(Note from JSP: I put out a request for story prompts among people I know, and this story is the result of one of them. The prompt came from my friend Caro, and it was: “You wake up in a stolen car.”)
There are stars, and then there is nothing, and then I wake up.
I snap to consciousness with a sharp pain in my head and a lurching stomach and a whole mess of confusion. Sensory information blares all at once, all of it competing urgently for my attention. My shoulders hurt. My jaw is a little sore. I’m positioned awkwardly on my side, I seem to be having trouble moving, and I can’t see anything. My left hand is all pins and needles. My brain is sluggish, swimming with the chaos of the moment and fighting to remember whatever brought me here. A thumping noise from nearby interrupts my cataloging of discomforts. I can’t tell where it’s coming from. My stomach lurches again and there’s a quiet rattling sound from what seems like beneath me. I can hear rushing wind, maybe, but it sounds muted.
Am I in the trunk of a car?
What the hell? I try to say.
“Whah uh heh?” I grunt. There’s something obstructing my mouth, something jammed between my teeth. It feels like fabric, maybe? Wet fabric. I spend another moment perplexed before it clicks into place: at the moment I am tied up and gagged in the trunk of a car.
Well, I know what my situation is. That’s progress, anyway.
I squirm a bit, testing the hypothesis. Yep. Hogtied. The lurching in my stomach is the car making turns. The rattling beneath me is probably a spare tire and jack.
“Whah uh huck?” I mutter.
There’s that wobble in my stomach again, and then there’s that thump again. It’s a few feet away from my head. Clunk.
Long slow inhalation, pause, long slow exhalation, taking long draws of the stale air in this enclosed space. I feel panic as a bodily sensation, all the places it lives: A buzzing clutch in my chest. A leaden lump in my stomach, which is having a hard enough time as it is. I let these things come, and I greet them, and I breathe. The rising panic wants to tighten every part of me and I breathe, ignoring the pulse hammering in my temple, the whine of my strained wrists. I close my eyes, which feels a little ridiculous inside an unlit trunk, and I let the feeling of ridiculousness come, and I greet it, and I breathe.
I breathe until I can think. The swell of fear subsides, washes away enough for me to collect myself.
First, orientation. A gentle, insistent push of g-force tells me I’m facing the rear bumper of the car. That being true, I’m lying in this trunk with my head towards the driver’s side and my feet towards the passenger side. Right arm’s underneath me, and currently numb. I carefully roll over, lying on my front, and give the lid a firm kick as best I can. It doesn’t budge. Eh, it was worth trying.
The car turns. Clunk.
Where was I before this? There was a junkyard, and –
Startled, I jump as much as is possible.
“Hello?” the voice asks again. It’s muffled. Sounds like there’s a man in the car. “Is there someone in the trunk? I don’t…who are you? Do you know what’s happening?”
I roll onto my left side. “No uh doh – oh guh ‘ammit!” I groan.
“I’m sorry,” he says, “I can’t understand you.” His voice is strained. He’s scared, it sounds like.
“Righ,” I reply, “hol’ on.”
“What? I’m really sorry, I can’t understand you.”
Back onto my belly. My right hand, slowly waking up, feels like a big fat prickling sausage and I can barely move it. I run my left index and middle fingers carefully along the cord binding my hands to each other, my feet to each other, and my hands to my feet. It all feels similar. Not especially rough to the touch. Clothesline, maybe? I arch backwards, reaching for my ankles. Stretching like this, with my shoulders pinned back, elicits a pop from my sternum. I try to work fast, before my left arm falls asleep.
Clunk. That just felt like a little swerve, not a full turn.
I trace the tips of my fingers along the cords, feeling for knots. They’re there, and they feel amateurish, like someone tied a double knot and then just kept tying more knots on top of it. Undoing them will be work and I’m not sure I have time. Talking may be my only chance.
