Monday, April 5, 2010

In which the end of the world is closer than you think

This is where we embrace the "occasionally writing" aspect of the blog, and also prove to my British friends that I am not a one-continent pony. This short story was published in "Thirteen Magazine", a British joint, in 2005. It's called....

“Jesus Christ,” Nickels said. “Trapped in a sea of bad drivers.”
In the passenger seat, Dan Proehl tried to brush powdered sugar off the leg of his black trousers.
“How would you know whether they’re bad or not, Mick?” he asked without looking up. “No one’s actually driving. We’re just sitting here.”
Nickels grunted. Proehl was right. His blue Accord was traveling about 65 mph under the speed limit. The glow of taillights washed through the car’s interior, painting his loose, fleshy face an angry red.
He relaxed his grip on the steering wheel and took a deep breath.
“Who’s in a hurry, anyway? The office isn’t going anyplace. And it’s not like sitting in a cubicle is much better than staring at this guy’s license plate.”
Proehl had finished grooming his pants. He grabbed his oversized plastic mug from the cupholder and took a sip of coffee. Then, licking a few stray beads of java from his mustache, he gestured with his free hand.
“Hey, at least we’d be inside and not out in this shit.”
Interstate 290 and the rush-hour traffic choking it were enveloped in a swarm of stinging droplets. The rain didn’t so much fall as hang in the air until something ran into it. Nickels had memorized the five-second interval of the windshield wipers as they flicked the moisture away.
The rain was accompanied by milky fog that obliterated the view beyond a mile or so. Downtown Chicago was invisible.
“No kidding. You better hope we don’t have a breakdown, or you’ll get more than doughnut on those pants,” Nickels said.
“Would I? I think my biggest problem would be worrying about spilling coffee on myself as you jacked the car up,” Proehl said, raising his eyebrows as he took another sip.
“Oh, I’d jack something up. But I don’t... hey! Asshole!”
As traffic accelerated past a walking pace, the Lexus SUV in the lane next to him eased its front bumper into the gap between Nickels and the next car, forcing him to slow down as it slid into the new space.
“Man, relax,” Proehl said. “It’s not like you’ve never been in gridlock before. It’s probably this CD getting you on edge... what is this stuff, anyway?”
Nickels nodded, trying to drill a hole through the SUV’s back window and impale its driver with his gaze.
“The CD’s called Audio... something. Audioslave, I think. It’s my daughter’s. She’s on spring break and I let her borrow the car during the weekend. She left some other discs in here, too. Nothing I’ve heard of.”
“Well, we’re old men,” Proehl said as he ejected the CD and put it in its case. “This is for young, hip people. Or whatever hip people are called these days. Here, I’m going to try to find out what’s causing the backup.”
Proehl leaned over and squinted at the stereo’s glowing green display.
The preset stations seemed to have been changed--he didn’t recognize any of the numbers. He fiddled with the tuning controls and stopped at the first station he found.
It was AM public radio. A dour-voiced host was reciting a litany of horrors from the Middle East. Mobilizing forces, missiles in the air....
“Oh, geez, man, do you really want to listen to this?” Nickels said.
“Maybe this is finally it, huh? After 2,000 years, something’s finally pushed them all over the edge.”
“Whatever, Dan. I’m not in the mood to hear about some biblical feud on the other side of the planet. It might be Armageddon to those religious freaks, but it has nothing to do with us. I want traffic.”
“Okay, okay. Not on a Monday,” Proehl said, switching to FM. “How about this?”
He stopped the tuner on a suburban morning show overflowing with chirpy hosts and call-in games. They suffered through it for a couple of minutes, but there were no traffic reports.
“Try something else,” Nickels said. “That chick is giving me a headache.”
The rest of the dial offered little respite. The city stations were staticky and indistinct.
“I think your daughter did something to the radio. I’m getting nothin’. Is the antenna out?”
“Actually, no.” Nickels said. “It broke off in the car wash last week. But the radio had been working okay since then. What could Stacy have done to it?”
“I dunno, Mick, but you’re hearing the same things I am. Maybe the weather is screwing it up somehow.”
