“Honey, maybe you should slow down?”
“We wouldn’t be running late if you didn’t take so damn long getting ready. I refuse to let Thompson make a fool of me again this year.”
Lydia risked another glance in Harrold’s direction. Her husband was in another one of his snits. There was no use arguing when he got like. She just clutched her seatbelt tighter and watched the speedo climb ever higher.
Outside she could see countless patches of fenced-in farmland drifting by. No lights, no houses, just endless rolling fields as far the eye could see. She hadn’t even seen another car for over an hour. It was like being on a whole other planet. Why did they have to have the retreat so far out of town?
Hunched over the wheel, Harrold drummed his fingers along with the radio, throwing the occasional angry glance at the dashboard clock. Like somehow he thought glaring at it would make time stand still. Even in the dim light of the car, Lydia could see his slightly plump cheeks turning red as the minutes shot by.
Sudden violent electric shrieks were leaping from the speakers, breaking through the music like clumsy burglars tripping over furniture. Gone was the old beach song by some band Lydia couldn’t remember, in its place was a discordant set of droning beeps and squeals that made her ears hurt.
“Don’t tell me we’re losing the station already.” Harrold groaned taking his eyes off the road to punch the other setting buttons.
Every button just produced more static. It was like the radio was screaming at them. It was making Lydia’s head hurt. She opened her mouth to tell her husband to turn the damn thing off, but froze in fear. There was something beneath that awful sound. Hidden behind all the static and squealing, she could hear voices.
They were like no voices Lydia had ever heard before. High and whining, the voices seemed to drill into her brain. She found herself straining to make out what was being said when abruptly the hellish blare changed into twanging country music as Harrold hammered the cd button. Muttering to himself about being stuck out in the boonies, Harrold swerved, bringing the car back to its own lane.
Lydia looked out the window trying to put the whole thing out of her head. She was sure she’d heard voices speaking but Harrold didn’t seem to notice, maybe she’d imagined it. Off in the distance she saw the first welcome sight in a long time. On the horizon were a set of headlight moving towards them. Reassured that the world was still out there, Lydia closed her eyes and let her mind drift away.
Lying in the field, Lydia watched the myriad stars dance across the heavens. Everywhere she looked there were millions upon millions of sparkling lights filling the sky. Each one shining for her and her alone. The world was silence. No country music. No hellish blare. No frustrated husband. Just Lydia and the silence of the night. She found herself at ease, content to watch those distant points of lights for the rest of her life. One of the stars shifted, growing larger in her vision until it filled the world with burning white light.
Lydia opened her eyes to find her husband hammering his fists against the steering wheel as the car rolled to a stop. The engine shuddered to a halt with a series of loud thunking like a heavy smoker having their last fit. Lydia opened her mouth to ask what had happened, but Harrold just glared at her. Without another word, Harrold popped the hood and climbed out of the car.
The car had broken down. Absently, Lydia reached over and switched on the hazard lights. Everywhere she looked there was nothing but empty fields stretching off into the distance. There might have been a farmhouse out there somewhere, but if there was, the owners had already packed it in for the night. Clearly they weren’t going to make it to the retreat on time, even if Harrold could fix whatever had gone wrong. The best they could hope for was to call a tow truck and find a hotel for the night. This was definitely not going to improve Harrold’s mood any.
Glimpsing around the upraised bonnet at her fuming husband leaning over the steaming engine, Lydia reached into her bag and pulled out her phone. Harrold was stubborn, if it were up to him they’d be stuck out here all night while he fiddled with the broken engine. He’d rather die than ask for help. It was the reason they were driving out tonight instead of with the rest of them in the morning. Lydia decided she’d phone a mechanic and then call again to cancel if Harrold managed to get the car running again before they arrived.
Lydia opened her phone and dialled the number for roadside assistance, glancing around the dark and empty landscape surrounding their car. It was so dark outside, like the rest of the world went away while she was sleeping. The phone rang out four times before connecting. Lydia opened her mouth to speak when the buzzing split her ear. Holding the device away from her head, all Lydia could hear was a high metallic grinding broken only by a series of inconstant beeps. She slammed the phone shut, not liking having it anywhere near her.
The phone buzzed in her hands, growing warm as the ID bar lit up. Lydia dropped the phone like it was a live snake. Instead of the familiar string of numbers and letters, scrolling across the screen were a series of symbols like nothing she’d ever seen before. The jagged markings looked like angry ants cruelly tearing themselves apart. The marks moved and darted in random chaotic jolts even as the jaunty piano tune of her ringtone filled the car. Lydia was suddenly filled with the certainty that those marks would crawl out of the screen and swarm over her like ravenous insects if she so much as touched it.
Lydia found her door handle and forced it open. Not once allowing herself to take her eyes off the horrid device resting in the central console, she slammed the door shut. Abruptly, the phone cut off, as if its batteries had been pulled. Lydia stood shivering in the cold night air, resolving to never touch that phone again. To never so much as look at another phone again.
“Come on you, bastard.” Harrold muttered from beneath the bonnet. “Work damn you.”
“How’s it coming?” Lydia walked over to him, desperate to put as much distance between her and that evil device as possible.
“Just get back in the car. I’ve almost got it.”
“Maybe we should go for help?”
“We don’t need help. I’ve almost got it running. Just give me a minute will ya.”
Lydia fell silent as she watch her husband prod and poke the engine, clearly unable to find the source of the problem, but absolutely refusing to let it get the better of him. Steam was smoking out from somewhere amongst the various overly complicated components and compounds. It was all beyond Lydia’s understanding, but she was starting to think their problems were more than simple engine troubles.
As she glanced around the dark landscape surrounding their car, she felt a shudder run down her legs. What happened with the phone and the radio had her spooked. They were out here alone with only the glow of the car’s headlights to light their way. Lydia suddenly felt very small under that vast black sky. Sparks jumped from the steaming engine and Harrold leapt back swearing.
