“Follow the paint,” she’d said, and then the line had clicked off. It’d been three weeks since he’d seen her. He’d replayed the voicemail a thousand times since then.
Jack, I think I’ve figured it out.
It wove its way into his dreams, landscapes full of sun and dust and Rachel’s voice. Sometimes there was an engine, loud and terrible, drowning out everything else. Other times he could hear her words, soft, like air from a tire.
I can smell the paint from here.
Jack jerks awake. The car swerves. He yanks the wheel left, then right – tires squeal for purchase – and the vehicle wrangles back in place. Safe. Heart pounding, he settles back into his seat.
In front of him the road stretches on forever, gray against the red-brown sands. The sun pounds down like electroshock; the sky is so blue it hurts.
He shakes his head to clear the ringing, then takes out a small bottle and shakes out a pill. In a few moments, the nausea will be gone, but the fog in his brain will remain; it’s been that way for weeks.
I was wrong, Jack. I was so wrong.
It was the same scene every time. Cars found by the side of the road, engine off. No passengers, no signs of struggle, no graves, no signs of trouble, nothing in the surrounding areas.
No one had believed her when she said the disappearances were linked. They didn’t dare; if she was right, it would be a truth terrible to comprehend. And if she was wrong she would just be another crackpot obsessive in the ongoing pressure-cooker-conundrum that were the interstate disappearances.
Last week, there had been three disappearances. A missing couple, a family of four… and Rachel.
Look, Jack, there’s only one of them. Maybe more than one person, but it’s a single vehicle we’re looking at here.
Back in the department they’d laughed at her sticky notes and crossed out notebooks; of course they had. Even if she was right, they were a local police force and this – this situation – well, it crossed five state lines. She talked about a network of trucks and trailers, working together and disappearing the victims together – most likely a human trafficking ring, she’d say.
Personally, Jack thought they were dead, as did most people at the station, but Rachel had hope. She had to; a few months ago her family had come up to visit her. They’d never showed up.
And now she was gone like the rest of them. He hated himself for that. Each day that passed, he couldn’t get her out of his mind; tied, bruised, blindfolded or worse, crumpled in the back of some trunk or sprawled over a grimy seat…
It’s just one vehicle, Jack, and I’m pretty sure it’s a truck. The paint; that’s how we’ve missed it so far. They keep on changing it up – fresh coats, that’s what it was. I wish I’d left a copy of this for you but I…. I rushed things. And I think it’s too late now. But look, this one’s the real deal – follow the paint. Trace the cans... Okay. This is it. The truck’s stopped. I’m going to check it out... If you don’t hear back, that means I was right.
What she was saying was crazy – not true, now way. One truck traveling the Midwest kidnapping singles or couples or families, being painted and re-painted each time, over and over again? That was the stuff of urban legend. More than that; it was impossible. It was like tracking an animal whose tracks changed each night. He may as well be looking for the – what did they call it? – the heffalump.
He starts laughing, then snorting, harder and harder until he realizes he’s crying – he wipes at his eyes and then sees it.
There, in the distance.
A speck of white.
The initial reports were useless. Sometimes it took days before people were reported missing, weeks before their abandoned cars could be traced back to them. The timeline was ballyhoo; he needed some other way to track them. And if Rachel had been right, damn, then he could be too.
First, he’d mapped the sites of the abandoned cars, then traced each road to the nearest town and noted every store selling paint. Then he called them, one by one.
No I don’t have a warrant sir, but I’m working on a case – the interstate murders – yes – I would really appreciate your help…
People wanted to help. They were scared; he could tell. Maybe it was a neighbor or a customer, a friend of a friend of a friend – everyone had heard someone who had just gone poof.
He was close to the end of his list when the man on the other end of the line said, actually…
Okay, a few weeks ago – this was near closing time – a man comes in. Big guy. Bought ten cans of paint – the very best, this weird, organic stuff, plant based or something – anyway, he paid in a mix of cash and coins, which wouldn’t be weird, but he just slapped the handful onto on the table and walked away. I called him to come back but he didn’t, so I counted it up and what do you know; perfect change. Quarters, dimes and bills, even pennies in the mix, and all of it added up.
He’d thanked the owner, written down the price and the brand, then called a few more stores on the list.
As it turned out, the stuff was special – non-toxic and vegetable-based. Only a few places carried it. He tracked ten-can orders of the stuff and next thing he knew he had made a loop. Each purchase made once a month, the stores always by the road where abandoned cars were found, and even better – he knew where it would be next.
Follow the paint.
He called back the owner and asked him to send over any security camera footage. Double jackpot; an ATM had seen it all. Male, white, six-feet, dark hair, and behind him not a van, not a pick-up, not a trailer, but a truck.
A bona-fide monster.
YOU LOVE FRESH AND SO DO WE are the words on the back of the truck. Above them grins a cartoon monkey, banana in hand, tomb-stone teeth ready to take a bite, everything painted red-yellow-orange by the glow of the setting sun.
Jack steps out of the car. Gently, quietly, he shuts the door, crouches, and begins making his way forward. Somewhere close, a lone cicada trills feverishly. Sweat courses down his shirt. Is he downwind? No. There is no wind. What a crazy thought; this wasn’t a hunt, this was a rescue.
