Henry had to pull over. To keep going would have been too stubborn even for him. He coasted his car onto the gravel shoulder. They listened to the muffled, crackling sound of the tires, slipped their hands under their butts, clenched their teeth, stiffened, waited for it.
“Fuck!” Henry screamed. He swung rapid karate chops at the steering wheel. “God fucking damn it!” The windows were fogged over. His spit dotted the dashboard.
Henry’s car also carried his girlfriend, Alicia, and his two roommates, Charlotte and Hux, in back. The car following his was manned by Marco Blanchard and included Lance and Jodi Dean – twins from the Gator Bar where he worked. Seven people total. Two small cars.
Marco pulled his car over behind Henry’s on the gravel. They had been traveling down a narrow, crumbling road bracketed by empty cow pastures for almost a half hour. The goal had been for all of them to drive to the mountains together for the day, take a little respite from the city.
Henry had taken the time to draw an entire map by himself the night before, painted really. He’d gone out of his way to buy a set of tiny brushes and a small palette of latex paints. He tried. It was supposed to be fun.
Marco and his crew were the first to exit their vehicle. Henry could see them in the rearview mirror, laughing, taking cheerful little potshots at each other. They should have worn coats. He could see it in their faces. The sun was out and bright, but it was late October and the wind was growing teeth. Without a word, Hux and Charlotte stepped outside and joined the others. Alicia looped her fingers inside the door handle but thought better of it. She had seen Henry go off like this plenty of times before but she had never gotten over feeling like her reactions were all wrong. Stay or go? She could never remember. How does one attend to an unreasonable, irate man who refuses to be consoled?
“Are you okay?” she asked. Henry was slumped over, mashing his forehead into the steering wheel and groaning.
“Just… just go.”
Alicia opened her door. The whole crew converged on her. As soon as they arrived next to Alicia’s door and poked their heads inside, Henry flung his door open and barged out the other side.
“Whoa!” Marco said. “What’s going on, my man?” They were all crowded around Alicia who had never made it out of her seat, stacked in behind her like bowling pins.
Imbeciles, Henry thought. Look at yourselves. Stop giggling.
“Fuck off,” Henry said.
“Guys, easy…” Alicia said.
“This is bullshit,” Henry said, “look at this.” He turned his back on them, spread his arms wide, rotated his hips back and forth as if to say, how the hell can you find this abominable mess humorous?
“Relax,” Jodi said. She was chewing on some monster clump of gum. “We’re lost. Big deal.” Jodi and Marco were squeezed inside the passenger side door, huddled over Alicia’s lap, peering across the seats at Henry. From that angle, they could only see him from his waist down. His knees were twitching, sort of like he was marching in place.
“Don’t sweat it,” Hux said.
“That’s such a cliché,” Henry said. He couldn’t stop shivering – hands clamped up under his armpits, breathing hard.
“Yeah,” said Lance, “Don’t sweat over spilt directions!” He laughed, and then, like the rising action of a drum roll, everyone else laughed.
When Marco noticed Henry wasn’t joining in, he said, “Come on, Henry, lighten up.”
“That’s another cliché!” Henry said. He threw his hands up, brought them down on the hood. “You’re all a bunch of the most unoriginal assholes in the world.” He had said that. That he had said those words. They had come before he could cut them off.
At that, Hux put his arm around Charlotte and led her back toward Marco’s car. Lance followed them and Jodi followed Lance. Marco stood over Alicia, straddling her, leaning against the roof. It was definitely Marco Blanchard, because Henry remembered him standing there, eyeballing him. Marco Blanchard was tall enough to see him over the roof, cocky enough, or maybe just spacey enough, to keep staring much longer than necessary. From his vantage point he could see only Henry’s neck and head. Henry had the edge of his thumb in his mouth, gnawing on it. He looked determined to rip it off. Marco tapped a few beats on top of Henry’s car, then stopped and made a popping sound with his lips.
“Suit yourself,” Marco said. He walked back to join the rest of them at his car.
Alicia still sat in the passenger seat, half inside and half outside the open door. Henry jumped back inside, slammed his door shut. Alicia whipped her legs in, followed suit. Henry turned the key and skidded back onto the road. He had to move fast before Marco overtook him. Seconds later, Marco’s car appeared in the mirror.
