Another Texas-themed horror story. Spoilers for Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
It’s a flash and a thump-thump and a high-pitched scream, then nothing.
A moment later, the car is at rest, headlights illuminating the empty road. The steering wheel lets out a squeak as she releases it. She puts the car in park, takes her foot off the brake, breathes in and out several times, and looks in the rear view mirror.
Back on the road a whitish heap gleams faintly. She steps on the brake again, and the heap reddens.
She takes her foot off the brake quickly.
It’s a dog, or it’s a deer—do they make white deer? She laughs, or maybe it’s not laughter. She steadies her breathing and opens the door without shutting off the engine. The Nissan Maxima starts up a series of concerned, repetitive noises. Ding. Ding. Ding.
As she steps out of the car, she thinks of her big, yellowish-white dog, Ginger, the one she grew up with. Her parents had a hell of a time keeping Ginger out of the drainage ditch behind the house; Ginger would dig under any fence for the chance to chase squirrels through the brackish water, which drove her parents crazy, because a light-colored dog shows dirt immediately, and looks neglected and half-abused if you don’t give it a bath once a week. Then came Katrina, and their whole street became a drainage ditch, and even after her parents went back to the city they never found Ginger. Nobody from that part of town had their pets from before.
This train of thought runs ahead of her on the pavement like a dropped spool of thread, skittering to the right and left. She must be further away from the bundle on the road than she initially thought—by a hundred feet at least—which means that the object she saw in the mirror is larger than it first appeared. Larger than Ginger.
She pulls out her phone and turns on the flashlight app. A halo of whiteness flares out and she sees the girl that she has killed for the first time. Her name is Lauren.
* * * * *
Lauren is lying in a heap, face drained of color under the white phone light, head resting in a puddle of pale, red-soaked hair. Her blue eyes are open; there is no doubt that she is dead. The body—well, the fact that it still is more white than red, even if just barely, is a blessing for which she can hardly be expected to feel thankful. The phone light picks out a delicate tattoo on her left ankle, cursive letters, swirling vines.
Somewhere in the background: Ding. Ding. Ding.
She holds her phone close to her chest in a frozen, frantic embrace. Call 911, she has to call 911. How far is she from a hospital? She hasn’t seen anyone on the road for miles—well, it’s East Texas, or maybe western Louisiana, she’s not sure, and it’s the middle of the night, and it’s Christmas. Or it was, a few hours ago.
Christmas doesn’t mean much to her anymore, but it means a lot to her folks, and they were expecting her back in New Orleans for Christmas dinner, until finally she said on the phone, How about Boxing Day? I can come on Boxing Day, that’s the day after Christmas, and her mother said, I know when Boxing Day is. Since when do we celebrate Boxing Day? And she said, Since I want to be with Mark on Christmas, and he’s taking New Year’s off instead of Christmas this year, they have to pick. Her mother demanded, Why would he pick New Year’s instead of Christmas?, and she said, All the residents do, but that can’t really be true, because some of them must work on New Year’s.
So she packed up the Nissan and waited until midnight, and then when he came home he was too tired from working a twenty-four, and they had a fight, and he didn’t end up coming at all. He said, Can’t we just go in the morning, after I get some sleep? She said, You can treat a patient after you’ve been up forty-eight hours but you can’t sit in the passenger seat while I drive home for Christmas?
He walked into the bedroom without a word.
“Fine, I’ll go by myself. Hope the car doesn’t break down,” she said. He was already asleep.
If she hadn’t waited for Mark, she could have left early that morning and gotten to her parents’ in time for dinner. If she hadn’t waited for him, she would have been more alert on the road. If she hadn’t waited for him, Lauren wouldn’t have come streaking out of the woods at the precise time when she was between podcasts, trying to think of something exciting to put on next, something that would help her stay awake—as if, while she waited all that time for Mark to come home, Lauren had been waiting for her.
Her fingers hover over the number screen. It’s too late for an ambulance anyway. Who do you call when someone is just—?
She looks at her speed dial. Mark is at the top, but no doubt he’s so deep in sleep that there will be no waking him. Once when they were dating, she accused him of turning his ringer off at night, but after they moved in she saw firsthand that after a twenty-four, he was dead to the world. Besides, he’s four hours away from her, highway-wise.
Then there are her parents, also four hours away. She looks at the body. It doesn’t belong in the same universe with the words “Boxing Day.” Besides, what can they do? What can anyone do?
Who do you call when you’ve just killed someone?
