Twenty minutes off Exit 179, with no food stand in sight, Sarah sensed something was amiss. She looked up from her map. They were on an unpaved road. It was fairly smooth, and the Jeep handled it well, but it seemed unlikely an unpaved road would get them to the Vegas Strip. The landscape around them was forbidding desert.
"Should I be concerned?" she asked.
Joel grunted. She buried her face back in the map. Then, a few minutes later, he muttered, "There it is." She looked up and saw they were on the entrance ramp to the highway. She relaxed and settled back in her seat.
But soon her peace was disturbed again. "What the ...?" her husband said.
Sarah looked around. Joel was staring at the computer display.
When they'd left the secondary road, their GPS system had stopped providing directions. It continued to show their location on the map, but the directional monitor read "Road Unknown."
Once they were back on the highway, this should have changed. However, following Joel's eyes to the monitor, Sarah saw that the message remained.
Sarah looked around uneasily. The highway was surprisingly devoid of traffic. She saw Joel's eyes go to the rearview mirror and linger there. She turned in her seat.
A car had appeared behind them, approaching in the middle lane. At first, Sarah could see nothing amiss. Except ...
Except they were rapidly outpacing the other car. It had only come close at all because Joel was still accelerating when he entered the highway. There was no speed limit on the Federal Highway, and with the road wide open like this one, speeds of 100 mph plus weren't uncommon. Nonetheless, Joel was only doing a modest 80; the other car should have been on top of them by now. Instead, as Joel gained full speed off the entrance ramp, it fell behind.
Sarah turned completely in her seat to stare back at the car.
"What the? Are we?" she asked, her mind awhirl.
She squinted back at the other vehicle. It was unusually large, of a make and model Sarah didn't recognize. Besides the driver, she thought she could discern a person sitting in the passenger seat, though all that was visible was a fluffy tuft of hair.
There was something familiar about that hair. Sarah had a vision of her childhood neighbor, Mrs. Previti, yelling at her brother for jumping over her fence. Mrs. Previti had seemed ancient, with her housecoat and her poodle hair ...
Sarah looked to Joel in alarm, just as he turned toward her.
"My God!" he said. "We're on GESH!"
"Lord have mercy," said Sarah.
GESH was the Geriatric Super Highway. It had been established in 2025, five years after the segment of the U.S. population 65 or older reached twenty percent.
That year, for the first time, the number of drivers 65 and over involved in traffic accidents surpassed the ones 17 and under, and the traffic fatality rate, which had been on a downswing for decades, started to curve back up.
Under pressure from the public, Congress passed a bill requiring all drivers over the age of 65 to undergo written and eye exams every six months, and to retake the field test once a year.
At first the senior population ignored the law. It did so until the following year, when an 86-year-old man was arrested in Sewickly after plowing into a school group. Three children were killed and a teacher paralyzed as a result of the accident.
When the Sewickly community presented a petition to the governor calling for the death penalty for the driver, seniors came out in force to counter protest.
Tens of thousands marched in Florida and Arizona.
Five of them died from heat exhaustion and heart failure.
There were "Seniors for Safety" road rallies in half a dozen cities in the Midwest, resulting in several crashes.
Lawmakers were at a loss. There was no stopping the seniors; you could pass all the laws you wanted, but, after lifetimes of obeying the law, suddenly they no longer cared.
"Go ahead, fine me! All you're doing is spending my children's inheritance! Screw them anyway! They never call!" Donnie Jorgensen, a 79-year-old community leader in Fort Myers, Florida, taunted as he was led away in handcuffs after mooning a police officer at a protest. "If you won't respect your elders, why can't you just leave us alone?"
Donnie's words seemed to guide national response to the seniors' protest movement. In an emergency session, Congress established the AISS, or Alternative Interstate System. It was promptly dubbed the Geriatric Super Highway by a media wag, and the alternative name, GESH, stuck.
