by G. Allen Wilbanks
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
Nathan Praeter stood on the sidewalk and watched the traffic drive by, waiting for the car that was going to kill him.
Equal parts eagerness and nervousness turned his stomach upside down and threatened to spill the meager breakfast he had managed to eat that morning. As patiently as he could manage, he stayed to his post, seeking what he had been promised while the late morning commuters trickled past him in gradually smaller numbers.
The majority of the morning rush had ended, and it was still too soon for most to begin to venture out again in search of food — or its drive-through, overly processed equivalent — so those cars left on the roadway zipped along by themselves or in erratically spaced groups of twos and threes.
Nathan — Nate, as his friends knew him — glanced at his watch to be sure he had not missed his ride. It was 10:30 a.m. Sweat beaded and trickled down the back of his neck, only partially due to the increasing heat of the day.
“White Buick, blue Toyota pickup, and a black Honda,” he muttered as he turned his attention back to the roadway. Nate stepped one foot off the curb and into the street. He craned his neck to get a better view of the intersection behind him. West-bound traffic on Calvine Road was currently stopped by a red light, and he did not see the car he wanted. He moved back onto the sidewalk. “White Buick, blue Toyota pickup, and a black Honda,” he repeated.
He mumbled the words to himself over and over, a mantra to keep his mind focused on his goal while trying not to think too hard about what he was doing. Once, he had almost convinced himself to go home, but he only made it a few steps before a pressure began to build around his chest. It squeezed his ribs together painfully like they were under the tightening noose of a rope, making it difficult to breathe and causing each separate beat of his heart to thunder against his breastbone with its own exquisite ache. A thick, bitter lump climbed into the back of his throat and his eyes shone with threatened but unshed tears.
Nate swallowed with difficulty and stepped back to the curb to resume his funereal vigil. He gazed at the stationary traffic, once more trapped behind a red light at the intersection. “White Buick, blue Toyota pickup, and a black Honda.”
The light turned green, and a multitude of vehicles was freed to pass by. Following the main cluster, the traffic thinned until cars again passed his location only solo or in occasional pairs. Nate’s heart skipped a beat, then began to race excitedly as he realized that the lone car currently heading in his direction was a white Buick Skylark.
He took a few shallow breaths and tried to calm himself as the car cruised past. Nate could clearly see the elderly driver: a woman in dark, boxy sunglasses covering half of her face; both of her hands clutched tightly to the top of the steering wheel. The woman kept her attention firmly on the road ahead of her and never noticed Nate where he stood rooted to the pavement only a few feet away.
A few more seconds passed before the blue Toyota truck made its appearance. This time the driver was a middle-aged man wearing a flannel shirt and a gray baseball cap with the brim pulled low over his face. He also took no notice of Nate. A large, black Labrador, however, raised itself up in the bed of the pickup and began to bark noisily in his direction. Only a flimsy, narrow rope, tied around the dog’s neck and anchored somewhere low in the bed of the truck, appeared to keep the animal safely in place.
Still listening to the animal’s frenzied barking as it faded into the distance, Nate stuck his arm out toward the roadway and extended his thumb toward the west. He could hear the next car approaching and, even without looking, he knew it would be the one he wanted.
A small part of him rebelled at what he was doing. A tiny piece of his psyche screamed out that life was precious and should not be wasted so casually, no matter what the motivation. But a larger part — the broken and emotionally crippled part — kept him standing quietly, arm extended and thumb out.
“You need a ride?” a woman’s voice asked him.
A black, Honda Civic rested at the curb with the engine idling. An attractive, young woman with long, blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail leaned across the front seat in order to see Nate more easily through the passenger side window. Pasting a friendly smile on his face, he squatted down beside the car and placed a hand on the edge of the opened window to steady himself. The woman eyed him curiously as she waited for his reply.
As Nate looked at her more closely, he could see she was more than just attractive: she was stunning. Not movie-star stunning, with too much makeup and too little personality, but stunning in a more human sense; with a natural beauty in the full bloom of youth and optimism. Bright, playful, blue eyes sparkled in a pixyish face framed by high cheekbones and a slender jaw that tapered to a delicate point at the chin. Her mouth was small, with full lips that curved slightly up at the corners, as though she were one of the very privileged few allowed in on some amusing cosmic truth or private joke. A joke, Nate was quite certain, that was probably on him.
“Ride?” she prompted again when Nate did not respond immediately.
“Yes, please,” he answered. “I’m trying to get down to Stockton, but I’ll take anything in that direction.”
“You’re in luck. I’m headed for the hospital in San Juaquin and I have to drive right through Stockton. Climb in.”
“Thank you. I appreciate the help.” Nate pulled open the door and settled into the passenger seat. After closing the door and fastening his seatbelt, he turned toward the woman and held out his hand. “I’m Nate,” he said, bracing himself.
“Laura,” she answered, and placed her hand in his.
As their hands met, a flash of heat and light struck Nate in the face like the backwash from an opened crematorium furnace. Laura burst into flame before his eyes.
The fire first engulfed her head. Nate struggled to keep his expression calm as he watched her beautiful blonde hair shrivel and smoke. An acrid stink touched his nostrils as her yellow tresses melted and charred into her scalp. The smooth skin of her face blackened and pulled tight to her skull, stretching and hardening until it began to shred like sheets of paper, revealing pale pink flesh beneath. Steam hissed from the new wounds until they too scorched into indistinct ashy darkness. Her eyelids cooked and shriveled, leaving her eyes to endure the heat unprotected. Despite his best efforts, Nate flinched and looked away when the beautiful blue orbs burst, and boiling fluids bubbled onto her cheeks in a garish parody of tears.
