The first gate looked like a roadside attraction. They almost drove right past it, but Carter called out as it whizzed by.
Back in the car Carter kept unsticking his thighs from the vinyl of the seat. “Hey, does it seem a little hot in here?”
Niall laughed. “Probably.”
This got Carter laughing too.
The second gate was made of iron rebar. It hadn’t just been welded together either, some of the bars seemed moulded into an almost-organic shape. Niall looked all the way up with his hands on his hips.
“How big d’you think it is?”
“Hmm?” Carter was fiddling with his lighter.
“Like, how tall?”
Carter looked up. “Dunno. Doesn’t seem that tall. Tall as a barn, maybe?”
Niall squinted. “What d’you think they do for semi’s driving through here, and such?”
“Semi’s?” Carter laughed. “Carrying what? Avacados? You think refrigerated trucks go this way?”
Niall picked at a burr in the denim of his jeans. “Aren’t there other people on the road with us?”
Carter cocked his head and didn’t speak for a long while.
“Gotta be.” he said.
The third gate had fallen down, so they drove past it.
“My parents took me to this church meeting once,” Niall said.
Carter had a mouthful of jerky, so he nodded.
“It was weird. I mean, I didn’t think they were religious, but that night we just walked in the door and shit, there they were.” Niall shifted a gear. “All these boys my age wearing white—all fucking blond, can you believe that?”
“Mmph.” Carter swallowed. “I believe it.”
“Yeah. So, they’re all looking at us when we walk in—no, at me—and smiling. Creepiest thing that ever happened to me. I thought I was in huge trouble.”
Seconds passed with only the tick of the pavement beneath the wheels.
“And were you?”
“Hmm?” Niall had both hands on the wheel, he was looking ahead.
“Like, had you done something? What happened after that?”
Niall took a handful of jerky. “Damndest thing,” he said, “I don’t remember.”
The fourth gate was covered in graffiti. Not all of it was English.
“Check this out.” Carter snapped a few shots of the left pillar. “What is this, Arabic? What’re these squiggly lines?”
“Egyptian?” Niall was relieving himself against a fence post. “Does it have little bird guys?”
“The hell? No, man, are you even looking at these? This is goddamn special, you got to mark the occasion. No telling if we’ll ever be back out this way.”
“Do you have to take a picture of each one?”
Carter looked at his camera as if noticing it for the first time. “What? No, I guess. I didn’t do the third one.”
Niall shook his head. “’Don’t know when we’ll be back out this way.’”
“Well, we don’t,” said Carter .
They looked up.
“Want me to drive for a while?” Carter asked.
They had promised Stig that they would hit the fifth and turn back. That had indeed been the original plan. The argued over who had convinced whom to go the whole way.
“—yeah, because I have Tracy.” Carter was now driving. Niall had fetched the maps from the glove compartment and was shuffling through them. “I got a future, man, no way I’d do something stupid now. What’re you doing? You really think there’s a map for this place?”
Niall sighed. “Look, Tracy don’t enter into it. I’m just looking for something.”
“For what? What d’you mean Tracy got nothing to do with it?”
“You got the whatsit. Fear of intimacy. It’s why you still haven’t met her parents.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, firstly, I haven’t met her parents because her dad is a dick, okay? And second—”
“Keep your eyes on the road, dammit. I didn’t come this far to die in a ditch.”
“Fuck you, I’m an excellent driver. And second I was the one who wanted to move in together, okay? And I got rid of the hog. For her.”
“Dude, you were never gonna fix that piece of shit anyway, who are you trying to kid?”
“I sunk a lot of money into the hog, dammit, that was an investment I gave up.”
“Investment in what? It’s not like that broken down piece of shit is gonna appreciate—”
They argued right past the sixth gate.
The car was quiet. Niall reached behind his seat and cracked the back window.
“You wanna turn back?”
Niall rested his head on his forearm. “What’s the point?”
They fell silent again. The road ticked by.
“If you wanna turn back and see it, I mean, we’ve gone this far…”
Niall squinted in the dying light. “How do we get back? After, I mean.”
Carter picked a Hershey bar off the dash. It was near-liquid. “Just…make a u-turn and follow the road, I guess.”
“You think it leads back?”
Carter laughed with a dry throat. “Sure, man. Where else would it lead?”
Niall didn’t answer and continued staring out the window.
Carter made a hole in the wrapper with his teeth and sucked out the chocolate. It only made him thirstier.
“You think they’ll miss us?” Niall said suddenly.
