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Stretch

There is a jumbie on the Stretch. Someone will bring it up whenever there is an accident, or a flat tyre or a cracked windscreen. Prayers would be said before getting onto the roadway at night. Drivers strung rosaries from their rear-view mirrors alongside red and black jumbie beads and blue maljo bags. No one has ever talked about getting rid of it though, for that would mean admitting it exists. Jenaiah had forgotten all about it herself until her parents came to pick her up from the university with news of Jervon’s accident.

In her worst dreams, Jenaiah is in the car with her brother while it crashes. They are listening to music or talking and then the tyre blows out with the force of a gunshot, the car jolts, and spins wildly across the asphalt. Jenaiah catches glimpses of oncoming traffic, the steel light-poles lining the roadway, the distant treeline and her brother’s clenched jaw and calm face. She reaches for his arm just as their world tumbles over and closes in around them. Unconsciousness is a moment’s mercy before she climbs back to wakefulness, drenched in sweat, breathing hard and alone.

The wake is still going when Jenaiah marches out of the house with a garbage bag she has just hastily packed and gets into Betsy, her ancient Nissan B12. In another life, her parents might have noticed her escape, but there are too many people in their house now, neighbours and family and friends who all feel like strangers. Their daylight hours are spent tiptoeing around each other with their ears full of cotton and their mouths sewn shut. Jenaiah swallows air, waiting for a pop that never comes, then starts the car and drives away.

Jervon talked about the Stretch jumbie after his friend Dean died. Dean and Jervon used to race the runway of the former American base at Wallerfield since they were boys in box-carts. Whenever Dean left their neighbourhood, it was with tyres screeching and a cloud of smoke. Jenaiah still anticipates the smell of burnt rubber when she steps out of the house.

Dean was racing the night he died too. Jervon told her himself. The eleven-kilometre span of roadway between their town and the next is an elongated “L” through the middle of a forest reserve. Most of the two-lane road is flat and straight, lined by bright orange streetlamps except for one section where they went out a few years before and were never repaired. Pockmarked with potholes, from prior roadworks or where the pitch succumbed to the poor drainage, it was a bumpy, dangerous ride. The posted speed limit is easily ignored. Late enough at night there would be barely any traffic if one wanted to have a street race. Dean and Jervon and their friends always wanted to have a street race.

According to Jervon, they had been neck-and-neck for most of the way before they came to a sudden dip in the roadway, their marker. Then Dean swerved sharply, cutting across Jervon’s path, and crashed into the treeline. The car was upside down when they got to him, and Dean was dead. The story they later told the police was that someone had given him a bad drive and he lost control. The story Jervon told Jenaiah was that something had stepped into their path and Dean had no chance to avoid it.

“Naiah, I wouldn’t believe it if somebody else tell me, but I see it with my own eyes. That jumbie thing real,” he had said, eyes wide, gaze focused on hers. “Take your time on that road. Don’t go anywhere that will have you coming back on it alone.”

Jervon and their friends never raced again.

At night, the trees lining the Stretch are a black wall against a deep purple sky, barely restrained by the soft amber shield of the streetlights. There is no moon or clouds, but the stars stretch across the sky like a trail of breadcrumbs, beckoning her forward. Jenaiah makes it to the “L” bend in less than a minute. Darkness veils the roadway beyond; the next set of working streetlamps are well after the dip. In the distance, approaching traffic are winking stars. She does not know how long she will have to patrol this road until she encounters the jumbie, but all she has to lose is fuel.

Another of Jervon’s friends, Stefon, had told Jenaiah the story of the Stretch Jumbie. One of his uncles was part of a taxi drivers’ association who had campaigned to have the streetlights installed so that they could work safely at night. With no lights and the treeline so close then that the branches of trees sometimes clasped each other overhead, journeys at night were a game of chance. There had already been rumours for years by then of a demon that stalked the dark road at night, even when only a handful of residents in either town at opposite ends of the stretch had cars.

The taxi drivers, of course, had all considered talk of the jumbie superstitious nonsense. The real cause, they said, was the neglect of the towns the road serviced by the central government. It just made no sense that a supposedly prosperous nation still had areas that had little changed since the colonial days, especially one that acted as a central hub for most of the eastern half of the island. The day of the strike the drivers had parked their cars on the taxi stand and marched to the regional corporation’s office in the town, placards in hand. Jenaiah had once found a newspaper article listing the taxi drivers’ grievances which included a grainy black-and-white photograph from that day. A group of men of varying ages and ethnicities, dressed in short-sleeved shirts and sharply-pressed slacks, staring away from the camera while they leader spoke to the councillor.

