Edition 22: Car Trip Bingo by Eric J Guignard
That big ol’ sun is so round and yellow and flat it looks like Mom’s hat the time she sat on it. Everyone had laughed, ’cept for her, but then after awhile she did too. That was a long time ago, over a year…
That big ol’ sun is right in front of us, filling the highway as if we’re driving right into it, though I know we’re not, unless Dad is tricking us again. Dad’s like that, saying one day we’re driving to China, the next day to Mars, the next day to home. We don’t go any of those places.
“Hanged Men,” Maddy announces.
Maddy’s my older brother and he’s buckled in next to me, smacking gum and blowing bubbles. One bursts every couple of minutes, sounding like a wet towel snapping your butt in gym class.
“Where?” I ask, staring through my window, but before Maddy responds they come into view around a curve in the highway, stretching amongst a line of tangled telephone poles. Maddy’s angle in the car just let him get a glimpse before me. “Never mind, I see ’em.”
Maddy crosses the image of Hanged Men off his card where it falls under the letter N. Each of our cards has five boxes across by five boxes down, filled with different illustrations. I’ve only got two boxes marked off my card, while Maddy’s crossed out four, including the latest, but all of his marked are in separate columns.
I turn back as we pass some amazing dunes, their crests shifting in slight wind to hint at the cities buried below. The dunes are mostly volcanic ash, but Dad said they’re also part desert sand and part pulverized bone. I just think it’s cool when crest after crest flows in ripples under the sun like golden ocean waves.
There’s flapping across the horizon of huge white wings, and after a moment of thought, I announce, “Gigantic Roc!”
“Where?” Maddy asks, and I point to the horrible bird of prey. Maddy’s lip curls down, pulling a strand of gum with it. “I thought those didn’t exist.”
“Well, there it is.” I mark it off my card.
I barely have time to bask in my latest find before he calls, “Blood funnel!”
“Behind that air dirigible.”
“The blimp with the stars and letters all over it?”
“It’s the only one in the sky, doofus.”
“Maddy…” Dad warns in his big voice.
“All right, I see the blood funnel.” It really is hard to miss, opening a great sucking whirl through the heavens, but I’d been focusing on the dunes and roc in the other direction. The funnel sucks in the dirigible like flicking a piece of popcorn into your mouth, and Maddy marks it off his card.
Baby June should be sitting between me and Maddy—but she’s not—that’s why Maddy’s next to me. Baby June’s car seat is empty, looking kinda like an empty socket when a tooth’s fallen out. I know ’cause I’ve still got three missing teeth, all in the back of my mouth. Baby June’s not missing like my teeth or anything, just sleeping in Mom’s arms, since she cries a lot if she doesn’t get enough attention, and Maddy and I are too busy playing games to be fussing over her.
Mom and Dad sit up front, as usual. Dad’s the one who drives, and Mom reads the maps, or pretends to, since she stopped giving Dad directions sometime ago. I guess that doesn’t matter, since he always knows where we’re going.
Now to our left, past the crumbling guardrail, a foamy green ocean crashes against cliffs that rise so high you can never see their peaks. Old iron ships with red funnels and sharp prows are smashed against the bluffs, and then the tide drags them back until the next surge catches them to smash into the bluffs again.
“Why did so many ships sail into the cliffs?” I ask.
“I’m sure they didn’t mean to,” Dad answers. “Mountains weren’t always there.”
“How’d the captains and sailors get rescued?”
“I doubt they ever did, son.”
“I bet it’s like a roller coaster ride for them,” Maddy adds. “Back and forth, up and down.”
I review my card for Doomed Vessels, but it isn’t there. At least it’s not on Maddy’s card either.
“Should’ve seen it back in sixty-eight,” Dad says. “Caught a whole company of whalers.” He looks at us in reverse through the rearview mirror, and Maddy whistles appreciatively, though I think it’s only because he feels expected to. The whistle interrupts his snapping gum at least.
Maddy glances at me, then to the window. “Dead bird!”
“Where?” I crane my neck trying to glimpse out Maddy’s side of the car.
“Up there,” he points to the blue and bronze sky.
I gaze out and up, but all I see are fuzzy clouds that look like fingers pointing our way. “I don’t see them.”
“Gotcha!” Maddy laughs. “How could a dead bird be in the sky? Ha ha!”
