The License Plate Game
by Samantha Henderson
“I’ve been driving for a thousand years,” your mom says from the front seat, and you twitch with irritation because thousand is an important word, one with weight. A symbolic word; it shouldn’t be used like that.
Jillian sits next to you, sniffing reproachfully every five minutes, like the fact that she’s caught a cold is your fault. A week ago, you begged and pleaded for Jillian to be allowed to come.
You could cheerfully murder Jillian.
The first few days were fun. The drive to the coast was long, but you brought Mad Libs and giggled over your ridiculous constructions. Mom laughed from the front seat and played the good CDs as many times as you wanted. She stopped twice for soft serve and let you have the chocolate dip, both times, even sitting on her just-cleaned upholstery that still smelled faintly of industrial shampoo.
You played the License Plate Game with Jillian, and Mom chimed in with variations: out-of-state plates (lots of Washington and Idaho, with the occasional high-point sighting of Texas or Wyoming or an east coast state); plates beginning with a letter that was the first letter of the color of the car (there was room for creativity here because although “o” stood for “orange” you could stretch and make it “ochre” for a car that was simply brown); plates that could be made to spell short words. IPE = pie, and OPP = pop. FATAPPLE was a good one. Fat and apple, of course, but also ape, pal, tap, eat.
“Fata,” said Jillian, and you denied that was a word, but it did sound familiar, although you couldn’t remember where it was from, and Mom said it was, although she was unclear, too and said it was literary: something to do with King Arthur, and you gave it a pass.
The beach cabin was a little bit dirty, enough to be adventurous, with the two twin mattresses in your and Jillian’s room soft and lumpy with use. The mildew smell dissipated when you left the doors open for a few hours. You went out to the beach with Jillian right away, both wearing matching, white camisole tops with the breath of lace across the bosom, and you let the wind burn your faces to a pleasant tingle while your mom made hamburgers. There was a tiny seaside village close by, its harbor bare of all but boats rotting and rusty at the bottom, with stores selling shells and rays dried to look like hideous, desiccated mermaids.
You both remembered a film you’d seen long before, before you even lived in the same town, about a young bride who sold her soul to some sea-demon during a shipwreck. It took you all afternoon to reconstruct it between you, twisting it entirely out of context and truth. You did the same over and over again that week with other dimly remembered movies. The one about the island with the underground cannibals. The one with the million-year old aliens in the subways, with the church floors rippling and a devil-shape over London. Everything underground or under water.
Now, you realize the problem: it lasted too long. It would have been better to leave too soon, longing for more. Like too much ice cream, fudge, or pizza, the excess sickens and leaves a bruised, exploited feeling. You and Jillian, wonderful Jillian, realized, walking back from the village, that you wanted nothing better than to be alone, apart. The cabin was shabby, even filthy, with the depression of poverty like a miasma about it. The shops felt like the last gasp of a dying town, and the girls behind the counter despised you both for your highlighted hair and pedicures.
At dinner, Mom sensed the change of mood and was bewildered at first, trying to brighten the conversation and regain the good, innocent, old feeling that was dead and never coming back, and her tone changed from surprise to hurt to resentment that you two didn’t appreciate the vacation, the expense, the opportunity. And there were two more days to go, and you survived them with clenched teeth and false assurances, even when Jillian said in a casual way that she preferred Margaret Lanhelm’s sense of humor and that you really took yourself too seriously. It was a relief when going-home day came, even though you all lied and said you wished you could stay longer, and clothes and toiletries were thrown willy-nilly into suitcases in a jumble, not carefully packed and ordered the way you had when the trip was begun and a whole vista of opportunity lay open and jeweled before you.
The drive home is interminable. You’ve listened to the good CDs too much, and what was delightful has become boring, and your Mad Libs are marked up, and you’re surprised you ever thought them funny. Jillian looks out the window, bored with you, and you know on the first day of school she’s going to turn away from you with that superior look and whisper to Margaret Lanhelm, and they’ll laugh as if everything was a joke that you’ve no hope of understanding.
You don’t even want to bring up the License Plate Game, even though you mouth combinations of letters under your breath. DADSTOY = dad, toy, soy, stay, sod, day. GOLDYLOX = gold, lox, Lloyd, golly, and doxy was a word, wasn’t it? Log. God.
“The Vortex,” you say, rousing yourself. The signs have been popping up every ten miles or so, promising Aladdin’s-cave wonders. GRAVITY DEFIED and ROOM OF WONDERS in peeling paint on billboards shabby as the late cabin, the late harbor. But you’ve always wanted to go to this place, fake though it must be, with the forbidden funhouse feel of a carnival’s freak-show that you were never permitted to see. And Mom said you could, on the way here, when things were still fun and filled with a mystic potential, said there was no time now, but yes, of course, on the way home, yes you could go. You pass the last sign, half-buried in blackberry bramble and sweet peas, the last possible exit, and you feel her hesitate, feel the car shimmy right, and then her hands tighten on the wheel and the tree-shadowed entrance to the grand mystery slides by.
