When Anston awoke sometime later, he was still in just his skimpy silk boxers, but he was now upright with his back pressed to a leather seat. And he was feeling motion all around him. And his hands were tied behind his back.
He was riding in a car. His own car. As a passenger.
Alice was driving.
The sky was dark, but dawn was approaching. In spite of his grogginess, he could make out the azure tint of the rising sun just over the distant hills. The Maserati was moving toward it.
“Where are we?”
Alice was focused on the road ahead. She blinked occasionally, but her eyes were mostly staring at the windshield and all that came toward it. She demonstrated the traits of most casual drivers at least once a minute, checking the side and rearview mirrors. Giving him her attention was apparently the least on her mind.
Anston shook in his seat. He finally understood the situation he was in. His wrists were bound by some kind of twine behind his back. And he was just about naked, save for the ridiculous shorts he was wearing. He didn’t even have on his socks.
Alice was none of these things. Her hands were free, gripped comfortably over the steering wheel. And she was dressed again, this time in something more elegant than what she had worn the night before—a yellow sundress and matching hat. She also had on some makeup. He hadn’t seen her looking so “normal” since the days before their wedding. He was confused.
“Alice? Why are my hands tied?”
She didn’t answer. She was concentrating on the light traffic around them.
He tried to wrest his hands free of the twine, but it was secured tightly. He pulled hard, so hard that he nearly strained his neck. The thing wouldn’t break; it just ate deeper into his skin. Then he tried twisting his body so that he might snag the twine on the automatic window controller and attempt to cut it open. But the seatbelt constricted his motion. There was little he could do but wait for whatever was coming next.
Again, she didn’t answer. She was too busy watching the back of a produce truck trying to stay ahead of them.
The situation began to erode Anston’s psyche. Alice’s ignorance of his presence was gradually bringing him to fury. His patience for her silence had finally worn so thin that he could see right through it. He finally snapped at her.
“Alice! Answer me!”
She glared at him. There was pain in her face.
“What are you yelling for? I’ve got a headache.”
He didn’t have the stomach for further ignorance.
“Why am I tied up and naked in the car?”
She looked back at the road.
“I thought that’s what you wanted.”
He could’ve laughed at her comment if it hadn’t sounded so insane.
“Why would I want that?”
“Alice. Where are we going?”
Anston shook his head. He was in no mood for games. He was grateful that she hadn’t stabbed him in his sleep, but he wasn’t convinced the current situation was much better.
“Just tell me.”
He lurched forward as much as the seatbelt would allow. It chafed against his bare chest. Fortunately, he didn’t have much of a chest to chafe.
“Why won’t you tell me?”
“Because I want you to guess.”
He struggled more with the twine.
“Could you untie my hands first?”
She smiled. It looked fake.
“If you guess, then maybe I’ll untie you.”
Anston closed his eyes and breathed in deeply through his nose. He let the air out through his mouth. Then he repeated the process a few more times. He started to regret ever ditching Rebecca for this. He could’ve had a nice dinner with her, maybe slept at her house instead—a reaching idea given how little they knew of each other, but it was nothing unusual given the culture to which they belonged. Certainly would’ve been better to wake up in her bed than tied up in the passenger seat of his own vehicle while a confirmed nut drove him to some undisclosed location. Unless of course Rebecca had the same plans for him, which was also possible given how little they knew of each other.
There was no other way around this, he realized. He would have to give in to Alice’s request.
“Are we going to a landfill?” he asked.
Anston looked at her when she didn’t give him a response. She was still watching the road, though her eyes were showing signs of disturbance. She suddenly looked hurt.
She glanced at him quickly. The road was clear ahead, but it was starting to curve. She had to keep her attention on it.
“Why would you think we’re going to a landfill?” she asked.
“No. That’s absurd.”
Anston lowered his eyebrows at her.
“Alice, are you taking me to a landfill?”
“To get married!” Her fingers were now tight around the steering wheel and she was leaning forward. She was also blinking now. A lot. “You said you’d marry me again. That’s where we’re going. To get married.”
