The desolate and infuriatingly straight highway cut its flora-lined path through the forest. Only every so often was there a sign indicating speed or which freeway they were still presently on.
"Want me to drive?" Sally asked as she sipped from a half-full Snapple bottle.
"Hmm?" Asked David, "Oh, no... no, I'm good. But I could use a stretch. My damn knee is acting up a bit."
"And where, specifically, do you think we should stop? There's nothing out here but trees and more trees?"
David laughed a little, slowed the minivan, and eased onto the little dirt strip just off the pavement. "I guess this'll have to do. I gotta pee anyway."
They opened the doors, stepped out into the surprisingly muggy and thick air, and bent themselves into twists enough to sound off pops.
"David. I know we're on I-79, I saw the sign back there, but did you have any idea it was this... I don't know, scary?"
"Scary?" David asked in a laugh, "Yeah, I know. It's pretty lonely and boring out here. But the last time I was up this way... Jeez, back in '02... it was just as bad. But, that was during the day. What time is it anyway?"
Sally pressed the button on her watch that lit the face, "9:45. It sure doesn't seem to be getting any cooler out here... its just fuggy!"
It was July 15th. David and Sally had vacation coming from both of their jobs and they managed to coincide with each other's. David thought it might be time to show Sally the little town of St. Winsmuth where he grew up. They'd been married just two years now; David had met Sally at the local Barnes and Noble both enjoying a latte. They hit it off right away and began dating. Sally was from town, so her parents were within the limits, but David was from out of state from a very small, very out-of-nowhere village and Sally had always been curious. So, with a printout from Map-Quest in hand and a weekend's-worth of luggage, they set off for St. Winsmuth.
David finished relieving himself on a sapling, stretched again, and slid back into the driver's seat. Sally, begrudgingly using an empty foam drink cup from the last gas station, poured it's warm contents all over the same tree, and climbed back into the minivan.
"Okay, well, I guess we're off," David said as he cracked his knuckles. Sally hated that.
"Gross," She flinched, suppressing a gag, "Okay. I'm gonna try to sleep a little. What do we have left, an hour?"
"Ninety minutes tops. Rest well, I'll wake you when we're within the county limits."
David looked around for oncoming traffic, naturally, before pulling back onto the road. Realistically he could have peeled out and spun a few donuts and no one would have even taken notice. But he didn't. They resumed their drive.
The encompassing grip of the sprawling tree-line held the freeway like a never-ending set of fingers. It was so dark. David sometimes had to slow down just because he thought he saw things; lights, eyes, figures walking in the inkiness... but there was nothing. Then, not a half mile ahead, a steady glow of what could only be a street light appeared from the nothing with an almost blinding halo.
"Hey baby, wake up," David softly rubbed his wife's shoulder as she stirred.
She yawned, blinked a bit as she readjusted her glasses, and smiled, "Is that really a street light I'm seeing or have we gotten lost in the Twilight Zone?"
"Nope. That's the first light you see when you enter Macomb County. I'm home, honey."
The glow of the road lamp came into view and slowly passed over as they burst free from their leafy tomb. David audibly sighed.
"I knew it: that stretch of road bothers you, too!"
David sighed again and shrugged.
But Sally saw it first and it physically made her jump.
Hanging from a wire stretched across the road coming from the second street lamp in town was a half-dozen shoes knotted together in pairs. A few sneakers, a set of boots, and at least two pairs of lady's Keds.
"What the hell?" Sally gasped.
David slowed, stopped, stepped out into the night, and looked up, mouth agape, at the lynched footwear, "Huh... that's a little bizarre."
"David, you know it's just probably a joke. Maybe a last-day-of-school thing. Let's go. I'm getting hungry."
David leaned his head into the door, "Sally. I can just see ahead with the next light. There's more shoes. I don't know, maybe twenty."
Sally shook so hard her hair stood up, "David you had better tell me your kidding--"
David slid in and shut the door. He just sat for a minute. Two minutes. "That is so weird."
Sure enough, the next wire that spread across the street was absolutely festooned with shoes. So many so that they weighed the line down. And the next wire after that, and the fourth, and fifth, all the way into the town of St. Winsmuth were positively slung with more varieties of footwear than a shoe store. They swayed ever so much in the ebb and flow of the incoming breeze. Their shadows literally danced across the lighted spots on the road. David and Sally crept through town staring at each as though a new discovery. David flinched as he quickly and suddenly smashed the break pedal into the floor. Ahead, across from an empty storefront sat a form. Hard to make out from where the minivan sat, it was obviously human. A human sitting in a chair. At a table.
