NaNoWriMo 2016 – Wrong Exit – Week 1

I was still thinking about what to do the next morning as I picked up my deliveries and set out. I was heading out 20 east when I thought of someone. I hadn’t talked with them in a while and… to be honest when I talked that time it hadn’t been on the best of terms. But I needed to talk to someone about this and they were the only ones I knew well enough that they might hear me out before deciding I was insane. I hesitated but eventually pulled out my cell phone and dialed it, flipping it onto the car Bluetooth. The phone barely rang once before I got an answer.

“McPhearson Engineering. This is Scott!”

I took a deep breath. “Hey Scott,” I said, trying to sound as casual as possible. “It’s Dale. How’s it going?”

“Dale!” He hesitated for a moment. “It’s been a while man! Haven’t heard from you moved to the north side. How’s it going?”

“Pretty good, pretty good. And I can’t complain about the commute anymore.”

He laughed. “Isn’t your whole job commuting?”

It was my turn to laugh. “No, no, I do my driving *outside* the Perimeter.” I paused, wondering how to tell him what I had found. “So…” I said, stalling, “How’s Diane doing?”

“Fine,” he said, “everything is great.” It was his turn to pause. “Say, we’re doing a game night tonight at our place, Jeff and Donna will be there, why don’t you come down and join us? We can all catch up on everyone.”

I hesitated. “Sure,” I said finally. “Assuming I get back to town on time.”

“Don’t worry about that,” he said. “We never get started on time anyway.” We chatted a bit more then he had to get back to work and hung up.

I drove in silence for a bit. I’d known Scott since college, though I hadn’t hung around with or even talked to the old group much since then. I guess it was because I felt I didn’t fit in with them anymore; given that they had graduated and I hadn’t. Still, it would be nice to see the old gang again, even if I couldn’t talk about what I had found. I shrugged. I wasn’t sure if they would believe me anyway.

—–

The day proved relatively uneventful and I got back home early enough to change and grab a couple of six-packs before heading downtown. I had been joking earlier, but the traffic into Atlanta on a Friday night proved to be the worst I had encountered that day. I eventually made it to the Station and found my way up to Scott and Diane’s condo.

Diane met me at the door. “Dale!” She gave me a quick hug before inviting me inside. “I thought Scott was joking when he said you called him this morning. How have you been?”

“Fine, fine,” I said, oddly uncomfortable. I held up the beer I was carrying. “Where should I put this?”

“Kitchen,” she said, pointing. “Scott’s in there too, trying to do something.” She led me down a short hall and into the kitchen. Scott was indeed there, waving a cloud of smoke away from the oven. I heard Diane sigh behind me and turned to see her throw up her hands and head back into the hall.

“So, do you need the fire department or just a beer?”

Scott looked up and laughed, closing the oven door. “Beer is fine.” He took one of the six-packs from me and, after taking one for himself, stuck it in the refrigerator. I handed him the other pack after taking one for myself as well and he stuck it beside the first before closing the door.

“Crisis averted!” he said, popping the tab. “How’s it going, Dale?”

“Um… fine?” I said. “What about…” I trailed off and pointed at the oven.

He waved dismissively at it. “It’s off. It’ll go out. I’ll clean it in the morning.” He shrugged. “That’s what I get for trying to make buffalo wings.”

“Didn’t you screw up the dorm microwave once the same way?”

He looked offended. “That was because I forgot to take the foil off the top. That was different.”

I shrugged. “Had the same effect.”

He waved dismissively. “Oh well, we’re getting pizza anyway. Come on, let’s see what everyone else is up to.”

He led me to the living room where Diane was watching Jeff and Donna play some fighting game on the PlayStation. Donna was winning, based on the amount of profanity coming from Jeff. It was one of his greatest talents.

“Hi Dale,” said Donna without looking away from the TV. Jeff glanced back towards me, which was enough of a distraction for Donna’s fighter to unleash a series of uppercuts on his champion. The fighter collapsed and Jeff groaned, dropped the controller and stood up and stretched.

“Never fight this woman,” he said, pointing at Donna. “Never.” He walked around the sofa and slapped me on the shoulder. “Haven’t seen you in what, a year or more? How you been, man?”

I shrugged, starting to feel even more uncomfortable. “Jessica’s going away party back in the summer, I think? The one at the pool?”

Donna had stood up as well and had cocked her head at me, giving me a look I remembered all too well. “That was *last* summer,” she said, shaking her head. “So a year-and-a-half ago.”

I started to respond then took another look at her and felt myself twitch in shock. “You’re pregnant?” I blurted out without thinking.

Several of the others laughed and I felt myself redden with embarrassment. “Yes,” she said, patting her stomach. “Six months.”

“Oh…” I was still recovering from my surprise. “I didn’t know.” I turned back to Jeff. “Congrats man, I didn’t know.”

“Thanks,” he said with a shrug, taking my pro-offered hand, “but she’s doing the hard part.” He turned back to Donna and smiled.

“Congratulations to you too.” I walked over and awkwardly hugged her across the sofa. She smiled.

“If you talked to people anymore you would know what was going on,” she said, shaking her head at me. “Or even looked at Facebook from time to time.”

I shrugged, feeling more awkward by the moment. “Yeah, sorry. I’ve just been… kinda busy of late.”

“Hey, no problem man!” Scott clapped me on the shoulder again. “You’re here now and we can catch up. Pizza should show up soon and we’ve got one of the new Legacy games we’re wanting to try.”

“But if you play, you’ve got to come back for the next sessions, OK?” Diane was looking at me.

I smiled back. It did feel good to be hanging out with everyone again. “Sure. I can do that.”

“Great!”

At that point the doorbell rang. “Pizza’s here!” said Scott, heading towards the door.

A few minutes later we were all crowded in the kitchen around a couple of pizza boxes while Scott was handing out more beer from the refrigerator. I saw Diane glance into the oven, roll her eyes, then quickly shut it again.

Jeff had seen her too. “Hey Scott, where are those wings you were making.”

Scott shook his head. “Just eat your pizza.” He turned to me to change the subject. “So what’s up, Dale. What prompted you to suddenly start communicating again?”

I hesitated. That morning my calling Scott up had seemed like a good idea, but I had expected to just talk to him and maybe Diane. I hadn’t expected to see Jeff, or especially Donna. Now I wasn’t sure what to say. I felt uncomfortable. It *had* been a long time since I had seen everyone and I suddenly didn’t want to spoil the evening by making them think I was crazy or something.

Not that they didn’t have reason to think that of me already.

“Um… nothing really.” I said, finally. “Was just on a long route, thought about how I hadn’t talked to any of you in a while, and suddenly decided to call and see what was going on.”

Scott looked at me dubiously but his tone of voice was normal. “Hey, glad you did. We had wondered what happened to you.”

“Yeah,” I said, shrugging, “I guess I did fall off the face of the Earth for a while.” I paused, thinking about how that may have been more accurate than I had intended.

“Yeah, you kinda did,” said Donna. She hesitated a moment, looked away, then looked back. “Have you, um…, talked to Lisa lately?”

I stared at her for a moment, then looked away. “No. No I haven’t.” I paused. “I… no.”

There was an awkward silence. “She asked about you the last time we talked,” said Donna finally.

I winced. “How is she?”

She shrugged a shoulder. “Fine. Seems to like being up in Charlotte.” She paused again. “She’s engaged now, you know.”

I winced again, a cold knot forming in my stomach. “Oh? I…” I hesitated. “Good. I’m happy for her.”

