Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Off Road

by Michael Loughrey


Being lost in the rogue state of kismet was something to which Billy Grockle resigned himself with the passive calm of an ascetic awaiting passage to the afterlife. Drifting aimlessly, he remained indifferent whether destiny delivered him into situations fortuitous or calamitous. The exception to this slothful capitulation was an unfamiliar sense of panic when he became entangled with Cassie, whose serendipitous spirit was more indiscriminate than his own.

From the moment they went on the road together, an mutual yet unspoken foreboding that their voyage would be cataclysmic brought babble from Cassie of positive omens and good vibes to which Billy replied with a silence articulate on skepticism.

Braking to a shuddering halt in a cloud of pale dust, Billy lit his last cigarette and made a call on his cellphone. All our operators are engaged. We appreciate your custom. Calls may be recorded for security purposes. Between reprises of the recorded message, the Quadroon Quartet singing Heartbreak Hotel in the manner of a Gregorian chant. Since my baby left me. All our operators are engaged. Down at the end of lonely street. We appreciate your custom. Your call is in a queue. Feel so lonely, I could die.

‘Hi, you’ve reached Rent-a-Pod. This is Vijay. How can I help?’

‘Vijay? I got a problem with a Pod I rented from you people.’

‘Breakdown?’

‘Think I might have.’

‘What’s your precise location?’

‘Don’t rightly know where we’re at. Sort of like a desert, but without the sand.’

‘Did you take our map option package when you rented the Pod?’

‘Map option package? No one told me about no map option package.’

Vijay exhaled exasperation. ‘It’s in the small print.’

‘I’d like to turn back, but the reverse button doesn’t work. The red gizmo with a letter R in the centre.’

Billy thought he heard Vijay chuckle a muffled repetition of what he’d just said.

‘Sir, the R button is disabled.’

‘I just told you that. Someone could have told me before I set out. I’d just like to get back to where I went wrong and start out all over.’

Howls of mocking laughter were clearly audible.

‘Sir? I can only advise you to keep on going. Some folk find praying helps.’

Burning the cigarette down to its filter, Billy blew smoke rings before furiously stubbing it out on the R button.

‘Vijay. Are people listening to our conversation? I hear people laughing.’

A distinct escalation of levity. Billy glanced at Cassie. Legs crossed, arms folded, hostile gaze.

‘Well there is a hint of mirth in the air, but not at your expense.’ Vijay replied. ‘It’s someone’s birthday here at the call centre. We had a few beers at lunchtime.’

The thought of a cold beer made Billy lick his lips. ‘I wouldn’t like to think of you laughing at someone whose custom you appreciate. A voice just said that.’

‘Rest assured Mr. Grockle. We take things very seriously.’

The line went dead. When Billy climbed out of the Pod to urinate by the roadside, his legs buckled under him as if they were made of rubber.

Stumbling back into the vehicle he fired it up and headed towards a horizon that never seemed to get closer. Beside him, Cassie sent icy draughts in his direction. When he rubbed the frozen ear closest to her to stimulate circulation, the lobe snapped off in his hand. Attempting nonchalance, he threw it into the footwell.

In the back seat, the hitchhiker snored peacefully. Billy had come to despise the hitchhiker. Picking him up was another of Cassie’s ideas he regretted. What troubled him most about the red haired passenger was that he slept all day, then when Billy crawled into the rear of the pod to sleep at nights, the fellow would wake up, only to doze off again when morning came.

Maintaining a straight line towards the centre of the white void ahead, Billy wondered how Vijay knew his name. It was a puzzle that took his mind off admitting that he’d taken wrong turn after wrong turn, and now, now there was no going back.

####

Dolores’ Diner was not the most inviting sight, but Cassie’s nagging saw Billy pull into the parking lot. Decked out with turquoise and pink neon, the sidewalls of the Hispanic-style building leant over at an alarming angle, making the rectangular structure into a precarious trapezoid. Beside the diner, plastic palm trees drooped in the heat, and on the roof a faded flag of an unidentifiable nation fluttered forlornly on a pole. A bell rang, a mule brayed and dogs barked to herald their arrival, but the hitchhiker slept on oblivious.

