When I was nineteen I developed a severe case of wanderlust and left home without a destination, carrying little more than a beat up old JanSport backpack, a bag of jasmine rice, a camp stove, a copy of Dharma Bums
by Jack Kerouac, and my sense of adventure. In the five years since I’ve developed into an experienced tramp and travelled through every U.S. state except Alaska and Hawaii, mostly for free via hitchhiking, freight hopping, trainsurfing, and plain old hoofing it. As you might imagine, I’ve had all sorts of adventures; some awe inspiring and life affirming, others miserable and disappointing, and a few downright frightening. I’ve tangled with violent ex-con hobos, macho railyard bulls with something to prove, deranged homeless people, knife wielding junkies, and bored security guards. I’ve been robbed (of the fourteen dollars I was carrying at the time), beaten, tasered, chased by dogs, stalked by mountain lions, and run out of town by angry locals. None of these experiences can hold a candle to the terrifying encounter I had last night. Not even close. I still have no idea what it was. If anyone has any clue as to what this thing was, please leave the info in the comments because I’m completely lost, and I have a feeling that whatever is happening to me is far from over.
I’d been hitching through the deep south for the last few days - Georgia, Alabama, and finally Mississippi - trying, unsuccessfully, to find some temporary work as a farm hand since my cash was almost dry. I eventually got frustrated and decided to head for a place in Texas where I’d had better luck in the past. I hitched a ride to a tiny railroad station in middle-of-nowhere, Mississippi where I knew freight trains usually stopped to change crews, and found a place to hide behind a large rock a couple hundred feet from the station. It was an extremely humid night, and I sat in my filthy clothes, stale with sweat, sipping a warm Miller High Life and listening to the night songs of the frogs and crickets. The moon above was heading towards full, providing plenty of light which I had learned was a blessing and a curse; making it both easier to hop a train, and easier to get caught.
I waited there for a couple of hours. Two passenger trains passed but I let them go; I was extremely exhausted and didn’t feel like trainsurfing (clinging to the outside of a fast moving train, for the uninitiated). Finally I saw what I had been waiting for; a big slow freight train which lumbered to a halt at the station for a crew change. I waited fifteen minutes and when the train started moving again I dashed from my hiding spot to try and jump aboard. Usually the freight cars are locked up tight and you have to jump up and ride the connectors in between cars, a dangerous and uncomfortable endeavor, or lay down on a flat car and hope for the best; but on this particular night I spotted a large red box car with its sliding door slightly ajar, and I made a beeline for it. I tossed my bag in first, then grabbed the handle next to the door and hoisted myself up.
Inside the boxcar was empty and dark, the moon and the occasional trackside lamp shining through the open door providing the only illumination. It was hot and stuffy and the air smelled stale, but it was much better than walking or trying to ride on the outside of the train. I sat down with my back against the front wall of the car with my pack beside me, settled in, and closed my eyes for some much needed rest. Here’s where things started getting weird.
About fifteen minutes into the trip I heard the distinct noise of someone clearing their throat over the clatter of the tracks. It came from inside the freight car, which I was sure had been empty when I boarded the train. My heart skipped a beat, my body tensed up, and I snapped out of my half-sleep searching for the source of the noise, but by now I was way out in the wilderness and the car was so dark I couldn’t see more than few feet infront of me. “Hello? Is someone there?” I said to the darkness. There was silence for about ten seconds before I heard that throat clearing noise again.
“Yes, there is,” replied an unseen voice from the other side of the boxcar. It was strained and high pitched, with a touch of uncertainty, like a person speaking in a second language they haven’t used in a long time.
“Oh, hello. Sorry, I thought I was alone here,” I said.
“Ok. Well, my name is Kyle. What’s yours?”
Silence. No big surprise, I’d met plenty of travellers in my time who were reluctant to give out personal information. “Alright dude, no worries. I don’t really care what your name is, but since we seem to be temporary traveling companions, why don’t you come sit over here with me. I’ve got a couple beers I’m willing to share. They’re warm, but beggars can’t be choosers, right?”
More silence. This guy was starting to piss me off, who turns down free beer? “Fine,” I said into the darkness, “Stay over there then. Just know I’ve got a big ass knife over here, so don’t even think about fucking with me.” I was lying about the blade, it was actually a tiny Swiss Army knife, but he didn’t need to know that. He said nothing in response, but I heard another noise that sounded familiar, though I couldn’t quite place it. It sounded like someone methodically flicking a heavy piece of paper over and over, and it gave me goosebumps up both arms. We sat like that for a long time, me sipping my beer and him flicking that paper, or whatever it was. fhwap, fhwap, fhwap
After what felt like an eternity he finally spoke.
