There are rumors of a Devil’s Trap thirty minutes north of Raleigh. People claim it’s a perfect circle where nothing lives or grows. But it’s more than just a radius of scavenged dirt in the middle of the woods. Some say it’s being watched. They say that if you leave something behind, an artifact or maybe even a peace offering, it’s gone by morning. No one knows who comes to take it away, but nothing survives and nothing stays inside this circle of scorched earth.
As soon as I read about this place, I know I have to see it for myself. When my husband announces he’s been invited to an amateur wrestling promotion the last weekend in September, I seize the opportunity. I tell him have fun with the four-hour drive packed in a backseat of restless testosterone, and then I tell my sister we’re going on a road trip. She eagerly agrees, our history of horror films and family ghost stories encouraging this dangerous curiosity.
We don’t take much with us for the drive. Our only plan is to get there, take some pictures to prove our unwavering courage, and then get out before it gets too dark. I’m responsible for driving, gas, and providing a decent playlist. She takes over snacks and navigation. By lunch we’re on the road, our favorite hipster folk band playing and a bag of gummy worms between us.
An hour into the drive we need a bathroom break. It’s my fault. I knew a second cup of coffee was a bad idea. We pull off eighty-five north and find a gas station that doesn’t look infested with mold and cockroaches.
“I’m gonna grab some chocolate-covered pretzels,” she tells me, heading down the nearest aisle. I find the bathrooms just beyond the cash register.
Back out front, the first thing I hear is a shriek of forced laughter. Behind the display of Cheerwine, my sister has purposefully placed herself in between the chips and a twenty-something country boy in a Carhart jacket.
“Are you ready?” I ask, eyeing her new friend suspiciously.
She nods, lingering a moment, and then we head toward the counter. Suddenly, she stops. “Shit. I left my purse in the car.” She looks back at me, biting her lip a little too dramatically. I sigh ceremoniously and pull out my credit card.
In the car we tear into the pretzels and get back on the highway. The sun slowly disappears behind us as we merge onto route sixty-four headed east. I watch the colors change in the rearview mirror. It would almost be peaceful if it weren’t for the constant buzzing of my sister’s cellphone. I look over, barely trying to hide my frustration, to see her face stretched wide with delight.
“Who are you texting?” Her face immediately falls as she flips her phone over.
“Just this guy from work.”
I almost believe her.
Twelve miles off the highway we start to see civilization: a handful of traffic lights, restaurant chains that haven’t been updated since the early nineties, and a “Thank You Jesus” sign posted on every lawn. The GPS has us turn right at one of the last intersections before the town dissolves back into cow country. Every mile that passes, the road narrows. Then, the shoulder disappears completely. After ten minutes, there aren’t even painted lines and soon after that we’re driving on a mixture of gravel and dirt.
“How much further?” I ask. She looks down. “In a quarter mile we’ll veer left and then it should be on our right.”
I scan the surroundings. We haven’t seen another car since the last stop sign and the last house was the stop sign before that. Above us is a haze of deep hues and the first appearance of nearby stars. The fork approaches and I turn the wheel slightly, letting the car coast against the gravel. The trees are slowly growing closer together. If I turn my head fast enough they’re just a blur of faded green.
“This should be it,” she says, resting the phone in her lap and squinting out the window. There’s a narrow pull-off where the shoulder of the road used to be. I ease the car as close to the tree line as I can.
“Should I bring my cellphone?” she asks.
I shake my head. “I wouldn’t. Don’t want to drop it in the dark.” She hesitates before leaving it on the passenger seat and shutting the door. Once the car is locked, we stand at the edge of the forest with an overgrown path in front of us.
“Are you sure this is the right place?” She anxiously looks back at the car.
“Only one way to find out,” I smile mischievously and take a step toward the woods. After a weighted moment, I hear her take a step behind me.
The last sliver of sunlight pierces through the tallest branches as the moon peeks through the clouds. I pause for a moment to capture the isolated serenity of the foliage. It’s the kind of peaceful we always hear about before the world was turned into a flurry of texts and tweets. Then, something snaps behind us.
We both turn, our breath frozen as we wait for the sound again, but we hear nothing. After a few seconds we can make out the soft rustling of leaves on the ground.
“We probably interrupted some squirrels doing it,” she says with a nervous smile. We keep waiting, neither one of us brave enough to keep going, until finally I move deeper into the dense forestry.
Only minutes in and I lose sight of the car completely. It seems impossible considering how close we must still be to the road, but the branches have overcast the path behind us.
“It’d help if I knew what we were looking for,” she persists from a few feet away.
I describe what I can: the barren earth, the eerie emptiness.
The branches whisper above us, passing secret intentions as the sky grows darker with heavy clouds. I can feel the heat of my own breath against my face. I hear my sister shivering. “I told you to bring a jacket.” And then I can practically feel her rolling her eyes.
Suddenly, there’s a crash. I look back and I don’t see my sister standing behind me. Her shadow is a huddled mass on the ground. I throw my hands out in front of me, feeling my way through the crushing darkness until my foot steps on something squishy.
My eyes slowly adjust to the shadows and I can finally see enough to know she’s not dead. She cradles her left ankle in her hand.
“Did you trip?” I ask.
“Yeah, and you stepping on it didn’t help.”
I reach down and carefully pull her up. She hobbles for a moment before using my shoulder to steady herself.