Anston stared at the road ahead. The scenery was bare of manmade structures. They were driving down a highway that cut through a forest. Most of the vehicles they passed were commercial rigs headed for the next town, or the next state. If they were getting remarried, they were taking the long way to the chapel.
“Are we headed to Vegas?” he asked.
She gave an expression similar to a smile.
“Why are my hands tied?”
“To make sure you don’t back out at the last minute.”
Anston nodded. Somehow that made sense to him.
“Where are my clothes?”
He glanced at her.
“You didn’t pack me a bag?”
“You don’t need clothes for the honeymoon, sweetheart.”
“I do for the wedding!”
“You don’t in Vegas.”
Anston rolled his eyes. He realized skipping out on dinner with Rebecca wasn’t regretting far enough back in time. He should’ve regretted having ever signed up on an Internet dating site. Alice was the best he could get.
“We do, however, have one stop to make on the way,” she said.
Less than an hour later, they pulled off into a motel parking lot. Anston figured Alice wanted a pre-wedding celebration akin to the almost celebration they’d had the night before, but he soon discovered that was not at all her intention for coming here. When she’d left him to go to the front office, she was not picking up a room key, but a passenger.
The passenger was a slightly older gentleman, about forty-five or fifty, with a salty beard and gray boater hat. He was dressed in a gray suit and matching tie. Everything about him was gray. But his pale skin, leathery in texture from years of tans cut short by a sudden binge of indoor living, still had the smoothness of middle adulthood. He didn’t quite have the ghostly presence of a man dead before his time. But he was getting there.
Alice skipped across the parking lot to the Maserati with the older gentleman tagging along from behind. He was less enthusiastic in his approach. The large brown suitcase he carried with both hands was weighing him down, as was the frown on his face. When he reached the car, Alice popped the trunk for him. When he came to the passenger side, without suitcase in hand, he unhooked Anston’s seatbelt.
“Get out,” he said without batting an eye.
Anston stared at him, incredulous that a complete stranger would order him out of his own car.
“I can’t get in with you sitting there. Get out.”
Anston glanced over at Alice, who was now in the driver’s seat, to get her opinion on whether this guy was serious. She motioned him with a nod to acknowledge the gray man. Anston sighed and slipped out of his seat, hands still tied behind his back, shorts still barely covering his midsection. The exit was difficult; he had to clear the seatbelt by shaking his shoulders and swiveling out using his abdominal muscles, which he didn’t have many of. Once he managed to stand erect and stretch his legs, he suddenly realized how cold it was outside. He shivered and danced in place while he waited for the gray stranger to push the front seat forward and climb into the back. Once he put the seat in place, he gestured Anston to get back in the car. Alice buckled him in. Then she stepped on the car’s accelerator, causing the vehicle to lurch forward. The force of momentum was strong enough to shut the passenger door.
Anston sat there in silence as the Maserati exited the parking lot and raced for the traffic light. He continued to stare out into the world around him, silently, dwelling on any thought that popped into his head. He let the billboards that passed them dictate his internal narrative. Did he have law insurance? Jack Daniels liquor? Was he prepared to spray his home full of pesticide? He tried to convince himself that, “Yes, I do need insert product here,” by trying to figure out how each one was relative to the next. He’d need to drink a tall glass of Jack Daniels after dealing with the law firm’s insurance adjuster, and then breathe in the pesticide to forget the entire episode. And he’d keep distracting himself with these thoughts throughout the silence for as long as he could stand, since no billboard could adequately narrate the absurdity that was becoming his life. But, by the time Alice pulled out onto the Interstate, he couldn’t take the silence any longer. He needed answers.
“Who the hell are you anyway?” he asked the man sitting behind him. He couldn’t exactly turn to look, but he tried to keep an eye on him through the outside mirror.
The man didn’t answer. Anston wasn’t surprised.
Anston was surprised, however, that Alice spoke for him.
“He’s our witness,” she said. “Can’t get a license without a witness. Remember?”
Anston nodded. He remembered. He also remembered that Vegas was full of drunk people willing to sign a legal document, and that today would offer no fewer choices than the first time they’d married. This guy was hardly necessary. Anston did not understand his ex-wife at all.
