by Clark Roberts
Led By Beasts
Halloween Night on Monster Island
Other stories by Clark Roberts
Marty unbuckled his son from the safety seat, congratulating himself on managing to wedge the contraption into the Mustang’s tiny back half.
“Thanks for agreeing to watch Spencer,” Marty said. He hefted the boy into the morning sunlight before settling the squirming kid into the crook of an elbow and turning to his own dad.
“We aren’t putting you out for the weekend?” Denise asked.
“Nothing such,” Grandpa Don said and frowned seriously. “I’m glad to help.”
Spencer spotted his grandpa, and punched and kicked against Marty’s constraints.
“Chill, little guy,” Marty said. He placed his son down to the driveway.
Spencer peeled away as soon as his feet touched the ground and only stopped when he was fiercely hugging his grandpa’s legs.
“Noogie time!” Grandpa Don called, and rubbed a fist atop the boy’s sandy blond hair.
Erupting laughter, Spencer bobbed his head to avoid the assault. Then he surprised all the adults by glaring at Marty and demanding, “Cars, Daddy, cars!”
“Getting bossy,” Denise commented. She removed her shades, revealing genuine shock with raised eyebrows towards her husband.
“You’re his momma” Marty said, as if that provided the only explanation. He dove into the backseat to dig out the toy car case.
The plastic carrying case was black. A large sticker on the front emblazoned with a flame named the brand—Fire Tires! Below the trademarked symbol, two ridiculously sporty cars with tires afire blazed head-on in what was certain to be an over the moon crash.
Marty shook the case. From inside, fifty or so matchbox cars rattled.
“My cars!” Spencer called. He scampered back to Marty and ripped the case from his father’s hand. “My cars!”
Spencer tore past everyone and entered Grandpa Don’s open garage.
Immediately, they all heard Spencer cheer and clap his hands.
Marty peered inside but the shadowed interior gave up no secrets. He asked his dad, “What’s got him busted up?”
“This’ll kick’ya,” Grandpa Don said. He waved Marty and Denise along.
The adults stepped into the garage where the temperature drop was noticeable.
Marty’s eyes adjusted to the darkness, and it really was like he’d been kicked.
“Dad, this is amazing.”
“Don’t know about amazing,” Grandpa Don answered. “I do hope the boy’ll enjoy it a minute or three.”
To Marty and Denise there was no doubt their son was going to enjoy the model landscape Grandpa Don had built. Handmade stilts raised the plywood base roughly two feet off the garage floor, a perfect height on which the boy could play.
“Look at this detail,” Denise breathed. “You made this for him, Don?”
“Wasn’t much.” Grandpa Don shrugged and proudly nodded all in the same breath.
“Don’t be modest.” Denise knelt and pointed. “Look here where the road curves and then straightens; the double yellow changes to a dotted line for safe passing.”
“Those roads are nothing more than black and yellow paint. The grass for the countryside is extra boat carpet I had rottin’ around. I dug out the trees and what not from Marty’s old toy chest?” He pointed off to the side wall.
“I can’t believe you kept that around,” Marty said, stepping to the open chest.
“Oh yeah, stored it up in the attic all these years.”
Marty dropped to a knee and reached for the amphibious figurine with billed lips atop the cluster of toys. He fiddled with the arms and legs, moving the webbed hands and feet. For the moment, Marty was transported back in time, creating pools of mud in the backyard for his Swamp-Creature.
Only Spencer spouting off another burst of elation drew Marty back to the present.
Marty blinked over at the model landscape. He thinned his lips, a twinge of jealousy eating away at his stomach that he hadn’t thought to build something so elaborate for his son.
The carrying case was open, and Spencer had already dug out a few choice matchbox cars. He chased a neon green lizard-looking thing with a futuristic cop car that resembled a crossbreed between a dune-buggy and a military tank.
The set-up truly was amazingly detailed. In the farthest corner, rows of red and green model homes and hotels from a childhood game had been glued in place. Past those, miniature buildings indicated a town. In big white letters: HARBOR VILLAGE, WELCOME TO WINE COUNTRY!
“That’s where we’re headed,” Denise said, and elbowed Marty.
