Interstate 80

By Georgia Riordan

From CHM #43 January 2024

            You might want to keep your eyes on the road—it’s safest that way. You won’t need to worry about your girlfriend in the passenger seat if you keep your vision straight. Don’t let your eyes drift towards the trees. Don’t switch into the fast lane at this hour; the highway is desolate, save for your shitty 2010 Toyota Camry. You don’t need to worry about anyone else on the road, though that might make you worry more. You don’t even have to turn the radio back down after your passenger turns it up. She’ll say, what, you don’t like this song? And she knows the answer already, so you don’t have to respond. You can just hum a different tune under your breath until the terrible song ends.

            You should pull over soon. You should tell your girlfriend this. It doesn’t matter what excuse you give her, since you’re the one who’s been driving for two hours while she naps and plays pop music on the radio. You deserve a break. You didn’t want to go on this trip, anyway. She says, just wait until we reach the rest stop, it’s in fifty miles, and you grit your teeth as she fucks with the radio again. Another fifty miles of bad music to go.

            You only get forty miles before she sighs and says, I have to pee.

            Are you serious?

            Yea. I really have to pee.

            You glance at the GPS. We have ten miles left til the nearest stop.

            But I really have to pee!

            What would you like me to do? You turn to her for a moment, taking your eyes from the road. Do you want me to pull over now? You want to piss on the side of the highway?

            Gross, she says, frowning.

            Not like anyone will see you. There’s literally no one else traveling at this hour. You don’t pause to consider how odd it is that a main highway is completely silent, even at 10pm. You’re just trying to get your girlfriend to stop whining.

            No. I’ll wait. She crosses her arms at you. Watch the road.

            You can’t help but roll your eyes. Okay. Then wait.

            You make the ten miles without any more conversation. The highway continues to be dark and empty, barely lit by your headlights hitting the reflectors. You don’t pass much except for some collections of trees and patches of what looks to be corn. At one point, the car passes two does, who seem less startled than you that you’ve run into each other. They turn their faces to you as you drive by, unaffected by the sudden light of your headlights. You almost miss the turn into the rest stop—the sign isn’t lit, the writing is faded—but your girlfriend exclaims, there it is! And you quickly slide into the far lane and follow the path to the rest stop.

            It really shouldn’t be called a rest stop. That’s too generous a term. It’s closer to a glorified porta-potty made of brick with two vending machines inside. There’s only one parking spot with lines. You could make your own, you suppose, but parking on the grass feels…wrong. Sacreligious, somehow. This is a pitiful pit stop, you decide, and pull into the only lined spot.

            Your girlfriend clambors out of the car without so much as a glance at you. You watch her head towards the brick-clad bathrooms inside. It’s not your fault that her parents live four hours away from the city. It is your fault that the trip is taking longer than expected, but do you really want to go thirty over the limit at this hour? Who knows where the state troopers are hiding? You haven’t seen any yet, but that doesn’t mean they’re not watching, right?

            As soon as your girlfriend is in the building, you decide to take a look around. Count the trees. Count the lights strewn around the building—some of them are out, and you wonder how long this place has been without maintenance. Count the shapes moving just beyond the pit stop, blending and blurring just beyond your field of vision. Are there really other creatures alive at this hour? You remember the does from before and wonder where they’ve gone. Do deer sleep on human-esque schedules?

            Your girlfriend should really hurry up. You still have two hours on the road to go.

            You decide to light up a cigarette. You fish the lighter out of your jacket pocket and slide the cig between your fingers. Luxury pink cigs are too expensive for your habit. You take a moment to curse your fifteen-year-old self for smoking to look cool for other girls. It never made you more attractive. It never did anything for you besides create an ache for something you never needed in the first place. At least you figured out how to stop choking on the smoke.

            Your girlfriend frowns when she sees you. Is this why you wanted to pull over?

            You shrug. You don’t remind her that she’s the one who needed a stop. Do you want one?

            She stares at you. What?

            Do you want one? You wiggle it at her. They’re pink.

            Nadia, when have you ever known me to smoke?

            You shrug again. I thought maybe it’d ease your nerves.

            What nerves?

            The ones you always get after visiting your parents.

            Her mouth drops open, and then tightens into a thin line. That’s bullshit. She crosses her arms. Absolute bullshit.

            Is it? We go through this every time.

            No, we don’t.

            Yes, we do. You always regret this trip.

            You make me regret this trip, she retorts.