She could get back in the car and drive away. No one is on the road. It wasn’t her fault. She didn’t even have a second to react; the woods are so dense, there’s hardly any shoulder, the woman hurdled out so fast, and she couldn’t have been going that far above the speed limit, because the brakes didn’t squeal. The seat belt didn’t even lock up over her chest.
The tattoo wraps all the way around Lauren’s ankle, a slightly more adventurous tattoo than most girls get in college. Probably more painful, too.
* * * * *
Suddenly she realizes that Lauren is completely naked. Minutes ago, when she was still hoping that Lauren was a deer or a dog, that almost made sense, rendered the situation more—not normal, but bearable—almost natural. As if she were just another type of animal that ran through the woods at night. Now she can’t believe that she is only just now realizing how upsetting it is to encounter a girl running naked through the forest in the middle of the night with nothing to identify her but a tattoo on her ankle.
She dials 911.
The signal flickers and the voice saying, “911, what is your emergency?” breaks up a few times.
“There’s been an accident,” she says, but it comes out silent. She tries again: “I’m in a car and I hit someone. She’s on the ground.”
“Okay.” The woman on the line sounds unphased. “Where are you?”
“I’m—I don’t know where I am. I’m on the road, I’m on I-10, I’m think I’m still in Texas. I’m driving from Austin to New Orleans. For Christmas.”
“Do you have GPS in your car?”
“How about your phone?”
“Can you use it to give me a little more detail?”
She fumbles, fumbles, and it takes an eternity but she ascertains, and tells the dispatcher, that she is almost exactly halfway between Vidor and Orange.
“I’m dispatching an ambulance. Is the person still breathing?”
This makes her jump. The woman’s voice seems so calm that she has become convinced, over the short duration of the phone call, that things are going to be more or less okay. It seems backward, now, to ask this question.
“She has a tattoo on her ankle. I think her name is Lauren.”
“Is she breathing?” the woman repeats.
“I don’t think so.”
There’s the shortest of pauses. “Okay. Stay there. Someone will be there shortly.”
“Fifteen minutes at the most. Possibly sooner. Pull over, sit in your car, lock the doors, and keep your headlights on so they can see you, okay? And keep the engine running, so you don’t run your battery down.”
When she hangs up she thinks, Lock the doors.
She turns her back on Lauren and begins to walk toward the Nissan Maxima. It’s a long walk. The brakes didn’t squeal, the seatbelt didn’t lock. In the moment it happened, was she already thinking about driving away? She peers around the front and sees that her fender is dented, and there’s something splashed all over it that looks dark everywhere but in the headlights, where it glows the color of blood.
Back in the driver’s seat, she realizes the car door has been panicking in the background this whole time, ding ding ding, at a rate just a little slower than her own heartbeat. She is relieved to shut the door and end its anxious tedium.
The hard part is over now. All she has to do now is wait. Keep the car running so you don’t run down the battery. And so you can get away in a hurry if you need to. And lock the doors.
She wonders, suddenly, if the dispatcher wondered what Lauren was running away from. No, she didn’t give enough details for the dispatcher to have wondered that.
She pictures a party in the woods. A camp-out. Sleeping bags, forties, joints. A bet, a dare, a prank in the middle of the night. She pictures Lauren’s friends stumbling out of the woods, stoned and laughing, just a few minutes from now. A boyfriend, a best friend, looking down at the body, screaming.
She tries to remember the exact moment before the crash, scanning her memory for a facial expression. Laughter, or something else? But all she remembers is a starfish of blond hair hanging in the dark, a white glare of shoulder and thigh. The girl must have been looking behind her. Looking the wrong way, as it turns out.
A date? Or—worse?
* * * * *
This is East Texas. To be honest—let’s be honest, why not, it’s the middle of the night and there’s a dead body back there on the road—she wanted to get through East Texas fast, and she wanted to get through it in the dark.
She makes this trip a couple times a year. If Mark is with her in the car, it’s a toss-up whether the cops will pull her over; if she’s alone, it’s a sure thing. An hour of standing by the roadside while some cop from Vidor or Orange asks the black girl strange questions, question that are just slightly off, so that when she hesitates for a minute, nervous or confused, he can search her car, call for backup, keep her there for another hour at least. Mark tells her, and it must be confessed that he repeats it at parties for their friends’ benefit, that she should put a slip of paper in the Nissan’s glove compartment, “Nope, still don’t have anything illegal in here, thanks for asking,” and she laughs every time, because you have to laugh, but when someone says, “You should totally do that!”, she just looks at the speaker with a deep sense of shaming or having been shamed. She has long since stopped trying to distinguish the two.
