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I have no idea how I got so lost, so fast. I had overshot my turn on the highway, so I went down the next country backroad instead, planning to make a U-turn at the first opportunity. But the road was too narrow, its ditches too deep, and the tree line too close for me to attempt anything of the sort, so all I could do was follow where it led. I went down that road for miles, twisting and turning so many times that I quickly lost any sense of what direction I was going.

When I finally got back onto a straight road, I just assumed it was the same highway or at least a highway, and started driving until I could find a sign that would give me some idea of where I was. I couldn’t check my phone for directions since it’s getting older and doesn’t charge if the micro-USB isn’t in just right. I’d neglected to plug it in properly the night before, so it was as dead as a doornail. The sky wasn’t any help either, being completely overcast without the slightest hint of the sun, so I still had no idea what direction I was heading.

Still, I wasn’t worried just yet. All I had to do was drive far enough, I thought, and I’d eventually see a sign that would help me get my bearings. So, I kept driving. And driving. And driving. At first, there were a few barns and farmhouses scattered here and there, initially well-kept but slowly turning more and more decrepit as the road wore onwards. The further I went, the more desolate the landscape became. More and more fields were left fallow, and then abandoned altogether and overtaken with weeds and wild grass. The road became unpainted, then unpaved, and never once did I see a single sign telling me where the hell I was. I would have turned back, but my gas was getting low, and I hadn’t seen even one gas station yet. I figured that my odds of finding one before running out were better if I went forwards than if I went back.

As I drove, the weather progressed from cloudy to foggy, obscuring my view and turning most of what I could still see into ghostly grey silhouettes. The possibility that I was going to be stranded out there with no working phone and at the mercy of the first vehicle that came along, if one ever did, was growing more and more likely by the minute.

Then finally, a few miles after my gaslight had turned on, I saw a town limits sign up ahead and, to my great relief, the lights of a gas station.

The sign read ‘Welcome to Dumluck, Nowhere,’ with the name Dumluck having been vandalized to spell… well, I’m sure you can figure it out. Curiously though, the word Nowhere looked to be an official part of the sign. The gas station was called ‘Dum Luck Gas & Convenience’, with 'dum' and 'luck' not only being separate words but possessing an extra space between them, implying that there had been a ‘b’ at the end of the word ‘dum’ at some point.

I couldn’t have cared less about these oddities at the moment, of course, and just pulled right up to the pump where I was immediately greeted by a middle-aged attendant wearing a ‘Dumb Luck’ branded baseball cap. He greeted me with a sympathetic smile, and I guessed that I wasn’t the first sorry soul to have just barely made it to his gas station.

“Lose your way, did you stranger?” he asked, his tone making it clear that was pretty much the only reason strangers ever came through Dumluck.

“I must have gone a hundred miles off course by now, at least,” I answered in exasperation. “Can you tell me where the hell I am, please?”

“I could, but that’s going to be outdated information before much longer,” was the man’s quixotic reply. He was peering out into the surrounding fog as keenly as he could, as if he expected to see something. “How about I fill you up while you go inside and use the restroom, grab a coffee, what-have-you, and when I’m done here, I’ll get out some maps and we’ll try to figure out how to get you where you’re going.”

I wanted to protest, but realized that he was probably right that if I had been lost this long, figuring out where I was could wait until after my more immediate needs were taken care of.

“Ah, sure. Thank you,” I said awkwardly as I unbuckled my seat belt.

I took his advice and headed inside as he pumped my gas. At the counter, there was a teenage girl with light brown skin and long curly brown hair. Given her resemblance to the man outside and the presumably very small local population, it seemed a safe assumption that she was his daughter. She gave me a slight nod as I entered, but her attention was focused solely on her father outside.

“You got in just in time,” she said softly, her hand reaching down to scratch the head of a rather nervous chocolate lab mix. “It’s about to get nasty out there.”

“Is it supposed to storm? My weather app didn’t say anything about it, but it didn’t say anything about this fog either,” I replied. “Ah, do I need a key for the restroom?”

“No, you can just walk right on in,” she told me, pointing gently in the direction of the unisex washroom in the opposite corner. “The wall button to lock the door doesn’t work, so if you want any privacy you have to turn the deadlock.”

I nodded my thanks, and went in to do my business. When I came out, I saw that the man had returned inside, and was going over folded maps at the counter with his daughter. The fog outside had progressed into a gentle rain, but I still doubted the girl’s assertion that it was about to get a lot worse out there.

“You’re all filled up, son. But unfortunately, you don’t have anywhere to go,” the man explained.

“What? Because of the rain?” I asked incredulously as I went to take a look at the premade sandwiches.

“The road’s gone,” the girl said flatly. “Look outside and see.”

