Deadly Backseat Driver

It was October 26, and I was listening to a Stephen King novel as I headed south along a country road for a business trip. When I take long trips, a good story helps me to stay engaged and gives me a chance to enjoy books I’d never have time to read otherwise. So far, my trip had been uneventful and I enjoyed the scenery of the rolling hills. My only concern was whether or not I’d arrive to the hotel in time for dinner. Otherwise, I’d be eating fast food and I had long since grown weary of that prospect.

As I approached the halfway point of my journey, I noticed something about a mile down the road. A car was tearing around in the median. Before I had time to process what was going on, the car crossed the median and started driving north in the southbound lanes. Within seconds, he was headed straight for me and I had to act decisively. I laid my hand down on my horn, not knowing whether the other driver would respond. Apparently, it had an effect, because he moved over a lane just in time to avoid hitting me.

As the other driver went by, I noticed that his windshield was already spidered. Had he already been in another accident? I don’t know, but it was an eerie sign. I couldn’t help thinking he was drunk, but I couldn’t be sure either. Maybe he was having a heart attack or a seizure. I looked in my rearview mirror, and saw that he had crossed back into the median and back into the northbound lanes. Then, a few seconds later, he went back into the median one more time and hit a sign. That was the end of his car. I stopped.

I was scared, but I collected my thoughts and had the presence of mind to call the highway patrol. I described the accident and gave them the location. They told me they would send an ambulance. Then, I turned my car around to see if I could help, but before I could get very far, I noticed that a trooper had pulled over another motorist and was going to issue him a speeding ticket. I got out of my car and told the patrolman what had happened. He stopped writing the ticket and went over to the scene of the accident a few hundred feet away.

I followed the officer to see if I could help the man, but others had already pulled him out of the wreckage and were giving him first aid. I also knew an ambulance was on the way. As I surveyed the accident, I realized the man’s car, though demolished, looked a lot like mine. It gave me a chill to see that his air bags were not deployed. It didn’t look like he was wearing his seat belt either. I made a mental note to get my air bags checked as the dealership suggested last month. His face was covered with blood and his body was stretched out on the ground as the first responders aided him. I looked at the car again. I had no idea whether the man was dying or would be fine, but I decided to leave. People were already assisting him and there was nothing more I could add to their efforts.

It had only been a few minutes and I was only a few miles down the road when the ambulance sped past me on the way to the accident. I felt I had done the right thing and helped the man the best way I could. If he had a chance of survival, my actions probably increased his odds. Nevertheless, I wondered if I could have done more. I was a certified emergency medical technician (EMT) several years ago but my certification had long since expired. Just the same, I wondered if I personally could have stepped in to provide vital care in the crucial moments before the ambulance arrived.

Despite the fact that there were already first responders at the scene of the accident, that question nagged me day and night. I knew it wasn’t a reasonable question to entertain. Even when I was freshly trained and certified, I wasn’t confident with my skills. All of my experience was with simulators in the Air Force Reserve. From one month to the next, I’d forget the skills I learned during my unit training assemblies. I had never worked as a civilian EMT, so why should I expect myself to retain the knowledge several years after I got out?

It made no difference. The doubts slowly crept into my conscience and established an immovable foothold. I began to ask myself how I would have felt if I were the man in the accident. There was no way for me to answer this question, but once I started asking it, I couldn’t stop.

I drove to the client site, stayed busy, and the week went by fast. I hadn’t really had much time to think about the accident I witnessed, so I forgot about it until I started the trip home. I worked right up until 6:00 P.M. that Friday, so it was already getting dark when I left. By the time I passed the place where I had witnessed the accident, night had long since fallen. Lights are few and far between in that area of the state, because a large part of it belongs to ranchers. In the day time, the rolling hills are a lush carpet of green. At night, all you can see is a few headlights from the opposing lanes.

A few miles down the road, I drove into a forest. You have to be careful in that area, because the trees close in on both sides of the road. If you’re driving fast and not paying attention, a deer stepping out in front of you could total your car. Another hazard of that road is that it has many curves. Some of them are sharp, and it’s wise to keep your eyes peeled on the road in front of you. I was just about out of this forest when a small animal ran in front of my car. I was driving 60 miles per hour, which is the maximum speed on that road, so I had no opportunity to swerve or miss it. Just before impact, I had time to recognize that it was a raccoon. I was distressed that I had run over such an intelligent animal, but I didn’t slow down. I kept driving.