“Yep,” Grandpa Don agreed. “I thought you’d like that.”
“VROOM—VRRROOOOOM!” Spencer now ripped his favorite, the vintage demon model, along the painted roads. The blocky engine jutted up through the hood of the souped-up vehicle. It was midnight-purple, with painted flames along the side doors. That particular toy car always had Marty thinking of the prohibition days and bootleggers racing up and down back roads with a parachute of dust in their wake.
“You two need to shoo outta here,” Grandpa Don said, breaking the spell over all of them. “Go live up your anniversary.”
Before turning away, Marty one last time knelt at the toy chest. With gentle care, he rested Swamp-Creature back on top. The box was filled to the brim with toy soldiers and plastic creatures.
He wondered if Spencer would give any of his old toys a chance.
Maybe Spencer would, and maybe he wouldn’t.
Spencer made a crashing sound, once again drawing Marty out of his nostalgic memories.
In the play world, the lizard and futuristic cop car had crashed.
The demon car sped away from the scene.
Back outside, Marty and Denise folded the Mustang’s soft top down. They hugged Spencer goodbye, and offered a final word of thanks to Grandpa Don.
An hour onto the expressway, Marty flicked the turn signal and eased the convertible to the exit ramp.
“And you accuse me of too many potty stops,” Denise said.
“No bathroom break,” Marty said. He knew his wife lived for rides in the ’69 Mustang with the top down, but he refused to take his pride and joy out of storage beyond special occasions—a ten-year anniversary getaway was one of those occasions. “I thought maybe we’d take the back roads up to Harbor Village, see a little of the beautiful northern countryside.”
“I suppose you’ll claim spontaneity here.”
“Completely unplanned.” Marty braked at the ramp’s stop sign.
“Be aware, you are not stealing me into the woods. You’ll need a hotel room, clean sheets, and the lapping shoreline before any action.”
“Wouldn’t think of it; that’s my scout’s honor.” He held up three fingers as he’d been taught. Though now that his wife had mentioned it, he couldn’t help permitting a wistful fantasy of what might be if he could only convince her a couple rows deep into the tall trees standing sentry along the road.
“Just don’t get us lost,” Denise griped. She grabbed Marty’s phone and set the GPS. She clicked the device home into the case suctioned to the windshield.
Deciding on a little fun, Marty floored the gas pedal and the horsepower thrust him back into the leather seat. Next to him, and also feeling the sudden thrill of unexpected G-force, Denise barked a thrill of laughter and smiled to beat the world. The onrushing wind swept the hair away from her face, and Marty didn’t think he’d ever seen his wife looking more beautiful.
“Enough! Enough!” Denise yelled.
Marty let the red needle float backwards to a reasonable number on the speedometer. He said, “Gettin’ you warmed up for later.”
Denise was quiet, but a genuine smile reached all the way up to her face-shielding sunglasses. Her right arm was propped up on the window. To Marty she looked the epitome of content.
The trees thinned, and in time completely cleared. They were traveling along rolling hills as green as Ireland.
The GPS instructed Marty into multiple turns, and then they were on a main stretch of road that would lead them into the heart of Harbor Village in under forty minutes. Up and down they drove, from time to time passing billboards advertising the upcoming wine farms.
They rode mostly in a content silence, just enjoying the sun and the exceedingly warm breeze in their hair.
“That’s a strange billboard,” Denise commented. She pushed her shades up for a clearer view.
Marty, focused on the road, barely glanced at it before they passed. What he did notice was the black backdrop with a perfectly centered race car tire being pushed full throttle. Smoke engulfed the tire, and it spit orange flames out the backside.
If he didn’t know better, he’d have said it was Fire Tires trademarked symbol.
“I didn’t exactly see it,” Marty admitted.
“It read—and get this—Doom City arrival time: 20 minutes!”
“Doom City?” Marty frowned. The GPS was telling him they were exactly twenty minutes out from Harbor Village. “Maybe it’s an attraction for teenagers.”
“Maybe.” Denise shuddered at the mention of teenagers.
Marty reached out, entwined his fingers with his wife’s. They went quiet.
Not a soul in sight, so Marty permitted his foot to grow heavier on the gas.
