Today, I’ve got a little different piece for The 13 Days of Halloween. The following is a short story excerpted from my first collection, Bad Timing. It tells the tale of a man suffering a great loss that never goes away, mo matter how far or how fast he runs from it. Even through his haze of anger and sorrow, he still manages to find a unique means of coming to grips with the horror his life has become. But I don’t want to give it away. Read on and enjoy!
One Step Ahead
Gil used his bandana to wipe the sweat from his forehead. The air conditioner in the old truck had given out months ago and the grayish stains on the armpits of all three shirts he owned testified to the time spent behind the wheel. Always moving, trying to stay in front of the storm.
According to his road atlas, the town shouldn’t be much farther ahead, no more than a mile or two. He looked in his rear view mirror, seeking out the broken black line along the horizon that he knew was following. And, as always, he found it there, still trailing him, a half-hour, maybe forty minutes back.
Gil stretched his arms, tense from the long hours on the road, and looked around at the landscape swirling by at 65 miles per hour, letting his gaze bounce from the dry, cracked earth to the drifts of dirt and dust built up beside the odd fence posts lining the shoulder to the gray, over-baked asphalt. He could feel the sun reflecting up from the ground as he watched the road before him shimmering in the radiating waves of heat. He drove on, bringing his most-unusual load to the good people of whatever podunk town happened to fall in his path.
Gil looked down at the digital clock on his dashboard to see 11:18 glowing back at him in the florescent green LCD numbers. His eyes rose in time to catch the “Welcome To Paradisio” sign as he passed by. The lettering was faded, wind beaten with swirling dirt sandblasting fine cracks into the “pop: 1,242” line painted on the small board hanging from the sign’s bottom.
“Paradise,” he muttered to himself, as he leaned over the steering wheel, looking up, seeking that ever-present tallest structure in all of the town’s he had visited, the church steeple. Gil slowed the truck as he entered the town, or the six rows of well-worn buildings that made up this less-than-bustling burg, anyway. After passing the post office, a hardware and feed store and an old grocery, he took a left at Main Street, finding himself face to face with Paradisio’s town hall. The three-story building was faded from the sun, its clapboard siding looking very much like it had been at least a decade since it had last seen a coat of paint.
Gil continued along Main Street when, finally, to his right, the church steeple appeared. The building, now only a hundred or so yards away, was made of brick, the only such structure that he could see in Paradisio. It had a fancy stained glass window above the door that appeared spotless. Every other window in town was so dust-coated that he had no visibility through the filthy glass, but this one was immaculate, the sun reflecting cleanly off the multi-colored pattern. Gil slowed the truck as he approached the town’s place of worship, his load rattling as he downshifted the old engine to a stop directly across the street from the building’s double entrance doors.
He shut off the engine, again wiping some sweat from his brow before opening the door with a time-earned creak of steel. He circled the pickup, shaking out the kinks in his legs from many hours spent driving. A few of the town’s inhabitants were straggling along the hot, dusty streets, each one throwing perplexed glances at the pickup truck load of unique cargo, and the rather shabby looking man who had driven it.
After a few minutes stretching his legs, Gil once again checked the horizon, locating the ever-present storm that had been trailing him for these past three years. He had been normal, once, just a regular guy with a wife, baby on the way and earning a solid living selling advertising for his home town newspaper. That life seemed so long ago now, only a fond remembrance that was almost like something he’d read in a book rather than his own back story. The accident, three years ago now, at the very peak of his happiness, with all he had worked so hard for just beginning to come together, had forever changed that history.
He and his wife were returning home from a celebration in her honor, her’s and the baby’s, actually. The party had broken up early due to the first flakes of an approaching winter storm. He recalled making all the excuses about getting home safely and beating the storm, but really, the snow hadn’t concerned him at all. He had never liked her family much, or they him, and the weather report made for a perfect escape route from someplace he desperately wanted to flee. Now, he would gladly listen to her aunts and uncles prattling on about their latest maladies and prescriptions forever if he could have just stayed there an extra half-hour that night.
On the ride home, another driver had lost control due to the conditions. He didn’t know how it happened, or even who was driving the other car, if it was a man or a woman. He’d been absorbed in a conversation with his wife about the color of their upcoming child’s bedroom, laughing together at the thought of a polka-dotted ceiling, then the impact, then nothing.
He awoke two days later, his head buzzing, in a sterile hospital bed, the antiseptic smell making the nausea he felt worsen. He could still remember the way the nurse who told him about his wife kept looking at the floor, the ceiling, the wall behind his head, out his room’s window, just about everywhere but in his eyes. The baby was dead before the paramedics even arrived on the scene, his wife following a few hours later. The blood loss from her internal injuries was just too much for her body to overcome. The shock of the news had hit Gil hard, even through the haze of painkillers dripping into his arm. His left ankle was badly bruised, along with his right wrist, one eye was swollen nearly shut and the throbbing in his skull from a concussion was deafening, but none of it could take him away from thinking about his wife, how her body must have looked, twisted and bloodied, and their unborn child who would never see a sunrise.