“Asulan,” the voice said, slow and halting, as if speaking took a great effort.
“You may call me Asulan, if you wish.”
“OK,” I replied. “I’ve never heard that one before, what kind of name is it?”
“An old one.”
“Fair enough, Asulan. You gonna come over here and grab a beer now or what?”
At that moment the train passed an intersection with a road, and the inside of the car was momentarily lit up by the flashing red lights of the crossing signs. Asulan was leaning against the wall on the opposite side of the boxcar from me, awash in shadow, and crouching instead of sitting in a stance similar to what the internet likes to call the “Slav Squat”. I could tell right away there was something off about the guy: he was all knees and elbows, his arms and legs thin and much longer than they should have been. He wore an old timey suit with a frilly under shirt and small bow tie; it reminded me of those black and white pictures you see from the 1800’s of stone faced Indians from the “Five Civilized Tribes”. His head hung between his knees, looking down at something in his hand, and a bowler hat sat upon his head obscuring his face. All I could see in the crimson light was a long hooked nose protruding from below the rim. He held something small in his right hand, which he slapped methodically against the fingers of his left. fhwap, fhwap, fhwap
Then the crossing was behind us and the boxcar was bathed in shadow once more. A shiver went up my spine as my brain tried to make sense of what I had just seen, of the freak sitting across from me in the freightcar, just out of sight.
“Did you know that the lighter was invented before matches?” he said suddenly. I could almost hear in his voice the smile that must have been on his face. He knew I’d seen him, he knew I was scared, and it brought him joy.
“What?” I said, blinking. My voice sounded dumbstruck and frightened in my ears and I winced.
“The cigarette lighter came first, according to the technical definition of the word ‘lighter’ and the word ‘match’. Oh sure, people will tell you that the match has been around since the 500’s in China, but those were actually just sticks soaked in flammable liquids that had to be lit by another source. If you’re going by the true definition of a match as ‘a slender piece of wood, cardboard, or other flammable material tipped with a chemical substance that produces fire when rubbed on a rough or chemically prepared surface’ then the match wasn’t invented until 1826 by a man in England named John Walker.”
“The lighter, on the other hand, was invented in 1823 by a German named Johann Wolfgang Dobereiner. He called it ‘Dobereiner’s Torch’, very original, I know. Anyways, according to your people’s calendar, 1823 comes before 1826. Hence, the lighter was invented before the match. Weird, right?”
“Umm, yeah. I guess so.” I said. I couldn’t think of anything else to say. I instinctively reached my hand into my pant pocket and felt the cold, reassuring metal of my Zippo there. I closed my fist around it while he continued on as if I hadn’t said anything at all.
“I still prefer matches, regardless of their date of origin. They’re smaller, cheaper, and more reliable. You can even get waterproof ones these days. Plus, there’s no complicated mechanical parts to break or get stuck. Even if the lighter is newer, the match seems a lot closer to the old ways. Atleast to me. I prefer the old ways, the simpler ways, closer to nature, closer to the earth, closer to the way things used to be. There’s less that can go wrong that way.”
I was seriously freaked out now. Sitting in the dark with this strangely eloquent person, though I use that term lightly. I was beginning to wonder if Asulan was even human at all. I’d only seen him for a moment in the flash of that red light, maybe my mind was playing tricks on me. I was tired and a little buzzed from the beer after all. Could be my mind playing tricks, the way shadows sometimes look like looming figures when you’re walking home alone at night. The suspense was killing me, and I figured if I really was riding with some kind of monster I’d rather know about it. I pulled the Zippo from my pocket and spun the flint wheel with my thumb, to shed some light on this situation once and for all. clink, clink, clink
Nothing happened. It wouldn’t light. Not even the spark you usually get when the lighter is out of fuel, which it wasn’t; I’d just refilled it two days ago in Tuscaloosa.
“See what I mean? Can’t trust em’,” it said from the darkness. The smile was back in its voice now. The fhwap, fhwap,
paper flicking noise stopped now as well, replaced by a sound I did know - the snap, snap, whoosh
of a match being lit. He’d been flicking a book of paper matches this whole time.
A halo of dim orange light formed around him, and I could see him much clearer now. He looked up at me. The skin of his face was the dull gray of rotting flesh, all wrinkly like an old raisin, and his eyes were tiny black points sunken into his skull. His ears were thin, long, and pointed and now I could see that he actually was smiling. His teeth were a row of long thin spikes like needles, and there were several rows of them stacked upon one another like a shark’s.