“Huh. Well... whatever. I’ll talk to her about it when I get home. Put another CD in there. Things are starting to move now. Look, the speedometer just hit double digits!”
Fewer brake lights glowed in the gloom around them and Nickels eased the car into second gear.
Proehl leaned back and stretched his legs as far as he could. He twisted from side to side, his back filling the car with staccato pops.
“Good. Step on it, Mick. This car makes me feel like I’m wearing it, not riding in it.”
Nickels glanced at his friend, snorting.
“Your legs take up twice as much room as an entire person. Quit complaining unless you want to volunteer your family wagon for carpool detail.”
“How close are we, anyway? Have we even passed Cicero? I have a 9:30 teleconference.”
Nickels craned his neck forward, trying to penetrate the thick air on the other side of the windshield.
“I can’t remember, honestly. It seems like the soup outside has gotten a little denser. You can barely see the houses along the highway. But... okay... yeah, that sign said Pulaski. Should be, what, 20 minutes?
“A half-hour,” Proehl said.
“Thirty minutes, then. We’ll get there right on time and ride the elevator upstairs so we can see this crappy weather from the 40th floor.”
The men rode in silence for a few minutes. The speedometer needle kept rising until it was flirting with the minimum speed limit. More and more pavement separated the cars around them.
Acoustic guitars warbled at them from the stereo, the notes intertwining with the hum of the road.
And then Nickel’s suit jacket rang.
“Shit!” Nickels said.
Next to him, he heard Proehl take a sharp breath, then laugh.
“Once again, the cell phone ruins the peace and quiet. Want me to grab that for you, Mick?”
Nickels nodded.
Proehl reached across the back seat to Nickel’s jacket and rummaged around in its inside pocket. His hand emerged with the trilling phone.
“Here,” he said.
“Hello?” Nickels said, putting it to his ear. “Hello? Honey? Can you... hello?”
He brought the phone back down and held it in front of the steering wheel.
“Huh. It’s Sharon’s work number, but we got cut off. Looks like my battery’s low or something. I’m not getting much of a signal.” He laid the phone on the dashboard. “I’ll call back when I get to work. It looks like traffic is speeding up, anyway.”
Proehl slurped the last of his coffee down and lowered his window to dump the dregs.
The wind noise seemed muffled as he dangled the mug outside. The air didn’t even carry the scent of the rain that still dotted the car’s windshield.
“Weird that it’s speeding up closer to the city,” he said as he pulled his arms back inside. “The 90/94 interchange usually is a parking lot. And with this fog....”
They could only see a few hundred feet in front of them. The adjacent cars were visible, but those ahead and behind had disintegrated into indistinct shapes and lights in the dimness.
By Monday morning standards, the other side of the divided highway was deserted. There was no gridlock, no blaring horns and flaring tempers. Headlights coalesced into vehicles that whooshed out of the fog and were swallowed up again as they continued west.
Nickels noted that his wipers squeaked across the glass more often than a westbound car passed.
And then three police cruisers screamed by, their lights creating a patchwork of dancing patterns in the fog. Glancing at his side mirror, Nickels imagined he could see the murky atmosphere swirl into the vacuum left by their passage.
“I got it,” Proehl said. His voice seemed clear and out of place in its hazy surroundings.
“Got what?” Nickels said, turning his eyes back to the road.
“I figured it out. What’s going on. See, there’s been some big wreck up ahead on 290 West. They probably stopped traffic on both sides of the highway for a while, but now they’re letting eastbound through, and since there’s no feed-in traffic from the west anymore, the interchange is clearer. So we’re getting in quicker. And that’s also why there’s no traffic coming toward us--except for those cops.”
“Well, we should find out soon.”
Proehl nodded and picked up his empty coffee mug. He got it halfway to his mouth, stopped, and put it back down.
“Yeah. What was the last exit we passed? I wasn’t paying attention.”
“Neither was I. It’s pretty stressful to drive through this shit. The guy in front of me could stop and I wouldn’t know until we plowed into him.”
“That’s a comforting thought.”
Guitars, this time joined by a woman’s voice, filled the car again. Proehl fidgeted with his tie and shirt buttons.