“There it is again!” Denise jolted forward, accusingly jabbing her finger at the massive billboard off to the side.
“It is a strange name,” Marty admitted.
“I don’t like it one bit.”
As if Denise’s words were a bad premonition for the rest of the weekend, a red and blue flashing erupted in the rearview mirror.
Marty’s heart sank.
“Shit on a stick,” he griped. “We didn’t need this today.”
“What is it?” Denise asked, suddenly alarmed.
“Did you see a cop back there?” He flicked his eyes to check the speedometer, and just that simply, it was impossible to swallow.
Denise wheeled in her seat to look behind them. “Jesus, Marty, how fast were you going?”
“Fast enough,” he muttered. Maybe if they were still on the expressway he’d have been okay, but not on a side road even as desolate as this one, not at the speed to which he’d let the Mustang creep.
Not thinking it would be wise to play games, Marty pushed in the clutch and worked the shifter to lower speeds until he could pull over.
He killed the ignition.
The engine measurably ticked down.
Denise was already digging out the registration and insurance cards from the glove compartment. With obvious annoyance she said, “Put both hands on the steering wheel so he can see them when he approaches.”
“I know,” Marty answered. He stared forward, feeling embarrassment crawl up his neck. He thought of the few times he’d been pulled over in his life and how the anxiety was always the same.
“Maybe he’ll let you off with a warning.”
“A warning. Sure thing.” But in his gut, Marty knew the truth of the situation. To himself, he prayed for a genial officer in good spirits, and even with that best case scenario he’d be written a ticket. If all the luck in the world was on his side, ten over the limit was the best for which he could hope.
Marty adjusted the side mirror. He couldn’t pin down the reason why, but the phrase Doom City jumped to the forefront of his mind. He shook the words out of his head and studied the cop car reflected back at him.
What stood out was the sharp blue paint job. The front end shimmered like diamonds in the sunlight. Farther back, probably a trick of the eyes, the color seemed to transition to black.
What kind of budget was allocated to law enforcement these days? A paint job like that had to cost an arm, a leg, and a rib.
He leaned and peered with more concentration.
No, just stop. Don’t even think of something so ridiculous.
Denise craned her neck. “I’ve never seen any cop car quite like that.”
“Me neither,” Marty whispered, his eyes never leaving the side mirror.
The driver’s door would swing open any second now, and some young power-tripping Billy-bad ass’s polished shoes would hit the pavement. Of course the cop would be wearing reflective sunglasses and chewing gum at a racing chariot’s pace.
The sun beat down on them.
Denise continuously twisted in her seat.
They waited and waited.
And still the door never swung wide.
“The heck is this guy’s problem?” Denise said.
“Don’t know, but I’m gonna find out,” Marty answered. Aggravated, he thrust open his door. It was one thing to be issued a ticket—he’d damned well pay the fine through the mail—but it was an entirely different issue to have his wife tortured in this kind of heat while awaiting his fate.
“Do you think that’s wise?”
“It’s been over ten minutes. I’ll get the ticket, and we’ll be on our way.”
He rubbed the back of his neck as he approached the cop car.
“Is there a problem, offi—?” he started to ask but choked on the final word.
There was no point in finishing.
Bewildered, he glanced along the open stretch of road. Had he missed something here?
From above, the power lines hummed.
He felt watched.
It made no sense, because there was nothing but rolling hills with a tree here and there dotting the landscape, nowhere for a person to hide out.
Still, the hairs on his neck raised.
Then there was the mystery of the police car. The flashing lights still continued. The engine was off, and when Marty placed his hand on the hood he could feel the sun’s warmth, but that was all. Certainly not enough heat to indicate the engine had been running.
He straightened his back and folded his arms.
The car made one final siren call—woo woo—and the flashing lights fell dead.
With hands to knees, Marty leaned and peered through the side window. The seats looked something more suited for high society rather than police, made of a fine tan leather. Public positions had been taken care of in recent years—despite what many people crowed—but leather seats seemed a bit much. Then again, the entire police car looked like it ran far above the cost of what the average county’s taxes could afford.