To create GESH, the Department of the Interior mapped out a web of lesser-used highways and designated its use for drivers over 65. These highways would be unpatrolled.
Over the next few years, the senior population embraced GESH, voluntarily relocating into settlements near it. GESH was regarded with an almost superstitious dread by younger people. Sarah, who was thirty, had never been on it before.
Now, though, she found herself looking around with interest. Besides the rapidly disappearing car, now just a silver blob in the distance behind them, she noticed the road signs. They were the standard, government-issue forest green, but the wording had been repainted in gigantic text.
For instance, they were now passing a sign that said, merely,
in letters four feet high.
"You know, I'm still hungry," Sarah said. "We never did find that food stand."
"We're not stopping here," Joel said brusquely.
Sarah looked over at him, startled. But then she understood.
When Joel was 16, his father had been killed in a car accident caused by an elderly driver. She should have thought of it immediately. He must be terrified to find himself on this road.
"I'm sorry, I didn't think," she murmured. "But ... do you know where you're going?"
"I'll figure it out."
They drove in silence for a moment. The exit where FOOD could be found was approaching. Then she said, in a small voice, "I have to pee."
"Fine," Joel said, swerving into the exit lane.
It ended in a T. Joel slowed to a stop, and they stared around them. It was very quiet, with no signs of life or commerce in sight.
"What should we do?" Joel asked.
Sarah looked again. To the left, there was a grove of trees. Beyond it, the road stretched out blankly into the yellow distance.
To the right, there was an empty patch of road, and then what appeared to be a cluster of old houses, possibly an old farm. Sarah squinted a little, and saw it: a red sign with crude lettering, "FOOD." The sign blended into the brick house behind it, which is why she missed it at first.
Joel hadn't seen it at all. His eyesight was going a little, though he denied it vehemently when Sarah brought it up, and refused to have the test.
It was so silly, really. If he were found to have myopia, an appointment would be made for him at a laser center. That was all. He'd be in and out in twenty minutes. But Joel was afraid of lasers.
"Go right," Sarah said.
Joel made the turn. As they got a little closer, he said, relief in his voice, "I see it now." He pulled into a grassy lot and parked.
They approached the building. The storm door was open, so only a screen door stood between them and FOOD. But it seemed too much like just walking into a stranger's house. They paused.
A voice called to them from inside. "Are y'all going to come in, or what?"
Sarah glanced at Joel, who shrugged and pulled the screen door open.
When her eyes had adjusted, Sarah saw that they were in a stranger's house. They'd entered a foyer. To their right was an entryway into a larger room, which had been converted into the dining room of a small restaurant or diner. From where Sarah stood, a mantelpiece was partially visible, testifying to the building's former function as private residence. Now small tables were scattered around, each with a few mismatched chairs pulled up to it. The tables were scarred wood, with checkered napkins and cutlery of real silver set at each place.
There were three people in the room, two women and a man. All were very old. The first woman stood behind a wooden bar on the far side of the room, wiping down a counter with a rag. She had bright white hair, cropped short, and wore glasses.
The other two people sat at the little tables, though not together. The man was thin and wasted in his brown pants and short-sleeved shirt. His chair was pushed out from the table and his hands rested on a walking stick propped in front of him. A portable oxygen machine sat on the floor beside him, and a tube ran into his nose.
The second woman had fluffy hair that was a pale pink color. She wore a pink jogging suit, and a pink purse rested on the chair next to hers. There was a plate of untouched French toast on the table in front of her. The man had only coffee.
Sarah and Joel stared. One so rarely saw old people anymore.
The woman at the bar said, "How can we help you?"
"Are you still serving lunch?" Sarah asked.
"Sure," said the woman. "Come in and sit down."
They entered the room and took a table. The woman behind the bar filled two glasses with ice water and brought them over, along with two menus. The menus were simple, printed on a single sheet of paper using an extra large font.