The protest worked. In less than a year there was a row of amber lights along the entire eleven-kilometre stretch. The taxi drivers staged a celebratory drive, lights flashing and horns blaring. Crowds of spectators gathered on either end of the route to watch. The story went that they had driven off to the sounds of cheers before the lights went out.

The next morning, the police found the wreckage of two of the ten cars. One had crashed into the treeline, its backend hovering in mid-air. The other was half-submerged in a drain off the side of the road. Neither was occupied and no one had ever seen the other cars or any of the drivers again. Or so Stefon had said, smirking at her and searching for any sign that he had scared her. Jenaiah had not been impressed and has never found anything to confirm that part of the story anyway. There are still working lights on the stretch, and there have been other accidents, but most of them were minor. If the jumbie is real, it is very selective about when it will appear.

It takes Jenaiah a moment to realise that the approaching headlights are getting no closer. Something dives out of the trees into her path, a flash of horns, and a nebulous iron grey form. Startled, she steps on the brakes and veers around it. Then she glances at the rear-view mirror and that is when something else throws itself under her wheels. She cannot stop in time. The shifter jerks out of her hand, the whole car bouncing wildly as Betsy rolls over flesh and bone.

The back tyres clear the obstacle and Betsy fishtails to a stop. One breath, two, three but Jenaiah’s heart is still racing painfully. Did she just kill someone? She exhales heavily and checks the rear-view again, but the red taillights illuminate nothing. She is forced to turn the car until she faces back the way she has come. All the lights are out now, darkness spilling over to fill the space left in their absence. Betsy’s headlights flash over a figure lying motionless on the asphalt. Jenaiah freezes, the car shudders and cuts off but she does not notice until the headlight warning whines. Has she killed someone?

Her first instinct is to get out of the car and go see what she hit. She would be a fool to follow through on that thought. There is a pool of a burgundy, oil-like liquid spreading around the figure. Jenaiah takes another shaky breath, restarts the car, and lets it roll forward. The sound of the tyres crunching loose pebbles echoes.

The closer she gets to the figure though, the less substantial it is until at last it dissolves into mist. Jenaiah stops again, staring at the spot where it has just lain. She is breathing so hard that her head feels light. She forces herself to calm down, counting her breaths until she can think. It would perhaps be best to keep going as before but indecision chases fear along the pores of her neck and arms.

Jervon had never believed the story of what had happened to the taxi drivers either. The lights going out could have been the faulty electrical grid. They could have become disoriented when the lights went out and crashed into the treeline. It was all just rumours and gossip; the men were probably home safe with their families. It might have been two cars instead of ten. There were so many reasons that made more sense than some mysterious force haunting this one stretch of road.

Dean had believed the story though. Charming and quiet, with an easy smile and a list of terrible jokes he would cycle through every time Jenaiah was around, he confessed one day that he sometimes felt someone in the car with him when they raced at night, daring him to go faster.

Finally, Jenaiah turns the car again to continue her original path. Leaving the house earlier, angry but determined, she just wanted to see if the jumbie was real. If it were not, well a drive would clear her head and help her calm down for the funeral. She would have returned home to try living with the knowledge that there was nothing that anyone could have done to save her brother. He felt no pain then, he feels none now.

Something slams into the back window, shattering it with such force, the glass breaks, and showers her with splinters.

She screams, startled, hunching against the flying shards. Ahead, a tree falls onto the road in an explosion of leaves, twigs and gravel that fills her windscreen, and she swerves off road to avoid it. Her breathing is harsh and shallow. Something is trying to kill her now. She clenches her jaw, grip tight on the steering wheel and shifter, legs too stiff to adjust her feet on the pedals. She can see no further than the twenty feet illuminated by her headlights.

The road in front of her erupts upwards. Betsy goes with it, then drops back down and Jenaiah knocks her head into the steering wheel. The car shoots off into the treeline. Jenaiah just manages to swing Betsy’s flank towards the tree trunks at the last second. The crash shakes her like a ragdoll. But the last thing she hears before losing consciousness is someone humming an old calypso her father used to sing, “ . . . young lady you brave, to be bringing . . . on top meh grave . . . ”

Jenaiah jerks awake with a gasp that turns into a whine when the sudden movement sends a lancing pain through her forehead. Her face is wet, and she catches the sharp scent of blood. Her forehead and lower lip are split, and across her chest is one big bruise. But she is alive, somehow.

