Near the end of their honeymoon trip across Oregon, Sam Stanley, his new wife Lynn, and her one-year-old son Andy, traverse a steep mountain road in a rented RV. In the middle of a blind curve they run over a long roll of carpeting angled across the road. Sam barely manages to avoid crashing the huge vehicle down the mountainside. When he walks back up the road to move the obstacle—it’s gone. Upon returning home to Austin, Sam learns that the crushed body of a business executive from Boulder, Colorado has been found at the site of their reported accident. There is no roll of carpet.
Another curve twisted down and to the right. A green wall of ferns sprouted from the vertical rock on the inside of the turn, limiting Sam Stanley’s view through the huge windshield to only a few feet of weathered asphalt. Through the driver side window, however, if he dared take his eyes off the road to look, he could see a long, long way. And it was all straight down. An earlier quick glance over the edge of the mountain road had been enough to convince Sam that the beauty of Oregon’s majestic evergreen trees could be much better appreciated when viewed from ground level. There was something incredibly unnerving about looking down on the forest from high above, the distant pointed tips of the trees aimed straight up at you like sharp spikes in a giant’s bed of nails.
As Sam guided the heavy recreational vehicle through the turn, he noticed how white his knuckles looked against the black grip of the steering wheel. No one had ever accused him of being a daredevil, but he could remember a time when this roller coaster drive would have seemed exciting, maybe even fun. But at the age of twenty-seven, and with a brand new family to look out for, that adolescent sense of immortality was long gone. The danger seemed real now.
“Aw jeez, what have we got ourselves into?” Sam whispered to himself.
While straightening the steering wheel to come out of the turn, he heard a soft giggle behind him. A quick look over his right shoulder brought a grin to his face in spite of his rattled nerves.
Sam attempted an expression of surprised innocence, but the smile won out. He knew he had been caught. At least it was just Andy and not his wife, Lynn, who, he suspected, wasn’t entirely joking when she chided him about his habit of talking to himself whenever he was worried about something. She had dozed off in the bucket seat beside Sam during the uneventful uphill part of the drive through the mountains.
Andy was securely strapped in behind his mother. His child’s safety seat was mounted on a cushioned chair that faced sideways, providing him a view of the passing scenery through the large picture window on the left side of the vehicle. But right now, his oversized grayish blue eyes followed Sam’s every move as if he were the most amusing thing the eighteen-month-old boy had ever seen. Sam seemed to always have that effect on his little stepson.
“All right, you caught me,” Sam whispered. “But don’t tell Mom, okay?”
He looked back again and smiled at Andy’s big contagious grin before returning his full attention to the road, which now straightened briefly as it followed the contours of the mountainside.
“And just what would he tell me?” Lynn asked without opening her eyes.
“Ah, never mind. It was just boy talk.”
He chanced a quick glance in her direction.
“Hmmm.” Lynn stretched and yawned.
“You know, you’re missing all the fun. If this damn goat trail gets any narrower, we’ll have to all get out and walk single file. Your, uh, friend that suggested this route did say that an RV could make it all the way to the coast, right? There’s sure no room to turn this monster around.”
The bucket seat made a ratcheting sound as Lynn raised it from the reclining position. Once upright, she got her first look out the windshield. Her drowsy smile quickly faded and her hand instinctively double-checked that the seat belt strap was firmly stretched across her shoulder. When Lynn had last seen the road, it had been wide enough for two vehicles to easily pass and much better maintained than this narrow shelf that had been hacked out of the mountainside. More disturbing was the fact that there were no longer any guardrails between them and the sheer drop to the valley floor far below. The asphalt sagged frighteningly in places along the unprotected edge due to the pull of gravity and the occasional weight of vehicles.
“He said that a medium size RV should be okay.” Lynn spoke in a hushed voice, apparently afraid that a loud sound might somehow make things worse. “Isn’t that what this thing is?”
“Yeah. Seems awfully big right now, but it’s only a class ‘C.’ Smallest RV the rental place handles. I don’t think they let people under sixty-five drive those big forty-foot buses. Some sort of senior citizen rights thing, I guess.”
Sam grinned at his little attempt at a joke, but kept his eyes on the road ahead. There was no need to mention that renting the twenty-five foot long camper had stretched their vacation budget to the limit. This trip was easily the most extravagant thing Sam had ever done. But this was special. He and the former Lynn Hazleton had been married almost two weeks earlier. Immediately after the ceremony, they had flown from their hometown of Austin, Texas to San Francisco, where they rented the fully stocked RV for the trip up through northern California and into Oregon. Camping in parks along the way was cheaper and a whole lot more fun than staying in motels. But the amazing quantities of expensive California gasoline consumed by the RV, along with the airline tickets and rental fees already denting Sam’s credit card limit, guaranteed that they would be paying for this trip for quite a while after returning home.
