The dark desert night was still as the motorcycle roared down the highway. The rider seemed tired, pack slung over his shoulder.
The bike was alone on the highway. Phillip hadn’t seen another car for fifteen minutes. He yawned loudly, feeling the effects of the long flight from England.
Phillip loved the desert at night, the cool air refreshing him slightly. He’d grown up in the desert and always looked forward to coming back.
The rhythmic thrumming of the bike rattled his teeth; Phillip smiled. He felt good to be on the motorcycle again. It was almost three years since he’d ridden it last.
The desert was almost totally black, the highway lit only by the motorcycle’s headlight. Phillip could only see the faded yellow line dividing the old highway, the night enveloping the desert.
Phillip yawned again, eyes blurring. He could feel the motorcycle fight against him and he struggled to right it.
Damn, he thought. Gotta stop for the night.
He throttled down the bike, turning off the highway into the empty desert, stopping about fifty feet from the highway. He pulled his weathered sleeping bag off the bike and unrolled it with practised ease.
Phillip, used to life in the unforgiving desert, always carried a few cords of firewood, just in case he needed to make camp unexpectedly.
In a few minutes, the fire was roaring nicely and Phillip was fast asleep under the clear night sky.
He couldn’t imagine a better way to spend his first night back.
Phillip awoke early, about 6:00 am. Any later and he’d have a nasty sunburn.
He packed up his makeshift campsite and headed back to the highway. It was still deserted, which was a little strange. Usually this highway was a busy route for commuters.
Phillip looked at the sky as he started his bike. He paused, fascinated. He’d never seen the sky that colour before. Dark, dark blue, almost purple, with very few clouds.
Huh, thought Phillip. This time of year, the sun shouldn’t rise this early.
Shrugging it off, he started off down the desert highway. He was still three hours from home and he wanted to get there in time for breakfast at Patsy’s Diner.
After half an hour, Phillip started to get concerned. He still hadn’t seen anyone else on the highway. Not one trucker or commuter or delivery van.
The desert was also abnormally quiet. Usually Phillip would see at least one rattler or rabbit splattered across the road.
After driving for an hour, he stopped the bike and pulled out his cellphone.
Shit. The phone was all charged up but wasn’t getting any reception.
I thought Mom said they put in a new antenna tower last year.
Slipping the phone back in his jacket, he continued down the highway. He pushed the doubts out of his head and thought about his reception at home.
Maybe they’ll have a party for me. This town would throw a party for anything.
His hometown, Howard’s Love, was pretty small, around 1300 people. It had been a big event when he left for England. His family and friends gave him a nice send-off; even the mayor showed up. Of course, the mayor had been Phillip’s next door neighbour at one point.
A half hour from Howard’s Love, Phillip saw something that stopped him dead.
There was a burned-out van sprawled across the highway, blocking traffic in both directions. It looked like it’d been there awhile; the rubber on the tires had almost rotted away.
The van was gutted; Phillip couldn’t tell where the fire had started, but it looked like it had burned out on the highway. There were scorch marks all around the asphalt.
Why hasn’t anyone cleared this away yet? He checked his cellphone again, hoping to call someone about the wreck. Still no luck.
Phillip got off his bike. He walked over to the van, looking inside. The interior was completely burned away, leaving only seared metal. There was an unpleasant smell coming from the driver’s side, something that reminded him of barbequed pork.
The smell unsettled Phillip more than the wreck itself.
I’d better get to town and call the police.
Climbing back onto his motorcycle, he manoeuvred around the van and roared off down the still-empty highway.
Phillip’s concern slowly turned into fear as he began to see more burned out vehicles on and around the highway, in various stages of decay. There was a massive over-turned eighteen-wheeler that looked like it was burned yesterday and a small hatchback that looked fifty years old.
What the hell’s going on here?
Gritting his teeth, he continued down the highway, increasing speed. The motorcycle roared as Phillip dodged the charred wrecks. He looked far into the distance. Similar wrecks lined the road as far as he could see.
A trail of dark smoke was visible near the horizon. Phillip tried to ignore it, knowing that it was close to Howard’s Love. He pushed on, determined to reach his home.
As soon as he got within ten miles of Howard’s Love, Phillip knew something was horribly wrong.
All of his hope for the town fell away in a rush of cold panic.
He first noticed it when he crested a tall hill: a mammoth black tower jutting from the centre of the town.
The motorcycle’s tires screeched as the bike ground to a stop.
What the holy hell…
The height of the tower was impossible to judge; the top was obscured by heavy clouds. Phillip could barely see something monstrous surging behind the dark clouds, circling the tower.
Phillip staggered, shutting his eyes tightly.
No, it’s not real… This is a nightmare! I’ve gotta wake up!
He repeated the phrase over and over, trying to convince himself.
Opening his eyes, Phillip struggled to fight off a wave of despair. The black tower was still there and seemed to emit a strange power that gnawed at Phillip’s mind.
Clenching his fist, Phillip strained to get back on the bike.
Nothing’s gonna stop me getting home.
The closer Phillip got to the town, the greater his dread grew. He could feel the tower tunnelling into his thoughts. He shook it off, gritting his teeth.
