It was Tuesday when my car broke down just on the other side of somewhere. I raced the temperature gauge for awhile but it won and the red light came on. Smoke poured out from beneath the hood. I kept driving and the engine died and the car stopped, refusing to move. So I opened the door and got out, spent some time cursing at my car and kicking it and peering under the hood as if I knew anything about the internal organs of an automobile. After awhile I couldn’t look at the car anymore. It was like looking at a corpse; I couldn’t stand it. I needed the damn car. I had a bag with useless things in it and no phone. There was nothing in the trunk but a spare tire and I didn’t need a damn spare tire.
There was nothing here but road, dirt and dust and dead animals. Crushed things, dried caked blood and brown matted fur; rats or chipmunks or ferrets I didn’t know what the hell most of them used to be. And the dirt again; brown and gray and sometimes reddish, there was dirt everywhere. It was hot and quiet and lonely. It was almost noon and I forgot from where I had left that morning. I tried to remember where it was I was supposed to get by nighttime. I stared at the car and couldn’t remember.
I stood by the corpse for awhile but nothing happened. The engine was dead and that was it. I sat in the car and tried the radio but there was only static and my old tapes only bothered me. So I waited in silence for someone to come. But no one came and no cars drove by and nothing happened. Time moved in intervals of five minutes. Five and five and five and nothing came and there was only the highway for miles and miles.
I tried shouting but the space ate my voice and there was nobody around to catch it. So I sat some more and stared out of the dead car. I felt a pain in my stomach from the fear and despair. I moved around some more but the pain wouldn’t go away. My head was starting to hurt and my hands were starting to tremble so I knew I had to walk away.
“All roads lead to somewhere,” I heard once. I thought I should go ahead and see if that was true. I left the corpse behind in the dust and dirt on the road with the dead animals and walked between the dirt and the white line on the side of the highway. I took my bag with me, even though it was filled only with useless things and no phone.
After awhile I got tired and sat down facing the horizon. My despair came in nauseous waves; some waves were worse than others. There was this general sinking feeling, and I thought maybe I couldn’t sink any more but somehow I found a way. The sun was starting to sink, the heat was starting to sink, and my strength was starting to sink. I was getting hungry and sick of walking past the dead animals. I kept thinking that other cars had obviously killed them, except there were no cars in this place. Trucks, maybe, because I used to think there were only trucks on roads like these, with pot-bellied truckers in them who watched the road with glazed eyes and never got anywhere but kept driving anyway. But there weren’t even trucks in this place; only dirt and dust and dead animals that got killed by cars and trucks that never came.
I couldn’t see my car anymore and I started to worry about thieves who would come out of nowhere and steal a dead car. But that was impossible, so my dead car became a fixture like a decoration in the middle of nowhere, like you see in those photographs in black and white of an empty highway and a dead car and gray dirt beneath a gray sky. Sometimes in color pictures you see a bolt of lightning strike the middle of the horizon, and the car is still there, except it’s been there for awhile and looks like the sun ate away at it.
When I was a kid they told me about hell and hell was always there after that, like a sign swinging from rusty hinges above an abandoned restaurant. The word “hell” was written in red neon wire and there were gaudy painted flames in the background behind the letters. So I figured that maybe this was hell and I had done something really bad without realizing it.
I didn’t kill any of the animals they were already dead.
The sun went down and the sky glazed over into night and the stars came out and laughed at me. I couldn’t see anything but I was too upset to sleep. I thought that if I just kept walking I’d see a damned sign or gas station or building. There had to be something in this damned hell but there was nothing and I was too upset to sleep. So I kept walking, thinking that if I walked straight the highway would just keep on going and I would keep on going with it.
I think I fell down at one point, and slept for awhile because I was too weak and hungry and stubbornly tired to admit it. When I woke up it was still dark. I tried to get up and my hand closed over a dead animal. My fingers broke the dried crusty blood and pushed against the stiff fur, into a fold of brittle skin that snapped off. I cursed and shouted out and wiped my hand over my pants but there was nothing there but blood-dust that just flaked off.
