Published Issue 099, March 2022
“Get back here, El!”
Her father’s words are distant, subdued by the ringing in her ears, by the patter of her sneakers pounding into the pavement.
Ringo senses her approach by her keys, pushes its door open for Ellie. She slips inside, the door automatically locking shut behind her. Her breath is ragged, rivulets of tears and blood sheening her cheeks. There’s a dull pounding beside her — Ellie’s father slamming his fist into Ringo’s passenger window. Ellie flinches at the last thud, the whole of the 2037 Volkswagen vibrating as it disperses the force.
“Open this fucking door, El!”
She can’t control her breath, unable to look at him, unable to move.
A line of black-and-white LED text scrolls across Ringo’s screen: “Where would you like to go?”
Her voice trembles, no more than a whisper escaping her lips:
Ringo slams the gas, throwing Ellie back into her seat. She doesn’t look back, hearing her father’s screams fade into the distance, trying not to think of the rage she’ll endure when she returns. She curls up into the leather seat as the sobs take hold of her, her body feeling finally that it’s safe to let go, to let the waves of despair break their dam through a rush of shivering tears.
Ringo warms the seat for her and drives on into the night.
When she wakes at dawn, Ringo’s pulled off into a scenic outlook along Skyline Drive. This was where her and her mom used to go on days like these, when the alcohol freed her father’s demons, loosed upon them both. They’d go for long drives together through the Blue Ridge Mountains, Abbey Road filling Ringo’s interior with a brightness they never experienced at home. They’d pretend this was their life, carefree travelers on the open road. They’d pretend they didn’t have to go back. It was on one of those nights, belting out Oh! Darling with her mother when they gave Ringo its name.
Ellie smiles at the memory, a smile that fades too quickly, a dying ember failing to catch fire. She pushes the door open and walks to the ridge, tree covered mountains undulating before her. Her thoughts are clouded just as the sky above — dark and brooding. Thunder rumbles and cracks, curtains of rain drowning the mountains in the distance. She wraps her arms around herself, feeling the storm’s chill seep away what little warmth she has. I should go back, she thinks. I have to go back.
She walks back to Ringo, stepping into the driver’s side seat.
“Let’s go home,” she says.
“Home?” the LED text reads.
“Yes, home.” Ellie repeats. She expects the engine to hum to life, for Ringo to lurch forward and carry her back to her father. But nothing happens. The LED text remains blank.
Ringo pushes the rearview mirror in toward her.
Ellie looks up, sees herself for the the first time. Her left eye is black and purple, dried blood streaked down from her split eyebrow. She shivers at the sadness she sees in her own eyes. She can’t look away, even as her eyes again begin to well with tears.
“Where would you like to go?” Ringo’s LED text scrolls.
Wind rushes through Ellie’s hair, curly waves of gold in the late afternoon sun. She can smell the ocean on the air, taste the salt water on her tongue. A green sign flashes past her reading: “San Diego – 28.” Thousands of miles, the whole of the country, stand between her and her old life.
That’s how she’s come to think of it, more and more with each passing day — my old life. As if the Ellie of San Diego, CA and the Ellie of Grottoes, VA are two different people — as if where we are is inextricably connected to who we are. With every town her and Ringo stopped in, she found that ember grow just a little brighter inside of her. Sure, she has just enough gas to make it to the hostel that costs the last of her savings — but it doesn’t matter. She feels free for the first time in her whole life.
“Little darling, it’s been a long cold lonely winter,” Ellie sings over McCartney and Harrison, thinking of her mom. She thinks of her mom often. She wishes she was with her now, wishes they’d decided to run away together long ago.
Ringo pulls down Newport Ave in Ocean Beach. It parks in front of a pink picket fence that marks the front of her hostel, a rainbow peace sign sitting atop the building’s peaked roof. Ringo’s LED text reads: “Arrived.”
Ellie goes inside to check in. She’s helped by a man in his late 30s, still in his wetsuit from the morning surf. “Is this your place?” she asks.
The man smiles, “Nah — I was just following the coast, letting my skateboard lead the way, you know? It brought me here, and I haven’t been able to leave since. There’s no place on earth better than OB — you’re gonna love it.”
There’s a kindness in his eyes, a sincerity that makes her believe him.
“Is that one of those self-drivers?” the man asks.
Ellie glances out the window at Ringo. “It is,” she says proudly.
“Wow — that’s rad. How’d you get it?”
“It was my mom’s.”
“Right on,” he hands over the key to the room. “You’re all set, Ellie. If you ever need anything, I’m around — just ask for Bodi.”
Ellie’s room is on the second floor, looking out to the courtyard in the back. There’s a mural outside her window: a unicorn with a purple horn jumping through a rainbow, and a banner above waving in and out of the clouds. “You’re exactly where you need to be,” Ellie reads aloud to herself.
She sets her backpack down and falls back onto the bed, soft linens floating her above the world.
“I’m exactly where I need to be,” she says, smiling.
Ellie feels the onrush of the wave and adjusts her stance — too late. Her feet slip, the surf board sliding out from underneath her. The wave crashes overhead, plunging her into the cool salt water. She floats in the dark of the ocean for an instant, adrift, then swims to the surface. She grabs onto Bodi’s borrowed surfboard tethered to her ankle and paddles in.
“That was a rad wipe out,” Bodi says.
Ellie laughs, “You think everything’s rad.”
“Everything is rad.”
Ellie chuckles, looks to her watch. “I should get to work. Same time tomorrow morning?”
“If the surf calls,” he shrugs.
Ellie smiles at him. Bodi says he doesn’t have a schedule (says further that “time is just a construct of our minds, man”), but she knows he’ll be here tomorrow morning, same as always.
