#5 of ten short stories from my 2015 self-published horror anthology, Random Number Hotline.
“I don’t think I’ve seen a building for over two hours now. You can’t say we’re not lost, look at this place!”
Jon Hart glanced at his wife in the seat next to him, one eye still on the road ahead. Penny hadn’t stopped with this talk for miles now, although he had to admit she did have a point. The road they drove down had no distinguishing features whatsoever. No trees, no buildings, no signs of life at all. The desolate landscape continued for as far as Jon could see.
Penny sighed, the drawn-out, exaggerated sigh she always did whenever something bothered her. Jon remained silent. “Are you gonna turn around? This isn’t the right way.”
“Honey, I’m telling you this is the right way,” Jon said, exasperated. Penny reached forward and opened the glove box. She pulled out the old travel map they had been using to guide them across this unfamiliar corner of the countryside. Its edges were tattered and the color had long since faded, but the general layout of the roads and towns could still be seen, if you looked hard enough.
She spread the map out on her lap and ran a finger along the last road she knew for a fact they had been down. “You see? We were on the Stanley bypass, then we turned off at Bismarch and now we’re…where exactly? I can’t see a single road on this map which matches this one at all. This road is dead straight, and has been for miles. Every other road twists and turns all over the damn place, but not this one. I don’t think we’re even on this map anymore.”
Jon took a brief glance at the map as the car began a slow climb up a hill. Although he hated to admit it, she was right, as usual. There wasn’t a straight road on the map anywhere which could be this one. The map covered a large area too. Maybe the road hadn’t existed when this map was made, or it had somehow faded away more than the rest of the map had.
Penny stared at Jon, waiting for a reply. The car reached the crest of the hill and started its smooth descent down the opposite side. Jon sighed.
“Alright, fine, I’ll pull over at—”
The car shuddered from the sixty mile an hour impact and sent the vehicle into a wild spin. Penny screamed as Jon swore and wrestled with the wheel as the car lurched down the hill. The tires shrieked as the car slid across the road, throwing up a cloud of dust in its wake, following it down to the bottom of the hill where it came to an eventual grinding halt. The ordeal was over as fast as it had started, the vehicle’s occupants shaken but uninjured.
“Oh my God, you hit something Jon, you hit something!”
“No, really? I couldn’t tell, I was too busy trying to keep the damn car on the road!” Jon snapped. He exhaled and took his shaky hands off the wheel. They undid their seat belts, but Jon placed a hand on his wife’s leg. “You stay here. I’m gonna go see what the hell that was.”
Penny nodded, still nervous and jumpy from their near-death experience. She knew if Jon hadn’t maintained control during their tumble downhill and the car had rolled, they would have been dead by the time they hit the bottom.
Jon opened the door and stepped outside, the dust still settling from the car’s abrupt stop. He moved around to the front of the car and peered underneath, relieved and irritated at what lay underneath.
“It’s okay honey, it’s not alive!”
“What?” Penny’s eyed widened. “That’s horrible! Why would you be happy about that? It used to be alive before you went and hit it!”
“Huh? No, I don’t mean it’s dead, just…come out and take a look,” Jon said, rubbing his temple. She joined him in front of the car, which lay perpendicular to the road. Jon pointed at the wheels.
“Look under there,” he said. “Don’t worry, it’s not an animal or anything. Think it would’ve been better if it was though.” Penny peered underneath the bonnet and exhaled when she saw it, relieved. It definitely wasn’t an animal, far from it. The car’s wheels appeared to be wrapped up in what looked like a bundle of wire. On closer inspection she noticed it was barbed wire, the needle-like prongs sticking out of the tires at hundreds of awkward angles.
“What kind of fucking idiot would leave something like this lying out in the middle of the road?” Jon muttered, the venom in his tone evident. “Jesus Christ.” He took another look at the mess underneath the car while Penny watched. He wiped the sweat dribbling down his forehead off onto his sleeve. It was hot and humid out here, despite almost being dusk. The situation wasn’t looking good.