A short time into the drive, Alice pulled off the highway into a gas station. She stopped at the empty pump closest to the exit. Before stepping out of the car, she patted Anston’s knee and peered into his eyes.
“I need your pin number,” she said.
Anston felt a sharp burst of electricity racing through his chest.
“For your debit card.”
He narrowed his eyebrows.
“My debit card?”
She had a deadpan expression. Either it was still early in the morning, or she hadn’t developed personality in the few hours she’d been home.
“I don’t have one of my own,” she said. “I’ve been locked up for a year, in case you’ve forgotten.”
“I haven’t forgotten.”
“So, password, please.”
Anston thought about the request. Tried looking over his shoulder at the strange man sitting behind him, though the man was still just to the left of his peripheral sight. He looked back at Alice, who was sitting there patiently. She had not taken her eyes off of him.
“How about I just pay for the gas?” Anston asked.
“Yes,” said Alice. “You will. That’s the point. Password.”
“I mean, how about I pump the gas and everything?”
She set her left hand on the steering wheel and stroked it. With her other hand, she rubbed, then squeezed Anston’s knee. Her face was colder than a penguin’s foot.
“How are you going to do that with your hands tied, sweetheart?”
Anston was about to respond, but Alice put her finger to his lips.
“I’m not gonna debate this,” she said. “I’ve been away too long and I just want my life back. Give me the password.”
Anston tried glancing in the direction of the stranger behind him, but Alice slid her hand to the side of his face and redirected him back to her.
“Don’t worry about him. He’s harmless. Your secret’s safe with me. What’s your password?”
Anston squeezed his eyes shut. This woman was making him more naked by the minute. But he knew she wouldn’t relent. No matter how wild her demand, no matter how much it might’ve weakened him, she still demanded it.
He’d have to make several changes to his security before this day was over.
She gestured him to continue when he stopped there.
He paused again, thinking about the strange gray man behind him. Alice reached down and squeezed his thigh. She held her hand there while he staggered in his delivery. When he still didn’t answer, she crept her fingers up a few inches toward his groin, stopping halfway between the knee and the hip.
“Don’t make me reach the flag,” she said. “Because if I do, I’ll drop it to half-mast.”
He paused this time just to test her. True to her word, she slid her hand just up to the edge of his shorts. He jerked his knee away before she could finish her ascent. He resigned his will to fight her on this.
“Two. There, don’t injure me.”
She reached her hand up to his face and squeezed his chin. He could feel her thumb and forefinger causing tension against his lower back teeth.
“Why would I injure you on our wedding day?”
Besides the fact that she had just threatened him, he couldn’t think of any reason. But then again, he could think of many reasons, including the possibility of payback for him abandoning her to the Happy Place Enrichment Facility. He responded through his clenched jaw.
“I don’t know anymore.”
“It wouldn’t be much of a honeymoon, would it?” she asked.
“I guess not.”
She leaned closer and gave him what seemed like the beginning of a smile.
“If I were to injure you, it would be after the honeymoon.”
She released his jaw. He shuddered slightly. He had no idea when she’d consider the honeymoon over, or the precautions he’d have to take once their life was “back to normal.”
Alice climbed out of the Maserati and headed into the store. Anston, meanwhile, leaned into his seat and fought back the pressure overcoming his sinuses. The temptation to cry was building at an alarming rate. He slunk down as low as his seatbelt allowed.
“Oh God,” he said.
Next thing he knew, a meaty hand came reaching in from behind and took him by the neck. This hand was now squeezing his throat and blocking his ability to breathe. Anston’s eyes popped wide open when he realized what was happening.
He wanted to reach up and pry the man’s hand away, wanted so desperately to free himself from the sudden assault on his air supply, but he couldn’t move. The binds around his wrists had paralyzed his ability to defend himself. The best he could do was to throw himself hard into the backrest, but it wasn’t enough. He started kicking at the glove box with his knees instead.
“Don’t disrespect a good woman like Alice,” the man said in a sinister whisper. “When she asks you a question, you answer her. You understand?”
