The stranger was walking on the right side of the road, with his back to traffic. No moon lit the sky that night, and the stars were hidden behind clouds stretching from either horizon, so I didn’t see him until his figure fell within the glare of my headlights. Even in that unflattering light, he made a striking silhouette. His coat was the color of coal and fell to just above his knees, and he wore a matching fedora. He carried a briefcase, also black, and strode along through the dust and weeds with the air of a man on his way to an important meeting. While he would have been perfectly at home on a city sidewalk during the morning bustle, his presence on that lonely stretch of dark road struck me as off somehow. As my car approached he turned his head until I could see his face in profile, and grinned as he stuck out his thumb.
I can’t explain what compelled me to pull over. I have never in my life picked up a hitchhiker, but in that moment, I didn’t hesitate for a second. It never even occurred to me to do anything different, as though picking up a strange man 5 miles out from the nearest town in the middle of the night was a completely normal thing to do. He never stopped smiling at me as I pulled up alongside him.
“Do you need a ride?” I asked through the window, then felt a little stupid. People don't stick out their thumbs for strange cars to have a beer. He nodded, seeming not to notice my slip. Still smiling at me, he reached to open the door. Again, I acted without thinking about it, and hit the unlock button. A distant voice in my mind reacted with alarm but the feeling was quickly snuffed out as the stranger took a seat beside me. The crunch of gravel being crushed beneath my tires was the only sound as I pulled back onto the road.
As we drove, I studied him out of the corner of my eye. His salt and pepper hair was cut close to his head above his tanned and weathered face. He stared straight ahead, still smiling, his fingers drumming on his suitcase. There was an arrogant tilt to his head, and his whole body thrummed with a predatory tension, as though he might explode into action at any second. The alarmed voice in my head piped up again, louder this time, but I forcibly shoved it back down. Lord knows I needed to do everything I could to balance out my karma, and I think the Bible says something about helping travelers. My slate wouldn’t so easily be wiped clean, but every little bit counts.
“So where are you headed? Did your car break down around here or something?” I looked back over at the man and flinched as my gaze met his leering smile less than six inches from my face. I slammed on the brakes as my body convulsed in shock and the car screeched to a stop. My heart thundered, beating a staccato rhythm against my ribs. I caught my breath and gave the man a sheepish grin. “Sorry, sir. You startled me.”
He didn’t appear to hear me. I realized he hadn't moved at all through my sudden braking. The only difference was his face. He wasn’t smiling anymore. In fact, he wore no expression whatsoever as he paused for a beat and then slowly shook his head. It was eerie as all hell. I laughed nervously.
As I prepared to get moving again I flicked my eyes back and forth between him and the road. Nothing. No expression. No movement. I couldn’t even see him breathing. He was absolutely still, not like a person, but like the emptiness of a silent tomb. His eyes were unreadable as he stared, not at my face, I realized, but out my window. I licked my lips as the skin on the back of my neck tried to crawl up and over my scalp. I had a sudden, intense feeling that I did not want to see what he was seeing.
“Wh-what are you looking at?” My voice came out shaky as my earlier sense of unease bloomed into full grown fear. As I turned my gaze back to his face, a feeling of suffocating wrongness swept over me. It was like suddenly being plunged into the lightless depths of the ocean. Vast, oppressive darkness, empty except for monsters knowing neither the touch of the sun nor anything like mercy engulfed my soul. He met my eyes, and a grin began to stretch across his face once again. As it widened, I realized with dawning horror that his teeth had lengthened and become serrated like a shark’s. His smile kept widening, the corners of his mouth splitting until that hideous grin stretched all the way up to his temples. His eyes darkened to midnight black, and reflected oranges, reds, and yellows in disconcerting incandescence. When he spoke, his voice was cold and hollow.
“Behold, the end.”
His words echoed weirdly through the small car and rang with terrible certainty. As I clutched my ears against that booming voice and felt blood trickle between my fingers, I knew that the words he spoke were Truth.
A vast roaring sound came from my left, and my head snapped around on instinct. The empty plains had transformed into an inferno. Roiling seas of fire and lava splashed against jagged obsidian cliffs. Creatures crawled on all fours over the surface of the sea, alien things made of ash and charcoal with long, knobby limbs, like skeletons warped into something hellish by intense heat. Where there should have been eyes in their skulls there was only inky oblivion.
