Scattered, repetitive memories play on a loop, but Ellie doesn’t know how to put them together. Doesn’t know what’s real. Doesn’t know how to make it stop.
The dashboard of the Levitate tells her nothing. The controls are concealed, initiated by touch, and it’s not Ellie’s fingers that give commands.
She turns to Fern. The gaping slash in the woman’s neck is open like a worn leather purse. Blood pours down her chest and stains her white blouse an impossibly dark shade of red.
She looks down at the knife in her hands. The proximity to her huge belly feels grotesque. She drops it to the floorboard and wipes bloody hands on her sundress.
When she closes her eyes, she sees the knife sunk deep into her core. Into Bean.
The cacti zoom past, three huge plants interwoven together, barely disturbed by the hover that just flew through the air. The forgotten gas station is only a few miles ahead.
Ellie turns back to Fern. Her eyes are open, and Ellie can’t help but imagine Fern’s arm striking out, grabbing Ellie, fighting her again for purchase of the knife. Fern with the knife, plunging it deep into her belly. Fern laughing as she stabs over and over.
She doesn’t know what to make of the memories that aren’t memories.
Ellie runs a protective hand over her intact bump. No wound. The blood that’s ruined her dress is not hers. She exhales and waits for Fern to strike.
But Fern is dead.
Ellie grabs Fern’s limp hand and begins pressing fingers into the smooth aluminum panels across the dashboard. The large digital screen in the center starts counting down.
Ellie doesn’t know what that means. She looks for a sign, any sign.
A contraction shoots through her spine, the pain like fire burning up her insides. She screams, but the wave does not relent. She rides it until it crashes, and then she pants and wipes the sweat from her forehead.
Is this the reset?
She throws a hand out and drags her fingers through the bloody gash in Fern’s throat. She smears words across the silver dash as a gush of fluid from between her legs releases onto the floorboard.
Ellie’s guttural scream echoes inside the hover. She thrashes–trying to throw off Fern, trying to protect her baby–but when she opens her eyes, she realizes she’s fine. The hover is serenely gliding through the Texas landscape. Fern is on the other side of the cab, looking at her not with murderous intent, but surprise. Ellie catches a glimpse of the monstrous cacti as they disappear in the rear view. Then, she notices the blood.
Ellie’s dress is drenched in it, and for a moment she thinks she must be going insane. Must be going into labor. How can there be so much blood?
She feels along her bump for the stab wounds that aren’t there. “Fern, what the fuck is happening?”
“Shit,” Fern says as she fiddles with the dashboard. “That’s not supposed to happen. It’s supposed to completely reset.”
“What’s supposed to reset?” Ellie screams and lunges at Fern. She knows there’s a knife. Where is the knife?
“I was just having some fun,” Fern screams as Ellie grabs her throat. Her words are choked out by the pressure of Ellie’s fingers.
The two women struggle. Ellie finds the knife just as the broken-down gas station crests the horizon.
Ellie readjusts in the stitched leather seat and pulls the chest straps loose.
“You should really keep those on,” Fern says. “At these speeds, physics would toss you around like a marble if we crashed.”
Ellie pauses, letting Fern’s words wash over her. Words she’s heard before.
“What?” Ellie says. Deja vu sends icy fingers trailing down her neck.
Fern looks taken aback. Her eyebrows furrow.
“Planning on getting us in an accident?” Ellie says, though the words come out monotone, like she’s reading from a script.
Fern’s pale green eyes hold hers then migrate to Ellie’s bump. “Just saying. Wouldn’t want anything to happen.” Fern tugs her own straps tight and turns to the dash. She grazes her fingers across the aluminum and the hover responds, though Ellie can’t make out any buttons or controls. She feels the engine rev as the hover picks up speed.
In the distance, she sees a cropping of huge cacti, interwoven.
“The loop is great and all,” Fern says, gesturing out her window to the elevated concrete hyperway that slashes horizontally across the United States like a sleek C-Section scar. “But this Levitate is a special prototype, and you’re the first one to see what it can really do.”
“Great,” Ellie says through clenched teeth. Walking through the desert would have been the safer choice. Heat be damned.
The hover speeds forward, and the forces glue Ellie to her seat. The nausea that follows leaves her forehead and cheeks clammy. A wave of pain clenches her stomach, and she knows it’s not just the acceleration. She braces her bump, like that can stop the inevitable. Bean pushes against her, the kick forceful and reassuring. The contractions too soon.
“Hang in there,” Fern says, her tone condescending. “It’s only like this for a sec.”
Ellie closes her eyes and tries to remember the stupid mindfulness crap Marcus is always preaching. The wiggling life inside her rebels with a series of kicks to her ribs. The combination pushes this morning’s eggs and bagel up her throat.
