As a set of lips pressed against my neck, my eyes popped open. Julie was clinging to my arm, leaving a faint trail of white where her fingernails had been. Blonde strands of hair circled her young face and a thin sheet flowed over her hips and down her lean legs, exposing her chest. “Last night wasn’t enough for me,” she said, her voice raspy from recently broken sleep. Her limbs were like vines, overtaking me in an instant. Hands looping around my back. Legs twisting around my waist. Tongue spiraling, a corkscrew in my mouth. When we pulled apart, my eyes jumped over her naked body, toward the clock over her shoulder. Bright red dots formed the numbers 7:55. Julie usually woke up two hours earlier, took a shower, and kicked me out so she could bring in her next victim. The routine was unbeatable. I’d indulge in my little teenage temptation, but was back in my own bed before my wife got up at 8. “How’s it so late? Why aren’t the frat boys breaking down your door?” “They’re all away on some ski trip. Now shut up. I want you.” “I want to leave.” My feet collided with the ground as I tugged on my clothes and moved toward the exit. I hesitated for a moment before stepping into the hall; the walk to my car would be dehumanizing as always. I had to sneak past Julie’s roommates, weave through hallways full of sorority sisters, and scuttle across campus until I reached the parking lot hoping no one would recognize me—not that it mattered anymore. If my wife woke up before I returned home, her suspicion wouldn’t just taint our relationship, it would mutilate it. “Where are you go—oooh right.” Julie swooped her hand over her nightstand and palmed my wedding ring with magician like talent. When she returned it, it was with a careless toss. Kids never understood the purity of marriage. “You and your silly wife… Monogamy? Commitment? Ridiculous.” “One day, a guy will propose to you. Maybe a few of them. Eventually you’ll say yes.” “I’d rather sleep around and have fun into my forties than lie about loving someone I stopped caring about before our first baby learns to walk.” “I care about Michelle.” I love her. Of course I love her. “I could’ve sworn you were moaning a different name last night.” “You and me aren’t anything serious.” I do, I do. I love her. “I guess you and your wife aren’t either.” “We’ve been together for fifteen years. We have a house. We have twins.” I loved her when we first moved in together and I love her now and I’ll always love… What did that word mean, again? “How about this? I’ll be the mirror you’re too much of a coward to look into,” Julie said, draping a blanket around her pale body. Earlier I would’ve claimed she looked like a goddess. But at that moment, she was more like a child messing around in her parent’s closet. “You’re a bad person. A bad husband. A bad example for those twin girls. I sure as hell hope you don’t ever want a son-in-law because they’re never going to get married. Nope, not after seeing what daddy did to poor ol’ mommy. They’ll never trust anyone. Bred to be whores.” My hand slammed against her cheek, staining it red. It was instinctual, a magnetic attraction. As her eyes teared from the impact, she spit out, “Hey, did you find Desmond yet?” “Go to hell,” I said, sparks spewing from my eyes. It took all of my willpower not to smack her again. She knew the stem of all my marital problems was that damn dumbass Desmond. He was the reason Michelle had tumbled into a depression. As soon as her little brother went missing, she was reduced to tissues and sobs. She stopped doing the laundry and bathing our girls and took an extended vacation from work. An inhuman human. The only time she left the house was to search for him even though the police had already stopped. They knew what had happened—the whole town did. There was no sign of an accident: no blood or body or scraps of metal from his vehicle. His apartment was intact, with nothing missing but his precious royal blue Harley-Davidson, so he couldn’t have just left on an impromptu road trip. The answer was obvious. Of course, Michelle was too attached to her big brother to accept the truth. So for weeks we drove around on a quest to discover the undiscoverable. The most brutal fight of our life came on our thirteenth outing: I told her I was done looking. Just give up on him, I remembered saying. You know where he is and it’s not anyplace good. But whenever the kids went to school, she continued to search while I directed myself toward the nearest bar. During one of my intoxicated escapes, I met Julie. “Don’t zoom through any red lights,” she called out as I left her dorm for the last time. But I knew she wished I would. Ten minutes later my hands were choking the steering wheel as I barreled down the street. I prayed Michelle was still asleep with her hair in oversized curlers, a brunette octopus clinging to her forehead. Please don’t wake up. Keep dreaming. Dream that I’m with you. An upcoming light flashed to yellow. If you just smack snooze a few times, I’ll be home. It won’t happen again. I’m done with Julie. Red now. I can’t lose you. You or the kids. You have to be asleep. You hav— I slammed on the breaks, my torso catapulting against the wheel. My jaw snapped forward, connecting with the base of my neck