Coughing and sputtering, the car stumbled to a stop upon the side of a country
road. Punching the steering wheel with her fists, rain pounding down upon metal and
glass, Sally slumped back in her seat. She was expected at a party in less than twenty
minutes. Instead she was stuck on some derelict dirt road flanked by trees in a torrential
downpour. She wasn’t even sure if she had an umbrella somewhere in the car.
Sally paused for a moment and took a breath, watching the rainfall in the still
burning beams of the headlights and listening to the angry thump of rain drops on the
windshield; pounding as though they desperately wanted to be let inside. She gave the
key a quarter-turn in the ignition, lighting the dashboard display, and wondered what had
caused her vehicle to fail on this destitute backroad. She checked the gas gauge. More
than half a tank. Sally gave the key another twist, listening eagerly as the engine struggled
to turn over once, then again. Again, slower. With a sharp exhale of frustration and a
whimper she gave up, throwing the keys into the passenger seat where they clattered
against the hollow glass of empty bottles.
She laid her head against the steering wheel, nostrils flaring when she caught the
smell. Antifreeze. Sally raised her head and glanced out into the light before the car to see
a cloud of steam rising from under the hood, rainwater boiling off its surface. She looked
again at the dashboard display; the thermostat read well below normal running
temperature. Low enough that she should have been suspicious. Low enough that, had
she not had a couple of drinks to loosen up before Graham’s party, she would have
But no, instead she had rushed out of the house, flying on the wings of nervous
energy. New Year’s Eve, a party at Graham’s house, and a kiss at midnight. Those were
the objectives. That was the mission. Those things were her sole concern. Not a faulty
thermostat. She checked her cellular. No reception. Of course.
With a sigh of resignation, Sally clicked off the headlamps and sat, arms crossed,
in the white noise of the storm; collecting her thoughts. Childhood memories of campfire
stories about rural axe murders and haggard, old men with hooks instead of hands
bubbled up in her consciousness to take shape and loom at the edges of vision in the dark
outside her rain-streaked windows. She twisted the knob that brought the headlights back
up and pushed the lurkers deeper into the blackened depths, clicking the radio into action and
warding off the silence which seemed equally menacing.
She sought another station and watched the digital characters cycle through
hypnotically. Once, twice, three times in a green blur; finding nothing but static.
No cell reception, no radio; where the Hell was she? The road was unkempt but
in reality it wasn’t far from town. She cycled through the stations manually, slower,
checking to see if maybe the signal was just too weak for the auto-tuner to lock on to it.
Something, anything, even a heavily distorted oldies station would beat sitting alone in
the dark and quiet waiting for another car to drive by so she could catch a ride. Not a
chance she was going to get out and walk in this downpour.
Her finger clicked past so quickly she almost wasn’t sure she’d heard it; a voice,
quiet and twisted by a poor frequency. Probably just some public radio talk station. Sally
tuned backward more slowly this time, reluctantly.
“Sally!” It was quiet still but she was sure she’d heard it right. Whoever was on
the radio had said her name. She glanced suspiciously at the bottles on and about the
passenger seat. How many had she had?
“Yeah, probably wasn’t the best decision there, Sal.” The voice again, coming
across stronger than before. Closer. It had a rough edge to it, like a cliché prohibition era
gangster, with just a hint of mockery tugging at the corners. It was the kind of voice that
would call her things like “dame” or “toots” without irony.
“Who is this?” She said aloud, feeling foolish as soon as the words escaped her
mouth. It wasn’t a two-way radio; she didn’t have a microphone. There was no way
whoever had spoken had spoken to her. Had to be just some strange radio show; a rare
coincidence. Sally was a common enough name.
“That’s not important, Sal.” Sally spun in her seat; the voice seemed to come from
right behind her. She expected to see a man in a pin-striped suit wearing a fedora sitting
in her back seat smoking a cigar. And she was going to hit him with a beer bottle.
When did she pick up a beer bottle?
She was shaking now. A brown glass bottle clutched by the neck in her left hand,
ready to strike.
“Check your watch,” it came from the radio again. “Notice anything . . .
Sally glanced quickly at the timepiece on her wrist. Delicate gold, inlaid with a
pattern of tiny diamonds, a birthday gift from Graham last year. The kind of gift a man
gives to his wife on their anniversary; not to his mistress on her birthday. It read 1:06.
