01 Feb The Left/Right Game: Part 2
The Left/Right Game [DRAFT 1] 08/02/2017
The next turn comes immediately after the tunnel.
We’d been in the dimly lit passage for almost two minutes, but at the pace Rob likes to travel it’s hard to figure out how far we’ve actually gone. When we descended into the underpass we were just nearing the outskirts of Phoenix. Scrutinising the rear view mirror as we leave, it’s fair to say we aren’t that much further out. Everything else; the temperature, the time of day, the weather, all seems exactly like it had been before we ventured into the tunnel. I’m not sure what I was expecting of course, but it certainly doesn’t feel like we’re anywhere new.
The tunnel itself had been similarly underwhelming, especially considering the importance Rob seemed to place on it. In fact the only thing of true interest since we passed through was something Rob said once we hit the halfway mark. As the tunnel’s mouth loomed towards us, Rob picked up the CB Radio transceiver, and issued a casual warning to the convoy. The message itself was straightforward, his choice of words however was… curious.
I decided to ask him about it.
AS: Rob, just a second ago, when you told us the next turn was coming up. Why did you use the word “trap”?
AS: I have it in my notes. You said, “Folks we’re coming to the end soon, first little trap’s coming up. Our next turn is sharp left as we leave. Look out for it.” Is there a reason you used the word “trap”?
ROB: Just one of those things. Fella who wrote all the original logs, he liked to think the road would try and trick you into making a wrong turn. Small roads off large highways, roads obscured from view, sharp turns like this one.
AS: He thought the road was trying to deceive him?
ROB: Yeah pretty much. I gotta say I agree with the guy.
By this point, we’ve taken the offending corner and the next right a little further on. I can’t help but feel that Rob is reading a great deal into what is, essentially, an abrupt turn in an ordinary road. The level of conspiracy he’s able to place behind such a simple thing, going as far as to ascribe some mischievous quality to the asphalt itself… it’s hard to take seriously.
In fact, I’m starting to wonder less about whether Rob can convince me this game is real, and more about whether I’d ever be able to convince him that it isn’t. Perhaps this story will be less about where a magic roadway goes after a few zigzagging turns, and more about where the human mind can go if it invests too heavily in an idea. To his credit Rob has noted my cynicism, he even seems to welcome it, but if our current surroundings are supposed to convince me, then he’s going to find me more cynical than he anticipated.
Rob keeps his hands on the wheel and his eyes on the road. Any attempt at an interview receives a pleasant but curt response. He’s not being evasive, his attention is just elsewhere. Before I know it, half an hour has gone by without Rob speaking a word. It seems like a large part of the Left/Right Game involves driving in complete silence. Once again, I’m not sure what I expected, but it’s certainly not been an earth shattering start.
At least it gives me time to type up my notes.
ROB: Ferryman to all cars. We stop here.
An uneventful hour and a half has passed since we left the tunnel. I didn’t notice Rob pick up the receiver, but before I know it the Wrangler has pulled up at the side of the road, leaving a large space behind us for the rest of the convoy to park up. The buildings are getting few and far between now, it won’t be long until we were in the desert proper. With this in mind, I assume Rob is simply stopping to let everyone drink up.
I probably shouldn’t assume when it comes to Rob Guthard.
Though this is definitely a rest stop, Rob also has some important words for the crew. He gathers us round in a rough semicircle, talking while we eat our provisions.
ROB: Now, I mentioned in the emails that, at certain points on this trip, you’d need to do some things just because I say so. This is one of those times. Ya’ll understand?
EVE: Uh yeah I… I guess… we get to know what it is right?
APOLLO: This is when he tells us to give him our money right Rob? Ahah
ACE: Yeah I’d rather know what’s going on.
ROB: And I don’t intend on keeping anything from you. I just want to be clear, that across this next stretch you need to follow my orders to the letter.
ACE: Yeah we get it, just tell us already.
Rob takes a few moments, perhaps to lend gravity to his point, perhaps to swallow some barbed words intended for the increasingly impatient Ace. When he does speak, it’s in a measured and serious tone. He’s clearly adamant that we take his words onboard.
ROB: For about half an hour, the next 13 turns, we’ll be going one by one. We travel in order of formation. Me and Bristol will go first, then I’ll radio the next car to follow. When you reach the jeep, you park up behind me. Then we keep going as normal, now…
Rob takes a deep breath in. When he starts up again, his speech is even more pointed than before.
