[Original Novella] The Lonely Road, Part 11 (the finale!)
While I watched the battle unfold, I felt something strange. The cool, smooth, rubber gloved hand of the dentist slipping underneath the elastic waistband of my pants. Then my underwear. I struggled feebly, my vision increasingly blurry.
“Shhh. Hold still” she whispered softly. “This is part of the procedure.” One of the molar men was snatched from cover by the chitinous, segmented limb of a microbial creature vastly larger than it should be. Towering over the both of us, despite the cramped confines of the little room we were in.
It just never quite touched the ceiling somehow, despite being many times taller. Covered in countless little wriggling limbs, like so many fingers reaching for me. Giant eyes I could not escape the gaze of, unblinking, emerging from the creature’s skin and being reabsorbed by it as though they were soap bubbles.
“You made me do this” I heard a gentle, hushed voice say from all around me. My vision now filled with nonsensical distortions, cartoon molar men marching in tightly ordered platoons on the hive fortress of the gingivitis monsters. “Nobody will believe you. Not your parents, not your teachers. They’ll only get angry.”
I could still feel her hand, but it was distorted as everything else. Fingers! So many fingers. There should only be five, shouldn’t there? But there were hundreds. Like the little squirming legs of the centipedes in my teeth. Grasping, fumbling, intruding into places I didn’t know if they were supposed to.
“You’ll thank me when you’re older” said the voice. “You’ll appreciate what I did for you.” The impossibly numerous fingers now clawed hungrily at my bottom, stretching out my super mario tighty whities. “Your friends will be so jealous.”
The molar men were overcome. Though the hive fortress had been set ablaze, the bacterial creatures were too numerous, too strong. The battlefield, a pink fleshy surface which could only be the inside of a gargantuan mouth, was strewn with the viscera and mortal remains of fallen soldiers. Powerless, in the end, to drive out the invasion.
The swirling mess of sound and color receded into the distance, little by little. As though I was retreating from it. Or sinking below the surface into a calm, pitch black expanse. Further and further, quieter and dimmer, until only the darkness remained.
It was peaceful, floating there. No sensation except the sound of my own heartbeat. My lungs filled with cool, flavorless air. Which then escaped, just as gently. As I started wondering whether I’d died, details began to reappear.
Corners first. Then edges. Coming together little by little to form a room around me. A bright light appears just above my face, soon resolving into the overhead lamp of the dentist’s chair. I can feel my limbs again, though I cannot yet move them. A face looms into view.
It’s her. Mumbling something or other I cannot yet understand, her voice muffled as though I’m underwater. My ears feel clogged. I can feel my own pulse in my inner ear, and inside my head. Blurry features of the room continue to swim around, more and more slowly, until settling into their final locations.
The lollipops and stickers in the clear plastic jar, sitting on the counter. The framed poster of the molar men, fighting back gingivitis. The tall, narrow window...obscured by a flimsy blue curtain. I wished it wasn’t right then. I wished I could see the grass, and the sky.
“You were very brave!” gushed the woman in the white garment, pulling down the paper mask which covered her nose and mouth until then. She wore dark red lipstick and had teeth exactly as perfect as you might expect of someone in her line of work.
“Here. Choose from cherry, lime, or watermelon.” I blinked, studying the clear, differently colored candies being offered to me. Then I looked up at her eyes, struggling to remember what happened before the peaceful black void. She winked. “Here, take the red one...and remember what we talked about.”
When I stood, I wobbled for a moment like a newborn deer. Whatever was in the gas hadn’t finished wearing off. When I turned back to look at her one last time, I was met with the sight of the darkened room, light from the street lamps creeping in through the tall, narrow window.
The room was much smaller, it seemed to me, than it’d been a moment earlier. I studied the shadows cast by branches outside, in between the nearest street lamp and the building. Long and bent in the middle, like an arm. Spreading out at the end into what looked for all the world like fingers.
I teared up, unsure why. My head hurt. For the life of me, I couldn’t remember what happened before the void. Something important, it had to be. The reason I came here. The reason I couldn’t leave. Just as soon as I figure anything out, it escapes me.
I scolded myself, wiped the tears from my eyes and backed out of the room. But whatever repulsive field it once emitted was no longer present. It was just a room now. Just a room, like any other. I looked down at my hand on my way out of the building, realizing I was holding something in it.
