's 2018 Horror Write-off:

In The Dark

Submitted by Rahkshasarani

The hitchhiker tapped his fingers on the window. “So tell me about your folks. They live in Alameda long?”

The driver grunted, tongue pinned between his teeth. He squinted out the windshield. “It’s funny,” he said, “you ever think about a night like this?”

“What do you mean?”

“No moon. No stars. We should be able to see the whole milky way out here. But look.”

The hitchhiker rested his head on the glass. The sky was an unremarkable black, flat as a piece of construction paper. This stretch of highway held no street lamps; if not for the headlights illuminating a small section before and after the truck the road might as well have not existed.

“You ever drive a road like this? On a night like this?”

“Once.” The hitchhiker swirled his fingertips on the window glass. “A road trip to my grandpa’s funeral as a kid. I remember waking while we were in the middle of nowhere, forgetting I was in the car. I panicked. My mom had to keep the dome light on for me until we hit the next town. I felt so stupid and selfish...but at the same time I wasn’t sorry at all. I just woke up with my body sailing through the darkness. Never felt anything so wrong, before or since.”

The driver nodded. “I knew it. Had you pegged as a kindred spirit, that’s why I picked you up. Oh sure, they say anyone could be a killer, but to me there are some things scarier than anything human.”

He paused, taking a sip of black coffee. “See, I used to truck all over these United States, hauled for every brand you can imagine. I know what the road can do to a man’s mind. I’d get so thirsty for sleep I'd hallucinate. I’ve seen my share of phantom hitchhikers, mysterious lights, that kind of thing. But the very worst I've found is a road like this.” He waved out the windshield. “Cut off from the world. It does worse things to your mind than a heavy fog. All you can see is that dashed line ticking under your chassis. Hypnotic. You start to feel like maybe there’s nothing outside the truck, maybe the only thing making the road real is your headlights.”

The hitchhiker sucked air over his teeth. It took him a long time to arrive at what he had to say next, and when he spoke it was with many starts and stops. “This girl…” he paused, “I was crazy about her. I thought we were headed for marriage. So. One time we plan a trip up to the coastal redwoods—no tent, no food, no plan, we just threw things in the car and went—and I drove. We started out too late, it got dark fast. She got antsy. We were driving this winding cliff road and she wanted me to stop. Can you imagine? Right in the middle of all that. She started begging, telling me to find a spot to park but there was nothing. She started screaming at me to pull over, but I couldn’t stop. I had to keep on going. We were at complete odds. And the funny thing is...they were both for the same reason. I never realized it at the time. We were both scared of the same thing. I was frightened of stopping right in the middle of it, but she couldn’t bear to drive on through, at the mercy of all that dark. In the the end it broke us.” The hitchhiker swabbed his right eye. “We hardly talked that weekend. We were like strangers. Then I dropped her off at her apartment, and...that was it. From almost-married to strangers in a single night.” He stopped abruptly and looked out the window.

For a while neither of them spoke.

“Once,” the driver said, “I was pulling a 14-hour shift. Had just finished another one up. Stupid. I was young and convinced myself I needed the money. Loaded up on caffeine pills and coffee and tried to push on through it. I remember it was in the middle of a big flat, piece of land…” he trailed off and shook his head.

The hitchhiker prompted. “What happened?”

The driver tapped the wheel. “The headlights went out.”

Together they stared at the small conveyor belt of road that fed beneath the front of the car.

“It didn’t hit me too hard at first, but then I just kept going and going and it gradually dawned on me that I didn't know where the hell I was. Was I still on the road? Was I even going the right way? This was in the days before dashboard clocks were standard and my watch wasn’t working right, had no idea what the real time was or how long I was taking. You might have read when you get real tired your brain takes little whatsits, micro-naps. I started doing that. But I didn’t see it that way. I saw it as the dark closing in on the truck cabin. Then I'd jerk awake and see the lights of the dash, and then a few seconds later it would happen again. It was like dying over and over again.”

The hitchhiker realized he’d been holding his breath and let it out. “Did you crash?”

The driver shook his head. “Not that time. I just kept going, hurting myself to stay awake. Bit up the insides of my cheeks so bad they still feel rough.” He paused. “I could have pulled over.  Probably should have, could’ve killed someone in that state. But I wasn’t thinking with my brain anymore, I was thinking with my gut. And my gut feeling said it wasn’t safe to stop. Maybe I was only out there for a few hours, but it felt like forever.”

The hitchhiker pressed his cheek to the window. The glass misted up from the warmth of his skin. Nothing but blackness outside.

“How long have we been going this way?” he asked.

The driver started. “Maybe three-four hours. You have a phone?”

The hitchhiker held up a black screen. “Dead battery.”

“Mine’s in the glove box.”

He dug it out from insurance papers and road maps. The screen read 6:04.

“What time is sunrise this time of year?”

“Round five,” the driver said.

The hitchhiker gingerly replaced the phone and closed the glove box. “You sure?” he asked in a shaky voice.

The driver shook his head.

The truck rattled on.

“Well,” the driver said, “we’ll just have to keep on going, won’t we?”

The hitchhiker nodded. In the dim light of the truck cabin, he could barely pick out any of the driver’s features.

“I was just thinking,” he blurted. He stopped himself.

But the driver gestured. “You were thinking. Come on, finish it up.”

“I was just thinking...trying to think of daylight. It doesn’t seem real right now, does it?”

The driver exhaled. “You scooped the words right outta my brain. You ever been inside a cave?”

“Carlsbad twice. Went to Mercer but we didn’t get in.”

“So you know the drill. The tour guide shuts off the lamps and tells people they’re looking at absolute darkness. If you stayed in there like that, they say, you’ll start seeing things. Maybe you’ll see a set of stairs. Your brain will make light where there is no light because it can’t deal with the blackness. Well, sometimes on a night like this—I’m just saying this is what the dark does to a man’s mind—I start to think what if all the light we know is just our brains putting pictures on the dark. Maybe daylight isn’t real, just what you see when you can’t see anything.”

The headlights began to sputter. The driver swore, flicking the lever.

“What’s happening?” the hitchhiker dug his nails into the leather seat.

“Ah, it just happens sometimes. This old truck is—” the headlights flickered off. “—well, perfect. Just a perfect way to end a night.”

“Does it do that a lot?”

“Sure.” The driver put a reassuring hand on his passenger’s shoulder. “Old connections. Once they cool down they’ll snap back on. Twenty minutes sharp. I’ve timed ‘em myself.”

The hitchhiker relaxed slightly. “Let’s just hope we don’t see any stairs while we’re sitting here.”

They laughed, easing the tension in the cabin.

“Anyway, it’s not complete dark,” the driver said, “we’ve got the dash, and the dome light if you want.”

“Nah. Anyway I think that’s illegal in this state.” the hitchhiker fished a granola bar from his bag, offering one to the driver. “And who knows, maybe we’ll see the sunrise before long.”

The driver chuckled. “As long as we don’t spot any UFOs.”

“Seen any good ones?”

“They’re all the same, really. I'll see them start up on a hill and then they zip down to wherever I am. They’ll split just before they hit me, or whizz over my—”

As if on cue, a pair of lights crested a hill before them.

“Look at that!” the driver hooted as his passenger clapped.

“Here we go!”

The lights drew smoothly towards the truck, skating in a straight line as if pulled by a wire.

“What do you think,” the hitchhiker said as the lights grew closer, “you think it’s our brains making pictures because the headlights are gone? Or is it a real spacecraft?”

The driver smiled as the truck interior lit up. “Well, back when I was younger—”

The truck crashed into the oncoming vehicle, and that was the end of the conversation.