Twenty miles outside of Chapel Hill is Route 12, a road forgotten almost as soon as it was paved. Having survived the sinister wet of forty North Carolina winters mostly intact, it finally became the chosen road of the truckers of Paradigm Shipping, whose routes took them up and down the eastern seaboard from New York City to the Port of Miami. Paradigm’s warehouses, nestled squarely between I-95 and Route 12 in a lot that stretched five miles square, was the only stopover in-between, and as the company grew so did their share of the lot. At its height Paradigm was using all but a few of these warehouses, and Route 12 was a-hum with the fearsome power of the almighty V-8.
But what goes up must come down, and it wasn’t long after the market crashed that an employee of the warehouse lot was sent with a cherry picker to pull Paradigm’s logo from one warehouse after another until only one was left. In a flurry of casually cancelled middle-class dreams and a few slammed doors, the truckers were laid off, and Route 12 grew quiet and then still. Days passed without a single truck blowing by the pines and poplars that edged the road, and finally, just when it seemed like it had seen its last shipment, a pair of headlights flashed in the dark from the on-ramp.
They belonged not to a Kenworth or a Peterbilt, but a Corolla almost as old as its driver who, like so many of Paradigm’s now unemployed truckers, was carrying both precious cargo and a dream.
At nineteen, Gale Hawthorne was already too big for the car he drove. His knees skimmed the bottom of the steering wheel even when he leaned back as far as he could in his seat. But there was no money for anything better than the same heap of junk that his mother had been driving as long as he could remember, and even with a future four grand’s worth of weight in his backpack, there still wouldn’t be. For five years, his baby sister Posy had earned straight A’s, and as far as Gale was concerned, that meant college. So when Madge Undersee, the unrepentantly lovely snow queen of UNC called and asked him to bring her something fun and new, he grit his teeth and asked where to meet her. He didn’t like fun, and he didn’t do ‘new’. But for Madge? Anything.
“At Unit Nine,” she drawled. Her voice, even through the phone, somehow managed to meet in an uneasy apex of hesitant and silken. The kind of voice that asked an empty house if anyone was home, as if feminine charm alone could wring love from stone.
And Gale wasn’t stone in the least.
“I’ll be there,” he promised. He hadn’t let her down yet, and it was a hard-fought battle in his head as to whether or not he even could. A girl like that lived from line to line, and he had no business getting involved with a client, even his best one. Still, he found himself knuckle deep and aching for more each time she called and asked where he was in that ragged, breathless way she had whenever her demons grew too loud to be drowned out. So he would be there.
Even if it meant driving all the way out to Unit Nine, a warehouse that once belonged to Paradigm Shipping but was currently the newest location in UNC’s underground rave scene- the kind of place known only by name, with no listed address and a text sent twenty-four hours in advance with what password to give the bouncers posted out front. Gale, not on the guest list and definitely not ‘in the know’, spent a good ten minutes arguing with said bouncers before Madge emerged through the steel doors.
She is lovely, floating on impossible heels and already high, rubbing her pink nose with an index finger decorated in chipped black nail polish. She smiles when she sees him- an expression full of ‘pleases’ and ‘thank you’s’- and taps a light kiss on his cheek. His skin warms as he feels her fingers in his pocket, fishing for the tiny plastic baggy. Judging by the thickness of the wad of cash brushing against his thigh, she has again given him more than street value in exchange.
“Come inside,” she breathes, her eyelids heavy as she stares up at him. “Just for a little while.”
He swallows and brushes a lock of blonde hair back behind her ear.
“I’ve gotta go babe,” he says, just loud enough for the bouncers to hear. "You know that."
“Stay,” she murmurs. “Please?”
