Drumming a disjointed tune on the steering wheel, he squinted through the fly flecked windshield. The night, vast and starry, moved around him. A lone sign, frozen briefly in the dim glow of rushing headlights, flashed by in the darkness:
Suddenly cramped, he yawned and shifted his weight in the seat. Morning was a long way off, but it would still arrive well before Los Angeles crept into sight. Hell, he thumped the steering wheel, he’d count himself lucky if this old car got him as far as Ventura County! With a sigh, he turned the radio off at last.
“After all we’ve been through, James? And what about the baby?” Marcie’s accusations filled the car, and he remembered why he’d left the radio on despite the weak signal – to drown out the voices in his head. It had been bad enough the first time. Now the constant replay of the break-up scene through his memory was enough to drive him crazy. He’d thought it would be easier, leaving a woman he no longer loved and a child he never had. He was pleased with himself for doing it in person and not via the telephone, as had been his first instinct.
“After all we’ve been through?” he’d repeated the question and laughed, not even sure to which or what all she was referring. As for the latter, he replied, “She’ll be better off without me around.” while thinking, “Good riddance!”
He glanced at the gas gauge, just over half full, and the speedometer – the red needle quivered between 60 and 70. Again he thumped the steering wheel and sighed. He’d burn up this godforsaken highway if he could; bury his old life in long miles and dive into the new one which awaited him, complete with a new job, in The City of Angels. But he was already pushing the old Ford. Old and long in need of a tune-up, and new tires, and new brakes, and a god damn tape player at least.
The car jerked suddenly, lurching forward and back again in an automotive spasm that seemed to protest the course of his thoughts.
“Ah crap.” he muttered, tightening his grip on the wheel and easing his foot off the gas. “Not now.” he entreated. “Please not now.”
A ghostly burst of steam erupted from under the hood, billowing up across the windshield to rebuff him as the engine sputtered and coughed and abruptly died. Cursing under his breath, he twisted the wheel toward the dark shoulder of the road and coasted slowly to stop. The car was still and strangely quiet around him. He turned the key in the ignition again and again with no result save bitter frustration.
“Christ.” he pounded a hopeless fist on the dashboard. “This is just what I needed.”
The night seemed to move in closer, creaking huge and dark around the travel stained glass of the windows, swirling in dark eddies at the edges of his headlights, which burned still into the night. Gazing blankly along the twin beams, he realized another sign shone dull and lonely in the dim glow just beyond the light:
GAS FOOD LODGING 8
He leaned over and ran a hand across the passenger seat, searching for his cell. Plastic water bottle, composition book, cell phone! He flipped the smooth plastic device open. This was why he had road service. Lifting a digit to dial, he frowned at the illuminated display. Strangely, he had a strong signal, three solid bars, but his battery icon was empty and flashing. He could not remember the last time he had charged the damn thing. The battery icon stopped flashing and the screen went black as the phone died in his hand.
“Of course.” he grumbled, tossing the phone back to the passenger seat.
Ten minutes later he was walking down the dark and dusty shoulder, a small knapsack hanging from his back. With no better options apparent, he’d decided to walk the eight miles to the gas, food and lodging promised by the road sign. Maybe he could find a pay phone too. He could get his old wreck towed, get a rental and be on his way by noon tomorrow. This thought moved his feet. He was tired and hungry and just plain not in the mood to deal with this situation. He was pretty sure he’d never walked eight miles before. Gazing up at the central California sky, he saw dim stars shining ancient light.
“What about us, James? What about the baby!?”
The rumble of an approaching car came to his ears. Glancing back, he saw headlights rushing toward him. He smiled. Maybe Lady Luck hadn’t abandoned him, after all, and was in fact racing up the roadway to his rescue. Turning, he waved a hand, and found himself suddenly caught in the white glare of the oncoming headlights. Rushing illumination filled his eyes, paralyzing him with thoughts of road kill crushed and splattered over lonely roads. Anxious breath filled his lungs for one timeless moment, and then the car was speeding past him. He exhaled deeply as the vehicle skidded to a stop a few feet up the road.
As he approached the car, idling low in the dark, the backup lights suddenly flared white and it zoomed toward him, spraying dust and gravel. He stepped back, turning his head and holding his hands in front of him. Then the car was beside him. It shone black in the dim starlight, an undetermined make glistening sleek and sharp in his blinking eyes; the engine growled like some mechanical beast stalking the night. When the passenger door swung toward him, slowly, almost beckoning, he noted the predictably black interior, illumined by the faint touch of an unseen dome light.
“Need a ride?” The inquiring voice flowed from the shadows, smooth and female, heavy with intimation.
James shuffled his feet and peered into the gloomy interior of the car, sudden indecision playing in his mind. Did he need a ride? Yes. But something in the low rumble and dull shine of the vehicle set off dim alarms in his mind. He strained tired eyes, peering in to the dimly lit auto, looking and hoping and finally catching a glimpse of her face in the pale shadows. His heart skipped a beat at the sight, and then jumped into a double time rhythm of excitement. She was stunning. Did he need a ride?
