Struck- A Short Story (Complete)

Posted: October 7, 2014 in Uncategorized

This story is a part of my recently released anthology: ’14 A Texanthology.

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STRUCK

A Short story by George Wier

“What the—what was that?” Ben asked. They had both seen the flicker in a split-second spray of headlight coming around the curve and over the hill, had heard and felt the thump.

After the longest time, Jenny’s foot came off the gas pedal and they began to slow. Jenny’s breath caught in her throat. He looked at her in the reddish glow of the dashboard lights and saw her face contort in dread.

“I think…I think…” her voice was trying to break.

“You don’t know. Neither do!. Look for a place to turn around.”

“I don’t…don’t want to.”

“We have to. It’s the law.” And then, to avert a burst of tears and wailing, he said it.
“Besides, it was probably a deer.”

“No it wasn’t.”

The two lane highway was narrow through the tall pines. There was maybe evidence of the moon somewhere, but it was all blackness around them, with a paler blackness in the narrow streak of sky directly above.

“There’s no place. Nowhere to turn.”

“Stop,” Ben said.

Jenny brought the car to an abrupt stop. For a moment he thought she might lock up the brakes, but they didn’t make them like that anymore. Ben flipped the glove compartment open and jostled things around. He found it. It was a small purple flashlight in a plastic sleeve, never before used. He fished it out of the plastic, twisted the business end and a brilliant spear of light emerged.

He unbuckled his seat belt.

“What are you doing?”

He looked at her, measured. “There’s no place to turn around here and you can’t easily turn around at night in the middle of this highway. I’m going to go find it. You drive ahead a ways until you find a turnout. You turn around and come back for me.
I’m going to go have a look.”

“No! You can’t leave me alone!”

“Yes. I have to. You’ll be safe. Look, I knew a guy once who hit somebody walking along the road. He thought it was an animal, so he kept going. Later, when he was all calm and rational, he got to thinking about it and had a friend go and look for him. When the friend got there, there were about a dozen police. He had hit and killed a fellow who was trying to get to a gas station to gas up. While he won the civil suit the guy’s family filed against him, he spent six months in the State Jail for failing to Stop and Render Aid. It’s a tough law, but it’s strictly enforced.”

“Shit,” she said. “Shit. Shit. Shit.”

“It’s gonna be okay. I’ll go check it out. Drive down half a mile, a mile, maybe two. You’ll find a place to turn around. Then you come back and get me. Watch your odometer. It’ll tell you how far to come back.”

Jenny remained silent.

“If this is the worst life has to throw at us, we’ll be happily married for a hundred years.”

“Oh Ben. I love you, but I’m still scared.”

“I know you are. It’ll be okay.”

Benjamin Bradley got out into nearly pitch black night, the rubbery soles of his tennis shoes crunching on loose gravel.

The highway—it was less of a highway, and more of a winding, black-topped trail—ran roughly north to south through the East Texas pine country. It was getting on to two a.m., and the couple had reasoned it out that they could avoid the expense of yet another night at a hotel if they could press on to Houston and sleep in the next day. It was the final two days of their honeymoon. Branson, Missouri was far behind them, as was that stilted first night of marital conjugation. She had awoken in the middle of the night that first night, and awakened him to declare,
“Maybe I’m pregnant.” But their marriage bed seemed half a world away, and the last thing on his mind was sex of any kind.

You saw it, didn’t you? he asked himself. Why didn’t you say anything about it?
He had seen it, but had looked away from it so as not to draw her gaze to it. It was a single strand of grayish string from the peak of the antenna wire. And then on the heels of that he saw again the flicker of the thing in his mind’s eye.

Nine, perhaps ten feet tall. Thin, it was. Wispy thin. There and gone in a flash and a resounding and reverberating thump.

Beside him the window rolled down.

“Be careful,” Jenny said.

“Uh. I will. Hurry it up, okay. These woods give me the willies.”

The window slid back up. The SUV—the gift for the couple from her parents, may they someday die and go the way of smallpox, polio and the Black Death—rolled hesitatingly forward until she was past him, then picked up speed and shot off into the night. He turned to watch her headlights recede, and hoped she was noting any landmarks for the spot and paying attention to the odometer.

Ben tried to judge the distance back to the spot where she had struck it in his mind but there was only darkness, the narrow cone of light from his flashlight, and knee high weeds along the side of the roadway with the impenetrable forest scant yards beyond. Here the highway stood on an embankment that sloped down dramatically on both sides.

She had been going perhaps sixty miles per hour when they hit the thing. She had continued on without a break in speed for another six seconds before he’d spoken.
A little quick math and…nothing. His mind would not work.

Tenth of a mile, his mind spoke. That feels right. Five hundred and twenty-eight feet. About two-hundred steps, no more. He hoped that was right.

