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Dan goes for a Drive
Dan wasn’t driving carefully. Dan never drove carefully. He didn’t believe in defensive driving. He was definitely one of those hooligans who hadn’t yet had his first accident and believed that he was invincible.
Amy, his twin, hated the days when it was his turn to drive. Their parents did not technically think of them as one person, but buying two cars for one shared birthday was simply too great a financial burden for the Smith household. So, Amy got to drive on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; Dan got Tuesdays, Thursdays, and weekends. While the rest of the family went to church, Dan liked to drive out into the countryside, get lost, and find his way back without a map.
On this particular Sunday, Dan was enjoying the scenery so much that he almost didn’t want to go back home. It was his last year in high school and the football season was drawing to a close; he was sorry to see it go, he thought he might never get the chance to play again. It felt like he could stay in the car and drive forever and nothing would ever change.
He was driving past a long, flat field, wild and overgrown with grass and bright flowers. There was a wooden fence, but the pieces fit irregularly and sagged like wet cloth. The sky looked like it might rain, or had rained already. In fact, the road was wet. Dan realized he had no idea where he was.
Dan also realized his tank was less than a quarter full. This was the only lesson his mother ever managed to drill into his head: never let that happen, Danny boy. So, Dan was pleasantly surprised when he found a gas station at the corner of the next intersection. He figured he might as well ask for directions when he went in to pay. He’d never even heard of the streets on the signs at the intersection.
“Excuse me,” he said to the cashier, “Do you know how to get to Plainview Heights from here?”
“I’ve never heard of Plainview Heights,” the cashier said, a sullen, ugly boy who was no doubt intimidated by Dan’s intense and statuesque visage. “We got maps,” he added in a dark, delinquent mutter.
“I don’t even know how to read a map,” Dan said breezily, and, after paying, walked to his car with complete confidence that his internal compass would guide him.
The cashier glared at the door; the manager had hung actual bells over it to ring whenever someone walked in or out – as far as Lloyd could tell this was designed specifically to annoy him as much as possible, because he could discern no other legitimate purpose for those bells, the bane of his existence. Although most people immediately dismissed Lloyd, as Dan had, Dan in his loud Bermuda shorts and obnoxiously large shoes, Lloyd was certain that he was within days of finally achieving his goal in life. Soon, no one would be able to ignore him. He was going to be a contestant on American Idol, he was going to wear an unusual wig, and when he won, his record deal would go platinum.
Dan was thankful he had enough money with him to cover the cost of gas; he wondered whether his parents would reimburse him, at least 50%, considering the current state of the economy and Dan’s constant state of unemployment.
Just when Dan’s thoughts on fiscal responsibility were interrupted by the realization that he was incredibly hungry, he also realized that he was driving past a Wendy’s. What a coincidence, he thought.
However, he was surprised that the whole parking lot was empty. There were two cars parked in the handicapped spaces (Dan noticed they did not have the necessary badges dangling from the front mirrors indicating that they were allowed to park in handicapped parking spaces) closest to the door. After parking, he walked in, feeling somewhat reserved about the atmosphere. It was even darker and dingier than the gas station had been, although there was no sullen teenager here to give him nasty looks.
There were three people inside. Dan assumed that this meant two people had come in one car. The waitress, standing behind the bar of this Wendy’s, once a mom-and-pop diner, looking at Dan with hope and despair at once vivid in her eyes came in her own car. Sitting on one of the stools, annoyed by Dan’s interruption, was an old man in plaid who had piled all of his leather motorcycle riding gear on the stools in his proximity. His motorcycle was permanently housed in the back. The other car was an enigma, which appeared mysteriously the day after the Spring Equinox and sat unclaimed for months. Lying in one of the booths was an elderly person of indeterminate gender who was sleeping beneath a dirty newspaper.
“Hello,” Dan said, because he felt as if the situation had suddenly become intimate.
“Oh please is that boy standing there,” the waitress said, sounding desperate.
“No indeed, you are not hallucinating today, darling Zelda my dear,” said the old man in a horrible nasal drawl. He was regarding Dan with such hostile intent that Dan was reminded of an aging lion or a wildebeest on PCP.
“Come sit here.” Zelda leaned over the counter to shove three helmets stacked on top of one another right off of the stool next to the old man. “You sit right here.”
“I just need directions, actually, but, um, uh. Well. What’s the special today?”
“Hallelujah!” shouted the creature in the booths, now sitting up. It was still entirely unidentifiable.
“We got soups boy soups crackers,” the waitress said in a garble. “Salads and soups entrees potatoes milkshakes chocolate Frosties baked potatoes all the toppings.”
“I’ll have a chocolate Frosty.” Dan felt uncomfortable.
“Sugar Zelda baby, take a breath,” the old man instructed. “Just calm yourself.” She was leaning with her back against the counter, her hand on her forehead, the dirty rag she’d been cleaning the counter with dangling by her nose, hyperventilating. “A slow breath. One… Just inhale. Inhale deeply. Deep breaths, my baby bonnet. Now exhale.”
“I need to know how to get back to Plainview Heights. Have you ever heard of it? Do you have a map?”
“Oh, he needs to know,” the creature said.
