ROAD-SIGN JOE

The future is plastics!

Miguel took his bag of chips and his energy drink to the counter. He needed some sustenance in order to continue on with his journey, that journey being the three-hour drive to his little sister’s house. Isabella’s wedding was swiftly approaching, and he needed to reach the family with enough time to prepare for his role in the ceremony.

He had stopped at this little out-of-the-way gas station on his way to the highway, originally stopping here to ask for directions. He was as poor as a church mouse, so he had no GPS, no smartphone with internet, and no up-to-date map. Maps were behind the counter here, so he would purchase one along with his necessary provisions.

He set his energy drink and his bag of chips down upon the counter and nodded once at the old man who worked here.

The overweight elderly man in a white tank top and brown suspenders nodded once back at him and made his way to Miguel from behind that counter, briefly taking a moment to turn down the volume on an old-fashioned radio.

Miguel had no idea why an old man would be working at such a place at such an age, or why, even, the old man worked at all. Miguel figured old age was for retirement and enjoying the rest of your life, not for working through it.

“This it?” asked the elderly man. “You want anything else?”

“I need one of those road maps,” said Miguel.

“Where you trying to get to, son?” asked the man.

“I’m just heading north to the interstate,” said Miguel. “I know where I’m going, but I was hoping to find a shortcut to shave off some time.”

“You in a hurry?” asked the old man.

“My sister is getting married,” replied Miguel.

“How far we talkin’?” asked the man.

“It’s three hours from here,” said Miguel. “Up in Engles.”

“Ah,” said the old man. “Well, why don’t we just take a looksee, then. Ain’t no point in buying a map if you don’t need one.”

The old man walked over to a rack, pulled forth a map, unfolded it, and laid it out on the counter.

Miguel looked around in a nervous hush for other customers. He did not want to hold up the line, but he was the only one in here at the moment, so he shrugged off that anxiety and peered down at the map alongside the old man.

The overweight elderly man ran one fat wrinkled finger along a trail of lines upon the map as Miguel’s eyes followed that leading digit.

“It’s a straight shot to the highway, son,” said the old man. “You just head on up to it, then it loops ’round here, connects to the interstate, and you’re home free. Just follow the signs…Ain’t no shortcut, though.”

Miguel studied the map with keen interest. There was, actually, a road leading between the highway and the interstate, one that cut between the loop between the two. That short road would save him at least forty-five minutes plus the headache of driving through the dangers of the interstate.

He could not understand, however, why there was such a huge loop around that road, a loop that was so wide, it was wasteful. It was as if the highway authority were deliberately avoiding that entire area, all but ensuring people had to drive much longer than they needed to.

Nevertheless, a shortcut was a shortcut.

“What’s this road, then?” he asked.

“No, no,” said the old man with a vehement shake of his head. “No, you don’t want to take that road, son. No, you stick to the highway.”

“Why?” asked Miguel. “Is the road closed?”

“That’s Jepson Road,” said the old gas-station attendant. “It’s supposed to be closed, but there’s always some cockamamie fool that gets it in his head to go up it…No, you don’t want to go that way.”

“Why not?” asked Miguel. “This is the shortcut I was looking for.”

“Now, listen, son,” said the man, and Miguel could hear the frustration in the old attendant’s voice. “You don’t wanna go up there. Ain’t nobody goes up Jepson Road. It ain’t safe, and it ain’t been safe since the accident.”

“Accident?” asked Miguel. “What accident?”

The old man leaned over the counter, rested his elbows upon the map, and shook his head twice.

“Now, you listen here, son,” said the old attendant in a near whisper. “I’m trying to he’p ya. Ain’t nobody goes up Jepson Road. That’s where the old Fancy Joe Jepson plastics factory used to be. Place been closed down since the late ’50s.”

“And?” asked Miguel. “Why doesn’t anyone go up it?”

“I was ten years old when that factory shut down for good,” said the old man. “There used to be road signs from here as far as the eye could see advertising this here and that, but it was the Fancy-Joe-Jepson signs that always caught our eye. So many signs with the Fancy Joe mascot that folks ’round here used to call ol’ Joe, ‘Road-Sign Joe.’”

“That doesn’t…That’s not even…” said Miguel with a shake of his head. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“There ain’t no signs of Joe no more,” frowned the old attendant. “Do you know why, son?”

“Uhhh…because…it’s been like…since the ’50s?” asked Miguel.

“All them signs got torn right on down by 1961,” said the old man. “They got torn down because someone, somewhere, wanted people to forget, forget about ol’ Joe and the plastics factory.”

Miguel could smell a conspiracy theory here, but that was fine. Some old people liked to talk, so he would listen for the moment, if only to humor the old man…He was still in a hurry, though.

“What did they want to forget?” he asked.

“Whatever it was they was doing out there,” said the old man. “Somethin’ happened that day of the accident back in 1958. I remember it well…

“My grandpappy was driving me and my brothers ’round here in town when we all saw a bright green light, a green light coming up from the plastics factory out yonder, a green light just come a shooting up like one of them ‘mushroom clouds’ you see from an atom bomb, only not an explosion, but like a…a shape almost, just a big ol’ shape like a mushroom or a broccoli stalk, but made a light.”

This was really beginning to sound like science fiction, but the old man seemed convinced of his own fantasy, and that self-conviction was its own strange proof, so Miguel continued to listen, though he really was short on time. He needed to get going.

Still, he wanted to hear the rest of this story.

“What happened next?” asked Miguel.

“Army come out here and shut down the roads,” said the old man. “We had the National Guard out here for a whole week. Cordoned off the whole area ’round the factory. Claimed the place was ‘toxic.’ Now, I don’t know ’bout no ‘toxic,’ but I do know some higher-ups made damned sure nobody go sniffing ’round that place. Erased every bit of the old factory from the papers and books and whatnot.”

“If that’s true, then why is the road still on the maps?” asked Miguel.

“Road weren’t on the old maps,” said the old attendant. “Govn’ment wiped the road clean off ’em. These new maps, however, are made with that fancy ‘satellite imaging’ and stuff. That’s why we keep getting folks up here still asking about the old Jepson Road in the first place.”

“So is the place radioactive?” asked Miguel. “What’s the deal with it?”

This was a legitimate concern. He did not want to develop cancer just by being in close proximity to the place.

“Ain’t no radiation,” said the old man. “Naw…but the place is like a bad penny. Gives off a bad feelin’, which is why folks avoid it. Something tells you at the back a yo’r mind to ‘stay away.’ Govn’ment ain’t had to do much to keep people out a there, but there’s always some damn fool who goes on a bet or a dare or somethin’ like that, and then they ain’t never heard from again.”

“Uh…huh…” said Miguel. “How could a plastics factory do all that? What kind of accident would even do that?”

“From what I heard over the years, the place was a front,” said the old man.

“A front?” asked Miguel.

“Yeah,” replied the old attendant. “Govn’ment was doin’ experiments out there. Messing ’round with stuff they shouldn’a been. That’s why everything was hush-hush. That’s how these things happen.”

Riiiight,” grinned Miguel as he nodded twice. “Government experiments with a plastics factory…Sure.”

This was definitely a local-yokel story…He should have known.

“Now, I’m not joshing with you, son,” frowned the old man. “You just keep a clear of Jepson Road. Don’t go anywhere near that old plastics factory. Too many people have vanished out there over the years. Govn’ment keeps it quiet, hushed up.