A light, cool wind blew in his hair and rustled among the weeds. The day before had been the last official day of summer.

The flash of memory returned and he shivered so hard that he stopped in his tracks. It had, truthfully, been no more than a hundredth of a second, but in that infinitesimal space of time he had thought.. .something. What was it?

He backed the thought up for a moment. Jenny had just said something.

Something about the riverboat and their kiss on the fantail while everybody else was inside drinking and gambling. She had said…“Hoffbrau!” That’s where they had first met, him with his parents sitting at one table, and her with hers sitting at another table, but they had faced each other and glanced furtively at each other for half an hour or more before making direct eye contact. But that wasn’t what she’d said in the car. She’d said the name of the riverboat in Branson where she’d referred to their first meeting at the Hoffbrau on Sixth Street in Austin. What was the name? Maybe it didn’t matter. What mattered was the flicker right after that. The flicker of Him. Sheetface.

“Sheetface!” That had been the thought. Take a sheet on a clothesline like when he was a kid and his mother insisted on hanging the clothes outside to dry, press your face into it like his friend Ricky used to do, and you got the double-hilled impressions of the ridges over the eye, the mountain peak that was the nose, and the hint of a pair of lips. Scary shit. Scary as hell. Sheetface had been there at the upward edge of the passenger side headlamp where light grays into night. And Ricky Turnbull was long dead and in his grave on the west side of town back home, that brow of his mouldering, that hawkbill of a nose rotted to nothing, the hands that clamped tightly on the sheet to stretch so he could produce a satisfying Sheetface now knotted up with years of runaway fingernail growth.

“Ricky, when I get back home,” Ben said into the night, “I’m going to take a whizz on your freaking grave.”

Ben heard Ricky’s weird bray of laughter in his mind. He hadn’t heard that laugh for twelve years.

Ben walked in the night and counted his steps. When he got to two hundred, he began shining his light down the embankment to his left. Nothing.

Where is she? he thinks.

Jenny should have found a place to turn around by now. He could see her, turning around, tears streaking down her face, her lower lip quivering. The freakoutskies coming on with the inevitability of a bad dream after a night of drunken revelry.

*****

Jenny is twenty-six years old. A college graduate. She was going to be a missionary in China or some heathen land when she was nine years old. She was going to bring them all to Christ. But now she is nothing except a killer.

She sees them on the side of the road from time to time and quickly looks away. The dead animals. The carrion. “The roads are an abbatoir.” That’s what her mother used to tell her. “Don’t look, Jen. They chew up living things, grind them into meal to make a dinner for buzzards and ants and all manner of slimy things.”

“I killed him,” she said into the glowing red of her dashboard lights. “Whoever that was walking along back there, I killed him. Ben is going to find him, and then we’ll spend the next two days in jail until they figure out it was an accident. And I’ll have to call…daddy!”

Jenny remembered. Ben had said something about something, she was sure of this. Something about the dashboard, but she couldn’t remember what. She had come a long way, around a number of curves and over several high hills. She had seen a turnout once after topping one of the hills, but she was going too fast to catch it, and there was nothing farther on. No place to turn. If she got off the road, she knew she would get stuck. She would screw it all up even worse somehow.

“Oh Ben,” she began crying. “Why did you get out?”

A pair of headlights came on at her, finally. She flashed her headlights at him, and he flashed back. She slowed way down, flicked him again. He flicked back as he came down the hill towards her. Maybe he was slowing. She couldn’t tell.
He blew past her and she began honking her horn. He would never hear her.
She punched the gas in a sudden wash of anger and frustration and shot forward again.

Over the next hill she saw the sign: TURNBULL Pop. 111.

“A town! We’re saved!” She wiped a sudden burst of tears from her eyes.

As she rolled into the town unmindful the forty mile per hour speed limit sign that sprang into view immediately following the welcoming green town name sign, her heart sank. There was not a single business open. There were no stop signs or red lights—nothing to give an indication that anyone was awake or that anyone lived here.

Jenny slowed and rolled past a tire changing store that had seen better days. There was one street lamp at the center of town, but it illuminated nothing but the abandoned roadway in its cold blue light. Past that, the town gave way to one or two unpromising dim and dull lights before the wilderness of night beyond took hole
She pulled off the road past the tire store, opened her door and got out into the night.

“Hello!” she shouted. She waited half a minute. Silence washed back at her in waves. “Sombody?! Anybody?!”

There should be a dog barking somewhere. A slamming door. Something. Anything. But there was nothing.

Turnbull was dead.

Jenny shivered.

There was something odd about the town name, but she couldn’t place it. Had she heard of it before? That was impossible. She was from Katy, Texas, just outside of Houston, and she had never in her life been in this part of the country. She avoided the country like the plague. She was a city girl, born and bred.

