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Michael had spent the entire afternoon the day before packing. His little apartment wasn't much, but it was home. The smell of the candles his mother used to burn when she visited weekly was one of the things he would surly miss most, as much as he hated to admit it. Michael’s mother was one of his best friends. She believed in him unselfishly no matter what he decided to tackle. Ever since he had moved out, she visited every Sunday just to say hi and let him know what was going on in her life. He always felt like he could talk to his mother, no matter what was going on around him. She was not happy about the fact that Michael would be going to college in another town, but was excited that he was going to college. His mother was the one woman in his life that was always there for Michael. Though he clung to the security of his past, he was ready for the future, and welcomed it.
Looking around his apartment, Michael saw the history of it. The hole in the wall where he had tripped and landed his forehead in plaster while he was, ironically, plastered. That had been the first time he had gotten drunk in his own place. At the time he was underage, so he had to have a friend buy the alcohol, but at least he didn’t have to steal it, or hide it from his father. His thin tall body often could not handle booze the way his heavier set best friend’s could. Michael didn’t party often, but when he did, he was usually the first to pass out and get wonderfully embarrassing pictures taken of him. The apartment was not pretty. A true bachelor’s pad. The walls were covered in scuff marks from furniture moved, and stains adorned the floors from God only knows what. There was a large stain on the ceiling that had not been there when he moved in, and Michael had no idea how it got there or what it was, but was sure he’d rather not know. Strangely, his apartment was not really a reflection of Michael. He was actually a clean-freak who had given up on trying to clean up after his friends. Michael was pretty sure that he could kiss his deposit goodbye, but he wasn’t too worried about it. He would have spent the money on gas any way and his mother had already filled his gas tank for him. She worried about everything. She not only filled the gas tank, but also had the breaks inspected, the oil changed and all the liquids in the engine topped off. Michael was grateful for all of it, but his mother said to think nothing of it as it was a going away gift. As he said his good-byes to his one bedroom apartment, he wondered if he was really ready for dorm life. He wondered if he was really ready for a space, probably shared, that was not really his own.
A new school meant not only new surroundings, but also new people. It was always awkward for Michael to deal with new people. The friends that he had partied with were really friends of friends. As a child he was a prodigy. "Wise beyond his years" his mother used to say. Being smart made him a teachers dream, but a kid’s nightmare. It was not easy to make friends because other children tended to look at his intelligence as a threat, thus they would label him by the things that kids so often throw around. Geek. Nerd. Loser. Michael had heard them all. He grew to detest other kids; that is until he met Brian. Brian West was a new kid in fourth grade. He had moved to town from Spring Valley. Brian was a heavyset kid and never grew out of it. His large size was due both to being chunky and also to muscle. Michael had always thought that the fat only hid the brawn. Brian was not a quiet kid, but Michael had not noticed him until that day. By the time Brian came to school, all the cliques had formed, and Michael belonged to none of them.
One cold autumn day, Michael was at recess receiving his usual taunts and low blows. Eric Sampson, a school bully who was much larger than any other fourth grader Michael had ever seen, was being extremely cruel. His taunts became physical with spit in Michael’s face. When Michael did not react, Eric had shoved him. Again Michael turned the other cheek and did nothing. He knew that a reaction would only excite the bully. This drove Eric to want a reaction even more so he began pounding on Michael. Michael took every blow at first, hoping the kicks and spits, laughs, and cheers would all eventually stop, but everyone snaps. Michael couldn’t take it any more and started to fight back. This just enraged Eric more, and Michael was rewarded for his efforts with a kick in the groin. Michael dropped to his knees, eyes filled with tears as they shut tightly. Suddenly the bully’s punches stopped. Michael opened his eyes to find that the new kid was not only defending him but also beating the hell out of Eric Sampson! This was the start of a beautiful friendship. After that day, no one had ever messed with Michael again.
Michael was just glad that Brian would be there to help him through the new experience of going to college as he had been helped through the traumatic experience of the fourth grade. Brian was the one person who always had his back. As they grew older, Brian learned to make friends with his quick wise cracks, and witty comebacks, but Michael never mastered the science of human interaction, opting to only open up to his mother and Brian. Near the end of his high school career, Michael finally began to show his personality to other people and made a few friends, but for the most part Brian was the only person he truly trusted.
