D. A. Ratliff: The Road


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The Road

D. A. Ratliff

We were lost.

And I mean lost as in no idea where we were. I was responsible for a school bus carrying a high-school science debate team, and they were not happy, but not because we were lost. Oh no. They were unhappy because no one had cell service, including the GPS on the bus. Lost was fine—no social media, a disaster.

We were on our way to a debate at two o’clock in the afternoon with a school in our region, followed by a Halloween party, when the substitute bus driver took a wrong turn. Then another thirty minutes later, we were hopelessly lost and, yes, no cell service. Did I mention it was Halloween Eve, and the debate teams had decided that it would be fun to dress in costume while debating a serious topic? So, here they were, dressed in all manner of costumes, lost.

I leaned forward from the bench behind the driver. “Dexter, do you have a clue where we are?”

Dexter Crane shook his head. “Nope, but I think I should turn at the next road.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, it’ll put us back in the right direction. No worries.”

But I was worried. This was my first year of teaching at Hampton High, and all I needed to do was get lost with twelve of my students. I leaned back in my seat and closed my eyes. A tap on my shoulder caused me to turn around—and scream.

“David, good heavens. You scared the heck out of me.”

“Ms. Spenser, I thought you loved my Beetlejuice costume.”

“I do, I just forgot, and when I turned around, you startled me. Did you need something?”

“I was wondering if you recognize where we are. I’ve been to Fairmont High many times for debates and sports. This isn’t the way.”

“I know. The driver is a sub, and he took a wrong turn. Says he’s going to turn at the next road, and we’ll be back in the right direction.”

“Okay, ma’am. Just doesn’t look like any place I’ve been around here.”

“Ms. Spenser, are we going to be late?”

“Constance, I hope not. As soon as we get a signal again, I will call Fairmont and let them know what’s happened. I’m sure we’ll get there in time for the debate to happen.”

Constance’s floppy bunny ears wiggled as she nodded, but I knew she didn’t believe me. Constance was my most determined debater and didn’t like losing. It was going to be a long afternoon.

The bus slowed, and I spotted a road branching off to the right. Dexter glanced in the interior mirror at me. “That’s the road. It will take us where we need to go.”

As he turned, I worried even the small bus would have trouble making the sharp narrow turn. The terrain was the same as the road we just left. Yet, the road ahead seemed darker. A chill trickled down my spine—something seemed wrong.

As the minutes ticked by, the foreboding sense creeping into my thoughts intensified. I rose and walked a few rows back to where David sat. A gorilla, better known as Stan, gave me his seat.

I kept my voice low. “Do any of you recognize where we are?”

A chorus of noes did not give me a lot of confidence.

Stan pulled off his gorilla head. “Ms. Spenser, who is that driver? As part of the engineering program, I work a few hours a week in the bus garage, learning about engines. I’ve met most of the drivers when they return their buses. I don’t remember him.”

The question was one I had as well. I had not met Dexter before, but he had the proper credentials. I checked. Now I feared I might be incorrect. I walked to the front of the bus.

“Dexter, don’t you think it would be wise to turn around and just retrace our steps back to Hampton? At this rate, we are going to be late anyway. Better to forfeit than be lost.”

He turned his head and grinned. “No worries, we will be off this road soon.” He turned his gaze toward the road again without another word.

Now I was beginning to get scared.

I noticed my students checking their phones, and I looked at mine… zero bars. We were on a path somewhere and had no way to call for help. I had to do something, but I had no idea what. I could try to commandeer the bus from Dexter with the help of the students, but was I putting them in more danger? I pushed rising panic down as I had to keep control. I couldn’t put these teens in any more danger than they were in—if they were in danger. I may have been overreacting, so I decided to wait to see how this played out.

As we drove along the narrow road, I could swear the trees were closing in on us. I looked farther ahead. The tree limbs curved lower and lower toward the ground, and I worried if the bus could pass under them.

Jennie, who was sitting across the aisle from me, uttered a little whimper. “Ma’am, why is the sky getting this weird glow… it’s orange and scary.”

“Might be dust in the air. That can cause the sky to get yellowish.” The best I could do, but it appeased her. It sure didn’t me. The sky was a color that I had never seen before. It was orange and scary.

The bus managed to clear the gnarled limbs dipping toward the road. The farther we went, the darker it became, the orange glow barely filtering through the vegetation. As we rounded a curve and the forest seemed to be closing in on us, I had had enough and was about to demand the driver stop when the engine sputtered, then died.

“Why did we stop?”

Dexter stood. “Sorry, we ran out of gas.”

“Out of gas? We’re stuck here?”

“Yes, ma’am, for now.” He opened the bus door. “There is a house nearby, and the people there are friendly. Going to go there for help. Stay here—you’ll be safe.”

Before I could react, Dexter was out the door and walked down the road until he disappeared around the next curve. I was stunned. What did we do now? Well, that was up to me. I certainly wasn’t going to take my students on a walk through this wilderness, not the field trip we were supposed to take—time to rally the troops.