ROB: … there’s a hitchhiker on the road, a well dressed man with a case. You pick him up, you take him where he needs to go. You do NOT under ANY circumstances, talk to the man. To be safe, don’t look at him. Don’t take anything he offers you. Don’t open the door for him or wave goodbye when he leaves. You do not acknowledge him, in any way. You want my advice, don’t say a word till you get to the stopping point.
LILITH: Why do we have to go one by one?
**ROB:”” Guy who wrote all the logs says he don’t like choosing cars. I don’t know what that means, but I’m lucky I never had to find out.
ACE: Why don’t we just not pick him up?
ROB: That isn’t an option.
ACE: Well, I mean, yes it is. I don’t see why we…
ROB: Goddamn it, you’ll pick him up, whether you want to or not!
The group is silent. This is the first time Rob’s raised his voice. In the ensuing stillness, Ace looks like he’d be more than happy to turn his car around and retrace the route back to Phoenix, leaving Rob in the dust with a few choice words. I can sympathise with him a little, Rob’s been treating him as an annoyance, a tag along who didn’t do the homework, but at the end of the day, Ace is doing nothing to fix things. Also Rob is essentially right, he didn’t do the homework.
BONNIE: Well OK I suppose we should get back on the road then… if everyone’s ready.
Deciding he has nothing more to say to us, Rob marches over to the Wrangler. Bonnie, Clyde, Apollo and Eve sit on the floor sharing snacks. Ace loses himself in his phone and Bluejay, still maintaining a noticeable distance from the group, takes to her car with a copy of US weekly.
LILITH: Bristol, can we talk?
I turn around to see Lilith, holding her cell phone with the screen facing me.
AS: Yeah sure what’s up?
LILITH: Have you tried to make any calls since we came through the tunnel?
AS: No not yet, why?
LILITH: Could you try?
I pull out my own cell and dial in to the office. The line’s busy, which isn’t exactly uncommon. Lilith watches intently, waiting for a reaction.
AS: I’m not getting through.
LILITH: They were busy?
AS: … Yeah. Why?
LILITH: Everyone is. We have signal, we can make calls, but everyone on the other end is busy.
AS: Don’t you think it could just be coincidence?
LILITH: I really mean everyone, Bristol. While Eve’s been driving, I’ve been calling; my camera’s automated support line, 911…
AS: You dialed 911?
LILITH: For science, yeah. All of them are busy. I even called this guy at my dorm who has a serious thing for me and, trust me, he is not fucking busy. This is weird right? It’s like we’ve crossed a threshold and the world’s suddenly… doing something else. You know?
In all honesty, I’m not sure I do know. I don’t want to say it, but it still seems like a massive stretch. Luckily Rob saves me from commenting when he calls me over to the car, clearly eager to get back on the road. I tell Lilith we’ll look into her discovery on the other side and she nods in agreement, retreating to her friend and immediately stealing a handful of apple slices.
I climb into the Wrangler and wave goodbye to the convoy. We slowly roll back onto the road and set off on our way. Watching the rest of the group disappear into the background, I feel noticeably more isolated despite Rob’s presence, or perhaps because of it, I’m not exactly sure.
The hitchhiker shows up about ten turns later.
Just like Rob said, the man is incredibly well dressed, in a well fitting brown suit with a dark green tie, even from a distance I can see his shoes are expertly shined, as is the varnished wooden case resting on the floor beside them. He stands on the side of the road and raises his hand gingerly, wearing a look of hopeful anticipation.
AS: Who is he?
ROB: The hitchhiker.
AS: Is that really all you’re going to say?
ROB: It’s all I can say. You understand the rules here?
AS: Don’t talk to him.
ROB: I’d say don’t talk at all. Not until we stop. When we stop, we’re safe.
Rob veers slowly over to the side of the road. The hitchhiker smiles appreciatively, grasping his hands together and shaking them in thanks. Picking up his case he strolls over to the Wrangler whilst unbuttoning his blazer.
AS: See you on the other side.
The back door opens, and the hitchhiker pulls himself into the storage area. Finding no seating, he settles himself cheerfully on some of the softer luggage just behind me.
HITCHHIKER: Not much in the way of seating back here huh!
I have to admit, I do feel a subtle urge to respond. Even after the stern warnings I’ve received, to ignore the man seems almost instinctively rude. I was raised British after all.