Tumbull.

There was something… something about.. .Ben.

Fear clutched at her chest. Ben! He was in danger.

She got back in the SUV, turned into around in the heart of Turnbull, Texas, and sped back down the narrow highway and into the night.

*****

While they were in the car, talking, just before the flicker of Sheetface and the thump, hadn’t there been a sign? There had been. It was a distance sign. Two cities, Ben was sure of it. The bottom one had been the one he was looking for—the mile marker that would help him estimate the time remaining before they could get home.

Nacogdoches, it had read. Nacogdoches 44. There had been another one, however,just above Nacogdoches. The name of a town that was somehow familiar to him and unsettling at the same time. Ben consulted his visual memory and cou’d only get the first letter of the town’s name and the distance. T_____5. Five miles.
He knew, somehow, that Jenny had driven the entire five miles and would be about now turning around to come back and find him.

He slowed to a slow plod and played the light over the weeds to his left and to the bottom of the embankment. There was a creek coming up another five hundred yards ahead. The hit had come after the creek, of this he was certain. They were coming up from the creek and into the curve. This curve.

He shined the light ahead, then behind.

A pair of highlights illuminated the tops of the trees behind him. In another few minutes, someone would be coming.

“Maybe it’s her,” he said aloud, but then knew it wasn’t. He wasn’t sure how he knew this, but also knew it was true.

Ben stepped off into the grass at the side of the road and waited.

He heard something then. A rustle in the trees down there and a faint ripping sound.
Sheetface, he thought. He swung the flashlight and played it among the trunks of the pines down there. Something light in color was there, reflecting back at him in the light. Whatever it was, it was caught in the barbed wire fencing. It looked to be along, ribbon of something. Cloth, perhaps.

Ben heard the truck coming on and turned to face it. He flashed his light at it and trucker tooted his air horn as he passed. A brief hurricane of wind whipped at him and threatened to topple him down the hill, but he kept his feet.

When it was abundantly clear the truck wasn’t going to stop, Ben turned his light back down the hill and took a tentative step down.

*****

He had been driving through the night since leaving San Antonio that morning, had dropped off his load in Laredo, then hightailed it to the Port of Brownsville where he picked up another before striking northeast toward Houston. After an eight-hour nap in his sleeper on the northern outskirts of Houston, he got back on the road again and was driving hellbent for leather to Texarkana, where he would make a final drop-off and would have two days off work.

Pete Yarbrough was what his father would have called a “truck-driving fool.” It was all about the money. In two years, at this rate, he’d have both the truck and his house paid for, and then he could go fishing and have to drive no more than a couple of times a month—just enough to keep up with the taxes and the utility bills.

North of Nacogdoches, the roadway narrowed and began to become hilly. There were miles at a stretch with only a double-yellow stripe to keep him company. He didn’t have to worry about passing anyone, however. There was damned little traffic this night—most of the rigs kept to Highway 59 or to Interstate 45. But he knew these back roads. He knew all of them. He’d been driving trucks since he was twenty-one. He was now fifty-three. The kids were grown and the child support payments he’d had to make had stopped years ago. His kids never came to see him—their excuse being that they had no way of knowing where he’d be at any given time, despite the fact that he kept a cellular phone and they could, perhaps, call him. But that, apparently, was too much to ask. Let Lorraine teach them to do right, clean up their messes, and entertain them Thanksgiving and Christmas. He had other fish to fry.

After he passed Turnbull—just a flick of a nothing town, then open country again—he saw the odd car. It was a woman. She had flicked her brights at him, and he had returned the gesture. But then she had done it again, and he had brightened and dimmed his own lights to let her know that, yes indeed, these are not my bright lights. She was practically slowed to a stop in highway, and for an instant he could make out her face in his headlights. She looked a mess.

Scared, Pete, his own voice rattled in his head. You know she was scared.
Women were like that. They were scared all the time, and more especially at night.
Something is wrong, Pete. Which means, something is not right.

And then heard it behind him: her horn. She was leaning on her horn. The sound was low and faint, but unmistakable.

Pete Yarbrough came damned close to stopping. He wasn’t sure what he could have done had he done so. There was nowhere ahead to turn an eighteen-wheeler around. He couldn’t back up on a major highway through the East Texas piney woods to see what was the matter.

“Maybe she hit a deer or something,” he said to himself in the empty space of his truck cab. “A woman would definitely lose her shit after something like that.”
He had let up on the gas, but then applied his foot again and brought the truck back up to the speed limit.

Pete’s throat was getting dry, and he was out of Dr. Pepper.