Adjacent to the diner was a ramshackle barn with a tarpaper roof and clapboard walls faded to the colour of boiled crab, letters of a sign above its doors spelling RAGE. A row of Pods were parked in the lot, a bright palette of colours compared to the nondescript hue of theirs, underneath which, Billy noticed with alarm, thick white liquid dripped into the dust.

Inside the diner were lazy ceiling fans, energetic flies, chipped formica tables, red Naugahyde stools on chrome poles and booths of deep buttoned velour, the smell of rancid fat and Bluegrass music drifting from a glowing altar in the corner. Cassie eased into a booth, Billy trying to walk without appearing drunk.

Dolores was a bantam candyfloss haired shrew with a red cupid mouth, green eyes and huge hoop earrings, the deep lines etched into her face skimmed with beige goo. Billy felt better as soon as she smiled and fluttered false eyelashes at him.

‘Coffee?’ She squawked, pouring without waiting for an answer. ‘Menu? Today’s special is chargrilled iguana steak, moose knuckle and squirrel breast with grapefruit fritters, cactus salsa and black-eyed beans.’

‘Cigarettes?’ Billy said. ‘And a cold brew.’

Dolores nodded before diverting her gaze into fingerprint marked lenses of Cassie’s dark glasses. ‘How about you? Looks like you’re feeding for two.’

‘Seven.’ Cassie said, blushing with pride. ‘Including me that is. Sextuplets.’

When Dolores called out to a thin man wearing a chef’s hat who was scraping carbonised meat from the griddle, her voice was tinged with brooding jealousy. ‘Hear that Chuck? Girl’s got six buns in the oven. What I wouldn’t give to be in her shoes.’

Chuck nodded greetings to the visitors. ‘Saw you pull in. What in hell happened to that Pod?’

‘It was metallic purple when we set out.’ Billy moaned. ‘Paintwork peeled right off as were driving.’

Chuck grunted disdain. ‘Oughta be a law.’

‘Where’s everybody?’ Billy said. ‘Pods outside, nobody inside.’

Dolores scribbled on her notepad. ‘One beer. Pack of cigarettes. People from them Pods is downstairs in the Departure Lounge. But you’re better off up here. You sure there’s six in that little body of yours?’

The Bluegrass music stopped and there was only the buzzing of flies. Billy thought he could feel the floor vibrating, and wondered if it was part of the problem with his legs or the people in the Departure Lounge were cutting the rug.

Cassie sipped coffee and nodded. ‘A gypsy took me to one side said there’s six Pisces in my waters.’

‘Six Pisces?’ Dolores said, glancing with twinkling eyes in Billy’s direction. ‘You must be a man that likes his meat. Take the special. How about our young mother-to-be? With such thick black hair, why you two could be gypsies yourselves.’

Cassie sighed. ‘Cherry chocolate and goat’s milk shake. Melba toast, bacon and fried onion rings. Billy? Your left earlobe’s missing.’

Dolores chuckled. ‘About those legs of yours, Mr. Grockle. When you’re done eating, the Doctor’s waiting down the corridor.’

Billy watched her limp away, pondering how strangers in these parts always seemed to know his name.

####

Scratching his head, Doctor Kilmorie drew a deep breath. ‘In thirty years, I only ever saw this condition in medical journals. Better do a full examination.’

Billy was dismayed at the jelly-like state of his legs. Naked from the waist down, he stroked his withered thighs, fighting back tears. His cell phone ringing provided an interruption to his despair.

‘Mr. Grockle? Congratulations! I’m Dave, and I’m calling from Another World. You’re today’s lucky winner of our special offer on luxury patios. Order a patio today, and you get a free set of Baroque-style patio furniture.’

Watching Doctor Kilmorie delve into the frosty depths of a large refrigerator, Billy shivered.