Sarah did a double take when she saw the menu. She looked at Joel in astonishment. His face wore the same look.
"This is really beef?" Joel asked, pointing.
The woman smiled. "That's right," she said.
"And this is real bacon?" Sarah piped up, pointing elsewhere on the menu.
"I'll have a burger, then," said Joel.
"Bacon and eggs for me," said Sarah. "Scrambled."
"All right," said the woman. "Anything to drink?"
The woman jotted their order down on a pad and took it through a doorway into what was apparently the kitchen. She came out a moment later with two mugs of coffee and set them down. "What brings you to Enterprise?" she asked.
Joel said, "Well, we wanted to take a vacation, and ..."
"We got lost," Sarah finished.
The woman smiled. "I thought so. We don't get many of The Youth coming to visit voluntarily."
"The Youth?" Sarah said. "We're in our thirties!" She let out a forced chuckle. "It's not like we're some wild teenagers."
"For us, anyone under 60 is The Youth," the woman said. "I'm Brittany."
"I'm sure more of The Youth would come visit if they knew you served real beef," said Joel appreciatively.
Brittany laughed. "I imagine you're right. Still can't get it out there in the real world, huh?"
"A few shops import it, but it starts at about $50 a pound," Joel said.
"I buy a couple pounds for Joel twice a year," Sarah said, "but that's all we can afford. How can you offer these prices?"
"We have our own cattle," said Brittany. "Just a small herd, but enough to keep us well fed. Speaking of which, let me go check on your food."
"Do you have a toilet I can use?" Sarah asked.
"Back out through the doorway you came in, and across the hall."
Sarah went to find it. As she suspected, it was old-fashioned, water-based plumbing. It freaked her out a little. Joel, however, was smitten. Emerging from the bathroom after his turn, he said, "That's it. We're moving here."
"I thought you didn't like old people?"
"I don't," said Joel. "But I like soy burgers and vacuum plumbing even less."
As they slid back into their seats, the woman in the pink jumpsuit said, "Psst!" They looked over. She was staring at Sarah.
"Hi Honey," she said.
Sarah smiled. "Hello."
"Where's your mother?"
Sarah looked perplexed. "My mother's dead," she said.
"Dead!" the woman in pink shrieked. "Oh my God! Beth is dead!"
"Oh no," Sarah said. "My mother's name was Lisa. I'm afraid you have me confused with someone else."
The woman's face fell. "You're not Ashley?"
"No," said Sarah. "I'm Sarah. It's nice to meet you."
The woman squinted at her. "You're Ashley," she said.
Brittany reemerged from the kitchen, carrying their plates. The food smelled delicious.
"There you go," she said. "Eat up. I'll bring more coffee."
The woman in pink looked at their plates with interest. "You have bacon!" she said to Sarah. "You like bacon?"
"I do," said Sarah.
The woman clapped her hands delightedly. "Ashley likes bacon! Ashley likes bacon!" she chanted.
"Maybe this place has some disadvantages," Sarah muttered to Joel, but he was wolfing down his burger, an ecstatic expression transforming his face.
Brittany came over with a coffee pot and refilled their cups. "That's enough now, Leslie," she said to the woman in pink, who was still clapping her hands and chanting. "Eat your breakfast. It'll be ice cold."
As Brittany retreated to the kitchen again, Leslie obediently picked up her fork and poked her French toast with it, but once Brittany was out of sight she put the fork back down and leaned over toward Sarah again.
"Were you in the bathroom just now?"
"Yes," Sarah said.
"Did you see the letters?"
"No, I'm afraid not. Did, um, someone send you a letter?"
"No—the letters! You know: A, B, C ... I saw them running down the drain when I was washing my hands."
"She's got the Old Timer's!" the man with the oxygen tube blurted suddenly. "She doesn't know what she's talking about. Don't pay her no mind."
"You're the Old Timer!" Leslie pouted. "He's 86!" she told Sarah gleefully. "I'm only 81."