The large cacti whirl past so close that Ellie jumps. If she could put her hand out, she would graze the spiny skin.
But everything inside the sleek hover is sealed tight.
“There we are,” Fern says as she unbuckles her seat belt. “You can take yours off, too.”
Ellie unfastens the belts and sighs. She rolls her neck and readjusts her dress, which has risen up over her bare knees.
The landscape still moves by at rapid speed, and Ellie wonders why the belt is no longer necessary, but she doesn’t care enough to ask. The restriction was making her feel claustrophobic in the already too small cab.
On the horizon, Ellie can see a gas station. The roof is slightly caved in. It looks like it hasn’t served gas, or anything else, in a very long time.
She begrudgingly admits to herself that accepting a ride from Fern really was the safest choice. She turns to thank her, but the words die in her throat.
Fern is staring at her, and she’s holding a huge buck knife.
“Did I ever tell you,” Fern says, “That Marcus and I talked about having kids?”
The sound of Ellie’s husband’s name sounds abrasive coming out of Fern’s mouth.
“Fern,” Ellie starts, her hands up in the universal Don’t Hurt Me gesture.
Fern stabs out with the knife, aimed at Ellie’s belly.
The gas station looms huge on the horizon as the car hurtles forward.
Ellie readjusts in her seat and pulls the chest straps loose.
“You should really keep those on,” Fern says. “At these speeds, gravity would toss you around like a marble if we crashed.”
The thought of the hover car tumbling through the Texas desert is almost more appealing than sitting there with Fern another minute, but she refastens the straps.
“Planning on getting us in an accident?” She says, looking directly at Fern. Her fingers feel slick with sweat, though it’s cool in the hover.
Fern’s pale green eyes hold hers intently, like she’s calculating something. Searching for something. “Just saying. Wouldn’t want anything to happen.”
Ellie’s body tenses as a wave of pain shoots through her belly. No, she thinks. It’s too soon.
“Contraction?” Fern asks. “Not your time, though, is it?”
Ellie turns to her. “Braxton Hicks. Get them sometimes. They’ll go away.” Like Fern would know.
Fern makes a noise in her throat that sounds half confirmation, half question, but Ellie changes the subject.
“It must be cool, working for Levitate?”
Fern straightens, like a peacock adjusting her feathers, and Ellie knows that Fern would use any excuse to talk about herself and her fancy job. Just as insufferable as in high school.
Thinking she was better than everyone. So smart. Nice parents. Cute boyfriend.
Ellie got the last laugh there, didn’t she? She smiles to herself and rubs her bump.
“Yeah,” Fern says, her voice brighter, “It’s great. The best part about running R&D is all the money they throw at me.” Her long fingers walk across the gleaming side window. “And they don’t care about my pet projects, like this beauty.”
Ellie lets her gaze drift out the window. The acceleration makes her woozy, and she feels a growing pressure at the base of her spine. She pushes her palm into her stomach and feels her little Bean press back.
A huge, twisted mass of cacti grows on the horizon, and Ellie tilts her head and scrunches her brow. They’re like all the other vegetation dotting the wasteland, and yet, she can’t stop looking at it. As they pass by in a blur, she has the strongest urge to reach out and touch it.
She knows, without a doubt, that they’ve passed those cacti before. A tingle flows down her spine, like an ice cube on her back.
“You know what I hate about you, Ellie?” Fern says, stabbing through Ellie’s thoughts and bringing her focus back into the hover.
“What?” Ellie responds, turning to Fern.
Fern, who is now holding a huge, gleaming knife.
“Do you know,” Fern says, enunciating each word as though Ellie is a toddler, “what I hate about you?”
Ellie freezes as adrenaline surges into her system. “What, Fern? What do you hate about me?”
“Everything,” Fern says as the knife pierces the air between them.
Ellie sighs and tunes Fern out. The chest straps dig into her belly, and she shifts uncomfortably. Up ahead, she sees a large mass of cacti on the horizon.
The three forms look like they’re locked in a dance. They twist and rise, growing larger as the hover approaches.
“Wouldn’t you agree?” Fern says.
Ellie turns back to her. “Hm?”
“I was saying,” Fern begins, “that hyper speed is one thing, but haven’t you ever thought how cool it would be to manipulate time?”
Ellie remembers Fern in high school. Always talking about science fiction and alternate realities. She spent a full month telling everyone in class they were in a simulation. What a freak. “I guess so, Fern. You were always into that nerd stuff.”
Fern laughs, but there’s no joy in the sound. “I don’t really know what happened between us, Ellie. We used to be friends. Then you stabbed me in the back.”
The cab feels too small. Ellie doesn’t want to hash this out with Fern. Not now or ever. Ellie won. Case closed.
But Ellie can’t let it go. She faces Fern.
