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The Shortcut

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The Shortcut

Post by IT`IO`IR`IQ`IU`IE on Sat Mar 26, 2011 5:21 am

by Jason Ryan Qualls
(Elkhart, Indiana, USA)
People ask me why I've changed. They say I'm too quiet, too withdrawn; some even say I've become a little strange.

Well, it's true, I have changed. Ever since that night last summer. . . .

It had been a perfect summer day. I had gone swimming with some kids from a nearby town, in a pond a few miles from my uncle's farm where I was staying for the summer. After some sunbathing, and some playful wrestling competitions, we had a picnic in the park. Before I realized, it was getting late sooner then I expected. The sky had started to grow dim with the twilight. The rest of the kids had already left for home. I had stayed behind to catch up on some reading on one of my favorite thriller series books, called Horror High by Nicholas Adams. I was the only one who had to ride the long way to my uncle's house alone. I raced my bike hard up the big hill outside town in the direction of the farm.

By the time I got to the crest, I had to stop. I was so exhausted that my legs trembled. I stood still on the top of the hill, alone on the road, with my bike leaning against me. I was too tired to go on, too tired to do anything but watch the setting sun turning the sky into a purplish-dark blue. Blood-red streaks shot out from it across the horizon.

I shuddered suddenly and felt a chill pass through my body. It seemed I was the only person alive in the world. This part of the country was remote and lonely, and I wasn't familiar with it. Looking down the hill, I saw where the road split into two forks. I had driven down this hill with my uncle several times before. He had taken the road to the right, which was hilly and went past farmhouses.

I knew it would be a long, hard ride to get home on that road. I remember my uncle had told me a ghastly story one day while we were driving down the right road, about what happened at one of those farmhouses on that road. My uncle told me that not long ago, a farmer named Charlie had gone insane after he caught his daughter with her boyfriend. It is said that his demonic ghost still roams these woods looking for kids who have gotten lost in them and those poor kids have never been seen again. I figured it was just a scary story to keep me from wandering too far from my uncle's farm alone.

When I had asked my uncle about the road to the left, he had said it was the shortcut. Then he had mumbled something about people never taking it. I couldn't remember exactly what he had said.

All around me, the color of the sky deepened to a purplish black. The last red rays of the sunset had faded from the horizon. I knew I had to get back to my uncle's farm as fast as I could.

I swung my leg over the bike and pushed off down the hill. When the road split ahead of me, I took the left turn . . . onto the shortcut. My bike shot down the old dirt road, raising a cloud of dust around me. In the dim light I could see that there were no other tracks on the ground. I started to put on the brakes, suddenly wishing I had taken the more familiar road. Soon I realized that I needed to relieve the captain. So I stopped and got off my bike. I walked over to the side, and I unzipped my pants and started to pee.

Suddenly, out of somewhere in the distance I heard a noise. It sounded like the buzzing of a saw. I didn't want to think more about it, so I hurriedly zipped up my pants and got back onto my bike to continue the long hard ride home to the farm. It wasn't long after that I realized that I had been steadily coasting downhill. To turn back would mean climbing uphill again.

I rode on, down the deserted road. Finally the ground leveled out, and I had to push hard on the pedals to keep up my speed. My legs ached, but I ignored the pain. I was flying down the road in almost total darkness now. The only light came from a thin moon that hung like a sickle in the black sky. Then even that light was blotted out by a cloud that moved across the moon.

At first I couldn't sense where the road was in front of me. But slowly my eyes, like a cat's grew used to seeing in the dark. I followed the road that stretched like a ghostly ribbon through the darkness on both sides. Suddenly the front wheel of my bike hit a hard bump. I struggled to keep it under control, gripping the handlebars so tightly that my hands ached. The clouds over the moon parted just then. Ahead of me, bathed in eerie moonlight, was an old graveyard.

Standing in the middle of the white tombstones was the huge black shadow of a decaying house. A lump of fear rose in my throat. I started to pump my legs on the pedals as fast as I could. I drew nearer and nearer to the cemetery, but my bike seemed to be going slower and slower. Then, through the panic in my mind, the truth came to me. The front tire of my bike was losing air. Its slow, hissing sound mocked me as I struggled uselessly to pedal forward on the road.

The bike slowed down to a crawl, then it came to a total stop right in front of the old graveyard. I looked at the white tombstones, lined up like jagged teeth in the moonlight. They seemed to stare back at me with curious, sinister eyes hidden in their cold marble.

Just then, I suddenly remembered the other part of my uncle's twisted story. Chainsaw Charlie, because of his hellish acts, was refused a Christian burial in the town cemetery, and was supposedly buried in this decrepit burial ground.

For a minute I thought about running away, leaving my bike behind. But I forced myself to stoop down and inspect the front wheel. As I had feared, all the air had leaked out. I heard a noise behind me, a strange rattling noise, coming from the cemetery. I jumped to my feet and cowered against the bike. Again I considered running. But then, all was deadly silent. I reached down and pulled the air pump from the crossbar of my bike. My hands were shaking, and I dropped the pump against the metal spokes of the back wheel. The noise echoed from one tombstone to another as I bent to pick it up.

Still trembling, I found the tire valve and fastened the pump onto it just in time, for then the moon disappeared behind the clouds again, and I was left in total darkness. I started the pump, afraid to think what I would do if it didn't work. But it did work. The air went in and out, in and out, sounding like heavy breathing. I was breathing hard too, my breath coming in short gasps. Then, suddenly, I stopped.

The sound, the same rattling sound that I had heard before, came from behind me again. The pump hissed louder and louder as I worked it harder. But the rattling grew louder and louder too. It was coming toward me, closer and closer, through the black night. I had to escape whatever was making that horrible sound. I pulled the pump off the tire and threw it on the ground by the graveyard.

Jumping up, I started to swing my leg over the bike. Then I felt something that made my blood run cold. Five sharp points were stroking the top of my head. They seemed to dig into my brain. I tried to tell myself that it was the branch of a tree, but the five points began to move down toward my neck. My legs were numbed with fear, but I forced them onto the pedals. Then, with one great lunge of fear, I shot forward on the road.

Whatever had been reaching for my neck was gone now. I had escaped its horrid grip. The bike flew through the darkness, leaving the tombstones to stare at my fleeing back. My body felt as cold as death. Still, my legs worked automatically, pushing the pedals up and down, carrying me away from whatever had touched me in front of the old cemetery. I shot through the darkness, going as fast as I could until my front tire hit another bump. I kept control of the wheels, but a sickening fear spread through my mind. The sound, that horrid rattling sound, was still right behind me!

I pumped harder and harder on the pedals. My breath came in short, painful gasps. I rode on for several minutes, thinking I was safe. Then I heard it again, the rattling. I was afraid to turn around. Afraid to see what was chasing me down the dark, lonely dirt road. Time and time again, the rattling sounded behind me. It played on my nerves until I thought I would descend into madness and never return.

Finally, in the moonlight, I caught sight of my uncle's farm. I turned onto the road that led up to his house. He was standing in front, gazing down the road, waiting for me. As soon as I saw him, I tried to tell myself that it had all been my imagination--the staring tombstones, the strange rattling. I rode my bike up to where he stood and jumped off, breathing so desperately that I couldn't speak.

I waited for him to say something; but, instead, a look of horror came over his face. He was staring at the seat of my bike. Trembling, I turned around. There, clamped onto the back of the seat in a grisly death grip, was the rattling, bony hand . . . of a skeleton.

IT`IO`IR`IQ`IU`IE
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