Fiction: The Road That Takes You There by Jason Sechrest

Meet George Tinker. Each day, George fires up his ’57 Thunderbird and drives down the road in his small home town—the same road he’s been driving since he was old enough to get behind the wheel. 

But, for the first time in his life, George is about to come to the end of that road—and he’ll finally have to face what’s waiting for him there.

Cemetery Dance is proud to present “The Road That Takes You There” by columnist and author Jason Sechrest.

1

My God, her face…

what happened to her face?

2

The road stretched out before him in miles of endlessness. It was an old country road, one he had driven countless times before and surely would drive countless times again. He had driven it in his youth as he drove it now as an old man, the road that took him into the city for work each day and the very one that would bring him home again each night. Stalks of corn, also seemingly without end, flanked both sides of the road, mile after mile. He smiled to look upon them, remembering a simpler time when he was knee-high to a grasshopper, when the stalks had seemed to tower over him. Days when he would run through the rows, hide in them, breathing in the sweetness while taking momentary shelter from the sun.

It came as a great shock to George Tinker, the day he saw a break in those vast stretches of yellow and green. A brief reprieve that he was certain had not been there before. The fields seemed to part, as the Red Sea had parted for Moses, that great magician of ancient days, and in its place rested what would come to be the sum of all George Tinker’s fears—a tiny church with a graveyard tucked neatly behind it.

“That wasn’t there yesterday, Martha,” George said, slowing his car at the sight. The passenger seat next to him was empty. “Must be new,” he concluded. George often spoke, out loud, to his late wife Martha. He preferred to pretend she was still with him.

Merrily George rolled along, passing it by, without thinking much of it at first. It was only later, passing it again on his way home, that the first of many questions would arrive.

Who built it? he wondered.

In all his years, the road had not changed, and for that, George was grateful. Now, there was something new. Something unfamiliar.

“That thing doesn’t belong there!” George Tinker shouted out his car window at the church the next morning. Had anyone seen him, bald but for the brush of gray around his ears, they might have laughed at what looked in that moment like the very definition of a grumpy old man. But no one had seen him. No one was there. No one ever was.

“Doesn’t belong,” he hmphed to himself, as if to underline the point. He continued his muttering rant as he tooled on down the road. “Now Martha, you were right when you said there’s a place for everything, and everything in its place. And that thing… is out. of. place. Meh! The whole world is upside down today.”

He wiped the droplets from his forehead. He was on a roll now. “Cornfield’s ‘posed to be there. Cornfield’s always been there. Now where did that damned place come from? And why is it so small?”

Indeed, the church itself was not quite a building, but more like a single room with a roof overhead. It reminded him of a miniature; some kind of model from an Aurora kit he would have happily put together in his wonder years. Had he built such a model, however, he would surely have painted it more lifelike than it stood, using his brush to blot a little black for dirt upon the church’s window pane, or a deep green moss creeping along the gravestones. Had the site looked more like that, it might not have bothered him so. Instead, the church and the cemetery both stood immaculate. Too clean, he thought. It was like no human hand had ever touched it, much less a body have visited it. And yet, it also seemed to George that the place must have been as old as the road itself, having existed since the dawn of time.

“Now how can that be, Martha?” he asked, to the empty car. “Makes no damned sense.”  

3

By the time George drove by again, later that night, he was fixated. That strange little church with its many headstones was all he could think of. That and the many questions it posed.

How in the name of God–” the old man asked himself, taking a closer look at the cemetery from the safety of his car window, “did all these damned graves just pop up over night?”

The graveyard was enclosed by a black wrought iron fence, extending itself to a double-gated entrance where, overhead, the word SALEM was sprawled out in black wrought iron letters. Though the house of worship was indeed small in stature, George now realized that the graveyard was not quite as small as he had thought. It was only a trick of the eyes that made it seem so. At close range, he could see dozens, perhaps even a hundred gravestones all lined up in neat little rows.

George drove but just barely, hypnotized by the sight of the place. A full moon had risen directly over those gates, perfectly centered above that lone word welcoming both the undead and the long departed. Staring up at it, George felt a lump rise in his throat, his curiosity waning in the face of blatant fear. He locked his car doors.

Both behind and ahead of him, stalks swayed in the night wind, and yet the churchyard plot lay utterly still. Unmoving. No person would be seen walking by. No cat to be caught crossing its path. Nothing—nothing alive, at least—set foot on the grounds. Nothing dared to tread.  

Twice a day George Tinker passed it by, and twice a day he considered stopping. Getting out. Walking up to the church’s only window to see who or what was inside. To face it, and in doing so perhaps feel a little easier on the daily trek of road that lay before him. Instead, it rattled his nerves. It instilled a sense of fear and dread within him, more and more with each passing sunrise and sunset. He couldn’t make heads or tails of the place—why it was there, or what it held over him. It made his pulse quicken and his palms sweat against the steering wheel each time he drew close to it. Some days, he’d push the pedal to the metal attempting to outrace his fears. He would speed recklessly down the road, passing the church as quickly as possible, because as soon as he passed it, he knew there would be air in the world again, and until he passed it, the luxury of breathing was one not afforded to him. But most days and most nights, George would just try to beat the panic. He would simply coast—so that at least the car seemed calm and quiet. He’d float the car right by, all the while looking straight ahead, pretending not to see.