“Are you a hunter, Kyle?” he asked.
“No,” I replied. “I’m a vegetarian.” The thing on the other side of the freightcar laughed; a cruel, wheezing sound like a hyena with pneumonia.
“Oh, but you are,” he said. “All of you are hunters in your own way. Hunters of pleasure. Hunters of comfort. Hunters of leisure. Destroyers of the forests. Polluters of lakes. Defilers of land. I’ve watched your kind for a thousand years. You’re all hunters. But I like you Kyle, so I’m going to give you a chance.”
The match had burned down to the long spindly fingers of its left hand, and began to dim and flicker. In the dying light I saw the thing that called itself Asulan toss the matchbook towards me with its right hand. The match went out while the matchbook was mid air and I lost track of it, but I heard it land in front of me somewhere near my left foot. I bent over to look for it, but as I did I heard a kahwooooo
from outside the boxcar and felt the air pressure change inside. We had just entered a tunnel and all light disappeared from the world. The boxcar was filled with complete and utter darkness. Somewhere in the blackness across from me I heard a rustle of movement.
On the verge of panic, I frantically searched the wooden floor in front of me with both hands, without success. I could hear something moving closer now with a strange scraping noise. Finally my left hand fell upon the matchbook in the dark, and with trembling fingers I broke off a match and lit it against the coarse striking surface on the cover. As I did the noise coming from the other side of the car stopped, as if he had frozen in place.
The first thing I saw in the new light of the match was the wall of the tunnel outside the open door of the boxcar, flying past mere inches away. There would be no jumping from this train, even if I wanted to, at least not until we were out of the tunnel. I was trapped in here with this thing. I looked across the box car to where it had been sitting, but there was nothing there. Asulan has disappeared. I waved the match from side to side in front of my face searching for him, but I must have swung my arm too hard because the match went out and I was back in inky blackness, that sliding scraping noise moving towards me once again.
I lit another match, my whole body shivering with fear now. It took three strikes to get it to light. The noise stopped again. I stood perfectly still, waiting, listening, as the match burned down. There was nothing but the clanking of the train on the tracks.
As the flame reached my fingertips I heard a hiss coming from the floor of the box car. I looked down, and there it was, laying on the floor on its belly. It must have been slithering across the ground like a snake in the darkness. It looked up at me with those sharp beady eyes and row upon row of needle teeth and hissed, rearing up like a cobra. The match singed the tips of my fingers and went out, and I screamed in the darkness.
I kept on screaming in the dark as I tore another match from the book and lit it. Now the creature was directly in front of me, an inch from my face. Its breath smelled of roadkill that has been lying in the sun for a week. Its clawed hands reached for my throat, but before they got there the world went black. I fell into unconsciousness. I don’t know if it’s possible to faint from pure terror, but I’m pretty sure that's what happened in that moment. I awoke flat on my back on the floor of the box car. It was light out now. There was no sign of Asulan. I almost could have convinced myself that it had all been a dream if it wasn’t for the book of matches still clutched in my hand. I turned it over. The cover read ‘Choctaw Nation Casino & Resort - Durant’ above a stylized image of a winking indian brave with a stack of money in one hand and a long clay pipe in the other. My mind was foggy and my vision blurred, but I didn’t have time to think too much on it. I felt the train starting to break, which meant it was time for me to make my exit before it fully stopped and the railyard bulls came after me.
I moved for the door, but as I planted my foot to jump I felt an intense pain in my heel which shot all the way up my right leg. Me knee buckled and my leap turned into a tumble out of the door. I landed hard and rolled away, lucky not to have my leg severed by the train. I lay there for a moment dazed and breathing hard. When I finally sat up I noticed the shoe from my right foot was missing, though the left shoe was still there. I lifted my foot to my face and examined it for a moment until I found the source of the pain: a large, black, wicked looking thorn right in the middle of my heel. I grabbed it between two fingers and pulled, and my head was filled with red hot pain, but the thorn didn’t budge even a millimeter. I’d have to dig it out later with the Swiss Army knife, but not here and not now. I looked around and saw that I was sitting in an open field, in broad day light, directly below a large a large sign which read ‘No Trespassing - violators will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law’ and decided it was time to cheese it. I limped towards a small unmarked road next to the tracks, walking on the ball of my right foot to prevent the thorn in my heel from making contact with the pavement.