‘What would I do with a patio? See, I haven’t got a house.’

Muffled hilarity followed.

‘You don’t have a house?’

‘Do I know you? Is your name Vijay?’

There was no mistaking incremental jocularity at the other end of the line.

‘No, sir. Dave’s the name, patios’ the game. Look, why not order a patio and store it somewhere until you have a house to add it on to?’

Rummaging in the refrigerator, Doctor Kilmorie grumbled as he sniffed the contents of a jar before placing it on the gurney between Billy’s legs.

‘Dave. I can’t think about patios. My legs have let me down big time.’

‘No problem. You won’t have to move. Our representative can come right to your door.’

‘But I haven’t got a door. I told you. No house. No door.’

‘Are you being difficult Mr. Grockle?’ Dave snapped. ‘Just borrow a damned door, stand in the road with it and our representative will be right with you.’

There was renewed laughter before the phone went dead.

‘Can you help, doctor?’ Billy simpered. ‘Hell, this ain’t my day. I was just trying to get ahead. Took a wrong turn or two, admittedly.’

Doctor Kilmorie scratched fleshy jowls with his stethoscope. Billy was alarmed to smell whisky when he approached, pointing a rubber gloved finger towards his sphincter.

‘Brace yourself.’ Doctor Kilmorie mumbled. ‘Trifle painful, but it gets to the bottom of things, so to speak. Knees up, feet in them stirrups and think of something pleasant.’

The examination was so painful that Billy screamed and begged Doctor Kilmorie to stop.

‘No easy way to tell you this.’ The doctor grunted. ‘You’ve got advanced chronic cerebral dissipationary faecal syndrome.’

Billy was nonplused. ‘Chronic celebrity what?’

Doctor Kilmorie repeated his diagnosis, pronouncing each word as if he were talking to a child. ‘Chronic cerebral dissipationary faecal syndrome. In layman’s terms, you’ve heard the expression shit for brains? Well the part of your brain that controlled your legs is down the last toilet bowl you sat on.’

Billy frowned. ‘Is there a cure?’

Biting his lip, Doctor Kilmorie sighed. ‘Well the ancients believed that since this pathology is influenced by gravity, shit comes down, so to speak, that walking on your hands can temporarily hold back the inevitable. Ever tried walking on your hands?’

Billy studied his upturned palms. ‘Can’t say I have.’

Wobbling back down the corridor under buckling legs, Billy tried walking on his hands, finally crawling into the diner on all fours.

‘You’re not going to believe this.’ He whimpered from beneath the table. ‘I’ve got chronic cerebral dissipationary faecal syndrome.’

The women looked into his hangdog eyes, Dolores gaze aglow with maternal sympathy. Cassie’s concern, however, was as artificial as it always was when they were in the presence of strangers. When she reached out to tousle his dark hair, Billy winced.

‘Don’t fret, sweetheart.’ She sang, her voice full of honey and not the venom he had grown accustomed to. ‘You’ll pull through. Think of the sextuplets.’

Billy climbed into the booth and swilled beer. ‘Doc said walking on my hands might delay the inevitable. I seen it done at the circus.’

Gripping his hand, Cassie feigned reassurance. ‘We’ll move on. Find another doctor. Get a second opinion.’

Behind the counter, Chuck coughed. ‘That Pod ain’t taking you nowhere. Cast an eye under its skirt. Your passenger, oddball with red hair? Hit the road when you was with the doctor. Guess he knew that Pod was kaput.’

Wiping grime from the window, Billy gazed at the bubbling pool of thick white liquid beneath the pod.

‘First the reverse button didn’t work.’ He moaned. ‘Now this. What is that white stuff? Damned hitchhiker left without so much as a by-your-leave.’

‘Power cell meltdown.’ Chuck said. ‘Be needing a whole new lump, and they don’t grow on trees.’

‘If I was to walk behind you,’ Cassie giggled, ‘holding your feet, why you could walk on your hands to the next town.’