A red lollipop. I put it in the trash. Entering the penumbra of the street lamp, I braced myself against it. Mind racing, fighting to make sense of it all. But I did not pound the street lamp, as I had the desk. The anger I entered that office with somehow did not leave with me.
I felt lighter. No longer frustrated, or resentful. Just deeply sad. Tears returned to my eyes, and this time I did not wipe them away. For the first time I just let myself be sad, and cry about it. There was nobody left to scold me for revealing weakness. The critical voice inside of me which normally would’ve ridiculed me for indulging in self pity was mysteriously absent. Left behind in that building perhaps, along with my anger.
They deserve each other, I decided. By that point I no longer had any need of them. Content that my fate was not under my own control and never had been, but that it was not because of any particular failing. Satisfied at last that there’s a time to fight, but also a time to mourn.
I trudged wearily down the road, still missing a shoe. Soon the dentist’s office was far behind me. No longer cursing this place, nor trying to guess what I would discover up ahead, having abandoned those expectations along with all others. I don’t make the rules here and never did.
I’d like to eventually find a shoe. Something to eat would also be nice.But I don’t actually need a whole lot else. If I learned anything so far, it’s that the road will take me where I need to go. Up ahead, something different appeared. Not a gas station, mansion or dentist’s office...but a phone booth.
Way out here? It’s been a decade, easily, since I last saw one of these. I’m not even sure if I still know how to use it. The black metal box mounted inside bears a blue and white label which includes instructions, printed in red. I try 911 first, reasoning it would be free to call. Only a dial tone, naturally.
So I checked the phonebook. Lifting the hefty yellow tome with both hands, prying it open and flipping through the pages revealed that all the entries were the same. Over and over in tiny black text, the same phone number on every page, with the same name next to every number. “Diane”.
I smiled weakly, and dialed the number. Though I’d not put any money into the machine, somehow she still answered. Groggy and annoyed, but also concerned. “I hope you voice dialed, you shouldn’t use the touch screen while driving. Jeez, do you realize what time it is right now?”
I glanced down at my bashed up smartphone. “Yeah. Seven in the morning.” The faint glow of the rising sun was now just barely visible over the treeline. “So what do you want?” she asked. I stood there, transfixed by the mounting sunrise. “I don’t know anymore.”
She sighed. “I mean, are you in trouble?” I told her I’d been in an accident. That my car went over the embankment and was twisted up around a tree somewhere. She gasped. “You said that so casually. That’s your car!” I shrugged. “You’re...not hurt, are you?” I thought about it for a moment. Then replied “My body is fine.”
At Diane’s insistence, I opened a location sharing app on my phone. I was both surprised, and not, to discover it now had four bars of signal. I granted the app permission to access location data, then sent Diane my coordinates. “Oh you’re up in the mountains. Hang tight, I can be there in thirty minutes.”
She arrived in the back of an Uber just as the sun finished clearing the treeline. Deep reds and oranges smeared across the horizon, saturating the clouds. The golden rays felt familiar on my skin. First warmth of the morning, but not the last.
She ran up and threw her arms around me, wearing a sweater so baggy her hands didn’t quite make it out of the sleeves. “I told you driving through the night was a bad idea. You never listen to me.” I apologized and thanked her for caring enough to come get me. She looked momentarily stunned.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to take you to the hospital?” I let her examine me until she was convinced I wasn’t injured. I climbed into the back of the waiting SUV with her as the indifferent driver listened to music on a pair of wireless earbuds.
“You must be in shock or something. Your car is totalled! What do you plan to do about that? I’ve never looked into it, I’m not sure who you’re even supposed to call, besides your insurance company.” I stared into the rear view mirror as she spoke. Eyes locked on the long, lonely road behind us, lined with trees and street lamps.
“Do you know if you have Onstar?” It took me a moment to look away from the mirror. Still in mild disbelief that I was leaving this place behind, at long last. That I wasn’t still walking along the side of the road, under the humming electric glow of the street lamps, but with no more buildings to discover. Just me and the cold, dark, wet road for mile after mile, after mile…
“I said, do you know if you have Onstar? Or Triple A?” I exhaled in relief, finally accepting my new reality, and turned to face her. “I don’t know anything, Diane.”