“Can you pull it out?” Penny asked. Jon knelt down and reached around the barbed wire before giving it a careful tug.
“Ow!” He jerked away from the wire, clutching his hand in pain. Lesson learned, he inspected both front tires for a moment, poking his head underneath the car to get a better look at the damage. He stood up again, a grim look on his face. “That’s not coming off any time soon. It’s right up in the axles, and even if I managed to get it all out, the tires are gonna be full of holes. I’ll only end up shredding them if I try to get the wire out.”
“So we’re just stuck here then?” Penny reached into the pocket of her jeans, pulled out her phone and tried to make a call. A moment later she stuffed the phone back into her pocket and kicked the front tire in disgust.
“No signal…of course there’s no signal.”
Jon tried his phone too, but got the same result.
“What the hell do we do now?”
“Well, I guess we better start walking,” Jon said. “This road has to have someone living on it, why else would there be one way the hell out here in the first place?”
“You do know not every road in the world has to have someone living on it, right?”
Jon ignored her. He reached into the rear car window and pulled out their backpacks, both still loaded with food and water left over from their trip. It wouldn’t last forever, but it had to do. Penny took her bag and hoisted it over her shoulders, as Jon did the same. They hadn’t taken two steps when Jon stopped mid-stride, causing Penny to crash into his back.
“Hey! What the hell—” Penny cut herself off when she noticed what Jon had seen. It sat there on the edge of the horizon, far away but still well within walking distance. A farmstead, complete with a barn, fenced off fields and most importantly, a house.
“How didn’t we see that before?” Jon murmured. He squinted through the sun and tried to get a better look at the distant farm. There didn’t appear to be any activity visible from here, but it was their only hope. Penny breathed a heavy sigh of relief.
“Oh thank God, there’s actually someone living out here.”
“What were you saying just now, about not every road having someone living on it?” Jon grinned at his wife, who returned his sarcasm with an icy glare. Penny checked her watch and looked up at the sun.
“We better start walking, it’s getting late. I don’t like the idea of spending the night out here.” With that, they started towards the farmstead. It wouldn’t be a short trip, but if it meant people, or at least tools to cut the car free of its barbed wire snare, Jon didn’t care.
A short, waist high fence surrounded the property, the wood cracked and the paint faded. If people still lived here, they mustn’t have been too concerned with maintaining the place. It was a mess.
Penny glanced over the fence, inspecting the place as she and Jon stood before the gate, or what remained of it. The hinges had long since rusted off and the door sat propped up against the fence, sitting in a pile of coarse sand.
“This place looks terrible,” Jon said. “It doesn’t look like anyone’s lived here for a while. Could still be tools or something left though.” Penny followed Jon into the property, hanging a few steps behind him.
“I don’t like this place. It smells awful. And where are the animals?”
“It’s a farm, honey. You expect it to smell like flowers and perfume?”
Jon had to agree with her though. Even for a farm, especially one with no animals, it smelled musty, rotten and decayed. If anyone still lived here, they would have noticed the two strangers on their front door by now. The place was abandoned, without a doubt. Penny groaned.
“Great. What now?”
Jon thought for a moment. “I’m sure whoever used to live here wouldn’t mind if we borrowed any tools they’ve left behind. I’m sure they’d understand. And look.” He pointed at something near the farm house, next to the left wall. “A car. Hasn’t been used for ages, but we might be able to get it up and running if we can’t fix ours. We’ll just have a quick look around at least, then leave. How’s that sound?”
Penny didn’t acknowledge Jon’s plan, just nervously peered behind them. Her expression said it all; she didn’t want to stay here for another second.
“Okay. Sure. Whatever. But I’m not splitting up to go look for them on my own, and don’t even try to convince me that’s a good idea.”
Jon smiled. “That’s my girl. The barn should have tools somewhere, let’s go check it out.” They headed over to the closed twin doors, which Jon pushed open. Complete darkness greeted them, the interior of the building masked from view. Penny took one look inside and backed away. Jon pulled out his keys and flicked on a tiny keychain flashlight. It wasn’t much, but any light would be an improvement.