When Chuck stifled a snicker, Dolores glowered. ‘Next town?’ She said, toying with an earring. ‘There ain’t no next town.’

Billy shrugged. ‘Well we’ll just hitch a ride to the next exit. Must lead to a town sooner or later.’

Dolores shook her head. ‘No exits neither. Not on this road.’

In the ensuing silence, Billy was sure the floor was bulging rhythmically up and down.

‘Look.’ Dolores said, patting Cassie’s shoulder. ‘If you kids need a room for a spell, we’ll put you up on the Endeavour. Come take a look.’

Billy shook his head. ‘Thanks. But we’ll hitch a ride out of here.’

‘We’ll stay.’ Cassie snapped, glaring at Billy.

Dolores stood up, beckoning them to follow, Chuck taking Billy’s feet so he could walk on his hands.

‘What’s with those?’ Cassie said as they passed a barrel stuffed with furled umbrellas.

Chuck grunted. ‘Umbrellas. For when the tempest comes.’

Billy struggled forward on his hands. ‘Get much rain in these parts?’

‘Not since I was in diapers.’ Chuck said. ‘But way back a vision came to me of a great flood. Then Captain Uisterbruck happened by and I knew my vision would come true.’

When they came around the back of the diner, Cassie gasped her surprise.

‘A ship?’ She giggled. ‘Out here?’

‘Schooner.’ Chuck replied. ‘Thirty-eight footer. Built her with my own two hands, copied from one in a bottle.’

The Endeavour was chocked up on railway sleepers, her gleaming white hull sleek with brass portholes, rigging cleats and railings on the prow. She had aluminium masts and a cockpit with a Captain’s chair behind an ebony wheel next to a brass bell with a plaited rope pull.

‘Captain Uisterbruck.’ Dolores hollered through cupped hands. ‘Permission to come aboard with two visitors.’

‘No need to yell, woman, I hear you.’ The Captain barked as he came on deck, a short and chubby man sporting horn-rimmed eyeglasses, red paisley pyjamas and battered sombrero.

Dolores made introductions. ‘This here’s Cassie and Billy. Kids with all kinds of problems. Can you see your way to putting a roof over their heads?’

Captain Uisterbruck grimaced at the flickering needle of the cockpit barometer. ‘They can have the cabin aft. I’ll shake the bugs out the blankets.’

####

Billy woke in the cramped cabin with an erection. Knowing that it would be futile for him to even think about sex with Cassie, he concentrated on the faint sound of enchanting music drifting on the still night air. Slipping down from the bunk, he cursed when he collapsed on legs he had forgotten he could no longer control. Ensuring he hadn’t disturbed Cassie’s slumbers in the bunk opposite, he crawled up onto the deck and down the gangplank into the chill of the night.

The music amplified as he approached the diner. Coming from beneath the building, it was accompanied by a stroboscopic violet luminosity pulsing from the shadows. Compelled to dance, he raised his body up on trembling arms, surprised to find he was doing a lively jig.

Dancing on his hands, he came into an area where the ground was filled with an incandescent triangle. Craning his head upwards, he saw the light was coming from the open doors of the barn with the sign which spelt RAGE. Inside, he could make out the Pod he’d rented, its power cell compartment open. Back turned, a mechanic in a T shirt and tattered jeans smashed wildly into the chasm with a sledgehammer.

‘Hey.’ Billy yelled. ‘You fixing my pod?’

Head facing the ground as he advanced on aching arms towards the mechanic, he could only see feet and lower legs. When the mechanic bent down to look into his eyes, Billy gulped. He had assumed that the mechanic was a man. But the mechanic was a woman whose beauty took his breath away.

‘I used to walk on my hands.’ She grinned, running a greasy hand through short blonde hair. ‘When I was a kid. Walk round on my hands and spit on fire ants. Never was much to do around here by way of recreation. Still ain’t.’

Billy felt faint from his exertions. Collapsing in a heap, he rested on one elbow and lit a cigarette.

