01 Feb The Left Right Game: Part 9
Sorry I’ve not been in touch guys. It’s been a busy month. However, I’m pleased to announce that, as of yesterday night, I’ve finally touched down in Phoenix, Arizona.
I’m posting this log from my first American hotel room, which offers a gorgeous view of both the state hospital and a local prison. Auspicious times.
Drop me a line if you’re in the city or if you have any information at all.
The Left/Right Game [DRAFT 1] 15/02/2017
As the darkness closes in, I find myself dragged deeper and deeper into the depths of my own subconscious, until I sink through the back of my mind into an indescribable place. A featureless, directionless, timeless void that exists at the weakest point of life.
I can feel myself drifting away, surrendered to an almost imperceptible tide, carried slowly but inexorably from the world.
The rest of the night unfolds in fleeting snapshots.
I briefly feel my body lift up from the ground, gravity pulling at my limbs as I’m conveyed through the forest.
An unknowable stretch of time later, I feel a distinct burning sensation to my right. In the world I currently inhabit, only an echo of the pain reaches me, but I can tell that it was once substantial. Unable to divine its purpose, I let the sensation fade away, before descending once more into the placid darkness.
When my eyes finally work themselves open, the sun is beginning to rise. Without an ounce of strength left in my body, all I can do is peer through my eyelashes, taking in the vague scene before me.
I’m in the back of the Wrangler, propped up against a soft pillar of luggage. There’s somebody kneeling beside me, tugging at my right shoulder. When I try to address them, I discover that my voice has withered to a spectral whisper, so frail that it hardly exists at all.
AS: … Rob…
Hearing my voice, the figure shuffles round and kneels before me, staring into my eyes as they slowly regain their focus.
ROB: You just lay back Miss Sharma, I just finished patchin’ you up but I gotta make sure it’s good work.
AS: Wh… what happened to you?
ROB: Denise had me at gunpoint, had to act like I was all but dead. When she into the forest, I got free, took the med kit into the trees, fixed myself up a little. I was comin’ to help when I heard this awful noise. Went to check it out… that’s when I found you.
AS:… Is the engine running?
ROB: Wanted to warm up the place for you. You were in shock, and since the battery don’t run down anymore I thought-
AS: No I mean… how? The key, it got-
ROB: You think I’d risk gettin’ out this far with only one copy of my car key?
Rob seems almost insulted, and thinking back to everything I’ve learned about him over the course of this trip, I can see why he might be. Even in my weakened state I can’t help but laugh; though it admittedly comes out as stilted wheezing, diffusing quietly into the air.
AS: No that’s… that’s actually very “you”. I think Bluejay would’ve appreciated that information last night.
ROB: Yeah well, she didn’t ask.
AS: … I’m glad you made it Rob.
ROB: Glad you made it too. They build’em tough down in London.
I rest my head back against the luggage.
AS: I’m from Bristol.
ROB: Of course… yeah of course that’s… sorry…
Rob tries to recover his smile, but it slips quickly from his grasp. In its absence, his features cringe into sudden, uncontrollable sadness.
ROB: Miss Sharma I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!
Rob Guthard’s weathered face bursts into a heaving mess of tears. He repeats those two words as he lumbers towards me, throwing his arms around my waist and resting his head on my left shoulder. My hand feels like lead as I raise it up and brush it against his hair, holding him against me.
As the man continues to sob, I let my head roll slowly to the right, observing the damage to my arm. Last night, lost in the muddled throes of shock, the harm had been unquantifiable, the details drowned out by the encompassing haze of severe blood loss and a blaring, primal alarm which had forced me to move without questioning why. Now that I’m on the other side, bathed in the quiet warmth of the Wrangler, I’m able to fully assess the extent of my injury.
Everything below my right elbow is gone.
It feels almost like a dream. My upper arm is practically unblemished, save for a few dark bruises from last night’s fall, yet it descends an impossibly short distance before ending in a blunt, surreal stump. The wound itself is hidden from view, swaddled in fresh white bandages.
I can’t seem to figure out how I should feel and, consequently, I don’t seem to feel anything.
AS: It’s ok Rob. It’s ok.
ROB: I never… I never meant for any of this to-
AS: I know… I know.
Rob pulls back, his eyes still watering.
