Happy Halloween, everyone.
The Road Home
Soon enough he was off the highway, and the night quieted down. He walked east along Route 64, past a green sign that in the bright moonlight he could read
Cars passed occasionally, but otherwise it was quiet, and he almost enjoyed strolling through the cool October night. If only he hadn’t wrecked on the interstate, it would almost be a pleasure to be walking out here, he thought.
Some time later he heard a car approaching behind him. He kept walking, but the driver apparently saw him and rolled to a stop. The driver cranked his window down and yelled out to him.
“What’s going on, man, you need a ride?”
The driver looked about his age. He stood there, dazed for a moment, then found his voice.
“Yeah, that would be great. I wrecked my car on the highway. Can I get a ride to Waterbury?”
The driver looked him over. He was dressed normal enough. Faded Levis and a decent leather coat. Just a guy out of luck on a Friday night.
“Sure, I’m heading there now, get in.”
He walked around the car quickly, so fast that the driver barely finished clearing the passenger seat of binders and loose paper.
“’Scuse the mess, man”, the driver said, “I had mid terms this week”.
“No problem. I’m just happy to get a ride”.
He eased into the Monte Carlo’s cloth seat and closed the door. The driver didn’t have a seatbelt on, he noticed, so he didn’t bother with one either. What the hell. The car accelerated from a dead stop and they rode east.
“Hey, I’m Rick”, the driver said, looking over at his passenger.
“Tom Travers”, the passenger said. “Thanks for the ride.” .
Tom settled back in the cloth seat, eyes locked on the road ahead. Rick fidgeted a bit, fingers tapping the steering wheel, as he pondered what to say next.
“You get hurt at all in the crash, uh, Tom?”
They passed a sign that read Waterbury 10. Tom was staring out the window, a bit distracted, but came back. He looked himself over, and decided he was perfectly OK. The jeans still had remnants of the crease he’d ironed into them before he’d left for work.
“No, I guess not. I’m all in one piece.”
“That’s good, man. My buddy’s a volunteer firefighter in Newtown and he’s seen some pretty bad wrecks on 84, especially –WHOA! “
Five or six raccoons appeared in the road ahead. Rick swerved into the left lane to miss them, and pulled the wheel hard to get his car back in the right lane. The Monte Carlo slid across asphalt for a few nervous seconds, and then everything was OK. They passed another green sign that read Waterbury 9.
“Wow, that was close!” Rick yelled out, more to himself than anyone else.
“Smooth Driving, man.”
“So, uh, where were you heading to when you crashed?” Rick asked after a moment, breaking the silence that was always uncomfortable to him.
“I work weekends at Danny’s restaurant in Southbury. I closed up and was driving home. I guess I fell asleep at the wheel. Wrecked in a ditch off the highway.” Rick thought Danny’s had changed its name to Hatchers a few years back, when the owner sold it and moved to Florida. Oh well, he thought, maybe the old employees didn’t care about the name change.
“Well, at least you’re ok, man, you walked away from it”.
He couldn’t really think of anything else to say. Another one of those green signs read Waterbury 7.
Tom relaxed a bit as they drew closer to Waterbury. He looked away from the pavement for once and over at Rick. The driver talked a lot, Tom thought, but all in all he seemed OK. He was decent enough to pick up a stranger in the middle of nowhere, something Tom had never done before. Yeah, Tom thought, there are worse people out there.
“You have midterms, huh? Where do you go to school, man?” Tom asked, determined to act a little more human.
. “UCONN , in Waterbury”, Rick fired back. “I’m transferring to Storrs next semester. Can’t wait.”
“Where do you live now, with your folks?”
“Yeah, for a few more months,unfortunately”.
In all truth Rick liked living at home, and wasn’t really too hip on moving out. He had to transfer to the main campus to finish his engineering degree, though.
“Good for you, man.”
That was about as genial as Tom Travers could be after everything he’d been through. He looked out the window as they passed another sign. Waterbury 4.
Rick, a bit more relaxed now that his passenger was talking, eased back into the seat and looked at the chrome tachometer on the Monte‘s hood. The needle pegged halfway in the middle of the RPMs, and he knew without looking down they were traveling 75 or 80 miles an hour. He pressed down on the gas and drew some more revolutions from the old V-8.
