Backseat Driver

Fiction
Mark Joseph Kevlock


Photo Credit: Thomas Hawk/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

I worked at the car wash. She worked at the Acme supermarket next door. It was 1975. We were probably in love.

I saw a kid hanging around more and more in the background. I thought maybe he was our son, from the future, come back to ensure his own birth by monitoring us closely. I read a lot of science fiction in those days.

I followed the kid when he wasn’t looking. After he left the car wash he went straight to the supermarket and lingered in the produce aisle, where Cathy worked.

“Do you have any long-lost brothers or sisters?” I asked her, walking home up the hill together.

“No. Do you?”

I told Cathy no. She asked why I asked.

“That kid. Haven’t you seen him?”

“Which one?” Cathy said.

“The one with the ragged jeans and the black windbreaker. Bangs in his eyes. Tennis shoes.”

“Un-uh,” Cathy said.

“How could you not see him? He was standing in your aisle for twenty minutes, staring right at you.”

“I didn’t see him,” Cathy said.

The next day at the car wash I chased him into the back seat of a Volkswagen Beetle. He’d been leaning against the cinder blocks, nonchalant, when I circled around and snuck up behind him. At the last second, he spotted me and scrambled through the open door of the car I’d been washing, a VW Bug. The windows were still all soapy, so I lost sight of him for just a second until I got there. Guess what? He was gone. Vanished like a magic act. Neither door had opened on the opposite side. I was positive I saw him climb in. So where did he go?

A time-traveling ghost was looking better and better, as explanations go.

I ate lunch out on the curb with Cathy.

“Why don’t you ask someone else at the car wash if they see him?” Cathy suggested.

“And if they don’t?”

“Then you’re bonkers,” Cathy said.

I didn’t give her a bite of my cupcake.

The kid wore the same clothes every time. But a lot of kids do. Pretty flimsy evidence of a supernatural origin—that was all I had so far.

I did ask a couple of customers, next time he appeared. They didn’t see him. Maybe he’s a psycho-projection of my unconscious mind, I reasoned. I tried to recognize the kid, but I didn’t. I just didn’t know him from anywhere at all. I followed him again to the supermarket. The automatic door opened for him like it did for anybody else. He must’ve been real. Right?

Cathy was getting close to marriage, and I was the only guy around.

“What if we have a kid and this is him?” I said.

“I don’t want our son hanging out at car washes and supermarkets,” Cathy said.

“We’ll raise him better than that,” I said.

“Maybe you should invite him to the wedding,” Cathy said.

She laughed but I didn’t.

Maybe I had a little brother who died, then my parents had me hypnotized to remove the trauma. You’d think I’d recognize his face, though.

I tried shouting at him. He didn’t answer. He didn’t ever look directly at me, either. Just sort of in my direction.

I waited for a revelation. None came. I got married to Cathy, on a car washer’s salary. One day the kid wasn’t there anymore.

“Maybe he’s in my womb, hiding,” Cathy joked.

It took us nine months to find out.

“He’s just a baby,” Cathy said, at first glance. “I can’t tell what he’s going to look like.”

Neither could I.

“Maybe the money got tight and we put him up for adoption. Then he haunted us out of revenge.”

“Haunted you,” Cathy corrected. “I’ve never seen him.”

“I should’ve taken a picture with your Kodak camera,” I said. “Instant developing.”

The kid wasn’t so instant. It took him ten years to get to the right age. I even bought him tennis shoes and a black windbreaker.

“Well?” Cathy said.

“I don’t know,” I said. “It might be him. It might not. Let’s grow those bangs into his eyes.”

“Are you, by chance, working on a time machine in the basement?” Cathy said.

“I guess I forgot that one little detail.”

Winter turned to spring. The car wash was reopened. It was 1985. Cathy and I were probably still in love.

One day a Volkswagen Beetle pulled in. There was a kid asleep on the back seat. He had on a black windbreaker.

I stood there looking at myself in the window reflection. The kid moved a little bit like he was dreaming. Maybe he was. Maybe his dream started back in 1975.

Maybe I only existed because he was dreaming about me. Maybe my whole life was just a story that began at that moment.

I loved Cathy. And my real kid. I didn’t want to lose them.

