March 10, 2010 § Leave a comment
Something underneath the car clanked violently and immediately the vehicle began to decelerate. Alarmingly, smoke began to appear from the steering column and, taking the hint, Ethan hurriedly pressed down firmly on the brake pedal. The banged-up Ford Escort, a hunk of shit ever since he parted $600 for it a few months ago, eased to a halt on the hard shoulder. Ethan glanced in his rear-view mirror. No cars were coming up the road behind him. The trip had been plain sailing so far. He didn’t need this. He really didn’t need this.
Ethan reached for the door handle just as another plume of smoke hissed out from behind the steering wheel, acrid and thick. He stepped out into blazing early afternoon sunshine. The door slammed shut behind him, the Escort rocking violently in protest. With a sigh of deep exasperation, Ethan ran his fingers through the locks of a shock of blonde hair. He stood looking into the car for a moment, studying the smoke filling up the area above the driver’s seat, heart sinking further and further down into his stomach. This looked terminal. The fucking Escort was dead as a dodo, as they say. He sucked on his teeth, thoughtfully. There was nothing for it, of course. He’d have to call his father and admit to him that he was going to be late for his birthday celebrations. He would be pissed; they had already argued over it because Ethan had insisted that he couldn’t make it at all. Eventually, he had capitulated in the face of his father’s protestations. Now he was in for a whole new world of pain.
He reached into the pocket of his jeans for his cell-phone, flipped it open and hit speed dial 4, bringing the handset to his ear. The dialling tone began to bleat. A few seconds passed and then he heard a voice, gruff and rasping; the tones of a smoker of forty years, unmistakeably those of his father. “Hello?”
“Dad, it’s me. Listen, I know you’re not going to believe me, but I just broke down. There’s smoke pissing out from the steering wheel of the Escort.” There was silence at the other end of the line, and then a gravelly sigh, drawn-out and over-exaggerated.
“So, if you really didn’t want to come, you could have just fucking said so. No need for the bullshit.”
“I’m not bullshitting – I promise. There was smoke and I heard this clank, and now I’m broke down on the side of the road. I need to call the breakdown service. Dad, you know I couldn’t make this up if I tried,” Ethan finished wearily. Exchanges with his father had been a war of attrition ever since his Mum had died ten years earlier. He had moved out the following year, heading up to Banff to start a new career in web design, to forget about his grief and lay down fresh foundations. His father had resented Ethan for leaving him to cope with his own bereavement, alone in an empty house, with only fading memories for company.
“Whatever you say,” stated his father. The line went dead. Ethan held the phone to his ear for a second longer, then snapped the phone shut.
Three hundred metres further back down the highway, a beige-coloured Land Rover slowed to a crawl at the side of the road, and stopped. The hazard lights began to blink, barely visible in the scathing afternoon sun. A cloud of dust, sent up by the wheels of the vehicle, slowly settled back down to earth. A middle-aged woman sat in the driver’s seat, arms folded over each other on the steering wheel. A bad perm, dry as firewood, was occassionally ruffled by a stifled breeze wafting in from the open window. She squinted at the car up ahead through the windshield, identifying it as a Ford Escort. A man stood beside it, his head turned towards her since noticing her vehicle pull over. Slowly, she reached down to the passenger glove compartment, flicked it open with a practiced hand, and withdraw a battered pack of cigarettes from within. There was one left. She slid it out, clasping it between her fore- and middle fingers. She pushed in the cigarette lighter below the dashboard. It began to glow with an almost imperceptible orange halo. She lit her cigarette, drew one long, indulgent drag, and then stepped briskly out of the Land Rover.
Ethan watched the woman wave at him with relief. He could well be in luck. Maybe she could offer him a lift, or, if the gods were really smiling on him, she could even be a mechanic. He smiled ruefully; the gods had already shown him today that he was not currently in favour. He wondered why she had pulled up so far away, and made up his mind to go greet her. He began to walk back down the highway towards the hulking vehicle. It was splashed with mud. It needed a clean as much as his Escort needed a new engine. He watched her disappear around the back of it. She raised up the door of the boot, bent down, seemed to retrieve something. She placed a black box on the floor – he could just make it out beneath the chassis. She fumbled around for a perhaps thirty seconds as he approached. Further plumes of dust billowed out from around her boots.
He watched her straighten up, saw her raise something long and black as night to her face. It took him a few dumbstruck seconds and a hiss and fizzle of air centimetres from his ear to work out what was happening. It was a sniper rifle. She was shooting him. He half-turned on his heel, ready to bolt for his Escort. He heard another fizz, and then the world faded to black, never again to be lit by a scorching afternoon sun.
‘That makes seven,” she whispered softly, lowering her rifle.
Photo credit: Amy Massey