NaNoWriMo 2016 – Wrong Exit – Week 0

Some days, when I’m driving down the Road, I still think about how it started. Strange, isn’t it? After everything that has happened to me, everywhere I have been since then, all that I have seen, but those first few days still stand out like they were yesterday.

Back then I was a driver for a courier company; basically door-to-door delivery for small packages and the like that people didn’t want to trust to the big shipping companies. In my case I mostly worked with a medical supply outfit. I carried things like prescription drugs and supplies to small, independent pharmacies and doctors across Georgia. No schedule 1 stuff, but still things that need to get to where they’re going and that our suppliers really didn’t want going through the regular mail. So I spent a lot of time drivng around to smaller towns.

One day I was heading up I-75 towards Dalton. I was feeling a bit tired and distracted and decided I needed a coffee stop. (And a restroom stop for that matter.) I knew there was a Quik-Trip just past the Dalton exit so when it came up I pulled off.

In retrospect I should have known something was wrong immediately but I overlooked it at the time. When I got to the top of the exit ramp there was a road heading off to the left and right but no sign of the Quik-Trip I was expecting. Nothing else either, just a road through north Georgia pine forests. I decided I was just mis-remembering the stop. After all, I drive around a lot and a lot of exits look like lots of other exits. So I turned right and headed down the road a ways.

About a mile down I saw what I was expecting. A cluster of buildings common all along the Interstate. The Quik-Trip and another few gas stations, a couple of fast food places, a car dealership and a lonely strip mall. I pulled into the parking lot of the Quik-Trip and got out.

The first thing I noticed was that I was the only car in the parking lot. That happens sometimes but rarely enough that I noticed. I shrugged and went inside.

I walked in and headed for where I knew the restrooms would be. (I already had a lot of coffee that day, OK?) Immediate needs taken care of, I returned to the main part of the store and headed for the coffee machines, then stopped.

There was no one in the store. No customers, which might be expected, but there didn’t seem to be anyone working there either. Not at the main counter or at the food counter in the back.

“Hello?” I called. When there was no response I continued. “Hello? Anyone here?” Still no response.

Now this was getting really odd. I walked back to the kitchen counter and leaned over. “Hello?”

There was no response. I supposed whoever was there was in the back or something but it was odd to see both counters completely unmanned. Combined with the empty parking lot I was suddenly uncomfortable. Was the store closed? I looked around. The coffee and other machines were on. The lights were on. The stoves behind the kitchen counter seemed to be active. There was just no one here.

“Anyone here?” I called again. Still no response.

I debated getting a coffee and just leaving some cash on the counter but something didn’t feel right. I left and drove to the McDonalds next door.

As soon as I parked I knew something was wrong. This parking lot was empty too.

I got out of the car and looked around. There were no cars anywhere, beyond that one car dealership. The gas stations, strip mall and food places were all empty. I walked into the McDonald’s long enough to confirm that there was no one inside. There were burgers and fries sitting under the heat lamps behind the counter but no workers anywhere. I went back to my car and headed back to the Interstate.

About a mile further north I came to another exit, took it, and immediately saw the Quik-Trip I was expecting. The parking lot was fairly full and there were a number of cars at the pumps as I got out and went inside. There I saw the customers and staff I was expecting, so I got my coffee and went to the counter. As I was paying, I asked about the store at the exit south of them.

“Dalton?” he asked. “I don’t think we have a store at the exit there.”

“Not Dalton.” I said. “The exit between Dalton and here. What’s going on there?”

The clerk shook his head. “There isn’t an exit between here and Dalton. What are you talking about?”

I started to say something then shook my head. “Sorry, guess I needed the coffee more than I thought.” I paid and headed back to my car. I got in, stuck my coffee in the console and turned back to grab my seat belt when someone stepped up next to my car.

“You said you saw another exit?” I looked. It was an older man, wearing a “Reliable Plumbing” uniform. “South of here?”

I considered for a moment, then nodded. “Yeah, I thought it was this exit, but nothing was there. I drove down the road a bit and found a couple of places but no one was in any of them. It kinda freaked me out and I left.”

He grabbed my arm. “You didn’t take anything, did you?”

Annoyed, I pulled my arm away. “Hey!”

He shook his head and leaned in towards me. “Did you take anything!” He seemed almost angry, but there was an edge of concern in his voice.

“No.” I said, a bit taken aback. “I used the bathroom at the Quik-Trip there but didn’t take anything.”

“Not even a paper towel? You didn’t drink or eat anything.”

I shook my head. “I washed my hands. Was that OK? What is going on?”

