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1st Place: The Easy Way

This is our 1st Place Winner for our 1st Annual Horror Writing Contest.

THE EASY WAY

By Matthew Weber

What happened makes no sense to me, even today as I look back years later. But one thing’s for sure—I wish I’d never listened to that toothless man at the gas station.

I was already second-guessing my decision to take the short cut, when my wife Allison lodged a complaint: “This bites.”

She was right. To end the tedium of the long drive, I had taken the advice of the station attendant some fifty miles back who suggested the alternate route would be “easier.”

“Easier? As in, more scenic? A nicer drive?” I asked the grubby attendant. He had suggested the byway after I casually mentioned my state of utter boredom.

“Well, it’s easier,” he had repeated, squinting is eyes in the setting sun. “And a straighter shot if you’re headed to I-22.”

He was a wiry man, probably in his fifties, with a pockmarked face, a sunken mouth and grimy fingernails. I told him where we were headed—Ally’s parents’ house. I was neither enjoying the trip nor looking forward to the destination, but she was nine months pregnant and scheduled for induced labor with her longtime ob/gyn from back home.

The original route had been an hours-long stretch through the sparsely inhabited Southern countryside where the occasional gas station, church or mobile home was the only sign of settled civilization along miles of dead fields and evergreen forests. I was restless, so anything to break up the monotony, anything to make the drive “easier”, was a welcome prospect. Allison had been sleeping so I took the turn onto the unmarked road without consulting her. She kept reminding me of this once she woke up.

“Good plan,” she chided. “We’re really out in the sticks. I haven’t seen another human in about an hour.” Her complaints were not helping matters, but I understood the frustration. She was
pregnant and, as I had discovered over the last few months, this meant she was temperamental.
Admittedly, my short cut was not very short, and the winding turns it took through the countryside impeded my cruising speed. I had to lay off the throttle so as not to fly off an embankment, which slowed our trip even further. And there was nothing whatsoever easy about the drive. The road was pitted and crumbling. Every dozen miles I spotted the ruins of an old barn or house, but it seemed that the route had long been abandoned, the relic of another time before a larger thoroughfare had lured away traffic and development. I had not seen another vehicle since I had taken the turn. I checked the smart phone for our sat nav coordinates, but we had left the coverage area and all I got was a prompt that the phone was perpetually searching, never finding a signal.

In the deep of night only the car’s headlights cut through the otherwise impenetrable darkness,  with no sign of street lights or evidence that any had ever existed. A creeping sense of isolation
began to worry me as the road narrowed and swung around a mountainside. The remote surroundings were closing in, and I felt stupid for endangering my family.

Amazingly, the blind turn opened into a clearing at a ramshackle motel in a small unpaved parking lot. The building was built from red brick and crumbling mortar and appeared to have four small boarding rooms, plus a tiny office housed in the short leg of its L-shaped structure.
The lot was illuminated by a flickering, humming neon sign, which boasted in electric red letters: “Easy Way Inn”

“We’re not staying here,” said Allison.

I pointed to a hand-painted sign beneath the neon. It warned: Last Lodging for 40 miles.

“Baby, it’s pitch black out here. Really hard to see. I’ll keep driving if you want, but it might be safer to pick it up in the morning.” I didn’t like to complain, but I was exhausted. That, coupled with my lousy eyesight, was a dangerous mix. I had undergone corrective vision surgery years ago, and although I was able to ditch my glasses afterward, I had suffered the side effect of poor night vision. It was hard for me to discern detail and contrast in the dark. I saw objects in the nighttime with bright, starry haloes that could be extremely disorienting when behind the wheel. I did not want to risk an auto accident in the middle of nowhere with such precious cargo on board.

She begrudgingly agreed to stay. I ventured inside to book a room. The man behind the desk had no teeth, appeared to be in his fifties, had pockmarked skin and a greasy t-shirt. He was not the same man from the gas station, which would have been impossible, but I would have bet a
small fortune that they were brothers.

The man belched when he saw me, then asked, “Can I help ya?”

“Hi,” I greeted. “We’d like a room. The cleanest, nicest one you have available, please.”

The clerk said nothing for a moment, just stared at me and rubbed his nose and sucked on his teeth. The Andy Griffith Show was playing in black-and-white behind him on a small TV. “Just you? Or you got company?” he asked.

I gestured to our car idling out front. “Just me and my wife.”

He had a noticeable reaction to the news of my wife. It was subtle, and I did not know how to read it, but when I mentioned she was with me his eyes lit up, and he leaned forward to peer out the window. The news excited him, which bothered me. But my lodging options were
limited.

“You got cash?” he croaked. “We only take cash.”

“How much?”

“Twenty bucks.”

At least it was cheap. I paid the man. He gave me a key from the rack beside his head and told me to take Room 3, just a few doors down.

“Do I need to sign anything? Check-in, make a copy of my driver’s license—anything like that?”

“No need,” said the man. “You’re on your own, though. I don’t stay here after midnight. I’ll be gone ‘til dawn. If you leave before then, just drop the key on the counter.”