The town was dead. No one was out, no lights were on -save for the street lights with their tennis-shoe gallows- no cars drove by, and, oddly, the three local taverns showed no signs of life at all. The otherwise flickering and lit neon that announced their openings and closings were lifeless. But the figure yards ahead of the mini van's headlamps was moving. In fact, it was gesturing.
David and Sally stared at the human, blinking, each positive that what they saw was a mirage.
"David," Sally began, "Please turn around. I'd rather face two more hours in the woods than here. Please."
David just glared ahead. He blinked, squeezed his lids, and almost comically shook his head. But the figure stood and beckoned for them.
"David," Sally interjected again, "Let's please go... I really don't like this."
David again just looked straight ahead, almost in a trance. "I think I know that kid!"
"Kid? That's kid? Oh Jesus, David! Please turn around!"
"Really. That's Jason, the Miller boy. He was maybe 12 when I was here last. One of the leaders of the church youth group. I wonder what he wants?"
Sally's eyes burst open at the mere notion of David's inquisition, "You are not going up there, David!"
"Sally, I really doubt there's anything to worry about. I'd at least like to know what's going on here... where everyone is."
"I'll tell you where everyone is: out looking for new shoes."
"I promise, we'll just drive up and see. If it looks bad, we're out of here."
Sally sighed and wrung her hands. "Fine. but I'm not getting out of the van."
They slowly drove ahead to the figure who now appeared to be waving to them. He sat in an old steel fold-up chair behind a card table. On the table was a glass pitcher full of liquid and ice cubes. Next to it was a stack of plastic cups, a shaker of sugar, and a what looked like a ball. In the jug was a long spoon. In front of the glass was a tented cardboard sign. As David and Sally approached it was clear it read, "LEMONADE - .50"
David stuck his head out the window, "Jason? Jason Miller, is that you?"
"Yes! Hello Mr. Hanson! Your mom spoke about your visit at church last week! How are you?"
Jason seemed genuinely glad to see David. His face betrayed no ill will or rancor, he offered no air of fear or mistrust. He reached out his hand as an honest gesture of greeting and friendship.
Though Sally was immediately apprehensive, David stuck out his arm. He and Jason shook hands.
"What, ah, what are you doing out here so... late?" David asked as his arm was let go.
"Selling lemonade, of course?" Jason giggled as he deftly slipped a cup from the stack and poured.
"Okay, I can see that. But why... at, wow, eleven thirty, are you selling lemonade. On the street, of all places?"
Jason placed the filled cup on the table and moved on to another, obviously meant for Sally, whom he'd yet to meet, "Well I'll tell you. People get might thirsty around here. Even at close to midnight. I do this all the time!"
Jason's matter-of-fact reply actually made David grimace a little as he looked over his shoulder at Sally who was, for lack of a better term, cowering behind the blanket she'd had with her.
David put on a phony smile and turned back to Jason, "Okay, sounds good. Um, so where all are your customers... where is everyone?"
Jason offered both cups to David through the mini van window. He took them, but merely sat them on the dash.
"Have a sip! It's my mom's recipe and you know her, she can make some lemonade"
Jason was right. David knew Miranda Miller and yes, her lemonade was stuff of local legend. David nodded to Sally and they both hesitatingly lifted their cups.
Jason stood smiling with his arms folded, "Go on! I know you know you love mom's lemonade! Sweet, just tart enough... man, it's so good!"
David thought back to years ago when he'd drink his fill of Mrs. Miller's lemonade at the neighborhood functions and the village socials... he loved it. And so, as he nodded and mocked a toast to Sally, they both took long drags of the cool, sweet and sour liquid as it quenched their thirsts completely. And it was, as he remembered, delicious.
"So yeah, about the townsfolk," Jason began, "They were here. They were here and they were bad. Yes, God spoke to me and said that it was so. The town was rotten and callus; it was dark, it was evil, and God asked for its cleansing."
David just stared as Jason continued his diatribe. Sally choked on her drink and coughed.
"God spoke to me through this..." At that, Jason reached into his shirt and drew forth a large pendant attached to a heavy chain. It was roughly the size of a compact disc and it was as black as the night itself. Arranged in a ring embedded in the amulet's material were several deep-hued red gems. David could feel its pulsating, thrumming, heart beat split the air. "God said cleanse the village; destroy the evil ones and lay it to ruin. Oh, and worry not, your mother cried your name as she fell."
From under the table came Jason's right hand grasping a pistol. David and Sally stared in awe at the dangling amulet as it's horrible reds and blacks swirled in hypnotic waves. The gun fired twice into the night.
On the first lamp wire in town, dangling like the limp bodies of an odd sacrifice, hung a new pair of Keen hikers and a set of blue Chuck Tailors.