Branson picked up his coffee, took a careful sip, and then put the coffee back in the cup holder.
He hated these remote jobs. They were usually out in the middle of nowhere, the roads all looked the same, and the people he ran into out in these backwoods areas were all about as sharp as a bag of hammers.
The road he was on was at least paved, but watching those yellow bars go by over and over again was enough to drive anyone crazy. There really wasn’t anything else out here but trees, trees on each side of the road, trees as far as the eye could see…well, as far as you could see at night anyway.
He flipped on the radio and received nothing but static. This little compact car was a rental, so it was no surprise that the radio wasn’t adjusted. He played around with the dials until he heard music, something that indicated a station with anything at all to listen to.
He bopped his head a couple of times in recognition of this dark-metal crap, but even this crap was better than silence. He took another sip of his coffee and bopped to the beat, if only to stave off the maddening boredom out here.
He briefly stared up at the rosary swinging from the rearview mirror. Whoever had last rented this car had obviously left it behind, but he didn’t care to move it. He wasn’t religious in the slightest, but he was used to the swinging motion of the beads in his vision, so he left it there to do its own thing.
The song ended, and then a woman’s voice picked up, that voice dark and easy, her tone sultry smooth but with an edge.
“Hello, little shadows,” said the radio host. “This is K1-L1 coming to you live from the darkest shadows and the deepest pits of Hell.”
Branson raised his left eyebrow as he took another sip of coffee. He set his coffee down, shook his head, and snorted once in amusement.
“As all of you faithful, older listeners already know, we play anything and everything, but only by request,” said the host. “For newer listeners just now joining our little phantasmal ring, call in to the station to request your song. That number is…”
Branson picked up his phone from the passenger seat and dialed the numbers with his right thumb as he kept his left hand on the wheel. He had decided to call in just to keep from listening to this death-metal crap again.
The phone rang several times and then picked up, but honestly, Branson had not thought he’d get through. He’d never had much luck with dialing in to one of these stations.
“This is K1-L1, caller,” said the host from the radio. “Choose your poison, little serpent. You are live and on the air.”
“Yeah…” he grunted, but he stopped for a second as he heard his own voice repeated over the radio.
He wasn’t sure if this was legal. Branson had figured radio stations had to take some time to mark any cuss words that came out of people’s mouths, censor that crap, and then play back the speech, but whatever. Not his problem.
“Play some oldies,” he grunted. “I want to hear some 90s Alt-rock. I’ll even settle for 2000s Pop. Anything but this metal crap you have on here.”
“Done…” said the host. “Any specifics?”
“Nope,” said Branson. “Surprise me.”
“Oh, I will,” said the host. “But first, let’s hear more about you…You don’t sound like one of K1-L1’s little shadows. Who might you be, stranger?”
“Just a guy out on the road,” said Branson. “That’s all you need to know.”
“That’s fine, Guy out on the Road,” said the female host. “Why don’t we just call you…‘Guy.’”
“Works for me,” said Branson.
“You do know you have to earn the right to call in here, Guy?” asked the host. “Normally, only monsters can pick up this station. This station is a ‘nightmares only’ club.”
“Is that right?” asked Branson. “Am I supposed to be impressed?”
“More like terrified,” replied the woman on the other end of the line. “You should be shaking in your little booties, Guy.”
“Right,” snorted Branson. “Are you gonna play my music or not?”
“Why not, Guy,” she replied. “Well, then, little shadows…let’s play some music for ‘Guy.’”
“Cool,” said Branson, and then he hung up.
He watched the road as the music picked up again. This time it was 90s Alt, not exactly a song he liked, but it was better than what it had been.
He bopped his head along to the beat and checked his gas meter at the same time. He was going to need gas soon.
He finished off his coffee as the song wound down, and then they ended, both coffee and song at the same time, a little disappointing, but he was a spark livelier now anyway.
“I hope you enjoyed that little shadows,” came the lady host’s voice. “That request came from a little morsel on the road, an interloper who somehow picked up our signal.”
Branson raised one eyebrow at this. Her description of him was…odd.
“You know what to do, little shadows,” continued the host. “Normally, only monsters are allowed to listen to K1-L1, so tonight is going to be a fun night. As per the rules, we get three tries and only three. Let’s make them count. Let’s give Guy a warm welcome tonight.”