“If I can’t see it,” he reasoned aloud, “then maybe it can’t see me.”

4

The world is upside down.

What have I done?

…Sweet Jesus, what have I done?  

5

Another sun was on the rise. As George drove that long stretch of road towards it, he recalled a time when he had laughingly asked Martha where she thought the road ends.

“It’s not what’s at the end of the road,” his wife had told him. “It’s the road that takes you there.”

He thought of this and smiled, thinking of Martha. As he whooshed by the perfectly poised stalks, the husks seemed to call out, reminding him of how her hair had been that perfectly straight and golden. He remembered how she had smelled of orange and lavender, how her kisses had felt against his cheeks, the crookedness of her smile, or how she would slide the palms of her hands down her apron when she was nervous or excited.

He was thinking all this as the sun threw its yellow morning light against the rows. It seemed to George a perfect morning. The kind of morning that led to a day in which nothing could go wrong.

Except in the distance.

He shuddered just to see it coming. George might have been the one driving the car, but he often wondered who was driving his mind, and how it could take such a sharp turn, from a cherished memory to thoughts of dread and panic.

All it took was the sight of that place where the corn rows ceased to grow.

The road, he had known all his life. He had ridden it on his bicycle as a child. He had driven it in his father’s pickup truck as a teenager. And as a husband, he had taken the road each day to work. He had driven Martha to her book club, her bridge club, and to her doctor’s visits. Martha was never one to get behind the wheel, always preferring to take the passenger seat. She was a strong woman, but never controlling. She had a mind of her own with ideas she was never prone to keep to herself. And yet, she preferred to leave the big decision making to George. She let him decide where they would live, which as it turned out was the same old town, with the same old road on which they’d grown up on. She let him decide how many children they would bear, of which there were two, a boy and a girl. Each night, the meal she made was at his behest, and after, as they sat in front of the tube, George chose what programs they would watch. She preferred it this way, not because she was weak or lesser minded, but because Martha Tinker, who had once upon time been Martha Jones, preferred to make her husband happy. Making George happy made Martha happy. It was as simple as that, and theirs had been a happy marriage for it.

Until she had passed on.

The corners of George’s smile began to turn at the thought. Turn downward, grim. He didn’t like to think of Martha as gone. Didn’t want to admit it. Couldn’t admit it, even after all these years. And how many years had that been? How long had he been driving this road without her?

A tear formed in the corner of his eye and he quickly wiped it away with his sleeve, blocking the memory as he did. George was good at this. He was good at keeping his eyes on the road ahead, never looking into the rearview mirror. He’d become so good at it, he found any sense of time slipping through his fingers. How many years had it been?

“Don’t want to think about that, Martha,” he muttered to himself.

How much time has passed? And who’s that buried out there in that cemetery?  

George Tinker may have been a scared man, but he was also a smart one. Deep down, he knew that to drive this or any road in peace, he would one day need to stop being scared of such questions. Which would require getting some answers.

6

The world is upside down.

It is not the dull ache in his shoulder but a much sharper pain from the gash in his forehead that awakens him from unconsciousness. Blood on the windshield, so fresh it’s still dripping. From that window, a world where the road is paved in constellations, and where the corn stalks hang low from the skies.

Why am I upside down? What have I done?

Pain seizes his neck, as he turns his head to the left. A blinding light. Two of them. And to his right –

Sweet Jesus, what have I done?  

His scream is loud. It pierces the silence of his world that would be forever turned upside down.  

My God, her face…

What happened to her face?

7

George Tinker at last found the courage to get those answers, after many more suns had gone and moons had come in their wake. He had grown tired. An old man living the same mundane existence, day in and day out, he was tired of feeling afraid and tired of feeling alone. Tired of turning his head from the awful sight of that place each time that he passed it.

It was time, and George was ready.

The moon hung full over the plot as George Tinker parked his car directly across from that tiny little chapel with all its neat little death markers lined up beyond it. As he stepped out of the car, the stalks of corn rustled in the wind, and for a moment he would have given anything to be a boy again. To run and hide in the rows, taking shelter from the moon’s hideous glow. He reached out and touched one of those stalks longingly. It felt different than he’d remembered from his youth. Somehow smoother. Nothing was quite the way it had been when he was a boy.