‘Swap a beer for a toke?’ The mechanic asked.

‘Why rage?’ Billy asked. ‘Above the door?’

‘Vandals. Stole the G and the A. GA...RAGE.’

‘Think there’ll be a tempest?’

‘Hope not. I can’t swim.’

‘What goes down in the Departure Lounge?’

‘Curiosity killed the cat.’

They smoked and drank and talked whilst acknowledging the flirtatious glimmer in each other’s eyes until the mechanic came close to light another cigarette from Billy’s, but instead they kissed and writhed in a tangle of undress into the back of the Pod. Exploring every contour of a wiry body tattooed with images of pistons, cogs, ratchets, flanges, valves and other automotive devices, Billy savoured odours of grease, oil and rubber, sweat, beer and cigarettes as she inspired coitus after coitus until weak morning sun played over their spent bodies.

The mechanic told him to come back to the garage often, which he did right up until the day Cassie went into labour.

####

The hull of the Endeavour was an echo chamber for Cassie’s agony below decks. Topside, Dolores paced from stem to stern, chain smoking and cursing Billy with every passing second.

When Chuck came hobbling through the dust, Dolores rushed to the gangplank for news of his quest.

‘If that boy’s done a runner,’ she rasped, ‘I’ll give him what for. Leaving that child alone in her time of need.’

‘Caught him red-handed.’ Chuck panted. ‘Planting seed in the grease monkey’s furrow. Where’s Uisterbruck?’

Dolores pointed skywards. ‘Crow’s nest.’

‘Don’t like what I hear from down below.’ Chuck muttered through pinched lips. ‘That ain’t labour, that’s penance.’

Dolores snorted. ‘Child’s just a waif. Can’t even imagine what she’s going through.’

Chuck shook his head. ‘Kilmorie hit the bottle last night. Hands shaking like a leaf on a tree when he tied that apron. Never trusted him since what he did to your reproductory tubes.’

Dolores bit her lower lip. ‘Go get the pants on that boy and bring him here.’

Pacing and smoking was all Dolores could do. When at last she saw Chuck carrying Billy over his shoulder, she beckoned urgently. Dumping the younger man unceremoniously on deck, Chuck slumped down, wheezing from his efforts.

‘Shit for brains.’ Dolores hissed, kicking Billy in the groin. ‘Dipping your wick whilst your woman is shedding her load.’

It was then that they all held their breath to affirm the sudden abeyance of Cassie’s agony and the ominous absence of a single foundling cry.

‘Cassie?’ Billy croaked.

There came the unsteady thump of footsteps from below. Doctor Kilmorie emerged in a cloud of ether and whisky, bearing a bucket overflowing with blood and placenta. More blood was spattered over his apron, hands, forearms and the fifth of whiskey from which he took a greedy slug before speaking.

‘I did everything by the book.’ He mumbled, placing the bucket on the deck.

Dolores’ scream signalled the lunge she made at Doctor Kilmorie. Tumbling to the deck they writhed in ungainly combat. Chuck drew a hunting knife from his belt and pitched into the fracas. Doctor Kilmorie alone emerged from the struggle, broken bottle in one hand, scalpel in the other. Chuck and Dolores lay motionless in the crimson puddle growing around them.

‘Landlubbers!’ Captain Uisterbruck bellowed from the crow’s nest. Swinging down on a beelay, paisley pyjamas billowing out like sails, sombrero askew, he fired the Véry pistol clutched in his free hand. The magnesium flare exploded when it hit Doctor Kilmorie, leaving a smouldering crater the size of volleyball in his torso. His agonised screaming almost drowned the sickening thud as Captain Uisterbruck’s body smashed into the mainmast with such velocity that he died instantly, his limp corpse suspended on the rope.

Crawling across the deck, Billy peered over the rim of the bucket to see the sextuplets, their tiny inanimate bodies pink and crinkled, tufts of red hair sprouting from egg shaped crowns.