“Last one askin’ ’bout Jepson Road was some little lady that does them interwebs vi’jeos. Her and her friends come askin’ ’bout the old plant. They all went up to the plant, and they come back ’round not too much later, but she wasn’t with ’em. They said they wasn’t goin’ in. They all got that bad feelin’ at the entrance to the road, turned right around, and come back here, but she went in anyway…

“Yep, she went right on in alone…That was years ago. Ain’t never heard a her since. She ain’t even on the interwebs no more. Vanished…just like all the others. Friends never came back ’round for her, either. I’m thinking the govn’ment paid ’em off to keep it all hushed up.”

Miguel shrugged. He didn’t believe a word of this, but at this point, he’d say anything to end this conversation. He really had to get going.

“Okay,” he said. “If it’s that dangerous, I’ll just take the highway, then.”

“That’d be the smart thing to do, son,” nodded the old man.

Of course, Miguel had no intention of doing that. There was no reason not to take a clear shortcut when he had one. If that old road saved him a good chunk of time and the nightmare of the interstate, then he was all for it.

**********

Miguel pulled onto the out-of-the way dirt road that led toward the old Jepson Road. There wasn’t much out here but scrub grass and dirt—no houses to be seen—so this little detour was proving to be…problematic.

He had not realized there would be one turn off after the next, so taking this ill-advised route was beginning to look…ill-advised, if only for the sheer waste of time it was going to be.

He had the option to turn around, to turn around his old and beat-up light-green flatbed truck, but he’d already come this far, so he was sticking to his guns.

“Can’t lose any more time,” whispered Miguel to himself.

He drove up to the so-called “entrance” to Jepson Road.

The road, itself, was cracked and broken asphalt, that entrance marked by two falling-down wooden booths on each side of the road, those booths clearly having once been guard checkpoints. There was a rusted and broken guard gate, the turn pole off its hub, that gate collapsed to one side, the left side from his point of view.

Aside from that, someone had clearly been out here recently, but they hadn’t stayed long.

There was a rusted metal plate that may have been part of the right booth, that plate propped up against what was left of the booth, and someone had quickly affixed what looked like new chain-link fencing around it, only to hang up an old and rusty “KEEP OUT” sign to that new fencing.

It was as if someone had used a keep-out sign that had already been here, slapped the chain-link fencing up as fast as possible, affixed the sign, and then ran, and Miguel had no illusions as to why.

He could sense the black aura about this place, a deviation of mood that sank into him like a dark cloud, a dark cloud laced with nails, and he did not like it one bit. It was a presence almost, a stifling sensation of being smothered by…something, though he did not know what.

Still, he’d lost too much time already.

“I can’t go back,” he whispered to himself. “Isabella is counting on me to be there.”

There was nothing more important in his life than family, and even though he had been away for some time, he was still connected to them through the heart, so he was not going to turn tail and run, not now.

“It’s just some old man’s tall tale,” he said to himself.

Even so, he said a silent prayer in Spanish, made the sign of the cross, closed his eyes, and took in a deep breath. He released that breath, opened his eyes, and nodded once to himself.

“Let’s do this,” he said firmly.

He put his old truck in drive, wheeled forward, and carefully went around the collapsed guard gate. His tires rolled onto broken asphalt, and then he was on his way.

He drove for about three minutes before he spotted the first of the road signs. The cracked and broken asphalt of this abandoned road gave way to fresh asphalt, a new blacktop untouched by time, and the road signs in the distance looked new as well, unmolested by whatever fish story the old man at the gas station had fed him.

He felt like a fool for even remotely believing in anything that crazy old codger had spouted.

“I should have known he was playing me,” frowned Miguel.

He drove on this clearly restored road toward whatever was ahead, passing the first of the road signs, that road sign on his immediate right.

The first sign was all white with the figure of “Fancy Joe” on the left side of it.

Fancy Joe was a cartoon man in a dapper black tux and red bowtie, his short-cut blond hair slicked up and back in that iconic ’50s style, his dress shoes a gleaming black in the late-day sun. The words “Do you know Joe?” were doled out in a curvy red font right next to him.

“No, I don’t know Joe,” smirked Miguel.

He didn’t need to know Joe to know Joe had way too much money and time on his hands, two very important things Miguel had never had.

“I don’t want to know Joe, either,” he finished.

The next road sign came up a minute later, this time on the left side of the road. This sign was nearly identical to the first one but with some minor differences. Fancy Joe had both hands out with both index fingers pointing down toward the road, and the sign read, “Joe knows you.”

“Joe doesn’t know me,” smirked Miguel. “Even I don’t know me.”

A third road sign popped up into view on his right, but this one was a little…odd.

The third road sign had a black background, not white, and it portrayed the full face of Fancy Joe, a weird grin plastered all over the mascot’s clean-cut, cartoon face. The lettering on the sign was in bold, white, block caps to stand out against the black background, that ivory lettering centered beneath Joe’s oddly-grinning face, and it read, “JOE WATCHES. JOE WAITS.”

Miguel had nothing to say about this one. The sign was too weird from him to comment upon, even if he was only commenting to himself. Nevertheless, the strangeness of it, the sheer oddness of nonconformity in picture and word, made him shiver right down to his tan work boots.

He shrugged off that superstitious nonsense, chalking the whole thing up to a terrible marketing campaign. The ’50s were a different time, so who knew what those people were thinking back then.

Besides, someone had clearly come out here and was in the process of restoring the road and the signs, so it was a good bet they were restoring the factory as well. Perhaps some private company had come out here and bought the land…Miguel had no idea, but things seemed safe enough, so there was no reason not to take this shortcut.

Still, he could feel an oppressiveness, a sensation as if slowly being covered in glue, and this did not sit well with him. Nevertheless, he chalked this up to even more superstition, so he quieted his own mind, a stillness that acted as a wall against primal fear.

He saw her walking on the right side of the road after that brief interlude of stifling silence for himself, and the act of simply seeing another human being, no matter how mundane such an action was, perked him up by an infinite measure.

The young lady walking along the dirt and scrub grass on the right side of the road was walking in the direction he had come from, but what she was doing out here on this supposedly abandoned road, or better yet, what she was doing out here alone, he did not know.

He slowed down to check her out. Normally, he wouldn’t give a stranger the time of day while on the road—it was simply too dangerous—but she seemed harmless enough.

The young white woman in question had short-cut hair, that hair clearly dyed to a raven black, with streaks of dark crimson in her bangs. That look stood out because it was edgy without the edge…Most girls he knew like that had fully-dyed hair with a nose ring between their nostrils. Facial piercings were popular anymore, but this young lady had none that he could see from this distance.

She wore a black T-shirt that held some jagged white lettering and a picture of some death-metal band, and this look was accented by her black cargo jeans, the kind with the extra pockets along the legs and bottom.

She also wore a pair of black boots much like his own tan ones, black outdoorsman boots meant for hiking or perhaps work, so her feet probably weren’t suffering in this terrain like they would have from ordinary sneakers.

Once again, he normally wouldn’t have stopped for anyone, and he was going to keep on driving—he had only slowed down to take a closer look—but she waved her hands at him in what appeared to be an effort to get him to stop.

He really needed to keep driving, because the clock was ticking on reaching his family before Isabella’s wedding, but if his family had taught him anything, it was to help those in need if he could.

Besides…she was built like an hourglass with fairly big boobs underneath that T-shirt, and she was cute in the face.

He felt a momentary twinge of guilt for thinking those last thoughts, but he was also human, so he slowly drove to a halt next to her.

The young woman walked around to the driver’s-side window, and Miguel rolled down his window to talk to her. The weather was fairly nice out here for mid-to-late spring, but he’d had the windows up anyway, if only for his own privacy.

“Hi!” smiled the young lady.

“Hello,” said Miguel in awkward reply.

He was not particularly good with girls, but he wanted to be.