Though Michael knew he would still see his family and the few other friends he had collected over the years on some weekends, he was not entirely sure that he was ready to leave small town life for the life of a city college student. Oh well, he figured, there’s no turning back now. His bags had been packed, his mother had come, said her tear filled goodbyes and gone, and now it was time to leave to pick up Brian. He slammed the trunk of his yellow ‘87 Toyota Corolla, checked the tires one last time, then hopped in the drivers seat and turned on the engine. With that he was off.
Michael was free. He and Brian were on the road trip of a lifetime to the college of their dreams and nothing could hold them back. Only the open road and limitless possibilities lie ahead of them. With their windows rolled down they sped down the empty highway as the cool summer breeze flowed through the packed car and into their lungs. It was a nice change from the smog of the city. The view was pure eye candy, breath taking. Miles and miles of colorful hills of fields lay sprawled out like a breathtaking scene from a serene Grant Wood painting. The cornfields flew by in an endless blur like a green and golden dream. Usually driving on the highways made Michael feel tense but with the lack of traffic he truly felt at peace.
They had been on the road for about four hours, three pit stops for munchies, two bathroom breaks, and one soda stop. Michael and Brian had talked about everything, and nothing, and now were out of things to talk about. Brian was looking over a brochure he had read a million times before as Michael turned his thoughts to the future and to the new life that lie only a few short miles ahead of them. His feelings of worry about missing the past were gone by the time they had hit the inter-state. The key to all of his dreams, his entire future was at that college, and nothing short of death it's self could stop him from getting there. Even the school’s name made him feel free. Spring Valley University (SVU as Brian called it).
Although the small Iowan town of Spring Valley was not well known, it was home to a college that was. The college had many great programs, such as nursing and drama, but most importantly one of the best government funded computer technology and science programs in the world. Some of the top minds in those fields came from SVU, including Brian’s father. Brain’s father had been educated at SVU then stayed on after receiving his Doctorate to be a professor with the school until he retired. He still made trips to the school once a week to help out or hold seminars.
Michael smiled at the thought of his future as a big time computer-programming millionaire. Michael Cross: the next Bill Gates. He noticed that Brian had been smiling too. While he had been watching the road and day dreaming about his bright future, Brian had been reading the same old wrinkled brochure about the school of their destiny. Even though he had read it cover to cover, Brian kept reading over it. Michael thought it was to convince himself that he had some form of choice in the school.
"What are you so smiley about?" Michael asked Brian, fully knowing that the only thing that Brian could be smiling about was the same thing he always smiled about. Brian was, what some people called, a pervert.
"Girls," Brian answered. "Do you realize that this school has a much higher ratio of girls than guys? And by the looks of this brochure, they’re pretty hot too! Maybe this college won't be so bad after all."
Michael realized that this had been the first time he had seen Brian excited about anything about the school since they left. He knew all too well the depressing reason Brian planned to attend the school, and how unhappy he had been about it. Lack of options.
For as long as he had known Brian, Dr. West, Brian's controlling father, had been drilling SVU into his son. To the outside world, Dr. West was a fun, energetic, exciting professor who was also a dedicated family man and consult to the school. In reality he was those things, but also a control freak, who treated Michael better than Brian from the first day they had met. Brian was not the most intelligent guy, but where he failed in grades, he made up for in athletics, participating actively in wrestling, football, soccer and baseball. His father never seemed to notice, and even said that his son’s participation in sports was barbaric. On a visit to Brian’s house after school sophomore year the subject of college came up. Brian mocked his father as he quoted him. "If you want me to pay for college, then you’ll go to the school I say, and that school is Spring Valley University, understand?" Brian's father had not been a mean man, just a strict one. Michael was sure that the good doctor had Brian's best interest at heart, though he understood that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Apparently Brian's grandfather had had been one of two men who had founded the school's acclaimed, and government funded, science department and as a result, his father went to that college and now it was Brian's turn. Brian was destined to be a scientist, weather he liked it or not. Michael knew that Brian would rather pick up a baseball, football, or even a pencil and draw than touch a beaker or burner any day. That was part of the reasons Michael had agreed to go to this school. So his best friend wouldn't be alone. Lack of options is a terrible thing when it comes to college. Michael was left-brained and Brian was right. Michael always thought that was the reason they clicked so well.
"The place might as well be a girl’s school! Dude, I so have dibs on that chick!" Brian said as he held up and pointed to a picture from the pamphlet of a beautiful girl. Michael took his eyes off the road for only a moment to glance at the pretty girl in a nurse’s uniform. She had straight brown hair pulled back in a ponytail and a beautiful smile.