It is still pitch black all around. Jenaiah has no idea how long she has been unconscious, but it could have been hours. There is the humming again.

She sits up, wincing against the pain, and someone says, “I remember when I was your age, there wasn’t a lot of cars around. Them who had cars had money and everybody else line up for the bus or hop a drop. I was lucky to get a car second-hand and fix it up. And back in them days, when you the only taxi around, you guaranteed to have customers.” They chuckle softly and add, “Some of the other fellows used to ramajay, refuse to pick up people for whatever reason when the mood take them.”

Jenaiah halts, barely breathing. The figure beside her stretches their legs out and casually resets the shifter to neutral.

“My plan was not to work taxi. I wanted something stable, with a pension after. It just did not work out so.”

Jenaiah exhales heavily and tries to get her tremors under control. The figure beside her continues, “This is a place that accustomed to neglect. From Columbus to the British to the governments after independence. And neglect does breed corruption. Sooner or later an abandoned house will get covered in vine, and what not sheltered from the sun and the rain does eat away. All kind of bird and animal and thing will make their nest inside it and is hell for the neighbours.”

Jenaiah barely moves but for her breathing. The figure opens the door and gets out of the car. She grips the steering wheel until the pain in her fingers is a scream in her head. The figure bends to look back into the car and says, “You should turn back.”

“This thing killed my brother,” Jenaiah says, not daring to look at it.

“Some pest very hard to get rid of once they settle in properly, not going to give up without a fight,” is the reply as the figure shuts the door.

“I won’t either,” says Jenaiah. It took her brother and tried to kill her; she has no choice.

Jenaiah makes herself wait a full minute before trying to restart the car. She gets nothing the first time, a shudder the second and then the third it roars to life. She glances at her rear-view mirror to find the figure standing there, though all she sees of him is his torso. Betsy rolls jerkily back onto the roadway and she continues forward.

The rear left side of the car has taken most of the hit, the passenger doors are bent in until there is a gap where air rushes in as she goes. The front and back windows are now both gone, and she can feel the splinters all over her body with every movement. If she does not wreck again, maybe she can escape.

There are a pair of trees in the middle of the road ahead, as if they have grown through the asphalt. She slows and then slams on the brakes when they take a step forward. These are not tree trunks but giant legs. She shifts into reverse, glances at her rear-view mirror, and gasps when she sees a line of disembodied torsos glowing red in her taillights. The figure ahead keeps approaching, and gradually resolves into a humanlike form, with very long legs.

It looks like a moko jumbie, but Jenaiah does not know them to be evil. As a child she had watched and wished she could become one of the stilt-walkers as they danced through the streets at Carnival. Standing twice as tall as the other masqueraders, they were at once terrifying and fascinating. But her mother had refused, afraid that Jenaiah would fall.

The legs and arms of its outfit are frayed and flutter like feathers with every movement. Its upper body is so high above that she can barely identify it beneath its enormous wide-brimmed hat. But she can feel its gaze burning into her flesh and for a time, they stare at each other. She shifts to first and presses the gas, revving the engine. Betsy is sluggish, protesting, and the creature does not move out of the way. Jenaiah pushes the gas pedal to the floor, releases the clutch and slams on the brakes, just like Dean had taught her once. Moments later, the smell of burning rubber fills the air, the figures behind the car disappearing into the smoke. The creature takes a hesitant step back and Jenaiah releases the brakes. The car shoots forward.

The creature recovers fast and begins to spin its body like a top, its head and face unmoving so that it can stare her down. Betsy’s tail-end dances across the roadway as Jenaiah steps on the brakes again and drifts her broken car around the creature’s legs. It hops out of the way, almost toppling over and she straightens Betsy again and speeds off.

Is this what happened to her brother in broad daylight? She checks the rear-view mirror again, but the creature is not there. Instead there is a line of spectral cars giving chase. That is fine, Jenaiah has never allowed anyone to beat her, not even her brother. She shifts higher, pushing third gear to the limit before switching to fourth.