“Ummm…I’m trying to get to the plant up ahead, but my ride ditched me,” said the young woman. “Could you give me a ride? The factory’s just up ahead.”

This young lady had to be around his own age, in her early twenties, and she was friendly, so Miguel had no issues with giving her an equally friendly lift. He probably wouldn’t have done this for—oh—a man, but he pushed those selfish thoughts down and did not dwell on them.

“Sure,” smiled Miguel.

He realized he was grinning like a fool, and he tried to suppress that stupid grin, but “chasing tail” was not something he was accomplished in. The thought of anything occurring between him and this young woman was incredibly stupid and unrealistic, but it was still there, and he could not ignore it. Besides…Isabella would understand if he were a little late. He had a little bit of time he could waste.

“Hop in,” said Miguel. “I’m heading in that direction myself.”

It occurred to him that she had been walking in the opposite direction of the plastics plant, but she probably had her reasons for that. He wasn’t going to question her decision to go back the way she had come from.

The young woman walked back around the front of Miguel’s truck, opened the passenger door, and stepped up to take a seat. She buckled in, looked over at him, and smiled a broad smile.

“I’m Kelly,” she said.

“M…Miguel,” said Miguel nervously.

This young white girl had flawless skin, shiny almost. He could see the curves of her breasts beneath her black T-shirt, and the shape of her large nipples was quite obvious as well. It was clear she was not wearing a bra.

Madre de Dios, she was definitely out of his league. He found his features to be a combination of rugged and awkward, though he did not consider himself ugly. Even so, there was still a chance…They were around the same age, right?

Of course, he had never dated anyone before, and this was a white girl, so even if he did somehow and by some miracle manage to hook up with her, his family would…

These thoughts were stupid. He needed to focus.

“Uhhh…you said the plant is just up ahead?” he asked. “I’m actually heading to the interstate.”

“Oh, that’s okay,” smiled this “Kelly.” “You can just drop me off at the plant.”

“Oh…” replied Miguel, but he could not fully hide the disappointment in his voice.

Well, so much for any stupid thoughts of hooking up with some random hitcher…Oh, well. Still, he could make conversation with her. That was always nice.

He thought no more on it.

He put the truck in drive, pushed in on the clutch, and they were off.

His new passenger wasted no time in starting conversation, so there was no awkward silence, and Miguel had absolutely no problem with that. He didn’t mind the conversation anyway. It was better than not talking at all.

“Yeah, my friends and I were going to investigate the old Jepson plant,” said Kelly. “We have our own channel, Witches and Ghosts. The others bailed out at the last second, though. They got a ‘bad feeling’ and bolted. They never went past the south entrance. What a bunch of cowards.”

“Uhhh…yeah,” he said, unsure of how to answer that.

“I decided to go it alone just to check the place out,” said Kelly in a confident tone. “I’ve tried to call them I don’t know how many times, but my phone isn’t getting any reception out here…This must be a dead zone.”

She fumbled around in the front right pocket of her black cargo pants and pulled out a small red flip phone. The thing was a veritable dinosaur anymore with the advent of smartphones, but Miguel couldn’t even afford a flip phone, so at least she had some kind of phone. That was a step above him.

In fact, he had to use a friend’s phone for family calls, but that was okay. He’d have money once his career was up and running, and that meant finishing his trade school in mechanics. His family sent him just enough money to survive on every month, and he was grateful for that, because it was a lot for them to send…He wasn’t really a complainer anyway. Oh, he had his moments, but he was just grateful for what he already had.

Kelly flipped open her dinosaur of a phone but shook her head in disappointment.

“Still no service,” she said unhappily. “I guess connection just sucks out here, you Joe?”

“Yeah,” said Miguel, but honestly, he had no phone anyway, so it didn’t really matter.

He could see a building complex in the distance. Apparently, they were arriving at Kelly’s destination far faster than Miguel had anticipated.

“That’s it,” nodded Kelly. “That’s the old Jepson plant. They say it’s been hidden here since the ’50s, but we couldn’t find any records on it. We filmed my interview with an old man at a gas station, and he had a few colorful things to say, so I knew investigating here was the right call. That old guy was spooked about the possibility of us Joeing up here, though. Let me tell you, he was a strange one, you Joe?”

“Yeah…” said Miguel, but then he thought better about it. “Wait…What?”

“If I had known those losers were going to ditch me,” continued Kelly, “there’s Joe way I would have trusted them with this. I should have Joewn. Anyway, here we are.”

Miguel shook his head a couple of times. He was not sure if she was playing him or if he was just tired. He could have sworn she had replaced some words with “Joe,” but that didn’t make any sense…

He was probably just tired.

He drove down the main drag of this complex, but the buildings here did not look “abandoned.” They looked normal, untouched by time, though he could not see any people in the immediate vicinity.

Yeah, it was clear now that someone had bought this land and had restored the factory.

They drove for a bit past large factory buildings coupled with smaller buildings of unknown purpose, but Kelly had him stop before one particularly huge building with giant, off-white, concrete, cylindrical stacks protruding from the center of it, like what you would see at a power plant.

Of course, Miguel had no idea what a power plant looked like, but he had an image in his head of their likeness, so that was good enough.

“Yep, right here,” smiled Kelly.

Miguel put the truck in park and gave her a nervous smile in return.

“Aww, you’re such a good Samaritan, Miguel,” said Kelly. “I think you deserve a reward.”

“I do?” asked Miguel.

He had no idea what this was about.

“Yep,” nodded the young woman. “We can park here for a bit. You don’t have to run the engine…We can talk a little.”

“Oh…” said Miguel in slight surprise.

This was interesting. He did not know what she wanted, but…he was willing to give her some time.

He turned off the engine, put the key in his left jeans pocket, sat back, and gave her his full attention.

“Roll down your window,” nodded Kelly. “Let’s get some fresh air in here. Let’s enjoy each other’s company for a few minutes.”

Miguel felt his heart flutter as he rolled down his window. This was definitely getting interesting.

He once again turned his full attention back upon her, because this was kind of exciting.

Kelly stuffed her flip phone back into her top cargo pocket and shone him a devilish grin. That grin surprised him a bit, mainly because he did not know the meaning behind it.

“Okay,” he said nervously. “What do you want to talk about?”

“You seem like a good little Christian boy, Miguel,” grinned Kelly. “Are you a good little Christian boy?…Don’t answer that, because I already Joe the answer. I can tell you’re a good little Christian boy.”

He did not know how to respond to that.

“I…uhhh…” he trailed.

“Personally, I’m as naughty as they get,” continued the young woman. “I don’t see anything wrong with being expressive in my sexuality…and…I can tell that’s what you really want, Miguel. It’s written all over your face…I can tell, you Joe.”

He gave an anxious laugh and shrugged. He really didn’t know what to do with this kind of conversation.

“Does little Miguel want a treat for helping out naughty, naughty Kelly?” asked the young woman in a condescending tone, her lips puckering for added effect.

“Uhhh…” said Miguel nervously.

He really had no idea where this was going, but whatever this was, he was definitely intrigued.

“I…I guess,” said Miguel. “What…kind of…treat…are we talking about?”

He’d drawled those words out, because he had an electric excitement running through him now. His hands were shaking, because he was truly hoping this was leading to something more.

“You’re too moral, too sexually ethical,” said Kelly. “You’re a good little boy, aren’t you? I can tell, so…you can touch my boobs, Miguel. You can feel me up…That’s what you want, isn’t it? I Joe it’s what you need.”

“Excuse me?” asked Miguel.

