“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 unscrews it for a pill.
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 bloodstains, nothing in the area.
No one had believed her when she said the disappearances were linked. They didn’t dare, because if she was right the truth would be too terrible to comprehend. 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. 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. He'd watch her crossing and uncrossing names on lists, scribbling away at maps, then finally writing down a few jotted words on a note and placing it by her desk - then scrunching it up and tossing it away.
The others laughed uneasily over her desk, such a display of passion because if she was right, if her theory was true – this situation – well, it crossed five state lines. And they were a local police force.
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.
She'd call it the mafia one day, a Russian conspiracy the next.
Once he saw her reading an X-Files forum.
Personally, Jack thought all the victims were dead, as did most 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, she crawled his way into her mind and refused to go away; an image of Rachel tied, bruised, blindfolded or worse, crumpled in the back of some trunk or sprawled over stained leather seats…
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 he 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 empty cars could be traced back to their owners. The timeline was ballyhoo; he needed some other way to track them down. And if Rachel had been right, damn it, 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'd 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. 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. A bit of dust. A radio switched on. No blood, no bodies, no sign of struggle.
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, 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 had been made once a month, the stores were always near roads abandoned cars were found, and even better – he knew where it would be next.
Follow the paint.
He called the owner again and asked him to send 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, he shuts the door, crouches, and begins making his way forward. Somewhere close, a 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, and pulled off to the side the moment it had stopped. Now he has about fifty more yards to go. It’s fully dark now; the moon reflects off the metal and turns the world monochrome. The monkey’s eyes seem to follow him as he moves.
He stops. The lights in the driver’s compartment have gone off. The front doors open, and a slim 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 as she slaps the brush against the side of truck - skeletal. Spider-like. His heart aches at the sight, (they’re starving her!) but it's blown away by a much stronger feeling: 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 lights in the truck turn back on. Others inside – of course! Was this is a set-up? He raised his weapon. Rachel's halfway towards him, waving her arms frantically – then she’s in his arms, clutching him, his hands are ice and pawing at his face 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 of her thin, thin face. Her mouth works but no words come out. Her tongue lolls out and on it he sees cuts inside - blood and something darker - and he flinches.
“Rachel! What’s going on? What the hell happened to you?”
She’s still trying to speak, her lips are moving, but no sound comes out. 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 attached to the back 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. Then she starts walking away. Her gait is uneven, sharp and jerky. After a moment’s hesitation he follows her.
The smell of paint is stronger now, its fish-tar reek swimming right up his nose. He glances at the side of the truck, taking a few steps to see what she painted on the side… it’s too dark to get a good look, but it looks kind of blobbish. Like a Rorschach.
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… but there is only the walls, clean and metallic, and the smell of the paint.
“Rachel,” he calls out. His voice echoes back.
He flinches. He’s used to her voice tinny, wheedling out of a two-inch speaker and filtered through memory. Now here it is, so close and so real, bouncing off the walls –
Follow the paint.
He sniffs and starts walking.
The air’s gone bad. 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 hits the wall; the wall is soft and moist.
I need you.
Body in 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, his chest, his neck. He groans and she plants herself on top of him. Then there is a warm stroke and 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, the scent of fresh air and an old sight; a clear night with stars bright as silver coins; moving lights in the distance.
She is awake.
She casts her line; she yanks it back. She counts her change. She turns off the engine.
Now she turns, sniffs the air.
Men 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 - it's 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.