Cecilia's eyes snapped open in a start, her breath hitching in her chest.
The world was black.
Come to think of it, the black, cold, wet world seemed to smell distinctly of road tar and asphalt. Maybe just a hint of tire rubber too.
Pushing up off the street, Cecilia sat up and looked around her. From the looks of it, she was on a back road somewhere, a darkened forest pushing in on either side of the slick two lane blacktop. The sky above was still and black and a gentle fog creeped through trunks nearby.
"Hello?" she called out, scanning the trees beyond. "Is anyone there?"
Glancing around again, it occurred to Cecilia that she couldn't seem to remember how she got here. Or really even where here was. It didn't look completely unfamiliar; at least it didn't seem she was far from home. Unfortunately, once you've seen one North Carolinian back road, you've seen them all.
Standing up, she tried to find something to follow. Some sign of civilization or where she was. Some person or place or thing or...something. Any noun might suffice.
Where was she?
Last she could remember, she had been driving home with her sister. They had been out that evening drinking and then...Nothing. She tried to think, to remember where she had been, but it slipped away like water in her hands.
Had she been drugged?
"Hello?" she called again.
"Guess I'm walking."
Reaching into her pocket to fish out her phone for the GPS, but she came up empty handed. Just a hint of panic started to boil up. She couldn't find it.
Where was her phone?
And where was she?
"Ok, calm down." She whispered to herself. "Just follow the road. Get to a gas station or something, figure out where you are, get a ride home..."
A piercing howl split the silence of the night. It was long and forlorn, carrying on the wind interminably, spreading from one side of the road until it echoed and mingled off every tree trunk all around her. Just as quickly, it cut off and faded into nothingness.
Cecilia had never heard a cry like it before. It sounded almost like a wolf howl from movies, but there was something...off about it. The cry didn't seem entirely animalistic. Almost like a person doing a disturbingly good impression of a wolf howl.
"Ok, maybe a little less calm. Get to a gas station sooner rather than later."
She glanced up and down the road again and, with no direction in mind, took off at a jog.
The asphalt felt slick beneath her shoes and they squeaked and squicked with each footfall. The sound echoed off the trees and only added to her anxiety. What was that howl? Was something following her? What if she couldn't hear it coming?
And what are you gonna do about it? she thought to herself.
It's not like she knew what to do if she ran into a wolf in the middle of the night. She was a dental assistant barely out of college. Hell, she didn't even have her phone on her. If she ran into a wolf, the best she could hope to do would be to climb a tree and hoped someone drove by and saw what was happening.
The thought pushed her on and her jog soon became a run. Maybe it was the adrenaline, but she felt good. Strong. Her lungs weren't even burning. She hadn't run since high school but apparently it stuck with her.
And, soon enough, she could make out a faint light over the treetops.
A few minutes more and the woods parted suddenly on her right to reveal a 24 Hour Diner. The iridescent sign buzzed in the still air, a few moths flitting and zipping around it, claiming "Best Waffles in Town". A couple cars sat out front and she could make out someone moving inside through the windows.
And then the howl.
It came on again just as suddenly and frighteningly closer. It seemed almost like it was directly behind her and Cecilia jumped in surprise. However, when she turned to face the creature, it cut off sharply.
There was nothing there.
She sprinted the remaining distance to the diner door and slammed the door behind her, staring out through the glass to the woods beyond.
"Miss?" a soft voice called from the dining room.
Cecilia pulled her eyes away from the darkened woods to look at the man who had spoken. A thinner man, a waiter, was standing there. He was middle eastern by the looks of him. Maybe Egyptian? A little gaunt but a nice enough smile with dark hair and eyes.
"Y'all right?" he asked.
"Did you hear that thing?"
The man approached her to look through the glass to the woods beyond. As before, nothing moved. He glanced back down to her with a sympathetic smile. A nametag on his chest read "Ammon."
"Can't say I did." he confessed. "What'd it sound like?"
Cecilia shook her head.
"No idea. A wolf or something."
"Ain't no wolves in these woods, ma'am." He said with another soft smile. "C'mon. Let's get you warmed up. Coffee?"
She glanced outside again. She wasn't hungry, but she felt safer being in here. She wasn't going to say no.
"Y-yea. That would be nice. A phone as well?"
Ammon lead her back into the sitting area and quickly poured a cup of coffee in a plain white mug. He set it in front of her and then reached back to grab a wireless phone of the ringer, setting it next to the mug.
"Break down?" he asked.
She shook her head, grabbing up the phone and starting to dial her sister.
"I...I honestly can't remember."
Ammon looked at her with worry but asked nothing further as she held the phone to her ear.
Ring. Ring. Ring.
"Hey this is, Sarah! You know the deal. BEEP"
"Sarah! It's Cecilia. Hey, I think something happened. We were driving home last night and I just woke up in the street. I'm at a diner on..." she turned to Ammon. "Where am I?"
"Chapel Grove. Outside of Gastonia."
"Chapel Grove, outside of Gastonia." she parroted. "I can't find my phone either. I'm gonna try and get a cab or something. I'll see you soon. Bye."
Hanging up the phone, she handed it back to him.
Ammon took the phone and hung it up. As he did, she noticed a single tattoo on his inner arm. It was solid black with hard edges and looked almost like an Egyptian hieroglyph of a dog or something.
"Thank you." she said.
"Of course. Lost yer phone too?"
"Yea. I think something happened. I just don't know what to do."
"Bad luck. Where ya coming from?"
"Lincolnton. We were at a bar in Gastonia." she commented. "I remember driving home but nothing else. I'm-I'm wondering if someone gave me something but I can't remember past that."
"Well, yer not far from home but seem like yer headed in the wrong direction. Why don't we get you sorted out and we'll get ya a ride back home."
"I can take her." a new, third voice added from directly behind her.