Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear
By Rob White
Well this isn't where I thought this night was headed.
About two hours ago I was happily driving the opposite direction along this same stretch of ill-kept two lane road on my way to Anne's house. The plan - well, my plan at least - was to drive down, surprise her, and then spend a night drowning in champagne and affection in front of the massive fireplace in Anne's cabin.
Didn't work out that way. Instead of open arms and an open-mouthed kiss, what awaited me was a woman with her arms crossed and a look on her face as if she was ready to roll me up like a soccer ball and kick me over a fence. I played ignorant. I did the whole, "Who, me?" routine, but fact was I knew instantly what was wrong. Anne found out about Birmingham. She knew I had fallen off the wagon.
I seem to be really good at two things in life: The first is writing mediocre travel books. The second is getting drunk. I'm realizing now that I can add a third thing to that list: Lying to people I care about. Anne may or may not have been the end of the road for me. She was pretty enough. Wavy blonde hair and killer hips with eyes a kind of muddy green. Naturally muddy green wouldn't be the term I'd use to her. No, to her it would be something like, "slyvan emerald". Was she my soul mate? I don't know. Nevertheless I was sorry to see this one go.
See I was only supposed to drink with her. Anne and I were trying this experiment to see if I could control my urge to drink by marrying it with my urge to be with her. That way I wouldn't have to deal with the pressure of quitting cold turkey, she could keep an eye on me and we could still have fun together without being teetotalers. Yeah I know; really dumb idea but at least we were trying to be responsible.
So Bud told her about our little night out in that crap redneck dive in Birmingham. Bud spent the whole night eying country behind, but the main behind he wanted to get his hands on was Anne's. It was an open secret between the three of us and one I tolerated. Bud was in his forties and never married; ugly as sin and about as lonely as you'd expect someone in his position to be. I should have figured he'd go crying to Anne about how he had "screwed up" by not keeping an eye on me in hopes he'd earn some sympathy points with her. Hell, maybe it worked. All I know is that instead of rolling in the sack with my lady love tonight, I'm now stuck making a two and a half hour drive back into town right back where I came from.
Serves me right, I guess. Anne and I weren't the most mature couple on the planet, but we were having fun together. Relationships are like drinks to me though. They're a hell of a lot of fun while they last, but somehow I always end up alone on the bathroom floor afterwards with my pants around my ankles and no one to blame but myself.
As good as I am at screwing up relationships though, I'm just about as good as moving past them. I'll miss Anne but at least I won't have to make this terrible drive to see her anymore. Good lord was this putting the miles on my car. Five hours round-trip, most of it through deserted and forgotten wilderness on the two lane road God and our tax dollars forgot. What makes matters worse is my stereo is broken. No music means I'm stuck with my own thoughts; not really something I want to be experiencing right now. No, what I want right now is a cold one in my hand and a honky-tonk song on the juke box while some slutted-up bartender flirts with me and pretends I've got a chance with her in hopes I'll try to impress her with the size of my tip.
God, it's dark out here. I've never made this drive late at night before. Anne and I are always at her place or mine getting drunk or getting rowdy at this time of night. I've always found this stretch of road creepy, but at night it's downright weird. No lights around. No sounds, either. I only rarely even see another car. Hell, I don't even see deer trying to jump out in front of me. That's the thing that's always struck me as peculiar. No deer. No roadkill. Nothing living at all. Anne never seemed to mind it, but this far away from the city always gave me the creeps.
I glance in my rearview mirror in hopes of seeing some signs of life in the form of headlights behind me. No such luck. All I see is a smudge; probably a fingerprint. Hell, maybe even Anne's. My heart gives a little tug. Maybe I was more invested in that relationship than I thought. I take my sleeve to the glass and rub on the mirror. If it is Anne's, I don't want it there anymore.
The best thing for me to do right now is accept what is and move on. I'm on a road, aren't I? That road's going somewhere and wherever that somewhere is, it's where I'm supposed to be. I might end up at a bar tonight but chances are just as good I'll just end up on my couch. My couch is where I pass out after a bender but tonight I think I feel just about as shitty. So couch it is. The bed's too good for me.