“What happened is you got all full of yourself. I had to take you down a peg.”
Fern’s eyes never leave Ellie’s. “You sure seemed like the smug one last night, prancing around, showing off your big bump. What have you done with your life, besides let Marcus knock you up?”
Ellie digs her fingers into the flesh of her thighs.
“Whatever,” Ellie says and turns to look out the window of Fern’s stupid, shiny hover. “Just drop me at the next gas station.”
The laugh coming out of Fern sounds unhinged. “Oh, no. That’s not going to happen. Not yet.”
Ellie turns back to see Fern holding a long piece of metal.
No, a knife.
Fern brings the knife down hard into Ellie’s belly. Ellie feels the impact shock through her spine, and the pounding in her ears blocks out all sound. She doesn’t realize she’s screaming until Fern pulls the knife back out and plunges it into her chest.
A dilapidated gas station passes by in a blur.
Ellie slides into the padded leather seat and fastens her chest straps. It feels unfamiliar against her huge stomach. Her car still has the old-fashioned seat belts, but then again, her car doesn’t hover over the road.
Fern swishes her fingers against the dashboard, and the hover car comes to life, raising up and turning onto the cracked asphalt highway. Ellie watches a cloud of dust in the rearview mirror as they accelerate toward Dallas.
“You’re really lucky I came along. It’s like a hundred and ten degrees outside. What, were you going to walk?”
Ellie bristles at the insinuation that she’s stupid and tightens her jaw. “Don’t know, but I wasn’t getting anywhere by just sitting there.”
“I can’t believe anyone still drives mechanical cars. Where do you even get gas?” Fern laughs.
“There are still gas stations on this stretch,” Ellie says, though even if there are, she’s not sure they’re still open. She always drives with a full spare tank. It’s not so hard finding gas in the city, but out here is a different story.
Large blue signs hang over the highway ahead, alerting drivers to the next entrance to the loop. When Fern passes it, Ellie turns to her.
“Thought you’d get on,” Ellie says.
Fern smiles at her. “Naw, the loop is great and all, but this hover is better. Think of it as the loop 2.0.”
“Great,” Ellie huffs. She rubs her belly. Riding home with Fern, no matter how much she grates on her, is still better than hitching or walking for miles in the waste.
“Oh, come on. It will give us some time to catch up. It’s been ages,” Fern says, patting Ellie on the arm. “You and Marcus must still be good, by the looks of things.”
Ellie straightens, triumphant.
“This is our first.”
A toothy smile is plastered across Fern’s face, but she doesn’t look happy. “How lovely.” Her eyes are wide. Unblinking.
“Never married myself,” Fern continues. “Guess I could never let go of the past. Hey,” Fern says, like the most brilliant idea has just occurred to her, “Do you want to see what this thing can do?”
Ellie rummages through the trunk of her ‘24 Mustang and swears loudly when she comes up empty.
One extra gas can. One overnight bag. No water bottles. Shit.
She shades her eyes against the sun and looks up and down the long stretch of highway leading back to Midland or on to Dallas. Not a car in either direction. She doesn’t know why she’s surprised. Hers is the only gas eater she’s seen since she left the reunion.
In the far distance, she can just see the sun glinting off the loop. The concrete hyperway rises out of the ground like the backbone of some huge, long-dead monster.
If she had a hover, and was on the loop, she’d be comfortably on her way home. Even that couldn’t make her want one.
She stares at her old car, the one she drove in high school, the one she refuses to let go. No matter how much Marcus pushes. It will be worse when Bean comes along. She can hear his arguments now.
She pulls out her flip from the purse slung across her belly, but there is no signal. No way to call Marcus or a tow, if there even are tow companies out this far.
Midland had been the sticks when she was a kid, but it’s far worse now. Just another dead city in a sea of them across the country. Only those connected by loops survived. The country triaged its wounds and let some places just bleed out.
She drops her phone back into her purse and runs her hand over the hood of her car, then she turns and starts walking.
She makes it fifty feet before she feels the rumble of a hover coming up behind her. The gleaming silver bullet pulls off and parks on the rocky shoulder, and Ellie hears the hiss of pressure as the door slides open.
Ellie groans as Fern climbs out.
Ellie walks through the parking deck looking for her car, but she can’t remember where she left it. She laughs at herself, because every other car is a hover in this concrete maze from hell, and she can’t find the one gasser.
Her feet hurt. Her back hurts. She’s hot, and she’s ready to get the hell out of Midland. She’s not sure why she thought coming to her high school reunion was a good idea.
Too bad Marcus couldn’t come. That sure would have knocked the smug look off Fern’s face.
She’d tried to corner Ellie the whole night before, but fortunately being pregnant means you can fake going to the bathroom as much as you want.