There had to be a word for the exact place she made him weak. These gatherings of daddy’s little technicolor brats were a nightmare world that brushed the tangent of his own. Balmain, Diplo, i-D, ASOS, Kali Uchis- words he knew because Madge’s friends had a fetish for all the tragedy and poverty they’d never understand- though Christ did they just love to play dress up- and he was their sure and steady supply. He prefered women, and they prefered him. The reality of the world beyond him was much stranger than the glossy images they were used to, and he liked his clients rich and unlikely to invite him inside. Still, he wouldn’t care if this entire warehouse went up in flames and took them with it… Except for the sullen eyed princess who had somehow been grabbed and knocked around by the ugly hands beyond the safety of her luxury SUV, and never quite managed to get the bruises to heal. To beg him like this… she must be crawling out of her own skin. His thumbs trace the soft swathes of flesh under her eyes, oily and cold with sweat.
“Yeah,” he says. “Ok. An hour.”
The double-doors open for them, and frenetic lights and bass spill out into the still Carolina night, before swallowing them whole. Madge drags him to the middle of the floor, her arms raising above her head as her hips sway and her head hangs back against his shoulder. He can feel the heat of her against his chest and his hands wrap around her hips, dragging them backward to come flush with his. She slips a hand into her bra and spins in his arms, an inch or so of pink tongue extended. A blue tab rests on its tip.
As a rule, he doesn’t partake. It’s just not smart business. But as her eyes bore into his from under a sharp, heavy rim of black eyeliner, he tilts her face upward with sure hands. To anyone else it would have looked like an offering, but Gale knows a plea when he sees one, and he finally has the answer he’s been looking for.
No. It’s not possible for him to refuse her anything.
A storm of light dances across the wet surface of her eyes as he presses his lips against hers hard. Does she know? How dangerous she is to him? His breath sticks to his throat as the tab passes between their mouths. For months he has been teetering on an edge he can’t name. Now, as her fingers curl in his hair and the rabbit hole yawns wide open, he understands. This thing that she does to his heart- where it squeezes and shudders underneath the gentle brush of her fingertips… It might be love.
Time slices and divides itself into chords - gestures - individual notes. He feels her with everything in him that can feel- the dew of her skin, the thunder underneath it, the crash of her breath against his neck- like waves against rock. The cradle of her hips sways the ground beneath his feet and pumps the blood in his veins as something- either his heartbeat or the bass or both- laps against the inside of his ribcage. His hands have long since memorized her shape, but it’s something new now that each inch of skin is magnified underneath the pads of his fingers. Electricity crackles between them as he learns her all over again in the endless space between where he was and where he is soon-to-be.
She exhales long and slow in his ear, a thunderous brush of fuzz and reverb- and suddenly-
Darkness, cold and fresh, washes over him. His shirt is wet. The light is out. Something smells like smoke.
Madge is a limp doll in his arms as he leans his throbbing head up and looks over a sea of twisting, bouncing heads. A single light at the far end of the warehouse illuminates the edge of the crowd. People are shoving each other, climbing over one another toward the back of the warehouse where he and Madge now are. Three bodies converge on another one and all four go down. His blood freezes in his veins as his brain struggles to catch up with what is happening. Two other heads disappear down into the shadows. Suddenly. As if yanked. But then one raises up, and his eyes catch on the face.
Twisted- mouth torn open in a primal howl- splattered with something glittering and dark. In the fraction of a second it takes him to understand that something is very fucking wrong, the sea of bodies that had been rolling in time to the music starts to writhe with a frantic new rhythm, and Madge, limp and unconscious to it all, falters in his arms.
And that’s when the music cuts out, and the screaming starts.
The crowd rushes suddenly- a crush of bodies rife with the stench of sickly rich perfume and cold sweat- and he yanks Madge up against him. They need to leave- right fucking now - before the tide of panic sucks them under. His eyes light on a flashing exit sign and he shoves his way toward it blindly. The screams swell in the darkness as anonymous hands grab at him and the eternity between himself and the door grows. He pushes harder, using one hand to cut the mass in front of them and the other to grip the limp girl in his arms. She is still rolling, entirely ignorant to the nightmare that has interrupted reality, and he knows if he doesn’t hold on tight she will be sucked away from him and disappear forever.
