It was night. A red glow on the horizon. Stein was behind the wheel and they were in Isobel.
“You gotta stop zapping me around. I could get us killed.”
Roger laughed and waved his hand. “I wanted to see what you would do in a situation like that. That was a vital turn in history you disrupted. On top of that, you could see and take her soul. Much more than I expected. Much more than I was prepared for.”
“What happened to her soul Roger?” Stein's fingers tightened on the steering wheel despite the rising heat radiating from the engine compartment. Isobel's speedometer danced dangerously close to the dreaded 500.
“You ate it. Like a roast beef sandwich.”
Stein jammed on the brake pedal to no effect. The car continued forward, the desert roadside landscape whizzing by at astonishing blurriness. He slapped the steering wheel.
“Why in the fuck am I even driving at all?”
“You're not,” Roger said with a smug smile. He turned his head to look out the window, his arm up on the windowsill. “You're commanding it.”
“Bullshit,” Stein snapped. “If I was commanding it, we'd be stopped.”
“You want to know more. You want that soul to be safe. You want away.” He glanced out the windshield. “This is away.”
“I stole her soul, didn't I.”
Stein leaned forward, resting his forehead on the steering wheel. He could feel the vibrations of the road. “It felt like I had no choice.”
“Now you are learning.”
A band of Aurora Borealis waved across the strange, starless black overhead.
Just...push him out.
I can't do that. That would fuck stuff up worse.
Why's that? Do you feel that unsure of yourself?
Who the fuck are you now?
It's easy. I'm...you.
The sound of the erratic jazz startled him from sleep. The vibrations were lulling, like a lover's touch. Roger sat in the passenger seat, unaware of the internal conversation. A dream.
Maybe this was all a dream.
Stein lifted off the steering wheel and looked out the dark glass. Reflections of the dash interrupted the exterior scenery, but God, it was amazing. Planes stabbed nose-first into the dirt like winged arrows. Smoke curled towards the malevolent boiling red sky and through it all, wandering figures. Skeletons of dead cattle lay strewn about like a pre-schooler's toys. Explosions beyond the horizon gave a little nudge to Isobel's navigation now and then. Bony arms rose to the skies. Stein squeezed his eyes shut.
I can't look at this. So much misery.
“Fascinating, isn't it?” Roger rustled garments behind him. Stein shook his head.
“It's horrible, is what it is. Are these all dead souls?”
“So many that they've been forced in this place of Limbo.”
“Limbo.” Stein sighed. "Neither here nor there."
“Perhaps,” Roger said, the corners of his lips twitching into a smile when Stein turned to glance back.
“Where are we going?”
“For a ride.”
The jazz swelled and receded in the cabin of the car, the dashboard illumination pulsating to the notes thrilling through unseen speakers. Stein clamped his hands over his ears, gritting his teeth.
“Can we listen to something else, for fuck's sake?”
Roger snorted. As if.
“Right, well at least turn it down. It's about to split my skull open.”
“Cristein—I'm not sure how to further impress upon you that this is not a vacation. Those fools outside the glass? They'd tear you apart with their teeth to be in your shoes. You have a ride. You have Isobel.”
“Nice. I'm the guy left with the only running vehicle. I think I've seen this movie before.”
Roger chuckled softly. “Stop the car and find out how wrong you are.”
As if in response to Roger's request, the speedometer needle began to fall by gradual degrees.
Stein jerked his view from the speedometer, to the road ahead of them, to the scene outside. Out there?
“Okay, you win. I don't want to know. I'm fine with not knowing.”
“I don't think you really are,” Roger said, leaning forward with that fucking grin on his face. Stein stomped the gas pedal—a lot of good either pedal did—the car continued to slow.
“Okay, okay. I don't care about them, I don't want to know about out there. Make the car go. Make it fucking go!” Stein slapped the steering wheel, as if that would convey his displeasure with Isobel's actions.
“Tear you apart with their teeth,” Roger said again and laughed over the insane jazz.
“This is fucked up.” Stein said, stamping the gas pedal again. “This is fucked up!”
“You'll see just how 'fucked-up' it can be, Cristein. Be the man you think you are. When this vehicle stops, you'll get your chance to make their acquaintance.”
“They'll fucking kill me!”
Roger sniffed. “As I've mentioned—many, many, many times at that—there is no release after you are already dead. But there is pain, and there is—deletion.”
“Like Ramona,” Stein said, his body growing still. “Deleted.”
The car creeped along the highway, and the creatures outside took notice. Dead things slithered, walked, and ran alongside the car, unwilling to step foot on the blacktop. Stein noted the one delicious little detail. A single strand of hope forming into a ball in his chest the size of a wad of chewing gum found under a desk in forth grade.
Isobel came to a halt.
The jazz cut off without warning, and a resounding howl of wicked and tormented things reached his ears through the glass. The very sound of the thousands upon thousands of tortured souls caused him to gasp and his ears to bleed.
Roger smirked. “Hence the jazz.” He nodded toward the door. “Open it.”
“I'd rather not.”
“Open it and get out or I will throw you out,” Roger growled.
Stein opened the door and stepped out into a soundless wind, only the wails of the tormented filtering through. Roger appeared on the other side of the car over the roofline.
“And here they come.”
The largest, most formidable army in history could not match the sheer presence of this compilation of souls, ragged, bleeding, decapitated. Dressed in finery shredded to rags or nothing at all. Eyeless, hairless, naked, and screaming, they rushed to the car.
Their tormented wails colored to red, blazing anger when they reached the blacktop.
Like bacon-ash. One daring creature threw itself upon the highway, Isobel and the two men (loosely defined) sitting square in the middle and flared up like those funny little firecrackers you buy that don't pop, just snake out into coils of ash—that soul did just that, coiled and writhed and screamed and poof.
“Deleted,” Stein whispered, like the thing had never been a man or woman and never, ever existed. No redemption. No reincarnation. Just poof.
“I thought you might like that little detail,” Roger said, sauntering to his side of the car. The numberless army stood angry and wailing and tearing one another's hair and eyes out. Teeth. Red, jagged teeth, gnashing like rabid wolves.
“These are the displaced ones. In line of course. For that final call. Their place is guaranteed. Forever.”
He toed the coiled ash dispersing across the Styx. “Except for this pathetic fool.”
Roger turned to address the masses, raising his arms.
“DO YOU HEAR ME? DELETED!”
The response was less than savory and the stench of decay made itself known to Stein for the first time, making him gag. The calls of the Displaced were carving bloody furrows in his ears. He licked his lips. Looked back at Isobel.
I hope what Roger said holds true, bitch.
He charged Roger's back, throwing his shoulder into the natural curve of Roger's spine, catching him wholly offguard and unable to resist the inertia. Roger stumbled forward, dug his heels in and then was over The White Line of the highway.
The Displaced fell on him like starving wolves, and Stein turned his face away.