Branson shook his head as more music picked up, this time 2000s Pop. He shrugged and then bopped his head to it, not exactly what he wanted, but still better than that metal crap he couldn’t stand.
He peered down the car’s cone of light as something red came into view. He cautiously slowed down as he studied the young woman standing on the side of the road, her left-hand thumb up in a hitchhiker’s signal.
Branson turned down the volume on the radio as he slowed down his little rental. He pulled up alongside the young woman to get a better look at her.
This young lady looked to be in her early twenties, maybe twenty-three, twenty-four, with long dyed-blonde hair and ruby-red lipstick, her shapely form wearing a red strap dress with red heels. She was a hottie, something even Branson could not ignore, but her presence was so out of place on this backwoods road that it just didn’t make any sense.
Branson rolled down his passenger window with the touch of a button, and the young woman leaned over to nod once at him.
“Could I get a ride?” she asked. “My car broke down several miles back…I can pay for any gas you need if that’s a problem. There’s a gas station up ahead, about ten miles or so. It’s in the direction you’re going.”
This was good news, because he was going to need gas soon, and ten miles was more than doable. Even so, he was pretty sure he hadn’t seen any broken-down car on this road.
“Can’t say I remember seeing a stalled car out on the road,” he said cautiously.
“Oh…” said the young woman. “Well…that’s because it broke down on a side road.”
“Uh, huh,” nodded Branson in return. “Well, I’ve got a standing policy not to pick up hitchers, but I do have a phone you could use.”
“Oh…” said the young woman again. “I…uhhh…”
Her dark-blue eyes flitted back and forth as if she were thinking at lightspeed, and then they rested back upon Branson as if she had come to some sort of mental decision.
“Oh, thank you,” she smiled. “I’ll just call—”
She let out a mild cry as she pitched backwards to disappear from view.
“Hey!” exclaimed Branson. “You okay out there!”
“Ooooh…” moaned the young lady from somewhere out of his field of vision. “My heel turned, and I fell! Oh, I banged up my knee! Oh, it hurts!”
“Of course…” he said as he rolled his eyes.
He put his car in park, rolled down the driver’s-side window as a safety measure to keep from being locked out, and then undid his seatbelt. He opened the driver’s-side door, got out, and then walked around the car in front of the headlights. He hadn’t bothered to shut his door.
“Hey!” he called out. “Are you o…kay…”
He walked around to the passenger side of the car, but the young hitcher was nowhere to be found. He turned this way and that to look for her, but he did not have to look hard…She was on the roof of the car.
The young lady in red opened her mouth and hissed as she dropped into a wrestler’s stance. She had a pair of glistening white fangs in her mouth, and this startled Branson, but it did not stop him from defending himself as she leapt from the roof of the car.
She leapt straight on him, but Branson pitched her off by shifting his position, using her own momentum against her. She rolled into the grass on the side of the road before popping back up into a wrestler’s stance, hissing the entire time while baring her fangs at him.
“What are you, crazy?” asked Branson. “Nutty kid…”
He received a start as the young woman’s dark-blue eyes glowed brightly with an inner, vermillion light. Her red-painted nails extended outwards into black claws as her fingers elongated and twisted into gnarled versions of their former selves. She bared her fangs with a hiss and then rushed him, claws out, her poise ready to grab, rake, and bite.
“What the—!” shouted Branson.
He stepped back and to the left just as she swiped at him with her right hand, and that swipe ripped open his black suit jacket’s right sleeve with ease, though it missed doing any actual damage to him.
There was no time to think; he just had to react.
He pulled out his piece from his chest holster and fired off three rounds as she came at him again, three burst-flashes in the darkness, three deafening bangs in the silence of this remote area. The young blonde spat out a choke of surprise as her body jerked backwards three times, and then she fell to the ground, falling to her back without another sound.
Branson did not take any time to be surprised or rattled or anything stupid that would get him killed. He ran back around the car, hopped into the driver’s seat, slammed the door shut, and strapped himself in. He quickly holstered his gun and shook his head once.
“Vampires…” he muttered to himself. “Didn’t think those were real…”
He started to pull forward when the young blonde appeared at his own driver’s-side window. She hissed yet again and bared her fangs as she reached for him, her deadly claws reaching for his exposed throat.