ROB: I’ll take you home, ok? I’ll find somewhere to turn around and we’ll get you home.
I can tell Rob’s offer is genuine, and to be honest I’m a little surprised. I still remember our verbal agreement, forged at the mouth of the tunnel; that he would not be turning his car around until he reached the road’s end. I never expected he’d be the one to renege on the deal.
I’m aware this could be my best chance to leave it all behind; to flee from the horrors of the road, before they take even more of me. I know the way back. I know that it leads to safety, to family, to blessed normality. However, as an insidious voice in the back of my mind quietly notes, it doesn’t lead to answers.
AS:… I’m still game if you are.
Rob sends me a heartbroken smile, which I would return if I had the strength. In that moment, a sombre understanding develops between us. An understanding that after everything we’ve seen, everything that’s happened, we’re both still choosing the secrets of the road. The decision reveals something about us, exposing a driving force behind our actions that negates our concern for survival, and overshadows the imagined protests of our loved ones.
It’s a decision only two broken people would make.
Rob spends the morning packing up the Wrangler, giving me time to rest. The fact that he’s walking around at all is remarkable, let alone conducting his usual routine at his usual pace. As I begin to feel life crawl slowly back into my veins, I wonder whether the strange force that has sustained us both, as well as the Wrangler’s fuel tank, could also have a mild restorative effect. The notion should bring me comfort; instead it makes me feel like a lobster in a tank.
A few hours later, Rob carries me out of the car, letting me rest in the doorframe. In front of me lie three mounds of dirt, raised slightly from the surrounding earth. Two are headed by crosses, formed from knotted sticks bound tightly together. The grave on the far left lies bare, bereft of any religious affiliation.
AS: Is that… Bluejay’s? Without the cross?
ROB: Didn’t think she’d want one.
AS: She wouldn’t have done that for you, you know.
ROB: Good thing I ain’t her then. I buried what I can, but that was some state she was in. Did the child kill her?
Rob goes to throw a foldable spade into the back of the car. For a brief moment, I consider letting his statement go unanswered.
AS: No, it didn’t… I did.
Rob immediately marches back round, his brow furrowed in confusion.
AS: I hid a C4 charge in my satchel. When she took the bag I… well…
I gesture to the bare grave. Rob looks as if he’s seeing me for the first time.
ROB: Where did you-
AS: From your son’s car.
I watch as my quiet assertion strikes Rob’s ears, as its meaning burrows through his consciousness, its implications contorting his features into a look of shame and damning revelation.
I can tell from his reaction that I’ve got it right.
We haven’t had a chance to speak since I learned his son’s name. That piece of information formed the crucial thread, stringing together the strange and seemingly incongruent discoveries I’d encountered on the road. Earlier in the week I may have been worried to confront him with this information, but things are different now. We’ve come too far, we’ve been through too much and, if he’s truly ferrying me somewhere with malicious intent, I’m powerless to stop him anyway.
I raise a weak hand towards him; a quiet request for assistance.
AS: I think it’s time we had a second interview.
Following a tense and guilty silence, Rob simply nods and helps me into the passenger seat.
ROB: It wasn’t military. It was commercial.
The Wrangler continues to crawl through the forest. I’ve stayed quiet for almost half an hour, letting Rob formulate a response in his own words, and in his own time.
ROB: Yeah, explosive charges for controlled demolition. Bobby was in the business, had his own firm.
AS: You must’ve been proud.
ROB: Yeah… yeah he built that place up from nothin’. Tourin’ his office was one of the best days of my life.
AS: So… how did he end up out here?
Rob grows quiet, reluctantly accepting that he’ll have to start from the beginning.
ROB: … Bobby was a smart kid… smarter than I ever was. He coulda run the farm at 15 but, country life didn’t take. Instead he moved away to Phoenix, picked up a college degree, got himself a steady career.
AS: A steady career? That’s pretty rebellious for a Guthard.
ROB: Hah… well we were pretty different people… didn’t always get along. I was still a courier in those days, always jettin’ off somewhere new. ‘Course I went to Japan, stayed there a while. Then…
ROB: That’s right. Changed everythin’. Came home after five years with a new hobby. Bobby didn’t care for the stories but… his ma had died sudden while I was away; we both wanted to start over, be in each other’s lives more so… he came with me to the Pacific North West, trackin’ down Sasquatch. Creature didn’t show, but Bobby had a good time campin’ so he kept joinin’ me. Before long he was doin’ the research himself, organisin’ trips, pickin’ up rumours of strange stuff all across the country.