The smudge is still there. Dammit. I take my seat belt off and lean forward to breathe on it, then attempt to wipe it off again. Didn't work. In fact, it looks a little darker now.
I sit back, not bothering with the belt. I feel a stab of childlike anger in my gut. If the smudge won't go away I'll have to keep thinking about it. I'll have to keep thinking about her. Anne with her nice hips and her wavy hair and that crooked-mouthed smile she gives me when we're lying in bed together.
Something's trying to come out of my throat. I don't know if it's a sob or a scream. So Anne meant more to me than I gave her credit for. Maybe tomorrow I'll call her and try to patch things up. Maybe she'll…. What is that smell?
I'm suddenly hit with it like an oppressive cloud sitting over my face. Smells like burnt hair. No…not quite. It's a bit sweeter, more acrid. What the hell? I'm used to smelling dead skunks along this road. That's an unmistakable smell, but this isn't it. No this is closer, like it's right in the car. I imagine a raccoon or a cat crawling up into my engine block and being burnt to death when I crank the car. That could be it; but somehow my mind doesn't think so.
The smudge is still staring at me like an accusing face. It's darker now. That can't be right.
I sigh and bring my eyes and my attention back to the road. Right now I almost wish a deer would jump out in front of me. There's an anger inside of me I want to unleash on something. That makes me a horrible person, doesn't it? That makes me the kind of person who doesn't deserve an Anne. I kind of knew that about myself. I never labeled myself a saint, but I never considered myself violent either. I'm not. I know that. What I am is pathetic.
This time I do sob. No tears, just a dry ugly sound from my mouth and a hand clasped over my eyes. Maybe I'll go off the road and hit a tree and that will be that. No more travel books. No more drinking. No more goddamn smudge and no more me. That sounds nice.
Nah, I'm too cowardly for suicide. Too selfish too. There's a part of me that will always think that my next book will sell millions, that the following year I'll sober up and that my next relationship will stick. I know better, but I keep going anyway. I take my hand away from my eyes and tell myself to man up and shut up.
What I see, for an instant, makes my heart leap into my throat. The road ahead is different. It's rolling like an ocean. Up and down, up and down. Quickly and irregularly like an undulating bed sheet. If I keep driving I'm going to…. But then it's gone. It's gone, yet for an instant I see the smudge out of the corner of my eye and have an impression that it's not a smudge at all. It's a reflection.
What the hell is happening to me? I run my fingers through my thick salt-and-pepper hair and exhale. That was not normal. Even at my drunkest I've never seen anything like that. I think I might need to pull over and take a nap. I'm getting delirious. Of course, the closest rest stop isn't for nearly thirty miles. I have to keep going. No way I'm stopping on the side of a dark road like this in a black Toyota Camry with one bad tail light.
I feel something as my car passes the place I saw the movement ahead. I still see nothing, but my car…I swear it's bobbing as I drive. Just a little, but I can feel it. Up and down, up and down, just enough to make me feel it. The smell is back. The smell and…. I gasp as I look at the rearview mirror and see a shape in the backseat. It's the smudge, I know it is, but it no longer looks like a finger print. There's a dark, amorphous shape in the back of my car, roughly man-sized but out of focus. It's like my eyes have gone fuzzy, but only on that one spot.
I whip my head around, but nothing's there. I expected that. I expected to see nothing and know that I was going crazy on a dark country road in the middle of nowhere.
I turn my head back to the road and then close my eyes tight, willing myself to open them and see nothing. To smell nothing. To feel no movement in the car and to make it home safe and sound so I can crawl back into that bed (screw the couch) and wake up the next morning and call Anne and beg her to forgive me.
I open my eyes, and it's all gone. The car stops bobbing. The smell fades away. The smudge is gone. That's right; it was all in my head. My crazy, fucked up alcoholic head.
I laugh a little. My nerves are shot. My nerves and my ego and my senses are all shot to hell. Tonight was just the last straw. All the drinking and bad relationships and self-destructive behavior have been building, and what I just experienced was a nervous breakdown peeking around the corner and saying hello.
