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Highway to Hell

 

Highway to Hell

By James Hold

 

[Copyright 2017 James Roy Hold
Shakespir Edition]

This ebook is the copyrighted property of the author and may not be reproduced, copied and distributed for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy at Shakespir.com where they can find more work by this author. Thank you for your support.

This is a sequel to STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN. Please read that story first.

 

 

HIGHWAY TO HELL

 

Becky bolted upright in her bed, a frightened cry on her lips as she startled from a troubled sleep.

“Becky!” Ahn raced to her side. “What is it? Oh, look at you: you’re drenched in sweat.”

“Oh, Ahn,” Becky clutched her roommate’s arm tightly, “it happened again. That same awful dream I’ve had every night since we got back.”

“Sssh.” Ahn quieted her friend. At the same time she fetched a dry nightgown. “You’ll wake the others.”

“I can’t help it. I keep seeing that old house with horny goats in academic robes reaching out for me.”

“There, there.” The foreign student’s soft fingers were a soothing balm as she helped Becky change. “The experience left a mark on all of us. But the professor is dead and the house burned to the ground. The painting was destroyed and even the cat got away. There’s nothing more to it.”

“But that’s just it,” Becky insisted, keeping her voice low. “There has to be more.” Ahn was silent while Becky flipped her pillow to the dry side and used it for a backrest. “It’s like this,” she went on, “I don’t know how things are where you come from, but I grew up on a farm. I saw the natural way of things every day: life, death, and the cycles of nature. And the idea of paranormal occurrences doesn’t fit in with that. You can call me straight-laced or unimaginative but that’s the way I am, and this thing is eating at me to where I can’t concentrate on anything else.”

Ahn, listening, climbed onto the bed and got comfortable, drawing her legs up Indian style. “Then why not do something about it?” she suggested.

“Like what?” Becky blinked her brown eyes blankly.

At this Ahn reached over and patted her friend on the head. It was a gesture Becky often used on others and Ahn figured it was time she got a dose of her own medicine. Then she graced her friend with an almost motherly smile and said:

“It’s a common assumption among Westerners that we Asians subscribe to all kinds of bizarre beliefs, but that simply isn’t true. Not for me anyway. My parents taught me to reject the supernatural, and what occurred back there goes against everything I believe.”

“Then you have doubts as well?”

“We all do. You’re just more open about it. Look, neither of us has classes tomorrow afternoon. Why not drive out and snoop around? Perhaps it’ll provide some sort of closure.”

“You really think so?” Becky voiced her uncertainly.

“It’s like getting thrown off a horse. You have to get right back on.”

“What would you know about falling off a horse?” asked Becky, trying but failing to stifle a grin.

“A water buffalo then,” Ahn flashed a toothy smile. “The important thing is to go back and get it out of your system.”

“Fine. Let’s speak with Val and Mel at breakfast and tell them what we want to do.”

#

The next morning the girls met in the cafeteria. They made a fetching foursome. Ahn had the kind of small compact body that boys found irresistibly cute. In later years she would likely grow fat, but for now she was adorable. Becky on the other hand was lean and small-boned, tomboyish in appearance, reflecting her bucolic background. Melody was what everyone expected a blonde to be: effervescent, bubbly, and cheerful; not dumb, but not particularly bright either. Valerie however was a mystery. Most would agree she was the prettiest of the bunch. Yet the dusky island girl, although friendly enough when the situation required, could be moody and standoffish, and for the most part she kept her own council.

Upon hearing Ahn and Becky’s plan to pull a Nancy Drew and return to the old house, the other two declined to join them, Melody claiming she had classes while Valerie flat out refused to participate.

“If you’ve any sense you’ll leave things as they are,” she told them. “What’s done is done, and nothing good can come from stirring up dead memories.”

So it was only the two that parked Becky’s beat-up Beetle alongside the fenced field where last week’s incident took place.

“Darn this high grass. I wish now I hadn’t worn shorts.”

“Would you rather we were naked like those nymphs in the picture?”

I mean I wish I’d worn boots and trousers.”

Unchecked spears of needlegrass pricked their legs while belligerent burr nettles stung their ankles. Hidden twigs tripped them up. And there was always the occasional rock on which to stub one’s toe.

“Ow! Dammit!” Becky grabbed her foot, lost her balance, and fell on her rump.

“It looks like the woodland spirits are out to get us,” Ahn stretched out a hand to help her up.

“I thought you didn’t believe in woodland spirits.”

“I don’t. But my disbelief doesn’t appear to bother them.”

“Ahn?”

“Yes, Becky?”

“I’m starting to think you’re a phony.”

“Aren’t we all?” Ahn shrugged; a question for which Becky had no answer.

#

Becky could not recall the precise location of the house but Ahn remembered it well, leading them directly to it. Still it was a long hike and it was with mixed feelings that she again laid eyes on the place.

