A turbulent blue sky washed across his open dead eyes before I shut the trunk over his ugly assed face. This was the third one today, and there was plenty of room in the oversized trunk to accommodate many more guests. Once a hundred years ago I smuggled eight friends and acquaintances into the Twin Drive-in, and there was still room for beer and rotgut wine in the trunk. The car is a beast.
I checked on Katie. She was frozen in the front bench seat, her mouth still open after that long piercing scream that brought me running from the lake where I was filling a bucket of water for the radiator. Lucky she was in the car and could roll up the window before the Maniac got to her. He was still scratching and kicking at the passenger side door when I caught him from behind with my tire jack, which fortunately I had carried with me to the lake for protection. I ran out of bullets the day before, thanks to the Maniac’s trunk companions.
“It’s ok,” I said. I tossed the jack handle in the backseat. Realized there was blood on it and reached over and wiped it with a greasy towel that covered the basket of food and beer we had scavenged from an abandoned house a few miles back.
“We should have stayed there,” she said in a quivering thawing voice.
I moved around and opened the driver’s side door, took a good clean look around us to make sure we were truly alone, then pulled myself in the car like one of those astronauts squeezing into a Mercury capsule. “No,” I said, “Not a good idea. We got to keep moving. We got gas, we got hope.”
She looked at me like I was crazy. I could see she was running through all the crazy shit that had happened to us the past two days. I could see, too, that she was stuck. She wanted to stay put somewhere, hole up and wait this thing out. I was determined to ride out of trouble with my tank of a car. “What if…”
I cut her off. “Don’t go there,” I said. “We get out of this county, out of this country, we’ll be all right. I just know it.”
“You left me alone,” she said.
“The car was locked. I didn’t want to wake you up.” Now she was letting it settle in. Puffs of blonde hair fell to her forehead. Streams of tears fell too as she really shook this time. I thought she was beautiful and I wanted to do it right then and there, in the front seat, but she was so scared, so… helpless. “The car was overheating. There was steam coming out and everything, so I stopped to get a little water. No way I would’ve left you here alone if I thought one of those Maniacs was nearby.” I brushed her face with my fingers. She didn’t pull back. Good. I scooted closer. How long have I owned this car? Six months? And I never had the opportunity to make love to a pretty girl in the front seat. Until now.
I cupped her breast. She slapped me so hard my head bounced off the leather seat like a basketball hitting the metal rim.
“Shit.” I rubbed my cheek.
“You left the window down you stupid shit. That Maniac could’ve gotten me, and all you’re thinking about is getting laid. Fuck you.” She crossed her arms. I stared at her for several minutes, noting the crust of blood and grease on her arms and legs, delicate blonde hairs poking through in spots, a rebirth of life in the ash after a volcanic explosion. “I’ll get the water,” I said.
Twenty minutes or twenty years later we were on the road again, zigzagging past empty rusted cars and the carcasses of dead farm animals placed strategically in our way like some sick obstacle course. Katie didn’t say a word, just stared ahead and took deep breaths every time I swerved or ran over something.
Katie was all I had. I was convinced, somehow, she loosened the radiator hose, fucked up my car so we would have to stop, make a stand, stop running. How else did she get grease on her fine arms and legs? If we stopped anywhere I was going to sleep where I could keep an eye on the car. My Ford Galaxy was everything. I loved that car.
I swear I didn’t know Katie before this, didn’t know she existed. I found her just outside what was left of Carlsville, standing by the side of the road like a mileage sign. I should have assumed she was a Maniac like everyone else, but I didn’t. She didn’t look crazy. I stopped. She had to have given up to be standing there out in the open, waiting for who knows what.
She must’ve been waiting for me. Maniacs don’t drive cars. She got in the car before I said a word and we high tailed it out of there, my 1963 white Ford Galaxy blazing a slippery trail through the wilderness of bloody guts and farm machinery, car hulks and skin shredded splinters of horse and cow legs, and the occasional dead Maniac in or off the road. The smell of death numbing and reassuring after we gave in and rolled the windows down due to the stifling heat. We’ve been together a long time now. Two days maybe. Time being a pretty screwed up concept.