She’d missed it. How had she missed midnight? She’d left home a little after noon. She
should have had more than enough time to make the drive. How had she lost twelve
“That’s P.M., babe.” The voice came to her almost as a reflection of her own
“Why is it so dark outside?” Something didn’t add up, something more than just
this disembodied voice that seemed to read her mind. The clatter of empty glass came
again from the backseat. Sally glanced up from her watch in time to watch a flood of
empty beer bottles spill out of the rear seat into the front of the car.
Reflexively, Sally snatched the door handle and jerked it open, jumping from car
in time to avoid the wave of containers spilling out onto the pavement.
Pavement? She could have sworn this was a dirt road. And why wasn’t it raining?
Sally looked into the sky. She couldn’t see any stars; probably because of the clouds.
Rain must have just stopped. That’s what she told herself despite to hood of her car being
dry as a bone. It was easier to ignore it.
Sally danced around a few beer bottles lying in the street, careful not to step on
one in her heels as she made her way out front to examine her car. Her jaw dropped
incredulously. The front tires were flat, driven to that state by shards of the fenders driven
into the rubber at jagged angles. Steam still leaked skyward from beneath the hood, and a
puddle of green and yellow fluids leaked out beneath the vehicle. The license plate lay
twisted among metallic wreckage and the broken shards of windshield while the whole
front of the vehicle was smashed inward as though she had collided with a light post, or
maybe hit a large animal.
Yes! That must be it. The road was remote enough that there weren’t any light
posts around, but there was surely plenty of wildlife in the area. She must have hit a deer
or something and run off the road. She’d been in an accident; that much was certain. She
was in shock. Maybe a little drunk. Seeing things, hearing things; she just needed to calm
Sally gingerly stepped back to the door opening it slowly expecting to be buried
in empties. No bottles poured forth. Of the deluge she’d witnessed moments before, only
the three or four on the pavement remained. Sally sat, heavily, in the driver’s seat with
her feet outside of the car, her elbows on her knees and face in her hands; sobbing.
A whirlwind of emotions; anger, fear, self-loathing, laughter all blending together
into a ridiculous clown mask of smeared make-up and snot and tears. She wiped her face
with hands she could clearly see now were cut and bleeding in several places, her arms
were scraped up, and she felt pain on her face and in her chest; pains she feared to inspect
too closely. It was becoming apparent that her accident had been something more than
She sat like that for a long time, not checking her watch, not checking her injuries,
her face, her hair. Not caring, losing track until the sound of engine noises brought her
out of herself. Sally raised her head to see a tow truck pulling up and parking before her
car. Yellow flashing lights blinking in the darkness. The rig’s engine rumbled and
belched diesel scented clouds, turning her already panicked stomach. Sally covered her
mouth and nose in the crook of her arm and watched as a stocky little man, dressed all in
greasy denim, hopped out from the cab and made his way in her direction.
“You need a tow, lady?” he called out over the sound of the engine. He had
already begun to attaching the various fixtures and implements to her vehicle without
waiting for a response. Which was good, because Sally could only stare, dumbfounded.
She knew that voice. That was the laughing mobster; that was the pin-striped suit and
She stood, suddenly in a panic all over again, backing away almost frantically.
The little man raised his head a smiled. “Hold on there, toots. Lemme finish up
here and we’ll get on the road.”
“I…” Her words caught, “I’m not going anywhere with you. Who are you?” Sally
moved behind the trunk of the car, never taking her eyes off the man while putting the
bulk of the vehicle between the two of them. She didn’t like running in heels, but it
hadn’t stopped her before.
He linked a couple more chains in place and yanked a lever on the back the truck
as he got to his feet. The heavy machinery lifted the front end of her vehicle off the
ground and pulled it closer to the rig at its head.
“Alright, now,” he said, wiping his hands on his grubby denim jumpsuit, “Calm
down, Sal. This will be easier if you just relax. What’s done is done. There’s no taking it
“Who are you?” She cried again more emphatically, “What are you talking
about? What’s been done?” Tears flowed freely now.
