This is what Perkins tells himself to do. He knows the voice inside his head is right. He knows he needs to open his eyes.
The trick is doing it. For some reason he can't.
But you have to! You have to wake up, you damn fool. You're in terrible danger.
Sure, sure. He understands he's in danger. He's going to do something about it too—but later, when he feels better. Right now he has a splitting headache. He just wants to lie here and rest.
You can't rest. Open your eyes and see.
He'll open them eventually. But, please, if he could only have a few more minutes to sleep…
No! You have to look!
Just a few more minutes…
Your car is driving itself!
That's silly. A car can't drive itself. Someone's foot has to be on the accelerator, unless he or she has decided to activate the cruise control. Someone's hand—preferably both hands—has to be on the steering wheel. Someone has to tell the car where to go, for goodness sakes. How on Earth can a car drive on its own? It can't. That's the answer.
So leave me alone, Perkins tells the pitiful, frantic, wailing voice. Let a guy catch some Z's.
But Perkins does not wish to listen.
The voice fades…
Perkins dreams. No, wait. It's not really a dream, is it? It's more of a replay of earlier events—He was in his residence's master bedroom, packing a suitcase. He had to catch a flight. His expertise in financial restructuring in the wake of bankruptcy was needed by a firm in Chicago, Illinois. A flight was available tonight, departing at eight-thirty. It was nearing seven o'clock when his wife, who was helping him pack, said, "I wish you didn't have to go."
"Me neither, but duty calls."
"Jennifer's upset you'll miss her game tomorrow."
"She seemed okay to me."
"She just wants you to think she's okay."
"Well, Francine, what am I supposed to do?" Perkins snapped. "Not go? This is my work. This is what I have to do to keep us in the lifestyle we're accustomed to. And I hope Jennifer will remember that I've been able to watch her play a lot more this year than I did last year. Besides, it's not like I want to be away. I don't really have a choice in the matter. When Jennifer's an adult and has a family of her own, she'll see what I'm talking about. Now, have you seen my burgundy tie?"
Perkins licks his lips, shifts a bit to get more comfortable. He sounds a bit harsher in that exchange with his wife than he might have liked. Something about having to travel on short notice makes him irritable. He recognizes he ought to get a better handle on this irritability. His daughter, Jennifer, is twelve years old. Why should she have to put herself in the shoes of an adult with her own family and a job that requires shuttling across the country and sometimes even across the world? Isn't she entitled to the emotional responses of any other twelve year old who wants her father to watch her play in a softball game? Sure she is.
Beneath Perkins' body, there is a sharp and sudden bump. He wonders what it is but doesn't wonder all that much. It's still better just to sleep, what with this awful headache.
He drifts away again…
The dream continues—
Francine offered to drop him off at the airport. No, he said. He didn't expect to be gone for more than a couple of days and he liked being able to get into his car the moment he disembarked from his return flight. But thanks anyway, he said.
Then it was time for goodbyes, never any fun.
He asked Jennifer what she had planned for tonight—anything special?
Well, she said, Mom would be dropping her off later this evening at the little frozen yogurt place that was a popular hangout for kids her age.
That ought to be a good time, said Perkins. He pretended to be surprised, even though Francine had already told him of his daughter's plans for the evening. According to Francine, there was a young fellow who had caught Jennifer's eye who liked to hang out there with his buddies. Don't worry, she added, they're the same age and I know his mother and they're a nice family. So you can relax, Daddy.
But Perkins was already relaxed. It made him feel better to know that Jennifer was going to have a good time tonight. Maybe that would ease, at least somewhat, the sadness she felt over her father's absence. Maybe…
Wake up, you stupid bastard!
It's that nagging voice again. What will it take to make that voice shut up?
If you don't wake up, you're going to die!
Perkins groans in his sleep. He stretches out a bit. Strange: he cannot feel a blanket over his body. And the clothes he's wearing…they don't feel like the T-shirt and sweatpants he normally sleeps in; it almost feels as if he's wearing a collared shirt and dress slacks.
But that's dumb.
He decides he's still half-dreaming…
Perkins was driving. Yes, he remembers that distinctly. Here in the wintertime it was already dark, and heavy cloud cover made the length of highway he was traveling to get to the airport darker still. Also, where were the other cars tonight? Only a few vehicles had passed him on the road since he set out from home—and, yes, they had all passed him, each and every one.
The police could have made a killing in speeding tickets tonight, Perkins decided, if only they had been around. But they were nowhere in sight.
Only now, in retrospect, did it occur to him that what vehicle traffic there had been was all headed in the same direction as he: west. He hadn't seen a single eastbound automobile. It was as if they were all zooming toward the same destination. Weird…
Another bump unsettles Perkins. He rolls onto his left side. He has a hard time doing so, feels as if something is restraining him, but finally manages.