Humouring her, I turned my head towards the long window at the front of the store and saw that she was right. The unpaved road I had come in on was just… gone.

“What?” I muttered, more as a statement of disbelief than an actual question.

“Yeah, sorry about that. Dumluck’s not a one-road kind of town,” the man replied with an awkward chuckle. “There’s no need to panic. Another road will be coming through before too long. It always does. Until then, you’d best make yourself comfortable. I’m Pomeroy, by the way, and this is my daughter Saffron and our dog Lola.”

“I don’t understand. How is the road just gone?” I asked. “Do you mean it was washed out when the rain started?”

“No, the road is still there. Dumluck just moves between roads sometimes, and whenever it does, it gets like that outside,” Saffron replied. “There’s not an exact pattern, at least not one we’ve picked up on yet, but we’ve gotten pretty good at reading the signs so that we know when a transit is imminent. We’ve got all the sites Dumluck’s arrived at before marked out on these maps, and it’s more likely than not that after this transit we’ll end up at one of them. Your drive home we’ll probably be longer than the ride here, but –”

She was cut off by the sound of a car screeching over the tarmac outside, almost crashing into the cement barricades that protected the front entrance. The driver immediately threw his door open and left it that way as he raced for the gas station, banging on the glass when he found the doors were locked.

“Pomeroy! Pomeroy! Open up! Open the door!” he demanded frantically, looking behind him every few seconds in a delirium of paranoia.

“I’m coming, Getsby. Calm down!” Pomeroy admonished him as he walked towards the door. “There’s still time. The foghorns haven’t sounded yet.”

The instant the door was unlocked, Getsby pushed it open before Pomeroy even had a chance to, shoving him backwards.

“Close it! Close it! Close it!” he screamed.

Lola started barking angrily at him, none-too-pleased with his rude treatment of her owner, but he couldn’t have cared less.

“Don’t lock yourself in the bathroom again!” Saffron ordered him. “Just because it’s a transit event doesn’t mean the rest of us don’t need to use it. You want to hide somewhere, hide in the storage closet.”

“Can someone please explain to me what the hell is going on?” I demanded. “What happens during a transit event?”

Before any of them could answer, a deep, resonant foghorn sounded somewhere in the distance.

That was enough to send Getsby running into the bathroom, slamming the door and locking it behind.

“Asshole,” Saffron muttered as she bent down to comfort her trembling dog.

“You don’t need to stand by the windows if you don’t want to,” Pomeroy counselled me. “But… if you think not knowing is the kind of thing that will keep you up at night, then maybe stay where you are. They can’t get into the station. Or at least, they never have before. They tend to go after the ones that are out in the open.”

“And they move towards noise, so be quiet, and let the foghorns draw them away,” Saffron added.

Another foghorn sounded, this one closer and with more of an otherworldly timbre to it. I stared out into the mists in confusion for a moment before spotting a monochrome figure, as grey as the fog itself, lurching out onto the empty space where the road had once been.

The thing was tall and gaunt, wrapped up in a coarse grey fabric that didn’t leave any visible skin, its head covered by a pointed hood and veil. The foghorn blasted again, and this time the figure wailed out in response, its voice saturated with anguish and regret. It started lumbering in the direction of the sound, though without any real sense of urgency. Its laboured movements made it seem more like it was on some sort of dreaded and exhausting errand rather than any sort of heartfelt mission.

More wails erupted from behind it, and I saw more of the creatures staggering out of the fog. They all seemed stooped and defeated, their movements due solely to an inability to resist the lure of the foghorn. They let out pained and pitiful screeches as they hung and shook their heads, dragging their feet with every step.

The dog whimpered softly, and Saffron clutched her tightly as she soothingly stroked her fur.

“Quiet, Lola. Quiet,” she gently shushed her.

Just as I thought I saw one of the things outside start to turn its head towards us, another foghorn sounded and stole back all of its attention. It continued shambling on forward with the rest of the macabre procession.

“You can whisper if you want,” Pomeroy said as he slid up beside me, looking out the window as the parade of ragged ghouls made their way down the now-absent road. “This station is pretty soundproof, and they always move towards the loudest noise. I’m pretty sure they can’t see, or at least not very well.”

“What are they?” I asked as I stared out the window in dumbstruck horror.

“I don’t know too much about them, but the name ‘The Forlorn’ seems to have stuck with them,” he replied. “Wherever Dumluck goes when it moves between roads, it seems to straddle a limbo between our world and theirs.”

“Are they dangerous?” I asked, looking back at the bathroom where Getsby had barricaded himself.