“Going a bit fast man, aren’t you?” Tom asked, in a tone that reminded Rick of the in crowd back in high school. It brought Rick’s enthusiasm down pretty quick.
Shit, Rick thought, yeah I am. He felt foolish all of a sudden, pissed at himself for trying to impress some guy he’d picked up in the middle of nowhere, someone he’d probably never see again after tonight.
“Hey, don’t slow down on my account”, the passenger said. “It’s your car, and I put mine in a ditch, remember? I obviously don’t know what the hell I’m doing on the road.”
Rick caught a glimpse of Tom’s face in the shadows. He’d smiled for a moment, but now his face was taut once more, focused on the road ahead. The Chevy’s lights flashed quick over a reflective green sign that read Straits TPKE 1.Waterbury 1.
“Hey Rick, thanks again for the ride, man. This is about as far as I’ve gotten in a long time.”
“No problem, man” Rick said, letting the words pass him by.
Rick glanced down at the speedometer for a moment, saw that he’d slowed to about fifty-five, and then brought his eyes back up to the road. It was too late. He missed the sharp curve and smashed into a guardrail. The driver’s side fender tore free, and the Monte fishtailed out of control. Impact whipped Rick forward and his head smashed against the windshield, his torso ramming hard against the steering column. The windshield shattered, and Rick’s ribs cracked as his chest slammed against the wheel a second time. The car slid across the asphalt like a top, smashed hard into another guardrail, and stopped dead.
Rick was a bloody pulp, bleeding and broken. He drifted in and out of consciousness. He pulled his head back from the shattered windshield and attempted to draw a breath. It came hard, and a line of blood trickled from the corner of his mouth. It mixed with the blood already pouring from his forehead.
Rick began to lose consciousness again, but he coughed and it brought him painfully back to reality. A bright light danced on the shards of glass in front of him, and he tried to concentrate. His vision blurred and his eyes stung from the blood, but he focused for a moment and saw a green sign maybe thirty feet ahead of him that read Waterbury Est 1682.
Then he looked right, over to the passenger seat. Tom sat there, totally unfazed in the wreckage. Rick choked a bit on coppery blood dripping down the back of his throat. Tom looked over at him calmly.
“This is about how it goes, man.” Tom said.
Rick was barely there now. He heard a vehicle stop, a car door open, maybe feet running towards him.
“Yeah, this is how it goes. I walk off the highway, get picked up, and it always ends up the same way. Sometimes I get three or four miles up this road and the driver loses it.” Rick was gasping hard now, eyes rolling back.
“Hey, don’t worry man, you’ll make it. I’m the one without any luck, apparently. “
A light shined in the driver’s side as a stranger tore frantically at the locked door. Rick heard fragments of assurance outside the car, things like “Don’t worry buddy, -Ambulance coming” and the like, but he was losing it. He looked over at the passenger seat. Empty now. It had probably been empty the whole night. Into the black. . .
He awoke in Saint Mary’s hospital in Waterbury. His mom sat next to his bed, and most of his body was in some type of cast or another. The casts were a shell, one that he would molt out of slowly over the next seven months. His mom doted on him, so much so that he grew to relish the thought of his own place up in Storrs. Throughout his stay at Saint Mary’s and afterwards he told everyone he’d fallen asleep at the wheel, too much studying. No one ever asked him about a passenger.
And that was it. Rick got up to Storrs, made friends and started dating a girl from New Preston. School kept him busy, scars healed, and most times the accident was the furthest thing from his mind.
But sometimes at night, Rick dreamed about the wreck. The blood and broken glass and pain were there, his shortness of breath, all so vivid. Tom was there too, calmly looking at him just as the car came to a halt. Something was different in the dream, though.
“Hey man, looks like you didn’t make it either”, Tom would say this time, and reach a pale hand towards him.
“C’mon, let’s get out and see if we can catch a ride. I do it all the time.” And Rick would wake up in a cold sweat, barely able to breathe.
* * *
Time had passed, but he couldn’t really tell how long he’d been out on the highway. Eventually he reached the exit ramp that led to the quiet road below. He walked through the night, like always. Sometimes it seemed like he walked up the road all night and no one stopped, and he’d lose himself in a fog before the Waterbury sign. Other times a car would stop. You could never tell. It was pure hell trying to get home. He kept walking.
The Road Home, Copyright 2004, by Robert L. Wilson