I followed the road until it met with a larger one that eventually became the Main Street of a small town, though I was so dopey by that point that I couldn’t tell you its name. I think it must have been somewhere in Louisiana, but I’m not exactly sure. I staggered through the streets, shambling like a zombie to avoid placing weight on my foot. All around me people stopped and stared, shaking their heads disapprovingly. I walked by exactly four women pushing strollers, and every one of the babies began to wail as I passed by. I met the eyes of one old woman who gave me a nasty look, but when I glared back she turned white as a sheet of paper, grabbed the sides of her head with her hands, and sprinted away from me back the way she had come.
Eventually I saw a motel on the other side of the street, and decided that after the night’s events I needed a little R&R to clean up and get my head back on straight. It would probably cost all the rest of my money, but at this point I didn’t care anymore.
As I stepped out into the street an older model BMW came screeching to a halt next to me and laid on its horn. I looked up to see a red faced old man sneering at me. “Get the hell out of the road, junkie,” he screamed out the window, horn still blasting. I gave him the finger and continued on my way thinking fuck off old man. I hope you crash that piece of shit car.
As soon as I stepped onto the sidewalk on the other side of the street, I heard the car peeling out. I turned around just in time in time to see the BMW swerve and then crash full speed directly into a concrete wall about 100 feet down the road. The front of the car crumpled like an accordion, and bystanders ran towards the car to see if the driver was ok. Holy shit I thought, did that really just happen. Oh well, serves him right the old prick.
I pushed through the door of the “A1 Motel” and entered a rundown lobby that looked like it had fallen out of a time warp from the 1970’s. Thin orange carpet covered the floor, and garish fake chandeliers hung from the ceiling. Behind the front desk sat a fat black man in a tracksuit staring at a tiny black and white TV. An old western was playing on the screen, John Wayne was firing his six shooter at a group of charging braves in full war paint. The man peeled his eyes from the screen, took one look at me, and started shaking his head.
“No, no way. No homeless,” he said.
“I’m not homeless,” I said. “Just a tourist. I have money and I’d like a room.”
“Bull shit. You ain’t no tourist. Look at you. You a no good bum, and we don’t let no bums in the A1. This is a quality establishment here. Besides, no vacancy.”
I looked up at the neon sign above him which clearly read ‘Vacancy’. He followed my eyes and let out a grunt, then leaned over and flipped a switch under the desk. A bright red ‘NO’ sign flickered to life in front of the ‘Vacancy’ sign.
“Come on man, I’ve had a really weird night. I’ve got a thorn the size of Texas in my heel, and I need a shower and a bed. I’ve got the money right here.” I began to reach into my pocket to show him, but he gave me a dismissive wave.
“I don’t care,” he said. “I don’t care if you have a million fucking dollars. You dressed in rags, you stink, and you look like you ain’t slept in a week, You a bum. Now get out bum, before I call the cops.”
I felt the rage rise, but there was nothing I could do. I turned to leave and muttered, “Whatever man, fuck you. Eat shit and die.”
But as I reached the door I heard a strange gushing noise from behind me and turned back around. The front desk clerk was facing away from me now, crouching over his desk, with his pants around his ankles, and as I watched he let loose a massive pile of excrement right on top of the desk. I gagged reflexively, but couldn’t turn away. The clerk turned back around, and his eyes were huge and frightened, staring at me and pleading silently for help. Then slowly, methodically, he reached down and scooped up a pile of feces with both hands, brought it to his lips, took a bite, and began to chew.
Then he took another scoop, and another and another, faster now, greedily scarfing down his own hot pile of shit. I stood watching, frozen in horror.
When there was nothing left to eat he looked up at me one last time, his face smeared with filth, his eyes like high beam headlights. Then he grabbed at his chest and keeled over the desk, slamming his face down hard on the wooden surface, and lay there. He wasn’t breathing.
What the fuck is going on here? I thought, as I turned again and ran through the door and up the street as fast as my gimpy leg would carry me. I didn’t stop running until I was a few miles outside of town. Then I stopped and tried pulling the thorn out of my heel with the tweezers in my Swiss Army knife. It was useless, the thing wouldn’t move at all, and now a bright red ring of infection surrounded the thorn. Eventually I gave up and turned my attention to hitching as far from this place as possible.
An old nun picked me up and brought me to the next town, pinching her nose the entire ride. I guess I must have smelled something fierce, though I couldn’t smell myself at all. I tried not to speak to her the entire ride, lest something bad happen. I did eventually ask her to drop me at the public library, which she did. I headed straight for the computers and started typing the words you’re reading right now.
Which brings us to the present. I have no idea what that thing that called itself ‘Asulan’ was, what it did to me, or how to get this thorn out of my foot. Like I said before, if you have any ideas PLEASE leave them in the comments. I really don’t know what else to do.
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