“Yellow slow, green go, stop on red,
And watch out for the lady with the backwards head.
Stay in your lane or you’ll be dead
If you see the lady with the backwards head!”
— Children’s Playground Rhyme, 20th c.
Not one of us believed in her. Not one. We all grew up hearing it, of course, chanting it like an incantation while slapping our hands together in increasingly intricate combinations, while hopping from one foot to another over jump ropes that whirled past our heads like guillotine blades. She wasn’t even a proper boogeyman — there was no way to summon her, she had none of the clout of Bloody Mary, none of the menace of Slender Man.
I learned too late that it doesn’t matter whether we believed in her or not. We summoned her just the same.
“Where are we going?” I opened my eyes to see the road unwinding beneath me like a ribbon, black and shiny. I couldn’t remember getting the in the car. My head was heavy, my tongue thick. I swallowed and sat up, pushing my forehead away from the cold glass it had been resting on.
My parents were in the front seat, staring straight ahead. Outside, mounds of dirt with green leaves sprouting out of them were sliced into even rows that slid past my eyes with a hypnotic rhythm. On the dirt shoulder just ahead of the next exit, a fat red strawberry speckled with black dots was painted on a splintering wooden sandwich board.
“Why are we on the highway?” I half-slurred. I felt like I’d been drugged. Their silence was beginning to annoy me. “Where are we going?” I asked again, sharper this time. My mother looked at my father — she didn’t turn her head, but I saw her eyes move — but they stayed silent.
Condensation fogged the window like a bathroom mirror. My fingers traced humid symbols onto the glass. I looked down and realized I was wearing socks, but no shoes. My left pinky toe protruded from a hole in my sock. I wiggled it; it waved back at me like a friend.
Outside, the sky was white like an eye gone blind.
When I was five years old my mother drove me to a strange building I had never seen before. She told me it was the first day of school, that she would be back to get me in a few hours. I was an only child, poorly socialized, and I spent the entire day crying at my desk. By the time I’d unzipped my little pink backpack and stuck my head inside to cry in peace, I was a complete spectacle.
My teacher brought me to a bench near the edge of the playground and stabbed a straw into a tiny green box full of apple juice. “Here,” she said, “your mother will be here soon.” It was recess, and the other kids were laughing and screaming, running, playing games. I hiccuped and sucked on the straw, the salt of my tears mingling with the sweetness of the juice; my face felt hot, apple-red.
A rhythmic singsong rose above the normal childhood din, whispering into my ear like an insect: “Yellow slow, green go, stop on red, and watch out for the lady with the backwards head…” I straightened up and looked around. Where was it coming from?
Three little girls were sitting cross-legged on the grass near the edge of the swing set, their lips forming the strange words faster and faster as I watched, confused. They were clearly playing some sort of game, but I couldn’t tell what the rules were. As I watched, one of them looked up at me and smiled. Then all three stopped singing and turned to stare. They were still staring when my mom arrived. As she led me by the hand back to the car, I turned around for one last look. They were all in a line on the patchy grass, staring at me and smiling. I watched them even after I got in the backseat, even as we pulled away from the curb. I watched them for as long as I could. They never did move.
That was the first time I heard of her. It wouldn’t be the last.
Once we passed the slaughterhouse, I knew where we were going.
There was only one reason to drive that far north on the 5. They were going to take me back. They’d talked about it, of course — discussed it with me as though as I had a choice. I was resistant at first, and then defiant. But we all knew my return was inevitable.
The smell of death and manure filled the car, overripe and cloying. My mother’s finger pressed the button to close the vents that let in outside air, gazing out at the cows behind metal fences topped with razor wire that curled like ivy. I pressed my forehead to the window again and stared at them, standing nose to tail, packed into pens like prisoners, a murky sea of brown and white and black. I felt my lips twist into a smirk and I clapped my hand across my mouth so no one would hear me laugh. They looked resigned to their fate, or ignorant of it.
I envied them.
When I was fifteen my friends and I decided to do something “different” for Halloween. We were too old for trick-or-treating, too young for parties. What we decided to do was to go to a local taco place that was open late and sit outside at one of the tiled tables surrounded by white plastic chairs.
Costumes seemed embarrassing, but not dressing up felt too sad, so we tried to draw on Egyptian eyeliner like Siouxsie Sioux with the 99-cent black pencil Bri had shoplifted from the drugstore, but none of our hands were steady enough to get a good wing. Still, we thought we were pretty punk rock.
We ordered drinks and tortilla chips and sat down, waiting for something to happen to us. We didn’t have to wait long.
The two of them looked like they were well into their twenties. Too old to be talking to us. They bought us another round of root beers and asked us to go for a ride.