Even as he sleeps, or half-sleeps, Perkins' mind is increasingly active. It is rather strange, almost disconcerting, that he has no memory of pulling up in the airport parking lot, getting onto the plane, flying to his destination, checking in at a hotel—doing, in short, all the things he would have to do in order to get to where is right now.
Which is a bed, isn't it?
What else would it be?
What else does a person sleep in?
Maybe, just for a moment, he ought to open his eyes, look around, and let it all come back to him. He's getting unnerved. He won't be able to rest well if he's unnerved. It's been an unnerving night, he recalls, even as he remains in this strange fugue state.
Perkins was driving, yes. Everything was fine, up until—what?
Something was going on with the accelerator.
55 miles per hour...
Yes, that was the speed at which Perkins wanted to travel. That was the speed at which he had been traveling, only the car wanted to go faster.
But that's crazy! The car can't want anything! It's a car! It's an inanimate object!
55 miles per hour, and then 60, and then 65…
Perkins recalled he had taken his foot off the accelerator. But there was no difference. The car's speed kept increasing.
Now 70 miles per hour…
Perkins had put his foot on the brake, pumped it.
He had gotten scared. He had tried to manipulate the steering wheel. It was frozen in place. He could not budge it.
What's happening here? What's happening?
At that moment Perkins had reached for the gear shift, but suddenly the driver's seat lurched underneath him, pitching him backwards and then: sleep.
Perkins' eyelids flicker. Then they are open at last—and observations are made.
Perkins is not in a bed, let alone in a hotel room.
Initially the ceiling—which is dark and strangely close—is unfamiliar to Perkins. Then he recognizes it. This is the ceiling of his late model luxury sedan.
And he is in the car's backseat.
And the seatbelts are wrapped around his body, holding him in place.
And there is a bleeding wound on his head, the origin of which is a mystery to him.
What is going on? Did a kidnapper knock him unconscious and then throw him into the backseat for transport in his own vehicle to the kidnapper's hideout? Or was he knocked out some other way, when his car developed whatever malfunction that had caused it to behave the way it had, and presently being driven to the hospital by a Good Samaritan, again using his own vehicle?
Perkins looks to the driver's seat. He gets his answer.
Nobody—at least nobody present in this automobile—is driving him anywhere. The cabin is empty, except for him.
By itself the steering wheel is moving slightly to and fro. Its corrections are swift, jerky, as it guides the car down the road at a vicious rate of speed. Perkins cannot see the speedometer from his vantage point on the backseat, but his gut tells him the vehicle is cruising at well over eighty miles per hour. Every light on the dashboard is ablaze, a number of which Perkins has never seen lit, and in the darkness their collective orange glow is bright, unworldly, and vile. The radio is on and it is cycling through the stations at a rate Perkins would have thought impossible; there is no sound. The key is not in the ignition anymore—but clearly that's no problem, for the car still runs as if it were.
In this instant Perkins knows terror of a kind he has never known before.
He must escape. That is all he understands about his present circumstances.
He bucks against the grasp of the seatbelts, attempting to wrench himself free. They fight back, animated by some unseen force. The horror, coupled with the sheer absurdity of the situation—a car driving under its own power, seatbelts that move on their own—rattle his sanity. But there is a positive aspect to this. Thanks to a rush of adrenalin, Perkins' strength is amplified to that of a madman, or a man who is going mad. He does not care how or why this is happening. All he knows is that he must get out of here now.
One of the belts lashes itself across his throat. With great effort, he snatches it away. He feels as if he is fighting constricting snakes. Several times the metal tip of a belt strikes his face, and the impact is horrendously painful. Perkins thinks that such a blow may have rendered him unconscious before, not that it matters much to him at this point.
"Let me go!" he shouts at the flailing belts. "I'll kill you! Kill you! Kill you!"
He tries to tangle the belts together, looping one over the next, twisting them around each other.
"There!" he cries. "What do you think about that, huh? What do you think about that?"
His gambit has been successful. The seat belts are intertwined, warring against one another. How long before they extricate themselves Perkins cannot guess—but he intends to be long gone before it happens.
And now: time to get out. He lunges for the door across from him. It is locked. He cannot unlock it. He does not think he will be able to unlock any of the doors.
Fine—have it your way.
Perkins goes onto his back, lifts his legs high into the air, and slams the window of the opposite door with the soles of his leather shoes. The window cracks. He hits the window again with his feet. It cracks further. Again, and the glass shatters.
A rush of wind enters the cabin. The car, Perkins thinks, must be going so very, very fast. Can he survive a jump from a vehicle moving at such a high rate of speed?
Perkins chooses to accept the risk. Something tells him he doesn't want to go wherever his vehicle—well, more like his former vehicle—is taking him.
He goes onto his knees now, preparing to climb out through the now-glassless window.
The car swerves violently. Perkins is thrown onto his back again.
The seatbelts—so much like serpents—are disengaging from one another. They will come after him again. He may not have enough strength to overcome them in a second bout. So there cannot be a second bout.