“Everyone.” Niall had to speak up over the roar of air passing by the window. “If anything happens to us. Will they think to check down this way?”
Carter held his breath.
They drove until is was dark.
“It’s gotta be around here somewhere,” Carter said. He and Niall had switched places again, now he tried to read a map in the dome light.
“Well we’ve been out here, for…” Niall squinted into the dark. “How long has it been?”
“We started at five…” Carter pretended to study his watch, which hadn’t ticked in hours. They had all four windows rolled down now, and there was no water left in the cab. The heat had not abated with the setting sun.
The car swerved. Shuddered. Carter dropped the map. “Shit, is that the radiator?”
Niall took a sharp breath. “No…shit man, no. Shee-it.”
“What?” Carter peered ahead in the scant few feet of illumination the headlights provided. They both felt, rather than saw, the road run out from beneath the cab of the truck. They bounced on grass and ruts of earth before slowing to a stop.
“Jesus,” Niall said.
They got out of the cab.
“You think there’s anyone down there?” Carter held the flashlight while Niall fished a tire iron out of the truck bed.
Niall laughed while grunting with effort. “Who? Bigfoot? Sasquatch gonna take you away to be his UFO bride?”
“Dude, that shit’s not funny.” Carter’s attention was turned to the dark around them. “There might be—”
“Careful, you’re letting the light drop!” Niall stood up and handed him a can of Raid. “Okay, back me up if we get into the shit, alright?”
They didn’t have to walk far before they encountered a man sitting in a camp chair beside a small card table. He sat oddly alert and watched them approach, not appearing at all surprised by their presence.
They stopped short. Carter coughed into his hand.
“Um, hi. Are you the…is this the…?”
“Is this THE?” the man repeated back harshly.
Carter dropped his hand. “Look, you don’t gotta be like that. We were just wondering—”
“Wondering what?” The man’s gaze was unsympathetic. “Wonder in one hand and shit in the other and see what piles up first.”
Niall spoke up. “Dude, he was just asking a question.”
The man swiveled his head very slowly and deliberately. “My name isn’t ‘dude.’”
“Whatever. Can you just tell us where we are?”
The man regarded them. He tilted his head back, the angle made it look as if he were smiling slightly.
“It’s closed,” he said, “they closed it down. It’s somewhere else now.”
Niall dropped his arms. “They what? You can’t just do that! We came out all this—look, don’t you have a supervisor or something?”
The man definitely was smiling a bit. “Nope.”
Carter put a hand up to Niall. “Sorry if we’ve offended you, it’s been a long—we’ve been driving a long time, can you tell us where the last gate is?”
The man swiveled his gaze to Carter again, and it was like getting hit with a heat-lamp.
“Tracy called,” he intoned, “while you were out dicking around, something bad happened. A car crashed into a house. Maybe two.”
The hairs on Carter’s forearm rose as one. “The hell are you talking about?”
The man did not answer, just stared.
Carter shook the can of Raid. It refused to rattle.
“Gone,” the man chanted, staring him right in the eye, “gone away, gone dead, everybody dead.”
Niall hit him on the temple with the iron. It was a direct hit, made a damp thud. The man didn’t go down. He grabbed a handful of Niall’s shirt, throwing him off balance.
“Fuck!” he shouted as he went down, out of the flashlight’s beam. Carter found he couldn’t run and hold it steady, so he chose to run blind.
He tripped. He sprawled.
Niall was sobbing wretchedly.
Carter made fists and pushed back up again. It felt like he had fallen on a bed of cattle horns. His left leg didn’t want to support his weight anymore.
“Dude,” he groaned. Niall was still weeping.
Something grabbed hard on his scruff. The man wrenched him backwards, the beam passing quickly over his face gave him redeye like a dog.
“Ah,” he gasped. The man shook him, a quick, violent jerk.
“Care to take a picture?”
Carter didn’t feel like he could have nodded if he wanted to. He grit his teeth.
“Fuck, dude, what? What the hell?”
The man nodded, slowly.
Carter’s breath sobbed from his body. “This is it? This is the seventh gate?”
The man leaned closer, his flesh shone pink-white translucent in the beam of the flash.
“You passed it hours ago. The first gate was destroyed. Everyone thinks it starts at the second gate now.”
Carter gasped. The air was like breathing soup. “Wait, no, no one said—”
The man clicked his tongue. “You know, the first gate was to keep people out. The rest…” he touched a fingertip to Carter’s tear duct, then to his tongue.
“….were to keep me in.”