            The two of you stare at each other. It is completely and utterly silent at the pit stop. It’s so quiet you could almost hear the electricity humming. There’s no wind. No cars whipping by. No chatter of birds or conversations of other people. Not even a chorus of crickets or cicadas. Just you and your girlfriend staring each other down over a goddamn cigarette.

            She suddenly plucks the cigarette from your fingers and tosses it on the ground, stomping away from you. You roll your eyes. You could at least put it in the trash.

            Fuck you, she snaps. She jiggles the handle to the passenger’s side. It’s locked. Unlock the car, please. She doesn’t look at you.

            You click the button on the car key and watch her climb back inside, buckling up and still refusing to look at you. She closes the door. You walk over and attempt to talk to her through the passenger window. Were there coffee machines inside? Your girlfriend doesn’t answer. Em?

            I’m not talking to you.

            Jesus. I guess I’ll go look for myself.

            She doesn’t respond, so you slide your hand into your pocket—enough change for an instant coffee, perfect—and walk towards the buildings. Thought you wanted to get back on the road? She calls, but you ignore her and keep going. You still have the keys, anyway.

            Something smells distinctively wet and rotten inside of the pit stop. The lights are blinding, descending from the ceiling in the form of sputnik chandeliers. You can’t find the source of the smell as you blink away the harshness of the fluorescents. At least you can find your way to the coffee dispenser. You don’t even care which flavor you get. They’re all going to taste mediocre at best. You push whatever button you think is cleanest, slide the change into the machine, and listen to it drip coffee into the paper cup. You look for one of those complementary paper lids and find the dispenser empty. Who takes a lid without a cup? Guess you’ll just have to be careful with it.

            You should probably go to the bathroom while you’re in here. It’s always a good idea to pee while you’ve got the chance. You leave the coffee and make your way to the bathroom. You can hear a soft scuttling sound—rats?—coming from behind the bathroom door. The scuttling makes you uneasy, sure, but it’s the weird thuds you can make out that are giving you pause. Against your better judgment, you open the door.

            Oh. It’s not a group of rats making the noise. It’s a handful of possums. Fat, beady-eyed, cowering possums. You count six, maybe seven. They’re using their little hands to pull apart what used to be a bag of chips. One of them shat on the floor. Two of them are wrestling over a singular chip, their fleshy fur forms hitting the stall door over and over. At least you guys explain the smell, you tell them, and the one closest to you wrenches open its mouth, giving you a glance at all of its nasty teeth.

            You decide it’s best to grab your coffee and go.

            Did you take forever just to spite me? your girlfriend greets you once you’re back in the car.

            No, I got held up by the possums in the bathroom. You laugh humorously.Didn’t know they ate potato chips.

            The what?

            You turn to your girlfriend. The possums, Em. The crowd of possums in the bathroom.

            She blinks at you. What possums?

            Don’t fuck with me.

            I’m not. I don’t know what you’re talking about.

In the women’s room, Em. Chowing down on chips and shitting on the floor. They wouldn’t let me in to piss. You run your hands through your long hair. Little fuckers.

            She chews her lip. Babes, I didn’t see any possums in the bathroom. I thought the place was very clean.

            Clean?!

            Yeah. Very clean.

            The two of you stare wordlessly at each other. You shake your head. Am I losing it?

            No, you’re just tired. It’s late and it’s been a stressful trip. She’s using a much softer tone than she was before. You’re too freaked out to gloat over her admission. Why don’t you nap for a bit? I’ll drive.

            What? You have never heard her offer to drive home from her parents’ before.

            Yeah. She unbuckles her seatbelt. Give me the keys. I’ll drive. It’ll feel better than chugging down that shit. She gestures at the coffee.

            A nap would be better than the coffee. But do you trust her driving on the highway this late? It might be empty for now, but what if the usual traffic returns? Will she be able to get you both home? She blinks again, fluttering her eyelashes at you in the way she knows you can’t resist. She holds out her hand for your keys. Okay, you tell her, dropping the keys into her palm. Just don’t hit anything, you say, half-seriously, and she rolls her eyes.

            You’ve killed more squirrels than a blood hound, she quips back, and you switch seats with her before you can retort. You buckle up and lean the seat back slowly.

            Can we not listen to pop? you ask, shuffling around to get comfortable. You take off your jacket and place it behind your head like a pillow.

            What does it matter? You’re going to sleep.

            I can’t fall asleep to fucking Taylor Swift.

