Night Terrors

 
Frances Sonnabend

It seemed odd to be going somewhere without Richard. For all of their 37 years of married life, Phyllis had never gone anywhere alone. Well, to the grocery store, or Christmas shopping, maybe. But never to a social gathering of any kind.

"I know, Richard," she murmured. "You wouldn't think it proper for me to go."

But she felt obligated to attend the Halloween party, the first social get-together the company had sponsored since she began working there. Left a widow at age 57, she considered herself very lucky to get a job to tide her over until social security kicked in.

She was dressed in a long white skirt and full-cut white blouse. On the seat next to her lay the accessories for her White Witch costume -- a white conical hat with an attached fringe of straw-colored hair, and a witch mask with a white face and smiling red mouth.

When she had tried the hat and mask on at home in front of the mirror, she had felt Richard's disapproval and had taken them off at once. She hoped her co-workers wouldn't think she looked ridiculous. She didn't think they would. They were very nice.

The white lines of the freeway unreeled, ever beckoning, in the glare of the Oldsmobile's headlights. Lulled by the hum of tires on smooth pavement, Phyllis felt drowsy. She had not slept well lately. Not since Richard had suffered that fatal heart attack on a cold moonless night in January.

Tonight was cold too, but a full moon shone. There were only a few cars on the usually busy freeway, nothing happening to keep her alert. She turned on the radio.

In theatrically ominous tones, an announcer invited one and all to visit a Halloween haunted house, where, he said, strange creatures dwelled. "Don't try to analyze them, don't try to understand them," he warned, his voice rising. "They are the Night Terrors and you can not escape them!" He ended the ad with a maniacal laugh. Phyllis turned the radio off.

Night Terrors. That's what her neighbor said Phyllis was experiencing, those nights when she woke in a feverish sweat, heart pounding, limbs thrashing and no lingering recollection of a bad dream. Phyllis would sit up and stare into the darkness, almost wishing Richard was still alive. Almost.

Surrounded by quiet again, Phyllis relaxed and did not realize she had fallen asleep until the rattle of gravel against the car's undercariage brought her fully awake. Startled, she jerked the car back into its lane and glanced into the sideview mirror. No cars within sight, thank God.

After a few moments, twin red dots appeared ahead of her; she was gaining rapidly on another car. She started to change lanes, then pulled back with a exclamation of surprise. The double yellow stripe indicated she was on a two way road. She puzzled about that for a moment -- could she possibly have turned off the freeway onto one of the county roads when she had fallen asleep for those few seconds?

She slowed the Olds and looked around. Palely lighted by the full moon, the landscape looked strange. She wasn't familiar with all of the county roads, but she knew most of them eventually wound their way back to I-5. The company party was at a restaurant ten or eleven miles away. Not totally committed to attending, let alone arriving on time, Phyllis decided to continue along the county road.

She had overtaken the car ahead of her, a battered 1960's era Chevy, with an oval gew-gaw hanging in the rear window. She paced the slow-moving car for a quarter mile, waiting for a straight piece of road where she could pass safely. When the pendant shape in the window moved and opened out into a small bat, she frowned.

Richard had always called her "the old bat" whenever he spoke of her to their friends. The first few times she had heard him, she had said nothing. Later, when she had asked him not to do it, he had just laughed. After that, she wouldn't let him see how much it hurt her feelings.

In the distance, beyond the Chev, she saw another pair of taillights, and presuming the road must be straight, she accelerated and pulled out around the old car. As she came abreast of it, she noticed the interior of the car was lighted, as if the dome light was on.

She glanced at the driver. A young man, blonde hair short cropped. Were crew cuts back in style? He gave her an annoyed look, but thankfully made no obscene gesture.

She came up fast on the car ahead and recognized it as a 1951 Plymouth. Classic and vintage cars had been Richard's hobby and through the years Phyllis had learned to know some of them, too. This car was in better repair than the Chevy. The driver had a similar bat ornament hanging in the rear window of his car. Some store must have had a Halloween special on the ugly things, Phyllis thought.

The road crossed an open area and she chanced passing the Plymouth. This car, too, was lighted inside. Puzzled about that, she glanced at the driver, and was startled to see a slightly older replica of the Chev's driver, a thirtyish man with thick blonde hair and straight brows.

There was no mistaking the anger in his glare. As she whipped past, she saw the bat fly at the rear window on the driver's side. For just an instant, she could see its eyes, pinpoints of light against its dark body.

"A live bat," Phyllis exclaimed aloud. "Why would anyone want one of those, even on Halloween?"

But something else about the old cars made her feel uneasy. The two men had looked vaguely familiar. Well, perhaps they were brothers and she had seen them at a car rally with Richard.

She was glad she wouldn't have to attend those rallies anymore. They had held no interest for her. Trailing along behind Richard from car to car in the sluicing rain, or buffeting wind or searing sun, and him silencing her with a hard glance if she offered a comment, even to one of the other women there.

The road took a sudden turn to the right. Unprepared, Phyllis fought for control, tires squealing as she brought the Olds around. She hadn't seen a sign indicating a curve, but knew her attention had been distracted. Abruptly, again without warning, the road curved left. Phyllis braked, and as she rounded the curve, came full upon a 1938 Studebaker. There was neither enough time nor distance to stop; she jerked the wheel to the left and slid past the old car.

A large bat raged against the window, its eyes bright with malevolence. The middle-aged driver's straight brows veed into a deep scowl, his mouth twisted into a snarl above a bushy beard. Years ago, Richard had worn a beard like that.

She gasped. It was Richard!

