There was no highway.
It took Luis the longest to believe it. He sat in the passenger side of the car, clutching his phone in the grip of both hands like some kind of talisman. Eyes straight ahead, Evan couldn’t tell if he was blinking or not.
Alex was sitting in the middle of the backseat, as though afraid of the windows. Legs up, arms wrapped around her knees. She was rocking ever so slightly, but at least she wasn’t crying. Or maybe, he wished she was crying. Evan couldn’t decide which was better, which was worse.
And he in the driver’s seat. Cruising down whatever sort of road this was, headlights on despite the last remainders of sunset to stop remaining. There was this feeling, not quite in his stomach. More, below it and to the left. It was a soft burning feeling, the same feeling he’d had all through senior year of college. Maybe an ulcer. Maybe just the inescapable knowledge that every single bit of his life was fucked.
“Where is it?” Luis asked to no one in particular. “Where is it, where is it, where is it?”
“This can’t be happening,” Luis steamrolled over whatever Evan was going to say. Which was good, because wasn’t really sure. “This can’t be…where’s the highway? Why won’t the sun set? Why can’t I reach anyone?”
He flung his face into his phone again and Evan resisted the urge to roll down the window and chuck it out. It was no help. None of their phones were. They had a signal. Somehow, out here in the…wherever they were, they were receiving. Emails. Messages. Luis could refresh his Instagram and see what all of his other worldwide influencers were doing. But he couldn’t post. They couldn’t message. Alex had tried to call and gotten a message none of them had ever heard before.
Your call cannot be completed as dialed. Please hang up and try again.
“Shouldn’t it just not work?” Alex had asked, holding the phone up on speaker so they could hear it repeat and repeat. “If you don’t have a signal, it just doesn’t make a call.”
That was back when Alex was capable of making words. Now there was just the rocking, and the dry eyes watching the road ahead.
“How long have we been driving?” Luis asked.
Evan glanced down at the dash. “An hour. About.”
“Pull over. I’m going to be sick.”
“No,” Alex whispered from the back, practically making Evan jumped. “No, we can’t get out.”
“I’m going to hurl.” He looked it. His face was turning an ugly shade of green and he was clutching his stomach like he’d been shot. “I’m not…oh, God…I’m not puking in my cousins’ car, pull over.”
Evan didn’t see much point to pulling over. He just stopped, putting the cark in park in the middle of the street.
But Luis was already out, stumbling his way the few feet across the blacktop. He came to stop at the edge, puking into the dirt like it was miles below him. Evan turned away before his stomach could decide it was a good idea.
Alex’s eyes had gone wide. She was gripping her knees now, tight enough she was dimpling her jeans. In the glow of the dome light overhead she was starting to look sick, too, and Evan was afraid she would be the next out there. But it wasn’t carsickness, or whatever sickness had taken over Luis. The tight lights and pale color of her face was terror, pure and simple.
“He shouldn’t be out there,” she muttered.
“I don’t want him puking in the car, either,” Evan said. It sounded like a stupid thing to say. He couldn’t think of another.
“We don’t know what’s out there.” She wasn’t whispering, but her voice was very low. Her eyes darted back forth out the windows, as though simply speaking about it would bring something to them. Evan gripped the steering wheel and stared forward.
“There’s nothing out there,” he said. “That’s the problem.”
He got out of the car, ignoring Alex’s tiny pleas to stay inside. She was so scared, she seemed so sure that something would come for them, he expected something to feel wrong. Anything to feel wrong.
Nothing did. It was cool bordering on cold, like a desert at the switchover between evening and night would be. The pavement under his feet was normal asphalt, cracked here and there but otherwise intact. Two broken yellow lines painted in the middle. Stars twinkled above. A breeze made his ears and nose cold. He stood next to Luis, still kneeling on the ground, and searched for a clue.
Luis spit a couple more times and then rose to stand next to him. After another minute, he heard the car door open. Alex came to stand with them, the three of them back to back to back, looking in every direction.
“Nothing,” Evan said after a while.
The others didn’t ask what he meant. Luis even nodded.
Nothing was wrong.
The three of them got back in the car, because there was nothing else to do.
“There has to be some kind of explanation,” Luis said.
“Of course there is,” Alex said. She had relaxed – a little. At least she wasn’t clutching her knees to her chest anymore. “I don’t think we’re going to like it, though.”
Luis ignored her. “We got turned around somehow. We think we’re going straight but actually we’re going in circles. We all had some kind of seizure at the same time and we’re confused.”
Evan meant it as a joke but regretted it immediately. Said out loud, it didn’t feel like a joke. It felt like a possibility.
“Pocket universe,” Alex said.
Luis whipped around to face her, nearly backhanding Evan in the process as he swung his arm around to rest on the seat. “What?”
“Pocket universe. Learned about it in college. Something to do with string theory, I think. The universe isn’t really a universe at all, it’s a bunch of universes all bunched together like a piece of string. Sometimes there’s little universes, growing off a big one. Sort of the same, but not really.”
“So, what? We’re trapped in a wart universe off our real universe?” Luis asked. “How do we get back?”
Alex shrugged. “I spent a single class eight years ago on it. And it was all theoretical.”
“What you’re saying is, if we get back we could win the Nobel.”
Another joke he regretted as soon as he said it.
Outside, everything was the same. Nothing to report, sir! Sun was setting, desert in every direction except forward and behind, which was road. Pocket universe. A universe consisting of the same moment in northern Nevada. Nothing changed. Well, the car did. The clock on the dash kept ticking forward. Meaningless.
We do, too, Evan thought as he felt his stomach cramp. There were snacks in the back with Alex. A box of trail mix, a handful of candy bars, and a box of Capri Suns. Road trip food. Supposed to last a couple of days max. Had he seen any animals on the side of the road? Any glowing eyes retreating from the headlights?
Were they the only things alive? For how long?