HITCHHIKER: So where are you all from? I’m travelling in from Oakwell.
I glance at him in the rear view. He meets my gaze and smiles. I flick my attention back to the road, counting the white lines. The stranger persists in trying to start a conversation.
Ten minutes go by. The silence grows palpable, broken intermittently by yet another cheerful attempt at conversation. Topics include what nice weather we’re having, our professions, our hobbies. In response, I busy myself with pointless but occupying tasks. I find myself playing games in my head, thinking of common phrases and making them into clunky anagrams. It seems to work and, after a short while, I start to habituate to the man’s small talk. I almost don’t notice that he’s there.
Maybe that’s what allows him to catch me out.
HITCHHIKER: You’re just a fucking disappointment aren’t you.
The statement comes out of the blue. It’s sharp, venomous, completely divorced from the idle questioning I’d been tuning out. I’m daydreaming when I hear it, and before I can register what I’m doing, I’m turning to face him. My lips are already parting as I go, a reflexive thought, reflexively vocalised.
I almost say it out loud. The word is on the edge of my tongue, a single note my vocal chords were all but ready to play. Only the sudden, vice like grip of Rob’s hand on my forearm anchors me in the moment. I stare at the Hitchhiker, my mouth still open. He’s different now. All of the warmth, all of the pleasantry, it’s drained from his face like running makeup. His smile is malevolent, calculating and finally, it feels honest.
HITCHHIKER: You want to know things? I can tell you.
Rob keeps his eyes focussed on the road, but his grip on my arm tightens.
HITCHHIKER: I can tell you everything you want to know. Even the things you never knew about yourself. Even the thoughts you didn’t know you were thinking… those little critters, all the way at the back.
We stare at each other a moment longer, before I turn round and back to the road. I don’t count the white lines any more. Now I’m focussed intently on anything our passenger has to say. For the next ten minutes, ignoring him is going have my full attention.
He only tries a few more times, reverting back to more innocent questioning. Nothing takes. Five minutes later he indicates to a seemingly random point at the side of the road and Rob drops him off. The man thanks us, climbs neatly out, puts down his case and waves as we depart. When we disappear around the next corner, he still hasn’t stopped.
Surprisingly, the silence caused by the Hitchhiker’s presence isn’t nearly as intense as the one left in his wake. I decide to break the tension. Somewhat ungracefully.
AS: To be fair, we ARE having nice weather.
ROB: Don’t talk.
AS: … Are you mad at me? I’m sorry he got to me I wasn’t expecting-
ROB You did fine. We don’t talk till we stop.
I go back to my notes, making a point to write down my current feelings. For the record, “Embarrassed but relieved.” Once I put the words down on paper however, I feel something else. Confusion, mixed with concern. Because, at the end of the day, what was I relieved about? That I didn’t talk to a strange man who had tried to talk to me? Was anything really at stake?
The more I think about it, the more I realise that the entire episode with this “mysterious hitchhiker” reduces the Left/Right Game to two possible states. It’s either real, or it’s an elaborate hoax, perpetrated by Rob J. Guthard. The crazy woman, the tunnel, the malicious left turn, all of those could be explained as rationalisations, but the hitchhiker was far too elaborate, far too difficult to predict. If he was an actor, then Rob is nothing more than an impressive fraud. If he was genuine? Then I’m not entirely sure where that leaves us.
Something in the corner of my eye pulls me from my thoughts. A transient, peripheral object that almost completely passes me by before I turn in a weak attempt to catch it. I only get a few seconds to look before it’s gone from my field of view. I face forward once more, sit back in my chair, and let Rob carry us ever further down the road.
It’s not too long before we finally pull over.
ROB: You did good, I’m sorry for grabbin you. I just didn’t want you to do something you’d regret.
AS: No it’s fine. I was going to. Do you know what happens if you talk to him?
ROB: Not sure. Came close myself once, a few years back. The way he looks at you when he thinks he’s got you? I don’t think I wanna know.
AS: Rob, I saw something a few minutes ago. I don’t know if you’ve noticed it.
ROB: ‘Fraid I had my eyes forward most of the time.
AS: There was a car on the side of the road. It had crashed off the bank. Have you seen that before?
ROB: I ain’t never seen that. But random stuff sometimes shows up here and there.
AS: Have people other than you run the Left/Right Game?