“Yes!” The confirmation jumped from his throat, his mind racing with sordid thoughts and half formed fantasies. All indecision was forgotten, the alarms in his mind stifled by the possibilities a ride with this beauty presented. He clambered into the car, the passenger seat engulfing him as he slammed the door against the night.
“Must be your car back there.” The car was sealed tight now, the dome light off, leaving an unwholesome darkness tainted only by the sickly green glow of the dashboard. Her voice crept through the murk to find him. “Musta’ broke down.”
“Yeah.” he replied, shaking his head. “Might have just overheated, but I’m afraid the engine block is cracked or something. I was just heading out to call a tow truck. I think there might be a gas station a few miles up the road.”
Her hand clutched the gear shift between them, sliding the car into roaring life. With a burst of hell-bent speed, they shot forward, devouring the road beneath hungry tires.
“So,” she asked, “what’s your name?”
James Mitchell turned to face her, eyes hungry for a deeper and more nourishing look. His inquisitive gaze was teased by the wan light of the dashboard, which played over her like a soft wave of undersea green, exposing a curl of blonde hair here and a bit of pale flesh there. But the dark interior of the car conspired against him; she was nothing but a vague image gripping the steering wheel and gearshift, cloaked in shadow and imagination.
“I’m James,” he replied at last, confidence swelling at the proclamation of his name. “James Mitchell. And who are you?”
She made no reply but sank into a thick silence, her attention fixed on the empty road. The engine whispered soft and insidious, filling the perilous void of his question. At last she spoke.
“My husband was named James.” She cast him a burning glance from shadow veiled eyes, tones of weary distraction and quiet disgust ringing in her words.
James held a tentative breath in his throat, feeling suddenly stifled in her presence. The car seemed to compress around him, smaller and tighter. Exhaling, he realized he’d been holding his breath.
“Are you married?” she continued. “Do you have any children?” Her voice was careless now and offhanded to the point of vacancy as she pressed the car into higher speed.
“I.” James groped for words, contemplated lying, and decided against it. “I’m not married.” he muttered, sweating now, “But I do have a daughter. She.” He faltered and stopped as she placed her hand on his leg, long fingers stroking the length of his thigh. He thought that he should have enjoyed this immensely, but her touch sent a creeping chill through his body. Looking out the window, he saw the night blurring by.
“Aren’t you going a little fast?” he asked, surprised by the hint of fear in his voice.
She nodded briefly in confirmation, eyes still fixed on the road, hand toying with his zipper. “Too fast.” she whispered. “Too damn fast!”
“Listen,” he began, “I think I should.”
“What should I name our child?” The question sprang from her mouth and sat between them.
“Child?” James mumbled. “What child?”
“I’m pregnant,” she explained.
He breathed slowly, feeling the sharp edge of panic pressing into his brain. “Oh.” he said, wiping a nervous hand across his sweaty brow. He wished that he had walked the eight miles.
“I’ve considered William for a boy,” she informed him. “And Katherine for a girl.”
His mouth was dry and empty, unable to speak as the road rushed insanely beneath them. He glanced at the speedometer and winced – the red needle held fast and steady somewhere past 100 mph.
“Maybe you should slow down.” he suggested.
She turned toward him, her head swiveling slow and certain like some nightmare vision. The dim light of the dashboard seemed to pulse suddenly, washing her in a pale green glow. She appeared cadaverous in the sick light, her eyes black holes, full lips drawn into a snarl of grim contempt. James felt his insides turn to ice, frozen by the sight of that angelic face twisted into a hellish mask. He could feel her hand in his lap, writhing like some horrid spider.
Suddenly, with a quick and deliberate jerk of the steering wheel, she sent them flying off the road, racing out of control from the white line confines of the highway into tumbling darkness. Time froze in the speeding brilliance of their headlights as disaster rose up before them in the shape of an impossibly huge tree, which stood solitary and diligent as it awaited Fate. James gasped and clenched his eyes shut. From the driver’s seat there came the sound of quiet laughter – it whirled around his head as they blasted into oblivion.
Impact claimed them with a great grinding of metal and sanity. In that timeless flash of annihilation James glimpsed her beside him, laughing still as she was smashed into the steering wheel. Pain screamed through his head; something in his body cracked and bright stars danced in an ebony field behind his eyes. Then he was outside, spat from the car by the force of impact, on his back in the dust and swirling stars of agony.
Reality was an excruciating jumble, his body a mass of searing pain. Struggling for breath, he gazed up at the night sky and saw the stars beyond the stars; the moon, round and distant, seemed to hum in his head.
The car was burning nearby, twisted wreckage and remnants of speed devoured slowly by orange flame. Through his pain he could feel the heat, and something else. There was a light pressure, the weight of something small moving on his heaving chest. He lifted his head, igniting a pillar of flame in his spine, and screamed. She spilled from the demolished car like a broken doll, legs splayed at wild angles in impossible directions, gobs of thick blood oozing from her sex. He groaned and screamed again, the thing on his chest coming into focus, filling his wild eyes. It lay on its back, coated with blood and membrane, glistening in the flickering flames as it kicked tiny arms and legs in the hot air. And it was a boy. It was little William.