It was a ten hour drive, but I made the trip in seven. Inexplicably and unexpectedly, as if by magic. In fact, it must have been magic because I defied the laws of time and space in order to pull it off. A feat only made more impressive by the fact that I did it in a 21 year-old Volvo that rattled and shook when I accelerated and didn’t have a working gas gauge. Logic dictates that my neurotic and constant stops for fuel would only slow me down, but I beat land speed records to get there without breaking the posted speed limit even once.

I can only assume that it was the car. A hunter green, four-door monstrosity that I bought just a month prior for $300. Barely a car, really; it had a busted head-gasket which any mechanic will tell you means that the car needs a whole new engine. It was really more of a zombie car, dead yet somehow still living. The cream-colored interior was cracked and faded and it still had the original tape deck which still worked.

I had amassed a handful of cassettes at the thrift store, but it was a Talking Heads Greatest Hits collection that got me through those seven hours. Normally a b-sides and deep cuts snob, I had found joyful solace in the hits of this unlikely top 40 band and let the tape continue to repeat itself. I had named the car Veruca. I’m not the kind of guy that names inanimate objects, but a week after buying the car a friend said “what’s her name?” so i said “Veruca”. For no other reason than it’s a perfectly good name. As good a name as any.

And, I suppose, Veruca was magic.

I had her address in my google maps so that my journey would specifically and decidedly end at her. “Her” being my estranged wife, Viv, who had no idea that I was coming. There was no semblance of a concrete plan at play. I don’t know what I thought would happen when I pulled up, as Viv and I hadn’t spoken in 8 months and I got her address from a mutual friend (quite reluctantly, I might add). I’m not even sure what I wanted to happen; I just knew that something needed to happen. Nothing had happened in a long time.

Viv’s house, according to the directions, was in a quiet suburb right outside of the city. The kind of suburb with broke down cars in the unmowed lawns and shirtless boys playing in the streets. The smell of charred barbeque chicken mixed with the sounds of rambunctious, defiant children made me feel right at home. Veruca slowed down and settled, taking it all in as we navigated the backstreets to Viv’s new home. Her car was in the driveway, emblazoned with out-of-date band stickers and an expired license plate with the windows left down, challenging the impending rain that loomed in the atmosphere.

I pulled behind Viv’s car, more calm than I expected to be, ready to put Veruca in park when I saw him. Or me, rather. Our eyes met as he inhaled his cigarette. Eyes like mine, yet slightly brighter and more optimistic. His gaze, like mine, perplexed and curious. His face reflected mine because it was mine, but not exactly. Something was askew, subtly distorted and telling, yet hard to explain. He was me, but he wasn’t. Or I was him, but I wasn’t. I had somehow replaced myself. At least, a version of myself had.

He was seated on a faded brown plastic chair when I pulled up, but he stood almost immediately when he saw me. His stance swayed to the left like mine and he craned his neck like an overly alert meerkat. He cautiously took two steps in my direction, a limp in his right leg. A limp so slight that I might not have noticed if it didn’t belong to me. Our paths must have diverted after I got stoned and jumped off a garage roof when I was 13. Unless he acquired the exact same limp in a different way. How much did our backstories line up? When did he become a different me? Our collective gaze never broke, our identical eyes locked into each other. I felt a deep fear consume me and so did he. You could see it wash over him and darken his eyes; just like it did to my own. I knew this wasn’t supposed to happen. We were never supposed to see each other. We couldn’t exist at the same time.

Veruca reversed herself. 

Just turning around in the driveway; we must have missed our turn somewhere. Carry on. 

I watched this other version myself in the shaky rear view mirror, as he walked inside, presumably to keep living my life.

“Make a u-turn.” my phone instructed. 

“I’m an or-di-na-ry guy,” David Byrne assured me from the speakers.

“Make a u-turn.” my phone insisted again.

I turned the radio up and turned the map off. No plan B, there was never even a plan A. I just took a left and sang along. 

“Burning down the house.”

The skies opened up as I sped down the highway, Veruca sputtering and rattling as I pushed her to her limits. The clouds split open with a thunderous cackle, laughing and taunting me with a ferocious rain. A rain that fell with the determined intensity of a spurned wife, fixed on revenge disguised as karmic justice. And my dear Veruca, despite all of her magic, leaked. All of the enchantment in the world couldn’t stop the sky’s rage from bleeding through her doors – the rubber seals dried and cracked so many years ago. Veruca veered towards the first exit we saw, seeking solace from the rain and, most likely, more gas. This was our plan B; exit 78A.

There was a strategic way to keep Veruca warm and dry by closing trash bags in her doors just right, but there was no way to not get soaked head-to-toe while executing these maneuvers. By the time I ran for shelter of my own it didn’t matter anymore, at some point it just became symbolic to get indoors. The air-conditioning from the bar hit me like a phantom left jab in a game of chess as the heavy door slammed behind me. A slam so loud that it made me jump yet no one in the bar looked up. I was invisible there, shivering, sober and ready to remedy both.

The bartender – who was most likely attractive before her skin turned to leather and her hair became synthetic – stared through me at first. I willed myself back into existence; something I’d never had to do before yet it came as second nature. I slowly materialized before her and she flinched at my sudden visibility. Once she accepted my existence she was sweet and accommodating, starting me a tab and over pouring my shot of bourbon. The Anodyne Man seemed to materialize from the ether as well while I lifted my glass to my lips.

“Cheers,” The Anodyne Man said, offering his half-full glass of beer to my peripheral.

Wordlessly, I clinked my glass to his and downed my shot. It stung just like I needed it to, like being hit by a jettisoned pinecone on a snowy winter’s night. He took the stool right next to mine and scooted it even closer to me. He was the most unremarkable person I had ever seen, generically nondescript and perfectly forgettable. Even now, looking back at all we’ve been through and how much I loved him, I couldn’t pick him out in a line-up. Like a face in the crowd as the camera pans quickly over a sporting event, he was barely there. A blur as the cameraman searched for someone more interesting to put on the jumbotron.

“Haven’t seen you in a while,” he said as I ordered another shot and beer chaser.

“You’ve never seen me,” I told him as the bartender smiled at us both warmly and transformed into the most stunning woman I’d ever seen, “I literally just got into town an hour ago.”

“Huh,” he mumbled, shrugging it off, “musta been someone else. You got a damn twin or something?”

“Cheers.” I said, holding up my fresh beer.

He smiled as our glasses met mid-air, a completely bland smile on a faceless face. Then he finished his beer in one gulp.

“It’s the damnedest thing,” he said, putting down his glass, “I just feel like I already know you. Like we met before. Maybe even had this exact same conversation.”

“You have this conversation with him every friggin day,” the bartender assured him as she set a fresh beer in front of him.

“It’s the damnedest thing,” The Anodyne Man said, his off-center gaze drifting out the window…

“Say, is that your magic car out there?”

“Veruca” is the second in a series of short stories written by Jerome Spencer in 2021. Read the first here. Limited physical copies are available now through the author.

Illustration by Heather Bryant.