He felt his cheeks burn with an inner fire. This was…unexpected. He had hoped it would be something like this, but that hope was your average guy’s unrealistic, inane fantasy, not reality. He’d never dealt with anything like this before…It stumped him into frozen silence.

“Come on, don’t be shy,” said Kelly. “I’ve got pretty big boobs, and I Joe you want to touch them…I knew that the moment you looked at me…

“You need to get hard, Miguel. You need to get nice and stiff in order to loosen up those nasty morals that are holding you back…Just reach over and feel them, Miguel. I’m not wearing a bra…You can run your fingers over my nipples. They’re nice and perky right now. You can pull them, feel what they’re like…Besides, I like it when my nipples are pulled…Come on, touch my boobs, Christian boy, and I’ll give you an even better treat.”

Miguel had no idea what to do or what to say. Perhaps this was how white girls flirted, or perhaps this was just Kelly’s way of starting something more, something Miguel had only briefly fantasized about. Nevertheless, he was no fool. He was not passing up this opportunity.

“I…uhhh…I…Okay…” he stammered.

He awkwardly unbuckled his seatbelt as Kelly unbuckled hers.

She turned to face him and puffed out her chest in expectation.

He had never done this before, but she clearly wanted it, so who was he to judge? This was like a rite of passage for him anyway…Oh, he was definitely telling the guys at school about this.

He slowly reached over and gently cupped both hands beneath her ample, braless breasts.

It took him only a few seconds to realize that not only was something wrong, something was very, very wrong.

Her rather large breasts felt hard and smooth, like hanging gourds, and her nipples, though erect, were as hard and as firm as the flesh of the breasts he was cupping. It was as if her breasts were entirely fake, because he was pretty sure they were supposed to be soft and pliant.

“What the fu…” began Miguel, but that expletive died in his throat as he looked up at her face.

“Don’t you Joe perverts go to Hell, Miguel?” asked the young woman.

She was grinning at him, a huge smile filled with perfect teeth, but her face was shiny and smooth as if coated in plastic, as if she were plastic, all of her, that plastic vibrantly colored with a semblance of life that was uncanny, a shock and disturbance of sanity that froze Miguel in place.

Even her perfect teeth looked like little alabaster plastic pegs lined up beneath her crimson plastic lips, but it was her dark, shiny, plastic eyes that disturbed him the most. Those plastic orbs really terrified him, because they were soulless, empty, like doll’s eyes.

He was too stunned to even cry out.

Kelly reached up with her mannequin-like right hand and gripped Miguel’s left wrist with a vice-like force that immediately caused him to wince in pain.

“Do you know Joe, Miguel?” she asked. “Joe knows you. Joe waits for little perverts like you. He’s always watching, you Joe.”

He stared down at the black T-shirt she was wearing. The death-metal logo on it had been replaced by the grinning, eerie face of Fancy Joe, the lettering beneath that cartoon face stating in bold, white, block, capital letters, “JOE KNOWS.”

There were no thoughts in his head as Miguel flung open the driver’s-side door and launched himself from his own truck. He ripped his left wrist out of her firm grip, for even though she was unnaturally strong, the slick plastic of her “skin” afforded him some escape route, if only due to her surprise from his quick reaction.

He took off toward some buildings across the street, but he didn’t make it very far before he heard Kelly’s shouting.

“HE’S HERE!” screamed the young woman. “HE’S OVER HERE!”

One person after the next came walking out of the buildings across the street. They were a varied lot, the men dressed in suits and ties, the women in business dresses, some of the men in guard uniforms, a couple in army uniforms, all that clothing dated, their hairstyles dated, all of them white people, all of them plastic in skin and rigid in their walking form.

Miguel turned and ran the opposite direction. The only escape route was toward the large building with the stacks, so he headed for that.

“Where are you Joeing, Miguel!” yelled Kelly. “There’s nowhere for perverts like you to Joe! Joe waits, Miguel! Joe watches!”

“Do you know Joe!” came the voices of many people in the distance. “Joe knows you!”

Miguel did not look back as that line of plastic horrors marched in plastic time to their own plastic beat.

He practically slammed into a singular metal door embedded in the brick wall of the large factory building he was escaping to.

By some miracle of fate, the door was not locked, though this was not necessarily a good thing. It occurred to him that he needed to find a way to bar that door as he stepped into the darkness of this old building, so he swiveled on his tan leather work boots and flipped the turn lock on the door the moment he slammed that entrance shut.

He took a moment to stare through the wire-crossed, reinforced glass of a small rectangular window, that window centered at the top of the door. The crowd outside had stopped moving; they had stopped advancing, but they all stood in a perfect stillness, each with shiny plastic skin, each with those weird plastic grins and dead, soulless eyes.

He could see them chanting in unity, the crowd chanting something over and over again, and though he could not read lips, he was certain of what they kept repeating, a certainty born out of a swift and unnatural understanding, that repeated chant ushered forth by so many plastic lips:

“Joe watches. Joe waits. Joe watches. Joe waits. Joe watches. Joe waits…”

His fear of this insanity was not helping. He needed to get his bearings.

Miguel turned to inspect his surroundings.

This place was dark compared to the outside, but there was dim electric lighting shining down from various rectangular lamps mounted on the high ceiling, that ceiling two stories up, those overhead lamps large enough to give light this far down, but how this place even received power or electricity anymore, he had no idea.

There was a brick wall to his left with a set of staggered metal stairs leading up, and to his right were a number of offices with wooden doors and frosted glass across them. He could see lighting in those rooms as well.

He was in some kind of administration area. He had noticed double doors to the left of the door he had entered, three pairs of double doors, but he had chosen the singular door, and…he was probably trapped.

It occurred to him there might be weapons in the offices, maybe even a gun, but he was not sure how much damage he could do to these plastic people…Those walking mannequins looked tough, not to mention the sheer strength Kelly had possessed while grabbing him.

The situation looked bleak.

Of course, there were always the stairs up…

“Who are you?” came a small voice from off to his right.

Miguel let out a startled shriek of surprise, but then he came to his senses upon viewing the source of that voice, or rather, the child that had spoken it.

A boy of eleven or twelve stood before Miguel, but where this kid had come from, Miguel had no idea.

This little towheaded white boy with blue eyes was dressed in a nice brown dress jacket and brown slacks with black dress shoes on his feet. He had a little black bowtie on his white, button-up dress shirt, and this formal style of dress, coupled with the boy’s sudden appearance, caused Miguel to take a step back.

“Where did you come from!” gasped Miguel.

“I’m stuck here, just like you,” frowned the boy.

“Who are you?” asked Miguel.

He was feeling a little braver now, because there was an aura about this boy, a sort of light that did not give off the oppressive feeling of impending doom Miguel had felt outside of this building. In fact, the mere presence of this boy calmed Miguel somewhat, though he did not know why.

“I’m Peter,” said the boy. “My dad is the lead scientist here…or at least, he was. He…died.”

“Oh…” said Miguel.

Honestly, he did not know how to reply to that.

“Now…who are you?” asked the boy. “I asked you first anyway.”

“I’m Miguel,” said Miguel. “Do you know what’s going on out there, Peter? These people are…I don’t know what they are, but they’re dangerous! You have to get out of here!”

“I’ve tried,” shrugged Peter. “I can’t go out there, or they’ll get me, so I’m stuck in here. They won’t come in here…This is where my dad worked…upstairs. The plastic people don’t come in here for some reason.”

“Upstairs?” asked Miguel. “What’s upstairs?”

“That’s the overlook,” said Peter. “That’s where my dad and the other scientists watched over the experiments. My dad called it a ‘control room.’ There’s a big window up there that looks down on the experiment room. There’s some kind of machinery down there, but I don’t know what any of it does.”