Now that the farewell brunch is over, Ellie can’t wait to get in her Mustang and feel the road vibrate beneath her.
If she’s being honest with herself, that’s the real reason she came this weekend. It was a good excuse to drive, and she wasn’t sure how many more trips she’d take with her old car when Bean got here.
Marcus thought she was too close to the due date to come, but she has time. Bean’s not cooked yet.
Ellie catches the red glint of her car sandwiched between two silver hovers. She lets out the breath she didn’t know she was holding.
Her relief is short-lived when she sees a person bent down next to her car, feeling around underneath.
“Excuse me,” she says, and when the person stands up, Ellie exhales loudly. “What are you doing, Fern?”
Fern gives Ellie a big smile. “Oh, Ellie! Dropped my flip.” She holds up the thin, folded cell phone. There is a long grease stain along the sleeve of her white blouse. “Don’t tell me this guzzie is yours.”
Ellie narrows her eyes. “I’m sure you know it is. Same one I drove in high school.”
Fern waves Ellie’s statement away, as though it was a tiny gnat. “Who can remember that long ago? I know I can’t. Listen, it was great to see you! You’re still in Dallas, right? Maybe we could get drinks the next time I’m in town? We’ve got a factory there.” She gestures to the Levitate hovers all around her, as if she owns the company instead of just works there.
Ellie rubs her belly. “Don’t do a lot of drinking these days, Fern.” She all but taps her toe to signal her impatience.
“Oh, of course. Well, look me up if you change your mind.”
Fern moves to the side to allow Ellie the space to squeeze into the car. Ellie expects Fern to get into one of the surrounding hovers, but she doesn’t. She just stands there, smiling at Ellie.
Ellie fires up the engine, and the gentle purr is an old friend. A real one. Not a fake one, like Fern. She backs the Mustang out of the space.
Fern doesn’t move.
Ellie drives past her, and before she turns onto the garage exit ramp, she looks in the rearview mirror.
Fern is still standing there. Just smiling.
Ellie can’t shake her discomfort as she drives the mustang through the derelict streets of Midland and onto the highway towards home.
The hover shudders violently, and Ellie grabs the chest straps with bloody fingers and clicks them in place.
There is a faint beeping sound, and the car begins to decelerate. The gas station slides by out the window.
The beeping grows louder, more urgent, like a warning. Ellie has just enough time to look over at Fern’s lifeless body as the hood nose dives and the hover flips through the air. Ellie feels herself come out of the seat only as much as the chest straps will allow, and then she’s slammed back down as the vehicle connects with the road. The world tumbles in a violent dance of broken glass and screaming metal.
When she comes to, the hover is on its side, and she’s alone. The large glass windshield is completely shattered, letting in the heat and dust of mid-afternoon.
A huge contraction rips through Ellie’s body, and she unclips the chest straps and lands on hands and knees in the shards and dirt. She breathes through the pain and lets out a guttural moan. Her dress is wet, and there’s so much blood. She’s too dazed and thirsty and tired to know how much is her own.
KILL HER is written in blood across the dashboard.
A low rumble works itself out of her chest, and then she’s crying from relief and exhaustion.
She crawls through the huge opening in the hover and stands, astounded that she can, and sees Fern’s body near a low copse of windswept mesquite trees. It looks like a rag doll that’s been discarded by a bored child.
On shaky legs, she manages to make it across the wreckage to stand over Fern’s body. Her light green eyes are still as open as her throat. The knife isn’t far away, half covered in sand.
The sense of relief is punctured by the clear realization that Fern’s death was not an accident. But it was self-defense. Fern stabbed her. Repeatedly.
She doesn’t notice the person standing near the wreck until they speak.
“You okay, hon?” The woman is tall, long gray hair in a neat braid. She’s wearing coveralls.
Ellie blinks, certain she’s a hallucination. “Where did you come from?” she asks. Her voice sounds like she’s gargled gravel.
“Gas station, just up ahead. Saw the whole thing. That damn contraption just came out of nowhere and then tumbled ass over end. You’re lucky to be alive.” She pauses, then says, “Real sorry about your friend there.”
The hover catches fire as Ellie turns back to look at Fern. The flames ignite the dry brush, and she shields her face from the heat. Then she laughs, high-pitched and unhinged, and she doesn’t stop until another contraction rips through her spine. She cries out and falls into the dirt.
The woman has her up and on her feet before the wave subsides. “Come on now, you can’t have that baby out here in the hot sun. This way.”
Ellie lets the woman lead her away from the wreckage to the dilapidated gas station that looms on the horizon. She has no thoughts, only the pain ripping her in two. Behind them, the wide West Texas sky fills with black smoke and the smell of burning flesh.
Copyright © 2023 Dana Vickerson