AS: Sounds like a nice time for you both.
ROB: It was.
AS: So… was it Bobby who discovered the Left/Right Game?
ROB: … He called me up one day, outta the blue. This was about three years ago. Said he’d found a set of rules; said we should try out. To be honest, I thought our trippin’ days were over; I was back in Alabama and he was startin’ up a family of his own, but suddenly he’s tellin’ me to meet him in Phoenix so, of course I went along.
AS: And this time, you both realised it was real.
ROB: Bobby knew as soon as we reached the tunnel. He passed that way every day, knew it wasn’t supposed to be there but… there it was. He said that was the most amazing thing he ever saw. We charted it over the next year, whenever we could get the time together, but we moved slow, mapped the place out, turned back on the regular. It took us a while before we got the courage to stay on the road overnight, both of us were terrified the tunnel would disappear or somethin’.
I can tell Rob is replaying the events in his head. The reminiscence almost makes him smile.
ROB: Bobby’s wife was a real doll. Used to work in his office. Kindest girl I ever met, funny too. There was a decade between’em but you could tell they were good for each other. He shared everything with her, including the road. In fact, once Bobby got a little more secure with the rules, they started to map it together…explorin’ their own little world.
After a brief pause, Rob’s expression sinks slightly; the reminiscence is growing darker.
ROB: Few months go by, I’m hearin’ from Bobby a little less but, I expected that. Then one evenin’ I get a call from the hospital, tellin’ me my boy had walked into some ER in Phoenix.
AS: Was he ok?
ROB: No. He was in a bad way. Leg all busted up, delirious, askin’ for Marjorie. They found her bag in his car but… she was nowhere to be found.
AS: Bobby lost her on the road.
ROB: Yeah, that’s right.
AS: On our second night here, after we lost Ace, you told me the road had never hurt anyone before.
ROB: Well, that wasn’t a lie at least. It wasn’t the road that got’em.
AS: … What do you mean?
ROB: They made it to the forest. None of us had got that far before but… this time they pushed a little further than usual.
AS: Do you know why?
ROB: They were gonna have a kid. Marjorie was almost due… wasn’t travellin’ so well. I think they knew they wouldn’t be hittin’ the road for a while. It was like a uh… like a last hurrah I guess.
AS: But only Bobby came back?
ROB: They explored the woods till nightfall. When Bobby said they had to turn back… Marjorie didn’t want to. He never told me why, never told me what happened. By the end of that trip, Marjorie was still out there and he was in a hospital bed.
Rob takes a moment to collect himself, to put the facts in order. The trees are starting to grow thin, sunlight bursting through the widening gaps in the canopy. It looks like we’re nearing the forest’s end.
ROB: Bobby took a month or so to recover. Boy was desperate to get his wife back, and of course he’d become a suspect in her disappearance. Needless to say the first thing he did was head onto the road to find Marjorie.
AS: But he didn’t.
ROB: Nope… No he found her. Just uh… a little sooner than he thought.
I take a moment to process Rob’s implication. Suddenly I feel a stone drop in my stomach.
AS: She was on the 34th turn.
Rob nods solemnly.
ROB: Wasn’t the woman he knew of course. Stood there all day, just mumblin’ about the road. Didn’t even recognise him. I remember he called me up right after he first saw her there, his heart breakin’. He tried almost every day from then on, always stoppin’ at that turn. He’d yell, he’d plead, he’d bring pictures and gifts but… she never responded. Don’t know if it was really her but, whatever was on that corner, it belonged to the road.
ROB: Bobby lost somethin’ of himself on that corner. After a while, his fascination with the game turned sour, turned to hate. He thought the road was somethin’ evil, that it had no place linking into our world.
ROB: I was checkin’ up on him at that point, every few days or so. One weekend he said he was doin’ better, even said he’d been in to work. I thought maybe things were turnin’ round but… then he went quiet; didn’t pick up his phone for three days. I had my place in Phoenix by that point, and a spare key to his house. That’s where I found the note; tellin’ me he’d gone back through. One last bid to find his wife… and if he couldn’t bring her back well-
AS: He was going to destroy the tunnel.
