Last weekend, a friend and I drove out to Washington DC. We left around three o'clock in the afternoon, and by nine we were in Maryland, having crossed three state lines (passing through Pennsylvania and West Virginia), and low on gas. The very memory of that night has become more exaggerated in my mind, taking on all the qualities of a Robert Louis Stevenson novel. Before things got any more absurd, I decided to write it down for posterity: as an account of our trouble, and as a warning.
It was in Friendsville, Maryland, in the heart of a forest and flanked by mountains, that our tale began:
We pulled off the highway into an uncharted wilderness. The maps showed no roads for miles around save the one we were driving on. In the dark, we turned around to flee from this forbidding solitude.
Miles passed, with the needle on 'E' and both of us scanning the lifeless depths of the evening for those domestic signals to which we'd grown accustomed: a lamp behind curtains, perhaps, or the neon radiance of a lottery sign in the window of some seedy convenience store. The road disappeared below us, or else, by ill will the woods themselves cloaked the highway entrance from which we'd descended to this infernal bypass.
It was as we pitched forward through the miserable night that we came upon a town, at last, with a lone gasoline station under the town's only street light. Turned we onto the firmness of this asphalt oasis, glancing at the clock at half-past nine.
Privately, I exulted at our brave success: the station being at the very end of our vehicle's range (and not a drop remained in our tank), and that, being the only station for miles around. My exuberance was short-lived, for our ordeal was far from over.
Lifted I the pump from holder, with great relish, as I paid the machine. My shock, then, my complete horror when the mechanism did not dispense a single drop; the owners of the station had gone, shut the valves, and closed the shop.
My friend and I exchanged a glance and gazed across the row of distant, darkened houses. Not a single lamp was burning; not a single light was lit. The domestic scenes we expected were absent, the cadence of footsteps replaced by an imposing silence.
For an hour we trod the gray sidewalks in vain. Our meek exploration was met by dozens of unoccupied shops, barren streets and empty parking lots. Returning to the vehicle, we encountered another group in a similar condition, who warned us not to venture any farther past the houses' speechless solidarity. The fuel we sought, they said, was not to be found in this town or any, since each station was also closed, their attendants having departed many hours ago.
Departed for where, I wondered. Alas, the desperate few we'd encountered had gone, and my question fell unanswered. Here my friend and I despaired again, placing telephone calls from the stranded car. One, and then two, were met with no answer, and the third one with refusal to act. We called the next town over the mountain, and from Accident, Maryland, received a favorable reply.
Consulted we the map, the gauges, and counted the miles, and said our goodbyes.
We took to the road with fumes in the fuel tank, and immediately plunged into the darkness. A right, said the map, and over the bridge: a single lane into fog-laced forest. The bare, sharpened branches of the wilderness constricted the trail. The path was lacerated with deep grooves below this harrowing sight, as if the trees themselves had inflicted mortal wounds upon the pallid concrete just moments before our arrival, and the winding trail curled in agony as we steered around pockmarked hills.
Our steep descent was marked thus: with penitence and scarcely-audible orisons, my fingers tightly to the wheel, my friend, prepared to telephone the local authorities. Our headlights groped the graveled hill as we plead silently for divine providence to guide us from our hellish avenue.
And then! The path gasped and the trees relented, obedient to the Almighty's decree. We were met by a subdued night sky suddenly vacant of malice, and a straight, open road into a warm town. Accident, Maryland! The town of infinite promise! With minutes to spare, the vehicle rolled to a halt at our destination. Our harrowing journey drew to a close as unexpectedly as it had begun.
The vehicle having been resupplied, my friend and I paid due thanks to the Almighty, and abandoned the town and state to the darkness, never to return.
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