“Frigging stupid sonovabitch. I’ll melt you into scrap.” Lydia saw her husband nursing his hand as he glared at the spitting machine. He kicked at the bumper in frustration before turning to face her. “Call the bloody mechanic.”
Lydia’s heart pounded in her throat at the thought of having to hear that horrible grinding again. Of touching that accursed phone and its crawling ant-like symbols. She just shook her head and said the first lie that popped into her head. “I tried. There wasn’t any reception.”
“Well that’s just frigging great. We’re stuck out here unless you suddenly know how to fix a bloody engine.” Harrold turned his anger towards her.
In his eyes, Lydia could see that he was starting to blame her for the misfortune being heaped upon him. For all the times his life didn’t work out as planned. For trapping him in a childless marriage. Lydia stumbled back a step, unthinkingly flinching away from her husband.
It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when the days he loved her far outnumbered the days he felt this way, but over the years those days grew less and less. All the anger and resentment bubbling closer to the surface. There were times when it was worse than the others, days like today, but he always came back to show her he loved her. Eventually.
Lydia glanced around looking for anything that would draw her husband’s wrath away from her. In the darkness there was a light. Off in the distance, coming over the horizon was a set of headlights moving towards them. A sign that the world wasn’t as empty as she was starting to fear it was. Harrold saw them too and seemed to forget his moment of frustration. The lights were moving quickly, speeding down along the road, but surely the driver would see their hazard lights and stop to lend a hand.
“I’m going to try and flag him down. Hopefully he’ll know the number of a tow truck we can get out here.” Harrold grinned, once more content to be in control of the situation.
Lydia kept her mouth shut. There was something in the way the lights seemed to glide across the landscape that she didn’t like. They were moving too fast and too smoothly. She couldn’t see the road in the darkness, but she didn’t think it was as straight as the motion of that distant car seemed to suggest. She felt her panic begin to build again with every second those lights drew closer.
Behind them, their car began to whine like an injured dog sensing danger. Harrold frowned as more sparks jumped from beneath the open bonnet. The headlights dimmed and threatened to go out, leaving them with nothing but the hazards and the steadily approach glow of that distant vehicle. Faintly, from inside the car, Lydia could hear the jangling ring of her discarded cell phone crying to be heard.
“I thought you said there wasn’t any reception.”
“There wasn’t. I swear.”
“Go answer the stupid thing.”
Lydia didn’t want to get anywhere near the car while that thing was ringing, but she could see the anger working its way back over her husband’s face as he watched her stall. The lights in the distance had resolved themselves into twin balls of white light the size of grapefruit and were getting closer with every passing second. The phone continued its insistent ringing, demanding to be heard, but Lydia knew from somewhere deep down that if she answered it, it would be the last thing she ever did.
Her husband started clenching his fist in the way that always sent chills down Lydia’s spine. He was getting mad. Nothing good every happened when he started this way. Harrold didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. With shaking legs, Lydia took a step towards the car. In the distance the lights were getting closer. Whatever was behind them was getting closer. If it was a car, the driver was seriously booking it. They were moving too fast. In a few seconds the lights would be upon them. Lydia froze in place staring at them. She could hear a roar like distant thunder following in their wake. Her fear of her husband forgotten in the growing panic the lights produced.
They weren’t headlights. There were too many to be headlights. And they weren’t following a road. They seemed to be floating above the ground, rocketing towards them at a startling speed. Her husband was too sure that it was simply another driver that he’d be able to bargain into helping them that he wasn’t seeing what was happening in front of him. Far off, from inside their car, Lydia heard a faint snap, like a twig being broken, and suddenly the phone stopped ringing.
She wanted to scream for her husband to get away from those lights, but he was already standing in the middle of the road waving for the driver’s attention. Flagging his shirt in the air as the lights drew closer. If that ball of lights truly was a car, it was moving too fast to ever be able to stop, but Harrold didn’t seem to realise this. He had a script worked out for exactly how the scenario was supposed to play out. That the world would disagree with him never once crossed his mind.
Between them the engine of their car briefly roared to life, flooding the area with the glow of their headlights. A shower of sparks lanced out as the battery exploded. Abruptly the lights cut out, leaving the two of them with only the halo of approaching light to define them. A sense of great electricity filled the air and in the seconds before it arrived, Lydia could see Harrold flapping his lips, eyes frozen on the smoking remains of the engine. And then the light was upon them and all she could see was silky white glare.
The light seemed to burn like hellfire. Lydia could feel it crawling over her skin and knew that she was covered in those malevolent ant-like symbols. They were pulling her apart piece by piece and stitching her back together all over again. She could hear Harrold screaming from some place far away, but beyond that, even further within this all-consuming light, she could hear voices. High and whining voices like the ones she’d heard on the radio. She knew that if she could just listen carefully, she’d be able to understand what they were saying. If only Harrold would be quiet and let her do that.
His screams hurt her more than the light and the ants combined. His stubborn pigheadedness had always left its mark. Nothing was ever Harrold’s fault, if things didn’t work out Lydia was to blame. It was because of her that Harrold had to give up his future. Had to man up and marry her. Had to stay with her even after she’d lost the baby. And now his selfishness was what kept them trapped like this. Burning in light and being dissected and reassembled over and over again. She just wished he’d go away.
The voices grew silent as if contemplating, and Lydia felt the light withdraw. All at once the marks were gone. The pain was gone. Everything was gone. Lydia found herself standing by the remains of their ruined car, watching the ball of light recede into the distance once more. She watched it disappear amongst the stars. Just another point of light eons away. There was no sign of Harrold. She was alone on the side of the road and she felt fine.