as the scent of rubber burst through my opened windows. My heart was flailing, my veins pulsing, but the car skidded to a stop in time. I was still alive. Still whole. Still in the same world. But if I had waited just a second longer… The waves of the teleportation barrier danced in front of my windshield. Although it was invisible, it produced unmistakable humming sounds. An audible warning. Every stoplight in the country had a barrier connected to it, which was activated on whatever side was red at the time. If a driver or pedestrian penetrated the barrier, they would disappear. The device was created to protect the innocent. With it, drivers with the right of way would never be impacted or wrongfully killed again. The government called it ‘transporting traffic violators to a unique facility for punishment,’ but everyone else called it ‘disguising death.’ Once someone passed through the curtain, they never came back. Only the government and scientists who created the technology knew the true fate of the criminals. My guess was they were burnt and thrown into the ocean as ashes. I couldn’t help but imagine the humming to be the muffled sounds of their final screams. When the light morphed to green, the barrier was instantly deactivated. I sped toward my house, taking the quickest route while avoiding the roads I knew cops regularly perched on. I was six blocks away from my destination when the car phone beeped. Maintaining my speed, I glanced at the caller ID flashing across the dashboard: Michelle Freeman. Son of a bitch. I flicked a switch and my wife’s voice flooded the vehicle. The drowsy tone she usually held in the morning was replaced by pure ferocity. “Where in the hell are you?” “In the car. On my way home.” My mind clawed for an excuse for our impending conversation. Unable to find one, I attempted to redirect the conversation. “How’s your morning been? Are the girls okay?” “You work nights. The only reason you’re ever up before noon is for sex. But that can’t be the case considering I wasn’t woken up by you digging your hands in my—no. No, you’re not that dumb... Right, Shaun?” I, Shaun, take you, Michelle, to be my lawfully wedded wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health… There was no reason for her to assume I was cheating. Except we never made up after our fight. Except we never ate meals together. Except we stopped saying I love you. …until death do us part. Only death can part us. This is death. I’m already dead. We’re already apart. “You think I’d be able to get anyone else? I’m lucky I landed you,” I said, the lies bubbling from my lungs and spilling out of my mouth. “I’ve been looking for your brother. There’re a few places we haven’t checked in a while, so I figured I’d get it done this morning.” “You’ve started looking again?” The genuine joy in her voice made me wince. “Honey, thank you. I thought you’d never—“ It took me a moment to realize why her voice cut off: I’d passed under a solid red light. My hand fumbled for the gear shift to pull into reverse, but a jolt of electricity already pierced through my skin. The teleportation was smooth. If my limbs weren’t tingling from the electrical currents, I might’ve assumed I was still traveling down the same street. But instead of the road leading me closer to my house, it sent me toward a cliff. I jolted the steering wheel to the left, desperate to remain on land, but the front wheels had already slipped over the edge. As I tumbled over, I could see hundreds of cars all with the same fate. Dead bodies were floating amongst bits of rubber and hunks of metal. Mechanical mayhem. I kept my grip on the steering wheel as I descended, watching the trash heaps grow to skyscrapers. When I plunged into the crimson water (was it water?), my head pulsed with pain. The liquid spilled through my windows and I cursed myself for keeping them open before realizing it was my escape. I fumbled to unbuckle my seatbelt as the liquid flooded into my mouth, tasting like salt, like metal, like blood. Forcing my eyes open, I managed to squeeze through the opening. An underwater rebirth. I reached the surface, coughing and spewing and spitting. Over the sloshing of the liquid, I could hear a woman hollering. Or did I imagine it? Searching for land, I swam through the thick, sticky water, noting the scenery as I passed. An orange striped mustang. A bike missing its front wheel. A royal blue Harley. A dented convertible. A royal blue Harley. “Desmond! Hey, Desmond,” I screamed, praying he was alive to hear. “Desmond, you son of a bitch, where are you?” I was answered with the approaching sound of an engine and someone saying, “We all saw your car fall over the edge. It was my turn to play rescue. Come on, get in.” The voice was too feminine to be Desmond’s, but it was still a voice. Hope coursing through my trembling body, I rotated to see a speedboat bobbing above me. The woman behind the wheel was all bones and breasts, a toothpick with a chest. As she bent over the edge to help me inside, I struggled to avert my eyes. I’d already disrespected Michelle enough for a lifetime. Mine would be over soon anyway. “Anything worth saving in your vehicle?” she asked once I was seated inside. “Any food?” I shook my head. My marriage might’ve