I'm okay. I'll get home pretty soon and then I can take a long look at myself. Yeah, I need to get my shit together. Anne deserves better than this and you know what? I think I can give it to her.
I'm smiling when I see the bats flying behind me in my side-view mirror. They aren't bats really. That's the association my mind makes as it tries to make sense of the horror. Flying behind me and keeping pace with the car is a small flock of winged creatures. Floating on wings stretched and translucent like visceral membranes, the…things behind my car have bodies like eels with an oozing horizontal slit where their heads should be. Dangling from thin stalks beneath their bodies are small, single bloodshot eyes, dancing and hopping and staring as those mucous-like wings flap. There are dozens of them. I can see them because the sky isn't dark behind me. The sky is purple.
I scream and close my eyes again, willing it to go away. Instead when I open them what I see is even worse. The sky in front of my car has now changed. It's a thick, liquid purple and there are things floating in it. Gigantic things not like clouds at all but more like floating sacs of rolling, churning bile.
I feel myself hyperventilating. My fingers dig into the steering wheel as if to let go would send me floating up through the roof into that horrible nightmare panorama. This can't be real. The road is still there. If I keep driving I'll get home. I have to. I HAVE TO!
I see the smudge again and a moan of despair escapes my lips. It's even darker now. Whatever the thing in my backseat is, it's definitely a living object. It's still blurry, but I don't see its chest rising and falling. What I see instead is a brown miasmic mass shifting across its skin like crawling worms in roughly the same cadence as a human breathe. That's how I know it's alive. That and the fact that it's sitting forward now. The blurry manlike thing in my backseat is leaning towards me.
"No, no, no no no," I hear myself whimper. I know I'm crazy. I have to be. Crazy or not, I don't want to die like this. I want to be home. I want my bed, I want Anne, I want my life.
The road has changed now. It isn't asphalt anymore. It's white and bumpy and uneven. The surface reminds me of tooth enamel. That makes me scream again. It's dipping and falling and rising and I feel my car struggling to make purchase on the "road" beneath me. The enamel road isn't giving way like asphalt or concrete or even dirt or gravel. It's sucking on me. It's sucking on my tires like the tentacle of a deep sea octopus.
I feel myself weeping. There's no stopping it now. Somehow I'm still driving and somehow I'm still holding onto the steering wheel but my mind and my emotions have begun to simply let go. The smudge is right behind me now. I can almost see it clearly. It doesn't have a face.
When the car jerks forward and begins to slowly sink into the road I know it's over. Whatever this is, real or not, is the end of me. I wish I could tell Anne I love her. I wish I had. I wish I had and I wish I hadn't had that drink in Birmingham and I wish I had never met Bud.
The road opens up now in a gaping maw. Those enamel protrusions were teeth after all. It's going to swallow the car slowly and deliberately. There's only darkness down there. The ground around that maw is quivering in anticipation. The hills and valleys and ugly pock marks are all undulating faster. The "bats" are circling over the car like carrion birds. As the maw opens wider I hear what sounds like a hundred million distant inhuman screams come through my air vents. This entire world is alive.
Yet it is not what is outside of the car that I fear. The smudge isn't behind me anymore. I see the shape of it, clear as day, leaning forward beside me. Its fleshy lump of a head…but it's not a head and I know that now…is as near to me now as a lover's kiss. It's stretching and opening like the road in front of me. When I feel the wet warmth of it on my ear, then my cheek, then my eyeball I can do nothing but whimper.
I let go. There nothing else I can do, is there? This world, the smudge, my whole life…. I never had a damn bit of control over any of it. Soon there will be no more me and there's nothing I can do about it. Maybe it'll be ok. Maybe, I think as the smooth wet "hand" of the smudge slides over the rest of my face, I can sleep now. Maybe I can just let go and there won't be any pain.
This place doesn't care who I am or what I've done. It doesn't care how many times I've fucked up and what I've left behind. There's no pressure or expectation. To this world I'm only meat; and I think…I'm ok with that.