ROB: Cut the road off from the world. I played the game in Phoenix, Chicago, a few different places, but that one tunnel is what links you to the road. I looked around his garage, found the box for a phone, lot of electronics all over the place… pretty clear what he’d done. So I jump in my car.
We pass out of the forest, onto a long narrow road. In the distance, I can see our route winding up a towering wall of sandstone, disappearing into a set of rolling mountains.
ROB: He passed me on his way back, just before I hit Jubilation. Thunderin’ down the road at full speed, drivin’ like crazy. That’s when I knew he hadn’t found her… that he was goin’ to take out the tunnel, end the game once and for all.
AS: But he never got that far.
ROB: I tried to talk to him. Called his cell, tried the radio frequencies, there was a number on the sim card documentation that he had, god help me I even messaged him on that one. In the end it was just me and him, racin’ back to Phoenix. He was faster than me but I was drivin’ better. After few bad corners I caught up…
AS: You ran him off the road.
Rob stares out at the faraway ridges, his hands grasping the steering wheel.
ROB: Cell service don’t work through the tunnel. He knew that. He was either goin’ to blow it up on this side… or while he was in there.
AS: So you were trying to save him or save yourself?
ROB: Neither. I was tryin’ to save the road… Say what you want about this place Miss Sharma, but it’s a doorway out of everythin’ we ever known. It’s the road out of… out of reality. It may be the most significant frontier we ever cross and that’s… part of me knew, that was too important for one man to take away.
For the second time today, Rob battles back tears, and for the second time, he fails. They roll silently down his cheek as he continues on.
ROB: He was more injured than I thought. He’d hurt himself bad before he reached me, that’s why he was headed to the tunnel so quick. He wanted to destroy it while he still could.
ROB: The road had taken almost everythin’ from him, and then I took the rest… I denied him his hope, took away his chance to leave the world on his own terms. In the end he didn’t even seem angry… he just asked after Marjorie. Asked me why she did it, why she left. I laid him to rest there, visited the place often but… I never had a good answer for him. That’s when I started preppin’ the next run.
AS: So you posted his logs online, and pretended to discover them.
ROB: Thought people would ask less questions that way.
AS: And where did we all fit in to this? Why did you bring us here with you?
ROB: I guess… I thought it was time the world knew. Didn’t want all this to end up an old man’s secret. Honest to God, if I knew the road was gonna… I swear I never woulda brought you here.
Rob’s features tighten, all his shame and guilt rising to the fore. I can’t say it isn’t deserved. Despite his intentions, despite his penitence, the man had blinded himself to clear dangers, hurt those closest to him and, on a road where secrets had killed so many, he’d kept the most significant one of all.
Well, perhaps not the most significant.
AS: You didn’t bring us here Rob.
Rob turns to me, confused.
AS: I met someone in the forest last night, a figure, just like the one you saw in Japan, “looked like static you see on a TV screen” … I think it was you Rob. I think I saw you and I think that… all those years ago…
In my current state, the mechanics of the event, and their stunning implications, lie beyond my explanatory capacity. In the end, I just raise my lost right arm, and wait for Rob to make the connection.
A moment later the car screeches to a halt.
Rob stares straight ahead, his knuckles white against the steering wheel. I’m aware that beneath his stone-set features, every square inch of grey matter is fighting to process the fresh revelation. If it’s true that, in those quiet woods, I somehow reached across the decades to a young Rob Guthard, then it changes everything. The twisting narratives that led us to this point, Rob’s burgeoning obsession, his son’s tragic fate, they all took root in that single moment. More than a decade prior to my own birth, I’d placed us on the path which would lead me to his door.
As chaotic as the road often seems, that moment in the forest hints at something deeper, something intentional.
Rob steps out of the car for a while, before wordlessly climbing back in and firing up the Wrangler. From that point on we continue as two silent passengers, lost in thought, disappearing into the sandstone mountains.
We travel across the thin mountain road for the next two hours, a wall of crooked rock hemming us in. When we pass onto the other side, and the outcrop falls away, the landscape below us has changed completely, and we’re treated to a strange and breath-taking sight.