“We don’t have time,” she says, and you watch open-mouthed as the dark, hollow heralds of the Vortex vanish behind you, irretrievable because, as you learned on the way up, there isn’t another exit for miles, and it would take hours on the winding country paths to get there.
You look at Jillian, and she shrugs, and you hate her a little more now because you both know full well that, if she had asked to go, your Mom would have laughed, said the whole thing was a fake, but gone anyway because Jillian still held the sacred role of Guest, and this has given her the edge, you realize now, over the whole wretched week in countless tiny ways. She crinkles her eyes at you, and you read there: Margaret Lanhelm would not be so childish; Margaret Lanhelm knows the futility of such things, even though on the drive up here Jillian was just as eager to see the wonders of the Vortex as you.
You are quite aware, you want to tell both of them, you are QUITE aware that the whole thing is a trick of slanted floors and showmanship, and that tales of ancient ley-lines and alien visitation are fodder for the credulous, but don’t they understand — and at this moment, you want very badly to make them understand the truth of this — they must understand that at the core of the charlatan’s patter, the stage magician sleight-of-hand, the illusionist’s redirection, the fake alien’s rubber and plaster, the dried, fishy obscenity in the dying harbor village, there is an essential kernel of truth.
You want to tell them this, you want to express yourself rationally, but it comes out too loud, and whiny; even you wince as you say it:
“MOM. You PROMISED.”
Jillian rolls her eyes up, and your Mom whips her head around, teeth clenched, lips drawn back like a feral thing and snarls SHUT UP, and turns back to the road but overcompensates and the car wobbles, corrects, nicks the loose gravel on the verge, dips, skids and spins with a horrible squeal off the freeway, tumbling over and over. It goes on longer than you think it possibly could, nightmarish but you won’t wake up from it, and Jillian screams, and you see flashes of her face over and about you, eyes wide and white-rimmed. You can’t see your mom, but she’s making a horrible moaning sound, and finally the car stops with a violent thump that knocks the breath out of you, and for a while you don’t see or hear anything at all.
When you open your eyes again, it’s dark, and you’re lying on your back looking at the thick dusting of stars across the night sky. There’s a stone digging into your kidneys. You can feel every edge of that, but not your legs.
You manage to prop yourself up on your elbows and see the car a couple yards away, upside down. This side of it looks smooth and untouched, except that the driver’s window is opaque from a million tiny cracks and the backseat window is gone, with only a few jagged pebbles of glass stuck here and there in the frame. You can’t see Mom at all through the clouded glass. Jillian might be that lump that sometimes seems to move, whose breathing is a loud rasp. The stars overhead are cold and illuminate nothing, otherwise there’s a dull, orange glow that flickers behind the wrecked car and might be fire. You smell gas, but there’s no smell of burning, no sound of flames. The freeway’s behind you, empty of cars, although you weren’t alone on the road when you turned over, and where’s everyone? Surely someone saw? Why are you alone here?
You try to call out, but no sound comes.
Dad, toy, soy, say: all those cars, all those plates. Why didn’t anyone call the police?
Gold, doxy, log. God.
Twin lights stab the darkness, and you gasp as their beams sweep across your body and the twisted metal of your car. In the light you see dark blotches inside the crazed front window. The lights come nearer; the other car crunches gravel as it slows and stops on the verge. The lights stay on. You can’t hear an engine. There’s the sound of a door being opened, then slammed shut, as if it’s an old car a little out of frame.
A figure is silhouetted against the headlights, tall and impossibly thin. It walks towards you, and although you need help, you want to wriggle away with your useless legs and hide in the underbrush. It walks towards you and you try to scream, but only a hissing comes out; it walks towards you, and now you start to cry.
A man with a slash of a face, thin lips, and a nose like a blade kneels beside you and brushes the hair away from your face. His eyes are hollows, each like the ashy pit of a burned-out campfire, with the Vortex behind them. He glances at the car, and back at you. The smell of gasoline grows stronger.
He doesn’t need to say anything. You know - you’ve always known there’s a choice to be made here. The choice of the road and its dissatisfactions.
The man bends close and touches the hollow of your throat with dry fingers, and you could speak if you wanted to. But you don’t, you only nod, tears squeezing hot out of the corners of your eyes. He touches your body where your legs meet and you can walk. It hurts, it’s always going to hurt, but you can walk.
Jillian’s raspy breathing sounds more and more like snoring. It’s louder, and slower. After a while, it stops.
You drive and drive, and it’s always night, and the road ahead holds only tumbleweed blown where sand’s drifted over the asphalt and stained napkins from soft serve stands. Every hollow has its Vortex, and you’ll never escape the burned-out butt-end of summer. You try to read the license plates, but they don’t tell you anything at all.
“I’ve been driving for a thousand years,” the man with the hollow eyes tells you, and thousand can be thou and sound and sand, and not for a single second do you doubt what he says.
Copyright © 2011 by Samantha Henderson