I can’t remember when it happened, the Change, although I’m sure it wasn’t too long ago. It seemed like I only had my car, my first, a few months, and although everything is a little hazy, memories of driving to and from high school, my buddies Chad, Nolan, Bill kicking it up, partying like there was no tomorrow. Kidding me about my Mayberry car. I have no memory before the Ford Galaxy. I suppose it’s the trauma. Snapshots of my parents as we looked over the car before buying it. A 1963 Ford Galaxy500 KL, 260 V8 Cruise-A-Matic, three years old and the only one like it in the entire county. My dad saying nothing bad could ever happen to me with that car.
Then the Change. I woke up in the backseat of my car after a hard night partying and it had already happened. I slept right through it. Dead bodies everywhere. Most of the buildings crumbled shells, including my house and my high school. Everyone I knew and cared about was gone, and in their place were unrecognizable rotting bodies. And Maniacs who come out of nowhere like surprise jack in the boxes, who try to hurt and eat you.
I have five in my spacious trunk. Chad and Bill were the first occupants. They were gnawing on each other in front of the main library, or the rubble that had been the main library. I drove up on them, then over them when they came at me with mouths agape, grunting and wheezing like they each swallowed a longneck bottle of Strohs. I cried like a baby, then lifted their crumpled bodies into the trunk. Don’t know why I’m keeping them in my trunk. Guess it makes me feel safer, knowing where they are and all. They can’t come back when they’re locked in my trunk.
I drove out-of-town. I drove and drove through the valley of the shadow of, well, you know, the point being that things were really screwed up. There were occasional gas stations that somehow escaped the carnage, and I was able to fill up, add oil and water and all that stuff. I missed the full service. I missed the parade of cars cruising through the main street of Carson City, engines revving, the smell of exhaust and fried food. The music, loud, each passing wave of lyrics. Tell me over and over and over again, my friend, we’re on the eve of sugar pie honey bunch, you know papas got a brand new bag don’t let on, don’t say she’s broke my heart…
There are cars scattered everywhere but their radios are silent now. I think I drove about a thousand miles before I stumbled across Katie. She didn’t say a word at first. Just stared at me and the car that was around me, a look of disbelief that we were actually moving. Then she spoke. “I know you,” she said. I must have looked puzzled because she followed that with, “The Frisch’s Drive-in. Carlsville?”
My eyes stayed fixed on dodging all the debris in the road. Still, I managed to shake my head. You’re cute, kinda, but I don’t remember…
“I was a car hop. I remember you, your friends, this car.”
“Yeah. I guess we did hit the Carlsville Frischs a few times.”
“I remember this car because one of your asshole friends hit me with a beer can, hit the tray I was carrying spilling shit all over the place. You tore outta there like a bat outta hell.”
I said nothing. “This car doesn’t go very fast,” she said. “At least it’s roomy.”
She tried the radio knob. Nothing. Static. She cried in a subdued innocent way, the way a fox might after stumbling into a trap and exhausting itself trying to find a way through the steel mesh. We drove on and on. I had never been out of Dearborn County. I was eager to see the rest of the world.
* * *
It seems so long ago, but like I said time is so screwed up. I thought Katie was sleeping again, but she must’ve been thinking about the Maniac who almost got into my car. “I think he was just trying to get in,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“I think he was scared.”
“You were the one scared. He was a Maniac. He wanted you for lunch.”
The road bumped on and on and I was all over it, the engine grinding and struggling to haul the metal beast strapped to it. I felt her eyes on me the whole time waiting, then she said, “I think they’re like us. Only scared. They have nowhere to go.”
“You’re thinking too much,” I said.
“Those two we killed this morning, I bet they just wanted in the house. This guy wanted to get in the car. I don’t think he wanted me.” She looked helpless. Guilty.
“Well, he’s in the car now.”
* * *
She’s not really all that helpless. She was stirred up enough to help kill those two Maniacs who stormed the house this morning. Or was it last month? I don’t remember how I came to have a hand cannon that took off one of the Maniac’s hands, nor what happened to that same gun after we drove away. I have this fleeting image of Katie swinging a baseball bat at the head of the other one and connecting with a home run, but there it is again. I don’t know what happened to the bat.
