A Road Trip with a Special Passenger

Submitted into Contest #110 in response to: Write about a couple who fall out on the road.... view prompt

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Speculative Fantasy Fiction

A Road Trip with a Special Passenger    Elizabeth Fenley

I see the red mist of the hongaek around the car as the endlessly flat Texas landscape blurs together through the passenger seat window. He’s driving too fast, with his usual attitude that rules are for everyone else, weaving through traffic without signaling. I stopped commenting on that years ago. But, with the hongaek hovering, I wonder….

“You gonna pout the whole fuckin’ way? Cry like a little bitch?”

I take a slow, quiet breath. “I’m not pouting. I’m not crying. I’m just looking out the window.” I don’t turn to look at my husband. It’s been years since I’ve been able to see the high school sweetheart within the person I know now. Years of drinking and eating the “Texas Special: Chicken-Fried Steak” with extra gravy have layered fifty pounds onto his six foot frame, which is not carrying it gracefully. Smoking since he was twelve—Marlboros, always in the red and white hard pack with his lighter inside, and one cigarette turned upside down—has ravaged his face, crow’s feet and frown lines of his twenties carved deeper like years of water eroding stone. The uneven beard, indecisive about its color identity, resembles the underside of old white socks worn too often on dirty floors; he thinks it disguises the jowls that have developed. The drug use adds a variable to the mix, depending on the night and what’s available, he fluctuates from violently aggressive to confused helplessness to agitated disorientation; his short term memory, consistently fuzzy, has been whittled away to a selective, slanted, sliver of reality.

“A big titty-baby is what you are.”

An expression I’d never heard before getting stuck in Texas with him.

“I’m just looking out the window and thinking,” I say evenly, quietly.

“Oh, that’s right—thinking. Miss Smarter than Everybody, Too Good for Tegsis, fancy college in O-hi-o, come laudey valedickedorian or some shit.”

‘Summa cum Laude, moron,’ bounces around my brain, filling my mouth with the bitter tang of adrenaline left over from the fight about packing the car. The seatbelt cuts uncomfortably into my ribs, but I can’t risk trying to adjust it again; the fresh bruises on my wrist layered over the older, colorful collection, will have to be covered with tugged down sleeves, a familiar misery in the Texas heat. The stabbing pain in my shoulder worries me-- he might have torn my rotator cuff this time. The ripped out chunks of hair and bruising on my jawline can be covered up easily.

“Or maybe you thinkin’ bout your boyfriend Steve.”

The “boyfriend Steve” started as a joke in high school, teasing me, then as a way of getting me to assure him how much I loved him, only him, and why I should show him that right then. At some point it became his way of reminding me that no one else would ever, could ever want me. Now it was simply a way of jumping right into a fight.

“You know you are. Why dontcha just call him?”

“I don’t—”

“Here. Take the phone. Call him right now.” He grabs his phone from the console and hurls it at my face. I put my hands up and duck, but the corner makes contact with my forehead. “Put it on speaker so I can hear that sunnavabitch.” 

He continues ranting as I press my fingers to my head and feel the warm honey-like stickiness of blood. I reach blindly into my purse for the little packet of tissues I always carry, my hand scrambling loose contents of Band Aids, Neosporin, liquid skin spray, super glue, tampons, pads, and make-up until I grasp the plastic wrapped softness. Hurriedly, I struggle to pull them out of the wrapper with one hand still pressing on the cut; I have to get the bleeding covered before it gets on his car seats.

He doesn’t seem to notice any of this, driving faster and more erratically while he yells about something I can’t understand, some accusation I can’t follow with the ringing in my ears and the rhythmic throbbing of my head; I wonder if it’s another concussion. I can’t tell without looking in the visor mirror whether regular Band Aids will be enough, or if I’ll have to use butterfly strips to hold it together while the super glue dries. Since I rarely get to go to the doctor, I’ve learned a frightening amount about emergency medical care; the super glue in the little tubes is sterile as long as you don’t contaminate the tip, and they use medical glue instead of stitches frequently now. I have a suture kit in my travel bag, but I can’t use that when I can’t see well enough, or the cut is right over bone like this one.

“Gimme my phone back, stupid cunt.” He’s suddenly tuning back into reality from wherever his tirade took him. “You better notta fuckin’ broke it, I swear to God---”

I search the floorboard for the phone—black case on black floor mats while holding the tissues on my head takes too long; his limited patience runs out. He starts slapping at the back of my head, hitting my neck, my shoulders, and the hand protecting the cut.

“Hurry up, goddamn bitch.” The onslaught of smacks continues. 

There’s a blare of a horn, and the car swerves abruptly.

He turns to his open window and screams obscenities at the truck in the next lane, exchanging threatening, insulting gestures. The car continues to jerk back and forth, his eyes no longer on the road—or on me.

My hand clasps on the hard metal case, and I sit back up, wary of his attention returning to me. I see my blood on his phone and frantically try to scrub it off on my jeans before he notices.

The truck in the next lane has sped off, leaving him cursing his car for being a piece of shit. He veers abruptly onto the highway exit ramp. I catch the words “beer and cigarettes” in his muttering.

He stops abruptly at a stop sign within view of a gas station filled with eighteen-wheelers. Turning to me, he holds out his rough, tobacco stained hands, fingernails always chewed to the quick. “Phone.” 

I see the crimson hongaek mist congeal into a thick cloud outside his door. I drop the wad of tissues from my forehead. I pull my arm back, ignoring the bruises and the pain in my shoulder, and hurl his phone out his open window.

His face freezes, mouth open like a gutted fish. “You’re dead, you worthless whore!” His fist slams into my face, knocking me back against the passenger window.

As I open my eyes, cartoon stars swimming in my wobbling vision, I see him open the door. The hongaek close around him as he steps out in search of his phone, never seeing the truck running the stop sign on its way to the gas station.

It’s difficult to tell, in the frame-by-frame unfolding of time, what is his blood and what is the “Red Disaster” cloud of the Korean hongaek, often accompanying suicides, murders, and fatal car accidents. This moment could be considered all three. I’ll let the hongaek decide; they’ve been with us the whole drive, so there must have been a plan.

To my ex-husband. Thinking of you. The Hongaek say, “Gikkeol.”

September 09, 2021 13:50

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3 comments

Elizabeth Fenley
22:44 Sep 21, 2021

Thank you. The Hongaek should meet my ex-husband.

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Darlene McDonald
11:54 Sep 17, 2021

I loved the details in the descriptions that truly painted a picture of both the scene in the car as well as the history of the relationship. I clapped at the ending! All I could think was "she's finally free...".

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Jon Casper
15:51 Sep 09, 2021

Brilliant description. Great job creating a truly hateable character. I was rooting for his comeuppance and you delivered!

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