“So this building isn’t for plastics?” asked Miguel.

“Uh, uh,” said Peter as he shook his head no. “Not this half. This building is really big, because one side is for plastics and the other is for the experiments, but like I said, I don’t know what the experiments were for. I just know that…something went wrong, and everybody died.”

“Wait…You’re telling me that old man was right?” asked Miguel.

“What old man?” asked Peter.

“Never mind,” frowned Miguel. “It doesn’t matter…We have to find a way out of here, Peter.”

He could sense this kid wasn’t a threat, and if this boy wasn’t a threat, then Miguel needed to get him out of here. Miguel was not the kind of person who would leave anyone behind, especially a child. That simply didn’t sit right with him.

“I’ve tried,” frowned Peter. “I’ve snuck around out there, but the plastic people are everywhere. The ones who didn’t die during the experiment became the plastic people.

“Anybody that comes here? The plastic people grab them and take them to the plastics vats. They dip them in the molten plastic, and then those people become like them, like plastic…I know; I’ve seen it happen.”

“So that girl out there?” asked Miguel. “The one I picked up? She said her name was Kelly…Was she—”

“I know her,” said Peter. “I followed them when they grabbed her off the road. They took off all her clothes and threw her in a vat…She screamed as she went in, and her skin melted, and…and…her face…I ran…I…don’t want to talk about it.”

“But she wasn’t like that when I first met her,” said Miguel in confusion. “She looked like a normal person.”

“That’s how they get you,” frowned Peter. “They can disguise themselves as normal people…but they don’t come in here. That’s how I knew you weren’t one of them.”

“Wait…” said Miguel as he shook his head in even more confusion. “Kelly…She said she was shooting a video, that she had her own channel. She said she filmed that old man at the gas station…”

Something burned its way into Miguel’s forebrain, something the old man had said that screamed at him with an illogical sense of chronology.

“Wait a minute…” he breathed. “That old man at the gas station said something about a missing girl who did internet videos, but he said she went missing years ago…That doesn’t make any sense…unless…No, wait…The old man said the accident happened in the 19…No, that can’t be right…”

This was thoroughly confounding him. He had a theory as to what was going on, and that theory was pure science fiction, but if he was right and that theory turned out to be true, then everything had just gotten so much worse. Nevertheless, he had to know.

“Peter, what year is it?” he asked.

“Why would you ask me that?” asked the boy in visible confusion. “It’s 1958.”

Miguel felt the blood drain from his face. Apparently, his theory was not so much a theory as it was reality…Time stood still here. It certainly explained the way the road and the buildings looked…No one was rebuilding out here, no. No, nothing had actually aged.

“What’s wrong?” asked Peter. “You look funny.”

Miguel shook his head and steeled his resolve. He needed to get both himself and Peter out of here, and right away. His truck was right outside, and he had the keys on him, so all he needed was a way to get to his truck…or fight his way to it.

“Do you know if there are any weapons in here, Peter?” asked Miguel. “My truck is right outside. If I can get us to it, we can drive out of here.”

This caught Peter’s attention. The boy immediately perked up at the slim chance of escape.

“The army had some soldiers here before the accident,” nodded Peter. “They were here along with the security guards. There’s a room upstairs with some rifles in it…My dad told me I couldn’t mess with them, so I never did, but…but they’re still up there!”

A rifle would do. A rifle could possibly have enough punch to kill some of those things.

Miguel bent down and grabbed both of Peter’s shoulders.

“That’s good!” said Miguel in excitement. “Let’s go get a rifle!…I hope there’s ammunition we can use.”

“There is,” smiled Peter. “The rifles are already loaded. My dad called them M14s. They’re army rifles.”

“Great!” grinned Miguel. “Let’s get one and get out of here!”

Peter grinned in return and then led Miguel up the staggered metal stairs to the “overlook.” A heavy metal door barred their way, but it proved to be unlocked, which was good, because a rifle was pretty much the only plan Miguel had at the moment.

They walked into the control room, and Miguel took a moment to look around.

It was the bodies that gave him pause.

There were desiccated, mummified bodies scattered around the room, all lying in various positions on the grey-tiled floor, save one, that singular corpse slumped over a large desk with various, very-dated electronic equipment built across it. There was a large window spanning the north wall, and Miguel could look out that window to see the lab room below.

The bodies around the room were still wearing suits and white lab coats, though there was no dust or signs of damage due to time upon their clothes. Miguel did not know what had happened to them during this “accident,” but whatever had happened, it had not been good.

He had been to funerals before, so he had seen dead bodies, but he had never seen dead bodies like this…definitely not this many, either.

“Peter…what happened in here?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” shrugged the boy. “The alarms went off, and then my dad shoved me in the back room over there. That room is where the guns are. My dad shoved me in there and then locked the door. That’s the only thing I can remember about the accident.”

“Uh, huh,” said Miguel. “Well…let’s get that rifle and get out of here.”

Peter nodded toward another metal door, this one across the control room at the east wall.

“It’s that room over there,” said Peter. “I can’t go in there, though…I just can’t go in there again. I don’t want to.”

“It’s okay,” said Miguel. “I’ll go in and get the rifle. I can understand if you don’t want to go in there.”

“There’s something bad in there, Miguel,” warned Peter in a near whisper. “I can feel it. That’s why I never go in there, so…be careful.”

“Bad?” asked Miguel. “Oh, boy. It’s always something, isn’t it?”

He closed his eyes, shook his head once, and steeled himself again. He opened his eyes a moment later and gave Peter a serious stare.

“I’ve got to get that gun,” he said firmly. “Bad or not, we need that rifle, so…I’m going in.”

Even so, Peter’s warning stuck with Miguel as he maneuvered around dead bodies to get to the east door, but he had to ignore that warning…He didn’t have a choice.

He pushed down the handle of the door, but the singular metal door was thoroughly locked.

“Peter, this door is locked,” said Miguel. “Did you lock it when you left it?”

The boy shrugged and gave Miguel a clueless look.

“I think my dad has the keys to it,” said Peter. “He’s over there…at the console.”

Miguel looked over toward the singular, mummified body that lay slumped over the control-room console desk.

Ooooh, great,” he breathed. “Time to get the keys…Okay…I can do this…”

He stepped around bodies again as he walked over to the console desk. He gingerly pulled back the corpse’s lab coat, but then he felt the weight of something in the deceased man’s left coat pocket.

“Sorry, Peter’s Dad,” he murmured.

He pulled forth a ring of keys, breathed out a sigh of relief at their welcomed sight, and then walked back to the south door. It took him a bit of fumbling to find the right key, but one of them turned over the lock, and that was all he needed.

Miguel paused and took in a deep breath. He needed to be careful opening this door. If there really was something bad in this room, he needed to be prepared to immediately slam the door shut and lock it.

He released his held breath and turned the door handle.

“I’m going to open the door now,” he said firmly. “Peter, stay back.”

“You don’t have to tell me twice,” said the boy.

Miguel opened the door and quickly scanned the room, but honestly, he wished he hadn’t.

This room was actually a small armory, with working electric lighting displaying the room’s contents, so there was no issue of finding or turning on a light. There were racks of rifles along the south side of the room and metal lockers and lockboxes along the north and east walls, so there were definitely guns in here, but that was not the issue.

“Don’t look, Peter,” he said gently. “I’ll be right back.”

“Be careful,” said the boy once more.

Miguel stepped into the room and closed the door behind him. He did not want Peter to see what was inside.

Miguel walked forward and inspected the small body lying on its side next to the south-wall gun racks. The boy’s mummified body was still dressed in a nice brown dress jacket and brown slacks with black dress shoes on his feet. That body also had on a little black bowtie with a white, button-up dress shirt, immediately confirming what Miguel had suspected upon first seeing the body.