He gripped her right wrist with his left hand in an attempt to keep her from tearing out his throat, but she was monstrously strong, and as muscular as he was, he could not keep her from eviscerating him, at least, not for long.
He reached up with his right hand and tore the rosary from the rearview mirror, its beads scattering around the front of the car as he palmed the crucifix part of it right between the young blonde’s eyes.
Her glowing red eyes flipped back to dark blue as they stared upwards in a futile attempt to view her own forehead, her ruby-red lips shaping into an ‘O’ as her skin sizzled at the touch of the crucifix.
“Ah, Ah, Ah, AHHHHHHHH!” screamed the young lady.
She jerked away from him, away from the car, and she staggered backwards across the road, her clawed hands shaking from her obvious pain, the once flawless peach skin of her forehead now smoking from a blackened symbol of a crucifix right between her eyes.
Branson hit the gas and didn’t look back, rolling up both windows as he did. He’d had some crazy nights before, but this one had to be the craziest.
“Vampires…” he said to himself in a shaky voice. “Frickkin’ vampires!…I thought I’d seen everything…Makes sense out here, though…Hot blonde like that…Must be how she feeds…Get some idiot to pull over, like me…”
He shook his head as he simultaneously shook off the momentary shock he’d just suffered through…He needed to focus. He now knew that it was way too dangerous to be stuck out here on this lonely highway at night. He could not afford to have an accident due to inattentive carelessness.
“Vampires…” he said with a nervous chuckle. “Who’d a thought it?…Vampires…Definitely keepin’ this on me…”
He tucked the crucifix of the rosary into his right pants pocket.
The young woman, the vampire he’d driven off, had mentioned a gas station up ahead, about ten miles or so, so he was going to shoot for that. She could have been lying, obviously, but he was going to need gas soon, so he was hoping for the best.
“Hello, little shadows,” came the voice of the female radio host. “This is K1-L1, coming to you live from the deadliest dungeons and the blackest trenches of the deep…Tonight is proving to be interesting, my monstrous ones. It seems we have a strike one, my lovely beastlings. Our own sweet Candy has swung and missed. Such a mark of shame for little Candy, a real cross to bear…Let’s give her some encouragement for next time…But you know what that means, listeners. There are two more swings to go, little darklings. Let’s hit a homerun for K1-L1.”
Branson shook his head at the sheer oddness of the host’s announcement. Even so, he didn’t switch stations, mainly due to the 2000s Pop they were playing. It was a song he actually liked.
He bopped his head to the beat as he headed in the direction indicated by his phone route. So far, it had been a strange night, but he still had a job to do.
“Vampires…” he said with a chuckle. “Frickkin’ vampires…”
He drove without incident for a few minutes, and the music switched to some more 90s Alt.
It was not long before he viewed lights up ahead. That glow in the night was exactly what he had been looking for, the so-called gas station up ahead, on his right, just like he needed, electronic sign displaying gas prices, a brightly lit, green and yellow border around the top of the small, rectangular building.
“So she wasn’t lying,” he said with a slight smile. “Too bad she was a bloodsucker. She was hot.”
He pulled into the gas station and drove up to one of the pumps. He put the car in park, turned off his car engine, and exited the little rental. He hit the tank switch to flip open the gas lid before shutting his driver’s-side door.
He walked around to the pump, and he was about to grab the gas handle, but a young man’s voice crackled over an intercom from somewhere on the service box.
“You’ll have to pay inside, Sir,” said the young man. “The card readers out there aren’t working.”
“Wonderful,” muttered Branson.
He reluctantly walked to the station building, opened the glass door, and walked inside.
The place was a typical gas station, complete with aisles of snack foods, booze, and other road crap that travelers might need.
Branson shook his head at it all as he walked up to the counter. He didn’t need any of that garbage; he just needed gas.
The kid at the counter looked like an older teen or, maybe, an adult in his very early twenties. He was a pimply-faced, skinny-looking dork of a kid with raggedy short brown hair, dressed in a blue shirt, blue jeans, and a green work vest.
Branson shrugged this off as a whatever. After the scare he’d just had, this kid was not a threat. No vampire was going to make this kid into one. They’d probably just eat him. He was the kind of kid that looked like he was going to die a virgin anyway.
