01 Feb The Left/Right Game: Part 4
Firstly, I want to apologise for not being at my laptop for the past few days. I had to attend a wedding in Scotland for one of my uni friends. They booked it in mid-week and, between you and me, I don’t think it’s going to last which means not only have I neglected you guys, but I’ve also wasted money on a rental suit and a John Lewis tea set.
As always thank you for your help in my ongoing attempt to find Alice. I’m now in full contact with the radio show she was working for, and they’ll be sending over Rob’s submission to the show as soon as they can. I’ve also looked up every town named Jubilation and have contacted residents from each of them. None of them have the particular junction mentioned in the previous log, “Sycamore Row” and “Acer Street”. I even combed google maps to make sure. I’m not sure what town Alice passed through last February but it doesn’t seem to exist on public record.
The guy who promised to retrace the route from the mirror shop came through, and has sent me a few possible addresses for Rob. He also mentioned looking into the game itself more. I’m not sure what he means by that but I want to be clear, please don’t play this game on my behalf. I don’t want that on my conscience.
Ok, without further ado, here’s the following log.
The Left/Right Game [DRAFT 1] 10/02/2017
(Possible Opening) (I want to address you, the listener, for a moment, with an advance notice concerning the following episode. I’m sure it’s not been lost on you that every installment of the series so far has played host to some strange, unexplainable occurrence, and spanned a great many miles of travel. It goes without saying this has been by design. I’ve been summarising the countless hours of uneventful meandering and taking extra care to document the strange phenomena we’ve encountered along the way. I wanted the story to be fast moving, to have a real feel of progress with every chapter.
If that sense of exploratory intrigue is why you’re listening to this show, I completely understand. I’m certain it’s a primary draw for almost all of you; the twists, the turns, the mysterious, strange encounters along an impossible road.
But if that is the case, I feel it’s my duty to inform you that, apart from a few notable exceptions, there will be almost no ground covered in this segment, and the monsters we encounter will be all too human; stress, divisiveness, discomfort and, as one might imagine, grief.
If you want to read the synopsis of this episode on the website and wait for the next part, then you’ll be all caught up and I’m sure we’ll be back on our way, heading once more into the great unknown. But I feel it’s important to give the aftermath of Ace’s capture its own episode, in part due to the significance of the revelations that are unearthed in its wake, but also as a gesture of deference to the man we lost.
This is the story of our second night on the road.)
As we make the left turn, the horrifying space behind us is quickly replaced by a quiet emptiness ahead. The Wrangler crawls, defeated, toward the waiting convoy. The remaining four cars are parked haphazardly, taking up more than half the road. Rob drifts to the far end of the tarmac, looking to overtake and resume formation. Both of his hands rest on the steering wheel, his eyes fixed on some distant point in space. It’s not hard to imagine that behind the focus and the quiet control, there’s a man in turmoil, a man who can’t bring himself to say anything, in fear of saying too much.
AS: This is Bristol to all cars. We’re heading back on the road. Get yourselves in formation and make way for those around you. We’ve got a while to drive before we stop for the night.
LILITH: Bristol where’s Ro… Ferryman?
AS: Ferryman’s here.
APOLLO: Where’s Ace?
AS: Ace is… Ace didn’t make it across.
APOLLO: Uhh what?
LILITH: What the fuck? Bristol where is he?
It would be simple to describe what had taken place, or at least summarise the barest facts; what happened to Ace, where he is now, why he isn’t coming back. But for some reason, I can’t utter a word about what’s transpired. Something about the event itself makes it impossible to retell, as if the requisite phrases have been locked behind glass.
AS: We need to get to the stopping point. It isn’t safe to stay here.
Shortly after we’d turned the corner out of Sycamore Row, Rob implied that the rest of the days’ drive would be uneventful. Had he waited just a few minutes longer, he would have been entirely correct. We’re on the road for another four hours, both of us quietly attending to our own preoccupations as the forest gradually thins out. The landscape gives way to rolling cornfields, that stretch out beyond the horizon on both sides.
Nothing notable happens, which is ironic, as I find myself typing up a lot more notes than I need.
With the sun descends through an orange sky as we pull into a clearing, beside a wild grove of apple trees. Rob turns off the ignition and the two of us sit in silence. Rob’s need to concentrate on driving had been a good excuse to stay quiet, a good excuse to not face each other. Now the wheels aren’t turning however, and the true reason for our mutual reticence is all too clear.
AS: Do you think he’s dead?
ROB: I don’t know.
