by Laura Garrison
I had already failed it twice — damn that parallel parking! — and this was my last chance. If I did not pass the road test this time, I would have to wait a full year before I could take it again. I shuddered at the possibility.
The written exam was easy; I missed only one question. (A blinking yellow “X” over a lane means “Must Turn Left.” Who knew, right?)
After I received my score, I joined my dad in the waiting room. Once upon a time, that room would have been packed with teenagers and their parents, but most of the seats were empty that day, just like the last two times I had been there. I sat in a plastic chair beneath the dingy glow of the fluorescent lights, waiting for my number to be called. There was a hole forming in one leg of my jeans, and I plucked at the exposed threads with my fingernail.
“Nervous?” my dad said, without looking up from his book.
“Nope,” I lied. “Third time’s the charm.” With Mom gone, I knew he was depending on me to get my license. It would take a lot of pressure off of him if I could help shuttle Simon to target practice and pick up groceries during the week.
“Number four,” the loudspeaker crackled.
“That’s me,” I said, waving my printed card.
“Good luck, Punkin Britches. Remember, hands at ten and two.”
I rolled my eyes. “Thanks, Dad. I’ll try to come back with good news this time.”
I went out through the metal door marked “Testing Area.” Outside, I was greeted by a thin woman with a long nose. She wore red-framed glasses, and there was a small crack in one of the lenses.
“Back again, Miss Bramford?”
“Call me Kayla, Ms. Mulch. I feel like we’re practically family, don’t you?”
“Just get in the car. You know the drill.”
It was not really a car; it was my dad’s old pickup truck — a two-toned, rust-spotted clunker that left a drizzly trail of oil everywhere it went. I hopped into the cab and buckled my seatbelt.
Ms. Mulch walked around to the front of the truck.
“You may start the engine, Miss Bramford.”
I turned the key and the engine sputtered to life. The exhaust pipe farted out a cloud of blue smoke; I watched it rise and dissipate in the rearview mirror.
I turned on the wipers, counted to three, then turned them back off.
On, three-count, off.
I flashed them twice.
Using the pencil that was chained to her clipboard, Ms. Mulch scribbled something on a sheet of paper. Then she went around to the passenger side, carefully avoiding the front bumper, which drooped at a melancholy angle and was attached to the truck with overlapping loops of barbed wire. She got into the cab next to me, wrinkling her nose as she settled onto the scuffed leather of the bench seat.
“Sorry about the smell. I spilled some soup in here yesterday,” I explained helpfully, indicating a greenish stain in the footwell.
She reached for the crank that would roll down the window, then thought better of it and withdrew her hand.
“You may now attempt to parallel park, Miss Bramford.” Her pencil was poised over her clipboard; I could tell that she was itching to fail me yet again.
I took a deep breath, switched on my turn signal, and threw the shift lever into reverse, craning my neck around as I wiggled the back end of the truck towards a pair of orange cones that marked the edge of an imaginary parking space. After using up my maximum of four gear changes on back-and-forth maneuvering, I put the truck in park.
“How’d I do?” I asked.
Ms. Mulch opened her door a few inches and peered down at the curb.
“Acceptable,” she grunted, reluctantly checking a box on the form.
“Woohoo!” I said, pumping my fist in the air.
“Not so fast, Miss Bramford. You still need to pass the rest of the exam. When you’re ready, you may drive up to the gate.”
“Oh, I’m ready,” I said. I put the truck in drive and tapped the gas pedal with the toe of my sneaker. I pulled up to the electrified fence that marked the boundary of the back lot of the DMV and waited, drumming my fingers on the steering wheel.
“Are we forgetting something?” Ms. Mulch asked pointedly.
“Oops,” I said. I used my elbow to press the button that locked my door, then I leaned across Ms. Mulch and smacked down the lock on the passenger’s side door.
“There. Safe as cows in a barn,” I said.
“I hope so,” she replied. There was a remote control hanging from a string around her neck, like a plastic pendant. She aimed it at the gate and pressed a green button.
The gate slid open with efficient speed. When the gap was wide enough for the truck, I pulled through it and stopped.
Ms. Mulch aimed the remote over her shoulder and pressed a red button.
The gate slid back into place, closing the electrified circuit with a soft bzzzt sound, like a beetle hitting a bug zapper.
“Where to?” I asked.
“Turn left and proceed to the traffic signal,” Ms. Mulch said.
The traffic signal was five blocks away. I drove slowly to the stop sign on the first corner, avoiding the largest potholes. If the street had been in better repair, it would have been almost pleasant; both sides were lined with maple trees, and the yards, although full of nettles and thorny shrubs, were lush and green. I brought the car to a full stop, looked all around with exaggerated concern — there was no one in sight — and drove through the intersection.
Ms. Mulch clucked her tongue and wrote something on her clipboard.
Halfway down the next block, a large dog of indecipherable lineage ran into the street.
Reacting instinctively, I swerved and just barely avoided hitting it. It chased after us, running alongside the truck, snapping and snarling. Its fur was brown and wiry, but there were a lot of bald patches on its sides and around its muzzle. I drove faster, hoping that there were not any huge holes in the road ahead. My luck held, and by the time I reached the signal light, the dog had given up and gone loping back towards the overgrown yard from which it had sprung.