Two days, he thought. Texarkana, two days, and Mollie Davison and her lean thighs.
No, the thought intruded. And then he knew. For the next two days he would wonder what the hell had gone wrong with the woman. He wouldn’t be able to sleep well. He wouldn’t be able to satisfy Mollie, who was an insatiable girl. It would all…affect him.

“Shit,” he said, and began looking for a place to stop and turn around.

When he saw the man on the side of the highway with the flashlight five minutes later, Pete knew. Here was the source of the woman’s trouble.

Pete went past the man and couldn’t see a place to turn around here, either. When he approached to the bridge over the creek, he slowed. There was a bit of shoulder here. Not much, but enough to stop and have his truck mostly off the road.

He pulled the truck to the side of the road, grabbed the orange triangle behind the seat and his flashlight, opened the door and went out into the night.

When he put the triangle in place back of the truck, he shined the light back down the highway where he’d seen the man.

He was gone.

Pete Yarbrough shivered.

And then he remembered. There was no town named Turnbull anywhere between

Nacogdoches and Carthage.

*****

Benjamin Bradley went down the embankment like a fiddler crab, striding sideways and down.

As he went, the weeds were taller and thicker. When he was halfway down, he felt something

tugging at his ankle. He stopped and shined his flashlight down at his left ankle. It was grayish

and looked at first like a long swatch of cloth, evenly cut—something, maybe, the Karate Kid

would tie around his gi.

“What the—”

It wasn’t a karate belt. It wasn’t anything he’d ever seen before, and it wasn’t

exactly…cloth. It was more like the material for a dog’s flea collar, dyed gray and cut to five or

six feet in length, and perhaps an inch wide. Also, it had something smeared along its length. At

first he shuddered, thinking it was blood, but it wasn’t quite red enough for blood. No, this gook

was more like strawberry jam.

He consulted the flicker again—that briefest of ever-so-brief moments when it sort of

kissed the SUV-present from momma and papa Calloway, Jenny’s loving and doting parents. In

that frozen flicker, poised between memory and madness, he saw…bands. Maybe Sheetface was

composed of bands. And there were bands of the stuff around his ankle.

Ben sprang away from the clinging trail of it and tumbled down the remainder of the

slope. He held the flashlight in a deathgrip, but on the way down he heard in his head the voice

of Ricky Turnbull from those hell and gone years. “Bradley can’t help but piss his pants when

there’s something scary.”

He hit something hard with his shoulder—maybe it was just a patch of raw ground—did

a somersault through the air and landed prone at the bottom of the embankment. He still had the

flashlight, and it revealed nothing but weeds in front of his face.

Ben assessed his body, began to get up, and realized he had something around him. It was

the band! He had swept it along with his foot, carried it through the air, and gotten it wrapped

around himself on the way down. He grabbed at it, tugged, but it seemed to constrict further.

After a moment of tugging and slapping at it, he realized that it had no actual life of its own. He

was trying to get up while pulling it tighter with his foot. And the strawberry jam-like stuff was

all over him. And that was somehow eerily familiar.

“Hello, Benji,” the voice said. Ben wasn’t sure if it was coming from memory or from the

blackness between the boles of the pines beyond the barbed wire fence.

“Who’s there?”

“It’s okay, Benji. I’m an old friend.”

Ben’s blood felt half-frozen in his veins. The ice water was in his throat as well.

“No,” he said. “You’re dead.”

“That’s right, old pal old buddy. But I’m dead because you didn’t even try to save me.”

Then Ben remembered.

*****

They had been at loose ends all summer. Ricky came over to play and the two of them would end

up getting in some kind of fight before the day was done. Ricky wanted to play tricks on people.

He thought it the height of wit to shovel a fresh cowpie into a paper sack, put it on someone’s

front porch and set it afire, then ring the doorbell and run. If he was particularly lucky, Ricky

would then watch from around the hedge or through the fence as the homeowner tried to stomp

the fire out and got cow crap all over their shoes. That was Ricky all over again. His middle

name should have been “Trouble”.

That Sunday near the end of summer, Ben and Ricky rode their bicycles all over the

countryside. The trail ended near the power distribution center on the edge of town, a hurricane-
fenced affair with steel towers suspending a veritable forest of arm-thick electrical cables. The

place hummed and buzzed and gave one an acidic taste on the tongue if they came within fifty

yards. Ben wasn’t sure if the taste was real or something the mind conjured.

Ricky was almost to the top of the fence before Ben called him on it. Two strands of

outward-leaning barbed wire wasn’t enough to stop Ricky Turnbull.

“What are you doing?” Ben asked.

“Come on! This will be a gas!”

Ben stood there looking up at Ricky, the bright summer sun behind his head making a

halo that turned his reddish hair the color of blood and cast a shadow that obscured his face in a

dark caul.

Ricky hesitated for a moment, then resumed his climb.