“Yeah, I am not going in there,” Penny said defiantly. “I’ll just wait out here. Don’t be long.” Jon shook his head and disappeared into the barn. Despite the flashlight, Jon couldn’t see a damn thing. He could already have passed the tools he was after and not known it. The darkness in here consumed everything. Jon changed tactics and put a hand to the wall, now feeling his way through the barn. As he reached the far ends of the barn, he jerked his hand away from the wall, shaking his hand.
“Ow! Shit!” He fumbled with his flashlight, trying to see what the hell he had touched.
“You okay?” Penny’s voice echoed from outside the barn. Jon glanced up from his finger.
“Yeah! I’m fine! Just pricked my goddamn finger again.” He lifted the flashlight up to the wall to see what had done it this time. “Huh?”
A bundle of barbed wire sat on a low shelf before him. It looked identical to the wire tangled up underneath his car. Jon followed the shelf along with the light and found several more rolls. They didn’t look like normal rolls of wire. Each one appeared modified, with a section attached to the start of the roll consisting of much larger barbs than the rest. Jon’s eyes narrowed. The entire shelf was packed with the things. Why did they have so many?
Out of curiosity, Jon carefully picked up one of the rolls and lay it out onto the ground like a carpet, the wire spreading out before him with ease. As he saw it set out like this, the wire’s true purpose began to dawn on him.
The long barbs at the front of the roll looked handmade, cobbled together from several smaller ones. They had been crudely affixed to the top of the roll. Each one was long, and made in a way which would make them difficult to remove from something they managed to get stuck into.
Like car tires.
Jon’s eyes widened. They were snares. Designed to get caught up in a car’s wheels and immobilize the vehicle, almost like police spike strips. For what purpose, he didn’t know, or want to know. Getting the hell out of here was the only thing that mattered to him now.
A loud crash behind Jon startled him. He spun around and pointed his flashlight ahead. Another shelf, also full of the barbed wire snares had collapsed, spilling them all over the ground.
Jon narrowed his eyes and sauntered over to the shelf. He had taken all of two steps when the barn echoed with the loud clanging of metal on metal again, somewhere else this time.
“Who’s there?” Jon called. He stepped towards the source of the second sound, holding his breath. As he stepped around the fallen snares, hurried footsteps in the dirt just behind him caught his attention.
The sound of the metal baseball bat striking Jon across the face echoed through the barn. It felled him in a single blow. Just what the attacker had hoped. The woman outside the barn had taken two blows to drop. Lucky she slipped into unconsciousness before she could call for help.
With the help of another unseen figure in the darkness of the barn, Jon’s hands and feet were bound tight with barbed wire, handled by his attackers with gloved hands. Together they dragged him back towards the barn doors, his keychain and flashlight left behind in the dirt.
A shrill scream roused Jon from his daze. His eyes fluttered open. For a split second he thought it was Penny, but it didn’t sound like her at all. Too high, childlike almost.
Someone dragged him along the ground, their footsteps clattering along the wooden floorboards. Both his wrists and feet throbbed in vicious, stinging pain. It was impossible to see, still stunned thanks to whoever had hit him back in the farm. He couldn’t see the person dragging him, out of Jon’s field of view from his position on the floor. But slowly, things around him began to come into focus. Jon’s eyes widened.
He had entered an absolute slaughterhouse. The stench overwhelmed Jon, a horrible mix of death and rotting flesh. Dried blood covered everything in sight, the floor he lay on, the walls, it was like nothing he could have ever imagined.
Jon groaned and wriggled weakly in an attempt to break free of his captors, but he knew it was useless. He craned his neck and tried to get a better view of the place.
Then he saw the kids.
A group of about ten or twelve children, all between eight and fifteen years old. All sorts of stains and dirt covered their clothing. Their faces were all but invisible underneath all the blood which splattered every inch of their bodies. Some of them looked as if their skin had been stripped off of several different sections of arms, leaving horrific red raw scars on their arms and legs.