The honeymoon vacation was actually almost over. They had camped the last couple of nights at Valley of the Rogue State Park and were now heading west from the tiny town of Galice toward Oregon’s Pacific coast. There they would turn south to begin the return leg of the trip back to California. This mountain route, which had been enthusiastically recommended by some friend of Lynn’s, trekked over sixty miles through the scenic and uninhabited Coast Range Wilderness of southwestern Oregon. Logging trucks used the road to haul timber from the depths of the forest. Even during the peak of the summer tourist season, only the more adventurous visitors to the area would traverse it. But it was now only the second week of June. The forest overflowed with vivid green vegetation and they had even spotted a small black bear along the way. But Sam and Lynn had not seen a single other vehicle on the road since beginning the climb over the mountain range.
“What’s that awful smell?” Lynn wrinkled her nose. “Kind of like melted plastic. Is something burning?” She sniffed and twisted around in her seat to check on her son and the interior of the camper.
“No. I’m afraid that’s the disc brakes you smell. They’re getting pretty hot. I’m trying to go easy on the pedal, but it’s been all downhill for quite a while. Can’t take my foot off the brake for even a second.”
“Didn’t that little pamphlet that they gave us say something about using the gears somehow on steep roads?”
“Yeah, I’ve got the transmission locked in second gear. That helped slow us down a little. But the brakes feel like they’re actually starting to fade. Maybe I should put it all the way down into first gear, just barely creep along.”
“Creeping is okay with me.” Lynn nodded, her eyes glued to the point up ahead where the road disappeared behind an outcropping of rock.
The long white camper started into that next downward spiral to the right. Keeping a firm grip on the steering wheel with his left hand, Sam took his eyes off the road just long enough to glance down at the transmission gear indicator on the steering column. He eased the shift lever up until the little arrow pointed to the lowest gear.
The engine revved and Lynn screamed.
Sam’s head popped up to look toward his wife in the passenger seat. He immediately followed her terrified eyes back to the road ahead, but not soon enough to clearly focus on the dark gray object before it disappeared under the cab of the RV.
All that registered during that brief glimpse was that the thing was long and that it angled almost completely across the road, leaving only a narrow strip of clear asphalt near the left shoulder. Seeing this, the reflex reaction of most drivers might have been to jerk the wheel in that direction, steering away from the obstacle in the road, and directly off the sheer cliff. But with no time to react in any way, Sam could only grip the steering wheel with both hands and hold on.
The front cab of the camper lurched violently up and down, followed within a second by the long rear dining and sleeping areas. Safety belts did their job; no one came flying out of their seat. But they were strapped to an eleven thousand pound bucking bronco. Each jarring bounce was accompanied by a loud bang as the contents of the cabinets and drawers inside the RV became briefly airborne and then crashed back down.
The rebounding front tires were still turned sharply into the right curve. As they regained traction, the top-heavy camper teetered precariously to the left. Sam straightened the front wheels to prevent a rollover. And for one horribly long second, he steered directly toward the hazy blue sky beyond the edge of the road.
That big empty view almost completely filled the windshield by the time Sam felt most of the weight of the vehicle finally rock back onto the tires. He immediately spun the steering wheel to the right again as far as it would go, trying desperately to follow the downhill curve of the road. That was the only direction that did not lead out into empty space. The tires squealed and the front grill of the truck gradually aimed away from the abyss, but then continued too far to the right. The front fender on that side plowed into the green wall on the inside of the curve. Clods of dirt and dislodged stones bounced off the short hood of the RV and banged against the windshield. Sam ducked his head but continued to hold the steering wheel all the way to the right until the crunching friction of the fender against the mountainside finally brought everything to a stop.
Sam slowly raised his head. Outside the RV, a cloud of dust rolled past the windshield in absolute silence. Inside, there wasn’t even the sound of breathing. Sam looked around the interior of the camper and then slowly exhaled his held breath, relieved to see that the RV’s engine had been the only thing to die in the mishap.