He turned full stop and stared it down. Stared down the whole damned thing. The moon, the gates, that little shack of church with all its graves. He put one foot in front of another, one step at a time. He drew nearer, and as he did, he drew in his breath if only in a futile attempt to remind himself that he could breathe at all. He crossed, miraculously he thought, from that paved road he knew so well onto the grass which he did not. He heard it crunch beneath his feet. It was hard and coarse. George reached down and felt the blades with a shaky, spot-ridden hand. Plastic. It felt like plastic.

And at this, George began to doubt this little adventure of his was going to create anything but more questions.

“Is anybody there?” he called out. Another question. He approached the church’s only window to see if it would give an answer. He peered in and saw nothing. Not a shape. Not a form. It was pitch black. He wondered if he might have seen the very same thing by the light of day. As if all four walls had been painted black, along with its ceiling and floor, containing nothing. Providing nothing. It gave no answers.

It’s enough to drive a man mad, George thought. The place might as well have been a hole in the ground, or a spaceship full of alien invaders. It was utterly unfamiliar and relentless in its refusal to be defined.

SALEM, that lone word which hung in the air over the tombstones, was the only commentary the place would offer. George crept cautiously over to the gates that led into that foreboding boneyard and looked up at the word. Moonlight backlit the letters, spelling them out upside down in the mirrored shadow beneath him.

The word meant peace. He remembered that now from his Sunday school days as a kid.

“Funny thing,” he called up to it. “That’s just what I’m looking for.”

He lifted the latch on the iron gates and entered the place that his fears were made of.

8

He had been right. There were far more gravestones than any passerby would have imagined. And yet, somehow, he knew exactly where to go. It was as if he had always known. Exactly where it would be. George Tinker walked up four paces and crossed right. There, four or five stones down, it sat planted firmly into the earth. The words engraved upon the stone read: Martha Jones Tinker, Devoted Wife and Mother, 1930 – 1960. And next to it, a second stone: George Edward Tinker, Loving and Devoted Husband and Father, 1930 – 2012.

In less than a second, it was upon him. The truth. All the memories came rushing back. Not the good ones he’d held onto for comfort, but the dark ones he had kept filed away like photographs from a crime scene. The road he had known all his life. It was the road that took him to weddings and to funerals. It was the road that had taken him to just about anywhere. And it was the road that had taken her. Taken her from him. It was the road he had driven on the night she died, as a dog had raced out into the middle of it, and George had swerved to miss, running his ’57 Thunderbird into the oncoming pickup. He remembered it all, and all at once. The way the headlights had blinded him. How the impact of the car had thrown them, turning the vehicle over.

And he remembered her face.

My God, her face…

A hand touched his shoulder, and he heard a voice whisper into his ear, “I’ve been waiting for you.”

He turned and she was there, sliding the palms of her hands down her apron, leaving bloody streaks that ended in bloody handprints. She smiled a half smile, because her face was only half there; a mangled mess of bone and tissue where the other half had been.

Tears poured from the eyes of George Tinker as he fell to his knees and kissed his wife’s blood-stained hands.

“Sor – sor – ” he stuttered and sobbed. “SORRY! I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” 

The moon glowed brighter at these words, and as it did, it made the shadow of the letters that much larger for it.

SALEM, the gates spelled out.

Salem.

9

George and Martha walked hand in hand to the car. George held the door of the ’57 Thunderbird open for her, like a gentleman, and just before getting in on his own side he turned to look at those stalks once more. He reached out and felt the corn, plastic as a child’s play toy.

Where are we? he wondered.

And that was one question George Tinker didn’t care if he ever got the answer to. He had been reunited with his Martha, and that, he thought, was heaven enough for him.

He started the car and looked at his wife. From here in the driver’s seat, he could see only the beauty, only the unmarred side of her face that hadn’t aged a day since she was 30.

“Where do we go?” he asked her.

“You decide,” she smiled, looking only forward.

The sun was rising. George and Martha Tinker drove hand in hand down the road, towards that infinite succession of sunrises and sunsets. They knew not where they were going. Only that the road would take them there.

 

Jason Sechrest has an official Patreon page where readers can subscribe to receive a new short story or chapter from a serialized novel every month at: http://Patreon.com/JasonSechrest

Sechrest has been a published writer since he was 15 years old, when he began his career as a staff writer for Femme Fatales Magazine, interviewing women of the horror, science-fiction and fantasy genre. In 2016, he began writing “What I Learned From Stephen King,” a column for Cemetery Dance Publications. In it, he explores the wisdom, life lessons, and spirituality hidden within King’s many works.

In 2018, Sechrest sold his own first work of horror fiction to Cemetery Dance. His short story, “Orange Grove Court,” will appear in a 2019 issue of Cemetery Dance magazine. His second story, “Jonah Inside the Whale: A Meditation,” was published by Scarlet Galleon Publications in their paperback anthology, Fearful Fathoms: Collected Tales of Aquatic Terror (Volume One).

Patreon: http://patreon.com/jasonsechrest
Twitter: http://twitter.com/jasonsechrest
Facebook: http://facebook.com/sechrestthings

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