Rob’s response isn’t reassuring, and I’m oddly grateful for that. There are no comforting words he can give me, and any attempt would have seemed horrifically insincere, a mockery of the situation’s onerous gravity. Anyway, given the circumstances of Ace’s capture, I’m not even sure which answer I want to hear.
Lilith appears at my window, rapping her knuckles against the glass with an aggressive impatience. I’d expect nothing less about now. Everyone in the convoy has been made to follow a unilateral order, my order, without explanation. They’ve been travelling for hours accompanied by the glaring absence of another human being. Looking in the wing mirror, I glimpse the rest of the convoy, standing by their cars, watching the Wrangler expectantly.
Rob’s hands still haven’t left the wheel.
With a sharp intake of breath, I push the door open and step out onto the grass. The ground is soft below me as I walk over to the group. There’s recently been rain. I begin to address the rough semicircle, it almost feels like one of Rob’s briefings.
EVE: What’s happening Bristol?
APOLLO: Did Ace turn back?
I meet Apollo’s eye. For the briefest of moments, I consider telling them all exactly that. Maybe it would save them from the slow, heavy ache that’s currently weighing down my chest. Maybe it would just save me from a difficult conversation. Either way, I know I can’t lie to them. They deserve the truth, however unpleasant.
AS: No he didn’t turn back; they crippled his car.
LILITH: The tow truck? Did he get out?
The answer doesn’t come easily. I’m being pressed to say the words aloud and, in doing so, to fully acknowledge what happened. It feels like I’m being driven to a funeral, like I’m being verbally marched towards an open casket.
EVE: What happened to him?… Bristol…
ROB: He’s dead, Eve.
I hadn’t heard Rob step out of the car when he reaches the group. It’s hard to hide my relief as he takes over proceedings, addressing the group matter-of-factly. Now it really is like one of his briefings.
ROB: Two guys in the tow truck coming outta Jubilation. They got him. They took him back with them to the town. Way they were treatin’ him he won’t last long.
BONNIE: Oh goodness…
EVE: What? Rob what’re they going to do to him?
ROB: I can’t tell you. Nothing like this ever happened before.
LILITH: Well we need to go back.
ROB: That ain’t gonna happen.
LILITH: We’re not going to fucking abandon him.
LILITH: We’re going back!
ROB: No we’re not.
APOLLO: Me and Rob can go. You know the place right Rob?
ROB: The kid’s dead Apollo.
LILITH: But he was alive when you last saw him?
ROB That’s right.
LILITH: So what point did you decide he was dead?
ROB: When I saw him being carried away with a fucking tow hook sticking out his mouth! Goddamn it.
Rob shouldn’t have said that. I understand his reasons of course; he wants to convey an important truth, that nothing can be done, or could have been done, to save Ace. His ghastly choice of words does the job, but it also sends a ripple of disturbance through the crowd, planting in everyone’s minds the gruesome image I’ve been trying all day to uproot.
Bonnie covers her mouth in shock and sorrow. Eve turns noticeably pale, and even Lilith, who is intent on leading the questioning, is taken aback.
LILITH: Did… did you see this Bristol?
I nod solemnly. The group bristles at my affirmation.
AS: I saw enough. I had to close my eyes when it happened, Rob tried to save him until…
Before I can finish my statement, my words are cut off by something truly unexpected. In spontaneous response to my words, a harsh outburst of mocking, sarcastic laughter rings out from within the convoy. One by one, we turn towards its source, until we all find ourselves staring at Bluejay. Her unapologetic chuckling fills the silent night air.
AS: Is something funny, Bluejay?
Bluejay tries to speak through her, all too slowly, waning laughter.
BLUEJAY: It’s just… you call yourself a journalist… Hah you closed your eyes, my god… there it is! There it is.
AS: I’m sorry?
BLUEJAY: Do you close your eyes for magic tricks too?
EVE: What the fuck Bluejay?
APOLLO: Come on, this isn’t the time.
BLUEJAY: Oh the time is well fucking overdue. Seriously are you all morons? The Left/Right Game is a hoax. It’s fake! Rob Guthard’s played you all like fucking children! Ace is fine, he’s probably an actor! Like the hitchhiker was an actor and those towns people too. I mean, come on.
The group is taken aback by Bluejay’s incredulous tirade. She’s clearly been holding her tongue since day one; our reaction to Ace’s capture representing just one step too far.
AS: I saw Rob shoot one of those townspeople with a hunting rifle. I saw the wound. It was real.
BLUEJAY: It was a blood filled squib. The rifle was probably loaded with blanks. You can buy both from any good theatrical retailer. Seriously what the fuck is wrong with you people?