Nickels tried to gauge the space between his car and the taillights in front of him. It was impossible. Either that guy was speeding up or the visibility was worsening.
He could see a few sets of headlights behind him in the rearview mirror, but each car’s beams merged together into one horizontal, hourglass-shaped glow.
“Just think how bad this would be if we weren’t on a highway. Honestly, Dan, I think I’d rather be closer to other drivers just so I could know exactly where they were, you know?”
“Mmm,” Proehl said. “Hey, do you see that? In the breakdown lane?”
It wasn’t a car. It was a person.
A black man, maybe in his 50s, wearing a heavy, black winter coat. A white beard exploded from his chin, but his head was shaved bald. He seemed to be wearing jeans. The pants were dirty, smeared with dark streaks.
He was sprinting the opposite direction of the traffic passing a few feet away. His mouth was open wide and filled with white teeth. And he was waving his arms. He crossed and uncrossed his wrists over his head as he ran, the movement causing him to follow a wobbly, S-shaped path in the space next to the concrete divider.
“What the fuck?” Proehl said.
Nickels mashed the brake pedal, feeling the car’s back end begin to slip as he pulled into the breakdown lane. The man was about 25 feet behind them, still running.
“Jesus, Mick, what are you doing?” Proehl said.
“He looks like he needs help.”
“Hell, yeah, he needs help. You have to be pretty out of touch with reality to go running down a highway like that. How the hell did he get out on the road, anyway?”
“Maybe his car broke down.”
“Are you kidding? Did you see that guy? He’s not a car owner. Come on, Mick, you’ve seen those people standing at the exit ramps down here. They look sad and rattle a cup at you when you stop at the light. Gimme a break. He snapped and took off down the highway. I’m not going to try to talk to him.”
Nickels could see the man weaving away into the fog in his rearview mirror.
He glanced over, but Proehl had delivered his speech while gazing out the window. Nickels could see his friend’s face reflected in the glass, his blank stare framed by murky whiteness.
“Well, I want to make sure there’s nothing we can do to help. You can stay here.” He didn’t wait for a reply before releasing his seatbelt and climbing out of the car. When he shut the door, the sound seemed muffled, distant, as if he were listening through a wall.
He jogged after the bearded man, whose form already was becoming indistinct.
“Hey! Hey, wait up! Are you okay?”
The man stopped and spun around. He let his arms dangle. When Nickels was about 10 feet away, he could see the man’s hands clenching and unclenching.
Rivulets of sweat coursed down his face, but his eyes were wide and unblinking as he examined Nickels.
“Can you help me?” the man said. His voice was high and thin, like an excited child’s.
“What’s wrong?” Nickels said.
“I’m tryin’ to get away,” the man said. He smiled, again creating a slash of white teeth across his dark face. But the expression was erased by a twisted mask of sadness and fear.
Nickels took a step back without realizing it.
“Is someone chasing you?”
“I don’t know,” the man said. His features went slack. “I don’t know whether I’m chasin’ it or its chasin’ me. It ain’t just me, either. It’s you, too. Everybody.”
“Who is chasing you?” He spoke slowly, trying to sound as helpful and reassuring as he could.
The man glanced about the fog and shivered.
Nickels waited for a few seconds for an answer, then tried again.
“Was there a car accident? Were you in a wreck?”
“Ain’t no acc'dent, man. You see any fuckin’ acc'dent?”
“Whoa, whoa. Easy. I just wanted to make sure you weren’t hurt or anything.”
The man was shifting from one foot to the other now and inching away from Nickels.
“Where is your home?” he continued. “Is there someplace you can go?”
“My home was in the city. But it ain’t there no more. It's gone. In the end, e'rything gonna be gone. So I'm runnin' until there ain't noplace left to go. See?"
“Ah. Okay. Well, where are you running?”
The man smiled again and extended his arm, pointing down the freeway toward the western suburbs. “Anywhere.”
“Well, we’re going the other way, but we can give you a ride to the next exit ramp. It’s dangerous to run on the highway.”
“Which way you goin’?”
Nickels pointed toward the car. “That way.”
“No. Nuh-uh. You should turn the car around and come back this way.”
“Well, we can’t do that because of the divider. But...”
