Just You And The Road – Giles Selig

YOU’RE DRIVING somewhere on a two-line highway — or is it four?  It doesn’t matter where you are or whither bound.  Your stupid husband, Mack, couldn’t join you on this trip.  You’re on your own, and glad you had the guts to do it, finally.  This journey, so far, has gone well.  To cover so much ground so effortlessly and at this pace has compressed your sense of time.  You’ve gone farther than you realized.

The AM radio fades to static and you try to find another station, but there isn’t one, not even country or gospel; no FM either.  You assume this road’s still heading west but to you it doesn’t matter where it leads, so long as it’s away.

There hasn’t been another car or truck in quite some time.  The landscape stretches green and flat; the sky, all blue and bright and featureless, is a lens that magnifies the emptiness.  Why would anybody ever want to live out here? you wonder briefly, then you know: they wouldn’t, and they don’t.  This far out, there’s nothing man-made anymore, unless you count this lonely road.  A while ago you spied a tiny village, nameless, on the north horizon.  A distant school bus kicked up dust and a wood-frame grain elevator pushed against the sky.  You passed an old, abandoned double-wide (windows broken, screen door flapping in the wind) and, after that, a faded barn that tilted like a parallelogram.  But that was all.

You check the gas gauge; still half a tank.  It might be time for a pit stop anyway, but where would you get off?  There hasn’t been an exit or an intersection, not a milepost or a sign.   No dead animals along the road, no livestock in the fields, no birds in trees (which, by the way, are fewer now).  You crane your neck and scan the sky for hawks or buzzards, but there’s nothing up there; just a vast and vaulting void, all featureless and sterile.  It’s a most peculiar blue, this sky — powdery and slightly grayish-pale (cerulean, you think, might be the name for it) — whose hue and luminosity are absolutely uniform from one horizon to the other.  Not a shadow, not a cloud.  Nor any sun, apparently.  So where’s this daylight coming from?  The sun can’t be behind you if you’re headed west this afternoon.  You check your watch, an antique Hamilton from your husband; the one he didn’t want to bury with his mother, the one you usually forget to wind.  It stopped at 11:20, so at least that tells you something.  You glance at the dashboard clock but its digits are unlit, unreadable.  Yet time continues surely its inexorable march.  You know it does, regardless of watch or clock, because its passage helps you measure out these thoughts.

So how far have you gone, exactly?  The map’s no use and you don’t have a GPS.  You gaze at the odometer in disbelief: it’s not ticking off any distance at all.

It reminds you of The Twilight Zone, what’s happening to you.  But perhaps it’s not just you and your crazy, complicated feelings.  It’s this car, this time, this place, this whole damned universe; this highway with no exits and no other cars, no signs, no rest areas, no radar speed traps, no truck-tire carcasses in the breakdown lane, no painted white or yellow lines, no tossed-out soda bottles or McDonald’s wrappers, no power lines, no roadkill; this landscape without buildings, people, cows or horses, birds or any other living thing.  Not even bugs against the windshield, except for those already dead.  Only the dead accompany you, this trip.  Only the dead beneath a sky bereft of clouds, of planes and contrails, and of sun.  You feel the desolation almost too acutely.

Could it be his doing, all this spooky emptiness?  You can’t stop wondering: what if Mack was on this road instead of you?  What would his thoughts be right now?  Wouldn’t he, too, find these oddities alarming?  Wouldn’t he feel your creepy spirit taunting him?  Of course it wouldn’t matter what he thought or feared, or even if you cared, because you didn’t and you don’t.  And yet you can’t dispel the bastard from your mind, even as you flee.

You’re breathing faster now and your heart is racing like a tiny hummingbird’s.  But when you listen for it you’re surprised to hear it pounding out the stately cadence of a funeral march.  You mind’s not playing tricks, but this environment’s disorienting.  Your sense of time, spat out from its once-contracted phase, is now bizarrely dilated.

Even at seventy miles per hour, with no landmarks to convey a sense of speed and forward progress, your car seems hardly moving.  You click the cruise control and push it up to eighty-five.  The outside world is oddly two-dimensional, a great flat prairie impressing on your eyes a gentle blur as it slides by.  The pavement seems to widen out on either side.  Eventually what little evidence remained of nature — once trees, then shrubs and grass; once green, then giving way to gray — becomes a blackening, ocean-like expanse of asphalt.