            Your girlfriend shoots you a glare as she starts the car. Really?

            Really.

            Then we’ll sit in silence, she snaps, switching off the radio and sliding the car into reverse. The two of you leave the pit stop behind. The car jostles more than you’d like as she pulls out of the spot. A bit of coffee sloshes over the cup and onto your hand. You put the cup in the cupholder before you forget. You really, really wish it had a lid.

            Thanks, Em, you tell her.

            For what? She sounds pissy again.

            For offering to drive. It’s nice of you.

            Yeah. She doesn’t even look over. Her eyes are already trained on the dark road. You close your own eyes and listen to the sound of the car’s engine. It hums louder than a new car, but doesn’t rattle threateningly. It almost sounds like the radiator in the bedroom back home, the one your girlfriend switches on any time the temperature drops, purring and vibrating in four steady beats…

            You must have fallen asleep. There’s a gap in your memory from listening to the car’s engine and then hearing your girlfriend scream OH FUCK and then your eyes are open and the car is spinning and your girlfriend is screaming and something is hitting the windshield—

            It’s a deer. A doe. You watch in horror as the doe’s body cracks the windshield, sliding over the top of the car, thumping along the sunroof and slamming down over the back of the car. Your girlfriend is still screaming, but she’s had the good sense to hit the brakes. The two of you lunge forward—caught by your seatbelts, how lucky—and fall backwards against the seats. The car is no longer spinning. The windshield looks more like spiderweb than glass. Your lap is wet, and for a moment, you’re confused as to how, until you see the paper coffee cup by your feet. Didn’t I ask you not to hit anything? you grumble to your girlfriend, half-joking.

            She turns to you, open-mouthed. Are you fucking serious?

            You look out over the mess of a windshield. It appears that the car is in the dead center of the highway. Em, pull over.

            What? So you can have another smoke break?

            You bite your tongue. No. We need to get out of the median.

            She looks back out onto the highway. Oh. She puts her blinker on—force of habit, there hasn’t been anyone else on the road all night—and moves the car out of the median. The engine’s shuddering a little louder now and you wonder if the front of the car is damaged. Your girlfriend slowly but surely drives the car over to the grass outside of the lane lines. She parks it right on the border of the trees. Better? she asks, but it’s less venomous.

            Yes. Now we won’t get hit by a random tractor trailer.

            Funny, she says, in a tone that tells you it’s not very funny. What do we do now?

            We check on the deer. You unbuckle your seatbelt. If it’s dead, we have to call the police.

            She laughs in disbelief. What are the police going to do about a dead deer?

            You sigh. They call someone to mark it and move it.

            And if she’s alive?

            Then we see how bad the injuries are. You already have a feeling about how bad the injuries are. The last deer you hit with this car did not survive. The one before that had to be put down by the nearest officer. You decide to just step out of the passenger side and onto the silent highway. Your girlfriend follows in suit. You walk behind the car and to her side. As she exits the car, you notice her rubbing her neck. Does that hurt?

            No, I’m just rubbing it for fun, she says, but she sounds more tired than annoyed.

            Whiplash is really common. You’re not bleeding, are you?

            She shakes her head. No.

            Good. You instinctively hold out your hand, and she stares at it, pausing, debating, before she takes it. Her hand is trembling slightly. You squeeze her hand, but she doesn’t squeeze back. Let’s go check out the damage.

            The two of you carefully cross the highway, moving to the slumped shape you hope is the body of the deer. What else could it be, really? You’re thankful, for a moment, that no one else is around. It’s dark as shit, granted, with the only light sources being your phones’ flashlights, but at least the doe is the only thing that will be hit. No sudden 18-wheelers charging down I-80 at this hour, just waiting to gun down two unsuspecting lesbians on their unfortunate journey home.

            You make it to the middle of the road. Your girlfriend shines her phone over the body. The fuck? she says, examining the deer.

            Are you sure this is the one you hit? you ask. Nothing seems wrong with the deer. It’s not bleeding. Its eyes are closed. Her pelt doesn’t look ruffled. Nothing is obviously broken or bent out of place. You know there could be something happening internally, but the doe isn’t even breathing heavily. ’Cause this one looks fine.

            Your girlfriend shines the light over the doe’s face. As she does, one eye opens, revealing solid white. Your girlfriend shrieks and stumbles back. But you’re transfixed on the deer’s mouth, not its obvious blindness.

            The doe is holding half a pink cigarette in its mouth.