Once again, I felt a baffling sense of guilt. I knew I couldn’t have avoided the raccoon. The path it took was a perfect intersection with my car and the shoulders were too narrow to stop. The ditch was full of water on both sides of the road. Any attempt to swerve left or right would have sent me right into the bog. Just the same, reason lost the battle and I became convinced that I was a killer.

As I approached the end of the forest, the number of lights along the road increased. Their sodium-vapor glow was a welcome sight, because it meant that I was getting close to the end of my journey home. As I passed one of those lights, however, I looked in my rearview mirror. My heart jumped. I thought I saw a shadow in my back seat. I looked again when I came to the next light, but it was gone. Every time I passed a light, I looked in the rearview mirror, but I saw nothing. I was somewhat relieved, but uncomfortable whenever I thought about it. I managed to forget it by turning on the radio and listening to Classical music. The rest of my journey home was uneventful and I rolled into my driveway at about 11:30 P.M. I was beat, and I went immediately to bed.

The next week went by fast, and Monday arrived beckoning for another trip south. I decided to go downtown and get some work done in the office before I hit the road, so I didn’t leave until 4:00 P.M. I knew that I’d be driving at night again, but I wanted to hit the road as prepared as possible for the week ahead. By the time I got off the main highway and started driving through the forest, it was already dark. The lights along the road appeared at greater intervals until they disappeared except for an occasional house.

As I came up to one of those isolated homes, I saw a street light. I was glad to see it until I glanced in the rearview mirror. There, in the back seat was the distinctive outline of a man: a black shadow. My eyes darted to the road ahead. I was terrified. With a trembling voice, I asked: “Who are you and what are you doing in my car”? Silence was my answer. I asked again, but I heard nothing and I drove on.

In the distance, I saw another house and another light. Maybe my mind had tricked my eyes into seeing the shadow. After all, it didn’t respond to my questions and didn’t seem to have a voice. As I approached the next light, I looked in my rearview mirror and fear gripped my heart. The shadow was not only still there, but it was clearly the outline of a man. I wasn’t just seeing things. The outline was too realistic to be something I could imagine. I tried again to ask the shadow what it was doing in my car, but it sat there in silence and I kept driving.

As I came out of the forest into a small town, I noticed the shadow was gone and I was alone again. I was beginning to wonder if I was going through a psychotic break, but that didn’t really make sense. Aside from seeing the shadow, all my thoughts were normal. I didn’t obsess about things, and I certainly didn’t have time to get myself worked up like that. I was too busy meeting project deadlines. I was on Lexapro for anxiety, but that shouldn’t have caused me to see shadows in my car at night.

When I came to the spot where I had witnessed the wreck, there was enough light to see the back seat in my rearview mirror. I took another look and there it was again. This time I was able to see the outlines of a bloody face. It was a strange face. It looked somewhat familiar, but I couldn’t figure who it was. I wondered if it was the man who had driven his car into the median, but I couldn’t be sure. They only thing I thought I knew for sure was that he was in my car, but he was gone next time I looked in my rearview mirror.

This time I was shaken. I couldn’t forget what had happened, and turning on Classical music didn’t help at all. As I tried to turn my thoughts to other things, my mind kept going back to the image of the man’s face in my back seat. It was bloody and mangled. I didn’t see his entire face, but I saw enough to realize an accident had shredded it. Nevertheless, enough of his face was left to show expression and changes of expression. Just before he disappeared, I thought I saw him grinning. His lips were gone, but his oral-buccal muscles curled into a sinister grin. It was a ghastly, semi-skeletal smile.

The trip went a lot faster when I hit the Interstate system, but I was too alarmed nonetheless. I couldn’t shake the memory of the terrifying object in my rearview mirror. I still had the radio on and I reached to turn it off, but before I could touch the knob, a raspy voice came over the speakers: “I have a message for you. Listen carefully.”

