For the record, I hate Interstate 57. It has got to be one of the most dirt-dull strips of road in this country. Nothing but corn. Out the driver’s side, out the passenger window, in the rearview… just more freakin’ corn. But that’s where I was when it happened. Driving back up that same god-forsaken highway on that same boring trip I’d taken a hundred times.
Janet insists on driving out to see her folks four or five or six times a year. I don’t know why. All we do is sit and stare at each other. They never have anything good to say about me and me about them, but I have to humor her now and then. Something about patching the rift between us, I guess.
At this point, I’d like to say that Interstate 57 is prone to some bizarre-o weather. I’ve seen golf-ball sized hail in August. Yeah, August even. But this trip it was rain all the way. No clouds, no corn - just gray freakin’ rain.
So I was driving along in the gray. Straining to see between wiper swipes…
“Pull over, John.”
“We’re making good time. We’re out in the middle of butt-nowhere. And this can’t last forever.”
“Just pull over - you can’t see.”
“Don’t go telling me whether I or not can see, Janet. You don’t know. I can see perfectly fine,” I lied through my teeth.
She sighed and rolled her eyes.
“Don’t start that crap. I didn’t want to go; your parents hate me and I know it. I just want to get home. Besides, there’s no one else here.”
That’s when it happened. Big-freakin’ deer leapt in front of the car. A buck even. I swerved and hit the brake, almost landed in the ditch. But I stayed on the road somehow.
“Damn it, John. Slow down and pull over. You trying to get us both killed?”
“Yeah, Janet. That’s it. So that on our way to hell all I’ll hear is you bitching about how I can’t drive. ‘Cause that’s how I want to spend my afterlife.”
She glared at me, hunkered down, and stared out the window. At some point, she fell asleep. I tried the radio, but there was nothing to tune in. Just static. And gray. And squealing wiper blades. I kept the static to drown out my boredom. The rain lightened up a bit, but the sky seemed even grayer than before. Pale white gray that makes everything for miles seem flat. Just grayer and grayer. Until…
Jesus Saves cut through the rain on a billboard. All at once, the radio burst into Gospel music.
Janet woke with a start. “Where are we?”
“Who knows? Still going.”
Oncoming headlights streaked through the gray on the other side of the divided highway.
“I’m sorry I got on you about your driving. I’m tired and I just want to get home too,” she whispered.
“It’s okay… I’m sorry, too. Your parents always get me on edge.”
The gospel music ended in Alleluia as some hellfire and brimstone preacher came on, “Sinners beware…”
“What happened to Us?” Janet asked.
“We used to be so perfect together. Like coffee and creamer.”
“I dunno,” I answered. “I guess we haven’t really talked much lately.”
It was true. I couldn’t remember the last time we’d just talked. Besides nitpicky crap. I left the toilet seat up. She spent too much money on some useless trinket. I used up the soap and didn’t get out a new bar. She shoved my keys someplace I couldn’t find them. And so on and so on…
A billboard preached: Don’t Let Life Pass You By.
“Maybe we should do that then.” She turned towards me.
The wipers moaned against the drying glass. The rain had finally stopped, but everything was still the same god-forsaken gray. Vacant and lifeless. Gray road as far as I could see.
“Repent and be cleansed,” hailed the radio.
“How’s work?” she asked.
“Same old. Bob’s still pissed that we didn’t get the Cyrus contract. Joe’s been out sick. Gary’s on vacation. And I’ve been working my butt off to cover for the two of them.” I clenched my right fist around the steering wheel. “And then you have to go and drag me off to your folks for the weekend.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“Oh, it’s not all your fault; I didn’t say anything.” I released my grip on the wheel, watching the gray road forge on ahead. “Why didn’t you tell me we were going?”