“Yeah. Yeah, they’re dangerous,” he said with a sad nod. “They’re not malicious, though. At least, not necessarily. They seem to genuinely be in a lot of pain and misery, and if they encounter someone, all they can do is beg for help. The problem is, taking what they need from you leaves you like them, and doesn’t seem to actually leave them much better off. I’ve seen it happen. The best thing to do is just keep out of their way until they pass and don’t draw attention to yourself.”

I wanted to press for more details, but I was interrupted by another foghorn. This one, however, dragged on for much longer than the others, becoming more and more distorted over time. The Forlorn took notice of the change too, halting their march forward and coming to a standstill as they listened with rapt attention to the new signal.

“What’s happening now?” I asked, turning back towards Pomeroy.

For the first time, he actually seemed concerned by what was going on outside.

“I’m… I’m not sure,” he admitted. “The foghorns aren’t ours; they’re from the Forlorn’s side. But I’ve never known them to fail or malfunction like this.”

Saffron stepped out from behind the counter and snuck up beside her father to get a better view of what was going on outside.

“They’re not moving,” she gasped. “I’ve never seen them not move before.”

“What is that noise?” Getsby demanded from the bathroom.

“Getsby, quiet!” Pomeroy shouted back.

The distorted sound of the foghorn became more and more erratic, fluctuating wildly almost as if it was encoded with some kind of meaning. Slowly, its pitch crept up higher and higher until it sounded less like a horn and more like a theremin. I could feel it ringing in my ears, and I could tell by the expressions on Pomeroy’s and Saffron’s faces that they could feel it too. The sound seemed to be honing in on some kind of resonance frequency, the windows and shelves all vibrating with it. I thought that maybe it was trying to collapse the building down on us, until I saw the first of the Forlorn slowly turn their head in our direction.

“Dammit, the foghorn’s shaking the building at the same frequency as its siren! The sound’s drawing them in!” Pomeroy realized as the first members of the horde began shambling towards the station. “Saffron, shut the security grilles on the doors and windows! You! Help me barricade them!”

“What!” Getsby shouted.

“Not you! You stay in the bathroom!” he shouted as he and I pushed a candy rack in front of the door.

“Dad? Dad, what do we do?” Saffron asked as she locked the security grilles in place, struggling to control the rising panic in her voice.

“What if we go out the back? We can outrun those things, can’t we?” I asked.

“We don’t need to outrun them; we need to outrun their cries,” Pomeroy replied.

As if to prove his point, one of the Forlorn let out a ghastly, banshee-like wail that froze my heart solid; and that was with the background noise of the foghorn and the thick wall of the station still between us. If I had been outside, I didn’t doubt that the sense of dread that cry could instill would be debilitating.

“Dad, they’re still going to break in! We can’t hold them off for long!” Saffron said.

“This is a gas station! What if we go out and start a massive fire?” I suggested.

“That would be suicide! And I don’t think fire would stop them anyway,” Pomeroy replied. “I… I do have a contingency prepared, in case the foghorns failed, but I’ve never tested it. I don’t know if it will work or not.”

“What contingency?” Saffron asked.

“It’s on the roof. I’ll have to go up there, where I can hear them,” Pomeroy replied, another eerie wail piercing through the walls of the building.

“We’ll both go then!” Saffron insisted.

“No! Both of us going up there doubles the chances of one of us succumbing to their cries!” Pomeroy argued. “I’ll go. If it works, you’ll know in a couple of minutes at the most.”

He grabbed a pair of noise-reducing earmuffs from behind the counter, but I could tell by the look on his face that he doubted they were going to be of much use. He gave his whimpering daughter a brief but wholehearted hug before running off into the backroom, where I heard him scaling the metal rungs of a ladder up to the roof.

The sound of thudding glass caused Saffron and I to return our attention to the Forlorn horde just outside the gas station. I expected them to start trying to smash their way in, but instead, they placed their hands and faces up against the glass as if they were trying to peer in, despite their lack of sight. There wasn’t anything hostile or aggressive in their movements at all. They just wanted in. They just wanted help. Their wails – they’re horrible, dreadful, pitiful wails – passed through the thick glass almost as if it wasn’t even there.

The way those screams made me feel – the closest I can come to describing it is how most people would react to hearing a small child screaming in mortal pain. Saffron had cupped her hands over her ears, and still couldn’t hold back tears. It was the sound of helpless and unjust suffering, the sound that compels mercy in all but the coldest of hearts. I could hear as clearly as words how much pain they were in; how much they had suffered, how much they had sacrificed, how much they had endured. These beings were not my enemies, but the victims of some great and drawn-out atrocity.

All they wanted was our pity.

“What is the matter with you?” someone cried out from behind us.