He held up a hand. “Nothing. Look… just some advice. You get off on an exit where you expect something only to find nothing? Just get back on the Interstate and keep driving.”

“What?” I was starting to get annoyed. “Not everything is right by the exit.”

He stepped forward and leaned into the window. “If there’s nothing there, keep driving! And if you wind up somewhere with no one around? Leave immediately. And whatever you do, don’t take anything from there with you!”

Now I was definitely annoyed and opened the door, stepping back out of the car. “What? What the hell are you talking about?”

He just looked at me. “Trust me on this. Avoid places like that.”

“Why? What is going on? What are you talking about?”

He started backing away towards the building. “I’m just giving you some advice. Ignore it if you want. Just stay away from places like that.” He turned and headed towards a pickup parked nearby. I thought about questioning him further but thought better of it. I got back into my car and left.

I spent the next few hours making deliveries then got back onto the Interstate heading towards Atlanta. As I passed the exit before Dalton I thought about the weird conversation outside the Quik-Trip and looked for the next exit, wanting to go check out that mysteriously unpopulated stop again. I didn’t see it. The next exit was Dalton. This actually bothered me more than anything else that had happened that day and I spent the next hour wondering what it was I had seen, or where I had been.

Back at the office I turned in my delivery manifest, filled out the day’s forms and started back to my car. I ran into Sara in the parking lot. Sara had worked for the company a lot longer than I had. She did the nuclear deliveries; the nuclear material used for MRI machines and things like that. I didn’t have enough time with the company for that but it was one of the upper tiers for our couriers, along with the folks carrying the schedule one stuff. More responsibility, but the pay was better too.

“So, how did your day go?” she asked.

I hesitated for a moment then told her about the weird exit and the guy in the parking lot.

She stopped abruptly and turned white. “You took the exit?”

“Yeah.” I told her. “Look. What the hell is going on here?”

She shook her head and backed away from me. “Look. If you find one of those, don’t go there.”

“Why?” I asked. “Look, I’ve been getting the run-around all day. What is this all about?”

She was visibly shaken and turned towards her own car. “Look, if you see something like that again, just… stay away. Seriously. Stay away.” She hurriedly got into her own car and sped out of the parking lot. I looked after her for a moment then got into my own car and left.

I tried to talk to Sara a couple of other times over the next few days but she seemed to be going out of her way to avoid me, even starting to do her pickups from another office. At the time I shrugged and forgot about it.

——

Until it happened again.

This time I was down in south Georgia, heading east from Macon towards Savannah on 65. Again I was getting kind of tired and needing a break and I was getting low on gas anyway, so I pulled off at the next exit I came to. Now, this part of the state is kinda sparse so when I didn’t see anything at first I didn’t think anything of it. I drove down the road for a while and came to a couple of gas stations, fast food places and a strip mall. I pulled into the BP station I came to and drove up to the pump.

I stuck the nozzle in the tank, swiped my card, and waited, only to see “Card not read. Try again or see attendant.” I tried again and was told to see the attendant again. I sighed, turned towards the building, and stopped.

There was no one in the parking lot but me. Looking around, I saw no one and no other cars anywhere. And I knew it was happening again.

I knew I wouldn’t find anything but I went inside anyway. I was right. The attendant I was told to see wasn’t here, nor were there any other customers. The shelves were stocked and what looked like fresh pastries were in the display case, but no one was around.

I returned to my car and drove down to the strip mall. There was a sports bar at one end and I went inside.

Again, there was no one there. The tables were empty and the hostess station was unmanned. There were televisions lining the walls, but all of them were showing static. I had come over here hoping they had something on one of their TVs, but wasn’t actually surprised.

There was a takeout menu on the hostess stand and I picked it up, idly looking at it. Burgers and bar food; pretty much standard sports bar fare.

I looked up and around again and happened to glance through the window in the door. Someone was walking down the street in front of the restaurant.

I burst out through the door. “Hey!” I yelled. “Hey!”

I stopped. The person I had seen outside was gone. I looked around in confusion then shrugged. I don’t know why I expected something different. I went back to my car.

When I got there I realized that I was still carrying the menu I had picked up from the hostess stand. I tossed it into the console then drove back to the Interstate. The next exit was “normal” so I filled up, grabbed a coffee and continued on my way.

I got back to the office late that evening. I turned in my paperwork and was back in my car and about to go home when I saw the menu again. I picked it up and looked at it. “Boot Scooters” was the name of the place I had stopped. There was a phone number on the menu and, with sudden curiosity, I pulled out my phone and dialed it.

After several rings someone answered. “Hello?” It was a woman’s voice.