LILITH: Ok firstly, I don’t like your fucking tone. Secondly, have you noticed that we’ve been the only cars on the road for almost two days? And what about Jubilation? Are you suggesting Rob hired out a whole town? That would be fucking impossible.
BLUEJAY: Oh yeah sure, THAT’S impossible, but it’s totally believable that we’re driving on a magic road. Maybe this is the highest budget scam I’ve ever seen but that’s all it is, a scam. And Al Jazeera here is giving him all the publicity he wants. I mean these people are sheep but you, you’re a fucking sycophant.
My mother used to tell me that you can’t strike a person from the high road. Staring down the barrel of Bluejay’s darkly self-satisfied grin, I’m more than tempted to make the descent.
AS: Ok Bluejay fair enough. I’m not going to pretend to know what’s going on here, for all I know you could be right. But why would Rob spend the production budget of a Hollywood film to trick a radio journalist and two vloggers. Trust me, our website does not get enough traffic for-
BLUEJAY: Oh don’t be so self-important. It’s not YOU he’s trying to fool.
Bluejay turns to Rob, fixing him a glare of pure, unadulterated triumph.
BLUEJAY: Admit it Rob. Admit that this is all a fucking farce. Admit that you knew who I was before I even got out of my car.
Rob’s face looks like it’s been carved from granite. The group looks to him for an answer, but he delivers his response directly to Bluejay, his eyes locked with hers.
ROB: It’s true… … I know who you are Denise.
The atmosphere changes, and for a moment, the night erupts into a foray of whispers. Rob’s answer clearly means something to everyone but me.
LILITH: Denise Carver?
APOLLO: No. You serious?
AS: Sorry, who’s Denise Carver?
LILITH: She’s the biggest killjoy in the hobby.
BLUEJAY: Oh fuck you, you fucking air-head.
ROB: Denise here is a member of the Skeptics and Rationalist Institute of America. She likes to get herself invited on ghost hunting expeditions under a false name so she can debunk them publicly. You may’ve gathered she don’t believe in the supernatural.
BLUEJAY: Actually I do believe in the supernatural. I believe that it’s a billion dollar industry built on selling comfortable lies to the gullible, and it thrives on shitty journalists and attention whore bloggers who are willing to spread whatever shit they think will get them clicks.
AS: That’s why you took so long getting around the pine tree. Even when the truck was coming for Ace. You didn’t think any of it was real.
BLUEJAY: Uhh… did you?
As condescending as her delivery may be, her words spark a sudden realisation. It’s true, that with an unspeakably high budget and a few deft stooges, you could probably replicate most of what we’d seen on the road. Yet, without realising it, I’ve found myself agreeing with Rob’s version of events, personally defending the Left/Right Game’s validity against its decriers. I’d set off on this journey much like Bluejay, as a staunch, confident skeptic, but somewhere between the tunnel and this moment, I’d become a believer.
Bluejay notes my lack of protest, and turns back to Rob.
BLUEJAY: I’m flattered you went to all this trouble. I didn’t know my work was so offensive to you.
ROB: I admire your work Denise. Always have. That’s why I brought you along.
BLUEJAY: That is bullshit. Tell your friend Ace he can’t act for shit.
Bluejay pulls a pack of Marlboros out of her coat, lighting up immediately, and goes to sit on the hood of her nearby car. Her demeanour clearly signals that her part in the conversation is over, though her words leave a bitter aftertaste for everyone involved. To sympathise, it must be exhausting, spending two days with people whose opinions are diametrically opposed to your own, having to listen in silence while they corroborate their own seemingly preposterous views. Having said that however, I’m incredibly glad she’s stopped talking. It reminds me of a time when we got on much better.
The next question comes from Eve, her voice quivering.
EVE: Can… can we die here Rob?
The quiet force of her words turn everyone’s heads back towards Rob. It’s clear that others have been thinking the same thing, and they’re looking to Rob for an answer.
ROB: It’s possible. The road ain’t ever killed no one before. Not so long as everyone followed the rules.
LILITH: But you said in your emails it was dangerous.
ROB: That’s right.
LILITH: But you didn’t feel like telling us that we could die out here?
Rob turns to Lilith, clearly offended by her accusation.
ROB: In the 1920’s Jon Ebenrow killed 36 people and violated their bodies. In one of your videos, you guys went to his home in Virginia looking for the man’s ghost. Bonnie & Clyde once spent $500 to stay at the Iowa Murder House, a place that’s supposed to possess its victims and force’em to kill each other.