I had been so focused on the Forlorn, and the voice had taken me so completely off-guard, that it took me a second to realize it was Getsby. He had come out of the washroom, and tears were rushing down his cheeks.

“Are you just going to stand there? They need help! For God’s sake, let them in!” he demanded.

Saffron slowly lowered her hands from her ears, defensively positioning herself between Getsby and the door.

“Getsby,” she said softly. “Go back into the washroom. Now.”

“No,” he muttered with a firm shake of his head. “They need help. We have to help them!”

He charged for the door, and Saffron held him back as best she could. Lola was spurred into action at the threat to her owner and began barking ferociously, sinking her teeth into Getsby’s calf. This was enough to spur me from my trance, and I locked Getsby in a chokehold from behind and began pulling him backwards.

He seemed more determined to just get to the door than in fighting us off, so I think I probably could have kept him like that until he passed out. However, our tussle was interrupted by what sounded like a rocket launching from the roof. It whistled through the air for several seconds, before finally exploding in a brilliant and thunderous starburst a few hundred feet away.

“Fireworks,” Saffron murmured in astonishment. “Dad's using fireworks to draw them away!”

Sure enough, the Forlorn all slowly turned away from the window and towards the source of the sound, far louder than anything the foghorns or the rattling gas station was capable of producing. Pomeroy shot off another volley, and the Forlorn all started shambling towards the pyrotechnic explosions.

As the sound of the wretched screams slowly began to recede, I let out a sigh of relief and released my grip on Getsby. Sadly, this proved to be a mistake, as he immediately pushed past Saffron and ran out the front door. She wasted no time in closing and resecuring it, but before she had turned the last lock, we heard Getsby scream.

His screams went on and on, and soon we couldn’t tell them apart from the rest of the Forlorn’s wails.

Pomeroy kept shooting off fireworks from the rooftop, and the sound of their explosions kept drawing the Forlorn away from us. Saffron and I were both worried that his supply wouldn’t be able to last through the rest of the transit event, but before too long the Forlorn all wandered off into the mists, their wails growing fainter and less frequent. Eventually, they couldn’t be seen or heard at all, and the corrupted foghorn finally fell silent. The mists slowly began to lift, and I could see that there was once again a road running past the station.

We heard the sound of Pomeroy clambering down the ladder in the backroom, and Saffron had thrown herself into his arms before he even had both feet on the ground. Lola was happy to see him too, jumping up and licking him in gratitude. He saw me standing by the window, and his gaze drifted towards the still-open washroom door.

“It was Getsby, then?” he asked solemnly. “I hadn’t been sure if it was you or him who ran out. He could have got you both killed.”

“It wasn’t his fault, Dad,” Saffron sobbed, still clutching onto him tightly.

“I know. I know,” he said softly.

Once things had calmed down a bit, we figured out where Dumluck had ended up and they help me plot out a route back home. Pomeroy offered to comp my gas and other supplies, but I couldn’t accept that after he had saved my life. I even paid him for the fireworks he had used.

“I’m not sure that trick will work a second time,” he said thoughtfully as he ran my card through. “That didn’t seem like an accident, what happened to the foghorn. It seemed like something was trying to herd the Forlorn towards us. I’m thinking I’m going to have to build an actual soundproof saferoom to wait out transit events, and have multiple redundant audio lures in place to keep them away from the station.”

“If you don’t mind me asking, sir, why stick around at all?” I asked.

“I’ve tried leaving,” he said with a brisk nod. “People like you can pass through Dumluck with no problem, but the further me or Saffron or anyone else who lives here gets from the town limits, the more we press into the Realm of the Forlorn. No friend, I’m afraid we’re stuck here.”

I wanted to argue with him, to insist there must be some way he and Saffron could escape, but Pomeroy hadn’t survived in this place for so long by being a fool. I wouldn’t have survived Dumluck if hadn’t been for his foresight, and so I decided not to insult him by saying that he just hadn’t been trying hard enough all these years to get out.

Instead, I thanked him again for saving my life, and gave him my phone number and e-mail in case he ever needed me to repay him with whatever assistance I could offer. I bid him, Saffron, and their dog a heartfelt farewell before getting back into my car and setting out on the route they had plotted out for me.

I will admit that as I drove off into the desolate hinterlands, a more cynical part of my brain found it suspicious that my visit to Dumluck just so happened to be the first time the foghorns malfunctioned like that. Was it possible that I had been responsible for it somehow, or that Pomeroy and Saffron hadn’t been completely honest with me for some reason?

But as I glanced up into my rearview mirror and saw Pomeroy climbing up on a ladder to replace the ‘b’ on the gas station sign, I took it as an omen that it really was just dumb luck.



Written by The Vesper's Bell
Content is available under CC BY-SA

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