Dad laughs too, but Mom doesn’t say anything, just holds Baby June.
I feel the heat turning my cheeks crimson. When I turn away back to my seat though, I catch glimpse of a monstrous yellow orb winking open from the distance.
“Sentinel Eye, Sentinel Eye!” I yell excitedly.
“Where?” Maddy asks, turning his head every direction.
“Back there, behind us!”
“Good one,” Dad says.
If we were nearer, Dad would worry us about lasers shooting from its double-ringed pupils or else de—dem—
“Dad, what’s that word, when you’re evaporated from staring into the Sentinel Eye?”
“That’s it, thanks.
Dad would worry us about dematerialization, but the eye is too far away to cause concern. I mean to it, we’re just some dumb dust mote floating away.
I cross its image off my card, under the letter G.
Johnny jumps up suddenly from the seat behind us, and Maddy’s bubble bursts. The seatbelt keeps me from leaping up, although my heart feels like I dropped down a slide. Johnny sticks his head out an open window to snap at swarms of those little honeybees that turn purple at dusk. He might have gotten a couple, but then a giant dragonfly dives down and reaches for him with a pair of hairy forelegs. Johnny yips real loud and jumps back down under the seat with his tail curled tight. We all laugh, except for Mom of course, and Dad pushes the button that makes the window go up.
“We sure don’t want that in here!” he says, winking in the rearview.
Maddy and I both look over our cards for Mutant Dragonfly, but neither of us has it. A comet shoots across the sky and collides with the sun, and there’s a tiny flare of red like watching a pimple form and pop in high speed.
Johnny must have woken up Grandma, because her voice yells from behind me, “Are we there yet?”
Dad sighs. “No, Mom, it’ll probably still be awhile.”
“I gotta tinkle,” she yells. Grandma always yells, since she can’t hear properly, and she forgot her listening aid at home.
“I told you to go before we left.”
“I did…I gotta go again. We’ve been driving since before Hoover wore panties.”
That must’ve been an old-person joke because Grandpa mutters, “I told you before, don’t slander Hoover.”
“You and Hoover, you and Hoover,” Grandma taunts. “Should’ve married him ’stead of me. Let’s see Hoover change your damned diapers.”
We all cringe. Grandma wouldn’t have dared say such things before, but when the first realignments occurred—when the end-of-world scenarios began overlapping—Grandpa had a stroke and fell, and now he’s paralyzed below the neck. Before that he was a marine and big in politics and told everyone what to do all the time. Now he mostly eats yogurt.
Dad cuts in, “Mom, just use a water bottle.”
“Can’t we take a stop for five minutes?”
“You know the answer to that.”
She sighs the same way Dad sighs, and a moment later I hear a swish of clothing and then a long splash.
I gaze back out my window and watch fields of scarlet poppies rustle in the wind, overrunning the ruins of naked ivory statues that are all missing arms or heads. The flowers attract small birds, which in turn attract more of the mutant dragonflies, and it’s all so pretty and peaceful, and I love how the sun makes each of the flowers seem to sparkle like little red jewels. Not far away, the skeleton of a great bridge rises in the backdrop until reaching a center pylon that’s been sheared in half. Frayed cables dance back and forth around it like sky snakes.
We’ve turned inland away from the ocean, but the sun still fills the road ahead, so maybe that means we didn’t make the turn from the ocean, but the coastline turned from us. That happens sometimes.
Baby June makes a gurgling cry, and then coos. Mom pats her on the back, and caresses June’s face, silently, always silently. I consider maybe it’s Mom who needs Baby June more than the other way around.
“Berserker Tank!” Maddy yells.
“Where?” Dad and I say at the same time, but for different reasons.
Maddy points across an access road, and I see the dread war machine, a double turreted fortress trundling along on eight treads and the sweat of two hundred slaves. A flash illuminates the sky, and one turret recoils as it fires a pulse against some barb-wired bulwark that still flies a lonely city flag. The bulwark and flag and surrounding land vanish.
Dad nudges down the gas pedal a little more and we accelerate away.
“Darn it,” Maddy says. “I thought that was on my card.”
“It’s on mine!” I reply, and lift my pencil to cross it off.
“No, that doesn’t count. I saw the Berserker Tank first,” he complains.