Strangely, Marty couldn’t exactly place the model of the car either. It looked space-age, other-worldly even. It looked a little like—
no – no – no, don’t say it
—one of Spencer’s matchbox cars.
In his head, it was far more than a minor resemblance.
Marty about-faced and dazedly made it back to his car. Once sitting, he placed both hands on the steering wheel and stared at the dashboard.
“What is it?” Denise asked. “Are we in trouble?”
“I’m not sure,” Marty laughed, and wished he could see himself through his wife’s eyes, wondering if he looked like a man on the edge ready for the loony-bin. He reworked his grip over and over at the steering wheel, afraid to let go, in fear it was the only thing keeping him rooted to reality. That if he did release his grip, he’d spin right off into the blue sky and out of existence.
“Talk straight to me,” Denise said. “What did the cop say he pulled you over for?”
“You’re not going to believe this.” Marty saw his knuckles turning white.
“Try me,” Denise said, clearly agitated.
“There’s no cop.” Marty turned and looked at his wife, but he did not let go of the wheel. Oh no, he wasn’t releasing the one tangible item securing his sanity down. He continued as if explaining to an imbecile. “I mean in the car. There’s nobody back there in the cop car.”
“Stop being stupid.”
“Go check for yourself.”
“This is one of your jokes.” Denise jerked her entire upper body. When Marty didn’t answer, still looking backwards she continued, “You’re being ridiculous.”
“I’m not,” Marty whispered. He was back to staring at his hands. “If you really don’t believe me, go have a look.”
““If I wind up with the ticket because of some stupid prank,” Denise huffed, and suddenly her door was open. “I swear you won’t get any action this weekend—anniversary or not.”
But Marty could tell in her voice that she was beginning to second guess herself. There was something wrong. She too could feel it, but she was already out of the car and pot committed.
Marty was content to let her check out the scene for herself. Besides, it sounded so bizarre it almost had to be seen for oneself.
“Go and see,” Marty said one last time.
The passenger door shut.
Marty watched in the mirrors.
At first Denise marched with purpose, but then completely slowed her approach as she closed in on the car. A loony chuckle escaped Marty’s lips when Denise leaned over and searched both the front and back seat. Then she stood straight and gazed up and down the lonesome road in the same manner he had only a minute earlier. She was searching for any sign of life but instead found desolation. Her one hand went to her mouth, the fingers actually inside, while her other hand cupped the elbow holding the arm up. This was his wife’s anxiety pose that Marty so often teased her about—her take a few deep breaths for composure reflex—except this time Marty found no humor in it.
Denise returned and dropped to her seat. “Marty, what is going on here?”
“I’m not sure, but I think we need to leave,” Marty said. He made to fire up the engine, but Denise stayed him with a hand.
“We can’t flee from the cops. That would turn a misdemeanor into a felony.”
“There is no cop,” Marty stressed.
“We have to think this through. Maybe it’s a new practice. The cops have been under attack lately and this is a safer way for them to pull people over.”
“Do you know how stupid that sounds?” Marty said, raising his voice.
“Don’t start in on me, Marty. I’m not the one that got pulled over.”
Marty closed his eyes, breathed deeply. “Sorry, but don’t you think we would have heard about a new policy of that magnitude? Magically disappearing policemen—that’s a major change. I think they’d want the public to be aware of it.”
“Maybe they’re testing robot cars up here in wine country.”
“How would they assess me a fine? Did you see a button to press that would magically spit out a ticket?”
“No,” Denise admitted, this time choosing to ignore Marty’s sarcastic tone. She licked her lips, swiveled her head in all directions. “You swear you didn’t see him dash away?”
“Dash away? What is he a reindeer?”
“Stop being a dick,” Denise said, this time unable to keep it in.
Marty felt her gaze drop on him. It was true; he was being a grade-A jerk. It was also true there was no point in taking his frustration out on Denise.
“Maybe it’s a vehicle drone,” Denise said
“It’s not a drone.” On its own, his index finger began tapping the top of the steering wheel. “Did you take a good look at that car? I mean a real good look? Did you notice anything unusual about it?”
Denise kept her focus behind them. Her silence solidified Marty’s belief.
“Well did you?”
She sat forward, staring out the front windshield. She admitted, “I did.”