“Okay, looks like we are going to be here for a while. So, let’s make the best of it. We can practice.”

As soon as I said that, I realized the kids were not in the mood.

Aaron, sitting sprawled across the back seat, raised his hand. “Ms. Spenser, it’s been a while since we were at school. I need to go into the woods, if you get my meaning.”

“Oh… yes… uh… yes. Okay, if anyone needs to take a trip outside, please do so. I insist you go in pairs and stay talking to each other there and don’t stay long.”

A few students hurried off the bus, and I stepped outside to stay close. It was quiet, too quiet. Other than the students’ murmurs, there were no sounds, no wind, no rustling of leaves, no birds, or animal sounds. The eeriness was overwhelming, and that annoying shiver trailed down my spine again. I wanted the kids back on the bus as soon as possible.

Once we were inside, one of the girls played music offline, which helped their mood. It dawned on me they might be hungry.

“Hey, are you getting hungry?”

Stan, who played football, was half-lying across a seat but popped up at food. “I am,” which brought laughter and a ‘when isn’t he hungry?’ from more than one student.

“All of you brought food for the party at Fairmont, didn’t you?” A chorus of yeses greeted my question, and they dug into the coolers containing the food.

“Man, David. Your mom made brownies.” Stan was happy.

I always had water for the kids, often parched after a hearty debate. “You know where I stash the water.” One of the girls brought me a brownie and two cookies, along with cheese and crackers, and we ate, listened to music, and tried to ignore what was happening. That didn’t last long.

Constance looked at me, and I pushed back a gasp as I realized she was tearing up. “We’re stranded here, aren’t we? The driver’s not coming back, and it’s past four. It’ll be dark soon.”

I thought quickly. What I said next would scare them or reassure them and do the same for me. “Dexter said he knows this area and that there is a house nearby where he has gone for help. I know it is scary because we can’t contact anyone, but when we didn’t arrive at Fairmont, I am certain they called the school, and the police are looking for us. We’ll be fine. We just need to be patient.”

They accepted my words, but their apprehension was palpable. As it got darker and thunder rumbled in the distance, I steered them into a conversation about school and their future goals and football, all of us trying to remain calm. We were laughing at Stan’s stories about the football team when David stood up abruptly.

“Someone’s coming.”

I whirled around and, through the windshield, saw a couple walking toward us. They waved and walked toward the bus door. I didn’t want to open the door, so I opened the driver’s window and called to them.

“Hello. We didn’t think there was anyone around.”

“Oh yes, my dear. I am Ethan Chalon, and this is my wife, Charlese. We live just around the curve. Your driver arrived and told us about your situation. We sent him on with one of our staff to get help, but a terrible storm is coming, and this area is susceptible to flash floods. We need to get you to our estate where you will be safe.”

My heart was pounding. Do I trust these two? As I tried to think, a streak of lightning illuminated the road, followed by a loud clap of thunder. If the roads did flood, the bus could get caught in raging water. We could be in trouble. The safety of my students came first, but where were they safest? They would be safest in a structure, not a bus. Decision made.

I turned to my students. “I believe if there is a bad storm that we’ll be safer at the Chalon’s home. Are you all okay with going there?”

They agreed, but the fear in their eyes reflected my own. I turned to the Chalons. “My name is Alexia Spenser. Mr. and Mrs. Chalon, we are grateful for your assistance.”

As the students started to get off the bus, Mrs. Chalon squealed in delight. “Oh, the children are dressed for Halloween—how delightful. We are having a party tonight to celebrate All Hallows’ Eve. What fun this will be. And please call us Ethan and Charlese.”

“Sounds like fun.”

We walked along the road, and the deeper into the forest we traveled, the more ominous it felt. The storm was closer, and each lightning bolt left the air charged with electricity. We came to a tall wrought iron gate, and Chalon announced, “We are here.” He opened the gate, and we walked up the sloping path. An imposing house stood at the top of the lane—at least three stories with a taller tower and gargoyles around the roofline.

David, who was walking beside me, whispered, “You think the Addams family lives here?”

I laughed, but to be honest, I wasn’t sure.

We arrived at the house as the rain began. The door opened, and an older man in formal attire, morning coat and tails to be precise, greeted us. Charlese brushed past me and walked inside.

“Jarvis, please see to our guests. They will be staying overnight. And as you can see, they will be attending the party.”

In a resonant voice, Jarvis responded, “Yes, Milady.”

After announcing that dinner was at eight, we were shown to individual bedrooms and told to rest. Walking down a long corridor on the third floor, I thought I heard whispering and laughter behind the closed doors.

My room proved to be as opulent as the rest of the house. Deep golden flocked wallpaper, heavy brocade draperies, and a canopy bed draped in burgundy silk. The plush pillows on the bed drew me to them as drowsiness overcame me. I sank into the luxurious feather bed and fell asleep.