Perkins pushes himself up once more, and makes another lunge for the window. The car swerves a second time but Perkins is better prepared for the maneuver. He does not fall back into the cabin.
Come on, come on, come on—
A seatbelt wraps around his right foot. Perkins uses his left foot to scrape it off, kick it down onto the seat.
Suspended halfway out of the vehicle, with the cold night air blistering his face as it rushes past him, Perkins sees he is not alone on the road after all. Another vehicle—a mid-sized truck—is coming up alongside.
"Help, oh, help me!" Perkins calls out to the truck, waving. "Help me! Please!"
But then he sees that the occupants of that truck can do nothing for him. He cannot tell much about the state of the truck's driver, but the young blond woman in the passenger seat is beating against her window, calling for help too, even as a seatbelt tightens around her neck. For a brief moment her eyes—bulging from strangulation, fear, or both—make contact with those of Perkins, and then the truck has hurtled past and only its taillights are visible and then even those recede into the darkness that lies ahead.
And yet, even with the darkness all around, Perkins recognizes his location. It is nowhere near the airport; obviously, the car had other ideas about where to go tonight. Still, Perkins has traveled this way many times before, and knows the route well. He is on the Interstate, heading north, and if memory serves him correctly, then about a mile farther up there is a large, deep river. So long as the car keeps to the right lane, he thinks he has a chance.
Perkins clambers out of the vehicle but he does not try to jump out; instead he struggles to get on top of the car. It is hard and several times he nearly falls—but he makes it. Incredibly, he makes it.
As fast as they are traveling, Perkins will not have to wait long for his window of opportunity—but the time that window will be lifted is brief. And he may still be killed in the process.
Here it comes.
Atop the vehicle, Perkins gets to his knees. The car is still traveling in the right lane. If it moves left, what he is planning to do will not work.
He moves to a squatting position as the bridge comes into sight.
The car is on the bridge—but it's not time yet, not yet.
Come on. You can do this.
The landscape, though shadowed, can still be seen changing as the car advances. It will tell Perkins when it is time for him to make his move. There are trees, more trees, then underbrush, then a strip of marsh, then shallow water, and then deep water—
Perkins springs from the vehicle, and suddenly he is flying through dark, cold, empty space. He sees the concrete railing beneath his feet and does not think he will clear it—until he does. Now there is only black water below him, rising, rising, rising…
He smacks onto the surface.
For a moment Perkins knows, feels, nothing.
Then there is more darkness, more cold, and more emptiness—but this time it is not open air that offers him these things, but, he soon realizes, the depths of the river. Perkins is underwater, cannot tell if he is swimming toward the surface or the river bottom or off to the side.
It's that voice in his head again, the voice that was always right, the voice he should have listened to earlier, even if, maybe, it wouldn't have a difference. Float, it tells Perkins. And float he does. Calming, he lets the current lift him to the surface. Then he begins to stroke toward the muddy riverbank. He finds just enough strength to trudge out of the marsh, and then, once on dry land, he collapses in exhaustion.
A few minutes later, Perkins gets to his feet. He cannot even begin to understand what is happening tonight; why cars—simple machines—have turned against their owners and are now ferrying them against their will to some unknown destination. Is it a foreign country that's behind this? Or are aliens to blame?
But all that, Perkins decides, is just pointless speculation. There will be plenty of time for the military and law enforcement and scientists to figure out what malign force is responsible for this horror. Perhaps they already know and are working on a solution to combat it.
Or perhaps they are just as in the dark as Perkins.
Whichever, his priority has to be the protection of his wife and daughter. Of course, his cell phone is still in the car, which means he is going to have to walk back.
Fine, he thinks, then that's what I'll do.
By ten-fifteen Perkins has made it back to the highway. On occasion, as before, he sees the headlights of a car or truck heading his way. Each time so far he has ducked back into the pine forest that lines this part of the highway. His plan is to get to the closest gas station and call Francine from there, tell her not to pick Jennifer up. Don't even leave the house. And he'll promise to explain later.
That's the plan.
In short order Perkins comes upon a BP station. There are no cars anywhere to be seen. The parking lot of the convenience store is well lit. This illumination allows Perkins to better make out the latest car to come up the road.
It's a minivan. It's the same make and model as the one Francine drives.
It's coming fast too.
Don't let it be them. Please, just don't let it be them. I'll never go away on a business trip again. I'll watch every game Jennifer plays. I'll quit my job. I'll be at home all the time. I'll be the greatest father and husband there ever was. Just don't let it be them. Oh, please. Please, no.
Perkins does not attempt to hide as the minivan rockets past. He can't. He's rooted in place. He has to know if that's his wife and daughter in there.
He catches only a glimpse of the individuals inside, but it's enough: the faces of both Francine and Jennifer, along with the palms of their hands, are pressed against the glass of the passenger side window. Perkins beholds those faces just long enough to see that they are contorted in terror—after which the minivan is swallowed up by the night.