Now Jeff was staring at me. “Yeah. She seemed happy when we talked to her.”

I nodded, forcing a smile. “Good. Good.”

“She said she tried to call you.” Donna was staring straight at me.

I sighed. I really hadn’t wanted the conversation to go this way. Avoiding it was the main reason I hadn’t talked to my friends from college, my former roommate, my best friend, and my now-pregnant ex who was now married to my former roommate, for over a year. I suddenly wished I hadn’t called Scott that morning.

“Look,” I said. “Sorry. Maybe I shouldn’t have brought you into this. I’ll… I’ll be OK.” I drained my beer and tossed it into the trash. “Look… Maybe I should just go.”

“What?” Scott stared at me in surprise. “Dale, what’s going on? You disappear on us for over a year, call out of nowhere, say you shouldn’t involve us in ‘this’, then suddenly leave? What the hell is going on.”

“I can’t do this.” I said. I opened the refrigerator and grabbed one of the six-packs. “Keep that one.” I said, pointing. “Thanks for the pizza.” I turned and started walking towards the door.

“Dale, wait!” Donna ran up, getting between me and the door. “Dale… what’s going on?”

“This was a mistake,” I said. I felt my eyes stinging and closed them, then took a deep breath to steady myself. “Look… I’ll… just deal with it.”

“We *are* your friends.” Scott said, coming up and standing next to Donna. “You’re the one who suddenly decided not to talk to anyone. When you called I thought it was something about Lisa but I guess it isn’t. Look, I know what happened with the two of you and we don’t really blame either of you. But that’s between you two. Don’t take it out on us.”

I sighed and turned back to Donna. “I just figured that since she was your roommate…”

She made a face. “What, that I would automatically side with her? Remember, I lived with her. And dated you before I met Jeff.” She turned to smile at him then back to me. “And *he* was *your* roommate. We all know both of you too well to take sides.”

Jeff grimaced. “Actually, we think you’re both idiots, but we won’t go there.”

I sighed, feeling a strange mixture of embarrassment and relief, and looked down. “I just figured…”

Jeff let out a snort. “Yeah, that was always your problem. You just assume things and run away.” I flushed with sudden annoyance and looked up to glare at him. He held his hands out in a placating gesture. “Hey, you’re the one who cut yourself off from us for over a year. Don’t get mad at me.”

I continued staring for several long seconds before taking a deep breath and letting out a long sigh. “OK,” I said. “OK. Fair enough. You aren’t wrong. It’s just… more complicated than that.”

“It always is,” said Diane. “Just next time, say something first, OK?”

“Yeah, fine.” I said, embarrassment setting back in again. There was a long pause before I walked back into the kitchen and put the six-pack back down and pulled another beer out.

“I guess I can stay a while longer. If you can keep putting up with me.”

Diane glared at me. “Will you stop with that?” She shook her head. “That was always what was hardest to put up with from you.”

“Sorry.” She just glared at me again.

Scott stepped forward. “OK, so you weren’t wanting to talk about Lisa or whatever happened last year. That’s fine. But… why *did* you call me this morning?”

I shrugged. “I just thought…”

He shook his head. “No you didn’t. What’s going on?”

I sighed again and shook my own head. “All of you will think I’m crazy.”

Donna laughed. “Well, we already know that.” The others joined in the laugh and even I had to smile.

“OK,” I said. “Here’s what’s happened.” I took a drink of my beer then launched into a description of what had happened. The first exit up by Dalton, the one past Macon and my conversation with Sara, and finally the woman I had met yesterday. I had expected derision or jokes, but as I continued I could see they were becoming more interested.

“I know it sounds insane.” I said as I finished. “But… it happened. And I didn’t know who else I could talk to about it that wouldn’t think I was crazy or just making stuff up.” I sighed. “Just thinking about it is driving me crazy. I had to talk to someone.”

Jeff nodded. “Hey, I’d play that campaign. You always were the best at coming up with scenarios.”

I looked at him. “I’m not making this up!”

He held out his hands. “No, I didn’t mean it that way. It just sounds like something from those games you used to run.”

I sighed. “Yeah, I know. That’s what makes it so insane.”

“Do you have a dashcam?” Scott asked suddenly.

“What? No.” I shook my head. “Why?”

“Get one.” he said. “If this is happening,” he held up a hand to forestall any objection from me. “If this is happening then you need some sort of evidence or proof. It sounds like physically bringing something back with you may be a bad idea, but I’d guess that a recording on something from ‘there’, for lack of a better term, would work. You’re able to remember what happened over there anyway.”

“Over there?”

He shrugged. “Dunno what else to call it for now.”

I shook my head. “This stuff happened.” I paused. “Y’all don’t think I’m crazy?”

It was Donna’s turn to shake her head. “We all know you. You tend to over-react to things and think everything is a disaster even when it isn’t.” She paused when I glared at her. “Sorry, but you do. Anyway, despite that you’ve never been one to make things up. Or to lie about things. If you say this is something that happened to you then it happened. We believe you.” She looked around and the others nodded agreement.

I was suddenly almost overcome with emotion and relief. “Thanks,” I said, blinking my eyes. “I thought… I thought you would have thought I had completely lost my mind.”

Jeff laughed. “Oh, we know that. But that has nothing to do with whatever you’ve found.”

Donna had been sitting quietly and finally spoke. “The thing that gets me is that other people seem to know about this. That guy near Dalton, the plumber you said it was? He seemed to know where you had been. And your co-worker, Caleb did too.” She looked at the others. “This should be all over the Internet. Why haven’t we heard of this.”

I shook my head. “Yeah, that’s been bothering me too. I posted a couple of things on Reddit but no one seemed to pay any attention to them. And I’ve checked Google and found a bunch of stuff, but nothing there seems to completely match up.” I laughed. “There’s a ridiculous amount of weird crap on the Internet, but the weird crap doesn’t seem to match up to the real weird crap I’ve been running into.” That got a couple of laughs.

Scott had still been thinking. “Do you have that menu anymore?”

I shook my head. “Left it.”

“Do you remember the name? Or the number?”

“‘Boot Scooters’ was the name. I can’t remember the number.”

Diane left for the living room then came back carrying her iPad, already typing on it. She scanned it for a few seconds.

“Looks like there is a sports bar called ‘Boot Scooters’ in Pineville. That’s about 20 miles east of Macon.”

I nodded. “Sounds about right.”

She looked up. “And you don’t remember the number?”

Scott looked at me. “You said you tried to call them. Is it still in your phone?”

I pulled my phone out and looked at it. “Yeah, yes it is.” I scrolled down and rattled the number off.

Diane tapped on her iPad again. “Yeah, that’s a Pineville number, but it’s apparently a private residence; there’s no other info.”

Scott started pacing around the kitchen. “So the place you went to isn’t an exact duplicate of our world. It’s close, but not exact.”

I shook my head. “What does that mean?”

He shrugged. “It looked like a normal exit to you, even though it apparently replaced an existing exit. You say you found it twice; once up 75 and once near Macon?”

I nodded. “Yeah. But the Dalton one I found wasn’t where a real exit would be. More like between two exits.”

“Well, not where an exit would be here,” he said.

“What does that mean?”

He looked around then stopped his pacing and leaned back against the table. “My best guess is that you’re somehow winding up in an alternate universe.”

“What?”