“NO!” The man yelled. “Turn the car around here, right here, and we’ll keep goin’.”
“We can’t do that. I can’t drive on the....”
Nickels stopped as the man spun on the balls of his feet and started sprinting away. But after about 50 feet he skidded to a halt on the asphalt and turned to look at Nickels again. He wasn’t much more than a man-shaped blur in the thickening fog.
“You know, I think I saw angels!” he yelled.
Then he spun and was gone. Nickels heard the whap-whap of his sneakers on the pavement for a few seconds before that, too, was swallowed up.
Nickels walked back to the car and climbed in.
“So what was the deal?” Proehl said. He was still staring out the window.
“Well, I offered him a ride, but he would only go with us if we turned around and drove the wrong way. And then he yelled something about seeing angels.”
Proehl snorted. “Nut job. Why did you offer a ride to such a shining specimen of sanity?”
“Hey, I felt bad, Dan. What if someone hits him?”
“No one’s going to hit him.”
Nickels put the car into gear and eased back onto the highway. He checked the mirror, halfway expecting to see the man running back toward them.
“Well... I’ll call the highway patrol from work.”
Nickels realized as he pulled onto the road that he couldn’t remember the last car that passed them, and he couldn’t see any vehicles ahead. Behind him, too, the headlights had been engulfed. He hadn’t noticed when it happened, but it seemed the cars around them had either speeded up, slowed down or gotten off the highway.
Nickels turned up the stereo and tried to let the music drown out the memory of the bearded man’s face. But the notes seemed lost and tinny.
“We have to be close now,” Nickels said after a song and a half.
“What?” Proehl said.
Even to Nickels, his voice had been overwhelmed by the road noise and silence.
“I said, we have to be close now. To the interchange. At this speed, we should be almost there.”
“Mick. Mick, I can’t hear you,” Proehl said.
Nickels glanced over. Proehl seemed pale, a ghost topped with a flare of red hair.
“Are you okay, Dan?”
Proehl faced forward again and pointed.
“Can you see it?”
“What?” Nickels squinted out the window. “See what?”
“It’s getting brighter.”
The fog was intense, an opaque sheet separating Nickels from everything but the car’s hood and the pavement a few feet in front of it. But as he watched, a subtle change manifested in its visual texture.
It didn’t seem like the fog was clearing. But it did seem like a diffuse light was gathering far beyond their eyesight.
“It’s probably that accident you were talking about. I’ll bet they’ve set up spotlights and stuff because of the fog. I should slow down, huh?”
The glow was apparent now. And as it illuminated each particle of fog in the air, even the road and highway divider became indistinct and dissolved into the whiteness.
“Yeah, this is unsafe, and... Dan?”
Nickels looked over at his Proehl. His lips were moving, but all Nickels could hear was his own heartbeat. And as he tried to read the words formed by his friend’s pale lips, he realized they weren’t pale.
They were translucent.
“Dan!” he shouted. His voice disappeared before it left his throat.
Nickels pistoned his foot down onto the brake pedal. But he didn’t feel any friction, any squealing rubber or deceleration. The car kept moving, gliding on a road he could no longer see. The steering wheel turned, but the light remained in front of them.
As it drew nearer, he turned to face Proehl again. The other man seemed to be an overlay, a two-dimensional double-exposure against a bleached background. Nickels could make out his arms reaching across the car.
He stretched his hand toward his friend’s fingertips, but they were leagues away.
And Proehl, too, became indistinguishable from the fog that now blurred the lines of the car’s interior.
Nickels sat alone, enveloped in a noiseless blanket. The rush of wind, the hum of the car’s engine, the stereo, his breathing all were memories from another age.
A single image became crystalline in his mind. The bedraggled man along the highway, fleeing what he knew was inescapable. Running because he had seen the end. It was coming. When it arrived, everything would be gone.
Nickels was surprised to discover a glimmer of comfort. Because there would be nothing left to fear.
He tried to reach for the door handle.
He saw his hand move, but couldn’t feel it.
He realized there was no door handle to reach for.
His fingers seemed to be gossamer figments of a dream, wavering, fading.
And his consciousness followed them into the gleaming ocean of nothingness.

No comments: