Read The Signs

I apologize for being so remiss in posting short stories lately. Because, life. Anyways, this week’s story is based on another Chuck Wendig challenge – to write a story based on an image. So without further ado, here’s mine based on the image he shared in  the story challenge post.

The car sped past the sign so quickly I almost didn’t make out the black letters on the white sign, the ones where you can put up different letters to spell out different things, to advertise ice cream or gas or the latest in new hardware or some such nonsense.

“What did that sign say?” I asked Sam, who was driving. Sam shrugged without so much as looking at me.

“Dunno,” he said. “Didn’t really pay attention to it. That place is usually talking about flowers being on sale. Seeing how it’s a flower store.”

I paused, puzzled. The words on the sign I had just seen didn’t seem to be about anything to do with flowers. Then again I didn’t know anything about flowers.

“Is Oberon a flower?” I asked, just as Sam leaned over to turn up the music in the car. The road had just turned from smooth, new asphalt to something older and bumpy, which made the sound in the car increase, so the music that was playing faded into the background. “The sign said Oberon is here.”

“Hmm?” Sam mumbled, distracted. “What did you say?” He shifted his eyes back onto the road, though there was no other traffic around, either behind, or in front of us, or in the oncoming lane. The road seemed to be getting narrower, but I shook my head. It’s the just trees are getting bigger, their branches stretching across both sides of the road and arching above it until they met in the middle, like old friends, shaking hands. I felt the familiar tingle of anxiety starting low in my belly but I squeezed my eyes shut briefly and exhaled. When I opened them again, the trees still looked the same, and the road was just as empty, but I didn’t feel as claustrophobic.

I saw out of the corner of my eye that Sam was now looking at me out of the corner of his. He glanced in my direction. “You okay, Jelly Bean?” he asked, using my nickname from childhood. I used to hate it, but I hadn’t heard it in years, and this time it didn’t bother me that much.

I guess I hadn’t actually replied because Sam repeated again, with more concern in his voice. “Jill? You okay?”

I smiled, though it felt weak and shaky and not very convincing. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just a bit…car sick,” I settled on.

Sam shook his head and turned his attention back to the empty road ahead of us. “Yeah, sorry,” he apologized. “I know this road isn’t the best. It isn’t really maintained at all. No real reason since no one has any reason to come out here really.”

I nodded in agreement. Through the narrow gaps between the trees, all I could make out was more trees, punctuated intermittently with the long, tall grass of overgrown fields.  I looked out the passenger window at the never ending rows of trees, and almost gasped with they ended abruptly, the gap filled in by yet another tree, but this one was on its side, knocked over, it’s large roots sticking up on one end like some creepy knobbly fingers of a giant hand. On its dark trunk were white letters spray painted, large and clear. I couldn’t miss what they said. Oberon.

“Do you know what Obe-“ I started, before  the trees began again in an unbroken row, streaming past the car in a blur. Then I inhaled quickly, almost choking on the breath. On one thick tree trunk, two letters ran down its side, the same large blocky ones as on the fallen tree in brilliant white paint. I. S.

I knew in the back of my mind that I was holding my breath but I couldn’t help it. Trees whipped past Sam’s SUV, and he seemed to be moving faster.

“Slow down!” I panted, my eyes glued to the trees that now blurred into a single wall of brown. I didn’t want to miss what I knew was coming.

I barely saw it with my eyes beginning to water from not blinking, but it was there, and then it was gone and we were flying past it. I didn’t make out all of it, we were going too fast, but it wasn’t long, and it was unmistakably four letters, starting with H and it had a E and R. I just missed the final E. Here.

My heart hammered in my chest and I tried to remind myself to breathe.

“What’s Oberon?” I asked Sam again, almost turning fully in my seat to look at him. Out of the corner of my eye I saw that the needle on the speed gauge was pushing 120.

“It’s nothing. Nothing you need to worry about,” Sam said. His voice was strangely monotone, as if he were trying to calm me down, which just made my growing hysteria increase.

“That sign back there, at that flower shop,” I said, my words came out haltingly as I tried to get my breath back. It felt like I had just been running a marathon. “It said Oberon is here. And I saw the same thing painted on some trees. What’s Oberon?”

I watched as Sam pressed his foot harder down on the pedal and the car lurched forward with another burst of speed. I couldn’t even see the trees anymore.

“Don’t worry about it,” Sam said, through what sounded like clenched teeth.  The road up ahead seemed to end suddenly, with no way to turn left or right.

I instinctively shut my eyes and screamed, not able to do anything else but wait for the impact and then the nothingness of death.

Thirty seconds passed, a minute. But there was no impact, no crash, no mangled car hitting the dead end of a narrow country road.

Instead I sat alone in the car. Sam had already got out, the driver’s side door left open and the familiar ping noise that alerted you when a door was ajar.

Sam stood in front of the car and stared. I stared along with him through the windshield. We’ve died, I thought as I looked out at the sprawling city that stretched as far as I could see in either direction. Tall spires glinted in bright sunlight. It had been overcast a moment before.

I climbed out of the car on shaking legs, holding onto the door for support.

“What is this? Where are we?” I breathed. I wasn’t sure I’d spoken loud enough for Sam to hear me but he turned to face me with a large grin.

“Oberon” he said, stretching his arms wide. I almost expected him to follow with, ‘ta da’. He did add “Surprise!”

I stared at him and the city that glinted of metal and glass in the middle of…I stared down at the ground. It moved. An ocean? I realized I was standing on the edge of a beach.

I looked behind the car. There was nothing but beachy scrub grass. No sign of the ailing road we had been speeding along.

Words deserted me and I stared out at the slate blue water and the strange city before us, as a small dark spot on the water slowly became bigger as the man in the boat got closer to us.

“Welcome!” the man shouted when he was within earshot.

Without a second look at me, Sam waded into the water to help the man in the dinghy.

My mind spun. Oberon was here and it awaited us.

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