The first rain fell in ponderous drops. Then came reverberating claps of thunder and forked lightning announcing the overture of the tempest. Rain swept down in sheets and soon the deck was awash with diluted blood. Billy sat hunched and shivering as the gore slowly washed away until all was cleansed.

He had no idea how long he sat there, the sudden rocking of the boat jogging him from his daze. Drenched from the downpour, he peeked over the transom. Freed from its dry dock, the schooner drifted aimlessly across the arid plains which had become an ocean.

When Billy heard his cell phone ring, he prayed it was the mechanic.

‘Mr. Grockle. How are you today?’

‘Who’s this?’

‘Eugene. At the centre.’

‘Centre? Centre of what?

‘Could I interest you in some salvation? There’s complimentary coffee and doughnuts.’

‘How do I get there?’

‘Let’s see now. What’s your precise location?’

‘I’m all at sea.’

‘Right. I almost forgot. You didn’t take our map option package.’

‘Have we spoken before? About a Pod problem? A patio offer?’

‘No, no.’ The sound of muffled laughter. ‘I don’t know you, and you don’t know me.’

‘I’m up for salvation. But don’t bug me with that patio offer again. Give me directions and I’m outa here.’

‘Well without the map option package, you’ll have to navigate by the stars. Make a left at Sirius. I’ll save you a doughnut.’

Before the line went dead a clamorous burst of mocking laughter crackled into Billy’s ear.

He had trouble with the sails, trouble with the rigging, trouble with the helm and trouble throwing eleven bodies overboard where they floated amidst flotsam which included the bloated body of the mechanic who’d never learnt to swim.

The rain was relentless. Violent winds slapped at the spinnaker and main sail, sending waves crashing over the deck as the Endeavour dog-legged across the waters. Woken on a bleak morning by the screeching of a gull, Billy scratched stubble and licked parched lips. Far to starboard on the misty horizon, he made out tips of a bocage of gnarled trees above the water, in one of which a solitary figure making animated gestures clung to a branch.

With the little force left in him, Billy forced the rudder over, steering the schooner towards the trees. With insufficient strength left to walk on his hands, he crawled along the deck until he was able to pull himself up on the railings on the prow. Branches scraped the sides of the Endeavour as she edged into petrified treetops, slowly drawing to a halt close to where the hitch-hiker hung like a distressed simian, face scorched as red as his hair from the elements, stiffened thumb of one hand raised in supplication of transport.

When the hitchhiker reached out Billy seized his hand, hauling him onto the deck before punching him unconscious. When he scalped the red haired man with Chuck’s hunting knife, the crown of his head gushed a steady crimson fountain. Billy spent his last ounce of strength to shove the hitchhiker overboard and fling his scalp into the sea.

Seconds later, a bubbling erupted from the depths. From within expanding rings of bloodied water the hitchhiker surfaced, bug-eyed with a manic grin.

Spewing water from his lungs, he beamed up at a bewildered Billy. ‘Howdy doo, Mr. Grockle,’ he grinned, licking blood from tarnished teeth whilst waving his salvaged scalp in the air, ‘I’m from Head Office. Could I interest you in a programme of preventative hair loss?’

THE END


© 2007 Michael Loughrey

Bio: Michael Loughrey lives in Norfolk, England, where the back roads are nowhere near as chaotic as the ones described in this story. Apart from enough short stories to compile an anthology, he has recently completed a full-length novel and a novella. Published works include: "Snakes and Ladders", in the June 2007 issue of Hobart magazine; Wildlife in the May 2006 issue of Word Riot; "Omega, maybe", in the April 2007 Future Fire magazine; The Odd Feet of Blanche Fury in the May 2007 Raging Face magazine; "Altitude", in the May 2007 print edition of Aesthetica; "Bedrock", in the summer 2007 print issue of Sein und Werden magazine; and "caaa-caah-caah" in the upcoming September 2007 issue of 5_trope.

E-mail: Michael Loughrey

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