I sat in the back with one of them, clutching my root beer and staring out the window. Bri and Shay were in the front seat with the other one. They had a classic car, a real beauty. I’d never been in a car so big, or so old. It didn’t even have seatbelts.
“Where are we going?” I asked after the lights of downtown had dwindled into pin pricks and then disappeared in the rear window. We had turned down a road into the canyon; everything was dark. The music had stopped and no one was flipping the tape over. From the front seat, he started to sing, “Stay in your lane or you’ll be dead if you see the lady…”
He giggled. From somewhere nearby, another laugh echoed. “You heard of her?” he whispered to me in the dark. “The lady with the backwards head?”
“Where are we going?” I repeated. No answer. My head began to loll; my eyelids snapped. I could feel time melting around me, and then a sensation on my thigh — a strange hand, not mine. In the dark, I could see him leering. I screamed and pulled my arm back like I was aiming an arrow, then I hurled the bottle I was holding forward with all of my strength and smashed it over his head.
We skidded across three lanes and the double-yellow line and clipped a tree with one of the headlights before skidding to a stop. Bri and Shay were almost unconscious, but I was juiced on adrenaline and managed to pull them out of the front seat, into the mud, before collapsing into a sloppy heap on top of them. We weren’t like that for long before a local cop on rowdy-teen-patrol found us.
Bad luck that those boys happened to have daddies who were an attorney and a local politician. I knew we’d been drugged, but we were young and we already had what our teachers called “reputations.” It didn’t matter that they were twenty-five and driving around with a carful of high schoolers. It didn’t matter that they were both drunk.
No one believed us. Not even my parents.
That was the first time they sent me away.
The ache in my head had become a throb, and the sun was sinking lower in the sky. I knew we were almost there. I knew I didn’t have much time.
I unbuckled my seatbelt and shifted so my back was to the window. I stared at my father’s hands on the steering wheel; his knuckles were white, his spine straight. I couldn’t see his eyes.
I remembered the last time I had seen someone driving like that.
It was two weeks before graduation. Bri had finally saved up enough for a car. We drove it off the lot together, screaming out of the rolled-down windows and honking the horn in celebration. Later that night we sat on the hood, looking up at the stars. We talked about getting out of there together, driving south or east until the landscape changed and nothing was familiar anymore.
Two weeks later, driving to graduation in our cheap satin gowns and caps, I brought it up again. I asked her when she wanted to leave. Her hands tightened, her knuckles whitened. She shifted forward in her seat. “What’s wrong?” No answer.
Six days later Bri and Shay left town together. They drove that car away and left me behind. I guess you could say I ended school just like I started it: Alone.
When I finally opened my eyes again, it was quiet in the car. We were close — I could tell. Mom’s eyes kept fluttering closed and then blinking open; we’d been driving for hours.
“Where are we going,” I said quietly, and it wasn’t a question anymore, it was an accusation. I tried to stay calm but I thought of the black road below me, pulling me towards oblivion with each passing mile. Black below me and nothing but white ahead: White walls, white beds, scuffed white floors, white shoes, white gauze held with white tape to white arms in white rooms. Panic swelled in my chest like a rubber balloon, ready to pop.
“Yellow slow. Green go. Stop on red,” I whispered, clenching my eyes shut. “Watch out for the lady with the backwards head.” I kept repeating it, faster and faster, and with each repetition it was a little bit louder, a little bit bolder, a little more gleeful, unhinged, insane.
“Stop!” my mother shrieked. “Please!”
Then she fell quiet.
I opened my eyes and my mother was staring at me, smiling. Her body was facing the open road through the windshield, but her head was backwards on her neck, and she was smiling, smiling.
The sound that left my body wasn’t human. I didn’t even know I’d made it until I threw open my car door and it suddenly stopped.
My parents tried to grab for me. Too late. The road had already risen up to me at 65 mph — maybe more. As I hit the ground I could feel her everywhere, all around me, I could see her at last. As I hit the ground, I could feel it twist my head on my neck like the cap on a bottle of root beer. The last thing I saw was the sunset staining the sky above my back and shoulders, and then nothing.
When they found me, I was smiling. In pieces, I was smiling. On the highway, I was smiling. The lady with the backwards head.
Melissa Pleckham is a Los Angeles-based writer, actor, and musician. Her work has been featured in numerous publications, including Flame Tree Fiction, Luna Luna, Hello Horror, Under the Bed Magazine, and FunDead Publications’ Entombed in Verse poetry collection. She is a member of the Horror Writers Association. Her short screenplay “Moon-Sick” was awarded Best Werewolf Short Script at the 2020 Hollywood Horrorfest and was a Finalist at the 2021 Shriekfest Horror Film Festival. She also plays bass and sings for the garage-goth duo Black Lullabies. You can find her online at melissapleckham.com
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