I recoiled in horror as my brain tried to make sense of what I was seeing. As I watched, one of the monsters seemed to notice me and scuttled forward, blindingly fast, reaching claw tipped fingers through my window. I screamed hoarsely as it wrapped its inhuman hands around my neck in a vice, before its grip cut off my air. I bucked wildly, trying desperately to pull away, but it was insanely strong. My head began to pound as the blood in my brain tried to flow back to my heart and was blocked by the creature’s grip. My lungs begged for oxygen they had no way of getting. My desperation became stronger as I realized I was dying, but my movements became more and more sluggish. As my vision began to darken and finally fade out, the last thing I saw was that demonic grin.
The sound of a blaring car horn slowly came to me out of the blackness. I became aware of my body only as pain lit through my nerve endings. I groaned, disoriented, as I slowly understood my predicament. I was upside down, being prevented from falling onto the roof only by my seat belt. Something was illuminating the wreckage that had been my car, and I heard movement outside. I feebly tried to get away from the source of the sound, sure that the man or his creatures were back, but the effort was too much and I sagged back against the restraints.
Rustling from my right caught my attention, and I reluctantly turned my eyes to the passenger seat to see what fresh horror awaited me. I was not prepared to see my wife, dangling from the ceiling, blood pooling underneath her pale body. The tremendous injuries to her face and chest hid the woman I had loved beneath a hideous mask. Her skull was misshapen from where her head had broken the window as the car rolled. In real life, I knew she had died instantly, but the monstrosity beside me stirred and turned to look at me with midnight eyes.
“Your fault,” it whispered. It was my wife’s voice, but it had been corrupted somehow, like the rotting carcass of an animal lying on the side of the road. I couldn’t take my eyes from the gory injury to her skull, and the creature wearing my wife’s face seemed to take some sort of perverse pleasure in that.
“Your fault,” it said again, its face lighting up with malice. It took a hand and purposefully pressed a finger into the break in its skull. I stared in nauseated fascination as it pulled away bits of hair and bloody scalp, revealing bone crushed into tiny pieces. "We paid for your mistakes, your arrogance with our lives," it hissed. "Our blood is on your hands." The demon's voice pressed painfully against my skull, and I thought that my head might fly apart. Worse, her words tugged on a memory, and I tried desperately to bury it before I could start remembering.
Our blood. Dear God, please no.
Our blood. The memory stirred and writhed some more, a nearly physical presence in my brain.
Our blood. And then, amidst the demon's slithering voice and the sickening dripping and splatting noises as my wife pulled herself apart in front of my eyes, I heard the rustling from outside again. Terrified squalls erupted from a tiny throat and the memory finally broke free.
Some small corner of my brain noted that she couldn’t possibly be crying, because her lungs and basically everything else had been crushed after she was thrown from the vehicle and caught in its rolling path. If I'd installed her car seat correctly, maybe she would have made it. If I hadn't been drinking that night, maybe I never would have crashed the car in the first place. I would never know, because I had done those things, and the two people I loved most had paid the price.
I couldn’t bring myself to look for my daughter’s mangled corpse, to see what I had done to her again. Something inside me cracked. I broke into hysterical sobs, my voice joining my dead infant’s and the evil laughter coming from her mother’s body as waves of anguish and regret crashed over me.
The stranger appeared suddenly, leaning through my broken windshield, again looking totally out of place in the wreckage of my life. He grinned, then blew a handful of stinging ants directly into my face. I succumbed to blackness amidst a thousand tiny bites, my family's cries ringing in my ears.
When I woke up again, I was in a hospital bed. The nurses told me I’d been in an accident, but that I would be ok. They kept telling me how lucky I was to have survived, but I know it isn’t luck. Out of the corner of my eye, I see them prowling, eyeless nightmares with twisted bodies. Sometimes it’s my wife, her accusatory eyes black, her body broken. She holds a weakly stirring bundle and weeps, singing lullabies to a child who no longer sleeps.
The stranger visits me in my dreams. He always greets me with that terrible grin and those hellfire eyes and tells me, “Behold, the end.”