I started walking again; sometimes my eyes closed and I would stumble blindly half asleep. I didn’t notice but the highway was gone. I was stumbling through the dirt and dust and kicking over small pebbles. I had strayed so far that when the sun came I couldn’t even see the highway anymore.
I was so hungry that I couldn’t even call it hunger anymore. I must have lost my mind because I saw someone sitting against a boulder watching me approach. It was an old man dressed in dust and dirt whose eyes gleamed out of a wrinkled face framed by a tangled mess of wiry black hair. I was too far to speak yet so I watched him as he watched me. Maybe there was a town nearby and this old man could help me.
So I said hello when I was close enough and stood there squinting at him.
He said ‘Where are you going?’
I said ‘My car died…somewhere back there…’ I gestured vaguely.
‘I know that part,’ he said, ‘but you didn’t answer my question.’
I didn’t know what he was talking about and I was in no mood for some cryptic-talking mirage so I walked away but the old man stood up and began to follow me. I wasn’t sure if he was really there but I couldn’t very well act like he wasn’t. I tried to find the highway thinking I had gone right away from it but I couldn’t find it so I thought maybe I had gone left away from it so I doubled back but the highway wasn’t there. I began to think maybe the highway had just ended and I had taken a dead-end highway without realizing it.
So I said to the old man ‘Where’s the nearest town?’ but he stared at me without answering. I tried to think of where I had come from the morning of the previous day and how many miles I had gone before the car died. I couldn’t remember but I decided it didn’t make any difference. I was going back to the corpse and I was going to walk back down the highway in the direction from where I had come, walking until I came to somewhere. The old man seemed harmless enough so I didn’t try to shake him; I figured he would find my company tiresome and go away.
The sun climbed its unseen ladder, burning away the clouds until it sat enthroned peering emptily down over the dust and dirt and dead animals. The wind moved hotly over the dust and my pant cuffs were coated red and brown. My feet were blistered and sore and beating in desperation against the dead earth as if trying on their own to resurrect it with violence. The old man made no sound as he walked and I noticed that the earth softened beneath his bare feet like mud and squeezed up between his toes and ran in rivulets over the smooth skin. I risked looking at his face and he was sort of smiling but not looking at me; so I turned away and tried not to think about why his feet were sinking into the yielding earth while mine were getting bruised and battered with every step.
The sun grew weary of its reign; our shadows grew long behind us as we walked. I was hungry again because my body hadn’t yet realized I was powerless now to sustain it. I wondered what would happen when it figured this out, if it would get angry and betray me and stop working like the engine did. I tried to convince it that it didn’t need food right then and that it would get food sometime so it should keep quiet until then. This worked for awhile but I suppose my body didn’t trust me because it redoubled its efforts until my stomach growled and turned in its place and my skull resonated with its pitiful cries.
‘There is nothing to eat in this place,’ the old man said, looking at my stomach.
‘I need to eat,’ I said angrily. He looked at me with that same damned empty smile and said ‘Soon you won’t be alive and then you won’t need to eat.’ I didn’t want to look at him anymore so I said ‘The hell with you,’ and didn’t say anything after that because I hated the old man. If he said something like that again I would pick up a rock or something and bash his skull in and make him dead like those damned animals on the highway I couldn’t find.
The sun gave up and went down and the moon came up. I didn’t want to risk losing myself in the night so I lay down and tried to sleep with my back to the old man who was standing without sleeping because he was some kind of dream-figment I was stupid enough to create. Why couldn’t it have been a beautiful woman with helpful suggestions?
Morning came round again and I was weaker than before but I didn’t want to think about that, the hell with it, so I stood up. The old man was still there with his arms spread out to welcome the sun. I saw in the dawn light that his skin was covered over with some kind of red moss that was moving and rearranging itself over his body.
I couldn’t look at that anymore so I started walking. The old man didn’t follow; I was relieved. I wasn’t sure if he was a dream-figment anymore because I couldn’t have dreamed up anything that insane but I wasn’t sure about that either because insane people probably never thought about insane things before they went crazy. So I just kept walking and didn’t look back.