“LOOO-zerrr!” Ricky called over his shoulder.

After he dropped to the marble gravel on the other side of the barrier, Ben took a hesitant

step forward and interlaced his fingers in the cross-hatch diamonds of galvanized steel wire. “I’m

only doing this to keep you out of trouble.”

Ricky nodded, but all the while he grinned widely.

Ben got a hole in the crotch of his blue jeans on the barbed wire at the top, but he kept his

cool, took it slowly, and managed to drop down on the other side.

And then Ricky was off!

He quickly found the one thing he had to check out: a fenced enclosure within the one-
acre compound that contained a series of what could not otherwise have been described as

electrical turrets. The turrets were a dull gray and resembled the letter ‘Y’. This was the pulsing

heart of the forbidden complex. The megalithic sculpture routed the power from the entire town.

Outside of this fence stood a much older and unused set of towers, both covered in rust, with

twin cables running between them above the enclosure. The cables had been lopped off at the

ends sometime long before, but from up above Ricky knew that Ben would see the bird’s eye-
view he usually desperately wanted.

The tower nearest them had a set of ladder rungs that began about five feet up, and before

Ben could say another word, Ricky leapt upward, grasped and began to climb. “Come on,” he

Ben stood frozen on the spot. A feeling had come over him. An impendingness that was

as sure and certain as a whipping for cursing, or detention for getting caught passing notes in

class. But this sensation was also had its own mass. It was like a boulder rolling downhill, a

bullet fired from a gun. To do anything about it required turning back the hands of the clock, or

perhaps rethinking every thought he had ever puzzled out.

“Lost,” Ben whispered to himself, and wanted to cry.

He looked up at Ricky again, the sun in his eyes. He held his hand up and blotted out the

sun and felt its warm, searing rays on his palm. His body broke out in a cold sweat. A dribble of

warm urine blotted the front of his pants.

“Lost,” he whispered to himself again. He wanted to raise his voice, to say something.

To scream, perhaps. Instead of a sound his throat produced a leaden lump the size of an Easter

egg. The lump rose upward an inch and then lodged itself behind the root of his tongue and there

pulsed and throbbed.

“Hey, come on up! You can see everything from here!”

The height was thirty feet if it was a dozen. Ricky stood slowly, his legs shaking as his

sureness of balance increased. His hands made little tandem waving motions in the air, and then

he was standing straight and tall.

The structure gave an audible creak that was the distant cousin of brief whine. Ricky’s

face changed.

“Something…” he began, and then stopped. He bent his knees, preparatory to coming

back down to all fours, when the whine began again, followed by a popping sound.

“Whoa!” Ricky called. The tower vibrated and moved an inch, and that was enough. He

fell forward, his arms pinwheeling. On the way down he caught the two cables, bounced up and

down for a moment, and then hung there.

“BEN!” Ricky shouted. “HELP!”

But Ben was rooted to the spot. He may as well have been made of wood.

The tower whined again, this time long and shrill. Ben watched as it leaned forward with

a slowness, an inevitability, that called for no response beyond that of mere watching.

The cables between the two towers from which Ricky subtended began to droop and

sway inward toward the heart of the enclosure.

Ricky Turnbulls right foot was the first thing to come within range of one of the gray

turrets. A finger of lightnight leapt out at it, caressed it, and then Ricky’s left arm blew off at the

shoulder.

For Ben it was as if Ricky was trying to say something. Something intelligible, possibly,

between the thunderclap that blew his left arm away and settled the remainder of his body down

squarely upon the turrets, and the second thunderclap that blew his three remaining limbs off

shot the bulk of his body fifty feet into the air.

Ben turned away, his body shaking and his eyes squeezed tightly shut. There was a dull

thump. When Ben opened his eyes, Ricky’s torso and head lay at his feet.

*****

The funeral for Ricky Turnbull was closed-casket. Ben felt the eyes of Ricky’s mother on him

during the entire service. She would never look at him again without judgment in her eyes. She

knew. Somehow she knew that he had killed her son, just as surely as Ben himself knew it.

When Ricky’s mother and father were killed in a freak collision on Interstate 10 ten years later,

Ben, to his eternal shame, felt an overpowering sense of relief.

*****

Over the years he had often wondered what was in the casket they buried that rainy late-August

day. In his mind’s eye, beneath a mantle of blackest eternal night, lay the wrapped package of

disassembled parts that had once been Ricky Turnbull. The wrapping, probably something on

the order of a piece of house painter’s canvas drop cloth, would have bound each portion in

separately folded layers, and the whole tied off with silvery electrician’s tape.

While this may have been the thoughtful, analytical conclusion on those nights when

Benjamin Bradley’s mind harkened back to those dark, dead days of his erstwhile childhood, the

visual images that painted themselves across the ceiling of his darkened bedroom—and after he

closed his eyes in sleep, across the inner membranes of his eyelids—made for a wholly different

picture altogether.

