Hope Beyond the Horizon

I walk down the center of the Appalachian Highway, studying my elongated shadow, my lone traveling companion, as it stretches out before me on the pavement, trying to see my former self in the wavering, dark outline—the one buried somewhere beneath the layers of dirt, ragged clothing, and gnarly, overgrown beard.

The eerily quiet roadway is littered with empty cars, parked haphazard, doors left open, as if the drivers suddenly decided to get out and continue their journey on foot. But the truth is that no one abandoned these cars voluntarily.

Haley’s car is not among them. Her little yellow VW is still parked in the driveway beside our home—a modest brick ranch we inherited from her grandparents and painstakingly remodeled. I returned to find the house in ruins, my wife gone. I shouted her name, stumbling over a layer of debris that wasn’t quite dense enough to obscure the ominous dark stains on the carpet below. Somehow, I convinced myself that she could have gotten away, that she was out there somewhere, alive. But the trouble with lying to yourself is there’s always that part, deep down inside, that knows you’re full of shit.

I stop at an older-model Toyota and circle around it. I’ve probably searched hundreds of cars—a time-consuming and often futile task. Imagine if everyone quit their jobs and went into the thievery business. That’s kind of what it’s like. The early bird gets the worm, and the first scavenger gets the flashlight and the bag of Cheetos stashed in the glove compartment. But, occasionally I’d get lucky, and it was worth searching a hundred cars to find that one with a hidden gem.

I open the driver’s side door of the Toyota, and I’d like to say that what I find inside is shocking, but it’s not. Blood is spattered across the dashboard and more is smeared on the driver’s seat in an odd pattern, a gruesome Rorschach test in which I can only see the face of death. I drop my duffle bag at my feet and lean inside the car. My usual routine is to start by pulling down the visors and probing beneath the seats, but not today. Today I haven’t searched a single car. If this one is the one in a hundred that contains a prize, I’ll never know.

I reach for the key in the ignition, struck by the irony of the keychain dangling below it. It depicts a man wielding a crossbow, and I recognize him as a character from that popular zombie TV show. Above his head are the words, “Bring on the apocalypse.” I remember how I laughed at the countless enthusiasts of the show who spent their hard-earned money on survival kits, preparing for the unlikely scenario of an apocalyptic world overrun by the undead. I guess the jokes on me, because the apocalypse is upon us, only what brought it on turned out to be far more frightening than shuffling, moaning cadavers.

I give the key a turn, and the old car starts right up on the first try. It’s been a while since I’ve heard the purr of an engine, and I didn’t realize until now how much I missed this sound that had once been such a part of everyday life. I reach down and pull a large, flat rock from my bag and place it on the accelerator. Then I stick my foot in and press down on the brake pedal. My plan is to simultaneously shift the car into drive, take my foot off the brake, and jump out of the way, like something you’d see in an action movie.

The reality turns out to be more like a scene from a comedy, with me landing ungracefully on my ass as the car jerks forward, nearly taking my leg with it. From my vantage point on the ground, I watch it travel in a fairly straight line, speeding right toward a tractor-trailer. I stand up, my eyes fixed on the retreating vehicle as I wait for the impact with a sick sort of gleeful anticipation, like an arsonist watching a burning match arc toward the trail of gasoline.

The car slams into the semi, the loud crash of metal on metal echoing throughout the otherwise silent landscape. I gaze at the delicate orange-yellow flames flickering near the crumpled hood and the trail of smoke spiraling into the sky with a sense of disappointment. I’d hoped for a fireball, or possibly an explosion. I hadn’t done it for entertainment, but it still would have been nice to see something spectacular.

I do a 180, surveying my surroundings. As I study the dark silhouettes of cars that dot the highway until it disappears into the horizon, I realize that spectacular had been right behind me the whole time. Strips of orange, pink, and violet stretch across the sky, blending where they meet to form shades Crayola could never come close to duplicating.

Some sensory organ, maybe my ears, or my skin, or the hair on my arms, detects a subtle disturbance in the air. Becoming attuned to the slight change in the atmosphere that always precedes the appearance of the ships is a vital survival skill, allowing one a moment or two to run and hide.

But I do neither.

I stand in the middle of the road, waiting. I close my eyes and my wife’s lovely face materializes. I see her tucking her long blonde hair behind her ears. I see my hand on her belly, following the curve of her growing baby bump.

I open my eyes, stare into that amazing sunset, and whisper, “Haley, I’ll be with you soon,” hoping the faint breeze carries my message from this fucked-up world to the better one where she waits for me.

10 thoughts on “Hope Beyond the Horizon

  1. Julie Griffith says:

    I realized after submitting this that the opening sentence was too long and awkward. Here’s the new (hopefully improved) version:

    An elongated shadow, my lone traveling companion, stretches out before me on the pavement as I walk down the center of Tri-County Highway. I study the wavering, dark outline, trying to see my former self within it—the one buried somewhere beneath the layers of dirt, ragged clothing, and gnarly, overgrown beard.

      • Julie Griffith says:

        I wasn’t surprised that you considered retreating after that original first sentence. You are right about the house description- it can go. The story opens more than a month after he discovered his wife was gone. I need to make that more clear from the outset. Thanks for reading as far as you did and for commenting.

  2. dlodes1 says:

    This is all just my opinion and may or may not be relevant. If you don’t agree just ignore what I say. This is your story. That being said, I hope I can offer, at least a little help. See what others say and compare them.