On the main road, a blur of bright neon green flew past, faster than anything either of them had ever witnessed in life. A deafening sound Marty could only relate to a military jet’s engine roaring at full tilt chased after it.
Marty’s car rocked like a boat on open water.
There wasn’t much time to observe, but what Marty did see was a perfectly centered exhaust from the back end with flames erupting out of it.
“Denise, was that what I think it was?”
Denise’s fingers went back into her mouth, but she nodded with acceptance. Her voice trembled. “The top and the hood were shaped like a lizard’s head.”
Suddenly, the side and rearview mirrors again blew up with flashing lights.
Behind them, the police car smoothly pulled back onto the road. It shot forward with cartoonish speed. The siren blared back up to ear-splitting levels, and by the time the cop car passed by, it was traveling like a heat seeking missile. Within seconds both vehicles were out of sight.
“The hell is going on?” Marty muttered.
“Oh shit, Marty, look at the GPS.”
He did a double-take. On his phone the destination had changed from Harbor Village, to Doom City arrival time: 5 minutes.
“We gotta turn around,” Marty said. He keyed the ignition, for a second believing the engine wouldn’t turn over and this crazy dream would delve right into the realm of nightmares, but the engine did fire.
“Where?” Denise asked.
“Home!” He popped the clutch and wheeled a U-turn, leaving rubber on the pavement.
With the hood of the convertible pointed in the opposite direction, the GPS immediately flashed: re-routing…re-routing…re-routing…
Marty pressed the gas pedal, and the engine hummed with power.
The GPS blinked, finally settling on: Destination found. Doom City arrival time: 4 minutes.
They sped along, Denise chewing her fingernails and Marty watching the speedometer needle climb over eighty. He was okay with that, because other than the slight hills, the road had been a straight-away.
“Look out!” Denise yelled.
Marty braked hard. He jerked the wheel to the left, felt the car fighting to keep all four tires grounded.
The bend in the road had come from nowhere. It was as if God’s fingers had plucked them and placed them down on a completely new track.
“That curve was not there!” Marty said, breathing heavily. He pushed the accelerator but with a tad more caution. “This had been a straight shot for the last twenty minutes.
Beside him, Denise could only answer with a whistling squeal from the back of her throat—the sound of real fear.
Doom City arrival time: 3 minutes.
The whole scenario was crazy, and inside, Marty felt it was paramount that he keep his cool and concentrate on the task at hand.
He had to drive. That was all. He had to drive and do it with both expedience and caution simultaneously. At this point it wouldn’t have caught him off guard if the heavens opened up and started dropping boulders for him to weave around. He had to focus, had to keep his eyes everywhere at once—the road in front of him, the side ditches, what was behind them in the rearview mirror.
In the rearview mirror.
There it was, racing up so fast an actual dust cloud bloomed behind it despite the paved road.
“Better brace yourself!” Marty said.
“What is it?” Denise frantically clicked her seatbelt back on. She twisted in her seat. “No. It can’t be – it can’t be – it can’t be.” She put her face to her palms and began sobbing. “Why is he doing this to us?”
But it was real, as inexplicable as it all was, the reflection didn’t lie.
Rushing up from behind them at jet speed was another vehicle—this one with a perfect midnight-purple paint job.
Doom City arrival time: 2 minutes.
Marty’s hands on the steering wheel went cold with fear.
The vehicle closed in on them with ungodly speed. Seconds before it could bash into the Mustang’s back end, the new vehicle slowed as if pacing Marty’s driving abilities.
The moment permitted Marty to study the car in detail.
The windshield was partitioned and tinted so it resembled dark eyes. Painted flames ran along the tapered front end that stretched like a demon’s snout, and the chrome grill grinned wickedness. The exposed engine roared and drowned out all other sounds.
There was no doubting it. The car was a life size version of Spencer’s all-time favorite Fire Tires model—the demon-mobile.
The demon rushed forward, full in all the mirrors.
“It’s gonna ram us!” Marty yelled.
Instead of a jarring impact, Marty felt the slightest nudge reverberate the car’s undercarriage. The back end slipped loose. He fought to control it, won, and straightened it out.