It’s as though the world had emptied out so gradually you didn’t notice.  The light is omnipresent but nondirectional, diffuse.  The sky’s no longer any shade of blue, not even the haunting cerulean you remember, but something more pearlescent, faintly pinkish, almost white.  Beneath this dome, the roadway sprawls across the planetary surface like a tarry membrane.  You can’t discern where it begins or ends.  It curls upward at each far horizon and dissolves into the cotton-candy sky.  A mirage, perhaps?  The effect is mesmerizing, soporific…

No more destination, no more purpose.  Just you now and the road.  In your mind, at least, it’s still a road because you’re driving on it.  But how can it be, when it leads to nowhere, seemingly — or perhaps to everywhere?  With nothing differentiating it, how can you tell?

You might do well to calm yourself, you think; to quell these addled, apprehensive feelings.  You’re safe enough inside this steel cocoon.  Why, then, the tautness in your neck, the dryness of your mouth?  Why the fingers cramping on the steering wheel?  Do you really need to strangle it, or are you just remembering?  Maybe you’re just trying to forget; that’s understandable.  But what’s done is done.  It doesn’t matter anymore.  So take another drink of water, give your hands a little rest.  You haven’t really had to steer for hours, miles.  And yet the car keeps going straight, or so you think.

But maybe not.  With no sun, no clouds, no trees or houses, no mountains in the distance, how can you be sure of going anywhere?  The speedometer’s still holding eighty-five; the tachometer’s rock-steady too.  The tire noise seems consistent with that speed.  You can even hear the wind rush by.  But when you roll your window down and reach your left hand into the slipstream (just to gauge how fast you’re moving), the air is perfectly, eerily still.

The Twilight Zone.  You want to turn around and get away from this, go back to when this road was more like any other road, or even not a road at all.  But you can never know which way is back.  Anywhere you go from here is only forward, more away.  The world beneath your spinning wheels — part road, part metaphor, part something else — is less familiar, with a discomfiting irreality to it.

You, at least, are not unreal.  You still see yourself reflected in the rear-view mirror.   But you also see the road’s reflection, in a way that frightens you.  It’s moving in the wrong direction — not receding but advancing, like what you’d see if backing up at highway speed.  It matches perfectly the view you have through the front windshield as you rocket toward wherever — except you see it backwards in reflection, and it frames your face.

The Twilight Zone?  A smile of resignation twists itself across your lips, a puzzled smile.  You glance back at the rear-view mirror, but this time you’re not even there.  Instead, you see a dead man’s face.  He looks a little bit like Mack, but it’s just Rod Serling with a cigarette.  He winks and nods then blows his smoke at you.

You dip into your purse to get your makeup mirror, just to find yourself again.  You breathe against the glass to wipe it clean.  But there isn’t any moisture to condense.  It’s as if you have no breath.  You put a tissue to your lips and blow; it doesn’t move.  You hold the mirror to the light and peer into its glass; there is no face.  The only view you see is road-horizon-sky.  It reflects like purple Jell-O in the jigging mirror, shimmering.

It’s getting darker now.  Stars appear, not arranged in constellations but in a perfect geometrical grid.  As you stare at them they start to vibrate, then suddenly launch themselves into a stream of shooting stars that come at you from every angle.  You look out to your right and left where trees once stood, where cows once grazed, where children played and chimneys smoked — no more.  Only racing points of light, like sparks, that hurl themselves in your direction and flash by.  It’s hard to know for sure who’s really moving, you or the cosmos.

