Shortwave Magazine

Fiction / Short Stories

"Backseat Driver"

a short story
by Rae Knowles

October 5, 2022
3,165 Words
Genre(s): , , ,

A bleeding sun rears its angry head over the hills surrounding your childhood holler. You smudge a bit of dirt into your hairline and hurl your suitcase into the open trunk of your mother’s silver van, Mark glaring at you between the headrests.

“Thought you were riding with Sadie.”

“Yeah well,” you scoff for good measure, “she bailed.” The words are cold. Emotionless. You’ve rehearsed them a hundred times.

Your brother rights himself in the canvas seat. “Good for her.”

He says it loud enough for you to hear, but you’re too old to take the bait. No sense getting into it with Mark before the key’s turned in the ignition. You’re not kids anymore.

“Where are they?”

Mark clicks on his Kindle. “Just grabbing the last few bags. Eager for some carpool karaoke or what?”

You slide into the backseat, already feeling motion sickness creep in like cold breath on the back of your neck. Never take the chick’s car, you remind yourself. Never again.

Susan and Roger Gladwell–dear old Mom and Dad–emerge from your colonial childhood home, weighed down by bulging luggage, their steps made more tedious by smacking flip flops.  

“Oh, honey, look!” your mother says, as if you can’t hear her. “Jimmy decided to join us after all.” You hear her grin, though the view is obscured by your old gym bag: reclaimed, overstuffed, and slung across her arms.

“It’s James,” you mutter.

The van bucks as your father tosses heavy bags into the back one by one.

“Watch it!” you say.

“Oh Roger, be more careful, Hun. Jimmy could have something breakable in there. You didn’t pack anything fragile, did you, sweetie?”

Your eyes roll. You picture Acqua di Gio saturating your already stained clothes as it spills from a shattered bottle. “I’m thirty, Mom. Of course I packed–” Your mother’s rustling makes you turn. She’s clearing a path to your bag. “Just leave it.”

She reaches for the zipper. “I’ll just do a quick check and then–”

“Leave it, I said.”

Your mother takes one of her big breaths in, and slams the trunk shut. Your father can barely fit in the driver’s seat with his giant map in both hands. Typical, you think.

“Dad, there’s no need for that. GPS comes standard these days.”

Susan perks up her curls with a few bats of her palms. “Oh sweetie, you know your father.”

You picture back roads with bumps and potholes, U-turns, and winding mountain roads. There’s a roiling in your stomach. “I got it,” you say.

Leaning over the center console, you mash a few buttons on the touchscreen. Despite preferring the old-fashioned way, your dad offers up the address, and within seconds the screen reads, Calculating Route.

“Well, that’s what I was doing!” Roger jokes.

Susan gives a perfunctory chuckle.

“Just trust me, Dad.”

Tennessee summer battles the blowing AC for dominance as quiet moments tick by.

“Should be any second,” you say.

The little red wheel spins round and round on the screen, and the message changes. System Update.

“Can I put on the radio while we–” Susan starts.

“Just a minute.” The last thing you need is her interrupting the reboot. “We could sit here an hour and we’d waste less time than we would following that map. What’s it from, the ‘90s? Do they even sell those anymore?”

 “Well of course they do–”

A crisp voice with a slight Alabama drawl interrupts your mom and punches you in the gut. “Welcome to voice command navigation.”

I am joining you on this trip, one way or another.

“Damn, that sounds familiar,” Mark says, looking up from his Kindle.

No, no, you insist to yourself. “It’s just a preset. I’m sure there’s lots of voices you can choose from.” You reach for the screen, but your dad waves you back to your seat.

“Let’s just get on the road,” he says. He might be right. The further you get from here, the better.

Susan buckles her seatbelt. “So glad you decided to join us after all, Jimmy.”

“Didn’t have much of a choice.” Mark is wearing that sly smile that makes you want to squeeze his throat. “His girl dumped him.”

“She didn’t–”

“I’m so sorry to hear that.” Your mother flashes a sympathetic smile via the rearview mirror as the van pulls out of the long drive. Let her believe what she wants. It’s no use getting into who dumped who.

Left turn on Maple Leaf St. 200 feet ahead.

“Well, I knew that,” your dad says.

“It’s like I always say,” your mother continues, “What’s meant to be, will be!”

“Right.” You gaze out the window, knowing you’ll be fine once you get on the highway and leave all these back roads behind.

Stay on the current road for two miles.”