ROB: No one I know of. Whoever it was they’d probably just rather crash than face that damn hitchhiker again.
AS: He’s there on the way back too?!
ROB: If you’re unlucky.
AS: Well, something to look forward to.
Rob picks up the CB radio and messages for Apollo to set off, repeating his warnings concerning the hitchhiker. I feel like everyone’s going to get a similar speech before they embark. Ace will probably get it twice.
Half an hour later, Apollo shows up. Though he laughs about he ordeal, he’s clearly a little shaken.
APOLLO: Guy should call himself an Uber. You can’t shut those guys up. Ahaha. Do you guys have Uber in England?
APOLLO: Then you know what I mean right?
Bonnie and Clyde arrive quicker than Apollo. They pull up at the back, Clyde helps Bonnie out of the car and they proceed stretch their legs.
Once Apollo joins them it’s clear that everyone has a different story to tell. The hitchhiker offered Clyde travel sweets, pleasantly but firmly insisting he take one. Apollo almost got talking about his music tastes, after the hitchhiker asked to play something on the radio. That particular story does leave me curious about whether we still get NPR on this road.
Rob customarily greets Bonnie and Clyde, then walks off to signal Eve & Lilith. He’s still sitting in the Jeep when I meet him at the door.
AS: Hey what’re you up to?
ROB: Just waitin’ by the phone. The girls are on their way. You need anything?
AS: Um… maybe. I uh, I think Apollo’s been affected by the whole hitchhiker thing a bit more than he’s letting on.
ROB: He seems just fine to me.
AS: I’m not so sure. He’s only smiling when people are nearby. Could you talk to him?
ROB: Well, I ain’t much comfort, I got four ex wives to tell me that. Think it might be better coming from you?
AS: I think this is a… man to man conversation. I might just get a brave face.
Rob doesn’t look comfortable, but he acquiesces, climbing out of the car.
ROB: Last “man to man” conversation I had, my son didn’t talk to me for three months.
I watch him wander over to Apollo, who is standing by his range rover, staring into his phone. Rob puts a calming hand on the man’s shoulder. From a distance, it’s actually a sweet moment. I start to feel bad for lying to him.
I carefully open the driver’s side door and climb into the Wrangler, assuming I have around twenty seconds before Rob comes back. Picking up the CB Radio reciever, I stare at a list of presets, labeled one through nine. I don’t know which button I press to talk to Eve and Lilith, and I certainly don’t have time to call everyone up.
Rob handed us all a transceiver before we left. It’s what he’s been making the All Car Bulletins with. Preset One puts him in touch with a transceiver in each car, I’ve seen that in practice enough times. The rest of the presets must access the transceivers individually and, if Rob is the man I think he is, he gave our radios out in order of position. If that’s the case then either Rob or I could be Preset 2. Apollo would be next, then Bonnie and Clyde. Without knowing where Rob has placed himself in the queue, the only option which would guarantee me getting through to Lilith and Eve would be Preset 7. I think that makes sense.
With no time to check my work, I press the button and snatch up the receiver.
AS: This is Bristol to Lilith & Eve. Are you guys there?
The receiver crackles quietly. I look in the wing mirror and see Rob making awkward small talk with Apollo. Perhaps his four ex wives were on to something.
Lilith: Lilith to Bristol. How is it on the other side? We haven’t seen a hitchhiker. Oh by the way, I just phoned Eve and it went through, could I have your number to test…
AS: Sorry Lilith, I’m phoning about something else..
Lilith: Why? What’s going on over there?
Apollo’s nodding to Rob, I can imagine him making assurances that he’s perfectly fine. I really don’t have long at all.
AS: I have a mission for you but you have to keep it secret.
LILITH: Sounds awesome what’s up?
AS: Once you’re past the hitchhiker, there’s a crashed car on the road, on the passenger side. Whilst you’re going past it, would you mind getting some footage?
LILITH: What sort of footage?
AS: Just zoom in and get as much detail as possible. You don’t need to stop, just… anything will be useful.
Rob’s starting to walk back to the car. I shift into the passenger seat, still holding the receiver.
LILITH: Is there anything specific you-
AS: Talk to me later not now. Thank you. Bye.
I slam the receiver into its holster a moment before Rob opens the door. He shrugs at me.
ROB: He seem’s fine, unless there’s something he ain’t telling me.