I turned up the volume on the radio so I could hear better, but the voice never came back. Then, I heard a horn blowing behind me. I was halfway into the median! I swerved to correct myself, but not without almost causing an accident. The car that had been behind me barely avoided running into me. As the car passed me, the man driving it held up his middle finger and shouted obscenities at me. I could hardly blame him, but if he only knew what had just happened in my car!

Finally, I arrived at my hotel. I was exhausted and frightened, but no one was around to listen to my story? No one would have believe it anyway. If anything, they might suggest psychological evaluation and I don’t think that would have helped my career. What if they took my driver’s license away? Would I be able to keep my job if I couldn’t travel? It certainly didn’t look that way. I couldn’t traveling. If I did that, I might as well have quit my job. My only option was to continue driving this shadow around as an unwanted passenger. Had I become a taxi driver for the dead? Where was I taking this corpse — or where was he taking me?

I went to the client site on Tuesday morning and gradually forgot my troubles through my work. Throughout the week, memories of the experience flashed through my mind, but I was able to dismiss them by concentrating on the business at hand. It didn’t seem to take long for Friday evening to come around, and once again it was time to go home. I used to enjoy the drive home. It was so peaceful after working to meet deadlines all week. Now I was terrified by the prospect of driving home alone on lonely roads after the sunset. I had no illusions that I would have a peaceful trip home, but I couldn’t have imagined what was coming next.

As I approached the scene of the accident, I noticed a man hitchhiking in the median. I gave no thought to who he was until I was within a few feet of him. There, in my headlights was that ghastly face with its gruesome smile. He looked directly into my eyes, pointed his bloody finger at me and laughed. I sped past him, but that made no difference. At the next light, I looked in my rearview mirror, and he was in my back seat. This time I saw his face in greater detail. Why was the outline of his face so familiar, yet so unrecognizable? It was as if I had known him all my life, but the lacerations and burns that covered his face made identification impossible.

This time, I thought I heard him breathing. It was faint at first, but it seemed to get louder as the miles went on. It wasn’t normal breathing. It heard the distinct sound of crepitus, as if he had flail chest injury. Every time, he inhaled, I heard the scraping sound of broken ribs and his lungs crackled. I could be wrong, but I think I also heard his heart beat: lub-dub, lub-dub, lub-dub. The worst thing of all was the smell of his breath, which smelled like sunbaked road kill.

The trip home was no longer than any other trip I had taken, but it seemed like an eternity. As I made my way through the forest, the miles turned into unending stretches of pavement and I became convinced that I was driving on a treadmill. I normally took the winding curves at 50 M.P.H., but I pressed the accelerator and took them at 70. I heard my tires squealing, but I wanted to get home so badly that I forgot about safety. As I came around one of the curves a deer stepped in front of my car. I came to a screeching halt and barely avoided hitting it. The deer stared into my headlights as if I were an idiot, and then wandered back into the forest.

When I got over the panic of the near accident, realized that I could no longer hear anything in my back seat. I looked in the rearview mirror and saw nothing, but that was because it was totally dark outside. There were no lights in the area, so I decided to turn on my cabin lights. I reached up slowly and nervously fumbled with the light switch. When I turned it on, I took a hesitant look in the rearview mirror. I saw nothing; the ghastly figure was gone. I sighed relief, but it was short lived. When I turned around to look in my back seat, I saw a blood stain that outlined the shape of an adult male.

I continued driving, and I took it a little slower until I hit the final stretch home. When I was sure that I wouldn’t see anymore deer, I opened up and went full speed ahead. That was also a mistake, because a highway patrolman pulled me over about 38 miles from home. He was nice enough, but he said there had been a lot of high-speed accidents lately and urged me to drive slower. I had always been told to treat officers of the law with respect, and that paid off. He still gave me a ticket, but he knocked off several miles per hour. As a result, my fine wasn’t as severe as it could have been.

Nothing happened again until I was about five miles from home. I was no longer listening to the radio because of what had happened on the last trip down, but the radio turned on by itself. There again, was that raspy voice with the morbid sound of his breathing:

I have a message for you; ignore me at your peril.

As the words came out of the radio, I could smell decomposition. There was no mistaking its origin. It was as though the radio had become the dead man’s mouth, exhaling his warning to me from his rotting lungs.

