THE MAN IN the red car drove down a dusty dirt road deep in the hills of northern Arkansas. He chuckled. That last sale two towns back, oh man, how he’d pulled one over. The commission would set him for a month.
I’m good, he thought, real good! He laughed again.
He passed a crossroad, woods to one side, cotton on the other. Three black kids, side of the road, looking at him, big eyes, expressionless, empty faces, strange, unnerving. Did I really see that? He checked his rear view mirror. The “specters” disappeared in the dust cloud behind him.
Driving with one hand, he awkwardly opened his map case and spread a detailed Arkansas state map over his sample case on the passenger’s seat. Those kids… He stepped on the gas. He stifled a shiver.
He glanced at the road again and then at the map. Five miles to Gitsburg. Looking ahead while searching his map, he laid a finger on his position. Gitsburg? Never heard of it. He didn’t like the territory. Too many hills, too many curves, too many flat fields of cotton, ramshackle, sorry looking shacks, A/C on the fritz and too blamed hot! Damn rental car!
Now this dirt road…to nowhere Gitsburg?
His brow began to furrow and a chill crept up his back. Across his eyes he again saw the vacant stares of the three kids he’d passed at the last four corners.
No stop signs; better pay attention. The bone thin kids had stood silently, arms hanging listlessly, bellies sticking out. Couldn’t have been more than eight, any of them, but those eyes…
It came to him like a premonition. I’m not welcome here.
The bad blacktop road gave out a few miles back and turned to dirt. The map didn’t show the transition, but…no other road. Had to keep going. Map said town, maybe just place, but people anyway. Sales took him down some dusty roads now and then, but he’d never had such a creepy feeling before. He checked his door locks.
Dirty shack on the right. Tin roof, open door… maybe no door. One way to get rid of stifling heat. A few hundred yards, another. Then a few more. He laughed derisively. Town! Yeah!
Something in the brush at roadside. What…? He stopped, backed up. Ah...
Gitsburg sign, Elevation 300, Population 66? Seemed like another number scrubbed out. Sign lying down. Staccato laugh. Nerves.
The man stepped on it and the wheels spun, leaving another cloud behind him. Those kids’ eyes… He shuddered.
Unpainted old houses, some with missing clapboards. More numerous now. As he approached the intersecting road at town center, something whacked against the car.
Startled, the man turned toward the sound. He saw nothing, but when he looked ahead again fear clutched his heart. He slammed on his brakes. The red car skidded, barely avoiding a child who sat in the middle of the dusty street.
The child never moved, seemed not to notice.
Livid, the driver got out and shouted, “Whose child is this? Are you trying to kill it?”
Three thin, sullen looking local teens stood at the side of the road. Thirty feet away a rickety general store endured with pitted, unpainted clapboards, its screen door hanging. A cracked post caused the porch roof to tilt dangerously. A grubby white man in a dirty cotton shirt and dark trousers stained at the knees, sporting several years’ growth of beard sat in a rocker under the overhang in shade. A piece of corn silk hung slackly from thin lips. His broad brim hat concealed slitted eyes. Snoozing, or watching?
The teens were covered with ever-present dust. The driver approached them. “I said, whose child is that out there?”
“Belong Jasmine,” one of the three, a small girl of about fifteen said. She wore brown/gray cotton pants and a man’s shirt. Her voice didn’t carry well. It seemed frail, like the unsmiling girl it belonged to.
The other two, youths of about the same age, stood in the street looking at him. They said nothing. They wore baggy pants and coarse weave white cotton shirts and might have just returned from the pulling cotton.
“Well, I nearly killed this Jasmine’s child. Don’t nobody care?” He surprised himself, talking down to these kids. Well, when in Rome…
The girl spoke again. “Evil child. Jasmine put her out. Shoulda runned her over.”
The whole town is crazy, he thought. The man lost his look of anger, shrugged and walked back to his car. No one paid any attention.
He tried his door, but it wouldn’t open. He tore at it, used his key, but it wouldn’t open. Now the dread that curled around his edges became palpable.
His eyes darted around. From his left he heard a humming sound. He turned to see the “evil child” looking at him with dead eyes. They caught his and he couldn’t tear them away. She rose to stand facing him and from within the center of those eyes a glow began and it grew slowly and in those eyes he could see fire.
Fear welled. His vocal cords didn’t want to operate. He struggled to speak. “What…what do you want?”
The girl raised her arms and the man rose two inches above the ground. As he did, the scene, the town, the very air disappeared. The world shrank into two focal points, a terrified man and a little girl with red, glowing eyes.
Her lips parted and from them came a deep, grating bass voice, earthquake deep. It spoke conversationally. “I have waited here for you. I have guided you to this place of transition. I will ask you one question. If you answer correctly you will stay here and live as you have. If not, you are mine, forever!”
“I don’t believe, I don’t. How can this be happening?”
“I am a hallucination? A figment?” Laughter roared around and through the man.
His bowels loosened. He began to believe.
The smoldering red eyes grew larger and the man’s fright became a horrible choking feeling in his throat. The child spoke again in its conversational bass voice.
“The question is...”
The little child stood with the patience of forever while the man remained frozen between somewhere and nowhere.
The Devil asked his question.