Anston tried nodding, but the man’s hand was blocking his chin. Then he tried speaking, but his grip was so powerful that he couldn’t get his words out.
“You understand?” the man demanded again. “Answer me!”
Anston tried, but the best he could get out was a wheezy whisper. His voice was so strained that the gray man couldn’t hear him.
“Don’t make me kill you on your wedding day.”
“Alice would like me less if I did.”
Anston tried shaking his head, but the man’s thumb and forefinger was blocking him from moving side to side. He was fixed in that position.
“Do you want me to? Because I will. Mister Sanders ain’t here to stop me.”
Anston tried to get something out. Anything out. But the fight for air was clouding his ability to think. Even if he could get the words out, it was becoming harder for him to identify the right words to say.
“Maybe I should,” the gray man said. “You clearly don’t appreciate a woman of her caliber. She’s everything that I’d want. If she isn’t everything you want, then you shouldn’t have her, you damn ungrateful prick.”
Anston was sure he had said something in response, but he didn’t know what, and he didn’t know if it had gotten out into the open. He just knew that he was moments away from blacking out. He could feel his lungs screaming for air and his brain begging for oxygen. His cheeks were tightening and his forehead was throbbing. And his windpipe was likely suffering from constriction damage. It had already started feeling like a mallet had hammered it out of shape. Why the hell wasn’t Mr. Sanders here to stop him?
By the time his knees stopped flailing at the glove box, Alice returned to the car. She peeked in, noticed the stranger’s hand around Anston’s neck, and frowned.
“Doctor Nantucket,” she said. “That is inappropriate behavior. I didn’t agree to come with you so you could do this. Please release my husband’s neck.”
Suddenly a blast of air came rushing down Anston’s bruised windpipe. He gasped as he felt the hand around his throat loosen.
“Just trying to improve his wisdom,” Dr. Nantucket said. “Doesn’t seem to have much of it.”
“Well, his face was turning blue, so stop trying to educate him. That’s my job.”
Without another word, Alice went to the pump and started fueling the gas tank. Anston, meanwhile, was still gasping for air. It would be a few minutes before he could talk again.
While Anston was clamoring for breath, he noticed a police cruiser pulling into the parking lot. It parked parallel to the pump beside them. He stared at the cruiser’s cabin, hoping to make eye contact with its driver. The patrol officer was looking at something in his lap.
Alice replaced the nozzle into the pump and leaned toward the driver side door. She was looking right at Dr. Nantucket.
“I’m getting snacks,” she said. “Don’t strangle my husband again.”
She left. Anston was aware of her heading back to the store, but he kept his eyes trained on the patrol cruiser. It took the officer almost three minutes for him to get out of his car and another minute to stretch his legs, crack his back, and head toward the building. As he crossed the pump island, he noticed Anston staring at him. They followed each other’s gaze as the officer passed slowly behind the pumps.
The officer was out of sight, and Anston had no way of communicating the trouble he was now sure he was in.
But then, to his surprise, the officer came back into view, this time from the left, and approached the Maserati from the driver side, which was still wide open. Anston straightened his back.
“Good morning,” said the officer, as he peered into the vehicle through the open door.
“Morning,” said Dr. Nantucket, before Anston had a chance to speak. “How can we help you?”
“Oh, I was wondering if I could help you.” He was looking at Anston. “I notice that you’re riding around in some attire that may be less than appropriate for the public. Are you okay, sir?”
“He’s fine,” said Dr. Nantucket. “It’s his wedding day.”
The officer smiled.
“Ah, nerves?” he asked.
Dr. Nantucket reached around the seat and clasped Anston on the shoulder. Anston flinched so hard that he nearly slammed Nantucket’s hand against the wall. Nantucket released his grip and then clasped him even harder, so hard that it sent a tremor through Anston’s body.
“Can you blame him?”
The officer shook his head.
