The car screamed down the highway, grinding against asphalt as if it were at odds with the road itself. Wind whipped against it, lashing out violently, struggling to penetrate glass and metal to assault the soft people inside. Other vehicles sped by, the Doppler effect announcing their approach before they roared against the side of the car. In the passenger’s seat, a woman adjusted her seatbelt, turning to face behind her.
“You okay, Flip?”
Flip stared out the window, entranced by the shapes and sounds.
His mother sighed, turning to her wife. “Sue, maybe we should stop the car for a while.”
Sue nodded, activating her hazard lights, and Flip finally spoke. “It’s okay. I’m okay.”
“You sure, kiddo?” Sue asked, glancing at the passenger seat. “Kate and I could use a break, too.”
A truck rumbled past them, and Flip shuddered. “I’m almost ten. I’m not a chicken.”
“Honey,” Kate replied, creasing her brow, “You have nothing to be ashamed of. The highway can be a scary place. But Sue is a great driver. She’ll keep us safe. You trust us, right?”
Flip hesitated, then nodded. Seemingly satisfied, both of his mothers returned their attention to the road ahead.
In the corner of his eye, Flip saw a green, rectangular sign perched on the side of the road, but it passed him too quickly for him to read it. “Where are we?”
“We just passed into Georgia,” Sue replied. “We’re far closer to Florida than when we started!”
Smiling faintly, Flip turned back to the window. Something small and black approached from the side of the road, its shape twisted and deformed. Flip gasped, pointing.
Kate heard him, and turned around, assessing the situation. She looked outside and smiled.
“Oh, don’t worry, Flip. Here in Georgia, they call those Road Gators.”
“There are alligators in Georgia?” Flip exclaimed.
“No, no,” Kate laughed. “It’s just a broken tire. Pieces of rubber left behind by someone else. It can’t hurt you.”
They passed the black mass, and it faded into the distance behind them.
“Why would someone leave behind a tire?” Flip asked. “What happened to it?”
Kate’s smile faltered. “Well . . . Uh . . .”
“It’s okay, honey,” Sue intervened. “Flip, it may have blown. Maybe someone ran over a sharp object, or it was just old and unsafe. It popped, like a balloon, and they replaced it before continuing on their journey.”
Flip fidgeted nervously. “Couldn’t that cause a car accident?”
“Maybe,” Sue admitted. “Maybe not. Our tires are fine, though. Just relax.”
Placing his weight against the seat, Flip closed his eyes, trying to ignore the overwhelming sounds and sensations accompanying their mode of transport. The car rattled for a moment, producing a low growl, and Flip peeked out the window again.
Another Road Gator, he thought.
The second curled rubber strip was pushed further off the road this time, lying halfway in the grass. As Flip watched, though, it shifted, straightening out. Flip’s eyes widened, his heart pounding in his chest, while the Road Gator turned away from their passing car, slithering into the trees beyond the road.
“Did you see that?” he whispered.
Sue and Kate looked around, and the latter asked, “See what?”
“The Road Gator . . .” He trailed off. What was he supposed to say?
“I don’t know,” he continued. “I thought I saw an animal.”
“Well, we’re in the South,” Sue chuckled. “There’s plenty to go around.”
A massive, eighteen-wheeled truck passed them, drifting into their lane. Sue slowed a little, giving them space. “Be careful, dude.”
More movement out the window, drawing Flip’s eye. This time, he saw three Road Gators of various sizes, their bodies rough and black, their motions serpentine as they crawled away from the road and out of sight. Flip’s heart pounded faster, and he felt tears pressing against his eyes.
“Something’s wrong,” he whimpered. He could feel it, like the wind before a thunderstorm.
“For the last time,” Sue scolded, turning away from the steering wheel, “there’s nothing–”
One of the large rear tires of the truck in front of them exploded, the burst of air a shockwave that rattled Flip’s bones. Rubber spiraled into the center of the road, and the truck swerved, skidding to a stop. Kate grabbed Sue’s arm, knuckles white.
“Sue, watch the road!”
They collided with the back of the truck, filling the interior of the car with twinkling glass and screaming metal. Flip’s body jerked forward, only to be immediately arrested by the seatbelt’s safety mechanism. The vehicle warped around them, tearing and bending, constricting like a snake. Then, they stopped, and the world went silent, save the hissing smoke leaking from the demolished car hood.
