“Hey, I’m finally on my way,” I tell my husband as I start my car and back out of the parking space. He is not amused.
“I know. I’m sorry. My last patient was late and then just as I was walking out the door, I got an emergency call. I thought I’d never get that woman off the phone. Her emergencies are never actual emergencies. Drives me crazy.”
Ned spends about the next five minutes or so going into detail over an especially aggravating settlement he has been negotiating for more than a month.
“Well, I’m glad it’s finally been resolved. You must be relieved. Do you want me to stop and get some champagne?” I laugh.
He tells me he’s already bought some, as I pull onto the ramp for the interstate. “Oh great,” I groan. “There must have been an accident. Traffic is almost at a standstill. Damn, I’ll never get home.”
Ned suggests I get off at the next exit, which is Highway 109. There is a dirt road, he says, that will take me to Long Pine Road, where our small farm is located.
“Ok, I’ll call you when I make it to the exit,” I say, and hang up.
“Hey, I just pulled off. Do you remember the name of the road I’m looking for?”
Ned tells me that he is pretty sure it’s called Old Phlegethon Road, Phlegethon being the name of the once beautiful but now decaying Victorian manse that sits atop a small rise along this road. It was once home to a reputedly mad, as in insane, author of Victorian horror stories. But that was nearly a century ago, and the road is seldom used anymore. Only the farmers who own the fields alongside it make use of it these days.
Fortunately, there is no one behind me, so I slow down, significantly, and search for signs of a road intersecting the highway from the left. It is now completely dark but, in the beams of my headlights, I see what I think is the right road. There isn’t a sign but I feel this has to be it. If I drive much further, there would be no point in taking a short cut. So, depressing the brakes and flipping on my turn signal despite the fact there is no one behind me (old habits die hard) nor anyone heading in my direction, I slow down to make the turn, realizing as I do so that I haven’t passed any vehicle in miles, which strikes me as odd. But that pretty much sums up the day.
The dirt road is rutted and bumpy and I have to drive slowly to avoid some of the deeper potholes. Thanks For nothing, Ned, I think. Men and their shortcuts! I should have just waited it out on the interstate. I’d probably be home already. It never failed that in my impatience to get somewhere more quickly, the longer it always took.
The further I drive, the more unfamiliar the surroundings become. I should be heading west toward the small town of Webster, but the road has curved so much I am no longer sure in which direction I am heading and there is no longer any sun to guide me. Acres and acres of pine trees are broken only by the occasional fallow field. I have yet to see a store, gas station or even a home and I am getting panicky. At this point, I just want to stop and ask for directions. I should probably stop and call Ned but I am too angry to do so.
Finally, the beams of my headlights pick out the silhouette of an old Victorian house that seems to rise like some twisted monster from a barren knoll. No lights glimmer from the windows to dissipate the deepening darkness, but I decide to take a chance and see if anyone is home.
I pull slowly up the long curving road in the hope that someone will come out to see who has come to visit, but as I reach the end of the driveway, the house remains in darkness. Realizing that this is all but hopeless, but knowing I have no other choice at this point, I park in front of the house and walk cautiously toward the steps leading up to the front porch. Inexplicably, my pulse begins to race and my heart pounds in irrational fear.
I knock on the door, glancing in trepidation at the porch littered with leaves and dirt, and the door creaks open, slowly, beneath my outstretched arm. I call, “Hello! Is anyone home?” until my throat is raw, and that is when I notice the book lying open on the dusty wooden floorboards. It is a thick, leather-bound volume, I realize as I pick it up, the pages yellowed and smelling of damp and decay. I am curious. Why is this book lying on the floor just inside the door of this old house? Who left it here? I glance at the cover but there is no title.
I turn to the first page, lifting the pages carefully so as not to crack or tear them, and I read:
You are lost. Somehow, you thought you knew where you were heading but, instead, you found yourself on a road in the back of beyond. You traveled for what must have seemed like hours before you finally saw what once must have been a beautiful Victorian mansion sitting atop a lonely hillock.
And despite the fact it looked abandoned and desolate, dark and foreboding, you decided that it was worth a chance. Perhaps someone, anyone, might still make their home there; might be able to offer you direction. So, you climbed the long and somewhat meandering drive to see if, perchance, anyone resided in the broken down ruin.
Climbing the steps to the porch, you felt yourself overcome with terror though your mind, no doubt, argued, and quite reasonably, that there was nothing to be afraid of. After all, you thought, surely the house is empty; no one will answer the door. You thought that within moments you would be returning to your vehicle and that you would continue on your way and that eventually you would find your way home.
It came as quite a shock to you when the door swung open, but once again you reasoned that away, as well. Surely, you thought, as you announced your presence that no one was there to hear your voice. Regardless, you called out until your voice caught in your throat.
And that was when you saw the book lying on the floor. Curious, you thought, and picked it up, there was something both disturbing and simultaneously comforting about the heft of its weight in your hands. Turning carefully to the first page, you began to read. And once you began reading, you couldn’t stop.
And you never will. Because some books you just can’t put down.
“Where do you think she is?” the new nurse asks.
The patient sits in a comfortable armchair, deeply engrossed in a book. At least, to all appearances, that is what it looks like. Despite the fact there is nothing in her hands, her eyes seem to follow line after line in a book that cannot be seen, expressions flickering across her face in reaction to whatever she is reading. She even occasionally turns a non-existent page.
“We’ll probably never know,” the doctor answers. “She was found wandering on Highway 109. She was scratched and bruised when they found her as if she’d clawed her way through brambles. Her car was about a mile away, buried deep within the briars that have long since claimed Old Phlegethon Road. You know it?”
“Yes,” the nurse shivers.
“Her husband blames himself. He said that he had heard the road was a shortcut but had never actually seen it nor driven it himself.”
“Not from around here, huh?”
“No, of course not. They moved down here from Atlanta; commuted to work during the week.”
“Ah. Somebody was pulling his leg.”
“I grew up hearing the stories,” the nurse muses.
“About Howard Phillips?”
“Yes! Crazy as bat-, uh, a loon,” she finds herself blushing. She has to watch her language. She doesn’t want to lose her job on her first day.
But the doctor just smiles. “Have you read any of his work?”
“Just one book. It was just too scary for me. It all seemed so real–the monsters, the strange rites, the characters slowly losing their minds. I don’t know. It was almost as if he had seen those things himself.”
“Some say he was a practitioner of the dark arts.”
“I would not be surprised at all.” She studies the woman. The county had breathed a collective sigh of relief when Phillips had disappeared, her grandmother had told her. But many children grew up believing that he still lived in that house. Phlegethon he had called it. Why would he name his home something so horrible? Maybe the stories were true . . .