A bird’s eye view of suburban city streets, dotted with pocket parks, the streets mainly gridded, with occasional smaller streets jutting off at odd angles; at the center, a roundabout with four exiting streets from the circle, the small park in its center about a half block in diameter. From above, the bushes are like broccoli crowns that encircle the gnarly limbed old oak in the center. The branches between the leafy canopy appear black. There are old fashioned iron framed park benches facing the western and eastern streets.
A small red Toyota pauses at the western road, then passes the park bench on its left, as it enters the circle of road. From our view, the car looks like a Tonka toy. The car travels slowly, uncertainly, the flow is counterclockwise.
Inside the dim interior of the car, the woman drawls, “You need to draaav faster, thas a car behind us.”
The driver, a swarthy, bespectacled man of about the same middling-to-young age, says, “Which road do I take? You’re the navigator.”
“Ah told jou, the phone says it’s the third one.”
“But have we passed any roads yet?”
“Yes! Just one. Look. Over there. Not this un but the next one after it. The third one.” She points a chubby hand in front of his face, the chipped, pointed blue nail nearly touching his nose.
“I can’t see when you do that Irene.” His lips curled upward in a snarl as if he wanted to bite that finger right off.
Irene screeched, “Ya jus past it!”
“I got flustered!” He pushed his glasses angrily but absentmindedly, up his nose like he always did when flustered. So far up that his eyelashes brushed the lenses.
“Jus go round the circle a-gin. The guy behind us ken kiss m’ ass.”
As the car behind them turned off onto the street they had wanted but missed, Irene shot a thick white arm out her window and aimed her middle finger at the driver. Her under-arm flesh jiggled like cottage cheese in a Ziploc bag. The honking driver wouldn’t see it, but the gesture made her feel better, her pouty lips curled up at the sides.
Sanjay, feeling a little more confident now that he knew where he was going, pressed his foot to the gas. As they drove past the western street, another car entered the roundabout behind them.
“Don’choo dare slow down. Grrr.” She growled when she was annoyed. She growled a lot.
As they approached the street to the south, Sanjay’s foot lightened up from the gas pedal but did not brake. He was not making the turn.
“What de flyin fudge factory?! Grrrrrrrrrr.”
Then she spotted the hitchhiker. Long blond hair waved silkily in the spring breeze, bare tan legs to her chin in denim cut-offs, and a pale-yellow shirt that tied at her slender waist revealed a gemstone that sparkled like a diamond in her navel. A backpack was slung casually over one shoulder; she stood with her thumb out as if Coquettish was her middle name.
Irene’s face turned tomato-like. “Grrrrrrrr! Don’choo dare! Do NOT even look at that whuuur.”
Sanjay cringed. He felt guilty for being caught like a moth in a porchlight by the woman’s presence. When the hillbilly came out in Irene’s voice there’d be hell to pay. He said, “I wasn’t going to stop. I was just…surprised. She just popped out of nowhere. I won’t miss the street again. I’m sorry, I’ve never driven a round ab---”
“You better not. Ise jus’ bout had it wi’choo.” Her red face trembled with anger, her double chins jiggled, her mouth gawped like a fish out of water.
As Sanjay drove past the western street -again (he was now familiar with the park bench under a large blackish branch of the oak tree) -he looked towards the fourth street, but it was obscured by bushes and tree trunk. He muttered under his breath as he drove the circle, “That was one…two…three…okay…and four.”
He made the turn.
From the bird’s eye view high above the oak in the center of the roundabout, we spot the little red car cruising not on the northern most street as we expect…but cruising steadily along a street jutting off the circle to the north-east. A street that had not been there the last time we looked.
In the red Toyota, Irene shook her iPhone in frustration as if she could knock some sense into it. “Grrrrrrr. No service. This does not look like the right street. Target’s downtown, not in the fricken boonies. As they drove, the trees that lined the street grew denser and soon there were no more streetlights. The trees formed a shadowy forest. The street had narrowed into a one-lane and then had become a rural dirt road. Through the leafy canopy overhead, they sky had grown dark.
“Honey, pull over.” Irene’s voice had grown small, like the voice of a young child.
Instead of relief, Sanjay was disturbed. “Where? For fuck’s sake. Do you see anywhere I can pull over?”
Irene cringed. “You know I don’t lak that language…”
“Whatever. I can’t turn around. I’m going to see what’s up ahead…another mile or so.”
“Suuuuuu-nyyyy, cain’t you jus back up?” She was whining now. He didn’t know which was worse, but just now he had the urge to do just the opposite of whatever it was she wanted. So, he drove on.
The trees were growing closer together. He did not recognize them anymore. Not oak nor pine…their bark was black and glistening, as if they had liquid oozing from the ruts in the bark. They were leafless but he sensed they were very much alive. He slowed as he passed one and in the fissures of its bark he saw squirming things, like thousands of tiny red worms. Out the windshield overhead, sky that was visible was solid black, no stars, no moon…’and how did it get so dark so fast?’
“Wha was that?” Irene’s voice a sharp whisper.