The rest of the day is fairly uneventful. Lilith and Eve pull in, beaming about their experience with the Hitchhiker and bragging about what the dashcam footage would mean for their channel. Lilith ends her story by insisting that nothing else happened for the rest of her journey, whilst directing a highly intentional look in my direction. I look away and make a mental note to catch up with her when less people are around.
Bluejay seems the least phased by the her run in with the hitchhiker. We do manage to get a few words out of her, though perhaps “a few” is an exaggeration.
BLUEJAY: I’m tired.
After which she goes to sit down on her own.
When Ace pulls up to the side of the road, he almost falls out of his car. His legs are weak, his face gaunt, his breaths quick and shallow. I try and get him to talk about it on tape but he shrugs me off, eager to hear about where we’re going rather than talk about where we’ve been.
We travel for a while longer, now at around 486 turns, and nearing our first night on the road. Rob signals our stopping point, a quiet clearing at the top of a hill. Rob clears a sleeping area in the back of the Wrangler, leaving a line of luggage as a barrier between us. I appreciate the thought, but don’t really know how to tell him. In the end, I just say…
AS: Thanks for making room.
Apollo attempts to keep everyone from going to bed, issuing vague statements about “making a fire”, but people quickly shuffle off to their cars. The early start, and the subsequent events of the day, have taken their toll. I watch Lilith and Eve break away from the group and head to bed. I suppose I’ll have to talk to them tomorrow morning, when Rob isn’t around.
I still feel a bit bad for lying to him, and for pulling Lilith and Eve into what could be a blatant act of dumb paranoia. Rob seems like a good man, a reasonable man, as flawed as any of us but, fundamentally decent. But he fact remains, that when I talked to him about the crashed car, he clearly said:
ROB VO: No one I know of. Whoever it was they’d probably just rather crash than face that damn hitchhiker again.
I want to trust Rob. I want to believe him when he says he didn’t see the car, that he’d never seen a car on that stretch of road. But for a man of so few words, he might have said too much.
If he truly never saw the car, how did he know the direction it was facing?
I make all my notes concerning this subject on paper and in shorthand, which I’m hoping, in Rob’s long and varied life, he hasn’t inexplicably learned to read. Long after Rob’s gone to bed, I stay in the passenger seat typing up my thoughts on the day.
CHUCK: That was “Sister Moon” by Leslie Estrada, another song to calm you folks down as we head into the evening. It’s Chuck Greenwald and I’m with you till the witching hour.
I decided to put the radio on in the end. I was curious, and I also wanted the company. I turned the volume way down so the noise wouldn’t reach Rob, and searched around for something to have in the background. There aren’t many stations to choose from out here. The clearest one is Radio Jubilation, the local station for a nearby town. The current dj, Chuck Greenwald, has been playing soulful folk music for an hour.
CHUCK: It’s been a busy week in Jubilation as we welcome in our new School Principal, a very impressive guy who’s bringing some new and interesting proposals to our community. It’s got a few people talking about funding for the arts, if you got a view we’d love to hear it.
I finish typing up my less clandestine notes, and just then realise how tired I am. Wanting to sleep, but not yet prepared to move the single yard between me and the air mattress, I lie back in my seat, listening to Mr Greenwald address his beloved town.
CHUCK: We’ll we’re going to go back to your requests very soon and I can tell you we’ve got some goodies on the way. For now though, let’s take ourselves to the new box.
CHUCK: They’re going to hurt now.
Immediately, at the volume of a whisper, Radio Jubilation begins to broadcast a cacophony of bone rending screams. The noise shreds the air, what sounds like hundreds of people, each contributing their own voice to a collective symphony of pain and torment.
I instinctively move my body away from the radio, suddenly upright and wide awake. The cries are ceaseless, agonising, punctuated only by half stifled, tear choked pleas for whatever is happening to stop.
A moment later it does, or at the very least, the screaming cuts out as the soft tones of Chuck Greenwald take over.
I look from the radio, over to the sleeping figure of Rob J. Guthard. I can’t help but stare at him as a single thought runs through my head.
I hope this man’s a fraud, I hope he’s playing me. Because if he isn’t, then there’s something very wrong with this road.
CHUCK: Hope you folks enjoyed that, we’re going to be bringing you much much more. This is Chuck Greenwald telling you you’re always welcome in Jubilation.
CHUCK: Stay with us.