It was cold as fuck. I woke up on Kelsey’s futon, fully-dressed, huddled under several layers of blankets, but still shivering. This was a god-awful place. Why would anyone live somewhere that got this cold? My delicate Oregonian body was obviously not made for temperatures below the mid 60’s. I had never been to Akron, Ohio, and I hoped to God to never have to be there again. I tried to think instead of pleasant thoughts of the upcoming trip back home—an entire month with my cousin back in Portland, and what was sure to be a memorable road trip getting her there.
Grumbling inwardly to comfort myself, I began to wriggle my way out of my cocoon, immediately realizing that I had been bolted into place by Kiri, my cousin’s capricious Plotthound/Shar Pei mix. In an uncharacteristic display of affection, she had stretched herself over my legs, doubling her sixty pound weight as she snored lightly in her sleep. Kelsey must have already left for work–she had to finish up a couple things for Dr. Leevy, she had said. It was the only reason this neurosis-driven quadruped would even tolerate being on the same side of the room with me. A few shoves and threatening growls later, I was free.
I checked my things. Messenger bag: full and organized. Suitcase: still packed. Purse: still here. Kind of hard to make too much of a mess when you pass out as soon as you get home from the airport. I started grabbing arm-fulls of blankets and pillows and arranging them in the back of Kelsey’s late 90’s Chevy Blazer—anything to make the floor as easy to sleep on as possible. I had just finished nesting when Alison dropped Kelsey off.
“How are we on stuff being packed?” Kelsey asked.
“Good,” I answered. “I took all the blankets and pillows you had—it should be almost comfortable back there.”
“Oh good! It shouldn’t take too long for me to load everything in the car, then we can stop for breakfast or something and get going!”
The drive was everything a road trip should be: full of sleeping at truck stops, eating gas-station food, and ashy, dry snow curling along two-lane highways for hundreds of miles. There were rest stop snow angels, and snow barriers aching heavily under the weight of last nights’ fall. I even saw my first tumbleweed in Nebraska—Kelsey wouldn’t let me bring it in the car with me. Reports continued to light up our phones every hour: heavy snowfall in Toledo, Davenport, Des Moines. Severe ice in Omaha, Lincoln, Cheyenne—anywhere we had been just 6-8 hours earlier.
Three days into the trip, we came to the great state of Mormonism—sometimes also known as Utah. In an unfortunate lack of governmental supervision, Utah’s highway markers had managed to look (to the newcomer’s eye) incredibly like a giant tit. This was all it took for us to spend the next 3 hours ruthlessly mocking Utah; a state we deemed bereft of all but Salt Lake City, a few ski resorts, and Joseph Smith and his Sled of Hell driven by the ghosts of unbaptized babies.
“You know,” Kelsey pondered, shifting into 4-wheel drive as the snow picked up, “Maybe we shouldn’t stop in Utah for gas. I mean, there’s only so much karma you can use up in one place, and I still have, like, half a tank…” I agreed, and—wiping tears of laughter from my eyes—watched as we passed the last gas station and crossed the state line into Idaho.
* * *
Around ten pm, Kelsey began eyeing the gas gauge nervously.
“I have no idea how much gas the 4-wheel drive uses,” she admitted, flicking her gaze between the highway and her dash, “and the gauge is really unreliable when it gets around a quarter tank.” Suddenly, in a moment of near-cinematic perfection, we passed a sign advertising exactly what we needed. “Malta,” it read “8 miles.” A picture of a gas pump was directly below it.
As we climbed up the off-ramp, we realized with dismay that “8 miles” meant “8 miles off the highway,” not “8 miles to the next exit.” Still, it was our best bet for a full tank, so we continued.
To say we were in the middle of nowhere would have been an understatement—at least the middle of nowhere theoretically has an end. The road to Malta seemed infinite—rows and rows of harvested corn and potato fields, punctuated only by the telephone poles that lined the road on each side, looping into the dark infinity just beyond the reach of our headlights. Fifty miles an hour or five, it didn’t matter. Malta would arrive when it was good and ready.
Miles later, we saw a house. Dusty, dark, and small, it still managed to serve as a promise of a town to come. A sign that we were not, in fact, completely lost.
“Thank God,” we sighed, “We’re almost there.” The relief, however, was short-lived. In celebrating the sight of the house, we had nearly missed the set of tire tracks that spun off the road and into the corn field to our right. Tire tracks belonging to someone that had been attempting to run back the way we had come.
“Oh, I know how this story ends,” I laughed nervously. “One of us says, ‘I have a bad feeling about this,’ and suddenly we end up in Children of the Corn.” Kelsey grimaced. Neither of us had ever been prone to “bad feelings” about things, but—right at that moment—we both definitely had them.
We didn’t see another house for several miles, and had started to wonder if the first was merely a fluke by the time we came across another—this time, next to a small sign. “Malta,” it read, “Population: 125.” Fuck, we thought. A town that small might not even have a gas station. And with the impending storm, we could easily become stranded.