His gun is in his hand.
He’d been careful to tail the big-rig from a distance; the moment it stopped so had he. Now he has about fifty more yards to go. The monkey’s eyes seem to follow him. It’s fully dark now; the moon reflects off the metal and turns the world monochrome.
He stops. The light the driver’s compartment has gone off. The front doors open and a figure steps out, turns to face him…
His mouth goes dry. He resists the urge the call out; she hasn’t seen him yet. In one hand, she is carrying a bucket, and in the other, a brush. As he watches she starts to paint.
Her motions are sharp, jittery almost, and she looks thinner - skeletal. His heart aches at the thought, (they’re starving her!) but it is nothing to the rush in his head: she is alive. Rachel is alive.
She turns towards him and for a second their eyes might meet; hers gleam. She drops the bucket and starts running towards him.
He stands up fully, lowers his weapon…
The light in the truck turns back on. There were others inside; of course. He raised his weapon. Rachel was halfway to him, waving her arms frantically – then she’s in his arms, clutching him, his hands are ice and he pushes her away and aims at the truck…
There’s no movement inside. The light stays on. He watched for a tense thirty seconds, Rachel sobbing on the ground beside him, but no one comes out.
Something smells like dead fish.
He turns to Rachel. Up close she looks terrible; her skin is pale, one cheek is bruised, her eyes bulge out from the thinness in her face. Her mouth works but no words come out. Her tongue lolls out and on it he sees cuts; blood; he flinches.
“Rachel… Rachel! What’s going on? What the hell happened to you?”
She’s still trying to speak, her lips are moving, but no sound at all comesout. With a start he sees that her eyes are unfocused, staring not at him but past him. He brushes (oh god what have they done oh god god god) a lock of hair aside and stares as it comes away in his hand.
Jack freezes. There’s something by her neck… a kind of string, barely noticeable, translucent and thinner than a pencil. He brushes it and she jerks up. He starts to apologize but she pushes him away. Getting up, he sees that she’s walking away. Her gait is uneven, sharp and jerky. After a moment’s hesitation he follows her.
The smell of paint is stronger now, that fish-tar reek right under his nose. He glances at the side of the truck, takes a few steps to see what she’s painted… it’s too dark.
Metal echoes to his left... she’s inside. He hurries to the back of the truck; it’s open.
Unclipping his flashlight, Jack steps in. The light exposes – nothing.
The inside is empty; he wasn’t expecting that. Bodies maybe, weapons or food maybe… but there is only the smell of paint and the walls, clean, empty overlapping metal sheets.
“Rachel,” he calls out. His voice echoes back.
He flinches. He’s used to her voice tinny, memorized. Now here it is, so close, bouncing off the walls –
Follow the paint.
He sniffs and starts walking.
The air’s gone worse; he gags at the smell, puts his hand on the wall – the wall is wet – it gives a little – he jerks away and falls. The flashlight shatters.
He gets up to his knees. Far away, something groans, an engine or maybe thunder, great roiling shakes coming from far away – now a screech, a keening of metal, and a rattle – he turns and he sees it, the back of the truck closing, a silver circle of light getting smaller and smaller until it was button, then a pinhole, then –
He is running in the dark.
He is running as fast as he can.
She sounds just like Rachel.
He is blind in this darkness, but he knows – he knows –
A cramp arcs up his side and he gasps, trips, catches himself at the last moment and his the wall; and it is soft and moist.
I need you.
His body is agony, he wipes away at the slime as he runs. He can no longer feel his legs, his lungs, but still he moves forward –
He has fallen and he can’t get up.
A soft touch on his cheek.
She is touching his leg, then his chest, then his neck. He groans and she plants herself on top of him and there is a warm stroke; he goes mad at the feeling, the sudden fiery numbness, itching away at his very core – he loses himself. She pants. She hisses. She is taking him away.
He understands now; he sees what she has lived. The smell of the earth and the feel of the soil, then the scent of fresh air and an old sight; a clear night with the stars are bright as coins; moving lights in the distance. She is awake. She feasts. She adapts. She casts her line – she counts her change.
She sniffs the air.
Many are coming.
She chitters, squirms first out, then in.
“ – GET OFF GET OFF GET OFF –”
“GET OFF GET –”
A ringing slap. He gasps for air, opens his eyes and is blinded. Bright sunlight pours from jagged holes in the walls.
“You’re goddamn lucky, son.” He recognizes the voice; the police chief. He cranes to look around.
Fellow uniforms mill about, snapping pictures. There are several lumps on the ground, curled up and absurdly thin. Bodies… looking dried out. Empty.
He turns and sees Rachel. He tries to get up. He fails. “She’s alive,” he whispers.
“Chief…” says Jack, struggling to get up again. “…you need to destroy it. Scrap all of this. Please.”
“The truck?” The chief chuckles. “This thing’s evidence, son. Forensics will take care of it.”
Forensics finds nothing. No woman, no driver. No bodies.
The disappearances stop. The news moves on. The truck is scheduled to be junked. The chief is promoted. Jack quits.
In the hospital, Rachel recovers. By her side, he sits and waits, as patient as she was. Some days he runs a finger along the scar at the back of her neck. Other days, he simply watches her.
One day, they are gone.