“Yeah,” I said. “Is this Boot Scooters?”

“What?” said the woman.

“Boot Scooters? The bar? I was there earlier today?”

“Sorry.” she said. “You have the wrong number.” She hung up.

I checked my phone. The number I had dialed was the one from the menu. I didn’t know what else I could do so I just drove home.

——

The next morning I texted the office and told them I had eaten something that disagreed with me and couldn’t make it in that day. Then I drove to the north Atlanta office and waited for Sara to show up.

When she did, I hopped out of my car and moved to intercept her. “Hi Sara.”

She stopped, looking at me at first with confusion, then with wariness. “Oh! Hi Dale. What’s up? I didn’t know you were out of the northern office now.”

I shook my head. “I’m not. I need to talk to you.”

She took a step back. “About what?” She was obviously a bit worried.

“That weird exit I took. I found another one. You seem to know something about them and I want to know what is going on.”

She stared at me for a moment, thinking, then sighed. “OK. I’ll tell you what I know. Look, let me go pick up my deliveries. I’ll meet you at the Starbucks down at the corner on 400. OK?”

I nodded. “Sure.” She headed on into the building. I drove off to get coffee.”

She showed up about 20 minutes later. Even though it was a bit chilly I was sitting at a table outside. She came up and I handed her a coffee. “I don’t know how you like it. Cream and sugar OK?”

She made a face. “Normally no sugar, but I’ll live.” She sat down and took a sip of her coffee, making another face as she did. “So, how much do you know?”

I shrugged. “Not much.” I told her about the two instances, the first up near Dalton and the one yesterday past Macon. She listened, nodding occasionally.

When I finished she stared into the distance for a bit. “I’ve never seen one of them myself,” she said finally, still looking into the distance. “At least I don’t think so. With the stuff I carry…” she nodded towards her car in the parking lot “…I’m really not supposed to make any non-essential stops until all my deliveries are done. Technically I shouldn’t be here.” She looked back to me and smiled briefly. “I suppose I may have passed one and not realized it. But I’ve heard about them.”

“How?”

She looked away again and hesitated a bit before responding. “Did you ever know Caleb?”

“Caleb?” I thought. “Yeah, he was one of our drivers, wasn’t he? Haven’t seen him in about six months. Transferred out, I thought. He saw them?”

She nodded slowly. “Yeah. He told me about them. And it’s been seven months. And he didn’t transfer.”

I felt the tension in the air. “What happened?”

She shrugged and paused again, still not looking at me. “He just didn’t show up one day. Didn’t come in to work. I tried calling him and he didn’t answer. The next day he still didn’t show up so I went by his apartment. It was normal. All of his stuff was there. It looked like he had just stepped out. His car was gone, and his keys and wallet and all weren’t there. It was like he just went out and never came back.”

“Where could he have gone?” I asked, but a faint chill was starting down my spine.

She shook her head. “I talked to dispatch and they said he actually never checked in the day before. That isn’t that odd; you know how sometimes you get in late and the office is closed so you just check in the next morning? They just assumed that was what happened. They did check his delivery list, later, and he did make all of his scheduled deliveries. He just never made it home.”

“Did anyone ever figure out what happened?”

“No. I know there was a search. I talked to the company and the police about it; they did ask a lot of questions. But in the end no one knew what happened. The company never said what happened to him and when most people assumed he had just gone somewhere else they did nothing to discourage that line of thought. Wouldn’t want to worry the other drivers, you know.”

We sat in silence for a moment.

“You were friends?” I asked. She nodded.

“More than friends?” She hesitated, then nodded again.

I hesitated. I didn’t want to push things but I had to know more. “So what do you know?” I asked, finally.

She sighed and looked at me. “I knew Caleb for a while. He was the one who helped me get the job here in fact. Anyway, about a year or so ago he told me about taking an exit that shouldn’t be there. Basically the same thing you told me. He got fascinated with those exits. He started looking for them.”

“What happened?”

She shook her head. “I don’t know. He offered to take me to show me one once, but I turned him down. But he kept telling me every time he found one. About how everything seemed normal but no one was there. Then one day he told me that he had started doing his ‘shopping’ there.”

“Shopping?” I asked?

“Yeah. Since no one was there he figured he could do whatever he wanted. Started loading up his car with food, beer, electronics, whatever he happened to find. Used it for himself or sold it on Craigslist or something. The only problem he ever had was that every battery he ever found was dead. Completely. Couldn’t even be recharged.” She laughed. “At one time he had like 20 iPads he couldn’t do anything with.”