Don’t know where the food came from but it’s there in a basket in the backseat suggesting we are on our way to a picnic. Andy and Helen and Barney and Thelma Lou, me and Katie.
Katie doesn’t talk about her family or her friends or anything at all really, the words that bubble out are elusive and distant, the way a hitchhiker would be careful about not sharing too much.
“We’re still in Dearborn County,” Katie said after a long bout of silence.
“I don’t recognize anything,” I said. “I know every inch of every road in Dearborn County and we should be halfway across the country by now.” I swerved to avoid an overturned tractor with a glistening arm bone jutting out from underneath it. Bare leafless trees leaned over us on this stretch. We were so far out in nowhere.
“Should be a city somewhere,” she mumbled. She drew her legs up under her and closed her eyes. Her trembling fingers not too far from my knee. I sped around a curve then another unexpectedly, the back wheels sliding just enough to jolt us both into thinking we were going to melt into any number of lifeless trees. I braked hard and slid to a stop.
A Maniac stood in the road. She was naked and dirty and wore a grin that reached around her face like Bozo the Clown. She was screaming at this marvelous white machine in front of her, screaming something about missiles, and mushrooms, and the Russians and the Red Threat, and Lucy and Cuba, and clouds that shouldn’t be, and she came at us. So fast I blinked and she was on the hood of my car, my 1963 Ford Galaxy XL, scrambling toward the windshield on gnawed to the bone fingers like some sort of crayfish skittering on a wet rock.
I screamed. Katie screamed. I stomped the gas pedal throwing the Maniac flat squished face into the windshield. Then she, it, the Maniac tumbled off. I sped away at top speed, looking in the rearview mirror to see if the thing was getting back up, then the car dropped over a rise and the image was replaced with empty road. I thought about going back, making sure it was dead, adding it to the trunk. But Katie was already freaked. There was no turning back.
We didn’t talk. I knew what she was thinking. That maybe getting in this car with me was not a good idea. That maybe she was giving up. If I slowed down she would toss herself out, end once and for all. I didn’t want to be alone. I couldn’t slow down.
Stars streamed past the Galaxy as we neared light speed. Maniacs fell from the sky in blooming parachutes. The wipers scraped them off the windshield. Katie huddled against the door with her eyes closed. I heard her thoughts pounding away like a jack hammer. Why are we still in Dearborn County after all this time? What if that lady wasn’t a Maniac, like you say? What if she was trying to tell us something? Her thoughts ran on and on. This car is ancient. It doesn’t belong here. We don’t belong here. That’s why we have to stop.
The world flipped a switch and all that remained, all that mattered was my 1963 Ford Galaxy500 XL, still in pristine condition after three years and forty odd thousand miles. Katie thought it was slow but it was steady Eddie and true, true as could be, what the fuck did she know, anyway?
Dearborn County is as big as the United States of America, hell it spreads into and over the ocean like a baby’s blanket, and some of these roads could be in France or Germany, anywhere. The scenery doesn’t matter. Yes, Katie, we are still in Dearborn County. Yes Katie, the Maniacs are a figment of my 260 horse powered brain, there is nothing to be afraid of. Katie, I told her, you are lucky to be with me in this car. Nothing bad can happen to us in here.
“No”, she said. “We have to stop. Find out if there are others. Give them a chance.” She said she couldn’t go on, not like this. Not with me.
I didn’t say anything. We were the last two. She should be grateful for that. And every Maniac we come up against is a painful reminder that the world has ended as we know it. She needed to embrace the truth. The Maniac behind her closed eyelids could never do that.
“Isn’t it obvious?” she said. “It will always be 1966 and we will always be stuck here in Dearborn County, and there will always be Maniacs in your head chasing after you. I don’t want to be a part of this any longer. I don’t want to be in this fucking piece of junk.”
At some point I knew we would run out of road, or gas, or Maniacs, and we would have only each other. Right. The hate that seeped from her eyes told me otherwise. There was no us, not in her mind anyway. I didn’t want to be alone. I didn’t want to stop. I knew what I had to do.
There was plenty of room in the trunk. I love this car. The road straightened out. Before us was an expanse of flat untended farmland. A house in the distance, a blip on the horizon where the green sun was setting into swirling blue clouds, death’s feather finally dropping onto the earth.