“M . . . mom?” Flip weakly asked, his vision blurry. As he refocused, he felt a painful tightness in his neck, making it difficult to move his head.
The scene before him cleared, and he gasped.
Sue’s skull folded around the corner of the truck’s cargo area that had penetrated the front windshield, her head reduced to a red, fleshy crater. The rest of her body drooped lifelessly in the driver’s seat, swaying like a mannequin in the wind.
Kate shifted in the passenger’s seat, and optimism sparked in Flip’s chest for a moment. Then, she stiffened, seizing in the seat. Flip saw the blood where her head had struck the dashboard, realizing something was wrong with her brain now. Her seizure violently accelerated, limbs rattling against the car door and broken glass, but within seconds, she slumped over onto her wife, blood leaking from her mouth.
“Hello? Oh, Jesus Christ,” Flip heard a man call.
Through the shattered front window, Flip saw an older, potbellied man stumble out of the driver’s side of the now-seventeen-wheeled truck, his green baseball cap lopsided, his flannel shirt disheveled. He crouched as he hit the pavement, squinting into Flip’s car.
“Help!” Flip yelled. “My moms are . . . are . . . help, please!”
His tears flowed freely now, his chest heaving through spastic sobs.
“I’m coming, kid,” the truck driver announced. “Let me get my–”
A loud, low hiss interrupted him.
The man slowly turned away from the car, toward the massive, knotted strip of tire that had caused this mess, now lying in the center of the highway. Flip’s sorrow turned to fear, and he fought against his seatbelt, trying to unlatch it, to get away. Something in the accident must have damaged it, though, because it wouldn’t unclasp.
Ahead, the newborn Road Gator unfurled, betraying its size, the thing as large as the truck driver himself. Flattening against the ground, it inflated a little, four stubby legs popping out along its body. Beneath the stubbled “head,” something moved, revealing a long snout and a jaw full of pointed teeth. The Road Gator hissed again, turning threateningly toward the truck driver.
“What?” the man rubbed his eyes, stepping toward the Road Gator.
“No!” Flip cried, pulling against his seatbelt with all his might. “Don’t get close!”
The Road Gator lashed out, latching on to the truck driver’s leg. It twisted, something snapped, and he fell onto his back, screaming. The Road Gator swiveled from side to side, flinging the man back and forth like a rag doll, bashing his skull against the side of his truck. After three strikes, the man fell silent, and the Road Gator crawled atop his body, emitting low, hungry grunts.
Flip grasped the nearest car door handle, using it as leverage to pull himself forward. He wiggled back and forth, adjusting his body, slowly sliding himself out of the tight seat belt. As he freed himself, he glanced out of the window again. The truck driver lay on the asphalt, shredded to the bone, no longer recognizable.
The Road Gator, however, had vanished.
Heart pounding, Flip curled into the floorboards, the blood of his dead mothers dripping onto his neck as he cried. In the distance, he heard grunts, followed by heavy footsteps, like rubber dragging across the road. The sound grew closer, and Flip heard the thing’s hunger, its genesis producing an overwhelming desire to feed.
The grunting, the scraping, came to a halt somewhere outside of the rear passenger door of the car, mere feet away from where Flip had assumed a fetal position. Then, a crunch, and sharp, black teeth as long as carrots penetrated the metal, crinkling it. Powerful jaws beyond Flip’s line of sight flexed, and the Road Gator ripped the door from its hinges, flinging it onto the highway.
Flip hyperventilated, crawling backwards, squeezing himself between the car seats. Unfazed, the Road Gator raised one leg, planting it on the back seat, and lifted itself into the car. Flip saw no face, no eyes, no remorse; simply a force of nature, come to collect its share of souls. The Road Gator parted its mouth, hissing gently, as if trying to soothe the young boy.
Sirens sounded in the distance, and the Road Gator slowly turned its head toward the noise. Flip felt hope in his chest. Maybe the creature would flee. Maybe he’d be rescued, and they’d find a way to save his mothers. Maybe . . .
As if sensing Flip’s thoughts, the Road Gator returned its attention to him, hissing again. Behind it, Flip saw more Road Gators slither from the trees, joining in chorus, egging the creature on. It lowered its head, and for the briefest second, Flip thought he saw it smile.
Then it pounced, and Flip was no more.