“They got maps in the gas station,” Zelda said, “Sometimes my nephew is in there. He’s saving up for some kinda hairpiece.”
“Plainview Heights?” the old man tried to scratch his chin and lost his fingers in his beard. “I don’t believe I’ve ever made the acquaintance of a Plainview Heightsian before.”
“So you’ve heard of it?” Dan asked hopefully.
“No, no,” the old man said, “But it is just charming to meet you.” He said it with a sneer. His lip was curled with such strength and intent that his face seemed to be a mask.
“Oh,” Dan said, and, “Thank you,” while accepting the Frosty.
“I’ve been to Plainview Heights,” the creature said. “I was born there.”
“That’s great,” Dan said.
“I hated it, actually. But I’m glad you need to get back there. Got a family? Got some friends? Wanna just look at the empty houses and gape about, taking pictures, shaming those poor people?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Dan said, nervously.
“I will make you a map,” it said, ignoring him, scribbling on a napkin with a blue crayon.
“How’s your Frosty, boy?” Zelda asked.
“It’s really great, thanks.” He took a sip and found that it was not at all chocolate, but rather chalky and lumpy.
“Got a map right here,” it said, sounding inexplicably muffled.
Dan slipped away from Zelda and the old man, who had replaced his helmets and was now gazing into her eyes madly. “Really, thanks,” Dan said.
“What can you give me?” it asked.
“You can have this Frosty,” he said without thinking. “It is really, really good.”
“No it’s not.”
“Well, you can have it anyway.” Dan set the cup down on the edge of the table. Instantly it slapped the cup over the edge, and chalky Frosty sludge spilled all over the floor.
“THANKS!” Zelda shouted. The old man was staring at them with eerie, wide eyes.
While it was distracted Dan snagged the crayon-scribbled map. The little Wendy’s was suddenly in uproar, but Dan didn’t stop to see how it would pan out. He took a deep breath of fresh air when he was standing outside. The sky was still heavily overcast. He looked at the napkin with deep concentration. It was a mass of scribbles with no clear path outlined. Although a lesser man would have been deterred, Dan was no lesser man.
However, he had to hurry to his car, because the noises coming from inside the restaurant were beginning to disturb him.
Placing the napkin on the dashboard, he turned back in the direction of the gas station. Aft first, the drive seemed uneventful – he would walk in, swallow his pride, ask that boy for a map, and drive home. An anticlimax, perhaps, but at this point, he was only interested in finding his way home. However, at the first stoplight he heard a suspicious noise from the back of the car.
With one eyebrow quirked, Dan adjusted the rearview mirror. Indeed, there it was: the creature from the Wendy’s, reading through the map tucked into the pocket on the back of Dan’s seat.
“What are you doing?” Dan gasped.
“I need a map,” it said.
“Why do you need a map?”
“I’m lost. I don’t have a home. I gotta get my house back.”
“What are you talking about? Get out of my car!” Dan hit the breaks abruptly and the car jerked to a halt.
“How did you even get in here?”
“I’ve been in this car all afternoon.”
“You were in that diner.”
“Yeah, that place is a real dive.”
“You know what I’m saying.”
“Get out of my car.”
Dan honked the horn every time it tried to open its mouth. Finally, it slammed the door open angrily. “You’ll never get rid of me,” it said, but when Dan adjusted the mirror again he couldn’t see it anywhere, not even on the side of the road.
He pulled into the gas station with a twisted, sick feeling deep in the pit of his stomach. He was so distracted that, when he walked in, he wasn’t even bothered about asking Lloyd for a map.
“You don’t read no maps,” Lloyd said, squinting at him.
“I’ll figure it out.”
Dan hadn’t noticed that anyone else was in the gas station, but he was shocked when his worst rival from high school emerged from between the shelves, carrying some beef jerky.
“Hi Tim,” Dan said found himself saying, taking the high ground though he really would have rathered never speak to Tim again.
“Oh.” Tim walked a little closer and Dan realized that something was different about his face. “Oh, it’s you. Dan. Hello, Dan.”
“You want this map?” Lloyd carped, smacking Dan on the shoulder with the map. “No loitering.”
“Yeah,” Dan said, but he was trying to figure out what was wrong with Tim. “What’s wrong Tim?”
“Thanks for asking. You know, I’m real sorry about the way I treated you in high school.”
“Well, have a nice day,” Dan said, not paying Tim any attention. He took the map back from Lloyd, who was insistently jabbing him with it.
Standing by his car outside of the gas station, he felt queasy and he still didn’t know why, but he wanted to get out of this place. He unfolded the map and looked for Plainview Heights. His hometown was a very small dot in the upper-left corner. Driving home was incredibly tedious and sometimes Dan found that roads were marked on the map that didn’t seem to exist.
He recognized the long field again but he saw corn stalks he hadn’t noticed before. He was surprised that the weather had changed so dramatically, too; the sun was setting but still bright, and the sky was no longer an oppressive, dull grey but rather streaked with fluorescent pinks and oranges. The road was completely dry.
“Where were you all afternoon?” Amy asked when he walked in. She was sitting by herself on the couch and reading a book. Usually Dan found his way home before the rest of his family got back from church.
“I went for a drive,” he said. “It was kind of bizarre. I’m hungry.”