With another groan and a few more pops from the cartilage in my chest, I grip the rope and pull, arching back even further. I try to remind myself to breathe steadily, which would probably be easier without a knot of fabric, slick with drool, obstructing my mouth. I pull harder, gripping the rope as best I can with my right hand, trailing the fingers of my left further along to move it a few more agonizing inches closer to my feet, pulling the rope into my excruciatingly tingly left hand, bending me even further backwards. The strain pushes a little whimper out of me.
“Hey, what happened? Are you still there? Can you answer me? I’m not sure where we’re going. Do you know where we’re going?”
One more heave and I arch further back, and finally land the result I’d been hoping for. These shoes have a decent-sized heel on them. Now I’m bent back far enough I can hook those heels under the gag tied around my head. Ignoring the excruciating wrenching of my shoulders as much as is possible, I flex my ankles, wriggle my head, and the gag slips down around my neck. I unhook the heels, and exhale hard as the tension in my body slackens.
“Hi,” I call out. “Yeah, I’m in the trunk. What’s your name?”
There’s a pause, as if he didn’t expect actual answers. “My name’s Tico,” he says.
“Hi, I’m Devon,” I say, calmly as I can manage. “Tico, how much of tonight do you remember? Also, can you see any road signs?”
“I was hitchhiking. Tomorrow’s my mom’s birthday and I wanted to make it home to surprise her. A guy picked me up, kind of wild-eyed. Then it’s all a blur.”
“Right,” I say, “so, let me ask you. Have you ever heard of the Gerald H. Carruthers Memorial Society and Trust?”
“The Carruthers Society. You might call us a nonprofit. We’re dedicated to the study, conservation, and stewardship of unusual fauna.”
“Oh, you know,” clunk, “harpies, manticores, ghosts, cockatrices, giants, statues that come to life because someone stared lovingly at them over a period of a hundred years, just all kinds of things. Saw a bunyip once, even. Tonight I went to a junkyard to meet with a research assistant from the North American Remarkable Motor Association. A guy named Gavin.”
“Yeah,” I say. Clunk. “They cover some areas we typically don’t. And I –”
The engine whines. Queasiness ripples through me. We’re accelerating. Shit.
“Okay, Tico, I need to cut to the chase here. NARAM handles particular kinds of field specimens. It’s not just cars, but mostly it’s cars. And that’s where we are right now. We’re inside Olivia.”
There’s a short silence, then he speaks. “I, uh…I don’t think I’m inside anyone…”
“Olivia is this car,” I say, “and she’s haunted.” By now I have a strong suspicion about what’s up with Tico, and asking him to take a couple deep breaths would be useless. I try something else. “Hey, listen. I think I understand why you’re so confused right now. I might be able to help. You said you were going home, right? To your mom’s?”
“Great. Can you just take a couple seconds and think about that? About home? Maybe your…” I swallow hard, not quite ready to go digging in sensitive territory but not seeing a choice. “Your mom’s cooking? Or, you know how everyone’s house has a smell and you don’t notice the scent of your own house unless you’ve been away for a while and then you come back? Do you remember the way your home smells?”
“I do,” he says. His voice quivers.
“Focus on that,” I say. “Let it center you. And let thAUUGH!'” I break midsentence as the car hits a bump of some kind. “Sorry! Sorry. Seriously though! Focus on home. On the sensory experience of being home. Being in the place you want to go.”
“I’m doing that,” he says. “I’m doing that,” he says again, this time almost too quiet to hear.
Another bump, then a series. We seem to be on a dirt road. The clunk gets louder, and I think I know what’s making the sound.
“Tico, I’m really hhhuuuhhhh,” I try to say as the car judders over uneven road, “sorry, I’m really sorry to have to do this but there’s something you should know. Is there a man in the driver’s seat?”
“What? I don’t…I don’t think I can see…”
“Think of home! Please!”
“I – yes! Yes there’s a man in the driver’s seat.”
“He’s not moving, is he?”
