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Jay sailed under the hunter’s moon in his ninety-one Buick. The road ahead stretched endlessly straight, its vanishing point still and fixed on the horizon. A row of oaks lined either side, and beyond them an endless sea of longleaf pines. Yellow paint streaks slipped by in near-perfect rhythm.
It would be better, Jay thought, if the road would wind a little, a serpent flexing in the gloom. Like the mountain roads he’d once driven in Appalachia, an ill-advised shortcut off the highway. That had cost him three or four hours at least, since you couldn’t go higher than 45 on those roads with their constant hairpin curves. At least that had engaged his mind, though. Here, now, the ramrod road was hypnotic. It never changed, only the same angle of worn asphalt, the same beards of stringy moss drooping from the arcs of live oaks overhead. A lullaby to the eyes. Soft. Wavering. Whispering.
He jerked his head, took a deep breath. He had to stay awake. He was almost to the next town, and then he could stop. Get a coffee somewhere, stretch his legs. Catch his second wind. Or find a hotel, if need be.
How long had he been driving? Five hours, six? Seven? Jay wasn’t sure. The clock display on the dashboard only lit half the numbers, and his cell had long ago died, the car charger inoperative. He shifted in his seat. His wallet was as thin as ever, but being in that seat half the day, it felt like sitting on a rock. His backside was numb, save that one throbbing ache.
Jay liked driving in the dark. Or walking in the dark, even — it hid you, made you feel you could slip safe away without effort. A fox slinking down into a warm, dry den. Day driving was all right; but it showed you up, exposed you in ways that made you vulnerable. Nights like this, he didn’t have to pretend. Nights like this, he could forget all he’d done, all he had left behind.
He had set out from a pit stop on 58 near the Georgia-Alabama border that afternoon, or the early evening. He hadn’t paid attention to the time then, either. Today had been more or less southward, then a lot of east, and some more south thrown in toward the end. Now he was something like halfway down the Carolina coast, and nearing the sea. Not near enough it to smell it yet — but if you were just passable at darts, and were aiming for it on a map, the place he was in now might be near where you landed.
Where am I going? The thought had crossed his mind more than once in the past few days, but he never had a good answer.
The only thing was to keep going. Especially now. It was a rural road, and that meant few if any lights, none in almost an hour. Two lanes. Faded center lines, almost no shoulder. If not for the occasional highway sign, he would think he’d somehow strayed onto some dead-end backroad.
The road. The trees above and on either side. Headlights on leaves, dim searching fingers raking swiftly past each spray of green. Or what would be green in the light of day. This was the the one drawback of night driving: the world was sapped of color. Shades of grey, the bent branches stretching toward him, wandering yet still. A blurring, ever-shifting pattern of dark and darker.
Jay blinked. He had to keep his eyes open.
He switched the radio on, turned it up as loud as he could stand. Not much reception out here; a country western song, which he briskly passed by, and a weak signal from an NPR station that only played classical music this time of night. Not the right sort of thing at all. Oldies, talk radio, R&B. Finally he settled on classic rock; it wasn’t ideal, but it would have to do.
I have to keep my eyes open…
He had barely finished the thought before he hit the tree straight on. Time had slipped and he was barreling off the road somehow, caught in an endless moment where he both waited for impact and could already feel it. Pain came only later. A jarring echo in his teeth, the weight of a mountain pressing his lungs. A nerve clenched like bent iron in his neck.
He was flung into a hurricane of sound, a thunder that would ring in his ears a full half hour later. But now…Jay was still seated, face pressed into something coarse and white. He breathed and coughed plumes of dry, powdery air. A pulse pounded in every vain.
His head rang. His legs were pinned. He couldn’t move.
And then he could. The coarse, solid white thing was slipping away — an airbag, that’s what it was. Words seemed to reappear in his mind as time righted itself and moment flowed easily into moment again. He was sore all over, and shocked, but not injured. Not too badly, at least.
Jay coughed, wincing in the lingering smoke. He climbed out of the car, somehow, as hard as it was to move. He straightened and looked down at himself, took in the scrapes on his legs, the bruises from the seatbelt. He didn’t feel like it, but some part of him knew he was lucky.
Jay turned, staggering. It was hard to see the way back to the road, as nothing was visible beyond the weak halo of headlights reflecting off the tree — a massive grand oak. The oak itself seemed unharmed, in stark contrast to the Buick. The forest was a thick mass of foliage and vines, many torn by the track of his accident. He decided to go that way.
He wished he had a flashlight. His phone, maybe…but no, that was dead. Of course. He slapped his forehead twice. Come on, Jay, keep it together.
He could hear a chorus of frogs nearby, announcing his folly to the insects and whatever night creatures stalked the pinewoods. Jay imagined they described him as a tragic Greek hero, undone by the fatal flaw of human weariness. He shook the thought out of his head. Absurd. The frogs sounded alien, though it was he who did not belong here in this place.
What have I done now? he wondered. His heart beat a loud cadence.
A stirring in the brush to his left. He nearly jumped. It was hard to think in the humid night, skin slick and damp, blood still surging in his veins. Pounding in his ears. He swatted a mosquito, but it had already pierced his neck.
But no… It wasn’t the sound of his pulse. It was…wheels on pavement. The highway had been empty when he was driving, but there had to be another car now. He could hear it plainly now. He wheeled again and spotted the headlights. The bright ecstatic beams that pointed the way, the engine roaring.
“Hey! Hey, I’m… Hey stop, I’m here! Hey, hey!”
He ran toward where the road must be, but the car didn’t stop. Jay didn’t care. He kept running, tripped, breathed in the thick and loamy smell of the earth. He laughed, stood, and ran on.
By the time he found the road again another car had passed, this time in the other direction. It, too, had not stopped for him, but Jay didn’t care. His chest burned with a giddy fire, for he was no longer alone. It was the most other drivers he’d seen for as long as he’d been driving this damn highway. That meant a town could be close. And he had walked away with his life — more than he had a right to expect.
The night was singing. He felt like joining in, but knew better. He still had a long walk ahead.