Peter was a ghost…He had to be.

Miguel shivered all the way down to his work boots. He was terrified of the supernatural, but considering he had not sensed any ill intent from Peter, and considering he’d already escaped those plastic horrors outside, this was par for the course…Besides, he had not changed his mind about escaping with the boy. Maybe getting out of here would allow Peter’s soul to rest.

“Madre de Dios,” whispered Miguel.

He made the sign of the cross, said a silent prayer, and then grabbed the nearest rifle off the south-wall racks. Peter had been correct; the rifle already had a clip in it, so it was time to go.

He pulled open the armory door and quickly shut it behind him.

“Was there something bad in there?” asked Peter.

“Uhhh…yeah,” said Miguel. “It…It doesn’t matter. Don’t worry about what’s in that room…We need to leave. We have to get out of here now, Peter.”

“I want to leave, but…” trailed off Peter.

“But what?” asked Miguel.

“It’s just that…there’s something else out there,” replied Peter. “There’s something else out there other than the plastic people.”

“Something else out there?” asked Miguel. “What else could possibly be out there?”

“I don’t know, but my dad did,” said the boy. “I know he did. Whatever it is…it’s worse than the plastic people.”

“Worse than them?” asked Miguel. “How do you know?”

“I’ve listened to my dad’s last recording,” said Peter. “You should hear it before we go. I know I said I didn’t know what happened, but that wasn’t really true. Whatever is out there?…It killed everyone in here.”

Ooookaaay,” replied Miguel with wide eyes.

He did not like the sound of that.

Peter took the initiative this time. The boy walked over to his dad’s body, reached past the corpse’s withered and mummified right hand, and pressed a large red button. A recorded message picked up after that from a speaker in the console, a message that had to be the dead man’s last words.

“There’s no time left…” came the recorded voice amidst the crackle of some kind of interference. “We succeeded in opening the portal. The tunnel to the other universe is stable but has merged with our reality…<Crackle>…Can’t close it…<Crackle>…Something came through…Dear God, it resided in-between…

“<Crackle>…It’s been waiting, watching…<Crackle>…It’s too powerful…<Crackle>…Something terrible, horrific…<Crackle>…My God, it’s merged with Fancy…<Static whine>…<Crackle>…Get help…<Crackle>…It’s killing us…<Static whine>…Feels like I’m drowning…<Crackle>…Must protect Peter…<Crackle>…Can’t close the portal…<Static whine>…God save us all…<Static whine and message ends>.”

Miguel felt the blood drain from his face yet again. This situation had just gotten a whole lot worse.

“Tunnel to another universe?” he asked himself. “Something terrible and horrific? What does that even mean? What in the hell did these people do?”

He shook his head, took in yet another deep breath, and steadied himself again.

“Doesn’t matter,” he said in stark resignation. “We have to get out of here, and we have to go now…We have to go…both of us. I’m getting you out of here, Peter.”

“Yeah,” nodded Peter. “Let’s get out of here.”

Miguel clutched his new rifle and led Peter out of the control room. They made their way down the metal steps to the only currently-known entry and exit to this part of the building.

Miguel took a quick scan of the outside through the wire-crossed square window at the top of the door, surmised there was no one in sight, and nodded once.

“Let’s go,” he said in a shaky voice.

He did not know where all of the plastic people had gone, but he could clearly see his truck, and Kelly was no longer in it. The street was empty, and the truck was clear, so…

He pulled down on the handle, yanked open the door, and both of them ran for the truck.

He ran around the front of his truck and yanked open the driver’s-side door just as the plastic people emerged from the buildings across the street.

“Get in the truck, Peter!” yelled Miguel.

“Joe watches. Joe waits,” chanted the crowd of plastic horrors. “Joe watches. Joe waits. Joe watches. Joe waits…”

Thankfully, Miguel had fired a rifle before. Guns were as ubiquitous as candy in this country, so he had no issues as to how to handle a firearm.

He swung the rifle up into a firing position, aimed for a man in a security-guard uniform, and then pulled the trigger. There was a loud “BANG!” as the rifle fired, Miguel felt the kick of the stock against his right shoulder, and then the plastic man he was firing at went down to the asphalt, a good-sized hole in his forehead, right between his eyes.

“Yes!” cried Miguel, an electric pulse of temporary victory surging through him.

And temporary it was. Miguel’s goodtime feeling of victory evaporated as the plasticized security guard he had just put down got to his feet and continued walking forward along with the other plastic people. The man still had the hole in his head, right between his eyes, but this did not slow him down in the slightest.

“Change of plan!” yelled Miguel.

He launched himself into the driver’s seat just as Peter was climbing into the passenger’s seat. Miguel set the rifle in-between them both, buckled in as quickly as he could—record time, in fact—pulled his truck key from his left jeans pocket, and then jammed the key into the ignition. He turned that key, balanced the clutch and the gas, and heard the rumble of the engine a second later.

The plastic people were much faster than he had anticipated. These once-people of plastic sheen and uncanny grins were at Miguel’s light-green truck just as Miguel shifted into first and hit the gas.

Naturally and of course, he had left the window open.

One of them, the fastest one out of the group, a tall man with brown hair, this plastic man dressed in a grey business suit with a red tie and white dress shirt, managed to reach the truck. This horrifying living mannequin grabbed ahold of Miguel’s truck door just as Miguel was pulling forward.

Miguel hit the gas in order to keep this plastic-coated terror from reaching inside, and the man’s black dress shoes dragged along asphalt as he clung to the open door-window.

“Do you know Joe!” cried the plastic horror. “Joe knows you!”

“Miguel, the rifle!” cried Peter.

Miguel steadied the wheel, let go of it, his foot still on the gas, reached over, and grabbed the rifle with both hands.

He quickly flipped the rifle over and tagged the plastic man in the face with the butt end of it, once, twice, and then a third time.

“I don’t…know…Joe!” yelled Miguel, each section of that sentence matching in time with each strike of the rifle.

The third strike did the trick. This plastic perversion of a man popped free of the door and rolled onto passing blacktop as Miguel dropped the rifle in his own lap and struggled to steer the truck.

The truck weaved from one side of the road to the other, but Miguel managed to steady the vehicle without crashing it, and then they were on their way…They were on their way.

“Yeah!” yelled Miguel. “Yeah!…Let’s get the hell out of here!”

He moved the rifle in his lap to the space in-between himself and Peter, and then he breathed out a well-deserved sigh of relief.

He hit the gas and drove north, that direction leading up a lazy incline that blocked the horizon, and this time he wasn’t going to stop for anything.

“We did it!” he said excitedly. “We did it, Peter!…Peter?…Peter?”

He stared over at the boy’s face, but Peter had gone as white as a sheet, his lips slightly parted, his blue eyes widened in sudden fear.

“Yo, little man,” said Miguel. “What’s up? What’s wrong?”

“We can’t go this way,” breathed out Peter. “We have to turn around.”

Of course, there was no way Miguel was turning the truck around.

“What?” he asked. “What are you talking about? We can’t turn around…Those things are back there. We have to keep going…this…way…”

He turned his vision back upon the road, but the road sign on his right made all of his thoughts trail off into scattered nothing.

The large road sign held the cartoon face of Fancy Joe upon a black background, but that face was grinning from ear to ear, the eyebrows slanted downwards as a menacing accent to a clearly malevolent stare. The words “WHERE ARE YOU GOING, MIGUEL?” were splayed out across the bottom of the sign in large, white, block, capital letters.