"Yeah," he said, "But with our luck, that's the only hot one and all the rest look like the living dead! She’s probably a model paid for the picture." Michael saw Brian smile back then turn his attention to the road and a look of pure panic crossed his face.
Michael looked up from the pamphlet and turned his attention back to the road to see the source of Brian's wide-eyed fear. though he saw it, his mind almost did not process it. A man was standing in their path, not moving as the car sped toward him. Let it be a scarecrow. A horrible prank. Weather it was a scarecrow or a man, it was less than fifteen seconds ahead of its impending doom. Michael felt the world spin around him and go into slow motion as he slammed the break. He was fully aware that it was too late. Knowing that nothing could be done to stop what was about to happen, Michael and Brian both braced for impact. Michael threw the wheel as far to the right as it would go and slammed his break, in a last minute effort to stop the inevitable. The car began to skid out of control as the smell of burnt rubber filled the air. The tires screeched as if they screamed for help. Michael tried to correct the skid by throwing the wheel to the left but it was too late. Ohmygodohmygodohmygod... Before he could blink, one of the tires blew out and the car was in a full forced free spin on the highway. The car became a wrecking ball of force as it slammed into the man who stood motionless, fearless, in the middle of the road. The loud THUD could be heard as clear as a bell over the screeching tires. The massive impact of the car threw the man into a ditch and Brian into a panic. The car began to roll as another tire blew out and the car came to the gravel on the side of the road. The vehicle rolled for what seemed like forever and Michael foolishly hoped it would land on the wheels. The small yellow mangled metal vehicle came to a stop upside-down in a muddy ditch, inches from a barb wire fence.
When the car had finally stopped rolling, and their hearts stopped racing, Michael and his shaken friend took a moment to make sure each other were all right, then climbed out of the car, knowing that they were lucky to be alive.
Brian was hysterical. He had never been in a crash before and was quickly realizing how much control he had lost. Brian was the kind of person who took control of any situation with force, if he didn’t already have control, and the fact that he almost lost his life hit him hard. The thought of the victim brought him back to reality.
As if thinking the same thing, both young men looked over at where the man had been thrown. They knew they had to find him. An unseen crow let out an eerie caw as they slowly walked across the barren highway toward the area the man had landed.
Brian was shaken to the core. The man was not large, probably weighing less than 200 pounds, and the car hit him hard, but the simple fact of the matter was that he was simply not there. Michael and Brian searched everywhere. Brian couldn't figure it out. There was a small period of time after the wreck where he had been in a state of panic then shock, but this was beyond words. As they walked to the side of the road, Brian and Michael agreed that the spot they were standing in was where the man had probably landed. The only thing that was lying in the spot now was a large crimson mess of dark blood and flesh-like matter that trailed off into the cornfield as it faded away.
"He must be in shock." Michael said, "I've read that when you're in shock, your body can do some amazing stuff..."
"Like crawling away? Right." Brian knew that that wasn't the case. There was no way in hell that a man hit by a car going seventy-five could simply crawl away from the scene. It just wasn't possible. He'd seen deer torn apart from less force than that. "If he’s alive, we gotta find him." Brian said, his eyes following the trail into the field. Brian remembered the first aid kit that Michael’s mother had made them pack. Now he was glad she had. "He's gonna need help. Run back to the car and see if you can find the first-aid kit in the trunk." Michael nodded and headed for the car. Brian decided to see if he could find their missing victim.
Pushing some corn stalks aside, Brian could see that the blood trail faded after only a few short feet. He also became vaguely aware of the smell of what had to be some form of road kill. He stepped into the field listening carefully for moaning or the sounds of a man with several broken bones and in a lot of pain, but heard nothing. The entire field seemed quiet. Too quiet. He knew the man had to be dead. Maybe he had been thrown farther then we thought…
“Mike, I can’t find him…“ Brian said as he took a deep breath to the smell of rot filling his lungs. He turned back to face the road, not wanting to get lost in the field. As Brian turned he was greeted by something he never expected to see…
...There he was.
The man that the car had hit was standing less than five feet away… and limping toward Brian. The short man was heavy set, balding, pale, wearing farmer’s overalls, flannel, probably in his late forties and looked like death warmed over twice. The man had a vacant stare in his glazed eyes and his out stretched hands with broken fingers were reaching for Brian.
“Mike! I found him! Sir, you’re going to be okay. Sorry about hitting you, man, are you okay?“ Brian rambled on and on as the man simply groaned and took a step closer dragging a broken foot behind him.