Once there however she was at a loss what to do. Should she poke through the charred remains for clues, whatever such “clues” might be? Or should she just sit herself on a stump and stare, hoping for some insight to strike?

“Well?” Ahn sensed her hesitation. “Now what?”

“I don’t know,” Becky confessed. “This was your idea, remember?”

“True,” Ahn prodded, “but you’re the one with the nightmares.”

“Oh, this is stupid,” Becky stamped her foot in frustration. It was already sore from bumping into so many rocks and this only made it hurt worse. “There’s nothing to see and we don’t know what we’re looking for in the first place. Let’s just go back and——”

She stopped abruptly.

“Look!” she pointed. “Do you see that?”

“The tip of your finger?”

“I mean there in the ashes.”

“Well what do you know,” Ahn smiled, seeing a many-colored cat rummaging in the debris. “It’s the cat our bus swerved to avoid.”

“Without whom none of this would have happened in the first place,” Becky finished.

The two watched the cat sniff through the rubble.

“I think she’s hungry,” Ahn concluded.

“That or she’s searching for the bag of cat litter you appropriated,” Becky grinned. “She’s probably been holding it in all week.” Then: “How do you know it’s a girl?”

Before Ahn could answer, the cat looked up. In its mouth was a fragment of something. It didn’t look like anything edible. Nor did it appear to be good for the animal as it suddenly went loco, jumping, growling, and running in circles. It dashed toward the girls, heedless of their presence, and nearly crashed into them. Whatever it had between its jaws fell out when it brushed Becky’s ankle, after which the animal lost itself in the tall grass.

That was weird, Becky told herself as she stooped to retrieve the object. She was astonished to see it was a sliver of canvas; canvas from the painting that had nearly drawn them into its setting. Becky wanted nothing to do with it, yet at the same time her curiosity matched that of the cat. She stared down at it, recalling the pastoral scene it depicted, then for no reason she could account for, put it to her nose and sniffed.

The reaction was almost immediate. She felt as though she was inside a washing machine set on spin cycle, everything whirring in circles, grass, sky, and trees becoming a kaleidoscopic blur. Something struck her hand——it was Ahn knocking the fragment from her fingers——and she felt herself being dragged helpless across the field to a tree far away from the scorched ruins.

#

“Feeling better?” asked Ahn, holding a wet cloth to her friend’s forehead. “You had me worried.”

“What——?” Becky tried rising.

“Un-uh,” Ahn pushed her back against the tree trunk. “Stay put. You fainted back there.”

“It was like the other time,” Becky brushed aside the mental cobwebs, “when we examined the painting and it——” She couldn’t finish. Instead she glanced down at her feet where a cat of many colors was playing with her shoe string. “She looks to be okay now.” She recalled seeing a similar cat on campus, only logic told her it couldn’t be the same one.

“If it makes you feel better, I believe I solved the mystery of the psychedelic painting.” Ahn repositioned the cloth on Becky’s forehead. “When I visited the creek to soak my handkerchief I noticed the meadow is covered in mushrooms.”

“So?” asked Becky, not getting the point.

Ahn, having aced biology, slipped into Asian Brainiac mode, explaining, “There are species of mushrooms that can cause mind-altering effects similar to LSD when ingested or inhaled; things like hallucinations, changes in perception, time distortion, and even panic attacks.”

“You sound like a pharmacy label.”

“My guess, if you want to reject the supernatural, is that somebody sprinkled dust from those mushrooms on the painting. Or,” Ahn quickly added, “maybe the artist mixed it in his paints. Possibly the heat from our candles activated it, I don’t know enough to be sure, but in any case, when you and I bent over the picture to examine it, we got a whiff of the stuff and suffered its effects. It’s likely the professor did as well.”

“Yes, but…” Becky hesitated, trying to marshal her thoughts. “Okay, let’s reason this out. First, I doubt the magic mushroom dust was mixed with paint since masking would render it less effective. It wouldn’t have given us the massive dose we received.”

“Then someone must have dusted the canvas at a later date.”

“Right,” Becky agreed. “And it had to be recent or else the dust would have dissipated in the breeze.”

“Which means,” Ahn concluded, “someone deliberately baited a trap for us to fall into.”

#

The afternoon sun shone warmly from a cloudless cerulean sky as the cat continued to play with Becky’s shoelace.

“She’s a cute thing,” Ahn smiled at its antics. “I wonder if we could take her with us. Here, Kitty.” From her pocket she produced a handful of kibble. “I brought it along just in case,” she explained at Becky’s questioning look.

Becky sighed, then got back to business. “But why drug us?” she wondered.

Ahn shrugged as she coaxed the kitty to take the food from her hand. “Perhaps we weren’t the intended victims. Maybe it was meant for the professor and we accidentally stumbled onto it first. We know what he was like. And we’ve heard the inappropriate things he’s rumored to have done.”