He waved his hands. “I’ve got no better term for it. Let’s assume everything you’ve said is correct.” I started to say something but he waved me off. “I’m sure you’re telling us what you think happened, but you may have been pranked in some way.” He shrugged. “If you show up on TV in the next month or so we’ll all have a good laugh, I assume. Anyway, outside of that the only think I can think of is an alternate universe.”

I laughed. “What? Like that TV show ‘Sliders’ or something?”

He nodded. “Yeah, but why you? And, like Donna said, given that a random guy at a Quik-Trip apparently knew something about this, why isn’t this general knowledge?”

I nodded my head. “If that guy and Caleb knew about this then others should know too. So why isn’t it on the news? Or all over the Internet.”

Diane laughed. “You didn’t expect us to believe you. Why would anyone else?”

“Someone would have said something.”

She nodded. “Yeah, and who would have believed them?”

“Y’all believe me, don’t you?”

Scott nodded slowly. “Yeah, but we know you and know you don’t make up things like this. Others may have told people they trusted but it never went beyond them. Or…” He paused. “What happened to Caleb?”

“I don’t know. I never knew him that well.”

He nodded again. “Yeah, he told his fiancee… Sara was it?… about what he found and she didn’t seem to share his interest. So he quit talking to her. Maybe the same thing happens to everyone else. Maybe they all eventually leave and never come back.” He paused. “There *are* any number of missing persons every year. Maybe this accounts for some of them.”

I shook my head. “Could be. I don’t know.”

He shook his head in return. “I don’t either.” He sighed, then laughed. “I’m almost jealous. I’d love to have something weird like that happen to me.”

“Me too!” said Donna. “Take me with you next time!”

I laughed. “I’d love to, but you’re the one who left me for my roommate.” I spoke without thinking and winced almost immediately.

There was a brief awkward silence then she went over and hugged Jeff. “Hey, I’m glad you introduced me to him.” She gave him a quick kiss.

The awkward silence returned. Finally, I spoke again. “So… what have you heard from Lisa lately?”

Jeff and Donna looked at each other. “She calls sometimes,” said Donna, finally. She paused. “She asks about you.”

I closed my eyes briefly, then opened them. “So… what do you say?”

“That we don’t know.” she shrugged. “You *did* kinda disappear, you know.”

I looked away in embarrassment again. “Yeah, yeah, I know.” I sighed. “Next time she calls, tell her… tell her I’m sorry, but I’m glad she’s happy.”

Jeff and Donna looked at each other then Donna nodded. “Sure. I’ll let her know.”

I nodded in return. “Yeah. Thanks.”

Scott looked around, sensing the mood change in the room. “OK, then. We’ve got a game to play! Who is ready?”

We spend the next few hours playing three rounds of Legacy. Scott and Diane played as the Exorcist, Jeff and Donna as the Inquisitioner while I wound up being the Priest. We did well, but London fell to the hordes before we were able to stabilize the rest of the world.

“That’ll be bad next time.” said Scott as we started putting things away. He looked up at me. “Try again in two weeks?”

I nodded. “Sure. It’ll be fun.”

“Bring Sara next time.” said Donna, coming back in from the kitchen.

I shook my head and laughed. “I’m not involved with Sara.”

Scott laughed as well. “Dale, you’re never involved with anyone. Until you are. Invite her. The worst that can happen is she says ‘no’.”

I shrugged. “Yeah, yeah, I know. We’ll see.”

He shook his head. “You’ll be here by yourself.”

I flushed again. “I’ll invite her.”

He nodded. “Sure you will.”

—–

Soon afterwards everyone started saying their goodbyes. I was the first to leave, suddenly feeling uncomfortable again. A few minutes later, I was back in my car and heading north on 75 for home. They were doing some construction and traffic was slow, so I had fired up an audio book on my phone and was listening to it as I inched northward.

“When will we be there?” came a voice from my right.

I jumped, hard enough that I would have hit my head on the roof if I hadn’t been wearing my seat belt, and only the fact that traffic was basically standing still kept me from having an accident. I looked over at the passenger seat.

The woman I had picked up yesterday in that other place was sitting there, looking at me. “When will we be there?” she repeated, expressionless.

I took a few seconds to catch my breath, then swallowed hard. “Where…” I finally got out, “where did you go?”

Her expression changed slightly. “Here?” She tilted her head. “I’ve been here.”

I shook my head. “That was yesterday! You were there then you… weren’t!”

Her face remained unchanged. “I’ve been here.” She paused. “You have been very quiet.” She looked around again. “It has been a long trip. When will we be there?”

I shook my head again and took a few seconds to find my phone and stop the playback. I paused, then tapped the camera icon, starting it. I dropped it on the console in front of the shifter and propped up against the dash where I thought the camera would get both of us.

“OK.” I said, pulling forward a few feet then turning back to her. “You vanished yesterday as soon as I got back on the Interstate. I didn’t know where you had gone.”

She shook her head slightly. “I’ve been here.”

I sighed. “OK. OK. Look, I don’t know what the rules are. I don’t know what is happening or why. Can you tell me anything?”

She looked at me with faint curiosity and concern. “You are not a Traveller?”

I shook my head. “I don’t even know what that means!”

She continued to look at me. “But… you were on the Road.” Somehow I heard the capital letter.

“The Road?”

She nodded slowly. “The Road between the places. The way they Travel.” I heard that capital too. “How did you get there if you are not a Traveller?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know. I just… found myself there.”

She nodded slowly. “Yes. Yes. That is how it starts, isn’t it?”

“What starts?”

“The Travelling.” She tilted her head. “Who were you looking for?”

“I was looking for a bathroom.” I laughed. “I found one, I guess.”

She paused before answering. “I was looking for someone. They told me I might be able to meet him.” She paused again. “I never did.” A tinge of sadness crept into her voice. “I think he was too far away.”

Traffic moved a bit and I pulled forward and was able to get over to the next lane which looked like it was moving a bit faster. The delay gave me time to think a bit more. “Who were you looking for.” I asked once I got back into the lane.

“My husband,” she said quietly. She didn’t say anything for a while and I actually glanced over to see if she had disappeared again. We had reached the construction zone and a roller was smoothing down some recently poured asphalt. A number of workers were standing around watching the machine and she was watching them.

“So different,” she said. “Everywhere is so different.”

Traffic started picking up and I accelerated with it. Once clear of the zone I shifted back to the right where I would be less distracted and glanced back over at her.

“I’m Dale, by the way.” I said, holding my free hand out towards her.

She looked at my hand for a moment, then gently squeezed it. “Nichole. Nichole Masters”.

“Good to meet you Nichole,” I said. I suddenly feeling awkward. “You said you were looking for your husband?”

She nodded silently. “He was in the war. He didn’t come home. They said that he hadn’t been killed, that he just went out on patrol one day and never came back. He and his jeep just vanished.”

I nodded. “That must have been rough.”

She sat silent again. “I just want to go home.”

“Sure,” I said, swinging towards the exit lane. “Where is that?”

“Arman Lane. South of the bridge.”

I furrowed my brow. “Arman Lane? Where’s that?”

“South of the bridge.” Her voice raised slightly. “About a mile from the coast.”

“The coast?” I turned to stare at her for several seconds before looking back to the road again. “There’s no coast near here.”

“No?” I heard another rare trace of emotion in her voice. “Where… where are we? Where are you taking me?”

I hesitated. I hadn’t even thought of that. “I guess… I don’t know.” I paused. “Where *are* you from?”

“Saint Francisca. In California.”