Without a word, Lynn released her shoulder strap and scrambled out of her seat and into the back of the camper to check on the baby, who was sitting very still and upright in the safety seat. His little round face was frozen in an expression of utter surprise. Andy had apparently not yet decided whether he was supposed to cry in terror or laugh out loud at the wild roller coaster ride. The fear he saw in his mother’s eyes decided the issue for him. He suddenly ended the silence with a gasp, followed by an ear-splitting wail and an instant flow of tears. Lynn quickly determined that he was not physically injured and held him until he stopped crying.
Sam twisted around in the driver’s seat and watched them for a moment.
“Yeah, I think so. It just scared him.”
“Well, he wasn’t alone in that.”
Lynn leaned her head against Andy’s and managed a smile.
“Whew,” Sam sighed. “Just what the hell was that back there?”
“A rug, I think.” Lynn shrugged her free shoulder. “At least that’s what it looked like to me. A long, fat roll of carpeting.”
Sam nodded. That seemed to fit with his brief glimpse of the object that had almost killed them all.
“Must have fallen off the back of a truck,” he said. “Hard to believe the driver wouldn’t notice, though, big as it was. Anyway, it couldn’t have ended up in a worse place.”
“No kidding. I thought for sure we were going over the edge, Sam”
“Me too. It all happened so fast. I really couldn’t say how we managed to land down here.”
Sam put the shifter in park and stomped down on the emergency brake as hard as he could.
“If you two are okay, I guess I’d better go see how bad the damage is. Hope we can still drive this thing. We’ve got to get down from here.”
Sam opened his door and stepped down onto the road. Walking around the front of the RV, he noticed that the right headlight seemed to be aimed slightly off to the left, but was amazingly still intact. The right fender, still pressed against the mountainside, was badly scratched and dented. Sam squatted down and looked underneath. He was relieved to see that the front tire remained inflated. And, as far as he could tell, the mangled metal of the fender did not press up against the rubber anywhere. Sam walked back around and stuck his head in the open driver’s side window.
“Gonna need some body work, but I think we can go on.”
“The people at the rental place aren’t going to be too happy,” Lynn said.
“I don’t see how they could say it was our fault. We didn’t put that thing in the road. And I did purchase the additional coverage on the insurance. We’ll call them when we get close enough to civilization for the cell phone to work. We’re going to need a police report, too. The insurance requires it. Maybe the RV people can tell us what police department covers this area.”
“Before we go, shouldn’t we at least get that thing out of the road so no one else will hit it?”
“Yeah, you’re right,” Sam said. “I’ll go see if I can roll it to the side.”
Sam headed up the sloping road. In the middle of the curve he came to the parallel black skid marks made by the locked up wheels of the RV. It gave his stomach a turn to see how close the tracks came to the precipice before angling away from the edge. He continued on up the incline and eventually came to the point where the curve began. Sam stopped and looked up and down the road. This was the spot. It had to be. But there was no sign of a rolled up carpet, or any other obstacle. The narrow road was now completely clear and no more dangerous than it normally was.
He turned toward the downhill side of the road. Could the carpet have fallen over the edge after they had run over it? He thought that it was a considerable distance to roll, but then, where else could it have gone? Sam took a few cautious steps toward the precipice, but stopped before getting close enough to look straight down the mountainside.
He was still trying to convince himself that there was no real danger in taking one more step forward when he heard an odd sound. He did a quick about-face and stood looking toward a point farther uphill where the road straightened out for a short distance. There was a dense stand of trees along one side of this section of the road. The sound might have come from up there somewhere. But it was so brief and seemed so out of place that he thought it could just as easily have originated in his imagination. He stood still and listened for more than a minute, but heard only the steady hiss of the mountain breeze through pine needles. The wet, bubbly sound, which had oddly reminded him of someone gargling with mouthwash, did not repeat.
The most likely source for such a weird sound out here in the middle of nowhere, Sam figured, was some kind of animal. At the moment he felt no pressing need to find out what kind. He turned and walked briskly back downhill toward the RV, all the way fighting the urge to look back over his shoulder to try to catch a glimpse of whatever was watching.
Norm Brown was born and raised in Groves, a small town at the very southeastern corner of Texas. He earned a degree in physics from Lamar University, but a science career was not in the cards. Instead Norm got in on the ground floor of the rapid expansion of computers beginning in the 1970′s and has enjoyed a long, successful career in programming and analysis, living and working in Houston, Dallas, Kansas City, Wichita, Boulder, and finally Austin.
As an avid reader of mystery and suspense, however, Norm always had an unexpressed desire to see his own words in print and to entertain people with stories from his imagination. Carpet Ride is his first novel to be published.