The Wrangler is traversing the cliffs above a vast, flat desert; a tundra of vibrant orange stretching as far as the eye can see. I can just make out the road, cutting a meandering path through the sand far below us. At the centre of this otherwise featureless expanse, a collection of monolithic structures, towering columns of glass and metal, rise from the ground, connected by a web of long perpendicular streets.
AS: There’s a city… there’s a city on the road.
Rob keeps his eyes forward. Despite the epic majesty of the cityscape below us. I can tell that his mind is elsewhere, that he’s still digesting the contents of our interview. In the end, I think it best to leave him alone with his thoughts.
We stay on the mountain for another twenty minutes, before finally winding down to the desert floor. The space ahead of us is two-tone; the sharp saffron of the desert and the deep blue sky, separated by a thin, even horizon. The only objects that cross this perfect boundary, are the hulking grey towers of the city, rising from the sand, and bursting through into the heavens.
We snake along the desert road, the city looming ever larger as we make our tentative approach toward the border. There’s an eerie contrast to the threshold as we cross it; the cupreous glow of the sand switches to grey, the scorching heat instantly cools, and perhaps most notably, what little sound there was is negated entirely. As we delve down an empty, perfectly maintained throughway, I realise that I can’t hear anything at all except for the Wrangler’s steady rumblings.
AS: It’s quiet.
ROB: That’s fine by me.
AS: Who do you think built this place?
ROB: I don’t know. Maybe whatever brought us here. Could be that no one built it… maybe it just is.
I wonder if he’s right. It’s hard to think such a place would exist for any practical purpose. The city looks off somehow, as if it was built from conjecture, by an architect who had only heard of cities through poorly translated rumour. All the broad features are present, skyscrapers, lampposts, window cleaning platforms, but nothing deeper. It’s an empty shell. An ornament in the middle of the desert.
As we turn down the next few roads, I stare up at the monolithic structures, each one standing at least a hundred stories tall. My eyes track back down the countless strata of dark windows, as I contemplate what it might be like to live in such a place.
When I reach the ground floor, I’m presented with my answer.
There’s a young man standing at the ground floor window, his hand resting against the glass. He’s wearing a dark grey suit, and a look of almost mesmeric shock. His mouth open, his hands shaking, his unblinking eyes staring past us as the Wrangler rolls by.
My eyes quickly track back up the skyscraper’s glass facade, scrutinising each row of windows in turn. I’d naively hoped the buildings would be empty, that this place would be nothing more than a colossal ghost town. Now that I know otherwise, each pane of glass feels like a dark pool of water; still on the surface, but with sinister potential lurking within its depths.
A few seconds later, more of them arrive. There aren’t many at first; just a few scattered figures stepping up to their windows, pressing themselves against to the glass. However, like a light sprinkling of rain that erupts into a downpour, the frequency of their arrival quickly doubles, then triples, until not a single space lies unoccupied. The Wrangler shrinks, subject to the scrutiny of countless individuals, on every floor, in every window, all of them clad in the same monochromatic formalwear and staring down at us like the emissaries of a grand tribunal. As the Wrangler passes by, they continue to stare straight ahead, though it’s clear they’re aware of our presence.
AS: Rob. Rob there’s-
ROB: I see’em.
Rob puts his foot down, shedding the weight of a thousand pairs of eyes as he leaves the building behind. As the final column of windows slips by us, I glance back, hoping to see them return to the depths of the building. Instead, in those last few moments, I witness their collective demeanour fracture into a desperate frenzy, their mouths opening in a silent scream as they slam their fists against the glass.
Turning back around, I stare into the buildings that currently flank our vehicle. The figures have already arrived at the windows, and their calm is already fading.
AS: Rob, we need to go faster.
ROB: I’m on it.
The Wrangler growls with renewed ferocity as Rob plants his foot onto the gas. We lurch towards the next corner, accelerating down the road as Rob scans for any hidden turns. I achingly shift in my seat, keeping an eye on the scene developing in our wake.
Shards of broken window begin to rain onto the asphalt. Watching the shattered pieces tumble through the air, it’s apparent that the quiet in this city isn’t simply due to a lack of activity. The torrent of splintered glass is completely silent, even as it crashes against the impervious ground.
Nothing in this city makes a noise. Nothing except us.
The thunderous engine of the Wrangler has never sounded so loud.