“Well, Madge was out all last week, visiting the grandkids. I was looking after Wally for her. That rat terrier’s a little bastard. He dug under the fence. Took me an hour to catch and leash the little devil. And when I did, he kept jumping up and running around things. He got muddy pawprints all over my jacket.” She cringed. “Anyway, Madge got back Friday morning. I didn’t know when she was coming home, either Friday or Saturday. So I didn’t have much time to plan our trip. But Ma wanted to see me. It’s been three months, you know.”
“I know,” I sighed.
Janet’s Ma would’ve been happier if I’d never come into her life. I stole her. Her baby girl. Took her far away to the big windy city. Best thing I’ve ever done for her though; her Ma’s grip on that leash was way too tight.
Another billboard: What Are You Waiting For? I was coming up on some traffic. More than I’d seen all day. Heck, I’d never seen this much traffic. Not on I-57 anyway.
“Your Ma’s gotta learn. You got your own life. She can’t go around living it for you.”
“I know, honey, but I feel so bad for her. Brad’s moved to Florida. Sara’s moved to Oregon. And Paul’s in California now. We’re only four hours away. Plus, I’m her baby girl.”
“… be free,” blared the radio, “Can I get an Amen?”
“Amen,” the radio echoed before it went to static. I switched it off.
That’s when I first noticed. I’d caught up to the traffic and was passing a car on the left. I’d turned to look at Janet when I spotted it. The car next to me, a red sedan, it was being driven by a skeleton. Not a bony, bleach-white skeleton like in the movies, but a butt-nasty, gooey, flesh-oozing horror. Its nearest eye swung from its socket like the fuzzy dice that hung from its rear view.
“Shit!” I swerved to stay on the road.
“What’s wrong, John?” Janet cowered in her seat.
“That car…” I pointed, shaken. “It’s being driven by a freakin’ dead man.”
“That’s ridiculous. Dead people don’t drive.”
Janet turned to face the window. I knew she’d seen it; she looked like she was going to crawl out of her skin. She screamed. Damn thing just kept on driving. Didn’t even see us.
We were surrounded by them. We’d come into the thick of the traffic now. I was being followed by one in a Trans Am, its driver’s face ripped off, half of it missing and the other half hanging from the skull by a bunch of torn threads. I passed a station wagon, the two brats in the back were fighting over some video game, clawing at one another with their bloody, bony fingers, and the driver’s head was sunk in. And then there was a semi, its driver burned beyond recognition…
“Oh, God,” Janet cried, “pull over, John.”
“I can’t. I can’t get over. They’re too thick.”
“Where are we?”
Everything was still gray. Pale gray. The horizon seemed both flat and endless at the same time. The road just cut on, through the gray. With all its zombie freaks. There were more of them all the time. Just kept getting thicker and thicker. It all seemed like a bad dream.
I glanced at the odometer. 73142.8. Freakin’ locked up at 73142.8. It didn’t even do so much as flinch. And the gas gauge never changed. A half tank. I should’ve been driving on fumes by now. Still a half tank.
“There’s an exit! Quick, John, get off now!”
“I can’t get over.” I wasn’t sure I wanted to, even.
Then the tone of the billboards changed. Thank You for Driving the Styx swung by first. And then a bunch of freakin’ ads. See the Cavern of Doom, 20 miles. Fire Up Your Passions at the Adult Supercenter, 37 miles. Get Away to the Hot Springs, 71 miles. I wasn’t buying any of that crap, though. I just kept on driving.
We’ve been driving the Styx now for the better part of a decade. Or so it seems. I just can’t seem to get off. Too scared, I guess. Not like there aren’t exits. But there’ll be Hell to pay, I’m sure. And I’m getting used to the rhythm of it all.
Besides, Janet and I talk. About whatever. And we drive. Made a little game of it. You see a car off in the distance and you guess what kind of problems they got. Heads bashed in, flesh burned off, eyes or limbs missing… Janet’s getting pretty good at it.
You can tell the newbies. Fresh freaks scared shitless. Looking around frantic, like they missed their exit. They don’t know, yet. They passed that exit long ago. Now there’s nothing left to do but drive.