“He’s probably got an arm hanging out of the window, right? It’s thumping against the car door when we turn or swerve? And you’re in the back seat?”
“That’s right, yeah.”
“I don’t suppose you can maybe get in there and step on the brake?”
“No,” comes the reply, “he’s scooched up against the steering wheel and he’s in the way. I wouldn’t be able to reach the pedals.”
Shit. New strategy. “Okay. The reason you were so confused earlier is that there are basically two competing fields of what we call the Carruthers effect, which isn’t easy to explain but it’s a force of some kind, like gravity or radiation. We’re still aaaaargghh” – another bump – “we’re still barely scratching the surface of what we think it is, but we know there are control protocols and we know that if those protocols aren’t carefully observed then you get unpredictable results. You have to be careful about allowing resonant fields to come into contact. One of those fields is Olivia. The other is you.”
He says nothing for what feels like way too long. Olivia picks up more speed.
“Are you saying I’m, what…the ghost of this guy?”
“No,” I say. “The guy in the driver’s seat is Gavin. He ignored some pretty critical safety checks and spent too much time around Olivia. I could spend all day talking about what her deal is, but she makes people covetous. Makes them make bad decisions. She’s cursed. I didn’t know she’d gotten into his head until he started talking about this great idea he had. Said he was going to do something no one else had done. I tried to talk him out of it and he said he needed to show me something in the trunk and then I’m guessing he hit me on the head and here we are. In a haunted stolen car.” Clunk.
“Hey, you asked if I saw any road signs,” he says. “There’s a sign for Glover Canyon. Two miles.”
Two miles. Crap. “Tico, tonight is May nineteenth. Your mom’s birthday is tomorrow. You’ve got a blanket you bought for her. Really nice woven blanket.”
“How do you know my mom’s…”
The engine roars. Can Olivia sense what I’m trying to do? Wouldn’t put it past her.
“Because you died, Tico! May nineteenth is the night you died. You were hitchhiking and a drunk driver hit you and now on this night every year, some driver picks up a hitchhiker with a woven blanket who says he’s trying to get home for his mom’s birthday and I wish I had more time to explain this but Olivia is heading for Glover Canyon so she can drive off a cliff, just like she does eventually every time she breaks containment. Just after incapacitating the driver.” Usually it’s by moving the seat forward until the driver is stuck against the steering wheel, squeezing the air out like an anaconda with a V8 engine. It’s funny, the imagery you come up with at times like these.
There’s silence. I can hear the tires spitting gravel. There’s a loud clattering smash and an impact on the car, knocking me around. We must have broken through a gate. We’re close. There’s a good chance I’m going to die tonight.
My mind wanders as I contemplate what kind of ghost an event like this would create. It’d be a shame to be dead and not be able to give a talk on the subject at the next conference. I wish I could instead be coming up with some sort of useful plan, but I’m blanking. I snap back, because, again, there’s a good chance I’m going to die tonight.
“And every year, you get picked up. And every year, you get kind of quiet and the driver looks back into the back seat and you’re gone. Every year, there’s no trace of you but the blanket, by the side of the road where you died. Sometimes it’s got objects from inside the car you vanish from. We’ve tried recovering the blanket a few times. It disappears from storage.”
I’m trying to stay calm but my heart is jackhammering. “Gavin’s whole stupid idea was that if you were inside Olivia you might not be able to leave and then that would be, I don’t know, a breakthrough of some kind. Again, his mind was poisoned by a haunted car. So he put me in the trunk and he went to go pick you up, since you’re always hitchhiking on the same stretch of road every year.”
Wait. The blanket. It always disappears from the car he’s riding in, and it’s always back in that spot. And sometimes it takes other objects with it.
“Tico, I know you don’t know me and I am so, so, sorry but I need you to try something. I need you to keep thinking of home and I need you to see if there’s a latch on the back seat.”
He’s silent. Terrain growls underneath us. We’re off road. Half a mile away at most.
“Why think of home?” he asks. “How does that work?”