“California? San Francisco?”

“What is that?” she asked.

I was looking at the road as I negotiated the loop on the exit. “San Francisco. That’s all I’ve ever heard it called. Do people actually call it…” I completed the turn and glanced in her direction again.

The passenger seat was empty.

I felt a knot in my stomach and gripped the wheel tightly, staring straight ahead at the road ahead of me except for occasional glances over towards the passenger seat. I somewhat expected to see Nichole sitting there again but was unsurprised when she didn’t.

Some minutes later I was home. Grabbing my bag, I reached for the phone then remembered I had put it against the dash. I picked it up and looked. The camera was still recording. I stopped the recording, immediately started a playback, and was inexplicably relieved to see an image of me and Nichole. Well, my right side and arm and her left arm and shoulder. But at least it showed someone had really been there in my car.

“I’m *not* going crazy!” I shouted, a bit more loudly than I had planned.

“Yes you are!” came a shout from somewhere else in the complex. I winced in embarrassment and headed for my apartment.

Once inside I immediately plugged my phone into my computer and pulled up the file. I replayed the entire thing then, when it ended, replayed it again.

Our conversation was a bit difficult to make out because of the engine noise, especially after we got up to speed again, but everything was as I remembered it. I watched towards the end when I was taking the exit. I could see myself turning the wheel as I took the loop and from the angle of her shoulder Nichole was looking out the window. Then, in the space of a single frame, she vanished.

I only had the video editor that had come with my PC but I pulled up the video in it. In one frame her arm, shoulder and a bit of her hair were visible. In the next they were gone. There was nothing to indicate she had ever been there.

I shook my head, then immediately made several copies of the file, even putting one up on online storage and another on a USB stick to take down to Scott. I thought about calling him to tell him what had happened but realized it was late. I decided to call him in the morning.

I did take some time to look up “Saint Francisca” online. There didn’t seem to be city with that name in California and none of any importance anywhere else. I also did a search for “Nichole Masters” but came up empty. I got a few hits but none of them seemed to be the person I had met.

Finally, after helping myself to the last beer from the six-pack, I went on to bed. I lay there a long while before I went to sleep; I had too much on my mind to process. If anyone had told me what I was experiencing I would have said they were crazy. Or at least were talking about something not real. But it *was* happening. And I had the video proof.

At least my friends believed me. Or at least they seemed to. I sighed in the darkness. I had cut myself off from them. After I had dropped out while they stayed in Tech I had felt a bit disconnected from them. Then, after Lisa and I had… well, I didn’t want to think about it. I just assumed they would assume it was another failure of mine. And, if I was honest with myself, I avoided them because they reminded me of what could have been.

Then I thought about Lisa for a long time. I finally fell asleep.

—–

The next morning I slept late. When I did get up I cleaned up then headed out. After a stop at a Caribou for coffee I went down to Best Buy to look at dash-cams. I could have gotten one from Amazon cheaper but I didn’t want to wait for it to show up. I got one that not only covered the road ahead but had a rear camera to record what happened inside the car as well. I then spent enough time to hook it up and make sure it was working before pulling out onto the road again.

After confirming for the third time that the camera was working I pulled my phone out to call Scott. I couldn’t get the Bluetooth to connect so I had to wait until I got to the next red light to look at it.

My phone was dead. I couldn’t do anything with it. With a curse, I turned around and headed for the AT&T store.

Once there, I talked to one of the clerks and showed him the phone. He looked at it for a bit, then went into the back. A few minutes later he returned with another worker, this one apparently a manager of some kind.

“Mr. Carter?” he asked, holding out a hand. “I’m Thomas Simpson.” He looked at me a bit askance. “Why don’t we see if I can help you over here?” He gestured towards the counter in back.

I could already tell that something was wrong. “Is there a problem?”

He sighed and looked around. “No, no… but let’s talk back here, please?”

I looked around. I wasn’t sure what was going on but I needed my phone. With a shrug I followed him to the rear counter.

There he dismissed the clerk I had been working with. “Mr. Carter, I’m sorry, but… may I see some ID?”

I was confused but pulled out my driver’s license and handed it to him. He looked from it to me several times, then handed it back and looked at something on the iPad he was carrying.

“OK, Mr. Carter, did you find your phone again?”

“Find my… what?” Now I was completely confused.

It was his turn to look confused as well. He held up the iPad towards me. “You called support several hours ago and said that your phone had been stolen. You asked us to lock it and remotely wipe it.” He pointed at the phone I was holding. “Is that it?”

“What?” I asked. “No! I didn’t call you. My phone was fine! Who… what?”

He looked at me oddly. “Did you not call us?”

“If my phone was stolen then how could I have called you?” I asked.

“Another phone?” he said, stating the obvious. He looked at his notes again. “Whoever called had your passphrase and PIN; everything they needed to access your account.” He thought for a moment. “Would someone else have had your information? A roommate maybe, or your wife or girlfriend. Or ex-wife or ex-girlfriend?”

“No, no.” I said, shaking my head. “Not for a while.”

“Could someone have done it anyway?”

I continued to shake my head. “No. I don’t think so.”

Simpson rubbed his eyes. “OK. We can unlock your phone again but we have wiped it. The data on it is gone.”

I immediately thought about the recording. The knot in my stomach had come back as well.”

“That’s OK,” I said, trying to sound unconcerned. “I can recover it.”

He looked at me curiously. “Are you sure?”

I nodded. “Yeah, yeah. I’m OK.”

He talked a bit more, trying to get me to upgrade to a newer phone or to sign up for their backup service, but I was in a hurry to get back home. I was suddenly paranoid. Had someone wiped my phone just to get rid of the recording? The timing seemed just too coincidental.

Thirty minutes later I was back in my apartment. Nothing seemed disturbed and I quickly checked my computer to see if the copies of the recording I had made were still there. They were. I relaxed a bit. Then I looked up Scott’s number and called him.

“Heya Dale!” he said on answering. “After a year-and-a-half you’re sure talkative again.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Hadn’t planned on calling you back up right away, but something came up.” I told him about Nichole appearing in my car the night before, then disappearing again.

“I got a recording of the whole thing.” I finished. “Well, most of it. I made you a copy.”

“What!” He sounded excited. “You had a recording and didn’t call me first thing?”

“I didn’t know if you still slept late on weekends, so I went and got a dashcam like you suggested. Oh, then something screwy happened with my phone.”

“Did you drop it in the toilet again?” He laughed.

“That was just that once,” I said, aggravated. “Someone wiped it.”

“Huh?”

I then told him about my trip to the phone store that morning. “One of y’all didn’t decide to have some fun at my expense after last night, did you?”

“No,” he said. “None of us would have done that.”

I sighed. “Someone knew enough about me to get into my account. That’s what worries me.”

“And it happened just after you made contact again with this strange woman.” There was silence for a moments. Finally, he let out a laugh and spoke again.

“This all sounds like something from that occult conspiracy game you used to run back at Tech. But you wouldn’t have made the connection that obvious though.”

I nodded. I *had* thought of that myself, but decided I was just being too paranoid.

“I doubt there’s a vast government watchdog agency out looking for people who randomly take Interstate exits that lead to other universes or something.” I paused. “And that’s probably the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever said.”

Scott laughed again. “Glad you hear you sounding like yourself again. And that’s only about the third or fourth most ridiculous thing you’ve ever said.”

I laughed in return. “OK, OK, fine. Now, how do I get this file out to you?”