Branson reached into his vest pocket to pull out his wallet.
“You should get those card readers fixed…” he started, but then he stopped as the lights began to flicker.
He looked around as the overhead fluorescent lights flickered on and off, leaving the disturbing afterimage of his surroundings in his vision.
“What the…” he muttered.
He turned to address the clerk, the skinny kid in the green vest, but this boy had vanished. He was no longer behind the counter.
Branson’s adrenaline spiked as he peered over the counter to reveal nothing, no sign of the kid. He looked around the store itself, the lights still flickering overhead, but there was no sign of the pimply-faced clerk.
“Ooookaaay…” he drawled out as he slowly backed away from the counter.
He reached into his suit jacket to grab his gun.
He turned to his right just as he was attacked, a rotted, translucent figure with a screaming face coming at him, and then he was flung backwards, flung like a ragdoll into the goods and sundries of one of the lined metal shelves under the flickering lights.
Branson crashed into a number of items upon the metal shelf he was flung into and fell to the floor upon his back. Small wrapped cookies, bags of potato chips, and other such snack foods spilled about him as he scrambled to get his bearings.
“Son of a—!” he cried out, but he was cut short.
He was picked up by an invisible force and flung upwards to shatter a flickering light above him, only to fall back to the white tiles of the gas station floor.
“Mother fu—” he began, but he was cut short again.
The kid in the green vest flickered into view, but his appearance had dramatically changed. His skin was all rotted and brown, his raggedy brown hair now white, and there were no eyes within the pitted sockets of his leathery face.
He opened his pocked and rotted mouth to release a shrill scream, his jaw unhinging, that mouth widening downwards to stretch beyond its normal, natural means.
This thing picked up Branson by his suit jacket and flung him yet again, throwing the larger man as easily as someone pitching a bowling ball. Branson flew into another set of shelves, knocking down yet more goods and sundries belonging to this gas station out in the middle of nowhere.
Branson stood on two shaky legs and pulled forth his piece, pulling forth his wits as well, because now he was angry, and he didn’t get angry very often.
“Okay, kid,” he growled. “Play time’s over.”
This rotted thing that had previously looked like a pimply-faced teen flickered into view right in front of the liquor coolers.
Branson did not hesitate as he fired off four rounds center mass at this thing, but the bullets passed right through it to bust cooler-door glass and shatter bottles of beer, the beer spilling out onto the white tiles below.
This thing walked toward Branson and shrieked once more, its mouth opening to a rotted-maw oval, its gait unnatural and clockwork within the flickering light.
It was clear that bullets were not going to work, but Branson was no fool. He quickly looked around himself for something, anything, that would work against this kid. He holstered his weapon and shook his head no in defiance, because he was not giving up.
He spied the salt container next to his left dress shoe, bent down, and snatched it up off the floor. He’d heard somewhere that salt worked against ghosts and evil spirits, so it was worth a shot. He ripped off the seal and flipped open the metal spigot, ready to deal out some supernatural damage to a supernatural foe.
“Let’s see how you like this!” he cried.
This evil thing came at him again, leaping forward as Branson swung the salt container in an arc. White salt flew out in a bursting cloud as it struck the phantasm, and this thing screeched once more as glowing bright-red embers, tiny spots of burning circles, appeared all over it.
This new creature of the night staggered backwards and screamed as it burst into flames, and that unholy wail shattered a number of fragile glass items around the store.
Branson pulled the rosary crucifix from his right pants pocket and held it in front of himself, displaying it in his right-hand fingers like some kind of mystic shield. The burning, undead thing in front of him shrieked yet again before it exploded backwards, leaving a burning trail behind it, and then it was gone, just a small line of flame where it had previously stood.
The lights stopped flickering and went back to their normally well-lit state, but then the sprinklers went off, and Branson swore as he felt that artificial rain come down from above.
“Wonderful!” he hissed as he quickly put the crucifix back into his right pants pocket.
He reached down, snatched up another container of salt for good measure, and ran for the door. He exited the station and jogged back to his car, but he came to a screeching halt as he realized something important.
He still needed gas.
“Son of a…” he muttered.