The roadway drops gradually for the last few kilometres to the next town. As Jenaiah clears the highest point, she hears a familiar rumble. Even before the headlights switch on ahead, Jenaiah recognizes her brother’s car. He speeds towards her in the middle of the road. If he hits her head-on, she will die. She refuses to believe that Jervon will crash into her though, not even under the influence of whatever is holding him here.

She shifts from fourth to fifth and then braces for impact. It never comes. Jervon swings out of her path, turns his car round, and pulls up alongside her. She slows and makes herself glance over, heart thudding painfully in her chest, and finds him grinning.

“Look at you. Finally taking Betsy for a ride,” he yells over the sounds of the modified mufflers. He looks no different than he had the last day she saw him. They share the same button nose and full lips, puffy black hair, and light brown skin. But he has dimples where she does not, and a mole on his chin.

“I came for you!” she calls out.

His smile disappears and he looks back at the other vehicles. They have slowed too, waiting for her next move. He says, “I can’t go with you.”

“I came to get you!” she insists, not looking away from him.

He offers her a small, sad smile and says, “Go home!”

Jenaiah inhales sharply and snaps, “No, you have to come with me! We’re going to bury you tomorrow if you don’t come with me now!”

Jervon stares at her in silence, then shifts his gaze ahead of them and blanks out. Jenaiah catches movement in her periphery and turns as well, and just barely brakes in time. The creature has returned, towering over them twice as high as the trees. The path to freedom lies between its legs but Jenaiah knows deep in her bones that she will not survive the attempt. She leans her head out the window and yells at it, “Give me my brother! Let us go!”

It stares down at her, its eyes as luminous as the moon, its clothing shimmering in a spectral glow. Jenaiah waits. The vehicles giving chase have stopped, all she can hear is her brother’s car at her side.

And then the trees around them shift to life. Jenaiah swallows a horrified gasp. There are dozens of creatures just like the one blocking her path as far as she is willing to count. They lift themselves out of the forest and line the roadway.

The creature replies, “I am hungry. My children too. We must eat. If we cannot hunt the road at night, we shall starve.

A chill crawls Jenaiah’s spine. She looks across at her brother again, but Jervon is still staring up at the creature. She shouts the first thing that comes to mind, “We’re not food!”

The creature is unmoved as the mountains. Jenaiah turns back to her brother and calls, “Jervon!”

He does not look at her, not even a twitch to indicate that he has heard. She swallows a breath and calls again, louder, “Jervon!”

Whatever hold the creature has on him, is clearly too strong. In the old fairy-tales she read as a child, there is always a way to defeat the monster. And then she remembers her garbage bag of supplies.

Jenaiah straightens in her seat, readjusts her grip on the steering wheel and revs the engine. Something has happened to the muffler because Betsy roars. Jenaiah takes a breath and floors it. The creature does not move until she steps on the brakes, grabbing the handbrake as well and lets Betsy drift around its legs as it slams them shut. It stumbles, unsettled by the force. She turns sharply and makes a donut around its legs like a cat. It lifts one foot as if to kick her and she swings Betsy’s tail end at the other. The creature trips and falls.

There are no birds about to scatter at the crash, but the creature’s children spring to action. Jenaiah sees them moving through the trees as a wave closing in fast. Even with her gas pedal to the floor and the car in sixth, they have longer legs. Jenaiah allows herself to ignore that for now. She has neither jumbie beads nor maljo bag, and they may have hindered her anyway. She never took Betsy for the pastor’s blessing, and she does not know any obeahmen. But in the movies, they always use salt to chase or bind evil. She has an old cutlass she soaked in saltwater since that morning, several more canisters of the stuff in her bag and the will to make it suffer as much as it has made her.

She takes a canister, rips open the tab and drives past the fallen creature pouring a long streak of it along its body. It writhes and screeches so loud, it shatters her remaining windows and she drops the canister to cover her ears. Betsy squeals to a stop. Its children also come to an abrupt halt. She grabs the cutlass and bag and hops out of the car.

The driver from before materialises as she steps out.

“What you think you trying to do little girl? You not going to win. Get back in that car and go. No matter what you try here tonight, you can’t save your brother.”

Jervon is still in his car, gaze glassy, unmoving. The sobs well up in her throat but Jenaiah swallows them down and says, “Even if I can’t save him, I can save somebody else.”