Sanjay looked in his rear-view mirror. Impossibly, a tree was directly in the road behind them, it’s girth nearly filled the narrow road. “What the…?” As he watched, a tree to the left of the road tilted to one side, its thick black root slid out from the earth, then “CAAARACK! CAARACK!” a second root broke free. The tree shuffled to the center of the road and joined the first. Another had entered the road from the right. He had no choice but to drive on.
He turned his attention to the road. Irene was gawping like a fish again and thankfully silent. She was pointing her stubby sausage-like finger out her window, it was shaking like a tuning fork. The acidic odor of urine assailed his nostrils. He lifted one butt cheek in his seat, then the other, and was relieved to find it was not his pee. The pang of revulsion he felt was vetoed by his feeling of pity for the woman he once loved. ‘Eons ago.’
She looked at him, her face a pale moon, she closed her mouth, her lower lip trembling. Her eyes were wide, he thought they looked prettier than they’d looked in a very long time…like how they used to sparkle…’like a jewel in a navel…’
‘What on earth had she seen?’ “Uh…Irene. What…”
Her face swiveled back to her window so fast he feared whiplash. The limp hands in her lap turned to claws and she whipped her head back to him. Her eyes were rolled into her head, all whites, in the darkness they glowed as if lit with uv light.
“Yaaaaa!” he exclaimed.
Irene’s mass of flesh started shaking. Tremors subtle as butterfly wings at first, escalated to grand mal fits. The odorous scent of shit overpowered the pee smell.
Sanjay needed to know what it was she had seen. Needed to know. He braked the car to a stop. He studied the view from her window. The awful trees. The thorny dense bushes. The eyes…….’eyes?’
There were animal eyes, had to be animals, they glowed. Some small, some large. As he watched, a set of eyes grew larger as whatever it was came forward. A face solidified out from the shadows. ‘Wolf? Puma? …Hellhound?’
The face was as black as the trees, the glow from its eyes gave contours to its face. A long face, as long as a horse’s. Its long, pointed ears flicked towards Sanjay. The bottom of the face split as it smiled. The dull glint of teeth widened from each side of its head, surrounding two long flat nostrils, as it wickedly grinned. Sanjay nearly lost his shit too, when the mouth opened, drools of spittle like slug trails stringed between the stalagmites and stalactites of teeth and snapped as the mouth opened wider. A glistening earthworm-pink tongue flicked out its maw like a snake. It extended to Irene’s face and licked her from chin to the bridge of her pug nose. It was the caress of a lover, repugnant, yet Sanjay understood one thing then- the thing was interested in his wife and her only.
In an effort to appease the thing at the window, Sanjay hit the unlock. ‘She’d never have fit out the window…’
Irene looked at Sanjay, the unseeing white eyes nailing him regardless. She screamed, “You gutless piece-o-shit! Ah shoulda kilt you in yer sleep! Yer dick’s teeny, yer a spineless worm---!”
The car door flew open. The rotund bulk of the woman was sucked out and up as if she weighed little more than a cloud. Gone.
Sanjay sat in the car for ten full minutes. Waiting for…’what?’ He didn’t know. The thing? The trees? What?
At last, he got out and closed the passenger door, wincing as he glanced at the deep concave seat.
A bird screeched from high above him, at least he thought it was a bird, it sounded like a hunting hawk with a chainsaw in its voice box. He hurried back to the driver’s side, got in, and locked the doors. He rolled up the windows, his lips pooged into a mou of disgust. A shadow passed over the windshield, an enormous one, and he forgot about the stench. He started the car and continued down the dirt road, occasionally hearing the crack of trees ‘walking.’
He dared not drive too fast; he was electrified and in shock and straining to find a clue to a way out of this hell.
Then…’a light? Yes!’ It glowed dimly ahead through the trees, warm and yellow like candlelight. He squinted at it, not sure he was really seeing…’a streetlight?’ As he neared it, he saw it really was a streetlight. With an old-fashioned iron post and weather-dulled glass bulb. He stopped the car and stared up at it.
“Tap tap tap.”
“YAAAAAAAAAAEEEEEEEEEE!” He screamed like a little girl discovering the boogieman under her bed is real.
He looked out passenger window and a hand was waving. “Allo allo!” Behind the hand was a lovely female face. It was her…the hitchhiker. Her long golden hair framed her face like satin curtains. She was smiling; she had movie star teeth and a scattering of light tan freckles over her cheeks and the bridge of her nose.
He stared in disbelief and didn’t register that his hand was moving, it unlocked the doors. She opened the door and peeked in. “Thanks for stopping. Not a lot of traffic this way.” She had a faint English accent, not the crass cockney type, but the lilting romantic one.
She made a face at the passenger seat then unzipped her backpack and came up with a beach towel which she folded and placed on the seat. “Mind if I put down the windows?”
She pressed the button at her door and oddly both the front windows and the back rolled down, the one behind him squeaked near the end. They’d never done that before.
“That’s so much better. Don’t you think?”
