The next thing I knew I was in a convertible, on a highway somewhere. Well no, that was the first thing I knew. There were hints of other things: dark faces, laughter, smoke and music. A night, a good night at that, and the fade into sleep. Details didn’t untangle themselves into my consciousness, leaving me with nothing but mostly-shadowed glimpses of events and time.
Wind from the top and side of the car mingled with the sound of tires on road to deafen me. A constant thrum of noise, like Phil Specter’s wall of sound come to haunting life beat at my head like a baseball bat. I noticed a button on the dashboard in front of me marked ‘Top’ and decided it must control the drop-top of the car. My right hand went for it, sluggishly, but at the same time I touched it I thought I heard a snatch of a voice. A noise, discernable as something like human speech, but not quite and at that only maybe. It was a big enough maybe to reflexively jerk my hand back to the steering wheel. I realized, with a small dab of shame, that I was gripping it with enough force to turn my knuckles white.
I wanted to look over at the passenger seat, but I didn’t want to give in and look. Giving into abject paranoia was a sign of insanity, or weakness, I could never remember which. Then the noise repeated itself.
“What,” I shouted against the wind and car noise, my voice cracking on the ‘t’. Fear, stress, anxiety, a really late second puberty … no girl’s voices didn’t change at puberty, so one of the other three caused it to crack. I groped blindly for the window button, finding it with my left index finger and jamming it hard, the whirr of the window soft but close enough to hear faintly. The noise level in the car dropped as it rose.
“I asked when we were going to stop,” came the reply, swirling across the car, still cut to jagged edges by what remained of the noise. I blinked hard, my foot tapping the brake as I noticed the powder blue Toyota in front of me for the first time, even as I started to run up the guys tail.
Now, I was sure that no one had been in the car with me when I drove off. I was … I couldn’t remember driving off. I tried to think back again and only got the same dim recollections as before. I shrugged to stall for time and braced myself mentally. A deep breath and the set of my shoulders and I turned slowly to look at the passenger seat. Vincent Price smiled back at me, crinkling the lines of his dark gray suit as he shrugged.
“You do know where we’re going right, Babs?” Vincent asked, shaking his head at me and adding a small secret smile. I really wanted to scream, wanted to run, to stop the car right there on the highway and get out waving my arms above my head while shrieking. It felt like a really good plan. Instead, I swallowed hard, once, twice, and looked back at the road. My hands didn’t shake, but I knew that was only because of my death grip on the steering wheel.
“You’re dead, a-and you weren’t in my car when I… you’re dead,” I insisted weakly, more to myself than to Vincent Price. He offered a short burst of laughter to that and I decided to risk a quick glance at the passenger seat, just to confirm or deny Price’s existence.
“You think I’m dead,” Vincent asked, except his face was now slowly melting like wax, dripping onto his white tie and staining it with bits of chin and cheek, “Babs, shit, if I was dead then I wouldn’t be here… right? I mean.. right, I wouldn’t at all. I’d be too busy being dead to go… where ever we’re going. You do know where that is don’t you? Watch out for that Toyota.” I was dazed at the speech until the last line sank in for all of a quarter second. Swerving hard, I shifted lanes blindly to avoid rear-ending the Toyota that was still hanging in front of me. I snuck another peek across to see Vincent Price’s face dripping still into his lap, one ear off and about half his face gone with it, and James Earl Jones’ face seemed to be revealing itself underneath.
“Oh, right. Sorry,” I said, mortally confused and giving up, “James Earl Jones isn’t dead. But why did you have on the Vincent Price make-up first?” I guessed there was a split chance of answers to that. Either I would be killed, a knife – I knew it would be a knife, I had been convinced that I would be killed by a knife ever since… ever since something that I couldn’t remember properly… or, failing a sharp painful death I would get a straight answer. As straight an answer as anyone could be expected to get from James Earl Jones as he appeared from a molting Vincent Price, like some rare and exotic butterfly.
“I thought perhaps the appearance would soothe you. You were a Vincent Price fan, weren’t you?” So much for a straight answer or death. I couldn’t deny being a Vincent Price fan, even if the memories why I knew I was a fan were blurry, but it certainly didn’t explain a thing. I pulled over to the shoulder of the highway and, breaking slowly, stopped the car. I let my head fall back against the seats headrest and watched a blue sky swirl with thin white clouds. “Babs,” James Earl Jones continued, his deep voice rumbling along my right while traffic rumbled to my left, “look at me.”