“You’re ditching us here—alone?”

“You need a babysitter?”

Allison and I dragged our luggage to the room, a dust-coated antiquity that appeared not to have hosted a guest in the last decade. The wall was adorned with a single print of an old man humbly praying over a loaf of bread. The rabbit-eared TV would not even power on, and the carpet smelled of mildew. A rickety window unit was the source of air conditioning, and a single dim bulb in the ceiling gave the room a faint amber glow. No other amenities existed.

We lay on the cold bed with its flat pillows. I endured Ally complaining about the  accommodations for a half hour, and then we both fell asleep.

“Who’s that standing in the doorway?”

Her words woke me up. I opened one eye to the blackness. I heard Allison breathing, felt little puffs of air on my shoulder where she had buried her face. The room felt foreign, and its thick darkness was only broken by the thinnest flecks of red light bleeding around the window drapes from the neon sign outside. I shut that eye again.

“What?” I grumbled.
“There’s a man at the bedroom door,” she said. Her voice had a tremble.

“No there’s not. Go back to sleep.”

I assumed she was dreaming. Allison’s nights had been restless lately. She talked in her sleep a lot, and a week earlier she had woke screaming from a dead slumber, terrified by some mysterious nightmare that she said she couldn’t remember. I chalked it up to pregnancy. Her
body’s frothing hormone cocktail was making her loopy, complete with mood swings that ranged from head-in-the-oven depression to spontaneous fits of the giggles. When it came to making babies, it was all part of the package. I took that into account, and since I had made sure to lock the deadbolt securely before bed, I buried my head in the pillow and told her to get some rest.

“Mike,” she whimpered. “I can see him standing right there.”

I pretended not to hear. I was dog tired so I chalked it up to another strange side effect of her body’s natural transition to motherhood.

She thought she saw something, I believed that much. But I did not believe that anyone was really there. “He’s right there…” she said.

Curled up next to me, I could feel her shaking all over.

“You okay, honey? Have the shivers or something?”

“THERE’S SOMEONE STANDING AT THE DOOR!” she shrieked like a clap
of thunder.

I leapt from the bed, heart racing, adrenalin spiking. I had never heard such terror in my wife’s voice. I swung my fists in the darkness, stumbling to the opposite wall. It had to be the weirdo
motel clerk, I thought. My eyes were glued to the door, fully believing her at this point—but I saw no one.

“HE’S STANDING RIGHT THERE!” she screamed.

I cursed myself for having been so stubborn, slapping at the wall in search of the light switch. I found nothing. The intruder had the upper hand. I was blind and unarmed. My wife was vulnerable, and I felt useless.

“Get out of our room!” I yelled. I hated my voice for sounding so scared and desperate. The stranger refused to advance. He did not move or reveal his position.

I was ready to rush the door. It was tactless, but I had to protect her. I lowered my shoulder just like back in college rugby practice, ready to spear the unseen intruder. That’s when I felt the plastic switchplate. When I hit it, yellow light flooded the room.

My wife was crouched in the center of the bed, clutching the sheets to her face. Her eyes were glassy and her lips were pulled back in a petrified grimace. Chills prickled over me at the sight.
There was no one at the door.

“He was there,” she whimpered in a weak voice. “I swear to God, Mike. He was standing right there.”

A tear rolled down her cheek. I wrapped my arms around her.

“I saw his teeth,” she said.

Teeth? I thought. The clerk had no teeth. I opened the door and peered into the parking lot. I saw nothing. No vehicles but our own.

Allison eventually calmed down. Her sobbing subsided, and soon the night went silent. We lay for hours in the stillness until she was able to get back to sleep, and even then she insisted I stay curled tightly against her. When she finally drifted off, I did as well, with my arm snug around her warm body.

When I awoke, the gray light of dawn was leaking into the room. The first thing I noticed was Allison’s skin. It was cold against mine. I moved my head, and my cheek peeled away from the sheets with a damp stickiness. I bolted upright and screamed louder and longer than I ever thought possible. I screamed at the blood-soaked corpse of my wife. I screamed at the inconceivability of what I saw. Her face was gone. Ally’s face had been eaten off as she lay in my arms. Her abdomen was a bloody hollow. I screamed and screamed at the sight of
all those teeth marks.

Finally I stumbled out of the room. The harsh sunlight hit my eyes like fire. I was still screaming when I burst into the motel office.

The greasy man sat behind the desk reading a newspaper. He lifted his eyes to mine.

“My wife!” I shrieked. “Oh god, my baby! What the hell happened to my wife!” My speech deteriorated into blubbering hysterics.

The motel clerk puffed on a cigarette and shrugged nonchalantly.

“Hey, don’t ask me,” he said. “I just work here.”

Courtney Mroch
Courtney Mroch, otherwise known as HJ's Ambassador of Dark and Paranormal Tourism, is an author, traveler, and ghost enthusiast. When she's not writing, jaunting, or planning her next trip, it's a safe bet you'll find her on a tennis court somewhere. She currently resides in Nashville, Tennessee.
http://www.courtneymroch.com

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