He opened up the passenger door of his rental, pitched the unopened container of salt onto the passenger seat, shut that door, and then turned to check out the pumps. They were still working, and all of the lights were still on, so there was no reason, at least for the moment, not to try and get some gas.
He pulled out his wallet, took out one of his credit cards, and tried the reader.
“Lying little…” he swore under his breath as the reader accepted his card.
He filled up the tank, put his card and wallet away, screwed in the gas cap, shut the gas lid, and got back into his car. He still had a job to do.
He took off toward his destination, the outskirts of a little town out in the middle of nowhere, but there was still about twenty minutes to go.
“First vampires, and now ghosts,” muttered Branson. “Frickkin’ ghosts now! What’s next? Fairies?”
“Hello, little shadows,” came the sultry voice of the radio hostess over the car radio. “This is K1-L1, coming to you live from the furthest reaches of space and the coldest caverns of ice…Our update on our little rogue player is now a score of 0-2. So let’s pick it up, my brazen devils. We’ve got one more batter up to hit before the game is over. Our own hard-working teen, Neville, ran out of gas, so it’s time for the home stretch…But remember, my beastlings, the game’s not over yet. Let’s hit a homerun for K1-L1.”
“Frickkin’ ghosts…” breathed Branson with a shake of his head. “Ghosts, of all things. Vampires and ghosts…”
He shook off his fear of the supernatural and focused on the task ahead. Now that he knew some of these things were real, and now that he knew he could handle them, he wasn’t scared of anything anymore. Other people would have wet themselves, and they would have been slaughtered, but he had dealt with it, and he would deal with it again if need be.
He drove for a few minutes as the radio cranked out more Alt 90s and Pop 2000s. He bopped his head to the beats, finger-tapping the steering wheel as he tried to take his mind off of the two terrifying encounters that had happened mere minutes prior.
This did not last long, however. A massive form stepped out of the woods on his left, stepping out onto the stretch of road he was on, and he was forced to slow to a crawl, then stop altogether.
His lights shone over this new threat, and it was…big.
The thing standing in the road was a green giant at least twelve feet tall, with a round head and an ugly face, a long sausage of a nose covered in warts, and a huge mouth filled with broad, flat teeth. It had a big green pot belly, and around its waist was a loincloth made of black-bear fur, the head of the bear over where its crotch would be. It stood on two thick and gnarled legs, each as thick around as a tree trunk…And speaking of tree trunks, its arms were round and massive, and in its huge right hand was an actual tree trunk, the entire trunk of a tree ready to be wielded like a club.
“Ooooooh, shi—” began Branson, but he did not get to finish that particular expletive.
Loud dings and thumps rang out around the car as more unnatural things attacked his vehicle. A diminutive creature the size of toddler jumped up onto the hood of the car, and then another, and then another.
These new creatures were all a dark shade of grey, with pointed little ears and wide, wide mouths, mouths that stretched from pointed little ear to pointed little ear, mouths filled to the brim with sharp, shark-like teeth. Each of them wore old-fashioned clothing, little shirts and pants with wooden buttons and string loops, each sporting little wooden clogs on their feet, and upon their dark heads were pointed felt caps of a sanguine-red hue.
“You gotta be kidding me!” yelled Branson as he heard tiny footsteps on the roof of his rental.
The big green monster in the distance roared and then charged, its huge bare feet thumping along the cracked pavement as it readied its tree-trunk club to smash Branson’s rental to bits.
Branson hit the gas as he pulled his piece from his chest holster. He hadn’t come this far to just roll over and die.
Two of the little creatures on the front of the car fell off as the car jerked forward, but one clung to the car hood and steadily crawled toward the windshield.
Branson sped the car toward the green giant as it charged toward him. The huge creature raised its tree trunk over its ugly round head as it roared in challenge, but this was exactly what Branson wanted.
Branson played a deadly game of chicken with the giant for a few seconds, deliberately ignoring the tiny creature clinging to the hood of his rental, and then he swerved to the right at the last second, just as the giant’s makeshift club came swinging down in an arc of impending destruction.
The tree trunk impacted asphalt, the car zipped past the enraged giant, and Branson was on his way again, crisis averted.
He drove at top speed for at least five miles before he pulled over the car again, ready to deal with the tiny, toothy little thing attached to his rental hood.