*****

Pete Yarbrough and Jenny Bradley converged on the spot where Ben left the highway, one from

the northeast and the other from the northwest. While Pete’s measured footsteps came on at an

easygoing walk, Jenny’s speed was well over the posted speed limit of seventy-five miles per

hour. She was, in fact, doing a little better than ninety.

*****

“You were lost, Ricky,” Ben said, and waited for a reply. He would try to pierce the darkness

around him and ferret out where the voice was coming from.

“You could have stopped me. You didn’t say a word.”

Ben whipped his head around. Nothing.

“What do you want?” Ben asked.

“I want what’s coming,” Ricky said.

“What is coming?”

“Can’t you feel it? It comes like the wind. It comes like a friend you’ve never met.”

“I can’t see you, Ricky. Would you at least show yourself?”

“You saw the cloth,” Ricky whispered. “You saw the cloth with the bands outside the

back of the funeral home the day before you buried me. John Deere used it to wrap up a riding

lawn mower for shipment. There the mower stood on the grass, clean as a whistle. But you knew,

didn’t you? Closed casket plus the need for wrapping separate parts plus the need to dispose of

something, equals…care to venture a guess?”

“I thought…maybe,” Ben said.

“Do you know what happens after years in the ground with too much moisture and lots of

“I have an idea,” Ben replied. “I’m not playing this game any longer.” He turned to back

up the hill. The climb would be steep, and he wasn’t sure if he could easily make it. He might

stumble and fall again, and likely break his neck on the way down next time.

“It’s coming, Benjie. Any minute now. You can’t stop it. No power on Earth can stop it.”

Ben Bradley put his foot in the waist-high grass at the base of the embankment. Over his

shoulder he said, “Go screw yourself, Ricky.”

*****

Benjamin Bradley was two-thirds up the embankment when he heard the car in the distance. The

sound of it echoed off the trees and high surrounding hills.

“Jenny,” he said, and tried to redouble his speed. If he didn’t make it to the top on time,

she would shoot right on by him.

His right foot slipped and almost spilled him, but he jerked his left upward and dug his

toes into the soil and caught himself with his palms. In an instant he was to his feet again. Mere

yards ahead, he could feel, the going would get easier. He was within twenty yards from the top.

“Come on, dammit,” he said under his breath. “Come on!”

*****

Pete Yarbrough saw the oncoming car and knew it was the woman. This was an odd occurrence

in itself in that he had never in his life been able to predict anything. Not a presidential election,

not one-sixth of a winning lottery combination…nothing. But still, he knew it was so much the

way he knew his commercial driver’s license number.

Even at the distance of a two miles he knew she was coming on fast. Far too fast. Pete

Yarbrough felt something then. Something he’d never felt before. If he didn’t know better, he

could have sworn it was fear.

“Lost,” he said, and wondered from where the word had come.

Pete felt the urge to stop and wait, but he resisted this urge with everything in him.

Instead, he broke into a run. As he did, he began waving his flashlight at the oncoming car.

“Slow down, damn you!” he shouted. “Slow down!”

*****

Jenny Bradley’s mind kept going back to the thing she had struck. It hadn’t been an animal, she

was now quite certain. It hadn’t, in fact, been a person. It had been…something, and that thing

had something to do with Ben.

A word kept trying to work it’s way to the forefront of her mind, but every time she

grasped at it, it jittered away and off like a skittish dog.

“What do you do when you can’t think of it?” she asked herself. The answer came to: you

stop trying!

“Okay, I’m no longer trying to know what the word is,” she said aloud. Instead, she

thought of Ben’s face when he was asleep beside her in bed.

Sometimes, lying there watching him, she thought she could capture snatches of his

dream images, as if they were half-complete artist’s doodles left by the trash outside a studio.

She allowed that feeling to come over her again—the feeling’s of Ben’s mind close by her.

It came to her.

“Sheetface!” she shouted. Ben had awakened her with the slurred, horrific word in the

early morning hours after their wedding night.

A light flashed at her from ahead, off to the right side of the road. Past it was the

eighteen-wheeler parked at the bridge at the bottom of the hill. At first the flashing light

resembled the strobe of a miles distant train coming on. But this flash wasn’t side-to-side, it was

up and down.

“Ben!” she said.

Jenny’s foot came off the gas and the car coasted onward in the night. Instinctively she

moved into the left-hand lane and her right foot came to hover over the brake pedal.

*****

Ben came to the top of the hill, out of breath and his lungs threatening to seize up on him. He

stood in the weeds at the edge of the highway and looked toward the oncoming car. He could tell

by the headlights, it was Jenny.

