Mile marker 207. That’s where I died.
I was driving on Highway 84 somewhere between Albuquerque and the Colorado border. I had the T-top open on my Firebird and—aside from being a little lonely—was feeling pretty damn good about life. My body was driving the car. My mind was lost in a Louis L’Amour audiobook playing in the cassette deck.
I saw her standing by a fence post near mile marker 202. I guarantee you’ve seen all of this before in a movie. Long scar of blacktop cutting through the chaparral. Middle of nowhere. Beautiful girl with her thumb in the air. Cowboy Boots. Short shorts. Cowboy hat. Sunglasses. All that. Car passes by (in this case, my ’76 Firebird). Rock music is blaring (in this case, Louis L’Amour audiobook). Unshaven man looks at girl in the rear-view mirror. Car backs up.
“Where you headed?”
“That way,” she said. “Same as you.” She leaned in over the door. In the movie version, she might have tilted her sunglasses down to expose her big, blue eyes. In the real version, her glasses stayed put and just reflected back two distorted versions of me sitting in the driver’s seat.
I was noticing her perfect skin, full lips, and the cleavage that was spilling into the car—and it got me thinking. It was all a bit too good to be true. Like I said, it looked just like a scene from a movie. I could not, for the life of me, recall a movie in which a scene like this ended well.
I swapped the Louis L’Amour cassette for Bon Jovi, and we hit the road. I stomped the gas hard to throw some dirt behind us as we left.
In the movie version, she would have laughed, lifted her hands into the air, whooped, and then started singing along to Bon Jovi. Instead, this girl slouched into the seat, lowered her head, and was totally silent. It was as though she sat on a button that instantly reminded her of something terrible.
After a few awkward minutes of silence, I asked her if she was okay.
“No,” she said.
“Did somebody hurt you? Is that why you’re wearing those big sunglasses?”
She didn’t answer.
“You don’t have to worry about me hurting you or anything like that.”
She smiled, but it didn’t stay. The way it faded reminded me of one of those sticky toys that you throw at the wall and watch slowly crawl down until it finally flops to the floor.
Bon Jovi sang, “Shot through the heart, and you’re to blame…” We passed mile marker 204.
“I could take you to a police station,” I said.
She sat up from her slouch and looked at me. “What the hell is wrong with you? Don’t you want to have your way with me? Do all sorts of bad things, you sicko?”
When I looked at her, I could see my own confused face in the reflection of those big sunglasses. “What? No. I’m not going to do anything like that.”
Then, she started crying like I’d hurt her feelings. Little streams of mascara ran out from under her sunglasses.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” I said. “You’re totally beautiful. I’m not a prude or anything. I just mean that I won’t—”
“You won’t hurt me. I know,” she interrupted. “And you sure as hell aren’t going to kill me.”
“Uh, yeah. That’s also true.”
A semi-truck roared past, sucking her cowboy hat out of the open T-top. A tornado of blonde hair swirled above her head and then settled. She didn’t budge.
“It’s not so bad, really,” she said. The lenses of her sunglasses looked like small screens playing the same movie—which I guess was just a movie about us driving down the road.
“What’s not so bad?”
We passed mile marker 205.
“Did somebody you know die?” I asked.
“Me, dummy. I’m dead.”
“Somebody is out to get you?” I asked.
“No, nimrod. I said that I’m dead. Dead as in not living.” She took her glasses off and threw them out the window.
“Jesus Christ! What the hell is wrong with your eyes?” They were completely black like two puddles of Indian ink.
“Are you really that dense? I just told you I’m dead.” She just glared at me with those horrible eyes.
I nearly shit myself. No lie. I jerked the wheel and slid the car to a stop on the dirt shoulder—just shy of mile marker 207.
Then—and this is where it got really strange—she started unbuttoning her shirt. The top half was nearly already open. The bottom half was loosely tied above her midriff. It took all of two buttons and a small wiggle for her to take it off. Her bra came off just as easily. She tossed both directly out the window. Shorts and boots were all that remained.