Miguel could feel an oppressive cloud settle over him, similar to the dark aura he had first felt upon driving down this accursed road, but this time it was stronger, much stronger.

“We have to go this way…” breathed Miguel as he continued to drive forward in a stupid daze.

He couldn’t stop now. They had to get out of here.

But Peter had a different take on the situation.

“You’re going the wrong way!” cried Peter. “Besides, he knows, Miguel! He knows! We have to go back!”

“I…I can’t…” stammered Miguel. “We can’t go back now! Those plastic people will be there waiting! We can’t turn around, Peter! Can’t you see that!”

They drove up the hill that had previously blocked the horizon, and then they hit the top of that hill, but Miguel let off the gas until the truck rolled to an eventual halt.

And with good reason. There was a giant plastic statue of Fancy Joe, fancy tux and all, straddling the road, a large road sign clutched within the statue’s left hand, the thing’s grinning white teeth, dark eyes, and blonde, plastic, slicked-back hair all gleaming brightly in the late-day sun.

That choking, cloying feeling of suffocation came over Miguel like a fetid pool of dank perfume. It was so strong now that he felt as if he were drowning despite the lack of a single drop of water in sight.

Miguel’s eyes wandered upwards to view the forty-foot-tall monstrosity they had to drive beneath.

The road sign in the statue’s left hand, this road sign with a great big cartoon eye upon it, read, “I SEE YOU!”

Miguel felt his heart stop as the statue’s gigantic eyes pivoted downwards to stare right through him, two great white and dark orbs of painted plastic untouched by the ravages of time.

“Madre de—” started Miguel.

“Drive, Miguel!” screeched Peter.

Miguel hit the gas without thinking, no conscious directive ordering his foot to push the pedal to the truck floor.

Miguel’s old, light-green truck sped forward just as the giant right hand of this statue reached down to grab the vehicle, those huge digits grasping nothing but air as the truck zoomed between the great statue’s legs.

Miguel’s tan right work boot practically punched a hole through the truck floor as the vehicle’s speedometer needle danced upwards in a slow progression toward actual speed.

He checked the rearview mirror and could see the statue turn, and then that enormous plastic likeness of Fancy Joe Jepson began its pursuit, those huge, black, plastic dress shoes thumping out a massive beat in tandem with its massive legs.

Miguel cried out a litany of prayer in Spanish as he struggled to keep his sanity. That feeling of suffocation was so cloying now, it was drowning him with the sensation of being overwhelmed by something sweet and deadly at the same time.

Miguel looked up into the rearview mirror. The grinning face of Kelly stared back at him from the rear window.

“Miguel, LOOK OUT!” screeched Peter.

The back window of the truck, that glass thick enough to withstand some serious punishment, shattered anyway as Kelly’s plastic fist punched through it.

Miguel fought to keep the truck from swerving this way and that as Kelly’s arm wrapped around his chest, that plastic hand groping for anything it could find to grip.

She had been hiding in the truck bed. She had been hiding in the truck bed, and he had not thought to check it beforehand.

Miguel reached up and struggled with that insanely powerful arm with his own right hand as he kept his left hand on the wheel.

“Touch my boobs, Miguel!” yelled Kelly from behind him. “You Joe you want to!”

He swerved hard to avoid a crashed, burnt-out car in the center of the road, and then he avoided bodies, a couple of them, desiccated, mummified things with the distinct look of more modern clothing than the 1950s had ever had to offer.

There were more crushed, crashed, or overturned vehicles ahead, SUVs, trucks, and cars of different makes and models, some with mummified bodies draped over broken windows and shattered windshields.

No wonder no one had ever made it out of here. Fancy Joe had been busy.

Miguel swerved this way and that to avoid crashed vehicles, bodies, and debris as he desperately struggled against Kelly’s insanely powerful grip. The girl was way too strong, way, way too powerful for that strength to be natural, but Miguel was thoroughly juiced to the max on adrenaline, so he had some defense against her, though he could not pry her from him, try as he might.

The truck weaved onto dirt and scrub grass on the right side of the road, only to cross that blacktop to weave in dirt and scrub grass on the left.

“You can’t Joe this way, Miguel!” cried Kelly. “There’s nowhere for perverts like you to Joe!”

Miguel shrieked as a burnt-out car, one he had previously swerved around, came crashing down on the truck’s immediate right…

Fancy Joe Jepson was throwing them now.

The great statue chasing them scooped up yet another vehicle in Miguel’s rearview, this time an SUV. It softballed that heap in one smooth huck, and the truck would have been struck, flattened even, but Kelly’s terrible grip had found Miguel’s short black hair.

Miguel cried out in pain as his head pulled to the right, and this forced him to accidently turn the wheel. The truck swerved to the right, and the tossed SUV crashed down where they had just been.

“Touch my boobs, Miguel!” yelled Kelly. “Pull my nipples! Pull on my perky nipples, you pervert! Don’t you Joe all perverts Joe to Hell!”

Miguel swerved his truck to the left and crossed the road again, this time avoiding someone else’s overturned truck. He swerved just in time, right as a derelict scrapheap of a car crashed down from the sky at the point they had just left, that car smashing into the overturned truck Miguel had just avoided.

“Joe knows!” cried Kelly. “He Joes you’re a pervert, Miguel, so pull my perky nipples, little Christian boy! You’ve already touched them once! Pull my nipples and Joe to Hell!”

She had a firm grip on his short black hair, and that hurt like mad, mad enough for him to get mad. He swore a storm of curses in Spanish and then switched those curses to English.

“Get off me, you crazy plastic bi—!” yelled Miguel.

“Take the rifle, Miguel!” cried Peter in return, cutting short Miguel’s own expletive.

Peter had propped up the rifle between them both, that barrel right beneath Kelly’s shiny plastic face, Peter’s small hands steadying the firearm as best he could.

The young woman turned her dead, soulless, doll’s eyes upon Peter, but then those dead eyes widened in surprise.

“You!” she shrieked. “Joe’s been looking fo—!”

Miguel let go of Kelly’s arm, reached over with his right hand, and mashed down on the M14’s trigger with his index and middle finger. There was a deafening “BANG!” that reverberated around the truck cab, a large bullet hole magically appeared in the roof, the rifle fell over onto Peter’s lap, and Miguel’s hearing took a solid vacation for several seconds.

He looked over at the young woman he had previously, though briefly, favored. The round had struck her in the face at pointblank range, and half of the plastic skin on that face, the right half, was missing. Miguel could see muscle and tendons beneath Kelly’s plastic right eye, and those muscles and tendons were most certainly not plastic.

The young woman’s plastic eyes rolled up in the whites as she let go of Miguel’s hair and pitched backwards into the truck bed.

Miguel had swerved to the right as he was pulling the trigger of the rifle, but the sudden release of Kelly’s plastic grip caused Miguel to overcompensate and swerve back to the left, just in time to narrowly avoid yet another thrown, derelict vehicle.

Miguel could see a tunnel ahead, a tunnel of solid and thick mortar burrowed into a distant hill, and the accursed road they were on led straight toward it.

“That’s the way out!” he cried.

His right foot was practically married to his gas pedal at this point. Nevertheless, he had lost speed from all of the swerving he’d had to do, so it was catchup time.

The huge statue of Fancy Joe continued to charge, somehow keeping pace with the truck, that giant of horrendous plastic still pursuing them, even after missing with every burnt-out vehicle it could reach.

Miguel felt nothing but pain as that suffocating feeling began to overwhelm him. He stared down at his swiftly chapping hands, the tanned-skin slowly desiccating, mummifying, just like all of the corpses he had seen in this freakshow of insanity.

“What is…this!” he gasped.

