This story is by Bryan Carlson and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Somewhere between Regina and Boise, it finally died. The first hint of trouble was a lack of acceleration. Not long after passing the reservoir, Henry peeked at the clock on the dash, calculated speed and distance and increased the pressure on the pedal. Barring an unexpected traffic surplus or a nocturnal state trooper, he could be in Portland by sunrise. If he could be sitting at the kitchen table when she woke, the past three days would be worth it. But as his foot lowered, the Pontiac maintained it’s steady speed. And when the pedal finally made contact with the floor, the needle moved in the wrong direction. It was the morning’s shower all over again. Sixteen hours earlier in a motel in Kearney, Nebraska. As he had moved the knob left, the water heated and then cooled. Each slight turn brought a moment of warmth until the return of the steady cool. When the knob would not turn any more, he knew he had lost the battle. He turned it off, shivered, dried himself, put on the same jeans and sweatshirt and got into the car. Now, the Pontiac was playing the same cruel joke on him. The more he asked of it, the less it offered.
The noise came from the front passenger side wheel. Or maybe the driver’s side. Or maybe underneath. Like a fork in a garbage disposal, the sound of metal grinding on metal filled the night. Even the loud country song on the radio could not hide the truth. Most Pontiacs can survive a whistle, a wobble or a whir. This was a grinding, and Henry knew he was about to lose another battle.
He fluttered the pedal and tried to remember the last sign. Was it 20 miles to Boise? 25? One final grind, a sputter, a seizure and then silence. Henry turned the key to make it official. Time of death: 1:14 AM.
He sat in the dark for a minute. He could not be angry at the Pontiac. Although it did not make Portland, it had got him out of Pennsylvania. Far enough away to avoid the nagging, the screaming and the constant criticism. By now, she had read the letter. She knew he was gone but had no idea where. Did she cry? Probably not. She knew it was coming. She probably had plans of her own. But her plans would be to flee to her sister’s or back to Cleveland. She lacked the vision and the spirit to make a run for the west as he had.
Henry’s vision was waiting for him in a yellow ranch with white shutters and a porcelain frog beside the driveway. 281 Bass St. They had met while playing Call of Duty. He was not searching. It just happened. They found each other most nights. After a few weeks, there was far less battle and much more conversation. She understood. She supported instead of criticising. She listened instead of refuting. She spent her nights playing Call of Duty for God’s sake. It quickly became evident that she was the future. He just needed an escape plan.
He turned and looked at the back seat. Not an inch of space. Only the essentials would go with him. He put his phone in his sweatshirt pocket, his wallet in his pants pocket and the cash in his backpack. He opened the center console, took out the pistol and stuffed it into his waistband. Were there wolves in Idaho? Bears?
He was truly alone. Not even a country song to keep him company. The sweatshirt was perfect for the night air. The moon illuminated the edge line of the highway. After an hour, he saw a glow on the horizon. It was Boise. Still hours in the distance, but a visible target pushed him to increase his pace.
He had settled into a thoughtless march when he felt the light of the pickup from behind. He looked at his cell phone. 3:48. He did not stick out a thumb, but he wondered. It would be safe, right?
The truck passed. He saw the brake lights glow brighter, jogged to the passenger side and opened the door. The driver was a thin man in a Carhart jacket. He grabbed the volume knob and turned down the country music on the radio. Was that the same damn song?
“Where you headed?” the driver said.
“Well, Portland eventually but Boise tonight.”
“That your car a few miles back?”
“Yes. I’m afraid she’s done.”
“Hop in. I’ll drop you at a motel in Boise. I know a good mechanic in the city who might be able to help in the morning.”
The man swooshed empty beer cans and wrappers out the door. Henry dodged them, stepped up and took his seat. The man returned the music to full volume and started towards the lights of Boise.
When the song ended, he lowered the volume and said, “What’s in Portland?”
“A job,” said Henry. No need for the entire truth, and there was little chance of the driver understanding how an XBox could lead a man to leave his woman and drive across the country to one he had never met.
“So, that’s why your car was so full.”
“That’s right. You think my stuff will be ok out there?”
“Did you lock it up real good?”
“Nothing to worry about but coyotes.”
Another country jam about lost love came on, and the conversation ended. Henry didn’t mind. Loud hillbilly music was better than explaining his present wandering.
As the glow of the city grew larger on the horizon and the promise of the upcoming sunrise began to shine behind them, billboards appeared. Boise’s Best Backyard BBQ. Israel and Anderson, Attorneys at Law. Gayle’s Salon and Spa. But before they pierced the forcefield of light that surrounded the city, the man pulled off the highway onto a perpendicular side road. It was labeled Deerfield, but there were no signs of civilization. Henry straightened and cocked his head to see the dashboard. No need for fuel.
“Is this the way into the city?”
“Uh … the mechanic I know lives down here.”
“I thought I’d find him in the morning.”
A deep breath. The kind one takes when contemplating more lies or simplifying everything with the truth.
“Look, Henry. I need you to do me a little favor.”
“What kind of fav -” Henry froze. “I . . . uh . . . I never told you my name.”
The man smiled. “Turns out you didn’t lock up your car as well as you thought. Lots of info in there. Lots of useless crap. No cash. Where’s the cash, Henry?” The truck was going faster now.
“I don’t have any cash.” Henry reached for the door handle. The truck sped up. He grabbed the backpack at his feet and put it in his lap.
“Bullshit. I know how these trips go. People pass through here everyday on their way to a fresh start. But not without money. I know you have it. Is it in your bag? Your pocket?” The man removed his right hand from the wheel and inserted it between his chest and his jacket. He laughed and said, “And if you loaded a car with all you own before you split, there’s a good chance no one’s even looking for you. Give me the cash, Henry.”
“Stop the truck,” said Henry. He pulled the pistol from his backpack and pointed it across the cab.
“What the -” Seeing Henry’s gun, the man instinctively drew his own from the jacket pocket. As he did, he jerked the wheel. The sudden turn and the high speed on the weathered asphalt flipped the pickup. Before Henry could process what was happening, he was looking up at his feet. Then down at them again. They rolled one and a half times and came to a rest upside down.
Henry relaxed his brow, shook his head and opened his eyes. He and the driver, both conscious and suspended upside down, locked eyes. Simultaneously, they unlatched their seat belts, fell to the roof of the truck and searched for their weapons. Henry found his first. The driver continued to feel in the darkness for his own. Henry pointed and squeezed the trigger. The loud crack echoed like a cannon, and the flash of the discharge illuminated the entire cab for an instant. A lightning bolt in a tin can. He fired twice more. Each flash was followed by a splatter. Blood spots covered Henry’s sweatshirt.
There was no movement and no sound from the driver’s seat. Henry found the handle, opened the door and rolled out. With the pistol raised and pointed, he rounded the truck. He opened the driver’s door, and the man fell out. Lifeless. Henry pushed the pistol into his waistband, rubbed his eyes and looked towards the glowing lights of Boise. He was alone again.