Jon turned his head to one side, his head screaming in pain the entire time. Dragged alongside him by three of the older kids, her wrists and legs secured with barbed wire, was Penny. She was out cold.
Jon’s heart sank. He couldn’t even muster up the energy to call out to her. If anything, he wanted to pass out again.
He stared at the ground, his eyes half closed. He still couldn’t believe the amount of blood in here. A vision of the barbed wire snares flashed into his mind. The ones inside the barn, and the one still tangled up underneath their car.
We aren’t the first ones here, he realized. The snares in the barn had to be for catching the unwary traveler who happened to drive down this road. If they weren’t killed in the resulting accident, they would find their way here, the only hint of civilization around for miles, seeking help and instead find this.
Jon knew now coming here was the biggest mistake of their lives.
His captors dragged them past the lounge room, where they heard loud cries and yells from even more kids, playing and fighting on the ruined furniture. Jon saw several small bodies splayed across the ground, the children who had lost whatever vicious games were being played.
They passed the kitchen next, where Jon experienced the single most intense stench of his life. Corpses lay piled up in the corners of the room, with kids of all ages clambering over them. Some tore strips of flesh off the rotting bodies with ease and threw them into pans. They carried the pieces over to open fires built on the murky tiles and began to cook them. Jon caught a glimpse of an older kid with an old rusted knife, carving a portion off a small body retrieved fresh from the lounge room and handing it to another kid to prepare on the fire. It was absolute chaos.
Jon and Penny arrived at the final stop of their brief macabre tour of the house, a room which used to be a master bedroom. The mattresses had long since been torn apart and removed, with only the metal frames left in the room, rusted and covered with blood. A red toolbox lay on the ground, inside which Jon saw knives, screwdrivers, pliers, saws and all other manner of tools and instruments. Jon started to hyperventilate.
In the corner of the bedroom sat two skeletons, the bones picked clean. They sat there as if watching the horror unfold around them. Around them lay faded photos and a stack of wallets. It almost looked like a shrine of some kind. Jon looked at the scene in horror. Could these be the parents?
“No, please…” Jon pleaded as his captors dragged him up onto the bed frame and secured him in place with sheets tied around his already bound wrists and legs. Penny was slumped against the wall next to the skeletons, still unconscious.
One of Jon’s attackers stepped around in front of him, blocking out his view of Penny. She was a fifteen year old girl whose frayed brown hair hung down over the front of her face. In one thick, gloved hand she held a metal baseball bat, filthy from frequent use. She lay it down against the wall and reached into the toolbox on the floor, pulling out a long kitchen knife, the blade sharp and well maintained.
The girl stood by the bed next to Jon, staring at him through her wild hair. Jon struggled against his restraints, but they were tied tight. The wire only cut even further into his flesh. He wouldn’t be going anywhere soon. The girl took the knife in both hands and raised it high above her head in an almost sacrificial manner, and brought it down in a violent slashing—
“Wait! Stop! Please!” a shrill voice called from somewhere next to Jon, out of his view. For a second he thought it had been Penny, but he quickly saw this wasn’t the case. A tiny little girl, maybe six or seven years old appeared next to the older girl, who had to be her sister. Jon prayed as the little girl whispered into the older one’s ear. Part of him hoped maybe this girl didn’t want to see these two innocent people killed before her eyes. But when the older girl nodded and handed her the knife, all hope disappeared in an instant.
“No, no, no! What the fuck are you doing?” Jon said. The older girl stepped aside and allowed the little girl to stand in her place. She raised the knife above her head, almost in imitation of her older sister. The little girl smiled.
“Look!” she said in the most innocent squeak Jon had ever heard in his life. “My hands don’t shake anymore! They aren’t shaking! Aren’t you proud of me?”
The older sister smiled in approval. “Very good Eliza! Now stick him right here, just like I taught you.” She pointed at a spot on Jon’s chest, while Penny lay motionless against the wall with blood pouring out of a wound on her head, unable to do anything to get them out of this nightmare. As the knife pierced Jon’s heart, he felt thankful Penny hadn’t been conscious. She didn’t need to see any of this.