She paused. “He even…” She sighed. “Once day he even showed up with… an engagement ring that he tried to give me. I… couldn’t take it. I… I wanted to, but something just… felt wrong.”

She looked down. “That was… that was right before he disappeared. Maybe, if I had taken it…”

We sat there for several minutes. She stared down at the ground and I shifted uncomfortably; feeling as if I had intruded on something I shouldn’t have.

Finally she spoke again. “He said he had figured out how to find those exits whenever he wanted to. He could go there at will. But the last night I saw him, the night before he disappeared, he said that it was getting harder for him to find the correct exits. That he was having to use the same trick to find the exit back home. And then he said that he thought he could find whatever exit he wanted.”

“What does that mean?”

She looked straight at me. “I think he meant that there was an exit where I said ‘Yes’. Even though there was never anyone at the exits. At least no one he told me about.”

“I saw someone.” I said. “At least, I think I did.”

She nodded. “I think he had been seeing people too. A few things he said. I think that may be why he disappeared.”

“You think he went somewhere deliberately?”

She nodded again, slowly. “I think he was looking for me.”

There was an awkward silence, then we talked about mundanities for a while. Finally she said she needed to get on her route and left. I sat there a bit longer even though my coffee was long gone, then left as well.

When I got back home I started making what would eventually become this record. I didn’t know what else to do. I thought about posting things on Reddit just to see if someone there had any ideas but I wondered if everyone would think I was crazy.

——

I was back at work the next morning. A couple of people asked if I was feeling OK and I blamed my absence the day before on some bad south Georgia bar-b-que. I picked up my deliveries and set out. Things got weird on my very first stop.

I had expected to be making my first delivery; a stack of schedule two stuff to a couple of independent pharmacies up near Chattanooga. I should have noticed something as soon as I got off of the Interstate, the landscape had suddenly gotten a lot flatter, but it wasn’t until a few minutes later when I hit buildings that I realized where I was. There was a BP station to my right, a couple of other gas stations and fast food places, and a strip mall with a large sign advertising “Boot Scooters”.

I was back where I had been two days before.

I drove up to Boot Scooters and got out. As before there were no other cars or people around. I got out and went inside.

The interior was the same as the last time. TVs displaying static, empty tables, and the smell of something grilling in the back. I got curious and stuck my head into the kitchen. There was food cooking on the stove tops and the grills but no one around. I wondered why none of it had burned. I stood watching for a while, but nothing seemed to happen. There were burgers sitting on the grill, but they didn’t seem to be getting any more cooked. That bothered me. Was time not passing here or something?

I eventually wandered back to the front of the restaurant. There was still no one here. I found myself standing by the hostess stand again, wondering what to do next.

Then I remembered my attempt to call the day before. I pulled out my cell phone and tried to dial, only to see “no signal”. I sighed and put it away. Then I looked at the phone on the stand. With a shrug, I picked it up and dialed the number from the front of the take-out menu sitting there.

The phone rang a couple of times then a voice answered. “Boot Scooters!”

I was startled into silence for a few second. “Hello?” the voice on the other end. It was a woman and I could hear music and multiple conversations in the background.

“Oh!” I said. “Um… Are y’all open?”

“Sure thing!” she said. “Every day at 7!”

“Um… ” I stuttered, trying to think of something to say. “Um… are you still serving breakfast?”

“All day!” she told me. “Come on in!”

“OK.” I said. “I’m just up the highway. I’ll be there in a bit.”

“See you soon!” she said. There was a click.

I looked around. The restaurant was still empty but I recognized the music playing as that I had heard on the phone. So I *had* called this restaurant. But.. where was everyone?

Still thinking, I went back to my car. Getting in, I was fastening my seat belt when I glanced at the center console. The menu I had picked up the other day was still there.

I stopped. Was that it? Did having something from one of these strange exits help you get back to them? Was that what Caleb meant when he said he knew how to get back?

At least this was something I could test. I started the car and drove back to the Interstate. I was back in the north Georgia mountains. Nodding, I kept driving north until I came to the next exit.

This one was empty. A mile or so down the road there was a BP station with no cars and a restaurant called Boot Scooters with an empty parking lot.

I got out again, this time carrying the takeout menu. As expected there was no one inside. I looked at the menu in my hand. Should I leave it? It seemed to guarantee that I could get back here, but was that something I really wanted?

After a few moments of hesitation I put the menu back on the hostess station. Turning, I walked back outside and stopped.

There was a woman standing beside my car, looking at me. Not moving or saying anything, just looking at me.

I was startled to see anyone and took a few moments to gather myself. “Um… Hello?” I said, finally.

