“Wake up, we’re almost home.”
I stir in my seat, disoriented. My mouth has that moldy-laundry taste it gets when I nap during the day except it’s not day, it’s dark. Very dark.
It falls together quickly, pieces fitting into place as if drawn together by magnets: I’m in the car with Oliver, we’re driving home from Heather’s Super Bowl party, and my mouth tastes like moldy laundry.
“I didn’t even know I was tired, babe.” I run my tongue over my teeth and grimace. Yuck.
“Maybe you shouldn’t have had so much to drink. Babe.”
He emphasizes the last word in an ugly way, a way that makes me look at him in mild alarm.
“What? I didn’t—” But then I stop because I don’t remember, I can’t remember, how much I’d had to drink. I can’t remember hardly any of the party, really. Which is not a good sign.
“You think just because you graze on snacks all night you can drink like a fish but Jesus, Rachel, it was a Super Bowl party. Not a kegger.” Oliver is gripping the wheel tightly, his lips set in a thin line that say oh boy am I in trouble.
I don’t think I’d had that much to drink. Maybe it was the migraine medicine I’d taken before we left? Maybe it mixed wrong with the few beers I’d had? Because I’m pretty sure that’s all it was, just a few beers. Only I can’t remember.
Before I say anything else Oliver goes on.
“I mean, there were kids there. Grayson brought their 6-month-old, for god’s sake.” He glances away from the road briefly to give me a look of utter disgust. “It was embarrassing. You embarrassed me.”
Oliver has quite the ego. Well-deserved, but a big ego nonetheless. I’m far from a perfect trophy wife, I slip up from time to time but really? Did I get that drunk?
I straighten in my seat and try to surreptitiously check my breath. Yuck. I don’t think it’s booze, though, it smells more like the buffalo chicken dip Heather made that was so good. It just doesn’t smell good anymore.
Oliver embarrasses so easily these days.
“I’m sorry,” I say, but it’s hard to be sorry for something you’re not sure of, something you can’t remember. It’s just easier this way. Better to back down and apologize than cause an argument. Why does my mouth taste so bad?
“Yeah, you’re sorry all right,” Oliver snaps, and I just don’t get it, I don’t get the animosity, the dislike-bordering-on-hate all because I had a few too many drinks at some dumb Super Bowl party.
I’m about to tell him to just drop it already when he stiffens even more in his seat. He leans forward, a tightly-wound wire about to snap.
“What?” I ask, sure it’s something else I’ve done wrong, another tic-mark on the list of mistakes I’ve made for the evening. I open the glovebox to see if I have any gum but there’s nothing, just long-expired insurance cards, an ancient dead GPS, yellow napkins that smell of past Wendy’s meals.
“This guy ahead of us,” he says in a low voice, eyes locked on the road. “I thought he just wasn’t using his blinker but he’s swerving. A lot.”
“Maybe he had too much to drink at the party,” I snap irritably, and that earns me a fresh hateful look.
“Yeah, that’d probably be you if you didn’t have me to cart your ass home.” My husband glances back at the green SUV in the center lane a few car lengths away. “Watch him, he’s all over the place.”
I close the glove box with an unnecessarily loud bang and watch as I’m told. Indeed, the green SUV is all over the place. It lists for a moment in the center lane before drifting lazily to the right, then back to the center again.
I lean back in my seat, guts suddenly rolling. I feel like I’m going to be sick. He’s going too fast.
“You’re going too fast,” I manage without losing the buffalo chicken dip from my stomach into my lap. Maybe I’d had more than a few beers after all.
Oliver ignores me and cuts across one lane, but the green SUV is going faster now too. Maybe he thinks we’re racing?
Oh god, I’m going to be sick.
“Please slow down, Oliver,” I beg, gripping the door handle for dear life. “Please!”
He’s pushing 80, the speed limit is 60 last time I checked but the green SUV now has us boxed in behind another car. In trying to pass him, Oliver has trapped us.
“You don’t get to tell me what to do,” Oliver snaps, but I can tell he’s scared too, he’s trying to figure out how to slow down or change lanes or do anything but he’s trapped us and the green SUV is drifting to the right again.
“Just pull over or something!” I cry yet I can see there’s nowhere to pull over, the shoulder here is incredibly narrow and besides he couldn’t stop in time — why won’t the car ahead of us go faster? Why won’t the car behind us go slower?
“I can’t!” Oliver’s frantic now, his hands clenching the wheel so hard his knuckles are white. “I can’t, I can’t—”
I look pleadingly at my husband only to see the green SUV edging in closer and closer, the passenger’s rearview mirror is about to touch our driver’s side window, there’s metal crunching and glass shattering and someone’s screaming then —
I’m startled awake, my body tense and panicked like when you jerk out of a dream of falling. It’s still dark, we’re still driving. My mouth tastes worse.