Then the anger struck, boiling up inside him, and he cursed everyone he could think of; the driver of the other car for causing the accident, himself for paying more attention to his wife than the road before them, her uncle who had held up their departure for fifteen minutes will some half-drunken tale of his first child, the paramedics for being able to save him but not her. He’d even cursed God for unleashing the storm.
Gil had never been a particularly religious man, but his wife was, attending church every Sunday for as long as he had known her. She never went anywhere without the small cross she wore about her neck. He’d watched her stroking its smooth, slightly tarnished surface many times in the past, whenever she was concerned over something. And where did it get her? Where was God when she needed Him most? To hell with God, he had thought at the time, his loss still fresh before him, to hell with fate, to hell with everyone. It was soon after that moment that the storm first appeared.
Gil left the hospital after a few days, still nursing his injuries. When he saw a weather report calling for more snow about two days later, he’d stuffed some clothes into an old duffle bag, jumped into his truck and headed out of the path of the approaching storm. The direction didn’t matter, he hadn’t even considered a destination, nor did he care, only away from the blizzard.
Gil had escaped that storm, only to find himself a few days later waking in a hotel room several hundred miles from home to the first flakes of another storm. He’d checked the weather on the hotel’s television, tracking the dense clouds on the radar images and once again set out to get away from the falling frozen precipitation. When yet another storm struck the town he’d stopped in two days after that, he began to worry. Yet, still, he kept running. After three months constantly on the move, with heavy snowfalls always following, even into areas of the country that hadn’t seen winter since the last ice age, from spring into summer, he finally paused to consider that the curses he’d sworn when learning of his family’s demise had snapped back at him. Gil had almost given up once, even letting the snow pile up six inches deep around him somewhere in the Arizona desert, but the rage caused by his helplessness returned. He’d renewed his vows of contempt, swearing that the snow wasn’t going to destroy him as well, and continued on his flight.
Still glancing around the tiny little town of Paradsio, still waiting for the storm to make its inevitable appearance, Gil decided it was time to set up. He reached behind the driver’s seat of his truck, pulling out the large canvas drop cloth and rope he kept there. The people of Paradisio stopped to watch the stranger as he tied the top corners of the cloth to the hooks in the side bed of the truck. Once unfurled, the words Gil had spray painted onto the canvas were clearly visible in almost reflective orange letters. The makeshift sign read “Snowshovels $20”
After hanging the advertisement for his offerings, Gil returned to the driver’s seat of his truck and lit a cigarette to pass the time. A few of the townspeople started to collect in small pockets across the street, pointing and laughing at the man selling snowshovels in the desert. He always enjoyed this part, as much as he enjoyed anything anymore, watching the people, seeing their laughter, the disbelief at his actions. It was just about the only time anymore when he would smile. These people might think he’s a joke now, but in an hour, they’d be falling over one another for what he was selling.
Gil had thought of the idea nearly two years ago. The money he had saved from his former life had run dry, and he couldn’t stay in any one place long enough to even land a job, let alone actually collect a paycheck. He had decided that, if he was going to be forced into this lifestyle, constantly on the move, then why not use it to his advantage? Plus, the irony of earning a living pushing snow removal equipment to people who’d never even seen snow in person appealed to him as a fitting way of keeping his stomach full and gas in his tank. After all, everyone has to use the tools God gave them, right?
Gil was almost finished with his smoke when one of the residents of Paradisio, a disheveled looking older man, his clothes spotted with patches of dust and sweat stains, his face as filthy and unwashed as his shirt, approached the truck.
“You sure are a crazy one, aren’t ya?” the man said to Gil. He took the last drag from his cigarette, tossing it to the pavement at the man’s feet, a thin trail of grayish smoke still drifting upward from the burning tip.
“Not crazy,” he said, blowing the remnants of his last drag out through his nostrils. “I’m a visionary.”
To this, the old man laughed so hard, some of the dust kicked up in whisps from his clothes.
“Mister,” he said, his laughter revealing the blackened, rotting smile of a man whose next visit to the dentist would be his first, “We don’t hardly see rain in these parts, an’ the only thing frozen is th’ ice Jeannie puts’n her tea over at the diner.”
The man kept laughing as he walked away from the roadside shovel salesman, the odor he exuded wafting behind him in a wake. Gil smirked slightly as he looked up to see the leading edge of the storm front begin to cross overhead.
“Laugh away,” he thought to himself. “But I’ll have that twenty bucks you were saving for a bottle of Old Crow soon enough.”