She tosses some salt at him and the driver rears back, though not quickly enough. Everywhere the crystals lands wafts away. The creature screams again, and then snarls, “You think you can just come in my house and do what you want?

Jenaiah’s vision blurs with tears. She drags the cutlass along the asphalt and the spirits back away from the sparks. They can sense the salt now and they are afraid. She throws salt at them until they clear a path to the moko jumbie, screaming still.

From behind there is the sound of metal tearing, and she turns to find that one of the creature’s children has stepped through Betsy’s roof, while another rips off the bonnet. She will have to walk to freedom if she wants to escape.

This is my road. You can’t do what you want in here!” it yells and then surges to its feet.

Jenaiah stumbles back, startled. The moko jumbie bends to look down at her and its horrible face fills her vision. Glowing eyes and white lines criss-cross a shadowed face that is also horrifyingly familiar. It grins at her fright with Dean’s face and too many teeth.

A few hours earlier, Jenaiah had sat in her room, staring out the window and wondering why she could not stop thinking about the stories of the jumbie on the stretch. Even as she packed the bag and located the cutlass, she still doubted herself. There is no reason to doubt anymore, nor to be afraid. Rage sets her fury ablaze. She opens another salt canister and sprays the contents into its face like a fancy sailor at Carnival throwing baby powder.

It screams and swings at her. She brings up the cutlass to block the blow and slices through an arm. It screams louder and Jenaiah drops to her knees with her hands over her ears, but she never takes her eyes off the jumbie. How dare it wear a friend’s face? How dare it take her brother?

And then she is surrounded by its children. They form a ring around her and their fallen sire and begin stepping to a beat only they can hear. After a moment, their sire stops writhing in pain, the rhythm calming it. Its children lift their arms and begin to dance, long sleeves sweeping over her, forcing her back. Jenaiah snatches up the salt again and throws it at them. Their movement scatters the crystals wildly. The other spirits scream but the children do not hear.

Jenaiah forces her way through the assault but then her brother is there, gaze no longer unfocused and she stops. It feels like a knife has been plunged into her heart and twisted. Her anger freezes cold. He says, “You can’t beat them. Go home.”

“You have to come with me,” she says.

“You know I can’t,” he replies.

“Then move,” she says, and those are the only words she has left. She drags the cutlass across the road again but there is no intent behind it. He does not react. She hesitates for a beat before throwing salt at him and again nothing happens.

“Salt is not going to do nothing to me,” says Jervon. Irritation prickles at her even as her heart twinges at the familiarity of it.

“Then you can still come with me,” she says. Hope swells in her like a balloon and buoyed by it she adds, “It not too late.” She has to believe that this is true.

Jervon says nothing. The creature rises behind him and, glaring down at her, says, “That’s enough of this foolishness, you hear.

“What is enough?” asks Jenaiah, glaring back. “Why can you do what you want, and no one can say no? Why is the road yours? Did you build it? Or did you find it and decide that it was yours and no one can tell you otherwise?”

It has nothing to say to that. “Well same way you come and meet this road, is the same way something can take it from you. The road was here without you and it will be here after you. You don’t want to give up my brother, fine, but I will make sure this road is not yours either!”

And with that she begins to pour salt on the road. She flings it at them, and the creature’s children retreat behind their spirit shields, then off the road entirely as the salt disperses them. Jenaiah keeps throwing salt. She does not have enough to cover the entire road, but she has enough to make a point and clear a path for her escape. When they are far enough away, she starts running towards the roundabout on the other end of the road. After a moment she hears her brother’s footsteps behind her.

“You can come with me,” she says. She finishes one canister and opens another.

“It’s too late for me. I can only make sure you get out of here safe,” Jervon replies.

Behind him she can see the creature’s children advancing. They are spinning and hopping in place, their glowing gaze unwavering. They do not intend to let her leave. She throws salt at them and says, “They won’t hurt us as long as I have this.”

Jervon offers her a small, sad smile, just as one of the creature’s children hops out of their leafy refuge, wraps a long sleeve tentacle around his neck and yanks him back. Jervon just manages to shove her away from him and the last thing Jenaiah sees is that smile as she falls backward into daylight.

About the Author

Shari Paul is a speculative fiction writer from Trinidad and Tobago. A clerk by day, Shari writes adventures in strange new worlds by night. Shari is published in FIYAH, The Dark, and Podcastle. Shari has a BA in Literatures in English, and is currently writing for a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at UWI.