This story is by Jason Anderson and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Ray didn’t notice the steering wheel until it started to jerk away from him. But when noticed it, he found that he noticed everything.
The burning friction of the wheel slowed down until he could feel the rise and fall of each nub as it passed between his fingers. The countryside that had been whipping past the side window was now gliding gracefully past the front.
After the last bits of his left rear tire were shredded away, he felt the bare metal of the wheel grinding on the pavement. Every individual white-hot filing that joined the spray of sparks was like a tingle in his left hip.
And he thought how strange it was that the sensation in his body would correspond so perfectly to the condition of the car. Then a mailbox post pushed through the windshield in front of his face and clipped his right ear on the way by. The mailbox itself rested in a constellation of cracks in his windshield, appearing there almost instantly where there had only been a slightly canted view of the wooded road shoulder a moment before. The side of the mailbox read “The O’Connors” in gold reflective letters stuck to it, along with the address.
Ray looked at the name for what felt like a long time, as tiny pellets of glass pattered his face like gnats. “Huh,” he thought, “I didn’t know any O’Connors lived around here. I went to school with some O’Connors.” As this thought passed through his mind, his car tipped up onto it’s side and began to roll over.
“I remember the O’Connors,” said a voice from the passenger seat.
Ray turned to his right and saw the mailbox post that had taken a chunk out his ear, and beyond that he saw a matchbook suspended in the air, rotating slowly. It was from Wine River Country Club, where he hadn’t been in at least ten years. He wondered how far back under the seat that had been.
Beyond the floating matchbook he saw a man sitting in the passenger seat, which seemed odd because he was alone in the car when he left his house. He wanted to ask, “Who are you?” But the man spoke first.
“Hi Ray. I’m James. Jim. From Processing. I’m here to help you work through a few preliminary issues. Get you started.”
Ray wanted to say, “Started with what?” But his mouth felt like it was held shut with a clamp. It took all of his strength and concentration to purse his lips and push his eyebrows together quizzically.
“Yeah,” said Jim, “it’s hard to talk because your brain can’t send electrical impulses to your muscles fast enough to keep up at the rate we’re moving. You can’t have this conversation physically. You have to just think it. In your head.”
“Mmmmmmmmm…” thought Ray. He could see, over Jim’s shoulder, that the car they were in was now upside-down and continuing through it’s first roll. The passenger side window spiderwebbed and disintegrated in an elegant implosion.
“You are Ray Sever, correct?” Jim was now holding a manilla folder thick with papers, thumbing through them. He was also wearing a clown outfit. Ray recognized it from the clown that his parents hired for his fifth birthday party. “Don’t try to answer. Just answer.”
They were seated across from each other at a tiny white table. Ray fit at the table, but Jim loomed over him. “Where’s my car? Is this a dream?”
“It’s not a dream, but that’s a good question.” Jim laid the folder down and started to pull a string of knotted handkerchiefs out of his nose. Hand over hand, he kept pulling them as he talked. “When people transition, we try to put them at ease with happy memories. Sometimes you hear people who have near-death experiences talk about their life flashing before their eyes. This is that.”
When five-year-old Ray hadn’t gotten the full-sized CH-47 Chinook helicopter he wanted for his birthday, he had been inconsolable. He remembered the clown sitting with him, just him, and doing tricks for him until Ray couldn’t stop laughing. He remembered the seams on the clown’s sleeves, the clumps of stitching where they had been clumsily repaired again and again. Everything now was just as it was then. Then was now.
“So I’m dead? Dying? I didn’t think it would be like this.”
“Not necessarily. That’s kind of what we’ll talk about.” Now Jim was wearing a wedding dress. Gloria’s dress. The one they had picked together from the clearance rack in that shop that smelled like cigarettes and hairspray. The morning of the ceremony, when she told him she couldn’t go through with it, they sat together in the loading dock just off the country club’s kitchen, their legs hanging down from the big door where the trucks backed up. They had laughed and laughed. It had been a dumb idea in the first place. Couldn’t believe it got this far.
Ray, smiling, said, “So, what do we talk about?”
“How has your life gone? Good?”
“You look great in that dress, mister. You should wear one all the time.”
Jim pushed up a lace cuff that had gotten in the way of his files. “I try to stay in shape for occasions just like this. Do you think you’ve done everything you wanted to do with your life, Ray?”
“I… don’t know. Can’t say for sure. Wasn’t expecting to have to answer that question today, really.”
Now Ray was running flat out, holding a burning roman candle up in his right hand. He flinched at every glowing ball that popped out of the end. Running and laughing, he wondered why he wasn’t winded.
Jim chased him, running with heavy feet a few steps behind. He was dressed like Ray’s dad — ratty v-neck t-shirt, coaches shorts straining to hold together at the button, and black socks with white tennis shoes. The uniform he appeared in every day after his pulled off his cheap suit.
They ran through the ankle-high grass beside the pond that formed from the drainage from their subdivision and the neighboring strip mall. Ray tripped and fell, and when he looked up he saw the stars from the roman candle skip across the surface of the pond, each one with its reflective doppelganger in the water. They skipped and spun and winked out, red and green and yellow.
Jim stood with his hands on his hips, gasping for breath, just like Ray’s dad. “Do you think you’ve done the great thing you were meant to do?”
The driver’s side door jerked open, and Ray felt the rush of cold air all over the left side of his body. The seat belt bit into his hip and neck as the spinning car tried to throw him. “Was I born to do something great? I didn’t even know.” It was hard to speak again. His jaw was heavy.
“I’m not surprised,” Jim said. “A lot of people don’t know. Most, probably.”
The world was rightside-up again. The car came down slowly, deliberately on its wheels. Ray heard the shocks burst and the struts snap.
Jim leaned across the center console as car’s continued rotation lifted him up above Ray. “Would you like to know what we think?”
“Most people say that too. Funny.” Jim flipped through his folder to the paper in the back. “We could end this now and begin your afterlife. Or you could go to the hospital and some painful surgeries and a few years of physical therapy, and maybe accomplish something great along the way. Which one would you choose? If the choice was yours.”
“How long can I just stay here?”
Jim flipped the folder closed. “As long as you want.”
They were upside down again, but not in the car. It was that rickety wooden roller coaster by the beach. Gloria was in the seat next to him, arms up, screaming. She smelled like oranges.