Looking up, I witness hundreds of hands gripping the shattered window frames, unable to turn myself away as thousands of polished black shoes step over the threshold. The figures stream out from every floor, forming an incomprehensible deluge of humanity.
The first wave strikes the ground, with more and more landing against them; a heap of tangled figures struggling to separate themselves. Much like the residents of Jubilation, and everyone else we’ve encountered on the road, they appear impervious to the fatal harm such an act should impart. Those that landed on their feet hardly even stop, turning towards us, and sprinting after the Wrangler. It doesn’t take long for the rest of the writhing mass to resolve itself, its constituent individuals joining the frantic stampede, their chaotic charge and desperate screams bereft of any perceivable sound.
Even in the midst of the frenzied pursuit, as a foreboding shower of glass falls from every building we pass, the world outside remains silent; the chaos made even more incomprehensible framed against the ungodly stillness in which it takes place.
Rob screeches around the corner, drifting onto a long and open street. The roadway ahead is flanked by skyscrapers disappearing to a narrow vanishing point. As we race down this next stretch of road towards a large intersection, the ever growing mob bursts onto the street behind us, taking the corner with supreme coordination and continuing tirelessly in our direction.
A split second later, I’m struck by an abrupt and pervasive idea. It feels unlike any thought I’ve ever had before, less of a notion, and more a prescient hybrid of intuition and de ja vu, as if the course of action we must take is obvious to me, despite my not knowing why.
I force my voice above a grating whisper.
AS: Rob. We need to drop something behind us… something loud.
ROB: What’re you thinkin’?
AS: I uh… you just have to trust me ok? We still have most of the plastic explosive could you-
ROB: Nah, if you took out the blasting cap I ain’t got time to make a new one.
Rob’s glances into the rear view, then back to the road. I can almost hear the gears turning in his head.
ROB: But that the only explosive on-board. Think you can drive?
AS: I guess we can find out.
The car thunders across the tarmac as I clumsily grasp the wheel, shifting myself over and working my foot onto the accelerator. Rob lifts himself away and climbs past me into the back of the Wrangler. In my weak state, every shuddering motion makes my bones rattle. With each subsequent gearshift, I’m forced to take my remaining hand off the wheel and reach across to the stick. The effort is precarious and awkward, my aching limbs puppeteered by will power and adrenaline, every passing second a battle to maintain control.
The windows up ahead are starting to fracture. The noise of the Wrangler is carrying, and the entire city is starting to pre-empt our arrival. Behind me, I can hear the ripping of duct tape, the tearing of fabric and the clattering of falling luggage. I’m not sure what’s taking place behind me. I just have to trust that Rob has a plan.
I hear the back door swing open just before we reach the intersection, a metallic scraping along the Wrangler’s floor, and a pained grunt from Rob as he throws something onto the road behind us.
Reaching the crossroads, I slide my hand along the wheel and twist it sharply to the right. As the car lurches round, and onto the next road, I feel my heart sink dramatically. We’ve been overtaken. The windows ahead of us are shattered, the front doors lay broken on the street, and the building’s desperate inhabitants are rushing towards us, blocking off our only means of escape.
I slam my foot onto the break, and the Wrangler shudders to a halt, the engine stalling and cutting out. The streets are now spilling over, an overwhelming swarm converging on our position from four directions. I look back to Rob, and he meets my gaze, his eyes brimming with dismayed finality.
An explosion shudders through the air behind us. I look out the back window to see a shattered jerry can, one of Rob’s now superfluous fuel reserves, its dark green shell violently compromised, its contents spilled out across the road and cast alight. Now that the engine isn’t running, the echo of the blast and roar of the primal, balletic flame fills the afternoon air.
The trajectory of the maddened crowd changes instantaneously, the silent Wrangler has fallen from their collective attention, as they refocus onto the smouldering flames. Those up ahead continue to rush past us, streaming around the Wrangler as they scramble to the spilled pool of gasoline, digging their hands into the blaze, grasping hopelessly at the fire.
Delicately, careful not to make a single shred of noise, I climb out of the driver’s seat, joining Rob in the back of the Wrangler.
He addresses me in a confused whisper.
ROB: Why don’t they care about us? What are they doing?
AS: … It’s the sound. They want it for themselves.