Alicia hadn’t said a thing. Aside from his periodic snorting, Henry was silent. An intense heat had been rising in him, fighting to reach the top of his head. Outside he had felt a burning sensation welling up just beyond his temples. He didn’t want to look at his face, but he assumed it was red. His nose felt wet, dewy.
Henry didn’t know what he’d do next. He’d known the night before, sitting at the kitchen table, his tongue out, sketching ridiculous little dragons at the corner of the map just for the hell of it, because he knew they’d get a kick out of it, because he knew it would be perfect. He had a vision. He had things covered, he told them. He’d even referred to himself as “Captain Henry” and everything. It was rare he had a chance to be in charge. Lying in bed, thinking of the road trip in the morning, it seemed nothing could spoil their adventure.
Now the map was wadded somewhere beneath the brake pedal. Why did he get like this? It had something to do with wanting to be a strong leader and wanting things to be just right under his command. But there was something more, something harder to explain. For his entire life he had been in the habit of picturing things a certain way before they happened. It was his way, his very own Henry way of imagining how events would unfold. He felt a need to shape them, control them before they existed. The problem began when the occasion actually arrived and reality imposed its impervious will. If the event did not present itself precisely the way he had envisioned it, if it didn’t line up totally with what he had planned, he could not deal with it. He had zero improvisational skills, no faculties for adjustment. Time after time Henry washed up against the cliffs of fate. A captain would compensate, roll with whatever circumstances got in the way, revise his course on the fly. Henry had failed to live up to his own model of a captain once again. It never got more bearable.
They had all abandoned ship.
Henry made a noise with his mouth that sounded like a car backfiring. It just came out of nowhere, involuntarily, like someone had snuck up from behind and dislodged a piece of food from his windpipe. The heat in his head subsided a bit. He hadn’t meant what he said to them. He couldn’t have. It had no meaning at all. What the fuck was that all about?
Henry pressed fingernail marks into the steering wheel. He realized he’d been staring at the pregnant area where the airbag was stored. He looked at it as if he had never noticed it before. There was something weirdly reassuring about it. The more he stared at it, the more he became convinced that this sealed bag, hiding somewhere beneath this plastic shell, symbolized the worst that could happen. And it hadn’t happened yet. It was like as long as it was still intact, he still had a chance at redemption. All at once Henry realized that with the slightest bit of effort he could transfer all his anger at being abandoned by the rest of his friends and turn it into a sense of thankfulness for the fact that Alicia had refused to leave. He’d unearthed a little switch somewhere in his brain, like one of those levers used to shift directions in a paddleboat. There was still hope. Alicia was right there beside him, her pale, pillowy form curled against the window. Her bare, goose pimpled legs coiled beneath her corduroy skirt, her arms soft and warm inside her turtleneck sweater. Alicia, who never gave up on him. He had an awful habit of ruining things with his rotten attitude, his impatience, his inability to take himself lightly, but Alicia had remained by his side for almost two years. She hadn’t even stepped out of the car. Henry reached over and ran his hand across her thigh, clutching a bit of the ribbed fabric in his fingers.
“Let’s do something spontaneous,” he said.
“Okay,” she said, more with a sullen nod than with words. She turned toward him, exaggerating a frown. A sad clown face. Henry could tell he’d have to be certain enough for the both of them.
Henry yanked the wheel to the right and in a flash they were in the vacant pasture. The car jerked and rattled as it bounced over rocks and rippled rows of soil. Dirt sprayed up behind them in a great plume of brown. Henry could see Marco’s car in the mirror. It was parked sideways at the edge of the road. He took immense pleasure in knowing that he and the rest of them were incapable of handling this experience. Henry still had his hand wrapped around Alicia’s thigh. She yelled much louder than he’d ever heard before. She put her hand on top of Henry’s and he exhaled slowly.
“Watch out for that tree!” she hollered.
“Don’t worry,” Henry said, “I see it.” And he did.
ghost colony - Tape Deck Mountain
Simon A. Smith lives in Chicago with his wife and a murderous orange tabby named Cheever. He is about one year from receiving his MAT in Language Arts Education. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Hobart, Quick Fiction, Monkeybicycle, Whiskey Island, PANK, Bound Off, Dogzplot and a few others. He likes it here.
Photo by Adam Lawrence.
Street art by Deeker.
Ghost Colony is by Tape Deck Mountain. So rock it.