I went directly to bed when I got home. I didn’t have a problem falling asleep, but I experienced a night terror. I saw myself sitting in the car with the man who had almost hit me a few weeks ago. I looked out of his busted windshield, and then I looked over at him. He was in and out of consciousness. In the distance, I could see a car coming toward us, blowing its horn. He woke up just in time to avoid the other car, but then he fell back into an unconscious state. I tried to take the wheel, but it was too late. We hit a pole and I went through the windshield. My neck was broken and I could feel blood all over my face. The body of the driver was completely mangled, but he got up and pulled his rearview mirror off his windshield. Then, he came over to me and let me see my own face. It was torn to pieces, just like his. With a maniacal laugh, he uttered another raspy message:

I have a message for you. Stay home.

I woke up in a cold sweat, but I was soon comforted to see the sun in the sky and that I was in my bed. I got up and went to my mirror to see if my face was still intact. There wasn’t a scratch on it. I laughed and closed my eyes with relief. I reassured myself that what I had just experienced was only a dream, but the gruesome figure was staring at me in the mirror when I opened my eyes. This time, he put his skeletal hand on my shoulder and said:

It wasn’t a dream; it’s a message. Pay attention!

That shut me down completely. The trauma of this experience had worked its way past my critical thinking and into my primal fears. It was now a fight or flight situation, and I didn’t have the courage or energy to fight. It was just a matter of time, therefore, before I went into full-scale hysteria.

Nothing happened for the rest of the day, but I could no longer dismiss these events through the escape of entertainment or losing myself in my work. Late that afternoon, I went out to my car to check for the blood stain in the back seat, but it was clean. I realized my problem was too significant to ignore, but how could I address it without jeopardizing my career? I thought about taking advantage of the Employee Assistance Program at work, but I wasn’t convinced that would help. It just didn’t seem like they would understand or could help me, and I sure didn’t want them to institutionalize me. I feared this man who kept showing up in my car, but I viewed the potential loss of my career with equal dread.

Another week passed, and it was time to head back to the client site. This time, I decided to drive down during the day to see if that would make a difference. It didn’t. When I got to the location of the accident, he was in my rearview mirror again. In broad daylight, the hideous nature of his injuries were more terrifying than anything I had seen at night. Most of his outer flesh was necrotic. Maggots crawled in and out of his eyes, ears, nose and mouth. Then I realized why that putrid smell came with every breath he took and every word he uttered: he was a living corpse. Or was he? Could he be a ghost or something that my own mind had created? Before I could figure out what he was, he covered my eyes with his hands and said, “Guess who.”

Take your goddamned, bony hands off my eyes,” I shouted. “I can’t see the fucking road in front of me.

Ba ha ha ha ha. That’s the idea,” he replied through hacking spasms of laughter. “Let your conscience be your guide. I have a message for you.

Yeah, I know,” I screamed. “Tell me what the hell you’re going to say and get out of my car.

He kept his hands over my eyes and cackled at me derisively.

Can you guess where you are now?

No, I can’t you foul piece of rotten meat. What the hell’s your message?

Are you sure you’re ready? You’ve never been good at listening—especially to me.

Yes, I’m sure for God’s sake!

Here’s Part 1: You’re traveling south in the northbound lanes.

Just then, I heard a car honking its horn. The half-consumed carcass of the man removed his moldering hands long enough for me to see that I was traveling south and headed straight for another car in the northbound lanes. I swerved out of the path of the oncoming car and crossed the median back into the southbound lanes. Without warning, my passenger then reached up, unbuckled my seatbelt, and covered my eyes again. Then his foul breath nauseated me as he whispered in my ear from behind:

Here’s Part 2: I’m a fading memory to those you loved and who loved you. You should have listened to me and stayed home.

As he finished delivering his message, I realized he wasn’t the man who demolished his car in the median several weeks ago. I knew who he was now, but it was too late to do anything about it. Suddenly, I felt a jolt, and my car came to an abrupt stop. Then my chest cave in, and I felt my body break free of the steering wheel as my face, shattering the windshield, sliced into ribbons. I could see again, and I was sailing through the air. As if I could look back, I saw myself in my demolished car laughing at my own destruction. I landed head first where the grassy median met the pavement, and then everything went black.


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