We turned onto what was apparently Malta’s main drag, driving by several more Minimal Traditional-style houses—all dark, all silent. The entire town was pitch black, without so much as a single street light on. There was, however, a car. An old, beat-up low-rider with only its brake lights on, idling patiently in front of a dilapidated trailer—with the lights off, of course.
The car remained the only sign of life we saw as we made our way into the silent town, and finally (thankfully) we found a single, gas station. There was, of course, nobody there, but—by some small, bizarre miracle—it took credit cards. Kelsey pulled up next to the lone pump and looked at me significantly.
“I’m not going out there,” I said. Maybe not my proudest moment, but I meant it. Nothing was going to get me out of that car unless it dragged me. Too anxious to be rueful, Kelsey climbed out of the Blazer and ran her card. A lamp swung slowly above us in the absent wind, reflecting off of the pie and soft drink shop across the street. Red vinyl stools stood bolted to the floor in front of barren counter tops. Plywood cutouts of pie wedges were nailed to the wall in an attempt at whimsy. There were no real pies, no menus posted on the walls–the entire store seemed to be empty and waiting.
Kelsey jumped back into the car.
“I only put in about half a tank,” she fumbled the keys with frozen fingers, “there’s no way I’m taking the time to do a full—fuck that.” the engine roared to life, and she pulled out onto the main road. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
As we maneuvered our way out, Kelsey glanced over at me.
“Did you see anything since we’ve been here? Any people, animals, sounds…anything?”
I shook my head. “No. But I did look at the map while you were getting gas. I think we can actually get back to the highway faster if we take this main road out.”
“No.” Kelsey said. “I’m taking the route I already know. No shortcuts, no new roads. We’re getting out of here as soon as possible.”
We continued to search—almost compulsively, at this point—for any signs of life on the way out of town. There was still nothing. Still nothing except that inexplicably idling car outside of the blacked out, silent trailer.
We had escaped the city proper, and were breathing a little easier while we followed the long stretch of road back to the highway.
Something small shot out in front of the car.
“Oh my God!” Kelsey screamed, and the Blazer bounced as it collided with a small, furry body.
“Was that a bunny?!” I craned my neck around, trying to see the body behind us. There was none. As we wondered just where it had come from, and how it managed to surprise us while driving so slowly, we passed the tire tracks that ran into the corn field. Tire tracks that now looked very much like a failed escape. That bunny was evil—we are certain of it to this day. A demonic minion who exists solely to run hapless visitors off the road, harvesting their souls to feed the Hellmouth that is Malta, Idaho. Believe us when we say that that bunny is not dead. It is, in fact, alive and well, waiting for the opportune moment to jump in the road and lure back Malta’s next victims.
* * *
We reached the highway, and felt safe enough to discuss what we had just seen.
“I mean, was it just me, or was that place creepy as hell?” Kelsey asked, laughing uneasily.
“That was some Silent Hill shit,” I mused, staring out onto the highway and fully appreciating for the first time the value of street lights.
“Oh,” said Kelsey. “What’s Silent Hill?”
I perked up, preparing my lecture.
“It’s this video game franchise about this creepy little town in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes you hear these air raid sirens, and then this mist comes rolling in, and then that means you have get the hell out of there, or else you get trapped in this other layer of reality where all these monsters come after you, like these faceless nurses wielding steel pipes who can’t talk…and then there’s Pyramid Head…” For the next ten minutes, I proceeded to tell my cousin all about the game I’d never played, but had avidly Googled. It was disturbing, and grotesque, but we were able to laugh as I talked, and celebrated the relief of having safely escaped from the real Silent Hill.
“I really think the only reason we escaped was because of Kiri,” I posited. “Think about it: in the horror films, who’s gonna die? The two white college girls on a road trip, that’s who. But does the dog ever die? No. The dog is a true sign of plot armor. Kiri saved us.”
“Hey, did you see a notification on your phone for a detour? Or construction?” I checked my phone.
“Then what’s all this?”
The stretch of highway ahead of us had apparently been undergoing massive renovations. We struggled to continue heading north as sign after conflicting sign pointed us in various directions, until—despite starting out on an interstate—we were driving on a gravel road a significant distance off the highway. I checked my phone again.
“Kelsey…” I looked up, my smile gone. “If we keep going this way, we’re going to be back on the road towards Malta.”
“No.” Kelsey said. “That’s not going to happen. We are not going back. It’s not taking us back.” As other cars started to drop out through the various misleading exits, one car ahead of us seemed to know the way out. We followed it and hoped for the best. Our gamble paid off.
Two hours later, we parked for the night in a well-lit truck stop. We talked about our escape from Malta, but we did not congratulate ourselves this time. We talked, and we laughed. We laughed until tears streamed down our faces.