They make it to the door- impossibly, incredibly. He shoves his way through and they burst into the cool air beyond;and he is sure to force the door shut behind them. In the silence of the pre-dawn dark his heart thunders impossibly loud. Beyond the metal walls of the warehouse and the horror unfolding within, the quiet is worse than anything he has experienced before; underneath its icy surface something discordant is seething, bubbling up from below.
Madge is slurring, her eyes glassy.
He brushes hair out of her face.
“Can you hear me?”
“Ok. Listen then. This is very important- can you run?”
Her brow tightens.
“It’s time to go, ok Madge? Now listen. Can you run?”
“Ok then. We’re gonna run ok? And, listen to me- don’t look anywhere but straight ahead. Can you do that for me?”
“Ok- let’s go.”
To her credit, she kicks her heels off. But Madge is loud and slow, completely ignorant to the muffled sounds behind them- and they are still too far from his car for him to carry her.
“Faster Madge,” he whispers.
“What’s going on?”
“Just run, ok? We just gotta run.”
Footsteps echo around them. His heart kicks in his chest.
A snarl echoes somewhere in the distance, and a scream shatters the silence.
“Don’t look. Just run.”
He grabs her hand and pulls her along- her bare feet slapping the earth as the echoes of footsteps build, and another scream rings out. They make it out of the maze of buildings as a horrific chorus erupts behind them and he drags her into the darkness of the forest.
“Ow- fuck- Gale- Please tell me wha’s goin’ on.”
“Here. On my back. Let’s go.”
“Just do it!”
She wraps her arms around his neck and he jogs as silently as he can through the trees, but they must have been seen because he can hear something crashing through the brush behind him. The air in his lungs screams with every step he takes and it finally becomes clear that he has to put her down or they’re both fucked.
“Come on, you have to run-,” he yells.
There are more behind them now- and shit they’re fast. Too fast. He can hear their rasping howls all around them- see their dark silhouettes flashing in between the trees just a scarce few feet away. They’re fucked- so fucked-
The trees break suddenly and they spill into a clearing of tall grass. Lit by the low, hot glare of the rising sun is a shadowy building topped with a spire that’s impossible to mistake. A church- an old one. It’s leaning perilously and dotted with dark moss, but it’s their only chance. Madge is a few feet behind him, breathing heavily and stumbling. Just steps behind her is one of the people from the warehouse, his face and shirt splattered with dark, glistening fluid.
It’s too late. Maybe it always had been. Whatever was happening- how many would survive? And what would be left of them? He slows abruptly. Madge outstrips him, stumbling forward and then beyond into the soft, dewy grass without looking back. It’s better this way, though. He doesn’t want her to see. Something swipes his back and he bolts forward, then slows again. Madge is closing in on the church. She is so close. He wills her not to turn around. A snarl in his ear- Something yanks his arm-
If he can distract them long enough for her to get inside-
A body flies into his out of nowhere- hands grasp his arm and neck as teeth sink into his back. He whirls- his fist connecting solidly with a jaw- but there are two more that rush him and spots erupt in his vision as one finds his cheek and tears. His heart beats erratically as he shoves it away. Pain flares at the base of his head and ricochets toward the front of his skull, searing a fiery line through his face and down his right arm. He cradles the gushing wound on his cheek and stumbles forward as the sky tilts dizzyingly and blares white hot in his skull. More people pile on him- a tangle of limbs and teeth ensnare him as the world blurs. Over their heads, he can just make out Madge’s silver-blonde head in the distance. She’s made it. She’s at the church. It grows wet and shadowy in his eyes- like he’s sinking deep into murky water. She tugs on the doors and as they swing open, he begs her not to turn around. She does- of course she does- and as blackness swallows him, a shape hurtles out of the church and collides with her, dragging them both into the dark.