I don’t how I’m so sure, but I know that it’s the case. The jerry can creaks and screams as the city dwellers tear it into smaller and smaller pieces, frantically examining every jagged scrap. With each passing second, as the fire dies down, the crowd grows increasingly distressed, as if a precious commodity is slipping through their fingers.
AS: They don’t understand it. They’ll pull it apart trying to figure it out and they’ll never get any closer… and then it’ll be quiet again.
ROB: Where you gettin’ this from?
AS: I don’t know, just a uh… just a feeling.
ROB: Well… pretty sure they woulda pulled us apart too. I’d say we’re pretty lucky.
AS: Hah, yeah… pretty lucky.
As the last of the gasoline is eaten up, and the fire dies away, the city dwellers remain in the streets. Devoid of their momentary sense of purpose, their prize vanishing into the ether, the crowd’s desperation fades into a hushed despondency. I watch them as they pass by, countless faces wracked with sorrow, their aimless shuffling forming a lonesome sea, a grayscale ocean that spans the desolate city.
The Wrangler is now adrift in the centre of that ocean. It’s clear that any attempt to start the engine would bring the entire city down on us, reigniting their futile hope, causing them to tear through the car, and anything inside it.
For the foreseeable future, we’re completely stranded.
ROB: Don’t worry about it, ok?
AS: I don’t think they’re going to leave Rob.
ROB: They’ll leave.
AS: Ok… and what then? They’ll still be everywhere.
ROB: Hey, we’re a smart pair. We’ll think of somethin’.
In the eerie, pervasive calm that surrounds us, I sit myself down next to Rob and lean back against the wall, with nothing else to do but wait for our situation to change. After watching the figures outside for over an hour, the only thing that’s different is a strange needling sensation that feels like it’s emanating from now absent forearm.
AS: My uh… my arm hurts… how’s that possible-
ROB: Don’t worry that’s uh… it’s called Phantom Limb. You got some sensation right? Like you still got somethin’ there? A lotta people get that after amputations. Here…
Rob reaches into his medical kit and retracts a blue jar of tablets. Twisting off the cap, he shakes two pills free.
ROB: You’re gonna need these for the pain.
I stare at the tablets for a moment, before collecting them from his open palm. He passes me his canteen and I swallow them down in two weak gulps.
AS: You have a lot of experience with amputations?
ROB: … More than you’d think.
My brow furrows. Though I’d meant my remark as a passing jibe, Rob’s response rings with a strange sincerity. It takes me a moment to realise why that is.
AS: I forgot… you were drafted. You never talked about it.
ROB: Been thinkin’ about it a lot though. Bunch of strangers brought together under false pretences, told that we were servin’ a grand purpose by some old liar. Guess it’s interestin’ how time repeats itself. Now that I think about it, he drove a Jeep too.
AS: Rob… I told you, you didn’t bring us here-
ROB: That don’t change nuthin’. Don’t change what I did… to you, to Bobby, to any of ‘em. Maybe you were there in the forest but I was the one who started this, the one who kept askin’ what was at the end of the road.
AS: What do you think is at the end Rob?
ROB: Startin to think that ain’t for me to know. I been movin’ from place to place so long, seen everyone else settle down. Far as I can see, the end of the road is just wherever you decide to stop.
I rest my head on Rob’s shoulder. He gently places his arm around me. It isn’t long before medication starts to take effect, quietly overtaking my already weakened constitution. The pain subsides, dulled along with the rest of my senses. The sun is still streaming through the windshield as my eyes begin to drift shut.
I watch the figures pass the window, my eyelids getting weaker.
AS: I don’t want this to be the end Rob.
ROB: I know Miss Sharma, I know.
The last thing I see before I fall into a dreamless artificial sleep, is Rob Guthard’s hand reaching for the rifle.
When my eyes work themselves open, the sun is beginning to set.
I’ve been moved. As my vision adjusts, it becomes clear that I’m still in the Wrangler. My head resting against a pile of fresh clothes, a soft travel blanket laid across me.
I glance around to find that Rob’s nowhere to be seen.
Momentarily forgetting the situation outside the car, I attempt to call out for him. The syllable catches in my throat as a shambling figure passes by the window, wringing its hands in despair and casting a long shadow through the car.
With a renewed sense of caution, I slide the blanket to one side, and slowly make my way to the up front.