“Then the bus accident was a prelude to getting rid of the professor. Oh, but that’s too fantastic.”

“Is it more fantastic than a psychedelic painting?”

“Okay, so maybe it was a plot. But by who?”

“Well, obviously it wasn’t you or me, since I doubt either of us would expose ourselves to mind-altering drugs just to fool the others.”

“Which leaves only Melody or Valerie.”

“That’s the way it looks.” Ahn had the cat eating from her hand now. “What if the professor approached one of them with an offer of a higher grade in return for…”

“Favors?” Becky suggested delicately.

“I can easily imagine Val or Mel wanting to get even after something like that, whether they gave in to him or not.”

“Don’t forget the bus driver. He had to be in on it as well since he got the bus stuck in the first place.”

“Ahh-so.” Ahn put her palms together and bowed with an exaggerated bucktoothed grin. “Pletty missy show much risdom. Mean rhen dliver reave to get help…”

“Oh, knock it off,” Becky scolded the ill-timed attempt at humor.

“Sorry,” Ahn apologized. “It’s just that I feel like I’m in a Charlie Chan movie.”

“Anyway, the driver never left. He hid someplace until the professor entered the hall, then killed him and stashed the body.”

Ahn nodded her agreement. “It all fits. After her humiliating experience with the professor, Val enticed the driver’s aid in getting her revenge.” She reflected a moment, then added: “Actually this sounds more like an episode of Perry Mason.”

“You’re convinced it was Val then.”

Ahn shrugged, petting the cat as it ate. “It’s the logical choice given how she disappeared down the hall, then showed up later, clean and dry, saying she didn’t know what happened. She could have stashed a second uniform beforehand, then ducked onto the back porch and changed into it.”

“Reinforcing our assumption of a supernatural event and putting her in the clear.”

“Or maybe we only thought she was clean because it was dark and we were in our underwear.”

That was something Becky didn’t wish to dwell on.

“Gosh, Ahn; I hate to think of Val being guilty. I know she’s snobbish, but still…”

“Becky?”

“Yes?”

“Melody could have been in on it as well. She set the place on fire and destroyed all the evidence, remember?”

“But that was an accident.”

“Was it? You don’t think the professor couldn’t have preyed on her as well? They both needed good grades to stay on the cheerleading squad.”

“And learning of their mutual humiliation they hatched a plot to rid themselves of the evil predator.” Becky paused, trying to imagine herself in their place. “Well, all things considered I can’t really blame them. If it was ‘them’.”

The cat finished the kibble and was playing with a stem of grass Ahn dangled before it. After a few moments of this, the Asian girl set the blade aside and said, “You realize we can’t prove a word of this.”

“No,” Becky admitted, “we can’t. And to be honest I don’t want to. If either of them participated in a murder it’s theirs to live with. Ultimately God will judge. And till then…”

#

The drive back was a solemn one. Becky watched the road for her turnoff while Ahn leaned back against the headrest.

“It’s too bad the cat got away. I would like to have kept it.” A naughty smile crossed her face. “A piebald little pussy; much like myself.”

“Ahn!” Becky recoiled at hearing her friend speak so crudely.

“Oh, lighten up,” Ahn told her. “And stay on the road. It was only a joke.”

“It’s an odd thing about that cat,” Becky said after a minute’s consideration. “Like why was it there in the first place? And why the cat litter? Fresh litter, exactly what we needed to get our tires unstuck.” Then she hit upon an an unpleasant thought. “You found the litter that night; just as you brought kibble today.”

“Omigod.” Ahn caught her drift. “Don’t tell me you suspect me as well. Didn’t I explain how it couldn’t be either of us?”

Yes, Becky reflected, you explained that; the same way you explained everything. No matter what I say, you have an explanation for it.

And she kept a resolute silence the rest of the way back.

#

That evening while the others were in the cafeteria, Becky packed her things and pointed her car homeward. The realization came that if she could suspect her friends of plotting a murder then there was no way she could rule herself out either. It was entirely possible the mind-altering hallucinogenic had wiped her memory clean, leaving her with only vague nightmares to haunt her restless nights. It was something she would never know, and like the others she would have to live with it in the confines of her own conscience.

What Becky needed now was not closure, but distance and separation. Perhaps the highway would lead her to it.

She wished now that it had been a paranormal experience. That she could have dealt with…somehow. But the uncertainty surrounding whether she was a murderer? That she could not handle; even if it had rid the world of a parasite.

It was a long drive home, and the road was dark and lonely. Somewhere along the way she took a different turn. She had no idea where this new way would take her. She only hoped the trip would be a short one.

 

 

 

 

17193

 

 

James Hold

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Highway to Hell

  • ISBN: 9781370300136
  • Author: James Hold
  • Published: 2017-07-19 21:50:08
  • Words: 2846
Highway to Hell Highway to Hell