He nodded, unable to stop staring.
“Well,” She lifted her long-fingered hands and slapped them onto her bare thighs, “Shall we be off then?”
“Oh. Uh. Yeah. But I don---”
She cut him off, “First time on a roundabout, is it? I see. Well mister, I’m about to rock your world.” She pointed at his lap.
He said, “I-I-m married. I think. I---”
She laughed prettily like a teen at a prom. “Relax. And put on your seatbelt.”
“Oh.” He fastened the belt, only fumbling it once.
“Smashing. So…roundabouts…” She put a hand to her mouth and burped. It was cute.
He caught a whiff of patchouli and thought, ‘Odd. Irene favored that godawful scent. Always seemed too strong to me. She threw a shoe at me when I told her she smelled like a hippie.’ He fingered the tiny scar on the bridge of his nose where the buckle had caught. He subtly moved closer to the woman but detected no odor. Then…the light feminine scent of La Vie Est Belle. He’d bought Irene the expensive Lancome perfume one Christmas hoping she’d wear it instead of the cloying hippie oil. Not only had she not worn it, but she’d been insulted by the insinuation. In his head he recalled the ‘grrrrrrrrr.’
The woman in the passenger seat giggled and said, “Sorry.”
“So then…roundabouts. Did you know they originated in the UK? In the mid-sixties? I was born shortly before and grew up with them being all over the place.”
Sanjay frowned. ‘That would make her fifty-something. Impossible. Maybe she’s on dope.’
She giggled and said, “They made driving through narrow crowded streets ever so much easier. They don’t have many on this side of the pond, but engineers see the logic in them so have been developing more of them where
able. Unfortunately, US drivers are quite gormless when it comes to them- initially- all it takes is a little getting used to. And it’s not naff to go around in them until you figure them out. As long as you keep the flow going, that’s the whole point.”
“Hm.” He heard Irene’s screechy hillybilly voice, a voice he had at first found interesting and wildly ‘American’, belittling him for missing their street. He’d been embarrassed. Why had he let her always get the better of him?
“….bouts?” She’d been talking.
“Pardon me, sorry I missed that last…”
“Oh. No worries…I was asking if you had ever heard the expression ‘Swings and Roundabouts?’”
He quickly glanced at her, afraid to take his eyes off the never ending, loud-cracking-behind-them road. Every once in awhile a giant bird-thing screeched.
“No? Well, it simply means that for every action, mission…direction, there’s an opposite one that sort of cancels the first. Like a balancing act. Like resetting the odometer back to zero.”
The gist of what she was saying was forming in his mind. Only it swirled like fog, and he couldn’t quite grasp it.
The blonde looked at Sanjay and said, “So, you ready for a stonking rocking? What say we get you out of this…” She waved a hand at the windshield, it fluttered like a robin.
“Oh. Please. Yes. Whatever you say.”
“Pedal to the metal Sanjay. Trust me. I said I’d rock your world. I meant it literally.”
He glanced at her. She nodded and made a go on go on gesture. He thought, ‘What choice do I have?’
She laughed her sweet titter again and focused out the windshield.
His foot grew heavy on the gas pedal. He glanced her way. She made that impatient go on go on gesture again …he accelerated.
The forest around them was a blur. He felt little in control of the little red Toyota. In fact, he felt the steering wheel shift on its own accord under his hands. He sat back in his seat and let it happen…whatever ‘it’ was. He pushed his glasses up his nose.
His foot pressed into the floorboard. Around them, the trees a blur, had turned tunnel-like, like a solid swirling rock tunnel. A scene from his favorite childhood movie popped into his head. Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The crazy driver, the out-of-control river boat…’a chocolate river.’ He too, giggled.
The road ahead suddenly swooped upwards and turned into a ramp, it curved up severely and became like the loop of a rollercoaster. He heard a keening sound, “eeeeeeeeee…eeeeeeeeeeeeee…” When he realized it was him, he clenched his jaws shut.
She was saying, “Wait for it…and…the swing!”
The little car was a rollercoaster vessel. Sanjay felt his body lift from the seat, tethered by the seatbelt. Up and around the car flew!
At last, he recognized his own voice, “WHOO HOO!”
The car was continuing on a straight path now. A paved path. A street with painted white and yellow lines. With streetlights. He looked at last to the passenger seat and was not entirely surprised to see it empty. A last whiff of La Vie Est Belle wafted past and out his window.
He entered the roundabout again. He felt like a roundabout pro. He realized there had been a sign at the correct street they had seeked, it had on it the Target logo- the red bullseye.
‘Screw that,’ he thought as he went again through the roundabout, just to make sure. Yes, there were once again only four streets. And no hitchhiker.
He pulled off onto a random one, not the Target one, and thought, ‘Hmm. Swings and Roundabouts. An even score…a do-over.’
From the bird’s eye view from above, we see the little red car exiting on the street to the south, the bottom of the circle. Across the park and to the north-east, between the north and eastern roads is a speck of sunny yellow, a golden wisp of a flag flowing from her head.
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