The cabin is similarly empty, except for a single scrap of paper, torn from my notebook. It lies on the driver’s seat, a small object hidden within the fold. When I open it, I find my headphones and five neatly written words:
“Channel One To All Cars”
My hand starts to shake as I rest the note on the dashboard, slowly climbing through and placing myself gently into the driver’s seat. My heart in my throat, I insert the headphones into the jack of the CB radio, take a single, quivering breath in, and press the first button.
ROB: I’m uh… I’m sorry Miss Sharma.
AS: Rob, where are you?
ROB: Down the road a little. Got myself to one of the rooftops. I know I always hated cities but, once you’re above it, the view’s really somethin’.
AS: Come back Rob. Come back… please.
ROB: I wish I could. I do. But we both know those things ain’t leavin. And you need the car to get where ever you gotta go so… best I can do is make some ruckus, draw’em outta your way.
I rest my head against the steering wheel, bracing myself against the weight of his words.
AS: I can’t do this without you.
ROB: I don’t think that’s true Miss Sharma. I think whatever’s on this road… it wants you to make it all the way. All I was meant to do was bring you this far. Now you don’t have to listen to it, you can turn around and head home… but either way only one of us is drivin’ outta here. So I guess the only question left is… which way d’you wanna go?
AS: Well… are you ahead of me or behind me?
ROB: I can be anywhere. It’s your choice Miss Sharma.
In the wake of Rob’s words, in the shadow of the decision, I’m cast into silence; not because the choice is hard, but because I’m ashamed that it’s so easy. It was made the moment I first stepped into the Wrangler, and renewed in every perplexing moment since. The need to know, to comprehend, to uncover the truth has been with me all my life, but I never knew its roots ran so deep, that it would endure so ardently when everything else, everyone else, had been stripped away.
I stare into the rear view mirror, seeing myself for the very first time, and I have to admit I’m scared.
AS: Stay where you are Rob.
ROB: Hah… ok Miss Sharma… you ready?
AS: … Yeah. I’m ready.
ROB: Alright then… suppose it’s about time this thing did some good.
The shot explodes through the radio, before a faint booming echo reaches me on the quiet city air.
Its effect on the city dwellers is immediate. Their collective melancholy shatters in an instant, replaced by a renewed fixation. Before I know it, the disparate crowd unites once more into a stampeding horde, rushing past the windows of the Wrangler and back down the road towards the source of the noise.
ROB: They on their way?
As the last of the city dwellers disappear behind me, I run my hand across the steering wheel, and down to the ignition.
AS: Yeah… yeah they’re on their way.
ROB: Ok then… what’re you waitin’ for?
With a fateful twist of the key, the Wrangler roars back to life. The wheels kick against the asphalt, transporting me through the streets of the city. As I barrel away from the intersection, I see a small contingent of pursuers rushing around the corner behind me.
Rob fires the rifle again, maintaining the attention of the majority. The stragglers fall away in my rear view mirror, losing ground against the Wrangler.
I take the first left, then the next possible right, then another left, a few minutes later I eventually find myself on the last stretch of road, leading me back into the vast and empty desert.
ROB: So, you gonna make it?
AS: Yeah, I’m gonna make it.
ROB: Good. That’s good. Miss Sharma, if uh… if you find Marjorie, if you get a chance to let me know… well it’s more than I deserve but-.
AS: Of course… of course I will.
ROB: I appreciate that. Ok, they’re gonna be here soon so… I’m gonna go radio silent for a while. If I call, you’ll know I made it out. If I don’t call… you just assume I made it out, ok?
AS: Please tell me you’re going to be alright, Rob.
ROB: … It’s been a real honour drivin’ with you Miss Sharma.
The sound of a final shot reverberates through the radio, its echo drowned out by the roaring engine of the Wrangler. The world shifts around me as I burst out of the city, and back onto the desert road.
The way ahead is laden with immense possibility, yet as I disappear into the vastness of the desert, I can only think of what I’ve left behind. Rob J Guthard had his flaws, marked by loss, driven by obsession, his good intentions often paving the way to tragedy and heartbreak.
As the tears begin to roll down my cheeks, I decide to remember him differently; as a valued friend, a good man and, above all else, a great story.
No matter how you tell it.