Drawing a sharp breath, he stepped out of the weeds onto the asphalt.

*****

During Pete Yarbrough’s run toward the impending disaster, he saw the oncoming headlights

move to his right and cross the center stripe. At that moment the silhouette outline of a man

stepped from the weeds onto the roadway.

Pete had played his share of billiards at beer joints all across the country. He had played

perhaps a thousand games of pool, had won as much as he lost in those instances where he had

taken a bet, and had so honed his depth perception to within bare hundredths of degrees shy of

perfection. Seeing the oncoming headlights and the man stepping out on the opposite side of the

road, Pete did an instantaneous calculation and came to abrupt conclusion. He stopped in his

tracks, pivoted ninety degrees and ran across the highway. As he did, he aimed the beam of his

flashlight not at the oncoming car, but at the silhouette of the man.

He judged without looking that another two strides and a leap would take him clear of the

roadway and onto the narrow shoulder. But something caught his foot and he fell face forward.

His forearms, the meat of his palms and his elbows took most of the initial impact and the skin

of his arms abraded and tore on rocky, black surface. The flashlight clattered away across the

shoulder and into the weeds. His right cheek likewise felt the rough abrasion of unforgiving

asphalt and his eyes looked up at the two growing lights that very narrowly missed the bulk of

the man and came shrieking toward him.

*****

Ben saw that Jenny was going to hit him. That was what this was all about to begin with. Ricky

had planned it all this way. Just as he’d once looked up at and heard a high whine from a sagging

electrical tower and stood rooted to the spot, so he heard the fierce scream of the car as Jenny

came toward him.

*****

The man wasn’t Ben. It wasn’t Ben and he was running across the road in front of her. As he ran

he shined his light at someone else, and it was that someone else that she knew to be Ben. And

she was about to kill him.

Jenny Bradley’s hovering right foot struck the brake pedal and she turned the wheel of

the car sharply to the right. She began screaming.

Something struck the driver’s side of her car. The man who had run across the roadway

was suddenly there ahead of her. She turned the wheel even more sharply to the right and she

felt a thump from underneath the car—about the same quality of thump she had felt not long

after getting her driver’s license when she was sixteen and had hit a dog crossing the highway.

This thump was like that. Then the world began spinning around and around and the car began

thumping from every angle. The windshield shattered into a thousand beautiful square diamonds

and she was rolling down the long hill to the black valley below.

*****

Jenny had struck Ben’s right hand, and the force was sufficient to spin him around drop him

on the asphalt like a sack of potatoes. He looked up and looked in time to see the car run over a

man’s foot as he lay sprawled across the left-hand lane. The car turned over slowly and began to

roll until it rolled off the highway and out of sight. Jenny was gone.

*****

When Ben Bradley was finally able to get to his feet, he saw the lights of a car topping the hill

from north, the way they had come before everything had gone to hell in a hand-basket. His hand

was broken and he cradled it.

The night was still too black to see worth a damn, but he knew about where the man had

fallen. He ran toward him and heard the moan of pain.

“Mister, you okay?”

“No!” the voice said, and Ben pictured someone trying to talk through clenched teeth.

“She ran over my damned foot! God it hurts!”

“Oh. Good,” Ben said. “At least she didn’t run over your stomach.” He knelt down and

two meaty hands clutched at Ben’s arms. “Watch the hand. I think she broke it. There’s a car

coming. We have to get to the side of the road.”

It took a moment but Ben helped the man to his feet.

“Ben Bradley,” Ben said.

“Pete Yarbrough.”

“You think she’s dead?” Ben asked.

“I hope not. Let’s cross back over.”

Pete Yarbrough leaned on Ben and hopped on his one good foot. When they were to the

side of the highway, Ben looked down into the valley below. One of the SUV’s headlights was

still on, and it lit up the bole of a large tree.

“Do you believe in prayer?” Pete asked.

“I suppose it couldn’t hurt,” Ben replied.

*****

The oncoming car slowed when it came to the eighteen-wheeler, then came on. They waved the

driver over. It was a Texas State Troooper.

*****

Two ambulances came within thirty minutes. By that time the trooper had gone down the hill and

extricated Jenny from the SUV. They took Jenny to Nacogdoches in one ambulance, while Ben

and Pete rode together in the back of the other.

By the time they were each sitting on a gurney in the Emergency Room of Memorial

Hospital in Nacogdoches, the state trooper came around to see how Ben and Pete were doing.

He took statements from both of the men and then went to see about Jenny. When he returned,

the news was good. She would live. She had two missing front teeth—her incisors—a cut lip, a

bad bruise from the lap belt across her chest, and three broken ribs. She would be in the hospital

anywhere from three days to three weeks. The major risk was from pneumonia. X-rays had

shown a little blood in her lungs from ruptured capillaries, but neither lung had collapsed.