“You’re not one of them, are you?” she said, expressionless.

I was still startled at seeing anyone. “What?” I got out finally.

She didn’t move. “You’re not a Traveller.” She paused and her brow crinkled slightly, the first sign of an expression. “How did you get here?”

“I had a menu.” I said, pointing at the restaurant behind me. “From there. It… brought me here somehow?”

There was an almost imperceptible nod. “Yes. We belong to the places we’ve been. And we only see others that belong to those places.” She paused, her head tilting slightly. “You’ve been here before?”

I was starting to feel uncomfortable, but nodded. “Yeah, I’ve been here a couple of times.”

Her eyes widened slightly. “But… you can leave?”

I hesitated. “Um… yeah. I was about to leave when I saw you.” I winced, feeling that I had said something I shouldn’t.

She showed the first actual expression I had seen. “Can you…” her breathing quickened. “Can you take me with me?” Her inflection barely changed but the desperation came through clearly.

“How long…” I paused. “How long have you been here?”

“I don’t know!” Her lack of emotion was starting to break down. Tears appeared in her eyes. “I’ve… I’ve stopped counting. Sometimes I see other Travellers, but they never stay. Not long. And the Transients can’t see me. I try talking to them, but they can’t see or hear me!”

Her emotionless facade suddenly crumbled and she burst into tears. “It’s been so long since I’ve talked to anyone! So long since I’ve seen someone! Please… take me with you! I need to go home!” She paused, trying to compose herself. “I need to go home!” she said again, quietly.

I hesitated. Company policy explicitly prohibited us from picking up riders. On the other hand, I wasn’t sure the company even existed where I was. And I could feel the desperation she was feeling.

“OK…” I said finally. “Sure.”

“Thank you!” she said, the lack of expression starting to return to her voice. “Thank you.” She turned and walked around the car, standing by the passenger door.

I walked over, opened the car and got in. After a long pause in which she looked arou nd, she got into the passenger seat.

I started the car and the alert started pinging. “You need to fasten your seat belt.” I said, pointing.

“What?” she asked.

I was taken aback. “Your seat belt.” I pointed. “How long have you been here?”

She looked at where I was pointing in confusion. “What? I… I don’t know.” Her expression clamped down again. “Please, take me home.” She was staring straight ahead.

With a sigh, I reached across her and grabbed the belt. She gasped slightly as I pulled it across her and fastened it. I looked and she was staring at me, eyes widened.

“Sorry.” she said finally. “I’m… not used to those.”

I looked at her curiously. “You don’t know about seat belts?”

She looked away. “Please,” she said finally. “Take me home.”

I started the car and pulled out of the parking lot. She stared out the window as I headed back towards the Interstate. We drove in silence the mile or so back to the intersection and I took the northbound ramp back onto the highway.

Once I had safely merged into traffic, I spoke again. “So, where do you…” I turned to face her and stopped.

The passenger seat was empty, the seat belt pulled over and latched across nothing.

I slammed on brakes, prompting the car behind me to sit on their horn for several seconds, then pulled off to the emergency strip. I stopped and looked around. The woman, whoever she was, was nowhere to be found. I could still see the exit behind me but saw nothing between here and there that would tell me where she had gone.

I sat there for several long minutes. Should I turn around and go back to the same exit again? Would it even take me back to where I had been? Eventually, with a sigh, I pulled back onto the road and continued my delivery route.

Nothing else out of the ordinary happened and after finishing my deliveries I headed back to Atlanta and turned in my manifest. I thought about calling Sara, but I wasn’t sure what I would tell her. In the end I just drove home.

There, I found a beer in the fridge and sat down on my sofa, thinking. Apparently the way to get back to these other places was to have something from them with you. That warning from the other day about eating something from those strange exits came back to me. What would have happened if I had eaten something from that restaurant? Would that be enough to bring me back?

On the other hand, if I didn’t eat or drink anything, could I pick up something from these other places and leave them at home until I wanted to get back to where ever they had come from? It made sense. That must have been Caleb’s secret.

I shook my head. Part of me wanted to have nothing to do with those strange exits any more. Another part of me wanted to go further and see what I could find.

Then I thought about the woman who I had met and subsequently disappeared. How long had she been trapped in that other world? From the little she said it had been a while. And she seemed confused by the seat belt. On the other hand, she seemed to know other people who were visiting that world. “Travellers”, she called them.

I sighed. I needed to find someone who could help me with this. But who could I talk to? Sara at least didn’t think I’m crazy, but she didn’t know any more than I did. Where could I go next?

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