            The cigarette between its lips isn’t lit, but it’s singed like it has been recently, like someone’s girlfriend knocked it out of their hand. Is that really your cig? Half-lit cigarettes are everywhere on the road. More than one brand makes pink cigs. It’s just a coincidence. Smoking will kill you, you know, you tell the deer, and you could swear its eye rolls.

Her eyes…your girlfriend is whispering as you lean closer to the deer.

            She’s blind, Em. It’s okay.

            Oh my god. Did I blind her? Her voice is escalating with hysteria.

            Unlikely, you murmur, and tilt your head at the deer. It is not blinking. Its eyes are moving slowly, like it’s examining you, which would be normal, if it could see.

            Nadia…

            Give me a minute, Em. The deer’s lips move around the cigarette. You reach into your pocket and fish around for a loose one. You shine the phone on it, then back to the deer.

It’s the same shade of pink as the deer’s.

            Nadia. Your girlfriend reaches down and grabs your shoulder. You slowly stand, turning so you can see what your girlfriend is looking at. Another doe is standing in front of her, noticeably taller than both of you, even at this distance. Are deer usually so tall? You haven’t had to face one before.

            Uh, hi, you say to the doe.

            Nadia. Your girlfriend’s tone is sharp.

            What? It’s rude not to say hello.

            The doe takes a step closer. You hold out your hand. What are you going to do, pet it? your girlfriend hisses. It could have ticks.

            Because that’s the concern, right? Ticks?

            The doe obviously doesn’t care for your bickering, because it rises up on its back legs, growing two feet taller as a bipedal animal. Straight-backed and rigid, it stares down at you both with an emotionless expression. The muscles in its torso ripple threateningly.

            Holy shit, your girlfriend whimpers. She grips your hand again and squeezes hard. The deer pauses to look between you before stepping forward on her hind legs. Its front arms dangle lifelessly at its sides as it glides gracefully toward you. There’s not a single teeter or wobble in its gait. It moves fluidly, like it’s always walked this way.

            Deer are definitely not supposed to move like that.

            What do we do? Your girlfriend is shaking.

            Can we get to the car? You take your eyes away from the doe and glance at the car. As long as the deer doesn’t charge, you could make it. You squeeze your girlfriend’s hand. She squeezes back. We can get to the car.

            Can we outrun it?

            I don’t know.

            It’s standing.

            I see that, Em.

            It’s standing, she repeats, and you can hear her choking back tears.

            So are we. You squeeze your girlfriend’s hand again. She squeezes back. It’s gonna be okay.

            I don’t think they’re deer, Nadia.

            Let’s worry about that later. The doe takes another poised step forward. It’s within arm’s reach now. You can see that the fur on its stomach isn’t just white. It’s patterned in a way that forms a brown and white “E”. You hope your girlfriend hasn’t noticed. You hope your eyes are fooling you. Run on three? Your girlfriend squeezes your hand as a yes. One. Two—

            THREE, your girlfriend yells, and tears off down the highway. She drags you with her, and the two of you are running towards the car as if your lives depend on it. Maybe they do. Neither of you locked the car, thankfully, so the two of you climb in without any trouble. You’ve taken back your spot as the driver. You lock the doors and look out the window.

            Both does are on their hind legs, facing the direction of the car.

            My god, you whisper. You watch as they take a singular step forward in sync.

            Can we go? your girlfriend grabs at your arm. You turn back to her.

            Sure, you tell her, turning the key in the ignition. It’s nearly impossible to see through the windshield. You can barely make out the highway lanes just under the cracks in the glass. It’ll have to do. How long do we have left to drive?

            Just an hour, says your girlfriend, buckling up. Step on it.

You slam the gas as hard as you can, praying that the glass doesn’t blow into the car, slicing up your faces. The wheels screech in protest as the car peels away from the scene. You’ll take the next exit off the highway; the back roads will just have to do. Hey, Nadia? your girlfriend whispers.

            Yeah?

            She reaches over gives your thigh a squeeze. Let’s not visit my parents again for a long, long time.

            You laugh, a loud note of hysteria, and press the gas again.

            You might want to keep your eyes on the road, if you want to make it home in an hour. Don’t look behind you as you speed away from the deer. Don’t watch them as they walk effortlessly on two legs into the trees. You don’t have to know that as soon as another car—the only other one so far—makes its way to that part of the highway, the deer lower themselves back down and simply watch the car drive. You don’t have to know if they were really deer or not.

            All you have to do is drive.

End.

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