He kicked a little, like a dog having a bad dream. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to know that I didn’t exist. Maybe I was ruining his imaginary love life. Maybe I represented him in the dream.

All I had to do was wake him up. That would prove, or disprove, all of my theories.

I might cease to exist. Or maybe he would.

I stood there with the sponge in my hand. Then I tossed it back in the bucket.

I couldn’t take the chance.

I just didn’t want my story to end.

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Thus far in 2018 Mark Joseph Kevlock’s fiction has appeared in over two dozen magazines, including 365 Tomorrows, Into The Void, The First Line, Ellipsis Zine, Literally Stories, Bewildering Stories, Down in the Dirt, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Friday Flash Fiction. He has also written for DC Comics. Email: DippedinForever[at]aol.com

Some Kind of Tough Guy

Fiction
Mark Joseph Kiewlak


When I was eight years old I was split in two. It was no big deal. There was a weak, wimpy side of me that I called Betty and a monstrous, destructive side that I called Tough Guy. I couldn’t be both at once. But I was always one or the other.

One day when I was fifteen I was bending over on the sidewalk, stopping to smell some flowers, when two of my classmates came along. I was Betty at the time and they didn’t like Betty. Maybe they felt like they had a Betty inside of them and they didn’t like that either. Their names were Larry and Mike.

Mike started pushing me and I told him not to. He was making me angry. Sure enough the Tough Guy soon appeared. I could hear Betty screaming for him to take it easy, but he didn’t listen. Mike ended up in the hospital. Larry wasn’t so lucky.

I was locked up after that. I spent a lot of years in a lot of different hospitals. I was sure I’d never see home again.

Trying to describe Betty to others, trying to show them that side of me, always reminded me of those flowers that day. I think they were lilacs. They were soft and purple and seemed to have been created just so someone could enjoy them. Just so I could enjoy them. That’s how I felt about Betty. Betty was there to be enjoyed. The funny thing is—and I know it makes no sense—I hated Betty a lot more than I hated Tough Guy. Tough Guy was a force of nature. There was no right or wrong. No guilt. It was Betty who made my soul ache.

I would spend my time drawing on the walls. They gave me crayons and I tried to draw things that Betty would enjoy. But then Tough Guy would come along and scribble all over everything. He’d take the black crayon and ruin everything. But it was Betty I hated. If Betty hadn’t created such beauty there’d be nothing for Tough Guy to destroy.

Over time I began losing my ability to dream. In my dreams I was always Betty. I was barefoot and soft and walking along cliffs, but I never fell. Betty was transcendent.

When I was thirty-two I was released and allowed to go back home. No one was there. My family had moved and no one told me where. I didn’t mind it much, really. They had ignored me even before I was locked away. I stood out in the yard and I imagined what my life would be like without Tough Guy. It would be continuous beauty. It would be gentle and fluid. It would be peace.

I vowed that Tough Guy would never show his face again. I made this promise to myself and to the swaying tree branches and the green grass and whomever else was listening. A thunderstorm began immediately afterward.

I’d always been afraid to talk about Tough Guy because I was pretty sure that it was the talking about him and the thinking about him that made him show up in the first place. Some of the doctors who had visited me suggested that I should talk about Tough Guy because it would make me feel better. They thought it was just a made-up personality that I called on when things got too tough for me alone. They didn’t understand that the transformation was real. That Tough Guy was real. And Betty was too.

Not much happened to me for a while after that. I lived in my parents’ house and no one bothered me. I was Betty all the time. I was happy. But every time a thunderstorm came along I got really scared. I was practically paralyzed. Yet I was always drawn outside into the heart of it. I’d come back soaking wet and numb and have to stay in bed for a few days. I began locking the doors so this wouldn’t happen. But then when the storm came I’d simply unlock them and go outside and repeat the whole thing all over again.

I had started painting. It reminded me of drawing on the walls and I enjoyed it. It was all Betty. Tough Guy never came along and ruined any of it. One day a woman came to the door selling magazines. She spotted my paintings and asked to buy one. The next thing I knew I was selling every one of them and making a lot of money. It was all Betty though. I began to wonder what would happen if Tough Guy ever showed his face again. I had promised myself I wouldn’t think about him.