There was a brief pause. “Diane’s got her shift at the pharmacy today so she won’t get home until about 8. I was out doing some running around. You remember where the Toro La Paz is?”

“Down near Buckhead?”

“Yeah, that one. I’m over at the mall. Meet you there in about an hour?”

“Sure.”

—–

It took me about 45 minutes to get there. Scott was already at a table with a beer when I came in. He had his tablet out but saw me and waved me over.

“Didn’t think to ask when I was over last night.” I said, sliding into a chair. “Where’s Diane working?”

“Down at Grady. Just handles the in-house stuff.”

I shrugged. “Just wondered if she was at one of our clients but Grady handles their own stuff.”

“You still with ExoMed then?”

I nodded. “Yeah, they aren’t that bad to work for. What I do is easy enough and it doesn’t pay too badly.”

“Glad to hear it’s working out for you.” I thought he was going to say something else but he apparently thought better of it. “So, where is this file you have.”

I took the USB from my pocket and handed it over to him. He busied himself with plugging it into his tablet as the waitress came over to take my order. A few minutes later I had my beer and he shifted over to the next chair so we could both see what was on the screen.

He watched the entire thing, at one point pausing long enough to plug in some earbuds so he could hear in the noisy bar. When it was over he replayed the segment where Nichole had vanished again, then paused the playback.

“That’s… interesting,” he said, nodding slowly. “I almost wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it myself.”

I flushed. “You didn’t believe me last night?”

It was his turn to redden. “I didn’t say that! But…” he paused. “But you have to admit it’s a pretty weird story.”

I leaned back. “So you thought I was lying!” I stood up, grabbing my bag. “Sorry I bothered all of you again.” I started stalking towards the hostess stand to pay.

“Dale, wait! Wait!” I heard Scott’s chair scrape back as he got up and hurried to get in front of me, holding up his hands in a placating gesture.

“Dale… please. Stop this.” He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “You know what your problem has always been? You over react to everything. Which is great when something good happens, because you’re a great friend to be around then; you’re so enthusiastic that it’s contagious. But when something bad happens? You stalk off and take the air out of the room with you.” He sighed. “No, you aren’t lying. Now, let’s talk about this.”

I looked around at the Saturday afternoon crowd. Half the ones who weren’t engrossed in the various games on the TV screens were staring at us. I reddened again and felt my eyes sting. I lowered my head and took a deep breath.

“OK.” I said, turning back towards the table.”OK.” I went back to my chair and sat down, Scott following me.

Our waitress had come hurrying over. “Is everything all right?”

“Can I have another beer, please?” I said, not looking directly at her. She glanced at my still half full glass then back to me.

“It’s fine.” said Scott, returning to his own seat. “Just… another beer.”

She looked from one to the other of us then nodded. “Sure. I’ll get it.” She glanced at me again then went off to the bar.

I sat there for a while. The waitress returned with a second beer and Scott ordered something. I picked up the first beer and took several deep gulps, then put it down again.

Again the waitress returned, this time with a queso bowl. Scott shoved the bowl and basket of chips towards me. “Did you eat anything today?”

I picked up the beer again and took another drink. “This.” I said.

He sighed. “Eat something.”

I exhaled and poked a chip in the melted cheese. It was actually pretty good. I ate a few more then finished the first glass of beer. I sat it down, picked up the other, then looked at him for the first time since sitting back down.

“Is that what you really think about me?” I asked.

He lowered his head to look at me over the top of his glasses. “You know I’m not wrong.”

I leaned my head back and looked at the ceiling. I remember oddly noting that it was covered in licence plates, as if that was suddenly very important. I felt my eyes stinging again and closed them.

I don’t know how long I sat like that, several minutes probably, but eventually I leaned forward again.

“No. No you’re not. I guess.”

He nods. “Yeah. Now, look at it from our point of view. We’re friends for years, then you and Lisa have your little fight, you suddenly get mad at the rest of us for some reason, then stalk off and refuse to talk to any of us. You unfriend everyone on Facebook and Snapchat, won’t answer your phone, and apparently just disappear into your apartment.”

I started to say something but he held up his hand. “Then, almost a year-and-a-half later, you contact me out of nowhere, almost storm off *again*, then tell us some story about taking non-existent exits to strange places. With no evidence except what someone none of us have ever met may have said. *Now* do you see why we may have been a bit skeptical.”

I knew I was flushing red again and I took several deep breaths; I didn’t want to completely lose it further in public like this. I stared at my beer for a few long seconds before picking it up and taking a long drink.

“So what did y’all think?” I asked, finally.

“We weren’t sure,” he said bluntly. “After you left we talked a while. We didn’t think you were lying, really. But we weren’t sure if…” He paused and looked at his own beer then back at me. “We weren’t sure if you had really had something happen to you or of you just… thought something had happened to you.”

I was almost beyond feeling anything more at this point. “Oh. So I’m crazy now, is that it?”

He winced at that but returned my gaze. “Again, think of how it seemed to us.” He pointed at my two empty beer glasses. “How much do you drink these days?”

“Too much,” I said, trying to make it sound like a joke. I picked up one of the glasses and held it up for the waitress to see. She nodded and went to the bar while I returned my gaze to Scott.

He shook his head, sighing. “That was what Donna thought.” He hesitated. “Are you… still taking your meds?”

I was surprised at that. “Who told you about that!”

He shrugged. “Donna. I guess Lisa told her.”

Now I was angry. “She would,” I said, bitterly.

He sighed and shook his head. “She *was* worried about you, you know.”

“Yeah, right.” I was trying to hold it back but the bitterness was spreading. “She sure had a strange way of showing it!”

Scott sat for a moment then sighed. “Look, that’s in the past and we’re not going to resolve anything on it now. So let’s talk about this.” He pulled the stick from the side of his pad and held it up. “What do you make of this.”

“So you believe me now?” I was back on the defensive again.

He immediately nodded. “Yes, I believe you now. And when I show this to the others they will as well.” He paused and smirked. “I doubt you’ve suddenly become an expert on video editing in the past year or so.”

I laughed. “Hardly.”

He nodded. “So…” He handed the USB back to me. “So what do we have?”

I was grateful for the change in topic. The waitress showed up and handed me my new beer and took Scott’s one and my two empties away. Scott hesitated, then ordered a second one for himself.

“I don’t know,” I said after she left. “The only thing I think I’ve figured out is that having something from the other place helps you get back there.” I thought for a moment, then waited as Scott’s beer arrived. “And it occurs to me that both times Nichole disappeared was when I took the exit on or off the Interstate.”

He tilted his head, thinking. “When did she appear? Did you notice?”

I shook my head. “It was dark and I really wasn’t expecting someone else in the car. I had just hit the traffic backup from the Northside construction.”

He thought. “You got on at 14th?” I nodded.

“So you would have hit traffic immediately at that time,” he continued. “So she probably showed up just as you cleared the ramp.”

I thought back to the night before. “Yeah, I guess that was about it.”

He nodded, thinking. “So whatever it is is tied to… ‘transitions’ let’s call it, seem to occur on exits. I guess you could think of an exit as a transition; maybe that has something to do with it.”

I looked askance at him. “Kinda metaphorical, isn’t it?”

He shrugged. “You have a better idea? Or maybe I took too many philosophy classes at Tech.”

“You studied philosophy?”

“Had to get my humanities in somehow. And Diane was in the class.” He smiled.

I laughed. “OK, I get it.”