“I swear, that voice is so familiar.” Mark looks to the van’s upholstered ceiling as if he might find the answer there. Your abs clench. You hope he doesn’t.

Susan busies herself surfing radio stations until she finds 109.6: Best of the Oldies. At the next rest stop, you’ll get your headphones from your bag. You should’ve thought of that before you got going. Now it’s going to be soft rock for the next hour.

“This is so wonderful,” Susan says, watching pine trees whip by the window. “Must be twenty years since we’ve been on a family trip. She grins wide enough for you to see her sparkling metal fillings from the backseat. Then she catches herself. “So sorry to hear about Sadie though. She sounded like a lovely girl. I’m sure it’s for the best.” She smoothes her floral blouse.

“Her loss,” you say.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that.”

Susan’s hand hovers over the navigation screen, where once again a red circle spins.

Left turn ahead.

Your father yanks the steering wheel, barely catching the turn in time. “You’d think it’d give us a little more heads-up than that!”

“Just keep an eye on the screen.” You remember that two-hour trip to Dollywood that ended up taking four. And your mother wonders why it’s been twenty years since you agreed to a road trip.

Mark tucks his Kindle beneath your mom’s seat and starts flipping through his phone. You rest your head against the window. It’s chilled from the blowing AC, and the cold burrows into your temple like a termite, like a maggot laying eggs, stabilizing the rising motion sickness. You close your eyes, thinking you might be able to nap, sleep away the twistiest part of the trip and wake once you’re on the highway.

“It is her!” Mark’s eyes gape with petty delight. He yanks his headphones off and thrusts the phone to where your mother can see. “Check this out.” With a tap, Sadie’s voice fills the car.

Your entrails do a polka inside you, and you’d shit yourself if not for the firm clench you’ve got on your ass. Sadie’s rose-gold hair whips back and forth as she dances on the recording, her voice emanating from the tiny speaker.

“Don’t be a creep, Mark!” You lunge for him, but your seatbelt’s safety lock keeps your hand inches from the phone.

“Does Sadie do voice acting or something? You gotta admit, Mom. Same voice, isn’t it?”

Your mother’s eyes narrow as she listens, but you do your best to drown out the recording. “Don’t be a jackass. Doesn’t even sound like her,” you say.

“What?” Mark rapid-fire presses the volume button and starts the Tik-Tok again.

Sadie calls out from the phone, “Top ten reasons–

“Dude, stop!” You lunge again, this time dislodging the phone from his hand. Mark erupts into raucous laughter, just like he did when you were kids.

“Wait for it, wait for it. There’s a turn coming up!”

In eight-hundred feet, turn right onto 1-86 North.

“That’s her, bro!”

“Boys, boys.” Your mother waves you into silence. “Let’s all just relax now. How about a game?”

You draw your arms tight across your chest. Mark retrieves his phone, confident he’s rattled you, and resumes his scrolling. Roger eases the minivan onto the highway. Should be a straightaway for at least fifty miles. You settle, knowing your brother might be a jackass, but at least you avoided puking out the window and soiling your last clean pair of pants.

“In one mile, take the exit onto Marrowbone Dr.”

“What?” Your father bats at the navigation screen with no effect. “That can’t be right.”

“Hazard ahead. You are on the fastest route.”

“I don’t think that’s right.” His bushy brows furrow, shot through with gray.

“It’s right.”

Roger’s fingers tighten around the wheel. He whispers, “Did it just answer me?”

“It’s voice activated, dad.” Mark smirks.

“Hmm.” Your father eyes the screen with suspicion.

“What a wonder of a thing,” your mother says.

The turn signal clicks, and Roger merges into the right lane to take the exit.

Take the exit,” the GPS croons.

Mark is right. It does sound like Sadie.

Sounds just like me.

Though it’s only a few miles from home, Marrowbone isn’t an area you frequent. Never was. But lately it’s been pulling you in, hasn’t it? Its dense woods like strong, grasping fingers. The roadside sign tells you there’s only one gas station, 1.5 miles to the right.

“Turn left onto Marrowbone Dr.”

Your father abides.

Apart from the highway tearing it in half, you’re surrounded by forest on all sides. Pines and evergreens tower around you. Old trees. Trees that were here before you. Will remain after you.

“Stay on the current road.”

Between the branches, you spot the odd house. Tucked behind heavy iron gates, rusted and chained, they sport sagging roofs, chipped paint, cars on concrete blocks in the yard. A burly black dog snaps at a chainlink fence, foam dripping from its snarling maw.