Gil lit another cigarette as the first chimes of noon sounded from the church tower. Pretty soon, the congregation inside the building would pour out, and if he had timed things right, they’d emerge to a white-out blizzard and an inexplicable inch of snow on the ground.
He watched the few people nearest to his truck as they first began to notice the storm pushing in overhead. Its edge had finally crossed over the sun, shrouding the little dust-coated town in a muted, dim light. The icy wind was next, seemingly starting from nowhere. One moment, it was as calm as a stagnant lake, and the next, gusts of wind so cold they would freeze your spit before it hit the ground were sweeping through the town. At this development, the people on the streets stopped laughing. They turned in circles, trying to keep their backs to the frigid blasts, and looked up at the darkening sky. Some of them were still pointing at Gil and his payload, but he got the distinct impression that he was no longer the butt of any jokes.
Then the first flakes began to fall. They were scattered and seldom to start, slowly picking up speed. After a few minutes, the air was thick with snowflakes, the wind gusts swirling them about, mixed with the dust brushed up off the streets. Some of the people started to flee, heading for their homes, or the nearest places with an open door, to hole themselves up inside, away from the sudden change in the elements, and lose the afternoon to a pint of whiskey, he was sure. And some of them reveled in the bizarre twist of nature, running about in the middle of the street, yelling and laughing, arms upraised to the heavens, basking in this miracle of winter in August in New Mexico. Gil watched the revelers for a moment before grabbing the worn corduroy jacket that lay on the passenger seat and pulling it on, bracing himself from the sudden onset of cold. Finally, another man hesitantly approached Gil’s truck.
“I’ll take one,” he said, holding out a crumpled twenty dollar bill. Gil left his seat, crushing out the cigarette into the thin layer of new-fallen snow that had accumulated on the road before reaching into the bed of his truck and bringing out one of the shovels that were piled there. He handed it to his customer, taking the money at the same time. The man stood there for a moment, clutching the handle of the shovel, snowflakes bouncing off of his face and shoulders, looking like he wanted to say something but just couldn’t find the words.
“How’d ya know?” he finally spoke.
“Just lucky, I guess,” Gil replied.
The man stayed for a moment more, as if waiting for some further explanation from Gil that was not forthcoming before turning to leave, soon replaced by two more, cash in hand, finding a sudden need for Gil’s wares. As he accepted their money, he heard the first sounds of people leaving the church. The snow was starting to build up on the ground, the roofs of the buildings were frosted white and the roads were just beginning to disappear underneath a fine sheen of powder. Still, the wind kept blowing colder, and the snowfall kept getting heavier.
Before he knew it, there was a line forming at the tailgate of Gil’s truck. One after another, he sold snow shovels to the people of Paradisio, until his bed was finally empty, his inventory cleared away, and his pockets bulging with cash. The snow had continued to pile up, and was nearly four inches deep by then. Gil had to shake the layer of flakes out of his hair and brush them off of his arms and shoulders before he untied his sign. He jammed the bundle of canvas and rope back behind his seat from where it had come, before slamming the driver’s side door behind him and rolling up the window. The break from the constant frigid wind and the force of the heavy snow beating on his exposed skin was a relief.
Gil fired the truck’s engine into life, and used the windshield wipers to scrape away the snow that had settled onto the glass. The roads were now completely covered, he couldn’t make out any markings on them, but fortunately, the truck had four-wheel drive. Gil cranked up the heater to try and melt away the last effects of the wintry weather as he shifted into gear and pulled the truck away from the curb, wheels spinning slightly on the now-slick pavement. He started out of the town of Paradisio from the opposite direction that he’d entered it, peering between the swirling mass of snow to see various random citizens scraping off sidewalks and parking lots and driveways with the shovels he’d just sold them at a tidy profit.
Soon enough, he emerged from the outskirts of town, leaving behind the last of the buildings and now passing only flat, open spaces that had earlier appeared filthy from the dust and dirt and were now white, seeming oddly clean. In fifteen minutes or so, he would be clear of the leading edge of the storm, the world around him would warm once again and he could begin to put time between himself and the snowfall, moving toward his next stop. If things went well, he’d even be able to take a break in a couple of hours and spend a little of his hard-earned windfall on a big steak, medium-rare of course, and a pitcher of beer. But he couldn’t take too much time. The storm would still be following. And now, he had to restock.
One Step Ahead, copyright 2010, Dan Meadows and Watershed Publications. All rights reserved.
If you enjoyed what you just read, you can click on the link below to find out more about the book it came from, my original 25-story collection, Bad Timing.
And for more scares and your otherwise generally creepy reading pleasure, check out my new short story collection Devil’s Dozen.
Click below for more fright-filled stuff. And come back tomorrow for even more of my favorite time of year as The 13 Days of Halloween continues…
The 13 Days of Halloween