Car rides used to be fond memories of mine. I remember my younger days strapping on my seat belt and settling into the back row with either a drawing pad, a book, or headphones depending on the year and interests du jour. Every two months or so, my parents would mention how we hadn’t seen Grandpa in a while. Right when I heard those words, I’d get giddy and be done packing by the time they’d made that final decision. Those scenic roads of northern Maine on the way to Grandpa’s house never ceased to amaze me no matter how often we went. With Papa driving, Mamma taking the passenger seat, and me spread out across the backseat I never had to share, everything felt right. It was as rich a tradition for us as Christmas for most, only our tradition came at least six times a year.
But I’m older now and Papa says I can do the drive on my own. Him and Mamma are busy at the family bakery in town – the one we’ve been running for three generations. It’s getting cold out, so everyone is after their comfort pastries that they’ll rely on to get through the harsh northern winter. But Grandpa is getting older and the older he gets, the lonelier he seems to feel. I hear a sadness in his voice on the phone – as if he loses a bit of himself every time we finish a visit. And I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my winter break than being with him.
For a reason I couldn’t tell at the time, Mamma and Papa fought about me driving up there alone. I thought it was because of the snow and ice or maybe the tourists coming in for their ski trips backing up the roads, but it wasn’t any of those things. Mamma just didn’t think I could ‘handle’ the roads. “Do you remember Siren Way, Nancy?” she asked me.
“Yes, of course,” I said. “I remember the whole drive by heart.” And that was the truth. I was going to need to know the drive well too because there were a few spots where cell service would get spotty or cut out entirely. A lot of people these days would call that ‘driving blind’ but to me it’s some peace and quiet.
But this didn’t seem to reassure her. She just gave me one of her rare nervous nods and I could see her neck sweat as she gulped. Then she proceeded to tell me the directions to Grandpa’s as if I’d never been before. I didn’t stop her because talking a lot seemed to relax her. She described how I’d take Route 2 East across the state. She told me to watch out for black ice and to pull over if there was too much snow. She mentioned those “flat-landers” who couldn’t handle icy roads if their lives depended on it, which sometimes it did. But the part where I saw her hands start to shake was when she told me about the road just after the exit off Route 2. She wasn’t quite able to articulate what made her especially nervous about that road, but she had one clear point to make which she must have said a hundred times before I started the drive: “Just keep driving. No matter what, just keep driving.” Her voice got weak and shaky like she was up to her neck in ice water when she told me this. I didn’t know what she meant by that and she wouldn’t say. There’s no rest stops for the second half of that trip and I can’t remember us ever stopping after Route 2 when I was a kid. But I could remember something else – more of a lingering sensation than a memory. It was…fear.
I remembered the way Papa would clutch the steering wheel and clench his teeth enough that I could hear them grinding like rusted gears. I remember how he’d mess with the air conditioning and keep turning it up no matter the season. I remember how Mamma would try to sleep through that part of the trip or at least be damn well sure her eyes were squeezed shut. But I never questioned it too much – I’m not sure I wanted to know why Siren Way made them so nervous. When Mamma told me to keep driving and I remembered this all too familiar scene all at once, I sort of nodded and paid attention more seriously. I wanted her to think I understood even though I didn’t fully.
So at the end of the first week of this past December, I set out on my first road trip to see Grandpa. I warmed the car up and said goodbye to Mamma and Papa. Papa just gave me a wave and said “love ya”, but Mamma bit her fingernails and told me again, “Just keep driving.”
“I’ll only be gone the weekend,” I told them. This didn’t make Mamma worry any less, but Papa seemed to just about have had it with the debate.
The beginning of my drive wasn’t so bad. I had a coffee, got a podcast or two in, and was making great time. There didn’t seem to be many tourists this year or any cars at all for that matter – any cars that I did see either had Maine or New Hampshire license plates. But about halfway through my second podcast, the cell service starting getting spotty and I had to switch over to FM radio – a relic, I know. Most cars don’t even have it these days.
And then came Siren Way. Before I remembered Mamma’s fretting, I got kind of happy when I saw the signs for that road: it meant Grandpa’s house was just a couple more turns away. I made a right off Route 2 at my exit. A few more miles down came that left-hand turn onto Siren Way, and that’s where things started to get…strange.
For the first two or three minutes, I could feel my chest fluttering but I wrote it off as a sort of anxiety via osmosis from watching Mamma get as worried as she did. Again, I remembered her squeezing her eyes shut and twisting her head back and forth, trying her best to not look at the road. But why?