The roar of the motorcycle seemed to fade as Phillip entered the outskirts of the town. All Phillip could hear was a soft, low-pitched hum that seemed to grow louder and louder. He tried to ignore it.
This close to the centre of town, Phillip saw the tower was actually an obelisk. It gleamed with a fierce luminosity; he couldn’t tell what it was made of.
Phillip gasped as he passed Patsy’s Diner. Where the centre of town should be there was a massive, ugly crater. The obelisk jutted from the centre of the crater.
Squinting, Phillip could barely see the bottom. The sun seemed to avoid the darkness of the crater.
The low-pitched hum seemed to intensify as Phillip stared into the void around the base of the obelisk. He struggled to hear and found he could make out what the sound was:
It was a cacophony of hissing inhuman voices calling out to Phillip’s mind.
There was an innumerable mixture of alien languages; Phillip couldn’t recognise any of them, but realised he could understand them.
“Embrace the void.”
“Let yourself go.”
“Open your mind to the darkness.”
Phillip couldn’t help but stare into the gaping crater, drawn to the void. The void seemed to expand, filling his field of vision completely. His mouth went slack as he saw something detach from the mesmeric void, a shape of labyrinthine proportion and hideous fury.
Phillip’s senses were filled with a piercing, ululating shriek. He barely registered that the sound came from his own mouth.
The dark clouds parted at the top of the black obelisk. The last thing Phillip saw before collapsing in a gibbering heap on the ground was a shimmering monstrosity entwined around the monolithic obelisk…
The desert sky was blue as the state trooper got out of his car. He slowly walked over to Phillip’s make-shift campsite. Spotting the motorcycle, he whistled softly.
“Nice bike,” he said under his breath. He looked at the figure in the sleeping bag.
“Hey buddy, wake up. Can’t sleep here all day.”
The figure didn’t move, but the trooper could hear soft muttering. He shook the bag with his foot.
“Time to get up, mister.”
This close to the sleeping bag, the trooper could smell a pungent mix of urine, faeces, and blood.
“Oh, shit.” He grabbed his radio. “Dispatch, this is Craft out on Interstate 5, ’bout five miles from the junction. I’m gonna need an ambulance here right away.”
Crouching down, he pulled on a pair of latex gloves. Bracing himself, he pulled open the sleeping bag.
The trooper had seen some horrific sights in his time patrolling this highway. Whenever he stopped at a traffic accident, he expected the worst. He could still remember his first three car pile-up as a rookie. It was surprising how easily the human body can come apart. As long as he lived, the trooper would never forget the feeling of searching through piles of coagulated blood and intestines for a missing infant.
What the trooper saw now he would spend years trying to forget.
He spun away, retching. Doubling over, he vomited all over the desert sand.
“Get that ambulance here now, goddamnit!”
The woman walking into the hospital looked terribly frail, as if she would blow away if you looked at her the wrong way.
The small group inside the waiting area looked up, eyes full of sympathy and fear.
The woman didn’t see any of them. She was only here to see her son.
She’d been waiting for Phillip at Patsy’s Diner, eager to see her son for the first time in three years. When she received the phone call, she didn’t know how to react. She stood there for a moment, holding the phone, staring off into space.
Placing the phone back on the receiver, she quietly gathered her purse and left the diner.
As she entered the hospital, a doctor walked over to her. He looked shaken.
“Mrs. Derleth, please come with me.”
The doctor took her to a small room in a secluded wing of the hospital. The woman didn’t say a word.
Phillip was barely recognisable. He was wrapped in heavy bandages and strapped into a straightjacket.
“There was massive trauma to the eyes and tongue. We weren’t able to save them. He’s missing the first three fingers on his right hand. They were not yet recovered. His body is covered in numerous deep cuts and abrasions.”
Mrs. Derleth was silent. She stared at her son blankly. “Why is he wearing a straightjacket?” Her voice was soft, broken.
“The, uh, wounds seem to be self-inflicted,” the doctor answered hesitantly. “It’s for his own safety.”
“Can I talk to him?” asked Mrs. Derleth. The doctor shook his head.
“He tried to jump out the window when we were changing his dressings. He’s too unstable now for any visitors.”
As if he could sense his mother, Phillip struggled to stand up. The doctor waved over a pair of orderlies.
Phillip’s mother stared in horror as her son began to twist and writhe against his restraints. He opened his mouth and began to emit a terrifying guttural moaning. His mother could see the bloody stump where Phillip had bitten off his own tongue.
Wracked with violent shudders, Phillip’s chest began to bloat hideously, as if something were growing deep inside.
Mrs. Derleth shrieked loudly and collapsed in a heap on the floor, her head cracking sickeningly on the tile.
The doctor could hear Phillip’s ribcage separating and breaking under the pressure of something immense. He wondered why he ever came to Howard’s Love a split-second before the hospital was devastated by the mammoth black obelisk bursting from Phillip’s defiled body.
The centre of Howard’s Love was instantly annihilated by the force of the obelisk burrowing deep into the Earth.
Phillip was finally home.
End.Colin Le Sueur