She walks up Newport Ave and climbs into Ringo’s back seat. “To work,” she says. Ringo juts off toward downtown San Diego as Ellie changes out of her wetsuit in the back. Dressed, she climbs up into the driver’s seat, admiring the skyline in the early morning light.
“Can you believe it, Ringo?” She asks, in awe of these past few weeks, feeling more and more distant from her life back east.
Ringo parks around the corner from The Invigatorium where Ellie started as a barista a few weeks back. She gives Ringo a pat on the hood and heads inside to clock in, waving good morning to her boss, Drew. One of her coworkers said to keep an eye on him, but he seems nice enough to Ellie. After all, he gave her a job with no more experience than managing concessions at a high school gym.
The day passes without much event, Ellie spending the quiet moments making lists inside of her notebook. She sketches a banner at the top of one page that says: “What do I want to DO with my life?!” In all those days staring up at the ceiling in her room, hiding from life inside the confines of her headphones, she only ever thought about leaving. But her home was a black hole, encircled in an event horizon she could never see beyond. She could never imagine what life could be like beyond its grasp — until now.
At the end of the day Ellie’s cleaning the espresso machine, getting read to clock out when she sees Drew come up to her.
“Hey El, you mind giving me a ride home?” He asks. “Some jag uploaded a virus to my wheels. I can’t even get the door open.”
“Of course — just give me a second to finish up here,” Ellie says.
“You’re a lifesaver. I’ll meet you by Ringo.”
She finishes up and meets him outside, the two of them sliding inside Ringo’s cozy interior as it hums to life, Abbey Road starting up as it always does.
“You like The Beatles?” Drew asks, sounding surprised.
“They’re all I listen to.”
“Wow, and here I thought your generation had bad taste in music.”
“What does my generation listen to.”
“You know — the fake shit. Half the songs I hear on the radio today are written by some AI, manufacturing synthetic beats AB tested to soothe our ears. Speaking of which, isn’t this a self-driver?”
“Yeah, but sometimes I miss the the feel of driving,” Ellie says, taking in the soft grooved leather wheel underneath her hands.
“You should put it on cruise for a bit,” he says, sliding his hand to her knee.
“What are you doing?” Ellie asks, eyes on the road.
“What do you mean?” he says, hand unmoved.
“Drew, take your hand off me.”
“Oh come on — you know you want to.”
“No — I don’t.” Ellie says, grabbing his hand by the wrist and throwing it back across the console, eyes unmoved from the road.
“Come on El, I thought we had an understanding here?” Drew says, slithering his hand back across the console, underneath the hem of Ellie’s skirt. “I hired you for a reason.”
“Get your hand off me, Drew.”
He squeezes her thigh.
Ringo’s LED text scrolls: “Accident risk — interior.”
Drew’s seat back thrashes forward, slamming his head into the dashboard, his nose cracking against hardened plastic. He whips back with a groan, holding his hand to his nose, blood spurting down his chin.
“What the fuck?” he groans.
Ellie white-knuckles the steering wheel, feeling her pulse quicken, feeling that tingle of fear prickle the base of her skull, the same feeling she always felt around her father.
Drew wipes blood off his palm. “Christ — what is wrong with you?”
“It wasn’t …”
“Pull the car over here.”
Ellie hesitates, unsure what he’ll do if she stops.
“I said pull over!”
Drew leans over to grab the steering wheel, but his seatbelt snaps against his chest, fastening him to his seat. He strains against it, shouts, “Tell your fucking car to cut this out, El!”
As he writhes, Ellie glances to see the seatbelt constricting around him, “Accident risk — interior” still written across Ringo’s screen. She takes her hand off the wheel and yanks at Drew’s seatbelt, jamming her thumb into the red button to free it. But the button won’t move, the buckle’s locked in.
Drew cries out in pain as the belt fastens tighter, its zigzagging imprint burning into his skin. He finds his breath shallowing, the seat back and belt compressing his chest. “El,” he says through gasped air. “Tell it to stop — now.”
“Ringo, cut it out!” she screams.
The belt tightens.
Ellie turns to Drew, seeing a glint fear in his eyes, realizing he’s powerless, realizing they’re both powerless. The fear in her own mind is numbed by shock. That ringing returns to her ears, the tinnitus that makes reality seem distant, like she’s no more than a far away passenger to this story.
Traffic rushes around them and she hears across a chasm of awareness Drew’s gasping breath beside her. Her eye twitches at a crack of bone, the seatbelt carving into Drew’s hips. She pulls away form him, averting her gaze, fingers tingling with numbness.
She hears short, sharp gasps. Desperation. She feels absently a hand, cold fingers claw at her arm. She does not move. She lets the numbness still her.
And then there is quiet.
Only the hiss in her ears, and a colorful array of cars streaming around her.
Ringo’s LED text reads: “Accident risk — resolved”.
Through the hiss she hears Abbey Road turn to the next track: “The End.”
Oh yeah, all right,
Are you going to be in my dreams
Gray Winsler is the first ginger to be published in Birdy Magazine, Issue 091. He loved living in Denver despite his allergy to the sun and is now based in Ithaca, NY. He spends his mornings with his dog Indy by his side, writing as much as possible before his 9-to-5. If you’re curious about Normal, IL or why TacoBell is bomb, you can find more on his site.
Rob C Miller is a Pittsburg-based artist specializing in exotica and tiki culture art and collage. In the past, he studied philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh. In the present, he digitally manipulates old photos, magazines, comics and slides. His goal is to explore a space where the past, present, fiction, fantasy and reality all exist as one. Check out more of his work on Instagram and his site.