“Look,” she said, aiming her breasts at me.
I looked. I’m ashamed to admit that this is the order of things that I noticed: two large and heavy breasts, two silver-dollar-sized nipples, and one gaping, angry wound right over her heart. I had never seen an open wound in person before. I would have guessed that it should have been wet and bloody. This thing was dry and old, like the top of an overbaked red-velvet cupcake.
“Do you get it now?” she said, leaning back against the seat and looking down the road. “I’m dead. As in dead, dead, dead, fucking deadidy, dead, dead.”
I’m not exaggerating when I say that my poor heart was thumping in my chest like a rabbit being tickle tortured. “I can take you to get help.” It came out like a question.
“You really aren’t very bright, are you? That’s okay,” she said. “That will make it easier.”
Now, I should pause here to tell you that if I was watching this play out in a movie, I would have been yelling at my character to get the hell out and run, to get away—anything but just sit there like an idiot. All I can say is just wait until you have a beautiful, black-eyed, topless, dead girl in your car insulting you before you pass judgment.
“I think you’d better get out,” I said.
“And do what?” she yelled. “Pace up and down the fucking road between marker 202 and 211? Same thing I’ve been doing since who knows how long?” She stopped yelling and shook her head.
I turned to face her but wasn’t sure where to focus my attention. Black eyes, massive breasts, a decrepit wound, a pistol.
“Wait,” I said, pointing to the gun. “Where the hell did that come from?”
“Back of my shorts.”
It was a big gun—something like Dirty Harry might use. Despite the current situation, I could not help but contemplate how in the hell she had managed to keep it hidden in those tiny shorts.
“Listen, just take my car and go. Take whatever you want.” I opened my door and turned to get out.
“To hell with it.” That’s what the girl said.
Pop, pop. That’s what I heard. What I felt was a strange coldness on my back. Then, a warm sensation running down my chest.
“Shit, I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” she said.
I fell back into the seat. My head slumped forward. I instinctively cupped my hands under the blood leaking from my chest as if I might be able to save it.
“I didn’t have any choice,” she said. “I held out as long as I could.”
I tried to say something—I don’t even remember what I was going to say. All that came out was a gurgling sound.
She took my hand in hers and leaned in with her dead eyes. Her hand was as cold as ice, which reiterated the whole “I’m dead” thing. Some tension in her face settled, and she smiled a sympathetic smile. A black tear leaked from her eye. “It’s not so bad, really,” she said. “You’ll find somebody too—maybe a perverted trucker that likes to hurt kids or something like that.”
The sunglasses were long gone, so I’m not sure what my face looked like in that moment. I can only imagine that my expression was a mixture of panic and dismay.
“Don’t bother trying to leave this place,” she said. “No matter how far you go or in what direction, you will always end up back here. The only way to move on is to find a replacement. You know, by…” She made a circular gesture with her hand as if I was supposed to finish her sentence.
“By killing somebody, dip shit.” She sighed as if she was disappointed in herself for losing her temper. “It was the same for the person before me and for the person before that and for the person before—” Her brow suddenly furrowed as if she was mad at me again. “Shit. Don’t die yet. I have more to tell you. Do you have any sunglasses?”
I gurgled and shook my head.
“Change of clothes?”
I attempted to nod.
“Good. Go back and find my sunglasses. Use them to cover your eyes. Clean yourself up and put on some fresh clothes. You’re a nice guy. It won’t be easy. You’ll have to build up to doing it. You only have to do it once, though. Don’t let people see you all messy like this. They will call the police, and then your car will get towed. It will get towed eventually anyway but use it for as long as you can. Put the hood up to get people to stop.” She paused to let out a long sigh. “I’m really sorry. I couldn’t take it anymore. I wish—well, under different circumstances… I don’t know.”
