by Eric J. Krause
"Did that car have a white stripe on the top?"
"What car?" Summer didn't look up from her book.
"The red one back there." Mark sighed. "Never mind. The road's playing tricks on me."
This trip down I-15 from Las Vegas to Orange County would do that. Nothing but mountains and desert, heavy on the desert, and he couldn't even listen to good music because Summer would pitch a fit if heavy metal came over the speakers. Not that he hated her country music, but on a long, boring drive, some Ozzy, Anthrax, or Slayer would ease the pain.
There it was again. A classic red sports car with a white stripe on the roof sat abandoned on the side of the road. It looked identical to the two others he'd seen: the first in the mountains after Stateline, and the second a few miles past Baker and its world's tallest thermometer. Now here was another, not five miles later. What were the odds that he'd see these on the same stretch of highway, relatively close yet miles apart?
"Can you do me a favor?" he asked.
"If I see a red car on the side of the road, can you help me read the license plate?"
This time she put her book down. "What? Why?"
"Just indulge me. You don't even need to watch for it. Just get out a pen and paper."
She opened her mouth to protest, but to her credit swallowed the comment and shrugged. She pulled out a scrap of paper and a Luxor-Las Vegas souvenir ball-point pen from her purse. "I knew I kept this up here for a reason." She smiled at him before returning to her book. He wanted to lean over and plant a sloppy kiss on her, but at 70 miles per hour, that didn't sound like a smart idea.
Since he was prepared, he figured that would be the last of it. But no. A few miles later, parked on the shoulder, two tires on the pavement and two on dirt, stood another one.
"Quick," he said, "the license plate."
Summer placed her book in her lap. "I saw 2HEV1, but that was it," she said.
"Better than me," Mark said. "All I saw was that they were California plates."
"I'd prefer you kept your eyes on the road anyway," she said while she wrote on the scrap of paper, maybe the receipt for the same pen. "Are you going to tell me why we just did that?"
"That's the fourth car I've seen abandoned on the side of the road."
"So?" she said. "That doesn't sound very unusual out here."
"They all looked the same. Identical."
"Oh," Summer said. She remained quiet, and her book lay untouched in her lap. A minute or two later, she said, "Could it be performance art? You know, like when that guy littered that highway with yellow umbrellas?"
"Maybe," Mark said. It was as good as any explanations he'd come up with. "I'll let you know if I see another."
She put her book aside. "I'm curious now. I'll watch for the next one."
It wasn't long before that came up. "Crap, I still couldn't make out the entire plate." She looked at her scrap of paper. "What I saw matched, though. It has to be some weird art project. There's no other explanation."
Mark nodded. "But what's the artist's statement?"
"Maybe it's just supposed to be a conversational piece for the drive."
Mark chuckled. "It is keeping my mind off of work tomorrow."
The next one came a few miles later. "I think I see someone," Summer said, but as they passed, there was no sign of anyone. "Guess my mind's playing tricks on me."
"I don't know. Have you noticed that we're the only ones out here? I'd been so wrapped up in this mystery that I hadn't paid it any mind. But . . ."
"Yeah, it's kind of weird," Summer said. "Last time we drove home, you cussed out traffic the whole way."
They continued in silence until they passed the red car again. This time they both saw movement.
"What is it?" Summer asked. "It looks like a person made out of shadows."
Mark nodded. Even though they zipped by at 70, when he stared at the shadow man, it was like the car slowed to a crawl. It stood about six feet tall and had the outline of a strong, fit man. Though its face had no features, Mark could sense it looking back at them. Summer asked him if they should stop, but he shook his head and pressed down hard on the gas pedal, getting them over 70, beyond 80, and up to 90.
They passed the red car three times in quick succession, each time with the man gaining more definition. It went from a free-floating shadow to a non-descript, as generic as they come, Caucasian male. It mouthed some words to them, and a deep, creepy voice replaced the Montgomery Gentry song on the radio.
"Stay the course and drive to the light. It's time." The song didn't come back; the radio belched static.
"What's going on?" Summer asked, hysterics bubbling in her voice.
Mark didn't answer. The car wasn't on the road, hell, not even on the ground anymore. They shot straight up in the air towards a searing white light. As bright as it was, it gave off a peaceful vibe.
"Can you see behind us? Or below us, I guess?" Summer asked.
He checked the rearview mirror. Their car lay smashed on the grill of a big rig. An ambulance had arrived, but the paramedics weren't in a hurry. They pushed two gurneys to the back of the ambulance and drove off without the lights flashing or the sirens wailing.
Mark put his hand on her knee. "I guess the light's the only option."
Tears hung in Summer's eyes, but she smiled. "I guess so."