I was at a gallery one night and there was a show about my paintings. I was some sort of idiot savant. It sounded like a bad thing so I couldn’t understand why they smiled when they said it. There was a lot of talk about Betty and about Tough Guy that night. People didn’t know their names but they were talking about them just the same. People were giving Tough Guy all the credit. A dark side, they called it. They said that there was an undercurrent of darkness in all the beauty Betty created. This was horrible to think about and I knew it couldn’t be true. Besides, they didn’t even think Tough Guy and Betty were real.

I went home and I was still upset. Betty was perfect. There was no darkness there. My agent called to ask if I was okay.

“Do you think there’s an undercurrent of darkness in my work?” I said.

“I don’t judge ’em,” she said. “I just sell ’em.”

I was quiet.

“Are you all right?” she said.

“I’m fine. You didn’t happen to catch the weather forecast, did you?”

The next I knew, she was in my bed. I wondered what Betty thought about all this. I’d never been with a woman, but my agent said it would be okay. She was more than my agent after that.

I couldn’t face the idea of hurting anyone so I created a dungeon in my mind and I locked Tough Guy inside it. Ignoring him hadn’t worked. This was the next best thing.

My agent moved in with me. She watched me work. There hadn’t been any thunderstorms for a long time.

One day Betty wanted a Popsicle and we went down to the drugstore to get one. A couple of guys were robbing the place. My agent was with me and she grabbed hold of my arm. I stepped in front of her. I tried to back us out the door but they had already seen us. They ordered us to come inside and they tied us up along with the cashier. The police were outside shouting things. These other guys were shouting back. They reminded me of Larry and Mike. My agent was crying.

I tried to think of what Betty would do. Paint a picture. Smell a flower. What good was that? I needed Tough Guy. Outside it got dark. It started to rain. I waited to hear the sound.

The Larry and Mike look-a-likes were cursing at the police and making fun of us. They started kicking me. I was getting angry. My agent was gagged and crying really hard now. One of them put a gun to her head. From outside I heard the thunder.

My whole head was like an explosion. Betty was gone and I was in the dungeon. It smelled bad and I was pulling on the shackles, trying to break Tough Guy loose. But I couldn’t. He’d been in the prison so long he’d gotten used to it. He didn’t want to leave. He felt safe there.

The guy pointing the gun at my agent switched it to the cashier and pulled the trigger. Something splattered all over me.

In the dungeon I could see the chains pulling loose from the wall. The wall itself was buckling. There was a huge crack of thunder and then Tough Guy was there. He was eight feet tall. He was made all of muscle. He squeezed the gunman’s hand and crushed it. The other gunman turned toward him and fired. Tough Guy laughed. The bullets felt like nothing. Like butterflies. Like moonbeams. Tough Guy grabbed the other gunman by the front of his shirt and threw him right through the front window. He landed on the hood of a police car. The gunman with the broken hand jumped on Tough Guy’s back. He started pounding on Tough Guy’s head. Tough Guy laughed. He spun around and around and the gunman lost his grip. He was on his knees before Tough Guy. Tough Guy raised his hands. They were as big as catcher’s mitts. If he brought them together the gunman’s head would be squished to nothing.

Suddenly Betty was there. It made no sense. I could be one or the other. But not both at the same time.

“Don’t do this,” Betty said.

If he’d wanted to, Tough Guy could’ve swatted her away like an insect. But he was gentle. He raised her in his massive arms and held her to him. He leapt into the air, crashing through the roof of the drugstore and flying miles into the sky, disappearing from sight.

I woke up in the hospital. My agent was there. She said I was very brave. She said I’d taken three bullets. I didn’t understand. But soon I was released and we were walking together down the sidewalk. I stopped to smell some flowers. My agent looked at me.

“What kind are they?” she said.

“Lilacs,” I said. “I think.”

She bent over to smell them with me.

“They were Betty’s favorite,” I said.

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“I’ve been an author for fifteen years now, mainly short stories and poetry. Recently my work has appeared in Wild Violet, The Bitter Oleander, Black Petals, and Once Upon a Time. I’ve also written for DC Comics (FLASH 80-PAGE GIANT #2). Lately, I’ve been studying Bradbury to try to work some of his poetry into my soul. Other favorites include Robert B. Parker, Anne Rice, Frank Miller (though I hate the way he’s writing Batman now) and J.M. DeMatteis.” E-mail: DippedinForever[at]aol.com.