You’re on a road trip with your parents, driving to Big City. A road trip with the family isn’t very exciting, but your parents just bought a new car. It’s a really fast car, and they’ve promised that you can drive it later on in the trip. It makes sense to take turns driving over such a long trip anyway. You’ve obviously driven before because if you hadn’t, they wouldn’t let you drive their sporty mid-life existential crisis. But it’s been the family station wagon, and on occasion, when they’re feeling generous, the Honda Civic, which is a sedan in sports car drag.
When they finally turn the wheel over to you, it’s in the middle of nowhere, a vast open table of nothing, bisected ahead by the shimmering grey ribbon of road. There’s an implied lack of trust; out here there aren’t many other cars or cops so they can relax. You probably won’t total their toy, or get it impounded by driving a hundred and fifty miles an hour past a state trooper. You don’t care, because the car is everything you’d imagined. It rumbles and roars and you can feel the throbbing bass in your ass on the sculpted seats. When you put it in gear and squeeze the pedal, it screams.
Depeche Mode’s ‘Behind the Wheel’ is stuck in your head. You hum it, a stupid grin on your face, your elbow out the window and sunglasses on. Your parents sit in the back, exhausted and napping. Confidently, you signal and make the right turn, imagining that this is your car and you’re driving alone, or maybe to visit someone who will be impressed, who will want to go for a ride.
It’s really easy to lose track of time, with the wall of white noise erasing one of your sensory inputs and the vibration overwhelming another. Road hypnosis takes over for a while. The sun reaches its peak during this blank period, and starts back down. You coast through more intersections, barely noticing the flicker of red and green. Your imagination is busy, constructing an entire world for this future-you, the future-owner of the car, to live in. There are beautiful people of your preferred gender, and the house of your dreams, a sprawling hillside Wright-esque arrangement of boxes and glass with an infinity pool. There’s a party going on, and the stereo system is playing that one embarassing song you secretly like, and later you know you will lie next to the pool under the crystal dome of the sky with a special person, drinks close at hand, quiet and listening to chirping insects and smelling mountainside sage.
So that’s how your time passes.
Then you realize you have no idea where you are.
You haven’t been looking at a map or anything, because you were pretty sure you knew the way to Big City and anyway, just follow the signs and the traffic, right? So you’ve been following the traffic, on autopilot, and now you’re somewhere unexpected. You’re not lost, exactly; just not where you expected to be. It shouldn’t be hard to get back to the main highways, and if all else fails, you can just wake up your parents and let them take over again. But you really don’t want to do that.
Nature calls, though, and so you have no choice. You pull off at a gas station and wake them up. They’re not worried. It’s still only early afternoon, and an extra hour or two on the road isn’t so bad, especially on such a nice day in such a beautiful part of the country. Doubly relieved, you’re ready to drive some more.
One of your parents, the one you secretly like a little more and trust a little more, stays awake to look at the map for a while. Turn here, go straight, merge into that lane, keep left. You feel like you’re back on track, the signs are making sense again, and you even see one alerting you that this highway goes to Big City. Satisfied, your parents both nod off again.
When you see the flash of the sun off orange and white, you slow down precipitously, though carefully so as not to startle your parents. It’s roadwork, and there’s a detour. Just one of those things. You take the detour, follow the orange signs to a two-lane highway winding between vast fields of an unspecified crop. Soon the main road is out of sight.
When the road comes to an end, a T-shaped intersection with no indication of which direction to go, you have a cold knot in your stomach. You sit there for a long few minutes, looking first left and then right, unease threatening to become panic. You might never have moved except for the long, angry blast from the horn of a truck that’s coasted to a stop behind you. You almost shriek with surprise, feeling your bowels loosen and lurch. You see the truck is signaling a left turn, so you turn left. He must be going somewhere, right?
You’ve got to take a break, though. Your hands are shaking when you’re not holding the wheel in a white-knuckle death grip. You start looking for signs indicating a rest stop or a gas station or a convenience store or anything, really. Wal-Mart would be fine. It seems like an hour at least before you find something. It’s a dusty little roadside-attraction shop, tourist junk and yellowing maps. You stop, grateful, and get out to stretch your legs.
You don’t hear your parents get out but after peeing and splashing water on your face and heading back out, you don’t see them in the car. So they must be inside the shop, buying tourist junk. You squint at the sky, thinking it’s late afternoon. You light a cigarette. You would never smoke in their car but leaned against the hood waiting for them isn’t going to stink up the upholstery. Anyway you imagine you look awesome right now, sunglasses and a casual cigarette, staring off at a distant horizon. You’re in love with the Near Dark aesthetic, so this is perfect.
After a while your cigarette is finished and your parents still haven’t come back out so you go inside, feeling silly for expecting some kind of perfect movie timing with them coming out just as you ground out your butt with a booted heel.
Only the store is closed, the window shades drawn and a sign that reads ‘Back Later!’ yellowing in one dusty pane. You knock on the window and eventually someone comes to answer, an old man who assures you nobody has come inside all day. You’re freaked out so you call the police on your cell phone, which of course works because this isn’t a horror movie. The police send a cruiser out and you talk with the cop. He’s reassuring.
He tells you that you shouldn’t worry, that this happens all the time out here. That your parents probably caught another ride, maybe back at an earlier stop you made. You ask him what you should do and he says you should just keep going to Big City. Don’t worry about it, he says. They will be there waiting for you at the hotel. The old proprietor of the store nods in agreement. But who gave them a ride, you ask? They shrug, and the cop points down at the dusty ground. Lots of tire tracks here, he offers. Maybe someone came by and picked them up while you were in the bathroom.