“Still,” he raised his hands, “that’s as good of an idea as we have. Now, how do we get you back there.”

I leaned back. “What makes you think I want to go back there?”

He laughed. “Don’t you want to see Nichole again?”

I glared at him and he laughed harder. “Hey, you opened up to her pretty fast on that tape. Were you planning on taking her back to your place?”

I waved him away. “No.” I thought. “Actually, I hadn’t really thought about where I was taking her. I guess I was kinda in shock at the time.”

“I can understand that.” He paused again in thought. “So you think the trick to getting back to this other place is to have something from there?”

I nodded. “Yeah. When I had that flyer it immediately took me back there. I kept going back there until I got rid of it.”

He had his iPad out and was typing something on it. “That’s the only thing you took from the other place?”

“Yeah,” I said, then paused. “Except for Nichole.”

He looked up and thought for a bit. “Except she disappeared when you left, then reappeared here.”

“Then disappeared again.” I said. “So what does all that mean?”

He shook his head. “I have no idea.” He pointed to the now-congealing queso. “You going to eat any more of that?”

We ate what was left of the chips and queso and talked about generalities for a while. It turned out that we had all been playing Inquisitor Online but had never run into any of them. He gave me his and Diane’s avatars and promised that he would look me up the next time they were on-line. I learned that none of them had watched *Phase* and spent some time describing the show and it’s setting to him.

Finally, with me in a much better mood, we left. It was getting dark and a bit chilly, so I started to hurry to my car when Scott stopped me.

“Dale? One other thing.”

I turned around, brow furrowing. “Yeah? What?”

He hesitated, then sighed. “Dale… Me, Diane, Jeff, Donna… we’re your friends. You’re the only one who doesn’t seem to realize that. We had a lot of good years together. You need help? Talk to us.” He paused. “Just don’t cut us completely out of your life, OK?”

I felt a stinging in my eyes again, but this time it was almost from relief. I nodded slowly. “Thanks man.” I stepped forward and gave him a hug.

He hugged back for a few seconds, then pushed away. “Hey man, I married. Let’s not make this awkward.” We both laughed.

“I’ll show the video to the others, and maybe one or two other people I know. That OK?”

I nodded. “Sure. Maybe they’ll know what to make of it.”

He nodded in return. “Yeah. After I’ve talked to Jeff and Donna we’ll get back together and figure out what to do next. Deal?”

“Deal.”

I waved and started back towards my car when he called out again. “Wait! One more one more thing…”

I sighed and turned back. “Yes?”

“Call Lisa.”

I froze, my mood suddenly plummeting again. “OK,” I said finally. “Sure.”

“Trust me. You’ll feel better. ‘Closure’, and all that.”

“Fine,” I said, turning back to my car. “I’ll call her.”

“Really?”

I had the door open but paused. “Yeah,” I said finally. “Really.”

He waved and headed towards his own car. I sat there in the dark for a long moment before hitting the starter and pulling out of the parking lot a bit more briskly than I had planned.

He was right. I knew he was right. It just wasn’t a conversation I was looking forward to having.

—–

I didn’t call Lisa. Not that night anyway.

It was still relatively early when I got home. I didn’t feel like going out anywhere, so I found something frozen to eat, grabbed another beer and went on-line.

I started by searching for anything about anyone saying they had taken an exit that went somewhere other than where they expected. Surprisingly I found a good number of them but none of the ones I looked at seemed to match what I had encountered.

I was about to give up when I stumbled across a recounting on the Reddit ‘no sleep’ forum. The poster told how they had been driving late at night, took an exit needing to find coffee, and found a place with no one in it. Businesses open, food and drink apparently being prepared, but no employees or guests. It definitely sounded familiar.

This person, who went by ‘darkwood88’, said they got some coffee and a couple of candy bars, left some cash on the counter to pay for what they took, and left. They ended by saying that since then every time they got on the highway the first exit they came to was always that same exit and that they had learned to always pass it by.

The post got a few upvotes and a handful of responses saying that it was a ‘cool story’ but ‘not really that creepy’. I laughed at that.

I looked around but couldn’t find anything more from ‘darkwood88’. I finally sent them a message saying I liked their story and wanted to know more about it.

I then took the video I had recorded, removed the part after Nichole had vanished, and uploaded it to YouTube. I said in the description that this woman had appeared in my car somehow then disappeared and asked if anyone had experienced anything like that. I doubted I would get much response but wanted some record to be out there.

After that I fired up a game and spent a couple of hours hacking my way through a dungeon beneath Pellucidar. When my party emerged into the light again I decided it was time to call it a night.

I shut everything down and got ready for sleep. I was about to hit the light when I saw my cell phone and remembered my promise to call Lisa. I picked up the phone and checked the time. Almost midnight. Too late to call anyone.

I was about to put the phone back down when I saw the email icon. I idly tapped it and the first entry was “Comment on your YouTube video”

Apparently someone had responded to my video. I tapped to see what they had to say.

The message was from ‘Anne Onymous” and read: “Take it down, you idiot! What are you doing?”

For a moment I wasn’t sure how to react. I had expected disbelief or maybe a joke response or two, but didn’t know what to make of it. I opened the video and replied to the comment. “I wasn’t expecting the Men in Black to show up so soon.”

To my surprise, the reply came almost instantly. “Not yet, but they will be here if you don’t take that down.”

The pit in my stomach opened again. “Who is this?” I typed.

“Take. It. Down.” was the reply.

I hesitated. What had I gotten myself involved with? I decided to play along to see what I could find out for now and switched the video to “Private”.

“Better?” I typed.

“Best if you dropped it completely,” was the reply.

“Who *are* you?” I asked.

“A fellow Traveller,” they said.

“A what?”

There was a long delay. “Take this down,” they said, finally. “We will find you. Or leave it up and they will. Your choice.”

“They?” I asked. “What the hell is this?”

There was no response. I stared at the screen for almost 30 minutes waiting for something else to appear but I finally decided that the person on the other end had said all they were going to say.

I thought a bit longer then hit “delete” on the video.

I turned out the lights and lay back in the bed. What had I gotten myself into?

Someone else had found the same thing I had. Caleb had. ‘darkwood88’ seemed to have. And ‘Anne Onymous’ apparently knew something.

What was a ‘Traveller’? Well, besides an old science fiction RPG. Nichole had used the term and had indicated that it was the term people who could find those weird exits called themselves.

Then, there was the fact that they implied that someone else was interested in whatever was going on and that whoever this other party was did not have the same goals as these ‘Travellers’.

What had I gotten myself into? I thought about just trying to forget the whole thing, but wasn’t sure if I could. What would happen if I found another of these exits? Or if Nichole appeared in my car again?

Did I even really want to forget it? I laughed in the darkness.

“Guess I get to be a Traveller.”

—–

The next morning I didn’t feel quite as excited about being a Traveller. There were apparently two parties involved; the Travellers and someone else. The Men in Black, obviously. Or probably. Other people knew about this and all of them apparently wanted to keep this secret. I probably hadn’t done myself any favors by asking the questions I had. I decided to be more careful.

I also decided I needed to try to be a bit more prepared. I drove down to the REI and picked up some camping gear, a stove, tent and sleeping bag, and several packs of hikers meals. If something happened and I found myself on what I was now calling ‘the Other Side’ I would at least have food and shelter from ‘here’ so I wouldn’t have to immediately start depending on what I found there.

Then I headed down to the gun range.