A soft voice woke me. I opened my eyes to find Charlese standing by the bed holding a beautiful gown. “My dear, dinner is in a half-hour, and I noticed you were not wearing a costume. This is my favorite dress of Empress Josephine’s, and with your dark hair and classic features, it is perfect for you. There is jewelry on the dresser. Please get dressed and come downstairs when you are ready.”

I didn’t question her. I did as she told me. I felt wonderful but detached as though I floated in the air. I put on the gown made of cream silk with an empire waist. The bodice was encrusted with jewels and the hemline as well. It fit me like a glove. The jewels sparkled, and as I put them on, I felt like an Empress.

Descending the stairs, some of my students joined me. They were dressed in their costumes and looked happy. The others were already in the dining hall. I didn’t know what else to call the room. A massive table set for forty people, silver and crystal glinting in the light from the three enormous chandeliers that hung from a vaulted ceiling of stained glass, sat in the center of the vast hall.

There were others there, in costume as well, most in period costumes spanning decades. There were soldiers, Roman and otherwise, Vikings, Native Americans, a surreal sight.

Ethan and Charlese entered the hall last, dressed as Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Charlese was resplendent in a blue silk gown, with ornate decorations and panniers to widen the skirt. My students were enthralled and couldn’t stop staring at her. No one could.

We sat down to a dinner of several courses served by waiters in white tie and tails. Each course morphed into another, chatter vibrant, and wine flowing freely. I knew my students shouldn’t be drinking wine, but I could not stop them. A feeling of euphoria swept over me. My vision was fuzzy, tricking me into thinking the Chalon’s guests at times appeared transparent.

When dinner was over, we retired to a large ballroom. Lightning flashed through the tall windows as heavy rain pelted the glass. The vibrating strings of a harpsichord resonated through the air, and the dancing began.

The evening was a blur. I danced and danced, enjoying myself with these people I did not know. More importantly, my students were enjoying themselves. Their costumes were the hit of the party, and the guests held a contest for the best costume, won by David dressed as Beetlejuice. Images of dinner and costumes, lightning flashing, and the sounds of tinkling music mixed with thunder swirled in my head, and I am unclear how long the evening lasted. I remember becoming very drowsy and drifting to sleep.

~~~

My head was pounding. At least, it sounded like pounding. I opened my eyes, startled as the first thing I saw was Stan asleep, his head resting on the fake gorilla head. I shook my head, trying to loosen the cobwebs, when one of the girls shouted. “Ms. Spenser, the police.”

I turned to look out of my window and into the face of an officer. “Ma’am, open the door.”

As I hurried to get the door open, I yelled for the kids to wake up and stepped out of the bus.

“Ma’am, is everyone okay?”

“I think so.” He pulled me out of the way as my students rushed to exit the bus. The officer asked them the same question, and they all answered that they were fine.

I was shocked to find we were on a rural road, fields on either side, and not the deep forest. Constance was standing beside me. “Ms. Spenser, how did we get here?”

“I don’t know.”

Sirens echoed in the distance, and within moments, fire/rescue and ambulances were on the scene, followed by a regular school bus. My principal, Wayne Taylor, the superintendent, and the school security director rushed off the bus.

“Alex, thank goodness, you and the kids are safe. What happened, the bus driver said he arrived, and the bus was gone?”

“Gone? Mr. Taylor, no, the driver arrived, showed his badge and credentials, and we left. His name was Dexter Crane. Was he not the bus driver?”

“We don’t have a bus driver by that name.”

My students joined me, and David spoke for them. “Mr. Taylor, the driver introduced himself as Dexter Crane.”

“How did you find us?” I trembled as I tried to understand what was happening.

“About an hour ago, all the messages you and the kids left yesterday showed up on our phones.”

“We must have gotten a signal. We didn’t have a signal in those trees.”

The police officer stepped in. “We are going to take everyone’s statement and description of this man, but first we want to get you and the kids checked out at the hospital and reunited with their parents. Kids go with the paramedics but do not discuss the last twenty-four hours.”

The paramedics led the students away, but the police officer stopped me. “Ms. Spenser, what happened here?”

“I don’t know. The driver took a wrong turn, and we ended up on this very narrow road with huge trees hanging over us. Then he ran out of gas and said there was a house nearby, and he left to get help.” I stopped. I couldn’t remember anything after that. Why couldn’t I remember? The officer must have realized I was close to panic.

“Take your time. What happened after the driver left for help?”

“I don’t know.”

~~~

The passage of time wasn’t helping. It had been a week since the incident, as the police called it, and an uneasiness stayed with me. My students had adjusted well, but they remained haunted by the night we lost and could not remember. The police continued to look for Dexter, but I could tell they didn’t expect to find him or discover his motive. They did suspect he had plans for us, but something spooked him, and he fled. As for the road, it didn’t exist anywhere in the area.

Me? I am trying to focus on my students and classes and put the ‘incident’ behind me. I could relax if only I could get the annoying sound of a harpsichord out of my head.

***

Happy Halloween!

Please visit Deborah on her blog: https://daratliffauthor.wordpress.com/

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