been a mess, but I always assured the car was spotless. “Damn… Well, alright.” She began to drive off. “You should rest. No talking. It’s always the same questions, anyway. How many of us are there? Thirteen. A devil’s dozen. How’d we get the boat? It’s mine. Had it on a trailer attached to my van. Any way to escape? We’re all too weak, lazy, or spineless to find out.” Only three minutes of silence elapsed before we reached a small patch of land. It held dead grass, several mounds of dirt that must’ve been graves, and a small cave sprinkled with people. My chauffeur motioned toward the structure as she tied her boat to a pole in the ground. “He’s over by the fire,” she said without glancing up. “Hmm?” “You were screaming Desmond, weren’t you?” Without a word, I sped toward the flicker of light. A moth to a flame, headed for disaster. When I reached him, he was leaning against a wall, sharpening a shard of metal with a razor. It looked like a good tool to slice with, maybe even kill, but there was nothing around to eat. Nothing but bodies. “You sure are good at hide and seek,” I said with a phony smile, but his mouth spiraled into a scowl at my sight. We hated one another since the night I met him back in college. We both cared about Michelle too much and thought the other was a bad influence. Really, we both ended up being right. I was unfaithful and he was an alcoholic. “My nieces lost their only uncle when I ended up here,” he said, gliding his fingertips across his blade. “Now they lost a dad, too. Poor girls won’t know how to get a fish ‘less it’s sitting gutted in a supermarket.” “How long have you been in this cave with these people? The entire time?” “I ain’t got a Rolex. Never been rich like you and Shelly.” “Michelle has been looking for you for two months. It’s been two months. How’d you survive here? How’d you have enough food?” “When new cars come, we go out to ‘em. We pretend it’s to save lives, but it’s really to scavenge. Soggy chips are caviar round these parts. You’ll learn to like it.” “I won’t have time. I’m getting out of here.” He chuckled. “You gonna climb that cliff? I’ve thought ‘bout it. But we don’t got any mountain climbing gear and my hands ain’t built like spiderman.” “We can make picks out of those pieces.” I nodded toward the ocean of scraps. “We’ll use the fire to bend the metal and sharpen it into some makeshift picks. Then we take the boat to the cliff, climb it, and get our asses home. It might not work, but I don’t get why no one’s at least tried yet.” “We’re actually survivin’ down here. We’d rather live in this hellhole than go out and die. Even if we make it up there, who says there’s a way out? That barrier could be one sided. You can check out, but never leave. Junkyard California.” I curled my fingers over my brother-in-law’s shoulder. “Michelle can’t go through life without you. You raised her. Your parents were drug addicts, I know. You’re the only one who’s been there for her. She needs you.” “You really think a damn guilt trip’ll work on me?” The next afternoon we were halfway up the cliff, our handmade picks holding up our body weight. The ascent was much smoother than we expected. There were natural grooves in the rock that made for functional foot holes and the three times I slipped, I easily caught myself. I wondered if the scientists created the path on purpose; maybe this miniature world wasn’t really a life sentence. Just a punishment no one figured out how to complete. Desmond was always at least twenty feet above me, keeping his pace without fumbling. He’d only pause when he heard my heels scrape across the rock and would ask if I was still there. Not until he knew I was safe would he call me a bumbling bastard. I wasn’t surprised he reached the top minutes before I did, but it was shocking he lingered by the edge, actually concerned with whether I made it or not. As I hitched my knees up and pulled myself over the top, I could hear the high pitched hum. The sound was piercing, wailing. Desmond had to yell for me to hear him. “We just gonna run into it like a buncha cartoon characters?” Instead of the barrier being invisible, it took the form of a brick wall: strong, solid, impenetrable. But this miniature world was created by a group of scientists and their computers. It wasn’t part of reality; it couldn’t go on forever. The wall could just be the ending point they needed, a unique door. Couldn’t it? I loosened my grip on one of the picks as I flung it toward the wall. It passed through with ease, a smooth transition, just like when I entered. “Son of a bitch. It works,” Desmond said with an amused laugh. “Guess it’s time to get to the place we belong, huh?” We both moved toward the wall, eager to return to our real lives, as a new sound materialized. Loud. Deep. Gruff. An engine. The sound originated from the middle of the barrier, the area Desmond was directed toward. My legs were springs against the ground, pouncing toward him to shove him out of the way. He tumbled to the ground from the impact and rolled to safety, realizing what I’d been aiming to do. Before I could follow him, a pickup truck passed through the wall. Then there was darkness. And we were both in the place we belonged.
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