“Look man, maybe you should just sit down for a second. You’ve lost a lot of blood and my friend is getting the first aid kit right now.” Again, the man groaned and took a limping step closer as his cold eyes widened. Just then Brian got his first real look at the man’s wounds. The man’s leg had clearly been shattered, with several compound fractures, but by the looks of it, that wasn’t all. He guessed by the way the man was leaning to one side that a few ribs were probably broken also. Listening closely he could hear some bones crunching as they scraped together with each step the man took. He smelled horrible and his left ear had what looked like maggots crawling in it.
“Oh man… Dude, you gotta sit down…” The man’s eye’s widened even more as he opened his bloody drool filled mouth and suddenly lunged at Brian with out any warning. Brian tried to step out of the way but the man was too fast and before he knew it, Brian was on the ground fighting off the injured man, maggots falling on his face.
“Dude! I know you’re pissed, I said sorry! What the hell’s your problem?” He pleaded as he struggled to hold off the man who was now drooling blood while trying to bite him. His broken fingers made him weaker as he could not grab or scratch his prey, but his weight defiantly gave him the advantage.
“MICHAEL!” Brian screamed for help, “Get this freak offa’ me!” He continued he struggled as he kneed the man in the groin but with no effect.
The as suddenly as he had attacked, the man collapsed. His weight crushed Brian as it lie motionless on him. Officially creeped out, Brian pushed him off and saw Michael standing over him with a bloody crowbar in hand.
“You okay man?” Michael asked.
“What the hell do you think? Do I look okay to you?” Brian said sarcastically as he tried desperately to get the maggots off of him. “Did you kill him?” Brian asked his body shaking from the adrenaline pumping through his veins. He reached out an unsteady hand for his friend to grab.
“I don‘t know, I hit him in the neck and he just dropped. I tried pulling him off but…” Michael said, helping his friend to his feet.
Brian quickly gave thanks to his friend with a nod and stepped away from the psycho farmer. Brian nudged him with his foot but the farmer did not move. Angry at what had happened he gave the farmer a good kick in the ribs to release some tension.
The boys started to walk toward the road when they heard a sound from behind them. They both turned to see the groaning and gurgling farmer lying on the ground, eyes darting left and right as he spit blood bubbles.
“He must be paralyzed, neck down.” Michael said stating the obvious.
“ I don’t give a damn if he is Mike, the dude tried to kill me!” Brian said. “I say we leave the son-of-a-bitch to rot. Fuck him.” Brian was now quite passed shocked and was now pissed off. He was more than willing to leave the farmer to the crows to die in the field.
“No way man! He just isn’t thinking right!” Michael protested. “If we leave him and he dies, it’s a hit and run! We’ve gotta find some kind of help… look, the guy isn’t going anywhere and we’re only a few miles from town.” Michael was always logical and organized in extreme situations and was almost always right, and Brian knew it.
“Okay, so the guy needs help now, but I seriously doubt that a first-aid kit is gonna do the trick. By the time we get to Spring Valley he’ll probably be dead anyway.” Brian said as he tried to figure out a better plan. “My cell phone…” started to say but then remembered that the cell’s battery, much like the car was dead. “Never mind. Okay, here’s the plan: we head to the car and collect what we need then head to Spring Valley and hopefully we’ll see someone on the way.” Brian looked back at the man who was still moaning and drooling. “ If we find someone we’ll bring back help.”
The man was looking paler by the second as the blood oozed from his wounds. His lack of blood in his system didn’t seem to slow the endless movement of his head as his body lie motionless. Brian looked back to Michael. “That dude really creeps me out.”
Brian took one final look at this crippled attacker and watched a large black bird sweep down and land on his brow. The man didn’t seem to notice as the bird began pecking at his eye. The man kept moving his head back and forth as the bird flapped its massive wings. It dug its midnight black claws into the man’s head as it pecked away at him as if he were road kill. Brian shuddered as he looked away.
At the car they found only their empty soda bottles and the bags, which held books and random articles of clothing. “Well,” Michael said, “the more we take, the more we’ll be slowed down so I say we only take the first-aid kit just in case. We can come back for the rest in the morning.” Brian nodded as he heard the bird let out a caw from the field as if to bid them farewell. Brian tied his shoe and grabbed the first-aid kit and they began their walk down the highway that lead to the city of their dreams… or nightmares.