top of page
  • Midwest Weird

"The Highway," Maxine Firehammer



Midwest Weird Presents: Maxine Firehammer reading her story, "The Highway"

Today on Midwest Weird: “The Highway” by Maxine Firehammer.

 

Maxine Firehammer is a horror writer living in Saint Paul. She has previously had work appear in Hash Journal, The Molotov Cocktail, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. She is a 2024 Pushcart Prize nominee.


 

Midwest Weird is an audio literary magazine from Broads and Books Productions. We’re the home of weird fiction and nonfiction by Midwestern writers.

 

Submit your own work to Midwest Weird at www.midwestweird.com!



Episode Transcript:

  

This is Midwest Weird, an audio literary magazine from Broads and Books Productions.

 

We’re the home of weird fiction and nonfiction by Midwestern writers.

 

Today’s episode: A short story by Maxine Firehammer, titled “The Highway.” Read by the author.

 

We rolled the car. Or rather, Nick rolled the car when a deer darted out, and he gave the wheel a sharp tug to the left in thoughtless reaction. One complete spin, and into the ditch. We landed almost right side up, tilted a little against the dusty bank. The radio was still playing. Nick switched it off. He didn’t use the knob, just palmed the dashboard. The thud of his hand rattled a few more tinkling pieces of glass from the shattered windshield. We sat in silence for a minute. The deer trotted across the highway, taunting. If my heart wasn’t pounding in my ears, I probably could’ve heard the click of its hooves.


I looked down at myself, then at Nick. His nose was bleeding from knocking against the wheel, and we both had a scattering of tiny cuts from the glass. I could feel a bruise forming across my chest where my seatbelt had caught me, and I knew it would be deep blue. Apart from that, we were pristine. A miracle. The same couldn’t be said for the car. Pieces of fiberglass and metal and shredded tire were strewn across the pavement. With quaking hands, I fumbled for my phone. No reception. The grass parted like a curtain as the deer stepped inside and vanished. All was quiet.


We’d been on our way to a rented cabin, to spend our anniversary out in nature, so it was a bit ironic that the first wildlife we saw sent us skidding off the road. I wondered if we’d still go. Probably not. I thought about asking Nick, but now wasn’t the time. He was shaking worse than me as we undid our seatbelts and climbed out.


“Fuck. Shit. Fuck.”


“Hey.” I looked through the open door at him. “We’re okay.”


“I could’ve killed you. Both of us. We’re stranded. The car is… I’m so sorry.” He had grown up in the city, far from here.


“We’re alive and we’re not hurt bad. We’ll get to town, have something to eat, find a hotel, and then, after that we’ll worry about the car.”


“Okay. I love you.”


“I love you too. Here, let’s grab the water bottle. It’s going to be a long way.”


Nick stopped trembling as he handed me my old Boy Scout canteen, and I was glad for that. As I took him by the arm and helped him over the crest of the ditch, something shifted in the grass. The golden stalks moved, whispering together as if pushed by an errant breeze. No wind blew. The air was still.


When I was a kid, any time my family would take a road trip, I used to imagine a man running alongside the car. He kept pace on superhuman legs, scaling the mountains, bounding across the valleys, fording the rivers. Everywhere we went, he followed. Sometimes, my imagination would spin out of control, and I’d start to feel afraid of the running man. Where did he go when the car stopped? When we reached our destination? When we slept? Once, when I was about six years old, we’d gone down to California, and I had dreamt he was jogging laps in the hotel parking lot, bare feet slapping on the asphalt, and that if I’d peeked through the window, I would’ve seen him grinning up at me. Now, I wondered if he was the thing behind the grass.


The walk was hot and long. It was late afternoon, as we’d meant to get to the cabin around dusk, and the orange sun smoldered like a dusty old space heater, its rays reflecting up at us off the pavement. I took a long drink from the canteen, water escaping from the corners of my mouth and dripping down my cheeks, and passed it to Nick. He held it with both hands. Mountains loomed in the distance, blue and colossal. They seemed unreal, like matte paintings in a movie. I looked at them, pausing for a moment to let the ache in my feet dull. I saw movement again, far off this time, deep in the fields. Whatever was out there was larger than a deer.