“You are on the fastest route.”

“Didn’t the Jepsens move to Marrowbone a ways back?” your mother asks.

Your father nods, both hands still wrapped around the wheel.

“This must lead back to the highway,” your mother says. She pats your father’s thigh. He mutters agreement.

A red building ahead catches your eye. Shorty’s Tavern. Nausea, or is it fear, rears up like a cornered stag.

“I think we should turn back,” you say, hand to your lips.

“You are on the fastest route,” the GPS responds.

“You heard the lady,” Roger says, pleased with his joke.

Saliva pours into your mouth. “No, really,” you eke out. “Let’s get back to the highway. I think I’m gonna be sick.” Perspiration beads on your forehead, but it’s not the sickness screaming at you to turn back the way you came.

“GPS said there was an accident or something. I’m sure if we just keep going, we’ll loop right–”

“In 500 feet, turn right onto 7th Place.”

“See?” Your mother’s tone is light. Always light. “It’s bringing us right back now.”

Gravel crunches beneath the tires as your father turns onto 7th.

 “The highway is the other direction,” you say, sweat seeping into the fabric of your collar.

“The road must curve, sweetie. Just relax. Look out the window.”

Your mother rifles through her purse in search of a peppermint, just like she has since you were a child. Though it won’t ease your sickness. Not this time.

You pass that powder blue mailbox on the left. It’s the same one. Yes.

“Pull over.”

Roger guides the van onto the slim shoulder, and hot Tennessee air pushes against you as you throw open the heavy door. You retch, stumbling toward the back of the van. Last thing you need is Mark mocking you. Hands on your knees, you pull a slow breath through your nose. You clench your stomach. Either puke, or let’s get the fuck out of here, you think.

Nothing comes. You wipe your face, and from inside the vehicle you hear my voice.

“150 feet northwest, and you will arrive at your destination.”

Bile singes your throat as the voice comes out in staccato bursts. Should’ve stopped to have breakfast. We could’ve had a nice, leisurely breakfast, but instead…

 “150 feet northwest, and arrive at your destination,” I say again.

When you return to the van, Susan and Roger are already deep in discussion about glitches and faulty programming. Mark is handing your father his map.

“150 feet northwest, and you arrive at your destination,” I insist.

“Turn the damn thing off,” you croak.

Your mother pokes at the screen, but I won’t be silenced.

“150 feet northwest, between the boulder and the hemlock. Just beneath a spider’s web. You will arrive at your destination.”

“Fuckin’ weird,” Mark says, staring at the screen. The digital map shows nothing but white dappled with green for trees.

“Proceed on foot. Estimated time of arrival, 6:53am.”

“We should check it out.” He’s popped open his door before you can say a word.

“Mark Aaron, have you lost your mind?” your mother says, fiddling with her seatbelt.

“Come on, Mom! You wanted family fun. It’s like one of your mystery shows. What is it? Poirot? Where’s your sense of adventure?”

“Shut the fuck up, Mark. I feel like shit. We’re not about to prancing through the woods because of some technical glitch.”

“Boys!” Your mother unbuckles her seatbelt. “You know what? I would like to go.”

Your father kills the engine and sighs.

“We need some family bonding. That much is very clear. And Jimmy?” She stares daggers into you. “You look like hot hell anyhow. Some fresh air and firm ground would do you good.”

Your tongue searches for the right argument, but all it finds is a fungus gnat. You spit but it clings to your lip until you wipe it away.

“We’ll all get some fresh air, solve a little mystery.” Her brow dances up and down at your father who has joined her beside the culvert. “Have some family time. The whole point of this trip anyway.”

“Excellent.” Mark is beaming. “So, what’d she say?”

“150 feet northwest, between the boulder and the hemlock. Just beneath a spider’s web. You will arrive at your destination.”

Roger startles and stares back into the van. “Damn thing’s off.” His head shakes in confusion.

“Probably has a battery backup,” Mark says. “Let’s go! You heard the lady.”

Can’t be, you think. All trees look the same. And you were one town over. Weren’t you?

“Proceed to your destination. You are on the fastest route.”

Mark jogs toward his best guess at northwest, and your mother summarizes the latest episode of Poirot as she struggles to keep up in her flip flops. Your father lingers behind them, just a few steps ahead of you. His eyes hesitate over a spot on your neck. You reach up out of instinct, feel the deep scratch still bruising around the edges.