I turned my sagging head as much as I could to face her. Time was creeping by ever so slowly. Somewhere in that molasses of time, I looked at the girl’s ink-stained cheeks, and I actually wondered if we could still be together—when I was dead like her.
My head sagged back toward my lap.
“Shit. Hold on. There’s more—”
Apparently, that’s when I died. One second, she was there talking and the next—poof—she was gone. Only the shorts, boots, and gun remained. A lightness settled over me. I sat up and checked my eyes in the rear-view mirror. They were black and horrible like the beautiful dead girl’s had been.
She was right about being stuck. I ran my car out of gas on the second day. Every time I passed mile marker 211, the markers just started over at 202. Same issue in the other direction. Naturally, I also tried walking away from the highway. It just leads right back to this shitty stretch of blacktop. It’s a nine-mile, infinite loop of hell in all directions.
Louis L’Amour died with the car battery. The day that the police and tow truck arrived, I was feeling particularly sorry for myself, so I stayed out of sight and just watched. They didn’t even bother looking for my body, which made me feel even worse.
Being lonely and alive was pretty bad but being lonely and dead is worse. Sometimes, I’ve ridden with people just to have somebody to talk to for a while.
It doesn’t last long, though.
“Hey, didn’t we pass this spot already,” they say. Then, the car sputters and stalls or the tire suddenly goes flat. Once I leave them, everything gets resolved, and they are on their way—out of the loop.
Of course, you’re not supposed to let them go. The loop wants you to find a replacement.
Now that it’s almost over, I’ve realized something. When I was alive, I used to think that most people were pretty shitty. Now that I’m dead, I think most everybody is just trying to do the best they can with what they have. When your only escape is to kill somebody, you start to see all the little bits of goodness in people, even if the bits are tiny. Maybe that’s the whole point of this place.
I found a replacement. He is tied up in the field—the rope and duct tape were in the back of his Lincoln. Bob McDuffie is the name on his license. You’ve probably seen somebody like him on a docuseries about serial killers. Caucasian. Decent looking. Friendly. Charismatic. I suppose I hit the jackpot.
It was our third time passing mile marker 205 when Bob’s nice-guy act ended.
He managed to get me with his knife a few times, sneaky bastard—not that it mattered. It did help to solidify the notion that he would, in fact, be my replacement. It would be next to impossible for me to get a ride now with all these bloodless gashes.
Even though I don’t see any little bits of goodness in Bob, it will still be difficult to do it. I read a book once that said World War II soldiers often missed on purpose when they fired at the enemy. I don’t blame them for missing if they did. I get it. I also don’t blame the dead girl for not missing. None of it is easy.
Bob McDuffie’s Lincoln is long gone. I put nearly every man-made item I could find in it and drove it just shy of mile marker 211. I put a rock on the gas pedal and set the whole lot free—minus Bob, of course. The car never came back into the loop.
Other than me and Bob—both of whom are naked, all that remains in the loop is the gun and some duct tape and rope. I also decided to find the girl’s cowboy hat to wear in her honor.
There is one round left in the gun. It’s for Bob—specifically for Bob’s head. I don’t have it in me to do more than that. I bound him up nice and tight though so the animals will have plenty of time to make him look like a zombie. That way, nobody will ever stop.
The strangest thing in all of this is that I feel like being here has given me a few more of those little bits of goodness. I’m not sure where I’m going after this, but I hope the girl is there. Maybe she got some more of those little bits from being here too.
I think my plan with Bob will work, but I can’t make any promises. So, if you happen to find yourself driving in New Mexico on highway 84 between mile marker 202 and 211, do not stop.
Do. Not. Stop.
If for some reason you do, make sure you have some sunglasses handy. You’ll need them.
Justin Snodgrass received his MFA from Laguna College of Art & Design in 2015. He is currently working on a series of speculative fiction novels. View his artwork at: http://justinsnodgrass.com