“I think we should head back,” she says with a quiver in her voice I haven’t heard since our parents forced us to watch The Exorcist when we were in elementary school.
“We’re almost there,” I assure her.
“How do you know?” I know she’s scared. I don’t just hear it in her shallow breathing, but I feel it in the subtle trembling of her hand on my elbow. But I didn’t drive two hours to turn back just because of a bruised ankle.
“Just follow me and stay close.” Once again I take the lead. This time I try my best to clear our way of any jagged branches or roots that might be lurking nearby. We manage to clear another five feet or so without incident when the air seems to shift around us. One more step and it all makes sense.
We’ve found it. A surge of electric heat meets us at the edge of the clearing, static but subtle. It almost feels like an itch on the surface of my skin. I try to scratch it, leaving a burning sensation on my forearm, but it doesn’t go away. My sister takes slow breaths just inches away. I want to say something, anything to break this heavy silence crashing down around us, but my voice is lost somewhere inside my throat. Instead, I take a step forward and let the heat wash over me.
The ground is soft, but uneven. The dirt is a mixture of gravel and woodchips and bits of foliage left by animals passing through. I steady myself with each footprint I leave imprinted behind me. I squint, letting the moonlight do most of the work, and don’t notice any other prints, human or other. We’re the only ones here even though it doesn’t feel that way.
The clearing forms a perfect circle. It can’t be more than twelve feet wide, but it’s hard to tell in the dark. In the center of the circle is a small mound of burnt wood, an abandoned bonfire. The cracked logs crumble as I gently nudge what’s left with the tip of my shoe.
“Do you think people party here on weekends?” my sister asks.
From the edge of her silhouette she appears to have her arms crossed tightly against her chest. At first I think she must be cold, but I know that isn’t it.
“Maybe,” I respond. It seems reckless enough to be true. Of course a bunch of dumb teenagers would want to desecrate a space that’s meant to be revered and even avoided. I’m sure the temptation of what they might find is enough to dare a few them to start some baseless tradition to get drunk and throw empty beer bottles into the dancing flames.
“So we came. We saw. I say we go,” my sister begins creeping her way back toward the path that led us here, although I can tell she’s not completely sure that’s even the right direction.
“Wait!” I yell out. She shudders and stops. “I see something.” I point to a spot directly in front of me.
“What is it?” Her body tenses.
“I don’t know. It looks like a light or something.”
She relaxes just a bit and takes a step closer. My sister leans forward slightly and that’s when I swing my arm back and connect my elbow with the bridge of her nose.
With a muffled groan she collapses to the ground, both of her hands closed tightly around her face. Before she has time register that this wasn’t an accident, I pick up my foot and launch the heel of my shoe into the side of her head. Her body is still against the ground.
I reach down and begin tearing the edge of her shirt. With one strip of fragmented fabric I secure her hands, still damp from cradling the outpour of blood, behind her back. With the other I weave a figure-eight around her ankles. By the time I finish, she’s starting to show signs of consciousness. The drowsy murmurings become frantic pleas when she realizes she can’t move.
“What the fuck?” Her body rages against the restraints, but the shifting dirt only makes her struggle that much more futile. And she knows it. “What the hell are you doing?”
I stand in resilient silence.
“Is this a fucking joke?”
I wait another second before responding. It could be a joke. I could laugh and she would join me. But I haven’t found anything especially funny for a while now. “Feel free to scream all you want.” And with that I turn back toward the trees and let my hands find the open pathway. The leaves drown out the fading expletives she manages to hurl behind me.
I pull out my keys and hit the lock button. In the distance I can hear the subtle honking so I know I’m headed in the right direction. After a minute the sound is accompanied by flashing headlights peeking through the branches.
Once I’m inside the car, I take a deep breath before starting the engine and turning on the high beams. I’m just about to put the car in drive when I notice a light flashing on my right. I look down and see my sister’s cell phone sitting in the passenger’s seat. The home screen says she has nine unread messages and a Snapchat waiting to be seen. I swipe right and it asks me for the password. I type in zero – two – one – zero. Her birthday. I’m not surprised when the screen dissolves into a selfie she took last weekend at a bar.
I start with the messages. There’s one from a friend asking what she’s up to tonight and another from a number without a name that says, “It was nice meeting you the other night. We should get together for a drink.” The rest are all from the same person. The messages are brief but flirtatious, full of emojis and icons of various fruit. Right before we reached the woods my sister sent her last text: “How did the wrestling match go?” The response was a Snapchat she never opened. I click on the username and a picture appears. He’s shirtless and sweaty with a row of lockers behind him. He holds a plastic belt painted gold across his torso. I stare at the grainy image until the timer runs out and the picture disappears.
I roll down the window and drop the phone onto the gravel. I finally pull away from the edge of the forest and as the tires move forward I hear the glass crack and crumble underneath the weight of the car.
After a few minutes on the road, my cell vibrates in the cup holder. I glance down to see a text from my husband. Keeping one hand on the wheel, I pick up the phone and open the message. “Hey. I won. Be home in a couple of hours.” With a glance to the road for stray deer, I steal my focus back to the phone and respond, “K. Drive safe.” Then I set the phone back down and turn on the radio. It’s a country song I’ve heard before, so I sing along as the streetlights reappear and the silence of the cornfields surrenders to the sounds of civilization.
Kimberly Saunders currently teaches English at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, North Carolina. Previous work can be found on her website: www.kimberlyannsaunders.com.