She glances at Lauren in the rearview mirror again and thinks about what it’s like to live in Vidor, in Orange. She feels sorry for whatever Lauren had to endure just before her death. Lauren, she knows deep down, wasn’t running from friends.
Ultimately, to her, East Texas at night doesn’t seem any more dangerous than East Texas by day. But it was for Lauren. Darkness killed Lauren, whether you blame a late-night party or an abusive boyfriend or a bunch of good old boys lying in wait for her in a clearing or the poor visibility on this stretch of I-10 at night or the fact that there are some people who have to drive through East Texas who might feel thankful for the poor visibility.
But no one will blame the darkness, or any of those other things.
The car is still on. All she has to do is take it out of park and hit the gas.
There’s an image in her mind that has been there all along. It’s the final sequence from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which she watched at the theater near campus back when the remake came out, and they were playing the new one and the original back to back. It was her freshman year at UT, and this one guy she was dating said, “If you’re going to live in Texas, you have to see the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” and although in general she hated horror movies she went along with it, because she was still into impressing those stoner guys who grew up in Austin and liked horror movies.
Almost all she remembers from the movie is that final sequence, where the girl runs through the woods, all covered with blood, that eternal chase scene with its eternal scream. The actress was chosen for her ability to scream endlessly, piercingly, seemingly on loop—or that’s what the guy told her anyway. What was she running away from again? She remembered the guy whispering gleefully in her ear, leatherface, grandpa, the patriarch—he was a gleeful movie whisperer—but she could only remember that whatever it was, she thought it was pretty silly. The really scary thing was the girl herself, the way she ran and screamed and screamed and ran.
When the screaming girl popped out onto a road, and the eighteen-wheeler drove up and the tall, black truck driver climbed out, he whispered, You know my friend Jack, we ran into him the other day on the Drag? That’s Jack’s dad.
He looks like my dad, she didn’t whisper back.
Jack’s dad slows the Leatherface down just long enough for the girl to clamber into somebody else’s truck and escape. You don’t really see what happens to Jack’s dad after that. In the credits, he is listed as “Cattle Truck Driver.”
The paramedics are still at least eight minutes away, and, it occurs to her now, she has fatally flubbed her role in this train of events. She was supposed to drive up just as Lauren was running out of the woods, she was supposed to throw open the car door and let Lauren clamber inside the Nissan Maxima just as Leatherface was coming out of the woods after her, and then peel off.
But then, Jack’s dad doesn’t actually save the girl. She’s pretty sure he gets chainsawed.
She turns off her headlights. Now it’s completely dark. She turns off the engine. Now it’s completely quiet.
* * * * *
You are going to get me killed, she silently tells the white girl. But that doesn’t make sense, because she is the one who killed Lauren.
When the levees broke, she watched the news for four hours straight. Her sister called her from her car, inching along the highway toward Houston. Her parents didn’t have a cell phone yet, so she had to trust her sister that they had gotten out in time and weren’t huddled under dirty blankets in the Superdome or bobbing down the street in the sinking bed of a neighbor’s pickup truck. Her sister turned out to be right about this, but Ginger the dog wasn’t so lucky, and lots of people weren’t either. You heard stories.
Christmas doesn’t mean much to her anymore, but she was raised in the church. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” she tries out loud, but softly. “I will fear no evil, for thou are with me. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”
She wishes she had a rod, a staff. Something like Jack’s dad had in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That would comfort her. She doesn’t keep anything like that in the car. Because of the frequent searches, she keeps it spotless, nothing but an up-to-date registration, inspection report, and a suitcase in the trunk.
In the trunk. Under the spare. The tire-iron.
She’ll have to start the car, move it to the shoulder, get out, open the trunk, remove her suitcase, pull up the carpet, unscrew the spare, put it on the pavement, and reach underneath it. It will take a long time to do all these things, and the whole time the dead girl will be behind her, and beside her, tapping at her shoulder, the evil-looking trees.
“Deliver us from evil,” she says, but that’s from a different prayer: Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. If there were ever a mantra for a named character, that is it: Lead us not into temptation. Lead us not into tattoo parlors to deface our white skin. Lead us not into clearings at night. Lead us not into the dark woods alone to make out with our boyfriends. Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil; deliver us, like letters, to our long-lost friends. Deliver us like babies, screaming and naked and covered with blood.
It’s too late for Lauren. But she’s still alive, and no more afraid of the dark than she is of the day. She will pull the car over, she will get the tire iron from the trunk, and she will wait for whatever comes out of the woods or down the highway. She will be the final girl.