This story is by Claude Bornel and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Harrison Stewart was running against time. He had driven three hours straight until Junction Yeehaw. In less than two, he and his family would be in Tampa. The plan was to arrive before sunset, but for Susan, his wife, it didn’t matter. He knew she didn’t want to go. She looked out the passenger window, and he wondered what was on her mind. The software engineer glanced at their daughter on the back seat. Jennifer was the only one excited about traveling over the spring break. He heard her asking to play One Republic’s “Secrets.” Harrison tried to focus on the two-lane freeway. His lower back was killing him, and he didn’t want to listen to that song anymore.
“How long to the gas station,” he said.
The 49-year-old watched Susan checking the information on her cell phone.
She found a place to stop in less than 30 minutes.
“Journey is playing this weekend in Tampa,” Susan said.
“Busch Gardens, Sue. Nothing else.”
“Why did you put this last-minute trip together if we can’t have fun,” she whined. “You don’t even like parks.”
“Jen is going to FSU in the summer. It’s our last trip together as a family.”
Harrison heard Susan sighing while he touched his back. One mile later, he spied her seeing something on the phone. She raised her eyebrows, bit her lower lip and put her phone between her legs.
“You can play ‘Don’t Stop Believing,’” Harrison offered.
“No 80’s songs, Dad,” Jennifer said. “They’re boring.”
“Excuse me, Mrs. iGeneration. Let’s make it fun for everybody.”
The engineer chuckled seeing his daughter grabbing a blanket and reclining her seat. He enjoyed the song and the others played after. But he became silent hearing Susan singing Cutting Crew’s “I just died in your arms tonight.”
Every time a car changed lanes to pass another vehicle and came towards him, Harrison’s heart skipped a beat. The adrenaline of playing chicken worsened his back pain. He groaned when the GPS warned about slow traffic three miles ahead.
“Turn on the radio,” he blurted.
The engineer watched Susan searching for a traffic report on the dial. She blew raspberries. “SR 60 partially closed in Nalcrest. Police search for a suspect on the loose.”
The congestion forced Harrison to reduce the speed and, sometimes, stop the car for one or two minutes. He frowned and kept adjusting his back on the seat.
“Did you close the deal in California?” Susan stroke a conversation.
“Hm-mmm,” he nodded, feeling a sharp tweak on his lower back.
“Who was at there?”
“Larry, Joe, Veive and the NexTech Robotics people.”
“Who is Veive?”
“The chick you said was a bitch?”
Harrison refused to engage in the argument. He gazed at Susan putting the music back on and grabbing her phone from between her legs. The traffic went back to normal and they were all silent, except for the music. Before they reached Sunoco gas station, the iPod played Journey’s “Faithfully.”
Harrison was cautious to step out of the car and not wake up Jennifer. He noticed Susan didn’t have the same care. She came in his direction while he opened the gas tank cap and sliding the nozzle inside the filler hole.
“Do you remember the last time we had sex?”
“This isn’t the time or the place, Sue.”
“Can’t you see how hard it is to talk to you, sometimes?” Harrison jerked the nozzle out of the gasket and saw Jeniffer awake, opening the car door.
“Mom. Dad. Where are we?”
“We’re in the middle of nowhere,” Jennifer mumbled.
Harrison suggested walking into the convenience store. He saw Jennifer going to the candy aisle before he went to the bathroom. He didn’t care about Susan.
The teenager chose a Snickers and watched her mom standing in the freezer area. Susan leered at the phone, bit her lower lip and had a luscious smile. Neither daughter nor mother noticed a man entering the store. His hands were inside the pockets of the black hoodie covering his head.
Three minutes passed and Harrison still stood in front of the urinal. There wasn’t a drop, although his bladder signaled him to pee. The engineer stared at the ceiling and touched his lower back. The paint was peeling and there were dark spots of mold. The dots gave him a rough image of what a cancer spreading must look like. Harrison squeezed his penis and tried to masturbate, but couldn’t have an erection. He heard a gunshot noise broke his concentration.
“Don’t be a hero, boss,” the hoodie man pointed a gun at Harrison as he left the bathroom. The engineer saw that the store clerk has been shot. Jennifer and Susan were on their knees, hands behind their heads. “Don’t worry, boss. They’re coming with us.”
Daylight was almost gone when Harrison went back driving. There was no music playing. He heard no sounds other than Jennifer and Susan gasping. The hoodie man sat behind him, pointing the gun at his daughter. A beer truck coming in the opposite lane scared Harrison. He reduced the speed and drifted off the road, making a loud noise over the road rumble strips.
“Easy, boss. Easy,” the man raised the muzzle to Jennifer’s face. “You don’t want me shooting this chick by accident, do you?”
“I’m sorry. I’m nervous, everything is fine,” Harrison touched his back, took deep breaths and tried to believe in what he said. “Where are you taking us?”
“Shut the fuck up. Keep driving.”
The picture became very clear to Harrison. They weren’t going to make it to Tampa. He wasn’t going to Busch Gardens with his baby girl. For a moment, he imagined himself in a roller coaster where the hoodie man was the ride operator. The engineer passed the first peak and the car raced the downward slope. At that point, he knew, there was nothing the operator could do in case of any malfunction or accident. The hoodie man had a gun, but Harrison had the steering wheel.
Harrison stared at the road ahead. There was a curve to the left and a grove on the right side. A big truck came fast in the other lane. From behind the truck, a Ford Journey moved to try to pass it. In a second, He realized that if he wanted to make the ride stop, he would have to play a different game. Play chicken. He pushed the brakes hard and turned the steering wheel all the way to the right. It was enough to evade the other vehicle. Enough to spin and hit a tree.
Two weeks later, The Stewart’s house was full for a Saturday afternoon. Family, friends, and neighbors were there. They all dressed for the occasion: a reception following Harrison’s funeral.
James, a close neighbor, stood on Susan’s side. He watched people expressing their condolences. He listened to the conversations about Harrison and what he did.
“He is a hero,” a coworker said to another. “I can’t believe he crashed the car at the right angle to kill the robber and sacrificed himself to save his family.”
Turning to see Jennifer on the couch, the neighbor didn’t like her suspicious look to Susan. He feared for another scene this time in front of the guests. Jennifer blamed her mom for choosing that gas station to stop. She considered suspicious the way her mom was on the phone after fighting with her dad.
The neighbor could see how the situation drained Susan. She had dealt with Jennifer, the hospital, funeral arrangements, and everything related. He didn’t know how she was standing with a cervical collar underneath her black dress.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” a female voice came from behind.
The widow nodded but didn’t recognize the blue-eyed young woman. She was blonde and appeared to be half of her age. “At least he’s not suffering anymore.”
Susan shook her head.
“His prostate cancer.”
James watched the widow opening her eyes wide, bringing both hands to the mouth as if she was praying. He saw the blue-eyed woman copying the gesture and realized that Susan didn’t know. The woman said she introduced Harrison to her uncle in California. Her uncle was a urologist. Harrison told her he didn’t have much time before the symptoms manifest like back pains.
“W-why, why he, why did he tell.…” Susan stumbled to find the right question. “W-who the hell are you?”
“V-Veive?” Susan swooned.
James caught her fall and asked someone to bring water. “I got you, my love.”
“H-Harrison?” Susan opened her eyes.
“No, love, it’s me, James.” He helped her to sit and told everyone around to give some space.
“J-James,” Susan murmured. He dropped on one knee, his ear close to her mouth. “I-I can’t do this anymore. W-we have to stop seeing each other.”