Denise moaned and rocked her entire body.
Doom City arrival time: 1 Minute.
The demon backed off, and Marty once again floored it. For a split second in time he thought he’d won, could visibly see they were pulling away.
But the demon seemed to have an overabundance of horsepower. The engine roared, and smoke absolutely poured from the hooded exhaust pipes. It closed in, and this time when Marty felt the back end get tapped, rubber squealed.
The steering wheel jerked of its own accord, and Marty’s arms flexed as tight as he could make them to maintain control.
If he lost it and they flipped, it’d be lights out for certain. Seatbelts or not, there was no way possible they’d survive the crash he was envisioning.
“Good God, Marty, look at that!” Even though the situation at hand was dire, Denise spoke with a new sense of awe. She pointed to the left.
Glanced a second time, and his jaw dropped.
A row of green houses lined the road. Here and there in the background what was meant to be a red hotel had been dropped.
No windows. No perceivable doors.
“They’re all made of—” Denise started to say.
“Plastic,” Marty said.
“They’re from that kid’s game!” Denise said, her pitch rising to near hysterics. “Why is he doing this to us?”
Spencer’s not even three for another month, Marty thought, absurdly wanting to defend what he now truly believed was his son’s make-believe world given to reality.
To Spencer this is a game.
He didn’t have time to dwell on it though, because next he felt the most jarring impact yet rattle through the car’s floor.
The demon rushed up to their side and ran parallel with them.
Denise’s shrieks sounded off like a banshee’s.
Marty turned his head to look and instantly regretted it.
The demon’s side window smoothly glided down, and Marty locked eyes with a monster.
Swamp-Creature stared back at him. When the thing spread its claw and waved, the connective webbing between the fingers was so complete and sickly translucent that Marty could make out thin, squiggly veins.
Denise’s screaming increased tenfold. She raked fingernails down her cheeks with ferocity and blood beaded.
“Please, Spencer,” Marty pleaded, “make this stop.”
Swamp-Creature wrenched the wheel.
The side impact was the furthest thing from gentle. Marty lost control, felt the right side wheels lift as the Mustang tipped. The sudden weightlessness was too much, and he vomited on his hands. He tucked his shoulders and upper half at the very moment the ground and sky traded positions.
The car smashed down. Metal crunched and glass shattered.
The wrecked convertible again flipped, but this time trunk over end.
Marty had miraculously survived the first flip unscathed, and on the second he took the moment to stare above and straight into the blue sky.
A billowy cloud had shaped into a face.
It was his son’s face, and Spencer grinned down on them with innocent joy.
Upside down, the muscle car slammed home to the pavement and skidded. A tail of sparks showered out behind it.
Denise ceased to scream.
Marty stopped thinking.
Arrival time: 0:00:00
“Lunchtime, buster!” Grandpa Don called.
The center high sun pushed more light into the garage than it had first thing in the morning.
Spencer ceased making crashing noises and looked up questioningly.
“No arguments.” Grandpa Don winked. “You were at it all morning out here. It’s inside for some grub and then maybe the backyard so I can teach you how to throw.”
“Awww!” Spencer moaned.
“I said ‘no arguments’ and that covers whining too.”
Spencer stood and dropped his favorite Fire Tires car. With a sad face, he made his way to the screen door and up the concrete step. Grandpa Don halted him and wrestled away the one toy he still held.
“What’s this?” Grandpa Don turned the plastic figurine over. A green face with bulging eyes stared up. Nostalgic tears instantly stung Grandpa Don’s eyes. Like a tough old codger, he wiped them with a forearm. In a low voice that came from his belly, he bellowed, “Swamp-Creatuuuuurrrrre—fear the beast from the mud!”
“Schamp-Cweeaachure!” Spencer exulted.
“You like this one, eh? You know, this happened to be your daddy’s favorite toy when he was your age.” Grandpa Don paused and this time let a tear slip down his cheek. “Course he enjoyed those Fire Tires car sets too.”
“Schamp-Cweeaachure!” Spencer’s face lit up with wild and innocent enthusiasm. He reached out with both hands for the toy.
“He can come in too,” Grandpa Don conceded, handing the toy back. “No harm in that I guess.”