“It’s Joe!” yelled Peter. “He’s killing you! You have to get away!”

But there was one more obstacle in their way.

Off the road ahead, on the right, was a dead semi, the burnt-out fuel tank it was hauling overturned and stretched out across the road, but that burnt-out fuel tank was also broken in two, leaving a small space of road in-between the pieces, a little stretch that he could possibly squeeze through…

“Got to…make it!” gasped out Miguel.

His skin felt like withered leather, his eyes felt like dehydrated grapes, and his lungs felt like they were filled with sand.

He could see in the driver’s-side mirror the image of the great statue’s left hand swinging downwards as the sign it carried plummeted with it.

Miguel had previously lost speed by swerving this way and that in a desperate attempt to maintain control of the truck, but now he jammed his foot to the floor, shifting up, slamming that pedal to the metal.

His truck squeezed through the opening left behind by the shattered rig’s fuel tank, and the mirrors on each side of his old and faithful light-green truck came off as both of those mirrors were roughly torn away…

And then they were past the derelict hunk of junk, home free were it not for the huge plastic nightmare still chasing them.

Fancy Joe Jepson’s road sign came smashing down behind them, only to shatter into wooden splinters all over the asphalt. Fancy Joe, himself, toppled over as his huge right shoe caught upon the rig’s burnt-out and split fuel tank, and then that monstrosity of plastic merged with otherworldly horror crashed to the road to slide face first as Miguel’s truck zoomed onward in mocking defiance.

Miguel felt the killing, cloying vice of that oppressive suffocation leave him all at once. He took in a deep gasp of air and braced himself as the truck entered the tunnel within the hill, noting as well that his tanned skin looked healthy once more.

Fancy Joe wasn’t getting him…No, he was the one that got away.

“Did it,” he said as he breathed out a sigh of relief. “It looks like I am a good little Christian boy, after all, Kelly.”

Miguel flipped on his headlights and drove through the tunnel until the exit appeared, but something was off. He drove the truck out into full night, his headlights marking the way forward.

“It was just daytime!” he hissed out.

He had just finished that bit of exasperation when he both felt and heard the front tire blow on the driver’s side, that tire right beneath him. He cursed under his breath so that Peter couldn’t hear that particular expletive, but Miguel sensed they were both safe now, so there was no reason to keep driving on a destroyed tire.

He slowed down, pulled over, and stepped out of his truck.

Of course, his spare was in the truck bed.

After all the craziness that had just occurred, he was still on edge, still paranoid, and he needed to know if Kelly was still in the back of the truck. Thankfully, there were telephone poles and power lines nearby, one lonely lamp upon the nearest pole to shine the saving grace of its light down upon them, probably to mark the entrance of the tunnel he’d just left.

He turned and could see the “KEEP OUT!” and “DANGER!” signs around the tunnel, but he didn’t need to heed that warning. He wasn’t going back in there.

Miguel wanted to peer over the side of his truck in order to see if Kelly was still in the truck bed, but he was somewhat afraid to, and the fact that it was suddenly night outside wasn’t helping his lack of courage in the least.

“Why is it night already!” he said in exasperation.

Peter appeared at his side, the boy popping into existence without warning.

Miguel held in a shriek and tried to compose himself, his left leg in the air out of an instinctual preparation to run.

“I told you not to go this way,” frowned Peter.

“What?” asked Miguel. “What do you mean?”

He could not question the boy further for clarification, as their conversation was suddenly interrupted.

Kelly crawled over the side of the truck bed, only to fall to her side and roll over the asphalt onto her back. Her skin was still plastic, and the right side of her face was still devoid of that fake skin, but there was something else wrong with her, something seriously wrong.

“It’s Kelly, but—” started Miguel.

“Somebody, help me!” cried out Kelly. “I can’t see! I’m blind! I can’t…Oh, my God, I can’t feel anything!”

Miguel felt his heart implode. Despite all that had happened, despite all of the insanity he had just been through, he was not heartless.

It was clear that Kelly had not changed back to her human guise, so he knew something was wrong with her…but he could also tell that this was her true self, the actual Kelly, not the Kelly possessed by Joe. If she had not changed back in physical form, then that meant…

“Is someone there?” asked Kelly. “I can’t feel anything! I can’t see!”

“You can’t save her, Miguel,” said Peter softly. “She was dipped in molten plastic. There’s nothing you can do.”

Miguel walked to the young woman’s side, knelt down, and held her plastic body in his arms.

“It’s me,” he said gently. “It’s Miguel.”

He stared down at her ruined face of muscle, tendon and plastic, and he couldn’t help but shed some tears.

“Miguel?” asked Kelly. “Who are you!…I need help!…You have to call my friends!”

“I’ll try,” said Miguel, his voice cracking. “I don’t have a phone, though.”

“Please!” said Kelly. “Please, Miguel! You have to help…me…I can’t…see…I can’t…feel any…thing…I just…feel…cold…”

Her voice trailed off she rattled out one last gasp.

Her plastic skin flaked off and turned into specks of light, her body vanishing through spontaneous disintegration. Miguel could not hold onto her as he watched Kelly disappear altogether within his arms, her remaining traces scattering upon the night breeze like so much reflective glitter thrown into the wind.

He choked out a slight moan as he wiped at his eyes.

“She didn’t deserve that,” he said in a shaky voice. “She didn’t do anything wrong. It was all that thing’s fault. It was all Joe.”

“She was already dead, Miguel,” said Peter. “She died when they threw her in the plastics vat. The molten plastic killed her…I know, I watched her face melt…She’s finally moved on to her next life…She died a long time ago…just like me…”

Miguel turned to see the boy fading out of existence, his body shining with a white light, like the faint glow of a lamp.

“Peter…” said Miguel unhappily.

“It’s my turn to go,” said the boy. “I understand now…You freed us both, Miguel. You freed Kelly, and you freed me…Joe can’t keep us trapped anymore.”

“I…I understand,” said Miguel, though he was not happy about this fact.

He had wanted Peter’s soul to find peace, to be at rest, but now that it was happening, it bothered him. The boy had deserved better, just like Kelly.

Peter’s image was rapidly fading.

“Don’t worry about me, Miguel,” said Peter. “I’m finally free, and so is Kelly, but…I know now it’s not 1958 anymore. Time stopped in there, and I lived in a dream…Heck, I didn’t even know I was dead. No wonder I didn’t want to go in that room.”

This made sense to Miguel, but that didn’t explain why he had lost several hours of daytime. He could sense something was wrong here, very wrong, and if Peter knew secrets from the other side, then Miguel needed to ask him now before the boy faded out altogether.

“Time didn’t stop out here!” choked out Miguel. “It couldn’t have, because it’s nighttime!…Did time speed up?…Why is it nighttime, Peter! What’s going on! Do you know!”

“I warned you not to go this way…” came Peter’s ghostly voice.

The boy faded to the point where he was almost entirely see-through, and even his voice sounded distant, far away.

“The Jepson Road is a tunnel to another universe, remember?” came Peter’s last words. “You crossed over, and now…now you can’t go back…”

He faded out altogether, specks of light where he had once been, like fireflies dancing, and then even those were gone, fading into the night sky like so many spent flecks of ash.

Miguel felt the blood drain from his face a third time as he looked up into the night sky with the sinking horror and slow realization of what Peter had meant by that parting statement. It wasn’t the plastic people, the ghost of the little boy, Kelly’s terrible death, or the merging of an otherworldly horror with the giant statue of Fancy Joe Jepsen that disturbed him this time.

No, the two moons in the sky did that for him.

Road-Sign Joe Copyright © 2023 bloodytwine.com Matthew L. Marlott

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