He’d heard somewhere that salt was also effective against fairies, because that’s what these things on his car were; they had to be. That giant had to have been an ogre or a troll, so these things had to be fairies…It was just a logical conclusion.
He put the car in park, grabbed the unopened container of salt in his passenger seat, opened it, and then stepped out of the rental, his readied handgun in his right hand, the salt in his left.
He’d also heard somewhere that you threw some salt over your shoulder to ward off fairies, so the first thing he did was flip some salt over his left shoulder, and it was a good thing he had.
One of these vicious little things, one he had not seen, jumped from the roof at him, right at the back of his head, but his thrown salt struck it right in its ugly little face. It screamed as it sailed past him to roll upon the asphalt, its face smoking and melting, but its screaming did not last long, as Branson put two bullets in it a second later.
It was quite clearly dead after that, and if bullets worked on these things, then…
He dropped the salt container, walked around to the front of the car, and stared at the ugly little creature clutching the hood of his rental. It looked up at him in return, opened its huge mouth, and hissed in defiance.
“Eat your head!” it shrieked in a high-pitched voice. “Eat your head! Eat your head!”
Branson grabbed the menacing little thing by the back of its little shirt and pitched it from the hood of the car to the cracked asphalt below.
“Eat this,” he said as he pointed his gun at it.
It leapt up at him from the ground, but he put a bullet in it, right between its beady little eyes, and it flew backwards head-over-heels from the force of the shot, one of its little clogs flying off toward the line of trees in the background.
Branson holstered his firearm once more, adjusted his suit jacket, and got back into his rental. He strapped in, and he was off once more.
“Fairies…” he said with a slightly-crazed chuckle. “Of course, it would be fairies and trolls and ogres and shi—”
But he was interrupted by the radio.
“Hello, little shadows,” came the voice of the radio hostess over the radio. “This is K1-L1, coming to you live from the most haunted graveyards and the most remote, bewitched forests…It seems the game is over, my beastlings…It looks like Team Grim couldn’t stop the home slide. What we thought was a winner only turned out to be a shot in the dark. They just weren’t worth their salt…Congratulations, Guy out on the Road. You’ve won an honorary membership to K1-L1. Make sure you call in during our contests, and you can win prizes…Remember, my little darklings, K1-L1 has eeeeevery monster’s listening needs…”
Branson swore a litany of curses as he flipped off the radio.
“So that’s it, huh!” he hissed. “That’s what’s been going on!…Only monsters can listen, huh!…Honorary membership!…I see what’s going on!”
He shook his head and ground his teeth over it, and it took him a few minutes just to calm down.
He was doing far better by the time he reached his destination, though the whole affair with the radio station still irked him to no end.
He parked aways down a gravel road that led to a two-story house, its lit windows a beacon of normalcy in an otherwise insane night. He turned off the car, opened the door, and walked around to his trunk. Yeah, his black suit was messed up, and the rental was dinged and banged up in places, but he still had a job to do.
He unlocked the trunk, opened it wide, and pulled out his shotgun.
“Radio station for monsters,” he muttered under his breath. “Can you beat that?”
He pulled out some ammunition, standard shotgun shells, and loaded his weapon.
“So how did I pick it up, then?” he breathed out. “How did I pick it up if only monsters can listen in?”
He rested his shotgun against his right shoulder, the barrel pointing up, and he shook his head. He still had a job to do, so he shut the trunk hatch and started down the road toward the two-story house in the distance.
“Monsters and their radio station,” he muttered. “Only monsters can listen in, but I picked it up, so that’s BS…Oh, but that’s fine, ’cause now I’m an honorary member! Oh, boy!…Now, I can call in for prizes!…Joy of joys.”
He shook his head once and waved the whole idea off in a symbolic motion with his free left hand. The whole thing was crazy, and the boss would never believe him anyway.
“Doesn’t matter,” he said firmly. “I have a job to do, and that’s all that matters.”
And he did have a job to do. The boss wanted this snitch in Witness Protection toe-tagged. The boss wanted this guy bagged, the wife bagged, two children bagged, all bagged. All of them were to take a one-way trip to the morgue.
He cocked his shotgun and then flipped off its action-lock button.
Yeah, he had a job to do, and he was going to do it.
This is K1-L1 Copyright © 2021 Matthew L. Marlott