“Do you see that?” I asked Nick.


“Where?”


“Over there. Way back in the brush.”


“I don’t see a thing.” He shielded his eyes with a flat hand. “Those mountains are pretty, though.”


“Yeah, they are. You’re pretty too.” I tried to make my eyes stay on him and his face. Not the plains beyond. Not the ripples in the sea of grass.


“Nah, I’m all sweaty. What was it you saw?”


“Not sure. Something big, way out there.”


“Elk, maybe? They have elk here, right?”


“Could be.” I took another drink from the canteen.


We’d been walking for close to an hour when a truck blew past us. It was an old model, powder blue and rusted, but going like a bat out of hell. As it passed, a teenager with a peeling sunburn on his nose leaned out and spat at us. The gob of phlegm sailed through the air and splattered at my feet. He shouted something I didn’t catch over the growl of the motor and the rush of air, but I could probably guess if I had to. I couldn’t tell if it was the clothes we were wearing, our haircuts, or something else that gave it away. Somehow, guys like that just always knew. It dawned on me that we were alone out here with the truck, and with whatever kept rustling through the grass. I’d brought a utility knife and a hatchet for collecting firewood, but those were all back in the car. We were defenseless.


“Asshole.” Nick said.


“Yeah.” I felt him take my unsteady hand and we watched the truck grow smaller and smaller as it drove up the road away from us. I was waiting for it to turn around, to stop shrinking and begin to loom like the mountains. To my great relief, it became a speck and vanished over the horizon.


The sinking sun ripened from orange to red as dark approached. I didn’t want to let Nick see it, but fear was seeping into me. My grasp on his hand tightened and my palm went clammy. The running man was in the grass. Hate was on the road. My eyes darted back and forth between the plains to either side of us and the horizon ahead, waiting to catch a glimpse of movement or a flash of headlights. I wished for my weapons, abandoned in the trunk. I felt like prey.


“We should start moving a little faster.” Nick said, seeming to read my thoughts. “I don’t want to be out here when it gets dark.”


“I don’t think it’s much further to town.” I had no idea how far it was. There wasn’t a single building in sight. We were cast adrift. Already, sunset was coming. The sky became streaked in deep red shot through with veins of gold. I could see the moon glowing weakly, a gibbous surfacing from underneath the burning, bleeding sky. The world was yawning and cavernous and Nick and I were either alone or not alone and both options carved a pit of dread into my stomach like a grub gnawing into rotted wood.     


“I have to pee,” Nick said, “I’m sorry, it’ll only be a minute.”


“Go ahead, it’s alright.” I lowered myself down and sat on the shoulder of the road as I watched Nick descend and wade into the field. The highway was on a gentle hillside, so I was sitting above him, and I could see the top of his head as he walked away, the brown whorl of hair at the crown of his skull bobbing through the pale-yellow shafts.


“I think you’re far enough out.” I called after him. I’d always been a little anxious about relieving myself outside. I didn’t do it at all if it could be avoided. A long time ago, at summer camp, another boy had told me about a friend or cousin of his, who’d been pissing behind a tree when a horsefly had bitten him. Made a hole clean through the skin of his sack. The boy had told me. If he held it open, he could see the tubes and everything. They looked just like spaghetti. The story was obviously nonsense, but it never left me.


I stared out at the field, surveying it. The stained-glass light of the sunset made the world shimmer. Out beyond Nick’s head, the hidden thing was moving again. The running man. The monster. I couldn’t see any part of it besides its wake as it approached, cruising like a submarine. It was coming straight toward him. Trying to scream his name, my voice caught in my throat, clogged. I stumbled to my feet and ran down. My footfalls crashed through the vegetation. When I found him, he was zipping up his jeans.


“Let’s go. We’ve got to go. Now.”


“Are you okay? Did that truck come back?”