The flames crawled lower onto her body and traced the length of her arm, reaching toward Nate. When they swallowed Laura’s hand where it still held firmly to his, he felt no pain. There was only a comforting warmth. It beckoned and welcomed him.
“Are you okay?”
Nate startled briefly at the sound of her voice. The heat and light were gone. He felt Laura pull her hand away a little too abruptly, and he glanced up to see the girl staring at him. Her clear-blue, undamaged eyes watched him carefully. He saw concern in her gaze but also something else. Fear, perhaps.
He had made every effort not to react, but evidently she had still seen something odd in his behavior. He took a breath and tried to relax. “Yeah, I’m fine.” Nate gave her what he hoped was a comforting smile. “I, uh, just felt a little dizzy there for a moment. I’m okay, now.”
She seemed to accept his explanation, giving him one more appraising look before turning to her left to watch for oncoming vehicles as she merged back onto the roadway.
“Thanks for stopping. I really needed the ride.”
“No problem.” Laura accelerated to the speed of the moving cars around her. “So, what’s waiting for you in Stockton?” she asked when she had settled back into the flow of traffic.
“I’m headed there to meet my wife.”
“And you don’t have a car?” Laura glanced in Nate’s direction. “I don’t mean to be rude, but you’re dressed awfully nice for someone who has to hitchhike to get around.”
Nate flushed, suddenly feeling overdressed. He hadn’t given much thought to his wardrobe this morning, simply throwing on the usual items he wore when getting ready for work. He had even briefly debated going to work today but dismissed the idea with little effort. Now, he felt a little silly in his gray slacks and tie. Oh well, he thought. Too late to change into something more comfortable.
“My car isn’t running,” he said, lamely. Then, before she could ask any more questions, “You said you were going to the San Juaquin Hospital? I hope everything is okay.”
Laura chuckled. The laughter sounded wonderful to Nate. It had been far too long since he himself had laughed. “Everything is fine,” she said. “I’m going for a job interview. I’m a nurse, and I’m hoping to get hired out there.”
“That’s great. Good luck with your interview.”
“Thanks. My specialty is Pediatrics, but the opening is in the ER. I figure I just need to get my foot in the door and then move over to the children’s ward when there’s room. It’s easier to move around once you’re hired than to be choosy when you’re first looking for work, right?”
“I suppose that’s true.”
Nate saw the on-ramp for South Highway 99 approaching on the right, but as they approached the last intersection before the freeway, Laura pulled into the left lane and turned south onto Power Inn Road.
“Where are you going?” he asked, feeling a surge of panic. “Don’t you want to get on 99?”
“I will. I just needed to get some gas first.” She pointed to a trio of filling stations on the side of the roadway. “Relax. I’m not going to rob you and dump your body in a dumpster if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“N-no. Of course not.” Nate tried to smile, but it felt forced and fragile. He held up his left arm, pointedly looking at his watch: 10:33.
“It’s just that I was hoping to get there soon, and I was afraid you were going to make a long detour. Sorry.”
“I’m the one with the job interview, remember. I’m not planning any long detours. Just this one little short one so we don’t need a tow truck before we get to Stockton.”
In the way of apology for his rude behavior, Nate jumped out of the car when Laura stopped next to the gas pumps. He slipped his credit card into the reader and removed the pump nozzle from its cradle.
“You don’t need to do that,” said Laura. She had exited her car and saw what he was doing.
“Nonsense,” Nate told her, as the pump hummed to life. “You were nice enough to give me the lift, the least I can do is pay for some gas.”
Laura seemed slightly embarrassed by his generosity, but she smiled and accepted the gift. With a shrug, she thanked him and slipped back into the driver’s seat.
Moments later, they were back on the road as promised, driving southbound along Highway 99 toward Stockton.
Nate listened to the thrum of the car’s tires along the road as he stared out the passenger window at the passing scenery. Eucalyptus trees flashed by his vision where they lined the borders of the freeway, creating a blurry wall of greens and browns. Through occasional gaps in the growth, Nate could make out wide open fields of hay and alfalfa. The drone of the car and the bucolic view combined to lull him into a state of peaceful mindlessness. He felt he could have closed his eyes at that moment and drifted away into a blissful sleep. It had been a while since he had slept in anything more than fits and starts. He was always tired; it seemed that every time he closed his eyes, the dreams were there, coiled and crouched, ready to pounce.
Something intruded into his quiet contemplation, and it took a moment for him to realize that Laura had spoken to him.
“I’m sorry,” he said, coming back to his immediate surroundings. “What did you ask?”
“I said, what time do you need to be in Stockton? You seem in a bit of a hurry.”
“Um, I suppose I do seem a bit anxious. But really, I don’t need to be there at any particular time. I just need to get there.”
Nate saw a small frown on Laura’s face as she considered his response.
“You said you were going to meet your wife?”
“Well, she must be expecting you to get there at a certain time. Right? When are you supposed to meet?”
Nate paused as he considered how to phrase his answer. “We aren’t. I mean, she doesn’t know I’m coming.” He turned to look back out the passenger side window. “It’s sort of a surprise.”
* * *
Copyright © 2018 by G. Allen Wilbanks