. Ducking back into the room, she peeked around the threshold. Several hooded men and women marched up the stairwell, candles in hand. They were chanting in low, rhythmic tones that made her shiver as the stairs cracked under their feet. Elle’s chest grew tight as terror flooded her and she didn’t dare breathe. The last of them ascended and it was now or never. She crept cautiously toward the door. The hinges let out a high pitched creak when she started to pull it open and she froze. From somewhere upstairs a scream echoed in a voice surprisingly similar to her own. It was the push she needed. Elle ripped the door open and lunged outside.
The night air rushed to greet her, punctuated by Jay’s eyes wide with surprise. He was crouched low in the grass just a few feet away.
“Elle?!” He asked, his voice loud. She looked in anticipation over her shoulder. Up the stairs, the low chanting could still be heard. She didn’t waste another second, “RUN!” she screeched and tore off toward the field. Jay didn’t stop to ask questions or look back and sprinted after her into the corn. The leaves snagged their clothes and slapped against them as they ran, leaving slivers in their skin. Jay and Elle didn’t slow until they broke through the last stalks and stumbled through the ditch onto the highway. The car, a few yards away, was just as they had left it with the engine running and headlights casting shadows in the corn. During their road trip, there were days when she had wished to never get in that car again. Now, she raced toward it with newfound appreciation.
“What happened?” Jay asked her once they were safely speeding toward the interstate.
“I got out of the car to try and find a signal on my phone. I only took a few steps, then he grabbed me and dragged me through the field.” Elle shuddered, her face streaked with tears as she relived the moment.
“Did you get a look at him?”
She shook her head and tried to remember. Everything felt blurred and out of focus.
“It’s alright, we’re safe now.” Jay rested his hand over the top of hers. His tone comforted her and for a moment she did feel safe. “We’ll get to the next town, find the cops, it will be OK.”
She pulled her hand away in frustration, her mind suddenly clearing. Elle turned in the seat to face him, “No, we have to go back, Jay. It was more than just that man.”
Jay slowed as they approached the interstate ramp and she continued, “They were doing some kind of — ritual. They were chanting over and over.”
Jay signalled and turned onto the ramp, but his eyes were wide as he listened.
“He left me for just a second, so I ran for it. But…” she hesitated, “there was…was…” she choked on the words. The reality of their ordeal had begun to set in and she started hyperventilating.
Jay slowed on the ramp, just a few feet from the darkened interstate, “Elle calm down, what? What is it?” he asked, his face filled with renewed concern. She took a deep, shuddering breath.
“I think they had taken someone else. I heard her screaming just before I ran into you.” Her voice cracked and she began to sob again. “I couldn’t help her. I just ran.”
“I thought that was you — I was about to kick in the door.” Jay said as they pulled onto the interstate. “Elle, we can’t go back. The best we can do is find help, OK?” Elle sniffed so hard her throat squeaked and her body shook, but she nodded. She knew he was right. They couldn’t go back alone.
After a few miles, Elle leaned back in the seat. Her adrenaline had been running on high for so long, she could not fight the absolute exhaustion that was taking over. Eyes closed, she felt the car turn as it rounded a long bend in the road.
“What is it?” She asked as the car began to slow.
When Jay didn’t reply, she peered up at him. His wide eyes stared in disbelief out the windshield. Elle sat up. Just ahead was a flashing arrow and an illuminated sign marked ‘DETOUR.’