“But if it’s not on your card, then the option to cross it off goes to me.”
“No it doesn’t! That’s Novikov Self-Consistency rules. We’re playing by Gödel Metrics.”
“But that allows global caus—caus… what’s that word, Dad?”
“Causality violation,” Dad says. “But that’s a precedent you have to decide in advance of playing if you’re going to accept or not. Maddy’s right, you can’t just choose theoretical models in the middle of a game.”
To his credit, Maddy doesn’t gloat. He just snaps another bubble.
Patches of snow and moss begin to dot the shoulder of the road, and we pass more than one wrecked car that’s spun out or been stepped on. Colorful scenery flies by, faster and faster, and it’s easy to image we were the ones at a standstill and everything else is speeding by, instead of us being the ones always moving.
“We need some music,” cousin Skip says, sitting a couple rows behind Grandma and Grandpa.
“What you listen to ain’t music,” Grandma yells.
“Just use your headphones,” Dad orders in his big voice. “The boys are playing.”
Johnny yips agreement. Skip doesn’t say anything else, just sulks, which is what he’s good at.
It’s easy to forget Skip is back there when he’s silent. It’s easy to forget about all the others behind, involved in their own games or dreams or whatever else they do to pass the time while we drive. Some have been silent so long, they’ll probably never speak again.
“Guardian Walls!” I announce.
“On top of that hill.”
“Those ruins? They aren’t guarding anything.”
Maddy’s right that the walls are in ruin; steel and brick pockmarked with shell holes, and snapping lizards running free through smoldering fissures. The force field generator tower is swamped in oozing pink mold, and bobbing tentacles even extend through its apertures. Still…I catch glimpse of a Guardian charging along its medieval embrasure, swinging his plasma sword at a nest of ox-spiders.
“It’s still manned,” I argue.
Maddy snaps a bubble in admission. “Okay.”
I mark it off my card. “Whoa! That’s four in a row under the letter G. One more and I win!”
“Beginner’s luck,” Maddy says. He still has more boxes marked off than me, but his are scattered in twos and threes beneath each letter. “Even if you win this game, I still won at Foldovers and Tic-Tac-Toe, so that would make me the overall winner.”
“Maddy, don’t be a spoil sport,” Dad says.
“Car Trip Bingo is better anyway,” I say, “so that counts more than the other games combined.”
“I wouldn’t be so anxious to win,” Dad tells me.
“When someone claims Bingo, that’s the end of our car trip.”
“Where’ll we be when that happens?”
“Oh.” I look to Mom for clarification, but she doesn’t say anything, just stares out the windshield.
“I don’t want our trip to end yet.”
“Nothing I can do about it, son.” His reverse look fills the mirror. “It’s just a game, isn’t it?”
“I’m hungry,” someone whines from far behind. “I wanna use the restroom.”
“Mom, could you pass back your bottle?” Dad says to Grandma. “Looks to be in, um, row N.”
“It is in row N!” Maddy says. “See my card, there’s Unhappy Captive below the N!”
We all laugh, except for Mom. It’s funny because the rows go back so far they could have been lettered or numbered anything, but it’s just ‘N’.
So Maddy crosses it off. “Hey, that makes four for me under the letter N. Now either of us can win!”
Way off, purple storm clouds rise above a dark forest, and lightning bolts flash, but it’s all so faint and at odds with the lush green jungle vines and Siamese panthers that now fill our view. Either of us can win…
I consider the card again and its last image under the letter G, all the way down at the bottom of the column: Galactic Reversal.
I consider too, that big ol’ sun that’s still so pretty and filling the highway like we’re driving right into it, and I wonder if we keep going, would we make it there?
I exchange glances with Maddy, knowing he thinks like me, and he crumples up his card and tosses it out the window.
Eric J. Guignard’s a writer and editor of dark and speculative fiction, operating from the shadowy outskirts of Los Angeles. He’s won the 2013 Bram Stoker Award and was a finalist for the 2014 International Thriller Writers Award. Outside the glamorous and jet-setting world of indie fiction, Eric’s a technical writer and college professor, and he stumbles home each day to a wife, children, cats, and a terrarium filled with mischievous beetles. Visit Eric at: http://www.ericjguignard.com, his blog: ericjguignard.blogspot.com, or Twitter: @ericjguignard.