11:23 PM. Two cigarettes left. I glanced at my wrist to make sure my watch was synced with the car clock. It was. My headlights shone on a sign acknowledging my entry to Texas and, not long after, a tall man in a dark suit waving me down from the shoulder. I stopped and reversed toward him. He was a weird looking guy. Not ugly, but completely nondescript in every way. Like those pictures with every face averaged together. He needed a ride to Amarillo. I wondered how he ended up in the middle of nowhere as I offered to split the last of my cigarettes with him. As we lit up, he asked me about my trip.
I shifted in my seat and began: I recently lost my job as an investment banker in Chicago. With the extra time I was spending at home, I began to realize my girlfriend of three years had become unusually close to her best friend, Janette. They went out for breakfast every morning, sometimes shared an entrée, called each other every night. Sometimes they would have a girls’ movie night and my girlfriend would stay the night with Janette. Within two weeks, they were living together and I was left to pay rent on our 30th floor lake-view apartment alone. I cancelled the lease, sold almost everything I owned, took my convertible out of storage, and bought a carton of cigarettes. I drove out of the city with my middle finger raised and no intention of ever coming back.
I glanced at the clock on the dash. 11:48 PM. I unwrapped a new pack of cigarettes and smacked them against my palm. We lit up again. Just then, the sky turned bright blue and screamed like all the violins in Hell were striking the same sour chord at once. I slammed on the brakes, looking up to the blinding light. I looked over at my passenger. He was looking straight ahead, his mask-like face completely placid. I threw the car into park and jumped out. I wanted to run for the bushes on the side of the highway, to hide in them from whatever was above us. I could feel how bad the situation was. Not just fear, not just abject terror, but bad. Like I would never be the same again. Like all my childhood fears of closet monsters and tall, dark boogeymen watching me at the playground, and the eyes I used to see looking in at me from my window had all come to life and were searching for me. The eyes… Had I been seeing them again? I had a vague memory of eyes looking in my window in my hotel in Claremore, Oklahoma. That memory linked directly to another; the boogeyman from the park ducking down an alleyway near my last dinner in Chicago at Xoco.
Suddenly, the sky cleared. The sound faded. My ears rang slightly. My passenger pointed to the sky.
“Airplane,” he said. “Do you think it crashed?”
I stood in the middle of the highway, stunned. I laughed a little at how spooky I was being and walked back to the car.
I looked at the clock on the dash. 11:35 PM. Three cigarettes left. That was odd. It seemed like I had just opened a pack. Oh well, time moves funny on the open road. We lit up again. My passenger asked me to continue my story.
I stretched, noticing a kink in my back, and continued: I was in a shitty roadside bar in Missouri and down two packs of smokes before an idea began to form; drive back to my childhood home on Route 66 and drink as much alcohol as I could when I stopped for the night. Bar fights? Sure! Hookers? Why not? I wanted to do as much damage to myself as possible. If I died, I died. So be it. If I survived the drive, I would be a new person. Someone I liked. So I gassed up and just kept driving.
When I had finished my tale, I asked my passenger about his trip.
“Just business,” he said. And that was it. No more conversation.
We drove a few more miles and before we caught sight of fires burning in the distance. As we drew near, we could see men in hazmat suits working to put them out. I looked around for emergency vehicles parked on the shoulder so I could avoid them, but there were none. Not on the highway, not off the highway. Nowhere.
“This must be where that plane crashed,” my passenger said.
“Should we stop and see if we can help out?” I asked.
“No, there must be some kind of hazardous fumes. Best to get away as fast as possible.”
Thirty miles down the road, we passed a sign for an upcoming rest stop.
“You can leave me there,” said the passenger.
I laughed. I asked him if his constipation was bad enough to warrant an overnight bathroom visit. He looked at me and repeated his last statement. I pulled in to the rest stop. He got out. I waved. He didn’t. I looked at him from my rearview mirror; a tall, dark man watching me from the shadows. The hair on the back of my neck stood up and I pulled down my rolled sleeves in response.
I looked at the dash. 12:51 AM. Five cigarettes left. That didn’t seem right…but time moves funny on the open road. As I reached for one of the smokes, I noticed my skin was chapped and red, like I had spent the day tanning in the sun. My watch had stopped some time during the night. It was stuck on 11:50.