Highway Star

A sign on the side of the street

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The sign made me pull to a stop.  

You’ve actually been here before. We just made sure you forgot. 

Too big to miss, but too many words to take in if you were careening down this empty, dusty road. But I had cargo too precious to behave like a speed demon, which were, of course, aplenty out here. They would disguise themselves as hitchhikers, take over the wheel and send their passengers crashing to their deaths, then take them home for dinner. You did not want to stop for anyone on the Ghost Highway. 

“If this is someone’s idea of a joke,” said the voice in the backseat, “I hope he or she gets eaten by speed demon.” 

Cory, as usual, was cranky. Stuck in a car with a sand devil and a broken A/C wasn’t how I’d pictured my road trip to go, but a deal was a deal. The sooner I got him Cranky Cory back to his natural habitat, the sooner I could reunite with my brother. 

I could already picture how Rob would react if he found out what I’d done. “You made a deal with a sand devil? Are you out of your mind?” 

But a sand devil was my best bet at finding him in the middle of the desert, after a botched mission ended with him trapped in the catacombs of the Kingdom of the Dead. Last I saw him, Rob was being dragged underground by a vortex of sand. If I had to make a deal with the most notorious trickster in the desert to get my brother back, then that’s what I would do. Besides, all Cory wanted was to be freed from his cage in the city to return to the desert. Even though he was prolonging the journey by requesting for multiple pit stops along the way. (“News flash: sand devils pee,” was his retort when I rolled my eyes at him.) 

“It looks new,” I said, still staring at the sign. I didn’t remember seeing it the last time Rob and I drove by here. 

“Take a left here, said Cory. 

He was referring to the upcoming fork in the road. I took a left. 

The paved road soon turned into a dirt road that eventually disappeared into an expanse of sand. 

Nothing about this place was familiar to me, although I had to have been here before. Rob and I had driven in circles around the desert before we found the buried Kingdom.  

We drove on. Cory complained in the backseat until I turned up the stereo and drowned out his voice.  

All around us lay swaths of crimson sand as far as the eye could see. If Cory decided to leave me here, it would take a miracle to find my way out alive. 

Finally, I slowed to a stop and glanced at him in the rear-view mirror. “We’re going in circles.” 

“That’s how you get to the Kingdom,” Cory said lazily. “We’re getting close.” 

“How can you tell?” 

He gestured ahead at a faint glow in the distance, steady despite the undulating heat waves. I put my foot to the pedal, and we charged towards it. Cory whistled a merry tune, his mood lifting now that we were this close to getting him home. 

As we got closer, the pinprick of light grew into an orb as big as a spotlight. Even my shades did nothing to help. But the light dimmed as soon as Cory and I got out of the car, bringing the edifice into view. The sandstone structure towered over us, piercing the clear blue sky. A memory stirred.  

It had been unforgivably hot the last time Rob and I were here too. We had gotten lost for almost three days before stumbling upon the ruins of the Kingdom and quenching our thirst at the oasis in the middle of it. It took us another day to find the entrance down to the catacombs, but now, Cory only jabbed a thumb to his right.  

“This way,” he said.  

At the foot of a monolith was a long, narrow stairway so concealed it was impossible to notice it unless you knew where to look. A gust of cool air rushed to meet us when we reached the landing, although it brought along a faint smell of rot and incense.  

Memories hit me in a wave. Rob leaning against a stone wall that shifted underneath his weight. A chasm swallowing him whole. Sudden darkness engulfing the cavern I stood in, pinning my feet to the ground. Rob’s voice dying in the distance. Fear and panic rising in my throat, making me gasp and choke. 

We had been here before. This was the last place I remembered before I ended up on that highway.  

“Deal’s done now,” Cory said from the top of the stairs. Silhouetted against the sun, he looked more demon than human now, with his spiked wings spread and a stinged tail that whipped around behind him. “We appreciate your sacrifice.”  

As he took off into the sky, his lazy wingbeats sending a rush of hot desert wind down the stairwell, I heard a low rumble of the ancient stone door shifting shut above me. Sunlight faded fast, first a sliver, then a pinprick – and finally, altogether. 

In the emptiness that followed, I felt the same fear and panic taking root in my chest. 

Rob’s voice rang in my ear. “You trusted a sand devil, of all things?” 

had been here before. With my brother. It was how he got stuck in the catacombs of the Kingdom of the Dead. And he’d died three years ago. 

You’ve actually been here before. We just made sure you forgot. 

And this time, the Kingdom was ready for me. Another grave robber come to dig his own grave. 

***

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

IMG_20170925_231021_455 - Copy (2)

Joyce lives in the tropical island-city of Singapore, where she spends the perennially sunny days writing YA novels and short stories. She holds a B.A. in English and her YA novel, LAMBS FOR DINNER, won a nationwide novel-writing competition organised by the National Arts Council and was published by Straits Times Press. She subsists mainly on green tea and toast, and blogs about books, writing, and TV shows at The Writes of Passage in between writing her next novel. You can read all of her short stories here.


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