"She's 83 if she's a day," the old man said. "Always has lied about her age. But anyway I'd rather be 86 than have the Old Timer's."
"I'd rather be an Old Timer than have to breathe out of a tube!"
"Shut your pieholes, both of you!" Brittany said, emerging once more from the kitchen. She carried two more plates. Leslie and the old man clammed up sulkily.
Brittany smiled at Sarah and Joel. "I thought you might like some pie," she said.
Joel moaned orgasmically after his first bite.
"Geez, Joel," Sarah said. "I haven't heard you make sounds like that since the first three months we were dating."
Joel finished his bite, swallowed a mouthful of coffee, took another bite, and moaned some more. "Seriously, Sarah. We should move here."
"I don't want to."
"Why not? This is great! Great food, beautiful scenery, laid back pace ... think of how frantic things are in the city! And expensive!"
"But what would we do? For a living?"
"We could be farmers."
"We don't know anything about farming!"
"You're smart." Joel offered his most charming smile. "You'll figure it out."
"I can't learn to be a farmer! I have a black thumb! Plants die when I'm in the same room!"
"We can raise cattle. Then we'll eat burgers every day!"
"Joel, I don't think so." Sarah leaned forward. "These old people kind of creep me out."
Joel also lowered his voice. "I thought you liked old people?"
"I thought so too. I guess I didn't have enough information."
"Brittany seems nice."
"Yeah, she does. But she's only 33% of them!"
"I wish you'd consider this. You know how unhappy I've been at work. You've been restless too. This could be a great opportunity for us."
"Fine," said Sarah, not wanting a fight. "Let's discuss it when we get back from Vegas."
"Why even go to Vegas?" Joel asked. "We can vacation here!"
Sarah's jaw dropped. This was too much. She wasn't giving up her fruity poolside drinks to hang out with a bunch of senile old people.
"Seriously, Sweetie, why not?" Joel said. "It's so relaxing here! And the food is so damn good—and cheap!"
"Joel, I advise you to withdraw that suggestion immediately," Sarah started, but she was interrupted by a clattering sound from behind her.
She looked around. The old man had dropped his walking stick. His eyes were closed and his head was slumped forward onto his chest.
"Oh my God!" Sarah said, leaping out of her seat. She rushed over to the old man, but when she got there, she wasn't sure what to do. Brittany seemed to have disappeared.
"Brittany!" she called, then turned to Joel. "What should we do?" she asked.
"Let's get out of here!" Joel said, tossing some money on their table and heading for the door.
"Joel, wait! We have to stay and help!" Sarah said, though she had no idea what helping would entail.
"There's nothing we can do!" he said. Behind them, Leslie started clapping her hands and chanting again.
"Ashley killed Sam! Ashley killed Sam!"
That settled it. They dashed out to the car and scrambled in.
"But which way do we go?" Sarah cried.
"I figured it out while we were in there," Joel said. "If we take this road ten miles west, we'll run into 15."
"Do it!" Sarah said. ĎAnd no more side trips!"
"Agreed," said Joel, backing out of the lot. They didn't stop again until they pulled into the Oasis.
When they were dressing for dinner, Sarah asked, "Do you think that man was really dead?"
"I don't know," said Joel. "I don't want to think about it. Death should be kept in the Transmutation Centers, where it belongs. Are you ready?"
"I am," said Sarah. "I can't believe you wanted to live there!" she added. She couldn't help teasing him.
"I was beguiled by the beef," said Joel. "C'mon, let's go."
They headed out of their room and into the casino, where they drank too many fruity drinks and lost $500 at the blackjack tables.
Other stories by Dawn Corrigan have appeared recently or are forthcoming at Raving Dove, Opium Magazine, Dogzplot, The Abacot Journal, Wigleaf, Steel City Review, and 3711 Atlantic. Her nonfiction appears regularly at www.TheNervousBreakdown.com.