*****

“Excuse me, Officer,” Ben called to the State Trooper outside the hospital.

The fellow was sitting in his cruiser, making out his report. “Yeah?”

“Did you see anything along the highway tonight? Something…that maybe shouldn’t

have been there?”

The officer poked his hat up an inch with a forefinger and looked up at Ben. “Now that

you mention it, there was a bit of trash out there. It looked like maybe some packing material

had blown out of a truck or something. We found it on both sides of the highway. Does that have

anything to do with the crash?”

“Maybe,” Ben said. “It’s just, that’s what tripped Mr. Yarbrough when he was crossing

the road to try to save my life. I thought…”

“What?”

“I—I don’t know.”

The officer nodded. “Say, did you and your wife have any kind of an argument before all

this started?”

“Oh. You think she was trying to kill me or something?” Ben laughed. “No. She almost

didn’t see me, and when she did, she almost got herself killed trying not to hit me.”

The officer slowly nodded again. “That’s what I thought.”

“Let me ask you something, sir.”

“Go ahead.”

“Have you ever done something…or maybe it’s that you didn’t do something… What I

mean is, have you ever hesitated when you shouldn’t have and then something bad happened, but

even then, really, there was nothing you could have done anyway?”

“Yeah,” the trooper said.

“How do you cope with that?”

“Cope? Did you say ‘cope’?” The man laughed. “Mr. Bradley, you seem like a nice

enough fellow. Let me tell you something that may do you some good. There is no such thing as

a could-have, a would-have, or a should-have. There’s only right now. Today.”

It was Ben’s turn to digest what the man said, and he likewise found himself nodding.

“My turn,” the officer said. “First of all, I think you, your wife, and that truck driver in

there are all nuts.”

“Why?”

“I’ve been patrolling this neck of the woods for sixteen years. I know every highway,

every back road, almost every driveway within a seventy mile radius of this spot.”

“And?”

“And there’s no town with the name of Turnbull anywhere along that highway.”

“Okay,” Ben said. “But is there a town? I mean, is there a town of any kind near there?”

The officer rubbed his jaw for a moment and looked straight ahead, then turned back

to Ben. “There used to be a town about five miles up the road from where you folks had your

little incident tonight. I don’t remember the name of the place, but it demised back in the 1930s.

There’s not stick of wood left of it. Maybe there’re a few odd bricks and trash out there in the

woods. My daddy took me in there one time looking for whatever stuff we could find. I seem to

remember we found some old coke bottles, all greenish with bubbles in the glass. I guess that’s

all the evidence there ever was of the place.”

Ben nodded. “Thank you for coming along tonight, sir.”

“I’m glad I did. I’ll call you in a few days and send you a copy of the report.”

As the trooper pulled away from the curb, the first rays of the sun peeked over the

horizon.

“Not lost,” Ben said to himself, and felt the wind on his face. “No. No could-haves,

would-haves, or should-haves. There is only today.”

*****

Two months later, when Pete Yarbrough was trying to decide which direction to take during

yet another run up to Texarkana, he opted for the highway where he had very nearly lost his life

while trying to help out a wayward couple.

He slowed through the top of the hill where the town of Turnbull could never have been,

and sure enough, there was nothing but trees there in the dwindling sunlight.

When he came to the bridge five miles farther on, he pulled over and stopped and walked

back down the highway. He had a flashlight with him, a large, reliable halogen with fresh

batteries, just in case he was too long away from his truck and the night closed in on him. It was

a good idea to have a light anyway.

Instead of going down the hill where the SUV had crashed, he walked farther on down

the road the length of a football field and crossed the highway where he’d had his foot run over.

He still walked with a noticeable limp, but after passing over the spot where it had happened, he

felt some better.

A red-tailed hawk wheeled high overhead and slipped down toward a high tree branch

somewhere in the forest.

He came to the spot where Benjamin Bradley had stepped out of the grass that awful

night, looked down the long slope and saw the weatherworn strips of some old cloth material

twisting in the wind among the low branches along the barbed wire fence. Nothing but trash,

He thought of the story Bradley had told him about Ricky Turnbull, and about the boy’s

ill-fated climb up the electrical tower. There wasn’t much to think about it, however, other than

the fact it was a terribly sad tale. And Bradley had certainly beat himself up enough about it.

Pete looked up at the sun as it disappeared behind the forest at the top of the hill. This

part of the country was referred to as The Big Thicket, and with good reason. It contained largely

nothing but thicket for miles around.

He smiled and felt the wind on his grizzled face.

“Well,” he said to himself, “that’s that. Time to get back on the road.”

There were miles and miles ahead of him and a long night beyond.

Finis

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