“It ties you to the, uh, the land of the living,” I say, wishing we had a better name for it. “Strengthens your connection to corporeal things. Makes you able to touch things without, you know, passing through them.”
“What about the latch?” he asks.
“I need you to open it and, uh…pass me the blanket. Then grab Gavin’s head and turn it so he’s looking at the back seat.”
“Pass you – no! Why? This is for my mom!”
“Tico, I promise you, I promise you that if you hand me that blanket then I will do everything I can to make sure your mom gets it. And I’ll tell her that you saved my life. But please -“
An eternity passes. I work at the knots as much as I’m able, for all the good it’ll accomplish, just to give my mind and hands something to do. From the sound of the tires, we’re on grass now. The cliff has got to be within sight now. I breathe. I try to calm the clanging in my heart, my endocrine system, my temples. I can’t help but have a few nagging pangs of wishing I’d told some people – one in particular comes to mind – how I felt about them. I try to think of what I want my last words to be, even if no one’s going to hear them but the ghost of a hitchhiker.
There’s a click. Light, however dim, pours into the trunk as the back seat folds down.
A woven blanket, the kind you might get at a truck stop, tumbles into the cramped space of the trunk. Just as I grab it with my barely-sensate hands, the rumble under the wheels stops entirely and my stomach jumps. I try to roll over, which would be difficult even if the car, and everything in it, were not in freefall. We’ve driven off the cliff.
Without the free use of my limbs I’m forced to wrap myself in the blanket by logrolling while gripping it, like an awkward terrified burrito. I’ve actually got no idea whether this will work or not, but some chance is better than none.
I’m slammed hard against the lid of the trunk, the sides of the trunk, the floor of the trunk as the car tumbles through the air. One of my shoulders makes a nauseating crunching sound as I smash once more into the lid. This time, it falls open, and I fly out of the trunk into the air, gripping the blanket as hard as my ungainly hands will let me.
There’s a distinct, deafening whoosh. I squeeze my eyes shut tightly. If my hypothesis is right, I may be about to pass through a space I’m not sure humans ever see, and it’s a terrible idea to be the first for stuff like that. And if my hypothesis is not right, well, I guess it won’t matter.
The whooshing gets louder, louder, consuming everything, and then the unbearable loudness is gone, and then –
I think I can hear…are those bullfrogs?
Yes. Bullfrogs in a pond nearby. Other than that, and the rushing sound of distant cars, the night is quiet.
I’m on the ground. I wiggle out from the blanket wrapping me, crawling on my belly onto what turns out to be damp grass. I’m under a tree, lying on my front with my feet in the air. Olivia will probably start reforming soon, but that’s a problem that can wait, for the moment. Again I breathe, taking inventory. I seem to have lost a shoe. Shame. I liked that pair. A gentle breeze rustles the leaves and grass around me. The air feels strange, in a pleasant way, against my unshod sole. It occurs to me these stockings are probably wrecked, too.
The fact that I’m alive at all gives me a hint about what I’m likely to see if I look up, but I strain my neck to see it anyway, at the foot of the tree. A cross. Some ribbons. Flowers, some fresh-looking and some long dead and dried. A photo of a young man. He’s got a bright smile, dimpled chin, tousled dark hair. Handwritten on the cross are the words Martin “Tico” Cordova Alvarez, siempre en nuestros corazones and the customary two dates separated by a line.
I peer up at the sky, at all the stars that are out tonight.
Again, it’s funny, the things that come to mind. I think about how if this were a movie I’d want to say something like “Thank you,” or swear that I’d bring this blanket to his mom just as promised. But I’m struck by the absurdity of talking to a photo, because it’s just a photo. Words are words and deeds are deeds. So as I set about the slow, painful business of undoing the labyrinth of knots around my wrists and ankles, I think about how I’ll probably have to do some hitchhiking myself now since my phone is either back at the junkyard or at the bottom of a canyon, and I let the bullfrogs have the last word.