By: Jerry Barksdale
Ever since I retired five years ago, Lilly Belle has asked me to take her on a fall tour of New England. “I want to see the leaves,” she said. Being a sensitive husband, I always try to accommodate her. “Darling, look out the back door. A leaf is a leaf no matter where it’s located.”After she burned my cornbread three days in a row, I decided that I, too, wanted to tour New England. It was just before Halloween when I went online looking for a cheap tour and found Forever Tours in Birmingham. It was a new company offering reduced prices. I had lucked out. Lilly Belle was painting her toenails and watching QVC. “Sweetheart,” I said. “I’ve found a great deal on a fall tour. And I love their motto – Tours worth dying for.” “That’s clever,” she said and chuckled. “Let’s go – please.”
The tour bus picked us up at Cracker Barrel in Athens and we headed north on I-65, picking up other travelers as we went. Everyone was happy and excited, taking pictures out the window with their cell phone.
Bruno, our tour guide wore dark glasses and a three-day stubble and wasn’t very friendly, but he kept us occupied with rest stops where pastries, ice cream, and deserts were plentiful. The driver, hidden behind dark glasses, never said a word to us. He and Bruno often whispered while outside the bus. We overnighted in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley in Amish country; visited Independence Hall where the Declaration of Independence was signed, and saw the Liberty Bell. I ate a Philly cheese steak which is my opinion, wasn’t as tasty as a Dub’s burger. In Boston, I stood in front of former Secretary of State John Kerry’s expensive home on Beacon Hill and saw the fire plug that he paid $125,000 to move a few yards so he could park his car. On Harvard Campus, I saw “Snowflakes” hurrying to their “safe space,” or maybe it was to Starbucks for a $5.00 cup of Joe. I’ve never figured out why a sane person would pay 79¢ for a senior coffee at McDonalds when he can get a cup of Starbucks for $5.00.
We finally crossed into Vermont where maple trees had exploded in red, yellow, and orange. “Look left!” someone exclaimed. Everyone rushed over to the left side of the bus nearly turning it over. We laughed. Oh, what fun! Everyone was as excited as school children. Lilly Belle squeezed my hand and smiled at me. I loved her happiness. She purchased a pint of maple syrup which was more expensive than a good single malt scotch whiskey. What the heck, it was vacation. She snapped pictures of covered bridges and colorful foliage and posted them on Facebook.
I was beginning to think that Bruno had no sense of humor when he cracked a real funny. “Three men were in a pick-up truck, one driving and two riding in back,” he said. “They ran off the road into a river. The driver rolled down the window and got out.” He paused. “The two men in back drowned. They couldn’t get the tail gate open.”
Everyone laughed. Oh, what a fun trip. I was glad Lilly Belle and I came along. I did notice something unusual. Each time we stopped for a break, a black Cadillac with tinted windows appeared behind us. I didn’t mention it to Lilly Belle. A mere coincidence, I told myself.
On Halloween morning, we crossed into New Hampshire and drove through the White Mountain National Forest. It was so beautiful that I won’t attempt to describe it. I can’t. It was also very isolated. A two-lane asphalt road snaked through dense forest. Fog enveloped us. We didn’t meet the first car. However, when we went around a hairpin curve, I did see the black Cadillac trailing behind us. The bus began a steep climb up a long hill, slowed to a crawl then stopped. Dense forest of hemlock, spruce, beech, and maple trees surrounded us. The driver exited, went to the back of the bus, and I heard him raise the door where the diesel engine was located.
“What’s wrong?” Lilly Belle asked.
“Must be engine trouble,” I replied.
She returned to her cell phone. No service. Bruno said the engine had thrown a belt and assured us that a replacement was on the way. “Everyone remain on the bus,” he said.
The black Cadillac pulled around to the front of the bus and stopped. My instinct kicked in. I didn’t like what I saw and what I felt. Several men wearing dark glasses exited the Cadillac and set up orange traffic cones to stop any traffic that might appear. Several hundred feet in front of us, I saw an oncoming car stop and turn around. Then, a refrigerator truck with “Ice Cream” painted on the side drove up. It looked like an average ice cream truck, but yet it didn’t. Strange. Something was wrong. Fear kicked in. My instinct was telling me to flee. Lilly Belle sensed it also. She squeezed my hand. “What’s happening?” she whispered.
“I don’t know, but I don’t like it.”
No sooner had I spoke when an ambulance with a Red Cross emblem on the side pulled up and stopped. Two men, wearing clown masks exited, snapping on surgical gloves. One was carrying a bundle of black plastic garbage bags. Bruno came on board and said sternly, “Everyone out of the bus. Now!”
Passengers were getting nervous and began asking questions. “Out,” said Bruno. He marched all 50 of us into the edge of a stand of hemlock trees and lined us up. Women began sobbing and praying aloud. My eyes darted in every direction. Behind us was a thicket of pines. I heard a chainsaw crank. I knew what was coming. And it was then I understood the corporate motto – “Trips worth dying for.” The ice cream truck wasn’t carrying ice cream. It was for preserving human organs. We were about to be slaughtered and our organs harvested.
I grabbed Lilly Belle’s hand and whispered, “Run and don’t look back!” We bolted and fled into the thick forest. I heard the chainsaw doing its evil work, ripping through flesh and bone, but the screams nearly drowned out its awful sound. We ran, never looking back, until we emerged on a paved road and flagged down an old Plymouth. I was frothing at the mouth, trying to tell the driver what happened, but I don’t think he believed a word I said.
I never heard about the terrible slaughter on the news. And I never reported it. I did hear that 50 tourists had mysteriously disappeared, but no trace could be found of them. Lilly Belle and I were the only living witnesses. We have since moved to another state and changed our names. Every knock on our door freezes me with fear. Every stranger I meet could be an assassin coming for us. The sound of chainsaw and screams fills my nightmares.
Halloween will never be the same. I lock my doors and turn off the lights and cower in my safe room. My advice to would-be travelers is stay home and watch the Travel Channel. Don’t trade your liver for maple syrup and seeing New England foliage.
By: Jerry Barksdale