The little man raised his hands before her in a calming display. “Just take it easy,
and turn around.” He made a turning motion with his finger, “Look back the way you
Sally stared a bit longer at the little man until he halted his approach, at which
point she turned her head slowly, trying to keep the man in the corner of her vision, and
looked back up the road. Sally gasped.
Behind her the road was daylight. Sunlight blazed in a chilled winter afternoon.
The road she travelled on was a heavily trafficked two-lane highway. Miniature
snowdrifts outlined the lanes as cars buzzed by in both directions at high speeds,
separated only by a shrubbery median. She watched as though entranced as dozens of
cars passed her by on what was, an instant ago, a country back road.
“This looks familiar. I remember driving this way.” She remembered more now.
Why she had thought it made sense to be driving down a dirt road in the middle of the
night in the rain on her way the Graham’s party uptown escaped her completely.
She watched a car headed in her direction. Its wheels strayed into the snow banks
between lanes, spraying slush in globs. It swerved to and fro at speeds slightly greater
than its peers. Sally recognized that model car; that license plate. It matched hers.
The vehicle veered from one lane to the next, lurching between other cars in a
desperate bid for lead in the oblivious race. Then it hit an especially slushy patch and
veered out of control. For the briefest instant before it disappeared behind the shrubbery
into oncoming traffic, Sally recognized her own reflection behind the wheel.
“No.” She choked.
There was a screech of tires, the scream of twisted metal and her vehicle plowed
headlong into an oncoming sedan. At the point of impact, the vehicles stopped in a splash
of mechanical carnage. Glass and plastic, fiberglass and chrome sprayed in all directions
as a ghostly afterimage of each vehicle drifted outwards from the wreckage. Sally’s own
shambled back through the median further down the line to sputter to a stop alongside a
dirty country road.
The rain had returned, though Sally could not feel it. She could still see the point
of impact, where the corpses of both cars steamed and smoked. On the far side of the
accident it was brilliant daylight. The afterimage of the broken sedan cruised blissfully
into the distance.
Words escaped her completely.
Sally stared at the other car driving off into the distance. At the twisted hulk of
both vehicles made one by inertia, and the emergency crews that had arrived, pulling
bodies from the wreckage. A man, a woman, a child, and Sally herself.
“I… I died?” Her words were barely a whisper.
“Yep.” The stocky man spoke, his voice matter-of- fact, “Them’s the breaks, kid.”
“How come I’m here? What’s all this?” She gestured at the tow truck.
“It’s how you’re dealing with it, Sal.” He shrugged, “Believe it or not, dying can
be stressful. Everyone handles it differently. Especially the damned.”
“What about them?” She pointed into the sunshine, at the other car disappearing
into the distance.
“Them?” He shrugged, “Odds are they’ll never know what hit ‘em. Quite
“How? How does that work? I saw them . . . I see them right there, being zipped
up.” Sally’s voice cracked, “They’re as dead as I am!”
“True.” He fumbled with his name tag, she hadn’t noticed it before. ‘Charon’ it
said. “But they were innocent. You killed them. You saw how you were driving, and you
know why you were driving that way.”
Charon took her by the arm and began leading her to the truck. “Don’t think of it
as dying. Think of it as… taking another path. Those three will continue on with their
lives, never knowing they died. They’ll get where they were going, do what they would
normally do, and everything will be just a little better than they expected. The ‘living’
world,” He used air-quotes, “will go on without them but they’ll never know.
“You, though,” his voice took on a more dangerous tone, “You get to know what
happened. You get to know what you did. You get to see those left behind, and you get to
live on as well; only you get to do it with full knowledge of what you did. You get to
watch the aftermath. You, Sally, you get a front row seat to all the misery and pain, the
tears and anger; and you get to know that it's all your fault.”
He opened the door to the truck and guided her up the step into the seat, closing
the door forcefully behind her. The aged metal boomed shut like a tomb. Sally watched
the top of his head as he made his way around the front side of the truck. When he
opened the driver side door she asked, almost hopefully, “So, does that mean will I still
get where I was going?”
“No, no, Sal.” He hopped into the driver’s seat, “You’re headed for a whole
different kind of party.”
More work from A. Stephen Getty can be found on his blog, https://astephengetty.wordpress.com/
You can also follow him on Twitter @warningsignsblg