Authors: Benjamin Warner
For Joanna, my travel partner
The western wave was all a-flame.
The day was well nigh done!
His car was stuck north of the wreck, and though he’d left the horns behind him in the distance, he could still feel their clamor pressing into his temples. For three and a half hours he’d waited—three and a half hours!—his anger mounting as the horns had lulled and rallied like crowd noise. His radio had died; his phone had lost service. At first, he’d opened his door and walked among the other parked cars; he’d put his hands on his hips and commiserated with those standing around in varying degrees of advanced frustration. A man with a red, chapped face had looked into the sun and turned to Eddie. “I could
home faster than this,” he’d said, and squeezed his fists by his sides.
Those words had glinted for Eddie like a dime waiting to be plucked from the street.
Enough was enough already. He
run home faster. He’d had a partial scholarship for track in college. The house was
only another ten- or fifteen-minute drive down the highway. Probably eight or nine miles.
So he ran.
Where were the cops? The ambulances? Still, he heard no sirens. But the running did him good. With each stride, he felt his anger dissipating like dust beaten from a carpet. He laughed out loud. Oh, God, he thought, I’m abandoning my car on the highway. It wouldn’t be there for long, though—not on that stretch of road. When the emergency crews finally came, they’d send one of those long flatbed tow trucks he’d seen in medians after wrecks. He imagined Laura having to drive him to an impound lot. He could picture rows of cars behind chain-link fencing.
How many had been in the pile-up? By the time he’d reached the collisions on the bridge, people had left their cars to stand dazed on the asphalt, their hair on end from either wind or shock or when they’d pulled it in frustration. Eddie had listened to the edges of their quiet conversations. There’d been no screaming. Not even the faintest moan. Too much time had passed for that. Glass and colored plastic had spilled across the four lanes, and he’d woven through a line of cars pushed up against one another like spent dominoes.
Eddie kept running. There’d been no point standing around to gawk. When the emergency crews showed up, they’d have to clear the gawkers out of the way, too. Once he was home, he could charge his phone and call 911. It would be moot by then, of course, but he would call anyway. A hundred people would have called by then.
Laura would be worried. Maybe she’d heard about the wreck on the news. When she worried on the phone, she bit hard
at the thumbnail of her empty hand. Eddie always thought she might draw blood.
If he kept this pace, he’d be home in just over an hour. He continued south, running in the middle of the road now, following the broken white lines. They formed a rhythm in his head.
Stride, stride, stride, break
. The day was bright and blue ahead of him, and he tried to free his mind into it. He’d sat in his office all morning, imagining he’d be on his back porch by now, setting up the grill. On summer Fridays, they got off a little early.
Back in his car, before the jam and before the radio had clicked out, he’d caught the tail end of “Like a Rolling Stone”—a song he loved—and by the end of a summer day like this one, when dreaminess washed away all consequences, he might just shout along with Dylan. Traffic was clear here, as if it had been cut off down below, the highway big and open—three lanes across in each direction—and the lyrics still tumbled in his head. He belted out a line as if releasing a weight that slowed him down, but the silence behind him swallowed his voice and had the effect of making him feel small. He listened, but still he heard no sirens.
The important thing was to get home before Laura did. If he’d stayed with the car and been stuck out there until all hours of the night, she’d bite her thumb down to the bone. He could see her setting the phone on the kitchen table and staring at it—as if by the strength of her concern, she could make it ring.
Sweat began to run down his sides, and when he inhaled, his chest felt full of straw. It was hot, and he was wearing loafers. He stripped to his undershirt and balled up his button-down,
chucking it to the side of the road. When he tried his phone again, the call still wouldn’t go through.
This stretch of Route 29 was choked with green, and he tried to think of only that—that the highway was a trail going through the woods. He stared into it, a patch so thick it could have been jungle. The trees were well after bloom beyond the pull-off lane, and there were suburban developments behind it, but still.
Soon, an embankment rose to the left and the road graded up. The retaining wall was made of stacked landscaping stones, giving it a scalloped look. Beyond it was a strip mall. Nothing was moving up there. A traffic light swung over the off-ramp, but it was out. Eddie’s undershirt clung to him, and his feet were rubbing raw. He hoped that what he felt inside his shoes was only sweat.
To keep from stopping, he lengthened his stride. The straw in his chest was starting to ignite, but it wasn’t as bad as the marathon he’d run his senior year of college. He’d been off the track team by then, but he’d thought his wind would hold. He’d never run a marathon before; it was Laura who’d egged him on. He could still hear her saying, “You track stars. You never get out of shape.”
You track stars.
It thrilled him to remember it.
The last five miles he’d thought he’d die, but Laura had come with friends to meet him at the finish line. It was the fear of humiliation that had kept him going. At the end, he’d seen the crowd of people and grown confused. Several of them had looked like Laura, but as he approached, they became strangers. One woman had widened her eyes as Eddie ran to her and soundlessly fell into her arms. He’d regained his senses with Laura standing above him in the medical tent.