I had a Glock 19 that spent most of its time in my car glove box. I carry drugs around for a living and, while I didn’t carry the schedule one stuff and had never had any hint of a problem, there was always a chance that someone may figure out what I had and want it. So I had the gun.

I took the gun, still in its case, into the building and went to the counter. The guy behind the counter had been polishing an AR 15 but carefully put it down as I came up.

“What can I do for you?” he asked.

“Just need to use the range for a while,” I said, holding up the case. “Been a while and I’m probably out of practice.”

He nodded. “Good idea, the way the world is these days. Let’s see what you got.” I handed the case over to him. He opened it and immediately made a sound of annoyance.

“When was the last time you used this?” He asked, giving me an annoyed look.

I shrugged, suddenly feeling embarrassed. “Um… It’s been a while.”

He took the gun from its case and held it up. “Was that the last time you cleaned it?”

I reddened further. “…Probably?”

He sighed and shook his head. “You try defending yourself with this thing and you’re probably in more danger from it than from whoever is breaking in. You got a cleaning kit?”

“Not with me.” I was regretting coming in.

He said something under his breath then came around the counter, still carrying the gun and case. “Come here.” He led me to a work bench at one end of the store where a set of cleaning kits and rags were sitting.

“I’m not letting you shoot this thing in my range,” he said, handing it back to me. “You get it in decent shape and then we’ll talk.” He turned and walked back to the counter, shaking his head as he did.

I took a deep breath and held it for a moment before letting it go. He wasn’t wrong. It was just embarrassing to get caught out like that. I sat down on the bench and started stripping the gun.

It didn’t take me that long, a Glock really isn’t that hard to maintain, but I put in more effort than I really needed; I didn’t want to get another lecture. When I was done I took it back up to the counter.

He looked it over critically. “OK, I guess you do know what you’re doing. Just don’t let it get like that again.

I got a couple of boxes of ammo and picked up a pair of ear and eye protectors and headed down to the range.

I fired off one of the boxes. I didn’t do too badly, I was at least hitting my target anyway, but no one was going to accuse me of being a marksman. When I was done I took the targets back up to the counter to pay.

The guy behind the counter looked at the targets. “Well, maybe they’ll be afraid enough when you pull it out that they’ll run away anyway.”

I shrugged. “Hopefully I’ll never have to find out.”

He shook his head at me. “I hope you won’t… but you will.”

I left and stuck the gun, back in its case, back in the glove box and shoved the extra ammo box in beside it. I then glanced at my phone for the first time in a couple of hours.

There was a missed call showing. It was from Lisa.

I cursed. I knew that everyone was thinking they were helping, but I really didn’t need them getting involved in what had happened with me and Lisa. It was long done and I had long since burned that bridge behind me. And no matter how green the grass looked on the other side now, there was no way to get back.

I saw there was a message as well. I started to play it, but decided I didn’t want to hear what she had to say at the moment. I would check it later.

I headed out again, stopping at the Publix along the way. A few frozen pizzas and a couple of six-packs later, I was back at home.

—–

Monday morning I made my pickup and was out on the road. I was down 85 towards Columbus that day and half-expected things to get weird but everything stayed normal. I wasn’t sure if I was glad or disappointed.

It was getting later than I had planned and I wasn’t looking forward to hitting Atlanta at rush hour, especially from the south side, so I decided to stop for something to eat then continue on in. I saw a Chili’s sign (don’t judge me) and thought a burger would be good.

I had just cleared the exit when I heard a familiar voice to my right.

“Is this where we’re going?”

I looked to the passenger seat to see Nichole sitting there. By this point it just seemed normal.

“I’m stopping for something to eat,” I said. “You hungry?”

She hesitated, then nodded slowly. “Yes. Yes, I think I am.”

I found the Chili’s and pulled into the parking lot, relieved to see it full of cars. We went in and almost immediately got a table. I sat down and ordered a beer. Nichole seemed fascinated by the menu.

“Do you have Breithtnligh?” she asked the waitress.

“What?”

“Breightenligh? The German wine?”

“German wine?” The waitress tried to suppress a laugh. “Not familiar with any of those.”

“Is that a white or a red?” I asked. That was actually about all I knew about wine, but at least it was something.

She furrowed her brow. “Red?”

“Just bring her a red.” I told the waitress. She nodded, noted something on her pad, asked if we wanted appitizers, then wandered off.

I looked at Nichole, who was now engrossed in her menu. She was attractive, with dark hair and pale skin. Slender, almost too slender, as if she hadn’t been eating enough. She was dressed in what I would have called “retro-chic”, except I suspect it was contemporous for her.

She also seemed to be somewhere in her thirties and wore a wedding ring. I tried to not let my imagination go to far, but… this was effectively my first date in over a year. It was hard not to think of it otherwise.

“So…” I said, trying to make conversation. “What is it you do? Did. Back home.”

She seemed to concentrate for a while. “I worked with a doctor. Assisting him. Working with the patients.”

“A nurse?”

She shook her head slightly. “Not exactly. I was like a doctor, but not. He worked on their bodies. I… I helped with their minds. The way they thought. I tried to help them when he couldn’t.”

I nodded. “A psychologist?”

“What?”

“Were you a psychologist?”

She shook her head. “No. An alienist. What is a ‘psychologist’.”

“Someone who helps people with their minds.” I paused, then changed the subject. “You said your husband went to a war? Iraq?”

“Iraq?” she looked at me curiously. “No… I… don’t know where that is. He went to Washington. After the invasion.”

“Invasion?” It was my turn to be confused. “What invasion?”

“The Ottomans,” she said, giving me a look that indicated it should have been obvious. “After they invaded the northwest from Alaska.”

It took me a few seconds to process that. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. I looked at her again. She was still looking at me curiously but I looked at her clothing. “Retro-chic” might describe it, but it still looked slightly wrong. And there was something about the way she talked.

I looked around. I was in a restaurant and didn’t want to make a scene. But… what did that mean? I’ll also admit that I didn’t want to say something that might turn her against me. I was trying a bit too hard to get her to like me.

Fortunately I was saved by the return of the waitress with our drinks. I ordered a burger and she, after looking at the menu in confusion for a bit, ordered chicken. The waitress collected the menus and left. I took a long drink from my beer as she took a cautious sip from her wine then took a longer swallow.

“So… Washington.” I said.

She nodded. “Nathaniel was in the medical corps. We had met in med school.” She smiled and I nodded politely. “When the invasion started we were exempt since we were both professionals but he felt he had to do something. He volunteered.”

She looked down. “I argued with him. Said he was being stupid. But he insisted he had to go.” She paused. “I wonder if I had been more supportive of him then he… he might not have found the Road.”

I twitched slightly at the way she said that. “The Road?” I said, with a bit more intensity than I had intended.

She looked at me curiously. “Yes, the Road.” Her eyes narrowed. “If you were not on the Road, how did you find me?”

I took a deep breath and held it. Did I want information, or did I want to keep her opinion of me? And was I an idiot for worrying about the latter?

I released the breath, took another long drink from my beer, then continued. “I… don’t know what the ‘Road’ is,” I confessed. “I’ve…” I looked around then back to her. “I’ve just been finding myself in… strange places. You were in one of them.” I paused, wondering how much I should reveal to her.

“Since then you’ve… been appearing to me and disappearing. I don’t know what it means.” For some reason I felt my eyes stinging from that revelation. I blinked several times, then continued. “I wanted to talk to you again, but… I don’t know what any of this is.”

