“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.
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. The waft of dirty food containers is making him want to puke; he pops the pill. He’d driven his own car, of course - a patrol car was asking for trouble - but he’d brought along his transponder just in case. Maybe he could call it in. Like Rachel had.
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 bloodstains, no sign of any struggle.
Last week, there had been three. A missing couple, a family of four… and Rachel.
Jack, there’s only one of them out there. Maybe it’s more than one person, but it’s a single vehicle we’re looking for here.
Back in the department they’d laughed behind her back 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, jotting down notes and placing them on her desk - then scrunching them up and tossing them away. He had watched her, as he always had.
The others were uneasy because if she was right, if her theory was true – well, it crossed five state lines, and they were only a local police force. And if she was wrong, she would just be another crackpot obsessive in the pressure-cooker-conundrum that were the interstate disappearances.
Look, I know this sounds crazy. But I’m staring at it now.
She talked about a network of trucks and trailers, working together and disappearing the victims together – some kind of human trafficking ring, she’d say. One that chose its victims randomly, but with some kind of purpose, ruthlessly efficient but with some flair for showmanship, an enigma within an enigma; the how and the why and the who all in one.
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 her way into his 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…
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 my map for you but…. I rushed things. It’s too late now. Follow the paint... 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, no 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. 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, 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 her, he could be too.
First he’d mapped the sites of the abandoned cars, then traced each road to the nearest town and any likely place that sold paint. What else could she have meant? 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 left on... and nothing else.
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 twelve cans of paint – the very best, this weird, new organic stuff, plant based or something – anyway, he paid in a mix of cash and coins, which wouldn’t be odd, but he just slapped his 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, all-organic. Only a few places carried it. He tracked twelve-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 where the abandoned cars had been 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 semi. 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 his car. Gently, he shuts the door, crouches, and begins making his way forward. Somewhere close, a cicada trills feverishly. Sweat courses down his shirt. Was he downwind? No. There was 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, pulled off to the side of the road the moment the truck had stopped. Fifty more yards to go. It’s fully dark now; the moon reflects off the metal and paints 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 they’re starving her at the sight 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, pawing at his face, he pushes her away and aims at the truck…
There’s no movement inside. The light stays on. He watches for a tense thirty seconds, Rachel sobbing and jerking 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 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, takes a few steps to see what she painted on the side… it’s too dark to see for sure, but it’s somewhat blobbish. Like a Rorschach. He sees…
Something metal echoes to his left, startling him out of the pattern. Rachel is gone; he hurries to the back of the truck. It’s wide open.
Unclipping his flashlight, he steps in. The light exposes - nothing. The inside is empty. He’d been expecting bodies maybe, or weapons, or food… but there is only the floor and the walls, clean and metallic, and the smell of something rank. He squints.
“Rachel,” he calls out. His voice echoes and returns.
He flinches. He’s used to her voice tinny and wheedling out of a half-inch speaker, or muted and filtered through memory. Now here it is, so close, so real, bouncing off the walls –
He starts walking. His footsteps echo against the metal floor, and then somehow they grow more muffled. As if he were outside.
The air’s gone bad. He gags at the smell of rot and brine, puts his hand on the wall – the wall is wet – it gives a little – he jerks away and trips. He hits his head, hard, and the flashlight shatters. Darkness.
Follow the paint.
He sniff, stomach roiling, and gets up on his knees. Far away something groans, an engine or a roar or thunder, sending great roiling shakes through the floor – now a screech, a keening of metal, and a dry rattle – he turns and he sees it, the back of the truck closing, a silver circle of light getting smaller and smaller until it’s a button, a pinhole, a –
He is running in the dark.
He is running as fast as he can.
It sounds just like Rachel.
A cramp arcs up his side and he gasps, falls, catches himself at the last moment and hits the wall. The wall is soft and moist.
I need you.
Body aching, he wipes at the slime over his arms and legs and hands. He can no longer feel his feet, his lungs, but still he moves forward –
He has fallen and he can’t get up.
A touch on his cheek.
She is touching his leg, his chest, his neck. He groans and she hisses, plants herself on top of him. There is a warm stroke and he goes mad at the feeling, the fiery numbness of her grip, the itch in his very core – he loses himself. She is taking him away.
He understands now; he sees what she has lived.
Awakening; 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, and in the distance, lights. Closer she scuttles and sees them; great metal beetles upon rivers of black stone, fierce with the glow of twin moons, flying across the night.
She stops one and opens it, looks inside.
They are strangely furred and odd of speech, smooth and hairy, large and small, but they are men. And the way they watch her… the way they look…
She eats; she roams. She casts her line; she yanks it back. She counts her change, follows the road, lifts the pail and drinks the liquid, the memory of salt and savour; too soon all the pails are empty. She sleeps.
And she dreams.
By the stones in the sand, by the wholeness of the moon, they visit her, the cold wriggling things in their hands, gleaming scales and shaking fins and gaping mouths made silent by one smack against the rock; the offering placed upon the stone; the men on their knees, their hands outstretched, and last of all, her gift…
She sniffs the air. Men are coming.
Chittering, she 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 chief. “Your radio led us here. Goddamn lucky, eh?”
Fellow uniforms mill about, snapping pictures. He blinks and looks around. The place is a mess; pails and bits of clothing strewn about, smears on the walls and hunched over shapes on the ground, absurdly thin. Bodies… as if laid out to dry. Nothing more than tight-skinned bones.
He turns and sees Rachel beside him. He tries to sit up and fails. “She’s alive,” he whispers.
“You say something?”
“Chief…” says Jack, struggling to get up. “…you need to destroy it. All of this. Please.”
“The truck?” The chief chuckles. “This thing’s evidence, son. Forensics will take care of it.”
Forensics finds nothing. No fingerprints, no driver. Only the bodies, which are identified and sent out to next of kin.
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, and then along the smoothness of his own. Other days, he simply watches her.
One day, they are gone.