Over his voice, over my own heartbeat, I could hear the rustling, the blades whispering, closer. I grabbed him by the arm and we ran. I caught a glimpse of it, just before we reached the road. I saw its face. Its black doll’s eyes.


Nick held me by the shoulders, strong hands keeping me on my feet. Fear was in his eyes. He was asking me if I was alright, asking what happened. His voice was desperate, begging. I didn’t have any words to give him.


I had grown up with an older brother. He’d gone off to college when I was thirteen and lived away from home since then. He’d been my hero when we were younger, teaching me bits of historical trivia, helping me assemble model rocket sets. But sometimes if he’d been angry with me, or found a sudden delight in cruelty, he would tell me about the monster that lived in our attic. He’d tell me how it had terrible razor claws and jagged teeth like shards of glass and how one day it would come down and get me. I hadn’t ever known what that meant, to get me. Not just kill. Get.


“I’m sorry,” I said. I was unsure how long I had gone without speaking.


“It’s okay. You just startled me. What happened?”


“I saw something, thought I saw something coming.”


“There’s nothing there.” He turned me so I could see, and we gazed out over the landscape together. All was still.


“It was coming to get you.”


“Hey. I know those guys in the truck scared you. They scared me, too. But if we’re being realistic, they’re probably in the next county by now. We’re okay. There’s nothing out here but us.” Nick was doing his best to sound confident, but his voice wavered when he spoke. He didn’t believe a word he was saying. He was petrified. Maybe he had seen it too. I didn’t ask.


“You’re right. They’re gone. We’re okay. Let’s get to town.”


I drank the last bit of water from the canteen before we started on our way again. It tasted metallic. With gravel embedded in the bottoms of our shoes and terror squeezing at our insides, we kept going. Dark was coming fast. The only evidence that a sun had ever existed was a reddish glow in the west, making embers of the mountains. The moon emerged, with a sickly yellow tinge to its light. We passed a sign that told us Glendive was only three miles away, reflective white letters giving off a weak gleam. Crickets droned. The empty canteen clanked at my hip. Far off, an animal made a mournful wail. I remembered how the jaw hung open, long purple tongue lolling out and swinging back and forth. How the teeth glinted, row after row of them pointing in all directions. How the big, dark eyes blinked at me, full of curiosity and hunger.


As we came down a slope in the road, Nick held an arm in front of my chest and stopped me. Straight ahead of us, made small by the distance, was a pair of headlights. I froze. Didn’t even breathe. Nick whispered to me.


“It has to be them.”


“Do you think they see us?”


“I think we’re far enough away.”


The headlights weren’t moving. They stayed the same size, twin stars at the base of the next hill. Apart from the crickets, the whole world was dead silent. With the sun gone, the air had grown cold. I wished for my jacket. For my hatchet or knife. The men in the truck were blocking our path, lying in wait for us. I could imagine them, behind the lights. The little one with skin flaking from his reddened nose, eyes beady and glaring. If we were going to make it to town, we would have to walk straight towards them.


“We can go around.” Nick said. “Off on the side of the road.”


“We’ll have to be careful. If they spot us…”


“If they spot us, we’ll run and we won’t look back.” I could see him, in the moonlight. He was pale and shivering, his skin beaded with cold sweat like a beer bottle in August. He looked so young. I supposed I looked young too. We were. “We’ll run.” He repeated.


“Okay,” I said. My mouth was dry, my tongue sticking to the roof. I watched Nick step off the road, into the wilderness. It was still out here. I could feel its presence, imagined its horrible, drooling face appearing from the gloom. It, too, was waiting for us somewhere out in the flatlands, waiting to get us.


I held onto Nick’s hand as we moved through the brush, fingers laced together. Whatever happened, I didn’t want to let go. Tomorrow would be five years since we first met. We had found each other in the art museum, two perfect strangers. He’d made a remark about a certain painter, and I had overheard and asked him about another piece, and then another, and he told me the stories behind every beautiful thing. When closing time had arrived, we’d walked out together into the fast-fading daylight.