And then, it started to get warm. I did have the heat on, but Decembers in Maine were usually a different animal. It was the kind of chill that would make it hard to breathe, heated seats or not. Pap would declare a “heat wave” if the temperature hit the positives during the winter. But this was suddenly the exact opposite. It was like I’d missed the exit to Greenbush and got off at the Sahara Desert. I first turned off the heated seats and tried to control my breathing. It was so hot that I felt my lungs fill with a heavy humidity every time I tried to draw a breath. When I realized the cooler seats weren’t doing the trick, I switched off the car’s heat, but that didn’t work either. It just seemed to get hotter and hotter – and as the heat rose, my eyes got tired. It felt like I needed to stop just for a minute and take a break. Just a minute. But I heard Mama’s voice scolding me in my head. “Just keep driving.” I shook my head and slapped my cheek, then reached back for the air control knobs and cranked on the air conditioning. I felt ridiculous doing this – who ever heard of air conditioning this time of year? But the heat was undeniable. I was sweating straight through my shirt and was getting woozier by the second. Then I remembered how Papa would crank the cool air on Siren Way trip after trip. I sat up straight as an arrow.
Turning on the air conditioning helped a little, but the sweat kept coming. “What the hell,” I said under my breath. And as if things couldn’t get worse, even the FM radio cut out. Great, now I have no distractions. It started out by skipping a few beats, then giving me distorted guitar riffs and drums, skipping enough of the song to make it hardly worth keeping the radio on. But then nothing came through but static. I sighed and shook my head. This better be one hell of a visit, I thought. I pinched the middle of my shirt and shook it to fan off my chest. It sure was hot.
I couldn’t wait for it to turn back on, but when it did, I wished it hadn’t. What came through this time wasn’t Rockin’ Reed’s Classics or even that bothersome static hum; actually, it wasn’t music at all. “N…nan…” the radio hummed and cut, hummed and cut. There was a voice coming through. At first I thought maybe I’d tuned into a commercial break, but it wasn’t advertising anything. It was just repeating one indecipherable word. “Na…N…” it continued.
I hit the dash and said “Come on.” I’m no expert at fixing cars, but of course this wasn’t going to work. I was frustrated and…well, starting to get scared. Then the static suddenly lowered without me changing the volume. It was replaced by a momentary silence and then…
“Nancy,” a high-pitched male’s voice sung.
Was that…my name? My eyes darted between the dash that read the radio station and the road in disbelief. What was that? That couldn’t have been my –
“Nancy,” it said again. “Nancy Katz.”
It got my last name too. This was no coincidence anymore.
Then the voice changed from its rhythmic tune to more of a cry – a cry for help. “Nancy, please. Please I’m begging you. Nancy, stop the car. Pull over, please. My son is sick and needs help. Please.” I could hear the soft whines of a child in the background
I shook my head and my eyes went wide. It was still hot as hell, but that wasn’t the reason I couldn’t breathe now. I was panicking. I looked down to see my two-handed white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel: the same thing Papa used to do. I wanted to shut my eyes too like Mamma, but I couldn’t. I had to keep driving. Just keep driving.
But whoever or…whatever wanted me to pullover so badly wasn’t about to give up so easily. First came the heat, then came the voice over the radio, but then came the carnage.
I was about a mile into the four mile stretch that makes up Siren Way when I saw a hitchhiker by the road’s edge. At first, he looked normal, at least normal for a hitchhiker: baggy plaid clothes, long disheveled hair and a camping backpack. But as I got closer, I noticed something dripping from his extended arm around the elbow. In that eerie steady drip, blood spattered onto the snow beneath him. I took deep breaths and shook my head. I tried to tell myself he wasn’t really there. I pressed the pedal a little harder. The speed limit was 25 on Siren Way, but I was pushing 50 now. I slapped my cheek again. And when I glanced in the rearview mirror, he was gone.
But then I looked back forwards to see a woman waving her arms and making her way towards the center of the road. She was yelling and I heard her, but not from outside. She was coming over the radio. “Please stop! My husband is hurt!” She only got angrier with every iteration of her pleading until her voice crackled into a low demonic tone. “Please, help us! Oh, wouldn’t you be so kind? We skid off the road and need a ride. Please stop! Why won’t you stop, Nancy? Stop the car. Just for a moment. Stop the fucking car.”
I squealed and pushed my back deep into the seat cushion. My grip on the steering wheel was so hard now that my whole arm was going numb. This is it, I thought. Pull over or not, I thought I was going to die. Whatever wanted me to stop the car wanted it badly. It was as if a force was at work that was deprived so long that it was getting desperate – a force that was starving for energy.
After I made my way around the woman I saw a car flipped on its roof, engulfed in flames. A man’s desperate screams and his children’s cries came over the radio. His hand clawed at the inside of the window. I saw a mother holding her child’s deceased body, mangled by an accident behind her. I saw a man hobbling along the shoulder waving to my car. “Stop!” he cried. “Please stop!” One after another they appeared and vanished, all begging me to stop.
But then I made my right turn, the one onto Grandpa’s street just after Siren Way and suddenly…it all stopped. Like clockwork, the radio zapped back to Billy Joel and the road was empty again – no more car wrecks, no more hitchhikers, no more screaming families calling for a ride. Not to mention how freaking cold it got. I smiled and relished the frigid blow of the air conditioning in that Maine December. I’d never before been so happy to freeze.