“Come on, slowpokes!” she calls. She’s really getting into the spirit of it, solving a real-life mystery. The mystery of what happened to Sadie Grover.

To me.

Minutes pass. The trail thins, gnarled boughs reaching for you with sappy appendages. Clustered leaves knit closer together, choking the light as it tries to force its way through the tree cover. Daylight strangled. A branch clips your shoulder. Dull pain radiates from the fresh, hidden bruise. 

“Alright, nothing here,” you proclaim. “Let’s turn back.”

But you’re too late.

“What’s this?” Your mother has already spotted it.

Just ahead, a pile of freshly turned soil, an aberration against the carpet of pine needles.

You should’ve thought of that, really.

“Let’s go!” It’s a demand this time, one that makes your father turn on his heel.

“Don’t speak to your mother that way, Jimmy.”

“It’s James. It’s James, goddammit!”

Susan’s eyes seek answers in the powdery dirt, the same dirt embedded in your fingernails. Roger’s steely blue eyes silence you, but Mark crouches beside the mound.

“Oh shit.” He clasps his palm over his nose. You think about running, but the keys are clipped to your father’s belt loop. Where would you go? “I think it’s a…”

Your mother does the Sign of the Cross, and your father is quick to wrap an arm around her and turn her from the morbid sight.

You hesitate.

You’re not ready to see me again.

“You have arrived at your destination.” My voice booms from the trees, from the hidden corners of your mind, from within my shallow grave.

Mark clears the thin layer of soil from my face. My eyes are wide like you left them, dirt caked to blood-red sclera. “Jesus Christ.” He has no clever quips now. It’s Mark’s turn to retch. His vomit joins with my bodily fluids, seeping deep into the earth. It’s a mess down there: piss and shit and a masticated Wendy’s breakfast sandwich. More food for the maggots already sniffing at my corpse.

Your pulse races, vision blurs.

“It’s fucking Sadie.” Mark’s hoarse voice tells your parents what you already know.

Scratches burn fresh beneath your shirt. Blisters bubble on your soft palms. You’re not used to digging, or any manual labor for that matter.

“Jimmy…” Your father’s voice trails off. He would’ve been disappointed in you. In how winded you became, bursting every capillary in my eyeballs. Never kept up with that fitness routine he worked out for you in high school. But then, you’ve disappointed him in a lot of ways. This? Only the latest.

A smattering of flying insects hovers around my partially exposed form. They came to do the cleanup job you neglected. How does it feel? Less work ethic than a dung beetle. Our last argument returns to you in flashes. Squabbles with Mark pale in comparison. All that rage you hid from him, saved up for me. Unleashed on my swelling body in curses, taunts, and blows. You swore you never wanted to see me again. But now that you’re here, you can’t help but take those few steps forward.

I wear your handprints like a necklace. Jewelry of the dead.

It’s a pleasure to meet your folks. Shame I look such a mess, but you can’t blame me for that. That was all your doing.

Is it only you who hears me? Am I some strange nightmare from which you’ll wake, sweaty?

Oh, but you are sweaty.

My scent reaches your nostrils, spoilt meat with a hint of almond. It draws you closer. You fixate. You scarcely hear your mother call 911.

Mark weeps for me. Tears that should’ve come from you. 

Do you want to tell them? Or should I?

The secret between us rots in my belly, just where you left us. 

Roger grabs the phone. “Yes, right away,” he tells the operator. “Marrowbone.” My words spring from his healthy throat. Your lips trace them in time.

“150 feet northwest, between the boulder and the hemlock. Just beneath a spider’s web. You will arrive at your destination.”

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About the Author

Rae Knowles is a queer woman with multiple works forthcoming from Brigids Gate Press. She holds a BA in English Language and Literature with a minor in Creative Writing. Storytelling is Rae’s passion. Since a young age, she has leaned toward the dark and strange. Her characters tend to be queer and defy gender norms, and her writing circles around themes of obsession, narcissism, and an unstable reality.

Her debut novel, The Stradivarius, is coming May ’23, her sapphic horror novella, Merciless Waters, is due out winter ’23, and her collaboration with April Yates, Transatlantic, in early ’24. Twelve of her short stories have been published or are forthcoming this year from publications such as Seize the Press, Dark Matter Ink, and Nosetouch Press.

raeknowles.com

Copyright ©2022 by Rae Knowles.

Published by Shortwave Magazine. First print rights reserved.

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