It took me a while to realize what the self-driving cars were. I’d be stuck behind them on my commute, and I’d assume they were some kind of shuttles. They were these chunky white vans with giant, thimble-shaped orange lights on the roof, constantly spinning. The vans had a brand name plastered on their sides, something halfway between a Pokémon and a generic drug, and they stuck to predetermined circuits. I knew if I took a right-hand turn here or a U-turn there, I’d end up behind them. If I left even two minutes late for my half-hour route, I’d find them.
If traffic wasn’t too dense, it wasn’t a big deal. They were slow, but predictably so. They weren’t the kind of cars that revved up when you tried to pass them. They’d gladly watch you swerve around their bulk, churning along like they enjoyed going 10 miles slower than anyone else. In the Phoenix metropole, I guess that should’ve been a big enough clue that there was no human involved. Everyone in the valley drove in a mad dash, desperate to get out of the homicidal heat.
But I assumed these vehicles were so slow because they were passenger vans. I thought they must be ferrying elders to and from activities or errands. After all, there were senior communities all around the valley.
One morning, I left late for work—I would end up arriving less than ten minutes tardy, but this was mortifying to me. I zipped and jerked through lanes of lifted pickups and sticker-stained sedans and sparkling SUVs with fake plates so flat they reflected the sunbeams like lasers into my eyes. I was inches from the backside of one of the sluggish white vans with a placebo-sounding name. I kept trying to jump into the next lane, but the oncoming cars streamed by like a spray of two-ton bullets. I slammed on my brakes and accepted my fate for the next couple of blocks. Finally, as enough cars vacated the street for a popular plaza, I was able to veer out from behind the white van—only to stomp into a red light.
As I cast a hateful look to the van with which I was now shoulder-to-shoulder, I found myself staring into a husk. There was no silhouette in profile to scowl at—no man or woman to reproach. The orange lamp spun atop the roof, incandescent under the 120-degree sun, each rotation the unfeeling heartbeat of an animal without a head.
The soulless thing and I alike moved forward when the light turned green. I moved faster. I drove the rest of my route with a sick chill, as if feeling something’s breath on my back when I had thought I was alone.
And I wondered if this was the feeling most people got when they encountered self-driving shadows. The ones that draw the attention of wary animals. The ones that stand in the corner of my room and trick me into waking before the nightmare ends. The ones that pull their mouths open wide enough for me to climb inside. The ones that stick to me, a hundred on each hand, like the spines on a saguaro. Waiting to draw blood or feed a songbird.
Siobhan Manrique is a Venezuelan-Irish middle school English teacher in rural Arizona. I earned my B.A. in English and Certificate in Creative Writing at Northern Arizona University. Aside from education and remote living, her previous positions in hotels and funeral homes also inform her work. Her poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in Milkyway Magazine, Fearsome Critters, Talking Writing, and others. Her latest short story is forthcoming in Button Eye Review.