If you’re not from around here, you probably won’t believe me. Most don’t. I try to warn them just the same, but touristy types always seem to think they know better than the locals.
Even after they learn about Tank Hawburn, whose car was found in the ditch about fifty years back. His blood was still there, but not his body.
Betina Collins, too, some thirty years ago now. She was a real nice girl, popular and pretty. But she stopped, even if it seems like she didn’t want to. Her little white Datsun was wrapped around a tree. What was left of Betina was hanging halfway out the driver side window.
More recently, Maisy Yun was seen driving towards Banyan Row. No one’s heard from her since. My best guess is that she stopped.
And you don’t stop in Banyan Row.
You see, it’s nice to look at, what with all the tall trees and their winding, curved branches arching over a mile of road that leads out to the pond, but there’s something out there. Something evil.
While it’s not an everyday occurrence and most pass through without any trouble, I think most parents around these parts give their kids the same talk when they get their license: If you can, avoid the Row. By then, we all know why they say that. We’ve all heard the stories about what happens there.
You’ll be driving beneath the shade of those trees when you hear it. Three knocks on the roof of the car right over your head.
Then another series of three: same slow, distinct rhythm as the first, only louder.
Nobody knows how or why people get picked, only that once you hear those knocks, you best step on the gas until you clear the banyan tree tunnel. If you stop, you die. At least, that’s what they say.
I only ever experienced it once, but that was enough.
My dad was not a superstitious man and he didn’t believe in the hoopla surrounding the Row. He’d lived in our town his whole life and driven every road in it a hundred times over without incident. Tank’s death had been a bit before his time, but he’d been around for Betina’s, and even as a kid, he didn’t think any ghost-or-what-have-you had anything to do with it.
“She was seventeen. Speeding from the looks of it. She lost control, slammed into a tree. Sucks, but it weren’t no knocking spirit,” he’d say.
“But Jeremy said he was driving the Row with his mom and they both heard it!” I argued.
“Jeremy and his mom are dim as a couple of blown out bulbs.”
Dad wasn’t entirely wrong about poor Jer or his mother, but I wasn’t so sure about Banyan Row.
Going down it was unavoidable with a dad like mine, though, and after so many years of crossing peacefully beneath its tangled green canopy, I joined him in scoffing at others who claimed to have experienced anything. When it came time for me to start driving on my own, I didn’t get that lecture so many others got.
All my dad said when he handed the keys to the pickup over was, “You crash it, I kill ya.”
It was a brutally hot summer that year. When I wasn’t cutting lawns or washing cars or whatever else I could do to earn some pocket money, the only place I wanted to be was the pond. Best time to go was twilight, when it was still light enough to just be able to see, but dark enough to hide our beer cans quick if the sheriff showed up. There was a birthday party planned for one night in late June. Chrissy Tavers was turning 17 and we were all going out to the pond to light a bonfire, drink, and swim the muggy night away.
“You going out there again?” Mama asked when she saw me getting ready to go in my swim trunks and an old tee.
“Yeah, for Chrissy’s party.”
Mama frowned. She did that right before she was gonna say something that you might not want to hear. “Just do me a favor, ok, Tad? Take Miller’s Road to get there.”
“That takes longer,” I said.
“I’d just feel better if you did.”
Mama was the believing type.
It was hard telling Mama no when she was acting all concerned like that. I told her I’d do it if it made her feel better and headed out after telling both her and Dad that I’d be home around midnight.
“Drive safe, baby!” Mama called after me.
“You get drunk, I’m kicking your ass,” Dad said without getting up from his easy chair in the living room.
“Oh, hush, Jim,” Mama scolded.
I grinned as I started up the truck. Mama just didn’t understand that all Dad’s grumbling bear-talk was just his way of telling me he cared and to be careful.
When it came time to make the choice between going down Miller’s or saving ten minutes by driving the Row, I silently apologized to Mama and turned left.
The sun had all but faded when I crossed into Banyan Row. There were no street lights or anything out there and the trees always seemed larger in the dark. Closer together. More confining. I’d left my windows up to give the ancient air conditioning a chance at cutting through the thick heat that filled the cab, but it did little more than push it around. Beads of sweat trickled down the back of my neck.
I wiped them away with one hand and mumbled along to Nirvana’s Heart Shaped Box playing softly on the radio.
“Hey, wait, I’ve got a new complaint…”
The truck swerved sharply into the other lane as I jumped at the suddenness of the sound. It had been steady, deliberate, right over my head. My first reaction was to slow down, momentarily frightened that I might have hit something even though I hadn’t seen anything in my headlights.
And then, they came again, louder.
My heart pounded in my throat and I clutched the steering wheel with white fingers. The sweat upon my neck turned to ice. Rumors of my childhood, ones I hadn’t given any serious thought to for many years, came flooding back.
Tank Hawburn. Betina Collins. Maisy Yun.
You don’t stop in Banyan Row.
The whole cab reverberated with the pounding upon its roof. I pressed my foot down on the excelerator and hunched low over the steering wheel.
They never found Tank. They only found the lower half of Betina. Maisy simply vanished.
The truck rumbled and groaned in protest, but I didn’t let up on the gas.
They were no longer coming from the roof. The driver’s side window shuddered beneath each blow. I screamed and the truck swerved sharply again and I yanked the wheel instinctively away from the sound. I almost started to spin, but caught myself at the last moment and jerked it back into place.
From the other side of all the too thin window pane, I heard deep, gurgling breathing.
I looked. I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t stop myself. There was only inky blackness and that wet, bubbly breathing.
The window shattered. Glass sprayed inward. A sharp pain like fire exploded in one eye and I squeezed it shut with a yelp. Half blind, terrified, I leaned away from the gaping hole and stomped on the gas.
The breathing was closer now, right beside my ear, and the wheel was yanked hard to one side. I desperately fought to regain control of it. My gut screamed at me to slow down, to stop, to try and clear my vision, but I fought against it and continued to veer wildly ahead.
Don’t stop in Banyan Row.
Another hard pull at the wheel. This time, the truck was sent careening into a circle. I didn’t realize I’d taken my foot off the gas. I clung to the wheel while the wind screamed through the open window, while I screamed, while the burbling breathing continued in my ear.
And then the truck came to a screeching, sideways halt.
The night was still and hot and silent except for my panting. I huddled low, half draped across the bench seat, and I waited, too frozen with fear to do anything else. Tears spilled freely down my face. When nothing disturbed that quiet, I sat up just enough to look over the dashboard with my one good eye.
The truck had stopped just barely beyond the last, twisted trunks of the banyan trees.
I had made it out of the Row.
And I’ve never been back in since.
If you’re smart, you’ll be like me and take the longer, safer routes.
If you’re not and you just gotta see it for yourself, fair enough, but don’t say you haven’t be warned.
Just make sure, no matter what happens, you don’t stop in Banyan Row.