ROB: If you all honestly believed in what you were chasing, you should be accepting death as an outcome every time you step out. We are looking for evidence of another world. What we’re doing here has the scientific significance of the moon landings, the cultural significance of Columbus reaching the Americas and a whole lot of people died doing both. If you accepted the risk chasing down the ghost of a two-bit serial killer, you should be willing to accept the risk for this.
Lilith looks like she’s been scolded by a parent. There’s a fire in her eyes as she observes Rob, meeting his criticism with scorn.
LILITH: Oh so it’s Ace’s fault? He should have “accepted the risk”?
ROB: He did accept the risk. Ace made his decisions. He saw the dangers of the road first hand and he kept on goin’. I told you this place could be dangerous, and maybe you didn’t take that seriously. But you are NOT gonna treat me like I lured any of you here under false pretenses.
We stand for a few moments in the uncomfortable void left by Rob’s words. No one’s quite sure where to look.
APOLLO: Well what do we do now Rob? Do we turn around?
ROB: I ain’t gonna make that decision for you. If you want to split off and head back, I suggest you wait till mornin’ and stagger your leavin’ times by an hour or so. I ain’t never seen nothin’ like what happened back there before, but this is the most people I ever played the game with. Maybe that’s doin’ somethin’.
AS: What do you mean by that?
ROB: Well it’s the only thing that’s changed. Truth is, this ain’t our world, by all rights we shouldn’t be here. Even when it’s one car the road always tries to discourage you. Maybe it’s like bacteria in a vein. One or two might slip by unnoticed but once it hits a certain point it’s like a uh…
AS: Like an immune response. You think the road’s pushing back on foreign objects?
ROB: And the bigger the group-
AS: The more violent the response…
It makes sense, until Bluejay laughs once more. Hearing her reaction, I reassess what I’m saying and I can’t help but feel a little foolish at the idea.
ROB: Maybe. It’s just a theory… I don’t know.
Rob collects himself, regaining his composure.
ROB: Either way, you all have the morning to decide if you want to keep on the road. Bristol, if you want to go home, you gotta find someone to take you. I ain’t ready to head back yet.
He turns away from the group and marches to the Wrangler. I don’t see him again for the rest of the evening, and I have no intention of bothering him. Eve and Lilith immediately crowd around me, asking if I’m alright and taking it in turns to disparage Rob’s actions. I can’t bring myself to join in. All I can bring myself to say is…
AS: Can I charge my phone in your car?
The group has very little to say for the rest of the night. A deep solemnity hangs in the air, dampening any semblance of good cheer like wet leaves on a dwindling fire. No one offers any conversation, Apollo’s reservoir of quips has run dry. Everyone’s wondering where they’ll be going from here, pondering the sort of person they are in circumstances such as this. Do they press on towards danger, or back towards safe and familiar ground. It’s a question they’ll have to figure out for themselves, ideally before sunrise.
I already have questions of my own.
About an hour after Rob’s departure, bidding fair well to the rest of the group, I walk over to Lilith and Eve’s car. My bag is resting on the front seat, a black wire leading inside from the charging port. I’ve decided not to tell the pair that I’ve been charging the detonator for a military grade explosive less than ten metres away from them. Perhaps it will come out during broadcast. If you’re listening to this, sorry girls.
I pick up my bag and, checking that no one’s looking, make a beeline for the apple grove. I march through the small wood, the air growing still, the sounds of the convoy quickly fading behind me. In the late evening darkness, with the moon shrouded by legion of crooked trees, I’m puzzled that I’m not more afraid. I’ve seen what happens on this road and, as I pass through the grove and into the neighbouring field, intentionally isolating myself from the rest of the group, I’m quite aware that help won’t be coming for me. Even so, as the corn rises up in every direction around me, I find myself almost incapable of fear. The day’s events have drained me of emotion, and I’m now with everything else pulled away, I’m left with only one driving directive; an overpowering urge to figure this road out, regardless of what that entails.
Judging the distance I’ve traveled to be acceptably out of range from the convoy, I take the block of C4 out of my bag and place it on the ground. Gritting my teeth, my body cringing with self-inflicted dread, I press the power button on the Nokia and wait for something to happen. My worries of instant disintegration are allayed slightly as the grainy image of two outstretched hands comes into view, swiftly replaced by a menu screen.
I work fast, the words on the brown paper package constantly reminding me of what I’m putting at risk with every passing second.