Something is about to happen.  You’ve felt this way before at times, to some extent, but never quite like this.  It’s like the premonitory aura you get before a migraine headache — the peculiar colors and vibrations, the perturbation of time, the sense of tunneling into empty space, of being drawn in by an unknown gravity — except that this time it’s intensely sexual.  Of course that makes no sense at all.  And yet you know it from the subtlest anticipatory thrill; you know the pain of leaving it unquenched.  It often comes upon you in your bed at night, when Mack’s asleep, and there is little you can do about it.  Now you’re free, so why not help it out a little?   You never had to have a man for this, so what the hell… You want it now.  You’ve always been a skilled practitioner.  So give it a go, girl!  Rip off that itchy sweater and your bra.  Be young again!  Let those fingers work their virtuoso magic on the slippery, turgid flesh.  Feel the heat and pressure build until the surge asserts itself and parted thighs begin spasmodically to clench.  Don’t stop!  Oh, God!  Don’t ever stop!  You gasp.  Oh, God!  You wouldn’t even think of stopping, tapping on the brakes.  Your feet, toes curling, couldn’t reach them anyway.  Your head rolls back and you gaze at the imploding star field through the sunroof, exploring it with awe-struck eyes, somehow wanting it to be illusory, somehow hoping it is real.

The stars close even faster on you.  You’re almost weightless, buoyant now; breathing slowly, if at all.  Your mind seems heavy and detached, anesthetized.  Your extremities have lost all feeling.  Only one elusive, tiny part of you, aroused by numbing fingertips, still throbs with life.  But now, outside, a more important change is underway: this dome of earth on which your car no longer seems to move (but, rather, perches like a circus acrobat atop a rolling ball) has warped into concavity like a cereal bowl, its horizons curving upwards into space, becoming ever narrower and dimmer as they near the zenith.  You can still see stars if you look straight up, but “up” is hard to figure now.  This bowl you’re in is constantly tilting, rocking; lifted first on one side, then the other, by some unknown force.  You roll around inside it like a marble, able to trace a million random arcs but not go anywhere.  Eventually the swaying stops.  You lift your eyes.  The vertigo recedes and, as it does, the upcurved parapets recede as well.  What was a bowl becomes convex again, a dome, the rounded summit of this spinning planet.  The skyscape opens, and the hurtling stars are everywhere again.

Suddenly from among them two blinding lights approach you in formation, brightening, widening, flashing themselves at you repeatedly.  A vast chrome grille, emblazoned “Mack”, soon fills your windshield; behind it, twenty tons of cold, hard steel and freight.  A silvery bulldog mascot glares at you through laser eyes.  You flash your brights.  An air horn blasts in desperation.  It will be only outside noise you hear as time suspends…

But not for long.  A steady, low-pitched droning-rumbling fills the air.  It’s not a storm.  Your eyes, adjusting to the dark, can see the sky is clear.  The zooming stars stream at you as before, though possibly thinning out a little.  Some of them have stuck like fireflies to your windshield, still aglow for now but gradually dimming.  It oddly comforts you to watch them evanesce because that happens over time, which in turn confirms that time has not yet ceased.  And if time persists, then maybe life does too (at least for someone, somewhere; maybe not for you).  You’d like to think you’ll have a share in it — if not in this life, then perhaps another one.  That hope remains.  But how, you ask yourself, and to what purpose?  Why, in heaven’s name, should you deserve such luck?  You’ve not grown wiser after traveling this road.  You can no longer reason anything.  Your moral compass has gone topsy-turvy; your priorities are inside-out.   And what have you to show for all this journeying?  Just the smelly clothes you’re still half-wearing and a car with half a tank of gas.  And a memory of something so unspeakably awful, you can’t be sure it even happened as you think.

What if you screwed it up somehow, like maybe you didn’t leave him fully dead?  Push that thought aside for now.  Chances are it was the perfect crime.  But even so, the chill of fear — or is it doubt? — is real enough that everything else could be a mad illusion and you’d still be trembling.  If this were a nightmare, you’d dread waking up.  Don’t, then.  Just let it run its course until you die inside this mess you’ve made and pretend, at least, it’s been an awful dream.  Then, when you awake, if you awake, you won’t remember anything.

And the clueless husband snoring next to you will be oblivious, as usual.


Giles Selig (a pseudonym) writes anonymously in Rhinebeck, NY. His short fiction and poetry have been published in various print and on-line literary journals, including Chronogram, Pilcrow & Dagger, Medium, Made-Up Words, Laughing Earth Lit, Henry, and Edna. He is a retired advertising/communications executive.