    Yes, I was going to comment about the first sentence. A good change.
    I read through it once and was a bit confused about what is going on here. Is this a zombie novel? Unless you have a unique take, this will be hard for readers to get in to.
    Second time through – An alien abduction? You mention space ships.
    Third sentence is a bit disjointed. He is outside looking at the car, then he is inside without a transition. Is he coming home from work? I would like to know where he has been.
    Paragraph 4 he is back out looking into cars. Perhaps you could use a bit more description. Show me how he feels. His wife is missing. He doesn’t seem that distraught.
    He starts searching cars. The reader has missed something. Maybe you should start a little earlier. The first time I read I was confused. Seemed like he was a thief, but I know that is not the case.
    The overall writing is not bad, I just feel like there are some details missing. It might be just me though.
    Paragraph 5 tells me he has been searching cars for a while. How long? Why does he leave his wife alone if the world is in chaos? What is he looking for in the cars? Why is he looking in the cars.
    I’m confused about why he rams the car into the truck.
    Some sensory organ, maybe my ears, or my skin, or the hair on my arms, detects a subtle disturbance in the air. Becoming attuned to the slight change in the atmosphere that always precedes the appearance of the ships is a vital survival skill, allowing one a moment or two to run and hide.
    Think you would be better off choosing say skin and going with that as opposed to this flowery description. The hair on my neck or something.
    From the timeline early it seems his wife has just vanished, but toward the end it seems like she has been gone for some time. I would like to see more transition and detail.

    The writing style is good and did not pull me out of the story.

    Good luck.

    • Julie Griffith says:

      First, thanks for taking the time to read it and provide feedback. Yes, aliens, not zombies. I hadn’t realized it was so confusing-that’s why it’s so good to have someone read it cold. It looks like I need to make some things more clear and work on the timeline and the transitions. I fill the reader in on more details a little further on (why he was not home when his house was attacked and how long he searched for his wife) but I guess I was being too vague and making too hard to follow. The car crash was to attract the patrolling aliens. Suicide by alien being his intention since he’s finally accepted what he knew all along-his wife is dead. I may get rid of the whole car crash thing and work it another way since it’s been problematic. Thanks again for the helpful comments and for complimenting the writing style.

  3. anastasiapoirier says:

    I walk down the center of the Appalachian Highway, studying my elongated shadow, my lone traveling companion, as it stretches out before me on the pavement, trying to see my former self in the wavering, dark outline—the one buried somewhere beneath the layers of dirt, ragged clothing, and gnarly, overgrown beard.

    My first thought: Holy gawd, that’s a long sentence. I’d chop this down a bit (read: a lot). Also this piece: “trying to see my former self in the wavering, dark outline—the one buried somewhere beneath the layers of dirt, ragged clothing, and gnarly, overgrown beard.” Could be read two different ways. 1 the wavering dark outline buried in layers of dirt etc or the former self is buried in the layers. In other words, this sentence should be clarified.

    Because I was feeling nice, I read on. I stopped here: “Haley’s car is not among them. Her little yellow VW is still parked in the driveway beside our home—a modest brick ranch we inherited from her grandparents and painstakingly remodeled. I returned to find the house in ruins, my wife gone.
    I stopped for several reasons: 1. this is all telling. You’re telling me about this exciting moment where he discovers his wife missing. I would much rather see that. 2. Your MC is telling me about his/her house and how it was inherited and remodeling, but I’m not sure why. This detail doesn’t seem important, same with the appearance of the house.

    One last thing. I’m not positive, but I think “parked haphazard” should read “parked haphazardly”

    Thanks for sharing.

  4. Eliza Worner says:

    As I started reading my initial thought was “Is this Walking Dead fan fiction?” but then you called that out and I realised it was going to be something else.

    I understood what was happening and I caught on that it was aliens and that he was using the car to create a signal of some kind, but I wasn’t sure if he was hoping to be killed or abducted. But that didn’t really matter to me.

    I enjoyed it and would keep reading but I feel uncomfortable with the likeness in the imagery to the Walking Dead. The familiarity makes it cliched. The entire premise of returning home to find his wife missing and wanting to be with her is exactly how TWD started.

    It makes me think you need a more unique approach to what I’m sure will be an exciting story. You’re a good writer, though, so I’m sure you can do it.

    • Julie Griffith says:

      I’m glad you were able to follow what was going on for the most part. It’s clear immediately after this excerpt that he was hoping to be killed. TWD is my favorite show, so I’m surprised that I didn’t see how similar the openings are. Gives me something to think about. Thank you very much for your comments and the encouragement.

  5. Jeff Ziegler says:

    I like it, and think it has a listless, airy feeling about it – in a good way. A senseless wandering that you would expect from someone in his situation. I do think you spend a bit too much time on wanderings that are not so pertinent (house remodeling, too much about rooting through cars). I think that will tighten it a bit.

    I read your comment about the similarities with TWD. Take to heart Ellen’s advice about not worrying about something you are writing being like another work. I think this will grow in it’s own path.

    I like the impending confrontation, but I think you could make it more edgy. It would snap us out of the listless mode. I suggest Ellen’s action recommendations – shorter sentences, using senses. Then conclude with the passive acceptance of death and looking forward to seeing Hailey.

    Also, I like the main character, although I didn’t get to know him much at all. A lot about his life and events, but not him. This isn’t evil at this point, in fact I think the style lends to believing his listlessness. But I would start working character in soon; assuming that this isn’t a very short story. 🙂

  6. Julie Griffith says:

    Thank you for so much for reading and commenting. You make some very good points, and I will be keeping all these critiques and Ellen’s very helpful lectures in mind as I do my revisions. It’s 10,000+ words at this point, so it’s actually a novelette I suppose.

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