Firstly, I type my number own number into the phone, assuming, or at least hoping, that the mechanism isn’t activated by outgoing calls. A few seconds later my cell phone rings, giving me the Nokia’s number. Checking the call logs, I find a second, different number, which seems to have made a call to the phone three times in quick succession. If I were a betting woman, which I sometimes am, I’d suggest that this number belongs to whoever built the bomb, the calls representing an attempt to test the trigger prior to its implementation. If I’m right, then this should be the personal number of whoever was driving that crashed car.
My third discovery, is a little bit more puzzling. No texts have been sent from this phone, however there is one solitary message residing in the phone’s inbox. It’s from a third, separate number, and it reads thus:
“Please don’t do this Rob.”
I stare at those four words, the new information grating uncomfortably against my already preconceived theories. If this text is to be believed, and my previous deductions are at all accurate, then that means Rob Guthard was driving the car. That the C4 in the trunk had belonged to him. All this time I thought Rob may have been responsible for something terrible, but what if he was run off the road himself? If that is the case, it leads to an entirely new question… who was responsible for his crash?
As I begin to think it over, the air explodes around me.
I’m jolted out of my examination by a powerful, echoing voice which reverberates the very air. The corn is thrown into a frenzy as the noise echoes from every direction, as if spoken by the air itself.
VOICE: I’ve watched you questioning.
Without a second’s hesitation, I turn off the Nokia and throw the block into my bag. I jump to my feet and scan the cornfield for whoever spoke the words, backing away towards the convoy. Suddenly, realising how far I am from my friends, I break into a run, my boots pounding the dirt as I flee back to the woods.
Less than a minute later I burst out through the trees, my bag swinging with the weight of the block. Everyone’s in their cars, seemingly fast asleep. I’m starting to think they’re onto something. With no one to talk to, and a long day ahead of me, I suppose there’s no further recourse but to catch my breath, write up my immediate thoughts and then, finally, get some much needed rest.
I feel a dull pressure behind my eyes as I step towards the Wrangler. Quietly opening the back door next to my sleeping area, I carefully hide the block under my luggage. Then, silently closing the door again, I wander around to the passenger side, where my notes are waiting to be typed.
I reach out and grab the handle, gripping it tightly. I don’t open the door. In fact, after a moment staring through the glass, I let go.
The pressure behind my eyes gives way, and before I know it I’ve slid down to the damp ground, my back against the cool, hard metal of the door. A whine catches in my throat as ugly tears stream down my cheeks. My breath shudders as I inhale, and my attempt to breathe out plays to the world as a quiet, declining sob. The tears take me by surprise but I don’t wipe them away. In a bittersweet way, they’re welcome, necessary even. They carry with them a familiar sense of heartrending release. By the time they’ve run dry, I feel like I might just be able to move on from the events of the day. The sounds in my head are just a little quieter now I’ve paid them their due.
BONNIE: Are you ok honey?
I’m picking myself up when I see Bonnie walking carefully over to the Wrangler. I brush myself off, a little embarrassed at being caught.
AS: I didn’t know you were awake.
BONNIE: I’m a light sleeper, and Martin… Clyde snores. Do you need someone to talk to?
AS: I think I just need to sleep. Thanks Bonnie.
BONNIE: My name’s Linda, if you’re wondering.
AS: … Alice.
BONNIE: That’s a beautiful name. Well Alice, I know I don’t talk much, but I know how to listen… if you ever want me to.
For the first time since the pine fell, I find myself smiling. It’s a weak smile, but a smile nonetheless.
AS: Thank you Linda. I might take you up on that. Have a good night.
BONNIE:** Have a good night.
Bonnie starts to walk back to the car, before pausing and turning round. One last piece of comfort to offer.
BONNIE: And remember, everything will all be alright once we get to Wintery Bay.
I frown a little, unsure what Bonnie means. She smiles back blankly, then resumes the path back to her car. She’s mentioned that place before, upon leaving Jubilation, in what seemed like a moment of idle reminiscence. How she mentioned it just now doesn’t seem like reminiscence at all.
After everything that’s gone on, all the suspicion I’ve been directing at Rob, all my worry for Ace. Is something the matter with Bonnie?
Perhaps I’m misunderstanding, perhaps Bonnie misspoke, but all the same, the brief comfort her words afforded me has already faded away, leaving a familiar feeling of confusion and paranoia in its place.
I let myself into the passenger side, type up a few pressing notes and then climb through onto the air mattress. Sleep doesn’t come easily. I close my eyes and try to convince myself that tomorrow will be better than this harrowing day. Yet every time I make that particular argument, a voice in my head responds:
“That may depend on which way you turn.”