I glanced at Ms. Mulch. She was frowning and writing furiously. This was not good. She clearly did not trust me. I would have to do something really spectacular if I expected to pass.
“Should I keep going straight?” I asked.
“Yes. Then make a left turn at the next signal,” she said.
There was one car facing me at the signal light — a Ford Armadillo — and I waited for it to cross before I made my turn.
“Continue down to Thurston Street and make another left,” Ms. Mulch said.
The front entrance of the DMV was on Thurston Street. That meant I only had about nine more blocks’ worth of driving left in which to impress Ms. Mulch.
About twenty yards away, on the right side of the street, there was a lovely stone building that had once been a church. A small crowd had gathered on the steps, and a couple of people were leaning against the frame of the arched doorway. As we approached, they walked down the steps and along the short path that led to the road. Their movements were shambling yet deliberate, like a bunch of drunks getting ready to start a bar fight.
Ms. Mulch sucked in a breath of air and gulped it down like cough syrup. I knew she was thinking of the dog I had missed by inches.
I would not react on instinct this time; there was too much at stake. I twisted the wheel and floored the accelerator. The truck sprang forward, engine screaming like a howler monkey. Ms. Mulch and I both bumped our heads on the roof when the truck jumped the curb, and I nearly lost my grip on the steering wheel.
Most of the crowd had scattered, but one man was still standing on the sidewalk, mouth gaping, bloodshot eyes wide. He was wearing stained khakis and a pink polo shirt. I saw the embroidered alligator on his chest pressed against the windshield for a brief moment before he rolled back down off the hood of the truck, leaving a bloody smear on the tan paint.
There was a squishy crunch when the tires went over him; it was like running over a canvas bag filled with carrots and chocolate pudding.
I guided the truck back into the road, bouncing down over the curb. I could hardly believe what I had just done. Ms. Mulch must have been shocked; she probably didn’t think I had it in me. I looked over my shoulder to see if any of the others were following us. I did not think they would be — not with one of their own down — but they were not always predictable.
“Eyes on the road, Miss Bramford. Use your mirrors,” Ms. Mulch said.
I turned around and watched in the side mirror as the zombies — who, as the stenciled letters reminded me, were closer than they appeared — gathered around their fallen comrade, Mr. Pink Polo. I slowed to a crawl, watching as they crouched down and sniffed at him. One of them lifted his lifeless arm with both hands and began eating his fingers with quick, sharp bites, as if they were peppermint sticks. Another grabbed one of his ears, twisted it off, and stuffed it into his mouth. Two of them buried their faces in the man’s crushed chest, lapping up the red puddles that were collecting there, while a fifth pulled off his loafers and began tugging at his socks, trying to free the soft flesh underneath.
I caught a glimpse of the sock-tugger’s face, and for one terrible moment I was certain that she was my own mother, who had left for work one morning two months before and had not come back. But it was not her; this woman’s hair was too dark. At least, I thought it was — it was hard to tell; a lot of it had fallen out in clumps, much like the fur of the dog that had chased us down the street. And I was rather far away by this point; details in the reflected tableau could hardly be trusted at this range.
I tore my eyes away from the mirror and focused on the street, which was pitted and strewn with branches and bones. I did not look back again until after I made the turn onto Thurston Street, and by then the crowd was out of sight.
I made my way back to the DMV without further incident, and the armed guards at the entrance nodded to Ms. Mulch as I turned into the main parking lot. Nearly all the slanted spaces were open; I pulled into one at random and turned off the engine.
Ms. Mulch was tapping the clipboard with her pencil, lips pursed.
“Well,” she said, looking down at her notes. “You passed, but I must say that I have some reservations concerning your braking, which is much too jerky, and you put on your turn signal too soon before…”
She kept talking, but I heard nothing after that, although I continued to nod seriously every few seconds. I had passed!
When Ms. Mulch finally finished her lecture about all the areas in which my skills were barely adequate, I bolted back into the waiting room, where my Dad was still reading his novel. He looked up, saw my face, and smiled.
“Congratulations,” he said.
Thirty minutes later, I was holding my very own driver’s license, still warm from the laminating machine. I read all of the printing next to my picture: Kayla Bramford; Height: 5’4″; Weight: 118; Eyes: Gray; Hair: Brown; Class C: Aggressive Driving (Kill/Maim — Undead ONLY), Non-Commercial. I had not checked the box for organ donation.
There were already enough people after my organs.
My dad gave me a hug. “I’m so proud of you,” he said.
I got a little choked up. I had secretly been preparing myself for disappointing him, and his words meant a lot to me. But I did not want to get all mushy about it. I wiped my nose on the back of my arm and jangled the keys.
“Come on, Dad. Let’s go for a ride.”
LAURA GARRISON grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania, and currently lives in Maryland with her husband Justin. Some of her other work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Puffin Circus, Niteblade, 5923 Quarterly, Defenestration, and The Northville Review, among others. She likes reading by candlelight, chasing (but not catching) butterflies, and shiny objects. She is afraid of revolving doors and jellyfish.