I found the highway again and shouted out; I shouted and shouted because I knew that now I would get somewhere no matter how long it took and I figured I could last for a good couple of days more, maybe. I could find a phone or a gas station or some damned place where I could eat and drink and find somebody to fix my damned car if it was still there and hadn’t been stolen by thieves who came out of nowhere.
The old man who walked faster than me because he wasn’t tired and didn’t need to eat and was some kind of crazy dream-figment caught up with me. I didn’t say anything to him but silently cursed him and his damned red moss. I was walking on the highway between the white line and the dirt but he was walking in the dirt and the dirt was soft and yielding again around his feet.
At last I saw the car in the distance and it was the same as I had left it. I walked up to it and the old man stayed away from it. I stood staring at it for awhile but there was nothing I could take from it. Still I wanted to touch it, to feel it though I hated it for stranding me here. Damned machine, that was it was; useless as a corpse, a mocking tangle of sheet metal and pipes and wires and rust and black dirt and grease and fabric. I took out my keys and went around to the driver’s seat and opened the door and sat down inside. I inserted the key behind the wheel and turned it but it wouldn’t go and the dashboard warning lights came on and the radio was static. It seemed even more lifeless to me than before. I got out of the car, closed the door, and locked it. I kicked it and walked away from it.
The dead animals were still there. I wondered whether they had ever been alive and got killed by cars and trucks that never came, or had they always been dead on a highway that ended in the middle of a damned nowhere.
The old man wasn’t walking next to me so I turned around to see where he was. He was standing in the middle of the highway with his arms outstretched. I thought this different for some reason because he seemed to make an effort not to touch the highway or the car but stayed where the dead earth yielded to him, pretending it was alive.
I watched the old man and the highway beneath him cracked and the cracks zigzagged outward in all directions from where he stood like a pane of glass pierced by a bullet. The cracks got wider and wider and there was water in the cracks, clear water that swallowed pieces of the highway as they fell into the cracks. I was thirsty and my body took over; I stooped to drink from the crack nearest me. The water was warm, almost hot, but it was good and I just kept drinking like an animal. I was alive and I was going to stay alive because the water was good and it was water and my body needed water.
Some of the dead animals fell into the water and were swallowed up but they came out again alive and scurried away off the cracked highway into the dirt and dust all little nails clicking noisily over the asphalt. I couldn’t think about that so I just kept drinking the water, as much of it as my body wanted I didn’t care. I looked up and the man was still standing there with his arms outstretched like he wasn’t finished.
I looked toward my car and there was a tree there, it had come out of one of the cracks. The tree spread its limbs over my car like the car had been there while the tree was growing and the tree twined its limbs around and through the car, breaking the windows and bending the metal and pushing through the hood like a knife through aluminum foil.
I shouted because I had taken enough of this madness and I needed the damned car to get back to somewhere and it was my car and if only I could fix it and get the hell out of here it would be alright. But it was too late; the damned tree had destroyed the car. I shouted and shouted but the old man wasn’t finished. He stood there with his arms outstretched and all around the dead animals were falling into the water and coming out alive and skittering away on their little feet, ferrets or chipmunks or rats or prairie dogs I didn’t know what the hell they were.
I started to jog toward the old man, thinking I would stop him and make him make things go back to normal but the highway was soft and yielding around my feet like mud and it was hard to move through it. I tried and tried but the pavement was turning into mud and the gray mud was flowing into the water and the water was flowing into the mud and I was sinking and sinking. I couldn’t walk any more, I was just kicking my legs uselessly and flailing my arms and the gray mud was already up to my waist.
I waved my arms and shouted out for the old man to stop and help me but he wouldn’t stop. The gray mud closed over my head. I could see through it like it was the surface of a frozen lake that I had fallen beneath and was looking through while my life faded. I could see the ripples pass over things on the other side, vague and unclear.
I passed down into the depths and the gray mud stopped rippling. I saw the old man stop and walk over me like the highway was solid again, his feet passing overhead on the other side of a transparent road beneath which I was sinking.