“I remember my wedding day. Made me a little crazy, too. My advice is this. Don’t take it too seriously. It’s just a ceremony to mark the commitment you’ve already made. Tomorrow will be no different than today. In fact, it’ll be better. You’ll realize that win or lose, there’s no turning back, so you may as well relax and enjoy the ride.” He pointed his index finger at Anston and winked. “I’ve been married for going on twenty years now. We’ve gotten our arguments for divorce down from ten to just three threats a year. I’m confident that by the time we kill each other, we’ll be down to two or fewer. It’s bliss.”
The officer noticed movement beside him and slid to his right to allow Alice some room. He looked at her and smiled.
“I assume you’re the lucky bride-to-be?” he asked.
Alice shrugged as she placed a bag of snacks into the seat. But she failed to hide her twitching smile.
The officer looked back into the car and nodded approval to Anston.
“A fine choice,” he said. “She’ll make you the luckiest guy on earth, I can see that now.” He slapped the roof of the car. “Well, good luck to both of you. Hopefully you’ll put on some warmer clothes once you get your wits about you. There’s a cold front coming in.”
“Thank you, officer,” Dr. Nantucket said.
The officer continued on toward the store. Anston was crestfallen by his departure. He hadn’t been able to get out a single word of warning. Now he was back alone here with the nuts.
Alice moved the bag to Anston’s lap and climbed into the empty driver’s seat. Then she reached into the bag for a package of Funyuns. She opened it and aimed it at Anston’s mouth. She raised her eyebrows at him. He simply stared at her. She shrugged and offered the bag to Dr. Nantucket. Dr. Nantucket stole it from her hand.
Then they pulled out of the parking lot and onto the Interstate.
Anston leaned against the window and rolled his eyes. Even though he could feel his windpipe lessening in pain, he didn’t feel like talking now. He had no idea what the hell was happening anymore. He just knew he wanted out of this ridiculous marriage plot. None of this made any sense.
Unfortunately, he could see plainly that he was running out of time to back out. The signs for Las Vegas were beginning to creep along the highway. Every ten miles they would come closer together, until they came within range of the turnoff that would lead them in the direction of the city.
And then they drove right past it.
Anston sat up straight as his back suddenly tensed. He watched the exit for Las Vegas slip behind him. Then he glanced at Alice.
“You missed your exit,” he said.
She shook her head.
“No I didn’t.”
“But, Vegas is that way.”
She looked at him as if he were crazy.
He leaned toward her slightly. He was getting more confused by the second.
“Aren’t we going to get married there?”
She returned her focus to the road.
“Gotta do Doctor Nantucket’s thing first.”
Anston shook his head in disbelief.
“What’s this now?”
She was the kind of driver who always kept her hands in the ten o’clock-two o’clock position when she didn’t have a point to make. But now she was holding the two o’clock hand up to Anston’s face.
“I don’t have patience for your constant questions,” she said. “I’m trying to concentrate on the road.”
“My constant questions? Sorry, honey, but I’m starting to feel like a kidnap victim.”
He would’ve tossed his hands up in protest if he could.
“How do I not?”
She shrugged. Her attention was already entirely rapt on the road.
“I demand the truth,” he said. “Where are we really going?”
“Side trip,” she said. “Don’t worry about it.”
“I have to worry about it. You’re kidnapping me.”
“No I’m not. And no you don’t.”
She left it at that. Anston glanced out the window again. The desert was looking emptier by the minute.
“I don’t understand you at all,” he said to her.
He looked at her for clarification, but she offered him none. Then he went back to staring out the window.
“I wish this madness would just end,” he said under his breath.
“It will, honey.” She must’ve heard him anyway. “Just sleep it off. We’ll reach our destination soon.”
“I can’t sleep it off. I’m too stressed over this whole thing.”
He heard the clinking of glass down on the floor behind him. Then he heard a suction pop. Next thing he knew, Dr. Nantucket was reaching around him with both hands. He flinched. But the gray man wasn’t threatening to strangle him this time. In one hand was an empty goblet. In the other was the corkless bottle of the champagne that Anston and Alice had celebrated with the night before.
“Drink this,” said Dr. Nantucket. “Special concoction of mine. It’ll knock you right out.”
(end sample chapters)
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