I don’t know how I expected her to react, but she looked at me for several long seconds. Any response she was about to give was interrupted by the waitress returning with our food. She asked if I wanted another beer, asked how Nichole’s wine was, then left.

We ate in silence for a while. I had just drained my beer and swapped it for the one the waitress brought me when she put down her utensils and looked up.

“Is this your first trip?”

I hesitated as I finished chewing. “I… guess?” I confessed. I shook my head then leaned forward, talking rapidly. “Look, I… don’t know what is going on. All kinds of weird things are happening and I think it all has to do with me taking an exit that didn’t exist.”

I paused, wondering how much I should say. I finally decided that I just had to say what was going on. Anything else would just complicate things further.

“Look…” I said, pushing my half-eaten plate away. “I don’t know what is going on. I kept finding myself in places with no one else. Then I ran into you, and now you keep showing up in my car. And other people seem to know what is happening to me, but they won’t talk to me and keep telling me to not say anything.”

I looked around, helplessly. I had been getting louder as I talked and several others in the restaurant were looking at me. I took a deep breath and continued in a lower voice.

“I really don’t know what is going on. I really don’t know what is happening to me.” I reached across the table and took her hand. “Please, help me!”

She jerked her hand away from mine and I felt myself flush red. But she made no other reaction and sat there for a long time, thinking. Finally she spoke.

“I don’t know much,” she said. “There are people who can travel on what they call ‘The Road’, but most people can’t. And even people who can usually don’t know they can. But they can take other people with them.” She paused and looked down. “That’s what happened to me,” she said, quietly.

I took a deep breath. “OK,” I said. “OK. But… what can you tell me?”

She was quiet for a moment. “Will you help me?”

I nodded. “Of course, if I can.”

She looked straight at me. “And what do you want from me?”

I sighed and waved my hands. “I just want to know what is going on!” I said, a bit too loudly. Several people looked at me again. I leaned forward.

“Sorry. Look, I’m not going to ask anything else of you.” I had an idea of what she was talking about and didn’t want to think about it. “Just… tell me what you can.”

“You will help me find Nathaniel?” She was staring at me intently.

I nodded. “Yes. If I can.”

She hesitated, then nodded. “OK then.” She took another drink, finishing her wine. I flagged the waitress over and got another drink for both of us. When it arrived Nichole took another drink and started talking.

“I don’t know what it is,” she said. “Whatever it is it isn’t something I can do myself, so I have to depend on what others have told me. And some of them…” She paused and I saw moisture around her eyes. She took a deep breath, then continued.

“They call it ‘The Road’. I’ve never heard it called anything else. They call it that because you have to be moving in order to be on it. But, once you’re on it, you can get anywhere you want. You just have to go far enough.”

I was puzzled. “But.. can’t you get anywhere if you travel long enough?”

“Not anywhere,” she said, sounding exasperated. “*Anywhere.* Anything you can think of. Anything you can conceive. Anything you desire. You can find it. All you have to do is travel far enough and want it enough. That’s it.” She paused and looked downward. “For some people, anyway.”

“Alternate worlds? Alternate timelines?”

She nodded. “I’ve heard it called that. Other realities. Other Earths. Or other things that aren’t Earth.” She shuddered.

I sat there for a long time, stunned. Was this true? Was this something that *I* could do? I felt a smile crawl onto my face as I thought about the possible places I could go if this was true.

My thoughts were interrupted by the waitress asking if we were done. I waved away my half-finished meal and the waitress took it with Nichole’s empty plate. I looked up to see her staring at me.

“Sorry,” I said. “I just… I don’t know about this.” I stopped and thought. “But if I can somehow go to these ‘other worlds’, why isn’t anyone there? Why is everything frozen?”

“You’re on the edge of the world,” she said. “Not in it, but not out of it either. Just one step away. It’s like… purgatory.” She closed her eyes and I saw tears forming. “I was… I was left there.”

I suddenly felt sick. “What happened?” I asked.

She shook her head and I saw her tremble slightly. Then she took a deep breath.

“I met someone. Someone like you, who can travel to these other places. He told me he could help me find Nathaniel. He said he would take me there.”

She shuddered. “He took me to one of those in-between places. Where time doesn’t pass and no one exists. He then…” She stopped.

I shuddered myself. “It’s… OK,” I said, even as I knew it wasn’t.

She shook her head. “He didn’t do anything. Not like that anyway. When he saw I wasn’t going to let him he pushed me from the car, said he would come back for me when I was ‘more agreeable’.” She paused again, a distant look in her eyes. “I never saw him again.”

I sat for a moment. “How… how long were you there?”

Another shake of her head. “I don’t know. Like you know, time doesn’t pass there. The sun never moves. Things never change. It seemed like forever but… I don’t know. I wandered around a lot. Just walking. There’s no one and nothing there, so I was safe. I ate at empty restaurants, slept in unoccupied houses and hotels. None of the cars worked, so I had to walk. I just kept hoping I would find someone.”

My mind was racing with what I was hearing. I had so many questions, but I didn’t know which ones to ask first. “So you never met anyone before me?”

“Oh, no,” she said. “I met others. A few. Sometimes. But none of them wanted to help me.”

I frowned. “Why not?”

“They said…” she paused. “They said they didn’t want to get trapped with me, that I had been there so long that I was ‘part of’ that place.”

That caused the pit in my stomach to return. “Trapped with you?”

Her eyes widened and I saw tears form. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want you to be trapped. But it had been so long since I had talked to anyone. So long…” She looked down at the table again.

I took a deep breath, then reached over and took her hand. “Hey… It’s OK.” I laughed “So far anyway.”

She held it for a moment then quickly pulled her hand away. I tried not to show hurt. She continued to sit silently for a moment

“I’m glad you helped me,” she said finally. “I… I just couldn’t be alone anymore.”

I thought of my last few months. “Yeah, I can understand that. Sort of.”

She nodded, still not looking up at me. Finally, she spoke. “Do you think you can get me home?”

I leaned back and raised my hands. “I’m not sure. All of this is new to me.”

She nodded, then looked up again. “Can you try?”

I nodded in return. “I’ll do what I can.”

I waved the waitress over and paid our bill. Then, after a quick bathroom break we went back to the car. As we got in I asked her. “Where is your home. How do I get there.”

“Saint Francisca,” she said. “California.”

“You do know you’re in Atlanta, right?”

“Atlanta?” She looked confused.

“Atlanta, Georgia.”

She shook her head. “Where is that?”

It was my turn to look confused. “Southeastern United States? North America?”

“Hispaniola?” She tilted her head. “I must have walked much further than I had thought.” She looked at me closely. “You do not look like a Hispaniolan.”

“I’m not,” I said. I didn’t know what to think, so I started the car and pulled out of the lot, heading back for the main road.

“These different places you say people like me can go,” I said, “how different are they?”

“They say you can go anywhere,” she said. She thought for a moment. “One woman I met said she didn’t know if she went to a place she thought of, or if she created the place by thinking of it. The result was the same.”

“There’s no Hispaniola here,” I said. “Well, an island in the Caribbean, but that’s it. And we have a San Francisco, but not a Saint Francisca. I don’t even know how to begin to get you home.”

There was no response. I had been pulling onto the highway as I had been talking and, when I looked over, the passenger seat was empty. I slumped in my seat, sighed, and shook my head. I wasn’t even surprised anymore.

I took another deep breath, poked my phone enough to fire up another podcast to distract me, and headed home.

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