“Oliver,” I gasp, and he gives me a look that says he’s been mad at me for a while but I’ve caught him off guard.
“You okay?” He’s trying not to keep his eyes on me too long, darting back between the highway and his disheveled wife.
The taste that had been just a few minutes ago merely unpleasant is now pretty disgusting. I sit all the way up, scanning the dark road ahead, the red and white taillights blinking cheerily in the night. No sign of the green SUV anywhere.
“Did I drink too much?” I ask him, alarmed, convinced that the crash had been a bad dream. I mean, truth be told, sometimes when I’m hammered I have pretty vivid dreams.
“You might have,” Oliver admits, his voice much softer this time. Like he’s happy that I caught my slip-up and I’m owning it. “You grazed on snacks all night but you still drank like a fish.”
“I’m sorry.” My heart is hammering in my chest and this time I mean it, that dream — or nightmare, more like — had been awful, our last few moments together saturated in anger like a rag soaked in gasoline just waiting for a match.
“It was embarrassing,” he says in a voice just a little poutier than I would’ve cared for, but I let it slide. “You embarrassed me.”
“I’m sorry,” I say again. I smack my tongue off the roof of my mouth, trying to get rid of this awful taste. I check the glovebox for gum but no dice, just long-expired insurance cards, an ancient dead GPS, yellow napkins that smell of past Wendy’s meals.
Something passes through me, not quite a chill.
I check my breath and it’s not booze, but it’s not Heather’s buffalo chicken dip, either. It smells like something… rotten.
“He’s not using his blinker.” I state the obvious as it slides lazily over to the right from the center lane without a turn signal.
“He’s all over the place.” My husband checks his left mirror, ready to make his move, but I put my hand on the wheel in an almost uncontrollable instinct.
“Don’t!” Oliver jumps in his seat; the car jerks left, then right, but we stay in the center lane.
“Jesus, Rachel, what’s your problem?!” he demands, but I barely hear him, I’m watching the green SUV.
“You’re going to try to get past him,” I whisper, and Oliver nods his head hard.
“Yeah, of course I am.” He says this the way you’d speak to an exceptionally stupid child — or a particularly stubborn drunk. “I can’t wait back here and have him hit us, what’s the matter with you? Don’t ever grab the wheel when I’m driving, I mean for god’s sake!”
“Please don’t do this, Oliver. Just let him go, just watch him, don’t try anything crazy.”
He lets out an incredulous laugh.
“Oh, I’m crazy?” My husband takes his eyes off the road to glare at me. “It was a Super Bowl party, Rachel, not a —”
And that’s when the green SUV cuts us off, slams on the brakes, and sends us hurtling into the back of his vehicle. The crunch of metal, shatter of glass, screams —
“Wake up, we’re almost home.”
I am, I’m awake, I’m shaking and my mouth feels like it’s full of blood but no, it’s just an unbearable coppery foulness that makes me heave almost instantly.
My eyes wildly scan the highway for the deadly green SUV but I don’t see it, I can’t see it, I don’t think we’ll ever see it until it’s too late.
“Please,” I beg him, hot tears streaming down my cheeks. “Please be careful, he’s drunk and he’s going to kill us.”
“Look who’s talking,” Oliver scoffs. “Just because you graze on snacks all night doesn’t mean you can drink like a fish—”
“Oliver, please!” I don’t know how to tell him, I don’t know how to get through to him, why doesn’t he remember the crash? The green SUV?
Why does this keep happening?
For the first time I look out my window at a black Mustang as it passes us. There’s no one inside. The car is an empty metal shell, gliding smooth and silent down the highway. I watch it until it disappears into the darkness.
The other cars, they’re the same. No driver, no passengers. They’re all empty.
I want to scream but it’s like my blood has been turned to icewater; I don’t know what to do with this new information. How can they be empty?
“Oliver, watch out for him,” I whisper, because even though I can’t see the green SUV yet I know it’s nearby. I know it’s coming soon.
“Watch out for who?” He turns to me, sounding more confused than angry now. Then he says, “Wait — who are those people?”
“What people?” I look past the impossibly empty cars to the side of the road where Oliver is staring.
“There are people out there, lined up along the highway, like they’re all holding hands or something — a really long line of them — god, they go on forever!”
I can’t see what he’s talking about. All I see is blackness.
And then I remember, it’s soon, we should be paying attention to the road —
Ahead, the green SUV has sideswiped the black Mustang. They’re spinning out of control in the center lane and here we come barreling through, going full speed, Oliver still staring at the people that don’t exist.
Crunch, metal. Glass, shatter. Scream. Scream. Scream —
“Wake up, we’re almost home.”
I’m already awake. My mouth tastes like utter reeking death. I can’t remember how much I had to drink at the Super Bowl party but I know one thing: we’re not almost home, and we never will be.