Maybe it would be okay. Maybe the lights didn’t belong to the truck. Maybe the face I’d seen was only the product of an overactive imagination and the leftover adrenaline from the crash. The lights kept growing brighter. We crept forward in silence, lifting our feet with precision, and bringing them down slow. I remembered a story of a wildlife photographer who’d been stalked for days by a tiger, and I wondered if the thing, the monster, could smell me. If the men in the truck could hear my breath. What they intended to do if they found us.


The urge to cough rose and I choked it down. I could hear the gentle thrumming of the truck’s engine. As we drew closer, I heard their radio, too. It was playing a comedy routine, the laughter intercut with static. Nick and I kept stepping carefully. The headlights shone on us, beams cut into little strips. Next to the truck, a shadow was crouching. A funny smell filled the air, a meaty, coppery scent. Another, fainter, sound joined the engine and the radio. It was a wet noise, like a cat washing itself.


Against all judgement, all instincts, I let go of Nick’s hand. On the day we met, he’d shown me a vase with a picture of Orpheus. The man who looked over his shoulder because he had to see. I had to see. I went to the edge of the road. I looked. The old powder blue truck was flipped over, wheels turned skyward. The cab was crushed almost flat. Blood spilled from it and pooled on the highway. Hunched over beside the wreck, the thing sat on its haunches and lapped up the red with its tongue. I could see all of it now, out in the open, in the middle of the road. Naked and hairless. Legs ending in humanoid fingers with hooked talons. Sinews straining in long limbs. Jaw unhinged and dangling.


It hurt to look at, the kind of pain caused by staring into the sun. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Nick was watching too, peering over my shoulder. The thing had stopped licking up blood and sauntered over to the cab of the truck. An arm was sticking out of the window, in a flannel sleeve, splayed out onto the road. One clawed hand wrapped around the wrist and pulled. There was a sucking sound, and the tearing of fabric, and the arm was lifted into the still night air, dripping. It tilted its hideous head back. A long head, like a horse. Opened its mouth. Made a noise like a straw reaching the bottom of a milkshake. The arm was gone.


Red strands of drool hung from its jutting chin. Its pointed teeth glistened with a mix of spittle and blood. Its tongue flapped from side to side like the pendulum in a grandfather clock. It looked at us. I could see my reflection in its huge black eyes. A question lurked behind them, like it was wondering what we were, how we tasted, what we would look like when we were taken apart. I couldn’t move. Everything inside me was shrieking at me to run, yet my legs stayed rooted, held to the ground as if it was flypaper.  The thing cocked its head a little. It started to change.


The gangling, misshapen body shrank, flexing and contorting. A low wheeze came from its mouth as it shifted. Pronged appendages pushed their way through the skin of its forehead. Its fingers fused together, flesh melting like candle wax. The rows of fangs retracted, and it reeled in its tongue. Short, nut-brown fur sprouted up all over. Only the eyes stayed the same. The deer bent down and took a few more sips of blood. Then it trotted away, into the night.


I couldn’t remember the rest of the journey into town, nor could Nick. We moved on autopilot. When we checked into the motel, we told the clerk we’d seen another wreck on the road, a bad one. We got a double room, just in case. The restaurants were all closed but there was a bar open. I filled my stomach with hot, greasy food, surprised to still have an appetite. Nick just got drunk. I didn’t blame him. When we headed back, I let him sling his arm over my shoulder and held him up. I tried to stay on the sidewalks with the most streetlamps. In an unfamiliar bed, with crisply ironed sheets, I lay awake.

           

 

Maxine Firehammer is a horror writer living in Saint Paul. She has previously had work appear in Hash Journal, The Molotov Cocktail, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. She is a 2024 Pushcart Prize nominee.

 

Watch for upcoming bonus episode where we chat with Maxine about this story, writing, latest obsessions, and more.

 

We’ll be back in two weeks with more weird stories.

 

If you like what you hear, subscribe, like and review the show.

 

And if you want your fiction or nonfiction to appear on Midwest Weird, send us your work! Read the show notes for a submission link.

 

Thanks for joining us. And stay weird.


Comments


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page