Up on his right was a McDonald’s. The golden arches were attached to a high pole so they could be seen from the highway. Beneath were signs for a Subway and a Ross Dress for Less. He was making progress. His house was only a couple of miles away.
There was construction work ahead—an overpass that curved and stopped midair, the rebar sticking out. An apparatus holding halogen lights stood unmanned and dark. Eddie had driven this stretch at night and seen the dome of white light exposing workmen in their hard hats, like they were repairing the inside of a glass bulb.
He stopped and put his hands on his knees, sucking air in through his nose and pressing himself into the nubby stones of the retaining wall. But he didn’t rest for long.
Route 29 narrowed to two lanes here, and he passed the brick mill with its historical signs and trail maps for the park that stretched behind it. There were hiking paths back there that curved from this road back into his neighborhood, following a stream that ran south all the way into the city. He stopped again and considered taking a trail home, but the trees to his right were dark and strange. He squinted to try to see them better. Back where they met the park, they were black and burnt-looking. Usually, the stream poured over a spillway there, but that wide slope of cement was dry. Over its edge, where the water would have pooled, was only whitish sand. Eddie stood on the stretch of road beneath which the stream should have disappeared and then become visible again on the other side. But there was no water on the other side of the road. A thin rust-colored scar ran through the sand where it should have flowed.
Something had ignited—had ripped through the whole path of the stream. A chemical spill, Eddie thought. He could see the charred points of treetops curve into the distance where the stream cut through the woods.
Just up ahead, an aluminum guardrail along the side of the road opened up into a path, and he took it, walking carefully down an embankment where a trail ran into the park. He’d crossed into the park here before, using stepping-stones to traverse a small tributary. Now the stones were dry. Ash was clumped along the edge of the streambed, and Eddie brushed the toe of his shoe over it, spreading it out the way he might the soft remains of a campfire. His head ached suddenly. He’d run too far too fast and felt woozy. For a moment, he believed he was hallucinating. He looked hard into the dry streambed as if to clear his thoughts and see it run again.
Then the toe of his shoe touched something hard—harder than the ash he’d been walking through. It was a burnt tuft of hair at the crown of a dog’s skull. The eye sockets were hollow, and what remained of the fur on its cheek was singed and rough as stubble. Eddie bent to see, and then jerked upright, seeing the animal’s stomach, still intact and sticky with brown blood.
He swallowed the bad taste in his throat. A pain stabbed once again at his temple, as if puncturing a hole there, and a helplessness seeped in. It filled his limbs right down into his swollen fingertips.
It was dim where he stood, but a clear light filtered through the ragged trees. Ahead, the park rose to a wooded hill. Eddie looked up into it. His head throbbed sharply and he winced at the pain.
Up on the hill, a boy was standing—as still as a spooked deer. Eddie followed his gaze to the carcass at his feet. The wrecked belly seemed to tremble in the clarity of the light. When he looked up the hill again, the image of the boy fluttered, too, like a mirage.
“Hey!” Eddie yelled.
The boy stared back. He was filthy, head to foot, like some kind of urchin in a movie. His hair stood on end.
“Is this your dog?” Eddie called to the boy. The life was rushing back into his limbs. “Were you here when it happened?”
At the largeness of Eddie’s voice, the boy jolted and ran back through the trees.
“Stay there!” Eddie chased him up the hill, but his foot caught and he fell against a trunk to catch himself. The heels of his hands broke away charred hunks of wood. His palms were black with it.
“Hey!” he called again, but the boy was gone, and the trees were silent.
Eddie walked back and stood in the stream—the stream that was no longer there, no longer where it should have been. The ash along the bank was gray, almost milky gray, and it had collected along the steep sides of the channel.
When he was up on the road again, the helplessness trickled back into him, but this time it didn’t fill him up. Whatever had burned the stream had happened quickly, and now it was over. It would be dusk soon, and he jogged ahead, only now he moved a little gingerly. He tried not to think about the boy.
This was the stretch of road where the speed limit dropped to thirty-five and it got neighborhoody. This was
neighborhood. There was a grocery store on his left. A few cars were still in the parking lot. The Best Auto lot was full of bodywork jobs. A minivan pulled out from Edgewood Drive, and Eddie had to wait for it to cross the southbound lanes. He wanted to rap on the windows, but it was already gaining speed. He jogged onto Kerwin Avenue. The homes were nice here, nicer than where he and Laura lived, but only by a little. Giant sycamores rose up next to the sidewalk at intervals that gave each house a canopy, and a few station wagons were parked with their two side tires up on the curb to give passing traffic room. A huddle of people stood in a circle in front of a driveway. Some of them were still dressed in work clothes.