"No!" The word leapt from her lips and instinctively, she punched the accelerator. Then suddenly remembering the lack of road signs, she eased off. She pounded one hand against the steering wheel. "It wasn't Richard. It wasn't."

Guilt washed over her. The day of the funeral was still clear in her mind. She had watched the casket being lowered into the grave and felt a sense of relief. She wasn't glad that he was dead; she was just glad that she was free of him.

It was wrong of her to feel that way. She knew it. It was that, and the memories of Richard's hobby and those awful bats that had made her think the man looked like Richard.

The Studebaker was nicely refurbed; obviously, these men were members of a classic car club on their way to a Halloween party, just like she was. But why did they all look so angry? And why did they turn on the interior light just so she could see their hostility?

Oh, wait a minute. It was Halloween. Those men no doubt thought it was great fun to frighten people in passing cars. Phyllis smiled wanly. The bats were probably mechanical.

Even though she had rationalized away her anxiety, Phyllis decided she should get back to the freeway. The Olds swept past an unmarked intersection. She braked to a halt, and slammed the car into reverse. This road might take her back to I-5. She had no intention of back-tracking, passing those three cars again, giving them the opportunity to make her the butt of their jokes.

She saw the dim headlights of the Studebaker coming ever closer. Her sweat-dampened hands slipped on the steering wheel as she pulled her car around. The tires gritted on the roadside gravel, turned into place. The Olds shot down the road as the Studebaker growled past her rear bumper.

Phyllis wiped her hands one at a time on her skirt, and took a deep breath. Her eyes strained for road signs, farm house lights, any marks of civilization. Slowly, the realization came to her that as each car had been older and flashier than the one before, the driver had been more mature and more hostile, and the bat had been larger and more aggressive. A correlation?

Of course not, she scolded herself. I've already figured it out. It's just some weird people playing scary games. But why is it affecting me so?

Tears stung at her eyes.

Because my husband is dead, and I'm not mourning him properly. And it's Halloween and full moon. Why did I even venture out tonight? Richard said he would never let me go and if any night could be...

"No!" She reprimanded herself harshly. "I'm a grown woman. I don't believe in any of that garbage."

She needed some connection with normalcy, the sound of another human voice besides her own. She turned on the radio again. "Don't try to analyze them, don't try to understand them. They are the Night Terrors, and you can not escape them!" That stupid commercial! She snapped the radio off. But as if trapped in the car's sound system, the words echoed and re-echoed. Night Terrors...Night Terrors...Night Terrors.

The Olds crested a little knoll and immediately ahead, moving down the middle of the road, shining black in the moonlight, was a l920's Ford Model T. Panic engulfed Phyllis. She brought the Olds to a plunging halt. The front bumper nudged the ancient car.

The driver turned his head; she saw only a blurry outline through the steamy windows. But there was something else inside the car. A large dark something beating its wings furiously against the glass.

As the Model T moved away from her, the Olds' headlights showed a wide shoulder to the right. Heart pounding, Phyllis spun the wheel, punched the gas, and roared around the black vehicle. Something compelled her to glance back as she shot past. The windshield was clear. She saw the driver. He looked like Richard had, only a few years ago.

And the bat. In that flash of a second, she saw its fanged rodent head push through a partially-lowered window. Its eyes blazed; its barbed wings scratched arcs in the glass.

Weak with fright, Phyllis accelerated the Olds, not thinking about the unmarked hazards, wanting only to escape the terror behind her. She rounded a curve, tires screaming, and the headlights picked up a sign: I-5. Sobbing, she spun the wheel in the direction of the arrow.

As the car surged up the on-ramp, she saw the high hard wheels and the baby-buggy top of a turn-of-the-century Buick. She knew this vintage car did not have an enclosed passenger compartment. Without looking, she knew it would be driven by an old man. Knew what would be riding with him. She pressed her foot against the accelerator until it would go no farther.

* * * * *

The Aid car left, not hurrying, without need for flashing lights or siren. A state patrol trooper was directing one-way traffic over the bridge; the other southbound lane was blocked with wreckage. On the pavement, in the sweep of the patrol car's strobe lights, a crumpled Halloween mask shone blue-white, then rosy, its grinning lips alternating purple and blood red under the hooked witch nose. Another state trooper bent to examine what was left of the Oldsmobile.

Parked in a row outside the fog line were half a dozen vintage and classic cars. Two of their drivers, a teenage boy and an older man had walked back to talk with the trooper.

"She musta been on something," the boy said. "The way she passed me back there on the county road."

"Or else in an awful hurry to get to that party," the old man said. "When she came up behind me on the on-ramp, she gunned it and damm near got airborne. It's no wonder she hit the bridge. She was going like a bat outta Hell."

"Yeah," the trooper said. "Makes you wonder whatever possessed her." He reached through the broken window to touch the steering wheel, sighed, and absent-mindedly flicked aside a bit of fur.

 

 
 


Author Bio

Ms. Frances Sonnabend was born in Portland, Oregon, but she has lived most of her life in Washington state. She has been writing for as long as she can remember, including humerous epic poems for office parties/functions and humerous memo/reminders. She's only started submitting for publication in recent years.

Her hobbies are reading, writing, sightseeing, and photography. Her favorite fiction authors are Mary Stewart, Stephen R. Lawhead, Cary James, Janny Wurts and David Eddings. She also reads extensively in non-fiction areas concerning medieval times, especially anything about Great Britain.

She is a member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference and her short story/novel excerpts have placed in the top ten in their respective categories for five consecutive years in the PNWC contests.

 


 

 
 
 
"Night Terrors" Copyright © 1998 Frances Sonnabend. All rights reserved. Published by permission of the author.
 

This page last updated 10-11-98.

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