Without moving my head I reached down and popped my seatbelt open, letting the fabric of the belt move between my fingers as it slid into its housing. My hands settled in my lap afterwards, folding against each other. My eyes fluttered open and I turned towards James Earl Jones. “What the hell is going on,” I asked calmly, my voice tired.
“You are Barbara Rhinebach, twenty-eight years old. Brown hair and brown eyes. Five feet and four inches tall,” he said in a litany as if he were reciting the facts for in front of a class, “You are afraid of heights and used to be afraid of spiders when you were younger.” His face was loose, emotionless and cold. I shivered slightly, as if the sudden coldness of his temperament was seeping into my bones. Somehow the straight and frank behavior helped me to steel myself and allow my own weariness and annoyance surface like a defense.
“And I have a small red birthmark on my left thigh. It doesn’t answer what’s going on, who you are and why you did look like one person and now look like another. Hell, it doesn’t answer how a smaller man melted into a larger one,” I put my hand on the door handle lightly, “or where the material that melted off of you went, or where we are or… you haven’t answered anything. I’ll just be going.” He shrugged and looked away, trying to call my bluff. I wasn’t bluffing and yanked the door open, stepping out onto… the… road…
As my foot hit the blacktop, the toe of a sneaker touching the white line of the lane, the world swam before my eyes. Everything went into swirls and blur and seemed to flip. My stomach agreed with my eyes and I fell forward but never hit the ground.
The next thing I knew I was in an overly expensive, overly decorated room. I looked down at my hands as they rested on the over-worked wooden arms of a chair. The room was done up in reds and blacks and golds: ancient looking rugs sitting on a pristine hardwood floor, a gold plated chandelier, deep red and rosewood chairs and sofas carved with patterns that looked like the ones under my hands felt, large careful windows looked out onto rolling green hills. This was either some rich person’s idea of well done or a horrible nightmare of ornate hell. I stood up, my legs slightly shaky and thought back, carefully nudging at my own memory like tonguing a sore tooth.
“Feeling… are you feeling better, Babs,” a voice asked me from somewhere I couldn’t see as I whirled around trying to locate it.
“Oh, uhh, sure. Being … being somewhere with no clue where or how and just sinking deeper into certainty that I’ve lost my mind has made me simply … peppy.”
“At least you’ve retained your sarcasm, Babs.” I watched the man in the robe walk out of seemingly nowhere and stride across the room, his long robe making it appear as if he had glided there. The voice wasn’t Vincent Price’s or James Earl Jones’ but it had the same quality as both of them. It was the man from the car, I knew that much and that was about as much as I knew.
“So Bob, how are you?” I stood and shook my head, feeling anger grow under my confusion and eat away at my composure. He needed a name that wouldn’t change and if all he was going to do was drug me and confuse me Bob would do as well as anything. His face was hidden by the hood of his robe but the slight sway to the top of it gave away his resigned head shake. Well his head shook, the resigned part was simply hope on my part. Transference, a grasp at relating to him, sociology classes swam up to my consciousness with the badly remembered detail that the knowledge from all of my college classes did. “How’re the wife and kids? Suzie still getting bullied by her brother?” The words rolled off my tongue quickly, and I’d like to claim it was as much to distract him as to buy myself time, but really I was just getting pissed and being stupid.
“You wanted to know what was going on, Babs. Instead of keeping the last locality whole as you expanded it, I shifted us… moved you really, and you didn’t even move, here instead to make things simpler.”
“Right, a whole lot simpler. That made no sense.” I stood my ground as he came closer slowly in that glide-walk he had. Another hood shake and I considered taking a step backwards, but my calves were touching the edge of the chair already.
“How is that working out for you,” Bob asked, stopping a few feet in front of me.
“Being clever.” My eyes tightened. My hands curled into fists. I seethed.
“I’ve seen Fight Club, too, you …” I trailed off and looked at him, curiously, as something flitted across my brain. Shape shifting I could… if not deal with or accept… cope with for the moment. Shifting locations fell under the same bus, trampled by logic but provable to my senses. The idea that Bob could quote Fight Club at me, quote my favorite line, that tickled the back of my throat. I blinked at him and sat back down. “God wouldn’t prank me, I mean I hope God wouldn’t prank me… that’d be pretty messed up. So I’m dead and in Hell?” Sister Mary Catherine. A clear picture of her blasted through the haze of my memory, she had been right all along. Shit and damnation. Literally.