You head back to the car, feeling much better. It’s not until you’re a lot of miles away from the little store that the reassurances of the cop start to sound a little strange. It’s even further along before you’re wondering why the fuck you were willing to swallow that load of bullshit. You turn around to go back to the store, determined to have it out with the store’s owner at least, because he must have seen something.
When you drive back along a route in the opposite direction, it looks like a different road entirely. So you aren’t surprised when nothing looks familiar at first. But after what seems like an hour, you still haven’t found the store again. You’re on a one-lane road in the middle of an ocean of grass. Distantly you see a highway overpass crossing perpendicular to your road, so not knowing what else to do, you drive in that direction.
On new highways, seeing unfamiliar signs. The car isn’t running as well as it was; maybe the grit and dust of all these back-country roads aren’t good for it. You’re chain-smoking in the driver’s seat now, because what the fuck, why not. You pick up a hitch-hiker, who is also going to Big City, but the hitch-hiker isn’t sure of the way either. You both look at maps and discuss the best route. It’s good to have someone to talk to, but you’d also like to get back to the main roads because it’s been a while since you’ve seen another car.
Your hitch-hiker reasons that probably most cars are headed towards Big City so you decide to follow the traffic, when you find some traffic. The hitch-hiker also springs for gas which is good because you’re running out of cash and you don’t know whether these gas stations will take your parents’ gas credit card, or even what the limit on it is. It’s a relief when you get back to well-traveled roads. There’s comfort in being able to look out the window and see other people doing their own thing in their own cars, a kind of illusory closeness and intimacy. You can imagine being in their car with them, or them with you, talking about whatever. The setting sun. The talk radio nonsense. Modern music. The traffic. Whatever.
When the traffic gets heavy, you like seeing the same license plates over and over again. Oh, it’s ‘BFG-101’ again, you think, wondering if the driver knows her license plate says ‘big fucking gun’ or if she’s not a gamer. It’s like having alphanumeric friends. You and the hitch-hiker fall silent for longer and longer periods of time, tired and running out of things to talk about, or enthusiasm for talking.
You must be getting closer to Big City, though, because of the traffic, and because you’re in the kind of scruffy strip-mall commercial area that you associate with the outskirts of a real city. Fields punctuated by rusting machinery and ancient yellowing signs leaning in front of grimy brick buildings. Chapters of the city’s story that were, ultimately, edited out.
The car’s engine has developed an unpleasant squealing noise. You suspect that this car was actually a lemon, polished up and tuned up for sale to suckers like your parents. All the duct tape and chewing gum falling off now, with hundreds of miles of road trip on the odometer. The traffic lets up, and you have a moment of sadness as all the familiar faces and license plates slip away, probably out of your life for good.
It’s getting late so you and the hitch-hiker stop for dinner at a greasy spoon, where you buy a road map that shows the area in a little more detail. You study it and make a plan, while the radio perched on the diner’s counter plays Pink Floyd’s ‘Time’.
After you finish eating you go back out to the car, feeling full but a little queasy as well. You turn the key in the ignition and the engine turns over but won’t start. You swear and go back inside, your stomach lurching and foul-tasting burps of acid trickling up your esophagus. The hitch-hiker leans against the passenger door, waiting for you.
The restaurant owner shrugs. He doesn’t have a spare spark plug. You can call a mechanic, sure. Probably nobody will come out this late at night, though. Maybe you could call for a taxi? Or wait for the bus?
At this point you’d settle for just going back home again. Just go back home and wait there. This trip is a disaster, and there’s probably no salvaging it. You ask the owner if there’s a bus that goes back to Home Town. He looks at you, puzzled. Home Town, you insist. He’s never heard of it. You get out the map to show him, but it’s not on the map, either.
You see movement out the window; it’s the hitch-hiker, trying to keep a pair of kids from putting the car up on blocks and stealing the wheels.
You turn back to the restaurant owner, but he’s going back into the kitchen again. You’re the only one in the place, and you’ve already eaten, and he’s watching something on TV in the back. You open your mouth to ask him something, but you don’t know what you meant to say. What comes out is: “Help.”
He gives you a look of mixed pity and contempt, and closes the kitchen door firmly behind him.
You turn slowly back to the door, looking with a numb stare at the empty diner. “Help,” you say to the still room. “I’m lost.”
But the room is empty, or maybe nobody can hear you. Maybe you’ve lost your voice. “I’m lost,” you say, and you feel tears welling up in your eyes.
There’s a moment of complete clarity: you suddenly remember right after you started driving, right around noon, you made a right turn. And you realize now that it was a wrong turn. You should have turned left. Everything since then has been one mistake after another, each one making it harder, not easier, to get back to the main road to Big City.
You slump down to the floor, back pressed to the counter. “Help,” you say, as the door opens and the hitch-hiker comes in. “I’m lost.” The hitch-hiker sits down on the floor with you, puts an arm around your shoulder, leans against your arm. The hitch-hiker doesn’t say anything because there’s nothing to say.
You close your eyes because it’s dark out and you’ve just had an idea that maybe this is a dream and if you sleep you’ll wake up at home. The radio is playing ‘Hurt’ by Nine Inch Nails, but it’s the Johnny Cash version. You drift off.